Monday, June 25, 2012

Super Gals! Review

Super Gals! Kotobuki Ran, abbreviated to Super Gals!, is a 52 episode shoujo anime series made by Studio Pierrot. It ran from summer 2001 to fall 2002, and is based on the "Gals" manga by Mihona Fujii.


Premise: Ran Kotobuki is well-known as the #1 gal in Shibuya, and she lives to shop, eat, and have as much fun as possible. But she's not all faux nails and para para; in the midst of all of her goofing off, she protects Shibuya from all manner of undesirable people, and she often devotes herself to helping both friends and strangers out of trouble, big and small. Of course, she'd rather be eating free food and scoring good deals on clothes, but getting someone out of a big pinch can be just as fun for her. Because of this, she's widely respected by the denizens of Shibuya, and although she may look (and even act) a bit shallow, she's got a big heart and a sense of justice that could put her Police Chief father to shame. But she's not interested in that line of work, much to her family's dismay. All she wants is to hang out with her best friends Miyu and Aya, and continue spending her days as Shibuya's #1 gal.
 -- ANN

     So, throughout its 52 episode run, Super Gals! has the same opening song. Though perhaps entertaining at first (though perhaps not, depending on your musical tastes), the song gets rather old eventually. The singer's voice start to grate on your ears, and the tiny addition of the harmonica right at the end, or rather, knowing that it's coming, gets a little worse each time. This example applies to the entire series; Super Gals! starts off entertaining enough, but when everything stays the same, when you know how everything is going to end, when you know every single gimmick the show is going to try to pull, it gets boring and old. And that - being old (and therefore boring) is Super Gals!'s biggest failing.

     Before we talk about that in full, though, let's talk about how that applies to the more technical elements of the series. Let's start the biggest offender, the visuals. Now, Super Gals (I'll drop the exclamation point) is not a particularly high budget anime. Or rather, if it is, it has no right to be. For the first several episodes, it looks a little low budget, but not bad for 2001. However, as the series progresses, the art starts getting worse and worse, reaching it's first dire visual offense in episode 35 with this:

Uploaded as a .PNG file so that there would be no loss in quality. It's low quality enough as it is.
     Look at how unnatural and (dare I say it) childish this appears. Miyu (the one in pink) is standing awkwardly, Ran (in blue with the red streak in her hair) is poorly drawn, Rei (the one with black hair) looks weirdly taller than the rest because his legs have no details to give them form, and also appears to be missing his left arm. The only one who seems to have had any work put into him is Tatsukichi, and even he is very simple looking. Now, this isn't really an extreme example or anything. The artwork stays pretty bad throughout the rest of the show (though it does get better in the last 10 or so episodes), so this particular screencap is more a strong representation of the rule than it is an exception. No, it rarely gets this bad again, but it gets quite close, quite often. The biggest problem is that "stays bad" part. Look at this screencap, taken from episode 49:

Is this even anime anymore?
     The show starts looking downright cheap. And cheap is not a good look. The art goes from okay looking big eyed shoujo to (sometimes very) poorly drawn big eyed shoujo. Just to illustrate one more time, please compare this screencap of Miyu, taken from episode 30 something:


...and compare it to this screencap of her, taken from one of the first ten episodes.


     The quality difference is pretty clear. What's with those ultra high lips, that ridiculously thin neck, and that disproportionate right arm in the image from the later episode? This is not the correct way to keep consistent character design. As poor as the the artwork is, however, it's not all bad. The art style, for one, is very overdosed shoujo. Character's eyes are HUGE. No, they typically take up between 1/3 and 1/4 (leaning towards 1/3) of a character's face. This is actually not a bad thing. The uses of big eyes in animated works are many, and have a lot of advantages. I won't even try to list them all here. Just know that they there are some psychological benefits to big eyes. Furthermore, shoujo and shoujo style are usually associated with big eyes. By taking that the extreme (within reason - usually), Super Gals manages to capture a really "girly" feel in the art style. And considering the lack of other things that support that feeling (and how important that kind of feeling is - or should be - in this show), that's a really good thing. Another plus about the art is its strong use of color.

