Monday, June 3, 2013

1997: Take My Evolution

Eric McLeod (@SweetDurga) didn't really know what anime was until high school. His only anime before that point were Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, but after discovering shows like Trigun and Cowboy Bebop, he decided to give this thing called anime a try. He is currently the editor of anime content at TheBrokenInfinite, where he blogs about the current anime season, and is working to become a history teacher when he's not bemoaning the anime fandom on Twitter.

1997 is a prime example of the adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

Many franchises would be born, die, or take a break in 1997. Magical-girl shows were still selling like hot cakes, super robot shows still had a footing in the market, and a little series about taming magical monsters would become one of the biggest things in the world. However, there was a noticeable shift in the content of TV anime this year, and that shift owes Neon Genesis Evangelion a favor.

Hold your horses. I know we already have an article on Evangelion, and you should go and read it now if you haven't already, but I need to set the tone for this year and the anime I'm about to talk about. Were it not for Evangelion smashing all conceptions of what televised anime was capable of, the anime I am talking about might not have found an audience. This was the year that Evangelion was supposed to end, but its legacy would live on, not only through its massive merchandise franchise, but through the anime trying to recapture its magic.

Ikuhara's Revolution

With that said, let's talk about Revolutionary Girl Utena, which has often been called "the shojo version of Evangelion". I'd say that's an unfair comparison for Utena, which while definitely a prime example of the post-EVA era, it takes things a step further and coats it in classic shojo and Takarazuka theatre influences.

Kunihiko Ikuhara's directorial work on Sailor Moon S in 1994 was well-acclaimed, but he didn't have the creative control he wanted, so after Sailor Moon SuperS, the fourth season of Sailor Moon, he and other artists who had worked on Sailor Moon left to form the creative institution "Be-Papas". Their goal? Create a revolutionary new shojo anime that no one had seen before. Be-Papas consisted of Ikuhara, animator Shinya Hasegawa, screenwriter Yoji Enokido, and mangaka Chiho Saito, though Saito had little to do with the anime and was instead tasked with writing the manga. The former three members have proven themselves to be some of the most talented men in the anime business; Ikuhara recently directed and wrote Mawaru Penguindrum, Enokido wrote for the acclaimed FLCL and Ouran High School Host Club anime, and Hasegawa's been a key animator and character designer on several anime, including the aforementioned Evangelion. Talented as they all are, it's Ikuhara's direction, influences, and attention to imagery that truly make Utena special.

Ikuhara has stated that "(he had to) make this a show with a special type of visual expression (and) that's the only way people will want it." It did build upon previous anime influences, the most heavy and most-talked-about being Ryoko Ikeda's The Rose of Versailles. From the obvious mention of the revolution (though the revolution in Utena is more on a personal level than the political level Rose of Versailles' revolution would lead to) to the beautiful female protagonist who took on the image of a male role to defend a princess and the imagery that looks like it was taken straight from a fairy tale castle, Utena owes a lot of its visual cues to this show. There's also Ikuhara's well-known proclivity for female relationships, theatricality, and the occasional UFO in the background. Every image is important and serves some multilayered purpose; the floating castle in the sky, the phallic-shaped towers of the school, the constant usage of roses to frame the scenery, and the roar of a car engine all reflect the many themes of the show. That's not to say the show is all "ZOMG deep". The show is certainly aware of how downright silly some of this imagery is, and actively makes fun of itself without being hypocritical or too self-indulgent. As artsy as the show gets, it always remembers who its audience is.

So what's Revolutionary Girl Utena about? Boy, isn't that the million dollar question? The most obvious answers to that question are "adolescence", "revolution", and "apocalypse", themes that are repeatedly stated throughout the series, but those are such broad concepts, and in its 39-episode run the series takes the time to explore every facet of those concepts and more. There have many different interpretations of what exactly every image in Utena means; the easiest answer would be "It's about sex!" It's certainly a valid interpretation; the motivation of many characters in the series is intrinsically sexual. The main antagonist of the series is a man obsessed with domination, cars, and sleeping with his sister, a textbook example of someone who has given into his desires and places them on others. Actually, stripping Utena of all its imagery and panache and focusing on the characters shows just how human they are. They're all broken and confused in some fashion that we can all relate to despite the magical nature of the series, and much like how Evangelion explored depression, Utena explored just how painful and weird growing up is. It is the most beautiful allegory for adolescence that I've ever seen.

