Tag Archives: Anime TV 2011

The Usagi Drop Effect Part One

So perhaps this is as far opposite as the anime timbre needle can reach? Could Usagi Drop be the penultimate symbol of a medium reaching the end of the reflex line in regards to how it is presented, and sells itself to the masses? Admittedly, not having not spent a lot of time with the Summer anime season, a part of me was ambivalent at best by considering even watching my way through an entire series. As much as the studios have been racing to seek out new conceptual niche(Ie- giving Shinbo more work), and otherwise spinning away at their remix machine(Shinbo, again..), it is telling that Production IG opted to adapt Yumi Unita ‘s popular manga for the animated screen. In many ways, to envision anime as a place where we could be host to a world, and situation not unlike those in real life, where single-parent living is a large functional reality in the lives of so many is something that not only tells us how strange a zeitgeist we are currently within, but also of very real dreams, concerns, and perhaps even laments that a modern urban Japan is going through. If so, the anime version of Usagi Drop is something of an effective, yet doubly melalcholic yearning for  a new breed of beginning in a landscape awash with change.

When Daikichi and family make the bombshell discovery of a six-year old daughter left behind after his grandfather’s death, the 30 year old salaryman eventually takes to the unusually independent, yet alone Rin Kaga, and begins a journey that will likely change both forever. Of the many new life choices Daikichi must make in order for his transformation to begin; including  a new commute habit, watching his health, and downgrading his sales job for the sake of Rin’s schooling, we are witness to a man who having grown up the only boy among sisters , is unexpectedly adept at being what could very well be akin to an adoptive father. There are many challenges, and speedbumps natural to assuming this role without having known this little girl through her earliest years, many of which involve his need to better understand Rin’s role, and her regards toward her new circumstances. The ways in which both characters shape and alter one another’s lives is at the core of Usagi Drop, noItaminA’s summer offering that serves as an exciting respite from the all-too-familiar barrage of tropes for their own sake tv anime culture one expects from the season. A few episodes in, and it becomes clear that the source of such excitement comes from characters played with the right pitch, and storytelling with unerring patience, and faith in the sublime.

Upon reflection, the show’s initial episodes do a pretty solid job of establishing the domestic world as something rife with moments worth illustrating, all the while whisking us through a universal tale of single-parenthood. There are nearly entire episodes that eschew the all-too convenient cliche of voice over in order to inundate us with often confusing and superfluous musing. While voice-over eventually does happen, it tends to carry a more utilitarian function. But when this isn’t so much in need, there are sections that actually show rather than tell, which is going to sound strange, but refreshingly retro. As Daikichi’s life begins to crystallize into something more than that of a mildly successful trader, we are privy to his world prior, his relationships with co-workers and family, and even his own personal quirks before facing one new facet of the guardian life after another. We even witness Rin’s contrasting nature to that of other children her age(most telling, is by watching Daikichi’s niece, who in many ways resembles a 1970s comic brat, exaggerated mouth, twin-tails and all). There are touches that are directed, rather than spoken away in a confusing line or two. For the show to take the time to visualize what far too many anime skip with voice over, creates an environment that trusts the audience and it’s ability to relate, instead of giving in to short cut solutions. So when he has to contend with co-workers & family members agape at this very sudden lifestyle shift, as well as simpler day-to-day concerns such as school admissions & potential bed-wetting, Daikichi’s life has become an endless trial by fire that he seems to have been born to brave. The show’s first half leads us to the revelation of Rin’s up til now unseen mother, and Daikichi’s burning concerns regarding the future of Rin’s name. Along with his meeting of the unexpectedly young Masako(played by-SURPRISE. Maaya Sakamoto), and his understandable frustration at the young mother for seemingly abandoning her daughter for the sake of her career, it is made clear that her role has only begun to reveal itself. With all the hints that episode 5 leaves for us, there is room to understand that even her character will receive a decent amount of humanization before the 11 episode run comes to an end. All the while,  Rin’s growing affection for Daikichi, and yet noble nature are having a profound effect on both leads.

Now having read the previous, it is clear that I have a certain affection for this series, and what it has offered thus far. And while I am aware of where the story goes in the manga version of events, I hardly see what comes next as any kind of trouble, lest the storytelling takes some kind of unforseen nosedive. The animation’s novel watercolor teaser sections are reminiscent of Horuou Musuko, and grant the show a classically unique flavor that accents its modern world encompassing nature. The aural/visuals of the series are quite lovely in places, and often feel more like a live action film mix than an anime one. Performances have been quite effective thus far, with Hiroshi Tsuchida’s performance driving the piece as a man, seemingly facing what seems to be his lifelong destiny, joy and pain in a beautiful package. So much sensitivity is granted in the writing, the requirement that his range be quite wide, yet real is high priority, and it comes together quite well here. Matsuura’s a great Rin, but also falters due to obviously having a register much older than the character. That said, she is up to the task. Much of Unita’s visual humor, and attention to daily minutae is terrific without seeming typical of what many have dubbed Slice Of Life anime.  There are so many warning signs that could allow Usagi Drop to become just another animated drama from Japan.  But as of this point, this is a solidly written and directed series that stands nicely apart, true to the classic noitaminA thrust. If this is where anime reaches the apex of its more domestic side, I’m more than willing to explore it as long as there are stories worth telling, and characters worth following in the name of something new & sincere with our animated entertainment. And much like our two leads, I’m apprehensive, yet eager to see what happens next.

