Seizo Watase’s Heart Cocktail

Modern “short” anime (that is, short episodes rather than short seasons) tends to skew towards absurd comedy to make the most of limited budgets, but what if those limitations were embraced and taken in the opposite direction? It might look a lot like Heart Cocktail.

Heart Cocktail ran for six “volumes” of 13-14 episodes on Nippon TV between 1986 and 1988. Based on Seizo Watase’s breakout manga series, the short episodes were moody, often melancholy vignettes about the little moments in life. In a decade of anime targeted at kids and otaku, Heart Cocktail stands out as a bit of an anomaly beyond its format and style; it was the first late-night anime that had run on Nippon TV in nearly twenty years, and it was sponsored by Japan Tobacco.

Tobacco sponsorship seems odd, even by 1980s standards, but serves as a reminder that this was a cartoon for adults. During its original broadcast, Japan Tobacco’s branding actually appeared in the title of the show, although that was removed when it made its way to home video.

If Heart Cocktail was made today, it would be called “slice of life.” That’s an awful, cringe-worthy descriptor, but it’s apt for the series, which was comprised of brief vignettes of hyper-cinematic regular life. While occasionally delving into the surreal, many of these are perfectly relatable – a date at a jazz bar, a chance meeting in the rain, losing your dog in a breakup.

Heart Cocktail the manga was published in Kodansha’s Morning, a manga weekly known for its diversity of stories that at one point boasted a circulation of over a million readers. Having featured works as disparate as Kaiji Kawaguchi’s Silent Service, Tochi Ueyama’s Cooking Papa, comics by international artists, and later Masashi Tanaka’s Gon, Watase’s unusual comic wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

Years later, the TV show was followed by Heart Cocktail Again, a 2003 OVA series that kept the same format and episode length of the original. The OVA also kept close to the style and look of the original, despite being released during that awkward period at the cusp of the digital era. Both Heart Cocktail adaptions faithfully mirrored Watase’s unique look and fidelity, although it may not have looked quite as contemporary in the early ’00s as it did in the ’80s.

While his manga output has slowed considerably, Watase’s style is still crisp and stylish. That’s probably why over the years he’s been tapped to illustrate everything from Famicom games to Canon camera advertisements. Like Katsuhiro Otomo and plenty of others, he created a comic that looked as much like commercial art as it did a comic book, long before Takashi Murakami took anime and manga styles into galleries. While Watase was, and is, largely unknown among western fans (both of Frederick Schodt’s manga treatises — Manga! Manga! (1983) and Dreamland Japan (1996) — fail to mention him), his artwork was featured at an exhibit in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo back in 1998.

Like Dragon’s Heaven or To-Y, Heart Cocktail is an instantly recognizable product of the decade in which it was produced. But like both of those titles, it possesses a style so out of the ordinary that it manages to feel fresh and different decades later.

Special thanks to Laika.

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