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

I: Insufficient Depression

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

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

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

Yet. Just a few lines later, Anno writes:

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

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

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II: Neon Genesis Evangelion is Too Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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III: Buster Beam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barakamon: The Artist In Recovery

Contains spoilers for the ending of Barakamon.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

I’m not done yet.

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AWA 2014: Tohru Furuya and Yuko Minaguchi Fan Panel Digest

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.

AWA 2014: Junichi Suwabe Fan Panel Digest

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.

O Captain! My Captain! Wherefore Art Thou, Captain Earth?

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?

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Would you have guessed this started as a giant robot show?

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.

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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:

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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.

A serious man in a serious show.
A serious man in a serious show.

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.

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This is not my beautiful house, these are not my beautiful designer children

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!

In Defense of Sword Art Online

Really, Martin posed the question first:

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:

WHY YOU NO LIKE ME
WHY YOU NO LIKE ME

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?

Ok, there was no real defense for the movie. And this is the tame part...
Ok, there was no real defense for the movie. And this is the tame part…

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?

When you think about it, it's all one big chuunibyou fantasy
When you think about it, it’s all one big chuunibyou fantasy

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…

New Chassis/ Classic Engine – Ghost In The Shell: ARISE

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Newport City: A.D. 2027

Whilst exhuming a murdered body under investigation, Chief Daisuke Aramaki of Public Security Section 9, meets a young and already dangerous Motoko Kusanagi. There to protect the honor of the man in the casket, the once highly respected Lieutenant Colonel Mamuro, who was working as Security Official for massive tech corporation and arms titan, Harimadara. Concerns regarding what led to his killing and his possible connection to shady arms dealing make this auspicious meeting a little volatile. The investigation party at the cemetery is shocked to discover that within the casket, is not the corpse of an honored soldier, but a small, but very lethal android known as a “Land Mine”. Will the truth ever out? Can Kusanagi uncover the clues, and will she take up Aramaki’s offer of creating a special team of augmented experts to become one of the most feared cyber crime units in the world? Rarely will “more of the same” be something I can equate with sparks of positivity, but in the case of the new Ghost In The Shell, I’m inclined to let that cliche work for me.

As advertised, ARISE offers up an untold backstory to the world of Masamune Shirow’s evergreen universe in a tale of intrigue, hardware, and philosophical questions which are well worn trademarks. This time, we are hosted to the future Major as she tussles with not only authority figures, corrupt officials, cyborgs, and barrier mazes, but with a struggle for her own autonomy.

The revelation here, while not surprising, is in line with many fans already know of her. Raised into the military life, and possessing a largely cybernetic body allowed her to be a prolific Wizard-class programmer, and fighter of cyber crime at a frighteningly young age. She is a prodigy, harboring within her a surprising past that may jar some fans of the second TV series.

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Being a privileged member of Mamuro’s 501st unit, her quest for the truth is a personal one. But with her expensive cyberized body on loan, and the stakes ever increasing, her very physical freedom might be in jeopardy. Not to mention concerns of a “phantom pain” that is slowly causing problems for Kusanagi.Couple this with run-ins with rivals new and old (including longtime sparring opponent, the Batou The Ranger, gambler Pazu, and up and coming Niihama Special Investigator Togusa. .), and twists making the young Major a prime suspect, and ARISE, is full blown GiTS with revelations to spare.

It’s a fresh start to a personal favorite since I first read the Dark Horse release in a Barnes & Noble over two decades ago. Growing up young in the late 1980s left me quite enamored with the myth of cyberpunk, and outside of authors like Gibson or Stephenson, Ghost has long remained a personal visual go-to when talking stories of human flesh intermingled with technology. For my money, it’s a perfect mix between comic pulp, and hard science fiction with an almost spiritual center. Everything that The Matrix adopted, but rarely understood. A big reason as to why Koukaku Kidotai has become so well entrenched in the global anime and manga consciousness, is largely the often successful balancing act Production IG has displayed between the complexities of the show’s world, coupled with sly character dynamics. Since its’ beginnings in the form of the classic Mamoru Oshii film, it has remained one of the most universal examples of the medium. Always feature film ready in its presentation, and borderline literary with its leanings. And thankfully, under longtime Ghost collaborator, Kazuchika Kise, this tradition remains strong. Getting to know some favorite characters again from a refreshing new angle makes for fun, busy viewing (Even if it’s all a bit familiar.)

