What Is It?

Labyrinth of Flames Boxart - 20140912Labyrinth of Flames is a two-episode OVA from Studio Fantasia and Bandai Visual. The feature was directed by Katsuhiko Nishijima (Agent Aika, Najica Blitz Tactics, Project A-Ko), and features character designs by Noriyasu Yamauchi (Agent Aika, Najica Blitz Tactics) and Yoko Kikuchi (El Cazador de la Bruja, Noir). In the west, the title was released by Central Park Media under their U.S. Manga Corps Label.

You know, because U.S. Manga Corps hasn’t found enough ways to make anime fans cry yet.

That said, Labyrinth of Flames is a series set in Russia modern-day. Ah, mother Russia! Where everyone dresses in kimono and samurai garb, and tatami mats are the norm! Good old motherland, where traditional Japanese buildings are everywhere and all citizens are well versed in the arts of Kendo! That Russia.

Seriously, Putin would be pissed at this.

Anyway, in this mystical land of “Russia”, which is really just Japan with a different name, Galan makes a meager living at his local university. He’s a bit of a spaz and somewhat single-minded in his day-to-day life. He’s a Japanophile who fantasizes about getting a sword and living the samurai lifestyle. He’d give his right kidney to make that dream of flashy battles and bushido honor come true!

Thankfully for him (and unfortunately for us), Galan doesn’t need to mutilate himself to buy into the samurai life. His girlfriend Natsu is a Japanese princess living in Russia. One day, she arrives at the university, shortly after a failed solo LARPing session by Galan mind you, bearing a gift of an intricate katana which, since Galan is a simple-minded boob, is eagerly accepted by her mentally deficient boyfriend.

It turns out that the sword is actually a form of engagement gift in Natsu’s family. With the acceptance of the sword, Galan also unknowingly agreed a centuries-old pact to marry the princess before him. Only he doesn’t know Natsu’s a princess. Soon, the three find themselves literally dropping into Natsu’s home, where they have to deal with a nosey yankee reporter, a gaggle of crazy assassins, and Natsu’s overprotective father. It’s almost too much for a doofy college kid to handle!

No, really. What the hell is it?

Labyrinth of Flames is a comedy OVA from Katsuhiko Nishijima, who has jokingly been called the “father of the panty shot.” His brilliance helped to bring the world Project A-Ko, whose charming characters and goofy, yet clever plot appealed to fans and non-fans alike.

Unfortunately, this isn’t even remotely like Project A-Ko.

If I were to really make a comparison to Nishijima’s other work, Labyrinth of Flames is best described as a half-assed attempt at an “Aika Lite”. So, basically, it’s gaggles of panties paired with some corny slapstick and a bullshit plot that nobody’s really going to pay attention to anyway.

This is particularly painful, given that the show’s cast could have been salvaged to make something halfway decent. There are a number of characters that could have been hilarious in a different role, like the perennially sickly Kasumi. She’s a well-meaning boob who is two steps from death’s door, and therefore connected to some IV or drip or another through the series. Handled properly, she could have been what Hyatt is to Excel Saga. The same goes for Datenoshin, who is a smooth operator by nature that doesn’t seem to grasp the idea of actually being smooth when he wants to. His attempts to kill Galan are genuinely funny, as he tromps out in a mockery of the Tuxedo Mask costume, with poofy pants and a frilled collar. Even Carrie White, the stereotypical yankee reporter plays her role of the clueless foreigner well, with just the right mix of clueless and quirky to work.

And yet, the show screws them up horribly. Kasumi’s a creepy and overbearing servant, Datenoshin is just a boob with a pretty face, and Carrie is reduced to a pair of jugs for the viewer to ogle.

From the outset, it’s made abundantly clear that the series revolves around two things: Galan’s single-minded idiocy and Natsu’s father being the king of all perverts. Every plot point, every bit of dialogue is used to support these two topics, rather than build a compelling (or even likeable) cast of characters.

And then there’s the sleaze.

I’m not talking about that John Waters-ish, “there’s a reason for this” sleaze. I’m talking about skeevy, creepy, cringe-worthy sleaze that will turn many viewers away. It’s the type of seediness that’s just plain painful to watch and outright cruel to the “lesser” characters, who get put through hell and humiliation to make the viewer laugh.

It’s not as if Labyrinth of Flames tries to hide this. Rather, the show embraces its role from the outset. After the first episode’s opening credits, the scene opens on Natsu, princess in disguise and university coed on her way to see Galan. Every step of her journey is dogged by her faithful, sickly servant Kasumi, who will go above and beyond to keep Natsu safe. When Kasumi spies a puddle of water, she literally leaps over Natsu and lands directly on her face, which means that the viewer sees blood pooling around her head followed by rivers of blood trailing down the poor girl’s face. And then, as if nothing is wrong, the girl pushes her exposed butt into the air and tells Natsu to grace her by walking on her back.

And, like Natsu in that scene, most people will be cringing and backing off as quickly as possible.

This doesn’t begin to cover the countless other unsettling segments, which include, but aren’t limited to Natsu’s father sexually harrassing his own daughter, and Galan popping literal comedy boners at a moment’s notice.

There are a few bright spots that bear mentioning, though. When the humor works, it’s legitimately funny. There are a few truly inspired visual gags and slapstick bits that will elicit a giggle or two. The animation is generally well done, especially in the full “dance” segments that are interspersed through the two episodes. These are simply gorgeous, and the choreography is delightfully elaborate.

On top of this, the OVA’s dub is surprisingly good for its time of release. The cast, which includes Eric Stuart (Pokémon, The Slayers) and Jessica Calvello (Attack on Titan, Dirty Pair), really seem to have fun in their roles, and breathe a surprising amount of life into the project. While Sonney Dey’s Carrie and Elisa Wain’s (Maze: the Mega-Burst Space) are a bit overbearing, the overall performance is surprisingly strong.

And you want me to watch this WHY?

Labyrinth of Flames is a title that is perfect for a Bad Anime Night. The show’s terrible content and championing of its sleazier elements will have viewers cringing and groaning with each forced panty shot and failed innuendo. At the same time, though, there’s enough genuinely entertaining, surprisingly funny content that most viewers will likely hold out hope for some improvement by the time the credits roll.

The English dub is decent, though Eric Stuart’s trademark voice will certainly invite a number of comments and wisecracks from the typical audience.

When and how long should I screen this for?

Labyrinth of Flames is the type of show that works in nearly any situation. At the beginning of the night, it can be an effective warning to abandon all hope. Midway through the night, it’s a valuable reminder that things can always get worse, especially when you are the presenter.

That said, though, it’s a rare title where, depending on the audience, both episodes can be shown without viewers growing agitated or bored. At worst, show the first episode and gauge reactions from the room. If they’re entertained, definitely keep the show rolling. However, I would advice having a backup, in the case that your audience does react negatively from the outset.