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April 18, 2012

God Save Us From Toonami: Anime's Faults

Back when I was in high school, I was under the impression that I had to hide my enjoyment of anime.  In retrospect, it probably wasn’t all that smart; if I’d been honest, then yeah, I probably would have scared off a few people.  But on the other hand, I could have grouped up with fellow anime fans -- between casual and hardcore viewers in my class and an actual club that met Fridays in the art room, I missed out because I was too embarrassed to be open.  (Incidentally, my plight would be mirrored by Sasahara from the manga series Genshiken -- heh, imagine that.)

While I’m more open about my…dissident tastes more than I used to be, I’m not about to go yelling how awesome it was when Heroman finally managed to push back the Skrugg invasion.  Because -- most of the time -- I have a little thing called common sense.  I know what I like, but I’m not going to force people to like anything they don’t want to.  I know there’s a pretty big difference between Western and Eastern sensibilities; I learned that very quickly when I brought some manga to school for a project.  I handed a volume to a girl sitting next to me, and (rookie that she was) she started reading it backwards.  What was the first thing she asked?

“Why is this girl in her underwear?”

Twelve years old -- just the way you like it.

Yep.  A middle school girl in her underwear -- in a series ostensibly about a loser forced to become a mafia boss by way of a talking baby hitman-turned home tutor.  Remember how I said anime is weird sometimes, and listed that as a positive trait?  Yeah, nobody’s gonna think that’s cool when they’re still wrapping their heads around baby hitmen.  The sad thing is, it’s actually one of the tamer stories in terms of sensibility; there’s much, much, much, much, MUCH weirder out there.

He fights with his nose hair.  How very...rational.

You could argue that she would have thought more highly of anime if she knew the story (or if I had the foresight to NOT bring a volume with a non-decorous tween within spitting distance of the cover).  That’s likely the case.  But even fans have to admit that, even though anime can provide inspiration, entertainment, awesomeness, and just plain fun, there are a LOT of issues.  There are times when everything just falls apart, or there’s some attribute that makes even zealots groan and facepalm.

So here I am, ready to regale you with another list -- an anti-list, as it were.  So hold on to your hug-pillows, guys -- things are about to get messy.

5) Anime requires a commitment.

You may remember how much lament I expressed over not getting into One Piece back when I had a good chance.  I still have that same lament; doubly so, because I know it would take nothing less than a marathon run to get an adequate understanding of the series and its particulars.  I felt the same way about The Walking Dead, come to think of it -- the difference being that I at least have a chance of getting into that franchise.

Let’s talk about One Piece.   The franchise started waaaaaay back in 1997 -- that means that this August, it’ll be fifteen years old.  “Pish-posh,” you scoff, sipping from your caviar-laced wine.  “”Fifteen years?  A trifle!  Superman is in his seventies at least -- surely you can pick up the slack!”  Yes, Superman and other U.S. comic heroes are older -- but then again, they’re intellectual properties that haven’t been controlled by a single person bound to a single storyline.  Other writers have stepped in and taken Supes through highs and lows.  That’s not the case with the One Piece manga (which as you may know is the blueprint for most anime -- the comic version usually comes first).  We’re talking about a single, continuous story with dozens of arcs, adding chapter after chapter, week after week with little more than a vacation or brief hiatus to draw more chapters.  I suspect that the franchise will have its seven hundredth chapter by the end of the year.

And you thought the dictionary was long...

Seven hundred chapters.  Seven hundred chapters of adventures, allies and enemies and relationships, character development, locations and terms and abilities that require definitions.  Or I could watch some four hundred episodes of the anime adaption, sifting through canon and non-canon materials alike.  It’s the only way, unless I want to deal with the dreaded continuity lockout. 

There are more obvious reasons why you don’t want to jump into an anime at the latest episode.  Mostly because, if you’re not there at the beginning, almost nothing after it will make sense.   Look, I got into Harry Potter from the second book onward; while there were things that I missed by not reading the Sorcerer’s Stone first, I still caught up pretty fast.  I didn’t read Prisoner of Azkaban (what the hell?  Microsoft Word allows Azkaban?) until long after The Half-Blood Prince came out.  I missed stuff, but it was never a deal-breaker.

That’s impossible for an anime.  Not all, of course, but enough to make it very newbie-unfriendly.

