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This Week in Anime
A Toast to Bartender

by Monique Thomas & Christopher Farris,

The cult-classic series is now streaming on Crunchyroll! Pull up a stool and let Ryu Sasakura make you the exact cocktail you need.

This series is streaming on Crunchyroll.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @BeeDubsProwl @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

Nicky, it turns out what they say is true: Makin' your way in the world today really does take everything you've got. And I think that taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sure, but I'm letting you know my doctor told me I can't have any alcohol with my meds. However, I still appreciate the experience of sipping tasty beverages in a place with a fine atmosphere. Cheap stuff is fine, but sitting down with something classy is a real luxury. This week, we're (metaphorically) drinking with the 00s cult-classic Bartender.
That's right, Crunchyroll has finally seen fit to put this one up for streaming, so it's time to mix drinks and change lives. As someone who enjoys a drink or three, I was looking forward to finally getting the chance to take a few shots with Bartender. Sure, I enjoy the likes of Takunomi too, but that classier atmosphere you mention gives this one its distinct appeal.
To understand why some people love this particular 2006 digipaint-era show about solving real-life problems where the only magic so-to-speak is that of good service, one must have a mature palette. Bartender, like alcohol, has an acquired taste. Its overall chill tone acts as the ice for our glass. Meanwhile, it also employs several avant-garde methods of storytelling more commonly found in theater, literature, and modern folklore than more modern visual mediums. There are even several direct allusions to this!
As someone who had only the barest familiarity with this show's concept going in, I was caught off-guard by the presentation as of the first episode. Characters take turns appearing on 'sets,' and there's plenty of direct looking at and addressing the audience themselves.
I could see these episodes performed as their own 20-minute one-act plays! Bar plays are relatively common, even.
It's odd, but it does click after a little while, and as an eternally-recovering theater kid, I was absolutely able to get into the series and that style of presenting each episode as a mini-stage play. I particularly like the consistent effect of the bar's lighting acting as spotlights throughout the scenes.
That kind of framing might come off as a barrier of entry for people unfamiliar with fine arts, in the same way our faithful Bartender, Ryu Sasakura, describes the heavy door to his hideaway, Eden Hall. Bars and theater have their expectations about how to enjoy them that can easily scare off newcomers who need to learn what they're doing. Similarly, people who push past that initial deterrent can enjoy these individual dramas as the reprieve they were meant to be.
To his credit, Ryu himself never comes off as anything other than welcoming to the people who wander into his high-class watering hole. Heck, the entire first episode is about a designer disillusioned with what he feels is the pretentious nature of such establishments. That primarily stems from one bad experience he had, but Ryu's cool head and keen observation skills let him gently draw the guy into the true bar experience.

It economically sets up what kinds of vibes Bartender will be meditating on—getting drunk off the booze rarely, if ever, factors into the stories of the drinks being served here. Instead, it's all about the experience of those cocktail creations, the feelings their flavors conjure up, and the atmosphere cultivated by the place they're served.
Ultimately, the first episode argues that to have a good experience at a "good" bar only really requires having the right mindset. If you go into things expecting to be judged, you'd be setting yourself up for failure and having a bad time. For ages, people have been using bars to forget or puzzle out their problems. Alcohol has the side effect of loosening people up, so It's not the Bartender's place to judge what they drink or spill! Instead, Ryu approaches each customer courteously and listens to try and concoct the best "medicine" for their problem. Usually, using a drink as a way to trigger sense memories.

The 'medicine' angle is another immediate allusion, with Ryu directly comparing his profession to pharmacists and physicians!

That ends up powering the 'gimmick' of the show and each episode. Each entry has its patrons as the main characters of their respective stories, relating their troubles while Ryu earnestly listens. The payoff comes when he produces whatever liquid therapy he's deduced that they need and the explanations of what personal tics and clues led him to his decision.

It often ends up intersecting with the aspects and histories of the drinks themselves, so we also get some neat edutainment out of the deal!
Like a margarita, I took some of the origin stories with a grain of salt. The stories do still make for a great presentation and added flavor.
Oh yeah, the folkloric origin of the margarita was designed to be more fanciful than, say, the history lesson on Suntory whiskey.

For the record, most historians believe the margarita originated as a tequila substitute for a daisy cocktail, as margarita means daisy in Spanish. However, John Durlesser's origin of the cocktail is an absolute myth and not an invention of the show, so it's cool to have that kind of real-world lore, even if it's one that's mostly been debunked. It's nice to let yourself be intoxicated with that seemingly real fantasy. Most good stories aren't true as they're told, but they do make us feel better.
For a show so steeped in grown-up sensibilities, I was pleasantly surprised at how non-cynical Bartender let itself be. Like Ryu's deployment of the Mizuwari in the first episode acknowledges the drink's origins as a marketing campaign but immediately describes the delectable value to be found in the concoction.

Like the Takunomi, as mentioned earlier, Bartender is generally good at getting someone like me curious to try drinks I haven't before.
I enjoyed Ryu playing matchmaker since he never judges the couple for being inexperienced in love and bars and then doubles when he helps the recently married couple reconcile their love for each other.

He even shows us a cool way to repurpose our leftover Valentine's day chocolate!

Though I will note the show looks like an 00s era digi-paint show, with a few off models and interesting use of CG, most people would enjoy the richness of storytelling and overall design of presentation. Regardless if the style is exactly to their taste or if they aren't too fond of alcohol.

