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Review: "The Squid Girl" (UK Edition): Squids In

In the middle of summer, a Japanese beach café is intruded upon by a visitor from the sea. Calling herself Squid Girl, the pintsized invader announces her intent to conquer the surface world for the damage mankind has caused to the oceans. Luckily for humanity, the would be overlord is none too bright, and it doesn’t take long before the café’s owners have fooled her into using her aquatic abilities to help with the workload. So begins a most unconventional invasion.

The easiest comparison I can make for Squid Girl is to Sgt Frog, itself a series about a diminutive invader who ends up living with a Japanese family who thwarts his attempts to conquer the planet as much as his own procrastination does. A key difference, however, is that Squid Girl is more consistent in focus. I was turned off Sgt Frog pretty quickly by how one chapter would depict Keroro’s human associates as dear friends he held a bond with, whilst the next would have them out to actively sabotage him and laugh at his misfortune. Given I usually found the alien characters more likeable, it led me to drop the series over such unbalanced karma.
Squid Girl is much more balanced in its relationships. The Aizawa family (older sister Chizuru, middle daughter Eiko and younger brother Takeru) take Squid Girl in partly to curb her ambitions, but there’s less gleeful malice about it, with much of the humour coming from the title character’s misunderstandings about surface life or other’s reactions to her.

Squid Girl herself is an entertaining character, a balanced mix between cute and dastardly. Most of the comedy anime I’ve seen recently has provoked the odd chuckle but I was consistently laughing out loud at this one. Imagine a far cuter Invader Zim and you’re on the right track.
The character has the common Japanese comedic trait of a verbal tic, which the translators convert into peppering her dialogue with fish puns. It took me by surprise at first, but they didn’t do it for the halibut, they did it on porpoise.
Despite generally looking like a human girl, Squid Girl’s ‘hair’ takes the form of a set of adaptable and powerful tentacles. It’s flaunting these which puts her in debt to the Aizawa family as she creates a large hole in the side of their business which they force her to work to repay. The patched up hole serves little purpose beyond kick starting this setup, though it does continue to appear as a continuity sight gag.

Much of Squid Girl’s time is spent with middle child Eiko. I was initially concerned she’d prove to be just as unlikeable as Keroro’s similar Natsumi, but there’s a more genuine affection here. She chastises Squid Girl when she’s up to mischief but spends more time helping her understand the surface world. Other siblings Chizuru and Takeru receive fair screen time as well but are less engaging. Chizuru’s gimmick is the overplayed ‘sweet girl with a sinister inner power’ gag, used partly to justify why Squid Girl falls into line. Takeru tends to see her as a fun playmate, with signs he might also have a crush on her. An amusing early episode sees him fashion a squid hat for himself to show respect, only for her to mistake him completely for another actual squid person.

The wider cast offer a strong balance, each bringing something unique to the table. Eiko’s friend Sanae quickly proves to be a psychotic stalker fangirl for Squid Girl, fixating on her to the point of keeping photo libraries. Lifeguard Goro keeps watch over the beach and often gets dragged into the misadventures due to having a crush on Chizuru. Nagisa offers a particularly interesting concept: a new employee at the café, she can’t understand why everyone takes Squid Girl’s ambitions so lightly and reluctantly maintains the job for the sake of safeguarding the planet. In reality, such a response would seem like common sense, and the show manages to balance her between that and having a comedic shtick of her own.
On the bottom rung of characters are Cindy and her trio of M.I.T. graduate scientists. An American alien hunter, Cindy arrives on the beach believing Squid Girl not to be natural ocean life but seeded alien spawn. Her attempts to prove this and vindicate her research are aided by a trio of likewise American and eccentric male scientists. The problem is that the scientists (and Cindy to a lesser extent) are little more than blunt American stereotypes, complete with the original voice actors delivering their lines in an intentionally brazen and obnoxious tone. I don’t mind jokes about Americans, but this really is stereotyping with low comedic value.

The episodes themselves contain three stories each, allowing them to get the most comedy from individual setups without overplaying them.  Plots usually follow Squid Girl’s misguided attempts at reconnaissance, such as mistaking pool inflatables for real ocean predators or becoming entranced by the ‘perfect weapon’ that is an umbrella. The cuteness factor thankfully never slides into the saccharine. In fact, there are at least three episodes with a horror premise. The first of these, in which Squid Girl refuses to believe in ghosts, is amusing for how it plays around with the overdone ‘ghost prank’ plot common in animation. Unfortunately, the third such episode treads too deep into actual horror for my tastes as it deals with an apparently living doll. It’s an old childhood fear, and although I’ve been able to enjoy some lighter parodies of the concept, the episode seems to forget the comedy, unlike the earlier ghost episode.
Other plots are drawn from reactions to the title character, such as a recurring fake-Squid Girl another establishment creates to milk her popularity.
Although the episodes constantly focus on the comedic, an almost dialogue-free episode which focuses on Eiko finding a mini version of Squid Girl trapped in a washed up bottle allows the producers to show their emotional capability. It’s a poignant diversion which should stir the heart, though with an amusing coda to keep a smile on your face.

The actual animation is of a noticeably high standard with fluid movements that are particularly effective with Squid Girl’s tentacles. Maybe it’s the result of being a 12-episode comedy series, but the animation charms at a time when even famous franchises seem to have sluggish animation.

Extras consist of clean versions of the opening and evolving end credits (the credits have a Simpsons’ couch gag style use of an element from each episode), a very brief interview with Squid Girl’s Japanese voice actress, a video of her showing how to make a squid hat, and two OVA mini episodes. These really are the star of the extras as they continue the adventures of Mini-Squid Girl, first facing off with an evil doppelganger and then trying to elude a comparatively gigantic Sanae.

My initial concern was that Squid Girl would prove to be yet another cutesy slice of life show with a gimmicky character. Instead, it stands up rather well, having a strong balance between cuteness and bite that results in a genuinely entertaining and amusing show, and I hope that the show’s second season isn’t too far behind.

The Squid Girl (UK edition) is available from amazon.co.uk.

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