Edited by The Davoo
Ass War episode nine kicks off the last arc of the season by finally launching us into the much-awaited Phoenix Festa! In other words, it’s time for a good old-fashioned tournament arc!
Tournament arcs are essentially cruise control for an action series. All you gotta do is dump a bunch of colorful characters with wacky super powers into a stadium, match them up in combinations that maximize the dramatic tension of their battles, and then hit the go button. It’s an opportunity for the writer to flex their creative muscles by coming up with a bunch of unique super powers, while the audience is satisfied getting to watch a bunch of cool ass fight scenes in a row. It’s not the most unique or exciting brand of storytelling, and it often runs the risk of getting boring if the characters stay in one stadium for too long; but if you take the time to pace out one of these arcs just right, then it’s probably the easiest way to keep an action series running for a long time without having to come up with a more complex and involving storyline.
I’m sure you will not be shocked to learn that The Asterisk War flubs the first stretch of its tournament arc so spectacularly that I’m left wondering if the author had ever actually watched one before. I refuse to believe that anyone could have read or watched Yuu Yuu Hakusho or Hunter X Hunter and failed to pick up on the basics of how to make an effective tournament arc; but then, comparing this series against either of those classic battle manga would probably seem pretty unfair. Instead, I’m going to put a lens to Ass War’s failures by comparing it against one of the few recent A-1 Pictures shows that I actually didn’t hate: Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha Vivid; which launched into its tournament arc at around the same point in the series, and only made it about as deep into that arc as this show did before the end of the first season.
There’s really only a handful of basic elements that you need in order to make a tournament arc fun. Firstly, all of the characters need to have clearly defined reasons for their involvement in the tournament–which, if nothing else, this show actually has covered. Secondly, there have to be some strong dramatic rivalries among the characters–especially between the main character and whoever is set to be their final opponent. Lastly, every fighter needs to have some kind of unique super power and aesthetic, and every matchup has to be about showcasing how the two fighters’ powers play off of one-another.
There’s three different basic types of rivalries which can be used to keep a tournament arc feeling dramatic throughout its run. First off is the young hero versus the big bad strong dude. This is your Yusuke vs. Toguro–your larger-than-life opponent whose power level is so incredible that at the start of the tournament it seems like there’s no possible way that the main character could beat them. This dude will be lurking in the background throughout the entire arc, beating the shit out of lesser opponents left and right and leading us to wonder if the main character can build up their skills enough throughout the early matches to be ready to take them on in the end. In Nanoha Vivid, this character is Jeremiah Sieglinde.
The best way to handle this character is to introduce them either before the tournament begins, or immediately after it starts, and to firmly establish that they’re basically the strongest dude in the whole competition. This works dramatically on two levels: firstly, it keeps us on the edge of our seat knowing that there’s a chance the hero won’t even be able to beat this dude; and secondly, it keeps us wondering just what’s going to happen to our hero for them to be able to get strong enough that they could actually pose a threat to this dude when the time comes. The Asterisk War does not have a rival of this nature.
But the hilarious part is that the character who should fit that role has secretly been there all along. At the Phoenix Festa’s big commencement ceremony, who should be standing right there at the podium but the big bad guy of the entire series! You… surely know who I’m talking about, right? I’m not the only one who recognized that weird ass cheek hair, am I? Well, if you’re confused, then that’s forgivable–you probably didn’t watch that stupid ass opening fight scene as many times as I did, but that’s totally the guy who supposedly killed Ayato’s sister.
The fact that this guy still exists in any capacity at all makes it obvious that he’s going to be important later–and at the very end of the season, we see him mysteriously pick up Haruka’s glasses and say some cryptic shit like how it’s about that time; but if you’re guessing that he’s totally not going to show up at any other point in the arc, and that no one is going to draw any attention to him or point out that he’s the guy from episode one, then you’re starting to get the hang of this by now. As the series is want to do with all of its characters, it just tosses this guy out there and gives him a vague air of mystery so you’ll wonder what his deal is, and then stashes him away for a big reveal to come at some point in season two. Riveting.
