Thursday, July 10, 2014

Heath Holland On...Anime

by Heath Holland
I’m going to need your help with this one.

Konnichiwa, F This Movie community! I need you guys to help me with something. You see, I am a lapsed anime fan. Back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s during my college years, I was quite an anime enthusiast, but life got busy and, without even realizing it, I let that fire go out. My recent crash course in the Godzilla franchise (my upcoming second installment of the Godzilla Challenge is coming soon) has awoken my interest in all things Japanese and has gotten me really fired up about manga and anime once again, nearly ten years after I stepped away from it.

But here’s the thing: I don’t know where to start. When I stepped away from anime, the medium was on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream. Sure, there were box sets on the shelves at Best Buy and Pokemon dominated the toy and video game aisles at Target, but now we live in a geek culture where everything niche and genre has become big business and, more importantly, SUPER COOL. Anime is seriously EVERYWHERE these days, so it occurred to me that maybe it would be a good idea to tell you about some of my anime experiences from the past in hopes of a direction to move forward.

I’ve been a big fan of the 1985 Vampire Hunter D film (as well as the eventual sequel, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) since it hit America in the early ‘90s. The movie is about a mostly silent and mysterious vampire hunter (named D) whose hand talks to him (named Left Hand, naturally) and fights the forces of darkness. The hand thing is never explained, as far as I can recall, which makes the whole thing even more interesting to me.
The original Vampire Hunter D was the first proper anime film that I ever saw and it really freaked me out. I couldn’t believe how dark and disturbing it was (though in retrospect it’s not nearly as dark as most of its contemporaries). The thing that stood out to me more than anything and that I’ve retained more than other aspects of the film was the way that the animation style conveyed massive size. Monsters and bad guys were impossibly large and the good guys or the victims seemed dwarfed by their attackers. Something about that idea really freaked me out. I’m reminded of something JB has pointed out a few times about the Godzilla films, which is how you can see this threat towering in the distance but can’t escape. It’s an unsettling use of imagery in a movie that is full of unsettling images. I still love Vampire Hunter D and the way it blends science fiction, horror, action, and spaghetti western elements into a cohesive whole. It’s a movie from the East that has taken all of the influences of the West and shaped them into a single product. I love it.

The next major anime discovery for me was Akira. I have to be honest, the first time I tried to watch Akira it was too much for me and I only made it about 30 minutes into the film. Looking back on it, I can see that I was probably too young and the ideas that are at the heart of the movie were too far outside my experience at that point. I revisited the movie in the late ‘90s and recognized it to as the masterpiece that everyone else sees it as. Akira tells the story of Tetsuo Shima, a cyberpunk biker with mental powers, and his friend and fellow biker Shotara Kaneda. There’s a lot of destruction and mayhem based around telekinesis and futuristic science stuff.
Looking back, I’m not sure what I was expecting on that first viewing, but it was probably something along the lines of the X-Men cartoon. Mental powers? Yeah, that’s like Jean Grey! Motorcycles? Wolverine drives one of those! What I got was a dark depiction of the future full of street violence, gang rape, evil science, and a generally grim overview that must have made Frank Miller VERY proud. Side note: why were cyberpunks such a big thing between 1986-1989? It was all green mohawks, head spikes, weird sunglasses and lots of black leather. Was the world really so concerned that neo-fascism was the wave of the future?

It seems like Akira was and still probably is considered the benchmark for feature film anime, so I feel a little bad saying that it’s still a tough watch for me. I get why it’s important and it’s really deep and well done, but it’s not something that I actually want to watch very often. I still find it to be just too upsetting and nihilistic. I appreciate it and respect it from a distance because I’m still a little afraid to get too close to it. I think that must be a compliment to its effectiveness. It is a masterpiece, after all, and America owes much of the anime boom to Akira, the movie that changed everything.

