It’s a tale stretching back through countless generations of Japanese mythology… The legend of Shitenno, the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. There’s the dragon of the east, the bird of the south, the tiger of the west, and the turtle of the north. By placing statues or other representations of those four animals at the four different points that they’re associated with, you can bring good fortune to your home… Or even to an entire town. One such location is the Abenobashi Shopping Arcade, a long-lasting and culturally rich town that’s finally teetering on the edge of relevence, and drawing nearer to it’s end, to the great dismay of Arumi Asahina and Satoshi “Sasshi” Imamiya.
Having spent the first twelve years of their lives in Abenobashi, these two best friends are about to enter a world of uncertainty as the town they love is slowly being destroyed and redeveloped, and Asumi’s family is preparing to move to Hokkaido… But before any of these changes can take place, Asumi’s grandfather takes a horrifying fall off the roof of her family’s restaurant. He survives, but their statue of the pelican… The last remaining guardian statue in the entire town… Does not. As it shatters, so does reality, thrusting Arumi and Sasshi into a bizarre multi-verse from which there appears to be no escape. They may not ever get back home, but does it matter? I mean, after all, it’s being human and having your health that’s the important part.
I’ve said before that the best word you can possibly use to describe the animation quality of any Gainax anime with would be “Inconsistent.” Well, do you want to know how to make it even more inconsistent? Hire Studio Madhouse to pitch in, that’s how! Now Madhouse isn’t necessarily a bad animation company… I personally feel they’ve done more good looking shows than bad ones, and hey, every company releases more cheap looking titles than you’d want them to… But the styles of the two companies are starkly different. Madhouse is primarily known for it’s realism in terms of facial details, shading and environments, even in it’s more cartoony projects. Gainax, ironically, is much more like an actual mad house in it’s visual style. Gainax is much more known for it’s fast, frenetic character movements and experimental artistic visions. To put it another way, when Gainax tries to put out a show that looks more like a Madhouse project, we get Corpse Princess, and we get bored out of our skulls.
If there’s one thing that both studios excel at, it’s the clever use of lighting and framing techniques, and Abenobashi looks it’s best when it’s exploiting this similarity. This happens mostly during the slower, more serious scenes, like pretty much the entire first episode. As for the rest of it, this series just looks ghastly. I’m assuming there were some major budget problems here, because whether they’re resorting to low frame rates and broken character models to keep the movement flowing or not, it just looks cheap as all hell. It hits rock bottom in the Dating Sim episode, but it’s not a very far drop from the episodes that are surrounding it. It looks passable when there isn’t a whole lot of movement going on, but even then, the little movement we do get can sometimes look almost like the result of a poorly drawn flip book. The CGI that’s used whenever Sashi and Arumi jump between worlds is at least pretty impressive.
As for the soundtrack… It’s a really weird one. There are a lot of different musical styles in it, all of which were composed by the legendary Evangelion composer, Shiro Sagisu. He has his own aesthetic, but with a story that involves multiverses, and each one of them parodying a different genre, he’d also have to pull off a lot of diversity in the sound… And he does. The soundtrack does it’s job nicely. For episodes taking place in present day Abenobashi, he sticks to upbeat, jazzy banjo music, a juxtaposition that’s somehow perfectly fitting with the “southern hick” reputation that the Osaka region has adopted with the rest of Japan. He abandons this sound and works under a different style for each weird world that the story crosses into, from fantasy epic to big band Star Wars-like themes. It does it’s job, but while there are a few stand-out tracks… The tense, sleazy “Hard boiled” BGM from the film-noir episode is a personal favorite of mine… It still amounts to some generic background music.
The opening theme, Treat or Goblins, is much less forgettable. It’s a catchy pop tune with some jazzy orchestration, and it’s sung by Gainax staple Megumi Hayashibara. It’s a fun song, played over clips taken directly from the show(an admittedly lazy tactic), but once you get past the actual music, this song has some strange, strange lyrics. I mean, even for an anime theme. I don’t know what’s so hot about an equalitarian, or why I should chit-chat with one, but Hayashibara-sama sure sounds enthusiastic about it. I like the ending theme better, myself.
