Missteps in Welcome To The Ballroom

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(Putting the delinquency in Juve-Niall Delinquency! Here’s a post that was intended for 2017’s 12 Days Of Anime challenge which, for my very first year of participation not to mention returning to long-form writing for the first time since college, I’m gonna chalk up as breaking even for reaching the halfway point. Who knew it’s actually quite difficult to write effectively for twelve days straight AND work twelve hour shifts five days a week? Not me I guess! Anyhow, some of the ideas I had for that challenge I have since had bigger & better thoughts about so look forward to those later on down the line. For now here’s a fitting tale of something else that hit the skids part way through!)

Welcome To The Ballroom had a tough go of things from the off, as it was perhaps unfairly held up as the spiritual successor to dancing boy superhit Yuri On Ice. Trailers and promotional material for this adaptation of Tomo Takeuchi’s manga suggested something if not in exactly the same vein then certainly a prestige production worth keeping an eye on. The presence of many of the staff that worked on the anime of beloved volleyball manga Haikyuu proved a considerable draw and that was enough to pique the interest of myself and many others. I for one was happy to take it as is for being a sports anime about a competitive activity I had rarely seen on TV outside of Strictly Come Dancing.

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Beginnings were promising: ballroom acolyte Tatara could arguably be described as a wet drip of a protagonist but his nervous determination still made him relatable and a nice contrast to the usual hot-blooded aggression of sports anime heroes, embodied in this case by characters like Tatara’s absentee coach Sengoku or rival-cum-eventual ally Gaju. It takes two to tango though so I was more interested in how he’d interact with main female lead Shizuku, inwardly hoping it would prove to develop into something more than just a device to romantically pair them up. Imagine my disappointment then when she was effectively sidelined in favour of pursuing more narrative threads involving her dance partner Hyodo and how he relates with Tatara, playing up the friendly rivalry between them as if she didn’t also have a stake in the competition. It was here that my problems with the show and its attitudes toward gender politics became apparent. For maybe you’d have been sensibly under the impression that ballroom dancing was a team sport involving co-operation & communication between partners, performing together to put on a greater spectacle than either could manage alone. Welcome To The Ballroom has a much different outlook, rigidly sticking to a lead/follow dancing dynamic with the lion’s share of the attention (and credit) placed on the male lead.

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Much criticism circulated online regarding this and rightly so. It’s difficult to reconcile Welcome To The Ballroom pretty much portraying women as props to be swung around by the men. We understood that this would be a sports anime, not realising it would be to the most archaic definition where female involvement was disregarded almost entirely. For some reason I stuck with it though. Maybe it was the occasional fluidly animated & expressive dance sequences that showed off the elongated character designs (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure gets a pass but this bothers you? C’mon lads!). More so it was for Tatara’s viewpoint as an outsider looking in on all this, tentatively questioning this particular competition framework and why it demands conformity to these positions.

Things seemed to be improving after a stronger finish to the first cour with Tatara working amicably with partner Mako to push her into the spotlight, even if it was a strange turn to have the tournament judging panel react perplexedly as if they literally didn’t realise she existed previously. They looked even better with the advent of the second cour: Tomo Takeuchi must have heard these same concerns raised before with their manga and plotted a change in course. New character Chinatsu, strong-willed & assertive, arrived at just the right time and she offered the perfect foil to Tatara’s conflict-averse demeanour. It’s to be expected that Chinatsu & Tatara would have a challenging time aligning their clashing personalities, and I figured the logical progression would be for them to settle their differences and come to an accord. These two had so much to learn from each other: with Chinatsu’s background in leading the dance and Tatara more blatantly highlighting the backwards attitudes of the sport’s judging criteria I dared hope the show might evolve into a pointed critique of the ballroom dancing ethos in particular and gender roles in general. There was ample room to develop and make up for earlier shortcomings, so what does Welcome To The Ballroom do but double down on its distasteful elements. Focus is placed on dancing the “proper” way and never straying outside the bounds of your gender-assigned position no matter where your strengths lie. It’s one thing for Tatara to be more assertive to better communicate with his dance partner; it’s another matter entirely to refer to Chinatsu as a wild horse that needs to be broken, clearly spelling out the series’ opinions on how men & women ought relate to one another.

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It was at this stage, after holding out longer than most, that I resigned myself to the eventuality that Welcome To The Ballroom was never going to magically morph into the ideal show I believed it could be. What made it all the more galling was how it would hover frustratingly close to making a cogent point and pull back at the last second. It instead became an exercise in constantly adjusting your expectations, which in the best case is a signifier of a text challenging you as a viewer and in the worst is just seeing how much you can excuse before it makes you quit (a decision made a touch easier in this case by an always ill-advised homophobic joke). Its decline was perhaps made all the more precipitous by those early allusions to Yuri On Ice and as mentioned it may not been entirely fair to expect something else on that level. Then again producer Tetsuya Kinoshita didn’t exactly cover Welcome To The Ballroom in glory in a Q&A where he had plenty of backhanded compliments for Yuri On Ice, so if their intent was to distinguish themselves from that anime then job well & truly done. Cap it off with unused scenes from the manga that would have given much greater insight into the female cast and you have all the hallmarks of a story not reaching its full potential. It’s a shame to see such promise go to pot but if anything maybe it can serve as a lesson in not setting your hopes unreasonably high. While I don’t regret what I watched I’m glad I opted out when I did; it takes time to learn how not to be afraid to ditch that sunk cost fallacy and drop out of whatever media you consume if it ain’t working out, and Welcome To The Ballroom proved quite a test of that instinct. At least we got two pretty rad Unison Square Garden OPs out of it!

