Prétear (Volume 1) Review
Now here's a refreshing change of pace from some of the more plot-intensive animé I've been reviewing lately: a magical girl show that doesn't send me running for cover (à la Sailor Moon)! Originally entitled Shin Shirayuki Hime Densetsu Prétear (or, roughly translated, 'Prétear: A New Legend of Princess Snow White'), this 13-part series was broadcast on Japanese television in mid-2001 and has recently been released in the West under the simplified moniker Prétear by ADV Films.
For those of you wondering what a 'magical girl animé' is, the basic idea is that it's a shoujo [intended for viewing primarily by girls] show featuring a female lead protagonist who can magically transform from her more mundane self (usually a schoolgirl) into a heroine with supernatural powers. Although Prétear does fall into this camp, even after watching only the first four episodes it's evident that this series will provide much better characterisation than your average magical girl fluff, and less of the generally-saccharine childishness that seems part and parcel of the genre.
The storyline revolves around sixteen year-old Himeno Awayuki, who is still trying to come to grips with the fact that her father Kaoru (who, in the wake of his wife's death when Himeno was still very young, has eked out a living as a perpetually-soused on-off romance novelist) has recently remarried... and into money, no less! Big money. Himeno's new step-mum is none other than Natsue Hojo, whose financial holdings are so vast that most of the key buildings in town had to change their signs when she decided to adopt her Kaoru's surname... something that does not go down well with her two daughters from her previous marriage.
So already we can see the standard fairy-tale trappings being anchored into place, but before you write this show off as a modern-day Cinderella-derivative, consider: Kaoru didn't marry Natsue for the money; she isn't a 'wicked stepmother' at all and genuinely adores him; and while her two daughters (Mayune and Mawata) behave somewhat haughtily towards Himeno, it's clear that they are acting not out of actual hatred but from a confused need to sort out their own emotions after the death of their father.
However, hold on... that's only half of the story. Cut to an alternate plane of reality where a group of seven magical fighters safeguard the life energies (known collectively as 'Leafe') of the Earth. The real action begins when Fenrir, the Princess of Disaster, breaks the magical seal that has kept her safely imprisoned and prepares to wreak havoc on the mortal plane by robbing it of its Leafe. Her modus operandi is to sow seed-like 'demon larvae' across the land, which are difficult to detect until just before they mature into full-fledged infernal beasties. Realising that they may be slightly outclassed by the current threat to the world, the seven Knights of Leafe set out to locate a new 'Prétear'... a girl who has the ability to focus and strengthen their individual powers in the battle against these dark forces. We the audience are not entirely surprised when this girl turns out to be Himeno.
Again, the fairy-tale parallels to the series' namesake are apparent, but slightly askew: Himeno isn't your usual mild-mannered and gentle Snow White (just wait until she whips out one of her karate moves!); the seven Knights of Leafe, far from being portly dwarves, run the gamut from strapping bishounen [beautiful male] lads to kawaii [desperately cute] kids; and, well, for all we know Fenrir really is a wrinkled old witch, as we haven't clapped eyes on her yet. (I personally doubt it, but you get the idea.)
1: 'Winds of Destiny'
It's everything you'd expect of an introductory episode. We get to meet all the principals, whether of mundane or supernatural pedigree (save, of course, the shadowy nemesis Fenrir). The Knights of Leafe have the opportunity to discover the first of Fenrir's demon larvae and then quickly come to the conclusion that they're going to need help. There is a mysterious reference-in-passing to the fate of the previous Prétear, as well as the first major schism in this group of magical fighters; Hayate (the Knight of Wind) is clearly not happy with the idea of finding a new Prétear, and wanders off disconsolately.
Naturally, following the standard rules of engagement for animé, this means that while his six colleagues are busily roaming up and down the streets of Earth (yes, somewhere in Japan, of course) looking for the right girl, Hayate ends up accidentally bumping into her. Again adhering to a formula perfected in many other shoujo series, despite being quite handsome, his churlishness makes Himeno go immediately on the defensive (and stay there); we can surely expect her early crush on him (and unwillingness to admit it) to be a continuing theme throughout the show.
Anyway, the Knights of Leafe have found their new Prétear not a moment too soon! While they attempt to convince her that they're not just taking the mick about this alternate dimension, magical powers, and fight against Fenrir, another demon larva matures and battle must be joined!
2: 'Let Me Hear Your Heart Flutter'
The Knights help Himeno defeat the creature, but she was a little slow on the uptake of her newfound powers and Hayate (acting as her shield) gets slightly wounded. Nor does it lower her embarrassment levels to discover that the process by which she transforms into the Prétear requires her to 'merge' with one of her knights (who are apparently all male). While this isn't actually as salacious as it may sound, the transformation sequence certainly plays it for all it's worth, with the 'camera' going to soft-focus as Himeno swirls around in the air with her chosen Knight, her mundane clothes vanishing only to be replaced a few moments later by one of the 'uniforms' of her post.
