For a while now I’ve been seeing numerous images from the anime High School DxD that were, shall we say, somewhat on the titillating side. I follow a lot of anime and Japanese gaming fans on Twitter; a number of them are fans of this show and rather fond of posting pictures of it. And with good reason: it’s a very “photogenic” show. Particularly if you like pretty ladies.
Despite the numerous sexy pictures that had been shared, though, one thing was clear: the people who enjoy this show regard it with genuine affection and enthusiasm rather than treating it as the softcore pornography that so many people outside of the various otaku fanbases tend to write Japanese popular media off as. And so I was curious, for several reasons: first of all, who was the intoxicating redhead who seemed to dominate so many of the pictures; and secondly, what exactly was this show all about?
I’d been meaning to check the show out for some time but it’s only in the last couple of days that I’ve finally started investigating it. And, what do you know? Within just three episodes, it’s already abundantly clear to me that this is exactly what I want from an anime — and I already understand why those people who are fans of the show are quite so passionately invested in it.
The basic setup runs thus: Issei is a particularly obnoxious horny teenage protagonist who is obsessed with breasts, but, as is usually the case with this sort of character, finds himself unable to convince any self-respecting young ladies to show theirs to him. Everything changes for him when he meets a girl on the way home from school, though; she claims to have been watching him, and desperately wants to be together with him. The two begin dating and all appears to be going well for a while — Issei even manages to rein in his baser urges for long enough to appear almost respectable.
Then the shit well and truly hits the fan for our Issei. After a thoroughly enjoyable date, his new girlfriend kills him by stabbing him through the chest with a spear of light, and leaves him to die in the park. It transpires that she was a fallen angel, and that Issei has a mysterious power within him called “Sacred Gear” that the fallen angels very much wanted to dispose of — and for a moment it looks as if they were successful.
Given that all this happens in the first episode, though, that would make for a very short series, and as such it will probably not surprise you to hear that Issei is rescued from his plight by red-haired beauty Rias Gremory, a young woman held in high esteem by everyone at the school they both attend, and president of the school’s Occult Research Club.
The Occult Research Club is a not-terribly-subtle front for the fact that Rias and the other members are actually devils, and in allowing Issei “rebirth” from his murder they turn him into one, too — specifically, a servant devil of Rias. From there, Issei gets drawn into a situation that is clearly well beyond his understanding — at least in the early stages of the series — as a three-way holy war unfolds between the forces of Heaven, the devils of Hell and the fallen angels attempting to usurp the devils from Hell to claim it as their own.
What’s interesting about High School DxD is that it presents the devils — typically depicted as evil, monstrous creatures prone to the most dreadful acts of depravity in anime — as the most sympathetic, relatable of the characters. Rias and her companions are for the most part very “human” in terms of their attitude towards their situation and towards Issei, with a few exceptions; Issei, for example, is extremely surprised to wake up from his initial ordeal with a naked Rias in his bed next to him, with her seemingly completely unperturbed by the fact that they are both nude. Rias is absolutely in control of herself and clearly takes pride in her appearance — and this sort of overt sexuality is not at all uncommon in numerous mythological depictions of devils. Rias isn’t a succubus or anything — I don’t think, anyway; I may stand corrected after a few more episodes! — but it’s clear that, for her, she has transcended such petty human concerns as being embarrassed about being in the nude, or being seen by someone with whom she doesn’t have an “intimate” relationship.
By contrast, the fallen angels and the representatives of Heaven have so far been thoroughly horrible pieces of work, with an exorcist priest in the third episode even going so far as to sadistically murder someone who had attempted to make a pact with one of Rias’ household of devils and then threaten to rape his own assistant, herself also a member of the clergy, all because she had met Issei earlier in the episode and believed him to be a “good person” despite being a devil.
There seems to be a pretty strong anti-religion sentiment underpinning the series — or, to be more specific, an anti-fundamentalist sentiment. The fallen angels and the forces of Heaven — with the exception of Asia, the aforementioned exorcist’s assistant — have so far been pretty much psychopathic in how devoutly they follow the tenets of their faith, while the devils themselves are more philosophical and deliberate in the way they go about handling things.
There’s a strong amount of chess imagery used throughout the series, too, with it being explicitly lampshaded and spelled out for the viewer in the third episode. Rias is the “king” of her little group of devils, and her companions fulfil the roles of the knight, queen and rook. (Even odds that Asia shows up again later to fulfil the “bishop” role.) Issei is dismayed but unsurprised to discover that even with his mysterious Sacred Gear power, he is no more than a lowly pawn who has yet to prove himself — but even with his low status, it’s clear that Rias wants to protect him and help him grow stronger. Whether this is due to her own self-interest — his Sacred Gear would clearly be a potent weapon in the holy war — or whether she actually cares for him remains to be seen, but it’s certainly an interesting setup.
And my God — no pun intended — is it ever a beautiful-looking anime. Gorgeous women doing sexy things aside — and there’s plenty of that — the animation and design is spectacular, with some gobsmacking battle scenes in just the first few episodes. The more monstrous foes Rias and the gang face are truly hideous to behold, but even in its more mundane moments the show simply oozes style.
Wonderful use of colour helps give cues to the viewer as to what is going on, with each of the main factions involved in the holy war seemingly having their own colours associated with them. Most things the devils get up to seem to be bathed in red light, for example, while the fallen angels tend to bring an ominous, sinister, high-contrast purple light with deep shadows in their wake.
This beautiful visual design is perfectly complemented by a Gothic-cum-rock soundtrack — it may be a cliche by now for this sort of “good versus evil” affair (particularly if you’re a Castlevania fan) but it really works wonderfully, giving the show a fantastic sense of energy and a feeling that it’s had some real love, care and attention poured into it.
Yes, it’s dripping in fanservice and I’m disappointed to admit that I know all too many people out there who will write this show off purely on these grounds regardless of whether or not it’s actually any good. But there’s a strong argument for the heavily overt sexuality of the show to very much be part of its overall aesthetic, with it being used both to reflect Issei’s forever sexually frustrated teenage desires — which are still very much intact even after becoming a devil — and the common depiction of devils as something erotic, exciting, tantalising and well and truly off-limits to the “normal” people.
So why do I say it’s exactly what I want from an anime? Well, it has all the things I enjoy: light-hearted slice-of-life character interactions (yes, there’s time for that between all the Good Versus Evil Versus A Bit of Both shenanigans), thrilling action sequences with kick-ass soundtracks, memorable characters and a whole lot of sexiness. My dream anime, in other words.
I’m really intrigued to see where the show goes from here. After just three episodes, it’s already a favourite, and I’m absolutely in it for the long run.
Rias is love, as they say.