Infinite Stratos, yet again (Update)

I’m probably spending more time talking about this show than it’s worth, especially given that it’s not a top-of-the-line show, but there are a few things to be said for it — as well as against it. In the main, the flaws with this show are only one person’s fault, and that’s Izura Yumizuro, author of the original light novels. I don’t recall if he’s a veteran or not, but having read most of the translations, I think he was learning his craft as he went. There are a lot of things that don’t get explained until later, and the real plot doesn’t kick in until after the third novel, which is after the series. There’s hints in the backstory and some episodes, but whether the author knows what he’s doing is anybody’s guess.

So let me get started by –

(Uh, what was the last paragraph, if not a start?)
(Are you talking to meself again?)
(Meself? What kind of word is that?)
(Well, I can’t say ‘yourself’. You are me, and we are us.)
(And here I thought I was the crazy one.)
(Give it a rest, I’m talking to the readers here.)

Where was I? Oh yeah, I want to talk about one of the strong points of this anime: the art. The studio that did IS was 8-Bit, which has a very short list of anime to its credit. It appears to have been the lead for only one other series, which is broadcasting this season: Aquarion Evol. They also were lead on the first Macross Frontier movie; as for the rest of their short resume (they’ve only been around since 2008), it’s all “production assistance” or “production cooperation” or even “2nd Key Animation.” One wouldn’t expect such a young company to do such a great job with the visuals, but both the CG and art design in general are outstanding. I wonder if they normally specialize in CGI for commercials, and branched out to anime to ensure enough work? One of the extras on the DVD set was an interview with the director, Yasuhito Kikuchi. He’s got a moderate-length resume; no stinkers in it. On the other hand, since it’s the art I’m talking about, it might be Shunichiro Yoshihara’s art direction. Again, a resume with nothing to be ashamed of. (Well, maybe Gravion. He probably designed that stupid castle/spaceship.)

The curving lines of light on the right of the screen in the background are in constant motion, so the picture isn't static.

In the interview, Yasuhito walks around the office and shows off some of the CG that is being done at that point, and how they have to synch it up with traditional cell animation. He then goes on to talk about something that I’d sort of noticed, but not really paid attention to: the background art. Not just art, but artworks. Now most people talk about the fluid and dynamic battle scenes, but 8-Bit didn’t stop there. They deliberately threw in a lot of small touches, even though they knew most folks wouldn’t notice them. I do recall thinking the aquariums in the cafeteria were nice, but let me show you some of the other things they did. All these shots are from the first two episodes (click for full size):

Notice the floor, desk, and window detail. THey're going out of their way to make it look futuristic without throwing it in your face.

The background touches are a strong point throughout the series, but even the thought they put into the rooms and building design is unusual. They could have had classrooms that looked like any other in a million series, but instead they give them an ultramodern, sleek look. But when you get to the dorm rooms, they scale that back and go for an upscale hotel appearance. Along with the garden-like paths between the buildings, industrial hardware look to the service & technical areas, these things give the series its distinctive look.

Ichika's introduction. No writing names on a blackboard, the little spinning holo next him provides it. Check out the ceiling and recessed lighting too.

Again, the background 'light image' is in constant motion.

So much in this picture...grass on roof, moving light sculpture, tickertape message board wrapped around the building.

You know, one of the reasons that I might have paid little attention to the items like that before is that my new TV is four times the size of my computer monitor. There’s something to be said for the adage that “bigger is better.”

Even the room signs change to reflect the class's status.

I was going to talk about the world-building next, but I’m going to have to save it for another post, as it dips too much into later, un-animated novels. For the moment, let’s just say “weak, with lots of questions that don’t make it to the refrigerator.”

Character depth is a bit of a problem. Although its addressed later, most of the girls are fairly 2D. There’s just not enough time to spend on each of them. Houki’s the closest to an exception, but is still an angststorm waiting to happen, bitter because her sister being the genius IS inventor disrupted her life and shattered her friendships so badly that she moved out and lived alone… and still had to put up with surveillance. During the series, she starts to come to terms with herself, and approaches her sister for help with a problem. She still gets so bad at one point that the other girls gang up to slap some sense into her. (In her defense, she felt responsible for a grievous injury to Ichika at the time.) If Houki ever beats her own self, the other girls will be out of the race, as Ichika clearly favors her. However, she doesn’t seem to consciously have a pursuit strategy, though she goes out of her way to invent reasons to spend time with Ichika, then denies that she wants to. (Honestly, I thought for a while that maybe she’d been molested or something; she reacts that badly at times.) By the OVAReally, by episode 7, she’s come to terms with the fact that she really likes him, and might even be in love. Confessing, on the other hand…

Cecelia is probably the most immature of the bunch; vain, bossy, and does a 180 from antagonist to haremette fast enough to cause a sonic boom. (There’s actually a reason for this, but it’s buried in the novels.) Her pursuit method is to be as helpful to Ichika as possible… or get him to help her. Rin is fairly one-dimensional, being a fiery near-DFC in aggressive pursuit, but despite that personality, she really gets overshadowed by the other girls most of the time. If she has a pursuit method it’s to try to monopolize the oblivious Ichika and drop hints, while intimidating the others into giving up with bluster.

Laura, after her own u-turn, is almost defined by how clueless she is about Japanese language and customs. She goes from arrogant Teutonic warrior-bitch (she slaps Ichika on first meeting, and he didn’t so much as look at her wrong) to shy, blushing maiden within the series, and sometimes within the same scene. (I’m thinking of the naked-wresting morning here.) Frankly, of all the girls, Charlotte is the best-rounded –

(Oh funny, I see what you did there.)
(Get over it, you perv. If I meant it that way, I’d have used it when talking about Houki.)
(True, dat.)

