ANIME: Is It Good?

Through the cracks in the boards I can see the forest outside the decrepit shack I call home. Apart from the trees blowing softly in the wind, the night is still. I haven’t seen a bird or any other animal in months. They must have gotten them all.

Minutes pass, still no movement. Maybe They’ve gone? Maybe They won’t come back? No, don’t be stupid. Where would they go? There are no conventions any more. There’s no anything, any more. Just me and Them.

Then, suddenly, from the other side of the shack I hear them, dragging their feet through the underbrush. I bolt across the room, grabbing my rifle; leaping over the crate (my only piece of “furniture”) and sliding the shutter open in one motion.

Come out, Sam. Come out and play with us.

“You’ll never get me, you ghouls!” I shout, firing blindly three times into darkness.

I hear a scream from the woods, followed by sobbing.

“You idiot, you hit Hitomi-chan! You killed her!” The sobbing gets quieter as the cryer retreats.

“I can’t believe you did that, man! That’s not cool,” says another one of Them, “We just wanted to talk to you about Attack on Titan, man.”

“NEVER!” I scream, horse from the strain. I fire three more shots into the darkness.

“Whatever, man. Chill out, dude, geez”

They’ve gone again. I can hear them sloping off discussing which Star Trek Next Generation character would work best in the My Little Pony universe, the consensus is on Wesley Crusher, and I am safe for another night.

I retrieve the remaining bullets from my pocket. Only two left. One for Them. One for me.

I try to sleep but as usual, I can’t. I haven’t slept in days, maybe weeks, who knows. As I stare at the stars peeking through the slowly disintegrating roof, a question occurs to me: Is Anime good? I sit up on the pile of Cosplay magazines I have fashioned into a bed and look across the room. The moonlight illuminates a TV, a DVD player and the piled up DVDs they leave on my doorstep each morning. Each one adorned with one of their sickening notes.

“I think you’d really like this one, man”

“Check this out. It’s a good entry point, dude.”

They turn my stomach.

Seeing as this is probably the last day before I’m overrun, I guess I should watch a few of these DVDs. No point doing anything else. I watched a lot of anime when I was probably between 9 and 14 but then I sort of drifted away from it. I think it was the first time I realised I was having to force myself to like something. When I was young, the older brother of a friend owned a vast collection of Anime, the extent of which I would repeatedly have to justify to my school friends. I envied that collection. Some were imports FROM JAPAN, if you can even believe that. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more at the time. But, my interest waned and my tastes diverged and I lost touch with that friend and her older brother.

I’ve bought a few Anime DVDs in the years since then but only for their nostalgic value. That, incidentally, is probably the biggest issue with this (whatever it is): Can I separate nostalgia from the viewing experience and be objective about what I’m watching? Probably not. Can anyone? Is there such thing as an https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMU1_-_4WKg” target=”_blank”>objective review? I doubt it. But I did try to keep an open mind and even found myself pleasantly surprised.

When I started writing this I didn’t really realise what I was getting into. In order to give “Anime” a fair shake, I need to watch a lot of Anime, right? Right. And I watched quite a lot of Anime and yet, I don’t really feel like I even scratched the surface. I could always have watched more and I’m sure there are some gems and travesties that I missed but I’ve tried to get a good of the medium.

First of all, (several paragraphs in), what is Anime? Is it a genre? Is it a style? Is it a convenient, dismissive label? I’m sure better people than me have tried to answer that and probably reasoned themselves into a dark alley populated only by giggling, cyberpunks with switchblades (probably cyber switchblades). So, how are we defining it here? For the purposes of this article, the urban dictionary definition works well: A style of animation that originated and is still heavily centered in Japan. Although, as you read through that page it becomes clear that the author has an axe to grind. Anime is for adults as well as children but I’ve stayed closer to the adult side of things.

But then, is it fair to put “Akira” in the same “genre” as Yu-Gi-Oh? I honestly don’t know. I think Anime may have too broad a scope but we’re going to drive ourselves insane trying to come up with the unified theory of Anime.

You’ll hear people say a lot of generalising statements about Anime:

“I just don’t like Anime”

“All the stories are just a bunch of teenagers using the power of friendship to kill God”

“The storytelling is hideously simplistic, characters just say what they’re feeling out loud to each other”

I think I might be quoting myself on all of them, but at least the second two show some level of analysis (please tell me they do). They feel like legitimate criticisms of most Anime to some extent and it can be particularly egregious in some cases, but we’ll discuss that later.

