Three sisters, Ai, Mai, and Mii, are on a seemingly unending journey in search of someone very important. Along the way, they meet all sorts of people whose lives they will touch in one way or another. However, as their travels continue, it soon becomes apparent that there is a price to pay for always coming and going.
Popotan, like so many shows of its type, draws in the viewer with a lot of cutesy hijinks and fanservice. But if you can sit through all of that, there’s a surprisingly good story being told. And there’s where my problem with this anime comes in. On the one hand, Popotan is apt to play on adolescent titilation. On the other hand, once the dramatic elements take root, the series becomes a good deal more complex and challenging.
The development of the story is hampered by the loose structure of the plot, which meanders for a while before exposing the central narrative. The most important theme, stemming from this narrative, addresses the nature of friendship. Given the transient nature of the sisters and their house, is it better to abstain from relationships, or is it better to make the best of what time you have? You don’t really see the importance of this question until Mai is forced to deal with it after the events of the second episode. When Popotan finally stops being a jeuvenile distraction and begins examining this issue in earnest, it creates some genuinely compelling moments.
Popotan, then, has a bit of a split personality. Taken at face value, it’s partly perverted, very lighthearted, and extremely fanciful. But it blossoms into an entirely different creature by the halfway mark, weaving all the disparate plot threads into an original, intriguing whole. What should have been done, though, was to let us know from the very start what the filler segments were building up to. The concept of building relationships is explored from many angles, and plays out almost like a debate at times. I haven’t seen the problem of social interaction discussed in this way since, well, Evangelion. That’s a pretty big claim, but there is enough material in Popotan to back it up… eventually.
Beyond the question of social interaction is the matter of consequence. In addition to shifting locations, the sisters jump through time as well. This keeps Popotan from being entirely episodic, as previous locations are revisited to explore the consequences of the sisters’ presence. I like the idea, and it was used well in the series, although the lessons learned don’t always warrant so much attention. The specifics about how the sisters came to be on their journey, and the somewhat aribitrary introduction of two characters (related to the journey) throw the story a little out of whack. But then again, that side of the story isn’t so important that it overshadows the dramatic aspect.
Popotan is a fine example of dramatic expression. Although the message isn’t entirely original, the delivery is honest and heartfelt. It pays attention to the complexities of its subject matter, and by doing so, Popotan rises above its hentai origins.
The three sisters (and their maid Mea) comprise the primary cast. Their personalities are pretty well established, and each contributes a different insight into the central question. You could call them archetypal, but in this case these archetypes are used purposefully. Ai is quiet, reserved, and generally stays out of society. Mii is gregarious, energetic, and likes to make friends wherever she happens to be. Mai, the middle child, is the one who struggles to find a balance. The pain of constantly having to leave her friends drives her to be more like Ai, but deep down she can’t see the point of living in such a lonely manner. It’s rare to see a story so fully realized by its characters, but Popotan delivers in that respect.
What also surprised me was how much the characters grow as the series advances. Most of the attention is given to Mai’s experiences, which leads her to struggle with the concept of forming relationships. However, Ai’s and Mii’s roles are also fleshed out, doing justice to the complex nature of the story. The supporting cast serve as catalysts for the revelations and morals that are learned, but some of the characters feel a bit too disposable.
One of the most important relationships, the Mai/Konami friendship, is used effectively to probe the social issues introduced by the plot. Mai, try as she might, is unable to find any simple answers concerning how to maintain her friendship with Konami. The writing here is particularly thoughtful and intelligent, and the story thread adds a great deal of depth to Mai’s personality.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Ai/Daichi and Mii/Nono relationships. Unlike with Mai and Konami, it isn’t as evident why Ai and Mii develop attachments to Daichi and Nono, respectively. This weakens their parts of the conclusion, but not unacceptably so. Also, I don’t really see what Mea contributes besides the stereotypical maid outfit. For the amount of screen time she gets, she should have been given more to do.
Beyond these few stumbles, though, Popotan makes good use of its characters. They help bring to the forefront the central ideas of the plot, and their interactions are meaningful. Some will resonate with viewers more than others, but in general, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The visual design is a bit bland, save for the distinctive looks of the three sisters. Mii’s disposition and design parody the magical girl archetype, but also embody it in many ways. Mai is made to look like the ordinary girl, which makes a lot of sense because she really is the most ordinary of the sisters. Aside from them, all the characters are highly uniform, with largely identical facial structures and expressions. There is also little imagination in the background artwork, given all the opportunities afforded by the changing settings. Nothing is quintessentially Japanese, just a generic hodgepodge of locales that could be anywhere.
The audio design is similarly toned down, although the voice acting is a little more proactive. Ohara Sayaka makes Ai sound a little too generic, but Asano Masumi definitely gives Mai a distinct “flavor.” Momoi Halko does a fair job with Mii, although I’m never particularly fond of the hyperactive little girl stereotype. The supporting cast is competent enough, and the offbeat performance of Kadowaki Mai as Mea deserves a special mention.