Monday, 23 April 2018

サンリオ男子 / Sanrio Danshi / Sanrio Boys

I recently wrote in my Aggressive Retsuko review about how since coming to Japan I’ve learned a lot more about Sanrio and their cutesy mascots. I’ve also been watching a lot of sillier, cuter and trashier anime lately, so when I heard there was going to be an anime about boys who love Sanrio mascots, I thought it would be hilarious to watch.

I have to say, Sanrio Danshi was totally different from my expectations. I thought we’d get lots of silly, cutesy fun, the Sanrio characters maybe acting as the cutesy sidekicks in some kind of magical girl scenario, and a tone not far from Gakuen Babysitters. Instead, I got a BL scenario without the BL, a whole lot of angst and deep-rooted psychological problems, and then a very forced and unconvincing final drama for the characters to overcome. It was a whole lot more grounded in reality than I thought it would be, and commensurately less fun to watch, though certainly it had its cute parts.

Basically, it centres on a teenaged boy called Kouta who loves Pompompurin, the dog-flan hybrid thing. Only he’s in denial because he has deep regrets over cruel things he said to a beloved family member before she died. When he discovers two popular boys in the school love My Melody and Hello Kitty, his repressed emotions lead to an outburst, but after confronting all his angst and accepting his true self, he becomes friends with them. They are later joined by two more boys, who stepped right out of BL. Little Twin Stars fan Ryou is a cute, shy, sometimes acerbic blonde boy who was raised in England and likes to watch student council president Seiichiro practice archery. Seiichiro is a huge hulking manly teenager who everyone thinks is perfect, and who likes Cinnamoroll. When Ryou’s insecurity makes him lash out of the other Sanrio boys for being girly, the two help each other to a resolution – after various teary misunderstandings – and soon become very close. These two are just like the characters from terrible BL anime Okane ga Nai, only a little less horribly drawn.

Most of the series is about these characters confronting their issues. Some are quite interesting, like coming to terms with the death of a family member, or feeling like an outsider who everyone treats like a doll, or having a sister who is basically emotionally abusing you. Others, like being more selfless on the football team, are less gripping. It comes together nicely when the five members finally become friends and go to Puroland together, having a magical time. They decide to put on a play about noblemen from different Sanrio-based kingdoms fighting, basically Meine Liebe with sillier names, which of course everyone will think is magnificent even if it’s incredibly awful. On top of this, some awful subplot about the everyman character getting whiny and violent because he resents being an everyman while everyone else is ‘kira-kira’ (shining brightly) really doesn’t work.

The usual lazy Pierrot animation is at play here, and the show looks dated and pretty ugly. I was surprised the Sanrio characters literally stay characters and don’t have any deeper significance or role than a weird mutual interest that causes these characters to come together, at first in hostility (repeated for two separate main characters) and later in mutual understanding.

I did like the adorable androgyny of Ryo and the cute straightforward character Kouta has before he has his meltdown, and at the beginning this was a fun, harmless show. But it needed to do more than regurgitate otome game cliché scenarios (down to having a weird first-person scene with the ‘viewer’ before each commercial break) if it wanted to hold the interest. By the end, it was a bit of a chore to watch, even if you like similar cute-boys-doing-cute-things properties. Still, with a manga, game and characters in the franchise not yet introduced (who love Keropii and Batsumaru), perhaps we haven’t seen the last of the Sanrio Danshi.  

Thursday, 19 April 2018

アグレッシブ烈子/ Aggressive Retsuko / Aggretsuko (season 1 / Ousama no Brunch run)

Sanrio have branched out from the cuteness they’re known for recently. Everyone knows Hello Kitty, and plenty of people recognise the other characters like My Melody, Keropi and the Little Twin Stars. Admittedly, before I came to Japan I only had a vague idea of these characters, but after visiting Puroland and watching most of the Sanrio Danshi anime, I have a pretty clear picture of who is Kiki and who is Lala, which cat is a British schoolgirl and which is a real cat, and even what the hell Patty and Jimmy are supposed to be (preferably forgotten).

