It's not hard to find anime in which characters from present-day Japan are whisked away to a fantasy world. The Twelve Kingdoms, Fushigi Yuugi, Magic Knight Rayearth and many more all do this, often with impressive results. Those Who Hunt Elves doesn't so much fall into the same category as strap on its hob-nailed boots and jump in feet-first to give the rest of the genre a good kicking.
The series rests on an appealingly warped premise. When I told my sister about it, her reaction was, "Who on Earth thinks up stories like that?" The answer of course is, "Someone in Japan." Junpei, Airi and Ritsuko must track down the fragments of a magical spell to get home to the real world. So far, so predictable. We've seen such quest structures in a thousand fantasy epics. The twist here is that the spell fragments have all been tattooed somewhere on the bodies of female elves. It's elf-stripping time!
I bought the series anticipating the lowest of lowbrow fun. With Neanderthal expectations I watched the first episode... and hated it. My main problem was with the charmless regulars. They seemed far too competent and efficient, turning what should have been a comedic misadventure into a military operation. Airi and Ritsuko were dull and Junpei was a thuggish brute. I was even tempted to switch to the English audio track in search of a less obnoxious voice actor, and it takes a lot to make me do that. It doesn't help that we start in media res, with no origin to ease us into the characters.
However I'd paid good money for this thing, so I stuck with it. It improved, and improved, and then improved yet more. I've never seen anything keep building like this show. The characters blossomed, the stories started drawing me in and it became strong and enjoyable even though it wasn't making me laugh. Then suddenly it was making me laugh! After that Season Two leapt forward again, as if the creators had finally decided what made their show tick. By the time I reached the end, I thought it was a rollicking series and as much fun as anything in my collection. It may not be the kind of richly layered narrative that's crying out for a rewatch, but it's worth a look if only for its political incorrectness.
The characters develop too, thank goodness. Junpei is a strangely endearing dickhead, with his simple love of eating, fighting and screaming. Cecilia the elf transforms the team chemistry when she joins. What's more, our heroes are even capable of nobility when they're not being elf-molesting bastards. To quote another reviewer, "they're not evil, although they're not very popular."
There are other comic fantasy anime, e.g. Slayers, Rune Soldier, but Those Who Hunt Elves can make them look slightly staid. Those shows stay within the limits of their fantasy worlds, whereas this one's anarchic. Even without the culture clash provided by our three heroes, it's set in a surreal world that's already peculiar before we get direct borrowings from the Brothers Grimm or an army of Santa Clauses. One episode is built entirely around Junpei's need to go to the toilet. We might meet Jack and the Beanstalk or the Big Bad Wolf, which given our heroes' bruisingly direct methods can be extremely amusing. Junpei the martial arts expert is a one-man demolition squad. Cecilia knows magic. Airi the superstar can outwit even the smartest opposition. Finally Ritusko is a gun-toting tomboy, armed with machine guns, pistols, grenades and most alarmingly a tank. Did I mention their tank? It's a Type 74, a Japanese-made light tank that was first built in the 1970s. Ritsuko calls it Mike.
Put this lot in a volatile situation and their, uh, pro-active tendencies will soon kick off a spiral of ever-increasing weirdness. Who needs enemies? They'll make their own!
The show has rough edges. It has my least favourite thing ever, characters commenting on the fact that they're in a fictional show ("only a few minutes after the opening credits and we've already found our elf!"), although later this thankfully diminishes. Plot development isn't really a concern, but the fact that these 24 episodes are really two 12-episode series gives a stronger sense of story progression than you'd think, if only by accident.
The animation is, um, functional. No one's going to mistake Those Who Hunt Elves for The Twelve Kingdoms, but in one sense that's almost a blessing. More realistic art might have sat oddly with the show's weirdness and turned the elf-stripping sequences into something they're not meant to be. This isn't a fanservice show. The disrobings are basically an excuse for Junpei to get slapped, not for the animators to draw naughty bits. We never see anything and even if we had, with this kind of cartoonish art who'd be interested anyway?
I should mention the theme music, which rocks. I loved Season One's title sequence, but Season Two's is even cooler. Overall this is a bizarre show with no great ambitions beyond cheap jokes, but once it gets on a roll it's gloriously demented. It can be funny, surreal and even at times surprisingly touching. Just don't judge it by the first few episodes, which are rubbish.