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Friday, March 9, 2018

Steady x Study: Money for Nothin'... & Chicks for Free?

Back in early 2013, I dedicated some of two months to reviewing a bunch of OVAs that were all produced by video game company Idea Factory, back when it was trying to be more of a multimedia production house. Whether it was any of the three Generation of Chaos OVAs, Gakuen Toshi Vara Noir (the first episode, at least), Mars of Destruction, or Kingdom of Chaos: Born to Kill, nearly all of them were, quite frankly, rather poor & not even all that enjoyable in an ironic, "so bad it's good" fashion. The only exceptions were GOCIII, which was actually more than decent, & Born to Kill, which was honestly pretty damn good (though it still had the same visual "quirks" that all the others had). After those reviews, I had always planned on returning to the Idea Factory anime well, but so far the only time I actually did so was last October, when I reviewed the Spectral Force OVA, IF's first ever anime, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of that series. Therefore, with this year being about finally going back & covering stuff I left behind, let's return to this poorly-rendered CG well that was made by "The Ed Wood of Anime," as I deemed Idea Factory last year.

In 2004, Idea Factory started up a new brand called IFMate, which focused on what people internationally call dating sims; in Japan, they word "ren'ai" is used, which uses the two kanji for love, "koi" & "ai". Unlike visual novels, a.k.a. otome games aimed at women, dating sims are technically made for male players, as the goal is to have one of the female characters fall in love with the male protagonist. The IFMate brand wouldn't last long, dying out post-2007 after moving over to being based on anime properties, but the first entry was Steady x Study for the PS2, released on March 25, 2004. Today, the game is probably most known for its tangential relation to the IF Neverland brand, as "lead" female character Koyuki Saito may very well be the girl that Jadou summoned to the fantasy world of Neverland in the original Spectral Force, who would be known as Little Snow. Though the only game to outright make that connection is crossover RPG Chaos Wars, so the canonicity is purposefully tenuous, there is the fact that Koyuki translates directly to "Little Snow", and the white-haired witch was originally a brown-haired schoolgirl, like Koyuki is in her own game. Anyway, on May 26 that same year, Idea Factory decided to release a ~25 minute OVA for Steady x Study. Today, this is likely the most obscure & forgotten Idea Factory OVA out there, so what better place to start than here?

Makoto Nakane is a student at Harajuku's Kamimori Private Academy who's split between two friends, Satoru Wakabayashi & Nozomi Abekawa, as both want him to join their respective groups, the Drama Club & the Study Club. Unfortunately, while at the next Student Council meeting, Wakabayashi & Abekawa learn that neither club will be receiving additional funds in the near future, & they promptly tell Makoto & their friends. While everyone wonders what will happen to them next, Drama Club members Koyuki Saito, Reika Hoshi, & Mei Uehara go to the park to meet with Makoto, as they planned on doing earlier. Unfortunately, the heavy rain makes it look like Makoto won't make it, but he manages to arrive, taking Koyuki aside & telling her to believe in him, because he feels that everything's going to be alright.

The main thing to remember about most of the anime Idea Factory itself made is that they were not meant to be standalone products, but rather were simply conceived of as promotional material for the games they're based on. Unfortunately, the Steady x Study OVA kind of fails in that specific regard, mainly because not a whole lot of anything happens in the near-half hour of time it lasts. From what I can gather, part of the game's overall story is that you don't just help Makoto endear himself to either Koyuki, Nozomi, Reika, or Mei, but you also seem to select if Makoto sticks with either the Drama Club or the Study Club. The OVA does set up this basic conundrum, & it does explain some minor character relationships, like why Makoto calls Nozomi "Mocchi" (it's due to how the kanji for her name can be read), but after that it kind of just... Exists. Literally, the OVA only features these specific scenes: Makoto & Koyuki practice for the play, while Reika, & Mei hang out on the roof with them; Wakabayashi & Abekawa learn about the lack of funding for their clubs; everyone else is told the news at the local café; Makoto & Koyuki think about the news alone; Koyuki goes home & sleeps, before joining her friends at the park the next day; after waiting, Makoto takes Koyuki with him; finally, while everyone else gets props ready for the play, Makoto & Koyuki practice on the roof again.

