It’s that time again. Time for a Japanese studio to license a series with light harem aspects and make it the focus.
After failing his high school entry exams, Tsukune Aono is seemingly saved when his father happens into possession of an entry pack for the mysterious Yokai Academy, a private boarding school. Tsukune quickly discovers that Yokai Academy is a very different educational establishment. Sheltered inside a pocket dimension, it exists to teach monsters how to integrate with the humans who control the majority of the planet. The idea of a human attending is seen as a strict taboo, but luckily for Tsukune part of the curriculum requires all students and teachers to assume a human guise. He quickly befriends Moka Akashiya, a sweet-natured vampire whose true power is sealed by a rosario hanging from her neck. The pair find themselves facing several plots from members of the student body and faculty. In doing so, Tsukune unintentionally builds up a harem including the succubus Kurumu, the snow woman Mizore, and the witch Yukari.
I really had no experience with Rosario & Vampire going in other than a passing familiarity with the name. A lot of titles I get to review will usually be legendary or infamous, but I was really going in blind this time. The honest problem is its admitted focus as a fan-service harem show. When the opening shot of a show is a girl on a bike flashing her panties, you can quickly assume what you’re letting yourself in for. Indeed the show has such an obsession with panty shots that they’re even the focus for the next-episode previews, which forgo episode animation in favour of alternating what design you’ll see under a skirt each episode.
Although I lack hands-on experience with the original manga, it turned out I had friends who do read it. After discussing the differences with them, I have to say I’m disappointed. Japan seems to have an ongoing trend of studios licensing a show with light or well-handled harem and fanservice components and making them the focus at the expense of the plot. Adaptations of Negima and To-Love-Ru come readily to mind. The basic formula sees Tsukune and/or Moka attacked by a love rival or teacher who use their respective monster power to break the pair up. Once discovered, a fight occurs in which Moka’s inner self will trounce the villain of the day. Although there are variations on this formula, it can get pretty weird. Most of the villains of the day do pretty despicable things. The first, for instance, uses his true monster strength to beat up Tsukune and violently force Moka to be his. Despite this, he returns as a secondary gag character in several episodes. This is a continuing theme of the show and one that sits uneasily. Possibly the worst involves Mizore nearly being raped by a member of the faculty. Is he removed for this? Made to face punishment? Nope, he continues on staff and the most we get is a “I hate that asshole” comment from Mizore in a later episode. I can handle over-the-top romantic comedy, but some of the daily antagonists do things that can’t really be excused by turning over a new leaf or the effect of their monster nature.
This formula is also how Tsukune build up his harem, with most of the girls starting off as antagonists for whatever reason and being awed by Tsukune by the end of their debut. The problem I have with this is there really isn’t anything that appealing about the guy. I’ve seen harem shows where the main guy is at least respectable and productive. Tsukune is pretty much a bland audience insertion avatar. It becomes clear quickly that he pines for Moka and views the others as dear friends, but there’s little about him to explain why so many women are fighting over him. A subplot of the first season has him haunted by the fact that the girls have to keep protecting him, but there’s no pay off for this–a case of the show cutting a game changer from the manga where he finally steps up. The girls themselves all tick the standard harem boxes. Moka is the sweet natured ‘perfect girlfriend’. Kurumu is a large-chested flirt with a hidden sensitive side. Mizore is a whispering stalker, and Yukari is a loli magical girl with an inferiority complex over her yet-to-mature body. It’s the usual selection box where the creators hope you’ll find the one that suits you (oh Mizore-Pie!) as episode after episode they squabble over their prize. The show does at least rib itself with the reveal that the girls all have one-member fan clubs who argue over why their respective obsession is superior to the others. Later episodes add an arguable fringe harem in the form of older witch Rubi and Moka’s younger sister Kokoa. Rubi starts off as a rather tragic character before shifting bluntly to a recurring gag for the second season. Kokoa likewise appears as a secondary, chasing the main cast in a quest to remove the rosario and regain the Moka she remembers. She’s at least saved by Chiwa Saito’s voice work, whose shift from failed cuteness into furious trash-talking is rib tickling.