Worst Offender: One Piece

The creator of the franchise, Eiichiro Oda, has a habit of pulling characters from way, way, WAY earlier in the series back to the forefront.  In the eyes of some, it’s cute; in the eyes of a new viewer, it’ll just lead to many bouts of “Who is that?” and “Why do they know this character?”  It certainly doesn’t help that out of the Big Three, One Piece has a higher density of wacky characters and hijinks than a Jupiter-sized clump of iridium.

This happened.

4) Anime is (often needlessly) complicated.

Hey, remember when everyone used to love this guy?

And then everyone started hating him because of his increasingly stupid plots and twists, played straight without any sense of levity or awareness?

 Yep, anime has the same problems.  Part of it’s a consequence of the layering effect, putting chapter after chapter and episode after episode atop one another.  Once you put one statement out there, it becomes difficult trying to change it.  Once you say “Character X has this power,” you can’t go back and say “Oh, by the way, Character X can do this too.”  At least, that’s how it should work.  Thinking back, I feel as if there’s an almost compulsive desire to add plot twists and shocking developments in a story that didn’t need one.  Suddenly giving characters new powers and abilities out of the ether are one example, but certainly not the only one; secret government conspiracies, revenge from ancient civilizations, betrayals from good buddies to entire organizations...the list goes on and on, but they don’t always flow in the story’s context.  Almost as if somebody just threw it in on a whim…

The more endemic problem, however, is the symbolism used.  Japan, you see, has sort of a …well, different take on Christianity.  Which is to say, not as much as the West.  Keep in mind that Japan was an insular, highly-isolated society for hundreds of years (being a series of islands helped).  They had a culture, and the most exposure they had to Christianity was from some missionary work that didn’t exactly set the East on fire.  So what would eventually become sacred over here would become something known about and recognized in Japan, but never anything major.  (At least, as far as I know; don’t take everything I’ve said to heart, as I’m obviously no expert on the subject.)

I guess that's how it happened...

What does this mean for anime and manga?  Well, it means that the Bible -- and other religious texts, of course -- are reservoirs of referential material.  You know, just in case a creator wants to add a little class to their story.  No way that could cause any problems, right?  You know, like an answer to what those symbols mean in the context of your story, and other miscellaneous details you’ll have to explain if someone calls you out on it?

Worst Offender: Neon Genesis Evangelion

This is a problematic series, to say the least.  It’s good, I suppose, and definitely popular.  The problem is that after a certain point, it stops making sense.

It starts out simple enough: teenage boy is recruited by a super-secret agency to fight off invading giant monsters with -- you guessed it -- a giant robot.  Cool.  It was a show that had its darker moments and intense scenes, but broke it up with some lighthearted antics every now and then.  And then after a certain point, things get…well, crazy.  Chalk it up to a rapidly-dwindling budget, the creator having a mental breakdown and dealing with depression, or just the fact that nobody had a clue on what they were doing, but suddenly the Freudian elements get taken up a notch.  And there are nude girls in capsules, and mommy issues oozing out of every orifice, and people dying, and teenage white-haired Jesus, and…the ending.  The last two episodes jettison the plot into space, feature unneeded “psychological analyses” of the characters, and occasionally de-evlove into half-finished sketches. 

This is how the studio tells you they're out of money that the hero's hit rock bottom.

I’ve seen the argument that traumatic events from earlier episodes finally force the lead character’s mind to fall apart.  On that note, I agree.  But that doesn’t make it a good idea.

Nor is ending your series on this, when there are still giant monsters and robots mucking about.

3) Anime is pandering.

If you are a female in anime, your life sucks.  

This story starts with looking at a girl's underwear.  And that's just the beginning.

If my estimates are correct, then…

--You have an 84% chance of having your panties exposed

--You have a 38% chance of being improbably buxom (and as a corollary, a 70% chance of having your breasts bounce about like Jell-O)

--Conversely, you have a 64% chance of being flat-chested (and incredibly sore about it/jealous of your peers); as a corollary, you have a 32% chance of having your hair arranged in twin pigtails, wearing skirts and thigh-high socks, and playing hard-to-get with the lead male

--If you are in a series with lots of fighting, you have a 92% chance of being relegated to cheerleader duty after being hopelessly outclassed by allies and enemies alike.  If you are in a series with lots of romance, you will have the same probability of competing for the love of an objectively pissant lead with a bevy of same-aged women

--You will almost inevitably visit a hot spring or beach.  Depending on the length of your series, you may visit both…multiple times

--You will be moe
In Anime Land, this girl could pass for 42.

--You are a superconductor for sexually-harassing tentacles (as a corollary, there will be an interplay of sexuality and whatever mechanics the universe has set up for you -- up to and including working your giant robot)

--Did I mention the panties? 

