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April 9, 2012

God Bless Toonami: Why Anime is Amazing

…Yep.  We’re gonna talk about anime in this post.

I don’t blame you if you want to start running.  I’ll even give you a head start.  I’ll give you a full five seconds before I start up a little discu-

TOO LATE!  Ha ha!  Now you’re obligated by law to hit the jump and read on!  You FOOL!

So apparently, the internet was abuzz for about a week over the supposed “revival” of Toonami -- the much-adored programming block that introduced children of the 90s and 2000s to the sprawling world of “Japanimation.”  As far as I can tell, that’s just part of an elaborate April Fool’s joke; that won’t stop people all over the States to keep hoping for an honest-to-God resurrection.  If Cartoon Network’s bigwigs decide to bring it back, I won’t complain; it’s certainly a much more appreciable motion than trying to resurrect that weak-ass Miguzi. 

Better known as the poor man's Toonami.

A professor once asked me how anime got its start in the U.S.  How a media type could enthrall so many people, and influence them so thoroughly.  My answer?  Pokémon.  The one-two punch of games and TV, running at the same time, and bolstered by the movie release had to get people in on the action.  Because of Pokémon, I’d argue that Digimon came around as a means to rival Pokémon (and steal some of its thunder/money).  And of course, Digimon preceded Medabots, and there was Mon Colle Knights, and then another season of Digimon and Cyber Six (for like two weeks)…combine that with the slow but steady rise of the internet, and suddenly you’ve got pandemic levels of popularity.    

There were two things I should have mentioned, in retrospect.  The first is that anime was already around -- albeit in scattered, distilled, and virtually obscured form -- well before the release of Pokemon.  Thinking back (and to my surprise), the first anime I ever saw was The Noozles, which aired on Nick Jr. for some reason.  I say for some reason because apparently, it was weird as hell.  Beyond that, there was still G-Force and Voltron and Speed Racer, with a dash of Sailor Moon; Power Rangers was indoctrinating people on the ways of over-the-top action for years.  The breakout of anime was like a flowerpot watering the seeds planted in the sub-consciousness of children -- and letting those plants bloom as they may.

The second?  Toonami.  It introduced children to shonen and mecha anime by way of Dragon Ball Z and Gundam Wing, respectively.  It showed us how to bat down electric lake monsters via Big O, and how to go head-to-head with arm-equipped spaceships via Outlaw Star.  It taught us how even an idiot prone to getting bopped on the head could double as the greatest reformed killer ever to walk Japan in Rurouni Kenshin, and how to handle life with five beautiful alien women (and one cute alien girl) in Tenchi Muyo.  There was a metric shit-ton of stuff to like about Toonami, no matter what your persuasion.  Just as I’ve known girls who merrily discussed the next episode of Dragon Ball Z, I’ve known boys who liked the frills and sparkles of Cardcaptors or Sailor Moon

Long story short, those boys were me.

I honestly believe that if more people watched anime, there’d be fewer wars, fewer political debates, and we’d be on the road to world peace…if only because we’re so busy streaming Kamisama Dolls on Crunchyroll that we don’t want to do anything else.  Regardless, I wish that more people were willing to give anime a chance, and not just think of the shows as “two angry dudes screaming” or “tentacle-tastic close encounters.”  And to that end, I figure it’s time for me to make a list -- a multi-point argument as to why people like anime so much.

To be fair, I want to make a quick distinction: just because anime CAN be good doesn’t mean it always is.  Quite the contrary; just as there’s a lot of amazing video games out there, there’s plenty of schlock in the medium.  So while I’ll probably say something like “Yo man, anime is X,” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ALWAYS X.  Just that, when executed correctly, it CAN be X.   

So hey, why not stick around?  You might learn something.

5) Anime is weird.

Any reason to use this picture...

If you take five minutes to describe any fantasy-based fiction in the past…oh, hundred years or so to someone without any prior knowledge, you’re bound to get some weird looks.  Maybe even a head tilt.  For example, The Hunger Games:

“Children are forced into gladiatorial combat by their districts and Lady Gaga knockoffs while their actions are broadcast all over the world, American Idol style.”

How about Harry Potter?

