Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 20th 2005
Rumiko Takahashi Anthology
DVD 1: Primal Needs
Rumiko Takahashi's "Rumic Theater" manga gets the anime treatment in this collection of short-story episodes. In "The Tragedy of P," a harried housewife must keep a pet penguin hidden from the fussy, by-the-book manager of her apartment complex. "Merchant of Romance" is about the owner of a wedding hall whose financial situation forces her to close down the business, and as the last wedding is about to take place, she reconsiders her relationship with her ex-husband. As the final ceremony closes out, she learns a few things about true love. Finally, "Middle-Aged Teen" tells the story of a stressed-out salaryman who loses his memory right before a job transfer. Now he thinks he's 13 years old, he's got some unexplained photo booth pictures with a high school girl, and only his wife and son can bring him back to reality.
Those who associate Rumiko Takahashi with demon dog boys or water-induced gender-switching may be in for a surprise with this series. Although Takahashi has made a name for herself with long-running titles like Ranma ½ and Inuyasha, the Anthology series proves that she's just as adept at spinning tales within a smaller framework, set in modern-day Japan. The production values of this anime hold things back a bit, but after each episode you'll be sure to find yourself saying, "What a great story! Where did she get that kind of an idea? And those kinds of characters?" With lots of humor and heart, this series is perfect for those who like clever, down-to-earth stories in manageable doses.
In a world of 26-episode epics, the short story format is often overlooked, and even "episodic" anime has character continuity to tie everything together. The Takahashi Anthology abandons all that and introduces a new cast of characters and a new setting each time. This structure has its advantages: a guaranteed climax or turning point in each episode, a compact and easy-to-follow plot, and independence from previous episodes. Despite the restrictions, each story is highly original in its own way. Takahashi's creativity goes full blast in the comedy stories: "The Tragedy of P" is sitcom at its best as the penguin secret becomes harder and harder to keep, and "Middle-Aged Teen" takes a simple idea—an older man acting like a kid—and keeps viewers hooked as he tries to get his memory back. "Merchant of Romance," with its bittersweet love story, reveals Takahashi's soft side, and the conclusion goes for a direct hit on your heart despite the characters' complex feelings. Although there aren't any hyperactive action sequences in this series, the pacing moves from scene to scene at just the right speed and there's always something happening, so don't let anyone ever say that slice-of-life is boring.
Along with Rumiko Takahashi's infinite supply of story ideas comes an infinite supply of characters, and in the first volume alone there's a cast as varied as that of Ranma ½ (but without needing to memorize all the relationships and rivalries). Anime is notorious for its young protagonists, so when the lead character is a twenty-something mother or an aging salaryman, it's definitely a fresh take. Even if they're not in the same demographic as the viewer, these characters all share dilemmas that we can sympathize with: a desire for fair treatment, a yearning for lost love, or a need to escape the pressures of life. By the second half of each episode, it's hard not to root for the main characters as they look for a solution to their problems—something that usually takes several episodes in a more conventional anime. These short, sweet character arcs can get overly melodramatic towards the end, but like all good stories, the sense of resolution always balances out the tension that came before.
The best part of Rumiko Takahashi's artwork has always been her unique, idiosyncratic character designs, which the animation staff tries to capture in this series. There's a refreshingly diverse range here: young and old, fat and skinny, and best of all, adults that actually look like adults. In converting them for animation, however, it's basically Takahashi Lite, with the trademark soft curves and expressive eyes diluted into flat, TV-ready graphics. The character animation looks pretty promising in the first episode, with lively expressions and movement, but it quickly drops in quality afterwards. The sharpness of line is there, but the colors and motion feel limited. There's still some spark in Episodes 2 and 3, particularly with facial expressions, but it lacks the fluidity of the first. (Just imagine if they had to animate action scenes. The entire budget would have been blown in 15 minutes.) Despite some eye-catching sequences like the vivid nighttime scene in "The Tragedy of P" and the sepia-toned flashback in "Merchant of Romance," the visuals simply lack the polish of today's top anime.
Keeping in line with the honest, down-to-earth approach of these stories, the music score is simple and pleasant. There's hardly anything that can really be called a melody, as it's mostly just brief, repeated phrases in various instrumentations. Using little more than a couple of electronic keyboards in the studio, the music manages to reach all the moods in the show, whether it be comedy, tension or sadness. Although the music helps to enhance crucial scenes, there's nothing particularly ambitious about it, and it'll probably slip right past most ears. The theme songs consist of similarly pleasant fluff, framing each episode with enjoyable but forgettable tunes.
Geneon's dub production on this title is a spotty effort, and they've certainly done better work elsewhere. Although the cast sounds best when they're speaking in their natural voices, there are also plenty of moments that just aren't convincing. In "Middle-Aged Teen," for example, it's hard to believe that Toshio is a family man (or a thirteen-year-old), based on his in-between voice that can't decide between age and youth. Dramatic moments also sound forced, although a low-key approach seems to be the best way around this. The understated style works especially well for the women in the show, like the actresses playing Mrs. Haga and Mrs. Kakei in "The Tragedy of P" and Yukari in "Merchant of Romance."
In addition to textless and original Japanese openings, Geneon includes a Production Art Gallery on this DVD, which provides some insights into how the Takahashi style gets turned into animation.
There are plenty of people who like Rumiko Takahashi best when she's dragging them into long, winding storylines about feudal fantasy worlds, or martial arts love polygons, or sexy space aliens. But to think that her storytelling talent stops there is to miss out on the full range of her abilities. Rumiko Takahashi Anthology is a lighthearted but satisfying journey through the billion and one ideas that float through Takahashi's head, transferred from page to screen. The external elements like artwork and music may not be up to today's high standards, but the stories are always top quality no matter what.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : A
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : C+
+ A unique, non-serialized showcase of Takahashi's limitless creativity.
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