In Defense of Hand Shakers (Sort of)

Hand Shakers, unlike K, isn’t about cute boys. And that is where it all went wrong.

Hand Shakers

If you haven’t watched the first episode of Hand Shakers yourself, you’ve probably at least seen the screenshots or heard the buzz about just how bad the show looks. But although the idea of the episode being a complete visual mess from start to finish is an exaggeration that leaves some of the moments when the Hand Shakers‘ visual contortions hit the mark sadly unacknowledged—an exciting event for reasons which we’ll touch on later—I’m not here to argue that Hand Shakers looks good. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, whether or not Hand Shakers is a work of misunderstood visual genius or overindulgent visual vomit is largely irrelevant (for what it’s worth, I’d lean towards the latter).

It should be noted that Hand Shakers‘ existence as this particular… thing… is neither surprising nor sudden. Since Mardock Scramble came out in 2010, studio GoHands has been refining a unique audio-visual aesthetic (particularly with K), and it was clear from the moment the first PV dropped that Hand Shakers was destined to become the culmination of those efforts: a wonderland of oddly serene music, digital effects work, overblown cinematographic techniques and every color you can imagine. It’s like a bowl of the marshmallows from Lucky Charms, melted down into a stunningly chaotic puddle.

Kvin’s post on Hand Shakers over at the Sakugablog lays out a really effective critique of Hand Shakers‘ ridiculous visuals from a craft/end result perspective; I recommend checking it out if you want a little more context to put around Hand Shakers and I largely agree with his points about the end result. However, he also hits on a particularly interesting idea regarding what’s going on over at studio GoHands:

It feels like at some point the methods replaced the goals – scenes no longer are meant to achieve a result, they’re showcases of this particular aesthetic the studio’s built.

This is a fascinating observation and, from what I can tell, an accurate one. However, it also presumes a particular paradigm for creating anime is the correct one; that is, that scenes in an anime should achieve a “result,” not simply serve as vehicles for a studio aesthetic. But why shouldn’t they? In fact, why not have the result that scenes are meant to achieve be showcasing a particular aesthetic? Of course, in the case of GoHands one could answer, “Because the aesthetic is bad,” but as far as I can tell seeking to perpetuate an aesthetic is just as valid a goal as any other. It just so happens that the goal in this case one that flies in the face of our expectations of what good anime should look like.

Hand Shakers

In other words, I may not want to defend the end results of GoHands’ artistic choices for Hand Shakers, but I’m happy to stand up for the studio’s right to make those choices. That being said, I do think there’s something about the consistency of Hand Shaker‘s off-the-chain (sorry) efforts that makes it an astounding, if not engrossing, watch. It’s a kind of cross between being unable to look away from a car crash and being hooked in by the sheer curiosity of wondering what will come next. There are few anime that so thoroughly chuck out all semblance of caring about anything besides one particular goal—in this case, maintenance of an aesthetic—and seeing GoHands attempt this via Hand Shakers is… well, it sure is something. It may very well be a case of misused ambition, but it’s ambition nonetheless and, for my part, I’m intrigued by the effort itself.

With the story and characters of Hand Shakers being what they are (more on that in a second), Hand Shakers seems to me to be a show that’s willing to present its style as its substance. So much of what Hand Shakers is doing is gratuitous and unnecessary by most traditional standards (stuff like specular reflection that moves even when the camera’s still is the epitome of this), but amidst the visual cacophony there are without doubt moments that somehow push through through the insanity to stand out. Whether it’s an unholy yet compelling neon depiction of a city, a pattern of two lights and one reflection on a chain, weird compositing that makes some character seem like they’re glowing, or a suddenly pretty use of blues and greens, Hand Shakers pretty consistently delivers shots that feel like true expressions of the GoHands aesthetic. It’s this rhythm, the constant iterative attempts by the show to reach aesthetic—failing, failing, succeeding, failing, and so forth— that’s so fascinating.

So far I’ve mainly focused on Hand Shakers‘ visuals, but it’s worth mentioning that GoHands has a pretty distinct sensibility to the way it uses music and sound, too. Thanks to Kthe studio’s already well-known for their use of “elevator music” in seemingly unfitting scenes, and Hand Shakers carries on this odd tradition, mixing in sound effects that sound like a poorly executed version of Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta‘s excellent work in that department. And yet, again, there are moments where the aesthetic truly takes over, such as in the now-infamous scene where the class president’s boobs bounce as she’s listening to music, creating a stunningly strange and unique effect.

Starting at 0:07, Lily hits the play button, cueing in the song (a GoHands-style piano piece) on her mp3 player. When the music begins, the sound is somewhat muted and hollow, a recognizable effect used to indicate the the song’s diegetic presence inside her earbuds. But then at 0:24, just as Lily leans in toward Tazuna, the sound levels fill out and the volume increases slightly, a shift that clearly marks the music as now non-diegetic (something reinforced when she removes the earbuds at 0:31). The cumulative effect is an odd one, and if we’re talking purposes, it’s difficult to see how this choice has any conventional logic supporting it. But what it does do is create an odd undercurrent. It is, I daresay, aesthetic—whatever you think of the moment’s efficacy, it’s undeniably distinct.

