Working!! (aka Wagnaria!!)

Otaku now reign supreme...and that's not a good thing. Die-hard Japanese otaku are the one group whose money genuinely makes a difference in the way anime and manga are designed and marketed. However, the kind of pandering we've seen in the name of "what otaku like" in the past few years is killing the art form. Modern Japanese anime and manga are almost more about about quirks and cuteness as much as they are about genuine character development. There have always been "tropes" in anime; shonen-style fighting anime, for example, have been doing the same expected things (and making money hand over fist) for decades. But for fans who grew up on Macross and Miyazaki, sometimes it looks like the anime landscape is littered with cut-and-paste programming that's made up of the bits of better shows.

Working!! (also known as Wagnaria!! due to some issues with trademarks) doesn't change the formulas exactly. In fact, some of the most common (and annoying) trends show up frequently. Yet Working!! is determined to make them play out differently than the audience might expect. Breezily amusing and at times quite funny, Working!! is mostly an easy watch, though there are points at which the show falls victim to the tropes it is trying to deconstruct.

Taneshima is short, in fact, that she's often mistaken for an elementary-school student rather than the 17-year-old she is. Nevertheless, she's a hard worker at the family restaurant Wagnaria, and she's asked one day by her layabout manager Shirafuji to recruit some new staff. On the street, she bumps into Takanashi, who originally thinks she's a kid asking for directions. However, when he realizes that she's a year older than he is, he immediately takes the job...turns out that he's got a bit of thing for most anything that's tiny, and so he's enamored with her.

All the staff members that Takanashi meets are nice, even though they are offbeat...the beautiful and charming Todoroki who carries around a katana while on the job...the head chef Sato who seems not to care about anything because there's one girl he cares about very much...the second chef Soma who's as pleasant as punch, though he blackmails everybody...not to mention the regional Wagnaria rep, who spends all his free time searching for his wife (who's gotten lost somewhere in Japan). But the strangest one of all is Inami, a teenage girl who fears men so much that her instinct is to knock their block off. Takanashi winds up on the receiving end of her blows on a regular basis, even though she's incredibly apologetic. With this odd cast surrounding him, let alone his wacky sisters who still live at home, Takanashi's weird fondness for smallness is almost...normal.

Working!! is the latest in a string of slice-of-life shows where there's really no plot, just a central core that brings the characters together to experience adventures. While the vast majority of the show happens in the restaurant proper, we almost never get insight into what it might be like to work in what's essentially a Japanese Denny's. It's all about funny situations and character relationships. Working!! began its life as a four-panel comic rather than a serialized manga, and so it has a bit of a different flavor from the start. There's quite a bit of physical comedy, so if you like that sort of thing, this show is an easy recommend.

Working!! is best when plays around with typical anime stereotypes. For example, at least for a time, it's amusing how Takanashi's pummeling by Inami, something we've seen way too much in anime over the years, is here always accompanied by a "sorry!" or two. Takanashi's preference for bugs over bigger animals because they're cute -- or, at least, tiny -- disrupts the whole creepy vibe you'd normally get about a guy who adores little girls. He likes everything tiny -- really! And while Working!! has an obligatory hot-springs episode, it's never about seeing the girls undressed; in fact, it may be the best hot-springs episode I've ever seen.

As those last couple of comments make clear, Working!! plays very carefully around the edges of sexuality without going overboard. Whereas the show toys with a lot of fetishistic behaviors -- crossdressing, lolita complexes, and more -- the players are virtually sexless, living more in a state of fond admiration for one another than erotic attraction. There are innuendos here and there, mostly having to do with the lack of physical development amongst certain female characters, but they aren't lecherous. You can appreciate where it goes without feeling dirtied by it.

The only real disappointment I had with Working!!, serious enough to affect its grade, is that the story between Takanashi and Inami isn't very good. I grew tired of girls smacking around guys somewhere during the midst of Love Hina, and Toradora gave me more of a refresher course than I ever needed. It's sweet that Takanashi wants to help Inami overcome her androphobia, but the gag can't sustain the length the arc is drawn out. The idea itself -- that Inami is overwhelmed with the fear of men to the point of physical violence -- isn't funny. The show attempts to explain how she's lived with her condition, but it makes little sense, from her inability to serve male customers to even going shopping when a man is around. Seriously, if Inami genuinely had this condition, not only would she need ongoing therapy, but her co-workers could be charged as enablers. As a side note, sure, it could have been played for laughs. But Inami's problem makes up so much of the second half of the season that I got irritated. That's not something you want in a comedy!

If you can get past the considerable issue of Takanashi and Inami's relationship development, Working!! might be for you. It's no classic of animation, but it looks nice, and the soundtrack was quite enjoyable (if you skip the annoying OP). Meanwhile, NIS continues its pattern of releasing superb box sets that look great...and now that the title is printed on the side of the box, it really does look wonderful on a bookshelf. I wish that Working!! might have become a full-on satire and done more with the anime cliches that it incorporates and occasionally skewers. But it's fun slice-of-life entertainment, and that's not a bad thing to be.

Working!! (aka Wagnaria!!) -- innuendo, brief profanity -- B+