Spoiler Alert: This is not high art… And that is completely fine. On a side note… Magical Girls + Action Harem = …Surprisingly fun combo.
Ordinary high school boy Shido discovers a mysterious girl at ground zero of a recent spacequake. Shido learns, through his sister Kotori, that the girl is one of the Spirits: mystical creatures responsible for the spacequakes. Shido is recruited to help “seal” the spirits and end their threat to mankind. There’s just one catch: the only way to seal a spirit—is to make her fall in love with you. -Crunchyroll
Figure I’ve been promising this for a while. So it’s about time I actually deliver. But first a bit of context and personal background with this little series. I’ve always loved anime. My favorite show as a kid was (and to an extent, still is) Pokemon. I grew up watching pretty much every anime that came up on Saturday mornings and started watching anime more closely after I got the Funimation channel. But then something happened around 2008. Right around the time of my transition out of Junior High School (Yes, I’m young. I get it), a certain movie hit the theaters that more or less caused the bulk of my attention to fall elsewhere – specifically comic books. I am, of course, talking about everyone’s favorite genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, the invincible Iron Man.
I’d always loved comics and superheroes. But I never treated them or anime with any degree of preference. But when Iron Man swung around and started the superhero movie boom, I found myself more fascinated with comics. It was also around this time that I stumbled across the likes of Channel Awesome (then That Guy With The Glasses) and the comic book reviewer, Linkara. Thanks in no small part to him, my interest in comics and superheroes pretty much reached critical mass and I just threw myself into that realm. I basically didn’t touch anime at all throughout High School, with a few noteworthy exceptions – chief among them being Gurren Lagann, which I got as a gift (one I’ve made no secret I half regret).
I didn’t get back into anime proper until college. Because of my particular degree program, I had a lot of free time on my hands. I’d fallen out of watching TV, really. There was rarely anything on of interest to me. So when there were no movies for me to watch, what’d I do? Well, a friend had recalled my saying I liked anime but hadn’t watched any in a while. He responded by suggesting I get back into it and even recommended a place for me to start – Date A Live. In fairness, he also recommended several other things to me that I did end up watching. But I started with this one.
Based on that story, one can probably tell that Date A Live has a rather special connection with me. It was really my first serious dive back into the anime sphere after about a 4-year off-period. But on top of that, it was technically the first anime I watched as an adult and also the first one I watched after starting to pick up a lot of the storytelling knowledge that school was granting me. I was eager to stretch those storytelling muscles and analyze pretty much anything I could afford to watch. So I turned my eye to Date A Live at the first opportunity. And what did I find?
Date A Live is one big exercise in harem antics, fan service, and over-the-top action sequences. It doesn’t really do anything you haven’t seen from the Harem genre, which is generally filled with these sort of male power fantasy stories. But damn if it’s not engaging. This, of course, should come as no surprise. After all, I basically did an entire mini-review of the anime a while back in the “What’s The Difference? Junk Food, Guilty Pleasures, and Popcorn Entertainment” editorial. If you want the annexed version of everything I’m going to say here, plus my insights into the whole idea of “guilty pleasures,” go and check out that article.
Right from the OP, Date A Live really grabbed my attention. Now, here’s the thing. I absolutely love music. I come from a very musical family. I’m especially fond of soundtracks and scores for anime, movies, and video games. Frankly, I listen to those more than I do “radio music.” I just have an ear for it.
That being said, I’m not trained or educated in music… really at all. I couldn’t tell you why something registered with me so well. A possible explanation is that it’s because the brain likes to recognize patterns. Most of the music I like has very distinct patterns, albeit in variations. For example. If you’ve watched Boku no Hero Academia at all, you’re familiar with “You Say Run.” Or rather, you’re familiar with the melody even if you haven’t heard that specific track because it’s used in most of the tracks, just with variations in instrumentation, tempo, etc… okay, I know a little about music.
My point is that the music, for whatever reason, grabbed me instantly. This effect was further enhanced by instrumental variations of the main theme used throughout the series – one in the final battle of Season 1 (returning early in Season 2), and one on piano, used for more somber moments. There’s also another track called “Serei” that plays during several scenes involving the Spirits (including when Shido first meets Tohka). Then there’s a faster, more intense version called “Pride,” that plays during a handful of action sequences. It’s stuff like this that I like because it gives your show, movie, whatever a sense of overall cohesion. Music can really enhance a series, either through variation or by using likeness to provide a sort of unity.
Another thing that really jumped out at me was the premise. Put plainly, the premise is objectively silly. But it’s also genius, in a way. It’s sort of like a reverse Magical Girl (no, not like that) situation, applied to a Harem Comedy. Having these godly powerful, extradimensional girls appear at random, then using the power of love to seal their abilities is actually a brilliant subversion. Furthermore, the decision to play with that angle by drawing the parallel to a Date Sim video game is just perfect to really add that extra notch of humor.
