Review: "Date A Live" Decidedly NOT Second-Date Material
Date A Live is based on a light novel series of the same name that is currently running in Japan. 30 years before the start of the series, the first of many “spacequakes” claimed the lives of 150 million people. Date A Live is set in Japan, which continues regular spacequake drills even though the quakes have come to a near-halt. We follow a young man named Shido Itsuka, who lives with his loving (and adopted) little sister Kotori and mostly lives an ordinary life until strange events spiral out of control (including a sharp rise in spacequake activity). He winds up learning a lot more about his world than he could have possibly imagined. It turns out spacequakes are caused by beings called Spirits entering the world against their will. He discovers little Kotori is actually the charismatic commander of Ratatoskr, an organization dedicated to capturing spirits instead of killing them. He also learns that he has the power to seal away Spirits’ powers if he kisses them first (hence, the dating aspect of the series). In the process, he has to avoid getting himself killed by the Anti-Spirit Team (AST), who believe in destroying the spirits as they come across them.
In other words, the entire plot is an excuse for an audience surrogate character to “date” as many anime female character stereotypes as he can. And there are plenty of them. We have the warrior girl with a hidden goofy, fish-out-of-water side (Tohka). We have the moe little girl (Yoshino). We have a Gothic Lolita/psycho/Yandere mish-mash (Kurumi). The fourth revealed girl (in episodes 9 and 10) takes the pandering to otaku desires to a whole new level. It is completely unsurprising that the series was a smash hit among otaku in Japan, with a second season having just completed its TV airing in Japan, and a full-blown theatrical film announced for late this year.
It is also unsurprising that the show is an absolute mess from a plot and characterization standpoint. Perhaps that is the intention. There is a self-awareness about Date A Live that almost makes me think that the show is a stealth parody. In fact, this self-aware comedy is honestly the strongest point of the entire show (or would be if the comedy were executed with more consistency). The problem with this theory is that the anime switches from comedic to dead serious at the drop of a hat, asking us to care for the characters when their stereotypes and frequently obnoxious natures make sympathy difficult (especially for non-otaku). It does not help that many of the series’ most ridiculous moments from a plot perspective are intended to be taken seriously. Then, right after those dramatic situations, we awkwardly segue back into the self-aware comedy. There are some moments which are genuinely unique and amusing (like a lot of the “dating sim”-related humor), but too often the comedy falls into the typical situations of the anime Date A Live seems to be both celebrating and mocking. A “naked in the shower” gag will always be a “naked in the shower” gag, regardless of wink-wink-nudge-nudge undertones.
However, I can’t place much of the blame on series compositor Hideki Shirane and his two co-writers Takaaki Suzuki (epsiode 6) and Hitoshi Tanaka (episodes 7-9). The two episodes that have nothing to do with the source material (episode 6 and the bonus OVA included in the end of the collection) are unquestionably the best out of the whole series, and that’s because they rely on Date A Live‘s self-awareness for a zillion comedic situations, resulting in some greatly amusing, self-parodic sequences. It’s as if the writers are aware they are working on pandering garbage and take the opportunity to skewer their source material (and themselves) with an energetic vigor that is too often missing from the series itself.
In the end, the plot is simply an excuse to throw cute girls fighting each other at the viewer. That being said, the character designs do have appeal. While the male designs feel phoned in (not much of a surprise), the female characters are lovingly detailed and prove to be distinctive visually, if not from a characterization standpoint. The animation is also a step above the norm, with many of the fights having truly spectacular visuals, although sometimes the budget is used weirdly by director Keitaro Motogana. There are multiple scenes played for laughs that move with theatrical-quality animation, which just makes said sequences more off-putting because of how out-of-place they are. Ironically, this waters down the comedy.
The background music by Go Sakabe is strong. Given a clearly decent-sized budget, Sakabe produces a wide variety of music to fit all situations. His best numbers are probably the rip-roaring, intense action tracks (a sterling, codifying example being “Ground Zero“), utilizing electric guitar and electronic beats as the backbone for these numbers while layering live strings, horns, and choir on top to give everything an emotional resonance. The result is that the music manages to give at least some of the battles some oomph. Sakabe also produces your standard array of piano-based numbers for sad moments, but due to the series’ writing and characterization problems, the melancholy tracks are generally wasted effort. There are also enough doink-y comedy numbers that keep the music from getting stale, which helps, in turn, to make some of the comedy fresher than it would have been.
