Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 25th 2013
Michiko & Hatchin
Hana Morenos is an orphan in a possibly-Brazilian Latin American nation. Adopted by a slimy priest and his horrible family, Hana lives in misery and humiliation. Across the country, imprisoned criminal Michiko Malandro is shooting her way out of prison. Once out she hits the road looking for the lost love of her life. Step one: kidnapping her lost love's daughter, one Hana Morenos. For Hana, soon to be Hatchin, it's more like a rescue. Together they go on an epic pursuit of elusive paterfamilias Hiroshi: through slums and circuses and creepy biotech labs, getting help from whoever will give it and from others—like old “friend” and brutal gangster Satoshi Batista—who won't. With Michiko's ex-friend and current police nemesis Atsuko in hot pursuit, they close in, parting and reuniting, bickering and bonding, all the way there.
You want to love Michiko & Hatchin. You want to so bad that it hurts. It's an action series that's as much about characters, relationships, and pure road-tripping adventure as it is about blowing stuff up. It stars two unapologetically strong women, without worrying about whether they're likeable (Michiko) or whether they can kick butt (Hatchin). It's an anime series that looks outside the inbred confines of the industry for inspiration: to the grimy exploitation movies of '70s America, to the terminal hipness of early Tarantino, to buddy road-pics like Thelma and Louise and slum's-eye views of South America like City of God. It's an original work directed by a woman. It's a veritable laundry list of things that you wish anime would do more often. Plus it's animated by Manglobe and has creative input from Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe. So yeah, you want to love it. But the best you can do is like it.
Make no mistake though; there's a lot to like. The series is essentially an episodic road trip: two girls, vastly different in age and temperament, riding the ups and downs of their volatile relationship while dodging dogged policewomen and a seemingly endless stream of underworld lowlifes. All on the world's coolest motor-scooter. It's a trip with many emotional rewards—especially during the rare times when either Michiko or Hatchin betrays how much the other means to them—and a good many strong episodes: from the first, in which Hatchin plays Cinderella to a family of self-righteous hypocrites, to the last, in which Hatchin and Michiko fight a losing battle to stay together, with plenty of excellent stops in between. Like the underworld tale where Michiko is rescued from sex slavery by a seriously cool cross-dresser, or Hatchin's funny and ultimately heartbreaking scheme to cheer Michiko up by stalking and assaulting a telenovela star, or the delirious freeway battle between Michiko and a terrifying elderly assassin. At its best the series really does recall the episodic free-spiritedness of Bebop: trying on different genre guises for the heck of it and turning them to its own Latin-inflected, girl-power ends.
That is not to imply, however, that it's ever a match for Bebop. The only time the show gets within spitting distance is at the very beginning, when Michiko still has her dangerous edge and first-time director Sayo Yamamoto still has the budget to make the show sneer with bad-girl punk attitude. As the series proceeds Michiko becomes a fairly straightforward protector figure (though admittedly a feral and sometimes counterproductive one) and Yamamoto's budget clearly starts to sputter out. By the time Michiko dives back into her dirty past to dig up clues to Hiroshi's whereabouts, instigating the first of the show's two-part stories, the series' visuals have degraded far enough that the final showdown (a swordfight in a bullfighting arena) is a good deal sillier than it is cool.
As the series digs further into its run it sometimes beats back the effects of its shrinking coffers, usually by adapting its writing to its decreased technical capabilities. The episode where Hatchin falls in with (actually, is kidnapped by) an on-the-run Satoshi Batista ends in a grubby massacre where Satoshi, in boxer briefs and boots, guns down his former crew using grittily budget-conscious tactics. And when big budgets are absolutely needed, Yamamoto is good at channeling the money saved elsewhere into the scenes that need it: the impressive train crash that parts Hatchin from Michiko for the penultimate time, a game of rooftop Chicken with Michiko's life at stake, a desperate charge through a pile of police VWs, a lengthy Road Warrior duel between Michiko and a pair of relentless assassins. They're more economical than the early show-stoppers, but serious fun nonetheless.
