Harem anime shows are frequently like Marmite – you either love or hate them; there is no middle ground. The lingering bitter aftertaste of DearS and Ichigo 100% had sufficiently raised my skepticism of the harem genre, giving expectations that Shuffle! would be another droll fap-fest for the ecchi loving sheeple. I was taken gently by the hand to witness an alluring love pentagle unfold before my eyes. Featuring a plethora of panty shots and packed to the rafters with romantic drama, the series ultimately offers 24 episodes of illicit pleasure.
“It’s based on an eroge”, thinks I. “It’s going to be mindless bimbos throwing themselves at an otaku loser”. Setting the scene in the first episode, Shuffle! certainly follows the tried and tested recipe of the typical harem; introducing Rin as the inevitable lucky boy that the girls worship, his one woman devotee soon accrues company. Things become a little stranger as Nerine and Sia are brought in as the princesses of the demon and god realms – and they are both intent on marrying the clueless boy. Sadly, this otherworldly aspect is used as a rather convoluted plotline that didn’t sit comfortably in the overall high school romance. However the show pulls itself back together by focusing on each female and gathering momentum via small arcs that succinctly explain the motives and reasoning for their undying feelings towards Rin. But what is this? The human side of these people giving emotional attachment to characters in an ecchi show? Unheard of!
My initial gripe with the show was that the girls appeared strangely cool about all sharing the same guy. My complaint is swiftly addressed in the second half as jealousy takes hold of one female, and the shock fallout as she goes postal certainly makes the viewer sit up to pay attention. What makes Shuffle! so different to other shows in the same genre is the fearless use of realistic and dark feelings; if we’re honest here, females are fearsome creatures that can unleash their hellcat side when faced with competition.
Ecchi anime rarely comes with a convincing storyline, and Shuffle! sits on the fence in the matter. On one hand, the romance, personalities and reactions are believable and watchable; on the other, the demonic Yggdrasil project is a little bit silly and permeates into too much of the story. There are other, more creative ways, to write a backstory and give a girl a mystery illness without resorting to wishy-washy fantasy. Ignoring the minor craziness, the score would have been much higher, and the stark contrast between the first and second halves of the show done seamlessly. The brief moments of fan service fit well into the overall ambiance, raising naughty smirks as virgin crotches "accidentally" press themselves against Rin's face for the umpteenth time. It never intends to be a high brow, intellectual series, but Shuffle! certainly manages to surprise those viewers only out for a bit of fun.
With the artists seeming to work on a shift pattern, the standout moments of animated brilliance are tarnished by those built on pure ugliness. The first few episodes feature poorly proportioned characters with misshapen faces loosely tacked on to drab, lifeless backdrops. This is in stark contrast to the allure of lovingly sketched faces during emotional scenes, and the glistening presence of spectacular ample breasts. And not just boobs – Shuffle! breaks the censorship mould and tops the mammary mountains with perfect pink nipples. Then again, most eroge fans look for the visual quality of the fan-service, and the panties and underwear featured in the lingerie shopping episode is certainly varied and tantalisingly sexy.
Accompanying the opening credits, the typically romantic tune will stay with you long after watching. As someone who usually dislikes this kind of audio assault, I surprisingly found myself humming along with the melody each time. Although the closing track isn’t as memorable or impressive, the emotional lullaby fits the tone of Shuffle! very well.
DO NOT WATCH THIS SHOW DUBBED. Now that we have the formalities out of the way, the Japanese voice acting is excellent. Rin’s rich, syrupy tones will have any right-minded female turn weak at the knees, as the vocal talents of Haruhi Suzumiya’s Kyon are put to use once more. High pitched girlyness suits Kaede and Sia, whilst loli-idol Primula's performance is much more reserved, verging on comically robotic, which fits her character perfectly. Even buxom Beni-sensei delivers a deep feminine growl that will set most groins a stirring.
Packed to the rafters with cliché female love interests, the show even provides colour coordinated hair to make your favourite buxom babe easier to identify. Although initially lacking in depth, there is something to the diverse group of females that gives them a magnetic attraction and appeal to most panty-hungry perverts. From the lolicon’s dream to the cleavage-tastic teacher, Shuffle! also manages to cover the shy “childhood friend” and "back slapping tsundere" fetishes. Playing the part of the typical harem, the female cast step it up a gear as jealousy, anger and dark histories creep into the fray and each character develops through their own mini-arc. Cute girlishness is tossed by the wayside as the show unleashes a no-holds barred bitch-fight.
But wait, not only do we have seven stereotyped females to choose from, but act now, and you’ll also receive the clueless male protagonist for half price! My dislike of harem shows usually stem from a feckless guy who wouldn’t have a chance of bedding one female in the real world, let alone six or seven. Breaking the mould, Rin Tsuchimi is a genuinely nice guy who easily deserves the company of girls who would drop their panties for him. With a sensitive and understanding side, his unassuming attitude is often exploited by Asa-sempai as she whips out her boobs to take perverse pleasure in grossly embarrassing the object of her affections.
Personally rating the show a little higher, I have taken into consideration that many people may be turned off by the fearless leap this little harem show takes into darker waters. Even though certain aspects of the plot are spread a little thinly in places, the characters and drama more than make up for the failings. Definitely one of the best ecchi-romance shows available at the moment, it is nice to see a relationship actually blossom, instead of the usual eroge cop-outs that concludes with an unsatisfactory slump. Now, if only there was a real life Rin to fawn over, my life would be complete.
Kaede is a devoted high school student who lives with her adopted brother Rin. She holds a quiet confidence that one day, when Rin finally starts showing interest in sex, he will make the obvious choice and turn to his loving sister. But what Kaede wasn’t counting on was the lords of heaven and hell coming to Earth, wanting Rin to mate with their nubile daughters! Rin, like any teenager would, takes full advantage of his newly acquired harem; but how long can he keep up his carefree, boxed-lunches-on-the-rooftop lifestyle, as the horde of girls on his tail grows?
As a not-so-closet perv, I love watching anything involving panty-shots, handfuls of cleavage and an innuendo fuelled plot. Although most of my reviews will err on the risque, I also love the obscure, the twisted and things that make you think - drop me a line if you want to discuss any of them!