I find Junichi Sato’s body of work intriguing, and as such I frequently find myself revisiting his shows. At his best, he’s a master of imagecraft that transcends language, and even his worst is hardly bad, just disappointing. After he made a name for himself directing Sailor Moon, he incorporated magical girl elements into most of his shows for over a decade (part of the reason I find his work so interesting), although in recent years he’s switched to slice of life shows. I’ve seen four of his shows thus far (not including Sailor Moon), and here are my thoughts on them (roughly from least to most favored).
Umi Monogatari: This is the most recent of his shows I’ve seen (and incidentally, the one I’ve most recently watched). I believe this was the last of his magical girl shows, and I can kind of tell he was getting tired of the concept/was just running out of ideas. Honestly, the magical girl element was probably the weakest part of the show – I actually preferred the slice of life drama that holds the show together. There was one main character I really related to, but the other two were a tad flat, which was disappointing. The animation was the best I’ve seen for his shows (although the art was a little lackluster), and the themes were interesting, even if I don’t really agree with the show’s conclusions on that front. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this to anyone save fellow Sato fans (unless you want to see some grand underwater vistas). It has some good elements, but it’s like it’s unsure of what it wants to be, so it never aspires to greatness.
Kaleido Star: This show is all spectacle. It’s about a Cirque-du-Soleil-esque acrobatic company, and the magical girl element is restricted to a single fairy-like character. There are basically two reasons this didn’t rank higher: None of the characters particularly resonated with me, and it’s just SO LONG (yeah, I know, 50 eps isn’t particularly long-running by anime standards, but the longest show I’ve sat through was 100 eps, so…). It’s not just the episode count – the pacing feels drawn-out at times (especially in season 2), and the character development just screams “kid’s show”. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, just simple – said spectacle is really the main draw, and where Sato shines. He shows a great appreciation not only for art, but performance and performers, and that comes through in various climactic scenes, not to mention the many training montages (seriously, there’s a lot of training). It may only be a kid’s show, but it’s a good kid’s show (which is scarce enough).
Prétear: Easily the most flawed of Sato’s shows (both in terms of story and execution), but I still have a soft spot for this one. I suppose this isn’t a Sato show in the same sense as the others – he only directed one episode, but he wrote the original story and supervised the production, so I’m counting it. Every time I’ve watched this, I was filled with the sense that it could have been great, had the creators been willing (or maybe able) to take some more risks. As it is, it’s bogged down by fidelity to the source material (a magical girl retelling of Snow White), with an ending that undermines the emotional resonance of the rest of the show. At least it aims for greatness, even if it does fall short of the mark.
Princess Tutu: You knew this was coming. I love this show to pieces. It’s kind of perfect – a children’s show that’s thoughtfully assembled in such a way that adults and children alike can appreciate it on so many levels. I think it’s safe to say that this is Junichi Sato’s magnum opus, and quite possibly the best magical girl show of all time. It’s not hard to see why he lost interest in magical girl shows after this – how could he possibly top himself? If you haven’t seen this yet, YOU MUST (although it’s been frustratingly unavailable on free legal streaming lately…see if they have it at your local library, it is at mine). I may or may not be planning a blog series on this show…