Reviewby Tim Henderson, May 10th 2011
Welcome to Irabu's Office
Welcome to Irabu's Office tells eleven stories over the course of eleven episodes, each focused around a unique condition relating to a patient's mental health. Irabu treats each subject in unconventional, often bizarre ways becoming, as the episodes progress, involved with each condition and patient from a new perspective as the days to Christmas count down.
The corridor that leads to the physical space of Irabu's office is borderline suffocating, for viewer and fictional character alike. A basic and blatant construct of 3D animation, its overt polygonal edges and dull grey colouring creates a hemmed-in effect that clashes with the rest of a Tokyo that otherwise appears to be wearing hyper-coloured clown pants.
Persisting with this faux-serious turn, footsteps can be heard echoing as a door approaches to the left. The sound is of lonely black leather walking over hard concrete. It's either a success of the show or a failure of this specific, repeated moment that the whole rigmarole feels so ironic: within the context of Irabu's vibrant pallet and oft-deformed and unattractive character illustration styles, such sterility goes down as a jagged pill. It should do – the opening of the door to this office brings with it a burst of light, a huge colourful domed room and a call of "welcome(!!!)" screeches from a voice that would most sensibly associate with a bleach-blond host of a game show that primarily specialises in embarrassing people.
An oversized green bear mask hides the blond hair, however a sleazy stubble somehow sprouts from its chin. If the polka-dots that have invaded the entirety of Tokyo's aesthetic as if a yellow bikini weren't clue enough, then Irabu himself is absolute proof that this show is working hard to earn its experimental badge. Taking the form of three routine external appearances, Irabu switches between crude, effeminate and childlike on the whims that drive his function in each isolated story. Seeing to eleven different psychiatric patients over the course of eleven episodes, Irabu may be an eccentric character, but his role is typically that of a guide; the unorthodox nature of his methods primarily serve to add interest to each individual condition he comes across.
Each episode thus follows a familiar pattern: a condition is established or highlighted, Irabu is consulted, his nurse administers a seemingly superfluous vitamin shot, the patient develops an animal head, and they work together to overcome a series of psychological conditions. In this sense Welcome to Irabu's Office is incredibly basic, and although the stories all take place over the week leading into Christmas, often intersecting with each other, they never join together to form any kind of grand narrative. Not that it matters – as the series progresses it gradually becomes apparent that Irabu's Office is far more interested in using the collective weight of the cases it presents to harmonise its overarching themes than it is in constructing a traditional narrative.
The meaning of the show then is somewhat ironically found in the placebo vitamin shots. A sexual kink that triggers excited sweats in Irabu's masked fur, the scene exploits its aesthetic power with relish. Most often portrayed through heavily saturated live footage, stripped of finer details and numerous frames of animation, gravure idol Yumi Sugimoto excels in giving the nurse Mayumi a no-nonsense attitude that is both surprisingly and legitimately sexy as she forces a needle into the recipient's arm.
What typically follows is a shot of a patient whose head has been replaced by that of a characteristically chosen animal. More than just an exercise in pastiche visual experimentation, this collection of critters goes on to form the basis of Irabu's visual language. Acting like a poker-twitch, this visual transformation is liable to reappear as an overt symptom, working with fast cuts and occasional plays with vibrant visual design to create empathy with each tick that sets off a problem, be it obsessive-compulsive disorder or an inability to deal with the flash of paparazzi cameras.
It is this visual eccentricity, the audible dings and shurrs of claustrophobic camera cuts, Irabu's incessant sniggering and the flippant animation techniques that almost exclusively grant Irabu's Office its intrinsic appeal. Although somewhat playful with the crossover of its narrative strands, Irabu's comes across as much more a feat of experimental animation than it does experimental writing. Even so, consistency must be maintained.
Irabu works its own visual language early on and never really lets go, preferring to master and stretch the use of a well-established toolbox. As such, washed-out actor footage is no less commonplace than the circular splotches that pattern the city, no more alien than the wonderfully efficient stylisation of a non-story essential populace depicted as paper cut-outs. Early episodes come off as pure catharsis, but around the mid-point it all starts to click. The excessive nature of all of Irabu's bells and whistles comes together to create twenty minutes of utter relatability, the obsession and alienation of a high-school student with a cell-phone addiction communicated with uncomfortable conviction.
Irabu's treatments are often as unnerving as the conditions he is helping his patients to overcome and often result in pranks or new-found obsessions of the doctor's own. As such, due care has been taken to ensure that the real-world seriousness of many of the disorders witnessed is never overlooked. A door will be opened in the animation of each and every episode, through which pokes the Monty Python-esque head of one Dr. Fukuitchi, a swiftly-spoken expert on a real-world perspective. The sensible, rational nature of his dialogues, when contrasted against the rest of the content, hardly diminishes the surreal edge.
For all the clowning around on display, it is the more serious nature of these issues that lay at the heart of Irabu's Office's Existence; the absurd nature of Irabu's personality and world that provides a safe distance for observation. It is in excess that subtlety if found. Irabu's gospel is taught primarily through empathy drawn from the effects of its openly eccentric animation, and on the rare occasion when it does take a moment to preach, it is so demented in its execution that it's difficult not to smile and nod along.
Pitched for obvious reasons as an underground, art-house release, the merits of the DVDs themselves are highly focused on the essential areas. There are no extras be found, and if you're adverse to watching anime in its native language, then there is nothing for you to see here. For the purists however, the trade-off is more than worth it – the packaging is sufficiently sleek, freed from frivolous clutter, and the technical merits of the discs are among the best we've ever witnessed on the format: colours pop and burst with vibrancy, and it up-scales wonderfully.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
+ A mostly impressive conga-line of experimental animation styles
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