Yu Yu Hakusho’s Second Season

I haven’t been compelled to write a longform article in a while but watching Yu Yu Hakusho’s second season helped cure me of that. With classic anime from the 80s and 90s, it’s hard to tell whether something acclaimed or nostalgically remembered by fans is actually worth your time, especially in light of the sheer volume of it all. Committing to Yu Yu Hakusho, a long-running series spanning over 100 episodes, takes some convincing. Though I’ve found the series to be overall enjoyable, the second season – the Dark Tournament arc – is among the better shounen adaptations I’ve seen.

Yu Yu Hakusho is based on the manga of the same name by Yoshihiro Togashi. Togashi is perhaps now more famous for his Hunter X Hunter than he is for Hakusho, but this was the series that established his name and set him up financially. It’s also the first shounen manga adaptation by Studio Pierrot, who today stands as the shounen powerhouse of the industry. A lot of the biggest names in shounen anime started out on Hakusho and the show was very much a trendsetter for Pierrot’s and other studios’ later offerings in the genre. Yu Yu Hakusho is split up into four seasons corresponding to the manga’s four story arcs. Most of the seasons are around 25 episodes in length with the second season nearly twice that. Though “season” is something of a misnomer since Yu Yu Hakusho aired continuously with a minimum of breaks, there seems to have been behind-the-scenes changes for the second story arc that resulted in a product much more highly polished than the other arcs, likely because it was the fan favorite from the manga.

Yu Yu Hakusho’s first season, covering the Spirit Detective arc in the manga, starts off on a good foot. The set-up – delinquent Yusuke sacrifices his life to save a child about to be hit by a car, is given a second chance at life as long as he becomes a ‘spirit detective’ hunting down demonic criminals – sounds promising but sadly this wasn’t yet the Togashi who could make a satisfying crime thriller as he did in Hunter X Hunter’s Yorkshin. Most of the cases Yusuke is handed entail “defeat X number of incrementally stronger demon criminals”. Fights are as you would expect: Yusuke and his opponent grapple for power, the opponent momentarily gets the upper hand, but Yusuke pulls off a miraculous comeback victory that has little to do with strategy or character and more to do with arbitrary power-ups. What’s worse, the visual stylization that would characterize the franchise starting with season two is mostly absent, confined to a few stand-out episodes. The first arc presents no real challenge for Yusuke and co. and largely exists as a means to introduce the supporting cast of Kuwabara, Hiei, and Kurama.

By comparison, the second arc lets you know its greater ambition from the very first episode. Toguro, a minor antagonist from the first arc whom Yusuke had thought he had beaten but in reality had faked his defeat, approaches Yusuke and forces him to enter the Dark Tournament upon threat of death. The Dark Tournament is a contest funded by wealthy humans in contact with the Demon World where teams of five fight eachother in one-on-one battles. Victory is awarded either by a ten second KO or by the death of one’s opponent, so the stakes are extremely high for the participants. Toguro himself can modulate his strength, represented as his muscles grotesquely mutating and growing, and at only 60% of his power Yusuke is left utterly terrified, the first time in the series he really displays any fear. Moreover, unlike the first arc, the lengthy, ritualized nature of the deathmatch tournament means there’s more room for long term mistakes on the part of the protagonists and even knowing that they’ll eventually succeed doesn’t make the fights any less suspenseful. It’s the first time the series sets up a long term goal and commits to it.

I’ve always enjoyed how Togashi’s stories have a quasi-Greco-Roman sense of value; honor through combat, strength as an aspect of one’s character, and so on. This is the kind of mentality one has to have in the worlds of Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter X Hunter, as both are utterly brutal states of nature where force is necessary to back up any system of values. It boils down shounen to its essence and the Dark Tournament arc is a perfect example of Togashi’s expertise in this mode.

Tournament arcs are notorious for their poor execution, often padded to hell with little significant character growth, but the Dark Tournament arc proves it can be done well. Each team that Yusuke’s team fights have their own identity and motivations for winning the tournament and pose their own unique challenges. Fights last only an episode or two each, sometimes less, so the pace is steady and it never feels protracted. There’s also some behind-the-scenes intrigue as the event’s organizers try to unfairly screw over Yusuke’s team in the earlier matches. As opposed to the first arc where it seemed like none of the characters were struggling for anything, each of Yusuke’s team members deals with their own challenges as the arc goes on: Hiei’s attempts to control his unstable and potentially suicidal Kokuryuha technique, Kuruma balancing his previous life as a god and his current life as the son of a human mother, Kuwabara trying to compensate for being the weakest member of the team, and, of course, Yusuke learning ‘the true meaning of strength’. In true Togashi fashion, Toguro gets flashes of inspired characterization too and the explanation of his backstory in the finale casts an entirely different light on the season’s events. Togashi isn’t always that great with the details (Why does Team Urameshi have to fight every single opponent even when they have three wins? What was the point of that subplot with Sakyo and Kuwabara’s sister?) and some of the comic relief moments feel strained, but he always nails the big picture and at his best you walk away with a feeling of completeness. Of all of Yu Yu Hakusho’s arcs, Dark Tournament is the one that strikes the best balance between traditional martial arts shounen and corny 80s horror film atmosphere that Togashi was trying to capture.

Of course, however great the original manga’s story might be it would be nothing without a strong production to back it up and this is where I found YYH S2 shines the most. With long-running franchises where animation resources are strained by tight schedules, the most efficient way of keeping up quality is through active and involved directors. For Yu Yu Hakusho the big name is Akiyuki Shinbo. Shinbo was present in the first season, but there his episodes stood out drastically from the rest. Gaudy colors, chiaroscuro shading, strobing light effects, warped layouts/backgrounds, backlighting, Dezakian tricks like triple takes and postcard shots – in the first season, only Shinbo was doing any of that. Starting with Dark Tournament, however, something must have changed. Suddenly, a more unified stylistic paradigm emerges as all of the conservative episode directors from the first season (even including the series director Noriyuki Abe) start to copy Shinbo’s techniques. What’s more, Shinbo’s output greatly increases, not only on his own episodes but on others’ as well with his favorite animator Atsushi Wakabayashi becoming something of the season’s defining animator. To top it all off, Shinbo’s episodes cover the most pivotal events in the story. It makes me wish more behind-the-scenes information was public because it seems as if Shinbo was promoted to assistant director (if he wasn’t already – he co-directed the first OP and ED with Abe) or otherwise became something of a de facto director with the rest of the staff following his lead. In any case, Shinbo’s style pervades the second season so fully that it bears comparison to what Kunihiko Ikuhara was doing with Sailor Moon around the same time. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Yu Yu Hakusho’s Dark Tournament arc is Shinbo’s Sailor Moon S.

Animation is another area where this season excels. Usually with long-running shounen, consistently good animation is impossible within the limits of their scheduling and the impressive moments are limited to a few stand-out episodes. That’s why, while watching this season I was somewhat incredulous – how could they possibly keep up these exciting and dynamic cuts on such a regular basis? Many great animators worked on Dark Tournament: besides Wakabayashi, there’s Akitoshi Yokoyama, Tetsuya Nishio, Hidetsugu Ito, Takashi Tomioka, Hiroki Kanno, Masayuki Yoshihara, Satoru Utsunomiya, Tatsuya Oishi, and tons more. The animation is also extremely varied in style; it’s clear being ‘on-model’ wasn’t a priority for the animation staff. Another thing I particularly liked was how freely the show used background animation. Background animation is trickier than plain character animation as it requires drawing everything in frame instead of just the characters, making its omnipresence throughout a season of a long-running franchise all the more unusual. The most dynamic fights use the camera’s placement and motion to shape the action just as much as flashy swordsmanship or CQC. It’s not BONES; there are cost-saving measures here and there, stuff you’d normally expect from the genre (flashbacks, retreading scenes at the beginning of episodes (although strangely they tend to redraw/refilm these parts), internal monologues, reused finishers and so on). But the show has a surprisingly high bar of quality, especially in light of it being twice as long as the other arcs. To sample what I’m talking about, I recommend this MAD for Wakabayashi, keeping in mind that it’s far from comprehensive of everything he did for the season.

