Star Trek: Lower Decks – 01 (First Impressions) – The Optimism’s Back

We’re big Star Trek fans here at RABUJOI, and while I was both excited and proud to watch its return to TV (albeit streaming TV) in the form of Discovery and Picard, since it meant Star Trek was back and that could never be a bad thing, I’ve been ultimately disappointed in the negative and violent general outlook and worldview of those new shows.

I came into Lower Decks with extremely guarded expectations. I was not a fan of the art style in the previews nor what sounded like a lot of try-hard rapid fire comedic dialogue. Heck, even the logo of the show is ugly, with the words “LOWER DECKS” rendered what looks like a crappy free font, clashing with the iconic yellow/gold Star Trek word type.

Lower Decks is first Trek show since Voyager ended in 2001 to restore that upbeat, optimistic, cozy, joyful Star Trek milieu in which actually want to live and hang out. It felt more like those shows, and thus the Trek that I grew up with and love, than any of new live-action stuff, and pulled off that feat in less than half an hour!

Obviously, a show like ST:LD has the advantage of not having to spend too much time setting up its world—it’s basically TNG-era Star Trek, only animated. If you aren’t a Trekkie, I’m not sure why you’d watch this show, nor could I begin to imagine how it would come off not knowing anything about warp cores or the uniform colors or what-have-you.

LD can immediately focus on its scrappy underdog characters who populate the unremarkable Federation Starship USS Cerritos, starting with Ensigns Beckett Mariner and Brad Boimler. While Mariner comes off as an overly hyper chatterbox (she’s also drunk in her first scene), I’m pleased to report not every character chats at the same pace, and even she calms down for some scenes.

It’s clear Mariner’s authority-bucking, boisterous joie-de-vivre is a veneer to conceal the fact her round-peg personality in a square-hole Starfleet has caused her career to stall. There’s a lot of Tom Paris in her, right down to her admiral dad. She’s the opposite of the eager-to-please, by-the-book Boimler (ahem…Ensign Kim, anyone?), and between his discipline and her experience the two are poised to learn much from each other about life in the command division.

Rounding out the main quartet is medical officer D’Vana Tendi of Orion (hence the green skin) and engineer Sam Rutherford, a cybernetically-augmented human and to me, spiritual successor to Geordi LaForge. Tendi, also like Ensign Kim, is the definition of “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed rookie” without Boimler’s hang-ups, while Rutherford’s still-buggy implants sometimes add cold Vulcan logic to his human baseline at inopportune times.

There is a mission-of-the-week, and it involves the less sexy but very important second contact with a new purple porcine alien species. An aspect of Trek I believe really translates well to animation is the aliens and their worlds. Since it’s animated, the makeup and production design budgets are only limited by the animator’s imagination, and there’s never a chance of putting off viewers with either unconvincing makeup or falling into the uncanny valley.

Boimler was instructed to “keep an eye” on Mariner by the no-nonsense Captain Freeman, and that eye immediately watches Mariner break protocol by selling farm equipment to aliens on the side. Boimler ends up being sucked on by an alien spider-cow creature for far too long, but the whole incident demonstrated that his green instincts caused him to overreact on more than one occasion while Mariner got the feel for things and was able to improvise them out of peril.

Back on the Cerritos, Rutherford is on a date with Ensign Barnes that, unlike LaForge’s many dates, starts out pretty well! The issue is, the Cerritos’ XO Commander Ransom came back up to the ship infected by a bug bite that turns him into a vicious black bile-spewing zombie, and soon more than half the crew succumbs to the same transformation.

While it could have come off as too-cute-by-half to have the Rutherford and Barnes remain completely calm and even continue their small talk as their comrades start eating each other in the Ten Forward-style bar, the comedy worked for me since it tracks that Starfleet officers would keep their heads even under extreme conditions. Similarly, D’vana enters a gory hellscape of a sickbay, but feeds off the professionalism of her Chief Medical Officer (who is a Caitian) is, and comports herself well in triage duty.

What ties Boimler’s close encounter on the planet to the zombie virus aboard ship is the purple-pink goo secreted from the spider-cow, which cures and de-zombifies the crew. Thus it’s established that despite her refusal to submit to Starfleet orthodoxy, Mariner inadvertently saved the ship by letting the spider-cow suck on Boimler as long as it wanted. I got a really cozy feeling from the scene of the four officers taking a much-earned breather, their deeds going unsung as the senior staff takes all the credit.

While I hope she doesn’t back into saving the ship every week (something that would make her akin to early Wesley Crusher aboard the Enterprise) in a pilot it works pretty well at establishing the value of her approach to a Starfleet officer’s duty. If she breaks a few regulations, she’ll be able to rely on Boimler (who doesn’t rat her out to the Captain) and her other fellow junior officers to rein her in or bail her out.

“But wait, Zane,” you may ask: Why would you want to live in this Trek world—in which the crew turned into vomit zombies and a drunk officer cut another’s leg to the bone with a contraband bat’leth—but NOT want to live in Discovery or Picard? Because the violence, xenophobia, and general lack of human progress is too virulent and unrelenting in those live-action series, while the violence in Lower Decks is more stylized, comic, and by dint of being animated doesn’t feel as real (and thus depressing).

Also, it’s clear Lower Decks isn’t centered around violence, whether it’s threatening to blow up Qo’noS, enslaved androids being hacked into causing a massacre, or beheading people you don’t agree with. It’s far more aligned with the values of TNG. Its goal of being a Trek comedy inevitably bring up The Orville. I actually thoroughly enjoyed The Orville because it too took place in a lighter-hearted TNG-style world that’s futuristic but also bright and fun.

