Monday 17th February sees the release of the Infinite Stratos Collection on DVD, an anime series based on the light novels of Izuru Yumizuru, which contains all twelve episodes from the first series, plus an OVA episode set after the events of the series. It's a two disc set, with seven episodes on disc one, and five episodes on disc two, plus a few extras thrown in for good measure.
The world has developed a new weapon; the Infinite Stratos (IS); a kind of armoured mecha suit worn by those who pilot them. This new weapon is so advanced, that everything else pales in comparison, and as such, all IS technology has been equally distributed among the nations of the world, so that no single nation has an advantage over any other. The IS are not allowed to be used by the military; instead, they are used only in competition and sporting events.
One characteristic of the IS, is that only females are able to make them move, and because of this, women have become society's more dominant sex.
This story sees fifteen year old Ichika Orimura, who is the only male able to control an IS, suddenly thrust into the Infinite Stratos Academy, where he must compete with and socialise with a school full of the opposite sex. Can Ichika survive in a woman's world?
Right, so this series is all about how Ichika deals with being the only boy in an all-girl academy, how those girls react to him being the only boy at their school, and of course the IS suits themselves, and the students' training in using them.
I didn't know much about this series prior to watching, so didn't really know what was in store for me. What I did know, was that it was about this boy living in a woman's world, and from this brief summary, I was kind of expecting something a little more serious; perhaps exploring the difficulties a boy might find as the only male in a female society, and examining the role-reversal of men and women more closely.
After watching for a little while, I knew this wasn't what I was expecting; not that that's a bad thing. This is a comedy; choosing instead to investigate the lighter side of relationships between men and women (well, teenage boys and girls anyway).
Being the only boy, Ichika comes under much scrutiny from everyone at the school, and it's inevitable that he'll make new friends and rivals whilst engaging in his training. It's also assured that Ichika will have his admirers; the Academy is a boarding school, so a lack of male contact for any of the female students except in the holidays, pretty much means that all of the students fall for him! Half the fun though is watching them compete for Ichika's attention, and wondering who will win their prize.
Fan service enthusiasts may or may not be disappointed. There's plenty of it, with the girls fawning over Ichika; pretty much every episode contains a flash of panties here, bouncing boobs there, but much of it isn't too graphic, aside from the odd bared breast or two. So if you're not a fan of this aspect of anime, then be prepared!
During the first half of the series we're introduced to the main characters involved; it's really great that the series can take its time to explore the back-stories of each character, usually taking an episode to introduce each new one, and over the subsequent episodes, seeing how each character interacts with the others.
We have Ichika's homeroom teacher, Chifuyu Orimura, a previous IS World Champion, who also happens to be his older sister. Then there's Houki Shinonono, a childhood friend, and Kendo champion. Ichika also forms a rivalry with Cecilia Alcott, who is the IS representative candidate of England. She's followed by Rinin Fan, another childhood friend, who is the IS representative of China. Then, shock! We are introduced to a new transfer student, Charles Dunois, the IS representative candidate of France, who happens to be another boy who can control the IS! Then, there's another transfer student, Laura Bodewig, the IS representative of Germany, who seems to bear a huge grudge against Ichika.
One criticism I'd have, would be that even though each character has their own back-story, they tend not to develop much as individuals. For instance, every time a new student is introduced, they end up having an IS dual with Ichika, and then regardless of who wins, they end up falling for him, which in my opinion kind of cancels out the female dominance, and therefore loses one of the more interesting aspects of the story.
There is one “surprise” to the story, but not much effort is made to keep you guessing; in fact it's pretty obvious what's going to happen regarding this plot point, well before the reveal. Still, it does add a little extra interest to the story, so it's a welcome addition to the storyline.
Of course, you can't really base a series such as this, solely on the characters; there needs to be some sort of drama to drive the story along. This came in the form of two rogue IS units causing havoc, so naturally our heroes must investigate. While it was great to have this in the story, I felt that the reason for them wasn't explained so well. If the scene in the final episode between Chifuyu and Tabane (Houki's sister, who invented the IS) serves as an explanation to it, then I was a touch disappointed with the reason. However, it was slightly ambiguous, and therefore inconclusive.
The pacing of the series was just right, with a nice mixture of character interplay and IS battle scenes, and with each episode running about 23 minutes long, it's a really easy series to watch. At the end of each episode, I found myself wanting to watch the next.
Sound and Vision
Before I started watching episode one, I had decided to watch the English language dub, and then watch it again with Japanese language and subs. I also did this for episode seven.
The English dub was okay overall, however I did find some of it quite annoying, as there was a lot of raised voices and arguing. The acting was fine, but not particularly noteworthy. I would say however, that because of the international cast of characters, it was quite fun, at first, hearing the different European accents; English, French and German. However, they weren't very convincing, and sounded exactly like what they were; American actors attempting European accents, which fell short of sounding as good as they should have, and after the initial amusement, they began to wear a little thin. I decided to watch the rest of the series with Japanese language and subtitles. Much better!
The character designs were good, with each one being distinctive from the others, reflecting each personality; I especially liked Cecilia Alcott, and her long curling hair, and also Chifuyu Orimura looked pretty cool too. I even didn't mind Laura Bodewig's design, even though her character design plays on the German Nazi/Gestapo stereotype replete with baggy trousers and high boots, topped off with an eye-patch and stern look.
The actual IS battle sequences are pretty decent; very quick paced action, with great looking skies and backgrounds, and a combination of CG and traditional animation techniques. In most cases it worked quite well, but sometimes the CG didn't look so seamless. They were fairly exciting scenes, without being too awe-inspiring.
This is a two-disc set, with disc two featuring a number of DVD extras. These include an OVA episode following the characters on break from the IS Academy, audio commentaries for two of the episodes, Radio IS (which is a radio show presented by two of the voice artists), a “Behind the Scenes” interview with the director, and clean opening & closing animations.
The OVA episode is essentially an extension of the rivalry between the girls fighting for Ichika's attention; it's entertaining, but doesn't exactly tell us any more about the characters. The commentaries are fun and light-hearted, and you really can feel the friendship between the voice artists; there are some nice facts about the production, but ultimately they don't really shed a lot of light on the series. Radio IS is similar to the commentaries, in that they feature the same voice actors, and although it was amusing enough, I thought it went on a little too long. The interview is normal DVD extra “fluff”; cool to watch, but doesn't really say anything new, and the clean opening and closing animations are what they are.
Although this might not be particularly original, or in-depth at exploring the role-reversal of the sexes, there's still a lot to enjoy from this series. It's a fun romp, that's really easy to watch. I enjoyed the back-stories of each character, and how they affected the story, but it would have been nice if the characters were developed a little more.
It's an anime series that doesn't require much thought; just press play, sit back and enjoy. I'm looking forward to watching series two now...