Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Yoto Yokodera is a pervert. He wants but one thing: to devote himself to his libido. Unfortunately his desire to save face keeps him from wholeheartedly pursuing his ambition. So when he hears of a cat statue that removes unwanted personality traits and gifts them to others, he knows just what to wish away: his façade. At the statue he meets underclassman Tsukiko Tsutsukakushi, who is there to wish away her over-expressiveness. They make their wishes, and naturally things go very badly. Robbed of all facial expression and vocal inflection, Tsukiko becomes a stone-faced cipher, and without his façade to hold him back, Yokodera spews every perverted thought he has, quickly earning him the title of Hentai Prince. They have no choice but to seek out the recipients of their missing personality traits and request them back. But will the recipients agree?
A good preliminary test for whether you'll survive HENNEKO is to watch its opening a couple of times. If you can make it through, say, three iterations of the twitching rears, cloyingly cute kitten-gestures, and hyper-affected vocals without thinking about what a horror show it'd all be if applied to real people, then you can move onto a more thorough test. Like actually watching an episode. You never know, you may be surprised at how you enjoy yourself. Yes, HENNEKO is a brutally artificial show; a kind of modern moe fairy tale where characters are built from prefab personality traits that can be swapped in and out like customizable car parts. But behind its lack of any vestige of naturalness is a restless rom-com that consistently beats expectations by a crucial little margin.
Adapted from the eponymous light novel series, HENNEKO is comprised of serial short arcs. Each is in its own way a kind of mystery, where Yokodera must sleuth out the reason Tsukiko doesn't get along with her sister, say, or why the girl—Azusa Azuki—who got his façade needs it so badly, or who it was that made a particularly destructive wish to the cat statue. And in the sleuthing the series delves with surprising success below the fetishistically cute surfaces of its female cast, finding, if not real people, something approaching actual characters. Characters who are easy to like and, in a few rare instances, feel for.
Unfortunately we have to do some digging ourselves to get to the series' nuggets of feeling. A lot of the series is given over to personality-altering silliness, fan-service hijinks, and harem building nonsense. We get episodes full of Yokodera, unhinged by the loss of his façade, ranting about his previously private fetishes or pretending to be Azusa's (rather perverted) dog. We get Yokodera barging in on Tsukiko naked (twice thus far). We get Tsukiko's busty sister—AKA the Steel King—hatching a duplicitous plan to seduce him. We get a full complement of faux-dates and romantic misunderstandings.
And then there are the stabs at feeling that get moe-moed to death. Anything involving pre-wish Tsukiko is too syrupy to live; be it her nighttime encounter with Yokodera at the cat statue or the genuinely awful flashback where Yokodera nurses a masked Tsukiko through a crippling crisis of self-confidence. So too are Azusa's romantic moments, with her quivery-mouthed tsundere denials and too-cute love of weird animal metaphors, too self-consciously adorable to have any power. Beyond, that is, the power to make us recoil from their refined-sugar sweetness.
Add in the (admittedly pretty funny) gags and constant magical retrofitting of characters' personalities, and you get a lot of clutter around the series' life-sustaining servings of red emotional meat. But they're there. When the gimmicky episode about Azusa's many part-time jobs turns suddenly serious with the arrival of some former friends, they're there. When the Steel King's seduction plot bares the scars left by the death of her and Tsukiko's parents, they're there. When Yokodera confronts Tsukiko after a wish runs amuck, revealing the peculiar way her parents' death has twisted her, they're there. When Azusa reforges her friendship with her misunderstood middle-school mates, they're there.
It is worth noting, though, that none of the series' surprising little dramatic successes involves romance. They revolve around friendships and family, not love triangles or misunderstood feelings. That's not really Yokodera's fault, as it would be in most shonen romances. He's a pervert, yes, but a happy, harmless, strangely loveable one. Rather it's Tsukiko's fault. Not that she isn't loveable in her own-stone-faced way. But she is stone-faced. Her affliction requires her to bear all of her romantic scenes with impassive stoicism, leaving us to piece together her feelings from context. Which we do. But understanding her feelings in our heads is not the same as feeling them in our hearts.
As for the comedy side of the rom-com equation, that is left largely in the hands of director Youhei Suzuki. And they prove good hands to be left in. He pumps a goodly portion of J.C. Staff's budget into comedic fluidity, imbuing things like Yokodera's swimsuit-peeping squats, the Steel King's pursuit of a fleeing Tsukiko and Yokodera, or the Steel King's strangely erotic sit-ups a purely visual humor that works wonders on otherwise staid jokes. He makes good comic use of Haruka Iizuka's rounded, streamlined designs, particularly when playing off of the gap between Tsukiko's innocently blank face and extremely pointed words. He also regulates the series' energy well, maintaining an effervescent lightness that affords dips into introspection without falling into mopiness and can spiral into slapstick silliness without devolving into hyperactive irritation.
That said, he hasn't the mastery of sound that truly skilled directors develop, letting his actors oversell their moe affectations and using Tomoki Kikuya's generally serviceable score in purely functional ways. Which may explain why even the series' most effective sequences seem less effective than maybe they should be. Although there are plenty of other potential reasons for that. Like Sou Sagara's messy plotting, which uses clunky contrivances—ranging from stale coincidences to more novel magical interventions and personality alterations—to get to its personal revelations and relational developments. Or the absolute (but adorable!) phoniness of everyone's behavior. Still, those sequences, as well as the series' pleasant pace and freewheeling habit of remixing its characters' characters, lend it enough charm to make it a fine, fun little diversion. So long, that is, as that opening song doesn't make you want to puke blood.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Silly moe comedy with surprising, though not excessive, depth of character and feeling; never lets the status quo stick for too long.
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