Earlier this year, Hand Shakers was an anime that was met with high anticipation. The studio behind it was responsible for the critically acclaimed K, as well as some guilty pleasures like the Seitokai Yakuindomo and Princess Lover series. Now to me, hype is the worst thing that could happen to a series, as it polarizes the fans who will love trash if you throw it at them, from the critics who see these shows as the most god-awful pieces of crap ever to have been committed to animation.
And with such anticipation, that’s exactly what happened. A monumental letdown to fans, that has since become a cult classic to challenge would-be anime critics into getting aggravated over this series for all of its terrible direction. And yes, it is terrible.
Well… I just finished a reality hurdle that has been bogging me down for the past 6 months just yesterday, so I’m in a much better mood to tackle said “garbage.” And… well… it’s bad… like… if you really love the innocence of anime, stay away from this series, kinda bad. But if you’re like me, and think that determining whether a show is good or bad in itself is rather superficial… uhm… it’s not as bad as you might think…?
Hand Shakers brings us to the metropolitan world of Osaka, which rivals Tokyo and Kyoto for the title of “culture capital of Japan.” And you can probably tell from the aesthetics of this anime that this is definitely a modern environment that contrasts with, well, most everything else that I cover on this blog.
But modern it is not, as our protagonist Tazuna Takatsuki meets the sickly Koyori Akutagawa at a medical lab runned by a flamboyantly energetic, siu mai-scarfing scientist, Makihara. Upon their first meet, Tazuna holds Koyori’s hand, when the mysterious voice of God gives them a revelation, inviting them to become part of His realm, the Ziggurat, and make a wish.
From that point forward, Tazuna and Koyori become “hand shakers,” a pair of nimrods who are granted supernatural powers, so that they could fight in this other realm. And fight they must, because literally every other hand shaker is also vying to reach the proverbial top of the Ziggurat, where their wish will be granted by God Himself.
And because God has a very twisted personality, they pretty much have to fight to the death to get there.
Mundane, Analytically Bad Creative Decisions
Alright, let’s get this out of the way. Since I framed this entire review on telling you that this anime is bad, I’m obligated to explain why. Bear in mind, none of these criticisms are particularly new, so to me, they’re to be expected.
First, the animation style for this series is distracting. I’ll give the visuals points for detail, but for a medium such as anime that has consistently favored simplicity and exaggeration over flashy realism? I started to wonder if this was meant to be a live action drama instead.
Second, the rules of this world are inconsistent. At one point, I’m thinking this is going to be a standard death game anime… but it isn’t. In fact, I don’t think anyone dies in this series (other than I guess a minor character off-screen), even if the very mention of death lurks as part of the rules of a hand shaker battle. We’ll get back to this point, I promise.
Third, the characters are bland, even when they’re trying to convey all kinds of emotion. It’s as if everyone here is purposefully uninteresting, so that I would have to make some kind of effort to like anything about them.
And of course, the plot goes in way too many directions to even make sense out of anything that’s going on here! Like, I wouldn’t be so infuriated by how many plots and side plots develop, if Hand Shakers didn’t take itself so seriously!
But whatever. You’re not going to have fun with Hand Shakers if you’re constantly reminded that you live in a world that’s supposed to make sense, when this series is actively trying to tear down your sense of modernity. And that’s where critics like me step in.
Because with all of these terrible creative decisions, boring characters, and illogical rules, what if I told you that that’s kind of what they were going for?
God of Hand Shakers
With all this talk of modernity, bad creative decisions, and uncompelling characters, one thing that’s always nagged me about this show is God, or more specifically, its references to God. Because until you see the final reveal at the epilogue of the series, Hand Shakers has been alluding to a rather familiar story from Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel.
Ziggurat, Nimrod, communicative dissonance, people wanting to meet God; all of these elements are lifted from the myth that Biblical scholars often treat as an origin of language myth, among other things.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Hand Shakers is a direct retelling of the Tower of Babel story. After all, the “Ziggurat” is represented by an alternate reality of Osaka where hand shaker battles take place, Nimrods refer to the hand shaker partners themselves as opposed to a city, and God is practically encouraging them to be a part of this weird dimension rather than trying to destroy it.
