Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 1st 2012
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Yuki is the new kid in town. He's a socially inept and prone to panic attacks. Haru is another new kid in town. He's outlandishly odd and prone to shooting people with a mind-controlling squirt gun. Oh, and he's an alien. Natsuki is a townie with mad fishing skills and a big chip on his shoulder. Akira is a well-dressed Indian with a pet duck and ties to a mysterious organization called Duck. Together they will discover the joys of fishing and friendship, and maybe help Haru with whatever business he has on this planet.
tsuritama is a show that wants very badly to be quirky. It wants it so badly it can taste it. It isn't enough to be a sci-fi coming of age tale about fishing. It has to have wacky aliens, a turbaned MIB organization run out of a curry shop, mind-control squirt guns, a duck-petting antagonist, and a main character who suffers from outlandish panic attacks. It's as if Kenji Nakamura and Toshiya Ono took an old-fashioned youth drama, hitched it to a campy 50s sci-fi romp and filtered it through the hipster sensibilities of an indie comedy. This before transporting the whole mess to a bright, deliberately flat cartoon world of Nakamura's own devising. The result is authentically weird: crazed, visually inventive, and thoroughly unpredictable where the youth drama isn't concerned. But it's also kind of forced; like Nakamura and his companions couldn't let a scene pass without slapping us in the face with their quirkiness.
So it's a bit of a surprise that the series' real problem is that it's actually kind of dull. Dull for the simple reason that, at least for most of these six episodes, nothing interesting happens. At its core this leg of the series is a coming of age tale. Yuki, Haru and Natsuki (and to a lesser extent Akira) spend most of the series just growing up: making friends, opening up, overcoming personal issues, learning to make allowances for others, earning a living, falling in love with a hobby. Which would be plenty interesting, if only we were interested in Yuki and his friends. Sadly though, they're not a particularly enthralling group. Yuki is bland, except when he's sulking or freaking out (i.e. when he's being an annoying teenager). Natsuki is an ill-tempered, self-absorbed brat. Haru is…well, Haru is an alien. You could never accuse him of being boring, but he is hideously irritating. They are growing up as the series progresses, but they don't really grow on you, and they never attain that elusive spark that brings some characters to life. So when they fight, as they must (hey, it's a coming of age story), we don't particularly care if they make up. And when new friends and a love of fishing open Yuki's life up we don't cheer; we just shrug and hope that maybe now he won't freak out so often.
With the core story tied up in boilerplate coming-of-age drama and the core cast filled with humdrum teens, it's up to the series' trappings to keep us engaged. And even as frantically quirkified as the trappings are, they do a reasonable job of it. Just trying to figure out what the hell everything means is fun enough. Nakamura and Ono are smart enough to keep the clues small and cryptic, leaving it to our imaginations to fill in the blanks. Haru mentions a something or someone “out there” who may or may not have something to do with his obsession with fishing. Dragons, involuntary dancing, spiriting away, and the Bermuda Triangle all come into it somehow. Catching clues to Haru's alien identity is also a favorite diversion (he dries out easily and is strangely attracted to lures, if that tells you anything). The youth drama of Yuki and his fellow youths could have used some of the playfulness with which the series treats its aliens and their mysteries. Maybe not the self-conscious weirdness, but the playfulness would have been nice.
The job of filling in for the central trio's lack of charm falls mostly to the supporting cast. It isn't an optimal situation—that would involve the central trio making up for their own lack of charm—but as a stopgap measure it works okay. The goofy captain who hires Yuki to work on his charter fishing boat has a romantic subplot that packs more humor and sweetness into its two scenes (it's a very, very sub plot) than all of Yuki's relations with his friends put together. And then there's Haru's cold, level-headed little sister Koko; she's so much more intriguing than Haru that one can't help wishing that she'd take over his main-character slot—or at the very least be given more to do than hang around supplying fan service (which she does well mind you). The supporting characters in general are all more sympathetic and interesting than their main-cast rivals, which admittedly may have something to do with them not hanging around long enough to wear out their welcome. Regardless, it's always a relief when Natsuki's bluff dad or even Akira's MIB superiors (who seem to have seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, too many times) show up to distract us.
The best distraction the show has, however, is simply its look. Nakamura isn't shooting for realism here. He composes his images from flat planes of supersaturated colors, with minimal use of lines. His version of coastal Japan looks more like an elaborate, beautifully-colored paint-by-numbers picture than a real place. Similarly he doesn't try to hide the fact that the show is animated, but rather celebrates the sheer freedom granted by the medium. When Yuki's face scrunches into a panicked rictus or his fuzzy form is yanked from the standing cube of water used to symbolize his panic, you can clearly see Nakamura drawing attention to the artificiality of animation even as he glories in the movement of lines and colors and textures. Ditto for the underwater milieus, where schools of bright tropical fish swirl together in elaborate spirals of color and movement. Its characters aren't necessarily the freshest, nor its youth drama, nor even its alien-fuelled wackiness (Neia_7 got there first), but tsuritama's look is entirely unique. Even when you're bored, your eyes never are.
The Kuricorder Quartet makes strange music with strange instruments. It sounds like folk music as played on toy flutes and drums. Strange music is a good match for a strange show, so it sounds wholly appropriate. Nakamura keeps a tight enough rein on it, though, that even if it wasn't a good match, you probably wouldn't notice.
There's a very simple way for tsuritama to solve most of its problems. All it has to do is drop the grandmother-knows-best, life-lesson-spouting seishun junk and focus wholly on aliens-and-fish weirdness. The final act of the final episode, where Yuki, Haru, Natsuki and Akira have a harrowing and thoroughly bizarre encounter with whatever it is that's lurking in the waters outside of town, is a step in the right direction. It's a confusing, fascinating sequence, and once it's over you really want to see what comes next. As long as Yuki and company don't get in the way again, the show might still have a chance to really hook us. Pun totally intended.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B-
+ Unique look; lots of oddball alien-and-fish mysteries; fun supporting cast; good eye for sight gags.
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