(Warning: This post is far too long to read, so thanks for stopping by!)
Just because this is my blog and I can do whatever I want, I thought I’d detail my introduction to the world of anime.
When you see a new realm of artistic endeavor, one that’s existed for many years and has built up a considerable body of work, it’s always intimidating wondering where to put that first step. It’s an ocean of choice—what if the water is cold, or too rough, or full of biting creatures? If I stick my foot in there and it’s uncomfortable and I say “Ow,” everyone will know I’m a newbie, and they’ll all laugh at me. It’s much easier to forego the experience and move on to more familiar territory. This tends to be the case no matter what the field; someone who has listened to nothing but rock and roll, but decides on a whim to investigate country/western, or classical, or jazz, where does that person start?
One avenue is to find some guidebook or other compendium of expert opinion. This can lead one to the classics, after all. The problem with these is that they tend to focus on works that have achieved a high level of general critical consensus; there’s no real room for personal taste, personal idiosyncrasies, “hey I like this,” which is where art lives anyway. So in the case of jazz, you’ll probably be told to buy “Kind of Blue” and “A Love Supreme” and a few other works that are listed on everyone’s top ten. But what if “Kind of Blue” or “A Love Supreme” don’t “work” for you? Does that mean you’ll never be a jazz fan?
Possibly, but more than likely it just means you haven’t yet found the kind of jazz that appeals to you. In many cases, it depends on what direction you’re approaching jazz from—your starting point, as it were. If you’re coming from rock, the Mahavishnu Orchestra may be more your style. If you’re coming from folk, try Oregon. From there, you can branch out, slowly, into more general jazz works like “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” by Charles Mingus, which I think is a pretty good starting point anyway.
Well, we seem to have gotten off-topic. Yeah, like that’s unusual here….
In my case, anime looked weird and incomprehensible. There were these giant robots everywhere, and people who appeared to be extremely constipated screaming at each other while they hurled energy bolts in battle. The other side of the coin seemed to be girls with huge eyes and weird hair colors making hearts at boys with rat’s nest hair…sometimes with giant robots around, too. While I was intrigued, I was pretty sure I’d never understand it, and had no idea where to start, so “Anime” became just an aisle in Best Buy that I could pass over on my way to the “Horror/Science Fiction” section. Had I bought a guidebook, I probably would have been told to start with an acknowledged classic like Neon Genesis Evangelion, and if I’d done that, that would have been the end of my anime experiment. (It’s not that Evangelion is bad, necessarily; I would describe it as “off-putting,” though.)
What I really needed was a starting point that was tailored for me. The best kind of starting point before putting the first toe into a new sea of art is to find a person who mirrors your taste in other areas. Or, someone who’s taste and thinking you respect and can consider in context. If you’re a big Stephen King fan, and you know someone else who’s a big Stephen King fan, and that person likes anime, and that person happens to say, “You know, Divergence Eve is a pretty good series…” A lot of “ands,” I know, but you’ve got a starting point that will be more useful to you.
In my own case, the person most responsible for my wet feet was Steven Den Beste. He ran a website called USS Clueless (and currently runs Chizumatic) and his writing on a great many subjects was intelligent, considered and highly readable. So when he started investigating anime, I took notice and basically started walking where I saw his footsteps.
If memory serves (and it generally doesn’t), the first anime title he wrote about was Spirited Away. So I bought that. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made, in any genre, and I never hesitate to recommend it. In fact, it’s about the only movie I can think of which I recommend with absolutely no reservations whatsoever.
The first series I remember him writing about was Noir, so I went and bought that too. And it remains the single greatest anime series I’ve ever seen. (Note well: the number of “anime series I’ve seen” barely extends into the double digits.)
The final entry of the Original Trilogy was Ghost in the Shell. Well, Ghost is intelligent, thought-provoking and visually stunning, but it’s also superficial and in love with its own gee-wizardry. I’m glad I saw it but that’s about the extent of my engagement.
So, two home runs and one bunt to first base; not a bad average. So I followed Steven’s reviews pretty religiously and made buying decisions based on them, and I’ve yet to be steered wrong. Of course, I haven’t exactly watched everything I’ve bought, so who knows?
Well anyway, once I got my feet wet, I started to branch out into unknown areas on my own. I’d start to buy things based on whether they sounded interesting or not, or whether they had people working on them whose past works I’d admired. I started to like things that Steven didn’t (he hated Gravion; I thought it was hilarious). While I still read his page daily, I became my own animal, and started to make some choices that weren’t even mentioned on Chizumatic. Some of these choices were very good (PreTear), some not so good (Neo Ranga, though to be fair the jury’s still out).
So now that I’ve become my own anime fan, what do I like?
