SHAFT’s Edge, PART 1: Tsukuyomi -MOON PHASE- and Pani Poni Dash!

It doesn’t take an expert to tell you that moe has been the driving force behind anime for the past 10 years. But moe comes in all shapes and sizes, and the shapes and sizes that I particularly like tend to manifest in shows animated by studio SHAFT, and directed by anime vet Shinbou Akiyuki. Across all of my favorite SHAFT works, the moe element is always underscored by some kind of unorthodox edge that keeps things interesting. That said, I can’t give SHAFT all the credit here. The actual content of these stories are obviously the works of the original authors, but by some strange coincidence these atypical moe works find themselves being adapted by SHAFT. I don’t know the hows or whys, but it’s a match made in heaven for me.

But not every SHAFT show hits me super strong, so in attempt to keep things brisk, I’m going to list off my favorite SHAFT shows, and what I think sets them apart from your typical moe anime. That said, I hesitate to label some of these works as “moe anime,” mostly because the last time I spoke about moe, lots of people got mad at me. So if you feel my classification of some of these shows as “moe anime” to be inappropriate, feel free to sound off in the comments.

Anyway, here’s the list:

Tsukuyomi -MOON PHASE-

I think between the cute girls and cat ears, Tsukuyomi -MOON PHASE- can be safely classified as a moe anime. That said, unlike a more modern moe entry like K-ON!, Tsukuyomi actively sexualizes Hazuki. But this sexualization is also dissimilar to what’s seen in a fanservice-heavy moe show like To Aru Majutsu no Index, filled with a ton of accidental shower entries and unfortunate stumbles into various naughty female parts. Instead, what characterizes Tsukyuomi’s fanservice is how honest and open it is with it.

When Typical Male Lead #539 stumbles into Annoying Moe Girl #857’s bathroom by accident, it’s not his fault. So while he may get punched up into the air and called a pervert, he actually isn’t, because it’s not his fault. As a result the audience feels better about themselves (by the way, SDS at Ogiue Maniax wrote a good post about this a while back.) Tsukuyomi doesn’t care: it invites you to embrace the fact that yes–you are a pervert–and goes out of its way to portray Hazuki in as sexy a manner as possible, doing away with all the dumb tropes I just mentioned. In one of the earliest scenes, Hazuki lingers in front of the camera whilst in the bath, with nothing but a few bubbles covering her. Later on, upon finding a hot spring to bathe in, rather than punch Kouhei when he finds her, Hazuki flashes V-signs and smiles, matched to a hilarious track of music that I remember sounding like something from the Armada Room. It’s completely upfront about itself.

This unabashed fascination for Hazuki extends into the show’s famous Neko Mimi Mode opening sequence, as well as the less often used Tsukuyomi Mode. The first variation of the Neko Mimi Mode animation is filled with images such as Hazuki posing wearing nothing but her black cloak (while grinning, natch), Hazuki naked wearing a turtle’s shell on her back while shooting out eggs from her rear end, and Hazuki naked popping out of a bowl of ramen thrice. The cloak image gets replaced in subsequent openings with various childish accessories such as crayons and recorders, but even the use of those images goes a long way towards establishing the show’s ever present lolicon attitude. Sadly, the turtle gets replaced by nothing of note after three episodes. I guess it was just too weird for some people.

These bizarre and erotic images, matched to Dimitri From Paris‘ catchy beats, along with a wealth of other strange and–to quote Shinbou–“poppy” images, presents the aforementioned lolicon images with a very carefree and almost celebratory attitude. It’s proud to be weird, and doesn’t shy away from it. But being a lolicon isn’t just about appreciating nude young girls, it’s about appreciating them in cute clothing as well. One famous scene in Tsukuyomi (shown on the back of the CD soundtrack) features Hazuki trying on various cute outfits. These clothes aren’t particularly practical, and are never shown again, but the amount of character and detail in the poses and outfits shows real love and appreciation for them. It’s also a clear indicator that they used a good number of U-15 photobooks for reference.

Throughout the show Hazuki is given a variety of cute outfits to wear in each episode (something that would become a staple in later SHAFT works) and this variety can be seen in the show’s DVD covers, as well as in the ever-changing shiritori segment of the opening. This appreciation for cute clothes and the young female form is also brought to a more artistic level with the show’s two Tsukuyomi Mode openings, as well as the show’s completed ending sequence, Kanashii Yokan. Incidentally, I think Kanshii Yokan is basically the most beautiful ending sequence ever.

