Real Bout High School (Volume 1: Enter the Samurai Girl) Review
I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by this DVD. What little I had heard about Real Bout High School initially seemed to paint it as JAMATASA (Just Another 'Martial-Arts Teenagers At School' Animé). As you can imagine, shows like this are massively popular TV fare among kids in Japan – and everywhere else, for that matter – so more and more of them get produced until they become a little difficult to differentiate one from the other. (Nor does it help that many of them seem to share an unfortunate symbiotic relationship with 'kung-fu' video game adaptations of the same name... Street Fighter being a case in point. In such cases, a tenuous storyline is further weakened by the need to squeeze the maximum number of fights into each episode.)
Fortunately Real Bout High School, though certainly part of this family of animé, can be viewed as something of a distant relative. It possesses a much broader appeal, I suspect, because it's actually a hybrid of several popular genres... including 'fighting-school animé' (e.g., Battle Athletes Victory), 'magical girl animé' (e.g., Saint Tail, another TOKYOPOP licence), and – believe it or not – 'period fantasy animé' (e.g., Rurouni Kenshin). It's a charming little show with a rapidly-growing cast of interesting characters, and one graced not only with spectacular fight sequences but also with a good smattering of in-jokes for fans of Japanese animation and cinema in general.
That said, what's the synopsis? Well, Ryoko Mitsurugi is a 16 year-old schoolgirl with an amazing gift for kendo. So amazing, in fact, that as the show opens she finds herself the undefeated champion at Daimon High School... where martial arts comprise the majority of the curriculum and all disputes between students are settled through a sanctioned system of personal duels called 'K-Fights'. Her success has made her very popular with many of her fellow students, but the never-ending obligation of defending her title from every would-be champ is making her a little miserable too.
Very soon we're introduced to the rather-sizable supporting cast: Daisaku Kamiya (her number one fanboy), Tatsuya Shishikura (an upperclassman on whom she has a crush), Azumi Kiribayashi (also in the year above her, and her rival for the affections of Tatsuya), Shizuma Kusanagi (the former K-Fight champion before she came on the scene and trounced him), Keiichiro Nagumo (the school legend who invented the K-Fight system), Tessai Onizuka (the master swordsman of the local Hiten Shrine), and Miyuki Onizuka (his granddaughter). And yes, there's more... but that's enough to get you started.
OK, so groundbreaking animé this isn't... but it's highly entertaining fluff. The stories presented in each episode are compact and fairly simple, the character dynamics are not overly complex, and there aren't any plot twists per se... nevertheless, it all works well together. The cast is likeable (even the few nominal antagonists) and you look forward to learning the back-stories of the more mysterious individuals.
Further, the tongue-in-cheekness of the series is carried off particularly well. Examples include Ryoko's fascination with samurai period dramas (so much so that she's given to acting them out when no one else is around, while the animation itself often turns sepia-toned to mimic old Kurosawa films), the abundant references to Street Fighter (from outfits that certain people are seen wearing to the fact that the 'K' in K-Fight stands for 'kenka', or 'street fight'), and little amusing touches like the school nurse being named Nanako (a reference, no doubt, to Amazing Nurse Nanako).
As for parents considering a purchase of this DVD for their kids, the only possible complaints I can think of are the bog-standard aspects of shows like this: 1, there's going to be a lot of fighting (but not much actual bleeding... and that little bit is limited to 'bad guys' and monsters, as I recall); and 2, there's definitely a lot of fan service (but no actual nudity), this mostly taking the form of momentary low camera angles during battle scenes. Overall, it's pretty harmless stuff. (TOKYOPOP was good enough to develop an in-house rating system for its DVDs and suggests 'Teen: Age 13+' for this disc, but this is probably on the conservative side. A quick examination of the 'Special End Corner' segments – which I'll cover in the 'Extras' section – will convince you that the show is intended to be suitable to an even younger age range.)
1: 'Samurai Girl Appears'
We get to experience a day in the life of Ryoko... which seems to involve fending off surprise attacks from every quarter (compare with Akane in Ranma ½), hanging out with Tatsuya (the only boy she can't beat at kendo, but one who also gentlemanly declines to challenge her to a K-Fight), and getting called to the Daimon school stadium to fight a succession of opponents because the principal wants to spice up the competition. But when a true challenger appears in the form of her arch-rival Azumi (skilled at the longer, halberd-like naginata), will Ryoko be able to hold onto her title?
