A show that I once called a guilty pleasure tries to grow up and be about something other than harems, fan service, and loli-tsunderes-that-blow-things-up. It fails, though at one point it almost succeeds. Why?
Oh, it starts fine. It starts exactly the way you’d expect it to start (I’ve covered a good part of the start in my previous article about the show too):
Nagi Louise going psycho with every leer the healthy adolescent Saito lays on other girls–the number of which are considerably fewer than in the previous season, limited only to Siesta and Henrietta this time. But the appearance of Clare Agnes was already portending something else, namely, a game attempt to talk about things like War and Death and Chivalry and the Meaning of Nobility and Honor, along with the not-so-shocking revelation that the apparently nice guy has to Atone For His Sins. I’ve read some other bloggers talk about how the anime seemed to betray the focus of the novel on these matters in favor of cheeseball romance and fanservice. If that’s true, I don’t see it, aside from some woefully inappropriately timed humor in the final few episodes and the regressive ending. (More about that in a minute.) The best thing about the focus on Serious Issues is that it made the show marginally less predictable than before. I did not see the marriage coming all that easily, though I did expect that normality at the end to be more psycho-blow-ups. Much to my disappointment.
Here’s my beef with the “serious parts”: it’s just not convincing. I find it hard to believe, for instance, that Saito would completely be unsympathetic toward the idea of nobles dying for their Queen and Country–or is patriotism at such a low ebb in Japan that such notions are almost foreign? (I’ve heard that in Japan, it’s considered extremely right wing to even fly the flag outside a non-government building or house. This may be colored by my American perspective, as in America I understand public patriotism is considerably higher than in many other first world nations.) The desire to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of others, personified by the body politic of the ruler and/or the land, is recognized as honorable and good by most societies. I can understand that the naive pacifism of many Japanese, which colors lots of anime, is a natural result of the horrific actions that the Japanese committed, and also suffered, during the Pacific War; something similar happened in Europe after the First World War. (Then again…if that’s true, what is a Zero fighter, one of the symbols of Japan’s imperial aggression, doing in such a prominent role in this show?) But the lectures that Saito gives to Louise and others about how foolish it is to throw one’s life away for “honor” got rather tiresome as well as contrived after a while, and was a source of unconvincing, manufactured conflict. The show might have done better to show the other side of the argument, at least, if it wants to make this a key plank of the show’s “moral.”
Serious offtopic note: There’s a reason why the chivalric code of knights and samurai continues to appeal to so many people even today. In fact, I think our societies would be healthier if our own elites who have no other useful skills were bred to lead and to sacrifice themselves first in times of national crisis. (It was militarily and publicly prudent, for instance, to deny Prince Harry the opportunity to go fight in Iraq. But Harry’s heart is in the right place.) There is much that is deeply wrong about aristocracy, and I have no desire to return to its values wholesale. But this is not one of the bad ones.
Let’s also talk about the potted, thinly veiled references to European locales and history in this show.
France Tristain and England Albion (the ancient name for Britain) are doing what came most naturally to them during the Middle Ages–fighting each other, that is–though in this case, Tristain is a heckuva lot more successful in invading Albion than France ever was with Britain, at least after the Norman Conquest. I remember being impressed with the sheer number of actual historical references in the first season, Louise de la Valliere on down, but in the service of such a half-hearted plot it’s gotten a lot more meaningless. For one, the reasons for the war are a lot less clear than the “serious” part of the first season; is it simply retaliation for the happenings of last season? The sorceress behind it all is disappointingly thin as a character and doesn’t get enough screentime, especially compared to Henrietta. (I admire Henrietta for wanting to be in the front line, by the way, but historically speaking, the ruler is always in the back, not the front. Even medievals knew that getting your king or queen killed real fast wasn’t smart.)
The only time the “serious” stuff gets anywhere close to being heartfelt is, luckily, in three crucial places. The first is the ending of the first major arc, which is about Henrietta’s lover seemingly returning, though it was so, so obvious what was going on. The episode was somewhat daring in having it end on a downer note.
The second is the denouement of the Agnes story, when Colbert reveals himself to be the destroyer of her village and gives himself up for her anyway. The revelation of Colbert being who he is is not terribly surprising. What was good was that it was a chance for Agnes to show some inner conflict, something which is sorely lacking in this show. She is burning with rage with the destruction of her village, but is also touched by Colbert being the one who rescued her as a child and also is her savior to the end. That actually shows some character complexity–of all things, in Zero no Tsukaima! Not terribly complex, mind you. Just more than two dimensions. I was actually somewhat moved by that episode.
