US TV and anime: innovation and degeneration

When I became an anime fan in 2003 what appealed to me (perhaps more than anything else) were serial stories (like Naruto – my first fansubbed anime) with gradually developed characters; personalities that could grow from despicable bastards to likable rogues, or fall from grace to become evil incarnate. At the same time American TV (at least in my eyes) was largely episodic; characters never changed and the story would often reset to zero at the beginning of every episode. You knew someone was the hero, you knew that they had to win, and that was that; predictable, plastic and boring.
Lately I’ve found myself watching more US TV though. Lost, Heroes and especially Battlestar Galactica – I’m now anticipating these shows as much as I am an average episode of Death Note or Black Lagoon. Back when I became an anime fan I genuinely believed the genre was an untouchable world-class art form, unparrelled in its ability to “bring out the fanboy” inside of me. Three years on and I’m starting to change my tune.
I’ve mentioned three US TV shows in the above paragraph – all three offer serial stories that depend on development of character as much as ridiculous eye candy. Like it is with a lot of anime, you go on a journey with the characters, watch them fail, struggle and succeed. This “back to basics” approach has really snagged my interest.
It’s almost embarrassing to compare these shows with today’s anime. Although you get the occasional attempt at mature story telling (Naoki Urasawa’s MONSTER being a prime example), anime is almost exclusively devoted to a bunch of high school kids running around doing “stuff”. Once you’ve sat through 3 years worth of anime, got bored of the spunky girl, smooth bishounen and brooding anti-hero, the love triangles and angsty mecha pilots, the genre starts to fade. The creativity is consigned to demographics, the characters have become predictable. There is very little new or exciting to experience, anime just feels boring. Perhaps now that I’m a little older, I’m just losing interest in following annoying teenage characters I have nothing in common with.
I started writing this article to compare US TV with anime, but now I’m wondering whether or not anime is getting progressively worse. Perhaps the new generation of directors and writers were anime fans themselves, so are now stuck emulating their favourites and doomed to produce a load of generic fan pandering nonsense. These days anime is even being remade; who needs creativity and innovation when you can just re-animate something from a few years ago? At least wait 10 years to revive your failing franchise, not even Hollywood is that bad!
I don’t think I could call myself an anime fan anymore, such a broad title suggests I will enjoy and support anything to do with anime. Clearly that’s no longer the case. Anime has its ups and downs, and I think it’s falling right now, stuck in a degenerative inbreeding loop of fan service and demographics. When Kujibiki Unbalance is chosen over Genshiken, something is terribly wrong.


Welcome to the NHK! – Anime or manga? Yawn

Anime or manga, one is inevitably better than the other – whether it’s just another case of elitism or not, you can always bet on the jumped up manga fans hating the anime adaptations of their favourite stories. This is because the voices you hear in your head will always sound better in comparison with the efforts of some cheap hack actor, because when reading that “damn slow” story can move as fast as you turn the page (in other words – running times are for losers).
Gonzo’s Welcome to the NHK! was an inevitable travesty in the eyes of the existing manga fans. But it is a train wreck that never happened; of the 11 episodes I’ve seen, this has been an outstanding and unique series, veering from bizarre surrealism to painful reality in an exciting matter of minutes. The characters – and especially Satou – are disgustingly sympathetic personalities, shining in their moments of disdainful human vulnerability. I haven’t read the manga – so my opinions aren’t tainted with deluded expectations based on art and imagination. But I can say that out of everything I’m following at the moment, Welcome to the NHK! is the one series I’ll often watch the same day it’s downloaded.
Can manga ever be compared with anime? Can the personal experiences and emotions felt reading a “comic” be judged against sitting through a TV series? Clearly not – film is by and large a passive journey, a voyeuristic indulgence, but reading invites imagination, essentially the reader will often find himself at the centre of that story, able to invent and fill in gaps for himself. Given this tight personal attachment, a film can never be compared with or subsequently become superior to its written source material and it’s unfair for the so called fans to expect their personal standards – inevitably set as high as possible – to be met by another mere individual. Welcome to the NHK! was not directed by god, so it’s not tailored to your imagination, but it’s a fine, thought provoking and entertaining watch. Enjoy it, anime fans!


