We’ll close out our current batch of suggestions with, appropriately, something that’s completely different from all the others. Almost completely different, that is. Like many of the others, it’s a school comedy. But there isn’t much else that’s the same.
Anime about anime isn’t uncommon. Today’s pick, however, is probably better described as an anime about anime about anime. And it was adapted from a manga, um, about anime about ani—you know what, we’re just going to leave that there. We’re getting into some complicated territory.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
As with all other forms of art and entertainment, the vast majority of anime consists of an assemblage of the agreed-upon minor tropes of an era. You can fairly accurately pin down the decade in which an American television series was produced, even if you know absolutely nothing about it, with only a handful of details. What are the prevalent colors? Is it film or videotape? Opening music—what is it? Experts can date painting and sculptures in much the same way; you know what trends in colors, composition, or ornamentation existed in which places at which times, and a glance is sometimes all that is needed to tell where a given work was produced.
Art is a negotiation between artist and audience. It has rules. It has fads. It has innovation, followed by mass production. If you think every police procedural looks the same, or are bothered by dozens of sitcoms that each depict each home, apartment, or flat with a layout that consists of too-large living room attached to a kitchen and, oh look, there are the stairs that disappear to nowhere—yeah. The stairs to nowhere have been there since Happy Days. The impossibly big lounging area a sitcom’s family or group of friends could not possibly afford is there because the cameras you don’t see are lumbering beasts that make Daleks look petite, there’s a specific number that’s most efficient to use, and the shots are to be framed in a particular way. There are rules.
This is all a very puffy way of saying the obvious: A lot of anime produced during a given year looks the same, based on unwritten contracts about what the audience finds comforting and what goes too far. The characters drawn have the same facial proportions, each character in our group of friends (usually four, because five is harder) is likely to have different hair color than all the others, cut and styled differently (because it is much, much easier to identify characters that way), and you can tell who’s important and who’s not based on whether their hair is Main Character hair or Background hair. Main Character hair takes a lot of time to draw. You don’t waste that on “guy buying soda at counter while Main Character contemplates frozen dinner options.” Not on these budgets.
A lot of animation tends to look the same, and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! doesn’t look like any of them.
Our trio of not-at-all-normal high school girls begins with Midori, a first-year student with a sketchbook full of fantastical scenes, bizarre vehicles, and indecipherable contraptions. She’s short, unfashionable, clumsy, weird, and obsessed. Midori ally Sayaka is tall, intimidating, scheming, and as obsessed with earning cash as Midori is with drawing worlds. Midori’s interest in the school anime club is disrupted when she meets our third conspirator, Tsubame, who promptly steals her favorite hat in an attempt to disguise herself.
Tsubame is from a rich family and is trying to ditch her bodyguards. Her bodyguards have been given one all-important task from Tsubame’s parents: keep her away from the school anime club. Like Midori, Tsubame is anime-obsessed, but while Midori compulsively creates new scenes, objects, and worlds, Tsubame’s only love is showing how people and objects move. She’s very good at it. She’s also a school-famous fashion model with famous parents, lives in a palatial estate, and is being groomed as a potential top star; the thought of seeing their child throw all that away to pursue a career drawing cartoons is enough to drive her parents to despair. Hence, the hat-stealing.
It all works out, sort of, but since Tsubame is barred from joining the anime club the three form their own. It’s not an anime club, it’s a film club: Eizouken. One that just happens to be focused on anime. And it’s not the anime club because the anime club just watches anime—this club will make anime. The creation of the club is mostly due to the efforts of Sayaka, who skips the time-wasting steps of trying to convince the teachers and the student council with logic and goes with the more efficient methods of physical intimidation and outright blackmail.
With that, the girls have their own three-person anime production studio. Midori does the backgrounds, lavish and otherworldly. Tsubame does the character design and movement. And Sayaka takes on the role of producer; she doesn’t give a flying damn about any of this stuff, but she smells money to be made and will use her non-artistic skills to scrape up as much of it as she can.
You know, a producer. The person with the biggest name in the credits despite having no artistic skills and few skills of any kind that don’t revolve around bullying and/or treachery. We all know what a producer is, we’re not children.
Even though the club always seems just moments from disaster, the result is … joyful? That seems the best word for it. Midori’s imagination is so vivid that even describing her intended scenes results in them visually manifesting, taking her friends on unrequested joyrides through her own improvisational what-ifs. Tsubame’s skill is so great that the things she draws leave the frame and assault her audience. Sayaka … is along for the ride, and will get whatever the two need even if she has to become the student council’s most dangerous enemy to do it.
The student council is evil, by the way. If you’re new to anime the student council is always evil, unless one of the main characters was elected to it in which case it’s not evil. Again, this is basic stuff, it should go without saying.
What makes Eizouken “joyful,” though, is that it is an unrelenting celebration of the craft of making pictures move.
How do you draw wind?
How does an object that never existed fly? Or jump? Or swim?
How does a heroine who is nothing but a collection of a few scattered lines win battles against tanks that are also nothing but drawn lines? Not why, how?
There are only the barest of boundaries between the world Eizouken presents, with relaxed, sketchbook-informal lines and mysterious town landscapes that even the main characters find suspiciously impractical, and the worlds Midori and Tsubame create within it. Tsubame gives voice to an ambition, wanting to draw scenes of people lounging in realistic poses, while the three do exactly that. The town’s strangest locations become convenient backdrops for their own drawn anime mini-epic—and is that all it is, or was the town in fact built to have this exact battle? The sea, the abandoned buildings, the cavernous underground chambers: Do they only exist for these moments, because Midori needed them to?
None of this is presented with this sort of philosophical bent, mind you. Eizouken is simply a light, goofy story of a new club fighting for survival as its three happy malcontents try to create a hand-drawn masterpiece using nothing but their own skills and compulsiveness. All of the rest is what your own brain brings into it as you watch.
Tsubame is described as pretty, and she’s drawn as pretty. But she’s just a collection of lines, the same as the others—how does that work? Midori is awkward, always sitting in uncomfortable-looking positions, a tight knot of energy that never finds release.
But how can sitting have energy?
Anime about the art of creating anime isn’t new, and there are several that are quite good, but it’s the sketched chaos of Eizouken that does the work here. The show is relentless in hammering its themes of creation and imagination with self-referential scenes that seem to provide answers before it asks the questions, but it still manages to make its lessons evasive. Are we watching a show about a joyful trio of obsessives losing themselves in what they love, or a show in which a trickster god reinvents the whole world, whim by whim, bringing everyone else along for the ride?
And who is that trickster god? Is it Midori? Or is it the artist drawing her?
This is one to watch if you think you’ve seen too much of the same. From the earworm opening song to the ramshackle art seemingly drawn both carelessly and as a direct challenge from its artist, it will dig its way into your head and make you look more closely at the lines of whatever show you decide to follow it with.
It’s incomprehensible. It’s a show that feels like it’s on the verge of bullying you, but is just too damn adorable to be mad at.