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 the emerging consensus 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
* * *
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.
Tohru Furuya (the original Tuxedo Mask and Gundam’s Amuro Ray) and Yuko Minaguchi (the original Sailor Saturn), appeared together for a Q&A session at Anime Weekend Atlanta. They had a lot to share about the old days of voice acting and some really interesting stories about Satoshi Kon and Yoshiyuki Tomino in particular appeared. Minaguchi was also charmingly blunt about some of the things she sees around cons.
Junichi Suwabe, the voice of Dandy from Space Dandy, was in Atlanta this weekend for Anime Weekend Atlanta. His panel was lively and entertaining, and he did many voices and said many funny lines. Sadly, no photography or video was allowed for press.
Jeez, Hanayamata ended just like summer just ended today, marks autumn equinox. It’s so sad that I wanted to cry. It was a good story. Continue reading Hanayamata finale-I wanna have a daughter!
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.
Captain Earth and His Problems
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!“
Really, Martin posed the question first:
— Martin (@concretebadger) July 12, 2014
Sword Art Online is not a terrible anime.
Sometimes, especially in the first thirteen episodes, it is actually quite good: there are stretches of sincere, even romantic dialogue, a basic grasp of suspense and pacing, all set to a soaring soundtrack that, admittedly, may be better than it deserves. Initially the stakes are high, death feels final, and there is a sense of urgency to the story. Kirito and Asuna are a likable couple much of the time, because their feelings are actually mutual and not bathed in the slapstick denial of most budding anime pairings. Even the siscon pandering later could have been not only far worse but just as popular anyway. (See: Mahouka and Oreimo, especially its ending.)
Thematically, while lacking the depth of worldbuilding of a Log Horizon, SAO actually tries to examine the relationship between the virtual and real worlds and deal with the consequences of people being trapped in the game. It does so in a heavy-handed manner, to be sure, but it tries: Kirito and others require months of physical therapy after they recover and have lost years of their lives. Many are lost forever. Plotwise, while the quest structure gives it a shape and direction, there are obvious holes and the endings of arcs tend toward handwaving and cheating in order to achieve the happy ending.
SAO, in other words, is a fairly average anime series. Argubly, it may be slightly above average. (Yuki Kajiura music can cover some, though not all, narrative sins.) Yet it has inspired gales of mockery and even hate through many quarters. Having not watched the original series when it aired and thus missing the hatewatching, I admitted recently to being puzzled as to why:
and now after watching all of the first season, the extra movie, and half of the current season, I’m still puzzled. SAO is far from great, and is only sometimes good. But it hardly seemed like an abomination. So this article is actually a genuine question to the show’s detractors: why is SAO such a bad anime? Aside from its narrative flaws, which I’ve already somewhat covered above, I have my own theories:
Is it its overwhelming popularity?
There is no doubt that SAO is a commercial success. I have seen legions of fans at conventions excited about the series, chanting its name during the second season premiere at Anime Expo, cosplaying as Kirito and Asuna, and naming characters in various Japanese character polls. The hatred seems to be confined to the aniblogosphere and review circles. Is it a sense that the show does not deserve its popularity, which is to the point where it almost becomes an ambassador for the anime medium the way DBZ, Attack on Titan, and other titles have sometimes served? Is hating it, in turn, almost seen as a marker of more refined taste? As Alan Zabaro said in our conversation about it:
Is it the portrayal of female characters?
I’ve heard this criticism before, that both Asuna and Suguha are poorly developed cheerleaders for Gary Stu Kirito and his awesomeness. The Suguha plot in particular is yet another example of a not-blood-related-sister falling in love with her onii-chan. The thing is: all this is true, and yet is more tempered in SAO than in other parallel anime. Both Haruka Tomatsu (Asuna) and Ayana Taketatsu (Suguha) both have well-acted emotional passages that reveal flashes of genuine character development, and the love Asuna has for Kirito actually feels genuine sometimes. There isn’t enough of it, to be sure, but both characters do actually change over time somewhat, which is more than can be said of many anime series. (Compare this to Miyuki in Mahouka, or even Kirino in Oreimo, who are one trait and nothing more.) These are fairly stock anime heroines, and one can certainly say that those stock conventions are problematic. But more problematic than lots of other shows and extra worthy of condemnation?
Note: I did cringe heavily at the villain and his dastardly schemes in the second half of the first season. Besides his overwrought scenery chewing, I agree with the critics who say that the threat of sexual violence against the main heroine is a cheap plot turn and should be used sparingly if at all. Nonetheless, this is hardly new, and not just in anime.
Is it the mismatch between how it’s sold and its actual quality?
From its inception, SAO was accompanied by a large level of hype. The full might of the Aniplex marketing machine went behind it. I was present at the Lisa concert where the trailer was played and she sang the first OP. From hiring Kajiura to do the soundtrack, to getting top flight seiyuu, and animation from the well-regarded A-1 Pictures studio, this was meant to be a Quality Anime. Perhaps not the sort of title that would play in the Noitamina block, but a prestige title nevertheless. SAO is not that series, sadly, but it sometimes presents itself otherwise. (Mahouka, by contrast, has no such pretensions.) The music does not help in this regard: perhaps it is the disappointment of hearing epic battle choirs paired with minor battles and gorgeous, delicate melodies paired with a sister declaring her love for her brother. The chasm between what it could have been and what it is is sometimes wide. A soundtrack better than the show is an observation I’ve had about Kanno and Kajiura-scored shows for a long time though. How is this one worse?
Or, simply, is it really just the story?
As mentioned above, plot holes abound. Characters do not grow enough and sometimes act in contrived ways in order to fit the plot. There is brocon. The fantasy worlds/games in question are not very original or deep. All this is true. But so are the majority of anime released every season.
So is it any of those, a combination, or some other factors? For all its clumsiness, I found SAO surprisingly engrossing. I wanted to know what happened next enough that I am only a few episodes from being completely current, and that can’t just be because of sheer boredom with everything else in my life. Yes, the revision of Psycho Pass is smarter, Terror in Resonance is much better directed, and Monthly Girls Nozaki-kun is cleverer. But SAO is fun too. Or maybe I’ve just succumbed. I think that knocking on the door is from the taste police. Excuse me while I turn in my critic badge…
— くそむし だ (@illegenes) August 9, 2014