Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi tells the twisted, fantastic story of two friends, Sasshi and Arumi, who find themselves jumping between alternate realities. Triggered for unknown reasons, their journey takes them to various zany fantasy worlds that are suspiciously tailored to Sasshi’s nerdy hobbies. All Arumi wants to do, though, is to get back to the real world.
Abenobashi is a lot harder to write about than I initially thought, mostly because there’s just so much and yet so little material to cover. The series is wrought with contradictions like that. At its heart, I suspect it really wants to be the zaniest, sleaziest comedy ever to be animated. But then again, there’s something strangely childlike about its various scenarios – even when dealing with such decidedly un-childlike topics as incestuous lust. This setup is interesting in both form and function, allowing as many visual gags as it does insights into Sasshi’s mentality.
Essentially, that’s what it’s all about: Sasshi’s mentality. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the various fantasy worlds are suited to Sasshi’s fantasies. Well Sasshi’s fantasies reflect the transition into teen-age, which of course means the onset of hormonal urges. The results are typified in the third episode; we see a jeuvenile sci-fi mecha world policed by busty women who don’t wear panties. The gag may get old by the last episode, but it’s so true to Sasshi’s character. Honestly, how should a critic react to something like that?
I guess, I’ll start where I usually start: what works, and what doesn’t. There’s no denying that I have a special place in my heart reserved for parody and satire, both of which Abenobashi has plenty. With few exceptions, each episode parodies some genre of cinematic, televised, or animated entertainment. We see an RPG universe, the aforementioned mecha universe, a war movie parody, a film noir universe, and many more. The genre cliches attached to each such universe are overblown, and all the characters are set a bit askew to fit in. I like the effort the series makes to point out all the stupid conventions of such genres because that’s what gives them their charm in the first place. But the barrage doesn’t let up, and the parody element actually becomes rather formulaic.
The other plot thread running alongside the parallel universe one is Sasshi’s moral dilemma, which (I won’t spoil it here) plays an integral part in Sasshi’s attitude toward his fantasy worlds. Ordinarily, a comedy/drama wouldn’t be the most dangerous of genre combinations. But Abenobashi is filled with so much chintz and lunacy that the concept of inserting a genuinely dramatic storyline is absurd. It’s like trying to make a gentleman out of Mike Tyson by having him wear an Armani suit. It’s a nice suit, but he still has a facial tatoo, he’ll still kick you down a flight of stairs if you annoy him, and he can still cave your chest in with one punch. Drama in an ordinary comedy can have a purpose, but in Abenobashi? It’s tomfoolery.
Accepting, for the moment, that the substance of the show isn’t where it should be, something can yet be said about its style. Under Yamaga Hiroyuki’s direction, the show is gleefully puerile and naughty. The visuals and animation style change from episode to episode, best suiting the genre which is being lampooned. Sometimes, this change in style mirrors a change in personality for the characters, although a lot of the time, it seems like it’s just for kicks. But at least there’s something in the presentation of the series that makes it distinct. The ideas are eclectic, the dialogue can give the Tarantino treadmill a run for its money, and most importantly, the production simply feels spirited. Sometimes, when you’re wondering why on earth you’re putting up with the onscreen insanity, that spirit is just enough to keep the series afloat.
I can’t say I don’t like Abenobashi, but I can’t wholeheartedly say it’s good either. The show would have done good things with its material had the director been a little less self-indulgent, and a little more attentive to telling the story. I like the premise of the emotional conflict, but where I expected a leap into more in-depth storytelling, all I got was a return to the show’s already established patterns. When Yamaga does make an effort to tell his story, it comes out like a conceit, begrudgingly churning out exposition only to get it out of the way. This leads to a narrative that is often lacking on connecting logic, flowing as smoothly as a whitewater rapid. That’s the most frustrating thing about Abenobashi. It could have been so good, a classic even, had the writers just left their intemperance at the door. And that’s one letdown that I absolutely can’t live with.
