Warning: this review contains minor spoilers for Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
It’s no secret that 2020’s winter season hasn’t exactly been the strongest season for anime. Many anime fans and critics have lamented the lack of new, noteworthy, or quality anime, and many of us seem to just be biding our time until the spring season arrives, bringing with it exciting sequel seasons to many of our favourite series. However, if you have the time to watch even just one anime before the spring season kicks off—and you should, considering the current COVID-induced quarantine—make Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! that one anime you watch. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is already a strong contender for 2020’s anime of the year, and it’s not even April yet. With just the first episode alone, this series immediately differentiates itself from contemporary anime, instead reflecting the effortless charm, soft colours, gorgeous animation, and inspirational subject matter of Studio Ghibli’s underappreciated classic Whisper of the Heart (1995). As Whisper of the Heart is one of my all-time favourite anime films and to this day one of only two to make me cry, that’s some of the highest praise I can give, and I cannot recommend Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! enough.
There’s a lot to love about this anime, and I’ll try to keep my praise as spoiler-free as possible. The series follows Asakusa, Kanamori, and Mizusaki, three high school girls who start a film club at their school in order to create their own original anime. Together, they must work through various obstacles, from creative blocks to time crunches and even financial limitations. There’s of course a lot more to the show than just that basic premise, but a tightly plotted and strictly paced narrative is hardly the series’ M.O. It is instead well-written characters, zany creativity, artistic passion, and a sense of pure fun that drives this show throughout its twelve episode run.
The characters are definitely the series’ greatest strength, and leading this group of intensely likable protagonists is Asakusa, a socially anxious and awkward girl who’s harboured a passion for anime ever since she was a small child. Since her artistic skills lie in backgrounds, set design, and abstract world-building, the role of director often falls to the reluctant Asakusa, who would much rather fixate on how a monstrous giant crab would realistically fight than develop a story for that giant crab to fit into. The tension between her need to focus on one thing as a director and her desire to indulge in her distracting daydreams and fleeting story ideas is hilarious but also creates an opportunity for compelling character growth. As an amateur writer myself, I can certainly sympathize with her struggle to concentrate on one project at a time, so watching her gradually accept greater responsibility and become a better director is one of the elements of the show I find most enjoyable and inspiring.
Working alongside Asakusa is her childhood friend and “comrade” Kanamori, whose sole passion for monetary profit makes her the odd one out in the film club. But while such a single-minded zeal for business could have made Kanamori a one-dimensional, comedic caricature, the writers manage to craft a compelling and evolving relationship between her and her more artistic friends, particularly with Asakusa. Although completely disinterested in anime herself, Kanamori tries to take an interest in and learn about the particulars of anime production from her friends, so that she can better provide for the club’s financial needs. While she’ll never be as enthusiastic about making art as Mizusaki or Asakusa, she does grow to understand their world a little more as time goes by, and her belligerent yet sweet friendship with Asakusa adds a lot of depth to her character as well.
Teenage fashion model Mizusaki rounds out the trio of main characters. Her desire to create animation comes crosswise with the wishes of her two famous, absentee parents, and she must consequently keep her involvement in the film club secret. For the first couple episodes, I thought that Mizusaki, while likable enough, was the least interesting character in the bunch, since she didn’t seem to have a clear identity and her love for anime made her character feel a bit like a repetition of Asakusa. However, as the series progresses, Mizusaki becomes a truly compelling and distinct character in her own right. Episode 7 in particular highlights her odd fascination with human movement and attempting to recreate it through animation. This determination to authentically capture realistic movement even in ridiculous and fantastic anime highlights a stubborn and almost detrimentally obsessive side to her character. Although Mizusaki is outwardly more socially competent than Asakusa, it becomes clear that Mizusaki needs animation as a method to observe and understand the people in her real life. I’ve seen a number of fans point out that Asakusa feels intentionally autistic-coded, and while I can’t speak too authoritatively on the subject, Mizusaki also feels like she might have been meant to be somewhere on the spectrum. It is the delightful complexity of both these characters and their earnest attempts to use anime to express themselves in an often comically hostile world that make most of the series’ uniquely heartwarming moments possible.
