I’m a nerd, and I’m proud to be a nerd. Part of what goes hand-in-hand with that is being a fanboy to at least one degree. Me? At some point in my life, and some to this day, I’ve been a Trekker (“Q’plah!”), a Star Wars nut (That is…before George Lucas decided to call his own version of “Order 66” on us…), a Mistie (Mike was funnier and I liked Bill’s Crow [holds up a shield]), a Potthead (…I made that up…don’t know why it never caught on…), and a Brony (“yay”). About the only fandom I missed out on was becoming a Whovian. Not that I have anything against “Doctor Who”, although my lack of BBC in my area may have had something to do with it. Just that I don’t have time to get into it now. But heck…I’m still a big enough nerd to know to keep a Sonic Screwdriver in full working order, live in a house with stairs where the Daleks are concerned, and not to blink around a weeping angel statue.
In addition to all this, I am an otaku. Not a big one, mind you. I don’t keep a wide assortment of figurines that I can’t play with but are really just there to put on a shelf to look at. (Silly otaku…you only do that with Lego sets.) I don’t have wall scrolls draped all over my room either or subscribe to Shonen Jump. And, frankly, people who buy “body pillows” frighten me. But I do watch anime and read manga often, and the highlight of my year is often my trip to Anime Central in Rosemont, IL.
As a nerd and a member of so many fandoms, I know what annoys a fanboy like myself more than anything. And that’s people who obviously know nothing about the fandom saying something that makes you want to tear your hair out.
If you’re a Trekker, nothing brings out a “Picard Double Facepalm” faster than someone watching “The Next Generation” and saying: “So how come I haven’t seen Spock anywhere yet?”
If you’re a Potthead, nothing makes you wish you knew “Avada Kedavra” more than: “How come Harry didn’t ask Hermione on that date?”
And if you’re an otaku…it’s one of these.
Some family member, friend, whatever notices you like anime. You may be enjoying a classic piece…perhaps something from Miyazaki or Kon or Amano. You may go on briefly about the mind-bending concept or the metaphors of female empowerment or just simply the attention to detail and artwork, and ask if they wish to join you to check it out. And if they’re older, they always decline…and they always say something like the following:
“I can’t get into anime. I watched ‘Speed Racer’ back in the day, and that show was so goofy and silly and awful… I can’t stand it.”
…In short, they’re comparing “Speed Racer” to all Anime, as if by watching it, they automatically know how all other Anime on Earth is and was and will be throughout the whole of human history.
That’s about as silly as being asked to watch “The Dark Knight” and saying: “Oh, I saw that old Adam West series and it was too goofy. I don’t want to see any more superhero films.” That’s about as silly as being asked to watch a horror film and saying: “Nah, Bela Lugosi’s version of ‘Dracula’ was just boring. Horrors are dull.” That’s about as silly as being asked to play “Bioshock” and saying: “No thanks. I played the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man. Video games stink.”
Times change…and change a lot.
One thing that doesn’t seem to change, sadly, is the reprehension that so many people have for anime (and manga). Now, I understand that it’s just “not some people’s thing”. That’s the same situation with a lot of things. However, the stupid “Speed Racer Mindset” seems to be permanently etched on the brains of whoever lived through the ’60s and ’70s. You mention Japanese animation to anyone anywhere or try to feature an anime parody on any contemporary show (and, in all fairness, anime does generally have as much to make fun of as anything else), and always the result is the same…comparisons to “Speed Racer”, as if no anime other than “Speed Racer” ever came out or all other animes were identical to it.
It’s pretty much what makes an American otaku feel so misunderstood. It doesn’t help that when it comes to world-wide releases of anime or manga, the USA is pretty much the bottom of the barrel. Very few genres or series are widespread enough for any major releases or fandoms. You usually only find them among select groups of nerds, like myself. As a result, Japan constantly withholds stuff from us…and, being a minor otaku, I’m pretty sick of it.
To me, it seems like the sole reason Japan exists is to come out with stuff I find awesome and then wave it in front of videos on Youtube or magazines as they laugh their butt off at me, taunting me with things that I can only get in the country of Japan and will never see the light of day over here. Heck, they’ve been doing that to me ever since the 1980s when they teased “Final Fantasy II”‘s release. And I don’t even want to get into how when they DO release things in this country, they edit them to the point where a four year old would be safe with the content, or just plain don’t release features in the USA as if to flip us off.