Tetsuya Nishio said that when he worked on Yu Yu Hakusho there was a climate of friendly rivalry among the staff, that whenever someone did something cool everyone else would try to one-up it. I think that’s a good summary for how this season feels; every time you think the show has peaked, it surpasses those expectations a short while later. As Yusuke’s team progresses through the ranks, each round gets more and more grandiose. It’s fitting that Shinbo’s episode 58, something of a 1990s equivalent to Naruto Shippuden 167, occurs towards the end of the arc. It all comes together with the final round between Team Urameshi and Team Toguro, a suitably hotblooded finale with some great direction and animation.

All in all, I was immensely impressed with Yu Yu Hakusho’s second season, especially given my low expectations going in. It took me months of on-and-off watching to finish the first arc but I binged season 2 in under a week. It possesses many trappings of the genre, sure, but it’s as much of a revelation for shounen as Sailor Moon S was for the magical girl genre. I haven’t seen the fourth season and I’ve only seen part of the third, but I know that the polish and drive of this arc wasn’t reached again, especially with Shinbo’s declining role on the franchise (although his episode 74 in the subsequent Chapter Black saga is among his best work on the show). It says something that I’m more interested in rewatching this arc again than finishing up the series. More than the storytelling and production polish, it has this sense of economy that exploits the tournament arc format more efficiently than all its contemporaries. I know most recommendations to skip or skim through one arc of a show to get to another aren’t usually advisable, but any way you can you must make the time for this season. A classic.

[As an aside, the show’s VA cast is incredible. Megumi Ogata (Sailor Uranus), Nobuyuki Hiyama (Viral from TTGL), and Shigeru Chiba (Megane from Urusei Yatsura) form 3/4ths of the main cast and Norio Wakamoto plays a secondary character at the tournament. Mandatory subs.]

And, finally, a sample of the Dark Tournament arc’s visual style:

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hxh 99> hxh 2011 btw [rehost]

This is a repost of an article from my old old blog. At the time I was writing this my knowledge about anime production stuff was fairly meager but I think everything below still holds up. I know a few people enjoyed this specific article so I thought it would be worth rehosting, and I might rehost a few others like it in the future. I’m not particularly interested in getting into a lengthy debate about HxH so don’t waste your breath on a massive counter-opus in the comments. But I hope it generates discussion among others.

There’s two things I want to add in retrospect. First, never underestimate the importance of how you convey visual information. Anime is in as good a state as it ever has been, but the >50 episode series is a dying art and the biggest reason why is a lack of capable episode directors. HxH might be an engaging story in its own right but if its presentation is poor then entire work will suffer. Second, anime adaptations where a personal vision supersedes the original source material are generally preferable to a straight adaptation, regardless of the quality of said original material. This isn’t just an empirical observation (FMA>FMA:B, Sailor Moon OG>Sailor Moon Crystal) but something fundamental: if the director cares about the adaptation personally, then they have a greater stake in its success. Say what you will about Furuhashi’s additions here and there; the direction and writing in HxH 1999 are far more consistently and cohesively realized than the Madhouse adaptation, which suffers from extreme disparities in quality on an episode-by-episode basis.

I’ve been watching a lot of Hunter x Hunter recently, and I’m struck by the disparity of quality between the 1999-2001 Nippon Animation adaptation and the currently airing Madhouse version. In my eyes, the former outclasses the latter in its direction to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine anyone believing otherwise. Yet, many seem to prefer the 2011 version. I’m gonna demonstrate why I see things this way by comparing how both versions deal with the end of the Hunter Exam arc (episodes 27-30 in ’99, 19-21 in 2011). Some might object that the 2011 rendition gets significantly better once it’s past the Hunter Exam arc, and judging it in this way is unfair, but I don’t think so. Firstly, the Hunter Exam arc is incredibly important for building the leads’ personalities and backstories. A lot of what follows the Hunter Exam arc only has weight given the events in these episodes. Secondly, while the newer adaptation does get better as time goes on, so does the ’99 version, and the storyboarding problems highlighted here never really go away. Thirdly, I find “it gets better after X episodes” to be an unconvincing argument, especially for a long running series such as HxH. If the first 20 (!!) episodes of a show are bad, I have no problem saying said show isn’t worth watching. Though I won’t pass judgement on 2011 HxH entirely, since I’ve yet to see how they’re handling the Chimera Ant arc, I can safely say the 1999 adaptation covers the first four arcs dramatically better than the 2011 one.

I want to point out some general visual differences first. For ’99, lighting is a big asset in setting tone and mood

You can immediately tell those shots are set at different times of the day, and as the fights progress in the final exam, the sunset becomes more and more ominously red, marking the difference between Gon’s recovery room and flashbacks to the fights even more starkly. The change is gradual, but correlates to the successive seriousness of each fight (Kurapika vs Hisoka then Hanzo vs Gon then finally Illumi vs Killua). In 2011, however…

What the hell is this? Are there invisible floodlights hidden everywhere in the world of HxH? Whatever the reason, the lighting here is horrific, and doesn’t match the mood of the scene at all. Two notable things from the last screenshot: 1) at times, the depth of field is shallow for seemingly no reason (’99 is usually shot in “deep focus” and modifies DOF only during poignant scenes) and it looks really ugly, and 2) while I appreciate the liberal references to Arabic architecture like the Court of the Lions and the Mosque of Cordoba in the set design here, it looks kinda tacky. In my opinion, such a blatant real-world artistic reference doesn’t work for the show’s vaguely-defined fantastical setting.

The character design is also worse in 2011. Compare the designs for the character Satotz:

The 2011 one has a more exaggerated feature set and is more diminutive. The color work in 2011 is brighter and a bit garish compared to the Earthier palette of ’99. In 2011, he looks like a caricature of an adult, in ’99 like an actual adult. This type of stylization isn’t on-face bad, as it’s suitable for the average fighting shounen. But Hunter x Hunter isn’t the average fighting shounen; very frequently it goes into darker territory, and the show is more of an action-thriller than a straight up fighting shounen anyway. The more naturalistic designs of ’99 are a better fit for the material.

The ending of the Hunter Exam arc is comprised of a series of one-on-one battles where winning a single match guarantees passing the test. The fights are a big draw, obviously, but the most important thing here is how the characters’ personal journeys resolve. Only ’99 understands this, however.

’99 starts the test with the Kurapika vs Hisoka fight, while 2011 delays it till after the Hanzo vs Gon fight. In 2011, it’s little more than an afterthought, while in ’99 it helps reveal a lot about the fighters’ motivations.

Look at this framing! Very little actual fighting occurs, much more emphasis is placed on Kurapika positioning himself for an attack. There are a lot of POV shots too. In general, ’99 goes to great lengths to convey the fighters’ perspective during fights. Despite Hisoka’s taunts, Kurapika manages to land a counterattack on Hisoka.

Hisoka has a moment of weakness; he wants to kill Kurapika, but letting him grow stronger would make killing him later more satisfying. The ’99 Hisoka is far more menacing because he isn’t some impenetrable monster, but an unpredictable deviant. The 2011 Hisoka, on the other hand, is more like a B-tier JoJo villain, and his fight with Kurapika in that version reflects that.

A whole lot of posing and speedlines with no buildup or tension. Hisoka is some crazy powerful dude, Kurapika is made to be the stooge, nothing more. For comparison, while the Kurapika vs Hisoka fight in ’99 takes up over half an episode, in 2011 it’s over in literally 5 seconds.

Next up is the Hanzo vs Gon fight, and in ’99 it’s more of a beating than an actual fight.

