Category Archives: Editorials

Sense Impressions: NGE 20th Anniversary Celebration at AX 2015

2015

If you had asked me two weeks ago if I was headed out this year toward the Los Angeles Convention Center for the anime celebration of the west coast, I likely would have given you a proud “no”. Truth is, that after last year’s record attendance, and a lack of compelling guests or panels, it has become harder and harder to keep this convention momentum up. After nearly two decades of this one has to pick and choose their battles, and last year left me parched in the desert save for another chance to catch up with old friends, industry and beyond. So this year was meant to be something of a vacation from what used to be a popular personal vacation destination. I know, sounds pretty silly now, but considering what the medium has meant to me in the wake of Evangelion, one would hope noone would begrudge me the will to catch a breath. So when the grapevine juiced up with the promise of a twentieth anniversary featuring none other than NGE’s pop muse herself,Yoko Takahashi, it felt like something that just wouldn’t allow for my smug avoidance of this now major, mainstream gathering.

So in natural Winter form, I arrived at Hall B far earlier than I had any right or need to. Not a line had formed as staff had informed me that nothing would be happening until roughly 12:30p, with the show starting at 1:30. It was 10:15. Fine. It’s alright. Not feeling terribly materialistic, so Exhibit Hall is out. Nor am I hungry for overpriced poison, so forget eating. Brought a book with me that I long to finish, so the wall of waiting it is!

How little did I know that the background sounds I was hearing behind me was going to keep me from finishing that next chapter on the densha attendant who moved the packets of sarin gas out of a train in 1995, and that the singing I was hearing was Takahashi herself. My book closed as I leaned over to my back left in disbelief. She had just finished “Zankoku na Tenshi no Tēze”, and had just started with “Fly Me To The Moon”, Wait-is that the Laputa theme? Suddenly, the reality of where I was, and the significance of the whole event began to take a severe kind of hold over my body. A little over 18 years ago, these songs were just beginning their swirl throughout my consciousness like a larva burrowing deep into me in search of a home filled with food and warmth. The songs from Eva have within them a sort of emotional knowing that composer Shiro Sagisu and Takahashi infused within them that seem to understand the unspoken heart of a series that would come to define not only its director, but a generation of myth enthusiasts. The songs become iconographic, kin to GAINAX’s visual presentation and Sadamoto’s character designs. They are an indispensable part of Evangelion’s entire spirit, and every bit as important as the animation.

There was something very intimate, very curious about listening in to the rehearsal that again let me into the show’s own penchant for process. I could just ignore it, and crack open my book again, but this is process. It’s what attracted me to the entire series in the first place. A feeling of “in progress”, never perfect, always seeking the better. I never expected to be treated to such sounds, even if it was clear that the singer was taking it easy on her voice for the moment. This didn’t come with admission, and yet, this is perhaps the highlight of my afternoon.

A few chapters later, the staff at last led us out back to line up for the show which ended up lasting all of about twenty short minutes before we were corralled into a red-tinged Hall B, where the suspense built in spite of itself. And I say in spite of because the 1:30 show had soon become a 1:53 show due to one delay or another (which is expected of AX, but not accompanied by endless loops of Angel Attack–a song that will now gnaw at my brain should one note be uttered again). So when the lights finally went down, and our emcee at last revved the 3000+ crowd up for the afternoon’s festivities, all felt more than ready to experience what I had already done so, this time at 150%.

And what a sweet demon it is..

In truly top form,a winged & horned Takahashi was both deeply friendly and commanding in her performance, which included the aforementioned songs. (with a side of “Tamashii No Rufuran” – a personal favorite) And while she was given a little time to explain with translation help, the video presentation supplied by Shiro Sagisu’s company (a public premiere), and her upcoming compilation album, her appearance was meant to be but part of a larger whole presented by the folks at Bang Zoom! Entertainment. The prolific dub studio also hosted a charming cosplay contest, a voice acting demo featuring ADV dub veterans, Tiffany Grant, Matt Greenfield, and the inimitable Amanda Winn Lee, and music by ALICE Underground & Eru. And while I couldn’t be happier to see such personal favorites come by for a spell, it was Takahashi’s presence that hinted at an event that never truly materialized. But one can just call this me being greedy, which is more than likely true.

In all, the music was powerful yet brief, the appearances sweet but fleeting. And while I could certainly appreciate everyone for pulling this together with the resources they had, one could also make the case that we at Anime Expo were getting something more akin to a digest celebration. A series of tasteful morsels without going full banquet. Even when the crowd chanted for an encore, the repeat of “Thesis” only hinted at something that could be just that more involved. Or perhaps again, this is my curse of Evangelion. It always leaves me wanting more. Not so much more of the same, but more of that human touch that allows Hideaki Anno’s spirit to reach more of us.

As it is, I felt like all we received was a heartfelt, yet still passing glance as opposed to an intimate glimpse into one of the great modern myths.

The SNAFUS of Youth

 

What uniform can I wear to hide my heavy heart? It is too heavy. It will always show.

Jacques felt himself growing gloomy again. He was well aware that to live on earth a man must follow its fashions, and hearts were no longer worn.

