Despite its manga serialization in the long-running shoujo monthly Ribon, the Gokinjo Monogatari anime adaptation feels distinctly mature enough to widely appeal to the josei demographic.
The premise of Gokinjo Monogatari is remarkably unoriginal and employs various cliches for a yawn-worthy introductory arc that should be better. It will make you wonder at what point the unique spark that Ai Yazawa is known for was snuffed out or if it was even there to begin with. However, Gokinjo Monogatari has a lot more to offer than meets the eye.
The introductory love triangle arc ends abruptly in a typical Yazawa fashion - in her romances people break it off, admit feelings, develop new ones, and try relationships on for size... all in a way that mimics reality. During the opening whirlpool of romance and drama the slice-of-life elements begin to blossom like a drop of ink dispersing in water.
Gokinjo Monogatari is, at heart, a tale of real lives and real issues that simply masquerades as a romance shoujo because the pursuit of love as a priority is true to life. From waking up in the morning and pulling the occasional all-nighter to dealing with asshole customers at work and physical or emotional insecurities - we're there for all the highs and lows of Tsutomu, Mikako, and the colourful supporting cast. In addition to the adolescent struggles of the characters, the story of Gokinjo Monogatari also heavily revolves around vocational development to the point that I would consider it one of the main themes for the majority of the anime's length.
Around episode 13 Mikako dreams up the Akindo group and encourages her friends to make a product or offer a service according to their creative talents which they will then sell at the Akindo flea market stall. The subsequent episodes offer greater variation as the previous drama now continues to develop on a foundation of growing friendship and having fun.
The final 10 episodes bring even more surprises as the drama intensifies and unforeseen events occur. The significantly differing events from the opening arc to the final arc make for a surprise ending you won't expect at the beginning of the show (unless, of course, you've already watched Paradise Kiss).
Quite simply - this show isn't very pretty.
Crisp thin lines offer a sense of detail while movement is generally poor and only used when needed. Backgrounds remain static in eerie scenes where our main characters move through crowds of frozen faces. Scenery and backdrops are bland; for a Neighborhood Story there isn't much neighbourhood to see at all. Colours in general are bright, invoking youthfulness but only used generously on the characters and the sky remains a washed out pale tone with no gradation of colour.
Character designs are quirky at their best, and ugly at their worst. Our noodle-limbed, clown-footed characters saunter across the screen in varying garb ranging from cute, inventive, to wouldn't-be-seen-dead-in. Female characters sport unnaturally perfect curls that are better defined as spirals and their heavily outlined lips are plastered in garish lipstick. When front-on you may wonder if these lips are actually removable Mr Potato Head parts. Mariko's frowning red-lipped moments of sadness are the reason a phrase such as "face like a slapped arse" exists. Meanwhile, Mikako's range of emotions combined with this defined lip look often turns her face into an indubitable resemblance of a blow-up doll that even people with the cleanest minds can't avoid noticing. Disappointing to say the least, while the character designs are fresh and intriguing they are not necessarily attractive.
An unfortunate decision was made for Mikako's seiyuu to handle the vocals for the OP and both EDs. Rumi Shishido's voice is better suited to horrible drunken karaoke* and, although she is endearing, none of the offerings are particularly listenable. Skip, skip, and skip!
During the episodes we are treated to a soundtrack with an overpowering 90s feel to it - you can almost see the perms and high-waisted stone jeans of people dancing along to the terrible cheese fests you'll have to listen to. The music drags a lot of moments down into the realms of daytime soap opera when it should add to the feel of well-constructed teen angst.
Fortunately, Gokinjo Monogatari has a good seiyuu line-up to keep your ears from completely disabling themselves. Rumi Shishido really does sound like an ill-tempered but sensitive teenage girl and Tsutomu's ability to brush matters off with his dorky upbeat nature is cemented by the award-winning Kappei Yamaguchi's nasal abilities.
Youko Kawanami delivers us Ruriko's apologetic but egocentric personality in one of those female seiyuu performances where she constantly sounds on the verge of climax. This soft, alluring and high-pitched style seems to be a niche thing for specific seiyuu. I remember the first time I heard a character voiced by one of these Japanese sirens I felt both uncomfortable and aroused. This sort of performance alone is worth an entire point for the category.
Gokinjo Monogatari is one of the few shoujo/josei titles where I prefer more of the female characters over most of the male characters. Girls written for girls and women written for women, the show does not drag you in with any bishounen or princely promises.
Mikako Kouda is a female lead who falls into both the extremes of possessing a fiery and delicate temperament. She's driven by her passion to the point where it even allows her to overcome and deal with other pressures which more cliche shoujo leads would fall apart under in a melodramatic stupor.
One of the most interesting female characters is Mariko Nakasu, a supporting character who arguably gets as much screen time as Mikako herself. Mariko's princess attitude allows her to be a subject of hate at the beginning of the anime as she pouts and flirts her way into Tsutomu's arms. However, as the anime progresses we learn she is more than aware of her spoiled behaviour. As someone who has no direction in life while being surrounded by talented artists, Mariko is the type of character who acts in attention-seeking ways out of obvious and deep insecurities. Her jealous outbursts toward Yuusuke later in the series prove she has little understanding of her feelings towards others and no control over her emotions. A turning point in her development comes when her brother, Shintarou, asks if she is happy with the way she is. Mariko serves as a pertinent reminder of how a seemingly positive emotion such as desire or love tends to mutate our personalities into grotesque versions of our true character. This is also seen to different effect in more controlled characters such as Ruriko and Ayumi.
The characters are definitely a mixed bag, and unfortunately not all of them are well-developed, but even the minor members of Akindo are appealing in their own way. Risa, for example, is a punk girl with probably the most caring nature in the show.
You have to dive a little deeper to really enjoy Gokinjo Monogatari and look past the poor animation and music to appreciate the characters and stories they each have. Multiple romances develop in the anime to allow a natural progression that doesn't force a will-they-won't-they scenario between the same characters each episode. As an adaptation of another manga by the popular Ai Yazawa it does come complete with all that she is often praised for - characters and situations that feel real. If you enjoy shoujo, romance, drama, or slice-of-life this is a really strong title whose story should set your personal standards.
* Poor Rumi Shishido, I have since learnt she sings the legendary Pururuin NHK song, and is actually a recording artist in Japan with a lot of albums.