Management: Anime Secret Santa is a project in which bloggers (anonymously) give and are given anime to review. This year, I was given Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi.

Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (2002) is a 13 episode series produced by Studio Gainax and directed by Kojima Masayuki (Monster, Made in Abyss). It is simultaneously a loud, bawdy romp and a coming-of-age story.

The first episode is a fantastic mood piece that paints the melancholy of inevitable change. Sasshi and Arumi are two early adolescents who have been friends since forever, growing up together in a shopping district in the Kansai region of Japan. They are lazily fooling around one day, when Arumi drops the news that her family will be among the many who are closing up shop in the dying shopping district: they will be moving to Hokkaido for her father’s new career ambitions. The shuttered store fronts, the easy banter between the childhood friends, the argument between Arumi’s father and grandfather all draw us into their lived experience and accentuate the melancholy of inevitable change.

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We are closing shop

With this premise set up, the show suddenly transports us into a series of fantasy worlds: a world from a medieval fantasy, a sci-fi space world, a spy movie world, a Hong Kong martial arts world, among others. These are all “versions of their shopping district Abenobashi”, and Sasshi and Arumi meet and interact with characters who resemble the people they know: Arumi’s father and grandfather, Sasshi’s older sister, the neighbourhood cross-dresser, a strange busty lady who is chasing a mysterious shaman-like figure. As Sasshi and Arumi jump from world to world, trying to return home, certain plot points are revealed that force Sasshi to confront the fact that his life is inevitably changing. The last few episodes explore in turn the choices of escaping, accepting, and rebelling against this fate.

The series does a few things well. The first episode is a nice mood piece, and the last few convincingly depict a child refusing to accept something that upsets him. The middle episodes are full of wacky, bawdy adventures, which you’ll like if you’re into that stuff. There are also cool visual and auditory references to other Gainax and non-Gainax properties: the sci-fi episode pays homage to the Star Wars main theme, the Giant Robot episode has references to Evangelion (another episode even has a Rei-look-alike running with toast in her mouth!), the Hollywood episode has the Indiana Jones theme, to name a few. The loose, cartoony animation will impress quite a few fans as well. Finally, I was pleased to hear all the Kansai accents: it’s not every day you hear these accents in anime, let alone among the main cast [1].

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References galore!

Of course, I did have a few problems with the series. The middle episodes repeated the same “visit new worlds, see bawdy comedy, progress no further in plot or character development”, and I found them to be a drag. Nor was the bawdy comedy my cup of tea: it’s later revealed [MINOR SPOILERS] that the bawdy comedy stems from a hormone-filled teenage mind…but that doesn’t make it any more palatable for me. And if you were excited about the coming-of-age story culminating in wisdom and maturity…well I certainly was disappointed. I’ll talk about the spoiler-filled details below.

Overall, Abenobashi opens with a quite beautiful, melancholic first episode, followed by a few forgettable episodes that are punctuated by raunchy comedy and references to other media. Then, when the big plot twists are revealed, the show seems like it wants to be a coming-of-age story, with something interesting to say about escaping vs rebelling vs accepting the inevitable. However, it seems to back out of it at the end. It’s not a bad show, but it left a sour taste in my mouth [2].

You can read about my other posts for 12 Days of Anime here.

You can read about the Anime Secret Santa project here.


What follows is a spoiler-filled discussion of the ending. This assumes you’ve watched the series. You have been warned.

Abenobashi initially frames accepting what one cannot control as growing up, or maturity. Hence, Sasshi’s father once dabbled in the mystic ways, but grew out of it saying that this was no more than a child playing around. Moreover, when Sasshi realizes his wishes–for Arumi to be happy, for her to not move away, for her grandfather to still be alive–are incompatible with her wish to return to the real world, he throws what amounts to be a childish temper tantrum. Even Abeno Seimei, who originally rewrote history because he couldn’t accept what happened, did not get the perfect ending he wished for: for him, Masayuki, and Mune to all live happily together, for Masayuki and Mune to be together. Even he seems to accept some degree of the inevitable and disappears from their timeline.

Therefore, if we view the last few episodes as Sasshi’s journey of growing up, of accepting that sadness is part of life, then natural progression of events would be for them to return to the real world, for Arumi’s grandfather to stay deceased but well-remembered, for Sasshi and Arumi to be apart but remain in touch. Of course, this doesn’t happen. He creates a perfect ending. The final message of the show then becomes: if you can’t accept reality, get better at changing it [3].

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When life throws you lemons, git gud

Another topic worth mentioning in this discussion of the ending is Arumi’s agency. Sasshi focuses on what he wants, what he thinks Arumi should get, without once asking her what she wants. It’s not out of malice, but rather a paternalistic desire to protect her feelings, without realizing that she has a right to decide for herself. Hence he first hides from her that her grandfather has died, then fixes everything for her to create a happy ending.

A satisfying, positive message would be to let her exercise right to first decide if she wants to know the truth, and if she chooses to, then let her have the right to know. And then, let her decide for herself what action to take: to do nothing, to leave the decision to Sasshi, to escape or to confront reality.

Instead, she doesn’t even get to choose whether to know truth. Because Sasshi is so stubborn (stuck in his own emotional issues) to tell her, she is forced to find out from his dad. Then Sasshi, without consulting her on what she wants to do about the knowledge, simply creates perfect ending. Up to the last moment, he still declares: “I want to make her happy!” But what does he know what she wants? Even though she is happy in the end, even if she would ultimately have chosen the same thing–that’s not important: what’s important is her having the right to choose. It’s the difference between being a show that respects its characters’ autonomy versus one that treats them as dolls. By taking the choice away from Arumi and presenting the ending as perfect, the show affirms that Sasshi was right to do so, leaving a sour taste in my mouth.


Notes:

[1] In fact, Arumi’s voice actor, Matsuoka Yuki, is from the Kansai region herself and voiced Osaka from Azumanga Daioh.

[2] And of course TV tropes gets meta-analytical about the final message, and there are probably some things there to entertain your mind, but, your mileage will vary with these interpretations

[3] One question I still can’t answer is: why do I look down on Sasshi wanting to change reality but not, say, Madoka or Princess Tutu wanting to do the same? Is it because Sasshi is ultimately doing it for himself, and gets a perfectly happy ending in the process, whereas the Madoka and Princess Tutu are doing it for others, and only get a bittersweet one? Am I giving more sympathy to Madoka and Princess Tutu for fighting an oppressive system/society? Am I so cynical that I will balk at any perfect ending? I’m not sure I know the answers.

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