Review: Yuki Yuna is a Hero (Season 1)

Producer: Studio Gokumi
Director: Seiji Kishi
Writer: Makoto Uezu
Starring: Xanthe Huynh, Erika Harlacher, Erica Mendez, Brianna Knickerbocker, Sarah Anne Williams
Distributors: Ponycan USA
Genre: Magical Girl
Rating: PG-13
What would you do if one day your whole reality was turned upside down? This is the story of the Hero Club–a group of middle school girls who focus on giving back to their school and community. Little do most of them know that they were brought into the Hero Club for a bigger purpose: namely, to truly assume the roles of heroes and fight to defend their world from unseen threats known as the Vertex.
As their fight drags on, the girls discover that there is a price to be paid for their powers, and through this discovery the very nature of the world as they know it begins to unwind. Can they save the world, or will they succumb to the strain their powers?

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: Itsuki uses tarot cards to do fortune telling, which seems to have some degree of legitimacy within the show. Heroes derive their powers from their “god,” the Shinju-sama, whose exact nature is never deeply expounded upon, except to a limited extent near the end. Certain characters are granted immortality; a girl is essentially worshiped as a god by the Taisha.
Language/Crude Humor: Five uses of “d*mn,” 2 uses of “g**z,” and one use each of “h*ck,” “cr*ppy,” and “h*ll” (based on the English dub).
Sexual Content: When Togo transforms, ribbons wrap around her body and there is a focus on her breasts, though they always remain clothed. After she transforms, there is a close up of her breasts shown bouncing. When Fu transforms, her body is covered in electricity. It is assumed that she is naked; however, nothing inappropriate can be seen. Yuna’s transformation features a brief close up of her rear end after the act.
In one episode, girls are shown in their school swimsuits. Itsuki is shown in the bath; however, all private bits are kept below the surface. Episode 7 is the token beach episode. Everyone except for Itsuki is shown in a two-piece bikini. Later on, the girls are shown in the bath. The tops of Togo and Fu’s breasts can be seen when they are in the water (basically, the equivalent of cleavage). In the Netflix version, there are two scenes where Fu and Karin stand up, but there is a heavy amount of steam obscuring most of their bodies. The DVD/Blu-ray version seems to reduce the amount of steam (based on what I was able to find online), but the detail remains Barbie doll-level at most.
Alcohol/Drug Use: None
Violence: The girls do bloodless battle in a separate realm against monstrous creatures known as Vertex. The Vertex fire on the girls using various types of swords, guns, fists, and wires, while the girls fight back. In order to destroy the Vertex, the girls must injure them so that their “hearts” are exposed and can be destroyed, causing the Vertex to disintegrate.
Other Negative Content: While the violence within the show is not too extreme, the repercussions that result from the girls using their powers are. Without providing spoilers (because it’s a big plot reveal), the girls go through some psychological trauma as they find out the true cost of using their powers and the true nature of their world.
Positive Content: The whole show centers around themes of heroism and self-sacrifice, from the Hero Club’s initial activities of providing services to the clubs and townspeople, to their true purpose of protecting the world from the unseen threat of the Vertex. Karin, in particular, makes a sizable sacrifice in the final episodes, especially since she already knows the cost of using her powers at that point. Another positive aspect is Togo’s portrayal. Though she is clearly handicapped, it is not dwelt upon or played off as a ploy for pity. The other characters never bemoan her handicap or tiptoe around it. It is simply part of who she is, in much the same way as Yuna’s hair is unquestionably red. The fact that Togo is able to become a magical girl on par with her teammates without being held back by her handicap is another strong positive point–and quite a unique one for this genre.

