The Spring 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Kumamiko - Girl Meets Bear
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kumamiko - Girl meets Bear ?
What is this?
Machi Amayadori has turned 14 this year, and more than anything, she wants to move out of the boonies and live in Tokyo instead. Unfortunately, she's the priestess of Kumade village's central shrine, and its guardian is also her guardian! Natsu the bear is a friendly and fatherly forest beast, but he doesn't think Machi has what it takes to survive beyond the mountains. Her cousin Yoshio doesn't think she should leave Kumade Village either. Sure, the convenience stores aren't remotely convenient, and cell phone reception is nonexistent, but at least they have rarely-open shops and spotty wi-fi! Machi loves her cousin and bear-dad very much, but she can't be swayed from her dream of seeing the world outside her tiny town. Maybe it's time for a bear to go to the big city... Kumamiko - Girl Meets Bear is based on a manga and can be found streaming on Funimation, Sundays at 1:00 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
I started up Kumamiko, happily anticipating a charming slice-of-life show ala Polar Bear's Cafe. I...kinda got what I was hoping for. Natsu (the bear) is pretty cute and I did want to snuggle him any time he appeared on screen. It's the human characters and their interactions with him that left me unsatisfied.
Natsu co-stars with the titular girl, Machi. She's not thrilled with her role as a miko, the podunk town she lives in, or the sexually-charged origin story that explains why Natsu can talk. Everything makes Machi cry, blush, squirm, and complain. I understand that this sort of behavior flips certain people's moe switches, but I personally can't stand characters that have to be dragged kicking and screaming through every comedic scenario. Does Machi actually like anything? I don't know.
Kuma Miko is putting all its chips on charm and comedy but the show's writing is horribly stilted. The episode's two hardly connected segments had me wondering if this was a four-panel adaptation, but apparently it's not. The second half discusses bear-human sex, a joke that seems out of place for the show's aesthetic but nonetheless got the only genuine laugh out of me for the 25-minute duration. The nine-year-old girl's reaction to finding out they'll hear a “sexy” version of a local folktale nailed its comedic timing. Compare this to the earlier city quiz bit where it felt like someone was constantly elbowing me to laugh at the joke. The show has obvious comedic pacing problems, and a lot of the jokes just fall flat.
The writers need to get a little more clever if they want to milk anything funny out of this premise. Natsu being cute and Machi wailing about her lot in life doesn't offer much to stay invested in a full-length show's run time. It might be a miscalculation on the production team to not relegate this to a short instead.
Well, I wasn't really expecting this premiere to end with the protagonist's cousin accusing her of having sex with a bear, but shows sometimes don't go where you expect. That is where this show ended, and I'm just going to have to come to terms with that. I'll get through this, I'm sure. Just gotta take it one day at a time.
Anyway, by premise alone, you'd expect Kumamiko to be an extremely fluffy and somewhat absurd slice of life show. It is that, more or less - the relationship between shrine maiden Machi and her bear friend Natsu is already reasonably charming, and this episode certainly wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. A lot of the appeal of this show is just the inherent silliness of Machi more or less having a bear for a dad, and the show gets a fair amount of mileage out of that idea.
That said, I ended up being pretty underwhelmed by this episode, all told. The main problem here is the comedic timing; the character interactions often feel very artificially extended, and the jokes are labored, with long gaps of nothing in between them. Though the random banter between the characters can be funny, most of the actual jokes just aren't very sharp, and rarely structured in a creative way. It's a little difficult to describe, but there's just a fundamental jerky stiffness to the ways the characters interact that makes the show feel more awkward than endearing, a pretty fatal flaw for a show predicated on creating an endearing atmosphere. And the various segments of this first episode didn't really fit together in any coherent way, suggesting a laziness in adaptation that's not a great sign right out of the gate.
That said, if the show can figure out its comedic timing and maybe just find some better jokes, there's certainly an appeal to the base idea. The show's best moments mix the weirdness of the premise with dry, matter-of-fact execution to arrive at something both surreal and kind of charming. This wasn't a very good first episode, but there could still be a good show somewhere in here.
Jacob Hope Chapman
So I wasn't expecting ancient bear cunnilingus to be in this show.
I really wasn't expecting ancient bear cunnilingus to be the show's explanation for why Natsu (and all the village's other bears, if we ever meet any) can talk. Well, I guess it would be ancient bear copulation that caused that. Technically.
