Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fall 2010 - Kuragehime

There is something to be said about the current societal demographic in Japan. While the "Boomer" generation is approaching their retirement age, some of their "Boomerang" children are still hovering between employment and slacker status. Whether it be the half-hearted interest in part-time jobs by the "freeter" circles, the extreme apathy towards a career by NEET's (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), or the "acute withdrawal" from society by hikikomori, there is a lurking fear regarding the perception of the future in Japan.

We could spend an entire column on a discussion of attachment in Japan, but we are a blog on entertainment and review, foremost, and a source of critique next. This concept of societal withdrawal in Japan is a very real problem in negativity that has been both mocked (Sayonara, Zetsubô-sensei) and embraced (Genshiken, Otaku no Musume-san) in popular culture. However, it has mostly been a masculine addiction, and the perception from the opposite gender's point-of-view has not been a popular subject. If you consider the "parasite single" in Japan, women are steadily turning away from marriage and turning their attentions to happier pastures in self-enjoyment.

This brings us to the fictional case study on the female otaku in Kuragehime ("Princess Jellyfish" according to the Funimation translation). The story centers around a particular boarding house in Tokyo and the eccentric women that live there. Each is a derivative of the "parasite single", having managed to live on the allowances of their Boomer parents and bury themselves in the appreciation of hobbies (i.e. trains, kokeshi dolls, Records of Three Kingdoms figurines). All of the occupants of Amimizukan have a strict policy regarding the outside world—fashionable women are to be feared, and men have no place in their apartment!

The youngest of this group is Tsukimi, a plain woman in her early 20's who dreams of life as an illustrator and obsesses over jellyfish. During a skirmish at a pet shop, Tsukimi frets over the health of a particular jellyfish in the window to very little avail, only to have a stylish pink-haired hime-gyaru ("Princess Gal") rescue her by demanding it be given to Tsukimi. Appreciative of the gesture, Tsukimi can't do much when her new acquaintance horns in and stays the night at her place, but she's shocked when the morning comes—that stylish Shibuya-ite is actually a cross-dressing male!

The plight of the cross-dressing Kuronosuke brings a new dimension to the "nunnery" Tsukimi inhabits. Not only is he suddenly forcing flamboyance into the apartment, but he is also the son of an influential politician in Tokyo, the hobby of dressing up being his resistance towards inheriting his father's mantle. All he wants to be is a master of fashion, but weaving that magic on an "ugly duckling" like Tsukimi only makes his older brother Shû fall for the swan he creates.

Kuragehime provides an interesting analysis on all of the pressures being forced onto Tsukimi. While past shows have often portrayed the main character under the weight of parental focus, much like the pressure put on Kuronosuke to become a proper Japanese male, we don't get that gravity on the ladies at Amamizukan from their lineage. However, we do get a good glimpse of the two-sided push against Tsukimi from society—not only is Amamizukan under the microscope of traditional Japanese societal perception, but it is also under the implied general gaze of the Buddhist "three-obligations" policy ("obey the parents, husband, and children"). It will be interesting to see if there is any pressure that eventually comes from the parental units and the force-back (if any) that comes from their otaku children.

Kuragehime itself is not necessarily a plain anime, but one where it clashes plainness against brilliance (depending on your perception of both sides). There are some overused metaphors (Tsukimi and her friends turn to stone when overly shocked) and some clever trips past the fourth wall (Tsukimi's jellyfish Kurara addressing the viewer to explain things), but this anime's forte is in the story itself. Instead of depending too much on sexual comedy, the show focuses more on situational comedy and could easily become a live-action drama in Japan if it succeeds under an animated format.

Because it is being piloted by the story and not merely by accidents, Kuragehime is able to construct very enjoyable characters that are absurd yet quite possibly real. Kuronosuke isn't getting into ladies' garments for the sake of being some pervert that wants to sneak into the women's room, while Tsukimi and her friends exhibit some real symptoms that come from fandom. We should be seeing quite a bit of our own otaku complexes in this story without having to resort to overwhelming the psyche (MM! being a prime example).

Lately, the noitaminA block has been providing some strong titles that all have a commonality. Along with the recent likes of Shiki, Moyashimon, and Tatami Galaxy, Kuragehime could very well be part of a revolution in animated storytelling. We may even come across a rift—unlike many of the episodic high-school shows, these shows contain a well-developed plot to stitch the episodes together and less of a high-school setting in order to provide a more mature story. Considering that the yearly number of total noitaminA episodes has doubled, something must be going right for the concept. Let's hope that Kuragehime becomes part of the standard and not the exception.

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