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Re-Entering The Ring with Tiger Mask W

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Tiger Mask is an ubiquitous figure that anime fans of a certain age have some semblance of familiarity with, either via Ikki Kajiwara & Naoki Tsuji’s manga or its numerous TV & film adaptations. More likely you’ve seen the story of the cat-cowled wrestler defeating heinous heels to save the orphans paid homage in the Tekken fighting game series. Such is Tiger Mask’s cultural cachet that he’s escaped the bounds of fiction on many occasions, referenced in notes attached to mysterious charitable donations and notably entering the squared circle in person over the years to take on the wrestling stars of his day.

For a long while this was mostly lost on me. I had seen the odd episode of classic Tiger Mask but never had time to pursue it further. Indeed my last major dalliance with professional wrestling was WWE Smackdown back in the mid-2000s, which coincided nicely with Cartoon Network airing the dub version of Kinnikuman 2, AKA Ultimate Muscle. Therein lay the key to my understanding though: whether an avid fan or not most everybody at one point knew who Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, The Undertaker and Stone Cold Steve Austin were. To give a latter day example Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson now packs cinemas on a yearly basis. These larger-than-life characters were hard to ignore and through them you became versed in the codes, customs and theatrics of professional wrestling; the realm of babyface heroes, villainous heels, outrageous ring setups, backstage drama, venom-laced promos and pinfalls broken at the last second.

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It’s into this world that Tiger Mask W steps and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The venerable New Japan Pro Wrestling franchise has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, winning over a new generation of fans worldwide. What better way to expand its already fervent base in the anime fan community than with a bit of savvy cross-promotion in the form of a new series? Or indeed to broaden the scope of the original Tiger Mask mythos by incorporating all the developments in the wrestling world of the last few decades. Enter Global Wrestling Monopoly (GWM), the monolithic organisation serving as the primary antagonist of the show. With its notorious reputation for poaching wrestlers and muscling out the competition with unscrupulous business practices that is in no way inspired by the real world activities of World Wrestling Entertainment they provide a formidable existential threat for Tiger Mask as well as a mortal one, seeing as they are in reality a front for his sworn enemy the evil wrestling stable Tiger’s Den! Now it’s up to our feline fighter, with a little help from New Japan’s biggest stars, to see off this menace both in & out of the ring.

The structuring of the series in this way is clever stroke. For one it reflects a natural progression of how a modern day Tiger Mask would operate now, working his way up the fight card legitimately to draw out the target of his vengeance shielded within GWM. He even has a manager in his trainer’s niece Haruna, who matches wits across the table with head honcho Miss X. This all makes it much easier for a newer viewer to follow. I still recognise all the codes from my earlier WWF/WWE experience, such that I can interpret the narrative that couldn’t have existed in the first place without the far-reaching influence of an organisation like them. Simultaneously it ingratiated me to the star studded roster of NJPW who cameo and co-star throughout. Whether through their camaraderie with Tiger Mask on the wrestling stage or the zany antics surrounding it they’re a massively charismatic bunch. The show’s been a huge help in interpreting the cultural osmosis of Anitwitter and Pro-resu-twitter I often find myself immersed in!

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This is Tiger Mask though, and that means regular assaults by the latest wrestling assassin dispatched by Tiger’s Den to vanquish their feline foe. These encounters retain the brutality of the original material and then amp it up some; more than once have I gnawed my knuckle at the sight of necks being crushed and limbs being bent at torturous angles. I’ll never forget the collective grimace from the audience when playing a clip from the show at my anime fight scene panel earlier this year as they bore witness to a man getting piledrived by the face. It’s delightfully visceral. The anime then occupies this weird space where the deliberate drama of the professional wrestling world is juxtaposed against the “real” life or death struggle against Tiger’s Den. Strange occurrences crop up frequently like Tiger Mask racking his brains to develop a strategy to defeat a deadly opponent when all of a sudden we get exchanges along the line of “NJPW star Hiroshi Tanahashi?! What are YOU doing here?” / “I’m glad you asked that Tiger Mask! I’m here to help you come up with a new technique!” This would be tonal whiplash anywhere else yet it somehow fits in with the melodramatic nature of wrestling storylines anyway.

