"Quod Subigo Farinam" - Terry Pratchett (Feet of Clay, 1996)
Once upon a time Sega were a powerhouse of the videogames world, but these days they appear to have lost much of their former glory - mainly because their most visible releases are little more than revisions of Sonic the Hedgehog. Fortunately the blue rodent isn't the only weapon in Sega's arsenal, and the company have a plethora of titles just waiting to be rereleased or resurrected (Phantasy Star, Rolling Thunder, Kid Chameleon, Strider, Afterburner, Space Harrier, Daytona, Panzer Dragoon, Sakura Taisen, Wonder Boy, Alex Kidd, and many others). There are even a few rare ones that fans would love to see completed (Dear Sega, Please finish Shenmue. Thanking you in advance).
In addition to their massive back catalogue of games, Sega also own a role-playing franchise that is quite possibly the largest and most diverse in the genre - the Shining series (and before all the fans have a collective apoplexy, according to Nintendo there are only eighteen official Zelda titles).
The first game - Shining in the Darkness - was a straightforward dungeon crawler that appeared on the Megadrive/Genesis back in 1991. Subsequent additions to the franchise ventured into the realms of turn-based strategy, tactical role-playing, third-person action/adventure, and even first-person RPG - and repeatedly demonstrated Sega's desire to experiment with the fantasy genre. Since that time the series has proven to be extremely popular in various parts of the world, and the release of the 30th title - Shining Blade on the Playstation Portable - only serves to highlight the strength of the franchise.
With such a history behind it, what could possibly go wrong with an anime adaptation of the 29th game - Shining Hearts: Shiawase no Pan.
Set on the quaint little island of Wyndaria, the story follows the deeds of Rick - a handsome amnesiac castaway who now works at the island's bakery alongside the three young ladies who appear to own the business - Airy Ardet, Neris Filiam and Amil Manaflare. Everything is peaceful as Rick learns how to heroically knead the dough in order to bake loaves of manliness, croissants of courage, baguettes of bravery, and other such things on his journey to make the titular "Bread of Happiness".
Unfortunately the arrival of another castaway called Kaguya throws his world into the mixing bowl and forgets to add any sort of raising agent.
There are many varieties of bread in the world, and some of them are quite tasty in their own right. Shining Hearts is, unfortunately, nothing more than a mass-produced white loaf that's in dire need of a little bit of cheese or some kind of filling in order to make it palatable. The formulaic plot is made up of basic storytelling ingredients that appear to have been added using a shovel as a measuring cup, and the resulting narrative tends to fall apart - even though the writers have struggled to mix everything together before getting baked.
The first half of the series is little more than a glorified meet-and-greet as Rick and his female companions find themselves in the middle of several rather placid adventures that all seem to be resolved using bread - and no, they don't hit each other with baguettes (more's the pity). The storyline does show some improvements during the latter half of the show, but by that point there's simply not enough broadcast time to offer the answers to some important questions (i.e. Who is Rick? What is the Island of Wyndaria? Why am I watching a fantasy adventure about bread? etc). This results in a string of important storyline events occurring one after another as the show tries to cram as much as possible into the narrative in order to tie up various loose ends.
Shining Hearts is filled with all manner of quaint buildings and pastoral scenes that highlight the rural nature of the island, but while everything looks pleasant enough, there's a distinct lack of imagination on display. The problem lies in the fact that this is an adaptation of a fantasy JRPG - and in many cases these games will feature towns and villages that have a certain ... continental flavour to them. No-one seems to fully understand why, but for some reason there's a tendency amongst developers to assume that all fantasy adventure games take place somewhere in Europe (e.g. Sword Art Online, Tears to Tiara, .Hack//, Ragnarok, Druaga no Tou, etc).
When it comes to animation things are a little more muddled as there's a surprising blandness that permeates a number of scenes - even though the quality is generally pretty decent for the majority of the show. Part of the reason for this is the character animation and the tendency to rely on stereotypical behaviour patterns in order to make specific female roles more appealing to a certain audience. This mentality lies at the heart of the character design as well, and aside from a few minor modifications, everyone looks much the same as they do in the game - but that's nothing to be proud of as pointy chins and almond-shaped faces are the order of the day.
Which brings up an interesting point about the aims of the producers - but more on that in a bit.
The opening sequence features a track called "Jisei-kai ~Toki Sekai~" sung by Aizawa Mai (Neris), Itou Kanae (Amil), and Mikami Shiori (Airy) - alongside some tourist-friendly images of Wyndaria and the seas around it, scenes where the lead characters run in a group or gaze heroically off into the distance, birds flying, and the obligatory bread shots. It's a fairly typical beginning that ticks many of the boxes in the "How to Make an Anime OP" handbook, and the ending is no better. The closing sequence features lots of background bread in different shapes and sizes, and the three lead actresses perform "Fuwafuwa no Mahou" while their respective characters pose and dance in a manner that is designed to pander to fans with a tendency to shout "kawaii!" and "moe!" at anything female, humanoid and vaguely attractive.
Shining Hearts features some diverse and well-crafted audio effects, but their usage is hampered by repeated issues with timing, choreography and intensity. The background music - a mixture of light-hearted fluff pieces, medieval-inspired ditties and dramatic/serious melodies - is more subtle than one might expect, but several scenes can have an odd feeling to them because of the style and composition of the tracks on offer. In addition to this the script is fairly bland and doesn't appear to have taxed any of the voice actors - which has resulted in the dialogue being delivered in a rather banal style that is typical of many shounen anime where action scenes involve lots of shouting and pouting.
Sadly this workaday attitude extends to the characters themselves - many of whom are little more than eye-candy that moves around and does ... stuff. The reason for this is the lack of any real conviction where relationships are concerned - which is basically what happens when someone decides to remove a major familial bond without thinking it through or replacing it with something equally important. In addition to this the speed of the narrative appears to have caused the producers to ignore or forget the purpose of supporting characters, and because of this the lead roles are severely under-developed for a show of this type.
Which brings us back to the aims of the producers - a factor that is closely tied into the design of the characters.
In a very real sense any visual media is similar to food in that the first bite is with the eye, and many people will make a snap-judgement about something based solely on how it looks. This is the reason why games developers are often quick to capitalise on popular trends - especially those that are rooted in otaku or geek culture - and the most common is to utilise the talents of well-known artists - some of whom have made their names in hentai or eroge. Unfortunately this approach does not guarantee success as titles that rely on the marketability of the lead designer are often aimed at specific audiences - and even though there may be lucrative merchandising opportunities, the lack of publicity will severely affect the popularity of a game.
In the case of Sega's primary RPG franchise, Shining Hearts is the third of four titles that feature the talents of popular eroge artist Tony Taka - and therein lies the problem with the anime.
Like many adaptations the producers have simply regurgitated the character designs from the source material, but in this case that means that the lead female roles consist of a buxom tavern maid, a busty milk maid and a sexy nun - all of whom apparently work as bakers. Add to that a supporting cast of female characters who are little more than walking merchandising opportunities and it becomes obvious that this is simply an attempt to capitalise on the popularity of the franchise, and to a lesser degree the artist.
The sad thing is that even though the story that lacked the depth of other food-based shows (Yakitate Japan! for example - and that's saying something), Shining Hearts still had potential if the adaptation had run for longer and been more true to the game. Unfortunately the titular "Bread of Happiness is nowhere to be found, and viewers are left with nothing but a bitter selection of inane details that would be right at home in any middle-class anime fan's conversation book.
Bread isn't famous for its peacemaking abilities. Cake would have been an understandable alternative (unless the story is about the French Revolution).
Or Parfait. Everybody loves parfait.