..wow, this was rather cool. I had a bit of difficulty selecting a good picture though. I really like the one used here, and it fits into the review well, but it's set at twilight and through a mirror. As a result it doesn't really show the coloring of the show off.... but it's such a nice image I couldn't resist using it.
Ichika is an interesting character study of a 14 year old high school girl. Right from the start she has a strange intensity about her. It soon becomes clear it is the twisted energy of someone who, with a powerful mix of self-doubt and honest faith, is always trying to see deeper, perhaps striving for a truth she can know for certain. Sadly the result is that she is, to an extent, paralyzed by indecision and uncertainty. And this lack of foundation seems likely to intensify as she prepares to leave her current life and move overseas with her family, leaving her rather cool school friends behind.
And then, late one night, she meets someone rather strange. A young girl, seemingly cheerful, beckons her from the inside of an abandoned mirror. She smiles gently and asks a favor of Ichika, in exchange for returning one of Ichikas treasured mementos that also seems to have ended up on the inside of a mirror. And as it turns out the favor seems strangely innocent as this mirror girl, Manatsu, wants some help with her rather unusual and magical homework, so she can enjoy her summer vacation. And this homework involves access to sights and perceptions not available in the mundane world. Will this give Ichika the truth she seeks... or will she discover that when dealing with magic there is always a price to be paid.
If you like anime renditions of improbably precocious schoolgirls, which covers a rather large section of the anime community, then this will have an immediate appeal. Ichika is almost immediately intriguing, and her friends are cool enough to have a series of their own. Even the magical girl from the mirror, who blends suspiciously seamlessly into Ichika's life, has a rich sense of personality. And the dialogue and drama has a very nice sense of energy and intensity. It combines well written lines, good visual expression and a willingness to have moments of silence and secrecy. Things are allowed to develop at their own pace which can create quite a powerful addiction as you increasingly want to know how it will end.
This really suits the story well. While it looks, at least initially, as if the series will be a typical magical girl show this happy innocence doesn't last. Someone in the background is manipulating events, people around her have secrets and hidden loyalties, and the magic she has been granted is more unsettling than helpful. Specifically she has been granted certain powers of perception, with a strict limit of 12 invocations, but the visions she receives are not always welcome. What's more the power begins to feedback, causing unwanted changes (some rather dramatic) and amplifying the intensity of each experience. In short Ichika is changing, unwillingly, towards an end she doesn't understand... and if she can't adapt the pressure may well break her.
This works wonderfully at adding a sense of urgency and content to the drama. It almost reaches the level of a gothic horror, the slow and relentless buildup of unsettling hints. And as the changes begin to affect her normal life, and leak over into her relations with her friends, it begins to shadow and echo in everything she does. Anyway, I think I've made it as clear as I can, there's some very nice and potent character drama to be had.
Strangely enough one of the "features" of the series is also one of the greatest distractions. This series develops such a nice atmosphere but then shatters that ambiance with 12 distinct, and ecchi, magical girl transforms. It seems they got separate artists to each design one of the outfits, based on the theme of the episode. However each of these outfits is, as a result, disconnected from the mood and gravity of the series. To put it simply most of them look daft and the transition from deep drama to silly transform just doesn't work for me. This is especially true because the power she gains is so internal and subtle, something that merged reality and power more directly would have been better. There's also rather a lot of fan service, with many bikini scenes and short skirts, which is less damaging to the story but still more than a little too obvious.
Finally I can't help feeling I missed something. At the conclusion, which is not too bad when all is said and done, the nemesis figure talks a bit about what has been happening and what the occurrences of magic meant. However I don't see how it all connects, a lot of times the magic was almost irrelevant to the story, the real power coming from the mundane interactions between the girls and Ichika's own inner turmoil. It is possible I am not perceptive enough to see how the powers invoked summarized the surrounding story, or it could be they just didn't connect that well. In the absence of some magical boost to my own perception I'm going to have to go with the simplest explanation, the background plot just didn't fully mature.
But hey, if you can handle school girls and good character drama, spiced with the supernatural (think 'fey'), then this is probably worth experiencing. Don't bother with the action, there is hardly any, and the magic elements are extremely passive and internalised. They are showy, especially thanks to the transforms, but ultimately rather meaningless for the reasons already discussed. There's also an OVA coming it seems, which is somewhat odd considering the story comes to a fairly tight conclusion.
As for the rating, that's a tough one. I really like the character work, and the sense of grim foreboding, it almost reminded me of Vampire Princess Miyu at its best. However I also realise those are my own tastes, and the show does have some very definite weaknesses. I'd like to give it a worthy, and it is definitely close, but I guess I'll play it safe and go for watchable. It definitely is on the boundary though.
I've already mentioned various elements of the production. The girls are extremely archetypal, their appearance matching their personality, but easy on the eyes. The ability to capture expression is good though, and some of the subtle "power intruding into normality" is really good. It is the delicate hints of the super-natural that work the best. The coloring is generally bright and the production polished, the picture at the top of the page really doesn't do it credit. As I mentioned not much action and the transforms hinder rather than help. Good voice work and some really excellent ambient music (although perhaps a little "gamey") do an awful lot to enhance the mood, but I'm less impressed with the open and close which are pleasant enough but so neutral.. perhaps the series grew in the telling and the original plan was much simpler?
A rather odd combination of magical girl show (complete with ecchi transformations) which doesn't fully work and a portrait of a character under stress which definitely does. As a result it generates some nice moody ambiance and character drama, but those hoping for something more direct, or with a bit more magic and action, are quite possibly going to be disappointed. Good production values make sure it is easy to watch.