I had low expectations when I bought the Gunbuster movie on blu-ray. The visuals looked underwhelming, as did the plot summary. Still, I felt that as an anime fan I had an obligation to watch a Gainax classic, and I’m happy I did. Gainax could have created a forgettable story about girls battling aliens with giant robots. Throw in some fan service, and the show would have practically written itself. Instead, Gunbuster is a story that doesn’t pull any punches and explores deep, emotional issues. The only downside of watching Gunbuster on blu-ray was that the movie version left out a number of scenes that were included in the OVA. I enjoyed the movie, but I’m left wondering if the original version would have provided a better experience.
All told, 2011 was a stable year in the anime business. No anime company of any worth (so 4Kids doesn’t count) went bankrupt, although over in the manga world TokyoPop bit the bullet. The tsunami and resulting nuclear incident will unfortunately overshadow anything else that happened with anime this year. While there were no dramatic changes in the industry, a number of trends began or picked up steam in 2011. It is these trends, more than any anime production, that will be this year’s industry legacy.
Trend #1: Lawsuits
The above image is from Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, but one would forgive you if you had to double take; the second half of episode 5 feels like it’s from a completely different series. Not only has the art style completely shifted, so, indeed, has the tone. Gone, for the most part, is the rapid-fire banter; the colours are washed out and the main character, believe it or not, is an old man.
Frankly, I lack the words to talk about Satoshi Kon’s passing; there are others who have said and will say things more eloquently. Instead, I offer you a diversion: FLCL.
I meant to write this post a while back, but never go around to it. Somehow, it’s been a very long, and a little bit of a crazy summer. Without many noticing, the 10th anniversary of a certain anime came and went in late April. You probably know it by one of it’s many names – FLCL; Furi Kuri; Fooly Cooly. I love FLCL. I’ve watched it so many times over the last decade that I’ve lost track.
Shoujo fantasy can be the genre of the story-lover, so filled it is with sweeping, emotive images. I can’t help but think that Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu could be stripped of their dialogue and remain just as coherent, such is the overflow of feeling trapped within their every frame; every side-long glance, tentative posture and concealed desire.
‘Mockumentary’ Otaku no Video is one of those anime that, even within the anime community itself, is fairly obscure, but every now and then, someone will reference it, often as a comparison to nu-otaku champion Genshiken; for example, the first time I heard about it was when Anime World Order posted a review back in 2006, and considering it was created by animation studio Gainax in 1991, that fans are still talking about it some 15+ years later is surely a good sign, right? Indeed. Here is a fair warning; if you have issues with self-loathing, save yourself the agony and don’t watch Otaku no Video. It will depress you.
As alluded to above, Otaku no Video is a mockumentary of otaku culture. Pasted inside a Genshiken-style anime about a bunch of geeks coming together through their passions for all things, well, geeky is a series of painfully realistic (live action) interviews with real Japanese otaku, all of whom are middle-aged men. Its Wikipedia article suggests that while the anime segment was intended to emphasize the more positive aspects of Japan’s geek fandom (like comradery and friendship), the live action interviews depict the otaku’s lonely reality; several of the interviewees were Gainax employees at the time (though, to protect their identities, their names and voices are changed, while their faces are either unseen or blurred), and because this whole production was helmed by Gainax themselves, their deft, autobiographical understanding of “the truth” cuts right to the bone, so much so this isn’t as much a satirical comedy as a scientific study of the otaku sub-species. They even interview an American anime fan. It’s all in good fun, but a touch evocative too.
One interview in-particular struck me as incredibly depressing; this otaku, sitting in a darkened room, specialises in pornography, and to work around the Japanese government’s censorship of genitalia (they pixelate those areas), he has adapted a pair of glasses to decode the image. It’s just shocking to see that this guy has such talent for electronics, yet uses it in pursuit of… masturbation. They actually show him ‘pulling one off’ by the way! Another interviewee is hunched over his small computer screen, drawing nude images of a character that looks a lot like Noriko from Gunbuster. Again, the art itself is technically brilliant, but it remains a self-fellating fantasy. They ask him “how do you take care of your sexual needs?” Otaku responds “Well, I like computer games.”
