Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Making Arts and Entertainment Great Again

I have posted several times about how dire the anime industry is looking in Japan these days. My current post series on 100 accessible anime tapers off hard around 2005, and there's a reason for that. As you no doubt know, it is because the industry deliberately turned in on itself and focused on shoe-gazing to the fringe audience while ignoring the wider one. Sales have been falling for a while, and things were looking bleaker and bleaker for older fans and those who used to care.

Then I stumbled across this news:

"But what is really striking is that Sasaki believes it’s time for the industry to move away from catering to otaku and instead focus on “light users.” He said that light users are young fans who love anime but aren’t buying Blu-rays, DVDs, and music CDs to due price and being raised in a digital age. Instead, they are more likely to support anime by purchasing merchandise, going to events (like anime conventions), and consume media digitally. The reason for moving away from the otaku crowd? They are way too niche and titles catering to otaku have trouble making money back."

Well, that escalated quickly. If by "quickly" you mean "it took a decade of stupid decisions, hemorrhaging overseas appeal, and flooding the market with mediocrity before we finally realized that those older fans might have had a point," then sure, it was fast.

It goes without saying that I am all for this push, and I hope Japan doublestriples down on it and refuse to let their foot up off the gas. Whatever is left of the industry needs it.

It’s only a shame that the anime and manga industry is the only one who sees the writing on the wall for allocating the majority of their time and effort for a small and only shrinking niche. And it took these people over a decade to get it. Why is this so hard?

There is a middle ground, folks.

This post should go with a disclaimer: the industry should not instead go in the opposite extreme of streamlining and sanding the edges off of their products to appeal to audiences who have no interest in what's being sold. That is not what I'm suggesting.

The modern entertainment industry is constantly caught in two extremes. They either go for the 1% of the 1% and cater their products to uber niche tastes for people who consume and dispose of the product as soon as they’re finished digesting, or they aim for Normie Joe, an imaginary human being that would enjoy their product immensely if only it talked down to him a bit more and the wild elements were tamed. The 1% of 1% will never be satiated and Normie Joe the reluctant fan doesn’t actually exist. The group that loses in both cases is the one the should have been targeted in the first place.

In case you haven’t realized, I’m no longer just talking about anime.

If the average fan is looking for your product, all they want is you to polish it the best you can. The majority of the audience doesn’t want you to satiate their every fetish and whim, nor would they suddenly decide not to partake if only you made Side Character B’s skin color different, you horrible racist. Normal fans, the majority, don't care about either. They want you to create something, put your passion into it, make it the best you can, and put it out there. The audience will come, or they will not. There’s no pattern for success.

But there’s also nothing to be gained by streamlining and dumbing down, or erecting a wall to keep everyone outside of the hardcore of the hardcore away, at the cost of the average fan. Both lead to shrinking audiences and products not worth anyone’s time.

For the best illustration of my point: take Rock n' Roll music. You might as well since no one else will.

What started as a melding of Gospel music and sped-up Blues has spun so far out of control that nothing in the genre sounds anything like it did when it started. Sure you have Punk, Metal, Alternative, which spun out from it, and all the sub genres still thriving and sounding pretty much exactly like they did when they started, but the original strand? When was the last time you heard a new band that sounded like Chuck Berry, or a singer covering a Sonny Boy Williamson song? There are Rock bands active now who have never even heard those names before.

All you have today are mainstream mopey and bland post-Nirvana bands and ironic indie groups that sing smirking songs about nothing. They’ve taken parts of Rock music and fetishized all the important parts out of the genre while typically decrying the very elements (like the Gospel itself) which allow them to even have a career in the first place. And the radio stations outright support it.

Rock music is a part of two different camps these days. There are the 1% of the 1% constantly on the lookout for the next Pinkerton (which wasn’t that good, guys) and there are the pop fans who listen to the sanitized rock radio like everything the Foo Fighters have put out since the '90s ended. You have abstract weirdness and ironic winking snark, or you have mopey millennials doing a Cobain impression over autotune and perfectly distorted guitars. Two markets which are entirely separated from each other and far from the source of where they began. Rock music has lost the plot.

For all intents and purposes, Rock n' Roll music is dead.

Don’t believe me? When was the last time you heard a new sped-up Blues song on the radio? How about an upbeat song with a stand-up bass? When was the last time you heard any Rock n' Roll artist put out a song with a piano that wasn’t a cheesy ballad or a kitsch pisstake? When was the last time you heard a rock artist, indie or mainstream, cover a Bo Diddley song and make it sound anything like the original without sounding entirely unlike the rest of their catalogue? Heck, when was the last time you heard a harmonica in a Top 10 song? The answer to all those is “decades” or possibly never. Rock music has been neutered and put in its place. It's no longer fun and fancy free, or for your average fan. The implicit weirdness of Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, and Gene Vincent, is gone. It was taken by the hipsters and the record companies for Rock's equivalent of otaku and Normie Joe respectively. And it’s not coming back.

But nobody else needs to follow that example.

As long as we remember to keep our eyes on where we came from we can continue to move forward. If Japan can realize this problem with their own industries, hopefully it won’t be too late for certain other ones. It's not too late yet.

Enough of that. Let’s have some fun.

Until next time!

Monday, April 24, 2017

100 Accessible Anime Guide for Fans (Part 1)

These posts have been coming for awhile.

I’ve noticed a trend of otaku constantly rewriting the past, belittling series that help made their favorite medium accessible to others, and propping up niche fetishistic series instead that would not draw new fans to their hobby so much as send them screaming for the hills. It is getting more and more difficult to remain a fan these days, and even harder to find new ones. There’s been a lot of great material left forgotten due to constant revisionism.

Not that I could blame folks from staying away from anime these days. Unless you’re in it for the titillation, the gore, or the ridiculous designs and cliché dialogue, there isn’t much that would pull many to watching an anime. Little stands out. It ain’t easy to convince people.

But it was different a long time ago. There were more series that appealed to a variety of tastes and spanned different genres.

So this series of posts will be a recommendation list for potential fans (or old fans) who are not impressed with what the anime world offers these days. It'll also be a handy resource for those who are trying to remember that one series title and can't quite. If you have suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments. For now, this is what I’ve got.

