Zettai Karen Children — Anime & Manga (updated)

This isn’t one of my better series reviews, as I think I’m still too close to the show to distill the essentials out in a compact fashion. Still, letting it sit and mulling it for two weeks didn’t help, so I’ve finished this up and am posting it.

While looking for a new manga series to read, I ran across this one on Mangafox (Warning: talky commercials). My knowledge of the series was limited to what I remembered of a review of Episode 1 that Steven did months ago, which wasn’t much. Just vaguely that it wasn’t exactly lolicon, despite the appearance, and he didn’t finish it. So I decided hell, why not read a bit.

And like he did, I found myself going, “Hey, this isn’t half-bad!” Now as it happens, both the manga and the anime have their weak points and strong points. There’s 51 anime episodes (Chihiro finished, and yes, they sucked), but over 240 manga chapters, with scanlations still being posted. It’s the same author as Ghost Sweeper Mikami, another series that I’d mildly liked. As the ZKC manga is ongoing, they ended the anime on a rather incomplete note: The girls graduate from 5th to 6th grades and change uniforms.) There has been some re-ordering of events, and some things were emphasized, while others were muted — but overall, the anime stuck pretty close to the manga. One way in which it reordered matters though, is the future of the children. The first 24 episodes are pretty much lighthearted fun (much more slapstick and parody than the manga), with just enough drama and conflict to give the fluff some texture. Starting with the last two episodes of the first season though, things start to get much more serious, as PANDRA and the “future plot” start to become important. If there’s anything that’s muted, it’s just how bad the children — and their original supervisor — were.

Left to right: Chief Kiritsubo, Lt. Kashiwagi, Dr. Sakai, front 3 girls are Shiho, Karou, Aoi, then Naomi, Capt. Tanizaki, Hotaru, and Natsuko

I’m getting ahead of myself though. First off, the main characters: Minamoto, Shiho, Karou, and Aoi. Minamoto is a genius researcher, working for BABEL (BAseof Backing Esp Laboratory), which is a government agency that uses espers to keep the peace.

Oops, we accidentally did a Sentai entrance!

The “Absolutely Lovely Children,” as they are known, are top-level espers, the only publicly acknowledged level 7’s in all of Japan, although their identities are secret and they work for work for Babel.

Aoi is a teleporter, both of herself and other objects. Her range is never specified, but she’s capable of chain-teleporting clear across the world. She can summon items from an unspecified distance, and even switch the clothing on people, and doesn’t need line of sight, as she has a spatial awareness sense. She doesn’t even need that, as long as she knows the exact location of the items she’s porting.

Shiho is a touch-range clairvoyant (they call it psychometrician) who can read minds or auras of objects she touches, or as long as she’s touching an object the other person is touching. (Refrigerator moment: this ability seems to vanish erratically. Sometimes she has to touch the person.)

Karou is a very strong telekinetic, capable of firing what appear to be energy blasts, and flying. They work as a team, with Shiho predicting enemy movements and attacks, Aoi teleporting them around, and Karou handling flying and most of the fighting for all of them. Personality-wise, Karou is a hot-head who is also a “dirty old man.” She looks at gravure magazines and wants to feel up big-breasted women.

Shiho is the most mischievous of the lot, normally quiet, but sometimes scary and not above using her abilities to embarrass people with a bit of mind-reading. Aoi is usually the most level-headed and mature, but even she has her limits, especially with their original supervisor.

The Children and their original supervisor. That's not her shadow, thats a dent from Karou body slamming her. Bear in mind her limiter is still on at this point... they're that powerful.

How Minamoto becomes their supervisor is one thing that differs between the manga and anime. While the Chief of BABEL spoils them, the children’s own immediate supervisor hates espers and fears them. Yet it’s her task to turn off their limiters when the girls are sent on missions — and thanks to her, the limiters worn by the Children are ugly devices that barely miss the appellation of “slave collar.” She’s only the latest in a line of supervisors that have been broken by the trio; they are three somewhat angry, poorly behaving brats (with a surprisingly good work ethic, all things considered. Two differences from the manga: the anime actually tones down how badly they act. In fact their collars were equipped with electroshock devices that the supervisor would use to keep them in line. She’s utterly psycho; when Minamoto refuses to design new limiters that include electroshocks, she draws her gun on him and threatens his job — so he refuses and quits. The children decide to use him; they escape, show up in his apartment, and ask him to remove the shock devices, which he does, leaving the limiters in place. The next morning, BABEL stormtroopers come calling, recapture the girls, and haul him off. It’s all part of the Chief’s plan to replace the current supervisor with him, and eventually he manages to do so (she had some patrons in the government so he couldn’t fire her easily). (As I watched, this actually got worked into a later episode as a flashback–which is how it was told in the manga).

