I think the above picture sums it up. This probably won’t be safe for work, by the way.
Every once in a while a show comes out of nowhere and hits you like a lightning bolt. From the very first second, you’re pulled into the orbit of a vast, terrifying cosmos that is both familiar and seemingly unknowable. All you are certain of, in the end, is that wherever the story takes you, the journey will be amazing. For me that show was 2011′s Mawaru Penguindrum, and while it was certainly not perfect it made a crater-sized impression on me and (in case you haven’t guessed) my blogging partners.
Sasami-san@Ganbaranai is not that show. Its immediate impact exceeds anything else I’ve seen this season–not much of an achievement, but play along for a moment–but maybe more impressive and/or scary is that I’m lost for words. Not because it’s just that great, but because I can’t tell whether Sasami-san is incredibly good or horrifically bad. I haven’t been this confused about a series since Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun last Fall, but while that show was at least earnest, Sasami-san is post-modern to the point of almost literal insanity. In short, it’s all the best and worst tendencies of famous/infamous studio SHAFT wrapped up in a budget-heavy twenty-four minutes: cynical, daring and possibly meaningless. Or meaningful.
Look, I’m getting nowhere so how about we stand back a bit and take this in order?
Sasami-san@Ganbaranai is based on a series of light novels written by a man (I think?) named Akira. He is most famous for writing Kyouran Kazoku Nikki, a series of light novels that was adapted into an anime by the same name. Like Sasami-san, Kazoku Nikki’s plot is pretty reflexive: a group of disparate individuals, one of whom is expected to be the child of the God of Destruction, are brought together by the government to become a family and discover the value of familial love before the earth is destroyed. I’ve only seen about one episode of the anime series so I can’t comment much, but something that stood out to me and to others is that for a rapid-fire comedy a la Excel Saga, Kazoku Nikki was not afraid to plumb some pretty heavy and even disturbing subjects. There were already hints that one of the cast might have been physically abused, and while I’m not sure how well this was handled (there are mixed reviews) it says something that the author was willing to take massive risks with the tone of his story. Akira isn’t a famous visual novel author on the scale of, say, Nisoisin, but he’s certainly ambitious enough to be taken relatively seriously when he plops something like Sasami-san on our laps.
The rest of the credit, of course, goes to Akiyuki Shinbou. But you probably already knew that.
You probably know Shinbou from his recent Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, an industry game-changer and arguably one of the best anime of 2011. If you’ve been around the scene longer, you might have seen his work on the Monogatari series, or his adaptation of the black comedy classic Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. Not everything that Shinbou’s touched has turned to gold, of course; as the primary director of studio SHAFT, he’s worked on dozens of titles ranging from the mundane (Hidamari Sketch) to the quirky (Arakawa Under the Bridge) to the skeevy (Dance in the Vampire Bund.) Shinbou’s name on a project is no guarantee of quality, but it is a guarantee that his own unique style informs the project. In the past this involved obsessive detail, architectural quirks and budgetary savings that were usually cheap but occasionally verge on genius, but since the success of the Monogatari series and the Madoka explosion, SHAFT has been rolling in money. The question, then, was how SHAFT and its most famous director would implement their signature style (again, used partly to save on budget) when they had more than enough money to animate their stuff “conventionally.”
The warning shot was Nisemonogatari, released in early 2012. The sequel to SHAFT’s earlier hit Bakemonogatari, Shinbou essentially took the vast earnings that he and his peers had received from Madoka and used it to make exquisitely well-animated soft-core porn. Scratch that, fetish porn–the protagonist scrubbing a diminutive vampire in a tub, the protagonist brushing his sister’s teeth in a sequence that went so far beyond good taste or even self-parody that it looped back around to a kind of genius. It’s the very sort of underground sleaze that so many people detest or even fear about Japanese animation. But I think it’s important to note here that throughout all his work, Shinbou has differed from the pandering, made-by-corporation base for one crucial reason–he knows exactly what he is doing. Rather than stuff his works full of fan-service to draw in as many late night viewers as possible, Shinbou uses sex as a scalpel. His taste might verge on the gratuitous or even sickening, but he almost always has a reason and the result (when done right) usually contributes to the whole. Occasionally Shinbou’s obsessions and/or visual style overwhelms the material he is working with, but in the best cases it acts in synergy with the source to create something totally out there and unique. Which brings us, at last, to Sasami-san@Ganbaranai.