The first two “Borders” focus on getting us up to speed on these early relationships as the complex digital world post-WWIV has everyone scattered, scraping to define themselves as freelancer types with guns and gear. Aramaki, sporting not-so-gray hair as he attempts to employ Kusanagi’s expertise in hopes of understanding the truth about the military man who trained (and possibly raised) her. The allegations are looking heavy, and her isolation is well reflected in her future colleagues who tend to see her as part of the threat. In Batou’s mind, she is prime suspect in the murder of a comrade and his family, while evidence eventually points to memory tampering. Meanwhile guys like Pazu are working undercover, and not so sure who to trust anymore. Even Kusanagi’s relationship with cute, sentient multiped mecha are in limbo as she is given a LogiKoma as a bodyguard and partner! Penned by science fiction writer, Tow Ubukata, there is mind-bending fun to be had, but little in the deep surprise department. The theme hovering over these first two episodes seems to be shedding pretense in the name of simple bonds. Which feels about right for a series so largely set within the often deceptive realm as cyberspace.

The second of these two episodes, “Ghost Whispers” expands on the first by this time pitting the authorities against a this time disgraced military hero on trial, who may be manipulating a transportation crisis in the city through a secured channel. While not terribly far in model from the first, there is a leap in visual ambition that works for and against the story as Kusanagi and Aramaki seek to make a team come together. All while being led by a mysterious american special agent known only as VV, the story does have its share of fun dips and swerves as allegiances are bought, and exchanged. Where it does make up for this lack of fierce originality, is in the mecha and chase sequences which remain impressive. There has never been a time in the history of this series that this crew of artists have skimped on the hard, weighty action detail, and almost fetishistic love of kinetic showmanship. In fact, once we get to the hard driving finale on the winding freeways outside the city, it becomes clear that this is what the episode was really about. Don’t let the Assange-esque plotting fool you, the action and reversals are marquee here.

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Now to the package as a whole, it would be silly to call this a simple “prequel”. Considering these first two installments, there is a feel that IG was looking for a way to re-introduce rather than to make any hard connections between incarnations. More than anything, ARISE falls closer in feel to a reboot, and as such the voice cast is pretty much entirely new. And unless you’ve been an ardent fan, it’d be hard to notice. But to have Atsuko Tanaka and Akio Otsuka replaced by Maaya Sakamoto (!!) and Kenichirou Matsuda as Kusanagi and Batou respectively, it should have felt..off. It doesn’t. It works quite well actually. Even Ikyu Jyuku’s turn as “Old Ape” Aramaki, is pretty impressive. Everyone acquits themselves to this rebirth with great enthusiasm and grace. There is certainly a feel that is classic GiTS that implies many more adventures to come, and it’s quite welcoming. It’s also a nice way to re-approach the material without giving away all the mystique that so many so-called prequels seem hellbent on demystifying. Even here there is an admission that not every story will be told, and that’s always cool. To top it all off, the musical score by Cornelius is thoughtful, thrilling, and achingly human. With so much quality coming out of every pore, it’s hard to fault ARISE for being what made the world of Section 9 as prolific as it has been. And as long as our current world becomes further entangled and altered by what seems to be our inevitable date with the Singularity, the Major and company will remain thrillingly relevant.

-And no, it didn’t get past me that the so-called “Mobile Land Mines” were in the guise of little girls. Which is especially gallows funny, seeing them mowed over by a speeding APC. Feels like the franchise’s revenge for being gone long enough to let certain proclivities contaminate anime for as long as it did.

While this could merely be the interpretation of this writer, what else could that scene possibly mean?

20 Years of Macross Plus: What Pioneers May Come

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“Dedicated to all pioneers..”

A wink to both the past, and maybe things to come?

It’s a difficult thing, topping what many consider to be a genuine cultural milestone. So many variables to be concerned with as markets feel the pressure for more of the same, but beefed up for the next go-round. One might almost consider it (often have) something of a fool’s errand, an exercise in futility. It’s rare that a well can be revisited, and improved upon with new vision and energy potent enough to become its very own entity. So when we look back, and consider what did exactly happen when the Macross franchise entered the 1990s, we can see both a medium come of age, and a seemingly niche-minded universe find its footing with purpose. The big budget (for its time) Macross Plus OVA series made its debut in August of 1994, featuring the talents of series co-creator, Shoji Kawamori, a young, eager Shinichiro Watanabe, Gainax designer, MASAYUKI, with a screenplay by Keiko Nobumoto. In an era where anime productions for straight-to-video fare were rarely if ever larger than say that of Yasuhiro Imagawa’s Giant Robo, this was something of a creative gauntlet. In an era where budgets for TV anime were beginning to look dire, the OVA was suddenly flirting with grandeur.

