Dumb doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. Dumb can be good. Nobody knows this better than the anime industry, which loves its silly, goofy fanservice shows. Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts takes this concept and runs with it – what if our heroes were just as dumb as the show they’re in? A potential comedy goldmine right? Wrong sadly. Sometimes, when you add dumb and dumb together, all you get is a mess.
It’s a shame too, because Baka and Test is built on a potentially interesting spin on the classic high school comedy formula. Fumizuki Academy is an establishment with a few twists – here education is less of a pursuit and more of an all out war. Students are placed into classes ranked A to F, with the geniuses in class A receiving all the pampered comforts of modern life, whereas Class F slum it in a draughty classroom with broken furniture. There is a chance for those lower down the food chain to advance however. Any class can call a ‘Summoner Test War’ against another class, and every student can summon an adorable super-deformed avatar of themselves to battle their opponents, with skills based on their exam results. It’s a very cool concept, and the avatars are adorable little pieces of design. The show is definitely at its strongest when focussing on the Summoner Test War aspect, as it does in the opening and closing story arcs. These stories are exciting, fun and filled with decent action and some surprisingly interesting fights. But due to a slightly contrived plot point, there’s no wars at all for the entire middle portion of the series, and it’s here the problems begin to show.
Problems like the absurdly boring cast for example. Main character Akihisa continues in the grand tradition of the comedy shounen protagonist by being dumb as a sack of hammers, and though that’s meant to be part of the joke, he really goes above and beyond the call of duty. He’s accompanied by a parade of cardboard cut out clichés who embody the very worst of modern anime characterisation. Ready to list the stereotypes? Here we go! There’s the requisite two girls who have hopeless and inexplicable crushes on our protagonist, the polite, quiet and busty Mizuki and the violent flat chested tsundere Minami. There’s Yuji, the straight man best friend who’s pursued by his coldly crazy stalker Shoko who loves to physically abuse him and hit him with a taser. There’s the class pervert who tries to take upskirt photos of all the girls. There’s the psycho lesbian who constantly tries to grope Minami. There’s…you get the idea. About the only even vaguely original character is Akihisa’s friend Hideyoshi, whose feminine looks and penchant for accidentally dressing up in girl’s clothing mean everyone think’s he’s actually a girl.
If you’re thinking that could lead to a good laugh or two, then you’re right. There’s a couple of great laughs to be had the first time they make a joke about Hideyoshi needing a separate changing room. In fact, it’s so funny they make EXACTLY the same joke about ten minutes later. Don’t worry if you think you missed a punchline, it’s bound to be repeated ad nauseam over the course of the 13 episode run. Most of these jokes aren’t even very funny in the first place, seeing as how they’re spins on stuff we’ve seen thousands of times before. Someone being armlocked after cracking a pun about how small Minami’s breasts are might raise an unwitting chuckle the first time, but by the time you’re a half dozen episodes in you’ll have seen it so many times all it’ll elicit is a sigh. Without the Summoner Test Wars the show descends into a by the numbers school comedy that practically radiates unoriginality. You’ve seen all of this done before a thousand times better, and the middle half of the show is an utter slog to get through as a result. Actual fanservice content is mild but there’s still some profoundly creepy bits that certainly didn’t help endear the show to me.
Surprisingly however, there’s still some positives left to take away. Art is a pleasant surprise, with a bright, energetic visual style that often uses dotted backgrounds for a pleasingly pop-art look. Character designs are simple but pleasant to look at, and animating studio Silver Link brings decent energy and pop to the animation, successfully hiding some at times pretty basic visuals. The real treat here though is the dub, which in my opinion is absolutely better than the original Japanese (which is competent but a little flat). Sterling performances from Josh Grelle, Scott Freeman, Brina Palencia and a strong ensemble cast make the show a much more enjoyable watch in English. Extras wise this set is a strong package, with the usual clean openings and closings present and well supplemented by TV promo spots and a collection of mini ‘omake’ episodes, each 3-5 minutes long, although bear in mind these are only available in subtitled form.
Ultimately then, Baka and Test isn’t egregiously bad. But then it’s not incredibly good ether. In fact, it’s something worse than both – it’s kind of boring. Barring the Summoner Test War, a good idea that’s critically underused, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen in a million shows before, often done considerably better. It’s the anime equivalent of junk food – it’ll do the job and is occasionally tasty, but it’s trashy, kind of bad for you, and you definitely won’t remember it the next day.
Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts is released on 28th May and is available to order now on Amazon.