List o the weak: Anime that time has forgotten

So there are some series that make such an impression that they seem to rock the foundations of anime fandom: Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Beebop, etc. It’s not that these shows are universally beloved, but they’re definitely universal. They’ll come up at least once in any conversation you have about anime.

And then there are shows that seem to spark, fizzle and fade away. Now for the most part, they probably deserve to. I mean how many people really are going to talk about Project A-ko or El Hazard. Not that these shows are bad, it’s just that they didn’t leave much of an impression.

And then there are shows that are good, but surprisingly don’t seem to show up in any conversations. Now none of these shows are perfect, and they may have come at the end of a glut of other shows, or they might have just gotten a little too much bad press. But these are my top five overlooked anime.

Number Five: Otogi Zoshi

Okay, so the first thirteen episodes of this are better than the second, but even with that this show has two kickass openings, swords, mysterious quests and some really excellent animation (courtesy of Production I.G.) The first thirteen episodes follow the adventure of Hikaru Minamoto as she assumes her brother’s identity to save Japan. Yes, it sounds like a cheap rip-off of Mu Lan. But trust me, this isn’t Disney at all. It’s got blood and dying and tragedy and all of the good stuff.

Now the second half does take place in a modern Tokyo and does seem more like an epilogue to the first part rather than a story in its own right. But it’s still enjoyable enough.

Number Four: Noein

There’s just something about this show. Yeah, it does focus on a bunch of elementary school kids in their last summer before they go on with the rest of their lives. But how they get caught up in this inter dimensional war is great. The kids themselves get routinely upstaged by their adult counterparts. In particular, Kurasu, who is the older version of the male lead, is at times dark and mysterious and times tragic and at times cruel and occasionally insane. He makes for one of the better heroes I’ve seen in anime. Now I wouldn’t necessarily put him in Lelouch or Suzaku territory, but he’s still loads of fun.

And the other characters are just as enjoyable. Even Atori, who at first just seems like the classic anime wack job actually gets some fairly decent development. In fact, my only complaint about this series is the ending, which just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the series. But otherwise it’s definitely worth checking out. Here’s Anime Diet’s first look at it.

Number Three: Argentosoma

Um… did you notice my banner up there? Yeah, that’s Ryu Soma. Probably one of the best anti-heroes in anime. He’s as interesting of a character as Lelouch or Kaiji. He’s probably more interesting than a lot of the heroes on my top eight list (with the exception of Brandon Heat). Now, I spent an entire analysis piece a while back going over him, so I won’t repeat everything I said there. But the dynamic between him and Hattie is really what sells this show to me.

Now the side characters aren’t necessarily as interesting, but that’s okay. The plot is fairly good and provides an excellent backdrop for the conflict between those two characters and the conflict within the main character himself.

Number Two: Starship Operators

So I had a hard time deciding whether this should be number two or number three, but it’s probably the more obscure show. I’ll be honest though, it does an amazing job at capturing the relationship between the media, the government and the military in times of war. In fact, it could just as easily be a case study for the nature of modern warfare as it is a story about some high school students who hijack a ship.

The only bad thing I can say about it is that it has a nasty case of red shirt and a missing denouement but otherwise it’s an excellent show.

Number One: Kaze no Yojimbo

Okay, so I’ve talked about this one before. But if you’re tired of hardboiled heroes who go soft halfway through the series, than watch this show. If you want a little more realism in your anime, then watch this show. If you just want something that’s different, then watch this show. I mean if Dashiell Hammett had a Japanese love child, it would be George Kodama. And if he’d happened to set The Red Harvest in Japan is would be Kaze no Yojimbo.

But… the character designs do have a bad tendency to switch a little. But honestly if you can put up with the ever shifting character designs of GitS: Standalone Complex, then you shouldn’t have a problem with this one.

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In My View: I still like serial. Even if it might rot my brain.

Now before I get into this, let me say that I respect bateszi a lot. I don’t always agree with what he says, but he does say it very well. And even if I disagree, I can appreciate his point of view. And hell, he liked GTO.

It’s just that his latest post got me thinking about why I like anime.

