One of many benefits gained when I cut the cable and subscribed to Netflix and Hulu was access to a very large catalog of Japanese anime. Until then I was largely at the mercy of the Cartoon Network cable channel and rented videos. While I’ve so far barely scratched the surface of the Netflix catalog, I have been steadily working my way through Hulu’s.
Recently I’ve enjoyed two there: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? and xxxHolic. The former is a fun medieval fantasy adventure series (with expected twists and unexpected depth). Saying the latter is about a beautiful hard-drinking witch who grants wishes is accurate but misses the point.
It’s a lot more interesting than that.
Which is why I enjoy Japanese anime so much. They’re almost all a lot more interesting than that — where “that” is both their individual descriptions and western storytelling in general these days.
The Japanese seem less addicted to socially correct storytelling than we’ve become. Anime, to me, seems more honest, more open, and more creative. As I’ve said many times, one of my main asks of stories is that they take me someplace new, someplace I’ve never been before. The other is don’t give me a case of the “yeah, buts” by inattention to the story and its world.
The Japanese, perhaps due to an ancient history rich in performing and physical arts, excel in attention to the detail of storytelling. Their worldbuilding is usually thoughtful and consistent. And that long history may lead to a penchant for inventing creative story arc twists.
Perhaps it’s just a willingness, both in creators and in consumers, towards something new and different over the old and well-worn. Western storytelling currently seems to favor sequels and reboots. Our trailers contain spoilers because western audiences have made it clear they want to know what they’re getting into. We seem to favor what’s familiar and mistrust the new.
[A natural inclination. Would you rather try a new restaurant or go to one you know? Would you rather vacation somewhere new or return to the same place? I see a connoisseur as someone who knows the quality of a thing (wine, cars, TV shows) and a gourmet as a connoisseur interested in new experiences or instances of that thing. The Japanese, I suspect, are story gourmets. Sadly, too many westerners aren’t even connoisseurs, just consumers.]
The Japanese obviously do have their own versions of Marvel and other franchises, but I think they put more heart and mind into it. They’re not afraid to be fresh and honest. They’re better at it.
And I really do think animation, rather than live-action, makes a world of difference when exploring the fantastic. Live-action spoon feeds us everything. Animation invokes at least some of our ability to imagine. (Book, obviously, are best at this.)
Whatever the reason, I find that Japanese anime has a very high success rate with me. That has a lot to do with being selective, though — so much so I’m likely missing ones I’d like (but also missing lots more I wouldn’t). Even so, it’s surprising how often the “cover” fails to depict the “book” (but hence the cliché). I’ve started a lot of anime uncertain it was going to appeal only to discover yet another tasty treat.
If you’re a fan of animation as an artform, xxxHolic (2006; 24 episodes) is worth seeing just for the animation style. (The title is apparently just “Holic” — the “xxx” seems to stand for ‘fill in the blank’.)
The distinctive animation style is based on Japanese ukiyo-e wood block prints, a style that began in the 17th century. There is also an elongation of limbs and torsos that reminds me of various graphic artists. It’s prominent enough here that some commented unfavorably about it. I rather liked it (it’s something fresh, and I thought it went well with the story).
The plot involves a high school student, Kimihiro Watanuki, who is tormented by ayakashi spirits only he can see (and feel). In the first episode apparent chance leads him to the wish-granting shop owned by Yūko Ichihara — a powerful and mysterious witch.
As is often the case with magical shops, one wanders into this place only if one has a deep wish for something — usually to overcome a perceived life obstacle blocking forward progress. Watanuki has a deep wish to be rid of the spirits that plague him.
Yūko grants wishes — will grant his — for a price of equal value. Her price for freeing Watanuki from his spirits is that he will work for her as cook and housekeeper. As time goes on, she involves him more and more in supernatural incidents.
Hulu has only the first season, which has 24 episodes. There is a second season from 2008 with 13 episodes. And four OVAs (original video animations) plus an anime movie (2005), a live-action TV miniseries (2013), a stage play (2021), and a live-action film that came out this year.
Of course, as is so often the case, the whole thing is based on a manga series.
That first season is fairly episodic and, while open-ended so things can continue, does land a reasonable arc. I’m not desperate for the second season, although I’d be happy to see it.
Many of the episodes involve clients who stumble into Yūko’s shop with a wish involving escape from behavioral addictions interfering with their lives. As is not uncommon in Japanese storytelling, not all these episodes have happy endings.
I think it’s worth seeing just for the animation style, but it also scores high on my something different scale. I give it a solid Ah! rating. One of those taste treats I mentioned. I was a little uncertain going in, but I’m glad I did.
There is nothing particularly deep about Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? The goofy title alone attracted me to it. My greatest preference is the Yin-Yang mix of lightness and darkness, and that title strongly suggested storytelling lightness to me.