In the anime, Minamoto is arriving back in Japan and ends up caught in the middle of their case. When the supervisor is taken out by a bad guy, ends up with their limiter. He successfully deduces the password, and helps the children solve the case. After that, he’s assigned as their new supervisor. It’s not quite that simple — even in the anime — because frankly, the kids don’t trust anyone at this point. They’re whipsawed between the Chief, who spoils them rotten, and the supervisor, who treats them like animals. They’ve lived their entire lives estranged from their families, who actually fear them a bit. Except for Shiho’s father, who is a high police official, and regularly uses her to solve gruesome murders and (in the manga) even rape cases. Joy.

Bear in mind that these girls are ten years old. As Shiho comments, “I’ve never had any illusions about a fairy-tale world.” No wonder she’s the scary one.

Even though the manga is fairly light most of the time, there’s a lot of stuff like that present, but they toned down the absolute worst of it for the anime, while, as I noted, playing up the humor. Unfortunately, the lot of espers is really a bit…negative — and if you ever stop to think about it, these girls have a damn tragic life up to this point, regardless of anime or manga. They have never attended a day of school, don’t know kids their own age, and have to deal with being feared by most people. Esper minors have to wear limiters, which reduce their abilities by 3 levels. Because that’s the limit of the smaller devices, espers of level 4+ cannot even attend school, and no esper, limiter or not, can participate in sports. There is significant anti-esper prejudice, and even a terrorist group called Normal People, that wants to eliminate all espers. Shiho, in particular, has a hard time, as most people don’t even want to touch her, due to her abilities. If anything, it’s a miracle that they were not really any worse than they were when Minamoto arrived. Karou slams him into a wall, Shiho reads his mind without permission and uses a stun gun on him, while Aoi teleports him into a solid object a time or two. (Apparently she teleports any conflicting material out of the way, as it never harms anyone, just traps them.)

Minamoto, despite all that, and being completely normal, neither hates nor fears them. He has no trouble touching Shiho, and treats all the girls well, even when they aren’t being nice. He’s a genius researcher who was otracized because he was so much smarter than the other kids, so he knows how they feel. He graduated from college before he was ten; he was actually kicked out of the lower grades, not because he should have been in a more advanced program, but because the administrators didn’t want anyone who didn’t “fit” like the other students.

The Chief sees to it that he becomes not just their supervisor, but guardian, moving the three girls in with him. Karou isn’t too wild about this new supervisor at first — in fact, all the girls are skeptical enough to take bets on how long he’ll last — but he eventually wins even Karou over. He’s very defensive of them, but he doesn’t hesitate to scold them when they’re wrong. He doesn’t go overboard about it, and they come to respect him for it. Because he spends so much time around them, and they develop a real affection for him, he starts getting an unfair reputation as a lolicon. Each has it set in her head that she’s going to be the one to marry him when they grow up, which also adds to the lolicon accusations — and the girls deliberately make it worse to chase away any women who might actually be interested in him. Still, its clear that, except for Shiho, they’ve still got only a vague idea of where that could lead.

Doofus alert: the kids aren't the only ones overdoing their entries; Minamoto goes through absurd gyrations that involve sticking his arm out at odd angles whenever he turns off their limiter.

There are a lot of supporting characters, and they’re all pretty colorful. Lolicon is an appellation that could actually belong to one of them, Captain Tanizaki, who is playing Prof. Higgins to Naomi’s Eliza Doolittle. That is, he’s been raising her from childhood to be the perfect woman — and his future wife. It later develops that she has a bit of a problem with that, and how she expresses it through her level 6 telekinesis earns her a change of code name from “Kitty Cat” to “Wild Cat.” Mary and Ken are a pair of noisy, rude, and dumb Americans (of course) that show up in a few episodes — oh, excuse me, they’re “Commercians”, various nations have had their names changed to protect the guilty, and all that. He’s got a form of clarivoyance that could be considered x-ray/telescopic vision; she’s a telekinetic with an affinity for water.

DoubleFace -- I suspect the mangaka didn't understand the implications of that name.

The cuties above are Hotaru and Natsuko, the receptionists. One’s a Lvl 5 telepath, the other’s a level 5 clairvoyant. Despite their job as receptionists, they spend a lot of time in the field. Both are sweet on Minamoto, but between sabotaging each other, and being sabotaged by the children, they’ve not gotten anywhere.

Lt. Kashiwagi, Japanese woman of mystery.

The Chief’s assistant is supposed to be a normal, but her background is a total blank, and she can turn an acrimonious budget hearing into an instant love-fest just by serving tea. She’s very much on the ball, and one of the major reasons for BABEL’s success is probably her reining in her bosses excesses — or just flat-out taking the initiative to give orders herself.

I’ve done two characters a disservice by not picturing them, but the article’s getting long, and I haven’t even started the review per se. This one, I can’t skip.

Major Hyoubu and his sidekick, Motomorou. They're both espers, but only Motomorou is a flying squirrel.