So, now that my “lament” is over with, if you happen to be one of those folks who can’t hear the world “anime” without seeing Speed with this girlie eyelashes and ascot running around in his suped car on a stationary background, I’d like to present a few “highlights” of what the animation world of Japan has given us over the years. This is by no means an inclusive list or a “timeline”…just moments that stood out to me over the span of my own life.
What better place to start than what most people say is the beginning…
Astro Boy/Mighty Atom (1963)
(Now before the purists go off on me, I can Wiki just the same as the rest of you and know Astro Boy was created in 1952. I’m referring to when the TV series came out.)
In 1952, Osamu Tezuka created an iconic legend. He wrote a manga called “Mighty Atom” or “Iron Arm Atom” about a robot youngster who protected the future from all sorts of evil threats. The back story is surprisingly deep for such a simple premise, namely how he was built to be a robotic replica of a scientist’s son but, in a “Frankenstein”-esque fashion, his creator grows to realize how he’s only an artificial copy and abandons him, leaving him to work in a circus run by a cruel master until another scientist finds him and “adopts” him, more or less, eventually leading to his life of superheroism.
Although it wasn’t the first TV incarnation of the manga, in 1963 the iconic series came out that was known and loved. The animation wasn’t the best in the world, especially by its contemporary American standards and especially by modern Japanese standards. It highly resembled watching a series of still frames with barely any change between animation cels. However, the style was iconic, became popular, and was soon copied by nearly everyone who did both animation as well as manga in Japan. The style ended up becoming a “standard” for Japanese animation, and the art of “anime” was born.
In terms of the original series, it makes sense why it didn’t do so well over here. Being choppy compared to smoother American animation is a change anyone would have trouble getting used to who didn’t grow up with it. The most notable thing, and what still irritates many people to this day, is the “puppet mouths” that the characters have. Me? I’ve watched anime long enough to get used to it to the point where I hardly even notice. (And it’s far easier if you watch subs instead of dubs as you never even look at the mouth.) But this, unfortunately, is a trademark of Japanese animation styles. Shows are frequently filmed first and given dialogue later. The result is the voice actors have to conform to the animation already in place, so you need to make the mouth movements as generic as possible. It was often the opposite case in the USA, at least in the major productions, throughout history. Disney, for example, is noted for having animators painstakingly watch voice actors as they deliver the lines to make sure they match facial expressions. Nowadays, companies like Pixar can go ahead and film everything on the characters except the mouths and add those later for even more versatility. But this is the days of cel animation, and it’s unavoidable simply due to Japanese custom. It proceeds to this day. Only the big productions from guys like Miyazaki and Otomo worry about mouth movements matching the dialogue.
However, the second complaint, which is almost as ridiculous as “Speed Racer” jibes, makes no sense whatsoever.
“The characters eyes are too big! Look at how weird they are!”
People who say this are just plain hypocrites most of the time. If you think Japanese animated characters have eyes that are too big, right now, stop reading this blog and google a picture of Mickey Mouse. Pick any era you want, I don’t care. Now google a picture of Bugs Bunny. Take a good look at their eyes and body shapes. It’s even worse than in most anime! Mickey and Bugs’ eyes take up over half of their heads! Mickey’s head is practically the size of his torso! Do you want to know the “dirty little secret” of eyes in anime? The early artists were trying to imitate American animation! They saw all these big eyes and odd bodies on the characters we made and they tried to imitate that! They figured that’s what everyone liked!
So, really, anyone who says that needs to look no further than to insult Warner Bros., Walt Disney, and every other American animation company that I bet they know and love and never complained about.
Anyway, needless to say, that was just the beginning and there were many more mangas and animes that came out over the years. Most of the early artists refined Tezuka’s original idea for Iron Arm Atom until the character became more of the “gold standard” that we see almost everywhere today. During this time, there were occasional attempts to move things overseas to the USA, but not many of them got very far. Still, back in the day, at any rate, Japan was so keen on getting an American audience that there wasn’t much “lag time” between their attempts. When “Speed Racer” or “Mach Go Go Go” (Yeah…get used to the fact that almost NOTHING that comes out in English matches the Japanese name if you get into anime…) came out as a series in 1967, an English version was only a scant three months behind. Heck, the series was still coming out in Japan when it got to the USA! That sort of thing wouldn’t happen again at all in the future…
However, it didn’t catch on. Part of the reason that I blame to this day is that Americans had an unshakeable mindset that to this day has barely begun to change and might even be regressing, and that is the central idea to the USA that is poison for an otaku to hear:
“Cartoons are for children.”
