A Feast in Time of Plague: Michiko e Hatchin

05 Sep 2011

This is where I put on my soulja ragz, ascend the tallest minaret in all the land, and shout until my throat goes hoarse,

“Novelty for its own sake is no virtue. Emulation in the pursuit of excellence is no vice.”

Is it really enough for a work to be “different”? Henry Darger’s art certainly fits that bill. Lauding a production only because it’s unusual is as near-sighted as dismissing it solely for relying on time-tested techniques. A show is ultimately only as good as the experience it provides to the viewer.

Recipes persist precisely because they work, providing a relatively safe path to success. However, a completely innovative approach brings a much greater risk of total failure, and it’s not often that a creator’s skill matches his ambition. Yet, the mere fact that a show isn’t like most others somehow earns an automatic pass from the critics. That is gay as hell. Any day, I’ll take a by-the-numbers story that’s fun and engrossing over pretentious Studio 4°C pap that has more hipsters whining about how underappreciated it is than watchers making it past the second episode.

Fortunately, Michiko e Hatchin isn’t one of those cartoons. It is certainly distinctive — but it’s also rich enough that simply fixating on that fact would be an utter disservice to the show.

The flashy and stylish opening, with a young woman and a little girl riding a motorcycle through various colorful locales as they escape the police, accurately establishes both the premise and the flow of this anime. The girl is Hana “Hatchin” Morenos, a pensive preteen with a worldweariness that belies her age. The leggy, provocatively dressed woman is her mother, escaped criminal Michiko Malandro, who snatches Hatchin from an abusive foster home so the two can begin their quest to find the samurai that smells like sunf— err, wrong Studio Manglobe property. Verily, this highly episodic tale of character interplay with a series-long journey as the backdrop echoes both Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop as direct spiritual predecessors (and inevitable measuring sticks).

All three shows are not only praised for but downright defined by their mood and atmosphere. In the jazz-tinged Bebop, the prevailing sense is one of melancholy; while the frenetically upbeat opening track is the most memorable, it’s the more wistful and downtempo melodies that set the tone. Champloo, which exudes hip-hop through every pore not only musically but visually, combines battle tunes, meandering instrumental themes, and noodly breakbeat ditties into a soundscape that is bittersweet yet optimistic. Here, however, the bombastic Latin jazz and samba rhythms often clash with the ominous vibes from the onscreen proceedings, feeling very discordant. The undertones of gloom in the show’s more roofless turns blend with the musical ambience of non-stop celebration into something positively sinister.

Indeed, as the blurb on the show’s official site puts it, the coexistence of hope and despair was a key thematic guideline. Michiko is set in present-day Brazil, loosely ciphered here as “Republica de Diamandra”, and Manglobe staff traveled across the country to capture the regional flavor. As the copious photos on the location hunting section indicate, this was done with a typically Japanese diligence, reminiscent of the work fellow Sunrise splinter BONES put into crafting shot-for-shot accurate scenes of the Russian Far East in Darker than Black 2. From risking their lives to visit the favela slums to minding the small details like authentic currency design, the producers sure did their homework.

None of this would’ve mattered, of course, if the production values weren’t up to snuff, but this is one gorgeous cartoon. Along with the lush sonic background, the animation is not only smooth but colorful, with the entire palette, from drab to garish, coming through with sharpness and clarity. Attention to detail is evident in each and every visual element, including vehicles, street scenery, and in-show television, but especially the people. Worthy of separate mention are the ever-changing outfits: just like real Brazilians, the characters love to dress up.

While he is onboard for music production duties, Michiko e Hatchin is not a Shinichiro Watanabe joint. Watanabe’s associate Sayo Yamamoto, whose prior work at Studio Madhouse includes episode direction and storyboarding, takes helm in a full-length directing debut. Commendable as a first-time effort, her directing nonetheless can’t touch the airtight feel of Watanabe’s works. This is most evident in the exposition’s nosedive toward the end, as major events are resolved in a mix of serendipitous coincidence and villain stupidity. The script is tight enough to keep the viewer scrambling to queue up the next episode, but, despite competently wrapping up the story, the ending feels unsatisfying in a way generally reserved for shows rushed to completion.