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All these disparate elements culminated in one of the most explosive finales to an anime series this year. After many victories, defeats and a journey of redemption Tiger Mask is at last face to face with his nemesis in the ring, winner takes all! On its own this would simply be a splendidly animated action set-piece to close out the show, but that would be to discount all the groundwork that led to this moment. The bubbling anger, the sneer of the scoundrel who’s eluded our hero and mocked him from the shadows all this time, the ruined lives seeking justice with the vanquishing of this villain; it washes over you like a tidal wave. An urge took hold of me and I found myself joining the chorus of voices lending their support to Tiger Mask in his final fight, shouting at the television willing him to land the pin and groaning in despair at every close call. I was back in my childhood on a Saturday morning cheering on my wrestling idols of old.

The high was so powerful that immediately afterwards I gorged myself on the most notable match-ups of New Japan. It was a glorious embodiment of the passion that drives the fighters, the fans, the series cast and the production staff who if even for a little while want you to feel an ounce of the boundless emotion they get from witnessing such a spectacle. I was touched by something truly special, connected across time & space with so many others fervently wishing for the same, a novice to the scene made to feel welcome amongst this great host. Tiger Mask W was the last place I expected to receive such an affirmation, speaking volumes about it’s ability to grasp you tightly in a headlock of undiluted feeling that is savage but sincere. It’s a testament to the power of anime itself that it can craft such singular experiences, reviving the legend of a hero of days past to send me back to relive a moment I believed long since lost.

The Pulp Fiction Priests of Vatican Miracle Examiner

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Coming from Ireland I’ve been surrounded all my life by the rituals & iconography of Christianity. Our culture has been steeped in it for centuries, often to an unhealthy degree with the amount of sway the church has held on national affairs even to this day. As such the clergy have over the years lost some standing as figures to be emulated or admired. Indeed one of our greatest cultural touchstones, the satirical sitcom Father Ted, portrays them as hypocritical buffoons stuck in the past. The Irish experience with Christianity and Catholicism especially is a very particular one, its references generally lost on those outside the confines of this small island.

So I take no small amount of fascination/amusement in those instances where the disparate threads of my life intertwine when depictions of Christianity turn up in anime. Japan has its own complicated history with the religion, being one of the notable examples of a nation whose culture wasn’t subsumed when the missionaries arrived on their shores (dramatised to maudlin effect in the 2016 Martin Scorsese film Silence). Portrayals of Christianity in anime are often then quite shallow, generally only existing as a cool visual aesthetic or a source of esoteric references; think the nuns with guns in Chrono Crusade, zealous church enforcers in Hellsing or whatever the hell was going on in Ninja Resurrection. The trailers for Vatican Miracle Examiner appeared to be pushing something different though. Would this slick gothic mystery thriller do due diligence to matters of the faith?

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Based on a series of light novels by Rin Fujiki the anime follows the investigations of a pair of handsome priests who are dispatched by the Vatican’s Congregation Of Causes Of Saints to locations around the globe to investigate the authenticity or otherwise of reported miracles. Things are never as they seem of course and they get even stranger when they inevitably become embroiled in a murder mystery, leaving the clerics to turn their inquiries to catching the culprit and how their crimes are linked to the miracle of the week. Thankfully the good fathers have the skills to back it up. Josef Kou Hiraga is a genius of mathematics & science, his role suited to confirming whether the miracles have a basis in physical possibility. He can perform the last rites and then conduct the post-mortem on the body straight afterwards with machine-like accuracy. His partner Roberto Nicholas is of a more poetic bent, an expert in cryptology & arcane literature. His maxed out library skill can decode the theatrics obscuring the real motivations behind the heinous acts that otherwise bamboozle the regular authorities. Together they fight crime in the name of truth, justice and the good word of the Lord!

So does Vatican Miracle Examiner buck the trend of Christianity-centric anime before it? The short answer is not a chance! It’s inspirations lie less in the Bible than they do in the pulp fiction novels of yesteryear or the airport fiction of today . There’s simply no room for a nuanced take on theology with all these bodies piling up! This is disappointing in one respect but highly satisfying in another simply by nature of the impressive lengths the show takes its mysteries to. For never is it a simple of a crime of passion or for individual gain, as nearly every time Fathers Hiraga & Nicholas follow the clues it leads to them uncovering the sinister workings of some massive conspiracy that threatens the world. To reveal any more than this would be to ruin one of the great pleasures of Vatican Miracle Examiners, but suffice it to say that however crazy you suspect the truth to be it’s nearly an order of magnitude beyond that. All the old favourites are brought up or alluded to: Satanists, aliens, voodoo, King Solomon, the NWO, subterranean civilisations, you name it! I was counting the episodes until crystal skulls were name-dropped but was left wanting, though there’s still plenty of absurdity to go around.

