September 26, 2023
By Jonathan Clements.
There’s something weird about the Hokkyoku Department Store – all the customers are animals. There’s an owl who can’t find a something to placate his wife; there’s a wolf in search of a proposal gift to win another wolf’s heart; there’s a sea mink that just can’t find the right present for Dad. All of them hope to rely on Akino (voiced by Natsumi Kawaida) the plucky concierge who’s there to help, everyone from the lowliest town mouse to the hallowed “Very Important Animals”, some of whom were supposed to be extinct.
The director is friend-of-the-festival Yoshimi Itazu, whom SLA regulars may remember from his Scotland visit to discuss Pigtails in 2016. “It was an honour to be able to bring my favourite Tsuchika Nishimura work to life,” he comments. “I think that the main character, Akino, suffers from a problem that many people face, which is the difficulty of interacting with other people. I aimed to use the various animal characters as symbols for each issue, combining the original simple drawings, delicate details and rich animation.”
The Concierge and its sequel ran in Shogakukan’s Big Comic stable of manga magazines, targeted firmly at adult readers. Creator Tsuchika Nishimura is something of a media hyphenate, having first won newcomer awards in the manga world when he was retaking his university entrance exams. In his early twenties, he also served time as an assistant in a “100-yen” shop – if anything’s going to function as research for an animal department-store manga, it’s having to sell clothes pegs and toilet paper to the public. By the time he started work on his economics degree, he was already a prize-wining pro manga author and a much-lauded fanzine artist, and also playing lead guitar in an eight-piece band, Tove Jansson New York, deriving part of its name from the creator of the Moomins. Because this article wasn’t surreal enough already. For a long time, manga fandom thought that Nishimura was a woman, because his name is difficult to classify in Japanese… and he didn’t help matters by drawing himself in a dress.
The Moomins connection doesn’t merely extend to the name Nishimura gave his band. He also professes to be a great admirer of the troll-like hippo tales of the Swedish-Finnish Jansson, not merely for the deceptively simple art style, but for the way in which philosophical issues are explored in narrative parables. He has also expressed a great love for the artwork of the French-Iranian Marjane Satrapi, claiming that the experience of reading her Persepolis permanently turned him away from complex artwork towards a love of the expressionism of cleaner lines. The anime of The Concierge develops Nishimura’s approach in its tale of human staff trying to offer customer service to a menagerie of difficult animal customers.
Leafing through the manga original, the thing that it reminds me most of is Richard Scarry’s teeming double-page spreads of multiple animal incidents. In our first glimpse of Arctic’s (the logo for the “Hokkyoku” store being translated into English), we see a relentlessly busy glimpse of the shop floor, as if Noah’s Ark has just disgorged its passengers into House of Fraser. A pair of sloths are comparing handbags; a raccoon is trying perfume; a pig is buying lipstick; a lion is thinking about getting some aftershave. On Akino’s first day at work, she is rebuffed by a rabbit who doesn’t want her help, and then accidentally steps on a duck. We’ve all been there.
Akino is voiced by Natsumi Kawaida, the voice of Gundam Witch from Mercury’s Seethia, in her first leading role in a film. But dotted among the supporting cast are some real heavy-hitters from the world of anime, such as Sumi Shimamoto (Nausicaa) as a lady owl, alongside big-name stars from other media, such as Takarazuka theatre greats Hiroki Nanase and Maria Kano as a pair of peacocks. Hiroshi Yanaka, who turns up as a sea mink, is the Japanese dubbing voice of John Cusack and Robert Carlyle… now there’s a challenge for an English-language dub…
Director Itami makes no secret about the dual appeal to a diverse audience: “Adults facing everyday difficulties. And children who just love animals.”
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. The Concierge at Hokkyoku Department Store is screening in competition at Scotland Loves Anime.