The competitive nature of Japanese academics is taken to the extreme at the Fumizuki Academy, where exams are the precursor to war. Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts, an anime adaptation of the light novels by Kenji Inoue and Yui Haga (illustrator), follows the students at this unique preparatory school, where a prototypical battle system has been implemented to facilitate the students’ participation in Summoner Test Wars (or ST Wars, for short). In these ST Wars, the various ranked groups of students at Fumizuki battle one another for the use of the academy’s best equipment, utilizing chibi avatars of themselves with combat statistics reflecting their test scores.
This highly imaginative concept creates a background for a high school comedy that is every bit as action-packed as it is hilarious. And pleasantly, I found that the ST Wars are really little more than that: just background. After all, seven of the season’s thirteen episodes forego ST battling almost altogether, focusing instead on the characters and their relationships. This ultimately provides the viewer with a proper emotional context for the series’ climactic ST War between Fumizuki’s highest and lowest ranked students (of Classes A and F, respectively).
The majority of Baka and Test’s central characters, including our protagonist Akihisa (perhaps Fumizuki Academy’s biggest idiot), are to be found in Class F. And much of the series’ humor derives from this delinquent group’s burgeoning sexual desires. Baka and Test is downright packed with sexual deviants of all varieties, from mild perverts to massive nosebleeders. Within the series’ core cast of characters is found a lengthy list of non-heteronormative sexual proclivities, including homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, incest, and extreme forms of fetishism ranging from the cataloguing of breast sizes to obsessions with “boy’s love.” While the characters’ various sexual desires may be little more than a conglomeration of a dozen or so commonplace anime character perversions, as an American, I found the series to embody a refreshing sexual progressiveness that’s rarely, if ever, encountered in our nation’s media.
A myriad of different art styles are employed throughout Baka and Test. One of the most obvious visual components of the series is the complex video game aesthetic utilized during the ST Wars. Overhead views of the school floor plans allow the viewer to observe the classes’ strategic placement of troops in the build-up to encounters, while the encounters themselves are often marked by transition into a traditional RPG battle screen not entirely unlike the earlier entries in the Final Fantasy series. The predominant style of the remainder of the series is not all that different from other high school comedies, such as Ouran High School Host Club. But the artists’ standard approach to the series’ visuals often shifts into other modes for comedic effect. Finally, the series’ backgrounds, and occasionally the cast, are constantly characterized by enormous swaths of Ben-Day dots that, so far as I can tell, add nothing substantive to the series save for an unnecessary comic book feel.
Funimation’s Standard Edition release of the series is fantastic (Funimation will also be releasing a Limited Edition version on August 2). The five discs–3 DVDs and 2 Blu-rays– are housed in a single, clear keep case with reversible artwork, accompanied by an outer, cardboard sleeve. If you choose to maintain the artwork as packaged, an episode listing, printed on the interior of the cover art, is visible through the clear case, unobstructed by a disc. Furthermore, the discs are color-coded to prevent the confusion of Blu-rays for DVDs with the Blu-rays appropriately colored blue. The quality of the Blu-ray content itself is superb, featuring a 1080p transfer from the series’ HD native, and Dolby TrueHD audio with 5.1 English mix and a slightly under-whelming 2.0 Japanese mix. And the DVDs, while necessarily paling in comparison to the BDs, hold their own admirably.
The set is packed with special features including 5 hilarious Baka and Test shorts, all hovering somewhere around 4 minutes each; special Christmas footage; a preview for the Mission: Impossible: Baka short; a promo video; original commercials and DVD spots; trailers; and textless songs. If you’re one who’ll only watch anime dubbed, note that there is no dub for the special features, which appear in the original Japanese dialogue with English subs. To address the subtitling of Baka and Test, Funimation provides, in addition to the dialogue of course, translation for the majority of what passes across the screen. There is, however, much that goes untranslated. But this is certainly to the viewer’s benefit, for translating every bit of Japanese writing that appears on screen would have resulted in something of a total sensory overload for the viewer. As is, the screen is often so busy, especially during testing and ST Wars, that keeping up with the already limited subtitles becomes something of an endurance test. Fortunately, if you do find it hard to keep up with this onslaught of visual information, the dub by Funimation, as is typical of their releases, captures quite well the essence of the original voice work.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Second Two of Baka and Test is airing in Japan just as the First Season makes its home video debut here in North America. So it may be a little while before we see Season Two. Fortunately, the storyline of this season is wrapped up nicely at the conclusion of episode 13, making the wait for the further adventures of Fumizuki Academy Class F a sight more tolerable.