Tuesday, July 16, 2013

2004, Part 1: Rebellious, Yet Respectful

George J. Horvath had been a fan of Toonami's airing of G Gundam and Rurouni Kenshin as well as Fox's airing of Digimon and Escaflowne before being an "anime fan", but in 2004 he went into the medium full-bore, always looking for what came from the past while also seeing what the future would bring. After writing a Guestspotting article for GameSpot and two reviews for Sega-16, though, he decided to take use his B.A.-quality education in Journalism and Media Studies from Rutgers University and start reviewing, on his own, the obscure and forgotten anime and manga of the past (and present). He now runs The Land of Obscusion, talking about anime you may or may not have heard of, and posts semi-randomly over at Twitter.

When it comes to the history of anime, 2004 was a great showing of how the industry was changing. More titles debuted in letterbox format instead of the usual "full screen". Digital animation was replacing cels. Late-night anime was hitting just about every major TV station in Japan after its slow, growing presence was felt starting from the late 90's. Most importantly though, chances were being taken on all sorts of genres and ideas while also celebrating the history that had already been made. To truly understand how diverse the year was for anime one must look deep into the jungle and see what titles defined themselves among others. Among a list of some of the most well-known titles to have come and gone were shows that dared to be different and change the way we viewed anime. In the first half of the year they managed to not only respect the past and even the viewer but some also challenged tradition and made the viewer think of anime in brand new ways.

Before 2004 the last real vestige of the magical girl genre was Sailor Moon, which finished back in the late-90s. There were titles like Magical Doremi (Ojamajo Doremi in Japan) in between that span of years, but none of them truly broke through that glass ceiling and became major hits, even if they had multiple season runs. Toei, though, didn't just rest on their laurels, and in this year they debuted Futari wa PreCure, also known simply as Pretty Cure. On the surface the show's plot about two girls with completely different ways of life who end up becoming guardians of good against the powers of darkness wasn't anything original, but what made people tune in was the execution.

Sailor Moon was a big hit, but if there was one aspect that was copied often it was the fact that the heroines relied on their magical abilities. Pretty Cure decided to buck this tradition and actually have their leads engage their enemies in physical combat. Sure, Nagisa/Cure Black and Honoka/Cure White had a finishing attack, the Marble Screw, which was technically a magical spell, but even that move had the look and feel of a DBZ-style energy blast...and that's not surprising when one realizes that the man who directed Pretty Cure, Daisuke Nishio, was also the man who directed Dragon Ball Z. Nishio made sure that these girls were able to bring the fight to their foes, making it appeal to both girls and boys.

Needless to say, Pretty Cure became a gigantic hit, and there's no doubt that this duo likely gave the positive message that a girl can be just as tough as any boy, if not tougher. Successive entries in the franchise, which is still running to this day, would switch between a focus on physical combat and return to the magical roots of the genre, but the original show almost singlehandedly revitalized and revolutionized a genre that had lost its luster in the years since Sailor Moon; one could even argue it has surpassed its "big sister". Luckily, the original show is available online legally with English subtitles, so there's little to stop one from watching.

Satoshi Kon was a man who was ahead of his time, always willing to look deep into the human psyche and reveal its darker side in movies like Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Unfortunately, movies only allowed Kon to utilize so many of his ideas at one time, so he teamed with MADHOUSE to create a TV series that allowed him to tell all sorts of stories. The result was Paranoia Agent, a title that delved into the paranoia humans feel and showed how horrible we all can be, with the mysterious "Lil' Slugger/Shonen Bat", a baseball cap-wearing boy wielding a bent golden bat, being the potential savior (?) from it all.

Paranoia Agent, like all of Kon's creations, had no qualms at doing anything that can come off as uncomfortable; even the opening footage aimed to do just that, showcasing all of the leads smiling and laughing in front of horrible scenes of destruction and potential death while a happy-sounding theme by Susumu Hirasawa, who also did the entire soundtrack, plays. It also played with viewers' imaginations by sometimes giving hints as to certain events that may or may not have happened, but Kon knew that the viewer would normally expect the worst, making moments come off as even worse simply because he left the gap up to the viewers' minds.

The greatest part of the show, though, was the way it always managed to keep the viewer guessing. Every time the viewer would have a handle on the truth, Kon would make a sudden left turn in the story, revealing that what once looked like a simple flat puzzle was in fact multi-faceted, complete with new sides that needed solving. Even up to the last episode the truth was hidden behind a dark screen, with the viewer having to cut through the crazy imagery to find the answers. Sick, twisted, and uncomfortable, yet also unpredictable, compelling, and even funny (sometimes in the face of absolute depravity), Paranoia Agent was a show not to be missed, though as of this essay the show is out-of-print and highly expensive with no legal stream to view.

