Sep 2, 2012

Anime Review: Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko

Erio, the main female, with Niwa behind her, both flying forward after crashing his bikeIf I could describe this series in one word it would be frustrating. On it's surface you'll be roped in, as I was, by the high production quality of the art, which is mostly a traditional anime style with an extra dose of daintiness over some stunningly gorgeous backgrounds. But then the nonsensical title will throw you way off (it translates, poorly, to Electric Wave Woman and Youthful Man). And so begins a long chain of clashing vibes.

Denpa Onna is a weird series. It seems like it tries very hard to be weird in order to... stand out, perhaps? It's difficult to tell, really, but you'll definitely be confused for at minimum the first three episodes. The story, initially at least, carries the weight of something both ponderous and of great import, but will largely leave you blinking and befuddled as it slowly settles into more typical slice-of-life fare. The characters will hastily try to avoid the usual tropes but in doing so leave you unable to figure any of them out, their motives obscured behind weirdness. The main question early on, "What's the deal with Erio? Is she an alien?" is crowded by similar questions about the rest of the characters. What's the deal with the aunt? Why does nobody point out how goofy Ryuuko acts? Why the hell is Maekawa always in strange costumes? What the hell is going on?

Makoto, our male lead, comes to live with his aunt for the school year. He’s surprised to find out that she has a daughter, Erio. His cousin, however, is more than a little odd, being soft-spoken, shy, and prone to wrapping herself up in a futon (to name just a few signs). She seems to have been quite sheltered and also thinks she’s been abducted and returned or possibly sent here by aliens. Meanwhile his aunt acts like nothing is out of the ordinary, preferring to act as if she were still young and not a parent. At school he meets several others, notably Ryuuko, a cheerful girl with a few quirks of her own, and then Maekawa, who seems to always be cosplaying random things while nobody seems to notice or care. Like I said, it’s weird, and the best description I ever heard that truly captures the essence of this show is “Autistic Girls Harem: The Anime”.

A large part of the weirdness may be due to the cultural differences between Americans and Japanese, but I hesitate to ascribe too much to that. I've seen my fair share of anime over the years, including some really bizarre stuff. This is different. To be sure, there is a lot of it that is standard Japanese weirdness to any anime veteran (such as the all-too-familiar incestuous themes). For all of the initial weirdness in the story, the bulk of it becomes a fairly standard yet enjoyable character-driven, vaguely relationship-oriented thing girded by a theme of adolescence. The characters never stop being odd, but much of the early confusion gives way to a meandering but comprehensible plot.

Erio standing on the handlebars of a bicycle against a giant moon and night sky backdrop

Despite its obsession with awkward character quirks and seemingly non sequitur scenes, the show has an uncanny ability to be lucid and poignant at times. The dialogue often strays into the philosophical and Makoto's inner monologue is frequently insightful, curious, and just... human. Believably so. And yet again we have something that's really weird about this anime! Typically, dialog is either clumsy and simplistic, something you put up with in lieu of some other better qualities about the show; or it is over the top hyperbole meant to heighten the dramatic effect, albeit artificially.

Makoto is a good lead. Unlike so many other male anime leads, he has a fairly strong personality and is written well. It helps that he is the anchor as well, being mostly as confused as the viewer is by all of the strangeness he is suddenly surrounded with. Unfortunately, after the initial getting accustomed to living with his aunt thing, the series doesn’t really know what else to do. Much of the plot takes a back seat to the character interactions, so don’t expect any ultimately fulfilling storyline. The focus is on exploring adolescence through the various events that do happen, though it is often subtle and meant to simmer for a bit as Makoto reflects on things through the monologues. It works and all, but like I said before it suffers from meandering around with no clear goals.

Ryuuko's happy face up closeThe other elephant in the room I've so far mostly skirted around is the obvious one: the girls in this show are cute. Really cute, in that way that only Dengenki stuff can be. Scenes often flirt with the viewer, coming very close to fan-service at times, and always seem to be toying with you. A conspicuous haze of sexual tension permeates most scenes, too, sometimes a bit unnervingly so (again, Japan's obsession with incest). As a guy, I can't say I didn't enjoy the visual teasing. Alluring shots of skin, close-ups of glossy lips, and the general harem-ness of the whole thing, all contribute to the charm of the show. Make sure you are prepared for a lot of adorableness. The whole "adolescent points" system seems to further this theme of sexual maturity and latent pubescence, even explicitly calling attention to it for the purposes of assigning a point value at the end of each episode. An interesting, though admittedly gimmicky, touch.

In the end, the most important question is whether I enjoyed it or not. Well, yes I did. Mostly. It's weird, but it's weirdness becomes fascinating in a way. It's frustrating but embarrassingly cute. The animation is mostly superb, the music is overall adequate though occasionally pretty good, the opening song is a bit grating on the ears vocally despite being otherwise good, and the ending song is unusual and will often catch you off guard thinking the episode isn't over yet. I certainly wouldn't recommend this to anyone new to anime, as it probably doesn't make for a very gentle initiation into the field. But to those that are prepared to look past (or look forward to) its eccentricities they will find something fairly gratifying. It won't be a classic, but it definitely left me thinking and smiling by the end.

This is a revised and expanded version of a review I previously wrote back in March here.

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