Posts tagged ‘Japan’

Anime in the USA

To break up what could be a non-stop series of baby posts, I’m going to post about something that I enjoy and have been thinking about: anime.

Anime for the uninitiated is Japanese animation. But it is more than simply animation from Japan. Anime has a certain feel to it. By and large, anime is science fiction. But the range of themes in the anime realm is broad: ancient times, modern times, relationships, magic, horror – just about as many types as could be found in any other medium in any other country.

Anime gets a bad rap, since it is equally viewed as either kids pablum (which some is), or ultraviolent adrenaline nonsense (which some is). The real thing lies within these extremes, and at its best, anime is as satisfying as any good novel, movie, or musical performance. Some folks have trouble with anime, because of its provinciality. Indeed, most anime is very Japanese in character. For myself, I find this look into the culture fascinating. And for those who may be perplexed by it, a careful search will result in titles very accessible to the western sensibility. But sometimes it is just fun to revel in what is some of the strangest stuff you’ll ever see!

When I was growing up, anime, such as it is now seen, was really unknown. My only two options were Speed Racer (which gets cruder and campier through the years) and Star Blazers (known in Japan as Space Ship Yamato. My cousin was a big enough fan to actually go to Japan for a convention in the early eighties!). They were two of my favorite shows, but beyond that there was little else. I started to be introduced to anime as it’s now known in college, through friends and my now wife. I began to watch more and more, and on recommendations from friends expanded my horizons, seeing the broad array of choices available.

Nowadays, anime has moved from an otaku fringe hobby to the mainstream. Japanese animation styles have become common in American cartoons, and newer animated films borrow from anime’s credo of good, mature storytelling, rather than simple vehicles mass produced for kids only. Go over to Best Buy’s or Barnes and Noble’s video sections and see the numerous anime titles in a variety of styles, genres, and time periods.

So, now I am going to list some of my personal favorites, in order, and give a little insight into them. If you are new to anime, check them out. Or if you’re a fan, let me know your favorites or argue over these choices:

  • Cowboy Bebop: Still my favorite. Set in a far future where the solar system is colonized, four bounty hunters tour the system trying to scrape together a living while they come to terms with their pasts. Bebop was created by Shinichiro Watanabe – I mention his name because you’ll see it again. The world he created is populated much like the frontier world of our past: people working to survive, criminals run loose, and folks like our protagonists Spike, Jet, Fay, and Ed try to catch them for their own profit. The series contains several layers of plot. There are episodes that have self contained stories, and there are larger story arcs for each of the main characters that are revealed as the series progresses, all through some of the most entertaining dialogue in anime. By the end you feel attached to these folks, flaws and all, and the finale is one of the most satisfying sad endings I’ve seen. And if this weren’t enough, it boasts the best musical score for any anime ever! Jazz, rock, blues, all composed by Yoko Kanno and performed by Seatbelts, a rollicking big band. This is my standard for all other anime.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Most of the time, a TV series derived from a movie is usually not a good idea. But once in a while a television series can eclipse its source material (think M*A*S*H) and become as good or better. I feel this way regarding Ghost in the Shell (GitS). While the movie was excellent, with a storyline that makes you think while being besieged with action, the series that was derived from this universe (Stand Alone Complex (SAC)) goes beyond, giving the characters dimensionality and expanding the opportunities to explore this future world hinted at in the film. The series focuses on the activities of Section 9, a government group charged with investigating crimes in a world where people have traded their human aspects for cybernetics, and all the issues that accompany them. The main character is the Major, a shapely female (naturally) fully prosthetic soldier who leads the team of Section 9 operatives. The stories are broken into two types, so-called Stand Alone episodes, which are self-contained stories, and Complex episodes, which form a longer story arc dealing with the tracking of a cyberterrorist and a deeper conspiracy plot. Like Bebop, the writing is excellent, and the character evelopment well executed. The world of GitS is also intriguing, with the scientific advances in cybernetics and their impact on the world well thought out and fully explored. It too has good music, as it is also done by Yoko Kanno. This is also a good one to check out.
  • Akira: Considered the seminal anime movie, and the one that introduced what are considered staples in the anime realm: post-apocalyptic Tokyo, extreme violence, a colorful, active animation style, distinct characterizations, and a plot that explores deeper psychological motives. For these reasons Akira bears repeated viewing. For those wishing to see it, be prepared – this ain’t Pokemon!
  • Last Exile: Recommended by our friends Becki and Neale, this anime is set in what could be called a Steampunk universe – think 19th century aesthetic meets 22nd century technology. The story revolves around two young friends, Claus and Lavie, who fly a Vanship, a small, speedy aircraft. They find themselves caught up in the exploits of the rebel air battleship Silvanna, placing them in the midst of an aerial war. Most of the action takes place in the high atmosphere, with a sort of nautical sensibility. The plot is engaging, with each episode revealing a bit more of the main characters’ hidden past, and the mystery surrounding the war. I’m currently watching this series, which is still in production, but it has really caught my attention.
  • Grave of the Fireflies: If there was ever one anime film to dispel the myth of what anime is, this is it. This is a story of a young man and his younger sister, forced by the Second World War to leave the city and stay with their country relatives. The two try to live on their own with shortages of food and a society that ignores them. It’s a sad tale of struggle, and a call against war. Ranks up there with any other anti-war epic.
  • Samurai Champloo: I mentioned Shinichiro Watanabe earlier because this is another of his creations. Set in feudal Japan, this series follows a trio as they journey across the land. There is Fuu, the young woman looking for the man who killed her family, and the two swordsmen she has hired to help her, Mugen, the wild, unpredictable rebel, and Jin, a roaming Samurai. Like other series, there are single, self-contained episodes, and the overarching stories for the main characters that are revealed as the series progresses. The characters and their interactions are well done, and the time period is well examined. But the unique aspect is the all too contemporary hip-hop sensibility laid over the series, with dance beats and even some anachronistic dialogue. But I think this is the creator’s attempt to show some similarities to life back then and life today. This series is currently in production and can be seen on Cartoon Network.

This list is only a fraction of the quality anime that is out there: Bubblegum Crisis, Lain, Inuyasha, Perfect Blue, Fushigi Yugi, Trigun, among others. There are some very strange ones, like Bobobo-bo-bo-bobo or FlCl(pronounced fooly-cooly), and funny ones like Ranma 1/2. And I haven’t even mentioned the work of Hayao Myazaki (the “Walt Disney” of Japanese animation). Look hard enough and you can find something to your tastes. This is evolved animation, and an art form on the par with any other medium.