Sasami-san throws a lot at you off the bat. There’s the protagonist, a hikkomori who lives in a house that’s half-modern, half-traditional and watches the world go by on her computer. There’s her brother, who always covers his face and serves Sasami with a single-minded diligence that borders on creepy, even incestuous. There are also three other sisters, all of whom possess varying quirks and are at different mental ages. That’s not even mentioning the chocolate. Or the boob missiles. There’s so much stuff there, and so few sympathetic characters to latch onto–besides maybe Sasami herself–that it’s tempting to slide off of the show’s slippery edifice, pronounce the whole thing as facile and hollow, and drop the show on the spot. I probably wouldn’t blame you, since I’m on the verge of doing the same thing myself. Penguindrum was even weirder in some ways than Sasami-san, but that show took the care to immediately give the viewer a stake in the central family’s fate. In comparison, Sasami-san is so light on consequence and emotion that I really wouldn’t be surprised if the whole enterprise really was hollow.
The thing is, despite the fact that the plot of Sasami-san is at the moment borderline incomprehensible, the central theme of the series is very clear, maybe even too obvious. That is, that Sasami-san is an anime about voyeurism, not to mention the voyeur. An eternal observer, Sasami is all-powerful but also limited. Her brother does anything she asks, but is so dense that he is completely incapable of empathizing with her. Her three sisters constantly get in her way outside of the home, but as soon as they enter her room Sasami has no problem disposing of them with a baseball bat hidden under her pillows. She observes everything, but as soon as she walks outside of her house she vomits and has to go back inside. This might be a world at her beck and call, rigged for her own entertainment and gratification, but it very rarely works correctly, and when it breaks she can’t be the one who fixes it.
In case you haven’t realized by now, we’re Sasami-san’s second great voyeur. Like Sasami, we’re stuck watching an entertainment constructed to pander to our own tastes, but that we ultimately cannot control. Every member of the cast is an assembly of anime cliches, who are comforting but ultimately limited and unsympathetic. We moan and complain, but we keep our butts planted in our seats because the director is sneaky. He knows his audience.
On one level all this obsessive detail on the female form (especially underaged) can be pretty damn creepy, but on another one Shinbou is simply participating in the same grand tradition that Hideaki Anno and Kunihiko Ikuhara did back in the 1990s. That is, that fanservice can be overwrought or pandering but that it can also be used for a greater purpose. Anno used fanservice to horrify and scald as many times as he did to titillate. Ikuhara used fanservice to further the themes of a story that dealt heavily with adolescence and sexual awakening. Meanwhile, through almost fetishistic attention to detail Shinbou makes it clear that the camera is on at all times: that just like Sasami is watching her siblings run through the motions of a surreal SHAFT anime, we ourselves are watching Sasami watch her siblings run through the motions of a surreal SHAFT anime. It’s not so much that Sasami-san is reprimanding us for tossing away twenty-four minutes of our time for doing something like that, as it is asking: Why? Why would we want to, how is it important and at the end of the day, is it meaningful? Can there really be beauty in shameless artifice?
Of course, Sasami-san tries to be an exploration of voyeurism and artificiality and a series that at the very heart of its construction is voyeuristic and artificial, all at the same time. Whether the series is capable of serving both masters simultaneously, or whether it will very quickly fall into little and disparate pieces and be swiftly forgotten afterwards, will have to be seen. As it stands, though, Sasami-san serves as a timely reminder that even after the success of Madoka, SHAFT is not content to rest on its laurels. It might not have much of a heart as of yet, or even much of a brain. But I’m not sure if you could really tell this story, the way Shinbou is telling it, in any other medium. I think that says something.