Saturday, February 2, 2013

February 2, 2013 -- (7 - 4) Minutes of Heaven

I have returned, and much like Duke Nukem before me I will likely only be met with mediocrity and disappointment! Having completely skipped the month of January, I'm starting my year in the month of Valentine's Day and have chosen a deliciously sensual title for this post to celebrate.

This week we're checking out Mangirl! and Yama no Susume, also known as "Encouragement of Climb"... what? Check it out after the break!

I spent the better part of my absence catching up on the winter premiers, and what I found out about this winter anime season was so intriguing to me, that I decided to shake things up by only watching two shows for this post. Or at least it would have shaken things up if I hadn't decided to spend the whole of December breaking format and the whole month of January missing in action.

I was doing very important research. With like science and stuff.
But I'm back now and ready to take on what is to me a very confusing trend that I've stumbled upon while trying to get back on my feet. It's better to just start the reviews right now; you'll see what I mean once you've read through the first one.

This has nothing to do with the quality of the show in general, but “Mangirl!” sounds like a nickname I would’ve had in middle school. “Mangirl!” is fun to say but conjures up some frightening images, particularly ones that you can find on your own TV screen on the E! Network on any given day. Of course, these puns only work in a printed format, because the show’s title is actually pronounced “MAWN-girl”, as it’s a portmanteau of “manga” and “girl”. I like that. Right away I know what this show is about. It’s about a girl who’s probably going to do stuff related to manga production.

Of course, I also liked that “Working!!” (and by extension “Working!!”) had a nice, succinct title and look at where that got me.

“Mangirl!” is an anime based on a 4-koma style comic that debuted early in the year on January 3. The comic itself is relatively new as well, as it’s serialization began in April of 2011 in Comic Earth Star Magazine. According to the official plot synopsis, this show is about…

A team of girls with zero experience in manga editing are off and running toward their dream of creating the biggest manga magazine in Japan. They seem to do nothing but run into problems and failures... But still they're working hard every day.”

Wait a minute. An anime based on a four-panel comic…

… about a team of girls with a dream that they have no experience with who bumble around and screw up all the time?

Oh god we’re doing this aren’t we?

The show starts with two of the girls showing up at their new office loudly announcing that they’re starting a manga magazine. You might think that’s a horribly unengaging way to establish a story, and to the untrained eye it may seem like this violates “show, don’t tell,” one of the unwritten commandments of storytelling, but that doesn’t matter because moe moe kawaii desu ne

Just as the dark-haired character that I don’t hate is explaining that they need more people to run the magazine, two more people just sort of show up and we’re told that they’re friends and that they will be working at the upstart manga mag as well.

The rest of the episode is a slog through the business side of running a manga. The girls try to figure out the base price of their magazine, and their initial plan would make them spend more than they make. Oh economics, you still aren’t funny. 


We then cut immediately to a scene where they’re trying to sign artists to serialize in their magazine, but they have no luck in doing so. It looks like this will be the theme of the episode. Our heroines are new figures in a cutthroat and competitive world, and they’ll have to work hard to establish brand identity so that artists will be jumping at the chance to sign onto Comic Earth Star Magazine.

I’m kidding, of course. That would require the writers to craft an actual story! Instead we cut to a scene about five seconds later and are literally told that they have “somehow managed to sign 15 series!” The editor-in-chief-in-training is ready to celebrate, person-I-don’t-hate reminds her that they can’t celebrate until after their first issue is published. The next episode preview informs the viewer that—

Wait, what? Next episode? This one just started! Did I fall asleep or something? The show was pretty bad, but it wasn’t boring enough to put me to sleep. Turns out I didn’t fall asleep. The show’s episodes are only three minutes long. Sweet fancy Moses, the hits just keep on coming!

Naturally, I did what any right-thinking adult would do and watched the rest of the available episodes. Currently there are five episodes which translates to about fifteen minutes of actual content (and I use that phrase VERY lightly). To put it into perspective, an episode of “Working!!” has more content than five episodes of “Mangirl!” At least “Working!!” bothered to give us a real introduction to its characters.

Okay, I don’t even know where to begin with this because it feels like almost anything I have to say about this show isn’t fair considering that episodes are only three minutes long. Aside from the fact that it breaks every rule of good storytelling, it doesn’t even attempt to use its time wisely during each episode. They try to pack it full of joke after joke after manufactured, adorable joke and it’s just plain disorienting.

This is an episode of “Mangirl!” in a nutshell.  Girls are trying to do a thing, the editor-in-chief does something stupid, then the thing they’re trying to do gets done. That’d be bearable stretched out over three minutes, but that’s not where it ends. I’ve only just described the first 30 seconds. Strap in cowboy, because this show ain’t over until your blood glucose level has been artificially doubled. After that happens, you get to see them do a different thing while the editor-in-chief does something stupid before it eventually gets done. Also, you can bet if there is a problem to be resolved, then it’ll be resolved by smash-cutting to a close up on one of the girls saying that they’ve finished doing the thing they’re doing.

“But Jake”, you might say, “you’re thinking too critically about a show that only lasts three minutes. You can’t count on a show to weave a masterful, compelling narrative in only three minutes.” Maybe so, but I can name one show that managed to tell a funny interesting story using episodes that were only five minutes long.

