Tuesday, May 28, 2013

1996: Pivot Point

Kadian1364 grew up with anime since middle school during the Pokemon and Toonami boom in the late 90's, and developed a voracious appetite for Chinese girl cartoons that hasn’t stopped since. Sometimes anime reviewer at the Nihon Review, sometimes content to make his opinion known on other blogs, he spews most of his on the Internet’s soapbox, Twitter (https://twitter.com/kenyaboi1364). He also relishes running weekend Skype calls with friends viewing the best and worst of anime’s history.

The mid-90's was a time of affirming stylistic and philosophical changes in the anime industry. The recognizable stereotype of popular anime characters folks still associate with the medium–realistic body proportions with large, expressive eyes and youthful facial features–largely developed and matured in these years. It was a hybrid of the cartoonish Disney-like designs Tezuka popularized and the realistically shaped heroes of the gritty science fiction and OVA anime that populated the 80's. It wasn't until a decade later would we see the dawn of a new character design paradigm. At the same time, disruptive titles in recent history like Saint Seiya, Sailor Moon, and Neon Genesis Evangelion made artists and producers think differently about who could be their prospective audience and how to design new works to reach them. Cross-gender pleasing characters were of course a major part of this emerging design philosophy, but the novel combinations of diverse genres was an emerging effort to broaden the demographic appeal of traditionally niche, gender-exclusive brands.

But before we get to the meat of this article, there are the also-rans worth enumerating. Of course, the second half of Evanglion in early '96, with its psychological complexity, artistic abstraction, and culturally relevant topics, so precisely struck a nerve with an entire generation of viewers that clones and variations would be seen for years to come. Slayers Next, the second of a series of seemingly arbitrarily titled seasons, continued the distinctly 90's-flavored high-fantasy gag-comedy action-adventure franchise. Kosuke Fujishima's You're Under Arrest found a home on TV after its '95 OVA, but instead of fluid car-chase animation, it found pleasant success in low-budget traffic police sitcom fare, spawning three seasons in total through the 90's and 2000's.

Gundam continued to roll out sequels and spinoffs, with After War Gundam X, an alternate universe TV series in a post-apocalyptic scenario with maximum colony dropping absurdity, and the 08th MS Team, an OVA returning to the "One Year War" from the perspective of grunts embroiled in the jungles of Southeast Asia, which earned points with fans for its gritty Vietnam-like take in the favored continuity. And the big traditional shoujo series from the year, Kodomo no Omocha (a.k.a. Kodocha), was the most off-the-wall, dizzyingly hyperactive melodramatic romantic comedy about child actors you'll probably ever see. (And this is just the opening theme! - Ed.)

While numerous titles deserve their due, a few series are so distinguished for finding trend-setting, audience-broadening combinations of diverse genre elements and their enduring popularity that they justify greater elaboration of critical merit.

Detective Conan

If a great TV show must stand the test of time, Detective Conan (Meitantei Konan) can claim that honor as much as any anime, being the longest continuously-running anime series Western fans care about. Sure, a reader of this blog will have learned about long-running family-friendly sitcoms like Sazae-san and Doraemon, which are popular with Japanese audiences but for various reasons never translated into domestic success internationally, but you've probably seen or read at least a little bit of Detective Conan, which has material widely available in English (and even briefly saw airtime on Cartoon Network redubbed as Case Closed).

Shonen Sunday's popular 1994 manga-turned-anime series follows a genius teen super sleuth who was poisoned into a youth-sized version of himself. Aided by the inventions of his friendly kooky neighborhood scientist (what child hero doesn't have one of these?), and using the office of his teen love interest's private detective dad to access cases, he solves crimes to hopefully, maybe, looks for clues to return to normal. Spoiler: 18 years and still no permanent luck.

