No Gods or Kings. Only Man.

A review of the [email protected] anime

[email protected] ([email protected]) is very SHAFT. A useless description as everything the studio produces is by definition very SHAFT, but as an adjective it encapsulates the studio's infamous approach: an unwavering confidence in delivery, a devotion to pop-culture and often a production led by designers rather than artists and script writers rather than story. In the pantheon of its shows then, Sasami-san has far less protracted banter than ¬†Bakemonogatari but a stronger narrative than Tsukuyomi.

But it's still inescapably SHAFT, and it may be the tired old man in me, but I really wish it wasn't.

time travelling golems and family members repeatedly rising from the underworld
As a modern take on the the collage of stories from Japan's spiritual history it's fascinating and barrels through the often mercurial Shinto "religion" with its rich pool of deities and paraphernalia, from Amaterasu to Kagusutchi. This isn't however My-HiME's naming of super-powered critters, or the sword naming scheme of innumerable JRPGs, but a fresh story with these multifarious gods and demons set in modern day and all its trappings. Coupled with a dreamy pastel art-style and animation that shoots precipitously from "we'll fix this in the Blu-ray release" to "three animators died producing this" and all the pieces are in place for a must-watch bonanza.

But the nagging feeling is that if SHAFT shed its quiddities and let the series breathe it's delivery would be immensely improved. Unlike the Monogatari series where the style-over-substance presentation was largely the point, here it feels a lot like director Shinbo is getting in the way of a good thing.

That isn't to say there isn't immense joy to be had from the artistry on display or dissecting the various allusions, symbolism, mythical references, modern call-backs and all points in between; but that fruit has been corseted and bundled and decorated to the point where looking at the result is immeasurably easier and more satisfying than trying to guess the ingredients.

It perhaps doesn't help that, from a monotheistic background and with only a glancing familiarity with Shinto mythology, the story is at times impenetrable with McGuffin's pulled seemingly from nowhere and gifted grandiose names and storied histories. Anyone who has played Okami will at least have a foundation knowledge, but like the scripture the series pulls from, there is a fairy-tale sensibility to the pacing and outcome. This doesn't make the story any less chaotic though with time travelling golems and family members repeatedly rising from the underworld, culminating in a final arc about a girl finding friendship.

Fundamentally that is what the story is about, behind the deviant pint-sized red-head, the ditsy blonde glutton and a fawning and perverse brother, is a girl growing from an agoraphobic shut-in to a well-adjusted young lady. What that story lacks however is genuineness; how are we supposed to take it seriously when the fire-god in a robot with a rabbit named "Meat" is assassinating the earnest protagonist's character? How are we supposed to empathise with her parental reconciliation when there is a gender-switching tsundere fighting for attention? The dissonance between the character drama unfolding and the world's outlook is perhaps the series key downfall.

That said, there is an awful lot to like with [email protected] and its imagination and talent often outshine any misgivings over its direction and scene setting. As with all of SHAFT's productions there will be an ardent core that will devote themselves, religiously, to picking apart the dense meta-narrative. For the less fanatical however it is a breezy, enjoyable dip of the toe into mythologies less travelled with the suspicion that sometimes the studio, like the protagonist Sasami, would sometimes be better not trying so hard.

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