[Full disclosure: This article began as a rant about how my hatred of contemporary anime. My research led me to discover that I was both misguided and a blockhead. Join me on this journey.]
I’ve been digging anime since the early ’80s when I experienced it dubbed, edited, and squeezed into American cartoon blocks either in the wee hours of the morning, after school or on weekends. I didn’t know its country of origin, but I did recognize that it was different. Cooler. Edgier. Not necessarily better — I still loved Scooby Doo and Super Friends – but different. Very different.
It was the style, really, and more mature storytelling. My earliest anime memory is tied to Battle of the Planets, a chopped up and remixed version of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Fronted by a heroic, stage-setting opening theme and featuring a five member team in avian-themed outfits, Battle of the Planets became must-see TV at age seven. In fact, my friends and I tied sweaters around our necks as mock capes/bird wings and used our own imagined martial arts to battle intergalactic ills on the playground. My anime crush had begun.
It blossomed with my discovery of Space Pirate Captain Harlock, a series starring a stoic space pirate who laments the apathy that mankind developed after society settled into a comfort zone; a space pirate who then tries to spark their spirits when alien invaders arrive. I’d never encountered a hero of such nature before Captain Harlockduring my early anime days. He spoke softly, but with passion. He fought not only to defend a world that rejected him, but to elevate its populace. Although the series featured mood-lightening comedy relief crew members designed to appeal to my young mind, I was wowed by the weighty storytelling. It felt adult, but not too much so. It was seemingly made for me.
Macross delivered the same emotion when I caught it as part of Harmony Gold’s Frankensteined Robotech, where it was edited together with the unrelated Tatsunoko Pro properties Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPESDA. It spoke to me. I was a child birthed in the tail end of the Cold War, but the threat of nuclear annihilation still lingered. The Soviet Union was still a few years away from dissolving, so I understood the possibility of intercontinental military action. And after viewing The Day After – an apocalyptic tale about a nuclear strike in two small American towns — I was scared to death that it would happen. It was inevitable. But Macross, despite it’s gorgeous missile-firing transformable mecha, was surprisingly anti-war. It showcased how culture, understanding, and love could sway hardened hearts. Major characters perished. Entire episodes were devoted to discussing unrequited love. Earth was nearly obliterated. I never felt spoken down to.
Add Fist of the Northstar‘s ultra-violence, AKIRA‘s religious overtones and teen angst, Megazone 23‘s ’80s-era Matrix plot, and there was a lot to love about anime. The material was designed to appeal to teenage me, but not in an insulting, “this was made for children” manner. Anime — with its strong themes, characterization, and protagonists — made my friends and I discuss death and other topics that American cartoons rarely touched. It respected us and we respected it.
Then it all began to change. Or at least appeared to change.
Lead characters got more whiny. The romantic heroes, saviors, and plucky protagonists were increasingly replaced with mopey teenage boys. Their female interests, appropriately, kept getting younger to near-disturbing levels. Expressions of shock/fear/surprise were ramped to the point where characters flailed about and their eyes grew/shrank depending on the show. This isn’t what I grew up with.
Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s Shinji Ikari was the first anime lead outside of Violence Jack‘s protagonist that I borderline hated. His daddy issues were evil tendrils that reached out and touched several anime programs to come after it. Maybe it tapped a distinctly Japanese social issue. Perhaps NGE was the show that gave credence to every teen’s insecurities. Who knows? Even my beloved Macross was poisoned by this new style. In Macross Frontier, which saw not only daddy issues (Alto) but a Loli-like Zentradei (Klan Klang) as well. What happened to the mature relationships featured in the wonderful Macross Plus? The jazzy neo-noir of Cowboy Bebop? It had gotten so bad that I would groan when I a game was touted as having “anime-influences.”
Then, after some research and conversations with those with far more anime knowledge than I, it hit me. Anime always had annoying youngsters. My mind sifted out the more annoying aspects of their personalities and left behind just the awesome. Even in the godly Mobile Suit Gundam.
“Amuro is super young and super whiny,” said Jeremy W. Kaufmann, host of Destroy All Podcasts DX, an anime- and Asian film-focused podcast. “There’s an episode where [Amuro] overhears Bright and Mirai talking about putting another pilot in the Gundam since he is a whiny baby, and then proving their point, he has a tantrum and jumps in the Gundam and runs away with it….”
Yup, that’s Amuro. And he’s not the only lead in an acclaimed series from my youth who I wouldn’t mind shaking sense into at an extremely brisk pace. Hikaru Ichijyo, the star of my beloved Macross, suffers from such youngster ills, too. It’s easy to remember him as the brave mecha hero who’s in a love triangle with a barely legal and a cougar, but his struggles with his feelings for Lynn Minmay — his romantic interest — drives me to the brink of insanity with each viewing. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, and other anime classics also feature young, unsure men in need of guidance.
“Harlock may be hard and tough, but the actual protagonists of Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 are the young boys who learn from them, much like how the young and whiny Hikaru learns from Roy in Macross,” said Kauffman. “Harlock and Roy are father figures, really.”
The anime of my youth, I now realize, frequently focused on teen boys growing more responsible and becoming men. In retrospect, that’s probably why I liked it so much besides the insanely cool action; it was a reflection of my own awkward and unsure teenage years. The new crop touches these same themes, too. And others.
But it was Death Note that single-handedly changed the scope of this article. I was, admittedly, a bit skeptical of the premise. A high school kid, Light, finds a supernatural book that lets him kill people with just a pen stroke. It had emo stench all over it. Instead, Death Note surprised me with its intelligence, unpredictability, and intense cat-and-mouse game between the teenage death-dealer and law enforcement. Death Note now easily ranks among my favorite programs of all time, and sparked a renewed interest in anime.
Golgo 13, in these early episodes, is shaping up to be a solid television series. I’m also going to look deeper into Casshern Sins, which I’ve caught here and there on the resurrected Toonami. It looks bleak and heavy, and has the classic Tatsunoku Pro visual style that’s been shaped by modern design and animation techniques.
Sure, I’m late to those parties, but I’m down to party – that should count for something, right?
Excellent pacing, storytelling, and characterization are entertainment elements that I value. And I’m glad it’s still on display in this unique medium that captured me as a youth.