Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions > Showa Monogatari Episodes 1 and 2 – When Hope Was Young

Showa Monogatari Episodes 1 and 2 – When Hope Was Young

For quite some time now—basically from when the Lost Decade had lasted long enough to earn the title—there’s been a certain sense of malaise in Japanese culture. With crushing national debt, an economy that just can’t regain its luster, and demographic trends that could well mean the end of the Japanese as a people in another century or so, the country suffers from obvious and ingrained problems that no one seems to know how to solve.

It’s to be expected that the Japanese, particularly among the ever growing elderly population, might look back with fondness to earlier times, when Japan was on the ascent, honored and respected by all the world. I can only imagine that sentiment went into the thought process that gave us Showa Monogatari; literally, the tale of the Showa (era), set in 1964.

In a perhaps inevitable concession, one of the Yamazaki's neighbors is an anime creator, blithely talking about being on the "cutting edge" of entertainment

1964 is not only a time when the Japanese “economic miracle” was in full bloom, but also the year that Tokyo would host the Olympic Games for the first time. Given that Tokyo had missed its previously scheduled hosting duty in 1940 due to certain world events that did not go well for Japan, the sense of pride this engendered was, I’m sure, particularly gratifying.

Thus far, however, there’s been no indication of how those events will affect the plot. Instead, we are given the simple drama of the Yamazaki family, particularly through the eyes of Kouhei, an elementary student and the youngest of three children. Alongside his high school age sister Yuuko and college age brother Taichi, he lives with his mother, father, and grandmother a typical boyish life, not always noticing the bigger picture.

I think Kouhei's sweater here might be a deliberate Charlie Brown reference. Enough things seem to go wrong for him from his boyish perspective (and in reality, too)

Thus far, the show has split its attention between Kouhei’s youthful antics and how they intersect with Yuuko and Taichi as they try to find the place in a rapidly changing world. Yuuko, despite being almost 17, is still new to romance, which makes her seem all the more fortunate in grabbing the attention of her longtime crush. Taichi has greater problems; continually in fights with his father Yuuzou, his transition out of adolescence looks like it will be much more awkward.

The ostensible trigger point is Taichi suggesting that he may not take over his father’s business, but Yuuzou seems intent on belittling his eldest at any provocation. One of the odder parts of the show as an exercise in nostalgia is the refusal to engage in a “Father Knows Best” style family set up; in fact, the show goes out of its way to make Yuuzou unlikable, and doesn’t hide the fact that many in the cast (including Yuuzou’s own wife and mother) find his actions boorish as well.

Yuuzou is short-tempered, insensitive, and generally immature. His flaws annoy me almost as much as it would have if the show had made him perfect

And make no mistake: Showa Monogatari is meant as an exercise in nostalgia. The show’s opening shows off how the animators recreated 1964 Tokyo from photographs, and the last few minutes of the show reviews the historical locations, customs, and events that took place over the course of the episode. It’s practically a history course in the making.

But, at least in the first two episodes, there’s nothing aside from a sense of nostalgia to draw the audience in. The characters are pretty flat, the situation milquetoast, and the sense of development completely lacking. Although I’m sure that the show will eventually have the family come back together in the patriotic wake of the Summer Olympics, at the moment there’s no sense the show is going anywhere.

One case in point: Taichi has a disastrous date in the second episode, where he learns that you don't wear a school uniform to a dance hall. It's a nice way to characterize how clueless he is, but it's a mistake to build an episode around it

I wanted to like this show. I really did. It’s refreshingly unconcerned with flash or fanservice or zaniness or any of the other tricks anime producers typically add in to catch the audience’s attention. But as lovingly as it has crafted its world—the settings, the events, the customs—it’s forgotten to give us an interesting story or likable characters. And no drama can survive without those.

Perhaps I would feel differently if it were my history being replayed. Perhaps the “so what?” I feel after watching each episode wouldn’t exist if it touched on key parts of the American experience, rather than the Japanese. Perhaps I’m just an unsentimental jerk who can’t properly respect the history of a bygone era. And perhaps this will just be something I’ll understand more when I’m older.

Yuuko's love life seems to be the only thing to go right for a Yamazaki. I wonder if that will crater too, just to make all of them need to come together to support each other in the end

Japan, thanks to some of those demographic issues I mentioned above, is getting older, so maybe the time is right for anime to start appealing to the elderly as much as it does to the teenager. But in doing so, Showa Monogatari isn’t doing much more than reaching for low-hanging fruit. It’s a far different show than what we’ve come to expect from anime. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from a season full of “different” shows, it’s that different doesn’t always mean good.

Showa Monogatari harkens back to a earlier, “simpler,” “more pure” time, and I’m sure that ultimately the show will smooth out the rough patch the Yamazaki family is going through and unite them in some overly sentimental fashion. With sharper direction and interesting leads, I might well have been willing to tolerate that. When the overly sentimental ending looks like it will be the best part of the show, that’s a sign to move on.

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  1. cuc
    May 14, 2011 at 5:45 am

    This show is produced by WAO, a company that has suddenly came onto the scene and chosen to specialize in anime made for the mainstream audience. Apparently their first 3 anime movies, directed by their boss, are quite good, winning some international awards if I’m not mistaken. The anime fandom, whether in the West or in neighboring Asian countries seem to take little notice of them.

    I’m enjoying this show, but as I’m not a Westerner, I definitely know and care about people’s ordinary life in Japan more than most people in the West. As a nostalgic show it will inevidentably skip over the uglier parts of that period, but that’s been guaranteed.

    • threeheadedmonkeys
      May 14, 2011 at 7:14 am

      Maybe I’ll take another look at it after the season has died down. Right now, I’m a bit too busy to pick up a new show to watch.

      I am curious about those movies now. They all did well at the Lyon Asian Film Festival; the only reason the third didn’t win the grand prize for its category (as the first two did) was because it happened to have Eva 2.0 as competition that year. Another thing to check out when I have more time.

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