So neither Ayato nor Julis ends up with any kind of big bad rival looming overhead during the tournament; and additionally, in one of the single most baffling lines of dialog that I’ve ever witnessed in any anime ever, it is remarked that Ayato is legitimately THE ONLY NUMBER-ONE RANKED FIGHTER COMPETING IN THE CURRENT FESTA.
This is an entirely new level of diminishing narrative stakes the likes of which I’ve never seen before. It actually would’ve been the easiest thing in the world to flip the whole impression of Ayato being an unstoppably overpowered badass on its head, just by reminding us that Seidoukan Academy is supposed to be the weakest school in the city, and that the number one fighters at other schools are probably a hell of a lot tougher than Kirin, who did give Ayato a rough time at least once. Instead, the show seems to go out of its way to suggest that there is not a single combatant in this tournament who is likely to be stronger than Ayato. There’s an after-credits scene in episode eight where Claudia looks over the tournament roster and says that it’s pretty much anyone’s game; hinting that even the opponents that she’s worried about aren’t strong enough for her to lose confidence in Ayato’s victory. I seriously, honestly and truly cannot believe that it’s possible to fuck up a tournament arc this badly this fast.
So the second type of tournament rivalry is the hero versus their best friend. This is your Yugi Mutou vs Joey Wheeler; and the drama writes itself in this match-up–both opponents want to win, but they also want their friend to win; so they decide that the only way to do right by both of them is to give it their all, and to compete even harder than they would have before. Sometimes this match is saved for later in the tournament, and other times it’s subverted by having one of the characters booted from the tournament before they get teh chance to fight one-another. In Nanoha Vivid terms, this would be the rivalry between Vivio and Einhart Stratos–a couple of best friends who are comparable in power level and desperate to prove themselves to one-another in an official capacity. This rivalry is once again absent from the Asterisk War, in spite of having the characters for it right there.
Episode eight was a pseudo-filler episode mostly dedicated to establishing the new partnership of Kirin and Saya before their entry into the Festa. At the start of this episode, it’s established that the pair basically pales in comparison to Ayato and Julis due to their lack of chemistry–but after hanging out and sharing a heart-to-heart moment together, they up their game and start putting out training scores comparable to their friends.
However, in spite of this gesture, it’s simply impossible to take Kirin and Saya seriously as any kind of meaningful rivals to Ayato and Julis. Besides the fact that they’re already playing catch-up in the first place, their role in the overall narrative is so flaccid, and their characters are so dedicated to playing second-fiddle to Julis that a battle between them would almost come across as pathetic. We already know that Ayato can beat Kirin one-on-one, and while Saya has been mysteriously left unranked according to her dialog in episode eight, it’s hard to imagine that she’s any kind of threat to this team either. Kirin and Saya feel like a complete joke across this entire arc, and practically don’t do anything besides get naked at random anyways.
Lastly, we have the most common type of tournament rivalry, which is the grudge match between the main characters and their foils. The bulk of any tournament arc is going to consist of fights between the main characters and opponents of comparable power levels who’ve got some kind of problem with them. Often these grudge matches develop out of the characters realizing that their powers, personalities, and/or backgrounds either clash with or compliment one-another. Nanoha Vivid has a lot of these, such as the battle between Vivio and Rinaldi Miura, in which they become friends by way of fighting because of their complementary techniques; or the grudge match between Victoria Dahlgrun and Harry Tribeca, whose personalities and fighting styles are polar opposites. Episodes nine through twelve of the Asterisk War are focused on one of these grudge matches, while setting up another one in the background.
Outside of all the time they waste on characters flirting and seeing one-another naked, episodes nine and ten are entirely dedicated to establishing the four main teams that we’ll be following in this arc, by way of five quick little battles. A typical tournament arc will often start off with the main characters blowing away some of the lesser opponents in the early matches, in order to establish how those characters compare to their competition. For instance, in Nanoha Vivid, we don’t really have any context into how powerful Vivio and her friends are in comparison to the other fighters in their age group, until we see them plowing their way through the preliminaries.
