Review of Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san (2018)

Moving picture, 150 minutes

Seen in 2019.

Working in retail, specifically a large Japanese bookstore apparently focused on comics. The titular Honda is responsible for foreign art books.

Slice of life. An adaptation of a loosely autobiographical comic on Pixiv, with faces hidden to protect real identities, the artist’s lack of skill, and/or the adaptation budget. Explaining the skull in place of his own head, in episode 8 Honda discusses a live-action adaptation of his comic with his agent, saying: “You do realize that even if a hot guy played me, he’d still have my personality.” The agent replies: “Yeah, but if he’s hot, his personality won’t be a problem.” In another scene, publishing industry insiders realize that the Honda they’re speaking to is the author of a comic about their industry, therefore a Z-list celebrity and potential PR hazard.

In this way, it’s a zine-y, open, observational-humour sort of thing, despite also being completely straight-laced and only softly critical of working conditions. Company names and titles are partly bleeped so that anybody familiar with the industry will decode them. A European production in the same vein would typically be countercultural, but Honda-san isn’t. It’s an example of Japanese-style integration under social pressure, in this case actually combining a comparatively realistic underground comic with socially acceptable conformism. It’s not even weird, just a refreshing, adult break from conventions in Japanese animation.

The animation is minimal but the voice work is pretty good. The opening theme chants “ISBN”, read as “Inner Sound & Book’s Narrative”. The script is really good about conveying a love of books and reading, as well as sympathetic co-workers and customers, balanced against the perfectly realistic downsides of the job. Non-Japanese-speaking customers are a recurring source of comedy and they’re portrayed uncommonly well. Though their voice actors are Japanese, they take care to pronounce the word “manga” wrong, as an American would normally pronounce it. That’s good attention to detail. For some reason, I also find the distorted, auto-tuned reading of the series title for the commercial bumpers very funny.

moving picture Japanese production animation fiction series