Maybe if Judge Geoffrey Miller hadn't spent his childhood playing Nintendo and watching cartoons, he, too, could have graduated college at 11.
Tenth grade class + 11-year-old teacher—you do the math.
Is Azumanga Daioh the Neon Genesis Evangelion of the '00s? The manga and anime series, consisting of bite-sized chronicles following a quirky gang of Japanese girls through high school, has little in common with GAINAX's philosophical mech opus. But take a look at how they've followed similar paths—slowly building up a fan base via good word of mouth, going against the grain of current trends, and eventually spawning a wave of imitators. The ironic thing, of course, is that Azumanga's popularity is in large part a reaction against all the unbearably pretentious post-Evangelion anime that's been produced in the past decade. Its quotidian plots and low-key atmosphere struck a chord in Japan and abroad; since then, there's been a resurgence of comedic slice-of-life anime borrowing and adapting Azumanga's style.
It would be unfair to call Pani Poni Dash an Azumanga ripoff; it's a very different show that establishes its own identity from the first episode. But it's also impossible to imagine Pani Poni Dash being made in a pre-Azumanga world. The premise is nearly identical—a bunch of Japanese girls attend high school—and they're both purely episodic comedies. The big difference (trumpeted on the cover and in all the various promo copy) is that the teacher in Pani Poni Dash's classroom is an 11-year old MIT grad. That's ultimately a relatively minor point; she's just one of the many crazy characters. Where Pani Poni Dash really sets itself apart is its rapid-fire gags and surreal silliness.
Pani Poni Dash, Vol. 1: Lethal Lesson contains five episodes (out of
a total of 26):
Before watching Pani Poni Dash, prepare yourself for an avalanche of cute. All of the girls have huge, oversized saucer eyes (yes, even more so than usual for anime) and some sort of endearing personality trait. There's a tiny, talking bunny. Hell, even the aliens that watch the drama from afar (a la Kang and Kodos) are kind of adorable. But all this cuteness is a façade to lure you in to watching some of the most twisted anime you'll ever see (that doesn't involve tentacles).
As the class teacher, 11-year old genius Rebecca "Becky" Miyamoto is the glue that holds the show together, but neither she nor any of the other individual characters hogs the spotlight. This is an ensemble show, through and through. What the multitude of teenage girls who comprise the majority of the cast have in common is that they're sweet on the outside, but crazy on the inside: Himeko is a hyperactive spaz with a massive cowlick who's constantly shouting her nonsense catchphrase, "Maho!"; Rei is a bespectacled, hot-headed bitch, and Miyako is an irritable bookworm with a massive forehead that's so shiny other characters use it as a mirror.
That's only a small sampling of the bizarre students in Becky's classroom. None of them is anything special on paper; they're all straight out of the big book of anime chicks, really. But they're bursting with unusually vivid personalities that light up the screen. They all play off each other brilliantly: In the unusual position of being a teacher who's younger than her students, Becky is often ridiculed by her pupils. But being a prodigy has given her an inflated ego, and she treats them condescendingly, calling them by demeaning names like "boring girl" instead of their real names (much to their chagrin). The girls have a certain sense of camaraderie among themselves, at least so long as it's mutually beneficial. More often than not, they'll jump at the first opportunity to screw each other over or crack a joke at another girl's expense. Like most teenage girls, this gang can get outright cruel.
To say that Pani Poni Dash is plotless would be the understatement of the year. It doesn't have a short attention span; it has no attention span. It rarely even manages to stay on the same topic for more than two minutes. Something as simple as a pre-test study sleepover spins out of control in a million different directions at once. This sort of spastic ADD-addled style is part of its appeal, yet it also makes it occasionally difficult to watch (especially in longer doses). Let me put it this way: If freeze-frame wasn't around, some Pani Poni Dash fan probably would have invented it just to catch the myriad gags that rush by in mere seconds (often three or four at a time). It's information overload—especially with subtitles!
From the opening of the first episode, a shot-for-shot parody of Planet of the Apes' famous ending, Pani Poni Dash mercilessly skewers every last tidbit of pop culture it can get its hands on—be it movie, television, anime, manga, or video game. The show is targeted at a very specific demographic, essentially the Japanese equivalent of the Adult Swim crowd, which means that many of the references are downright obscure even for Japanese natives, never mind clueless gaijins. Who's really going to get random lines from some old '80s anime or Japanese TV commercial? On the other hand, even some of the more esoteric references—like the unusually elaborate emoticons from popular Japanese message board 2chan, the Phoenix Wright video games, and NHK mascot/kitten killer Domo-kun—have achieved varying degrees of notoriety outside of Japan, and many others (like Star Trek and James Bond) are internationally known.
But more importantly, Pani Poni Dash isn't so reliant on random snippets of pop culture ephemera that missing out on a few otaku in-jokes will ruin the fun. The nuances of Pani Poni Dash's sub-cultural mash-ups aren't as important as its chaotic sense of fun. So forget about trying to pick up on every last manga parody and just enjoy the show's simpler pleasures, like Becky's cute bunny companion getting abused by a cat that lives in a vending machine (which claims it's God) or Rei grabbing Himeko by her cowlick then throwing her like a bowling bowl. That's not even one tenth of a percent of its craziness; it's a wild, unpredictable, and shamelessly shocking show.
The disc is standard fare among ADV releases: a 5.1 English dub, the original Japanese in 2.0, and a couple of small extras (TV spots, a clean closing animation, and an alternate opening). ADVidnotes are one notable bonus, giving little Pop-Up Video style factoids alongside the show. These are informative and helpful, but way too intrusive for casual watching; they often block out huge chunks of the screen. The dub is one of the best I've heard in recent memory, retaining all of the original Japanese's nuances while taking enough liberties to keep the dialogue natural and unforced.
Pani Poni Dash is the second anime title I've reviewed recently (after Nerima Daikon Brothers, also released by ADV) that's full of obscure Japanese pop culture references nearly indecipherable to Western viewers. While Pani Poni Dash is a little too cute and hyperactive for its own good, it's by far the better show of the two. The characters, though all well-established archetypes, are all appealing and have enough individual quirks to make themselves memorable. And its subversively sadistic sense of humor is arguably better suited for America than Japan. Recommended to anyone who can deal with its frenzied pace and high cultural barrier.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• TV spots
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