Blogger's Block #2: Anime for the Nonplussed
I discovered much to my surprise, almost exactly 1 year ago, that I like Anime: Japanese animation. What started it was watching Miyazaki's Spirited Away — I think just about everyone's watched that by now, right? Anime for the unwashed U.S. masses? It made mainstream here, more or less, with the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. My wife and I were tired of the same old Hollywood crap, tired of waiting for those maybe two or three really good movies a year, so we gave it a shot.
After we watched Spirited Away (which is, of course, fantastic, hence the Oscar), we went looking for more stuff like it. First we watched some of the other Miyazaki movies, like Princess Mononoke and Kiki's Delivery Service. All Miyazaki films are worth watching, though, so that wasn't exactly adventurous of us.
Then we went to Suncoast in the mall and met this girl, an American girl, 19 years old, who loved Anime but was too poor to watch most of it. Think of that! We were initially astonished that Anime can make you poor, but now some 150 DVDs later, we're starting to re-think that position. On the plus side, it's nice to own them, and I've never been much of a digital pirate. I'm not a rabid anti-pirate; I've just never been part of the "in" crowd that knows how to steal the stuff, I guess. But it's hard to be against it when half the free world is doing it.
It's a bit of a tangent, but Jeff Bezos explained to us Amazonians, some years back, that being the world's biggest retailer of books, music and video was going to get the company buried, and precisely because of digital piracy. I mean, nobody buys CDs in China, and China is soon going to be half the free world if they're not already. Well, they're far from free, alas, but they're big, and they're pirate-y. Books, music and video can all be digitized, so they'll never be safe against piracy. That's why Amazon branched out and started selling appliances and clothes and sports equipment and everything else under the sun: because not doing it would eventually mean their doom. Or at least that's what I got out of his talk that day. Who knows what he was really trying to say. Jeff, sorry if I've misrepresented you.
Anyway, I still buy CDs (I'm such a lamer), and I still buy books and DVDs too. And I can tell you this much: DVDs are frigging expensive when you get hooked on Anime series. It's nowhere near how much I was spending on my golf habit, or even my snowboarding habit, but it's right up there. Rental places in the Seattle area don't usually have a very good Anime selection, so I wind up buying experimentally.
Well, this girl at Suncoast, I forget her name, Ashley or Lauren or some such trendy 19-year-old name, we were chatting with her and we asked her for a recommendation. "What genres do you like?" is always the first question an Anime fan will ask you, because there are in fact many genres, as many as there are genres in US video. Anime seems to be the dominant form of entertainment in Japan, as far as I can tell from a distance. So if you like one kind of Anime, it's no guarantee that you'll like another.
We didn't know what genres we like. They have genres? Isn't it just like, cartoons, like Scooby-Doo and Speed Racer? All we'd seen were some Miyazaki flicks, and we liked those well enough.
So she gave us her first recommendation, and I can tell you this much: that girl cost us thousands of dollars over the next 18 months. If she had recommended something that was total crap (and I can assure you, there's a LOT of total crap to be found in Anime, just like with other movies), then we might have quickly and permanently lost interest.
But she told us she'd been watching this relatively little-known Anime series called Twelve Kingdoms, and even though she was only on the 3rd or 4th disc, she thought we might like it.
Well, she picked a winner. Turns out this series (45 episodes in all) is pretty consistently rated in the Top Ten Animes of all time by actual Anime fans. Most Anime is based on Manga, which are sort of like Japanese comic books. Twelve Kingdoms is unusual in that it's based on a series of epic Japanese novels, basically high fantasy literature.
Ashley (I think it was Ashley) warned us that the main character, Yoko Nakajima, is "a little bit whiny" at first, but that she gets better as the series progresses. Again, that small tidbit contributed to our multi-thousand-dollar spending habit, because Yoko is in fact the most pathetically insecure, whiny, annoying high-school brat you've ever laid ears on, and if it hadn't been for Ashley's warning, Yoko would have killed Linh and I stone-cold dead within the first three episodes, if we'd even made it that far.
But we persevered, night after night, and by the 2nd DVD were were thinking "well, this might at least hold our attention for a while". By the 5th DVD we couldn't talk about anything else. By the 9th we were actually coming out of the closet and telling our baffled family and friends that we had been watching this Japanese cartoon, and by the end of the series, we started dragging our friends home to watch it with us. Again. We've watched it like 4 or 5 times now.
You know how little kids at a certain age like to watch the same movie over and over and over again, for up to a year, and child psychologists say that each time they see it they're seeing it from a new perspective? Well, 12 Kingdoms was like that for us. There's so much for a Westerner to take in. We missed a lot of it the first time around. It took at least 3 or 4 viewings before the patterns started taking shape in our minds. And yeah, we were watching the English-dubbed version. Mostly. On the 4th viewing we watched it all in Japanese, and it was like seeing it again for the first time.