But I think I have to give you all a little history, so you know where I’m coming from. I grew up watching Doctor Who. In particular I grew up watching Tom Baker play Doctor Who on public television every weekday. And I didn’t watch it in the two hour block that it would be later processed into. No, I watched it a half hour at a time. So an entire arc could take a week or two to play out. When you’re eight, an hour can seem like a long time, let alone a day. But every weekday at 7:30, I made sure I was in front of the television when the show started up because I didn’t want to miss a thing.

That’s when I fell in love with the serial.

Serials really are unlike any other form of storytelling. Mostly because they aren’t self contained. A really good serial will pull the viewer in and leave them thinking about, “what’s going to happen next time?” in a way that traditional episodic television simply doesn’t do. That’s not a knock on episodic television, just to say that they’re different.

Now with a rare exception, the majority of American television in the 90s was episodic. I don’t blame the networks for their choices as far as that goes. I mean episodic television is safer. The stories are self-contained and don’t rely on a person having watched the previous ten or so episodes so they get what is going on. Producing those kinds of shows just makes good business sense.

But it didn’t help me much.

So I started watching anime. Now as a medium, anime does the serial really well. In fact, I’d risk saying that they do the serial better than they do episodic television. Now I’ll admit that I started watching anime again on Cartoon Network. I even sat through the entirety of the Cell Saga on DBZ, although I’m still wondering why. And once I had the means and ability to buy anime, I did.

And it was about that time that America resurrected the serial with The Sopranos. In all honesty, I haven’t watched the Sopranos, and I don’t really have any intention of watching it (mostly because Mob shows are the one form of crime drama that I don’t like.) But I have watched 24, Lost and Heroes with split feelings on all of those shows. But I can say all of those shows have one thing in common.

They aren’t anime.

American serials (for the most part) work on the premise that no matter how weird things get, this is a story about real people living real lives. I mean take a look at Heroes. Here’s a show about a group of people who find out one day that they have superpowers. Even the most bombastic show of all time – 24 – is still a show about the progression of Jack Bauer as a character. The creators have even said that much.

In fact, when a show starts pushing that boundary of realism too far (24) people like me start to cringe (how many times can the guy get tortured before he finally dies.) Now part of that has to do with the medium. Part of it has to do with the nature of American fiction. But with any of these shows they’re required to stay within people’s expectations of how real people should act and what real people should be able to do. And each time they diverge from reality they’re taking a risk of losing their audience.

Whereas anime can break all the rules and get away with it. I mean could you imagine a live action Kamui and Fuma zooming around Tokyo tower holding swords nearly as long as they are? Or a real Lain standing in the middle of a bunch of jabbering mouths attached to shadowy figures? Or even someone playing Shinji Ikari kneeling at the feet of Unit 01 debating with himself whether he should really pilot it? I know I couldn’t. (All rumors of a live action Eva aside.)

But because they’re removed from the realm of reality, it becomes believable. We can imagine these things happening because somewhere in the back of our heads we’re thinking, “It’s just a cartoon.” And that’s the beauty of it. In fact, I’d compare it closer to another type of teen entertainment – the comic book.

Now anime that cuts a little closer to reality can certainly be good. I enjoy Monster. I think Kaze no Yojimbo is easily the best hard-boiled detective series that’s ever been animated. But they’re mostly a novelty. Interesting, yes. Intelligent, sure. But I could turn on my own television and see the same thing.

It’s not that I deny that the American serial has a certain amount of appeal. I mean I like some of them. But it’s a different type of story with a different type of medium and a different approach. Judging one in the light of the other just doesn’t seem fair.


 

Lost in Translation: A look at BLASSREITER and Tower of Druaga

Sometimes I wonder why some genres don’t travel very well into anime. Partially I understand that anime is on the whole a fairly new medium. And it’s not a medium that has a whole lot of experimentation that goes on. It’s pretty possible to pick up a new show that is really the rehash of an old show which was a different take on another older show which all started with this one show that was pretty novel. So I can’t blame them that they haven’t experimented a lot, they’ve gone with what’s safe. (Granted I could go into the whole Lain/Texnolyze/Ergo Proxy/Ghost Hound/Kaiba thing, but I’m going to save that for another post.)

