Denpa Onna is Shinbo’s Take on a Key Romance

Shinbo's use of light and shadow is almost always exceptional.

Whether you choose to describe Shinbo Akiyuki‘s career as “distinguished” or merely “prolific” depends on your opinion of his success rate. With that said, I don’t think there are many anime fans who haven’t seen at least one Shinbo anime they liked, just on the count of the fact that he’s made so many, and they’re all unique in their own way. The opposite is also true… watch enough Shinbo anime and you’ll eventually dig up the spuds. If there’s a defining feature that permeates through Shinbo’s works, outside the obvious stylistic signatures that we all recognize now (head tilt, anyone), its an understanding of genre conventions, and a willingness to create (or adapt) works where two disparate genres that should, by rights, clash, are mixed together. (Below image is available on zerochan. Minor spoilers up to ep 10 of Denpa Onna.)

Shinbo’s philosophy on anime is interesting in light of this quote which floats around image boards and the like:

An unsellable animation, even if it is worth to watch, is meaningless. So the most important thing when you make anime, is satisfying consumers.

Assuming the quote is legitimate (I’m having trouble verifying it, honestly), it’s surprising to see that he believes anime is for-profit first, and an artform second, given that his works are often so convention-defying. I mean, the pragmatism of such a sentiment makes sense, but how do you reconcile it with someone who made Le Portrait de Petit Cossette? At a guess, I’d say Shinbo is keenly aware of the dilemma between creating art and creating consumable entertainment, as it has cropped up as a theme in a number of Shaft anime, most explicitly in one of the few he didn’t direct himself (but did supervise), ef – a tale of memories. After all, it’s only been in the last few years that Shaft has taken off. It’s been a stable company since Shinbo’s arrival, and had a strong reputation among otaku as “eccentric”, but it wasn’t until Bakemonogatari that it had its first true mega-hit, and that level of success was repeated with Madoka Magica.

Shinbo’s eccentric, unconventional approach to anime has been apparent for a long time. 2001’s SoulTaker (which I haven’t actually seen) was apparently a very dark spin off of the light-hearted comedy, Nurse Witch Komugi-chan. In 2004, he made Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, one of the many visually vibrant and twisted anime he’s directed, which saw the debut of seiyuu Inoue Marina as the lead, who was picked out for the role from an audition of 2000 candidates, and has since gone on to have a very successful career. And then there’s Tsukuyomi ~Moon Phase~, which aired between 2005 and 2006, a bizarre mix between tsundere moe loli romance comedy and vampiristic action/horror that only Shinbo could make work. Even more recent and renowned works, like Hidamari Sketch and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, can be counted as examples of anime that put unique spins on popular, existing genres (moe slice-of-life and satirical meta-comedy respectively). It’s very hard to pigeonhole him, but, based on his resume, one could guess that his favourite genres are comedies (Pani Poni Dash!, Arakawa, Soredemo Machi) and anime with vampires (Moon Phase, Bakemonogatari, Dance in the Vampire Bund).

But it’s Shinbo’s entries into the mahou shoujo genre that have lead to some of his most interesting works. The eccentricity is clear in both Lyrical Nanoha and Madoka Magica, but the six year gap between the two series also hints towards the sense of pragmatism evident in the above quote. Lyrical Nanoha was attention-grabbing when it first came out (I can only imagine what it would have been like to watch as it aired), in that it started out as a generic mahou shoujo title, utterly unremarkable at the time, but then developed an intense shounen-action-esque rivalry before becoming an expansive sci-fi operation littered with some rather dark themes about abuse and abandonment. The ultra-generic first four or so episodes were there to ease viewers into the darker events that would follow… something Shinbo didn’t see the need to do with Madoka Magica. Did Shinbo make the judgement that anime audiences of 2011 wouldn’t need the same level of guidance into the dark, twisted and subversive mahou shoujo series he wanted to make, that they did back in late 2004? Was it something he didn’t think he could successfully pull off without the extra years of experience and/or his own studio (yes, I know, technically it’s not, but effectively it is)? The situation is, arguably, reminiscent of the one with the Batman films… audiences, possibly, and studios, more likely, wouldn’t have accepted a Hollywood summer blockbuster as dark and confronting as The Dark Knight if it was released in 1989, the year of Tim Burton‘s Batman. When Burton did release a darker film with Batman Returns in 1992, Warner Bros. beat him down, which lead to him losing the directorial reigns of the franchise.