One could go on for days about Utena. There have been numerous essays devoted to entire episodes (even the extremely silly "Nanami's Egg" episode!), people are still debating whether or not Anthy is a good or evil character, and even its own director would come up with a new interpretation later down the road. Its importance and artistic achievements cannot be understated, but 1997 had other interesting developments as well. Utena wasn't the only show to give a makeover to the shojo genre.

CLAMPing Down on Remakes

Briefly returning to Evangelion, it seems that after the show had shattered the anime scene, everyone was thinking of ways to remake old stories and make them deeper, darker, and more complex than they were before. Revolutionary Girl Utena could be seen as a reinterpretation of the shojo genre as a whole, Evangelion would reinvent its own ending with the film End of Evangelion, but there was an OVA that attempted to retell a story that had been released only three years prior. That OVA is Rayearth, a dark retelling of the Magic Knight Rayearth TV series.

I liken the original Magic Knight Rayearth as a shojo story with shonen tropes. The original was an early work for the popular manga artist group known as CLAMP, telling the simple story of three girls thrust into a fantasy world who must become knights and save the princess. Oh, and they pilot mechs at the end of the first season. The Rayearth OVA drops the "stuck in a fantasy world" plot altogether, instead having the evil forces of Cephiro invade Tokyo. There's a larger focus on mecha battles and personal relationships; early on the OVA establishes that the girls are moving away from each other and are upset about the separation.

Sadly, Rayearth wasn't as successful as one would hope. The animation is good for an OVA of its time, and CLAMP's art looks great, but the story fails to measure up to its most obvious influence. However, it is important to recognize it as one of the earliest anime to try and recapture the magic of Evangelion.

For as powerful as the Evangelion influence was becoming, 1997 was also the year of the Sailor Moon legacy, as the animated show finally came to an end this year. One can draw obvious comparisons between Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena due to crossover of staffs, but there would be another revival in 1997 that would take cues from the popular magical girl franchise.

Cutey Honey Flash is a remake that goes in a completely different direction from the Rayearth OVA. The original 70's Cutey Honey TV series was geared towards boys, but Go Nagai had originally conceived the series as a shojo title to sell dolls. The plan was scrapped and the show was retooled to appeal to boys, adding fan service and more violence. Cutey Honey Flash shares many of the staff members from Sailor Moon, at least the ones who didn't leave to make Utena; Noriyo Sasaki and Ryoto Yamaguchi had worked on Sailor Moon as an episode director and script writer, respectively, and they were put in charge of the latest version of Go Nagai's transforming vixen. It's not a one-for-one copy of Sailor Moon; the monsters of the week are definitely Go Nagai creations, but the rest of the cast wouldn't look out of place amongst the Sailor Scouts. Honey even has her own Tuxedo Mask in the form of "Twilight Prince". Compared to every other incarnation in the franchise, Flash is an odd duck for toning down the more adult content in favor of young girl appeal , but definitely enjoyable if you can't get enough of magical-girl warriors like the kids in the 90's.

Gotta Catch All That Money

The shojo anime front was well-covered, but what were the boys watching? The "Brave" series would put out its final and most popular mecha series, King of Braves GaoGaiGar. I personally blame the catchy opening song for why this show caught on, but it was also a fairly solid super robot show to boot. Slayers Try, the third season of the Slayers franchise and the last we would have for a long time, also debuted this year. Slayers Try was basically more of the same Slayers that people know and love, but the franchise was starting run out of steam at this point. Studio Pierrot would try to recapture the magic of Yu Yu Hakusho with Flame of Recca to limited success. While both Slayers and the "Brave" series were popular boy franchises, they were on their last legs at this point, leaving room for a new kids' franchise to emerge and take the anime scene by the balls.

