Whenever not just one or a few anime reviewers, but all of the critics insist a series completely bombs, cannot be redeemed in any way, I take it as an invitation to check it out. To my mind, the old “confederacy of dunces” is at it again. It would be too easy to blame entertainment media gatekeepers, prone to first person “royal” plural pronouncements that decide what “we” like or hate, because the problem is also the two-bit, aspiring streamer critics—or to be more anime, amateurs who hope you’ll offer your 100-yen and turn the gacha handle, pressing the donate button on their sidebar. You’ve seen them: guys, usually obese, who start their videos with five seconds focused on themselves in silence, perhaps to let their sheer negativity sink in, giving viewers a moment to buckle down for a few minutes of witty hot takes they hope will propel them to influence.
I give, I give; one commonly cited “worst anime of all time”, Hametsu no Mars, is indeed bad (and has surprising overlaps with the “worst film of all time”, Planet 9 from Outer Space), but even it has its redeeming fanservice (and is too inept to be really insidious and purposefully rotten, like critic’s choices Gurren Lagann and Madoka Magica). But often, as these critics high and low walk the path they hope leads to renown and easier money, they trample something really beautiful. Like a colorful beetle someone might thoughtlessly swat, but to an entomologist’s examination is a rarity, a treat to see, some hated-on anime prove worth a closer look, and prove their value only to viewers not always looking to detract, or drop at a moment’s disapproval. Hand Shakers, a 13-episode series made by GoHands airing in 2017, and immediately panned and added to my mental watch list, combines a friendly, sympathetic cast with an unusual animation style, especially during battle scenes, that really adds to the excitement and action. The plot and conventions have a lot in common with favorites that many otakus have seen and appreciate, but with a unique place for handholding that, o you kind of heart, gentle-souled anime fans out there, I think you’ll love.
Hand Shakers surely lost some viewers from the start by opening with preview scenes from later fights, setting a confused monologue to some of its shakiest camera work. Soon we get views of crowds in downtown Osaka, often with a fish-eyed perspective that proves a favorite quirk, and then arrive at an area high school. Student Tazuna Tatatsuki, despite a weak and boyish appearance, is a natural Mr. Fixit, widely called on to repair machinery as delicate as a wristwatch or as large as an automobile, to an extent his friend, Class President and series Tarot enthusiast Lily Hojo, finds obsessive. Undeterred, after school he makes yet another stop at a university lab for another repair, and walks in on a light-pastel-to-white-haired girl in an intensive care bed, apparently comatose. Memories of Tazuna’s little sister Musumu, whose hand he held until her last breath, rush back, and he goes to her bedside.
In a stunning moment, her eyes open! As she reaches for Tazuna’s hand and grasps his finger, the world around changes, colorful moving patterns on the walls betokening entry into another dimension! A disembodied voice addresses him:
“You who received the revelation of Babel. You who will overcome many battles and trials... You who received the Revelation. You who would challenge me. Yes, you, the Hand Shaker...”
and our overwhelmed lead passes out.
On awakening, the exciteable professor who called on him, Makihara-sensei, also welcomes him to his role as Hand Shaker. Thankfully, the academic is in the right field to deliver exposition, having devoted years to the study of Hand Shakers! Selected by a being believed to be God, Hand Shakers fight in pairs within a parallel dimension called Ziggurat. When two pairs of Hand Shakers hold hands within a certain distance, they are transported to Ziggurat, where they summon abilities, called Nimrods, and do battle. After notching enough victories, the survivors will get to face God, and have their wish granted. Thankfully, mortal injuries sustained in Ziggurat heal quickly in real life, but for Tazuna there is a catch. Koyori—Koyori Akutagawa, the girl whose hand he’s holding—was sleeping to conserve her life force, and now that she’s awakened, should he let her hand go for any sustained time, she will die! So unlike other Hand Shakers, his is a 24/7 commitment, and early episodes focus on the daily inconveniences, but as a kind, compassionate young man who evidently rejects the “Violinist Argument”, there’s no question Tazuna will do whatever it takes to keep Koyori safe. So, lots of cute handholding! Koyori, for her part, is completely mute, her past is largely a mystery, and on top of that is meek and cooperative, but communicates wonderfully with her eyes.
