Due to life events, I’ve been away from the Anime Power Ranking ballots for a few weeks, but I’ve returned to tabulate what I think are the best anime series of 2014!
Kill La Kill
Terror in Resonance
Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun
One Week Friends
Rage of Bahamut: Genesis
This list only includes series that concluded in 2014, which means series that began this year, but are not finished (ex: Knights of Sidonia, Your Lie in April, Shirobako, Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, Parasyte) are not included, and shows that started in 2013 but finished this year (ex: Kill La Kill) are included.
Here are my comments about all the series, briefly:
The top position was a toss up between Mushi-shi and Kill La Kill, and there could not be two shows more different. Mushi-shi is simply one of a kind, the sort of quiet, contemplative, and haunting anime that simply has no peer or imitator, and is worthy of nearly every accolade.
It’s sad that a lot of my actual favorites–Knights of Sidonia, Shirobako, Your Lie in April, etc.–do not qualify for this ballot due to them not being done or being split cour. However I was left with 18 choices initially and I had to shut out some worthy but ultimately deeply flawed series like Golden Time, Yuki Yuna, and Chaika.
Terror in Resonance fits that description too, but its highs are so high, and the Watanabe/Kanno combo so potent at its best, that it still is one of the best things I watched this year. It was undermined by a muddled plot and a confusion of symbolic gesture with political statement, but aesthetically it was one of the finest presentations of the year.
Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun is, hands down, the most entertaining and original comedy of the year. More character-driven and consistent than its nearest analogue, Ouran High School Host Club, it takes aim at shoujo cliches but doesn’t forget to make the characters not only wacky but likable.
Barakamon is a personal favorite, being a comedic drama that I could identify with and whose children are deeply authentic in their portrayal. The storyline is typical but the execution is both funny and touching.
The same applies with the patient, low-key, and charming One Week Friends, whose understated innocence is instrumental to its success. Also if one understands the subtext, it becomes a deeply poignant story about a person learning to come to terms with reality.
Rage of Bahamut: Genesis, which just concluded, is simply a winner by virtue of its sheer competence: it is essentially a Hollywood blockbuster fantasy film in anime form, but done with a high degree of finesse and wit. It falters near the end somewhat, but remains endlessly watchable. It may win a special award for greatest adaptation from a plotless card game.
Both Sabagebu and Gugure! Kokkuri-san provided many barrels of laughs, especially the former, which may have been the biggest surprise of the summer season. Both comedies feature demented, jerkish characters who amuse in direct proportion to their meanness. In an anime world full of characters who are too nice, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Log Horizon contains just enough touches of intelligence and thought-provoking drama, as well as far better developed approach to the MMO genre, to assure its place in the top 10. The slow patches were difficult to get through at times, but the reward was worthwhile, even for this non-MMO player.
Mamoru Hosoda makes family movies. That is, he not only makes movies that are suitable for a broad range of ages and backgrounds, but his movies are about families in deep and insightful ways. The families can be biological (Summer Wars, Wolf Children) or the virtual ones of friendship (Our War Game, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), but Hosoda is most interested in exploring the interconnected bonds between people and how they help individual characters become more than they would be by themselves.
The first quarter of Wolf Children depicts the mother, Hana, and the nameless werewolf father falling in love and marrying, and it is one of the most heartwarming and unpretentious courtships in recent anime, comparable to the first scenes of Pixar’s Up. This is, of course, how new families begin, and the film makes clear about how this is just like any other marriage but also different, given the father’s background. In homogeneous Japan, this mixed race marriage–for lack of a better term–is perhaps even more unique, and by hammering home its ordinariness, it helps the audience empathize with them and paves the way for later conflicts in the story.
For the bulk of the film, however, Hosoda examines what is perhaps the most direct, elemental act of family: parenting. And make no mistake, this film is about the mother much more than it is about her son Ame and daughter Yuki, the half-offspring of an actual, literal werewolf and who have a divided heritage. This detail is simultaneously crucial and inessential to the film’s central themes. The way that Ame and Yuki follow diametrically different paths is a direct result of the different ways they respond to their wolf natures, but it is also an easily relatable analogy for how any children in the same family can follow profoundly different life paths. There is also the specter of racial prejudice hanging over all of their lives, beginning with the death of their werewolf father. The family must figure out just how much to show or hide their lineage, confronting stereotypes about wolves that threatens their self-image, living in fear that their mixed heritage will be discovered and lead to ostracization. It is an unusually sensitive film for an anime in that regard, and perhaps it could only be told in this semi-allegorical, magical realist mode to make it resonate with audiences.
