Tsukuyomi (Moon Phase) or: How I Learned To Stop Following the Plot and Love the Wash Pan

Produced by Shaft for the Fall 2004 season

To summarize it briefly, Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase is a story about a cute girl against the world. It’s not just any girl, though. She’s a vampire, fully fanged, who wears a snow white dress complete with a set of cat ears. She is an advanced form of cute in the world of anime known as moé, tapping into the fundamental qualities of her existence as an adorable vampire girl. Long, dark hair with a hime cut, perfectly constructed to enhance her charming yet supernatural features. Her name is Hazuki, and for the next 26 episodes (assuming you watch the nonsensical OVA), she is the star of the show. It could be argued that Hazuki is the show. Against all odds, no matter what the narrative throws at the viewer, or how truly unhinged the characters get, Hazuki will always be there to maintain the sense of normalcy. If you feel your brain aching, unwilling to continue focusing on the weird twists and turns that the plot goes through, Hazuki will be your anchor and familiarity and comfort. Let’s face it; it would’ve been more accurate to call this anime The Hazuki Show and drop the formalities entirely. Or, perhaps an alternate title: The Anime Where People Are Constantly Getting Objects Dropped on Their Heads Like Some Looney Tunes Shit.

The sum total of my interest in Tsukuyomi came primarily from the context of my own curiosity. I’ve spent most of the year watching anime productions by Shaft, the acclaimed anime studio behind the Monogatari anime series and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I’ve been jumping forward and backwards across the timeline, experiencing gems like Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru, the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei anime series, and of course, Hidamari Sketch. Naturally, at some point, I had to start at the beginning. Akiyuki Shinbou is a name almost synonymous with this studio, as much of their acclaimed 2000s and 2010s output has his name written all over it. He barely needs introduction if you’ve ever watched a Shaft produced anime from their peak eras. When he took an executive position at the studio back in the early 2000s, Tsukuyomi was the first anime project he got to work on. Although he had directed other productions prior to joining Shaft, I was curious to see what kind of impression he made from a directorial perspective for his first anime at the studio. It was inevitable that I would end up seeing this for myself at some point, and after spinning the wheel of fate, I ended up following through.

What I learned is that, while Akiyuki Shinbou is a hugely influential creative director, he very much grew alongside other promising talent at the studio. While he did impart his own stylistic quirks onto other directors, they too inspired him in their own ways as they found their own distinct directing style over the years. There was Tatsuya Oishi, who left his mark as the first series director for the Monogatari anime adaptation, all of his talent culminating toward years of work on the praiseworthy Kizumonogatari films. Ryouki Kamitsubo started as an episode director before going on to co-direct the first season of Hidamari Sketch. Naoyuki Tatsuwa served as assistant director for the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei anime series and then got to sit in the directing chair for several productions starting with the adaptation of the Kabukimonogatari arc from the second season of the Monogatari series. Nobuyuki Takeuchi served as visual director for several productions including Bakemonogatari and went on to work with acclaimed postmodern director Kunihiko Ikuhara on Mawaru Penguindrum and Sarazanmai. All of this creative talent worked together on Tsukuyomi, each contributing an element to its overall style like planting individual seeds in a shared garden. The one who brought it all together was a frequent character in Shaft’s early 2000s output; Shin Oonuma, the prolific co-director who would go on to become the chief director at Silver Link. The team needed someone who could capture the “moé” aesthetic required for this production, something that arguably became the most important facet of the entire experience, and Oonuma-san was their key player. He contributed storyboards and acted as episode director several times throughout the show’s run, driving it in the necessary direction. It is largely thanks to him that Tsukuyomi could realize its true identity as The Hazuki Show, which may have been the only proper way to tackle a source material as dazed and confused as this without imploding.

Look into her eyes…she is BEGGING you to watch this anime!

Tsukuyomi is primarily about the relationship between two unlikely parties: Kouhei Morioka, a photographer for an occult magazine who has a strange ability to capture spirits in his pictures, and Hazuki, a young vampire who is being held against her will in a European castle and kept docile by an imposed alter ego known as Luna. When Kouhei meets her at the castle, she sucks his blood in an attempt to turn him into her servant, but the process inexplicably fails. After freeing her with the help of his childhood friend turned coworker Hiromi Anzai and his exorcist cousin Seiji Midou, Hazuki reappears at the antiques shop that Kouhei lives in; Marumidou, which is run by his grandfather, Ryuuhei Midou. Thus begins the daily routine of Hazuki of insisting that Kouhei is her servant despite her inability to control him, which he doesn’t take very well at first. There’s an overarching plot here, of course. Hazuki was pretty important in the vampire world, and her escape from the castle that she was trapped in did not go unnoticed. Still, as the plot builds up throughout the anime, it becomes more and more clear that the events that transpire serve less of a purpose for building a coherent narrative, and more for driving Hazuki and Kouhei together so they can inevitably be separated again later for dramatic effect.

