Useless Anime Knowledge: Intro to Manglobe Studio

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Welcome to Useless Anime Knowledge! The show where I do pointlessly meticulous research on things that no one cares about and regurgitate it for an audience! Today, I’m going to be giving you a primer on the mysterious oddball anime studio Manglobe, as a precursor to analyzing each of their shows in the future.

Please keep in mind that the majority of what I’m about to tell you is based on drawing connections and conclusions from extremely limited information. There’s an almost disturbing lack of information to be found online about most anime creators and studios, at least in English. This is even more true for an unpopular and largely mysterious studio such as Manglobe, which has been the subject of much armchair speculation in the anime community for the last five years or so. While I can promise you that I’m a well-read, veteran anime dork with a long-standing interest in the studio and have done nearly an entire afternoon’s worth of research on the subject, I can’t promise that all of what I’m about to explain isn’t total bullshit. Anyways, let’s get to it.

Manglobe Incorporated was formed in 2002 by producers Kobayashi Shinichiro and Kochiyama Takashi, former employees of megalithic studio conglomerate Sunrise, which is responsible for more shows than I can possibly name. These particular producers worked on some of the weirdest shows to come out of Sunrise studios 7 and 9, such as Betterman, Brigadoon, and s-CRY-ed. I can only speculate on why they left, but they were hardly the first team to branch off from Sunrise and do their own thing.

The studio’s name is actually a bad romanization of the word mangrove, which refers to how the studio is meant to be an ecosystem wherein various ideas and talents mix and create new creatures. And for the first six or seven years of their existence, their name couldn’t possibly have been more appropriate. The studio founded itself on gathering auteur talents and creating some of the most unique anime series to ever be produced.

Their first, and ultimately most successful series was 2004’s Samurai Champloo, created and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, who was best known for the seminal anime classic Cowboy Bebop, and is currently directing Space Dandy. Samurai Champloo was built as a samurai chanbara story fused with the culture and music of hip-hop. It was a gorgeously-animated, exciting and eclectic series, which earned a lot of ground with Western audiences after its debut on Adult Swim in 2005. Considering the risk involved in producing original anime for Japanese TV, the fact that the show moved from access TV to sattelite midway through its run, and the fact that Japanese DVD sales were far from exceptional, the success of the show with Western audiences and its extensive merchandising probably played a big role in making back its budget, assuming it actually did so.

I’ll talk about the production of that show a lot more when I analyze it individually, but for now, I only want to point out the involvement of scriptwriter Sato Dai, who also wrote for episodes of Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy, and would take on the role of lead writer for Manglobe’s next project. Shinichiro Watanabe would also stick around and play minor roles on the next two Manglobe shows, as a storyboard artist for one episode of Ergo Proxy, and the music producer for Michiko to Hatchin.

In 2006, Manglobe released Ergo Proxy on a pay-per-view channel in Japan, similar to something like HBO. Free from the restrictions that come from producing shows for TV, the studio went crazy. They brought in director Murase Shukou, who had worked on some of the same Sunrise shows as Manglobe’s migrants, as well as directed the 2002 Sunrise production Witch Hunter Robin, and they literally told him to do whatever he wanted. With a level of creative freedom rarely seen in the anime industry, Murase and Sato worked together to create one of the most divisive anime of its time.

Often gorgeous and always confusing, Ergo Proxy was not popular with Japanese audiences, but saw a better fan reception in the West. The argument over whether Ergo Proxy is pretentious or deep/interesting or obnoxious, has been the focal point of conversation on the series, but it’s hard to say whether or not it was definitively a success. Whether it was or not, Manglobe did not deter from continuing to make audacious original animation.

2008 saw the release of Michiko to Hatchin, the out-there tale of an escaped convict who sweeps up the daughter she’d abandoned at birth from her abusive adoptive family and takes her on a journey across Brazil with a flavor as crazy as one might expect from a Robert Rodriguez film. In an odd twist, the main characters are voiced by movie actresses best known for their roles in Memoirs of a Geisha and The Grudge respectively.

