Anime Theater: Shigofumi: Letters From the Departed

See, if mail carriers were ALL this adorable, it would solve so many problems...

See, if mail carriers were ALL this adorable, it would solve so many problems…

  • Shigofumi: Letters From the Departed
  • Year: 2008
  • American Distributor: Sentai Filmworks

When the time comes for you to die, what will your last thought be? As the darkness closes in around us, as we shut our eyes for the final time, a veritable cavalcade of thoughts will sweep over us. “Is this really the end?”, or “What happens to me now?”, or “Was it really wise to choose Pop Tarts over pancakes this morning, because I gotta say, even as a lover of Pop Tarts  one should never lightheartedly pass off pancakes, I mean, they’ve been the premier breakfast food for years for a reason and-“

…Anyway, back on topic. But most of all, we will think of those who we’re leaving behind. And by extension, of any last words we would want to say to them. Perhaps words of encouragement or of regret. Or rage, or of love. Or even simply some truth we couldn’t bear to say in life. It is this concept that lies at the heart of “Shigofumi: Letters from the Departed“, a little gem from a few years back that uses the concept of one’s final wishes as a fulcrum through which to show how we relate to each other in both life AND death…

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

But what in the name of San Fernando’s valley is a “Shigofumi”? Well, made from the characters “shigo” (“after death”) and “fumi” (“letter”), it literally means “after death letter”. Which is pretty much all you need to hear about it. See, when a person dies, they are given a choice, sort of a “last request”; they can choose to send one of these letters to one left behind, filled with whatever their last thought or desire was. There are some tricky conditions to these, though. For one, they must be addressed to someone specific, you can’t just send random statements out “to the world”, as it were. And as another point, they can only speak truth. It is impossible to lie in a shigofumi, and so therefore, at least according to the sender, whatever is in the letter can be taken as gospel.

These morbid parcels are delivered by a brigade of young-looking women called, go figure, “mail carriers”. There may be male-mail carriers, but hell if we see any in the show. The main character of our story is one of this number, one Fumika, who does her job with a deadpan expression and monotone personality. She is aided by her “assistant”, her staff Kanaka, who in addition to being able to hover and being useful as a blunt-force weapon, can also cast spells to aid Fumika, such as making her invisible or giving her a pair of wings for short bursts of flight.

There is, however, something unusual about Fumika, besides the whole “dead people letter delivery” thing. See, as her friend/workmate Chiaki points out repeatedly, the mail carriers are culled from the ranks of the dead, and therefore maintain their exact appearance from their time of death. Chiaki herself, appearing no older than 21 (although the art style makes her look significantly younger, more on that in a bit), has been dead for 50 years. But Fumika is getting visibly older as time goes by, which should be impossible. The implication is, then, that somehow Fumika is both a mail carrier AND still alive…

Oh, and she carries her .9 everywhere. Cause she need dat gat, dead bitches be cray, yo!

Oh, and she carries her .9 everywhere. Cause she need dat gat, dead bitches be cray, yo!

Hey, Missus Postman!

A majority of the episodes are mainly about the stories of those whom the shigofumi are being sent to, namely those left behind after the death of someone close (or, in a rather sad subversion, someone NOT so close). Now, this seems like it would be all well and good, some morals here, some tears there, the works. But in a shocking swerve, considering EVERYTHING the art style might hint at, Shigofumi uses this formula to tell some exceedingly dark and horrific stories.

Make no mistake about it: despite the relatively quirky premise and cutesy character designs, Shigofumi is one of the most incessantly dark and depressing shows in recent years. Almost to a one, these stories have NOTHING GOOD to say about the human condition. In the first episodes alone (MILD SPOILERS IN THREE…TWO…ONE…), we get domestic abuse, child pornography, and the very visual and very sad deaths of multiple teenage children. Others involve incest, parental abandonment, violence, self-loathing and one of the most sadly poignant condemnations of bullying I’ve seen in a long time.

Get used to seeing faces like this a lot. It's one of THOSE shows...

Get used to seeing faces like this a lot. It’s one of THOSE shows…

There are a few stories peppered throughout with more hopeful bents or endings, but for the most part, you’ll usually find yourself repulsed by the departed, the recipient, or in some cases, BOTH. Even the back story of main character Fumika is sad and disturbing (seriously, you will never look at writers the same way again…). Now, although its themes are pitch black, there’s actually little to no gore to speak of in the show. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni this most certainly is not. But there is no doubt that this is intended for mature audiences only.

However, as mentioned above, not all the stories are exercises in nihilism. One story involving a cat and its deceased owners actually manages to be heartwarming in the end. Another involving a possibly-gay tennis player and her vanished mother also comes to mind. Most of all is a truly gut-wrenching, but still uplifting and meaningful episode featuring a terminally-ill 31 year old video game artist, his final struggles and the close relationship he builds with his ten-year-old cousin, a tomboyish otaku girl. It’s probably the series’ strongest episode, and if it doesn’t get you choked up, nothing will.

Probably the only complaints one can register against the storytelling is that it’s almost TOO dark. Some of the episodes here are unpleasant, not only in their content but possibly because it is damn close to reality. I’m not saying that it’s a FLAW necessarily,  and there are far darker shows, but it takes a very specific kind of person to watch this front to back. More tangibly is some storytelling issues. A few dud episodes notwithstanding (one, featuring an island and some backstory for Chiaki, although good in concept, is lousy in execution), the overarching plot the show tries to tell is severely hit and miss.

