Ai Yori Aoshi Vol. #1: Faithfully Yours (Mania.com)
Review Date: Sunday, July 13, 2003
Release Date: Tuesday, February 25, 2003
One problem often encountered by romantic comedies is that they get accused of being superficial and simplistic. While arguments can be made both for and against the point it's pretty obvious that a number of people would enjoy a greater amount of complexity and drama in their anime. Ai Yori Aoshi attempts to fulfill that desire. At times serious in tone and at other times hilarious Ai Yori Aoshi can be said to be a romantic comedy that tries to take itself seriously. Unfortunately it fails to meet that perfect balance that such works require, but in the attempt it still manages to create an entertaining show that works in both its romantic and comedic moments even if the two don't mix perfectly.
The story of Ai Yori Aoshi centers around two main characters. The first is Aoi Sakuraba, a very traditional Japanese girl. Aoi was arranged to be married at a young age in order to cement the bond between two powerful families. To this end Aoi was taught all the things she needed to know about being a good wife, including cooking and cleaning and that sort of thing. Aoi enjoys the training, and equally enjoys doting on Kaoru. Unfortunately, though Aoi was looking forward to the marriage it was called off several years ago and nobody bothered to tell her why. Wishing to find out why she goes off in search of the boy she was supposed to wed.
This brings us to the second main character, Kaoru. Unlike a number of other main characters in romantic comedies Kaoru isn't dumb or clumsy, and he doesn't wear glasses. In fact, in most ways Kaoru seems like a perfectly capable individual. He goes to college, and has his own place. He might not be rich or extraordinarily popular, but he's a generally friendly guy who has his life in order. However, Kaoru isn't entirely without his issues. It's revealed relatively early that Kaoru suffered a great deal of abuse at the hands of his family, the Hanabishi. For a romantic comedy this is pretty heavy stuff, involving serious physical and emotional abuse you wouldn't normally expect.
Understandably Kaoru decides to leave the Hanabishi clan to make it on his own as soon as he's old enough and is able to save enough money. Once he abandons his family the arranged marriage with the Sakuraba is canceled, which brings us back to Aoi. In short, Aoi travels to Tokyo to find out why the marriage was canceled after not having seen Kaoru for many years. Aoi finds out what happened to Kaoru, but regardless decides she still wants to marry Kaoru. The feelings are mutual, and the two seem once again to be on the road to spending the rest of their lives together.
However, nothing in anime is ever as simple as that. Aoi's family eventually finds out that the two still intend on getting married, and insist that the marriage not take place because Kaoru is no longer with the Hanabishi. They demand that Aoi marry a person of wealth and power befitting the Sakuraba family, a person that Kaoru clearly no longer is. Aoi disagrees, and declares that she would rather leave her family before leaving Kaoru.
Once the two are interrupted, which takes place during the third episode, the plot gets moving and the show's premise is filled out and completed. Essentially, Aoi's family agrees to the engagement with the provision that the marriage not take place immediately and the engagement be kept secret for the time being. They arrange for Aoi to move into a mansion posing as the landlord with Kaoru living in an adjoining guesthouse. The two are overseen by a guardian of sorts, a tough and imposing woman by the name of Ms. Miyabi. From here the show seems to begin the plot proper, focused around various situations Kaoru gets himself into as more women move into the mansion.
The first of the new borders is Tina Foster, an old friend of Kaoru's from America. Tina is an outlandish and bizarre character even for anime, and is definitely a stark contrast to all of the other characters previously introduced in the show. She's loud, drinks a lot, and is a bit on the obnoxious side. It's not entirely clear whether this is simply a reflection of her individual personality or if it's supposed to be some comment on American culture. Arguments can probably be made either way, but in the end it doesn't matter very much. Tina's introduction gives an indication of things to come, as Kaoru and Aoi are forced to keep their feelings a secret even though it's clear Tina's at least a little sweet on Kaoru.
At this point it's worth discussing some of the good and bad points of the show. On the plus side Ai Yori Aoshi offers a lot in a romantic comedy that's not available from other shows. The romance between Aoi and Kaoru is a very serious one, and the romantic elements lack for the most part any jokes or embarrassing situations. In this sense the show plays out like a straight drama more than a great deal of other anime. Added to this is the fact that the relationship is actively pursued by both parties, instead of some anime where the guy pines after the girl and they end up together only at the end of the show. The show has a real sentimentality and sweetness about it that works excellently.
On the down side are a few points worthy of note. The first and most minor is that this is a very slowly moving show. Great parts of episodes are taken up by listening to Aoi and Kaoru talk about how they feel, especially during the first few of the episodes. To give a rough idea of how slowly the show moves by the end of the second episode only about day has passed. Even at the end of the first disc only a few days have passed in the show. To some extent that's to be expected for the start of a show, but regardless given that Kaoru and Aoi are the only two characters for the first two episodes the show is clearly intent on a great deal of character development.
On the other hand, some viewers will undoubtedly enjoy the fact that the show moves so slowly. Although not a great deal may occur plot-wise the character development is pretty constant, so people who enjoy a slower story that takes its time getting where it's going should be happy. Fortunately the show doesn't further slow the plot by inserting flashbacks, save flashbacks to the characters' childhood.
A more pressing concern is that the romance in Ai Yori Aoshi does feel somewhat contrived. In all truth Aoi doesn't have too much reason to still be in love with Kaoru. It's true that there was a certain attraction between the two as children, but considering it's been so long since they've seen each other it's somewhat difficult to believe that the two would still be so much in love. Equally, while Kaoru and Aoi are both friendly and nice people the fast bond between them just feels like a little much.
