The Spring 2017 Anime Preview Guide The Laughing Salesman
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The Laughing Salesman puts its best foot forward at the start of this premiere, opening with a catchy and visually inventive opening that frames its title character as entwined with the geography of the city itself. Smooth geometric shapes realign themselves to convey train tracks winding to an inevitable end, presenting the city's anonymous masses as captives within the salesman's grinning teeth. It's a stylish and intimidating sequence, perfectly evoking the sense of inescapable fate the show is intent on creating.
The rest of the show is a lot less interesting. This first episode presents two monkey's paw-style stories, where a random person runs into Moguro the salesman, is offered a way to indulge in their chosen vice, and is eventually betrayed by their gift. There's certainly the potential for an interesting show there, but The Laughing Salesman is just too thinly written to really get there. The first sketch basically just reaches “don't rack up a huge debt on your lunch break,” while the second only manages “stick to your budget, don't go into serious credit card debt.” Eleven minutes is not enough time to craft a satisfying Twilight Zone sketch, meaning the show is left with sketches that never move from the simplistically didactic into the morally complex or tonally bizarre.
The Laughing Salesman's visuals are somewhat stronger than its storytelling. There isn't all that much fluid animation here, but the show's visual loyalty to its late ‘60s source material really makes its characters stand out. Mitsuko Takashima, the subject of the second arc here, was made vividly expressive in spite of lacking the large, detailed eyes that often give us clear gateways into character psychology. And there were also a fair number of interesting impact frames and reaction shots, along with a general strong eye for dynamic composition.
In the end, the thing that most struck me about The Laughing Salesman was how its second vignette felt poignant seemingly by accident. Its overt story of Mitsuko, a woman who fights through work-related stress by overspending, ends in an incredibly simplistic moral: “don't take out debts you can't pay.” But the picture this arc actually paints of Mitsuko is far more sympathetic than that, from her powerlessness at work to the fact that she can only find release by buying back into a system that will only briefly respect her, and only as a commodity herself. There's a sadness and inevitability there far more unnerving than the false promises of a magic salesman, but it doesn't seem like The Laughing Salesman was consciously exploring any of that. I would love to see a Twilight Zone-style show that, through its attempts to lecture its heroes with simplistic morals, ends up revealing the underlying prison bars of the systems they inhabit. I do not think The Laughing Salesman is that show.
I like the basic concept of The Laughing Salesman, so I'm willing to cut it some slack despite the relatively weak delivery in this first episode. The premise of a devilish salesman tempting customers into bringing about their own downfall is kind of neat, and it allows for plenty of narrative freedom within an episodic format. With some clever writing and confident direction, it could find a Twilight Zone type of niche for itself. It's kind of a shame, then, that this first episode doesn't leave much of an impression.
We get two standalone stories here, and both come to relatively predictable endings. The first half in particular seems to be lacking any sort of clever twist, and Moguro doesn't do much beyond what an ordinary con artist could pull off. The second storyline is a bit more inventive with its use of a magic credit card, but it's still too easy to guess how things are going to turn out. I wonder if this series might be better off doing only one story per episode and using the extra time to add some extra twists and turns as Moguro's latest victim falls into a downward spiral. Giving the characters some additional time to struggle against their fate could also be the key to giving them more depth as individuals. As it stands, everyone's more like a caricature of a single vice or personality flaw.
The character designs don't really help here. I get that the visual style is supposed to harken back to the older original series, but it just doesn't work for the mood the series is trying to create. Everything's just too colorful and the people are a little too cartoonish for an atmosphere of psychological horror to take hold. Moguro's smile is at least creepy when it appears out of a dark corner or alleyway, but he's just a goofy-looking dude when he steps out into the light. Maybe it works for fans of the original, but I'm just having a hard time taking it seriously. I do like the stylized opening and ending sequences, though.
This is a series that I'd be willing to give a second chance, if only to see if it can take its concept in a clever direction. Now that the audience knows how Moguro's shady sales pitches work, the show should be free to branch out more in the kinds of stories it presents. If it can cover some unique ground, it might be worth watching. If not, then I suspect it will struggle to pull in viewers who aren't harboring any nostalgia for the original.
The Laughing Salesman originally came out in manga form in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and was first adapted into anime form in three seasons spread over 1989-92. Based on the two half-episode vignettes shown here, I suspect that this may be an updated form of the franchise rather than a new adaptation, one which takes the original underlying concept but keys it to life in the 2010s.
The original source material has been described as a black comedy which mixes in psychological and horror elements, and this new version definitely maintains that tone. Moguro is one of those classic supernatural figures descended from ancient cautionary tales, one who might well be a devil in disguise and tempts those who are unhappy with their lives but ultimately screws them over in the end, always laughing about it as he does so. What, exactly, he gets out of messing with people's live is unclear; perhaps he's just a sadist. But that's also irrelevant, as the point of each tales is how the subjects get suckered in by vices and then have to deal with the consequences.
