Manabi Straight is the series I was looking forward to the most last winter, and pre-season favorites have a way of either living up to the hype you burden them with, or being very disappointing and making you slam your own head in a door in frustration (Exhibit A: Yoakena's Cabbage of Doom). Fortunately, Manabi Straight not only lived up to my hopes for it, it even managed to surpass them, with a great cast of characters and a solid story about friendship, teamwork, and overcoming adversity. It seems like Hidamari Sketch gets more love and attention, but for me Manabi Straight was far and away my favorite anime series of the (admittedly bare) winter season. I'd say even for my top ten anime series of all time, Manabi would still make the cut.
The main reason I was looking forward to Manabi Straight before the season was the studio behind it, Ufotable--I haven't liked everything they've put out, but I laughed my ass off watching Dokkoida and 2x2 Shinobuden, and while Futakoi Alternative kind of went off the rails in the middle, it had its moments too, especially an amazing episode 1. I didn't watch Coyote Ragtime Show since it's not really my kind of series, but with Manabi Straight I was looking forward to seeing Ufotable's take on school life. I expected it to be more comedy than anything else, but was pleasantly surprised to find while Manabi had its laugh out loud moments, there was a lot more than that to it.
tsundere-ness, Mutsuki's concern for her friends, Momo's biohazard suit...all of them are just a lot of fun to watch and easy to identify with. The character development during the series is really well handled too, as each of them has things they have to confront and overcome to move forward. The voice acting is solid, with Horie Yui as Manabi and Hirano Aya as Mei being probably the most well-known.
The first thing a lot of people noticed about Manabi Straight, before it even aired, was the character designs--and yes, this is the youngest-looking high school cast I think I've ever seen. Kinomoto Sakura looks like she could be Manabi or Mikan's older sister, and Sakura's in 5th grade while Manabi-tachi are supposed to be high school first-years. If there was a Dark Manabi she could save some serious cash buying child tickets for the movies and so on. This led some to dismiss Manabi Straight as a 'rori' series right off the bat or call it 'Manabi Chubby' but once I was used to them, the character designs really weren't bad. The gradient hair was actually pretty cool-looking once I got used to it, and the characters' expressions were done particularly well, which makes a huge difference both in the funny and dramatic parts. If you don't believe me, watch episode 3 of the TV broadcast of Yoakena--when the character's expressions are drawn so badly you can't tell if someone's embarrassed, angry, surprised, or constipated it really takes a lot of enjoyment out of watching the show. Animation quality really matters when it comes to being able to properly convey what the characters are feeling, especially since They say since half of all communication is nonverbal (which I think is a big part of Internet dorama, when you don't have a way to tell from people's voices or facial expression if what they just typed was serious, sarcastic, a joke, or what). Ufotable did a solid job on the animation throughout, and was perfectly consistent (unlike 2x2 Shinobuden where in a couple episodes the characters looked very different than in the rest of the series).
Complaints? Yeah, while I like the character designs, I admit it'd be better if they looked their age. But my biggest complaint is--it's 4:3. Seriously, what other anime is in a 4:3 aspect ratio and not 16:9 widescreen these days? Did Ufotable take a time warp back to two thousand and freaking four here? For a series set in the future, the aspect ratio's especially ironic. Then again, they had CRTs in the Student Council room too if I want to nitpick--and I can't imagine even the most dead-broke school using a CRT by 2035. It reminds me a little of how Moldiver envisioned a bold future where even pay phones had built-in video screens and people live in gargantuan thousand-level sky towers, but no one on Earth owns a cell phone. I should talk though, I remember when CD-ROMs came out thinking they were the dumbest thing I'd ever heard of since who had a whole 650MB worth of crap, not to mention initially you couldn't read/write CDs like good old 1.44MB floppies.
Overall, it's hard for me to really describe Manabi Straight well, but to sum it up, it's a story of a group of girls who become best friends, work together for a common goal, and get a first taste of the politics and challenges of adulthood. It's the anime series you'd have students at Otaku business schools watch to learn about leadership. It's got a winning combination of heart, comedy, and drama. I'm sure there are some that will find Manabi a little overly dramatic, like the scene where Manabi signs the school song surrounded by imaginary sakura, or Mei floats into the student council room in spirit as the team works on the presentation. Maybe it is over-the-top, but for me somehow it really just works. While it's a good story about growing up and school life, the things like pulling all-nighters on a presentation remind me more of the "grown-up" world. That's what I think really pushes Manabi Straight into great territory--it has a point, a message that I think everyone can stand to hear every once in a while to keep them on the path of MASSUGU, GO!