Impressions: Tamako Market, eps. 1-4

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Welcome back, everyone! I hope that you’ve been doing well. The blog has slowly been filling up with posts, but I notice there have been no posts on anime or manga yet. Though not my favorite medium by any stretch, I certainly spend a fair chunk of my time watching anime.

As part of the blitz of holiday sales sweeping the United States (and possibly other parts of the world) now, I spent more money than I probably should have on anime Blu-rays. Thanks to the incredible adaptation of A Silent Voice that I had the pleasure of seeing in October, I decided to buy box sets of anime created by Kyoto Animation. Kyoto Animation (colloquially known as KyoAni) is known for its crisp character designs and smooth animation. Over the last ten years, they’ve produced a string of lasting hits. Ask anyone to name their favorite anime series of the last ten years – or, hell, even five – and chances are good that they’ll name at least one show by this studio. RCAnime’s video on their studio ethics deemed them “the Pixar of Japan,” and I’d say that’s a fair assessment, at least in terms of production values.

There are a fair chunk of KyoAni shows I’m not intimately familiar with, but with the amount of box sets I’ve purchased, I’m sure that will change over the next few months! Up first is Tamako Market, perhaps one of the underdogs of KyoAni’s catalogue.

Tamako Market is an original story conceived by the team of director Yamada Naoko, script writer Yoshida Reiko, and character designer Horiguchi Yukiko. This trio worked on K-On!, which was an undeniable smash hit for Kyoto Animation and has become an iconic series in its own right. Tamako Market (aired in 2013) marks the first time these three worked together again since production ended on K-On!

Tamako Market is a series I rarely hear about these days, and I consider myself somewhat aware of what’s popular. I knew of the show when it premiered, but have never met anyone who’s seen it, much less enjoyed it. Of the shows KyoAni produced in 2013 (among them Free! and Beyond the Boundary), Tamako seems to get discussed the least.

Tamako Market is a slice-of-life series starring a high school student named Kitashirakawa Tamako, who lives and works with her family in a mochi shop within a shopping arcade. Life is pretty mundane for her; about the most exciting thing is her baton club at school. One day, she encounters a mysterious talking bird named Dera, who claims to be a prince from a foreign land and is hoping to return home with a bride. His gaze latches to Tamako, who, while initially confused, seems content to accept this substantial change to her daily routine.

At first glance, Tamako Market is exactly the kind of story I would expect from the Yamada-Yoshida partnership. Yamada’s bread and butter is these day-to-day, beauty-in-the-mundane style stories. K-On! excelled at exactly this, and the fact that Tamako adapts a similar enough premise shows that they find a lot of beauty in the real world. Horiguchi’s character designs also add some cute flair to the world. Each character in the show is bright and colorful. I especially like Tamako’s twintails.

The direction demonstrates that a lot of love was put into this concept, for sure. There are some visual tricks that appear in each episode that highlight the thoughtfulness of the overarching story. There are some Yamada staples (shots of characters’ legs, the use of language of flowers), but there’s one narrative and visual motif that I found most striking.

Just within the first four episodes, Yamada always finds time to bring the characters to a coffee shop in Tamako’s shopping arcade, owned and operated by a very quiet older man. When the characters are here, the momentum slows to a crawl, giving the characters space to think. Each time there’s a scene in the coffee shop, the camera tends to focus on the amenities around the store. One episode pointed the camera towards a wall while Midori, one of Tamako’s friends and clubmates, was thinking out loud. It’s almost as if Yamada knows these moments are intimate and averts the camera’s gaze to allow them some extra privacy. These scenes are understated, but they’re so visually distinctive that they breathe unique life into what is otherwise a pretty plain setting. Yamada has garnered lots of acclaim (and deservedly so, in my opinion) for her work on the film adaptation of A Silent Voice, but it’s clear that her work on KyoAni’s television series like Tamako Market is where those seeds were planted.

One episode focused on Asagiri, one of Tamako’s classmates, struggling to find the words to thank Tamako for hosting her one evening. From Tamako’s perspective, it seemed like Asagiri, a quiet classmate of hers, maybe didn’t like her. But after shifting the focus to Asagiri, you see she’s just shy and struggles to express her gratitude. We see her rehearsing phrases in the school bathroom earlier that day. When Tamako and Asagiri get to the coffee house, there’s enough breathing room for Asagiri to tell Tamako what she’s been meaning to say all episode.

This motif has appeared in just about every episode of these first four. In the fourth episode, the characters don’t make a visit to the shop itself, but it does show us the owner working there. That episode takes place during a yearly festival. The shop owner notes that patrons tend not to come in on that day. He takes it a step further, though, and comments on the ambivalence of the world around him. I thought it was an interesting statement to make – the coffee shop thus far has been a place for our cast to think deeply about their day-to-day, and that particular episode eschewed the tradition, opting to focus on the hustle and bustle outside.

The weakest link for the series so far has to be Dera. Kyoto Animation’s most famous series have all told leisurely-paced, rooted-in-reality stories. There usually aren’t fantastical elements prevalent in their works. Dera, who, by virtue of being transplanted from a foreign land, having a taste for mochi, and, oh, being a talking bird, makes Tamako Market buck the trend.

His introduction is quite jarring; it happens very early and very suddenly in the first episode (pretty much right after the opening animation), and from there, you get the impression that he’s going to be the de facto protagonist of the story. The first episode focuses so heavily on his introduction and integration into the Kitashirakawa household that I felt I lost some time getting to know Tamako and her family. It almost felt like I had skipped the actual first episode. The later episodes smooth this out a great deal, focusing more on Tamako and relegating Dera to a matchmaker type character. Being a slice-of-life, there isn’t an overarching plot yet, but I’ve been warned that Dera plays a more significant role in the series leading up to its final act. I’ll keep my eyes peeled as I watch more.

Despite that initial speedbump, Tamako Market has been a very pleasant ride. Its characters are fun to spend time with, the setting is very peaceful, and its visually very thoughtful. Even with more understated stories, Yamada and her team are still able to craft something very special. I’m happy with what I’ve seen so far and am optimistic for what comes next!

Tamako Market has been licensed by Sentai Filmworks and is available for purchase from Amazon and RightStuf. It is currently on sale in RightStuf’s annual holiday sale, for just under $30. RightStuf’s sale runs (I believe) through Christmas Day, so act quickly if you’d like to take advantage!

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