Another year of anime I get amped up to see, another year I’m late.
There is a good reason for it this time. The anime series “gifted” to me this year was a punch to the gut that I needed. Sometimes you have to get hit low to look up! I say that because when I looked up the series recommended to me I asked, “What in the hell is this, Santa?! Get these present away from me!”
I mean, look at this! I don’t mean to be nasty but this looks like a penis with eyes. I saw this and looked backed at my Secret Santa list and asked, “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?”
Well, Santa might be on to something. If others had the same reaction as I did, it’s no wonder they’d turn away, too, and not recommend this to others.
Like one of my favorite slice-of-life series, Nichijou, Shin Atashinchi’s episodes are separated into segments. It focuses on the Tachibana family and their daily tasks and tribulations a silly and naive family would encounter. This includes getting too many donots for lunch with friends, missing the dumpster truck pick-up, getting a classmate to like you with your puns, and trying to not be so brash while coming up with examples to compare others with.
While the topics aren’t as brain-meltingly inane as talking about which side of a snack you prefer to eat first, a family doing their daily thing might be tiresome to an anime viewer veteran. Been there, done that. Well, the characters were charming enough that they swept me off my feet. I’ve grown to not only love the Tachibana family, but also their friends and side characters they come across. If I’m not laughing at the characters small misfortunes or earnestness in getting things done, I just smile and admire the “simple life” they lead.
The spotlight, though, is squarely on the mother character. She’s probably the closest we’re getting to a Roseanne anime series. She tries her damnedest to being the best mother she can to her kids; teaching them about having a can-do attitude, to help with the chores and even telling them why she loves her stoic husband. With all of those admiring qualities, she’s still kind of a fucks up. She gets suckered into completing a jigsaw puzzle that she loses tracks of time and even tunes out her kids. She also gets caught up in trends with her friends, like soaking in a half full bath and scary the kids …again. She’s not lazy, but she is far from perfect. However, it’s how she gets herself out of these situations that perhaps makes her the perfect mom for her family.
Look at me getting all gushy~!
Well, the next present in Santa’s list is…
My Neighbors The Yamadas
What’s interesting about this choice is that I remember when this was first released on DVD in North America and always wanted to check it out. Around the time, 2005, I was still exploring what was out there in anime land. Cowboy Bebop was still the top for me, but I also loved Azumanga Daioh and that series sparked my interest slice-of-life series. I guess that’s why The Yamadas grabbed my attention but for some reason never got around to it. Until now!
This is a Ghibli film but follows the format as Atashinchi where it’s broken into segments. It actually follows the feel of it, too, only adding an obaasan as an additional character.
Right off the bat, the animation is what you’d expect from Studio Ghibli. The style has the appearance of water colors but it’s actually done digitally. I didn’t know until I looked it up to be sure. It’s a nice look because while it’s simple in appearance it reminds me of Japanese calligraphy. While not all the lines connect in, say, the furniture, being a Ghibli film you can bet that the artists designing them put careful thought into how they wanted the viewer to observe characters’ surroundings.
The film is directed by Isao Takahata, who directed another film I love; Only Yesterday. He also directed Grave of the Fireflies, but I don’t hold that film as dearly as the former. Still, if you’re going to bring up names of people at Studio Ghibli, this one should be right next to Hayao Miyazaki.
Is this a film that wins fans over, though?
Hm… Well, apparently, it’s one of the films that didn’t do as well if it was probably hoped to at the box office. I liked the film, but I can understand why.
It looks lovely and the segments are fun and inviting. Somehow, though, it doesn’t feel as intimate with its characters as something like Atashinchi. Actually, when I compare to two side-by-side The Yamadas comes off more like something that’s waxing nostalgia – and this is coming from someone who loved Only Yesterday.
At the start of the film, you get introduced to the characters in an almost psychedelic segment where the family “emerges” in nature (i.e bamboo shoots) and the like based in Japanese fairetale tradition. It was a nice way to set the tone, but what follows are moments that don’t build on any sort of narrative other than the Yamadas really just hanging out. I think this is why this film stays in the shadows of other Ghibli films as I’ve rarely see fans bring this up. I get that fans want the weight of fantasy that you’d get from Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro. General viewers may find it cute at least, but also very, very quiet. I don’t mind that at all. The abundance of silence gives me a chance to observe and really think what the characters may be thinking – but I feel I have a better idea what the writer is thinking in this case.
Every few segments, a haiku is read that relates to the character’s circumstance. For instance, it has started snowing outside and the father wants to take a family picture to commemorate it. Instead, his family are glued to the TV, not even looking at him when he asks where the camera is. He’s successful in taking the picture but he is the only one who notices and retreats back into the snow. The scene ends with a haiku that reads:
A lone figure
receding into the mist
As cool as the haiku at the end of a few segments is, I feel it does more in really explaining the characters than what we actually see. Is it good storytelling? Perhaps not, but perhaps we’re looking at it wrong. I think the director means for us to relate characters more of what experience ourselves than what we’re told.
