Reviewby Carlo Santos, Oct 10th 2006
DVD 3: Winter Adventures
Miu, Chika, Matsuri, Ana and Nobue, the "marshmallow girls" of the neighborhood, are up to their usual antics as fall and winter set in. Chika starts to worry about her weight when Miu calls her chubby. Maybe some outdoor sports will help work off the pounds? Later on, Nobue discovers a classy bakery and tries to round up the other girls for cake, which turns to be far more frustrating than she imagined. Winter is just around the corner when the hot water goes out at Nobue and Chika's house, so it's off to the public baths if they want to freshen up without freezing. Lastly, as Christmas draws near, the girls face the ultimate challenge: can they keep Matsuri's belief in Santa Claus alive without bratty Miu ruining it for her?
With anime licensing having tapered off in recent years, and Western distributors locking themselves into the safe zone of big-name action-adventure, this might be the last "cute comedy" for a while. So enjoy it while you can, folks—the final volume of Strawberry Marshmallow closes out the series in fine sugar-sweet fashion, and if that's what you're into, then this is about as good as you can expect. (If it's not what you're into, well, this isn't going to change anyone's mind.) The closing episodes continue to deliver what the series does best: charming characters, well-timed gags, and subtle observations on the foibles of everyday life.
As usual, many of the best moments come from Miu's inability to behave like a normal human being. Get ready to laugh when she resorts to baseball in the middle of a soccer game, shows up for a bath in swimming gear, or pulls a sentai pose as Santa Claus. Unfortunately, her quest to annoy everyone in the known universe works too well, and there are just as many incidents that turn out irritating instead of funny. In fact, the time-honored gag of knocking Miu to the ground to put her in her place isn't used nearly enough (it doesn't show up until Episode 11, the third one on the disc).
Luckily, the other girls get in on the comedy act as well, with a variety of personalities leading to different modes of humor. Matsuri's haplessness is pitiful yet hilarious—watch her scrambling up an icy slope just to reach Nobue and Chika's house, with language-impaired Ana following right behind. Meanwhile, Chika's pragmatism opens lots of opportunities for deadpan wit: "Sometimes I worry about your future," says Miu to a gullible Matsuri, and Chika instantly shoots back at Miu with "Sometimes I worry about yours." Such is the tone of the series throughout: dry, almost mean-spirited in its humor, and completely defying what we expect out of cute little girly-girl anime. Instead of trying to do the biggest, wackiest thing possible, it takes delight in the weird little things.
Those weird little things don't really connect, though, and the series is structured more like a series of sketches than anything with a proper plot. The only time it really coheres is around the Christmas scenario, and at that point, Ana's closing moral about believing in Santa Claus feels out of place in a 12-episode run that's supposed to be about avoiding forced sentimentality. Let's face it, concrete storylines aren't very compatible with odd, meandering comedy.
Sharp visuals and creative directing are another key element of the show's humor; a well-timed cut makes all the difference in the world between a sloppy transition and a seriously funny gag. Unique camera angles add another stylistic quirk—a conversation centered around Chika's old dollhouse is full of striking close-ups (and a naked Ken doll), and scenes around the living room aquarium present an opportunity for a fish's eye view. But slick animation tricks don't mean that little details go ignored. Water ripples, falling leaves, even puffs of breath on a cold day all add to the ambience—along with carefully painted backgrounds that capture the essence of suburban Japan. Of course, these surroundings would mean nothing without the characters: Miu and friends are all wide-eyed and colorfully dressed, which, depending on the viewer, will be instantly appealing or instantly tooth-cavity-inducing. No matter what your opinion of the style, though, the production values are solid throughout.
A sparse music score is the finishing touch to the understated mood, with episodes often going for several minutes at a time without a single note being played. Even at its most energetic, the music is delicately arranged with just a handful of instruments, and more often than not you'll hear just a solo guitar or piano picking out the strains of idyllic youth. With its electronic-tinged lyricism, the music actually recalls the quirky video game hit Katamari Damacy. The catchy opening song is less adventurous, but for those who enjoy such pop confections, also check out the music videos in the DVD extras section—each seiyuu sings a solo track ranging in style from Miu's pseudo-rap to Matsuri's poky lullaby.
The English dub is divided between strong and weak performances: on the side of good we have Kylie Beaven doing a spot-on childlike voice for Matsuri and Carol-Anne Day giving Nobue that sarcastic edge; conversely, Caitlynne Medrek's strident Miu goes too far into the annoying zone (although she's fantastic when doing pseudo-male voices). A faithful dub script should keep nitpickers at bay, although the translation is so literal that it loses the essence of certain jokes. Japanese wordplay like Miu mis-writing "dog" as "fat" (two very similar kanji) and blurting the nonsense phrase "majidejima" will be lost on casual viewers, who might also miss cultural points like sumo wrestler names and a reference to the literary classic I am... a Cat.
Along with the music videos, the DVD also features some short TV commercials among the extras. The case itself is loaded with promotional art, including a reversible cover and a pencilboard.
Naturally, no discussion of Strawberry Marshmallow would be complete without bringing up certain questionable cultural elements. Go ahead and assume that grade-school girls at the public bath is some kind of come-hither aimed at sexual deviants, if you must. But in truth, there are no slow camera pans investigating the female form, no sneaky upskirt shots, no gratuitous acts of clothing removal. Actual fanservice just doesn't exist. Instead, look at what does exist: a clever little comedy that delivers laughs via its straight-faced approach. Humor doesn't have to be loud and obnoxious (much as Miu would like to have us believe)—sometimes it can come from quiet everyday life, whether it's weighing yourself, getting everyone together for cake, or preparing for the holidays. With some creative thinking and attention to detail, this series makes it work.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : A-
+ A uniquely amusing series of riffs on everyday life, brought to a sweet conclusion.
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