Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi Vol.01 Review
All good things must come to an end and it seems the bell tolls for the Abenobashi shopping arcade. Businesses are rapidly selling up and stores being demolished to make way for a large-scale redevelopment scheme that promises to rejuvenate the area. The latest casualties of this redevelopment are best friends Arumi Asahina and Satoshi Imamiya. Satoshi’s family business, the Turtle Bath House, has recently been destroyed and the family relocated to a fancy condo nearby. Arumi’s family own The Pelican Grill restaurant and that’s facing closure as well, although the Asahina family’s relocation is somewhere a little more extreme – the other side of the country! The only member opposed to this move is the shops founder, grandpa Masa and when his heavy-handed grumpiness accidentally destroys the Pelican Effigy that adorns the rooftop of the building it proves to be the catalyst in a series of increasingly bizarre changes within the town. Dragon’s appear in the night sky, the morning calasthetics practitioners turn into mushrooms and a castle springs up in the middle of town. It seems the destruction of the Pelican statue has caused reality to buckle, merging parallel universes where everything is different – yet eerily familiar. The only people unaffected by all this is Arumi and Satoshi, and they quickly discover that each new world they explore is like a video game, with it’s own set of rules and a hidden goblin in the role of the “boss”. If they find and vanquish these goblins they’re granted passage into the next crazy world, and so the duo set off on the hunt of their lives as they hope the next world will be their own.
Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi is a series crammed full of so many brilliant touches and pop-culture references that deciding where to start the review is a challenge in itself! It’s like the head geeks at GAINAX gathered together in one room and constructed a list of all their favourite moments in all their favourite shows, films and video games from the past couple of decades and then tried to parody every single one, week in, week out. There are only four episodes in this volume but they’re filled with enough gags and references that it feels like you’re watching a comedic encyclopaedia of popular entertainment. The first episode is a fantastic homage to RPG video games, perfectly recreating the atmosphere of the more famous titles like Final Fantasy and DragonQuest. In episode two the theme is Sci-fi and this probably features as many references as all the other episodes combined. In just twenty-four minutes they manage to parody other anime shows like Mazinger Z, Ultraman, Gundam, Macross, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and – to prove they’re not above laughing at themselves – Evangelion. Meanwhile, film geeks will be satiated with some hilarious nods to Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you aren’t too dizzy from this episode, then the fourth and final one is a celebration of Chinese culture, with many tongue-in-cheek gags about some of the more exploitative business practices that go on in the busy streets of the mainland. Naturally, it’s not long before the focus switches to Kung Fu and proving that Asians lampoon this genre better than anyone we get some brilliant nods to Bruce Lee classics like Enter the Dragon and Game of Death and Shaw Bros classics like 36th Chamber of Shaolin. If that wasn’t enough there’s even room to parody Rocky, Dragonball Z and Mr. Vampire – phew!
Needless to say, with all these pop-culture nods the comedic tone and pace of the show is ferocious. Taking a leaf from manic Anime series like Excel Saga the gags are flung with high intensity and deft comic timing. It’s an insane, frenetic thrill-ride where no joke is too surreal or too cheap. Also, what with this being a GAINAX show and all, there’s an abundance of Fan Service chucked in for good measure - but it’s brilliantly incorporated into the general tone of the show. Take, for instance the character of Mune Mune, who may be the classic ridiculously large-breasted type adorned in revealing outfits, but I dare anyone to not raise at least the hint of a smile at the effect she has on the pubescent Satoshi – not to mention the jealousy she invokes in Arumi. Abeno is a real district in the Japanese city of Osaka and it’s clear that a lot of effort has gone into maintaining the specific flavour of the local humour. Osaka itself is well known as the capital for Japanese comedy and in particular the birthplace of Manzai stand up comedy. For those unfamiliar with the term, Manzai is a frenetic form of stand up where usually two or three performers get a rise out of the audience with a series of funny speeches, wordplays and wild gestures. One member always plays the fool (or “Boke” as they say in Japan) while the other plays the stooge (“Tsukkomi”). Variations in this act appear throughout many cultures across the world, so I’m sure most western viewers will be familiar with the humour, but in Japan at least, this type of comedy is mostly associated with this specific region of the country. So by anchoring the majority of the gags around this style, combined with other touches like the character’s distinct dialects and mannerisms, GAINAX have ensured that Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi remains a brilliantly realised infusion of external and local cultural exchanges.