Caught inbetween is the protagonist, Hana, whose efforts to raise her children after their father’s death are nothing short of heroic. Wolf Children may be the perfect Mother’s Day film. Hana refurbishes an entire abandoned country house, struggles to learn how to grow vegetables in the field while suffering the suspicions of the local community, goes out in dangerous conditions to look for her lost son. These are actually the routine kinds of sacrifices that parents make every day, but they are presented in the film with such grace and nobility, it serves as a reminder to appreciate one’s parents.
To Hosoda’s credit, however, the story does not end there. To some extent, the story arc of Wolf Children covers the entire cycle of parenthood in accelerated time: from dating to marriage to conception to birth to growing up and, finally, to the children leaving home. Ame, who wishes to embrace his wolf nature fully, leaves first, as a costly act of independence that is both painful and necessary to anyone who has grown up (or who has watched their grown children leave the nest). Yuki, by contrast, chooses to focus on her human nature and thus moves to a boarding school to be closer to her peers. Part of the story fo a family is that the child’s relationship to his or her parents changes over time in just this way: no longer dependent, but hopefully still filled with love and respect. Wolf Children recognizes both the pathos and the necessity of this process. It is how the film can be shot through with melancholy and yet still feel so affirming and warm-hearted by the end.
In my view, Mamoru Hosoda comes much closer to the inheritor of the Ghibli mantle than Makoto Shinkai or, of all people, Hideaki Anno. Hosoda, like Hayao Miyazaki, writes about children and families with unusual perceptiveness, though his imagination is more grounded than the whimsical Miyazaki–it is closer to Isao Takahata’s sensibility and mood. Like Ghibli’s general output, his films have broad appeal that go beyond the otaku audience, and the background art and animation quality are never less than outstanding. Wolf Children represents a further maturation of his exploration of family ties and how they shape people in meaningful ways, and a sincere celebration of parenthood in its trials and joys.
This review was part of the Reverse Thieves’ annual Secret Santa project, in which an anime is recommended for review anonymously until Christmas. The other choices were Tatami Galaxy and xxxHolic, and I chose this one by virtue of its being the shortest. :) The last time I participated in the Secret Santa, I reviewed the first season of A Certain Scientific Railgun.
Short article this time, due to lack of time. Here’s my Anime Power Ranking ballot:
Your Lie in April 8
Sora no Method 8
Parasyte’s double feature was so compelling, it felt like watching one episode rather than two. I’m glad that they decided not to play the usual superhero card and make Shinichi instantly popular and desirable–instead, the one girl who is in love with him is deeply disturbed by his transformation, and his new status just brings more danger. The balancing act between comedy, drama, and horror is something Parasyte handles better than anything I’ve seen in a long time.
Mushishi returns with an episode highly reminiscent of the melancholy first season, with a bittersweet and poetic ending that I found deeply satisfying. The connection to the water cycle and to life is very strong.
Shirobako continues its march toward becoming the definitive workplace anime dramedy, by resolving Ema’s creative dilemma with believable and true advice that anyone should follow, and also highlighting the differences in the way family members act. It’s come a long way since its shaky start as an overstuffed quasi-documentary.
Your Lie in April gives us not one, but two stunning performances, but centered around new characters who are not yet developed. There were signs of its overwrought direction all over, especially in the second half, when the colors and monologuing nearly got out of control. (This was not nearly a problem in the manga.) The other main characters were reduced to a peanut exposition gallery.
Finally, Sora no Method enters my list for the first time. It has been a slow buildup for the show, which took too long to get to the meat of the drama, but at last the character work is paying off and there was enough emotional restraint and beautiful imagery to make it an entertaining, sentimental watch. For the first time, the emotions feel earned.