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To be fair to Vatican Miracle Examiner there are token efforts made to address matters of religion. Josef & Roberto do grapple with the sceptical nature of their work and how they can possibly align it with their vocation, for is disproving a miracle not also questioning God’s existence? Their compromise is that by eliminating any possible explanation for the causes of miraculous occurrences then that will only make the veracity of a true one more apparent. Each have a personal stake in proving divine intervention after all, Josef for the sake of his critically ill brother and Roberto to reconcile his troubled past, and their resolve is tested more than once. These attempts still can’t help but be coloured by the show’s more outrageous leanings; Josef engages in a theological debate with his hacker comrade Lauren over a game of what can only be described as 360 degree chess in one episode, though the fantastical moral quandary discussed is actually more of a means to trick Lauren into admitting some semblance of faith in a higher power. By the way did I mention that Lauren is a super terrorist with an IQ of 200, released from prison to the Holy See who would make use of his abilities and fitted with a poison-filled anklet that will kill him immediately should he disobey orders?

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One would hesitate to call Vatican Miracle Examiner good, but it is definitely entertaining. This may take some getting past the construction of the anime itself which is a perplexing beast. Director Yoshitomo Yonetani and series composer Seishi Minakami are well versed in adapting from page to screen yet this production is not always so coherent. Strange effects are employed that are never used again, like a rendering of the sky to resemble Vincent Van Gogh’s “A Starry Night” which has no leaning thematically. Similarly they can’t quite figure out the exact proper use for a Dutch angle so take to using it liberally for any scene with a hint of unease. The framing of faces close together is another standout, meant to convey an uncomfortable confining mood, but with the lovely mugs of Hiraga & Nicholas has you wondering when they’re going to start kissing each other. Charitably you could say it all adds up to an atmosphere of uncertain dread that amplifies the madness of the plot and such is its brazenness they almost get away with it. This may be more a holdover of the books’ anything-goes philosophy or at least a symptom of uneven planning. I can see a resourceful approach like that adopted by David Production on Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure going a long way towards elevating the material here.

Nowadays when you hear the term “light novel” it brings to mind any number of tired conventions involving being trapped in a video game/parallel world/another body where the main character is the worst at everything but secretly the best at everything, so it’s preposterously refreshing to have something like Vatican Miracle Examiner that strays so wildly away from the norm. It evokes memories of older fare like Crystal Triangle, Spriggan or the works of Kazuo Koike & Tetsuya Sarawatari, particularly with the license it takes about what drugs actually do, and that’s a forgotten corner of anime that’s rarely seen these days that’s still fun if only for novelty’s sake. It’s a big greasy serving of priest-sploitation (or as I prefer to call it a police priest-cedural) that you know is probably bad for you but can’t help gorging on anyway. Much like the examiners themselves their methods may be radical but dammit if they don’t get results!

Vatican Miracle Examiner is available for streaming on Anime Strike.

The Lucky Losers of Magical Circle Guru Guru

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Make no mistake, there is a LOT of anime coming out these days. Probably too much, if not for an audience to keep up with then certainly for the already stretched-to-breaking anime production industry to viably sustain. With such an immense volume of content coming to fans worldwide as it airs in Japan, from the latest big ticket series to the most esoteric short projects and that’s without mentioning the heaps upon heaps of older catalogue shows given new leases of life all on multiple streaming platforms, it trains a regular viewer to take a selective approach to their watchlist. However it still irks me greatly when some folks are wont to dismiss an anime season outright and then bemoan that they have too many things to watch in the next, as if the temperature of the medium can only be measured on a quarterly basis with “winners” and “losers” in each. Falling into that habit of making blanket dismissals only limits your taste and can close you off from singular experiences. Wouldn’t it be better to see a “weak” season as instead an opportunity to try something you might not otherwise have the time for?

So it was that one of the most consistently great anime of 2017, a superlative example of how to do an adaptation right, went mostly unnoticed when it aired back in July. This was personally a serendipitous experience as at various separate instances in the months leading up to the premiere of its newest incarnation I had heard the name Magical Circle Guru Guru dropped in relation to a host of things. Maybe it was about the original manga by Hiroyuki Eto or regarding the previous TV series and its sequel in conversations about the anime of the 1990s & 2000s. Either way it had wormed its way into my brain and here came a plum chance to satisfy that latent desire.

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The story is complete sword & sorcery fluff: an evil demon has arisen from his slumber to cast his dark influence upon the land, so the king beseeches a hero to step forward and take up the quest for justice. But luckily this is merely the setup for a good-natured satire of fantasy conventions with some loving homages to RPG video games of old, particularly Dragon Quest. Young protagonist Nike is no starry-eyed adventurer, instead pushed into action by his own over-bearing parents with visions of fortune & glory for their child. He summarily crashes through the window of Kukuri, last survivor of the Migu Migu tribe and sole heir to the strange magic of Guru Guru. With only the rantings of Kukuri’s elderly guardian to guide them the pair set off on their quest, and if Kukuri can experience the wonders of the wider world and Nike can fulfil his ambition of being a cool dude who gets loads of babes then all the better!