Neither season season has much of a plot, which is because the anime was so faithful to the manga. There is a long term plot, but it’s obvious that the manga made it up on the fly (much as he did in GS Mikami), and at this point he’s milking the manga with side stories and fluff. Despite that, it’s hard to ding the show, as the characters are more than enough to carry it by themselves. It does have a theme and a story, and that’s enough. Both can be summed up in a single word: relationships. Specifically: between humans and espers; between Minamoto and the Children, between various people at Babel, between the Children and their families, and between the Children themselves. Major Hyoubou is obviously the Bad Guy, but he never seems that threatening during the first season. He’s a level 7, but he’s so powerful, ECM (Esper Counter Measures) just doesn’t work on him. For some reason, he keeps referring to Karou as the Queen, and keeps trying to recruit her. Every attempt to recapture him after he breaks out of prison fails — or rather, after he publicly breaks out; his heavily fortified and ECM’d cell hadn’t actually been holding him for years). Yet he doesn’t seem to be evil — more of a tempter. He even helps the girls secretly on occasion. The reason why is the major plotline in the manga; It’s revealed late in the first season that, per an absolutely certain prediction, in ten years time, Karou will be the leader of all espers in a revolt against normals — with Shiho and Aoi as her assistants, and Major Hyobou’s organization under her command. She and Minimoto will meet one last time on a rooftop, and as Shiho radios that the government forces are about to use nuclear weapons against them, Minamoto shoots Karou. That prediction is revealed to Minamoto, and placed behind a block even Shiho can’t penetrate. Hyoubu knows of it as well though, and claims he wants to stop it, yet his actions seem to be hell-bent on causing it. For certain, if he just walks away, it doesn’t happen — but he says he believes it’s impossible to avoid it. Perhaps he thinks he can still win; perhaps he thinks he can change history despite it all; the prediction only covers that one narrow event.

This is a concept the manga plays with — that the future is predetermined in some ways. Time and time again, they are sent on missions and even if they save all the lives, the event still happens in some way. Early on, there’s a prediction that a helicopter is going to slam into a certain building. They scramble in BABEL-1, a purpose built armed and armored helicopter for taking the children wherever needed. Arriving at the building, they find that all air traffic has been diverted and there’s no helicopter anywhere — except theirs. Sure enough, as they realize the danger, they’re forcibly slammed into the tower. (How and why, I’ll leave for the viewer, as it’s a critical event in the development of Karou and Minimoto’s relationship) Later, BABEL develops a precognitive technique to tell how certain the future is, and what level of esper is needed, not to just physically change the event, but to actually change the flow of time. (Aside: that… sort of disturbs me. It strongly suggests predestination can only be changed by espers, and normals will always be at fate’s mercy. I don’t know if the manga-ka didn’t think it through, or if it’s a cultural thing — the whole predestination vs. free will argument is bigger in the West due to Christianity, IMHO.)

Despite all that, I found the show to be modestly entertaining, although there’s a rough patch early in the second half, when a new character shows up. She was Hyoubu’s superior way back when, and she’s another multi-talent esper, like he is. She’s also, vain, manipulative, and selfish. Her introduction and scheming seriously derail the feel of the series for about 4 episodes, and it’s easy to decide she’s just a pointless bitch. Although I got past that, frustration with how the series closely followed the manga led me to quit watching with about 12 episodes to go. I skipped to the end, and watched the last two, which made me glad I did; there was no grand arc, no fantastic ending; just another direct adaptation from the manga, of one of the dumber stories. Sadly, it appears that the show quit right about the time that the manga jumped the shark: Mio and several others from PANDRA transferred into the same school the girls were now attending. It may be that they’d caught up to the manga at that time. I would have preferred that the anime roll with its own ending to the 10-year plot, but no luck; they left it open for another year’s worth of episodes. AIC did do an OVA later that looks to be original, but I haven’t gotten it yet.

The first OP is reasonably good, and it becomes the theme music for the series; neither of the ED’s were that much to my ears. (note the link is to the full version of the song; I couldn’t find the OP itself.

Given that I didn’t even finish this series, I should give it a D, but that’s not fair to it. Perhaps I should not have mainlined it; the show is cutesy, humorous, and mostly pointless fun, which is something I can’t handle in large doses. In the end, I think It deserves a C; I’d like to give it a C+ but I can’t, given it’s too-close adherence to the manga. This is one series where the animator needed the guts (or permission) to distill their own story from the ingredients and cut out all the extraneous crap. Given how well they’re doing in 2010, AIC might have managed the job well in 2006.

UPDATE: Downloaded the OVA, which is set after the end of the series. In it the producers say they’ll do a second series if it sells 20k copies; however the rankings on ANN indicate it barely sold 2,300 DVD’s in its first week. Data for the second week doesn’t include sales, but it’s 8th on the BD list. By contrast, Bakemonogatari sold 21k copies in it’s first week.

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