Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ink Black Analysis - Moyashimon

"Most people would be disgusted, freaked out, or just not believe me."

Moyashimon is an 11-episode anime produced by TMS entertainment based on a manga by Masayuki Ishikawa. It first aired in 2007 and is currently unlicensed, though it is available for streaming on Crunchyroll. A second season, as well as a live-action series, are also unlicensed.

Tadayasu Souemon Sawaki's family runs a fermentation starter, and he's destined to inherit it, and with no passion or drive he has nothing better to do than to follow in his parents' footsteps. To that end, he enrolls in an agriculture university alongside his best friend Kei Yuuki, whose family owns a brewery. Passion or no passion, though, he has a unique ability that makes him incredibly well-suited to that career path: he can see microbes. They manifest before his eyes as sprite-like creatures that he can freely manipulate by hand. This ability earns him the attention of eccentric professor Dr. Itsuki, who's intrigued by the potential applications of Sawaki's strange talent. Through Dr. Itsuki, he meets a variety of colorful classmates and upperclassmen, and in the process rediscovers things he'd forgotten about himself.

Moyashimon sports a basic but acceptable animation budget, and for the most part it handles itself just fine. The character designs could almost be called generic, but this is one of those rare cases where color choices make all the difference. The colors are toned down, almost a bit dirty-looking--perfect for an anime set at an agriculture university--but the character designs are still very easy on the eyes. Other than that, the animation is consistently fine, holding together when it needs to be serious and reserving its shortcuts for the sillier moments when they can be used well. Then there are the microbe designs, which are kept simple, cute and marketable. It doesn't look great, but there's an earthy charm to it, and that's nice to see.

Rather than the usual bouncy music I normally associate with slice-of-life, Moyashimon's soundtrack is a little more eclectic. It can get a little repetitive, but between the few pieces they have to work with I think it manages to span the show's various tones and scenarios quite well, ranging from folksy-sounding traditional Japanese music to a more modern-sounding triumphant anthem. College is a time for experiencing variety, and I think that's what they were going for. I have no complaints.

When it comes to voice acting, the lack of an English dub means Japanese is your only option. Voice work and delivery are, of course, paramount in any comedy worth its frames, and that goes double if it's in a language you don't speak. Thankfully, the seiyuu cast here can belt out their lines with hilarious conviction. Of particular note are Tomomichi Nishimura, whose take on Dr. Itsuki is always a joy to listen to, and the talented Daisuke Sakaguchi, whose natural snark makes Sawaki's character a lot more fun.

I cited this show back in my Tatami Galaxy review as one of the few anime that addresses college life, and if nothing else it's laudable for that (as a quick aside I'll mention that Moyashimon, Honey & Clover and The Tatami Galaxy were all noitaminA shows, make of that what you will). This series is quieter, humbler and simpler than its younger cousin, but it still gives a well fleshed-out look at college life and the plethora of experiences that come with it. Like The Tatami Galaxy, Moyashimon downplays the academic side of college to focus more on the element of self-discovery, and it makes for a nice breath of fresh air without coming across as escapist fluff.

First and foremost, Moyashimon is a comedy. A few of the jokes in this show are a little too understated to have any punch, but for the most part the humor walks a fine line between down-to-earth near-believability and glorious bombast that makes it a delight. The art style is simple enough that it works well for their visual gags, the setting is distinctive enough to set up some scenarios you've never seen in an anime before, and the characters are fun and genuine enough that they're easy to get behind even and especially when they're being complete buffoons. Dr. Itsuki in particular takes his passion for biological sciences to delightful extremes, and the cartoonish microbes themselves can take simple science lessons and make them a helluva lot more fun.

Speaking of science lessons, the chemistry and biology in this show are well-researched, as are the elements of farming and business, so if you happen to enjoy getting a little trivia out of your entertainment they're a tasty treat on the side. If that doesn't interest you it might be a bit much to sit through, but they're generally kept brief, simple and funny. Even if you don't understand all the science and business talk, it shouldn't make the show as a whole any harder to follow.

If there's one thing that really elevates Moyashimon, though, it's the characters. Dr. Itsuki isn't just a fun guy to watch, he's also a surprisingly insightful mentor and the guidance he gives his students may turn out to be more helpful than they realize. An upperclassman named Mutou is still recovering from a breakup when that relationship had more or less defined her direction in life. Kawahama and Misato, a duo of upperclassmen who initially seem like comic relief buffons only interested in money and sake, end up showing a surprising level of maturity and supporting Sawaki when he needs it most, and Sawaki's best friend Kei goes through an arc I dare not spoil; suffice it to say it's an issue rarely touched upon by anime. If there's one recurring theme throughout Moyashimon, it's that you need to find your own path and determine your own future, and college is the perfect time to discover just what that future might be, and Dr. Itsuki's assistant Haruka Hasegawa stands out as a particularly poignant example of this, though again I won't spoil why.

Sawaki himself is a bit of a missed opportunity, unfortunately. There are hints at the beginning of the series that he used to really love seeing the microbes, and they bring that "forgotten passion" aspect of his character back for a heartwarming season finale while also raising the question of whether he has any worth outside his ability to see microbes, but between episode 2 and episode 11 what you see is mostly him being the straight man to all the weirdness that goes on around him. Does that make him unlikable? No, he's still a perfectly pleasant human being, if a bit weak-willed and easy to string along. I just don't think he should've been the straight man, that role exists primarily to play off of others and Sawaki could've been a much more fascinating character all on his own. There were still some nice little moments here and there, so I can't be too mad about it.

I'll quickly mention that second season of the show does exist, and while I don't consider it to be as good as the first season it is still more of a good thing, same great characters and all, so if you enjoy the first season, I shouldn't have to tell you to give the second a chance. I may end up giving that season its own review eventually, though I can't say when. I do hope that if there's ever a third season it'll set things back on the right track. The source material is still ongoing, so it's definitely possible.

Moyashimon is simple but effective look at college as a time to learn about yourself and find direction in life. It's not as complex or ambitious as The Tatami Galaxy, but its cast lovable and relatable characters more than make up for that. It's always charming and never boring. Give this show a chance and see if it strikes any chemistry with you. I have another review brewing right now, and I think I'll keep a lid on it for the time being, so you'll just have to wait to find out. Until then, be sure to keep it classy.

Special thanks to Durga for the request.

Final Grade: 8/10

A funny, genuine look at college life. We need more of those.

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