The show was the directorial debut of Yamamoto Sayo, who had storyboarded and directed episodes of the previous two Manglobe shows. She would go on to direct Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, which between these two shows may very well make her one of the first auteur female anime directors. Michiko to Hatchin once again featured a milileu of noteworthy talent which I’ll have to dive into in a later review, but unfortunately it may have been the show that finally put Manglobe’s auteur streak to an end.

Whereas previous Manglobe titles had relied heavily on Western success to turn a profit, Michiko to Hatchin unfortunately released in the middle of the massive crash of the US anime industry. Geneon entertainment, who’d been responsible for the US releases of Samurai Champloo and Ergo Proxy, had gone out of business a year beforehand, and considering the complete lack of attention that the series got even among hardcore anime fans in the US, there was probably no hurry to license it. While I couldn’t find much info about the show’s original broadcast, I do know that it made abyssal DVD and Blu-ray sales in Japan, and was never broadcast outside the country. The show was finally licensed, dubbed, and released in 2013 by Funimation.

Now, again, everything in this video is largely speculative due to a lack of information, and I don’t have actual confirmation that Michiko to Hatchin was as big of a bomb as it looks like it was, but there’s no question that Manglobe moved in a very new direction shortly thereafter. In fact, while the weirdness and overall quality of their shows began to fluctuate over the next five years, Manglobe would not produce another completely original anime series until 2013’s Samurai Flamenco, which is currently still on the air at the time of this writing.

Looking at it from this perspective, 2009’s The Sacred Blacksmith makes perfect sense as possibly the most cynical cash-in that I’ve ever seen. Manglobe subverted everything they’d ever done by appealing to every possible trend that was popular in anime at the time. Light novel adaptations were taking off, and one of the most popular and best-selling anime at the time was Kyoto Animation’s K-On, so they blatantly ripped off that show’s art style and even cast its main character’s voice actress in the role of the token loli.

They brought in director Hidaka Masamitsu, who’d worked on a lot of the same old Sunrise shows as Manglobe’s producers, and also directed most the Pokemon anime, as well as Linebarrels of Iron; along with writer Suzuki Masashi, whose credits mostly involve cheesy late-night harem shows. The Sacred Blacksmith was loaded with completely mindless fanservice and tapped heavily into the otaku-oriented character goods market. The show made comfortable blu-ray sales when it was revealed that they would feature breasts which had been consored on the TV broadcast, and the show eventually made its way to the US via Funimation in 2011, along with the manga in 2013 via Seven Seas.

While The Sacred Blacksmith wasn’t critically panned, and actually has its share of fans, it was clearly a massive departure from what Manglobe had been doing until now. However, if their goal was to sell out just enough to fund their next animation project, then it may have actually worked. The only problem is how this model didn’t really sustain itself.

Manglobe’s next project seemed to see them testing the waters into more interesting adaptations, even if it wasn’t an original concept. House of Five Leaves adapted a manga by the fantastic Natsume Ono, whose Ristorante Paradiso had been adapted to anime a year earlier. The series aired as part of the noitaminA animation block, which had always up to that point been characterized by anime series which were meant to break the mold and appeal to audiences outside of the otaku market. Most of noitaminA’s programming was either aimed at young adult women or experimental animation enthusiasts, and House of Five Leaves seemed geared right down the middle of both interets.

The show was written and directed by Mochizuki Tomomi, who was best known for a flurry of classic manga adaptations of the late 80s and early 90s, such as the Maison Ikkoku and Kimagure Orange Road movies, and even the phenomenal Ghibli film Ocean Waves. Mochizuki would stick around to perform minor roles on some other Manglobe shows in the next few years. House of Five Leaves was critically praised as a slow-burning character drama with a lot of intrigue for those patient enough to find it; but it wasn’t very successful.

Whereas otaku-oriented anime series mostly depend on DVD sales to recoup their costs, noitaminA shows are more about TV ratings, as the block pulls in exponentially higher viewer counts than most anime. However, House of Five Leaves ended up pulling the lowest numbers that the block had seen to date. This, combined with virutally nonexistent DVD sales and a complete lack of interest from Western audiences meant that the show was yet another bomb for Manglobe.

