Baka and Test Review – Testing, Testing
Title: Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts
Sometimes at Manga-Market HQ, we occasionally misplace the press releases for the test disks we are sent. Usually, it’s not too much of a problem – it’s easy enough to look at the digital version! But, occasionally, it’s more fun not to. It’s a bit like anime Russian Roulette – a blind pick from a selection of disks, nothing other than the title to suggest what you might be watching. And that usually has no reflection on what you will be watching.
Baka and Test was a Russian Roulette selection. All I had was the title printed on an otherwise blank disk. The blank disk, it transpired, was to lull me into a false sense of security – a clever ruse to disguise the sheer unbridled levels of batshit crazy which this anime contains. The minute the bright rainbow colours exploded across the screen with over-caffienated enthusiasm, my retinas wept and I knew I was in for something exciting. Whether that was a full-scale demonstration of how LSD expresses itself through anime artists, or a moment of genius was yet to be determined.
Initially the concept seems quite high-end – set in the prestigious Prep School, Fumizuki Academy, students are encouraged to be the very best of the best, and trained to deal with even the harshest of College entrance exams. This is done through rigorous testing at the end of the first year, where classes are then streamed by ability and put into sets, A to F. However, this streaming also works as a way to… motivate students. The highest achieving students in Class A are given beautiful, cushy classroom equipment, replete with coffee machines, laptops and sofas. Class F are left in a dingy room with broken windows, stuffingless cushions, and kindergarten-sized tables. The classes in between cover the scale between the Ouran High School Host Club level surroundings of Class A and the room not entirely unsuited to a production of ‘Oliver!’ which Class F are saddled with.
However! All is not as hopeless as it might appear. Classes are able to battle each other over classrooms and equipment using digital avatars. If a lower class beats a higher class, they are able to claim the superior room and equipment. The snag – the offensive power of the avatar is dictated by the score the pupil got on their last test. So classes are encourage to study to increase their attacking power and have a chance of ending up in the cushy surroundings that the A-Class enjoy.
We follow Yoshii, a slacker and the titular ‘baka’, and his immediate group of friends – class rep Yuji, effeminate bishie Hideyoshi, aggressive Minami and pervy Kota. Add to this the beautiful and intelligent Mizuki, who was relegated to Class F after falling ill during the class placement test and getting an automatic zero because of this. She is basically the mallet Class F use in avatar battles, having an academic ranking possibly equal to the school’s top student.
Categorising this anime is tricky. After the initial explanation of the set up, which led me to expect something quite action-packed, it quickly becomes a hyperactive farce of nosebleeds, stupid jokes and pratfalls. At first this put me off – I’ve never been a massive fan of the nosebleed trope anyway, and these guys go at it with abandon – but the more I watched, the more I got the sense that this show is very self-aware. It includes a lot of stereotypical anime staples, but the more it uses them the more knowing it seems to become. Every inclusion is more of an in-joke, and the show gets gradually more and more over the top and genuinely funny in its central conceit. It owes a lot to Excel Saga, but focuses its energies in one specific area and plays to those strengths rather than zipping all over the genres. It’s almost Monty Python-esque in its execution at times, with non-sequitors often shocking a laugh out of me.
Despite being based on a series of light novels, however, the character development is flimsy. I struggle to remember the names of half cast and most of them are little more than walking stereotypes. For the format this works, but some aspects quickly become annoying – Yoshii, for example, is genuinely dense. At times this can grate, however unlike many other dense underachieving male leads, he actually has quite a sweet personality, and this balances out most of the time to make him amusing to watch. This is the same with angry girl Minami – she appears initially to be another of those girls who just beats up on the male lead for no reason – which, this, she does at lot – but small elements added to her character round her out to make her more human. She was raised in Germany, so whilst very bright, she is unable to read kanji and thus scored poorly on the tests.
Having spent a year working as a teacher, it was difficult to switch off certain nagging little voices in my head – why is the student whose first language isn’t Japanese not given extra support? Why are kids being streamed so aggressively when nowadays teachers (in the UK at least) aren’t allowed to use red pen or put crosses against incorrect answers in case it upsets the children? Why do Mizuki’s breasts actually inflate and deflate when she breathes?
Okay, so the last question is not much to do with teaching, but perhaps all three of these questions demonstrate exactly what kind of crazy world this show is set it. Normal rules do not apply here – only the Rules of Anime, taken to their very furthest, crack-tastical extreme. The entire plot is based around the central battle system and competition for the best classroom (in some ways an ingenious way to get kids to study – were it not that Class F don’t study, but instead try to fluke their way through battles most of the time instead), and I sort of struggled to see how this would stretch and sustain the show for an entire series. And really, it doesn’t. It is just a setting, a plotting concept which gives a background and direction to something which is really a slice-of-life anime, if it had a drunken one night stand with Excel Saga and a painting by numbers kit. There is nothing too taxing about this show, but it is enjoyable, strangely compelling and really quite good fun. And it would make an absolutely epic drinking game.
Rating: 3 out of 5