Once upon a time, there were two young women who couldn’t be more different. Despite the fact that they were both teenagers going to the same high school in Saitama prefecture, Japan, almost nothing about them was similar. Konata Izumi, a petit bluenette with the attitude of a slacker, and Kagami Hiiragi, a responsible honor student with little tolerance for nonsense. One of them comes from a single parent home, the other from a large and closely knit family. One of them devotes her entire life to distractions with little time set aside for academics, the other devotes her entire life to academics with little time set aside for distractions. One of them is rooted in the present, the other one keeping a healthy eye on the future. Ordinarily, two people as drastically different as these two would go their whole lives without crossing paths, but against all odds, Konata became close friends with Kagami’s little sister, having daringly saved her life from a foreigner who was trying to ask her for directions to a thrashable car. And thus, these two individuals who should have never met, met.
Yeah, yeah, I know that’s a reference for a different show, but I’m never going to review that show, so I figured I’d use it here. Anyway, the fact that Tsukasa and Konata are in a different class than Kagami leads to the latter being drawn into the former’s world, avoiding what could have otherwise been a major power struggle. She already knew her younger sister Tsukasa, the soft spoken, clumsy and air-headed girl who often depends on her slightly older twin to get by, and while these three make up a troublesome trio all their own, a fourth girl joins their group… The smart, well-mannered and mature(in more ways than one) Miyuki Takara, who Konata and Tsukasa like to bring their cultural questions to. Together, these four unique high schoolers form a friendship that will last them a lifetime, as they share their joys, their frustrations, their lives and their dreams with one another… Or just constantly mess with each other and ask inane questions about candy. Honestly, it could go either way. But maybe, just maybe, they can band together to answer one important question; How DO you eat a chocolate coronet?
I’ve talked about Kyoto Animation quite a few times before, but if you’re worried about me saying the same things I said before, don’t be. I know they have a consistent style, and while it’s evolved over the years, most titles they release do look more or less like they could exist in the same universe. There are a few exceptions to this rule, and while one of them is the far more popular Nichijou, the first departure they made from featuring relatively normal human anatomy was Lucky Star, which is quite possibly one of the most extreme examples of anime where absurdly large “Moe blob” heads are stacked on top of smaller bodies. Well, you know, if you don’t count chibi shows. In any case, the fact that it’s so different from their usual output is probably due to the fact that they chose to produce it as a supplement to their previous smash hit, Haruhi Suzumiya. The two titles are mainly related through fanhood, as Haruhi Suzumiya is a popular series in the Lucky Star universe, and one of the main characters(Konata) is obsessed with it. Sgt. Frog is also big in it, but hey, they took what they could get.
In any case, when I talk about low budget anime using it’s money wisely to look just as good as a more expensive show, you’d have a hard time finding a better example than Lucky Star. It may be one of the black sheep of the Kyo-Ani family due to it’s somewhat cartoony style, but that translates incredibly well to budget-cutting techniques. Background characters are usually frozen and covered in blue paint-bucket filling as they loiter in the background, a move that would feel cheap and lame in any show with characters who are too weak to distract you from them, so it’s worth noting that for at least three-fourths of the time, you’ll barely notice them. The dialogue heavy nature of the series also gives the animators a perfect excuse to hold on a key frame while the characters talk to each other. There are a lot of high school anime that do this, and I can see where it might wear on the patience of most viewers, most examples of this are anime that are inconsistent, suffer from occasional quality drops, and feature movement scenes that look out of place among the rest of the material.
