Anime on Demand
31 Jan 2013
It can be hard being a child in a family business – when everyone else is out having fun but you are only shifting from homework to housework, and your birthday just happens to fall on one of the busiest days in the year, there are times when you might not feel quite so enthusiastic about what seems to be free labour. You should whistle while you work, though, and that’s precisely what Tamako Kitashirakawa, the heroine of Tamako Market, does to brighten up her day. Even as she’s getting up at five in the morning to help bake the morning batch in her father’s bakery she understands that it’s not work, it’s exercise – and an opportunity for everyone to lend their arms to raising up some fresh family spirit. At school, Tamako is a member of a baton-twirling club, and so as one of the leaders of the school’s marching band she’s a natural showman – a talent which she brings back home, bursting with eager new ideas for new treats to eat and cakes to sell... it makes her well-liked amongst the extended family that are the shopkeepers of Bunny Mountain Market Street, but is much to the exasperation of her long-suffering father who doesn’t understand why people just can’t eat his mochisweet rice-balls like they always did.
One day, though, Tamako meets a curious colourful thing that even she herself can’t quite grasp. As she’s buying a bunch of flowers, a squawking – and talking! – bird suddenly erupts from the middle of her posy. With a flutter of rose-tipped wings – and of lavender eyelashes – the bird proclaims itself to be none other than “De La Mochisdis Gusting” (shortened to “Dera” once initial misunderstandings are out of the way and a tasting session indulged in with gutso), noble retainer of a Polynesian prince. Dera was flying the Pacific in search of a bride for his young lord, but has veered drastically off-course since he fell asleep in a field of fragrant flowers only to find himself boxed up with them and shipped to Japan! Dera rapidly insinuates himself into Tamako’s company, but Tamako really doesn’t have the time to let the weird phenomenon of a batty bird with airs and graces turn her life upside down – New Years’ Eve is coming up, and the revellers will be wanting mountains of mochi that still need to be baked...!
I need to define the outline of Tamako Market by showing the space that it occupies between its neighbours. One of the biggest disappointments in anime over the last few years was My Ordinary Life (aka Nichijou). Don’t get me wrong, the show itself was great - bright, zany, and brimming with expressive character in a distinctive style, springing out of the screen with capering physical comedy... but Japanese audiences turned their noses up at it.
They have bad taste.
The commercial failure of My Ordinary Life has more relevance to this review though than just letting a curmudgeon like me gripe about a fine show given undeservedly short shrift. Since they burned their fingers on My Ordinary Life, the creating studio Kyoto Animation has played it safe, returning to the style which they established themselves – and, of course, their thermonuclear hit K-ON! Not only has there been a K-ON Movie, but one of their more recent shows Hyouka was at times indistinguishable from their previous work and Tamako Marketitself continues the trend, staying well within the lines of what has become KyoAni’s house style, colouring it in with pale passive pastel shades, like one of those Love Heart sweets – a sentiment, and not much flavour.
Consequently, Tamako Market offers few surprises - if you’re the sort who sneers at “moeblobs” and feel as though your teeth have been rotted by sugary sweetness, Tamako Market lets you know right from the outset that it’s not going to change your mind. It sets out its stall as a a soothing safe slice-of-life – which is all fair enough, as even the stoniest hearts can be melted by the simple guileless joy of cute girls doing cute things. The question is, though, does is succeed?
It’s not as simple a question as it first appears – there’s more to moe than just having your characters’ lines be so soft that you could probably ply them into the same dough that the mochi’s made from. Sugar can become sickly and cloying, and our patience can wear thin if adorable ditziness degenerates into slope-headed idiocy. At times, KyoAni does overplay its hand: the other shopkeepers can act so friendly that it becomes creepy – in one scene where one of the girls’ teachers visits the market and has everyone asking him about how she’s doing, I was wondering when the rictus grins and knives would appear and they’d start groaning for him to stay and enjoy their hospitality foreveeeeeeeeeeeeer. It’d be unfair to say that this is always the case, though – it’s endearing to see them get into the spirit of Tamako’s proposal for a Valentine’s Day sale in the second episode with new ideas about how to attract custom, as is their earnest desire to let Tamako have a real birthday party when it coincides with the busiest day in the year for her father’s shop. Tamako and her classmates have atypical hobbies (one is a budding architect who shines a candle for set squares) which should be a source of different perspectives in future episodes and there is a pleasant slow pace to Tamako’s interactions with the boy at the shop across the street – they don’t use their mobile phones to chat, they throw cups and strings between their bedroom windows – you imagine they’ve been doing this since they were toddlers.
Similarly, the show seems to be aspiring to soften its gentle character even further by reminding audiences of fond domestic nostalgia – not only do the characters visit an old-style communal bathhouse (also doubling as a community centre where the shopkeepers have their meetings) but the very covered market in which Tamako lives, works and plays is itself something of a throwback – I fear that the depiction of such markets in a very different anime, Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor, where the local yobs stooped on the steps of silent streets of shuttered shops, has been increasingly closer to the mark since the 1960s.
Old doesn’t mean played-out, though, it can also be classic. The characters also regularly take time out at a tea-shop whose softly-spoken owner plays classic vinyl records while his customers consider the events around them. These scenes are short but actually incredibly effective, taking the fabric of the show’s fluffy softness and ironing it into a bassy, cool, sophisticated smoothness that forms a backing-track for life in the market and lets you not sink soporifically into the cushions but rather settle back in a reflective, almost meditative mood. It’s a sleekly beguiling effect and a powerful asset for the show – something that KyoAni has also recognised because these records also feature prominently in the closing animation.
One pleasant surprise about Tamako Market also comes from what might seem to be the cuckoo in its nest. An aspect that might at first be dismissed as a bolted-on gimmick actually turns out to be an indispensible key feature that sets itself as the show’s lynch-pin – the talking bird, Dera. His archly camp antics perfectly suit his puffy pink plumage, his flamboyance matches his confidence and as he struts around and uses the hapless Tamako’s head as a pedestal for his pompous pronouncements as he expresses a variety of entertaining foibles. Everyone around him takes the idea of a talking bird pretty much in their stride, and however unrealistic that’s a good thing for the show because his active and unrestrained involvement with the other characters means that he injects liveliness and personality into all of the show’s action. Sometimes there are clumsily contrived reasons why oddball characters stick around the cast, but Dera-chan abandons his marital match-making quest for a genuinely fun and thematically appropriate reason – he just can’t resist stuffing himself fatter than a grouse after the Glorious Twelfth with Tamako’s mochi, to the extent that he can no longer fly! As well as helping to more strongly establish the anime’s setting, his roly-poly body is also the source of decent physical humour that is an active part of his interactions with the other characters.
While Dera might have piled on the pounds, though, his show has not. Lightweight, inoffensive and undemanding, Tamako Market remains bouncy and bubbly, and while the bubbles are hollow they do make pretty rainbow patterns. An entirely conventional genre work, it has a few distinguishing quirks to hook your initial attention, and then reels along at a steady pace.
You can currently watching Tamako Market in streaming form absolutely free courtesy of Anime on Demand.