The Asterisk War gives two of these types of matches to Ayato and Julis and one to Kirin and Saya–but in this case they were largely unnecessary. We were already aware that these characters were some of the strongest fighters in the city because of their ranks–and, thanks to the announcement that Ayato is the only top-ranked fighter in the tournament, we can imagine that most of the other fighters won’t be at his level. At this stage in the game, it would be far more important to establish which fighters might actually pose a threat to our main characters, and to start them all off with some heavy-hitting opponents, giving the impression that the REALLY strong guys are going to be on a whole different level from the ones at the bottom.
Instead, Ayato wins his first match against two randies in a single attack, with Julis watching from the sidelines. Julis herself then duplicates this success against a pair of random cute girls in the next episode. When the press comes to talk to them, Julis tells Ayato that she wants to keep everyone in the dark about their strategies until the end of the tournament–meaning she’s already completely confident that they’re going to steamroll it. Likewise, Kirin and Saya make quick and easy work of their first opponents in-between dicking around for most episode ten. There is no tension in this entire arc whatsoever
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to our first pair of rivals in episode nine–a couple of robots built by the hyperactive girl who showed up in the previous arc, and for whom the tournament‘s rules were changed to allow them to compete. Forgive me for going on a tangent here, but these robot dudes could not more obviously have been based on the robot characters from Phantasy Star Online. I’ve been mentioning here and there all along that this show’s design sense seems to borrow from that game, especially in the look of some of its weapons [the yellow axe], but these things are just outright ripped off from it.
It actually wouldn’t surprise me if these homages to PSO were the direct result of A1 Pictures’ involvement in the series. After all, the studio seems to have a pretty friendly relationship with SEGA; 2014’s Nanana’s Buried Treasure, for instance, featured the titular character actually playing Phantasy Star Online 2 in some of the episodes, and the game itself has featured advertisements for A-1 Pictures shows in the past. Not to mention that SEGA were the ones who made Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax–a game which features characters from tons of Dengeki Bunko light novels, including Sword Art Online and Ore no Imouto, which A1 Pictures did the anime for. It also featured stuff from SEGA’s Valkyria Chronicles, for which A1 once again handled the anime adaptation. Oddly enough, The Asterisk War doesn’t come from Dengeki Bunko at all, so whatever connection to SEGA there might be here would probably be from A1. Anyways, that’s enough flexing my databrain for now.
The Asterisk War attempts to establish these robot characters as sort of unique and quirky in comparison to what’s typical of the show, but everything about them weirdly falls flat. All that we learn from watching their battle against yet another pair of complete nobodies, is that they’ve got really good defense and they’re also pretty strong. After their match, Saya’s dad calls her up to shout some technical jargon about how they can control more parameters or whatever than any typical human can, but since we don’t know shit about that shit, it doesn’t really tell us anything. The robots also have some kind of comedy duo gimmick going on, where the guy robot is loud and boisterous, while the girl is a deadpan tsukkomi, but all of their dialog completely fails to entertain. Actually, the most memorable moment with these characters is when the guy robot asks his creator why the girl robot is always able to beat him even though he should be stronger; and the creator, not wanting to let him in on the fact that the girl robot is his limiter, lies to him that she literally programmed sexism into their code. It’s a really bizarre sequence of dialog.
That’s all we get out of these robots for now, though it’s pretty clear that the show is setting them up to turn into big rivals further down the line. There’s even a bit of an actual grudge to their matchup with Saya, since she’s kind of pissed off that their creators were dissing her father’s weapons in an earlier episode–though the show forgets to actually tell us whether the robots are in the same bracket as Saya, which might’ve lent some kind of drama to the proceeding episodes. Instead, given that we’ve only seen these robots fighting against random dudes whom, for all we know, could’ve been just as pathetic if they went up against any of the main characters, the robots don’t leave much of an impression, and just seem to be hogging up screen time compared to the rival characters who actually matter in this part of the arc.
So then we’ve got Irene–and yes, that’s how I’m going to pronounce her name–who is the central rival for this part of the arc leading up to the season one climax. Our first encounter with her at the start of episode nine is when this fat guy whom I can’t believe they wasted Tomokazu Sugita’s voice acting talent on, lets her out of some kind of prison and puts her on a mission to kill Ayato. Aside from her sort of outlandish character design, we aren’t given any kind of impression of what she’s like until the following episode, when Ayato and Julis find her in the middle of a street fight, settling an old score with the very same guys that Julis beat the shit out of back in episode three.
