Anime Reviews: Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi

2002; Director: Masayuki Kojima; Studio: Gainax
2002; Director: Masayuki Kojima; Studio: Gainax

CAUTION: Contains minor spoilers.

Over the years I have found that the more anime I watch, the more I start to associate specific Japanese animation production companies with certain types of stories. Based on what I’ve seen, GONZO does some of its best work with anime involving war machines (Vandread, Last Exile, Samurai 7, Full Metal Panic), while BONES works well with emotional series (Eureka Seven, Rahxephon, Wolf’s Rain, Fullmetal Alchemist) and Sunrise is notorious for working on more mainstream titles (Inuyasha, Cowboy Bebop, and the entire Mobile Suit Gundam franchise). Based on this, I have come to recognize GAINAX for their madcap anime that screw with your head, such as FLCL, Evangelion and Panty & Stocking. One of their crazier series would have to be Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, which is just about as crazy as madcap anime gets.

Arumi Asahina and Satoshi “Sasshi” Imamiya are two best friends who have grown up in the titular Osaka shopping district all their lives. But now their little world is falling apart—as the district is undergoing redevelopment, most of the shops have closed down and moved out. Sasshi’s family has closed their Turtle bathhouse and moved to a new condo, forcing Sasshi to leave his old home—and his toy collection, the fruits of six years of otakudom—behind to be demolished while he is off at summer camp. As if that weren’t bad enough, Arumi’s father plans to close his Pelican grill and move the family to his new job at a resort hotel in Hokkaido, despite protests from Arumi’s grandfather Masayuki. Now facing separation, Arumi and Sasshi grow curious about their beloved shopping arcade (four specific shops, including the Turtle bathhouse and the Pelican grill, in a feng shui arrangement) as well as its history, which involved a love triangle between Masayuki and Sasshi’s grandmother (deceased) and grandfather. They race to the Pelican grill to ask Masayuki about it, but the subject is all but forgotten when they arrive in time to witness him suffer a terrible accident.

After he is hospitalized, Arumi and Sasshi notice something different about the shopping arcade.

Maybe it’s the dragons flying overhead.

Perhaps it’s the dancing mushrooms out in front of the local shrine.

This starts off an incredible and often puzzling journey as the two kids find themselves jumping between alternate reality Abenobashis, each with a theme ranging from deep space to dinosaurs to dating sims, populated by alternate versions of their immediate families. Even local vender Kouhei and resident transvestite Ms. Aki get in on the action. Two other mysterious characters appear at every turn—Mune-mune, a young, scantily-clad, usually psychotic girl, and Eutus, a long-haired mysterious traveler she is chasing after.

A lot of this series depends on its stop-and-go pacing. It appears to run at two different speeds; after the first episode, the people at GAINAX have almost too much fun confusing the viewers with the worlds Arumi and Sasshi visit, flashing shots of Mune-mune’s latest outfit, cleavage and all, as well as occasional glimpses of Sasshi’s “naughty bits”, and slam on the brakes whenever there’s a more serious moment or when they start to dive into the story. The differently themed worlds present a number of varying animation styles—the dinosaur world in episode five for instance is cute and simple and the deep-space world of episode three is reminiscent of FLCL, while the film-noir world of episode six is normal with a dash of chibi. There are also a number of references to and parodies of other anime genres (including shout-outs to another certain GAINAX title—pay close attention to the background music during the mecha battle in episode three), and even non-Japanese sources such as action films from America and Hong Kong (the Hollywood world of episode twelve is one Western reference after another—I didn’t think Monty Python was that well-known in Japan).

As for the characters…it’s no big secret at the start of the series that Sasshi is an ultra-nerd who loves toys, models and large-breasted women, and it soon becomes apparent that the realities he and Arumi encounter are his otaku fantasies come to life, but in episode ten he gains a method to his madness and starts to show slight signs of maturity. Along the way, the increasingly impatient Arumi plays the straight man in this piece of Osakan stand-up and is not afraid to smack Sasshi in the head with a large harisen whenever he starts acting stupid (you just feel sorry for her in episode eight). All the other characters willingly give themselves to the insanity in each world—Arumi’s parents are the leaders of a crime syndicate, Kouhei dresses as Elvis and starts dropping F-bombs, and Mune-mune, Sasshi’s sister Sayaka, and (cringe) Ms. Aki are perhaps the most involved—with the exception of Eutus, who just walks in and out of almost every episode where the plot isn’t involved.

In short, Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi is not for everyone. Viewers who prefer slower, less flashy anime titles might have a seizure after the first three episodes. But if you’re an übergeek who enjoys good yet slightly crude stories rife with parodies and pop culture references with your comedy, you might find something you like here.

I mean, other than Mune-mune in her underwear.

PROS
CONS
Madcap comedy that's actually a decent coming-of-age story; various animation styles
Might be too hectic for some

Abenobashi: awesome or crap?

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