Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka is a winter 2019 anime made by LIDENFLIMS studio. As a critic, I can’t say this was a good anime, but I don’t hate it. For one thing, it had one great redeeming feature, the psychological look into PTSD. That was the diamond in the dumpster fire. There were some other things I liked, too. I consider the series just above average, or “fair.” In this review, I’ll examine art, sound, characters, story and contents, and personal enjoyment.
The art-style is absurd, with girls having giant
udders breasts, each one as big as the girl’s entire head. But hey, that’s anime, where eyes are the the size of ash-trays. It’s still a style I like because the girls look bigger and healthier than the typically skinny mahou shoujo teens. And besides, the character designs were all very detailed. The color palette was something I loved. The backgrounds are generally good. For crowds, there isn’t any noticeable CGI, but all cars and vehicles are CGI and look lame. CGI continues to show up in the series, mixed in with the 2D.
One thing the art has going for it is lighting, which is always pretty decent. Other good things are the overall detail of the character designs, which make them look pretty great in screenshots, and the captivating action scenes. These are not top quality by any means, but still enjoyable. Eye-catching scenes of CQC, gun battles, and magic appear in episodes 1, 2, 5, 7, 10, and 11. However, the fight scenes were sometimes ruined by the highly irritating and unnecessary interruption of “Mahou Shoujo Trivia!” In addition, they were often cut too short.
By about 3 episodes in, I started to notice that the detailed character designs and art stylization is attempting to hide the cheapness of the animation. And there’s too much noticeable CGI mixed in with the 2D. Everything looks designed with CGI tools without any hand-done sketches or linework. (That’s how it seemed to me, anyway, an amateur.) There are more and more still-shots as the series goes on, which I guess is typical of anime, but not as much in action anime.
There’s also the issue of inconsistency. For some strange reason, the art looks a lot better in episode 7 compared to all other episodes. Suddenly it’s back to normal in episode 8, and it stays pretty bad all through after that, taking a nosedive in episode 10. Despite some originality in style and some decent action sequences, the art just seemed average to me.
There’s a lot of fan-service or ecchi artwork, which annoyed me just a bit with how blatant it was. But the girls in their swimsuits reallydid look pretty. The only part where “fan-service” really got to me was with torture scenes. It really, really seemed like the creators were pandering to people with torture fetishes. I couldn’t help feeling a bit grossed out. The worst sexualized torture scenes were in episodes 8 and 12. Others, like in episode 4, seemed less sexual… and just disgusting.
The opening song sounded good, though I didn’t like the visuals because of too much noticeable and cheap 3D. As for the ED, it was absolutely beautiful in sound, but boring visually. The main melody in Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka is pretty, but… that’s all there is. The OST is literally the same piece played with different instruments and at different speed and tones to match the mood: an emotional piano version, scary version, a jazzy-sounding happy version, etc. By ep 10, I was so sick of the main melody that I never wanted to hear it again.
The voice acting was good, but it pretty much always is in the Japanese audio. There wasn’t really anything special in this series, like a performance or a particular seiyuu that impressed me. I did recognize Aya Suzuki playing Asuka. The script didn’t give her very many chances to show her talent, though. She was better in her other roles, like Shouko in Happy Sugar Life, Kaede in Assassination Classroom, and Mako in Kill la Kill.
I also noticed Shiori Mikami (voice of Akari in Yuru Yuri and Christina/ Historia in Attack on Titan) playing the spec-ops member Shima. General Tabira was voiced by Sayaka Ohara who plays many adult woman characters like Beatrice in Umineko, Erza Scarlet in Fairy Tail, and Milly Ashford in Code Geass. Both these seiyuu, though, had only minor roles.
The characters all had kind of boring or predictable concepts and tendencies, but they weren’t that bad because some of them ended up showing unexpected sides to their personalities or development. Nozomi Makino was not one of those characters, though. She stayed boring. I’ve seen about 80 other anime girls with her tomboy character type. Nozomi acts like them without any real differences. Many potentially good characters were not developed enough.
Sayako Hata was a memorable character. Despite being traumatized, she recovers in a short time and becomes stronger and more reliable than before. She’s always trying to face her fears. Sayako is a nice, kind girl, and perceptive in more ways than one. She is such a cute bookworm.
Another good character was Asuka herself. She comes across at first as cold and detached, but she tries to be genuine with her new friends, even when it makes her seem weird or gloomy. She fights well, but struggles with the horror of battle and the fear of losing the people close to her.
Kurumi totally fooled me; at first, I thought she was going to be completely sweet and innocent. By episode 3, I realized she was in love with Asuka and had some slight yandere tendencies. But after that point she just blew me away with how crazy her character became. That’s not to say she’s not likeable. She’s clever, for one thing. Beautiful, for another. And she always gives her 100% in a fight, even when she doesn’t think she can win.
Those are just a few examples of characters in Magical Girl Spec-ops Asuka. There’s just one other important point I want to make. Sometimes the characters highlight important themes, or say truly great and meaningful things. Asuka in episode 1 and 11, Mia in episode 10, and Kurumi in episodes 5 and 12 have some memorable lines. But there was no development of those characters shown which would have led to such strong principles and/or insight about life. Probably, the development happened before the anime, during the Disas war.
In episode one, we’re told right off the bat by narrator how the magical girls came to be, and what happened in the war with the Disas. It was slightly irritating to see so much potential world-building content just explained right away. There isn’t a lot of world-building in this anime. It’s more of a story about the actions and reactions of Asuka, her friends, and some of the villains.
In many ways, the story was predictable. Everyone’s next actions were obvious. The only thing suspenseful was “how edgy is the next torture or battle scene going to be?” It’s obvious that Queen or Brigadier is one of the 11 magical girls that fought together in the Disas war. Most likely, she’s Francine, who somehow didn’t really die. (Note: I have no proof of this claim.) I could also guess her motivation as soon as I heard about the the concept of Bridges. Queen wants to be able to summon Disas demons without a Bridge, which would require some rare magical items.
That aside, some elements were orginal. It’s interesting to have a Magical Girl anime where the world knows about magic. Also, there was definitely a focus on the military genre throughout the series, and especially in episodes 4, 7, 10 and 11. (In 10 and 11 in particular, we see and hear some of the thoughts of soldiers and commanders.) I liked the different costumes of the Magical Girls, and the fact that in episode 12 they say magic is just like physics to those from the spirit world. I’ve seen countless maid outfits in anime, but never a green-grey military-themed maid outfit complete with a beautiful karambit.
Some aspects that could have been explored were wasted. I was expecting the loss of Nozomi’s memories to be more serious; it would have provided some more good fodder for psychological themes. However, it seems like she’s perfectly happy. I had hoped to see how Magical Girls bond with spirits (mascots), but it nothing like that was shown. The spirits could have explained more about magic, but nothing like that happened.
On a related note, I was troubled by important things not being explained in a timely manner, or not being explained at all. Starting early on, I wondered why the government never made more than 11 Magical Girls, and why they didn’t create more now for the Special Ops. Only in episode 12 are we finally told why more Magical Girls are hard to make, and how many there are around the world. I gradually got the idea that Tabira was so important because she’s like an ambassador between the two worlds, but this was never clearly explained, unless I missed it.
Another thing: If the inter-worldly Bridge they’re supposed to protect in episode 9 is the most important place on earth, why didn’t the government have other Magical Girls plus huge armies protecting it? They only had the Japanese Special Operations plus a few small military units. And Was the Bridge restored after the battle? I don’t remember it being shown or stated.
The writing is awkward, but at least half of that is because of the poor translation on Crunchyroll, where I watched most of the series. The lines were horrible in the flashback where Francine dies in episode 3. Another example of an awkward lines is when Kurumi says, “you came for me, didn’t you?” to Shima in episode 5. Did she think Shima was Asuka, or something?
There were also some really good lines throughout the series, but they felt forced in some cases. Asuka’s line about recognizing your own weakness in episode 1, Kurumi’s line about honoring the dead in episode 5, Mia’s line about strength in episode 10, Asuka’s line about protecting the world in episode 11, and Kurmi’s lines about how life is 99% pain and 1% pleasure in episode 12.
Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka has some elements of what people call (or used to call) edginess. Starting in episode 1, people are slaughtered with veritable explosions of blood. In episode 2, the torture scenes begin. There is an extended scene showing exactly how Nozomi is being tortured in episode 4. Other torture scenes appear throughout, and so do ecchi shots or moments, and sexualization of the characters. I don’t mind edgy shows. In fact, I tend to like them. However, I acknowledge that many of them aren’t that good from a critic’s standpoint.
The series structure was just plain bad. I’ve said this in different reviews before, but the ideal structure for a 12 episode series is something like this. Episodes 1 and 3 have exciting events to hook viewers. The climax of the first half of the story is in episode 6. Buildup and/or other important reveals and fights may be in episodes 8-10. The finale is in two parts, 11 and 12, with enough room for resolution. It should go without saying that main characters should be introduced in the first half of the 12-episode series.
Did Asuka follow this structure? Yes for some parts, big no for other parts. There were plot hooks in episodes 1 and 3. Episode 6 was nothing like a climax, though. Then they introduced brand new main characters in episodes 7 and 8: Giess and Chiasto. Episode 9 was good buildup to the final battle, but it means the finale is in episodes 10 and 11.
That leaves an extra episode. This was the most painful part of the story falling apart. So many things were wrong with that as a season finale that I don’t know where to begin. How about the way they introduce another important character, Pei Pei, in a way that defies all sense of order? This was painful to watch.
This is really random, but I like that there’s some knowledge of science in this show. The truth serum in episode 4 was a type of barbituate with some of its properties enhanced by magic. Real barbituates are strong sedatives used in hospitals. Sometimes, a relatively low dose is in pill form given to patients experiencing withdrawal from alchocol or benzodiazapenes like clonazepam.
Some of what Kurumi said about the brain and magic when she was erasing Nozomi’s memories kind of made sense, and included facts like how some memories are stored in the hippocampus. The gas that fills the room where Just Cause is fighting in episode 6 is ayahuasca in gas form enhanced by magic. Real ayahuasca is an all-natural but dangerous mixture of certain plants that causes an intense psychedelic “high” in users. Too much can be fatal, and so can mixing it wrong.
Other aspects I enjoyed were the overall “edginess” of the show (because I’m weird that way), some of the action sequences, and most of all, the themes. Mainly, I mean the theme about responses to trauma and PTSD in Asuka and her friends. The theme of honoring the dead brought to light by Kurumi’s words in episode 5. The effects-of-war theme was shown by the Colombian terrorist whose family died in the Disas base bombing (episode 6), and the backstory of Giess (episodes 8 and 11). These are pretty profound themes I could write a lot about, but it would take another whole post to do so.
Overall Score: 6.2/10
In summary, I enjoyed watching Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka, but I can’t consider it in the 7/10 “Good” range. It’s a 6/10, “Fair” or “Satisfactory” at best. It’s got cheap animation with a cheap CGI, a laughable excuse for a soundtrack, and a messy and poorly-told story. Still, there were things I found entertaining about it, like all the possible yuri ships, the exciting fight scenes, and the edgy tone of the show. I also liked the psychological themes related to PTSD and trauma, viewing them as the redeeming factors in what is otherwise pretty average stuff.