That also means that this is probably not aimed at your standard otaku crowd. The two issues portrayed here are ones quite familiar to older adults: frustrations at work (including catty coworkers), credit card issues, getting drawn into seedier recreational activities, and inclinations to drink while still “on the clock.” The opener also uses a much older style, one more reminiscent of some movies which came out in the late ‘60s and 70s and which is doubtless intended to evoke some nostalgia in older viewers. There's nothing particularly anime-specific about the visual style, either; this could just as well be an American production if you're looking at any snapshot of it which doesn't include Japanese-specific details. It isn't the prettiest of series, either, but it does, at least, do an effective job of balancing making Moguro alternately congenial and menacing.
I do have to wonder that this series ended up with full-length episodes instead of as half-episode shorts, as each of the two vignettes is entirely self-contained and one at a time feels about right for a proper dose of this kind of content. Still, the vignettes are entertaining in the vein of trying to anticipate how things are going to go wrong for each of the subjects, and despite the supernatural elements they can be relatable.
This is a good season for old-school horror so far. Between the short The World Yamizukan and The Laughing Salesman, classic, low-key scares and deceptively simple visuals look to be the order of the day. Given recent gore-soaked or technology-based horror, this is kind of refreshing, even as it reminds you to be very, very careful what you wish for.
There's a carefully cultivated air of deception to The Laughing Salesman – Moguro Fukuzou (originally created in 1968 by Fujiko Fujio) claims that he's really a nice, helpful guy, out to make people's lives better by providing what they lack in their lives and thereby taking away their loneliness. In reality, he offers people the ultimate temptations, that which they lack because maybe, just maybe, it isn't something they ought to have in the first place. Simply put, he preys on people's ultimate weaknesses with a smile. In this first episode, divided into two separate stories, he lures two lonely businessmen to a magical hostess club, which ultimately results in them racking up huge debt and likely getting fired, while in the second half office lady Mitsuko's retail therapy is allowed to run amok. The second half is more powerful than the first, largely because it has more obvious consequences for Moguro's victim. He gives Mitsuko a magical credit card that allows her to buy anything and everything that she wants, with the caveat that it will all be repossessed the next day. Mitsuko, getting tired of this and unable to really think things through, ultimately loses her youth when she uses the card to pay for a make-over. The final scene of her haggard and ruined while Moguro rides cheerily out of her life eating a bento makes for an interesting juxtaposition, with the implication that The Laughing Salesman might not claim his payment in cash, but he's definitely getting something for his work nonetheless.
The visuals are what's most likely to turn viewers off of this show, as they're very dated. In the case of Moguro, it works, making him even scarier than if he were drawn in a more contemporary style – he's all mouth and big, blocky teeth bared in what might be the creepiest smile ever. It appears good-natured, but, like his laugh and his “help,” there's a more sinister interpretation lurking beneath. (More humorously, its use in the opening theme reminds me of old Twizzlers commercials when I was little.) The other characters just look a bit lazy if you're not familiar with the era of manga in which they originated, though even if you are, there's something that feels anachronistic about seeing them use laptops and smartphones.
The Laughing Salesman’s brand of horror is the kind that creeps up on you. You can sense it building and you know that something bad is going to happen in the end, but you're never quite sure what. (I initially thought that Mitsuko would be stripped of her newly pampered skin in a more literal way.) It's good old-fashioned psychological horror, reminding us that if something seems too good to be true, you had better believe that it is.
This new incarnation of Fujiko Fujio A 's late 80s manga about an imposing salesman asking unsuspecting humans to make a deal with the devil is simple enough, but in all the wrong ways. Character designs that adhere way too closely to the original leave it looking dated while the color palette lacks any mood-setting shadows. It should feel like Moguro, the aforementioned salesman, is lurking around every corner, filling up the frame when he's on screen and looming over his victims.
Instead, he lacks any kind of real presence. As a viewer I feel neither creeped out or catch myself smirking when the two victims in this episode get their just desserts. In fact, I'm not entirely sure either party were punished fairly. The episode opens with a salaryman whose face resembles Mr. Game & Watch. His narrative is supposed to serve as a cautionary tale against overindulgent drinking and its ties to work culture. Which is fine, but our protagonist here seems like a shrinking violet that was aggressively goaded by his superior and then loses his job in 48 hours.
The second half feels more fair. I mean, at its heart this is supposed to be a show where the failings of humans are given a little push over the edge and we, as an audience, are allowed to judge those failings and feel a sense of catharsis from it. It's the same basis in Hell Girl where abusive parents, bullies, stalkers, and others of the same ilk get their comeuppance through supernatural means. A certain amount of build-up needs to take place to get the audience effectively invested in the suffering and sins plaguing the victim. That is nonexistent for our salaryman and barely there for the shopaholic that fills out the second half. The narrative fails to establish a reason to care about them, to feel a sense of satisfaction in their fates, or any kind of dread when they meet Moguro.
Tesshō Genda's performance adds little nuance. The character rarely sounds anything more than a jovial uncle type. There's no suspicious undercurrent in his inflections and nothing particularly sinister in his laugh. When Enma Ai shows up in Hell Girl there's always a mood shift. Soft chimes tinkle in the background as she stares wide eyed and offering few words. Moguro appears out of nowhere in the same manner and yes, his mouth is pretty weird. The staff could create some unease by drawing parallels between him and his ventriloquist puppet appearance but again, this is hindered by an art style that lacks any kind of darkness. The Laughing Salesman's greatest sin is its inability to create a menacing protagonist.
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