Jean Cocteau

We have been subjected in the past few years to a spate of misleading, light novel adapted, anime titles. This is a happy thing, because the titles rarely promise anything other than the cheesiest, fan-serviceyist sort of outing: The Pet Girl of Sakurasou. Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? The Hentai Prince and the Stony Cat. Each one of these shows has proven to be better written and characterized than their titles suggest, and perhaps can be chalked up to the collision of marketing necessity and rigid anime convention with an author’s desire to tell a different sort of story altogether. Sometimes you have to play the game in order to break the rules.

Such is the case with perhaps the greatest example of them all, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (lit: Just as I Thought, My Youth Romantic Comedy Was a Mistake)—though on further thought, the title may be more appropriate than it appears. It is, after all, quite a failure as a romantic comedy—its best moments are wistful and serious, not comedic. It begins with a standard quasi-harem set up but moves far beyond it, to tell the story of how teenage misfits try to navigate the emotional turmoil and confusion of adolescence in all too real ways. Real in how flawed, idealistic, and self-delusional they are; real in that they make mistakes when they think they are doing their best. The audience expects a cheesy harem comedy, but gets something much closer to Catcher in the Rye instead, a perhaps painful reminder of how one fumbles toward maturity with one’s friends in tow.

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The Holden Caulfield at the center of it is Hachiman—Hikki to his friends. He is a recognizable figure to any smartass, self-exiled teenage male who fancied himself less “phony,” less conforming, and more intelligent than his peers. If the mark of childhood is to take everything at face value, the mark of adolescence is to see past the surface and to realize there is more to life than just appearances—and to congratulate oneself for the insight, as if it were the greatest revelation in the world. This is why he cannot, in the first season, accept Yui’s kindness as genuine. She must be nice like this to everyone, he reasons, or is just pretending, either out of politeness or a desire to be thought well of. She must, in short, be a phony. As Holden put it:

That’s the whole trouble. You can’t even find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. —JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

This is the thought that runs through every adolescent’s head when he or she discovers how unfair and cruel the world can be. Even in minor ways, consequential only when you’re an adolescent: we discover later that Hachiman was brutally rejected by certain middle school girls who return in the second season, there to taunt him all over again and remind him of his past, embarrassing sincerity. The lesson he learned was that it would not do to wear his heart on his sleeve any more. He would protect himself with a shield of cynicism, even as he continues to flatter himself by “helping” others in his own way through the Service Club.

The Service Club is a concoction of his teacher, who, like Mr Antonini in Catcher, is trying to widen Holden/Hachiman’s perspective by forcing him to interact with others. At first there is only Yukino, the kindred-yet-different spirit who shares Hachiman’s reticence masking even less concealed vulnerability. In a lazier show they would be an easy pairing, but SNAFU novelist Wataru Watari does not make it nearly as easy. Their attitudes militate against connection, because it would require them to discard their constructed identities as smart, superior loners who see through the shallow social high school scene. This is why Yui at first seems an interloper, a “popular” person trying to penetrate the outcast group, but—as Hachiman, in a searing moment late in the 2nd season, acknowledges, they are longing for nothing less than “the real thing.” Yui brings that in her heart-wearing, kind, and purposeful effort to be friends with these stuck up loners.

That’s the rub, isn’t it—“the real thing.” One could call it authenticity, or emotional honesty, or speaking plainly, something the characters don’t seem quite to manage even at the very end of the second season: they avoid the subject of who-loves-whom to continue their balanced friendship, even as they know very well it cannot last forever. SNAFU is smart enough to realize that dramatic transformations do not happen instantly, not even when there are epiphanies and eloquent speeches—which the show is full of, especially in the second season where Hachiman’s self-protective worldview gets taken apart brick by brick as he realizes his “help” simply preserves a sick status quo at best, that his desire to not hurt others is hurting others more, that his unwillingness to be open is driving even his closest friends away. Realizing these things, which were some of the most emotionally satisfying parts of the series, was not enough to change everything overnight. They still can’t quite be entirely honest with themselves at the end—and we understand that, well, they are still kids. The show may be over (for now), but they still have time to figure it out. After all, it took some of us even longer to do that than many people who do as they finish up adolescence.

****

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Once, not long after graduating from college, I found myself a counselor at a urban summer camp for a bunch of Chinese kids in Brooklyn. The kids were the children of garment factory workers, whose mothers (many of them were in single-parent homes) toiled in the Garment District for most of the day and had little time to care for them. Many of them were rambunctious and unused to following instructions. Being an only child, I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at children as much as I have as I did during that week.

There was one girl whose name I have forgotten. I remember her well because she, after seeing ungainly me, unused to being around children and the kind that likes to stand around aloof and awkward, had the gall to call me “creepy” to my face. I was more hurt than offended—I knew very well that I was not the most friendly or welcoming person, because I had barely even figured out who I was in my early 20s: I’d been too busy to think about it much in my intense high school and intense college majors. I wasn’t good at hiding my awkwardness from others, and children being as forthright as they are, she called it out.

It has been over ten years since then and I really only remember two things: one was yelling at a particular boy who kept running around and disrupting the play time. The other was occasionally asking the girl how she was doing, and eventually discovering that she was interested in writing stories. She tended to play alone, the way I usually did when I was her age. When it was time to do some writing exercises, I asked her how she came up with ideas and gave her a few tips from my own efforts to write stories: I had just graduated from the creative writing program, and while I was burned out at the time from putting anything out, I still remembered all the advice I had gotten over the years from workshops, books, and brutal peer feedback.

