Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Michiko to Hatchin

If Fuji TV wanted to kick off their 50th year on air with a sizeable bang, they certainly picked the spot-on anime series to do so: Michiko to Hatchin (Michiko and Hatchin) sizzled when it first hit screens back in October 2008, and at the time it promised to be a solid ratings-puller and critical smash for the terrestrial station that also airs Japan’s longest-running anime series, Sazae-san.

The new series proved to be one of the unexpected anime viewing highlights for me personally at the time, as much for its faux exotic locale (the principle action is set in a sun-drenched yet often all-too-noir Brazil) as for the rather cool cast and crew at play behind the animated cels.

On top of these elements it was an insightful spotlight on people of Asian (in particular Japanese) decent who live in South America, like the nikkei burajiru-jin: descended from a wave of Japanese workers who emigrated to Brazil a century ago, making the country home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan. Really.

But don’t think this series is some kind of travelogue. It’s a stunning mixture of styles and sounds, influences and moments, and the energetic, action-packed, sexy, funny, and strangely touching story of the burgeoning relationship between central characters Michiko Malandro and Hana ‘Hatchin’ Morenos: the former a wild criminal on the lam after a prison escape, the latter a girl oppressed by abusive foster parents. When the two hook up following a (literal) motorcycle drive-through and the discovery of identical tattoos, they begin a search for the same elusive individual - Hatchin’s dad, who happens to be Michiko’s old flame.

In between are an array of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, including police officer Atsuko Jackson, and crime syndicate head Satoshi Batista, while the whole caboodle was ackaged together in mesmerizing fashion by Manglobe Inc. - the animation studio set up in 2002 by Sunrise producers, Takashi Kochiyama and Shinichiro Kobayashi, and the subsequent powerhouse behind Ergo Proxy and Samurai Champloo.

Shinichiro Kobayashi, the president of Manglobe, obviously wasn’t content to rest on the laurels of two previously revered anime titles. “I wanted to make a fusion of the road movie with diva action carnage, within the realm of a totally Latinized world,” he explains. Kobayashi also sees a clear delineation between this new outing and the two prior titles, which were both directed by men.

“This time it’s the female director’s view,” he says, referring to the head of an exceptional cast and crew.

Director Sayo Yamamoto has tweaked the storyboards on Eureka Seven, Death Note, Ergo Proxy and Samurai Champloo, and directed episodes of all of these classic series save for Death Note. So don’t think anything vaguely too girly here - some of the action and domestic violence encountered by our heroines is hair-raising, yet it tends to skip the voyeurism some of her male counterparts indulge in.

On script honors is Takashi Ujita, a writer who previously worked on an array of independent live-action movies, while character designer Hiroshi Shimizu moonlighted in key animation on FLCL, Fullmetal Alchemist, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Millennium Actress, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. Mecha designer Shigeto Koyama was previously involved in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society as well as Gurren Lagann.

Then there’s the additional crew member’s name that jumps right out here, in the atypical role of music producer: Shinichiro Watanabe, the illustrious writer/director of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, co-director of Macross Plus, and responsible for two segments from The Animatrix.

This series also just so happens to be a Japanese acting train-spotter’s delight, since most of the voice actors are themselves established and respected live-action actors.

Kanji Tsuda, cast in the role of Hatchin’s father, Hiroshi, is a veteran from classic ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano movies like Sonatine, Hana-bi and Dolls, and featured in movies by famed directors Yojiro Takita, Katsuhito Ishii, and Takashi Shimizu.

Yoko Maki (Michiko), who was cast in the American version of The Grudge, started her career in the 2001 remake of Lady Snowblood (renamed Princess Blade), while Suzuka Ohgo (Hatchin) popped up in Memoirs of a Geisha - in which she played the childhood Zhang Ziyi - then also costarred with Ken Watanabe in Kita No Zeronen (Year One in the North).

Jun Murakami (Shinsuke Rodriguez) was one of the stars in the ninja live-action movie Red Shadow (2001), and Takeshi Wakamatsu (Father Pedro) appeared in the far better ninja romp, Fukuro no Shiro (Owl’s Castle, 1999), starring Kiichi Nakai.

The skill of these people, from art and image through to dulcet vocal tones and spot-on dialogue, works nicely.

Dark and cute all at once, there are recurring themes throughout the series. There’s the search for Hatchin’s father (and Michiko’s former lover), Hiroshi, who abandoned his child and may be dead, but perhaps isn’t; there are the eccentric cameo inclusions, some heavy emotional development for the key characters involved—most strikingly the love-hate/mum-daughter relationship between our two heroines. And there’s Michiko’s ongoing hot water escapades, and the joyful obsessions with food, music and fashion.

“About the fashion,” Kobayashi reports, “We had an up-and-coming designer here in Japan do the fashions. For the art we practically went to Brazil, and that experience is reflected in the animated vision we created here. And for the music I invited on board Kassin, a very popular musician from Brazil. It’s a plus.”

There’s also the inclusion of teen romance, drug-addled hitmen, a doctor lugging fish out of people’s tummies, motorcycles crashing through windows, and one character’s attempts at bullfighting with a soup ladle - all of which up the ante and made this perhaps the best animated series I was going to watch well into 2009 and beyond.

And yet - I haven't.

After a lukewarm response from Japanese audiences and just 22 episodes, the series concluded (with a few unsatisfactory character resolutions) in March last year.

Go figure.

images © 2008 manglobe / Caliente latino, All Rights Reserved.


Admiral Anderision said...

it's like Cowboy Bebop and FLCL and some fashionable shojou anime got into a blender, so cool


Ha Ha Ha - precisely! Isn't it? ;)

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