It’s not just a philosophy; it’s a mindset. And it was poison to the industry that tried to come over. In Japan, it was accepted fairly early on that an anime could be family orientated or even meant only for adults. But in the USA, to this day, most of the population believes, and will always believe, that animation should only be for little kids and no one else. Because of that, I don’t think anyone ever took attempts to bring an anime over into the USA seriously for decades. That’s fairly obvious in pretty much every single dub up until the ’90s in one way or another. You can tell that the voice actors were hired off of a children’s cartoon and treated the film the same way.
For years, there’s nothing that particular stands out to me…at least until around 1980.
The Castle of Cagliostro/Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
“Lupin the Third” was a more “adult” anime series that came out in Japan, originally as a limited set in 1971 of 23 episodes that covered a manga series that was from even earlier, 1969. A much longer series came out in 1977, and this movie was part of that franchise. It basically followed the adventures of Arsene Lupin the Third, a descendent of Arsene Lupin, the French “gentleman thief”. Following in his ancestor’s footsteps, he’s one of the world’s greatest thieves, notoriously hard to capture, and, most of all, is one of the world’s biggest hormone-driven lechs, with his love of nabbing hard-to-steal items matched only by his perpetual lust for every attractive woman he meets. His cohorts include the stoic Goemon (I’m guessing he’s supposed to be some sort of ronin although I’m not sure a samurai would be a career thief…) and the scruffy, gruffy, er, gruff sharpshooter Jigen. Also occasionally along for the ride (and usually trying to rip Lupin off, which is easy because an attractive woman is his kryptonite) is a woman named Fujiko, a basic “femme fatale”. The series is very long running, having just finished yet another installment in the TV series in 2012. (Although, naturally, it hasn’t been running all that time.)
Anyway…in late 1979, one of the directors from the first and second series was given command to fully direct one of the movie spinoffs for the series. What he came up with was “The Castle of Cagliostro”, something that was both artistic and entertaining. Compared to the more harsh contrasts and crudeness of the show’s art, this was more fluid, detailed, and beautiful. It still had all of the good action sequences of the original series with much more fluid and lovely animation, but brought to life so much more vividly. Most of all, this director just tried to make the characters more dynamic and “likeable”. Most of Lupin’s lecherousness has vanished in favor of him being an altruistic rogue with a heart of gold. Jigen is friendlier, Goemon cracks a joke once in a while, and even Fujiko is not only friendly but even occasionally altruistic herself. (Seriously, if you know what I’m talking about, she didn’t actually have to help Clarice escape that room.)
Well…the fans didn’t like that one bit. They wanted a juvenile pervert for a hero chasing a self-interested backstabber with his cohorts Grumpy and Grouchy…because, after all, that’s what people fell in love with. Apparently, not only Americans can go crazy over people deviating from source material. The film, however, went down as a legend. It was never as popular as people imagined. (No, the movie didn’t come out until 1991 in the USA and Spielberg likely hasn’t even seen it, let alone called it the greatest adventure movie of all time…) But it did still have one impact that would change the world.
For this director, dissatisfied with his work on “Lupin the Third” after this film, and already working on other projects of his own design, would soon shake the dust off of his feet of “Lupin the Third” and strike out to make his own material come to life.
What was this director’s name?
Oh, nothing special…Hayao Miyazaki.
But before we see how that played out, let’s look at another anime epoch…
Mobile Suit Gundam (1979)
Like so many “late greats”, “Mobile Suit Gundam” was not the overnight success that we all think of it being nowadays. In fact, it nearly got the axe a couple times. However, there is one thing about it that characteristically stood out. The creator of the show was reading a copy of “Starship Troopers” (the 1959 novel, of course, not that pitstain of a film from the 1990s…) and was intrigued by the idea of “power armors” featured in that story. However, he seemed to think they were a bit on the “small side” and tried making them far bigger, capable of being warship sized in their own right. Rather than an exoskeleton, the driver would be in a cab or cockpit and pilot the entire structure in that way. This was no longer a power armor but what we all now know and love as a “mech”. And “Mobile Suit Gundam” was no longer a generic “war” anime…but the first Real Robot genre.
…Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the “Real Robot” genre. How about just calling it the “Big F***ing Mech” genre?
Now, as we all know, mechs are completely impractical in real life. They’re nice for TV and movies, but a warship or plane would be faster and better capable of dealing out damage…at least in real life. In anime and manga, mechs pretty much move as fast as anyone of proportional size would move. If that was even possible without breaking the thing apart, then mechs would be worthwhile. Yet they were embraced wholeheartedly both by the Japanese and eventually Americans. After all, even if it’s impractical, it’s cool, right? But why?
My guess, if I had to make one, is that the Japanese (and Americans, to a great degree) still long for the days in which an individual seemed to have no power or skill but their own. Before guns and cannons…when all you had were tools like swords. What you did with them was up to you. How effective was still “you”. Following the post-WWII world, war seemed to be growing more and more “distant” and “impersonal”. Everyone had guns and you just fired at each other from any crevasse or sniper location you could find. Long range bombs and missiles oblierated the enemy before you could even see them. Soldiers became nothing more than numbers, a factor in how many people were carrying guns. My guess is the “mech” evolved from the mindset of longing for the days in which people could make a difference by themselves, when a warrior felt they still had control over the course of a battle and could make it through on their raw skill rather than luck keeping them safe from a stray bullet. As for the American side, we all love a story where one guy can pretty much “save the day” all by himself. He could do it with any weapon, really…but the mech provides the added feel of being “hands on”.
Hence, mechs have exploded to where we see them today, and Gundam is synonymous with giant mechs tearing each other up. It may not be the best mech series out there, (That honor debatably goes to the immortal [if not weird as sh’t] series “Neon Genesis Evangelion”.) but it gets the honor of making us all wish that future militaries will fight with oversized death robots.
Well, let’s check back in on Mr. Miyazaki…
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
In a nutshell, the plotline of the movie is centered in a post-apocalyptic world that has been rendered uninhabitable by human pollution and waste (possibly nuclear war as well). In the distant future, Earth’s ecosystem has altered to be dominated by giant insect ecosystems and “forests” of fungus living off of the waste and slowly breaking it down, creating a beautiful yet bizarre and deadly world. The few surviving descendents of humans can’t even breathe normal air due to being riddled with fungus spores that immediately take root in the lungs, and live in a select few places in the world still free of the fungus to eek out a meager existence.
The plot is pretty involved and existential after that point, but, as one may guess from the title, it centers around a young woman named Nausicaa who lives in a valley region where sea breezes keep spores out from contaminating anyone and allowing a small community, hence the “valley of the wind”. If I wanted to get into the full plot, I’d be here all day…especially if I told you about the manga’s plot.
In terms of the film itself…it was decent. Basically it was a different company realizing Miyazaki’s genius when he wasn’t constrained by an employer, although they didn’t seem to really care to “cut him loose” yet. It wasn’t until he started writing and releasing the manga of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” and it became a success that, while the manga was still going (and it was meant to be a limited series), they wanted a movie, and this was made. However, to anyone who has seen the movie, apparently the adege that “the book is better” holds true in Japan just as much as the USA. Read the manga instead. The movie only pretty much covers events of the first manga and half of the second. Things get much worse after that. The whole idea the movie tries to push is that Nausicaa is some sort of futuristic messiah…and she is, but it’s not clear from the movie. All she really does in the movie is walk on a bunch of insect tendrils. It’s the manga that makes it clear she is an individual who seems to be both “one of us” as well as something far more divine who inspires things in people they didn’t know they were capable of. That’s why she deserves the title of one of the greatest manga heroes of all time. The anime kind of never got into that.
The manga was also better in that it does something that Miyazaki is infamous for…creating a situation where there are no “villains”. Even the most evil bastard in the manga has goodness and innocence in them. The thing I couldn’t stand about Kushana in the film is she’s still very much an antagonist. In the manga, she gradually goes from being just some cold, militaristic bitch to a genuinely great and compassionate leader. Her “evolution” was one of my favorite parts of the manga.