With the absence of Bahamut due to its recap episode, and the surprise entry of several titles, this week’s APR was hard to choose. Many shows only just barely missed the cut.
When Supernatural Battles Become Commonplace 7
Amagi Brilliant Park 8
Coming in at #1 is When Supernatural Battles Become Commonplace (Inou-Battle), whose shattering breakdown rant by Hatoko ranks as one of the most memorable scenes of the season, if not the entire year. Bravura voice actress Saori Hayami, who did the scene in one breathless unrehearsed take, conveys long-standing frustration over being excluded AND jealousy AND an incisive critique of the chunni mindset, within 2 very long (and necessary) minutes. It was raw, repetitive, and ineloquent, which makes it feel even more real: it felt as if she had been talking not to the character, but to me, and all of my own faults as a fan with chuuni tendencies myself. Hideaki Anno could not have critiqued an otaku better. The scene was also framed by clever foreshadowing and a denouement and twist afterwards that kicks the show into truly high gear. Trigger could not have taken potentially mediocre source material and spun it into finer gold so far.
Something similar also happens in Shirobako, as the show continues to deepen its characters and relationships. Ema’s plight is one faced by nearly everyone who’s worked, especially in creative professions: whether to focus on quantity vs quality, and how to deal with criticism from superiors. Having had similar experiences myself, the emotions were painfully familiar, and even more poignant in light of how much she is likely earning every year. Her pain is universal, and portrayed with genuine gravity and empathy, something that the show is gaining rapidly. Meanwhile, Aoi continues to display how indispensable she is to the office as the bridge between different departments and superiors, and Tarou gets what’s coming to him. This has truly become one of the most solid workplace dramedies done in anime.
Parasyte continues its high standard of combining action, danger, and even occasional comedy–which makes its return with the introduction of Uda and his symbiote Parasite. The antics of Parasite, who speaks much more colloquially than Migi, was often laugh out loud funny, combined with Uda’s exaggerated timidity–which proves to not mean that he was useless, in the least. As for Migi and Shinichi, this episode brings a quick end to the central emotional dilemma and cements his rapid growth into the battle-hardened, confident, manlier man that exudes effortless cool by the end. Parasyte is a show that, up to this point, has wasted little time on extraneous scenes and character development, and its march toward being a dark superhero epic is one of the most compelling rides this season.
Amagi Brilliant Park returns to the list with a truly funny, engaging plot about body swapping that ends up making amusing trouble for Kanie’s social life. The confusion/misunderstanding plot was a staple of the humor in Shoji Gatou’s previous Full Metal Panic, and for once, the pacing kept up with the jokes. It seems that Amaburi has at last found its stride, and it remains the funniest episode to show this week, with Garo’s “Full Monty” coming a very close second.
Finally, Mushi-shi turns in another fine story inspired by traditional tales of what lies at the bottom of wells, as well as the idea of slipping into a shadow or faery world. The imagery of the otherworldly stars is simply gorgeous and the theme of families being unable to hear or understand each other works as a fine metaphor. Again, in keeping with the current iteration of this show, the ending is solidly happy, which makes one wonder if we will ever see a return to the melancholy of old. In either case, its unique “traditional folk tales for the new age” continues its march toward greatness.
THINGS THAT DIDN’T MAKE IT BUT WERE STILL GOOD For the first time, Your Lie in April/KimiUso did not make it on the list, and that is largely because it is a transitional episode: a transition from the first arc, which focused on relationships and budding romance, to what I like to call the “tournament arc” that focuses on piano competition. The depiction of stage fright and impending doom was well-conveyed, and Kaori and Kousei share a nice moment in the park as well as some psychological drama, but as a standalone episode, it felt a little bit less compelling.
Garo was a very near contender for Amagi Brilliant Park’s place, with a genuinely hilarious series of gags involving male nudity, chase scenes, and deception. German stands out as not just an all around womanizer, but as a great comedic lead, a contrast to his dour son. It reminds one of a well-directed Hollywood farce, almost veering into territory currently owned by MAPPA’s other project, Bahamut. The “Full Monty” reference is surely not accidental in that context. It was amusing but was just slightly bested by Amagi’s character-oriented humor this week.