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I did not spend that much more time with her than I did with the other kids. I only remember her so well because, for a brief moment, there was a kindred spirit, a small reminder of where I once was, but in a less privileged place; a chance to share, albeit briefly, a bit of what I had learned up to that point about writing. I was lost and confused then, much more than I actually realized at the time, and all I could do was offer a few shards of the life I had pieced together then.

I’m not sure anything is that different now, really, as I write this and I look back at this real life incident and the fictional echo that I saw in certain scenes of SNAFU, especially the ones with Rumi in S1. We don’t ever stop being broken in one aspect or another; is anyone’s life ever really whole and seamless, ready to offer as God’s gift to humanity as some paragon of righteousness? Maybe the only gift we can really give as human beings is the gift of honesty: to offer our own selves, take it or leave it, and hope that when it is offered, it will be appreciated as “the real thing.” It’s a dangerous thing, though.

Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. —JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

Hi again, everyone. It’s good to be back. I missed you all.

Otaku No Video Kickstarter Success (Why It Still Matters)

ONV2

Upon catching up with the news via Twitter, among all the other amazing things happening yesterday, news came that Animeigo’s ambitious Blu-ray Kickstarter had ended to incredible success. More than excited to hear that the final numbers absolutely crushed the proposed $40,000 goal with a whopping $102,869, the upcoming release plans will likely live up to and beyond initial promise. And now that the initial crowdfunding leg of this particular tour is at an end, Paypal will be open to those late to the party. Sure, goodies that were set up for those who participated won’t be available, but do not feel too left out. The hallowed Secret Master Of Otakudom edition is jam packed with celebratory sweetness for even the most pokey of supernerds.

The recent Japanese release contains not only a lovely transfer, but also an all-new commentary track featuring Shoji Murahama, Kikuko Inoue, Hiroyuki Yamaga, & Yuki Sato. The Animeigo release also promises an english commentary track by none other than Gilles Poitras!

All these bells, whistles, and glory for what exactly? Well in case you’ve been on these intarnutz over the last two decades (strangely an equivalent to being under a huge rock), Gainax’s Otaku No Video remains a poignant, and often self-effacing document on an era of anime fandom that deserves remembrance. And while we certainly have evolved into forms far beyond in that short span of time, the roots remain as relevant, and possibly as dangerous – as ever. For those with a need for that added nudge, please read.

Then scratch that itch. Fight the good fight!

Fight, Ota-royalty!

Otaku no Video Crowdfunding Project Promo Video from AnimEigo on Vimeo.

Through Older Lenses: Letting Go Of Live Action

 

Anime fans, asian cinema lovers, genre hounds.

It’s time to grow a little.

That’s right, I said it. It is no longer the “salad days” of fandom. It’s train that has long passed. In fact, when the best possible celebration of these things came to our doorstep, it was the international audience who came brandishing that flag to wave it, not us in the states. Solidarity is a nice thought, but it’s something that if even came to pass, wouldn’t make the mainstream quake in its collective boots.

Adaptation should always be about more than casting. These words have been on my mind for almost two weeks now. Whether it happens or not, the Ghost In The Shell project has again stirred the hornet’s nest. After yet another attempt to adapt a beloved Japanese property to the Hollywood realm did its part to unsettle and stir the pot, it felt time to again dish out the whys. Also, to hopefully quell minds with a few good realities to consider.

A quick fix is rarely a good thing.

We see tech offer up simplified answers to often step-packed questions, and technological development does what it can to leapfrog those steps. But skipping about can very often obscure room for nuance, and specificity that can occasionally be important to many. Which is why many stalwart admirers of the longview tend to gather more understanding of process.

As far back as I can remember learning about it, my love of anime has been a protracted lesson in how localization works. From the beginning, it has long been a held reality that direct translation leaves quite a bit to be desired, nor does it better grab the cultural and psychological nuance of a foreign work. So tweaking and fine tuning are an expected norm. And while we have made substantial leaps to best synthesize this into a palatable shared language, there is still nothing like learning and better understanding other languages and cultures. So when the mainstream is confronted with work almost completely in step with classic anime tropes and ideas (see- Pacific Rim), it’s understandable to see the average moviegoer take in such ideas and cock their heads sideways. The response is often not that of revelation.

Even when manga and anime properties are adapted on their home soil, there is disconnect. This is another huge hurdle I have had to get past these last few decades. In writing the column, Live Action Manga Blues at the Kaijyu, it over time came into sharp focus that even the Japanese are saddled with both the budgetary and literal limitations that come with taking something iconographic and making it into fleshy reality. And the reasons here are multifold. After all, we are talking about taking what is often seen as Japan’s hidden id, and bringing it into another plane of existence. To assume that the two can co-exist seamlessly without losing some grand component remains paradoxical, and often unrealistic. Sure, we have had success with certain more “experimental” fare such as Oldboy, Video Girl Ai, and the Speed Racer. But very often, there is a temptation on the part of live action filmmaking to conform the work into a language that rarely melds with the weight and necessity of itself. It either has to be almost indistinguishably gritty, or it needs to be completely gonzo. Rarely anywhere in between. And to a degree, big films like Racer and Pacific Rim are indicators that they can only work in the hands of the rare risk taker that is willing to bet the farm to see their vision to fruition. Artists with the acumen and sneakiness to ostensibly fool already cynically inclined studio heads that this is worthwhile.