What separates Lucky Star from this lot? Well, the money that the animators saved with their budget saving techniques is put to exquisite use. Every single movement in this series, at least from featured characters, employs just enough movement to capture and portray the mood, intent and gravity of the shot that it’s in, no more, no less. Because of this, every single movement, from huge reaction shots to the smallest wave, features the exact same level of fluidity, unless of course the style has to change for the sake of a parody sequence, such as the “Legendary Girl A” material. Rather than waste their time and resources on weird angles and filters to keep you amused during long bouts of talking, Kyo-Ani decided to cut the bullshit and make the dialogue quirky and entertaining enough so that the slow, heavily conservative animation wouldn’t bother you… To mixed results, I’m afraid to say, but we’ll get to that later. I’d also like to say that whenever they do execute a parody from another series, the animation style they switch to is normally fairly accurate. The moefication of the characters may be a sticking point for some, but I think it was handled rather well.
As it happens, this is one of the rare anime that I’ve seen in their entirety in both languages, and for the most part, I can say that Bang Zoom managed to represent the original Japanese acting faithfully. Wendee Lee is a bit of a departure from Aya Hirano’s Konata, mainly because… As I mentioned in my Haruhi review… She doesn’t have quite the range of Aya-chan. Thankfully, she does much better with this character than she did with Haruhi, employing a sort of rolling rasp to imitate Konata’s gruff, good-humored delivery. This unfortunately doesn’t always work, such as when she sounds excited or needs to raise her voice, at which points she sounds so much like Haruhi that it’s honestly distracting. Still, the rasp is different from Aya’s performance, but it suits the character just as well. Karen Strassman, on the other hand, is spot on with her version of Aya Endo’s character, Miyuki Takara. It’s not identical, but it’s a very close ringer for the polite, aristocratic-sounding character.
Michelle Ruff is something of a chameleon(in a good way), and can play a wide roange of characters, so it might be a shock to your system if you hear her in bleach or Haruhi, and then see her listed in the credits under Tsukasa, the younger Hiiragi twin, a space cadet with an overly soft, shy sounding voice. She doesn’t sound as child-like as Kaori Fukuhara did, which is probably for the better, because her dialogue mainly alternates between innocent musings and woe-is-me whining, and it would have sounded annoying in English had Ruff not aged it up a bit. Out of all the main cast, however, Kari Wahlgren probably had the hardest job with Kagami, a tsundere-type of character whose vocal patterns and inflections don’t really exist stateside. Not only that, but Kagami is probably the most nuanced and complicated character in the cast, and while Emiri Kato was amazing in her native language, Kari knocks it out of the park by playing it down to earth, but with a more snarky, confident edge.
Rebecca Forstadt gets a heart-warming cameo that I won’t dare spoil, Bridget Hoffman is hilarious as Miyuki’s dependent mother, and Kate Higgins plays a quirky teacher that Luci Christian would be proud of. Hynden Walch is unrecognizeable as Konata’s cousin, and among her friends, Michelle ruff puts her talents to work playing double duty, the prolific Philese Sampler plays a small role, and Patericia Ja Lee… Well, she’s probably the only sour note in the group, keeping her performance as close to the Japanese as possible, when she really… Really… Shouldn’t have. But my favorite has to be Stephanie Sheh in the role of Akira Kogami, one of the two hosts of the episode ending segment Lucky Channel, and while I’ve preached the gospel about her character range before, she puts it on full display here, playing a character who’s sugar and spice personified. She flip-flops between a sweet, happy-go-lucky idol and a crude, bitter behind the scenes personality who, despite being 14, has seen it all and won’t take any shit from anybody. I personally recommend the dub, but you can’t go wrong with either choice.
There’s a certain brand of comedy anime… Which I believe was popularized by Azumanga Daioh… That takes the slice of life concept and moves it into the confines of a Japanese high school, so the viewer can observe the daily lives of a group of friends as they interact and develop both as individuals and as a group. Not only does this brand bank on the childhood nostalgia of older viewers, but it also leans heavily on the strong personalities of it’s characters to deliver jokes, humorous situations, and the occasional heartfelt moment. This brand gets criticized for being plotless, but is that really fair? Is a plot really necessary for a comedy, or can it stand on it’s own just by being funny? It’s true that most American TV, both animated and live action, is devoid of overarching plots, as they’re most often carried by strong writing and strong characters, but they still have individual episode plots. For more than a quarter of it’s run, Lucky Star doesn’t even have that. So, are the characters and comedy strong enough to overcome this disadvantage, like they were in Azumanga Daioh?
