Otome Youkai Zakuro

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Cliches, stereotypes, formulas, and other such mass production “tools” that are involved in the creation of “original” anime are a common part of the industry these days. One only has to look at the shows released over the previous season, never mind the previous year, to see just how many titles are nothing more than variations on a given theme.

That doesn’t mean that they’re all bad though. While an anime may be burdened with cliches, have a fomulaic plot and/or stereotypical characters, if these are used in an intelligent and innovative manner then it’s possible to produce something decent at least. Sadly, many of shows made this way (which unfortunately is the majority of anime these days), have more in common with the delusions of a hormone addled teenager (either male or female), than they do with quality entertainment.

Thanks heavens for small favours.

Otome Youkai Zakuro is based on the ongoing historical fantasy manga of the same name by Hoshino Lily. The story is set in an alternate Japan during the Meiji era’s period of Westernisation, where the Ministry of Spirit Affairs deals with the common and uncommon issues that arise in a multi-vital society (i.e. youkai and humans trying to live side by side).

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The opening sequence looks promising ...

The story is pretty decent for the most part, especially in terms of content, and there’s a lot to keep the casual viewer watching the show. The plot is pitched at a specific audience though, and while it may flow quite well, although there are times when it’s difficult to tell who that audience is. In addition to this, one can’t help but think of Otome Youkai Zakuro as more than a little “folkish”, and with good reason too as aside from the obvious allusions to Japanese folklore and mythology, there’s actually a very subtle, and slightly bawdy, undercurrent to the show that seems to have bypassed just about everybody.

Confused? Well, it’s not that obvious as it has to do with soldiers, maidens, garter-belts and folk songs. Three soldiers are sent to join the Ministry of Spirit Affairs where they are to partner young half-youkai ladies (complete with animal ears), who are supposed to represent the yamato nadeshiko, but carry branches with pomegranate blossoms inside their garter belts like they’re some kind of hidden weapon.

Seriously, if I showed that sentence to anyone interested in traditional ribaldry or the more coarse side of folk music they’d first applaud the subtlety, then laugh themselves silly.

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The girls of the Ministry of Spirit Affairs, complete with sticks.

But I digress. The fact is that Hoshino Lily managed to insert some very sly inferences directly into the plot without anybody realising it, which should bode well for the series but for one thing. While the story may be decent enough, certain key plot events can feel staged because the viewer is able to predict not only what is going to happen, but the outcome as well. This is one of the dangers of relying too heavily on cliches, stereotypes and formulas, as there is an inherent repetitiveness that arises from using these “tools”.

And boy, does this show use them.

Otome Youkai Zakuro is one of those shows that looks as though it was made while someone was checking boxes in a “moe: how to …” handbook. One look at the series and it’s clear that while this may be labelled a seinen show (with some rather obvious shoujo influences), the target audience is mainly those who like “cute” young girls with animal ears.

The “human” characters have been made to look as attractive as possible, even when they’re being evil, and there’s a certain generic quality to the design principle that can sometimes make the viewer wonder if they’ve seen the character before (I’m pretty sure I saw the elephant guy in India). The settings are nicely detailed, but while they’re well suited to the time period, they seem a bit too clinical and sanitised. Everything and everyone are too clean and too “nice”, even when bad things are happening, and this can sometimes make it difficult to take the show seriously. The colour scheme also compounds the “nice” atmosphere, and Otome Youkai Zakuro is literally awash with “cute” pinks, blues, greens, yellows, etc.

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Yes, that kid really is supposed to be a soldier.

On the plus side, the animation is pretty good, with flowing character movements  and some rather nice action set pieces. The problem  is that the shadow of repetition raises its head once more. There are a few scenes that, aside from the backgrounds, are simply the same routine repeated over and over again (the most common one being Zakuro’s transformation into “Mega-Zakuro” – which basically means she has a knife instead of a stick and her pupils change shape). Fortunately this doesn’t really impede on one’s enjoyment of the series, but it does make one wonder why more effort hasn’t gone into the animation production, and also why a respected studio like J.C. Staff decided to cut some very obvious corners.

Thankfully the acting is a definite step in the right direction, although it has to be said that some of the roles didn’t really require anything special. Nakahara Mai is an enormously talented actress and has some surprising lead roles under her belt (Furukawa Nagisa from Clannad, Ryuuguu Rena from Higurashi, etc), but while she gives a decent performance in her role as Zakuro, she is ultimately limited by some mediocre scripting. The same is true for Sakurai Takahiro (who plays Agemaki Kei), and the rest of the cast, and while all of the sieyuu clearly have a great deal of ability, there are times when it feels like their skills aren’t being fully utilised.

On a different note, aside from some strange choices with the incidental music, the soundtrack is functional, but that’s about the best one can say about it. There are some small issues with timing, and more importantly relevance, but these can be viewed as minor niggles that are quickly forgotten. The big issues are the opening theme and the three ending themes. The OP is well animated, but the timing is all over the place, and to further compound matters Moon Signal by Sphere doesn’t fit in with the look, storyline, or atmosphere of the whole show. The song feels completely out of place, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

All of the EDs are sung by the seiyuu whose roles are partnered in the anime (for example, Nakahara Mai and Sakurai Takahiro sing the first one together), which is nice, and could have worked well as an additional reinforcement of the bond between the soldiers and the youkai maidens. Unfortunately it seems as though somebody has overestimated their musical ability (I look pointedly at you Sugimoto Masaru), as the first two EDs, Hatsukoi wa Zakuro-iro and Junjou Masquerade, are stereotypical efforts that don’t work with the ending sequence’s imagery, nor the main storyline itself. Strangely, the third ED, Futari Shizuka, is more in keeping with the feel of the show, so it’s obvious that although somebody was paying attention, it wasn’t enough or they were sinply overruled by the producers.

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I'm sure that elephant guy's Indian. The other one's a fox apparently.

Now while it may be true that the scripting wasn’t up to spec, that doesn’t mean that the characters were poorly envisioned. Granted there is a degree of formula to their personas (Zakuro being a tsundere is one example of this), and a number of cliches are on display with their development, but as a rule the characters aren’t that bad. Each is able to grow because of their “partnership”, and while there is a certain method and measure to this, the evolution of the characters is treated with a degree of diffidence that somewhat belies the open targeting of the moe market.

Unfortunately, the developmental method is a bit too formulaic at times, and because of this the viewer can feel like certain obvious events are being force fed to them in an effort to elicit some sort of empathy. That said, the characters are charming in their own ways, and while they may appeal to a specific fan base, that doesn’t mean that others won’t find them interesting, or even cute.

I will admit that Otome Youkai Zakuro surprised me, as while it’s definitely cliched and formulaic, it’s also pretty enjoyable in a charming, quirky sort of way. Yes, the story is predictable, but rather than make the characters completely stereotypical there has been some effort to give them a degree of individuality (which is one of the reasons why the poor scripting is so noticeable). The design may be aimed at the moe markets, but within that saccharine sweet exterior lies a story that tries to mix several genres to produce something … at least a little different.

Ultimately though, this is yet another example of the anime industry wasting the opportunity to produce something above average. It’s a decent show, but it had the potential to be so much better than it is if the producers and director had tried that little bit harder to ditch the fomrulaic approach.

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