Not-so-Instant Review: Bartender

I’m back from Japan, much poorer in yens, much richer in useless wota crap, and with a horribly broken LCD on my laptop. While there, I met some cool guys (a post-doujin event trip to a bar with 400 kinds of whiskey and an actual beer selection and talking Nerd with a few hundred dollars of doujin and many times that of Dollfie present), some not as cool guys (NEW GAMES JOURNALISM), and enjoyed doing very little of substance during my summer break. I’m still working on that last one, by the way. However, my boring-ass summer is not what this post is about. This post is about anime for MEN. Unfortunately, I’m fairly sure that AWO has spoken at length about every show in the past 15 years that involves the fine things in life, like rape, heads exploding due to gunshots, and pissing in eyes, so my options are fairly limited.

If you’ve ever spoken to me for a moderate+ length about anime, I’ve more than likely mentioned the wonderful phenomenon of fansub burnout. Allow me to explain: when one works on a fansub, they end up watching an episode of the show that’s being subbed probably 3, 4, maybe even 10+ times before finishing whatever job they have in production. To be frank, I’d be hard-pressed to re-read, re-watch, or re-play 95% of any work of entertainment of my choice, and much more often than not, whatever I’m translating is often not in that wonderful 5% for one reason or another. So, it’d only be natural that somewhat negative thoughts become associated with a subbed show. For example, I can probably count the times that I’ve actually downloaded the finished product of something I translated on one hand. The fact that almost every series I translate, thinking, “oh, this will never get licensed in the states!” gets licensed probably contributes to this. Another manifestation of fansub burnout is never finishing a series that I drop, no matter how interesting the show looks. It took me an embarrassingly long time to finish up Ichigo Mashimaro, (not quite as embarrassing as having to download fansubs by a group called r0r1p0p) and I keep telling myself that I really, really need to buy Kamichu dvds. Don’t get me started on Gurren-Lagann, either.

One of the many shows that fell off my radar after subbing a whopping two episodes was Bartender. I had pretty mixed feelings about the show while subbing it. After watching the first two episodes, it was hard to tell how the show would go–I could dig the concept and style, but between some possibly nationalistic undertones and not quite knowing if they’d advocate drinking your pain away or not, I wasn’t completely comfortable with the series. Unsurprisingly, it went way on the back burner, to the point where I didn’t even keep up to date with the fansubs beyond some very minor drama over re-encoding some ridiculously sized fansub encodes.

Fast forward to about 10 months later, as I’m about 40 episodes through G Gundam, thinking that its burning shonen heart is in the right place, but it ultimately pales in comparison to GaoGaiGar pretty much across the board. Eyeing Mobile Suit Gundam as the next series I’m going to watch through, (no, I haven’t seen it, yes I am ashamed of myself) I start to realize that I’m getting pretty tired of really big robots, so I start to think about a potential short series to watch in between. After all, if I don’t take care of myself, I might get robo-exhausted again and end up not watching anything for two weeks like that time after I finished Ideon. But what to watch? I can’t go cold turkey on the GAR factor, but I don’t want any main characters taller than 30 feet. I need something to soothe my frayed yet manly nerves. Hold on a minute, I think I… Gar… Bar… TENDER! I quickly snapped up Lunar’s subs of Bartender and went to work after coming back from AFO, a Florida Con that ended up being worth the $50 for the weekend that either astrange or I ought to talk about soon but likely won’t.

Bartender (the anime, I won’t deal with the manga here–I skimmed it when I was subbing it, and it seemed a fair bit different) is an episodic show with a very simple premise: A troubled man (or woman) comes into Eden Hall, the bar tended by Sasakura Ryu, aka Bartender, aka “Glass of the Gods”, an extremely talented bartender. There’s a little bit of exposition, then Bartender serves them the exact drink they want need to soothe their souls and begin fixing their problems. Cue a few reaction shots, then an explanation of why he knew what drink, also known as the “Glass of the Gods” (yes, the exact same thing as what some people call him. I don’t know why they do this.) they needed. Cue a few ending lines and then cut to credits.

