Alex Leavitt writes for The Department of Alchemy, while working “for real” as a research specialist in the Comparative Media Studies department at MIT in Boston, MA. After studying abroad in Kyoto, Japan in 2008, Alex returned to the States to travel around the country speaking at major anime conventions such as Anime Expo (Los Angeles, CA), Otakon (Baltimore, MD), and Anime Boston. Follow his eccentricities over on Twitter at @alexleavitt.

Back in 2006, as a college freshman downloading anime with his roommates, I happened across a short subtitled series called REC. Since I like to encourage fans to seek out shows that are not mainstream (like the Anime World Order offerings of Fist of the North Star, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, etc.) but in particular also those that do not have large fan followings (for example, Dennou Coil), I want to revisit REC, because it’s an interesting case study for a show of its type — romance, seinen, and (strangely) extremely short — because we can understand how this anime works with its novel format and lower budget.

REC aired on TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) from the beginning of February 2006 to the end of March 2006. A small run for a small show: the series only adds up to nine episodes, plus one additional OVA episode included with the DVD packaging. In addition, though, each episode only lasts 12 minutes each, a very different format from the approximately-25-minute episodes we normally view on television. At under two full hours viewing time (without including the extra episode), you can watch the entire series in an afternoon. REC’s length therefore provides its viewers with a much faster narrative flow than other ordinary anime series, a change with which modern ONA (original net animations) are currently experimenting and succeeding.

And with its quick movement, REC’s story is neither difficult nor demanding to follow. The plot follows the interwoven heartstrings of Fumihiko Matsumaru, a salaryman that works for the advertising section of a confectionary company, and Aka Onda, an amateur seiyuu (voice actress) beginning to make her mark in the industry. The two meet as a passionate Aka stops a stood-up Matsumaru from throwing away his absent date’s ticket to a local Audrey Hepburn film. After the two return home (how coincidental that they live in the same neighborhood), Matsumaru wakes in the middle of the night to sirens down the street. He finds Aka outside her burning apartment building and, as she has nowhere to go, brings her to his place for the night. Then, in an (un)expected fit of emotion and desperation, the couple kiss, introduce each other (they hadn’t before this moment…), and have sex. A strange turn of events that only escalates the following day, as Matsumaru’s project at work is accepted: his half-tree-half-cat mascot will be featured in a commercial for a new leaf-shaped snack. And who will voice this mascot? None other than Aka Onda, budding voice actress extraordinaire. Now, the two must attempt not to conflate their business and personal relationships while Aka remains in Matsumaru’s bedroom for the next month while refusing to continue any sort of romantic relationship (even though everybody knows that one is developing without even having had to begin watching this television show).

The immediate verdict? Watch it. It will not be a waste of your two-hour afternoon break. The show might, however, suffer from what I would like to call “otaku sentimentality.” To explain, let’s turn to the manga.

REC was adapted from the •REC manga (yes, there’s a dot at the beginning, just like how it appears on any video capturing device), written and drawn by Q-taro Hanamizawa, also famous for such works as… well, they’re pretty unknown. The comic was serialized in the relatively-new seinen (older boys’/men’s) magazine Sunday GX, which has also featured RahXephon and Black Lagoon. SHAFT (yes, the company behind such recent hits as Bakemonogatari, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, and… well, there are too many, so hit that link!) ended up producing the series, directed by Ryutaro Nakamura, who also directed Kino’s Journey, Ghost Hound, and Serial Experiments Lain (see these three shows for better directorial work).

As a seinen work transformed into an animated series, you won’t find much moé here, but the manga doesn’t diverge from straight-up panty-flashing, shower scenes, and a breast here and there. However, the subject matter — voice acting and everything that comes with it, including Japanese animation — might throw off a few American anime fans if they were to “analyze” the show. This series does not pander to moé fanatics, regardless of how much you want to peg Aka with that term, just because she has big eyes and a short stature. Helped by some excellently-bad lines like, “Just because we… did it once doesn’t mean we’re together or anything like that…,” “When I hear Aka saying ‘Welcome home!’, I’ll be very happy,” and “Deep inside, he is longing for a girlfriend,” Matsumaru’s somewhat creepy obsession with Aka (particularly visualized in the manga) might come off as pandering to a subset of fans (I mean, there are a number of people out there who want to hear their favorite seiyuu moan in their ears), but in my opinion it’s just poor writing. You shouldn’t come to REC expecting anything spectacular.

As for appeal, if you want a cute romance, REC should be right up your alley. If you’ve come for the next hit, you won’t be surprised when you see that the BitTorrent stats for this series’ fansubbed translation are hitting near zero seeds. The animation is pretty average, only augmented by a few instances of unnatural CG, and a lot of scenes — particularly those romantic, emotional, or memorial ones (aka. half the show) — are whitewashed in an attempt to shoujo-ize this bit of seinen entertainment. Also, the low-quality backgrounds are a bit apparent: they look almost painted from a five-year-old’s watercolor set. But for a “late night show” (it appeared on TBS at around 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning), REC follows the conventions of most shows appealing to a slightly older male audience.

The more interesting aspect of the show might have been the voice acting, but for a show about an amateur voice actress, the producers certainly went out of their way to find an… amateur voice actress. Not that the voice acting in the show is poor, but it’s not going to hit any high notes either by featuring Sakai Kanako, who has most recently voiced Akari on the hot, mechanical-bishounen haremfest, Miracle Train. Personally, I liked Aka’s “Audrey Hepburn” voice better than her own, but if you’re looking for a critical look into the Japanese animation industry, go check out Animation Runner Kuromi.

Watch this show to add it to your mental repertoire. One challenge might be to pick out all of the Audrey Hepburn references throughout the series. Of course, it’s always nice to have seen average shows more than once, especially since REC has that 12-minute novelty going for it. Or, I suppose you could always play the anime’s visual novel adaptation. But if you’re looking for a recent romance that’s sure to keep you on your toes, I recommend Toradora wholeheartedly.

Having never been imported into the English-speaking realm, REC is still available over at AnimeSuki, though you might want to beg someone to seed you a copy. Just be prepared to deal with your average fansub design clichés: