Sometimes I can’t help but refer to the ladies in the anime series Infinite Stratos by racial and national epithets. I know it’s wrong and I have no animosity towards any of the races and nations represented in the series. But, somehow using dated terms to describe the characters can be amusing.
There are some series and films that take multiple viewings before they become entertaining. The reasons vary from person to person and the work, but one of the often-cited explanations is, “It’s so bad it’s good.” While I’ve had the pleasure of seeing one or two films that fall into this category, I have yet to find an anime series in the same vein. I have, however, had the pleasure of deriving entertainment from an anime series I previously wrote off as extremely formulaic. The anime series I am speaking of is 2011’s Infinite Stratos (IS <インフィニット•ストラトス>). Upon a second viewing of the series, while it still felt like a formulaic harem romance series, I saw how one could appreciate the comedy inherent within the character types and the character dynamics. Nonetheless, apart from this the series spent very little time developing the main characters, excluding the protagonist, which meant only one single personality trait was allowed to shine. Whether or not this was a holdover from the first six volumes of the novel source material is dubious, but considering the reading level of the publication company Media Factory, that was more than likely the case.
I’m no stranger to the harem subgenre of romance anime and manga. I’ve read and watched more than I can remember and after many years of exposure to the genre I’ve grown tired of it. That’s not to say I no longer derive pleasure from reading or watching series that fall into this subgenre, but rather the rate at which I read and watch them has dropped. The main reason for my departure from this subgenre of fiction was the formulaic nature of many of the series. What I mean by this is when examining the tropes and character types in the genre, whether intentional or not, they followed a prescribed narrative. Two harem series I like to cite in terms of textbook cases are Ken Akamatsu’s Love Hina and Kentaro Yabuki and Saki Hasegawa’s To Love-ru. In both series the standard female character types of hot-cold, mysterious, easy going, shy, and energetic, among others, as well as the popular male protagonist trope of being obtuse could be observed. Although I have spoken out against the overuse of these character types in the past, I have to admit, having these shorthand traits makes it easier to identify each character as well as understand their general reaction to different situations. Thus, when the protagonist interacts with a hot-cold female character, for instance, we instantly know she’ll be unkind to him in public and display an excess amount of affection in private. This rote style of writing certainly has its benefits, but if it isn’t used well it can ultimately lead to a stale reading or viewing experience.
Infinite Stratos wasn’t an outlier when it came to the tropes used in the series. In fact, the most irritating trope within the series was the obtuse nature of the protagonist, Ichika Orimura. Frist, I have to concede that while Ichika was blasé, it also felt as though he was an amalgamation of Eastern and Western styles of classic chivalry—though if we were applying classical Japanese chivalry, he would have ripped pieces of his shirt off and written love poems on them for each heroine à la The Tales of Ise. As such, when examining Ichika, he was always polite, albeit somewhat stuck in tradition, before being oblivious. There were many instances of this throughout the series, but one of the best examples came in the first episode when Ichika was challenged to a duel by one of the heroines, Cecilia Alcott. Here we saw Ichika offer a handicap to Cecilia because he intrinsically felt a gentleman would never overpower a lady. This was a fantastic gesture by Ichika, but it was clear Cecilia was far more adept at piloting an Infinite Stratos, the powered armor of the series, than Ichika was. Thus, while Ichika may have been numb to the advances by the female characters, the idea he had a sense of Old World and Asian chivalry about him made him more interesting than most protagonists in this genre.
That being said, considering the genre the series occupied, “harem,” the five heroines, Houki Shinonono, Cecilia, Huang “Rin” Lingyin, Charlotte Dunois, and Laura Bodewig, were always vying for Ichika’s affection. I understand the comedy inherent in this setup and Doug Walker said it best in Nostalgia Critic: Dawn of the Commercials, “…Men just aren’t smart enough to recognize when they’re being hit on. We’re kind of dumb that way. If a woman isn’t interested, that’s the one we go for. But, if a woman is interested, we’re blindly naive to it for some reason.” However, there are enough anime and manga series that rely on this trope, making its appearance in Infinite Stratos feel ordinary. Admittedly, there was freshness to the trope when it was first applied to each heroine, but once we had experienced the joke it became stale.
For example, when Rin was introduced in the third episode there was a conversation between her and Ichika where Rin commented if Ichika remembered the promise they made when they were younger. Although Rin’s wording of the promise was vague, it was essentially her proposal to Ichika. Yet, because he was ever imperceptive, he mistook it as her offer to let him eat at her family’s restaurant free of charge. This was a great play on words as well as a wonderful miscommunication between the two characters, but also signaled two noteworthy aspects of their relationship to viewers. First, Ichika never saw Rin as anything more than a friend. While sad for Rin, it also meant the prospect of the two entering a romantic relationship during the series was nearly impossible. This led directly to the second point, the writing off of Rin as no more than a background character in terms of her romantic pursuit of Ichika. As one of the major characters of the series this shouldn’t have been the case and while she did play an important role in the narrative as a whole, for the crux of the series she was no more than background noise. Consequently, the use of a naïve protagonist in this series in this manner ultimately meant the metaphoric death of the heroines.