Something much more my speed was Ninja Scroll, another influential and popular movie that was making the rounds among the burgeoning anime scene circa 1995. Ninja Scroll is the story of a scoundrel ninja named Jubei who travels through feudal Japan and battles the Eight Devils of Kimon, a group of super-powered bad guys with gruesome and horrifying abilities. The movie set the bar pretty high as far as stylized violence and gore and has some unforgettable scenes. One of my favorite battles takes place inside a bamboo forest and is a perfect example of how animation can create iconic moments that can’t be replicated in any other medium.
Ninja Scroll seems have done in the ‘90s what Akira did in the ‘80s, which is turn on young western viewers to the potential of Japanese animation. It was followed by a TV series which retains Jubei as the main character. Apparently Leonardo DiCaprio has been trying to get a live-action adaptation of the story in front of cameras for years, but I don’t know why. You can’t tell the story any better than it’s already been told and I don’t think it would translate well to a Hollywood production, even with the all-Japanese cast that DiCaprio wants to use. There’s just no way to tell a story this graphic outside of anime. I don’t know why you would try. It’s a story suited explicitly for animation and all the freedom that format allows.

My ALL-TIME favorite anime series is Cowboy Bebop, which spawned a movie after the show concluded. Cowboy Bebop was the story of a couple of intergalactic bounty hunters trying to make enough money to keep food on the table and fuel in their ship, Bebop, all while trying to outrun their own pasts. To say anymore would be criminal because the entire series is built around character development and definitely has an arc. In a lot of ways Cowboy Bebop was Firefly and Serenity before either of those things existed.
The show is one of my very favorite things and had some of the best music I’ve ever seen in a television show. The movie played as an extended adventure set between two episodes in the series and similarly had some fantastic music from Yoko Kanno, the composer behind the music of the series. We get a weird fusion of jazz, rock, pop, folk, and country. Music in Cowboy Bebop is just another character in a show entirely ABOUT its characters.

I’ve watched a TON of anime over the years but the one huge hole I have is the works of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli films. His movies, such as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, are beloved pretty much everywhere and that’s made them even more daunting for me. I’m told that not watching Miyazaki is like being unfamiliar with Disney; this seems proven by the fact that Disney has distributed the Studio Ghibli movies for years and has planned an acquisition of the studio. All this adds up to me feeling overwhelmed and not even knowing where to start. Do I start chronologically or do I start with the most critically acclaimed and then jump around? The whole thing makes my head hurt. Am I making this too hard? Probably. But I have a feeling that the innocence of Miyazaki’s work would much better suit where I am now as an adult, so I’m eager to start somewhere.
So that brings me back to the beginning: I’m hoping YOU can give me some suggestions for anime films that I need to see, particularly from the last ten years. Which Miyazaki film is your favorite and which one do you think makes the best jumping on point? Got an anime movie that you just love and want to talk about? I really want this to be a discussion about a storytelling medium which is now so popular and massive that it can be unapproachable. Most films fall into a genre (western, comedy, action) and can be easily categorized and located, but anime is a style that encompasses all genres. Furthermore, most anime films don’t get an American theatrical release and live via streaming sites and the home video market, propelled largely by word of mouth. That’s where we come in. Let’s talk some anime.

35 comments:

  1. You should absolutely watch every Miyazaki movie that he ever made. The dude is an animation genius, and all of them are good to great to amazing in one degreee or another. Spirited Away is probably the greatest overall, Princess Mononoke is my favortie, and My Neighbor Totoro is a lot of fun and really charming and well done. I watched Princess Mononoke first, and I think it's a great jumping off point. I think you should watch Princess Mononoke >> Spirited Away >> My Neighbor Totoro >> Everything else in chronological order. That's pretty much how I did it, and now I am a Miyazaki lover (except I haven't gotten to see The Wind Rises yet.)


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    1. Oh, and if you're up for a good cry, have you seen Grave of the Fireflies? It's a really heartbreaking anime film, but entirely worth the emotional investment if you're willing to take that leap.

      Have you ever seen Ghost in the Shell? I never have, but it's one I feel like I've heard a lot about with a good reputation, so I'm very interested to check it out one day.

      Thank you for the recommendations of Vampire Hunter D, The Ninja Scroll and Cowboy Bebop. They're all properties I've heard of, especially Cowboy Bebop, but haven't gotten to yet. I'll add them to the list if you feel they are all worthwhile.

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    2. Sounds like I definitely need to just jump into Miyazaki's work. And yes, I've seen Ghost in the Shell. I liked it but didn't love it. Grave of Fireflies is something I've been aware of a long time but avoided because I never seek out "crying" movies and everyone talks about how devastating it is. But maybe I should watch it.

