Real Bout High School (Volume 4: The Final Battle) Review
At last we come to the final DVD volume of Real Bout High School, and - as I'm sure anyone who's read my review of the previous disc is aware - it wasn't so much a question of whether or not the series would come to a satisfying conclusion... but more along the lines of just how unsatisfying the ending might turn out to be.
Well, I have good news and bad news on that front. On the positive side, the ending to this series works (more or less). Enough of the underlying questions are addressed (however briefly!) to satisfy the most cursory inspection of the background plot. There are a few halfhearted attempts to tie together the histories of a number of the recurring characters we've been seeing throughout the show, so at least the audience finally gets to find out who the Men in Black are, etc. And the final confrontation not only has a proper resolution (that is, the show is not left open-ended), but also introduces one final surprise before bowing out.
Alas, that's about it for the good news. Stacked against this we still have the series' biggest flaw: wasted potential. The plot arc set in motion by the early episodes on the highly-engaging first volume is never fully-developed. As the credits roll on the last instalment, several of the show's key mysteries are left unresolved and a number of its recurring characters left unexplained... as if the writers completely forgot about these minor details. Real Bout High School could have been a really magnificent short series if its creators had paid a little more attention to plot structure and made telling a good story (and they did have a good story to tell) their top priority. Instead, they got sidetracked by nonessential minutiae and fight sequences for their own sake.
At one point, Ryoko says something that pretty much sums up what I perceive to be the writers' attitude towards plot development: 'What is Solvania? What is the War Priestess? How are you related to Keiichiro Nagumo? I don't have the faintest idea.'
Nor can RBHS be excused with the argument of 'Perhaps they meant to leave certain questions unanswered.' The stylistic difference between - 1, a psychological show that wishes to engage in mind games and deliberately aims to remain open-ended so the viewer can draw her own conclusions; and 2, one that simply botched the job of storytelling all along and ended up leaving a number of loose threads - is fairly easy to spot. Despite my fondness for the characters and the 'story that might have been', I'm afraid I have to place Real Bout High School firmly in the second camp.
Another complaint is that even the bits of the plot that are tied up by the show's conclusion don't really make that much sense. I hesitate to elaborate since it involves spoilers, but a fairly neutral example would be: 'Why would the head of the New York City mafia be involved in a supernatural power play against some folks back in Japan? Does anyone really think that the average mafia boss is a master martial artist who also specialises in the dark magicks necessary to draw power from the demon realm? If he's so powerful and has been jonesing for a fight all this while, then why hasn't he bothered to show up earlier? Why waste time sending a bunch of easily-defeated lackeys (with shapeshifting powers of their own, of course) and a sharp-dressed woman who possesses neither fighting skills nor supernatural abilities?'
I could write a similar paragraph for each of the show's little sub-plots, but it seems rather heartless to do so. The fact is, there was a lot about RBHS that I liked. I genuinely wanted it to succeed, which is why it was painful to watch it slide inexorably towards its lacklustre ending. More than that, it was frustrating to spot all of the places where the writers could have turned things around... but didn't bother. (Even as late as this last volume, they squandered a whole episode on flashbacks... and not for the first time, either. You simply can't do this with a 13-part series and expect to get away with it. That time could have been put towards bringing Real Bout to a more graceful and satisfying conclusion. Oh, well.)
If it's any consolation, the episodes on this disc do give a bit more character development to Ryoko, showing her maturing as a person. She comes to grips with her heartbreak and tries to set things right between herself and Tatsuya, resigned to the fact that he won't ever see her as more than a friend. Also, for those fans of 'monkey-boy' Kusanagi, Shizuma and Ryoko have a few charming moments during their battle with Willard Gates (Keiichiro's long-time nemesis).
So although things could have been so much better, the ending of this series isn't quite the disaster it could have been. The story draws to a close. The good guys win (more or less). Life for Ryoko and her pals goes on.
11: 'A Maiden’s Way'
Ryoko, still heartbroken after her realisation that Tatsuya has a stronger emotional bond - not to mention a much longer-term one - with another girl at Daimon High, has sunk into a spiral of self-pity that begins to affect her fighting abilities. She sits down to have a heart-to-heart talk with Master Tessai, who advises her to follow her own path and regain her previous inner strength. And that's about it for new material, excluding a few cuts showing Shizuma and her other friends back at school worrying about her absence. The remaining 80% of this episode is comprised merely of footage borrowed from previous ones (in the form of rather weak bridging flashbacks to pad out her dialogue with Tessai).