I remember hearing that “Bartender is Iyashi-kei for businessmen” when this show first came out, and I really couldn’t agree more. It’s like… 3 parts Aria to 2 parts Yakitate Japan to 1 part Golgo 13, just enough to kill the light-hearted fancy of Aria, with a splash of House, M.D. to taste. The issues that the customers have are pretty mundane for anime, mostly things like wondering if their salaryman lives have ultimately been spent well, trying to tell your wife that you see for 10 minutes a day that you love her in any sort of meaningful way, and just finding the strength to survive in the business world in general. Like I said, lots of themes that Japanese businessmen can relate to. In fact, one of the major themes of the entire show that the bartenders talk about is how the job of the bartender is a life of silent service to the customer, and how the man should never overshadow the craft. I’m honestly surprised that this didn’t turn me off from the series, since I can really get to hate a series when it gets too preachy and heavy-handed, but I ended up feeling more sympathetic and endeared to the show than anything. Maybe I’m destined for a life as an assistant manager in a cubicle for a trading company somewhere in Tokyo, who knows. The first and last episodes depart from the formula a little, and the last episode can feel like they kind of cobbled together half an episode with some recap and overarching story, but it’s nothing too egregious.

Two things in the series show up over and over, again probably mainly of interest to 30-50 year old males: Artistic, usually literary references, and lots of information about liquor. Naturally, as a 19-year-old college student, I loved it. The artistic references seem to be made so that pretty much anyone watching the show will get them, and even if you don’t, then they explain exactly where they came from anyway. It could be anything from a quick gimme quote from The Little Prince to an entire episode spent analogizing a stagnating man’s situation to Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea. Most of the time it was executed well, and at least they cited their sources, much unlike Kino no Tabi. (iceburn!!?!!) I’m not quite as up on my facts about liquor, but I’m always interested in studying fine spirits in one way or another, so I learned a lot of interesting new things there. ESPECIALLY that a bartender is named such because “he makes the bar tender.” Wait, no, that’s not right at all. Anyway, I don’t quite know if Bartender gets as hardcore or opinionated as Oishinbo or Sommelier, but there’s some neat facts in the show that normally get tied into the episode’s featured drink. I’d hate to sound like the guy at AFO that was trying to say how visual novels teach you lots of interesting things, like how the bends work, (!!) but nearly all the little facts in here were honestly entertaining for me.

The show is also pretty good as far as technical aspects go, too. The voice cast is mostly unremarkable in both name and performance. The women sound like women, the angry bitches sound like angry bitches, the super-suave bartender sounds super-suave, the old man narrator who is not Norio Wakamoto sounds like an old man narrator who is not Norio Wakamoto, and so on. Nothing stood out as particularly bad to me, so on the whole, it’s a perfectly serviceable cast. The animation was apparently done by the same company that did the Genshiken TV series, and was pretty hit-or-miss. There’s very little action, so most of the face shots and everything look great. Of course, there are a few instances of terrible, terrible faces, but that’s pretty par for the course for non-A list tv anime. There’s a bit of 3d work in there, mostly in the form of various real liquor bottles. I’m not very exacting when it comes to 3d, so I was happy with it. It was certainly better than Akagi, or the first ep of Bokurano.

According to ANN, Yasuhiro Imagawa, the Director/screenplay writer/story concept guy for Giant Robo did series composition and the screenplay for Bartender, and that should be more than enough for anyone important to at least give it a shot. Unfortunately, my kung-fu is not yet strong enough to judge how well the series composer did, but I’m just going to pretend that he was the magic ingredient that made the show work. The direction in the show is pretty unique. The fourth wall is flimsier than a late-20th century theater performance. In fact, a lot of the dialogue in general almost feels like a play, as characters that are nowhere near each other complete the other’s sentences or answer their questions, narrate stories, stuff like that. It might seem really lame in some settings, but once again, it seemed to work here. Maybe that’s the screenplay writer shining through, who knows. A few funny wipes and transitions here and there, but no real Shinboesque auteur-directorship here. Despite hating light jazz with every ounce of my being, I loved the pop-jazzy solo piano and drums soundtrack. The OP is kind of ridiculous but catchy, and the ED is fine, I guess, especially if you like goldfish exploding while a real bartender makes the featured drink of the show. I especially liked the live bartender doing the IMPOSSIBLE DOUBLE-HAND POUR THAT ONLY 5 BARTENDERS IN JAPAN COULD POSSIBLY DO pretty much effortlessly. I can’t tell if that speaks to the bartender’s ability or the ridiculous Initial D-style QUADRUPLE CLOSE-UP ON THE FACE REACTION SHOT move they do a few times in the show.

