I had heard about this two-episode OVA series as one of the “so bad it’s good” ones, especially for its animation, so I sat down expecting a good laugh at something like Skelter heaven. But against my expectations, Tanjō – Debut was certainly not good, but not even bad enough to be enjoyable as such, and even with a somehow “genuine” feeling. I expected a train wreck of awfulness, but I found something that, while certainly bad, still manages to have its qualities.
In the first of these two standalone episodes, Itō Aki is falling in love with the employee of a restaurant where she and her friend Kumi often go eating. Too shy to confess, she’ll find out that reality can be harshly different from a girl’s dreams. In the second episode, the three girls Aki, Kumi and Saori go dig up a time capsule they had buried together 10 years earlier in their elementary school days, but inside they find, besides the three sets of objects they had contributed, a fourth one belonging to neither of them.
Just to shoot down the elephant in the room immediately, these OVA are a tie-in to a videogame, but since I don’t see how a management simulation about four idols could relate to these two stories, that fact doesn’t change much. Now, despite the unoriginal excuses of a plot we have here, I have to admit that they actually work quite well: sure, it’s hard to be invested in characters who have just a few minutes to establish themselves, but the ending of the first episode is actually carried out decently and, while unsurprising, at least it’s not the usual happy ending, while in the second story the “mystery” factor and its (though laughably predictable) resolution are built up effectively. Despite a warm “genuine” vibe I get from the anime, it’s hard to get rid of this feeling of uselessness it gives off, and this is its main problem: it’s useless, it’s unoriginal, it’s dragged on (which is kind of bad in a 30-minute-long work…), and the fact that the two stories are so completely different and unrelated to each other certainly doesn’t help. The execution is decent on both, also thanks to a nice direction, but, simply enough, I’ve read fanfictions with more interesting plots than these.
There’s another elephant in the room that needs to be addressed: the inconsistency of the characters’ backgrounds. For a spoiler-free example, in the first story Aki is just starting to make friends with Saori, while in the second the two are established as childhood friends. But I understand that the characters, keeping their names and their basic personality, are actually used as actresses (remember, in the game they’re idols), and the short scenes over the opening credits showing them actually acting out scenes from the episodes proper show that what we see for the most part is the four girls performing in a drama. Now, actually this is a pretty clever idea, but unless you know the game (I googled it later) it will be very hard to get, it makes the two stories feel all the more useless (that is, they’re not actual stories, they’re the acting debut of characters we know nothing about unless we played the game. And what makes the viewers understand so is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it montage rolling over the freaking opening credits), and it doesn’t help the fact that the four are such bland, unoriginal and flat characters. They’re nothing more than stock types, hard to feel, with little to no personality flashed out.
This is the only department in which “Debut” holds up to its fame: the art is… bad. I mean… bad. That’s not hair, I have no idea what it is, probably wrapping paper or a rubber-made wig, but definitely not hair. And Aki and Kumi’s faces and expressions… not human. That’s not how human eyes and noses are, and my God, are those supposed to be eyelashes?, they look more like… undereyebrows, or the result of an unfriendly dispute over the last parking space! I won’t spend too many words on the nineties-anime stock type character design or on the stiffy animations, but I’ll say this: according to ANN, the chara designer and animation director is Tanaka Hiroto, who later did the key animation for the opening sequences of such works as “Death Note” and “Rozen maiden” and even for two whole “Bleach” movies and some “Dennō coil” episodes. I’m as surprised as you are.
I’d also spend a couple of words on the direction, which has some creativity with pretty clever transitions, and actually does its job very well in weaving the plot. Again I check ANN, and what the hell is the director of “Ranma ½” and “Kimagure” doing here?
The soundtrack also kind of fails: despite a nice overall “nostalgic” feeling I get, it’s too scarce and generic to work effectively. Really monotonous, and doesn’t always create the right atmosphere. In the second episode, in particular, it’s a bit too overdramatic during some sequences, and too bland when it would’ve needed to be more dramatic. It’s probably the soundtrack from the game, because the feeling I get is of something similar to the music of a visual novel or something like that.
The voice acting, on the other hand, is at least decent. Granted, they don’t have a great script to work with, but it shows they’re giving it effort. Kanai Mika is debatably the best of the lot (not surprisingly, since she’s actually a pretty big name: she’s performed as Kaguya in “Code Geass”, Yūkimaru in probably the only good “Naruto: Shippūden” filler arc, Satoko in “Higurashi” and others), making Kumi’s funny and lively nature the only one a bit more distinguished of the four girls. Tominaga Miina (best known as Karin from “DNA²”) as Itō is also interesting, in that her acting is probably the only reason you could be invested during the first episode. Kasahara Hiroko is quite bland, but give her a break, it must be hard to give a damn about a character like Saori. Shiina Hekiru as Sachiko does her job, but her character is secondary so she doesn’t have much room.
I feel kind of stupid treating this so seriously, but… it kind of surprised me and left me unsure of what to make of it. It’s based around an idea that, if developed better, maybe telling both the story of the “actresses” and of the characters they act out, could have turned into something good. Instead, it ended up a useless one-hour-long tie-in to an obscure videogame, with characters hard to care for, unoriginal (if decently delivered) plots within an underdeveloped frame (without which the story will seem inconsistent and confusing instead of simply useless), and awful character design, without even being ridiculous and cliché enough to be enjoyable. Basically, something you’d have no reason to watch, unless you’re really curious (like me), want some cheap early-Nineties nostalgia, or like this kind of simple plots. And yet… why in the name of Leiji Matsumoto do I not hate it? Maybe because there’s some sort of charm to how clumsy it is? Maybe because it gives me the feeling that there is some effort in there, something that most filler arcs and shōnen franchise movies don’t?