Pretty darn colorful
     At first glance, it seems kind of amateurishly done, and indeed, that may be the case. The colors don't really have any kind of realistic gradation, nor do they very properly reflect different lighting or anything like that. If you were to compare this with, say, Mushishi, then - actually, no. It would be downright cruel of me to compare the artwork of these two shows. My point is, the use of colors in Super Gals isn't especially realistic. But it is very colorful, and I don't mean that as a pun. Colors in Super Gals are just so vibrant, so pop-outey, that they deserve a little bit of respect. Things stand out and contrast and clash with each other, and there are so many different colors that you feel like you're always looking at rainbows (admittedly opaque and flat rainbows, but rainbows nonetheless). This is good. For a show that claims to be about fashion, having lots of pretty colors flying in the viewers' faces is a really good way to make outfits and character pop out, which is exactly what the fashion style they're attempting to emulate is about. Now, don't get me wrong. The artwork in Super Gals sucks. It's pretty dang terrible by anime standards, and by drawing standards in general. But I'd be remiss if I didn't give credit where credit is due. It's not totally without its good points, but they can't even get close to saving it from being bad. Unfortunately, the animation in Super Gals is similarly poor.


     I said that Super Gals looks low budget and cheap. This is much more apparent in the animation than it is in the artwork, because it's easy to see from the get go. Throughout the show, rather unsubtle re-usage of animation segments is quite common. Whether it's the exact same animation segment (a la the Junior Detectives' "theme song") or the same motion put on a different background, it's obvious, and it looks bad. The animation itself is pretty minimal. I've seen more impressive (original) animated gifs on the internet (though then again, some of the gifs I've seen on the net have been very well made). I've also seen less impressive ones, but my point is, the animation is pretty darn poor. It's still better than the abysmal artwork, especially when put into context (i.e. it's from 2001), but not by much.


     The other major technical area of the show, the sound, is a little better. The music is nothing special and most tracks are criminally overused, but it's not bad. I often call music scores in anime really good, perhaps even show-saving, but Super Gals does not possess such a soundtrack. It manages to match the style of the show pretty well, but doesn't add to or build off it in any real way. As for the voice acting, I have mixed feelings. Most of the characters were remarkably well cast, with Ran sounding pseudo-masculine (I'll explain why that works in a bit), Miyu sounding girly, Aya sounding constantly worried and angsty, and so forth. Every character's voice matches their personality very well. But most of the voice acting could only be called decent. It's not lazy by any means, but there's very little emotion in character's voices (relative to other anime shows). Furthermore, the script dialogue is very limiting. It feels like they could have just recorded every characters' lines ahead of time and used them beforehand. When you hear Ran saying "Maji?!" hungrily for the umpteenth time, it sounds exactly the same as it did the first time. Even though characters are saying new lines, it always sounds and feels like the few dialogues did. Not exactly a cardinal sin (and the consistency could be considered a plus), but it makes everything feel kind of mechanical and static (and things not-changing is this show's biggest problem). The other issue with the voice acting is that, though characters are cast pretty well, they have really gosh dang annoying voices. Not true of everyone, but I highly doubt that anyone can truthfully admit to like Mami's voice. This isn't a jab at the voice actors, but rather at the voices of the characters. Yes, Rie Kugiyama was probably a great choice for Sayo (fun fact: according to wiki, this was Rie Kugiyama's fifth role), but Sayo and her incessant "datchu" accent is ultimately more irritating than it is endearing. These are all pretty minor problems compared to the severe visual gaffes in the show, but they're enough to make the sound only par, at best.

