Dean Loves Anime
A DTA Special by Christopher Kinsey
It has come to light that my writing style has been rather negative over the last few years. And rightfully so, there's a lot of anime that is worthy of being taken out back and handed over to the tentacle demon of your choice then shot to put it out of our collective misery. But it is not because there is so much bad that I make these things, but because I know that anime can, and has, been much better than the examples I rip on.
You could say I've been a fan of cartoons my entire life. I wasn't really a fan of Japanese animation until the early 90s when I saw an anime entitled Lensman. Now, this is not a good anime. However, it was very different from everything I had ever seen. Or at least, I thought that. Sure, as a young kid in the 80s I had my share of love for Transformers, Robotech, and Voltron. But that never mattered when you were a kid. They were cartoons, they had action, heroes and explosions. But with that viewing of Lensman I began to seek out more of these "Japanimation" titles. I spent the 90s nabbing up VHS tapes in either subbed or dubbed at two episodes a tape all for the price of 20-40 bucks. This of course led to the hobby, as we know it today and perhaps some justified expectations from the medium from one fan.
Now I cold just give you a list of the anime I've viewed and would consider good, but that would be a very, very long list. So instead, I'll bring up the best of the best in several categories in no particular order.
Back in the 90s fantasy and anime went hand in hand so often you'd think they were stuck together. Now of days in order to become an anime it seems some Japanese role playing video game has to tie in with or spin off from or it has to be modern fantasy. Not that that's all bad, but I miss a time when a little sword and sorcery was appreciated by the anime studios.
The Slayers - This is the king of all fantasy anime in my opinion. Record of Lodoss War was how you wanted your D&D games to work out, but The Slayers was how it inevitably turned out. This series follows Lina Inverse, a petite wizard who has a penchant for robbing bandits blind and eating huge meals. As she travels the world she gets involved in many world shattering adventures with her loyal bodyguard, the dense sword master Gourry Gabriev. This series lasts four TV series and a slew of OVAs and movies.
Why it's the best - As a representation of a fantasy adventure, it follows much of what you'd expect in such a tale; powerful magic, swordplay, monsters, castles, deep dungeons and the promise of treasure. What turns this from the ordinary to the extraordinary is how it takes a break from being far too serious. Amidst the goofiness and the serious matter of saving the world, in the end you have characters who get to show themselves as individuals. Each one gets to shine, and each one has their own identity.
This has been a staple of many people's anime greats these days. While I might feel a little betrayed because it's pushed out traditional fantasy; I have to admit, this variety does explore some interesting concepts. They tend to get a little moody and light on action, like Death Note. Now I consider anything that is similar to the modern age, industrial revolution onwards, in this style. That being said, let's see what series I liked the best.
Fullmetal Alchemist - I'm going to draw ire for liking this one, but I can't help it. Edward and Alphonse Elric are on a journey of redemption after committing a forbidden act of alchemy, trying to bring the dead back to life. In the process, Ed lost his arm and leg, while Al lost his entire body and had his soul sealed into a suit of armor. On their journey, they fight a plot set in motion by bizarre alchemical creatures, uncover conspiracies and ceaselessly search for a way to recover what they had lost. Along the way a great supporting cast keeps things lively and become essential in the brother's struggle to right their wrongs.
Why it's awesome - Now this series did have a few flaws, especially when they had to lead into the rather lackluster movie. However, the main series is an excellent blend of action, morality discussions and humor. The supporting cast makes this show. From the military to the awesome villains, this series knows how to use a cast of characters that are varied and have their own back-stories. You can actually care for anyone in this series without dealing with cardboard cutouts in the background.
Action has been a staple of anime since Astro Boy hit our shores in the 60s. You get some giant monsters, throw a few robots/space cowboys/super powered teenagers at it and you're home in time for the news. In the late 80s and early 90s we were treated to an action fest like no other. Inspired by the blockbusters Hollywood produced at that time, anime directors went for big action in a big way. Vampire Hunter D, Fist of the North Star, Gunsmith Cats and even Street Fighter: The Animation came out for some high energy awesome I'd compare even to Terminator 2 or Die Hard in awesomeness.