The trick to Detective Conan's broad appeal among both mainstream Japanese and Western animephiles is combining two genres traditionally aimed at different audiences in accessible ways. The child protagonist Conan with his toy-like devices and mystery-solving adventures with elementary school friends is standard young boy's stuff, but unlike similar youth mystery series, the drama and danger are often amped up and involve grisly murders with outrageous twists Agatha Christie would be proud of. Detective Conan isn't afraid to borrow hard-boiled elements from the noir-detective stories, and the main character's assumed name, Conan Edogawa, references to classic detective literature figures in Arthur Conan Doyle and Edogawa Rampo, adds interest for older audiences. The episodes are structurally predictable and self-contained, where the culprit is dramatically revealed and confronted at the end. Its serial nature also allows viewers to jump in at nearly any point in the series, making Detective Conan both easily compelling and accessible entertainment. With three live-action dramas, numerous video games, and annual animated feature films (not to mention 16 years of uninterrupted weekly episodes), Detective Conan is a long-time staple of the Japanese pop-culture landscape.

Rurouni Kenshin

Detective Conan wasn't the only popular 1994 shonen series to make the jump to animation in 1996. From the pages of rival magazine Shonen Jump came Rurouni Kenshin, a tale set in the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration about a wandering master samurai who can't escape the demons of his or Japan's recently violent past. Kenshin has all the hallmarks of popular shonen action series that have come before: a premise that references well-known figures and movements of Japan's history, an eccentric, charismatic cast of heroes and villains (The Shinsengumi! Giants! Mummies!), escalating battles of superhuman feats, and themes of friendship, revenge, victory, and redemption. Hoever, Rurouni Kenshin is also part of the emerging trend of opening up of shonen action to female eyes. Like some of its contemporaries, Yu Yu Hakusho and Gundam Wing, Kenshin's character designs are noticeably more bishonen-like than the young boys' manga of yesteryear. Featuring softer facial attributes and leaner physiques (even Kenshin himself is remarked at within the story for looking like a woman) and storylines with more women in action-oriented roles, this crop of shonen heroes aren't your father's Fist of the North Star.

All this resulted in great popularity, with a cool 55 million total volumes sold to date, joining rare company in the Shonen Jump pantheon. Unfortunately for the anime, its popularity outpaced the manga, resulting in its infamous season of terrible filler episodes, like a looney Kaoru obsessing over an "engagement" ring from Kenshin, the gang spoiling train robbers in a wild west-style heist, and the whole travesty of the Feng Shui arc. Concluding on these episodes unfortunately meant that the last and greatest Kenshin story arc never made it to television, only inadequately adapted in a short OVA later. However, almost 15 years since the manga's conclusion, Kenshin continues to see life, most recently as last year with an OVA remake of the Kyoto arc, a reissue of the manga, and a live action film adaptation, speaking to its enduring popularity across genders and generations.

Vision of Escaflowne

On the topic of female-friendly attitudes in traditionally male-dominated genres, there's no better series to exemplify this transformation than The Vision of Escaflowne. While Gundam has always had a number of bad boy bishies, and Magic Knight Rayearth featured girls summoning mecha-like familiars in a fantasy setting, what makes Escaflowne unique is how it was originally designed as another show for the boys but turned into a very girl oriented one. Conceived by Shoji Kawamori (of Macross and Aquarion fame) and supposed to be helmed by super robot maestro Yasuhiro Imagawa before he went to instead direct G Gundam, replacement director Kazuki Akane ran with the themes of love, war, and mysticism and redesigned the whole project with more shojo appeal. Leading lady Hitomi was changed from curvy babe to tomboyish everygirl who was magically whisked to a parallel world embroiled in war where knights in giant mobile armors fight for love and honor. Her use of tarot cards was a popular schoolgirl pastime, and the love triangle developing between her and the two leading men was as important a focus as the continent-spanning war and powers of destiny.

With all this talk of girl this and boy that, let's not forget Escaflowne is a plain good show. In the same way 90's-era Final Fantasy packaged familiar high fantasy and steampunk tropes into an attractive collage of adventure, romance, and supernatural-influenced drama, Escaflowne so too utilizes a nearly identical formula into a compelling, high-paced narrative. Its musical score was the TV anime debut of celebrated composer Yoko Kanno (you may have heard of her), and it was the breakout role for fan favorite voice actress/singer Maaya Sakamoto (most recently in Rebuild of Evangelion as Mari). The all-around high quality of production made Escaflowne stand out as a unique and long-held favorite anime of fans from that age.

