Anime: A word that frightens some, amazes many, and confuses the rest. It is the short term for Japanese Animation, essentially cartoons. Unlike most western cartoons which are primarily aimed at children (with some notable exceptions), Anime can be focused on all audiences from children to adults, with most of the titles falling somewhere between the late-teenager to adult audience. What separates Anime from most other animation around the world is the quality of the animation, the complexity of the narrative and the inherent cultural differences between Japan and the rest of the world. All of these qualities add up to make a unique experience that can be an absolutely absorbing mix, especially if you are a fan of animation in general.
History Lesson: I started with Anime just as it was breaking in the United States. Harmony Gold had just brought Robotech and Captain Harlock to TV in 1985, and through syndication there were shown back to back in an hour long block Monday – Friday on multiple cable channels. As an impressionable young tike, I absorbed their alien like content and was wonderfully entertained by how starkly different they were to other comparable cartoons of the time, namely G.I. Joe and Transformers. I loved G.I. Joe and Transformers as well, but there was significantly more going on both in the narrative and emotionally from those 2 early Anime titles. Robotech was a roller coaster of ups and downs as it portrayed love, death, war, betrayal, philosophy, and multiple generations – like an epic soap opera. The fact that Harmony Gold managed to merge 3 different animes into 1 cohesive 85 episode long narrative is nothing short of a miracle.
Then 90s anime hit the western world like an atomic bomb. There were big hits like Dragon Ball Z, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gundam Wing, Sailor Moon, Tenchi Muyo, Bubblegum Crisis, El Hazard, and Magic Knight Rayearth, all of which fueled a brand new generation of anime viewers. Also, feature length anime films were becoming popular as Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, Princess Mononoke, Perfect Blue, and Kite enjoyed good sales in the home video market. My favorites at the time were:
Cowboy Bebop: quite possibly one of the greatest series of TV ever produced in any medium. Cowboy Bebop follows a small group of bounty hunters as they travel the cosmos looking for big dollar criminals in the hopes of getting rich. Characters were varied, unique and interesting. The stories were off the wall and took our lovable rag tag group of bounty hunters to all manor of exotic locations.Oh, and the music was simply divine. Take a peak:
Sorcerer Hunters: Set against a medieval backdrop that is heavily steeped in magic, this show follows the exploits of a group of sorcerer hunters that track and destroy evil doers. the team consists of a mage, a strongman, a shapeshifter that can become an enormous beast, and the 2 women responsible for beating the beast back into submission. Yeah, this show is like that. Perverse and hysterical, Sorcerer Hunters is blast from beginning to end. Here’s a preview:
Great Teacher Onizuka: You want crazy? Onizuka brings the crazy in spades! This is the lovable tale of a young leader of a biker gang that one day quits and decides that he is going to become the greatest school teacher in all of Japan. Even at the outset of his journey, Onizuka is hit with a litany of crazy scenarios and deals with them in the most absurd ways. You will marvel, truly marvel, at the absurd lengths Onizuka will go to in this wild and amazing comedy series. Check it out:
Martian Successor Nadesico: In many ways, this was a spiritual successor to Robotech for me. They have similar narratives, but whereas Robotech was more serious, Nadesico was a high octane blast of energy and comedy that sprinkled in the drama at just the right times. In the scheme of things, this is the show that “broke” anime for me, becuase it is essentially perfect. From beginning to end, this show is nothing less than amazing. Giant robots, strong women, hapless hero, romance, madcap comedy, and heartbreaking drama – Nadesico had it all. If you have never seen this show, drop everything you are doing and watch it now! See below:
My “Broken” phase: For a while I found myself frustrated with anime. from 1999 – 2012 it seemed like nearly all of the anime that I tried to get into eventually devolved into 4 distinct tropes that I have grown to hate: 1) shy nerdy guy attracts every viable female in the show thusly turning the show into a harem, 2) fan service everywhere leads to awkward male accidentally falling face first in boobs equals love, 3) screaming at each other ultra-violence long form battles that last 5 episodes (who cares?), and 4) starkly depressing super violent so very sad no levity whatsoever action drama. Like I said, I was kind of broken by Nadesico, similar to how I was when I heard the Beatles: Abbey Road the first time or played Mass Effect all the way through for the first time, I just was left with a hole in my entertainment absorbing heart that ordinary media couldn’t fill. Each time I get gutted by a product that I think is amazing or “perfect” it always takes me a while to find the next big thing for me to jump into. It’s painful, and I take quite a few lumps on the way, but eventually I find my way back into something good. During this phase, I hardly watched any anime at all, and what little I watched never held my attention long enough to matter. It seemed like I was ready to quit anime forever…
