The Nerd Chord: Kingdom of Anime
Recently I took the time to watch The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a revealing documentary (currently on Netflix) that chronicles a year at Studio Ghibli during the production of Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises. Revealing, I say, because it shows a filmmaker clearly dejected at both the state of Japan’s anime industry and the ill fate of the planet. Environmental themes dominate Miyazaki’s films, and in Dreams and Madness the Fukushima disaster looms heavy on his mind while he laments over a perceived lack of humanity in much of today’s anime. More specifically, he states the “industry is full of otaku,” or anime super fans, who some believe would rather not associate with other human beings. Therefore there’s no reflection of real people in anime, no inspiration drawn from real life. It’s enough for Miyazaki to want to retire.
Maybe I should not have been surprised at Miyazaki’s lack of faith in the current generation, or his cynicism. Yet it is jarring when I consider his exuberant body of work, and I can justify this exuberance when I remember Miyazaki’s films are fantastical. They don’t usually depict reality, but they exude a terrible yearning for a better world full of authentic people who need each other.
Forgive this bleak commentary—it makes me want to touch on a few anime series that have given me much hope over the past several years. While it’s true there’s way too much perverted humor and oversized breasts designed to keep adolescents coming back for more, there’s also been some excellent pieces of work. These shows are in line with some of the reasons I fell in love with anime in the first place (the reasons being His and Her Circumstances, FLCL, Cowboy Bebop, Serial Experiments Lain, etc.).
But first, a note. I have always and will always prefer an English dub to a Japanese sub. Emotional registry and meaning of content is strongest in my native tongue. People should have high regard for a good, well-acted translation because it’s definitely an art form. There is no substitution for the poetic eloquence of Kare Kano’s English dialogue or the pure style in every line of Bebop’s delivery. Best case, the English track complements the integrity of the original work—and enhances it. Haters will hate.
Another case in point: 2011’s Steins;Gate. Far from relying on cheap sexual humor, this show hooks me with the hilarity of its mad-eccentric-genius protagonist Rintaro Okabe. His invention, the Phone Microwave, can send emails to the past in order to potentially alter the present. This makes for a trippy and engaging ride over the course of 24 episodes and a fantastic movie. However, it’s Okabe’s romantic rivalry with no-bullshit, also-genius Kurisu Makise that really strikes my Nerd Chord. The witty repartee between these two crackles with venom at one turn and surprises with tenderness at the next…before ego gets in the way and we’re back to the venom.
The English delivery here is perfect, and the language is nicely nuanced for our western ears. The top-notch dialogue stretches across this show’s cast of characters, each likable as they function in symbiosis while cleverly adding layers to the plot. Nothing is wasted here on this tight ship, and nothing feels forced. Steins;Gate features dynamic characters that go from mere tinkerers to people the world needs. It is icing on the cake that I end up caring about all of them.
Another series, 2009’s Eden of the East, stands out to me for its topical commentary on our post-millennial issue of terrorism. When university student Saki Morimi takes a trip to her idea of the world’s epicenter, Washington, D.C., she meets a young man with no clothes and no memory of past events. His name is Akira Tokizawa, and he cannot explain why his small apartment is packed with firearms and fake passports. Despite these circumstances, Tokizawa is quite effervescent and charismatic—so much so that Morimi is prepared to help him get to the bottom of recent missile attacks in Japan.
It’s plain that Tokizawa is nothing less than suspect, but his amnesia and good nature is enough to compel us to go along with him and the ensuing mystery. What’s more, a good mystery isn’t something I see a lot in anime. Topics like information technology, weapons of mass destruction, and conspiracy theories combine to make these 11 episodes and two movies into an engrossing experience. Additionally, you’d expect the quirky look of these characters—not chibi, but somewhat…hamster-cheeked?—to clash with the seriousness of the subject matter, but this isn’t so. I’ve never seen this particular character aesthetic before, so I found it to be fresh. In fact, this irony delighted me, like an upbeat song about something very dark.
Circling back in a way, Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro marked my introduction to world-class thief Lupin III and his supporting cast (a gunslinger, a samurai, a detective, and a femme fatale). These characters have appeared in three prior TV series and more than just a few other movies, not to mention the original 1960s manga by Monkey Punch. They have been depicted as goofy and lighthearted but always clever and stylish. Here in the latest incarnation from 2012—the 13-episode Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine—both style and dark grit abound. Series director Sayo Yamamoto gives us the origin story of Fujiko Mine, the aforementioned femme fatale.
Fujiko Mine (pronounced mee-neh) charts the first interactions among these iconic anime characters, all the while lifting the enigma from Fujiko’s twisted history. Stalked to the ends of the earth by the demons of her past, Fujiko determines to steal some of the most valuable items in existence. However, for Lupin, the most valuable item is perhaps Fujiko herself. He makes no excuses—in his eyes, Fujiko’s value is bolstered by her physical attractiveness, the competition she provides in the way of professional thievery, and the mystery of her identity. She fascinates Lupin to the point of obsession.
But Lupin is merely a member of the supporting cast this time around. Fujiko takes center stage in nearly every episode, and, rest assured, she is a badass in every sense of the word. Outsmarting and outmaneuvering are par for the course, but what’s interesting is her unabashed use of sexuality to get what she wants. While never willingly taken advantage of or exploited in any way, she is not shy about using whatever means necessary to steal X item. So, it’s true: the series is lush with nudity. We see Fujiko’s breasts and nipples frequently but for good reason. Her nudity is an expression of female empowerment, through and through. It is a reflection of the high self worth she is lucky enough to possess and a brazen “F*ck you” to those who may have taken advantage of her in the past. What’s more, Sayo Yamamoto and Mari Okada, respectively series director and head writer, are both women. The nudity is no symptom of indulgence. It’s actually quite beautiful.
Yamamoto’s prior work, Michiko and Hatchin (2009) is the last series I’ll mention here. Not only is this show’s introduction one of my all-time favorites for its music (Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe is the music director), this show’s 22 episodes also feature a deadly heroine. Stunningly beautiful Michiko Melandro busts out of prison in the first minutes, tracks down nine-year-old Hatchin—the daughter of the only man she ever loved—and sets out with the girl on a trip all over Brazil to hunt down this man. At first he’s all she wants, but her need for a family has always burned within. Police and formidable foes, also from Michiko’s past, are hot on their heels.
At the center of this story is a disarmingly personal core that gave me one of the most human viewing experiences I’ve had this year. Both Michiko and Hatchin together can take down anyone, but their emotional vulnerability makes for a devastating fragility when alone. Though neither will admit it for a while as they share a common goal on the surface, their need for each other becomes obvious. Their adventures are tons of fun over the course of a few months in the show’s timeline, but what interests me is the setting. We see the language and culture of Brazil in nearly every scene, giving the show an added dimension I feel I can breathe in. This is Thelma and Louise mixed with City of God, and it transports me right there with Michiko and Hatchin.
There’s no question; anime is its own kingdom of dreams and madness where the best series show us some of the most innovative aspects of humanity in relation to its surroundings. Don’t get me wrong; I can pinpoint the source of Miyazaki’s qualms, can list more than just a few chibi cookie cutouts. But there’s so much out there I believe is worth anyone’s time, and there’s even more I haven’t seen yet. In truth, I live to discover my next personal anime treasure. Nothing compares to striking that gold, but the process is also nothing if not trial and error (I was not a fan of Attack on Titan). Rest assured, the industry is far from doomed.