The English dub, much like the music, does it’s job well enough. The leads are played by Luci Christian and Jessica Boone, two of my favorite actors from classic ADV, and this is one of the first dubs either of them did. Jessica Boone is endlessly charming as mature, ambitious Arumi, but Luci Christian blows away the part of Sasshi, pulling off so much range even as she rasps her voice to what has to be an uncomfortable degree. They work off of each other fluidly, matching and in some cases even surpassing the chemistry the original japanese seiyuu had.
There’s a little controversy as to their accents, however. Anime dubs have had a long tradition of representing the Osaka dialect as a southern drawl. I’m normally very forgiving about this, as that dialect can be a very difficult thing for an American to pull off. It was used for some comedic effect in Excel Saga, and the dubbed Wolfwood from Trigun was able to use it as smoothly as if the actor were born speaking it, but aside from that, I can’t say I’ve ever heard it done well. The southern accent isn’t the worst way to represent an Osaka dialect, as any viewers of Azumanga Daioh will tell you, but the fact that the two of them are the only characters in the show speaking it can be a little jarring. In any case, it’s a fine dub overall, but the sub is still a lot more fun. You can go either way on this one.
If you’ve watched a lot of Gainax’s work, you may have noticed two themes that they just can’t stop repeating… The first theme is the perils of growing up, and the second is the dissolution of traditional Japanese culture at the hands of invasive Western influence. These may seem like two distinctly different ideas, but they’re both representative of the fear and uncertainty of change. You may not find them in every Gainax work, but the amount that they’re in is staggering. They love writing stories about young children who are either on the verge of puberty or who are already coming of age, and they never shy away from the awkwardness and sexual tension that these changes bring.
In Abenobashi, Sasshi is our main protagonist(Because of course he is), and these two themes embody everything he’s going through in the story. His best friend is moving away just as he’s reaching the age where he might start to understand his feelings for her, and his entire neighborhood is quickly being bulldozed to make way for more modern accommodations. We find out pretty quickly that the worlds they’re being sent to aren’t just a random multiverse, they’re his childish fantasies brought to life. Every time they’re about to jump, as Arumi assures him that everything’s going to be okay when they go home, it just isn’t enough for him, and another bizarre world awaits them on the horizon.
This, alone, is a pretty good concept. It’s interesting, to say the least, and it’s really the only reason we’re given to care about the two main protagonists. But as the plot evolves, and we get to look deeper and deeper into the backstory of this multi-verse, you can start to see why so many people consider it to be the ‘boring’ material. It gets way too complicated way too fast, and part of it has to do with just how culturally impenetrable the backstory is. You’d have to possess a deep understanding of Eastern mythology to fully understand it, and most viewers don’t… Including me. It involves a story that I can swear I’ve seen in later shows like Hell Girl’s “Purgatory girl” episode, which is really my only clue as to it being a mythology-based story, and the way it ties into the final resolution is just too damn confusing.
Of course, as most fans of the show will tell you, it’s not the story or plot that matters… It’s the insane, balls-to-the-wall, joke-a-minute genre parody episodes. A little over half of Abenobashi’s episode count is spent on the various worlds that Sasshi chooses for the two of them to visit. Each of these worlds is a macrocosm of the cliches, trends, and tropes of a particular genre of entertainment. It has an experimental feel to it, which brings up Gainax’s third repetitive theme… The fact that they really, really wish they’d been the ones to make Excel Saga.
