"Master of Martial Hearts (UK Edition)": I Wish I Could Get The Time Back
As a reviewer, I don’t think I’ve ever found a title I could dismiss as pointless. I’ve even praised (for effort) series that have bored me. I start by looking for untapped potential, and so even if I personally don’t care for something, I try to be nice because nothing can be a complete waste.
Apparently I’ve met my match.
Master of Martial Hearts is effectively a clone of Ikki Tousen, the infamous series where balloon-chested school girls beat the crap out of each other. In this series, when Japanese schoolgirl Aya saves a shrine maiden who is being beat up by a flight attendant in a street brawl (stay with me now), she becomes aware of the Platonic Heart fighting tournament. Something of an urban legend, the Platonic Heart is said to grant the wish of whoever wins the women-only tournament. When the shrine maiden’s own wish for friends is granted by Aya, she vanishes under mysterious circumstances, leaving no record of her existence. Aya elects to participate in the tournament to find the truth and save her new friend.
Now, much like I said about Ikki Tousen, that’s a fairly interesting premise when you look at the basics. A fighting tournament, a mysterious conspiracy, fighters with individual wishes. Sadly, the result is a mess. Receiving instructions by text messages, Aya confronts a series of female opponents, each one decked out as a fetish. Starting with the aforementioned flight attendant, we see Aya do battle with the likes of a nurse, a police woman and even a mechanic. (Hey, it’s gotta be someone’s fetish.) Each fight is a generally underwhelming mess, as the two opponents defy physics and trade poorly animated attacks. Clothes literally explode, so that a strike to the leg causes stockings to rupture and a blow to the chest pops open a jumper. After a while you begin to wonder why the show even bothers with costumes, since it’s clearly much more interested in reducing the female-dominated cast to public nudity. Indeed, there are barely any male characters to be seen beyond a token love interest and a perverted gym teacher whose preferred punishment is making female students run laps in undersized gym wear. Naturally, we are provided with visuals of that scenario.
The ultimate travesty of the show is the final episode. Much like fellow reviewer Speedy, I see little reason to avoid spoilers in discussing its spiteful stupidity. After predictably winning the tournament, Aya is confronted with a set of increasingly crazy reveals. We’re first led to believe that one character has been manipulating everyone else, followed by the apparent reveal of a higher puppet master. This itself is a pointless fake out as it’s revealed that basically every character that appeared to be Aya’s friend engineered the whole tournament as part of a vendetta stemming from a family blood feud. The majority of the final episode has our protagonist being informed of what an irredeemable monster she is, how those close to her secretly loathed her, and how they intend to kill her in the most agonising way possible over a multi-generational series of murders. Granted, the show up to this point was hardly intellectually taxing, but this is just a mess.
It’s a funny thing that just recently I was thinking that a truly great shock reveal in fiction would require no foreshadowing, but that without foreshadowing a reveal would probably feel like something pulled out of the writer’s backside. The reveal here is foreshadowed in part, but in a confusing fake out that involves plastic surgery. I might have been tempted to credit the show with playing with anime clichés, something even the opening title sequence gets in on (from that, there’s no reason not to believe this is a story with a strong theme about fighting for friends who need you). But the reveal makes no sense on its own terms. Aya is told that she’s a monster for fighting in the tournament, and that she personally is responsible for the losers being kidnapped and brain washed. This really makes no sense, as the entire time she’s portrayed as selflessly fighting to rescue those seemingly captured by the tournament sponsors and indeed even worries more then once over why her dream deserves to deny those of the others. There is a briefly seen implication that a remorseless side of her loves the fights for no reason beyond the sheer desire to engage in violence, but this is underdeveloped and hardly representative of the character, especially when its most significant appearance comes after an opponent attempts to play mind games with her. Ikki Tousen introduced a similar element with Hakufu but there was at least an explanation there, and the violent berserker became a plot point for the character to gain control over. Martial Hearts instead attempts to prop itself up beyond being sadomasochist pornography and instead just falls into that territory even further.
The spiteful nature of the series is only briefly broken by flickers of possibility. Aya herself is actually a generally likeable protagonist, clearly intended to be leered at but with a capable brain and relatable emotions, so that’s something over Hakufu. Episode 4 also briefly aims its guns at the audience, with a cosplay battle against a magical girl-inspired café maid and her obsessive fans. Sadly, like a high budget rollercoaster, it follows the increasingly recurring trend of being a misleading gentle stop before you plunge headfirst into the unpleasant darkness of the finale.
The one extra on the disc is an in-vision commentary for the first episode, starring the Japanese voice actresses of the main three girls. We basically see them talking in a studio booth as a shrunk down version of the first episode plays in the corner. There’s not much insight to be had, but there is at least an attempt to have some structured discussion, even if it is over questions like ‘Did you ever eat fast food in school?’ or ‘Which opponent’s profession would you like?’. Comments within seem to place this as being recorded at the same time as the final episode, making it extra weird to see the cast talking about the characters’ close friendship.
Master of Martial Hearts is one of those titles that leads me to wonder how and why it was made. Obviously someone had to pitch, write, cast, direct, etc, the series so that I and others could watch it. The fact that someone thought this up and felt it was a story worth telling is depressing in of itself. I can understand the purpose of fanservice and pornography even though I’m not an advocate of them. But this is the worst kind of dreck, a journey into sexist perversion which tries to hide behind claims of having an actual relevant story. That it was ever made is bad enough but the fact that it would go on to be licensed by not only America but the UK leaves me shaking my head. Let’s just all put this behind us and move on to series worthy of attention.
The UK edition of Master of Martial Hearts is available through Amazon.co.uk.