UltraManiac - Volume 1: Magical Girl Review
Ever since the late 60’s with the likes of Mahoutsukai Sally and Himitsu no Akko-chan the Mahou Shoujo [“Magical Girl”] genre has been entertaining its demographic young girl audiences in Japan. The 90’s exploded with Bishoujo Sensei Sailor Moon and since then things have been kept alive and well, with shows such as Prétear. Even AIC took a key character from the Tenchi universe and came up with Mahou Shoujo Pretty Sammy, showing that there’s room for just about any idea. While the genre has been huge amongst girl readers and watchers there’s still plenty for the guys to enjoy, and as we come to 2003‘s Ultra Maniac we find a series that takes the Magical Girl concept and shakes it up a little. This is Mahou Shoujo for the new millennium and if first impressions are anything to go by then I like what I see.
Ultra Maniac started out life in 2002 as a Manga, serialised in “Ribbon” Magazine and created by Wataru Yoshizumi. A anime prequel followed that consisted of one episode and a year later a fully developed 26-part series was released, which we shall take a look at here.
Ayu Tateishi is a junior high school student; a shy but popular girl who represents her tennis club. She also has a secret crush on Tetsushi Kaji of the school’s Baseball club and tries to act cool whenever she can in order to impress him. Recently she has made a new friend who has just joined her class. Her name is Nina Sakura and she too carries a big secret - she is a witch!
Well, she is somewhat of a witch anyway. Her studies back at the Magical Kingdom have been anything but successful and she rarely makes the effort to brush up on her skills. To add further insult to injury her spells often cause more trouble than they’re worth for Ayu, despite Nina’s best intentions to make her friend happy. The trouble is that Aya is constantly embarrassed in front of her school friends, not least of which includes Tetsushi. In light of all this how is she ever to succeed in attracting him when a Witch School drop out is always by her side to mess things up?
Ultra Maniac kicks in with no messing about. If you’re after any kind of proper origin stuff then you’re going to have to wait until episode four. Until then things present themselves quick and simple when we meet Ayu and Nina at their school and learn of Ayu’s feelings for Tetsushi. While she’s swooning over the young heartthrob, Kawanakajimi - a.k.a. “Committee-kun” is busy trying to take compromising photos of little Nina, but the question is why? Well he’s convinced she’s a witch and if anyone can expose her secret then it’s him. So we have quite literally an ultra quick paced opener that sets up just some of the dilemmas that each of our characters face.
Further introductions come in the form Tetsushi’s best friend, Tsujiai, who quickly becomes too involved in some of Nina’s spells. Then there’s Nina’s home stay, Mama, whose husband lives in the Magical Kingdom. She cooks the meals - badly and sees to it that Nina is well looked after. Meanwhile back at the Magical Kingdom Nina’s grandfather watches closely as she fails at just about everything, which he finds hilarious but for some reason is concerned that she’s not going to be able to find “IT”. Just what is this mysterious item? Nobody knows at this stage and it’s only mentioned once during this volume, leaving us with a possible arc to further things later on. Soon a young man named Yuta visits Nina’s home. Yuta is related to Mama’s husband and he is also a master of magic, far better than Nina but he uses his powers for amusement and likes to show off. Finally we have Rio. What Magical Girl series would be complete without a feline sidekick? Nina’s little grey pet follows her wherever she goes but he’s no ordinary cat; he can also take on human form which comes in ever so handy once in a while. And that’s about it for primary character introductions, as the series then concentrates on the everyday scenario where the girls face a different problem at school.