Remember, this is based on accessibility. You won’t get obscure otaku bait here. This is for those who just want good stories and exciting possibilities. I’m also staying away from deconstructions (aside from one exception I can never escape), since those only work if the viewer is familiar with what is being deconstructed. These works stand on their own, more or less. I also didn’t include pure comedies for the obvious reason that comedy is very subjective though anime with a comedic bent are included.

This list is for those looking for more of a straight ahead experience. Take a look and see if you like what you’ll find. I'm going to cover as wide a breadth as possible, so don't get lost here. Here are the first 25 entrees.

Credit to wiki for the plot descriptions. Be wary of content concerns on any of the videos.

1. Ashita no Joe / Tomorrow’s Joe (1971)
Genre: Sports Drama
Length: 2 television series (79 and 47 episodes)
Studio: Mushi Production (first series), Nippon Animation (second series)
Writer: Ikki Kajiwara (original manga) / Osamu Dezaki (first series) / Tadaaki Yamazaki (second series)
Director: Osamu Dezaki

Plot: Joe Yabuki is a troubled young man who runs away from an orphanage. Wandering through the Tokyo slums, he meets former boxing trainer Danpei. Joe is later arrested and goes to a temporary jail where he fights Nishi, leader of a group of hooligans. He and Nishi then go to a juvenile prison miles away from Tokyo. There Joe meets Rikiishi, a former boxing prodigy, and a rivalry develops between them.

Opinion: Shonen action got its start here. Join Joe Yabuki as he faces the challenges thrust his way and overcomes incredible odds in the process. All sports series (and many action and drama as well) come from this series.

2. Cutie Honey (1973)
Genre: Action, Magical Girl
Length: 25 episodes
Studio: Toei Animation
Writer: Go Nagai (original manga) and Masaki Tsuji
Director: Tomoharu Katsumata

Plot: The story follows an android girl named Honey Kisaragi, who transforms into the busty, red or pink-haired heroine Cutie Honey to fight against the assorted villains that threaten her or her world.

Opinion: This isn't really the first pure magical girl series, but it is one of the most popular even today. One of Go Nagai's most accessible series, Cutey Honey still gets new works based on it to this day.

3. Star Blazers: Space Battleship Yamato (1974)
Genre: Space Opera
Length: 4 television series, one OVA, six films, and one live action movie
Studio: Academy Productions, Group TAC
Writer: Yoshinobu Nishizaki / Leiji Matsumoto (original series)
Director: Leiji Matsumoto (original series)

Plot: Set in the year 2199, an alien race known as the "Gamilas" ("Gamilons" in the English Star Blazers dub) unleash radioactive meteorite bombs on Earth, rendering the planet's surface uninhabitable. Humanity has retreated into deep underground cities, but the radioactivity is slowly affecting them as well, with humanity's extinction estimated in one year. Earth's space fleet is hopelessly outclassed by the Gamilas and all seems lost until a message capsule from a mysterious crashed spaceship is retrieved on Mars. The capsule yields blueprints for a faster-than-light engine and an offering of help from Queen Starsha of the planet Iscandar in the Large Magellanic Cloud. She says that her planet has a device, the Cosmo-Cleaner D (Cosmo DNA), which can cleanse Earth of its radiation damage.

The inhabitants of Earth secretly build a massive spaceship inside the ruins of the gigantic Japanese battleship Yamato which lies exposed at the former bottom of the ocean location where she was sunk in World War II. This becomes the "Space Battleship Yamato" for which the story is titled.

Opinion: This series is the point that anime gained mainstream appeal. There had been popular anime before (Astro Boy and Gigantor among them), but this was the first that started a wave of worldwide popularity for anime that last over three decades. It's pure Space Opera full of hotblooded action and intense drama. It's also responsible for a lot to come on this list, so if you're a fan of any mecha, science fiction, or action anime at all-- it comes from here.

4. Future Boy Conan (1978)
Genre: Science Fiction Adventure
Length: 26 episodes
Studio: Nippon Animation
Writer: Akira Nakano, Soji Yoshikawa
Director: Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata

Plot: The story begins in July 2008, during a time when humankind is faced with the threat of extinction. A devastating war fought between two major nations with ultra-magnetic weapons far greater than anything seen earlier brings about total chaos and destruction throughout the world, resulting in several earthquakes and tidal waves. The earth is thrown off its axis, its crust rocked by massive movements, and the five continents are torn completely apart and sink deep below the sea.

An attempt by a group of people to flee to outer space failed, with their spaceships being forced back to earth and vanishing, thus shattering their hopes. But one of the spaceships narrowly escaped destruction and crash landed on a small island which had miraculously survived the devastation. The crew members of the spaceship settled there, as if they were seeds sown on the island.

Amidst these survivors, a boy named Conan is born on October 2010, bringing a new ray of hope to the earth. After several years, during which most of the other survivors had died and the only people left on the island were Conan and his grandfather, he meets a young girl named Lana, and their adventure begins.

Opinion: Based on "The Incredible Tide" by Alexander Key, this series also has several veterans in the industry including Hayao Miyazaki himself and the creator of Gundam, Yoshiyuki Tomino. There is a lot here worth discovering. It goes without saying that this is a milestone in the industry, but it's also a really good adventure tale. It's also, inexplicably, never been licensed. So good luck finding it legally.

5. Galaxy Express 999 (Movie) (1979)
Genre: Space Opera
Length: 129 minutes
Studio: Toei Animation
Writer: Leiji Matsumoto (original manga), Shiro Ishimori
Director: Rintaro

Plot: An impoverished ten-year-old named Tetsuro Hoshino desperately wants an indestructible machine body, giving him the ability to live forever and have the freedom that the unmechanized don't have. While machine bodies are impossibly expensive, they are supposedly given away for free in the Andromeda galaxy, the end of the line for the Galaxy Express 999, a space train that only comes to Earth once a year. He boards the train to begin his quest.

Along the way, Tetsuro has many adventures on many different and exotic planets and meets many kinds of people, both human and alien, living and machine.

