Saturday, July 20, 2013

2004, Part 2: Respectful, Yet Rebellious

Over 130 new anime shows debuted in 2004 on Japanese television, a number in magnitude that would be the norm for the next decade. Naturally, George J. Horvath from The Land of Obscusion needed just a little more space for his coverage on what shows made 2004 what it was. If you need a refresher on the first half, click here.

It could have been easy to give a simple mention of each of these titles and get this year covered in one post, but as the essay titles indicated this year had to be covered in more detail, respecting the reader and the blog while also bucking tradition and giving more. Luckily, the latter half of 2004 felt the same way...

Being a visual medium anime has to do something to really catch viewers' interests at times and while the year had a few worthy contenders, like Windy Tales and Tweeny Witches, no anime from 2004 did that as well as Gankutsuou–The Count of Monte Cristo. Based on the legendary novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, Gonzo took the story and put it a new spin on it, while also giving the entire show a look that, to this day, is still one-of-a-kind.

Simply from a storytelling perspective Gankutsuou took the tale and put it into the far-future year of 5053, even having the titular Count live on Luna, a colony on the Moon that houses the worst criminals. After saving Viscount Albert de Morcerf from certain death at the hands of Luna's bandits he finds the opportunity to make his way to Earth, Paris in particular, so as to enact the revenge that he's wanted to do, much like the original novel. While the story stuck to the novel's original time period, specifically in terms of social classification and general attire, the show also fully embraced its futuristic shift, with the poor people living a world of dirty pipes and grunge, while the rich live in a seeming-utopia, and grand battles are dealt with by way of giant robots that are piloted by the duelists when the need arises. The idea that the rich are in fact the ones who are caged like birds was indeed brought up and it helped push the thought that these people were truly living in their own fantasies.

While it could have simply relied on its mix of sci-fi and renaissance and delivered just on that, Gankutsuou went above and beyond by also delivering a vision that at first confuses but quickly becomes the key element that makes the show visually memorable. While the characters themselves were traditionally animated, the backgrounds were rendered in 3D, but the craziest and most-memorable element came in the form of how the characters were dressed. Every major character's shirt, jacket, pants, shoes, and even hair were simply Photoshop textures that the characters animated over. In concept it's absolutely ludicrous, simple, and could have easily gone horribly wrong, but Gankutsuou managed to not only make it work but it became the aspect that easily defined the show the most. Add in a masterful soundtrack by Jean-Jacques Burnel, bassist for the UK band The Stranglers, and Kouji Kasamatsu, and this alternate telling of Dumas' literary classic would definitely stay in the minds of anime aficionados as long as they could "Bide their time, and hold out hope!" Luckily, Gankutsuou is still streaming as of this essay and can be had on DVD for cheap.

In 2004 the "old guard" of anime was back in fashion with many of the classics seeing new productions, such as New Getter Robo, Gunbuster 2, Re: Cutie Honey, Tetsujin 28 and TV versions of Area 88 and Black Jack. It was also the year some manga of the past received their first ever anime series, such as Major and Dan Doh!!, but this year in particular featured a long-overdue adaptation of a title that had set the standard for much of shonen manga during its original serialization from 1977-1981. Saint Seiya may be the man's worldwide success, but Ring ni Kakero 1 was the title that started Masami Kurumada's legacy and set into motion Shueisha's eventual dominance of the shonen manga industry from roughly 1983-1996, a.k.a. "The Golden Age of Weekly Shonen Jump".

Combining the character drama of Ashita no Joe with the fantastical and outrageous imagery of baseball manga Astro Kyudan, along with a seasoning of the "bishonen" look of The Rose of Versailles, Ring ni Kakero introduced a fast-paced, action-packed, and visually-accentuated style to shonen fighting, let alone boxing, manga that laid the groundwork that Fist of the North Star would then bring into a non-sports environment, forever changing the way shonen manga would be seen by not only Japan but the world at large.