But then, all they’re really showing is an animated family photo album; something to remember fondly for our own sake. It doesn’t show the flaws as plainly as Atashinchi had – and sure, that series is a comedy where misfortunes can be turned into laughs, but if you’re going for a slice-of-life perspective, it’s got to have some, you know, life! I feel that’s why something like Atashinchi comes off as more genuine in portraying a traditional family unti than the Yamadas. The film ends with the family laughing off into the sunset. I mean, yeeeesh!
Why I love slice-of-life series like Azumanga and Nichijou, is that you have goofy characters that, for a moment, let their guard down and see a moment of reflection or realization. They’re shown to be appreciative of what’s happening, then carry on as themselves. The Simpsons did a fantastic job of displaying this, at least early on. After Homer struggles through his alcoholism and changes his mind about celebrating his 30-day sobriety with a beer, we are presented with this scene. Laughing off into the sunset is still there, but what an impact it makes when you are given a chance to see character and not just a character.
This point can be expanded on when we open Santa’s last present…
This is the one from the list I thought I’d have the greatest chance to get in to, but I lost grips with this halfway through.
It started off exciting enough. The protagonist, Seishu Hanada, a calligrapher (you know, the ones that swing big brushes with black ink), who beats the shit out of an old dude who talked down to him at a ceremony where his work was displayed.
You’d figure in Japan that would be enough to banish you from the industry altogether, but instead Hanada flies out to Gotou Island, just off the tip of south Japan, to chill and get his groove back.
This series follows a more structured plot than Atashinchi and Yamadas, but that isn’t a bad thing (not entirely). Hanada is a city boy suddenly living among farmers and fishermen, not really concerned about integrating into the scene. That fine, because 6 year old Naru Kotoishi is there to show him how much of a morose, petulant dick Hanada is and perhaps bring him out of his shell.
The fish out of water story has been done countless of times before, but having a calligrapher was a nice take on it. A scene I loved is when Hanada is asked to paint a name on the side of a fishing boat for a brash fisherman. He struggles at first, trying to do it his way, but the kids of the island hand paint on the boat first, forcing him to finally get the job done. There is another moment where Hanada feels lost in finding his style in calligrapher, but he gains a sense of self after participating in a mochi-picking event where he loses to the town elderly.
It’s scenes like these where the tired troupe can gain a solid sense of perspective. To quote Racer X from Speed Racer, “It doesn’t matter if racing never changes. What matters is if we let racing change us.” Handa was set to change from comfortable lifestyle while living in the boonies. That is, until his rival shows up, and this is where the plot thickens …and ruins a good thing.
I was really interested in seeing Hanada keep on being stubborn and letting the folks of Gotou school him on simple life so he can challenge his complicated one back home. Funny enough, the rival shows up halfway though the series just to spark up his creativity, but I think it only demolishes the story. Any chance of seeing Kikujiro or Gran Torino vanished then and there and the series became very anime. Yuck!
There was even a scene where after scolding kids for playing dangerous at the beach, Hanada out of nowhere says (paraphrasing), “If I didn’t come here I would have never discovered that I could worry about other people!” While it was adorable, I think they could have presented this feeling in a more subtle way that left more for the characters to reflect on. But nope!
One positive aspect I want to point out is that for the character Naru is actually voiced by …a child! It’s so obvious now when you hear people around my age trying to sound like what pre-pubescent character would sound like – which is nothing at all compared to the real thing. Sure, it’s done partly so because talented child actors isn’t easy to mange or come by, but Suzuko Hara does a fantastic job for portraying a character around her age, and she does quite a bit of dialogue to tackle on for each episode. Credit where credit is do!
I did not complete the series, and I may as well, but I can’t say this one won me over like other titles here. And maybe it’s just me, but it was really difficult for me to figure out whether some characters were male or female. I swear I kept switching genders for little Nasu, which can happen with kids, but some of the older kids I couldn’t put my finger on right away. Not a bad thing, as it’s probably linked to the designs. But you can’t blame me on this, ’cause for once I was able to watch these secret Santa series completely sober!
Thank you, Santa, for you have given me the gift of not judging an anime series by its character designs. Perhaps the greatest gift an anime viewer could ever ask for… ;_;
I really did love Atashinchi and will go back to it and maybe even the original series. There was no other way I could have watched this series unless I was tasked to, and I was taken to laundry mat on this one!
It’s just one of the reasons why for any other folks out there in Blogland to check out The Reserves Thieves blog and sign up next year for their Secret Anime Santa event! Perhaps you’ll get something good from me, regardless if you’ve been naughty or nice >_^