Stella’s Women Academy, High School Division Class C-3

C3
It’s so easy to write this off based on appearance. Then again, a lot of people are fooled by realistic design that an anime is deep. Stella’s Women Academy is simple and doesn’t aspire to much, but hits every target it aims for.

In truth, it’s not just an anime about cute girls who play with guns. The cuteness factor is there (since we in the West are still impressed by macho bullshit, it’s a plus). What drives the series, though, are the characters.

vlcsnap-2016-05-02-20h35m05s65

The story is simple because it’s a very humane one. It puts a bunch of personalities and examine them, using the theme of competition. What dominates is the characters’ reaction to every situation. Although external events pop once in a while like competitions, it’s not noticeable. They only happen to develop the characters. Feeling like you’re not enough or being narrow-minded or being laid-back are more crucial to the story’s progress.

It draws comparison to Ping Pong. There are even pseudo-artistic moments where the anime tries hard to be taken seriously. Thankfully they vanish quickly. Moments of confrontation, where we see the relationships change are more meaningful and profound than any weird-psychedelic-vision-thing.

The anime is full of such moments. Every episode is a clear progression of Yura’s personality. It is such tight pacing. Even the best anime don’t have pacing that is this focused. The series catches you off-guard when it moves from the cuteness of the first episode to the serious conflicts. It does it only in 6 episodes.

vlcsnap-2016-05-02-20h35m18s191

The tonal shift isn’t jarring. It adds depth. Life isn’t monotonous except in some circumstances. It’s mostly ups and downs. These tonal shift add realism to an anime that at first seemed only comic. It makes all the drama later believable and engrossing.

It’s an impressive feat. The characters shouldn’t work. They’re neither psychological portraits nor exaggerated oddballs. They still manage to feel real. This thanks to the work of the voice-actors. Most of the attributes – Ren’s gentleness, Honoko’s mother-figure, Karila’s toughness is expressed by these voices. Even when the characters all react positively to something, the voice-actors add their little touch to create distinction.

Yura is the highlight of the series though, and part of what prevents it from being brilliant. Going back to the comparison with Ping Pong, that anime explored every character it had. It wasn’t satisfied with just giving them distinct personalities. They each had their own journey.

Stella’s Women Academy is more narrow. Yura is the only one who goes through a major change. She’s a more believable and realistic character than Ping Pong‘s Tsukimoto, even if she’s less psychological. The changes in her are more apparent and clearer. The anime doesn’t rely on inner-monologues or visions (Okay, there are a few of them but not too many) to show us who Yura is. It’s the constant interaction with the cast.

vlcsnap-2016-05-02-20h35m45s229

Why make the decision to have such a narrow focus? Knowing your limitations is important, but great characters were the strength of the show. Everyone was flawed in a way and could be improve. The writers know how to develop a simple character, and using their talent only for one character is a waste.

Since there are guns in the anime, there are also action scenes. They’re the least flashiest action you will see, but somehow they work. Again, the simple and low-key approach is an advantage. The scenes are clear and easy to follow. They’re made of set-pieces which progress to a conclusion. Some tactics and strategy are involved, but they’re complex enough to be interesting and simple enough not to drag the anime down.

The overall message of ‘real winning is having fun’ may seem simplistic, but it actually goes deeper than that. It doesn’t pretend the world doesn’t have conflict. The message is that we need to understand when we’re in a serious conflict where we must win, and when we’re in a fun activity.

vlcsnap-2016-05-02-20h36m31s155

That’s the fault of both Rin and Sonora. Sonora just wants to have fun, so she doesn’t fight when she has to. She lets people leave freely even though it harms both the club and themselves. Rin sees everything in terms of conflict. For all her victories, her existence is joyless. She can win all she wants but what does she has in the end?

is not a huge anime. It’s a simple story about a person with no confidence getting drunk with power and then waking up. It works. Its focus may be narrow but nothing is missed, no idea is undeveloped and no moment is wasted. The only thing that prevents it from being a classic is that it never tried to be. Still, even the greatest of anime don’t hit their target dead-center like this one does.

3.5 girls with guns out of 5

Advertisements

Ping Pong the Animation

pingpong

By the sixth time the characters talked about how talented and brilliant Tsukimoto is, I had to make sure I wasn’t watching a battle shounen series. At least the observers in Medabots looked anxious and worried. Ikki fought against tough enemies and had to find chinks in their armor. Here, Tsukimoto hits the ball a few times, push up his glasses and walks away. Not smiling did not add depth to the character.

