What is “melodrama”? These days it seems to be largely deployed as a synonym for “extremely emotional” “exaggerated enunciation” or “extravagantly expressive” and in all fairness that’s not too far off the mark, but what do such expressions actually express? Melodrama, as it was originally conceived in the European theatres of the eighteenth century, was indeed something which prioritised the sensational over the characterful and when you read about it those professors who know such things all agree that melodramatic plays aimed to amaze the audiences with elaborate spectacle rather than engage them with introspective philosophy. Even if “melodrama” then is often used pejoratively, for something overwrought rather than considered, such a view ignores that an intensity of reaction comes from the purity of a subject: the biggest explosions still need a spark to light the touch-paper. Is the topic of a melodrama simplistic – or is it fundamental? The textbooks reliably inform me that the first melodrama was the 1762 play Pygmalion, and that is a story as old as the Classics which we have built entire universities to venerate as the pinnacle of human thought. They provoke such ardent passions because they rend the curtain of affection and obfuscation and expose the essence of ourselves more profoundly than a so-called literary work. This all might be scorned as attempting to puff-up trivial things to seem more important than they are, but if “entertainments” are really such irrelevant ephemera that have no meaning then there wouldn’t be such existential angst over the casting of Star Wars or Black Panther. The Regency theatrical melodrama endures today as the modern multiplex blockbuster… and, indeed, the television late-night anime. So, while the temptation might be there to roll your eyes at the faux-poetic title of O Maidens In Your Savage Season, you should still take time to listen to a melodious-drama as Mari Okada might say it’s an “anthem from the heart”.
O Maidens In Your Savage Season is based on a completed eight-volume manga by Mari Okada which ran from 2016-2019. Although it’s Mari Okada’s first manga, it’s most certainly not her first story – the name will probably ring a bell, because although she’s rarely been skipper of a show (her one directorial credit is nonetheless a prominent one, for Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms) she’s usually come in as the first mate. In the anime industry you could practically play a game of Six Degrees with Mari Okada because she has a prolific portfolio and has been involved in dozens of titles across a whole range of genres from mecha to romance, with her main production role being “series composition” – basically, the chief scriptwriter who collaborates with the director in determining the plot and character arcs and pacing and the events of each episode before delegating them to the junior scriptwriters to fill out that skeleton. A series composer might be sometimes airily dismissed as the “idea man”, the back-handed diminutive compliment given to whoever issues the vague flights-of-fancy which everyone else has to sweat ink over to turn into a coherent story, but it’s quite unfair in the anime sphere because the series composer does get down in the dialogue trenches with full-length scriptwriting for at least part of the cour. In addition to Maquia Mari Okoda has also done full-length screenplays for anime movies Anthem of the Heart and A Whisker Away. It’s likely then that you’ve already felt the influence of O Maidens In Your Savage Season even if you’ve never previously heard of the show – another popular fan-favourite title that she has performed series composition for with themes not too distant from this one is Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day. Mari Okada’s presence is such that O Maidens In Your Savage Season has had enough prominence to get not only an anime but also a live-action adaptation that is currently being broadcast on the Japanese MBS television channel as this review is being written. A show being able to break out of the otaku ghetto and into mainstream credibility suggests that it might be something truly special… or it could be that just it’s something cheap to stage. Does O Maidens In Your Savage Season have the melodramatic power to sing out as an standout work ahead of all of Mari Okada’s expansive oeuvre, or is it just going to fade into one among the middle of the pack?
The high school’s literature club is small and consists only of five girls, but even if it is only a small group it is nonetheless causing big trouble. Passion is in vogue in modern literature, which is causing quite a few blushes when all the new books selected for reading involve vivid sex scenes! This stuff is highly embarrassing to read out aloud to the rest of the group and is also causing them to get not a few weird looks from the other clubs hearing their gasps and groans through the door, as well as attracting the opprobrium of the censorious school principal. Not only are the texts toe-curling but they’re causing uncomfortable palpitations in the hearts of the girls themselves. All the members of the literature club are becoming uncomfortably aware of the hormonal cocktail fermenting within their teenage breasts: strait-laced club president Sonezaki is wound up so tight she’s going to crack; mild-mannered Sudo is suffering from the overbearing attentions of a cram-school classmate she is being browbeaten into liking; cool beauty Sugawara contends with jealousy from one sex and obsession from the other; innocent ingenue Kazusa is belatedly stirring at the realisation that boy-next-door Izumi is, y’know, a b-b-b-b-b-b-boy; and darkly driven Hongo, the club wordsmith who fancies herself a mature erotica prodigy, has had her confidence knocked when her publisher tossed out her manuscript as unbelievable. For all her put-on act of worldliness Hongo’s actually as virginal as the rest of the club and was only able to draft her novel by testing out dirty talk on anonymous online chat rooms – now, professionally affronted, she’s determined to be the first of the group to acquire capital-E Experience. Hongo, extremely rashly, arranges to meet one of her chat-mates in real life – and bumps into none other than her own school teacher…!
The presentation of O Maidens In Your Savage Season is attractive – the girls all have varied designs – Hongo’s owlish look is particularly unusual and striking, reminding me of the intense stare of Shoebill in Kemomo Friends of all things – and while I was never quite convinced that Sonezawa was the ravishing beauty that dialogue insisted to me that she was, he white hair and pale skin do remind us that beauty standards are different elsewhere. The anime does look good on Blu-Ray with highly detailed and colourful art – even though this is a realistic high-school anime set in an ordinary modern Japanese city there are still attractive backgrounds to rove over. The subtitles are also colour-coded with a special handwriting font when they’re translating on-screen text, which is a nice touch, and the opening theme swells with heartthrobs. It’s unfortunate that the extras only include an ending sequence but strangely are missing the opening sequence when that’s the more artistic of the pair. It’s a really odd omission – could Sentai really not have had their trailers run at a lower bitrate to make a bit more room on the disc?
When I first started O Maidens In Your Savage Season I was fully expecting it to be a light-hearted knockabout sex comedy, and over the first few episodes I was mentally drafting this review to be a comparison to 2010’s B Gata H Kei – a title which translates to something like B-Cupped Slut, featuring the hapless misadventures of one would-be high-school bicycle who boisterously declares she’s going to celebrate uninhibited youth by screwing her way through the entire male student body but through various pratfalls is unable to notch on her bedpost so little as the lamest dweeb in her grade. When Funimation licensed B Gata H Kei for the American market in 2012 they gave it the new and rather more delicate title of Yamada’s First Time (which is actually quite a wittily underplayed euphemism for her protracted failure to get laid) but even so it never received an official release in the UK, so I thought that O Maidens in Your Savage Season was going to be a modern pass on the same basic idea for our market. The opening chapters of the story, what with the cringeworthy club reading material and particularly Hongo and her teacher’s encounter, which is precision-engineered to have a commentator exclaiming “awwwwkkkwaaaaaarrrrddd!” on the riff-track, seemed to be heading in that direction of being chiefly enjoying the frisson of embarrassing encounters. O Maidens in Your Savage Season though surprised me by really turning into something quite different.
The first few episodes do follow the pattern – coming(fnarr fnarr)-of-age misadventures with Kazusa walking in on Izumi expressing his glands and inexpert clumsy fumbling around the dainty lingerie and diverse other night exciters. Despite the sexual themes and the 18 rating, though, there’s no on-screen sex and not much nudity either – some of the girls’ bums get wiggled in a single bath scene half-way through the series but even then breasts are smudged out by steam clouds. Other than that brief instance though there’s not even beneath-the-sheets fumbling – this is a show for talking about sex, not actually having it. The very final shot of the anime is a train speeding into a tunnel, and that’s all you get for implications on what might be happening after the curtain falls. There were times when I struggled to empathise with the womanly worries of the literature club – it was hard to credit their concerns because honestly, relationships just weren’t that complicated when I was in school. My experience was closer to the rapid-fire gag(ging reflex) anime Seitokai Yakuindomo: all we did when I were a lad was just crack dirty jokes at each other. We had a “quote board” tacked up to one of the noticeboards in my form room where all the latest ribald witticisms would be inscribed for posterity.