Pokeballs, to be exact. (Sing along, everyone!)

If you've never heard of Pokémon...first of all, welcome to anime, and second, how long were you under that rock? Many Americans know Pokémon as the biggest fad of the late 90's, but the Pokémon games still sell millions of units, and the anime, while never truly progressing in story by keeping Ash Ketchum as the same dumb ten-year-old we all know, is the most successful anime adaptation of a video game franchise, nearing 800 episodes as of the time of this article. Every 90's kid wanted to be a Pokémon trainer, bought every game that came out, and spent our free time crushing on Misty.

It's interesting to note that the anime, including the movies that still premiere in Japanese theaters, is still under the direction of Kunihiko Yuyama. The guy was involved in some great anime in the 80's and 90's, including two cult-favorite films, GoShogun: The Time Étranger and Windaria. (Think about that next time you see Ash forget for the billionth time that electric attacks don't work on ground-types.)

(It would be remiss to neglect to mention the infamous seizure episode of Pokémon known as "Electric Soldier Porygon", as it aired in December of this year. Many people know of it, but that's what makes it fascinating: that everyone in the world heard about a cartoon in Japan giving kids seizures. For a brief time, the whole world cared about anime, albeit because it was hospitalizing young kids.)

Going Berserk

We're blessed to live in a world where Game of Thrones and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings exist. There's no shortage of "mature" fantasy shows now, but for anime in the 90's, the most popular swords and sorcery anime was arguably Slayers, which was a gag comedy with some fantasy action on the side. A fantasy epic with deep characters, complex mythology, and some good ol' gore and sex? Only one such anime comes to mind, and it debuted in 1997 as Berserk.

Now the Berserk manga had already been around awhile by the time this adaptation of the "Golden Age" arc was animated, having debuted in 1989. The anime doesn't do the visuals of the manga justice; character designs are good, but the limited animation is noticeably poor even among its contemporaries. It almost doesn't matter when the story is this good; everyone loves seeing a dude with a big sword chop up demons, but what people love more is a tragic hero face insurmountable odds.

Underneath the grisly gore and ghouls, the heart of Berserk is its humanity; the main heroes Guts, Casca, and Griffith all feel like people and not anime stereotypes. In fact, one might say Berserk could have been made almost anywhere; it's a story steeped in European visuals but Greek tragedy. Perhaps this is why Berserk continues to resonate with people to this day; like Utena, we can point to its influences easily, but it's all in the writing for why this series is special. The anime is hurt by shoddy animation and an infamous "read the manga" ending, but it's almost a masterpiece in spite of that. Now, if only we could know for sure the manga will end before the author dies.

That's A Wrap

While this blog is devoted to TV anime, I feel it's necessary to briefly mention what anime films debuted this year. I already mentioned End of Evangelion, but Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue and Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke also came out. Perfect Blue would be the film that put Kon on the map, while Princess Mononoke is perhaps the pinnacle of Miyazaki's career. All three films are spectacular, making 1997 one of the best years in anime film.

Cliched as it sounds, the word "revolution" defines this year in anime. It was a year of brand new franchises, attempts to change what anime could be, and proving that there was an audience for shows that took its audience more seriously. It wouldn't even stop with this year; the post-EVA age was just beginning, and there are even more hits to come.

Next time: 1998, the year Japan began to export "cool".

1 comment:

  1. 1997 was also the beginning of a giant change in the way anime would be produced, because this was the first year that modern-day "late-night" anime was being produced, i.e. those post-midnight time slots anime nowadays generally gets made for. Those Who Hunt Elves was the first "modern-day" late-night anime in late-96, but in 1997 the movement came into full storm with the likes of Eat-Man (Koichi Mashimo's esoteric adaptation in name only), Next Senki Ehrgeiz (the first late-night mech anime), Hareluya II BØY (the first late-night Jump anime), Maze (the TV expansion of a 1996 OVA short), & Berserk. These titles were the initial experiments that resulted in the absolute end of the OVA boom & a shift into how anime was watched in Japan.