Never happened with this show.
     Next, let me talk about two things at once, the characters and the story. This is an area of great interest, mainly because of how strange characters and the roles they play in the story are. See, Super Gals described as a shoujo series, and indeed, it is. But it's lead, Ran Kotobuki, has characteristics more usually associated with shounen series. She's insensitive but cares about her friends, can eat a seemingly infinite amount of food and is always hungry, is a good fighter and often resolves things with physical action, and has a strong sense of personal justice. Does that sound familiar to anyone else? *cough*Luffyamongmanyothers*cough* This is what I meant by her "masculine" voice matching her character. Now, no, Ran isn't manly, nor is she "butch" (at least not in the colloquial sense), and she is even girly at times. And her voice does actually sound like a girl's voice. But it's kind of tomboyish and rough, and that goes well with her strangely shounen-lead characteristics.

Well, I wouldn't say she can't be distinguished at all, but...
     Normally, all this wouldn't be a problem. But in shounen and shoujo series, the main character is pretty dang important. They are, in a way, the lifeline of the series. They are intended either for you to project yourself onto (think harem leads), or for you to look up to and want to emulate or be like (or be in the position they're in). Haven't you ever wanted to be like Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin and really kick some low-life's butt? Haven't you ever wanted to be in Haruhi's position in Ouran High School Host Club, surrounded by attractive dudes and rich luxuries? These are the kinds of feelings shounen and shoujo shows are meant to produce. They essentially let you live out some part of your fantasies. And the two types should rarely, if ever, meet. Even if Ichigo from Bleach got genderbent, he still wouldn't make a good replacement for Sawako from Kimi ni Todoke. In the same way, anybody with Sawako's mannerisms would be a pretty terrible shounen lead. No one that nice could participate in a good fight scene. The two styles are simply incompatible, as I said. So how can Ran have shounen mannerisms? Well, the rest of the series has to adjust.


     There are two things shoujo series are usually associated with: romance, and drama. Ran forces both of these things to the backburner. No personality traits she possesses really mesh with either of those elements (she is too preoccupied and insensitive for either of them to have much effect on her). Again, this wouldn't be a problem, except Ran is the main character. And remember, shounen and shoujo series thrive on their main characters. Ran simply doesn't allow for romance/drama stories to be told about her, and the series can spend little time on other character's stories (because Super Gals is about Ran). This means that the stories have to be relegated to the kinds of plots that fit well with Ran's character, i.e. shounen style ones. Basically, the problem with having a shounen style protagonist is that it forces the show into shounen style stories. I'm going to make a very broad generalization, and say that there are two basic types of shounen stories: Battle stories, and Romantic Comedy stories. The former, Super Gals is certainly not. There is some violence (though that's a strong term for it) and plenty of resolving things through force, but there are absolutely no elements indicative of a "battle" kind of story (no increasingly difficult opponents, special moves, "tournament" set-ups, or anything else like that). The "romance" parts of shounen RomComs are, generally speaking, harem/ecchi elements. That is entirely incompatible with a shoujo series. So cross off the "romantic" part. What you're left with is shounen comedy. Shounen comedy doesn't really work on its own so well. It can be good humor, and it can certainly be funny, but the style of humor requires interspersing with something else. It could be considered a funny character gimmick that Ran is always hungry or chooses food over relationships. Indeed, this gimmick serves as the punchline a lot of times. But the reason it's funny in something like, say D.Gray Man, is because it shows up (relatively) uncommonly, and not when you always expect it to. It's interspersed with action and other jokes, which makes the punchline consistently funny when you see it (or it hasn't been long enough or evenly enough interspersed, and it isn't funny). These are basic rules of comedy. The problem is, largely because of Ran and her character, Super Gals is limited (or rather, limits itself) to only one kind of comedy, shounen comedy. It usually revolves around one of her character gimmicks/personality traits, or slapstick humor. These jokes, even if the punchlines are different, can only be funny so many times over if they don't have something of substance between them.


