Diamond Daydreams Vol. 1

Anthologies are by definition a mixed bag. When it works, you have a classic like The Twilight Zone or Robot Carnival. But there's always the problem of expectations: can the next story top this one? Should it even try? And if there're a few stinkers in the mix, often the memory of the whole is dragged down. Despite the risks, I like anthologies, and so far, I'm enjoying Diamond Daydreams.

A collection of tales about young women in Hokkaido, Diamond Daydreams doesn't interconnect its stories but allows certain commonalities to blend the whole together. Through a preview from ADV Films, I've seen the first three episodes, which contain one complete story and the start of a second. (The final disc should include four episodes, including both stories in their entirety.) And though it walks the tightrope between cloying and melodramatic, it surprised me by setting up typical romantic clichés only to stray from them quite appropriately. For a female audience wanting anime stories more realistic than the next Clamp creation, this is a good start -- and the guys won't find it half bad either.

The first two stories focus on very different situations. In the first, 20 year old Atsuko works at her family's fish market trying to keep the store from bankruptcy. Her father died several years back, and her mother struggles to keep things afloat. She's promised to a financially secure young man, but the engagement is not something Atsuko really wants, even though her fiancé could take care of their monetary problems. And when a tall, dark, and handsome jazz musician who frequents the shop takes an interest in her, Atsuko has to determine where her loyalties lie.

In the second story, 15 year old Karin has been in the hospital for nearly two years with a collapsed lung. Although a relatively minor surgery could fix the problem, her father died under the knife, and she's too scared to go through with it. In her convalescence, her one connection to the real world has been through her website where she posts about her dreams of a fantasy prince taking her away. When a young doctor comes and stirs things up, calling her a stuck-up princess, she's rattled, deciding she hates him. But is it possible that this new physician might be the sweet secret admirer she's been trading emails with about her website?

Yes, both of these stories sound like soap opera fodder, and I have to admit that they did occasionally stray into that realm. But there's an air of realism to the stories that keeps them from straying too far into the unbelievable. Although I can't speak for all the upcoming vignettes, these two have girly bits but are thoroughly grounded. Yes, we see Karin's too-perfect dreamworld and Atsuko's daily squid run complete with pratfall, but they are fine given their contexts. My wife Catha commented on the immaturity of some of the young heroines, but the very fact that she was interested in this show and enjoyed it enough to see the whole series is a mark of quality. I have a hard time getting her to watch much anime as it is; that this show would appeal to her says loads about the marketability of the program to female audiences.

The animation is not bad. It's standard for a 2004 13-episode TV show, which means that it looks generally pretty but doesn't have much animation per se. In a drama like this, though, the lack of movement isn't really a problem. Character voices and poses become that much more important, and those are handled with finesse. The English dub track (all I had available to me) has reasonable performances, though Jessica Boone in the role of Atsuko shines during introspective moments, and through her voice work I bought the character. I will say that, in general, the recent English dubs I've seen recently do best when the characters aren't in histrionics but display genuine emotion, and Diamond Daydreams gives the opportunity for some nice, subtle performances.

There is one glaring flaw in the show, and that's in its opening sequence. The song that was chosen, a bouncy well-meaning number, is so completely off the tone of the show that it could turn off potential viewers. Each time we fast-forward through it after the first appearance, my wife parodied the song lyrics like, "Let's eat some delicious food!" Thankfully, DVD makes skipping the opening credits a breeze. The ending theme, however, is just about perfect and runs directly out of the final moments of each episode.

There are plenty of things to recommend in Diamond Daydreams. You've got a semi-realistic show that's relatable to women yet not so girly as to completely turn off boyfriends and husbands from watching. You've got dramatic situations that, at least from what we saw, are unpredictable. You've got complicated characters that aren't easily pigeonholed or even all that likable. And then you've got the island of Hokkaido. Like its own character, the setting plays a part in the proceedings; the island is at once a travelogue and a commentary on the proceedings. I'm not saying that I buy it all; there are a few contrivances that are hard to believe. But on the whole, it's quite different than much of what's available in the US. What’s more, if you don't like one story, there's another one coming up soon.

The biggest difficulty is giving the show a grade based on what I've seen. Sure, it starts well. Will the rest be the same caliber? With an anthology, it's hard to guess. But I'm going to give it the benefit of the doubt because we enjoyed it quite a lot. Fans of realistic shoujo will love it, and the rest of us should give it a try...in my opinion, it's worth the effort.

Diamond Daydreams Vol. 1 -- nothing objectionable, though conceptually for teens and up -- A-