Astarotte no Omocha! cut a unique–and not terribly endowed–figure amongst the 2011 Spring anime listings. As one would expect, the usual complement of anime critics shuddered at its premise and doujinshi-friendly designs, immediately dismissing the show as borderline pornography for the lolicon masses, while us lolicon embraced the show with open arms. However, what Astarotte ended up being was more than just a Zero no Tsukaima style exploitation show. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. While obviously having some level of fanservice, Astarotte is actually a rather sweet show about the value of family, and getting along with others. It’s flawed, but it’s better than what most people could have expected given its premise of, “A 10 year old Succubus fellates older men.”
And, spoiler warning: That never actually happens.
But aside from the advertised oral sex, Astarotte’s initial setup has slightly more going for it: In the fantasy realm of Álfheimr, the titular Lotte–a 10-year-old Succubus princess of the kingdom of Ygvarland–is coming of age soon, and needs to think about forming a harem of men in order to suck out their “life seeds” for sustenance. However, Lotte hates men, and would rather not have to touch them on any part of their body. After a heated argument over this issue with Judit–one of her attendants–Lotte agrees to form a harem on the condition that human men are included. Lotte figures herself to be quite clever, as the gate between Álfheimr and the Realm of Man–the World Tree–has been closed off for ages. But as luck would have it, through a series of coincidences and dumb luck, Judit finds her way into the Realm of Man, and manages to bring back with her a young man called Tohara Naoya and his 10-year-old daughter, Asuha.
Astarotte is mostly a guilty pleasure for me, and is rife with many an otaku trope. However, these tropes are pulled off with either a high amount of class, or a high amount of incompetence, and it’s this disparity between the show’s high and low points that makes it worth talking about.
Since the show opens quite poorly, let’s start with Astarotte’s low points. If there’s any show that speaks to the logic behind the full three-episode-test, it’s certainly Astarotte, as its first two episodes are absolutely dull. Right after the opening credits roll, our camera is fixed on the kingdom’s open-air bath for a full five minutes while the female cast dispense paragraphs of boring exposition. I don’t know whether or not things are different in the home video release, but the ever present fog and towels keeps what could have made the scene watchable out of sight. But aside from throwing boring–but arguably necessary–setup in our faces, the first two episodes go through the typical otaku motions, and simply aren’t very interesting.
After proving itself worthy in subsequent episodes, Astarotte dips in quality again when it decides to heave on some mid-season drama. I have no problem with drama, but my issue with most of the drama in otaku shows is that a lot of it is extremely petty. While I’m willing to deal with this in some cases (I unapologetically like the second season of Nogizaka Haruka even though I know it completely goes to shit at the end) it generally rubs me completely the wrong way. Astarotte’s mid-season drama takes the “jealous tsundere” route, and is filled with the same tired crap one sees in every other show about a tsundere. Tell me if this sounds familiar: Naoya is seen healthily fraternizing with the other women in the kingdom, Lotte gets jealous, does something rash that puts herself in danger, and the others have to pull her out of trouble. You probably saw something like that in every episode of Zero no Tsukaima. Luckily, the show manages to save this bit of drama with a humorous and heartwarming conclusion, but the initial setup is somewhat painful to watch.
Astarotte’s third egregious mistake comes in the form of a gag character who amorously pursues Lotte’s affection at every turn. While he inspires a half-hearted chuckle at first, his routine quickly gets old and the episode climaxes with the both the script and Lotte taking his advances seriously. Again, much like the show’s opening episodes and its mid-season slip-up, the focus on this character is a waste of time because he’s such a conventional one-note joke. Unsurprisingly, he has little-to-no effect on anything that happens afterwards.
Thankfully, Astarotte can dish out actual substance when it wants to, and it does so quite well. At its heart, Astarotte is about a fractured family coming back together, as well as about Lotte opening up as a person. At the beginning of the series, Lotte doesn’t get many chances to spend time with her mother–Mercelída–due to her being constantly tied up with queenly duties. Lotte’s stronger bits of character building are based around this separation from her mother, and as the series progresses they manage to have some genuine and enlightening heart-to-hearts as they grow closer to each other. Similarly, Asuha and Naoya’s interaction with Lotte–as well as her interactions with her classmates–realistically portray a once antisocial young girl slowly opening up to others. While these issues aren’t terribly groundbreaking things to tackle, the show handles them with a surprising amount of maturity and grace, never mind that these are issues most people can relate to on a fundamental level.
What makes a lot of these moments work is that they’re not overbearing in getting their message across. In general, Astarotte does a great job of underscoring or punctuating its more lighthearted moments with some level of narrative strength. Earlier on when we first see Lotte’s school, there’s a lot of Cute Girls doing Cute Things, but it’s underscored by Lotte slowly opening up to her other classmates. Similarly, what is at first an excuse to get Asuha and Naoya into maid outfits for some cross-dressing jokes leads up to an important discussion between Naoya and Mercelída about her relationship with Lotte.