12: 'Final Battle in the Arena'
Summoning her courage, Ryoko returns to school and once again takes her place opposite Tatsuya in one of the two starring roles of the samurai period drama being produced for this year's Daimon High School Fair. Meanwhile, the sinister Men in Black are popping up all over town, far too quickly for the trio of Shizuma's old associates to dispose of them all. Something is clearly up, and it looks set to coincide with the date of the Fair. Just as Ryoko prepares to make peace with Tatsuya on stage, the production is interrupted by the explosive arrival of Willard Gates, Keiichiro's arch-rival (and apparently the head of the NYC mafia).
13: 'A Battle Against Fate'
No, really… it's a battle against Fate… who turns out to be none other than the old geezer who taught both Keiichiro and Shizuma the supernatural martial art of Kamui. Apparently while Shizuma revelled in his newfound power, Keiichiro brooded over why this one entity should be allowed to perpetuate a cycle of violence and destruction… and hatched a plan to kill Fate. He shows up in the middle of the pitched battle between Gates and Ryoko (with Shizuma protecting her as best he can), rattles off a few of these revelations, and then goes off on his own hunt. But neither Keiichiro's battle against Fate nor Ryoko and Shizuma's against Gates would amount to anything if it wasn't for a little help from someone you might not be expecting to save the day.
Picture, Sound, & Menus
There's really nothing left to add to my comments in the Picture, Sound, and Menus sections of my previous RBHS reviews - there are links to each available under 'Similar Releases' in the sidebar - as at no point did TOKYOPOP drop the ball when it came to the production quality on these DVDs.
The video encode continues to be excellent, the sound is room-filling and shows good directionality during fight sequences, the English adaptation draws upon the talents of Bang Zoom! Entertainment to good effect, Nightjar have (as always) done a fine job on the disc menus, and with animation produced by the legendary Studio Gonzo, it all looks eye-poppingly great.
On the other hand, one place where the production values take a step up from their already-high previous standard is in the area of special features. (Never mind the fact that each volume of Real Bout High School has been packed with extras... this disc has even more.)
First, there's the stuff we've come to expect... the third and final instalment of the exclusive interview with Ikue Kimura (the Japanese voice actress for Ryoko); yet more funny outtakes from the English dub sessions; yet another line art gallery (containing about 10 images); previews for six other TOKYOPOP products, including both the RBHS soundtrack and manga; the 'Translator's Notes' booklet inside the DVD case; and the 'Special End Corner' segments for these final three episodes, covering:
- what is essentially an advert for the VHS and DVD releases of the show, with the girls showing that each series has cover art done by a different artist
- a friendly chat with Shinichi Tokairin, the show's director
- a quick recap of all of the special guests they've had appear on the previous SEC segments
However, in addition, there are some welcome new entries...
First, there are two additional art galleries crafted especially for this conclusory DVD. The first is a special 'Fighters Gallery' with photos, names, and fighting styles for six of the fighting characters in the show (Ryoko, Azumi, Tatsuya, Shizuma, Keiichiro, and Tessai - no such luck for Shizuma's mates or bad boy Gates).
Secondly, TOKYOPOP have included 'Ultimate Bout: The Definitive Real Bout Art Gallery'. This contains almost 20 images of absolutely gorgeous artwork - I suspect covering the original cover art from the Japanese releases of the show - and includes the four extra-wide images used to illustrate the reverse of the TOKYOPOP DVD slipcase inserts. (For anyone who may have forgotten, the inserts are printed on both sides and the company used transparent Amaray cases so you can properly enjoy this bonus.) The only complaint that might be levelled at this art gallery is that it's a bit heavily slanted towards scantily-glad poses of the female characters, but I guess that's par for the course with this show.
Finally, the DVD also offers both the original Japanese opening and ending segments... and as if that weren't enough provides a completely text-free version of the ending sequence as well. Whew... a really solid collection of extras on this last disc!
It's a shame Real Bout High School didn't live up to its potential, and that's something I can never truly forgive its writers for. However, the show manages to entertain well enough despite its failings... particularly if you are more interested in the fight sequences and generally high levels of fan service present. Not only that, but in every technical regard (video, audio, menus, extras) these DVDs really shine.