Review: "Baka and Test" Season 2 + OVA: What a Baka Show
Over the years of watching anime, I’ve really come to dislike the comedy genre in particular. And it’s really a shame, because some of the first anime I ever bought were comedies (Excel Saga, Galaxy Angel, Azumanga Daioh, Abenobashi), and I enjoyed them. But in the last few years, I’ve felt a strong disconnect with most of what’s been released in this genre, and while it would be easy to just plainly say, “It doesn’t make me laugh”, that wouldn’t be very helpful as a review. So I’m going to attempt to delve deeper into why anime comedy as of late doesn’t tickle my funny bone. And I’ll use Baka and Test season 2 as my willing test subject.
Baka and Test is yet another school-based comedy (seriously, this genre is really getting overused), with the gimmick this time being that this particular school divides its classes by test scores. So the highest-scoring students are part of Class A (which also gets spoiled rotten in its amenities), while the lower-scoring ones are part of Class F. One of such students is Akihisa Yoshii, just your Average Male Anime Protagonist. He’s accompanied in this class by Mizuki Himeji (actually not an idiot, but choked on her exam because she was ill that day), a pink-haired, shy girl, who bears more than some resemblances to Mikuru from Haruhi. Then there’s the spunky Minami Shimada, an exchange student from Germany who is in Class F because she’s weak in kanji. (Side note: If it weren’t for a flashback episode which explained her origins, I wouldn’t have known she was from Germany at all, because the dub doesn’t give her an accent) A couple other boys are in the class: Yuji Sakamoto (the tall, handsome, collected one) and Kota Tsuchiya (the token perv of the group, but it feels like an afterthought half the time). Finally, we come to Hideyoshi Kinoshita, a guy who is often mistaken for a girl because of his effeminate hairstyle and voice (not helped by the fact that his American VA, Brina Palencia, is a woman). And that’s about all there is to his character; he’s a trap. Why do certain anime have a fascination with traps??
Now that I’ve got the obligatory character roll call paragraph out of the way, I can discuss the plot, or at least what the series considers a plot. The over-arching theme is that Class F feels they’re being discriminated against because of their grades, and desires to have equal treatment with the hoity-toity classes. An admirable notion, yes, but it’s made extremely boring by the fact that one of the main ways that the classes battle each other is by summoning miniature versions of themselves so the minis can duke it out with each other, complete with RPG-style menus and counters. In theory, this sounds like a unique idea, but all it does is make me care even less because it’s just avatar versions fighting, not the actual characters, so there really isn’t much investment in what’s going on, despite that the blows dealt to the avatars affect the people on which they’re based.
Oddly, this aspect to the storyline is basically on hold for the first four episodes of the second season, with plots that are basically anime staples (beach episode; summer festival episode with girls wearing yukatas, etc.). They’re not that great or original of episodes, but at least they’re entirely focused on comedy (unlike later episodes, which I’ll describe below). But after that initial batch, things get focused back on the conflict between Class A and F, for the most part.
I hate to beat a dead horse, but upon watching Baka and Test, I’m further convinced that, some exceptions aside, I just don’t enjoy the same type of humor that Japan seems to. Some examples: Minami has a lesbian admirer who always wants to grope/sneak a peek at an unwilling Minami. It’d be one thing if this was played for eroticism, but its execution is played for laughs, and frankly, I don’t think unrequited love is all that hilarious (not because of moral reasons, but because it just isn’t much of a gag). It’s the same issue I had with A Certain Scientific Railgun; there isn’t anything inherently funny about “Let’s go to bed!” “No, quit being weird, I’m not into girls!” There are also some overused gags, like the girls covered in flames (indicating they’re angry) but retaining a passive-aggressive smile and sweet voice; such a joke is only mildly funny the first time, but it’s repeated for numerous instances. I never really found overreactions all that hilarious, either; there has to be more to a joke than a character freaking out and shouting. The show also falls into the trap of over-explaining things, which slows down the comedic momentum and, in some cases, ruins punchlines when characters make obvious observations. For instance, episode 4 involves the group playing a card game, and a good minute is spent on explaining the rules, time which could’ve been used for actual jokes. Additionally, there’s a three-episode story arc involving the guys of class F striving to reach the girls’ locker room (a task easier said than done) so they can discover which girl blackmailed them. Why would it take that many episodes to devote to such a task? Because the guys spends an inordinate amount of time formulating an attack plan, with potential problems they could encounter. Just get on with it! The comedy really falls flat when there aren’t, um, punchlines. It sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but I guess it’s something the writers overlooked. A phrase immediately springs to mind: “Show, don’t tell.”
