Gate, Samurai Champloo, Outlaw Star

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.

Left to right: Yao Haa Dushi (Dark Elf), Rory Mercury (Demigoddess), Yōji Itami (human, Japanese army), Lelei La Lelena (Mage), Tuka Luna Marceau (High Elf).

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.

Huge fire-breathing dragon versus modern fighter jets. Who will win?

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.

The Roman Empire doesn’t stand a chance!

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.

§ §

Today, at long last, is the Winter Solstice! After a brief pause, the days will start getting longer again. Hooray! It’s my favorite day of the year. Champagne tonight!

Stay Champloo, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

17 responses to “Gate, Samurai Champloo, Outlaw Star

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I got such a kick from the name Piña Co Lada. She’s just introduced as Piña at first, and you don’t learn her last name for another episode or three, so it’s a cute delayed laugh.

    Japanese anime, in general, seems to have some fun with Western names. I’m never certain whether they’re picked knowingly or just because they like the sound. I have heard the Japanese enjoy tee-shirts with English slogans on them even though they may not be able to read English. Similar to how we use Chinese or Japanese writing without understanding it because we just like the look of it.

    I’m pretty sure the gag is fully intentional in this case, though. 🙂

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Thinking back on it, part of what made Gate so delightful is the way it subverts expectations. Invading monsters… turn out to be easily, almost trivially, defeated. It’s pretty funny!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I’ve seen Outlaw Star and Ergo Proxy and enjoyed both. But yeah, Ergo is pretty dark (both visually and thematically). I had to go to the internet once finished to understand everything. And the ending, once understood, is very dark, pretty much in Black Mirror territory. Still, I enjoyed it for its concepts and worldbuilding.

    Outlaw Star is silly, almost too silly at points, but overall I still enjoyed it. I was a little worried the grappler ship thing would turn the show into a mecha match, but it didn’t. (Having watched a fair amount of mecha since, I wouldn’t be as worried today.)

    The other two sound interesting. I’ll have to keep them in mind.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I really liked Gate, and Samurai Champloo was a lot of fun, too. I think you would enjoy both.

      One does have to just go along with the cartoonish nature of Outlaw Star. It’s a deliberate comedy — IN SPACE — so it earns a lot of latitude in my book. I’m generally more forgiving about comedy (because it’s harder than drama).

      I also poked around after watching Ergo Proxy. This blog post laid it out pretty good, I thought. It’s an ambitious project with lofty goals, but the execution seemed unnecessarily opaque. How hard it was to see visually paralleled how obscured the story was. Reading that detailed explanation, the story seems to have some weaknesses and holes that would have been obvious were it told more transparently.

      I would not have thought of Black Mirror in connection with this. Are you teeing off on the AI robots?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Yeah, Ergo Proxy was definitely more confusing than it needed to be. I think it was fine to confuse us for part of the story, but they could have eventually made it more obvious for a casual viewer. I don’t have time to watch a series three times to figure out what’s happening. If I had seen it when it first came out, before the internet analyses were available, I’m pretty sure the Blade Runner + Logan’s Run vibe wouldn’t have been enough to prevent me from hating it.

        By Black Mirror, I only mean, similar to a lot of its episodes, Ergo’s ending seems pretty dark.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ergo Proxy seems a rare case of substance and style, but they went so overboard on the style that the substance became all but impossible to access. An interesting lesson.

        Yeah, I kinda figured you were keying off the “mind fuck” aspects; Black Mirror was always pretty good at that. For me the show’s gestalt is something along the lines of mind fuck plus computer technology being responsible for it. It made me wonder what I’d use as my “really dark show” example,… Game of Thrones, maybe? I’ll have to think about that…

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        For me, it’s about how BM episodes typically end. I’m often fine with a lot of darkness, but generally don’t care for dark endings. Ergo was imaginative enough that I still enjoyed in on balance. But if the story ends with everyone we’ve been cheering for being screwed, the journey better be really good for me to come away with good feelings about it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That is so interesting! You do have more taste for darker storytelling than I do, but I might be more accommodating of tragic endingsif (huge honking if there) the story is a parable or cautionary tale. A lot of the Twilight Zone episodes were very dark that way (the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales are another example). Often in such cases the darkness is in the form of justice served, which in me often invokes satisfaction.