But don’t get me wrong. As silly as this series is, it’s not without a degree of heart. I think it’s best illustrated by the initial arc in Season 1, when Shido first meets Tohka. That whole situation actually packs a surprising amount of character establishment and growth into a short time.
Sure we don’t know the exact histories of either character (yet), but none of that is exactly relevant to the immediate story. What’s important is that Tohka doesn’t know what’s going on and is attacked by the AST every time she wakes up on Earth, generally with no one else around. So she has no reason to suspect they’re an outlier. Thus she’s incredibly weary of the world, understandably paranoid, and rather sad and lonely.
The main character, Shido, isn’t quite as interesting, on paper. But I actually found the angle kind of nice. Shido’s basically pitched as an everyman. Of course, this later turns out to be a complete lie. But he barely taps into the surface of his powers by the end of Season 2. He’s got far longer to go. The thing that perhaps makes him stand out in a world of Harem protagonists like Bell (Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls In A Dungeon?), Issei (High School DxD), or Keima (The World God Only Knows) is that he’s pretty much normal. That’s it.
He’s not a Harem-chasing pervert. He’s not a shut-in Otaku, constantly spouting references to his vices. And he’s not oblivious (either irritatingly or endearingly). He’s just a regular dude with an overdeveloped caretaker instinct from having lived with a little sister for so long. You can tell he’s exasperated by all of this in a sense. But while he complains at times, he goes through with it anyway because his desire to help these people is just that strong. Especially after seeing what Tohka went through. And considering that he doesn’t initially know about his powers, his willingness to even get involved in any of this makes him incredibly noble, adding to his likability.
As for the rest of the girls, they’re hit-and-miss. The weak link of the first season is probably Yoshino, who almost felt like a filler arc. She wasn’t, of course. She’s still around and all that. But Yoshino does next to nothing after her arc is resolved. She factors into Season 2 slightly more, but only slightly. The Yamai Twins, introduced in Season 2, are similarly low on the totem pole of importance.
There’s also Shido’s biological sister, Mana. Not a romantic route, obviously, but her whole subplot does seem a bit tacked on. She plays an important role, narratively, but it just felt like the added complication of a biological sister was unnecessary and her role could’ve been filled by Origami. Speaking of Origami, she’s arguably the second deuteragonist of the series (possibly sharing that billing with Tohko). Her aloof personality is something I like because of how they utilize it for both comedic effect and drama. There’s also Kotori, Miku, and most interestingly, Kurumi – AKA Best Girl.
I’m not kidding. Kurumi is, bar none, the most entertaining and engaging character in the series. She’s clearly psychotic, yet bizarrely sympathetic. She has the coolest power-set among them all. She’s more powerful than literally all of the others thus far (yes, that does include “Ifrit,” who only had her on edge because she was low on power). One thing that sets her apart the most, however, is that she’s basically the only Spirit with an agenda. She has motives and goals of her own. This isn’t to take anything away from the others, but there’s a distinct difference. Kurumi is an enigmatic yet driven character. The others, for the most part, are more interested in the formation of personal connections. Connections which Kurumi likes the idea of, but rejects because of her own agenda.
Kotori is revealed to be a Spirit at the end of Episode 9, and she’s an interesting character. There’s a lot we still don’t really know about her. But then, there’s a lot that the characters themselves don’t know, in general. Kotori is the “little sister” of the ensemble, and basically a Type-A Tsundere (as opposed to Tohka’s Type-B). And she’s basically the gateway to getting Shido involved in everything. All of this is more or less her design. For her part in it, her arc was pretty nice. The “little sister” thing is… eeeeh. It’s implied she was in love with him before her family adopted him, so I suppose it marginally less icky? Still pretty suspect, though. I do like there being a distinction between “White Kotori” and “Black Kotori” and how she sees the two versions of herself. And had we not seen some of the grisly and downright evil things Kurumi does, Kotori would, by far, be the scariest one among them. I mean…
Then there’s Miku, who’s basically one of Season 2’s designated villains. Because of the nature of Season 2 and where, exactly, it ended, it’s difficult to judge Miku, post-character-development. Of all the Spirits, she’s the only one whose backstory proper we’re made privy to. And it’s actually pretty interesting on its own. Though I think its effort to validate her man-hating (it gets fixed) was a little ham-fisted. Especially since it’s clear she doesn’t like anyone, so having the extra-strength hate-on for guys seems like a bit much. Yes, I know it was for the purpose of having a bisexual character in the Harem and providing an excuse for Shido to have to crossdress in a few episodes. But still.
Regardless, the overall sense of despair one gets from her background makes it easy to see how she became so cynical and wound up going so far off the deep end. Her actions in the last couple episodes go to great lengths in trying to turn her around. Culminating in her committing to a selfless act of her own, following Shido’s example. All of this really makes Miku one of the better-rounded characters. And I’m looking forward to seeing to what capacity she’ll be used in the future, now that she’s on their side.
