All right, when it comes to Idea Factory anime so far we've got an average one (Generation of Chaos), a below-average one (GOC Next), & a damn good one (GOC III)... But I know what people want to expect. You guys want to hear about the crap, right? The stuff that helped make Idea Factory a laughing stock to many people, so bad that it might not even be "so bad it's good". Well, here's one for you: A prime example of Idea Factory's ambition being a little too big for their abilities, or at least their budget, and a title I am willing to break my "Only Titles I Have Seen Everything Of" review policy, at least for the moment.
By the time 2002 came about the Spectral & Generation of Chaos series were the main force behind the Neverland franchise, but Idea Factory decided to expand on the world by introducing characters that can be used later on in the timeline, essentially allowing fans of the franchise to see these characters start out young & inexperienced but grow into true heroes. The result was Gakuen Toshi/School City Vara Noir (subtitled Kingdom of Chaos The Universe), a strategy RPG that was all about the students of the prestigious school Vara Noir, where young boys & girls can learn to potentially become the heroes of the future. Going alongside this RPG was a two episode OVA to help promote the game... And if the second episode is anything like the first, then I hesitate to want to watch it one day.
Myu (or Mue in some translations) is a simple girl who lives with her (lecherous) grandfather in the city that surrounds Vara Noir, helping out as a chimney sweep. One day her grandfather sneaks a message into her sandwich; the message reveals that Vara Noir, normally open only to the best, is welcoming regular folk in for a limited time. Myu takes this opportunity to enroll, mainly with the intent of making friends, but unfortunately she has absolutely no skills in fighting... Which is made all the worse when Ryuto Crystal, the top student in the school, challenges her to an introductory fight.
The Vara Noir anime is a tough one to really be fair to, mainly because it really doesn't give off a good first impression visually. Like the other Idea Factory anime I've reviewed so far, Vara Noir utilizes traditional animation on top of CG backgrounds... But here the mix isn't good at all. Granted, fellow 2002 production GOC Next didn't exactly have a good mix either, but here it's simply really awkward and blatantly unimpressive. True, the animation itself doesn't look quite as "digital" as GOC Next's, but it's almost as if the trade-off was simply horrible CG. Really, the CG here is simply bad, with some establishing shots of the giant tower in the middle of the school looking like they weren't even completed in time, with the CG looking unshaded & even blurry at times. Combined with that are portions where the OVA doesn't even animate, but instead is simply a letterboxed slideshow of images, with the motion simply being pans & pull backs, and I can't forget to mention the fact that group shots of random students are utilizing only about five different designs, men & women combined, that are simply cut & pasted around. Visually, Vara Noir fails in just about every aspect, delivering limited-as-hell animation but not utilizing it in ways that keep it from making the title suffer.
If there is anything good to say about this anime, though, it's that some of that characters are entertaining & there are a couple of good laughs. Myu's simple innocence & optimism makes her easy to like, especially since every bit of trouble she gets into isn't really her fault: Her classmates are simply wacky. There's Faust, an overly-enthusiastic boy who acts like he's God's gift to the world, calling Myu "Honey" and acting like he's the focus of any scene he's in. While Faust has his moments, he's overall more annoying & just weird than anything else; when he goes into an odd semi-musical bit about how prestigious Vara Noir is, complete with a choir of students backing him up, it's hard to tell if Faust is trying to be silly or just weird. Finally, there is Ryuto and she's at least interesting to watch. Ryuto comes from an equally-prestigious family, and with that comes the feel that she has to be the best, made all the more difficult when Myu is able to accidentally top her, but Ryuto differs slightly from characters of this ilk by being admittedly flawed (she's always late to class but is extremely polite) and lacking any sort of snobby girl laugh (you know, that usual laugh they have). The comedy parts that work tend to come from Myu, such as when Faust continually shows off a freaky smile and Myu responds by looking into a mirror & checking her teeth, or the two moments where Myu accidentally wins a fight by bending down to grab a coin. Yeah, the whole "main character does something silly & wins a fight" thing might not be for everyone, but here it works well enough.
The music also works wells enough here, with the game themes mixing in well with the whole idea of a battle school that features some wacky students. If there is one thing Idea Factory tends to do a really good job at, though, it's that their games usually have really good opening themes; all three GOC OVAs had great opening themes & Vara Noir is no different. Here we have Bridge by Chihiro Yonekura, and it's a really addictive & upbeat theme that really gets you pumped up... Too bad your mood drops the moment the song ends (if you've played Chaos Wars, Myu & Luwenelva's theme is a remix of Bridge). The ending theme is Stars by Chihiro Yonekura, and like the other Idea Factory ending themes so far it's slower-paced and makes for a nice compliment to the opening, but otherwise isn't exactly amazing. The main cast here is a small one, but it's worth bringing up. Myu is voiced by Ai Nonaka (Fuuko Ibuki in Clannad, Beauty in Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo), and she does a great job bringing Myu's simple & innocent optimism out, and she really makes the role hers. Ryuto is voiced by Ryou Hirohashi (Tails from the Sonic the Hedgehog series, Alice Carroll in Aria), and she does a fine job at making Ryuto sound like a higher authority that always has to prove herself. Finally, Faust is voiced by Ryo Naito (Ryuji Otogi/Duke Devlin in Yu-Gi-Oh!, Matsuda in Death Note), who brings about a true awkward pompousness that I'm guessing the character is meant to have. Rounding out the cast is Ryouhei Nakao (The Headmaster) & Akemi Satou (Luwenelva [not seen in ep 1, but worth mentioning]).
The Gakuen Toshi Vara Noir OVA is not a good anime at all, regardless of being a prologue/promotion production or not. The animation is limited with no attempts at making up for it, the CG is horrendous, and even though a couple of the characters are interesting the situations they are put in aren't really all too interesting, a couple of good jokes aside. Now I did mention that I am breaking my "Only Titles I Have Seen Everything Of" review policy for this post, and that's simply because of confusion. There is a fansub of this OVA, and it is listed as two episodes, which is what this OVA is made up of... Unfortunately, the fansub episodes aren't of the actual two episodes, but rather is simply the first episode broken up into two pieces. The second episode, Myu no Wakuwaku... Gakuen Seikatsu!/Myu's Exciting... School Life!, is impossible to find online, and I refuse to buy the DVDs for this OVA just so that I can see that second episode, which I'm sure isn't an improvement in any form anyway. The only Idea Factory OVAs I have bought on DVD are GOC III & a title I will be reviewing soon, and that's because they're both good. Still, I did feel that this title was worth reviewing for this batch of Idea Factory animes, so I'll bite the bullet this time & review something that I have not seen all of; if I ever get the chance to see episode 2, though, I'll make an addendum to this review. In terms of the Neverland franchise, Vara Noir is an important entry mainly because it was the introduction of some characters that would make their mark in later titles. Myu & Luwenelva become important characters in the Spectral Souls games (the second of which we got on the PSP & Android market as Spectral Souls: Resurrection of the Ethereal Empires), and people who played Neverland Card Battles (Cardinal Arc in Japan) on the PSP will remember its main character Galahad, who made his debut in Vara Noir. It is a shame, then, that such an important entry in this franchise has such an embarrassingly bad anime.
Still, Vara Noir isn't actually considered the worst Idea Factory anime that exists, as there is one that surpasses this OVA's suckitude and is generally considered one of the worst animes of all time... It's not related to Neverland, but I'll be getting to it next.