And then there’s the fact, that there are just some genres that they seem to have a mental block on. Take Western fantasy for example. Now, I’ll admit my geekdom started with picking up a copy of Guardians of the West by David Eddings, and after 16 years of reading fantasy I’m pretty jaded when it comes to the genre. When I take something like A Game of Thrones or The Deadhouse Gates and compare it something like Slayers, well let’s just say it’s like comparing Alan Ginsberg with a well meaning 15-year-old poet wannabe. It makes me want to cry. A lot.

This is why Tower of Druaga is surprising me. I mean it already has one strike against it: It’s based off of a video game. That the second strike should mean that it’s lingering between being barely entertaining and downright unwatchable.

Yet, I find myself looking forward to Friday and pulling up my YouTube page to watch the new episode. Now don’t get me wrong, Druaga won’t win any awards or be listed in anyone’s top anime of all time. But I still find myself liking every episode I watch, including the first one.

So I keep trying to figure out, where it succeeds, where so many have failed. And I think I have an answer. It takes itself just serious enough without taking itself too serious. See where a show like Record of Lodoss War fails is that the dialogue, plotting and characters simply don’t live up to the uber-serious tone it sets for itself. I mean how can I take a mage serious who runs around chanting stuff and screaming, “Fireball.” Whereas the sit-com plot of Slayers completely undermines any thing serious they try to do, distancing me from the characters. (It doesn’t help that my favorite character is a doofus, who never seems to win.)

Yes, Jin is a loser. But he means well. Yeah, the priestess goes around chanting to Ishtar, but she doesn’t strike up a three-minute monologue explaining the importance of Ishtar to the culture of the land and do it in a way that’s so horribly cliché that it makes me want to kill some Elves. The funny moments in the show aren’t enough to damage the integrity of the serious moments, but they’re enough so that some of the ridiculousness doesn’t grate on my nerves. Basically Tower of Druaga is a David Eddings book: charming, funny, a little cliché, but mostly good fun.

But oh… BLASSREITER, how you are disappointing me. Now I’d like to point out that the Japanese do cyberpunk well. In fact, right after shounen fighting and epic space battles, anime seems to be made to have street samurai’s facing off with class-A hackers. I mean you don’t have to worry about gravity or athletic ability in anime. And by taking a step away from reality, makes the impossible seem plausible in a way that would be much harder in the live-action movie.

But BLASSREITER insists on upping the melodrama. See cyberpunk (in my humble opinion) has to be handled with subtlety. Now visually BLASSREITER does a good job. The character designs are in the more realistic style of something like GiTS: Standalone Complex or Parasite Dolls. The scenery all looks real. Honestly I could really go for the story.

If they weren’t shouting about Gerd all the time and wondering whether he’s a monster or is he a human being. (Maybe they should just make him a number and banish him to some island where he can get chased around by a giant floating bouncy ball.)

In fact, the best cyberpunk stories seem to dwell too heavily on their themes at all. Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex actually spends quite a bit of time exploring the nature of technology and people’s interaction with it, but it’s always in the context of another story (like chasing a tank down the road or trying to rescue a kidnap victim.) You could watch the entire series without once having to pick out the theme.

But BLASSREITER insists on shoving it down your throat until you gag on it.

And that’s unfortunate because it could be a really good series otherwise.

Jumping at Shadows: Is the first episode of Code Geass Japanese Right-wing propaganda?

“There is a house down in New Orleans. They call the Rising Sun.”

  • House of the Rising Sun. (Traditional American Folk song)

Now I’ll admit my first encounter with Japanese culture didn’t come from anime at all, but rather a book. And not really just any book, but a book written by an American. In this case, Michael Crichton’s “Rising Sun“. Now admittedly around the time it was written it was fairly topical. Japan was buying up large parts of American real estate. Economically and psychologically, the country felt dwarfed by the powerhouse across the ocean. So Crichton, being the smart writer he was, wrote a book exploring the Japanese-American relationship at the time.

It was the first time I came across the word, “gaijin”.

Now the only reason I bring up the book, is that when I told other people about what I learned in there, they looked at me and said, “You know that’s kind of racist.” Now of course, they were referring to what I was saying, not the Japanese attitude.

Now, I’m not going to go into whether Crichton overstated Japan’s xenophobia or whether he’s racist because honestly, that’s not the point. The point is that America (and to a lesser or greater extent the rest of the Western world) is very conscious of race. We talk about it. We argue about it. We have entire fields of study devoted to it. We have television shows that explore it.

