Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
One fine spring day, Inari Fushimi rescues a puppy at her local shrine. Unbeknownst to her, the puppy is actually a fox—one of the servants of the shrine's goddess, Uka. Later, after Inari witnesses a misleading exchange between her crush Tanbabashi and class cutie Sumizome, Uka offers Inari a wish in exchange for saving the pup. Despairing, Inari wishes she could be beautiful and perfect—that she could be Sumizome. It doesn't take her long to learn she's made a terrible mistake, but Uka can't remove the divine power she's gifted to Inari. So she just changes it slightly. Now Inari can transform into anyone she's seen. But magic can't heal scars of the heart. That will be up to Inari herself.
Some shows want to have a huge impact, and some just want to improve your day a little. That's Inari Kon Kon. Like its titular protagonist, Inari is sweet and modest—a small, warm charmer with a winning affection for classical magical girls (think Creamy Mami not Sailor Moon) and the good sense to know that good characters always trump magical capering in winning an audience's heart.
Not that magical capering isn't an integral part of Inari. Given the show's nature, Inari has to get into at least a couple of magical snafus. And so she gets embroiled in a big mix-up when Uka's pervy brother takes on her shape, is chased around by pesky spirits in a game devised by Uka's boss, and infiltrates Tanbabashi's house as one of his male friends. Even at its hijinksiest, though, Inari is still character-centric. Both the big-brother mix-up and the Tanbabashi infiltration get their best laughs from the way Inari's irrepressibly Inari-ish behavior clashes with the guises she takes on (a middle-aged male teacher and an honor-student type respectively). Especially when Tanbabashi's "friend" gets a little too, er, close to him. The show is never very far from a good-natured chuckle about Inari's clumsiness, or Uka's un-goddesslike love of bishonen games, or Inari's studly brother's horribly embarrassing fiction. That's a goodly part of the show's warming power.
But the show isn't at its best when frivolous; it's at its best when ambushing us with the unexpected depths of its unassuming cast. That happens in the very first episode, when Inari's foolish wish forces her to realize the value of being herself—a potentially trite message that is given unforeseen weight by Inari's realistically messy feelings and, later, by her blindness to her own good qualities. It happens again in the big-brother snafu, this time when the loneliness buried beneath Uka's gracious strength leaks out after a particularly cutting jab from her brother. That loneliness—the loneliness of a woman who loves mortals deeply but lives on an infinitely longer timescale than they—continues to seep poignantly through, especially once her increasingly costly friendship with Inari takes center stage.
And so it goes. Keiko, Inari's protective tomboy friend, reveals a tenderness towards friends and a scary intemperance when defending them that makes her, basically, totally awesome. Sumizome runs away with the show's best scene when she pours out all of her inner insecurities and secret jealousies in a façade-destroying nighttime confession to Inari (during the show's beach episode no less). She also provides the show's biggest (and most delightful) romantic surprise when she subtly betrays the direction of her affections. Inari's brother breaks his gruff exterior to reveal a streak of romantic inexperience during his initially delightful and then increasingly fraught scenes with Uka. Maru, Inari's dumpy otaku friend, is nothing short of a revelation in the show's beach episodes, which use the disturbances that naturally come when a new friend is added to an established group to nicely complicate her one-note personality. She was an otaku stereotype going in; she's real girl coming out—a complex, insecure girl whose innate friendliness is terminally obscured by an inborn slowness in warming up to new people. Heck, even Tanbabashi, who has a sucking hole where his personality should be, can be a sweet joy—as he is when he comes to a belated realization of his own blooming feelings for Inari.
It's a warm, comfortable ensemble, just as Inari is a warm, comfortable show, but it's a warm, comfortable ensemble that somehow can still surprise and delight. Most delightful, of course, are Inari and Uka—the show's twin emotional cores—and the show has the good sense to know that. It builds its finale around them, imperiling their bond and drawing out their mutual weaknesses for a surprisingly hard last punch to the heart, closing out the series on a satisfyingly bittersweet note. But, tellingly, the true satisfaction of the series' ending is in surveying this bustling ensemble, noting the changes they've undergone and speculating happily about where they might be headed after the end credits roll.
As you might expect, Inari isn't big on flash or spectacle. It has its moments, particularly during Inari's climactic dash to Uka's prison, riding a river of glowing fox-spirits over the city and into the sky. But mostly the show focuses its energies on putting together a bright, attractively detailed look that can move easily between moods while remaining stable and consistent. The show looks as good arranging a comically cheap chase between a faux-Inari and Inari-as-middle-aged-dude as it does hanging out in Uka's on-shrine goddess pad.
That said, the series is at its stylistic best when at its most atmospheric: as Inari and her friends attend a strikingly-colored festival at Uka's shrine; as Sumizome, ensconced in a cinematic cocoon of forest wind, confesses to Inari; as Inari's divine powers go berserk during a confrontation with a bullying cohort, turning Uka's lovely wooded shrine subtly menacing. Such moments make the most of the show's artistic strengths: gorgeous, lushly colored backgrounds, careful attention to detail, and thoughtful framing.
Director Toru Takahashi applies that same thoughtfulness and attention to detail to his characters. Yuka Takashina's designs aren't traditionally beautiful, but they are nicely individual and imbued on a bone-deep level with each character's personality. Takahashi knows how to imbue their movement with both individuality and with emotion, allowing feelings to emerge wordlessly from Maru's closed-in body language or Sumizome's sideways glances or Inari's clumsily determined gait. He rarely pushes hard, though when he does the effect can be quite devastating—as it is when an increasingly battered Inari keeps throwing herself at the opening crack in Uka's impenetrable stone prison.
Takashina and Takahashi also deserve praise for animating girls who don't uniformly look like fashion models. Inari, while tiny and cute, is convincingly plain and conventionally built, with round cheeks and chubby little legs. Maru is the rare anime female who has a well-built personality and yet looks like someone you might actually see at a Weight Watchers meeting.
Like BIC Studio's backgrounds, Takeshi Senoo's score is also best when being atmospheric, particularly when it breaks out the acoustic instruments for simple but emotionally expressive melodies. Although, admittedly, the similarity of those compositions to Toshio Masuda's lovely Ai Yori Aoshi score may be coloring my opinion some.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ A sweet, sincere, and comfortable teen drama with nice atmospheric overtones; even the worst members of the ensemble can really blindside you with their depth of character.
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