But as hard as it tries, Orville will always be homage with a hint of satire. Whatever else it is, Lower Decks is Star Trek, through and through. Production of live action Trek is delayed In These Times, and no telling if what we ultimately get won’t be filled with more violence and despair, and the further erosion of my preferred Trekkian outlook. I didn’t know this going in, but Lower Decks is just the Trek I need, just when I needed it.

Stray Thoughts:

  • The show’s logo may be hideous, but the opening sequence is beautiful, showing the Cerritos getting damaged in various ways against gorgeous space backdrops. The credits are also in the same font and color as TNG, which is just fine by me!
  • The USS Cerritos is the perfect balance of familiar details (like the Enterprise-D style deflector dish) in a new orientation. While a little awkward-looking, it’s a clean enough design, and I actually prefer it to the Orville.
  • The Senior Staff is mostly in the background, which is how it should be, but I do like the Riker-esque Cmdr. Ransom and the big burly Bajoran security chief. As for the doctor, she’s from a catlike species first depicted in the original Animated Series but a live-action Caitian admiral appears in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. He was my favorite Trek alien for a long time, even though he was just in the background.
  • On that note, another great thing about an animated Trek is that you can have as many alien officers as you want without worrying about the makeup budget. Orions, Bolians, Andorians, etc.
  • It’s astonishing how many Trek lore Easter eggs this episode manages to cram into the half-hour, but most of them feel organically integrated, rather than shout out “Remember THIS?” or “Remember THAT?” The old didn’t get in the way of the new, but added texture and color.
  • This is a show that rewards die-hard Trekkies, not just with familiar sights and sounds but in how qualities of past Trek characters and episodes inform the crew of the Cerritos.
  • Mariner’s dad is an admiral, but her mom is also her Captain!
  • Rutherford’s date with Ensign Barnes ends up kissing him in a moment of passion after an emergency EVA, but he’s so preoccupied with a code fault in the airlock, and the fact she isn’t preoccupied with it, he later decides not to pursue a second date.
  • The second part of this joke is that Ens. Tendi agrees with his reasoning. Both of them are total Starfleet nerds and I love it.
  • That was a hell of a battle through the decks of the ship…reminded me of the DS9 Genesis game where Sisko has to run through the corridors of the Saratoga after the Borg attack.
  • I have never seen Rick & Morty, but I think part of why I think I’m okay with the very un-anime character design is that I’ve also been recently watching Avatar and Korra, which features an almost-but-not-quite anime style.
  • Other quick production notes: the voice actors all do great work bringing their characters to life, while the orchestral score does what a Trek score should.
  • I’ll be reviewing this series going forward, but future reviews will be shorter and feature fewer images, I promise!

Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! – 12 (Fin) – Such Sweet Sorrow

It wouldn’t be an Eizouken production if it wasn’t completed after an all-nighter, during which Midori, Tsubame and Doumeki modify the ending to omit the dance party, in order to match the only track of music they’re going to get, which has a more somber tone. When their last-minute changes cause them to miss their window for their go-to DVD publisher, Sayaka bails out her creatives by making a deal with the club that got busted by the StuCo.

The dance party is left out as an extra scene to be released when proper music is procured—a necessary sacrifice in order to come in on schedule and under budget. The next day at Comet A (which is held at a very Tokyo Big Sight-looking venue), Tsubame dutifully interacts with customers, until Sayaka deems the time is right for her and Midori to don paper bags, thus increasing word of mouth and social media interest.

Thanks to their genuinely good work and Sayaka’s gift for marketing, the Eizouken sells every last one of their DVDs moments before the chime marking the conclusion of Comet A. Midori, who had to interact less with people and generally took it easy, suddenly has a burst of energy, and suggests the three of them go to her house to watch their finished creation, which for them will be the first time.

The sight of the three comrades gathered beside the warm blue glow of the TV, surrounded by food and drink, Midori safe and content within her hermit crab-like blanket, is just so cozy and beautiful. They slide the DVD into the player just as everyone else who bought one does, and the show begins.

Like Gas Mask Machete Girl and Robot vs. Crab, Shibahama UFO Wars packs an immediate visual punch, with both Midori’s talent for intricate conceptualization and Tsubame’s passion for lyrical motion on full display. The music track wasn’t at all what they expected, but they make it work for the short, and no one outside of the production would ever have suspected otherwise. As people watch, they imagine residential towers like the ones in the short suddenly bursting forth from the ground.

By the time the short ends, Midori has fallen asleep, and Tsubame and Sayaka deem it unnecessary to wake her before heading home. After all, they’re sure she’d say that while it was something they could be proud of, there is always always always room for improvement, and they’ll be working to improve it starting tomorrow, after a well-earned good night’s sleep.

Sure enough, the next morning Midori dashes in and animatedly describes to Tsubame and Sayaka her latest insight into how to improve the short. As she does, the camera pulls out of their studio, past the river to the other shore, and…just keeps going, getting more and more fanciful until an entirely alien world is revealed. Which is only fitting, as Midori might as well not be of our world. ;)

And just like that, we’re no longer privy to the daily goings-on of the Eizouken. They’ll keep at it, but it’s sad we can’t keep watching. At least, not until a second season comes…if it ever comes. I’ll cross my fingers for that, but like Sayaka’s attempt to delay the initial DVD order, it might not work out, and that’s okay. This was a particularly special dozen episodes; a lush and imaginative love letter to anime I almost instantly fell in love with.

It’s been easy-breezy.

Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! – 11 – Ripples of Peace

With 45 days until their deadline, the Eizouken creatives are working furiously while Sayaka conducts business in the same space, giving her the idea for partitions in the future. Things get even more lively when their studio hosts a raid by the Security Club.

The StuCo arrives and expels the president of the Transcription Club for “arranging deals using school funds without permission.” Eizouken is not affected, but the Secretary warns Sayaka not to let something like this happen to her. Sayaka responds with a bill for the property damage. Touche!