“An orphan mistreated by his adoptive uncle and aunt is whisked away to a castle/school full of young wizards and witches, where he is routinely forced to save the day from a snake-faced lord of black arts.”

They’ll net you some confusion, I’d wager.  So when somebody describes anime to you, it shouldn’t be that big of a hump, right?  Like, say, Naruto.

“A boy with a demon fox sealed inside his body campaigns to become the king of ninjas, cooperating with fellow young ninjas to unravel the mysteries and conspiracies that grip his world.”

First rule of anime: don't bother asking about hair colors.

Pretty simple, right?  At a base level, that’s what anime is: a simple premise, with a few…er, embellishments.  For example, you’ve got one ninja who puffs up into a ball of fat and rolls over his opponents like the boulder from Indiana Jones.  There’s another ninja that can fuse with his dog to become a giant two-headed wolf, and they spin towards you like a drill (but can only do so if the dog pees first, so it can use its nose to know its surroundings).  And there’s an alternate dimension full of talking frogs, and giant frogs/snakes/slugs can be summoned at will if you sacrifice some of your blood.  Also, frequent references to an in-universe series called “Make-Out Paradise.”

Naruto is actually one of the more sedate anime franchises out there, I think.  If you want real balls-to-the-wall insanity, know this: there is a series out there called Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt.  In it, there’s a character named Panty who takes off her panties and turns them into a gun, and there’s a character named Stocking who takes off her stockings and turns them into swords, and they’re angels that fight monsters made of poop and transform to the beat of some vaguely sexual techno music.  Also, for 90% of the show they look like this:

Second rule of anime: don't try making sense of it.  You'll only slow yourself down.

Why is this good, you ask?  Think about it.  Originality is the blessing of the muses; it’s proof of a person or team’s creative potential.  The ability to be weird allows for branching out into levels of entertainment and surprise that no normal man or woman would ever see coming.  Anime encapsulates that with almost eerie regularity -- as if making a story about robots that come outof children’s heads or suicidal teachers and their psychopathic students is as simple as pouring a cup of orange juice in the morning.  Anime lends itself to unpredictability; part of the enjoyment is just seeing how many times you can go “what the hell is that?” in a single episode.

A Prime Example: Nichijou

A principal suplexes a deer.  In a show about schoolgirls living out their normal lives.  There are no words.

4) Anime is cool.

Anime (and manga, its comic equivalent) is a visual medium.  It has to appeal to people, or face obscurity and failure.  How do you get that appeal?  How do you make yourself stick out from the masses?  Easy: be as cool as possible.

Assuming you haven’t Googled it already, the shonen genre is a fine example on how to make cool stuff happen.  See, shonen is -- as its name in Japanese suggests -- directed at young boys; fourteen and younger, as I recall, albeit with some different demographics getting in on the mix.  More on that in a bit; for now, all you need to know is that in order to get those sweet child-dollars, the creators have to give them a reason to go “Oooh” and “Ahhh” and “Woooah!”

Let’s go back to Naruto again.  Remember how I mentioned that kid who turned into a ball of fat?  Well, that’s not all he can do.  Under normal circumstances, he looks like this:

And after meeting certain conditions, he looks like this:

And this is what he can do:

In anime, anyone and everyone has the potential to start off as a loser, but by story’s end -- even by episode’s end -- find enough hidden potential to freeze professionalassassins, or perhaps save the universe through the power of rock.  Anything can happen in an anime, but you can bet that something bombastic, flashy, and positively dazzling is bound to happen.  It’s for the sake of seeing moments like those that anime endures today -- and shall endure for years to come.

A Prime Example: Sengoku Basara

Sengoku Basara does not give a SHIT if you don’t understand it.  Nearly everything that happens in that series is for the sake of looking awesome.  Main character Date Masamune gallivants about with a horse/motorbike, swings six swords at once, and regularly nukes battlefields with his presence alone.  His rival Yukimura can pretty much do the same, and swings around two spears and fire like a common street performer.  There’s a pirate who surfs on a flying anchor, several ninjas, a 12-foot-tall cyborg, and a general who rides two horses at once while standing up and scaling a castle wall.  But the coolness factor goes into overdrive whenever Hideyoshi Toyotomi takes to the field.

