Special A Complete Collection (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Friday, April 01, 2011
Release Date: Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The best of the best are in their own special class – and their own special world that’s heavily separated from other students.

What They Say
Until she was six, Hikari was always the best at everything she did. Right up until the moment she challenged Kei to a wrestling match and HE won. Ever since that wretched day, Hikari's entire life has been structured around beating Kei at SOMETHING, but try as she might, she always seems to come up just short! Now, a decade later, he's the top student and athlete at their very exclusive high school and she's STILL second best at everything. Or is she? What Hikari's never noticed, even as she's dedicated her entire life to somehow one-upping Kei, is that he's actually in love with her! And that's only the beginning of the ridiculously convoluted web of relationships that ties the elite group of students who go by the name of the Special A together! Get ready for spring flings, split personalities and social (dys) functions galore as boy meets girl turns into boy beats girl in SPECIAL A - THE COMPLETE COLLECTION!!

The Review!

Special A has a fairly standard presentation for a Sentai Filmworks release in that it only has the original Japanese language track, in stereo, encoded at 224kbps. The series doesn't have much to offer with its audio as it's mostly all dialogue and ambient silly effects at times that have a full sound to them without any real discernable directionality or placement. With this kind of show that isn't all that big of an issue as the dialogue does come across well and it fits well with the material as the energy of the actors is what sells it. We didn't have any problems with dropouts, distortions or noise during regular playback of this show.

Originally airing in 2008, the transfer for this series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. There are twenty-four episodes for this collection that are spread across four discs with six episodes on each disc. The series has a very good colorful and vibrant look to it that provides for a very pleasing transfer overall. Colors look great with a solid feel throughout, even during the few night scenes with the deep blue skies. Backgrounds hold up well with only a bit of noise here and there to distract once in awhile. There are a few scenes across the set where the characters are small in the background and you can see some cross coloration introduced into it, but it's not that often and not terribly distracting unless you're looking for it. Special A has a good clean and colorful look to it and this transfer shows it off well.

The collected edition of Special A has an oversized case to it which holds all four discs inside, which is a bit of a surprise since most collections like this these days tend to be in single sized keepcases with hinges inside to compact it all. The cover design is similar to what we saw before where it has some simple faming, this time done in red both around it and as the small bit of ornate work within the frame itself, which then has a group cast shot. It’s a rather bright cover because everyone is wearing white uniforms set against a white background with some mild details to it. The logo is a bit off though as the slightly skewed looked wit hthe red border around white letters on top of red doesn’t look at all that good. The back cover goes with a bit of an elegant framing around most of it in which they have several small shots from the show and a large group shot of everyone in their kimono's through the center. Above that is a very text heavy summary of the premise of the show, almost too much text considering the overall simplicity of it. It's like they're trying too hard to sell it. The bottom third of the cover has the standard production credits and technical grid which covers everything in a clear and easy to read form so you know exactly what's on the disc. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.

The menus for Special A are pretty straightforward and fairly bland as they do the static menu approach in a way where it’s almost a little overpowering with the layout. The framing is done in a faux letterbox style with orange along the top and bottom while in the middle of it is the same framing as the back cover and the same kind of light soft colors for the background. Character artwork from the back cover is partially used here as well with different pieces for each volume that look alright, but the main focus is on the big block of episode numbers through the middle which dominate things a bit. Previously we’d have them in a list similar to this but also basic menu selection, credits and special features or trailers. Everything is compressed down to juts episode selection and special features, and on the first disc there are none in there. Credits and trailers are not special features. But this is part of the compressing of things to save on time and expense likely in creating separate submenus for these sections that some will find pointless. The menus do load quickly for what little you have to use them and they’re serviceable, but it feels more like a barebones release than some previous ones we’ve seen.

