My Review of UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie 2: A December Nocturne

It seems that love can come from the strangest places. Even on a version of Earth where technology has advanced to the point where alien integration has become commonplace, the phrase “Strange places” should still not be taken lightly. This is how it was for Kazuto, the owner of his family’s struggling bathhouse, who was minding his own business one day, both literally and figuratively, when calamity struck. A spaceship, driven by a runaway bride from another planet, crash-landed through his roof, killing him. The pilot, Princess Valkyrie of the Valhalla royal family, was stricken with grief by what she’d done, so she offered half of her soul to bring him back to life. This simple act of kindness brought new life to the young man’s heart, in more ways than one. The loss of half of her soul may have turned Valkyrie into a child, but the bond between them still continued to grow, to the point where the two of them became very much in love… And it was a love strong enough to overcome every obstacle the scorned Royal Family could throw at them.

Having put what they thought was the worst of it behind them, Kazuto and Valkyrie have settled back down into their relatively normal everyday lives, running the bathhouse, dealing with all sorts of alien nonsense, and generally stagnating in a passionless, vaguely defined relationship. Whatever floats their boat, I guess. But strange things have been happening around them, beginning with the appearance of The Key of time, a weapon tied directly to the dark history of Valhalla, followed up by the appearance of Chorus, the weirdest member of the Royal family, and most importantly by the appearance of Valkyrie Ghost, a mysterious black-clad woman who bears a striking resemblance to Kazuto’s child bride. Calling him her “Phantom Lover,” Valkyrie Ghost seemingly intends to separate Valkyrie and Kazuto from the life they’ve settled into, but for what purpose? What does she want with the Key of Time? How much does Chorus know about her? As it turns out, these elements and more share a surprising connection in the continued adventures of Valkyrie and friends!

Yes, we’re revisiting UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie again, which of course means we’re revisiting it’s animation studio, Media Factory Inc, who shared it’s duties with a smaller studio, TNK, who also collaborated with them on High School DXD, but managed such lovely projects as School Days by themselves. The animation was abysmal in the first season, and while I can’t say the budget has improved since then, the direction definitely has. The first season was directed by Shigeru Ueda, who’s had a ton of backstage experience, but has only acted as the main director on a handful of titles, including Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne, the swimsuit OVA from Senran Kagura, and the final two episodes of Key the Metal Idol, one of which you’ll remember I called virtually unwatchable. Ironically, I can’t find any information on second season director Nobuhiro Takagi outside of a handful of single to dual episode storyboard jobs, and yet he was handed the director’s job in Valkyrie 2, and he did a much better job with it than Ueda did.

Keep in mind, I’m not saying the series looks good. That’s probably a bridge too far. It does show vast improvement compared to it’s predecessor, but that doesn’t really feel like a hard thing to accomplish. Takagi employed a lot of money saving techniques, the majority of which are immediately apparent to even the greenest of anime viewers. He limits unnecessary movements through clever framing, he spent nearly an entire episode on characters standing on stage and singing while the camera panned up a still shot of them while only their mouths move, and while there may have been one magical girl transformation scene per episode in season 1, they can happen multiple times an episode in season 2… Especially because there are at least four different transformation sequences, and I kid you not, one of them… Introduced in episode 9… Is used almost half a dozen times in that one episode. It’s annoying to see these sequences over and over again, and it’s transparent as all hell, but it does a great job at saving money, so the rest of the series doesn’t have to look like ass.

Animation is still stilted, there are of course a lot of lengthy key frames, and I’ll even admit that there are several uses of one of my least favorite budget saving tactics, bouncing the top half of a character’s body up and down to convey that they’re walking, but it does save enough money for the series to feature movement whenever it needs to, especially during the action scenes. Remember, there’s a villain this season, and while the fight scenes she gets involved in are passable at best, that’s still far better than anyone could have expected material from this franchise to look. More impressive still is the art direction, which, unlike the animation, is more than just relatively good, it’s actually, genuinely good. No more inconsistent anatomies, no more faces going off model, everyone looks fine, the lighting is well thought out, and the backgrounds… Particularly when they leave the normal world to travel to alternate dimensions and eventually outer space… Are gorgeous, and often capture the exact moods they feel like they’re supposed to.

What helps the mood of the series even more is the music, which is another noteworthy improvement over season 1. While that season was mostly silly, weird and melodramatic, Season 2 dives into a much deeper well of emotions, including fear, sadness, loneliness and actual romance, among others. In order to convey this, the orchestration takes a much more epic tone, although you wouldn’t know it from the opening. I wasn’t a fan of the first season opening, but the new one is just generic and boring. The song is okay, Meguriai by Melocure, but the video just feels like a dull slog trying to get itself over with. There’s about eleven seconds of it panning sideways on a still image of a bathhouse changing room, and of course, every relevant character gets their profile shot. These problems are thankfully made up for by the show’s insert song, Princess of December, a beautifully written song that’s performed just as well by Megumi Ogata, and it does more than just stop hearts… It’s one of the many elements of the series that foreshadows the larger plot that culminates in the later episodes.

The English dub has also stepped up, but if I’m being honest, the biggest influence on this change isn’t a change in voice direction or acting, it’s in the quality of the characters, and the way this specific move has changed what was expected of the actors. The exception to this is sadly Greg Ayres, who still feels wasted in the boring, milquetoast role of Kazuto, perhaps the least interesting main character in anime history, but the change in writing has been a godsend for Kira Vincent Davis, who plays three different versions of the female lead, Valkyrie. She plays the child version of Valkyrie with the same voice as before, but the character herself is way less annoying, and almost never makes any creepy pedophilic innuendoes, a welcome change. Valkyrie herself shows up a little more often, and is given a better array of situations to act on, rather than just being a love-struck Captain Planet like before. The addition of Valkyrie Ghost, however, is what truly allows her undeniable talent to shine, as the dynamic between Valkyrie and her sinister doppleganger adds layers of complexity to both performances.

The list of characters who’ve improved for the benefit of their actors is expansive. Miss Sanada is still obsessed with Valkyrie, but to nowhere as creepy or cruel a degree, giving Christine Auten reason to play her more likably, with a bit more care and purpose in her voice. Akina spends the majority of her dialogue in ways that are related to the plot and her relationship with Hydra, so she no longer has to play the thirsty forlorn bitch, which was clearly refreshing for her. Rika’s not as uptight or miserly as she used to be, making even Monica Rial’s weird choice of delivery a lot easier to listen to. Nancy Novotny is still the perfect actor for Hydra, writing changes be damned, and thankfully for Hillary Haag, the character of Laine gets a lot more depth this season, especially with the addition of Kimberly Prause, who plays her estranged high school chum Chorus as weird and dorky, yet oddly serious, even when dropping ridiculous anime references. It’s also worth mentioning that the adaptive writer Kyle Jones took a loose approach to the dialogue, but unlike certain other ADV names, his changes were mostly for the better, and they only really stuck out a few times, like a strange Tyra Banks reference that’s more dated than anything. Over-all, it’s a pretty solid dub.

If you remember my review of the first season of this series, you may remember me having a less than favorable opinion of it. In no unclear terms, I called it the pedophilic rip-off of Ah! My Goddess, an assertion that I still stand by. Well, okay, it wasn’t JUST that… It was, at the most basic level, a fanservice show that failed miserably at both having fans and providing them service. To put it bluntly, people who watch anime for fanservice don’t have the highest of standards. Give them boobs and sexual situations, and they’ll put up with lazy art, terrible animation, horrible implications and God knows what else just to have another anime in their spank bank. UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie, despite taking place at a bathhouse and thus having what should have been unlimited access to exposed skin, was a complete flop. That’s how bad this series was at fanservice, whatever their problem with it was. There are good ways and bad ways to deliver fanservice, and while it’s surprisingly complicated, Valkyrie was distinctly part of the latter.

In order to fix this problem, director Nobuhiro Takagi apparently made the unorthodox decision to scale back the fanservice, a decision that’s not always the best idea. There are many anime that needed that kind of content as a crutch, and wound up suffering without it… Love Hina and Negima! come to mind… But there are also some that would be better off with less skin and panties, like Valkyrie Drive Mermaid and Strike Witches. The second season of Valkyrie, subtitled December Nocturne, falls right into the latter category. Aside from a handful of recycled and weirdly framed bathhouse scenes in the first two episodes, there’s almost no fanservice throughout the rest of the series. There’s no panty shots to speak of outside of one of the new transformation sequences(which is otherwise entirely clothed), the pedophilia has been wittled down to one admittedly painful child abduction gag, and while there are scenes taking place in the bathhouse, they rarely feel exploitative beyond their involvement in the plot.

Unfortunately, the premise of the series hasn’t changed. Everything still revolves around Kazuto and Valkyrie, and when you get right down to it, they barely have the basic qualifications to be considered characters. Every character around them is more interesting than they are. The relationship they have is still completely uneventful, boring and passionless, and yet we’re supposed to be afraid that they might get broken up. They never express their feelings for each other through actions or gestures, and while I get that you can partially blame that on one of them spending most of her time as a child, the farthest they go when she’s an adult is looking longingly into each other’s eyes, and that happens like twice this season. Even if their situation never changes, and Valkyrie never goes back to being an adult full time, they’re supposed to want it to happen, so that *I* have a reason to want it to happen. It’s been two seasons, and they both seem content with having a love they can never physically express, and while I guess there’s some chaste virtue to that, they don’t even struggle with it. It’s a non-issue. It’s a huge problem, and it makes up the core of the series.

Having said that, December Nocturne has two huge advantages over the first season. The first is the character of Chorus, who is introduced in episode 2 and adds a brand new dimension of comedy to the franchise. Her introductory episode tells you everything you need to know about her, as she pretends to be a dying robot, and damn does she commit to this act, driving the main cast to desperate action only to casually move onto her next act after supposedly dying in front of them. She’s a unique character who lives in her own world and follows her own logic, with little regard for anyone else, appealing to both otakus and people on the autism spectrum(I can attest to both) in genuine ways that I rarely ever see. One of boring old Valkyrie’s best moments is when she’s trying in vain to save Chorus, and if that’s not amazing enough, she actually winds up making the previously annoying Laine likeable, too. They even get their own backstory episode taking place in school, although that episode DOES feature homophobic overtones that don’t show up anywhere else. Seriously, explain to me how Laine used to have a massive crush on Valkyrie, but now only has eyes for Kazuto.

The other advantage is the plot. And I’m not just saying “It’s good because it has a plot,” I mean it has a GOOD plot, and one that it actually takes seriously. To be clear, this is not a deep series, nor is it original or smart. Where it shines is in it’s sincerity and execution. There is no ulterior motive to the writing. It isn’t trying to arouse the viewer, or waste as much time as possible on filler, or pretending to be more mature than it is. Good writing and execution can make even the shallowest of material engaging, and that’s exactly what December Nocturne does. Every single episode, regardless of how stupid or cliched it may look at the start, winds up doing something relevant to the plot, and even aside from that, each episode winds up doing something engaging and thoughtful. The budget saving episode where everyone enters a karaoke contest, for example, seems at the beginning like it’s going to be simple and straightforward. You see most of the cast sing, there are sub-plots floating around about the prizes, there are good laughs to be had, and it’s an okay episode by harem standards.

But then, in one of the best and most emotionally provocative moments in the series, Valkyrie ghost shows up at the end, not only making you feel genuinely sorry for Val, but establishing an important detail about the relationship between the two of them and the Phantom Lover. There’s a hot springs episode, which is common in most anime and absurdly common in this particular genre, and while it’s pretty sterile in terms of nudity, you spend most of the episode with the cast lost on a snowy mountain, with the music and art direction establishing a tone that tricks you into thinking any one of them could die at any moment… Especially when, once again, Valkyrie ghost enters the equation. There’s an episode where the main cast gets turned into children, which is normally the worst idea any harem anime can pursue, but aside from the aforementioned child abduction scene(which was legitimately despicable), but we also get a beautiful story of one of the less-represented princesses getting to explore a romance and rediscover her youth. Akina’s love for Kazuto got down-played this season, but when we learn about a special power she and Hydra have, we’re given a somber look into the feelings she still has for him.

And then we have the ultimate plot, which is revealed towards the end of the series. It’s a great idea, and it gets pulled off with a lot of heart and emotion, falling back on set-ups and call-backs that you probably never thought would again be relevant, but… How can I say this… It uses the wrong kind of foreshadowing. It does an okay job as is, and you can tell that they had everything planned from the start, and it all builds up to a satisfying pay-off, but if there are huge secrets underneath the surface of Valhalla’s history, then THAT is the material that needs to be established. They needed to drop hints about the Royal Family not being what they seem, and even if they did turn out to be completely innocent, the characters need to have some form of doubt so that we, as the audience, can feel it just the same. I love Valkyrie ghost, she’s one of my favorite anime villains, but I needed more than her to keep me guessing. Things should have been happening from multiple angles to keep the characters guessing, and I really feel that a tighter focus on the mystery from these angles could have helped the series to reach the level of sophistication that they skirted so close to. It might be one of the biggest seasonal improvements I’ve seen, but it could have been so much more.

UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie 2: A December nocturne was originally available from ADV Films, before being rescued and redistributed by Section23. Like the first season, it was initially released stateside in 30 dollar 4-episode DVDs, but have become much more affordable overtime. The ADV Thinpack release, for example, can be found for as little as four dollars, depending on your timing. A two-pack featuring both seasons 1 and 2 can be found relatively cheap online, but it unfortunately wasn’t picked up by Funimation like seasons 3 and 4 were, so your success level may vary. You can, however, watch the entire series on Amazon video. The original manga by Kaishaku has not been released stateside.

I haven’t seen a sequel put this much effort into fixing the problems of it’s predecessor since Cinderella 3. does it have problems? Of course it does, look at the franchise it’s in. It was meant to have problems. That’s why the quality of the series tanked right back down to insufferable levels in season 3. But this season was different, as it had a director that tried, and put extra effort into making something awful into something watchable. I’m not saying it was great, nor do I think it would have been fair to expect greatness from it, but I was honestly surprised at just how good it managed to be. It was bogged down by a few unavoidable details, such as the idiotic premise and the bare bones budget, and it still wound up being really stupid on the whole, but by adding a well-thought-out comedic character and an awesome villain that presented a legitimate threat and a sympathetic backstory that didn’t take anything away from said threat, and by committing to writing even the most hare-brained situations with heart and substance, December nocturne was a lot of fun, and it’s a series that I’d recommend even to people who haven’t seen the first season. I give UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie 2: A December Nocturne a 5/10.  

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