So, what’s Denpa Onna? At first, one could say it was a modern fairy tale, and the references to E.T. that littered the first arc would attest to that. But since then, it’s changed. There have been a few aspects which are comparable to the popular Key romances, Air, Kanon and Clannad, particularly Air. Obviously Denpa Onna lacks the supernatural influence of the other three series, but it does share a similar tone, which goes from fairly whacky and antic-driven during the comedic scenes to subdued and somber during the more serious moments. The female characters are also a mix of quirky and docile… particularly Erio who was quirky during the first arc and became significantly more docile when Makoto tore down her delusion. The other characters have their own gimmicks… Ryuushi has a cutesy act and her “call me Ryuuko” is a verbal signature similar to Ayu’s “uguu” or Misuzu’s “gao”, while Maekawa walks around town wearing kigurumi. The presence of Meme also makes for a similarity… the mother of either the most important or second most important girl is always an important character in Key stories. Meme is a bizarre mixture of all three of Haruko (the single mother who both works and plays hard and has a mysterious past), Akiko (aunt to the male lead, mother to the female lead, and blue haired beauty) and Sanae (mother of the main love interest, but also considers herself a romantic rival), to the point that she could almost be seen as a parody.

Screw the haters. Hanazawa Kana should be in every anime.

Admittedly, most of these are superficial similarities, which is why I’m still torn as to whether it’s a sign of intent or influence or merely a coincidence. Arguably, this speaks to a weakness of the anime. A lot of people have complained that Denpa Onna is slow, and while I’ve been enjoying it (especially the music), there’s validity in this criticism. It’s certainly not in any rush to get where it’s going. At the very least, the ending will hopefully put this issue to rest. It’ll be interesting to find out whether Denpa Onna turns out to be just a slice-of-life romance between a boy who strives for normality and a girl who had to be dragged out of her delusion, or whether Shinbo has again taken the opportunity to put his stamp on another popular anime genre by turning it on its head.

7 Responses to “Denpa Onna is Shinbo’s Take on a Key Romance”

  1. Aren’t you falling into the age-old trap of attributing the studio/director to creating the story. At least Madoka and Nanoha were original properties so Shinbo obviously had some say in the story, but Denpa is a light novel adaptation.

    If Shinbo really was trying to do a Key/KyoAni style anime, the similarities would have to be less superficial than simply the story

  2. While that’s true, Scamp, one need only look at the differences between Kanon 2002 and Kanon 2006 to see that a director and a studio handling the project is just as, if not more, important than the original source material. Same could be said of Clanand TV vs. Clannad movie.

  3. Strange; I find Shinbo’s quote highly ironic too. Is the quote something he lives by, or is it a convention that he’s trying to challenge? Something tells me it’s the latter, especially when his works have been, more often than not, about caliber rather than for-profit. Or so I think.

    What do I think of Shinbo? I think he’s prominent, one that I can easily remember if you ask me to name any currently hot anime director. He may have done not-so-good shows before – like Dance in the Vampire Loli and this season’s Maria Holic Alive and maybe Denpa Onna – but when he’s on a roll, he makes masterpieces. That, and he also makes great shows that are underrated such as Starship Girl Yamamoto Yoko (which I personally think is one of his first attempts at giving a dark twist to a genre).

    So what about Denpa Onna? I think it’s a sweet and quirky show, albeit not one that leaves a strong impression on me. My little cynic within me feels that Shinbo is exploring cute moe girls and dressing Erio up. A romantic show it may be, but Shinbo has done better in this field with his earlier works.

  4. @Scamp and @TIF
    On top of the examples TIF gave, there’s also the Batman movies I gave in my post. Granted, the script isn’t the director’s responsibility (but anyone who thinks the director doesn’t have any influence on the script is kidding themselves) but important things like tone, style and pacing are. Also, I didn’t say Shinbo was trying to do a Key anime, I said Denpa Onna was his take on the genre, plus a unique spin (which is what he does with most of his genre pieces). If Shinbo was trying to do a Key anime, we’d know by now. Whether this is Shinbo’s take on a Key romance isn’t so obvious.

    It’s hard to figure out how sincere the quote is without actually knowing the guy personally. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s something he didn’t always think, but his philosophy has changed more recently. Isn’t it interesting though that he’s had so much success by making unconventional anime. It says something about the rest of the industry. At the end of the day, audiences want to see something new.

  5. About Shinbo’s supposed quote, I’m inclined to think the motive behind it is not so much commercial, as it is pragmatic; my guess at the reasoning behind that quote is, “what’s the point of creating a piece of art if you can’t get eyes on it?”