After producing one of the shorts for the Dante’s Inferno compilation anime movie, Manglobe jumped into the first season of their popular manga adaptation, The World God Only Knows, which, depending on who you ask, is either the moment that Manglobe solidified themselves as sellouts, or is actually a brilliant adaptation deserving of their pedigree.

Personally, I happen to fall into the latter camp, and in fact it was this show that made me start to take more of an interest in the studio to begin with. While the storyline is based around the tropes of otaku culture, it’s self-aware in doing so, and is an altogether fun and creative adaptation with no shortage of memorable scenes. The fact that the full opening song is an original 8-minute suite combining chorus music and electronica ought to suggest the undercurrent of playful experimentation running through the adaptation. The show is even written by the magnificent Kurata Hideyuki, best known for creating and writing classic shows like Read or Die and Kamichu, and writing for the likes of Now and Then Here and There and Welcome to the Space Show. And wouldn’t you know it, he was even the head writer on Brigadoon, one of those now ancient Sunrise shows that Manglobe was generated from.

It’s hard to really tell if this show was a success, given that I don’t know the exact reasons for its creation, which I suspect are mostly to push the sales of the already very popular manga series, as well as associated character goods. The first two thirteen-episode seasons, released in 2010 and 2011, didn’t perform especially well in blu-ray sales, but Manglobe continued to produce straight-to-DVD episodes until finally producing a third season in 2013. Considering the rarity of three-season shows in the modern anime market, it’s probably safe to say that the show is fulfilling its purpose.

Unfortunately, I can’t say as many nice things about Manglobe’s next adaptation, the twelve-episode 2011 series Deadman Wonderland. A cheesy, violent show borrowing from Grindhouse storylines but featuring some of the poorest art and animation quality of any Manglobe series, Deadman Wonderland didn’t appeal to me at all, but seemed dead-aimed at the Western market. With its cheesy nu-metal intro sung in English and edgier-than-bleeding storyline, it was hardly surprising when the show was quickly snatched up by Funimation and broadcast on the reinstated Toonami block.

Considering the vastly evolved Western anime market, I can’t really say for sure if Deadman Wonderland has become a hit, insofar as making money for Manglobe. I imagine that it is, but honestly I’ve been out of the anime convention circuit just long enough to not be sure how far the show’s reach extends. I’m pretty sure that it’s doing quite well, but I can’t think of any reason for the lack of a second season, other than that maybe Manglobe doesn’t want to do it. If anyone knows more about that, or any of this shit for that matter, be sure and tell me off in the comments.

By this point, Manglobe has turned into a different kind of studio not only in the kind of shows that they produce, but the frequency of their production. As of 2011, Manglobe has regularly released multiple shows in the same year, as opposed to the nearly two-year gaps that came between their original productions back in the day.

2011’s Mashiro-iro Symphony, while far from the worst visual novel adaptation I’ve ever watched, was the moment I really started to lose faith that Manglobe was going to keep producing interesting anime. I got pretty far in this show on the basis of solid art and only ocassional moments that made me want to kill myself, but for all that it managed to not be totally awful, Mashiroiro Symphony didn’t present anything new or interesting, even to the world of porn game adaptations.

It was an oddly timed adaptation to begin with, as visual novel anime had already started going out of style, while light novels were becoming the dominant source material for anime. The show didn’t make any sales impact in Japan, and even though it was streamed by Crunchyroll and released on DVD in the US, I’d be hard-pressed to call it any kind of success here, either. Hell, I never would’ve given it a second glance myself had I not already been investigating this studio at the time that the show was released.
And it’s right around this point that I pretty much stopped following Manglobe, partly out of general waning interest in anime, and also because they basically did nothing but make Hayate the Combat Butler for two years.

Manglobe’s first feature-length production came in 2011 in the form of a Hayate the Combat Butler movie, Heaven is a Place on Earth. Hayate is a popular shounen manga series which had a fifty-two episode anime adaptation produced by SynergySP in 2007, followed by a twenty-five episode second season produced by J.C. Staff in 2009, and even a thirteen-episode live-action TV drama in 2011.