So it’s not surprising that we end up seeing it in anime. Unlike my friends at the time, we’re all pretty familiar with the word gaijin, and the sometimes racist, sometimes xenophobic stuff that creeps into anime from time to time.

In fact, we’re so used to it that we expect it. We look at the two CIA agents in GitS: Standalone Complex and say, “Yep there it is.” We look at the masked Americans in Gasaraki and say, “There it is again.” I’m pretty sure that we could come up with a laundry list of questionable things that have popped into anime since we’ve started watching it.

So when another blogger asked, “Whether we thought the first episode of Code Geass R2 was right-wing Japanese propaganda?” The initial reaction would be, “Yes.”

And it could certainly be seen like that. I mean, you have an invading Western force occupying Japan. You have the noble Japanese people under the thumb of those cruel Brittanians. In fact, the rebel’s hero, a Caucasian westerner, is a ruthless anti-hero who would willingly sacrifice his own men.

But… I would say that interpretation is kind of limited.

Tanaguchi and Imperalism

The question here really is one of context. And really I have iknight’s pimping of Goro Tanaguchi to thank for it. If we look at Code Geass in the light of PLANETES, then the episode falls into a completely different category.

PLANETES is probably one of the most scathing indictments of colonialism and imperialism that I’ve seen. In fact, the second half of the series is dominated by a group of “terrorists” from developing countries who want to share in the wealth of space exploration. But the Western world has shut them out.

I put “terrorists” in parentheses because throughout most of the series these people are portrayed as hard working, just people, who happened to come from poor or war torn countries. Now I’d provide specific examples, but I don’t want to spoil the series.

Although, I can point out the UN satellite in the first episode. Which Ai originally thought was a symbol of peace and turned out to be blatant PR for the UN.

Now if I compare that with dynamic between the Brittanians and the Japanese, it becomes less about who it’s happening to and more about what exactly is happening. Whatever else Code Geass might be about; it is mostly a warning AGAINST imperialism. That just happens to take place in Japan. Much like 1984 happened to be based in England, or Fahrenheit 451 happens to be based in America.

But why Suzaku and Lelouch

Now somebody could ask, well what about Suzaku and Lelouch? I mean the Japanese guy is noble and heroic and has all the best intentions. And the Briton is sneaky, self-involved and cold. And on the surface, I think that’s probably a decent argument. And when I was thinking about this subject, I did run up against a brick wall.

I mean Suzaku IS a good guy. But… he’s still the villain. I mean he’s the Vichy government. And Lelouch IS still the hero even with all of his faults. So why the switch-up?

And I think the answer is pretty simple. Tanaguchi seems torn on terrorism.

If we take the character from PLANETES, who will remain nameless, as an example. We can see that he’s a noble man. The first time he gets introduced he’s actually a hero. All he wants is a little social justice, but the powers that be won’t listen to him. So he takes matters into his own hands. Now I won’t say he glamorizes terrorism, but that he realizes that there are times when the tree of liberty has to get watered.

But he also realizes that violence has to be a means to an end and not the end in and of itself. In fact, Lelouch’s almost surrender to Euphie points at this. Once the government listens, it’s time for the terrorism to stop.

In fact, the opinion I get from watching his stuff could be summed up, “There is a thin line between terrorist and revolutionary.” And that’s a fairly cosmopolitan (if somewhat radical) viewpoint, if I do say so myself.

Related Links

Anime World Order’s interview with Helen McCarthy, Rob Fenelon and Dave III presents an interesting take on the relationship between Britain and Japan.

Iknight’s look at the Lelouch’s character.

In My View: Why I can’t stop worrying and learn to love the anime industry.

Honestly, I think a lot of anime fans don’t have the foggiest understanding (or concern) for the general business of anime, both the creative aspect and the commercial aspect. How often do you hear a fan criticize an animation studio for a business decision it had absolutely nothing to do with, as if the giant media conglomerates bankrolling and controlling the production in the background didn’t even exist? And how often do you hear anime fans whine about getting “ripped off” by greedy anime “companies” without any real knowledge of, 1) how much money it costs to produce anime, 2) how little television broadcast ad revenue amounts to, and 3) how little the people working in the trenches get paid?