The anime is wise to never let the story get in the way of a good joke. This is immediately apparent in the rapid fire pacing of the episodes, which rush through the housekeeping of exposition to continually bring the focus back to the gags. This might arouse suspicions of the show having a severe attention deficit as it eagerly leaps from one tangent to the next but it never feels that way. For all the hoots our heroes couldn’t give about their quest it’s always moving forward in one way or another. This is an advantage the older anime adaptations didn’t possess of the manga having long since finished. Guru Guru 2017 will readily burn through half a volume of the sixteen book run in a single episode, while comparatively the 1994 series had to be content with covering volumes one through four across forty five episodes. The new anime is the leaner, meaner edited down experience yet it still rarely misses out on any of the original content from the manga, efficiently condensing down certain elements into blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gags or containing them within the swiftly flashing RPG menu-style pop-up text windows. Occasionally Guru Guru will cram so much into an episode, often introducing, elaborating & resolving a major plot event before the eyecatch and then doing it over again in the second half that it regularly eschews opening & closing credits altogether! The anime’s energy is infectious, like it can’t wait to show you what new cool thing it has in store just around the corner.

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It’s a miracle then that Magical Circle Guru Guru manages this pace while still leaving room to enamour you with its huge cast of bizarre characters. This version fully leans into the ethos of not giving a crap about the generic fantasy plotline, choosing instead to draw attention to the artifice of its setting whether it be for a good joke or, surprisingly, for a touching character moment. The world they inhabit is endearingly half-baked, so what the hell does it matter if it’s in service of something greater? By removing the focus from taking the grand quest too seriously it can now lay it on the interactions of Nike, Kukuri and their weirdo allies. A powerful tool they have at their disposal is Gipple, our heroes’ be-thonged wind sprite companion who serves as magical storage space, portable shelter and sarcastic travel guide. His most important function however is as a blunt instrument to cut through the treacle: whenever a dose of schmaltz rears its head or the party are about to walk into a hoary old “the real magic is the friends we made along the way!”style cliche, Gipple is on hand to make pained grimaces and break into convulsions, bringing the scene screeching to a halt. It’s a stroke of gross genius. By having an in-built mechanism to steer the story away from the path well trodden Guru Guru circumvents your expectations. Nike & Kukuri in a way break character from the plot and speak their minds to each other sincerely, making the bond they share feel so much more genuine.

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Consistency is the watchword for Magical Circle Guru Guru, and Production I.G. asssembled a solid stable of talent that delivered week after week. Director Hiroshi Ikehata is something of a journeyman who’s found a home for himself at I.G., and his performance here has piqued my interest further in the forthcoming FLCL sequel where he’ll soon be directing. Adapting a finished manga is an advantage readily capitalised on with veteran animator Hisaaki Okui proving themselves admirably in their first series composition gig to keep this anime all killer and no filler. Little did I know either that this would be one of the hidden visual showcases of the year, boasting sizeable storyboard and animation direction teams who maintain a level of quality from reliably good to regularly great. It’s quite difficult to poke holes in this production, and it can’t be overstated just how solidly planned out it is. Even as the series approaches the climax at time of writing its pacing may have gotten the best of it and certain story factors have needed to be pared back, but rather than paper that over it embraces the stumble and works it into a gag that doesn’t feel at all out of place with the show’s satirical tone. Even when falling down the stairs it still lands on its feet!

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There’s so much to unpack with Magical Circle Guru Guru that couldn’t be contained within a single reasonably sized blog post: the meta-textual nature of the Guru Guru magic itself, the surfeit of awesome ideas waiting to be appropriated for a tabletop RPG session, it’s strange affinity for the wise old man character archetype reinforced by a wacko recurring hanger-on party member before culminating in a team of geriatric adventurers who have their own anime intro sequence and can’t seem to keep their shirts on. I’m confident it’ll be looked back on as an overlooked classic that got lost in the seasonal scramble, but it’s waiting right there to be discovered and thoroughly enjoyed. It pays to take a little side quest now & again for who knows what magical adventure you’ll get swept up in next! (BLURRRGH!)

Magical Circle Guru Guru is available for streaming on Crunchyroll.

The Ghastly Goods of The Laughing Salesman

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We seem to be living through a time when the wicked face little to no consequences for their heinous actions. With the advent of more sophisticated & widespread communication we’ve gotten closer to people we may never have been able to previously meet and expanded our experiences with access to all kinds of specialist knowledge at our fingertips, but more often than not this turn of events has only made us more privy to the bullshit behaviour transpiring in the world at large. It’s all too easy to fantasise about a suitable comeuppance for these dastardly miscreants, though is it the best course of action to counter one wrong turn with another?

It’s into this new realm of terror that the newest incarnation of The Laughing Salesman emerges, based on the 1968 manga by Fujiko Fujio A aka Motoo Abiko, one half of the famous duo behind Doraemon. It’s essentially a series of cautionary tales centred on the strange interventions of the titular rictus-grinned salesman Moguro Fukuzou. Wherever a person feels a sense of longing, envy or desire Moguro is wont to appear before them offering his services for no monetary fee, just the satisfaction of having a customer receive what they need. This assistance always comes with some fine print however, and woe betide anybody who dares ignore it lest they face an all-too-fitting punishment to match their transgressions as Moguro seals their fate with a triumphant “DON!”

