When people have asked me why I love anime, I have tended to answer not with a list of its accomplishments, nor with the current facets that make it great, but by expounding my utmost belief in the fundamental power of the medium and the potential it contains. When I see others argue for the medium, I often see them do so with points that seem tangential to me, such as the prevalence of voice actors, or with points which I think blatantly aren’t true, like stating that anime has more variation, complexity, or is of a generally higher quality than other mediums.
All that said, I wouldn’t be sticking with anime if potential as a visual medium is all it had going for it, and while I don’t think I’m entirely wrong that anime’s accomplishments are neither that broad nor exceptional as of yet, failing to take pride in what has been achieved is entirely unhealthy, so this post is just a chance for me to go through and talk about all the really great things many series and movies have achieved within this medium I so love.
In other words it’s me taking my critic glassed off and unabashedly singing the praises of a bunch of shows I love.
Let’s face it, Japan isn’t exactly known for their accurate and respectful portrayal of other cultures. Urasawa, at least, proves he can do the research. Monster is a towering masterpiece of a work in many ways, but so much of the immersion of the story hinges on the credibility of the setting, and Urasawa delivers what is one of the most realistic portrayals of post-reunification Germany found in non-German fiction.
That’s impressive in and of itself, and to be honest, I could easily devote this whole post to why Monster is fantastic, with its huge complex web of believable and well-realised characters, its astounding attention to detail, and the masterful handling of its thriller elements, but I’m gonna limit myself to one point per series, so moving on.
Mind Game is not only my favourite anime movie, but my favourite movie full stop. Undoubtedly Yuasa Masaaki’s peak work, it operates on some kind of insane creative genius and is enormously enjoyable on a huge number of levels. As I said though, one point per series, and I think what Mind Game really excels at is utilising some of that anime storytelling potential I’m always going on about. Mind Game tells its story with all the tools available to it.
Animation is a medium that requires a higher base level of suspension of disbelief since what we are seeing on-screen is undeniably not real, and this frees it up for a more loose, symbolic method of storytelling. When it comes to Lynchian, metaphorical storytelling, Penguindrum is the true king, but Mind Game beats it in the overall coherence of its elements. The wacky, fluid and evolving visuals, the bombastic soundtrack, the surreal plot progression, everything perfectly ties together into the central theme of joie d’vivre. It’s a story told flawlessly in every aspect, utilising every tool it has, and I don’t believe it’s a story that could be told so well in any other medium.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
I just brought up Penguindrum, so let’s talk Ikuhara. I’m one of those weirdos who actually thinks Penguindrum is better than Utena, but I still love Utena to bits, from it’s nay incomprehensible surrealist elements to the bizarre, hilarious, but seemingly irrelevant filler episodes. What really stands out to me about Ikuhara’s works is that for all their transcendental elements, they’re undeniable a product of anime culture and absolutely could not have appeared in any other medium, though that’s not the main point I want to bring up here.
Gender portrayal and the issues of feminism in anime is something I tend to harp on quite a bit, albeit in an amateurish, not particularly academic way. Utena is kind of the superlative case in anime, not only can it be read as a giant commentary on feminism, written within the framework of classic magical girl shoujo, it thrives on undoing classic gender tropes in anime and wider fiction, at its core playing mercilessly with the idea of the princess and the prince.
Perhaps even more amazingly, Ikuhara managed to distil the core feel and themes of the 3 cour series down to a single 2 hour movie, which purifies the insane thematic cyclone that is the series down to weaponised levels of auteur genius.
Welcome to the NHK
Welcome to the NHK is simultaneously one of the most depressing and uplifting shows I have ever seen, and therein lies its true brilliance. It walks a treacherous path, maintaining levity while giving a stark portrayal of a bevy of serious modern social issues, all from the perspective of a deeply flawed, and even somewhat detestable, but ultimately sympathetic classical anti-hero.
Despite all this, Welcome to the NHK is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen, and it manages to be so without ever oversimplifying or trivialising the issues it’s dealing with, it should be in the anime textbook as an example of how to correctly add levity to a dark story.
Being adapted from a novel written by an actual Hikikomori, it probably isn’t surprising that Welcome to the NHK actually really gets the issues its portraying, but its certainly refreshing. If you’ve ever suffered any form of depression or social anxiety, however mild, almost guaranteed there will be quite a few parts of this show that come across as uncomfortably associable.
So ends part 1, expect part 2 whenever I next need a brief respite of positivism in the face of the waves of mediocrity that flood us every season.