Review

Following the trend of dark magical girl shows started by Puella Magi Madoka Magica in 2011, Yuki Yuna is a Hero presents a story of ill-fated magical girls given powers that they don’t fully understand. The influences of Madoka can be seen throughout this series, particularly during its combat, from the colorful and otherworldly battlefields to the abstract enemies—known as Vertexes in Yuki Yuna’s case. Please don’t misunderstand, though: Yuki Yuna is not remotely a Madoka ripoff, but rather a show that is not shy about its influences.
Yuki Yuna centers around the members of the Hero Club: the titular Yuna Yuki, Mimori Togo, Fu Inobazaki, Itsuki Inobazaki and, later, Karin Miyoshi. Initially a simple school club focused on helping people on campus and in the community, the Hero Club actually serves a greater purpose: to gather potential candidates to become heroes (i.e. magical girls) in order to fight the Vertex–strange creatures that seek to destroy the Shinju-sama and, thus, the world.
Sound a bit complicated? That’s because it is. In fact, the exact nature of the Shinju-sama (spoiler: it’s the god of the world) is not directly stated for a good part of the story. When the Vertex attack, the Shinju-sama is able to freeze time and erect a magical barrier which serves as the battlefield for the heroes and the Vertex. While this helps to prevent destruction and loss of life, it isn’t foolproof, as heavy damage to the barrier can cause catastrophes in the real world. Thus, the task of the heroes is two-fold: prevent the Vertexes from reaching the Shinju-sama, and minimize the damage done to the barrier. As the girls later find out, there is a greater conspiracy lurking behind their powers and the existence of the Vertex–something that relates to the very nature of the world itself.
This would be a good place to discuss the story; however, I have much to say in that regard, and not all of it is spoiler-free, so I will save it for last and give the section a nice spoiler warning for those who have yet to watch the show. That said, let’s take a moment to discuss some other features of the show.
As a visual medium, the artwork in any anime is an important element and does much to add to (or detract from) the show’s overall feel. In Yuki Yuna’s case, the artwork is bright, colorful, detailed, and cheery. While that may not sound like it meshes well with the “dark magical girl” theme, it actually acts as a point of stark contrast that emphasizes those darker moments. For example, the bright colors help add to the surreal environment within the barriers, making the Vertexes stand out as the sinister, mysterious forces that they are. The colors also help to distract you (to a minor extent) from the fact that the show is certain to take a turn toward darker things in the future. Add these colors to the many slice-of-life scenes and overall cheery middle school girl interactions, and you get several innocuous moments that nearly convince you that maybe things won’t go south after all.
Along with the artwork, the animation is also commendable. Battles feel appropriately intense with large explosions and heavy impacts. While combat is bloodless, the girls do get thrown around like rag dolls on more than one occasion, with their bodies hitting the ground in a way that is more realistic than you might expect. The explosions and damaged pieces of Vertexes match the girl’s militaristic arsenals of blades, guns, and other weapons, as opposed to blasts of mysterious magical powers. All of these elements combine to produce action sequences that are truly engaging and powerful.

Not to be outdone by animation and art direction, the music used during combat sequences absolutely stands out. While not remotely “creepy,” the score adds a bit of a haunting feel to the battles, helping to bring the viewer into the mindset that these battles are more serious than the typical monster-of-the-week fair that is so prevalent among other magical girl shows. The music shines through and works well with the other elements to drive home the heavy feelings that I imagine the writers were going for.
Now that we’ve discussed these technical elements and how they bolster the anime’s combat, let’s move into the meat of my review: the story.
In some ways, Yuki Yuna’s story is very typical for a magical girl series. It centers around a close-knit group of friends who spend time together, get into mischief together, grow together, and ultimately “do life” together. Such is the nature of the Hero Club. Unlike some of the “classic” magical girl shows, though, this element serves to further the plot and develop the girls’ characters, rather than to act as simple filler (consider Sailor Moon, for example, where any episodic development is self-contained). In contrast, Yuki Yuna uses these moments to deepen bonds between the characters and the viewer alike, as well as to foreshadow upcoming events. Take, for example, the episode where Itsuki works to overcome her fear of singing in front of others. This development helps her find a goal in life, but also leads to a very clear foreshadowing of future events. The ultimate turn of events then leads to further emotional breakdowns later on in the series. While scenes such as these may seem like typical filler on the surface, they actually work to create something deeper within the overall plot.
As a whole, I am very pleased with how Yuki Yuna handles its character development and how, despite the title, Yuna isn’t the sole or even primary focus of the show. Each of the girls get her own time in the spotlight, with some undergoing heavier trials and changes than others, but with all of them feeling important to the plot. Add to that the fact that the series successfully incorporates a handicapped hero in a way that is both respectful and empowering, and you have a lot to like about how the writers handle the characters. It’s a shame they couldn’t have handled the plot with equal finesse.

