Anime Review

Tales of a Street Corner: Osamu Tezuka’s wish for more art

There’s a strange beauty to cityscapes that we often ignore. From the residential alleyways where foot traffic is foreign, to the abandoned buildings that once teemed with life and industry — we often overlook the hidden histories of these spaces. Something as simple as a street corner rarely checks in your mind. An animated work like Tales of a Street Corner reminds us to consider these spaces for their everyday nuances and beauty, and only the legend Osamu Tezuka and his animation company could have brought this reminder. 

The film depicts the goings-on of living and non-living residents of a single street corner. A little girl longing for her lost bear, a curious mouse, a hoodlum moth, and posters lining a wall are just some of the denizens whose lives we get insight into, accompanied by lively music and bright colors. The film eventually reveals its thematic heft as fascist propaganda posters are added, taking up the entire street corner wall. Tales ends itself off with the implied war catching up with the street corner as it is obliterated by a bomb blast. All that remains is the little girl walking amongst the ruins, now reunited with her lost bear.

Released in 1962 and animated by Mushi Production, it was the first of two theatrical shorts the company produced. Though Tezuka worked in animation before at Toei Doga and saw his work Journey to the West brought to life, he did not like the experience, citing that the final product did not live up to his expectations. Coupled with underpaid animators looking for an alternate place of work, Tezuka opened Mushi Productions on the grounds of his manga studio, hiring animators from Toei Doga to work on experimental animations. 

Tales certainly has the feel of a first animated short from a fresh studio, but that is in no way a bad thing. The movements of characters is limited with brief spurs of fluid animation, chiefly in the mice, moth, and balloon salesman characters. It is a work that sells you on atmosphere and charm, though that can work against it at times. The poster segments do go on a bit too long, with quick gags set to a repetitive leitmotif that sounds like a broken calliope after too long. 

Some of this cheapness can be attributed to the production philosophy of the studio when it first started. Helen McCarthy wrote in The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga that the studio was learning from Hannah-Barbera making The Flintstones at the time on how to produce cheaper animation. “Tezuka knew that for Japanese animation to succeed on TV, it would have to compete with other programming on price,” she wrote on the studio’s approach to Astro Boy, produced after the release of Tales. “He offered to produce Astro Boy at 500,000 yen per episode, making it a loss leader for an entire new industry.” While this would lead to revolution in how animation would be produced for Japanese television, this was somewhat at odds with the artful and slow approach of the short film.

The short is nothing if not artful though, itself being rooted in animation techniques Tezuka and his team borrowed from movements across the world. Its simplistic use of geometric shapes to convey human form brings to mind many European cartoons from the time period, but the DNA of the short can also be found in UPA cartoons by John Hubley. Simple colors and geometric design help breathe life into the short, and thanks to director Eiichi Yamamoto and the animation crew, the limited movements of the characters carry just enough of the film’s appeal.

Sadness is also at the center of Tales underneath all the whimsy. Small moments such as the swaying tree whose seeds find no earth to take root in and the sagging of its leaves help humanize the subject in the film. The little girl losing her balloon and the musician posters getting separated by the fascist propaganda remind us of how quickly the status quo can change in such small spaces. It’s this balance between wonder and melancholy that drives the film forward.

But what stuck this short film in my brain was its final ten minutes, for it is when Tales of a Street Corner becomes an anti-war piece. The propaganda posters become too numerous as they cover all other posters, commanding even respect from the moth that flits about the street. The lights and sounds of nearby bombs drive the little girl and her family away as a literal fog of war rolls in. It comes to a crescendo as a bomb falls and decimates the street corner, obliterating the child’s house and scuttling the other residents. 

When the dust settles the stuffed bear is found amongst the rubble, reclaimed by the little girl who remains safe and walks away from the destruction. One last glimpse of hope however resides in the seeds of the tree finally resting in the blasted earth and sprouting. Tezuka retained anti-war sentiments for most his life and Tales epitomizes this sentiment with a somber yet hopeful end. 

Tales of a Street Corner often gets overlooked in the oeuvre of Osamu Tezuka due to it being produced right at the beginning of Mushi Production as it was screened only to a small group of people. The company’s more famous work Astro Boy would debut right on New Year’s Day of the next year, beginning a saga of animation work for Mushi that would reshape the landscape of TV and film. Works such as Kimba the White Lion, Cleopatra, and Ashita no Joe are only a handful of classics to come out after; and since it is the season it pleases me to remind readers that Mushi Production also worked on the classic Rankin/Bass special Frosty the Snowman as a commission. 