Irene has a bit of an attitude and seems to be pretty keen on fighting, but she’s reigned in by her perfectly milquetoast little sister Priscilla–who also happens to be her tournament partner. Compared to everyone else in the show, Irene actually has some decently unique super powers. She wields an enormous weapon called the Gravi-Scythe, which has the power to intensify gravity for her opponents, and also turns her into a vampire. Literally. She’s literally a vampire
Irene’s first tournament match against Lester and his lackey is one of the most poorly-considered attempts at jobbing which I’ve ever seen. For those who aren’t familiar with this concept, jobbing is when you take an established character–usually one whom we’ve seen fighting a few times, and typically a former rival of the main character who has since become one of their friends, who is supposed to at some point have been roughly equivalent to the main character in power–and then have them get utterly stomped by the new adversary in order to show us just how strong that new adversary is.
If this show had actually made any sense up until this point, then Lester would’ve been a perfect candidate for jobbing. He’s a guy who started off hating the main characters and fighting against them; and then, after fighting with them against a mutual foe, eventually sort of started hanging out with them–or at least, for some reason, Ayato seems to be intent on befriending him. He’s the kind of character who’s just relevant enough to the show’s history that we know who he is, but who’s just inconsequential enough that you’d expect him to lose at some point to a stronger opponent anyways.
The only problem here is that Lester has already been established as a total pushover. He was introduced as some dude who Julis beat three times in a row because he kept pathetically challenging her, and then he got royally stomped by his own lackey, before Ayato showed up and utterly laid waste to that very same lackey. Never once have we been given the impression that Lester could actually hold his own in this tournament, or that beating him could be considered a show of power. And even in spite of that, he manages to put up enough of a fight against Irene that she decides to “get serious” and to show off some of her more advanced abilities against him; which logically puts her closer to Lester’s power level than it does to the absurdly high level of Ayato. But I guess it does make sense for a vampire to try and avoid any narrative stakes.
The last two episodes of season one are the only time that the Asterisk War actually manages to come close to being competent about its structure. Using the hilariously dumb setup that Ayato has to go looking for Saya because she’s gotten lost, Ayato ends up running into Priscilla and rescuing her from a bunch of random thugs–which apparently puts Irene in his debt; so she invites him over to dinner and explains that she’s working for Le Wolfe Academy, and that she’s been hired to take him out; and we also learn from Priscilla that the Gravi-scythe may be slowly turning Irene into a bloodthirsty monster. That’s fifteen agonizing minutes I saved you in one sentence.
This kind of setup is the most simple and effective way to handle a grudge match rivalry in a tournament arc. Simply give the character some kind of sob story which explains why they’re fighting, and then maybe create some tension by getting the main character to empathize with them right before going into battle. While you’re at it, come up with some reason that this battle could make or break this character’s entire life by way of what they would have to do in order to win, and you’ve got drama. The Asterisk War manages to follow this template to the letter–but unfortunately, it only goes as far as literally having the characters explain this shit to the audience, and then wrapping it up with an overly long, sleep-inducing battle scene in the following episode.
Irene and Priscilla’s backstory is the kind of trite garbage that a hack writer could churn out by falling asleep on the keyboard. They come from a war-torn country, their parents tried to sell them off so they ran away, and then the dude from Le Wolfe (who I guess must be a lot older than the other characters) showed up and offered Irene to protect her sister as long as she’d fight for him using the gravi-scythe. This information is presented at nearly the same speed that I just rattled it off, and without any dramatic fanfare or emotional depth to get us invested in these characters.
In fairness, the most interesting thing to come out of this arc is when Ayato pays a visit to Claudia’s apartment and conveniently receives a rude introduction to her secret powers. Claudia explains that her weapon torments her by showing her nightly dreams of different ways that she might die, and that it typically drives its users insane. While this explanation is a little bit out of nowhere, and I don’t think it really adds much of anything to Claudia’s character, the idea that the most powerful weapons in this world come with different bizarre physical and psychological side-effects is probably the closest thing the show has to an interesting idea. I mean, it’s not exactly original, but at least it could be used to develop the characters in interesting ways if we saw their minds and bodies deteriorating over the course of their battles. Of course, what this amounts to in the fight against Irene is simply that after getting hit with a really big attack, she goes into high power mode and won’t listen to reason anymore, so Ayato screams a lot and turns into a Ping Pong character, and then breaks her gravi-scythe. Riveting.
