Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight!

Title: Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight! aka Manabi Straight!
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Company: ufotable
Format: 12 episodes
Dates: 8 Jan 2007 – 26 Mar 2007

Synopsis: In 2035, in a world of declining birthrates, schools are struggling for attendance and relevance. Inamori Mika is the secretary of Seoih Academy’s student council, as well as its only member. One day, on her way to school, a peculiar new transfer student named Amimiya Manami literally drops out of the sky in front of Mika. The next day at school, Amimiya, who calls herself ‘Manabi’, makes her claim to be the student council’s new president.

The Highlights
Cinematography: Daring; enhances a generally ambitious style.
Characters: Other than Manabi, insipid; difficult to swallow character development.
Themes: Pushed on many levels; drives much of the plot.
Story: Unsubstantial; difficult to care about due to weak characters.

I can’t deride a show that’s ambitious, particularly off the back of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya(1,2) and the way it impacted the anime community. But ambition alone cannot save a show when the execution is awry. Additionally, very little can save a show when the characters aren’t sympathetic. And that’s the biggest problem with Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight!; a show with a very simple plot like this needs characters and relationships worth caring about, and Manabi Straight!’s cast falls short of this on a number of accounts.

Visually, Manabi Straight! is above average but does have a few blemishes. The character designs consist of a unique pseudo-loli style (ie, the characters look much younger than they are), the pseudo-loli being something that seems to have become popular recently. The camera-work and cinematography are daring enough to match the somewhat unconventional tone set throughout the series and work well with an animation effort which is, for the most part, fluent. However, the most unconventional thing about this series is the fact that it doesn’t have a director; rather the duties of the director were shared among a team of creative staff members, such as a story director and animation director, among others. It’s a daring experiment, and tough for someone in my position to judge whether it was a success or not, but viewing the final product makes me think that a project leader could have improved the series by bringing focus and substance to a story that so needed it.

Unconventional shows almost always need an eccentric character, and this series’ was its title character, Manabi. And while Manabi oozed energy and passion that was exciting to watch, she was unfortunately surrounded by a listless cast that was dead on its feet. All of the other characters started out as generic archetypes and while they tried with all their might to become something more, the character development and relationship focus lacked impact and substance, constantly leading into a plethora of dead-ends and stagnating relationships that were supposed to be part of some larger whole, but always felt pointless. The consequence was a group of characters whose bonds were made out of over-sentimentality, rather than meaning, making it difficult to care not just about them, but also about the story.

With that said, this show deserves credit for its use of themes, and the many and varying levels on which its themes appear. None of its ideas are new (one can see the concepts of tradition and nostalgia versus an updated, yet impersonal modernness in ARIA, for example), but they’re pushed and explored with enough focus that they virtually drive the plot. The show manages to end on a high, with a final episode that generates atmosphere that went missing in the previous episodes, but atmosphere alone isn’t enough to compensate for the hole left by a lack of strong characters.

Throughout the first half of the series, it always felt as if this series was building towards something much bigger and more substantial, but ultimately it was happy to dwell on a slow moving plot in order to highlight a set of simple, yet meaningful themes. Unfortunately, its impact was limited by the fact that it couldn’t construct a sympathetic cast. At the end of the day, the show is incredibly romantic of its themes and characters, and feel-good at times but it’s purely emotive appeal leaves an anime that is little more than sappy.

The Rating: 5
5/10

Reviewed by: Sorrow-kun

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