And now, our exciting conclusion...
Kino's Journey is one such anime, based on an adaptation of some unconventional material, this time from a light novel series telling the tale of a boy and his talking motorcycle who travel a world with an incredible variety of cultures and wildlife. Kino's stories often bloom into short, poignant observations about life that echo many of Aesop's Fables. Combined with a muted but very pretty animation style, this is a series that really earns its moments of emotional resonance with a little bit of fairy tale magic and a lot of earnestness.
Another haunting series drew from more traditional sources. The literal translation of the title is Natsuhiko Kyogoku's Hundred Stories, but here in America we know it by the generic Requiem from the Darkness. Most folks missed this series in the flood of the DVDs that came out in the mid-Aughts, which is a shame, because this is a horror series with some serious bite. You probably heard about the "Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales", known as the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, from other anime, normally with school children sitting around in a circle and telling each other ghost stories, one for each of the hundred candles they've lit. As each tale is told, another light is extinguished, and when the last light is gone, it's believed that horrifying spirits will visit in the darkness summoned by the participant's tales of terror.
Requiem from the Darkness draws on this tradition by bringing it back to its origins in the Edo period, making the writing of these hundred horror tales the ambition of a medieval Japanese author. His sources for these stories are a group of strange detectives who he accompanies on bizarre and frightening adventures, the implication being that, as he continues to gather more stories to reach his goal of 100, he risks something horrible happening. This is another one of those series that really deserves a little more love, even though it's out of print and difficult to find.
But let's stop talking about glum series and talk about Sakigake! Cromartie High School, a show guaranteed to get you and a group of your friends in stitches with its bizarre, snappy humor. You don't even need much context to love it- sure, it helps to know that the series is a parody of the classic yankii stereotype, but heck, the series will straight up admit at times that the gag it just made probably doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you read the manga. Context doesn't matter. You know what matters? Tough guys eating pencils! Gorilla chefs! Freddie Mercury parodies! Norio Wakamoto as a yankii robot! This anime has its priorities straight!
There's plenty more anime to talk about, and I'll probably talk about them on my blog later, but I wanted to close with one of my favorites: Planetes. I've heard this series described as "Patlabor in space," and in many respects the comparison makes a lot of sense. Planetes is a science-fiction workplace comedy about the garbage men of space, because even when we're finally blasting to other planets and moons on a regular basis, someone still needs to pick up the garbage we leave lying around. Planetes deglamorizes the stars as humanity's new home, noting that pressing Earth problems like vast economic equality, terrorism, environmental destruction and corporate malfeasance. We can't leave these problems behind us--instead, they'll follow us into space, and possibly get worse.
Now this isn't anything new anime--the animators and mangaka of the generation that had survived World War II and its aftermath wrote and drew plenty of excellent pulp sci-fi for boys informed by a mature social consciousness that recognized the fallibility of being human. But Planetes takes this social conscious one step further with gentle humanity by recognizing the small problems that really inform and shape us as people: disappointing love lives, a boring job, petty managers, unresolved dreams. There is a palpable, convincing humanity at the core of Planetes that really sets it apart from nearly every other anime that aired in 2003 and would ever air afterwards. It takes something as vaunted as space travel and makes it earthy. If I had to pick an anime from 2003 that everyone should see. It resonates in the way the best television dramas hope to do.
So that was twenty series from 2003! I personally think it was one of the best years for television anime, with a lot of variety and plenty of quality series. While I feel like I covered most of it here, if I have more to say (I always have more to say) you can find it over at the blog. Before I finish up, I thought I'd make a few observations about what was different about anime from a decade ago compared to what is airing today:
Fewer anime for children. Most anime fans don't think much about it, but the ramp up in the quantity of new television anime would also mean more anime for children. Some of the increase could also probably also be contributed to the success of new franchises like Pretty Cure, while many older franchises like Detective Conan never really left.
Fewer new giant robot and magical girl anime. You'd be forgiven for not thinking that was true considering how huge Evangelion and Gundam SEED was that year. This also ties into my first point: more studios and production committees were willing to take risks with stories that weren't established in familiar genres. We see less of that now.
Animation didn't look as good. 2003 was just an awkward year for animation in Japan because of the ongoing transition to digital and using new tools like CGi, and while there are certainly plenty of fantastic examples of great animation that year, the median quality has risen since then. Some of it is because the industry has a better understanding on how to use their tools, some of it is improving technology, and some of it is because of the tightening of the labor pool post-Great Recession, leaving a smaller number of primarily veteran animators doing a lot of the work.
Overall quality was generally much better. This is obviously subjective, but I would rather watch a randomly selected anime from 2003 than a randomly selected one from 2013. That seems worth saying.
Helluva year, huh? If you ask me, overall you were pretty "Cool, Japan".
Next time: Television gets hammered by new anime shows in 2004, drawing a famous director in the process.