The Fall 2017 Anime Preview Guide Urahara
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Rito, Mari, and Kotoko are three bouncy high school girls running Park, a small, eccentric shop in Harajuku where they sell clothing of their own designs. They love what they do and where they do it, so when one day mysterious saucer-shaped aliens known as “Scoopers” descend upon the city to “scoop up” famous landmarks, they can't just stand by and do nothing. Fortunately for them, Park was visited just before by a strange man in a carp mask who praises their imaginations. This opens the door for the girls to meet Misa-chan, a little girl scooped up by the aliens and her talking fried shrimp Ebifurya. Ebifurya explains that the aliens have no culture or imagination of their own, so they're stealing other planets’ culture to make up for it. Along the way they snagged four mysterious orbs called amatsumara, which work based on their users’ imaginations. Because the aliens have none, they're useless, but Misa has brought the orbs to Rito, Mari, and Kotoko. Now with the power of their imaginations, the girls transform to save Park, Harajuku, and maybe the world! Urahara is based on a web comic and streams on Crunchyroll, Wednesdays at 7:15 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
It's really hard to describe Urahara's uniquely "homegrown" sense of charm until you see it for yourself. I've truly never seen an anime quite like this before, and its unusual flavor as a global coproduction driven by total newbies of the industry is impossible to ignore every moment you're watching. I guess what I'm really trying to say is that I enjoyed watching Urahara and am intensely curious about seeing more, even though it wasn't necessarily very good.
It's certainly not bad either. The word that seems most appropriate is "amateur." It would not be hard to convince me that this episode was a proof of concept made by three enthusiastic artist friends in college over the course of two years or something. (It does seem at times like there are only three animators working on it.) So as a professional production made for television, Urahara is unpolished to an almost unheard-of degree. But beyond the obvious problems that statement implies (like meager animation and novice voice acting), there's a rough-hewn appeal and indescribable magnetism to its complete lack of artifice and market-tested sheen (especially considering its central appeal is "cuteness," which often results in the most plasticky types of anime). It evoked the same feelings in me that I felt watching the incredibly nervous yet wholly sincere creator of Unravel present his game in front of a jaded crowd at E3. There's a vulnerability to Urahara that you just don't see in other anime, and I'm curious enough about this unique tone that I want to see more.
To speak more specifically about the visuals and story, I honestly adore Urahara's understandably divisive art style, which is especially weird since the promotional art and PVs didn't do much for me at first. Something about seeing it in context with the rough voice acting and minimal cutesy soundtrack makes it feel special and even kind of inspired. Not only is it extremely comforting in a childhood-bedroom kind of way, it might even benefit from the lacking animation, since more kinetic motion would no doubt push these designs over the top into dizzying busy-ness a la The Rolling Girls, a show with a similar aesthetic that became overbearing in motion.
I also like the personalities of these girls, even though I couldn't tell you much about their characters just yet. Their more low-key delivery and humorously blasé dialogue felt like a great big breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by the same old moe archetypes playing on the same old fetishes. These three feel like real girls to me, even if they're real girls who aren't fleshed out enough to be compelling just yet, and even if the world they live in is surreal in ways that do clash with that realism. The story is somewhat confused and strangely told, adding once again to that amateurish feel, and by the end of the episode, I wasn't sure what angle the show wanted to pursue in its balance between the fantastical and the mundane.
So right now, Urahara feels like neither a good show nor a bad one; it feels like a whisper of a show that may or may not work itself up to a shout of its own identity. Its staff are almost all young and relatively inexperienced, and this creation feels like an early, timid artistic statement cupped in shaky hands. So while it's not the must-see anime of the season by any stretch of the imagination, I also think it's a show that deserves a second chance. At the very least, it's different, and in a season with a dozens of cash-grabbing idol shows or dry shonen copycats like Black Clover, maybe different can be its own reward.