Purists will tell you that you should always watch the subtitled Japanese. But we've kinda grown used to the English voice actors. The studios use the same people, the same maybe 40 or 50 actors (of which maybe 10 to 20 are instantly recognizable) for every Anime series bound for the U.S. It's just a thing with us. We like to hear Blondie (the En-Ki Ki-Rin from 12 Kingdoms), or the King of En, or Klaus and Lavie, or Alex Row. We hear their voices coming back in each series and we've come to love them all. But YOU, you should watch the subtitled versions, before you're tainted like us.
After a month or two, we ran back to a surprised Ashley and begged her for another recommendation. This was a big deal for her; we were actual paying customers who could afford to buy Anime, and we respected her opinion greatly so far. What to recommend next?
She pondered. She hemmed and hawed a bit. Then she told us: "Well, I guess you could watch Last Exile. I mean, everyone loves Last Exile. Young people, old people...
She sorta tailed off there at the end. I think Linh thought she meant, you know, senior citizens, but that wasn't what she meant at all. AT. ALL. She meant US. Us OLD PEOPLE. It felt like the first time some teenager called me "Sir" (or the first time someone on the 'net called me "Mr. Yegge") — I had to look behind me to see who she was talking to.
But even though I knew damn well who she was referring to, I hardly noticed because I was so excited. We were both excited: a new series to watch, by the famous recommender of 12 Kingdoms!
Well, the rest is history. If 12 Kingdoms hadn't clinched the deal, Last Exile certainly would have. We looooooooooove Last Exile. There's no Anime better than that. Some are as good, almost, maybe, but I don't think there's anything better. We have the posters, we have the plush toys. We went through a Last Exile phase of our lives that lasted at least two months, one of those phases that generates nostalgia for a lifetime. Linh and I decided at one point that we were going to name our kids Klaus and Lavie after the two main characters, and we were dead serious for at least a week, if I'm not mistaken.
It still brings chills, a tear to the eye, just to think of it. Even if you're not planning on watching it, you should spend a few minutes and check out the Official Site, if you have Flash and some speakers. It's one of those rare Flash intros you don't want to skip, and if you play with the menu, you can read a little about the characters, storyline, etc.
I'm so jealous of you. You haven't watched it. What I wouldn't give to erase it from my brain so I can see it again for the first time.
Once again we ran back to Ashley, and I don't remember what her third recommendation was. She gave us a whole list, I think. She was running out of ideas because she was too poor to keep up with all the recent series.
So we've forged out on our own, and we've been working our way through many series and movies. Lots. Tons. And sometimes we go back and watch our favorites again.
I've learned to be really careful, because most Anime is either crap (i.e. it's a genre that appeals to us, but it's written and/or executed incredibly poorly), or it's genres that don't appeal to us. Like Mecha. I'm just not into the giant robot suits. I liked that scene in Aliens where Sigourney Weaver fights the Alien Queen in a big mech suit, but that's about the extent of it. And a surprising percentage of all Anime, at least 25% I'd wager, appears to be mecha-oriented.
It's hard to find reliable reviewers, since 10-year-olds are just as likely to post their reviews, and you can't tell them apart from 40-year-olds who never learned their native tongue. But we've found a few indicators. Whenever some Anime-store clerk half-disparagingly tells us a series is "a thinker", we know we'll probably like it. If a bunch of reviewers say it was boring and they didn't understand half of it, we go check it out. Studios make Anime for all ages, from 3 years old to 83, and there's usually nothing apparent on the packaging that distinguishes one from the other.
So after much trial and error, I've put together a Top 10 list of my favorite Anime series (and movies). I tend to like the series better, since you can get more immersed, and I've deliberately left out the Miyazaki flicks because they're all pure genius and they'd take up the whole Top 10 if I let them in.
Keep in mind that I haven't watched a lot of the classics; e.g. I haven't watched Cowboy Bebop (*gasp*). There's a lot of great Anime out there that I've yet to discover. That's actually a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. But I've watched a fair bit now, and I think my Top 10 list will have at least a few titles in it that you'd get a kick out of.
Oh, and I wouldn't necessarily watch them in this order, if you're seriously thinking of checking them out. If you're into action and/or horror-type stuff, I'd start with Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. It's just one movie, a sequel. If you like it, go watch the original Vampire Hunter D (from 1985).
Anyway, here goes:
Haibane Renmei: my all-time favorite. It's in my wife's top 4 or 5, but it really got me. It's a "thinker". Different from all other Anime out there; it's in a class and genre of its own. It's short: only four DVDs. Strong spiritual undertones non-specific to any religion, although there's some definite Buddhist symbolism. A masterpiece.
Last Exile: unquestionably a landmark in Japanese Animation. Amazing animation (mixed CGI and hand-drawn), amazing soundtrack, gripping epic storyline, unforgettable characters. And, like Haibane, it's unique, which really throws many of the reviewers, since it goes off in unexpected directions pretty often. I'd just skip the reviews and watch it.
