R2 DVD Reviews
Friday, 11 September 2009 00:00
Proving that I never learn from my mistakes, here's another GAINAX series for your approval - and like a certain other GAINAX show I revisted recently, it's surprised me by changing my opinion of the series ending. Maybe there's hope for these guys yet...
Introducing Sasshi and Arumi, residents of the Abeno district of Osaka - although not for long. Sasshi's just returned from holiday to find his old house has been demolished, taking with it his valued collection of baseball cards and other oddities. Arumi's family, meanwhile, is planning on moving to Hokkaido - and so the two young friends are facing life without each other. When Arumi's grandpa falls from the roof of his shop in an accident, though, it kicks off a strange string of events, as Sasshi and Arumi find their world is no longer quite the one they remembered...
It's been a good few years since Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi first hit the UK - we're doing it now as the box-set release has finally landed on shelves - but it was a little low-key for a GAINAX series, so you may have missed it. The story revolves around young boy Sasshi and his childhood friend Arumi, who find themselves travelling between alternate worlds after an unfortunate incident with Arumi's grandfather. Each world features people they know from their everyday lives, only in unusual roles, and is heavily influenced by some form of pop culture. The opening disc in the set gives us role-playing, science-fiction and martial arts, and if you've got any interest in the genres covered, you'll probably spot quite a few references to other well-known works in the stories.
If you can get those references, then Abenobashi will have a lot of appeal - if you don't get them, though, then the series falls into a trap that a lot of other parody shows also fall into: simply going right over the head of the audience, as if you don't understand what each episode is poking fun at, there's not much other fun to be had from watching. For me, I got good mileage out of the RPG and SF episodes, as they play to my interests - but badly-dubbed Hong Kong martial arts movies were never my thing, and so that episode kinda passed me by. An effort has been made by ADV to address that failing - you can watch each episode with "Vid Notes" enabled, which gives you a steady string of pop-ups that explain each reference as it's made, but the notes are a visual distraction in their own right - so do you want to be distracted by not being able to understand what's going on, or by not being able to see all of what's going on? Not much of a choice.
Not that all this is necessarily bad. The show's humour is frenetic and highly-visual - you have to pay attention to get the most out of it - and where the pokes at other movies and shows are spotted, they are good. The early episodes keep things quite simple, too, which help improve the appeal - something that's lost a little in the later episodes. Humour is very subjective, though, and more than any other type of show can really only be recommended on the basis of "if you like that sort of thing".
As the series goes on, it develops a serious streak (or tries to, anyway) that first exhibits itself in episode 7, which doesn't feature the dynamic duo at all. Instead, we're back to the "real" world, and to a little run up and down the timeline to look at Masayuki and his connection to Mune and Eutus. Eutus is the show's other dimension-traveller, and can usually be found getting Arumi and Sasshi out of trouble somewhere along the line. A far more serious element is being added to the story here, and I'm not sure I like it.
GAINAX, you see, have this awful tendency to start shows in fun, mindless ways, before losing their way halfway through and deciding that there needs to be a point, something meaningful to give the show a reason for being. They did it with Evangelion, where the late-season diversion into the Human Instrumentality Project ruined - for me - what had been a perfectly fun and shallow giant robot show. ::wait to be struck by lightning for heresy:: They also did it with His and Her Circumstances, although was more a case of just losing interest halfway through and not bothering anymore. So now we have Abenobashi, and a gear-grinding change of focus from inter-dimensional mayhem to a more thoughful history lesson that, while interesting as far as it goes, isn't what I was watching the series for, and I felt ever so slightly cheated.
That serious aspect never quite goes away, either. While the parody aspect of the show is still here (and accounts for the best scenes), it's greatly cut back in favour of trying to explain more about the parallel worlds that the gang have been travelling though, and how Eutus and Sasshi can control and build them to suit their whims. In Eutus' case, it's deliberate - in Sasshi's, it's a natural talent that's just responding to his subconscious wishes, at least to start with. Once he becomes aware of what he can do, though, he's got free reign to experiment - an in doing so, the spectre of the curse of GAINAX rears its head, threatening to ruin another series by trying to add depth and drama to a show that was managing perfectly well without it.
That said, Sasshi's experimenting does give us Arumi in magical girl mode - much to her disgust - so it's not all bad. The workings of his mind also bring him to datesim world, where he's surrounded by beautiful high school girls. Put those two episodes together, and you get a passage of story which in some ways deals out the fanservice even better than the rest of the series - almost as though someone was trying to keep the audience sweet. Hmmm.
All of which brings us to the final episodes of the series, and the realisation that my mind had clearly been playing tricks with me. I remembered the end of the series as being full of navel-gazing and generally unfunny stuff, but this time around found an ending that worked surprisingly well. Sasshi's 'Onmyou Mystic' business is pushed into the background a little - a little twist in the story that always seemed a little off to me. While it's not possible to simply brush it under the carpet and forget it ever happened, it's only in the final scenes of the final episode that Sasshi's Onmyou powers come back into play, and even then only for a moment. It was the Onmyou business that was the aspect of the series where it started to go wrong for me, so this for me was probably the best way to get things back on track.
But what we really wanted to see was how the real issue - Sasshi's reluctance to go home - was handled, and I have to say it's done really well, even allowing for the short use of Sasshi's Onmyou abilities (which turns out to be a bit of a deus ex machina moment). Yes, in some ways the ending is pulled out of the air, but this is a comedy and not something you're going to get too picky with. The point is that it manages to be touching and in some ways quite emotional, as Sasshi figures out little bits of his family's history that are affecting their situation, without spoiling the comic side of the show. It's quite impressive - and very different from how I remember the ending the first time around. Go figure.
The end result is actually quite enjoying. A lot of the fun to be had from Abenobashi comes from being able to pick up what they're poking fun at, and with this volume parodying more Western subject-matter it's fairly easy to do this time around. Add in an ending that fits the setting and characters, even if it doesn't quite make perfect sense. Light, fluffy, and fun.
For full episode summaries and screenshots, check out our reviews of the individual releases:
» Volume 1
» Volume 2
» Volume 3
» Volume 4