(Something the director of Snow White and The Huntsman, hasn’t proven himself to me. Just saying.)

So a huge part of me isn’t expecting much of this recent news. Many would dare to still hope that one day, their favorite property would make the transition, changing the perception of at least one more set of eyes to their favorite thing. But time has perhaps hardened my purview, I suppose. Because the allure of anime is truly its own organism. And it doesn’t require further validation. It’s wild, weird, and enjoyably dysfunctional in ways that would lose fathoms of itself in being conformed to a more docile cinema language. The average mind accepts new ideas when it is time. And frankly, in twenty years we have seen Ghost In The Shell become something of an evergreen that continues to make converts out of film and science fiction fans the world over. And as new animation continues the adventures of Section 9, such windows will continue to open. Because of this shared world we now reside, it takes more than one obligatory, stunt-casting laden feature film to turn heads. Especially when the genuine global article already exists.

Through Older Lenses: The Malleability Of Dieting

futureamano

Been quite busy these last few months, and while in the office, I tend to listen to co-workers dish out what they enjoy via their streaming. It has become a unique period in time, one where we are now awash in months- strike that. Hours worth of newly posted visual entertainment is available with a minimum of effort. Now what this does for someone like myself, is create an ever growing cushion of work that I can delve into whenever I feel the inkling. There is an immediacy to the newly released piece of hard media that feels like a special secret had landed upon the doorstep. An effect that doesn’t have the same impact with near real-time online release. Sure, a few seasons have expressed some truly enjoyable work from numerous studios without my making a peep. But to cave in to habitual watching for the sake of it, remains a questionable prospect to me. When I hear said co-workers chirp in excitement over the latest episodes of whatever new series is on Hulu or Netflix, there is a near instinct on my part to either ignore it, or heap it onto the ever growing pile of “not likelies” that have begun to amass since at least 2008.

When only one show has you by the cerebellum, unwilling to let go, it may be time to re-evaluate what we watch, and why we do.

Having reached that hallowed (or is it feared?) fortieth year, there is a natural inclination to seek out work that not only best sums up who you are, but considers where all are going. Which is probably why Kill La Kill continues to shine in my wheelhouse over everything else. Sure, it’s a series that began a year prior, but on its plate were a number of concerns and fetishism that harkened to the more rough and tumble aspects of classic anime, while still being rowdy enough to question the now. This is vital to me in all forms of art. We can continue to laud dramatic effect, and strive for perfection, but one cannot help but wonder why this is even necessary in a landscape that often pathologically avoids reason. Which isn’t to say that creative works cannot move forward, and offer up more articulate means of expressing the anime paradigm. But to forget that so much of the stuff is often knee-jerk in nature, is kind of detrimental to its identity. It’s a delicate dance. And every so often it is nice to be knocked wobbly by a work so uninterested in recently established rules.

It’s all about the questions.

Why anime? Why escapism? Why indulge?

We could use any number of reason/excuse. And while this may trouble some as a statement, I have no issue in admitting that with age, comes less room for trumped-up reasons for being so willing to be cast away into realms of fantasy. And as time has shifted, and films like INTERSTELLAR and EDGE OF TOMORROW, explore previously trodden anime territory, does one come to the revelation that it is not merely enough to call a conceit a conceit, but to ask why it exists these stories at all. This is at the very heart of the current me, and what it means to take in a work, and find our own individual answers. The problem with overindulgence, is that it often becomes a substitute for personal rumination, and thereby epiphany. We stuff ourselves with so much input, that we deprive ourselves of enough energy or time to respond in a work or even a conversation. I cannot tell you how many times I listen to a media fan gasp excitedly about what they have just watched without considering the whys and hows of such choices. It is often only about the existence of this captured moment.

So many subcultures thrive on the idea of the find, rather than the hard work it often requires to create an organic relationship with the work. Be this relationship one of harmony, antipathy, or even “it’s complicated”. It’s how we embrace the creative output of a select few individuals that allows us to think, recept to , and perhaps enact based upon. Which is probably why, as an individual, I tend not to take character “types”, or tropes terribly seriously. They are simply shorthand for other things. And the more one studies about how these come about, or how they are arbitrarily plugged into works, does one need to pull back to see the greater mosaic of the creative process. Like a freeway, some stick to their safest lanes, while others hop erratically, in search of that miracle means of getting to a destination faster. And then there are those few, who understand the flow of traffic, and seek to become one with the entire circuit. Willing to make the freeway an extension of themselves. And once this comes together, it becomes easier to filter through all the roughage we are inundated with on a regular basis now.

Like any good diet, it becomes essential to read up, know the ingredients, and consume accordingly.

And hey, output is important too. Never let anyone tell you different.

The Anno Age: Moving On From Hideaki Anno (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.

IV: His, Her, and My Circumstances

Anno’s burnout after Evangelion is well-known. Many fans have interpreted the last half of the End of Evangelion as nothing less than a raised middle finger at fandom, the product of a cynical and angry mind sick of otaku pandering and the merchandising juggernaut that the franchise had already become. Death threats that were emailed to the studio, along with graffiti sprayed outside Gainax offices, flashed by in the film. The suicide anthem “Komm, Susser Tod” played over scenes of the earth’s destruction told of a level of suicidal self-hatred that is still unsurpassed to this day in anime songs. Reputedly, Anno wrote the original lyrics in therapy.

yukinomiyazawa

So when Anno decided to follow up this festival of nihilism with a high school love comedy, adapted from a shoujo manga, fans like me must have been puzzled. Moreover, he interviewed dozens of high school students in preparation for the project, in order to get in touch with the youth he felt alienated from in his time as an animator.

