Clichés make a show boring. The more clichéd a story is, the less interesting and enjoyable it becomes. But my theory is that this relationship only holds true until you hit a certain magical event horizon where the laws of the universe break apart, one gets divided by zero and clichés become art.
Infinite Stratos was my guilty pleasure from last season. I actually caught the last episode in Japan last month and have since read volumes 4-6 of the light novels, picking up from where the anime leaves off. Hence, I speak on good authority when I say that IS is one huge clichéfest. But for some reason, it’s enjoyable.
The basic premise of IS is one of the oldest stories ever told by anime: some lucky bastard ends up in a situation where he is constantly surrounded by sex-deprived girls who lust for the first man they bump into in the hallway. The inclusion of fighting mecha is initially reminiscent of Sakura Wars, but the storytelling is closer to Tenchi Muyo.
In the story, IS are personalized powered armour suits, equipped with insanely powerful weapons ripped straight from the Gundam multiverse that — for very feebly conceived reasons — are not used for warfare but given to teenagers for unspecified purposes that no one really bothers explaining. They can only be piloted by girls, except for the one single exception, chosen by the almighty plot device, that is the main character, Ichika Orimura. As a science fiction, IS is pretty terrible, so it’s a good thing that the author is not trying too hard to make it one.
The cool part about the character interactions is the fact that almost all the heroines are tsundere! Okay, it sounds lame when I articulate it in words, but really it is an impressive feat. Probably.
Of the five female IS pilots chasing after Ichika, only one can be categorically excluded from the tsundere classification, while each of the remaining four represents a different sub-division of tsundere. I am pretty sure making 80% of the characters tsundere violates some kind of international convention governing harem anime. This is either a work of madness or genius.
Just to be clear, the story is absolutely terrible. But the story is really not that important when it comes to having a good time with IS. You must enjoy the characters and relish the ridiculous situations they create when they get together. It’s one of those shows.
Of course, such a formula only works well for some quick laughs. The lack of an engaging story is definitely unsustainable in the long run.
The light novels injected life into the post-anime story by introducing a new character, Tatenashi Sarashiki (the playful but capable head of the student council), into the mix, hence covering the previously unoccupied teasing-senpai (i.e. Tama-nee) spot, but it is clear that constantly introducing new characters is not a viable long-term solution to generate interest. The author does take a huge step in advancing the overarching story in Volume 6, but so far it has failed to impress.
But for the length of 12 episodes, the formula works just fine. In fact, the anime’s excellent pacing is almost sublime in its execution, like the well-timed punchlines of a skilful comedian. I was particularly impressed by episode 9, the fan-service episode, where the writer has somehow managed to fit an unbelievable amount of character and visual fan-service into one tight 20-minute package. That is truly the work of artisans.
The animation and art quality is also surprisingly decent and consistent across the 12 episodes, all things considered, especially when you compare it to the typical cookie-cutter low-budget adapted-from-game titles found in great abundance in the same genre. Okay, maybe my bar was just set very low.
Ultimately, it takes a particular kind of mindset to get into IS. In my case, I started with very low, almost non-existent, overall expectations and found myself liking the characters, hence a good story was never within my range of considerations and its absence was not disconcerting. It also helps a great deal if you love tsundere, because the show is full of them… XD
tl;dr version: Infinite Stratos is for people who appreciate the finer subtleties of tsundere.