Opinion: I'm biased here, but I don't care. This is one of my favorite anime movies. The TV series is over 100 episodes and beloved, but this movie does such a good job condensing everything down and distilling everything great about Matsumoto's works into one place that I can't help but heartily recommend it first. Highly imaginative, this is a movie that continues to inspire to this day.

6. Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Genre: Adventure
Length: 100 minutes
Studio: Tokyo Movie Shinsha
Writer: Haruya Yamazaki, Hayao Miyazaki
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Plot: Master thief Arsène Lupin III and his colleague, Daisuke Jigen, flee the Monte Carlo Casino with huge quantities of stolen money. They escape in Lupin's Fiat 500, but Lupin recognizes the bills as distinctively high quality counterfeits. Deciding to seek out the source, they head to the Grand Duchy of Cagliostro, the alleged wellspring of the counterfeits.

Shortly after arriving, they rescue a young woman. Lupin recognizes the woman as Clarisse, the princess of Cagliostro, who will soon be married to Count Cagliostro, the country's regent. The Count's arranged marriage will cement his power and recover the fabled ancient treasure of Cagliostro, for which he needs both his and Clarisse's ancestral rings. This is where the adventure begins.

Opinion: The Lupin franchise has a storied history in Japan, but this is by far the most popular entry in it and the one that most agree is the best. I'm mixed on the series since I don't care much for heist stories in general, but this is an exception. This takes all the best parts of the franchise and puts them in one delightful action film that stands the test of time. In my controversial opinion, this might be Miyazaki's best film.

7. Adieu Galaxy Express 999 (1981)
Genre: Space Opera
Length: 130 minutes
Studio: Toei Animation
Writer: Leiji Matsumoto (original manga), Shiro Ishimori
Director: Rintaro

Plot: Adieu presents an entirely new storyline which takes place three years after the end of the first film. The Machine Empire now has even more of a stranglehold over the Galaxy. Rumors are afoot of Maetel becoming its new Queen. Tetsuro, now a fifteen-year-old freedom fighter, is shocked when a messenger brings him news that the 999 is returning, and that Maetel wants him to board it. Tetsuro narrowly makes his way to the 999 and departs Earth, now a battlefield.

Opinion: This movie is original in that it isn't based on events from the original manga of Leiji Matsumoto like the original film, but actually has more of a pulp and Star Wars influence. But that really doesn't matter. This is a fantastic sequel that remembers what was great about the original without copying it and accomplishes that rare sequel trick of feeling necessary. If you're going to watch the original, I highly recommend watching this as well.

8. Mobile Suit Gundam (Movie Trilogy) (1981)
Genre: Mecha
Length: 140 minutes (per film)
Studio: Nippon Sunrise
Writer: Hajime Yatate
Director: Yoshiyuki Tomino

*The above trailer is for the full series*

Plot: Set in a fictional universe in the year 2124 (Universal Century year 0079 according to the Gundam Calendar), the Principality of Zeon has declared independence from the Earth Federation, and subsequently launched a war of independence called the One Year War. The conflict has directly affected every continent on Earth, also nearly every space colony and lunar settlement. Zeon, though smaller, has the tactical upper hand through their use of a new type of humanoid weapons called mobile suits. After half of all humanity perishes in the conflict, the war settled into a bitter stalemate lasting over 8 months.

The story begins with a newly deployed Federation warship, the White Base, arriving at the secret research base located at the Side 7 colony to pick up the Federation's newest weapon. However, they are closely followed by Zeon forces. A Zeon reconnaissance team member disobeys mission orders and attacks the colony, killing most of the Federation crew and civilians in the process. Out of desperation, citizen boy Amuro Ray accidentally finds the Federation's new arsenal—the RX-78 Gundam, and neutralizes the situation. Scrambling everything they can, the White Base sets out with her newly formed crew of civilian recruits and refugees in her journey to survive.

Opinion: Gundam is an institution, but that also means it's impossible to tell where to start. In 1981, the staff condensed the original anime series into a three part film series (which also happens to be the official canon for the show as of now) making it much easier to digest. This is a hard franchise to decide if you will enjoy, so this series makes the ideal entry point. It was also the first mecha anime to set many of the trends you still see today.

9. Arcadia of My Youth (1982)
Genre: Space Opera
Length: 130 minutes
Studio: Toei Animation
Writer: Leiji Matsumoto (story), Yoichi Onaka
Director: Tomoharu Katsumata

Plot: Arcadia of My Youth is the story of Captain Harlock's lineage and how he ended up as the greatest space pirate of all time. Explaining more would spoil the entire story.

Opinion: I've always enjoyed Matsumoto's works, but particularly his Galaxy Express 999 material. His other works I'm more mixed on. This film, however, is one of the Harlock pieces I actually really like. It also serves as a good grounding of Matsumoto's universe. If you've been looking for a good space opera, you should really consider chasing this down.

10. Magical Princess Minky Momo (1982)
Genre: Magical Girl
Length: 63 episodes
Studio: Ashi Productions
Writer: Takeshi Shudo
Director: Kunihiko Yuyama

Plot: Momo is a princess of Fenarinarsa, "the land of dreams in the sky." Fenarinarsa is the dwelling place for fairy tale characters. It was in danger of leaving Earth's orbit and disappearing, because people on the planet lost their dreams and hopes. The king and queen of Fenarinarsa sent their daughter Momo to Earth to help the people regain them. Momo became the daughter of a young childless couple, accompanied by three followers with the appearance of a dog (Sindbook), a monkey (Mocha) and a bird (Pipil). On Earth, Momo takes the appearance of a teenage girl. To help the planet regain its hopes and dreams, Momo transforms into an adult version of herself, with an occupation tailored to fit the situation (airline stewardess, police officer, football manager, veterinarian, and many more). Each time Momo succeeds in bringing happiness to the person affected, the Fenarinarsa crown shines. When it shines four times, a jewel appears in the crown. Once twelve jewels appear, Fenarinarsa will return to Earth.

Opinion: If you know anything about anime then you probably know there is this thing called "Magical Girl" anime. Cutey Honey had many of the elements you might recognize, but this show is a bit different. Magical Girl anime have various different points of origin which come before this show, but this is really the first that molded it into the form you see today. It also has the advantage of being way shorter than most series of its type. If you're interested in Magical Girl and want to know where all those newer series subverting them are stealing from then you could do a lot (like a lot) worse than this.

