Educational

Ask ten people to name an educational TV show, and chances are good at least nine of them will say, “Sesame Street.”

Fifty plus years of embedding itself in the American consciousness accounts for much of its dominance, but it does mean that other worthy shows get short shrift.

And not just American shows (you knew this was where I was going, right? Anime non-fans can tune out now.)

Allow me to redress the balance slightly by introducing you to Hataraku Saibou, better known in the US as Cells at Work.

The concept is simple: present information about the human immune system by anthropomophizing the types of cells in the body*. We follow them around in their daily lives and see how they interact. Occasional popup messages on screen give details that can’t be directly animated. Our main focus is on a red blood cell, tasked with delivering oxygen throughout the body and returning carbon dioxide to the lungs.

* Though it does raise some disturbing questions about whether the components of a cell should be seen as characters in their own right. Anyone up for a “Mitochondria at Work” spinoff?

Blood vessels are depicted as streets of various sizes: main arteries are wide roads, capillaries are alleys that Red Blood Cell has to squeeze through sideways. Platelets are depicted as small children, white blood cells of various types have pale skin and generally dress in all-white clothing–a less than logical choice considering their primary responsibility is the bloody dismemberment of invading bacteria.

What makes the show work is that it’s not a simple travelogue: Red Blood Cell visits a new organ, bacteria attacks and is repelled, end of episode.

Instead, the characters interact in ways that mirror actual body functions. We see, for example, that red blood cells are born in the bone marrow, grow up in groups, and are released into the blood stream to do their work.

The relationship between Red Blood Cell and White Blood Cell* is obviously one of mutual love, but the writers spare us any hint of romance. Cells don’t leave love letters in school lockers, fantasize about happy married lives, obsess over breast size and/or inappropriately fondle one another.

* All the cells have distinguishing numbers, typically displayed somewhere on their uniforms, but they’re rarely used in conversation.

The result is a show that stands on its own as entertainment, but still delivers a healthy dose (sorry) of education in each episode.

Check out an episode or two on Crunchyroll (see the link above). You’ll look at your next bout of the flu very differently.

Hoist the Jolly Roger

Time for another anime review. This time, I’m going to talk about a show rather more current than Kamichu. I’m staying spoiler-free; I wouldn’t want to ruin any surprises for you.

msp1Bodacious Space Pirates” (originally released in Japan as “Mouretsu Space Pirates”*) is a 26 episode TV show based on a series of light novels published as “Miniskirt Space Pirates”, which you probably think tells you everything you need to know about the target audience. You’d be wrong, though.

* None of the online translation services seem to want to try to translate “mouretsu”; Wikipedia’s page on the show renders it as “fierce”. Somehow I find “bodacious” far more entertaining and much more in keeping with the nature of the show.

mar1Under any of its names, this is the tale of Marika, a high school freshman who learns in the first episode that the father she never knew has just died; that he was the captain of the pirate ship “Bentenmaru”; that her mother is a former member of the Bentenmaru’s crew; and that she has just inherited the captaincy. For the record, no, her father didn’t die in a boarding action or anything else traditionally piratical; he succumbed to food poisoning. Well, not officially piratical, anyway. Clearly, we’re not dealing with a serious examination of piracy here.

One of the things Mouretsu Space Pirates gets right is pacing – given this setup, many shows would have Marika take all of five seconds to hoist the jolly roger and set sail. Instead, she takes her time, does her research (net searches about pirates, shooting lessons with her mother, and a training cruise with her school’s yacht club), and doesn’t make her decision until the end of episode 5.

Another thing the show gets right is establishing the economic foundation of piracy. Without going into too much detail and getting into spoiler space, I’ll just note that in Marika’s universe, pirates might more accurately be called “privateers”: they operate under letters of marque from the planetary government, they’re tightly regulated, and work closely with insurance companies to find jobs (and it’s implied that they sell their loot through the insurance companies as well). That’s a historic pattern well-known, if not widely acknowledged.

Even little details work well – the use of steganography to hide messages in music is clever.

So we’ve got a comedy about piracy on the high seas. (OK, yes, it’s set in space, but clearly this is “space as ocean”, and the show’s producers go to great lengths to make it totally clear, right down to using sailing ship sound effects in the background.) And yet it works. The show has a nice balance of chuckles and laugh-out-loud moments, running gags and one-off jokes. While it makes use of many major tropes, it generally tries to subvert them, and usually succeeds. When it doesn’t subvert them, it takes them to an unreasonable extreme. Case in point: when Marika needs to recruit a temporary replacement crew, every viewer knows she’s going to wind up with her school yacht club filling the role. The sheer enthusiasm they bring to the art of piracy elevates the plot well beyond the mundane.

msp4Major characters go beyond the normal one-dimensional cardboard cutouts found in lazy comedies. Marika is neither a brainless ditz nor an impulsive lunatic. Her decision to remain a part-time pirate until she graduates from high school and her struggles to balance pirating, school work, and her other part-time job (waitress in a maid cafe) shapes the course of the show.

