Video Girl Ai Review
With a name like Video Girl Ai, you'd certainly be forgiven for wondering just how racy the content of this DVD is... but in point of fact, the series is a fairly-restrained romantic comedy/drama in the same vein as Oh My Goddess!. Although the show certainly doesn't hesitate to cash in on the humour potential of brief moments of nudity by the eponymous lead character, there's very little here that can even be classified as risqué – and certainly nothing offensive. (Although Viz has given this a '16Up' classification to be on the safe side, a '13Up' would probably be more realistic.)
Created by Masakazu Katsura (Aizu, DNA^2, Shadow Lady, Wingman, Zetman, etc.), the story was originally published as manga [Japanese comics] in Shonen Jump from 1990 to 1993, running to 15 collected volumes in the end. In 1992 a six-part OAV [original animated video] series was produced (covering the majority of the events depicted in the first three books), and it is this three-hour animé version that Viz released on DVD at the end of 2001.
Originally entitled Denei Shoujo Ai, the story is fairly straightforward. The protagonist, Yota Moteuchi, is an unpopular nobody back at school, and cursed with a surname that his classmates perversely mispronounce as 'date-less' ['motenai']. As we learn in flashback, he has just discovered that the girl he's held a torch for throughout high school (Moemi Hayakawa) is in love with a sportier, better-looking mate of his (Takashi Niimai). Wandering the streets in a love-sick funk, he eventually chances upon a deserted video shop whose mysterious proprietor doesn't even bat an eye when Yota selects a tape from the adult section called 'Video Girl Ai'.
Unbeknownst to him, the shop doesn't actually exist in the 'real' world, and the video itself has some very intriguing properties, which become readily apparent the moment he slips it into his VCR at home and the shapely Ai Amano pops right out of the TV and into his bedroom. I know this sounds like the perfect set-up for a hentai [porno] feature, but in fact the show goes off in a completely different direction, with Ai doing her level best to hook Yota up with Moemi, as the latter is so clearly the one he loves.
Of course, even with the wacky fantasy premise, Video Girl Ai wouldn't stay interesting if everything went smoothly, so cue a series of romantic complications between Yota, Moemi, and Takashi. Furthermore, Yota's VCR has gone dodgy, which results in Ai's personality being different than what was advertised on the box... and worse yet, the videotape has a limited 'play time' before it (and Ai) expires. These elements imbue the show with a certain amount of drama and bittersweet heartache which will make you genuinely sympathise with all of the key characters in the story. On balance there's unquestionably more comedy than teen angst in the series, but at times it feels like a very close thing.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the obvious parallels between Video Girl Ai and another excellent animé, Oh My Goddess!. After all, both shows feature: 1, a beautiful 'girl' from another world; 2, a lonely 'nice guy' who's been unlucky in love; 3, a certain degree of wish fulfilment; 4, a supernatural character who enters the real world through a TV set and then proceeds to try her hand at matchmaking; and 5, a definite time pressure aspect where it becomes apparent that the 'magical girl' can't remain forever with the 'nice guy'. (For those who are curious, OMG! came first, although only as manga... the OAV version came out a year later than Video Girl Ai's. Amusingly, in the very first episode Yota makes a veiled reference to OMG! when he asks Ai if she's some kind of 'goddess of love'.)
Although it's safe to say that if you enjoy either show you'll also like the other, there is a subtle difference in the kind of mood each story evokes. Whereas OMG! has a relatively peaceful feel to it, Video Girl Ai seems a trifle more manic. This is due in no small part to the lead female roles in each. The goddess Belldandy is more or less a 'male-idealised' woman (she's beautiful, soft-spoken, deferential, a great cook, and – would you believe? – even enjoys cleaning house). On the other hand, video construct Ai is saved from a similar personality by a glitch in Yota's VCR, which causes her to be more feisty, quick-witted, spontaneous, independent, and human than anyone could have anticipated. Of the two, Ai Amano is by far the more engaging character, and she really makes this show shine.
1: 'I'm Here For You'
Yota is more than a little surprised at the technological sophistication of what he had taken for a bog-standard 'video girl' tape. (These actually do exist in Japan, the idea being that lonesome men might enjoy having a demure and lovely member of the opposite sex chat 'to' them, even if it is merely a recording with no real interactivity.) After jumping out of his TV and sizing up the situation – and with no shortage of amusing antics on her part – Ai resolves to help Yota succeed in his dream of dating Moemi.
The irrepressible Ai turns up at Yota's school to scout out the situation between him and Moemi, and he has to think fast to explain her to his incredulous peers, who at first think he's finally found a date. Passing her off as his sister, Yota eventually gets a moment alone to chat with Moemi, but – typically selfless – when she begins to despair over the fact that Takashi is not interested in her, Yota encourages her not to give up. Witnessing this, Ai decides to do something nice for Yota and runs home to prepare a wonderful dinner for him. Unfortunately, Moemi (still thinking of Yota only as 'a great friend') comes up with the exact same idea...
3: 'On the Occasion of Our First Date'
To thank her for all of her continuing help and advice, Yota decides to take Ai out on a 'date', and at first all goes well. However, Ai's overenthusiastic nature ends up costing Yota all of his spending money... including their bus fare home! Although she comes up with a creative solution thanks to her 'understanding of the male mind', it becomes clear that Yota's defective VCR is wreaking havoc with her health, and she ends up collapsing on the pavement.
Moemi, ever oblivious of Yota's interest, asks his help in deciding on a birthday present for Takashi. The two of them blow off school and spend the day on a merry shopping trip through the city, unaware that they are being followed by Ai – who, growing a little jealous despite herself, points out their truancy to a police officer. They scarper, and later Yota even gets an opportunity to confess his love to Moemi... but all to no avail. Her own confession comes later that day when she confronts Takashi with her present and he stalls her with a promise to phone later with a decision as to whether or not he'll date her. Crushed, Yota returns home with Ai.
