Sunday, April 18, 2010

Spring 2010 - Working!!

Once Azumanga Daioh shut down after a four-volume manga run and a twenty-six episode season on TV, there were bound to be imitators. While the yonkoma ("four panel") style wasn't a new thing in Japan, originally sparked by the likes of Rakuten Kitazawa in the early 20th century and fueled by Ryuichi Yokoyama and Machiko Hasegawa in the 1940s and 1950s, Kiyohiko Azuma managed to cross it with more energy and a hearty serving of female characters to gear it towards a more otaku-centric audience.

Cue the flood gates.

Azuma's personal dare to make the yonkoma cuter and less 'toony was the first ping-pong ball in the moe chain reaction. Ever since we were introduced to the Azumanga crew, mangaka have attempted to replicate the success with different formulas; K-On! threw in music, Sketchbook and Hidamari Sketch toyed with art, Kanamemo played around with publishing, and Lucky Star just threw everything in the pot and waited to see what bubbled out. That isn't to say that these formulas worked in their own way, but the yonkoma revolution has spawned shorter situational comedy vignettes in anime.

Karino Takatsu's Working!! manga and the new TV series further tweaks the formula, this time transferring the characters to a dining atmosphere. The anime series has gotten the blessing from Aniplex's subsidiary A-1 Pictures, which has been working on the current series Fairy Tail, Senkô no Night Raid, and So Ra No Wo To, as well as the direction from Yoshimasa Hiraike, who directed the aforementioned Sketchbook.

Working!! takes place at the "Wagnaria" family restaurant in an unnamed town in northern Japan. While business is good, there is still a need to fill a part-time position, and the manager sends off the petite Poplar (voiced by Kana Asami who also voices...surprise!...Yuno from Hidamari Sketch) to flag down a potential employee. She recruits Sôta, a teen who absolutely adores small things to the point of creepiness, and the first episode pretty much runs down Sôta's sudden hiring and crash course in learning the tools of the managerial trade in the restaurant.

The rest of the ensemble is comprised of a primarily female cast that has their own quirks. Mahiro turns out to be a shy waitress with severe androphobia, clobbering Sôta on their first shift together. Yachiyo is the cheerful sort with the smile of a fox, but the ever-present katana by her waist gets her nervous glances. The lazy manager Kyôko has the "customer is always right" mantra in reverse, dealing with bad customers equally badly. All of this is happening while Poplar plays the role of Chiyo ("I'm not small!") Mihama.

And that's...pretty much it. If you've ever worked at a family restaurant, you probably can identify with the ennui.

There are some attempts at comedy from Sôta fawning over Poplar's size (he calls her as cute as a "water flea"), Poplar's inability to accomplish tasks due to her chibi stature, and Kyôko's surges of anger. Mahiro and Yachiyo will likely make scenes uncomfortable, but it's the chefs in the show--Sôma, a laidback happy guy, and Sanji from One Piece Satô--who absolutely kill the energy. Sôta is the only male with personality, a flawed one that could constantly tie him into more lolicon situations, while Sanji Satô and Sôma become invisibly drab with their blather. In fact, the show seems to lack sincere energy and impact--it's as if the series could take place at any restaurant in Japan. By the end of the first episode, the introductions have ended, but it's hard to envision this group doing much other than getting through the work day.

The art is decent, and like Azumanga Daioh and Lucky Star, there's a lot of dependence on the moe factor for drive. However, unlike the other two examples, there does not appear to be any advancement in the characters; while school comedies are fueled by the prospects of graduation, Working!! has nowhere to go. The series takes place in a quieter section of Japan (Hokkaidô is no bustling metropolis), and it appears that the episodes could get repetitive:
  • The crew works.
  • A new character is introduced.
  • The crew reacts to the new character with punches, droll observations, and jokes about Poplar's size.
  • Ad infinitum until the series ends.
It's hard to say if that formula can keep working, but Working!! likely will not be around for that long. If it does, it will likely need to come up with a better menu.

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