I did not know what to expect when I began watching Yuuki Yuuna is a Hero. The previews teased that it was going to be another slice-of-life series, but looks were deceptive. While it has some SOL elements, at its core it's a magical girl show, and a pretty serious one, too. Here’s my final review of the entire series, as of 12/26/2014. If you just want an overall recommendation without any other details, feel free to skip to the tl;dr section at the very bottom.
The Plot In a Nutshell:
Middle school girls in a "Hero Club" perform small everyday acts of heroism in the normal world, but also become heroic magical girls protecting the planet from strange creatures called vertexes.
Yuuki Yuuna is an original series created by Takahiro (Akame ga Kill!), and it blends elements from three different anime genres. First are its magical girl ancestors, and this one comes from the lineage of adult magical girl shows like Lyrical Nanoha and Madoka Magica. Fans of those series will recognize the influences of both, although Yuuki Yuuna still tells its own story in its own way. Second is slice-of-life, and except for the dark clouds that are almost always lingering under the surface, some of the mellowest scenes wouldn’t feel out of place in a Kyoto Animation series. Third is character drama, and here the series actually shows some surprising Key Visual Arts influence (Kanon/Clannad), along with other influences from Angel Beats and the Persona series (Yuuki Yuuna’s director, Seiji Kishi, also directed both Angel Beats and Persona 4 The Animation, so this shouldn't be a surprise). All three genres are done well enough individually that it could have focused on any one of them and been a decent show, but the blend of all three really elevates it above the sum of its parts.
Moe’s Scale of Female Cuteness:
While this isn’t a true moe series, all the girls in the Hero Club can be awfully cute. Most of their club activities are ordinary community service work, like fostering kittens and performing puppet shows for kids. They also hang out together sometimes outside of school, eating udon, singing karaoke, and doing other fun things together. The catch is that none of this SOL stuff is there just to be cute and funny – while some of it may seem frivolous at first glance, the writers are deliberately giving you time get to know the girls and their personalities and motivations by showing you how they behave and act around each other. All the girls have their own personal demons they’re wrestling with, and most of them did not have happy childhoods. Tensions occasionally flare between them, and even in the most seemingly cheerful moments there are lingering undercurrents of anxiety and doubt about the job they have to do and the risk to their lives and well-being, which all makes these scenes even more effective. One of Yuuki Yuuna's greatest strengths is that there's a genuine chemistry between all the main girls in the cast - while they have their occasional disagreements, you never doubt for a second how much they all care about each other, especially the two sisters (Fuu and Itsuki) and the two best friends (Yuuna and Togo).
Most of the slice-of-life stuff takes place in the first half of the show, and while some (especially non-SOL fans) may find these parts a bit slow, it’s still worth paying attention to it because a lot of it is setting the table for the second half of the series. Along with letting you get to know the characters better, there’s also quite a bit of foreshadowing too; I noticed a lot of hints the second time I watched the series that were easy to miss the first time.
As pleasant as the girls try to make everyone's daily lives, when the alarms sound on their phones, it’s time for them to become magical girls and protect the world from the vertex threat. There are several vertex battles throughout the series, varying in length and scope, but some of them can be pretty tense affairs, especially when multiple vertexes (vertices?) appear at once. The girls are skilled combatants with a variety of strong weapons, but they’re not immune to injury and the vertexes are tough opponents who are smart enough to coordinate their attacks and adjust their strategies during battle. It usually takes a total team effort for the Heroes to have any success against them, which leads to some entertaining and occasionally nailbiting fights.
Art and Sound:
The animation is a bit inconsistent - it can be great in some scenes and merely passable in others - but the overall quality is solidly good. The fight scenes take place in a surreal, colorful alternate world, and showcase most of Yuki Yuna’s best animation work. These scenes appear inspired by the artwork of Shigenori Soejima (Persona 3/Persona 4), as well as the twisty, hyper-organic landscapes of Roger Dean’s paintings, and I’m excited to see how they’ll look in Blu-Ray someday. They also use a fair bit of CG though, so be warned if that’s not your thing. The real world scenes, while still generally cheerful and colorful, have occasional touches such as the unnaturally bent and ruined suspension bridge appearing in several background scenes that subtly remind us this world isn’t quite the carefree place it appears on the surface.
The opening and closing songs (like most) will be hit-or-miss depending on your musical tastes. Personally I liked the opening immediately, but the ending needed time to grow on me. The OST itself, however, is outstanding. Most of the tracks fit their scenes perfectly, and the battle music especially stands out as some of the very best in the show, full of soaring choirs and pulse-pounding orchestration. Even the quieter tracks have a few gems, though, such as a very nice flamenco-styled classical guitar piece that appears a couple of times. There’s also not a lot of repetition either. Only a few tracks are used more than once or twice, and they’re all songs (like the main transformation theme) that you’ll enjoy hearing multiple times anyway.
If I rated Yuuki Yuuna on nothing but my personal enjoyment, it would get a 10. I’ve already watched the whole series twice, I know I’ll watch it again in the future, and if Pony Canyon ever gives us a North American release, I'll buy it. To give it a fair review, though, I can’t entirely overlook the uneven pacing in the first half of the series, the occasional inconsistency in animation quality, and a few (not many) awkward transitions between scenes. That said, Yuuki Yuuna is still a gem, even if it’s one that’s not completely polished. The characters are easy to like and they all have wonderful chemistry with each other, the OST is outstanding, the themes of the story (which I wish I could actually talk about here without spoiling everything) are timely and appropriate, and despite a few rough patches, the story threads eventually come together in a very satisfying way. It’s a spirited show that’s a little rough around the edges, but like its characters it has a lot of heart and tries its best. And much of the time, its best is really, really good.
First half: 8/10. Second half: 9.5/10. Overall: 9/10.
Tl;dr! Should I Watch Yuuki Yuuna or Not?:
Yes, if magical girl mixed with some drama and slice-of-life sounds appealing to you. The first half isn’t quite as good as the second half, but if you're able to stick with it, your patience will be rewarded. Just be warned that this isn’t a relaxing series at all. If you’re expecting Aria with a dash of Cardcaptor Sakura, you'll be disappointed. It’s more like Lyrical Nanoha with a dash of Angel Beats.