The Summer 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Mr. Tonegawa Middle Management Blues
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Mr. Tonegawa ?
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How was the first episode?
Comedy spinoffs can go in a wide variety of directions, but the one taken by Mr. Tonegawa is often one of my favorites. It reimagines a powerful antagonist from the main series (in this case the long-lived gambling franchise Kaiji) as a fairly ordinary person just trying to do his or her job while beset on all sides by insane bosses and incompetent subordinates. On a structural level, it reminds me of the countless Star Wars parodies that feature the everyday struggles of stormtroopers and other evil henchmen. The catch here, as is often the case with comedy, is that even a sound premise relies heavily on good execution, and at the moment Mr. Tonegawa is looking pretty hit-or-miss.
We start off with a lengthy recap of the main series, which is useful for franchise newcomers like myself in that it gives us a sense of Tonegawa's role in the original storyline. That context helps to highlight the amusing shift in perspective that this show offers, but the issue here is that the recap is simply too long. It rambles its way through multiple story arcs before Tonegawa even appears, and if it seems too drawn-out for someone like me who actually wants this information, I can only imagine how dull it would be for someone who already knows the story. The pacing issues continue with a lengthy introduction to the show itself, which is so light on comedic material that it runs the risk of misrepresenting the tone of this spinoff. Had I bailed out partway through this episode, I would have left thinking that Mr. Tonegawa was a heavy-handed ode to ruthless corporate ambition.
Thankfully, things improve once Tonegawa is given his mission and actually gets a chance to speak for himself. I don't know if the bombastic narrator is a carryover from the main series, but his constant interjections have a bad habit of interrupting the flow of comedy in this episode. When the narrator does shut up for a minute, Tonegawa and his crew of corporate henchmen actually manage to put on a solid comedy routine as they run through their introductions. The core joke here is that the black-suited baddies are so anonymously generic that even their manager can't tell them apart, and that joke is told fairly well as Tonegawa desperately tries to remember everyone's names. If this is the kind of content that we're going to see more of in the long run, then this series could be more appealing than its premiere would suggest.
Mr. Tonegawa will appeal mainly to fans of Kaiji, but it could be amusing enough to lure in other viewers as long as it gives its humor some much-needed breathing room. If it can dial the narration back a bit and show some more creativity in how it applies ordinary problems to an evil company, I can see it growing into something worthwhile. Given how much screen time is lost to the recap in this episode, it will probably take another week to get a sense of whether or not the series is headed in the right direction.
This series is a spinoff and prequel to the 2007 series Kaiji, which was about a loser who winds up wrapped up in a series of deadly games with both personal and financial survival at stake. However, since this series is actually about the backstory of a prominent antagonist from that series rather than the protagonist, no familiarity is needed beyond the few minutes of recap shown at the beginning of this episode. This should be fully accessible to newcomers.
Even if it wasn't, this episode would probably still be entertaining, as once it finally gets past its setup and kicks into comedy mode, it's damn funny stuff. All of the setup about “men in black” going around intimidating people late on paying off their contracts is apparently just a misdirection about the actual point of the series, which initially looks like it will be about the dramatic travails of a middle management guy working under his demon of a boss. In a sense that's the back end of this episode too, but instead it approaches those travails from a decidedly humorous angle. While the bizarre behavior of the company president and the accompanying whisper effect suggests that something might be amiss, the episode plays its cards close to its chest until it gets to the second Man in Black introducing himself in the meeting Tonegawa is hosting. That's when it finally starts to become apparent that something is screwy, and Tonegawa's comical frustrations about keeping names straight only enhances that impression. By the time that the third person has introduced himself by stating that his hobby is also bowling, I was caught up in the running joke. It's pretty insidious, but a lot of fun by the end.
The artistic style takes its cues from its predecessor series, which was itself a throwback to an old-school style of angular faces with sharp chins, chiseled features, and a president who looks as much like a demonic clown as he acts like one. It's not the most appealing visual style, but it definitely stands out in the current anime environment and should play well to its target audience, which is probably older men who can relate to Tonegawa's trials. Music and dramatic narration is also used effectively.
If this series continues the way it looks like it's going to – with an emphasis on Tonegawa's tribulations over carrying out his boss's orders – then it could well find its own niche and faithful following.
