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"Master of Martial Hearts" Is Master of Nothing But Failure

by on August 12, 2010

After viewing the trailers and promo material for Master of Martial Hearts, you might think, “Hey, a fun turn-your-brain-off martial arts OAV with some fanservice. I should check it out.” Don’t be fooled. Martial Hearts not only fails at the martial arts, it fails at the fanservice, and most of all it fails at providing a good time. In fact, this is one of the few animated properties that I can confidently say gets nothing right.

The hero of this pathetic tale is Aya, a high schooler. I would describe her personality, and that of her best friend, Natsume, but they don’t have any to speak of, though Natsume may be more peppy than the even-keeled Aya. Anyway, one day after school, the two come across a stewardess and a shrine maiden who are fighting (yes, you read that right). After Aya saves the maiden, who is coincidentally named Miko (“miko” is Japanese for shrine maiden, in case you didn’t know) she learns that Miko was fighting the stewardess because she’s in a tournament called “Master of Martial Hearts.” The winner gets a device that grants wishes. How original. Only catch is, the loser of a match is transported to a dark dimension. Again, we haven’t seen that before.

Aya and Natsume become quick friends with Miko, though after the three part for the night Aya gets a message on her cell phone that she’s now in the Martial Hearts tournament, having defeated that stewardess from earlier. To make matters worse, Miko has gone missing and nobody claims to even know who she is. Even though she’s reluctant to fight, Aya vows to win the Martial Hearts tournament so she can uncover the mystery of Miko’s disappearance, and she battles a variety of costumed fighters who all fall under a different fetish type: the cafe maid, the cop, the teacher, the nurse, etc. It’s quite preposterous.

All this leads to a climax that can only be described as infuriating. I’m not going to bother censoring myself on specifics, because I want to convince you not to buy this DVD. It turns out the whole Martial Hearts tournament was a Xanatos Gambit planned for years simply to punish Aya for sins she didn’t even perform herself. Most of the fifth episode merely consists of the villains (who were once assumed to be allies) explaining their complicated plan and insulting every aspect of Aya and her family. To say this left a bad taste in my mouth is an understatement. It made me angry, to the point where I actually said “God, this is horrible” out loud. To sit through thirty minutes of “The Reason You Suck” speeches, and to see the sad fates of the losers of the Martial Hearts tournament (most of them being permanent, brain-damaged sex slaves), is bad enough, but to end it with some senseless murders is just plain unpleasant. Most of all, pulling an “it was a set-up all along” move is a cheap plot device, especially since there was no hint in the first four episodes that Natsume, in particular, was a villain, and I didn’t buy that she pretended to be Aya’s friend all this time just to get revenge. It was a forced way to add conflict. Oh, and did I mention the ending also pulls a deus ex machina, in that Aya is saved by her mom?! Not only does it not seem organic, because Aya’s mom was barely in the story beforehand aside from some brief scenes where she asked what she was up to and spouted responsibility ethics, but how exactly did she know where Aya was? Long story short, the ending doesn’t work, and by the time it was over, I felt cheap and used.

Speaking of cheap, the animation in Martial Hearts is some of the most vanilla I’ve seen. Get ready to see lots of pans, animation on threes, and limited fight choreography, sometimes resorting to still shots during battles. I miss the ’90s, when OAVs were of actually significantly higher quality than what’s on TV. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case for 2008, or at least not those made by ARMS. Of course, how can there be much elaborate movement when most of the five episodes consist of characters standing around and talking? I wasn’t expecting this to feature wall-to-wall fights or anything (and in fact, that would probably provide its own problems), but they really seemed to go out of their way to make a martial arts-themed OAV as boring as possible. This is also apparent in the writing, such as when Aya repeats info to Natsume that we as the audience already saw, such as Miko’s initial disappearance. Why do we have to hear it twice?

And if you’re going into this for the fanservice, don’t bother there either. It’s not well-done. I’ve noticed a lot of times that when many anime reviewers discuss fanservice, they tend to dance around it, like they’re afraid of saying it turns them on and why. There are psychological reasons for that, but I won’t get into them here. However, as a change of pace, I’m going to explain exactly why the fanservice in Martial Hearts isn’t up to snuff, so if you’re prudish, feel free to skip the next paragraph and just take my word for it.

First of all, characters’ clothes frequently rip to shreds in this OAV, much like in the superior Ikki Tousen. But that’s not even the part I’m criticizing. The problem is that too often the catalyst for the wardrobe malfunction doesn’t even match the attack! For instance, I noticed a couple of times when one character hit another’s neck/head area, which caused their breasts to be exposed. Huh? How did that happen? That doesn’t even follow physical logic! And speaking of breasts, boy do they suck. They’re drawn as a simple curve shape with no detail, don’t bounce when they’re supposed to (and the few times they do bounce, it’s too slow and choppy, making it look unrealistic), and are drawn without flair. The nipples are little more than pink dots. The panties are similarly undetailed. And overall, the characters are flatly shaded so that nothing is accentuated; everything just kinda hangs there. But perhaps the biggest offense is that the character designs are a pale imitation of Happoubi Jin’s lovely original designs. I made a little side-by-side comparison for you. They were watered down, to put it mildly. To add insult to injury, Jin’s drawings are often the eyecatch, so to go from that back to the simpler designs is jarring. I’m not even necessarily condoning fanservice in all instances, but jeepers, if you’re going to do it, at least do it right. Bottom line: If you get turned on by these substandard drawings, I feel sorry for you.

The only special feature outside of trailers is a video commentary on the first episode, with the original Japanese VAs of Aya, Miko, and Natsume talking about random subjects (very occasionally, on the episode itself) while the episode plays in a box in various corners of the screen. Unless you absolutely must see every piece of footage from your favorite seiyuu, it’s not that crucial to watch, as it offers few behind-the-scenes production tidbits.

So are there any upsides to this release? Well, the backgrounds are serviceable, if a bit generic, being based on suburban Japan settings we’ve seen 1000 times before. The DVD video quality is good. The dub is generally fine, though there are a couple awkward performances: Aya’s mother, played by Shelly Calene-Black, sounds like she’s forcing a middle aged voice. And it has a trailer for a much better fanservice martial arts series, Ikki Tousen.

Otherwise, Master of Martial Hearts is a boring waste of time with poorly-done fights, even poorer fanservice, and one of the most downright unpleasant conclusions I’ve had the misfortune of watching. FUNi must’ve gotten it cheap or as a package deal, because there’s no other explanation why they picked this up. Do yourself a favor and avoid it.

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