Fullmetal Alchemist: one of the top-rated Anime series of all time, and argued by many critics as the greatest ever. My wife and I both like it a lot. We're not finished with the series, though; it's still in the process of being released to the U.S. We've made it up through disc 9, and I think they're up to 12 or 13 so far. Long series -- not sure how long it is, exactly. But it's pretty amazing work: great story, great characters, nice animation, great soundtrack. All-around worth watching.
12 Kingdoms: our first big series, and still one of our all-time favorites. It's a total of 45 episodes, and they were planning on doing something like 60, so it leaves a few story arcs unfinished, including one cliffhanger that will drive you nuts. Follows a very clichéd storyline (for Anime): a high school girl is whisked off to another world where she finds out she's royalty. Serious: this happens in about every 3rd Anime series. But Twelve Kingdoms is the gold standard for this kind of storyline, and it takes on increasingly epic proportions as it progresses. It's a must-see.
Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust: a neat movie. Lots of action, lots of vampire slaying, and a nice love story in it to get a girl to watch it with you. Heh. My wife loved it too, and yes, more for the love story than for the monster-slaying. It'll have you hooked within 10 minutes. Give it a try! If you like it, be sure to check out the original Vampire Hunter D movie, from 15 years prior, which has older animation but an equally excellent story.
Scrapped Princess: this one just finished being released to the U.S. It's a slightly bizarre storyline, but has everything I look for in escapist fantasy: memorable and occasionally cute characters, drama and humor, some great fight scenes, a sweeping story arc, and good animation. We couldn't help liking it, and we'll likely watch it again soon.
Witch Hunter Robin: another favorite. This one is, regrettably, a bit slow (and strangely episodic) in the first ten episodes or so. It's sort of a mix of a bunch of TV shows I've never seen: CSI, Buffy, and X-Files, maybe. I've never seen a single episode of any of them, but that's what I'd compare it to. However, about halfway through the (6-disc?) series, it changes completely, and it's gripping all the way to its rather disturbing finish. Linh and I both really enjoyed it, even if she had to sleep through a few of the plot-development episodes.
Wolf's Rain: I have to recommend this even though we didn't finish watching it. It was just getting too depressing. Those poor wolves. It's definitely a story of hardship, and it doesn't get easier to watch as it goes. But the weird thing is that it's stayed with me. I still think about it often. I suppose that's a hallmark of great art? I'm 100% sure I'll go back and finish it within the year, because it's been nagging at me. It was a great story with great characters, and just because it wasn't easy to watch doesn't lessen its greatness. It's definitely in my Top 10.
Gunslinger Girl: This was only 3 discs, 13 episodes. A little masterpiece, no question. It was funny and over-the-top as all hell at first, with some La Femme Nikita influences, but pretty soon it's clear that it's more of a psychological/emotional piece. The violence and the setting are totally secondary to the storyline, which is about these little cyborg girls trying to figure out if they're human or not. Beautiful ending. Lovely animation. Well worth watching.
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo (adaptation). I'm going out on a limb with #10 here, because we just bought the first DVD and watched it this week. Haven't seen the rest; there are 6 discs, 24 episodes total. But the first four episodes already have us thinking it might be one of the greats. Same studio that did Last Exile. This is a newer series that aired on Japanese TV in from 6/2004 through 3/2005. Man, I'm jealous of Japanese people. Their television just blows ours away. Anyway, if you're adventurous, you can watch it at the same time as us! So far we haven't been a bit disappointed. It's lavish and mysterious, and we know we're in pretty good hands.
You might ask what Anime I've watched that I wouldn't put in my Top 10. Well, Vampire Hunter D is the only movie (2 movies, actually) that made my list, because movies generally just aren't as immersive as the TV series.
As for series, I've watched the first N episodes of a bunch of series, including Burst Angel (looks OK), Kuo Kara Maoh (lame), .hack sign (lame), Gilgamesh (pretty interesting so far), Otogi Zoshi (ok), Hellsing (pretty good so far), and several others I've rented but didn't get far into.
As for movies, I've seen Metropolis (loved it), Perfect Blue (loved it), loved all the Miyazaki I've ever seen (so far: Spirited Away, Mononoke Hime, Howl's Moving Castle, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, Porco Rosso, My Neighbor Totoro, and the Cat Returns), seen Ghost in the Shell (good), Grave of the Fireflies (a masterpiece, but very very sad), Blood: the Last Vampire (great, almost made the list), Samurai X (liked the first one but not the sequel), and a bunch of others I'm forgetting.
I have a bunch of series on my to-watch list, including Cowboy Bebop, Rayearth, Fushigi Yuugi, Steamboy, Samurai 7, Fruits Basket, and at least half-dozen others. We're talking thousands of bucks, so no rush at the moment. And I don't know if I'm going to like any of them. It seems to be hit-or-miss.
Anyway, if I were going to summarize my learnings from the past year, I'd tell you this:
- Some Anime is fantastic. You just have to sift a bit and find what you like, but there's almost guaranteed to be something you'll love.
- Sturgeon's Revelation applies to Anime too. 90% of it is crap.
- I've been missing out, all these years.
If you have recommendations for me, I'd love to hear them!