2001 was a year mostly notable for its anime films: Spirited Away is probably best known, but there was also Studio 4ºC's Princess Arete, the gekijouban presentation of Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door, and the epic Metropolis based on Tezuka's manga. However, television also had its gems from the year, surprisingly enduring shows on surprising subjects, each of which showed sensitivity and depth and tried to turn away from many of the stereotypes which 1990s anime had developed. Below I will discuss three shows I feel to be representative of the year: Mahoromatic, Hikaru no Go, and Angelic Layer.
There's something about Mahoromatic that, when you watch it twelve years later, feels as if it should be outdated. The characters all teeter on the verge of cliches, from Mahoro the battle-android-turned-maid to her young employer Suguru, from the oversexed teacher to the bland mix of sidekick schoolmates.
But it never quite goes there in the first season: Mahoro as a maid is perfectly capable and socially literate, and Suguru's feelings for his maid are set up in the very first episode as mother/son, not girlfriend/boyfriend. The side characters are less well developed, but because of that very underdevelopment they seem more like normal people than anime stereotypes. If the show had been developed ten years later, Mahoro would have been either perfectly competent as a maid but socially problematic, or more likely for an ecchi show, completely incompetent to the point of constantly spilling any conveniently white, sticky substance all over her front. Suguru's mild daydreams about a cute maid waking him up would have continued past the first episode, and there would be a lot more violent retribution for accidental infringement.
But for me the best part of Mahoromatic is its juxtaposition of ecchi humor and serious questions of human emotion. In the first season, every episode includes, at the end of the main action and before the ending theme, a reminder of how long Mahoro will continue to function before her system shuts down:
|(from Episode 5)|
Best of all, despite the setup that invites nothing but boob jokes and face plants into character's pelvises, the background plot of aliens invading the earth and of two conflicting human responses to that invasion is handled with grace and complexity. It's no wonder that the production team, a mix of people from Studio Gainax and Shaft, turns out to have been peppered with people who had worked on Evangelion: Hiroyuki Yamaga, Masahiko Otsuka, and Hideaki Anno (though he only worked on the opening of Mahoromatic). While I could continue on to a game of spot-the-reference with similarities between the two shows (religious overtones, mecha design, Suguru's eventual emotional paralysis), I'll leave that to more dedicated viewers.
Hikaru no Go
The second show from 2001 which set a new standard was Hikaru no Go. Other shows before it had taken an obscure sport and done the shonen-style tournament anime, but Hikaru no Go managed to do it with the classic strategy game of go. Seriously, go!? As anyone who's actually played the game is probably aware, go is about as interesting as chess: fascinating to those who play it and are of the particular mindset which enjoys the mental feinting of thinking ahead fifty moves, but sadly to the rest of us whose minds are a lot more suited to checkers, staggeringly boring to watch. However, because of the fantastic acting, character design, and soundtrack, Hikaru no Go manages to be fascinating nonstop.
The premise is thus: Hikaru, a middle school student, is rummaging around his grandfather's attic for something to sell for pocket money when he and a friend see an old go board. Hikaru can see a bloody stain on it, but his friend can't, and as the viewer realizes that only Hikaru can see the stain, a ghost comes out of the board and possesses Hikaru, declaring that he, Sai, will turn Hikaru into the best go player of his generation. Hikaru does his best to reject the ghost: he wants to be a normal kid, and moreover finds go to be terribly boring. But when Sai gets depressed about this, his grief causes Hikaru to be violently ill, so Hikaru has no choice but to occasionally let Sai play go through him.
Things get complicated when Hikaru beats a boy his own age, Akira, who knew himself to be the top player of his generation. Akira tells his father, also one of Japan's top players, and the father insists on seeing how well Hikaru plays. Hikaru is fascinated by the way Akira's father holds his stones, in contrast to his own clumsy fingers, and tries to make the stones clack properly on the board. In the moment when he discovers that his hands, too, are capable of creating the graceful and powerful movements of a professional go player, he feels the passion of wanting to do something for the first time in his life.
Hikaru no Go is about more than just two middle school boys growing up to be high-schoolers and eternal rivals at a particular activity: it's about choosing your own path and following it with passion. It's about what happens when that path takes you away from the normalities of childhood—as when Hikaru realizes that entering the school for potential pro players means he can no longer play with his school club. Hikaru learns that people drift away, that grief doesn't mean you have to stop, and that there are many ways of following a path. Hikaru is shown growing up, going from a sixth grader to a ninth grader, from a boy with no direction at all in his life to one passionately pursuing an unusual occupation.
