Tuesday, July 30, 2013

2006: Welcome to the Next Level

Serdar Yegulalp, a tech journalist by day, is also the Site Guide for Anime.About.com. He also runs his own science-fiction-and-fantasy imprint, Genji Press, where he blogs about SF, movies, creativity, the complexities of self-publishing, the Sun Ra and Skinny Puppy back catalogs, and most everything else that catches his attention. He also occasionally sticks his neck out on Twitter (@genjipress).

Back when I started curating Anime.About.com, one of the first feature articles I put together was a four-parter which involved a number of anime at different "course levels." An anime that required no understanding of Japanese culture or Japan to begin with was a "100-level" anime. Another that was still easy to get into but would be best appreciated with a little foreknowledge was a "200-level" anime. A show pitched mainly for Japanese audiences, or which one wasn't likely to find accessible unless you were already steeped in the tropes and quirks of anime generally was a "300-level" anime. (I later refined the categories a little, but the basic concept remains intact.)

I now wonder if listing Black Lagoon as a 100-level anime was such a good idea.

For the average adult (most likely male) Western audience member, Black Lagoon actually isn't difficult to get into at all—provided they don’t mind being dropped into the middle of the most violent, raunchiest, most foul-mouthed, cynically-scripted story this side of, well, every 1980s-era Chow Yun-Fat action vehicle and every 1990s Michael Bay production. Black Lagoon was created in homage to and for the audiences of exactly those things, and like a lot of anime itself, you either eat this stuff up or you run like hell.

But if Black Lagoon the anime is like that, it's only because Black Lagoon the manga, the source material—which started hitting shelves in 2002—is also like that. Form is merely following function, and Black Lagoon's function is to dance right on the line between being entertaining and being repugnant.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

2005: In A Silent Way

@QX20XX does not have a Ph.D. in cultural studies, is not featured in any magazines or books, and only writes for anigamers.com. Once deemed "a great example of cognitive dissonance in action," QX started writing about anime as a joke, but that joke stopped being funny over a year ago. QX likes hamburgers, probably enjoys your least favorite anime, prefers Asuka over Rei, and dreams of designing a video game you will regret letting your children play.

Ask anyone for post-2000 anime recommendations and you're guaranteed to receive at least one of the following responses.

"You should watch Aria."

"I definitely recommend Aria."

"What do you mean you haven't seen Aria?"

If I said Mars of Destruction was the only anime I had seen from the year 2005, I wouldn't be lying except that Akagi also happened to air in 2005.

What do you mean you haven't seen Mars of Destruction?

Best known for its extensive catalog of otome games, video game publishing company and development studio Idea Factory occasionally produces anime series and OVAs based on their properties. In 2005, Idea Factory produced a twenty-minute OVA for a visual novel they developed for the PlayStation 2, Hametsu no Mars, or Mars of Destruction. As best as I can commit it to words, Mars of Destruction is a sci-fi story about a virus from Mars that arrives on Earth, infecting people in Tokyo and turning them into "Ancients". This woeful cartoon has the distinction of being one of, if not, the worst rated anime on both MyAnimeList and AniDB. For such a minor blip in the grand scheme of things, how does Mars of Destruction get one over (under?) other legendarily awful productions such as M.D. Geist and Garzey's Wing?

Despite the game's rapid descent into obscurity, the tie-in anime that was destined from inception as a throwaway extra stands out as such a blinding example of terrible, it refuses to be forgotten long after the game proper was buried in a bargain bin. In a succinct twenty minutes, Mars features a nonsensical story rife with clichés, regrettable acting and dialogue, thoughtless direction, amateurish animation, shameless parallels to Evangelion, evisceration of generic anime girls, and the vocal talents of a young Chihara Minori (Yuki Nagato from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) who couldn't have known better. Being a mere promotional video attached to a low tier game release, Mars of Destruction may not have been so disastrous as to shutter Idea Factory or force a renowned creator into early retirement, but it is exceptional in how immediate and aggressive it is in being bad. Thanks to its short run time and dubious interest from the rights holders, the anime is easily found on YouTube for the benefit of future generations of anime viewers.

I am aware I am being facetious. Since even I'm not comfortable saying Mars of Destruction defines anime in 2005, let's talk about Aria.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

2004, Part 2: Respectful, Yet Rebellious

Over 130 new anime shows debuted in 2004 on Japanese television, a number in magnitude that would be the norm for the next decade. Naturally, George J. Horvath from The Land of Obscusion needed just a little more space for his coverage on what shows made 2004 what it was. If you need a refresher on the first half, click here.

It could have been easy to give a simple mention of each of these titles and get this year covered in one post, but as the essay titles indicated this year had to be covered in more detail, respecting the reader and the blog while also bucking tradition and giving more. Luckily, the latter half of 2004 felt the same way...

