I never thought anyone from the outside could out-SHAFT Silver Link and Oonuma Shin, but Hatakeyama Mamoru really seems to have done it here. Given that DEEN shows traditionally (not always) have a generic and uninteresting look to them, that’s not a bad thing – while SHAFT will never be known for smooth animation and Shinbou’s trickery can easily overwhelm a series, there’s no question that they at least have a signature style, unlike DEEN. And that style is very effective when used in service of the story, as it was with Madoka Magica, Natsu no Arashi and Soredemo – and as SHAFT alumnus Hatakeyama Mamoru is using it here for DEEN.
The thing is, Sankarea is a really good series, and it’s not just the visuals. One component I didn’t mention last week was music director Hashimoto Yukari, who has a fine résumé but most recently stands out as the composer of the Mawaru Penguin Drum score, one of the finest of 2011. The music suits the material here beautifully – soaring strings when needed, playful winds and horns, never overwhelming but always enhancing. The cast, the writing, it’s all here – and it’s a testament to how great Thursdays are this season that Sankarea isn’t the at top of my Thursday list, or even in my top 5 new shows of the season (it’s close on that score).
While the story isn’t reinventing the wheel narratively, Hatakeyama has made very good choices in the first two eps. Most of the premiere was spent fleshing out Chihiro – showing us his odd family, his personal quirks, and the small tragedy that tore a hole in his heart. The second shifted seamlessly to Rea – giving us a disturbing look at her family life (worse even than I imagined after the first episode), her hopes, her fears, and her pain – and why she took such an interest in Chihiro’s zombie fetish and his twisted plans for Babu. By elegantly and simply structuring the story this way he’s made us feel totally connected to both leads and made them both complex, relatable characters – what many shows struggle to do in much longer timeframes. They provide a rock-solid foundation on which to build the series from here, and the side characters are colorful and memorable enough to be interesting, too.
A couple of moments stand out for me in the episode, starting with the scene where Rea tripped over the bowling ball and tucked her skirt under her as she fell (very SHAFT-y). I also loved the moment where Rea and Chihiro’s hands touched briefly as she handed poor Babu’s cooler to him, and both children blushed. Then there was the stage effect using the blinds on the house of Rea’s only friend, Nakadai-san – very clever and surreal. Then you have the chilling montage of Rea’s birthday photos, the very funny scene with Wanko and her “squeeze toys”, Babu’s escape from the cooler – these all show us a director who’s not merely a copycat, but a talent to be watched, with a great eye and a sensitivity to the material he’s directing.
Of Rea’s past – and present – not much can be said except that it’s truly tragic, the more so in that it feels so real. This is a scenario that feels as if it could have been written by Ikuhara Kunihiko – and indeed, there is a bit of Mawaru Penguin Drum vibe to this show (no less because of Kimura Ryouhei as the lead and Hashimoto-san’s music). Possessive love is perhaps the more terrifying form of obsession, and it’s heartbreaking to see Rea have everything she loves taken from her by her twisted Father (the great Ishizuka Unshou) – and to slowly come to learn just how twisted her father’s love is. The line of the episode was her “If my happiness is bad for others, then unhappiness is probably the best choice.” No one should have to face that choice, least of all a child or teenager, and it’s no wonder she seeks a way out though the occult when there’s none to be had through normal means. In the end she decides to take what she sees as the only way out when her last plan – to make resurrection work through the use of hydrangea leaves – has seemingly failed. What we know of course is that it hasn’t failed at all…
I’m very curious to see what impact this zombie potion has on an already living person (we know it can raise a deceased feline) – I suspect it won’t be as simple as the rebirth Rea had thought. I knew there was darkness in this story, but I hadn’t realized the depth of that darkness, or the depth and complexity of the series itself. At the very least Rea has a friend now – though her father has other ideas – and Chihiro may well have the zombie girlfriend he’s dreamed of. But I suspect this won’t go down the traditional horror suspense route, because it feels more like a tragic melodrama, with the focus on Chihiro and Rea and the support and love they can give each other in the face of great obstacles. Even in a season as deep in quality as this one, all of that makes Sankarea stand out from the crowd.