Tales deserves to be remembered and respected like all the rest of Tezuka’s works. It represents the artistry that he wanted to grasp onto as he left Toei, along with his hopes for the future of the burgeoning studio. Though it might come up short in some of its ambitions, it is a fascinating glimpse into where Japanese animation was at the time and what promise Mushi Production held. It is an admirable look into the artistic ethos that Tezuka and his animators wanted to bring to the world, and what beauty they would bring to the public right around the corner.

The forecast is cloudy with a chance of nymphomania in Weather Report Girl

Making a living in the entertainment industry is brutal. Most of us start out accepting any gig that comes our way, regardless of what it is. As a result, every freelancer has a few weird blips on their resume. This is true for me, and it’s true for anime director Kunihiko Yuyama. Two years before being crowned the King of Pokémon in 1997, he wrote and directed a 2-episode OVA based on Tetsu Adachi’s erotic manga Weather Report Girl.

Keiko Nakadai will do anything to get ahead in her TV career. After triggering a 15% viewer rating increase by flashing her panties on-air, she becomes the new full-time weather reporter at ATV, replacing Michiko Kawai. Naturally, Michiko is displeased with this development. She attempts to get revenge but fails miserably and somehow becomes Keiko’s sex slave.

It’s a pretty funny set up for a slightly above-average fetish-driven smutfest. What’s more interesting, however, is its pedigree. Yuyama isn’t the only Pokémon alum to feature in a prominent creative role. The Director of Photography, Art Director, Sound Director, and Animation Producer all worked on the first season of Pokémon. Even more hilarious is that Keiko’s voice actor, Rica Matsumoto, plays Satoshi (Ash in the English version) to this day. So if you’ve ever wondered what he sounds like at the point of orgasm, look no further than Weather Report Girl.

It’s also notable for being the second title Right Stuf Anime released under their adult content label, Critical Mass.

Part of me is hesitant to categorize this as hentai, despite its numerous graphic sex scenes. I normally associate the genre with low effort scripting and an even lower animation budget. This could not be further from the truth with Weather Report Girl. Not every joke hits — and some scenarios wouldn’t make it beyond the writer’s room today, like when Michiko hires a group of street thugs to rape Keiko — but Yuyama still tells an overall funny and compelling story.

The climax of the first episode is a perfect example of his directing capabilities. Set during a violent thunderstorm, the sequence features Keiko jilling off intercut with Michiko on live television, giving the weather forecast while struggling not to shit herself. What could have been a run-of-the-mill joke scene you’d find in a Harold & Kumar movie, instead plays as a dramatic montage that’s is both chilling and erotic.

Weather Report Girl also brings the pain with its soundtrack. Composer Nobuhiko Kashiwara, who also arranged the theme song to Mobile Fighter G Gundam, doesn’t fuck around. Adult content is usually minimalistic with its soundscape, opting for unobtrusive pieces or no music at all. Kahiwara takes the opposite approach and scores each episode with infectious pop melodies and screaming electric guitar and synthesizer solos.

Yuyama and his team didn’t have to go this hard, but they did. They did it for us.

For a show that features a woman aggressively revenge-masturbating, it made me feel oddly nostalgic. Watching Weather Report Girl reminded me of a simpler time when anime was still a journey of discovery. A time where I could spend a summer afternoon bathing in a sea of unfamiliar titles looking for something new to watch. An experience that echoes how Michiko must feel as she explores the world of eating Keiko’s ass.

The only thing I knew about Weather Report Girl before watching it was the title. This OVA is a relic from the early days of my fandom, where I downloaded everything and watched nothing. The files traveled with me from hard drive to hard drive for so long that I don’t remember when or why I acquired them.

I’ve been meaning to get back to my roots of reviewing obscure OVAs from the 80s and 90s, so I decided that this was a good place to start. So last night, I booted my Plex Media Server, poured a glass of red wine, and crawled into bed to watch what I assumed would be a quiet story about a woman working towards her goal of being the best weather reporter in Japan.

Imagine the joy I felt after the opening sequence when they cut to an extreme closeup of a woman fucking herself in the bathroom with a pocket vibrator. Is that a…? No way! I laughed so loud that I woke up my neighbor.

