You know how sometimes you start watching a show but events conspire against you so you never get to finish it? That's what happened to me with Heaven's Memo Pad, despite it being something I really wanted to watch. Since then I've spent all my time wishing I could find an excuse to pick it up again, and then guess what DVD set (which happens to be out today) landed on my desk.
As ever, this will be split into four parts, Story, Artistry, Translation and DVD.
This is a story all about a NEET detective agency, which is to say a detective agency staffed by people Not in Education, Employment or Training. The chief detective, Alice, claims to not be a shut in but does spend all her time locked away in her room with all the computers ever. She's a perfect detective dealing with horrific cases and also covered in stuffed animals. The rest of the agency is effectively a set of unemployed people with various skills that are beneficial to gathering information and when they need a whole lot of manpower they have a friendly neighbourhood gang that can help them.
We see the story from the point of view of Narumi, a somewhat friendless high schooler who happens upon a case that Alice is working on and somehow ends up being her personal assistant, a job that mostly invokes handing her cans of a drink that definitely is not Dr Pepper and washing her stuffed animals. His story actually starts with meeting the head and sole member of the gardening club, who then embroils him in said club, so their friendship is a constant thread through the show.
The name of the show comes from Alice's explanation of the raison d'être of all detectives, which is to be the voice of the dead and those who cannot be heard and, as such, she is reading out the tales that are otherwise only inscribed on heaven's memo pad. You would think that that would mean that this was a very mystery solving heavy show, but, in fact, it spends most of its time focusing on the information gathering and character building. Luckily those characters are well fleshed out and it becomes fun to watch, as long as you don't go in expecting something very deduction heavy.
We should also be going in expecting some very heavy issues but in a different way to Ef. Where Ef dealt with coping with mental disorders and illnesses, this dealt with self destruction and the situations that people have very much brought upon themselves. As such you need to be aware that there will be involvement of topics such as suicide, prostitution and drug abuse, though it's all eventually fixed by the power of friendship.
For the reasons why, get ready for spoilers (or skip to Artistry if you'd rather not).
So HMP starts with an honest to goodness mystery and a double episode. You'd think this was something special but actually nearly every mystery takes at least two episodes to wrap up, it's just that the first two happen to have been bundled together when they aired, which makes for an odd situation of watching an overly long episode with too many eyecatches.
That first arc sets us up nicely for the rest of the show, where it turns out that the supposed victim and the people looking for her all brought it on themselves. That idea of telling heaven's secrets is what the show attempts to do throughout, trying to remind us to be careful what you wish for and that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
Around the middle of the season we see an arc dealing with the formation of the local comedy street gang (everybody loves a comedy street gang). It takes a long, hard look at the meaning of loyalty and friendship and makes for a good cliffhanger at the end of the first DVD.
The last arc starts with what seems to be a pointless filler ep about playing baseball to save the local arcade but turns out to be a way to set up the character of Narumi's friend's brother. It feels tacked on and, really, the show should have had the courage of its convictions and just introduced the character out of the blue; something it can get away with because it's a very episodic format.
That final arc itself, however, is very bold and plays around with your concept of right and wrong and of what real ethics might be. The only problem is that there is a brilliant cliffhanger which is thoroughly spoilt by the next episode's preview, so avoid those if you can.
All in all, it feels disappointing early on as you realise there isn't too much holmesing going on, but stick with it and you'll get some enjoyable tales out the other end.
Animation-wise I'll keep this short. It's alright.
Seriously, there's nothing wrong with it, but it was hardly mind blowing either. It didn't distract from the story and in a show with a lot of story going on then we can chalk that up as a good thing.
That being said, there were moments when I was confused as to which character I was looking at because there are some pretty similar ones floating about.
What was good was the music, with a lovely exorcist style bells soundtrack accentuating points very nicely.
First off, the dub. The dub was standard substandard fare. All the girls are whiny teenagers and all the guys are oddly gravely teenagers. This seems defensible from a story point of view (if we ignore the fact that it’s just annoying to listen to) except that, though Alice seems like a little girl, this is a NEET detective agency which means that they're out of school. Apart from the two high schoolers, there's no need for them to sound like that.
As for the sub, well that's just paved with good intentions.
There was a lot done right here. There was karaoke and translation for the OP, something that I've rarely seen in my reviews. There's also liberal use of translator notes, something I've never seen in one of these reviews.
You may think that means we're onto a winner, but there are issues. Firstly, those translator notes I mentioned. Most of them are decent ones and the translators should be commended for them, but then there are unnecessary ones. It's all very well and good giving us notes to explain those things that would be implicit to a Japanese person, like what the name of a Japanese Job Centre is or how Japanese bra sizes work ( I was not aware a G over there is a D over here), but then there are ones that the Japanese would not have known unless they were particularly knowledgable and so we should have the same lack of explanation, like what the Thai word for hello is. And then there are things which needed explanation but weren't explained, like how far away the quick errand was that was clearly far too far away or what a survival game is (air soft as I understand it). It seems petty but if you're going to do it, do it right.
There was also something very juvenile about some of the translations. It always irks me to see "Baka" translated as "retard" but it's just weird seeing the sub say "I don't care" and the dub say "I don't give a shit." I'm not saying that swearing is a bad thing, but it just wasn't needed and it detracted from a show that handles some serious issues.
Then we have the matter of the Engrish. Under the detective agency's nameplate it says, "it's the only NEET thing to do," which makes no sense. Seriously, when will Japan learn to just find a native English speaker to proofread stuff?
Talking about proof reading, this needed some. There's some straight up amateur mistakes in there. Studd like "you're" instead of "your" or "immigrate" instead of "immigrant". It just feels like speed subs and that's not what I want when I'm paying real money.
You know what? The presentation on this is nigh spot on. By default the audio was in Japanese and the subs were on. Obviously English audio was an option, but it was an opt-in thing. Playing the episodes through didn't have any of those extra credit reels to credit the localisation effort but instead took you to a secret credits menu after the whole thing had finished. They're little things but they're things other DVDs get wrong, so I'll tip my hat to them.
The problem is that they didn't do anything else. There are no special features. Not even so much as a trailer for anything at all, let alone a special episode or anything like that. Hell, there wasn't even an anti-piracy advert. I suppose that's better than getting excited by the extras and realising they're all useless, but I'm still anxious to see a show give me something worth watching as a bonus.
Finally, we have the age old problem of it being a DVD in the first place. Remember those translator notes I liked so much? Once you put them in and two people talking at once the whole screen becomes a wall of text. Speaking of which, multiple people talking at once gets very difficult to follow. It's not something that you can ever really get round with DVDs but it will keep getting worse and worse as more shows take advantage of the fact that they're broadcast in HD and start throwing all sorts of writing and detail on the screen.
There was a lot to like here, there really was. The story lost pace at times but ended up being powerful and fulfilling to a point where I'm sure I would have been livid if I had seen some of those cliffhangers week to week. Similarly, the composition of the DVD seems to have been well thought out, from using translator notes to allowing for a reasonably seamless marathoning experience.
The problem lies in the execution. Despite all those great things they tried, it was marred by a lack of either effort or resources. If you're going to ask people to buy a DVD you have to make sure there's more value to that than just watching it on TV and especially more value than watching fan subs. How can we respect your product if what you put out isn’t as good as what people doing it for free put out?
So, it’s still good and, as a show, it still deserves a place in your collection if you’re into NEET, kawaii or detectives, but it’s not as good as it could have been with just a little more effort.
Make of that what you will, I'm off to see what else is on.