The result, Kare Kano (or His and Her Circumstances), is both a masterpiece of genuine comedy, genuine emotion, and genuine wasted potential. It was even more ragged than Evangelion in its production quality, littered with lengthy recaps, animation lapses, and later a resorting to figures mounted on popsicle sticks. Anno was fired two thirds into its production, under pressure from the unhappy manga-ka. The ending was essentially still shots from the manga with voice overs.

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And yet: I felt transported back into high school once more, with all of its highs and lows, as I watched Kare Kano. Jon, who had given me Evangelion in the very beginning, commented: “this is just like our school.” We had been in the International Baccalaureate program, which was filled with overachievers like Yukino and Arima, perfect on the outside but seething with vanity and insecurity on the inside. The types were immediately recognizable to us. I laughed heartily at the way Yukino’s perfectionist mask slipped at home, and felt heartbroken over Arima struggling with never feeling good enough in front of his distant, formal family. They are perfect for one another in a way few anime couples are, and it was easy to root for them.

Some of the best moments in the series, though, are the quieter ones, where they are in clubs, preparing for the festival. I felt the joys of slice of life, a genre that had yet to fully coalesce in anime at the time. The two of them were not always obsessed about their relationship; they had lives outside of each other and I felt that, as imperfect as it was, Kare Kano presented the most comprehensive emotional account of high school I had seen. I still feel the same way.

Though Anno was only partially involved in a way, his work had once again opened a door: a realization that beyond the emotional trauma of Evangelion and the heroics of Gunbuster, anime could also simply depict ordinary life well too. Other titles would continue that tradition—Honey and Clover, Toradora, the good parts of Sakurasou, to name a few—but Kare Kano arguably helped make that possible.

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Doesn’t that pose look familiar

V: Interlude

Kare Kano was Anno’s last anime for many years, as he began to experiment with art house film, to varying degrees of success.

After college, I began to drift from anime fandom. There were only so many times one could rewatch Evangelion, Gunbuster, and other titles. The new titles that were being released at the time, the early 2000s, were of only sporadic interest to me. It was the golden age of the harem and dating sim anime, with the slice of life age waiting in the wings, and while I watched and enjoyed some of them, no title ever captured my head and heart the way Evangelion had. Fullmetal Alchemist came close, but was compromised by a muddled ending. I watched part of Ideon to see the inspiration Anno had taken for Evangelion, but I got a formulaic robot show instead. RahXephon is a polished show and compelling in its own right, but it is still just a response to Evangelion at the end of the day. It cannot exist independently from it: for one, Anno and its director, Yutaka Izubuchi, are good friends….

Shiki-jitsu: that's so Anno
Shiki-jitsu: that’s so Anno

I remember trying hard to track down a copy of Shiki-jitsu, Anno’s second live action film. I remember little about the film itself, other than a red umbrella and Anno’s continuing obsession with trains. The wild creativity that had fueled such emotionally intense experiences in animation felt tired and even tame in the much larger world of film. As a fan of arthouse cinema as well, and judged on those terms, I found Anno’s work lacking in emotional resonance. The symbolism was clumsy. Not even Shunji Iwai, who starred, could save it. The idol was toppling.

Welcome to the NHK and Honey and Clover brought me back into anime fandom. I remember thinking that the former title was as intense as my memories of the latter parts of Evangelion, but this time grounded much more closely in real life, in the ennui of being in your 20s and the desperate search for meaning. Honey and Clover also did that, in a more poetic and gentle way. Looking back, there was something very teenage about Evangelion’s angst, one that I couldn’t identify with anymore: the raw wound of youth mellowed with age into wistful melancholy, a mood that H&C and the best slice of life shows capture so well.

So by 2006, arguably the last golden year of anime in the past 10 years, I was back in anime fandom once again. But my Age of Anno was over.

Is this what we've come to? (Then again they once did sell
Is this what we’ve come to? (Then again they once did sell “LCL Fluid” OJ…)

VI: You Can (Not) Return

It was announced not long after that that Anno would return, to remake Evangelion. Nostalgia stirred within me when I heard the news. By this time, Anno had married, inviting his mentor Hayao Miyazaki to his wedding. He had given a controversial interview with the Atlantic decrying porno manga readers, Japan’s lack of military forces, and the overall lack of maturity in society. The article praised Evangelion as being as influential in Japan as Star Wars was in America. I was amused, and wrote a commentary article in the early days of Anime Diet about it. Anno, my old hero, still had a whiff of the orneriness that had created those unfiltered works I had so loved, once. But it was now directed toward the outside world, and in a way that was utterly conventional: the opinions of an ordinary center-right middle-aged individual in Japan.

Which is why, despite their flash, polish, and excellent choreography, there seems something exhausted and lifeless in the Evangelion remake movies. Maturity, age, and happiness appear to have smoothed out Anno’s edges. Shinji is still confused and hurt, but not for too long. Asuka is no longer tortured with feelings of inadequacy and rejection, just angry. Rei wants to cook now. The only element that is original to the series–the new girl Mari–is hardly even a character. An attempt to steer the story in a new direction in the third film falls flat by no longer being focused on the vital heart that beat throughout the original series: the search for identity and place to belong in a collapsing world that places impossible expectations on you. The operative emotion in the new films, instead, is guilt: after everything is already collapsed, how do you put the pieces back together?