I was impressed by how well the CG drinks blended with the show's overall illustrative aesthetic.

The show knows how to utilize its available resources best. The character models can look chunky at times. Still, the nature of the stories being told means they generally don't have to move much, and instead, the series spruces up the dialogue-driven nature of it with those theatrical touches we mentioned.

Meanwhile, the CGI is mostly used to build the bar set itself, lending it an effectively surreal ambiance and presenting the drinks themselves as attractively as possible.
Anything can be pretty with enough style. Also, I really appreciate showing off the real bottles and labels, and the end of the episode even gives drink recipes for viewers to try at home, complete with a live-action bartender making it.
The whole thing oozes class, and that's before we even touch on the low-key jazz tunes backing the bar's events in each episode. It's all enough to make you see about seeking out an establishment that might be on this level in your area. Even if you know you aren't one for drinking, they make recommendations for some non-alcoholic cocktails.

Also, even though they offer you the recipes, there are multiple drinks just in these first six episodes that Ryu mixes up, which involve setting things on fire, and those are best left to the professionals.

On the other hand, I could also see some people arguing Bartender's brand of cathartic storytelling as a bit schmaltzy. However, I appreciate the sincerity it has for people and their stories. Even extending this to other fiction, I'm a total mark for something that goes out of its way to celebrate "A Doll's House," which happened to air during the centennial anniversary of playwright Henrik Ibsen's death. In another episode, it lovingly paints a tribute to Ernest Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea, an author I could start a barfight over, but a touching sentiment, nonetheless!
The Hemingway one was one of my favorites. The show's presentation gives it plenty of breathing room to commit to the bit, yet I was still surprised at how much of that episode got to be an Old Man and the Sea audiobook. And it gets to pay off against a plotline with one of the more concrete arcs seen in the show, our humble sales rep reaching a catharsis thanks to all these fish-based allegories and frozen daiquiris.

It's also cool for giving us just the faintest hint of interiority for Ryu, showing that he can feel some regret or anxiety about his job beyond simply serving as a liquor-based therapist.
He also sincerely and cutely refers to the famous American writer as "Papa Hemmingway," as he sometimes was referred to as friends, even if he gets some of the details wrong and kinda glances over the entire SPANISH CIVIL WAR thing. But again, it's something to listen to while you're buzzed on the emotions. You can always fact-check later when you're sober.
I generally think hitting that emotional buzz is something Bartender consistently does. And a lot of it comes from that format of listening to patrons tell stories of varying levels of embellishment, which they at least feel they're being honest about. The second episode charts a whirlwind of experiences involving her family by Miwa (who gets to act as a secondary host through the rest of the show) and her rough recollection of breaking a pivotal bottle of booze.

That's a true enough tragedy on its own. But then the rest of the episode throws out failed family reconciliations and sudden parental death, but even with the stagecraft style, it never feels melodramatic. Instead, it's about arriving at a point where we, and Miwa's grandfather, can bask in those bittersweet emotions the script and style orchestrated.

The show features many scenes that could be punctuated that way.
There's a rationale towards drama that says, "of course, it would never work that way," but again, the luxury of fiction is to be able and savor that kind of moment. Alcohol is definitely an indulgence, and it can be a serious vice for some people. Hell, I lost one of my closest relatives to alcoholism. However, just because there's a potential for substance abuse doesn't mean I don't enjoy indulgences. I consider art and storytelling to be humanity's greatest form of indulgence. It's what happens when we mix lies and reality and pretend it's a fancy cocktail. Even the bar's namesake is crafted around the belief in fairies.
The show's writing, and Ryu within it, even recognize the intersections in those mixed indulgences of make-believe and reality. You can see this in the bit in the very first episode where Ryu details the mythological value of an ice sculpture of a fairy-important glass, only to end up cracking it apart when he deduces its ice is an ideal ingredient in the cocktail he's crafting to sell his customer on the magic of bars.

The story wasn't "real," but it still wound up having value as a component of the message that was overall trying to be communicated.
Without that kind of indulgent element, the story wouldn't have as much power, would it? There's nothing about Bartender that I would consider reckless. It's an extremely cozy anime to sit down with and surprisingly inviting once you're there. I understand why so many people love using this show as a way to "break the ice" for their parents or other adult friends who don't usually watch anime.
"Cozy" is the right word. This is a show to unwind with, kick back with a drink, and take in an episode before bed. This isn't to say it's not engaging; these stories have arcs and drama. But there's a difference between taking in an animated argument between two old dudes on the merits of blended whiskey and how that applies to filmmaking philosophies versus finding yourself getting roped into such a spirited discussion at a real bar with some dude who's had one Old Fashioned too many.

Sounds pretty ideal, in all honestly. But in a way, Bartender feels oddly relatable. People have been getting drunk and talking to each other as long as there's been alcohol to drink. It's a large chunk of our oral tradition. I can relate to sitting and BS-ing about things, about our problems, when I'm just trying to enjoy some company. For many, the appeal of the bar isn't just a place to drink or sit, but really, it's a place to talk. Even if you're all by yourself, you can always count on the Bartender to be there.
That makes it all appreciable that this one is finally more easily accessible via streaming. Hopefully, that results in more people discovering it or being able to recommend it to their friends and family, as you mentioned. For my part, I'll check out the remaining five episodes of this whenever I need something to chill out with. Even if that's not a ton left, an establishment like this can't stay open at all hours. Like they say: You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

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