Hanzo breaks Gon’s arm, damages his spinal cord, and crushes one of his ears. The 2011 version is superficially similar, but falters in several respects. First, Hanzo in 2011 is cool and collected for most of the fight, only breaking down towards the end. In the ’99 version, Hanzo is evidently frustrated with Gon’s stubborn refusal to give up, lending greater emotional weight to the proceedings. The tone of the fight in ’99 is much more violent too, with Hanzo torturing Gon mercilessly. In 2011, it’s more like a standard “never give up!” shounen fight.

The Hanzo vs Gon fight is good place to examine the issue of animation quality. This can refer to either each show’s best moments of animation (ie the sakuga fights) or to the average episode-by-episode quality of the visuals. For the former, I personally prefer Norio Matsumoto’s and Akira Matsushima’s work in ’99 over anything in 2011 (compare these sakuga MADs for ’99 and 2011). As for the general visual quality of the show, while Madhouse can be commended for maintaining a consistent animation quality, the bad art design and storyboarding really brings down the show, whereas Kazuhiro Furuhashi’s excellent direction in ’99 renders any small animation shortcut negligible. For instance, here is how the climax to the Hanzo vs Gon fight is framed in ’99:

Beautiful. The last shot in particular is great because Hanzo later mentions that his reason for sparing Gon was because his eyes lacked hatred. The same can’t be said of Gon in 2011, who looks like a generic angry shounen protag. 2011 tries something similar visually but ends up being, uh, less effective:

What is with this gross violet matte? And why are we so far away from Gon and Hanzo during their most impactful moment? 2011 simply commits far too many cinematographical sins in any given scene to list them all here, but this one couldn’t have come at a worst time!

Gon wins and wakes up a day later in a resting area. There he chats with Satotz and learns of what happened to the rest of the candidates. I’ve always like this way of framing the rest of the matches, but only ’99 pulls it off effectively. In 2011, the narration is intrusive. For instance, here is how 2011 portrays the Bodoro vs Hisoka fight:

Oh for fucking real dude? I couldn’t tell. Here’s how ’99 makes the fight seem one-sided:

He lets himself get punched in the face while yawning (to no effect) and then takes down his opponent using his pinky, to prevent himself from accidentally killing him. Again, like the Kurapika match, 2011 pointlessly abridges this fight.

All could be forgiven if the Illumi vs Killua fight had been done well. Arguably the payoff for the entire arc, it establishes the importance of Gon and Killua’s friendship, the dangerous nature of the Zoldyck family, and sets into motion many of the series later events. As I pointed out earlier, ’99 often likes to use POV shots to involve the audience more intimately in the fights. During his match with Killua, we get a strong sense of what kind of a person Illumi is.

(note: the mountain in the background is the zoldyck family manor, giving this shot more significance upon rewatch)

I think a lot of these shots speak for themselves. As for 2011, well…

Who is this clown and why should we care?? Is he supposed to be threatening? Because nothing in this scene effectively conveys that. The lack of POV shots is doubly problematic, not just in their absence but in how nothing meaningful replaced them. They couldn’t have phoned in Illumi’s introduction more. Worse yet, instead of the visceral images of ’99, 2011 uses a generic hypnotic spiral to signify Illumi’s control over his brother.

looks like illumi borrowed that ugly matte from hanzo lol

2011′s terrible soundtrack makes this scene even worse. While ’99′s OST is often fitting, very much so during the Illumi fight, 2011 uses a lot of out of place electric guitar riffs. I couldn’t help but think the 2011 Illumi is supposed to be some jaded hair metal bassist instead of a ruthless killer.

Gon’s confrontation with Illumi is affected by bad sound design too. ’99 uses this track to build-up the tension, while 2011 uses some generic marching band snare drums that eliminates any sense of stake from the encounter. In ’99 the confrontation is messier and more emotional, causing Illumi to lose a bit of his poise

whereas in 2011 it’s a “badass” shounen moment where Gon lifts Illumi over his head no problem.

I could go on and on. The general level of polish is just so much lower in the 2011 version it’s disheartening. Sometimes people point out similarities between these debates about which version of HxH is better and the debates about Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. While Brotherhood is more poorly storyboarded than FMA, the main point of contention there is the differing scripts. With Hunter x Hunter, both adaptations share more-or-less the same narrative. As such, it baffles me when people say they prefer the 2011 version because, from where I’m standing, there isn’t anything to favor. A downgrade in every sense.

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AOTY 2014

Thought I’d throw this up on here instead of twitlonger. For me, 2014 means it either first screened in 2014 (so no Kaguya-hime) or it finished broadcasting in 2014 (so Shirobako, Parasyte, etc are ineligible). No honorable mentions either because if you limit yourself to a Top 10 you better commit to it. None of this wishy washy “every decent anime of the year gets a spot” kinda shit. Top 10 lists aren’t really reliable in retrospect but they’re a good way to spread the word about some slept on gems and I hope anyone reading this checks out the entries on this list that they haven’t seen yet.

1/Wonder (Mirai Mizue)
2/Ping Pong (Masaaki Yuasa)
3/Space Dandy (Shingo Natsume/Shinichiro Watanabe)
4/00:08 (Yutaro Kubo)
5/Mushishi Zoku Shou (Hiroshi Nagahama)
6/nini (Saho Nanjo)
7/20min Walk From Nishi-Ogikubo Station, 2 Bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, 2mos deposit, No Pets Allowed (Mahiro Maeda)
8/Tamako Love Story (Naoko Yamada)
9/Lupin the IIIrd: Daisuke Jigen’s Gravestone (Takeshi Koike)
10/Ai Mai Mi: Mousou Catastrophe (Itsuki Imazaki)

Haven’t seen: My Milk Cup Cow (Zhu Yantong), Legend of the Forest Part 2 (Macoto Tezuka). Keblujara (Akihito Nonowe/Isao Sano/Konoka Takashiro), Mrs. KABAGodZILLA (Moe Koyano), Toruru’s Adventure (various), Binetsu [2014] (Saho Nanjo)

1/Wonder (Mirai Mizue): I think this one needs an introduction since I imagine most normal anime fans don’t follow indie animation. Mirai Mizue is an acclaimed abstract animator who co-founded the prominent indie anime label CALF (I’ve written more about his career here for those interested). Wonder was a kickstarter-backed project where Mizue drew 24 frames of animation a day spanning a year, from April 1st 2012 to April 1st 2013, and was finally released to the public early this year. The project was like an Oulipo-style constrained writing experiment where the ritualistic nature of drawing a set number of frames day in/day out would serve as a motivator for creative evolution. Mizue says that initially he didn’t have many ideas and filling out the full 24 frames was a chore but by the end he had so many ideas 24 frames a day wasn’t enough. The final result is a year’s worth of accelerated artistic development compressed to eight minutes and in that respect alone it’s worth watching.

But I don’t think that will convince many that Wonder is the best of the year. Part of it, I think, is a bias against abstract art. It looks pretty and all but without CHARACTERS and PLOT how can it have THEMES? The key to understanding Wonder is to look at Mizue’s influences: Norman McLaren, Fantasia, and the Absolut Film movement. All three in their own way embody this idea of animation as visual music, where shapes and motion replace tones. Wonder very much belongs to this tradition as an “animated symphony” of sorts and its themes are expressed primarily as recurring motifs. Mizue has always been fascinated with biology and, more generally, the conflict between biological entities and their geometric organization. Wonder starts at the microbial level and develops with cells evolving into higher and higher organisms. Sperm cells inseminate an egg which then morphs into a dancing silhouette. Snakes ball up around a focal point where an image of a cow is inserted for a split second. The sun appears as the source of life and power with its rays stretching out into the sea. It’s the cumulative effect of all these images whizzing by that makes the ending so satisfying, something that finds sublimity in the formation of life alone. It doesn’t need social actors, or characters of any type, or even human figuration to deliver an emotional experience that can inform us about the world.

