Monday, October 15, 2018

Asobi Asobase is NOT your typical middle-school slice of life, thank god! (Anime Review)

Olivia, Hanako and Kasumi
If done well, I'm a fan of the cute girls-doing cute things-cutely genre of anime. If done poorly, I stop watching after 2 episodes. Which would Asobi Asobase be? Turns out, neither! 

If judging from the opening theme song, one would assume that it features three middle-school girls who form a club to explore different hobbies and "pastimes" as they call them. In that opening theme song they look angelic, dressed in white, blushing at each other in a meadow of flowers before falling asleep on each others shoulders under a chalk board. Ah, the innocence of youth...

WRONG! Middle school girls are gross, scary, insane, occasionally mean, weird, and a whole host of other things (mine just started 9th grade thankfully!). Asobi Asobase gets that - boy howdy does it get that. It is a show about what it is really like to be in a middle-school girl's head. In some senses, you could call this a comedy horror series rather than a slice-of-life. 

It is definitely one of the funniest anime shows I have ever seen, ever. I would routinely be laughing out loud (while wearing headphones naturally) so my family was constantly turning to me and asking "what?" I rarely laugh out loud, so that's a big win for this show. 

By way of "plot," the show centers around Olivia, who looks foreign but was born in Japan, speaks Japanese natively, but pretends to speak English as her primary language (which she can't actually speak at all). Hanako is her first friend and the ultimate ring leader of their strange club. She's also certifiably insane in true middle-school fashion. Kasumi looks like she'd be the brains of the bunch, but actually isn't a great student and is more interested in writing BL stories while also being completely terrified of real men. 

As a result of various things of no real significance (other than that they aren't really very popular in school), they form the "pastimers" club which they think focuses on playing various games and traditional hobbies and which others think is a club to study old men who gawk at women (I think). Each episode consists of a few short segments of them engaging in some game or hobby that goes horribly awry due to their own insanity, weirdness, or cruelty as the case requires.

They are mean to each other, pranking each other constantly, vengeful and boastful, gross, and naive. Some of the funniest moments come from their misunderstandings about sex and how it works, especially Hanako. Hanako is fascinating as she comes from a rich family, is somewhat naive, but a hard worker, infatuated with her own perceived amazingness but also completely unpopular in actuality, dependent on her butler/nanny Maeda while also torturing him. She's the pulse that drives the show.

This is what the show is really like!

And let me be clear, this is a show that in several episodes references that fact that Maeda (the butler/nanny) was at some point abducted by aliens and had an alien laser implanted in his ass hole and that when he isn't careful, he accidentally shoots laser beams out his butt. And the show pulls that off effortlessly (Laser Shogi anyone?).

I think the other recurring element that really worked for me was the constant references to how Olivia's armpits smell. This comes up at several points and what's awesome about it is that Olivia has the classic blond hair, blue eyed perfect looks of a western-style anime heroine...but her armpits smell! Just like every other middle-schooler in the world. And the show spends time on it, in varying ways across the series. It does the same gentle humor with all sorts of other things that actually are on middle-schooler's minds. 

I won't bother to get into any details from the individual episodes, as they are short and funny and all over the place. But if you like absurdist comedy based in a slice of life format, then this is your show. 

My only real reservation about the show comes from a side character who is believed to be a boy dressing as a girl attending their all girl's school. She's in several episodes and isn't presented as trans, but instead really given a "wolf in sheeps clothing" cross-dresser persona. There's a trickster/malevolence to her role which comes across as transphobic. This is made more so by the girls' attempts to see whether she has a penis, as well as the character's own scheming around the school. It was just one step too far, as the rest of the show gained its humor from absurdity by the main characters, or harmlessly silly side characters, but this is the one character where the humor actually perpetuated harmful stereotypes about a classically marginalized group.

Contrast that with a scene between the student-council vice president and her boyfriend. In the wrong hands, this scene could perpetuate terrible stereotypes about girls being required to wear makeup and look nice for boys, but here its carried so far as to actually demythify that (as does another episode where Hanako tries makeup with Olivia). In the scene, the student council vice-president doesn't have all her elaborate makeup on. She is seen with only one side done by her boyfriend who shrieks in horror. The vice president then knees him so hard others think he's a corpse for the rest of the episode and plot how to dispose of his body. The whole thing is so perfectly delicately balanced because her makeup is so overdone, no one would believe it is something to aim for, and the boy's shock so overplayed as to be clearly satire. In fact, the show is probably targeted towards an adult demographic who will really appreciate the humor now that they're safely removed from that age.

The art goes between traditional anime to horribly deformed frightful images of the girls faces and is not afraid to show the girls as a lot less cute than other shows might. The art perfectly supports the insanity and the reality of middle school girls' both feeling like, and being, outcasts from the world, their own bodies, and their own minds. 

Had the show not had the transphobic moments with the side character, it would have been rated higher by me. But even with that big caveat, it was so genuinely funny throughout, I'm giving it a 7/10. It was a great change of pace to see middle-school girls presented as the little freaks we know they all are and not as lolitas to be sexualized or as angelically cute bon-bons of perfection.

🚺

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