Saturday 24 May 2014

Anime REVIEW: Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi

Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi

When you look at their back catalogue, it's no surprise that Gainax were once top of the anime game. From reviving the mecha genre to taking fan service to new, gravity-defying heights, Gainax shows were always stamped with a mark of quality. And one thing they seemed to do exceptionally better than everyone else was the weird. FLCL may be the benchmark for just how weird things could get, but not far behind it is Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. Handing animation duties over to fellow juggernaut studio Madhouse, the 2002 series ran for a total of 13 episodes.

Lead characters Sasshi and Arumi
Sasshi and Arumi: Before the madness

Our story begins in Osaka's Abenobashi shopping arcade, whose long history is about to come to an end as the businesses begin to close and the area faces renovation. Satoshi "Sasshi" Imamiya's family bathhouse has closed down, and his childhood friend Arumi Asahina is about to move to Hokkaido with her family. Just as Sasshi's happy little life seems to come crashing down around him, an accident turns reality on its head and Sasshi and Arumi find themselves in a quite different Abenobashi. Because this one features castles, knights and monsters!

Sasshi and Arumi begin to desperately try to return to their own world, thwarted at every turn as they end up in a variety of nonsensical worlds based on Sasshi's own otaku interests. The big-bosomed Mune Mune and mysterious Eutus, two people NOT based on Sasshi's memories of the Abenobashi residents, also suggest there is a bigger mystery at hand as to why the two friends can't find their way home.

Sasshi shows off his otaku cred
If you know what most of these things are, then you've come to the right place

Parody is the name of the game when it comes to Abenobashi and in true Gainax style no half measures are taken with it. With almost every episode showcasing a brand new world with its own tropes to be exploited, very few areas of nerdom are left untouched as the show blitzes its way through the likes of swords and sorcery, science fiction, detective noir, dating sims and more. Anime newcomers may be left scratching their heads at some of the references and homages Abenobashi throws at them, but rest assured there'll be something in here for you. From Bruce Lee and Back to the Future all the way up to Super Saiyans and Snake Plissken, the writers really go out of their way to show off as much of their nerd cred as possible. Gainax aficionados will also notice a fair few self-references and potential nods to the studio's later years. Mune Mune bears a rather striking resemblance to Gurren Lagann's Yoko (complete with what's blatantly a prototype Boota in one episode), and the design for Evangelion's Asuka even pops up elsewhere. The true highlight though is a full-blown Evangelion-style episode preview, complete with signature music.

Mune Mune wearing decent clothes for once
The Gainax bounce is taken to new heights

But amongst all the insanity, Abenobashi does have an actual story. And with a Gainax production, there's always a chance that said story could break down and the whole thing end with a rather unsatisfying "Gainax ending". As things progress the story delves into the history of Abenobashi shopping arcade, turning the mystery of Eutus and Mune Mune into Gainax's own version of legendary onmyoji Abe no Seimei. While an interesting turn for the show, this becoming centre focus takes away from Sasshi's own reluctance to see his best friend move away - something which works far better as the drive behind the show. With everything happening to Sasshi and Arumi, the Eutus/Mune Mune story doesn't work as well as it should because there simply isn't enough space to develop it gradually. Thankfully the ending isn't the kind of Gainax ending that'll leave you screaming at the screen or wanting more, but it is a bit of an "oh, that's it?" kind of ending.

Obligatory Dragonball Z parody
Parody power: Over 9000

But as much as Gainax want their audience to take an interest in Abe no Seimei, Sasshi and Arumi are the stars of the show and this is for good reason. The two work incredibly well together, backing up each other's strengths/flaws and feeling believable as best friends. Sasshi may be perverted, childish and rather stupid, but as far as Arumi goes his heart is in the right place and never once do you question their friendship even when they argue. Meanwhile Arumi is almost the complete opposite of Sasshi in personality, but isn't beyond her own bouts of stupidity and naivety. Sasshi may be on the receiving end of Arumi's blows on a regular basis - but you really do feel for the kid that he's losing his only friend. While the other residents of Abenobashi aren't really developed at all (even Arumi's grandfather just feels 'there' and he's part of the main story), they're colourful enough to keep you entertained and excited to see just how they'll turn out in the next world.
On the animation side of things, Madhouse do an excellent job of keeping things in line with Gainax's erratic sense of humour. In general it isn't anything outstanding, but the shifts between styles complement the genre shifts nicely. There are moments when the art shift feels unnecessary, but then not sticking to one style is exactly what Abenobashi is remembered for.

The Hollywood episode is a definite highlight
Even Hollywood isn't safe

To sum things up, Magical Shopping Arcade is a good helping of insanity sprinkled with a dash of friendship, love and adolescence. It isn't without its flaws and the hit/miss ratio of the different worlds can only be summed up by the viewer, but strong lead characters and a flavour that is uniquely Gainax make it a highly entertaining watch nonetheless. It may not be a series you instantly think of when someone brings up the studio's impressive resume, but there's no reason why it can't stand with the best of them.

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