A-1 Pictures has been a hit and miss anime productions studio. They have given us gems like Your Lie in April, The Flower We Saw That Day, Space Brothers, Gate Thus the JSDF Fought There!, Ao No Exorcist and arguably SAO. But they have also given us duds like Denpa Kyoushi, SAO II, Occult Academy, Fractale, Uta no Prince Sama and sadly Gakusen Toshi Asterisk. While the list of A-1 anime is varied, the one thing that you can generally expect from an A-1 Pictures anime is good towards excellent art and animation. However every season the question you always have to ask is if the premise, plot and characters live up to that same standard.
Let me first start of by addressing a certain problem I hope does not become a trend in anime. Before going into this anime it is important to note that there is a second season due out in April 2016. In this same season we got the second season of the harem series Shinmai Maou no Testament. The first season ended at this boss fight and the main crux of the story was never resolved. I haven’t watched the second season but I’ll assume it gets closer to having a real ending. In the past there have been harem anime with sequels. I’m thinking of Highschool DxD, Zero no Tsukaima, Rosario no Vampire, Heaven’s Lost Property, The World God Only Knows, Sekirei, Date A Live. Say what you will about these anime but the one thing I personally can say about them is that I feel as though they can stand on their own without needing a sequel.
Unfortunately Asterisk feels like a 3 legged chair, incomplete and uncomfortably so. From the premise I was under the impression that this would be a tournament style anime. There is a tournament called The Phoenix Festa but that only begins on episode 9 out of 12. Therefore I assume season 2 will be all about this tournament and mostly all of season 1 was really just set up for it. There are 4 girls in the harem so really the first 8 episodes was just about getting to know the girls as well as learning more about the protagonist. There were also the standard harem cliches which felt like a checklist of things that had to be in there. I do wonder if it would have been smarter for the tournament to begin earlier and we could have somehow learned more about the girls as the tournament went on. I get that the purpose was so that we would feel more for the characters when the tournament began, but to be honest the matches in season 1 are only the preliminary rounds so I felt no sense of danger for any of the characters. In comparison to Maou no Testament the last episode didn’t even feel like a boss battle, it felt like a normal episode. So what we are left with is a action anime season where the audience feels nothing because there is no sense of stakes and there has so far been no real sense of danger to the characters. It really does feel as though season 2 should have been part of season 1. I really hope harem anime splitting into 2 seasons and having the 2nd season released 6 months later doesn’t become a trend. If Shakespeare can write plays without a needed intermission I’m sure a tournament style harem doesn’t need one either.
You got the main tsundere girl who's a princess, the shy/timid girl, the flat chested stoic girl and the voluptuous older blonde president. So yes everyone is a trope and to be honest I wasn’t interested in anyone except the blond president Claudia who is obviously not the main girl. To me good characters have to be more than one note, they can’t be 2 dimensional characters (pun intended). Yes every girl has this spontaneous and unexplained love for the protagonist but with Claudia there were these moments where you can just tell that there is more than meets the eye. That this girl is suffering and her cheerfulness is just a facade to hide the darkness inside her. Perhaps her interest in the protagonist is more out of a need to have someone to confide in. The problem is that season 1 didn’t really explain any of it but just gave hints about it. I might watch season 2 just to learn more about her. The female main love interest seems honorable and noble (again pun intended because she’s princess), but in no way is she interesting but simply transparent. In many ways she is Claudia’s foil, where the main girl is usually on screen while Claudia rarely is. Finally about the male protagonist, I get that some people find him annoying and say he’s the typical harem lead. However i would say that a typical harem lead is oblivious, that is something I wouldn’t say of this protagonist. You can tell by the subtle ways the protagonist interacts with the girls that he thinks of some as love interests but others as friends or the little sister type. Also he isn’t dumb either, in battle he is shown to be quite strategic and level headed. He isn’t overpowered due to a concept known as a “limiter” (which hasn’t been fully explained) where his power is restricted. Therefore I would say he is a decent towards good harem protagonist. The only issue I have so far is that as with many other harem protagonists, he as person is not very interesting and always does the right thing. In many ways both the male and female leads of the show are similar in a most uninteresting way.
