Back when I started curating Anime.About.com, one of the first feature articles I put together was a four-parter which involved a number of anime at different "course levels." An anime that required no understanding of Japanese culture or Japan to begin with was a "100-level" anime. Another that was still easy to get into but would be best appreciated with a little foreknowledge was a "200-level" anime. A show pitched mainly for Japanese audiences, or which one wasn't likely to find accessible unless you were already steeped in the tropes and quirks of anime generally was a "300-level" anime. (I later refined the categories a little, but the basic concept remains intact.)
For the average adult (most likely male) Western audience member, Black Lagoon actually isn't difficult to get into at all—provided they don’t mind being dropped into the middle of the most violent, raunchiest, most foul-mouthed, cynically-scripted story this side of, well, every 1980s-era Chow Yun-Fat action vehicle and every 1990s Michael Bay production. Black Lagoon was created in homage to and for the audiences of exactly those things, and like a lot of anime itself, you either eat this stuff up or you run like hell.
But if Black Lagoon the anime is like that, it's only because Black Lagoon the manga, the source material—which started hitting shelves in 2002—is also like that. Form is merely following function, and Black Lagoon's function is to dance right on the line between being entertaining and being repugnant.
Lagoon involves a hapless corporate drone, Rokuro, who finds himself being given up by his employers (who have shady dealings in the area) to the crew of a pirate ship, the titular Black Lagoon. They're an unhinged bunch—the black heavy Dutch, the tinkerer and hacker Benny, and the completely insane gun-bunny Revy—but Rokuro, or "Rock" as they dub him, turns out to have a germ of craziness himself, and soon becomes a crewmember as they navigate the criminal underworld of the Southeast Asian seas. Rock is not as inherently violent as the others, and so becomes their negotiator—often becoming the only person to be able to talk down not only their enemies but some of their own allies (like the cold-blooded, queenly Russian ex-army officer, Balalaika).
It's not hard to see why Black Lagoon has a following on both sides of the Pacific. It is terrifically entertaining, even if some of that is despite and not just because of what happens. There's no denying the craft that went into making it, or the impact it has had on subsequent shows with similar levels of daring or similar settings (Michiko to Hatchin, for instance, or Jormungand). However, there's also no ignoring the amazingly mean-spirited material that finds its way into some episodes; for example, a nasty plot involving a pair of orphaned Romanian twins ("Hansel and Gretel", no less) who are cold-blooded murderers is particularly hard to sit through. Likewise, there's an early storyline involving a buffoonish bunch of neo-Nazis, one which gave me some idea of why Steven Spielberg vowed to no longer use such characters as stock villains: it's too easy to be lazy with them.
What saves Black Lagoon from being merely vulgar is how, in the long run, it's clearly been put together by people who do understand the larger implications of the material they're touching on. The show is designed to push Rock to his limits, to tempt him into doing terrible things, but it's also designed to push other people to meet him halfway—to remind them that the way you make a terrible world that much less terrible is by being that much less terrible, and that sometimes that's not naïveté but wisdom.
Black Lagoon earned a spot as a 100-level anime because it hewed close to things familiar to Western audiences. Death Note, another major 2006 debut, might well have been a 100- or a 200-level production, depending on how you pitch it to an audience—small wonder a number of Hollywood folks, not least among them Lethal Weapon writer and Iron Man 3 writer/director Shane Black, have eyed the whole franchise from its manga on up as a possible Western live-action vehicle.
It's not hard to see why. At its core, though, is a premise that is quite accessible—and twisted enough that Hitchcock, or at the very least Rod Serling, would have applauded. An otherworldly death deity, Ryuk, accidentally (yeah, right) drops his "Death Note" into the human world. Inscribe the name of a human being into this artifact, and that person dies. The notebook falls into the hands of Light, an idealistic young law student—maybe too idealistic, because as soon as he discovers the notebook works, he goes on a killing spree to purge the world of everyone he sees as being undeserving of life. The story is just cynical (or maybe realistic) enough to see this behavior as garnering him a cult following under his pseudonym of "Kira", while in real life he continues to maintain his goody-two-shoes façade: Everyone's All-Japanese.
What with people dying in droves, soon the hapless governments of the world turn to the reclusive "L", a twitchy kid-genius detective of the unorthodox-problems-need-equally-unorthodox-solutions stripe. L's answer is to insinuate himself into Light's life and employ him as one of the very assets needed to find Kira. Fans of noir may recognize this twist: it was most memorably first employed in Kenneth Fearing's 1946 noir thriller The Big Clock. What follows from there is L and Light trying to outsmart each other, sometimes outsmarting themselves for good measure, with the rules of the Death Note (oh, by the way, who said there was only one of them floating around?) being exploited for some remarkable double-reverses.
