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Michiko to Hatchin is yet another anime series with expectations to live up to. Producing studio Manglobe has formed a fierce reputation for itself in the six short years since it’s conception, already delivering stylish, innovative shows such as Samurai Champloo and Ergo Proxy, both of which had also benefited from Sayo Yamamoto‘s impressive storyboarding skills. M&H marks her directorial debut, but she’s also got some impressive staff to back her up. Most notable is character designer Hiroshi Shimizu, who has an insane CV that includes The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Jin-Roh – The Wolf Brigade, Ghost in The Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Metropolis. Oh, and don’t forget his stint at Ghibli as a key animator, which saw him working on classics such as Princess Mononoke, Pom Poko and Porco Rosso among others. And did I mention that minor deity Champloo and Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichirō Watanabe acted as music producer for the series?

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It’s an impressive legacy, and one that the show never shrinks from. In fact as soon the opening sequence rolls, it doesn’t as much try to remind you of it’s heritage, as much as scream it at you. It’s a hyperactive, over-stylized collage of colour and characters set to a frantic jazz-punk soundtrack from legendary Japanese experimentalists Soil & “Pimp” Sessions that instantly recalls the openings of both Champloo and Bebop. As such, it’s a bold statement.

And as if all that’s not enough, the two eponymous starring roles are voiced by noted Japanese film actresses Yoko Maki (The Grudge) and Suzuka Ohgo (Memoirs of a Geisha) respectively. Getting well known screen actors to play anime rolls is still a rarity in the industry, and shows just how intent Manglobe is to impress with its latest offering.

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Set in a fictional South American country clearly based on Brazil, the plot centers around the unlikely pairing of escaped convict and ex gang member Michiko Malandro and orphan child Hana “Hatchin” Morenos. Hana is being raised by the twisted and abusive family of a corrupt Roman Catholic priest when Michiko, fresh from busting out of a famed high security prison and pursued by half of the country’s police force, turns up and rescues her, claiming she is her mother. Unsure whether to trust or believe her at first, Hana tags along not only to escape her hellish situation, but also intrigued that the two share the same, apparently gang related, tattoo.

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What follows is a succession of stylised, violent and at times seedy firefights, car chases and brawls as the two try to evade the cops and rival gang members, make some money and find out what has really happened to Hana’s allegedly dead father. In fact, the action is so stylised that it would be easy, at first glance, to dimiss the show as lacking in real substance, but like Bebop and Champloo before it in the end it’s actually the characters and emotive story telling that keeps the viewer hooked. Behind the action and sex appeal is a tale of two broken individuals with tragic pasts, and the story of a mother and daughter trying to fill roles they’ve suddenly been thrown into. At times it’s exceptionally dark and heart wrenching – particularly in the very first episode, as we see Hana’s horrific treatment at the hands of her sadistic foster parents and siblings. This is real, damaging child abuse being depicted – both mental and physical – and just when you think they’ve gone too far, you realise the show’s creators are building to a powerful, vengeful release as bike riding Michiko literally bursts into the house to rescue her terrified daughter.

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The animation throughout reaches the usual high Manglobe standards – action sequences are fluid and often breathtaking, and the stylised, sun washed backgrounds reminiscent of City of God, along with the disturbing imagery of gun-totting child gangsters. Shimizu’s character design is bold and flawless, and of particular interest is Michiko herself – her overtly sexy appearance and violent temper is obviously a nod towards to Faye Valentine, yet she also possess a certain courage and perhaps hidden tenderness that her predecessor lacked. There is occasional nudity and frequent cleavage, but the strength of the characters makes the aim seem to be maturity and atmosphere rather than fan service. All this is set to Watanabe guided, latin-tinged music, and while it may lack the careful juxtaposition of Bebop and Champloo‘s soundtracks, there’s no denying it’s perfect fit and synchronisation.

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While they might not have the immediate, unusual charm of the Watanabe works they will so clearly be compared to and, and are probably meant to mimic in terms of success, the first five episodes of Michiko to Hatchin are still compelling viewing. Don’t be mislead by my descriptions of the shows darker side – there’s plenty of humour to be had too along with a slightly camp, retro blaxploitation vibe – including a transvestite that possibly looks a little like Spike Spiegel, but it’s the show’s stylish visuals combined with the characters and their yet to be fully revealed back-stories that make this one to follow for the rest of it’s initial run. Check back over the next few weeks for more.

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