This lack of comedy in a supposed comedy show is made even worse by some episodes later in the series, which are more serious than usual. There are two flashback episodes (one involves Minami recalling her early days of being a German transfer student in Japan, and another involves Shoko, a girl from class A, recalling how she fell in love with Yuji when they were in grade school), and a two-parter with a love triangle that’s played more seriously than funnily. I really don’t understand why many anime feel the need to do this. TVTropes calls it “Cerebus Syndrome”, where a show or movie which started out light-hearted gets more pathos as it goes along. Now in fairness, such episodes do develop the characters, but still, why is it such a crime for an anime series to stay fun and light-hearted all the way through? This sort of mood whiplash gives series an inconsistent, unfocused feel, like the director threw darts (the darts in this case being “comedy” and “drama”) at a board, praying something would stick.
So what did I like? Well, as per usual for anime, the character designs are appealing and well-drawn. The animation by SILVER LINK, while nothing extraordinary, is professional and consistent. There are some gorgeous backgrounds and patterns, despite the overused settings. I do recall laughing a scant number of times; in particular, the hard-ass principal had some funny bits. It’s not enough to recommend the series, but credit where credit is due. And the FUNi dub is mostly fine; in particular, Alexis Tipton (whom I remember from Sekirei) does a fine job as the squeaky-voiced Mizuki.
For the second season set, we get a variety of special features, with most of the material on the second Blu-ray disc and on a special third DVD. We get two commentaries; one involves VAs Brina Palencia and Jamie Marchi (who find the show a lot funnier than I did), and the other, surprisingly, involves a couple ADR engineers, Kevin Leasure and Stephen Hoff. That’s a first for me; you don’t often get crew members on an anime commentary. Both tracks are without silence gaps and have some interesting production info, but overall they’re fairly casual and light-weight. The other major extras are nine omakes, running between 1 and 6 minutes each. They feature super-deformed versions of the characters, and are (mostly) a series of unrelated vignettes; they’re okay but nothing special. The best one involved Minami’s younger sister embarrassed by a “botched” haircut; it was a simple but sweet story. My biggest pet peeve is that these shorts lack an English dub. Rounding things out are some promo videos (featuring narration from the Japanese VAs set to clips), commercials, clean openings/endings, and FUNi trailers.
Also recently released is the Baka & Test OVA, which contains both half hour episodes. These debuted after the first season. One plot concerns another overused anime premise (the school festival, where Class F is operating a Chinese cafe and encounter adversary customers from Class A), while the second is another battle-oriented story where Class A and F face off against each other in various knowledge challenges. Of the two, I enjoyed the first episode better, even with its cliched setting; it had good conflict and a couple decent gags. The second episode featured many of the same issues that I talked about above (dueling avatars; more serious moments) and as a result, didn’t engage me. As with season 2, the OVA is a Blu-ray/DVD combo release. Unlike the season 2 set, however, the discs are housed in a standard-size Blu-ray case. The OVA includes alternate scenes/endings unused in the episodes proper. Neither video is dubbed, unfortunately, and aren’t that much different aside from a couple tidbits, so unless you’re a completist, these can easily be skipped. Also available are four minutes of Baka and Test promo videos (where the characters address the audience in visual novel style), commercials, textless opening and closing songs, and FUNi trailers.
I really don’t mean to be so negative in my anime reviews as of late. It’s just that, outside of a few exceptions, I haven’t truly enjoyed an anime comedy in some time, and unfortunately, Baka & Test falls into that same camp.