Planet Eden. Year: 2040

Brash ace pilot, Isamu Dyson is newly assigned to the hallowed New Edwards base in hopes of keeping the hot headed hotshot from causing UN SPACY further trouble. Upon arrival, he is informed that he is to participate in Project Super Nova, where two upcoming Valkyrie models vie for a spot in the future of aerial mecha combat. Having been an Eden native, Isamu’s return makes for a queasy reunion upon discovery that his competing pilot is none other than his one-time half-Zentraedi best buddy, Guld Goa Bowman. Still fuming after an incident that ruptured this once close bond, tension only rises further upon the arrival of shared childhood friend Myung Fang Lone, now producer to the galaxy’s most beloved idol singer- the virtuoid idol, Sharon Apple. The moment all three are reunited upon Star Hill, it’s very clear that the animosity from days long past is still raw. And despite the once aspiring singer’s position as the digital chanteuse’s producer, the role is closer that of puppet master, controlling Sharon’s performances via her still bruised mind. Further fueling the competition back at the base, the rivalry begins to take on dangerous dimensions as Myung’s scarring memories of those days seem to be creating a bit of a problem. An illegal AI chip has just secretly been installed into the virtual singer’s CPU, making her an interloper of the most terrifying kind.

Echoes of Top Gun aside, what truly sets this entry apart from the classic Macross mold is the eschewing of a star-spanning space war, and a greater focus on the inner lives of the story’s central leads. At the time it was a startling branch away from an already familiar formula, and it makes for what remains the most psychologically complex Macross to date.

macross-plus-guld-myung-isamu-triangle

In fact, the central theme this time around shifts the needle away from culture, and onto our increasingly tenuous relationship each other, despite all the advancements surrounding us.To best share feelings on this theme, it’s time to share a few thoughts regarding Plus’ central love polygon. (Yes. We have shot well past the classic Macross love triangle, and have landed somewhere altogether new for the time. Needless to say, it get a little..complicated.)

It’s still pretty fascinating to experience a character like Guld in something like this. While he carries with him an often proud stocism, he is also carrying within this need to be redeemed. While he has excelled as a solider and pilot, there is something very dark and unresolved beneath being his well regarded exterior. Indeed, there is a heroism about him. But lest the truth sees itself through, this painful hurdle might never be passed. He could so easily have been written and directed as a one-dimensional obstacle, but instead it’s a dynamic portrayal of rage versus serenity.

As for Myung, we have the first deconstructive Macross lead in the guise of an idol who never shined. The story hinges intensely upon her as one who saw herself become a part of the literal idol machine. Staying far from old friends, playing behind the curtain. Matters come to a head when fate intervenes, pressuring her to reveal more and more of herself before lives are further damaged. And outside of these painful memories, none of it is truly of her doing. She is fallen by way of a most simple, yet wholly destructive secret. And as such, is one of the first truly postmodern anime characters this side of an Ikari.

Cocky, hotheaded, clueless Isamu. What to say about him? Save for him being the ultra-classic Tom Cruise archetype, he is also perhaps one of the best avatars for unbridled arrogance in anime history. Outside of his love of flying, the guy is hopelessly simpleminded. He found his passion at an early age, and not much has evolved since. More than anything, he is less the central character, and more a sounding board whom everyone else bounces off of. More an audience surrogate than an actual character, Mr. Dyson is little more than a likeable fool right out of a 1990s arcade game.

Going to go ahead and admit it. If there is any character I feel the most empathy for in all of Plus, it’s Lucy McMillan. She was just part of the YF-19 research team, doing her part for the betterment of technology, and got herself hung up on an overgrown twelve-year-old fighter jock. No intention of trouble whatsoever. Save for one understandable act of selfishness, there is much to consider regarding this character despite her brief screentime. She merely wanted to care for a guy, and was subsequently dumped for someone who likely was far from ready to pick up from where they left off. Taste in guys notwithstanding, she comes from a more direct place than most of the leads, and learns a harsh lesson as a result. Talk about your collateral damage.

