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Nobue Itoh usually preys on her little sister Chika when she needs cigarette money, but it often leads to unexpected misadventures with Chika and her friends. On the eve of Nobue's birthday, Chika invites over rambunctious Miu and dopey Matsuri to work on a present, but it quickly turns into a challenge in staying awake. Later on they meet Ana, a foreigner who—strangely enough—knows Japanese better than English. Ana's language woes mount when she tries to pass herself off as an English speaker, but that's nothing compared to the awkwardness of having the other girls visit her house. Nobue, meanwhile, is in for her own dose of embarrassment when Miu and the gang discover her part-time job.
Consider this the next stage in the Battle of Cute. Di Gi Charat made its mark once, but nowadays it's practically normal. Azumanga Daioh added new quirks, but within the mainstream realm of high school. Bottle Fairy distilled it to the level of little girls, but they weren't real people. Now, at last, comes Strawberry Marshmallow, which makes no pretenses: how would you like a glimpse into the whimsical lives of 11- and 12-year-olds? The correct answer is yes—this is a world of delightful deadpan humor and oddball characters, held together by simple yet sharp animation. Equal parts sweet and sarcastic, the Marshmallow girls are a welcome addition to the anime neighborhood.
Conventional wisdom tells us that "cute comedy" consists of silly characters doing silly things until everyone gets really annoyed. But not anymore. The incredibly dry, low-key humor of Strawberry Marshmallow earns it laughs by cloaking its silliness within the ordinary. When Miu makes an insensitive wisecrack, for example, she appears facedown on the floor a split second later. What happened? The implied slapstick violence, hidden within that split second, achieves hilarity by not being there. This idea of taking the bizarre as mundane also works with long-term running gags, such as Ana's struggles with English. Think about it: a displaced Briton, raised within the Japanese culture, trying to get back to her foreign roots. As a character trait, it's unusual. As humor potential, it's gold. Ana's stuttering, canned-phrase conversation with Matsuri in Episode 3 is language-class dorkiness at its best.
A quirky, balanced ensemble is the key to this offbeat comedy. Miu is probably the closest to the traditional silly character, but her ego never goes unchecked—she always gets what's coming to her, usually in the form of the aforementioned well-timed slap. The two younger girls, Ana and Matsuri, provide a counterpoint with their wide-eyed innocence, while sisters Nobue and Chika (who seem the most "normal") have an acidic sibling rivalry that anchors the series. With such an interesting cast, the series might be forgiven for taking the path of least plot: the four episodes so far all involve mundane situations with no real direction, save for the passing seasons. Of more questionable concern is the occasional hint of fandom fetish: jokes about Miu's flat chest, or a waitress skirt-flip, or Nobue fawning over cat-eared Matsuri. Obviously, some people are going to take such things the wrong way, but it's still easy to enjoy the show regardless of that subtext.
A simple, brightly colored style belies the nuances that go into the animation. Minor details like loose sakura petals, the smoke from a teapot, and a flip of the hair add an extra layer of realism to a slice-of-life environment. This happens on a larger scale too: when the girls play pretend in Chika's bedroom, background characters still participate in the action—an especially tricky task when there can be up to five independent characters in a scene. But artistic fundamentals don't go ignored here; the big-eyed, moe-flavored character designs stay consistent throughout, and the color palette strikes an ideal balance between variety and subtlety. A contemporary fashion sense also adds another level of visual appeal, with the characters sporting a number of cute and trendy outfits.
With the rules of comedy having been turned on their head, it should be no surprise that the concept of wacky background music also goes out the window. Most scenes achieve their dry humor thanks to background silence (with the exception of a Beethoven-accompanied food fight in Episode 4), and it's only during transitional moments that the sparse, gentle music score comes in. A catchy opening song is the one concession to a more typical, exuberant style of cuteness, while the ending theme is subdued but similarly pleasant.
Fans of the My-HiME dub will hear some familiar voices on the show's Ocean-produced English track. Caitlynne Medrek takes the boisterous lead as Miu, but Kylie Beaven's Matsuri is the show-stealer, capturing the adorable vocal inflections of a young child. The dub's main weakness is in its miscasting of Katie Rowan as Ana, who sounds about three years older than her character suggests. Meanwhile, the biggest translation hurdle—Ana's Japanese-English confusion—is deftly handled by having the characters speak in accented "Engrish" when they switch languages. It's not exactly the joke that it once was, but it's still good for a laugh. Overall, the dub script takes a few deviations from the original, but mostly to add flavor to the dialogue, such as Miu accusing Nobue of being a "pervert" rather than "old man" or "geezer" (oyaji).
Promotional art seems to be the theme for this DVD's extras, with a reversible cover and fold-out leaflet inside the case. The disc itself features the usual clean opening and previews, but also a 5-minute "Episode 0" promo clip that captures the show's humor within a smaller space.
If Azumanga Daioh left you longing for more sweet, off-kilter comedy, then you'll be glad to know that its successor has arrived. Although Strawberry Marshmallow features a younger cast of characters, the same oddball humor that made AzuDai a hit also permeates this series, with an added edge of sarcasm. They say that cute shows are all about brash, annoying antics and being as loud as possible, but this series proves that wrong. There is something uniquely appealing about Marshmallow's deadpan delivery, the way a joke creeps up from behind and suddenly strikes—like an unseen slap knocking a 12-year-old girl to the ground. That's the kind of gag that just doesn't happen anywhere else.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : B
Music : B
+ Appealing visuals and a surprisingly wry sense of humor.
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