What is this?
Optimistic Hiori can't turn away anyone in need. Awkward Ruka can't seem to make friends, even when she tries. But these two do have one thing in common: they're both magical girls called Reflectors! Together, this unlikely pair will use their powers to help resolve emotional struggles and protect the Fragments of people's hearts.
How was the first episode?
Okay, before we get into the premiere proper I have to ask that someone, anyone explain to me what's going on with the shading on characters' skin in this show. At first I thought maybe there was something off on my monitor settings, or maybe Funimation's web player was screwing up, because I refused to initially believe this was how it was meant to look. I'm used to some shiny or rosy skin being used to add texture to anime character designs, but somebody went way overboard here. Everyone looks like they have some unmentioned disorder with their blood circulation, or are nursing a full-body series of bruises, and it's distracting through the entire episode. I couldn't not talk about it because it's all my brain could focus on for several minutes.
Anyway, besides that literal blemish, this is a fine enough premiere for a new magical girl series. Seemingly part of a multimedia push for the nascent Blue Reflection game series, this hits all the notes you'd expect from a magical girl show aimed at older teen audiences. You've got your moody, anxious lead paired with an outgoing and exciting partner who's probably hiding some tragedy of her own. You've got evil magical girls cackling as they feed on the darkness of people's hearts. It's all solid stuff that doesn't break the mold but doesn't have to in order to be engaging. Sadly there aren't any magical SD mechs for the girls to pilot, but swords and arrows are fine I suppose; not everyone can be modern masterpiece Granbelm after all.
My biggest issue is that our leads still feel a little one-dimensional by the end of this. Ruka and Hiori exemplify their main character traits the moment they arrive on screen, and never really progress from there. Obviously this is just the first episode, but if they're going to eventually become a fighting duo they need more texture and chemistry to carry the show. I'm also interested in the as-of-yet unnamed third heroine we see, who seems to be the rare adult magical girl. That's a neat angle, and potentially a really neat dynamic to play with, so here's hoping. There's overall nothing bad about the writing here, but it just feels too slight and slippery to fully hook onto right now.
The production side seems ambitious, but not particularly graceful right now. There are some neat visual ideas like the bizarre frozen world the characters find themselves in when magic starts running amok, and while we haven't seen a lot of them I do quite like the magical forms of the main cast. But alongside the weird choice for skin shading is a lot of stiff movement and flat direction. We only see a few short bursts of action this episode, so it's too early to tell how well the actual fights will end up, and that will likely make or break this series. For my part, I hope this is able to succeed, as so far this seems to be avoiding the most obvious and obnoxious pitfalls of “adult” magical girl anime, and it'd nice to see more shows like this.
p.s. Watch Granbelm.
Reflections have a storied history in magical girl art, if not in the stories themselves. It's a pretty common subject for illustrations – the magical girl standing or sitting over a reflective surface, her everyday self looking into a reflection that shows her transformed self. Pretear and Phantom Thief Jeanne have both used the visual trope very well (especially Pretear's variation on the theme), but it's certainly present in many if not most magical girl series' art. That means that Blue Reflection Ray is already on the right track with its theme of reflections that may or may not mirror the person on the other side of the glass and its powers based on the emotions in the magical girls' hearts.
That's my assumption based on this episode, at any rate. When Hiori, one of two potential new magical girls, first transforms, she hears a voice telling her to lean into her emotions, and later another character comments that there's a new “Reflector,” meaning Hiori's transformed self. That sounds like the girls' transformations are reflections of their feelings, something borne out by the two warring factions of magical girls that the show seems to be setting up – those who steal what I presume to be feelings, and those who embrace their own to save others. It's a good set up, one that could easily capitalize on the base ideas of the magical girl genre from the classics to the edgier new fare, because no matter why the magical girl transforms, it's usually because she wants to help in some way, and those emotions allow her to access her inner powers. Certainly that theme's present in this season's other magical girl offering, as is the idea that embracing your emotions and accepting them makes you a better, or at least capable, magical girl.
Add to all of this that there are some really neat visuals and this is looking very promising. While the character designs are a bit flat and spindly, the backgrounds for the Leap Range (world that appears when the magical girls are doing their thing) are fascinating, sort of like painted over oil-slicked water, if that makes any sense. The vines and butterflies that cover the frozen people feel like some sort of Pre- Raphaelite hellscape, and it absolutely works as a background for the action. I don't love the transformation non-sequence or the magical girl costumes (why the exposed belly buttons?), but it's still interesting to look at.
If Tropical-Rouge! Pretty Cure is too fluffy and bright for your magical girl craving, Blue Reflection Ray may be more what you're looking for. I do suspect that there will be some very heavy themes going forward – I do not have a good feeling about what happened to Hiori's sister – but this looks like it'll be worth keeping an eye on.
Blue Reflection Ray is a series that first and foremost gives me pause. I was looking forward to it after watching the promotional video a few weeks ago and I think overall I liked this opener but that "like" comes with a multitude of caveats. I'll start with the show's primary issue first: the production quality looks like it's hanging on by a thread and this series is supposed to run for roughly 25 episodes. Mel Kishida's original character designs aren't done any favors by the adaptation, leaving everyone looking...wispy might be the best word. Gradient shading is used throughout and there's not much animation to speak of. Meanwhile there's a sort of washed out lighting filter, like you're looking at the characters through a sunny glare coming through a window.
The episode also deliberately obtuse about the sequence of events. There was some kind of magical girl fight to start with, and one of said magical girls was likely the elder sister of our (secondary?) protagonist, Hiori. Hiori herself, who exhibits the kind of personality expected of a series lead, only shows up midway through the episode after having mysteriously disappeared for several days. We can infer that the magical girl fight at the beginning caused Hiori to return home unexpectedly before sneaking back into school but the way its presented is more confusing than necessary. Also, everyone has caught a case of the sads that may or may not have to do with the villains roaming around stealing girls' flowers.
There are moments when the series overcomes its shaky aesthetic and puts together something really pretty (see above screencap) and the limited CG usage during the magic fight is competent. What puts this show a point above what I'd give it otherwise is the primary protagonist Ruka. I'm sure her personality will be divisive to some as I could just as easily see viewers declaring her boring. She struggles with connecting with others despite obviously wanting to make friends. When she makes a social faux pas, like staring too long at someone because she interested in what they're saying or doing, she'll lay on her bed in her dormroom and say, "I messed up again." Ruka strikes me as someone who has a hard time conversing in groups because there's too much auditory input and she likes to think through her answers. She's observant of the feelings of others but feels like it's not her place to approach them and inquire about it. Her inability to reach out is what keeps her isolated but she's trying, going so far as to buy a self-help book in hopes of getting advice.
Hiori seems to be able to read Ruka's intentions without asking and its their dynamic that makes me willing to give the show a few more episodes. I found it really easy to root for Ruka despite her social difficulties and hopefully her own "transformation" will lead her to finding her own happiness.