The Asterisk War – Review

This article was originally for publishing on the latest edition of the CrunchyRoll Newsletter, but due to some issues, it was not released. Currently talking to them about it, but I spent too much time on this piece to not have it released. Anyway, here goes…

School battle anime premises are nothing new. In fact, the genre itself is littered with titles like Highschool DxD, Trinity Seven, and to a certain extent the Fate Stay series, and maybe even When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace (AKA Inou-Battle). Asterisk War is no stranger to such titles, which makes it run the risk of anonymity in an otherwise saturated playground of shows. And it didn’t help much either that its first cour was placed directly alongside evil look-alike Chivalry of A Failed Knight, whose premise, main character pairing, and even general background were almost eerily similar.

And my initial misgivings about the series in general were predicated on the fact that the show does little to convince the viewer that it is anything BUT just another battle show with harem-esque trappings. Indeed, Ayato — the ostensible protagonist but otherwise skilled swordsman acting as the knight-in-shining-armor-type hero — is surrounded by anime-trope favorites. There’s Julis, our resident tsundereSaya plays the role of the taciturn kuudere; Claudia is our well-endowed student council president, complete with hidden agendas and a predilection towards sexual harassment; and finally Kirin as the bashful but similarly well-endowed lolita character. This alone puts the show and its premise in a seemingly uninspiring light, and if we were to judge shows like this on sheer “pleasure factor” alone, Chivalry of a Failed Knight would undoubtedly win through its sheer audacity and shamelessness.

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But thankfully, The Asterisk War was able to set itself apart from other shows, and more importantly from Chivalry of a Failed Knight, through its steady departure from the trope-centric base material of which it seemingly assumed. For one, its world building elements were pretty scarce, with only the occasional exposition to ground itself and clarify some terms that were randomly dropped here and there. Much of the structural make up of the world — the calamity of Invertia and the eventual rise of the Genestella — is only implied through off-hand (and sometimes vague) dialogue, almost as if the viewer is expected to know of these details beforehand. In that regard, it reminded me of Horizon on the Middle of Nowhere in its complexity and overall expansive worldview. There are schools set up to develop Genstella — the world’s X-Men, so to speak — and in doing so, have them fight in publicized matches ala-gladiator style in order to further develop research and development in the study of these mysterious superpowers. Beneath this is a sinister plot that is shrouded in the disappearance of Ayato’s sister, which serves as the starting point of our protagonist towards discovering the truth behind the Phoenix Festa and the Academy City on Water called Asterisk.

This sort of depth in setting isn’t unheard of in shows like this, but it’s clear with the show’s frequent alternation of plot flows between the main character and other rival school characters that there is a deeper layer of complexity to the show. But what the show has a hard time doing with these plots is keeping them in relative distance to one another without having them inadvertently become estranged from one another. In fact, I couldn’t parse the significance of certain events without having to double-back and check for references, some going as far back as several episodes. I’m not sure why some of the reveals didn’t impress me as much as they should have, but it may have something to do with character portrayal and the overall themes they talk about. For one, this type of genre always puts high schoolers in the spotlight, which makes their plotting, scheming, and sometimes even their dialogue, a little beyond their years. I’m not saying that it’s not possible for a high schooler to think like an intelligent, grounded adult — but it seems odd to see characters acting “bigger than life” like the Le Wolfe student council president, Dirk. The “deeper plots” effectively seem more of a metaphysical gag of sorts, detracting from its supposed seriousness and making the premise all the more difficult to digest.

But overlook these peculiarities in the plot execution and forget the fact that some characters are a little beyond their years and you realize that the characters are, actually, pretty well written. Instead of focusing on gratuitous fan service, harem setups, and the never-ending escalation of powers bouncing off of each other as most battle shows do, Asterisk War actually spent a large chunk of its first season building up its characters — so much so that it didn’t even get to the actual tournament until the ninth episode. Although its easy to dismiss this focus on character development as “part of the formula”, Asterisk War’s approach to it was thoughtful, allowing its characters to develop a certain amount of charm and substance beyond their cookie-cutter molds that made them rather endearing. For that reason alone, The Asterisk War won my vote over Chivalry of a Failed Knight during its run last Fall 2015.

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This season of The Asterisk War continues in uninterrupted fashion right after the events of Ayato and Julis’ battle against Irene as they now have to deal with the repercussions of having Ayato’s weakness known to everyone. Changing their strategy, the two make their way through their next match hardly unscathed, utilizing cunning tactics to best their opponents and secure themselves a shot for the semi-finals. But before that, they have to get past the Jie Long’s twin demons — two devilish siblings who prefer to fight dirty than upright. As all of this transpires, the underlying threads involving the search for Ayato’s missing sister resurfaces, and the discovery of a now-defunct underground festa raises questions regarding Le Wolfe Academy president Dirk Eberwein’s motives in wanting to get rid of the Ser Veresta.

As it stands, Asterisk War is reasonably consistent in its execution, keeping its aesthetic and overall feel more or less unchanged from the last season. For many reasons this is a good thing, particularly in its focus towards characterization and, well, basically allowing its characters to be who they are. What’s always fascinated me about this show is the amount of investment it places in its characters. From the way they value each other’s personal motives, to the thoughtful execution of tactics that are more or less extensions of their own personalities. Ayato, for example, is the quintessential “hero of justice” who possesses a vast amount of power that is deemed “dangerous” by his family, hence he is placed under a binding spell by his older sister. Ayato is, in a sense, youthful potential without focus or direction — an unstable mixture of power without a clear sense of purpose — and his indecision is what makes him mirror his older sister’s resolve to “protect him” when he, himself, does not understand what it means to protect someone until he meets Julis. When he finally finds the resolve to protect her, she learns to trust and open up to him as his partner for the Phoenix Festa.