Urahara's bright pastel color scheme and surreal yet saccharine vibes immediately conjured up echoes of Flip Flappers for me, though this new Fall series doesn't have quite the same level of artistic ambition. On the contrary, where series like Flip Flappers use their magical girl trappings to dig deep into subtextual themes and complex characterization, Urahara is pretty what-you-see-is-what-you-get. On the surface, we have three cutesy, fashion-conscious Harajuku girls getting magical powers from an alien shrimp tempura, and that seems to be about all there is to this show. That isn't a bad thing; just because a series doesn't have lofty artistic ambitions, that doesn't mean it can't be perfectly entertaining. By combining its charming and quirky aesthetic with a cast of decently likable heroines, Urahara scrapes by, despite an earnestness that borders on overbearing at times.
Speaking of garishness, Urahara's greatest drawback is easily its limited animation. While I actually enjoy the candy-colored cartoon style of the show, its effectiveness is dampened by the stiff movements and facial expressions of the characters, and the awkward and underwhelming action beats that pop up when Rito, Mari, and Kotoko get their powers from Misa and Ebifurya. I can handle limited animation during comedy or dialogue scenes; it can even serve as an artistic complement to those kinds of interactions. When a show is going for spectacle though, I have less tolerance for choppy visuals. Urahara isn't aiming to be something like Madoka or Flip Flappers, and most of the attention in this first episode is given to dialogue and visual gags, but anyone who wants their magical girl shows to look good in motion will likely be put off by this.
Conversely, if you're in the mood for a poppy, day-glo hangout comedy that happens to feature talking shrimp, space aliens, and magical girls, Urahara might just do it for you. I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the show's breakneck pace and core trio of leading ladies just a little charming. I don't know if I'll be itching to follow future episodes, but I haven't written the show off entirely, either.
If you ever get to visit Tokyo, then Harajuku – and in particular Takeshita Street – is one place that you absolutely must check out, as no place I've ever been lives and breathes cutting-edge youth fashion more. Hence it's not surprising that an anime series focusing on that area turns out to be a bizarrely elaborate explosion of color and design, an over-the-top ode to the spirit of trendy culture; in a silly plot that involves aliens stealing Earth's cultural treasures to serve their own, Harajuku would inevitably be targeted. In fact, I'd be surprised if this series wasn't specifically targeted at the young teen girls who frequent that area.
Whether or not this oddball variation on the basic magical girl formula will have much appeal on that level or beyond is another story. The characters are simple and straighforward, with the only thing in the first episode that passes for depth being that one of the girls is avoiding having to deal with her divorced parents. Still, the girls are a likable enough balance of starkly different personalities, and their design talent is no joke. When they transform into magical girl form (sort of), they gain abilities in line with their personalities. Their ultimate defense also somewhat makes sense, as a giant parfait that they collectively designed.
By far the biggest barrier to appreciating the series are the production values. This is about the roughest I've ever seen a full-length TV anime look. Nothing even remotely approaches looking realistic, with even famous landmarks like the gate to Takeshita Street coming off as twisted and distorted. Backgrounds are generally simply and ill-defined, characters have an early-draft roughness to them (and those ears, tails, and horns are just accessories and not natural, right?), and the show's actual details are a mind-boggling collection of knick-knacks. Coloring is uniformly bright and pale, which means that little can stand out in a good or bad way. The animation isn't bad, but I can see many viewers finding the overall aesthetic to be intolerable. I'm one of them.
I want to see another episode of this before I make a judgment call, but the first episode doesn't leave a very favorable impression.
I'd really have liked for Urahara to be good. As a Crunchyroll co-production featuring multinational creative talents and a charming, art-focused premise, it seemed like a potential banner project for anime's international future. If Urahara were good, it'd seem like a great sign for such projects, proof that anime can cross cultural boundaries in terms of production as well as appeal. As someone who grew up on anime and writes about it professionally, the idea of actually working together with Japanese creators on some project is inherently appealing. My hopes were high.
Unfortunately, Urahara is just not good.
