Not all viewing seasons are created equally; the flurry of excitement surrounding one isn’t necessarily going to carry over to the next. And if we’re being completely honest, the number of essential or breakout shows each season (or even each year) can usually be counted on one hand. But what you can depend on is the recurrence of faithful tropes and set-ups, whether for better or worse. We’re still coming out the backend of the moé fever that gripped the community some few years past, and superheroes are proving just as popular in anime as they are on the silver screen. One of the most commonplace themes remains the curious case of an all-girl (or at least predominantly female) group of characters getting together to, well, hang out.
These typically slice-of-life shows come in varying degrees of success, and chief among them, perhaps, would be Lucky Star, whose iconography is still rife across message boards, social media and blogs. The interesting thing is that they’re marketed to a male audience, rather than the shojo camp. That’s not to say that women can’t enjoy them, it’s just that they’re usually replete with reminders as to who the show was aimed at.
The summer 2016 season is, like many before it, a mixed bag. There are some highlights, like the urban gothic of Bungo Stray Dogs, or the philosophical yarn spun by TRIGGER’s idiosyncratic Kiznaiver, quirky comedies in Flying Witch, and that’s not to mention umpteen shows continuing their ongoing narratives. But one that I most looking forward to, based on simple descriptions, a few teaser images and studio TMS Entertainment’s exhaustive back catalogue, was Bakuon!!.
The premise was simple: the story of a handful of teenage girls who discover and nurture their shared love of motorbikes. It was, admittedly, just another high school set anime dealing with the everyday events of a mite unusual club. Factor in characters whose archetypes were sure to clash, a catchy opening song, and themes of friendship, adventure and acceptance and you’ve got a perfectly serviceable anime on your hands, if one with disappointing lows to drag down the highs.
At first the series seemed to side-step some of the more problematic elements of Mimana Orimoto’s manga series, on which the show is based – a catalogue of works notorious for their questionable treatment of its female subjects. Episode to episode, Bakuon!! has been a show that puts its characters first in romanticising motorcycling. Of course, it isn’t without fanservice, some of which was perfectly permissible in the context such as the rib-tickling ‘Hot Springs!!’ episode. Episode 5, however, turned the ecchi up to eleven. Fanservice can often be a plus, and there is of course a need to entice casual fans and viewers, as well as humour the diehards and fan art enthusiasts. Then there’s the merchandising aspect, where the gals of Bakuon!! have and will be released as hug pillows and figures, both in and out of their leathers and draped over their bikes. But in this instance, it belied the burgeoning themes of sisterhood, discovery and perseverance that so piqued our interest.
The story centres on high school student Hane Sakura, who faces the daunting task of surmounting the same steep hill day in, day out on her little push bike. That is until she sees classmate Onsa Amano riding a motorbike to school, with all the effortless cool of Marianne Faithfull in The Girl on a Motorcycle. It sparks an obsession that sees her join the school’s motorcycle club, whose numbers linger in single digits, and works towards getting a license before purchasing her own bike. Then it’s a steady stream of two-wheeled misadventures for Hane, Onsa and their new-found friends: Suzuki obsessive Rin Suzunoki, rich girl Hijiri Minowa who’s desperate to get up to no good, and the enigmatic Raimu Kawazaki, whose face is permanently hidden by her helmet. Y’know, like Stig in the Beeb’s Top Gear.
The motorbike is countercultural, synonymous with freedom and rebellion, and in the bright, poppy context of Bakuon!! it’s the freedom of friendship. Like the bicycle before it, which was fundamental to the women’s rights movement, so the motorbike is paramount to the sisterhood at the centre of the series. Raimu promises to protect the girls from harm, and positioned as their leader, watches over their wistful goofiness. The show takes attributes often used to undermine girls in anime and frames them as something positive, at a time when high schoolers are told they should be “growing up”. Hane is seen physically pulling her dreams from her heart and releasing them into the night, in scenes perhaps better suited to a magical girl narrative. There’s a schmaltziness about it, for sure, but it’s much more than moé and indicative of childhood and innocence, where everything is literal and gleaming with positivity. The juxtaposition between these themes and those associated with masculinity in motorcycling is perhaps the hidden lynchpin of an otherwise forgettable series.
Biking conjures images of beards, beer guts and brawls, but the men in the series are presented as idiotic rather than jeering, and inadequate rather than obnoxious. When guys are looking down on the girls, the bikes have been known to punish their riders by toppling over and spilling their oil. The exceptions are butler Hayakawa, who’s abetting Hijiri until she’s old enough to get her own license, and Rin’s father. The latter’s reckless nature leaves him frequently hospitalised, but the flashbacks to Rin’s youth show a parental bond strengthened by motorcycling, rather than hindered.
And so it came to the fifth episode, ‘Touring!!’, where the girls make a bikers’ pilgrimage to the northern edge of Hokkaido. Their campfire conversations and pit-stops are among the show’s best, until they run into their teacher Enko Saruyama, who’s nursing a broken heart. The girls try cheering her up, only to find she turns predatory with the application of alcohol. She sets herself on each of the club members, flashing bits of their hips, butts and boobs for the presumed complicit viewer, before Raimu puts an end to it.
Resuming after this creepy interlude, the girls arrive back home to wash the grime of their journey from their vehicles. Okay, girls washing their bikes was always going to result in some dubious scenes, and the skimpy outfits aren’t necessarily a problem. That is, until Hane pours cleaning fluid down her cleavage and crotch and slides up and down her hog, believing it to be a quicker and more efficient means of cleaning. She’s the archetypal ditz, but this seemingly throwaway moment both demeans her character and compromises the set-up.
Bakuon!! might tend towards the tacky and fluffy, but within those confines is a fun slice-of-life story about disparate girls finding common ground, and overcoming their differences through a shared passion. It’s a sisterhood whose first port of call is fun and adventure, and everything else is happenstance. That includes the box-ticking ecchi that stifled an unremarkable show, which for a few moments was something better than it seemed.