Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Simpsons: Season 9

If problems had begun to appear in the last couple of seasons, this season is the one where it no longer felt like the next episode was likely to be good, with a small chance of being a stinker. This is where the Simpson family stops being relatable and start being outright scary. It’s also where the show completely disconnects from reality, where things that were previously Treehouse of Horror material enter regular episodes. Witness, for example, Kirk Van Houten’s arm being sliced off, never to be mentioned again. Or the launching of a submarine captain as a torpedo when Homer randomly gets put in charge. It just doesn’t seem like The Simpsons in its prime any more. Family histories can be altered whenever it’s convenient to the plot, like when Grandpa shows Lisa that Homer and Bart were very smart as young children, and perhaps most irritatingly and controversially, Principal Skinner’s character is totally assassinated when he is revealed to be an imposter, which for many – such as Chris Turner in Planet Simpson – is the show’s ‘Jumping the shark’ moment. It’s not just the abrupt change in continuity that sits uneasily – it’s the sheer implausibility of the town’s reaction. That said, it’s not up there in implausibility with things like moving the whole town five miles on wheels.

None of these are the nadir of the season, however. That honour goes to ‘All Singing, All Dancing’, which may be my least favourite episode of The Simpsons ever. I’m just glad these episodes weren’t among the first I saw.

But there are certainly strong episodes here, too. Nelson as a star peewee footballer, Lisa falling victim to an elaborate advertising gimmick, and Bart actually facing some consequences when he gets caught in a string of lies all work well for the show. Moe finds love and actually gets some proper character development, and Mr. Burns – despite it coming over as a bit strange so soon after an episode where he was broke – has one of the season’s funniest episodes in possession of a trillion-dollar bill. The season finale, with Homer and Marge trying to reignite their sex lives, is also full of strong moments and still manages to feel like envelope-pushing, almost two decades later.

But the real problem with this show at this stage is how quickly the characters can be remoulded to fit an idea or concept. We’re already getting to the stage where Homer is a psychopath who doesn’t care if he kills. It’s a struggle for Marge to be interesting. Bart is badly in need of more depth and Lisa seems to be losing her strength of character and cleverness.

Sadly, it’s downhill from here. 

Saturday, 2 July 2016

少年メイド / Shounen Maid / Boy Maid

Trash. No denying it.

But I enjoyed every episode. And it’s no more egregious than the OreImos and Love Lives of the world.

The female demographic is clearly becoming more and more lucrative in the anime world. It’s female buying power that is the engine behind the success of the likes of Osomatsu-san, Kuroshitsuji and the various hot-blooded sports series like Kuroke no Basuke, Haikyuu!, Free! and Yowamushi Pedal. And just as the male demographic gets feel-good pandering trash, so too do female audiences get their own flavours. Which are perhaps a little more…surprising to Western tastes?

Before it becomes an elephant in the room, yes, a lot of Japanese women like to watch homoerotic stories involving a little boy and an older man. The older man is usually on the feminine side, but the kind of pretty that makes women around him blush and giggle. The boy is usually innocent and often feminised. Kuroshitsuji is perhaps the most prominent example of this set-up, but by no means the only one. And the idea of putting a young boy in a rich man’s house as a maid has been done before in the explicitly pornographic Shounen Maid Kuro-kun.

So this series already begins in a very, very weird place. Little Chihiro-kun in just an elementary school student, 11 or 12 at most, when his mother dies and he goes to live with his extremely wealthy uncle Madoka. Madoka is a clothing designer who loves frills and when he finds out his nephew loves to clean, he promptly puts him in a frilly apron over his shorts and long socks. Though the writer is careful not to make anything overtly sexual about this relationship, Madoka is a rather infantile man who often decides to come and sleep in the same bed as Chihiro.

This odd couple relationship is fleshed out as Chihiro finds out more about his family, various friends and relatives are introduced and Madoka’s personal life gets whipped into shape just as his professional life is kept in check by his personal assistant Keiichirou. A cute member of an idol group called Ryuuji also befriends the motley crew, and I have to say I’d probably rather watch the spin-off about the group that’s airing on Nico Nico Douga (and thus not getting translated by anybody), which at least is sexualising a 16-year-old rather than a 12-year-old – while pretending to be innocent.

But for all the bad taste in the mouth this series might leave, the fact is that it’s cute and fun, just like shows for men about adorable lolis tend to be cute and fun. That Chihiro is only a kid but far more responsible than the adults around him is cute, the occasional embarrassment of being seen in his apron (and his friends ending up with the same fate) is cute. The dynamic between the Uchouten Boys – the idol group – is clichéd and drawn briefly, but also cute. And yes, Chihiro himself, with his serious exterior but obvious vulnerability, is extremely cute.

There’s no denying that the premise is creepy, there’s glamorised paedophilia running under the surface throughout, the characterisation is lazy and the show doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s no more creepy than numerous little sister or loli comedy shows, and is still very enjoyable for those of us who like cuteness, whether aimed at guys or girls.