Oh. Right. The benefit of hindsight allows me to say all of that. But one thing I feel is important to note is that when I watched this for the first time, I was less than thrilled with her. I vividly remember a lot of my viewing experience with her being defiantly telling her to shut up. Of course, then Shido did it for me and I felt vindicated. And there’s probably an article topic in there somewhere. But as much as we’re supposed to sympathize with her, she’s not initially meant to be liked.
She’s very much a villain, at first. One who’s haughty and condescending. Her cynicism has reached record highs and she is objectively wrong. But that’s fine. Villains don’t all have to be charismatic like Loki or have a point like Killmonger. As long as they’re effective, whether or not they’re likable is negligible. This can create complications for redemption arcs like hers if you do too good a job making them unlikable. But if they can somehow make Kurumi come off as redeemable, then I don’t see why not Miku, who is far less of a psychopath. Though, to be fair, Kurumi’s redeemability is kind of a cheat, given the whole “time clones” thing.
As for the fluff, the animation is excellent. I actually really love the visual style of it. The original artist of the Light Novel was actually the same as the one behind the Hyperdimension Neptunia series and it shows. There’s this really distinctive quality to their faces, mostly in the eyes. But on top of that, the anime’s style lends itself to a lot of really cool action sequences. As early as Episode 1, the show treats its audience to some fairly dynamic shots of action.
Another thing the animation helps with is the emotional core. The style actually lends itself incredibly well to characters having highly expressive faces. As such, when a moment needs to invoke a certain emotion, it’s really good at it. When Tohka looks sad, it’s quite clear. When she’s happy, it’s one of the most adorable things in the world. When she’s angry, and I mean truly angry, you can practically feel it through the screen.
The show is also funny, though more in a typical outrageous Harem Comedy kind of way. Hardly any of it is especially clever. Though it does get a good laugh every now and then. Yes, there’s a fair amount of fanservice and whatnot, but it’s tame. As Harem Comedies go, actually, Date A Live’s volume of fanservice is relatively low. It’s very present, and not at all subtle when it is there. But the series seems to generally be more interested in other things, with the fanservice as almost an afterthought. As if it’s there just to tick a box.
With that being said, the series does have its fair share of more important flaws. I already mentioned this problem to some extent, but some of the girls seem a bit superfluous. Yoshino, for example, is just kinda there. The only justification for her continuing to be there is that she’s cute and provides a fair few of both cute and funny moments. The Yamai Twins are in the same boat. And what it ultimately comes down to is a bunch of them more or less just being there to check off archetypes common (nay, required in some cases) in the Harem Genre. That isn’t to say they’re unwelcome additions to the cast. But let’s be honest. As much as this show tries to be a “Balanced Harem,” it isn’t. Tohka has a very clear lead and everyone not named Tohka occupies various tiers beneath her. With the very debatable exception of Origami.
I would like to see a little more done with these other characters. And I can only hope it’ll wind up going that way in the future. Much like my wishes for Miku. But we’ll have to see. Speaking of Miku and, in fact, the majority of Season 2, the show ran into some pacing issues there. A lot of this can easily be attributed to the season only running for 10 episodes. As such much of the narrative just felt rushed. It managed to correct the problem in the final few episodes. But there was a lot going on and some things probably could’ve used a little more time in the oven.
By absolute contrast, Season 1 actually had a few lulls that hurt the pacing of the show in the opposite direction. Or, rather, Season 1 had a few episodes in which their individual pacing was… off. One could be forgiven, for example, for not being especially hooked in the first two episodes. They were fairly slow and didn’t really get into the high concept until Episode 3, which I genuinely believe is excellent. Then, some of the episodes in the latter half, after Kurumi is introduced proper, felt a bit rushed in pacing, as well.
Despite all that, I love Date A Live. Some of the characters operate on really suspect logic. Many of them are fairly shallow and exist almost solely to be archetypes. And it’s not exactly a deeply introspective or compelling drama, with particularly thought-provoking ideas. It is everything one expects it to be. But also stands head-and-shoulders above many of its peers.
It’s not at all lazy in the aesthetics, being pretty to look at and, at times, downright beautiful. It delivers visually striking and dynamic action sequences. The characters (most of them) are likable or at least engaging and entertaining. The ones that they do take the time to explore are especially well-handled. Kurumi may well be Best Girl, but Tohka is easily the best character in the show. Helped by her consistent characterization, her ongoing (albeit subtle) character growth, and also just how darn cute she is.
There’s not much more to say. Date A Live is a favorite of mine. Pretty much the series that helped me to define Junk Food. It’s flawed, and not really going out of its way to be remarkably different. But it doesn’t have to be incredibly deep. It’s fine just being extremely enjoyable with its stylistic packaging, likable characters, and fun delivery. It also has a lot more heart than many others of its ilk and that really helps to elevate it.
I absolutely cannot wait for the upcoming third season. The show doesn’t adapt everything from across all of the media in the franchise. So it’ll be interesting to see what they decide to focus on next. In the meantime, though, Date A Live is available to stream on Crunchyroll. Go forth and check it out.
That’s all I’ve got for ya here. As always, thanks for reading, folks. Keep up the awesome.