In terms of 2014 anime, nothing came even close to Wonder in this respect. It’s the only anime this year that can reward over a dozen rewatches and in pure breadth of technical ability few animators are in Mizue’s league. Wonder may not have complicated subtext, and its images never create an impression of dramatic space, but Mizue’s finely-wrought surface is deeper than every commercial production of 2014.

2/Ping Pong (Masaaki Yuasa): But that doesn’t mean commercial anime is doing poorly! That two of the biggest anime studios in Japan, Madhouse and Studio 4C, have been cutting fat checks for Masaaki Yuasa to go off and make lavishly produced experimental anime for over a decade despite almost all of his projects bombing proves that the anime industry is doing better creatively than is often thought (arguably better than Hollywood right now, but that’s a different discussion). The last few years have seen Yuasa strive for greater independence with the consolidation of his inner circle, the formation of his own studio, and the pioneering of crowd funding methods. It’s ironic then that the “Yuasa show for those that don’t like Yuasa” Ping Pong is 100% pure Yuasa, every episode storyboarded by the man himself without any of his usual collaborators doing crazy standalone episodes. It’s also his most tightly scheduled show and the usual polish of Yuasa’s work is thrown out in favor of something rawer. It couldn’t have come at a better time: with this resurgence in sports anime, Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga is an excellent rejoinder to the idea that spirit and hard work are all that it takes to make a great athlete. Ping Pong argues that innate talent is the bottom line and rather than invest in the usual handwringing over Who Will Win?! (A: the main character) the show focuses on how various players confront this fundamental truth. Why they want to play the sport, what they’re hoping to get out of it, et cetera, and the interesting personalities that fill the main cast give this relatively simple premise plenty of legs. In fact, despite the fact that Ping Pong “is not really about the sport”, it takes the act of playing a sport more seriously than any of its contemporaries. A cerebral approach to the sports melodrama. While there’s still an argument to be made for Tatami Galaxy as Yuasa’s best TV anime, Ping Pong is definitely in the running and easily the most accomplished TV anime of the year.

As an aside; Yuasa definitely has the biggest claim for Man of the Year. Working himself so hard on a number of different projects that he was getting 30 minutes of sleep a night, but never letting that impact his work or causing unprofessional behavior. With a new “studio” (or whatever Science Saru is) I hope Yuasa can exert as much control over his projects in the future as he did here.

3/Space Dandy (Shingo Natsume/Shinichiro Watanabe): No show this year was better at bringing out the sodium chloride than Space Dandy. It had a weak start (the show’s biggest detractors love to boast that they never made it past episode 3), Junichi Suwabe’s Dandy wasn’t as suave as Spike or Mugen (many missed the overt Space Adventure Cobra parody), it had the unfair expectation of meeting/surpassing Cowboy Bebop (an entirely different type of show), and worst of all it was popular with the Toonami crowd. You can’t argue with the facts though: pound for pound, Space Dandy is the single best collection of episodes produced by BONES in the last five years going on ten. Watanabe has always had a skill for assembling the best of young and old talent on his projects but Dandy went even further, the final stafflist resembling something out of a bullshit hype-crazed 2ch post: Goro Taniguchi, Keiko Nobumoto, Yasuhiro Nakura, Toshio Hirata, Fumihiko Takayama, Katsuhiro Otomo, solo episodes by Kiyotaka Oshiyama and Michio Mihara, the list goes on. Even some of the episode premises sound like insane counterfactuals designed to excite staff whores. “An entire episode with dozens of parallel universe characters all designed and animated by different people”. “An episode written by hard scifi novelist Toh Enjoe about the interaction between second-, third-, and fourth-dimensional space”. It’s no wonder Kenichi Yoshida complained that Space Dandy made it hard to recruit animators for G-Reco.

However, what elevates Space Dandy above merely being a collection of standout individual episodes is its committed focus to ideas. The plot’s surprisingly deliberate metastructure means each episode can go crazy, even to the extent killing off the leads, and not hinder the following episode staff’s creative autonomy. I find Ben Ettinger’s description of the show as “space opera via the cartoon” to be apt as the main appeal of Dandy for me was how it channeled speculative scifi concepts through the unpredictability of a Saturday morning cartoon. The main cast all have their own charm too and Dandy especially gets an unexpected level of development in the back half as his laissez-faire attitude is given a something of a philosophical basis. Each episode, even the weaker ones, usually have at the bare minimum an interesting setting, and more often that not the main issue isn’t too few but too many ideas to fit the 20 minute run time (see: all of Nobumoto’s episodes). Even the comparatively weaker first cour was far and away better than anything that was airing in its season. That’s why I find it unfair to damn Dandy for episodes like 3 and 19 because in every respect Dandy is a worthy addition to the likes of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. It’s not like those two didn’t have their share of middling episodes either, and Dandy’s highs are just as high as the best episodes of Bebop and Champloo. An easy recommendation for both casual and hardcore fans alike, stuck-up herbs need not apply.

4/00:08 (Yutaro Kubo): I’m still disappointed for missing the GEIDAI graduate exhibition USTREAM this year but I’m really glad I got to see this one, by all accounts one of the two highlights from this year’s class (the other being Zhu Yantong’s ‘My Milk Cow Cup’). Despite the breadth of talent they employ, Tokyo U’s GEIDAI program is most well known for having Koji Yamamura as part of their teaching staff. While Yamamura’s influence is evident for many of their graduates (Ryu Kato is a notable example), no-one from GEIDAI really had the claim to be Yamamura’s successor until Yutaro Kubo showed up out of nowhere last year. Kubo assisted Yamamura on his Hyuga episode of Kojiki (the closest thing to a KA credit in indie anime you’ll likely get) and animated the music video “crazy for it”. 00:08 capitalizes on that momentum well. In a year where many of the GEIDAI seniors focused on personal, diaristic films, Kubo went for full-on formalism. 00:08 takes an eight second cut of a man picking up and drinking a tea cup, loops it, and introduces progressively robust interstitial segments between the frames. The effect distorts our perception of time as we still pass through the sequence linearly even when Kubo’s tangents become increasingly lengthy and bizarre. Despite the rigid structure, it’s a really psychedelic watch. It reminds me of Yamamura’s early quasi-serial films Hyakkazukan and Suisei, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was Kubo’s intent. However, Kubo bests those films by a greater range of styles and modes; any weaknesses he has as a draftsman are almost entirely obscured by ever-shifting form. It’s animated cubism, Kubo never completely sketching out his figures but using the montage effect to simulate (and subvert) wholeness. This film was a grower for me and I now realize Kubo is one of the most promising new face on the indie anime scene from these last few years. ARTE has made 00:08 legally streamable online here.

5/Mushishi Zoku Shou (Hiroshi Nagahama): It’s Mushishi. The ballot writes itself. Instead of justifying why it’s #5 I probably ought to justify why it isn’t #1. The first season of Mushishi not only pruned a lot of the weaker stories from the manga but went through them in a mostly linear fashion. Zoku Shou is a grab bag of random episodes from the manga sequenced out of order, meaning a story from volume 2 might be followed by a story from volume 5 and so on [edit: Someone must have been trolling because the last time I checked Wiki I swear it had random volume numbers for the episodes. Turns out Zoku Shou actually is more or less the 2nd half of the manga. It’s just that the second half is something of a tonal grab bag anyway]. It’s not that Zoku Shou’s episodes are weaker; it’s that they aren’t paced together that well. The second season might even have as much of an emotional breadth as season one but similarly themed stories are clustered together and create an impression of monotony. Still, this is a relatively minor complaint as a season of Mushishi B-sides is still Mushishi and many of Zoku Shou’s episodes are easily among the year’s best. It’s a testament to the dedication of Nagahama that the show is as good as it is. Even when an episode’s story is lacking in pathos, Nagahama’s careful storyboarding presents us with a richly evocative depiction of the natural world. It’s like a collection of animated nature poetry. This season also reminded me why Nagahama is my favorite Ikuhara-taught director. Almost all of Zoku Shou was storyboarded by Nagahama, as opposed to only 3 episodes in the original, but it’s hard to tell the difference given how strongly Nagahama enforces a consistent aesthetic on his projects. I also have to give props for his decision to delay episodes rather than release them in lower quality: Mushishi wouldn’t be the same without Umakoshi’s careful attention to detail (the mushi are animated on the 1s!!). When you think about it, Mushishi Zoku Shou has been airing for practically the entire year, from the initial special in January to the final episodes in December (though we still have that ‘movie’ next year). That something so staunchly indifferent to the bottom line and fully committed to its creator’s vision can survive in the anime industry is really encouraging.