      If you're looking for a good anime series, check out Cowboy Bebop first. It takes about 5 episodes before things really START and a story becomes evident, but it's worth your time.

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    3. Yeah, I would say with Miyazaki, however you do it, just do it. There are multiple good starting points, and you can't go wrong with just about any of them. Frankly, I wouldn't mind reading about your experiences either during or after your exploration of Miyazaki. I think that would make for a fun column if you're interested in doing something like that. Just a suggestion.

      You really should subject yourself to Grave of the Fireflies at least once. If it's too much for you, or something you just never want to see again, you don't have to, but you should watch it if for no other reason than to say you've seen one of the most powerful anime films ever made.

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    4. That's not a bad idea. If it goes well I could work it into a Three Flicks or something. I'll keep that in mind. I'll probably end up watching Grave of Fireflies, too, just to be in on conversations. Thanks!

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  2. Sorry bud, I've got nothing for you - I'm even more in the dark about Anime than you. It is a gap I'd like to fill (especially re Studio Ghibli) so I'm very interested in seeing what other people suggest.

    I've never even seen Akira and it's hard to tell from your reverential but tepid review if it's really worth seeking out - would you recommend it?

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    1. Yeah, you should watch Akira. It's definitely a product of the late '80s and the climate of the world at that time but it's also an essential. It's very much in the same tone as The Dark Knight Returns, and since I know you like that then I say yes.

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    2. I do very much (have I thanked you for that lately?) so I'll have to check it out. Quite the discussion this column sparked - so much enthusiasm for several popular recommendations in particular that even though I'm not really into the genre/medium there's a few I think I gotta watch! I see Ghost in the Shell has a 25th Anniversary blu-ray coming out in September...(has my credit card company thanked you lately?)

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  3. You said Akira , so that's me done.

    Also, now you owe my mild dyslexia a column on Annie. It is mildly disappointed.

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  4. Heath, if you're planning to go down the Miyazaki wormhole, I recommend his first movie, Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro. It's a very fun comedy /action that has a lot of set pieces that put a lot of '70s era (ERA) Disney to shame. It has spawned several t.v. shows and films but surprisingly you can start anywhere and not feel lost since a lot of times it follows the same "Ocean's 11" plot in most movies.

    As for recent, I recommend Paprika. It would make a great double-bill with Inception.

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    1. Oh, I'm aware of Lupin the III (though I've not seen any of it) but didn't know that was Miyazaki. '70s goodness sounds right up my alley.

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  5. A couple of recommendations:

    -Eden of the East—A young man wakes up naked with a gun and a cell phone. He's lost his memory and pieces together that he's part a game where 12 individuals are given a large sum of yen to "save" Japan in whatever way they see fit. It's a short show (with two movies to tie up the plot), and all are on Netflix. I really dug the tone—it's playful, tense, and mysterious at the same time, and it's rooted in a very believable contemporary setting. It was created by Kenji Kamiyama, the dude who did the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex show (which is also quite good!)

    Kids on the Slope—This is a coming-of-age story set in Japan during the 1960s, where a group of friends all bond of American jazz. The show was directed by Shinichirō Watanabe (the Cowboy Bebop guy!) and features some fantastic music by Yoko Kanno (who also did the music on Bebop). I think a lot of people would find the story boring, but I loved it. And Friday Filibuster/DVD Verdict's Dave Johnson said "this sounds terrible!," which is a selling point if I've ever heard one!

    -Summer Wars, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time—Both movies by Mamoru Hosoda. Both are charming and ridiculous, and surprisingly thoughtful.

    And if you don't mind slower-paced, beautifully animated stuff, I'd also recommend the films of Makoto Shinkai. I've only seen The Place Promised in Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters Per Second, but I loved them both.

    Oh, and I also second the recommendation for Paprika (or anything by Satoshi Kon). Dude was a genius.

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    1. I haven't heard of ANY of these, which is embarrassing. Kids on the Slope sounds a must-see for me and the others sound really intriguing. Thanks!

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    2. You're welcome! Hope you dig whatever you watch.