This is probably the one reason to watch the show. Just watch the opening and listen to the ending of the show to get an idea on the art, sound and animation. Everything is just so bright and vibrant, crisp and clean. The score of this anime is very fitting for whatever scene it is in. It uses subtle sound effects in certain places to enhances certain sensations which affects how you feel and interpret a scene. You have minor arpeggio scales on the piano for mystery or suspense, upbeat synth tracks that fit the setting of this high tech world, a snazzy jazz track for some humour. In fact it is rare to have empty spaces where there is no background music in a scene. I feel like it’s important to talk about the battles in this anime. They are by no means the best I’ve ever seen in terms of strategy but they sure are impressive to look at. In a battle there is not just one battle theme, the anime uses different tracks depending on the situation in battle. In battle there were some tracks that sounded like they were from final fantasy, but my favorites were the ones that used synths and techno beats. In terms of visuals, the action flows effortlessly with no drops in frame rate. I was particularly impressed by the use of lighting which made certain sequences seem to glow in surrounding darkness affecting the tone of battle. With the change in lighting they even made sure to effectively include shadow in battle. A scene that comes to mind was when a character is about to meet their end and you see their shadow against the ground representing their doom. There is so much detail, you see sparks, light particles change in air dynamics. I find it amazing that they were able to put so much detail in battle without sacrificing the overall look of the rest of the show. Lastly I want to talk about the weapons in the show. By the end of the series you realize that the weapons themselves are characters in their own right. The weapons are representative of it’s wielder. There is particular care and thought placed into the weapons from their design, colour, sound effects, even the angle at which they are drawn in. Early on I found the scene when the protagonist first obtains his weapon to be downright scary. The vibrating sounds the weapon made were menacing and dangerous like hearing an electric saw inches away from your head. You begin the realize that the weapons themselves seem to harbour certain feelings, they can be joyous or noble, but others can be malice or evil. I commend the anime for using the art and animation to enhance the story.
Overall 5/10 (Note I deducted a 0.5 due to the lacklustre ending)
Four episodes into the anime I gave it a 6.5/10. In my impressions I wrote
“In recent years similar shows to this series are decent and fine at best but this series could actually be good. I wonder if this concept has been rehashed to such a degree that the imperfections have diminished. Analogous to a chemist purifying or concentrating a certain solution. Perhaps so, perhaps not.”
Looking back I’m not sure why I was so optimistic, perhaps I was blinded by the gorgeous visuals and didn’t put enough weight onto the characters. I was enamored by the setting and wanted to learn more about the high tech society. However by the ending of this season I have not really learned anything new about the world itself. Infact I have more questions now then I did at the start. That is the frustrating thing about this anime, there was opportunity to be better than it is. However the story is told in such an uninteresting way with mostly bland characters. I continuously have to ask and remind myself what the stakes of this anime were. Sure characters have their own motives for winning the tournament, purpose, money, reputation, discovery. The problem is that many of these motives/stakes are glossed over and we are never reminded of the stakes until the very end. The anime fails to follow up on the motives and fails to explain why these motives exist which limits the world building of the show. This makes the anime less engaging. The lack of interesting characters hurts the harem aspect of the show and the lack of emphasis on the stakes hurts the storytelling. So what you are left with is mindless action. However the tournament doesn’t begin until episode 9. So for 8 episodes you have an anime that doesn’t really excel at anything save for the few action sequences and some moe/kawaii scenes if that’s what interests you. This is what I call popcorn anime, anime that is pretty to look at but serves little to no other function. If you are a fan of harems you may be able to get over the tropes and may even fall in love with some of the girls. Personally I’m one of these fans, I come home from school and just want to mindlessly watch something that’s cute, sometimes funny, and pretty to look at while I eat dinner. But for non harem fans, it is a waste of time, equivalent to staring at dynamic/animated wallpaper for a few hours. But hey, at least it’s not static wallpaper.