        I think that’s why I don’t see Black Mirror as dark. It definitely is dark in what happens to certain characters, I see what you mean, but from what I recall it’s usually a case of justice served. Weirdly, for some reason, that seems to cause me to overlook the darkness to the point I was initially puzzled by the comparison. I had to think about it a moment. 🤔

        Ergo Proxy is kind of hard to classify. It isn’t really a morality play with a parable, and it’s not pure tragedy because [a] we don’t know what Vincent will do and [b] what will happen to the returning humans with all the domes destroyed and the Earth not fixed yet? (One hole in the story is that it appears the Awakening may have been triggered by the space humans, but if so, why aren’t they more aware of conditions on Earth?) Overall, it does seem an unhappy situation for all involved, so I suppose it’s meant as a tragedy, à la Shakespeare and the Ancient Greeks.

        I guess the idea is, if the story won’t leave us happy, it’s supposed to leave us impressed, but they shot themselves in the foot by making it too opaque. Good stories should leave you with clear emotions and questions, not wondering WTF did I just see?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Yeah, the parable or cautionary tale thing doesn’t really do anything to mitigate it for me. It usually just means the protagonist either wasn’t sympathetic to begin with, or if they were, we go through a sequence of discovering just how unsympathetic they really are. Just not my preferred type of storytelling.

        I haven’t watched that many Black Mirror episodes, so I can’t be sure, but I remember Twilight Zone eps where the characters didn’t necessarily deserve their fate. For example, I don’t recall William Shatner’s character deserving what happens to him in the gremlin on the wing episode. I also remember episodes where characters eventually had to realize they were dead, again with nothing in particular to indicate they deserved their situation. But definitely in many cases the protagonists were bad people coming to a deserved end.

        On the other hand, if something about the ending is positive, even if everyone dies, say to save a lot more people, I’m usually okay with that. I just don’t care for ignominious endings, except maybe for an antagonist.

        Totally agreed on a good story leaving us with clear emotions and questions. Definitely not Ergo’s strength.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Or the one with the near-sighted guy who’s the last one alive, and he’s all thrilled about being able to read all he wants now, but then he breaks his glasses. (Apparently none of those are left in the world, either.) You’re right, The Twilight Zone (and The Outer Limits) had a lot of stories that were tragic or horror. (I like to think the Shatner one turned out okay, though, once they got a good look at that wing and the engine.)

        OTOH, Black Mirror (off the top of my head; it’s been a while) is much heavier on the message — the consequences of living in a computer age. I wonder if that’s why I don’t perceive it as dark; in some sense it’s no darker than life (and life is baseline dark, so I guess I discount it). Funny thing is, thinking about it, given their excursions into horror and tragedy, I’d call The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits more on the dark side (certainly for the time) than Black Mirror is.

        That said, I think this conversation is crystalizing something for me that I’ve never really articulated before. I still keep coming up with Game of Thrones as my canonical dark storytelling, and the phrase I just used, “on the dark side” (…of the force, as the phrase goes), tells me I equate “dark” with “evil” (and not with just tragic or bad outcomes; to me those are life-like). It’s the evil that humans do to each other in Game of Thrones that makes it dark for me. Lord of the Rings is dark that way, but it’s a Yin-Yang tale with all the protagonists on the side of light. And they win, so overall the story isn’t really dark, just fraught with difficulty.

        One thing about parables. The character doesn’t necessarily have to be so bad as to be unsympathetic. In fact, parables like that are often seen more as propaganda or pandering. Straw targets. It’s when we do identify with the characters, and they make bad choices we can imagine ourselves making (given the amplification of storytelling), that parables are at their best. They’re cautionary tales to apply to our own lives. (It took me a long time to get past that amplification. I used to reject identifying with characters and actions because they were comparatively extreme, but then I realized I could see myself if I just dialed things down. That amplification can be especially strong in comedy; when it rises to slapstick levels is when I tend to tune out. I just can’t dial that stuff down.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I finished Outlaw Star the other night, and it has more depth overall than its silliness initially suggests. A definite thumbs up, now that I’ve seen the whole thing.

      Now I’m watching Space Dandy, which is hysterical. It’s even goofier, but it’s also really sly, funny, and self-aware. Definitely an anime for SF geeks; lots of SF references.