Weather Report Girl is a shockingly accurate portrayal of what it’s like working in the entertainment industry. Every day is a fight to get ahead and impress people who consider you expendable. If you manage to survive the day, you drag your exhausted body back home to celebrate by binge drinking and having kinky sex.

You could argue that my enjoyment can mostly be attributed to surprise, but that’s what I miss in anime. I’m not surprised anymore. Everyone plays it safe, and most shows feel the same. This is why I fell in love with Pokémon as a kid. I had never seen anything like it before. Even though it was a kid’s show, they weren’t afraid to takes risks. I haven’t kept up with Pokémon since the Orange League, but I hope Yuymama and his team haven’t lost their edge after all these years.

I’m sorry Santa, but I didn’t like Ping Pong the Animation

I don’t know why I keep participating in Anime Secret Santa. I adore the idea of critics secretly recommending titles to each other, but I’m a chronic procrastinator that always waits until the last minute to watch my show. The self-imposed stress I feel from rushing to make the Christmas Eve deadline each year inevitably results in me not enjoying what I was recommended to its full potential.

It happened last year with Kunihiko Ikuhara’s self-discovery butthole adventure Sarazanmai, and it happened again this year with Masaaki Yuasa’s frenetic sports fever dream Ping Pong the Animation.

Ping Pong is based on a 5-volume manga from the 90s by Taiyō Matsumoto, who is probably best known for Tekkonkinkreet. It was produced by Tatsunoko Productions for the spring 2014 season as part of Fuji TV’s Noitanima block. It’s a coming-of-age story that follows Peco and Smile, the two best ping pong players on their high school team. As such, they are beset with constant pressure to train even harder. This encouragement, while well-meaning, has the opposite effect as their interest in the sport regularly yo-yos between wanting to be the best in the world to never wanting to play again.

The pressure Peco and Smile feel is not unlike the pressure I felt to complete the series.

By all accounts, Ping Pong is a good anime. It’s a unique story with an even more unique animation style. It’s the desperately needed liferaft that promised to save me from drowning in a sea of pink-haired waifu maids. A true maverick. And people noticed when it came out because it made a lot of critic’s best anime of the decade list. Despite everything it has going for it, I still struggled to keep my eyes on the screen.

What it ultimately comes down to is that I don’t drink enough craft beer to appreciate Yuasa’s unorthodox directing style. Using a fisheye lens on character designs that are already so fluid they sometimes look like different people from shot-to-shot is a bold move. I respect it, but it made it difficult to focus. His tetragram-esque picture-in-picture editing was cool the first time, but it became distracting by the end because it made me think of Jack Bauer from 24.

There’s also a less cynical reason for why I didn’t enjoy this critically-acclaimed anime — the way I watched it.

I’ve always found it difficult to enjoy anime that I didn’t want to watch. If I had decided to watch Ping Pong on my own, maybe my attitude going in would have been more positive. However, since I was watching it for Anime Secret Santa, it felt like a job. It probably didn’t help that I watched it in two sessions either.

This is not a show you should marathon. The story may seem simple on the surface, but if your attention wavers for even a moment, you risk missing out on important details. Most anime will shotgun exposition into your face. Good morning big brother! It’s me, your little sister, Nanako. Are you excited to celebrate your birthday, which is today, the same day you will embark on a journey to collect 108 crystals to cure Mother’s mysterious illness?

Ping Pong demands your attention. It has minimal dialog, choosing to tell its story visually and often metaphorically. This is great until you get distracted by a text message or I wonder what’s happening on Twitter right now.

Many of the character designs are also very similar. For fuck’s sake, why is every player on that team bald? They’re in high school! Compounded by the fact that character designs are sometimes drastically off-model, it made it difficult to know who was on screen when I finally looked up from my phone. If I had watched this one episode at a time over several days, I think I would have had an easier time focusing.

One thing that I enjoyed unequivocally, however, is the soundtrack. Composer Kensuke Ushio absolutely knocked it out of the park. Every track in this show fucking slaps. It has an almost Elebits vibe (remember Elebits‽). Two standouts are “Ping Pong Phase,” which uses the sound of ping pong balls hitting the table as its percussive layer, and “Obaba Tamura,” with its cheerful lo-fi synth groove that is reminiscent of something the late Rei Harakami may have written.