6/nini (Saho Nanjo): I think the reason I like Saho Nanjo’s self-made videos so much are because they remind me a lot of Koujiro Shishido’s web videos from nearly a decade ago: wordless, introspective portrayals of intensely physical situations. While Shishido’s films were all about closeted homosexuality, Nanjo’s seem to be focused on illness and impairment. It makes me wonder if this isn’t partly autobiographical because of how profoundly felt the visuals are. Nini is easily Nanjo’s best yet, and his draftsmanship and command of mood are drastically better here than in his previous efforts. It’s slightly inscrutable: there’s this recurring metaphor about the boy’s mother as nature and the film takes place in this disembodied dreamscape whose imagery is hard to disentangle (It’s snowing inside (emotionally) despite it being sunny and warm outside? Or is it that the boy has been bedridden for months?). Still, it’s something I’ve come back to more than once over the year and that’s saying a lot considering all the chintzy indie stuff that gets dumped on Youtube/Vimeo these days (technically not 2014 but Ryosuke Oshiro got a lot of undeserved buzz this year imo). I see this film as (hopefully) a prototype for Nanjo’s future work and his first properly ‘mature’ outing. It makes me really wish his remake of Binetsu, which he made right after this, was available online. Nini can be viewed here on Nanjo’s Youtube account.

7/20min Walk From Nishi-Ogikubo Station, 2 Bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, 2mos deposit, No Pets Allowed (Mahiro Maeda): The Khara Animator Expo came out of nowhere this year and thank God for it. Given the sheer number of Ls from Trigger in 2014, Khara’s resurgence has been great for those of us nostalgic for classic Gainax. Though there have been a number of interesting entries (Me!Me!Me!, The Dragon Dentist, Carnage), Mahiro Maeda’s cumbrously Owen Land-length titled short wins the prize for the best so far. I’ve yet to see the hour long interview with Maeda about Nishi-Ogikubo that might confirm some of my suspicions, but the fact that Maeda was given a lengthy interview about it indicates its relative prestige over the others. Maeda is an eccentric personality in the anime industry – an ascetic who doesn’t drink or smoke with a literary mind towards his projects – and it’s a shame he doesn’t get many opportunities in the director’s chair. Nishi-Ogikubo is something of a cross between Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Tom & Jerry where a women finds herself shrunken to miniature size but appears to her unshrunken boyfriend in the form of a cockroach (knowing Maeda, it’s likely that this is an explicit reference to Kafka). It’s a simple conceit but one where the execution makes the payoff (protagonist waking from her dream sees a cockroach on the floor implying that it’s her boyfriend before he enters the frame and crushes it with a magazine) effective. Takeshi Honda et al’s handling of the animation is commendable too. It’s not just that there are a lot of exceptional cuts here but that a comprehensive style was developed for the film. There’s a great sense of the disparity in scale between the woman and her boyfriend and Honda seems to have messed with the framerate for stylistic effect. When the woman first wakes up the slower framerate matches her grogginess and when the action picks up Inoue, Ohira, Hashimoto and others help create a suitably fluid and dense expressionistic chaos. If this is any indication, I can’t wait to see what Khara will do for the remaining 23 shorts next year. The film can be streamed for free here.

8/Tamako Love Story (Naoko Yamada): Really surprised how much I enjoyed this one because when you’ll boil it down TLS is little more than a date movie. Maybe it’s because I’ve started to appreciate Yamada as a director this year. Her stuff is generally sentimental and kitschy, but the systematic and analytic way she goes about it means I can’t help but root her on. Since K-On!! and Love Story are such massive improvements over their first iterations it makes me wonder if Yamada likes to throw every idea into her initial efforts as an experiment for the followup. For Tamako, the annoying bird and related subplot from the original are confined to a disposable and easily-skipped short film at the beginning a la Pixar. The film proper is focused exclusively on the two leads with a minimum of distractions. Yamada even said she designed the film to be approachable for new audiences because she wanted young couples who don’t normally watch anime to watch it in theaters. She also storyboarded the entire film (rare for franchise features) and her style seeps through in every shot. Not just that patented KyotoAni telephoto cinematography but all the amateur filmmaking contrivances (stop motion, time lapse, some fairly beautiful abstract sequences) are her and her alone. It’s a feel-good film and while I don’t think it has the narrative organization of a Hyouka or a K-On!! that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a watch. In an era where KyotoAni’s shows are increasingly poorly scheduled, where cinematography seems to matter to them less and less, and where awful selections from their personal LN label torpedo shows with promising staff choices, TLS is a reminder why anyone ever cared about this studio to begin with. It would easily fit in with their golden age shows like Hyouka, K-On!!, and Nichijou, and comes recommended to anyone who enjoyed any of those three. I can only hope that we’ll see more of this from the studio next year and less JC Staff-tier romcom nonsense like Amagi Brilliant Park and KnK (oh….).

9/Lupin the IIIrd: Daisuke Jigen’s Gravestone (Takeshi Koike): The perfect remedy for those that got burned with 2012’s Fujiko Mine failing to live up to its potential. Koike’s presence as director and AD means no more gross cross-hatching and plenty of swagger in the storyboards. Most importantly, it means Lupin’s 1970s pseudo-Europe feels fully-realized. Koike is the kind of artist to conceive a fleshed-out universe and dwell in it for a while. The block-shaded, run-down scifi Americana that defined Trava and Redline arguably informed the visual framework for all his minor works during his first decade as a director. The Lupinverse that he debuted for Fujiko seemed to follow suit (it looks like a goddamn graphic novel!) but the absence of Koike from the project severely hindered that show’s success. Thankfully, he didn’t let the concept die and Gravestone shows that even without an enormous staff of expert animators Koike can manage to make something cool. There’s a spirit of playful homage throughout the OVA that reminds me of Dezaki’s Lupin specials: it’s as if the film knew it was a ‘minor’ work and focused on fun over labored artistry. I could even forgive the weird sex club scene that alienated a lot of people since it was an explicit reference to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, complete with repetitive piano music and masks. It’s this parodist quality to Koike’s art that I enjoy the most, how he builds these impressive symbolic universes and let’s us loose to explore them. There are rumors that the Mamo tease at the end means Koike will be back in 2015 for another OVA focusing on Zenigata and I honestly can’t wait. If Gravestone is any indication Blue Jacket Lupin might end up being the series’ best since, well, the era of the Dezaki’s specials.

10/Ai Mai Mi: Mousou Catastrophe (Itsuki Imazaki): While short shows are still mostly ghettoized as trashy 4koma adaptations the last two years have seen a coordinated attempt to elevate the form. Whether by experimenting in longform storytelling (Pupipo), adapting better material (Tonari no Seki-kun), trying different genres (Yamishibai), using a nontraditional visual style (Nandaka Veronica), or simply having better animation (Yama no Susume) it seemed like this year’s selection for short shows was the most legitimate it’s ever been. I wasn’t crazy about any of the above but I definitely appreciate their attempts. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Imazaki’s Ai Mai Mi. Ai Mai Mi’s second season, like the first, is a deranged comedy in the vein of 2011’s Plastic Nee-san in that takes the stereotypical slice of life setup of a couple of girls in a high school club and compresses the scenarios to absurdity (“Mai and Mi have a race to carry molten lava to a shinto temple using their bare hands/mouths in order to resolve a dispute about whether the voice actresses they follow on Twitter are virgins”). A big reason why the comedy works comes from Imazaki’s drawings, which always feel on the verge of instability. It’s similar to what Shin Itagaki was trying to do with Teekyuu but that show was too conservative in its draftsmanship and writing for me. Imazaki, on the other hand, is willing to take the neo-Kanada style in a completely new direction. Some have compared his newer style to Yuasa but I disagree: his compositions are full of Kanadaesque tells and his character designs have this willful stupidity about them that can’t be found in Yuasa’s art.

