Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dororon Enma-kun Meramera 9: Warm and Toasty Mr. Tengu

Looking at the slate of summer movies just seems to confirm how central a driving force nostalgia is in popular culture. I mean, what else could explain a trilogy of big-budget massive-grossing movies based on fucking Transformers? Just released is X-Men: First Class which not only contains the inherent nostalgia of a movie based on a fifty-year-old comic book franchise that everyone thought was the coolest thing ever at ten years old, but is set in the 1960s. (Writing this I'm actually beginning to feel nostalgic for the first X-Men film, watched in seventh grade almost a decade ago). The just-released Super 8 is an extended homage to the films of J. J. Abrams' own childhood. On the docket is a remake of Conan the Barbarian and a movie based on the freaking Smurphs. This isn't confined to the popcorn-scented world of the mass market either. Even arthouse flicks are getting in on it, with Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life starring a 1950s nuclear family of the most classical variety.*

It's easy to denounce this as a cynical cash-grab or studios playing it safe, and that's because it partly is. But nostalgia is a powerful emotion – the sight of even a shitty pop cultural icon will send the viewer's brain back to days of childhood simplicity and freedom (we tend to forget the difficult and restrictive parts of our childhoods). It's an emotion that is perhaps easy to invoke, but no less powerful than the sense of sadness or awe one experiences at a well-wrought tragedy, and (at least theoretically) no less legitimate. Of course, great art has more than an emotional appeal, but I think that emotion shouldn't be dismissed so easily.

Which is all a very roundabout way of getting around to Dororon Enma-kun Meramera (which roughly translates to the ungainly English title of “Bamf! It's Enma! *cricklecrackle*”.) In addition to having some great physical comedy, Enma-kun trafficks in a nostalgia that is completely foreign to me, and perhaps gives an example of the phenomena of nostalgia culture that can be seen from an outside perspective. In other words, it might give us some idea of what aliens would think if they discovered a copy of the A-Team movie.

Enma-kun is based on a '70s anime and manga franchise of the same name by the legendary (and somewhat infamous) Go Nagai. Wikipedia alleges that in Japan it's one of Nagai's most well-known works, although virtually unknown elsewhere, even more obscure than his other sex-and-violence concoctions like Cutie Honey, Devilman, and Violence Jack (whose titles really speak for themselves). It's a action-horror-comedy story about a group of demons, lead by the titular Enma, who fight renegade demons that have escaped from hell. The 2011 series plays heavily on the comedy, although apparently some other versions have not.

The soul of almost every anime is contained in its credits animations, and Enma-kun's are about as distinctive as they come:

The (hella catchy) opening credits song is a direct homage to the kind of deep-voiced hyper-enthusiastic anime openings of the days of yore, as performed by Masaaki Endoh, and the repeated syllables at the start are very reminiscent of the opening Endoh recorded for GaoGaiGar (more on that later). The kind of over-the-top vocals and lyrics (I mean, the song is called “Soul Burning at 1,000,000,000,000°C” for Christ's sake) come off as both childish and reminiscent of the past – the key ingredients for nostalgia. The ending theme “Everyone's Exhausted ZZZ” is similar, a kind of lullabye-like tune set to fuzzy drawings of all the characters sleeping, harkening back to an even earlier part in the audience's life.

Dororon Enma-kun is helmed by Yoshitomo Yometai, whose work is basically a history of retro-anime, the most famous being GaoGaiGar, a late 90s mecha series that looks like it belongs at least a decade or two earlier. The animation studio is Brain's Base, which is quickly becoming one of my favourite studios, having produced in the last couple years Baccano!, Durarara and Kuragehime/Princess Jellyfish. As usual they do a great job here, making sure that even if the art style is retro the animation is much better than an actual 70s anime (which is interesting – I guess one thing we're not nostalgic for is technological inferiority.) ANN lists the directors for this particular episode as Nanako Sasaki and Tomoaki Koshida, about whom I couldn't find much information except that this is the first episode of the series they've worked on and the former has a lot of credits for shoujo and josei (women's) anime. I have to say that this episode does feel like it has new, fairly inexperienced hands at the helm, as it lacks a lot of the dynamic feeling that previous episodes had, but I'll get to that later. The scriptwriter is Hiroaki Kitajima, who took over from Yoshitomo in episode 4 and has really done a bang-up job, elevating the gags while introducing more of an ongoing storyline.

