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R1 DVD Reviews
Tuesday, 15 March 2011 00:00
Uta~KataSentai Filmworks' licensing of Uta~Kata came as a bit of a surprise - dating back to 2005, most people who wanted to see a western release of it had long given up. And yet here it is - a little late, that's for sure, but no less welcome because of it. Cross magical girl with coming of age and some rather darker-than-usual material, and this is what you get...

For Ichika, the summer break is just beginning - and it's a summer that will change her life. Ichika's been dreaming of another girl - she doesn't know who she is, but she's saying goodbye, and Ichika's puzzled as to the meaning of it - although you get the distinct feeling that those around her know something is about to happen. When Ichika leaves her cellphone in school, she has to go back to get it - and finds it in the hands of Manatsu Kuroki, the girl from her dreams. When the phone is handed back to her, a transformation comes over her...

Uta~Kata comes from the gimik stable, who were also responsible for Kiddy Grade. That DNA link explains why the two leads here bear more than a passing resemblance to Eclair & Lumiere from Kiddy Grade, while the show has a similar tendency towards gratuitous fanservice, especially in the earlier episodes - presumably as a visual hook to get people watching, but then you think that the girls featured are all 14 and do a quick double-take. There was a certain amount of grumbling when the series first aired back in 2005 about inappropriate sexualisation of minors, and I can certainly see where that came from - but on the other hand it's a minor part of the show and pales in comparison to what you might see nowadays. Trust me on this, I just watched an episode of OniKoto last night.

Ichika's transformations are linked to a charm she received from her tutor, Sei - on the charm are 12 stones and, once Manatsu gets her hands on the charm, the once-black stones each take on an individual colour. Ichika, feeling an attachment to Sei and not wanting to see his charm "ruined", very much wants the stones to be returned to their original condition - something that, conveniently, Manatsu knows just how to do. The moment Ichika takes the charm back, she transforms, calling on the power of the Djinn of the Sun and briefly seeing the world through his eyes. 12 stones, 12 Djinns, 12 ways to see the world - and the charm will be back to normal once Ichika has called on the power of each one. Put that way, it doesn't seem like such a hard task, and Manatsu certainly seems friendly and trustworthy enough - but as ever in this sort of tale, what seem easy eventually turns out to carry a great deal of risk. Ichika's meeting with Manatsu also seems to have been preordained, and mysterious woman Saya is constantly watching from the shadows to ensure that Ichika and Manatsu play by the "rules" of the trials that Saya has planned for them.

Things start off cheerfully enough - the first few Djinns that Ichika calls on are able to help her with difficult situations, and the experience of seeing the world in a different light is one to be enjoyed. But as the series goes on, the situations she finds herself in - and the way she finds herself using the powers of the Djinns - become noticeably darker, before Saya's true intentions are made clear. Around all this are wrapped Ichika's close circle of friends - shrine-maiden Michiru, who instinctively knows that there's something wrong about Manatsu and fears for her friend's safety; Keiko, daughter of a rich family who's finding that being born into privilege doesn't save you from heartbreak; and Satsuki, whose parents are separated and who appears to have very good reason to hate her father. They're all growing up and finding that the world around them isn't quite what they expected it to be - and finding themselves unwittingly wrapped up in Ichika's problems in the process.

First up, it has to be said that the series is a visual treat, positively beautiful to look at, with background scenery being especially well-treated. The character designs themselves are a little on the stylised side - you could argue that the fanservice isn't just inappropriate for the age of the characters, but also because it doesn't quite work on their designs - but they're unmistakably Gotoh in their look and feel. Especially when you get to the eyes.

The story, though, is a bit more simplistic, with one Djinn to be called upon each episode before Ichika must make a final decision that Saya will put to her. That gives the show a predictable feel - you know that, somewhere just past the half-way eyecatch, Ichika will run into an issues that persuades or forces her to call on a Djinn, and that things will only get more complex from there. In that way, it's a typical magical girl show - but what made it unique at the time (less so now, and there have been other shows that have played with the magical girl trope since then) is that every time she transforms, there's no victory for Ichika - instead, she loses something, tangible or intangible, until she reaches the point where even thinking about calling on the Djinn is painful for her. If you like, it's a little turn of the table on what magical girl shows are supposed to be, where love and frienship save everything - here, they bring Ichika nothing but pain until her final decision is made. And that's what makes the series so compelling to watch, especially during the second half.

When I first found out that Sentai were releasing Uta~Kata, I had a pre-order in for it as soon as I was able - it's a show that I'd given up hope on seeing in the west. It's here now, and even better it still lives up to the memories I have from the first time I watched it - it's a damned good little show, with only a few foibles that could be considered as letting it down (fanservice, again). Definitely one that's worth seeing.

Rating - ****