Aggretsuko

Retsuko is a 25 year old panda lady just trying to make her way in the world, with a busy corporate job that keeps her on her toes. Unfortunately, it’s a job that she has come to hate, with a chauvinistic pig boss (who is literally a pig) and other colleagues taking advantage of her kind, helpful nature. But Retsuko has a secret outlet that keeps her sane – death metal karaoke!

Yep, this time Sanrio have gone down a different route with their cutesy characters. Retsuko is not just a cutesy, chibified character like Hello Kitty that the company are so well known for…she’s a cutesy, chibified character full of pure, unbridled rage that only screaming into a microphone can help her with. The word ‘retsu’ is Japanese for ‘rage’ and the Japanese character for this appears on Retsuko’s forehead whenever she goes full rage mode.

“Anyway here’s Wonderwall, screamo style…”

Aggretsuko is easy to get into, with plenty of light-hearted and relatable office gags – I really enjoyed one where Retsuko accidentally wears her home shoes to the office and does everything in her power to keep her colleagues from noticing. On a surface level, the picture the show paints of an office hierarchy of lazy, sleazy bosses, and manipulative, gossipy coworkers offers something for everyone to relate to. On a deeper level, Retsuko’s situation is undoubtedly a pointed social commentary on Japanese workaholic culture and the few feasible opportunities there are for financial security and career happiness outside of unfulfilling jobs like the one Retsuko works herself to the bone in.

You don’t have to be full of rage to work here…but it helps

Retsuko herself is really well characterised too, much better than I’ll admit I expected from the show. Seeing her try to navigate the tricky line between her responsibilities and doing what makes her happy is heart-tuggingly real, and its often delivered with plenty of dry humour, such as when we see her have to buy an expensive gift for a friend’s wedding, even though as a result she’s left eating bread crusts and mayonnaise for lunch…and then finds out the couple has got a divorce almost immediately after the wedding.

The show is packed with this kind of pathos, but even in the more painful moments where Retsuko has to endure humiliation or a dream for future happiness is crushed, she still steps through it all with continued optimism (and karaoke rage sessions). Aggretsuko acknowledges what it’s like to be a tiny cog in a huge corporate machine and feel angry about it in a way that is refreshingly honest for what looks like such a simple cartoon at first glance.

The first season of Aggretsuko is now available on Netflix.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary Smith is a spirited girl who has just moved in with her great aunt in the countryside and has nothing to do until she starts school at the end of summer. When she encounters some strange flowers and a magical broom in the woods, she stumbles upon a magical world she never could have dreamed of.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first feature length film by Studio Ponoc, a company founded by former Studio Ghibli lead producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura. So did it live up to the infamous Ghibli standard?

Let’s start with our titular character, Mary. Is she interesting and fun to watch? On the whole I would say yes. At first she doesn’t have any defining character traits beyond disliking her own unruly red hair, but it’s shown that she’s a kind and lively girl and it’s easy to want her to find the adventure she craves. When a local boy teases her about her hair she stands up for herself and it was the moment I really started to like her.

Mary longs for some fun in the quiet English countryside

Mary’s feisty, fearless nature reminded me of all my favourite Ghibli heroines, but it didn’t feel like she was cut out of a formula which was really nice. Even when she gets on a broomstick it doesn’t feel like a Kiki moment, especially as Kiki was born into a witch family whereas Mary knows nothing about magic.

One thing I did struggle with was the structure of the story. Not being familiar with The Little Broomstick – the novel by Mary Stewart on which the film is based, I had no idea about any of the plot. When Mary arrives at the magical school though, I expected that she might spend some time there, maybe in lessons. I particularly thought that she would meet other pupils her own age, but she doesn’t interact with any of them – in fact, Peter, the local boy who teased her is the only character her own age that she interacts with in the entire film. Whilst this is no doubt a reflection of the film working within the constraints of the book it did mean that the movie took some time to get going as Mary doesn’t form a close bond with the adult characters she meets.

“All friends have matching cats, Peter, it’s all the rage!”

My preconceptions of the film were that it was going to be something very cutesy, and fluffy and generally child-friendly. Whilst it’s certainly as wholesome as you’d expect from a Ghibli successor studio, I was really impressed with the grandeur and intricacy devoted to the setting, with creatures and sequences worthy of the Ghibli greats such as Nausica and Princess Mononoke. Studio Ponoc fill this film with Ghibli type moments big and small, but they blend seamlessly into the film, and although some feel more like a tribute or nod to previous films than others, none of them ever feel derivative or like a lazy attempt to emulate Ghibli and the film achieves a broader appeal than just children with the inclusion of these moments.

