Welcome to Koryo Academy, a high school where students are trained to be future peace keepers by utilizing the power of Blaze; the ability to manifest one’s soul into the shape of a weapon, like swords and chains. Tor Kokone, however, is an exception, as his Blaze doesn’t manifest as offensive weapon, but a defensive shield. This makes him an ‘Irregular’ and a person of interest for many females at the Academy including his Duo partner Julie Sigtuna, a silver haired girl from Scandinavia who happens to carry a tragic past, just like Tor.
Supernatural schools are a tried and tested genre that has been done to death both in and outside of anime, so what makes Absolute Duo stand out, if at all? Well, the power to manifest a weapon based upon what lies in someone’s soul is an interesting concept, as it can tell the audience a lot about a particular character if they conjure a small dagger or gigantic building-breaking sword. In conjunction with that fact, the power isn’t automatically ‘on’; instead people must take injections in order to awaken the powers AND level up to become stronger warriors. It makes you wonder how they came about discovering this Blaze power in the first place, and why constant injections must be taken; is it forever or only up till a certain point? The school issues them and trains them to become ‘peacekeepers’ – what does that entail exactly? Is there an ongoing enemy that multiple groups are trying to find ways to defeat or is it something else entirely?
None of these questions are answered in the anime.
Why a Blaze manifests as it does is part of Tor’s character arc, which gets a serviceable semi-conclusion in the finale, and the reason why English female Lilith Bristol manifests a gun is implied, but no other characters get enough screen time to understand why their Blaze is the way it is. All the injections the characters have are shown on screen and discussed as if the cast know exactly what they are but we are not given the proper context for the audience, and the whole ‘peacekeeper’ thing is never elaborated. The last part is especially a point of contention as we are introduced to other factions such as Equipment Smith, who use technology to supposedly help the world, as well as brief mentions of even more leaders and their groups in Episode 10 when they come together for a conference, but nothing is explained.
Compare this to a series with similar elements, RWBY: the web animation also has duos/groups assigned at the school for fights and each student is training to become a huntsman/huntress to fight a common evil, but the world is fully realised and the characters fleshed out in a natural, clear way that allows the audience to get the mythology and care about how the cast is evolving. Admittedly it may seem unfair to compare a Western web animation with a Japanese anime adaptation, but what I’m trying to say is that we learn more about the world of RWBY and its residents within just the first volume (run time 123 minutes) than the entirety of Absolute Duo anime (300 minutes). There are decent ideas scattered across Absolute Duo but it plays out as if the full story wasn’t fully realised before production was started, or at least the anime didn’t carry across said world-building from the original material effectively, if it existed in the first place.
Absolute Duo isn’t just a fantasy show, however, it’s also a harem, so despite it being a mixed gender school the show mostly focuses on Tor and his growing group of girls as they progress. Credit where it’s due; even though each girl gets a turn to be ‘saved’ by Tor, the females also get their own moments to shine in combat and show off their unique weapons, however brief that moment might be. Also, it’s interesting that some of the girls come from different corners of the world with the British student Lilith being the one who’s forward about her feelings, and Julie is the silent but deadly girl from Scandinavia (a made up Scandinavian country, but still it’s a part of the world that doesn’t normally gets representation in anime). You also have the martial arts expert Tomoe who gets phased out more as the series progresses and Miyabi, the shy one with genuine feelings for our male lead until she does a character 180 just to give the audience cheap drama for the finale.
The relationship that gets the most development however is between Tor and Julie as they are Duos, meaning that they have to fight, train, share a room and eat together. Due to their similar tragic backgrounds and the pair having genuine chemistry, their relationship develops the most naturally despite being heavily weighed down by tired tropes such as panties somehow ending up in Tor’s possession, him accidently groping her and so forth. Tor himself isn’t as annoying as some male leads in harem shows, instead he takes his situation in his stride and is not afraid to talk to the various women or be upfront about his feelings. This is refreshing, even though half the time with the flashbacks to his tragic past to reminds us why he’s at the school in the first place, he feels like a character that should be in a different series altogether, rather than a harem one.
So, if the harem is only somewhat passable and the fantasy elements are sub-par, is there anything that the series is truly invested in? Yes, fanservice. Although not as over-the-top as other series like Samurai Bride, the series is not ashamed to have many close-ups of breasts, panty shots mid-battle and throwing the male lead into situations where he gets to grope said girly-parts. All the females have larger-than-average boob sizes (aside from, interestingly, Julie) with clothing designed to cling to their chests like it’s hanging on for dear life and the female school uniforms are formed of a waist-hugging corset and mini-skirt to emphasize all the necessary body parts to focus on. Fan service isn’t automatically a bad element in itself, if that’s what you’re into, but you need the animation budget to make it worth your time and it really isn’t here to support it. The breasts are constantly perky and upright regardless of what the girls are wearing and they sometimes move independently, so they’re an annoying distraction rather than a fun quirk. The series also relies heavily on the ‘female trip and fall into male’ trick, but every time it’s executed poorly by making the girls seemingly trip over nothing to land on Tor in embarrassingly impossible ways and places; the anime would make them trip on a pebble from three miles away if it gets them to land boobs-first on the male. The fan service is cheaply done in all instances so it’s not recommended if that is what you’re looking for.
The animation across the series is overall average if you go in without much expectation but the budget had been spent on the wrong aspects. The opening animation has a lovely dance number between Tor and Julie that’s very elegant and promises things for the anime that do not follow through, and with three different ending animations to accompany the various songs, it’s clear that the budget went into them when really, they should have saved some for the fight scenes and fan service. The former especially as there’s plenty across the episodes but they range from badly choreographed to choppily edited, with some very odd hastily ‘cut-to-black’ moments thrown in for no apparent reason; all they accomplish is ruining the flow of the battles.
Atsushi Hirasawa provides the score and, despite his lack of experience, his offering is one of the highlights of the series. There’s a lot of calmer, easy-going pieces that seem to share similar chords to classical pieces such as Bach’s Jesus Bleibet Meine Freude (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) and Ave Maria. Then the action pieces use more modern elements from electric guitars to techno effects. It’s an effective score overall and complements each scene nicely.
The DVD version of the series was reviewed; all 12 episodes come with the set and it includes commentaries for Episodes 10 & 12, clean opening/closings, promos, the US trailer and trailers for various anime such as Yona of the Dawn and Blood Blockade Battlefront.
Absolute Duo is the textbook definition of mediocre; it ticks the boxes it needs to pass off as a fantasy/harem high school show but fails to really try and make something of itself or provide a memorable experience. There are a few interesting ideas that could have blossomed in a better show, but as it is, it’s a series not worth investing in.