First impressions are important. The interview for that position you've been drooling over is going to go better or worse based on what the people on the other side of the table think of you after just a couple of minutes. The date that just walked across the room to your barstool may already have an impression from nothing more than a look or two. Maybe it's unfair, but we all rely on first impressions to guide our instincts. If you judge Battle Athletes on its first twenty minutes, you might as well just not bother--I've never watched a more annoying, eye-rolling opening to a show in virtually all my days as an anime reviewer. But if you can just make it through the self-indulgent prologue and get to the heart of the story, you'll find a thoroughly enjoyable anime that grows on you the moment the plot gets underway.
After centuries of fighting, humanity has united and taken to conquering our solar system. Through a rather silly set of events, a competition is created that tests the mettle of the best athletes the human race can muster. There is both a male and female competition, and the winner of the girls' competition holds the title of Cosmic Beauty. (I don't make this stuff up, folks, I just write about it.) There is no greater honor, and young men and women apply by the thousands to be accepted into the elite training schools. Akari is one of those selected, and she has a great deal to prove--20 years prior, her mother broke the record in the 100-meter dash and earned the title of Cosmic Beauty herself. Akari has a long way to go if she is going to beat the current champion, Lahrri, but she's the least of her problems--there's a sinister competitor named Mylandah who is determined to take the title by any means necessary. To her credit, Akari gets plenty of guidance from her roommate Kris Christopher, who is in the competition as much to get close to God as she is to win. As she winds her way through battle lacrosse, acro spike, and other events through the school year to earn the right to make it to the finals, Akari realizes that it will take more than talent--it will take every last bit of courage, skill, and inner spirit to stand the test.
Battle Athletes is actually one of the most fun shows I've watched in a while. Although the concept is ludicrous at heart, the foundation is laid so well that you find yourself forgetting the lunacy of competitions like the human steeplechase and cheering our heroines along anyway. The earnestness here makes even the silliest events meaningful. The production values are strong throughout, providing exactly what you'd expect from a relatively recent Pioneer release, and the character designs are pleasant if not anything of note. The music is normally quite appropriate, with full orchestrations that give the proceedings some weight that J-Pop couldn't convey. I can say with no small surprise that I eagerly waited for each new volume to arrive from Netflix. At first, I had contemplated just doing a review of the first disc, but that didn't seem fair--and for this series, it certainly wasn't. The show gets better as it goes, and for the faults of the first episode, the last disc is almost perfect.
This would be a top-tier show if it weren't for a few nagging but important problems that take it out of my top ranking status. First is the opening prologue, which details thousands of years of history in ten to fifteen minutes. Not only is it rife with cliché, it is so annoying that I flirted with stopping the disc after just that time. I'm glad I didn't, but the opening is pretty terrible, and the show has to work hard to overcome the preface. There's also the issue of Mylandah, the rival who's willing to do almost anything to anyone to win the title of Cosmic Beauty. It's not that surprising that she tries to sabotage others; it's that the show never explains how she has access to all of these systems that she uses to try and thwart her competition, or how she gets away without being caught. It's a logical hole that could have taken just a few seconds to explain, but is distracting because it isn't. A few other quibbles--there is a plot twist in the third episode that is unbelievable in the extreme, though I won't say more to avoid spoiling it completely. There's also virtually no emphasis on the training aspect of the athletes. At the beginning of the show, we see how seriously behind Akari is in comparison to some of the others. Though we see her participating in various events, we don't ever get the impression that she has improved significantly over time, so it's a bit of a surprise that she would even get into the finals. These issues don't kill the show, by any means, but they do take it out of the running for a top grade.
Battle Athletes is certainly a solid, enjoyable program with some minor problems. It is a welcome change from most other anime fare--although there have been many shows about athletics, this one is entertaining on a variety of levels. Even without a true "A" rating, I still encourage you to pick this one up...it was much better than I ever expected it to be. (One caveat: avoid the dub, avoid the dub, avoid the dub. I only listened to a few minutes of it, but the script is absolutely nightmarish. Places with ten seconds of silence now have unimportant speeches running through them. The language is also much harsher than the original, ruining the feel. Just go subtitled.)
Battle Athletes -- mild violence, nudity -- B+ (A- if you can ignore the prologue)