Furthermore, Ai Mai Mi can be seen as an advertisement for the advantages of the short format: Imazaki did nearly everything on his own, including animation, storyboarding, writing, editing, sound design, even some voice acting on minor characters. It’s impressive too because taken together, aside from a weak first episode and some poor filter usage that can obscure his drawings, Ai Mai Mi might be the most consistent short series of the year. It’s rewarding to see how far Imazaki has come. He’s always been on the periphery of relevance and this new format has offered him the perfect opportunity to make a name for himself. His Danna ga episode 11 was great too and tonally far removed from Ai Mai Mi so I’m eager to see where he goes from here. MIP of 2014.


Overall, a solid year. Each season had at least one show worth watching and the smaller stuff helped pick up the slack. Probably will end up weaker than 2013 – if only because there’s still indie stuff from 2013 that haven’t gotten disc releases yet – but definitely stronger & more consistent on the commercial front than last year. People get pessimistic about the state of anime but honestly right now the industry is in as good as a shape as it’s ever been. If you insist on watching the higher profile shows like Parasyte or Bahamut or Log Horizon don’t be surprised when they turn out to be really cliched and predictable (not bad in and of itself obv). But if you limit yourself to the artsier fare then it’s harder to remain pessimistic: I can safely say the above list is more diverse in terms of genre and directorial style than everything I’ve seen from Hollywood this year (and the last several years too) and if you care about animation at all I recommend checking them out.

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the penguindrum post

Rewatches can be a strange thing. Armed with a bit of extra context and some breathing room, a show you’ve already seen once before can seem entirely new. First impressions are not the ones that hold in the long run and even if a second watch does nothing but confirm your first, it’s rarely time wasted. I can think of no better candidate for a rewatch than Mawaru Penguindrum: not only is a new Ikuhara show on the way and a nuanced reaction to his previous can only help us set expectations accordingly, but the nature of the show’s release and Ikuhara’s theatrical sensibilities made MPD uniquely prone to crackpot theorizing and polemical backlash. It’s worth noting that the initial reception of Utena was just as divisive and the drip by drip release of television can sometimes prevent us from the seeing a work as a completed entity.

My initial response to Penguindrum was the common one: the show is great in individual doses but fails as a cohesive whole, the narrative thrust aimless, ultimately succumbing to Ikuhara’s worst tendencies. Even the show’s defenders often conceded that the show was best experienced as a ‘ride’ and not that structurally dense, so I had little reason to reconsider this view. Upon rewatch, however, I’ve found my position completely reversed: Penguindrum is a show that is thematically well-conceived, rich in detail, but fails in the execution of the particulars. Its failures are micro, not macro, but the former are sometimes so numerous that it prevents the latter from properly functioning. Its flaws are more crippling than Utena’s: the pacing of the side characters has a detrimental effect on the rest of the show, the middle episodes (13-17) are wildly inconsistent in terms of storyboarding, and, considering the other attendant issues, the signature Dezakian melodrama makes the abstract, elliptical second half feel unearned (or worse, clichéd). However, I contend that on a purely thematic level Penguindrum is solidly built. In addition to defending that, this essay will be a balanced reevaluation of every major aspect of the show. I imagine the eyes of most sane readers are glazing over at the thought of a lengthy Exegesis on Ikuhara’s Anime but I can assure you that this essay deals with the facts and is purely analytical. I will be justifying my interpretation using solely what the show and Ikuhara himself have provided for us. Those that have taken a firm stance on MPD likely won’t be convinced but those like me, who had mixed feelings about the show that never congealed into outright distaste and who have always wanted to return to it at a later date with an open mind, will probably find most of what I’m about to say to be reasonable.

The Main Arc (The Takakuras)

Ikuhara’s two TV anime preceding Penguindrum had a similar macrostructure for their narrative, one continued in Penguindrum, in which a fantastical world functions as an emotional allegory of their characters’ psychological issues. In both Utena and Sailor Moon S it’s at least partially implied that their fantasy worlds aren’t real and serve as an emotional retreat for the show’s characters (Professor Tomoe in S, the entire cast in Utena). That isn’t to say Utena and S are purely abstract, but the implied reality behind the shows, Utena et al’s backstories, would be relatively simple to explain in narrative terms. Penguindrum seems to follow a similar structure, where the comprehensible beginning is progressively abstracted until every element of the story is a symbol of some kind for the less fantastical, real traumas of the main cast. However, though some of the complaints following the show’s airing were amusingly literal (“Where did Sanetoshi get all his powers from?”, “Why did the main brothers appear in cages in the last episode?”, “What was the deal with the diary?”), this explanation wouldn’t be an excuse if the show’s symbolism was meaningless. We might permit Ikuhara to get evocative from time to time, but the reason he’s acclaimed comes from his ability to ground abstract images in genuine experience.

Ikuhara has always been fascinated by the effect of the Lost Decade on the younger generation and the sarin gas attacks by Aum Shinrikyo cult. This is a fascination he and close comrade Hideaki Anno share, but before Penguindrum only Anno had broached it directly (it’s hard not to see the Antarctic expedition in MPD as a shoutout to Evangelion for this reason). The Lost Decade, for those that don’t know, was both an actual economic event (a decade long recession that arguably lasted for two) and a term to describe the sociological state of Japan in the 90s. A common refrain in discussions of the Lost Decade was the dissolution of the family structure, something of a long-storied institution in Japan. With the economy worse, layoffs, divorces, and the suicide rate greatly increased. On a more personal level, children who grew up during this era felt isolated and abandoned; Anno’s Evangelion was largely a reaction to those sentiments. A loss in faith in traditional institutions meant that some were eager to submit to alternative institutions like radical political organizations, cults, and (as Ikuhara and Anno have brought up in interview together) otaku junk (“like with things like the Aum incident, I can understand the feelings of the people who want to reorganize the world”, rest of interview here: http://ohtori.nu/creators/a_avant.html). The stereotypical protagonist of Lost Decade fiction is the Kafkaesque schmuck mechanically performing their role in society. Muraki’s Underground, which briefly appears in MPD, features interviews with salaryman who despite being poisoned by the sarin gas still went in to work that day. Those that weren’t cynical latched on to what little authority family, business, and state still held. This is the stereotype, mind you. Sociological realities are often more complex than this, but the cultural response to the Aum Shinrikyo attacks by intellectuals tended to view these changes in Japanese society as the cause (and not without good reason).

