Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 30th 2010
Shigofumi - Letters from the Departed
DVD Complete Collection
Shigofumi are letters from the dead (figuratively or literally), ones sent to the living on the strength of strong lingering emotions. Because they can only tell the truth, they are inherently neither good nor bad, though their reception can engender either reaction. Fumika is one of the supernatural mail carriers charged with delivering Shigofumi, along with the assistance of sentient staff Kanaka. Unlike others of her ilk, whose appearances are frozen as they were at the time of death, Fumika continues to age, but she normally does not let that or anything else – whether it be ruffians, reluctant recipients, or troublesome delivery locations – prevent her from stoically carrying out her duties. When a high school student who knew Fumika when she was alive recognizes her during one delivery, though, the mystery behind Fumika's special nature and ultimate hidden agenda gradually starts to unravel. As Fumika's personal tragedy interweaves with the events of the present, new and former friends struggle to help her realize that delivering messages which cannot be “returned to sender” may be the least of the problems facing her.
Though a light novel variation by Ryo Amamiya was technically released first, Shigofumi was actually originally created with the intent of being an anime project, making it onto Japanese airwaves in the Winter 2008 season courtesy of J.C. Staff and director Tatsuo Sato (of Martian Successor Nadesico and Stellvia fame). Bandai Visual soon after announced a license for the title and a tentative multi-volume release schedule, but later delayed the title so indefinitely that Sentai Filmworks Films claimed it for themselves in the spring of 2010. Section23 is now releasing it for them in a single-volume, double-disk collection which also includes a bonus 13th episode originally only available on the last Japanese DVD release.
Those interested in watching Shigofumi should know what they're getting into before committing themselves to view it, as the moe trappings of Fumika that are evident in the cover art, the irritating chattiness of staff Kanaka, and the first part of the first story about the boy trying to build and launch a rocket only vaguely hint at the very dark territory that the series will soon begin to explore. This is a series which tackles head-on, and in a sometimes brutally frank fashion, disturbing issues like child abuse, child exploitation, teen suicide, clinical mental illness, the weight of the pressure for social conformity, and severe bullying. It gives an uncomfortably realistic look at what the victims of such transgressions have to endure and what they must contend with in the aftermath, including especially the extremes they sometimes get driven to by what they have suffered and how people near them can also be affected. Damning parental irresponsibility is a regular story component (although there are positive portrayals, too), as is emphasizing the callous intrusiveness of the public. Even the casual cruelty students can unthinkingly inflict on others gets thorough attention.
For all the darkness that the series embraces, though, it is not entirely grim. The series seems very deliberate in pointing out that there are good souls in the world, too, and not every scenario involving a Shigofumi plays out like a miniature horror story. Some are sentimental, such as one mission involving delivering letters to a cat, another in which Fumika and compatriot Chiaki must deliver a “letter” to a flooded village, a third concerning a tropical island “vacation” which delves into Chiaki's past, and a story about a game designer who has recently quit his job and spends time hanging out with a young relative, a game-obsessed girl. The latter one in particular can pack an unexpected emotional punch in the end.
Do not assume from this description that the series is episodic or even primarily composed of independent mini-arcs, however. Although a couple of the stories do stand alone, most of the content is at least peripherally connected to the overarching plot about Fumika's past and her special existential status. Characters who look like one-shots – such as a police detective who appears in the first episode – may continue to keep popping up as part of the bigger picture, and by the later stages the series dispenses with emphasis on the delivery of Shigofumi in favor of concentrating completely on Fumika's story. It is an interesting story with deep consequences, too, and thankfully episode 13 was made and included to show What Happens After; even though the credits scenes from episode 12 basically wrap things up, the final episode fills out the story much better while also showing that the road to normality for the main character is not an easy one. (But who would reasonably expect it to be given what she has gone through?)
Most of the writing and scene crafting is handled exceptionally well, with the bullying scenes in particular being so acute that one has to wonder if one or more of the principal creative staff isn't speaking from experience here. The writing does go overboard in portraying the main bullies as unrepentantly evil, however, and suffers from one other major flaw: its internal logic regarding the whole Shigofumi business is shaky. The story insufficiently develops the mechanics and structure of the Shigofumi delivery business, making it seems as if the letter delivery matters are playing out purely for story convenience rather than because there is a well-grounded mechanic for it. How does someone who's been dead for such a brief time get to be a letter carrier, for instance? Isn't that just asking for exactly the kind of trouble which arises in this story? Since the carriers apparently walk around like normal people and are visible to normal people, wouldn't they attract more attention than they do? (They do have the power to turn invisible, but only seem to use it in crises.) Wouldn't a floating staff be awfully conspicuous? And wouldn't someone in authority over the mail carriers step in given what Fumika does late in the series? Granted, anime series overlook factors like these all the time, but here the absence of explanation and consideration seems particularly egregious. The story also tantalizes viewers with a couple of details early on about the structure of the afterlife but then never revisits it.
J.C. Staff's artistic effort focuses on the design of the mail carrier costume, which has been given loving attention as a cosplay-primed style, and Fumika's gun. Character and background design is otherwise pretty good, with with characters beyond the moe-leaning Fumika (in mail carrier form) and Chiaki given a more realistic rather than caricatured style, especially concerning hair. The staves have some shiny CG effects about them, but the color scheme used for the series is flat, as if a deliberate choice was made to mute the look of the series to prevent it from seeming cheery. The artistry doesn't hesitate to incorporate in symbolism, either, and while the violence is sometimes bloody, neither it nor the more prurient content is especially graphic. (Even so, a TV-PG rating seems much too weak for the series; with the intensity level and subject matter also figured in, this is certainly not fit for younger viewers.) The animation uses still scenes a little too conspicuously and is ordinary in most places, but it excels in a few feature scenes, such as some interesting perspective use in an early scene involving a knife-wielding assailant and scenes involving text scrolling over a character's body.
“Kotodama” by Ali Project serves as the opening theme, a song which sounds like (and probably is) an integrated remix of the duo's opening themes for Noir and Avenger. Closer “Chain” by Snow* is a very solid, gentle adult contemporary number whose tone suits the softer episodes well. In between the score of Hikaru Nanase (Chrono Crusade, Scrapped Princess, Galaxy Angel) generally proves very effective, especially with its staple spooky, tension-inducing theme, although it also works well in more melancholy moments, too. Unlike all too many scores, it also knows when to go quiet. The quality of the Japanese vocal performances varies from very ordinary to stellar efforts, especially Eri Sendai (who also voices Fumika) in her secondary role as Asuna Ayase, the exploited girl guest-featured in the first two episodes.
Sentai Filmworks did not dub this one, but at least its subtitles are mostly free of typos this time. The first disk includes a set of seven 4-6 minutes “Shigofumi Picture Dramas,” which consist of dialogue keyed to static pictures and/or storyboards. Each bit expands the story and setting, sometimes in a humorous fashion but other times in a serious manner. They span the breadth of the series in terms of the characters and story elements they feature, so watching the last 3-4 before finishing the second disk is not recommended. The second disk also includes a clean opener and closer.
Only a few flaws – shaky internal logic, insufficient development in places, and a thoroughly irritating supporting character in the staff Kanaka – prevent this from being a top-tier title. It features a lot of strong writing and stronger social commentary about the ugly side of society balanced against nicely sentimental moments, with the addition of a “What Happens After” episode giving the series a proper rounding out. It does not have enough action in it for action fans, and is not dedicated enough in its moe aspect for moe fans, but those who appreciate the likes of Hell Girl or favor serious anime with a more mature focus should find this one to their liking.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Many parts are very well-written, solid musical score.
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