Lately, they’ve come to understand their core fanbase are growing up and made characters to suit that. Part of that is embracing a growing affection for ugly-cute, best illustrated by the monstrous success of Gudetama, the egg-blob who is 50% butt and can’t be doing with life. Even if you protest Gudetama isn’t ugly cute, it’s just cute, the fact is if you present a seven-year-old with a Cinnamoroll and a Gudetama and ask which is cute and which is just weird, you know which they’ll pick.

And that brings us to Aggretsuko, or Aggressive Retsuko, with the ‘Retsu’ in her name meaning ‘rage’. The first, regular form of Retsuko is typically cute and babyish, a lovely little red panda character. But then she loses it, the similarities between a red panda’s facial markings and a death metal singer’s face paint highlighted, and you see the meaning of the character. Retsuko is aimed firmly at young working women who can identify with her, outwardly unassuming and cute (got to have an element of flattery there), but with deep, simmering rage burning inside.

This two-sided element is popular in Japan. It probably derives mostly from Detroit Metal City, even if that can’t be called the origin of the concept of an unassuming, friendly person who expresses their inner rage through screaming death metal vocals. The idea also went viral in Van Houten hot chocolate adverts that were shared around the world but basically ripped off the concept of the Retsuko anime, transplanting it from the office to the life of a housewife.

This is the modern Sanrio fan: a woman in her 20s or 30s stuck in a dull office job, having to do overtime, suffering constant annoyance from her coworkers, worried about her love life and future, and suppressing inner fury in a shining example of true Japanese honne-and-tatemae style. In the beginning, there’s a general diegetic idea that Retsuko’s rage-filled death metal rants are in the karaoke booth after work, but it soon gets repackaged as an internal fantasy sequence that, other than in some fourth-wall-breaking moments, the other characters cannot see. But the format of each sub-2-minute episode is roughly the same: Retsuko encounters some annoyance, usually at the hands of her coworkers, and flies into a rage about it, with a cacophony of guitars and blastbeats to back her. Most of these are funny because they are very identifiable - people pushing their problems onto you, work putting you in Catch-22 situations (a long lecture from the boss about working too much overtime followed by them piling work on you guaranteed to make you have to stay late, or someone not showing up to when you've arranged to meet, but keeping on telling you they'll be there soon so you can't go and do something while you wait). In fact, some of the best episodes revolve around subverting the expectations set up in the vast majority of these shorts - perhaps by giving Retsuko a little bit of happiness, or having her make an assumption about her friend misusing a gift only to discover she was mistaken and then feeling penitent about getting suspicious. 

The animal cast is generally chosen to match the character types portrayed. So a fat, sweaty, annoying coworker is a pig, and a somewhat overly masculine female friend is a gorilla. A yappy little dog makes for a good hapless office junior, and a pretty gazelle is that annoying younger worker who acts so childish to get her way then takes advantage of others' kindness. Some are a little more unexpected, like an axolotl as the somewhat airheaded, open-mouthed office gossip, or for some reason the suave fox being called Mr. Wolf (in Japanese). Generally, the animal cast is instantly identifiable as certain character types, and largely we're conditioned through decades of anthropomorphism to equate certain animals with certain personalities, so there's very little explanation needed. 

The manner in which the show aired was a little unusual. It was part of popular Saturday morning variety show Ousama no Brunch, or King's Brunch. That means its audience is much broader and more universal than most anime. That fits with the intended appeal - not just anime fans, and certainly not kids, but with regular working people who can identify with Retsuko's struggles. Of course, some of her concerns are pretty gendered, and yes, she gets ranted at by her superiors who expect her to quit as soon as she gets married (the junior worker leaping to her defense by saying she's not like that and will definitely never get married almost more hurtful than the initial accusation), and some of the quirks are very Japanese, but largely anybody who's ever had to work in an office environment will understand what Retsuko is going through. 

Cute, relatable, easy to understand, sometimes very clever but mostly carried by its central amusing idea, Aggressive Retsuko is compulsive watching and quick and easy to watch, very much like 4-koma directly put on screen. Well worth the time, and even if it's no longer going to air as part of Ousama no Brunch, I'm keen to keep on watching! 