The show’s Achilles’ heel is an alarming scarcity of effective characterization, with next to no character growth apparent in anyone but Hatchin. In Bebop, Champloo, and even Manglobe’s lesser-known mess of an anime Ergo Proxy, many standalone episodes exploit the shift of focus away from the primary plotline as an opportunity to flesh out the characters, a strategy whose success contributed to their high rewatch value. This is, sadly, not the case for such diversions in Michiko, which come off as fruitless attempts to infuse flavor into a show already saturated with it. The worst of the standalones are basically retreads of Anime 101 tropes, with a plodding pace bogging down an already uneven tempo of exposition. Overall, with the side characters nearly forgettable and most dramatis personae little more developed than when we first saw them in the opening, one can’t help but feel that the real star of the show is its setting - specifically, the country of Brazil.

If the generally positive feedback across Lusophone anime blogs and fora is anything to go by, the painstaking background research paid off (hardly a given). Naturally, the utterly ridiculous farb, like bullfighting and a married Catholic priest receive the appropriate disdain and indignation, but most reviewers consider the show’s atmosphere as authentic, if heavily stereotype-driven. Since this is the internet, there are also the requisite laments that “there’s more to Brazil than favelas, bandits and juicy mulattas” (how dare a pulp action romp about a con woman on the run focus on such things!). Most revealing was one blogger’s praise of the anime for its matter-of-fact treatment of Brazil’s social ills, as contrasted with the unbounded sensationalism in native and other foreign media. It was this very aspect, and not the glut of anime-friendly Brazilian curios like mixed Latin-Japanese names and VW Beetle police cruisers, that made the biggest impact for me.

Curiously, the same parts claimed to be more soberly portrayed by this cartoon are the ones viewers might find the most shocking, like child gangsters gunning down a stripper in cold blood. Brazil’s standing as one of the most violent countries on Earth has resulted in a public image the locals resent; unfortunately, as per the US State Department’s harrowing travel advisory, it’s a legitimate one. With reports about full-scale urban warfare in the favelas routinely making headlines, there’s no surprise that The Elite Squad is one of the most popular Brazilian films of all time (but, alas, not a manga). The movie explains how, trapped between an impotent and corrupt administrative structure and the feral, drug-fueled hostility of the favelados, policemen are forced to become executioners in a deadly struggle with an enemy that grows not only better equipped but more numerous.

The population creep is not just an economic challenge, with the federal welfare programs struggling to keep up with a permanent underclass getting poorer and more dangerous as it grows, but also a direct logistical threat. The result of a haphazard urbanization spurred by a breakneck rush to industrialize, the favelas make the cityscapes of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro look more like an an ADHD child’s game of Sim City than the major hubs of a rapidly growing major world economy - a literal Damocles’ sword inching ever-closer above the metropolitan centers.

Thus, it’s the ubiquity of crime and poverty-driven Third World social dynamics channeled in the very fabric of the setting that casts such a chilling pale of hopelessness over the show. The final episode features an older Hatchin as a tall, gangly waif with a teenage body, an even more boyish haircut than before and… an infant child, working long, demanding hours in a restaurant kitchen. In a voiceover narration, the dismissively casual way in which she mentions breaking up with the baby’s father effectively undermines 21 preceding episodes’ worth of characterization of Hatchin as a zealously responsible individual.

Most dissonant with the Hatchin we knew as a kid is her nearly emotionless voice; she describes “fleeting moments of loneliness”, but the weary resignation in her deadpan tone seems to reveal a far deeper state of malaise. Reunited with Michiko in the show’s final minutes, she asks, “how far will we travel this time?” We started with one disaffected, futureless single mother and ended with two of them. The jaws of Ouroboros close around the scaly reptilian tail, and the viewer, denied any sort of closure, let alone catharsis, responds in turn, “what was the point?”

With no other recourse than taking the journey at face value, a singular theme emerges as the punchline: one of a permanent escape from the realities of life. This also applies to Brazil’s own recent policies, as the authorities thrash between throwing money at the poor and haphazard rushes to “pacify” favelas in time for dignitary visits and major sports events. Meanwhile, the police stay underpaid, the poor stay unemployed, and the working classes are fleeing en masse into Alphavilles - private enclaves with tolled highway exit spurs and dedicated security forces. “How far will we travel this time” indeed.

Goddamnit, and here I was trying to watch something upbeat and light-hearted. But hey, The Elite Squad 2 is supposed to hit American theaters this fall - that ought to cheer me up. MISSÃO DADA É MISSÃO CUMPRIDA. UMA VEZ CAVEIRA, SEMPRE CAVEIRA!