Anno, reputedly, felt tremendous guilt after having finished the lengthy Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water series in the early 1990s. He thought he might be wasting his life making subpar children’s entertainment, though the amount of creative control he managed to wrest from NHK in the concluding episodes still surprises me: it is almost a direct foreshadowing of Evangelion in every aspect. The darkness had already begin to creep up on him, but he used that darkness as fuel, which propelled him toward his masterwork.

Yes, this is from Nadia.
Yes, this is from Nadia.

The problem is that he stopped there. Anno would never make another original work after Evangelion: everything since then has been an adaptation (Kare Kano, Love & Pop, Shiki-jitsu) or remake (Cutie Honey, Eva). It is as if he had only one story in him, and left with nothing else, he has returned to that story to try another variation. Now older and wiser, presumably, but Evangelion was and is not supposed to be a work of age or wisdom: it was a cry of frustration that resonated with an entire generation of frustrated Japanese youth in the 1990s. That, more than pictures of Ayanami Rei, or merchandising, was what made Evangelion so enduring and popular, even outside anime circles. No anime had been so emotionally and psychologically raw, capturing the zeitgeit of the post-bubble years.

And no anime had so spoken to me so directly, in those weird drifting years between childhood and adulthood, a time that is now wrapped in emotional gauze by the anime nostalgia masters like PA Works, Makoto Shinkai, and a million lesser imitators. Otaku today, it seems, prefer the safety of such works, and there is a place for them: I enjoy many of them myself. I watch a story penned by Mari Okada and recall the more melodramatic moments of my teenage years, when every emotion is new and explosive; I watch Makoto Shinkai or Ano Natsu de Matteru and remember the yearning romanticism of those days.

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But it was Anno who spoke to the fear, the shame, and the self-loathing: the parts of life that cannot be borne for too long by anyone, but need to be brought to light and confronted. A human being cannot live in that state forever, which means that a show like Evangelion, and the Age of Anno, has a built in expiration date for a fan. We all, hopefully, grow out of it, as Anno himself has. Now he’s a successful husband, voice actor, dramatized character, car salesman, and more. But he was our companion once, the one that understood, and thus, in its own way, gave real comfort.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

–Leonard Cohen

The Anno Age: Hideaki Anno and My Early Fandom (Part 1)

I: Insufficient Depression

The problem with Hideaki Anno these days is that he seems too happy. At least that’s the impression one gets from reading his wife Moyoco’s account of their life together, Insufficient Direction, which was only recently released in English translation. Granted, the manga is actually about a decade old in reality, but if the account is true, Hideaki and Moyoco share about as tender and settled life as two insiders of the anime/manga industry can be. Anno freely does Ultraman poses at home. He plays CDs full of anisons in the car and sings along, at the top of his lungs, the words to various tokusatsu series. The couple’s dialogue is peppered with references that require a lengthy glossary in the back of the book to understand. Moyoco makes Hideaki lose weight, after living a well-documented diet of pizza and beer in his Gainax days. He acts like a big baby sometimes, but then again, so does she–she even portrays herself as one, nicknamed Rompers.

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“Her manga accomplished what I couldn’t do in Eva to the end,” he writes in the foreword, with the hyperbole only a loving husband can summon. “I’m amazed by my wife. I feel like she has more talent than I do.”

And I think, reading this affectionate tribute: great for him. Isn’t this what we all want in our lives, to find someone who not only understands but even shares our deepest loves and passions, and redirects them for good? Hideaki Anno is living the otaku dream, the one that seems so unattainable for many that 2D is the alternative: fiding an ota-wife and being fans together.

Yet. Just a few lines later, Anno writes:

After Eva, there was a time when I wanted to stop being an otaku. I was sick of the stagnation of the anime industry and fans. I was filled with self-hatred back then. I was desperate.

He writes of that time in the past tense, of course. But it was that Anno who created that work of self-hating desperation, that classic pile of frustration and chaos that we call Neon Genesis Evangelion. It was that Anno and his work that drew one 18 year old kid, just out of high school and on his own for the first time in college, into the world of Japanese animation at the turn of the millennium. That kid would search the nascent world of anime websites searching for all the theories about the meaning of Eva’s ending, the Kabbalistic and Jungian references mixed with the ersatz Christian symbolism, about the controversies it stirred throughout fandom, and most of all about the man who had created it: that crazy director who put his name in huge block characters in the credits, HIDEAKI ANNO. He was my first anime hero.

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II: Neon Genesis Evangelion is Too Bad

It was my high school friend Jon who gave me those two CD-ROMs, with faded silkscreens depicting Rei, Shinji, and Asuka. They were packed with all 26 episodes of the TV series, as well as the Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion movies, in the now dead VIVO format. The video playback, by our standards, was choppy and blocky, the subtitles sometimes barely readable.

The year was 1999, and I had just entered college. I had picked, not entirely willingly, computer science as my major. Every once in a while, in between classes in the engineering building or at late nights in my dorm room, I’d sneak in a few episodes to watch. I’d also watch them occasionally at home on weekends, where my mother seemed rather non-plussed by this new phase of watching Japanese cartoons.