Nevertheless, the film is great. Beautifully done (like all Miyazaki works), and definitely getting into some of his favorite themes, such as feminism and enviromentalism. And just like any good storyteller, Miyazaki is able to get you to think about such things without “beating you over the head” with them like USA animation does.
In a way, I’m grateful to the company behind this giving Miyazaki such a hard time, because after this was released, he would go on to found Studio Ghibli, and then the magic would really begin. I can’t begin to go through all of the masterpieces that studio has put out over the years, but I’ll touch on a few later. The quality, metaphor, and storytelling by Miyazaki was rarely matched…with few exceptions.
So while Miyazaki is making masterpieces, what is TV doing?
Well, this is the part of the timeline where I can actually remember seeing some things, like this one…
Ah, Voltron. Pathetic by today’s standards. Not even terribly original, actually. When I was a kid and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” came out, I tended to think they had ripped from Voltron. Of course, just the opposite was true. That series was the 16th version of the “Super Sentai” series that had been running in Japan ever since the 1970s. Nevertheless, this was the first American exposure to the idea. And to my little kid heart, it was god-like. What could be more awesome than five big robotic cats that can combine to form an even bigger robot with a big-ass sword that slices through kaiju? It also was my first exposure to the traditional five-member anime team:
The bold, athletic, determine protagonist.
The silent, cool second who never shares the limelight of the protagonist but everyone loves as much as people loved Spock over Kirk.
The loud, overexuberant one.
The wormy nerd one.
And…the girl…who usually needs to get bailed out by the other four. Sexist, but true.
Before I wanted to be a Ghostbuster, I wanted to be some color-coded pilot driving around a big metal cat to tear up oversized monsters.
Of course, a series like this reveals a problem. Unlike most anime/manga, which has an “ending” in mind, this series is more like American series/comics…go on until it stops making money. Sure, you can have your characters evolve a little, but basically they operate according to the “elastic principle”…in which no matter how out of whack things get, everything has to be “the way it was before” at the end. So how can you do that? After all, if the main bad guys get whacked, the series has to either end or you have to continuously “one up” the old bad guys (which gets old after a while…see Marvel and DC comics).
There’s really only two options. You can do what “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” did and have the bad guys continuously lose but always “live to fight another day”, making them Houdinis when it comes to escaping the heroes. Easy…but also gets old after a while. Rocksteady and Bebop may have been brain-dead minions, but you have to credit them for the fact that they always escape from the turtles, which means that the turtles must be dumber and more inept than them in at least some ways.
The other option is “villain of the week”, which is essentially what Marvel and DC did back in the early days…by which I mean the Golden Age (although…Marvel wasn’t around in that, though…). A villain pops in, gets whacked, and that’s it. Of course, in the case of anime, it means the real villain doesn’t ever actually do any fighting. They just have monsters made, sent in, and then get summarily killed. This too can be bad after a while. (Seriously, Rita Repulsa/Bandora/whatever needs to fire her little goat-dude-baker minion considering all the times his creations have ended in utter failure, but then that would mean she might one day actually have to fight the rangers herself.) But it has the advantage of making the heroes look like they’re at least making progress. (The goat-dude-baker could run out of clay one day, right?)
Anyway, Voltron did the “Villain of the Week” deal. Pretty good choice. Both choices will result in Villain Decay eventually, in my opinion, but at least the villain of the week method establishes an idea that the villain might be incredibly hard. If the villain routinely loses, you eventually wonder why the villain keeps trying…
Remember how I mentioned “Exceptions” to Miyazaki? Here’s one that you all should know…
Back in the ’90s, at least as far as I can remember, you couldn’t call yourself a real otaku unless you saw this movie.
Otomo’s big screen masterpiece again suffers from a “book to film” effect. If you have about $300 lying around, I suggest buying the manga. Not only is it a bigger, better story, but it also omits a lot of the weird sh’t from the film or at least helps explain it better. The movie itself is more of a condensed version. It more or less covers the events of the first three mangas with a smattering of material from the fifth and sixth one. The events of the fourth manga are pretty much left out, which is a pity because it was a great story.