At least, that’s how it feels from the first episode, to which then God takes a snooze for the rest of the series, because no one ever hears from Him again!
That being said, God does play a mysterious, yet crucial role in Hand Shakers because (for the lack of better reasoning) this is God we’re talking about! Because when all is said and done, God just kind of does whatever He wants in this universe, while everyone else is supposedly fighting to the death.
The God of Hand Shakers is a tyrannical god, in that whatever He makes up only means something to Him, and everyone else kind of has to guess why that is, and God doesn’t leave enough clues behind to figure it out. But even so, God appears to want to communicate with these Hand Shakers, even though they are told to destroy each other in order to meet with him at the top. It’s almost as if… there’s a human side to Him.
The Fall from the Ziggurat
Once Tazuna and Koyori were inaugurated as hand shakers, they became inseparable. So much so, that Koyori wouldn’t let Tazuna’s hand go, even when it seems socially inappropriate. I think this was just a part of both of their personalities at the time, as Koyori doesn’t seem to like doing things on her own, and Tazuna just kind of goes with it. That being said, none of the other hand shakers have this problem of letting go of their partners’ hand.
At least, not in the same way.
The siblings Lily and Masaru Hōjō have nimrod powers based on cards: Masaru for a generic trading card game franchise, and Lily for the art of tarot readings. On the surface, this pair comes across as borderline incestuous, and kind of reminds us that Tazuna and Koyori could be lovers, too. But at least for Lily and Masaru, this is just how they show affection for each other as sister and brother. I think to a lot of us, their affection is strange, until you realize that because they have abusive parents who are filing for a divorce, Lily and Masaru feel like they only have each other left.
I wouldn’t say that Lily’s love for her little brother is inexcusable, as she does obsess over Masaru a little too much, even to his teenage comfort. But in a way, their shared experience with their family is kind of the reason they feel it necessary to be part of the Ziggurat, to meet with God, and have their wish granted. Even if they are both strong characters ability-wise, I wouldn’t put it past them if they admitted that they were broken.
The idol and manager pair, Kodama Awaza and Hibiki, also have this dynamic where they appear to have a certain kind of partnership, but have much deeper roots than meet the eye. Kodama comes across as a talented local idol of Osaka, and her manager Hibiki assists her in sorting out her busy schedule. But in a rather disheartening truth, Kodama only has one fan letter to her name, and that’s from Hibiki himself. Kodama always seems to psych herself up into believing that she’s the greatest gift to the world who has fallen on hard times, when in fact she hasn’t reached stardom yet.
She also has this thing where she quotes famous people, but misinterprets why they said what they did, which further adds a layer to that communicative dissonance related to the Tower of Babel interpretation.
But one thing that has always kept this pair going is the fact that they had each other to push back on. To Hibiki, Kodama is the greatest gift to the world. Likewise to Kodama, Hibiki is more than just your average wotaku who helps keep her stressful life afloat. Without that trust in each other, they wouldn’t be as such a threat to other hand shakers as they were.
The pairings of Chizuru and Hayate have similar relationship woes, as Tazuna and Koyori discover upon meeting them, as does… well… the plot storm they reveal much later in the series that really puts a damper on everything that I’ve said up to this point.
None of the characters I just mentioned ever die in this series, even though “death” was part of the contract if you lost a hand shaker battle. But in some respect, all of them have. After a nimrod pair is defeated, they lose their supernatural powers, and their connection to God is completely severed. They fall from the proverbial Ziggurat.
Such appears to be the only way for nimrods to get closer to God in this universe. That is, if that’s really what God intended for them.
Reconstructing the Tower
Before I continue, I should point out that I take an atheist worldview on life; meaning that a God, even if one existed, has never had control of my life. That being said, I did grow up a Christian and somehow taught myself hermeneutics while I was still in middle school. By no means am I suggesting that humankind should be stupid enough to try and build a literal tower to God that most definitely can’t be seen from above the atmosphere, but I do suggest, perhaps, to get a better interpretation of the myth that we are presented. Not necessarily for the Bible’s sake or God’s, but at the very least, for Hand Shakers.