The show seemed fairly ho-hum to me at first, a typical boy-meets-giant-robot tale. I vaguely noted the rather prominent notes of parent-child conflict and the slightly non-linear way the story was being told, but it was really episode 6—where Rei almost sacrifices her life for Shinji, and he rescues her in a way reminiscent of his hated father, that stood out to me. Here was a bit of character complexity that I was not expecting from animation.

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I kept watching, laughing at the clumsy symbolism, the lack of technical knowledge. Soon, the end of the year and the end of the millennium loomed. We went to Chicago to spend the rest of the year at a Christian retreat. The youth speaker there tried to make us anxious about Y2K. I carried, pretentiously, carried out a copy of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death with me during most of the sessions. I had also brought my laptop, my very first, to the retreat, and it was either on December 29 or 30, 1999, that I saw episode 17.

My relationship with animation changed forever after watching that brutal, bloody episode. Up to that point, I had seen Evangelion as a compelling, interesting character study of a typical Asian teenager: buffeted by distant parental expectations, forced to bury his feelings much of the time, wanting to run away but being unable to escape. Shinji is desperate for even a scrap of praise from his father. But the betrayal in episode 17, as he watches his own Eva tear his friend apart, was on another level altogether. It cemented the feeling of powerlessness and despair that had I had yet to put a name to in my overly busy high school years, being alone with only my putative writing talents and chuunibyou imagination to give me solace. The screams of Megumi Ogata, Shinji’s seiyuu, chilled me both in its intensity and its resonance.

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From that point forward, I was a fan. How much of one? I even loved the original ending. For many, it was no-budget pretentiousness. For me, it was therapy, words that I had longed to hear.

Who made this masterpiece? I had to know. Gainax, Hideaki Anno: the new stars in my constellation, next to Orson Scott Card and Terry Brooks and Isaac Asimov.

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III: Buster Beam

In the early 1980s, Hideaki Anno was a student at the Osaka University of the Arts along with his friends Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, and later Toshio Okada (the Ota-king). He loved Ultraman and loved sci-fi and loved Space Battleship Yamato, and Space Runaway Ideon. He had a remarkable ability to draw dynamic animation scenes, the talent that is wildly on display in the Daicon III and IV films as well as his early key animator work for Nausicaa and Macross. But before that, he was a fan, an otaku, a connoisseur.

My interest in anime and especially Anno’s anime ignited, I began to search for his other work. The first one I tried was his directorial debut, the 6 episode OVA Gunbuster. Gunbuster, which was written in part by Okada the Ota-King, is nothing if not the work of otakus and connoisseurs. My knowledge of anime and manga being limited at the time, I did not recognize the Gundam references, the Ace wo Nerae parody, or the other cliches that were lovingly sent up in the series’ first half. Or rather, I had read about them, but I did not feel them in my bones with way Anno and his comrades surely had. Like many things in my life, my intellectual knowledge of anime outstripped my experience.

Nevertheless, the story of Noriko’s evolution from clumsy crybaby to self-sacrificing heroine was as moving as it was traditional. I remember sitting slack-jawed at the ending, as the screen filled with the lights of homecoming and the black and white became color. Then I cried.

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Years later, when I watched it again, I still cried. Who doesn’t want to be welcomed home after a long, long time away?

And at the very end, in almost modest small lettering:

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That man, again. I’m not sure how much he had to do with the directorial choices in the final episode, but his name was cemented in my mind as the author of this masterful conclusion. After all, he was arty, with the strange angles, the Godardian flashing text in Evangelion. From black and white to color, that was like The Wizard of Oz. It had to be him.

It also showed that there was a time when he was so earnest, so hopeful. The heart of darkness in Evangelion had spoken to my own darkness at the start of my anime journey. But now, moved back several years, it seemed that the young Anno had something to say to me too, that sacrifices were worthwhile, and that there will be someone waiting for you when you come back.

To be continued: Kare Kano, and what comes after Anno.

Barakamon: The Artist In Recovery

Contains spoilers for the ending of Barakamon.

I have been working on a fantasy novel called A Pattern of Light in some form since 2007. The ideas for it date back much further, but I wanted to update them. I began the outline for it while I was visiting my father in the hospital. In between sessions of Final Fantasy 3 on the Nintendo DS, I wrote the novel’s outline in a now battered Moleskine notebook. Around that time, too, I was watching the ending of Mai Hime and I even wrote about it here, because the sense of loss and grief in that show spoke to me then. While the novel itself didn’t deal with that directly, that is the soil where it took root.

A lot has happened since December of 2007, when the ideas first came. Anime Diet was only a year old then, and now has become far larger than the lark it began as. Friends have come and gone. I graduated from seminary, and found my way back into computers. Multiple Nanowrimos have passed, some of them dedicated to finishing A Pattern of Light, but while sometimes the 50,000 word barrier was breached, the work itself was never finished. It stopped when a number of things began to break down in my and others’ lives and had been lying dormant since, waiting for a moment when my mind and heart could settle down and feel enough both drive and pain to continue the work.

Make good art,” Neil Gaiman charged a graduating art school class, and especially on bad days. It was advice that I didn’t heed.

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When life’s messy, all you can do is to start to clean it up.

