Ichigo Mashimaro takes a look at the lives of Nobue, a college student, her younger sister Chika, and their friends Matsuri, Miu, and Ana. Their days are completely ordinary, yet Nobue always manages to find a certain kind of charm as her young friends deal with growing up and other real world challenges.
Like I said in the news post, Ichigo Mashimaro shares many stylistic features with Azumanga Daioh. The plot is very freely formed, with no central narrative or primary story thread. It also takes mundane situations and turns them into focal points of humor. Unlike Azumanga Daioh, Ichigo Mashimaro for the most part stays out of the classroom, and is far more rooted in reality. This hesitance to stray into the outlandish and nonsensical is more of a burden than a blessing, though.
Let’s begin with the good points, of which this show has plenty. The relationships between the central characters are solidly built up as the episodes progress, and provide a good foundation for the various stories that are told. The clash in sensibilities between the older, level-headed Nobue and her pre-teen entourage is the source of some pretty effective humor, and is charming if nothing else. Also, this affords the series many opportunities to provide insights into the insecurities and worries that children go through. For a show that looks so cartoonish, there are a startling amount of lessons and values which are masked by allegory and humor.
However, the show refuses to go into any kind of depth with these concepts, be it comedic or dramatic. Call it a lack of directorial ambition or what have you, but the series rarely goes into anything more than a passing exploration of its central themes. You get a sense that the show progresses, but nothing really changes. Its seasonal motifs really bring this out – they move along in a repeating cycle, but you never really feel that anything is accomplished by the end of the last episode.
An anime can get along without heavy-handed philosophical undertones, convoluted plot structures, or abundant drama – indeed, I’m not saying Ichigo Mashimaro needs any of that at all. But it should at least have something of substance once you peel away the layers of its audio-visual presentation and its immediate story. I’d love to say that Ichigo Mashimaro carries the same kind of hidden lunacy and astuteness of Azumanga Daioh, because then I could really add it to another top ten list. The material is set up, the story is ready, but something got lost in the production process. That extra bit of profoundness, the bit that would have really made this anime special, just isn’t there.
The cast of characters is exclusively female, but most of the situations they get into are not gender specific. Ichigo Mashimaro really excels at characterization, and does a particularly fine job with Miu, Chika, and Nobue. Miu and Chika make a good comedic duo, with Miu playing the impulsive, michievous part and Chika playing the “straight man,” so to speak. Nobue is somewhat of an outsider, although she is far from being objective. She plays the older sister role for all four girls, and is a mediator between their interactions. Naturally, her own bias causes some jealousy in Miu, who is constantly vying for Nobue’s attention. This conflict was particularly well done, and generates some compassion for Miu despite her troublesome personality.
From Ana’s inept attempts to be more English to Matsuri’s comical ineptness at everything, the cast is colorful, lively, and very sympathetic. The extraordinary thing is that even for an older audience, the meaning of their interactions is not lost. Nobue is used effectively as a way for older audience members to identify with the show. The four girls, though well characterized, don’t develop as much as they should. Like the rest of the story, the characters don’t change in any meaningful way despite the fact that they are entering a difficult, transitional period of their lives. Again, this constancy undermines the impact of the series. What’s the point of working in all the life lessons if none of the girls are really affected by them? If this is a didactic show for the audience, then the superficial way in which these lessons are treated isn’t conducive to the teaching aspect.
Doumu, the production studio, did a pretty good job with the technical side of things. The character designs are distinctive and simplistic, making the cast easily recognizable (no problems keeping track of who’s who either). The number of settings is sparse, with much of the action taking place in Chika’s room. The backgrounds are there to get you situated, but in and of themselves lack any real importance. The audio production is much the same way – it’s just kind of there. The opening sequence is one of the better ones I’ve seen, and does a pretty good job of implanting itself into your head. I do have to give props to the acting talent. They put lots of effort into bringing the characters to life, and it shows.