Top positive review
Master of Martial Hearts: A Masterpiece that Captured my Heart
on 6 May 2015
Before I begin this review on 'Master of Martial Hearts' I just want to say that there will be people who disagree with the five-star rating I've given it. Over the years, there have been many anime fans and critics who've poured scorn over this OVA series, because of its violent and inappropriate content. Some would even go so far as to call it: "one of the most offensive, vile pieces of [garbage] to [ever] pass through [their] DVD player". But as for me, I choose to look past the violence and fan service, and instead focus on the story. Because beneath the surface of an anime that seems to be nothing more than an excuse to show off teenage girls and young women fighting each other in cosplay, I found a really unique plot, full of emotional development, shocking revelations, betrayals, dark secrets and a question of whether someone is truly good or evil. I remember being in such awe of this series when I first saw it that when the last episode ended I was literally frozen to my sofa, and couldn't even lift my arm to pick up the remote and turn off the TV - I knew I had just witnessed a masterpiece.
So what is it about this series everyone seems to hate so much that I love with all of my (martial) heart? Let's start with the story.
The story revolves around, Aya Iseshima, a high school student with suppressed anger and fighting skills. On her way home from school one day with her best friend Natsume, they come across a fight between a woman dressed as a stewardess and a girl dressed as a shrine maiden. Saving the shine maiden, who's name is Miko, she tells Aya and Natsume that she's part of a secret street fighting tournament for the Martial Heart, a magical gem that has the power to grant a girl any wish. Since Miko's wish is to make friends, Aya offers her to be their friend allowing Miko to withdraw from the tournament. However, due to her interference, Aya gets an anonymous text message saying she has officially replaced Miko and is forced to fight the stewardess from before. What's worse, Miko suddenly vanishes and nobody has any memory of her existence. Now Aya has to fight her way through the tournament, find out if Miko was really taken to "The Dark Realm" and learn who's really behind this twisted death game she's been forced to become a part of.
For a series that's only five episodes long, the overall plot does well to fit in everything it needs to. It has enough excitement and development to feel like a series that would normally be three times its length; Aya's opponents get stronger as the tournament progresses, her relationship with Natsume's brother gets more affectionate and she's forced to do increasingly more hurtful things to achieve her goals - including fighting against her own teacher. The only downside is that the narrative feels rushed at times and there's barely any chance for us to get to know some of the other characters better; many of Aya's opponents appear for a single episode before vanishing, Natsume is only there to support Aya and give her advice, and characters like Aya's mother, and Natsume's brother and mother aren't really given any sort of backstory until the last episode. Meanwhile, Aya gets more and more aggressive towards her opponents, to the point where she seems to enjoy the pain she inflicts on them. Everything culminates in the final episode, when she commits cold-blooded murder and is forced to reflect on all she's done during the tournament. Which is when she learns the horrible truth that she may've been the real monster all along.
There's not much else I can say about the series without spoiling the ending. But what I can say about the last episode, is that it has a plot twist which involves some history between the main characters' families, and it's so unexpected and mind-blowing that you'd never believe it was possible. Heck, I even read the plot to the fifth episode before watching it, and episodes 1-4 were so convincing/misleading I literally believed I'd read it wrong - there was no way Natsume could be what they said she was.
Overall, 'Master of Martial Hearts' is one of the best masterpieces of Japanese animation I've ever seen and I think it's a shame that only five episodes were ever made. I do understand why some people hate it: the ending leaves too many unanswered questions; the sexual content (e.g. full-body nudity) can seem a bit too inappropriate to some viewers; the very last scene is too open-ended; the opening credits are annoying; the end credits are just...unexplainable; even the lead voice actress didn't seem to want to be associated with this anime - Aya is credited as being voiced by Anita Neukar when in reality it's Trina Nishimura (the voice of Chao Lingsen and Motsu in 'Negima'). Still, I think it's unfortunate how much this series is underrated.
I'm starting to consider Cherami Leigh (who voices Natsume in the English Dub) as another one of my top favourite voice actors (behind Luci Christian and Monica Rial), because she's done this and some of my other all time favourite anime series like 'Negima' and 'Sword Art Online'.
If I had to recommend this series to anyone it would be people who like a good surprise, because the ending is really up that alley. Also, you have to either like violence/fan service, or not be too offended by it, in order to enjoy the story. I'd also recommend this series more to adults than teenagers, since I don't really agree with the '15' rating. Plus, to anyone who does watch this series, I'd recommend watching all five episodes together in a row, rather than separately, so the story can feel like an animated movie and you can appreciate just how great the story is as a whole.
I've said it in the title, but I'll say it again. 'Master of Martial Hearts' is truly a masterpiece that captured my heart.