What Anime-In-Anime Say About Anime History

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The anime-within-an-anime is a time-honored running gag that pops up all over the place in different shows and is always a blast; but today we’re going to be looking at three specific anime-within-anime which give an interesting historical perspective on the time period in which their parent shows were made. Specifically, we’ll be looking at Kujibiki Unbalance, EXODUS, and Third Aerial Girls Squad, which share a number of similarities in their intent that we’ll get into as this video goes along.

Before we dive into the first of these shows-within-a-show, let’s look at the parent series that it comes from–namely the 2002 manga/2004 anime series, Genshiken. Originally running for four years before picking up with a direct continuation in 2009 which remains ongoing, Genshiken was the story of one college club dedicated to the study of modern visual culture–meaning, essentially, anything related to otaku fandom. Its characters were a lovably broken handful of hardcore otaku going about their everyday lives; playing fighting games, watching anime, and buying tons of porn.

What made Genshiken particularly remarkable was its realistic art style and portrayal of its characters, which frames them as real-life otaku interacting with a world of anime without really being inside of it, in spite of actually inhabiting an anime and manga series. If you want to hear more about Genshiken, I just guested on an episode of Mangapod talking about the first three volumes, so go check that out–but for now, the most important thing to know about Genshiken is just how it’s meant to be a realistic portrayal of the otaku of its time–which is part of what makes Kujibiki Unbalance so important as the show-within-the-show.

In the original Genshiken manga, Kuji-An was a popular shounen manga series which everyone in the club was obsessed with, and which they were hoping would receive an anime adaptation sometime soon. What little details we learned about the series mostly came from the after-chapter pages, which were supposed to be from a fanzine that the club members put together in which they talk about things like their favorite moments and characters from the series, as well as describe who they play as in the fan-made Kujibiki Unbalance fighting game.

In the anime version, Kuji-An has already been adapted into anime, but otherwise serves pretty much the same purpose. Not long after the first season of Genshiken finished airing, the team behind it produced an actual three-episode OVA of Kujibiki Unbalance, which is meant to cover the first, twenty-first, and twenty-fifth episodes of the twenty-six episode fictional TV series, and is directed by one Tsutomu Mizushima, who would go on to direct the later seasons and OVAs of the Genshiken TV series itself.

Kujibiki Unbalance could not have been a more spot-on representation of what was going on in anime culture at the time. It arrived on the wings of the moe boom, when visual novels were becoming all the rage, and were just starting to be adapted into anime with stuff like Kanon and Da Capo in 2002; and when the generic high school harem rom-com was starting to take a singular shape among the works of Ken Akamatsu and his ilk. The characters all have extremely round faces and weirdly proportioned bodies which kind of remind me of the designs in the original Higurashi visual novels, without being quite as clean as the puni-moe stuff coming out of places like Madhouse at the time. It’s worth noting that in the context of the Genshiken canon, the artist of Kuji-An was apparently a doujin artist before he became a professional manga creator.

All of the characters are given the kind of garishly solid and primary-colored hair which was typical almost exclusively of the early-2000s, and every design has some kind of obvious gimmick–be it a giant helmet, or a scarf, or goggles, or lime-green thighhighs, etc. Somehow, the design sense has always reminded me a lot of Mai-HiME, which may have represented something like the start of this genre’s evolution alongside stuff like Idolmaster Xenoglossia or Code Geass. The main character is an almost dead ringer for Negi Springfield, but you could basically substitute him for any character of that type.

Narratively, Kuji-An feels like an even mix between visual novel and high school comedy tropes. The forgotten and mysterious history between the main character and the student council president feels like something right out of Kanon, as does the overly sentimental freeware soundtrack that constantly riffs on the mesmerizingly catchy opening theme. Each character has their own distinct quirk or special ability, sometimes dipping into the supernatural or unrealistic, and in the first episode, the main character sort of encounters their quirks one-at-a-time, like playing the intro to a visual novel.

Kuji-An has that just right mix of totally goofy, irreverent comedy hijinks and way the hell too self-serious drama that’s so common to high school anime–and the very definition of anime from this time period. Episode twenty-five has the characters at their low point, trading back and forth really trite, vaguely emotional-sounding dialog, while beating you over the head with the show’s incredibly vague theme of luck in a way that only a Key story from the late 90s could.

The show’s midsection, represented by the fake episode twenty-one recap montage, reads like a condensed version of an entire season of Negima or some other generic high school rom com with a lot of girl characters; random, wacky episodic situations with the occasional bad excuse for fanservice, that all apparently has the underlying message of showing just how much this group has been through together. In terms of watchability, I’d definitely say that this is the most fun episode of the OVA, in that it’s actually pretty funny at times beyond simply being an on-the-nose recreation of what generic anime looked like in 2004.

It’s worth mentioning that in the context of the Genshiken anime, the Kujibiki Unbalance anime was apparently fraught with a lot of problems common to anime adaptations of then and now–lackluster animation quality, a change in tone and director halfway through the series, and an ending that doesn’t really resolve anything since the manga is still running. Later into the series, another Kujibiki Unbalance TV anime starts up, but doesn’t continue the story, and is instead a total re-imagining of it with different character designs, reflecting not only what happened to the Negima series around the same time, but also what happened, in fact, to the real-life anime version of Kujibiki Unbalance.