Friday, 13 April 2018

魔法使いの嫁 / Mahoutsukai no Yome / The Mage’s Bride / The Ancient Magus’ Bride

Apart from watching much less anime these days than I used to, I also tend to watch trash. Trash is relaxing, enjoyable and brainless. If it’s not trash, it’s mostly light shounen fare that’s only slightly above trash, or sequels to series I began ages ago. Beyond that, well, what have I watched recently and finished? There are a couple of shows I haven’t quite finished yet, but discounting those, probably nothing since Boku dakega Inai Machi, over a year ago.

So this show was if anything a pleasant contrast to the rest of my anime fare. And very enjoyable it was too: a supernatural story with a slow pace, strong characters, a British setting and some really iconic visuals. It put me in mind of several strong series – Natsume Yuujincho, for the whimsical feeling and the supernatural influence on everyday life, only the introverted main character who attracts supernatural beings and slowly opens up thanks to getting close to them is female rather than male, and the mythology is British rather than Japanese. Kuroshitsuji for the British setting and strong but dark deuteragonist, only with less abrasive humour and without that unpleasant taste in the mouth recent manga chapters of that series have left me with. And Fullmetal Alchemist, for the physical presence of the deuteragonist, snappy but tasteful humorous style changes and strong supporting cast. Pretty impressive company to be in.

Mahoutsukai no Yome follows a young Japanese woman called Chise has a difficult and traumatic childhood, compounded by terrifying experiences with supernatural beings (expanded in the rather slow OVA prelude episodes), as she sells herself into slavery and is bought by Elias, a strange combination of fairy and human who appears like a huge man wearing the skull of a wolf with the horns of a ram. A pretty fantastic design. Elias buys Chise for two reasons – because he wants to understand humanity better, and because she is a sleigh beggy, which in this world is not a little fairy from the Isle of Man, but a kind of human spiritual conduit, able to draw magic from all around it and from within.

The show has a rather charming approach to British folklore and culture that occasionally shows fantastic research and precision (I used to feed ducks at that exact spot in Regent’s Park!) and sometimes just makes up its own systems or seems to take vaguely British images and throw them together in what seems right to a Japanese sensibility (was that…fish and chips served as a side dish to a proper meal in an upper middle-class household?!). The episode titles are taken from what seems to be a very dated book of British idioms (I doubt anyone has said ‘What is bred in the bone will not [come] out of the flesh’ in a hundred years, especially when we have ‘The apple never falls far from the tree’).

But uneven as it may be, it’s always a thrill to see England represented in anime, whether it’s K-On girls running around Camden or aerial battles between dolls in Rozen Maiden, or even the first arc of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. They don’t have to get every detail right, and it’s always enjoyable to see things like Anteros at Piccadilly Circus made the location of an exciting climactic showdown. There’s some fun mythological elements, too – Shakespeare seems to have been heavily referenced, for we not only get Titania and Oberon as king and queen of the fairies, but a helpful little spirit called Ariel. Otherwise, we have a cute Selkie – though not as cute as the one in Song of the Sea – and of course some mighty dragons who are unless they lose control somewhat less fearsome than the ones in Arthurian or Christian mythology.

Probably the most interesting element of Western mythology is the use of the Cartaphilius character. Thankfully the term is never used, but this is the Wandering Jew, who was cursed by Christ never to die in response to jeers on the way to Golgotha. I don’t know whether the mangaka changed this to ‘The Wandering Sorcerer’ for politically correct reasons or simply thought the audience wouldn’t understand if the term was left unchanged, but either way he generally goes by the names Cartaphilius or Joseph, two names that have been given to the legendary figure over the years. The show creates a new an interesting backstory for the character, implying there was an original cursed figure and that Joseph was an (adorable) innocent whose body and identity were essentially stolen while the memories and suffering remained, but he is the primary antagonist, is capable of extreme cruelty and yet still evokes sympathy. An intriguing and compelling enemy, I wonder if we’ll see more of him in the future and whether he’ll be properly punished for what he’ll do. The characters may forget his crimes, but there was one scene where the voice-over, delivered by a very sweet-sounding seiyuu, was pretty devastating to hear. One of the darkest moments in anime I’ve seen since Bokurano, and rather surprising from what was a generally pretty safe and harmless anime – excepting where Cartaphilius was concerned.  

