REVIEW: ambitiously unambitious – a review of ‘High Guardian Spice’

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Photo by Randi Haseman

“High Guardian Spice” premiered on Crunchyroll.

DISCLAIMER: This review contains spoilers for the first episode of “High Guardian Spice.”

Representation matters.

This is a statement that, regardless of one’s personal opinions, has become increasingly common across American media. It is also something that many new media creators strive for. This theme influences anime streaming website Crunchyroll’s “High Guardian Spice,” a show as ambitious and daring for its creator as it is unambitious and boring to its audience. Yet despite its flaws, it’s a thoroughly entertaining experience for young creatives and people who can appreciate a new cult classic.

Created by new showrunner Raye Rodriguez, the story of “High Guardian Spice” follows Rosemary, Sage, Parsley and Thyme (get it?) in their quest to become “guardians” at High Guardian Academy. Through their classroom antics and encounters with mysterious forces, the four girls learn about the world and themselves.

After watching the first season, I have mixed feelings about the show. However, I can summarize them in one sentence: I like it a lot, but not because it’s good.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the anime’s poor quality is obvious at first glance. The animation is bad. It is inconsistent, choppy and lazy. Many times in the first episode, I noticed characters seemed too big or small compared to the background. They felt stiff and unexpressive. Many memes have spread across the internet about stock images used in the show, along with other glaring corner-cutting like low-quality background images and characters generally not fitting with the scene.

Though the lackluster animation plays into my love of “High Guardian Spice,” what really sells the show as a “so bad it’s good” experience is the writing and production behind it. Based on a series of tweets from Rodriguez, production constraints got in the way of the vision, and it shows.

This show is political, aggressively political. There is no way to avoid it. Right out of the gates, we get blasted with romantic overtones between Rosemary and Sage. I would have liked to get to know them as friend characters before exploring a romantic angle, as having them happen simultaneously causes role confusion to me. Are they friends or are they lovers? It’s interesting, but it comes too soon.

When the girls finally reach the Academy’s city to stay with Sage’s cousin Anise, we learn quickly — and based on appearance alone — that she is a lesbian. Indeed, Anise is so stereotypically queer that she has been deemed a laughable caricature by some LGBTQIA+ commentators. I also think it is unsavory to introduce a lesbian couple through looks alone. It is shallow queer-baiting and perpetuates a stereotype that queer people have a “certain look” about them.

This political tug-of-war is consistent throughout the show, as the writers allow their overarching story to grind to a halt for disjointed, preachy character moments.

Professor Caraway, a magic professor who is transgender, creates one such moment in episode three when he explains what it means for him to be transgender to Rosemary. The exchange is made preachy by the fact that Caraway both looks like and is voiced by Rodriguez himself, who is a transgender man. I am happy that Rodriguez wants to share his experiences through his characters, but by making yourself into a character it feels like you wanted to write a blog post rather than tell a good story.

In contrast to Rodriguez’s team’s insistence that this show is something special, the story is a boring, beat-for-beat “Harry Potter” meets “Little Witch Academia” ripoff. Protagonist has a dead or missing parent? Check. Has a best friend who is from a long line of strong magic users? Check. Boards a train to get to a magic school? Check. I could go on, but I would be spoiling what little is left of the story you’ve heard before.

Yet, I looked forward to the plot grinding to a halt. I was on the edge of my seat for the next hilarious character moment — the next clumsy exploration of gender and sexuality through underdeveloped characters. It’s in these character moments that I found myself engaged, laughing non-stop. Yet I did not feel like I was merely laughing at “High Guardian Spice.” No, I was entertained by a team that was trying hard to make something good, but were too caught up in representation and culture wars to make it happen. Representation is good, but not at the expense of good storytelling.

I felt like I got to know the writers and Rodriguez, and they reminded me of when I was 14. They reminded me of when I was starting to tell stories and express myself. As a creator, I cannot overstate how much I respect that Rodriguez pushed to make his vision a reality, no matter how much it falls flat. This isn’t just a “cringe woke show” made by corporate suits. It’s very personal, as evident by Rodriguez’s five-year conceptualization process, and I love it for that the same way I love Tommy Wiseau’s cult classic “The Room.”

And “HGS” does have some special moments. Parsley is the most likable of the main four and her scenes often made me smile. Bully side characters Amaryllis and Snapdragon are the best in the show. Amaryllis is unironically funny, with the wittiest comebacks of the cast. Snapdragon undergoes a deep exploration of her gender identity that builds to a clear, relatable character arc. Had she and Amaryllis been the main characters, it would have been a heartwarming story about gender identity and how some people bully to deflect their struggles onto others.

If “HGS” had more gold nugget moments, if it spent less time teeter-tottering between its characters and actually cared about its boring world, it could have been something special. It needed better storytelling, enhanced by strong representation. What we got instead was a meme, arguably one of the worst animated series produced in the past decade.

My verdict is 3.5 out of 10. Watch it with friends if you are willing to dig through the boring to get to the good memes. Avoid it like the plague if you are looking for an exceptional American anime. Go watch “Avatar: The Last Airbender” instead.

This story was written by Ryan Hagan. He can be reached at ryan.hagan@marquette.edu.