I was out profiting from the anime industry's agonies this weekend. Best Buy has mostly given up on selling anime DVDs, and they're liquidating their anime sections in most of their stores, starting the first of March. I went over to the Patton Twp Best Buy & grabbed a pile of stuff I wouldn't normally bother with if it weren't at least 60% off MRSP. As usual, it turns out that at least some of the stuff I hadn't bothered with up to now was pretty dang nifty.
Case in point: Negima!?. I avoided the manga originally, because it seemed like anything other than original. A Ken Akamatsu harem comedy with a prepubescent harem lead and thirty-some utterly interchangable girls? It seemed like there'd be better "girlswarm" stories out there, so I passed. The word on the first anime adaptation of Negima, sold as Negima! in North America, was even worse - that the character designs were literally interchangeable, the story tedious, and the fanservice bizarrely nonexistent - for a harem comedy!
Apparently the Japanese license-holders noticed that the first try by Xebec was a dud, but decided that the Akamatsu brand was worth a second go with another studio, and they opted for Shaft. You hear a lot of trash-talking about Shaft, but they've got a creative team somewhere in the bowels of that operation which is just boiling over with hyperactive style. The closest thing I've seen to the new version, sold confusingly as Negima!? in North America, was the fansubs of Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei (aka "Goodbye, Mr. Despair"). It's got the same hyper stylism, although Negima!? tends more towards turbocharged 60s New Wave splitscreening than Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei's skeezy Japanese noir. It's also got the eruption of chalkboard message non sequiturs, which I always thought was the factor which would have made SZS unlicenseable, due to its rapid-fire pace and potential for frying subtitling crews; although Negima!?'s chalkboard non sequiturs are much less rapid-fire than SZS's, it still broke the subtitler a couple times in the first couple episodes.
But anyway, Shaft's Negima!?: excellent. Also, fun! The only real problem is that there are far, far too many characters, and I found I couldn't remember the names of more than a half-dozen or so. It's literally a girl-swarm, a mob of characters, introduced in a swirl which leaves you the impression that there are people out there, but far too many to take in at once. The gag in the opening credits is that the girls are all labelled by roster number - and only roster number, their little seat numbers cryptically floating along behind them in a surreal sepia-tone landscape constructed of stacked school-desks.