Well-made, well-acted, pleasant to look at, intriguing conceptually and occasionally emotionally resonant, I really enjoyed this show and want to see more. I believe it was quite a hit, and certainly the visual impression Elias makes will stick with most people, so hopefully we’ll see a fair bit more.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Bee and Puppycat: Season 1

The episodes of Bee and Puppycat trickled out between the end of the kickstarter in late 2014 and the season finale at the end of 2016. I had decided to wait for a full season to watch before seeing if the show lived up to the promise of its pilot, but 2017 was a kind of busy year and I guess it just wasn’t a priority, so I only just got around to watching the short, uneven 10-episode season.

While a lot of what was promised for the show was developed a teeny tiny amount in the last episode – in unexpected ways – I’m a little disappointed by Bee and Puppycat. Though Adventure Time staffer Natasha Allegri is still the driving force here, a lot of the spark of the original is gone, and in story, character and visual terms it just isn’t as fun as the pilot promised it would be. Plus I’m a little disappointed that instead of Puppycat being the one with the surprisingly dark past and hidden power (as hinted at in his song from the pilot), that role has instead fallen to Bee, who I felt was much more interesting as an everywoman figure.

Some of the new additions to the series are great. I absolutely love Cardamon, the little tot who’s taken it on himself to become the landlord since his mother is no longer capable, and whose final scene is the saddest and most emotionally believable in these ten episodes. The idea of a Pretty Patrick cooking show is fun, especially that Puppycat loves it and ‘Pretty Patrick’ is the only English he speaks. I really enjoyed the weirdness of some of the worlds our main duo visit, especially when they’re morally ambivalent, and many of these new characters – especially Cardamon and Moully – have the most wonderfully natural vocal performances. Especially since Cardamon’s voice actor is a child.

Other characters fall pretty flat, like the oh so random wrestling club member. 

While there’s still plenty of time for more to happen, I was a little disappointed by the direction the main characters went. Puppycat could still certainly become much more interesting in future seasons, but we had no hints of him perhaps having a dark past and saving the day with mouth lasers. Instead he remains just a grumpy, cute sort of a mascot character and there’s more of an emphasis on him being put into embarrassing situations. I’d like a balance between him being a silly pudgy cat-thing and being a hidden badass. They also did far less weird things with Oliver this time, so he mostly sounds like he’s just speaking an alien tongue rather than making lots of bizarre inhuman sounds.
Deckard, while a nice character and very well-acted, didn’t really get to do anything much. His dilemma over staying around to be with Bee and to go off to chase his dream is drawn out a bit too much, even over the course of such a short season. I want him to hurry up and talk it through with the others to reach a sensible decision.

And then there’s Bee. Not only did the animation style of the show get a lot more generic and Steven Universe-y, with Bee in particular looking very different from the pilot both in appearance and dress sense, she got markedly less interesting even as hints at a very strange past culminated in a big cliffhanger. She’s still a very strong character, natural and flawed while still very likeable, but as the series progresses she seems less empathetic to others, less rebellious and less pro-active. I want to see more of the everyday side of Bee, more of her trying to fit into the world rather than solving problems with interdimensional temp jobs.

The show still has a lot of potential and I’m keen to see more if it really does get made. But I feel like an opportunity for something really great was missed here.

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Idolm@ster: Side M

Idol shows continue to dominate the anime time slots on Japanese TV, with more and more of them being devoted to cute boy idols instead of cute girl idols. One of the most prominent of these is the continuation of the Idolm@ster franchise focusing on the boys and men in 315 productions.
It may be all the rage right now but this sort of set-up is nothing new. Focusing on male entertainers with a wide cast so that everybody has a type they like has been old news since long before Uta no Prince-sama, and this sort of cast with episodes devoted to lots of different cast members is in the time-honoured tradition of adapting visual novels and otome games. The likes of Love Live! and School Idol Project have devoted fans willing to spend a whole lot on merchandise, so it only stands to reason that the companies making this trash should go after the fujoshi dollar too. Or yen, I should say.