Mary thought they must have a seriously expensive water bill at this school

I even underestimated Mary herself – in one climactic scene where it seems like all hope is lost for saving the day, I expected a deus ex machina moment that would save her, but in fact it is Mary herself who gets up and vows to carry on, a determination that in my book, earns her the status of a classic anime heroine.

As a British anime fan, one thing I really appreciated about this film was getting to see English countryside animated in the beautiful Japanese style. There’s something really special about getting to view the beautiful parts of your own country as rendered by another culture and Studio Ponoc did a wonderful job! That said, this film does lack standout animation moments that Ghibli movies are known for, other than the opening sequence there are no moments where the animation did something ambitious and breathtaking.

The beauty of England, anime style!

It would be wrong of me to finish this review without mentioning that this film also has a beautiful score. At a few points I was taken out of the scene by the music, not because it was distracting or overbearing but simply because I couldn’t help but notice how enchanting it was.

Although the pacing was for me a little messy and incoherent at times, Mary and the Witch’s Flower vastly exceeded my expectations and has earned a place in my Ghibli loving heart. If you missed the preview screening you can see it 18th May in UK cinemas and enjoy that wholesome Ghibli successor glow for yourself!

A Place Further Than the Universe

Mari Tamaki wants to do something bold with her life, but she can’t even skip school because she lacks the imagination to go anywhere. Everything changes when she meets Shirase Kobuchizawa, a girl who is hell bent on getting to Antarctica as soon as possible, and has forsaken friends and hobbies, working herself to the bone to gather the money for the trip. When Mari expresses her sheer admiration at Shirase’s tenacity and drive, she finds herself becoming part of the plans and soon they are joined by two others, Yuzuki Shiraishi, an actress who just wants to make some friends and Hinata Miyake, a boisterous, easygoing girl.

I really appreciated the pacing of this anime – I had expected the entire anime to be about the girls’ friendship in the run-up to the trip, but by episode five they’re already packing their bags and getting ready to go, and it’s clear that this anime isn’t afraid to step out into a bigger scale. I will say that sometimes the pacing can be unrealistic. When the girls set off on the ship, they’re plagued with seasickness and overwhelmed by the fitness level they’re expected to attain in order to have the stamina for the trip, but by the end of the episode they have seemingly overcome this and adjusted in the space of a day or two. Though this feels a bit unrealistic it does allow the anime to continue plowing forward and dealing with different issues each episode.

The girls had some work to do to find Antarctica appropriate clothing…

A Place Further than the Universe offers some beautifully detailed characterisation, often grounded in fairly typical real world situations which work well to keep the unusual situation from feeling too fanciful and fantasy-like. One example of this I thought worked particularly well was Megumi’s jealousy of Mari’s situation. A childhood friend, Megumi had always been the mature one that Mari looked up to, and when Mari begins to step out from under her wings in preparation for the Antarctica trip, Megumi instinctively tries to sabotage it out of fear of losing her friend.

Leaving friends behind is hard

When Mari finds out, she’s angry and upset, but she still rejects Megumi’s offer to end their friendship. This short exchange brilliantly showcases how quickly Mari has grown whilst still retaining her kind and considerate nature. Not only that, but it’s great to see an anime that recognises real, emotionally weighted consequences of big life decisions, even for ‘secondary relationships’.

This emotional depth runs throughout the entire anime, and is particularly impressive in relation to Shirase, whose main motivation for going to Antarctica is that it was the last place her mother was seen alive, and whilst she knows her mother is gone, she needs closure. The conversations she has with her mother’s old expedition members who are also going on the trip, and her friends’ gentle understanding of her situation all serve to create a mature acknowledgement of death and grief that reflect the fact that the journey for the teenagers will be arduous and dangerous, and Antarctica may be a beautiful place, but it is also a barren and harsh environment that should not be taken lightly.

This is a beautiful anime that tackles the complexities of grief, friendship and family with grace and optimism. It may be cold in Antarctica but A Place Further Than the Universe has a warm heart!