Ring ni Kakero 1 followed Ryuji Takane, the son of a deceased boxer, and his journey of making his way up the junior boxing ladder with hopes of one day going pro, becoming world champion, and beating his ultimate rival/friend, the prodigy Jun Kenzaki. This first season (of four, most recently in 2011) focused on the Champion Carnival, where Ryuji fights his fellow regional champions to see who will make up Team Japan in the upcoming Jr. Boxing World Tournament. With the likes of Toei doing the animation, Yosuke Kuroda adapting the story, Shingo Araki and Michi Himeno doing the character designs, and Susumu Ueda making the music sound old-school but not "old", the anime maintained an excellent production quality to it, even if the animation itself went "cheap" at times; having an masterful voice cast was simply icing.

RnK1's greatest asset, though, aside from its simple but highly memorable characters, was its pacing. Whereas shonen is now infamous for its slow pace and never-ending battles, RnK1 had a great pace and the battles tended to be short; only two fights in this season go beyond one episode. Still, Ring ni Kakero 1's blueprint would completely change the world of shonen and is still followed to this day, influencing the likes of Yasuhiro Imagawa's G Gundam, Sunrise's GaoGaiGar, SNK's The King of Fighters, and many others. Unfortunately, this show has never been licensed for North American release and has no official English translation, so one has to reply on "dubious methods" to see this show at the moment.

The "otaku' has been a big part of the anime industry for a long time, and GAINAX's Otaku no Video from 1990 was essentially the best look at the otaku culture, even if it was both exaggerating and becoming outdated as time went on. Fourteen years later, though, an anime was made that took a more updated and (somewhat) realistic look at what the culture is like now. Adapting the manga of the same name by Kio Shimoku, Genshiken–The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture at first looks like an anime about otaku for otaku. Everything that one might commonly associate with the lifestyle, from figure/model collecting to video game obsession to surviving the crowds in the dealers' room of the infamous Comiket, was covered by Genshiken, and all with a sharp eye at poking fun at the very things otaku can relate to. Whereas Otaku no Video wasn't exactly the most positive expression of otaku culture, Genshiken essentially said, "It's okay if you're just like one or more of these people...but, let's be honest, we're all a silly group of wackos, aren't we?"

Like where many anime fans first meet up en masse, Genshiken took place in a university which houses both an anime and manga club, but the "Genshiken" itself was a club about more than just those two hobbies. It's essentially an "Otaku Club", where fans of all sorts can gather and relate to each other. That relation and expansiveness was what made Genshiken work, because each character had a love/fetish to him/her, whether it's gaming, cosplay, model building, or even being the "hardcore otaku" who is willing to risk living expenses and even physical health to get a precious item.

What made the show relatable to all, though, was the inclusion of Saki, a girl who only joins the club because her boyfriend Kohsaka is an otaku (well, there's also the blackmail). Saki is at first dismissive of these otaku and their lifestyles, but simply by being around them and seeing their openness in regards to others and themselves she eventually comes to accept these people as her friends and even finds minor aspects of otaku culture that she can relate to. She never becomes an all-out otaku like the others, but through Saki the show's loving nature towards the idea of the "otaku" came in full force, showing that everyone has a bit of that crazed fanatic in them.

One could argue that the show might be too forgiving and even romanticizing of the culture, but Genshiken showed why some people take pride in calling themselves "otaku". For most people, though, the truth is somewhere in the middle, between Otaku no Video's criticism and Genshiken's love, and it's up to everyone to find where they fit. The show, as well as its second season, is still in print and available for purchase as of this essay, plus there is a new show that follows the "next generation" of the Genshiken airing right now!

Shinichiro Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop may not have set Japan video sales on fire like it did around the world, but its mix of jazz, blues, and sci-fi still made it a title that was its own creation and could not be duplicated. So for Watanabe's second course he went with a different-yet-similar direction. Combining the swordplay of chambara with the beats of hip-hop, plus other anachronistic fun, Samurai Champloo was able to stand beside its jazzy older brother in terms of execution yet still be recognized as its own amazing creation.

The story of a young girl, Fuu, who inadvertently travels with two ronin, Mugen and Jin, during her search for a mysterious "Man Who Smells of Sunflowers" was simply a framework that Watanabe used to explain why these three kept getting into all sorts of trouble. While there is an overarching story to Champloo, the show followed Bebop's lead by making it all about the journey itself and what it entailed rather than what the end result of it all was. Truly, some of the best episodes were one-offs that relied more on the anachronistic environment than anything else; watch the series' baseball episode for an excellent example of what made the show work.