* * *

So when I first started watching Barakamon, and saw how Handa-sensei had been exiled to an island in order to reflect not only on his aggression toward the critic but also on his calligraphic art, I felt a pang of recognition. In a brief moment, Handa has to face two stark realities: first, that he had hurt someone undeservedly, and second, that the critic was probably right—his art was workmanlike rather than inspired. Those of us who tend to be perfectionists, and writers tend to be both that and procrastinators, know the pain. To be told that something isn’t good enough is a devastating blow to someone who bases his self-esteem on accomplishment.  For a creative person, to be told that one’s work is uninspiring is perhaps worse than most other critiques. When I was young, I clung to my creative abilities to help me get through a difficult middle and high school existence. To have that sense called into question hurt Handa badly.

So he has to go away for a while, to a remote island. Here, the story of Barakamon takes a familiar shape, of the broken man being healed by the charming eccentricities of the rural yokels. It is to help him recover his talents, yes, but it is also a form of exile. Exile, in literature, is sometimes a painful but necessary step to growth. The Israelites had to wander in the desert for 40 years before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. After realizing the suffering of the world, the Buddha had to wander as an ascetic before he received the enlightenment of the middle way. For an artist whose inspiration has left him, Handa needed a change of place and context: overfamiliarity is bad for art, and bad for the soul too if it leads to complacency. So is arrogance, and Handa had plenty of it initially, rejecting the critique and rejecting the children who have come bounding into his life on the Goto Islands.

There’s something quietly monumental that Naru, the lead child, is played not by one of the usual seiyuu but by an actual child—Suzuko Hara. So are most of the other children, played by actors and actresses not much older than their characters. We are not dealing with the projection of children (or worse, “lolis”) that we usually see in anime. Instead, with the writing, we are getting something much closer to reality of childhood: the carefree, illogical leaps of subjects, the annoying pranks, the sheer aggravating delight in repetition, and most importantly, the unforced affection and love. With the authentic acting, we get its texture. Barakamon’s depiction of kids is sentimental (the natural selfishness of children is only depicted occasionally), but not unreal. I saw much the same when I was a summer camp counselor, many years ago. And those children are instrumental in Handa’s healing.

Handa’s healing process is surprisingly drawn out for an otherwise formulaic show. For much of the series, his exasperation gets the better of him; he regularly berates Naru and the other children to the point where, in real life, it would border abuse. Moments of ecstatic joy are often immediately undercut by the machinations of the boys, or the teasing middle school girls who, too, are realistically snotty as opposed to the near sex objects they have become in other anime. The calligraphic work he produces varies wildly in quality, and the people of the town are not especially interested in their artistic merits as opposed to their practical uses: paint us words on a boat! Or a sign for the temple! He would not have taught the girls how to write if they hadn’t essentially forced that decision on him. And the one masterpiece he does create, “Stars,” is a product of a literal fall into despair and frustration punctuated by one moment of wonder. Good art often seems to come from violent juxtapositions, and it was made possible in large part because he was in a place where he wouldn’t be insulated from extremes anymore. It was not to be emulated again, either, marred in a bout of insecurity that frustrated me deeply when he did it.

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Because so many of us do that too, don’t we? We put ourselves down even when part of us says we did good work. That nagging perfectionist voice—Anne Lamott calls it Radio KFKD—refuses to shut up about its flaws, or about its reception. We stop working when we think the piece has reached a dead end, or that life is too hard to think about such frivolous things and that there are more important things to be done in life. Handa has to be pushed, by circumstance and by the annoyingly loving support of his island community. He only begins to miss them just before he is supposed to leave for Tokyo again. Whatever it is, that is what recovery looks like: halting, sometimes unsure, but definite.

Even more: the work he does submit, the canvas full of the names of everyone who has touched his life on the island (Naru’s name is largest), does not win. In fact, it loses in spectacular fashion, in 5th place. A work of positivity like that, it seems, is not necessarily appreciated in a contest. In a way, though, it was the work Handa needed to produce before he could move on. It is as important to him, perhaps more, that his student Miwa earned first place in her contest than that he win first place in his. That realization was what helped Handa’s mother let him go, because it is a great sign of maturity, that he cares more for others than himself. He is not a perfect artist yet, but he is a better human being.

Maybe that is actually more important than the work. Or, perhaps, the work and the person are inseparable. You improve one, you improve the other.

* * *

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The only part left in the first draft of A Pattern of Light was the final part. As originally conceived in 2007, it was going to be a part full of battles, desperate maneuvers, and self-sacrifice before reaching a happy ending. It was always going to be long and serious and epic, and the synopsis for that part was longer than any of the others.

For many reasons, that is where I stopped. Life happened, betrayals happened, and the fanciful imaginings of that ending to the story seemed hollow and unrealistic, the product of someone who had read and watched a lot of stories but lived little. Attempts to go beyond it sputtered, such as in last year’s Nanowrimo. It was as if the characters would not respond to my entreaties to go with a particular plot.

The other day, I started outlining the final part again. It has now been nearly two years since I last picked it up, and this time, the ideas slowly dribbled out. The premise is actually the same, but the path is different. It is more somber and reflective: the conflict comes from something the protagonist feels rather than externally imposed on him by outside forces. The betrayal, not there in the original plan, comes from a place of genuine but misguided concern. The battles are no longer outside, but also inside too. No one escapes unscathed, but everyone knows what must be done.

These days, I live near a beach, and I live with a good friend. It’s been a year now since that happened.

I’m not done yet.

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