Bait and switch

A review of the Inou Battle wa Nichijou-kei no Naka de anime series

There’s a character in Inou Battle, not a main character mind you, he’s barely even a secondary character really, but he says something in the series’ ninth episode that more or less sums up my feelings for it:

[I’m] just your average, everyday reader, who wants to see something interesting or enjoyable

You and me both tertiary character man. Inou Battle wa Nichijou-kei no Naka de (When supernatural battles become commonplace) sells itself in its title and in its first episode as teenagers suddenly gaining supernatural powers and then duking it out. Chronicle in anime form essentially. Only the “battles” of the title aren’t at all commonplace because they don’t happen at all until the very last episode; instead of these battles we get a gorgeously presented but utterly rote campus love comedy.

Ordinarily that wouldn’t be much of an issue, except this is by Trigger. The same Trigger that charmed the world with Little Witch Academia and went balls-to-the-wall with Kill La Kill. Sure Inou Battle looks phenomenal with its wonderfully expressive characters and snappy sense of motion in more or less every shot, but swilling around in the harem “genre” hardly seems a fitting continuation for a studio that engendered so much promise in its fans. Kill La Kill may not have shaken the world but at least it was different.

Make no mistake then, this is a harem setup from start to finish which makes some people’s confusion over the series’ outlook rather odd. When one hundred percent of the on-screen, main character females are warm and fuzzy for the only on-screen, main character male, it doesn’t matter how you contextualise or rationalise those character’s feelings, that’s straight down the waterslide into the self-insert splash pool.

The culprit here is July (or Jurai depending on which episode’s romanisation of his name you believe), a dyed in the wool chuunibyou - 8th grader syndrome - whose knowledge of obscure topics, overuse of the word “turbid” and serial do-gooder means that it isn’t long before fellow literature club members and XX chromosome carriers Tomoyo, Chifuyu, Hatoko and Sayumi are blushing like someone pointed out they’re wearing odd socks. From a conceptual point of view having someone with chuunibyou actually gaining the kind of powers they ostensibly long for is a fascinating hook and one that the series sporadically riffs off with credible comedy. It’s disappointing then that the drab romantic plotlines - each girl gets not one, but two focus episodes to fawn uncontrollably over the dunderheaded lead - take the fore.

But! But here’s the rub. As the series progresses, one gets the impression that pushing the supernatural battles out of the story is not only intentional but part of some grand master plan. Perhaps best illustrated with the eighth episode that for three quarters of its runtime abandons July and his cadre of doe eyed lackies, focusing instead on the reasoning and context behind their supernatural powers. Now instead of July feebly yammering on about sin and darkness we get the actual story. Fairy war, battle royale, secret institutions, clandestine super weapons, it’s all there and has echoes of everything from Nanoha to Railgun, but all too quickly the series is back to “Let’s go to the pool! Oh look at my bikini!”

In a sense then the series seems to want to be a self-satire of the type of story that chuunibyou pulls so keenly from with its magical powers, dark portals and the like. By normalising those powers and making July seem delusional even in the face of evidence of what he’s jibbering about, it’s potentially a message about the genre as a whole becoming commonplace. The problem with this (and I’m paraphrasing Movie Bob here on his brilliant tear-down of Sucker Punch) is that doing a satire of a stale genre - magical powers / chuunibyou fodder - with an equally stale genre - campus love comedy - is very hard to do, the trick being to point out the bad while making a better version of it. And Inou Battle doesn’t achieve that.

It gives it a jolly good try but it slowly collapses in on itself by, for instance, having Mirei in the second episode make the quip:

Do you regard me as an enemy because my breasts are bigger? If that’s the case, I can only say you’re too shallow. Does a woman’s caliber grow smaller with her breast size?

and then having oh so unsubtle jiggle animations for all of the girls, protagonist and cameo, swimsuit or no.

What the series does achieve though, and in outstanding fashion, is a coruscating look at chuunibyou itself. Helped along by some choice monologues from July and company and culminating in an absolutely blinding tirade by Hatoko, voiced by the phenomenal Sayori Hayami, it’s something of an irony that Inou Battle seems to have a better handle on what makes those with chuunibyou tick than, for instance, series that use the syndrome as its namesake. In that sense you have the full spectrum right here: the sufferer, the enabler, the recovering addict, the indifferent and the curious.

In that regard the series is a fascinating watch because it puts a different spin on what is slowly becoming an overused personality trait. It’s a shame then that it’s lost in the technicolour quagmire of a middling school love narrative. Middling because the central pairing is so obvious and the other pairings (Mirei excluded) so forced. Middling because it ramps up the squick factor by having July proclaim himself a lolicon only to have not one, but two middle schoolers ready to profess their undying love for him. The dismantling of chuunibyou seems like much more fertile ground and sections like the power naming (although they missed a trick by not naming Tomoyo “Brighter than the tsun”) or “Bloody vivre” skits held some of the series’ best humour.

Instead, Inou Battle wa Nichijou kei no Naka de ends with no resolution to the romantic polygon and an almost apologetic battle between superpower users - arguably what the opening animation and introductory episodes pitch the series as. All of this wrapped up with Trigger’s gorgeous styling coupled with some bizarre Evangelion references as well as some not-so-subtle set-dressing that reminds us that yes, they did Kill La Kill. There are elements to recommend the series on - the chuunibyou examination and a possible satire of the genre(s) that fuel it being the main one - but as a package the series leaves an awful lot to be desired and the overriding impression is that of a studio phoning it in, making the best of a humdrum series rather than going full bore.

