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Review: “Wanna Be the Strongest in the World” Doesn’t Aim High Enough

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Wanna Be The Strongest In The WorldThe world of idols: very competitive.

The world of wrestling: very competitive.

Both are heavily manufactured and are more about flash and style, but do require some talent. Singers need to at least hit a certain note and pitch, and wrestlers need to be able to withstand and dish out some amount of torment. Japanese idol culture, where large groups of teenage girls play songs first, but are adored by fans foremost, is not something that’s gathered momentum in America. Wrestling in America is already a niche “sport,” dominated by the largely-scripted entertainment shows run by the WWE. When you get into the even smaller niche of women’s wrestling, a sport that definitely plays up the sexiness for the largely-male audience, you’re only left with the WWE Divas and the long-gone GLOW (old enough to have earned itself a “Behind the Music”-style documentary showing how most of the performers’ lives fell apart after it’s run as a Saturday morning entertainment show).

Wanna Be the Strongest in the World (a title that’s as overly long in the original Japanese Sekai de Ichiban Tsuyoku Naritai!) decides to mix idol culture with women’s wrestling, with both getting modified in the process. Sakura Hagiwara, the star of the group Sweet Diva, finds herself in the crushing world of women’s wrestling, while her former cohort Elena Miyazawa is tasked with keeping the idol world afloat. Sakura spends her days training with the wrestling group Berserk to prove herself after a promotional match ends with her pride shattered and her long hair diced. Now, she trains with her assailant, Rio Kazama, and makes her declaration: she wants to be the strongest in the world.

The series has four clear storylines over the twelve episodes, with the first half of the series dedicated to setting up the cast and general concept: Sakura and Elena, in a promotional event that gets out of hand, ends up with Elena bruised and battered and Sakura stepping up for her friend and her idol group’s pride. Not one to back down, her inevitable loss leads her to joining the wrestling organization and training until she can win a rematch with Rio. After that series of events, a few mini-arcs take place, leading to a culmination of sorts that could either be a new beginning or a good ending for the series.

Well, an ending. It might not be a “good” one, but events certainly do transpire and wrap up.

Visually, the show is a mess. From a cursory look at the comic covers (a legal release in America has not been made as of publication), the original artist does seem to grasp that women aren’t made of plastic. In this show’s animation design, everything is simplified and at the same time exaggerated. Heads may not move in an entire conversation outside of mouth and eyes, characters will stand perfectly still if they don’t have any action or lines at the moment, and the show falls back on the visual shortcut of “we won’t show you the action, but we’ll show a still frame of the impact.” It is a technique that is used with discretion in other works, but is the default here. Wrestling is a very, very hard sport to get the physics down, if only because it’s uncommon and involves significant interaction with another body. Spike Spiegel can fire a gun on his own, and Goku can launch a kamehameha blast from one planet to another, and they’ll never have to worry about the physics of the other person. For wrestling, the animators need to rethink how bodies flow and impact one another.

Wanna Be The Strongest In The WorldThe show could gain massive credibility if it was a visual feast of fluidity. Rotoscoping actual wrestlers would be a start, and not cutting away from the action for more than a few seconds (having one long shot) would be welcome. There’s a reason why such shots in Marvel’s Daredevil and the first season of True Detective wowed people. The fact that animation lacks most of the limitations of live-action productions (camera operators, boom mics, simple human error) gives even more reason to exploit the medium to do action scenes that are challenging or impossible in live-action. As a result, it’s disappointing that Wanna Be the Strongest in the World decides that you’ll see the set up for a maneuver and then maybe the beginning before pausing on the impact… and then have your lead scream in orgasmic ecstasy or pain, depending on how much the cries of a woman work for you. Mind you, these cries will invariably happen as the camera is zoomed in on a crotch in an already-skimpy outfit, just to make the real intention clear in the director and animator’s minds.

This (other than just being boring) is Wanna Be the Strongest in the World‘s greatest sin: it relies significantly on titillation that is not titillating. To make it clear, having a show that revolves around fanservice and near-sexuality can work. Colorful was a great OVA that was all about panty shots, and there are many great late 1980’s/early 1990’s action shows that were primarily just vehicles to get women in sexually-explicit positions to fuel the “girls with guns” genre. Even modern takeaways like Everday Life with Monster Girls can find a way to plug plot and humor into a show that decides that you need to see a harpy pass an egg or a spider-woman engage an underage-appearing demon in a little bit of rope bondage. Wanna Be the Strongest in the World has one default build for most the cast: tall with some muscle definition (but not too much to scare anyone off) and an impressive chest that is oddly immobile. Everyone should be having back problems not from the wrestling moves inflicted on them, but because everyone’s breasts look and act like bowling balls drilled flush against a board. Every episode, without fault, features some moment of our heroine twisted and contorted into an embarrassing pose, usually with legs splayed out and chest on display, with an uncomfortable costume riding up her backside for good measure. It’s also puzzling that Wanna Be the Strongest in the World doesn’t take long to show outright toplessness, so why be reserved for the rest of the show? If you cross the line early on, go all out and commit, but get some animators and directors who can at least work with the subject matter. A little bounce, a little sag and sway, and you’ve gone a long way from slamming Barbie dolls together in a steel-cage match that’s watched by androids.

