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!

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