Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Five art college students and one of their professors, most of whom share the same dorm, become close friends as they go through the trials and tribulations of art, school, life, and love. Hagumi is the growth-challenged (midget?) girl with a prodigious artistic talent who comes to live with her uncle, Professor Shuuji Hanamoto, who absolutely adores her; Yuta is the directionless, put-upon freshman who falls for Hagumi at first sight; Takumi is the young man who has fallen for an older woman he works for part-time, who happens to be a dear old friend of Shuuji's; Shinobu is the screwball repeater who can disappear for days or even weeks on mysterious “jobs” and reappear wasted but with a pocketful of money; and Ayumi is the talented potter and butt-kicker who, try as she might, cannot get over her one-sided affection for Takumi.
Based on a popular, award-winning josei manga, this 2005 anime version of Honey and Clover has been licensed by Viz Media for more than two years but only this autumn has it finally started to make its way out on DVD. Fans of the manga or anime who have waited impatiently for Viz to get their act together should be quite pleased with the result, which includes 13 episodes spread over three DVDs and a solid set of Extras. Even the English dub, courtesy of the relatively new Salami Studios, should not disappoint much, as it casts its actors reasonably close in vocal style to the originals and features competent performances. (The English script does put certain terms in more American context, while the original Japanese context remains in the subtitles, but this is never a problem.)
Those not familiar with the manga might assume from the above synopsis that there is not much of a plot to the first half of this first series, and they would not be mistaken. However, the first dozen regular episodes are not so much about laying out a linear plot progression as they are about showcasing its core cast's activities and relationships and how they evolve (or not) over time, beginning with the heart of college days and, in some cases, extending beyond. The writing is at its best when detailing the flowering of artistic inspiration, the way different characters approach and pursue emotional attachments, and the way the characters bond with each other in ways that can transcend love; in fact, this content commonly comes across with a different and more sincere feel than most anime attempts to explore such things. Anime is replete with romances involving unrequited love, and this one handles it better than most.
The series struggles much more with its pacing and humor. Most who are not familiar with the manga will probably find the first couple of episodes to be a directionless collection of scenes which serve only to introduce the principle cast members and their basic relationships and idiosyncrasies; the series gives no sense of a bigger picture or that there is even a picture. Towards the end of episode 3 the series finally starts bringing things together dramatically, and from that point on it becomes apparent that those early scenes were (mostly) necessary for laying the groundwork. Still, the series starts slow enough that it could lose some viewers before they reach the critical mass point. These episodes also struggle to find the right style of humor which works for them and to blend it smoothly in amongst dramatic components. Granted, these episodes can occasionally be very funny – especially certain parts of episode 11 and Ayumi and Hagu's odd notions about what constitutes tasty cooking – but all too often the humor is just blandly ridiculous.
Although the animation was more of a cooperative effort than normal (no less than 36 companies are listed as giving an assist on the animation, including some very prominent names), J.C. Staff did the lead job and presumably decided to make a concerted effort to preserve the visual style of the manga. In this case, though, that may not have been an optimal decision because this is not a look which translates well into animation. Though generally rendered well, the female character designs are not particularly attractive, and a recurring weird cheek blush effect which makes their faces look like they took a dive across a blacktop parking lot does not help. Male character designs actually fare a little better in this one, although some of the designs (most notably Shinobu and Shuuji) can sometimes be hard to distinguish at a quick glance. This is not one of the more sophisticated efforts on backgrounds, either, except when depicting the artistry of the cast members (one abstract painting of a giraffe is quite impressive), and the series suffers from the common shojo habit of shifting to flowery backgrounds to highlight key emotional moments. The animation is nothing special, either.
And something special has to be said about the design of Hagumi. Yes, the fact that she is grossly undersized and underdeveloped for her age is one of the series' biggest gimmicks, but really, an 18-year-old who could pass for an 8-year-old physically? And college-aged male characters are practically drooling over her? True to the source manga or not, and as cute as she may be, it is a little creepy.
Substantial chunks of the series play without any soundtrack at all, but the low-key and/or fun-loving melodies which typically kick in to try to maximize a scene's dramatic or comedic impact adequately do the job. Also listen for at least two different insert songs during this span. Closer “Waltz,” which episodes often segue into in their waning moments, is an unimaginative and uninspired light number, while opener “Dramatic” is more respectable but far more noteworthy for having one of the most inventive sets of visuals ever put into an anime series opener; it is entirely composed of shots of plates against a green background, each showing an artsy (and in some cases animated) display of food depicting something else, such as a clock-shaped pizza, a cow-shaped meat patty, an elaborately-dressed young woman made entirely of pasta, or a cake with sauce which looks disturbingly like a pair of panties that failed to contain a leaky bladder. Some of these flash by fairly fast, so watching the opener at least once in slow-mo is worth it. Rarely do openers or closers warrant an included featurette just about their creation, but this one certainly does.
Viz Media did, in fact, recognize the appropriateness of having such an Extra by including the Japanese “behind the scenes” piece about the making of the opener. It reveals that an award-winning commercial director was called in to create it and gives some insight as to how some of the foods were created, but at 11 minutes it feels like it is only scratching the surface of what must have been a fascinating creative endeavor. Among other items on the Extras menu are an extensive set of production art and clean opener and closer. Each of the three disks also has a Cultural References heading to explain some of the most Japanocentric references in the episodes. One episode which was originally released as a DVD bonus episode, here called Chapter L, is included between episodes 11 and 12 and details the students' dealings with a very robust fellow student named Lohmeyer – something which has nothing to do with the main “storyline.” It is, by a large margin, the weakest of all of these episodes. All episodes retain the original Japanese credits, with translations of credits, and English credits, only found on the Extras menu.
Despite flaws, the first dozen regular episodes show potential. They have laid a solid foundation for what could be a fairly mature and emotional story about young adults dealing with life and love. The series does not achieve that potential here, but those who survive the first few episodes should find it involving enough to stick with it.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : B
+ Opener visuals, depiction of artistic inspiration, dramatic elements.
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