Citrus

Yuzu is a ‘gyaru’, a Japanese term for a girl who dyes her hair blonde and dresses in a Western style with lots of accessories. Her plans to meet cute boys and have some teenage fun are quickly spoiled when she has to move to a different city and start at an all-girls school. Her first day gets off to a confusing start when she bumps into the stunning class president, Mei, who scolds her heavily altered, non-regulation uniform then…gropes her?! Yuzu brushes off the incident but is rapidly intrigued by the seemingly perfect and prim Mei, especially when she later stumbles upon the girl sharing a secret kiss with a handsome male teacher.

Yep, Citrus is off to a juicy start (pun intended) and it only gets juicier. Yuzu gets home from school to find out that the new man in her mother’s life that they moved for is none other than Mei’s father, and Mei will be living with them…and rooming with Yuzu!

That awkward moment when the class president is suddenly your new stepsister

Attempting to bond with Mei, Yuzu asks about the kiss and things change quickly. Mei kisses Yuzu, but it’s not a shy or brief kiss. She presses Yuzu down for an extended amount of time, even after Yuzu begins to struggle. It’s shocking, uncomfortable and undoubtedly non-consensual. I was immediately shocked and disappointed at this point that Citrus takes the forceful approach to romance I’ve also seen in the other same-sex anime genre, yaoi, where ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and forcing kisses on people is fine.

Pinning people down and forcing kisses on them? Extremely not cool Mei.

This behaviour is unsurprisingly a plot device as the inexperienced Yuzu then begins to develop feelings for Mei, particularly confusing for her given that she is now effectively Mei’s stepsister and has to share a room and bed with her. For me the ‘sister’ element is clearly meant to be part of the salacious interest this anime aims to provoke, though it doesn’t quite work, as while Yuzu attempts to deny her feelings and encourage a sisterly relationship, at the end of the day the two of them are not related by blood and have been thrown into a familial connection unexpectedly.

Other than Mei and Yuzu’s forceful and assault-like approach to romance, Citrus is a pretty watchable teen drama. It knows how to work each character in tune to an almost ‘painting by numbers’ series of drama plotlines revolving around family and love triangle type jealousy, but the characters are nonetheless engaging enough to keep you hooked. Yuzu is a likeable protaganist – a good-hearted girl who genuinely cares for Mei and doesn’t want to overstep the line despite her feelings. Mei’s own aloof nature is believable in keeping with her own backstory, even if it’s sometimes used in a heavy-handed way to create a divide between her and Yuzu that you know will eventually be bridged.

If you’re looking for a soapy teen drama with same-sex romance, Citrus delivers.

Citrus is currently showing on Crunchyroll.

Laid-Back Camp

Rin has always enjoyed camping alone, until a pink-haired girl called Nadeshiko breezes into her life and asks to share her food. So used to doing her own thing, Rin is genuinely taken aback by the warmth Nadeshiko brings to her camping experience, and the two gradually become friends. Nadeshiko in turn also realises that she loves camping but knows nothing about it, and joins her school’s camping club (which Rin has shunned in favour of doing her own thing).

Yep, that’s right, this anime is that feeling you get when you’re drinking a warm drink on a cold day, in an oversized jumper, sitting by a crackling fire while it’s raining outside. It’s cosy, it’s relaxing, it doesn’t ask too much from you. The visuals are soothing, like a brushstroke painting, but like the music, they’re never there to pop out of the screen but to evoke a lush, soothing nature environment that you can enjoy getting lost in. As you watch the characters enjoying the breeze in their hair or taking in the verdant Japanese countryside you’ll wish you were there yourself.

Rin soaks up some nature

I really liked that the narrative of Laid-Back Camp doesn’t follow the expected formula of the outgoing character latching on to the introvert to force them out of their shell. Nadeshiko sometimes pops up unexpectedly to hang out with Rin, from their first encounter when she wants to see Mount Fuji, to another surprise appearance when she makes a stew for Rin to thank her for sharing some noodles with her. But from this point on, she accepts Rin’s loner tendencies and preference for camping alone, and doesn’t try to force her to spend time with others. One sweet scene even features the two of them texting from their respective campsites and deciding to send each other pictures of their breathtaking starry night sky views.