While that animation's the kind of thing which will probably make you giggle, at least the concept of Himeno adopting a different outfit for each of the Knights she joins souls with is unique. In this case, the clothes really do make the woman, for each of the seven Knights is associated with a different elemental force (Hayate is the Knight of Wind, Sasame the Knight of Sound, Kei the Knight of Light, Go the Knight of Fire, Mannen the Knight of Ice, Hajime the Knight of Water, and Shin the Knight of Plants), and when Himeno allows them inside of her, she becomes the Prétear of the associated power. Moreover, while 'préted' in this way, not her but the Knight within her will suffer all damage inflicted upon her body during combat (thus what happened to Hayate).
This second episode allows her to get to know another of her Knights, Sasame, while sneaking in a bit of character development regarding the younger of her two stepsisters, Mawata. (As it turns out, each of the Knights have adopted mundane roles on Earth to blend in, and Sasame's is a job at the local radio station... where he helms a programme where he occasionally offers advice to those writing in with personal problems.)
3: 'The Way of Becoming Prétear'
Hayate, still seeming reluctant to accept Himeno as the new Prétear, puts her through a series of strange tests allegedly designed to indicate her aptitude for the post... and in each case she falls short of success. Again, trying to puzzle out Hayate's apparent hostility towards her, Himeno seeks Sasame's counsel. In an effort to prove that she is worthy of the position, she launches into a number of practice exercises to fine-tune her Prétearean abilities. Meanwhile, we get to learn a bit more about the other Knights, including the fact that Kei works at a game design company and Go works at a restaurant... and are introduced to a new character, Yayoi Takata, one of Himeno's schoolgirl chums and a self-professed 'Awayuki Watcher'.
(Yes, the 'I'm the heroine's biggest fan' / 'I know everything there is to know about her' stereotype is almost obligatory in this type of show, so I'm hoping that Yayoi doesn't get too annoying. After all, the equivalent role in Real Bout High School – a psuedo-magical girl animé – was filled by a boy named Daisaku who sometimes provided useful commentary rather than merely comic relief.)
4: 'A Promise Made Under the Sunlight'
Hayate is now working part-time at the Awayuki residence, as he was discovered wandering about the grounds by Kaoru, who decided on the spot that he needed an assistant for his latest creative undertaking... sculpture. Obviously our heroine is none too thrilled when she finds out, but she soon has bigger fish to fry: Kei's computer programme works out that there's a definite probability that the next demon larva will turn up somewhere on the Awayuki estate, and the three 'kids' go running off to inform Himeno. This soon degenerates into something of a comic romp through the sprawling jungles (no, I'm not kidding) of the Awayuki estate, with Himeno not only accompanied by Mannen, Hajime, and Shin... but also Tanaka, the family chauffeur (who fancies himself something of an expert on entomology and thinks he's helping them locate some new breed of insect)! This episode ends well, giving Himeno a chance to demonstrate her worth and gain a bit of respect from Hayate.
This series was produced for broadcast television and is presented in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio we've come to expect for the vast majority of animé. This is a recent (2001) release and as such it isn't surprising that there are no serious defects with the picture on this disc. Nonetheless, I was of two minds when it came to scoring the video quality of this particular DVD. You see, a modern title like this should do more than just 'not look bad'. Naturally I'm pleased that the encoding process didn't produce any glaring flaws and that the bitrate was set high enough to keep any motion-based artefacts from turning up on-screen (this is a dual-layer disc, by the way)... but the actual animation quality of Prétear simply isn't all that thrilling.
The place where this is most evident is in the backgrounds of any given scene; most of these were drawn with so little detail as to appear almost unfinished. Similarly, at various points the background characters in this series are drawn so simplistically that they become worryingly 'cartoony'. (This is in stark contrast to the amount of detail lavished upon anyone in the foreground, which illustrates quite clearly that the animators are capable of producing high-quality work when they can be bothered.) In the end I decided to give the production team the benefit of the doubt and assume that the extremely soft and vague elements of the animation were in some way intentional, possibly trying to emulate a very minimalist 'watercolour' style... but my suspicion is that these shortcuts were the result of budget limitations rather than artistic licence.
On an unrelated note, the subtitles in Prétear are excellent. Not only has ADV selected a clean font with solid outlines and the usual use of different colours to distinguish between simultaneous speakers (and song lyrics), but all sign translations are placed on-screen near the actual physical signs in the animation itself, which is a nice touch. (And yes, this means that there are thankfully no nasty overlays blotting out the original video. Good work on this.)