To sum up, “Akira” is a story of a cyberpunk future following an event where Tokyo was destroyed by what was presumably a mysterious new atomic weapon. It has relocated to Neo Tokyo now, a dystopian look at the future where crime, gangs, and unrest run rampant while the USA and the USSR continue to stare each other down (yeah, at that point, the world still assumed the Cold War would last forever…and rightly so). Through the course of the story, it is revealed the Japanese government was researching psychic powers, which turns out to originate from an unknown physical quality that exists outside of the space-time continuum. The ultimate byproduct of the research, Akira, essentially merged with the power, which ended up destroying the original Tokyo. Years later, the research is ongoing in an attempt to harness the power, and as a result a young gang member named Tetsuo Shima is made the latest test subject. However, things go wrong quickly as the combination of the new power to a critical point in his life when he is trying to assert his independence and own power causes Tetsuo to become a deranged psychopath, which is made worse by the fact that he now has god-like psychic powers. The story pretty much unfolds from there.
I cannot believe the level of patience and care done by the author, Katsuhiro Otomo, in creating both the manga and the movie. Just flip through a few pages of the manga and your jaw will drop at the level of detail in each panel. And I do mean each panel. The movie is so overwhelmingly detailed that it holds up well against modern animation, which is amazing for an anime from the 1980s. Otomo made sure to not only match lip movements to dialogue, but actually got real children to voice the child characters as opposed to older women, and even was one of the first animators to include a touch of computer animation in the film (namely in the equipment used to measure Tetsuo’s power).
Is the film hard to wrap your head around? Hell yes. I watched it about three times before I knew all of what was going on. So yes, it’s got a lot of metaphor in it that crosses into the bizarre more than once. However, I’d place it in the realm of “hard to understand” as opposed to “impossible to understand”, such as the movies “Donnie Darko” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The film is infamous for “the Mutation Sequence” at the climax of the film, which is both nauseating and incredibly bizarre. (The comic version was much easier to handle.) [NOTE: Without going into too much detail, I’ll say his power was getting so strong at that point that his body was “insufficient” to use it, and the power attempted to mutate him into a form that could handle it better. Normally I wouldn’t waste time talking about this, but that scene was so weird it deserves an explanation.]
In short, ultraviolent and bizarre, but still a work of art in many ways.
So, naturally, the first dub in the USA was horrendous. As mentioned before, it seemed as if the USA still thought “cartoons are for kids”, and hired the most juvenile, kid-cartoon voices they could find to dub it. Cam Clarke (Infamous as the original Leonardo of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) himself did Kaneda, which was decent, but the Colonel’s voice was straight out of a Looney Toon…and Masaru? Don’t even ask. The dub was so ridiculously bad that it’s the first anime I ever saw that got a redub, which is MUCH better. Watch that version. Burn the old one. Yet the ridiculousness is how the American company that released it could have treated this like a kid’s film. If you watch the movie at any point for ten minutes, you’ll realize it is not for children. That leads me to believe they never actually watched their film…and since this is 1980s dubbing, I would honestly not be surprised if that was the case.
Well, as time marched on and the ’90s came about, Japan seemed to reassert its intention to make it into the USA as well. And in the course of doing so, they released another popular series:
Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon (1992)
I’m not going to get into too much detail about this plot-wise…namely because, for all of the glamour, glitz, and “dumbing-down” that the USA version did…the series is ultimately dark and depressing. Kind of odd when you think about it…but the Japanese are quite good at that. (Look no further than the “Mother” series.) Suffice to say that this show simultaneously reinvigorated/reinvented the “Magical Girl” genre in Japan while forever turning badass schoolgirls into sex objects. The best way to describe it, at least to me, was taking older material like the Zentai Ranger series and giving the magical girls that “modus operandi” to simultaneously make something visually appealing and “cute” as well as “heavy”.
The main point I’m making with this is that Japan tried to really break into the American market with this one. Easily one of the most heavily merchandised animes I had seen in the USA (at the time), they clearly thought that the success in Japan would be replicated here. And truth be told…it was the gateway drug for many American otaku, turning their heads to anime. Once things did finally start “getting moving”, it has the distinction of an anime a lot of new fans went “back to”, enough to where additional seasons were dubbed years after the initial run.
In spite of all that, the show was not a runaway success in the USA. It may have been inspirational and became one of the most quintessential “recognized” animes of all time, parodied both in Japan and the USA countless times, and is still recognizable…but it remained obscure…something you would only find if you were one of those people who looked for early-morning TV programming on “that TV channel”. It seemed as if anime would remain that “thing those nerds over there watch”.