Jeff Lawson on the Animanachronism’s post Studiotolatry

To be frank when I first started learning a bit more about anime, I started to get interested in the decisions of the studio. And how the business worked. So I sent one short e-mail into “Hey Answerman!” It read:

“How much creative control do the studios have over the anime they select? Can they choose the series? Because I’ve noticed some similarities between series from certain studios (like Bones and GONZO).”

It’s a really simple question. It certainly didn’t require a page long answer. A simple “A lot” or “A little” would have sufficed. But it didn’t get answered. Maybe it’s because it was poorly phrased. Maybe because it was too vague. Maybe because I have bad grammar.

Or maybe because he wanted to talk about fansubs that week.

I don’t know. And I probably will never know. So when I read that little snippet from Jeff Lawson, frankly it pissed me off. But I couldn’t put it into words why. Somehow the crux of my problem was eluding me. That was until two things happened. The first was a comment from Sejanus over on the blogspot version of this page on my strangely popular rant about ANN’s spring preview:

I think you are over-analysing it… ANN is just trying to do a better job, give us, the fans, what we want: more information.

And what do the fans say about it? Not surprisingly, they’re bitching.

Now you can read my rambling after that. Frankly, I got on my high horse. And I went into my traditional rant. Now maybe omo is right. Perhaps my crime is caring too much about standards. Perhaps my crime is that I think there’s a correct way to practice journalism. And perhaps Impz should have written this rant.

But if I might be indulged to misquote Shakespeare, “Let it not be said that I loved too little, but that I loved too well.” And that’s why being told that I’m bitching and that I should just sit down and shut up, ticks me off. Because I do care about those things, whether I should or I shouldn’t. Like I care about how much money it costs to produce anime. Like I care about how little television broadcast ad revenue amounts to. Like I care about how little the people working in the trenches get paid.

Like I care about anime.

But no one would tell me anything about it. And why should they? I mean they already knew. Why bless the unwashed masses with that information? As Avatar put it:

Hey, if you’ve been in the industry for a decade, you know better than to talk to damned anime fans… there’s nothing but abuse in it, and you can’t tell them anything good anyway, so why bother?

Perhaps the same thing could be said about the anime fans. That they love too well. They care too much about things that they don’t know enough about. And why don’t they? Because frankly the information isn’t there. Avatar makes an interesting point about subtitlers, but I couldn’t tell a good subtitle from a bad one. I couldn’t tell a good timer from a mediocre one. Some people might even accuse me of the fact that I can’t tell a good voice actor from a bad one. Because no one has ever taught me. They’re all inside some secret chamber somewhere, doing stuff and all I have are questions.

But it wasn’t that I read TheBigN’s blog post that I finally got it though. I wasn’t just mad because I care. I was mad because I got lumped in with THOSE people. You know the ones. They talk about how, “fansubs are protected by the First Amendment.” They complain about how the anime companies are ripping them off. They blame the studio for a bad business decisions.

And you know what? I am.

But I don’t want to be. I listen to Anime World Order and Anime Roundtable as often as I can. And even though I might complain, I read ANN. I check out the blogs. I try to gather up as much information as I possibly can. So maybe it’s time to turn those tables around. Maybe it’s time for the people in the know to stop bitching.

And to start teaching.

Now in all fairness some of them do, but they still keep this pretense up. That somehow those of us that are less knowledgeable shouldn’t be speaking. But how are we going to know unless we ask questions? How are we going to know unless we challenge?

How are we going to know unless they answer?

——–

Related Links

Anime Almanac’s take on my poorly worded rant.

Jpmeyer’s take.

Why not s-CRY-ed?

To be honest I’ve liked s-CRY-ed since I first watched it when it was coming out on DVD out here.

I mean plot-wise, it really isn’t that different from most shounen style fighting shows. You have two guys, who don’t like each other; both of them are trying to get strong enough to challenge the other one in an all-out mano y mano fight. But honestly, if you watch shounen fighting shows for the plot, then you’re going to be sadly disappointed almost every time.

Because it’s the characters themselves that drew me into this show. In fact, it was how the characters were considered equally important (much like Yan Wen-li and Reinhard von Lohengramm), given equal screen time and both had compelling back stories and conflicts.

