Junkers come here
It took me a while to get around to this title. This is partly because I was pretty busy but also because I got a strange feeling from the title, cover art and what I'd heard about it. I suspected it was going to be some over-earnest, relatively slow, dramatic title. I wasn't entirely wrong, but it actually proved more enjoyable than I expected.
It doesn't take at all long to realise that this anime is firmly set in "slice of life" territory. The setting is modern day Tokyo and the mood is of the normal and everyday. Specifically we get to follow a young girl called Hiromi and are offered a vision into her life. She's a fairly normal girl, mostly sensible but as prone to strong emotions as many young adolescents are. Her family is... well, largely absent to be honest. The story is set in the workaholic 90's I suspect and both her parents are chasing their dreams, and perhaps slowly losing the spirit of "family". The uneasy balance they have created is beginning to come apart, and this forms the dramatic core of the story.
While Hiromi is a normal young girl, however, her faithful dog Junkers is anything but. After all, how many schnauzers have a passion for daytime Samurai drama? Even assuming there are some how many can follow the story and comment on the content? Junkers, for no particular reason, is both intelligent and capable of speech. There is little doubt he will be a great comfort to Hiromi through any troubles that may arise. And sometimes, in the most pressing times, Junkers has a secret magic that he can share with Hiromi.
It's an interesting drama piece. It is, as I suspected, very earnest in its desire to create a quality production. One of the opening titles, indicating that is is recommended by the board of education, making one fear for the worst. Who cannot remember having to sit through "educational" videos as the dry and deadly serious intent sucked the life out of the presentation? This anime thankfully avoids this problem, partly because it focuses so strongly on Hiromi and thus is not weighed down by abstract moralizing. It is also because the story is, ultimately, quite small in scope. It's a domestic problem, not an unfamiliar one, and not something that is going to affect those outside of the family.
Of course Hiromi, understandably, feels quite differently. When she realizes her "family" is beginning to fragment she is deeply affected. The fear of change, of loss, of uncertainty and even more so the conflict between being "good", in order to make it easier for her parents, or being a little "selfish" and admitting that the family seperating is the very last thing she wants. This melds nicely with her depiction as an adolescent, a mixture of maturity and uncertainty, and her parents lack of understanding of her two sides. She even manages to be a little spiteful when she realizes her live-in tutor, on whom she has a safely unrealizable crush, is also moving away from her. There's some good drama here, and its not overworked.
One of the reasons its not overworked is because, in anime terms, its a relatively small scale event. There's also a couple of elements that reduce the scope of the issue even further. One is that Hiromi is obviously living quite comfortable, the house is large and well furnished and she lives with a maid and her tutor who largely act as a surrogate family. It's also true that her parents are both capable of supporting her, both love her (at least when they are not thinking about work, and they're equally bad in this regard) and they even get on quite amicably. And of course she also has the support of a talking, loyal, magic companion. In short while her life is facing a serious disturbance it's not particularly threatening. Of course I'd just watched "Fruits Basket" where the lead has had both parents die and is destitute and living in a tent in the wilderness, which seemed to cast an odd perspective over this title. After all, at the climax of the show, the most she can say is "I don't want things to change". Another possibility is that because we spend so much time with Hiromi, and the absence of her parents is emphasized, its hard to get the feeling of their being that much of a family to begin with.
The conclusion is also somewhat of a disappointment. Having set up the very human and quite likeable Hiromi its natural to be interested in how things are going to work out. She does some things that are wise, some that aren't, and in the process she learns and grows. There is a scene where she realizes that even if she could force her parents together perhaps that isn't the right thing for her to do, and she also realizes that she is allowed to express her own true feelings even if that's not "right" either. However the conclusion is brought about by "magic" which rather intrudes into, and somewhat cheapens, the human story that has been created. It does a rather admirable job of speeding up the conclusion, which is I think the intent, but it would have been more meaningful to see Hiromi work through it herself.
So while I don't regard this as a classic, because it doesn't really have anything that new to say, it is actually quite enjoyable as long as you can meet two preconditions. The first is that you really don't mind spending some time peering into scenes from an ordinary life. The other is that you don't mind the presentation being quite different from the typical anime. They've clearly decided to set their own mood and are not particularly concerned with inheriting the anime style. This is fine in terms of novelty, and their presentation fits the story well, but it also means they do lose some of the flavor that many anime fans like anime for. It's perhaps a little bit too ordinary for many people.
So how does the presentation differ? The first element is that the backgrounds have a lot of ambient detail. They're done in a quite heavily textured "water-color" type effect, lots of translucent colors and gradients. In comparison the characters are relatively low detail and solidly colored, which means they don't always merge with the background that well. The characters are also relatively plain, and don't use anime mannerisms to accentuate expression, which can make them seem a little bit subdued. Their movement is somewhat odd too, in a lot of cases the movement is far from smooth, while at others it shows a depth of observation that shows someone has made very careful studies from life. Basically its different from what one might expect, striving for a slightly heavier and more realistic presentation than most anime attempt. Once you adjust its perfectly watchable, and some scenes are not without a subtle charm, which is hard to capture in screenshots. The voices and music match the style, which mean they are subdued and played very straight.
Is it a "slice of life" drama willing to tell a small scale, but very human story, or an attempt to make a literature style classic that didn't quite fly. No idea, but the story and style draw from outside of anime to make a quite interesting production. The core story of a young girl, having to deal with the fact that "family" is not something guaranteed to be permanent, is not new but offers enough solid drama to draw you in and keep you entertained... as long as that's what you are wanting. If you want anime brand hyper-style may as well move on.