Friday, 17 October 2008

Shigofumi ~ Letters from the Departed ~

Shigofumi ~ Letters from the Departed ~ is an anime and light novel series created by Amamiya Ryo about a typically emotionless, silver-haired moe archetype called Fumika, whose job it is to deliver letters from the dead (the titular shigofumi). She has an annoying talking staff called Kanaka and a faintly fetishistic retro postal worker's outfit that, intentionally or otherwise, makes her look a bit like Boogiepop.

In terms of content, most episodes are hamstrung by the kind of cliched character archetypes and cookie-cutter sentimentality that plagues a significant proportion of anime and light novels, as with the fourth episode, where some heavily yurified schoolgirls go on a training camp with their tennis club while one girl, Ran, deals with her feelings about the death of the mother who abandoned her as a child. As pulp genre fiction it works fine, but given how seriously the series takes itself, as viewers we should expect and demand more realistic characterisation. Why did the mother never contact Ran after leaving even though she'd been secretly going to all her daughter's tennis matches to support her? Why, when discovering this via the mother's (very long) shigofumi, does Ran react in the way she does? Unfortunately, without letting Ran's feelings for her mother step beyond broad strokes melodrama, the script is unable to breathe life into the premise.

The series' main plot thread involving Fumika is similarly rubbish. Her father, a supposedly genius writer called Mikawa Kirameki (it translates as something absurd like "beautiful glittering river") is a ridiculous character and impossible to take seriously. Once more, if Shigofumi was going for overblown camp, he could have been brilliant -- a mad writer who drafts his novels by inking them with a glass calligraphy brush onto his young daughter's naked body (further abuse, either sexual, physical or both, is hinted at but not directly shown) would have been camp melodrama gold (melodrama can be brilliant if done well) in the hands of someone like Ikuhara Kunihiko* -- but the po-faced seriousness with which it approaches all situations means any potential enjoyment on such terms is strangled at birth.

The purpose of Kirameki and Fumika's equally self-absorbed mother Kirei (meaning "beautiful" -- subtlety not welcome here) is unclear. Is it a satire on the way artists obsess over creating physically attractive characters that they use and abuse, objectifying them as items of beauty, treating as a blank slate on which to paint their stories, and denying them the free will to look after their own destiny? If that's the case, it could be seen as a criticism of the moe phenomenon as a whole, in which characters are blank, puppet-like constructs created from a database of superficial fetishistic elements and lacking in any of the driving emotions and motivations that genuinely good writing requires. The trouble with that is that Shigofumi is guilty of precisely these crimes, with its awareness of the world beyond genre cliches only accentuating its inability to abandon those selfsame cliches.

On other occasions, Shigofumi's limitations are imposed by its audience's own lives, as in the stupid and self-obsessed episode about the thirty-something otaku who learns he has terminal cancer, gets beaten up by thugs, mistakenly arrested for child abduction (by comically abusive police) and suffers the disapproval of his family, before finally bravely sacrificing himself to save a small girl from a truck -- the absurdity of which is accentuated by the script's utter, straight-laced faith in its own gravity.

The episodes that show the series at its best are conversely the ones that attracted the most controversy. Episode 3, which deals with the suicide of a seemingly happy schoolboy, hangs on the casual thought (or sometimes temptation) that crosses everyone in Japan's mind once in a while when standing on a railway platform: "It would be so easy to just jump." That it interweaves this simple and easy to relate to thought with a devastatingly accurate parody of the kind of hand-wringing nonsense spouted by rent-a-quote TV "experts" whenever these kinds of situations occur imbues the episode with a layer of biting realism that seems, in part, to have led to the episode being partially censored for its initial broadcast.

Episode 6 is even more hard-hitting with its harsh portrayal of bullying in school and the unpleasantness that results. The episode concludes that humans are social animals, and that when we remove one of our own from society (i.e. by singling out and bullying someone), we also remove an important part of what makes that person human. One boy can't take it and commits suicide. His successor as the target of the bullies responds with violence. The role that web forums like 2ch can play in these situations is also captured with striking accuracy (giving the episode a blackly comic Densha Otoko vibe) and again the episode got into trouble, being banned by at least one TV station.

There's also some good stuff going on with the music, which is atmospheric in a way that recalls the darker end of Kanno Yoko's instrumental work on the Macross Plus soundtrack. Despite the fact that there are only two out and out good episodes (detailed above), the deeply flawed remainder offers up a lot of interesting ideas and directorial flourishes as well, albeit fewer and fewer as the series progressively loses itself in futile attempts to make worthwhile drama out of largely worthless characters. In these moments, Shigofumi reveals its best side where it satirises how the media trivialises and cashes in on people's suffering, as well as the way that we as consumers are complicit in this.

It's also interesting in the way it represents the recurring theme of how people deal with abuse and in the process makes plain a lot about the way Japanese society discourages victims from speaking out. The girl whose father forces her into pornography, the boys being bullied at school, the man with cancer all feel they must suffer in silence. At the end, when the physical Fumika (rather than the spiritual mail carrier Fumika) awakes from her coma and announces that she wants to press charges against her abusive father, it comes as a shock to the audience and to the other characters. One character even rebukes her for being disrespectful to her father.

Ultimately, however, it fails because the creators are tragically unable to reconcile the maturity of their real-world social and philosophical awareness with the unrealistic caricatures that comprise the standard pick-and-mix anime characterisation to which they cleave so closely and with such misguided loyalty.

*Interestingly, Shigofumi scriptwriter Okouchi Ichiro was responsible for two novelisations of Ikuhara's camp, gender-annihilating masterpiece Shoujo Kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena).