In a certain tea shop there lives a man called the Mononokean. This morose looking man gained his name for his ability to work with yōkai, guiding the ones that wander in our world into the next. – ANN
Streaming at: Crunchyroll
Number of Episodes: TBA
Summary of Episode 1: Ashiya Hanae is the son of an overly-enthusiastic flower-shop owner. He’s really looking forward to starting high school. The evening before his first day in class, he encounters what he believes to be a stuffed animal laying on the ground. It is, however, a very-much-alive ball of fluff that only Ashiya can see and which takes an instant liking to him. And then starts to suck out his life force, bit-by-bit. Soon his school days are spent recuperating in the nurse’s office, and it’s only by extreme chance and desperation that Ashiya notices an advertisement for someone looking for part-time help and who seems like he might possibly know how to exorcise this very fluffy demon. Ashiya meets Abeno, a curmudgeonly young man dressed in vintage style clothing, in a very shady tea room that appears to exist outside of normal time and space. Abeno can help him, absolutely… but only for a very steep price. And of course, circumstances play out which indebt Ashiya to Abeno. There’s no chance of escaping, either, since Abeno shows up in Ashiya’s class the next day.
First Impressions: As an anime fan and also someone with an interest in Japan in general, Japanese myth and folklore has always intrigued me. Anime and manga are rich with tales that draw upon these sources, from the library of late, great yokai-master Shigeru Mizuki himself to more contemporary titles like Natsume’s Book of Friends and Mononoke. Even sci-fi series like the recently-released-on-disc Dennou Coil incorporate elements of this kind of mythology to establish a particular kind of Japan-centric supernatural undercurrent to excellent effect. So you could say that I’m on the look out for this sort of thing when I’m browsing around in anticipation of a new anime season. The trailers for this show had me pretty excited – Cute creatures, attractive male characters, bright colors… not necessarily masterpiece material, but definitely a lot of things that scratch my itch if you know what I mean. And, of course, there was the promise of Japanese mythological references and the inclusion of familiar yokai. On paper it definitely seems like a winner. My feelings about the first episode are very mixed, however. There are a lot of elements that I enjoyed about the first episode, including the general tone and the look of the less-human mononoke (primarily suggested by imagery in the opening and closing animation and the preview), but there’s something about the way it all falls into place that ends up feeling sort of flat.
In most cases I prefer not to jump right to criticizing animation quality, because I genuinely don’t believe that even in a storytelling medium that’s just a style of animation, the quality of animation is the be-all-end-all defining aspect. This puts me in opposition to a lot of anime fans, and I’ve made peace with that; many of you out there feel (for good reason) that something animated should look good and appear to have some base level of quality, and I respect that. I’ve just seen too many series that fall outside the accepted aesthetic (I love you, Masaaki Yuasa!) and which have affected me strongly enough that I don’t consider weirdness, off-model animation, or a high level of still frames or talking heads to remove a series from the discussion by default (if I were a “Chopped” judge I’d probably be pretty forgiving anytime a contestant forgot a basket ingredient, too). I do, however, think that the first episode of an anime should be an example of the staff putting their best foot forward in order to captivate and impress the audience, and this first episode just doesn’t demonstrate a lot of finesse that’s often evident even when you can tell a show doesn’t have a lot of budget to work with.
The yokai in this series (at least from what I can tell) are brought to life utilizing CG imagery. You all know by now that this isn’t my favorite thing by any stretch of the imagination, but I think “Fluffy” as he’s affectionately named by the protagonist, doesn’t demonstrate a lot of the weird qualities that make CG clash with traditional 2D animation. I think the issue I have is that the hand-drawn animation feels very flat and lifeless in comparison and just in general. The lines are a little too thick, the character coloration feels thickly-applied and lacking in detail, and there are character facial inconsistencies that make this feel like an episode 6 or 7 (past a mid-cour climax but not quite into the final rising action) rather than a striking opening entry. The background art is very lacking in texture and richness. Abeno’s tea room feels flat and lifeless, not like a place that exists outside the real world. It’s definitely not a deal breaker, but also not the strong sort of fantasy aesthetic I was hoping for based on the promotional images. As this episode takes place primarily on the mortal plane, there’s obviously still time for the underworld to make its debut. But I wish it had made its appearance sooner, to give things more of a “Dorothy entering OZ” effect.
There are things about the episode that hit me more positively, though. While I think a lot of the humor is too much along the lines of the “incredulous characters yelling in exasperation” variety, it’s actually some of the cornier, cliche moments that triggered me more positively. The montage of Ashiya’s daily belabored walk to school (and his eventual collapse closer and closer to the door) was pretty funny in the sense that it escalated well. I also liked the fact that Abeno is revealed to be Ashiya’s classmate. That “twist” was 100% predictable as soon as Ashiya started his introduction to the class at the end, but I definitely chuckled. And considering the fact that Ashiya’s indebtedness situation is drawn directly from xxxHolic, it still manages to be kind of funny (even if a bit mean-spirited). I do also think a lot of the characters that show up in the opening and will likely feature in future episodes are pretty cute. It’s obviously not the main criteria for a good show, but it’s definitely a contributor.
I think ultimately what spoiled me here was that I just really have a strong hankering for another season of Natsume’s Book of Friends (I can’t wait until the Autumn season!) and was hoping for something to keep me going until then. This series seems like it will be fun enough, but so far it’s really lacking in the lovable charm and humanity that makes Natsume so appealing. I’m thankful for the opportunity to get a glimpse of the world of Japanese yokai again, and I’ll probably check in with this series from time to time just for that reason. But I’m still wary of adding it to my already lengthy watch list based just on episode 1.
Pros: The element of humor comes across well enough to provide some entertaining moments. The yokai featured in this episode is also quite cute.
Cons: The first episode has an overall feeling of being made on the cheap, with kind of dull aesthetics and some uninspired background artwork.