What makes an anime good or bad? Is it animation? Is it plot? Is it character? Is it action or violence or fan service? Or is it the decisions we've already made about an anime going into it? Honesty check here...in a few months, I'll have reached 10 years on the Internet posting "impartial" reviews, and it's still very difficult to go into a program with a totally open mind. You read the press release and the case, you look at the artwork, you watch a trailer, and you have an image in your brain of what the show is going to be. By all accounts, Madonna was not going to be good. With ancient artwork and a basic plotline that's been done to death between Summer School and Dangerous Minds, I was ready to flunk and forget. The first twenty minutes didn't prove me wrong, either, but then Madonna found its groove and became a solid, compelling show in spite of itself.
Mako is just out of college and ready to work for a couple of years while she finds a suitable husband. It can't be too hard, right? But when she finds out her class is made up of the toughest punks this side of Tokyo, she realizes she's in over her head. After multiple embarrasing situations, Mako is ready to turn in her resignation. But through an odd series of events, Mako becomes the boys' rugby coach. Despite his too-cool-for-school talk, lead ruffian Oobayashi is a worthwhile player and a begrudging fan of his teacher. Even with a few decent guys on the team, can Mako possibly turn the misfits of class 2-D into a team?
Madonna's faults are advertised up and front, so I'm going to start with those lest someone think I'm being too easy on the show. From a modern perspective, the show's character designs look awful. Having been around the proverbial anime block a few times, the characters reflect a comedic look that was popular about twenty years ago. I don't doubt that the manga on which it is based looked quite similar. But frankly, they just don't pass muster. The animation itself is (especially in the first OVA) rudimentary, not the worst I've seen but very limited. This isn't a DVD you're going to want to watch to be dazzled.
The story itself flounders for about the first twenty or so minutes. It takes that long to establish that Mako has been completely humiliated by her students from stem to stern, but it's done haphazardly. We meet a guy who's interested in her, only for him to disappear later on. The classroom antics wear old quickly. The opening compresses several manga stories into a very short time frame, and it doesn't really work. My grade reflects that Madonna takes work to get into the main storyline.
We reach just about the breaking point when Madonna turns itself around, and that's when the rugby team is introduced. We move into a completely different concept at that point, and the characters begin to develop and mature in unexpected ways. Yes, there are conceits we've seen in other "teacher makes good" movies, but they play out far differently and far more realistically here. Mako is never interested in becoming a great tutor. She got into the job because she expected long breaks and evenings off to find herself a hubby, and when that turns out to be untrue, she's frustrated, not invigorated. The boys in her class, while they do learn teamwork, are not turned into star pupils -- in fact, we rarely spend time in the classroom once rugby gets started. Madonna doesn't play into the myth that every great athlete could also be a superior student with a little more dedication to academics.
Most surprisingly, there is no "Hoosiers moment" where the little team that couldn't overcomes every obstacle to take home the championship. They improve, but this show is not about the big game at all. After its markedly rough start, it becomes a fun program that is more interested in seeing its characters develop realistically than becoming a flashy sports anime. That said, I admit that I actually started looking up rugby on Wikipedia after the show was over because it peaked my interest! What makes Madonna an anime worth watching is the way we get to know the characters and see their changes over about an hour and a half. By the end, I was honestly sad there wasn't more to see.
Madonna isn't going to be for everyone primarily due to subject matter. When Oobayashi's crew first starts trying to intimidate Mako, they use some pretty nasty language and a few revealing posters to do the trick. Mako is attacked by a different set of pervs in the first episode, and though nothing actually happens, it's very clearly a foiled rape attempt. Although the content settles down in the rest of the show, the first OVA is dicey at times. The U.S. release is rated for 13 years old and older, but I think the typical 13-year-old would focus in on the brief raunchy bits rather than the overall storyline that I enjoyed.
For those who have read all the way to this point, I admire you. Many have already stopped when they heard that Madonna looked bad and started off weakly. But if you've gotten this far despite that, you'd probably make a pretty good candidate to rent this title. Heck, for the $3 you can purchase it for on Amazon, I could almost recommend buying it. It's not anime at its finest, but its attention to character detail and growth makes it worthwhile. If you're like me, you'll find your opinion of it growing even after watching it...don't let first impressions fool you.
Madonna -- profanity, violence, brief nudity, brief attempted rape -- B