2: 'The Strongest Man on Earth Joins the Fight'
After her battle with Azumi, things get a bit weird for Ryoko. Did she really fight a dragon in an alternate reality where she herself was addressed as the 'Demon Lord of Yenen'? Was it just a dream? And what does it all have to do with that strange glowing pendant she found earlier in the locker room? Alas, she isn't given time to puzzle it all out, as Daisaku has arranged a rematch between her and Shizuma, who has spent the intervening year doing the street punk thing and picking up new tricks.
3: 'Enter the Way of the Swordsman'
The school is all abuzz at the sudden return of Keiichiro, who turned up just in time to interfere with Ryoko's K-Fight with Shizuma. However, there's something awfully mysterious about him – like how he knew about her battle with the dragon! Discovering that he might be staying at the nearby Hiten Shrine, she sets out to get some answers... but instead gets caught up in an confrontation between some strange 'Men in Black' (also wanting a few choice words with Keiichiro) and Master Tessai. Witnessing the guardian of the shrine make easy work of a dozen foes impels Ryoko (with assistance from an unexpected quarter) to beg him to take her on as an apprentice... but he is not so easily persuaded.
4: 'The Girl With Deep Black Eyes'
In this final episode of the disc, the show begins to explore the character of Tessai's granddaughter Miyuki. There's something very curious about her, but Ryoko can't even get her to talk, much less open up to a friendship. When she discovers from Tessai that it's Miyuki's birthday, she races to make preparations for a party... but will disaster strike instead?
The video on this disc is nothing short of outstanding; we're talking reference disc quality here. Yes, it's a TV show with a standard 4:3 aspect ratio and thus not anamorphic... but forget all that, because this transfer is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I've watched the entire DVD through twice now and can't find any flaws to speak of – which considering that much of the show consists of blindingly-fast fight sequences is quite a testament to the high bitrate TOKYOPOP must have used to encode this release. No pixelation, no macroblocking, no rainbowing... just perfect.
Taking a step beyond basic picture quality, the animation is also top-notch, exhibiting a fluidity (particularly during the aforementioned K-Fights) that is frankly mesmerising. I guess I should expect nothing less from Studio Gonzo... these are, after all, the same people who put out Blue Submarine No. 6 and Hellsing, two other visually-stunning animé. As for the character designs, they're pretty to look at, but not terribly innovative – you'll notice several stereotypical designs used in this show, but it's a very minor quibble.
Subtitles are clear and readable (yellow with black outlining), and nowhere is there evidence of hardsubbing or digital overlays (excluding the end credits, which as usual have been translated into English). In-show signs are thankfully left in their original Japanese, with English translations provided by way of a separate 'Signs Only' subtitles track for those who prefer the English dub. Nicely done all around.
The audio quality is similarly excellent, although within the limitations of Dolby Digital 2.0. That said, I have a DD 5.1 speaker setup and when I first popped the disc in my DVD player, for a moment I thought it had been recorded in Dolby Surround - the sound really was that rich and vibrant. A careful listen reveals that all the action is in the front soundstage, albeit an incredibly broad and full one. There's excellent stereo separation and good directionality during all of the battle sequences, which really rounds out the experience of watching Real Bout High School. Adding to this a great soundtrack featuring a cheerful J-pop main theme that contrasts nicely with the bass-punchy techno tracks used for the K-Fights, and you have superb audio. The only way it could have been improved is by a DD 5.1 treatment... which, let's face it, just isn't in the cards for your average TV show.
It was also good to see that both the original Japanese audio and the English dub track were recorded at the same dynamic level, so if you do decide to switch from one to the other mid-disc, you won't find the volume jumping up and down. For that matter, the dialogue is all quite clear on both tracks, well-balanced with the sound effects and atmospheric music. I spot-checked the English dub and found it to be acceptable, although my preference on this DVD is definitely for the Japanese language. (Somehow the women doing the English version generally came across as a bit too strident in their deliveries... particularly the really annoying 'K-Fight announcer' character.)
You really can't go wrong when you contract Nightjar to design your DVD menus, and the ones on Real Bout High School are no exception. This is the same company that won accolades for the menus on the Akira: Special Edition, Armitage III, Fushigi Yugi, Sol Bianca, and Trigun discs... and TOKYOPOP has secured their services for all of their current DVD properties (the sole exceptions being volume 1 of Vampire Princess Miyu and Saint Tail).