Well, I’ve never been shy about being the lone dissenting voice, and in my opinion, those are the ACTUAL boring episodes. They’re not so much ‘joke-a-minute’ as they are ‘reference-a-minute,’ and considering how little thought or insight go into these references, I found myself constantly referring to Abenobashi as “Buzzfeed the anime.” Every single one of these episodes could have been easily retitled with Buzzfeed-friendly headlines, like “You know you’re a sci-fi fan if,” “Fans of dinosaurs will roar over these gifs,” and “If you hate harems shows and dating games, you’ll love these observations!”
Abenobashi’s style of comedy gets points for pacing, but it absolutely reeks of excess, with constant references being thrown in your face from both sides of the ocean, as well as fan-service shot after fan-service shot that are delivered not only from the kids themselves(ick), but also from the voluptuous, scantily clad meganeko girl “Mune-Mune,” their guide to these crazy worlds as she searches for the mysterious blue-haired man that they keep running into. The comedy at play here is more exhausting than funny, and the few jokes I did laugh at were instantly killed by writers who just don’t seem to know when enough is enough.
But getting back to the plot for a moment, we find out halfway through the series that Sasshi isn’t just jumping between worlds for the reason that he initially thought. The truth is, he’s refusing to go back to the real world because of a tragedy that his jumping prevented from happening. I won’t give away what it was, but the way it was executed was pretty damn clever(Props to you if you figured it out early), and it plays to the fear of death just as well as the world jumping plays to the idea of Sasshi retreating into fantasy in order to avoid the inevitability of change in the world around him. It’s a pretty poignant little twist. The problem, however, is that it’s stupid. Any viewer of at least average intelligence will come up with about half a dozen solutions to this problem, the easiest of which being “Go back to your world just before the tragedy happens, and put yourselves in the right place to manually prevent it.”
The solution they reach… After several episodes of the viewer screaming “Fucking tell her already!”… ties in directly to the very culturally impenetrable sub-plot that I was talking about earlier, leaving many viewers to question what the hell just happened. It wraps up not only the tragedy, but the other plot points as well with a nice little bow, thus belittling the themes it was working with and steering directly away from the satisfying conclusion that the series was heading towards. Abenobashi wasn’t about preventing a series of life changing events from occurring, it was about watching Sasshi grow up so he could learn to become mature and accept them as a part of life. By copping out and going for the happiest ending possible, Gainax just wound up insulting the intelligence of both it’s audience and themselves. Frankly, it’s nothing but a shadow of the far superior series, FLCL.
Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi was originally available from ADV Films, but it was one of the titles they unfortunately had to sell off when they went under several years ago. It was sold to Aesir Holdings, one of the five companies that have Section23 films as it’s distributor. The formats that ADV released it under are still available online, like the individual disks, the box set, and the once popular steel-cased “Perfect Collection,” but they’re a little on the pricey side. Aesir has released it in a much cheaper collection that you can currently find on Amazon for about 25 dollars… Or hey, maybe you were lucky enough to grab it from Rightstuf for 15 dollars during their holiday sale last year. A two volume manga series is also available in many locations… Most likely used… For a ridiculously low price, but I should warn that it does follow a different(and raunchier) version of the story. The soundtrack CD is also pretty easy to find, and like the manga, you won’t break your bank over it.
I’d be hard pressed to say that there was anything genuinely good about this show. The plot showed some promise early on, and it may have been more enjoyable for a native Japanese audience than it was for American audiences… I don’t know… But it wound up being confusing and hard to follow, and like many Gainax projects, it lost sight of it’s message as it neared the conclusion. The comedy, which many have claimed to be the saving grace of the series, ultimately amounts to a set of keys being jangled in our faces. Some viewers will be stupid enough to be entertained by all the instances of Gainax saying “Hey, look, we remember this too!’, but for those of us who aren’t, this show was just flat out boring. It’s nowhere near as entertaining as similar shows like Excel Saga and Panty and Stocking, and I’d just like to point out that neither of those shows are perfect in the first place. With nothing else to offer BUT that comedy, it has nothing else to save it when that comedy fails to entertain. I give Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi a 3/10.