Sunday, April 14, 2013

1988: Remember Only To Forget

Thaliarchus is a recovered anime blogger (URL withheld to protect the guilty) who digs giant robots. In a tragic error of judgement his government has agreed to pay for his existence while he tries to write a Ph.D. thesis. He isn't researching anime, so unlike some other postgrads who've appeared here he has no professional interest in being identified by name--quite the opposite, in fact. However, he can be found on Twitter.

1988! A vintage year when My Neighbour Totoro, Char's Counterattack, Grave of the Fireflies, something called Akira--you may have heard of it--and a clutch of classic OVAs came out. The chances are that if you're interested enough to be reading these posts, you don't need me to tell you about 1988. Colony Drop even did a whole bunch of posts devoted to the year's highlights--go read them.

And that's one of the reasons I asked for this year, really: I know I'm really not as qualified to talk about this stuff as some other names who've appeared here, so I needed a year I could safely mess up. My plan is to talk briefly about the general picture of anime on television in 1988, then I'll offer the specific for the general and discuss one show in particular. I'll follow by turning my attention to 1988's rash of OVAs and finish with a few remarks about what we remember. I'm an arts student, and in a time of Big Data I work with small data, so while this could be a list of titles--and in parts it is--I thought I'd try not being synoptic.

Television, Television

So, 1988 is, looking back, a big year for films and OVA releases. But what about anime on television? Wikipedia's Japanese site has it that there were thirty-three anime titles on TV in 1988, and to mangle a phrase, quite a lot of this stuff definitely was for kids. For example, 1988's iteration of "World Masterpiece Theatre" was an adaptation of Little Lord Fauntleroy, and on top of that, Nippon Animation also put out Grimm Masterpiece Theatre, an anthology of fairy tales which ran into 1988 from '87 and then resumed towards the end of the year.

Then there's Anpanman, a rather resilient kids' show. How resilient? Well, it's been airing continuously since 1988 and has now reached eleventy billion (okay, over a thousand) short episodes. Another children's title that started in 1988, Kiteretsu Daihyakka, put in a hefty 331 episodes, finishing in 1996. These are probably more important chunks of cultural history than anything from the year that I actually like! Certainly they're the titles assigned to 1988 in a column in Asahi Shimbun trying to list representative anime from the last fifty years. I should also mention Mashin Eiyuden Wataru, a gag-ridden adventure show from Sunrise (inevitably, it also involves a super robot), which was a significant success and spawned several sequels.

Turning to something aimed at an audience perhaps a little older and more definitely female, there's the second season of the adaptation of the shojo manga Lady!! and the second of the three Himitsu no Akko-chan anime shows; you may remember its predecessor being mentioned in Dave Merrill's discussion of 1969. I bring it up so we can include its ending sequence, which is a strong candidate for the bestest ED of the year:

See? The bestest.

Previous posts here have established that there can be quite a gap between popular anime and anime that were popular with anime fans. Looking at Animage's Grand Prix reader poll published in May of 1989, and stripping out films and things which didn't start in 1988, Sonic Soldier Borgman is the highest-placed title, despite the unimpressive look of the viewership figures I can find for it. Despite this success with anime fans in Japan at the time, Borgman doesn't feature at all in Anglophone fans' collective memory of 1988 and indeed to my knowledge it's never been translated...

...but let's stop there. I don't want this to become just a list that could be compiled given half an hour and the use of Wikipedia, perhaps supplemented by, say, the per-episode viewing figures recorded for some shows here and here. Instead, I'll tell you in detail about one particular show.

Sakigake!! Otokojuku

Otokojuku is a mediocre Weekly Shonen Jump comedy adaptation. Watching it for this, I've grown to enjoy it but that's probably just Stockholm Syndrome. The titular Otokojuku is a brutal boys' boarding school whose pupils--Japan's worst dropouts and delinquents--endure a regime of silly physical challenges and harsh discipline. Just getting from the dorms to the main teaching site involves a journey past deadly traps and over terrifying ravines. These delinquents also get into fights; they fight with each other, they fight with their teachers, they fight with the local gangsters, they fight with university students, they fight with wild animals, and they fight with Americans.

There's a lot of fighting.

Otokojuku can be funny at times. It gets a lot of mileage out of absurd masculinity, often pathetically punctured. This goes right down to the over-muscled character designs, which are mildly amusing in themselves and much funnier whenever Otokojuku's pupils venture out into Tokyo and mix with a populace who look, well, normal. The show also does a good line in triggering disgust for comic effect, and while I was lucky enough to have mostly happy schooldays, I can see the joke of a fictional school where the teachers really are all brutal and incompetent, the pupils really are irredeemably stupid and the guff school brochures spout about building character and ethos and so on is taken ridiculously seriously.

There's another facet to Otokojuku's humour. Why does the school's headmaster have a World War II tank in his garage? Why is the school uniform a dark trenchcoat? Why are Otokojuku's unfortunate pupils told to practice agricultural self-sufficiency with an eye to the coming era? Why is there an episode about stopping Japanese women from going out with foreign men? Is this just a Spartan school, or is it the breeding-ground for a nationalist foco?