Due to certain plot points, Abenobashi keeps a constant cast, without making use of guest characters. I like this decision, which is so appropriate for Sasshi and Arumi’s limited world. Most of the supporting characters, such as Sasshi’s parents and Arumi’s grandfather, are simply there to play whatever role the fantasy worlds call for. The frequent shifts in characterization do a lot for the humor, and often lead to pretty outrageous situations.
The focus, though, is usually on Sasshi and Arumi. Their friendship is not actually a driving force behind the story. Rather, it’s the conflict between Sasshi’s relatively immature desire to act out his fantasies and Arumi’s more pragmatic desire to get home that motivates their actions. I have to say, this is the better avenue, if the alternative is another series about the bonds of friendship. That’s because the friction between the two is handled smartly. Instead of merely driving the two characters apart, they each try to understand the other’s needs, allowing us to learn more about them in the process.
What we learn is that Sasshi and Arumi are both trying to cope with their various apprehensions about the real world. Arumi has accepted that her life will be changing (her family has decided to move to Hokkaido) whereas Sasshi is resistant to that idea. In a way, it’s another facet of Sasshi’s basic immaturity, as he expects life to go on as it always has. The situation is exacerbated as we learn more about their “companions” Mune-mune and Eutus, who play key roles in the journey.
I kind of knew ahead of time what Eutus would end up being, but Mune-mune’s development seems way too arbitrary. Abenobashi likes to pull critical revelations out of nowhere, and Mune-mune is no exception. Without revealing too many details, I’ll just say that her characterization jumps around way too much in the last episode. But when she’s not serving story functions, Mune-mune is more or less just the head and limbs attached to her overemphasized bust.
I do like the way Abenobashi uses its characters, but I’m not entirely satisfied with the way they develop. As Sasshi’s motivation changes around the halfway mark, I expected an ending that would resolve his maturity issues in a meaningful way. Instead, we get a hand-waving conclusion that sort of negates everything that built up to it. As you can probably tell by now, the conclusion nullifies a lot of the good stuff that the series does regarding its story and cast. Still, there’s probably enough vitality and appeal to the characters to make at least the early episodes worthwhile.
As can be expected of post-Evangelion Gainax work, the production values for Abenobashi are above average. Some episodes sport a noticeable drop in animation quality, but the disorderly visuals tend to hide that fact. As I mentioned before, the animation style shifts around, depending on what kind of fantasy universe Sasshi and Arumi are in. I really don’t think the parody/satire angle would have worked otherwise. Many parody shows do this too, actually, but Abenobashi is a lot more meticulous about it.
Several other Gainax cornerstones show up, most notably the exaggerated camera angles and facial expressions. I love the expressiveness of the characters, especially when it’s shown to enhance the absurdity (of which there are ample amounts). Unfortunately, there are also copious amounts of fanservice – something Gainax has been addicted to since 2001’s Mahoromatic, I believe.
The audio production is diverse, though I found the use of Vaudeville-style background tracks to be particularly interesting. Aside from having a refreshing sound, it also invokes a sense of nostalgia, which is central to understanding several characters, including Sasshi’s and Arumi’s grandfathers. If you listen for it, you can detect the piano and string arrangements of Sagisu Shiro, who left his distinct mark on such high profile works as Evangelion and Bleach. When it comes to moody music, Sagisu is high in the ranks, but he’s also pretty capable when a mishmash of genres is called for.
Abenobashi‘s voice talent is suitably impressive, making extensive use of the kansai dialect to differentiate itself from other productions. Then again, it’s not really that hard to screw up when you’re mostly required to scream and generally act looney. Matsuoka Yuki, whose most notable roles include Osaka from Azumanga Daioh, turns in a nicely textured performance as Arumi. She is alternately bitchy and sensible, along with some well-timed doses of vulnerability. Saeki Tomo, who plays Sasshi, is not as rich. In the second half of the series, she’s pretty much just on one long temper tantrum. It’s another one of those things that the story calls for, but doesn’t sit right in practice.