Saturday, July 13, 2013

2003, Part 3: Ten More for the Road

Last time, Bradley talked about some of the most notable series that aired in 2003. This time, he concludes by talking about some of the more obscure series you might have missed, and closing with a comparison of anime in 2003 and anime a decade later.

And now, our exciting conclusion...

So in addition to stalwart anime subject matter like giant robots and bouncing breasts, 2003 also had plenty of weird, out-there stories. 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.

Also weird but a lot more pretentious was the follow-up to the depressing and beautiful Haibane Renmei from writer Chiaki J. Kanaka and character designer Yoshitoshi ABe: Texhnolyze. The two created a vibrant yet depressing cyberpunk world with underground fights between cyborgs and social strife that become gang wars. It's an utterly surreal watch, but difficult to penetrate. Partly this is because the story is non-linear, but also because the pacing is really slow, which doesn't quite fit the action that the DVD cover promises with an angry kid with a metal arm looking like he's ready to punch someone.

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.

Gungrave was another dark anime series that was probably overlooked by most fans, despite its connections to character designer Yasuhiro Nightow (Trigun), because it looked fairly generic and was based on a pretty awful video game. When are video game anime any good? Well, it probably helps that Gungrave went way off the path beaten in the video game, opting instead for the meat of the series to be contained in a lengthy flashback arc that, at its heart, is a familiar yakuza tale of love and betrayal done with lots style.

Speaking of style, Wolf's Rain is a series that left an impression on a lot of fans, some of whom would probably be upset if I didn't mention the series even though I'm not a big fan of it myself. But it's not like I don't see the appeal--it's a thoroughly mystical series, set in a post-apocalypse where wolves fool humans into thinking that they are extinct through illusionary magic that makes them look human. A strong sense of myth and post-apocalyptic imagery helps make the series memorable, and at times, it has real narrative punch that does a lot to humanize its characters and their quest for a paradise that may or may not exist. Supported by plenty of great visuals from Studio Bones, the series is typically notorious for a combination of a really long recap arc that unfortunately followed one the conclusion of one of the series' tensest story arcs, and a controversial ending that still generates discussion today. My mixed feelings about the series aside, it's certainly still worth watching if only for its visuals.

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!

2003 was a year oddly lacking in traditional magical girl anime. Why that is I don't know, but we were only a year away from Toei providing the world a yearly supply of good magical girl cartoons in the form of Pretty Cure, so you could think of this as the calm before the storm. Ashita no Nadja aired in the slot traditionally reserved for those kind of cartoons, even though it had more in common with NHK's old World Masterpiece Theater adaptations, so some of the magical girl influence still shines through in its girlish charm, like a 3,000 Leagues in Search of Mother crossed with Sailor Moon. What I've seen of it was fantastic, and while at 50 episodes it's a hefty commitment, it's certainly an anime I'd like to finish sometime soon.

Junichi Sato is an underappreciated workhorse in television anime. He first made a name for himself as the director of the first season and change of Sailor Moon, and since then he's consistently turned in solid to amazing work, especially with shojo and iyashikei anime. Following up on his amazing fairy tale deconstruction of magical girls, Princess Tutu, he headed a much bigger and more traditional shojo project set in an American circus. Buoyed by a sunny attitude and a sense of adventure that would soon define some of Sato's future work, Kaleido Star tells the story of a young Japanese acrobat named Sora who dreams of performing on the world's circus stage, the Kaleido Stage. Making that dream happen isn't easy, though, not only because she's an immigrant in a foreign country, but also because of her many rivals, including an acrobat she idolized as child. It seems worth noting here that this story often reflects a familiar genre in 2013: idol anime. Fans of that genre would certainly do well to watch Kaleido Star, which is still easily and cheaply available on DVD.

While Shadow Star Narutaru may also look like a bright, easy watch at first, it becomes clear later it has more in common with Gunslinger Girl or even more appropriately, Alien Nine, as an anime where innocence meets pure malevolence. Shadow Star is probably the most unsettling of the lot, though, as its languid has no problem easing its audience before springing extreme violence on them. In a way, it's kind of the anti-magical girl, with a below-average child discovering an alien that, instead of giving her superpowers, makes her life even more miserable. Again, this is another series that has lost its audience, if it ever found it to begin with, and deserves to be rediscovered.

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:

Anime in 2003 had a broader visual aesthetic. Just a glance over a new season chart and a list of what aired in 2003 bears this out. It's a striking difference and it probably also reflected a broader intended audience.

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.

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