Background: Situation comedy is probably the most common television genre across the globe if you take a worldview of such things; having a familiar cast encounter problems that can be solved in a half hour or so seems to be ingrained in our collective consciousness thanks to decades of such programs. Therefore, it makes sense that some anime would embrace this idea too, perhaps most of it, with loose threads carrying a season past the dynamic at least a little bit but only to push the characters to the next set of circumstances they must solve. If you've ever watched Sliders, Quantum Leap, Stargate, or any other series that had a static cast put forth in wildly different circumstances, you'd know that sitcoms weren't the only genre to use this theme either. Well, in the spirit of The Excel Saga, my latest venture into such a show from Japan is Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi as I got in the tin boxed collection, the latest version of the show to come out from ADV Films. The show has already come out in individual volume form as well as a boxed set so the quick version of this review is that the discs all appear to have the original extras included in the 13 episode set, with the inclusion of a tin case as the sole new feature.
Series: Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi is a kind of wacky series that isn't exactly supposed to make sense in a linear fashion. It begins with a couple of preteen kids by the names of Sasshi and Arumi who live in an urban area in Japan that is scheduled for demolition in the name of progress. The area had long been a prosperous community but over time, urban decay and neglect combined with families moving away so the shopping district is a shadow of its former self. The two have long been friends but Sasshi begins the show by having what one might call a "bad hair day" when he comes home from camp to find his family has joined the exodus from the area and moved. Their building was torn down and all of his stuff was destroyed, setting him off that everything he knew was essentially gone. His sole connection to his entire life, best friend Arumi, then informs him that she's going to move with her family to another city because her father is chasing his dreams of becoming a chef. Just when things can't get any worse for the pair, Arumi's traditionalist grandfather has an accident, breaking a talisman atop the second story of his shop.
It is explained that when the shopping district was set up fifty years prior, the four anchor shops all had such talismans to control the nexus they sat atop of. With the last one broken, all heck breaks loose as Arumi and Sasshi start seeing a variety of unworldly things happen; leading them to realize they are no longer in quite the same reality they were in the day prior. As the show progresses, it becomes clear that they are set adrift in a series of alternate universes much like a videogame where they can live, die, or experience life under the same kind of constructs that they are used to from their anime or games.
The viewer at home gets the Excel Saga treatment with all the trimmings too as every moment seems to bring a new cultural reference to all sorts of movies, events, and other shows from all over the world jam packed into each of the thirteen episodes. The basic tenant of each episode is that they must "beat the game" of the day in order to advance. Initially, they are given the impression that each victory will translate into a trip home but the underlying concept is not quite that simple. See, if they do go home, and they both have to want it equally as much, than grandfather will be dead so despite the playful nods to a horde of silly antics (homages to Star Wars, Jaws, Rocky, Enter the Dragon, and many more movies are met with pokes at Evangelion, Mahoromatic, Sakura, generic sword & sorcery series, and fighter shows galore). While generally working together at first, the later episodes show the friends at odds while working on opposing sides of a military battle that turns sour, the truth spilling out and the pair needing to reconcile what they are going to do.
I really don't relish spoiling the show for you with lots of quotes and individual breakdowns of the episodes since it is abundantly clear that many of you will not like the show unless you're already deeply into anime and movies in general (and if you are, you've probably already bought the show in one of the previous releases). Still, thanks to ADV Film's use of their crazy "Vid-notes" that amount to pop up bubbles explaining the multitude of references contained in the show (and there are times when those suckers pop up rapid fire like crazy so watching it with them turned on can be frustrating), even those of us that have a good working knowledge of popular culture will be able to find new references, making the experience for newcomers more likely to work out. There were some over the top characters I found lame (the transvestite comes to mind) and the use of the family in many related episodes using similar "we're moving away for dad" type stuff got slightly old, but I found the show as a whole to warrant a rating of Recommended if you enjoy picking apart the references (at least a few of which I think ADV Films got wrong by the way).
Picture: Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi was presented in the same 1.78:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color it was shot in by director Hiroyuki Yamaga using stories written by famed anime writer Satoru Akahori. Like the episodes themselves, the series changes the way it looks in each outing, moving from a contemporary look to embrace the feel of each place the kids travel to. At first, this is largely subtle but once the show is in full swing, the nods to the different universes they travel to become much more prominent, a nod to the care that went into the show. The space themed episodes looked the worst in terms of visual defects (large amounts of black tend to cause issues in anime) but despite some fairly limited animation of the characters in specific worlds, the show looked very appealing to me (on par with, if not surpassing, The Excel Saga).
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of the 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese track it was shot in or a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround offering by the folks at ADV Films. I like most of the domestic voice actors but the vocals were clearly better on the original language track in my opinion. The dub suffered as much from the heavy accents used by the ladies in the leads as the hamming it up by the supporting cast, often going too far compared to the original cast. In terms of separation and dynamic range though, the surround track was better, albeit by a small margin since it did not make full use of the capabilities of the format. There were limited times when the audio followed the cast movement nicely though so whichever track you pick, there will be something to enjoy, the optional English language subtitles proving to reflect the dub track very closely for those that care.
Extras: One of the best things about this release is the way the extras were kept intact with my favorite being the pop up vid-notes. Sure, they could bug the heck out of me but they could also explain a lot of background matters that I was unfamiliar with so while they are more important for first time viewers or those needing to know what something is referring to, they do assist even the most knowledgeable viewer with the extensive information they provide (keep in mind that it does not appear they are comprehensive though since some references were not tackled). There were also some audio commentaries to appreciate; one with leads Jessica Boone and Luci Christian and the other having John Gremillion joining them. In both cases, the actors did less explaining about the show and more goofing on it than anything else, having a good time but limiting the replay value for their efforts. There were a number of clean openings and closings, trailers, very short bloopers (outtakes), and the tin box (mine came all dented up from shipping).
Final Thoughts: Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi has been reviewed several times here at DVD Talk by my coconspirators and generally found to their liking but much of this will depend on personal tastes. If you like heavy handed sexual innuendos bandied about freely with preteens as lead characters, a tentative idea at best, you will probably enjoy this "TV-MA-SL" offering even more than most but it was the scores of nods to other shows and movies that I liked the best about it (without them, the show would have lasted about an hour and been mighty boring). The misadventures of Arumi and Sasshi through numerous worlds trying to get back home to move on with their lives was also bittersweet on a level or two but the thoughtfulness that went into the series, all 13 episodes of the series, was such that I really can't complain too loudly about the unease I felt regarding some of the dialogue that was clearly not written for someone as young as the leads in the show were meant to be so give this one a look.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.