      (BTW: I’ll come by your Matrix post after I see the film. We’ve been talking about seeing it in the next week or so. Until I see it, I’m trying to avoid knowing much about it.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I saw the first episode of Space Dandy, but it didn’t work for me. Just too silly. Although I keep it in mind for a retry at some point when I might be more in the mood for its level of silliness.

        No worries on The Matrix. I don’t spoil much, but if you’re going for total blank slate, then might be best to wait.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Space Dandy is definitely way over the top, but the writing is very clever and funny AF. It’s obviously written by knowledgeable SF fans who are having some off-the-chain fun. But it makes no attempt whatsoever to be realistic. It’s a bit like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In the first episode, everyone dies at the end, but in the second episode they’re fine and no reference is made. In general episodes are so episodic they involve a complete reset. In the zombie episode, everyone (including the bad guys chasing them) gets turned into zombies. There’s a whole zombie culture by the end of the episode. Next episode; complete reset. Come to that, the show sort of reminds me of Rick and Morty (which is a favorite, but also very silly). Both are very “meta” (as they say) and not gonna be everyone’s cuppa, but I tend to love stuff like Rick and Morty or Space Dandy. They make me laugh a lot.

        Yeah, I try to keep a blank slate for anything I might potentially really like. I want to experience it cold. I think I made a mistake even reading that NPR review of the book, FKA USA, because it framed the book in such a strongly positive light, and either I’m not seeing it or I’m counter-reacting to that review (or both). I’m liking the book okay, but it’s not blowing me away. I think it might be another case of literary fiction that edges into science fiction, and all the literary critics are gushing over its originality because they don’t realize that, within science fiction, that field has been plowed a few times. Dystopic wacky future stories are not quite as unique as literary folks might think (having read none or very few (likely Orwell or Atwood)). The book’s okay, but I’m not sure it impresses me one way or the other enough to post about it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I finished Space Dandy last night (watched all 26 episodes in three sittings). I loved it; the writing is amazing. It’ll rank up there among my favorite anime series, but it is way meta and over-the-top goofy. I suspect, but can never be sure, it’s not something you’d latch onto. It’s more about playing around with animation and narrative styles, almost like Love, Death & Robots does. And it’s Bullwinkle silly. The word I keep coming up with to describe the show is delirious — exuberantly insane.

        That said, if you can get past the silly, it has surprising depth and poignance, especially in the later episodes. I’ll give away a secret (that isn’t much of a secret; it’s in the lyrics of the end credits song). The Space Dandy universe is Everettian, and each episode takes place in different reality. That’s why the animation and narrative (and musical) styles vary between episodes. That’s why Dandy, his crew, or the villain chasing them, can be killed at the end of episodes and almost no reference is ever made to previous episodes.

        But it’s directed by the same Watanabe who directed Cowboy Bebop, and you didn’t really connect with that one. Space Dandy not only has all of the elements I suspect made CB less of a hit with you but distills them and wraps them in delirium. The artwork is often right out of Ralph Bakshi. And there seems a strong Heavy Metal influence. At times things get downright psychedelic. Not, I think, your cuppa, but it might be worth watching for the experience.

        END SPOILER: In the end, the multiverse gets destroyed (for reasons), and the narrator (who turns out to be God) offers Dandy the God seat for the new multiverse. Dandy turns it down. 😀

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        You’re actually making the show sound more interesting to me. Not the goofy aspects but the other ones: LD&R, Heavy Metal, Bakshi, etc. Maybe the multiverse one too. I’ll have to keep it in mind.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        😀 😀 😀 Sneaky reverse psychology gets them every time!

        Seriously, if you can get past the silly, the show really sparkles. Sheer fun by intelligent SF geeks. It’s something unique.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I have to say, Space Dandy is excellent. It’s as silly as a Bullwinkle cartoon, with which it shares some similarities, but damn is it sneaky smart! Of course it is, it’s directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, who also directed Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. I’d actually forgotten why I added it to my WatchList — it was because I saw it listed as one of his. I happened to pay more attention to the credits than usual last night and noticed his name. “Ah, ha!” I thought. “No wonder this is so good!”

    Also: I mentioned that Hulu was apparently losing a bunch of anime shows in January. A couple of days ago the “Expires in X days” badge went away from all those shows, so I guess they’ll remain on Hulu after all. I’m glad! (They did the same thing with Boston Legal — said it was going to expire and then changed their mind and I’m still slowly working my way through episodes.)

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