I can hear someone shouting it already: “Not another weird Japanese thing!”
Yes, another weird Japanese thing.
The anime Okami-san and her Seven Companions is based on a series of light novels by Masashi Okita. A light novel, for the record, is like a novella that’s primarily aimed at middle school and high school students.
The anime and light novels revolve around a high school student named Ryoko Okami (note: Okami translates to “wolf”). She works for the Otogi High School Student Aid Society, colloquially known as the Otogi Bank. The way the Otogi Bank works is that students come to the bank when they need a favor and in return the student will owe a favor to the bank when they need it. In her duties at the Otogi Bank, Okami often works with her best friend Ringo, a young girl who always wears a red hood and cape and Ryoshi, a shy boy who has a serious crush on Okami and is a crack shot with a slingshot. She also works with a number of other eccentric characters at the bank. Okami comes across as a tough girl but she’s also got a softer side that she hides because of traumatic events of her past. For the record, this is one of those shows where I can't find any free use pictures to post, so here's a link to all the pictures I can't use.
If I wrote that out right, then you should have at least picked up on the aspects that allude to “Little Red Riding Hood”. Okami is the wolf, Ringo is Red Riding Hood and Ryoshi is the hunter (yes, I know that it was actually a woodsman in “Little Red Riding Hood” as in a tree chopper, but people often seem to confuse Woodsman with Huntsman which they seem to have done with this show).
Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure how to approach this type of show. This is unfortunate, seeing as along with stuff like Grimm and RWBY, I seem to be watching these types of shows more and more. I’m not even all that sure what to call it. There’s an element of parody for sure. However, there’s also something else that I’m not sure what to call. Is it homage? Is it pastiche? My vocabulary fails me.
Basically, it’s a show that’s made to function on two levels. There’s the show itself which is a romantic high school comedy sort of thing about a tough girl who’s not so tough underneath helping others for her job. But then, underneath that, there are all sorts of references to European fairy tales, Japanese fairy tales and Aesop’s Fables.
I mean, the laid back Bank president is clearly the grasshopper from “The Ant and the Grasshopper” while his super-industrious and organized assistant is the ant. Bank flirt Tarou Urashima and his girlfriend Otohime Ryugu are clearly the fisherman and the turtle princess from the Japanese tale “Urashima-Taro the Fisherman”. And . . .
Okay, I’ll admit it, I had to look a lot of that up. Even Tarou’s name wasn’t a good enough hint.
And that’s one of my problems with shows like this and it’s sadly a problem that lies more with the audience than with the show’s creators. While it’s great if you can pick up on the underlying references, some people (including myself apparently) can be a little too dense to pick up on them. It should be okay if you can’t because of the show’s two layers but if you can’t and feel you should, you’re going to feel like a real dummling for not getting it.
Take the character of Otsu Tsurugaya, for instance. She’s a character who works at the Otogi Bank and spends most of her time cleaning up while dressed as a maid (yes, I know there’s some weird Japanese-ness there, you’ll have to bear with me). She’s also very fixated on repaying favors. In one episode, Ryoshi saves Otsu from an errant baseball. So, Otsu swears to be his servant and works herself to the point of exhaustion. Then her friends step in to try and help her break from her “repayment fixation”. When I first saw this episode I just thought Otsu was a completely original character and they just decided to create an original story around her. Then I looked online and found out that Otsu is based on the crane from the Japanese tale “The Crane Wife”. And it all hit me like a brick. The episode matches with that story on a lot of levels. That’s the thing though. I know that story. I’ve read that story in both prose and as a comic (it was one of the tales in the first Storyteller graphic novel). But I simply could not recognize it out of its usual context.
Don’t get me wrong, there are other stories I recognize within the show. I recognized the “Little Red Riding Hood” elements right away. The first episode has a Cinderella theme that’s easy to pick up. There’s a Momotaro-based episode which is easy to recognize. I just feel kind of thick for being a fairy tale blogger who didn’t pick up on any of the other stuff.
It’s not a bad show, really. The idea of the Otogi Bank is an interesting twist on the way good deeds are often repaid in fairy tales. The show has kind of a slyly dirty sense of humor, which I don't usually go in for but which works here. For example, the character of Momoko who is based on Momotaro often makes reference to how she gets followers by use of her “dumplings” (read as: breasts). Also, whenever Tarou is being too much of a flirt, his girlfriend drags him away for some sort of unspecified “activity” and he always resurfaces acting like a perfect gentleman. The characters are fun. Okami herself, with her tough girl attitude and soft heart underneath is a good protagonist. It’s especially heart-rending when you find out about her back story. I won’t give much away but it features a really dark inversion of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.
The show just has a tendency of making its best assets also be its biggest flaws. One particular example is the narrator. Yes, the show has a narrator. It’s kind of a throwback to fairy tale anthology shows of the past (think the narrators of Folktales from Japan or Edward Everett Horton in “Fractured Fairy Tales”). However, the difference is that this isn’t your typical dutiful storyteller. Instead, the narrator in this show is snarky, opinionated, prone to editorializing and often a little bit inappropriate. There are moments when the narrator will just say something so out of line that the characters will actually look straight at the camera as if they were calling the narrator out on it. It’s hilarious. There’s one problem: the narrator has a tendency of talking over the characters so you can’t hear them. I’m not sure if this is the case in all versions or if it’s just the English dub. But it is so annoying and ruins what was really a fun idea.
I like the show despite its double-edged sword moments. It might not be for you, though. Before seeking out the DVD or paying for episodes on Amazon Instant Video, check out the first and second episodes which Funimation posted for free on their YouTube page. And if you’re having fun with Okami-san on YouTube, you might as well check out some of the fun AMVs that fans made of it like this one and this one.
Before I go, I’m also just going to direct you folks to some articles about fairy tales in anime. Here’s the Geek and Sundry article that helped me discover this show. And here’s another article I discovered because someone retweeted it into my Twitter feed. There’s some interesting stuff in there.
Until next time, keep looking for that happy ever after.