Don’t be fooled by its shonen trappings: while it features some pseudo-battles and quite a bit of fan-service, Baka and Test is a romantic underdog story at heart, sort of a sexy Japanese Peanuts. The show deals with the lowest-ranked class in Fumizuki Academy, a school where students can battle each other with avatars powered by their grades, challenging the higher-ranked classes in order to get better equipment for a sickly student unfairly placed in the class because of the school’s draconian testing policies. It’s a silly, comedic series but there’s something sort of sweet behind it–the idea that even complete idiots like the main characters can still be decent people, accomplish things and find success in life–that flavors the humor marvelously and makes the rare swings into drama more believable. The series feels sincere even in its silliness.
This is probably best expressed through the characters, who could be a grating group of clichés but in this show come off as quirky and intensely likable soldiers in the war on academic prowess. The main character, Akihisa Yoshii, is played off as clueless and horny, but is also a cheerful, optimistic, and genuinely good person who wants the best for his friends and will do the right thing without hesitation (even refusing to glance at the answers to a test at one point). It’s impossible not to root for him over the haughty students from higher classes. On the other hand, his friend, Yūji Sakamoto, the de facto leader of Class F, is a low-key badass who takes his stupidity very seriously and represents a subtle and light-handed, but very clear, attack on the modern schooling system. Akihisa has two love interests in the group as well, the tsundere Minami Shimada, and a shy and withdrawn genius, Mizuki Himeji. This love triangle is complicated by the fact that Akihisa is aware of neither of the girl’s affections no matter how obvious they become. While many of the romantic relationships in the show are played for laughs, and this one is no exception, there are surprisingly heartfelt moments between the three: an episode where Minami repeatedly tries to get Akihisa to accept a lunch she made for him features a deep level of emotion not common in these types of stories. The other two members of the main group, resident pervert Muttsulini and Hideyoshi Kinoshita, a boy who looks and is usually treated exactly like a girl, are more one-note, but thanks to superb voice-work and clever writing they’re still entertaining supporting characters.
There are a few misfires among the tertiary characters–Yoshii’s incest-prone older sister stands out as a particularly odd decision on the part of the writers–but for the most part this cast is so likable and well-portrayed that they’re fun to watch even when they’re not doing anything particularly funny. (Often, though, they are.) This is a hilarious show, and what’s more, it’s funny in a smart way. The first plot arc concludes in a gag that plays off what we know about the characters in a completely unexpected and convention-defying way, and it left me rolling. The strategic elements of the show provide an extra element: a surprising amount of thought is put into the students’ battles. All of these elements are balanced perfectly, blending and never over-shadowing one another.
The show is very pretty to look at as well. The character designs are colorful and bright without being overly gaudy. The characters move realistically when necessary, but the series is always willing to play around with its visuals for the sake of a gag as well. Most notably, the characters are simply placed on the screen with what appears to be a trained eye. The kind of mathematical hierarchy featured in promotional artwork for the series is present in almost every frame, giving the impression that each scene was arranged for the best aesthetic effect–a welcome change from the lazy talking heads that appear so often in shows of this type.
This three-disc set, available in DVD or Blu-ray* format, collects the entire first series (thirteen episodes), though the Baka and Test OVAs, notably, are not included on this set. (But Funimation has purchased the rights to them so presumably they will be released on a different set at a later date.) There are also a load of special features, including things like Japanese advertisements and TV spots, which while not vital to the series are interesting aspects of the franchise that should be included in a release like this. I’m always pleased to see Funimation giving us more than textless OP/EDs and the occasional dub-cast-commentary, and I hope the trend continues.
*I was given the DVD copy of this set to review, so all stills were taken from that set and any information regarding the content pertains to it.