What separates Ultra Maniac from a few other Mahou Shoujo shows is that it takes a tried concept and infuses it with high-tech witchery. Nina isn’t a witch in any conventional sense; she doesn’t have a broomstick (though it isn't strictly the only show to discard them), in fact we learn that broomsticks are long out of fashion and that all the hip witches ride magical scooters. In addition witches are now aided by personal computers, but Nina hasn’t managed to get past the stage where she doesn’t have to rely on them. See we learn that most good witches after a certain amount of training can freely conjure up spells at the click of a finger. Being the drop out that Nina is and thus somewhat of an outcast she relies heavily on her little talking PC and palm-sized magical chest to aid her spell casting. By placing an inanimate object inside her chest, for example a stone or a piece of hair she can replicate what that item represents, though instead of coming up with something simple she’s prone to overdoing it and conjuring up said item x 100. It’s this character trait of Nina’s that we soon find endearing, bless her. She has little control over what she’s doing, being able to summon things and not being able to figure out how to stop them. That’s when the old timer method comes into play. Like many shows that are centred on witches we learn that spells eventually fade, ever since the good old days of Bewitched where Sam would occasionally have to remind Darrin to sit and wait out his misery, unless her mother deliberately placed a longer lasting one on his head. Well here it’s much the same, though it isn’t explained in much detail. One would then assume that Nina’s spells disappear after several hours because she isn’t strong enough to maintain her abilities; later on Yuta comes up with his spells, having the ability to make objects appear and disappear with ease but what we don’t learn is whether or not witches can cast permanent spells. Still, this concept proves successful to each individual episode as each awkward moment is easily dealt with over a 20-minute time period.
When we come to the show’s writing we can see that this is all very simple. We have the fish out of water scenario that entails Nina, Yuta and company learning about specific things related to Earth; I say that because I presume the Magical Kingdom is located elsewhere. As yet its location isn’t revealed but it seems to be some wonderful, enchanted kingdom that sits high up in the clouds. Also we have the high school crush, the geeky school boy with a nose for trouble and a series of crazy adventures tailored toward out protagonists. Enjoying all of this isn’t a problem and thankfully the writers come up with enough new ways to exploit old ideas which in turn makes the series a very funny one, even if it is perhaps a little bit too predictable in its outcome. That’s not to stop us from laughing along when Ayu is magically transformed into a boy, resulting in disastrous consequences or when Nina creates a ring that has the ability to shock anyone who touches its owner, or when she creates a magic chocolate that is accidentally eaten by an unintended party. It becomes not so much about dealing in twists and turns or worrying about how it will all play out but rather its skill in execution that brings us to love the silly situations that arise through desperate measures. At least for the four episodes presented here we have a strong case for the series and if its storytelling remains as well balanced in future then I can see us being onto a winner.
In comparison to its Manga, Miho Shimogasa’s character designs are very faithful, stemming from the original artwork by Wataru Yoshizumi who had enjoyed success with Marmalade Boy amongst others. The anime designs here are attractive, though not entirely original and if you’ve seen Marmalade Boy (which is the only other Yoshizumi show I’ve seen) then you’ll expect to find plenty of similarities between its male and female leads. Nina is not a lot unlike Suzu Sakuma, while Ayu resembles Miki Koishikawa, who funnily enough is also part of a tennis club. If we hark back to Sailor Moon then we could easily imagine a direct influence upon Naoko Takeuchi’s work, from Yoshizumi's earlier 80's work.
As for the animation itself, things are very good indeed, particularly for a 2003 series. The main problem the series has is its at times repetitive nature. The first evident sign of this is during Nina’s transformation from her school girl threads to her Little Red Riding Hood inspired dress. Much like Sailor Moon and even shows such as Transformers, Pokemon and Getter Robo to name just a few out of dozens we find the standard reused format applied here. It’s something of a natural occurrence and the Japanese are the best at cutting corners when it comes to animation so it isn’t entirely a huge shock. But still, considering the length at which these transformations are carried out, coupled with Nina’s use of her PC which adopts an identical pattern the process can be a little tiring. Saying that it’s energetic and most fans of this genre won’t complain, as if you haven’t gotten used to it by now then you never will. Otherwise things move well; there’s plenty of action so to speak and the series rarely slows down to offer lengthy character discussion. This is a situational comedy and the gags fly fast, for which the animation suits it down to the ground.
Ayu & Nina
Ayu Tateishi has made a new friend. Her name is Nina Sakura and she is a witch. One of the school boys, “Committee-kun” seems a little too aware of Nina’s secret and will do what he can to expose the fact. Meanwhile Ayu has a mad crush on Tetsushi Kaji and Nina does what she can to help, which means digging out her PC and coming up with a spell. She ends up producing a magic chocolate and presents it to Tetsushi, but when his best friend Tsujiai takes it instead the results for Ayu are very worrying indeed.
