Sana Kurata is an eleven-year-old TV star who does everything at 1000 mph and goes to bed with her agent whom she affectionately calls her pimp. Her mother is an award-winning writer whose hobbies include torturing her literary agents, driving toy cars and keeping a squirrel in her hair. Her father is... possibly dead. Sana doesn't even know what he looked like. Her classroom is a warzone, thanks to the blackmailing efforts of her soon-to-be arch-enemy Akito Hayama. She's got a regular TV show: Kodomo no Omocha, on which she regularly goes berserk, ignores the script and does whatever the hell she feels like. And that's just the beginning.
Kodocha is a million things... manic, profound, brilliant, cheap and absolutely hilarious. It can be oddly unsatisfying or the best anime on Earth. It's a shoujo anime like Marmalade Boy
, but also nothing like it. That had a plot. Kodomo no Omocha occasionally has plotlike spasms, but its true strength lies in outrageous comic invention and enough energy to fuel the sun.
It's a shoujo show, so the art is the usual cheap big-eyed rubbish. It certainly can't have had much of a budget, but its secret is that it has my all-time favourite director: Akitaroh Daichi. Since watching this, I've ended up hunting down almost everything else he's done. What he can do with animation is brilliant. One of Kodocha's two keynotes is pushing visual comedy further than you'd imagine possible, and the animation is a huge part of that. The character designs are simple, but bursting with life. They make you laugh! This is how I'd want an animated version of The Beano to look. In particular its sight gags are the best in the business. Even when you're nearing the end of its 102-episode run and you think you've seen everything, there's always something unimaginable round the corner.
The show's not-so-secret weapon is Sana Kurata, simply the most hyperactive fictional character I've ever seen. Brash, bull-headed and at times downright dense, she steamrollers all opposition like a stampeding rhino. Ran Kotobuki in Super Gals
thought she could conquer the world, but Sana probably could. However underneath she's also kind-hearted and even soulful. The manic energy is deliberate, her way of putting on a happy face for the sake of the people around her.
She's a fantastic character, outrageously OTT but full of subtleties and contradictions. This eleven-year-old goofball has a job! She's a full-time actress and a bloody good one. Deftly juggling work and school, she's a genuinely gifted performer whose boundless energy and invention brings something special to all her projects. As an actor, I'd kill to get five per cent of what Sana turns on naturally. I'd have loved to have worked with her. I don't believe you could do a live-action Kodocha, partly because Akitaroh Daichi makes such outrageous use of the animated medium but also because I shouldn't think there's a child actress in the world who's up to the lead role. Sana really is that good.
However perhaps as a result, there's something slightly inappropriate about Sana. She sleeps with her pimp, who gives her a vibrator. Admittedly that's not what it sounds like, but even so Sana's vocabulary, home life and way of thinking aren't entirely what you'd want for an eleven-year-old girl. She's outrageously hyper, but there's darkness underneath which she expresses through singing. Sometimes rapping. Those songs may look like surreal comic relief, but listen to their lyrics.
Like Great Teacher Onizuka
, Kurata Sana is a character who could fuel a series single-handedly just by being herself. She has a heart, but she's not perfect or saintly. On the contrary, she leaps in without thinking and doesn't so much overcome her opposition as leave them flattened in her wake.
The show can be daft or heartfelt. It brings up serious issues like parental abandonment, emotional abuse, bullying and death, but then does Elseworlds episodes in which our heroes become cavemen, giant robots, Sailor Moon clones or Disney characters. One such episode has the world's first love scene between a toilet seat and a skunk. However even leaving aside all that, the show goes through phases. The first twenty episodes can be relatively serious, then it goes random and episodic. Later there's a Marmalade Boy
phase as love triangle issues rip Sana's heart out of her chest and drive her to New York. There's a crap phase as the show inexplicably stumbles at the halfway mark, another serious phase (I cried) and more.
Some people say that it's better in the first half. I wouldn't go that far, but I will admit that at that stage the show isn't weighed down by love triangles. Sana's then still at elementary school!
That's all good stuff. However what makes Kodocha special and Akitaroh Daichi my favourite director is the fact that it can do it all simultaneously. The best episodes will have you in painful fits of laughter, before suddenly turning on a sixpence and in a heartbeat you're almost in tears. What's more, the transition can go both ways. You never know when the show might suddenly take the piss out of someone who's being a little too sincere! The result is a show that's far more clever and self-aware than almost anything else I've seen. There isn't a moment throughout its 102 episodes where it doesn't know exactly what it's doing.
It's not well plotted. It's too wilful and wild to be chained down by such mundane matters. Its funniest episodes come from roaring off on some bizarre tangent, although admittedly when the plot does kick in the emotional scenes are superb. You wouldn't believe how much expression it can wring from a few crude lines. The end of episode 83, for instance, out of nowhere is heartbreaking... and almost nothing has changed from the previous beat. You rewind. You play the scene again. You can hardly detect the difference. That's Akitaroh Daichi.
The supporting cast builds up slowly. The most important is Hayama, Sana's nemesis and anti-matter opposite. While she overreacts, he only responds with sardonic curtness and a deadpan mask. The joke is that he's really a short-tempered lout with a malevolent streak, so we soon learn that a tiny change in his expression is the equivalent of Sana bouncing off the walls. He's smarter than her too.
At its peak, Kodocha is simply the best anime comedy ever. Its purple patches are televisual crack. Even the music is fantastic. They take rich advantage of the studio band's rhythm section, while the singer who did the first opening theme has since made it big and the licencees couldn't afford the rights for the official R1 DVDs.
The only downside is that it's mercurial to a fault. Sometimes it's merely okay, but you've got to love a kids' show that has a seven-foot-tall transvestite called Bernadette. Its jokes are outrageous, but almost every major character has serious parental issues. Even the ending is like nothing else I've ever seen. Most long-running shows slow down in the closing stretch as they tie up loose plot threads, but Kodocha accelerates! I admire this show almost more than any other I own, but I can't give it top marks. It's too inconsistent and its plot is sporadic. However in a way that's almost what I love about it.