Throw in some real character development, a good story, some well timed slapstick humor, and Tsukuyomi is a rather strong show. But I feel what really sets it apart from other moe shows is its unique and loving approach to lolicon-aimed fanservice. They love Hazuki. They love her as a woman. And we do too!

Pani Poni Dash!

Pani Poni Dash! was the first SHAFT show I ever watched, and it immediately grabbed me with its intense in-your-face humor and spastic attitude, partly relying on a bevy of homages and references as well as strange character quirks to incite laughs. It doesn’t hit a homer 100% of the time, but its hit-to-miss ratio is pretty good, and I really enjoy it. But what grabbed me right from the opening minutes was the show’s character designs: they were unlike anything I had seen before, and unlike anything I have seen since. The only real parallel I can draw is to Mitsudomoe’s designs, but that’s stretching it. The characters in Pani Poni are defined by dynamic round lines, and the characters are bestowed with a bit more fat than typical anime characters, particularly in their legs. While this uniqueness is due in part to the original manga-ka Hikawa Hekiru, the way the anime polishes his designs results in some attractive and unique character designs. I could say the same for Tsukuyomi as well, but I’ve written enough about that.

But what really drives Pani Poni Dash! home and differentiates it from other moe comedies is the manner of humor I mentioned in the beginning. I feel a lot of anime humor is pretty low-impact, but Pani Poni strikes with the force of a hurricane time and time again. And it’s not as if what Pani Poni does is new and original, but the frankness and utter lack of subtly it has when delivering its jokes is unmatched by any show I’ve ever seen, and I love it. It’s loud, it’s crazy, and it’s out there. Even the first season of Hayate no Gotoku–a really strong comedy (and the only good part of the franchise)–can’t touch Pani Poni. It’s just too powerful.

While Pani Poni’s character based humor is really good, the show is most famous for how many homages and references it makes across its 27 episodes. And it’s not as if it just draws from (then) recent memes and shows: the well Pani Poni draws from is wide and deep. While 2ch memes from 2005 (Pre-Nico! Pre-Touhou boom!) are scribbled on the board, the show draws from Japanese film, TV, manga and anime from as far as 50 years back. Mazinger Z, Yamato, Godzilla, Space Adventure Cobra are a couple of titles that come to  mind. One of the later episodes of the show is a homage to jidaigeki, while the show’s climax is a giant spoof on Saraba Uchuu Senkan Yamato, which throws in some Eva for good measure, and I think some Gundam as well.

But the show doesn’t just draw from Japanese pop-culture, it picks from western culture as well. R Lee Ermey pops up on the screen a few times, there’s a hilarious Terry Gilliam-esque interlude, nods to Clint Eastwood, and an extended Star Trek parody. Watching Pani Poni Dash! isn’t just entertaining, it’s a look into the minds of the people making it. This reverence for the past found in Pani Poni’s references is something that I think sets it apart from other similarly minded moe-comdies. And none of it feels superficial–it’s all done with obsessive love. These guys lived this stuff. This reverence has also become something of a SHAFT staple, and is not unusual in pre-SHAFT Shinbou works as well.

While a funny comedy on the surface, what gives Pani Poni its edge is how entrenched in pop culture it is. It’s the show’s religion. Its obsession. It’s this undying love for pop culture–both past and present–along with the in-your-face presentation, that puts Pani Poni way above and beyond lots of other moe shows.

And I’ll stop with that. I didn’t expect to write so much, so the rest will be in another post. See you then!

16 thoughts on “SHAFT’s Edge, PART 1: Tsukuyomi -MOON PHASE- and Pani Poni Dash!

  1. I need to rewatch Moon Phase one of these days… the first time I saw it, I think I was too young to really appreciate it. (I was like 14 or 15…)
    I know for a fact that I barely knew what lolicon was at the time and didn’t pick up on it when I watched it back then.
    It seems so long ago when I got that series in FUNimation’s 6 single DVDs…

    As for Pani Poni Dash, now that I remember well as a terrific anime series that I loved. The character designs were fantastic! As you said, the way the characters were all rounded was very appealing, and very pleasing to my eyes. Add to that the great humor and characters the show had, and it was a winner with me!

