I love the concept of indie anime, so when something makes it to a commercial format, I usually buy it, going all the way back to a VHS copy of II: Prologue.
Hence, I picked up the CoMix Wave two-for of Coffee Samurai and Hoshizora Kiseki from Sentai Filmworks. It’s not an outrageously expensive DVD, but when you figure that you’re getting two 30-minute short films for about what Funimation charges for two seasons of a TV series, it is a little on the spendy side.
Regardless, some notes on Coffee Samurai:
I was surprised that this one is actually a Korean production (particularly due to the samurai thing). I don’t understand any Korean (though I did notice the word for part-time job is the same), but I figured it was an opportunity to experience anime the way a non-Japanese speaker would when watching a subtitled show. Not a big deal, though I did find myself wondering if the translation was accurate in terms of nuance, with no way to check. The language is irrelevant to quality, though.
And boy is this a weird short. The plot sounds good from an absurdist comedy standpoint—a warrior who, in his last moments, wishes he could be reincarnated in a body of iron. Which actually happens, except he’s reincarnated as a coffee machine. Then other warriors from his past who have also been reincarnated (as amusing things) start showing up and trying to kill him. And he of course falls in love with a girl who in a drunken stupor decides that the drink machine looks lonely so drags it home.
It’s actually weirder than it sounds, not so much because of the premise, but because of the incredibly low-key, deadpan delivery. There are very funny bits here and there, but most of it is so straight-faced that I honestly wasn’t sure if it was an absurdist comedy done as a sort of art-house film, or if the filmmakers just had a really, really funky sense of humor. If the latter, that’s fine, but it just didn’t work for me. Who knows, maybe it’s a cultural thing (although apparently Korea looks remarkably similar to Japan—if it hadn’t been for the language and signs, I might not have even noticed).
It has some remarkably spiffy action scenes, and the art gets points for not just blatantly trying to look like classic-Japanese-style-anime; it feels familiar enough that the look isn’t jarring, and I think it counts as anime, but is pretty unique. A little annoying, though, was that it seemed to waver back and forth between being literal in terms of its world—some of the time things would be very specific and realistic (which worked well for the absurdist humor), others it would wax fanciful, like a sequence when the girl catches a ride on top of the flying drink machine.
It sort of felt like it couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a conceptual art film or something that’s funny because it’s so down-to-earth despite the wacky premise. I prefer the latter by a wide margin, and either way I don’t think they go well together in the same production. Kind of like if in Neo-Tokyo the Labyrinth and Order to Stop Construction shorts had been the same story.
The pacing, similarly, seemed a little too slow; it could have been entirely intentional, as a part of the deadpan humor, but it felt a little too much like that art-house short film thing where the slower and more silent the film is the more artistic it theoretically becomes. It could also have just been an inexperienced production team being too loose with the editing and pace. At least it didn’t feel short, which is a good thing when you only have 30 minutes in which to tell an entire story.
The acting sounded kind of flat to me, but it’s possible that it was just deadpan and I’m not used to hearing the language; lacking substantial emotion, it’s hard to tell. One definitely bad thing was in a few sections when they’re screaming during a battle; the screaming was fine, but the mic levels were apparently maladjusted during recording, causing that too-loud-for-the-recording distortion. That was a pure technical mistake, and disappointing—you really have no excuse for that in even a high-level amateur production, let alone something that must have had a reasonable budget based on the quality of the animation.
(Aside: Since a huge amount of in-between animation in Japanese productions is already farmed out to Korean studios because it’s cheaper, you wonder if domestic productions don’t have a real advantage in terms of available, inexpensive talent. Kind of like how US studios would farm out cheaper stuff to Japan way back when, and those studios eventually grew into their own industry.)
Overall not exactly a failure, but just too weird to work for me—I kept wanting it to go a bit broader with the comedy, and it was a little too slow for my taste.