Although I feel Funimation has done viwers a disservice by splitting it into two sets (at least, as far as I can tell; the Amazon listings for the show's three sets are confusing), "Michiko and Hatchin": The Complete Series, Part 1 still manages to convey an unusual, off-kilter charm. Based on the advertisements that play whenever I review one of these box sets, Funimation's usual fare is sci-fi and fantasy, but this is a roaming road adventure rooted in character above all else. Not only are there no supernatural elements (so far), the serialization is loose, without any serious revelations or obvious story arcs taking shape in the first 11 episodes. Hell, the set doesn't even end on a cliffhanger -- the only agenda here is spending time with the show's title characters.
"Michiko and Hatchin" was directed by Sayo Yamamoto, who hoped to create a show for women who normally wouldn't watch anime. To that end, she and the writing staff have worked hard to sketch in all the details that contribute to Michiko and Hatchin's personalities. In prison, Michiko survived thanks to a photo of Hatchin, which provided the motivation to continue her escape attempts (Hiroshi being alive), but Hatchin's existence also helps give her the confidence that she's fighting for more than herself. Her rose-tinted view of Hiroshi is not just fond memories, but also the hope that the angry little girl she's rescued will have someone to look up to. Although Michiko is skilled when it comes to petty thievery and evading capture, she's also not a master spy, with impulse and stubbornness constantly getting her into situations where she's out of her depth.
When Michiko rescues Hatchin, she has just recently fought back against her cruel step-sister for the first time. Although Michiko provides her with freedom and kindness her adopted family never offered, their upbringing still affects her. When Michiko steals Hatchin a pair of expensive designer shoes, Hatchin finds a job at a local restaurant in the hopes of paying for the shoes later. Not only is she ready to stand up for herself after years of verbal and physical abuse, she's also at an age where she's eager to make her own decisions, which leads to a tense relationship with Michiko. In the later episodes, Hatchin makes friends with Rita (Sayaka Yoshino), a young girl who works in a carnival, and the honest simplicity of their friendship is lovely.
The stories in the first 11 episodes are all over the map in terms of tone and effectiveness. In one episode, the show practically turns into a soap opera when Michiko considers having an affair with a married man. In another, Hatchin is kidnapped, leading to a fun confrontation at a bullfight involving disguises. The episode that introduces Rita is a sweet coming-of-age story, about Rita's crush on her adult performance partner Gino (Masami Iwasaki). The chaotic nature of the show makes it a little challenging to follow some of the backstory involving Michiko, Hiroshi, and a pair of rival crime syndicates known as Fantasma and Monstro Preto, but the broad strokes are coherent enough. Yamamoto's direction is stylish and engaging, especially when it comes to depicting the character of Michiko, who has a certain authenticity of movement. The show is also visually injected with a wonderful South American flavor in the character design and scenery that blends with Japanese dialogue and names to form another oddball stamp on a pleasingly oddball show.
The Video and Audio
Although "Michiko and Hatchin" is presented in 1.78:1 AVC 1080p, the artistic direction of the show prevents the program from offering much HD "pop", aside from the vivid opening title sequence. The primary image-flattening culprit here is the constant use of lighting effects to give the world a more realistic range of shade and brightness. The lines of the show's animation are often softened, lightened, or otherwise altered by the bright sunlight of whatever Brazilian town the characters are sailing through. As such, detail and colors are naturally muted to accomodate this style of "cinematography." On one hand, I can't fault the transfer because this is clearly what the director wanted, but there's no denying the images are much softer than the usual HD presentation. On the first disc, which carries the bulk of the episodes, there is also some light banding visible during scene transitions. This is a pristine presentation of the show, but the show itself limits the advantages of HD.
As usual, there are two tracks provided here: An English dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and the original Japanese audio in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Naturally, the English dub is more of a surround experience, with great effort to give the show a 5.1 makeover, but I'm an original language purist, myself. For 95% of the runtime, I listened to the original stereo track, which has a contemporary crispness and richness that helps the track feel like a complete effort, even if it can't offer the complete immersiveness of Funimation's new dub. English subtitles are also provided.
Disc 2 is just video extras, all in HD. The most significant are the first two, "Michiko: The Woman Behind It All" (14:56), an interview with voice actor Monica Rial; and "Unveiling Press Conference" (10:47). Like the commentary, the interview has an outsider's perspective, but at least the interview is naturally geared toward Rial's experience and participation, and not the show as a whole. The press conference, on the other hand, is actually for the Japanese unveiling of the show back in 2008, and features interviews with director Sayo Yamamoto, and actors Yôko Maki (Michiko), Suzuka Ohgo (Hatchin), and Maki Sakai (Atsuko). The focus of the conversation is on attracting women who don't usually watch anime ("office ladies" cracking open a beer is Yamamoto's ideal viewer), with female characters that will hopefully be appealing to women. They also touch on the casting process, and the show's Brazilian music, and the real-life fashion that appears in the show. A very nice inclusion -- the extras focused on the American dub stand out less when there's some with the show's creators as well.
The disc rounds out with textless opening and closing credits (both 1:22), a live-action promo video (0:32), and an anime promo video (1:49). A Funimation trailer plays before the menu on each disc: "Lupin the III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine" on the first, and "Last Exile: Fam, The Silver Wing" on the second. Further promos for "Eureka 7 AO", "Sakura Wars", "Blood C", "Is This a Zombie? of the Dead", "One Piece", "High School DxD", "Appleseed XIII", and Funimation.com are accessible under the special features menu.