Like Kaoru, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has women fighting over him all day—but that's just because he lives in the basement of a kickboxing dojo.
How long can they keep a secret?
Once again I find myself in a crevasse between a rock and a hard place. Though I started watching Ai Yori Aoshi Enishi from Volume One, it is actually a spin-off of Ai Yori Aoshi. The series thus far has assumed that viewers know all about the former series, and I don't, so the sheer number of characters and the circumstances behind their living arrangement are still a mystery. I gather from plot synopses that the male lead, Kaoru, is standing up to a domineering family and putting himself through college. Meanwhile, his childhood sweetheart Aoi lives with him, but they must keep their relationship a secret for some reason. There is a chaperone named Miss Manager and a host of young women living with Kaoru, and they all have crushes on him.
Please, hardcore Ai Yori Aoshi fans, overlook my lack of investment in the characters. With that sketchy back story in hand, let's see what Volume Two brings.
Facts of the Case
Kaoru's semester is winding down and summer vacation is approaching. But he still has some academic and personal hurdles to get past before he can fully relax. Fortunately, his comely and demure housekeeper Aoi is on hand to ease his troubles and inflame his heart. Unfortunately, scads of bickering young ladies are also on hand to thwart Kaoru's academic pursuits through kind overtures, late-night video gaming sessions, and general chaos. Through it all, Miss Manager lurks in the shadows and motivates Kaoru with a dire word or two.
As usual, these summaries contain moderate spoilers:
• Episode 5: "Piano"
• Episode 6: "Journey"
• Episode 7: "Summer Resort"
• Episode 8: "Fish and Water"
When we last left Kaoru and Aoi, the sexual tension between them was so thick you could cut it with a katana. Every stolen moment between them was a precious gift for the viewer. They'd even managed to trade some romantic words in private. Those watching the series were keyed in on every stolen look, every flush of the cheek.
Whether through the passage of time or from a shift in storytelling focus, Ai Yori Aoshi Enishi: Bond (Volume 2) lacks that heady romantic tension. We don't feel Kaoru's overwhelming urge to be with Aoi, and for her part Aoi is rather stoic. Instead, the series has taken a turn into straightforward, traditional harem genre hijinks. Aside from a scant few minutes that make Kaoru's love interest identifiable, we get precious little indication of Kaoru's feelings. The romance, which was already crawling at a snail's pace, has pulled off to the side of the road for a little snooze.
This is particularly maddening in Episodes Six and Seven, both of which provide perfect openings for the innuendo-laced sweetness from Volume One. In "Journey," Aoi and Kaoru find themselves alone together after everyone else passes out. What a perfect time to reprise the wonderful scene where Aoi and Kaoru accidentally fall asleep together! I can picture it all in my head: Aoi and Kaoru steal away to her quarters, trade kisses and sweet nothings, but fall asleep from overindulgence in wine. It would give us a thrill, keep the tension moving forward, fit the episode, and still not tip the hand too much. Instead, the whole gang is mysteriously reanimated and they find Kaoru. "Summer Resort" blows an even bigger opportunity because the two are alone together in a hot spring. They are separated by a wall with a window that Aoi opens. The "camera" then spirals upwards away from the pair. Hello? We'd like to see the kiss please, especially if there had been any buildup towards it.
Part of the appeal of Volume One was the racy streak. Tina fondled her roomies just to get a rise out of them, or Kaoru had feverish dreams of Aoi; the series had an undercurrent of lust that added spice. There are plenty of fan service shots in Volume Two, but they are mostly of the "Character XYZ sprawls and her naughty parts accidentally brush up against Kaoru" variety. "Fish and Water" does open with a provocative view of three young ladies stretching for a swim practice, and Tina does a little more breast grabbing, but these shots feel cheap and forced rather than integrated with the story.
In general, these four episodes are a slight letdown after the sweet spice of Volume One. The DVD echoes this letdown by providing nondescript extras (clean credits and some trailers). I also noticed more anti-aliasing, beginning with the very first shot in "Piano"; the piano keys and Mayu's chinline are practically strobing as the camera pans upward. This delicate oscillation continues throughout the disc. To be fair, that is the only visual flaw of note. Black levels are stable and deep, while the rich color palette shines. Precious little edge enhancement exists to disturb a crisp image. The sound quality is the same as in Volume One, which is clean and full. The welcome surprise of touching piano music offsets a minor annoyance: Each episode has a nearly identical evening shot of the house with an orange sky and an electronic-sounding cacophony of insects.
Voice acting in both casts is uniform. Volume Two features an overreliance on girls whispering Kaoru's name in quiet deadpan, which is an anime convention I've never grasped. Aoi is demure to the point of blandness in both languages, while Tina is hyperactively harsh. The rest of the cast is assured and sounds natural.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though I wasn't captivated anew this time, Ai Yori Aoshi Enishi: Bond (Volume 2) is still a comparatively mature and capably handled take on the harem subgenre. Events are mostly free of contrivance, the girls are distinct and their crushes genuine, and Kaoru is a normal guy. In contrast with most harem anime, Ai Yori Aoshi Enishi isn't grating, hyperactive, or bland.
One gag struck me as particularly cold, though it may be my interpretation that makes it so. One of the gals wants Kaoru to watch Pretty Uma, a movie with a white cover and hot pink letters down the side. It is about a corporate mogul and his love for his horse. I've heard Julia Roberts described in unflattering terms that compare her to a horse, so I was shocked out of my seat to see such a barb in this otherwise sweet anime.
Miss Manager…whoa. Sign me up for some of that. Wait, did I just say that out loud?
Though it has honest characters and a forthright, sweet tone, Ai Yori Aoshi Enishi: Bond (Volume 2) lacked the spark of Volume One. It isn't an unpleasant way to spend 100 minutes; the stories are well framed and have interesting conclusions, while the animation provides a handful of arresting moments. However, Volume Two sidesteps the romance that is the lifeblood of the series, which leaves it feeling routine rather than special.
Volume Two of Ai Yori Aoshi Enishi is convicted of driving below safe speeds. Maybe we should let someone besides Grandma take the wheel on the next trip?
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