I’ll admit, the show doesn’t get off to a great start. It’s never been made clear why Yutaka Yamamoto was fired as series director after the first four episodes… Especially since he was the person who created the viral dance sequences that made the ending theme of Haruhi and the opening theme of Lucky Star so explosive… But rumors and speculation have been made that it was his approach to the series was far too close to the manga, adapting the small, four panel comics one after another, leaving little room for interesting stories and forward momentum. Personally, I didn’t entirely mind these episodes, as long as Kagami and/or Konata were on screen. The four main characters have a very strong dynamic made up of several smaller connections and interactions, such as Konata perving over Miyuki’s moe potential, Kagami and Tsukasa being polar opposites, Tsukasa and Miyuki… You know what? No. Those two alone just don’t amount to anything noteworthy. They need the other two characters to function.
Right in the early stages of the series, Lucky Star goes out of it’s way to show what happens when Tsukasa and Miyuki are left to their own devices, having a conversation so banal and fraught with unutilized set-ups that Kagami, sick in bed for a surprisingly unrelated reason, is begging one of them to just reach the punchline already. They need Konata to exploit their quirks, or Kagami to call them out, or it’s ultimately like leaving jokes on the table. That’s not to say Konata and Kagami don’t need the other two… They’re fairly versatile characters, and different interactions can bring that out in them… And Tsukasa can be fairly funny on her own, what with her constant airheaded mistakes… But the series is at it’s absolute best when Konata and Kagami are working off of each other. There’s a reason I based my plot synopsis off of their differences, and it’s not JUST the fact that I had to think of a gimmick just to give this show a plot synopsis in the first place. Out of the four supposed main characters, those two carry the series.
In most of their interactions, those two are the dominant forces… Konata making references and shocking people with her weird reactions, Kagami making sarcastic remarks and brutally biting observations… And it’s rare for anyone else to dominate them in an interaction, but they meet their matches in each other. The bickering that takes place between them is easily one of the highlights of the series, as you can’t always tell who’s going to come out on top of each encounter, most of which just end in stalemates. While Miyuki is probably the weakest of the four, they still come together to form the foundation of the series. Actually, they’re more of a trunk, as the comedic strength of Lucky Star feels like something of a tree. Together, they’re strong, sturdy, and have a great dynamic based on the chemistry that they have with one another. The reason I’m comparing them to a tree is that, when you talk about the rest of the cast, it does start to create a weakening effect, just like how a tree becomes more difficult to climb the higher up it spreads.
When the cast starts branching out, we get a group of supporting characters for the main cast to work off of outside of each other. Miyuki gets some support from her mother, an entitled slob who appears to take advantage of her brainy and responsible daughter in some cases, which is really when she’s at her best. Kagami and Tsukasa have their family for support, including their mother AND father(Both of whom are alive… weird, right?) as well as their four older sisters, their conflict with whom helps to develop their characters as well as highlight the special bond that they, the twins, have with one another. Konata, and I don’t think her bevy of fans realize this, has THREE characters supporting mainly her, including her pervy father to explain her upbringing, her cousin in law enforcement to highlight the illegal sorts of activities that her upbringing has led her to, and the homeroom teacher, who attempts to drag her kicking and screaming back to reality when she tries to escape to a game. She gets her shots in on all three of them, but it still goes to show just how dependent she is on the rest of the cast.