Martian Successor Nadesico

While Escaflowne captured the age's zeitgeist of broadening appeal, romance, and high fantasy in the form of mecha, no other show as deftly summarizes the history and modes of the mecha genre as Martian Successor Nadesico. Following the exploits of the independent-minded crew of the most advanced space battleship, Nadesico, amidst humanity's war against aggressive Jovian lizards, the series reflects on three eras of giant robot anime in a quasi-dramatic, subversively tongue-in-cheek, commercially otaku-friendly series.

On its face, this anime is structured like the traditional "real robot" space operas in the vein of Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam, a form enumerated and refined throughout the 80's. Officers of a lone ship discuss tactics and convey orders on a large bridge while a squadron of mecha pilots sorties against endless enemy swarms, but a major plot-relevant point is that the cast of Nadesico are various levels of anime and gunpla otaku. The big in-universe robot anime, Gekiganger 3, is a parody of 70's-era super robot anime with hot-blooded grandstanding and outrageous robot designs and attacks (particularly referencing Getter Robo with its three different pilots). Many of the characters look to it for inspiration and wisdom, and they even hold a Gekiganger convention on board.

Still, Nadesico is markedly distinct from the mold of robot-anime shows from either the 70's or 80's, looking forward to catering to a new generation of otaku. We now recognize its moe archtypes and harem-like cast composition, featuring bishojo tropes in the captain, officers, ace pilots, and the little genius girl, Ruri, who helped Rei Ayanami popularize a whole cadre of monotone, mysterious white/blue-haired girls. Sometimes the knowing self-aware winks to otaku culture clashes with the dramatics of the war theater, and the plot ends up a hot mess, but no one can deny Nadesico's prominent position as a herald to both the history and future of a genre that was already beginning to see significant transformation.

In an interesting twist of history, Nadesico, the once hip fusion of old and new mecha, has been itself copied by 2011's Mobile Suit Gundam AGE concerning major plot elements. And so anime continues to repeat and reference itself.

Damn you, Yamato Takeru no Mikoto! (Garzey’s Wing)

(For my final trick, I have no clever transitions to tie highly regarded and historically relevant anime with the pits of the medium, but bear with me.)

When the blog's editor first announced this project, folks quickly scrambled to claim years with their favorite shows. I too made an early bid only to be late by minutes on my first choice, so I quickly reviewed the titles in some remaining years. 1996 immediately stuck out, not with an enviable slate of fan favorites I've made this elaborate article about, but initially recognizing a slew of universally ridiculed (and in turn, beloved-for-ridiculing) anime titles that folks in the circles I run in like to call "Terribad". Though no TV series have been covered (all of them OVAs), they're too memorable in the anime fandom consciousness not to devote some digital ink to their "greatness".

Justin Sevakis sums up Terribad nicely; "it must be poorly made, it must be CRAZY, and above all, it must NOT be boring." Garzey's Wing was part of Yoshiyuki Tomino's effort to creatively branch out from the monolithic Gundam franchise he directed for so long, but he probably didn't want to be remembered for this effort. Aided by one of the worst English dubs of all time, this convulsing, absurd, ponderous heap of magic geese, parallel dimensions, mutant dinosaurs, garbled terminology, and nonsense one-liners ("Damn you, Yamato Takeru no Mikoto!") is the stuff legends.

Garzey's Wing headlined a year of OVAs filled with the likes of M.D. Geist 2, Apocalypse Zero, X 1999, and Panzer Dragoon, all colossal audiovisual storytelling disasters by any meaningful critical metric. Yet these bottom-of-the-barrel screw ups are remarkable because they go so far beyond garden variety bad that people like me affectionately call it "Terribad", something "so bad it's good". This too, is an important part of the landscape of anime, which I would be remiss not to mention.

Next time: 1997. All good things that must come to an end and have something capable of replacing it.

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