While working on the weekend—as they must for all weekends—the trio finally notices their adviser is supervising them at all times, even without overtime. As their adviser, he advises them not to work so long and have some fun from time to time, for “the best work comes from a sense of play.”

This permission to goof off is his highly inconvenient for Sayaka, who is just barely keeping Midori and Tsubame on schedule, but the three go on a fun trip anyway. An underground tunnel leads to a sheer cliff, and the promise of a tire swing leads them to an abandoned, flooded “Solar City” that gives Midori all kinds of ideas about underwater civilizations.

One day, Midori and Tsubame arrive to find a sign posted on the studio entrance strongly warning against acquisition of outside-of-school funds. Sayaka is home sick(!) so Midori and Tsubame catch a train to visit her. We learn how Sayaka and Midori met: they were the only two loners in middle school P.E.

Having endured partnering up with a stranger, Midori follows Sayaka around and even makes money collecting special leaves for a restaurant that serves grilled fish on them (a very Kanamori Sayaka hustle), and even rides a train for the first time. Sayaka’s thoughts about how people temporarily allying for mutual benefit doesn’t automatically denote friendship.

It’s probably why Midori to this day considers both Sayaka and Tsubame “comrades”, not “friends” (or, in Japanese, nakama, not tomodachi). More importantly, it gets to the heart about how people see things in different ways. Where once she saw leaves, Midori now she sees cash, thanks to Sayaka.

When Midori and Tsubame show Sayaka the threatening sign, she tells them not to worry about it; she’s secured another checkmate against the commerce-ruining adults of the school in the form of widespread and overwhelmingly supportive publicity for their Shibahama film project. They’re now virtually bulletproof against the school’s retaliation.

That again underscores the concept of people seeing things in different ways; the school sees the Eizouken’s activities as “anti-educational”; Sayaka considers them the exact opposite. Then, when asked about her progress with the story and ending, Midori is ready with a full rundown of the film, which she gives in a gorgeous illustrative scene.

In the process, Midori utilizes the concept of different perspectives by having the human and kappa societies be a mirror of one another. She also integrates all of the weird and seemingly unrelated ideas she came up with during their adventures! Ironically, the skeptical vice principal planting Cosmos (a symbol of peace) may have been the spark Midori needed to tie everything together.

It looks like an exciting film with no shortage of action and battles, but the central theme of peaceful coexistence and understanding will certainly play well with the city officials. Making the humans and kappa so visually alike is both thematically on-point and a time-saver, indicating the creatives have gotten better at managing their creative ambitions and embracing shortcuts when appropriate.

Armed with a strong story and all the leeway they’ll need to execute, the Eizouken gets to work, and even manages to complete the animation with time to spare (though not much). That’s when they hit an unexpected snag: the music track they acquired for the film’s score is nothing like the demo they heard, and doesn’t match the animation at all.

Assuming there’s no time to draw anything new, they’ll need a musical miracle. Maybe one of them knows someone who knows someone who could bail them out…

Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! – 10 – Watch the Tan Lines…and the Tangents

You can’t get much past Kanamori, her business sense forged as it is in the fires of her family’s past failure. Eizouken relies almost solely on Tsubame’s fame right now…but her sock has created a tan line on her leg, and she hasn’t been taking any modelling jobs recently.

Neither Tsubame nor Midori see what the big deal is, but thankfully they have Kanamori to explain it to them: if Tsubame’s star dims, so will the Eizouken’s. She has to take on the occasional job to keep her star bright.

As if Kanamori didn’t have enough problems herding creative cats, the StuCo stops by the studio personally to drag them before a conference with the teachers, who have found out about the festival they’re attending and the Eizouken’s intentions to turn a profit.

Kanamori, head turned arrogantly skyward at all times as a sign of protest and disdain, tries her best to justify the model, but the decision has already been made by the adults. As a school club, they can attend and participate in Comet-A, but they can’t accept any payment.

In the following montage, the Eizouken carries on with their big, complex  Shibahama-funded project. As Tsubame indeed continues modelling (though her face almost betrays a certain annoyance about it), Midori churns out drawings and paintings, sounds are recorded, and all of it cataloged on the computer.

I just hope they don’t run into any technical problems wherein they lose vast chunks of work. This fortunately doesn’t seem like the kind of show to drop cheap sandbags like that. Instead, the challenge comes in Midori actually being able to craft a cohesive and satisfying story from her myriad crazy concepts, and is able to “perform” her intentions to the team they’ll need to pull it off.

One key player is Doumeki, who finds herself napping for the first time—and making amazing weapon beam noises while she’s doing it! This leads to the four comrades meeting up on bikes for a “sound hunting” trip.

Kanamori (stunting AKIRA-style) is dubious about Midori tagging along when she has so much work to do, but I’m with Midori when she says it’s a director’s job to sometimes witness the work she’d normally delegate firsthand.

Besides, the resulting trip pays more dividends than simply collecting the sounds Doumeki wanted, including the latest iteration of the town’s famous bell across the water. Like the trip to the undergound restaurant, the trip fills Midori’s head with new ideas.

Some of these ideas are unrelated and can be filed away for future projects, irking Kanamori, but still other ideas help her to connect her disparate concepts into something resembling a story. That only Midori knows what that’s shaping up to be also irks Kanamori. She wants to see concrete results, and soon.

Still, she can’t put a price on the bonding that takes place between the Eizouken members on a trip that’s equal parts work, wonder, and fun. As the sun starts to fall, Midori gets one more crazy idea about the early origins of human clockwork mechanisms, and the StuCo secretary is along for the ride.

I particularly enjoyed seeing this girl, who seems very much like Kanamori, simply sitting by the river with her, asking how she’s dealing with the new restrictions. She doesn’t seem there to gloat or shove the Eizouken’s problems in their faces. Indeed, it even brings a smile to her face to watch one of Midori’s patented flights of fancy, which again isn’t immediately related to their current project.

