Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 19th 2010
Sub.DVD - Season 1
It's Yuno's first year at Yamabuki High School, a special school for art students. In order to live closer to campus, she's staying at the nearby Hidamari (Sunshine) Apartments, and quickly discovering just how interesting her neighbors are. Everyday is an adventure for Yuno when she's living next door to girls like eccentric first-year Miyako, dependable Hiro, and perpetually stressed-out Sae. Together they face the academic challenges of exams, field trips and festivals, as well as the ups and downs of daily life like holidays, rainstorms, and how to pass the time during summer. Under the roof of the Hidamari Apartments, the bonds of friendship—and levels of amusement—continue to grow with each passing day.
In Japan, imitation is the sincerest form of business. Open one successful ramen shop, and suddenly everyone opens up a ramen shop on the same street. Come out with a video game for "training" essential life skills, and suddenly everyone comes out with a training video game. Concoct a moderately successful pop group with way too many members in it, and suddenly everyone wants to produce a pop group with way too many members.
Create a comedy series about cute schoolgirls goofing off and having fun, and suddenly everyone is doing a series about cute schoolgirls goofing off and having fun.
And so it goes for Hidamari Sketch—assuming that we were talking about the manga, a forgettable four-panel gag strip that falls somewhere in the middle of Azumanga Daioh, Sketchbook, Lucky Star and K-ON!. But a funny thing happened on the way to the studio: Hidamari was picked up by SHAFT and a certain anime alchemist named Akiyuki Shinbo, renowned for turning leaden works like Pani Poni Dash! into animated gold. With Hidamari Sketch, Shinbo finally shatters the standard comedy barrier and ends up in the realm of the abstract—a place where the art of humor is broken down into its most essential elements. Audiences looking for lowbrow slapstick, raunchy fanservice, or common-otaku-denominator humor may wonder what on earth they just stumbled into. What they will find, instead, is razor-sharp comic timing, split-second visual gags, and non-sequiturs so brilliantly random that they could only have been conceived by careful planning. In other words, Shinbo took some mediocre source material and figured out how to make it as awesome as possible. Again.
What sets Hidamari Sketch apart from every other goofy schoolyard comedy is its unique formalism—when they say slice-of-life, they mean it, with each episode spanning exactly a single day (or two) in the school year. The non-chronological ordering is another stroke of genius, destroying the ever-so-predictable "main character is introduced, supporting characters are introduced, spring, summer, fall, winter" formula. Instead, viewers are forced to regard each episode as stand-alone snapshots of school life—one day it's the sports festival, the next it's summer break, then suddenly it's Christmas. This piecemeal method actually makes it fun to follow the events of the series, as incidents mentioned earlier suddenly become clear towards the end. And when the final episode turns out to loop back onto the first one—well, it's strange to think that a plotless slice-of-life series could have a satisfying narrative, but this one pulls it off.
But does the show's sense of humor stop there? Certainly not—it's also complemented by Shinbo's unmistakable visual language, an anime dialect spoken by no one else. No other mainstream director is so adept at playing with word-image duality (watch the "CAR"s go whizzing by in one scene), or cheekily pointing out animation shortcuts by turning them into minimalist exercises (blue and pink rods to symbolize a summer festival crowd), or inserting realistic live-action cutouts into decidedly unrealistic scenery. It's as if he is calling out the artificiality of this sanitized world—a world divided exactly into 22-minute blocks, with a population in the single digits, so why bother striving for stylized realism? Instead, we get stylized unrealism: flat shapes and pastel hues and rapid-fire imagery that makes the show fascinating to watch, even on a purely visual level. The characters, after all, were originally designed to fit in little strips of four squares apiece—and so it follows naturally that the world around them should also obey the rules of flat, formal simplicity.
Even the soundtrack follows these strict ideals: the sparse acoustic pop and sprinklings of modern jazz add a musical atmosphere that is as precise as the show's sense of humor. If there is one concession to the typical "scream as loud as possible and maybe someone will find it funny" school of comedy, it's in the raucous opening theme song, but even that cannot escape the fearful symmetries of SHAFT's animation style: an opening sequence of synchronized hand-claps and floating art supplies and geometric abstractions. The more laid-back ending also has the studio's artistic signature all over it, making this one of the few times when it's worth having creditless opening and ending sequences on the disc.
Unfortunately that's about all there is on the disc as far as bonus content, and when there isn't even a leaflet in the case listing the episodes, it's clear that this is about as bare-bones a release as it gets. The lack of an English dub may also be a deal-breaker for some fans, but what is even more distressing, especially for a professional product, is that the subtitles contain a handful of typos. Oh, and everyone's on their own as far as the cultural references and language puns, so don't try using this as a gateway drug for the anime newcomer. It's the Hard Stuff, through and through.
Nonetheless, those who already have a built-in tolerance for this kind of material will find it to be a very rewarding dose of sunshine. Practically every other high school slice-of-life comedy gets called "hit-or-miss" at some point, but Hidamari Sketch is remarkably consistent in quality, thanks to a distinctive style and strong directorial vision. It's been said that comedies are harder to do than dramas, and Akiyuki Shinbo clearly understands the difficulty involved, having put in so much effort to elevate a so-so four-panel manga into an anime that will probably never be duplicated. Except when they did the OVA (the two final episodes on the disc). And the sequel series (already licensed). And the sequel to the sequel. Yes, by now everyone's done a series about schoolgirls goofing around and having fun. But no one has done it quite like this.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B
+ Takes a familiar formula and makes the best of it with well-timed humor, clever visual gags, and a very distinctive overall style.
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