Oh yeah, and the fights were awesome.

But I never could really connect with it and it’s taken me a really long time to figure out why.

The metaphor of s-CRY-ed

The second part of the series always bugged me. You know, the part where suddenly Kazuma and Ryuho get sucked into Never Never Land and then the wacko guy from the Mainland shows up. It just seemed too inconsistent of a break in the plot. He’d spent a good fourteen episodes building this tension between these two worlds, why go and ruin it by switching up the story on the viewer?

And then I realized it. s-CRY-ed is a parable.

On the one hand, you have Kazuma, who represents the ideal of Freedom. On the other hand, you have Ryuho who represents the ideal of Security. (Now some person might say that he represents “Order” but I don’t think order and security are two different things.) Then you have Ryuho’s setting which is the reality of Security and then on the other hand you have Kazuma’s setting which is the reality of Freedom.

So the first part of the series is basically saying that: A truly free society will become an anarchic state where the strong pray on the weak. And a totally secure society will become a totalitarian state where no one can make their own decisions (and if they do then they get kicked out.) Now, I could spent a lot of time going into what each of the characters mean in this debate, but I don’t think it’s really necessary.

Because I’ve got to talk about Kyoji Mujo, the guy from the Mainland. The thing is that the first part of s-CRY-ed is really clear about what the metaphor is. I mean it’s even in the ads for the show. But the second half threw me. He didn’t have a clear-cut metaphor. And then it hit me: He’s Tyranny. Essentially he comes along takes the worst parts of Freedom and Security warps them to meet his own personal ends and then throws them back at the heroes. He differs from Freedom and Security because he only wants those things for himself and uses other people to get what he wants.

Okay, so there’ll probably be some spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the series, go watch it. And really why are you still reading this anyway if you haven’t seen the series?

So how does it all play out? Well Freedom and Security get together and kick Tyranny’s ass and the world is a safe happy place for everyone else. Why? Because Freedom and Security still don’t like each other and they have to spend the rest of eternity pounding each other into the ground. But neither of them can win because they are equally important.

So the moral of the story is, “Both Freedom and Security are necessary to keep a check on tyranny and provide a safe and free environment for the rest of the human race.”

Sounds good, right?

Except if you’re me.

On the nature of the Freedom vs. Security debate and why I think s-CRY-ed is so messed up.

I think George Orwell said it best when O’Brien was talking to Winston Smith. People don’t want freedom. They want security. In fact, human history is littered with cases of people wanting to feel safe and willingly giving up their rights to do just that. All you need to do is look at the rise of Manorialism after the fall of Rome to see that people will sell themselves into slavery so that they know that those pesky Vikings aren’t going to come in and raid their land and take their stuff. In a straight fight between those two values: security wins.

But freedom is the higher value. In so many ways, freedom allows people to do things, to follow their goals, to become participants in society rather than slaves to it. But the only time people chase after freedom is when they’re afraid of losing it. And then only if they don’t have any fear that someone might do something bad to them. Because if their security gets threatened they’ll give up freedom without a second thought and they’ll even defend giving it away.

So while, I agree with the basic idea of s-CRY-ed, Goro Taniguchi misses the point. Security and freedom aren’t equal values. Freedom is the higher value. It’s what should be preserved, both because it allows people the choice to do what they want, and because it’s so unnatural for humanity. Security is a vice. It should only be indulged when it’s necessary to preserve the safety and well-being of the society.

And that’s what bothers me about s-CRY-ed.

Umm… Why is ANN doing a Spring Preview?

So am I the only one who finds it a bit ironic that ANN is doing a “real time” preview of the Spring Season. Granted, it is news. And even if I disagree with their reviews, they do seem to do it every years. But they spend so much time and effort trying to convince people that downloading fansubs is wrong that somehow I don’t think their reader base would be running out to download the fansubs of these shows.

I mean it might just be me, but aren’t they making a profit off of doing those reviews. And doesn’t it mean then that they’re making a profit off of promoting the illegal downloading of shows, or at the very least promoting shows that may or may not actually come out in the United States (or anywhere for that matter.)

Yeah. Way to go ANN. Throw ethics to the wind, so you can drag in a few extra dollars.