Although there’s not an awful lot of story development once the duo are sucked into the parallel worlds, the first episode contains enough exposition and intrigue to ensure that there’s more to this series than wacky in-jokes. At the heart of the adventure is the touching, believable relationship between Satoshi and Arumi - lifelong friends who have hit that difficult mid-teen period were it would be only natural if their friendship developed into something further. For now though, it seems neither is willing to accept and reveal their feelings for the other. Surrounding this duo is a handful of quirky locals that play a major part in their lives and crop up in various guises in the parallel worlds. Some seem to be hilarious comic foils, like the cross-dresser Aki and Arumi’s French speaking father - who insists on being called papa. Others are tied to the back-story. Arumi’s grandpa, Masa, is a rambunctious, kooky old geezer in the Osakan tradition. Both he and Satoshi’s grandfather seem aware that there’s something magical about the heritage of the town and many hints are dropped about the past relationship between these characters, Satoshi’s deceased grandmother, and the mysterious designer of the town. This brings me on to the two characters that solely exist in the “fantasy” worlds. Mune Mune may provide the majority of the fan service but she matches the description of Satoshi’s late grandmother in her youth and the blue haired mysterious wizard that she is doggedly pursuing could well be the aforementioned designer of the shopping arcade. If so, this completes a link between past, present and future for the town and suggests there are plenty more mysteries to unravel as the series continues, but for now at least, you can just sit back and enjoy the insanity.
While I have tried my best not to reveal too much about each episode in these synopses, please bare in mind that the second episode and onwards may feature spoilers for the episodes prior.
Episode 1. Mystery! Abenobashi Shopping Arcade: We first meet up with Arumi and Satoshi at the site of a torn down building. This derelict wasteland was once Satoshi’s home back when it was the Turtle Bath House and unfortunately for him, he forgot to clear all of his stuff out before destruction began. If losing his precious baseball memorabilia wasn’t bad enough, Arumi drops the bombshell that that her own family business is closing and they’re moving up north to Hokkaido. Trying to take their minds off this matter and curious about local rumours that their grandparents hold a shady secret from way back when the arcade was first being built, Arumi and Satoshi question a few locals about the town’s history. They’re informed that, in order to invoke good fortune a store was built on each of the four cardinal points in Abenobashi. Each point represents an animal and the stores on these points house a statue of the relevant creature: Turtle (North), Bird (South), Tiger (West) and Dragon (East). Only the Bird remains to this day – and that sits atop The Pelican Grill. However, when this final effigy is destroyed, Arumi and Satoshi are faced with the true extent of the village’s magical past.
Episode 2. Adventure! Abenobashi Sword and Sorcery Shopping Arcade: With no time to recover from the shock of seeing people turn into giant mushrooms and a castle appear right in the heart of town, Arumi and Satoshi find themselves trapped in a Medieval world surrounded by dragons and sorcerers. It turns out the king of this realm is none other than Arumi’s papa! But he’s somehow different, fitting into this world like a glove without a trace of recognition of his former life. He refers to Satoshi as the hero of the land and relays a mission on the unassuming youngster – to find and defeat the Great Evil Lord that’s threatening his kingdom. With payment up front the duo graciously accept, but how are two normal kids from Osaka going to find a Great Evil Lord – let alone defeat him?
