May 5th, 2016

Firechick's Anime Reviews: Bonjour Sweet Love Patisserie

I give yet another bland but still endearingly sweet reverse harem series...a 58/100.

I'll be honest, I never knew this show even existed until I went to an anime convention and went to a panel talking about short series, and this happened to be one of the shows they talked about. As soon as the panelist talked about it, I immediately got flashbacks to Yumeiro Patissiere, a shoujo series that's also about a girl going to a confectionary school befriending pretty boys and making sweets, even though it's been years since I've actually seen the series. But I was bored and running out of good anime to watch, and since the episodes are all five minutes long at the most, I thought it'd be a nice little time killer and take me away from reality for a while. Needless to say, it met my expectations. However, from all other standpoints, it is VERY disappointing.

The show's about Sayuri Haruno, a young girl who gets the chance to go to a famous confectionary school, Fleurir, on a scholarship so she can fulfill her dream of becoming a chef. It's nothing like she expects, and she meets many colorful friends and teachers. One of them is Ryou Kouzuki, a hot headed and blunt classmate who also dreams of becoming a chef. Teaching them are teachers like Aoi Mitsuki, a sweet and charming chocolatier who's adored by all the girls in the school, Gilbert Hanafusa, a half-French half-Japanese guy who's cheerful, bouncy, and...who acts like he's in high school, and Yoshinosuke Suzumi, a traditional, stern man who takes pride in making Japanese sweets. The show is very light on plot, and very episodic in nature, so it mostly focuses on Sayuri's interactions with her classmates and teachers, and there isn't really much to comment on. She also has to deal with the headmistress, who has a very strict "absolutely no teacher-student relationships" policy and hammers it over everyone's heads with the subtlety of a wrecking ball, even Sayuri, and she just won't let her hear the end of it.

If you're looking for a nice cooking show with three-dimensional characters who actually develop and evolve, you're in the wrong place, as in spite of its sweet nature, the show is as bland as they come. All of the characters are little more than stock archetypes with little, if any, personality or depth beyond the one quirk that gets shilled to no end. Other characters just act plain stupid at times, with Gilbert acting like a kid even though he's, you know, a friggin' teacher! And don't even get me started on the headmistress who is annoying as fuck. All she ever does is look strict and constantly accuse Sayuri of trying to shack up with one of the three main teachers over really petty reasons. Now, I hate the whole student/teacher romance trope as much as the next guy, especially because in real life that's a huge problem and could get the teacher in question either arrested or fired from their job. Most anime tend to romanticize student/teacher romances, and the show does acknowledge it as a bad thing. But the way the headmistress goes about being hyper vigilant about it doesn't make her come off as someone who's genuinely concerned about her students, but more like a hyper paranoid social justice warrior who actively looks for problems where there aren't any and seems to be looking for any excuse she can to kick Sayuri out of school. She even accuses her of trying to shack up with the teacher in situations where there is clearly NO romantic attraction between them at all! It got old, and it got old fast. Lady, if you're really gonna bully an innocent student just for looking at a teacher in a certain way, maybe you should quit being a principal and join the FBI or something. You'll probably do a better job scaring off criminals. Oh, and you want to know the worst thing about this? The whole thing is played as a running joke. Because playing this stuff for comedy surely isn't offensive, right?! There's also the purple haired bitchy girl who is way too obsessed with Mitsuki, to the point of making an entire half-naked chocolate sculpture of him. Shouldn't she be reported or something, because some of her behavior borders on really inappropriate.

Of course, the show is aware of how problematic its whole set-up is, but it still doesn't hesitate to indulge in the very tropes its trying to criticize, what with having girl characters gush over the teachers, even outright calling them sexy during the beach episode (Which is so not appropriate at all!!), and framing the teachers in bishie sparkles and the female gaze. Then again, otome games and adaptations of such have never really been known for their commentary on real world issues, nor were they intended to be so. Still, the show is clearly trying to have its cake and eat it too, and being indecisive in whether it wants to criticize the whole student/teacher romance implications or romanticize them, or doing both, just doesn't work. All it does is give off mixed messages, like "Don't get into romantic relationships with your teachers" and "Check out these super hot teachers! Don't you just wanna bang'em?" Yeah, I think you can see how wrong this is.

