Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Akira Tsubaki has long wondered what his first girlfriend would be like, but reality turns out to be stranger than anything he could have imagined. Mikoto Ukabe, the girl who transfers into his high school class, makes an immediate impression: though pretty, she usually conceals her eyes behind her bangs, sleeps through lunch, and seems standoffish about making friends. She still intrigues Akira enough that he decides to sample a puddle of drool she leaves behind on her desk after one of her naps. That night he has a vivid dream of the two of them together in a bizarre city, and a persistent fever that he picks up a few days later doesn't go away until Mikoto visits him, declares that he's suffering from withdrawal, and feeds him more of her drool. As this becomes a daily occurrence, the two agree to become a couple. Akira gradually learns that the drool-sharing can have some other interesting side effects, too, and that's far from the only odd thing about Mikoto; he also quickly comes to respect the skill with which she wields the scissors she typically carries in her panties, for instance. Though their relationship progresses slower than Akira would prefer, there's no question that he has earned himself one heck of a mysterious girlfriend.
Let's get the major issue out of the way first: yes, this is a series which not only prominently features drool but also involves various characters sampling each other's drool; by the end of episode six four different characters have been involved in this, although one looks to have been a one-shot occurrence. And yes, animation studio Hoods Entertainment, who has developed a reputation for animating edgy content with fare like Aki Sora, Seikon no Qwaser, and Manyū Hiken-chō, plays up the visually slimy aspect of the drool quite strongly, apparently moreso than what Riichi Ueshiba's original manga did. The gross-out effect is pronounced enough that those who think that they might have major issues with it are best off not trying to watch the series. Get by that (admittedly major) first hurdle, though, and you will find a rather offbeat story about developing teen romances featuring one of the freshest and most intriguingly weird girlfriend characters to come along in many a year.
And although Mikoto is not the sole reason that the series works, she is a major part of the equation. Anime has gone to such extremes over the years in its used of girlfriend characters that being outlandish often isn't enough to distinguish such a character as fresh or at least convention-breaking. Mikoto succeeds where many, many others fail to distinguish themselves, though, and not just because of the drool thing – although, admittedly, being able read and transmit feelings, dreams, and even empathic injuries through one's drool is one of the oddest supernatural abilities ever to come up in anime. (Or is it supernatural? The series has, so far, been very dodgy on this.) Anime girls are also normally either girly girls or pure tomboys, but Mikoto falls somewhere in between, as she is definitely feminine but definitely not ladylike. The way she wears her bangs long to hide her eyes creates a visual effect that is both mysterious and dumpy, but it also makes the occasional scenes where her eyes do show very impactful; her one-eyed stare can be unnerving, while seeing her full face is like seeing a veil removed to reveal the beauty underneath. Her handiness with her scissors and interesting reaction to being touched offer further quirks, as does her seemingly paradoxical mix of frankness and shyness, which regularly confounds Akira. The vocal casting also figures in here, as newcomer Ayako Yoshitani, who also sings both the opener and the closer, gives Mikoto an unusually low-pitched and slightly nasal sound which resembles that of no other anime character.
The content of the series can also be taken as a symbolic interpretation of emerging teen sexuality. Taken metaphorically, the drool and the effects that it can have can be representative of other body fluids and hormonal arousals, respectively, and Mikoto's behavior can certainly be looked at as a reflection of her uncertain understanding of her own feelings. She seems to want to take the next step, and makes it clear that she is not adverse to eventually losing her virginity to Akira or bothered by Akira fantasizing about her (although, in one of the first's half's best scenes, she is bothered by something strange that Akira imagines her wearing in the sex fantasy), but she seems unsure how to proceed and so is trying to muddle along in her own unique way. Akira, meanwhile, delights in being able to call a cute girl his girlfriend while also trying to nudge the relationship forward; many of the first half's best jokes involve the unexpected ways that Mikoto reacts and takes control of the situation in such instances, however. For all that the series may take an abnormal approach, this is still basically a romantic comedy.
The look of the series is also unusual. The character designs by Kenichi Konishi (who also did the character design work for Bokurano and some of Tokyo Godfathers) have more of an old-school, cell animation feel to them; in that respect the series would not look out of place in the '90s. Lighting and color schemes favor warmer, more restrained tones to modern-looking backgrounds. Definitely not old-school is the fantastic cityscape depicted in Akira's dreams about Mikoto, however, a setting so rich in strange and wondrous detail that a viewer could rewatch those scenes several times and see something new in them every time. Little details also spruce up the production, such as the homages to classic sci fi movies in the posters on the walls of Akira's room or the UFO chain that Mikoto adorns her bag with. The animation is also a grade above the norm, including distinctly more background animation than is normally present in series like this, but the fan service, while present, is restrained.
Also distinctive is the soundtrack. Tomoki Hasegawa, a veteran of titles as diverse as D.N.Angel, NANA, and Wedding Peach, infuses large portions of the background music with a jaunty, vaguely carnivalesque musical score which is simultaneous quirky, fun, and at times just a little creepy. The sweet but much more conventional opener is easily forgettable, while the equally ordinary closer is much more memorable for the pictures of Mikoto in various states of sleep with drool leaking out of her mouth.
Aside from the drool factor, the biggest knock against the series so far is that it advances rather slowly and methodically – perhaps too much so. For this one, though, the course the story takes is much more important than its destination, and for the most part it is a fun, if strange, excursion.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ One of the freshest girlfriend characters to come along in years, amusingly weird.
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