Ninja Scroll - In the turmoil of the 1600s Japan Jubei Kibagami is the bad-ass to be. When the Koga ninja uncover a plot by the devils of Kimone, he's roped into investigating this evil group through a bit of trickery. He's accompanied by Kagero, the last female ninja of the Koga clan, and Dakuan, a old spy from the Shogunate government. Battle after battle ensues as the Devils of Kimone try to keep their plot under wraps. Along the way Jubei experiences love, loss and finds an old ally is at the center of this plot to overthrow the Shogun.
Why it kicks so much ass - It just does! The storyline is believable enough to make a string of fight after fight against unique ninja who each have special powers. The animation is smooth, flowing, and lends itself to the action quite well. This movie keeps moving right along. You never lose the sense that there is a very real time limit to Jubei's quest. But a small warning, avoid the TV series based off this movie. It pads itself with meaningless reflection and has an art style that can't compare to the flow of the movie.
When you talk anime to any non-anime geek, this is what they think of (Unless they're heavy internet users, then they think about tentacle porn). That's because back in the day just about every anime had to do with robots or giant robots that you sat in and blew up other giant robots in. Robotech, Gundam, Voltron and more. They were all over the airwaves of the 80s here and in Japan. In the 90s giant robots seemed to ‘grow up' with the release of Neon Genesis Evangelion. While I'm not a fan of that series, I have to admit it opened the door for giant robots to be more than an excuse to fight giant monsters or wage war across space. Mecha could be used to tell tales of the human experience, the real face of war, or even go back to their roots and explore every boy's dream of being a hero. Gad Guard, Big O and Armored Troopers Votoms are some of the best examples of anime that use giant robots to not only bring awesome action, but great stories about being ourselves. And then we get things like Tenga Toppa Gurren Lagann which are just awesome for being large, explode-y and manly.
Giant Robo - This OVA series is a tribute to a live action TV show that involved a giant robot. In this anime, super powered government agents fight against a super powered group of criminals named "Big Fire" in a battle for the world. And if super powered ICPO agents wasn't enough, they break out the big bots. A breakthrough technology has made every other form of energy obsolete, being clean, cheap and almost a free lunch in every way. But the son of one of the researchers knows the dark secret of this new energy form and constructs a huge sphere which can cancel out all of the world's energy from these sources. It's up to the Champions of Justice to fight this plot with the aid of Giant Robo.
Why it's the top both - I'm not exactly ga-ga over mecha. I just cannot stand endless rehashes of Gundam or NGE. This is why this series was a perfect throwback to the mechas of old. The timing was just right. Not only do you get some giant robot action, but you also get an overly dramatic, soap opera-esque plot line, and fun, super-powered fights as the world burns on. It's also such a simple series to follow, you can show it to anyone and they will immediately understand it, saving you lots and lots of set up time. Try doing that with NGE and you've just lost a friend.
I know, I know … "Dean, you're such a manly man, how can you have a favorite in this area of anime-dom?" Well, I am indeed a man, and in order to understand your prey, you must get into their minds and plot your own attack! Or perhaps there's the fact the Japanese can make cartoons that focus on girls that can appeal to both sexes, either way.
Not always the case of course, but one has to admit that without Sailor Moon a whole lot of people would never be into anime these days. Oh sure it can be very feminine from episode to episode, but the real vehicle that makes you pick it up are the battles and the good vs evil story arc. But which one destroys my manliness in the slowest way possible?
Magic Knight Rayearth - Three girls are brought to another dimension where the tyrant Zagato is holding the princess Emerude against her will. They each have powers gifted to them by their spirit and must undertake a magical quest of sword and sorcery to fulfill the princess' greatest wish. Along the way they fight beasts of legend, evil mages, and even their own feelings about themselves. They have to prove themselves and upgrade their powers in order to summon the Rune Gods, giant mecha with fantastic powers, to fight Zegato and his minions.
Why it's the prettiest princess of the ball - This story blends fantasy and the magical girl genre together in a way that's not been repeated since. Not even by CLAMP, who have been rehashing all their old series to get this sense of adventure once again. Plus they manage to deal with a great many issues young people happen to have with their own self views, without pandering to the horrible Public Service Announcement unsympathetic slogans (Sailor Moon says!). And did I mention the GIANT ROBOTS. That's right, magical girls, epic quest fantasy and giant robots, making a trifecta of awesome that has yet to be repeated in my opinion.