The anime itself is up-beat and fun in a style that’s very reminiscent of the likes of Genshiken. One scene I really liked involves fans queuing up for the late-night theatrical premiere of NausicaÃƒÂ¤ of the Valley of the Wind. A drunk guy, probably just kicked out of a local bar, passes by them in the street and tries to work out why they are all so excited about seeing a “cartoon”, they respond that they aren’t waiting for a “cartoon”, but “animation” (Hayao Miyazaki‘s big break-through, no less). And I agree – there is totally a difference between cartoons and anime.
You know, Otaku no Video is surely worth watching, just don’t be expecting a romanticisation of otaku culture. It swings from pathetic to funny to nostalgic in a matter of minutes and as long as you’re prepared for some soul-destroying satire, it’s a really ‘interesting’ watch.
When it comes to reviewing anime, one of the most frustrating tasks can be screen-capping. Sometimes you’ll remember the cool scenes, jump straight in and snap away. Job done. But with FLCL, it’s not that easy; everything looks cool. So, when I skipped through the first two episodes, I finished up with 89 separate images! Some heartless deleting later (with emphasis on heartless), the count is down to 24. Frankly, I can’t bear to discard any more than that. Writing this now, I’m reminded of people (some of them anime fans) who will often say that watching these funny Japanese cartoons isn’t “hip”, isn’t something to be proud of, but watching this show, I’m ready to call that bull-shit. Anime can be stylish, hip, cool, fun, trendy and everything else under the sun, and guess what, FLCL is my proof.
“It’s FLIctonic KLIpple Waver Syndrome. An adolescent psychological skin hardening syndrome. A common affliction where children grow horns from trying too hard. Okay, I lied.” — Haruko.
This is the obligatory part of the review where I write a brief plot synopsis and you roll your eyes in boredom, but as FLCL is far too punk rock to bother with such standard fare, any attempt on my part to summarise the story would be utterly futile too. For what it’s worth, these few words might help: bored, head, rock, horn, girls, cigarettes, surreal, pain, mecha, pathos; repeat times infinity. If you really want to know what FLCL is, the above quote is the best possible explanation I can offer. It is an experience, on its surface illogical, yet subconsciously profound. Pure animation in the sense that, just like you can’t really relate to the pain of a gunshot wound until you’ve felt it yourself, you’ll never really understand the mad brilliance of hurricane FLCL unless you’ve seen it in motion for yourself.
If we’re talking about motion, then we’re talking about animation. For me, this is GAINAX’s finest production, better than Evangelion, Gunbuster and even Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. No other animation studio in the world could come out with something like this, it’s so unique. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s character design is simply wonderful, but then, the entire production aesthetic is too, which feels so seamlessly tied into the hormonal narrative themes that you might get more sense out of it by watching without the dialogue. I made a point there to specifically say ‘dialogue’ because I’d hate for you to miss out on the soundtrack. You see, the music is almost entirely composed of The Pillows grungy, delirious, hot-blooded rock sound that, again, is a perfectly fitting conveyance for FLCL’s rallying cry against bored, sub-urban apathy.
A favourite scene of mine appears in episode 2. The air-headed, pink bomb-shell Mamimi is wasting time playing with a stray kitten when something catches her eye in the golden, grassy field ahead. It’s Canti the robot wandering around aimlessly. She follows “him” until they happen across a half burnt down, old elementary school. The sky darkens with black rain clouds and hungry crows perch on the surrounding landscape as Canti climbs onto the roof and, quite literally, takes flight. It’s an amazing, baffling moment. The sun shines through the clouds as Mamimi stares on, birds aflutter, wonderstruck. Through-out this sequence, The Pillows song, “Hybrid Rainbow”, is rising in the background, the chorus hits crescendo just as Canti flies away. It’s a spine-tingling, rousing scene, seemingly random and superfluous, but completely worthwhile.
