Sunday, 20 March 2011

Anime Review - MAR (Marchen Awakens Romance)

Yup - shounen side-boob

As somewhat of an anime snob, the shounen genre has never really appealed to me; shows like Naruto and Bleach just turn me off because of their drawn out stories and endless filler episodes. However, there have now been more than a few instances of a series aimed at young males winning me over, and now amongst Hunter X Hunter, Gintama and One Piece, I can count myself as a fan of the seriously underrated MÄR.

Far from telling a revolutionary tale, the story of a young boy transported to another world to help bring peace to the downtrodden citizens is hardly a new premise. Using weapons called ARMs, the people of MÄR Heaven can summon guardians, control earth, water or fire, or cast curses using their magical power. Ginta meets a quirky sorceress in a dress that leaves little to the imagination and who helps him to obtain an ultimate ARM named Bappo. You may quickly realise that the naming is not a strong point of this show, especially when the trio are brought together with Alviss, Belle and Jack. The evil Phantom is quickly introduced as a mysterious, shadowy kind of chap who is intent on destroying the harmonious lives of those around him.

Campy fun!
When Phantom and his evil group named Chess challenge Ginta and his team, creatively named MÄR, a somewhat predictable arc commences with the groups facing off against each other in a war game. This single arc carries most of the action and battles, interspersed occasionally with either filler episodes or mini-arcs that see the good guys in training or diverted off to kick the ass of a secondary enemy. Seemingly, a lot of anime fans were completely turned off by the sheer number of filler episodes and bailed part way through. For me, I saw it as a well used opportunity to develop the characters and build up tension for the main event.

During these events, each of team MÄR seems to find the perfect opponent who wields skills to counter their own. Some of these evil doers find their humanity and switch sides, whilst the hard-core evils are faced in the final showdown. Telling the past of both sides the series spends little time on each fight taking less than half an episode to conclude the predictable ass kicking. That said, the interactions between the characters as they fight for what they believe in are easily the strongest element of the show; for example, Dorothy and her cold exterior that hides a dark family secret, or Alviss and his struggle to fight off the zombie tattoo gradually taking over his body – both make for excellent viewing.

That is a very strange line on Dorothy...
Yes, it’s predictable and sure, it’s not the most innovative series to grace our screens, but MÄR kept me coming back for more in the two months since starting it. Perhaps it would have been better slimmed down to 50 episodes, but I don’t think the characters would have held the same charm. The ever present humour can be quite dark and adult at times, but this really made the show for me. If you’re in the market for mindless fun, then the show definitely delivers on that front.

A prime example of manliness?
Being polite, I would say the animation was functional. Adding a more critical eye, I would perhaps say “sloppy” and “inconsistent”. Some episodes stand out for their clean lines and rich backgrounds, whilst others use a lot of messy close-ups that lose all clarity of the original image. Sadly, the epic battles don’t fare any better, with the same cells being recycled to the point of being awkwardly clunky. One plus point for MÄR is the subtlety of the fan-service; Dorothy’s dress is already figure hugging enough for the viewer to know what kind of panties she wears, however she frequently ends up showing a little more flesh during the savage battles. I had presumed that such a shounen series is aimed at a younger audience, but the bounce and panty shot as Alice is summoned by Ginta makes me suspect otherwise...

Yup, this is supposed to be a kids show
The opening and closing credits for MÄR feature some of the widest range of musical genre’s I have heard; from J-rock to pop, there even seems to be a tribute to Ricky Martin in the later episodes. Spunky and upbeat, they certainly suit the series even if they can get a little repetitive if you decide to marathon the show.

Making up for the substandard visuals, the stellar A-list used for the vocal cast is extremely impressive. Ai Shimizu, Saki Nakajima and One Piece’s Kazuki Yao are amongst the line up and all do justice for their animated counterparts. Sadly, Rie Kugimiya is somewhat of a letdown as the annoying fairy, Belle. Her high pitched buzz simply serves to make an already irritating character seem even more so.

Although team MÄR may feature stereotypical shounen character traits, the spirited Ginta is actually a likeable fellow. He has human flaws and struggles to overcome increasingly strong adversaries, but as is the shounen way he is blessed with new skills and bad-ass powers. The rest of his group feature Jack the monkey-faced wimp, Alviss the loner, Snow the feckless heroine, Nanashi the perverted womaniser and Dorothy the scantily clad sorceress who is extremely dry witted. Although cliché, their varied personalities work and the writers know this; there are numerous episodes where Ginta takes a back seat as the histories and motivations of each sidekick is successfully explored.
Catgirl and angry loli = win

Despite this strong leading cast, the slapstick pairing of straight-man, Loco, and the overbearing catgirl Chaton was the outright winner for me. The two play off each other brilliantly, consistently bringing a smile to my face as the conservative Loco is incessantly tickled and annoyed by her well-meaning partner. If only the rest of the “bad guys” were as much fun; Phantom is built up to be the most evil being in existence, but I found his ending to be more than a little anti-climactic. Diana starts out as a much more sinister antagonist that eventually slips into the same trap as many of her cohorts – seeing the error of their ways and turning to the side of good.

Perhaps it was the warnings of excessive fillers that had me prepared for the worst, but I can definitely say I enjoyed MÄR despite its numerous flaws. The combination of superb voice acting and impressive characters certainly keeps a predictable story afloat. Hardcore shounen fans may find this a weak series, but fans (like me) who are a little hesitant in diving into a series aimed at boys may just find a surprising gem.

Yes, these two images followed each other....

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