I’ve divided everything I watched, roughly, into 3 categories, and the rest of the article will be micro-reviews of each of the shows within those categories

1) Nostalgic: Anime I watched when I was younger (80s and 90s, some early 00s)

2) Contemporaneous: Anime that was around at the same time as those in category 1, but I didn’t watch at the time

3) The New Batch: Modern Anime, that I haven’t seen (mid 00s to present)

Nostalgic

Cyber City OEDO 808

1990-1991, Madhouse

Episdoes 1 & 2

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Three cyber criminals (Sengoku, Gogol and Benten) are given the opportunity to commute their sentences in exchange for investigating crimes in the city of Oedo. A task they embark upon with considerable gusto, possibly owing to the explosive collars that ensure their loyalty. It is back-to-back jarring exposition and clunky attempts at action-movie style one liners. Characters say things that often have no connection to the conversation just so they can say something cool in response. Episode 1 follows the team as they try to regain control of a skyscraper that has been hijacked by a cyber hacker (everything is cyber). Episode 2, sees Gogol pitted against a psychic military robot called MOLCOS. MOLCOS, stands for Maintain of Law Civanetic Organism Suath. I realise some of this is a translation problem but if you have any idea what Suath is; I’d love to know. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this having not seen it in probably twenty years, but I did. It may well fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category but there was nothing ironic about the experience. Also, a robot tries to parse the logic of being told to “fuck off”, whilst standing alone on a rocky shore.

Appleseed

1988, Gainax

Running Time: 71 mins

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Deunan Knute and Briaros Hecatonchires (best name ever?) fight terrorism in the city of Olympus. Olympus, the last hope for humanity, an automated city that rose from the ashes of World War III. A lot of exposition is imparted during the alarmingly fast initial text crawl, which helps set the scene. I loved this movie so much when I was young that I amassed all the comics so I could get more of the story. The comics deal, primarily, with Olympus’ human population’s feelings of isolation, melancholy and lack of freedom. The city is populated mainly by Biodroids, sentient clones, designed to be ideal citizens. This leaves the human population at a loss for what to do in a Utopia. The film touches on this but only really has time for “robot suits = good, terrorism = bad”.

I had a harder time this one than I did some of the others. The animation hasn’t aged particularly well. Most shots have the characters in perfect profile and although the action is well animated, it still drags a little in places. The story is too truncated to really be effective. Here’s a little tip for the city of Olympus: Don’t have four rooms, dotted throughout the city that, if a certain citizen walks into them, the whole thing shuts down. Don’t do that.

Appleseed is good but probably only if you’re already a fan of the franchise. Check out the comics.

The Guyver: Bio-Booster Armor

1989

AW: 2 eps

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I loved The Guyver. That is, I loved it, when I was younger. It had cool armoured robot suits, it had people turning into monsters, and everything had blades attached to it. Sho Fukamachi is a high school kid – just like me – who gains superpowers when a bio-boosted alien armour suit attaches itself to him. He is then drawn into a deadly conspiracy from which he must protect his friends and family. And there’s a girl who likes him. Can you imagine anything more appealing to an 11-13 year old Sam? No. Because there isn’t anything more appealing.

On re-watching it, however, some of the cracks start to show. The animation is extremely basic in places. The dialogue is laughable in any language and the original stories from the comic have had all their personality shaved off so they can fit into the TV format. I had a feeling The Guyver would be problematic to revisit but it really hasn’t aged well. The Guyver looks and sounds like a particularly brutal episode of Captain Planet.

Riding Bean

1989

45 minutes

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Like Cyber City and Cowboy Bebop, Riding Bean takes a lot of inspiration from American entertainment. Riding Bean is a gleeful 80s, American Outlaw action flick. Bean Bandit (that’s right, you read that correctly, the main character is called Bean Bandit), is a… Bandit for hire. His ludicrous chin, custom “Roadbuster” sports car and Corey Feldman-esque performance (at least in the dubbed version) give verisimilitude to the character. But no Anime would be complete without some Anime weirdness. Bean is inexplicably bullet proof, shrugging off a hail of bullets as a minor inconvenience. Or possibly, just his leather jacket is bulletproof? It’s not clear. I enjoyed Riding Bean the first time around and I enjoyed it again as an adult. It’s got a simple but solid kidnapping story that keeps everything moving along. Bean and the rest of the cast are enjoyable to watch because someone actually put some effort into making characters that work well together.

If you’d like to see an interesting take on a classic American style, you could do worse than watching Riding Bean.

Contemporaneous

Cowboy Bebop

1998

Amount Watched (AW): 2 episodes

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Cowboy Bebop was really enjoyable but I don’t think it was really my cup of tea. I can get on-board for a Bounty Hunter Cowboy with a space ship. What’s not to like about that? I had no technical issue with Cowboy Bebop, everything works on paper but I just didn’t feel it holding my attention.

