Animation Runner Kuromi

Considering that the animation industry contributes a nice chunk to the Japanese economy and produces around 50% of the programming seen on Japanese television, it's surprising that there aren't more stories about the industry itself. Hollywood has produced a number of "insider" stories and satires like The Player, Sunset Boulevard, and Bowfinger for over 70 years. In comparison, the only "anime about anime" one could find until recently was Otaku No Video, an amusing if occasionally disturbed take on the lives of crazed fans who wound up kings of all things animated. Animation Runner Kuromi changes that. And whereas Otaku No Video was more about fandom than the workings of an animation studio, Kuromi gives us a hilarious take on what happens in order for a show to get on air. Kuromi is only 35 minutes long (credits notwithstanding), but it's a great short feature that kept me laughing.

Mikiko is unbelievably excited about her new job at an animation studio. After seeing a Lupin III clone years ago, she decided to get into the industry. After anime school and loads of work, she's scored a job with Studio Petit. The only problem is, the last production manager lasts only long enough to show her around the empty offices and to nickname her Kuromi before he keels over from a bleeding ulcer! Faced with a looming deadline for "Time Journeys 2", she's got to get a cynical director, a lazy art checker, and a useless artistic team to finish the show before they miss their scheduled time slot and doom the studio permanently. Though the cheerful Kuromi gets discouraged by the impossibility of her task, she knows that her work will make the difference between an animated masterpiece and a dismal failure.

Animation Runner Kuromi was released in 2001, and the interview with director Akitaro Daichi included on US Manga Corps' recent release of the title tells us that a second OVA is in production. I'm glad to hear it, as Kuromi is a delight. Amazingly enough, though the show was produced digitally, it includes virtually none of the annoying pans and arguable techniques that make some modern shows look amateurish. It's still got the ultra-shiny look currently popular, but here, it works in the show's favor. With a bouncy theme song that dares you to hum along, Kuromi is great from a technical perspective.

Where Kuromi excels is in being goofy and still touching, madcap and still loveable. The adventures this poor girl faces would stress out a power attorney, and yet Kuromi deals with them with grit and courage. The show doesn't gloss over her efforts, letting us feel a bit of the melancholy despair that she experiences when all seems lost. And that's important in making us care about characters particularly in a fast-paced comedy as this one. And Kuromi succeeds as a comedy on virtually every front. From the inside jokes about various anime programs to the techniques used to get everyone to turn in their work on time, this show knows its material and makes it consistently witty. It doesn't have any moments that make you fall out of your chair, but it's consistently amusing and often laugh-out loud funny.

Does Kuromi have any faults? Yes, but they're mercifully few. A couple of the jokes (particularly involving "Time Journeys" bumpers) get old before they're done using them. It's also too short to really get to know the various characters besides Kuromi herself. In some shows, we don't really care about the individuals, but Kuromi presents a variety of oddballs who we'd like to know better. Hopefully, the sequel will flesh things out a little more; frankly, I wouldn't mind if they made it into a series!

Meanwhile, although Central Park Media did provide me with a screener for my review, I have to say that I think their price point of $25 for 35 minutes of animation is really way too steep (though that in no way influenced my letter grade for the show). Sure, they've included some nice extras, including a director's commentary, a couple of interviews, and an alternate-angle storyboard. But when you can buy a couple full-length live-action films for the same price...well, you can do the math. They also rated this thing "16 and up", which is ridiculous for a show with the barest hints of mock violence, no nudity, and no language. Although parents might want to check it first, middle-schoolers on up should enjoy this one.

Animation Runner Kuromi is a show for anyone who's ever thought it might be a kick to see behind the scenes or work in an anime studio. It's a blend of comedy, satire, and quirky fun that hit me the right way. Kuromi 2, come soon!

Animation Runner Kuromi -- nothing objectionable but very brief mock violence -- A