Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou

Most of the time, when I stumble over a property that I've never heard about, there's a reason. If terrible shows can make it across the pond, what does that say for shows that can't?  Granted, many programs get lost in a sea of rights issues and overdemanding licensors -- Macross '84, anyone? -- but buzz surrounds most of those. I found Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (aka Yokohama Shopping Trip Log) a few years ago on the internet, and it sat on a DVD unwatched until now. Now I know why it wasn't's not the kind of anime that sells lots of copies in America. It's a sweet, simple show that stands as a predecessor to Aria, the light-as-air tale of a gondolier in training. While plot questions may derail a few viewers and certain choices weren't to my particular liking along the way, YKK is a show that serious anime fans will want to see.

Somewhere in the past, there's been an ecological disaster. The landscape of the earth has changed, and vast sections of the world are flooded. Only a small population is left, and most of them appear to be...well, robots, technically, though they look and act like humans in every way, save for the fact that they seem to have much greater lifespans than the rest of us. But for all that apocalyptic talk, the end of the world really isn't that bad. Life is simpler, and while this may the twilight of mankind, it's a darn pretty sunset.

Alpha is a robot who runs her owner's cafe on the coastline of Japan. Her owner has been gone for a long time, and perhaps will never return. In the meantime, Alpha takes trips on her scooter, visiting with Ojii-san down the way, and greeting the very occasional customer. The vignettes of her life tell us little about why things are the way they are; they are more about experiencing the beauty of the world, wrecked but utterly resplendent. But in the midst of her gentle life, a typhoon comes. Alpha must decide whether to rebuild the cafe or to see the storm as a harbinger calling her to move away from her home.

The four OVAs that make up this show were released on a unique schedule -- two in 1998 and two in 2002. It's best to talk about them as two halves, for despite their similar tone and consistent characters, the two parts are quite distinct. The first half's animation strikes the modern viewer not as dated but as a product of an earlier time. There's not a lot of action or significant detail in the artwork. There isn't much music, though what's there is appropriate. Surprisingly, then, I have to champion the first half as superior. The opening OVAs set the mood of this empty, beautiful world perfectly. The storylines only take up half an episode each, which feels about right. Yet each tale has room to breathe, and the silences work. It's quite soothing, and while there are issues that will bother the literal-minded -- for example, they must have come pretty far in the future for electric lights of a drowned city to work perfectly underwater -- if you simply go with the storytelling, it's superb. You feel you get to know these characters in the short span of an hour.

The second half of YKK looks better and sounds better. The score is particularly enjoyable, full of old-school folk instrumentals. The detail goes up several notches, and what was a pretty show before becomes sumptuous.  So why isn't it quite as good? For one, the plotline becomes too linear. Instead of independent stories, there's one long arc that consumes the whole of the final two episodes. There are vignettes that fit within that narrative, but they sometimes feel squeezed in and incomplete, particularly in the fourth episode. Characters show up for no reason other than, by my guesstimate, they appeared in the manga. This doesn't make the fourth episode a loss, but it doesn't work as well as it should. Another issue in the second half is a certain hinted-at sexuality. It's not strong and it will probably go unnoticed by some viewers, but I spotted it and it felt out of place. Those items mentioned, the ending still works, and I certainly enjoyed it a good deal. I also think that many modern viewers, impressed by the visuals, will appreciate the second half more than I did.

If you can't get past certain issues, you won't be able to accept YKK for the rough gem it is. The show is unconcerned with explaining how the robots came about or why they are so human. Want to know what caused the earth's collapse?  You're not going to find out. It's simply not that kind of show. It's far more relaxed than that. This is a show that explores sunsets and the sound of the sea, friendships that last over long distances and the joy of returning home after being away. I need shows like this from time to time. While Aria The Animation may have perfected the whole concept of "the joy of doing nothing," Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou did it first and did it very well. All I can say is, I'd be a happy customer at Alpha's cafe anytime.

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou -- very brief nudity, very mild sexual connotations -- A-