Without going into too much detail, it has to do with Fumika’s past life, her family and how she got the way she is. But it’s told in a really muddled, background style for the first few episodes. A few characters are brought in as sort of “everyday protagonists”, most notably young Kaname Nojima, who calls Fumika by her full name and seems to know her from school. But the whole thing still feels somewhat sloppy, and more distressingly, concludes with what can only be called a whimper a full 5 episodes before the end of the story. After a dark and intense lead-in, we learn the answers to the mysteries surrounding Fumika, and then the series kinda…putters around until it chooses to resolve the last dangling plot thread in the finale. The episodes in this section are not bad by any means (the above mentioned “best one” is in this stretch, actually), but it all feels weird and disjointed.

Take a Letter, Fumika

Regarding the show’s actual construction, Shigofumi is a solid, although not extraordinary affair. Visuals are clean and bright, with character designs in the now-classic “moe” vein. This is both good and bad, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, it does serve the mood dissonance of the show. Fumika, Chiaki and the rest are positively precious, and so there is a jarring element considering the horror they are surrounded by. On the other hand, although it may be thematically sound, it’s STILL a generic Moe creation. Perhaps more distinctive than most, but it’s still prey to the standard tropes and flaws of the style, including dull, lifeless faces and drastically young looking characters for their given ages,

This is Chiaki. Chiaki is supposed to be 21-23 years old. Chiaki looks like she's 12. Chiaki is, in essence, an amber alert waiting to happen.

This is Chiaki. Chiaki is supposed to be 21-23 years old. Chiaki looks like she’s 12. Chiaki is, in essence, an amber alert waiting to happen.

As for the characters and their portrayals, the episode-to-episode focuses do their jobs well enough. As for the main cast, they’re mostly competent, with a few standouts. Fumika is meant to be as stoic as humanly (or…dead-humanly) possible, and Kana Ueda performs her with just the right amount of cuteness in her voice, whilst showing it being smothered by her moody adultness. Her character has some pretty drastic shifts and emotional situations later on, and she handles those well too.

On the other hand, there’s Kanaka. Now, there’s nothing especially WRONG with Yuki Matsuoka’s performance. It’s solid for what it’s supposed to be. It’s just that Kanaka is an unholily annoying character. She’s loud, hyper, irritating, stupid and contributes nothing to the story besides some ill-fated attempts at humor and “human insight”. Seriously, after three episodes, I was ready for Fumika to hit her against a rock. On the opposite end, Chiaki never quite gets annoying, although she’s somewhat boisterous in her introduction. Her character’s evolution is interesting to chart, as we see more and more of her personality as it actually is, someone much older than they appear. Masumi Asano plays this like a champ, doing the hyper scenes well enough while giving the more pathos-laden bits later their proper shrift.

Most of the rest of the recurers do their job well enough; Takuma Terashima’s Kaname is generally likable and well-meaning, while Saeko Chiba’s Natsuka is your typical “supporting, energetic girl”, endearing without being intrusive. Special props must go to Rikiya Koyama’s performance as bishie subversion and lunatic extraordinaire Kirameki Mikawa. Kirameki has a big part in the series, and is equal parts grandiose fop and friggin’ nutbag. He has one of the darker and more nasty sections of the story, and it’s good to hear Koyama (most known to me as loveable dickwad/epic badass Mamoru Takamura in Hajime no Ippo) put those resonant pipes to such off-putting, yet memorable use.

Sealed with a Kiss

Given what you've read about the show so far, there's no way this CAN'T be a bad image...

Given what you’ve read about the show so far, there’s no way this CAN’T be a bad image…

It’s amazing the things we don’t say in our daily lives. We don’t tell people who mean the world to us how much we care. We don’t tell people who hurt us just what horrors they commit. And we overall have a habit for not telling the most important things to the most important people at the most important times. Sadly, it usually does take something as big as death to finally open out mouths. But the truth hurts; it’s brutal and painful, and sometimes causes more harm than good. But it must be heard.

And it is in this facet that Shigofumi lays. The truths revealed in the letters are frequently tragic and sad, and are born of, or give birth to, such immense pain. But we as a race lie to ourselves so much, hide so much of what is bad and ignore so much of what is good, that we build the circumstances that make the shigofumi necessary. And like the titular letters, Shigofumi is dark and depressing, but straightforward and honest. The things it has to say about the world are frequently bad, but it’s not completely devoid of hope. It’s not a perfect show, it certainly has its pacing and construction issues, but it’s certainly one of a kind, and if you like your emotional tales with a teaspoon of black humanity and a bit of mysticism, then pick it up.

———————————————————————————————————-

The Breakdown

Visuals: Clean, cutesy character designs serve the show’s purpose, but can’t totally hide their unoriginal nature. Occasional creativity in the more graphic instances save it from being devoid of visual charm. 19/30

Sound: Unmemorable music (seriously, couldn’t even be bothered to mention it) is offset by good effects sounds and a solid, occasionally excellent voice cast. Rikiya Koyama’s Kirameki is a sight to behold. 23/30

Content: A thoroughly dark and moody deconstruction of the lies we tell, the truths that need be heard and the harm it all causes, not to mention showing a great deal of human ugliness in the process, it nonetheless tells its stories with a nihilistic concision that makes its conclusions feel very effective indeed. Some failings in the overarching plot keep it from greatness, but the strength of the individual stories allows it to stand tall. 27/30

The Weight: For telling dark, human tales without resorting to distasteful bombast: 8 points.

Verdict: A Package from the Dark Side 8/10

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