Harem shows have been a mainstay anime genre since the 90's, for some inexplicable reason series revolving around an unremarkable teenaged boy who ends up surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful woman who all find him irresistible is a popular premise with teenaged male anime fans. Who could have guessed? However, things have moved on since the days when the protagonist in these kinds of series was a shy everyman who gains confidence over time, nowadays they're dyed in the wool perverts who spy on girls changing. I don't really want to think about what this says about the modern anime fan.
As a case in point we come to High School DxD, a modern
harem show with a supernatural twist. Issei Hyodo is a high school student
who, along with two of his friends, joined Kuoh Academy for one single reason -
to meet girls! The former girls school has only recently become co-ed, so
there are far more female students than male, but their perverted ways have
alienated most of their fellow students. After a year of striking out
Issei thinks his luck is in when he is asked on a date by a cute girl, but
instead of the kiss he's hoping for at the end of the date he instead finds
himself impaled! Unfortunately he unknowingly harbours a mysterious power
called a 'sacred gear' inside him, and a group of fallen angels has decided he
is too dangerous to be allowed to live. Run through by an angelic spear
and on the verge of death Issei finds himself unexpectedly rescued by the head
of his school's occult club, the buxom, scarlet-haired transfer student Rias
Gremory. He quickly discovers that Rias is far more than she seems, she is
in fact a high-ranking devil and in order to save his life she has made him into
a devil too! This means he is now one of her subordinates, along with
fellow Occult Club members Akeno Himejima, Koneko Toujou and Yuto Kiba, and as
such he has to undertake various menial tasks on behalf of the Gremory family.
Being around the frequently naked Rias, the beautiful Akeno and the cute Koneko
seems like heaven to Issei, but it's not all fun and games. The devils are
locked in an ancient three-way battle with the angels of heaven and the fallen
angels of earth, and someone like Issei needs to get stronger quickly to avoid
being picked off by one of the other factions. Can he unlock his hidden
powers and become strong enough to protect Rias? Can he survive long
enough to gain subordinates of his own and achieve his ultimate dream of being
king of his very own harem?
Yes, he's a perv. High School DxD falls very much into the modern harem show mould, clothes come off at regular intervals, breasts are bared, panties are flashed and Issei continually ends up in compromising situations with a group of highly attractive female stereotypes. As can be expected pretty much every female character ends up naked at some point, almost always when Issei is there to ogle them, but despite his perverted ways he slowly unlocks his hidden power and manages to earn their respect and admiration. If it
sounds pretty much like formulaic wish fulfilment, that's because it is. However, look past the bouncing boobs and there's actually a decent supernatural actioner waiting to be discovered.
On the surface High School DxD's central premise - of a
high schooler resurrected as the servant of a mysterious, high-ranking demon and
having to fight to protect her from her many enemies - is reminiscent of the
seriously underwhelming Princess Resurrection,
but there's more to it than that. The story is set up quite well, the
three factions are at an uneasy stalemate following a great war, and all sides
are trying to rebuild their forces whilst still skirmishing with one another.
In Hell the noble families have started turning willing humans into devils in
order to bolster their forces, and to prevent any further depletion from
internal struggles they have created the 'Rating Game' - a contest based around
chess where demons and their subordinates take the places of the chess pieces
and face off against each other in a battle that tests both the physical
strength and tactical nous. Rias is the scion of a high-ranking devil clan
who is unwillingly betrothed to the odious head of another clan, a union that
aims to consolidate the power of both, she wants to break things off but the
only way is through the Rating Game. However she lacks Rating Game
experience of her husband-to-be and has fewer subordinates to fight with, losing
would make her completely subservient to him so does she dare risk it?
Meanwhile the fallen angels weave plans of their own, chipping away at them as
they seek power that could help them re-enter heaven. The wild card in the
mix are the sacred gears, strange powers granted to some individuals that could
tip the balance of power, Issei's in particular is a potentially potent one, but
can he unlock its secrets and at what cost?
There's plenty of intrigue in the story, not least around what the sacred gears are and why devils can use them if, as the name suggests, they are holy powers. There's also the fact that the devils don't seem particularly evil, they actually seem to help people quite a lot which is more than can be said for the fallen angels. The series also delivers on the action front, with several decent battles and some cool powers on display, and there are a few effective moments of horror too. The comedy is often on the bawdy side, with some of the
frequent nudity played for laughs and plenty of jokes at Issei's expense as his perverted ways get him into trouble, but there are some amusing nods to other series too (particularly when they look for familiars). A special note also has to be made for the English dub, which actually enhances the comedy quite a bit with plenty of gags and asides that aren't in the Japanese script. The art and animation is good, and whilst the characters are not exactly original they are at least engaging and varied. The series kicks up a gear with the arrival of the novice nun Asia Argento, whose innocence is kind of refreshing and oddly - considering she is named after a horror actress - horror does take a back seat to action after she is established in the cast. She is also a potential rival for Rias in Issei's affections, something which adds to the character dynamic. The main problem is that Issei is hard to root for at times, especially after he creates his own unique magical powers, and sometimes the fanservice actually distracts from the main story.
High School DxD won't win many awards for originality but as harem shows go it does what it does well. If you want to watch it for the boobs then you won't be disappointed, but the incessant fanservice does get in the way of what is a decent action series with a likeable cast, leaving a lot of plot elements unexplored. It feels like it's only half of the story, and despite the 'complete collection' tag there is another 12 episode series which Manga will no doubt pick up at some point, so hopefully the answers will come then. I do miss the innocence of some of the old harem series like Tenchi Muyo and Love Hina, series where the protagonist was hapless rather than overtly perverted, and whilst High School DxD does show that Issei's perving has made him a bit of a pariah at the school it does also make him difficult to like. It's funny but Issei is probably the least interesting character out of the central cast, the other characters all seem to harbour mysterious or difficult pasts whereas Issei is just a normal kid with a strange power, which makes him a bit bland. As a whole High School DxD is not bad, but it's also one of the most fanservice-heavy shows I've seen for a while. Is all the nudity necessary? No, but at least it's not as creepy as some of the series we've had in the last couple of years (Dance in the Vampire Bund, I'm looking at you...) so if you want a decent actioner with plenty of flesh on show then you can't go wrong.
Actually quite a bit, as well as the clean opening and closing sequences and various trailers there are also three promos focusing on the characters and six fanservice-laden comedy shorts, plus commentaries for episodes 1 and 7. Manga usually come up trumps extras-wise, and this is a pretty good haul.