Last week’s Parasyte episode is the best one yet. In some ways it echoes a traditional superhero story, like Spider-Man, but with a darker edge: this time, the transformation has made Shinichi much harder and more rugged–dare I say manlier? But it comes at a very painful price. Moreover, while it has made him stronger, it has made Migi weaker, which introduces a new level of danger. Finally, the scene where he confronts his father and his father’s subsequent disbelief is both tense and heartbreaking. I get the feeling that there will be no more comedy in this show, however…
KimiUso/Your Lie in April’s 6th episode spends some more time developing characters in its characteristically florid way. Here it begins to tread on familiar ground for anime romance, from the shafted childhood friend to emotional piggyback rides and sparkling stars. It still does it with all the overheated emotion of adolescence better than anyone else, but I am awaiting the next performance scene, which is being promised with the introduction of rivals–a mark of its shounen manga roots more than anything.
Shirobako continues to be the believable workplace dramedy that is it, but this episode is special in that it reminds the characters of why they got into the industry in the first place: fandom. The way the 2D and 3D artists bonded over Ide(p)on, complete with nods to Ideon’s OP and ED as BGM, was actually a little bit touching. It’s a shame that we all know a Tarou in every office, though.
Mushi-shi presents a lovely tale, one of its most hopeful and positive ones in recent days, loosely based on the traditional stories of the tennyo (heavenly/angelic maidens). A fine metaphor for child-rearing as well as a meditation on how to raise a son, it’s nice to see an uplifting story from a series that has usually excelled most when it is tragic and melancholy. As always, the atmosphere of hushed contemplation and wonder is one of a kind.
Bahamut takes a bit of a breather in both action and story, though it’s still nothing less than polished as always. Most interestingly we see the full mishmash of different mythologies and religions that comprise the show’s mythos, and promising developments for the show’s larger plot of preventing Bahamut’s awakening. Sadly, it appears next week’s episode is a recap so we will probably have to wait for a while for the story to continue.
What an emotional roller coaster Your Lie In April is: this is the best non-performance episode yet, with some of the best-directed visuals this season, in the service of a teenage melodrama that is so immediate and so true to my own internal experience of that age. I understand that this is, among other things, what repels others, but it’s rare to see a show that speaks directly to my heart, including all of the painful and uncomfortable parts. Frankly, KimiUso transports me back to my own musically inclined, guilt-ridden, and rescue-longing adolescence, and nothing else this season is doing that.
Parasyte 5 is clearly some kind of turning point in the story and for our protagonist, where the full terror of the situation finally, literally hits home. The desperation and growing despair in the final scene is a mini-masterpiece of horror, eliminating whatever vestiges of humor may be left in the series and setting the show on a course for higher stakes action. I can’t wait.
Bahamut 5 continues to astound by not only including well-animated individual duels between Favaro, Kaisar, and others, but also a tremendously epic large scale battle led by St Jeanne d’Arc. Perhaps it’s this show, not Fate Stay/Night, that should earn the nickname Unlimited Budget Works, because very little expense was spared in the volleys of trebuchets, wyverns, flaming arrows, and a collapsing organic floating ship. Studio MAPPA: the Weta Workshop of anime?
Amagi Brilliant Park enters my ballot for the first time with the first truly laugh out loud episode (for me). It was the first episode that truly reminded me of one of my favorite comedic masterpieces, Full Metal Panic: Fumoffu, with its quick-witted humor and better pacing. Amagi Brilliant Park had suffered to some slack pacing and potted “serious” sequences in the past, but at last it hit a comedic high that proved to be the funniest thing I’ve seen this past week.
Finally, the always gorgeous, regret-tinged Mushi-shi earns a somewhat lower place this week than in the past. The idea behind the story was great, but the solution was a bit perfunctory and pat compared to previous episodes. Mushi-shi works best when the atmosphere works hand-in-hand with the balanced, nuanced message that each episode is supposed to deliver—often about people who refuse to let go of their pasts. So far, the somewhat more positive tone of this season has been handled brilliantly, but it falters here just slightly. I am confident it will continue to be on my ballots in weeks to come, however.
