Miki Koishikawa is a Japanese schoolgirl whose parents return from a Hawaiian holiday with startling news. Meeting another married couple, all four fell in love with their opposite number and so they're planning a double divorce and double remarriage. However to ensure that all this wife-swapping doesn't disrupt their children's lives, they've decided to buy a house big enough for six so that everyone can live together as one happy family! Six? That's right, Miki's acquiring a twofold stepbrother called Yuu Matsuura, who seems to enjoy teasing her.
Unsurprisingly, Miki freaks.
This show makes Sailor Moon look like The Godfather. It's pure shoujo, with no villains, psychic powers, gun battles, alien spaceships or anything else that might possibly interest the action crowd. It's a teen soap. Miki and her friends fall for boys and play tennis. This show's all about its love triangles, with Ginta, Arimi, Meiko, Shinichi, Satoshi, Ryoko and many more.
It's particularly unaccommodating to its male audience at the beginning, perhaps on the not unreasonable assumption that it won't have one. Yuu's introduction in episode one is accompanied by twinkly stars and "Wow, Look At The Gorgeous Boy" music. Ginta's Big Secret is so girly that it's not merely something boys wouldn't do, but something that boys couldn't even imagine in the first place. A male writer could never have created this series. Miki's dilemma is pure girlie fantasy ("Is it Yuu or Ginta that I really like"... grrrrr).
The production isn't impressive. It looks like an eighties show despite being mid-nineties, while in the early episodes even the music is a bit dodgy. A heavily dramatic piece gets used in a scene which can't support it, while another song gets played to death. Even at this early stage, the show has some great "what the hell" scenes to keep your attention. Even the basic premise is weird. Nevertheless the first dozen or so episodes are funny but predictable. A fancies B fancies C, etc. and they can't reach a decision to save their lives. "It's going to be the same cut-and-pasted plot repeated 76 times," I thought. Not the case. About halfway through season one, the show starts developing. The range of possible relationships broadens in interesting directions... (a) homosexuality and (b) illicit student-teacher romance. The latter in particular leads to genuinely powerful drama.
Around the twenty-something mark, I'd completely reversed my opinions and was wondering if the show had shot its dramatic load too soon! I've called this a soap, but in some ways that's unfair. Soap operas never go anywhere. They're a never-ending cycle of characters going around and around but never learning a thing. Marmalade Boy's characters evolve, have realisations and act on them. It's a complete and surprisingly well-told story. Its three seasons cover two years of fictional time and a hell of a lot of growing up.
The most obvious example of this is Miki. At the start she reminded me of Sailor Moon's Usagi Tsukino... less irresponsible and scatterbrained, but just as emotionally unguarded. Both are strongly attached to their friends. Both seem mentally younger than their years, to put it politely. They even have similar facial expressions and similar-sounding voice actresses! However over time Miki overcomes her indecisiveness and her emotional fragility, by the end of the show becoming an adult.
It feels very 1980s. It's Japan at the height of its economic bubble, with people owning their own companies and playing rich boy sports like tennis. The tennis is practically a motif. One guy even has eighties hair.
There are other shoujo visual quirks. The eyes are huge even by anime standards, with two Americans in particular looking more insect-like than human. Furthermore wind will always tousle the hair of an emotionally shaken character, even when they're indoors. However less amusing was the changing hair colour in night-time scenes. One accepts odd-coloured hair in anime (green, blue, etc.) because it helps distinguish the characters. Making it look purple from time to time was really distracting!
This show is innocent and disturbing all at once. Our teenage heroes think a kiss is practically the end of the world, but we're always aware of further possibilities. In season one the grown-ups are slightly creepy. Miki's four parents are well-meaning and amiable, but one completely understands her ambivalence towards them. I could never put my finger on anything wrong, but in season one those blithely self-absorbed adults gave me the willies.
Season Two has plenty of dramatic meat, possibly because after that the manga ended. Season Three was all-new material, with a split storyline between Japan and New York. Amusingly Americans speak fluent Japanese (e.g. taxi drivers, hotel receptionists, street urchins), although that's obviously a translation convention. I've seen Season Three bashed by some reviewers, but personally I thought that it continued the story smoothly and intelligently without feeling tacked on. It's a bit heavy on the angst at times, but it takes the characters somewhere meaningful and builds up to a satisfying conclusion for the whole three-year saga.
As an aside, this anime has a curious relationship with the original manga and its creator, Wataru Yoshizumi. She disliked the "Americans speaking Japanese" thing and has joked about how much more complicated were the anime's relationships, with Season Three in particular being nicknamed by fans the "love dodecahedron". However that season wasn't created completely from whole cloth, taking characters from Handsome na Kanojo, an earlier Wataru Yoshizumi manga that had become an OVA in 1991. It's also known that the Marmalade Boy production team were planning to kill Anju Kitahara and Namura Shinichi, but fortunately Wataru objected. The latter death in particular might have scarred me for life.
This show is more intelligent than it looks. The genre needs characters to have dramatic misunderstandings and keep information from each other, but their reasons tend to be surprisingly straightforward. For example Miki and Yuu never tell their parents anything because they find them embarrassing! Hey, I'd do the same. Admittedly I think Yuu got it badly wrong in episodes 72 and 73, but I can forgive that since it sets up a killer ending. The last two episodes had me rolling on the floor. Even for anime that's fucked up, though alas it eventually pulls back towards sanity. I laughed like a drain, even through the heartwarming roll-call of happy or happy-ish endings for the whole cast.
The "movie", by the way, is a half-hour retelling of episode one from Yuu's point of view instead of Miki's. It's a sweet throwaway which can be watched at any point, from before starting the show to after finishing it.
Marmalade Boy isn't "blow your socks off" brilliant, but it's much stronger than it might have been. At the end of the day it's a teen soap with no action beyond who falls in love with whom. It demands patience. Like all such shows it goes in waves, with melodrama and then quiet periods. Its characters aren't the best I've ever seen, but they're more than good enough for the stories being told and you can empathise with them. What's more its comedy is funny and its drama can be genuinely powerful. It's a keeper, for what that's worth.