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The Laughing Salesman doesn’t fit neatly into the Twilight Zone-style hypothetical moral quandary mould however. For all the supernatural aura surrounding Moguro the problems he’s “helping” with seem all too ordinary. Indeed even the targets of his actions are generally average folks without obvious malice who let their poor impulse control get the best of them. So one quickly realises this is less a story about an avatar of reprisal meting out karmic justice to ne’er do wells than it is about tut-tutting the everyday bad habits or poor character of certain sectors of society. It betrays its seinen manga roots in this manner, if it weren’t obvious from the revolving cast of put-upon white collar workers, as these stories quite clearly skew towards an older audience who wouldn’t be above feeling a pang of self-righteousness watching these unfortunates who don’t have their lives fully together fall to pieces. Thank heavens I’m not as bad off as that guy! This dearth of sympathy can be off-putting to say the least and if often can’t help but feel like the series is punching down at its subjects.

Saying that, if one can get past that pretty mean aspect it becomes all the more fascinating of an anime. Moguro’s creepy appearance and apparent omnipotence certainly lend him an unsettling diabolical air, but at the heart of it this dude is just a massive asshole. So if you can divest yourself early of the notion of there being a grand lesson to be learned from all this misery you may find yourself taking a perverse pleasure in trying to guess just how badly Moguro is going to destroy his victim’s life. Much like Fujiko Fujio’s more famous rotund disaster artist this salesman has a wide variety of useful items on offer to solve any problem so long as you follow the strangely specific rules, and the fun lies in waiting for the appropriate catastrophe to unfold. Some episodes play out as bumbling comedies of error with a cruel punchline. Others feel more in content & tone like a full-on horror film, to such an extent that you’ll wonder if Moguro really just sent a man to his death for want of meeting a girlfriend. Nevertheless you’ll feel the anticipation build as he sets his sights on the latest mild-mannered office drone, lures them down the path of temptation, exacerbates their worst tendencies and then looms from the shadows at the finish, full of I told you so-s even knowing full well he set them up for the fall, before laying the “DON!” down on them and vanishing into the night, hooting with glee. That sure showed them Moguro!

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This newer series is comprised of twenty minute episodes broken up into two separate segments, with writing duties divided between Asami Ishikawa, Midori Natsu and Naohiro Fukushima. While one part will usually be a straight adaptation of one of the stories from the manga the other will be a new tale that puts a more interesting spin on the formula. For society has progressed on quite a great deal since the times of the manga and the previous TV series so now The Laughing Salesman can take aim at more present day concerns such as mobile phones, self-improvement fads, adults still living with their parents and of course THE INTERNET! Updated subject matter does not necessarily mean any great break from convention though so don’t expect many grand revelations beyond “Don’t be a jerk on social media”. By nature of its structure this means some stories will always resonate better than others, but also that if one segment doesn’t work for you then chances are the next one will. All the better for one to get into the Golgo 13-like rhythm of anticipation to see not if but how Moguro will get his man this week.

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The Laughing Salesman’s vindictive tone takes some getting used to but there are rewards to be garnered if, much like the premise, you go along with its obtuse demands. For one there are fascinating things to be read about the psychology of social conformity and the petty slights that some just can’t let slide. It’s fun in and of itself though you can’t help feeling that there might have been a more sophisticated application of this premise that really could have delved into some deeper issues, but alas that’s not what’s in stock here. This is car crash television in the real sense of the term, as you fear the dire consequences to come but cannot avert your gaze. Let the buyer beware!

The Laughing Salesman is currently available for streaming on Crunchyroll.

The Drawl Of The Wild in Bono Bono

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: I was greatly enjoying the 2016 short kids TV anime Shonen Ashibe Go! Go! Goma-chan, following the zany adventures of a precocious young boy and his pet seal that fell off the back of a truck, when the show went into repeats to make way for the Rio Olympics. Suddenly I was left with very a particular hole in my viewing schedule that was difficult to fill. Luckily the same powers that saw fit to bring Goma-chan had me covered, so I tried ANOTHER short kids TV anime with multiple previous adaptations based on a manga from the 1980s that also featured an aquatic mammal as a main character. Talk about your overstuffed genres! Little did I know the experience I was in for or how the show would quickly become an inseparable component of my life.