The sudden realisation of a tired anime fan

I’ve had so much fun watching Giant Robo for the first time this weekend – an impossibly epic, jaw dropping spectacle set against frame after frame of sprawling neon-lit cityscapes and the kind of fluidic action packed excitement you just don’t see anymore in modern anime – it has again sparked that raw enthusiasm for anime inside my heart, you know that feeling you get when you uncover something special. Compare this with my somewhat dulled interest in the current and former 2006 seasons, where I’m enjoying but hardly enraptured by a lot of what I’ve seen.
Around about this time everyone is getting excited about the new autumn anime, but when all people are looking for is the latest and greatest series (and I’m guilty of this myself too), we forget the older, less trendy classics. I’m so glad I’ve discovered Giant Robo – created over a decade ago in 1992, but I’m disappointed it’s taken me this long. I’ve probably been wasting my attention on mediocre eye candy like Ergo Proxy just because it’s fresh and new, been considering previewing the likes of "killer loli" favourite Higurashi and Bokura ga Ita because I keep seeing them pop up in gushing reviews, but since I’m still uncovering lovable, shiny gems like Giant Robo, suddenly a lot of what I’m following these days looks, and more importantly feels almost transparent.
I suppose what I’m trying to say (to myself) is that simply being new is no real substitute for actual quality, and sitting through anime you’re ambivalent about because it’s all the talk on forums and blogs is an easy way to lose interest in a genre you used to love. I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with the energy to sit down with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in a vague attempt to at least salvage some experience in what’s popular these days, but if truth be told, I’m just not interested in it, so it’s time to get ruthless and drop any illusions that one day I will catch up with this mountainous backlog and again start searching out anime I can actually love. Trust me, it’s taken me a long while to come to this realisation.


Elitism within anime circles

For many people being an anime fan is like holding on to precious secret deep within one’s soul – and if said secret were suddenly revealed, it would lose all value and be cast aside like last weeks old news. Mirroring the music scene when the underground trendy band signs for a major record label only for their so-called hardcore fans to (forget the music) then cry "sell out" in disgust, anime fandom is rife with its own detestable levels of elitism and superiority complexes. Is it human nature that people seek out obscure tastes in order to feel different, as if being a part of something unannounced will validate their cultural superiority? In other words, would you still be an anime fan if everyone – even your mum – watched The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya?
Old school anime is better than this new crap!
A particularly classic elitist sentiment that crops up inside many older fans is how anime went bad after Akira and Ghost in the Shell exploded into the global mainstream a decade ago. I’m not sure if it’s simply a case of old age (and therefore, old brains), but many fans over the age of 30 appear to have trouble watching (let alone praising) anything beyond Tenchi Muyo! or the original Macross series, an attitude that smacks of a quite desperate attempt to cling on to an unpopular era long since departed, a hopeless try at maintaining ones superiority over those damn annoying newbies and their stupid Naruto headbands.
Dubbzz Suckz
I’m quite familiar with the dub elitist slant, largely because I am a film purist myself. It’s almost as if there is this silent agreement amongst anime fans that any kind of foreign dubbing of anime is rubbish by default. In worst cases, this ignorance extends itself to the discrimination of dub fans and actors at conventions, where said people are sometimes booed and heckled in public while trying to hold an intelligent and mature panel.
The fansub divide
If you frequent any popular anime forums, you’ll find yourself on one side or the other — fansubs or no fansubs. Both points of view frequently clash – each time with the same baseless arguments cropping up. The American DVD fans would like to see fansubs disappear because they have served their purpose — but what about the anime fans from Nigeria, or India, what do they do when fansubs disappear; import the American DVDs of course! "But I have no money!" "Oh well, anime is a privilege not a right!"
Typically the most hardcore fansub supporters are basically pirates. Bandai have recently asked the community not to distribute fansubs of Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society, and honestly there is no true value in producing a free copy of Solid State Society when it’s backed by such a well known franchise – we all know about Ghost in the Shell, it doesn’t need a fansub. But there will be one anyway, because it’s free. We have no morals.
Forget your domestic DVD market, import away!
Living in the UK we constantly struggle in the shadow of US anime DVDs (and US anime DVDs in the shadow of Japan etc). They have better picture quality, better artwork and more extras. To invest in our domestic DVD industry is a waste of money. Forget the fact that in doing so you are supporting better quality releases in the future, aiding in the development of your own local anime community. It’s all about me, me, me.
This importing issue, and many of the other points raised, relate directly back to whether or not you wish to see your obscure little hobby make inroads into your dumb friends’ DVD collection, in other words, whether you wish maintain your unique, trendy identity as an anime fan and not become one of those "deaf mutes".


