UPADATE Sep 4/09 this post is under revision!
If you asked me to name an anime I truly and utterly hated, my immediate response would probably be ‘Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha.’ I found the original series to be utterly horrible in every way, in spite of it being the work of my favorite director, Akiyuki Shinbo. I’d heard from a number of people that Nanoha A’s was much better and would justify the first season. To my surprise, it went above and beyond mere justification and was in fact one of the outright best anime I’ve seen in a long time. I’d go so far as to call it a masterpiece.
The OST for Nanoha A’s is composed by Hiroaki Sano (Other Seven Arcs productions, Honey and Clover, Nodame Cantabile) who I thought did an incredible job. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the OST. I managed to find a collection of ‘sound stage’ CDs, which are kind of like drama CDs in that it is simply an audio of the actresses performing various selections. There are a handful of songs performed by the actresses across the CDs, but none of the in-show music. While I can’t give an in-depth review of the OST, I’ll say that what I heard in the show was very gripping. The music was dramatic and powerful, and the heroic tunes during transformation sequences and fight scenes were very empowering. No complaints in this area.
The opening theme, ETERNAL BLAZE by Nana Mizuki, was above average but didn’t really grab my attention. It’s a lot like every other opening song that’s done by the show’s seiyuu, but this one was at l east very well-written. The ending theme, Spiritual Garden, featured the other major seiyuu from the show, Yukari Tamura, and got a similar reaction from me. Simply put, not my choice of genre. All of the songs on the sound stage CDs were very similar to this and will surely be a big treat for fans of the seiyuu and J-pop. One song had particularly nice bass, which I enjoyed.
Voice acting is a pretty enormous deal in Nanoha, because almost every seiyuu in the show is a huge name and these are some of their most famous performances. Starting with Yukari Tamura (Kanami in Scryed, Ink in Moetan, Tenten in Naruto), I recall totally hating her performance in the first series, likening it to ‘icepicks being jammed in my ears.’ However, I had no problem with her this time. Perhaps it’s because of the cuteness being toned down or this show’s script, or because she’s gotten more used to the roll now, or it could just be my mistake the first time around.
Fate Testarossa is played by Nana Mizuki (Kirihara in Darker Than Black, Wrath in FullMetal Alchemist, Morinas in Simoun, Hinata in Naruto) who seems intent to appear in all of my reviews, lol. She plays a very shy girl for a lot of parts, but on the battlefield she gains a sternness and feeling of being in control. this duality is perfect for her character and adds more depth to her. Kana Ueda (Rin in Fate/Stay Night, Kinon in Gurren Lagann, Yumi in Marimite, Fumika in Shigofumi) plays Hayate and is adorable with some really great emotional moments towards the end of the series. the focus is on cuteness for sure with her, but she still rounds out her character very well.
My absolute favorite performance in the show was Vita played by Asami Sanada (Di Gi Charat, Tamaki in Kurenai, Kanako in Maria Holic, Matoi in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei). This performance had everything – a very real voice and personality for the character which was moving in it’s anger, touching in it’s happiness, and a ton of fun in comedy moments. I’d call this one of my favorite vocal performances ever, actually, it was just that good. She truly made Vita a sympathetic and memorable character whose strength of heart shined through. I also feel the need to mention Kaori Shimizu as Signum because she played Boogiepop <3. All of the other vocal performances were excellent, though not really needing to be mentioned in this review. If you’re interested, check the usual source, Anime News Network.
The Nanoha series is produced by Seven Arcs (Asura Cryin’, Inukami, Itazura na Kiss, Sekirei, White Album) who, to put it lightly, are far from being the paradigm of the medium. Their animation quality generally ranges from ‘average’ to ‘below average’ with Nanoha A’s and White Album being likely high points. Animation could definitely be called the one ‘weak point’ of Nanoha A’s, but it’s not so poor as to detract from the experience.
This is partly because of Seven Arcs’ habit of hiring directors who know how to handle a low budget. Making visually powerful anime on a tight budget is what Akiyuki Shinbo is best known for, though he still managed to do a poor job on the first series. His replacement, Keizou Kusakawa, does a more admiral job, which is probably why he’s been brought back to direct several other Seven Arcs projects. The first and most important improvement is the fight scenes which are a whole universe apart from those in the first series. Whereas the original was just plain-looking large lasers flying around to enemies of arbitrary distance, the fights in Nanoha A’s are intense bouts of close and long range combat mixed together in positively epic ways. The fight animation may not be spectacular, but the directing and imagery is so badass that it makes up for it tenfold. Suffice it to say, Nanoha A’s has some of the coolest attack animations EVER.
