Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Otogibana City. Squint a little and at its center you'll see Otogi Academy. Squint a little more and you'll see the Otogi Academy Mutual Student Aid Association, AKA the Otogi Bank. The Otogi Bank is a club that lends favors to students; at interest, of course. Its members span a range of specialties, from information gathering to housekeeping. And brawling, naturally. In the brawling category is Ryoko Ookami, an asocial girl with a mean left jab. While hurting thugs for the Bank, Ryoko meets Ryoshi Morino. Well, sort of. Actually Ryoshi is cowering in the shadows watching her hurt thugs. Ryoshi, it seems, has a serious phobia about being watched, seen, or even paid attention to. Nevertheless he summons the courage to confess his feelings—yeah, he's smitten—to Ryoko. Who promptly shoots him down. Fortunately for Ryoshi, that isn't before his tracking skills—sharpened by a lifetime of avoiding notice—are noted by the Bank. Which just as promptly recruits him.
Disappointment seems a strong word to describe something as enjoyable as Okamisan. But how else do you describe something that neglects what is fresh and interesting in it while feeding all that is stale and worn?
First what is fresh and interesting. Okamisan is a fairy tale (the town's name is a play on the word for fairy tale). Or, more accurately, it's a bunch of them; melded with anime tropes in strange ways, and warped to comic ends. Fun little inventions abound. The Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood as best buds with moe personality types (tsundere and evil loli respectively)? Prince Charming as a pain addict, and Cinderella as his supplier? How about the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, played as a vicious political smear campaign...for a beauty pageant? The series has a great, playful sense of fun, from its slightly goofy fairy-tale conflicts (the re-enactment of Momotaro's oni-hunt is a blast) to its caustic voice-of-God narrator and athletic pratfalls. At Otogi Academy magic—that endangered anime quality—abounds and in a light and free-spirited form that delights. And that word is not used lightly.
Unfortunately, the series isn't interested in magic. Or at least, not as interested as it should be. Instead it throws its weight behind its dramatic ambitions. Though episodic by nature, the show has a continuing plot. It concerns the cause of Ryoko's tsundere-hood, and is played dead serious and darkly so. That isn't a problem per se—any good fairy tale has to have a dark heart—but unfortunately Okamisan's trips into the shadows display none of the verve or imagination that its frolics in the land of inter-cultural mash-ups do. Ultimately Ryoko's back-story devolves into the kind of sledgehammer-sad flashback that shonen fans have learned to dread, dragging the series painfully away from its fun-loving heart. Angst turns the characters from modernized myths into typical tortured teens, and Ryoko gets her personality strip-searched, which leads to the shocking revelation that her aggression is a cover for her insecurities, which in turn stem from a terrible past trauma. As if anyone needed a pop psychological dissection of the tsundere personality type. That isn't a vein of drama, or a weighty undertone; that's a digression, and worse yet, a dull one.
Before you give up on the series, though, keep in mind that in the war between Okamisan's inventive fairy-tale humor and hackneyed drama, the humor usually wins. During its darker moments Ryoshi and Ryoko's relationship may swing in a lightly chauvinistic "man protect woman" direction, but it inevitably returns to the comically reversed sex roles of the status quo. For now. And Ryoko's tragic past? It isn't all cheap psychology, bad flashbacks, and tired soul-searching. It is introduced, after all, in a fight during which Momotaro's subordinates swear their loyalty to their buxom master's, er, sweets.
Okamisan puts a lot of effort into its storybook atmosphere, often in subtle ways. In addition to sneaking in some sly jokes, Satomi Arai's running commentary and the accompanying narrator vs. character spats arrange the proper story-telling distance. The sunny, colorful, and just slightly unreal environs set the mood, and the fairy-tale costuming amplifies it. And sealing the deal are Masahi Okita's archetypical characters. Archetypical being a nice way of saying they embody a single character trait—which if you think about it makes them very fairy-tale-ish, particularly as they tend to act out their one trait in outrageous ways. Haruka Iizuka gives each archetype a suitably distinctive design, though with a length of jaw and angularity of lip that also lends them enough stylistic homogeneity to qualify as a "look." Specifically a Toradora!-ish look.
Tellingly, that storybook atmosphere breaks down some during Okamisan's gloomier and more violent interludes. That the action scenes rely on your usual stew of shortcuts, fancy cutting, and speed-blurring doesn't rankle nearly so much as the generic dark atmosphere the series adopts for most of them. Ditto the introspective sequences. Though the shortcuts, fancy cutting, and speed blurring are telling in their own way. When Okamisan stages a bright, silly action sequence (e.g Cinderella accidentally caving in Prince Charming's puss), they tend decrease in density. Though director Yoshiaki Iwasaki does what he can with the series' downbeat turns, his heart is obviously in the goofing rather than the pain.
Megumi Oohashi's score keeps far, far out of the way. Throughout the majority of the series it is either absent, inaudible, or buried behind overlapping dialogue and narration. If it weren't for the electric guitar jolts it unleashes during some of the more active sequences, it would qualify as minimal. It isn't likely to sell many soundtracks, but it does its job, and with a self-effacing quietude that's refreshing.
If you're looking to explore the darkness that underlies fairy tales, you'd be advised to seek out the overlooked Princess Tutu, which does so with gusto, and deconstructs the act of story-telling in the process. Okamisan, in the meantime, is content with milking its moe/fairy-tale collisions for snarky asides and S&M jokes. Which is fine, as they are fresh snarky asides and hilarious S&M jokes ...And since its flashes of ambition are usually accompanied by embarrassing narrative face-plants.
Oh, and if you're wondering what exactly Momotaro's oni-hunt is...well, you may want to bone up on your Japanese folklore. Though fine without it, full enjoyment of Okamisan requires a certain level of cultural knowledge.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ A sharp-looking shot of warped storybook fun; likeable goober for a male protagonist.
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