Animation Talk- The State of Animation Culture

Last night I watched a video by the PBS Idea Channel on YouTube asking if Avatar the Last Airbender should be considered “anime”. (I recommend seeing the first 4 minutes of the video before reading this). Though I consider myself to be a fan of animation in general, my first thought was a simple “no”, and that’s the answer you would expect from most fans based on what we consider to be anime. However, the video then went on to question how exactly we define what anime is and it got me thinking about exactly how animation culture as it were, has kind of neatly categorized animation into certain labels that we’ve all generally come to accept as fact. I think it’s important however that we do occasionally step back and look at these labels and whether or not they hold up to be as absolute as we’ve come to terms with and to do so I think it’s best that we look at each of them individually starting with the biggest elephant in the room:

What is “anime”?

If we were to look at just the technical definition of anime as defined by Japan itself, anime is simply a term used to describe animation in general and not just animation made in Japan. As far as the japanese are concerned whether it’s The Simpsons, Disney films or Evangellion it’s all one in the same as far as the medium goes. Of course to fans across the rest of the world, anime has a different meaning and how exactly one would define it tends to vary from person to person. For some anime is defined soley by whether or not an animated show was “made” in Japan. This is the definition I personally use as well but as time has passed it’s become difficult to define anime as being by that alone. Several “western” animated shows, even dating back to the 90’s have had the bulk of the show animated by Japanese studios. The Thundercats reboot in 2011 was done by Studio 4C in Japan (the same studio behind the Berserk trilogy films) and the most recent season of The Legend of Korra was primarily done by Studio Pierrot of Naruto and Bleach fame (or infamy depending on who you ask). Similarly while many have come to define anime as stuff animated in Japan the reality is most of it is in fact done by lesser known Korean studios (as is the case with western animation today as well) so it is questionable if that definition alone is really enough.
Some who understand some of the grey areas above have come define anime by the fact that the targeted audience is Japan, stating that if the show wasn’t intended to air in Japan then it shouldn’t be considered anime. This definition has generally held up the most over the years though that too is a bit questionable. While not every show is made with an international audience in mind some do stretch out far enough to eventually be targeted towards Japan. My Little Pony (which I’d rather not bring up but it’s hard not to) has a japanese dub that started airing a few months ago and it’s the same deal for several other western animated shows including The Simpsons, The Boondocks, and Adventure Time (interestingly enough Avatar was supposed to get a Japanese dub as well but talks on that apparently fell through). The argument can of course be made that Japan has to be the audience targeted first for the show but even that occasionally can occasionally be questioned. Space Dandy for instance which is currently airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block is unequivocally defined as anime and yet new episodes air in the states before they do in Japan. Not to mention the fact that the show was quite clearly made with a western audience in mind and the producers seem to be banking on the western audience providing a large chunk of support for the show (especially since director Shinichiro Watanabe isn’t quite as popular in Japan as he is here in the states).
Lastly there are those who define anime by style alone, where if it has an ongoing storyline, handles itself seriously enough and has good art it qualifies as anime. As thus shows like Avatar are included into the mix and are considered to be “above” other western animated works (I’ll go into this a bit more later on). Of course this defintion is often the most frequently challenged as it goes against the “purity” of anime as it were(I’m covering that next) but even putting that aside, such a definition can leave certain japanese animated works out of the mix such as Panty and Stocking which borrows heavily on the style of western animated works and doesn’t really seem to have a definitive plot until the last couple of episodes of the series. Such could also be said for Space Dandy, but it’s a bit too early in the run of the series to make that kind of call.
Now it’s not really my intent to get anyone to change their definition of “anime” as what it means to us individually does differ greatly as we can see above, but the definitions we’ve come to accept for them do all have their holes, and there really is no absolute definition of it other than the one Japan had made for it to begin with.

The “Purity” of Animation

As addressed above, anime fans (though typically the most extreme ones) tend to often view anime with a sense of purity in terms of how it’s defined. If one so much as utters Avatar and the like in the midst of an anime discussion there will almost always be at least one person trying to dismiss those shows as “childish” or saying that they shouldn’t ever be compared with the likes of anime. While not everyone thinks as such, it generally seems to stem from a belief that associating those shows with anime will to some effect, lessen the value of anime as a whole and thus it becomes a defense mechanism of sorts where anime has to be put on a pedestal in order to maintain the perception that it’s art.
Now this leads us to the question of why we feel the need to do this. Though some will give different reason it mostly comes down to the perception caused by the Animation Age Ghetto (I recommend reading up on that if you find the time) where animation is considered to be “for kids” and got more and more targeted towards them over time. Since anime does often have material aimed at older viewers, we’ve created a barrier of sorts where we have completely seperated and categorized western and japanese animation into two main viewpoints: anime= “mature and thought provoking” while western animation= “childish and stupid”. These viewpoints have been the driving point of discussion for many a “east vs west” debate but both have their set of problems as we’ll examine next.

