Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Anime for Beginners

Either the best anime of all time or the most suspiciously motivated one
You decide!

So as you may have noticed the Saturday Morning Cartoon Show played Gigantor last Saturday. On this blog and also on the show (You can find the podcast here) we mentioned the significance of the show to modern anime distribution in this country. It has occurred to me that anyone who is a fan of our show is probably a fan of cartoons in general and therefore may have a reason to be interested in anime. Of course it a bit frightening to try to access the medium; its hard t know where to start and there’s a lot of passionate fans who may be a little too passionate for your taste (i.e. fat men in schoolgirl outfits). Well your friend Beta Magnus is here to help. I’ll give you eight excellent anime that I feel are good for someone with little experience with Japanese cartoons. I’ll also provide a little background history with anime in general, but I’ll try to keep it short and sweet and relevant to American audiences. Let’s begin shall we?
NOTE: Like with the Transformers blog I underestimated how much I had to say on the subject. Therefore this blog has been split into two parts. If you are more interested in the recommendations than a history lesson skip today’s entry and come back tomorrow for Part 2.
First of all I’d like to point out that I disagree with the notion that anime is inherently better than American cartoons as many fans seem to think. In Japan cartoons are just another medium for storytelling no better or worse than film, books, etc. The idea that cartoons and animation are strictly for children doesn’t happen over there. As a result cartoons of just about any genre you can think of targeting any and all age groups are produced in Japan while over here in the West the vast majority is targeted for children. Basically I say that it’s not that Japan is better at making cartoons it’s just that they don’t have their hands tied nearly as badly as creators in North America. Japan is capable of making many terrible cartoons (Kiddy Grade) just like we are capable of making fantastic cartoons (Justice League).
Second of all I will be honest; anime is flawed and not perfect at all. I think there are two main problems that can justifiably turn someone off from it. 1) Its foreign. I don’t mean to sound sort sighted or xenophobic but the fact is that the vast majority of anime was created by Japanese people for Japanese people and they are often littered with jokes, references and sometimes sensibilities that would go over the heads of most Americans. I can’t tell you how many times I scratched my head over some joke about some old Japanese fairy tale or a Japanese comedian reference or some such thing while watching these an otherwise enjoyable show (Or not so enjoyable often enough). They can still be fun t watch, of course, but depending on the cartoon it can be hard. Ranma ½ and Azumanga Daioh are great examples of popular anime that need a guide book in order to get all the jokes. 2) Its expensive. While you can still find free anime on TV (There’s an Anime Network now, I guess) the market is mainly a Home Video Release situation right now and it’s not cheap. Let’s say you want to buy a 26 Episode Series of something. Unless there’s a complete series collection be prepared to drop upwards of thirty bucks per volume (There’s usually between 4 and 8). And yes I’m aware that we live in the internet age and anime is only as hard to get as your BitTorrent connection lasts but I have never been a fan of pirating so I refuse to endorse such means. The result however is that if you want to watch anime on your own you better have a job.
Let’s move on.
Astro Boy: Pantless and Proud Since 1952
"Modern" anime basically can be attributed to the animating of the works of Osamu Tezuka, a manga (comic book) artist who was heavily influenced by Walt Disney. Several of his works over the years were turned in to TV shows or movies (Including what we call Kimba the White Lion and Astro Boy) and became very popular. This has been a backbone of anime since the 50s: take a popular manga and turn it into an anime. Though not all anime are based on manga a very large percentage is and we can thank Osamu for that. Anyway in 60s, as I said in the last blog, a lot of cartoons from Japan were brought over here as a cheap way to make money off children without having to do a lot of expensive animating. Gigantor, Speed Racer, Astro Boy and others are still fondly remembered by the adults who watched them as kids (I know because my father likes to talk about Astro Boy fairly regularly).
The trend continued through the next few decades but it didn’t hit the numbers of the 60s until the late 70s into the 80s. Battle of the Planets/G-Force: Guardians of Space, Voltron, Star Blazers, and Robotech all hit the States during this time, mostly in syndication. And boy did they get chopped up. Some of these shows weren’t appropriate for the younger audiences companies wanted to target but they were heavily edited until they were, sometimes to the point that they didn’t resemble their Japanese counterparts. At the time cartoons, regardless of their origins, were exclusively for kids.
Then Akira happened. Akira changed everything.