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Lastly, what words can best be shared to encapsulate the conceptual leap that is Sharon Apple? Japan and the otaku dream of a virtual singer have shared DNA for quite some time before Hatsune Miku and her kin graced monitors, and car commercials everywhere. In fact, it feels very much like a straight up creative trajectory, like it was destined into existence. Anime had already been tinkering with the idea of a computer generated idol, most notably so in the classic AIC video series, Megazone 23. But when many of the same minds behind Macross and Megazone took the jump into CG enhanced animation, the timing never felt more right to create a character so definitive of her time. From large scale holographic performances, to virtual stalking, Sharon remains one of the most indelible idol characters of all time. And yes, we did just say stalking because for a being created out of code, there is an unprecedented complexity to her that is often overlooked. Long before Spike Jonze’s poetics regarding us and our technology, Sharon represents the glory and the fear of melding our worlds. While she draws us in with her abilities, there is certainly no shortage of disturbing behavior coming out of her. She is a Descartian dream gone south. Such power with such insatiable curiosity, and such a broken sample of a mind to work with. And therein lies the tragic majesty of Sharon Apple-none of it is really her fault. She is but a mere reflection of us.

Combine all the drama with some of the very best mecha and dogfight animation in a medium’s history, and you have a striking, nuanced entry in what has long been seen as an otaku evergreen . With Nobumoto and Watanabe added into the mix, there is a sobriety to the storytelling that was new to the Macross brand. (something only peripherally attempted by Kawamori’s later entry, the often-ignored, Macross Zero) With characters like Isamu, Guld, and Myung fighting amongst themselves, the war is an intimate one with a potential for many affected bystanders by way of some serious hardware (and software?). Like many of the great filmed fantasies, there is a careful blending of grand scale action with complex characterization. And within what is ostensibly a movie-length work, it’s a balancing act that hits far more than misses.

When looking deeper into the unique heart of Macross Plus, one can see a thematic throughline regarding increased connectivity between humans and machines. It could be argued that Plus is more concerned with our own will to allow technology to stand-in for our own crucial decision-making methods. While a great many shows of the time bore a more technophobic slant, there seems to be a greater emphasis on human flaws that allow certain problems to arise. This is emphasized via the character of ace pilot, Guld, who’s half-Zentraedi blood leads to an often violent temper, we witness him downing pills to bring himself back to the tranquil person required to fly an experimental machine. Nobumoto’s script harbors a love for people connecting directly, but an equal fear that equates retreating into realms of the virtual with impending disaster. Almost like a warning as the internet was gathering steam as an information and communications resource in the early 1990s. And considering the unprecedented vision of cultural pluralism on display in this series, it’s a concern that remains as prescient now as it did then. It almost feels like a pointed response to the gap that was inevitably closed in the original series. Now that culture has bound us together, now what? While it isn’t spelled out directly, it is haunting every moment of the OVA.

Closer together. Further apart?

The great concern for tech working as a stand-in for our often broken selves is ever at the human core of Plus. For all the archetypes that tend to populate the Macross universe, this is perhaps the one incarnation that chooses challenging characters with unlikeable traits over your typical romantic heroes and idols. The entire show reminds us that despite the advances happening around the principle characters, the peril of machines is simply that they will not stop where we might. Possibly a dated notion, but a potent one nonetheless. One of many firsts for the franchise.

And speaking of firsts, it even went so far as to be one of the first anime releases to have original soundtrack albums distributed in the US via JVC, which was how I was introduced to the music of one Yoko Kanno. Picked up a copy of this from my local outlet, and was instantly enamored with it. As ambitious as the world Kawamori and Watanabe were aiming to achieve, it’s the musical character of the show that makes for the full range iconography of Plus. For these ears, what makes a truly classic soundtrack is an intrinsic understanding of a film’s world and characters. And there isn’t a single track in all of Plus that feels out of place with the universe, or its leads. It promises a new, more nuanced worldview, and it delivers with a rare sense of playfulness and grandeur. From orchestral, to Badalamenti-esque bits of atmosphere, to experimental electronica of the day, Kanno’s work on Plus is the kind of debut work that could very easily signal a one-and-done scenario. The very best of one’s compositional prowess on display for one big splash, never to be equaled. To this day, it remains something of a major accomplishment for anime music, and a personal favorite.

And yet it was only a mere hint of what was just around the bend..

One of the earliest examples of iconic sell-thru anime on the VHS market, Plus reeks of artistic ambition rare for the format. I fondly remember seeing these Manga Video releases adorn the shelves of Circuit City stores, not to mention your local Sam Goodie locations, and was long a darling of rental outlets such as Blockbuster and Hollywood video. Produced with enough budget and panache to compete with even big movie fare, retailers saw Macross Plus as something of a bright spot in the then just piercing-the-surface American anime market.

It’s very rare when anime squares off beautifully with Hollywood quality storytelling, but it has happened. Through Kawamori and Watanabe, we were able to see what was truly possible. Yearning for something beyond anime’s reputation is always something worth hoping for. And Plus remains a potent, indelible reminder of what can happen when a medium shoots for the stratosphere.

True pioneers aim to do nothing less.

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