Almost all of the symbolism in MPD ties into the above in some way. Ikuhara chose the penguin, an animal with an intermediate identity between bird and sea animal, to represent his adolescent characters with uncertain identity. References to the sarin gas attacks appear in the red ’95 logos, the constant presence of trains, and the shadowy terrorist cell Penguin Group. It’s also crucial to understanding the concept of ‘fate’, something nearly every line of dialogue refers to in some way. Fate in MPD is almost always presented as some kind of familial obligation: Ringo acting out her dead sister’s wishes, Natsume trying to reunite with her estranged father and brother, Keiju’s and Yuri’s obligation to their lover, and so on. There’s an inherited quality to the character motivations in MPD (just as we might say Shinji’s neuroses are inherited from the mistreatment he receives from his father) that reflects the jaundiced view on traditional institutions found in the literature Penguindrum takes as inspiration (“My former comrades are going to pass down my will to their children.” -Sanetoshi [ep21]). The opposite view, that fate is something to escape, is less cleanly defined but one the show epitomizes in the Takakuras who, though not related by blood, still choose to exist as a family by their own free will. This concept of fate and free will is very cleverly integrated into the visuals, especially in the ubiquitous arrowed ring (“Fate must be shaped like a gigantic ring” –Ringo [ep5]) and the swinging pendulum (“Mawaru Penguindrum”) that would bisect it at random angles. The Marunouchi Line itself is a giant red thread of fate uniting all of the show’s characters. If the equivalence of fate=family here seems simplistic, it should be noted that these aren’t Ikuhara’s own ideas. Postmodern fiction (and Murakami’s specifically) have explored the idea of social forces, not only of family but of state, of medicine, of economics, and so on, as being the equivalent of godly or supernatural caprice to the modern man. The idea is that in modernity the average person has as little control over their life as they might in a medieval society, where social class was everything and where Fortune was as omnipresent as God. The difference here is that Ikuhara has stripped away everything else and left ‘family’ as the only explanation, emphasizing the human element. It’s remarkable on rewatch how singleminded the focus really was. The line that “Penguindrum is a mess” is true in a sense (organizationally, dramatically, etc.) but fails to address to what extent its ideas permeate the narrative from beginning to end. In that respect, Penguindrum cannot be considered a mess.

As with Utena, where the initial invocation “Revolutionize the world” radically changes meaning by the end of the show as Utena breaks away from Akio’s games and truly attempts to “Revolutionize the world”, Penguindrum’s “Find the Penguindrum” takes on different connotations towards the show’s conclusion (although I do think they could’ve done a better job spelling it out). The conceptual problem that MPD is dealing with is whether one can form an alternative family structure to the one that seemingly died in the 90s. ‘Can family exist without fate?’, to use the show’s own terms, with the ideal family as the ‘penguindrum’ (pendulum) cutting across the restrictions of one’s upbringing. This is where the Night on the Galactic Railroad allusions are instructive. Many have noted the references both to the original children’s novel and Gisaburo Sugii’s adaptation, including the emphasis on trains, sharing apples, and similarities between the characters (Shouma=blue hair=Giovanni, Kanba=red hair=Campanella), but little is brought out regarding the significance of these allusions. The central philosophy of Miyazawa’s novel, encapsulated best by the Parable of the Scorpion (also explicitly alluded to in MPD), is of ennobling self-sacrifice. Ikuhara’s solution to the problem of selfish isolation versus selfless devotion is in the deliberate, freely-willed act of self-sacrifice (“Wouldn’t it be easier if they weren’t your family?” –Sanetoshi to Kanba [ep15]). Think of it as a less individualized version of Shinji leaving his shell.

Once we have this key, the rest of MPD’s more convoluted imagery becomes accessible. For instance, the child broiler is often cited as a meaningless piece of magical realism, but it’s not hard to see what Ikuhara was going for: the children subject to it become ‘invisible entities’, ‘indistinguishable from one another’, and the site is itself “The destination of children abandoned by society” (Shouma’s dad [ep 20]). Moreover, Himari is saved from the child broiler only when she’s integrated into the Takakura family. The cages have a similar reading behind them, as both are overt metaphors for the abandonment and hopelessness Ikuhara believes is endemic to the ‘95 generation. Sanetoshi and Momoka, who in even the most generous interpretation were mishandled, factor into this reading as well. Sanetoshi was a member of Shouma’s and Kanba’s parents’ generation. He is the closest thing to fate/familial obligation that the main trio encounter and it’s even implied he doesn’t actually exist, but is instead a ghostly representation of Kanba’s motivations. Though wholly opposed to the materialist, disaffected, and unengaged society that created the conditions for society’s anxieties, he’s just as repressive as the past generation, illustrating that the alternative order that cults and terrorism might provide can be just as pernicious as the old one (“I’m getting out of my box. I’m one of the chosen” -Sanetoshi [ep23]). Momoka, on the other hand, believes in the collective unmei but also in the possibility of changing it through physical sacrifice. The end moral of MPD is that the only assurance for happiness and agency is in the happiness and agency of others, a matyr philosophy central to many of Kenji Miyazawa’s books.

Of course, none of this considers the effectiveness of these ideas in the Takakura arc. While I think the main problems with the Takakura arc will be better summarized in the sections below, it should be emphasized that Ikuhara wasn’t phoning it in. There’s a loose association between Shouma/Momoka and Kanba/Sanetoshi that largely satisfies the above interpretation, and in the end they both end up sacrificing for Himari. There’s a poetic completeness here that would be more evident had other issues (the pacing, the flow, et cetera) not intervened.

The Side Characters

While it’s hard to gauge the consensus on anything relating to Penguindrum, in general I’ve found that most enjoyed the Takakuras’ arc, or at least how it concluded. What causes a wider range of reactions are the side characters, whose arcs are usually described as pointless, tangential, messy, ineffectual, and (rarely) entertaining. Before getting into those complaints, I want to first refute an idea that got traded around a lot during MPD’s airing. This is the idea that stories, especially mystery stories, should “tie everything together” in the end. I can think of nothing more boring than a novel which siphons all its narrative strands into a single, undeviating conclusion. If everything is neatly packaged by the end, there’s little for the audience to grapple with, little left to think about. Again, this isn’t focused on any particular MPD complaint, but it reflects a mindset that might be unable to deal with other Ikuhara shows, not just MPD.

The reason I think it doesn’t apply to MPD, however, is that the secondary character arcs do tie into the themes of unmei and such above and weren’t just random nonsense added for flavor. That the individual side-stories don’t culminate in some grand teleological conclusion shouldn’t be held against them. What can and should be held against them is how badly the pacing is botched during these arcs. The flow from one character to the next is janky and uneven, and the weakest section of the show (episodes 13-17) is marked by its unwavering focus on the secondary characters to the detriment of the main cast. That being said, I don’t think the side characters were irredeemable:

Ringo: either the most beloved or most hated of the secondary characters, she’s the first one whose dedication to fate is challenged by a chance encounter with the Takakuras. Once she was freed from unmei (by falling in love with Shouma), her importance in the narrative greatly diminishes and that upset many people who thought that her large presence in the first half meant that she would be utilized later. I don’t disagree with this complaint, but it’s worth noting that 1.) the Ringo arc is funny, a good contrast to the angst that follows and 2.) Ringo’s episodes didn’t just feature her. Natsume appears fairly prominently, and the personalities of Tabuki and Yuri are very subtly hinted at. Additionally, though MPD doesn’t go this route, there’s nothing wrong with having independent side-stories which are largely irrelevant to the main narrative.

Natsume: of all the arcs, Natsume’s was the one where my opinion changed the most upon rewatch. Early on her focus on manipulating memory establishes a precedent for the later revelations about Kanba’s heredity, and her assumption that biological ties ought to be stronger than the ‘fake’ ones he has with Himari and Shouma works well within the show’s central ideas. She’s the feminine parallel to Kanba, intent on maintaining her family, saving her sick Penguin-hatted brother, just as Ringo is something of a parallel to Shouma (the ‘forgotten’ to Kanba’s/Natsume’s ‘chosen’, second-born to first-born, and so on). She’s also something of a stalker too, making her arc consonant with Ringo’s. That she’s emotionally flat and doesn’t inspire much affect in the viewer is a more general problem with how the show handles characterization, not just with her arc alone.

Yuri and Keiju: the weakest character arcs, limited mainly to one episode each and extremely rushed. It’s interesting to note that, being of the older generation, their stories deal with actively repressive parents while the younger generation’s deal with absent ones. The success of their arcs is unusually dependent on execution: Keiju’s is great because of Yamauchi’s presence, while Yuri’s is only good for the flashback episode 15, her role as a heel prior feeling contrived and ill-explained. The S&M scene midway through feels like the show’s cheapest trick in retrospect because they could’ve easily redeemed it by just the slightest elaboration on Yuri’s motives.

