Mayoi Neko Overrun Episode 4 – Falling Back into Old Habits
So, last week’s episode of the show gave me some hope that maybe this wasn’t some mindless fanboy wank-fest. There was actual character development; there was a laid-back atmosphere to counter the rapid-fire sensory overload of its attempts at “comedy” and I got the sense that the characters existed for a greater purpose than cheap gags or exposed body parts.
There was genuine pathos there, plus half-decent writing and the show’s usual stellar animation. So I was looking forward to this week’s episode. After such a strong turn towards plot, I was curious to see whether it was going to take a more serious turn or slip back into the awful “comedy” episodes so many shows like it suffer from around this time in their run. I immediately knew which direction it was going when I saw the second shot of the episode:
A hot springs episode? Groan.
Hot springs are popular vacation spots in Japan (well, anime Japan, anyway). People like to bathe there because, well, naturally-occurring warm water is pretty cool, and Japan apparently has a lot of it. Shows like Mayoi usually have an episode devoted to hot springs because naked communal bathing is a lot more prevalent in Japan than it is in the West, so you have a legitimate excuse for characters to be naked all the time.
And that’s what happens in this episode. Seriously, everybody, male or female, is naked or wearing a loose-fitting robe for 90% of the episode. And, to the credit of the production staff, it doesn’t feel all that exploi…
Well, okay, it does feel exploitative. It’s really bad. The very premise of this episode is by itself exploitative, and the show makes no attempt to shy away from making all of its characters naked for the entire episode. But it could be a lot more tasteless and sexualized, and when this episode seems like it’s trying to make something sexual, it comes out as painfully awkward instead.
I’m going to be charitable and assume that was intentional, because for the most part the people making this show seem capable of hitting whatever tone they’re going for. It’s almost like they knew a hot springs episode is inherently pervy, so tried to compensate for it by making the actual content of the episode as awkwardly unerotic as possible.
You’ll notice I used the intentionally vague word ‘content’ in the previous sentence. That’s because this episode doesn’t have anything you might commonly call a “plot”. It’s a series of loosely connected gags and awkward situations, which is basically the norm for shows like this. What makes this episode noteworthy, other than the tone I mentioned above, is one particular stroke of brilliance.
The guys get blown out into the wilderness, completely naked, by a land mine placed to prevent peeping (a bit stolen awkwardly from the hot springs episode of Full Metal Panic, where it made more sense in context). There Takumi, who is so continuously dull that I still can’t remember his name despite the lengthy explanation of its etiology in the last episode, gets separated from the other two. I honestly can’t remember how, despite having watched the episode twice, the last time mere minutes ago, because that’s how little the plot matters. Anyway, in the wilderness and naked he is rescued by a girl and taken to a cabin, where she also gets naked, because it is raining and her clothes have gotten wet.
Takumi, being at the very least an approximation of a real human being, finds this horribly embarrassing and awkward. The girl he meets, being a non-Fumino female character and thus lacking a nudity taboo, is apathetic.
Well, perhaps that’s not fair. Kaho, like Chise, is the heiress to some massive corporation, so it’s entirely possible that she’s just too lady-like to freak out. Either way, it’s still just a convenient excuse to see her naked. Takumi and Kaho wait out the rain huddled closely by the fire for warmth. He’s embarrassed, but being a teenage boy, you can tell he’s also secretly enjoying it. At the same time, Ieyasu (the otaku) and Daigoro (the stoic warrior) make the same decision, with more tragic consequences.
The show uses some nice parallel shots to play this up for comic relief. Takumi and Kaho put their naked backs to each other, both excited but not saying anything. Quick cut to Daigoro embracing Ieyasu and telling him “I’ll protect you” while Ieyasu is trying to repress his memories before they even get made.
Anyway, while that sequence is pretty funny, what really matters is what the girls are doing. It doesn’t appear to be much at all. Their scenes amount to a montage of things you apparently can do at a fancy hot springs resort, with Chise giving a rapid-fire monologue of nonsense about the school club she’s forced all of them to join. And then, after you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security, the girls come face to face with a table tennis table. They stand at rigid attention, epic battle music plays and…commercial break.
We return from commercial, and we get this.
No context, no reason, no reference at all to it for the rest of the episode. It’s completely pointless filler, and it’s brilliant.
You see, anime is made on a shoestring budget that’s always at risk of running out. Unlike in the West, where episodes are made weeks or months before they air (South Park being the notable exception), Japanese animation studios are drawing the episode in the week or two before the episode airs. And unlike Western shows, which get paid by television networks, often at least partially in advance to offset production costs, Japanese animation studios pay for airtime. Not only does this mean any show has to be able to recoup its production cost in DVD and merchandise sales (I want to talk about the economics of anime, but in a separate post), it also means that production studios are constantly at risk of running out of money.
The time and financial crunch normally kicks in a few episodes in. You’ll start to see animation quality degrade drastically, and shortcuts taken in direction to compensate for the rushed production. That’s normally when filler episodes like this come out, too, episodes that serve no purpose other than to cost as little money as possible while not enraging the fanbase.
So, in that context, this little bit of absurd nonsense is absolutely brilliant. First off, it’s really, really funny, with the awkwardly repetitive table tennis match leading into a Louis Armstrong pastiche that gradually turns the whole thing into slow-motion, over the top ridiculousness. I almost fell out of my seat laughing the first time, and the second time through I was afraid knowing what was going to happen would ruin it, but then the goofy music kicked in and I couldn’t help but smile.
In addition, it’s also really cheap. The shots at the beginning are the same four frames or so, repeated for tens of seconds at a time. That might not sound like much, but in anime, and especially a fast-paced show like Mayoi, the average shot lasts a couple of seconds at most. Ten seconds of the same thing over and over is an obvious filler shot; twenty is comedy gold, at least if the payoff is worth it.
It’s little bits like this that remind me that the people making Mayoi Neko Overrun are talented professionals. A lot of pervy shows are made on the cheap, their ability to titillate ostensibly outweighing their clumsy direction and lazy animation, but Mayoi has been a quality production throughout. Even when they’re trying to cut corners, they do so in a way that’s still slickly produced and entertaining. I guess that’s one reason why I’m still watching this.
Speaking of which, I get the feeling that next week will be a serious episode. Chise seemed depressed at the end that her parents went back on their promise and didn’t meet her there, so I’m guessing we get a serious episode where it’s revealed that her attention seeking is a way to compensate for her parents ignoring her.
And then the episode after that will be more “comedy” filler. I’m on to you, Mayoi. And just because I know what you’re doing, don’t think that will stop me from bitching about it.