Real Bout High School (Volume 3: Strange Journeys) Review
I'm afraid that things are beginning to look rather worrying for Real Bout High School. For those who haven't read my reviews of the previous two volumes, this is a 13-episode series that undertakes an interesting combination of the 'teen romance', 'magical girl', and 'fighting animé' sub-genres, and has been released across 4 DVDs by TOKYOPOP.
What started out as a very strong offering in its first volume became a bit less focused in the second... and is starting to look downright confused in this, the penultimate instalment. (Which frankly does not bode particularly well for the final disc in the set.)
The most serious problem with the series is that no attention is being paid to the overall story arc. The last disc certainly had its share of filler, but at least it also bothered to make a few references back to the strange alternate reality of Solvania, and to introduce characters which (we were led to believe) would play an important role in the show's denouement. Unfortunately, such is not the case for the three episodes included on this volume - which without exception give the impression that the writers have completely forgotten about the core mysteries of the series.
The aspects of the first few episodes that really drew me in...
- What/where exactly is Solvania?
- Why was Ryoko chosen to be its protector?
- What precisely is Nagumo's involvement in all of this?
- Who/what are these 'Men in Black' and what is their agenda?
...get almost zero air time over the course of this disc. About the only faint nod in that direction are the occasional brief dream sequences where we see a bunch of sinister-looking figures engaged in some sort of ritual/ceremony. Sure, they're obviously up to no good, but a bit more plot development wouldn't hurt here.
And when it comes to addressing the key characters involved with Solvania, we see similar failings. Only one new character involved in the story arc is introduced (I'm guessing he's some old rival of Nagumo's, from what little screen time is devoted to him), and the trio of 'maybe villains, maybe potential allies' from the last disc reappears solely for another fight sequence, with no useful dialogue.
So what precisely does that leave us with? Well, a light and entertaining show that's now 99% filler. This is a disappointment all around, because Real Bout High School held such promise at first that seeing it all squandered like this is almost painful. Further, knowing that they somehow have to wrap everything up in only three more episodes leads me to believe that there's little hope of a truly satisfying conclusion to the series.
8: 'The Beach, The Swimsuit, and The Haunted Island'
OK, read the title and guess where the project team's priorities lay. Yes, that's correct... this is your basic fan service episode. I'm sure the boys will be pleased, as this instalment sees the entire cast of nubile young women parading about in swimsuits, bouncing about on the sand playing volleyball, and otherwise exhibiting copious amounts of bare flesh. Oh, eventually the gang notice the eerie island off the coast and Azumi informs them that it's 'haunted'... which sounds like the perfect setup for a Scooby Doo episode, but in fact turns out to be a lot less interesting.
9: 'Super Transformation! The Seven Witches'
Ryoko is approached on the street by a little girl who saw her perform as 'Magical Girl Oyster Lulu' (remember, from episode 5?) and who, predictably, believes Ryoko is the genuine article and can somehow help by using her 'magical powers'. Since their rich parents are away on some sort of business trip, both she and her (only-slightly) older brother have been left in the care of the company's vice-prez... who is angling to take over the firm by manipulating the boy in his parents' absence. (No, none of this makes any sense.) However, the episode is amusing, particularly when Ryoko enlists the rest of her mates to play the roles of six other 'magical girls'... even when one is played by 'monkey boy' Kusanagi himself!
10: 'The Awakening of Love'
Now this is actually a good episode. The problem is, it's a good episode which nevertheless fails to advance the underlying story arc in any way. Those of you familiar with Real Bout High School will recall Ryoko's undying infatuation with Tatsuya. Well, here we see things begin to come to a head as she finally acknowledges her feelings for him and tries to act on them. Alas for Ryoko, she soon realises that there's another girl at school that Tatsuya has known since childhood, and with whom he has an emotional bond. Now if only all of the filler episodes in this show provided as much character development...
Picture, Sound, Menus & Extras
As with volumes one and two, the production values of this third instalment of Real Bout High School continue to be absolutely top-notch.
The picture quality remains nearly flawless with truly spectacular fight sequences and competent animation everywhere else. Both of the audio soundtracks - Japanese and English dub - are crisp and punchy, with lots of directionality and making good use of stereo separation. (Although the more I hear of the voice actress playing Ryoko in the English version, the more glad I am that I generally listen to the show in its original Japanese.)
The disc menus share the Nightjar perfection witnessed in the other DVDs, so not much to add there. Similarly, the special features on this disc are practically identical to the ones found on Volume 2... which is to say, a fair selection, including:
- the 'Special End Corner' featurettes for the three episodes on this disc (this time showing Ryoko and Miyuki's Japanese VAs trying their hand at drawing their characters, under the supervision of Keiji Gotoh, the show's bona fide character designer... who also worked on Gate Keepers and Martian Successor Nadesico)
- the second part of the 'Interview with the Samurai Girl' (Ikue Kimura)
- more 'bloopers' from the English dub recording sessions
- another line art gallery instalment
As before, TOKYOPOP has included a very handy 'Translator's Notes' insert which explains some of the more obscure Japanese cultural references... and as a fringe bonus provides a table listing all of the 'named special attacks' witnessed on this disc, who used them, in which episode, and what the English translation of each is.
Finally, although technically not a special feature, the company has done an especially nice job with the packaging this time around. While all of the Real Bout High School discs have transparent Amaray cases and double-sided covers, for this volume the reverse side of the cover features lovely (and completely text-free) full-colour artwork of some of the cast at the beach. Of course, you'll need to take out the disc and the liner notes to get a good look at it, but it's very eye-catching.
My enthusiasm for this series has suffered repeated blows by a storyline that doesn't look like it's going anywhere, but I still like Real Bout High School. However, I can't in good conscience recommend this DVD to anyone except die-hard fans. The first disc was fantastic, the second was OK, but this third is verging on vexing... it's incomprehensible to me why the writers would choose to squander another three episodes on filler with so much of the background plot still unresolved. RBHS is still diverting, but at this point it's almost equally frustrating to anyone interested in 'the big picture'.