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  6. I'm by no means an anime enthusiast, but I've seen it all my life since I grew up with it (it was shown side-by-side on local TV with American cartoons, so to me there's no difference). Here are some personal recommendations:

    --"Grave of the Fireflies": to show that anime can be as dramatic and powerful as any live-action movie. Not a happy or fun movie, but one that elevates anime in anyone's eyes.

    Anything by Miyazaki: You see, Heath, other than some ecological-friendly motifs Miyazaki's movies are all different one from the other. "Princess Mononoke" is as epic a tale as "Lord of the Rings," but "Kiki's Delivery Service" is as cute as a button and something you could watch with your kids and everyone would have a great time (which wouldn't be the case with "Mononoke" because violence!). Ditto for "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind", an ecological sci-fi epic that feels like a kid-friendly, character-based "Starship Troopers". "Spirited Away" is also good and... darn it, Heath, just get the Miyazaki monkey off your back.

    --Gunslinger Girls Season 1: an underrated gem of a series, which basically takes the premise of "Leon: The Professional" but applies it to a group of orphans working for a secret government institution. It all builds to a mother of an ending that is pretentiously show-offy but also deeply, disturbingly uplifting and moving. A second season is optional if you like what you see in S1.

    --I second Jason's recommendation of Summer Wars/The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

    -- After a long absence from the States due to rights issues, Sailor Moon is back on American soil via Hulu.com. They're started to stream Season 1 a few episodes at a time, with future seasons and DVD/Blu-ray releases to follow. I've long contended there are two types of anime fans: "Dragon Ball Z" fans and "Sailor Moon" fans. I'm definitely the latter, and I'd strongly urge you to at least sample this uncensored, undubbed version of "Sailor Moon" to at least get a sense of what one of the pillars of the anime experience can offer. God, I love this show so much. :-)

    --"Ghost in the Shell / Akira / Steamboy / Paprika / Metropolis": All accessible, touchstone or just good-enough anime flicks, past and present, you could watch and not feel like you've wasted your time. YMMV on each.

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    1. Yes! Gunslinger Girls is a really interesting series. The first season is fantastic (the Delgados track during the opening credits really helps). The second season is good, but really, really different.

      I'll also add Darker Than Black. It's a really flawed show, but I love the tone of the first season. There are some weird parallels with the novel Roadside Picnic (and with the two loose adaptations: Tarkovsky's Stalker and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games series). A weird game opens up in Japan, and a fraction of the earth's popular suddenly get strange powers...powers that can only be used if the "contractor" pays a price (like eating a cigarette or mutilating yourself).

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    2. I'll add another vote for Gunslinger Girls - by far the best single season of anime I've seen (I think it even beats Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and I freaking LOVE the major). The Delgados song is beautiful, but the series also features a beautiful orchestral score.

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    3. Ha ha! You're either a Dragon Ball fan or a Sailor Moon fan! Couldn't agree more! I'm definitely in the Sailor Moon camp, too, Vargas!

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    4. That's funny. I'm watching Dragon Ball Z with my step-daughter right now but watching Sailor Moon with my wife after the kid goes to bed. I like both!

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    5. Thanks for making me look like an idiot, Heath! ಠ_ಠ Geez.

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    6. My bad! I'll tell you this: I really loved Dragon Ball Z in the '90s and wouldn't have touched Sailor Moon on a dare back then. NOW I'm way more into the Sailor Moon vibe. Luna the guardian cat? TUXEDO MASK? Fuggetaboutit! The mooonlight is a messenger of love!

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    7. Pretty Soldier 'Hollywood' Heath Holland representing! (swoon) :-P

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  7. Crying Freeman, The Professional: Golgo 13, Blood: The Last Vampire, Ghost in the Shell 1 & 2...there's a series called Noir about two female assassins that is BADASS...the series FLCL is maybe one of the most insane yet awesome things I have ever seen (I've been told that's for professionals only yet I thought it was amazing and I'd say I'm low-seeded at best).

    The Miyazaki films shouldn't be daunting for anyone who enjoys things that are great. You seem to be one such person, so you'll be fine. You really should check them out.

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  8. I'll just list some of my personal favorite anime series and films

    Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Cowboy Bebop (which you seem to be a fan of), Baccano!, Ouran High School Host Club, Kino's Journey, and Paranoia Agent

    Filmswise, anything Ghibli, Akira, Steamboy, and Summer Wars

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  9. None of it! Don't do it, it's a never ending pit where you are constantly let down. Don't do it Heath. You've been warned. Only Sadness Will it Bring.