But even without that, the show is just another generic harem about a cipher otome protag who gets into a special school and gets surrounded by hot guys. With the show being about cooking and baking, you'd think it would actually show the characters cooking, preparing ingredients, and all the important things that cooking anime are known for, right? Sadly, even that's brushed off to the side. Instead of showing the characters actually cooking, the anime instead has these over the top, melodramatic shots of the teachers and Ryou spinning around and swinging their tools around like they're performing some special attack that's played out like a transformation scene, all with sparkles and dramatic effects. It's like the anime doesn't want to put in the effort to show them actually cooking or something! The animation in and of itself is fine, if nothing ground breaking, though it's not safe from the occasional weirdly drawn face or stiff movement, and the character designs are a little too over the top and otome-esque for my liking. The soundtrack isn't very memorable either, and the opening and ending songs...they're phoned in and badly sung, which is a shame to say because they're sung by the actors who play the three teachers and Ryou, and their acting is fine! Also, for some reason, there are also these cute round chibi creatures that end "maro" at the end of all their sentences that appear every now and then, and they serve absolutely no purpose other than just being cute and annoying, with episode 15 being the worst offender in how poorly written it is and how it's little more than filler made to shill these cutesy spheres.

Honestly, the only real saving grace this show has is that all of its episodes are five minutes long. That, at the very least, keeps the pacing consistent and the episodic conflicts never drag out longer than they need to, though that still doesn't save it from being dull and boring. Then again, I did find out this anime was made solely to promote a cell phone game, and anime based on cell phone games don't really have the best reputation. This could change, and I have seen some that are genuinely good (Granblue Fantasy and Kemono Friends being two examples), but some can be held back by the flaws of trying to adapt a mobage game into an anime and wind up not being very good (Magia Record). If you want to watch something similar to this but better, I'd recommend Yumeiro Patissiere. It's much longer and has more time to develop its characters, and while it's more of a children's show and still adheres to certain shoujo anime stereotypes, such as having a bitchy rival girl character and a green haired pretty boy who's just there to look pretty, it's far better than Bonjour is by a longshot. I mean, Yumeiro is no masterpiece, but it's a much better take on the reverse harem cooking school show than Bonjour tried to be.

Overall, if you like your saccharine reverse harems, this one's cliche but mostly harmless. Otherwise, give it a miss.

Firechick's Book Reviews: Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window

I give one of Japan's best selling autobiographies...a 70/100.

I was bored, so I decided to look up books online and see if I can satisfy some reading cravings. Totto-chan was one of the books that caught my interest. I ordered it at Barnes and Noble over my vacation and now I own it. So what do I think of it? Well, I think it's a nice little autobiography about schooling, sterile education, passionate teachers, and World War II, but there were times when the events that happened in the book, which are explicitly said to have happened in real life, seriously baffle me to no end. I can see why this is such a bestseller, and I do like it, but I'm not quite sure if certain elements in this book would fly past censors if it managed to get published today, and how certain parts flew past the censors back when it was translated in 1984 is beyond me.

So the bulk of the book is about the author's childhood experiences in an unorthodox--as in outside the norm or not like the rest of the traditional Japanese schools--school called Tomoe Gakuen. After she gets expelled for her bad behavior, Tetsuko, affectionately nicknamed Totto-chan by family and her peers, is transferred to the new school, which isn't like all the other schools. The headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi, eschews traditional Japanese norms regarding education and pretty much lets kids do their own thing, such as make up their own school schedules for studying, lets them play outside and doesn't worry about them getting dirty, tries to understand and accommodate every child, allows them to discover the wonders of nature, allows them to be themselves, and doesn't believe in shunning even the disabled or foreign, even though certain religions and handicaps were not considered acceptable by Japanese society back in World War II, especially if the emperor of the time, Hirohito, didn't approve of it.

Strangely enough, the novel is extremely episodic in nature, and all of the chapters, which are very short bordering on 2-3 pages long at most, are about Totto-chan's life both in and out of school and her experiences. There's one chapter about her teaching a kid with polio how to climb a tree, another about an incident about her dog biting her by accident, another about her raising chicks, another about kids swimming in the school's pool, etc. This is rare for a novel, especially an autobiography, as usually an episodic format is reserved for children's TV shows or Japanese dramas, and novels usually have overarching storylines and big events that keep people interested. But for the most part, the chapters are very short, short enough to breeze through without missing anything, and the prose is extremely accessible, not too beige but not purple either, so it's pretty easy to read. I'm sure children between the ages of 8-14 can read it easily. I'm sure I would have if I ever read this back when I was young. Plus, there isn't much that happens throughout the novel, as it's mostly just a series of random chapters detailing Totto-chan's life and some things she experienced in her younger days, so there's no real beginning, middle, or end, and it feels more like you're there watching a bunch of kids play in the park, which is fitting since that's what the book is about. I do like how it doesn't really follow a typical three-act structure.

The illustrations are really simplistic, as they're basically just watercolor paintings of Totto-chan and others sprinkled throughout the book. They look rather haphazard, like someone tried to paint kids but instead made them look like aliens that came out of a river, but they're not bad. They're pretty simplistic enough for kids to enjoy, and they still barely manage to toe the line between cartoony and realistic. Plus, it does add to the childlike nature of the story, since we're reading the story through the eyes of a child, and it's a pretty safe bet that if kids were to make watercolor drawings, the illustrations here would be eerily reminiscient of what most kids would attempt to paint.

