Sekirei left me puzzling over a question that I, as a critic, never thought I’d ask myself: How many naked, anatomically impossible cartoon women does a show have to throw at me before I stop taking it seriously?
Sekirei is, shamelessly, a fanservice show, but it is also smart and funny and charming, and it would take a lot more gratuitous nudity to make me dismiss it as nothing more than a fanservice show. And more to the point, if it contains a few scenes rather spoiled by the blatant pandering—I really don’t need to see that woman’s breasts bounce as she falls down dead, thank you—then it must be said that there are even more scenes that would have been less funny or dramatic if not for the titillation. That’s because the more fanservicey aspects actually emphasize the show’s overall focus themes of sexuality and marriage, which is a big part of the charm and without which it wouldn’t be the same series. (I should mention here that the source material for this show, the Sekirei comic, was written by a woman. Form your own conclusions). So it’s not accurate to dismiss Sekirei as a fanservice show that also happens to be good. It is, rather, a good though fanservicey show. And it may have the potential to be more than that, although there a few things standing in its way.
The premise is actually kind of despicable. There are these creatures called Sekirei, and they are being used in a sort of fighting tournament set up by a mega corporation run by a mad scientist. The Sekirei have to “bond” with humans and then fight each other, and the human whose Sekirei is the last one standing gets to live with his (or, in rare cases, her) Sekirei forever in vaguely defined harmony (this doesn’t account for the numerous humans, including the main character, who have more than one Sekirei, but whatever). So basically, we get all the moral queasiness of your average harem show and all the moral queasiness of Pokemon, all in one series. It should be off-putting, but it isn’t, perhaps because our hero, Sahashi Minato, is so hapless about it all—he’s just shocked, really, every time a woman throws herself him. There’s a bit of subtlety there, further abetted by a terrifically mellow voice performance from Shinnosuke Tachibana. Essentially, with Minato the writers successfully made a dream—having a bunch of beautiful women who want to have sex with you and are willing to die for you—feel like a problem. The character, while a complete straight man, feels genuine. There’s even some exciting character development near the end of this set that hints he may be growing a bit more of a spine.
Then we have the Sekirei, each of whom is much more cartoonish and each of whom (with the exception of the eight-year-old) is going to have serious back problems when they hit forty. They come across more strongly and are quite funny, but it’s the way the series portrays their relationship with Minato that interests me. He is the submissive member of the romance here: He likes each of the girls but is unsure about how to go beyond that, much less who he wants as a partner. So all the wooing is done by the girls. Musubi is all doe-eyed adoration. Kusano (the eight year old) is (thankfully!) merely adorably infatuated. Matsu is aggressive, and Tsukiumi is openly hostile but covertly intrigued. All of this is handled quite well, almost maturely. Each girl is likable and there is genuine suspense over which one will get picked. There is genuine meaning behind the various ashikabi/sekirei scenes, meaning that gains traction precisely because the show is so unsubtle.
In fact, the romantic suspense is so good that the more shonen-esque antics—super-powered fight scenes that interrupt almost-tender moments—actually detract from the experience and keep Sekirei from being a great series. There are some feeble attempts at tying the two themes together—the Sekirei become more powerful when they kiss their ashikabi—and the fights are cleverly done and the off-the-wall backstory is entertaining, but these twin aspects get too much in each others’ way. This is a problem that begins to subside a bit toward the last few episodes on this set, which ends in an explosive and intriguing battle during which all of the characters are utilized purposefully. The last episode alone proves that it is possible to get the two themes in sync, and I hope they continue to sync into later seasons.
A bigger problem is that the visuals cannot live up to the ambitious writing. It is fine that the show wants to be sexy, and story’s themes draw power from its, blunt, shameless approach. But the generic visuals are incapable of conveying the sincerity that runs beneath the surface. It’s all homogenous cheesecake poses and panty shots, with no real attempt at doing what the writing is obviously trying to do. The visuals are at their best during fight scenes or when being applied to designs that aren’t even meant to be sexy. (This is another way the gap between themes is widened, since the shift from relatively innocent designs likes Karasuba or Miya to the spectacle that is Musubi can be jarring.) The sexual nature of the show may be surprisingly bold, but aesthetically it’s a complete misfire.
Which is too bad. Sekirei is a lot of fun, but it’s obvious at times that it wants to be more, and it comes this close, but just can’t make the final stretch. At any rate, it’s interesting enough to make me want to seek out the next season, even though I doubt the visuals will ever improve sufficiently.
For the record, watch this one subbed. The dub has some talents behind it but, bless their hearts, they seem a bit befuddled by the material.