     Super Gals is far too often funneled into shounen style comedy stories and simplistic, easily resolved plots because of Ran. While this is a problem in and of itself (because there is so little else that the jokes get old), it creates the arguably much bigger issue of a style conflict. See, for all the shounen style stories Super Gals is relegated to, it is still a shoujo series. The overarching plot (and that's a loose term) is typically about drama or romance in other characters, and Ran purpose is usually to solve the issues that crop up from those elements. If Super Gals were a shounen series, than Ran's mannerisms wouldn't really be a problem. But it's not. Instead, it's a fundamentally shoujo series with a shounen-esque lead, which forces the stories to be told in a certain way (i.e. the shounen way). As I went over earlier, shounen and shoujo styles are, for the most part, incompatible. So how can these two genres exist together in one show? Only with a constant conflict between the two. It has the substance of a shoujo series, but the style of a shounen one, and the result is a rather poorly constructed story.

Not really laughably bad...just poor.
     Let me give you an example. There's this one episode where Miyu is working at a part-time job and her employer tries to force her into being a prostitute for a pimp he knows. What's the best way to solve this conflict? Dropping a giant cake on his head and walking away, of course (that's Ran's solution)! See, this kind of resolution to drama is much more shounen in its style. The conflict's solution is simplistic in nature (both in what it is, and how well it works out - the guy doesn't show up again or try to stop Ran or Miyu in case they, say, revealed his very illegal secret), and overall is very light-hearted. This is by no means the only example of this happening in the series, and it really shows the stylistic conflict that's happening. The show's stories are built around drama (serious drama, in fact - it deals with both self- and forced-prostitution, inferiority, jealousy, bad relationships, popularity, and several other rather heavy topics), but the resolution to that drama - and in some cases even its buildup - is always light-hearted and pretty easy. And drama has this tendency to feel unimportant and superficial if it can be resolved really easily. It lacks its punch, its edge, that thing that really makes you care and want to find out the resolution. And once you know that everything has an easy solution, things get boring.

You won't be gripped like this.
     How could this have been fixed? Well, the immediate problem of the poorly done drama was mostly a stylistic problem, and thus incorporating more shoujo style could have fixed it. Forcing the drama to be taken seriously and to have big consequences and permanent solutions would likely have made this show marginally better. Of course, the drama could still be poorly executed, but there would no longer be the style conflict making everything feel "off." However, the bigger problem of the two styles colliding in nearly every story could only be fixed in one way: changing the main character. While this does not necessarily mean that a character other than Ran must be put in the lead (Ran could have her personality quirks changed), the easiest way by far to go about this is by making Miyu the main character. Let's do a quick comparison of the characters.


     Ran has too few worries, which makes her drama superficial and light-hearted. Aya has too many worries, which makes her drama constant (and therefore predictable, boring, and uninteresting after a while) and too difficult for her to solve on her own. And indeed, almost all of Aya's problems are solved only because of something other characters said, did, or accepted. Miyu, by contrast, represents the ideal middle ground. She has enough anxiety and worry to make her drama interesting and serious, but also has enough cheer to make her a fun, likeable character that isn't too angsty. She can exist at the center of both light-hearted and serious stories without any kind of stylistic or character conflict. I mean, look at Miyu's character, personality, and setting traits. She's hardworking, responsible, invested in the gal fashion & culture, studies hard, has financial trouble (needs scholarships and works at multiple jobs), hits hard times in life, has family problems, cares about her friends, is sensitive to social flows, has a comparatively dark past, and is in a relationship. If you didn't realize, that's pretty dang good material for a shoujo lead. She has enough to differentiate herself from Generic Shoujo Lead #103 (A.K.A. Tohru), who can cook, clean, be nice, and find herself in a dream shoujo harem. But Miyu also has the right traits to make her easy to relate to. Girls like Ran are too carefree for us to really relate to; they have too few problems, which we would be envious of, if anything (not really a good position to have towards a lifeline). Miyu of course doesn't have this problem. But generic shoujo leads tend to lack elements that make them stand out as characters, as individuals. This all leads up to the most disappointing thing about Super Gals.