Worst Offender: Too many to list, but let’s go with Seikon no Qwaser for now

“The Qwaser of Stigmata is an ongoing action manga series authored by Hiroyuki Yoshino and featuring art by Kenetsu Satō. It is notable for its heavy violence and use of graphic fanservice, and in particular, the use of breast milk as an actual plot device.”

Why?  Just…why?  Oh, right -- for dem sweet, sweet fan dollars.

2) Anime is clichéd.

Hey, I just had an idea for a story!  So there’s this high school kid, right -- kind of a loser, but a nice guy -- who suddenly finds himself in the midst of an alien and/or evil empire attack!  But that’s okay, because he discovers that he can pilot a giant robot and save the day from the bad guys!  It’s totally origina…

…Okay, nevermind.  How about this?  An ordinary high school kid is down on his luck when it comes to girls -- but all that’s about to change when one day he finds a strange girl in his…

…Oh.  Well then, maybe a show about a bunch of girls doing ordinary things?  I bet that’s never been done befo-


Welllllllllllllllllllll…shit.  Look, we all know that there’s no such thing as a 100% original story these days; there are always going to be common threads, and there are always easy comparisons to stories that came before it.  And being clichéd isn’t always a bad thing; shows like Heroman actually benefit from it.  And then there are times when anime relies so heavily on conventions and contrivances that there’s not a single original idea to be found within.  Or perhaps there are some interesting characters, but it gets buried under a single, all-consuming premise that the creators would assure you is “oh mah starz mah storee is so great an clevar you gaiz.”

Maybe it’s just a need to pay respect to forebears, and the conventions that got them into a position of success.  Maybe the creators are just really in love with those tropes, like a childhood promise that suddenly comes back to haunt a lead years later, or discovering even more hidden potential even after the last story arc was all about unlocking hidden potential through training and time-wasting.  Or maybe it’s just a sign of laziness.

Worst Offender: Black Cat

I have no one to blame for myself for this one.  I got a gift card for Barnes and Noble one Christmas, and decided to use a fair amount of that money to buy some manga.  I wanted to get into a new series.  So I headed down to the bookstore and grabbed a couple of volumes of Black Cat.  “This isn’t so bad,” I thought to myself.  “But…these first two volumes can’t be all the story has to offer.  I’ll just have to get the next two volumes and see what’s up.”

So I got the next two volumes and read them.  “Huh.  Well, that was all right.  But I want to see more.  I want something more substantial; it feels like it’s on the verge of something, but…”  So eventually, I picked up volume five.

I didn’t pick up another volume after that.  Maybe because my bookstore didn’t carry the next sequential volume.  Maybe because I didn’t want to waste spend my money.  Maybe because I didn’t care anymore…okay, probably because I didn’t care anymore.  The art style wasn’t bad by any means -- simplistic, yes, but those were the early parts of the series.  Art tends to get better the longer a series goes on.  But I just couldn’t bring myself to stick around any longer, or go out of my way to get my hands on more volumes.

I didn't think it was possible to be trolled by books, but here I am.

Maybe I’m being unfair, and maybe I’ve just seen too many stories to be surprised by anything anymore.  But I’d already seen those characters before.  Goofy, put-upon hero with a dark past and unbelievable skill with his weapon of choice; a disturbingly effeminate rival; bounty hunters on both sides of the law; a hard-boiled ex-cop softened by his sudden adoption of an emotionless girl who’s not all she seems; and as is the standard with anime, it’s less of a platform to explore characters as it is a chance to show off bitchin’ damn superpowers.  Couple that with a plot that takes a bare minimum of five volumes to get started (outside of incidental cases and hijinks) and stringing along with only hints and teases, and you’ve got yourself a frustrating series.

It’s a shame, too, because apparently there’s a railgun in later chapters.     

1) Anime is QUALITY.

Anime and manga -- and films, and TV, and comics, and video games, and even books to a certain extent -- are all visual mediums.  They use their visuals to convey information, emotions, and of course style.  They’re an important part of the package.  If it stumbles, you’ve got a product that’s akin to having a motorcycle with one wheel.

Son of a --!  Stop ruining my gags!

You would expect this to be the one, single thing that anime studios should never, ever screw up.  Incidentally, this is the one thing that anime studios consistently screw up.

Pick your poison.  From genetically altered vegetables for maximum spherical shielding…

…To machines equipped with the latest in morphogenetic face technology…

…To any given still frame here…

You have a lot of ways to kill yourself.