—Psycho Pass takes a turn toward the jarring and confusing, after an extremely violent episode. We are beginning to see some of Tow Ubukata’s weaknesses on display–its approach felt like, in some ways, the rather muddled final episode of Ghost in the Shell: Arise. I felt curiously unsatisfied by the end, especially with the video game-based twist. Ender’s Game this is not.
–The Sabagebu OVA sadly dispenses with a lot of what made the original series funny (Momoka’s meanness and the surprising twists in plot, plus the narrator) in favor of self-aware fan service. It doesn’t improve things that much to proclaim how much you know it’s an OVA special, guys.
—Fate Stay/Night: UBW is solid, but unremarkable at this point. The battle scenes were well-drawn as always, and it’s always nice to see Rin being tsundere, but I thought this was going to be more about her rather than Shirou. Shirou isn’t as annoying as he was in the original anime, at least, and the appearance of Rider was welcome, albeit brief. But other shows provided more kick this week.
Ahhh, how absurd it is. Absurdity is post-modern, yes stipulated by Albert Camus. Being absurd, and I never seen anything absurd like this. Yeah, “Gonna be the Twin-tails!” OreTwi. This is just too stupid, it’s so stupid that I can’t stop watching. Oh yes, Otaku, totally us, otaku are absurd! Otaku’s existence is absurd! Continue reading Gonna be the Twin-Tails! Just absurd!→
For those who don’t know, the Anime Power Ranking is a vote on anibloggers’ favorite anime episodes of the week. It’s compiled by kadian1365 of The Nihon Review. Members of the APR submit their top 5 episode choices by Sunday evening, and additional comments are encouraged and sometimes quoted in the result posts.
I ended up writing so much in my additional comments for my ballot that I figured I might as well make it a post (and probably turn this into a weekly feature).
Here’s my ballot for the week:
Your Lie in April, episode 4
Mushi-shi 2, episode 3
Rage of Bahamut, episode 4
Psycho Pass 2, episode 4
Shirobako, episode 4
Dammit, I don’t care about theemergingconsensus against KimiUso/Your Lie in April–I’m putting it on the top of my list for this week, for the strength of the musical performance again and for dramatizing, in immediate terms, what being on stage felt like at that age. It hits me right in the gut, and both reminds me of and redeems my own memories of freezing up on stage. I’m going to be writing more about KimiUso later this week, so stay tuned for more developed thoughts about it and the controversy that’s engulfed it.
Mushi-shi would have been at the top were it not for KimiUso’s star turn. It was a fine, and arguably stronger, counterpart to the previous episode, steeped in the atmosphere of folklore that gives it such resonance. I kept thinking of the W.B. Yeats poem “The Stolen Child” and the stories of children being replaced by faeries. No one else is doing anything like this in anime.
Bahamut manages to top itself with some truly swashbuckling, pirate ship action, the equal of any Hollywood blockbuster starring Johnny Depp. It’s going to need more character development soon though. I like my well-directed spectacle as much as anyone, but it’ll take more to win my heart.
Back to controversial opinions: I’m also going to defend the latest Psycho Pass, which was indeed more graphic than usual but brought home of the stakes of the show’s central conflicts like nothing before. Ubukata doesn’t mince words or action, the way Urobuchi sometimes did.
Finally, Shirobako enters my list for the first time. It always got the detail and the frenetic atmosphere right, sometimes at the expense of comprehension. But this was the first episode that slowed down and took its time with its central characters, allowing us to see both the hardship and the camaraderie of being in the anime industry effectively. Plus, I’m beginning to finally get everyone’s names and faces straight…I think this show is only going to grow on me more and more.
Honorable Mention that I couldn’t enter: Watamote OVA. Shin Oonuma strikes again with some truly interesting directing (borrowing a technique he used on episode 1 of Dusk Maiden, showing both the poignant and ridiculous/pathetic sides of the Tomoko character. Plus there was a hilarious parody of Evangelion in the beginning, with Tomoko as Gendo. Gendomike approves.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Captain Earth, Studio BONES’ and Yoji Enokido’s latest mecha series, stands at the end of a line of anime that began with Neon Genesis Evangelion and continued through Bones’s earlier mecha output, from RahXephon to Eureka Seven to Star Driver. That it suffers by comparison to the earlier titles seems not only an indictment of the show itself, but of the decline of the sub-genre of anime it stands in. After nearly 20 years, is it time to bid farewell to the Mystical Mecha Series?