Bono Bono began as a 4-panel manga by Mikio Igarashi in 1986 which as far as I can tell is still being published today. It’s been brought to the screen a few times already with films in 1993 and 2002 and a TV series in 1995, that adaptation being the only other version I’ve encountered mostly by virtue of it being popular fodder to make bizarre videos on Youtube. The premise is simple and cute-sounding enough: a young sea otter named Bono Bono and his friends Chipmunk and Raccoon meet and play together in the forest, getting into all sorts of mischief and maybe attempting to solve a few mysteries. The key element is the surreal, lackadaisical atmosphere it conjures up, not to mention the eccentric personalities of the cast who aren’t content with merely being talking animals. Our main trio are the primary source of this madness. Bono Bono is a dozy daydreamer with an incredibly… unique understanding of the world around him, often backed up by Chipmunk who fittingly enough for a small rodent is timid & skittish, responding to most exchanges by asking “Are you going to bully me?” That question is often then answered by the irritable Raccoon with a swift kick up the arse, admonishing the other two for indulging in such foolishness even though it’s plain to see he doesn’t know as much as he lets on.

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It’s through these weirdos that the workings of their world are interrogated in a meandering and oddly philosophical manner. The questions being asked are simple but open to any number of interpretations; why do we sleep? What do clouds do? Why don’t I feel like I’m having fun lately? Is Badger weird? It’s an uncommon example of a kids cartoon that embraces the more oddball aspects of childhood rather than attempting to gently lecture them on the right way to behave. Anybody who’s hung around children for any extended period of time should know well that the old adage of “kids say the darndest things” truly holds up; they are bizarre, capricious creatures and Bono Bono uses that as potent fuel for its stories. True to life also when kids ask those hard questions are the evasive responses of adults, with the parent animals in Bono Bono regularly proving equally if not more clueless than the young ones.

Far from just being a fertile bed for non-sequitur comedy this approach really promotes a child’s sense of wonder about the world, that it’s positive to ask things of your surroundings even when they seem trivial as they may lead your thinking in bold new directions. Wisely it rarely arrives at a definitive answer to everything, both preparing kids for the possible disappointment & confusion of leaving something unsolved and also encouraging them to come to their own conclusions. Where Bono Bono really shines is when through the act of investigating things in its unique manner it arrives at a strange wisdom of its own. After initially journeying to seek out a rival for himself, Chipmunk learns that it’s okay to be second best at something! After giving Raccoon his spare shellfish to eat and falling into an endless spiral of worrying about what will happen when he gets hungry, Bono Bono learns worrying is natural but you can’t let it consume you and take over your life! Maybe he can’t help it though, as his train of thought often causes him to be menaced by visions of the Put Away Man, a malevolent entity that steals away children for committing some perceived slight and seals them up in stone boxes. Wouldn’t THAT bother you?

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At other times it can be downright profound; in the lead up to a contest between Fishing Cat and Boss Bear, the current and former guardians of the forest, Mother Bear wonders aloud why males always feel the need to settle their affairs with conflict and confrontation. Fishing Cat lays out his reasoning for such, of which Mother Bear is sceptical, in turn prompting a re-evaluation of why they indulge in these ingrained behaviours. To arrive at such a cogent point, especially relevant in recent times, and to have it conveyed so elegantly & noncondescendingly in a talking animal cartoon for children was pretty unexpected and all the more delightful for it.

Bono Bono’s surreal humour is an acquired taste to be sure, but due to its brevity it never feels like it outstays its welcome. At only five and a half minutes each including closing credits its easy to get a small dose of it in every once in a while (The 1995 series instalments clocked in at fifteen minutes apiece, which seems a bit of an excessive amount of time to be immersed in the show’s dreamy atmosphere). Later episodes in the series play around with the format more and bring new characters into the mix, with the occasional story that doesn’t involve any of the main three at all. We even get a little insight into their background in this fashion, such as Chipmunk’s timid nature maybe being more because of his overbearing older sisters (in response to which he’s developed a gleeful, usually hidden mean streak) and Raccoon’s anger problems perhaps, sadly, being more a product of a rough upbringing with an even more short-tempered father. The oddball comedy remains the biggest draw however, with the second season premiering earlier this year and showing no signs of running short of material. The apocryphal “get baked and watch Spongebob” audience would probably get a real kick out of this though that may be doing a disservice to a surprisingly insightful little anime, a welcome arrival from the current day licensing for streaming approach that brings these weird tidbits along with all the big ticket shows. Dip your toe in for a few minutes and see how it feels. You may just find yourself floating away like the sea otter of calm you never knew you wanted to be.

Bono Bono is currently available for streaming on Crunchyroll.

Etiquette & Espionage in ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department

 

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Following on from his exemplary performance on Space Dandy and One Punch Man I was as excited as anybody to see where Shingo Natsume’s rising star would bring him next. Thus much expectation was heaped upon his most recent directorial work, an adaptation of Natsume Ono’s manga of the same name billed as “an ensemble drama about crafty men” which could easily be a descriptor for a significant volume of her creative output. What Ono’s manga also have is a seemingly effortless aura of style & sophistication, and ACCA’s tangled web of bureaucracy, suspicion and intrigue looked like just the right amount of substance to complement it.

