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Nerima Daikon Brothers Vol. 1 (of 3)

I can say, unequivocally, that this is the best anime I’ve seen in a good while, a 12-episode series that just aired on Japanese television in early 2006, yet managed to hit US shores in R1 dvd form just in time for Christmas. That’s a fast license and localization, and probably a sign of distributor ADV’s faith in director Shinichi Watanabe, who also directed the popular television series Excel Saga and its spin-off OVA thingy Puni Puni Poemy. The official US site is here.

Watanabe has had an interesting, varied directorial career in anime, oscillating between entries in anime mega-franchises like Lupin III and Tenchi Muyo! and individualistic comedy projects like the aforementioned Excel Saga (nominally based on a manga by Koshi Rikdo, though many, many things were changed), which often feature the director himself as a character, his alter ego Nabeshin - indeed, the director sometimes refers to himself simply as Nabeshin (a name formed by smooshing together letters from the Japanese form of his name - WataNABE SHINichi), and his fans refer to him as the same, possibly to prevent themselves from mixing him up with Cowboy Bebop/Samurai Champloo director Shinichiro Watanabe.

Actually, according to Watanabe’s audio commentary on the dvd, Nerima Daikon Brothers was originally conceived as a starring vehicle for the Nabeshin character (so, himself), though Watanabe soon discovered that he wouldn’t be able to carry out his own vision for the show by playing the lead character. You see, Watanabe can’t sing - and Nerima Daikon Brothers is a musical. No, not in that there happens to be a lot of songs, I mean that every two minutes or so one character or another breaks out into song, the chief means of forwarding the plot and providing character information, and that’s how it goes for all 12 episodes. It’s certainly unlike anything I’ve seen in television anime in recent years, and (at least in episodes 1-4) it’s pulled off remarkably well, despite the obvious constraints of a television series - according to Watanabe, there’s actually only about 20 separate tunes composed for the show, which are used over and over with different lyrics, just as particular bits of dance moves are judiciously recycled.

Watanabe is a disarmingly candid speaker; he openly admits that he blew much of the show’s schedule on episodes 1-3, and at one point apologizes to the viewer for recycling bits of footage to fill up episode time. There’s a pretty good chance that the remaining two discs might see a steep decline in quality, though that’ll be up to the creative team’s ingenuity. Watanabe is also fond of repeating his favorite lines (he’s not the credited screenwriter -- that’s veteran anime writer Yoshio Urasawa -- but it’s obvious from his comments that many hands worked on the scripts behind the scenes), and pointing out bits that had to be censored for television broadcast. And oh yes - this is very much a Shinichi Watanabe musical, which means a certain amount of raunchy parody and anime in-jokes and cultural references that have once again prompted ADV to add an optional informational subtitle track. Watanabe is a bit unique among anime directors in that he’s got a very specific style that joins together his ‘personal’ works - the final episode of Excel Saga joked that the show was now going to turn into a musical, and this program seems like a logical extension of the earlier series’ feel, though they’re really entirely different projects from conception on down.

The plot concerns the titular trio of Brothers who farm Daikon (a type of radish) in Nerima (one of many self-governing municipalities that make up the greater prefecture of Tokyo), although one of them is female and not all of them are siblings. Ambitious, goofy Hideki has a dream of giving up farming to build a massive performance dome to play the blues in (much of the show, from costume designs to musical cues, is plainly influenced by 1980’s The Blues Brothers); he’d also dearly like to have sex with his bandmate/cousin Mako, whose life is run almost exclusively by materialism and selfish ambition. She has a crush on Ichiro, the financial provider of the group, who works at a host club flirting with women and men alike for money, though he only truly has eyes for an anthropomorphic panda that stops by the farm to steal Daikon, and eventually joins the band because, well, why not? Together, the group battles evil in hopes of stealing evil’s money and living the high life. Nabeshin’s still in there too, as a mysterious benefactor who rents the team awesome weapons (and does no singing in the first batch of episodes). Oh, and they’re pursued by a bicycle-riding police inspector, who has a way with popping out gadgets, sometimes from her head, for handy use.

But most of the runtime is spent with silly gags and songs, each episode self-contained and focused on some exclusive topic. Episode 2, for example, conflates the significant ethnic Korean holdings in Japanese Pachinko parlors with the enduring popularity of South Korean media idols, to arrive at Korean Wave Pachinko, a money-grubbing scheme the team must foil, eventually leading to a minor Japanese/Korean relations issue (which means bombs and guns). Elsewhere, there’s police corruption, medical corruption, and record industry corruption, all of it confronted in singularly bad taste - Episode 1 alone features multiple gay handjob sequences (images used: daikons, dripping sausages, roses blooming, a hand working a guitar’s neck), along with a malevolent record producer hosing a cadre of leather boys down with champagne, and sex with space aliens, so it's not surprising that the show ran into editing (and apparently timeslot) problems.

Sex is very much a running theme in the show, along with consumerism; very nearly everyone in this show harbors some secret sexual desire beyond the acceptance of society, though Watanabe is quick to point out that he’s more about pure joking than substantive critique - still, it’s not hard to detect flashes of commentary in the handling of a character like Ichiro, a comparatively rare attempt at making the now-obligatory primary moé-bait character a male, and one who literally sells his charms to people while remaining utterly unresponsive to the largely pathetic fawning of his admirers, just like a cartoon can’t respond to the squealing of otaku, which is presumably how everyone likes it (Watanabe notes on his audio track that the moé concept holds little affect over him, and that he actually doesn’t feel he understands it). According to Wikipedia, the show's final episode launches it into overt political satire on the topic of postal service privatization, a sensible conclusion to the commerce theme.

It’s a really fun show on the whole so far, provided you’re up for plenty of nonsense and aren’t easily offended; it needs be mentioned that the music is very good, ranging from blues to ballads to more typical electro-fizz J-pop, some of it directly parodic of other sources, and the tunes are remarkably pliable to cover different situations. I haven’t listened to the English dub (I never do, but that preview on the official US homepage would not fill me with hope if I did), but the Japanese track boasts the talents of Shigeru Matsuzaki in the role of Hideki; Matsuzaki is a singer and occasional anime voice actor, who also starred in the Space Adventure Cobra movie and did the theme song for the We ♥ Katamari video game. The rest of ADV’s features are very nice, all of them apparently ported directly from the Japanese edition, save for the informational subtitles. Good stuff, worth checking out, etc.