Responses to “Bait and switch”

@Expectations: I watched it as it aired, and other than that the source was a light novel I knew nothing about it. It's just that if I see an opening with one main male and lots of females I default to "harem".

@Chuunibyou Demo Koi ga Shitai: I can't speak for the second season. I didn't like the first enough to watch the second.

@Harem: I don't think chuunibyou is the element that gets them interested in him. Hatoko is a childhood friend and puts up with it. For Tomoyo it's both an embarrassment and a source of getting over the same (the key relationship regarding chuunibyou). Chifuyu is too young to understand it in terms of the show. I don't remember much about Sayumi; she might come closest to the "aww, isn't he cute," mind set. Harem shows (and romances beyond that) tend to value kindness and reliability (in that order - my impression). This show is excrutionatingly conventional in that respect.

@Embarrassment: Embarrassment is certainly a factor in Chuunibyou Demo Koi ga Shitai, but it's not inflicted from outside. You don't get the typical class-mate whispers or sideways glances. Instead you get that air-headed puzzlement: what's that about? Embarrassment is almost entirely self-inflicted by our male protagonist, and exemplified by Nibutani, who tries to keep her Mori Summer past a secret. But when you watch the class, it doesn't seem necessary.

Inou Battle isn't the best show to compare that aspect with, though, since they mostly ignore class. They do engage chuunibyou on a personal level (with Hatoko's rant being the most obvious element). But neither show contextualise chuunibyou in the don't-stand-out mindest prevalent in much anime. (Watch Oreshura for that kind of contextualisation.) Frankly, with Chuunibyou I had the impression that we're watching people be embarrassed because they're cute that way. Inou Battle at least dodged that bullet.
This show had pretty colours. If I could give the show an award for its colour scheme, I would. And that's just about what stood out about the show for me. I was actually looking forward to the show on a weekly basis. It was fun and undemanding, just smart enough, and made me cringe a lot less than avarage. I also went in expecting (a) a harem show, and (b) an incomplete story (one cour adaption of a light novel series), so I had no sense of disappointment.

It's certainly got a better handle on "chuunibyou" than the KyoAni show, but I find that's not too hard.

Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai felt like a distant, adult point of view. It's a phase you go through, and it's okay to have fun for a while, but eventually you have to get over yourself. The show needs the drama to justify the chuunibyou to exist past the expected age. Otherwise the distant, adult point of view would fall apart. Similarly, there's no sense of embarrassment. All the class mates are nice and accepting. The entire show provides a safe space/a justification - in the end it's fiction.

Inou Battle feels a lot more like nostalgia. It's as if the show is looking back at the time and accepts embarrassment and fun as two sides of the same coin. They can afford Hatoko's rant, because it's part of the experience. It doesn't feel as distant as Chuunibyou, and without a need to distance yourself from the subject matter and frame it as fun makebelief, you can look at it with a clearer eye. No need to justify it, no need to sentimentalise it.

It's hard to say what Inou Battle ultimately wants to do with the topic of chuunibyou. There's a sense of excentricity about it. But the full-bore chuunibyou character in this show is presented as an aware and responsible person, who has trouble expressing himself. Compare this to Chuunibyou's troubled protagonist who needs help and love to come into her own, and you see a different focus. That the powers become real, in a sense, reveals that beneath the chuunibyou tecnobabble there's an awareness of the world and what it takes to deal with it. It's that metaphorical level that has our protagonist prepared for what's going to happen. It's because chuunibyou is not just fooling around, but a way of dealing with the world around you, that when superpowers have consequences our own chuunibyou sufferer comes prepared for that. There's always some sense of motivation behind the weird self-aggrandising inherent in the power fantasies, but you're also aware that it's nonsense. Our hero deals out advice about when not to use your powers, because of the consequence and such. But since the story is incomplete I have hard time seeing where this leads, or what this will entail. In the end it might not amount to more than "We're making anime, writing manga or light novels; are we really over it? We may be into weird things, but we're as serious about life as anyone." Who knows?
Did you wait a while before starting on Inou Battle or were you familiar with the light novel source beforehand? Interested because the expectation I had going in was leaning heavily towards the supernatural powers, primarily based on the title and the first episode.

As for ChuuKoi, I can see what you're saying re: the adult point of view, though I would say there definitely is embarrasment there in both seasons, the core group however just blanket accepts the kind of bedlam Rikka and Sanae enact. I think depending on the season of that show depends on its view of chuunibyou because the first leaned heavily towards the "this is a coping mechanism" versus the second which was more "I reject your reality and substitute it with my own" with Satone's arc.

It's the latter reading that Inou Battle goes for because, as you astutely point out, Jurai understands the "real" world and how to exist within it but chooses to be eccentric. As for the lack of conclusion: I never felt the story focused on Jurai doling out advice based on his chuunibyou but more used it as the "aww isn't he sweet" element of getting all the ladies to swoon over him. In a way I would have liked to have seen more of Hajime as a counterpoint to Jurai, as someone who is heavily involved in the fairy war rather than Jurai who is just chuntering along. Perhaps the later light novels will cover this.
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