There’s really not much else to say about this arc, given that so much of it is consumed by characters just standing around flirting and wasting time. The scene where Ayato breaks the gravi-scythe tries to be all epic and dramatic by playing the show’s opening theme in the background, but it’s obvious that they didn’t have enough planned for the end of the fight to match the length of the song, so they just dragged out every shot for as long as possible. Our grasp of the characters’ powers is so lacking that the battle comes off as nothing more than a light show–yet it goes on and on for what feels like half the episode just dragging its feet.
Afterwards there’s a little bit of resolution between the sisters, and then we see glimpses of a bunch of people who are going to show up in season two, and that’s about it. If you were to cut out all the stupid bullshit from these episodes and use that time to flesh out Irene and Priscilla’s characters and make them possible to care about, then they could’ve been decent enough adversaries–but instead, their entire story just comes off as a flaccid waste of time.
Funnily enough, I don’t even think that pointing out how badly this arc fucked up handling the most basic formula for a decent shounen action series is the most damning thing that I can say about it; even worse than that is how badly it shits on the overall series narrative. Remember how this was supposed to be a dark and conniving city where everything revolves around these deadly fighting contests called Festas? Well, in the entire course of this arc, not a single person actually dies. In fact, no one even gets critically injured! At one point, one of the commentators mentions that the badges will automatically break if they register you as unconscious, meaning that there isn’t any reason to kill anyone in the first place. I don’t know if this was mentioned in the show itself, but I remember reading on the wiki that this was supposed to be a contest where even the audience wasn’t safe–yet we clearly see in the final battle that there’s an invisible barrier around the stage. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that this competition is any more deadly than, say, an MMA fight.
It wouldn’t even have been hard to preserve the idea of this being a dark and deadly bloodsport without killing anyone, just by having the audience react with disappointment when the main characters refuse to finish someone off. Instead, the crowd never does anything besides cheer for whatever’s going on, even when Ayato ends a match in one move and you don’t get to see anything. And come to think of it, if the city completely revolves around the festas, and all of the schools exist to fight in the festas, and all of the students on this island are here because they have some wish that they want to fulfill by winning in the festas, then why the fuck is Ayato the only number one ranked student competing in the festa? Did none of the other highly-ranked students care enough to give it a shot? Were none of the other schools really trying to win? It seems like nothing that we’ve ever been told about the festas is relevant at all at this point.
It’s kind of astounding to watch the way that this series just keeps on trucking along with complete abandon–never stopping to sort itself out, or to maintain any degree of internal consistency. We’re at the end of the first season now, and the setting has been left in shambles, the dramatic tension has yet to come into existence, and Claudia‘s already asking Ayato compete with her in the NEXT festa before this one is even over; a truckload of new characters have been hinted at, and the second season is already planned for this spring. This story holds up with about as much logic as the fanfiction that I was writing when I was eleven years old–and if this was indeed a middle schooler’s fanfiction, then it wouldn’t be worth criticizing; but considering that this is a published series of light novels which have already been licensed for translation and North American release–and that they’ve been adapted into more episodes of anime than what some of the most popular and high-quality manga adaptations have been able to acquire in recent years, which has also been translated to a worldwide audience and adapted into a Vita game, I can only view this as the absolute pinnacle of cynicism in storytelling.
At this point, I’ve covered pretty much everything worth saying about the Asterisk War in itself; however, I’ve yet to touch on what is by far the most interesting aspect of the context in which the series was released. Namely, that there was a nearly identical series which ran on the exact same day at the exact same time, for the exact same number of episodes. In the grand finale of this epic video book, I’ll be putting that series against The Asterisk War to see if it’s possible to make the exact same show, without managing to fuck it up.
Continued in part twelve.