The secretary (whom I assumed was the president until this week) had just warned Kanamori that the school is its own world, with special protections for its students, and to leave that behind. But when they’re creating, Midori and Tsubame are in a third world, neither inside nor outside the school; a world of their making. As for Kanamori, she can handle the outside world. It’s really more a question of whether it can handle her!

P.S. As pointed out by ANN’s Zac Bertschy, the Eizouken is basically an early Studio Ghibli analog. Midori is Miyazaki (hence the beard), Tsubame is Takahata Isao, and Kanamori is Suzuki Toshio. Love it!

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! – 09 – Creating the Greatest World…While Turning a Handsome Profit

This may sound like hyperbole, but Hands Off the Eizouken! may be in the Anime of the Decade conversation, despite airing in the very first season of that decade. It’s also deserves serious discussion as Yuasa Maasaki’s masterpiece, as clever and creative and self-reflexive and realistic and human a series as I’ve ever watched. It just keeps getting better.

The Robot short was a success in every way except the way that matters most to the third member of Eizouken: financially. Part of that was due to the school limiting the money they can spend and charge, but Sayaka also sees ways in which the creative side of things can be greater optimized. Dreams are nice, warm, and fuzzy, but they’ll wither and die without cold hard cash.

Sayaka turns down all the requests from other school clubs, knowing none of them would be financially worth the effort; effort she knows she can only limit so much before her creatives buck. She takes them on a brainstorming tour of the infinitely whimsical and cool Shibahama town, and Midori and Tsubame’s imaginations snap crackle and POW across the screen.

All along, as we’ll learn later in the episode, Sayaka was selling her comrades something without them even knowing it, something at which she is exceedingly effective: Shibahama is to be the setting of their next project, and the town itself will finance it because it will not only be art, but a promotion of Shibahama’s uniqueness and charm.

We see no shortage of that charm, both in the eclectic and often contradictory architecture, nor shortage of a need for something to stir things up in a town on the decline. Heck, the underground fruit banban noodle restaurant is litterally on a downward slant, which means they don’t serve the noodles with broth lest it pour out.

There is something pouring here, thought, and that’s potential. For the Big Deal Sayaka has been longing for most of her life. When the young proprietor reveals he’s a big fan of their anime (calling them prodigies, which they are) and wishes they could make an anime about a noodle store owner who is also a world-saving secret agent, what was previously-planted seed in Sayaka’s hyper-capitalist brain starts to sprout and flower.

Whether it’s selling the school’s audio collection and exacting rent from Doumeki to making social media posts of their lunch and of the popular Tsubame, Sayaka never wastes an opportunity for profit. That’s because she learned the hard way from the slow deterioration and death of her relatives’ liquor, later general store. She regales Midori and Tsubame with that sad story, and the three are plunged into a wonderful watercolor flashback.

There, the others watch with glee as a much younger “Mini-Mori” exhibits her keen enterprising spirit and natural knack for business despite struggling with math. Her relatives even note how it’s a shame they didn’t have her business sense back before it was too late to save a business that couldn’t evolve with the times. It’s as if Sayaka was born just a decade or so too late.

In a passionate speech that complements those both Midori and Tsubame have made (though theirs were about animation), Sayaka impresses upon her comrades the importance of having a profitable product at the right time, in the right place, and keeping such a practice going. That means sometimes quality will have to take a backseat to satisfying demand.

The fact she is able to talk so saliently about such a wide range of commercial and economic concerns neither Midori or Tsubame have the headspace to have ever thought about cements the absolute necessity of having someone like Sayaka on their side, keeping them in line, and giving them opportunities they’ll always be to busy drawing to see on the horizon.

Sayaka has been giving the Eizouken a robust digital footprint that will serve as the foundation for a marketing network they can rely upon so no one interested in their work will ever be left out of the loop. Just as Art cannot survive without business (at least if you want to make a living with art), business cannot survive without promotion.

As if inspired by the speech, Midori and Tsubame continue brainstorming, and determine that Shibahama itself will be a fine setting for their next project. It will depict a battle between the city and its various hidden weapons systems versus a fleet of UFOs. They have an idea, and Sayaka will ensure every stage of that idea will be shared with interested parties on social media.

The fact Midori and Tsubame took to Shibahama as the setting so organically also serves Sayaka well, for while the StuCo managed to grab Doumeki’s rent from the Eizouken’s coffers, Sayaka is already frying bigger fish. Letting out the same cool toothy smirk as when she received sundries to sell instead of cash tips for cleaning back at the doomed liquor store, Sayaka finalizes a deal where the Shibahama Chamber of Commerce will fully finance the short.

Showing that she’s growing when it comes to her methods (as an adult businessperson must if they wish to avoid future legal entanglements), Sayaka reached out to the president of the town’s Young Person Association: the proprietor of the fruit ramen joint. His group has been working on local revitalization projects, and they “ate up” the idea of revitalization-through-animation.

Because of the heightened stakes, Sayaka will be keeping that much closer and eye on the creatives’ flights of fancy lest her flights of finance go into a tailspin. That said, at this early a stage she allows them to glom onto details here and there that jump out at them, and in the process, Midori manages to convince her that they won’t have to draw any scientifically inaccurate laser beams!

She manages this thanks in part to the addition of Doumeki, who joins the flight of fancy by adding audio to the drawings around them. But the sound isn’t quite right to Midori, and since she’s the director, she has to offer clearer direction to Doumeki (and Tsubame, and all the other creatives they’ll need to pull this off.

Midori directs Doumeki by simply acting out the sequence of sounds with her own voice and then explaining her specific specifications. This is an extension of the flights of fancy throughout the series, where Midori’s voice made most of the sound effects. But it’s also an epiphany to Midori that what she is doing is a performance. As in, performing in front of people, through her concepts and animation, but also in person.