Rin’s all about that solo camping experience

There’s a decent helping of humour in this anime, most of it is a wholesome slice of life style humour. Over the course of the series, much of the humour serves to build a picture of the camping experience, and it varies from adorable scenes such as the girls trying to work out the best cheap insulation they can use to stay warm, to Rin sending cute pictures of things she sees while exploring a campsite to her friend. Just like the rest of the anime, the humour is always incredibly fluffy and heartwarming.

Another thing that really makes you feel cosy (and hungry) is the anime’s occasional sharing of recipes, sometimes while the characters are putting together a campfire stew or similar meal. From the character’s own reactions to their culinary creations, to the occasional lingering shot of a bubbling pot or ramen cup, you really get the sense that a hearty meal is an important part of the Japanese camping experience and that it’s a vital part of creating your own ‘home away from home’ while you’re sleeping outside.

Rin was a little unsure about Nadeshiko’s culinary experience…

If you’re interested in learning more about camping or are already a camping pro, you’ll appreciate the little camping tidbits in this show too. I know next to nothing about camping and really enjoyed picking up little things like the fact that there are different kinds of campsite (lake, forest, vista) and that you’re not allowed to have fires on the ground at some campsites. The show peppers its episodes with this knowledge, without overdoing it or getting too bogged down in technical details, so if you have no interest in learning about camping it’s still really easy to enjoy the show.

If you’re looking for a cosy cute anime to warm the cockles of your heart this winter, look no further than Laid-Back Camp!

Our Love Has Always Been 10cm Apart

Last year I wrote a short review about I’ve Always Liked You, a romance anime about a group of teens all nursing secret crushes on each other. This anime recently caught my eye as a cute looking romance, and I didn’t realise until I started watching it that it’s about the same group of teens, taking a particular focus on one almost-not-quite couple, Haruki and Miou.

Haruki and Miou make for a heart-tugging teen relationship. Longtime friends, the kind who walk home together every day and know each other inside-out, both are gradually falling for each other but unsure about how to take the next step into something more. This situation isn’t helped by all of their peers assuming they are already a couple and teasing them about it, which shy Miou can’t handle.

Like I’ve Always Liked You, this anime takes the classic romance format, with various obstacles emerging that prevent the pair from confessing their feelings and uniting until the very end. To begin with, this obstacle is their own shyness and inexperience in love. Miou notes wistfully when they are together that they always seem to be ‘just ten centimetres’ apart and unable to bridge the gap (giving the anime its name).

Will they, won’t they? They probably will but first we gotta drag it out…

What prevents this anime from becoming too predictable in its plot choices are the characters. Miou and Haruki are well realised, both as individuals and in their relationship. Miou could have felt like a feminine anime cliche with her gentle and modest nature and natural art talent, but her low self-esteem makes her someone you can most likely relate to, and even if you’ve never struggled with your self-esteem, her kindness makes her easy to root for. Haruki is also easy to connect with, a smart, usually easy-going teen who struggles to manage his emotions when Miou begins to distance herself from him after finding out a secret about his family that she blames herself for.

Although the centre of this anime’s driving force is romantic angst, Haruki and Miou also have their own hobbies and future plans in mind, which adds a nice layer to the story. Haruki wants to be a film director, and is hoping to win a competition that will allow him to study film in America. Miou, although dismissive of her talent, is a brilliant artist. This is present from the beginning, and I really appreciated that the anime was realistic and honest that their dreams mattered to them, and they were both willing to pursue them even if it might mean that they had to say goodbye to each other.

Miou didn’t know how to tell Haruki that he’d forgotten his camera…

I would definitely recommend this anime if you like romance. Haruki and Miou are fairly stereotypical male and female protagonists (he’s easygoing but can get a little hot-headed, she’s kind but also shy), but they have a good, three-dimensional dynamic that makes it easy to be invested in the slightly cliche reasons that keep them apart. At just six episodes long, you can easily binge it all in one go or a few episodes at a time if you’re looking to enjoy a romance story that you won’t have to wait a long time to get a pay-off for.

Ladybug Bush: How March Comes in Like a Lion Handled Bullying Brilliantly

Note: This article contains spoilers for episodes 25-35 of March Comes in Like a Lion.

March Comes in Like a Lion is an anime that has continually impressed me with its realistic, often understated depictions of issues such as depression, loneliness, ill health and finding family. But one storyline that has gone above and beyond is ‘Ladybug Bush’, which addresses middle schooler Hina dealing with bullying.