Trapped in an ice cold back log hell: September

Such is my addiction to the routine of watching anime – I horde a ridiculous amount of fansubs, promising myself I will catch up with them sooner or later, yet knowing deep down that it may never happen. As I enviously cast my eyes across the blogsphere, I usually get the urge to write one of those lists where I can go through and rate what I’ve been watching, but instead I shamefully present to you a list of the anime I haven’t watched. In other words – revelling in my failure as an anime fan.
Encased in deep blue ice
Bokura Ga Ita — Episode 1 onwards — Back log started 24th July
I just can’t bring myself to watch Bokura Ga Ita. I know I’ll probably like it, but still I get the feeling it’ll be a waste of my time — like all slice of life anime; it seems devoted to observing the dull, mundane aspects of life. I like my escapism, dammit. Bokura Ga Ita needs time-travelling monks. Or Monkey D. Luffy.
Ergo Proxy — Episode 15 onwards — Back log started 17th August
I usually have to devote an entire evening to catching up with Ergo Proxy. It’s rare finding the right frame of mind to avoid being permanently lobotomized by the vicious onslaught of pretentious dialogue and absolutely directionless story. What’s Ergo Proxy actually about anyway? I couldn’t tell you, but it looks cool. That’s enough.
FLAG — Episode 1 onwards — Back log started 11th August
Again, this sounds like a mature and sophisticated series — but I’m not sure if I’m ready for such an odd concept. As far as I can tell, FLAG is about a photographer and the majority of the story is conveyed through a camera lens and still images. Like with Ergo Proxy, a certain (preferably coffee induced) state of mind is required to fathom such an unconventional "arty-farty" style without being unfairly harsh.
Starting to freeze
Honey & Clover — Episode 8 onwards — Back log started 22nd August
This is a worrying sign because I’m a massive fan of Honey & Clover — perhaps subconsciously I’m afraid of it ending? Also, I’m getting sick of its melodramatic whining — Yamada being the main culprit, the sight of her crying does nothing for me anymore (except yawn). I suppose it’s getting a little stale and the romantic merry go round does bore me, but irregardless it’s ending soon anyway.
Shopping around for fresh meat to freeze
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
I don’t like the nose-less, bug eyed character designs and obvious otaku pandering but such is the love surrounding The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya that I do intend to watch it (or as is my style, back log it) sooner rather than later!
Saiunkoku Monogatari
Bishounen are rubbish, especially when they just stand around talking and looking out of the corner of their eyes (the evil, or scheming bishounen are particular users of this "shifty eye" technique) but word is good that Saiunkoku Monogatari has more to offer than beautiful boredom. I’ve already been burnt once with the sleep inducing Meine Liebe, so Saiunkoku Monogatari is last chance saloon for the bishounen drama.


Welcome to the NHK! – 2 – Crazy-otaku neighbour to the rescue

Sato meets with young Misaki to talk about her “how to take the hikomori out of Sato” project. Though with his trademark destructive hiko-nature, Sato immediately tries to deny his shut-in ways by proving to Misaki that he does have a part to play in society after all. In embarking on this mission, he ends up getting involved with his crazy-otaku neighbour and by the end of the episode; they are planning on developing, as a means of doing something (anything) with their lives, their very own porn game… It’s a start, I guess?!?
Despite lacking in the more surreal, vivid moments that so punctuated the first episode, NHK – 2 was still an impressive follow up with just enough self depreciating wicked humour and melancholy reflection on (missing) life to be entertaining without crossing the line into out right depressing. Sato has chosen the wrong neighbour to work with though- after all if you are looking for a helping hand in life, the last person you need advise from is a perverted otaku; I wonder if he has an anime blog?!
The rocky soundtrack is still one of my favourite aspects of this show. The opening five minutes were great just because they are backed by this acoustic band music- such refined sounds can add so much more impact to a scene and NHK! has got this important balance between emotional, sad and crazy music spot on.

Editorials Reviews

Neon Genesis Evangelion – Why is it classic anime?

Neon Genesis Evangelion is considered by many critics to be a “classic” anime series. Loved and loathed in equal measure, its polarising reputation for invoking a distinct reaction from its viewers endures (inside and outside fandom) even today- an impressive feat being as it is a decade on from its Japanese TV debut. But what defines “classic” anime? Why is Evangelion still as relevant today as it was back in 1995?
“Classic” art direction
Art direction and animation fluidity are two separate entities. Neon Genesis Evangelion never had a huge animation budget, but its unique visual style still strikes a profound chord with its viewers. Unique and iconic, the colour scheme is exciting and suits the raging mood perfectly, strange bio-mecha designs and (if albeit redundant) religious symbolism top off a visceral presentation that instantly burns itself into memory.
Emotive characterization, world-wide accessibility and relevance
People either empathise with or passionately denounce Evangelion’s main character, Shinji Ikari. He is the ultimate “average” kid from a broken home, frustratingly shy and painfully reluctant. He isn’t a hero, just an awkward geek. The other characters are all breaking down in their own personal ways; Asuka’s fear of rejection and Misato’s desperate loneliness. These are close to the bone universal human emotions, characterised in realistic, painful circumstances and directed with an almost sadistic lack of warmth, relevant to every generation.
Sophisticated, controversial story teller
Under a slicker director, Evangelion would be another RahXephon; efficient, exciting and romantic but ultimately lacking any true sparks of originality. Hideaki Anno put his heart and soul into these characters and placed them within the confines of a mysterious plot to end the world, refusing to compromise on showing the unpredictable uglier sides of human nature. We’ve all been unhappy with ourselves or others at some point in our lives and what if at this exact moment, you were given the chance to save the world. Would it be “OK! Let’s do it!” or “Why me? Feck off!”.
Although I don’t consider Neon Genesis Evangelion a personal favourite, I accept it as a classic anime series. It took the formulaic mecha genre and transformed itself into an extremely potent mix of visceral art, controversial drama and symbolic science fiction. From what I’ve learnt, a “classic” movie or TV series is defined by global accessibility, (current) relevance and sheer impact; Evangelion is as popular today as it was 11 years ago.


