Director: Tetsuya Yanagisawa
Screenplay: Takao Yoshioka
Based on light novels by Ichiei Ishibumi
Voice Actors: Yōko Hikasa (as Rias Gremory); Yuuki Kaji (as Issei Hyōdō); Ayana Taketatsu (as Koneko Tōjō); Azumi Asakura (as Asia Argento); Shizuka Itou (as Akeno Himejima); Kenji Nojima (as Yūto Kiba)
Viewed in Japanese with English subtitles
Update 26th March 2016: Originally this was a link to the review for Videotape Swapshop but unfortunately as of the start of 2016 the site no longer exists. This only effects this blog in that the following now, when you click this modified post, is the full review left as it was originally. Additional footnotes have been added with new reflections.
High School DxD if it was a live action exploitation film from the seventies would be one about demonic schoolgirls that would be promoted as being too illicit for the faint of heart. The only difference is that they would've been played by actors in their thirties than drawn characters. That the series was banned in New Zealand does add an infamy, but it was also passed uncut and suitable for fifteen year olds to buy at a counter on DVD in the United Kingdom too1. For all the nudity, the lurid commercial break stills of female characters contorting in various states of undress and sleaze its managed only a fifteen certificate, which shows a surprising moment of progressiveness from the British censors. No lynch mobs have appeared, though I dread the mother or father who stumbles in on their fifteen year old watching this, as it makes some of the sleazier Italian movies of the seventies, with higher age ratings, look tame in comparison. High School DxD rightly is available to buy as it was intended to be, whether it's good for you or offensive, though when one of the bonus mini-episodes has undo noodles come to life and molest the female cast like tentacles, I have to wonder what the hell was in the water cooler at the BBFC when it was decided "nah, an eighteen certificate would be too harsh."
As in many an anime, the lead is a hapless male school student called Issei Hyodo. Somehow anime can make it sound logical, even just to itself, that he can be affable and ultimately a wonderfully kind hearted person but also a pervert who hides with his friends in the women's changing room all the time. His luck seemingly changes when a shy girl asks him to be her boyfriend...then reveals she's an evil fallen angel after him because he is blessed, like many an anime protagonist, with a special ability called a Sacred Gear and kills him. What could be the shorted show possible is lengthened drastically when a female demoness and fellow school student of his, the red haired and young head of the demon family called Rias Gremory, resurrects him as a demon to be taken under her leathery wings as a beloved underling. With him as he learns the ropes are her vice president Akeno Himejima, a sadistic thunder maiden who share's Rias' ridiculous Russ Meyer inspired character proportions2; Koneko Toujou, a diminutive female tank who will gladly knock his head off for being a pervert; and Yuto Kiba, the only other male of Riass group who together gain pacts with humans and convene together. Later on in the first main story of the series a female European named Asia Argento is introduced who can heal people and is a very shy, affable girl. Yes, she's named after Dario Argento's youngest daughter and star of Land of the Dead (2005), though I can't say if it's a reference or a freak coincidence.
The series is split into two halves - the first with Argento and the evil fallen angels who plan to manipulate her, the second half with the head of another demon family who wants to take Rias as his wife forcibly. The real point of the series is for its titillation, more of a sex comedy which lunges into drama and fantasy action very abruptly at points. Sacrificing a great story potential doesn't help. It's not original but you can make something from it as with any plot. However the incongruous mix of the comedy and fantasy doesn't work when it should've stayed only as a fantasy comedy. Neither does it help that it splashes in mythological ideas it has no real interest in taking further unless it's a joke, like the fact demons can't read Bibles without getting a horrible headache, the rest underserved of its potential in favour of arousing the viewers. You have demons, fallen angels, wars between them and the normal angels, familiars, pacts with human and a various stew of ideas that never get any lip service. There are two more series from this, but here little is used in twelve episodes. It really becomes a pain when the series especially pulls out a really esoteric reference once in a while that raises eyebrows - it's a slight spoiler for the ending, but Issei's Sacred Gear, which is the conventional anime trope of something which gives someone unlimited power and turns his hand into a red dragon claw, turns out to be Y Ddraig Goch, the red dragon of Welsh mythology on their nation's flag, a reference that just abruptly appears in the final episode and comes out of nowhere in context of everything else. It does get pushed later into something else as the franchise by Ichiei Ishibumi grew out from his light novels, but the anime series never runs with this or many of the ideas it comes up with.
As for the titillation, there is a lot of it and a LOT of animated nudity, going further than other shows which merely tease the viewer to the point of desensitisation. Shredded clothes. Lots of low camera angles. Cotton eating slime in a scene that references Pokemon. Cat girls welding chainsaws. Shrine maidens and various fetishised costumes. Suggestive groans. Jiggle physics a videogame would be proud of. Lots of shower scenes to the point there is one in Rias' office she or anyone else can step into whenever they like. The only fan service in terms of men is Yuto Kiba being a handsome guy and a butch comedy character who dresses as a magical girl. If this was a year or so ago I'd be ashamed for liking some of the stuff in High School DxD. Now I feel kink is a good thing for anyone and my problems with this series in this area is a lot more complicated. To sound crass, a few of the surface issues, especially why it was banned in New Zealand, would've been resolved if this series was set at a university, especially as this is an exaggerated version of a school setting where, barring the uniforms, many of the characters are drawn like they are in their early twenties. In the best of worlds, this would just encourage fifteen year old Brits, if they saw it, to develop a thing for red heads and Goths.3
The real problems in terms of the portrayal of this content - barring the few tinges of lolicon, unintentional or not, that are just creepy regardless of context for me - is with the tone and oversaturation of it. Immediately it has to be pointed out, like many of these anime shows, there's no actual sex between characters. Barring in mind cultural differences with Japan, Issei for all his thoughts about sex turns into a deer in the headlights when someone actually propositions to him, and there is a convoluted if very dubious concept as with other modern sex comedy anime that virginity is prided upon yet still allows the viewer to perv up the young women, a concept as problematic in the West but sticks to some of this animation the worst. Even when you accept the cultural differences, there's something already wrong with a show so willing to throw carefully drawn naked breasts at your face and be tawdry about it, yet finds the idea that one of its ridiculously dressed and proportioned female characters might be serious in her sexual desires or might want to kiss Issei tasteless, the later only happen in the last episode.