Maybe this can be explained by some form of love at first sight, or by invoking suspension of disbelief. Viewers may find themselves prone to forgiveness simply because these characters are just so likeable that the show would be very frustrating if they weren't in love from the start.
This leads us to one major problem with Ai Yori Aoshi, namely Aoi's general persona. Aoi is depicted as a very traditional Japanese woman. She dotes on Kaoru almost endlessly. She cooks, cleans, and always keeps him in the forefront of her mind. It could be argued that Aoi isn't an extremely likeable character from a feminist perspective. She's been raised to be a wife and nothing more, is always worried about what Kaoru will think, and often blames herself when things go wrong. You can insert any number of theories about patriarchal societal domination. For this reason it's inevitable that at least some portion of the population will not enjoy the show.
In Ai Yori Aoshi's defense, however, a few points must be raised. First, Aoi is shown to have strong character and willpower on several occasions. Most visible is Aoi's decision to defy her family and marry Kaoru. In this scene it's apparent that Aoi isn't afraid of defying others to get what she wants, and she doesn't obey others thoughtlessly. In the end the fact of the matter is that anime characters are generally caricatures of one sort or another, and if a viewer were to judge anime on sociopolitical grounds almost every character would be objectionable for any number of reasons.
If Ai Yori Aoshi falls apart anywhere it's in the comedic moments of the show. While there are a few humorous moments involving only Aoi and Kaoru that work pretty well the secondary characters can't say the same. For the most part the last episode, where we're introduced to many of the supporting characters, is a typical anime offering of outlandish situations and visual gags. To some extent the humor is based on the characters doing things that are just bizarre. The problem here isn't that the jokes aren't funny, but that they just seem out of place. The show goes from very serious one moment to completely unable to take itself seriously the next, causing a sense of disorientation.
Overall Ai Yori Aoshi is a very enjoyable show. The times that the show does work it does so very well, and the scenes with Aoi and Kaoru are a big draw. It's not exactly the perfect fusion of comedy and serious romance that most people are looking for, but all the same it comes close enough to deserve a look.
For the audio I will be commenting on the English language track. For the most part things are fine. The sound effects are all crisp, and for the most part the voice acting is enjoyable. Tina has an accent that's somewhat annoying, but I assume that this was included because in the Japanese she also speaks with an accent. Not being fluent in Japanese I can't tell, but it's the best guess I have for why such a thing would be included. Voicing for Kaoru is dead on, with a performance that's believable in both the comedic and serious moments. Considering the wide swings of emotional tone across this spectrum that's a fair feat to pull off.
On the down side the voicing for Aoi is sometimes subdued. It's understandable because her character is rather reserved, but all the same a little more energy would have been appreciated. However, in the scenes when Aoi feels strongly about something or starts yelling she takes on a much fuller and richer tone and those complaints melt away. Musically the show offers decent music, neither exceptionally good or bad for both the theme song and the closing song. Both songs did do a good job of reflecting the character of the show, however.
In terms of visual pleasure Ai Yori Aoshi is fairly formidable. Backgrounds are well detailed, and the colors are distinctive without being garish. Character designs for Kaoru and Aoi are well detailed. Aoi's design is extremely attractive, and all of the characters are quite distinct from one another. The cast's women are drawn somewhat on the buxom side, which will either please or disappoint depending on the viewer's preferences, though this is somewhat less noticeable in Aoi's case because she's usually wearing a kimono.
Packaging for this disc was pretty good. The spine of the case shows the volume number on the near the bottom. The back shows an episode count with titles, as well as a list of extras and a fairly large number of shots from the show. The insert shows the list of disc extras and a chapter list for all the episodes on the disc. Unfortunately the chapters themselves aren't given very descriptive names, but given that the episodes are titled it's not so bad. The insert also folds out to show a picture of couple that appear to be some alternate drawing of Aoi and Kaoru. If all that wasn't enough the cover is fully reversible, and the clear case shows the hidden side clearly. What more can you ask for?
Menus for this disc are relatively standard. The main menu has a considerable amount of animation, but it's well done and doesn't impede or distract from selections. Load times are quick to all the sub-menus, though the sub-menus don't have any music accompanying them.
Extras for this disc are better than average. First is a music video for the theme song. Once you get past the fact that the music video seems to have no connection to the show at all it seems fairly standard. One small complaint some might have is that the music video is not subtitled at all, but that's not too much of a problem since the lyrics are given in the show's opening sequence.
Second is a concept art gallery featuring Kaoru and Aoi. The gallery is fairly large, though seems a bit narrow because it includes only two characters. However, given that the minor characters are given so little screen time compared to the two main characters it's not too surprising. Hopefully concept art for the rest of the characters will be included on future discs.
Finally, the disc includes the trailer for the show. While this is interesting to have it's also extraneous in some ways. The chances are they people owning the disc will have seen the trailer before, probably owning a disc with the trailer on it. On the other hand, it's sometimes interesting to watch a show's trailer after having seen the show itself and trying to decide whether or not the trailer captured the essence of the show very well. For that reason the trailer isn't entirely pointless, and may be appreciated by some.
Comments? E-mail me at BitRMann@aol.com
Sharp 13" television, Microsoft XBox
Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: B
Video Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: A-
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: B+
Age Rating: 13 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Geneon Entertainment (USA), Inc.
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Ai Yori Aoshi