The arrival of the sweet, atmospheric anime series Ristorante Paradiso on DVD from RightStuf comes as a bit of a surprise, since it represents a slice of Japanese pop culture that isn't commonly exported to the U.S. This 11-part series is an example of josei, a genre of manga and anime that directs its slice-of-life stories toward an adult female audience.
Unlike the shonen (boys) and shojo (girls) anime and manga commonly exported here, josei focuses not so much on action and freakout gags than on establishing a dreamy, romantic mood dependent on subtly drawn characters - ones that generate sexual heat without actually getting into the nitty-gritty. The closest analogy to American entertainment I could come up with would be daytime soap operas, albeit with the passion muted and somewhat chaste. Ristorante Paradiso delves into the emotionally wrought drama associated with josei, but for the most part it serves up lighthearted, escapist fantasy with a "foodie" backdrop.
A big part of Ristorante Paradiso's intoxicating mood comes from its primary setting, an Italian restaurant nestled in the back streets of Rome, a destination legendary for its food and the attractive, attentive staff of distinguished bespectacled men. It is here that the series' protagonist, a curious 21 year-old named Nicoletta, journeys to find the mother who abandoned her several years earlier. Upon finding Olga (who is given an unfortunate, stereotypically "cute" voice), however, any thoughts of revenge in Nicoletta's mind disappear as she becomes transfixed by the ristorante managed by Olga's new husband, Lorenzo. The sudden appearance of her grown daughter horrifies the immature Olga, who works as a lawyer but is constantly trying to pass herself off as a much younger woman. After Nicoletta decides to stay in Rome, mother and daughter make a deal for Nicoletta to work as a sous chef in the restaurant in exchange for the girl maintaining her silence. Althoug the Nicoletta/Olga drama forms the setup, much of Ristorante Paradiso revolves around Nicoletta's awkard attempts to find her place in the restaurant and get to know the men on staff - owner Lorenzo; enigmatic Claudio (whom Nicoletta develops a schoolgirl crush on); stony Luciano; bald, gregarious Vito; handsome wine steward Gigi; and friendly kitchen staffers Furio and Teo.
Make no mistake, Ristorante Paradiso is assuredly the kind of dialogue-driven show where not a whole lot happens - and yet it does have a lot of allure, enacted by an interesting set of characters. Part of its strange watchability comes from the series' impressionistic, tourists'-eye view of Italy and Italian culture. Real landmarks in and around Rome figure in the show, the characters pepper their speech with Italian phrases, and of course plenty of impeccably prepared Euro-cuisine is on view throughout the show. It's definitely a dreamlike, fantasized version of that scene, however - actually, it reveals more about Japanese culture and their love of packaging, presentation and all-encompassing environments than anything else. The restaurant itself, with its mostly female clientele swooning over the elegant wait staff (the food being almost an afterthought), plays a big part in that sensibility.
Ristorante Paradiso's central conceit of creating a fantasy world extends to the show's minimalistic (but definitely not cheap) animation, which combines flat characters with videogame-like CGI environments and painterly backgrounds reminiscent of French Impressionist art. Often the characters will have textures on their clothing that remain stationary while they're moving around - a unique effect. The characters themselves are also unusually designed with lanky, angular bodies, jagged hair, long, sharp noses, pointy chins and expressive eyes (only Nicoletta has the kind of saucer-eyed face one usually associates with anime). Honestly, the characters all look like the offspring of Tilda Swinton and a fish - not too sexy, but another element that adds to the series' uniqueness. The only complaint I'd have is that the female characters mostly seem kind of wishy-washy and passive. Oddly enough for such an estrogen-heavy production, most of the characters here are men.
The eleven episodes that comprise this sole season of Ristorante Paradiso are given an excellent showcase on this 3-disc DVD set from Lucky Penny/The Right Stuf International. The DVDs are furnished with the original Japanese soundtracks and English subtitles (the best way to view them), supplemented with a good amount of bonus material that help illuminate a style of anime that even many anime fans aren't familiar with.
Ristorante Paradiso's three discs are packaged in a standard-width keep case with disc 1 on the right side and discs 2 and 3 in a figure-eight configuration on the left.
The 16:9 anamorphic widescreen picture on this digitally animated series is nicely presented on disc with a lush color palette (heavy on the golds and browns) and pristine mastering that showcases the series' dreamy imagery well.
The only audio option on these discs is the series' original Japanese stereo soundtrack, a track which is pleasantly mixed with understated dialogue and minimal music cues. There is no English dub, which might be a deal-breaker for some (I prefer watching it in Japanese). Optional English subtitles are also provided, mostly yellow but also appearing in yellow and white whenever two characters speak simultaneously.
Lucky Penny has provided this set with some good, often informative extras spread over the set's three discs. A Guide To Rome and Liner Notes explain (via text panels) some of the Italian elements in the series, including translations of the phrases and words used in the scripts. Brief galleries delve into the series' background art and Rome scenery. A Clean Opening and Clean Ending are included, along with five trailers which contain some tantalizing behind-the-scenes production footage (an actual behind-the-scenes documentary would have been great). More trailers for Right Stuf International's other shojo and josei anime sets are provided, three on each disc.
In Ristorante Paradiso, a small town girl journeys to the big city and finds a second home in an Italian restaurant. The josei anime's 11 episodes are long on atmosphere, short on story, and chock full of escapism. Lovers of genteel lady-oriented anime would enjoy this tasty little series - capisce? Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.