Let’s go downtown!

I’ve been putting off writing about Soredemo Machi Wa Mawatteiru for a while because I wasn’t quite sure what to say about it. It’s been kind of a slow year for SHAFT, honestly–between putting out the lackluster Dance in the Vampire Bund anime, two rather unadventurous seasons of Arakawa Under The Bridge, and going silent for a whole season, not much about SHAFTXSHINBO’s output was really exciting me in 2010. We did finally get a spectacular resolution to Bakemonogatari, as well as one of the best seasons of Hidamari Sketch, so it wasn’t a complete loss. SoreMachi is now a week from finishing, so in an attempt to make a mid-series post before it’s too late, I figure I’ll get a paragraph or two about it down now while I’m feelin’ good.

First off, SoreMachi quite obviously owes more to Shinbo’s older works than it does to most of what he’s worked on over the past five years. Rather than give the show an unorthodox and minimalistic visual motif, SHAFT very clearly has some degree of money behind this show, and instead opts for something that more or less moves and looks like normal anime. But to keep things spicy, interspersed between otherwise normal shots are a bunch of interesting attempts at mimicking the effects of using a variety of different lenses. There are also a lot of Shinbo’s signature low angle and high angle shots, as well a number of far away shots. These techniques, as well as others that he’s used in the past, are then mixed with all of the tricks SHAFT has come up with over the years, and the result is something that’s pretty neat looking. Episodes aren’t consistently visually interesting, but there’s always an attempt to do something neat each episode. The use of over-the-top visual techniques–such as simulated tracking shots, tilts, and fish-eye lenses–matched with very simplistic shooting typically match the rhythm of the show’s humor, and on the whole the show’s penchant for subtle visual weirdness keeps things from looking boring, and that’s all that really matters, right?

Along with the unique approach to stroyboarding, SoreMachi also has a keen sense of atmosphere. The small Japanese suburb the characters inhabit is portrayed in a very matter-of-fact manner, free of the bright, over saturated colors that make most anime look too cartoony. Little details, such as signage, labels on various household items, wallpaper patterns and wall paintings also help to give the backgrounds personality. Strong use of dark, near geometric shadows help to carve out 3D space in a simple but visually arresting way, and soft orange lighting helps to make SEASIDE: COFFEE AND LUNCH look constantly chilled out. This approach to lighting and scenery is quite nostalgic, and reminds me of the small town in Saitama I lived in for nearly half a year.

What threw me off about this show at first was its humor–it didn’t really click with me. After a couple of episodes I came to like it, but even 11 weeks in I still find it somewhat inconsistent. The characters are all unique and charming, and I don’t have too much issue with the style of humor. I just feel as if the show’s hit to miss ratio isn’t as high as most SHAFT comedies like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Pani Poni Dash, and the funny parts of Tsukuyomi -MOON PHASE-. Maybe they need to drop more pans on people’s heads, or something. The main thing I take issue with is how too many of the jokes just fall back on the usual manzai routine, with Hotori being the boke, and everyone else being the tsukkomi. It works some of the time, but it doesn’t always click.

SoreMachi’s at its best when it just does something strange or hilariously over-the-top. The mysterious vending machine episode is incredibly amusing, and the ping-pong match between Tatsuno and Haribara had me rolling on the floor. Some of the best parts of the show aren’t comedic at all, and instead heartwarming. My favorite part of the show is probably when Hotori and Sanada take a day off of school. The way that episode is both directed and written kind of makes me pine for the youth I never experienced. It’s quite a nice episode. Similarly, Takeru’s day out with his female classmate is cute, as well as Takeru and Hotori’s nighttime stroll around town. Episodes such as these, where the characters share experiences and interact, are nice to watch and easily relatable.

On the other side of the coin, the show also excels at being supernatural and interstellar. The mysterious rainbow colored snack story has the same charm as the vending machine story, and its punchline redefines the show’s standard of strangeness. It then tops itself again by introducing aliens into the equation just because it wants to. On a more quiet note, the episode that focuses around the cafe manager’s dead husband wandering around town as a ghost is both amusing and touching. These elements of the show work because they’re just thrown at you with no warning, and no sense of foreshadowing. They just happen because they’re supposed to happen. The show assumes such things happening is a normality, so it doesn’t try to draw attention to them by dropping obvious hints, and that’s what makes them surprising, interesting, and quite special.

Despite being a little hit and miss, SoreMachi is pretty neat show. The manga it’s based on clearly has the balls to do cool things every now and again, and the anime’s presentation of it restores my faith in SHAFT and Shinbo a little bit. I’m glad that Shinbo’s starting to remember what made his stuff interesting in the first place, and is making attempts to revisit it. It gives me hopes for Madoka Majica, which’ll certainly be a site to see.