The characters are really fun and the Western/Action/Mystery stories are really good, it just didn’t click with me. The animation is superb, the characters’ motions flow nicely from frame to frame never looking lazy or run-of-the-mill. The dubbing was even pretty good. The voices actually match the characters’ look and feel.

The series follows Spike Spiegel and his slowly growing ensemble of misfits and dropouts as they enforce bounty contracts across various parts of the solar system. Each episode shows us a snippet of life on the breadline when your only income is hunting down space criminals. It’s funny, it’s charming and it all works.

I’m sort of talking myself into wanting to watch more of it, actually. Ok, forget what I said, this is show is great. Watch it at your earliest convenience.

Trigun

1998

AW: 2 episodes

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Trigun stumbles into a lot of traps (if you consider anime nonsense to be traps) but it still manages to have some fun within the confines of adhering to the rules. It has a nice misdirect with the main character, it has colourful villains and zany (don’t worry, I already hate myself) sidekicks. Set in another spaghetti western / sci fi / post-apocalypse, a lot of the backdrop does feel a bit samey but the over-the-top action and overacting still makes it enjoyable. The exaggerated reality allows buildings to be completely destroyed by gunfire, a huge mountain of a man to use a giant boomerang to cut chunks out of a mountain and woman to hide a gattling gun under a coat that could not possible contain it. The female characters, or rather their treatment, is a mixed bag. On two occasions within one episode someone threatens to rape them and it is treated with all the severity carefree japes. Lol. Rape. But flippant attitudes towards sexual violence aren’t limited to Japanese entertainment; It’s just as prevalent in The West. Take any low budget action / horror / sci-fi film: Rape is treated with about as more of a crime against the Men related to the victim than the victims themselves. But anyway, that may be a topic for some other rambling, embittered piece of polemic writing.

The New Batch

Attack on Titan

AW: 10 episodes

2013 – present

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I intended to watch 2 or 3 episodes from season one. I ended up watching half the first season and the only reason I haven’t watched it all is because I had to watch other things for this article. I was surprised by how good it turned out to be especially considering a quick glance at the plot shows some familiar tropes.

The last remnants of humanity survive, protected from The Titans, by huge walls that surround the city. The Titans are enormous, hominid monsters that have terrorised and devoured humans for centuries. And what is our defence against this terrifying threat? You guessed it, a plucky band of teenagers, their only weapon: friendship. No. I’m being facetious. Their weapons are the ODM (Omni-Directional Mobility gear), a device that gives them tremendous freedom of movement, and of course, cool swords that look (and seem to work) like craft blades.

The story does skirt dangerously close to tedious Anime territory in places. Indeed there were a couple of episodes that entirely consisted of people asking themselves if they were strong enough and then explaining their goals out loud to other characters. It’s pretty jarring at times but never enough for me to turn off completely. To its credit it never shies away from the horrors of war. A lot of time is given to feelings of despair and hopelessness that come with fighting a losing battle, unfortunately it’s usually expressed by characters telling you exactly what they’re feeling directly to camera.

I guess the best thing I can say about it is that I plan on watching the rest of it and season two when it arrives.

Death Note

AW: 6 episodes

2006-2007

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Boy, I did not like Death Note. It came highly recommended and it definitely had some charm but it also had a hollowness that left me feeling despondent and annoyed. First of all there is absolutely nothing to any of the characters. The main cardboard-cut-out-with-a-face-drawn-on-it, I mean, character is barely introduced before the entire crux of the series, the Death Note itself, literally falls out of the sky. There is no sense of the world before it is turned upside-down by the Deus Ex Notebook around which it revolves.

The plot primarily concerns Light Yagami, a high-school student (what a surprise) who discovers a magic notebook that allows the owner to kill anyone whose name they write in it. There are some rules, which are the most interesting part of the story, but ultimately, a character you don’t know, finds a notebook and then declares himself the God of the new world without evil that he’s going to create by killing everyone he judges to be unfit for his New World Order. The companion on this journey is Ryuk, an immortal demon and the owner of the Death Note. Ryuk sent the Death Note to Earth because he was bored making him possibly the most interesting character in the entire series. Light and Ryuk’s discussions of the rules are some of the more intriguing parts but still sound like a rather involved game of “Would You Rather?”

I can’t recommend Death Note, a good premise isn’t enough to make an entire series interesting. It has no sense of place within its own universe and everyone is just explaining their actions and motivations all the time which is infuriating. It still makes me angry, just thinking about it.

