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DVD Review

DVD cover

Baka and Test
Summon The Beasts


Starring (voice): Hiro Shimono, Hitomi Harada, Akio Ohtsuka, Ayana Taketatsu and Emiri Katō
Manga Entertainment
RRP: £24.99
Certificate: 12
Available 28 May 2012

When a fight breaks out at Fumizuki Academy, nobody throws a single punch. Instead, the students utilize the school’s technology to summon Avatars, pint-sized stand-ins with battle powers based on academic ability. That “academic ability” part is bad news for Yoshii - because Yoshii’s an idiot, stuck in lowly Class F with the slackers. If these misfits want to escape their dump of a classroom and earn some respect, they’ll have to fight their way up the ranks and take on Class A, the Academy’s brightest students. It’s going to be tough, that’s for sure. But once the underachievers of Class F get motivated, they don’t give up - and Yoshii can’t even spell surrender...

Baka and Test, a 13-episode comedy series originally aired in 2010, seems on the face of it like prime supporting evidence for the 'database animal' theory of media consumption advanced by psychologist Hiroki Azuma. Azuma's argument in part is that Japanese fans of anime, manga and games experience these media not as singular, rounded artworks in the traditional manner of a novel or film, but as part of a cross-media set of experiences taking in merchandise, collectable items, unofficial fan works and so on. In this scenario traditional virtues such as storytelling and characterisation are secondary to the tropes that appeal to fans - high school or fantasy settings, cute girls, heroic young protagonists, catgirls and maid outfits, the list is endless - and which can be reproduced in diverse, yet familiar combinations across a variety of media. For Azuma, a satisfying story is less important to the avid otaku than having all his favourite elements from the 'database' present and correct.

While this may sound like older-generation grousing that today's kids just don't appreciate a good book - and Azuma is more sympathetic and nuanced in his arguments than I've made him sound - it is hard sometimes, looking at the likes of Baka and Test, not to wonder if he's on to something.

The series seems at times to revel in its contrivance and artificiality, with hapless protagonist Yoshii (all high school anime protagonists are hapless) bemoaning the absurd scenarios he's landed in so often it seems the writers are a little embarrassed about their story's lack of originality.

As if to compensate, the series' over-familiar gags and tropes are overplayed with an edge of mounting hysteria: fluffy airhead Himeji's poor cooking, which would merely be an endearing character fault in another show, causes frequent outbreaks of mass poisoning, aggressive flat-chested girl Minami (all flat-chested girls in anime are aggressive) dishes out grievous bodily harm whenever her physical shortcomings are mentioned, and beautiful childhood-friend Shouko displays the personality of a psychotic stalker in pursuit of a long-forgotten promise of marriage.

The firm friendships of the male characters, meanwhile, frequently appear about to shade over into full-blown homoeroticism, some but by no means all centred on the good-natured Hideyoshi, who despite his masculine name and speech pattern is so androgynous that the boys lust after him far more than they do the girls. Finally there's Yoshii's sexy older sister, who's not merely content with teasing her brother with her adult ways but seems hellbent on kicking the Westermarck effect to the kerb as soon as possible. If all of this seems in poor taste to you, then clearly you haven't spent enough time watching anime.

Despite its questionable content and lack of much originality or humour - the plot and comedy are generally pretty thin - Baka and Test has some things to commend it, mostly visually. The animation is decent, with use of CGI that's far less glaring than in many TV anime, and a distinctive shaded art style that renders even the dull classroom settings attractive. There's frequent use of referential humour that, if you're even passingly familiar with the series in question, is well handled and provides the show with most of its comedy value - Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Metal Gear Solid videogame series and the cult battle manga Jojo's Bizarre Adventure are exhaustively referred to throughout, among many others.

At thirteen episodes the series doesn't overstay its welcome, though it's hard to see how it could be sustained much further, something that doesn't bode well for the yet-to-be-released second season. If you're a seasoned anime fan and in the mood for some undemanding comedy, it's an enjoyable show.


Richard Hunt

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