It’s all light-hearted enough but then we start to delve into Sugawara’s background where she, as a child idol, was perved on by her theatre manager (wearing a turtle-neck sweater like the very image of a 'progressive' 1970s Kinseyan sexologist) and then things start to shift and the reason for an 18 rating becomes apparent with the underage implications – although the director sees himself as an artist with a muse and doesn’t actually get physical with Sugawara at any point in the proceedings, you don’t need to touch someone to hurt them. Simultaneously with this uncomfortable revelation Hongo’s teacher decides the best way to extricate himself from his pupil’s unwanted but persistent advances is a game of sexual chicken, daring her until she hits her boundaries and will be scared off – but has he overestimated Hongo’s rationality and not realised that she’s still thinking she’s the protagonist of her own romance novel and is actually prepared to slam down on the accelerator and crash the car head-on with no survivors? As people try to steady themselves by hanging onto others and grappling too close only causes more unbalancing, love triangles start spinning off and cutting people with their sharp edges and the middle third of the anime evolves into some genuinely intense and affecting interpersonal drama. It works – I could genuinely hear my heart pounding in my chest on a few scenes towards episodes nine and ten when confrontations occur and fateful decisions are demanded. A personal favourite incident is when Mari Okada actually manages to find something original to do with that time-worn and hoary old anime trope, the School Cultural Festival Episode. I find these dispiritingly predictable even in real life – my old school held a "Charities Fortnight" every Lent term which tended to amount to not much more than fifty different cheese toastie stalls in every form room stinking out all the corridors. However, the Literature Club manage to tread new ground, stepping their relationships forward rather than staying in anime grooves because they do some am-dram, but it turns out that the play's the thing that will capture the conscience of the king.
The only incident which strikes a bum note is Sudo stirring the pot with a late-game declaration that she’s homosexual. Okay, so this is anime, where we can assume the condition of Schrodinger's Catgirl - all female characters exist in a state of assumed lesbianism for the purposes of fanservice until observed by the Main Character whereupon they instantly collapse back into straightness, but still it felt out of place. O Maidens In Your Savage Season does have a bit of old-school “Class S” platonic romance between the girls – plenty of hand-holding and cuddles declaring that they’re “best friends!” – but this switch to full on girls’ love seemed to come out of nowhere. Sudo’s character arc before that point was her mustering the courage to definitively reject the overbearing boy who she just wasn’t that into, but the kid was just a self-absorbed jackass anyway (taking about a dollar off Sudo’s lunch bill as though that’s enough for chivalry) who anyone would be put off by, so there was no impression that Sudo was repulsed by his very maleness. All in all it felt a bit like a contrivance to ratchet up the tension one extra tooth higher by tangling up the relationship map, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker to the genuinely heartfelt problems the rest of the cast were surrounding it.
After that mounting crisis of doubt, hesitancy, passion, fear and emotional and physical abuse, in its final two episodes the show takes a baffling and downright bizarre turn into the ludicrous. After a gyaru gal gets pregnant and drops out of school, there is an abruptly new puritan regime enforced where the entire student body is banned from fraternising. Not only is this a plot point that Mari Okada is ripping off one of her old shows, the mecha Aquarion Evol of all things (where the teen pilots’ giant robots were powered by virtual-reality orgasms but they also had shock-armbands which electrocuted them if they tried to actually get sweaty with their classmates in real life) and never mind asking questions about how such a restriction could ever be enforced, Sonezaki and her boyfriend are duly expelled pour encourager les autres. This results in the literature club protesting and demanding her reinstatement by occupying the school and taking a teacher hostage! It’s ludicrous (even the rest of the teachers don’t take it seriously, bunking off home even when one of their colleagues is being dangled out of a upper-storey window) and the final line before the credits on the last episode roll is literally a comically unironic title drop, “they’re in the middle of their savage season”. Peter Griffin would be howling!
At first I was about to dismiss the final arc as mindless filler from an anime which had peaked its drama too early and simply had nothing left to do with the left-over run-time before they reached the end of the cour, but this is what brings me around to all the talk of melodrama for which I opened the review. I understood that it didn’t have to be a realistic scenario to be an effective one. When you are a teenager, everything feels intense – in those adolescent days (and, indeed, those savage seasons) the first flush of passions sting new and raw, and everything feels like an eruption and a calamity – even exploring hurtful occasions is its own journey of discovery and self-awareness of new undiscovered countries which you could previously not see because they were inside your skin. As we get older, we get desensitised and inured to shocks and traumas – but as O Maidens In Your Savage Season crashes through three acts of comedy, tragedy and absurdity is teaches you to maybe lay off the affected mature adult cynicism for a while and remember what it was like to feel.