    If you want to look at an anime series (and pretty much any work in any other form of media) as an artistic expression, how effective it is as one does depend on how much attention it can get from people after all.

  6. I honestly don’t think so.

    Denpa is a LN adaption first and foremost, and I honestly doubt that it’s a take on something as specific as Key’s romance works, when there really isn’t that much referencing to them from what I’ve seen (and if there is anything Shinbo is never ashamed to do, is referencing the hell out of stuff whenever he gets the chance to do so) I mean even the things latter on in the show aren’t really exact KeyRom Tropes as much as general ones found in any romantic anime (just Shaft … ier)

    As for the director having a hand in the script and thus can influence the story while true, I will point out that having I watched enough anime the man had a hand in to know that usually, if he wants to do something visually, and if that thing doesn’t have any sort of relevancy or connection to the script, he will not give a second thought about doing it anyways. If the man wants to have a spoon messing around someones brain while theres is a pasta salad stuck there instead of brain mush, he will do it, coherency and logic all be damned.

    The thing is with Shinbo is that I personally think his cinematography is more akin to a music video director rather than a traditional anime director, where in a music video you don’t need to build a complete relation between the song and whats actually going on screen, but maintain the audiences attention by making the visuals just as interesting as the song being played, regardless of them being compatible.

    That explains why what happens on the screen looks like it’s more concerned with being stylish rather than helping the dialogue with the delivery of the story. Not that it’s a bad thing necessarily, as again if there was one thing Shinbo knows how to do, is being stylish via his cleaver camera work, unconventional focus on contrast and as you pointed out with the opening picture and sub-text, shadows on shadows, and not to mention the over(ab)use of quick cuts.

    So the man is clearly a genius. Mad, more than likely, but still a genius.

    Which makes it more problematic whenever he makes me want to punch my screen trying to figure out what he is trying to do exactly.

    My problem with Shinbo is two folds. The man cuts corners, which isn’t a problem because what director doesn’t and his destiny is to work on low budgeted anime anyway, but the problem with that is that he tries to be artsy about it.

    It’s not enough that he tries to mask his short comings, be it on budget, time constrains or simply his mistakes, he will try to hide it … even if he knows it wont work.

    Hey, did you just see how I had reused the same keyframe like 9 times in the same episode? Bet no one would ever do that, not in a two episodes episode in a row. Oh how cleaver am I!

    When people say he is pretentious in presentation, I tend to agree, the man really does like to show how much he is oh so smart by being all sorts of unconventional.

    The second problem lies in his habit of not building enough (or at times any) connection to the what is happening to the story, and would rather focus on making things look interesting rather than helping carry over the information visually. Not exactly a major problem, as I said he can make some very good stylish decisions that compensate for that shortcoming, though I have to admit I at times feel very confused as to what is actually happening on screen when it doesn’t match the dialogue at all.

    So ultimately what I’m getting to with all of this wall of text is that I see Shinbo as being more of a visual guy than a story guy, so if he wanted to make Nenpa into a take on Key Romance, we would’ve seen more visible and obvious visual clues that would leads us to that conclusion.

    Also on the quote

    An unsellable animation, even if it is worth to watch, is meaningless. So the most important thing when you make anime, is satisfying consumers.

    I believe it. The man style is certainly meant to attract attention of people rather than invoke believability into what is going on, or any sort of realism. It’s about the attention grab (and the money, but its the attention) The man is certainly cleaver, but he likes money more than art.

    tl;dr Shinbo is an attention whore who really likes money and if he wanted to make a Key Romance he would’ve named it ”Key gets SHAFT’D” so he’d make sure we’d all watch it. The man is not known for this sort of subtlety.

  7. @Arabesque

    Not known for subtlety? I think you’re missing the forest for the trees here. Thematically, I’d say Shinbo’s work is quite subtle. Petite Cosette, Bakemonegatari, Bund, and Madoka are textbook cases of creating atmosphere with slightly “off” visuals, visual and editorial foreshadowing, controlling the viewer’s mental state via pacing, and commenting on or revealing character via environment. Then there’s his dedication, through all of his work, to portraying “the world” as the characters perceive it, which is a sort of psychological sensitivity you’ll only find in a handful of directors out there. Yes he can be flashy, but boldness does not mean emptiness. As to the quote, Shinbo made an entire, and quite impressive, OVA series all about the nature of art -Petit Cosette- and I think it unwise to consider anything he says on the subject without having that series in mind. The man’s a surrealist and impressionist working in anime instead of canvas.

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