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It's Magic!al...

January 30th, 2009 (07:38 pm)
current song: Treat or Goblins, of course

Okay, I'll admit it: I've been watching anime again.

It's not totally a guilty pleasure: there is some extremely good stuff out there, like Satoshi Kon and Grave of the Fireflies, if you look for it. And I haven't been too haphazard about selections; I've done my research and managed to find some of that extremely good stuff. But I know some of you are skeptical and think anime is just, well, kids' cartoons. So I'm here to tell you: you're wrong.

Abenobashi Magical Shopping Arcade

The anime in question is Abenobashi Magical Shopping Arcade (or Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, or Abenobashi Mahō Shōtengai, or アベノ橋魔法☆商店街, depending on your frame of mind and source material). It's fairly straightforward on the surface: the two main characters, Sasshi and Arumi, are 12-year old working-class kids, schoolmates and best friends, who live in the Abenobashi Shopping Arcade in Osaka. They've been friends for what seems like forever, but it's not clear how much longer that is going to last: the 50-year old shopping center, located in a depressed part of town, is scheduled to be knocked down and the area redeveloped. On top of that, Arumi's family, proprietors of the arcade's French restaurant Grill Pelican, has decided to take advantage of a stellar opportunity at a resort town at the northern end of Hokkaido – which, for a 12-year old, might as well be at the end of the earth. Arumi remains positive about the whole situation, reasoning that "bein' human, havin' your health, that's the most important thing"; but Sasshi is very unhappy about the future looming ahead.

And that's when things get very, very strange.

An accident propels the twosome into an alternate universe which is still Abenobashi, populated by people they know from the arcade but somehow transformed into a strange dungeons and dragons role-playing video game - wizards, magical talismans, flying dragons, game status messages, tacky musical triggers, and all. They try to figure out where they are and how to get home, and think they have when they win the game – only to end up in another bizarre alternate arcade. And this happens over and over. Rinse and repeat.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Abenobashi Magical Shopping Arcade is a pretty wacky anime, but with good reason: it's actually a spoof (and an award-winning spoof, at that) of a lot of things, such as anime cliches, Hollywood films, fairy tales, Japanese society - more than I can list here. It was originally a 13-part television series in which each week is a trip to a different Abenobashi: a video game, a mecha-filled space station, a martial arts town, a fairy tale, film noir, Hollywood, and SimWorld (quite literally) are a few of the locales. But this isn't overkill; things are kept moving at a frenetic pace without overloading all circuits. And any anime that can pack references to The Shining, Robocop, Die Hard, Duel, Knight Rider, Indiana Jones, The Matrix, Twister, Jaws Titanic, Air Force One, Back to the Future, 2001, and several other things I can't even place into a ten-minute segment without missing a single beat has not only my attention but my admiration.

This anime is also a good mix of the things I've come to like in Asian film. First, a number of storylines are very smoothly integrated: the surface-level search for home acts as cover for several other more serious subplots. Who is the mysterious Eustus? Why is Mune-Mune always barely dressed and getting in the way? How do the other characters that pop up (some literally) fit in? What are the real reasons why the kids can't get back home? This is all touched by a hint of fate, with some observations on childhood and growing up.

Second is the great attention to detail. All the artwork is not only well done, but also varies from episode to episode, customized to the particular world and what's going on in it. Some of the characterizations are surprisingly realistic, to boot. Sasshi belches, picks his nose, and farts – which disgusts other characters, but you know what? He's a 12-year old boy. 12-year old boys do that. Arumi is more mature and more willing to face facts – and she's not above slapping Sasshi upside the head when she thinks he needs it. (Which is pretty often.) Sounds pretty typical for a 12-year old girl.

Next, the dubbing – and I'm glad that I listened to the dub for once, I don't usually – is probably the best I've heard. The Osaka stereotype in Japanese society is apparently similar to the Texas stereotype in the US (the "country bumpkin" effect), so the Osakans rattle off homespun wisdom and speak in southern accents, while Sasshi dons a cowboy-ish hat and bluegrass wanders through the incidental music. (Okay, bluegrass isn't specifically Texan, but this is a Japanese interpretation of Texas.)

Additionally, there are plenty of references to Japanese culture and scientific history, but they're well-explained in the context of the story. (I now even know what "Abenobashi" means.) And above all, all the elements that make up the anime are well-blended; most everything has an ultimate purpose, and specific items are revealed just at the right time (although the ending is a *little* abrupt). The bits and pieces of information in each episode accumulate to explain at the end just what the heck has been going on. It's actually an ingeniously done story.

Just don't mistake it for a kids' cartoon, because it's not (and actually some parts would preclude the kiddies). Although the main characters are 12 years old, there's much more complexity than you're going to find in a kids' tale.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So I'll forgive the placement of New York City in southern New Jersey or a couple of negative hints about the nature of independence. And I didn't even get to discuss the intro theme, "Treat or Goblins," a head-bopping soft rap that breaks out into Engrish halfway through. Or the anime cliches. Or a number of other points - I've started rewatching, and I'm continually finding new things tucked away in the episodes.

Sometimes you find fresh and funny things in the strangest places. Abenobashi Magical Shopping Arcade fits the bill; the kind of thing that you know was great fun to put together. Time to go back to the anime sources and see what other extremely good stuff I can find.