R1 DVD Reviews
Wednesday, 18 August 2010 00:00
...and our look at Ai Yori Aoshi ends with the Complete Collection. While it's technically out-of-print, you can still find it online without too much trouble - but is it worth the effort of tracking down?
Ai Yori Aoshi is a tale of two halves - on the one hand, there's the story of the romance between independently-minded rich girl Aoi Sakuraba, and Kaoru Hanabishi, who was heir to another powerful family until he turned his back on them after suffering years of abuse. While with the Hanabishi, Aoi was promised in marriage to Kaoru - not that he ever realised this as a kid - and now that they're older Aoi is still determined to keep to that arrangement, even though the two families are now against the idea. Circumstances lead to the pair living as landlady and tenant in a huge mansion with a crowd of other female residents, watched over by Sakuraba family minder Miyabi, and the show takes on a lot of the aspects of a harem comedy - expect that there's never any doubt about who Aoi will end up with.
The other characters are fit the usual archetypes: there's Tina, a hard-drinking American girl who was raised in Japan; klutzy Taeko, hyperactive Chika, and ojousama-type Mayu, plus a bunch of their friends who sit on the fringes of the story and make occasional appearances.
Ai Yori Aoshi is as good an example of a schizophrenic show as you could ever find - and that's not really a compliment. Episodes 1-4 are the show at its very best - small doses of humour, but mostly its about two young people coming to terms with their respective pasts and discovering their feelings for each other. Kaoru has had a difficult past, suffering abuse for a family who were only interested in his ability to maintain their position - eventually he broke contact and went his own way, and there's no way in the world he's going back, not even for Aoi. Aoi is perhaps the most warm-hearted, caring young woman ever and the embodiment of the ideal Japanese woman - to the point where the character is often criticised for being too subservient for these modern, politically-correct times. That criticism has a point, but it also misses the point - I don't think Aoi's being set up as a role model for modern women, she's just presented as being different from the rest of the girls that eventually show up.
Which brings us neatly to The Harem™, which is also the point where things begin to go wrong. Once Aoi and Kaoru move into their Sakuraba-sponsored mansion, the other girls arrive in a steady stream, both to create a little bit of conflict between our happy couple, and to ramp up the comic relief - and suddenly we go from touching romance to slapstick comedy, complete with a mental clashing of gears as you try to adjust to the change. It ain't pretty.
The comic / harem side of Ai Yori Aoshi isn't bad in itself, it's just out of place beside the opening four episodes. The series wants to be two different things that really don't sit well together - separate them out, and you would have two very enjoyable series, but put them together and that mental gear clashing means dropped points for the release. From here there's more of a focus on the comedy that the romance, too, which is another missed trick. It's not until the final fer episodes of the first season that the focus gets back to the Aoi / Kaoru relationship - and the second season, Enishi, manages to almost ignore that aspect altogether. It's almost as though the producers took the biggest criticism of the first season to heart - it was too schizophrenic, too unsure of what it wanted to be, and they needed to decide between heartfelt romance or harem comedy. AYA's real strength was heartfelt romance, so for the second series they decided to stick to... harem comedy.
For that one reason alone, ~Enishi~ is something of a disappointment - you know all the way through what these characters can produce, but you're stuck with 10 episodes of slapstick. Towards the end of the season there's finally an attempt to capture some of the old emotion and drama, but by using Tina as the vehicle (a mistake as she's too carefree and over-the-top to make the serious emo stuff believable) and ruining the impact of her departure by having her return the very next episode, they really lose the attempt to grab your heartstrings before they've even started, unless you're a real fan of Tina's.
So. The first season is easily the better of the two, and the more emotional episodes are masterpieces in their own right. The comedy episodes aren't bad, they're just nothing special - it's all stuff that's been done a hundred times before, and probably better, by other shows. The characters are all likeable enough in their own ways (even if Mayu's over-possessiveness does wear thin after a while), but they should be playing backup to the key characters of Kaoru and Aoi, and that's where the whole series falls down, especially during the 2nd season.
That said, there's enough entertainment in the set to be worth the roughly US$50 or so you'll have to pay for it - the good is so good that it's worth the price. Definitely one to keep an eye out for.
For full episode summaries and screenshots, check out our reviews of the original discs:
» Ai Yori Aoshi #1: Faithfully Yours
» Ai Yori Aoshi #2: My Dearest
» Ai Yori Aoshi #3: Hugs and Kisses
» Ai Yori Aoshi #4: Truly Yours
» Ai Yori Aoshi #5: With All My Heart
» Ai Yori Aoshi ~Enishi~ #1: Fate
» Ai Yori Aoshi ~Enishi~ #2: Bond
» Ai Yori Aoshi ~Enishi~ #3: Destiny