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Helen McCarthy on a hapless boy in love with a fairytale…

Once upon a time… Highschool cutie Ryoko Okami acts as tough as her surname, which means “wolf.” But Ryoshi is so crazy for her that he joins her deranged high school club to prove his love. The Otogi (Fairytale) Bank pays it forward: they’ll help you now, you pay back later. In such situations, the interest rate is always steep, but for the neurotically shy Ryoshi, no price is too high if the club enables him to win Ryoko’s heart.

Based on a light novel series by Masashi Okita, Okami-san and her Seven Companions is a teenage fairytale. Anime wears the clothes of both Western and Japanese fairytales frequently. Okami transplants both to a high school setting, with all the characters signalling their origins: Ryoko’s redheaded friend Ringo, a shiny apple loaded with poisonous honesty, affects red cape and basket.

But there are twists (like Tweedledum and Tweedledee mashed with the Three Little Pigs.) Red Riding Hood is best friends with a wolf in Snow White clothing, and also one of her seven dwarfs. There’s another lupine villain in the story who couldn’t be bigger or badder. There’s another Snow White, too, complete with cute dwarfbabies. Delinquent teenage demons are part of a corporate fixation on image and branding.

The high-school world is brutally gender-specific and class-conscious, fixated on shadow not substance: outward appearance and external opinion matters more than anything. The show’s takes on classic tales and the sly, wry commentary of its unseen narrator are cynically polished reflections of real high-school fears and emotions. Few recent shows have played with the interface between truth and fiction, reality and fantasy, so well.

Playing with such notions through fairytale opens up a huge range of possibilities, and while Okami misses opportunities, it has serious fun with those it picks up. The show doesn’t just twist classic stories, including Japanese myths like Momotaro and Urashima Taro as well as fairytales. It refers slyly to classic TV (including Project A-Ko with its lesbian subtext, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Prince of Tennis, even The Monkees) as well as more recent shows like Black Butler, to reinforce its stereotypes. This creates a mythic visual/literary shorthand, flashing information straight to the subconscious inner child.

It’s also visually polished and pretty. The end credits with their paper-theatre characters are a delight. The backgrounds brim with invention: textured tarmac, light on water refracted as if by the eye, soapsuds smearing on a wet window, all beautifully rendered. Director Yoshiaki Iwasaki is no stranger to clever shows in cute clothing; long ago –- well, not so long ago – he worked on El Hazard: The Wanderers.

Chief animation director is Haruko Iizaka, whose early work includes key animation on Black Butler and Hell Girl before progressing to character design, prop design and directing a team of stars such as Daisuke Endo and Shigenori Taniguchi. Iizuka also redesigned creator Okita’s original character art for the screen. Story, art and animation add up to a well-crafted, cleverly-written package of intelligent enjoyment that wears its magical antecedents lightly.

Okami-san and Her Seven Companions is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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