I’m more of anime consumer than aficionado – or ‘otaku’, if you prefer – so I don’t pay a lot of attention to anime auteurs, the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers that shape the animation I enjoy (give or take a Miyazaki or Anno, naturally). So it wasn’t until about halfway through Michiko & Hatchin that I realised that this is probably the first series I’ve ever seen directed by a woman.
It’s not like I’m not familiar with the work of Michiko & Hatchin showrunner – do they even call them that in Japan? – Sayo Yamamoto. She’s the understudy of one Shinichirō Watanabe; while I can never remember that guy’s name, I can certainly remember his creations, from Cowboy Bebop to Space Dandy. Yamamoto also worked with Watanabe on his second series, Samurai Champloo, and the DNA of that show – and Bebop – is well-and-truly on display in Michiko & Hatchin (as the packaging of its recent Australian Blu-Ray release proudly trumpets).
Michiko & Hatchin kind of feels like the continuation of the arc that began with Bebop and curved through Champloo, combining an exploratory, mash-up approach to adventure anime with a robust undercurrent of sadness and regret. Like those two series, Yamamoto’s show tells the story of people running from one place – and one escapade – to another in a futile attempt to escape the dark things lurking in their pasts. This series’ titular characters – Michiko Malandro (Yōko Maki/Monica Rial) and Hana “Hatchin” Morenos (Suzuka Ohgo/Jad Saxton) – share an intertwined past for obvious reasons: convict Michiko is Hana’s mother, reunited after a prison break to steal Hana away from an abusive foster family.
Their combative relationship drives 22 episodes spent travelling across South American countryside – a loose facsimile of Brazil; Yamamoto has retained her mentor’s predilection for cultural cocktails – in the search for Hana’s father, Hiroshi. Much like Bebop and Champloo, the pair tends to meet hostile receptions along the way, escaping corrupt cops, desperate criminals, idiosyncratic hitmen and predatory carnies in their extended adventure. It quickly becomes clear that the real purpose of this story isn’t to hunt down Hiroshi, but to examine the bonds forged between these two women –combative, friendly, familial – amidst the heat of an unforgiving, unrelenting society.
Female friendship is the core of Michiko & Hatchin in many ways. It’s not just the complexities of the central relationship, but those eked out on the margins of their journey. For example, Hana befriends a girl named Rita, roughly her own age, while Michiko establishes a stroppy, Sapphic connection with an exotic dancer. The second-most important relationship in the show is certainly that of Michiko and childhood friend Atsuko (Maki Sakai/Sametria Ewunes), who’s since become the police officer leading the chase after the mother-daughter duo.
Taken as a whole (well, minus an underwhelming organised crime subplot), the story Michiko & Hatchin tells is that of women against the world, fighting – often one another – for their own corners, their own modicum of acceptance and safety. Yamamoto regards the familiar systems – medicine, religion, childcare, criminal justice – as deeply corrupt, self-interested manifestations of male greed, but there’s a deeper cynicism to the show: the sense that there’s something rotten at the heart of the ‘traditional’ family. One never expects the reunion between Michiko, Hana and Hiroshi to end with the pair sitting around a dinner table happily, and that’s entirely intentional.
The overarching sense of pessimism – of resignation – can be somewhat enervating, but that’s typically counteracted by kinetic action sequences, invariably beautifully animated. Michiko & Hatchin is a sadder show than Cowboy Bebop, but that’s because it feels more realistic. More grounded in the realities of poverty, of gender and race (sidenote: how rare is it to watch an anime that avoids broad cultural stereotypes!). It’s nowhere near as fun as Bebop, but I’d argue that’s the point.