In most anime with character dynamics similar to this, the protagonist and the cute girl they have to protect against all odds are typically the only characters with any degree of observable substance to them. A supporting cast exists, but it typically consists of characters who are boiled down so much that all that remains of them is the embodiment of some sort of personality trope that rarely ever bends itself to do anything else. There’s a fine line between character and caricature, and if you’re not one of the leads, you’re a bit player doing a routine. Tsukuyomi avoids this problem just to crash into a completely different conundrum altogether. There are good characters in the supporting cast who get the dignity of some sort of personal development throughout the anime. Ryuuhei is a wise exorcist who often plays the foolish old man, adding a unique presence to the main cast which I found very welcome. The vampire Elfriede starts as a minor antagonist before joining the gang later on, taking on a role similar to Hazuki’s but for Ryuuhei. There’s also the miko girls, Hikaru and Kaoru, who are betrothed to Seiji and Kouhei respectively through some traditionalist arranged marriage setup that seems ethically questionable. They initially act as rivals with Hazuki before eventually becoming legitimate friends later on in the anime. All of these characters get to develop in some way, but the means of which they develop are the real issue. When it’s not due to some contrived event, personal development largely comes at the cost of character consistency. It’s all fun and games until grandpa tries to kill you by throwing off a cliffside like a hundred feet in the air because you weren’t training fast enough. That’s tough love, I suppose.

Unsurprisingly, most of the genuine development happens between Hazuki and Kouhei, though the majority of it is in the earlier half of the anime where the main plot is a lot thinner in scope. Once the main narrative starts taking up the majority of the episodes, this development starts becoming a convenience at the mercy of the next absurd thing that crops up. Still, there are some nice moments early on like Hazuki and Kouhei bonding over the fact that they both lost their mothers at an early age. There’s also an episode where Kouhei gets angry with Hazuki because she uses her vampire powers to manipulate Hiromi into buying her a bed, but the two make up after Hazuki admits her deed to Hiromi out of guilt, strengthening the trust between them. Many vampire centric stories try to draw the line between humans and vampires, which often becomes a point of contention in the narrative. This is no exception, and at first, that distinction actually seems somewhat interesting. After the first major plot thread is wrapped up around halfway through the anime, those themes start to unravel in really bizarre ways as the writing commits the fatal flaw of introducing too many new antagonistic forces at once in order to amplify the drama. Whenever drama comes onto the scene, you can bet the tragic separation of Kouhei and Hazuki will be following soon after.

Kouhei and Hikaru watch as Kaoru cries from eating Pizza Hut

Tsukuyomi sees comedy and tragedy like a light switch that it can toggle at will, but no matter which side it is flipped to, the circuits are always stuck partially on the comedy side. This is actually a huge positive aspect of the experience, and it seems almost entirely intentional based on the second half of the show. When the anime isn’t focused on Hazuki making cute facial expressions, female characters being posed in several costumes with the visual equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation, or frequent nekomimi motifs, it’s engaging in slapstick buffoonery without shame or restraint. It seems like every episode that someone is getting the equivalent of a concussion as they frequently get metal wash pans dropped on them from above. When it’s not a wash pan, it’s a tree branch, or a 2×4 plank of wood, or even a stone cat statue. There are even random ceiling switches in the antique shop that will deploy them like booby traps, which characters make occasional use of throughout the anime. You’ve got classic cartoon gags like characters trying to swim through air to avoid a long fall, or being thrown through a wall and the outline of their body remains. One would think that these gags would only be utilized during the frequent comedy segments of the anime, especially in the early half when these are more prevalent, but the madmen at Shaft decided to commit to it even at the most inopportune times. As the plot becomes more convoluted and nonsensical in the later episodes, they decided to deploy them even more frequently. No dramatic scene is safe. Even when a shadowy figure ominously appears in the background, they too can quickly become a victim of a blunt object controlled by gravity.

If there are two things that Tsukuyomi really cares about, it’s being cute and being stupid. The plot is just stuffing; the narrative equivalent of packing peanuts. It pulls its story beats from vampire lore and engages frequently in drama, but nothing has any lasting consequence so there’s no need to get caught up in any manufactured tension. Once the active plot thread has concluded, the status quo is reset back to normal at the antique shop with one or two new elements at play. The antique shop segments are the best part because it utilizes clever cross-cutting and a dollhouse-esque view from the outside where you can see what’s happening throughout the house even when the scene is focused on a specific room. It gives this unique sense of life to the environment, and it’s also part of what allows for a lot of the goofy slapstick segments to occur. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the comedic slice of life aspects of this anime have more stability to them than the dramatic plot heavy sequences do. If all you wanted to do was to make an anime about a cute vampire girl engaging in daily antics with her human friends, then the necessity for plot driven narrative structures is practically non-existent. This has all the pieces required for a supernatural anime sitcom, so all the other story elements sprinkled on top are some miscellaneous flavor of dressing used to make it seem like it’s something more than what it looks like. No matter how often smoke and mirrors tactics are deployed throughout the story, there’s no hiding the truth. This is The Hazuki Show, where even her own alter ego Luna could only be relevant for two episodes before evaporating into the maw of the ether that loosens its jaws whenever the status quo needs to be reclaimed.

