Nakahito is a twelve-year-old boy in Japan in the 1920s, theoretically a mystic of the Onmyou tradition although with no magical powers. Dared by his worthless friends to break into a mad scientist's house, he finds himself accidentally kissing a gorgeous pink-haired girl and causing her to wake up and fall madly in love with him. Don't you hate it when that happens?
Nakahito soon discovers that the military are after his new girlfriend, as they reduce the house to rubble and send in their giant robots. The next thing he learns is the reason why, as the girl (Kurumi) flattens the robots like Superman.
I love this show, but I can't pretend that it's an intellectual attraction. It's dazzlingly pretty and so cute that your teeth will rot, but it's one of *those* shows. The word is "pandering". Adorable girls and romantic fixation! Technically they're robots (aka. Steel Angels), but it's hard to remember that when Kurumi's bursting out of her maid costume and burying Nakahito's head in her ample bosom. It only makes it more insane that he can hardly have entered his teens. Admittedly it's hilarious to see the harem genre's "women mysteriously falling for one bland male" cliche pushed beyond all sane limits, but if Nakahito were any younger, he'd be in nappies. If you think about it too hard, it's kinda disturbing.
However underneath the pink frilly cuteness, a Steel Angel is seriously tough. We're talking the power levels of All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku. Thirty-foot-tall mecha aren't even an irritation, since the only thing that even slows them down is another Steel Angel. Personally I'm trying to figure out what technology lets a human-sized robot propel a house-sized robot over a mile through the air. Never mind the 1920s artificial intelligence. What kind of metal or ceramic is she made from? Kurumi makes the Terminator look weedy, could squish Spiderman before breakfast and has back-up powers that might take down the Incredible Hulk.
This may sound like an awkward combination of story elements, but in fact they go together astonishingly well. If you're male, this is for you. There's even a plot! Admittedly it rarely interferes with the important stuff, i.e. cuteness, fanservice and airheaded antics that confirm every chauvinist's darkest suspicions. Nevertheless the original show's six-episode closing run gets serious. I liked all that, although I could have lived without the "Power Of Love" ending.
It also helps that the production values are stunning. These are short episodes, only 15 minutes long instead of the usual 25, but I'm convinced that they wangled as much money for each one as you'd normally spend on a full-length episode. The animation is gorgeous and the historical detail is lavish, especially on costumes. The 1920s period really gives the show flavour. The expensive animation incidentally helps the fanservice, as does the fact that the animators redrew the nipple shots for the home video release.
This show isn't for everyone. For a start, it helps to be male. If you hate super-deformed cuteness, you're probably planning your missile strikes against Japan already. Feminists will spontaneously combust. And if you dislike anime's fondness for inappropriate relationships... okay, flee while you can. Steel Angel Kurumi may not approach the level of, say, Koi Kaze, but it's not healthy to think about this too hard. Nevertheless I still loved this show. Often it's laugh-out-loud funny. The title sequence is a mad scientist's evil distillation of "cute", but it's addictive. The three lead voice actresses sing in adorable unison! I know the theme song's words by heart. As for the actual episodes, if you can stomach a little mysticism (which is important for the plot), this is an irreverent romantic comedy with attitude and heart. The fifteen-minute episodes make the story progression jerky, but it's a pretty horrible format at the best of times.
Most importantly, I'm fond of the characters. Nakahito's a wet blanket, but that's traditional and you can ignore him. The three Steel Angels are all a laugh, with Kurumi herself being lots of fun. She's far from being the usual chauvinist fantasy doormat, being bossy, pig-headed and completely sincere in her feelings even if her thinking isn't exactly profound. She also has some weird verbal tics. The English dub attempts something similar, but the noises made by the Japanese Kurumi were so bizarre as to be unrepeatable in English. Those sounds may be cute, but they're not human. Overall Kurumi and her fellow Steel Angels (Saki and Karinka) are wholehearted, likeable and superhumanly badass, not to mention often funny.
So that's the original series. As an aside, its clumsy 15-minute format came about because Kurumi wasn't standalone but instead coupled with another series called Risky Safety, together making an anthology called Omishi Magical Theatre. They also made four OVA episodes (Encore) and a twelve-part modern-day sequel, all of which I'll talk about in a moment. In addition there's a three-episode futuristic OVA (Zero) and a 24-episode live-action version (Pure), but I'm not going to discuss those here. Apart from anything else, they're currently unavailable in the West. Anyone wanting to watch Pure or Zero will have to track down the Japanese DVDs and watch them raw, without English dub or subtitles.
The OVAs (Encore) were fluffy fun, but I wasn't wild about the main sequel. The story is lightweight and the animation is ordinary, which hurts the fanservice (e.g. topless mermaid Kurumi). More importantly I thought Kurumi's characterisation was off-beam, with mental deterioration and overused vocal tics. The original Kurumi was hardly a genius, but this one's practically retarded. Basically the whole show's a cheap knock-off, but with one big improvement... the Nakahito substitute is female. Nako is a more interesting character than her 1920s predecessor and there's no "ewww" factor. No longer does Kurumi have the hots for a twelve-year-old boy. Instead we have comedy lesbianism (and lots of it). Karinka livens up the later episodes too.
Overall, I couldn't argue with anyone who hated this show. Its brief stretch of seriousness can't even begin to outweigh the pink-hued lorry-loads of candyfloss. It can't even deliver properly on a romantic level, since they didn't dare go all the way with robots and underage children. However I had lots of fun. The original series has gorgeous animation, attractive character designs and a flavoursome 1920s setting. What's more the characters are likeable, their antics are entertaining and the whole thing's so shameless that you can't help but laugh with it. Dear oh dear...