Anime as a medium is very diverse; it covers every topic, premise, and concept under the sun. But for the most part, a majority of the shows that occupy the surface tend to be spastic in portrayal. Often using eccentric personalities and brightly lit set designs to draw the attention of passing observers. Like neon lights hanging outside a store window, each vying for the attention of new customers. This kind of presentation within itself is fine, but every now and then, we as an audience seek out titles with a change of pace, something to help us unwind from the schizoid bubbly madness of neon lights and confetti that the medium is typically known for. As it would have it, Bartender happens to be such a title; a show that leans more towards a somber, easygoing tone, with it a promise of tranquility and relaxation upon entering its world. Something handled with a sense of class and composed order. And like the drinks themselves that it will come to discuss, so too does this show handle itself with a sense of meditation. A title that ushers the viewer out of the cold and into the warm cavernous embrace of its narrative.
But this bar isn't without fault, as it seems the very strength of subtlety it conveys has also worked against its favor. The ethereal spell cast upon those that enter revealed to be the smoke of cheap incense purchased across the street from the very schizoid neon-lit stores we as viewers were trying to avoid. We sought for Mushishi and Kino's Journey — this isn't it. In place of real oak floorboards, we have laminate stick-on tiles. An emulation of highly refined content that's quickly made apparent the further we walk across its wax covered surface and sit by the bar counter to be served up a drink. A drink of idealism too sweet to swallow, but still worth discussing nonetheless.
The most durable aspect of this anime comes from the individual stories and how well they are put together. The entirety of its run-time takes place in the bar Eden Hall, and for the most part, they almost always follow the same structure, where our lead bartender Ryuu Sasakura solves our clients' problems over a glass of a particular alcoholic beverage. What's perhaps more interesting than these wandering clients themselves are the segments within each episode dedicated to discussing the history of particular drinks and how they came to be. The tale of their origins usually providing a bit of insight as to why the bartender suggested the drink, as well as a means of newfound appreciation for the alcoholic beverage in question.
In Bartender, drinks are given a new meaning, not in their history but in the way they are discussed. Instead of merely existing as a means of getting shit-faced, drinks are treated as an art form, elevating itself above just cheap service. This being demonstrated with the techniques shown in the serving of any individual spirit. A kind of drink engineering of precise measurement and emphasis on care. As you could imagine, It can get a little campy at times since the anime seems to promote a motto of "drinking is the key to life, the key to soothing one's soul," but you never for a second doubt its intentions when making those bold statements. However, what is brought into question is what those bold statements are used to service. Bartender haphazardly attempts to solve every issue over a glass of alcohol. And this is where it all clashes. Where the authoritative position it holds towards itself can't be taken seriously with the dime-store purchased incense burning away, and the artificial sheen of fake wax floorboards glaring from under your feet.
This anime's mythical portrayal of spirits as a healing agent for every person's problem robs it of all the down-to-earth qualities it desperately holds onto. A title that treats mundanity as transcendent things capable of toppling the sobering realities of life itself. All attempts to take the show seriously is rendered impossible, as it unintentionally rides the border of parody.
It doesn't also help that the entire thing looks like it was made on a shoestring budget. The soft glow of bar lights reduced to splodges of overlayered color. Wood presented with the texture of plastic. Drinks that have the appearance of CGI molasses.
When compared to other titles made within the same year, it's average at best. Made all the more glaring when accounting for the fact that shows like Mushishi, 009-1, Black Lagoon, Ergo Proxy, Nana, Higurashi, and Hell Girl, just to name a few, were among those entries in question. By virtue of comparison, it's like juxtaposing high-end marble floors with Walmart linoleum.
Everything was just incredibly flat-looking. Characters talking but only the immediacy of mouth-flaps being recognized. Scene framing devoid of dynamics or personality. Panning across stills to avoid animation. Cut-out models to avoid intimacy. The universe of Bartender just rings hollow, making the electric glow of the neon-lit titles behind our backs as we uncomfortably position ourselves on the bar stool that more inviting. If anything, this oasis becomes a way of indirect advertisement for the happy-go-lucky works that surround it.
Which leaves us with only one thing left to address, the man of the hour positioned on the other side of the counter. The one that's been serving us drinks all night with a calming smile and a demeanor that speaks for his expertise, Ryuu Sasakura. Characterized as a well-kept, caring man, Ryuu was perhaps Bartender's strongest selling point, as he treats everyone that walks into his bar as welcomed guests. Nothing less is expected from the namesake of the series, but perhaps his talents are entirely too good for the project he's attached to. You see, Ryuu is basically the Houdini of bartenders, seemingly knowing every alcoholic beverage as a matter of principal. Like a walking encyclopedia of everything drink related, as well as a master at reading people's characteristics upon first encounter. These attributes have earned him the nickname "Glass of the Gods" among the city-folk.
Very little is known about Ryuu's personal life, with only one episode being dedicated to his humble beginnings as a bartender. What we do know of him has more so to do with his interaction with those he hosts. Instead, he is treated as an aficionado to help teach the viewer about the different types of drinks and the importance they hold in the annals of history.
There are recurring characters, but their purpose in the narrative was far too minuscule to worth addressing. In this unpolished world of linoleum and cheap trinkets, Ryuu is the only takeaway aspect worth holding on to.
Aside from the moments dedicated towards alcoholic infotainment, there isn't much here worth recommending to others. There are far better "zen" alternatives out there for those seeking an oasis away from anime's usual clutter; some of which aired the exact same year as this show. Ultimately, when it all boils down to it, Bartender with an earnest title that sadly relied on a false sense of authenticity, of which, it wasn't given the proper attention needed to be able to mask that truth. But the fact that drinks were treated as an end-all-be-all solution for the customers that came to Eden Hall was truly the reason I could never suggest this title if wasn't on your radar, to begin with. At the end of the day, tackiness killed this show and there's no other way around it. A title buried by time but sadly one I can't see any value in resurrecting.