I understand that setting up a dating sim that's all about schoolkids & their lives means that it won't necessarily have the same sort of set up that a fantasy story about war, or even a battle against aliens from Mars, would have, but the OVA ends with little sense of tension. Sure, the two clubs having no funding is there, but at the end of this anime you get the feeling that everything looks to be fine. The Drama Club is still preparing for the next play, with everyone smiling, while Makoto & Koyuki don't look too worried about anything at all; if anything, Koyuki seems encouraged about her future. Just about every other Idea Factory anime I have seen so far before this ended with some feeling that there was more in the future for the characters. The First & Second Neverland Wars were only just beginning, the Kingdom of Radia had a new king to lead them into a new & unsure age, Myu was realizing just how wild & crazy life at Vara Noir would be, & the AAST were just told that mankind were actually the original alien invaders of Earth; Born to Kill had a standalone story, but even that ended with something to think about. Compared to all of those, Steady x Study's OVA ends with the sensation that everything is going to work out just fine, no matter what, and that doesn't exactly work well as a promotion for the video game. The Student Council heads are apparently OVA-exclusive characters, but they are literally in a single scene, so it's not like this is meant to tell an exclusive storyline, either.

Thankfully, there are some things that do shine in this OVA, even if only dimly. While Wakabayashi is meant to be Makoto's best friend, he literally doesn't say anything in this anime; his seiyuu returned, but literally just breathes & gives a couple of vocal sounds. Because of that, however, every time Wakabayashi is on screen he manages to get your attention because of his facial reactions. When told he's getting no funding by the Council, he gives off the perfect "dead" face, complete with a defeated voice clip. When he joins the girls for their trip to the park, seeing nothing but a downpour leaves him dead-eyed. It's not much, of course, but Wakabayashi showcases so much more personality in this OVA than just about anyone else, and he manages to do so without saying a single word. Idea Factory may have only wanted him to be the silly comic relief in the moments he's seen here, but in the end the staff made him the only one I could truly relate to & feel for.

Another interesting thing is that this is decently animated, especially for an Idea Factory production. This predates when the company started working with Wao World for animation in 2005, so this is one of the last anime that Idea Factory actually animated itself, & it finally feels like the people there learned how the animate something, especially when it comes to the backgrounds. While there is still some CG to be seen, the environments seem to be traditionally drawn for the most part, which in turn actually makes the OVA look just a bit nicer than the other Idea Factory anime I have reviewed so far. I could be wrong, though, but that just means that the CG meshes in better, which is also an improvement. When combined with the fact that Nakamura Production, AIC, & O Production helped with the in-between animation, Steady x Study is possibly the best looking anime that Idea Factory ever made "on its own"; Born to Kill has better animation, but still uses CG backgrounds heavily. Of course, when compared to other anime productions, that only means that this OVA is competently made, so it's not like Idea Factory produced a miracle, or anything like that.

Whereas prior Idea Factory anime, by this point, were either directed by Taisuke Kato or company co-founder Yoshiteru Sato, Steady x Study was directed by Hiroyuki Kawamura, who also directed the animation found in the PS2 game. While Kawamura has no other "anime" credits under his belt, if I had to give anyone credit for pulling out the decent animation seen here, then it'd be to this man. The character designs by Katsuyuki Hirano are generally good, with everyone looking actually subdued when compared to most anime involving students; they look more natural than your usual school-based anime. The music by Idea Factory's Kenichi Yoshikawa, however, is nothing really memorable, and, once again, I'm sure it's just the same music you'd find in the game itself; fitting, but nothing really great, & that applies to the OP & ED themes, too. The voice cast is small, and they're mostly decent, like Kyoko Hashimoto's Koyuki, Ryo Hirohashi's Abekawa, & Minako Sango's Uehara. Probably the most ill-fitting would actually be Makoto, voiced by Maiko Itou, who's best known as Mamoru in GaoGaiGar. While her voice obviously fits a small child like Mamoru, though, she doesn't try to deepen her voice in any way with Makoto, which results in our lead sounding more like he's secretly a young woman than a teenage boy; it's not a bad performance by any means, but it just doesn't sound "right", for lack of a better word.

The Steady x Study OVA is not just one of Idea Factory's most obscure anime productions (the actual DVD itself is tough to find, & the best I could find online isn't exactly great quality), but it's also one of the most bizarrely double-edged. From a technical perspective, it's honestly one of the company's best works, at least from the ones that it made itself, with decent animation (minus some easy cheats to be found) & a less ambitious use of CG backgrounds. Unfortunately, all of these improvements are effectively wasted on an OVA that does nothing more than meander. It kind of sets up some of the conflict that the PS2 game itself likely covers, but then ends off like it's nothing more than a minor inconvenience, and everything will work out fine. Truly, this feels like an Ed Wood-esque situation in concept: What if Ed Wood actually managed to be a technically decent (or even semi-proficient) creator, only to waste it on a production that really does nothing? Now, to be fair, this isn't the only anime out there that suffers from this kind of situation, but it just feels all the more notable here, because this is Idea Factory we're talking about.

Anyway, up next on this return to Idea Factory anime is the final OVA that the company animated on its own... And, to some people, it's the second worst anime of all time.

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