Michiko and Hatchin
In a fictional country whose language, architecture, landscape, and societal structure eerily resemble that of Brazil, Michiko Malandro, a notorious criminal, escapes from a maximum security prison in order to track down Hiroshi Morenos, an old acquaintance long believed dead whom she strongly believes is simply eluding her. During her travels, she encounters Hana Morenos, a girl who bears both his last name and a striking resemble to him and who has also spent most of her life living under abusive foster parents. Michiko makes a successful but reckless attempt to free her from her "Cinderella" situation and sets off to find her father, generally disregarding the fact that the two have never actually met and that the level-headed Hana doesn't seem much happier with her and her childish personality than she had been in the foster home. The two begin a journey across a vibrant but dangerous land, bickering all the way but slowly developing a mutual dependence neither had expected to arise.
Michiko and Hatchin is a worthy experiment, a variety show of sorts in which the "acts" are the different facets of its wonderfully realized interpretation of Latin America. While it is weakened slightly by its lack of an ultimate purpose beyond that of embracing a setting rarely depicted in Japanese animation, I was surprised by how potent the show's ability to draw one into a state of fascination was, as well as by its ability to infatuate the audience with two unlikeable main characters and turn their relationship into the backbone of the story. I finished the series feeling reservedly impressed, and if one can stomach the fact that any interest one feels in the show's initial "hook" will go unsatisfied it is ultimately a worthwhile experience.
Michiko and Hatchin is essentially Manglobe Studios' great exposition of everything and anything Brazilian, and though the story expresses an almost romantic fascination with it, it depicts certain grisly aspects in enough detail that calling it a "tribute" would be an over-simplification. Certain elements bear obvious inspiration from other Latin American countries, such as the Mayan pyramids seen in one episode and the bullfighting seen in one other, but by and large, the people, places, and cultural aspects are those of Brazil (there's even a version of Rio De Janeiro and its famous gondola). Interestingly, perhaps in reference to the country's fairly significant population of ethnic Japanese, the characters all have Portuguese-sounding surnames and Japanese given names, such that our cast consists of "Satoshi Batista", "Hana Morenos", and so forth. Setting this anomaly aside, however, the show goes to great lengths to render its setting into "Brazil" as opposed to merely a Japanese person's speculative impression on what the country might be like, and the effort pays off.
Indeed, I must commend the staff of Michiko and Hatchin for the attention that they pay to such details as architecture, plant life, cityscapes, and even the uniforms worn by National Park Rangers. The landscapes, which range from sunset-soaked deserts to misty cloud forests, are all drawn beautifully, with slums, high-tech skyscrapers, and stilt-supported lake houses being illustrated in equal detail and the series as a whole giving one the experience of being under the searing tropical sun that bears down upon the actual denizens of the world's fifth largest country. The cities are run-down for the most part and yet still retain the vibrancy of large population centers, and the people themselves are a mix of races (with Michiko herself having tan skin) and drawn with soft lines, small eyes, and angular body forms that cause them to bear little resemblance to the forms most American audiences expect from anime. I'm no art critic, but I came away from the experience feeling enthralled: there's just something incredibly enticing about this show's world, as full of gangsters, drug dealers, and sociopaths as it may sometimes be. The music, a samba score composed by the Brazilian band +2s and produced by Shinichiro Watanabe, (whose simultaneous interest in music and anime direction is well-documented), certainly helps this along, as does the bouncy opening theme. The score is a triumph of a mood-setting music, and one never appreciates how seamlessly it blends with the art and character design to establish the scene until one makes the effort to pick it apart.