There’s a brilliant story here somewhere. The story follows a cast that each has a different approach to the sport. This is an archetype that gives you so much do it never gets old. Often, the series understands how to use it. There are about five different viewpoints here. Each is unique in its way, and each is presented as reasonable. The creators never rely on caricatures. They rely more on super-talented protagonists and an unorthodox art style that adds nothing.

vlcsnap-2015-10-18-17h28m41s110

No comment

Tsukimoto and Peco are both talented people who we are supposed to cheer for because they’re talented. While Peco’s lively energy is fun, it’s not enough to drive a main character. It’s barely a quirk for a supporting one. Tsukimoto is supposed to be unique with how he refuse to smile, but his character never settles on pretentious moron or angsty teenager. Both would’ve been fine, but at best the series makes him the former. It also takes his pretense seriously.

There is nothing exciting or valueable in being unenthusiastic about life. Tsukimoto walks around with an apathetic expression and doesn’t seem to like anything. His attitude towards life is the same thing that made Joy Division successful, but Joy Division didn’t just sell indifference. They explored that attitude.

vlcsnap-2015-10-18-17h31m30s74

Color me unimpressed

People who reach such a state probably have something in the past that made them this way. They would also lead terribly dull and sad life. The idea that such a person can be so talented is far-fetched. Wouldn’t winning games require some sort of drive? People sometimes hate what they’re good at, but that’s at least an emotion. Ping Pong wants us to believe that a walking embodiment of Joy Division’s classic album is somehow a champion in table tennis.

A bullying story is tacked on at the end. It’s a predictible story that shows us that the kid was disliked, but never the horrible reality of it. Tsukimoto even gets a cheerful person to stick with him. Both of them turn out to be extremely talented in ping pong. Where’s the struggle?

Peco faces losing for the first time and gets bummed, but this is where their troubles end. They’re celebrities and heroes in the eyes of everyone, but not heroes that are uncomfortable in their position. They’re not like Kazama, who was driven to succeed to cover up his emotional troubles. Kazama is a champion who uses victories as a way to find happiness that he can’t achieve. His talent is part of his struggle.

Ping Pong also has a strange view of talent. Talent is something you either have or don’t, and no amount of practice can make up for it. It’s a fatalist view, and not a good one. It could be talent is something you’re born with, but how will you know if you’ll never try to prove it? Indifference like Tsukimoto’s rarely produces noteable people.

What’s thrilling in such stories is not to see the characters win. All the creators have to do is just write that the characters won. What’s interesting is their struggle, their view on victory and why they’re doing it. Their reaction to losing or winning is what makes things exciting. China, Sakuma and the long-haired dude all have such an arc. One uses the sport to return back home. One uses it to lift up his own low self-confidence. Another one is on an eternal search for meaning.

Their stories are far more exciting and humane than Tsukimoto’s/Peco’s. They are stories of people like us, rather than two people who found out they’re talented. It’s amazing how similar it is to cookie-cutter heroic stories. Substitute ‘talent in ping pong’ with ‘magic sword’, ‘victory’ for ‘saving the world’ and it turns out the anime isn’t so unique as it looks.

vlcsnap-2015-10-18-17h30m49s98

Bruce Willis?

How it looks is a big discussion point, but not that exciting. The only good thing about it is how unorthodox it is. The character design is a weird take on realism that looks grotesque without bridging the gap. What especially sticks out are the lips, which look huge. The sketchiness also makes the character design inconsistent. In too many scenes, the characters look like blobs.

This is not minimalism. They look like shapes drawn in a few seconds. The roughness achieves nothing. It could be an expression of the character’s imperfection, but the story disagrees with that. Peco and Tsukimoto are heroic champions. It doesn’t achieve any type of warmth because it’s too stylized and distant. All the rough lines and emphasized lips don’t give it the elegant simplicity that saved Mushishi’s character design. Being different is great, but if it doesn’t contribute to the story it’s just a fancy cover. There’s nothing particularly unusual about it other than a sketchy look that achieves nothing.

The animation is different, and Ping Pong fares better there. The series overcomes one of anime’s main flaws – its static animation. Most anime are fairly static, with more focus on design rather than motion. While Ping Pong fails in design, it’s a total success in kinetic energy. The Ping Pong matches are stylized action scenes that rely on visual expressions, not coherency.

Animating a sports match as it looks in reality is pointless. If you want to watch a real game, you’ll watch a real one. The only reason we watch a sports story is because of what the sport means to the characters. Each match is animated with focus on its place in the character development. The matches are the same in what happens in them. They all consist of people hitting the ball. The difference between them is the meaning, and so every match is an engrossing action scene that leaves everything else in the dust. It doesn’t just set the blueprint for how to animate sport scenes but how to animate action scenes in general.

Ping Pong is not the peak of anime. It’s not even among the more unusual of its type. Despite trying to create its own rules, not enough of them serve the story and it falls back on sport prodigies. The exploration of that type doesn’t go deep enough. Still, it has a great cast of side-characters and fantastic action scenes. Its attempts at understanding its cast are admirable, and so it relies more on developed characters than emotional manipulation. It’s not a milestone, but there’s enough to enjoy here.

3.5 chinese people out of 5