This is pure conjecture, but I believe that Ping Pong would not have happened without the success of Kick-Heart. It put Yuasa back on the map. Before Ping Pong, the last television series he directed was The Tatami Galaxy in 2010. People online may sing the praises of that show, but I don’t think I performed very well when it came out. If it had, Yuasa wouldn’t have resorted to using Kickstarter to fund his next project. Now he’s a household name, directing a new show each year.

Ping Pong explores themes that would normally resonate with me. Peco and Smile are treated like puppets by people who are trying to make up for past failures by living vicariously through them. It’s not until they start living how they want to live that they learn how to be happy. Similarly, I think in order for me to enjoy this show I have to watch it again on my own terms.

Until that happens, I can’t recommend it.

Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day still brings tears after nine years

It takes a lot for anime to make me cry, though my weaknesses show in funny ways. Nearly every One Piece arc gets me by the end, but sit me in front of Tokyo Godfathers, and I won’t shed a tear. I often scoff at the shows the anime community hold sacred for inciting feels — like Clannad or Re:ZERO — due to other problems bogging them down.

I’m weird like that.

When I signed up for All Geeks Considered’s Anime Secret Santa, I was given an opportunity to watch another one of those shows. One that I had heard so many rave about in college and online. One that I assured everyone that I would get to eventually.

Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day is a surprisingly poignant series that explores the nature of mourning, the power of remembrance, and their importance when we experience loss. It was created by the artist collective Super Peace Busters, which is comprised of director Tatsuyuki Nagai, writer Mari Okada, and character designer Masayoshi Tanaka.

A-1 Pictures released it in 2011 during an anime season that kept it under the radar for me. Steins;Gate was also airing, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica was tailing behind from the previous season. While I’m nine years late to the party, it was well worth getting around to.

Jinta Yadomi is bothered by his friend Meiko Honma; she appeared one day and won’t go away. And yet she is also gone for good, having been dead for nearly five years. Jinta is being haunted, and he’s not the only one. His friends all carry baggage from the day Meiko died after falling into a river.

Once inseparable, these friends have since drifted apart, believing they had something to do with Meiko’s death. They all feel blame and carry wounds on the inside. When Jinta claims that she is still with them and has a wish to be granted before she can pass on, they begin working towards understanding their grief and finding a way to move on.

Anohana is a coming-of-age story with a small cast, but damn, does it take its time fleshing out each character within its breezy, if irregular, 11 episodes. Along with Jinta and Meiko is Naruko, who has made new friends but still harbors feelings for Jinta after all these years. There’s also Atsumu and Chiriko, who both attend a prestigious school and are largely dismissive of Meiko’s return. Finally, there’s jolly and worldly Tetsudo who dropped out of school and took to world hopping. 

The friends respond to Meiko’s supposed return with varying degrees of belief and doubt, but whether they believe or not doesn’t matter so much as how they’re affected by her death. Each character experiences their grief in different ways that come across as believable and rooted in how people respond to real-life events like these. 

They lie to themselves, make rationalizations, and feel lost before reaching out to each other. It’s only together that they can make sense of why Meiko’s death still hurts so much. Mistakes are made and words are badly chosen. It is here that Anohana shines the most as it understands how ugly grief can be. We hurt those who try to help and sink deeper into despair, but the series reminds its viewers that mourning is a group effort, and you are never alone. It is only through grieving together that healing can begin.

This is all rendered gorgeously by A-1 Pictures, who, with Nagai directing, brings the setting of Chichibu, Saitama to life. A-1 usually pulls off a fine looking anime, but with Nagai’s experience on Toradora! and A Certain Scientific Railgun, he was able to perfect his skills in capturing the beauty of city settings and the nuance of conveying complex character emotions. For a series with so many sad characters, it pays to have someone at the helm who can make that sadness feel real. 

An anime of this caliber leaves me with very little to gripe about, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one bump that came up, even if it is a minor spoiler. One character reveals themselves to be cross-dressing as Meiko to feel like she’s still around. The other characters view this as something particularly aberrant and resulting only from their sadness. 

Of everything I expected from this series, I didn’t think they would pull a Norman Bates from Psycho and characterize a person’s cross-dressing as the result of trauma. It’s a brief moment, but it left a sour taste in my mouth during what would’ve otherwise been a nigh-perfect anime. 