Being a visual medium anime has to do something to really catch viewers' interests at times and while the year had a few worthy contenders, like Windy Tales and Tweeny Witches, no anime from 2004 did that as well as Gankutsuou–The Count of Monte Cristo. Based on the legendary novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, Gonzo took the story and put it a new spin on it, while also giving the entire show a look that, to this day, is still one-of-a-kind.

Simply from a storytelling perspective Gankutsuou took the tale and put it into the far-future year of 5053, even having the titular Count live on Luna, a colony on the Moon that houses the worst criminals. After saving Viscount Albert de Morcerf from certain death at the hands of Luna's bandits he finds the opportunity to make his way to Earth, Paris in particular, so as to enact the revenge that he's wanted to do, much like the original novel. While the story stuck to the novel's original time period, specifically in terms of social classification and general attire, the show also fully embraced its futuristic shift, with the poor people living a world of dirty pipes and grunge, while the rich live in a seeming-utopia, and grand battles are dealt with by way of giant robots that are piloted by the duelists when the need arises. The idea that the rich are in fact the ones who are caged like birds was indeed brought up and it helped push the thought that these people were truly living in their own fantasies.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

2004, Part 1: Rebellious, Yet Respectful

George J. Horvath had been a fan of Toonami's airing of G Gundam and Rurouni Kenshin as well as Fox's airing of Digimon and Escaflowne before being an "anime fan", but in 2004 he went into the medium full-bore, always looking for what came from the past while also seeing what the future would bring. After writing a Guestspotting article for GameSpot and two reviews for Sega-16, though, he decided to take use his B.A.-quality education in Journalism and Media Studies from Rutgers University and start reviewing, on his own, the obscure and forgotten anime and manga of the past (and present). He now runs The Land of Obscusion, talking about anime you may or may not have heard of, and posts semi-randomly over at Twitter.

When it comes to the history of anime, 2004 was a great showing of how the industry was changing. More titles debuted in letterbox format instead of the usual "full screen". Digital animation was replacing cels. Late-night anime was hitting just about every major TV station in Japan after its slow, growing presence was felt starting from the late 90's. Most importantly though, chances were being taken on all sorts of genres and ideas while also celebrating the history that had already been made. To truly understand how diverse the year was for anime one must look deep into the jungle and see what titles defined themselves among others. Among a list of some of the most well-known titles to have come and gone were shows that dared to be different and change the way we viewed anime. In the first half of the year they managed to not only respect the past and even the viewer but some also challenged tradition and made the viewer think of anime in brand new ways.

Before 2004 the last real vestige of the magical girl genre was Sailor Moon, which finished back in the late-90s. There were titles like Magical Doremi (Ojamajo Doremi in Japan) in between that span of years, but none of them truly broke through that glass ceiling and became major hits, even if they had multiple season runs. Toei, though, didn't just rest on their laurels, and in this year they debuted Futari wa PreCure, also known simply as Pretty Cure. On the surface the show's plot about two girls with completely different ways of life who end up becoming guardians of good against the powers of darkness wasn't anything original, but what made people tune in was the execution.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

2003, Part 3: Ten More for the Road

Last time, Bradley talked about some of the most notable series that aired in 2003. This time, he concludes by talking about some of the more obscure series you might have missed, and closing with a comparison of anime in 2003 and anime a decade later.

And now, our exciting conclusion...

So in addition to stalwart anime subject matter like giant robots and bouncing breasts, 2003 also had plenty of weird, out-there stories. Kino's Journey is one such anime, based on an adaptation of some unconventional material, this time from a light novel series telling the tale of a boy and his talking motorcycle who travel a world with an incredible variety of cultures and wildlife. Kino's stories often bloom into short, poignant observations about life that echo many of Aesop's Fables. Combined with a muted but very pretty animation style, this is a series that really earns its moments of emotional resonance with a little bit of fairy tale magic and a lot of earnestness.

Also weird but a lot more pretentious was the follow-up to the depressing and beautiful Haibane Renmei from writer Chiaki J. Kanaka and character designer Yoshitoshi ABe: Texhnolyze. The two created a vibrant yet depressing cyberpunk world with underground fights between cyborgs and social strife that become gang wars. It's an utterly surreal watch, but difficult to penetrate. Partly this is because the story is non-linear, but also because the pacing is really slow, which doesn't quite fit the action that the DVD cover promises with an angry kid with a metal arm looking like he's ready to punch someone.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

2003, Part 2: Fullmetal and Full Frontal

Last time in our thrilling exploration of 2003 anime and what Cool Japan meant then, Bradley Meek talked about how the true test of whether anime was going to continue to be perceived as cool would be made or broken on TV. And how did that pan out? Read on...

Okay, never mind what I said last time; let's start by talking about Fullmetal Alchemist.

