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