The Mystical Mecha Series
By Mystical Mecha Series, I mean anime that feature (often) bio-mechanical mechas under the control of troubled teenage pilots, who undergo abstracted moments of introspection laced with religious, psychological, and mystical symbolism. There is often an aspiration towards philosophical profundity, where characters will openly discuss the meaning of life, identity, and courage. An stoic-but-cute girl is often instrumental to the mystical elements of the plot. The scale usually ends up being global or cosmic by the end, with the whole world or all of humanity at stake. The ending often reaches toward some grand fusion or harmony.
Experienced anime watchers, of course, will instantly recognize the root template of these series: Evangelion. Screenwriter Yoji Enokido, fresh from having written several seasons of Sailor Moon, was a junior screenwriter for Eva. Having cut his teeth with Hideaki Anno’s mad mess, he would go on to write some of the most original stories in anime, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to FLCL, but he would also end up contributing heavily to Evangelion’s most direct imitator, RahXephon. RahXephon would attempt the same serious, high-flown tone as the earlier series, exchanging the loosely assembled Kabbalistic and Jungian imagery of Eva for Meso-American mythology. Whether it succeeded is up for debate—I personally think it is severely underrated—but what it helped to solidify was an approach to doing mecha series that Bones would return to in Eureka Seven and, a bit later and to a lesser extent, Enokido’s own Star Driver. Other studios, of course, have done their own purpoted responses to Eva, from Yoshiyuki Tomino’s failed Brain Power’d and more comedic franchises like Dual: Parallel Trouble Adventure, and more distant series like Gasaraki essentially won permission to be more mystical than before: but it is Bones’s series that have kept faith with the vocabulary, approach, and direction of mecha anime that Evangelion began. And Enokido was involved as a screenwriter for many of them.
Which is why it was a disappointment to see the jumble that Captain Earth became, after a strong start. It begins by invoking some of the most time-honored giant robot tropes, old and new: the teenage boy with the special ability meets the stoic, possibly mystical girl. He has a unique, biological bond with not so much the robot (Earth) but the living weapon he summons, the Livlaster. An elaborate, high-budget transformation sequence occurs in nearly every early episode, all the way to its midpoint. For the first third of the show, when it begins to descend into monster-of-the-week monotony, Captain Earth had a real vitality to how it applied these old archetypes, with a great score and initially excellent battle sequences to match. Even the designs of the computer screens and the Globe font was stylish:
Also in keeping with the Eva tradition was the haphazard use of literary references, in this case Shakespeare’s plays “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Macbeth” with a splash of “Hamlet,” not to mention the use of the “Globe” Theater. Mostly names, rather than plot elements, ended up being used. A psychological edge was conferred by using the terms “libido,” “ego block,” and “neoteny” in rather novel, perhaps incoherent ways, on top of the other invented jargon that is a hallmark of Enokido’s anime. The window dressing of these seemingly intelligent terms was particularly threadbare in this series, however. There was little or no connection in the Shakespeare name-dropping to the story being told: does the evil AI have to be named “Puck,” the trickster character who mostly messes up romances in the play? (Puck does sort of do this in the show, but still.) What does the big corporation that designed the Designer Children have to do with Macbeth? And if libido energy really was what was holding humanity together, then Aquarion EVOL did a far better job exploring the similarity of giant robot unity with orgasm than this rather emotionally forced series. To be fair, such things have always been window dressing, but when combined with odd organization names like “Salty Dog” the lack of seriousness in the show’s approach makes its artificiality even more glaring.
Unseriousness and artificiality: perhaps those are the two chief flaws of Captain Earth. By unseriousness, I do not mean the presence of comedy, fan service, or jokes. Eva had plenty of all three. Instead I mean the willingness of the story to give its own concepts and characters the consideration and respect they deserve. When a series takes its ideas seriously, it will not throw around names and jargon willy nilly. It will not casually violate previously established rules of the world. It will not wink excessively at the audience at how silly it all is. (Of course the latter is fine if the main goal is comedy, and Enokido got a better sense of this in Star Driver, which with its Galactic Bishounen was appealingly ridiculous.)