Friends With Benefits: Now, I watch anime a lot more frequently than I did during my broken phase. We’ve made up and are back on friendly terms. Streaming services have a lot to do with this anime renaissance, as I can watch an episode or 2 to see if I like it, and then only continue if I feel that the show is worth the time investment (back in the day you had to buy the videos in volumes and they were hella expensive). I still pass on a lot of anime after an episode or 2, because I know that I’m not likely going to enjoy the full series. The good news, is when I find a decent show it renews my faith in the Japanese animated industry and puts a smile on my face, like a friend should. The best news, when I find an anime show that rocks my world, we lay quietly in bed afterwards and share a cigarette… content in our finding each other and fulfilling each other’s needs at the right time and the right place, like friends with benefits. And there you have it, anime and I are friends again, sometimes with benefits. It’s strange, as there are times that I don’t want to hear from anime, other times we hang out a lot and it’s all good, and on rare occasions we paint the town red all night long. It’s complicated.
Shows that have brought me back into the fold include:
One Piece: The show that brought me back into the fold. It is a long (like over 700 episodes long and growing) tale of the Straw Hat pirates and their bid to help their captain become the king of the pirates. It is amazing fun. Sometimes hysterically funny, sometimes hardcore, and sometimes heartbreaking, it is truly magnificent how many tricks this show can pull out of its magic hat. Give this show a go, and you’ll be hooked for a long time. See for yourself:
Sword Art Online: What if VR existed in a way that was fully realistic and immersive? Now, what if you logged into the virtual world and found out that you, and everyone else could not log out? Now, what if you found out that if you die in the virtual world, then you will die in the real world? This is premise of Sword Art Online, and it is a fast paced, action packed romp through a deadly VR world, where trust is in short supply and everyone is fighting to stay alive. It is super dope. Check it out:
Free! Iwatobi Swim Club: The story about 4 teenage boys and their adventures as their schools swim club. A team that gets no respect, and a club that is under appreciated. Ultimately, these lads gel as a swim team and become fierce competitors, and best friends along the way. This show is infectiously fun to watch. Give it a look see:
Prince of Stride: Another sports club show, but this time about street running/parkour. It is fast paced, funny and has a ton of heart. It is very similar to Free and yet different in all the right ways. It is well worth your time:
No Game No Life: An odd show about a brother and sister who are hardcore gamers that get sucked into an alternate world where their gaming skills can amass them great power and prestige, or could get them killed! A show of constant surprises, it is a genuine delight to watch. See the preview here:
Lupin the Third: A classic from the old days relaunched with shiny new animation, but the same old sexy heist attitude of the original series. If you loved the classic show, then you’ll love this one as they a very similar. The animation is top notch and the heists are as ludicrous as ever. This is about as fun as anime gets! Check it out:
Black Butler: What a show. Gothic, disturbing, oddly erotic, and devilishly funny. Who knew that a show about a demon butler on a mission could be so entertaining? This is definitely must see anime, and once you watch this preview I think you will know why!
Wolf Girl & Black Prince: Last but certainly not least. This show is a bit of an enigma. It is certainly not one that would normally be in my wheelhouse, but it is a damned good show. Even though the premise is your typical romcom, the way the Black Prince plays it out is just depraved and hysterical. This is a show that has to be seen to be believed. Check it out (with subtitles… yay!):
It feels good to be watching anime again, and more than that it feels fantastic to have the sheer amount of choices that we now have to enjoy anime. If you are new to the concept, dive in! There are plenty of shows of all types and varieties to sample: comedy, action, drama, mecha, slice of life, sports, and honestly just about anything you can thing of… there’s an anime that’s like it. If you fell out of it for awhile like I did, jump back in, there are plenty of great new shows out there to watch and it’s never been easier to see them. Regardless of your level of exposure, start looking through whats out there and give it a shot, you might even like it!