Ever wondered what it would be like to escape your everyday life and to have fun and adventures? Well for me, and I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of people, we all yearn for some form of escape from the real life. Anime is no exception to this, and certain shows touch upon it in interesting and varied ways. One that comes to mind is one that I have sought to re-examine for quite some time, and that is….
“Being Human and Having Your Health”
Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi
Studios: Gainax and Madhouse
Directors: Masayuki Kojima and Hiroyuki Yamaga
Writers: Satoru Akahori, Jukki Hanada and Hiroyuki Yamaga
So, this is just in case you’ve never heard of this show, and I can’t really blame you for that. Gainax created this Spring 2002 TV Series in the gulf between FLCL (2000) and Diebuster (2004). It is a period of Gainax productions not remembered by many fans; I mean who, amongst the scores of anime fans, knows of their output during the early 2000s? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Now, since this is a Gainax original production, it’s a bit quirky and weird, but it’s also based around a neat and simple premise. The story of this anime concerns two middle school kids, Sasshi and Arumi. The two live in Abenobashi, a shopping district located in Osaka, Japan as they deal with changes happening in their shopping neighborhood. While Sasshi is the mostly perverted massive nerd of the duo, Arumi is actually the more straightforward of the two. As it turns out, Arumi and her family plan to leave for Hokkaido for a better establishment for the family restaurant, which Sasshi doesn’t take all that well. Despite the plan to move, there still exists some generational conflict between Grandpa Masa (who wants to stay) and Arumi’s father (a chef with a phony french accent; seriously, very phony) who got the job offer prompting the need for a move. Later on, an incident involving Grandpa Masa acts as a trigger for incredibly strange events to follow, ending with the sudden realization that Arumi and Sasshi are no longer in Osaka.
What follows in the future episodes is a series of adventures in different worlds based on various genres of anime fiction; be it RPG fantasy, sci-fi, martial arts movies, prehistoric world, film noir, dating sim game or, heck, even war movies for our 2 young kids as they try to get back home. Granted, most of these adventures are steeped in the cliches and tropes of the genre those episodes explore and just lightly poke fun at just how fundamentally ridiculous those genres are. Besides our two kids, there are also people they know from the real Abenobashi that show up from time to time, in various roles and parts depending on the story. And of course, when they try to return via a very elaborate wish sequence, they end up in yet another ridiculous world. There is a reason for it, but it becomes a bit convoluted and much more confusing by the time the series comes to a close.
Now, one of the many issues with this show is the comedy. No really, you would think that getting Satoru Akahori, a guy well known for his comedic masterpieces in the 90s (KO Beast, Saber Marionette J, Maze, etc), to be one of the main writers/story editors on this and expect him to bring his all? Sadly, with this anime, this is not the case, as a lot of the humor the anime brings is repetitive gags and referential jokes (Which, unless you know the reference, don’t make much sense to begin with). The only thing that really works is the comedic double act between the straight-laced Arumi and the perverted wacko Sasshi. There are a few episodes that are funny (Imaishi’s episode 3 comes to mind) but rather, the laughs were a bit far and few between. It’s more of a light comedy than a parody; much less a satire, as some have pointed out about this show.
It doesn’t help that most of the character cast are disposable. Sure they come with the possibility of some broad comedic stereotypes (the local drag queen, the huckster you know on the corner, the fake French chef, etc) but they all end up pushing the same sort of joke. And that gets a bit tiresome after a while. The only characters that have some depth are Grandpa Masa, the sorcerer Eutus and the ever-present busty redhead Mune-Mune who has some subplot involving reincarnation and some possibly made-up spiritual mysticism which in the end doesn’t amount to much, aside from some poignant backstory material.
Then again the story at its core isn’t particularly funny. It is basically a ‘coming of age’ story for Sasshi as he learns to come to terms with the changing reality around him. While he comes across as being somewhat sympathetic, his actions are nothing short of being quite selfish. To add insult to injury, the finale is the greatest height this story gets to, and also pulls out the ultimate cop-out. It manages to serve as a point of tremendous culmination, and just as when it reaches a profound point, the anime goes ‘oh ok we pull this out our bum teehee the end’. The show teases towards something thoughtful, but then pulls a raspberry which renders that ending utterly meaningless.
Production is, well, Gainax, so there exists a wild variation from one episode to the next. Some episodes look rather well done, while others? Not so much, as they end up using lots of stock footage and/or shortcuts; particularly, the wish granting sequence. Getting Madhouse to co-produce it means that the production quality is just above average, at least for an early ‘00s anime production but not by much. The opening song ‘Treat or Goblins’ by Megumi Hayashibara is a nice bit of J-pop funky mix contrasted with the more soothing/laidback ending song ‘Anata no kokoro ni’. Of course, Shiro Sagisu’s soundtrack complements the series greatly and contains some nods to other Sagisu OSTs.
The English release done by ADV Films came in two waves: First as single DVDs in December 2003, January, March-April 2004, then as some complete collection sets released afterwards. This occurred near the start of the modern ADV era (2002-08), which is where I came into the anime fandom. I own the re-release of the full series by Sentai Filmworks, which came out a few years ago. The show also had a TV Broadcast on TechTV’s Anime Unleashed time block. Directed by Don Rush and written by Mike Yantosca, Abenobashi is well-directed with both a funny cast and a great cast to boot which helps to augment the comedy at times. Luci Christian and Jessica Boone are fantastic in their roles as Sasshi and Arumi. In fact, 2003 is the breakout year for Luci, who appeared in both Full Metal Panic and Super GALS in the same year.
Standouts in the supporting cast include Kaytha Coker and Chris Patton, as well as Jason Douglas as Ms. Aki who is just hilarious (lol). Granted, Southern accents abound but there isn’t anyone that really stumbles with them. This is somewhat justified in the reason being Kansai-ben is equivalent roughly to Southern American English. Thankfully, the AD Vid-Notes are a nice addition to provide context for all the references and included in the DVD set I got. Also the commentaries (episode 3 with Luci Christian and Jessica Boone, episode 12 with the two and John Gremillion) are quite fun to listen to. Outtakes on Discs 2-3 are quite humorous, though more like alternative takes if you ask me.
So, in the end, Abenobashi is a show that has something to say regarding escapism and why it’s necessary to live in the real world, but it seems content to only bring that point up then say ‘Nah I didn’t need to be so serious about it’. I find that just a bit annoying but then maybe the whole point of the show wasn’t to be so serious, all in jest. I still don’t know, but then again that is life isn’t it? A spectacular failure of a magic trick I’m sure.
So rest of month will be me finishing up my look at Shimoseka and then doing Anime Unleashed 2.0 Part II then a Halloween special review in October.
‘Til next time dear readers