Mar 17, 2016

Anime Review: Himouto! Umaru-chan

Himouto! Umaru-chan title/logoAn often unfortunate fact about the anime biz as a whole is that it is entirely self-aware of its place. It knows that it is a relatively niche medium and it also knows that, for the most part, a significant portion of anime viewers are not casual ones but ravenous beasts consuming series after series that’s churned out. It means it knows its audience well and it plays to their desires, making almost a sort of feedback loop. We get into watching anime because we like what it’s doing and somewhere along the way anime starts to specifically do things because we like that and want more of it. Moe as a concept is probably the most widespread phenomenon of this sort, such that many shows every season are thinly veiled excuses wrapped around a nougaty moe center.

Another frequent one is when they turn the mirror around (or pretend to) and give us shows about anime and video game nerds, often with an “unlikely” moe twist. It’s a girl! Who’s also smart, beautiful, and perfect! But she’s afraid to show her anime side because awful society shuns us! (Is this beginning to sound familiar? Even a little bit?) If only they knew that great people liked it then it wouldn’t be so negatively associated! This has some obvious, though cringeworthy, parallels with other shunned lifestyles like, say, homosexuality. Yeah, I know. That’s why I said cringeworthy: comparing gay acceptance to anime acceptance. To be fair, I don’t really think anyone really makes this connection but sometimes the portrayals of anime, especially (exclusively?) within its own medium, seem to paint it as exactly the same sort of “deviancy that is actually just normal if only people would hear us out”. (Maybe there’s just a tendency in general for fandoms to do this… bronies, another of my interest-overlaps, tend to do this just as much if not probably more.)

Oh, right, we’re here today to talk about Himouto! Umaru-chan. The name is a bit of a pun. Umaru is just the main character, but himouto is a portmanteau of imouto (little sister) and himono (dried fish) which is apparently slang for a woman who is seemingly normal and well-behaved in public but is a slob at home. And that is exactly what Umaru is in little sister form.

Before I get any further, I want to apologize in advance. The internet fell in love with Himouto! when it began airing and many a gif were posted. I understand. It’s definitely got some very gif-able moments (though nothing like +Tic). But, alas, the hype and accolades left in its wake did not go unnoticed by me and so I feel as though maybe I went into this one expecting… more.

Himouto! Umaru-chan is a fairly mediocre show.

It’s not a bad show. But it’s not a particularly good one either. It’s just okay.

It’s safe like Shinryaku! Ika Musume, but unlike that show Himouto! is not nearly as funny or endearing. Himouto! is overly otaku-pandering and yet it doesn’t want to take any real risks, instead becoming a lukewarm soup of ideas that don’t taste particularly bad but are also wholly unremarkable. The animation is always crisp, competent, and above all consistent. But it’s safe, mostly uninspired, and has no lasting impact. In fact, the whole series is like that. Character designs are fine but rather commonplace. Scene direction, script, everything… it’s never bad but it’s also so incredibly ordinary despite its perfectly competent technical merits.

It’s hard to hate on Himouto!, though, precisely because it doesn’t do anything particularly wrong… but it also doesn’t do anything particularly right. The cast are incredibly one-dimensional but also consistently so and executed well enough for what little they are. The script is varied and episodes usually trot out two, four, or occasionally more short but complete story vignettes. But there’s zero progression by the end, and for being so sitcom-ish it’s really lacking in the com(edy). Even YuruYuri’s third season dud episodes were, on average, funnier and better than Himouto!’s best episodes. And that’s sad, really. (Curiously, a lot of the same staff worked on both series: director, scriptwriter, and animation studio.)

Most of the rest of the cast is, as I mentioned, entirely one dimensional. Ebina is nervous all the time and has giant tits. Sylphyn is the laughing I-must-be-number-one ojou-sama and has permanent cat-mouth. Kirie is shy and awkward in a way that is sadly just a shadow of the far more interesting Tomoko from WataMote. Umaru’s brother is the complete tsukkomi straight man. Hell, most of the folks he works with, his past in school, and the hints at Kanau liking him, are all a thousand times more interesting. I would have probably much preferred a show entirely about her brother Taihei and his office shenanigans. (And if it was anything like Servant x Service even better.) Instead… we get the usual fare. There’s a bath scene. Token episodes for Christmas and Valentine’s and New Year’s and a summer beach vacation. And nothing much comes of any of it. There’s apparently an extra OVA episode but I can’t be bothered to even search for it, and if I had to guess it’s probably tepid and extra-fanservicey like most post-airing OVA bonus episodes are.

But worse than all of the above complaints is Umaru herself, the titular character: Umaru is an asshole.

We viewers adore the lovable assholes — they are a comedy cliché for a reason! But there is a fine line between a lovable asshole and just an asshole. Umaru is just an asshole. Sure, they try every now and then to convince us otherwise, but I never thought it cleared her of her inexcusably bad behavior. Umaru isn’t just a slob at home, she’s a selfish jerk. It’s so hard to watch her be so awful to her live-in older brother. He’s the salary man who works all day, comes home exhausted only to be reprimanded for not thinking of picking up “the latest Jump” on the way (despite him, having no interest in anime/manga/games, not knowing when issues would be newly released). He does all of the cooking, only to be chastised for “making too many vegetables and not enough meat”. He does all of the cleaning, only for her to eat in bed and spill cola all over the place. It’s played for laughs within the show but it did nothing but irritate me and make me really dislike Umaru as a person. She lost all charm. Not to mention they pull these same “gags” constantly so the humor, if there ever was any, quickly grows very thin, additionally betraying their lack of comedy creativity.

And frankly, even if it had been funny, the fact that she’s so two-faced about it speaks worse on her. It’s fine if she doesn’t want to advertise her hobbies to the world. But she specifically hides it, dreads being found out, and is deliberately deceitful to everyone but her brother. How can she ever have any real relationships being so dishonest? (Oh, right. She’s a strong, independent, stay-at-home nerd who don’t need no friends!) When shows like KareKano busted that one wide open so many years ago and was sweeter, more poignant, and much funnier… when shows like WataMote play the nerd-mirror to much greater comedic effect... well… it’s really hard to recommend watching this tripe.

I didn’t like Umaru and I didn’t particularly care for her little series. I dunno if I’d sit through a second season or not. Everything about the production was alright, but it wasn’t particularly great either. And the lack of any real good laughs made it really hard to overlook how much I disliked Umaru and she never did grow on me. That’s a real problem. But, I also think it’s mostly my problem. From the looks of it, everyone else was ready to declare it the best comedy slice-of-life of 2015. Phooey, I say. This one barely deserves the average rating I’ll give it.

As of this writing, you can watch Himouto! Umaru-chan for free on Crunchyroll.

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