This anime has become one of those cartoons that you can be fairly certain many of your classmates have seen or heard of, at least a few of your coworkers and possibly your boss have watched a bit of, and has roughly a 30% success rate as way of striking up a conversation at a bar, which puts it in the vaunted realm of success somewhere between college hockey games and American professional soccer. It's often mentioned in the same breath as Sailor Moon, Cowboy Bebop, and other near-mainstream successes. It was many fans' first anime, and for some, it would be the only they would ever want to watch. When describing the recent success of Attack on Titan on an episode of ANNCast, Funimation reps described it as potentially a new "Fullmetal" for them, and it's telling that they didn't have to clarify which of their two successful licenses that starts with "Fullmetal" they meant. This was, and in some ways still is, a really popular anime, and it seems the only thing that took some of the shine off it in popular opinion was when Studio Bones went back and made a bigger, better "Fullmetal" in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Which raises an interesting question: is there any reason left to watch this, now that Brotherhood is as easily available as its predecessor on home media and does a better job retelling much of the same story? Does nutjob screenwriter Shou Aikawa's bizarre ending still hold up all these years later? I remember loving it at the time, but I'm not sure now. Can we still forgive those short bursts of filler in its early and latter episodes? Is the Lupin parody episode as great as I remember? The answer is probably easy, because when asked, I have always recommended people watch Brotherhood instead. But I kind of wish it was more difficult.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

2003, Part 1: The Cresting Wave of Cool Japan

When Bradley Meek is not coding, sleeping, reading or playing Dota 2, he's watching every kind of anime he can get his hands on. At times, this means he subconsciously channels Madarame from Genshiken, which is known to frighten away women and small puppies. Sometimes he writes on his blog, Those Damn Cartoons, but to be honest, he would usually rather watch anime than write about it. You can find him opining about cartoons over on Twitter (@BradleyCMeek).

Do you remember superflat?

That bizarro pop art movement of the early 2000's where Andy Warhol, street graffiti, ukiyo-e and thirty-plus years of anime and manga were dropped into a blender, dished out onto canvases and sculptures, and then served to the world of high art in Tokyo, New York, Paris and London? It featured art that was a cheery mix of kawaii mascots and apocalyptic imagery, with dollops of a potent mixture of sexiness and child-like innocence familiar to anime fans. It was a grab-bag of forty years of Japanese culture informed by much older, more traditional Japanese art styles, and it was, by all accounts, a big success. One of the short-lived movement's primary authors, Takashi Murakami, was profiled in the New York Times in 2005, and it's an instructive read.

Murakami was an otaku throughout the 80's and 90's, and that meant grappling with the destructive legacy of serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who embedded a nasty impression of otaku on a culture that was already suspicious of them. As the article recounts:
"When Miyazaki's room was revealed to the public, the mass media announced that it was otaku space,'' Murakami once told an interviewer. ''However, it was just like my room. Actually, my mother was very surprised to see his room and said: 'His room is like yours. Are you O.K.?' Of course, I was O.K. In fact, all of my friends' rooms were similar to his, too.'' Murakami added that Miyazaki was only ''different from us'' because he ''videotaped dead bodies of little girls he killed.''
Miyazaki's murders were a dark cloud that hung over otaku, and superflat was part of Murakami's attempt to wrestle with that legacy and contextualize it in Japan's larger cultural struggles to define itself. Riding a wave of renewed interest in Japanese culture, he found international success and inspired others who would make similar work.

What interests me about superflat isn't so much what it was, but what it represented to anime fans in Japan and elsewhere: legitimacy. Here was the world of high art writing flattering profiles and gallery reviews of art that was inspired by anime and its culture, and in the same way that Roger Ebert's enthusiastic reviews of Ghibli movies galvanized and inspired fans, the renewed interest in Japanese culture gave fans who had been around for years reason to hope that more mainstream recognition was soon to follow. And the growing popularity of superflat in high art was reflecting a trend elsewhere: anime was becoming exponentially more popular, with growing fan convention attendance in the US and bigger and bigger sales of home media and merchandise in Japan. Anime and its fandom really left behind the long shadow of Miyazaki and other basement-dwelling creeps and was coming into its own as a medium to be recognized by even the most mainstream and highbrow of cultural critics and consumers.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

2002: Anime Rising to the Top - Believe it!

Savanna Smith, more commonly known around the net as "lostty", has been into anime for over five years. Although she is currently stuck in summer school along with a job that takes up too much of her time, she still considers her full time passion to be procrastinating. One of her many pastimes is analysing anime like Evangelion in way too much detail. She runs a blog known as Anime Princess where she tries to update when time permits, and you can follow her daily rantings on Twitter.

When choosing 2002, I did so without much thought into what had actually aired. Back in these days I was pretty much a youngin' who hadn't yet discovered anime outside of the things that had made its way to North American television. 2002 was a year that anime really started to thrive in the West with Spirited Away even winning the Oscar for Best Animated Film, but as for Japan? I wasn't really sure how it was shaping out there, but what I ended up discovering was that it was a year filled with some of the most popular series out there that new and old anime fans still turn to watch today.