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In fact, it’s this trust that they share that makes these two so endearing as characters. Julis’ tactics may be overly simple when you think about it, but it’s their display of trust and teamwork that gives the series its edge above other the battle shows out there. In fact it’s refreshing (and almost unheard of) to see a male lead and his tsundere female partner actually cooperate this well without having to digress into meaningless babble. Of course, the show isn’t devoid of these moments, but they tend to serve more as an addition to their dynamic rather than detract from their established intimacy with one another. And this isn’t just an intimacy on the level of romance. Though Julis clearly possesses a guarded personality — her limited use of magical spells and the resultant surprise whenever she uses a new one is reflective of this — she is still a very caring person who takes seriously to Ayato’s desire to help her. And it was lovely to see her go beyond her selfish tendencies to monopolize Ayato when she asked Saya to give Ayato a pep talk when he was obviously brooding over the whereabouts of his older sister.

Even Saya’s characterization and overall dynamics with Ayato took a lovely turn this season. Her deadpan expressions, though an obvious cookie-cutter role for any harem show, earned a hint of endearment to it when she reassured Ayato regarding his sister. Even her interactions with Kirin took a massive step forward in a scene where Kirin asks if she was hoping on the “favor ticket” given to her by Ayato to serve as a good luck charm in their upcoming match. Denying this, Saya goes on to explain that it would be both of their efforts that would lead them to victory. In fact, Saya’s efforts to take a step forward and become a team player despite her own misgivings, such as helping out Julis deal with Ayato even if she’d personally not want to make them any closer than she’d prefer, shows a sense of maturity that betrays her small frame. She may appear passive, but she is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

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And then there’s Kirin, a girl who showed a remarkable amount of resolve last season, but now stands side-by-side with Saya looking as confident as ever. She mirrors Ayato in terms of skill as a swordsman, but she lacks the resolve to pursue her own ambitions. But unlike Ayato, she has a goal that she wishes to obtain — and when she gains her resolve, she becomes an unstoppable force, cool and full of confidence. Her pairing together with Saya was also a serendipitous meeting of souls as the two compliment each other nicely. Their shared sense of purpose — to help their fathers — allows them to easily share each other’s burdens in a way that Ayato has yet to realize in his relationship with Julis.

But it’s in realizing this that Ayato is able to break his first seal. Blindly protecting someone but not allowing the other to grow as a result of it is not a responsible use of power. And so Ayato ALLOWS Julis to get hurt, to bear the brunt and pain of knowing it takes blood, sweat, and tears to achieve a dream. He realizes that when Julis says she wants to protect Ayato as well, it means that she wants to share in his suffering — that his hunt for his sister is just as much her own goal as it is his. They are too invested in one another to think separately anymore. If Ayato is going to become stronger, he’ll have to learn how to trust his partner more than simply following her plans to the note.

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All of this characterization would not have been possible if not for the show’s insistent need to have to spend time with its characters. Granted it enjoys throwing in fan service quips (although only modestly compared to other shows out there), there’s a certain depth in this show as a character piece that is, honestly, not that obvious at first appearances. And for that reason, I honestly wish this show could have aired as a continuous cour. Because as it stands, there are a lot of references in this cour that go way, way back (Saya mentions that her dad is basically a supercomputer having lost most of his body in episode 16, and this explains why she gave a sideward look after Ayato asked her how her father was doing back in episode 2), so splitting up the show was definitely a minus in terms of viewer investment. On that note, I highly recommend people who are still interested in this show to re-watch the first season to catch some of the loose threads — and believe me, there are a lot of loose threads.

As for other aspects, the action is still relatively conservative, where fluid motion scenes could actually stand to last a bit longer. The choreography is just okay, and there are some obvious efforts to cut animation cells. Despite this, the action is still pretty engaging and enjoyable as a whole. The latter episodes appear to have introduced new depth-of-field filters that adds polish to the show, and was a very pleasing addition to see. The music still works better during the downtimes than it does during the fights where it tends to lack tension and bite to drive the on-screen action forward.

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Overall, The Asterisk War was a surprising show for me. It was initially “just another battle show”, but it took a while before it showed a more reflective side to itself, owing to a pretty well-constructed cast of characters in a pleasingly well thought out sci-fi battle world. It’s an unassuming piece that actually has pretty major strengths going for it, if only it didn’t skimp out on the compelling action set pieces. It played a counterintuitive game of characterization over the usual trappings of battle shows, but that simply means it could easily be overlooked by people longing for more bite in their shows. But instead of bite, Asterisk War provides a very engaging story if you’re in it for the characters and what makes them tick. It’s certainly not going to be a favorite for most, but anyone who likes a good story with reasonably competent battle elements to it will likely enjoy this show nonetheless, making it a solid recommendation if you have yet to do so.

 

Overall Grade (1st cour): B-
Story – B-
Animation – B
Art – B-
Music – C+

Current Grade (2nd cour): B

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