Did I mention that these are supposed to be loose interpretations of real Japanese warriors?  See, this is the kind of stuff America just doesn’t have, but should.  I would gladly drop seventy million-thousand dollars on a franchise featuring a flying George Washington.

3) Anime is hot.

I feel dirty for even thinking this, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge the fact.  Anime is…well, it’s adept at including fanservice in its package.

What’s fanservice, you ask?  It’s exactly how it sounds -- giving the fans something appealing, be it a reference to some other franchise, or something a bit more…steamy.

Ma'am, your...your, um...your shirt is...I have to go.

Back to Naruto.  The very first episode features the title character -- a twelve-year-old boy, mind you -- displaying one of his ninja skills: transforming into a nude teenage girl, with little more than smoke covering her no-no parts.  Keep in mind that this is a franchise aimed at young boys.  Granted, things work a little differently in Japan than they do here, but still…can you imagine the outcry you’d hear from parents if Cheetara showed so much as her shoulder?  And let’s not forget that one of Naruto’s most important characters -- the president of ninjas, to put it in layman’s terms -- is directly stated to have a 106-centimeter bust (in an attempt to make it plot-relevant, no less).  I know the phrase “improbably buxom” gets thrown out a lot on this blog, but I suspect that even that descriptor’s a bit of a misnomer in this case.

This isn't even her at her biggest.

Why is this a good thing, you ask?  I tend to be indifferent to fanservice at best and facepalm at worst, but I know there’s a subset of fans that lap it up.  Consider hat anime hug pillows are things that actually exist, and you realize that certain characters sell very well.  But it goes beyond that; for better or worse, anime characters have massive appeal, and embed themselves in the consciousness of fans.  Like I’ve said before, I don’t hate fanservice-y characters just because of the way they look; I just have a problem when characters are fanservice and nothing else.  And you’d be surprised how often that’s not a problem in anime; even the hottest of ladies can have thoughts, opinions, tragic pasts, and the ultra-sexy character development that gets me salivating.

A Prime Example: Bleach

Bleach creator Tite Kubo has a monopoly on improbably buxom females -- almost to the point where if you started trying to count them off, you’d run out of fingers.  However, in spite of being created by a (presumably) heterosexual man, there is an absolute deluge of handsome men.

Just one of many, many, many examples.

Dapper, ritzy clothes.  Perfect proportions, all lean and mean.  A bad habit of male characters going shirtless for hours on end.  Bleach is just one of dozens of examples where men and women alike are celebrated for their attractiveness (and by “celebrated” I mean a hair’s distance away from being whored out).  Of course, there are hundreds of examples that make the men only total hunkslices, while the women are comparatively average…if they appear at all.

Obviously there's more scandalous stuff out there, but I'd like to entertain the idea that this blog is PG-13, so no more for you.  Although, minor tangent: never Google anything related to any anime ever, unless you know about its wiki, know exactly what you want/are looking for, and are in your room alone.  This is the internet we’re talking about; porn is its lifeblood.

2) Anime is “deep.”

Notice that I used “deep” in quotation marks.  I did that for a number of reasons.

First, I want to have this item do triple-duty.  Anime is (at times) deep in the conventional sense, as in it makes you think or has layers of meanings and interpretations.  In addition, anime can also be deeply, deeply affecting.  Emotional moments are regular occurrences, even in -- or perhaps, more regularly in -- the weirdest of shows.  Remember a while back when I mentioned Nichijou, the show with the wrestling principal?  There are odd moments like that posted all over YouTube…and then there are moments where two friends come to love and respect each other even further.  Heartwarming stuff indeed. 

Second, I want to assert that the depth of a series is debatable.  There’s a difference between, say, shoehorning in Judeo-Christian symbolism and exploring the human condition through the lens of fantastic adversity (with added Jungian interpretation).  One way, you look like you actually know what you’re talking about, and can engage in a lengthy discussion with your fans.  The other way, you look like you just pulled names off of Wikipedia.  It’s one thing to have names and references, but another to use them meaningfully and in a means relatable to your fans.  Some anime fails at this; others excel.

Hope you know the Bible from cover-to-cover.