The branches of the support characters are strong enough to do just that, but they become significantly weaker when you move to the next group, the underclassmen, a group of younger characters who start to appear in the second half of the series, when even the comedy between the main four is strting to get tired and predictable. Unfortunately, these characters aren’t strong enough to hold a story for very long, with only one of them… Konata’s cousin, Yutaka… Being even slightly above one-dimensional. This group of friends is more stereotype than people, which is sad, because the characters on the lower branches do, to their credit, feel like fleshed out and complex characters, at least to a point. Yutaka’s friends, however, are direct archetypes, and Yu herself doesn’t even DO anything with her quirk, being the sickly girl. Her friends include the pervy mangaka, the ignorant foreigner, the boyish breast-envy girl… And that’s it, and the story seems to give them far more credit than screentime, as they play a major role in the ending. Also appearing at the ending climax are friends from Kagami’s class, poised not as branches but as sub-branches that aren’t strong enough to hold a freaking apple.
So in terms of characters, the comedy does get weaker as the show goes on, but that won’t matter if they grow and move through important events and situations, right? Well, yes, there are a few. There are a few moments that take the cast out of their comfort zone to explore them in new ways. In a later episode, with the main four taking a field trip together, contains a bunch of great moments in it, like Tsukasa being attacked by deer, Kagami getting a love letter, and Konata cheering her up afterwards. The episode soon after, where Konata’s family gets a secret visit, is surprisingly poignant. Some of the best episodes include the beach episode, the Comiket episode, the Christmas episode, Konata’s birthday… Episodes where something noteworthy actually happens, instead of just a chain of jokes and gags, and that’s setting a pretty low bar. There’s no point in getting invested in any of the characters, because unlike Azumanga Daioh, they have no arcs, and their futures beyond high school are left completely unresolved. Yeah, there are some enjoyable moments, and good jokes here and there, But I was never bored watching it… Even if I am in the minority.
I am part of a very specific demographic that this show caters to… I was an otaku in the mid-2000s. That’s it. That’s why I can enjoy it, while most new visitors can’t. find it anything but boring. People who enjoy it the most are the ones who watched it when it came out, or in the few years immediately following, but if you came into it after 2010, it probably comes off as one of the most dated anime you’ve ever seen. That’s not to say you won’t find the characters interesting, the casual tone relaxing, or element of friendship welcoming, but you’re watching anime that was created to be a reflection of it’s time, in it’s time, and a lot of what it chose to represent isn’t relevant today, unfortunately meaning that it hasn’t aged well. It relied on gimmicks and otaku pandering rather than story-telling and real emotion, and that fact along with it’s moe design kept it from having any chance of being as timeless as that other slice of life show I keep bringing up. It gets a lot better after episode 4, but it just doesn’t stand the test of time.
Lucky Star was originally available from Bandai Entertainment, and the DVD sets from then are still available online in both individual, limited edition and complete collection formats, although the DVDs that were produced by Funimation after they rescued the series are far more affordable. The OVA is available on DVD, but it’s also included in the Funimation release, and I think you already know how much I love it. It’s the same series, but with much more fluid and well written stories. The original manga is available stateside from Viz Media. Beyond that, there are a ton of light novels, mangas and games that are NOT available stateside.
Calling Lucky Star an acquired taste is probably being a bit too generous… It’s one of the most esoteric series I’ve ever seen, as it seems deliberately designed to appeal to a small demographic, which I happen to be a part of, and even I think the series is overrated. It’s appeal is small, but it’s still precious to the people in it’s demographic, and I still enjoy it as well, even at it’s worst moments. I love the main cast, and there’s a lot about them that I find relatable. Does that mean I’d recommend it to a high number of people? No, but if you know someone who was an anime fan during the previous decade, or if you know someone who plays a lot of online games, or if you just know someone who has a mischievous sense of humor, this might be a good title to suggest to them. To anyone else, tread with caution, because the phrase ‘culturally impenetrable’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s worth checking out, but if you’re not into it by the fifth episode, try out Azumanga Daioh or Nichijou instead. Otherwise, this adorkable title has just enough going for it to make up for it’s weaknesses. I give Lucky Star a 6/10.