Happy New Year, everyone!
I’m aware that the new year has started for quite some time, and some of us are still awkwardly writing and correcting “2015” for the past month or so. But if you’re following the Lunar calendar, the new year has only just begun!
While most of the world (including Japan) follows a calendar that begins in January, some people still use the Lunar calendar to refer back to the Chinese zodiac, following from ancient mythology on how the calendar as we know it first came into being. While science now has better explanations on how years actually work, it’s fun to note that the myth referred back to a race among the animals who would be revered in rank order for the rest of time every 12 years, as chosen by the gods. Each of these animals arguably have anthropomorphic qualities that are significant to East Asian culture and philosophy.
The Chinese zodiac continues to have its significance today, and this anime uses the mythology as a background for its wacky comedy. But since we’re in the 21st century, this show presents them the only sensible way for a contemporary anime: by turning all the animals into cute girls!
Etotama is about the wacky adventures of the zodiac animals transformed into a variety of girls and young ladies. Preparing for an upcoming tournament to determine their divine order, they have come to invade the life of Takeru Amato, a plain twenty-something-year-old guy who can’t remember the zodiac order past Horse, but seems to have an unending supply of Sol/Lull, an energy source for the girls.
The Chinese myth refers to the determining of the calendar order by a grand race among the animals, of which 12 were officially recognized by the gods: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. But for this series, the gods have decided on a more modern way to determine the order: in a series of battles where the girls transform into their “pretty mode” chibi selves and duke it out!
According to this show, the rank and order of the zodiac has remained constant for over 2,000 years, despite the fact that these contests to determine their order happen every century or so. But even though that order appears to be maintained, there is one animal who is determined to be recognized by these 12: the Cat known simply as Nya-tan!
Referring back to the myth, the Cat was to be the 13th animal, but had arrived too late, thanks to the trickery of the Rat. This part of the story casually explains why cats don’t like rats at all, but some cultures have expanded this further, saying that the cat occasionally enters the zodiac cycle, often replacing one of the other animals. For this show, Nya-tan fights to become one of the zodiac as an equal.
Each of the girls, known as the Eto-Musume, have particular anthropomorphic features representative of their animals, as well as very distinct archetypes. And as you might have guessed, each one of them plays an over-exaggeration of that archetype, which would make each of them waifu material for certain kinds of fans.
All of the Eto-Musume have differing opinions, whether or not to include Nya-tan into their ranks. However, all of them agree that Nya-tan cannot become part of the 12 unless she follows the divine code. So before Nya-tan can even be considered a part of the zodiac, she has to earn each of the 12 Sol/Lull seals in trials set by the 12 girls themselves, as the ancient code suggests.
The battles that Nya-tan gets herself into are often the highlight of each episode, but the vast majority of this series is about the crazy things the girls do outside of battling each other! With such a short run, Etotama establishes its characters and its story with parodies of other shows, self-referential insights, and ongoing inside jokes that seem to never get old!
But even though we get to know each of the girls for their stagnant archetypes, Nya-tan’s aims go beyond just surpassing her superiors. In fact, Etotama suggests that Nya-tan was a well-respected Eto-Musume, prior to the first of the zodiac contests. Back then, none of the girls’ archetypes were established, and they all seemed to get along pretty well. Nya-tan and the Rat Queen, Chu-tan, were also close friends.
But then once the Eto-Musume ranks were set in motion, Nya-tan had lost her memories while Chu-tan grew to be more power hungry than any of the other girls. So even though all the other girls accept Nya-tan’s challenge to become one of them, despite their differing opinions of her, Chu-tan solely stands against her as one cold-hearted villain!
But in the short time that Nya-tan spends accompanying Takeru and challenging the other girls in official battles, Nya-tan slowly regains her memories. And before I can say SPOILERS, what she remembers transcends all the shenanigans that happen in the series, albeit for a very brief amount of time.
Nya-tan wants to become part of the zodiac more than any of the other Eto-Musume on this show, but it’s not because she wants to become another animal in their predetermined ranks.
Nya-tan doesn’t stick to any specific archetype in this show, other than the fact that she’s a cat. Unlike the other Eto-Musume whose characters are far too easy to read in any situation, Nya-tan can be sexy, adorable, conniving, annoying, heroic, insane, klutzy, hard-working, the best or the worst character on this show, and more. For 2,000 years, she has witnessed what these zodiac games have done to her friends, especially her closest friend, Chu-tan. The gods have done everything in their power to maintain the zodiac order, and Chu-tan now stands as the gods’ most powerful puppet to uphold that structure. Perhaps the girls themselves had been tricked to maintain their archetypes for so long. But Nya-tan stands in their way by doing the one thing they would never expect: by being out of character!
Discussing characters by archetype is a way to simplify who characters are and how they might act in certain situations. However, no one character ever sticks purely to an archetype, and many present themselves differently to others, depending on who they’re interacting with.
Nya-tan may be trying to free the Eto-Musume by showing them that they don’t have to stick to their archetypes, but that in turn is also a lesson for Takeru, as with us. We may act a certain way with friends, while having a completely different personality with our family or our coworkers; and sometimes those multiple personalities change or merge, depending on our situation. Sure, this can cause a lot of chaos for some who like to simplify their relationships with other people, but Nya-tan wants us to recognize that that’s okay to act differently. After all, we are not bound by our archetypes.
Take what you will from the possibility that this show has a much bigger picture about character essences and archetypes, but it’s still just a laugh-out-loud comedy. So none of it should be taken too seriously, as it is simply meant to entertain the idea of having zodiac animals anthropomorphized as a bunch of anime girls.
But since we’re on the subject, 2016 is officially the Year of the Monkey. And while I do find it unfortunate that the monkey of this series is tied at the hip of the dog, I figured I’ll end this review with one look at Ki-tan… or at least her Victorian look.
So if you ever wanted to see the Chinese zodiac animals get into all kinds of trouble as anime girls, or ever wanted to see the Cat kick some zodiac ass, watch Etotama! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to switch gears and do something that doesn’t make me look like I’ve been writing reviews the same way over and over again!