11. The Mysterious Cities of Gold (1982)
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 39 episodes
Studio: Studio Pierrot, DIC Audiovisuel
Writer: Jean Chalopin, Mitsuru Kaneko, Mitsuru Majima, Soji Yoshikawa
Director: Bernard Deyries, Hisayaki Toriumi

Plot: It is the 16th century. From all over Europe, great ships sail west to conquer the New World, the Americas. The men, eager to seek their fortune, to find new adventures in new lands. They long to cross uncharted seas and discover unknown countries, to find secret gold on a mountain trail high in the Andes. They dream of following the path of the setting sun that leads to El Dorado and the Mysterious Cities of Gold.

Opinion: A co-production between Japan and France, including two different versions which aired in the East and the West, this is a series with a history unlike any other. It's also one that has influenced western animation such as much that came out in the 80s and much later Avatar the Last Airbender. Unfortunately, this show isn't easy to get a hold of these days. But it is worth seeking out.

12. Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982) / Robotech (1984)
Genre: Space Opera, Mecha
Length: 36 episodes (Macross)
Studio: Studio Nue, Tatsunoko, Artland 
Writer: Kenichi Matsuzaki (Robotech original material: Harmony Gold)
Director: Noboru Nishiguro

Plot: In 1999 a city-sized alien spacecraft crashes in South Ataria Island on Earth. Over the course of 10 years the military reverse-engineers its technology and rebuilds the spacecraft, naming it the SDF-1 Macross. In 2009 at the launch ceremony of the Macross, a young civilian pilot, Hikaru Ichijyo (Rick Hunter), comes to visit the Macross upon U.N. Spacy pilot Roy Focker's request. During the launch ceremony, a space war fleet from an alien race of humanoid giants arrives into the solar system and identifies the Macross as a former battleship used by their enemies. As the aliens, known as the Zentradi, approach the Macross, the original systems override the crew's commands and fire its main cannon, wiping out the advance alien scouts and starting a war.

Opinion: The series that jumpstarted the imaginations of many kids in the 80s and 90s, Macross is well worth its acclaim. You want dogfights, mech battles, and spaceships blasting each other to bits? You get them all here. After Yamato, this might be the second most influential space opera series in all anime history. Don't let the legal hoopla over Robotech get you down: the original Macross series is a classic and still just as great today.

13. Creamy Mami: The Magical Angel (1983)
Genre: Magical Girl / Idol
Length: 52 episodes
Studio: Studio Pierrot 
Writer: Hiroshi Konichikawa, Hiroshi Toda, Kazunori Itō, Keiko Maruo, Michiru Shimada, Shigeru Yanagawa, Shusuke Kaneko, Tokio Tsuchiya, Tomoko Kawasaki
Director: Osamu Kobayashi

Plot: Yū Morisawa is an ordinary 10-year-old girl, until she sees a spaceship floating in the sky. Carried into the ship, she helps Pino Pino find the Feather Star. In thanks for her assistance he grants her a magical wand, which allows her to transform into a 16-year-old girl, for one year. She is also given two cats from Feather Star, Posi and Nega, who are to watch over her while she has magical powers. While wandering around the city as a teenager, she accidentally ends up on TV and asked to sing, which the magic enables her to do remarkably well. Using the alias of Creamy Mami, she becomes an overnight success, and is soon sought to begin a professional career as an idol under Parthenon Productions. Along the way, she also meets past residents of Feather Star and supernatural beings. In addition, she must fight against Snake Joe, a shady character of the rival LP Productions, who is always trying to steal her away and Megumi-chan, another one of Parthenon Productions' top stars.

Opinion: Macross flirted with idols, and Momo was a real magical girl, but Mami is the first to successfully combine the two and create a phenomenon. This is essentially where much of the idol genre in Japan comes from and where it ties into the Magical Girl genre. So again, if you want to see what all these edgy modern anime are subverting then look here.

14. Crusher Joe (Movie) (1983) / OVA (1989)
Genre: Action Adventure, Space Opera
Length: 125 minutes (movie) / 2 episodes (OVA)
Studio: Studio Nue, Nippon Sunrise
Writer: Haruka Takachiho, Yasuhiko Yoshikazu (Movie) / Fuyunori Gobu (OVA)
Director: Yasuhiko Yoshikazu (Movie) / Toshifumi Takizawa (OVA)

Plot: Enter the tale of the Crusher Council, a group of rugged individuals known for assignments ranging from transportation to terraforming and everything in between. In the early days of space exploration the Crushers took on the job of destroying asteroids and defining space lanes. Because of their work, they were nicknamed "Crushers" which eventually became their business moniker.

Despite the rough and ready nature of the Crushers' work, they subscribe to a few steadfast rules. Unethical and illegal assignments are taboo, and any Crusher accepting one is barred from the Union. Of course, this presents problems for shady clients who try to trick the Crushers into accepting misleading assignments. They know that once the Union accepts a case the Crushers are honor-bound to follow it through. Among the various worlds, the Crusher Council has a stunning reputation, and among the Crushers, the most elite team is the one led by Crusher Dan and his successor, Crusher Joe.

Opinion: This is a pulp action movie that is as no holds-barred as you'd expect. A movie that only could have existed in the 80s, Crusher Joe is some great science fiction action. Though the OVA and movie were released years apart, they are both just as worth your time as the other. Thankfully, the movie just came back into print via Discotek, but it might be a bit longer for the OVAs. Nonetheless, this is classic anime at its best. The co-writer of the movie (and creator of the franchise) is also responsible for the iconic Dirty Pair series.

15. Fist of the North Star (1984)
Genre: Action Fantasy
Length: 152 episodes
Studio: Toei Animation
Writer: Buronson (original manga), Toshiki Inoue
Director: Toyoo Ashida

Plot: In the 1990s, civilization was ruined as a result of a worldwide nuclear war and many creatures died out. In spite of these events, 30% of mankind survived and entered an age where the strong ruled over the weak, as the few survivors fought over whatever supply of food and uncontaminated water remained in the wasteland of the world.

