Ultra Maniac: Magical Girl (Volume 1) (DVD)

It’s about time that someone combined anime and karaoke.

Ayu Tateishi is the star of her school’s tennis team, gets good grades, and has a lot of friends. Her biggest problem is her crush on the local pretty-boy, Kaji. She adores him, but is too shy to do anything like, say, actually talk to him. If that weren’t enough of a concern, Ayu’s best friend, Nina Sakura, just happens to be a witch-in-training, living undercover with a host family. Nina is from the “Magic Kingdom” and, as part of her training, she must live for a while among the muggles…uh, I mean, the humans. But that doesn’t stop her from casting the occasional spell to help Ayu get closer to Kaji. Meanwhile, the school’s resident nerd, known only as “The Chairman,” suspects something is up with Nina. All he needs is proof.

This DVD features the series’ first four episodes:

• “Ayu and Nina”
If it’s a romance/fantasy series, where better to begin than with a “love potion” episode? A piece of enchanted chocolate could result in true love, so of course it’s a disaster when the wrong person eats it. Nina’s shocking solution to the problem lands half the student body in the school infirmary.

• “Boy Meets Girl”
Nina is reunited with Yuta, another resident of the Magic Kingdom, who takes an instant liking to Ayu. Yuta’s also the owner of a magic camera that can reveal the heart’s desire of anyone whose photo it takes. It doesn’t take long before our girls decide to use it on Kaji. But the secrets the camera reveals are not quite what Ayu expected.

• “Changeover”
Nina has come up with the perfect idea to help Ayu win a boys vs. girls tennis match. The gender-bending solution leaves Ayu and Nina in uncomfortable new roles. But their predicament could turn into an opportunity to get to know Kaji in a new way. Plus, there’s karaoke. Lots and lots of karaoke.

• “D.C. (Da Capo)”
After three episodes of seeing the girls in action, we finally learn how they first met. Several elements of the series that were only hinted at before are now fully explained, making this an interesting way to wrap up the action on this first volume.

Definitely aimed at younger audiences, this witch is a little less Willow and a little more Sabrina. Nina innocently calls upon her reality-bending powers with the best of intentions, to help her friend land the guy of her dreams. And yet, time and time again, Nina learns that taking the easy way out only leads to more problems. The storylines might be simple, and everything is dripping with pure cuteness and sweetness, but somehow the creators pull it off without getting too preachy or annoying.

I know the “magical transforming girl” has somehow become its own genre in anime, but I wonder about the need for it here. Each episode includes an elaborate transformation sequence in which Nina, in preparation for casting a spell, dons her red witch outfit. It seems the creators have blown their entire CGI budget on these sequences, and yet they are overly long and don’t seem to move the story forward in any way. All the time spent transforming just distracts from whatever crazy crisis the girls have to deal with.

If you’re overly sensitive to the messages TV offers young girls—intentional or otherwise—then you might be hesitant about Ultra Maniac. For example, the girls’ bodies appear to be made out of toothpicks. Even the skinniest runway models aren’t this skinny. Also, Ayu is an academic and athletic overachiever, but she’s still hopelessly boy-crazy. Keep in mind, these are minor complaints about a light and upbeat series that carries positive messages about the importance of friendship and the value of a job well done, but they could be enough to turn away some viewers.

The transfer is excellent, even though the animation quality doesn’t have the “wow” factor of the best anime. The 2.0 sound is serviceable, but could be more powerful when the music kicks in. Viewers have their choice between an English dub and the original Japanese with English subtitles. Like most anime releases, this one features a textless opening sequence. But instead of separating it as an extra, it can be viewed that way during the episode, like a subtitle option. Trailers for three other Geneon releases are included.

Some editions of the disc come with a 16-page preview of the Ultra Maniac graphic novel, courtesy of Shojo Beat Manga. Written and drawn by Wataru Yoshizumi, the black-and-white comic has the same tone as the anime: cute and inoffensive. In this version, Nina and Ayu meet under different circumstances. But other than that, the characters are the same ones we recognize from the series. The comic is printed in a right-to-left style, which takes some getting used to. However, this format allows the comic to be translated with minimal alterations to Yoshizumi’s original artwork, so therefore it is welcomed.

Even for a bubblegum cartoon, Ultra Maniac is not perfect, but kids today could be watching a lot worse.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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