The most influential people in your anime fandom

The ever reliable ICv2 recently posted up a list of the “ten most powerful people in the North American anime industry“. The run down makes for interesting (if a little predictable) reading and sitting at the top is Gonzo’s bestest buddy Gen Fukunaga (of FUNimation), who managed to visciously kill off any competition with his company’s swelling ranks of mediocre action anime to become “the one” (or should I say, Jyu-Oh).
This got me thinking about the people who have had the most influence on my development as an anime fan, or more specifically; which sick bastards transformed me into the hardened anime junkie I am today?
The list of shame
4. Yoko Kanno – Cowboy Bebop
Soundtracks play a great part in my love of anime and no one does it better than Yoko Kanno. I first heard her work in Cowboy Bebop and have since been totally and utterly defeated by her varied tunage and heart wrenching, nostalgic stylings.
3. Chika Umino – Honey & Clover
At a time when I was feeling seriously jaded about anime (I couldn’t even make it through the first 3 minutes of Gonzo’s Black Cat), along came a funny slice of life series called Honey & Clover that completely refreshed my enthusiasm for the genre. This was a geniuenly funny, life affirming drama with colorful, original animation and a wonderful soundtrack to boot. Chika Umino wrote this story, so deserves credit first and foremost, but irregardless of that, everything about Honey & Clover is brilliant.
2. Kentarou Miura – Berserk
Berserk was the first anime I fell head over heels in love with and Kentarou Miura is the genius behind it all. In combining though-provoking philosophy with an extremely violent, complex cast of characters, Miura will forever be the brilliant mind behind my favourite anime of all time.
1. Masashi Kishimoto – Naruto / Shonen Jump
Although it is with something of a guity conscience, I simply wouldn’t be watching anime today if it wasn’t for Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto. This was the first ever fansubbed series I got my mits on and to this very day I still remember the nerve-wracking, sweat-inducing climax of the Zabuza story arc. After sitting through around 50 episodes of Naruto, I realised I had to check out more anime. And furthermore, I realized subtitles should always be the way to go with foreign film and TV.


Soundtracks that stand alone

Great music and great anime usually go hand in hand, but the sign of a great song is that anyone can enjoy it, irregardless of their love (or lack there of) for anime. I remember thoroughly enjoying the music used in Honey & Clover, but on its own it is a disappointing, minimal experience I often compare with the dull instrumentation of easy listening elevator tunes. Within the context of falling in love with the Honey & Clover anime, I imagined this soundtrack would mean so much more to me.
From back to front, there are few anime soundtracks that truly transcend the chains of being locked to their respective TV series. Without stating the obvious example of Mistress Yoko Kanno, I genuinely feel Toshio Masuda’s ethereal Mushishi score is a consistently lush and driving musical master class. I can play these songs at home, in the office at work and even to my damn family- everyone (relative to their undeniably bad taste) will love it.
Of course, as is their nature, soundtracks aren’t designed to be stand alone albums anyway but it’s certainly a bonus to know that in sixth months, hell…, six years down the line, I can still enjoy listening to some of this music without having to revisit the TV series first.


Dr Who inspired by Naruto, eh?

Now this is something quite bizarre but looking at the evidence (images above), a recent villain from (the staple of UK sci-fi) Dr Who could well have been inspired by Sasuke’s (from Naruto) “cursed seal” form.
It’s easy to dismiss this all as a mere coincidence, but you should note the red eyes (mirroring Sasuke’s sharingan) and the fact that both characters breathe fire, and we may just have a case here! It’s just cool to think that the writers at the BBC are watching Naruto, I wonder what they think of the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya?
Thanks to Necromancer for the Dr. Who screen cap and Animated FatCat for fighting his case!