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  10. Ralph Bakshi hosted an anime marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1994. I was Freaked Out. I must've been 11, and I'd never seen honest-to-god anime before (though those of us who watched DuckTales, Dennis the Menace, Inspector Gadget, Thundercats, et al. as kids had actually been watching anime our entire lives without knowing it.) They aired Project A'ko, Dominion: Tank Police, and The Venus Wars, amongst a few others. Within the next year I'd seen all the essentials (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll,) and the year after that moved onto Hentai and never looked back. I strongly recommend those three I was deflowered by, along with Wicked City, a cops vs. demons thriller from Ninja Scroll's director. If you feel like taking that final step into the void, check out the completely amazing Mezzo Forte, a combination of full-on '80s US action/HK Girls with Guns beats and hardcore porn.

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    1. You make a great point about how the cartoons we grew up with were anime all along. It's totally true.

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  11. I will second those that have said Ghost in the Shell, Paprika, and Perfect Blue

    Although it's not a film, I have been making my way through the series Shigurui: Death Frenzy and it's probably the most insane, terse, and well-directed anime series I've ever seen. Each "shot" focuses so heavily on image and tone, there are constantly sequences that remind me of the finale of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The same way Leone makes seven minutes of men staring at each other the most exciting thing you've ever seen, Shigurui is able to completely immerse you through its visual style and directing.

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  12. This is sort of my thing but a lot of them are TV shows, and not films, but I'm gonna go at it anyway. Mr. Holland seems to enjoy marathons anyway so I don't feel too bad.

    Hellsing Ultimate - If you like Vampire Hunter D giving this a spin seems like a natural progression. Make sure you end up with the OVA though and not the series. Descendant of the Van Helsing family runs a very Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense style organization, with a Vampire named Alucard instead of Hellboy.

    Planetes - an excellent series about garbage collectors cleaning up the trash in space. Very demure, slice of life style story with great animation.

    Serial Experiments Lain - kinda weird, truly great, and the main character spends a good amount of time in some sort of bear pajamas. Early (1998) Cyber-philosophy, but much better than... say... The Net.

    Tegen Toppa Gurren Lagann - The best of the best when it comes to 'mecha' anime. Kills off a character early on who just responds by become more badass. Has a great blend of pure frenetic energy, over the top action, and an earnest story at heart.

    Welcome to the NHK - a Hikikomori (shut in) NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) gets his life together with the help of a contract with a random strange girl, while making a porno game with his neighbor, and dealing with a local TV station he believes is conspiring to keep him a NEET.

    Great things that I can't even actually explain but are short enough to just watch anyway:

    Eternal Family (29 minutes), and Kigeki [Comedy] (10 minutes)

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    1. Eek! I forgot, if you like Cowboy Bebop, really should check out Samurai Champloo also.

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    2. Ah yes! I forgot about Samurai Champloo! I still haven't finished it, since my wife wasn't digging it as much as I was, but I loved what I saw.

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  13. Rorouni Kenshin/Samurai X, Hellsing, and Gunslinger Girl

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  14. All my suggestions are dated -
    Ranma 1/2 is my favorite, but I would only suggest the first three seasons.

    After that, it's just sort a bunch of stuff.
    Love Hina
    Doki Doki School Hours
    Aaaand Bottle Fairies.

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  15. Anime is a medium I really like, respect, and admire, but one that I've never been able to truly love. The one thing about a lot of them that turns me off is that they have such terrific opening and middle acts of world building and character development, and then everything goes absolutely bonkers in the third act. (Spoilers for) Akira for example is a movie I really enjoy, but the ending with that gigantic organic blob monster comes out of nowhere and I'm not entirely sure if the rest of the movie has built up to that point, but perhaps my memory is just failing me. Mononoke is probably my favorite, but it falls victim to the same thing as do a lot of Miyazaki's stuff. For that reason I might consider Totoro as his best because that's a relatively plotless movie. It's like his version of Bambi, it's a great movie that just happens. I do, however, love Miyazaki's dedication to keeping hand-drawn animation alive and his films are very easy to look at every frame of the way.

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