But then came the show that finally “opened the floodgates”…
Like it or hate it…think it’s the greatest ever or the most overrated…the fact of the matter remains this finally made anime something “everyone knew about”.
Dragon Ball (1986)
Yes, I’m going out of order with the dates, because it wasn’t until 1996 (ironically the same year the TV series ended) that general Americans really found out about it.
Akira Toriyama, noted anime/manga artist for work both in manga and video games (particularly the Dragon Warrior series), followed up his critical success of “Dr. Slump” with a manga that was supposed to be a comical version of “Saiyuki”, the popular Chinese epic. Initially conceived as more humor than action-orientated, the series first had numerous parodies of “Saiyuki” until near the end of the second manga, at which point he decided to extend it a bit further by focusing on one of the main characters, a boy named Son Goku, as he trained with an “invincible old master” to participate in the Strongest Under the Heavens tournament…at which point the series began to become more action orientated. As the series progressed, the action continued to pick up while the humor slowly faded…until the series began to explode past his original intent of 10 or so comedy mangas to a fierce, action-orientated series with fighters of inconceivable power. When the manga got made into anime, the transition was well noted by the show producers…who reinvisioned the final “transition” point to no longer be the series “Dragon Ball”, but named it “Dragon Ball Z”.
As the show neared its finale…Funimation in the USA decided to try and adapt it to the USA…but in probably the worst possible way I have ever seen an anime get adapted in my entire life. They didn’t start with “Dragon Ball”. They couldn’t, obviously. The jokes in the original series were for 13-year-olds and up, and the USA was still of the mindset that “cartoons are for kids”. So…they started with “Dragon Ball Z”, over 150 episodes into the series. Next, they editted the heck out of it with some of the worst dubbing and censorship ever. They went to ridiculous lengths to ensure that not so much as a single person died on the side…which was silly to even attempt because by picking the starting point they did, the show literally started with Goku getting killed just a couple episodes into it. People on the Internet now say “Over 9000!” a lot…but the phrase we all really hated as a kid was “I’m going to send you into the next dimension!”…because heaven forbid anyone threaten to kill anyone else. Finally, due to lack of popularity of the show’s initial run, they decided to abandon the whole thing two seasons into it.
Pop Quiz: If they tried to sell “The Lord of the Rings” nowadays…but rather than do the whole series, they only released the first half of “The Two Towers”, ending right as they reached Helm’s Deep, editted each battle heavily to where no one could actually see anyone hitting anyone else, said how Saurman and the orcs were running around “knocking people down” instead of killing them, and then just repeated the same bit of movie again and again rather than show what happened next…would it have ever have gotten popular?
“Dragon Ball Z” seemed like a shoe-in for obscure, forgotten animes…but in spite of all of that, when Cartoon Network (where TV shows go to come back from the grave) picked it up to run on Toonami, it became incredibly popular, and actually generated a demand for more. Enough to where Funimation decided to release more episodes, this time being *gasp* ambitious enough to include people dying. And when the fight between Goku and Frieza got under way and American audiences finally saw a Super Saiyan-Jin after reading about it online for months, the show’s popularity erupted even more. Merchandise was even being put out in the USA that depicted scenes that wouldn’t show up for a hundred episodes. The impossible had happened…an anime became popular among general audiences in the USA.
After this, a domino effect occurred. Toonami began to run more anime, including the latest incarnation of the Gundam series and reawakening Sailor Moon. Eventually, as ties-in with their equally popular game series, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! were released and became popular enough to actually get later incarnations of the series released as well. More otaku popped up, and with them more anime, such as the oldiest and goodies of Studio Ghibli, came out as well. Older, crappy dubs were redone with more “effort”, including “Akira”. In the past, an otaku had to hunt high and low for a corner where anime was sold. Now it was found in any store. While it may have never become completely “runaway”, anime had a niche in American markets at last.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite so fast as to give this movie the credit it deserved…
Mononoke No Hime AKA Princess Mononoke (1997)
To quickly sum up a Disney-like legacy in a short time period, Miyazaki moved on from “Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind” to found “Studio Ghibli”, fully making him the “Walt Disney” of Japan. The resulting quality of animation produced by that studio is both beautiful and wondrous, and loaded with works appropriate for the whole family, for all ages, and with the best kind of allegories and metaphors there are…ones that are “subtle”. In other words, movies that are beautiful and entertaining on their own, and then, later, some guy tells you: “You know, that whole movie was a metaphor for X?” And you pause and look at it…and realize: “Oh yeah!”