     See, Super Gals had the chance to be something really unique. Think for a second about how many shoujo series feature "bad" or delinquent characters as leads. Probably not too many, right? See, Super Gals could have married this idea with the ubiquity of shoujo leads being hardworking, diligent, nice people, and it could have easily done so, if only Miyu had taken the lead. Even beyond the potential of doing something different, the fact that the show wasted the perfect vessel for teen drama is rather frustrating, because what we got instead was a comedy show with probably fewer than 20 jokes repeated for over 30 episodes.


     I suppose I should take a step back and give you a more encompassing view of the characters and the story, though. The characters in Super Gals, for all the "miscasting" issues, aren't really terrible. Miyu is usually very enjoyable to see, Ran can be amusing, and Aya makes good episode material. The side characters are generally pretty good too. While there are probably one or two you'll hate every time they come on (for me it was Sayo and her group), for the most part the cast is actually pretty good. If I had to name one strength this show has, it would be the characters. Some of them (like Ran) are terribly miscast, and others lack the necessary elements to make them good, but they're all pretty unique. This is one of the only shows for which I remember the names of the entire cast without trouble more than a week after finishing it. They're memorable, and memorable is good. And it's a good thing, too, because they aren't much else. While there are some rather nicely constructed characters like Miyu, most are rather flat and none are particularly dynamic (Aya being the only one who makes any kind of significant change). It's not enough to make them bad, per se. But they certainly aren't great. On their own, the characters themselves are above average, but their use in the series pulls them down.

The three most important characters in the series. All together...well, they're pretty good.

     As for the episode plots...meh. They're nothing special. We have everything from Ran participating in Gal contests to personality swaps to the occasional back story (which is where most of the drama comes from). For the most part, the show is centered around comedy. This is a problem, because the comedy is very average - character gimmicks, repetition, and over exaggeration - but much worse it's overused. No matter how funny the first time, if a punchline is used over and over and over again, it gets boring. I already went over this earlier, so I won't get into again here. Bottom line is, the stories are mainly centered around comedy, and since the comedy in this show is poor, the stories end up being bland. The plots and stories themselves aren't bad, but they don't provide anything really unique in and of themselves. The stories more serve as a vessel for the other elements, and with everything else being either close to or well below the "average" line, the result if lack luster, to say the least. I actually had to force myself to watch the next episode several times, and that's never a good sign.

Nope.
     On that note, it's worth mentioning that the last ten or so episodes of the show are comparatively outstanding. The artwork doesn't get much better, but there is a seemingly exponential growth in the amount of animation. The story takes a serious turn for once, since every characters' drama has to be resolved. Perhaps most surprisingly, the comedy steps things up as well, with different jokes, plays on previous punchlines, and so forth. While it's still nothing astounding and it does get a little worse in the last two episodes, it stands out enough that it deserves a mention. While some of the improvements were mere side effects of the story coming to a close, it helps vindicate suffering through the comparatively terrible middle episodes, even if it doesn't make up for them.

A graph of the shows quality as it goes on (more or less). Episode number of bottom, out of 10 rating on the left.
     The biggest problem with Super Gals, though, is not the old, boring jokes or the terrible visuals, but the failure to be about what it meant to be. It's hinted at in several of the episodes and even exists in a couple of the plots, but it's never outright said. See, at its core, Super Gals is about the issues surrounding being popular, being unpopular, dealing with family, friend, and school issues, following your own set of ideals, and dealing with confusion about relationships. The themes in some of the plots and even the plots themselves (as I mentioned above) both contribute to this, but the series opted to go instead for a lighter comedy theme, which turned out to be a mistake. While people often complain about shows having to much teen anxiety and depression in them, if ever a show need more angst, it'd be Super Gals. The decision to make Ran the main character despite her non-shoujo personality traits and the deliberate attempt at making the series less serious are the real faults with the show, not its poor visuals or average sound.

If only this applied to anime, too.

