Pile of Shame
Ai Monogatari: 9 Love Stories

by Justin Sevakis,

Ai Monogatari: 9 Love Stories

If there's anything that anime lacks, it's real, adult love stories. We have enough yearning, angsty teen romance to sink a battleship, but realistic love stories about people whose frontal lobes are firmly attached? An endangered species. As someone who can no longer even charitably be considered young, it's a source of frustration for me that there aren't more of these. One can only wallow in their teen years for so long, after all.

And yet, 9 Love Stories, an anthology film (released as an OAV) of single-installment manga love stories by Kaiji Kawaguchi (best known for his more war and politics-minded manga Eagle, Zipang and Silent Service), which should have been just what I was looking for, misses the mark almost entirely. Its format is almost a textbook example of how not to handle romantic stories, sacrificing characterization and nuance for the sake of cramming in as many stories in as short a running time as possible. Love stories live and die by those things; the measure of their success is how much we can relate to the emotions of the characters, and how much we invest ourselves in their outcomes. Such investment is impossible with such short, sparse narratives.

Indeed, the stories being told here are so pedestrian and uninvolving that, merely minutes after I've finished watching them, I'm hardpressed to remember a single one. There's the first story, one where a man remembers his first love and their shared interest in The Beatles. And there's the one where a woman finally meets the handsome rugby player from high school as an adult, and, uh...

Gee, they're all blending together. I can't keep them straight because the characters have so little personality, they aren't even archetypes. The stories, each as bland as they come, follow a strict formula: Main character appears, doing something relatively passive, and has a voice over explaining who they are, and where their head is at. They meet their love interest. There's a somewhat unexpected response or misunderstanding or something, and then they either tentatively end up together, or not. The end. I would say that I've seen porno with more involving stories than this, but that would be mean. Even the most depressing, plotless porno is more emotionally involving than this.

Many anime fans will complain about the art style. It is plain, and unflattering in that way seinen manga usually is. The women are feminine and on the cute side, the men have chiseled Superman jawlines, and beyond that they aren't particularly distinctive or interesting looking. The animation is serviceable but on the plain side. One of the more ambitious stories, which involves a yakuza car chase, looks decent but is tied down by the overall drab look of things. None of this is surprising in a seinen manga adaptation, but it's unlikely to turn any heads.

I have no idea if Kaiji Kawaguchi's original short manga were this bland, because he's a very good writer of political drama. Perhaps he's simply out of his element here, trying something new while relying entirely on established tropes and storylines. I would be tempted to blame the directors, but they are given so little to work with both visually and emotionally that they're fighting a losing battle. Each story has a separate director, including some famous ones like Koji Morimoto and Mamoru Hamatsu, but there is little to differentiate them visually or narratively.

A few of the shorts lean heavily on music, most prominently The Beatles, but usually Bing Crosby or some lesser American standards singer. They sort of succeed in setting a tone and place, but that's only because nothing else in the anime does. Worse it's not the sort of tone and place that most people would really want to be: Beatles classics aside, they're mostly draggy old big band standards, the sort of thing your grandparents put on at Christmas to blend into the background during a dinner party.

Trying to watch all of Ai Monogatari is a feeling akin to biting into a large wad of wet cotton. There's nothing about it that's overtly offensive or unpleasant, but its lack of anything of value makes you want to end the experience as fast as humanly possible: a blank TV would be a marginal improvement. I've attempted to sit through this OAV no less than 5 times over the years, and can honestly say that every time I lost interest and did something else was a time I made the right choice.

If there's anything remotely interesting to see here, it's how different Japan in the 80s feels from the Japan of today. Pretty much every character constantly chain smokes (and their lighting, snuffing and stomping of cigarettes make for some of the few directorially spirited moments in the film), guys are binge drinking and doing stuff like throwing furniture or drunk driving. Yakuza pop up regularly. It all sort of bleeds this baby boomer-era machismo that I no longer associate with Japanese things. This doesn't diminish the role of the women, most of whom are pretty smart and many of which are clearly career minded, independent women. But the guys are the main characters, and so most of the development is spent on them.

But the things they do are so easy to predict, and the outcomes are so obvious and inconsequential. The format is at fault, but so is the unimaginative writing, the bland designs, the dull characters. Every story is a boring pastiche of things you can't quite place, blended together into a bland, inoffensive goo and solidified. It's the storytelling equivalent of a slice of bologna. And it's just as satisfying.

Japanese Name: 愛物語 9 LOVE STORIES (Ai Monogatari: 9 Love Stories)

Media Type: One-shot OAV

Length: 104 min.

Vintage: 1992

Genres: Seinen, Romance

Availability (Japan): I couldn't find evidence of a DVD release in Japan.

Availability (English): There's a fansub, but a legal release is probably out of the question.

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