Let’s talk fanservice.
Hiroyuki Imaishi’s Studio Trigger are no strangers to fanservice — their first major title, Kill la Kill, revolved around the traditional type of fanservice that immediately comes to mind upon hearing the word. Gravity-defiant breasts, barely-covered women — and men, in the case of Kill la Kill — often in suggestive poses or highly-convenient settings makes up what is typically referred to as “fanservice.”
While there is some of this in Space Patrol Luluco, the series services their fan in a different way, one that threatens to overwhelm the titular Luluco’s emotional narrative.
Pictured above is the world of Little Witch Academia, the now-famous Yoh Yoshinari short film that was initially part of the Anime Mirai project in 2013. It exploded in popularity, spawning a wildly-successful kickstarter for a second short — Little Witch Academia 2: the Enchanted Parade. A Studio Trigger favorite despite the fact that its not had its own full series, Little Witch Academia is near and dear to the hearts of its cult fanbase. I am one of these fans, and constantly lament the fact that we’ll likely never see a full-length Little Witch Academia series.
However, the screenshot pictured above is not from Little Witch Academia. Although this shot depicts the world of the beloved short, it’s actually from Trigger’s most recent short series, Space Patrol Luluco.
Fanservice rooted in referential material is admittedly low-hanging fruit. In order to elevate a self-referential series beyond its fanservice for a pre-existing fanbase, it has to have some other intriguing or resonant narrative present otherwise the series becomes a hollow shell of what made the original property it’s referencing so successful. The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan is a fairly strong example of this.
Aside from one small emotional arc, Yuki-chan is a series of recreated scenes from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. In fairness, the arc in question also riffs on Haruhi, but does so with dramatic tension for the characters involved that moves beyond the fact that they were in Haruhi Suzumiya, and connects with the very human worries of identity and death. Being characters from Haruhi Suzumiya becomes a background, where the rest of the series simply revels in these characters that a Haruhi fan finds dear and rarely rises above that.
Unfortunately, recent episodes of Space Patrol Luluco have unfolded in a similar, lazy fashion, concerned more with nods to Studio Trigger’s admittedly small catalogue over the last five years.
Space Patrol Luluco is a five-year anniversary project celebrating Studio Trigger, which denotes that it’s a self-congratulatory series from the start. The entire reason given for Luluco‘s existence is that the studio wanted to commemorate their fifth birthday. Yet, from its opening episode, Luluco was a surprisingly keen look at female adolescence, picking up where Eri Ninamori and FLCL‘s third episode left off. Luluco must deal with her own burgeoning adolescent transformation, her dysfunctional family, her alien crush Alpha Omega Nova, and frenemy Midori all while lamenting that she wishes for an ordinary life.
Divided into “seasons” of three episodes, Luluco first deals with her own coming-of-age, followed by her parents’ squabbles. The third season finds Luluco in search of the original Ogikubo, which her space-pirate mother stole from Earth. Conveniently this leads to Luluco and the Space Patrol visiting planets that are each full-blown references to Studio Trigger series — first Kill la Kill, then Little Witch Academia, and finally the recent short Sex and Violence with Machspeed.
Luluco was always filled with references to other Trigger anime. For example, the Space Patrol’s General Manager of Over Justice is the titular Inferno Cop from Inferno Cop sporting Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann Kamina’s glasses. However, these were always background nods, much like Isaac and Miria’s (Baccano!) appearance in Durarara!! — a wink at the fans without having much bearing on the overall narrative. This is referential fanservice done right. A property has to stand on its own and have something to offer beyond references to other series. For its first two seasons, and even the Kill la Kill episode in season three, Luluco did just that. It was a coming-of-age story surrounded by original jokes as well as in-jokes, striking a strong balance between the two.
Unfortunately, the more recent references to Little Witch Academia and Sex and Violence with Machspeed drowned out what made the series so charming — Luluco’s adolescent struggles and character interactions between Luluco, her family members, Nova, and Midori. While I love Little Witch Academia, Luluco’s interactions with Sucy Manbavaran dragged, slowing down the pace of the series. The Sex and Violence with Machspeed episode that followed not only referenced a fairly obscure part of the Trigger catalogue to begin with, but forced Luluco to further take a backseat in her own story while Machspeed and company bounced around, blowing things up. In both cases, these references completely overwhelm the original narrative of Space Patrol Luluco, making their episodes obtrusive and uninteresting.
Is it just me? Perhaps. I’m fully willing to acknowledge the fact that my own expectations based on Luluco‘s first few episodes are now playing a large role in my recent disappointment. This isn’t the first time that this has happened and it certainly won’t be the last. However, I think it’s also important that referential material doesn’t overwhelm what once was a poignant and emotionally-resonant narrative, something that many properties struggle with, all-too-often settling for the lowest common denominator — throwing out references and expecting an automatic laugh or nostalgic feeling.