The show's problems start with its visual design. Urahara certainly has plenty of creative ideas, from its candy-colored aesthetic and very loose backgrounds to its consistent use of actual clothing textures as transition screens. The show's aesthetic neatly fits its narrative, a whimsical story of alien invasion centered on three creative young clothing designers. But once you get past the initial appeal of the aesthetic, things start to fall apart. The looseness of Urahara's art often bleeds into terribly off-model shots or total indecipherability, and though the backgrounds are nice, there aren't that many of them. It often feels like Urahara's characters exist in a void, with no sense of place to help us enter their world. The show also lacks basically any animation, with characters consistently jumping between single key frames.
These problems are exacerbated by the show's terrible direction and confounding transitions. Urahara's shot transitions remind me of last season's A Centaur's Life, where the jerkiness and odd pacing of cuts kept me from feeling pulled in by the story. Urahara also relies heavily on superdeformed cutaways that further diminish its sense of place, constantly employing shots that partition the screen into multiple panes in a way that never feels natural. Though there are some nice visual ideas here, Urahara's aesthetic choices consistently undercut its dramatic and visual appeal.
The writing is unfortunately not any better than the art. This first episode is dramatically shapeless, as the main characters themselves don't really seem to care about the things going on around them. A basic magical girl template is set up through a mysterious character appearing, introducing a mascot, expositing for five minutes, and then disappearing again. There's no actual hook beyond the appeal of the art—Urahara's writing consistently falls into an amateurish space, never making it clear why the audience should care. The plot proceeds according to dream logic and contrivance, the characters don't actually seem to care about the alien invasion happening around them, and their commentary on the situation hovers between banal and abrasively unfunny.
In short, beyond its charming aesthetic, there was basically nothing I liked about this episode. I'm not happy about that, but the silver lining is that a single show like this can't actually change the fact that anime is becoming a vividly international phenomenon. This just didn't turn out to be a particularly auspicious step on that road.
I'm not entirely sure if URAHARA us supposed to be a parody of magical girl shows or just a self-aware version thereof. It definitely relies a lot more on telling versus showing, especially once Ebifurya shows up. A giant talking fried shrimp may win the “weirdest mascot character” contest, but then, he does arrive in a space ship that looks like a baby bottle in the company of a little girl dressed like a Lolita despite the fact that she's been in the US with her parents, so there's a definite sense that the show is trying to be absurd for absurdity's sake. That's actually fine by me; I really enjoy theatre of the absurd as a genre. But Urahara feels like it's trying a little too hard to be as bright, cute, and zany as possible, and that sours the experience.
How is it trying too hard? Well, the pastel color scheme is part of it – there are almost no dark colors beyond Rito's and Mari's hair, and after a while it stops looking cute and begins to feel washed out. It's aggressively trying for a “cute and sweet” aesthetic, and in doing so oversteps the line a bit. Likewise Rito has what appear to be cow horns and Kotoko has cat ears and a tail (pink, naturally), neither with any explanation. They're the only potential animal people we see, so they could just be fashion statements, but again, it just feels like the visuals are trying way too hard to be as cute as possible. This vibe is carried over by the amazing overuse of split screens and pans – almost every movement scene is shown by the camera's motion rather than the characters, and I stopped counting split screens after about ten minutes because there were just so many of them. Simply put, Urahara’s first episode is visually distracting, taking away from the lighthearted goofiness of its story.
Previous to watching Black Clover I might have said that Kotoko's high breathy voice was annoying, but apparently I have different standards now. She is, however, a walking trope in the sense that we can guess pretty much everything she's going to do or say before she does or says it. Making her the tactical magical girl was probably the most absurd thing that the episode did, and that may help the series down the line. Likewise Mari's reluctance to deal the finishing blow could become a fun Sailor Moon parody element (especially since she has that giant bazooka), and while I'm actively afraid of doughnut symbolism after Aquarion Evol, the idea of turning aliens into sweets (and then eating them!) is fun. I would need the visuals to tone down (and perhaps use some darker colors) for this to work, as well as dial back Ebifurya's narration, but there is potential here. Hopefully the series will settle down and let it speak for itself.
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