It’s something both Tsubame and Tsubame’s parents already came to grips with, and it is simultaneously exciting and terrifying to the normally shy, meek Midori who only truly comes out of her shell with her Eizouken comrades.

Tsubame may be the pretty face that puts butts in seats and followers online, but as Sayaka continues to expand their digital footprint and the scope of their business, Midori will have to become more comfortable with her performance being seen by all.

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! – 08 – Forward March!

There’s a palpable sense of anticipation in the sight the Eizouken putting the finishing audio touches on the cultural festival preview of SHIBA8 vs The Pistol Crabtle, lit only by a single office lamp and the editing monitor. As director Midori displays a uncanny knack for knowing when to time music and sound effects to the visuals.

Unfortunately they didn’t have time to record the voice actors so they’ll be doing it live in the auditorium, adding another set of things that could go wrong, from both technical and personnel-wise. But the show must go on, and it will. The main challenge is to create sufficient buzz at the festival to lure a sufficiently large audience.

Throughout this episode from start to finish, Tsubame’s rich actor parents loom large, but not as villains ready to undermine the Eizouken, but rather as parents who find they’ll have time to visit their daughter’s school festival. They almost seem eager to do so, well aware of how their careers have made it tough for her to get a fair share of time with them throughout her childhood.

Like just about every shot in this episode before the festival starts, the scene of Tsubame’s mom discovering she never came home is lit so beautifully, with the light of dawn just behind the horizon but already lending a hazy blue color to the sky.

Even more magical is the scene of the Eizouken trio tucking into campfire ramen outside their ramshackle studio. The warm firelight dancing off their relaxed figures as the ethereal purple dawn rises in the background. There’s an intoxicating combination of comfort, coziness, and a sense of impending drama.

The three don’t seem to notice how gorgeous and almost iconic their surroundings are, but that goes without saying: they’ve been working without sleep for who-knows-how-long and are in strict ramen-scarfing mode. Will they remember this meager fireside feast before the premiere of their first large scale effort, or will the day’s excitement cloud these quiet, delicate, hauntingly gorgeous earlier moments? I hope not.

Just as the Eizouken’s robot project dwarfs their gas mask short in size and complexity, Shibahama’s Cultural Festival’s unrestrained chaos makes the earlier budgetary committee look quaint by comparison. Competition ferocity is on par with the Serengeti, and one could see Midori and/or Tsubame getting absolutely lost in the stampede.

Fortunately, both Sayaka and the Robot Club have taken care of everything and are prepared for virtually every eventuality. The Robot Club also breaks a few school rules, using water rockets and megaphones to amplify their cause. This draws the ire of the StuCo and Security Clubs, who initially target Tsubame as the amateur-model-ringleader for arrest.

Thanks to the expert distribution of similar-looking cardboard robot costumes and Sayaka’s birds-eye-view of the premises, Tsubame is able to take direction from Sayaka via walkie-talkie and gradually navigate her way to the designated auditorium where the screening will take place—and where her notoriety is key to drawing a big chunk of the crowd.

Sayaka also successfully blackmails the normally untouchable HVAC club (all of whom are caught wasting A/C on a hot day) into ensuring the auditorium will be enticingly cool for audience members coming in from the outside. Sure, Tsubame enough could be a good draw, but the A/C draws in even those few who don’t know her or about robots or anime.

In another impressive demonstration of intricate planning, logistics, timing, and luck, Robot Club’s Ono takes a zipline across the breadth of the campus, with a huge banner trailing behind him notifying the gawking masses of the impending screening.

Like Tsubame, the cat-and-mouse chase between him and those who would shut them down takes on the feel of a madcap video game, complete with platforms, mazes, obstacles, and end-goals. It’s just a tremendous amount of fun and imagination—and all before we see a single frame of the movie!

Everything goes off without a hitch. The auditorium is nice and cool and the crowd is huge. Even Tsubame’s parents attend, eager to see what their daughter has been up to (turns out using MIBs to discourage her from anime pursuits was her dad’s idea). There are no technical difficulties with the video or audio or the live-voicing setup.

The crowd watches the robot-crabtle battle with stunned looks, the screen glowing in their eyes. Tsubame’s parents admire the animation with prime, and are able to see Tsubame’s love of capturing motion through art in this manner. Pride washes over their faces. They realize this, not live-action acting, is what their daughter loves and excels at.

After the screening, and a brief autograph/handshake session, Tsubame is dispatched to get lunch for Midori and Sayaka, and runs into her parents. The three have a cordial mini-lunch together, and Tsubame draws upon her parents’ careers as artists for perhaps the first time, asking if they’re ever satisfied after a performance.

She’s relieved to hear neither of them are, because neither is she…and we no neither is Midori. They’re relieved Tsubame has been off doing her own thing, and it’s something they’re not going to try to hold her back from anymore. To do so would be to prevent her from “performing” the way she knows best: with pencil and paper.

Finally, her parents poke their heads in a shed where the Eizouken 3 are taking a break from all the hubbub, and about to scarf down the lunch Tsubame brought. Her parents ask if these are her friends; Midori responds that they’re comrades. The bonds of comrades, joined not by blood but by common cause and common fate, surpass mere friendship, for even the best of friends can have vastly different goals.

It’s no surprise Midori is donned in full camo combat fatigues. The cultural festival was the Eizouken’s greatest battle yet, and victory was achieved. Not flawlessly, mind you—Midori estimates she’s only 20% satisfied with the product they presented—but enough to get the job done.

The fact Tsubame’s parents can no longer be counted among their enemies is both strategically advantageous and a timely boost to unit morale. On to the next battle!