Both seasons culminate in more dramatic finales. The first of these logically addresses the threat of Tsukune’s human identity, as the various accounts of him never displaying any monster power begin to build up a case against him. The problem is that the oppressive student security council who pursue the enquiry are never mentioned prior to this conclusion but are suddenly an all-powerful campus force. It does allow the show to more directly address the issue of monster vs. human racism that has been bubbling across the season (as one character highlights, why persecute a human who has accepted monsters when this is the intent of the school?) but it comes off as a half baked exploration into mob mentality. The leader of the council is surprisingly voiced by Shuichi Ikeda, who famously played Char Aznable.
The second and overall finale feels more artificial, creating a situation to do away with the ‘fake’ Moka. This is supposed to call into question Tsukune’s feelings for her, but just gets too messy. A few times he wonders how he can hold a relationship with a girl with two personalities, but this finale seems to go back on that and does a poor job arguing for the validity of the Moka crafted by the roasrio. It doesn’t help that most of his romantic thoughts of her include stuff like her being scantily clad and cooking banquets for him. Given that Moka’s true personality is much more strong willed and independent, this doesn’t so much suggest their love has never been stronger as it implies he wants a cute little housewife who will busy herself making him happy. Boo.
Not helping to alleviate concerns are the almost embarrassing signs of a lack of budget. One episode ends on the suggestion we’re about to see an epic clash between the girls and an opponent, except the very next episode begins afterwards and with the built up tension as water under the bridge. There are various other moments of ‘That sure was an intense fight the viewers didn’t get to see’, reminding me of an old Earthworm Jim episode where what promises to be the hero’s greatest battle is pre-empted by the announcement that the animators can’t budget for such intense action. Of the actual fights we do get to see, the ones starring Inner Moka are usually pretty enjoyable. Usually I hate trash-talking, untouchable fighters but the cool demeanour, not-a-single-wasted-move nature of these sequences makes them quite entertaining. Inner Moka is a welcome counterpoint to some of the show’s more frantic elements.
Another sign of budget issues is the usage of character image songs. These are common merchandising in Japan, and whilst I don’t mind them appearing in a show their usage here just feels like filler. A particularly bizarre occurrence in the second season sees Mizore and Kurumu both randomly sing their songs in the middle of class, with the other students just sitting and listening. I don’t think any high schoolers would indulge that, nor does it feel in character for the pair. Lastly, some characters don’t even get voices. A few secondary characters towards the end don’t get to speak, with Yukari’s mother very awkwardly miming her thoughts.
All that being said: Although Rosario may be squandering the mythology it’s supposedly adapting, in an odd way it does come together into something enjoyable. By the time I had reached the second season I was honestly enjoying the show. Maybe I had accepted it for what it is–a silly romantic comedy–I was genuinely entertained and likewise disappointed when the (admittedly incomplete feeling) finale rolled around.
One of the definite pluses is the show’s sense of humour. Although some jokes don’t work (Tsukune and Moka staring into each other’s eyes and saying their names is a joke that only clicks when the show throws in the odd variation) there are moments that are honestly laugh inducing, such as Kurumu’s flashes of fourth-wall awareness and a great sight gag about how out-of-shape, sociopathic guys pursue toned women. There’s a brilliant moment when, long after the show has established its formula and routine, a battle occurs while we focus solely on a character’s inner soul-searching monologue. Despite this we can still faintly hear all the wider dialogue, including the melodramatic narration that always accompanies Moka’s transformation. It’s these moments of genuine humour and genre parody that make the more eyebrow-raising and frown-inducing elements disappointing.
Both seasons come with textless versions of the OP and ED. All four are sung by Moka’s voice actress, Nana Mizuki. They’re all fairly enjoyable but the difference between the first and second OP speaks somewhat of the show’s problems as it jettisons any elements of plot to show the girls dancing in seemingly motion capped animation. There’s also a ‘Panty Montage’ which presents the various episode preview panty flashes in order plus trailers for other MVM releases.
Rosario & Vampire is a very unique recommendation from me. From the opening sequence I expected something terrible, and indeed as I’ve recounted there are several troubled elements. But as the show went on I was genuinely looking forward to watching each successive disc and was a little sad when it was over. Fans of web comics such as Eerie Cuties will likely enjoy it. It’s vampire romance without sparkle but with (panty) flash.
Rosario & Vampire Season 1 and Season 2 (UK edition) are available from Amazon.co.uk.