What would you get if you crossed Thelma & Louise with City of God? You may get complete drivel, or you may, if you're very lucky, get something like Michiko to Hatchin.
Manglobe, the production company (and the brains behind), Michiko to Hatchin, have really pushed the boat out with this anime. But then again, they're no strangers to success or quality, especially as they are the company responsible for Ergo Proxy and Samurai Champloo. The series was directed by Yamamoto Sayo and is effectively her first full time at the helm of a production, and whilst this may have been a gamble on the part of Manglobe, it's one that certainly paid off as Michiko to Hatchin has a certain "fresh" quality that I haven't seen in anime in a long time (not since Cowboy Bebop in fact).
The tale is about an escaped convict named Michiko Malandro and her quest to find her lost, and supposedly dead, lover Hiroshi Morenos. In order to achieve this, she "kidnaps" a girl who is supposedly Hiroshi's daughter, initially thinking that she would know where Hiroshi is. However the world has changed during her years in prison, becoming at times more brutal and less forgiving.
The decision to set this tale in a quasi-South American (Brazilian), country was a stroke of genius as the creators and director could do things that would never have been included had the show been given a more staid setting. In addition to this, the characters themselves are able to have that little bit more "flair" about them because of the setting, something that initially detracts from some of them until one realises that the gaudiness is all simply part of that character's persona - more on that later though.
Now fans of Ergo Proxy and Samurai Champloo will know that Manglobe are able to produce some stunning visuals, and Michiko to Hatchin is no slouch in this department. From barren deserts to lush jungles, from slum shanties to sleek factories, the level of detail is excellent, and well above that of many recent titles. In addition to this, the various settings in which the story takes place have a certain realistic quality about them that belies the fact that this is an anime.
In addition to the great scenery, the characters are extremely unique and well designed, again, adding to the sense of realism about the show. The leads and immediate supporting cast are individuals to a tee, with each character possessing a certain lifelike quality that many anime would find difficult to match.
One area where the show really excels is with the animation. It's rare to see such lifelike movement in anime, and in many ways the fluidity and natural motion in Michiko to Hatchin represents a step up from that of Samurai Champloo.
Sound is another area where this show works very well. The effects are extremely well chosen and choreographed, and while some may be overwhelming, this is actually purposeful because of the situations the characters may find themselves in. The music used throughout the series is atmospheric and refreshing, and is reflective of the Latin-American feel of the show. The OP, a track called "Paraiso" by the Japanese jazz band Soil & "Pimp" Sessions, is an excellent piece that harks back to the classic "Tank!" of Cowboy Bebop fame. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the ED, "Best Friend" by Karutetto, as it is a bit too "boy-band" for my tastes.
One of the truly great things about Michiko to Hatchin is actually the cast. Manglobe and Yamamoto took the somewhat surprising, move when they chose the actors, opting not for established traditional seiyuu but for established screen actors. However, this seemingly risky choice has paid off in spades for the series. Maki Yoko (Battle Royale II: Requiem, The Grudge), is extremely versatile as the sexy, pouting, hotheaded, and somewhat childish Michiko, whilst Ohgo Suzuka (Year One in the North, Memoirs of a Geisha), is truly excellent in the role of Hatchin as she provides a depth of character that is rare to find.
Which neatly brings us to the characters themselves. Michiko is willful, headstrong, selfish in the extreme, and very childish. Hatchin is somewhat shy and nervous, but also responsible, tidy, and hates laziness. Both leads are extremely well defined from the outset, something which is reinforced as the relationship between the two is extremely combative (the pair are effectively polar opposites). Others like the terrifying Satoshi Batista or the terrier-like (i.e. always chasing Michiko), Atsuko Jackson are also well defined from the start, and through the first few episodes it may be difficult to see how any of the characters are actually developing because of the strength of the characterizations.
One reason for this is because both Manglobe and Yamamoto decided against using normal anime practices for developing characters, and instead chose a far more realistic and subtle approach. One needs only to compare the relationship between Michiko and Hatchin (or even Michiko and Atsuko), at the beginning of the series, with their behaviour towards the end to see exactly how much they have developed as characters. An example of this is the fact that Michiko is initially very much an annoying, sexy, pouting, selfish jerk, however at the end of the series she reminds me of Balsa from Seirei no Moribito. Hatchin, Atsuko and Satoshi also undergo this extremely subtle development (you'll see how much by episode 20).
I thoroughly enjoyed this series for many reasons, the main one being the fact that this is a show that is not afraid to show the casual brutality of its setting. There will be some out there who didn't like the way the series ended, however I found the conclusion to be very much in keeping with the essence of the series, whilst at the same time being far more realistic than the endings of most other anime.
Michiko to Hatchin is a rarity in the medium, and should not be prejudged on the basis of one or two episodes. The complexity of each character, the harsh, unforgiving setting, the sometimes brutally real actions of individuals, and the extremely subtle development all serve to make this one of the best shows of 2008, and one of the best anime to appear in the last decade. At times Thelma & Louise, at times City of God, at times Laurel and Hardy, this anime possesses a style and flair that surpasses that of Samurai Champloo - a feat by any measure.
Given the quality of this series, and its previous titles, I'm rapidly becoming a fan of Manglobe.