All of this leaves me with a single question resting on the surface of my mind. At what point does plot become so truly irrelevant, that stripping it entirely from a story would fundamentally change it very little? Usually there’s some justification for there to be a concrete narrative structure even if it’s loose and flexible to mold itself around a more broad range of ideas. Genres like slice of life are typically considered to have no plot at all because there is no true beginning, nor is there a particular end goal to reach. The experience is told through the characters and their interactions, with no need to establish a hard conclusion. Tsukuyomi is a supernatural action manga with comedy elements expressed primarily through slice of life sequences, and yet the “supernatural action” part of the experience feels the most out of place despite it being where all the narrative threads are nestled together. Perhaps in the first half where there was a central antagonist with relatively simple motives, it can be justified just because of how inconsequential the events are beyond developing lore for the characters, namely Hazuki and Elfriede. Everything that comes afterwards feels like extra fat begging to be trimmed off. I don’t care about the vampire hierarchical structure, I don’t care about the true vampire lord who is probably Hazuki’s dad, and I definitely don’t care about Kouhei’s secret powers or any other hidden twists and turns that can’t even stick around to have long term effects on anyone. Really, when even the most hopeless and bleak moments can be interspersed with slapstick wash pan humor, did the staff who worked on this anime care all that much either?

Grandpa Ryuuhei getting a FATAL double dose of wash pans

When you see an anime opening like “Neko Mimi Mode” play for the first time after a dark and unsettling intro, it seems like maybe the joke is on anyone who actually showed up to watch something dramatic and plot centric. It’s cool that they pull out an alternate opening, “Tsuku Yomi Mode”, in the very few episodes that Luna gets to take full control, but that doesn’t establish much tension either. In the alternate timeline where Tsukuyomi was just a dopey slapstick romantic comedy that involves vampires, I feel like it would’ve been far more true to itself. This is a story about a cute vampire girl being cute. If evil vampires from the shadows weren’t here to jeopardize that, would it really take anything away from Hazuki’s existence beyond cheap emotional labor? When the plot machine starts churning away, some characters just disappear. Others turn into almost completely different people. Seiji spends more time being angsty and backhanding Hazuki over contrived bullshit than actually being a trained exorcist. Even grandpa Ryuuhei does some incredibly out of character things when the drama gets amped up, and almost none of it provides anything of substance to the overall experience. Why couldn’t they find more ways to integrate Kouhei’s photography career into the story? Did he really need a several episode training arc where people are just breaking his bones and leaving him to die because he can’t become powerful fast enough? When you know the status quo is just going to come and claim the narrative outliers so it can smother them with a pillow, then it feels like maybe the status quo should just stick around in the first place.

The funny thing is, despite my obtuse complaints, I actually enjoyed a fair amount of what Tsukuyomi had to offer. I found a lot of the visual slapstick funny and well timed. When the character chemistry was good, it could be very effective at striking emotions. Much of the visual direction work is sharp and interesting, with gothic European architecture and dense backgrounds that make clever use of lighting and color to set the mood for a scene. Daisaku Kume’s soundtrack is well composed and does a good job of matching the energy of the anime whether comedic or dramatic. I also found it amusing how it took twenty episodes for there to be a fully animated ED sequence, which they probably could have given up on at that point, but I commend them for finishing it regardless. Chiwa Saitou and Hiroshi Kamiya, who would go on to voice Hitagi Senjougahara and Koyomi Araragi of the Monogatari series just half a decade later, had great chemistry together as Hazuki and Kouhei. There were certainly positives to the experience, but I’d find it hard to recommend anyone to actually watch it themselves. The staff did their damnedest to put a spin on this source material that would make it more enjoyable, and even with its faults I can tell it vastly improved on aspects of the manga that I probably would’ve groaned endlessly about if I had read it. Despite that, it’s a tall order to sell someone on two cours of this chaotic experience where the script sometimes devolves into absolute noise to try and keep up with all the things that are happening at once. 

If I have to give credit to this production for anything, it’s for sowing the seeds that Shaft would reap soon after with Pani Poni Dash! just a year later, with many of the same creative talents honing their skills to create what is now one of my favorite absurdist comedies of all time. For that alone, I’m willing to spare a few extra points on the board. If you want to know if there’s any chance that you would enjoy this anime, just stare at a picture of Hazuki for a good minute. If she is one of the cutest anime characters you’ve ever seen, or even cute enough to make you interested in watching this in the first place, then you’ll enjoy it to some extent. If you believe slapstick is the funniest form of comedy, you may also find something here that is of value. If neither of those statements hold true, don’t even watch the first episode of this. Maybe one of the side characters caught your eye, or the OP song got stuck in your head somehow, but if you can’t sell yourself on Hazuki’s existence or the idea of watching solid objects fall down onto the heads of unsuspecting victims in a comedic manner, then I don’t know what else this anime can give you other than a headache inducing plot where nothing really matters, nothing really changes, and nobody really cares. 

And then a giant wash pan fell and everybody died!

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