**This is a spoiler warning. I repeat, this is a spoiler warning. This is not a drill. If you do not want to have the show spoiled for you, please move to the other designated asterisk area. Failure to abide by these guidelines may expose you to information that will utterly ruin your experience. Proceed at your own risk. You have been warned.**
As the story progresses, we find out that there is much more to the heroes’ duties and powers, as well as to the origins of the Vertex. This provides the world of Yuki Yuna with a mythos that is, quite frankly, deep and intriguing; however, it is then crammed into a 12-episode space where it has to share room with character development and overall plot development. As a result, many plot elements feel rushed, and the story loses some of the emotional impact it could have otherwise had.
Ever since Madoka burst onto the anime scene and shattered the expectations we had for magical girl shows, it has become a fairly common practice to expect darker tones from this genre. As a result, it is not very shocking when we find out that there is something dark lurking beneath Yuki Yuna’s vibrant colors and exciting hero powers, but there’s not enough time to tease it out or let it play with the viewers’ psyches. Quite frankly, the series would have benefited from a 26-episode run, as that length would have provided time for the writers to spread out the Vertex encounters and to employ the “monster of the week” trope in a manner that could lure the viewers into mistakenly labeling Yuki Yuna an old school magical girl show, only to shatter those expectations with shocking and dark revelations.
To add onto my previous point, the supposed “final battle” comes before the midway point of the series, with multiple Vertexes attacking at once and the girls going into Mankai form–a previously undisclosed ability that grants the girls even greater levels of power. The caveat is that using these powers slowly strips the girls of basic bodily functions–a cost that carries great potential for emotional impact. However, we only get maybe four episodes to form an emotional bond with these characters before this development happens, and quite frankly that’s just not enough time. Sure, the characters are enjoyable up to this point in the story, but without adequate time to truly get to know them and to care about their lives, it’s difficult for this particular plot development to hit as hard as it should.
On top of all of this, the series has a lot of individual plot elements that are present from the beginning but that don’t get much of an explanation until later on–and that’s in addition to devices that are mentioned and then abandoned. Examples of the former include the Shinju-sama and the Taisha. While both terms are used quite frequently, the fact that the Shinju-sama is a god isn’t explicitly stated until later on. The Taisha, on the other hand, are regularly referenced but not really explained. We know that they are agents of the Shinju-sama… and that’s about it. Even after we see the Taisha in person, we are still left with a very vague idea of who or what they actually are.
Many interesting developments are introduced but never utilized. For example, the hero system allows the girls to “level up” and acquire new powers. This is discussed shortly after Karin’s arrival in the series, but is never expanded upon. We never see the girls level up or gain new powers, apart from the Mankai, which is disclosed (sans side effects) in the app that allows the girls to transform. While the level up system could have been a bluff by the Taisha, it is never even brought up again, so we never get the chance to find out.
Sadly, even the show’s biggest plot twists lose the impact they could have otherwise had were they teased out more. Finding out that the world was basically destroyed by all of the other gods and that these characters exist in a small space created by the Shinju-sama? That should be mind-blowing, but it’s introduced so casually and with so little buildup that it flops. Topping off that mega-reveal, Togo simply walks through the barrier separating their world from the eternal hell outside–shouldn’t there be guards up there to prevent that? Angered that she and the rest of the heroes are trapped in an unfair cycle of sacrifice and suffering, Togo deciding to destroy the Shinju-sama is certainly a believable development, especially after we find out that Togo was previously a hero before losing her memory; but this character arc happens so suddenly–right before the show’s climax–that we don’t even have time to process it.
In short, this anime endeavors to do a lot–but in such fast succession that we are left with a whirlwind of events and unable to grasp one development before we move on to the next. This is how I would have preferred to see Yuki Yuna structured:
The show should have been 24-26 episodes. The first half of the show could have focused on exploiting the previously-suggested monster-of-the-week idea while simultaneously developing the characters. During this time, there could have been foreshadowing to suggest that there is more to the world than meets the eye (for example, one of the characters could have found a book referencing countries that no longer exist), creating a sense of mystery and intrigue in the viewers’ eyes.
At the halfway point, we would be introduced to the Mankai powers and the girls would defeat the “final enemy,” allowing plenty of time for the viewer to wonder what is supposed to happen next without it coming so early in the series as to not make any sense. Beyond this, we would have then had another 12-13 episodes to explore the girls and how they adapt to their newfound disabilities as a result of the Mankai usage while also further uncovering the secrets of the world. Togo would be positioned as the prime investigator of the world, and the more she discovers, the more worn down she becomes, until she ultimately encounters the truth and fully snaps under the knowledge that she and her friends are just sacrifices stuck in an infinite loop of pain. Cue the final battle.
The writers prove over the course of 12 episodes that they can use foreshadowing and use it well, so imagine how much more impact the story of Yuki Yuna could have had if there were more time afforded to this type of writing. The world may never know.
Honorable mentions for criticism include the fact that Togo faces literally no consequence for turning against the Shinju-sama, the Taisha mention that the Vertexes won’t attack for a while, and the girls suddenly get better.
In regards to the first point: Togo literally tries to destroy the god of her world (and thus, her world) using the very powers that it granted to her. Yes, she changes her mind in the end, but to think that she faces no consequences for her betrayal is confusing.
In regards to the second point: the Vertexes are presented as eternally-replicating beings that were created by the other gods to destroy humanity. The implication throughout the show seems to be that they will continue to attack at various frequencies forever and that the best the Shinju-sama can do is separate the world from the fiery hell outside with a wall while also throwing up a barrier to protect the world when the Vertexes do break through. As such, how can the Taisha assure the (now ex) heroes that there won’t be any attacks for a while? Did the girls just do that much damage, or does the Shinju-sama have more control over the Vertexes than we’re lead to believe?
Finally, in regards to the third point: the show builds up to the true nature of the Hero powers and the consequences for using them (particularly, the Mankai powers). The loss of various bodily functions is meant to be the first shocking plot twist, and the knowledge that the girls will never get better but continue to disintegrate is supposed to be something that they have to wrestle with for the remainder of the show. After the final battle, however, everyone just magically gets better. Granted, it’s over the course of time, but still. The weight of everything that has happened just kind of disappears as the story moves into this “happily ever after” ending. This also serves to diminish the sacrifice that Karin makes during the final battle, where she severely cripples herself despite knowing the consequences and having not previously gone Mankai.
**Spoilers end here. You may safely resume reading this review.**