     Super Gals is a disappointing show. It had the chance to be something remarkably unique, but it squandered that chance for cheap, overused jokes and silly, "fun," lighthearted stories, which works in some shows, but can't quite cut it in this one. Now, "disappointing" does not necessarily equal "bad," keep in mind. There are good points to this show. It is funny (when they aren't using the same joke again and again), it does have some good characters (issues aside), and it provides an interesting insight into the Kogal subculture, if nothing else. These things aren't enough to save the show, unfortunately.
     Plot/Story: The story of Super Gals is nothing outstanding. Most of the stories are little more than comedy set-ups for Ran. The only real "serious" stories come from Aya's drama, but unfortunately the story about a girl tossed between several jerks is less than satisfying. On the other hand, they're nothing really bad. I was consistently engaged in the events happening in each episode. The problem is that the episodes have a bad tendency of lacking both an overall purpose and any kind of good "hook." It didn't take long for me to have no interest in watching the next episode, and the majority of the one's I watched didn't really feel important. If the drama had been more focused on and the episode stories had built upon each other more, than it likely would have been much improved, but as it stands the stories in this series are a little too unimportant for their own good.
     Characters: Sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing, always memorable, the characters are possibly the best thing about Super Gals. While Ran was a poor choice for the lead, the excellence of Kiyu's character and her stories make up for it. Overall, the good outweighs the bad, but just barely.
     Sound: Sometimes annoying, sometimes overused, always good enough, the music is possibly the best thing about Super Gals (see what I did there?). The music is average (not good not bad), but the voice acting is pretty good. Not every line gets a good delivery, but many do, and the voice actors have a put a lot of energy and character into their performances.
     Visuals: Though they started out good enough, the quality of the visuals in this series deteriorated quickly, and it showed. The relatively low amounts of animation were forgivable early on when the art was still good, but just became another issue when the character quality tanked. The biggest saving grace of the show is the impressive amount of different clothes the characters wear. While little else in the series supported the supposed theme of fashion, the characters certainly do have a lot of clothes. The art may take a dip, but you'll see them in plenty of different outfits.

Overall: This show is good for making the audience think. "What if this series had been done right?" "How would someone deal with these situations in reality where not everything works out?" Unfortunately, these are due more to audience interactions then they are due to the series itself, and it would be wrong to credit a show for what the audience does in response. Watch this series if you have time to waste and want an average comedy with a unique backdrop (Kogal culture). Otherwise, approach with caution. It would be a perfect average show, if not for some unique elements, overused jokes, and awful visuals.

Got feedback? Be it suggestions, requests, criticisms, or even <gasp> compliments, I read it all, so go ahead and post a comment!

2 comments:

  1. Really, after 5 times I tried to re-read this the only thing that catches my mind is 'Super Gals is old and poorly drawn with bad characters'

    oh and don't forget this words that are shorter then Pippi Long stocking stocking's that you wrote 'super gals is a disappointing show'

    what a, GREAT way to write an opinion. Anyway, I don't really get what you meant and even though this make me sounded like an idiot it's more like I'm too lazy to care about this shit since I'll forget about it 5 minutes later but I think that I should give a crap to it.

    I don't think Mihona Fujii really cared or pay attention to write a 'perfect well meaning stories'. She creates the manga for fun, and she said it herself that Super Gals isn't her main project. And what about Miiko by Ono Eriko? You don't know if that's a shoujo or a shounen just like this super gals issue your perpetuating.

    I mean, it's fun to read it (I gots to say, I don't like the anime Super Gals!) and it's very light and bringing up my confident and setting up my goals.

    Since the first time I read this till I got into the middle, I was thinking not to give a shit into this since it's just a review and an opinion. But you really cracked me up at the last moment. I mean seriously, don't you think you sounded more like madame redwine with it's 'oh, danielle, this isn't perfect enough for an anime since it doesn't suit and too much of a drama and I can't see the positives in it and if I do I'm just gonna write that down and forget about it and write a horrible reviews since no on really read this article anyway'

    Ahhh, I feel so much better. So anyway, don't bother to reply this since I don't think I'll remember how I shitting dislike this article. But, debatable article thou. Toodles<3

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