The problem is that, especially at the end, Captain Earth asks the viewer to accept vague handwaving and “the strength of our feelings transforms into power” as the answer to all the plot holes and inconsistencies up to that point. Enemies are dispatched with ease and casualness until the very end, despite rhetoric about their fearsomeness, and they simply do not behave or even look that menacing, despite how in theory they could instantly destroy the world. This renders all the pseudo-profound jargon and illusory world building up to that point meaningless, especially when the plot can be boiled down to: big AI becomes evil, takes possession of love interest, former enemies must unite with protagonists to defeat big baddie and save love interest. All the mumbling about transfers and ego blocks are unnecessary and the deliberate ambiguity of Hana and Daichi’s fate at the end is maddening rather than pleasingly mysterious. That is a fundamentally unserious approach to storytelling.
The risk, of course, in taking one’s ideas seriously is pretentiousness—there are moments in RahXephon when the mystical hoohah level is off the charts. Yet, by the end, while not all things are fully explained, the basic ideas are clear and there’s a sense of satisfaction that at least emotionally, all the important threads are resolved. In a way, RahXephon worked in part because it was not ashamed of seeming ridiculous in its fusion of Aztec and Mayan myth and crackpot theories: it followed them through all the way. The sheerly imitative parts of Eureka Seven were mitigated by genuine emotional sincerity and likable, well-developed characters who changed over time: basic storytelling virtues that overcame some unanswered questions at the end.
This Weak and Idle Theme, No More Yielding But A Dream
For me an emblematic episode that illustrates Captain Earth‘s flaws was the 23rd episode, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (for once, an thematically appropriate Shakespeare reference) where Daichi is trapped in a dream state by the various Designer Children. Interestingly, there is a similar episode of RahXephon that portrayed the same dilemma for the hero: whether to return to the illusory comforts of home or to continue on the mission (episode 11, “Nightmare,” written by the screenwriter of Serial Experiments: Lain, Chiaki J. Konaka). The RahXephon version, however, was emotionally potent and agonizing for the protagonist. It used his mother, Reika, and his friends to tempt him back to his previous state, and the viewer sees how difficult the choice is.
In the Captain Earth version, Daichi remains fairly emotionally flat, the only sign of anything wrong is his feeling that he’s “forgotten” something. Rather than using familiar people, the Designer Children—his opponents and enemies in the show—are everywhere, which defuses any tension for the viewer because we are immediately tipped off that this is their attack. Moreover, the moment he realizes what is going on, Daichi shows no struggle or hesitation: he knows he must go back to his mission. He has not one hint of self-doubt afterwards.
Perhaps it is the fact that I came to fandom through Evangelion that puts me off this current trend toward super-powered, stoic, unerring heroes: the Tatsuyas and Inahos and Daichis of current anime. The Evangelion template worked in part because the heroes were flawed and struggling people, and doing away with that cuts out the emotional heart of what made those stories compelling. The half-hearted romances in Captain Earth do not make up for the flat characterization of all the main leads. Only Teppei shows even a smidgen of it due to his dual nature, and Daichi shows a spark when seemingly forced to choose between his friend and humanity: but, of course, he ends up winning both.
Sound and Fury
In some ways we have come full circle. Captain Earth has a lot of the trappings of the Mystical Mecha Series: the references, the world-shaking plot, the alien instruments and the girl to match, and even a bit of the abstraction—but little of the heart or the boldness that characterized the best of those shows. Enokido knows it’s fundamentally silly, so he has Salty Dog talk on cans with a string. He knows audiences today go for less self-doubting heroes, so Daichi is not allowed to wrestle much even in his own internal dream states. He was present with Anno at the creation of this genre in the 1990s, but even he can’t seem to summon it any longer—and, for that matter, neither can Anno himself, whose Evangelion remake films have sacrificed character and introspection for glossy action too.
Maybe that is the true marker, then, of this era’s end, the curtain call for this type of mecha anime. It was what got me into anime, but times change, as do tastes.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done.
–Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain!“