However, despite overplaying Ichika’s unsophisticated nature, the production team for Infinite Stratos utilized the heroines’ personalities in unique ways. Where many harem series will have the female characters follow the creed, “may the best man (in this case woman) win,” and be somewhat civil in their attempts to engage the protagonist, here the five ladies were self-aware the others were vying for Ichika’s affection and tried to stop their advances. This placed far more of the comedy in the relationship between the heroines as opposed to their interactions with Ichika. One of the best examples of this appeared in the ninth episode when Ichika and Charlotte went shopping together. While this was a small victory for Charlotte, as she got to spend private time with Ichika, we saw Cecilia, Rin, and Laura shadow the two. It was clear the latter three were trying to find out what Ichika and Charlotte where doing together, but it was also a chance for them to hinder any sort of romance between them.
These instances made the series far more engaging because it put the characters at odds with each other even though they were friends. At the same time, though, this also gave viewers the full gamut of how diverse the personality traits of each heroine was. As a result, when looking at the episode I cited above, we saw the stoic German warrior-woman in Laura, the French romanticist in Charlotte, or, while not seen specifically in this episode, the prim and proper English aristocrat in Cecilia. These distinct personality types opened many opportunities for comedic interactions between the heroines, as well as allowing for interesting exchanges between them when they interrupted each others courting of Ichika. For this reason alone, despite using some of the tropes of female characters in harem series, the defiance of conventional industry wisdom by having the characters at odds with each other, rather than being civil, made for a better viewing experience.
Unfortunately, the five heroines of Infinite Stratos only had two episodes dedicated to their introduction, backstory, and development. While this didn’t make the heroines one-dimensional, though it can be argued the five were kernels of an idea, it made them very flat and unremarkable. What I mean by this is during the episodes that focused on one particular heroine, they were interesting, charismatic, and striking. Yet, after their two episodes had passed, as I said with Rin, they began to blend into the background. This was a major issue for the series because each heroine had the potential to grow and become even more than what they were when they were introduced. This was particularly true for Charlotte and Laura, but even Houki, Rin, and Cecilia had room for expansion, especially considering they were not just romantic and scholastic rivals, but also rivals as pilots of the Infinite Stratos machines.
I actually felt the lack of character development was a holdover from the light-novel source material. So we have an understanding, the first seven novels of Infinite Stratos were published under Media Factory’s publication MF Bunko J, then moved to Overlap’s publication Overlap Bunko. As such, when talking about the Infinite Stratos novel series, I’m specifically referring to the first seven published by Media Factory. While I haven’t read the light-novel series, I’m familiar with the reading level of the books. In all honesty they’re not that difficult to read and someone in the higher levels of primary education could read the books without much trouble. Therefore, it can be expected little emphasis was placed on creating well-developed characters. Placing Infinite Stratos against another beloved children’s novel series, Harry Potter, and not to denigrate either series, both series had underdeveloped characters. Yet, when considering the reading levels and target demographics of both the Infinite Stratos and Harry Potter series, this was forgivable. As such, the real issue of underdeveloped characters in the Infinite Stratos anime series likely came from how it was adapted from a light-novel series.
When the anime series was initially made, only six books had been published. Accordingly, we can assume a set of two episodes was one volume of the novel series with enough just enough content to spare for thirteen episodes. Although I can only speculate, the production team may have been working under tight production deadlines and wanted viewers to experience all the series had to offer. However, if they had taken more time to expand on the events in any volume of the novel series, we would have had a better understanding of each heroine. Take, for example, the first Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya anime series. Only two volumes of the source material were adapted into the anime series and the production team did an excellent job dedicating the proper amount of time to each character, their overarching goals, and how they interacted with the protagonist and heroine in the first six episodes, the first novel, and expanded on those same ideas in the final six, the second volume. But, a great deal of the development in Infinite Stratos was rushed beyond belief. It’s not as though a 253-page book, the length of the first volume of Infinite Stratos, lacked material. In fact, I would think that would have been enough to provide an audience with three episodes worth of content if the pacing and character development had the right cadence. Yet, as a general overview of the novel series, as frustrating as the character development was, the anime series was tolerable.
In all honesty, I had little love for Infinite Stratos when I first watched it in 2011. Truthfully, I only watched the series then because one of my favorite voice actresses, Marina Inoue, voiced Laura. As such, my lack of passion came from how routine the series felt in terms of the characters’ personalities and narratives. However, five years away from the series and a second watching gave me an appreciation for how the production team took the tropes that are common to the harem subgenre of romance series and applied them in remarkable ways. This came from how the five heroines were foils of each other not just in their personalities but also in their romantic pursuits of the protagonist. Granted, the protagonist wasn’t all that interesting, but the strength of the series came from the female characters, though very little time was devoted to developing them. Although I don’t want to point fingers at a specific cause, the lack of development seemed as if it was born from the reading level of the source material rather than with the production of the anime series. While not my favorite anime series, Infinite Stratos had its merits, as few as there were. I’m sure younger audiences will enjoy the series, but anyone over twenty-five may find it dull.