Wednesday, July 10, 2013

2003, Part 2: Fullmetal and Full Frontal

Last time in our thrilling exploration of 2003 anime and what Cool Japan meant then, Bradley Meek talked about how the true test of whether anime was going to continue to be perceived as cool would be made or broken on TV. And how did that pan out? Read on...

Okay, never mind what I said last time; let's start by talking about Fullmetal Alchemist.

This anime has become one of those cartoons that you can be fairly certain many of your classmates have seen or heard of, at least a few of your coworkers and possibly your boss have watched a bit of, and has roughly a 30% success rate as way of striking up a conversation at a bar, which puts it in the vaunted realm of success somewhere between college hockey games and American professional soccer. It's often mentioned in the same breath as Sailor Moon, Cowboy Bebop, and other near-mainstream successes. It was many fans' first anime, and for some, it would be the only they would ever want to watch. When describing the recent success of Attack on Titan on an episode of ANNCast, Funimation reps described it as potentially a new "Fullmetal" for them, and it's telling that they didn't have to clarify which of their two successful licenses that starts with "Fullmetal" they meant. This was, and in some ways still is, a really popular anime, and it seems the only thing that took some of the shine off it in popular opinion was when Studio Bones went back and made a bigger, better "Fullmetal" in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Which raises an interesting question: is there any reason left to watch this, now that Brotherhood is as easily available as its predecessor on home media and does a better job retelling much of the same story? Does nutjob screenwriter Shou Aikawa's bizarre ending still hold up all these years later? I remember loving it at the time, but I'm not sure now. Can we still forgive those short bursts of filler in its early and latter episodes? Is the Lupin parody episode as great as I remember? The answer is probably easy, because when asked, I have always recommended people watch Brotherhood instead. But I kind of wish it was more difficult.

Rumiko Takahashi was an unassailable icon in Japanese pop culture, and her success was closely tied to the success of anime adaptations of her work. Inuyasha was huge in Japan and soon to be big in America too, and since it was still ongoing in 2003, that year would actually see three Takahashi manga adapted into new anime. Since Inuyasha was my first anime, and Urusei Yatsura is my default reply when people ask what my favorite anime is, I've always had a fondness for any adaptation of her work, even the obscure or disreputable stuff. Rumic Theater is certainly not the latter, though--while most of her work could be fairly boxed in as "romantic comedy" or "romantic fantasy," Rumic Theater was based on a collection of short manga one shots, and contained a variety of genres that, combined, was closer to "romantic magical realism." It's a charming, solid set of adult fairy tales grounded in the real world, with concerns like angry land ladies, lost pets or unresolved crushes. Viewed today, it's sure to hold charms even for those who find Ranma 1/2 or Inuyasha grating.

Another revered icon of Japanese pop culture got a new anime based on his manga with the first series of Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Railways. While not an adaptation of any particular manga he wrote, it is an unmistakable Leiji-verse anime that riffs on the iconic world that houses Galaxy Express 999, Captain Herlock and Queen Esmeralda. It's also very accessible: the series doesn’t have as much Leiji-verse baggage as many older series from the 80's and 90's do, with their complicated family trees and alternate realities that Matsumoto insists are not, in fact, alternate realities at all, and it all makes for an intimidating sub-fandom of anime. So an accessible Leiji-verse anime was probably exactly what was needed in 2003. I've barely seen any Leiji Matsumoto anime myself, though I've always suspected I would love it, with its swashbuckling atmosphere and romantic boy's adventures. What I saw of Galaxy Railway, though, looked absolutely solid, and seems like a great entry point into Matsumoto's massive universe, especially if any of the reportedly excellent movies or OVAs look too dated to you.

Another, more recent, sub-fandom of anime that can intimidate outsiders with its complexity and scale is the Type Moon fandom. Mostly famous for Fate/Stay Night and its hit prequel, Fate/Zero, Type Moon started as another doujin visual novel circle under author Kiniko Nasu, of the titular Nasu-verse, where all of Type Moon's anime are set. Tsukihime was the visual novel that first made him famous, with its neat twists on the vampire mythos made back before neat twists on vampires was cool. In addition to sharing the same setting, all Type Moon stories, and the anime they're based on, take place in fantasy-realist settings in modern Japan, with quirky, likable characters and complicated magic systems and family backstories that fans can and do spend years learning about. Tsukihime would be Type Moon's first anime outing, and it's largely regarded as a stinker today. The great weakness of Type Moon adaptations tend to be that they're also harem anime, and the harem is consistently the story's weakest, least interesting aspect. Just get to the awesome fighting and magical intrigue already! That Fate/Zero didn't have a whiff of harem in it (unless, like me, you like to pretend there was a love triangle between Saber, Irisviel and Emiya) was probably a major reason it was such a success. There are rumors that we're due a new anime adaptation of Tsukihime in the near future, and if so, let's hope that this incarnation is more successful.

The original Read or Die OVA is one of the most reliable things I know of to show potential fans to get them interested in anime. It's a fantastic mix of spy antics and crazy super powers wedded to an emotional, involving storyline of friendship and love, and even though I've seen well over ten times at this point, I still enjoy it. When the new inductee to the fandom excitedly tells me, "That was great! What else is there like that?" what Idon't say is, "Well, there was also a 26 episode TV sequel," because R.O.D. the TV was a mixed bag. It has its good points, but it's definitely not a good next step for any new fan, because they're too green to discover that there's no great idea JC Staff can't make a lot less interesting. (See also: Tsukihime) But every Read or Die fan should eventually watch it, if only for that fantastic first episode featuring a commercial airplane being hijacked by terrorists before the Paper Sisters, with powers similar to OVA heroine Yomiko, save the day spectacularly.

