Reviewby Theron Martin,
Tazuna Takatsuki is a high school student with a gift for fixing mechanical things and a propensity to use his talents wherever possible. A repair request at a university research facility brings him into contact with the comatose Koyori, who not only awakens at his touch but also causes him to hear a voice that says he's become a “Hand Shaker” and should seek out God. He soon learns that Hand Shakers come in pairs and transport to an alternate space when they meet other Hand Shaker duos, where they must battle each other for the right to have a wish granted. But the stakes are much higher for Koyori; If Tazuna loses or even lets go of her hand for too long, she'll actually die. With Koyori's survival at stake and other Hand Shaker teams gunning for an easy mark, life just got a whole lot tougher for Tazuna.
This original series from winter of 2017 had one of the lowest average community scores ever for streaming reviews on ANN and was widely regarded by critics and viewers alike as being one of the worst anime of the year. That didn't prevent it from being dubbed and released by Funimation, however, so I decided to give the series a second shake and see if there might be something underappreciated or misunderstood under its surface given the passage of time.
The series' goals are clear from the first episode; it wants to be a super-powered action adventure, featuring pairs of combatants fighting each other. As the series develops, it also emphasizes the bonds within these pairs and the understanding that combatants don't have to remain enemies once their battles are over. In other words, it's trying to meld the classic “defeat your opponent and befriend them” shonen approach seen in card game-based series with high-spectacle older-otaku action, and why not throw in a heavy dose of moe too? The result is at least competent in a storytelling sense, with reasonable explanations for why most of the teams that Tazuna and Koyori defeat don't carry a grudge about it. If anything, one of the series' themes seems to be that seeking some kind of magic to get ahead on your dreams isn't the best way to do it; the results will be more satisfying if you achieve your goals on your own. Of course, Tazuna is allowed an “out” on this because Koyori's life is at stake, and he doesn't really want to fight beyond protecting her.
The teams they face mostly aren't the problem, either. They compose a pretty standard array of anime pairings, with varying degrees of success. The sado-masochistic couple who appears first thankfully don't appear beyond a few brief cameos after the initial battle, since they're strictly a one-trick pony in terms of characterization. The incestuous brother-sister duo gets more development, but involving incest in these kind of battle anime is a trend I could stand to see less of. The restaurateurs who include a loli-sized adult woman (another gimmick I wouldn't mind seeing diminish) and her male subordinate offer the best relationship, while the idol singer and her manager surprisingly offer the most compelling backstory. And of course this story has to circle back around to combatants from the past eventually, who exist to explain how Koyori ended up in her hold-hands-or-die situation, even if the reveal isn't particularly compelling.
In truth, the story's biggest problem comes from its faulty premise. There's no compelling reason for this whole scenario to exist in the first place, so it feels like a fabricated gimmick from the start to the finish. The battles lack the sinister mood that makes the WIXOSS franchise (which this series is most conceptually similar to) work, giving off the impression that one character's theory may be correct—that God is just doing this to enjoy watching some super-powered battles. Koyori's overwhelming helplessness at the start—she has to be dragged around and can't speak or do barely anything on her own—also shoots past moe appeal into just plain demeaning. That situation eventually improves, but a more even partnership from the beginning would have been more interesting. And let's not even get started on how dumb the term "Hand Shakers" sounds.
Beyond its faulty premise, the greatest share of complaints about the series involved the visuals. Studio GoHands and directors Hiromitsu Kanazawa and Shingo Suzuki take their artistic choices on the K franchise to the next level here, pairing sharply angled shots, 3D camera movement, and fluctuating digital textures with a more pervasive use of CGI, especially during the super-powered scenes. I don't think the end result is quite what they were aiming for. The intended spectacle shots of flying chains or a shield made of spinning gears and sprockets are just too artificial to blend with the characters existing in the same space. Some scenes have extremely active background animation, but only sporadically and even repeated for later scenes. Some yukata patterns used later in the series are vibrantly sharp, and the recreation of Osaka settings are detailed down even to realistic advertisements, but elements like the swimming fish motifs when the battle scenes shift to ziggurat mode are just baffling. Animation-wise, few things get more attention than the huge bouncy breasts of Tazuna's childhood friend, but the effect is more laughable than sexy. Fanservice is otherwise limited and the violent content is never graphic.
The musical score doesn't help the series, either. The soundtrack for the series borrows heavy inspiration from the various K titles, whether this choice feels appropriate or not. The resulting mellow sound is a boon in more lighthearted scenes but a bust for the action set pieces, which rarely manage anything close to the level of tension that they should have. There's a respectable insert song by the idol singer character, but the opening and closing themes are unremarkable.
Funimation definitely took their English dub effort seriously. All the key roles are well-cast and most are remarkably well-performed; the whole cast put serious effort into making the most of what they had to work with, and for the most part they succeeded. The dub may even be a slight improvement in places. Funimation's release of the title is otherwise unremarkable: both Blu-Ray and DVDs, extras including promos and clean theme songs, just the basics. The release does include the OVA, which is numbered episode 13 but included in the Extras menu. It flashes back to a couple of years before the main plot to fill in a crucial gap in the backstory, explaining why the female assistant shown in earlier flashbacks isn't with the scientist Makihara anymore. It also explains the curious scar that Koyori has, which is brought up once in the main series but never referenced again, and it lays out a pretty big plot twist to explain why Koyori connected to Tazuna. Most other significant characters also have cameos. If you at least tolerated the rest of the series, then the OVA will be required viewing, although it is sub-only.
Overall, Hand Shakers isn't a good series, but I didn't find it to be an unmitigated disaster either. The visual aesthetic will definitely be a deal-breaker for some viewers, especially those with a low CG tolerance, and the story isn't strong enough to recommend putting up with the way it looks. Still, the series is at least unique in its ambitions and moves along at a reasonable pace, so it's not wholly without entertainment value.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ Good english dub, bonus OVA clears up some details
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