“Silly Rabbit, Cartoons are for Kids!”

Ah, cartoons. Things have gotten to the point where the word itself has become a slur and is pretty much only ever used to immediately dismiss a western animated show as being only for little kids and nothing else. Even those who do consider themselves fans of western animation are quick to categorize shows such as Avatar, Young Justice or Sym Bionic Titan as being something completely different from the so-called childish cartoons such as Spongebob, My Little Pony or Adventure Time. This again comes from the mentality brought about by the Animation Age Ghetto where shows with such a look are almost immediately cast into a little dark corner of animation culture to be mocked and dismissed as not being worthwhile in terms of mature themes
The reality of it is of course a bit different. Personally while I do admittedly sometimes watch such shows as a reminder not to take myself that seriously, these kinds of shows can occasionally tackle some interesting subject matter. My favorite animated show of all time is Ed, Edd n Eddy and while it’s a fairly goofy show, it’s also the only animated show that I’ve felt accurately portrays pre- adolescent childhood for what it really is.  Of course, Adventure Time is probably the most notable example at this stage as show has a fairly tight continuity and frequently addresses serious themes. One of the more notable examples in the show is the episode “Princess Cookie” which (to my surprise) is a subtle yet fairly obvious story about a character dealing with gender identity issues and there’s also the entire saga of Ice King and Marceline episodes which are a pretty depressing and fairly realistic depiction of what it’s like to have a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (and that’s not even getting started on what the backstory of the show really is).
These kinds of shows are capable of addressing deeper themes and should be acknowledged as such, yet we’re quick to dismiss them as having nothing to offer. These kinds of shows can be a slow burn (Adventure Time in particular is a show I’ve found that has to be marathoned in order to be properly understood and doesn’t fully come into it’s own until the third season) but there is some gold to be found somewhere.

Anime is all “art”

On the other side of the looking glass we have the view that all anime is mature and deep. Or more accurately the idea that all anime is mature and deep when compared to western animated works. Now if you were to ask me which I prefer between anime and western animation I would undoubtedly say anime, and though I’m frequently a defender of western stuff I’ve always maintained that standpoint. This is mainly due to the fact that as mentioned earlier, anime is capable of tackling certain themes in a way western animation currently can’t and is occasionally capable of producing masterpieces that can be considered high art such as Evangellion, Penguindrum, Revolutionary Girl Utena or Fullmetal Alchemist.
However while anime is capable of reaching these kinds of heights, it has also been known to go to extreme lows that can make some of the dumbest stuff out there look like gold in comparison. OniAi which has been recently released by Funimation is one such low. While I generally don’t mind watching the occasional goofy harem show the show makes little sense, goes absolutely nowhere, and has just about every joke being about the girls trying to get in the male lead’s pants. It’s a pretty silly show, and many would acknowledge it as such and yet when compared to some of the higher quality western shows it’s still considered to be superior by some and often for reasons not pertaining to the quality of the story itself.
Similarly while some of the more serious western animated shows are occasionally categorized alongside the “childish cartoons”. Anime that is targeted at a younger audience, and clearly accepts that it is such as Pokemon or Beyblade are occasionally given the label of being “mature” works in some fashion compared to Avatar and the like, in order to maintain the idea that anime is completely unaffected by the Animation Age Ghetto and that viewers of these shows aren’t labeled as “immature” for watching them.
As a medium anime has a lot of diversity, but it’s because of that diversity that it can also display some serious flaws and thus the illusion made by animation culture, of anime being a perfect medium of artistic talent is one that is worth calling into to question

Changing the culture

 
The culture we’ve established as fans of animation is one that has it’s share of problems but those problems are capable of being changed. While I’m not seriously expecting anyone to suddenly change their stance on things it’s definitely time that we come to terms with how our need to perpetuate the culture has lead  to viewpoints that are either outdated or were never really the case to begin with. I’m hoping there will come a day where the shadow of the Animation Age Ghetto is completely gone from and all animation can be viewed as just animation, but until then it’s at least good to recognize that the some labels we’ve created for ourselves are only hindering and not helping how the world views what we love.