Third, I want to extend the meaning of “depth” to include “character depth.”  In all but a few instances, characters need to have arcs, and transform over the course of a story.  It’s here where anime routinely -- routinely -- excels.  It goes beyond just “X used to only be able to make clones of himself, now he can summon a giant frog”; in the face of the plot, the characters act and react, and come out stronger or more learned because of it. 

Let’s (again…) head back to Naruto, even though I just referenced it in those last few lines.  Yes, this is a series that features fart jokes and pee jokes, and makes light of two boys kissing, and slapstick comedy that would make The Three Stooges groan.  But in the same breath, you’ll have characters -- children, mind you -- deal with the death and defection of friends, clashes with society and loyalty, and try to define their worldviews -- their nindo, or “ninja way” -- in the face of a world teetering on the brink of a war.  Japanese culture and legends weave their way through many of its nuances, from The Tale of the Gallant Jiraiya to symbolism provided via a character’s very name.  You have the pleasure of watching children, fresh and untested and woefully weaker than the adults, grow up into tacticians, powerhouses, support units, and most of all the heralds of the next generation of shinobi.

Angry men screaming, my ass.

A Prime Example: Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist more than fulfills my proposed triple-threat of depth.  Alchemy and its entails are on the forefront of course, but so are historical implications, and an examination of the power (and threats) that “science” can give to mortal men…and the consequences therein.  The main characters evolve, and evolve, and evolve again as they go toe-to-toe with enemies of the present and sins of the past.  And emotion-wise?  Watch this video.

If you watched that and say you didn’t feel anything -- that you didn’t even mist up a bit -- then I don’t know what to do with you.  I’d say you’re a damn liar, but I’d wager it’s unwise to insult the audience.  So I’ll take the high ground and just throw some sauerkraut at you should we ever meet in real life.

Punishment for the soulless.

1) Anime is passionate.    

 I won’t speak for anyone else, but when I think of anime, I think of -- or should I say, prefer -- shows overflowing with hot-blooded gusto.  It’s this element that anime taps more than any other medium out there, I think (barring a few outliers here and there).  Characters speak with so much teeth-clenched conviction that you become a quivering mass in the face of their proclamations.  Rousing speeches are made on the spot, making you wonder if the speakers have files and files of material memorized beforehand.  Themes like “never give up” and “believe in your friends” are regularly weaponized; beating a villain can be as simple as getting a character hyped enough to unleash a universe-shattering attack.

And before you ask, no, Naruto isn’t immune to this.  Fan favorite Rock Lee is built on passion; it’s his only saving grace, because he kind of sucks at being a ninja.

You would too if your eyes were painted on.

He can’t use ninja magic or ninja illusions; he doesn’t have any inherited abilities or skills.  All he can do is punch things. 

Rock Lee is very, very good at punching things.

Passion = power in anime, and in more ways than one.  You feel the heat radiating from each character when they’re at their best; be it in a fighting series like Naruto or something a little bit more grounded, it’s hard not to feel some emotional osmosis whenever a character goes full blast.  Moreover, it’s in anime where you feel the creators’ passion bursting through every instance, and every incarnation.  Games, TV, comic, even (and often especially) the music -- it’s an assault on the senses that can, and will, leave you breathless.  Given that, it’s no wonder why people want Toonami back so dearly.  Not just to relive the glory days of their childhood, oh no; it’s because anime makes them -- makes you -- feel something that few other mediums and franchises have.

A Prime Example: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

There are two things you need to see before you do anything else.  The first is this: just one of many hot-blooded instances in the series proper.

The second is this song.

What’s so special about it?  Well, have a look at this YouTube comment.

“There was a girl I liked. Didn't even really know I had feelings for her, and things were awkward, when we hung out.

Then one day, I was about to drop her off. My radio had been stoled from my car a long time ago, and I have my ipod as a replacement. In that ipod, is this song. Well needless to say, when I gave her a hug to say goodbye this song started to play, my heart swelled with courage, and I kissed her.

We've been dating for 3 years now.”

THAT’S the power of a good story.  It not only entertains, but inspires just as readily.  It’s something that writers strive for, and what we as story-consumers look for.  And, more often than not, it’s what anime provides dutifully.   

There.  Now that wasn't so bad, was it?

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