While most of the show was well-directed average animation, there was a slip-up and cover-up in episode 7 where I think the director really showed his stuff. The animation quality for much of the episode dropped considerably, so they played it the way Shinbo usually would do and covered it up with a lot of odd camera angles, warped shots, and boatloads of fanservice. I can’t say they did the best job at it, since I could still tell that the episode was very suffering in the budget department, but it’s good to see that they at least tried to do something about it and didn’t just produce a totally shitty episode.
One thing I definitely hated about the first Nanoha was the character designs. The designs are by Yasuhiro Okuda, and my beef was with how totally generic they all felt. The charaacter templates seemed to be reused and everyone just kind of looked the same with their stupidly large hair and drab outfits. The designs are the same for A’s, but they’ve been totally spiced up with the editions of new outfits and new characters. All of the new characters look unique both from the rest of the cast and each other and are all very nice designs. Nanoha and Fate also get alterations to their uniforms, which were already the high point of the show’s designs. These additions help expand the feeling of there being more unique designs, and while watching the show I never once found myself annoyed by the designs, also in part due to the significant increase in animation quality from the first series.
And now we get to Nanoha’s real strength, which is it’s plot. I find it extremely rare to have true strength of plot in anime. Most of the shows I like have primary strength in characters, themes, or directing. In my opinion, the greatness of a show’s plot is relative to it’s writing. Nanoha A’s’ story is in no way original and is actually incredibly straightforward, but it’s presentation is so perfect and thorough that it feels fresh and interesting.
The basic plot puts two teams directly at odds with each other. One group is committing crimes in order to gain a power to save their friend. The other group is trying to prevent them from causing harm and potentially causing massive damage. The key element is that both sides mean well – one side acts purely out of their love for their friend, and the other is acting purely to protect people. It is not ever a battle of two sides trying to overcome each other, but rather a battle of two sides with a goal that happen to be at ends with each-other. Neither team wants to fight, but they have to, and will take down anything in their way.
This is what makes the conflict truly gripping. The viewer finds themselves rooting for both sides, and every single character is sympathetic, believable, and strong-hearted in such ways that they are impossible to dislike. In addition, both sides are equally powerful and have as much at stake as the other. Every confrontation feels like a true life or death situation for any of the characters, even though you know that there shouldn’t be anything too depressing in a magical girl show. There are a number of dramatic moments and revelations that intensify the experience even further and really raise the pressure. I was on the edge of my seat for pretty much the entire series and soaked with excitement.
The show’s cinematic sense is truly incredible. Every scene feels relevant to the whole and the pace never falters once. There is always some kind of progress, whether it be new information gained, plot progress, or emotional progress for any of the characters. And you’ll get plenty of it for everyone – the way that all of the new characters as well of the old ones were simultaneously developed is completely amazing. It’s a show of truly amazing and careful writing with a clear idea of how everything should go. There are a ton of small details that help things along – facial expressions, little moments of joy or sadness that effect he atmosphere and really drive the emotions home. It felt like a constant sense of being inside the characters’ heads and truly understanding what drove them. That sense of making the viewer connect to the character is what every writer wishes they could accomplish.
There isn’t really much else I can say about the series. Plot and character focus was so through that it pretty much encompassed the whole of the series, so there’s nothing else to really mention – which is fine – that thoroughness is exactly what made the show so ruthlessly enjoyable.
Overall – 9.4
Nanoha A’s was a spectacular show with an utterly flawless presentation. It got me into the characters’ heads, made me appreciate every moment, and never ever lost my attention. There were some of the most tense and awesome fights I’ve seen yet in anime, and without spoiling anything, one of the most epic and awesome finales in any 13 episode series, period. It was straightforward and brilliant. Were the animation just a little better, I’d call it a masterpiece.
MY THOUGHTS (SPOILERS)
I want more Vita! She was so awesome! I completely understand why Omo loves her. Amazing personality, amazing fashion sense, and such a superb vocal performance. I loved everyone in this show, and I still can’t get over how much it is the polar opposite of the first series. DEAR GOD, the last episodes were amazing. Best fucking explosions ever and some seriously kickass attacks throughout.
The time skip at the end had me scared at first, but I didd end up liking the future designs for the girls. Even though Hayate hilariously seemed like she was too young for her own body. Uh, what else… it was just awesome. That’s about all I can say. It was fucking awesome, as I’m sure all my Twitter followers are very well aware from my posts after every episode about how insanely awsome it was, haha.