    I look forward to hearing what you have to say about Hidamari Sketch and Zetsubou-sensei! (two SHAFT titles I also enjoyed a lot) :)
    (Grr… Media Blasters needs to hurry and release their Zetsubou Sensei DVDs so I can re-watch it…)

  2. Shinbo and Shaft do many things well, but one of the things I think they do best is music. Okay, they cut corners a lot in their animation (though they manage to do it in interesting ways), but they add an auditory layer to their work that goes beyond aural wallpaper. The soundtracks make wonderful listening separate from the anime and have a structure that mirrors the episodes.

  3. @Baru
    I knew a KID (like 10 years old) who watched Tsukuyomi on the FUNimation channel and didn’t really notice it being weird. I guess you have to be a creepy adult to notice… but Hazuki IS naked often, even more so in the manga.

    Yes, this is true. I’ve been meaning to write a post about how SHAFT uses music, and what musical talent they bring on for some of their opening themes, but it’s just a matter of doing it…

  4. Random comments:
    ­­- it seems to me that male lead accidentally falling over naked girls is a shounen love comedy trope rather than a “moe” one. I mean, it was established well enough in 1995 that Eva was able to half-subvert it multiple times.
    ­- “sexualization” is a loaded word that is a problem in and of itself, but if we insist on using it, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that Hazuki is “sexualized” in Tsukuyomi; in particular, her relationship with Kouhei isn’t presented as overtly sexual, as far as I remember. (In fact, you could argue that the lack of blushy or angry response to his seeing her naked is a failure to acknowledge that the situation is sexually charged). It is true that her juvenile body is an important element of the show’s aesthetic, but shouldn’t we say that it’s approached in a “sensual” rather than “sexual” manner? (Unlike e.g. Kokonoe Rin, who is cetainly presented as a sexual being, although again it is debatable that she is sexualized).
    ­- that said, this sensuality, and generally the way one reacts to Hazuki’s nakedness, probably does play a major part in one’s appreciation of that show, as you rightly underscore. I probably became a serious weeaboo in fall ’05 due to watching three shows roughly at the same time: Tsukuyomi, Ichimashi and Kamichu. It’s interesting how they’re all very different flavors of “moe” and “lolicon”.
    ­- re the Paniponi character designs, they’re peculiar (and I was never too fond of them) but the roundedness is also somewhat reminiscent of Manabi Straight, where the interplay between the cutesy chubby aesthetic and the hopeful aspirational narrative is pretty potent; ufotable was another (the other?) groundbreaking studio at the time!

    1. Yeah, I was hesitant to label the accidental groping as a moe trope since it’s been around for a while. It’s probably just a staple of anime and manga in general more than anything else, but I think it shows up enough in “moe” shows (then again, what’s a moe show?) enough to be used as an example for this post.

      “Sensual” is a better word, yes. I didn’t mean to suggest that her relationship with Kouhei was at all sexual, and more that the audience perceives her sexually. But yeah, sensual is the better word. So they perceive her sensually, I guess. Did I even use those words right.

      2005 was also when I became a, uh, “super charged” anime fan. That’s because I finally figured out how to use BitTorrent without my shitty broadband connection dropping out.

      Incidentally, I on the other hand am not a huge fan of Manabi Straight’s designs. They’re pretty cute, but don’t particularly grab my attention. That’s also because I wasn’t terribly taken with the show, even though I’d probably like it a bit better if I watched it now.

      I still think the best ufotable show I’ve seen is Futakoi Alternative, but I think lots of people would get mad at me for that.

        1. I guess I was under the impression not many people cared for it :S

          Also I’m used to making people mad by accident for having opinions, so.

  5. After recently outing myself to my fiance that I watch anime basically at any time I’m not around her, I found out that her favorite anime growing up was Moonphase. So I’ve been watching it with her recently (she never finished it and wanted to watch it). She really enjoys the story, music, animation style, and presentation, but I think the overt sexualization of the 14 year-old heroine and anything else considered “moe” in the show is lost on her. I guess it just goes to show that even factoring out how great and innovative Moonphase is with “moe” it’s still a fucking fantastic show.

    I’ve enjoyed pretty much every SHAFT show after Moonphase, although, I dropped Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei after season 1 because it just got too Japanese for me to get the jokes. Don’t get me wrong, I sure wish I was Japanese enough to get the jokes. Plus I was tired of pausing constantly to try to read shittily subbed-in text over text.

    1. When she was growing up? …how old is she NOW?

      I think the best way to enjoy Zetsubou Sensei is to not worry about the onscreen text. I didn’t. I mean, if you’re watching it on TV, it’s not like you can pause it anyway. But yeah, there is something of a cultural barrier, but I don’t think it’s too bad.

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