What a broad topic. If anything has been done to death in anime, it's Sci-fi. If you grew up in the 80s, you saw some anime sci-fi already. Robotech, Transformers, Star Blazers, Voltron, G-Force and the list goes on and on. But anime sci-fi has been a lot more than starships and mechs fighting monsters or other starships and mechs. They delve into the nitty gritty of the "World of tomorrow" just as much as any western sci-fi property. Ghost in the Shell (apart from being boring) is a great discussion on what life would be like for those of us who combine ourselves with machines, while shows like Gantz are an enigmatic gore fest that dehumanizes the art of killing aliens when you're dead. Even Trigun delves into plotlines involving manufactured humans and the stresses put on living on another world (Amidst the goofy gun slinging antics of Vash). Code Geass, for all it's styling foibles, is a pretty interesting look at an alternate history… with giant robots. Then you get the staples, ripping off Hollywood Sci-Fi! People have tried to tell me Lily C.A.T. isn't a rip off of Aliens, but they even make flamethrowers the same way! C'mon! So what series is my standard for Sci-fi?
Kino's Journey - Lots of anime rely on flashy robots, starships and explosions to tell a story about the human experience. This anime relies on one girl and her talking Brough Superior motorcycle named Hermes. Together they traverse a diverse world where concepts of humanity are played out in a Twilight Zone manner. The series keeps to the episodic nature of that show, as no episode really deals with an overarching story line. They may come across a society that settles it's differences with making a sport of war, or perhaps a place where your future is determined by whatever knowledge the state burns into your brain, or any variety of topics that would make Rod Sterling say "Bravo" between his teeth.
Why its great even with a talking motorcycle - Well for one the motorcycle has no other anthropomorphic traits. It won't grow a mouth to speak, or even operate on it's own without Kino riding it. For another it really feeds the intellect. Sure, you can have the forces of Gundam beating the crap out of one another week to week, but the only question that really asks is "Is war right?" In this series, your get everything from eugenics to war to living conditions to caste systems and beyond. There is limited action, to be sure, but Kino does know her way around a few guns if you're looking for such things. And for further watching after this, you can watch Mushi-Shi which is more a fantasy tale about a person who deals with the unnatural world, but also in a calm and reflective manner.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, Japanese and Western humor doesn't mix… for the most part. There are many glorious examples of humor that can cross the boundaries. Golden Boy, Dragon Half, and Excel Saga, all of these series have enough slapstick and common values that anyone can watch them and say "That's hilarious". But there are many that pretty much require you to have a Japanese mindset, like Lucky Star. Now to be fair, anime is made for a Japanese audience. However I've always felt if it won't make a western audience laugh without heavy instruction on modern Japanese culture, it's probably not worth translating. Even Shin Chan, which has been compared to The Simpsons as a wacky look at daily life, has been heavily edited for American audiences with jokes about our daily lives today. And gay jokes. Lot's and lots of gay jokes. But what tickles my funny bone?
Project A-Ko - A-Ko is a super powered schoolgirl with super strength and speed who has to deal with everything a normal Japanese schoolgirl might on any given day. Getting to school on time, fighting with the super science rich kids before school, eating poisonous lunches brought by her best friend, fighting alien invasions, etc. This anime is a parody of everything anime was doing in the late 80s. What was going to be a naughty cheesecake hentai anime was turned into a slapstick farce that kept true to the spirit of every sci-fi anime at the time that dealt with over the top future scenarios. A-Ko and C-Ko are best friends, but B-Ko has always wanted C-Ko as her best friend… why no one knows because C-Ko is one of the most annoying characters in anime, ever. But in this case, it all works, because drunken female aliens from beyond have decreed that C-Ko is their queen and amidst A-Ko and B-Ko fighting daily with an array of laughable mecha the alien attack fleet comes to earth and just causes even more havoc and hilarity.
Why it chuckles my bunker - Perhaps it's because of the time I grew up in and the fact that everyone thinks al anime is about schoolgirls fighting hordes of aliens, or perhaps being violated by hordes of aliens. This series remains my favorite of any comedy anime because I spoofs all anime of the late 80s/early 90s so well. And it was popular enough to warrant sequels that were just as hilarious. Well, except for Project A-Ko: Gray Side vs Blue Side where they did some alternate universe things and generally lost the humor dynamic. If you can only watch one anime to see what my start as an anime fan was all about, then watch this anime.