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! – 07 – Spilling Tea for Art’s Sake

Tsubame’s unyielding passion to capture the motion of the world around her through drawing started when she was in grade school, watching her grandma toss tea into the yard with a precise, practiced motion. The action fascinated her, and she yearned to master it herself so she could capture it in all its glory.

When she ended up in classes on how to stand, sit, and walk in preparation for her modeling career, Tsubame voraciously jotted down all the various motions, even discerning a better way for her infirm grandma to move and walk more comfortably. She carries that passion on in every frame of animation she’s drawing for this robot anime.

She does this in defiance of her mother’s insistence she not get involved in animation, but also in lieu of getting the proper amount of sleep or paying sufficient attention in class. Yet even if she’s sleep-deprived and her grades start to slip, there’s no alternative. Tsubame is gradually learning not to be a total perfectionist, but she’s never going to give anything less than 110% effort.

With Doumeki on board, the trio now have someone with far more audio know-how than the rest of them combined, but that just means she’s able to describe in precise demoralizing detail all of the challenges they face and the consequences of not properly harmonizing visuals and sound.

Meanwhile, Midori is presented artwork that the artists believe was following her instructions, but which she worries will fundamentally change the film they’re making. The artists need to be more flexible, but she needs to be more precise in her direction.

While I’m sure Sayaka considers it another strictly-business opportunity to give her talent a much-needed break, and it is their bathhouse visit after school is closed due to rain turns out to be a nice bonding experience. There’s a familial intimacy to bathing together that the team previously lacked.

It’s also fun to watch Midori dutifully call her very nice parents to let her know where she is and what she’s doing with whom, as well as the very rich Tsubame marveling at every aspect of the bathhouse experience, as well as insisting Sayaka douses Midori over and over so she can watch the motion of the water —much like she asked her granny to keep tossing tea.

The three then dine on crawfish after catching their fair share themselves (though they can’t eat the same fish they caught, as they must be purged of mud first, Midori points out), and Midori and Tsubame whip out their sketchbooks to capture their dinner in all its crustacean glory. Few moments of these young women’s lives seem to ever pass without them capturing it with pen or pencil on paper.

When the rain subsides, they return to their studio, and Tsubame gradually becomes frustrated with her animation of a chainsaw. After discussing possible remedies with Midori, the two bring in Sayaka, who thinks its fine and that they should watch it with sound. Sure enough, it makes more than enough impact for the quick cut…but Tsubame isn’t quite satisfied.

Both Midori and Tsubame consider anime to be the best way to appreciate movement, more so than even live action film, and that comes down to intent. The imagination, passion and effort of a great animator comes out in every frame of their work, lending it greater impact than a mere directed and photographed live-action actor.

Tsubame isn’t looking to “make people smile” with her anime. She wants to be able to wow people like her, who can’t help but spot every potential flaw or revelation; notice every triumph or defeat. By being her own harshest, uncompromising critic, an artiste like Tsubame could potentially problems for a production on a shoestring budget and tight deadline.

But doggone it, the eventual visual rewards of letting her go wild are well worth the pain. It’s why Sayaka is almost always irritated and annoyed, but she’ll gladly bear those emotions if it results in an exceptional—and profitable—final product. When you successfully harness the chaotic energy of special talents and personalities, great things can happen. And like a rocket taking off, the sky’s the limit.

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! – 06 – No Groaning, Moaning, or Excuses

The Eizoken has 96 days to produce a 15-20 minute anime about a robot fighting a crabtle, and its members must contend with a nearly infinitely more complex production. More action scenes, more sound effects, more backgrounds, more of everything they already did with Machete Girl, only they’ll also need more classically epic music and voice actors for dialogue.

Kanamori Sayaka, the ever-steady executive producer, keeps the ship on course in these early stages, knowing when to crack the whip and when to show kindness and generosity…or at least that last bit would have been the case if she’d actually treated the artists to ramen. That said, never carrying more than 1,000 yen at all times is an elegant, effective means of budgeting!

She can forsee that this production could easily drain their finances, and the student council is keeping a watchful eye, so Sayaka decides to play ball, acting both as council enforcer and interested party with the delinquent Sound Club.

She gives its only member Doumeki an offer she can’t refuse, offering protection in exchange for access to her ridiculously vast collection of sounds, plus her own expertise as audio advisor. Doumeki is also compelled to sell much of the collection for club funds, and Sayaka and the Eizouken will get a cut of that.

Sayaka can’t do it all, however. She can only create a stable enough environment in which Midori and Tsubame can work. But there’s more work than the two of them will ever be able to complete in time, so they need to delegate some of the work to a willing art club (who like the robot club were impressed by Machete Girl).

In their first meeting with the art club, Midori constantly needs help from both Sayaka and one of the club’s members to get out what she’s trying to say. She’s simply not good at telling people what to do, but if she doesn’t, there’s no giant robot anime.

While recharging her depleted brain with some late afternoon sketching, Midori falls down a well of self-doubt, worried there’s no way she can make a robot anime that will satisfy everyone. Sayaka delivers the tough love speech she Midori in her moment of vulnerability. It’s not about satisfying everyone, but making a final product on time that she can be satisfied with and proud of.

As evidenced from their reaction to Machete Girl, Midori and Tsubame are their own most exacting critics, so it sounds counterproductive to tell her to trust in her own sensibilities. But Midori is eventually able to reconcile some of the inconsistencies (or as Tsubame calls them, “crimes” committed in order to field a giant robot anime), and regains her motivation.

Hands Off the Eizouken! has beautiful, terrifically imaginative art and a wonderfully novel way of visualizing its artists’ creations, but besides all that one shouldn’t overlook its devotion to what makes a good anime: characters you care about overcoming obstacles internal and external to achieve something great.

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! – 05 – Blue-Collar Giant Robot

The newly-validated Eizouken could be forgiven for taking it easy in the shadow of their triumph. They worked their butts off with very little sleep, and it’s never mentioned how badly it affected either their academic studies or Tsubame’s modeling schedule. However, Sayaka puts them right back on track for their next project, which will be bigger and more ambitious.