Lunar did a pretty good sub job on the show. I only had a few tiny nitpicks here and there on the subs, most of which are less mistakes and more stylistic disagreements, and the video quality is great, although they had a nasty habit of not being able to run without slowing down here and there on my 2.53ghz 1gb ram economy desktop. Hmm.

Overall, I liked this show a whole lot more than I thought I would. It has kind of a seinen cheesiness to it while still managing to be honestly entertaining and somewhat charming. The episodes are really easy to watch through and might not be the most original of scenarios, but whenever it might start to drag, the alcohol trivia that got tied into the situation saved it for me. The writing is backed up by fairly solid and somewhat unique direction and is all done in a subdued style that works well for the series. I’d strongly recommend this to any hard seinen fans (REAL MEN), slice-of-life fans that don’t require cute girls in their shows, and pretty much anyone in general that’s looking for a nice episodic series to watch to just chill out, kind of like Aria. Oh yeah, and anyone that wants to see practical applications of Navier-Stokes equations in anime. Now, off to find a barback position at a bar around here…

5 Responses to “Not-so-Instant Review: Bartender”

  1. wildarmsheero says:

    If you’re going to do the original Gundam, I say go with the compilation movies first. I think only once you’ve secured yourself as a fan you can handle all the ridiculous shit in the TV series.

  2. kransom says:

    well, it’s only a few episodes longer than ideon, so I figure that I’ll be able to do it if I don’t try to marathon it in a few days.

  3. Daryl Surat says:

    GaoGaiGar is an awesome show, but I personally like G Gundam more since I’m a sucker for trying to catch all those references to old kung fu movies and those Jin Yong novels that I never actually read. I also like all the goofy camera angles and gags, though this usually is what makes people hate the show. Plus, the G Gundam cast of heroes and villains is more awesome, and not just because Nastasha reminds me of The Baroness from GI Joe: GGG’s got a lot of characters who serve little purpose but to take screen time away from Gai or J in an annoying manner.

    What GaoGaiGar does have over G Gundam is animation quality (regardless of the stock footage) and people being awesome by way of yelling. G Gundam’s got a lot of impassioned yelling in its own right, but it doesn’t really compare, even though the yelling ramps up even more than usual within those final ten episodes. But just so we keep everything in perspective, Getter Robo has more yelling than even GaoGaiGar. And pretty much everyone is awesome, AND there’s lots more blood.

    I never did watch more Bartender past those first two episodes, but it was due to lack of availability, not interest. Much like how I can’t watch the new Jeeg series until I can find a batch for it.

  4. kransom says:

    Point taken. I’m pretty sure that if I had watched GGG more recently than 2 years ago, the two shows would be pretty side-by-side. For one thing, I wasn’t really watching as critically, and of course, I’ve probably forgotten the various slip-ups that I did notice when I watched it. Also, were there that many kung fu movie references? I’ve really only seen a small handful of them, so all I really caught were the most painfully obvious ones (Wong).

    As far as characters go, I will admit that Nastasha was incredibly hot. Hell, I don’t even remember the fanservice character in GGG, was it that 7 year old that had panty shots here and there? I’m still very ambivalent about Schwartz Bruder, though. I mean, that name! Did they just think that their plot would be so transparent that they could give things away that easily? Finally, my last thought on the two shows (I know I’m outclassed here, so I’m just struggling for points) – I know it’s probably improper to use it as THE HUGE THING of all that is large and robotic, not to mention unfair to G Gundam, but I have to give big ups to my GaoGaiGar homies for slamming their balls on the table right in the face of Evangelion. That must take at least some degree of burning heroism.

  5. kransom says:

    Oh yeah, one more thing – I picked up a bunch of old stuff you guys reviewed/are about to review at the dealers room at AFO: The Crusher Joe movie/ova collection, They Were Eleven, Barefoot Gen, Time Stranger, and… Odin. Edited, unfortunately. You guys better not let me down, that $25 could have been spent on buying more $2.50 volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub!

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