Wednesday, April 13, 2011

F1RST IMPRESSIONS: Maria†Holic Alive

We continue our look at the newest anime shows for Spring 2011 with Maria†Holic Alive, a sequel to the Maria†Holic anime produced by SHAFT.

Storyline: 3

For those entering the show right in the middle, Maria†Holic covers the story of Kanako Miyamae, a second-year student who transfers to the hallowed halls of Ame-no-Kisaki Academy. While she is enraptured by the thought of falling in love like her parents did at Ame-no-Kisaki, a past incident has left her completely terrified of boys and head-over-heels in the thought of finding true love with another girl. However, in the ironic style that many anime shows embrace, the first person she meets and falls for is Mariya Shidō, a cross-dressing boy who gets sadistic pleasure out of masquerading as a petite and refined girl.

The entrance into the second season, Maria†Holic Alive, doesn't require much knowledge of the first. Just know this much: Kanako has managed to assemble a group of dependable friends, but her secret yuri affection for them makes her heart (and nose) bleed. Mariya, however, sees Kanako as both a danger to his identity and his personal plaything. When Kanako discovers the location of the tree under which her parents met, she's anxious to get under it with her own friends, only to find the tree is housed within the confines of a dangerous dorm filled with challenges. Will she overcome the obstacles to her heart? Will she find true love? Will Mariya actually stay away for an entire episode?

The concept of Maria†Holic Alive was fun to follow in the first season, so the second season could try to get down to business, but it's still a lot of fun to pick on poor Kanako. There's a good chance the show may just fiddle around with the players on the chessboard until the end of these 13 episodes. I'm torn on whether the show should remain comic or delve into drama, but so far the first episode is mindlessly fun.

Animation: 4

There is no doubt in my mind that animation studio SHAFT is the best at what they do, but that's not to say their expertise is in animation, per se. They provide some terrific openings and closing to keep the viewer's attention, and they don't always depend on sharp movement to animate their shows. Much like their productions of Bakemonogatari, Sayonara Zetsubo-sensei, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, SHAFT provides a sort of artistic animation in Maria†Holic Alive, one where still photography dominates the animation and minor movements are "filmed" at interesting angles. However, SHAFT also stays quite faithful to the original manga with some scenes dictated by Kanako's superdeformed reactions.

Characters: 3

The more I look at the character designs and make that association between SHAFT and Maria†Holic Alive, the more I see a Takarazuka performance that has been invaded by a fanatic stalker. If Kanako was erased from the show like a Garfield Minus Garfield strip, the characters would likely appear normal about 90% of the time. You do have some unique characters stemming from Mariya's sadism and her maid Matsurika's deadpan comic delivery, but this show centers around Kanako's priceless reactions. The other characters are just gravy.

Track: 4

Again, SHAFT's role as the adhesive for this show becomes a central point for the show, including its soundtrack. Composer Tetsuya Nishiwaki is retained from the first season for his services, so we get a good mix of background music and an opening theme that becomes a terrific parody of a live-action sentai song. This also means we should be getting a good ending theme for the show if the songs from the first season are any sort of barometer. The acting is good, but the use of the same voice actresses from past SHAFT shows has to make you wonder if they'll ever stray from the norm.

"Hype": 5

It's directed by Akiyuki Shinbo. It's produced by SHAFT. That alone should make your skin tingle like Kanako being touched by a male, but most of all, it's an Akiyuki Shinbo/SHAFT anime that's actually being streamed overseas.

Legally. That never happens.

Granted, that means you have to get a monthly subscription from The Anime Network to watch it to completion, but it should still excite SHAFT fans.

Overall: 19/25
I was a bit worried that Maria†Holic Alive might devolve into a shôjo version of Sayonara Zetsubô-sensei—the non-sequiturs spill like wine, the animation devices are similar, and just about all of the voice actresses played a female student in SZS—but I like the spin that both SHAFT and the original mangaka Minari Endô have put on yuri comics and Takarazuka theater. We get plenty of odes to the comics produced by the Year 24 Group in Japan, but the comedy surrounding Kanako's fanatic obsessions with romance also lead her to be a likable tragic figure—always the stalker, never the stalked.

It's good to have Maria†Holic back and to have SHAFT finally make their presence felt.

(Maria†Holic Alive is simulcast on The Anime Network every Sunday at 11 PM EDT.)

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