And, indeed, it presents as a fun medieval fantasy adventure series somewhat, I’d guess, along Dungeons & Dragons lines. (I have to guess never having played D&D. To me it suggested The Dungeons of Moria, which I have played.)
However, there is as much, if not much more, action that takes place between various characters in the “normal” world above the dungeons. And while the show starts off in the shallows, in the later seasons it swims into the deep end of the pool.
The context is that the gods who created the universe swore off most of their godly powers and descended to live among humans. One power they keep is the ability to “Bless” humans — to level up their ability rating (video game style). These humans become “Familia” — members of that god’s family. Most of these seek adventure in the dungeon levels hunting monsters, the killing of which increases skill level and leaves behind gems that can be exchanged for credit.
The plot follows Bell Cranel a young hero wannabe and initially the only member of goddess Hestia’s Familia. (She’s kind of the runt kid-sister among the gods.) In the first episode, down in the dungeons, Cranel is almost killed by a Minotaur that escaped from a lower (much tougher) level. Ais Wallenstein, known as the Sword Princess, was chasing the fleeing Minotaur and arrives in time to save him.
Which hugely embarrasses Cranel since his plan was to become a hero adventurer so he could attract a woman like her. He’s forced to realize she’s far out of his league, but he vows to become good enough to be worthy of her attention. (He doesn’t realize that Hestia and several other female characters all have a crush on him.)
As it turns out (and I think this isn’t an uncommon theme in Japanese stories), his passion amounts to a magical skill, Realis Phrase, that enables him to progress rapidly. The first season is largely about his growth as a hero adventurer but much of the story takes place in the city above the dungeon and involves interaction between the characters.
In the second season, the story matures. Hestia’s Familia has grown to include several others and, after successfully meeting and beating the challenge by another Familia, they win the other Familia’s huge mansion. Even more of the action takes place outside the dungeon and involves intrigue between the various gods.
The third season features more of the dungeons and a new aspect to the story I won’t spoil. Suffice to say it’s an interesting twist and the main source of the conflict in the season. I’ll add that, while D&D or Moria players will find the initial premise of the dungeons familiar, the show adds several new layers to that premise.
Once again Japanese anime takes something old and familiar and finds a fresh and creative way to spin it. It’s sad that we in the west so rarely hit that target, and I fear that it’s because we don’t want to. We seem to prefer the safety of commodity storytelling.
I found the show, especially in the first season or so, to be heavily shōnen (oriented towards teenaged boys). Visually, the female characters are buxom and shapely and many of their costumes are laughable (some of the warrior women fared better). The first season seemed worse in terms of tone — kind of a high school feel — but the later seasons were more focused on plot and action.
The goddess Hestia became the hit of the series. She’s the only character with her own Wiki page, and apparently many Japanese cosplaying women copy her distinctive costume. Even the gravity-defying blue ribbon supporting her ample bosom has gained notoriety.
Hulu has the three seasons that are out (2015, 13 episodes; 2019, 12 episodes; 2020, 12 episodes). A fourth season is apparently expected sometime this year. I don’t know if Hulu will have it, but I hope so. I give it a soft Ah! rating — a worthy diversion.
A few TV notes in closing:
I posted about Mr. Mayor, an NBC sitcom from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. I gave it two thumbs up, an Ah! rating, and recommended checking it out. Many episodes into the second season I’m far less taken with the show. To the point of asking myself why I’m still watching it. The problem for me is that it’s Idiot Clown comedy and everyone — ev-ver-ree-one — is surreally stupid. The humor not only isn’t landing but is approaching grimace territory. I withdraw my thumbs and recommendation. At best, it gets an Eh! rating, but it’s edging into Meh!
I also posted about Upload, a Greg Daniels comedy on Amazon Prime. Season two (a mere seven episodes) finally came out last March. It’s still pretty good. No sophomore slump to speak of, although I wish the season was longer. I gave it a Wow! rating, but season two just rates an Ah! As did the first season, the second ends with a cliffhanger.
And I posted about Space Force, a Greg Daniels show on Netflix. I gave it a strong Ah! rating — even said it could earn a Wow! rating over time. The problem, once again, is Idiot Clown comedy (which I see as low fruit). This one sunk to Meh!
I’ve only briefly mentioned Atlanta, the often surreal and usually brilliant show by Donald Glover. The third season is out on Hulu, and it has easily maintained its strong Wow! rating. This season is sprinkled with some standalone episodes telling unrelated stories that will break your mind just a little.
Lastly, I posted recently about Farscape, a 1999 SF TV show a friend recommended. Have now seen all four seasons and the movie (on Amazon Prime), and it all gets a loud Wow! rating. I rank the show up there with TOS, Bab5, and classic Who.
Stay holic, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.