Pile of Shame
ESPer Mami: Hoshizora no Dancing Doll

by Justin Sevakis,

ESPer Mami: Hoshizora no Dancing Doll

Even though it's never been particularly popular among anime fans in the West, most people at least have heard of Doraemon, Fujiko F. Fujio's famous magical large blue cat character who's the star of over 2500 episodes of TV anime and 35 movies (not including shorts and spinoffs). Fujiko Fujio is actually a 36-year partnership between two manga artists who started off collaborating, and then eventually made their own works. Hiroshi Fujimoto, better known as Fujiko F. Fujio, is the creator of Doraemon (among a slew of other works), while Motoo Abiko (Fujiko A. Fujio) is probably best known for creating Ninja Hattori-kun. The partnership was dissolved for creative and legal reasons in 1987, but the two remained close friends until Fujimoto's death in 1996.

But few Westerners know of Fujiko F. Fujio's popular magical girl series, ESPer Mami. It's probably his 2nd most popular work, and was popular enough in Japan to have a TV anime run of 119 episodes back in the late 80s. Like most (all?) of Fujiko Fujio's anime, it was produced by TV Asahi and animated by Shinei Animation. It stars Mami, a normal junior high school girl who, one day, gets bestowed with some ESP powers: she can teleport (with the help of a small "Teleportation Gun" device), levitate, and has a unique ability to tell when people need help. She's also clumsy, careless and a chronic meddler. With the help of her friend Kazuto, she jets off to do nice things for people that need her.

While ESPer Mami is ostensibly a Magical Girl show, it differs from the rest of the genre in that it's aimed squarely at very young shounen audience, and in that its story constructs are almost painfully mundane. There are no cackling evil powers trying to take over the world, no transformation sequences of any kind. Mami stays Mami, and she's constantly annoying her parents by disappearing at odd times while trying to fix things for other people.

Shin-Ei was never a top-knotch anime studio, and the plain, workman-like animation hasn't aged particularly well -- although Mami gets rerun occasionally, it's never seen a proper DVD release or digital remastering. Nobody has ever attempted to translate any of the TV series into English: although it aired dubbed in various European countries in the early 90s, the show was a little too Japanese (and a little too perverted) to ever show up Stateside. In fact, the only artifact of ESPer Mami that's even been fansubbed is the movie, a standalone adventure called "Hoshizora no Dancing Doll (Dancing Doll of the Starry Skies)". It was originally released in 1988 as a traveling "roadshow" triple-feature with two other Shin-Ei/Fujiko Fujio short films, including installments of Doraemon and Ultra B, a lesser Fujiko A. Fujio franchise about a UFO baby with superpowers.

In this particular adventure, Mami finds herself helping out a small team of puppeteers that perform for children. As she meets with them, one of their staffers drops out right before a big show, so Mami pitches in and helps the group out right before a big production of Little Red Riding Hood for a bunch of pre-schoolers. The kids are rapt, and the troupe really seems to love what they do. Later, she meets the daughter of a TV executive who recently lost her mother, and had latched onto a doll in her place. Heartbroken but trying to help her daughter through it, the executive orders the nanny to throw the doll away. The little girl is inconsolable. After a failed attempt to find the doll at the city dump, Mami enlists the help of the troupe to bring the little girl back to a positive headspace.

But the troupe is in trouble. The yakuza bought the building they've been using for their headquarters, and the stress of the situation is causing members to leave in droves. The head of the troupe is ready to give up and go back to his hometown. And that's when Mami really needs to come save the day.

And what do I think of this ESPer Mami film? Honestly, it's so clearly not made for fans like myself that I found it hard to pay attention to. A deathly dull combination of the cloying, soppy melodrama that permeates Japanese TV and juvenile simplicity (with a dash of the creepy: Mami's father is a painter that often asks his daughter to pose nude, although that's only hinted at in the movie), there is simply nothing here for me. The animation is flat and cheap, the music and writing are workman-like and not noteworthy. The 41 minute running time seemed interminable. I'd liken it to trying to sit through a mediocre American 80s kids' cartoon as a grown up. You kind of feel like a bear in a trap.

ESPer Mami is interesting from a historical perspective, but there's really not much here for anime fans to see. It's clearly meant for young Japanese kids in the 80s. There's nothing particularly offensive about this particular movie, but there's also nothing really to recommend it either. It's sort of cute, but... well, we're already drowning in cute. We're anime fans, for pete's sake.

Japanese Name: エスパー魔美 星空のダンシングドール (ESUPAA Mami Hoshizora no DANSHINGUDOORU)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 41 min.

Vintage: 1988

Genres: Family, magical girl, drama

Availability (Japan): I could only find evidence of a VHS release, although the fansub clearly came from something better.

Availability (English): The fansub is all we've got.

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