It’s worth noting that Ikuhara’s two previous shows were 3 cour long procedural mahou shoujos. Utena could ping pong between character centric episodes and plot episodes, but Penguindrum was attempting to sustain one continuous narrative. Falling back on old habits, Ikuhara condensed the secondary character-specific episodes into one highly uneven chunk. Anecdotal but I noticed it was during this section of the story that most people (understandably) checked out.


Here I find a lot more to love about Penguindrum, but even then this love is qualified.

In terms of world-building Penguindrum is amazingly well-realized, both in its own right and as a followup to Utena. Outside of a few fairy tale sequences, the bourgeois European influence in Utena is completely purged, a smart choice given that the disembodied world of Ohtori couldn’t properly engage with the social realities MPD wants to tackle. Ikuhara opted for minimalist urban iconography, cousin to the type of modified Ikuhara-isms Nobuyuki Takeuchi and Tatsuya Oishi developed at SHAFT, enlivened with the whimsical, vibrant background art of Chieko Nakamura. This mixture of minimalist visual organization and vibrant coloration is a trend in anime I’ve noticed in recent years, making MPD still feel contemporary the second time around. Ikuhara’s eccentricities in the setting never feel derivative either: the Triple-H train advertisements analogue to Utena’s silhouette girls, visual gags like the penguins and Shouma’s friend who never shows his face, verbal tics like “Fabulous Max!”, all are imaginative while still remaining distinctively ‘Ikuhara’. Even when Ikuhara’s dozes off, the world of Penguindrum never really feels in doubt.

The storyboarding is a different matter, although I’ll say that generally Penguindrum is on point in this regard. The Yamauchi, Hayashi, and Takeuchi episodes are fantastic, but even the less pivotal episodes by Mitsue Yamazaki and Shouko Nakamura keep up the quality. Hell, even the Keiji Gotoh episodes, which are ugly as sin from an animation viewpoint, still have some striking compositions here and there. The weakest storyboards are in the middle episodes and it’s hard to tell who is to blame given the number of co-co-co-storyboarders (Shingo Kaneko undoubtedly did the kamishibai Rose of Versailles sequences outside of his episode 4 but I had difficulty identifying anyone else). Episodes like 14 and 17 are drab and uninvolved for the most part, never obstructive but providing little in terms of visual interest. Still, taken together, Penguindrum’s consistency in visual direction is admirable given that it was produced at Brain’s Base. This isn’t a Kill la Kill situation where there were rough sketches of ideas but little attempt was made to fill them in. On a moment to moment basis Penguindrum can be surprisingly engaging. There’s a strongly visual intent behind the show, sometimes superseding all other concerns: people joke about the nonsensical pulley in Yamauchi’s episode but the imagery, of the lifeline between Kanba and Himari, is certainly more striking than the conventional alternative. Upon rewatch I feel the biggest problem is in the character art. Terumi Nishii’s shoujo throwback designs are great, but their use in others’ episodes is inconsistent. It’s not just that it looks ugly; it’s that we get less movement, less subtle details packed in on screen. The early episodes of Penguindrum are the most enjoyable because there’s always something to entertain the eye and the shots carry a surprising dynamism.

On the other hand, the connective tissue between Ikuhara’s direction and the narrative itself is a little more fraught. The Dezaki influence is more strongly felt here than in Utena: if you think the melodrama in Penguindrum’s latter half is grueling I suggest you never watch Oniisama e…. Moreover, Ikuhara has a tendency (which I’ve always considered a bit Brechtian) of interrupting melodramatic seriousness with wacky gags. This is a sense of humor issue and I can totally understand why someone, for instance, would find the fakeout knifing in episode 22 infuriating even though I personally laughed my ass off. I think a bigger stylistic problem is how the show transitions into its final arc. I’ve seen MPD compared to LOST in that both shows use flashbacks, plot twists, and melodrama while failing to clear up their uncertainties in the end but upon rewatch I find this comparison inaccurate. MPD was clearly not intended to be a mystery show in the vein of LOST and if anyone was eager for a ‘grand reveal’ at the end they wanted a show that would have been less interesting that what MPD was trying (unsuccessfully) to achieve. That an Ikuhara show starts out with a clear, comprehensible narrative causality and transitions into the highly abstract isn’t new (and is in fact the central conceit of its sister show Evangelion), but Penguindrum’s awkward organization of its subplots in the second act make this transition incomplete. After the Ringo arc, the jumps in time progressively lengthen to such an extent that they can feel both confusing and overly convenient. Most of the character development the Takakuras receive in the later episodes occur in contextless train rides and what worked in Utena with excellent pacing and direction by Mamoru Hosoda doesn’t always work here. Shouma, Kanba, and Himari are never fully sold to us as characters so that when we enter the depths of their psychology we find ourselves lost. That, I think, is the most devastating and accurate critique of Penguindrum, that despite a firm bedrock of ideas it’s ultimately an exercise in formalism, that unlike Evangelion it doesn’t affect us emotionally and thus has difficulty affecting us at all.


Despite the overwhelmingly cynical tone of much of the above, I do like Penguindrum. But it’s an odd affection. Up close Penguindrum is rather ugly. Though I binged through the episodes on rewatch, it wasn’t an entirely pleasant experience. Arguably, knowing Ikuhara’s intentions made the missed potential in the end feel even more frustrating. It’s as if Ikuhara had spent so much time designing the sets, getting every last detail right, he forgot to pay any attention to the actors. Or alternatively, Ikuhara didn’t make the right judgement calls about what to cut. It’s easy to imagine a hypothetical three cour MPD where the subplots are as evenly dispersed and well-balanced as they are in Utena. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ikuhara originally intended for the show to be longer (he was toying with the ideas behind the show for nearly a decade) but 3 cour shows are rare and I imagine it unlikely that Brain’s Base would gamble on an unproven property. However, instead of carving out all the fat and focusing in on the Takakura storyline, Ikuhara wanted to have his cake and eat it too. That’s the thing with MPD: it’s a masterpiece on paper. Interesting to read about, tedious to experience firsthand.

By the same token, at a distance Penguindrum has nothing but my respect. It exploits the novelistic qualities of the two cour format better than the majority of shows out there and its ideas are surprisingly relevant for a story whose pre-history is obsessively focused on the year 1995 (it must be a stroke of unmei that the show aired in the wake of the Fukushima earthquakes). It’s also a step forward for Ikuhara as a director. He challenged himself, ditching his cartoonish view of masculinity and wrote a story starring two young men trying to preserve their family. That’s why I can’t curtly dismiss the show, throw up my hands and call it all nonsense. The kernel of the story, of familial self-sacrifice, is incredibly powerful and I understand why the finale evoked such strong reactions. It’s a type of show I wish there were more of. I would take twenty failed Penguindrums over one successful Bahamut any day, because at least the former made me think.

None of this really explains Yuri Storm, which from the promo material seems to be on the other side of the planet as Penguindrum, steeped in bourgeois escapism and lesbian sex. Ikuhara won’t have the excuse of being ‘rusty’ as he did with Penguindrum and I’m sure the MPD detractors are already sharpening their hatchets. Still, even if Yuri Storm ends up as another disappointment I can only welcome a more active Ikuhara. Very few people in the industry attempt this level of conceptual ambition.

Edit: I recently wrote my impressions to YKA’s first episode here and considering both YKA’s and MPD’s production history it’s becoming clear that these aren’t the shows Ikuhara envisioned. Hell, you can plainly see it in the difference between the original Penguinbear concept art and the final moefied designs. I think Ikuhara knows his prospects for getting projects off the ground are meager, so he takes every opportunity he can get even if it means massive concessions have to be made. It’s sad, and it highlights the importance of the studio system. Shigeyasu Yamauchi has complained in interview that he’s faced similar problems in getting his solo projects realized too. It’s a shame; those that got burned on MPD will likely see YKA and inflame into full-time Ikuhara haters based on the principle that having ambition but failing to realize it is somehow worse than not having it at all.

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