Real Bout High School (Volume 2: Netherworld Battle) Review
As I mentioned in my review of the first volume of Real Bout High School ('Enter the Samurai Girl'), this show got off to a strong start despite being part of a sub-genre of animé that is known for clichéd stories and stereotypical characters. This was in part thanks to there being a number of interesting sub-plots already in play as the series opened, with the promise of expanding on the mysterious backgrounds of several of the main characters.
Which is why I'm at a bit of a loss to explain where the magic has gone in this second DVD instalment. For a show that I really enjoyed the first four episodes of, why do these next three strike me as 'merely OK'? Naturally, I have my theories. Obviously, the first DVD got to play the 'introductory' card – you spend a lot of your time getting up to speed on the series and its lead cast, so it's an enthusiasm-building enterprise if the show is at all good. (And it is.) However, now that we know who all of the key players are, Real Bout High School needs to start addressing the meat of the story arc... and that's something I just did not see happening in the episodes on this disc. (In other words, at the end of Volume 2 we are more than halfway through the series and yet it doesn't really feel that way.)
Another contributing factor may simply be personal preference. I like a good animé fight scene as much as anyone, but I'm also very keen on seeing the underlying story develop a little bit in every episode. On this second DVD volume, it seems that the fight scenes override every other aspect of the show. Don't get me wrong... they are spectacular fight scenes, wonderfully choreographed and peppered with little humorous touches. However, they don't actually advance the plot at all. Episodes 5 and 6 are essentially a two-parter that brings in three new combatants, but even though they do seem to know something about the mysterious goings-on, they don't provide any exposition and are apparently only there to show off their fancy moves. As for episode 7, it's a return to the lighter comedic feel of the show as Ryoko and Azumi battle again for the affections of Tatsuya... but again, however entertaining this is, it contributes nothing to the overall story arc.
Fortunately, Real Bout High School remains an enjoyable watch – though I am now left to worry whether the plot can regain its previous momentum after this plateau. My hope is that the next three episodes on Volume 3 will mark a return to form, demonstrating the careful balance of action and character development that the first four episodes exhibited.
5: 'Attack of the Raging Wind!'
If I've given the impression that this DVD is one non-stop fight sequence, I apologise. The start of this episode actually has the same great feel of the earlier instalments, with Ryoko being roped into dressing up in a 'magical girl' outfit in order to help promote the 'Cat Like Fish' restaurant at the local shopping mall. While our heroine copes with the embarrassment of this task, Shizuma's friend Sara has overheard three thugs looking for him, and tries to warn him at the Hiten Shrine, where she enlists the aid of Miyuki. Pretty soon all of the main characters end up at the shopping mall, where at first just Shizuma (and shortly Ryoko) face off against the trio of super-powered assailants.
6: 'Threat From Another World'
Now this is a non-stop fight sequence. Carrying on the action from number 5, everyone's shopping trip is ruined when all of the key characters are transported to the alternate dimension of Solvania, where they are accosted by gigantic crab-like monsters.
7: 'Rematch! Battle at Lunch Time'
Tatsuya's managed to blow his lunch money for the entire week, so naturally Ryoko and Azumi are vying for the privilege of making him a bento box lunch... and, as usual, the only way to settle such things is with a 'K-fight'. This piece derives much of its laugh value by way of blatant homages to other shows. (As anyone who watches this after having seen either Iron Chef or G-Gundam will testify.) As I said before, it's a lot of fun but is essentially a 'filler' episode that doesn't advance the plot at all.
As I outlined last time, the video quality on these Real Bout High School discs is eye-poppingly beautiful. Nothing has changed on that front, as this second volume also features an evidently high-bitrate encode that keeps such DVD bugbears as jaggies and macroblocking easily at bay. The show continues to draw on a remarkably rich palette of colours with no cross-colouration to be seen anywhere.
That said, it does seem that the animators started to get a little bored when they were making the second part of the 'shopping mall battle sequence' (episode 6), because the work strikes me as a little sloppy. The picture quality is fine, but the animation shows inconsistency and the use of shortcuts. Who knows? Maybe the lead animators were off that week and the backup team had to wade in and finish the work on its own... either way, to be fair I have to give this one a 9 rather than a 10.
Sound, Menus & Extras
Fortunately no further score reductions are called for when it comes to the other production values of this disc. All of my observations in the 'Sound', 'Menus' and 'Extras' sections of the previous review apply equally well to this DVD. In short: lovely audio, gorgeous menus, and a nice little spread of special features.
Speaking of extras, the three 'Special End Corner' segments on this disc include a visit to the actual animation studio (Studio Gonzo) – where the girls chat briefly with the show's technical director – and a later conversation with the sound director as well. As before, there's the English dub 'bloopers' reel, previews, translator's notes, and DVD credits... but in place of the 'Japanese TV promos' there are three new special features this time around: a line art gallery, the non-credit [textless] opening sequence (always welcome!) and an 'Interview with Ikue Kimura, Part 1'. This latter extra is a four-minute video interview with the voice actress who plays Ryoko, and is more informative and less 'cutesy' than the 'Special End Corner' bits. Unfortunately, it wasn't recorded in a sound-controlled environment, so you can barely make out what she's saying with all of the ambient noise in the recording. (Ah, subtitles to the rescue!)
You may want to rent this DVD before making a decision to buy, depending upon how much you already like the series and whether you feel that the extended fight sequences are the best aspect of the show. The three episodes on this disc, while unquestionably not as strong as the ones that went before, are still entertaining and even have moments when they shine. Fortunately, even the Japanese voice actresses in their interviews recognise that the show is half over and now has to work towards a climax of some sort, so here's hoping that the third volume will move things in that direction.