The Mike Toole Show
Cover Story

by Michael Toole,

My convention pals from the Geeknights podcast occasionally run a panel that they call Judge Anime By its Cover. The conceit is simple: dig up a key piece of artwork from the target anime, make snap judgments about the content, and check to see if you're right. Usually, their instincts are right: the show with the moony-eyed girls clustered around the bewildered, nerdy protagonist is going to go one way, and the show with the angry-looking lady in the flight suit standing in front of her bristling mecha is going to go another. In a very real sense, ANN's popular seasonal preview guide is all about judging new shows by their cover, by their first moments of comedy, drama, or adventure.

Those first impressions don't always bear out, and sometimes, the writers wind up finding hidden gems among shows that they initially thought weren't worth their time. That's a real danger when you work in this business, the business of being judgey about cartoons. I'm not afraid to admit that I'm wrong about a lot of shows I brush off initially—after all, when you push as much media through your eyeballs as I do, you're bound to get the wrong first impression sometimes.

J.C. Staff's Toradora! came along at a time when, as a guy in his mid-30s, I'd figured I was just about done with high school sitcoms. The school comedies I liked, fare that ran the gamut from Urusei Yatsura to Cromartie to Hana Yori Dango, either relied on completely outlandish situations, or amped the drama way, way up. Some of ‘em were pretty good at doing both. The classic Kimagure Orange Road, while never a personal favorite, was weirdly good at making me nostalgic for my youth in Yokohama, an impressive feat considering I've never been there.  But ultimately, most of these shows seemed to rely on extremes—extreme situations, or extreme characters, or both. Toradora!, promising a complicated love trapezoid and showing off artwork of an all-too-typical quintet of high school kids posing awkwardly, looked like the kind of show where the unceasing comical misunderstandings would invariably end with the girl punching the guy into the stratosphere. I gave it a pass. But critical consensus got me to give Toradora! a second look, and I quickly realized how wrong I'd been.

Ryuji Takasu is a nice guy with a problem: his irises are too small, a common sign of Bad Guyness. (Other common signs of Bad Guyness: lack of eyebrows, predilection towards licking knives.) That's seriously the rub of it—he's got an unnerving “sanpaku” gaze that makes everyone around him assume that he's a delinquent, just like his absent father was. That's not his only problem—he also has a frustrating home life, with a caring but flaky mom who works as a late-night bar hostess, and a huge, completely unspoken crush on his classmate and friend, minori. Nobody knows about his crush, until it's discovered by his classmate Taiga Aisaka, an actual troublemaker.

Taiga is petite and comely, but has a reputation for being unapproachable. It turns out that she doesn't fume adorably when things fail to go her way; she talks trash and hits people. Taiga's also got a crush of her own, on Yusaku Kitamura, one of Ryuji's few friends. From this predicament, a brilliant plan is hatched: the two malcontents will try helping each other find love, where “helping each other” usually means “helping Taiga deal with her complete disaster of a life.” She's got the whole ABSENT PARENTS thing that you see in shows like this, but her folks aren't conveniently missing because they're off on a largely unexplained extended trip to America, they turn out to be rich assholes who don't want to deal with their problem child. Ryuji, who has few friends and honestly enjoys cooking and cleaning, finds fulfillment in taking care of his ill-tempered, hapless new partner.

The rest of the players have similarly appealing flaws. minori, the object of Ryuji's eye, plays the hardworking ditz, but is way smarter than she lets on, and very protective of the entire gang. She's got romantic interests of her own, but is terrified that changing the status quo might ruin everyone's friendships. Ami, a later arrival, puts up a fairly convincing front of a nice girl, but turns out to be arrogant and catty; still, she's the most perceptive of the bunch. Finally, the brainy and straitlaced Yusaku rebels and acts out, because he's trying to catch the eye of an older girl. When she bluntly rejects his advances, Taiga literally goes to bat for him. In high school comedy/drama shows, conflicts like this are usually all about a sharp slap, maybe a shove, before the teacher or some other well-meaning friend intervenes. Here, we're treated to an ugly brawl that ends in scandal and suspension from school.

I think that moment was when Toradora! hooked me for good. It's a show full of human drama that doesn't need to be turned up or exaggerated, because it feels real. Its director, Tatsuyuki Nagai, needs only to take the show's fine source material, hand it over to the creative principals (screenwriter Mari Okada and character designer/animation director Masayoshi Tanaka), and let the results wash over the viewer. Toradora!’s a show that speaks sincerely, the way friends speak to each other. I think that's why, even years down the road, so many people still like it.

A week or two ago, an internet pal posed an interesting question: “Would you consider the light novel to be an inferior literary form?” If stories like Toradora! can come from it, I don't think so. I don't think it's useful to rank literary forms, actually, except for making sure that filthy limericks, knock-knock jokes, and awful puns are held above all other literature. I think that light novels, like fiction in general, are often cheap and formulaic, but there's nothing inherently wrong with the form, is there? I hope we get the Toradora! light novels published in English someday.

Another interesting case of me getting a series wrong is Samurai Flamenco. But the real fun of this example is that everyone was wrong about Samurai Flamenco! That was the show's genius. The early key visuals depict a dashing costumed hero and policeman teaming up, and the opening sequence seemed to promise an exciting superhero show. The full opening episode established a slightly more pedestrian concept: an idealistic young man dresses up vaguely like his favorite costumed heroes and fights crime, because he's devoted to justice; the cop is someone who caught on to his shtick, and is reluctantly protecting him. Even if you hung in there and watched the first three or four episodes of the series before writing it off as a Kick-Ass takeoff, you'd end up completely wrong about it by episode 8.

But, like a number of my peers, I found myself happy with the whole “being wrong about the establishing story arc” part, and I only got happier as Samurai Flamenco progressively set up and tore down weirder and weirder scenarios. It all hit a fever pitch in one of the show's climatic battles, in which Japan's scheming prime minister Okuzaki wields public opinion like a palpable superpower against our hero. The fact that it also serves as a nutty visual history of tokusatsu superhero TV shows is just a bonus. If you dropped Samurai Flamenco after the street vigilante business, or the robot monster business, or the ranger team business, it's time you picked it back up.

When it came out in 2012, Girls und Panzer scarcely seemed worth a look. Sure, it boasted one of the best directors in the business in Tsutomu Mizushima, but just check out that key visual: adorable schoolgirls posing chummily in front of a World War II-era Panzer IV tank. This was clearly going to be another one of those shows that did nothing but fetishize cutie-pie girls brandishing guns and ammo. In fairness, there's some of that going on in Girls und Panzer; protagonist Miho Nishizumi plays the classic gung-ho tank captain, sitting astride the machine as it goes full tilt, binoculars pressed to her face. One of her teammates wears a German army desert jacket and officer's hat; before her character is named, I started mentally referring to her as “Rommel-chan.” Then I learned her real name: Erwin. Of course.

In the world of Girls und Panzer, racing tanks around the battlefield, outflanking and outthinking the opposition, is a regimented, regulated, and (pretty) safe sport—sensha-do, or tankery—and so this series, known as “Garupan” to its ardent fans, is much more of a sports show than a “cute girls with alarmingly realistic munitions” show. Miho's tankery team comes from an underfed school on an aircraft carrier, short on resources, so her squadmates are the ultimate underdogs, talented and likeable scrappers utilizing a motley crew of scavenged tanks to outmaneuver better-funded and better-prepared rivals.

The resulting highly detailed and accurate tank battles, complete with realistic engine and firing sounds, never fail to be entertaining. The series was rewarding enough to watch that I mainlined the whole thing in a single day. This helped to make its widely-known production problems evident, though-- I don't think I've seen an anime TV series fall back to a recap episode as fast as Girls und Panzer does.

But watching the whole series in one shot really helped me appreciate Girls und Panzer's finer points—sure, it's a bit shallow, and its large cast of characters are mostly one-note, forgettable stereotypes. But it was still kind of awesome to see a world where girls go right ahead and operate complex machinery and diligently work on cars and trucks, presented as completely normal, with no “they're all some sort of tomboy/genius/whatever” explanation necessary. The nuanced depiction of tanks and tactics also made me think of Hetalia, which so skillfully uses handsome young men getting into funny arguments and adventures to communicate lectures on world history. Watch carefully, and you'll learn something! Even if that something is that the Char B1 eats gas and maneuvers really slowly.

Given the above examples, while I still cast a critical eye on shows with samey-looking promotional artwork, I'm more likely to give a wide variety of shows a chance, especially if I know they're using good staff. After all, just think: the anohana people are making a new movie! (The anohana people are also the Toradora! people, so the Toradora! people are making a new movie!) The first promotional image doesn't reveal much, though. In fact, it looks kind of cheap and unappetizing. I can't wait to see it. In the meantime, I urge you to always, always judge a book by its cover, but take the plunge anyway. After all, when your expectations are defied, great things can happen.

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