I saw this movie when I was 7 years old and now I'm afraid of teddy bears

Based on a manga (Surprise surprise) Akira was released in Japan in 1988 and was a hit. Surprisingly it was brought over to American theaters later that year and soon afterwards released in the video market where it did very well. The film was very violent, filled with mature themes, and armed with a bleak ending. This wasn’t for children and Generation X loved it. Despite being old farts today (Unlike me and my hip and young Generation Y contemporaries) at the time many of them ate it up as being cool and so not mainstream. It wasn’t an odd sight for parents to visit their kids in college and find a copy of Akira on their bookshelves. The success of Akira led to the creation of distribution companies that exclusively worked on bringing anime to North America.
This was a “good news, bad news” sort of thing. The good news was that good Japanese cartoons were being brought over to America with limited editing to “dumb it down” for children. The bad news was that distributors for several years picked a lot of violent and sometimes grotesque movies to license (Fist of the North Star and Ninja Scroll come to mind) which started to give the medium a bad reputation that everything from Japan would scar your children for life because of how violent, sexually charged and ultimately depressing they all were. I recall the Sci-Fi Chanel (Now called SyFy for some reason) playing this up a lot during the early 90s when they showed a lot ton of anime movies in their primetime slots and later Saturday Mornings (Not to be confused with our Saturday Mornings). In a lot of ways it was the opposite extreme to the early days of Astro Boy.
Featuring 100% More Robot Sex Than Astro Boy!
This problem cooled down a bit during the mid-nineties as a greater variety of shows made their way to video markets. But anime popularity wouldn’t explode until the early 2000s. This was the result of a turning point caused by the arrival of a show called Dragon Ball Z.
Cue ominous music...
Originally a manga (Oh really?) called “Dragon Ball” by Akira Toriyama it was turned into a cartoon with the same name in 1986, before it became “Dragon Ball Z” by 1989, but it wouldn’t be until 1996 that it made its way to American syndication. Despite being one of the most beloved TV shows in Japan it didn’t do very well here so it was canceled after thirteen episodes (Ending on something of a cliffhanger) and the next season went right into Dragon Ball Z despite skipping over a hundred episodes of exposition and character introductions and development. The American DBZ was also plagued by content censorship and editing that made scripts utterly ridiculous at best and unintentionally hilarious at worse. Though lasting much longer than its predecessor DBZ was also canceled due to ratings (Also on a cliffhanger). Despite all this the show was a cult hit and many anime fans became staunch defenders of the cartoon declaring it was America who had ruined it and the original Japanese was not only superior it was one of the best shows ever made (Fact: It wasn’t). After several years of die-hard fans whining about it Cartoon Network started playing old reruns of the first American run of DBZ. This time it was a giant hit which led to new, less censored episodes being produced (i.e., dubbed) resulting in some of Cartoon Networks highest ratings and making several people a lot of money.
Pictured: President of Cartoon Network circa 2002
With the strength of DBZ and the anime market in general proven Cartoon Network began showing as much anime as possible, including older shows from the 80s (Robotech) and never-before-seen new ones (Outlaw Star, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing). Ratings were great and the anime market was doing fantastic business. This was the Golden Age of Anime in this country.
You my well recall in the early 2000s just how much of this stuff was everywhere. Book stores, video rental places, all over the TV; you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting same anime somewhere. Ranging from kid shows like Yu-Gi-Oh and Digimon to more mature shows like The Big O and FLCL the numbers of anime important were the highest they’d ever been. Anime movies even started to get mainstream theatrical releases (Princess Mononoke) with strong critical praise. The market came down eventually and these days it’s somewhat in a bad way but even now we can still see the impact of those times in stores today. Still anime is harder to find on television than it was eight years ago (Unless you have the Anime Network, I guess) and almost all series and movies have to be bought in stores (Perhaps just as God intended) but sooner or later it will be back in the spotlight. Since the 60s, 80s, and 2000s all experienced big anime booms perhaps by 2020 big eyes, blue haired weirdoes will again take over popular media.
A popular example of modern anime in all its
-->horror splendor
Tomorrow I'll give you my picks for good starter anime for newbies.

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