Mekakucity Actors – Creativity just got Shafted
April 13, 2014 Leave a comment
What a chore it was to sit through this first episode, desperately trying to grasp the slights bit of meaning and enjoyment from an experience that made me wonder if I wasn’t just watching a series from 2010. This remains the general feeling I have when watching anime from Shaft, that studio with an inexplicably large fan base – well, the Monogatari franchise is likely one reason – but has effectively released the same anime every season (at least those they have produced work for) since 2010. Even with this feeling I went into Mekakucity Actors knowing very little about the series, and wanting to enjoy it, wanting to find that one series by Shaft that dispels my worries, my annoyance, and my boredom for good, unfortunately this did not happen.
I don’t like Shaft, I don’t much like Shinbou as a director either, they effectively produce the same series every single time, using the same visual tricks and ticks, but changing characters names, and a vague sense of narrative. But, even with these changes, watching a series like Mekakucity Actors produces much the same experience as watching one of their series from 2009/2010 – Arakawa Under the Bridge, Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru, or Dance in the Vampire Bund for example. Saying that, I originally enjoyed series from Shaft, the use of block colours, still images, transition screens, and occasionally scenes that looked more like pop-up books or cardboard theatres were both fascinating and wonderful to behold. Their series had a brilliant style to them, and had interesting stories and engaging characters that added to the visual experience. Shaft have also produced many series that are well produced, wonderfully directed, and entertaining to watch – Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, ef – a tale of memories, Pani Poni Dash, and Arakawa Under the Bridge, to name but a few. All of these earlier series have a particular style and way of directing, demonstrating wonderful use of the camera, of light and shadow, scene composition, and the ability to make simple animation created a fascinating, and quite mesmerising world.
Shinbou’s visual style and way of directing have helped to produce a particularly fascinating aesthetic that in part owes a significant debt to the lack of money that many of these earlier series had during the production process. By using these visual tricks, with highly stylised animation, and a general lack of movement in the characters throughout an episode we are provided with a glimpse into strange magical worlds that are realistic, but also ethereal, even magical – they are realms of fantasy and the imagination. Unfortunately that style has now become stale, devolving into a series of repeated visual tricks, ticks, and transformations. What we see in Mekakucity Actors is essentially the same sorts of animation and other ‘Shaftism’s’ that we can find in any series by Shaft and Shinbou in the last few years – there are times when one might as well be watching part of the Monogatari franchise, or even Sasami-san@Ganbaranai, maybe Dance in the Vampire Bund.
The visuals in Mekakucity Actors, rather than be part of a story, a way if visualising the sort of narrative that our central characters are a part of, become distracting, often irrelevant, taking up space where the characters could be doing or saying something. Naturally, when telling a story, the visuals, and their use as an aid to story telling are important, especially when it comes to the use of visuals rather than direct dialogue between characters as they can be as important to the story as anything else. The constant still shots, frames of clocks and those loud speakers that seem to appear in most series Shinbou works on (possibly a metaphor for something) don’t really add anything to this first episode. The whole process is made worse by the main character being generally uninteresting, with the story and his places in it seemingly irrelevant to what is happening on screen.
Part of the problem perhaps is that Shinbou arguably hasn’t moved forward or progressed from his earlier work, instead relying on the same visual tricks (that have arguably made him and Shaft quite a lot of money) as he always has, but now seemingly using them at random. Shaft’s style (with Shinbou directing) is immediately recognisable, and has a large fanbase, but it has arguably become more irrelevant to the series that Shinbou works on, and instead of adding another dimension to the work serve more as a distraction and a case of him messing with visuals purely because he can. The Shaft and Shinbou that I see in Mekakucity Actors are thematically and stylistically lazy, they recycle the same tired visuals and story telling methods, never experimenting or changing their style to suit the story. In effect I feel that Mekakucity Actors firmly cements this studio and the director they are most famous for working with as one-hit wonders – this visual style might have been novel, interesting, and wonderful a few years ago, but when you repeat the same old tricks ad nauseam they quickly become stale and dull.
Having said all of this there were still moments in the first episode of Mekakucity Actors that reminded me of what I originally liked about anime from Shaft. The use of camera angles and certain scene compositions was wonderful to look at, especially when used in conjunction with a red and black colour scheme. Also, the very end sequence that resembled a puppet show was a true gem, and reminded me of a similar scene in C3 CubexCursexCurious, which once again demonstrates how wonderful visuals can aid in story telling by adding another dimension to the characters and narrative. Unfortunately even these moments could not save me from simply thinking of this series as stylistically and thematically lazy, the sort of anime we have seen too many times now. When you can effectively swap around the characters and basically be watching the same sort of anime from 2010 you have a real problem on your hand. I truly wish I could enjoy watching Shaft anime again, but unless they drastically change their visuals and ways of telling stories – unlikely as their current system clearly makes them money – then I will continue to describe them as a lazy, and above all, boring studio.