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The Short Review: Haiyore! Nyaruko-san

The pitch for the light novels that the Nyaruko-san franchise is based on must have been simple: “what if the Elder Gods of the Cthulu mythos were otaku, moe schoolgirls—oh, except for the trap?”Anyone who knows anything about HP Lovecraft’s work ought to have recoiled from such a proposal. And yet, here we are, with two Flash-animated series and now this fully-animated, Xebec-produced, anime, Haiyore! Nyaruko-san based on this premise.

And, shock and horror: it works.

I came to Nyaruko-san with only a glancing familiarity with the Cthulu mythos, primarily from having played a few short campaigns of the Call of Cthulu tabletop RPG with my high school buddies. So I got the SAN points references, and that most of the Cthulu knowledge actually came from the game than from the books. I didn’t get much else, and from what I’ve seen, this series is full of references, not just to Lovecraft’s sprawling mythos but to all corners of otaku culture too. What was refreshing is that I didn’t need to get everything to enjoy the show: the slapstick humor, the quick and energetic pacing, and above all the refusal of the show to take itself seriously made it a laugh-out-loud watch. I can only think of two or three moments where there is a touch of actual emotional sincerity not immediately undone by a joke—and that was enough. Any more and it would have simply been mawkish.

That Haiyore! Nyaruko-san works is also surprising given how insular and very otaku-centric it is. Ever since Haruhi Suzumiya appeared on the scene, anime has taken a lurch toward the meta, the otaku-pandering, and the niche. In this series, the Elder Gods are all otaku, in love with eroge, RPGs, and anime. Huge, world-threatening monsters are often after nothing more—or less, depending on your perspective—than otaku entertainment, which the aliens think actually is the whole of “Earth entertainment.”  One episode even features an unsubtle piece of contemporary political satire, lampooning certain Tokyo politicians who would censor manga and anime.

Most of time, I no longer find this sort of thing funny. Why is this a seeming exception?

It helps to have fun with the cliches even when you’re using them.

Aside from getting the basics of comedy right—fast pace, great comic timing (see all the moments when Kuuko and Hastur make their advances on Mahiro in reaction or in tandem with Nyaruko), and a lack of pretentiousness—it’s the contrast between the high and low that makes it work. Lovecraft’s mythos was intended to convey the terror of huge, unknown forces and beings outside of human control—to restore a kind of religious shock and awe that Lovecraft felt was missing from modern man.

To find out that these beings are…just running a theme park, and love nothing more than a stupid eroge? See, that’s funny. It cuts at the pretension that was never far from Lovecraft’s work, and nods at the fact that otaku entertainment is, in the grand scheme of things, kind of trivial. And this is not hard to understand, even if you miss the specific references. The buffoonery of all the characters is universal.

Haiyore! Nyaruko-san was my “easy to watch” dumb fun show of the season. It didn’t pretend to be anything more than that, and that was enough. This is one of the season’s unexpected winners.

Short Review Rating: 7.5/10

The Short Review: Dusk Maiden of Amnesia

The anime adaptation of Dusk Maiden of Amnesia (Tasogare Otome x Amnesia) is a lot like its title character, Yuuko: both have wild, inconsistent mood swings and moments where you wonder whether you’re still watching the same person, or show. The clumsy cobbling together of different moods and genres makes for a mediocre anime series.

The staff pedigree of Dusk Maiden held out some promise. Silver Link, the spin-off studio headed by SHAFT veteran and Shinbo acolyte Shin Oonuma (ef~a tale of memories/melodies), did a fine job with the Baka Test series in combining quirky humor, Oonuma’s Shinbo-esque visual stylings, and even the occasional serious scene.Maiden’sfirst episode, while gimmicky, promised at least some degree of cleverness in directing and approach. However, in retrospect, the basic strengths and weaknesses of the series were apparent even then: annoying side characters. Yuuko’s mostly appealing capriciousness, occasionally undermined by unnecessary fanservice. A rather diffident, blank slate of a male lead, the sort others have labeled “Insert-kun” or “Yuuji Everylead.”

The promise that is implicit at the beginning of every show, of course, is that we will see changes as it goes on. With the exception of Yuuko, the characters more or less remain the same as they were in episode 1. Our two leads fall in love, of course, though all of the personality and development is on Yuuko’s side. She is the most varied and thus interesting character, though the transitions between her moods are often clumsily handled; she is, in short, the most human character. And she’s dead.

The best moments in this show are simple ones like this.

Only two points seem to make Dusk Maiden stand out. First is Oonuma’s directorial technique, which was first shown to the world as being uniquely suited to portraying trauma in ef, and used to both comedic and dramatic effect in Baka Test. He repeats the performance in the single great episode of this series, episode 10—the flashback to Yuuko’s past. Oonuma’s ability to blend subjective and objective viewpoints, to actually show the fractured feeling of pain, is palpable. The overall way Yuuko’s light and dark halves interact is rather simplistic, but the execution of the flashback elevated it for a moment.

The second is the apparent subtext of the dark/light Yuuko story. Perhaps it is no accident that Yuuko is a ghost from the 1940s, who lives in denial of the terrible things that happened in that era, refusing to remember the acts of brutality that caused her to haunt the characters in the present. Could it be an allegory, albeit a clumsy and inexact one, of the way Japan has often been reluctant to face its own past in the Second World War and acknowledge it as part of their history? The analogy breaks down somewhat when pressed—Yuuko is the victim, not aggressor, though the images of human sacrifice cannot help but remind one of Unit 731 among other things. But Dusk Maiden is not the only series that features haunted schools from that era, and the show’s ending can be interpreted as a call to make peace with the past by taking it on directly.

That, frankly, is more interesting than what the show actually does with Yuuko’s character arc, which is a conventional anime romance marred by the standard “reset” ending, the bane of so many stories that won’t follow through on its convictions. (Even the otherwise wonderful Ano Natsu de Matteru did it.) When creators will learn that such endings destroy the emotional investment of the audience, I do not know. But that, the uneven pacing, and frequent resort to cliche preventDusk Maiden from being more than a mediocre series with occasional high points.

Short Review Rating: 7/10