There is something to be said for the also-rans and forgotten anime in any given season. While the big shows will be remembered and have staying power, there will always be an innumerable amount of anime that completely flies under the radar, either due to similarities to other shows, not fitting with viewing trends, or just because they’re overshadowed by other, better shows. Coming from both the season that gave us Attack On Titan, and then the season that gave us Haikyu, Chaika, Stardust Crusaders, and Ping Pong, as well as sporting a similar premise to another admitted also-ran, this is a series that seems to have been completely washed away by time (and not even a lot of time), an artifact that people will look at and say (oh yeah, that existed.”
That is really selling this series short, because watching it, I found a surprisingly enjoyable and goofy romp.
In a world where these violent phenomena occur called Spatial Quakes, a normal high schooler named Shido lives with his adopted sister Kotori. On the day that one of the quakes occurs, he can’t find her and ends up witnessing the cause of these spatial quakes: beings named Spirits who resemble human girls. He also gets caught in the crossfire between the spirit and a military-esque organization trying to kill them (which a classmate of his who stalks him is a part of). He ends up being picked up and rescued by a different organization, one trying to find a non-violent way to deal with the spirits. Here, Shido discovers that Kotori is a commander of a ship used by this organization and she picked him to go on dates with the spirits to seal their destructive powers.
If any part of that plot sounds familiar, then you are familiar with another also-ran (though more popular than this) anime The World God Only Knows. Both shows tend to have ridiculous premises that are meant to be excuses for the lead guy to date various girls. However, Date A Live is more of a traditional harem series than TWGOK (for one, TWGOK never places too much emphasis on the girls and is primarily led by the insane and entertainingly serious lead character, and for another thing, until two-thirds of the way through the story, TWGOK is never focused on the girls interacting with each other in addition to the lead). This might make Date A Live seem like the less interesting version of TWGOK, but it actually doesn’t.
If you looked at the image accompanying this review, you’ll see how the girls are designed for the show. The look is the most distinct aspect of the show and it comes curtesy of Tsunako, an illustrator best known for her work on the Fairy Fencer F and Hyperdimension Neptunia video game franchises. Her work is an odd mix of generic anime and over-designed ideas coming together in a way that is actually quite interesting. The girls, even wearing the bland school uniforms, all look distinct and eye-catching. Her work on the male characters, while not AS over-designed, also look distinct from each other, resulting in an odd instance of me being able to tell male characters in a harem series apart (that almost never happens, for the record). While the show tries to invoke as many generic and expected anime and light novel tropes and ideas, both visually and through the script, the show always seems to follow just enough for familiarity, but never go full-on into them, which is alternately engaging and frustrating.
From a writing perspective, this show is never fast-paced, but never the slog many light novel anime become. The show is moved along briskly through mostly comedy. The absurd premise is milked for all it’s worth and the crew trying to help Shido are as comedically incompetent as you’d imagine (“with 5 divorces under his belt, no one has more experience with women as him”). The girls are also given simple, but identifiable, personalities and character traits that helps in enabling them to play off of each other well (in particular, since Tohka is effectively the female lead, they get much more milage out of her dog-like stupidity and appetite than they should). The show’s humor isn’t really anything new or bizarre (if you’re familiar with anime and light novels, you will see most of the jokes coming from a mile away), but the show just embraces it’s own nature enough that you can find yourself trapped at it’s tempo if the light novel and anime trappings don’t immediately annoy you.
That tempo is ultimately a good thing, because even though the show doesn’t continue on long enough to fully realize the stories it’s setting up (both seasons only cover the first seven light novels, which is where the show’s actual plot is finally introduced), the people behind this show know how to set up simple and engaging conflicts. It helps that Date A Live is mostly character-based, so each story arc can easily resolve itself satisfactorily while leaving plot-details dangling (and who knows, maybe we’ll finally get a season 3 to get to the interesting twists still to come). The show also manages to create some interesting takes on the tropes it’s reveling in to build up to later character turns (most notably, Shido FAILS (this is almost unheard of in a light novel series) to seal one spirit’s powers, but she continues to be a presence and her unsealed powers are pivotal to the final arc), so the familiar is not just lazy writing. There is a clear amount of effort put forth in the writing.
This effort, surprisingly, is also put into the direction. By all accounts, this is a visually bland and uninteresting series. The designs are interesting, but the movement itself is nothing special. It’s not Berserk bad (seriously, every animated version of Berserk looks awful), but this isn’t a feast of character animation that would make P.A. Works jealous. The direction, however, helps in this regard. The show is sold on it’s absurd premise, so the direction has to reinforce that. The comedic moments are given a big energy spark, with the timing as tight as they possibly could be. The more dramatic and action-driven moments are more of a mixed bag, with some moments going on auto-pilot, but others (like the entire 2-episode climax of season 2) giving the impact to work. As much as this is a silly concept, the direction is working on all fronts to deliver this concept as compellingly as it can.
Now, clearly, this show isn’t perfect. Notably, the series ends right when it introduces it’s main villain (hope for a season 3, because he’s apparently comically evil and fun). The series also has a tone problem at times, some stories having a larger gap between the comedic and serious moments that can cause some problems. There is also the problem of some running gags that do not work (while not a bad character as a whole, the second-in-command on the ship’s masochism schtick gets really annoying really fast and the three classmates who only comment on everything and end each statement by saying either “gross” or “that’s so lame”, depending on the language, just fails on arrival). The lengths that the show goes to make Shido a blank slate (milquetoast personality, partial amnesia, no interests ever stated), especially in comparison to the more colorful cast around him becomes more of a sticking point as the show continues to give him importance towards the Spirits. There were definitely elements that could’ve been refined to make the show’s strengths stand out more.
Sometimes, a look at the also-rans of previous anime seasons reveals garbage we’d be better off forgetting. This is not one of those times. I was ultimately surprised by how much I ended up liking this dumb, admittedly weird series. So long as a goofy harem anime with oddly serious action elements doesn’t turn you away, there is a fun series that really would like you to enjoy it.
FINAL GRADE: B+
PROS: Simple yet fun characters, funny execution of familiar material, distinct designs, mostly reserved regarding fan-service, some really excellent climaxes
CONS: Ends before the villain can really do anything, some jokes fall completely flat, some action scenes are directed on auto-pilot, Shido’s bland nature becomes more of a hinderance the longer the series continues
Date A Live is licensed by Funimation and is available on home video. It’s available streaming at funimation.com.