The last time there is some emotional honesty in the final episode, with the shotgun wedding and Saito seemingly renouncing his pacifism if it’s for the sake of his woman. (As a modern, he should know that most any soldier fights not for Country and Patriotism amd other Capital Lettter Abstractions but for buddies in his unit. And a knight fights for his lady. Humans always do better with concrete realities.) Yes, it’s accompanied by the usual screaming of his name by Louise and his apparent death, which we are assured “saved us all” without ever seeing exactly how it happened, given that he was still surrounded by a thousand troops when the cannons, flaming arrows, spears, and swords were all about to fall on him as he lay dying. But I really liked the Ekuhahahocuspocus flower motif; it’s simple and even a little touching as a metaphor for togetherness. Though if he were revived by that Big Boob Fairy all those miles away, it should have come back on much sooner than it did. But I suppose that would be too plot-inconvenient.
Speaking of plot, war stories aside; perhaps the biggest disappointment with this season, even compared to the last, is how little genuine character progression there was. There were two opportunities for growth to happen; one was when Saito finally revealed his feelings to Louise on the boat + makeout scene. The second was, of course, the ending. In both cases, the situation quickly reverts back to the status quo, ie, Louise beating on Saito for his lasciviousness and going back into tsun tsun mode. You’d think that by now they’d figure it out and they’d just shut up and love each other for real, but I suppose the show would have no humor at all if not for Siesta’s big boobs and Louise tantrums. I also didn’t like Kirche and Tabitha only getting cameos, either; Tabitha especially has an actual backstory worth exploring further. I suppose if they wanted to do another season, which this series’ close leaves room for, they could do it, though I doubt it. And I’m not sure I’d return for another round next time, either.
A lot of shows in the harem genre–which this firmly belongs within–have been trying to transcend its conventions as of late, perhaps out of embarrassment at how fundamentally tawdry and unbelievable it is. Key’s works, for instance, try extremely hard to be emotionally affecting. Haruhi Suzumiya gave us self-referential humor and clever, likable characters but with all the pleasures of a harem show. This is another example, but honestly, I never watched this show for any serious reflection about violence and honor. Please, leave that to more worthy vehicles like Claymore. I was rewatching some of the early first season episodes and was amazed at how well they held up–they had near-perfect comic timing, and the rowdy and raunchy humor was actually appropriate to the story rather than jarring intrusions like they were here. There was far less overt otaku pandering, too, compared to a season where Siesta inexplicably gets a schoolgirl sailor uniform and Louise desperately tries some neko mimi mode. (The only thing that comes close to replicating the spirit of season 1 is the ending of the first episode, and the ED animation–which also became woefully inappropriate in the show’s second half.)
This is a show that suffers from an identity crisis. It is a harem comedy, but wants the benefits of other genres, but can’t break out of its box all that well. My guess is that the novels may have been better paced, though I’ve also heard they are also much raunchier in general, so perhaps it is only in the written word that you can have your cheesecake and eat it too.
Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances
Animation: 80%. I always liked the character designs, especially for the non-Louise characters. The battle scenes, of which there are quite a few given the show’s real genre, are actually well-done as well. No scenes of exceptional beauty though.
Music: 70%. Serviceable, and forgettable, like most soundtracks. The OP is less memorable this season than in the first, but the ED is much, much better. (Then again, S1’s OP was memorable mostly for how badly it was sung, something which was rectified a bit this time.)
Story: 68%. It would have done so, so much better if it had just stuck to the humor and to relationship octagons. Serious themes require serious thought and consideration. Not everything fails, mind you, and it’s still slightly better-paced than average–but not as near-perfectly as it was in the first season. The characters also refuse to grow and change, which we’d expect to happen even in comedies after 26 episodes.
Overall: 70%. I guess you can check it out if you liked Season 1, but be prepared to be disappointed, unless the reason you liked season 1 was also for the more “serious” bits at the end. I suppose it’s a damning review coming from a guy who normally likes serious but is disappointed because it wasn’t funny enough. Oh well. I have Seto no Hanayome now!