Like any self-respecting critic-hated anime based on saccharine moe, Hand Shakers invites numerous comparisons. The elimination competition to gain the ear of the deity certainly reminds of Mirai Nikki (Future Diary), although the adrenaline and stakes are lower. The frequent urban academic setting, character design, and types of combat abilities reminded me of A Certain Scientific Railgun.
One pair of adversaries, Chizuru, a female corporate officer in Centeolt’s restaurant division often mistaken for an elementary schooler (Moetan anyone?), and Hayate, an (average height) male subordinate often mistaken for her boss, are responsible for planting franchises of an unusually branded family restaurant, Cocktail Corn, which becomes a repeat hang-out that reminds me of Joseph’s from Railgun. We see both in front of and behind the counter, inviting comparisons to The Devil is a Part-Timer!, but with a focus on teamwork, not stress.
The non-speaking, mysterious Koyori has a rare charm I can’t recall since Fujino Shion from the hentai Hatsuinu (A Strange Kind of Woman).
While the aforementioned color pallet is among the best (outside of Precure) since one of my all-time favorites, Itsuka Tenma no Kuro Usagi (A Dark Rabbit Has Seven Lives), the animation itself is unique. Veteran anime fans have seen shows and movies use computer generation in all sorts of ways, with conjecturable degrees of success. Hand Shakers, particularly during fighting, has very obvious overlays of computer-rendered weapons over more 2D-looking characters, combined with frenetic camera movements. I’ve read others say they can’t follow the action, but I could; it often looks half like following the dashing, jumping movements of combat in a video game, half like you’re right there and can barely take it in as it happens. Tazuna, who has to do double work since Koyori lacks a Nimrod, can summon a blade made of gears, and can propel the pair forward by sticking it in the ground!
Another early favorite ability, from a very goth punk pair of foes, has a guy wrap bike and wallet chains around his partner, whom he punishes as she moans, and the chains then shoot at their enemies. He’s not sadistic, that’s just how his ability works. Readers may guess whether they’ll like Hand Shakers by their takes on such excuseless ecchi.
I hesitate to even mention that there is a sequel, W’z, of 13 episodes, from 2019. Whereas Hand Shakers was much better than critical opinion has it, W’z lacks almost all the original’s charms and deserves the disapprobation.
In Hand Shakers, the Hand Shakers are introduced pair by pair, every couple episodes, all receiving decent introductions that make it easy to grow attached and care for them; in W’z appearances are more jumbled than staggered; I could not remember who was who. Since I thought the opening, ending and background music from the first series was quite good, the latter electronic and unobtrustive but effective, I’d expected the sequel, which has an added focus on DJing, would be a treat, but somehow it fails. I’m no expert, but aren’t live DJ mixes supposed to sound like improvisations around a theme? The new lead, Hand Shaker Yukiya Araki, a DJ under the name W’z (pronounced Y’s or wise), comically decides the way to get more views is to stream a video from inside Ziggurat, what with all the colorful patterns it would cost a lot to produce as special effects (some comment on production by GoHands?) Yet his supposedly hit song, recognizable from the refrain “I need to feel it!”, sounds way too smoothly polished, and exactly the same even when performed live again. Another annoyance, appearing in a flashback in Hand Shakers but worse here: while many downtown settings are the same, despite being set ten years later, all the advertisements are unchanged; there is even one fast food take-out bag with the same design thirty years on. In addition to same-sex Hand Shaker teams, with definite yuri and even hints of yaoi, near the end, there is even an episode with both anti-family violence (against a crudely characterized villainous father) and a throwaway swipe at a European explorer, marring an otherwise little objectionable series at its tail end.
All this makes it easy to let go of the sequel to Hand Shakers very quickly; only dogged completionists will want to hold on to the end.