Monday, January 07, 2008

REVIEW: Popping Out for "Popotan": DVD Shrugs Off Its Hentai Roots

[Article written for Toon Zone News 12.11.07]

Quests. Difficult things really; they have a start, a middle and an end. For Popotan, the story has arguably one, maybe two of these elements as three sisters partake a quest to find fulfillment—I think.

I had the fortunate luxury of going into this DVD box set utterly cold; aside from what was on the package, I had little idea what I would uncover, and certainly, Popotan uncovers quite a lot. It doesn’t seem particularly bothered as to the age of what it uncovers, providing those who are uncovered have a) breasts, and b) bottoms. If possible, both should be exposed in bathing areas and explored with as much tactile contact as possible. In fairness to the anime, there is far more to this show than the rather exploit-to-titillate visuals that parade throughout the stories. The origins of the series however offer a little less substance.

Popotan is the brainchild of Akio Wantanbe (who also worked on the more famous Kiki’s Delivery Service) and was originally produced as a hentai adventure, first for the PC then later ported to the Playstation 2. In the original game, you played Chris, a male who lives in a house with three sisters and their android maid. Naturally, being hentai the game’s focus was on the romantic relations between Chris and the girls in the game. Thankfully the anime series that followed shortly after has a little more substance to it.

Popotan: The Complete Series is the tale of three sisters called Ai, Mai, and Mii who travel in their time-jumping house with their maid, the enigmatic Mea. They all search for Popotan—or dandelions—that Ai can speak to with her mind. With the Popotan’s help, the three sisters seek Shizuku: the end and the beginning of their quest. It introducds them to many adventures, new friends, and original locations they can gratuitously disrobe in.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to the insatiable urge to pull the disk out of my DVD player after watching half of the first episode. Fortunately, it's one of the benefits of watching a DVD for the sole purpose of reviewing it that you don’t get the luxury to stop—you have to press on.

And it was a worthwhile mandate. In fact, I watched all twelve episodes in one day. Yes, get past the rather sluggish and seemingly vacuous first five minutes of episode one where young boy Daichi has an accidental yet literal run-in with Ai’s breasts; get past the rather meandering and inane plot that staggers through the opening story and forge on to episode two. There you’ll find Popotan really finding its feet. It’s actually very good; you don’t have to get titillated by the cartoon breasts to enjoy this story, though clearly the producers feel it helps.

Yes, there is a lot of nudity and suggestive postures. While there is only one scene which implies sexual activity, every angle is geared to exploit the feminine body. If that sort of stuff offends you, be warned: there is lots of it. And while I’d hope that wouldn’t stop you from experiencing Popotan, there are occasions where the nudity is pretty disquieting. I don’t know how young the youngest sister is meant to be, but her fascination with breast size and her own penchant for nudity can sometimes be a little uncomfortable to watch. But that doesn’t stop Popotan being a lovely story in itself. The key is to put aside any personal ideology when viewing the irrelevant bathtub scenes. Just as the sight of Sipowicz’ ass doesn’t stop you from enjoying an episode of NYPD Blue, the discerning, open-minded viewer should be able to get past the gratuitous nudity; look past the tasteless icing and enjoy the tasty cake.

As the episodes continue, the story layers build up without the audience even being aware of it. The issues of being a traveler and the damage one's journey's have on those friendships born from wandering become a key arc, and the beauty of having a house that time travels onwards on each jump by five years, means that characters can return at totally different points of their life. So what initially seems like a gentle mix of odd character stories later becomes the tapestry which the show uses to present the ultimate question to the sisters: what do you really want?

The beauty of the show’s characters is not in themselves. Ai is quite drippy, Mai is a whiner, and Mii is annoyingly loud, but the central protagonists' chemistry endears them to the audience, and watching these simple yet effective episodes unfold along with the rich dynamic of players becomes a joy to behold.

The animation itself has some occasion flashes of smart direction (a table tennis game between Mea and Mai is a great sequence), but overall the animation is fairly uninspiring, with character models, expressions and artistic direction drawn from anime's box of clich├ęs. Some of the backgrounds hold some charm, but overall the animation remains pretty crass, uninspired and stiff.

Aurally, the international dub is pretty good with careful attention to synchronization and voices which are raw and honest to the original Japanese. The incidental music complements the tone of the show and the opening and closing themes are extremely catchy.

The box set itself is nicely presented, with a transparent sleeve to collect the three brightly designed volumes. The information booklet that comes with each volume is neatly presented with a little bit of character biography.

The discs' interactive menus are simple, pretty and straight forward—just as I like it. Unfortunately, bonus features are weak: we have a small art gallery on each disk and a few Geneon adverts.

Overall this is a highly recommended DVD set. The complete series is around 300 minutes in length, and the audience can enjoy getting to know a set of warm, friendly characters while anticipating a decent ending.

Through no intention of mine, Popotan has become a welcome addition to my bookshelf and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a friendly, character-driven comedy. If that isn’t your thing, and you just like cartoon breasts and provocative poses, hey, there is something for you guys too.

Whatever you think about naughty nudity, don’t let that put you off exploring a really enchanting fantasy tale. Please don’t let pride prevent you from purchasing the near perfect Popotan!