5: 'Lost Ai'
As Ai's allotted month with Yota begins to draw to a close, she makes a desperate effort to keep him in good spirits despite the fact that she's utterly miserable at the thought of no longer being around him. Moemi and Takashi's nascent relationship doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and Yota has decided to focus his attention instead on a children's book illustration contest. The plot takes a somewhat sinister turn with the appearance of a new character who seems to have the final say over Ai's very existence... and it looks like her time with Yota may be up sooner than either of them had thought!
6: 'Ai, Love and Sadness'
This final episode goes a bit surreal and hints at some of the science fiction underpinnings of the original manga series. Basically, Yota – desperately searching for the missing Ai – travels to the bizarre existential plane from which she, her creator, and the mysterious video shop itself come. Ai's cold-hearted creator, having decided that she broke her programming by falling in love with Yota (when the purpose of a video girl is merely to 'comfort' men), is planning on erasing her. Yota has to face a number of dreamlike trials if he's to even stand a chance of saving her. (No, I'm not going to tell you how it ends.)
The video quality on Video Girl Ai is good but hardly exceptional. Not having seen the show before, I can't comment on whether some of the minor flaws I saw were present in the video masters or a result of the transfer to DVD. Regardless, the problems are relatively few. First, the show does seem to suffer from ever-present (though thankfully very faint) background graininess. Another consideration is saturation level... maybe the artwork is intended to look this way, but to my eye colours seem a trifle washed-out. There's also the usual sort of shimmering effects going on with fine lines during vertical camera pans, and – last but not least – you'll easily spot the occasional dust speck in the video.
None of these failings is serious enough to outweigh the actual animation quality, which is top-notch (not surprising for an OAV series, which traditionally have a larger budget to work with than ones produced for broadcast TV). The character designs are interesting (although I'm not a big fan of Ai's hairstyle) and - from the few scans I've found on the Net – very true to those in the original manga.
Unlike for some of its other recent DVD releases, Viz hasn't provided the original Japanese opening and ending sequences for Video Girl Ai (that is, ones that don't feature large English credits over the background animation), which is unfortunate. And, as is pretty common among most Western animé distributors, all of the songs in the show have been hard-subbed.
There's not a lot that needs saying about the audio quality on this disc. Both the original Japanese and the English dub tracks are presented in your basic Dolby stereo and are perfectly serviceable for dialogue, which is what drives this series anyway. There just weren't many instances of 'action scenes' requiring (or using) amazing sound effects or stereo directionality. One aspect of this show I did really enjoy was the extensive selection of songs that were worked in, at least one per episode. This sort of thing is not uncommon for animé in the romantic comedy genre, but all of the additional tunes were quite lovely and came across very clear... well, on the Japanese track at least.
On the English dub track, something happened to the way the audio was mixed, because the Japanese songs ended up getting rather muted and losing their clarity. (In fact, the sound levels on the dub seemed a tad lower throughout.) Moving beyond objectivity, I found the dub to be really off-putting for a number of reasons. First, there's the overt Westernisation of various bits of dialogue which only succeeds in making the characters sound hackneyed. Second, the voice acting itself is abysmal, with the VAs making a dog's breakfast of the subtle emotional interplay between the lead characters. (If you watch the series in the original Japanese, you'll feel a deep sympathy for the characters, whereas the English dub seems only interested in 'going for broke' on both the comedy and the melodrama.)
Obviously it helps that the superb Megumi Hayashibara was cast to play Ai in the original Japanese version. She's the same voice actress who has breathed life into such classic characters as Ranma Saotome (girl-form) from Ranma ½, Lina Inverse from Slayers, and Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop... and her list of voice credits (acting and singing) is as long as my arm. Anyone who's heard her distinctive style of delivery will understand why she's so often cast to play aggressive, wise-cracking, strong female leads.
The menus on this DVD are fairly basic and are constructed around a nice 'video wall' theme – made only slightly distracting by the fact that the static displayed on some of the TVs is rendered as audible hiss beneath the cheery theme music, making you wonder if there's something wrong with your speakers.
With the exception of the last, each of the six OAV episodes is generously provided with no less than seven chapter breaks, placed just where they should be (Prologue, Opening, Part A, Part B, Ending, Preview, and Bonus). Speaking of which, the special omake [bonus] 'Video Girl Ai theatre' segments at the end of each episode are a real treat. The first four feature SD ['super-deformed'; see pic] versions of the series' characters performing amusing sketches, like the 'Ai Amano fashion show' and a bit where they act out scenes in silly voices. For the last two, the series' author and the woman who sang the bouncy theme tune for the show (Noriko Sakai) do little interview segments.
The actual special features on this disc are a little meagre – just a text-only interview with the director (Mizuho Nishikubo) and a collection of six quick character bios (though nicely displayed). Sadly, the stretched, thin font chosen for the menus on this disc makes reading the interview an unnecessarily eye-punishing task. Fortunately, a more normal font was selected for the DVD's liner notes, which provides additional info about the series and its adaptation from manga to animé.
In light of the show's entertaining omake (even though they're not actually listed as special features), I've bumped up the Extras score for this DVD by a couple points.
It has to be said, Video Girl Ai is an absolute delight to watch. This show does a tremendous job of balancing the bittersweet with the light-hearted so that neither overrides the other. Even though this animated version only covers the first major plot arc from the manga, the way the ending is handled makes it an effective standalone story... so if you fancy the premise, I assure you you'll enjoy watching this series again and again over the years.