Honestly, if Yuki Yuna were a typical magical girl show, I wouldn’t have these kinds of expectations from it, but the writers present such a deep and heavy mythos that it is truly a shame to not see it explored further. Granted, the universe doesn’t end with just this one anime. There are light novels, movies, an upcoming sequel, and even a game, but I, for one, am not a fan of having so many loose threads in a show that was clearly intended to wrap up nicely. Had the series ended on a cliffhanger, then I could have accepted the fact that I have unanswered questions, but the conclusion feels like it’s just that: a conclusion.
For everything Yuki Yuna does right, it gets this one thing wrong: it tries to do too much with too little time. I can’t say that the story is a failure as a result, because what good that is there is truly enjoyable, but I can’t give it exceedingly high marks either, because it could have been so much more. As it stands, Yuki Yuna is definitely worth the watch in this writer’s opinion, but unless you’re willing to explore the greater body of works in the hopes that you will find more information (and yes, I do intend to do this), then just know that the experience is not as fulfilling as it could be.

The Bottom Line

Yuki Yuna is a Hero presents a beautiful and memorable tale that is, unfortunately, hindered by its 12-episode run.

 

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Rob M.

Christian, anime fan, and gamer are a few words you could use to describe me. I've been a Christian since 2012 (and thought I was one prior to that), although I'm far from having the Christian walk down pat. At one point I started thinking about how I could use various things for Christ, and eventually put my thoughts to action, resulting in Cosplay for Christ (my attempt at a cosplay ministry) and Christian Anime Review (my review blog). As you can imagine, I enjoy playing games, watching anime, and going to anime conventions. I also like to build Gundam models, fiddle with the guitar (occasionally), and listen to music (mostly Christian rock and metal).

1 Comment

  1. Samuru on August 17, 2017 at 9:13 pm

    Reading this reminded me so much of Madoka. I read the spoilers, and it sounds very similar to how that one ended, including the rushed and dramatic ending. What do you think? Madoka was better, or this one?

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