She’s secured a commission from the school’s robot club to create a giant robot anime, a key promotion for both clubs to be presented as the centerpiece of the upcoming cultural festival. During their initial meet-and-greet, Midori’s imagination gets the best of her, as she finds herself in the middle of a drama involving dark, secret facilities and brainwashed friends.

Never ones to stare at blank paper, the girls explore the sprawling underground network beneath the school, where the setting takes on a distinct Girls Last Tour look and feel, in order to stimulate and feed their imaginations. The trip is a fruitful one, as Midori and Tsubame work out the concept of a crab/turtle hybrid with a heat attack and shockwave-creating claw as the robot’s opponent.

Midori is the scaredy-cat of the group, but also the most cautious and prepared for contingencies. Sayaka and Tsubame would have been SOL had their friend not brought rope and a shovel when the three fall into a pit. Meanwhile the show’s real-life setting continues to amaze with its whimsical complexity.

The next step is ostensibly where Sayaka will shine: the negotiations that lead to the official start of the project. However, in this case she’s unable to secure any blackmail bait for negotiation purposes, and one of the robot club’s members is both passionate and obstinate in his vision.

His problem is that while he knows what he wants, he can’t visualize it, so he was liable to reject anything that deviated from that impossible ideal. Sayaka is bailed out from this ordeal when Tsubame and Midori relate to the stubborn member as comrades in frustration with the mundaneness of the world, its lack of real giant robots, spaceships, and hadokens.

With that obstacle removed, the girls collaborate with the robot club members in brainstorming a direction for the design of the robot and its weaponry, which will include a chainsaw, pile driver and metal drill (not wood!). All of its camera and sensor functions are streamlined into a sleek retro-style head.

This marks the first time others have borne witnesses to Midori and Tsubame’s visualized flights of fancy, but the extra input results in a complex final model that Sayaka is worried will be a bitch to animate. Even so, with official standing, additional resources, and a more realistic timeline, I don’t doubt Tsubame and Midori can pull it off, and it will be loads of fun to watch!

 

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! – 04 – The Advantage of High Standards

With only a month to go until the budget committee, we open on an Eizouken in crisis. For all the work Midori and Tsubame have done, they only have a few seconds of finished work to show for it. Midori can get los in her detailed worlds, while Tsubame is a proud perfectionist. Sayaka knows they’re dead in the water at such a slow pace, which means corners have to be cut somewhere.

That said, Midori and Tsubame wouldn’t bother making an anime, no matter how short or shallow, without showing off the skills they’ve amassed. Sayaka must always walk the delicate line between keeping the girls on schedule and not crushing their dreams. The three exhibit the flexibility needed in such a venture to agree to compromises they can all live with.

Yet even with a good final product (and the episode is coy about how much progress they make in realizing their vision), the Eizouken is up against a circus-like atmosphere the day of the committee, and a hostile student council intent on suspending their activities before they even have a chance to show their work. When Sayaka’s lawyering scares the adults but not the StuCo, Midori insists they at least see what they’ve been working on.

Then their anime plays out more or less in real time, and the animation, while simple and rough, is so dynamic that everyone in the auditorium reacts like they’ve been flung in the middle of the kinetic battle between the Machete Girl and her tank nemesis. Everyone in attendance is bowled over…except for our perfectionist creators, constantly critiquing the work and coming up with improvements for the future.

Having witnessed just how much the Eizouken can accomplish without a budget or a fair deadline, the StuCo has no choice but to see what they are capable of with both. That could possibly backfire—having backs against the wall is a common motivator—but I doubt it.

The enthusiastic fires in Midori and Tsubame have never burned brighter than at the end of their presentation, and Sayaka seems pleased that other outsiders saw what she saw in these two: they’re special, and they are capable of great things no matter the conditions.

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! – 03 – Gas Mask Girl vs. Personal Defense Tank

The accident video turns out not to have any adverse consequences (for now) but did net the Film Club 30,000 yen, most of which was spent on repairs. It’s a good thing Sayaka is around to keep the wild-eyed dreamer and the rich girl in line, monetarily speaking.

While Midori and Tsubame are easily distracted by a butterfly or tanuki, Sayaka makes sure they take this seriously, because the school will only promote a serious association to full club status. First order of business is repairing the roof, a task the animators visualize as EVA on a spaceship.

Once they’ve had a meal and a discussion on what’s physically possible in the 55 days they have until the budget discretionary hearing, the trio take the train to Midori’s place. Most of the ads happen to feature Tsubame, attracting a couple of fans and reminding us of her notoriety.

One also imagines she’ll likely have a modeling job or two during those 55 days. When it’s clear that a 3600-frame 5-minute animated short will be too much work for the two of them, they shorten it to three minutes.

Once at Midori’s modest apartment (with its neat checkered carpet), the brainstorming commences. Midori has books full of cool concepts, and they settle on one that’s relatively simple, as most of the structures are cubes. More elaborate environments can wait until they’re on sturdier organizational and financial ground.

Watching Midori and Tsubame bounce off each other and create worlds before our eyes is never not thrilling, but it’s also rewarding to see how the enterprising Sayaka reacts to their “creative rampages,” by finding a way to combine the two artists’ disparate visions.

Sayaka exhibits emotional intelligence by ensuring neither of the animators are discouraged to the point of adversely affecting their enthusiasm and productivity. She’s also pretty sure they can save money on paper by simply buying a hole punch!

By episodes end, the broad strokes of the short have been hammered out. Tsubame’s efforts will center on a high school girl in a gas mask (to limit the need to draw full facial expressions) armed with a machete, who battles an adorable “Personal Defense Tank” designed by Midori in a low-gravity environment.

