Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
Tamako Kitashirakawa is the daughter of Usagiyama Shopping District's mochi maker. Well, actually the daughter of one of the shopping district's mochi makers. Her exceedingly traditional father is in an ongoing spat with the district's other, more liberal mochi artisan. Whose son Mochizou happens to be badly smitten with Tamako. Unfortunately for him, Tamako loves mochi and loves Usagiyama and is oblivious to all other loves. She spends her non-mochi time hanging out with best friends and fellow Baton Club members Midori and Kanna and enjoying the company of Usagiyama's oddball merchants, for whom she's kind of an unofficial mascot. Her neat routine gets somewhat messier when a talking bird from the southern islands, one Dera Mochimazzui, falls into her lap. Dera is an aristocratic pet looking for a bride for his island's prince, and though he mostly sticks around for the delicious mochi, his quest is destined to complicate poor Tamako's comfortable life.
Director Naoko Yamada, screenwriter Reiko Yoshida, and character designer Yukiko Horiguchi reunite for another slab of sugared comedy. This time the setting is a wacky shopping district and the girls are in the baton club, but the specter of K-ON!—where the three first teamed up—looms large. Like K-ON! before it Tamako Market is a delightfully light comedy, heavy on cute girls caught up in cute situations and supported by an infectious sense of fun. But unlike its spiritual predecessor, Tamako never quite finds its groove. It's a lovely little show; it just hasn't the focus or purpose to be anything more.
K-ON! found purpose in the friendship of its band and, especially in season two, the changes facing that friendship as its members grew up. The growing love its five girls had for each other—and for their music—was its beating heart, a core of emotional truth with which to anchor its lighter-than-air comedy. Tamako Market has no such anchor. It tries a few out, and each has some isolated success, but nothing consistent enough to keep the show from eventually dissipating into sugary nothingness.
It's highly enjoyable sugary nothingness though. Tamako's creative team has honed their brand of slice-of-life magic to a fine edge, effortlessly channeling their estimable writing and towering animation skills into the creation of a world of bright happiness and unfettered niceness. The Usagiyama Shopping District, with its goofy shop owners, silly town meetings, and advertising hijinks, radiates an easy camaraderie that is as winning as it is warm. The show revels in the softest emotions, taking entire episodes off to burrow into the adorable crush Tamako's little sister Anko has on a classmate or to excavate her dad's deep and abiding love (for his deceased wife as well as his daughters) from beneath his curt, easily-embarrassed exterior. The show casts a cuddly spell that is no less potent for being ultimately ephemeral.
It's a bit too cuddly though. Everyone is so unremittingly nice that the cast, for all its quirkiness and color, comes across as rather sweetly bland. Tamako's character never evolves past her airheaded niceness and devotion to mochi. Kanna is cute as the soft-spoken girl with a fetish for measuring and manufacturing, but little else. Mochizou is the ultimate nice-guy-comes-in-last cliché. And the shopkeepers—from the possibly-cross-dressing florist to the introverted but insightful café master—are little more than agglomerations of their individual oddities. Despite her extensive past experience—she wrote for Aria and You and Me. in addition to K-ON!—Reiko Yoshida can't seem to marshal the skill here to balance absolute kindness with depth of character.
And without a strong cast, the series can't muster enough sustained feeling to have any lasting impact. Tamako's friendship with Midori and Kanna is adorable, but it lacks even the remotest ring of truth (their rapport could rot every tooth from your head at ten paces) and the series is far too sweet-natured to test it in any way, so it has no real power. Ditto her wonderfully warm and fuzzy family life, despite it's somewhat more intimate relationship with reality, and her going-nowhere-fast un-romance with Mochizou.
It gives one a new appreciation for kakifly. K-ON's original author was easy to dismiss as superfluous given how much of the show's joy was wrapped up in the sheer exuberance of its moefied execution. But Tamako Market has the same exuberance—the same mastery of individual body language, the same knack for blindness-inducing cuteness, the same joy taken in freedom of motion—and yet only a fraction of the joy. Yamada and her team adopt a different tone—a kind of borderline cartoonish magical realism—and a different atmosphere (gone is the touching melancholy tint of K-ON's second season), but that's not the problem. The problem isn't the execution; it's the writing. Without the strong core of characters and emotional concerns that kakifly supplied, Yamada and her team flounder—using their proven emotional skills without the unity of purpose that would give the series a cohesive heart.
That said, occasionally in their floundering Yamada and company manage to land a good solid hit. The episode about Tamako's dad and his relationship with her mom is one such hit, as is the final episode, which leverages Tamako's love for Usagiyama into a pretty decent finale. The real surprise, though, is Midori, whose slowly-revealed feelings provide the first half with what little conflict it has and whose final major episode is the only one to approximate the bittersweet feeling and warm depth of character that Yamada's team brought to the better parts of K-ON!
By then, of course, it's rather too late. By the time Midori has fleshed out enough to make her triangle with Tamako and Mochizou matter, and certainly by the time the finale takes advantage of Usagiyama's comfortable warmth, the show's pretty much over. You do get the sense that if the series were given another season to explore the Midori-Tamako-Mochizou situation that it might make something memorably touching of itself. It has the forethought and the restraint to pull it off. The ending in particular shows an attention to detail and respect for audience intelligence that would bode exceedingly well for future episodes. With Midori's romantic travails to anchor it, a second season could be formidable indeed. It seems unlikely to happen, however.
As for season one, we'll just have to be satisfied with a lot of loose and easy fun, backed up by a team of the most engaged, most skilled animators out there. Darn it. The series' wasted potential may bother us after the end credits roll, but so long as overweight talking birds chug heavily but haughtily through the amiable air of the Usagiyama Shopping District, it's all too easy to forget what we might be missing and just enjoy what we're being given.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Sugary and fun and beautifully animated; cute enough to put a smile on the grinchiest of faces; surprisingly respectful of one's intelligence.
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