Thursday, March 25 2004

“So, how does it end?”

Since he brought it up, I thought I’d give my own reaction to the endings of some of the anime series I’ve been watching. For obvious reasons, one should BEWARE OF MILD SPOILERS below.

[update: cleaned up the formatting and added a review of Please! Teacher]

Hand Maid May

Hand Maid May is a fun little show that spends so much time developing the relationships between the characters that it doesn’t leave much room to deal with one of the thorniest plot elements in fiction: time travel. I think that Steven and I have put far more thought into explaining the ending than the writers did creating it in the first place, and we’re still arguing over some of the fine points. That we’re willing to do so argues for the basic quality of the show; that we have to points to a problem in the writing. [For amusement, I’ve recently been spinning the available evidence to argue that Cyber-X is actually a ruthless villain who arranged everything as part of a retroactive corporate takeover. Think about it.]

[side note: whatever you may have heard about the sequel, Hand Maid Mai, the reality is worse; ’nuff said]

Mahoromatic

We’ve spent at least as much time discussing aspects of Mahoromatic, which for most of its run both promised and delivered a satisfying mix of comedy, romance, and drama. Mahoro herself is so lovable that you simply can’t believe that the writers will kill her off as promised, and the rest of the cast is so solidly developed that you can’t picture their lives without her. Unfortunately, you don’t have to, because the way that the ending is contrived simply leaves them out. The final episode of the second season attempts to tie things together into an arguably happy ending, but does such a poor job of it that about half of the fans are convinced that it’s just a dream before dying. Well, half of the fans who were able to make some sense of it, anyway.

There is some confusion about the amount of material invented specifically for the anime when they got ahead of the manga storyline, with some reviewers claiming that most of the second season was basically ad-libbed. Thanks to the nice folks at Kinokuniya Bookstore, I have copies of the first seven volumes of the original Mahoromatic manga, and the anime actually tracks quite well, right up to the end of the fifth disc. A few of the original side stories were left out, a few new ones were added, the supporting cast is less involved in the penultimate battle, and it’s generally less ecchi than the manga (believe it or not), but for the most part it’s the same story.

I don’t know how the manga ends, because it hasn’t, yet. My best guess is that volume eight, if there is a volume eight, will be coming out in Japan around June; I haven’t found any online references to post-seven episodes, though, even when I exercise my limited Japanese in the search.

There’s a lot of ongoing marketing for the property in Japan, which isn’t unusual, but given how many Americans have been alienated by the anime ending, it’s a bit surprising that they’d still be able to release new merchandise if the Japanese audience had responded the same way. Live concerts with the singers cosplaying the end credits, games for both PC and Mac, audio dramas, the Summer Special standalone episode (coming to the US in May), etc. A lot of this stuff is made for any successful anime series, but if the ending hit Japanese fans half as hard as it slapped Steven in the face, you’d expect them to stop buying the stuff.

Me? I went into it expecting the worst, based on spoiler reviews by people who’d downloaded the fansub version. As much as I wish things had ended differently, the fansubbers made it sound even worse, confirming my earlier impression that people who OD on anime (especially when it’s “free”) rapidly lose the ability to enjoy it.

Did it suck? No, I don’t think so. Even without the spoilers, I wasn’t expecting the series to end as a pure romantic comedy. From the start, a large part of the attraction for me was the fact that Mahoro, so full of life and joy, was doomed to die in a little over a year, and she knew it. The problems have less to do with what happens than how, and this is where the anime storytellers were on their own. And they got into serious trouble, abandoning most of the cast and a fair chunk of internal logic. But… the behavior of one of the supporting cast members was terrific, and his sacrifice was what really made the difference in the larger story. If they’d stopped right there and used the rest of the episode to reunite the survivors to deal with that sacrifice, I’d have called it a thoroughly satisfying ending.

But they didn’t. Worse, they never reunited the survivors at all, pushing the real ending off into an epilogue that takes place twenty years later, looking back at the series through a curtain of resentment and regret. It’s not fun, even when you realize that the main character isn’t really as ground-down and bitter as he pretends. A lot of what makes it unsatisfying is realizing that the aliens we’ve been led to view as “good guys” never really cared about the people who were involved, even their own blood relatives; they’re alien, in an unexpected way. The only one of them who ever learns to care is the one who continues to live among humans, and ironically, he’s an android.