The storyline begins with Hina trudging home despondently, with a shoe missing. When she finally makes it home, she collapses and begins to cry, and her older sister coaxes the truth out of her. Hina reveals that her friend Chiho, a quiet and kind-hearted girl, was being bullied by the popular girls of her class. Unable to look the other way like the rest of her classmates, Hina becomes a friend to Chiho. When she finds out that Chiho is being transferred to another school, Hina is distraught and eventually lashes out at the bullies for laughing and shrugging off the matter, and becomes their new target.

So what makes this storyline so brilliant? For me, it’s not the events that take place but the incredibly human and realistic reactions to them.

HIna is angry and upset – and she has every right to be

Hina of course, is angry and upset that the bullies have ‘won’, forcing Chiho to leave the school, and leaving Chiho with the fear that she will be bullied again at her new school. The injustice is further magnified when Hina goes to a teacher for help and support, and is told that she is being ridiculous and creating problems where there are none. Not only does Hina feel that she has nowhere to turn, but she has to suffer the isolation and cruelty the bullies have imposed on her every day, as all her classmates are too afraid that if they speak out, they’ll be targeted next.

Not wanting her family to see how upset she is after she tells them the truth, Hina runs out into the night and is chased by their family friend, Rei. When he catches up with her, she breaks down, admitting how terrified she is about how alone she’ll be at school now, but defiantly stating through her tears that even though it hurts, she can’t regret it because she knows she did the right thing.

It’s incredibly moving to see Hina admit that despite her pain she knows she did the right thing

For me this is an incredibly moving reminder that the world doesn’t always reward you for doing the right thing, sometimes it even punishes you for it. But it’s still the right thing to do, and Hina knows this even though a teacher much older than her contradicted this.

It’s hard to watch how powerless Hina seems from this point on. She knows that anything she says against the bullies will not be believed as she has already had her actions dismissed out of hand. When an older boy she likes shows kindness to her at school, the bullies write cruel things about her on the blackboard. Hina expects to finally have a moment of justice, but instead it is her that is called back after class and reprimanded.

Hina’s claims are continually dismissed out of hand

Hina’s older sister admits to Rei that she feels powerless to help and guilty for not having a solution. Rei seeks a practical solution, and confides in his own teacher, Mr. Hayashida, who tells him that despite pages and pages of internet forums about bullying, there is no obvious answer. To bring in the parents and engage them in an angry dispute might make the victim feel even worse, and would not necessarily bring a stop to the bullying. It becomes clearer and clearer that there is no magical solution, and it’s impossible not to feel increasingly for Hina in just trying to get through each school day when the injustice is allowed to continue.

Hina feels lost and alone at school

March Comes in Like a Lion also shows us the long lasting effects of bullying. We see Hina suffer from multiple stomach aches, one of which is the night before a class trip that she’s afraid to go on. The show has always used its medium of animation well, and we see the emotional effects of bullying depicted in everything from a subtle crosshatching of glazed, depressed eyes, to a murky ‘black mist’ that threatens to engulf an entire classroom. We see Hina battling through oppressively silent classrooms and barely audible insults.

In spite of the injustices and uncertainty, Hina presses on, determined to show her face at school every day and show the bullies that they haven’t won. She continues to bravely push back against their cruelty until finally, the situation begins to unravel and the truth comes out. With the help of a new homeroom teacher, things begin to return to normality, and Hina is able to re-engage with her classmates, and even receives a letter from Chiho who is slowly healing and wants Hina to visit her.

Hina won’t stoop to the bully’s level – but she won’t back down either

March Comes in Like a Lion doesn’t try to wrap everything up in a neat little bow, and in keeping with the intensely emotional story it has created, Hina says unapologetically that she won’t forgive the bullies, because ultimately, their being made to apologise for their actions doesn’t undo the torment that she and Chiho have gone through, or the fact that Chiho had to leave. But like Chiho, she begins to heal and move on from her experience.

Although this storyline is a powerful tool in itself, I have to applaud Japan for also using it as part of a campaign to raise awareness about bullying, by sending 18,000 posters to junior high schools and colleges throughout Japan. Each poster features Hina and Rei, and also features the message ‘I’ll be your friend through it all’ and the phone number for MEXT’s helpline.

March Comes in Like a Lion is now on Crunchyroll and I would urge you to watch it for this beautifully nuanced storyline, and every other brilliantly handled human emotion that this anime so delicately and gracefully depicts.