Boy Meets Girl
Tsujiai has figured out that Ayu really likes Tetsushi and when she confronts him to ask him not to say anything he tells her that he wasn’t going to. Relived, Ayu goes to meet Nina who she sees talking to her home stay, Mama. The pair goes to Mama’s house, while Mama bakes a cake and sends Rio out to do some shopping. He soon bumps into Yuta who is visiting from the Magical Kingdom and soon they end up back at the house. With everyone together, Ayu learns a little more about Nina’s family and suddenly Yuta is paying a little too much attention toward Ayu. Just what is his intention and is there a reason why he likes to show off so much?
The girls’ tennis club are finding it difficult to practice, what with the boys taking up so much room. When a challenge presents itself the team appoint Ayu to take it up. If she wins the girls will get to use three out of the four courts but when she learns that she’ll be facing Tsujiai in a one set match she begins to worry. In order to defeat him Nina thinks that some magic will be in order and she presents Ayu with a pill that ends up turning her into a boy! Now Ayu needs to figure out how to get on the girls’ team, as well as put up with a few party invites where girls are going to be present. When she goes to a karaoke bar with some friends she soon learns a few interesting things…
D.C (Da capo)
Ayu runs into Nina at the local convenience store, who suddenly had a craving for junk food. When they leave the full moon reminds them of the very first day they met. We then flash back to the day that Nina fell from the sky on her magical scooter with Rio and how from that day on their lives would be forever changed.
Geneon Entertainment brings us volume 1 of Ultra Maniac in a standard amaray case which is white, due to the fact that there is no reverse image on this sleeve. As a nifty bonus we also get a Manga which serves as a sneak peak at VIZ’s new “Shojo Beat Manga” line-up and focuses naturally on this series. Though there are only thirteen pages it’s a nice little introduction to the show and a welcome freebie from Geneon who like to shell out gifts every so often.
The series is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. The show is amazingly colourful with each episode being hugely vibrant and detail is sharp. However that’s where the good news ends. The transfer also exhibits some high frequency Edge Enhancement which is practically unnoticeable as well as aliasing and minor shimmering in places, but the biggest offender here is the amount of colour bleeding going on. Just about every shot features some kind of bleed, with certain colours faring worse. Reds and dark blues show up greater amounts, while during daylight scenes, for example when characters are placed on bright background we can make out bleed from their school shirts to socks. Other times we will see characters clothing bleed into other character’s arms, mainly in the form of blue tinges. This problem is minimal in its presentation but noticeable all the same. For a show this recent and in light of Geneon’s fine output recently I really can’t see how this could have happened and it’s going to get scored down as a result.
For audio we have a choice of Japanese and English DD2.0. For my viewing pleasure I stuck with the Japanese track, which offers really enjoyable performances from its cast. It’s naturally cutesy in places but the tone is fitting. Meanwhile the English dub is, well lacking. It’s functional but it’s up and down; there are times when the actors lose a little energy along the way, which makes it a little less than compulsive. As for clarity and surrounds though both tracks are well catered for with good separation between dialogue and music/special effects.
Optional English subtitles are included. These are of the bold and yellow variety which read well and are free from any errors. Intro and outro songs are given bright green subtitles and there is also a second subtitle option which translates signs only.
The main intro sequence that features can/goo‘s “Kagami no Naka [into the mirror]” can be enjoyed without the credits. This is a really nice opening sequence and the song has grown on me very quickly. Just as good is the ending theme “Hitotsu: Unmei-kyoudoutai” but that doesn’t feature on these extras. I don’t doubt it’ll appear on volume 2.
Geneon provide another three trailers as per usual. This time sees promotion for Stellvia, Fushigi Yugi Eikoden and Rumiko Takahashi Anthology (which looks quite mad).
Ultra Maniac has got off to a very good start. So far the plot line is relatively thin, with only just a few things being hinted at. The series totals 26 episodes though so there’s plenty of time for things to develop. As far as first impressions go I couldn’t be happier and I can quite easily recommend this to any Magical Girl fan or otherwise; it’s a fresh, funny and attractive series which can be enjoyed by all the family.