The series has really been playing with the fire and ice dichotomy that's embodied in its two lead characters, the fire-spewing Enma and ice demon Yuki. Last episode started with Harumi (the schoolgirl who would in a normal show be there for the young audience to identify with, but here just seems to be here to make meta-jokes) arriving at school to find it encased in snow. “Warm and Toasty Mr. Tengu”'s opening is a mirror image of that, with Harumi arriving at school only to find that the sky is full of fiery spirals, even though she seems to be the only one to notice anything wrong. She then descends to the underworld to talk to the Demon Patrol about it, only to find them under seige by a giant fire tengu. (This is also a mirror of episode 8, where the Demon Patrol had to go up to Harumi's world, the school, to fight off the fairly incompetent demon invaders.)

The elemental theme continues as the fire demon challenges Enma to prove that he is in fact the master of fire, which he tries to do only to find that his demon staff is once again out of batteries. The series has done this gag before, but I think the repetition works here: only Enma is incompetent enough to forget the batteries for his weapon repeatedly. This leads to the Hell House being under seige by the extremely powerful fire tengu until Yuki summons his ice-powered counterpart, which leads to a full-on elemental battle that has the demons caught in between alternately boiling and freezing. Meanwhile Enpi, Enma's exhibitionist sister and the closest thing the series has to a major villain, infiltrates the Hell House disguised as Harumi and activates the self-destruct mechanism, which is of course a giant dick.

This is reminiscent of the very phallic monster in the first episode, and like that guy it's funnier because no one acknowledges or seems to realize that this mystical artifact is shaped like a schlong. It kind of seems like when Disney animators would sneak something naughty in, like all the dicks on the Little Mermaid cover.

This is related to the paradox at the heart of Enma-kun's humour and nostalgia value. It's a show that at least presents the exterior appearance of a kid's anime, but airs at 2 AM and is chock full of sex comedy. I think this relates to the recent popularity of YA novels and snarky children's entertainment among adults – it allows the simplicity of storyline and character that most people want but has enough meta-jokes and other humour that would fly over the head of the kids that adults don't feel bad about enjoying it. But of course, actual kids don't watch this show – they watch their Narutos and all that stuff. It's a series that anime hardcores can enjoy nostalgically without feeling talked down to. And it also creates some humour when the creators seem to go out of their way to see how over the top they can make the sex comedy while maintaining the facade of a children's adventure show.

But there's also a darker side to the kind of show that Enma-kun is nostalgic for, and that makes its way into this episode. The Enma-kun franchise, like pretty much all of Nagai's work, involves a lot of sex comedy and fanservice. Worse, this fanservice isn't of the “oops, my tits fell out of my shirt” variety but mostly involves someone (usually Enma) attacking and disrobing or groping a shrieking woman (usually Yuki). While the new series is remaining true to its source material (although apparently it's actually toned it down), no amount of homage or send-up (i.e. Episode 2's “Wait, why am I naked again?”) can really excuse playing sexual assault for laughs.

Warm and Toasty Mr. Tengu” does see Yuki get some measure of revenge for Enma's series-long abuse. As the elemental goblins battle over their fortress, it changes the temperature rapidly from boiling hot (reducing Yuki to a quivering and abusable mess) to freezing cold (doing the same to Enma). When Enma takes advantage of the hot temperatures to molest Yuki, Yuki fires back during the cold phases by stripping Enma of his own clothes.

While this is a nice gesture of opposition to the kind of misogyny and objectification that comes with the territory of fanservice (a kind of “See, both sides are doing it”) that does so in a comedic way, ultimately this kind of isn't the case. After all, Yuki isn't interested in using Enma's body sexually, only in getting revenge on him, and Enma is a pale blobby figure as opposed to the more human and sexualized Yuki. So the extremely problematic nature of the sex comedy here remains.

(Of course, without the constant skeevy sexuality it wouldn't look like a '70s Go Nagai anime, but there are some things that don't deserve paying tribute to. Even if you set aside the political stuff, the molestation gags just come off as kind of perfunctory and derivative.)