What Nightjar has done in this instance is to craft a stylish and appealing menu system around the motif of a coin-op arcade fighter. From the moment the main menu loads – with its pumping game music, two-player interface complete with blinking 'Insert Coin' and 'Awaiting Challenger' prompts, and a simulated demo mode showing Ryoko and Azumi battling it out while their 'health bars' tick down with each blow they take – you know you're in for a treat.
From here you can quickly access the four primary functions: 'Play', 'Setup', 'Scenes', and 'Extras', each of which promotes the theme, and always with a smooth transition between screens. (For instance, 'Setup' masquerades as a 'choose your players' screen where language and subtitles options are mapped to different characters from the show. Likewise, 'Extras' is done up as a 'special attacks' panel.)
Anyway, all the core functionality you'd expect is present. 'Setup' offers a choice of Japanese or English language as well as three subtitles options: on, off, and 'Signs Only', which will no doubt be appreciated by those fans who don't want the full subs. 'Scenes' is optimal, offering a well-placed six chapter stops for each of the four episodes ('Intro', 'Opening', 'Part A', 'Part B', 'Ending', and 'Preview').
In fact, the only grumble I have with the entire menu structure is that a trio of 'forced previews' attempt to play when you load the DVD. Consumer sentiment is against being forced to watch previews before being allowed access to the main menu, so why are companies still making this very basic error? As it happens, there are two empty slots in the design of the 'Previews' sub-menu (under 'Extras'), so two of these could have been relocated there without any difficulty. Regardless, once you know about them you can skip them by hitting your remote's NEXT button three times in quick succession, so it's not all that bad.
There's a respectable selection of special features included on this DVD. Not so many as to make your head spin, but the ones that are here are all worthwhile. To get the smaller stuff out of the way first, there's your standard 'DVD Credits' page and a 'Previews' section containing peeks at other TOKYOPOP releases (including Initial D, Reign, GTO, and a nicely-executed audio preview of the Real Bout High School Official CD featuring samples from three different songs).
Moving on to slightly meatier material, 'Japanese TV Promos' includes no less than four promotional adverts for the show, as originally broadcast on Japanese television. (Yes, English subtitles are available.) Also, 'Outtakes' provides almost two minutes' worth of bloopers from the English dub recording sessions, set to the very scenes in which the voice actors flubbed their lines. Quite funny, actually.
Finally, there are the most unique extras: the 'Special End Corner' video segments which (as far as I can tell) were broadcast after each of the four episodes on this disc in order to promote the coming week's instalment. Each of these is only a couple of minutes in length, and primarily feature behind-the-scenes interviews with two of the lead Japanese actresses for Real Bout High School (specifically, the ones playing Ryoko and Miyuki)... although in later segments we also get to meet some of the other cast as well. Each 'Special End Corner' has a particular focus – the first one shows the two girls dressing up as their characters and going out on the beach to do the filming of the end credits (ED) sequence, for example. These 'Special End Corners' are vaguely interesting and certainly very sweet, but it's quite apparent from the mode of speech used that they are aimed at a very young audience indeed (my guess would be pre-teen, assuming the subtitles are giving an accurate translation of the dialogue). As such, adults are unlikely to watch them more than once. All the same, an appreciated – and quite unexpected – bonus on this DVD.
Ah, before I forget, there's one more extra, but it's not on the disc itself. Similar to the informative 'liner notes' card that AnimEigo includes with each of its DVD releases, TOKYOPOP has provided a glossy 'Translator's Notes' insert with this disc. Nicely laid-out and with about three pages of comments on the way various bits of the Japanese script was translated into English, it's a laudable addition and one I hope they'll put in more of their DVDs.
(As is my wont, I've bumped up the 'Extras' score to reflect the excellence of the menus on this disc, as we have no separate 'Menus' category on DVD Times.)
If you're an animé fan, I would be very surprised if you didn't enjoy seeing Real Bout High School at least once. As for everyone else, if the story I've sketched out above sounds at all appealing to you, then I suggest you give it a try. This is light-hearted, good-natured fun. There's nothing really deep or complicated about the plot, nothing actually objectionable in its presentation, and you'll almost certainly like all the main characters. Beyond this, the production values on this DVD are top-notch, and as such it's one of those discs that can practically be recommended on the strength of its picture, sound, menus, and extras alone.