Anime has always been willing to do what western cartoons don't bother with very often. For every American Pop and Rock N' Rule we get fifty kids shows and adult humor cartoons. Pity, because we could do with a little diversity. One of the things Japan has really enjoyed of late are shows that deal with young people's slices of life. Azumanga Daioh is one of the most popular and enjoyable all over because it hits on themes that we all can identify with. Then you get the Human Crossing series that deals with so many aspects of our everyday lives without becoming parody or farce. But anime can add in elements of other styles of anime, be it sci-fi, fantasy or action, and give you a tale about living a life that will make you think a little bout your own place in this world. You're gong to hate my choice for this one, but I think it gets a super message across about growing up.
FLCL - Naota is just on the cusp of going to middle school, a time of any Japanese kid's life where they have to start preparing for the future and growing up. He lives with his father and grandfather atop the bakery they own. His brother has gone off to the USA to play baseball and left behind his old girlfriend, Mamimi. It's a confusing time for Naota because he's getting all kinds of mixed messages from all the older people around him.
And then a woman shows up and hits him on the noggin with an electric bass guitar in an effort to turn his head into a dimensional portal where strange things pop out.
Yes, when Haruko Haruhara enters his life it's turned upside down. Haruko takes the place of a housekeeper in Naota's household as she waits for the right thing to pop out of his head. At the same time government conspiracies unfold, giant monsters appear in the town, and scandals erupt in the city council!
But at the heart of it all it's a tale about the confusing time where we are growing up. When we have to stop being just a kid and have to start bearing responsibilities, learn about what love is, and how to deal with the jealousy in our own hearts.
Why it tells the story of all our lives - It's a little unfair to call this a slice of life, but I have always considered it to basically to be The Wonder Years with giant robots… while on crack. Yes, there are many sci-fi elements to the show, but the fact that there are giant robots, and interdimensional rifts in a young boys head are all secondary to the fact Naota is coming to the end of his childhood. He has to start on the path to becoming an adult, and he's going to get confused, angry and perhaps a little sad that his innocence ends soon. I can't watch this series without feeling for the little guy because we've all been there. Wondering about sexuality, the future, if our father is the man we envision him to be. We've all been a part of Naota's tale, just with less aliens and giant monsters in the way.
There are a great many anime and manga aimed right at the heart of the young ladies. This is known as "Shojo" styling. Many focus on an adventure, or a comedy, daily life or magical powers, but an underlying theme to many of them is romance. Our heroine has a man she has a crush on, or they even develop a relationship, or even more than one relationship forms. Paradise Kiss, Fushigi Yugi, and many more deal with a romantic angle that is played out over the course of a series. While a lot of these series are for the ladies, many of them can speak on a baser emotional level for either of the sexes. Which is why my favorite of the entire spectrum is…
His and Her Circumstances (Kare Kano) - Yukino is a girl who has worked very hard to be the best at everything at school. Most popular, best dressed, best in academics, impressing everyone at school. Then Arima shows up. Another wonder-kid who excels at everything, Arima is naturally good at everything he tries to do, and usurps Yukino from her position of the best of the best. But Yukino never wanted to be the sum total of perfection, she feels that she only wears a mask to impress everyone because it's the only way she feels good about herself. And Arima has his own problems, dealing with being adopted and perhaps also not being the man everyone sees him to be.
Along the way a love for one another develops and many obstacles are thrown in their way. From our own perceptions on what our significant others think about us to other people who feel betrayed that you would spend more time with your beloved than with them. It's a funny, touching story about love in high school and the perils within.
Why I'd openly cry to it… if I did that sort of thing - Of any anime I've ever seen the first time I watched it I thought "I want a love like that". It simply pulls at your own experiences with love, romance and growing up in such a perfect way. And it shows how insecure we all are when it comes to love and our feelings for one another. This isn't a perfect harlequin romance where the drama is produced from over-the-top cliffhangers. This is a real love story about real people, and we could use more tales like this in any form of media.