Of course there were sports anime well before Hikaru no Go, but shows featuring a nonphysical game as the main conflict appear to have been rare, if not nonexistent. Hikaru gets into no fistfights; the worst conflicts that occur are not even between rival players but between a player and his or her own confidence. Additionally, there's no love interest side story, unless you count the friendship of Akari, who has a one-sided crush on Hikaru and is badly neglected by both him and the plot. By the end of the series, she's content to simply keep him company, and one can easily imagine them growing up to get married, with Akari being the dutiful wife to a husband obsessed with his professional rivalries. However, the anime's focus is on the relationships between Hikaru and other players: his resident ghost Sai, his rival Akira, his fellow professional-level students, and a string of clubmates. Even the conflict between Hikaru and his mother over whether he can pursue a professional career is nothing compared with the thorny problem of keeping Sai secret.
Interestingly, Hikaru no Go was broadcast alongside another great tournament series from Weekly Shonen Jump: The Prince of Tennis. Hikaru no Go was shown on TV Tokyo bewteen 7:27 and 7:55pm on Wednesdays, right after Prince of Tennis and right before Eyeshield 21, also a sports anime. What a lineup! While Prince of Tennis followed the more formulaic boy-prodigy-surprises-everyone setup, introducing new rivals every week over the course of increasingly complicated tournaments, the setup in Hikaru no Go of a complete beginner being in control of a master a thousand years older than himself is a nice twist. Hikaru no Go would eventually inspire other game competition shows like 2009's Saki, the yuri-flavored girl's high-school mahjong club anime.
(wallpaper from here)
Angelic Layer follows middle-schooler Misaki Suzuhara upon her move to Tokyo. Her first act upon arriving in the big city is to get mixed up inside a train station and accidentally exit—an easy mistake to make if you've ever been in one of Tokyo's large transfer stations. Coming out into the square, she sees a battle between two "Angels"," small robot dolls controlled mentally by their handlers and used for competitive tournament fights all the way up to a national level. What Misaki doesn't know, and what we only learn late into the series, is that she's watching her own mother's doll, and that her mother is the reason the dolls exist. Misaki's mother has multiple sclerosis, and the doll technology was designed to help her move prosthetic limbs. Though she still can't walk, she's become the national champion. Misaki, who hasn't seen her mother in several years, thinks her mother is busy with work in Tokyo, and only later learns that she's unable to walk and has been hiding from her own daughter. While Misaki's mother keeps herself mostly hidden out of society and is pigeonholed into the sweet mother type, the show at least acknowledges the existence of disability and provides her an outlet for expressing her strength. This is especially interesting considering that the manga does not show her mother as disabled.
The awkward reunion.
The fights are between proxy dolls, but they are still fights between human forms created by their owners, not between premade proxy types, which separates Angelic Layer from collectible monster shows. Misaki's doll, Hikaru, is a small, lightweight type relying on speed, agility, and tactics, instead of a heavyweight fighter relying on brute strength. The message of self-confidence is clear: even the underdog can win. There's nothing really new about this, except that this is a fighting show about mixed gender groups with a female protagonist. Misaki realizes toward the end of the series that fighting can be a form of expression.
Angelic Layer has been mostly well received. It was awarded the Kobe Animation TV Feature Award for 2001, an honor also bestowed upon Evangelion in 1996, Revolutionary Girl Utena in 1997, and later The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in 2006, so it's in good company there! The series only spans 26 episodes, unlike the longer-running Hikaru no Go and Prince of Tennis, and there were no movies, OVAs, or other spinoffs. Also unlike what one would expect nowadays from a series based around physical items—like Cardfight! Vanguard or Pokemon—there was no massive production line of collectible toys. There were a few posters and cards, but no figurines and of course, because the technology doesn't exist, no way of making your own doll.
In conclusion, 2001 was an amazing year for anime, from TV to film to OVA (the original Read or Die began that year). 2001 saw an increase in the use of digital paint and 3D modeling, too. Anime could have gone the way of 3D CG at this time, and indeed Run=Dim, a post-apocalyptic mecha show that is really, truly horrible, attempted to make it work, but anime was already set on the 2D look, and all technologies used in the production of anime have continued to serve that look.
Next time: 2002! Anime's 40th year since Tetsuwan Atomu and its televised invasion.