It’s a little show called Azumanga Daioh. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Azumanga, another show based on a four-panel comic, broadcast a wildly successful anime adaptation back in 2002. “But Jake”, you might say, “Azumanga’s episodes were 25 minutes long, a standard anime episode length.” You’d be half-right about this. What a lot of people forget is that Azumanga was originally broadcast as five-minute segments that were released every weekday. If you watch an episode of Azumanga, you’ll notice that there are little titles for each part of the episode. Those individually titled segments were the actual episodes of Azumanga Daioh. The 25 minute versions are just anthologies of the week’s adventures.

That’s the key difference between good short storytelling and bad short storytelling, pacing. Azumanga knew how to pace its jokes and still tell a quick, fun story. We can think of Azumanga Daioh as an expert marksman who knows how to direct his shots with precision and care. Meanwhile, Mangirl! delivers its jokes rapidly and haphazardly, like a cocky 20-year-old who just bought a P90. Sure it’ll hit its mark every once in a while, but it won’t do it with any real grace and the mediocrity surrounding it distracts from the lucky shots.

Plus, this show is a weekly show. That means you watch a three minute show, and then you have to wait before you can have the privilege of watching the next one. That is not how you retain an audience. You absolutely do not have the talent to justify that wait-to-return time ratio, Mangirl. This show is Bakuman for stupid people.

Also, the opening theme might be the worst thing I have ever heard in my life. I’ve been watching iDOLM@STER, and even the worst song from iM@S is better than Mangirl!’s opening.

Yama no Susume/ Encouragement of Climb
                Golly dammit, it’s another three minute long show! Is this a thing now? Can I expect this to become another trend? K-On! was popular for reasons I’ll never understand, so is this the next thing that the dumbest among the anime fandom will sing the praises of for incredibly superficial “mai waifu” style reasons?


I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that it doesn’t automatically have to be a bad thing. As I said before, you can tell an interesting story in a very short amount of time if you’re mindful of your limitations and have enough self-restraint to know what to show and when. This show did it right.

Mangirl! was probably the worst show I could’ve used to give myself a crash course in three-minute entertainment. It was erratic, bloated, and just plain stupid. Where Encouragement succeeds though is that it focuses on its characters versus the events surrounding them. The hardest thing for a writer to do isn’t coming up with the events of a story, it’s figuring out what the events mean for your character and how they will react to an event and how they will grow as an individual because of it. This show is about its characters and it has a lot of heart.

Aoi is a girl who has just started high school. Stay with me on this; I know it isn’t a promising start. In the first act (if you can divide a three minute episode into acts), we get the sense that she’s not very sociable and likes to keep to herself. Again, stay with me. She’s settling in for a peaceful  first year when another girl shows up at her desk and calls her by her first name.

It turns out that when Aoi was in elementary school, she had a very close friend named Haruka who she used to go hiking and climbing with.

Oh... Sorry, I'll wait in the car.

A VERY close friend.

Anyway, during one particular climb, Aoi promised Haruka that they would climb a mountain together one day when they were older. A real one. Like K2 or something. I don’t know much about mountains, so I can’t be funny about this. The point is, it was a sweet scene that did a great job of establishing that Aoi wasn’t always the way she is now.

Unfortunately she never expected Haruka to show up half a decade later with climbing gear and a fantastic memory.

The final section of the first episode is devoted to telling the story of how Aoi ended up so different from the way she was in elementary school. One day, while pretending to climb Mount McKinley on a jungle gym, she got a little overzealous and broke a bone. It was so traumatic for her that she developed a fear of heights. Needless to say, climbing a mountain is not on the top of her priority list.

And so the episode ends with a smiling Haruka dragging a crying Aoi off to her house to plan their big climb.

The subsequent episodes build on the foundation set by the first three minute segment by focusing primarily on character development. Again, this is a show that knows how to use its time wisely. Each episode generally focuses on a single day in our main character’s life. This sounds like something that shouldn’t be a big deal, but with shows like Mangirl trying to pack as much jokes and moe as they can into one episode, to the point that they just tell you what story events have happened between scenes so that they can get to the next joke.

There are five episodes of Encouragement out so far, and each one does a very effective job of making me care about Aoi and her struggle to overcome her fear of heights and her social anxiety, and clearly she’s made significant progress in this short amount of time. She goes on a hike up a small mountain trail with Haruka, realizes how important the memories of her childhood were, and makes a new friend. And all of this happens in three minute increments that don’t feel rushed. Wow. This is a very well-made show.

The art direction is fantastic, and the animation is very good. Its also funnier than Mangirl! despite not being billed as a comedy. The only real complaint I have is that it is very short. I know I said it uses it’s time wisely, but I feel like this show would be great, not just good, if it were given even two more minutes per episode. Definitely check it out if you have time (and if you don’t have three minutes to spare, then what the hell are you doing here?).

SIDE-NOTE: I don't actually think Aoi is a lesbian, however I wouldn't complain if this show decided to be daring and develop an honest, romantic attraction between the two girls that wasn't simply used as fetish fuel for pervy otaku.

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