Review- Gargoyles: From The Dark Ages

GargoylesLogo

Gargoyles is a 1994 animated series created by Disney and is the show that brought now legendary producer Greg Weissman to fame. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the show as a kid but I could never remember the details of it and after seeing the level of praise it has maintained over the years and finding out the whole series is available to watch on Youtube, I decided to do my first full on dive into the show.

The storyline kicks off in 994 AD, Scotland during the ages of myth and superstition. In those days humans lived alongside humanoid looking bat creatures called Gargoyles, who turn into stone by day and are ferocious warriors by night. The Gargoyles protected the people from outside threats but were eventually betrayed by them having most of their clan slaughterted and the survivors frozen in time by a magic spell. 1000 years later, genius billionaire David Xanatos breaks the spell and relocates the Gargoyles to Manhatten, New York where they soon find themselves in conflict with him and forced to adapt to a new era.

In many ways the show feels as though its a product of a different era itself. The show doesn’t shy away from showing serious violence when the time calls for it and it generally carries itself in a very sophisticated manner as the characters often act and speak in the way their roles should(though the show does embrace more typical action show dialog as time goes on) and it avoids dumbing itself down for its audience. The opening episodes of the series even feature some minor swearing and the relationship between lead Gargoyle, Goliath and the group’s human companion Elisa is played off very subtlety unlike in modern shows even including some japanese animation. It does remember who its target audience is however so it typically strays from getting too dark for its own good though disturbing things certainly happen from time to time.

vlcsnap-2010-05-02-17h14m10s139

 

Bleeding from a gunshot wound. You know. For the kiddies.

The show also encompasses several different genres over the course of its run as it functions as an urban fantasy, a gritty crime drama and a Shakespearean tragedy (the show actually borrows pretty heavily from Shakespeare as Weissman has admitted he’s a huge fan of his works). Despite this it maintains a tight continuity with almost every episode directly tying  into another and though it gets slightly more episodic in its later half, it makes sure to never contradict itself and foreshadows its future events relatively well.

Its also largely supported by its cast of characters who come across as strong yet flawed and many of them undergo their own individual character arcs over the course of it’s run. The villains of the piece are also executed very strongly as the show general averts cliche villainy and gives each of the villains sympathetic or relatively understandable motivations for their actions. Even Xanatos who would normally be portrayed as a typical rich evil mastermind, actively learns from his mistakes, tries to be as pragmatic as possible with his plans and is slowly humanized more and more throughout the series to the point where you can almost question how evil he really was to begin with. The characters themselves are largely supported by top-notch voice acting from the voice cast (many of whom you may know from the original Star Trek) and the show delivers some pretty powerful performances in some of the more dramatic scenarios in the show.

davidxanatosqh9

There’s a reason it’s called the Xanatos Gambit

Despite the shows many strengths however, it is flawed. Though the series maintains its continuity  and it does feature some character development throughout it, the Avalon Journey arc quickly becomes a bit too episodic and dragged out to the point where it feels like it could have been half as long as it ultimately ended up being. Additionally the series lacks a complete conclusion due to the third season known as The Goliath Chronicles being considered non-canon by Weissman  due to him having little influence in it though the season two finale is relatively satisfying.

Gargoyles is a product of an age gone by and though it has its flaws the show deserves to be acknowledged as a prized relic, demonstrating a level of storytelling and characterization that many shows today can learn from. It stands today as one of the greatest pillars of western animation and hopefully more shows will follow in it’s footsteps.

Overall: 8.9/10

Available on Youtube

Review- Psycho Pass Premium Edition: Law and Evil

ItemDescription

Psycho Pass is a 2012 series helmed by Production I.G. who has brought us series such as Ghost in the Shell and written by industry superstar Gen Urobuchi who brought us the masterpiece Madoka Magica. The show has pretty solid production values though the animation falters here and there and the soundtrack for the show is pretty memorable as are it’s two opening themes Abnormalize and Out of Control (the latter of which has surprisingly good english). I first saw the series simulcasted during it’s run in 2012 and thoroughly enjoyed the series. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed the series even more in my second viewing of it than in the initial run as seeing the whole picture allows for a bit more clarity on certain aspects of the story’s themes.

The storyline centers around a future where people are judged by a creation known as the Sybil System which can read people’s minds and determine if they have the mentality of a potential criminal or not. Once judged a potential criminal, a person becomes an outcast destined to either be imprisoned or executed. To track down actual criminals, the law enforcement of the series decides to use people who have been deemed as potential criminals to hunt them down and  bring them to justice. The first half of the series slowly explores this world and its characters as we’re introduced to various cases with different motivations and each discussing certain themes about society at large and how those themes affect individuals. One particular case involving a criminal who killed people whose online avatars were famous and then assumed to take their online identities and flawlessly imitate them asks the question of whether or not the internet brings people closer together or further apart and this is just one of the many questions the series asks in its run.