As we close, I want to make clear here that this defense only carries as far as Hand Shakers‘ audio-visual elements. The story itself already seems like K with less care put into characterizing the cast and making them likable and more directionless adrenaline (Nimrods, the Revelation of Babel, etc.), and the pivot away from K‘s bishounen dominated cast to one with a more balanced gender ratio has resulted in a corresponding increase in the gross fanservice that only rarely appeared in K. As far as I’m concerned, this is easily the biggest liability Hand Shakers has displayed so far. While I’m excited to watch the visual insanity and can tolerate a nonsense plot, shows that fundamentally disrespect their characters are hard for me to stomach. GoHands seems chronically incapable of treating female characters well, so maybe it’s best if they just don’t have them in their shows at all.

As defenses of shows go, this is a pretty poor one. In its pursuit of its aesthetic, Hand Shakers becomes garish in the extreme—to the point that it’s nearly indigestible. It’s a toxic blend of mismatched visual techniques, with a solid helping of bad writing on the side. Even so, I can’t help feel that, viewed as an attempt to constantly execute the purest form of its own aesthetic priorities, Hand Shakers is a somewhat remarkable work. The end result as a whole may not be something I can say I enjoy, but I at least find a strange sense of joy in simply watching the attempts and occasional successes.

Hand Shakers 1-25.jpg

16 thoughts on “In Defense of Hand Shakers (Sort of)

  1. Still, I’m not watching it… One ep was enough. Though I’ll probably hate-read the reviews on ANN.

    And how in haitch-e-doublehockeysticks did this poll high enough to get reviewed and Demi-Chan didn’t?

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    • I don’t recommend anyone watch it if they don’t appreciate what it’s trying to do. Seems like a recipe for bitterness.

      ANN readers have provably poor taste in anime, this is just the latest evidence lol.

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    • Except Demi-chan is getting reviewed? Look at Paul Jensen’s selections.

      And I’m pretty sure Hand Shakers only got voted to be reviewed to see how much the reviewer would tear it apart.

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  2. I’m a little surprised you didn’t bring up SHAFT in this post, because (at least, for me) Monogatari represents a successful execution of studio aesthetic as its own substance or goal. I mean, that’s 90% of the reason why I’ve kept watching it to be honest…

    So I don’t think you’re off-base in your, uh, appreciation? of Hand Shakers (or maybe just GoHands), because that’s where I sit with Monogatari. You’ve certainly managed to make explicit a couple of sentiments I had about this!

    There’s probably a good follow-up post in comparing SHAFT’s and GoHands’ approach to aesthetics and how one succeeds where the other seemingly fails – they’re about the only two studios going so hard on a singular aesthetic, but the reception to them couldn’t be more different.

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    • I actually thought about SHAFT when I was writing this post, just didn’t find a place where I felt like mentioning it fit it.

      I will say that I personally think that, for Monogatari at least, the SHAFT aesthetic serves distinct purposes beyond serving itself, but for others shows like Nisekoi that’s not true (something I’ve written about before, actually: https://mageinabarrel.com/2014/06/04/nisekoi-review-bright-colors-and-shiny-eyes/).

      I actually think the Sakugablog post I linked does a good job of explaining why GoHands’ approach to aesthetics is less than successful, but there are plenty of people out there who hate the SHAFT house style, too! So ultimately it does come down to a matter of taste, although GoHands is a quite a bit less digestible than SHAFT, at least if we’re going by popular reception.

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  3. I tried to watch the first episode to see if it was as bad as people say, but I just gave up after the first few minutes. I don’t mind having a distinctive style for its own sake, but this was just unpleasant to look at (the creepy fanservice didn’t help either).

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  4. The only GoHands I watched wholly was Coppelion. It started weak and I’d drop it if I wasn’t writing a review for a magazine, but fortunately I didn’t – the second half evolved into extremely dumb action series and I remember having some fun after all. The typical GoHands aesthetics never bothered me back then or when I looked at any K or Mardock Scramble materials (I plan to watch both some day), but Coppelion was special, as it was an adaptation – and I liked the drawings more than those in the original manga. Moreover, my most anticipated and currently favourite show of the season, Onihei, has a similar weird filter in some scenes as well.
    So, because of all that, I thought I could handle Hand Shakers. But there’s something about this particular show that makes me cringe, I am guessing it’s because of the character designs. Coppelion had clear, strong, black outlines – sometimes too strong, so on some screenshots the characters look like not actually being in their environment. Hand Shakers has almost no outlines, which makes the characters more creepy and alien.
    These boobs are actually nice, they reminded me of Eiken, an OVA with ridiculously huge tits that flowed in the wind together with the girl’s hair in a t least one instance.
    I, too, think they should keep what they are doing with these aesthetics if they feel like it, but I also still won’t like it. At least it’s not being defended as Deep And Profound Art like those *monogataris, just today I saw someone writing that one of the girls there is not being exploited by the camera, she poses for it, because she’s apparently so empowered and has real agency despite being a cartoon. And this is why I mercilessly bully *monogatari fans 😉

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    • K and Mardock Scramble (the later in particular) are both more visually restrained than Hand Shakers and better for it. You’re spot on with the outlines for Hand Shakers, too, the lineart is super inconspicuous, and yet still the characters don’t blend at all because of the CG environments.