Quality-wise, this episode is also kind of a let-down. Coming off a series of hilarious installments, this one sort of feels like it doesn't have enough premise to sustain a half-hour episode and is mostly interested in setting up pieces for next week. I've seen episode 10, and it is a doozy, but it doesn't really feel like it needs a seperate episode as prelude. Don't get me wrong, “Warm and Toasty Mr. Tengu” is okay, but it doesn't really live up to the standards of comedy this show has set.

The central tenent of Episodism (TM) is that every episode of a show has to be valuable on its own, not simply as a prelude to something greater. This episode fails this test, and really highlights that comedies have to hew a lot closer to this rule than other shows. In a serial drama it's perfectly fine to have an episode of build-up, but in a comedy we expect at least the jokes to stand on their own. Interestingly, it seems like in a drama we're more accepting of holding off “the good stuff” until later. This may be part of the reason that while serial dramas have been perfected in both American TV and anime, serial comedies are still a work in progress.

What's also interesting about “Warm and Toasty Mr. Tengu” is how thoroughly it, and many other Enma-kun episodes, violate the idea that the narrative focus should be on the protagonist's actions. The major plot events of the episode seem to happen around the protagonists: the main battle is between the goblins and the major plot event is Enpi undoing the seal. Meanwhile the Demon Patrol is just trying to survive while being frequently sidetracked by their libidos. Despite being the protagonist Enma seems to spend more episodes than not rendered useless – in the past he's been turned into a baby, inflated to balloon-like proportions, and ran out of batteries at least once. For a group sent to Earth to fight demons, they're remarkably bad at, you know, fighting demons. This is even lampshaded in this week's episode, as Harumi goes to warn the Demon Patrol because they never show up on time.

All of this is fairly standard comedic territory, for both anime and TV in general, although Enma-kun takes it further than most by frequently sidelining its main character. But it's interesting that TV, hardly a common vector of revolutionary ideas, nevertheless has a long tradition of portraying those upon which society depends (whether real or fictional (demon-hunting) groups) as basically incompetent. Rebellion is not allowed, but cynicism is. I'm not really exploring this thought fully, as it's only kind of sort of related to the show, but I think there's an interesting paradox in TV comedy's treatment of authority figures.

Lastly, since we're discussing a work in translation, I would be remiss not to credit the translators. I watched the gg fansub of “Warm and Toasty Mr. Tengu”. One of the most difficult tasks for translators is puns and other jokes which depend heavily on wordplay or culture. This is especially a difficult decision in anime subtitling, which is generally supposed to be a fairly literal translation,as opposed to dubs, which are often extensively rewritten to sound better in English. (Then again, with the gradual disappearance of dubs this distinction may be becoming moot). The options are generally to either do a literal translation of the pun, putting in a sidebar about how it's supposed to be funny but generally making it a non-joke, or replace it with a vaguely equivalent English pun, which preserves the spirit of the original but is more an act of rewriting than translation. gg opts for the latter here, and do a pretty great job at it. The key is that the puns aren't really funny, kind of groan-inducing, but often provoke a laugh due to the sheer pile-up of jokes (such as the repeated nose jokes from the battling tengu) or sheer audacity. The jokes gg provides do a good job of capturing that balance. My only quibble is the replacing of “tengu” with “goblin” -- they're very different mythological figures and turning tengu into goblins is more Westernizing than translating. But on the whole an expectedly great job from gg.

I don't want to make it seem like I don't like this show, because I do. Enma-kun may be problematic in terms of its invocation of nostalgia and frequent use of sexual assault as a gag, but it has a madcap energy and goofy sense of humour that usually carry the day. I consider it the best anime running right now, although with this meager season that's not really high praise. The thing is, when you have an episode without that much of that energy (like this one) the problematic elements really stand bare and are a lot harder to ignore or wave away with the brush of irony. Dororon Enma-kun is like a shark – it has to keep moving or it dies, and in “Warm and Toasty Mr. Tengu” it slows down for the first time.

*Disclaimer: This may be based entirely off reviews of The Tree of Life and not the actual movie.

Next week: More current anime, specifically the oddly punctuated Steins;Gate.

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