Uuuuh… what on Earth was that? No. Seriously. What in the world did I just witness?
Disclaimer: I have not read the web manga so you will find no comparisons to it, here.
Three high school girls are putting together a limited-time shop called “PARK” in Japan’s Harajuku. One day, aliens come to Earth with the intent to steal the famed district’s culture. At the same time, a mysterious girl appears. The three girls band together to defeat the alien threat and protect their beloved Harajuku.
Y’know, I’d like to think I’m a pretty smart person. But every once in a while a show, comic, movie, or whatever comes along that is so baffling to me that I have to step back and ask “Did that not make any sense at all, or am I just an idiot?” And here we are with… this. Admittedly the show is definitely aiming to represent Harajuku. Whether that’s mockingly or in homage, I have no idea, but we’ll get back to that. The point is that the cultural roots of the show are undeniable, and understanding them would probably help one to appreciate (or despise) this all the more. To someone like me, who isn’t exactly up on that whole cultural lesson, just yet (there is a lot about Japan I wanna just sit down and study, one day), this is probably harmless. A lot of it is going to fly over your head, as it did mine. Though people more invested in this may find it either does a disservice to the culture they love or does it a great deal of justice at least in lip service.
However, there is one thing that transcends cultural boundaries, and that would be stories. Stories are something I’m rather good at. So let’s just crack into this from that perspective first. As a story, the premiere of Urahara is certainly weird, but… also kind “meh.” While watching it, I spent a large amount of time trying to register any kind of emotion. Because at its core this is honestly a very easy thing to understand. It’s about as simple as it gets. A basic beginning, middle, and end that are ultimately just kind of… anticlimactic and unsatisfying. Girls live in Harajuku, Girls meet mysterious outsider who gives them alien weapons that basically turn them into Not-Magical Girls, Not-Magical Girls easily defeat aliens. Simple as that. Any confusion primarily comes from dialogue not relating to the plot. And the show’s weirdness doesn’t really help it distract from that.
Then there’s the magic of plot convenience. Because this series is all about it. Admittedly, this thing has its tongue pretty securely planted in its cheek. But as far as I can tell, this isn’t a parody. It’s just a comedy. So a lot of these little contrivances makes things come across as… messy, really. Which only makes it ultimately feel too easy.
There aren’t really any character arcs, either. In fact, I’m not entirely sure there are characters. The main one, Rito, has a little more to her, so far. But beyond that, everything’s pretty flat. Characters take action because of some vague and not very well established connection they seem to feel for the area. Which brings me to the rule of ‘Show, don’t tell.’ It’s one of the golden rules of any story. And considering how much more of a visual medium anime is when compared to other types of shows, that should be cranked up to eleven. But there’s still more to it. This show is obviously all in on creating… we’ll call it a unique visual experience, by using Harajuku as a backdrop, and showing off a lot of that culture’s style. Yet the characters barely interact with it. At all. All of the apparently deep affection they have for the place they’re trying to defend is established entirely by their talking about it.
Speaking of visuals, let’s talk about that. From what I can tell, none of the studios have been doing anime for all that long. So I’m not expecting it to look like a visual masterpiece. But the choices they made here were just… odd. I’m not even talking about all the color vomit on the screen. Again, that more or less comes down to cultural tics. What I’m referring to is the animation itself. Instances of characters seeming to be in motion, and yet their surroundings being stagnant. Plus there are a ton of bizarre transitions that sort of remind me of Hulk (2003). But strangely enough, they aren’t used to transition from one scene to the next. They’re literally used in the middle of some scenes. The actual scene transitions are just abrupt. I can only imagine they’re there to make the anime really closely resemble a manga, so it’s sort of like a motion comic? But… it’s supposed to be an anime. Just make an anime. The webcomic on the internet is there for that. All the time you spent on scenery porn and weird transitions could probably have gone into actually developing things a little more. Fancy visuals are nice, but they still have to actually help you tell your story.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell. There’s “suspension of disbelief,” and then there’s “Lawls! We’re so weird, we can get by on silliness alone.” The thing is, being weird doesn’t excuse you from having to tell a story. For a perfect example of how to be weird while telling a spectacular story, let’s take a look at one of my favorite anime of last year, Flip Flappers. That series has plenty in common with this. It had a crude sense of humor, an exceptionally bizarre premise, and extremely weird artistic choices, right down to all the color vomit bombarding your eyes at any given time. But unlike this, it used that strangeness to tell a pretty compelling coming-of-age, Shoujo Ai (at least I think that’s what they were going for), Magical Girl-ish adventure story. In short, the difference comes down to this being All Style, No Substance, whereas Flip Flappers and many other series manage to marry the two extremely well.
For what it’s worth, the animation is fine. EMT Squared did the animation production on Renai Boukun, which at the very least was well animated. And they worked on the In-Between Animation on Princess Principal, which was very fluidly animated.
Ultimately this wants to be one of those series that lets you just “turn your brain off” and enjoy the silliness of it all and the pretty visuals. Though to me, even that kind of entertainment has to have some sort of actual engaging value. Characters we like, for example. The stakes are fairly high, as culture is a significant part of many people’s lives, and helps to define many of us as individuals, let alone as a society. The idea of having that suddenly taken away from us is actually a really interesting idea and could lend itself to some seriously interesting stories. It’s just a shame that so far it doesn’t exactly look like this is going to be the anime that tries to tell them.
What do you think? Does this anime do a service or disservice to Harajuku culture? Are you going to be watching it? If it’s any concession, it’s basically harmless. It didn’t anger or annoy me. Didn’t even really bore me. My standard rule is to give things a few episodes to hit their stride unless they do actually irritate me. So I’ll probably give it a couple more chances. But I’m overall pretty underwhelmed by this one, so far.
Urahara is Simulcast on Crunchyroll, Wednesdays at 7:15am PDT.