The downward trend is, however, ultimately irreversible—as is its damage. Michiko remains a sexy force of nature to the end, but she's never quite as potent as she was when she had the opening episodes' meticulous art and mobile animation to back her up. Hatchin has greater and greater difficulty recapturing her early mix of heart-stopping vulnerability and stubborn strength (and she never tops the mind-exploding cuteness of episode four's barroom scene, where she gets hilariously drunk on juice). Policewoman Atsuko has a harder time balancing '70s cool with her poorly-hidden sensitivity; emotions of necessity grow less subtle as the animation gets cruder; the show's imaginary Latin world gets less exhilaratingly interactive; and the series as a whole is less stylish, active, and fun. It's hard to say what exactly is happening, but the sense that you're watching a talented crew progressively (and depressingly) burn out is hard to shake.
And to be perfectly honest, it'd be hard to blame them. For all the strength of the individual episodes, the series itself is a meandering thing, with no clear direction or purpose. It feels very much like it was written on the run, and has a corresponding lack of calculated drive. Even worse, what drive the show does have is predicated on Michiko's undying love for a cowardly lump of a man who clearly doesn't deserve her. Michiko's taste in men could be a killer joke—in one episode she carries on an affair with an excruciatingly insincere layabout lothario—if the show didn't treat her romantic travails with such arty gravity. It's hard to know what to do with those episodes, other than wait for the focus to shift back to Michiko and Hatchin's far more productive relationship. Which, to the show's credit, it always does.
M&H makes some interesting audio decisions. The rollicking score comes courtesy of Shinichiro Watanabe (who produced) and Brazilian musician Alexandre Kassin (who composed) and adds color and a touch of the exotic. The cast of live-action actors comes courtesy of Sayo Yamamoto and is a bit more of an acquired taste. Most of the main characters are played by pro actors and have the peculiar flatness that you get when people used to letting their faces do the talking move to a medium where their voices have to do all the work. Once you get used to it, though, the flatness works for the characters, countering the, um, colorfulness of their designs and personalities and tying them a little closer to reality.
Funimation's dub, on the other hand, is more or less a straight-shooting anime adaptation. They don't monkey much with the script—other than kicking the bad language up a notch, particularly where Satoshi is concerned—and they don't do anything particularly adventurous with the acting. The result is solid and satisfying, its main advantage being the obvious enjoyment of its actors. Monica Rial's Michiko takes a bit of getting used to—her tough-girl delivery, coupled with Michiko's badass mannerisms, can come across as posturing—but once Michiko's good-as-gold heart comes through, she's home free. Jad Saxton nails Hatchin's spunk and occasional fragility, but lacks a bit of the original's bite. Most everyone else is perfectly fine, with the exception of Akron Watson, who is positively spectacular as Satoshi Batista, a goofy looking dude with big glasses, bad clothes, and a soft-spoken demeanor that hides a very scary well of sociopathic rage.
Extras are dominated by four enthusiastic commentary tracks: for episode 1 with ADR director Christopher Bevins, Rial, and Saxton; episode 2 with Bevins, Rial, and Sametria Ewunes (Atsuko); episode 20 with ADR engineer Cris George, Watson, and Saxton; and episode 22 with Bevins, Rial, and Saxton again. Also included are two Japanese videos, one of a press conference with Yamamoto and the lead actresses and the other an uninteresting interview with the two leads, as well as a pair of kinda gushy English tributes to Hatchin and Michiko.
It's tempting to throw words like “uneven” and “frustrating” at Michiko & Hatchin, but that isn't right. For all the seesawing you can do between its strengths and weaknesses, from episode to episode it's actually pretty consistent (and pretty consistently good). Nor is it quite right to think of the series as a lesson in the destructive impact of a badly-regulated budget. Even at its sloppiest it shows a measure of ingenuity, and never does its presentation hurt it so bad that it ceases to divert and occasionally delight.
No, it's more useful to think of Michiko & Hatchin as a buoyant balloon of a show: borne upwards by strong leads, thorny relationships, a mischievous sense of fun, and a daringly different approach to trés cool anime action, but always weighed down by just enough bad romance, wandering plotting, and declining stylistic panache that it never sails as high as it could. But—and this is important—it still sails. If you're looking for something unique and fun in the action realm, look no further. If you're looking for the Next Great Action Show, keep right on looking.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Hard-edged action-adventure with an interesting underworld milieu, a coolly underplayed streak of romanticism, and style to burn; strong female cast and complex central relationship.
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