The second half of the show is more  centralized in its themes as it specifically questions the concept of law and order in general through dealing with criminal mastermind Makishima(who also happens to be behind most of what happens in the first half as well). The characters are forced to choose between protecting the law itself and exacting justice and the show eventually questions whether or not the law is truly capable of protecting people. The ending to this conflict plays out surprisingly realistically and though its grounded in cynicism it also provides a slight nudge of hope that society may eventually get to the point where people can someday live up to the ideals that the law embodies.

The series is in many ways like its leading female character Akane. The good and evil of every concept it observes is looked at in great detail and it comes to understand how to accept them for what they are. Though the show doesn’t hesitate to show how evil the Sybil System is (and it’s true nature is quite disturbing) it also demonstrates that simply removing it won’t make society better and it’s existance is one that people have come to depend on. Similarly though Makishima’s views are mostly shown to be correct the show is also quick to note the evils behind his actions as well. It maintains a cynical yet neutral stance on things and its intent is more to open ones views on its subjects rather than directly challenge them.

The characters of the show help to lay out the show’s stance as we see Akane slowly change her viewpoint over the course of the series from an idealist to a well intentioned cynic.  Some of the other cast members are also pretty strong as we have the male lead Kogami whose conflict between the law and his personal sense of justice drives the final confrontation along with Ginoza and Toyomi whose respective character arcs play off each other and ends up leading down a similar path. The main villain Makishima is also a bit of a show stealer as you can occasionally find yourself agreeing with his arguments even though he’s clearly a sociopath.

The show does have it’s issues though as two of the central characters in the series Yayoi and Shion don’t actually come across as being terribly important despite having an entire episode devoted to the former’s backstory and their largely left in the background. The series can also occasionally get a bit too over the top in terms of its graphic content  and can sometimes seem as though it’s trying too hard.

Despite my initial skepticism over Zac Bolton directing it, Funimation’s english dub for the series delivers a series of solid and strong performances across the board. Long time veteran, Robert McCollum brings just the right amount of grit for Kogami and Kate Oxley successfully captures Akane’s progression from a naive rookie into a hardened detective. Newcomer, Alex Organ  also delivers pretty strongly as Makishima and though he initially starts off a little rough around the edges compared to his seiyuu counterpart Takahiro Sakurai, he grows into the role very quickly and delivers a satisfying performance.

The release itself is also pretty nice. The box the set comes is good looking though not perfect material and some of the extras include the soundtrack CDs for the show and interviews with some of the creative staff behind the series at Sakura-Con which can provide a little bit of insight as to what their intentions for the series actually were.

Though the show isn’t quite perfect it juggles the themes it covers very well and it knows how to address thinking of them without directly challenging your view on them and it understands how to accept them for what they are. I highly recommend checking it out.

Overall: 9.2/10

Available through RightStuf, Funimation.com, Amazon and Robert’s Anime Corner Store

First Impressions- Stealth Symphony

114363l

 

Stealth Symphony is the 3rd of the 4 new series recently added to Weekly Shonen Jump in Japan and in many ways it was the most anticipated which is why Viz Media was so quick to add it to the English lineup of the magazine. With the story being helmed by Ryohgo Narita of Durarara and Baccano fame the manga has quite the pedigree to live up to and the first chapter generally succeeds in showing it’s potential.

The story kicks off when main character Jig travels to Jinbo-cho a city filled with elves, dwarves and other kinds of magical beings. His goal is to remove a curse he recieved when he got sick as a kid and was forced to recieve it in order to save his life. Since it apparently makes him a disaster magnet and he almost causes a big one on the beginning of the chapter he decides to get bodyguard protection so that he can prevent himself from hurting others with his powers. It’s around then that we’re introduced to the other main character Troma who is invisible save for a mask and becomes Jig’s bodyguard for the duration of the chapter. It’s soon revealed that Jig’s accident in the beginning of the chapter was no accident and that he’s being targeted which sets off a rather cruel plot twist that will likely be what drives the story from here on out.

