Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid Blurs the Line Between Fanservice and Hentai

Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid

Dave author picRecently the critical community (read: Film Twitter) took umbrage with David Edelstein’s Wonder Woman review. Much of Edelstein’s review centred on star Gal Gadot rather than the film itself; he ‘praised’ her “superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness”, observed how she “look[ed] fabulous in her suffragette outfit with little specs” and even, bizarrely, noted that “Israeli women are a breed unto themselves.” The internet was understandably upset, and Edelstein was even forced to offer a half-hearted apology.

I don’t want to get too far into the specifics of Edelstein’s review, but the cursory controversy did have me pondering where the line is for critic’s addressing the erotic impact of an actor. It’s foolish to pretend that films aren’t driven by the sex appeal of their actors – that’s how they’re marketed, that’s how they’re cast, that’s how respond to them – and it’d be a mediocre critic indeed that ignored that aspect in their writing. Euphemisms aren’t always the answer either; I’ve seen “screen presence” used to mean “very hot” far too many times to have much tolerance to such misuse of the phrase. But equally, no-one wants to ‘see your boner’; there’s a reason that pornography isn’t reviewed with the same level of craft and class as film and television.

Which brings us to Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid, an anime – and also an app and a PS Vita game – that’s about as close you can get to pornography (or, if you prefer, hentai) while still retaining some semblance of a plot. The reasons offered for its restricted Australian classification are as follows: “high impact sexual themes, sexual violence, sex scenes, and frequent animated nudity.” The pull quote used by local distributors to promote its release reads “In fact, in a purely technical sense this is probably the top fan service title of 2015, and that is saying something given the high level of competition it faced.” Valkyrie Drive has a simple goal – to arouse its audience – which makes life as a critic difficult.

It’s not like I haven’t reviewed fanservice-heavy anime in the past. But series like High School DXD or To Love-Ru suggest that they have priorities other than stimulation. (Admittedly, when reviewing the latter’s fourth series, I did note that “any filthier than this, and you’d have to call it hentai.” So maybe that’s how I should be describing Valkyrie Drive?) Yes, the storylines of these shows are often impelled by excuses for nudity/erotic encounters, but there’s a sense of character fidelity and such that makes them entertaining watches beyond their baser goals. You rarely get such a sense from Valkyrie Drive.

That’s in large part because of its premise. Valkyrie Drive occurs on a deserted desert island where young women infected with the “A Virus” are imprisoned. These girls are able to transform into deadly weapons when they become sexually aroused – well, half of them are able to – thus inviting a series where every action scene commences with a down-and-dirty bit of lesbian action. Where most fanservice anime use mediocre male protagonists to offer a respite from the soft porn to collect together a continuing narrative, Valkyrie Drive features exclusively females. (That’s somewhat of a spoiler, as one of the island’s leaders presents as male, but the revelation that they’re hiding a pair of very large somethings isn’t at all surprising.)

Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid

There is a storyline, but it’s entirely in the service of fanservice. When, for example, an outsider arrives on the island intent on upturning the existing social order, she does so by seducing the Governess, which leads into a remarkably explicit sex scene that makes Game of Thrones’ ‘sexposition’ look quaint. Even the climactic battle (there’s always a climactic battle) makes time for an extended sequence of the cast being stripped nude and molested by probing tentacles.

So how on earth do you review Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid without coming across as either a leering perve or a sneering prude? I’m not sure it’s possible, but I’ll try. Those picking up the series purely for the “frequent animated nudity” will probably not be disappointed. It’s rare for a five minute stretch of the show to not be punctuated by nudity, and the character designs span the continuum of the female form (with a definite emphasis on ‘implausibly large’). Yet it really does feel like cheap pornography, in the sense that there’s rarely any kind of eroticism. New characters are introduced and then, without further ado, flop out their breasts and start fondling and making out with a stranger. Eroticism isn’t merely about nudity – it’s about anticipation and the tease, and in this respect Mermaid is an unmitigated failure. (The inconsistent animation quality, which seems to be straining the limits of its presumably-modest budget, doesn’t help matters either.) Still, I’m not sure this audience will care all that much about the absence of thoughtful eroticism.

What about the series beyond all the tits and arse? What little remains is occasionally entertaining – particularly in a stretch in the midsection where our protagonists indulge in inconsequential, often silly storylines on the outskirts of the island – but too clichéd and reliant on underdeveloped characters to hold one’s interest. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine someone without an interest in animated boobs sitting down to watch this series, which isn’t really a surprise.

In many ways, Valkyrie Drive feels like the beginning of the end for the ecchi anime series. There’s an audience to be targeted with these shows, certainly, but the appeal of fanservice anime from, say, roughly a decade ago was that they were real shows that could be watched with a diverse audience and just happened to stir the loins of a substantial subset of the fanbase. Natural escalation has taken these sort of shows beyond the bounds of good taste, which has to have reduced the size of the audience. At this stage it really feels like these sort of shows should be sold in paper bags at the bad of a dingy store. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it feels like a step backwards – particularly when compared to shows like the aforementioned Game of Thrones, which has achieved huge success by deftly pairing tits with dragons for mainstream audiences. Valkyrie Drive is just glorified pornography.

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