Now, I’ve got no idea why Hayate keeps coming back, or why it keeps changing hands every time it does. I own about five of the graphic novels and watched about twenty episodes of the original show, but the series lost its charm for me and I stopped paying attention. All I’ve ever heard from Hayate fans over the years is continuous bitching about how each new season did something wrong, yet it keeps getting made, so what do I know?

I do know that when Manglobe picked up the show’s third season for twelve episodes in 2012, I watched about half of episode one, found it completely unwatchable, and left it alone. I don’t know or care anything about the production, or if there’s anything significantly different between Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and the 2013 fourth season, Cuties! I’m sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.

I will say that Manglobe probably did something right in the eyes of Hayate’s publishers, because in 2013, they were given the thirteen-episode adaptation of Zettai Karen Children – The Unlimited–a spin-off of the popular manga series Zettai Karen Children, which also had a fifty-two episode adaptation by SynergySP in 2008, and runs in the same magazine as Hayate. I’ve heard that this show isn’t bad, but I’ve got no clue on account of being disassociated with the anime scene throughout 2013. I guess I’ll find out once I start reviewing all these shows.

Likewise, I can’t tell you much about Karneval, which I barely finished the first episode of when it came out. This one is a manga adaptation aimed at women, with a mystery storyline centered on pretty-boy characters. I don’t know anything about the production of this one either, other than that it shares a director with Mashiro-iro Symphony; but I will say that its existence makes a hell of a lot more sense, given that one of the big movements in anime right now is towards boys-love shows aimed at young women.

So, after the latest seasons of Hayate and The World God Only Knows, it really seems like Manglobe has become a regular old adaptation studio. Or at least, it WOULD seem that way, were it not for the sudden appearance of Samurai Flamenco at the tail end of 2013. A twenty-two episode, completely original anime series airing on the noitaminA block, Flamenco seems like a sudden call back to the studio’s glory days.

The auteur mangrove production style of the studio seems to be back in full swing. Aforementioned writer of The World God Only Knows, Kurata Hideyuki, takes the head writing role in the series, but it’s probably better to compare it to his original works like Kamichu or Read or Die in this case. And this time, he’s teamed up with acclaimed director Omori Takahiro, best known for all the work he’s done with Studio Brains Base in the last eight years, on shows like Baccano!, Durarara!!, Natsume’s Book of Friends, and Kuragehime.

But all those names of people who worked on cool weird stuff only matter because Samurai Flamenco is, in fact, weird as shit. Easily Manglobe’s most eclectic, polarizing, and cautionless series since Michiko to Hatchin, the biggest draw of Samurai Flamenco is just seeing where it’s going to go next.

Flamenco definitely wears some of Manglobe’s past bruises on its face, though. While the action scenes look okay when they need to, the show is by and large not very pretty, and probably doesn’t have much of a budget behind it. The sound track is one of the most obnoxious things to crawl out of garageband in a while, which is a crying shame considering this is the studio that brought us Samurai Champloo and Michiko to Hatchin. Still, while Flamenco may not quite live up to the lofty heights of Manglobe’s early production work, it’s refreshing to see this studio once more stepping up to make interesting original animation, no matter how batshit insane the result. This show is still airing at the time of this writing, but I’ll look forward to putting out an analysis of it as soon as it’s over.

So! That about wraps up this overly long exposition of shit nobody cares about! I hope you had a good time, and look forward to my reviews of the shows themselves, which hopefully won’t be so dry and boring. Seeya later!

3 thoughts on “Useless Anime Knowledge: Intro to Manglobe Studio

  1. The commercial failure of Michiko to Hatchin really kills me, as I think Sayo Yamamoto is one of the most brilliant anime directors working today. I wish that Toonami would license Michiko and show it in the United States, because I think if more people were exposed to it, the fact that it doesn’t fit into any standard anime niche would be quickly obviated.

    As for Samurai Flamenco, I’m praying that it pulls itself together over the closing episodes. Like many people, I adored everything up until Guillotine Gorilla in episode 7, and have been pretty dumbfounded by the direction it has taken since then. Still, though, it has always seemed to be pretty smart and self-aware, even at its most WTF, so I’m a believer that they’re ultimately going to pull out something pretty great.

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