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Katsucon 2012: Impressions of "Kimi ni Todoke", "Puelli Magi Madoka Magica", "Princess Jellyfish"

Saturday at Katsucon, I attended multiple screenings in the premiere video room. Unfortunately two FUNimation premieres once planned for the weekend had to be cancelled (for Okami-san and Her Seven Companions and The Legend of the Legendary Heroes), but in their place I witnessed three showings for recent or upcoming titles: Kimi ni Todoke: From Me To You, Puelli Magi Madoka Magica and Princess Jellyfish.

Kimi ni Todoke

Kimi ni Todoke, which is being released by NIS America, is a romance story of great poignancy. It helps a lot that it’s not fixated on romance to the exclusion of all else; as at heart it’s really the tale of one very socially awkward girl’s struggle to open up to the people around her. The heroine, Sawako Kuronuma, is nicknamed “Sadako” (after the character in The Ring) and avoided by her peers, who are generally intimidated by her appearance and very shy personality. While she genuinely wants to connect with others, Sawako reinforces this thanks to her timid demeanor and her capacity to misunderstand how people react to her, the latter of which is played for plenty of comedy. However, things start to change when the outgoing Shota Kazehaya is kind to her and starts encouraging her to be forthright with her feelings. Kazehaya is the quintessential good guy: he’s handsome, he’s friendly to everyone, he’s easily the most popular boy in class. Most importantly, he’s wise and decent enough be completely independent of his classmates’ preconceptions and treats Sawako like a normal person.

Despite her stuttering awkwardness, Sawako’s efforts lay bare and earnest and kindhearted soul. She forges a fast friendship with Ayane and Chizuru, two friends that promptly develop into significant and likable characters in their own right (especially Chizuru, who wears her heart on her sleeve and gushes over Sawako’s sincerity). In the early episodes there are clear signs of where things are going; Kazehaya starts getting smitten with Sawako, while Sawako starts out looking up to Kazehaya and slowly starts realizing that there could be more to her feelings about him than admiration. But the narrative wisely takes things slow in terms of both romance and Sawako’s growth into a more confident person, which keeps it feeling more like a true-to-life tale than a fantasy. Growing up, after all, isn’t fast or easy. Ultimately, Kimi ni Todoke resonates powerfully because most of us have probably known someone like Sawako, or maybe even see a piece of her in ourselves. Most importantly, perhaps, it’s about the transforming power that simple kindness and friendship can have on a person’s life. This show might be adapting a manga written for girls, but that dominant theme is universal.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

After much anticipation, Puella Magi Madoka Magica has arrived on the North American market via Aniplex USA’s home video release and a legal stream on Crunchyroll. Aniplex commissioned a dub for the series, which I would describe as adequate. It arguably plays it too safe, in that the acting is consistent even in moments where more emoting would be called for. But there’s not a bad performance in the lot, and the true test of a good dub is is whether it immerses the viewer in the experience. This undoubtedly does; by the time it was time for the show to end I didn’t want it to.

Madoka Magica has gotten much attention due to its deserved reputation of being a subversion of the magical girl genre. The show is characterized by a gloomy and foreboding mood throughout its first four episodes, seemingly operating on this simple idea: what if the call to heroism isn’t what it seems to be? The main character Madoka and her friend Sayaka get a typical call from the magical creature Kyubey to become magical girls and fight “witches”, the series’ term for supernatural, despair-inducing creatures. But they don’t step up right away since they have to ponder a wish that they will be granted by accepting, and the friends are caught up in a struggle between Mami and Homura – two existing magical girls. Mami takes the girls under her wing and tries to encourage them to accept Kyubey’s offer, while Homura attacks Kyubey in the first episode and tries to prevent Madoka and Sayaka taking that path. Homura seems to act as an antagonist would at first, but between some crafty foreshadowing and a shocking tragedy in the third episode it’s impossible to escape the dreadful feeling that she’s actually in the right and that the other girls are in danger of getting in way over their heads.

There are times when Madoka Magica really shines artistically. Yuki Kajiura’s music becomes a magnificently haunting score when it’s time for action, and it’s at these moments that the characters have to enter a so-called “witch’s maze” that are characterized by visuals that border on the psychedelic. It all profoundly augments the ominous sense of danger about everything that’s happening here.

Princess Jellyfish

FUNimation’s screening of the first four episodes of Princess Jellyfish was the second of the weekend, but it still drew a very large crowd of interested fans that were driven to applause every time an episode came to an end. The series notably received a stellar review here on Toonzone, and I daresay that the imminent release of it on Blu-Ray and DVD is the first truly essential one for an anime series in 2012. The dub is sublime and excellent work by any standard; the characters that comprise the “sisterhood” are all eccentric personalities but they’re perfectly captured in English, and the high-paced & wacky moments they’re involved from time to time invoke fond memories of Ouran High School Host Club. But the finest performances belong to the characters that matter most, namely Maxey Whitehead’s Tsukimi and Josh Grelle’s Kuranosuke. Whitehead brings an appealing earnestness to this shy, oft-flummoxed introvert, while Greely has to shift between his crossdressing character’s feminine and natural voice. That the two are essentially indistinguishable is an impressive and important achievement; in the story, after all, Kuranosuke appears like a “princess” to Tsukimi in his getup and is a “stylish” contrast to her and the otaku of the “sisterhood” living in her apartment. For the humor and the story itself to hold up that facade has to be credible, and Greely owns the role so well he makes it look natural and effortless.

The event was hosted by Josh Greely and Christopher Bevins, the ADR Director for the show, who took some questions from the audience after the episodes were finished. One fan asked Greely about the inspiration for acting Kuranosuke, to which he responded that Begins told him to watch as many episodes of Sex In the City as he could. He remarked there was “lots of Samantha in there” and also quipped got “a little bit of Rarity in there” as a reference to My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. A question on favorite moments prompted mentions of when Kuranosuke’s brother Shu unexpectedly entered Tsukimi’s apartment building, as well as a moment at another showing when “half the theater” gasped and a female fan exclaimed “it’s a dude?!” when Kuranosuke was revealed to be a man. Bevins remarked that it was important for him to not be “girly-sounding” but still more feminine than the rest of the sisterhood. Questions about voice acting got Bevins talking about the debut of Lara Woodhull, who “set the bar” in auditions when she auditioned as Clara, the Jellyfish that narrates for comedic effect from time to time.  Bevins and Greely also praised Maxey Whitehead as Tsukimi, with Bevins commenting that the performance is “heartbreaking at times”.

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