You guys remember 2004’s Samurai Champloo, right? T’was the first major production by the Japanese animation studio Manglobe—an incredibly flashy, hip-hop-inspired story of a couple of vagabonds and a teenage girl whose chastity is continually endangered wandering across Japan in search of the generally ambiguous “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” Champloo was a strong first outing for the studio—brightly colored, goofy, violent and episodic, plus it did pretty well overseas. Manglobe’ve been pretty quiet since then. I guess they did another show, Ergo Proxy, around 2006 or so, but frankly it looks incredibly boring. It’s got that nasty “grimdark” palette of grays and dull splashes of color characteristic of the most tedious of modern low-budget digital productions.
Their latest production, Michiko e Hatchin, just wrapped up a couple of months ago. You might not have realized that—so far, the show seems to have been largely ignored in Western Japtoon fan circles, and that’s a shame.
Browse any vaguely Japtoon-related forum and you won’t be able to go ten feet without running smack dab into the latest thread lusting over insipidly childlike, ditsy and clumsy heroines who act like petulant children to show their affection, appealing to the stunted man-children who consume Japanese animation merchandise. You’ll also encounter threads discussing the latest non-events in your favorite boys’ fight comic which will continue to run for years because it appeals to the actual children who consume Japanese animation merchandise. And we can’t forget the countless series drawing from the everlasting well of quality storytelling that is “light novels,” easy-to-read fiction for children of all ages. But you probably won’t run into much about Michiko e Hatchin, and I can’t say I’m terribly surprised.
I’ve been trying off and on for months to put into words exactly why I enjoy this show so much. I think it’s because it’s one of those productions that’s a lot greater than the sum of its parts.
A quick summary of our premise: Michiko Malandro, a sexy and fierce young woman, breaks out of jail and liberates a young Hana “Hatchin” Morenos from her Cinderella-esque life of humiliation and slavery. At Michiko’s insistence, the two set off across an unidentified Brazil-inspired South American country on the trail of Hatchin’s father (and Michiko’s former boyfriend), Hiroshi, a rather unassuming and soft-spoken gangster who supposedly died in a bus explosion ten years prior. Along the way our heroines dart in and out of the lives of figures from Michiko and Hiroshi’s past and a number of other unfortunate souls who are drawn into the seedy underbelly of society. It’s worth mentioning that unlike Champloo‘s “Sunflower Samurai,” whom the heroes leisurely “pursue” over the course of the series, Hiroshi is an actual character from the start.
While the characters tend to fall into fairly broad archetypes, their personalities aren’t designed to fit fanboy fetishes—a recipe for commercial disaster. A buddy of mine put it something like this: “it’s got strong female characters who have actual flaws, and not cute ones.” Michiko is impulsive and violent, using force, theft and property destruction to get what she wants, but she doesn’t have a good handle on dealing with people. She feuds with her childhood friend Atsuko Jackson (serving as the show’s Zenigata with a righteous ‘fro) more-or-less identically years later, a situation that clearly pains them both. While she tries to do right by Hatchin, the two have some real trust issues. Hatchin, for her part, isn’t particularly meek or inept or scatterbrained (i.e. moé), and tries to work her way through honestly and on her own power even when she’s in over her head, possibly because of Michiko’s unreliability, or because she fears Michiko is using her as an excuse (or bargaining chip) in her quest to track down Hiroshi.
The show’s got a real mean streak, too. It’s quite willing to play characters and situations for laughs in one scene then later turn around and use them for chilling effect. In one episode our heroines get to know a young woman who’s taken to exotic dancing and sleeping with one of the local thugs in the hopes of earning enough money to gain fake identification for herself and her little sister so they can make it to the relative safety of one of the larger and more well-policed cities. But when the inevitable happens, instead of riding in like the cavalry to rescue them, Michiko (reluctantly) leaves them to their obvious fates; “if something happens to me, who’ll protect Hatchin?” Suddenly, the child enforcers of the previous two episodes don’t seem very funny at all.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the series appears to have been written in advance of production instead of using the traditional “wing it once we’ve got a premise” strategy plaguing Japanese cartoons and comics. This means the series can set up foreshadowing and callbacks effectively, even in minor details like the telenovela which the entire country seems to be watching. And since the production team wasn’t pressured to create a franchise and milk it with sequel films and merchandise, they managed to buck another of the worst trends in Japanese animation—the ending of the story effectively wraps up all of the remaining plot threads and doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth.
While we’re on the subject of bucking trends and reduced pandering tactics, Michiko e Hatchin is also lacking in star power. Well, I should say, it’s lacking in the kind of star power most Japanese animation fans would care about. This show is Sayo Yamamoto’s first time as a series director, having previously done storyboards and episode direction on Ergo Proxy, Eureka Seven and Samurai Champloo among others. Character designer Hiroshi Shimizu has done a lot of key animation work for Studio Ghibli productions, and he scripted, storyboarded and directed episode 11 of Kemonozume, making him the only other member of the main creative staff with any significant Japanese animation experience. Brazilian musician Kassin contributes the exceedingly catchy score, which is almost a character in itself. Scriptwriter Takashi Ujita and the majority of the vocal talents all come from live-action film and television backgrounds. The performances are generally fine, if not always what one would expect to be “Japanese cartoon” delivery, but I imagine the lack of any of the usual fanboy-favorites contributed to the show’s neglect.
Oh yeah, and the show is consistently good lookin’. Not only does it have a great setting, with colorful and dingy and lively and varied locales, it’s also got some pretty solid character animation week after week, something many other shows with excellent design (like Basquash!) can’t say. It may not always be as fluid as I’d like, but the series avoids the worst of the money-saving tricks of the trade. Rarely will you encounter the dreaded digital slow pan over a still frame, and the series wisely chooses to avoid awkward attempts at integrating poorly rendered 3D graphics for vehicles, crowds and backgrounds. (Plus, it’s fun to see what surprisingly hip fashions our heroines show off each week—guess you can always find time to dress sharp, even on the run.)
Bottom line: this is a good show. Not only is the overall arc of the story good, but like the best television series, it has a number of episodes which can stand up as good on their own. Good animation, good music, good writing, good ideas. I keep worrying that I’m damning it with faint praise, though—perhaps I’m too bitter with Japanese animation as a whole to just come out and say that a show is fun, well made and you’ll have a good time watching it, and you don’t have to feel like a huge smelly nerd while you’re at it. Maybe that’s enough.