For me, Japanese anime seems a gift that keeps on giving. Perhaps a better way to put it is that it’s a well that hasn’t yet come close to running dry for me. For one, there is a ton of Japanese anime and even Sturgeon’s Law gives good results on such a big catalog.
There is also that it seems, on average, more nuanced and perceptive than modern Western storytelling. Or it could be a combination of over-familiarity with our dregs and the same cherry-picking selectiveness that sometimes makes the BBC seem superior in contrast (it’s so not).
In any event, here are four I enjoyed recently and can recommend.
First, I have to mention that my OLED TV, as most such do, has rather involved color controls. Some are presets for different viewing modes, such as Sports (bright, fast) or Dark Room (dim, low contrast). When it comes to anime, I turn it to Vivid — bright saturated colors that make animation look even more comic book like.
I have to remember to turn it back for live action or everything looks very lurid, but I love how it makes animated shows really pop visually. (Not that it helped much with the muddy darkness of the last series I’ll mention.)
Gate (2015; one season, 24 episodes; Hulu) I really enjoyed this! It wasn’t quite what I expected based on its thumbnail description. In fact, it was kind of the opposite of what I expected. A friend had recommended this several times, and it was because he brought it up repeatedly that I finally gave it a try. He was right.
The Hulu description starts off: “A gate to another world appears in the middle of Tokyo’s Ginza District, and the citizens of Tokyo are attacked by cavalry, dragons, and demons.” To be honest, I stopped reading carefully at that point. It sort of said it all; I got the picture. Or so I thought.
If only I’d read the rest, especially the last sentence, more carefully, “Itami, an otaku who was in the area to purchase his long-awaited doujinshi, becomes the accidental hero of the day and gets promoted to second lieutenant of the Self-Defense Force. Not long after, he’s sent on a mission through the gate into the other world with typical otaku-like expectations of what he’ll find there.”
The part about going to the other side of the gate is what didn’t register. I pictured a story set in Tokyo, with the Japanese dealing with the invaders. I was thinking along the lines of Gojira. This isn’t that. At all.
For one thing, although Hulu doesn’t bill it as a comedy, it’s pretty funny. The comedy is situational, not gag-based; some it had me laughing loudly many times. For all that, there’s plenty of action and battle.
Contrary to my expectation, most of the story takes place in the fantasy world on the other side of the gate. At first, per the Hulu description, there is an invasion, and Tokyo is caught unawares. There is much initial loss of life, but despite flying dragons and other beasts, the attackers are essentially Medieval technologically, and, once the Japanese Special Defense Force (JSDF) shows up, the invaders get their asses handed back.
Next the Japanese government declares the territory beyond the gate as the Special Region and sends their army to invade the invaders back. To establish peace and trade, of course. It’s speak softly, sue for peace, but carry a really big dangerous stick and don’t take any crap diplomacy.
The empire in the other world sends wave upon wave of armies to fight them off because everyone assumes the Japanese are like them: intent on pillaging and destroying. They assume payback for the invasion they mounted against the Japanese.
Since they seriously outnumber the seemingly small JSDF force, they can’t wrap their heads around why they are utterly decimated every time while the Japanese suffer only lightly. It’s the Roman empire versus modern mechanized warfare, that’s why. It’s bloody as hell, but it’s also kinda funny in a dark way. It’s so completely one-sided.
Yōji Itami, mentioned in the Hulu description, is the protagonist. He seems to be something of a slacker fanboy, but there’s a bit more to him. Or perhaps, it’s hinted, a lot more. In any event, as the description says, coincidence (and his quick reactions, let’s be honest) promotes him to high rank in the counter-invasion, and he ends up in the center of things.
Which includes four female characters from the other world: a 300-year-old Dark Elf, a (mind addled) 165-year-old High Elf, a 961-year-old Demigoddess (of death), and a 15-year-old mage. (I’m fascinated by Rory Mercury’s being 961 years old. In the Bible, Methuselah lived to be 969.)
Itami is also connected with 19-year-old princess Piña Co Lada. She and her small all-female army of Rose Knights meet Itami and learn he wants peace. Part of the humor comes from the princess completely misunderstanding Itami, who is trying to be very accommodating and wouldn’t harm a fly. But given the power she’s seen the Japanese wield, she assumes he’s making nicely cloaked threats and demands. She fears for the utter destruction of the empire, and he’s just trying to set up trade. It’s a cute comedy of misunderstanding.
This one gets a strong Ah! rating and an unqualified recommendation. It was sheer fun, plenty of action, some real laughs, just a delight all around. It’s based on a novel series by Takumi Yanai, and there is a manga as well.
Samurai Champloo (2004; one season, 26 episodes; Hulu) This one, and the next one, came onto my radar because of an article that, in reaction to the live-action Cowboy Bebop unpleasantness, offered a list of anime very similar to Bebop. I’m a big fan of that classic, so I thought I’d give this a try.