Anyway, reviews below this one have gone into all the slimy details already, but the short version is that while this unexpected twist definitely confirmed to me why this is a late-night iyashikei show and not a children's program, it did not ruin the cutesiness of the whole experience. If anything, it kind of enhanced it. One of the biggest barriers (bear-riers?) for me when it comes to healing-type anime like Kumamiko is their restrictively sanitized atmosphere. If the show is just meant to be cute and soothing above all else, the tone becomes extremely limited very quickly. Comedy isn't really allowed to be funny, because the shock of the unexpected would break the healing atmosphere. Drama isn't really allowed to have major stakes, because any conflict that's too heavy will break the healing atmosphere. So the garish faux pas (four paws?) that Kumamiko pulls in its second half actually brought me into the world of Kumade Village a lot more.
Anyone who grew up reading ancient myths and folktales will immediately recognize the horror and confusion on those little kids' faces as not so different from their own at that age. I too grew up in the countryside learning about animals getting neutered so they couldn't have babies, leading me to cringe every time I saw a steer for months. Those kids will be okay, and the unexpected "sexy parts" they get exposed to just made their world feel a little more genuine. The father-daughter (or maybe teasing siblings) relationship between Natsu and Machi is really cute, but I've seen really cute before. The sex humor, horribly inappropriate or not, makes the show more memorable without being enough to just make it creepy. So something that could have ruined the show honestly made it better to me, which is interesting all on its own.
Now Kumamiko is still very much a glacially paced iyashikei show, more focused on creating a calming atmosphere than constructing hilarious jokes or striking imagery, so I wouldn't go into this expecting bawdy laughs. But if you're anything like me and prefer a little bite with your sweetness, Kumamiko might just win you over with its weirdness. You filthy bear-vert.
Review: Even if you don't watch the whole first episode of this new manga adaptation, you owe it to yourself to check out its closer. It's as cute and catchy as any I've seen so far this year – and in this case be glad that Funimation has the series, as the translated lyrics are crucial to fully appreciating it.
The main episode is worth a look on its own merits, though. Given some of the other fare which has come up over the past few years, a young shrine maiden who's friends with a talking bear is hardly a stretch, but what makes this variation on the “girl befriends a supernatural creature” tale work particularly well is the dry wit of the bear Natsu and the comfortable dynamic already in play between him and Machi. They really do feel like close friends, and Natsu's mix of light possessiveness and protectiveness is endearing. How much of his efforts fall into which category is debatable, but it's clear that he genuinely doesn't want her to leave. A satisfying amount of light tension comes from Machi having equally good reasons for wanting to go: sure, there are technical dissatisfactions like reduced convenience, but she is more frustrated by how the area seems to be stuck in time, and she yearns for more than that. By all accounts this is a very real problem which has faced Japan's dwindling country villages for decades, so it should be interesting to see how such a serious topic plays out in what is, overall, a much more light-hearted work.
And this is very definitely meant to be a light comedy, albeit one with a slightly more mature bent than what may be apparent at first. The source manga does come from a seinen magazine (Comic Flapper, which has also published the manga versions of titles like Dance in the Vampire Bund and Girls und Panzer), so humor involving humans having sex with bears coming up towards the end shouldn't be too shocking. (Natsu's rejoinder to those suppositions is a deadpan classic.) Besides, it's not like fairy tales and myths aren't already sprinkled with stuff like that anyway. The main vein of humor, though, seems to be the irony surrounding how Natsu knows such intricate detail about city life even though he's always (presumably) lived up on a mountain. Some of the humor there involves wordplay jokes that don't translate at all, though, and Funimation was apparently unable to come up with a work-around for the subtitles. Hopefully this will be dealt with if/when the series gets dubbed.
The artistic effort is clean and inviting, with attractive character designs and respectable animation. I am not as much a fan of the watercolor backgrounds, but some of them do make for some very pretty scenery shots. Add that to the content and this makes for a series which isn't necessarily the kind of thing that I would look forward to every week, but it should make for a pleasant diversion from more raucous, hard-core fare.
I have a lot of feelings about this show, and all of them are conflicted. The rundown is roughly thus: at first I was certain that this was adorable, largely based on the fact that I loved Machi's miko outfit. Then by about thirteen minutes in, I was pretty sure this was incredibly annoying, because if there's one thing that irritates me as someone from a rural area, it's implying that people from rural areas think silly things like trading fruit for train rides is a regular practice in an urban environment, plus Machi's shrieking was making my ears hurt. And then Yoshio started telling three nine-year-olds about a bear having sex with a human sacrifice and I think I stopped knowing what to think except for this: Kumamiko has no idea what kind of show it wants to be.