We cycle through a single opening theme and multiple ending themes, the latter of which flip around in the episodes without much rhyme or reason. All of these themes are performed by members of the Japanese cast, and their quality varies wildly. The opening, “Date A Live”, sung by sweet ARMS (aka the bulk of the female cast), combines semi-goofy lyrics with dramatic background music, perfectly embodying the dissonance of the series itself. The four different ED themes (the most common of which is “Save The World” by Iori Nomizu) don’t really add anything to the series, and all have a light-hearted, generic quality to them, other than the number for episode 1 and the OVA, “Hatsuoki Winding Road” by Kayoko Tsumita, Risako Murai and Midori Tsukimiya. The lyrics for “Hatsukoi Winding Road” call attention to how ridiculous Date A Live really is, and honestly the number is quite funny if you have subtitles on.
Jamie Marchi and her team of dub script writers are under no illusions of what they’re working on. Marchi gleefully punches the dialogue up whenever she can and alters some of the flattest comedic moments in the original Japanese script into entirely original gags that have only the slightest connection to the original script. While the effectiveness of Marchi’s gags vary wildly, they do strengthen Date A Live‘s self-aware comedy overall. Unfortunately, the dub script also tends to water down the dramatic moments also (other than louder, more effective battle screaming). However, by greatly reducing the amount of drama-to-comedy-induced whiplash, the English dub produces the better experience overall at the expense of strict accuracy. Marchi also could not resist getting political a couple of times, inserting a feminist undertone into a secondary character’s epic tirade in episode 6 (though Caitlin Glass’ hammy delivery of that tirade kind of makes the undertone appropriate from a comedy perspective). An anti-gun undertone is also placed into a Kurumi rant in episode 8. None of this really affects anything, but it is noteworthy how much the dub scripts can vary wildly from the original. For the most part, the intent of the original dialogue is kept, and in my opinion Marchi and her team’s efforts do make the show more entertaining in English even if purists will not be happy.
ADR Director Joel McDonald is also aware of what he’s working on, and while he does ensure that the serious moments are acted with sincerity, he has the actors dial everything up a notch when it’s silly time. He assembles a cast of mostly new voice actors, but three of the important roles are handled by Josh Grelle (Shido), Alexis Tipton (Kurumi), and Tia Ballard (Yoshino and her puppet Yoshinon), all of whom are veterans. All three of them chew the scenery more than the Japanese cast do, but Alexis Tipton takes on a manic glee as Kurumi that must be heard to be believed. The rest of the cast tend to be new, making the dub feel like a voice acting school for new FUNimation voice actors. Out of the new voice actors, Bryn Apprill (as Kotori) and Barret Nash (as Reine), make the strongest impression (both are clearly having a great time as their characters). Apprill in particular has a bright future ahead of her, and her expert demonstration of a wide variety of emotions for Kotori in a lot of different situations make a compelling case for her getting more lead roles. Overall, McDonald does not bother to pitch-match the Japanese cast (the characters Tohka and Origami in particular each have a contralto that’s not heard in the Japanese cast, beyond certain moments for Tohka). The final result is a strong dub that tries exceptionally hard to make the show entertaining, and nearly pulls it off.
The Japanese cast is made out of mostly veterans of the business. They play their parts a bit too straight in my opinion, though I’m hardly an expert on Japanese acting. The Japanese cast just seems to have a rigid quality that makes that soundtrack less entertaining than the English one. The Japanese cast do perform the dramatic moments with sincerity and power, however, making the dramatic moments more meaningful than in the English dub. In the end, it is largely up to you which approach is better, and neither version yields a decisive answer to the perpetual “sub vs. dub” debate.
FUNimation provides the usual array of textless opening and endings as well as trailers and a pair of commentaries for episode 4 and 7. However, FUNimation puts the English dub in 5.1 surround and the Japanese dub in stereo, which will likely rankle the purists, though this is probably a condition forced on FUNi by the licensor. The Blu-ray does have improved visual quality over the DVD version, but the DVD version looks fine regardless. Annoyingly, the DVD/Blu-ray menus and the packaging contain a huge spoiler concerning Kotori, but veterans of the genre will see the surprise coming long before it happens.
Overall, while there are moments of fun on Date A Live, I can’t recommend it, unless you are really into harem anime and the “dating multiple cute girls” dynamic. There just isn’t enough entertainment to make it worthwhile. Ironically, Date A Live just isn’t worth the expense of a date. It’s best to walk away without having to go through the inevitable break-up.