You could say FLCL depicts that painful transition between late adolescence and young adulthood; a time when you’re too old to do kid things and not old enough to do adult things. Characters, failing to understand or grasp new emotions and burgeoning sexuality, are confused and lost, as if unable to make sense of the reality that surrounds them. They can lash out, or retreat, and yet, back then, life was so colourful, new and exciting too, as if a sudden revelation could unlock a new, brilliant dimension of reality. That is, ultimately, FLCL’s crazy point of view, an unpredictable, wonderful stream of consciousness, so frenetic, surreal and fun, like stepping into a long forgotten, lost dream.
Not sure how I missed this, but the full soundtrack for Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was released recently; that’s 51 tracks of epic, exciting, heavenly music, and even better, it contains the one song I’ve be longing to hear since late-July. I’m talking about track 13 on Disc no.2; the translated title is “The Days Become a Traveller of a Hundred Generations”. For such a haunting, ethereal tone, it’s heard only once in the anime itself, during the first half of episode 18, but this single sequence, just a mere few minutes in length (may as well be an eternity), and the awe-struck feelings it conjured inside me, have long since remained close to my heart.
We begin around the 5:40 mark. Simon’s in the Gurren-Lagann, frantically searching for Nia. Before he can launch into the neon-lit sky-line of Kamina City, he’s curtailed by (the now-teenaged) Darry and Gimmy in their colourful Gulaparl mecha. They try to persuade Simon from needlessly worrying the citizens by flying around in the iconic Gurren-Lagann, its heroic image having come to represent the desperation of humanity’s recent past. In response, he just separates from the larger Gurren and brashly explodes into the clouds above, continuing his search for Nia regardless of their complaints.
The atmospheric music really kicks in as Simon tours the sprawling Kamina City, its concrete streets and sky-scraping buildings bathed in the warm, comforting glow of electricity. The architecture is strange and fascinating, having been influenced by the Gunmen style of design, strange faces; giant and carved from stone, protrude from the buildings, expressions half concealed by shadow. The Spiral King’s huge fortress, the smiling Dekabutsu, overlooks the rapidly developing city below, as worried search-lights scythe through the starry night sky.
The thing about this sequence and why it sticks in my memory isn’t anything to do with the characters or drama. It’s the clash of TTGL’s surreal reality with our conflicted, modern world. The way everything looks so familiar and yet, it’s dream-like too. The oppressive stature of the city, the huge stoney faces passing judgement on and manipulating the residents below. We immediately sense dystopia; a city that’s grown cold, twisted and without feeling. Suddenly, this is a world that’s alive with texture and detail. The song speaks of those feelings, a kind of knowing, regretful, beautiful sadness.
The internet teaches harsh lessons; one of the most important is to be vigilant for spoilers. Something good was released on Sunday and subsequently, these past few days of surfing the rippling tide of written voices was gradually stifled by spiralling waves of paranoia. Yet as the dark of night finally drew in and the stars twinkled with an ephemeral beauty, the sea of emotion raging inside this blogger fell suddenly calm in anticipation of the end. That is, the end of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.
Such is the quality of this series that it inspires me to write such melodramatic words. Time and time again, I’ve come away from it excited and brimming with enthusiasm, and of course, the end was no different. In fact, my heart was captured by the mere pre-credit sequence; Simon rolls in to save Nia, the now-familiar opera swells and the Gurren-dan assemble – each kitted up with their own bad-ass attitudes and standing on their hind legs like a group of little Rory Calhouns. They know, as we know, that this is IT. Time to kick ass.
I’ve always found it hard to write about Gurren Lagann. Any attempt at coherent bloggage is foiled simply because I like it too much; it’s just a quivering mass of animated awesome. Yet come every Monday and jaw on the floor after every single episode, I’ve been fighting that nagging feeling saying it’s my duty as an anime blogger to write about this show. It’s a disservice to myself and to you, dear reader, because while I’ve tried to keep a lid on it, Gurren Lagann just keeps getting better, and right now I’m oh so close to claiming it as my favourite anime of all time. So, pulsing with spiral energy, mine rippling rantage on episode the 25th begins.