As I understand it, the world is literally full, yes literally full of great anime shows. Go on, look outside – ANIME! Look back inside – ANIME! See, good anime is everywhere… don’t inhale it though. That being said, I can completely understand why anime can struggle to gain acceptance by a mainstream western audience and until recently, I wrote it off almost entirely. Since my rediscovery of Pokémon back in my first year of university, I've seen almost every episode of the anime series and have been following it religiously for the last two years. However, the Pokémon anime isn't exactly high art and it seriously warped my perceptions of what anime really is.
This is pretty much what I thought anime was until three weeks ago
Although I’d been exposed to, and thoroughly enjoyed, Studio Ghibli productions, I believed that they were merely the exception to the rule. I was under the impression that most anime ran well into 600 episodes and was either a marketing gimmick or catered solely to half-witted toddlers. I can’t say how happy I am to be wrong about that. I know that a certain amount of crushingly terrible anime must exist but look at any medium of entertainment and you’ll find more than your fair share dodgy folks selling you “entertainment brand entertainment” they nicked out the back of a van. It’s just the nature of the industry.
What I find most curious about anime is how it is often seen as a genre by those who aren't familiar with it; something I must admit to believing at one point. As a result of this perception, I feel that many people shrug it off as angst-ridden teenagers with stupid hair and scantily clad pubescent girls all fighting to save the world from some 100 foot tall robot with cat ears and tentacles. Maybe I’m wrong about how exactly people view anime but there is certainly a degree of stigma surrounding it and, honestly, based on aesthetics alone, who can blame them? Just check out the opening sequence to Sword Art Online:
I actually love this intro sequence so much
Sword Art Online was the first “real” anime I sampled but the name and title sequence alone could easily be enough to deter the self-conscious or xenophobic. I was accosted by two friends and told that SAO was ‘the best thing ever’ and I reluctantly sat down to watch the first episode. It didn't take long for it to completely enthrall me and although it had been recommended to me by people I trusted, it was my first experience of an anime and I was entirely prepared for a hellish slog through half-baked exposition posing as dialogue and possibly a seizure.
Although the show isn't perfect, it was the exact opposite of what I expected and its sinister atmosphere, brilliant pacing and expansive world building was enough to show me how wrong I’d been about anime and that if SAO could exist, there had to be more out there. I couldn't have predicted the tension and brutality of SAO and it was quick to show me that it was not the sort of show that was going to fuck about – something I have really grown to appreciate in much of the anime I've seen so far. It pulls no punches and doesn't treat the viewer like a child; instead it expects you to actually pay attention, to understand characters and their motivations above and beyond what the show directly tell you.
Oh Klein, you're such a scamp
So, with my prejudices recently countered, I waded further into the murky waters of anime and fell into the awesome sinkhole that is Neon Genesis Evangelion. As the title sequence began, I prepared myself for a few episodes of stupid, outlandish and immature fun, but my preconceptions betrayed me as the guilty pleasure of this seemingly ridiculously show quickly subsided. It rapidly transpired that NGE was genuinely good.
Yes, on a surface level, it’s a show about children and robots but that is merely a platform for the thematic core of the series. It addresses psychological concepts such as separation anxiety and the Oedipus complex as well as tackling the philosophical and existential issues of what it actually means to be human and how we perceive ourselves and others around us. These themes essentially come back to the Hedgehog’s Dilemma and the challenges of human intimacy.
It’s also the sort of show that could easily be ruined by divulging too much information so I’ll restrain my enthusiasm and just say this – I don’t profess to be an expert on anime but I've been living under the delusion that 90% of anime fell into the Mecha genre and so I wasn't keen to invest myself in anything relating to that genre. I assumed it would be a purely visual catharsis that lacked depth or any real meaning. I believed that Mecha anime appealed only to the lowest common denominator and maybe most of it does, but not this.
Once again, the title sequence is pretty deceptive
I've still only really sampled some of the more respected anime but each time I've had my expectations flipped on their head and laughed at for being so silly. Death Note was another of those highly recommended animes and yet, despite what SAO had taught me, I had my reservations. From what I've gathered, Death Note is hugely popular and I’m sure I don’t need to say much about it except that I only sat down to watch it on two separate occasions and the only thing that could stop me was the possibility of losing my job if I stayed at home watching Death Note instead of actually showing up.
I dread to think how much erotic fan fiction has been written about these two…
At this point I’m tempted to just say Cowboy Bebop and knock off early but I should probably expand on that a little because this particular gem fills me an intense joy just thinking about it. I fell in deep, romantic love with this show as it dragged me into its weird spaghetti western, film noir, sci-fi majesty. Perhaps the reason I love this so much is because of its slightly westernised sensibilities which I naturally find more relatable but I feel that is only a minor factor of my admiration.
First and foremost is the universe itself which is explained in the style somewhat reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's technique i.e. not at all. The creators built a world and simply put you and the characters in it – they don’t force exposition down your throat, going into intricate detail about, for example, the hyperspace gate incident; they merely allude to the fact it happened and that the effects were rather adverse. As a result, the universe feels organic and alive, and that it will continue long after your brief stint there has ended.
The world comes to life in a natural manner as you gradually explore it along the crew of the good ship Bebop. The richness of a universe is always one of the most important factors for me in any sort of fiction and Cowboy Bebop certainly delivers in that department as it perfectly melts together different cultures in a way that seems plausible in our future and manages to Frankenstein various genres into a single entity, thereby creating its very own.
Perhaps the thing I have grown to appreciate most about anime is how it able to transcend cultural boundaries – the divide between eastern and western culture is a significant one. Yes, we have seen a fairly substantial amount of Japanese culture permeate into our own over the last twenty or thirty years through the medium of videogames but, to me any way, they still feel Japanese. Susan Napier points out in her book, Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, that anime is often referred to as ‘stateless’ by many Japanese commentators which, in this context, relates to how anime is not necessarily tied down to a single cultural identity.
If one is to look at Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra, it becomes clear that although both are technically an anime, they are the result of a cultural fusion between east and west. The same goes for many Studio Ghibli productions which, although produced by a Japanese studio, take their inspiration from western sources and subsequently create the most wonderful cultural hybrids. This is why I love anime and no matter what the rest of the world thinks about it, I know it can brilliant.