Kenshiro, successor to the ancient assassination art of "Hokuto Shinken", wanders the ruined world in search of his lost love. And revenge.

Opinion: The seminal action series, and one of the most influential anime from the 80s, Fist of the North Star is one of the most well known and beloved. Its action is over the top, its protagonist cool as an iceberg, and its presentation far beyond iconic, there is little chance that you've ever touched an anime and have never heard of this. My personal opinion is that the series is overlong and the last part is unnecessary, but boy oh boy is Kenshiro's journey a ride worth taking.

16. Dirty Pair (1985)
Genre: Science Fiction Comedy
Length: 26 episodes
Studio: Nippon Sunrise
Writer: Haruka Takachiko
Director: Norio Kashima and Toshifumi Takizawa

Plot: Kei and Yuri are the two members of Trouble Consultant team 234, code named "Lovely Angels". Almost every mission they are involved with ends up in disaster, but not failure (they'll catch the crook, but a city may be destroyed in the process), and thus they are more generally known as the "Dirty Pair", a nickname they hate. They are always cleared of any wrongdoing by the 3WA's Central Computer because the extreme collateral damage is never actually their fault (though their mere presence has been known to make things worse). In some but not all continuities, they have joint ESP powers, usually limited to precognition. This talent was the reason they were recruited in the first place.

Opinion: Dirty Pair started one of my favorite (and sadly near dead) sub genre of comedy cop shows that are as exciting as they are funny. Based on the light novel series by Haruka Takachiko, this is one of those classics of anime that everyone knows about even if they haven't seen it. This one still holds up; it's still worth the watch today.

17. Megazone 23 (1985)
Genre: Cyberpunk
Length: Three parts in 4 episodes
Studio: AIC, Artland, Tatsunoko
Writer: Hiroyuki Hoshiyama
Director: Noboru Ishiguro, Ichiro Itano, Kenichi Yatagai, Shinji Aramaki 

Plot: Megazone 23's story is set in the far future of the human race, after, in the early 24th century, various environmental issues rendered Earth uninhabitable, forcing humanity to leave in several massive colony ships, the titular Megazones. The story itself follows the population of Megazone Two Three, based on an unnamed part of Japan.

Opinion: The original cyberpunk anime, Megazone 23 is pretty remarkable just for the animation and art alone. That said, this is the first anime of the more experimental late 80s which would continue well into the 90s and a bit into the 00s. For now, if you can find it, give this a watch. You won't see anything like it today.

18. Vampire Hunter D (1985) / Bloodlust (2000)
Genre: Horror Fantasy
Length: 80 minutes (1985) / 105 minutes (Bloodlust)
Studio: Ashi Productions (1985) / Madhouse (Bloodlust)
Writer: Hideyuki Kikuchi (original novels) / Yasushi Hirano (1985) / Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Bloodlust)
Director: Toyoo Ashida (1985) / Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Bloodlust)

Plot: The year is approximately 12,090 AD. Some time in 1999, a nuclear war occurred. The Nobility were vampires that planned for a possible nuclear war and sequestered all that was needed to rebuild civilization in their shelters. They use their science combined with magic to restore the world in their image. Nearly all magical creatures are engineered, with a very small number being demons who survived the holocaust. Despite their technology being great enough to create a blood substitute as food, they still prefer to feed on humans. As such, they create a civilization where vampires and humans coexist, eventually developing the planet into parklands and cities.

D is a dhampir, the half-breed child of a vampire father and human mother, the ideal vampire hunter. This is his story as he wanders this strange world.

Opinion: I cheated here and included two movies. The fact of the matter is that they are both great and well worth your time and can be watched on their own without seeing the other. Action adventure fantasy horror rarely gets better in anime than it does here. Then you can check out the novels, because they are actually being released here. Hard to believe huh?

19. Saint Seiya (1986)
Genre: Fantasy Action
Length: 114 episodes
Studio: Toei Animation
Writer: Masami Kurumada (original manga), Takao Koyama, Yoshiyuki Suga
Director: Kozo Morishita, Kazuhito Kikuchi

Plot: The story focuses on an orphan named Seiya who was forced to go to the Sanctuary in Greece to obtain the Bronze Cloth of the Pegasus constellation, a protective armor worn by the Greek goddess Athena's 88 warriors known as Saints. Upon awakening his Cosmos, the power of the Saints which is an inner spiritual essence originated in the Big Bang, Seiya quickly becomes the Pegasus Saint and returns to Japan to find his older sister.

Opinion: Sentai is insanely popular in Japan (far more than Power Rangers are here) but Saint Seiya was one of the few manga and anime to give it a whole new face lift. A fantasy backdrop that spans the galaxy and beyond, Saint Seiya is entirely its own thing. This is where you get things like Ronin Warriors and, yes, Knights of the End's first inspiration. The idea of mystical armor that pushes the bearer beyond their limitations really finds its origins here. There are few anime as crazy and as action packed as Seiya are even to this day. If you like Seiya then be sure to check out Ronin Warriors and Knights of the End for more in that style.

20. Maison Ikkoku (1986)
Genre: Romance
Length: 96 episodes
Studio: Studio DEEN
Writer: Rumiko Takahashi (original manga)
Director: Kazuo Yamazaki, Takashi Anno, Naoyuki Yoshinaga

Plot: Maison Ikkoku is a bitter-sweet comedic romance involving a group of madcap people who live in a boarding house in 1980s Tokyo. The story focuses primarily on the gradual developing relationships between Yusaku Godai, a poor student down on his luck, and Kyoko Otonashi, a young, recently widowed boarding house manager.

Opinion: This is the go-to romance anime. Rumiko Takahashi is one of Japan's most popular creators, and this is her most well known and well liked series. There are many that come after it, and some before, but they all tend to blur together. This is one that tends to stick with you. If you're going to watch one romance anime, this will probably be the one you choose.