I give harem anime a bad rap. Because it's STUPID! Three to seventeen girls all fighting over the same dude while the dude is impassive about the whole thing? Never going to happen! And yet I can suspend my disbelief for giant robots smacking the crap out of each other. Weird, huh? Now I have to admit, this style is always going to be popular with the likes of Tenchi Muyo and Negima! Pulling in a buffet of gals that will fit any fantasy the viewer may watch. But sometimes it's not the characters that are courting, but the plot itself that can drive these tales. And that's when they get good. Ai Yori Yoshi, Ouran Host Club and even Love Hina (the manga, not the anime) are great examples of this, as is my number one in this genre…
El Hazard: The Magnificent World/ El Hazard: The Wanderers - had to put the OVA and the TV series on this list, because they're both great.
The Magnificent World is an OVA series about Makoto Mizuhara, a typical high school student who stumbles across an ancient ruin where a beautiful woman sends him and everyone on the campus that night to El Hazard, a world in another dimension. It is there they find themselves trying to find a way home by going on a quest to find the ancient technologies that might just be able to tear through the dimensions. Along the way Makoto has to cross-dress, fight against invading bugrom, and keep Mr. Fujisawa sober so he can have super strength. He also has to find his affections for an old classmate, a priestess of fire, or even the woman who brought him to this dimension, who may actually be the destroyer of all El-Hazard.
The Wanderers is the TV series where Makoto is a whiz-kid who accidentally builds a machine that transports everyone to El-hazard. This series plays up the harem aspect a bit more. The quest is the same, but it sheds the political intrigue for a simple adventure where the bugrom are the primary antagonists. And yet it loses nothing for all the cosmetic changes and re-imagining of the romantic implications.
Why it's the bugrom's knees - This series does everything right, both times. Makoto as a character isn't a passive person who's dragged along from event to event like Tenchi from Tenchi Muyo! Makoto has the grapes to actively work on and help with solutions to whatever problem is thrown at them instead of getting some dues ex machine to bail him out every time. In this series the focus isn't on how much every woman is smitten with Makoto, only a few are. Beyond that, the real story is the adventure itself. Four people trying to get back to our dimension. The mystical setting makes you want to watch to see what's next in this land of wonder.
Now, not everything is great with this series. There were a few spin-offs from the main OVA that were awful, namely El Hazard 2 and El Hazard: The Alternative World where they dimension hopped yet again and lost something in between… But if you stick to the two I've recommended you'll be in for one of the best anime you'll ever see.
Best of the Best
So here we are. I've been rambling along about the many anime I absolutely love and discussed a little about what I like about anime. I love western animation as well, and I can't say one is "superior" over the other. I generally like anime because they're willing to be so diverse in subject matter, creating things that will appeal to me no matter what my age, taste or demographic. There will be those anime I grow out of, and there will be anime I remember fondly, while there are still anime yet to be produced that will hook me yet again. I rant because I love, and I want the anime industry to keep producing gems. And the only way I can help with that is pointing out what's wrong with so many others. With that said, let's look at my favorite anime of all time.
Cowboy Bebop - Spike, Jet, Faye, Edward and Ein. The infamous crew of bounty hunters living in a future where the solar system is colonized thanks to the gate system, which also ruined the earth's moon years ago… but that doesn't matter. Our bounty hunters, or "Cowboys" as they are known, hunt the baddest of the bad in order to keep on flying for the next score. It's an action fest that makes sure the action only adds to the story, not overshadow it. As each case is investigated we learn a little more about each crew member and who they are on the inside. And the underlying plot of Spike Spiegel and his second chance at life just makes this the best anime that has been produced thus far. See ya, Space Cowboy.
Why it's my favorite - There are a lot of reasons. It doesn't rely on a lot of anime tropes, it pays homage to a variety of films and media, and is just such a crisp and smooth animation and art style all around. It blends so many styles together without trying to be another typical action anime where things get over powered and over the top. If we had more shows like Cowboy Bebop then we might not have the polarizing effect people get about anime today. And let's not forget the unforgettable soundtrack that is the fine frosting on this spectacular cake. If you watch no other series I've put on this list, good or bad, then you must watch this one. You will have faith in anime again.
So there you have it, a large group of anime I love. Soon I'll have to go back to watching anime I'm going to hate.
DON'T MAKE ME GO BACK! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND JUST DON'T MAKE ME GO BAAAACK!!!