Her colleague/rival/friend Chiaki is the daughter of another pirate captain. Chiaki clearly wants to succeed her father as captain, and her transition from resentment of Marika to respect and admiration is nicely handled: clear but not slapping the viewer in the face.

Princesses Gruier and Grunhilde play off each other nicely, as representatives of a monarchy in transition from absolute to constitutional rule, they’re trying to find their places and figure out what to do with their lives.

Even the more minor characters get attention; the relationship between Lynn and Jenny – responsible for the show’s biggest “squeeeeee” moment – gives them some depth without dominating their roles.

Is the show perfect? Not at all. Some jokes fall flat and the episodes focused on Jenny and Lynn come off as filler – there’s clearly a meaningful growth experience for Marika there, but it’s insufficiently developed to work as a part of the main story, but runs too long as a side-story. While the show wraps up the current plot well enough, it was clearly written with the intent of a sequel: there’s a movie scheduled for release in February 2014, but I suspect the producers are aiming for a new TV season as well.

Oh, remember I said earlier that the title of the original novel series suggests the target audience, but it’s not quite as it seems? Yes, the girls do wear the mini-skirted school uniforms shown in the picture at the top of this review. In space. In Zero-G conditions. It’s OK, though: not a panty shot is to be seen; clearly the skirts are magic.

Mouretsu Space Pirates isn’t life-changing, nor does it try to be. As the pleasant diversion it does try to be, it succeeds well beyond my expectation. Highly recommended.
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Kamichu!

Kamichu Cast
Kamichu opens with a very low-key bang, with a conversation over lunch between junior high school student Yurie and her best friend:

"Mitsue, I became a god."

“A god of what?”

“I don’t know yet. I just became one last night.”

The joy of this show isn’t in the plot, which is barely there. Equal parts Yurie’s attempts to figure out what kind of a god she is and Yurie’s attempts to get a little notice from her classmate Kenji, the plot is really just an excuse to walk through a world just a little bit different from ours. What drives the show is the lush artwork and the attention to detail throughout. Every object in Yurie’s town has a patron spirit, and their designs show family resemblances and body types appropriate to their responsibilities. The scenery lovingly recreates the the town of Onomichi and serves as a gorgeous backdrop for a charming slice of life story that has its supernatural side almost as an afterthought. Much of the show’s charm lies in the little diversions it takes along the way. The conversation among the gods of Laserdisc, VHD, and Select-O-Vision in Episode 2 is an excellent example: it gives a peek into the lives of the gods, pushes the episode’s plot along, and ties Kamichu’s universe closer to ours by showing that they share a little bit of history.

The episodes wander along with no immediate connections. Yurie gathers friends and supporters, encounters aliens and spirits, and slowly gains experience with her power, but it’s only in retrospect that you see her growth. As encounters accumulate, Mitsue’s repeated complaint that “Nothing interesting ever happens to me” evolves from an expression of boredom into a prayer for a return to a quieter time. In the end, Yurie’s relationship with Kenji has progressed and she has some sense of her powers, but that’s almost beside the point. This is one case where the point is the journey, not the destination.

YurieSeveral reviewers have drawn parallels to Miyazaki’s films, and there’s some truth there. Certainly the art could almost be mistaken for something from Studio Ghibli, and there parallels in the town’s casual acceptance of Yurie as a god and the way science and magic are intermingled. But that’s superficial, and similar comparisons could be drawn to many other shows (Mushishi and Natsume Yuujinchou spring to mind immediately). Kamichu is, in the end, its own reality. Take a little vacation, follow where it leads, and watch for the little side trips.

One final note: In preparing this review, I checked Amazon to see Kamichu was still available. It is, surprisingly enough for a show released back in 2006 by a company that’s no longer in business. But much to my surprise, the box set sells for upwards of $250 new. I suspect you’re paying for the seller’s storage costs to keep the boxes intact over the last 7 years. I’d strongly suggest that you go for a used copy or single discs. If you’re interested, try this link. (Full disclosure: this is an Amazon Affiliate link. If you click through this link to Amazon and then buy anything, I get a small cut of the cost.)