Anime series Urahara is dreamy, but it’s also outright ridiculous to watch. Its characters are drawn and written like cutesy young Japanese fashionistas, the kind of costume-and-style mavens who hang around Tokyo’s Harajuku district. But the show also has insanely wacky elements, like an alien who’s also a talking piece of fried shrimp tempura, and who doubles as a scarf. (He introduces himself as Ebifuya, a Japanese pun on shrimp.)
Urahara’s plot begins in a relatively normal place, then takes a fast turn for the bizarre. It’s about three girls decked out in watercolors and pastels, following their dreams in fashion and tech, while also fighting off an alien invasion. The aliens want to swallow up cultural landmarks around the world, and the girls have to protect Harajuku.
Urahara’s charm isn’t in the storytelling. It comes from its quirky, idiosyncratic characters: three young girls who often give more thought to confections and daydreaming than to the incoming aliens. After creating a giant protective bubble to keep aliens out, using magic powers they gain from picking up things the aliens left behind, the girls unwittingly trap themselves and all other Harajuku residents inside the neighborhood. They wander around enjoying crepes, street art, and the idyllic music and scenery, without any sense of urgency about the essentially apocalyptic backdrop.
Urahara is a nostalgic return to an era of Japanese magical girls seen in serial anime like Sailor Moon in the 1990s, and Cardcaptor Sakura in the early 2000s. The Japanese showrunners of the era recycle Western tropes that date back to Marilyn Monroe — the “ditzy blonde and serious brunette” mechanic familiar from films like 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But like Lorelei in that movie (Monroe’s breakout role), the girls use friendship, glittery fashions, and sheer dumb luck to make up what they lack in conventional book smarts.
An example of some of that dumb luck: when the girls are starving because they can’t find any open restaurants, they remember that some of the aliens they’ve killed turned into delicious donuts, albeit with googly eyes that stare back as the protagonists eat them. More dead aliens later turn into their dream flavors of popcorn: strawberry, matcha, and citron and pepper. It’s one of the most ridiculous moments of the show so far, and the characters’ nonchalance about gorging on dead-alien parfaits and macarons just complements the joke.
Anime streaming service Crunchyroll collaborated with the Chinese studio Bilibili to create Urahara. This isn’t Crunchyroll’s first anime production; the platform has launched other titles, including a collaboration with DJs Porter Robinson and Madeon on a visually stunning music video. The series is based on an original webcomic by Patrick Macias, who tells The Verge that the show writers are drawing on eclectic influences like My Little Pony and Twin Peaks to create a mix of surreal and indie Japanese subculture. The Japanese artists who drew the show’s main art were able to observe Harajuku street fashion and scenes from their office, situated within walking distance of the district.
After the dismal premiere of Neo Yokio on Netflix last month, it’s refreshing to see an anime made through international collaboration that brings its artistic influences to the forefront. Urahara’s conscious focus on art and fashion makes each episode feel like admiring a bouquet of wildflowers. Beautiful pastel colors and blurry, Claude Monet-esque backdrops in the Urahara world keep its characters’ inanities tolerable.
It’s certainly not a masterpiece — as one character points out in an offhanded meta remark, Urahara feels like a B-movie — but just when it appears to be the same tired character dynamics and same aliens invading Earth plot, the show takes surprising new directors with wackiness and therapeutic visuals. Urahara seems to be a serenade to experimental forms of Japanese art, melding street fashion with traditional animation. It makes the girls look like they could fly anywhere. This one may be worth watching for the art alone.
Urahara airs every Wednesday on Crunchyroll, and is currently on its third episode. In Japan, Urahara airs on TV Japan, and in China, it airs on Bilibili. It’s a 12-episode series.