Today, many of the most popular, acclaimed anime TV series are labeled “slice-of-life” shows: tragicomedies about the ups and downs of ordinary life like Honey and Clover, or quirky, plot-light ensemble comedies like Azumanga Daioh or K-ON!. It’s quite a shift from the kind of SF/fantasy anime that were being held up as exemplars in the late 1990s, back when I first became an anime fan, and it’s a shift that seems to track with the way my own life has changed since then.
Part 1: F&SF&E(va)
I have been a fantasy and science-fiction fan all of my life, and I started writing my own stories in those genres in elementary school. Being a stereotypical kind of nerd, complete with the thick glasses and the social awkwardness, the book that most moved and reassured me was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Ender was both brutalized and brutal, a child praised and cursed with his gifts and the responsibilities they carried, and unable to relate to other children normally as a result. Card, at his best, portrayed characters with both compassion and hard-edged honesty about their flaws, particularly in the sequel, Speaker For The Dead. Despite my voracious appetite for novels by David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and Isaac Asimov, I never could find another SF writer who quite managed that balance in my younger years. His stories were not just cool, but moving, and true to the human condition as I understood then.
My attraction to anime was, at first, an extension of my love of SF and fantasy. Record of Lodoss Wars was actually the first anime I watched all the way through—and despite its rather elementary plot, it fulfilled my appetite for a different take on traditional Western fantasy. Ghost in the Shell of course fit the cerebral SF mold, not too unlike stories by Arthur C. Clarke or the movie Blade Runner. Akira at least had spectacle and the post-apocalyptic mood.
As many of you know, though, none of those shows captured my heart the way Neon Genesis Evangelion did. The words I used back then was: “this is a Japanese Ender’s Game.” On some forum in the deep recesses of the Internet, in 2001-2002, there are posts by me arguing the very same. While Ender and Shinji are very different characters, the situations they are thrust within are very similar: world-consequential battles where they have little say in their fates. Shinji, though, was much more “Asian” than Ender, the product of the parental neglect and tyranny endemic to many Asian and Asian-American households. It was easy for me to identify with him, and more closely than I could with Ender. And Eva at its best also had the same mix of brutality and compassion which I found so compelling in Card’s novels, though perhaps Anno was harder on his protagonists than Card ultimately was. There was a sense that he was expiating his own sins and trying to warn otaku of going down the same road in the original series and movies, a raw confessionalism that the polished remakes seem to lack.
I needed that hardness, that unflinching glance at the depths back then. Catharsis isn’t supposed to be painless. It felt like a new experience, to see a ”cartoon” do the sort of thing that Ender’s Game and Speaker For the Dead had done for me years before. And while it was new, it was also deeply continuous with my love of SF/F. Anime wasn’t really a separate thing for me then. It was one more notch alongside my copies of A Canticle for Leibowitz and Lord of the Rings and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
My voracious search for information about anime began around that time, and I discovered an entire world of anime and gaming that drew upon Eva’s well of dark, psychological SF. There was the story of Final Fantasy VII, Serial Experiments: Lain, and the later homage RahXephon. There were parodies, like Martian Successor Nadesico and Vandread. And if I wasn’t in the mood for SF, most anime series contained some fantastical elements, and not necessarily of the Western medieval variety like in Slayers or Lodoss Wars. Even the romances, which I was just beginning to discover, had overt fantasy elements: Ah My Goddess!, Kimagure Orange Road, Video Girl Ai, to name a few.
There were, in short, few shows that had no fantasy or SF elements on the radar of my fandom then. Little did I know that in those days, from 1999-2003—my college years, and the first period of my fandom—the ground had already begun to shift in the anime landscape.
To be continued in part 2: the hinge years
This is part of 21stcenturydigitalboy’s ongoing Diary of an Anime Livedseries, which is a blogosphere-wide series of articles about the intersection of anime and personal life.