Wands! Cloaks! A magic academy nestled in the mountains! Sound familiar? Yes, Harry Potter would most likely come to mind, but just take out the Voldemort aspect and replace it with a little ecchi fan service, a lot of romance, and a positive avalanche of cuteness. Zero no Tsukaima offers a playful jaunt into another world and casts a spell that will leave you very much charmed.
Louise, referred to as “The Zero” by classmates for her dreadful magical skills, accidentally summons a boy named Saito into her life. The out-of-place Japanese youth finds himself submerged in a completely different reality, where wizards reside in castles and boss around the peasants. Within this unique land (faintly modeled after pre-industrial Western Europe), Louise and Saito’s relationship builds with intensity and good pacing; daily quibbling turns into jealousy, blushes, and furtive glances, to eventually comprise a boiling cauldron of passion. At the same time, the duo confronts challenges of a whimsical yet problematic world, where thieves, revolutions, treachery, (bouncing boobs), and perverted men run amok. Both romantic and narrative elements are convincingly mixed into a lucid whole.
In many ways the story moves along like a Mozart work – and no, Zero no Tsukaima is NOT an attempted portrayal at classical music, but it’s the best metaphor I can think of. Like Mozart, the story is pleasant, linear, catchy, shallow, and light as a feather. It’s not mawkish or profound, and still for an unknowable reason, it benefits you to give it a try. Here is a plotline that promises nothing but gives you something sweet to digest, and in the end you find that surprisingly, your stomach feels satisfied.
Unlike Mozart, however, some of the progression in Zero no Tsukaima fails to make complete sense. Among the string of adventures that Louise and Saito undertake, a couple seem to have been pulled out of thin air, contrived in a hurry to squeeze everything into thirteen episodes. (I affectionately term these as “WTF” moments). Thankfully, such “WTF” zingers mellow out into engaging plot spurts that delicately tend to Louise and Saito’s blossoming romance. Although the viewer might not actively acknowledge the relational development, he or she can still “feel” the cauldron of love boiling closer to breaking point. Humor flickers in and out of the story like a faulty wandlight and draws strength more from the characters’ outrageous antics than from a clever script. While Zero no Tsukaima is certainly of lighter substance, you won’t be giggling every minute – though what it lacks in humor it fills in with total romantic kawaii-ness.
Light, faded colors, soft edges, and brief instances of visual beauty all reveal J.C.Staff’s characteristic style in Zero no Tsukaima. In many ways, the show cuts the image of Toradora!’s younger, cuter sister (though it does precede Toradora! by two years): It’s strikingly similar, not as developed, and more apt to escape parental scrutiny. Weaknesses exist: unsubtle color shading, overly simplistic character designs, and occasional lazy bouts with background movements; but the tone radiates such charm that they are easy to overlook. The important thing is that everyone looks adorable. Whether it be students, villains, animals, or adults, the animators carve each being into diminutive proportions that supply them with a distinctive doll-like impression. The main duo especially oozes with chibi-tastic delight.
The show boasts a relatively prestigious cast, including the “Queen of Tsundere” Rie Kugimiya as tough, soft, adorable Louise. Incidentally, she and Yui Horie claim main roles in Toradora! and execute them brilliantly (as Taiga and Kushieda, respectively), but here, their performances as Louise and Siesta fall rather flat in comparison. Both carry out their jobs sufficiently, as do the rest of the cast, but if you are accustomed to more involved voice acting with such seiyuu, the ones here will slightly disappoint. Satoshi Hino, however, impressed me with his endearing yet somehow sexy quality to Saito’s voice.
On the other side of the audio tape, Zero no Tsukaima equals if not surpasses her rival sibling in the soundtrack’s style, charm, and retention rate. The background music, while not particularly striking in and of itself, suits the circumstances and gives everything an added fantastical flair. What takes the cake is the closing theme, “The Real Feeling,” sung by Kugimiya herself and placing a capstone on Zero no Tsukaima’s utter cuteness.
Ever since I made the jibe of Zero no Tsukaima being Toradora!’s younger sister, I cannot stop paralleling the two. The perpetual comparison cannot become any more evident after one looks at the characterization of Louise: Wavy, curtain-like hair, eyes that slant downward, tsundere qualities – she is the predecessor to Aisaka Taiga from Toradora!. Actually, I take that back. Louise is the predecessor to Taiga, with the edges of her personality cut off. Indeed, the budding witch enjoys brandishing her whip, but compared to the “Palm Top Tiger,” she is nothing more than a pink-haired pygmy puff. She isn’t particularly mean to begin with, but as Cupid’s Arrow digs deeper into her exposed royal belly, she develops into a mostly helpless girly girl. While the show lavishes attention on her and Saito’s dynamic relationship, it sweeps the Louise as her own character under the rug.
Saito comes across as pleasant, brave, occasionally rash, and most importantly, a breath of fresh air. For once, we see a boy who actually deserves the interest of multiple girls. The females themselves, while entertaining, largely rut into stereotypes and fail to develop sufficiently: Siesta smiles and smiles, Tabitha burrows her head in a book from beginning to end, Montmorency enjoys a brief episode of glory, and Kirche appears and re-appears like an annoying wet dream (yes, wet dream). They all become nicer to each other, but that’s about it. In the end, Zero no Tsukaima decides to spend its limited time not on the individual characters but on tying them together to make the product stronger than it would have been otherwise.
The important thing to remember is that despite its weaknesses, Zero no Tsukaima avoids pretentious complexities and is capable of providing solid entertainment. It does not make for a particularly intellectual viewing, but in many ways that’s what is so refreshing about it. With all the similarities the show shares with Toradora!, it gave me something Toradora! did not: Some good old fun.
In a world where magic is a reality, the young Louise is at the bottom of her class. Dubbed "Zero" by her classmates at Tristein Academy (due to her zero success rate for magic), Louise (along with all first year students) was charged with summoning a familiar; and instead of a cute magical creature, the familiar arrived in the form of... Saito Hiraga, a normal Japanese boy who was abruptly teleported from his own world?! Can both Louise and Saito come to terms with their new and complicated "relationship" and (more importantly) help Saito find a way home?
When I first stumbled upon the anime scene, I demanded only slice-of-life high school romance and Naruto (Weird combination!). I've opened up a little bit since then, but I suppose the high school shoujo type will always be my "comfort zone."