The extras on the second and fourth discs and they go a bit beyond the norm as in addition to the clean opening and closing sequence there is also a gallery. The gallery isn't the usual black and white character pieces but rather about a dozen full color pieces that look to be from the original Japanese releases. These look great with a lot of bright and colorful pieces that really capture the characters well and the sense of fun from it. Getting both galleries in one collection is definitely welcome since there’s some pretty stuff to be had in there.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the manga by Maki Manami, Special A is a twenty-four episode high school series about a small group of exceptional students who are in a special class all of their own in their school. The manga has been doing fairly well for Viz Media in its US release so there's a lot of sense in grabbing the anime series itself and appealing to those fans and those that like somewhat silly high school comedies. Special A takes a pretty standard formula and works pretty well with it, but it's the kind of show that doesn't really stand out or take any chances.
Taking place at the Hakusen Academy, we're introduced quickly right off the bat to the seven members of the Special Class, a group of students who excel above and beyond everyone else. So much so that their class is set in a separate area and we never actually see them doing anything scholastic related. They spend a lot of their time in the indoor garden and off doing various competitive things as the group has a lot of that going around, especially among the top two students. The top student is Kei, a very calm and cool young man who comes from a business family where he does a whole lot of work after school on top of everything else. He's primarily in competition with Hikari, who he nicknames Second Place throughout the series as she always seems to land there during all of their competitions, from school placement to sports and to everything else. Throughout the show so far, she never manages to get one up on him as he always has an ace up his sleeve.
As can be told pretty quickly, there's a potential relationship between Kei and Hikari just below the surface. The two of them have been in competition with each other since they were little kids when their parents introduced them and that competitiveness continues to this day. Hikari only views herself as Kei's rival and does all she can to finally beat him at something, especially in class placement since she wants to be above him there. But for Kei, you can see very easily in his face that he has feelings for Hikari, though he certainly loves to tease and torment her with that competitive side. As the story progresses he's a bit more up front about it, especially when a childhood friend turned adversary starts manipulating the situation and telling Hikari how Kei really feels about her, or at least setting up situations where she realizes it herself.
Most of the stories here are fairly straightforward and are the kinds you see in shows like this. The gang heads off to Hawaii at one point, another episode has Hikari taking on the role of a fake girlfriend for one of the other guys in the special class so he can avoid a marriage meeting and a number of competitive episodes. There's even one where Hikari spends all of it working hard to learn to cook so she can make something that will surprise Kei. Where the show changes things up a little bit is when Yahiro comes into the picture as well as his younger brother that takes a real liking to Hikari. It gets some of the adversarial side into the show between Yahiro and Kei and helps to push Kei more towards being honest about his feelings.
Special A plays out like a lot of shows in this particular genre where it's very bright and colorful, full of promise. It has a very clean look, too clean of course, but that's part of the whole premise. These kids live in a different world where several of them are from very wealthy families and are attending a prestigious schol and are in the best of the best classes. There is some underlying tension that comes into the show a few times with a few students who are part of the regular classes and the overall student body president who tries to get even with the special class and that adds a nice element to the show. Often you find shows like these where there's no resentment at all and only adoration. There is adoration to be had here and Hikari sometimes finds it unnerving but it's when the guys gets involved with voicing their discontent that we get a small flash of goodness in the show.
With the second half of the set, things shape up a little bit more. It wants to delve into the relationship that Sakura has with Yui and all that went on in the past with how Sakura was dealt with because of Yahiro. It's a nice bit of resolution to it as it shows how manipulative Yahiro was even at a young age with her and the kind of influence he had on other classmates. Though it all gets resolved well enough, it's the kind of arc that doesn't really do much overall but helps to cement Sakura in the series itself. Yahiro was the key player for me here even if a lot of his influence was felt off stage rather than on screen because of how others reacted.
Of final ten episodes, the focus is on the boys and girls getting closer and closer together. The one that I liked that appealed a lot was seeing how Jun and Sakura get closer together. While she's initially focused on winning over Kei as her one true prince, when she sees him she realizes that it's him that she really wants as he's everything she's been looking for. Jun, of course, wants nothing to do with her but not for the reasons that most would suspect. As it turns out, he has a split personality of sorts where when he's kissed in any way by a girl he takes on a suave and confident personality that is almost like a playboy. So he's afraid of letting that out but it gets even worse once Sakura states her intentions and even seeing her causes him to turn his personality. The two are entirely too cute together and they have a few mild adventures until they work things out.
My favorite of the sudden new pairings though involves Megumi. After things start to get serious between Akira and Tadashi since they've been doing the schoolyard crush kind of thing for awhile, Megumi realizes she has to do something to help them out before Yahiro gets involved. Since Yahiro is still carrying a torch for Akira through his kind of manipulations, Megumi forces him into a date with her after she claims that she likes him a lot. The two are entirely too cute on a date together, especially since Megumi only writes on her sketchbook. Yahiro is amused by it all but I takes a serious turn when he finds out why she doesn't talk. He does offer an interesting idea on how she can practice without causing trouble and slowly the two turn to having rather fun date. When Ryuu and Akira come across them, she realizes how he's seen in comparison to what she's seen and starts to protect him a bit more. She's even openly honest that she's out on a date with him.
The least interesting of the pairings is the primary one of the series and that naturally is the one that will cap things off. The last few episodes start working through how Hikari really feels about Kei as she realizes that she can't even say his first name without stuttering in a huge way. Kei realizes what's going on easily enough, and he should considering how much work they put into making him seem like the smartest guy in the world, and he starts trying to get her to realize it. He's surprisingly open about it at times but Hikari really can't handle. What's needed is something to make the whole situation come to a head. And what better way than for Kei's father to demand that Kei return to London since he's really just playing around in that school and not accomplishing the things he used to do.
In Summary:
Special A is a series that had some potential, especially as it progressed and really worked with the characters relationships, but had a hard time really standing out from the small sea of very similar shows. The manga was fairly popular and ran for awhile, but like a lot of shows based off of material like that, it doesn’t really go anywhere for a significant portion of it. What the show does have is a good bit of fun throughout and some characters that work well, but it’s when it starts to really delve into the relationships that it works the best. The first half of the show is pretty predictable, even with its light moments that work, but it’s the second half that surprised me the most the first time I watched it and continues to be better than expected the second time around. That isn't to say this set won me over, but it was more interesting than I expected for most of it before it went into the obvious Kei and Hikari drama at the end with a trip to London. Special A is a really good looking show that doesn't break out of its confines but I tries in a few ways. 
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Opening, Clean Closing, Galleries

Review Equipment

Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

Mania Grade: B-
Audio Rating: B
Video Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: B
Menus Rating: C+
Extras Rating: B
Age Rating: 13 and Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Sentai Filmworks
MSRP: 59.98
Running time: 600
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Special A