The mix of "traditional" chambara elements like the time period and swordplay with more modern elements like clothing styles and even graffiti resulted in a Japan that was unlike most other adaptations of the country out there at the time, and the use of both hard-hitting hip-hop beats, featuring Fat Jon and the late Nujabes, as well as slower R&B tunes resulted in possibly the most "rebellious" anime series of the year. Its 2005 airing on [adult swim] took the hip-hop style even further, replacing traditional censor "beeps" with DJ-style “scratches”. Unfortunately, like its older brother, that rebellious nature did hurt the series slightly, as low ratings resulted in the show getting canceled on its original Fuji TV time slot in September after 17 episodes; after a four month hiatus the last nine episodes started airing the following January on the same channel. While it may not have become the "scion" that Cowboy Bebop is considered now, Samurai Champloo still blazed its own path by having its elements compose a magnum opus and can still easily be scored to this day, no rap battles needed.

An Exuberance of Anime

Even with so much covered, there were still lots of anime from 2004 that's worth at least a mention. Bleach ran for slightly over seven years filled with supernatural action, and Sgt. Frog did similarly with referential humor. Elfen Lied shocked viewers by mixing innocent-looking character designs with bloodshed that had not been seen on TV since Berserk and Hellsing, while Gantz went even further with the violence without shame. Madlax marked the return of Koichi Mashimo's "Girls with Guns", whereas Ghost in the Shell had a "2nd Gig" on TV, as well as a movie sequel to the original classic. Samurai 7 gave an Akira Kurosawa standard a new look, while Fafner mixed giant robots with elements of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. Finally, highly loved franchises such as Maria Watches Over Us, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, and Rozen Maiden also saw their debuts in this year. As one can see the popular titles of the 2004 were definitely varied both in concept as well as execution; there was literally something for everyone.

Not to be outdone by the myriad of popular titles, though, were the rarely-seen ideas, like Zipang's tale of time-traveling navy men, Monkey Turn's look at the world of kyotei racing, or BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad's journey of rock n' roll. There was even Agatha Christie no Meitantei Poirot to Marple, based on the works of the famous mystery novelist! On the flip side, 2004 also marked the end of Kochikame's 8.5 years on television, ending at 373 episodes and 2 movies; the manga is still running to this day ever since its debut in 1976. Of course, there were also the noteworthy duds, like Gundam SEED Destiny, Cosprayers, and Girls Bravo.

2004 brought about some of anime's most well-regarded modern-day classics, celebrated the innovators and originators of its past, and even had some gems hidden inside if one was willing to look deep enough, all while going against the trends of the industry and adjusting to a changing landscape. Part of the fun of being an anime fan is the fact that there's so much to look for and watch, and 2004 was a great year that went anywhere and everywhere it could. Unfortunately, it is impossible to cover the entire year, which is where it's up to the anime fan to start discovering. It's never good to forget the past; looking back while moving forward can never hurt, it can only remind.

Next Time: Having unearthed undiscovered roots and laying out new ones, anime enters a new phase in 2005.


  1. For anyone who's curious why I chose this year specifically, here's the explanation in detail:

  2. I disagree a bit with the essay's author's comparison between Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop. I would argue that Samurai Champloo had a better story than its older brother because it had a better constructed story and the journey reached a conclusion with more than enough closure.

    I love both shows, but when I think about Cowboy Bebop, the cool style and great music come to mind. But it does not have that well of a story and plot. If Cowboy Bebop did not have the coolness, music and amazing animation, I would consider Samurai Champloo the better work of the two.

    1. Personally, I think Cowboy Bebop is a lot more of an ode to the likes of Lupin the Third and Golgo 13, where the episodic narration is what pilots the show. Cowboy Bebop seems to have a little more of a Trigun approach, where the underlying ultimate objective is clearer and slowly worked towards.

      Did Cowboy bebop have a better overall story? Hard to say, but I enjoyed it more than Samurai Champloo, even if the overall climax came in just the last few episodes.