It’s nice to see Studio Feel slowly start to break away from their trashy ecchi reputation. Sure, they still churn out cheap shorts like Bikini Warriors, Galko-chan and that one about watching bishounen sleep, but last year’s follow up to My Teen Rom-Com SNAFU was leagues better than the original season Brain’s Base churned out while Dagashi Kashi is unrecognisable as coming from the studio whose last full-length foray into slice-of-life comedy were those god-awful Minami-ke sequels.
Anyway, Dagashi Kashi is about a group of kids hanging around a sweet shop, usually having chats about the items being sold. A few people have already mentioned the similarities to the type of gag shows Shaft used to make, at least in terms of random shots breaking up the flow of scenes, rather than their fondness for abstracted set-designs. This is true to an extent, but to me the closest connection to that studio lies in the presentation of the subject matter, which homes in on some niche or esoteric topic, allowing the cast to go on increasingly rambling and fantastical tangents. It also has this frantic, if slightly deadpan humour combined with a low key, rather worn looking setting that provides an oddly complementary mixture between the mundane and absurd. I’m reminded an awful lot of And Yet the Town Moves (I wonder if anyone but me remembers that?) with a dash of Arakawa Under the Bridge. As someone who generally likes this type of aesthetic, it’s been disappointing watching Shaft mostly focus on monopolising the Monogatari and Madoka franchises, so I’m more than happy to see another studio pick up these quirky types of comedies.
Unfortunately this same unique take on Japanese confectionary will likely result in a massive amount of cultural disconnect between western audiences, being so focused on a specific cultural aspect of Japanese society that if becomes quite apparent that you’re never fully in on the joke. Sure, there’s a deliberate attempt to try and ease casual viewers in, such as creating anime specific references like the original Gundam parody in episode two, but it expects you to be have this shared experience and nostalgia towards items most of us probably haven’t even heard of. It’s an interesting little reminder that all the in-jokes and shared memories we grow up with aren’t necessarily a universal thing. I imagine the average Japanese person wouldn’t have a clue why I find the likes of Lucky Charms, Irn Bru or Jaffa Cafes humorous (hey, I’m British: find your own examples!).
Shows like this do come up every once in a while, whether in wordplay and language-based humour (Joshiraku, anyone?) or non otaku subject matter. I actually remember Arakawa S2 having a character whose gimmick resolved around the Saitama candy that appears in the opening. Thankfully, unlike that skit, Dagashi Kashi does attempt to branch out beyond simple reference humour alone with some pretty interesting visual gags, but conversely it’s hard not to feel you’re not quite getting the jokes in the way they’re meant to be interpreted.
One particular thing I can claim to love without caveats are the eyes of the cast, which seem to have been ripped-off of various other shows from the last few seasons, in particular the scion to the powerful sweet company being a dead-ringer for Anna from Shimoneta, while the Saya, who runs a coffee shop, shares more than a passing resemblance to the lead from I Can’t Understand What My Husband Is Saying. However, rather than being just a random trait, they work surprisingly well with the character’s personalities, with Hotaru’s manic, yandere glare and slightly autistic mannerisms perfectly suiting someone completely out of their head on a sugar high, while Saya’s wide-eyed, frazzled expression makes her look like she’s being kept awake by a caffeine drip. It’s a little thing, but goes long way in showing thought has been put into the presentation.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
Straight from talking about insular jokes concerning Japanese confectionary, here we have an even more culturally impenetrable subject about lone artists enacting a type of theatrical language-centric play. Into the deep end we go.
If there’s any show this season that proves I’ve not totally become a bitter husk of a human being it’s this, pretty much ticking all the boxes I want in a good drama. The characters are well realised and generally likable while still containing obvious flaws, from Yotoro being a lovable but socially inept oaf, Konatsu having obvious talents but a destructive level of pride and Kikuhiko’s icy cold demeanour belaying his repressed need for companionship. Admittedly, opening on a double-length episode helps in establishing their presence but the writing is strong enough that you very quickly get a sense of who these people are and why they respond to one another in such abrasive ways. The classical shamisen-based soundtrack is fantastic for conveying mood, mostly noticeably in humour and the passage of time, not to mention dramatic breaks between scenes. The character designs are just about my favourite style in the medium, reminding me a lot noitamina shows like the first season of Moyashimon, Paradise Kiss and Usagi Drop, not to mention shoujo series in the vein of Kimi ni Todoke and Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun. I actually looked to see if I find a connection with any of those staff but apparently this is an unrelated team.
The depiction of the rakugo itself is easily the most bold and unique aspect of the show so far. Usually if you want to get people invested in a subject they might not fully understand, using and jokes and references (such as in Dagashi Kashi) helps create a bridge between object and audience, while presenting an individual or group of characters as mouthpieces for why it’s so important is another helpful tool (see all sports anime). However, here we’re presented with straight up performances from beginning to end, with no cutaways to break up the dialogue. As a result I understand how they’re enacted and how the audience respond to them. I don’t need to guess what impromptu tricks an artist might use to get people on his side or how they react to unforeseen complications onstage because the show presents it all in real time. Sure, being a non-Japanese speaking foreigner, the subtleties and nuances are lost on me, but seeing a five minute performance goes further than a thirty minute conversation ever would. It’s like receiving on-site training. Take note, Type Moon franchise!
Mind you, this novel approach may still end up something of a double-edge sword if it continues the path of animating performances in their entirely. Having an appreciation towards something and legitimately enjoying it isn’t quite the same thing and despite getting why it’s important, I ultimately still view rakugo as an antiquated, unrelatable art form. Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ll have the patience to fully embrace these sequences on a weekly basis. The opener proved an excellent introduction, but I was losing interest with the scenes in episode two. Sure, there the show was providing a contrast being a good and bad performance, but unlike the initial experience it probably would have worked better in the form of a highlight reel. I’m still on the fence here but I suspect devoting a third of every episode to uncut theatre will quickly prove too much, so I hope they rein it in a little.
Other than, my only other potential area for worry is the extended focus on the flashback, mostly because I far prefer the modern day group introduced in episode one. As a backdrop to the current events and relationships it’s a neat idea but I hope they don’t linger on Kikuhiko and Bansai’s friendship/rivalry too long, as I’m beginning to get reminders of a hackneyed period piece romance drama. Hopefully the flashback won’t turn into that, or at least will conclude sooner rather than later.