None of the three sections of the show are inherently bad. Machi is rather adorable, and a large part of the visuals seem to be banking on that fact, given her older-looking miko outfit with its coat and medallion and the amount of care put into showing her settling her legs beneath her as she sits down. Her relationship with Natsu, the talking bear who apparently lives at the Kumade Shrine with her (and her cousin?), is endearingly parental, with Natsu worrying over her and seemingly wanting what's best, which, in his estimation, does not include going to the city for high school. Machi's frustration with Natsu over this edict is fairly real for a fourteen-year-old girl – she thinks it's not fair and gets pouty about it, and I could see where the suica/watermelon joke would work better for other people. Even Yoshio's storytelling had its funny moments, such as the fact that the boys clearly knew what he was talking about even though he blithely assumed they didn't quite and Kaori, the lone little girl, yelling at him in English lines not to touch her. (Why did someone teach her how to fend off harassers in English only? Did they have a bad tourist once?) But the sections don't quite fit together correctly, especially the third one, which starts after the commercial break. That may be a sign that Kumamiko is based on a four-panel manga, although I haven't seen that written anywhere. The shift from innocent moe cuteness to folktales with interspecies oral sex is jarring, and it really took me out of the story.
I do love that this is about a bear god, however. We've had many, many stories about fox gods and quite a few wolves and cats, but to my knowledge this is one of the few, if not the only, bear god show, and I definitely like that change. The show is also beautiful in terms of its scenery and small details – the look of the shrine and the forest, for example, and the small details like the way Yoshio's book is clearly old and fragile; you can almost feel the rough paper covers when you look at it. The ending theme, “Kumamiko Dance,” is also a lot of fun, with silly lyrics and a catchy little tune that fits more with the first half of the show than the second.
So Kumamiko’s first episode does have its pluses. But it feels like a patched together piece where three separate concepts were sort of stitched together to form one full-length episode, and it mostly just threw me off. I really just want it to settle on either “cute,” “off-color funny,” or “bear-dad and girl slice of life,” because as it stands, it can't quite do justice to any of them.
Rating: 3? I guess?
The first half of Kumamiko: -Girl Meets Bear made me wonder why in the world this show was airing late at night – by all accounts this is a glossy kid's show about a shrine maiden named Machi who hangs out with a talking bear named Natsu. She's a bumpkin and wants to hang out in the big city, so all the humor derives from one of two jokes: one, there's a talking bear, and two, Machi is a bumpkin who doesn't know what modern convenience is, so we get these dream sequences where she visualizes her misconceptions about the modern world. (I've been writing about anime in some capacity for the last 16 years and only today, only on this occasion, have I ever had a legitimate reason to compare an anime to Bobby's World.) That's it. Cute, right? Where does the time go.
My question about why this was airing late at night was answered pretty forcefully by the second half – it turns out the OTHER joke this show leans on is ‘does the bear bang the little girl’, which is introduced in a really bizarre way. Machi's cousin, Yoshio, is taking a group of three kids on a tour of their village (the talking bear is the village's secret) and starts telling them the boring children's version of the village's story, how the villagers came to live among talking bears. When one of the kids complains that Yoshio's story execution sucks, he busts out the “real” version, albeit with a warning that it might get a little sexy.
Then one of the other kids, the little girl, stands up and yells in English “sexual harassment! Don't touch me!” as if to pre-empt the audience's objections to the direction this show appeared to be heading in. Two things: one, this is late night anime, so when I saw the key art I wondered first if this show had some kinda dark bear-screwing secret I didn't know about, so at least it's sating my cynical curiosity; I'm relieved that they immediately brought it up. Secondly, the next thing that happens is that this adult, Yoshio, handwaves the girl's exaggerated complaints and then proceeds to describe a bear going down on a human woman. I appreciate that the show is trying to lightheartedly embrace how weirdly sexual old folktales can be (the joke is that the old folktale is gross and embarrassing – this isn't supposed to be sexy), but that little girl just said “STOP! SOMETHING INAPPROPRIATE IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN” and the dude was like “No, it's alright, here, let me describe a bear performing cunnilingus on a woman to a group of 9-year olds”. The little girl had kind of a point, bro.
Then it's revealed that the bear is neutered anyway and the entire incident is played for laughs, embracing the awkward thing about the premise and laughing at it, as if to tell the audience that it's alright, we're not really going there! I found it fun (and kinda messed up), even if the pacing was pretty slow. Machi is portrayed as hilariously cranky, and I found her low-level distaste for the job pretty funny. The animation isn't much to write home about but it does the job – the appeal here is in the design, glossy bright colors and crisp character designs. I'm not sure I'll watch more of this – mostly I want to know what other jokes they have, and I really hope they don't lean on the ‘everyone's gonna ask if the bear sleeps with the shrine maiden’ thing too much. It's cute, kinda funny, has the potential to be funnier than it is right now. Might be worth your time.
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