“Spirited Away”(“Sen to Chihiro no Kamekakushi”) will probably go down in history as his masterpiece. However, it was an even more resounding success than his first runaway hit that even “Titanic” couldn’t dethrone in Japan…”Mononoke no Hime”.
This movie is unusually violent and bloody for a Miyazaki film, but still maintains everything one loves about good Miyazaki…colorful…entertaining…occasionally humorous…and most of all wondrous. It was a milestone in Disney’s own attempt in a partnership with Studio Ghibli via Miramax to get all of Studio Ghibli’s masterpieces into the USA, and like “My Neighbor Totoro” (which was also infamous…so much so that the big Totoro cameos in “Toy Story 3”, and my otaku heart leapt for joy on seeing it) and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, it featured lots of American actors providing their voices. But at it’s heart…it simply shows how superior the Japanese storytelling with allegory is to USA storytelling.
“Princess Mononoke” is an eco-parable. Like many eco-parables, mankind and industry are encroaching on nature and bringing destruction and devastation with them in pursuit of progress. But here is where it’s brilliant.
At this point, the “American” thing to do is to demonize humanity to make everyone want to plant trees. Case in point…”Ferngully: The Last Rainforest”. In a couple ways, you can think of “Princess Mononoke” as the Japanese version of this. In that movie…the forest is so pristine and magic and wonderful and enchanted and lovely and precious and only a deranged psychopath would dare to step on so much as a blade of grass of it. However, those humans are slovenly, lazy, dirty, stupid, polluting, wasteful, and just are being mean to poor old nature. Even the fairies in that movie are portrayed as “more human” than the humans themselves. The deal in that movie, like all other ecology-orientated material, is that the only thing separating our urban blight from nature in all its glory is a single, “easy”, conscious choice.
The truth is it’s not that easy, and it never was or we’d all do it. American and Western Nation overconsumption aside, the fact is the far majority of humans on Earth are just doing what they’ve always done: tried to make a better life for themselves and their families. So…what about “Mononoke no Hime”?
The forest is beautiful and magical…but not everything living in it is “innocent” and “pure”. The forest creatures first attack the most innocent and helpless of humans who lived without taking more than their share for years. They’re oblivious to reason, and when they decide on destruction, they slate all humans for death that they can find…even the innocent one who has done no wrong and only wants to make peace. They dismiss humans as coldly and callously as the humans treat them. So they’re hardly “innocent” themselves. What of humans?
Gone is the big, fat, lazy, stupid, subhuman creatures. The “mean, nasty, industrialized environment-destroyers” in the movie represent the best of humanity. Society where men and women are equals…even governed by a woman. A place where technology and innovation is prized and its ability to ensure prosperity for everyone, not just the ruling elite. A nation where everyone has a place and there are no outcasts…neither women nor former prostitutes nor lepers. Just like the main character, the audience can’t really hate this “villain”…because they’re us. They’re everything we want to be…even if it comes at the expense of the natural world.
This not only frames the dilemma of how society can continue to advance without destroying the environment…eliminating the idea that there is an easy answer to that question, because there isn’t…but frames all conflicts that really shape our world…ones where both sides are “right”, ones that have no easy solutions…and, most importantly, ones that remove all chance of a compromise due to hate that will not die for each other. In short…it’s brilliant.
What else? Oh…I don’t have time to get into all the other milestones or this blog will last forever… “Spirited Away” is also good, there’s the phenomenon of “Pokemon” and “Yu-Gi-Oh”…and I never even got into the brilliant works of the late Satoshi Kon. (Seriously, watch “Millennium Actress”. It’s unlikely that you ever see a movie that is both trippy and yet leaves you crying at the same time.) But this should go to show you all that the days of the barely-motile “Speed Racer” are as dead as the Dodo.
I’ll conclude simply. Check out some anime or manga when you get a chance. It’s changed a lot, and you might like what you see.