Dark detective stories have a long history in Japan, with Edogawa Rampo's work having embodied much of the flavor of this sort of thing from the 1920s on forward. Death Note works best if you see it as being in that tradition, one where why things happen isn't as important (or interesting) as the gymnastics needed to either get there or prevent the wrong people from finding out about it. It shies away from really exploring the consequences of living in a world ruled by fear of supernatural reprisal—maybe for the best, because a show like that would be an emotional battering, and a totally different genre of show besides. What it does provide, though, aside from a fun ride, is a great example of how anime is not itself a genre but often produces things that sit comfortably at the intersections of multiple genres—in this case, Stephen King Street and Conan Doyle Avenue.
Another 2006 anime I knew couldn't exist anywhere but in the 300-400 category is Welcome to the NHK, one of a growing number of anime that deal with social dysfunction. Here, it's the hikikomori phenomenon, where a sizable percentage of Japanese youth isolate themselves in their rooms, live parasitically off their parents, engage with the world only through their phones or the Internet, and generally expend a lot of effort to remain as withdrawn as possible from a world that doesn't seem to want them much around anyway. (Around one in ten people of both sexes in Japan under the age of 24 are unemployed.)
Most Western audiences would expect a heavy subject like this to be treated in soppy Movie-of-the-Week fashion. NHK, though, is to social isolation as Dr. Strangelove was to nuclear war: it uses the material for the blackest and most irreverent of comedy, and in doing so finds a surprising amount of wormy truth about its subject matter. The hero and narrator, Tatsuhiro, is ostensibly a college student, but instead of attending classes, he's cracking. He's spent months in isolation, growing paranoid, entertaining delusions about how the NHK (Japan's national broadcasting company) is secretly conspiring to keep people his age deluded and isolated.
Two people enter Tatsuhiro's life, each with a different galvanizing effect on him. First is his next-door neighbor, Kaoru, a former school chum, with whom he enters into a thoroughly absurd plan to create a best-selling video game as a way to bootstrap both of them out of poverty. (It should be noted that the whole way Tatsuhiro does this is by boasting that he's a game designer as a way to not have to own up to being a NEET.) The other is a girl, Misaki, who claims she can "cure" Tatsuhiro of his hikikomori-ness, and enters into a contract with him to tease him out of his shell—e.g., he has to spend a certain amount of time with her a day outside of his apartment, lest his appliances all begin to speak to him. (This happens more than once.)
Several things about NHK stand out, not least of which being how the show is as funny as most anything in recent memory. Funnier, perhaps, since at its core it actually has the nerve to be about something, although a lot of its loudest laughs do come from the way it knowingly ribs otaku culture. At one point Tatsuhiro and Kaoru brainstorm the heroine for their game, and end up with a horrific amalgam of every erotic-game cliché imaginable. In a less ambitious show, that sort of thing would just come off as having one's ecchi cake and eating it too. But here, it works, in big part because such fan-winking is counterbalanced by far more serious material—e.g., a grim subplot where Tatsuhiro ends up being part of an online suicide pact group—and how the whole show.
Another significant 2006 show was hard to forget, but even harder to parse in the first place. It ended up in the 300-level category not because of its anime-ness or Japan-ness, but simply because it would give any audience fits: Ergo Proxy.
Proxy is a rare example of SF-themed anime that isn't a mecha show (Macross, Gundam, etc.) or one where the SF just is a thin veneer sprayed over a high-school drama or some other obvious genre. It hearkens back to the gloomy dystopias of the 1970s , both literary and cinematic, where what's left of humanity has retreated to the safety of giant domed cities, and where everyone lives (in the words of Richard Brautigan) all watched over by machines of loving grace. Here the machines are called AutoREIVs, polite AIs in humaniform bodies that not only do the laundry but can even substitute as children for those who have earned it. The worm eating away at this particular apple, because there always is such a worm in a dystopia, is a computer virus, "Cogito". AutoREIVs infected with it go berserk and try to leave the safety of the city for the presumably-unsafe outside world. Re-L Mayer, the daughter of one of the city's administrators, pokes her nose where it doesn't belong and finds she, too, will have to leave the city to learn the truth about—well, everything. (Every dystopian story involves, at some point, everything the characters know being wrong.)
Anime fans in Japan are quick to criticize productions they see as being devised mainly to cater to the overseas market. Ergo Proxy is not difficult to see as being guilty of this—it was, after all, co-written by the screenwriter (Dai Sato) for another show (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) whose fanbase overseas is far larger, and far more responsible for the show's marketability, than its native Japanese fanbase. Consequently, Ergo Proxy feels remarkably unlike other SF-themed anime, both for the better and the worse. The better is in the tone and texture of the whole thing; it is half dark futurism and half surreal black comedy, and it remembers to poke fun at itself as a leavener for its overall darkness. This it does more than a few times, especially in an inexplicable episode where everyone ends up on a quiz show, or another episode where the main characters believe they have switched bodies (and even after it's explained, it still doesn't make any sense).