21. Dragon Ball / Z (1986)
Genre: Comedy Fantasy Adventure (original) / Action (Z)
Length: 153 episodes (original) / 291 episodes (Z)
Studio: Toei Animation
Writer: Akira Toriyama (original manga), Takao Koyama
Director: Minoru Okazaki (original), Daisuke Nishio (original and Z)

Plot: Dragon Ball follows the adventures of the protagonist Goku, a strong naïve boy who, upon meeting Bulma, sets out to gather the seven wish-granting Dragon Balls. Then things get outlandish.

Opinion: I've written about this series a bunch already, and you probably know all about it, which is why I had to list it here. I included Z in the entry as it changed the franchise permanently into a fighting series, but really the whole thing is one giant experience. While I would recommend the first series more, Z is by far the most popular. Chances are that is how most in their late twenties and thirties got into anime anyway. Either way, it's not a series to be passed over.

22. Project A-Ko (1986)
Genre: Comedy Action
Length: 86 minutes
Studio: A.P.P.P.
Writer: Katsuhiko Nishijima, Tomoko Kawasaki, Yuji Moriyama
Director: Katsuhiko Nishijima

Plot: An alien space craft crashed into Graviton City, wiping out the entire population and leaving a massive crater where Graviton City is rebuilt. Students A-ko Magami and her best friend C-ko Kotobuki, a bubbly, carefree optimist, enter a new year of school at the all-girls Graviton High School. Although A-ko possesses superhuman speed and strength, she considers herself an average teenager; she mostly worries about getting to school on time, chronically oversleeping her alarm clock each morning. The pair catch the unwanted attention of B-ko Daitokuji, a rich, spoiled and brilliant fellow student. That's when it gets weird.

Opinion: I'm not really sure what to say about Project A-Ko. It's part parody of many of what was listed here before it but also a very stylish action anime at the same time. There were also three sequels worth checking out and a few spin offs that tapered out with the 80s. But if you like your action nutty, then it doesn't get nuttier than A-Ko.

23. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Genre: Fantasy Adventure
Length: 126 minutes
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Plot: The story follows the adventures of a young boy and girl attempting to keep a magic crystal from a group of military agents, while searching for a legendary floating castle.

Opinion: This is one of Ghibli's most popular films, and deservedly so. It's a pure fantasy adventure film straight out of the 1980s filled with Miyazaki's hallmarks and some of his sharpest writing and directing. If there is one Ghibli film you might want to watch to see if they're for you-- this would be the one. Just a joy to watch.

24. Neo Tokyo (1987)
Genre: Science Fiction Anthology
Length: 3 shorts, 50 minutes
Studio: Project Team Argos, Madhouse
Writer: Rintaro (Labyrinth, Labyrinthos), Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Running Man), Katsuhiro Otomo (Construction Cancellation Order)
Director: Rintaro (Labyrinth, Labyrinthos), Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Running Man), Katsuhiro Otomo (Construction Cancellation Order)

Plot: The 50 minute-long film has three segments, each under a different screenwriter and film director: Rintaro's "Labyrinth Labyrinthos," an exploration into the maze of a little girl's mind, Yoshiaki Kawajiri's "Running Man," focusing on a deadly auto race, and Katsuhiro Ōtomo's "Construction Cancellation Order," a cautionary tale about man's dependency on technology.

Opinion: You might have seen the Running Man on MTV in the 90s, but otherwise these shorts are fairly unknown in the west. However, all three of those names are some of the most iconic in anime. If that isn't a hint that this is worth seeing, I don't know what is.

25. Bubblegum Crisis (1987)
Genre: Cyberpunk
Length: 8 episodes
Studio: Artmic, AIC
Writer: Toshimichi Suzuki
Director: Katsuhito Akiyama

Plot: Bubblegum Crisis begins in the late 2032, seven years after the Second Great Kanto earthquake has split Tokyo geographically and culturally in two. The series involves the adventures of the Knight Sabers, an all-female group of mercenaries who don powered exoskeletons and fight various problems, most frequently rogue robots.

Opinion: Featuring some great talent including Kenichi Sonada (of Gunsmith Cats and Riding Bean fame) and Masami Obari, Bubblegum Crisis is a stylish action show unlike anything else. Its cyberpunk backdrop and 80s influences are worn on its sleeve making it a joy to watch. There's also a sequel series, Bubblegum Crash, a remake, and a spin off called A.D. Police, but it's the original OVA people still remember.

And that's the first 25. There will be another post sooner than later, but for now this is where I'll stop. What do you think? Are there great series you would recommend instead? How about ones you really don't want to see?

As far as I'm concerned, the best is yet to come.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Quick Review: Sword & Flower by Rawle Nyanzi

So a Puritan and a Japanese pop star walk into a bar and end up in Lesser Heaven. There’s no joke, that’s Sword & Flower’s set up. Well, without the bar part.

Dimity is dead and has Ki powers, and now she must keep herself in one piece. What will happen when she meets up with Puritans, and the devout swordsman Mash? Well, you'll have to check out this novella to see for yourself. It's quick, to the point, and features a good deal of action.

The most reminiscent comparison I can make to Sword & Flower would be an old anime OVA from the late 80s. It even shares the brief length and quick execution. Imagining it in the mold of Wicked City or Vampire Hunter D allows the story to click easily into place to where I instantly got the feel the author was going for. The intense action and style is very much a reflection of that forgotten era. And it’s highly welcome.

My complaints would mainly be in the length it takes for the ball to get rolling and some odd characterization quirks. You also might not be a fan old anime OVAs which might deflate your enjoyment here. But for a pulpy novella it takes a backseat to the action. And the action is done really well. For a first novella it is solid work.

This is the first piece I’ve read from Mr. Nyanzi and I hope it won’t be the last. If you are looking for a good old fashioned pulp yarn with a more modern execution then you can’t go wrong here.


Monday, April 17, 2017

The Death and Return of Comic Books

There’s been a lot of controversy recently regarding Marvel inserting their foot into their mouths over basically everything. It's nothing new. From the abundant political nonsense, to the atrocious writing, Marvel has successfully stuck a fork in their brand and picked the carcass clean. And they’re taking superheroes as a whole down with them. It has gotten to the point where the superhero genre is all but dead in the very medium they spawned from. It’s pathetic.

