Review of Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! (2020)

Moving picture, 5.0 hours

Seen in 2020.

Three high-schoolers form a club to make their own short films. Asakusa, the mildly autistic little concept artist, takes the mantle of director. Her long-time classmate Kanamori isn’t so creative or so interested in film, but Kanamori is scary and knows how to deal with people, plans, and money, so she’s the producer. The new kid, Mizusaki, just wants to be an animator. Her parents—famous actors—banned her from the anime club.

Eizouken is an example of “cute girls doing cute things”, a significant genre throughout the preceding 20 years. However, the character design of Eizouken is so simple that the girls are not visibly cute. By genre standards, even Mizusaki—a local photo model—is drawn looking plain. This decision reminds me of both Little Women (1868) and Whisper of the Heart (1995). It rejects a trend in Japanese animation since the 1980s, toward more complex character designs—like the number of colours in an eye—that are consequently harder to animate (cf. “Thoughts on Japanese Animation”). Compare, for example, K-On (2009) or Laid-Back Camp (2018), where similarly enthusiastic clubs of high-schoolers look glamorous.

The framing of Eizouken matches the character design. The objectifying “male gaze”, which intrudes upon the cute girls of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006) and sometimes even upon Azumanga Daioh (2002), is absent here. Director Yūasa Masaaki does not have the camera eye linger suggestively. There is no beach episode, no festival episode, no attempt whatsoever to sexualize the dramatis personae. This is surprising coming from the director of jokingly erotic hyperviolent stuff like “Kick-Heart” (2013) and Devilman: Crybaby (2018).

The show’s remarkable equanimity of design and framing is intelligent, refreshing and fun, but it should not be mistaken for realism or feminism. By genre convention, there are no boyfriends, indeed no boys at all near the main characters, despite their visibility and their male-majority hobby. The dialogue is witty and snappy, with charmingly incongruous turns of phrase, but the naturalistic dirty teenage humour of Asobi Asobase (2018) is completely absent. The typical chastity of the genre, designed to serve a male ego, is intact, even though the gaze is broken.

The cuteness of Eizouken is that of denpa-kei comedy. It stems from passionate interest. The characters dedicate themselves to their projects and ultimately succeed to an improbable extent, taking a few knocks and learning their lessons along the way. Even the tone is therefore like Whisper of the Heart, amplified in adaptation by the show’s creators’ love of their own medium. A screening at the anime club features lovingly recreated scenes from Conan, the Boy in Future (1978). In the fantasy sequences that illustrate Asakusa’s queer notions, the colours don’t quite meet the lines: It’s watercolour concept art—like Miyazaki’s—in motion and it looks fantastic, with late-Ghibli-esque human sound effects to match. The show captures the joy of self-actualization through imagination and creativity, while openly admitting that producing original animation of high quality in high school is virtually impossible.

The world of the show is adapted to this joy. The literal meaning of “eizouken” is “film res.”, the latter being a contraction of “research society” (kenkyūkai), the traditional euphemism for a non-athletic extracurricular club of the hobby variety, as in Genshiken (2004). The show romanticizes the environment of these clubs to such an extent that it resembles the school-comics solipsism of Blazing Transfer Student (1991). Just as the architecture of the school is heightened to resemble an organic anti-arcology, the school has clubs for everything: air conditioning, giant robots, riot police, etc. etc. Even the ethnic diversity of this cozy microcosm is remarkably good, and there’s space for good hard-SF ideas like direct-energy weapons with realistically invisible beams.

The title of the show suggests a more central conflict with the stereotypically badass student council than the plot actually delivers. This is a good thing, because the non-dramatic creative thread of the plot is more entertaining, but Kanamori really shines in her ability to clear a path for Asakusa and Mizusaki through the bureaucracy, while continuously pointing out the flaws in their own wishful thinking. She’s cynical and ruthless, a proper skeptic, her ghoul-like mouth almost sneering as if she has a cleft lip. She’s certainly a good friend, but not a loving BFF. Instead she faces reality head on and tackles practical problems big and small with an admirable strength of will. Frog-like Asakusa, with her overheating genius brain, is awesome, but Kanamori is my favourite. These characters are not the stereotypes of moe, neither visually nor in writing.

The same basic story—cute girls making cartoons—was filmed in Shirobako (2014), but that was with the commercial formulae intact. In Eizouken, at long last, Yūasa Masaaki devoted his great talent to a worthy project with the right people. This is one of those shows that take the gravel of genre anime, shake the pan and reveal a nugget of pure gold beneath the formulae.

References here: Japan Sinks: 2020 (2020), Bocchi the Rock (2022).

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