And once again, glad I did. It’s definitely a spiritual successor to Cowboy Bebop. It’s not just similar in shape; a few eps seem deliberate homages to eps in CB. For instance, episode 7, “A Risky Racket” features a thief who’s just trying to save his mother. It’s structurally very similar to Bebop episode 8, “Waltz for Venus” which has a thief who’s just trying to save his sister.
Speaking of episode titles, while Champloo doesn’t have the musical references in them that Bebop does, they have the same feel (and a few do contain musical references, for instance “Beatbox Bandits” and “Lullabies of the Lost”).
And speaking of music, a key similarity is a much more serious soundtrack than in most shows (of any kind). As with Bebop, it’s part of the whole. In this case, rather than a jazz orientation, Champloo has a hip-hop orientation. The main character’s fighting style is based on hip-hop moves. (Note: hip-hop, not rap.)
The similarities continue. It’s episodic, although there is a nominal overall story arc that makes it basically a quest story. Many episodes vary the narrative conventions (as many good series do for fun). The show is stylized, self-aware, and mature.
Further, it features two male characters, Mugen and Jin, who have very different personalities and aren’t all that close (more forced together by events) and one female character, Fuu, who, in part, acts as a fulcrum between the men. (But usually not in a romantic triangle sense, though there are some vague hints at it.)
There’s no mystery to all these similarities. Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo were both directed by Shinichirō Watanabe. This is original material, not an adaptation of a novel or manga. Cowboy Bebop, of course, is also original TV material.
I found the arc, the episodes, and the ending, all very satisfying. It’s more light-hearted and accessible than Cowboy Bebop, less of a gourmet’s meal, but still some fine dining. All things considered, it earns a good Ah! rating and a strong recommendation. The creators clearly had fun making it, and it’s lots of fun to watch. The sword fights impressed me. The animators use bright streaks of light to indicate sword slashes; I noticed and liked the effect.
Outlaw Star (1998; one season, 26 episodes; Hulu) Also recommended as like Cowboy Bebop enough to act as an anodyne to exposure to the live-action attempt. I’m only halfway through this, but it’s fun enough to recommend.
It isn’t as serious as the other two. It has what I think of a Johnny Quest feel — cartoonish, innocent, action-y, motion-y,… it’s hard to describe other than to point to the Johnny Quest cartoons.
It’s nothing like Bebop in tone or character, but it is heavy on the spaceship porn like Bebop, and also shares the sheer variety of spaceship forms. In fact, Outlaw Star goes wild that way; no two personal spaceships are alike. It’s as if everyone drove a custom-made car.
Most anime series have at least one new creative element, often something that distinguishes the series from similar others. I mentioned the visual sword flash effect in Samurai Champloo. In this series, it’s “Grappler Ships” — spaceships with one or more very long articulated arms with claws or whatnot at their ends. They make the custom ships even wackier — some seem as much or more grapplers than ship. (In Cowboy Bebop, Jet’s ship, Hammerhead, had a long grappling arm.)
What’s funny is that the spaceship battles can be a bit like mech battles — two machines duking it out in close quarters. It’s both silly and unphysical (the way the ships bounce around). You just have to accept it as part of the fun.
Another silliness is the Munchausen (warp) Drive, which uses a coaxial multi-“propeller” tail empennage that emits energy something like a 3D ship’s wake. It seems a clear signal to not take this one too seriously.
Hulu says this is expiring in January. I notice Cowboy Bebop also expires on Hulu in January, but it’s available on Netflix now. As I said, I’m only halfway through, but I’ll give it a provisional middling Ah! and say it’s worth seeing if you haven’t.
Ergo Proxy (2006; one season, 23 episodes; Hulu) Um. Wow. This original anime was weird! Visually compelling (and annoyingly dark AF) and a bit surreal (and also dark in tone).
This is mostly worth seeing for the look — the visual style is quite distinctive (although damned dark). I didn’t care much for the characters, and I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying. The show has deep pretensions, but ultimately doesn’t quite live up to them.
It features a dystopian future where humans have retreated to domed cities to survive (vaguely like Huxley’s Brave New World). Intelligent robots act as servants. The robots aren’t self-aware unless they catch the Cogito virus, and that has been a problem. Worse, some monster seems to be running around the city killing people.
There are two main characters, the regent’s daughter, Re-l (pronounced “ree-al”) Mayer, who works as an investigator for the city, and a supposed immigrant, Vincent Law, who may not be all he seems.
The post has gotten long, and Ergo Proxy is a bit too involved to describe simply, so I’ll just say I give it an Eh! rating and would only recommend it for gourmet anime tastes.
Stay Champloo, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.