Those familar with Narita’s works will immediately recognize that the one thing that stands out as being different here is that the protagonist of the story is clearly defined where as Baccano and Durarara functioned off more of an ensemble cast (though there’s still plenty of time for it to go down that route later on) and the first chapter is devoted to his story though it also helps us to dive into one of the other main characters as well. Jig comes across as pretty likeable so far and though his motivations are a bit cliche at first the ending to the chapter suggests his development may go in an atypical direction for a Jump protagonist. The other lead character Troma is the that seems to have the most potential for something cool between the two though since his invisibility is played with in a pretty unique way since he feels as hollow on the inside as he does on the outside so it’ll be interesting to see where his character is eventually taken.

The artwork for the series is also pretty fantastic as artist Amano Youchi delivers on his speciality in that area and the designs look very detailed for a weekly series though it feels a bit similar to Takeshi Obata’s (Death Note) artwork so hopefully it evolves a bit. The setting also looks as though it could lead to some pretty cool setups as the concept of a city filled with magical beings and dragon artifacts could make for some interesting world building.

Overall the series is off to a strong start and though it feels a bit different than Narita’s usual style it has the potential to live up to his other works and could be the kind of series Jump needs right now.

 

Available through Viz’s Weekly Shonen Jump Digital Magazine

Review- My Bride is a Mermaid: Laughing Under the Sea

 Review- My Bride is a Mermaid: Laughing Under the Sea

my_bride_is_a_mermaid_by_animefreak31-d47t13d

My Bride is A Mermaid is a 26 episode series animated by Gonzo and AIC. The production values of the show are pretty standard though the opening song “Romantic Summer” is fairly catchy. It’s helmed by Seiji Kishi who’s been more recently known for his work on video game adaptions such as Persona 4: The Animation and Devil Survivor 2: The Animation, but before he worked on those he was best known for directing comedies and it definently shows here.

The premise of the show kicks off when main character Nagasumi goes to the sea for vacation and ends up getting his life saved by a mermaid named Sun when he almost drowns. However because he saw Sun in her mermaid form he’s forced into marrying her or else he’ll be killed by mermaid law. Did we mention she happens to belong to a mermaid yakuza family?

mermaid1                                               Meet the in-laws

 

This is where the insanity begins. Despite initially having appearance of a magical girlfriend show the show quickly makes it apparent that it’s a pure comedy and it functions by being as off the wall as possible. Nagasumi is constantly forced to avoid the crazy antics of his yakuza father-in-law who’s out to prevent him from marrying his precious daughter and must dodge everything from miniature assassins to weird looking fish men.  The series constantly escalates in its absurdity and constantly throws out parodies and increasingly bizarre situations in an effort get some laughs. The series isn’t afraid to occasionally laugh at itself though alongside the audience as makes a note to be self aware every now and then as it plays with typical harem clichés.

The hilarity of the series is supported largely by its cast of quirky characters. Nagasumi initially comes across as a typical harem lead but quickly demonstrates that he can be as weird as the rest of the cast members and just as much of a ham. Female lead Sun generally stays a bit more true to the magical girlfriend archetype but the show plays it straight enough to make her as funny as the rest of the cast when it matters. The harem side of the characters include pop idol Lunar who has a two-faced personality and is Sun’s self proclaimed rivalval, childhood friend Mawari who wants to enforce discipline but largely fails at it and Akeno a strange swordswoman who generally isn’t as funny as the rest of the cast due to generally being stoic but occasionally breaks character to acknowledge the weridness of a situation. On the other side of the cast spectrum lies Sun’s crazy yakuza family and it’s associates which include a doll sized assassin with a water machine gun and a blatant homage of the Terminator.

304217-seto_2_super

                                                        “I’ll be back”

Though the series is largely out for laughs there is some occasional drama which is where some of the problems with the series lie. Though the series can occasionally be heartwarming with some of its more serious moments (and occasionally touching even when it’s joking around) it sometimes struggles with developing its characters. This is especially true of the mini-arc in episodes 12 and 13 where Lunar’s character arc comes to a head and inferiority complex towards Sun results in her confessing her love to Nagasumi only for the show to later act as though the confession never happened and to seem as though she learned nothing from the experience. Additionally though the other girls are occasionally given the spotlight they don’t progress very much either and the finale (which the last few minutes of must be seen to be believed) is kicked off by a situation that feels pretty forced and features Nagasumi acting extremely out of character in the beginning in order to achieve the desired result.

mermaid2

                                                 Kenshiro would be proud

Of course though it has some problems its comedy generally makes up for it as it chugs along at lightspeed and rarely leaves you time to dwell on its flaws. The series may not be particularly deep but at the end of the day it’s out to make you laugh and will stop at nothing to make that happen. If you’re looking for a good comedy series this is definitely worthwhile.

Overall:  7.8/10

Available on Hulu, Netlix and Funimation.com