I credit this heavily to Okada, a Chichibu native herself. While she really does put her all into the characters and setting, she has a weakness for writing LGBT characters. I wouldn’t have zeroed in on this so hard if it wasn’t a reoccurring problem. Okada was also the head writer of Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, which has similar troubling LGBT representation in small corners that brings it down. 

It’s disappointing, but her writing is still overall good here, and the way she portrays her hometown of Chichibu with love shines brightly. She’s a tremendously talented writer despite this fault, and Anohana one of her best works.

In the end, I found myself asking the question I ask every time I watch a show like this — will it make me cry? Surprisingly, it was close. I tend to relate to stories about friends the most, maybe because I had so little growing up, and I cherish friendships like family today. Since those friendless days, I have lost people I love, but I have gained more than I could’ve ever hoped. 

Anohana teaches many of the lessons I learned from those experiences. Loss can hurt. It can be random. It can be cruel. But it is what you have left afterward that matters the most. Anohana shows us that grieving is natural and necessary and that it is better to let it all out than suffer in silence. 

This is a universal anime, a story for all, and crying is a universal response. 

Yashahime: Half-Demon Princess won’t stop playing games with my heart

Inuyasha debuted on Adult Swim in 2002 and quickly established itself as a juggernaut. Five nights a week, fans all over America would tune in for the latest episode. When Adult Swim caught up to Viz’s release and started over from the beginning (right as Kagome was kidnapped by Koga!), those fans collectively shouted, “NOOOOO!”

For many people, Inuyasha was their introduction to anime. While the dub is far from perfect, it’s nevertheless iconic. When the spinoff series Yashahime: Half-Demon Princess was announced, fans online were all asking the same question — who did Sesshomaru fuck?

The second most asked question was about the dub.

The wait is over because the highly anticipated English dub of Yashahime debuted on streaming platforms on November 6, 2020. The good news is that most of the original cast is back. The bad news is that they don’t sound quite right. I suspect this is largely due to Viz rushing production.

The biggest problem is with Richard Ian Cox, the voice of Inuyasha. His performance varies so wildly from shot-to-shot, that I wonder if he was asked to come in the same day he got the job.

Final Act was over a decade ago, so I can understand it taking some time for him to get back into character. Voices also change as people age. Cox was in his 20s when he first played the half dog demon. Now that he’s 47, his voice is a lot deeper.

If his performance was consistent I would be more forgiving, but there are scenes where he strays so far out of character that it sounds like someone else stepped into the booth.

This is especially noticeable when he’s screaming his attacks. Cox has been in the business a long time, so I don’t think it’s his fault. It’s more likely that the director didn’t care or wasn’t paying attention.

Sean Schemmel sounds the same as Goku in Dragon Ball Super as he did in Dragon Ball Z. Nancy Cartwright has been able to do the voice of Bart Simpson longer than I’ve been alive.

If the ADR director for Yashahime would have worked harder with the cast to get Cox back into character, this wouldn’t have happened. Inuyasha is such a prolific series, so it’s surprising to me that they didn’t put more care into producing the dub.

A more subtle version of this problem is true of the rest of the returning cast. Miroku, Sango, and Shippo all sound like deeper versions of their former selves. The exception is David Kaye, who plays Sesshomaru. He only has a few lines, but sounds the same as I remember when I watched Inuyasha in high school.

Kira Tozer is going to have to grow on me. I never watched Final Act, so this is my first time hearing her as Kagome. There’s nothing wrong with her performance; I’m just not used to her playing the character.

Erica Mendez and Kira Buckland fit their roles as Towa and Setsuna like a glove. Morgan Berry as Moroha could work, but I’m not sold yet. Moroha exemplifies the hot-blooded shonen archetype, and I’m not hearing this in Berry. It needs to be grittier. Maybe if she eats a pack of cigarettes before she does the next episode it will solve the problem.

Everything else works well. Demons and villagers sound like they would if this were the original series. Alan Lee also does a remarkable job replacing Aidan Drummond as Kohaku. The only other thing that bothers me is that the re-recording mixer didn’t add enough reverb or delay when special attacks are shouted.

Inuyasha was my anime gateway drug, so I’m being a little harder on Yashahime than I would if it were another show. I’m still having a great time watching new episodes each week. If you don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Inuyasha, I’m not sure the spinoff will resonate with you. However, for people that grew up watching Inuyasha on Adult Swim, I can’t recommend Yashahime enough.