If what they end up animating looks anything like the concept story-boarding they made in their minds, they should be on a one-way-street to acknowledgement as a full film club. But that’s a big if, and there’s still the possibilty of butting heads with budget adjudicators who aren’t okay with the concept of a second anime-related club, or simply aren’t into animation.

In the battle to come, Midori, Sayaka, and Tsubame are Gas Mask Girl, while the school is the tank. Somehow, they must find a way to prevail.

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! – 02 – Tilting at the Greatest Windmills

Midori, Sayaka and Tsubame head to the faculty lounge, which is whimsically located inside a giant empty swimming pool, to make their case for an animation club. When one teacher says there’s already an anime club and that they should focus on live action, the group decides to simply say they’re starting a film club, and let the fruits of their labor redeem the white lie later. The spacey, heavily-bearded Fujimoto-sensei volunteers to be their adviser.

Their digs are essentially a two-level ramshackle storeroom built of cheap corrugated steel filled with holes that let the elements in. The place is filthy, but full of potential, at least when armed with the powerful imaginations of Midori and Tsubame, who conjure various furniture, luxuries, and equipment for creating anime.

Midori gets a bit carried away when proposing they add hinges to the roof to make it a hatch from which they can launch personal helicopters. While messing around the rusty railing gives way and she takes a one-story spill. The always-enterprising Sayaka captures the accident on camera and swiftly posts it online for sale in hopes of raising club funds.

Fujimoto later tells them the school will pay for repairs to the building, and to keep the video for themselves lest it go public and cause trouble for the school. Sayaka also makes a verbose federal case for the tightwad teacher to get him to allow them to do as they please. The trio then explores the storeroom’s underbelly and find a windmill connected to a generator. The storeroom is full of animation production equipment in decent shape.

Totally geeking out on their wheelhouse stuff, Midori and Tsubame explain the details of how one makes a series of drawings then films them to present the illusion of motion. They find a crude animation of the windmill and complete and improve upon it, adding visual flair, transforming their environment into a wondrous fantasy spectacle.

There are no accidents as a result of this flight (or rather cruise) of fancy, but that evening Sayaka gets a deposit of cash for her footage, and both Tsubame and Midori (and her family) catch footage of her fall on TV. Such a development threatens to torpedo their Eizouken dreams in their infancy, before they’re able to create a frame of finished work.

Obviously, their efforts aren’t about to be permanently shut down after just two episodes, but it will be interesting to see how they navigate the stormy waters of what I’ll inelegantly call Dealing With People Who Want To Hold Them Back. One thing’s for certain: independent those outside factors, they have the talent and means to do what they want. Now all they need is the freedom to do it.

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! – 01 (First Impressions) – The Greatest World

From the hypercosmic brain of Yuasa Masaaki (The Tatami Galaxy) comes a new brilliant, awe-inspiring adventure in a down-to-earth, lived-in world where the mundane is extraordinary. As soon as she moved to Shibahama as a little girl, Asakusa Midori was obsessed with adventuring and world-building.

Now she sits above her island high school’s social fray, taking in not the people but the absolute batshit crazy architecture. The pint-sized, husky-voiced Midori’s only friend is the tall, toothy Kanamori Sayaka, for whom everything is a transaction.

When Midori forces Sayaka to attend the screening of a Miyazaki-style anime, they encounter Mizusaki Tsubame, fashion model, socialite daughter of a megacorp tycoon…and unapologetic anime fangirl. She’s also on the run from her two bodyguards, who have been ordered not to let her join the anime club.

Tsubame may be a stranger in unfamiliar territory, but Midori and Sayaka join forces to rescue her. Midori, because Tsubame shares her love of anime, and Sayaka because there could be money in it. In the process, Tsubame spills strawberry milk all over her blouse, but Midori knows of a discrete laundromat in the neighborhood.

As Tsubame’s clothes wash, she and Midori become fast friends, swapping their notebooks and finding they complement each other perfectly. Midori has always loved creating worlds and gizmos with elaborate concept art, while Tsubame has a strong grasp of the human figure (she is a model, after all) and as such is better at characters.

As the two overly characters over environments, Sayaka hatches a plan: she’ll get these two talented girls to make a beautiful—and profitable—anime together. Both Midori and Tsubame lack confidence, but Sayaka assures them she’ll be there both to push them and support them…in any ways not involving artistry.

Earlier in the episode the younger Midori creates a whole black-on-white pencil line drawing world complete with sound effects. That’s taken to the next level when Midori spots a small, unassuming contraption in Tsubame’s notebook, draws a hanger bay around it, and the three are suddenly immersed in the drawing and interacting with it (complete with those same sound effects, likely made by the seiyus).

The two eventually complete the development of the dragonfly-like flying machine and with Sayaka’s help manage to take off before the bodyguards (in this world the villains) can catch Tsubame. A dogfight ensues, but their dragonfly squeaks between two skyscrapers and emerges on the other end, an otherworldly, fully-rendered realm Midori calls “the greatest world,” something she’s always seeking to create with her art.

Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na! is a DELIGHT from start to finish. While it can get a little trippy at moments, it is always grounded by its trio of quirky, rootable characters, only one of whom employs a classic “anime” voice. The creators’ own love and passion for art and animation is plain to see in every frame, be it a crude line drawing or a gorgeous painterly city vista.

More than anything, Eizouken is a powerful imagination simulant. It does what any anime should: swell the heart and expand the mind’s eye to consider new worlds and machines and explore them beyond the surface. Speaking as an artist, it was a very rewarding experience to see such a wealth of creativity on display.

It was also gratifying to watch two kindred spirits from totally different social backgrounds coming together through their shared love of putting the fruits of their imaginations to paper. Eizouken stands out from the crowd of cookie-cutter anime in the best way. You’d be wise to give it a close look this Winter!