So. Charlotte’s not concerned with the formalities (letter in the shoe locker, confession behind the gym, etc.). She’s waging a sneaky, long-term campaign to build a relationship and leave subtle signals to the other girls. Like the time she conned Ichika into hand-feeding her supper in their dorm room, or the time she tries to arrange matching bracelets for the two of them (from the novels, not the series). Overall, it’s like a game where the girls are in competition for the resource known as Ichika; each tries to obtain an exclusive access to him and in the process, manage to block each other thoroughly.

There’s some minor girl characters; three semi-regulars and almost every other girl in the school trying to crack the lock the primary five have. The other two non-haremette females are a mixed bag. Maya is the usual ditzy virgin klutz teacher, nothing new here. Chifuyu-nee on the other hand…she goes out of her way to be a bitch to Ichika, especially early. She doesn’t touch any other students, but she doesn’t hesitate to clobber him. She never lets up, never smiles (well, she does, but don’t blink), and acts like he’s barely competent to tie his shoes.

I suppose it’s possible that, like Houki, she’s got some sibling issues, because she’s a past winner of the worldwide IS competition, and was considered a shoo-in to win again in Berlin the next year. But terrorists kidnapped Ichika, and she forfeited the finals to go rescue him in her IS. Then she spent a year teaching German girls about IS use to repay a debt to the German Army, which tipped her off about the terrorists — and this is where she met Laura. There’s a sixth haremette waiting in the wings, a third-year jr. high girl that Ichika went to school with.

(What, he gets three childhood friends? Bastard.)
(True, dat. Now stop interrupting.)

Then there’s Ichika himself, the center of the series. He’s not of the “useless perv” or even “accidental perv” type (except once…just how did he get Chrarlotte’s panties off in that scene?). He’s a bit of a slacker, panics in social situations, not comfortable with having his life upended, but he’s analytical and a team player in battle. He’s even more than a little heroic, and is generally a nice guy. Unfortunately, his defining characteristic is that he’s incredibly dense when it comes to social situations, especially involving the girls. Until I read the fourth novel, I harbored some hope that it was really a defense mechanism because of his social insecurity, but no, he’s really so damn dense, he doesn’t realize these girls are after him. Does. Not. Compute. Rin tells him “you can have my cooking for the rest of your life if you want,” and he thinks it’s an offer of free lunch at her dad’s restaurant. Good God. I agree that it is different from the usual “trying not to commit to one girl and hurt the others” BS, but it really lessens his attractiveness and believability as a character.

Plotwise, the girls spend over half the show’s run assembling, and that’s part of the anime’s problem. It’s a combination of the first three novels in the series, and that means it tends to be cyclical. There’s a “nothing happens” episode followed by “something happens” followed by “something important happens!” Then reset. There’s only a bare framework of a plot holding the series together, and again, that’s the author’s fault. There is a series antagonist, but it’s revealed to be rather weak. Some groundwork is laid, and then ignored, such as the drone attack, Ichika’s kidnapping, and his selective amnesia, but the real plot doesn’t get rolling until about book four, with an attack on an American military base to steal an IS core. Sadly, it’s not a part of the series — had they gotten the backing to do a second season, we might have seen some more interesting characters and development of the mysteries. They at least did get to do an OVA, and rather than being a stupid beach or onsen show (they already did that), it’s lifted directly from the novels. In it, we get to see all the girls together with Ichika in a social setting, but we also get “Houki and Ichika” time, and we even spend a few minutes with Chifuyu in which she gets more character development in five minutes than in the entire series. Almost.

In the series, there’s a scene at the beach where she shows up in a two-piece bikini, and she is just smoking hawt. The girls don’t quite have to hand Ichika his jaw back, but they can tell it’s pretty loose as Charlotte speculates on him having a sis-con. In the OVA, listening to Chifuyu drinking with Maya after seeing Ichika with the harem, her talk makes me suspect that she might be harsh towards him because she’s repressing a bro-con. She’s losing him to the girls and doesn’t like it, but she knows it’s inevitable and for the best. At the very least, it’s obvious that she does care about him.


Switching gears (good grief, I’m 2000 words into this post, making it one of the longest I’ve written in years), the BGM is good, and I like the character songs, though I don’t think they were ever used in the series. The direction, especially of the battle scenes is good — in fact, the battle scenes are way better than ‘good’ and are what drew me to the series in the first place. And I don’t even like mecha series. No freeze and pan, no speed lines, just hang on because the camera is often moving as fast as the mechs. In fact, the opening scenes are from a battle that occurs in the last episode.

I think it’s an error to call it a mecha series; when it aired, I couldn’t decide if it was a mecha series with a harem story, a harem story with mechs, or a comedy with mechs and harem. I think the last is the closest, but the emphasis shifts in the later novels as the full plot begins to kick in. There’s a long way to go, in this story, and if 8-Bit gets the nod to do a second season later on, I’ll gladly watch it, even if Ichika is too stupid be believe sometimes.

Final note: I cannot recommend the DVD as it is in 4:3. If you can’t get the BD, don’t bother, because with art this pretty, you won’t want to miss half of it.

UPDATE: I finally got the DVD to play on my computer for a few minutes and it appears to be 16:9, so apparently my DVD is either reading the encoding wrong, or it’s mis-encoded and my computer ignores it.

Grade: B-

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