So, if you’re looking for a romantic comedy with a happy ending, or even a tragic romance with a noble self-sacrifice, the end of Mahoromatic will stab you in the back and leave you for dead in an alley, but if you can put up with its flaws, it’s a helluva ride. And the Summer Special promises to deliver all of the warmth that was sucked out of the ending.

Rune Soldier

Rune Soldier was another series that invited a great deal of speculation about the story, and then failed to deliver on that promise in the end. Unlike Mahoromatic, the ending is at least consistent with the beginning, and unlike Hand Maid May, it actually makes sense, but it could have been so much better. One problem that grows worse as the series progresses is that they simply didn’t know what to do with one of the main characters.

It’s a fantasy story with a strong RPG feel, and like all good RPGs, there’s a thief in the party. Unfortunately, they’re the good guys, and there’s really not a lot for a thief to do, especially in the adventures that advance the plot. So, as hero Louie grows out of his goofball behavior, the sexy, sassy thief replaces him as the comic relief. By the time the final episode rolls around, you’re just glad that she hasn’t actually taken a pie in the face. She’s been through almost every other cliché pratfall.

Another problem is that a lot of things that should have been in a proper ending aren’t, because they left things open for a sequel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that sequel is even being worked on, so most of the really interesting parts of the backstory are left open. I had hoped that the translated manga that just came out would fill in some of the gaps, but it appears that it’s based on the anime instead of the other way around, and a quick glance suggests that it isn’t even particularly faithful to it.

Hyper Police

Another series I quite liked was Hyper Police. It’s your basic post-apocalyptic action comedy fantasy buddy-cop furry fanservice show, whose main character is a teenage catgirl bounty hunter with excellent hand-to-hand combat skills, terrible aim, and occasional outbursts of ridiculously powerful magic. What makes it fun is that the characters aren’t just people with fur and tails; they actually have animal characteristics that influence their behavior. What makes it good is that there are several intertwined stories going on at the same time, and the characters grow and change as their stories progress. The creators had a rich manga series to draw on, and they used it well.

The problem with the ending? The series ended, the manga didn’t (in fact, apparently it’s still going). So they needed a satisfying ending that still left room for a possible sequel but didn’t contradict the manga, and they needed it in a hurry, because apparently they’d been expecting a second season. Surprisingly, they pretty much pulled it off. It’s abrupt, some of the plot threads are left dangling, and the most interesting romance only gets a quick cameo in the final scene (“Way to go, Tommy!”), but it works.

Please! Teacher

Please! Teacher (aka Onegai Teacher and Onegai Sensei) is an odd little series that asks the musical question “is marriage always this hard, or only when you’re an introverted high-school student who’s forced to hide your marriage to your incredibly sexy, secretly extra-terrestrial homeroom teacher, while fighting off the advances of an incredibly sexy classmate and dealing with the side-effects of an untreatable disease that can drop you into a coma at any time?” That’s not a spoiler, that’s the first episode.

At first glance, it looks like a wish-fulfillment comedy aimed at teenage boys, and the character designs certainly reflect this. What sets it apart from the typical example of the genre is the fact that Our Hero’s wishes don’t come true, at least, not until quite late in the series. The happy couple is composed of a pair of socially-awkward virgins from different cultures who find themselves married before they’re even friends, and have to fumble their way through a relationship they’re not prepared for and can’t talk about.

The ending is pretty good. Hero and heroine battle adversity and bond into a real couple, while some of the supporting cast get to grow and change as well, and the series as a whole avoids most of the genre clichés you’d expect from a Japanese high-school sex comedy (excessive fan-service, panty-shots, lolicon, nose-bleeds, etc; it’s actually quite wholesome compared to most). The final episode is a standalone that brings back two of the most entertaining minor characters, the heroine’s over-the-top (literally) sex-pot mother and charmingly psychotic (or vice versa) little sister, and uses them to set up a comedy of errors that about half of the fans absolutely hated. It doesn’t supply much character growth, but it revisits the hero’s relationship and shows that even happy endings need a little work from time to time.

One interesting thing it does is make explicit something that was left implied in the regular series, and that’s a second intimate student-teacher relationship, between one of the girls and a male teacher. That’s a very different sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy, noteworthy mostly because an American production likely wouldn’t give it the same pass that the “older woman” version gets.

A kinda-sorta-sequel (Please! Twins) aired in Japan recently, and is popular on the fansub circuit, but from what I’ve read, it cranks up the ecchi content and lobotomizes the few characters who cross over from the original. And it makes little or no use of the SF backstory.