Now why would I bring this up on what is (or is/was supposed to be) a blog focused on writing, not art and visuals?   It’s because even though I’m working in a vastly different medium, there are still lessons that can be carried over from one field to another.  Basically, you need to balance out the qualities of your work as best you can -- so if you’re going to have art, make sure your art looks good.  Otherwise, you’ll have a glaring weakness that detracts from the rest of the product; story, characters, themes, all that and more gets wasted if your skills aren’t up to snuff.  In the same sense that you wouldn’t accept a story I wrote filled with spelling errors, you wouldn’t accept a series full of visual glitches and faults. 

Unless you’re just in it for the panties.

Worst Offender: Dragon Ball Z

Oh yes.  I went there.

The apple of many a fan’s eye.  The series that got them into anime in the first place.  A juggernaut in the east and west, in spite of coming to a conclusion years ago.  One of the most influential series ever created for both fans and creators alike; a series that drives fans to lust over Dragon Ball AF, and use alltheir collective birthday wishes to will it into existence.

For better or worse, DBZ changed the mindsets of a lot of people.  It did a lot of good things -- fantastic fights, a primer on courage, strength, and justice, and tackled themes like grudges and pride -- and a lot of bad things -- lots of faffing about, ludicrous ascension of powers, and the quintessential “angry men with ridiculous hair screaming.”  Sometimes, it looked utterly amazing, both still and in motion.

Other times…

Sometimes, you’ll get this.

Other times, you’ll get this.

Back in the days of Toonami, my brother and I took notice of it quickly.  “It’s gonna be a crapimation episode,” we’d scoff.  And then we’d watch it anyway (because, you know, violence), and dealt with the reduced quality for the sake of our fix.  Never a deal-breaker, but always a sore point.  The crapimation episodes didn’t just look worse, but played out worse; whereas heroic fighter Goku would engage in high-speed brawls and blast through mountains in a normal, high-quality episode, in the crapimation episodes he’d have to deal with a villain’s bag of tricks.  Literally; one episode had that as a title. 

It was wholly disappointing.

In spite of that -- in spite of those complaints and issues with anime (yes, even the abundance of panties), I still think it’s a lot cooler than most people give it credit for.  It’s full of surprises, can be deep as well as funny, and delivers no small amount of awesomeness on a regular basis.  How do I know this, you ask?

Two words: Digimon Tamers.

You may know it as the third season of Digimon here in the States.  I know it as one of the greatest anime series ever to grace the world.  Action, comedy, and drama.  Bright moments, as well as some of the darkest (and scariest) moments you’d ever see in a Saturday morning cartoon block.  Character development and relationships, contained within a dense yet palpable fifty-two episode block.  Showing the potential -- and consequences -- of having your own fighting monster pet.  I still remember when I watched the opening for the first time; I remember how it had a darker, fiercer remix of the so-so theme of earlier seasons.  When I saw that opening, I knew one simple fact: shit just got real.

Their skin peels off when they digivolve.  THAT'S SO METAL IT DESERVES ITS OWN ELEMENT ON THE PERIODIC TABLE.

If ever there was a reason to have faith in anime, in spite of its many faults, it’s the fact that a writer and his team made Digimon Tamers.  And for other fans, there are plenty of other reasons to have faith.  Some people like Naruto.  Some like Bleach.  There’s something for everybody out there -- and they’re richer for it.

When they want a good story, they know where to look.  And that’s what matters most.


  1. Thank God I stumbled upon your blog! You have some really interesting posts and your writing is both consistent and fun to read. :D

    1. Hey, thanks. Glad you liked it. Hope you stick around for a while -- and why not tell your friends? More tactical sauerkraut action is on the way...

  2. "Shit just got real"... that was a laugh-out-loud moment for me. Yeah, I'd have to agree that the Digimon anime was good, in spite of the "kid's series" it seems to be on the surface. And without Digimon, there would be no Digimon Rumble Arena!

    1. I think that part of what made Digimon successful -- and this has been argued elsewhere -- is that just because it was a kids' show didn't mean that it couldn't tackle problems a kid might face. Sure, there was a "save-the-world" plot and "I-choose-you!" elements, but there was some serious stuff going down before and between the battles.

      If you haven't seen them yet, JesuOtaku of Channel Awesome has a slew of Digimon retrospectives. I've got a link to the first set down here, but (again) if you haven't seen the rest, watch them. You won't be disappointed.