The roots have been dug up and the stumps left overturned. Nobody remembers where they came from. Superheroes originally wore costumes reminiscent of circus performers since that’s basically what they were. They were larger than life icons that represent that which we attain to be. Those costumes and vague origins were a marvelous decision to make them mysterious and awe-inspiring.

Now what are superheroes?

Now heroes are mopey, sexually disturbed, morally ambiguous, politically correct, reluctant hero cardboard cut-outs that are still trying to ape a horribly out of date subversive comic from the 1980s. It’s unbelievably pathetic.

DC is barely better, endlessly rebooting their comics with the same characters because they can’t create new ones. Some fans can look past this, but many cannot. It doesn’t change how tiring it is to see the same characters and world remain static for 30 years just because the story takes place in a different time period. Same writers, same ideas. Rebooting doesn't change any of that.

Oh, and the new universe using Watchmen as a prequel and base for their world is a whole new level of sad that proves the point about how the industry can’t let a tired, dated idea die. People championing “progress” as if it’s a deity can’t even create without reusing old ideas and characters. The industry cannot move on. It’s the definition of pathetic.

But all this begs the question: Can they get back on track? Sure the comic world is pretty bleak now but they can turn it around! Marvel and DC can easily reclaim what they had for decades before this bottoming out this last decade! Surely!

My opinion is . . . No. No, they cannot.

To find out where one goes wrong, an individual needs to possess two qualities. Those qualities include self-reflection and humility. These are traits that the entertainment industry as whole simply does not have anymore. They need the self-reflection to know why sales are slumping and where they went wrong; but they are not able to understand it. They need the humility to realize that Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and many others that came before, were simply better at what they do. They have to reflect and learn from the past and how they can learn from the masters. Go back to basics. Start from Year One and move out. But reboot and reboot as they may, they cannot understand what made those old comics so good. This makes starting at issue #1 over and over again wasted effort.

The easy way out of this is to simply reboot the universe over and over again. That way the writers don’t have to do anything but tell the same story again (but with a twist), swap some sexes, skin colors, and sexual orientations, use the same characters with updated lingo and acceptable political leanings, and call it a day. And it fails every single time. What this doesn’t address is the fact that much of the writing doesn’t understand heroism, which are the main reasons the fans stopped buying comics in the first place. It also doesn't help that the art is quite frequently lousy, turgid, and uninspiring, as well. In other words, the situation remains the same in the end. Starting from issue #1 offers only cosmetic changes.

Someone, probably many people, once said that comics lost their way with the Death of Superman storyline and its aftermath, and it's hard to disagree. Before Superman died and returned, characters who died stayed dead in the comic world, which meant writers had to be creative to keep the story going. This was no mean feat. This meant the story had to change and grow or it had to end. The Death of Superman storyline, for all intents and purposes, should have been the final Superman story. There was nowhere else to go. What it did was end up killing serialized storytelling in superhero comics.

Let me try to explain.

You can approach comic book storytelling in two ways. You can either have it be a proper serialized story, or you can have episodic adventures. The latter is what makes the Golden Age of comics so fun. Every issue is a new problem and the hero has to deal with it. It’s self-contained, to the point, and it works. Characters like Captain Marvel (or Shazaam as he is now regrettably known) were built for this and it is why they do not work as well outside this format. Unfortunately, this more or less died off in the Silver Age.

Next are serialized stories. Serialized stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. The Silver Age was capable of this, though it fell short in some aspects, and was a valid second way of telling comic book stories. It was a good way to offer readers a new take on superhero comics. The Silver Age was where this format worked best.

What you can’t do in a serialized story is cheat the audience. If the drama has no lasting impact, if it means nothing in the end, then readers will sour on it. Sure enough, that has happened. It happened long before any of the industry’s current troubles hit. But anyone paying attention could see this coming.

Ever since the Bronze Age hit, and the Death of Superman storyline happened, the comic book world never recovered from its obsession of raising stakes that lead nowhere. Nothing sticks, therefore there is no drama, and no one cares what happens. This is why so many comics have alternate timelines and multiverses so they can kill characters pointlessly and brutally and no one will complain. After all, they can always bring in Wolverine from Universe 204 to fill in killing the original character! All it does is add more useless clutter.

And this idiocy is what defines the Tin Age we’re currently occupying.

Now comics are in an endless loop. Every character is eventually brought back. Death means nothing. Time never moves on. There is no ending. It loops over and over and over like a wobbly Wheel of Time bathed in molasses. 

So what if they killed your favorite character in Universe 616? There’s a perfectly acceptable alternative in Universe 2! Then why care about anything that happens? Nothing matters. Nothing will change. Nothing will grow from this. Reading a modern superhero comic is like nihilism in its purest form. And nihilism makes for boring entertainment.

But this is where I want to bring up an article I read recently. This one is from Crunchyroll, and it is called “The Death of Superman in My Hero Academia” and it springboards this topic further.

Don’t worry, the article only spoils events from the first season of the anime, so if you’ve seen it, have no fear and click on it. As you can see, the title struck me as soon as I saw it.

"My Hero Academia makes no effort to hide its American comic book influences. From his muscle-bound appearance to his super strength, All Might is very obviously inspired by Superman. As if to accentuate the Man of Steel’s American origins, All Might constantly displays Americanisms for the benefit of the show’s Japanese audience. Not only are All Might’s attack moves named after American states (“Texas Smash!”), he even swears in English. Holy shitto! 
"But MHA has a deeper connection with American comic book heroes than just visual homages—if All Might represents Superman, then My Hero Academia is a story about the inevitable death of Superman. 
"Not a literal death, one would hope. All Might has had close brushes with death before, but he always manages to save the day with a smile. That is what it means to be a Hero. But he will retire from this role one day, and when that time comes, he will continue to smile."

It really is about the Death of Superman. I’m not going to get into manga spoilers, but much of My Hero Academia is about Izuku “Deku” Midoriya learning from All Might how to be a hero in more ways than just strength. But the way All Might’s powers work is that they transfer to a new host and the old one eventually loses all their abilities as a cost. All Might is Superman passing on to a new generation. The series is essentially about how a world of heroes deals with change.