Talk about a high barrier of entry. Not only is Mr. Tonegawa Middle Management Blues the spinoff of another decade-old series that I've never heard of, it also seems to be aimed exclusively at middle-aged Japanese viewers who can empathize with the highs and lows of being the middle manager of a large corporation (criminal or otherwise). To give the show some credit, this premiere devotes a significant portion of its runtime to recapping the events of Kaiji, so newbies shouldn't have trouble following the plot at least. Unfortunately, that doesn't change the fact that I do not belong to this show's target demographic in any way, and as a result I can't say that much of anything about this first episode spoke to me.
It isn't that I can't possibly relate to stories about different types of people; it's just that Mr. TONEGAWA Middle Management Blues seems too specifically catered to an audience I'm unfamiliar with. Tonegawa isn't the kind of complex or conflicted gangster you might find in the Yakuza games, for instance; he's just a self-serious obedient mobster, and the crux of his characterization seems to be that he suffers from the same occupational struggles as most businessmen, yakuza or otherwise. Likewise, the humor is calibrated to the kind of vaguely-amusing-but-not-really-funny wavelength that more men tend to synchronize with when they have a couple of children and reach middle-age. After all the exposition is out of the way, this episode only has one actual comedic bit, where Tonegawa tries a team-building introduction session so he can better tell apart the army of identically dressed gangsters at his disposal. The joke boils down to the fact that their names are confusing and they all like bowling. As a throwaway gag that lasted maybe a minute or two, this might have worked, but the show extends this joke to take up the entire second half of the episode for some reason, and the results are excruciating.
The only reason that this episode isn't earning a lower score is because of its idiosyncratic art style and the fact that it fills such a unique niche in the season lineup. It isn't very good, but it might work for some folks out there.
If you're wondering why the character designs look so familiar in Mr. Tonegawa: Middle Management Blues, that's probably because they come from the distinctive pen of Nobuyuki Fukumoto. This series is a prequel to his Kaiji manga and anime, focusing on the eponymous Mr. Tonegawa, the man who organizes the various life-or-death gambles Kaiji has to take part in. That in some ways perfectly explains the problems with this episode and potentially the series to follow: it takes place BEFORE Kaiji's life-or-death gambles, because this is a prequel about Tonegawa organizing them.
Some of the issues with the episode are due more to the fact that it's a prequel to a show that went off the air in 2011. This necessitates a lot of recap and backstory, which takes up a good quarter of the episode as the entire premise of Kaiji is recounted. The next quarter is explaining who Tonegawa is and what his role is at Teiai Group as the Number Two Man, directly under the gross-nosed Hyoudo Kazutaka. The story gets going when Hyoudo explains that he's bored with thug business as usual (shaking folks down and threatening them is just so last week) and he wants a new and improved way for getting either his money or some entertaining revenge out of deadbeats. Tonegawa's job is to come up with this new, fun plan, and thus a plot is born.
And that brings us to the final half of the show, which involves Tonegawa attempting to learn the names of the black-suited goons he's supposed to work with. This is probably the best part of the episode, especially if you're someone like me who has a terrible time with names – Tonegawa basically does a first day of class exercise wherein each goon gives his name and his hobby, ostensibly facilitating Tonegawa learning who they all are. The result is something like that semester when I had five Caitlins (all spelled differently) and three Emilys (again, all spelled differently) in the same class: it backfires spectacularly. By the time Tonegawa realizes that there's no way this is going to work because names are either too similar or too weird to remember easily, we've realized that every single one of the goons has the same hobby, so Tonegawa is basically screwed. His slow build of frustration really works here, and it does give some hope that this might be more than a series of dull colors, both literally and figuratively.
Because apart from this scene, Mr. Tonegawa is pretty boring. The random dancing ladies in their matching white leotards spice it up a bit, but for the most part, this is 50% recap/set up and 50% a meeting. That the character designs are interesting but not particularly attractive and the color palette mostly blacks and grays doesn't help, and the over-narration of the episode makes it feel as if we could just be listening to the show rather than it having a visual component at all. (Although the narrator sounds like he's having a blast – like he's describing a pro wrestling match instead of just narrating a TV show.) There's just not enough in this episode to make me want to go any further with the series – because ultimately watching the game play out is more interesting than watching someone build it.
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