Wanna Be The Strongest In The World“Androids?” Most shots of crowds are dozens or hundreds of CG models all following a rote animation cycle of “wave arms” or “cheering pose.” Watching any of the crowd scenes is just painful, even if they’re darkened out and you’re only supposed to see the light of glowsticks, which is supposedly a thing when it comes to wrestling matches.

Poor animation and staging could just be limitations on an otherwise-amazing plot and story, but Wanna Be the Strongest in the World doesn’t deliver on those, either. A problem with many reviews and reviewers is that it’s easy to critique a show by what one WANTS the show to be. In principle, there are some great avenues that could come from a show about idols and wrestlers. There could be people in the past who had wrestled until their bodies couldn’t take it anymore, leaving the ring not as a champion but a disabled Viking thirsty for a fight they cannot have. However, injuries and impacts in the show are treated as “twisted ankle” or “passed out,” without any of the real-world concerns that would come from such an action. Even a twisted ankle would take one out of fighting for weeks, but forcibly choke-holding someone into unconsciousness is treated as a minor inconvenience. Nobody’s particularly concerned outside of “well, she lost the match,” despite the fact that being forced unconscious is actually a rather-serious situation, especially in the wake of some high-profile deaths in the news. Nobody walks away from the addiction of a wrestling match to another addiction, such as painkillers or alcohol, and nobody gets a reason why they wrestle, outside of two or three main characters. You don’t find that one woman’s doing it because her dad did it, or it was the only way for her to get attention, or that they even just outright like wearing flashy outfits and causing pain. On the idol side, all idol fans are treated as either pure hopeful supporters or fair-weather friends that walk away when things are bad, ignoring the real world situations that idols face like stalkers, dating in secret, or the fact that a career as an idol has a termination date.

Wanna Be The Strongest In The WorldIf the show added any of these plot developments, it would instantly be transformed from a generic “underdog going for the championship” story to one that actually has gravitas. However, the plot of all twelve episodes can each be summed up as “Sakura tries to become stronger with the help of her friends and/or a level of self-reliance she didn’t know she had.” Half the show is dedicated to leading up to a rematch, but the rivalry between the characters can be pushed to the side as Sakura’s rival is also one to help support and train her. Once this plot is resolved, the show begins a series of mini-arcs. A forgettable legend is impressed enough by Sakura to the want a match, a karate fangirl steps up to the mat to prove her own worth, and a masked wrestler makes an ultimatum: if Sakura loses a match, she leaves wrestling forever. The masked wrestler plotline is driven by the question of who’s under the mask, and has a unique twist that some may see coming. However, this plot stretches more than just the plot and visuals, since one character needs to grow a few cup sizes from previous appearances to justify the development (if not her developments).

There are certain elements you have to allow for even the reality of the show to make sense. Not once does anyone mention or even consider if the fighting is staged, which, depending on what wrestling event one is watching, is either ever-present or not. If you’d like to to go with the argument that no matches are staged (which this show goes with), then it’s a leap to assume that a masked wrestler can get in, get past security, command the stage, and offer challenges in front of a massive audience. There’s stretching reality and credibility (that nobody has any permanent emotional or physical problems from this demanding job) and then there’s just outright “there would be legal action taking for breaking into an entertainment venue and walking on stage.”

Wanna Be The Strongest In The WorldExtras on this DVD/Blu-ray set include the US trailer, clean opening, and clean ending — all standard for FUNimation. Two commentaries on the first disc try to do something different. With the series theoretically all about fighting, the cast is asked to talk about a fight they were involved in, and take bets on if the others won or lost the fight. It’s an interesting diversion when many American commentaries are boiling down to the voice crew talking about how they got into the industry or found their voice for the character. The one over-the-top extra on this set is a series of six mini-episodes that throw out any sort of premise of serious plot, and toss the girls into a variety of unique matches, whether it be mud wrestling, oil wrestling, or teaming up to fight two opponents. Most women in these fights immediately lose their tops in one fashion or another, and continue to fight despite the revelations their bodies give to the audience that may be reaching out for such “art” on the shelves. The six stories equate to about the length of a normal episode, so you’ll either fly through the cheesecake real quick or feel disappointed that the show didn’t commit to this level of fanservice absurdity for more of the main series.

There’s no expectations that Wanna Be The Strongest In The World was going to be a full steak dinner with all the trimmings. At best, we were looking at a Hardee’s/Carl Jr.’s Thickburger (complete with the appropriate advertising inherent with the brand), but even as a paragon of greasy, unhealthy meals, Wanna Be The Strongest In The World decided to pull all of the sides and even the condiments. You may have a basic burger, but even if looks a bit appealing, you’ll find yourself wanting either a better burger or more toppings. Wanna Be The Strongest In The World only removes toppings, but not often in the fun way you’d expect from the cover.