And it is trash, but that’s unlikely to be a problem for anyone who enjoys it. Nobody wants to have existential revelations watching idol shows, or be overawed by the original writing or characterisation. They want to see cuteness, familiar safe storytelling and – in probably the biggest departure from most visual novel/otome game adaptations – no romance, thank you very much. Idols are above that sort of thing and strictly forbidden from having relationships. Besides, it’s probably more fun to imagine them getting together with one another than someone from outside the pretty little circle.

And all this is very similar, be it girl idols or boy idols. I doubt there’s many people around who, like me, watched both The Idolm@ster and The Idolm@ster: Side M and found them equally enjoyable. In general, though, they’re basically the same thing. In anime it’s often next to impossible to tell a character’s gender without exophoric references, and these androgynous characters are the ones I usually find cutest. So I liked tomboyish Makoto in The Idolm@ster and here, the small and girly male idols like Pierre, Shouta and Jun. The lack of likeable tomboys is probably why I haven’t been able to maintain an interest in Cindarella Girls, though I’ll likely finish it at some point.

If there’s a difference in the shows, it’s that in the shows about all-female companies, all of the girls are to some degree cute. Some try to be dark and mysterious or have an ice maiden persona, but they still have cute moments. So everything is generally on a continuous level of sweetness, some characters breaking out into being adorable on occasion. But with the male units, there has to not only be cute but also cool. I mentioned the cute boys, some of them very similar to girls, but then there are the men as well. 315 hires not only young teenagers for its Johnnie’s-like entertainment – two cute but slightly obnoxious former school soccer stars being hired right from the hospital in one episode – but also full-grown men. The anime’s main trio are Dramatic Stars, whose gimmick is that they are former professionals – lawyer, doctor and airline pilot. Another is all former teachers. Honestly, these groups are some of the most unlikeable in the show, full-grown men who are meant to be cool rather than cute, but I just don’t find a goateed lawyer doing twirls to a disco beat to be cool.

Thus the problem I had with this show, more than with the previous seasons of The Idolm@ster, was that there were some episodes that focused on characters I liked, which was fun, and then some that were focused on characters I really disliked. Just about all the girls were likeable enough to carry an episode, but 20 minutes of some stuck up former doctor being rude to everyone and demanding to take on more work until, surprise surprise, everyone was right and he collapses of exhaustion … it’s just not characterisation I enjoy. I don’t even know that girls who enjoy the aloof, know-it-all type would enjoy seeing him being such a fool either.

When it’s cute, though, the show is definitely cute. And definitely fun. It worked best when the ensemble was together, like when they all went off to stay at a training camp together. That way, nobody gets too tedious. That includes for people who don’t like endlessly bright and optimistic boy-princes with girly voices, of course, and I can totally understand why a lot of viewers would find Pierre annoying as well. Unfortunately, there really aren’t many episodes in this short season that find the balance, and too many episodes just weren’t engaging at all.

Because there were only 13 episodes, the anime also cut out a lot of the cast from the game. Several of them got little random cameos, usually passing the main cast on the street and getting a few lines or something like that. For someone like me who doesn’t know the majority of these characters, the moments were very jarring and bizarre. That said, I do wish they’d included fussy violin prodigy Kagura Rei. He looks totally adorable.

Technically, the anime is by-the-numbers. Climactic concert scenes have a bit more work put into them, though I’m still not a fan of the interpolation of cel-shaded CG to make animating dances easier, especially as in this show they sometimes have normal animation in the foreground and computer animation behind. The songs are generic and a lot of the guys have kind of annoying nasal singing voices. Animation is on the cheap and stiff side, but character design is nicely varied and fits in with the overall style of the wider franchise very nicely.

Just like the original, I’d categorise this one as a guilty pleasure, and when it was cute it was very, very cute. There’s a Pierre figurine I just might buy and regret not pre-ordering before the price went up 50%. But I can’t say I didn’t hope the show would be better, and I certainly think keeping the focus on Jupiter, like in the pilot, rather than on the uninteresting and unlikeable Dramatic Stars, would have made for a much better show.