Also there's an uncomfortable amount of humiliation and aggressiveness. It doesn't feel like something from BDSM or roleplay where everyone is playing out a fantasy, or transgression for the point of shocking the viewer with intention, but bad tonal shifts, inappropriate moments of titillation and, speaking of transgression, a lopsided version of it based on a gender bias. When the first episode has Argento molested in a sexualised way at the same time as a serious scene is taking place around the moment, it's scuzzy as one sees in many exploitation films and is so badly put together it's more of a bad taste in the mouth. Even as someone who admits having the Hanzo the Razor trilogy (1972-4) and the UK cut of Legend of the Overfiend (1989) in his DVD collection, I've never been comfortable with this type of material even as I defend the idea of transgression in art, especially with the bugbear of poor plotting and mishandling of female characters. 4
Ironically it's the female characters who are the interesting thing about the series in terms of redeeming value. It's what sells the DVDs in the first place. It's what someone, if they aren't put off by the series, might want to cosplay as. It's them behind most of the stuff that I found funny and entertaining in the show. But you are stuck with characters that feel like they were written by twelve year olds afraid of girls in their class for male otaku who are afraid of women. This ultimately is what drags the series down when most of the sex humour eventually revolves around this secretly and the drama isn't to par to save everything. The titillation immediately from the first episode, while some joy in the perversity is to be found, falters when you realise this, the need for a grown up or a woman to be involved writing a lewd sex comedy desperately needed.
Thankfully it could've been worse. It could've been about a naive childlike girl who'd decapitate herself trying to use a toothbrush in her uselessness that promotes a incestuous-paedophilic ideal that the concept of "moe" dangerously veers to5. It's probably more progressive and more watchable if your female lead is a confident head of a family who welds great power in her hands and is so relaxed with her body that she will sleep next to the male protagonist naked in his bed without any shame. But when the writing even for a comedic character writes her merely as a fetish object rather than an erotised archetype who has their dimensions and personality detailed, any hope for that progression or better entertainment than you get dies flat on its face. Eventually the story leads to Rias, a collected and powerful demon, being saved like a damsel in distress by the same guy who learns the secret technique of causing women's clothes to explode and for them to presumably die in shame. Thus the series enforces how stone dead its potential might've been that wasn't stained by some of the dubious ideals it holds, still able to have offended the Kiwis but might've actually been something one would've found sexy, funny, imaginative and actually good. High School DxD could've been much worse but there's so much still wrong with it as well.
1 The curious leniency the British film classifiers have on anime like this, only giving 18 certificates to very extreme depictions of violence, sex or sexual violence, is surprising even for a liberal guy like myself. The fact that this has lead to some questionable decisions, like rating a single episode of Mawaru Penguindrum (2011) 18 rated, while the rest is acceptable for twelve year olds, because of restrained references to child abuse and bondage, especially in contrast to High School DxD's lurid depictions, makes it even stranger.
2 There are many anime and manga that the late Russ Meyer would've approved of, making one wonder if anyone slipped him any examples before his passing in 2004...
3 Most of the problem, barring the portrayals of women in some anime, is entirely to do with anime's obsession with schoolgirls. This isn't just a problem with Japanese pop culture, as the famous Britney Spears' video Hit Me Baby One More Time can attest to, but anime isn't the same as casting late twenty year olds to play people attending high school. Frankly with some of these character designs, the proportions are so over the top it's impossible to imagine them as teenagers, but it's an area of art that's brought about controversy because of how murky it is as a subject.
4 The screenwriter was Takao Yoshioka, whose also done work for the Ikki Tousen franchise which is also known for depicting sex with some dubious aspects and, ironically, had one of its series banned in New Zealand thus pulling the plug on the franchise continuing there. He also wrote (entry #21) Elfen Lied (2004), a series I'll defend even for some of the same strange titillation, but with that case there was such a serious and dark narrative at play that it negated most of it, the narrative reigning it in. With comedy and work that's more for the sake of said fan service rather than a rich story - he also wrote for the infamous Queen's Blade series - he has very bad tendencies in depicting sexuality despite his good virtues that will put people off.
5 To salvage this mess of a sentence, it's better that at least the female characters in this are meant to be independent and strong willed rather than the innocent waif that "moe", a popular term in anime, usually promotes that couldn't survive without a big brother figure to protect her and sub-textually romance her, especially as one learns of the many pornography H-games on the subject from Japan. Unfortunately High School DxD doesn't go beyond merely the taste of this preferable attitude to female characters in actually giving them strong wills to match the eye popping proportions, leading to one of the biggest regrets with quite a bit of anime as a fan - the lack of erotic or sensual anime that one wouldn't be embarrassed about because of gender politics regardless of how kinky it was.