      Nothing wrong with not enjoying a studio’s preferred aesthetic. We might clash a bit regarding Monogatari, but perhaps we can let that particular disagreement slide for now haha.

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  5. Handshakers triggers my motion sickness/photosensitivity combo worse than any show I can remember. I didn’t make it far past the credits, and I felt mildly ill when I closed the window. I didn’t get to any fansersive or story, and because of this I can’t really have any stance on the show one way or another. (Btw, that clolourful mess, third picture-square from the top, is painful for me, even when it’s not moving.)

    Aside from that, I don’t like CGI. There are exceptions. Most notably the currently airing Nyanbo is excellent, with its geometrically shaped cat-robot thingies in a real life environment. Do things like that and even I approve. But generally… it’s not for me.

    There’s one last comment I have: when you have your own, distinctive aesthetic, you have to experiment. And it’s in the nature of experiments that success varies, and you can’t know how much you succeed beforehand. If you just stick to what you’ve done all along, and it’s distinctively your style, it can become either boring or annoying. So you have to keep moving forward and try out what works and what doesn’t.

    Like Swabl, I thought of Shaft. More specifically, I thought of the currently airing Sangatsu no Lion. I’m not an animation expert, but my impression is that they’ve found, after a few episode, a balance that works well for the show. It’s now better than it was for the first few episodes. It feels more restrained, but not watered-down. In a sense, that’s experimentation. You do something, evaluate the results, and then adjust.

    The evaluation part is easier when you have a goal other than just showcasing your aesthetic. If it’s all about the aesthetic, all the artist can rely on is the gut feeling, but “gut feeling” doesn’t always work when you’re in critical mode. Basically, you’ll see more clearly when you’re distanced from the work. With anime being produced as it airs, this can sometimes lead to “bad” work, “failed” expirements being aired. But that’s important, too, because without those “failures” you can’t really learn about the limits what you can do.

    Maybe the creators of Handshakers will come to think “Well, that didn’t quite work out the way we hoped,” or maybe it’s going to be “Well, we actually quite liked it. Pity there are so few who agree.” But from what little I’ve seen Handshakers is definitely not Go Hands settling down. One way or another, it’s a learning experience – about what they want to do, and/or about what they can get away with. I’m a lot more sympathetic to “Well, that didn’t quite work out the way we hoped,” than I am to “But they’ve always liked it before!”

    Which brings me to PA Works and Glasslip. That was definitely an experiment. I’m actually quite fond of the show, even though I don’t think the show was an unmitigated success. But because it’s so obviously itself it’s easy for me to appreciate it for what it get rights. And there’s plenty.

    And that’s the end of me rambling.

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    • It sure would be interesting to hear what the creators at GoHands think about the monstrosity they’ve created with Hand Shakers! As Kvin notes in this post, the aesthetic seems to be being handed down from the executives rather than growing out of the creators’ own ideas, so it might be that the people actually making the show don’t really like what they’re doing. Or maybe they do, and that’s why they signed on for the project.

      March comes in like a lion definitely is an interesting case study, as it’s definitely got some of the typical SHAFT flair but seems to (at least in the bits of it that I’ve seen) have carved out a bit of its own unique niche within the pre-established patterns.

      Regardless, if Hand Shakers makes you physically ill… well, perhaps that speaks for itself.

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      • Hand Shakers does make me feel physically ill, and more than I’d have expected, too. But I’m sort of sensitive to odd camera/light constellations, so I’m not how much that says about the show, rather than about me. (I don’t know if I said it before, but the last show I couldn’t watch was Sidonia no Kishi. I also can’t watch shaky-cam live action films, or anything 3-D [with the glasses].)

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  6. If I’m being snarky, I’d argue that if you want to aim for aesthetic as the driving force in your show, you’d better get it right, rather than induce motion sickness in your audience. With Handshakers, I found the individual elements — CGI chains, CGI background people, motion cycles etc — to be bad enough, but what really hurt it was their integration. It’s as if there was no thought given on how all these elements would fit together.

    A good aesthetic can uplift otherwise mundane stories — Shaft’s work on e.g. Nisekoi has already been mentioned, but Redline is also a good example — but you still need to think about what and how to enhance. The opening shot of Bakemonogatari, the panty shot of Hanekawa seen in slow motion with a stopwatch timer running next to it, takes a entirely mundane and predictable bit of fanservice and uses it as the opening statement for the entire Monogatari series. The enhanced gainaxing in the example given for Handshakers on the other hand does nothing but make an already irritating cliche even more silly and irritating.

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    • I think your argument, snarky or not, is still on point. Just because Hand Shakers is aiming at an aesthetic doesn’t meant that it justifies the aesthetic itself. As I said in the post, I do think there are some times when it works despite everything and winds up looking really neat, but are those moments worth slogging through the rest for? Well, that’s up to each person, I think.

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