Normally an anime is created by one studio and one set of staff, with other studios helping out with smaller details like backgrounds, CG, and the like. Yugo the Negotiator, the anime adaptation of Shinji Makari and Shu Akana's story of a master international crisis negotiator, bucked tradition and completely went in its own direction. The Yugo anime utilized two separate animation studios and staffs, with only the voice of Yugo Beppu, the producers, and music composer Susumu Ueda being used throughout the entire show. This allowed the two story arcs the anime adapted, one taking place in Pakistan (done by G&G Direction) and the other in Russia (done by Artland), to be completely different in style and execution; even the opening and ending themes changed somewhat between arcs, with the Russia Arc utilizing remixed versions of the Pakistan Arc's themes.

This blatant disregard for "tradition" resulted in the two stories being not only different in style and delivery, but also in execution from a production standpoint. The Pakistan Arc had a real slow burn feel to it, with each episode leading into the next until everything reached a boiling point, while the Russia Arc utilized a cat-and-mouse game steeped in trickery and deception from both Yugo and his adversaries. Production-wise the change became even more pronounced, with G&G Direction going against in the grain in nearly every way possible (realistic character designs, a muted color palette, and even saving the episode title splash for the end rather than the beginning), while Artland went for a more traditional route (a slight "bishonen" look, higher-budget and colorful animation, and more traditional episode title placement, for example). The end result was a TV series that had two identities to it, allowing each story to be its own world rather than feeling like two parts of the same world. Taken alone each half of Yugo the Negotiator was amazing, but taken together it became a memorable series with a one-of-a-kind execution. Although it's out-of-print, it still isn't expensive to purchase on DVD.

Naoki Urasawa was no stranger to having his manga adapted into anime; Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl was made back in the early 90's, and Master Keaton had its anime at the end of the same decade. In this year his mystery thriller manga Monster was adapted into anime, lasting 75 episodes and becoming the last anime to air anywhere near that many episodes in a row in a late-night slot. The story of Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a renowned doctor who chose saving the life of a child over that of an influential politician, and his journey to stop the very person he saved from being the "monster" that he has become years later is fraught with suspense and twists that it makes for intensely addictive television.

Monster was a title that's all about slowly building characters up and letting the mood take control. There's no way to quickly get through the show, as that would kill the build-up and intrigue. Urasawa was a master at purposefully keeping the reader (or viewer, in this case) at bay when it comes to knowing everything that's important, only letting info out in small bits and pieces in order to keep his audience interested, like a hunter laying a trail of small food to lure the prey into capture instead of leaving behind a giant piece. When the time is ready the trap is sprung, and Urasawa did the same with his audience, waiting for the right moment to spring a big reveal. There is no way Monster could have worked as a series of small 12-13 episode shows with breaks in between each season, because it would have destroyed the pacing and suspense. Monster's year-plus run was the last of its kind in late-night, and with its end came a change in the way anime is seen in this niche timeslot. Unfortunately, though it did have a complete TV airing in North America, this show only had its first fifth released on DVD as of this essay; it is fully viewable online legally.

Every year there are titles that simply fall through the cracks that the big names and anticipated titles leave behind, and 2004 was not any different. Titles like Desert Punk, Yakitate!! Ja-Pan, and Otogi Zoshi all debuted this year yet were not given anywhere near the talk of the more popular shows of the year, but the best example of this need to look deeper was Fantastic Children. Right from its epic and operatic opening theme Fantastic Children showed that, admittedly, it was deeper than its "kiddy" look might first give off. The story of Thoma, and his friends Helga and Chitto, and how they get involved with the mystery of the "Children of Béfort" bestowed a seriousness and grandeur that any who have seen its journey through to the end agree is simply amazing and well worth the adage of "Don't judge a book by its cover."

The show was purposefully old-school in almost every way one can think of. The character designs reminded one of the 60's with simpler faces and an overall sense of youth, even for the adults, the mood mixed levity into a very serious world, and the pacing didn't bend to the faster-paced world that anime was entering. In a landscape that had only been speeding up, Fantastic Children decided to slow it back down and simply tell a story...an ambitious story involving concepts like reincarnation, the dark side of science, mystery, romance, and adventure. Though it could have been told in fewer episodes, creator and director Takashi Nakamura's vision would have been crushed under its grand ambition. While calling the show "fantastic" would be correct, it would also be downplaying how magnificent and beautiful it truly is. The show can still be had for a good price on DVD, but it is technically out-of-print, so don't wait!

Next time: The first half of 2004 gives way to the second half, including a return of one of the inventors of the "Cool".

1 comment:

  1. In all my years of watching anime which would be 16, I started with DBZ back in elementary! And of all the full length series that I've watched from start to end; 158 and counting, I don't think any series has ever come out of nowhere more story telling-wise then Fantastic Children.

    I'm not saying its the best anime story ever told or anything, though I'd probably have it in my top 10. Its just that I DID NOT expect it to be anywhere near the intricate and emotionally moving tale that it turned out to be. Very underrated indeed, even still to this day.