Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi
A.D. Vision, Inc.
Fans of Gunbuster and Neon Genesis Evangelion already know the people at Gainax are good at setting the audience up to expect a certain kind of show and then twisting things unexpectedly before revealing the real story. Gunbuster started as a spoof of mecha shows and the first Rocky movie (among other things) and became a stark drama by its end. Neon Genesis Evangelion started as a straight mecha action show and became... well, what it became depends on your point of view and which version of the ending you prefer. Abenobashi's first hint of its true theme comes in the sixth episode, as Arumi and Sasshi are leaving a hard-boiled gangster drama world; Sasshi has been reduced, literally, to a figure that no one can take seriously, and for the first time in the show he speaks directly from his heart.

It's a surprisingly tender moment, but it's got nothing on the seventh episode, which breaks completely with the six previous. There's no world-hopping; in fact, Arumi and Sasshi aren't in it at all. The entire episode consists of Masa, confined to his hospital bed, reminiscing about his youth, the construction of the shopping arcade, and the loss of the woman he loved. It's still funny, to be sure, and starts to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the shopping arcade and the mysterious travellers who follow Arumi and Sasshi from world to world. But more than anything else it's a story about youthful optimism, friendship, and heartbreak. It's no coincidence that this happens at the exact midpoint of the series. For the remaining six episodes, despite all the in-jokes, crass humour and other assorted antics, there's a tinge of melancholy in each episode.

But these are still just skirting around the issue. Eventually, it turns out that Abenobashi is really just about being twelve years old. But what's striking is how developed Gainax's vision of twelve-year-olds is. Arumi and Sasshi have all the enthusiasm, vigor, and impulsiveness of children—which they are. There's no awkwardness about their relationship; gender doesn't matter too much to them because they've grown up together, and they can talk about anything with each other in that direct way children have. But at the same time, they're on the cusp of adolescence. Their bodies are changing, and they deal with it in different ways. (Sasshi, like most boys, embraces the rush of hormones, much to Arumi's consternation; that's also the source of a lot of the series' crass humour.) Most important, they're starting to learn lessons about life, love, pain, death and change, and how they all interrelate.

Thinking about how this kind of subject matter is handled, I couldn't help but think about our notions of "cinematic" animation. When someone refers to an animated production as having a cinematic quality, they're referring to things like camera moves and more sophisticated editing. But that's just gloss. What we should be talking about is even rarer: it's when a director treats their characters a certain way, avoiding the urge to soft-pedal or "cartoonify" emotions solely because of the medium. In one episode, Sasshi learns of the death of someone close to him, and begins to bawl. And bawl. And bawl, in that full-body way that only a kid can. The only other person there is the aloof Eutus, the other dimension-hopping stranger. As Sasshi continues to wail, Eutus's expression changes from sternness to resigned sympathy, and he gingerly puts his arms around Sasshi to provide what comfort he can. Watching Eutus awkwardly holding the blubbering Sasshi I realized how rarely I see such a naked display of emotion in animation. It's a level of sophistication we're just not treated to very often.

Although this series focuses on twelve-year-olds, I suspect it's really for adults. Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi has many misfires, but that a superficially coarse, sometimes randy romp through geeky in-jokes could also pack such bittersweet tenderness, bringing us back to the end of our childhood and the beginning of our own loss of innocence—well, that does make it truly magical.
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