Since the book is so episodic, there's not much room for actual character development, as the only ones who get a lot of focus are Totto-chan, her parents, some classmates such as Yasuaki, and the headmaster. But they're all relatively good characters in their own right and since this is a slice-of-life story, and an autobiography no less, they don't really need to develop, as they're all portrayed realistically, shown as people just going about their lives even though World War II is sneaking up on them. I did find Totto-chan to be pretty funny, as she's pretty much a gigantic tomboy, and an imaginative girl who explores her neighborhood despite the consequences, would much rather play outside and watch street musicians rather than sit at a desk all day, throws tantrums if she doesn't get what she wants, causes trouble, and doesn't always realize her actions can get herself in trouble, but she's still shown as a genuinely good kid who wants to make her friends happy and do the right thing, such as helping her friend climb a tree and pleads for her parents not to euthanize her dog Rocky bit her. She's the kind of girl I'm sure you've run into at least once in your life, and I could definitely relate to some of her experiences, such as when her baby chicks die despite trying to raise them, and when Rocky dies while she's out on a trip, and when her parents try to hide things from her but she knows something's up and won't stand to be kept in the dark. It ties into the themes of education and how children are smarter than people give them credit for.

Unfortunately, this book isn't perfect, even though I did enjoy reading it. The episodic nature can definitely turn people off, especially if you're expecting something big to happen like someone gets kidnapped and is enslaved by a psycho for ten years, or bombs come falling down and destroying everything. While it's true that most autobiographies detail events that happened in the author's life, such as the wars, the Holocaust, a bad experience such as being kidnapped or enslaved or sexually abused by a psycho, it's unrealistic to think that that's the only experiences people go through in their lives. True, Totto-chan is set during World War II, and the ending definitely solidifies this, but that's not what Totto-chan is about. So...yeah, if you're looking for detailed accounts of someone going through a terrible time in their life, this isn't the autobiography for you.

Now I think it's time I address the elephant in the room, the thing that keeps me from actually LOVING the book to high heaven. There's one chapter where Totto-chan and the kids go swimming in the pool at Tomoe, but none of them have their swimsuits, so the teacher allows them to...swim naked. One pool, full of nude kids aged 6-8, both boys and girls, naked in a big pool with a male teacher. be fair, the book DOES provide a decent explanation: the teacher feels that children shouldn't be ashamed of or overly curious about the differences between their bodies and felt that people taking pains ro hide their bodies just didn't feel natural. He wanted to teach the kids that all bodies are beautiful, ridding the kids of feelings of shame and prevent them from developing inferiority complexes. Understandably, the chapter does address parents being uncomfortable with this, and while I do applaud the teacher's intentions, and understand that Japan has always had different cultural views on children and underaged nudity, if someone attempted something like this here in America, they'd be accused of being a budding pedophile no matter their intentions. There might have been better ways to teach kids that rather than let boys and girls swim in a big pool in their birthday suits supervised by a male teacher. But the good thing is, the chapter is only two or three pages long and doesn't affect the story in any way, so you can easily skip it and not miss out on anything. But if you're easily offended by this stuff to the point where you'll drop something like this entirely...I don't know what to tell you.

However, I don't think the book should be dropped just because of that. Other than a couple of boggling writing choices, Totto-chan is actually a very subtle critique of Japan's stubbornly conformist and conservative education system, and it still holds up even to this day. Japan and America have different views on education. American kids go to school but are allowed individual freedom to decide what they want to be. The Japanese, however, mostly feel that all members of their society should conform to a certain ideal and aim for the same goal, and anyone who doesn't conform or adhere to society's views or values is considered an outcast or deemed a hindrance, a burden, or a blemish on their traditionalist reputations. Totto-chan's main lesson is that no matter where you come from, education should be to allow children to grow, to allow them the freedom to become their own individuals, as stifling them with rules and conformist views that'll make them feel ashamed to be themselves won't help them become productive members of society. Especially so since it's because of Kobayashi that Tetsuko Kuroyanagi became the famous writer, TV personality, and UNICEF goodwill ambassador that she is. Granted, Japan is still pretty rooted in its very traditionalist and even backward views on issues such as education and even sexual harassment, but the fact that Totto-chan has sold 5 million copies before 1982, at the time becoming the best selling book in Japanese history, says a lot about the book's overall impact and how true the message rings to not just the Japanese, but to the whole world.

In the end, it's not a perfect book, but it's still a very good book with a very important message and a good outlook on what it means to educate and what it means to be a child and to allow someone to become an individual.