I don't know enough about Japanese history and politics to unpick Otokojuku's exact stance on nationalism, but this aspect does add some value--for example, it lends an edge to the way the teachers' noble-sounding ideas invariably turn out to be cover for money-making schemes. That said, there's no hint of satire or send-up in Otokojuku's presentation of its hero, Momotaro, who invariably beats the bad guy and outwits the teachers. He's the schoolboy schoolboys would like to be, and this uncomplicated aspirational portrait suggests to me that the show is not ultimately all that interested in making a political point.

Otokojuku is, then, mildly interesting but nothing more, unless you have a burning need to watch forgotten late-eighties anime comedy. I discuss it at some length here precisely because it is forgettable. I feel a detailed example is better than a list for making the point that, despite 1988's status as a "vintage year", most of its televised anime were, albeit diverting, basically just okay.

What About OVAs?

Above, I wrote of a "rash of OVAs" advisedly: this was a time when OVAs sprang up right, left and centre, and in many cases they disappeared just as fast, like Le Deus ('Ladius'), an inoffensively-average one-shot which seems carefully made to leave open the possibility of more episodes but went nowhere. By contrast Dragon's Heaven lasts a mere thirty minutes and is a flimsy thing, but does at least end neatly. It also looks, for want of a better term, very un-anime and has delicious, striking mechanical designs courtesy of Makoto Kobayashi. Robot OVA titles starting in 1988 that did have more than one episode include Zeorymer, which is more respectable than its source material but is perhaps more interesting than enjoyable, and a six-episode adaption of Starship Troopers, which was, in effect, mecha anime returning ad fontes, as Robert A. Heinlein's novel was, when translated into Japanese, an influence on 'real robot' shows.

I wouldn't get away without mentioning Gunbuster, Studio Gainax's first series-length production (they released Wings of Honneamise in theaters the year before) and Hideaki Anno's (Neon Genesis Evangelion) first big directorial venture. I don't know the truth of the matter, but I like to think that Gunbuster's arrival signalled that the people who had once formed the "wrong" audience for shows like Aim for the Ace! were now in a position to make their own stuff. In Gunbuster you get this odd melange of repurposed shojo tropes, giant robots, spaceships, gently tilted alternate history, and beautiful girls. Something a bit closer to my heart is Headgear's Patlabor OVA, which is entertaining in its own right and was also the trailblazer for a TV series and three films, two of which are very fine films indeed.

What else? Tonnes of stuff. Vampire Princess Miyu, Appleseed, Demon City Shinjuku, the second Violence Jack OVA...oh, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes, a 110-episode behemoth which began on VHS in 1988, though it did apparently appear on television later. But is the Legend even any good? It is awash with narration, a great deal of telling rather than showing, and though things improve as the series goes on, its animation rarely inspires. Its handling of SF concepts seems cursory or outright inconsistent. Admirals oversee enormous space battles using 2D representations, and why are there soldiers fighting with axes in the future?

Of course, really Legend of the Galactic Heroes is amazing. It's amazing that it was made at all: the first season might have started coming out late in 1988, but the main story was only finished in 1997. They made some prequel/side-story thingies too, finally stopping in 2001. That's nuts! The space and scope of anime's largest voice cast lets the Legend grow to be anime's biggest and best space opera. Being a space opera, it isn't interested in explaining FTL travel or the precise mechanics of spaceship-to-spaceship combat. It just wants to thrill and divert. Legend's treatment of individual subjects--voter apathy, distended supply lines, court-intrigue, an admiral's tactical conservatism--might sometimes be clumsy, but it can weave all those things together and interest you in how they might combine to produce a particular outcome. And what other cartoon would touch on even two of those?

It should be noted that, while the trend in OVAs starting in 1988 was overwhelmingly SF, cyberpunk, and giant robots, there were titles serving other tastes. There was, for example, a one-shot OVA (with very limited animation) treating some part of the seemingly-endless shojo manga Ouke no Monshou. More substantially, 1988 saw the beginning of the thirteen-episode Aim for the Ace! 2 OVA, the first new Aim for the Ace! anime in almost ten years.


This project offers us a chance to consider the anime titles which we don't normally discuss, a chance to remember that Anpanman is probably more important to a great many people than Char's Counterattack is. It's also a chance to nuance our perceptions; 1988 might be the year that some great anime films came out and some fondly-remembered OVAs started, but alongside shows and movies like Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Akira, there were plenty of shows as workaday as Sakigake!! Otokojuku.

Yet Ernst Robert Curtius, who wasn't stupid and thought about this sort of thing a lot in a rather different context, suggested that history requires forgetting as well as remembering. I think a canon is a necessary or even inevitable thing; it's worth checking forgotten things to see if they deserve to be forgotten, as well as reminding ourselves that a year famous for being good fostered a lot of mediocrity too. However, once we've done that, there's a lot to be said for remembering and returning to the good stuff, while leaving the rest to obscurity.

Next time: 1989, the year anime lost a hero and found another.

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