This is something the Death of Superman storyline flirted with, but chickened out with at the final moment. This also had the unfortunate consequence of killing comic book storytelling flat for superheroes. We’re around a quarter of a century removed from that storyline and the comic book world has still never managed to move past it or top it. It’s stunted.

My Hero Academia is itself about a world of heroes that is in the process of an event that could very well affect the very fate of everyone on the planet. This is something a Marvel or DC series could never do in their main books for very obvious reasons.

The article goes on:

"MHA, on the other hand, is under no such constraints with its characters. The series has structured itself around the "death" of All Might right from the very beginning. It is for this reason that All Might’s situation carries such strong pathos, especially when he continues to push himself beyond his limits. All Might is only delaying the inevitable, and everyone close to him knows it.
"This is all surprisingly heavy stuff for a Shonen Jump manga, and no one is more aware of it than the manga artist of My Hero Academia himself. Kohei Horikoshi has remarked in an interview that MHA is not actually a cheerful story when it comes to the relationship between Deku and All Might. It gets darker the more you think about it. In order to let someone else succeed him, All Might must let his own strength dwindle away. In that sense, Deku is responsible for his hero’s death. This is a burden that Deku must shoulder for as long as he carries the mantle of justice."

He’s not wrong. Midoriya has to carry on the fight for his mentor. And, as anyone who reads the manga or watches the show knows, the world sees All Might as the Symbol of Peace. He upholds what Superman did: Truth, Justice and all thatthe American Way (hence his constant American catchphrases) and when he dies, or is gone from the scene, how will the world react? Much of My Hero Academia deals with what this could mean. It’s a big change and, unlike Marvel or DC, Kohei Horikoshi will not go back on what happens. There will be no reboot or alternate timeline or multiverse to get out of it. The story moves on. This is what the entire series is about.

There will be no retcon. No reset button. In case you never passed storytelling 101: this is how stories are supposed to work.

As is also mentioned, despite the dark implications to where MHA is edging toward, Izuku Midoriya remains a noble hero.

"But Deku is also a shining hope. As a member of the younger generation, he brims with potential. If All Might is a hero of the Superman variety, then Deku is more like Spiderman, an ordinary boy who accepts a heavy responsibility overnight and grows up because of it. It’s fitting that Bakugo, Deku’s childhood friend who now bullies him relentlessly, constantly calls him a “damn nerd,” taking extra care to say “nerd” in English, as if the parallels between Deku and Peter Parker weren’t strong enough. It’s probably no surprise that Horikoshi is a huge fan of Spiderman and counts Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy among his longtime favorite superhero films. 
"What makes Deku’s journey as a character particularly compelling is that he doesn’t actually fully grasp the weight on his shoulders as All Might’s successor. He’s earnest, diligent, and straightforward—the kind of hero that is easy to root for. It has become popular in Hollywood these days to reinterpret superhero properties with a darker and edgier slant, but Deku’s optimism is never shaken. In that sense, he follows in the tradition of Shonen Jump’s most iconic heroes."

He’s not a moral relativist. He’s not a political sock puppet. He’s not a sex pervert. He’s not a mopey pill popper. He’s not ironic or self-referential.

He’s a hero.

And where did Kohei Horikoshi get the idea for him? Where did he get such a radical idea for a character like that? From Marvel: the same company that can’t create a new character without relying on old ones or giving a new hero an original personality outside of checkbox approved positions on all social issues. This more than anything shows Marvel's current failings. They’ve fallen hard since Peter Parker.

So why can one man understand what an entire company cannot? This is a bit asinine. It is not that hard to see what he did. He went back to the basics and worked from there. He saw what made a hero great, what made Superman and Spiderman household names, and started from there. Yet Marvel and DC still need to rely on past hits over and over again to retain sales. They can’t end their story and create a new comic. But Horikoshi, and Shonen Jump, can and do it all the time. The latter has done it for decades. Marvel and DC cannot. It’s not just sad; it’s pathetic.

The article finishes with probably the best summation I’ve ever seen on a Crunchyroll article:

"I find My Hero Academia’s approach to superheroes refreshing. The original Superman was first born in the 1930s, and since then, his character has been reimagined in countless different ways as the political climate surrounding him has changed. These days, it seems that the problems of this world have become too difficult for a straightforward and old-fashioned hero like Superman to solve. A story about the death of Superman could easily have been bogged down with angst or cynicism. 
"Yet for all the pathos in All Might’s character, My Hero Academia is never pessimistic about the future. Even if all the villains of today are too much for All Might to handle by himself, he is confident that the younger generation will rise to meet the challenge. Deku and his classmates may still have a long way to go, but they have already grown impressively through the events of season 1 and will only improve further as this season unfolds. And until the day comes when the fledgling heroes can surpass All Might, he will continue to lead as a strong example, so that they never lose sight of their ideals. 
"It may be time for Superman to pass on his torch, but it is not yet time for us to give up on Superman. In My Hero Academia, at least, we can rest assured that even after the death of Superman, heroes will live on."

Modern Marvel or DC could not write a Death of Superman story without it bogging down in nihilism or hopelessness. You can see this literally any single time a character dies in these series in recent works. Adding to this is the inescapable fact that none of this matters. Why? The character will be back in a few months anyway, so why get bent out of shape about it? The world will be as it always was and your favorite character will be even better than before! Why care about anything that happens at all?

But My Hero Academia never loses hope. Not when villains appear like they have the upper hand. Not when heroes are facing encroaching death. Not when death wins. It’s not blind positivism either. Characters can have doubts and they can make mistakes. But they never give up. It’s the hope that Good is always stronger than Evil and will come out on top in the end. Heroes really do believe this, and they will fight for it.

Superman may die, but true Light never extinguishes. No matter how piercing the dark may be, it only needs a single spark to cut through sunless skies.

Heroes are more than mediocre human beings because they have to be. They strive to be better than what they are because there's no other choice. Until superheroes get back what they have lost, nothing will ever change. This spiral of meaninglessness will continue. There will be no real progress. The sluggish Wheel of Time spins endlessly to more and more shrugs. 

Before the lights are shut off at Marvel and DC they need to reclaim that spark.

And wouldn’t it be such a shame for the power to be shut off when all that was needed was a changed lightbulb?

It would be pathetic.