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Andrew Osmond brings the stupid for Summon the Beasts

So, what is Baka and Test – Summon the Beasts (currently available in two complete series boxsets) all about? The short answer is it’s about being very, very silly, in a very anime-ish way. There are manic school students and squealing pocket-sized monsters. There’s cross-dressing, gender-bending, and naughty jokes galore. There’s a bit of a plot, though quite honestly the show forgets it much of the time. It’s really about finding fresh ways to tell loads of running gags, which it hammers happily into the ground a la The Fast Show or Little Britain.

The setting is Fumizaki Academy, a mercilessly elitist school where the top students are rewarded with luxury classrooms and the dunces have to glue their own tables together. Like many British comedies, the show sides with the losers – Class 2F, whose members aren’t prepared to accept life at the bottom of the heap. In a Pokemon-style twist, the classes can better their positions by waging wars using “beasts” – cute chibi cartoons of the students themselves. To make things more fun, every time a beast gets brained, fried etc, the pain is passed to its owner, and the losers are punished with a dreaded remedial class.

Ostensibly, the hero is schoolboy Yoshii. He’s the “baka” (idiot) of the title, whose stupidity in most matters is balanced by his instinctive kindness, especially to any girl in trouble. As you might expect, he gets potentially romantic subplots; for example, with Himeji, a genius girl who was sent to 2F for being ill on exam day, and Shimada, who’s loudly exasperated by Yoshii but is scarily possessive of him. The girls have bosoms on the opposite extremes of the scales, which generates a lot of the gags; Shimada responds to references to her flat chest much like Edward Elric takes comments about his short stature in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

However, this is the kind of show where many viewers will be more amused by Yoshii’s relationship with his big sister (Akira), who’s worryingly, ahem, considerate towards her shrinking sibling. Yes, the brother-sister subplot is one of the show’s entries into naughtiness, though – as with many of the jokes – it’s so silly and lighthanded that it’s more about the cliché than the taboo. In the same way, the show is festooned with gags about skirt-peeking and peeping toms – one of 2F’s student is a chronically compulsive, nose-gushing voyeur who dons ninja gear to pursue his interests – but hardly anything is shown.

Moreover, you can follow Baka and Test just for the characters around the “baka.” Would-be alpha male Yuji is the class’s master and commander, but he’s undercut by his fear of his “girlfriend,” the lethal Shoko, who threatens to eviscerate him at any sign of infidelity. Hideyoshi gets the easiest belly-laughs – he’s a boy so unnervingly feminine that everyone, boy and girl alike, responds to him as a girl (and yes, in those ways too). Himeji may be cute, but she’s also innocently lethal – get your last rites said before accepting any of the packed lunches she offers. And let’s not forget the show’s Terminator-like monster teacher, Iron Man; the hooded student psycho inquisition which pounces on any boy who’s successful with ladies; or the dignified, deadpan narrator who lifts any episode that threatens to get dull.

Like its characters, Baka and Test enjoys cross-dressing and pretending to be something different. One episode shamelessly spoofs Evangelion, with Yoshii hamming it up as the hysterical Shinji. A later “epic” arc revolves round the boys trying to get into the girls’ bathing quarters, ballooning into a neverending Final Battle. But it’s all for silly laughs; and it’s laughs and silliness that this show is all about.

Baka & Test, the Complete Series, is out on UK DVD now from Manga Entertainment.

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