The two animation studios who have really distinguished themselves in the last handful of years have been Kyoto Animation, with their beautiful KEY adaptations, and then Suzumiya Haruhi and Lucky Star, and SHAFT. While SHAFT have been around for quite some time and made several relatively conventional anime series (such as Rec) they have latterly distinguished themselves with utterly insane, disjointed and darkly comic series with large casts, lots of subversions of moé tropes and huge quantities of hidden details and references that it’s almost impossible for a single person to get all of, especially without frequently pausing to examine background details. SHAFT took the Negima franchise and made it far more bewildering and surreal. They stepped up their game with the complex and disillusioned Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei. Hidamari Sketch was softer but retained much of the oddness. They are currently continuing to baffle and daze with the cross-dressing antics of Maria Holic. And, as far as I know at least, it was really with Pani Poni Dash that the studio embraced all-out weirdness and dived with wild abandon into the realms of the surreal.
Pani Poni Dash is the story of a little American girl called Becky who is such a high-flying genius that she becomes the teacher of a Japanese high school before she enters puberty, or very soon after. She has a class of misfit students, both the typical anime archetypes and some outright weirdoes. Over the course of 26 episodes, the class are monitored by aliens, get featured on TV, become sentai rangers, defuse bombs, and Becky’s endlessly victimised pet rabbit Mesousa has several awkward encounters with the cat-god who likes to lurk in vending machines.
The series had a fair bit of charm and the characters were likeable. But because of the abrasive humour and surreal anything-can-happen structure it was impossible to really like them, as I did with, say, the Azumanga Daioh characters. Sometimes the quirky humour was brilliance; at other times it was annoying and unfunny.
As a 13-episode series Pani Poni Dash might have stayed fresh and clever and different. But somehow it just didn’t have the accessibility or humanising factor of Zetsubou-Sensei and as a result, got old very fast and by the end, was outright dull. Interesting, experimental and sometimes very funny, it nonetheless failed to be all it could have been.
(originally written 10.3.09)