While each of these characters is great on their own, the comedic banter and chemistry between the three leads is even more fantastic. The dynamic between Kanamori and the other two leads facilitates perhaps the most important theme throughout the series: how an artist should go about balancing artistic integrity and marketability. Although Asakusa and Mizusaki share the kind of creative genius essential to making great stories, their artistic visions can also be a curse when not bound by strict deadlines and popular demand. Asakusa’s artistic vision is more flighty and skips from idea to idea without completing any one project, while Mizusaki’s singular artistic vision tends towards an obsessive perfectionism, but both tendencies handicap the artists equally. Neither girl would be able to finish any kind of larger project, if it weren’t for Kanamori’s intervention. With her strict business sense and no-nonsense attitude, Kanamori must often apply pressure on the other two to ensure that there will actually be a finished project that can be shown (and sold) to an audience. Her ability to do business, market a product, and make deals with collaborators makes her an invaluable member of the club, despite her inexperience with anime. Seeing a series dedicated to the artistic process that doesn’t vilify business and the commercial side of art is so refreshingly novel, and I love that the series shows how commercialism and appealing to popular demand can often impact art for the better. If nothing else, the series is worth watching just for this fascinating commentary alone.
But, fortunately, the series does have much more to offer alongside its intriguing thematic concerns. In terms of both visuals and sound, the series is certainly aesthetically pleasing. The animation and art style are absolutely gorgeous. The bright colour palette and jagged character designs are sharp and totally distinct from any other anime out now, and while I initially found that a bit off-putting, I quickly came to appreciate the unique look and feel of the series. With every episode, I was instantly transported from reality and immersed in a beautiful and creative world where, because the art style was so unusual, anything seemed possible.
Additionally, the bright colours of the locales the characters usually inhabit are perfectly offset by the characters’ own comparably spartan and colourless sketches. Asakusa and Mizusaki’s habit of bouncing ideas off of each other frequently leads to them “exploring” or playing pretend in the fictional worlds from their minds and on their pages, and we get to see these worlds beautifully evolve as the two brainstorm together. From crazy details like how a mech would realistically move while wielding a chainsaw to minor details like how light would reflect off of eyeglasses, Asakusa and Mizusaki are constantly improvising and adjusting their sketches, and the halting animation in these scenes perfectly captures the feel of two artists hastily scribbling changes on a page. And aiding the rough, pencilled look of the art during these scenes are the sound effects. Every sound, including lasers, whirring gears, rushing water, and so on, is generated entirely by the characters’ own voices. Even as we’re pulled into these fantastical scenes of Asakusa and Mizusaki piloting spaceships and robots, the sound effects remind us that we are in fact watching the creative and imaginative process of two passionate and incredibly nerdy artists. Even when not directly commenting on the nature of the creative process, the series is able to demonstrate how anime is crafted and developed through visuals and sound effects alone.
Lastly, I want to briefly comment on the anime’s soundtrack, because, like everything else in this show, it’s incredibly solid. As I just mentioned, the sound effects during the characters’ mindscapes is fantastic, but the music is what really brings these scenes to life. The uplifting musical track that accompanies Asakusa and Mizusaki’s mindscapes (if you’ve seen the show, you probably have it stuck in your head right now) really drives home the sense of excitement and limitless possibility that these scenes are meant to inspire. Of course, when talking about any anime’s soundtrack, the OP and ED are probably the most memorable part of any score. The ED “Namae no Nai Ao” by Kamisama, Boku wa Kizuite shimatta (yes, that is the band’s actual name) is a great, albeit weirdly intense, song, considering the series’ lighter subject matter. I never skipped the ED once throughout the whole series, which is the sign of a truly great ending song. As for the OP, what I’m about to say will likely be very controversial for fans of this show: I honestly just don’t enjoy chelmico’s OP “Easy Breezy.” I get that it’s unique and original and I understand why people love it, but something about the vocals and melody rasps me, and I find myself skipping it more often than not. Come at me in the comments if you must, but as the OP is the only notable gripe I have with this excellent anime, I’d ask you to please be gentle with me.
So, if you’re looking for a unique anime without the power-ups, duels, video game worlds, fanservice, etc. that you’re tired of seeing every season, you absolutely need to check out Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! The show is hilarious, beautiful, inspiring, emotionally resonant, and, at just twelve episodes, short enough to complete in one or two good binge sessions. If you’re an artist, someone who likes to draw casually (like myself), or even just an anime enthusiast, please watch this beautiful and inspiring love letter to animation, anime, and the artists that make this kind of visual storytelling possible.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is legally available for streaming on Crunchyroll.