To Be Continued..

2011: Everything Old Is New? (And Onward..)

So happy to see that around the time of my last post, a small group of new shows arrive with my notions well complimented. It seems as though despite the ever glowering cloud of desperation often gumming up recent anime schedules,this worry has finally found a weak spot. That, or the old fixer-upper solutions are no longer working. Whatever the case, it seems that certain prayers may be answered this season as not one, but three shows debuted this last week that offer shining proof that anime can indeed offer more than the expected warm blankie/cocoa combo they’ve been dishing out ad-nauseum over the last several seasons.

(Not that I dislike cocoa, mind you. But one too many makes for a violently upset Wintermuted.)

Starting off with Level E, a punchy, goofy science fiction comedy set in a world where extraterrestrials co-exist amongst the ignorant human population until the day one decides to move into the new home of a young baseball hopeful (Sans permission, and  is of the “just won’t go away” quantity.). Both refreshingly funny, and breathlessly retro (the original manga was serialized in the mid 90s-Yes.), the comedy plays like an X-Files parody, with a dose of GTO-like shonen energy for good measure. It is especially fun in how the interplay between lead protagonist, Yukitaka, an ordinary boy who’s prowess in baseball has led him to a potentially exciting new life in a new town, and hopelessly irritating alien prince Baka works. It’s a simple, and yet effective take on the classic straight-man, and the spoiled fool, made all the funnier with the erstwhile prince’s appearance as a strikingly effeminate pretty boy. Add the classic 90s hard manga art style, and the whole package thus far is quite promising. Studio Pierrot (Click Me.) and David may have themselves a memorable little hit on their hands if they continue to expand the world, and drag poor Yukitaka along for the ride.

Level E is available via Crunchyroll (Members now, but free within days!).

Second is clearly on a much more familiar stage, and pays homage to two generations of anime fandom, and as such could be a more dicey project. I write simply about Yutaka Yamamoto’s big-scale NoItamina project, Fractale, which plays like a Greatest Hits compilation of not merely anime favorites, but potentially as contemporary metaphor. In the idyllic fantasy world that resembles an Irish isle surrounded by deceptively analog trappings, where youthful wanderer, Clain seems to live amongst virtual citizens called “Doppels”, his seemingly peaceful virtual life is thrown for a loop when he encounters a mysterious girl on a glider chased by roughs in an airship. So already, this should sound terribly familiar. Right on down to the design aesthetic, we are in a post-cyberpunk take on Miyazaki (or Nadia, pick your poison), complete with simple attractive leads, silly, ineffective villainy, and a love of quiet, open space. But knowing that this is being filtered through the minds of both Yamamoto, a director with a full understanding of the form, and noted critic & writer Hiroki Azuma, this is sure to take come interesting turns as we come to learn more about Clain, Phryne, and the world watched over by the mysterious Fractale system.

The problems with this show are evident in presentation, since it depends so much on either full knowledge of the inspiration, or completely new perspective which can either help or cripple the series as a whole. Long and short, this series, while having a promising debut episode needs to gather steam quickly to fully work. So while some critics may find this inexcusably trite and hopelessly post-modern, perhaps this is only the beginning of a unique exploration of anime fandom as well as the increasing allure of insular living. The show seems to definitely be going in this direction. Here’s hoping they find something truly new and exciting along the way.

Fractale is available via Funimation & Hulu!

And lastly, it should be noted that of all the new shows out this season, the one I’m most hopeful for is AIC Classic’s visually rich & utterly fascinating adaptation of Takako Shimura‘s Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son). Telling the take of young middle schoolers, Nitori, and Takatsuki, a boy and girl who share a secret of wishing to switch genders, the story is told with sensitivity, and a truly unique visual style. So much more interested in letting the lives of the two leads take the forefront, rather than going for the cheap and easy trap route is a bold, and human turn in a medium that is often more restrictive of such notions. Right away, the visuals(much like a watercolor storybook come to life) offer the promise of something altogether new. In fact, bold doesn’t begin to describe it.

If there are any true problems with the debut episode, it is that we are thrust in several volumes into the story that was likely an episode count issue, and could very well make or break the series as a whole. We are given glimpses into their respective lives, but it makes the viewer wish for a much smoother means to get to know them. And as a show with a slower pace than others, it would likely benefit from less compression. But given the presentation, this was likely an impossibility. So the mix can be a bit of a  conundrum by design. And yet despite all this, a show focusing on issues of gender identity, and the pangs that come with being young makes for potentially important viewing. There is a lot of emotional truth to all of this, something that can go a long way if Ei Aoki & crew stay the course.

Hourou Musuko is available via Crunchyroll (Members now, but available free in days!)

So with these new shows in the ether, ready to take on a potentially evolving landscape, here’s hoping fans all over are equally as prepared for change as this new year starts off full throttle. I know I am.