Strangely enough, in spite of how deliberately and hilariously trite the entire concept of Kujibiki Unbalance was, it kind of turned into its own miniature franchise. A series of three light novels were released from 2004 through 2006, and then a full-on twelve episode reimagining of the series went to air 2006, which itself ironically came packaged with three OVA episodes of its parent series, Genshiken, and then received its own manga and light novel adaptations in 2007.

The 2006 series isn’t really worth talking about here since it actually makes an effort to be a real show and not a blatantly generic send-up, but it is kind of fascinating to see how different the art style is compared to the OVA. The backgrounds are much larger and more detailed, and the designs have been made sleek and subdued with much more earthy color schemes. It actually looks a bit more modern than some of the stuff that aired alongside it, and has a strange and distinct sense of animation; though I still wouldn’t really recommend it.

Moving along to our next two shows-within-shows, we’ll need to jump a whole decade after the release of the Kuji-An OVA to yet another series directed by Tsutomu Mizushima: the 2014 instant-classic Shirobako. Not unlike Genshiken, Shirobako has been renowned for its realistic portrayal of its characters and their brutally stressful adventures in anime production. It’s a series that really gets into the bones of everything that goes into creating anime, and I cannot possibly recommend it highly enough–it’s currently in my top 5 favorite anime, please watch it.

Each half of Shirobako follows its characters through a large part of the production of a twelve-episode anime series–the first half dealing with the anime-original series EXODUS, and the second being a fictional manga adaptation called Third Aerial Girls Squad. Each of these fake shows were given OVA specials with the Shirobako DVDs, recreating their supposed first episodes; and like Kujibiki Unbalance before them, they represent a lot of what’s become popular lately in typical otaku-oriented anime.

Of the three shows I’m tackling in this post, EXODUS is perhaps the least obvious about exactly what it’s supposed to be, though it features some unquestionably modern trappings that will eventually date it just as perfectly as Kujibiki Unbalance. For starters, there’s the fact that it’s about an idol group, and that it opens on their incredibly awkward CG dance sequence. If you’ve been watching… basically anything lately, this should all seem familiar. The characters make references to current anime buzzwords like “chuunibyou,” while checking their status on youtube and twitter using smartphones to see how much progress they’ve been making as idols.

After some racy fanservice scenes towards the start, the girls find themselves embroiled in a strange murder mystery plot that unfolds in a way that kind of reminds me of Eden of the East of all things–but doesn’t really have an obvious parallel to anything I can think of. The juxtaposition of edgy violence against cutesy characters does remind me of two other comically violent Tsutomu Mizushima shows from the past five years, though.

The character designs are also kind of odd, since they look a lot more like the sort of borderline magical girl idols that you’d find in kids shows like Aikatsu or Lilpri than they do the girls from your typical otaku idol show. There is one thing that came after EXODUS which has a lot more of the same feeling, which is the Spring 2015 series SHOW BY ROCK.

If EXODUS isn’t as easy to pin down, though, then Third Aerial Girls Squad most certainly is. One look at its cast of cute girls who happen to be passionate pilots of military-realistic fighter planes should conjure to mind yet another popular Tsutomu Mizushima-directed series–this time, 2013’s Girls Und Panzer. However, while the series isn’t super heavy on fanservice, the overall look and feel of the first episode is a bit more reminiscent of Strike Witches or Sky Girls. And, of course, it can’t go without mention that the second half of Shirobako ran alongside the anime adaptation of Kantai Collection, which probably shares the most in common with the overall tone of Third Aerial Girls Squad out of all the moe-meets-military shows.

Indeed, Third Aerial Girls Squad fits squarely into one of the weirder niches which has gotten pretty big over the past half-decade, of combining large groups of adorable, passionate girls with some kind of harshly realistic military or adult hobby. I’d even put stuff like the mahjong series Saki into this boat as well, though Third Aerial Girls is pretty clearly going for the military stuff. The fact that the series has an excuse written in for why only planes from the 70s and prior can be used in its setting is about as spot-on as it gets; as is the vague yuri vibe going on between the main character, Aria, and the amnesiac girl Cathy whom she rescues.

If I have a problem with Third Aerial Girls as a parody, it’s that I think the episode manages to be a lot more boring and generic than anything else in its genre besides maybe Kancolle–but I guess that’s probably the point. Its character designs, however, are pretty striking and distinct, coming from the very same artist who drew the Girls Und Panzer manga, but with the addition of some really stylistic and captivating eye shapes. Considering these, it’s hardly surprising that the artist has also produced his own two-chapter fanzine of the series.

Looking back on each of these shows-within-shows paints a pretty interesting picture of how much anime has changed over the past ten years; and also how much it hasn’t. Shows in the vein of Kujibiki Unbalance have never really disappeared, though the look and feel of the OVA is so perfectly early-2000s that it could never possibly exist in any other era. Likewise, EXODUS and Third Aerial Girls represent popular movements in anime that are sure to continue for years to come; but elements like the tacky CG dance sequence or the incredibly specific genre trope of cute girls piloting 70s war machines are probably going to date them both to this time period in another ten years.

How do you feel after seeing these shows-within-shows next to each-other, and what do you expect to be the trends that Tsutomu Mizushima finds himself lampooning ten years from now? Let me know in the comments below; and as always, stick around if you want to see more videos like this in the near future. Support me via patreon if you want to help me in making those videos, and share this around to anyone that you think would appreciate it. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!

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