As with the video, the audio in Prétear won't knock your socks off, but doesn't suffer from any significant failings, either. As with the great bulk of animé offerings on DVD, this is a dual-language disc, the original Japanese presented in Dolby 2.0 and the later English dub track having been recorded in the USA in Dolby 5.1. Now, usually the presence of a dedicated DD 5.1 soundtrack is a good sign and would automatically bump up the audio score for the disc... but in this case I was astounded by how little the English 5.1 track actually takes advantage of the surround speakers. (In fact, I had to get up and go put my ear next to each of the rear speakers just to verify that they were doing anything.)
The truth is, this series is heavily centre-channel and front-soundstage focused, regardless of which version of the audio you choose to listen to. There are a few instances of stereo directionality effects, but not quite as many as you'd expect from the number of fight scenes, etc. And while the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does sound slightly more expansive than its Dolby 2.0 predecessor, in my opinion the difference is relatively minor (unlike, for example, Now and Then, Here and There, where listening to the English 5.1 is a completely different experience from the flatter Japanese 2.0).
The good news is that the voice acting is competent from both casts. While I do still prefer the original Japanese dialogue for Prétear, the English version isn't bad at all. In particular, some of the older Knights of Leafe sound great in the dub, with only the voice of Himeno being a slight let-down, suffering as it does from the usual twin failings of: 1, sounding like an adult trying to pull off a kid's voice; and 2, coming across as somewhat over-excitable and shrill in the actual delivery. It's not what I'd call a 'problem voice'... just not one I enjoy as much when compared to the Japanese voice actress.
The menus on this DVD are exceptionally clean and attractive. While they do not employ any super-advanced technical frills (all are static pages, with the sole exception of the scene selection screen), they all feature the show's lovely theme music playing on an abbreviated loop beneath. Menu access times are fairly fast and there are even a few well-considered touches when it comes to menu navigation... such as the fact that you cannot accidentally select the same language option you're already set to. (It's a small thing, but why hasn't anyone else thought of it before?)
ADV has provided a few nice extras on this disc, starting with the always-welcome clean opening and closing animations (and by this they do mean completely text-free, so the only Japanese lettering you'll see is the show's logo graphic at the start). Ironically, the special features I was most looking forward to, but which in the end turned out to be frankly disappointing, were the two interviews with the English voice actors. The problem is not with the subjects (after all, with Luci Christian and Illich Guardiola present, you've got the two key leads covered) or the length (each interview session is about 8-9 minutes long), but just with a lack of flair or interest in the presentation. Basically, you have English dub producer/director David Williams playing the role of interviewer and leading the VAs through a rather bland and uninspired series of questions, none of which have much depth to them. Alas, the two actors also don't seem to have much in the way of interesting anecdotes to impart, and both interviews eventually more or less stagger to an awkward conclusion. About the only thing you'll learn from watching these clips is that Luci (who plays Himeno in Prétear) also worked in Those Who Hunt Elves, Full Metal Panic, Supergals, and Magical Shopping Arcade and Illich (who plays Hayate) had previous roles in Generator Gawl, Gasaraki, RahXephon, and Ushio and Tora.
Moving on, we're presented with a very generous art gallery of production sketches (almost three dozen images presented framed in an automatic slideshow, with some of the show's music playing on a loop underneath), a single page of DVD credits, and a selection of previews for other ADV releases, including: Final Fantasy: Unlimited, Sakura Wars, Zaion, and King of Bandit Jing.
While I don't normally comment on the packaging of single-disc DVD releases, I'll make an exception for Prétear because it's clear that a special effort was made in its creation. First, the designers went to great lengths to subtly reference the original Japanese title of the show by not only basing the artwork around a 'snow white' theme, but also housing the disc in a very striking white Amaray case, and decorating the DVD label itself with snowflakes. (This looks better than it may sound.) Second, kudos to the art team at ADV Films for actually choosing an English logo font which precisely mimics the look-and-feel of the original Japanese title; this indicates a level of attention to detail that goes well above and beyond the call of duty.
For those who are just interested in what the cover art depicts, Volume 1 features an attractive shot of Himeno and Sasame sitting back-to-back, with her dressed (quite fittingly) in her 'Prétear of Sound' outfit.
What a great start to this series! Although I wouldn't go so far as to describe Prétear as 'must see' animé, the fact that it's a more intelligent brand of mahou shoujo (magical girl) show that avoids two-dimensional characters while providing a genuinely interesting background story means it is something I can whole-heartedly recommend. While the production values may not be the world's highest, they are far from being mediocre, and the included special features mean this isn't a bare-bones DVD. I look forward to seeing how the plot and characters develop over the remaining nine episodes, and will provide further reviews as I get the discs.