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Amanchu! (2016)

Seemingly upended from the city Futaba Ooki has moved to Shizuoka a charming little seaside town. Futaba is a fish out of water in this new environment. She is enchanted by the sea and keen to build a new life but clings on to her past. Futaba is also incredibly shy. At her new school she is sat in front of Hikari Kohinata, an eccentric free spirit whose hobby is scuba diving.
Futaba finds herself being swept along by Hikari and they become fast friends. It's time to dive into to waters of the slice of life anime of Amanchu!
The Amanchu! anime is directed by Junichi Sato (who worked on Sailor Moon in the 90s and a host of shōjo shows) and Kenishi Kasai (Honey & Clover and Bakuman). The studio behind it is J.C. Staff (who have a wide back-catalogue but I particularly enjoyed their Read Or Die TV series) and there is also involvement from Production IG. This team have done a marvelous job of bringing the manga of Kozue Amano to our screens. It is a world full of colour, sumptuous backgrounds and some quirky character designs.

 This is a slice of life anime that primarily follows Futaba as she adjusts to her new life by the sea in Shizuoka. She's quiet, almost painfully reserved and I found her initially a bit difficult to get behind, root for or really even care about. Given we start spending time with her pretty quickly to say I had some concerns is an understatement. We meet her staring at her phone when she has a magnificent sea to look out over and it is clear she is hankering after something from her past.

As the new school year starts (as we see so much in anime) the class are expected to introduce themselves. This terrifies Futaba who manages a cursory introduction but she is in awe of Hikari, the girl who sits behind her. Hikari confidently introduces herself and it is clear that these two, whilst complete opposites will form one of those close, intense friendships we see in anime. Futaba is almost overwhelmed by Hikari's confidence whilst Hikari is confounded by Futaba's quiet nature. Both are painfully aware of their flaws but each sees the strength the other has.

Whilst these first few episodes feel quiet, low key and ultimately a bit unremarkable they build the foundation for what becomes a very enjoyable and at times very naturalistic portrayal of friendship. I would imagine we can all relate what we see on the screen to events and people in our own lives. We all know someone (or perhaps are that person) who has such natural confidence, enthusiasm for life and charisma (like Hikari) that before we know it we are doing something very unexpected (In my case it was abseiling down the engineering building at university). The pivotal moments early in the series move about nicknames - it seems to come from nowhere (much like in real life) but really endeared me to the two main characters. From these points I was truly hooked into the story.

In Amanchu! Hikari (or Pikari as she likes to be called) inspires Futaba (Teko as she is christened by Hikari) to try something different. It just happens that this is diving something Teko knows very little about and I'm also guessing nor do most of the audience. Very little diving takes place and it is more of a device to give additional motivations to the characters and provide opportunities to build or develop relationships through the school diving club. At the club they make new friends (the twins Ai and Makoto Ninomiya) and have to navigate those additional complexities ... usually a result of Pikari's impulsiveness.

When diving makes it front and centre to appear on screen (in training or the open sea) it is more of a signpost to something else, typically a big decision for one of the characters. The sea or the pool is often used as a metaphor for a challenge or perceived problem. From the perspective of the character it is portrayed as an overwhelming vastness almost too big to comprehend. However, something else is often included that provides an anchor or point of reference that the characters can find a way to where they want to be. In Teko's case it is her transition from her life in the city, how she might make a  new life in Shizuoka or how she might overcome in small steps some of her insecurities.

Amanchu! was an exploration of friendship and those emotions you feel very keenly all through your life, not just as a teenager. I find it hard to imagine someone not recognising anything in the relationship between Pikari and Teko - it felt very universal. Within the 12 episodes Teko develops, learns a lot about herself and what she can achieve when she puts her mind to it. She is given support when needed but everything is her own achievement and as a story arc I really liked that.

The series has a slight wobble in its final third which I think, on reflection, disappointed me a little more than I realised. It also made me question who the intended audience was. Up until this point it felt very much a show aimed at any teen. (It is apparently a seinen title and the manga initially appeared in a publication for teenage boys.) For a show about diving and set by the beach the bikini/swimsuit thing and the camera angles didn't feel voyeuristic or particularly male. But when the female characters go shopping and spy the swimwear shop ... ugh! For 5 minutes or so (which felt like an eternity!) it was like the direction completely changed. Had a whole new team taken over? It was the equivalent of a hot-springs episode and I just felt it was unnecessary. The set up just before it happened was funny and I really hoped they were not going to go down the route they did. It added nothing to the series and was just unnecessary which is such a shame.

The character animation is fine though Futaba's hair is its own character at times and does move wonderfully in the wind. It doesn't detract from the rest of the production but equally it is not outstanding. I did however really like how they presented the characters. Often they would appear super-deformed for a significant portion of the episodes. I really enjoyed how they distilled the main characters into a few key features. Pikari was wide eyed and full of wonder, Tekko startled and slightly confused. The Ninomiya twins from the diving school are mischievous, almost cat-like (Ai) and relaxed verging on asleep (Makoto). I liked how they flitted between the two styles but kept the rest of the world completely real. Given that some of the content could have the emotion ramped up that sense of fun with the characters just kept it on the right side of teen-angst for me.

Whilst the animation is OK and the character designs are a mixture of fun and what we would expect, the backgrounds and setting are very pretty. They grabbed me pretty quickly when I started watching which if I'm honest is what brought me back for the next few episodes before I was hooked. I'll get back to its pace later but the way in which J.C. Staff were able to capture the extent of the sea, how vast the sky is and the complexity and colour of nature is remarkable. There are sequences where the main characters walk around the town and the scenery is just brilliant. It is of a quality I would have expected from a feature film. You do share in the wonder of the characters when the wonder of nature is shown.

Amanchu! is not a title that I would normally buy but I'm glad I did because I found the viewing experience to be a pleasure. The slow start builds into a story that is universal about forming friendships, taking risks and living life. It gave me the chance to reflect on my own experiences as I have grown up, the friends I have had and the fun we've had along the way. Apart from that swimsuit shopping sequence, it is a gentle show full of earnestness and heart. The animation is OK. but the world is greatly visualised and that helps express the story. I'm not sure I would come back for a second season however as this series was well paced and contained a nice complete story.

FORMAT: Blu-Ray  FROM: Anime Ltd. RATING: Not Rated [US] 12 [UK] RUNNING TIME : 12 (plus an OAV episode) Episodes

IN A NUTSHELL: Jump into the waters of Amanchu! to explore friendships established and developing against a pretty seaside town. It's gentle and thought provoking and may just get you to contact someone you haven't spoken to in a while.