Kill la Kill

AW: 5 episodes

2013-2014

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Now here we have a problem. Kill la Kill is full of Anime nonsense: The plot revolves around very young girls needing to get naked in order to gain super fighting strength from new school uniforms and the only way to beat someone is to hit them so hard their clothes come off; Men frequently get nosebleeds when they see a (very young) woman’s knickers and it has sections of baffling exposition accompanied by choppy animation in order to explain the story.

Having said that, I really, really enjoyed Kill la Kill. (Un)ironically, it is a charming tale about revenge, loneliness, authoritarian institutions, and, of course, friendship.

The story revolves around Ryuko Matoi, a transfer student who has just joined the prestigious Honnouji Academy, a fighting school run by its omnipotent student council. She makes friends and enemies and then each episode largely revolves around her defeating another head of a student club with the help of her sentient school uniform Senketsu. The clubs are where a lot of the charm comes from as we are introduced to each insane caricature of actual student clubs. The Tennis club, sentences Ryuko’s friend Mako “Comic Relief” Mankanshoku, to be hit with Tennis balls 110 million times for missing practice, for instance. The gardening club use huge, mutant Venus flytraps to defeat their enemies. It is joyful and fun and it never lets up on the action, thus avoiding the usual Anime problem of “filler” episodes. I think part of the reason I enjoyed it was the animation style: It feels very old fashioned, in a way, and by that I mean it feels like some effort went into it. Everything is over the top and ridiculous in the best possible way. The animation is great, and the sparing use of computer animation feels congruent with the overall style. If you can get past the sexual politics of it, and you shouldn’t have to, there is a lot to enjoy here.

Ajin: Demi-Human

2016

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Fuck Ajin: Demi-Human. Fuck this show. Ajin, feels like a real box ticking exercise.

High-School Student: Check

Supernatural Threat: Check

Super powers that the hero doesn’t understand yet: Check

Power fantasy aimed at teenage boys: Check

Everyone continuously banging on about “Friendship”: Check and mate.

I was annoyed with it right from the start. The opening scene contains the actual line “I’ve killed God!” and then people are talking about how friendship is the most important thing in the world. I found the entire process of watching it irritating. The dialogue is a mess, the characters are just archetypes lifted straight from the Anime playbook. Just awful. Don’t bother.

The Irregular at Magic High School

AW: 1 episode was all I could manage

2014

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Now, this one feels like a put my thumb on the scale a bit. I was going through the Anime section of Netflix and this one came up and I thought, “May as well try this one. It seems as good as any,” but I think the actual thought process behind that was, “I’m definitely going to hate this one, look at it. There’ll be some mileage in ripping this to pieces.”

And so with my journalistic integrity in tatters, I can get on with my review of “The Irregular at Magic High School”.

It’s really bad. It feels like it’s assuming a lot of prior knowledge about the lore and rules of its universe. I don’t know if there’s a bigger franchise behind it and I can’t bring myself to have it in my search history, so I don’t know if it’s just terrible storytelling or a different kind of terrible storytelling. Characters, who I assume have names, will explain their relationships to each other in a clunky attempt at natural exposition.

“Jenny, it is me, your Brother, Frank, today is our first day of Magic High School and we must go there and do magic things.” is a line which could well have been in the show. I honestly stopped paying attention to what was happening on screen and just waited for it to be over. Terrible. Literally awful.

So, after all that, what is my conclusion? Is Anime good? Now, I don’t want to end up with a mushy, “well y’know, people just like, like different things, y’know so, like maybe it’s like good to – y’know art is open to interpretation so it’s like – well, I think” kind of thing so I’ll just say what I think and live with the twitter war when it happens.

Anime is not good. I have never come across a medium or genre that had so many problems. And problems that the creators seem to lean on so heavily that they snap and splinter under the pressure, spraying dangerous cliché shards into the eyes of nearby children. Every genre has its clichés, that’s what makes it a genre, and people still manage to do interesting things within those confines. The best Anime I watched were films or series that did something a bit different with what they were given. Horror has its jump scares and torture porn that many viewers feel detract from the genre as a whole but at least there’s a discussion about the merits of those things. It feels like a lot of what Anime does is accepted without question. But let’s look at these problems one by one for the sake of fairness.

Setting Hey, guys. Listen. Look over here. There are places other than high schools. There are businesses and government departments. There are cruise ships. There are cable cars that have come to a standstill half way up a mountain. There are cabins with sentient windows that each know they are alive but cannot communicate with each other or anyone else. There are so many places. So many. I know not everything I watched is set in a high school and I know not all Anime is, but it comes up so much it’s ridiculous.

Characters This should probably go in the previous section. High School kids are fine. They’re great. I’m sure they’re fine to talk to and spend time with and say things like “I remember school, best years of my life. You don’t know how lucky you are.” But honestly, this is too much. A lot of the anime I watched was aimed at young boys so it makes sense that they would be populated with characters that are easy to identify with, but it gets really difficult to stomach after a while.

Storytelling Exposition crimes. (Un)introduced characters. A heavy reliance on lazy devices like destiny and being various flavours of “chosen-one”. Archetypes and stereotypes without quirks, variations or personality. There is such a reliance on screenwriting missteps that it’s almost become an art in itself. Relentless themes where the central dilemma is “What’s better friendship or this crazy demon thing that keeps eating my family?” Not much of a dilemma really, is it? The problems here also have a lot to do with the medium itself. I found myself frequently alienated from a scene because there are really only three emotional states for any Anime character:

  1. Morose Resignation / Morbid Introspection
    The character stares at their feet. Their face in shadow and speaks softly as if to no one. This is reserved for any dialogue that is not aggressive or blandly expositional
  2. Normal
    Far from actually normal but usually shows the most emotional variation. Characters use this state to talk normally to each other. This could be clunky reveals of their fears or goals or philosophical musings on the nature of identity but it must all be delivered in a bland but chipper monotone.
  3. Blind Rage
    The character is now enraged. Something has happened to them or they have remembered something and now they are screaming into the “camera” about revenge. Arms pulled back, brow furrowed, teeth bared, spittle bouncing off the screen. They are probably exhibiting some of the behaviours of “Normal”, for example: clunky exposition as they reveal their plan for the upcoming episodes.

If there was an actor that only had this range they would probably do ok, actually, but my point still stands. It’s hard to tell stories when you’re so limited by what is happening on people’s faces. The reason Akira feels so natural and lifelike is because they put the goddamned hours in and made it lifelike. The cost of animating well is clearly prohibitive and it shows. The reason Aeon Flux (Anime or no?) looked so fluid (and creepy) was because it was short, they could afford to do it. You’d think with the advent of computer aided animation would have improved things but some of the more recent releases just look like a 5/10 video game.

My hatred of destiny as a storytelling device isn’t limited to Anime but that cheap power fantasy technique of the viewer surrogate being “chosen” just makes me sad and angry. You may as well stop the whole thing and just have text appear on the screen: “Hey, you. You. Watching this. You know the main character that just got super powers. What if that was you? What if you were special, which you clearly aren’t, but what if you were? Imagine!”

Now, having read the previous paragraphs you might have the impression that I don’t want to watch any more Anime and I don’t want you to watch it. That isn’t the case. Granted I may well take a significant break from Anime but I will come back because there are some genuinely enjoyable things to watch. What I don’t want you to do is completely disregard it. Don’t be dismissive because it has a bad reputation, or even because of all the faults. Every medium and genre has problems, sometimes minor sometimes huge and glaring. But if you find something you like, you don’t need to not watch it because it’s forbidden fruit. But you should also think critically about it to avoid the muddy depths of fanboyism. There, I guess I did end up with a mushy non-statement to end on. Brilliant.

The next night, my last night, I’m ready for them. On time as usual I hear them, faintly at first, then louder.

“Sam… Sam… Sam! Why don’t you come out and play with us, Sam!” They taunt me from the shadows.

“Why don’t you come in, the door’s open!” I yell back.

“Oh, cool. Maybe he’s got snacks.”

They trudge slowly up to the doorway, clearly weary from our previous encounters. I hear some shuffling and muffled discussion from around the corner. Then after a short pause, the door creaks open. After a little more time and more hushed debate, the face of a young cartoon woman printed onto a large pillow sticks her head into the doorway, obscuring the full moon and casting a shadow into the room. A bandage around her head covers some previous injury.

“Sammu-San. Can we come in, Sammu-San, Onegaishimasu?” A falsetto voice from just out of view speaks.

They file in one-by-one. Each more awkward than the last. They squirm over each other like giant slugs hunting for unattended cat food. Hats are tipped, beards scratched, ill-fitting Red Dwarf t-shirts are tugged down in a dance as old as the hills before they are all standing in front of me, shuffling and smiling at their shoes. Some converse quietly with human sized pillows, some carefully inspect their smartphones even the power went out months ago.

“So… Are we all here?” I ask, innocently.

“Yeah, I think so.”

I kick the metal box over to them; it slides to a halt in front of the largest one.

“What’s this?” He asks, opening the lid.

Something clicks as the lid opens and then the last thing any of us hear is the gentle fizzing of a burning fuse.

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By Sam Rae

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