Before I answer that, I’d like to point something out: I’m probably not an anime fan.
Yes, shocking, isn’t it? The reason I say this is because I don’t do a lot of the things anime fans do.
1. Firstly, I don’t watch them in Japanese, I always watch the English dub versions. Not to disrespect the Japanese or their language, far from it, but I have absolutely no facility with foreign languages. (My abilities in English are bad enough.) Yes, one can read subtitles, and that’s how I always watch live-action foreign films. An actor’s voice is just as much a part of his performance as his face and the way he chooses to move.
However, when watching Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson argue about who gets to commit suicide first, I can see them in a familiar environment—I don’t have to wonder what the fantastical device is that they’re sitting on, I know it’s called a “couch.” Even in futuristic live-action films, I can still key in on what the environment represents to the characters and I don’t have to watch it continuously to figure out its nature.
In animation, however, everything is brand new. It’s all been designed deliberately from the blank page up—everything has a choice behind it. It’s also frequently imaginative and beautiful. I don’t like taking my eyes away from it in order to read subtitles—I’d much rather hear the dialogue so I can keep watching.
2. Secondly, I don’t use any of the terms typically associated with anime fandom. I don’t say OP, ED, kawaii, seiyuu, meganekko, eyecatch, mecha or any of the others. (See above, about my abilities with language.) The one exception is “fan service” because that’s an animal that’s fairly unique to anime.
3. Thirdly, I don’t treat any of this stuff with the kind of reverence one typically sees out there. I don’t shoot dirty looks at people who talk during the closing credits, I don’t get into fights about which season of Wedding Peach was the better one, I don’t wear a kimono and light a candle when I take a new disk out of its case. To me, it’s all about entertainment. I watch them to have fun, maybe learn something, and perhaps see an interesting perspective.
So if those disqualify me from anime fandom, so be it. I don’t consider myself a fan of a particular style of presentation anyway; what I am a fan of is good stories, told with interesting characters and creative ideas. The fact that I’m finding a lot of stories with those qualities in anime doesn’t mean that I always will or that they’re absent elsewhere. If I find stories I like in Zanzibar shadow puppet theatre, I’ll start watching those too.
So, given all that, what have I liked in anime? Here’s a list of the series that have made a strong impact on me. If there’s a review at Chizumatic, clicking the title will take you there; links in the descriptions are for my own writings. (I’m only including series I’ve watched all the way through.)
Noir – the greatest anime series I’ve seen. It’s harrowing and intense, but at its heart it’s a wonderful love story (no, not that kind). Warning: when I say intense I’m not kidding. I recently re-watched the series and, at times, it was an effort to put the next disc in.
Haibane Renmei – the second greatest series I’ve seen. Like a broken heart, you want to tell everyone about this, but also like a broken heart, it’s almost too personal to write about.
Divergence Eve / Misaki Chronicles.- excellent horror/science fiction hybrid with great, likeable characters and some imaginative ideas. It’ll never gain an audience above “minor cult” because of the incredibly stupid and distracting fan service. My favorite anime character is in this one. Note: Though they’re marketed as different titles, Divergence Eve and Misaki Chronicles are two halves of one story. Get ‘em both!
Martian Successor Nadesico – comedy/science fiction/giant robots, set onboard a spaceship with a ditzy captain and the world’s most reluctant chick magnet. To give an example of how bizarre this series can get, many of the Nadesico’s crew are fans of an anime series called “Gekkigengar 3.” One episode of MSN was actually an episode of “Gekkigengar 3” in which those characters reveal that their favorite show is…Martian Successor Nadesico. Because of its successful mixture of action, comedy, drama, science fiction and romance, this would be an ideal show to start with, aside from one little problem: it’s apparently long out of print.
Sugar, A Little Snow Fairy – I’ve already written a lot about this one recently. It’s a kid’s show, but wonderful nonetheless. It would be a shame to pass it over just because it’s aimed at children; it’s certainly not dumbed down for anyone. Everyone can enjoy this.
PreTear – I’ve already written recently about this one as wel. Magical fighting girl, looming evil, comedy, lots and lots of fun. Himeno’s determination is remarkable to behold and part of the reason this one’s so appealing to me.
There are others I’ve enjoyed as well, but these were the ones that really came alive off the screen.
Well, I have blathered on for rather a bit, haven’t I? Why, I hardly ever do that! But guess what: some of the series listed above have long essays in the works! Remember what I said, it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want, and no one, no one can stop me!
I’d do the evil laugh thing, but that always makes me cough. Thanks for visiting, as always.
UPDATE, Sept 6 2007. Regrettably, I’ve had to close comments for this entry. It’s become a graveyard of spam. I want to thank everyone who provided legit comments, and to the spammers, go peddle your papers elsewhere.