Monday, May 16, 2016

Animondo: Working!! (Wagnaria!!)

Welcome back to Animondo. Today we're going to have a look at a different sort of anime: Working!!, released over here as Wagnaria!! This review covers all three seasons released as of 2016 (from what I can tell, the show is now complete), as there's no particularly meaningful difference between them.

Working!! is best described as workplace comedy, with the workplace in question for the show being the family restaurant Wagnaria. The show covers the lives of the slightly unusual staff of the restaurant, their family members, and occasionally particular customers and/or passers-by. By anime standards, Working!! is quite grounded. There's no aliens, no plots to destroy the Earth, no magical spells or 1,000-year-old guardians.

Don't take that to mean that Working!! is normal, though. It just specializes in a different sort of extreme situation, that being the normal situation amped up through exaggeration and miscommunication until things are running out of control.

Working!! features a cast of characters who are all a bit off-kilter, some more than others. As a sampling, there's:
  • Takanashi Sōta, the main character, a high school boy who is a new employee and generally hardworking and diligent...but who has an often unhealthy obsession with small things that leads to quite a few misunderstandings.
  • Taneshima Popura, a high school girl who is so short she's often mistaken for an elementary schooler, and who understandably has a bit of a complex about her height.
  • Inami Mahiru, a high school girl who has a phobia of men being anywhere close to her and an amazing right hook (along with a talent for happening to come around the corner at exactly the wrong moment).
  • Sōma Hiroomi, a nice-seeming young man who has a bit of an information trading business going on and a habit of involving himself in other people's problems.
  • Todoroki Yachiyo, a quiet and dignified young woman the others all look up to, who would probably be totally normal were it not for 1) the katana she carries around and 2) her utter unfamiliarity with all kinds of technology
  • Satō Jun, the quiet but intimidating chef who is in love with Yachiyo, but usually ends up listening to her talk for hours about someone else.
There are many more (and at this point I have to call out a fun little thing the show will do: oftentimes a new character gets introduced midway through the season, and at that point they're very smoothly added to the opening credits sequence in such a way that you might not even realize they weren't there to begin with).

The characters all have their quirks, and these are played up to high degree at times, but they're all closer to a sense of reality than you often get in anime. Working!! feels like an exaggerated, comedic take on a real world scenario, rather than something fanciful.

It's also one of my favorite shows ever.

There's something just brilliantly cheerful about Working!! This is a show that never goes very dark--while there are certainly tensions that arise, things never feel serious. The show never loses its lighthearted tone, and is one of those shows you can honestly watch just to relax. Honestly, I need some of those sometimes!

At the same time, the show rarely feels outright silly--comedic, yes, but not disconnected from reality entirely. There's a sense of grounding for most situations, and though there are moments where the show can lose that, it tends to come back. The characters are real enough that you can feel for them and root for them, rather than just watching to laugh at them.

Situations in Working!! tend to start out looking like they might work out pretty quickly, only to stray further and further from the easy path due to various misunderstandings, well-meaning plans, or just plain incompetence.The show is mostly episodic, with little in the way of a season-long plot, but does show character development from episode to episode.

One of the charms of the show, honestly, is that the characters recognize their quirks--some right away, others later on--and want to change. Yachiyo lacks confidence in dealing with the world and wants to be willing to step outside her comfort zone. Popura wants to get taller and have people stop treating her like a kid. Jun wants to actually get Yachiyo to understand his love for her. Mahiru would rather like to stop instinctively punching men in the face when she meets them.

The traits that are set up are starting points. They aren't just treated as running gags that the show can come back to time and again--they are running gags, sure, but they're ones that evolve as time passes. As time goes on, will Mahiru manage to overcome her fears? Will Sōta become aware of his own flaws while he's busy pointing out those of others? Will Popura get people to respect her? Will Jun ever be able to confess?

The show is very willing to answer all of those questions, and more, over the course of its three seasons. Character relationships change over time, and the situation at the end of the three seasons feels very different than how it started. Episodes aren't just about the situation in that episode--they're about how the characters are trying to change, about the realizations they come to.

You can, for the most part, watch almost any episode of the show without needing to know a lot about what happened before--but you get a lot more out of the show if you watch it in order.

One of the other fun things about Working!! is that in any given situation, any of the characters can effectively serve as the "straight man" for the comedy. None of the characters are totally normal, so depending on the needs of the story, anybody's quirks can make them the "weird one." Sōta, as the main character, is the show's most common straight man and often the voice of logic, but even he has some very notable oddities (particularly once the show starts delving into his family history).

Working!! isn't perfect, though I really do love it. The show comes from a 4-koma manga (effectively 4-panel comics, not entirely unlike newspaper strips in the U.S.), and you can tell. Episodes often consist of large segments that feel like they follow a 4-panel structure (setup, setup, setup, joke), and while it works just fine for the most part, there are times that you'll find yourself noticing that structure and feeling it becoming a bit repetitive. It can also make some episodes feel a bit choppy--even if the show doesn't transition to new locations, you can sometimes get a feeling of a lot of...not really scene transitions, but breaks between one joke segment and the next. The writing is generally good enough to smooth over it, though.

The same 4-koma style can mean that episodes don't always have a flow to them, and in some cases don't really feel like they even have a full-fledged episode plot, so much as a collection of situations that were taking place around the same time. Many episodes do have a clear plot progression, but there are some that feel more like they're just showing you all the crazy stuff that happened during a particular day.

Additionally, while characters do develop over time, sometimes it can feel like developments stall for too long, and certain developments feel like they start to happen and then just...go back to where they were, to be picked up later. In particular, there's a development in the Jun and Yachiyo relationship late in Season 2 that feels like it's going to be much bigger, much more quickly, than it ends up being.

Finally, not so much a critique but an observation: Working!! deals with and sometimes jokes about topics that not everyone might be comfortable with. Absentee parents, cross-dressing, phobias, alcoholism, and the like are used for various situations--though I think the show generally handles them well. There are also multiple jokes about characters thinking Sōta might be a pedophile because of his obsession with small things--I must note, however, that the show also makes it emphatically clear that he is not, and doesn't have him actually take any kind of inappropriate action around kids or anything like that. Still, it's maybe not the wisest set of jokes.

Overall, Working!! is a very fun show that, while it does have flaws, makes for good, relaxing viewing. It's easy to like the characters and find yourself rooting for them, and you can get invested in their relationships and feel the ups and downs regardless of the show's generally comedic nature. These are a bunch of people you genuinely want the best for, and it is uplifting to spend time with them. Working!! is feel-good, lighthearted comedy with just the right touch of occasional tension to keep you invested. If you're interested in an anime that feels a little more grounded than the stuff dealing with outer space emperors, ki blasts, or even combat butlers, Working!! is well worth your time.

Dubbed or Subbed? To the best of my knowledge, Working!! has only been released with subtitles, so there's no choice of an English dub at this point. The subtitling is capably done, with a good, clear translation, and the original voice acting is strong. I will note however that sometimes the subtitles can go away a bit too quickly for my liking--sometimes before characters have finished speaking the associated line. It's not a major problem, but it bears noting.

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