This week brings pitches for dungeon treks, alien bug raids, and a nightmare long thought over. Plus Silent Hills, BlazBlue, and the results of an anime-editing contest!
Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 27th 2005
DVD 2: Enigma
The Popotan sisters—gentle Ai, outspoken Mai, and hyperactive Mii—continue their strange journey through space and time in a giant Christmas-themed house. Ai's conversation with her dandelion, or popotan (that's "tanpopo" backwards) leads the sisters to a hot springs resort and a springtime festival. At the end of the day, however, the house suddenly jumps through time before Mai and housemaid Mea can get back in! Five years later, the sisters find each other again, but Mai's attachment to real-time existence threatens their journey. Then, after another move, the sisters run into an old friend from 30 years ago who threatens to unlock the mystery of their time-traveling house. Their next stop is a Shinto shrine where the head priest is strongly opposed to all things Christmas, but his granddaughter finds the holiday fascinating, and the sisters do all they can to help her out.
You know how there are people who can't get through Chobits because it keeps turning into kiddie porn in between plot points? Popotan is that kind of show, but taken to a much more extreme level. We learn about how the girls enter the lives of others, forming relationships and striking emotional chords, and then BAM! Here they are completely naked! Or here they are talking about their breast size! For an anime that was adapted from an ecchi game, it's got a surprising amount of substance, but it just can't shake off the fanservice. Sure, people are pretty upset these days about manga censorship, but this anime is safe for now—you won't see any obscured or erased nipples in Popotan. In fact, you'll see more in plain sight than you'll ever need to.
Look at the promotional artwork for Popotan and you'd be easily fooled into thinking that it's just another harem series where girls perpetually lose their clothes while living with some average Joe. However, this average Joe doesn't exist, and the house doesn't even stay in one place. There's nothing else in anime quite like it: the sisters' interactions with everyday people present a slice-of-life motif, but their "journey" is decidedly mystical. When Daichi, who was just a grade-schooler in Episode 1, shows up as a father thirty years later in Episode 7, the resulting conflicts create a complexity that's beyond the scope of a typical bishoujo anime. It's the kind of show that hooks you in because you hope they'll explain it in the end, but it pushes you away when heartfelt scenes suddenly cut to pointless bathroom romps with full frontal nudity. This is also the disc with the obligatory hot springs episode on it, so be warned.
The depth of Popotan's cast of characters is another bizarre contrast to their penchant for getting naked. This disc in particular focuses on Mai, whose five-year exile in the real world takes her through high school and her first year of college while waiting for Ai and Mii to catch up. When they finally reunite, it's one of the show's most thoughtful moments as Mai and her sisters reflect on their ongoing journey and how it precludes any sort of regular life. Even Episode 8, with its predictable filler story about the shrine maiden Nono and her Christmas-hating grandfather, says something meaningful about family bonds without being too over-the-top. However, most of the other jokes center on the girls' boob sizes: Ai is huge, Mai is tiny, and Mii appeals strictly to fans of lolicon. For a lot of viewers, this juvenile fixation on breasts (along with their blatant display) will be too much to allow enjoyment of the rest of the show.
With the current trend of anime titles based on H-games, it looks like "bishoujo style" is fast becoming its own category. Although fanboys can argue for days on whether it's just a gamer's euphemism for the more fetish-like "moe" style, there's no doubt that primary colors, fanciful outfits and slickly drawn girls are the essence of Popotan. At first glance, it's a very polished look, but it's also generic and easily reproducible—just like a video game. With so much focus on the attractive artwork, the animation is just an afterthought. It's easy to spot a low-budget project when even a butt-shake in the opening sequence looks like a struggle. Apart from necessary body movements and mouth-flapping, this is a show that tries its best to avoid any real animation; most of the "action" involves slow pans over salacious pinups of the girls. After all, that's the real reason you're watching this anime, right? The cheesy CGI effects for magically powered sequences further reinforce the fact that the animators at SHAFT—a studio that usually does grunt work—just didn't try very hard.
Popotan's pleasant, happy-go-lucky soundtrack is the work of Osamu Tezuka, but don't think that the god of manga has come back from the dead. Musician Tezuka goes with the less-is-more philosophy, underlining Popotan's pivotal scenes with just a handful of instruments—if even that. Tezuka's talent for gentle solo melodies also heightens the show's heartfelt moments, while the more playful music avoids crossing into the realm of obnoxious. The opening and ending songs, however, are raucous squeal-fests, so feel free to turn the volume down during those segments.
Although Geneon employs a relatively unknown cast for the English dub, the result is quite natural-sounding thanks to Rob Bakewell's voice directing efforts. The biggest weakness is Mii and her ridiculous little-girl voice that reaches crystal-shattering levels, but most everything else is better. Ai's voice captures her sweet personality with a velvety tone, while Mai has a straightforward delivery that's suited to her outspoken nature. However, it's really Mea who shines with her deadpan dialogue (Chii, anyone?) that humorously contrasts the "robot maid" stereotype against her devious personality.
Is there any way to make sense of Popotan? It's a show of bewildering contrasts: stirring slice-of-life encounters set against time-traveling mysticism, plus a substantial plot that keeps getting interrupted by rampant 18-and-up fanservice. Whether you will enjoy this show depends on your ability to mindblock the bare breasts and cleavage jokes that lurk between the meaningful scenes. Of course, for some people, the bare breasts are the meaningful scenes. If that's not your kind of thing, though, be prepared to avert your eyes. A lot.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : C-
Art : B-
Music : B
+ An unusual but touching story with a hint of mystery.
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