Up next, Godannar which was...

Wait, wait, hang on, let me try that again. This anime's full title is so awesome I have to give you the whole thing, in all caps, so you can experience the impact.


Much better.

So I'm not entirely sure when giant robots went from being made for boys to being for men, but it was probably somewhere around the time it became common to deal with themes like war, the energy crisis and terrorism. Godannar is about marriage so it's definitely for adults, but it's mostly for adults who have never forgotten their horny inner 14-year-old. Combining robots have been a conceit in super robot shows for a long time; this takes it to the next level by having pilots Goh and Dannar--hence the name--be a married couple as well as a pair of pilots who combine their robots to make a bigger, better robot. This anime doesn't really do subtext, which is fine because it's a big, loud cartoon with lots of rockin' robot violence on giant monsters. If you've heard of this anime before but never in relation to the premise, that's probably because it's mostly famous for its absurd, campy fanservice, which extends to bullet breasts and copious jiggle on every woman in its cast, including the women robots. There's a kind of giddiness to it all that keeps it from getting too creepy, which is damn near a virtue compared to most other ecchi anime. Godannar seems primed for some renewed appreciation since I hear more people talking about wanting "hot blooded action" anime more often now, but perhaps that's just the circle of anime fans I hang out with on the Internet.

If Godannar's fanservice was campy and fun, Battle Programmer Shirase's was the exact opposite of that: a thoroughly, completely vile cartoon. And somehow it continues to get a pass for that, possibly because its creepy subtext isn't supplemented by any creepy lolicon visuals. So let's recap what this is about: a programmer with near-supernatural hacking abilities lives an easy life in a cheap apartment next to his very young cousin. Most of the gags focus on his world-saving hacks, but another recurring gag is about how his cousin wants to get into his pants, which makes for awkward social engagements. But the best--or worst--part is that every person who catches Shirase with, say, his head in his elementary age cousin's crotch, immediately excuses the obvious crime they see because they are all clients who so desperately need his services, so they can't call the cops on him. Shirase is something of an aspirational character, and when part of that aspiration includes a loli who teases him about seeing her in her swimsuit, you've got a vile cartoon. Anime is often direct to a fault, but sometimes, it's the subtext that makes something downright awful.

Like Ikki Tousen, Air Master is also an ecchi "fighting girls" anime, but this is the one with a good reputation. A lot of that should probably be credited to director Daisuke Nishio (director for Dragonball), who knows a thing or two about directing fluid hand to hand combat. He gives heroine Maki's high flying acrobatics some real oomph, and some of the fights are still a highlight in the long lustrous history of flying cartoon fists. What makes or breaks the anime for most people is the comic relief, embodied by a screeching gang of schoolgirls with loud personalities who befriend Maki and, in one case, even crush on her. Some people find them to be a turnoff, and others think they're great, but either way, they're too loud to ignore. The best thing is that the series is easily available streaming basically everywhere for free, so you can make up your own damn mind about it at no cost to you. You should at least try it to see Maki's aerial combat style in the first episode--it's kinda awesome.

Gunslinger Girl seems to be largely remembered as moody anime whose creepy subtext either helped or hurt its story, depending on who you asked. I'm in the former camp, if only because I've seen the sequel that aired about five years later, and its straightforwardness made me appreciate Madhouse's take more. It also looks great, especially the guns, which have such detail you feel you could stroke them and feel every bump of metal from your laptop screen. This is also notable for introducing a lot of anime fans to the fantastic gloomy Scottish rock band The Delgados, whose ironically majestic "The Light Before We Land" is a perfect match for the tone of the story. I suspect that this is a series whose story is almost entirely lifted on the back of Madhouse's stellar production. Hey Editor, can I get a video of that opening? ("Why, sure!", the Editor responded in the third person.)

Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu! is where Kyoto Animation got their start, after spending years working as an studio that assisted other studios in TV projects, Kadokawa finally gave them one of their own, handing them the rights to Full Metal Panic after Gonzo's successful but kinda dull adaptation. Given that fat pitch, KyoAni hit it out of the park with a bracingly funny anime that completely removed the first season's drama in favor of relentless slapstick and ever-escalating gags. It looked so damned good too--even in their first outing, KyoAni looked like they were animating heads and tails above everyone else. The animation gave the slapstick more kick, and everything came together to make for a fantastic series that wasn't quite the sequel fans wanted, but was definitely welcomed.

I’ve been going so long my editor is threatening to kick me out the door, so join us next time when I talk about everything else that aired on television in 2003! (Editor's Note: No, you will not.)


  1. "is there any reason left to watch this, now that Brotherhood is as easily available as its predecessor on home media and does a better job retelling much of the same story"

    Okay, I let it slide when you said Brotherhood was better than the original (which is debatable). But what little Brotherhood retells of the original anime is poorly rushed and inferior to the original. I'm speaking of namely the first 13 episodes of Brotherhood.

    I think both stories would be better looked at separately. Both reach amazing heights and both cover completely different ground eventually. All the while keeping that great, Fullmetal formula.

  2. Incidentally, Godannar will be getting a re-release by Sentai Filmworks this fall, so it may most likely get a second lease at notoriety.

  3. Nice to see Gunslinger Girl and Tsukihime get mentioned. The former is one of my favorite action shows. That somber melancholic mood really did add so much to the show. Great looking guns with some nicely done gunplay to boot. The latter was my intro to Type-Moon, and I still argue that it was a fine adaptation and a really touching romance. Just a shame about the mangled character designs. Great music in that show, too, including the OP & ED.