The worse, however, is in how inconsistent the final product is. The show feels like four different writers and directors worked on it in shifts, with none of the teams allowed to pass notes between each other, and with the whole thing ending on an obligatory note of universal destruction. It works best when invoking an atmosphere of psychological disintegration, or when paying knowing homage to its influences—e.g., a sequence that's a nod to both The Untouchables and Battleship Potemkin (the latter having influenced the former) at the same time.
Another 300 to 400 level production for 2006, and one that sheds light on the way anime has become merely one of many formats for a given property: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The Suzumiya books were originally a successful light novel series, so their success all but guaranteed being adapted into another format. Whether anime, manga, audio drama, video game, four-panel comic, or even live-action film (which in this case hasn't happened yet, but I say give it time), it scarcely mattered, as long as each of those formats guaranteed to attract at least some measure of an audience that the others didn't.
The anime of Suzumiya has gathered more than its fair share of attention both in Japan and elsewhere, though, and for good reason: once you get past its oddball premise (a common anime stumbling block for the uninitiated), it's quite engaging. Cynical and acerbic Kyon has his high-school life upended when his restless classmate Haruhi drafts him into her club—one where she investigates "espers, aliens, and time travelers", all of which are things Kyon is, to put it mildly, dubious about. Other club members show up—the shrinking violet Mikuru; the silent Yuki, her nose always in a book; and Itsuki, the transfer student whose friendly demeanor just makes Kyon all the more suspicious of him.
That's the setup, which from the outside has been preparing us for a fairly standard-issue high school comedy. Then the show drops a bombshell of a revelation on the audience: Haruhi is actually a being of godlike power whose boredom and restlessness have brought into existence the very things she's been searching for. Worse, Kyon is now tasked with making sure her power doesnt rave completely out of control—a tough assignment given Haruhi's millisecond attention span and her knack for either attracting or creating trouble.
The original story was written as a way for author Nagaru Tanigawa to explore concepts like parallel universes, and the Suzumiya is one of the few light-novel-to-anime adaptations to have both its source material and its anime released in English. This has happened before—The Slayers, Scrapped Princess—but the books inevitably appeared in far smaller printings than the anime did, and disappeared from print for keeps after their licenses lapsed. Suzumiya, on the other hand, had its novels issued in English by a joint effort between manga publisher Yen Press and the young adult imprint of publisher Little, Brown. To broaden the prospective sales for such a project, the books were marketed less to existing anime fans (although it was impossible for them not to know) and more to a general audience of young readers. The approach seems to have worked: all eleven of the books are scheduled to be released in English as of November 2013.
Some other releases of 2006 also deserve mention. Ouran High School Host Club (200-level) brought a popular comedic shojo manga to the TV screen, but with way-above average writing and storytelling, and some grandly funny visual direction. (The first episode alone is rife with gags that deserve immortalizing.) Gin Tama, another manga adaptation, was a massive hit in Japan but garnered only a modest cult following abroad—in big part because the show both satirized and invoked the sort of stiff-upper-lip samurai spirit that's normally the stock-in-trade for live-action jidai geki.
Witchblade (100- to 200-level) was an unusual project—an anime retelling of the successful Top Cow comic with many of the same concepts but its own storyline and cast of characters. The results are better than they have any right to be, especially as the show works towards an unexpectedly touching climax. The show also was yet another example of a growing number of what could be called "mid-Pacific" productions—close collaborations between Japanese studios and Western creative houses, with each half bringing something vital to the table.
Another major release which was entirely a Japanese production, but attracted a massive outside fanbase, was Hellsing (100-level), a faithful adaptation of the ultra-violent vampires vs. Nazis manga of the same name. Unfortunately, Hellsing also ended up as a poster child for the dysfunctionality of its releasing company, Geneon, which closed its doors a year later and underwent restructuring. Hellsing was one of a number of titles that not only went out of print but was still in production at the time, although the pieces have since been picked up by FUNimation.
I wonder now if creating the course-level system was such a good idea. Anime is by definition a niche—in some cases, a niche of a niche—and anything that reinforces such niche-ness might well work against it in the long run. But then we look at shows like Haruhi Suzumiya, which work because they are so defiantly the product of a completely different cultural mainstream at work. Maybe the point of singling out such things is not to put a fence around them to keep people out, but rather to celebrate what it is about them that makes them worth the effort. And given how anime as of late has become all the more timid and confined by demographics, it helps to remember how things can be different.
Next time: 2007, the year where anime distribution and retail found itself at a crossroads.