Friday, February 1, 2013

Ink Black Analysis - My Little Monster

"Did I do something wrong? This happened once before. I looked up and everyone was staring at me, stunned. I have no idea why this happens. Am I doing something wrong?"

"It's hard to say. I can't say that you're going about things the right way, but I know that you're a kind person."

My Little Monster is a 13-episode anime produced by Brain's Base, based on a manga by Robico. It first aired in 2012. The anime is available for legal streaming on Crunchyroll, but both it and the original manga are currently unlicensed.

Shizuku Mizutani is a dispassionate high school student whose sole interest is studying in order to make good grades. She has no friends or hobbies, and could care less about either of those things. One day, at her teacher's requests, she delivers handouts to her rambunctious classmate Haru Yoshida, who was suspended at the start of the semester for beating up several upperclassmen. As it turns out, the upperclassmen were at fault and his suspension was merely a formality, but as a result Haru has lost all trust in teachers and authority figures. Still a child at heart, he immediately takes to Shizuku, and whether she likes it or not this socially crippled delinquent is now her responsibility. As the two young misfits gradually become acquainted and make new friends, they find themselves confronting things about each other and themselves that might have been better left buried.

Bad boy meets lonely girl rom-coms are nothing new--they occasionally make for good comfort food, but having been done to death the way they have it's rare to find a series that's willing to look at its characters honestly rather than just putting an attractive loner on display to get the fawning fangirls a-squealin'. Thankfully, My Little Monster not only averts many of the stale stereotypes associated with its tired premise, it manages to make its leads some of the most believably lonely and isolated characters I've ever seen in a good long time. Love them or hate them, but we've all known kids like Shizuku and Haru. Some of us probably were those kids. Better still, they complement one another remarkably well, each filling in the other's deficiencies in surprisingly clever ways. This little gem of a series really does go to surprising lengths to set itself apart.

If there's one word to describe the visuals of this series, it's colorful. The backgrounds and character designs are bright and lively, and yet they never stray so far from reality that it becomes a barrier against seeing these characters as real people. The animation itself isn't particularly high-end, presumably because it's adapted from a relatively little-known source manga, but it's good enough to get the job done. On a whole the show has a charming, playful aesthetic that's still earthy enough that it doesn't detract from the show's dramatic moments.

The music is one of this show's high points. The show can dive into over-the-top territory with rowdy and energized blaring trumpets, only to turn around and perfectly accent a sentimental, contemplative moment with soft strings, hitting just the right level of sensitivity without ever coming across as corny. It's a tough task to pull off, made no less difficult by the dichotomous nature of the content. Suffice it to say that there's not a second in this show that doesn't deliver musically. On a side note, am I the only one who got a Peanuts vibe from a few of the show's quirkier pieces, because I swear the resemblance is uncanny.

Bad news for the dub lovers out there, this show is currently unlicensed, but I'm pleased to say that the Japanese track will fill your needs just fine. I have to give the voice actors credit for managing to bounce between over-the-top silliness and grounded drama without a hitch, often managing to carry their characters with unexpected subtlety. I have a hard time critiquing a language I don't speak, but I still find Tatsuhisa Suzuki as Haru to be an admirable stand-out performance. From his aggressive side to his silly blunt honesty to his thoughtful, serious side, Suzuki manages to tie them all together into one memorable main character and make it sound like the most natural thing in the world.

Speaking of Haru, he's definitely not your typical male rom-com lead. Rather than the brooding, stone-faced rocks we're used to, he actively fawns over Shizuku to the point of obsession. Naturally, this makes him an enormous pain-in-the-ass to Shizuku, who's used to being left alone and doesn't know how to cope with the attention. Actually, Shizuku herself is much nearer the stereotypical male lead I just described, but she still carries just a hint of suppressed femininity. She's much more grounded in conventional sensibilities than Haru, but just as unsure of how to act in social situations. She keeps her head down and is more interested in grades than guys (or so she tells herself), and it irritates her to no end that Haru, who seems like a complete buffoon, tops her test scores effortlessly. Haru, by contrast, wants to make friends with all his heart, but his brash nature scares people away, and those who do choose to hang around him tend to have ulterior motives, furthering his general mistrust for those around him. He generally gets into fights for the right reasons, but that's not how the people around him see it. Both characters are plagued by loneliness, but for completely different reasons.

Not that this show is all sentimental and serious all the time. Far from it, most of the show is actually really lighthearted and silly, built around Haru's antics getting on Shizuku's nerves, their friend Natsume overreacting and panicking when things get out-of-hand, etc. Thanks to the show's charming direction it's almost never too dark or uncomfortable (notice I said almost, but we'll get to that later). The style of humor, like many other things about this show, is refreshingly grounded, like the kind of silliness that happens between real friends bouncing off of each other naturally, while still injecting a little extra silliness as only anime can. Much like Princess Jellyfish, a lot of effort was put into making this show warm and welcoming, and even the secondary characters have some genuine effort put into them, particularly their new friend Natsume and Haru's old friend Kenji, both of whom start out as borderline stereotypes but grow into complex, flawed yet strong characters in their own rights over the course of the story.

If there's one problem with creating truly believably flawed characters, it's that it becomes very hard to give such characters proper catharsis and making such an ending feel deserved. Haru in particular is a daunting character to work with, constantly straddling the line between a misguided but good-natured boy... and a borderline psycho-path. In the first episode he actually threatened to rape Shizuku, but it was so thoroughly tongue-in-cheek and he said it with such barefaced innocence that I couldn't help but wonder if he even knew how to insert Tab A into Slot B. Later that same episode he accidentally hurt Shizuku in a moment of passion while trying to come to her rescue, but she gave him a firm scolding for it and it seemed like he'd learned his lesson. And yet as the story progresses and we dig deeper into his pit of problems, he becomes progressively harder to sympathize with because by the end it's unclear whether he's made any progress from who he was at the start of the series.

I have a no-spoilers policy, and I think it's worked pretty well for me up to this point, but for this review it's hard to explain just how badly the show messes up his character arc without giving away a detail that comes up later in the story. Let's just say that there's one moment, you'll know it when you see it, where Haru comes dangerously close to crossing a moral event horizon. It was creepy and disturbing (heck, I'd actually related to his character up to that point), and then they never bring it up again. Once again, we're plagued with the problem of a series that's adapted from ongoing source material. Maybe they address it later on in the manga, maybe they don't, but either way it wasn't addressed in the show and that's what I'm reviewing. Shizuku's character arc is somewhat more refined in execution, but still a little too open-ended for comfort, especially in the context of her relationship with Haru, which constantly waffles about in typical will they or won't they fashion. By the end Natsume felt more like the heart of the story than either of them, she had a much stronger grasp on what's important in life. The conclusion was inconclusive and open-ended, saved only by the show's strong direction, which somehow managed to remain consistently charming from start to finish.

One of the most frustrating things a story can do is to reach for greatness and then stop halfway, and that's exactly what My Little Monster does. After putting so much effort into building up a realistically screwed up character, the show falls into the "crap, I'm an adaptation" pitfall and stops before it can help him out of the pit he's in. Still, its strong characterization cannot be ignored, and coupled with its strong atmosphere I think the show has enough going for it to merit a watch and hope for a second season. Next time, I'll be looking at a different kind of odd couple with Bunny Drop. Until then, stay forever classy my dear readers.

Final Grade: 6/10

Portrays believably flawed characters but fails to resolve their struggles.

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