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Our fancy lad in this series is one Jean Otus, the aloof second-in-command of the ACCA inspection department. Set in the Kingdom of Dowa, ACCA is a government agency set up in the aftermath of the conflict one hundred years ago amongst the country’s thirteen states which were eventually united as one nation. Jean’s purpose is to visit each ACCA district office and conduct audits of their activities in managing the state’s infrastructure, public services and so on before reporting his findings back to headquarters. Naturally this would make for pretty tedious viewing so of course rumours begin to swirl of a possible conspiracy to conduct a coup d’etat that stretches to the highest levels of government. All of a sudden nobody is completely sure of anybody’s character anymore, least of all Jean Otus, whose chain-smoking habit in a country where cigarettes are a prohibitively expensive item has already prompted quiet suspicion within the agency.

If it seems like the stage is set for a deadly double-crossing game of cat & mouse, well you’d be partially right. What you may not expect if you weren’t passingly familiar with Natsume Ono’s manga is for it all to play out in the most polite, civil and low-key way imaginable. Any notions of a nerve-wracking spy thriller seem swept away as Jean goes about making his rounds of the districts, conducting his audits while subtly probing for information, all while that other Ono mainstay of refined older gentlemen converse over tea and cakes, although this time they trade sensitive secrets instead of ribald quips.

This all may sound incredibly off-putting but when you put some thought to the matter it makes perfect sense. Decades of James Bonds, Mission Impossibles and Jason Bournes have given rise to the image of the spy game being a rip-roaring action adventure full of death traps, danger and derring-do. In actuality espionage is often stupefyingly tedious. Hours of surveillance, secret meetings and report writing aren’t exactly the sexiest material one could commit to the screen so it’s no wonder the more exaggerated version caught on. A more accurate comparison would be to something along the lines of The Lives Of Others, A Most Wanted Man or other John le Carré novels, and as those examples have shown there’s a plenty of shock and suspense to be gained from taking the more measured approach.

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This also goes a long way towards explaining Shingo Natsume’s presence, whose history in much more dynamic fare makes him seem an odd fit for this languidly paced series. In a show where a majority of the scenes are people talking over tables it takes a director with a keen eye for composition, framing and character animation to keep one engaged throughout and it’s to Natsume’s credit along with the storyboard and animation teams that they succeed in wringing no small amount of intrigue from otherwise everyday events. Lunchtime meetings at the local patisserie are now pregnant with hidden meaning as each party attempts to ascertain the motivations or loyalties of the other. When they say “pass the strawberry jam” is that supposed to be the secret code for “initiate the uprising now comrade”, the scarlet hues of the fruity spread evoking the cleansing fires of revolution? Or is this really just two old friends meeting up to share the sweet spoils of a recent business trip?

The fact that these proceedings seem to carry on so ordinarily when you as a viewer know there are bigger things happening behind the scenes causes you to interrogate every element of the most banal activity. When crucial details can be communicated via casual dialogue or even a knowing smirk it fosters in you an instinct to pay attention to every little thing. ACCA is more than happy to let you play detective, following the clues to assemble a picture of what you believe must be going on by the end of one episode before upending your expectations with the events of the next and sending you straight back to the drawing board, the proverbial red strings and pinned-up newspaper clippings now having to be re-configured to reflect the current state of play. Neither can you be entirely certain about Jean Otus himself; is he as conniving as the office gossips assume, an oblivious pawn in a grander scheme or merely playing the fool while he figures things out on his own end?

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I had tremendous fun watching ACCA as it aired, excitedly sharing theories with friends week on week hoping to beat the series to the truth before the ending. That it can prompt this response from a viewer continuously and sincerely is a feat in and of itself, though I’d be remiss to not mention the wealth of warmth and character contained within as well. Jean’s meetings with friends, colleagues or family may be duels of deception some of the time but others are genuine opportunities to spend a chilled out afternoon in the company of some very lovely people. The affection he has for those most important to him is palpable, usually split between doting on his younger sister Lotta and evening dates at the pub with his old photographer pal Nino, who also has a heavy air of mystery surrounding himself. Whatever you figure his intentions may be there’s no escaping that Jean is a truly affable dude who’s kind to everybody he meets, whether in the far flung districts with their own etiquette and social customs or the cosy confines of his favourite cafe. It’s good to know who you can rely on, especially in an environment of suspicion and misdirection like this one where trust is the greatest currency of all.

ACCA may not be the most outwardly bombastic series and your enjoyment of it will definitely hinge on your tolerance for its relentlessly relaxed atmosphere. Perhaps matching its leisurely pace with one episode at a time is the preferred method, lest you become a prisoner of chilling out. This will also give you a little time to digest the story content because half the fun of this show is formulating your own theories and trying to untangle the knots of social connections to arrive at the truth. In an era where our own real world politics have taken a decisively ugly turn it’s positively refreshing to see something where people sit down and talk things out like adults, and speaks volumes about the anime medium as a whole that there’s room for stories such as this one. Isn’t it nice to have a government conspiracy that doesn’t end in violent bloodshed for once?

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Department is available for streaming on Crunchyroll. Dig that smooth OP!