‘Abenobashi’s’ wacky
tale hides friends’

When last we visited with the work of the Japanese production studio Gainax in this space, it was with the delightfully weird and wacky "FLCL," in which a pink-haired alien girl whacked people with her guitar, robots sprouted out of a boy's head and a big iron-shaped building spewed smoke from atop a hill.

art The good news for those people who were thoroughly confused by "FLCL's" weirdness is that one of the studio's newest offerings available stateside, the four-volume "Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi" from ADV Films, is much easier to comprehend.

A cross-dressing old man, a well-endowed woman fittingly named Munemune ("mune" being the Japanese word for "breast"), a Japanese guy with a French accent and assorted jaunts through fantastic worlds are much more understandable to the typical viewer, after all.

Take away the wacky characters and rapid-fire parodies and gags, though, and "Abenobashi" is boiled down to its essence: a charming coming-of-age tale of two close friends and what could be their last summer together.

Sasshi and Arumi are two children raised around the Abenobashi Shopping Arcade in Osaka, Japan. The arcade has long passed its glory days and is on the verge of being torn down in favor of modern development. While Arumi's grandfather wants to keep his restaurant open for as long as possible, her father is ready to pack it in and move north to Hokkaido. Arumi's ready to move, but Sasshi, faced with the prospect of losing his best friend, is less accepting.

Things change quickly, though, when Arumi's grandfather tries to chase a cat off the restaurant's landmark ceramic pelican and instead ends up sending everything crashing to the ground.

Since the pelican was the last of four figures governing the flow of the area's spiritual energy, or chi, odd events immediately start happening. People turn into mushrooms before Sasshi's and Arumi's eyes. Buildings turn into two-dimensional backdrops.

Soon, the pair find themselves in a parallel universe that parodies every role-playing video game in existence. Their objective, as they soon learn, is to find a goblin that will, in theory, send them back to their home universe.

In reality, though, these goblins are pretty mischievous creatures, and they end up beaming our heroes to different worlds every time. Each alternate-universe Abenobashi Shopping Arcade that they visit are parodies of different anime genres -- the best ones set in a sci-fi world, a martial arts world and a Japanese dating simulator.

The humor can turn raunchy at times -- one episode's plot consists mainly of Arumi trying to get her panties back from an alien wearing them on its head. And then there's Munemune, who the character designers seem to like dressing in as little clothing as possible in most of the episodes.

Just when it seems like the series is going to be an endless stream of genre parodies and bouncing breasts, though, it pauses to inject a bittersweet back-story into the mix. As it turns out, Munemune is haunted by a tragic past, searching for happiness in a lost love that she is seemingly destined to never have. And for the children to return to their world and their time, Sasshi must acknowledge a secret that could turn Arumi's world upside down.

Although the transition between humor and drama is a bit jarring the first time it happens, it eventually makes sense as the series heads toward its conclusion.

ADV deserves special praise for this release, not only for the stellar acting work on the English dub -- Luci Christian and Jessica Boone do particularly well in the lead roles of Sasshi and Arumi, respectively -- but for the extras included with each DVD. Making their return on this release are ADV's "Ad-Vid Notes," cultural notes and joke explanations that pop up on screen as the episodes play. Also included are English dub outtakes and, on the first and last volume, select episode commentaries by Christian and Boone.

The most clever feature, however, are the "Weekly AbenoSpoiler" inserts, pamphlets featuring plot points from each episode, series artwork and commentaries from the Japanese staff members, all written in the style of a little newspaper.

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