Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
24-year-old Shoko Nogami has come to a new town with the hope of starting over away from anyone she knows. As Fate would have it, though, the girl she encounters praying at a roadside shrine, one Karada Iokawa, is not only the kid sister of her ex-boyfriend from her Boston college days but also the unexplained reason her ex failed to return to her after a supposedly-temporary trip back home to Japan five years earlier. Karada, for her part, has felt like a burden on her older brother ever since he took her in when their parents died five years earlier, so she longs to quickly become an adult so she can free her brother Hiro from that responsibility. When the wishing stones at that roadside shrine answer her prayer (and perhaps Shoko's as well), a disconcerting transformation takes place: the two suddenly exchange ages! As troubling as the situation is for the two of them, the complications it causes for their relationships with Amino (Karada's verging-on-boyfriend-status friend) and Hiro run deeper still, especially since Karada never knew what Hiro gave up in America to stay and care for her. During that one fateful summer, the two girls and the men in their lives must come to terms with the trouble that one little wish can bring and the years of unresolved baggage inherent in that wish.
Never heard of this fall 2006 slice-of-life romantic drama? Not surprising, as even under the original Japanese name Asatte no Houkou it failed to generate a noteworthy level of excitement or enthusiasm in the American otaku community, which makes Section 23 licensing it more than three years after its airing rather surprising. Clearly someone at Section 23 actually watched this little gem, though, and realized that, while it may not be a hot seller, it is certainly something worthy of a broader audience. Hopefully Sentai Filmworks' release of the 12-episode series will find an audience seeking a more serious, mature series, as it is so well-written that only a mediocre artistic effort might keep it from automatically being considered among the year's best.
Slice-of-life dramas are arguably the hardest type of anime series to do successfully, as they cannot fall back on intense action, flashy special effects, silly humor, or dazzling visuals to carry the series through weak points or serve as main attractors. These are not the kind of series where heavy doses of fan service feel appropriate, either. Instead, they must rely almost entirely on how the characterizations and character relationships guide the story, with only a story gimmick of some type to hook the audience. This one handles both exceptionally well.
While the age-exchange gimmick may seem like something out of Freaky Friday, it does not play out so casually. As one might expect, the younger Karada has the more difficult time dealing with the transformation; though she claimed she wanted this, she has neither the maturity to handle it nor the adventuresome spirit necessary to revel in it. The older and more mature Shoko, contrarily, more quickly comes to terms with what has happened and tries to make the best of the situation, in the process suggesting that, by seeking a fresh start, she may have secretly wanted this in a developmental sense, too. (Even if it does take until near the end of the series for her to acknowledge it.) The scenes where the two must settle into their new realities are pure gold and the scenes where the ladies must try to explain the truth to Hiro and Amina are suitably awkward, as both are understandably skeptical.
In the broader sense, though, the central gimmick is just a tool to force the characters to examine and reconsider the emotional issues involved. Hiro was caught between a rock and a hard place by his situation five years ago and did not handle it well, so all those emotions – Shoko's sense of betrayal, Karada's sense of imposition into Hiro's life – have had plenty of time to percolate. They come to a boiling point in one surprising bit of nastiness by Shoko towards Karada before the transformation and once Karada discovers the truth about Shoko's past relationship with Hiro afterwards. Karada's immature feelings about Amina, that uncertainty about whether or not it is yet love, also come into play.
If this all sounds dull, it's not. This is a well-thought-out piece which avoids melodrama, needless complications, and crazy side characters; in fact, the only two supporting roles of any prominence are Amina's older sister and a girl that both Karada and Shoko encounter who seems to function almost like a bridge between their worlds. The storytelling is so well-paced, and the dialog so well-timed, that episodes can seem to fly by.
Sadly, J.C. Staff's artistry is not quite up to the same standard as the writing. Karada and Shoko look sufficiently cute/pretty at both ages, and Amina, his sister, and the other recurring girl are also fine, as are the husband-wife team that Karada meets later on. But really, Hiro, cut that hair! If you are trying to look like a burnt-out druggie, you have succeeded. (He looks much better in flashbacks.) The character rendering in general is fine, but the backgrounds, most of which look like they were done in water color, leave a lot to be desired. The animation is unremarkable, although it does get few chances to show off. Fan service is very limited and generally innocuous.
The soundtrack is a bit more special. Based heavily in light piano numbers, it is typically understated but effective. The opener and closer are both light adult contemporary numbers – the former more upbeat, the latter slower and more soulful – which suit the mood of the series well. Watch for minor but important changes to the closer's visuals in the final episode. On the Japanese dub track, the two lead seiyuu – Ayumi Fujimura and Shizuka Itou – both do excellent jobs with the emotional content and especially with adjusting the pitch of their voices for the changing ages of their characters.
Being a Sentai Filmworks release, the series naturally has no dub and limited Extras; it has only a clean opener and closer on the second of two disks in a regular-sized case. The typical problems with subtitle editing also linger, although they pop up only a couple of times over the course of these twelve episodes.
The awkwardly-named Living for the Day After Tomorrow is an easy title to overlook but shouldn't be overlooked. Those tired of boisterous, formulaic teen romantic comedies should find this one to be a refreshing change of pace, and it certainly delivers on its careful crafting of drama framed by its defining gimmick. It is one of the sublime jewels of this year's first half.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Writing, pacing, turns a gimmicky premise into something special.
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