Episode 3. Hook Up! Abenobashi Great Milky Way Shopping Arcade: Their first attempt to travel home has met with failure as they end up stranded in a futuristic island in space. Arumi’s more than a little mad about the goblin messing up their destination and intends to hunt down this world’s goblin and unleash her frustrations on him. First though, she needs to answer the call of nature, and stooping in some nearby bushes, she manages to pee all over a sleeping critter. It seems they’ve discovered their goblin and with the duo stunned from the shock, the imp manages to escape, taking Arumi’s panties as a memento of the day. This is unforgivable and it’s up to Satoshi to ensure the goblin is captured and his friend’s panties are reclaimed, but the mayhem and carnage caused by his pursuit lands the duo in trouble with the Milky Way Federation Investigators – The Abeno Angels.
Episode 4. Fire It Up! Abenobashi Hong Kong Combat Shopping Arcade: Arumi and Satoshi find themselves in a world remarkably similar to ancient China. After getting on the wrong side of a Panda bear they run into Mune Mune, who seems to be under the impression that Satoshi is her younger brother. Realising there’s got to be a catch for receiving all this attention from the buxom beauty, the duo discover that her family’s doll has been stolen by the villainous Golden Claw and held up as first prize in the upcoming local fight tournament. So once more Satoshi is called upon to play the hero and undergo training in the deadly 36 chambers in order to participate in this deadly competition.
PresentationPresented anamorphically at 1.77:1 this is a very good transfer from ADV. The image is as detailed as the animation allows with only minor Edge Enhancements present and no annoying cross-colouration to distract. Brightness and contrast levels are spot on and the colour scheme is both vivid and crisp. Compression is also very good with only some extremely faint chroma and static noise intruding at times. As always though for PAL releases, the one black mark against the video is the shoddy NTSC>PAL conversion that renders the transfer somewhat ugly on a PC display. I recommend those who rely on PC DVD players should go for the R1 release.
In the audio department there’s a choice of Japanese DD2.0 Surround or English DD5.1. For me, the decision was a no-brainer and for the purpose of this review I primarily listened to the Japanese track. Despite the fact Abenobashi is a very loud show the dialogue remains clear and audible at all times and the action sequences have a nice kick to them. The score is also handled smoothly. In comparison, it’s no surprise that the English DD5.1 dub sounds much richer all round, with much deeper bass reproduction, but I’m just no fan of American dubs. This kind of manic wacky show must be hard on the voice actors - not to mention the difficulty of bringing across the flavour of the distinct Osakan accent - so I’m prepared to cut the American voice actors a little slack, but to my ears the performances are simply unconvincing and unnatural, turning an hilarious show into a complete cringe-fest. At no point do the lead characters actually sound like children, just loud, abrasive Texan women.
ExtrasADV have provided a solid selection of extras for the fans. First up is an Audio Commentary with voice actresses Luci Christian and Jessica Boone, who provide the voices of Satoshi and Arumi respectively on the American dub. For some reason this feature only runs over episode three, but to be quite honest I was somewhat relieved it lasts for just over twenty minutes because the two women have absolutely no insight into the series to impart. For the most part it’s just a tedious chit-chat among two people trying desperately hard to appear wacky and funny and failing miserably, although they do make a couple of brief remarks on the US dubbing process and the people within the industry. For my money, the best extra on the disc is the AD Vid-Notes feature. Turning this on results in a serious of pop up bubbles appearing whenever cultural references are made. It’s pretty invaluable if you want to pick up on all the pop-references and linguistic wordplays churned out in each episode. The one gripe about this feature I have is that you’ve got to be a pretty fast reader to keep up because the bubbles appear and disappear very quickly, so you might want to keep the finger near that pause button. The rest of the disc is taken up with the usual filler extras like clean opening and closing sequences and ADV trailer for Slayers Gorgeous, Last Exile, Final Fantasy: Unlimited, Azumanga Daioh and Kino’s Journey.
Whilst technically not being part of the disc, another great addition is the funky 10-page booklet that ADV have knocked up to accompany the DVD. This is a very neat little extra done in the style of a mock newspaper and crammed full of joke articles and production notes on the series.