I felt that everyone in this series was a terrible person, while they were hand shakers. Their desires, their uncanny abilities, none of them really got very good character development from that experience, other than the fact that some of us kept tabs on what they can do in a fight. And they were unconvincingly boring antagonists to our equally boring protagonists, too. And yet, I wouldn’t be telling you their stories had it not been for the fact that their stories don’t exactly end when they lose their powers. On the contrary, this is where their stories begin.
While we know next to nothing about what happens to Tazuna and Koyori’s first hand shaker opponents Bind and Break, everyone else that they have defeated genuinely become, at the very least, likable people. Chizuru Mitsudera and Hayate decide to live out the rest of their lives, running a modern Japanese restaurant. Lily is happy to let her little brother do things on his own, while Masaru is happy to teach Koyori how to play his favorite card game. Even Kodama swallows her pride and works alongside Hibiki to land local idol gigs, starting from the ground up. Whether or not their experience as hand shakers had anything to do with it, it appears to me that all of their lives genuinely improved only after they had lost contact with God.
I suppose the argument that I’m making here is that God’s intention to destroy the Tower of Babel in Genesis wasn’t to separate all of humankind from becoming bigoted enough to work together and reach Him as equals to God, as is a common interpretation, but rather to teach us a lesson about social responsibility. After all, in modern times, we have become so infatuated with things like power, ideology, and personal desires, that we have forgotten how to do simple things like communicate what we mean to other people. There’s this underlying assumption that even two people who speak the same language can understand each other 100 percent, when in reality, that understanding doesn’t come as easily as having a common tongue or gesture.
So if no one else can truly communicate with each other effectively, even in this anime, how then do they come to understand each other?
It’s simple. It says it right there in the title.
As individual characters, I hated both Tazuna and Koyori. One is a naive boy with no direction in his life. The other is a doll who seldom speaks for herself because she originally came from Brazil or something. But if there was anything that I could like about our leads, it really does lie in the preciousness of shaking hands, or rather, holding hands.
I suppose in their case, holding hands was –at least for awhile– the only way they could effectively communicate with each other. A handshake is a sign of trust that doesn’t come with a wordy contract. It lets the person know that you are okay with this relationship you have established with them. The bonds that the hand shakers have take on a similar effect, in that they really don’t have a rigid contract to be in a relationship with God, let alone with each other; but for the time being, they just do.
Tazuna expects Koyori to eventually let go of his hand, but I imagine that letting go is no easy task for either of them. Koyori just woke up from a coma after a catastrophic event that happened to both her and her sister (which I’d rather not touch in this review), and Tazuna still grieves over his little sister who would have been Kotori’s age, but died a few years before. In that respect, Tazuna is the only person Koyori can trust in a place as unfamiliar as Japan, and Koyori is, for better or for worse, filling Tazuna’s void for the little sister he lost.
Whether fortunately or unfortunately, Tazuna and Koyori never did fall from the Ziggurat, so there is never really an aftermath effect we see of them once they lose their powers. That being said, Tazuna and Koyori are kind of an anomaly, in that they didn’t have to be defeated to learn a lesson about their responsibility toward each other. Instead, they learn that through their opponents, and that’s where they the pair of nimrods do succeed, where the others didn’t.
Hand Shakers is a terrible series, but in an odd way, I think that’s kind of where the production staff were going with it. Sometimes you have to tell a story that makes no logical sense to get your message across. It’s the kind of legwork we have to do as humans to understand each other, after all, because we are so different from each other. Sure, I still would rather watch something else other than this, but in a strange way, I’m kind of glad that I sat through this series at least once. So kudos.
As for the God of this universe, I honestly didn’t think it mattered whether or not the characters in question met Him. He pretty much avoided everything that was going on, aloof to all the micro-dramas that happened. But even so, there is this weird, symbolic gesture at the very end of Hand Shakers, that suggests that God is not only human, but Koyori’s father, or something.
Yeah… it makes about as much sense as anything else that transgresses in this anime.
So if you’re looking for an anime that’s so bad, it might be good, check out Hand Shakers!
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