I would enjoy Michiko and Hatchin plenty if I were simply here to watch rather than engage with the storyline, and to some extent this buffers the series against the inevitable disappointment felt when the plot itself does not entirely live up to the visual flair. Simply put, the story is a bit of a tease: a series centered around a character searching for another character will inevitably meander far and wide, kill off main players, and ocassionally even throw in a magical girl parody or two (not in this case, luckily) before it actually brings us any closer to its stated purpose. Those who have read my previous reviews know that this basically ruined my opinion of Samurai Champloo, another Manglobe series, and while Michiko and Hatchin lacks the tonal inconsistencies and dull side stories that slowly ate away at my interest in that show, it does little if anything to maintain the audience's interest in actually finding Hana's father. When something does eventually come of this, the result is anticlimactic. By that point, we've at least become fascinated enough with the main characters that the "alternate" ending the show does give us is acceptable (a point I'll discuss shortly), but if you want to watch a series where a well-resolved central storyline is essential to the experience, you may want to look elsewhere.
That is not, however, to say that there is no worth at all in the tale that we are presented with. The show is, on the whole, a blast, and most of the episodes comprise self-contained stories loaded with well-written personal drama and plenty of deftly-animated gunfights. A few episodes take the "try everything Latin American" mantra too seriously, as there's one treasure-hunting story that feels a bit out of place, but such small mistakes are easy to forgive. In addition, the dialogue is quite eloquent and intricate for an anime television series; it was interesting to me to see how little was directly stated in this show and how so little of the character development occurred in an obvious manner. The characters, on the whole, are extremely brusque with each other and illustrated in such a way that virtually no-one is either easy to fathom or at all innocent of wrongdoing (with the possible exception of Hana). Although the show has a relatively small cast, with few besides Michiko and Hana themselves appearing more than once, those that are present are virtually all in a web of love-hate relationships, with each person's set of relationships being only subtly defined and prone to changing according to the whims of temper or mood. The series is somewhat dark, as most of the characters are either criminals or have close ties to them, and yet there are enough positive moments (that are, thankfully, devoid of maudlin romanticization) that the experience is satisfyingly human rather than disheartening.
What may have ultimately clinched my opinion of the show, however, was the skill with which the two main characters were handled. Michiko and Hana (nicknamed "Hatchin") are both odd characters, outwardly unlikeable in most respects and having so little in common that hilarity can't help but ensue. Michiko has such a childish, flippant, and selfish personality that she might as well not even have "rescued" Hatchin at all, and Hatchin herself is, hilariously, considerably more mature, if no less prickly and too cynical to put much faith in such proclamations as "I'm here to save you" or "when we find your father it will all work out". Although the show's driving plot element involves a man from both their pasts, the show focuses on their present relationship at the expense of flashbacks or non-too-subtle "backstory delving", and it's fascinating to see the two strong, prickly personalities butt heads, part ways, rejoin out of desperation, and begin to enjoy each other's company in spite of simultaneously hating each others' guts. I was glad that the series did not merely turn into a simple "two unlikely friends" story, and when they did start to get close I could believe it: like all of the show's dialogue, their interactions rarely approach any issue directly and little can be taken at face value. Michiko and Hatchin is a show about Brazil, but the story really only has much of a point when it deals directly with their difficult relationship, and in that regard the story is ultimately satisfying in spite of the fact that it does nothing that was initially promised.
Michiko and Hatchin has its faults, to be sure, but if I haven't made my respect for anime directors with ambition clear before, I'll do so here: if you can get past your exclamation of "does this have a point?", it's an engrossing experience from the pen of a director I plan to keep an eye on. Michiko and Hatchin could easily have turned into a gimmick, but instead, it's a well-written character story with a carefully-researched backdrop, and I commend the studio for putting as much effort into those aspects as they did.
A very solid four stars given for its expertly-constructed setting and engrossing character arc. The main story could be better, but it's entertaining in almost every other way. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: This will not be appropriate for kids: there's gun violence in almost every episode, some of it graphic, and there are explicit references to the activities of organized crime throughout. While Michiko's somewhat skimpy outfits constitute the entirety of this series' "fan service", this is clearly a show geared towards older audiences, with the tone being consistently dark and cynical. Roman Catholics may also want to note that in one episode, a priest is portrayed as a greedy swindler with no qualms about murdering his own foster children, a depiction that some are likely to find offensive.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (22/22)
Michiko and Hatchin © 2008 manglobe/Caliente Latino
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