Before it seems like I’m over-thinking this show (which I am), I am aware that there is an exclamation point in its title, so there are of course a wealth of light and fluffy moments simply meant to be light and fluffy. And while some of this fluffiness results in the poor drama I mentioned earlier, the comedy naturally fares better. The style of comedy is typical for anime, but what makes moments like these work are the characters.
One of Astarotte’s biggest assets is its characters. The main three–Lotte, Naoya and Asuha–are all very memorable and well-written. Lotte is more than just a Louise-style tsundere: After a few episodes, she’s accurately portrayed as a 10-year-old who has realistic confidence issues, and trouble relating to people. There is an effective use of moe shorthand at work, but in the end Lotte acts similar to how a real 10-year-old would act in her position. Naoya is at first setup as a typical spineless lead, but proves to be a strong father figure for both Asuha and Lotte as the series progresses, offering both sound advice and comfort to them when needed. Asuha, my personal favorite character, is a joy to watch. She’s actually assertive, straightforward, and full of energy. She positively lights up the screen whenever she’s on, and pushes things forward when they start dragging. Usually this kind of character is a relatively ineffectual side character, but having someone like Asuha at the forefront is refreshing, as well as characters like Lotte and Naoya breaking out of their established molds.
Mercelída, despite not getting too much screen-time, is convincingly portrayed as a mother who wants to do better, but can’t due to her promiscuous personality and duties as a queen. The rest of the side characters–such as Lotte’s attendants and classmates–are relatively one-dimensional simply due to a lack of exposure, but between their established moe traits and designs, they’re easily likable. I personally enjoy a couple of Lotte’s classmates, as well as the well endowed Effie, who is–wait for it–a cow demon. Guess where the kingdom gets their milk.
Beyond the designs and writing, what really sells these characters in the end are the actors, who go for the gold and give 110%. Tamura Yukari is positively dangerous as Asuha, while Kugimiya Rie delivers her tried and true tsundere performance with a bit more depth to it, and Minaguchi Yuko absolutely kills with her sultry performance as Mercelída. Goto “MY GRRL” Yuko’s portrayal of Lotte’s constantly jealous friend Elíka is one of her more amusing roles to date, and Horie Yui as well-endowed cow just… works.
However, sometimes the characters sink along with the show. When the writing gets really desperate, Lotte switches back to being a generic tsundere, while Naoya defaults back to a spineless male lead. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s actually somewhat offensive, given the show proves it can do better a lot of the time.
Diomedea (née Studio Barcelona, the people behind Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu, Dai Mahou Touge, Ika Musume, Kodomo no Jikan and, my personal fave, Chocotto Sister) generally does a good job of keeping character designs as close to the original work as possible, and that standard of quality remains consistent in Astarotte. But while the animation is well done, it doesn’t have much character. However, the backgrounds are worth talking about. Okama is credited as “visual design” here, and while I’m not sure what this means, his touch is certainly visible, particularly in the color and design of the World Tree, and the show’s generally childish and vibrant aesthetic. On the subject of design, despite porno-friendly designs and a porno-friendly premise, Astarotte has little fanservice. Lotte has sexy negligee for bedtime, and the show will indulge in the occasional panty shot, but the actual amount of fanservice is pretty low–too low for this lolicon, actually–but the short cut yukata in the show’s tenth episode more than make up for that.
The tenth episode, by the way, is Astarotte’s absolute highest point, which wonderfully combines the show’s fluffier elements with its more substantial elements, and culminates in an adorable musical routine by way of Lotte and Asuha. Its second highest point is the penultimate episode, which introduces a very serious plot twist that changes the game completely. However, as opposed to sending the characters into hysterics, they handle the situation with a surprising amount of maturity and grace–the last thing I would have expected out of a show such as this. Unfortunately, things kind of fall apart in the final episode. The characters’ attitude remain consistent, but despite being completely committed in the direction set by the previous episode for 20 minutes, the show tacks on the more standard ending while the credits roll with little fanfare, cheapening the previous episode just a bit. It’s a fine ending, but I would have preferred for the cop-out to come earlier in a more theatrical manner, as opposed to just running with one idea then changing it at the last minute in the most boring way possible.
Given the even amount of criticism and praise in this review, one would think that Astarotte no Omocha! resides in the usual anime middle ground shows like this occupy, but that’s not quite the case. It’s more schizophrenic, with some episodes being extremely well done, and others falling back on the most tired cliches. I other words, its highs are very high, and its lows are very low, with the high points managing to beat out the low points by just a bit. And honestly, I suspect this show’s target audience will be less critical of it than I am.
I would happily own Astarotte no Omocha! on BD, but most likely at the Mandarake discount, or as a priced down US release. It’s good comfort food anime, but it could be better.