Irrational exhuberance and snap judgements regarding new (anime, game, manga) titles are a HD hallmark, but in this post we break down the initial spasm of NHK-induced glee into a more nuanced position. Is the show really a worthy successor to Haruhi’s time slot?

I’m not going to tear it apart scene by scene or screenshot by screenshot (there are others doing that as I type, no doubt), but I’d like to muse a bit on what we’re getting into here with the wacky animated hijinks of Satou and friends.

The Positive

The music. With Round Table feat. Nino on task for the OP we know we’re in for a laid-back poppy treat, but the real surprise here comes from the power duo of Ootsuki Kenji and Kitsutaka Fumihiko, who produce a delicious slice of METAL in the ED (dubbed “Odoru Aka-chan Ningen”, or “dancing baby human”) that had me putting it on repeat and headbanging along as I headed out the door for work this morning. The best metal track in anime since the Onmyouza OP of Basilisk, and a candidate for best OP/ED of the season – this is one single I’ll be hunting up for sure.

The production value. The first thought that came through my head after queueing up the episode (after “ooh, Round Table!”) was that the OP budget most likely topped that of an entire Witchblade episode (the other Gonzo show in recent memory I’ve cared enough about to track). The OP is followed by a lavish film-noire “conspiracy” sequence absent from the manga and thus totally unncessary, but awesome – a clear signal they intend to go the extra mile with the production here (though history shows such predictions can go awry). There were a few cuts in the episode that struck me as plain and/or blatantly cost-saving, but all in all one of the more solid and creatively-directed opening episodes in recent memory.

Fidelity to the original. Disclaimer: I haven’t read the novel the manga is based on, so I can only remark on the transition from manga to anime (the manga writing credit goes to the novel author, so I think this is a safe bet to make – the anime designs are also lifted from the manga and not from the Yoshitoshi ABe art featured on the novel cover).

From a design perspective, I’ve been maintaining for awhile (since the first character sketches were revealed) that they would be decent when animated, and I felt my position was vindicated after taking in this first episode. Misaki isn’t as cute as she is in Oiwa Kenji’s manga rendering, but allowances must be made for the anime conversion in every case and here I think they are acceptable. In the case of NHK I think the ability to convey emotion is more important than strict fidelity to the original designs, and thus far it seems they’ve done pretty well in this regard (a few too many pinwheel eyes from Satou, perhaps).

Based on the content of the first episode and the preview for the second episode it seems that a few things are happening here content-wise that cause the show to differ from the manga, but they largely seem acceptable. First off is an absence of the racier elements of the manga (drugs, visible drawn lolikon and references to it) that could possibly attract unwanted media attention; faced with a choice between this kind of self-censorship and the looming spectre of government-imposed thought crime prosecution I prefer the former.

The plot is also seeing evidence from the start at an attempt to tie the whole thing together in a coherent unit, which depending on how it’s done will no doubt meet with varying mileage as the series progresses. The first episode holds off on the introduction of Yamazaki (other than in flashbacks and his loud music), but we do get glimpses that reference the rest of the cast who don’t show up in the manga until several chapters later (Kashiwa-senpai, Iinchou). Seeing as the manga has been spiralling out of any semblance of plot control lately (now resembling something akin to a hikikomori Six Degrees of Separation), this imposition of an arbitrary framework in the anime may turn out to be a good thing. We know they’ll have to end the story somehow.

The Negative

Satou’s voice. As Haruhi showed to good effect, a protagonist given to rambling monologues lives or dies based on the way his lines are casted and delivered. To misquote an American politician: “I knew Kyon. Kyon was a friend of mine. Satou, you’re no Kyon.” Gone is the cool, suicidally, self-deprecatingly hip Satou of the manga, to be replaced by a melodramatic caricature – a bit strongly phrased perhaps, but this is one performance that is all about the nuance, and as it’s currently being acted he sounds over the top to me. Not way over, but just enough that it’s a distraction. I’m guessing that ensuing episodes will either bring refinement in this respect or numbness to it on my part, but it was the one glaring fault I found in the show’s initial presentation. I’d be interested in hearing other perspectives on this; it certainly seems like a difficult role to act.

The GONZO factor. If NHK were being animated by just about any other well-regarded production studio these days we could rest easy knowing that the first episode would be a benchmark for the relative quality of the rest of the series. Some slippage is inevitable mid-run, but I know I’m not the only one made uneasy by fact that Gonzo is at the helm here (despite having shown on several occasions that they can produce material of consistent quality if they put their mind – and money – to it).

One of the misgivings voiced by author Takimoto Tatsuhiro prior at the announcement of the title’s animefication was that “nothing really happens” in the story; it’s mostly a bunch of conversations, flashbacks and monologues interspersed by abortive ventures “outside”, with occasional masturbation and suicide attempts for flavor; in this first episode it seems that Gonzo is (for better or for worse) taking the road less travelled and injecting original motion and color content in a calculated gamble as part of the anime conversion. Thus far I’d say they’re succeeding (Pururin!), but a cut to the budget could leave later episodes sorely lacking.

The Haruhi Connection

I’m probably making more out of the fact that NHK is following Haruhi in broadcast continuity than is really merited, but when I squint it seems like the two shows line up, after a fashion. To wit: as I read them, both shows are built around a shared conception of the malaise of modern youth culture. Haruhi is an escapist success story, NHK is a satire of failure, but their male protagonists show twin sides of the same coin: a regular joe trapped in a society to which he is irrelevant. In Haruhi, Kyon has relevance thrust upon him (despite his will to the contrary), while in NHK, relevance eludes Satou the harder he pursues it.

I may be straining excessively to map two very different shows onto an artificial continuum here, but doing so gets at a point I think is illuminating: in modern Japan, culture creators and hikikomori are often cut out of the same cloth. I’ve come hard up against this issue myself as I try to push forward with plans for an uncertain future, and it’s easy to lapse into virtual hikikomorihood sans a Haruhi to act as a catalyst.

The characters of Haruhi and Misaki pose an interesting dichotomy as well, starting their respective narratives by forming pacts with the male protagonists to engage in ambitious projects (the SOS-dan on the one hand and Misaki’s “Hikikomori Escape Route” on the other). Haruhi’s strength is her egotistical, single-minded confidence in her worldview and unwillingness (or inability) to interface completely with the status quo of the world around her; Misaki’s weakness is precisely the opposite, in that she cares too much for the status quo while painting illusions of her own status as heroine within it. Misaki plays a heroine, while Haruhi is one.

That’s about all the analytical juice I have left in me today; those interested in comparing the first chapters of the manga to their anime counterpart might do well to hunt up the Jinmen Juushin scanslation of the first volume (translation of chapters 1-3 by yours truly). If you’re willing to wait a bit longer, the manga has been licensed by Tokyopop (thanks to MVB for the heads up on this); how they’ll treat the lolikon and other cultural references is anyone’s guess, but an official release is always (well, almost always) a Good Thing.