About Me

Newfoundland, Canada
I've been a big anime fan for about 10 years or so now. My five all-time favorite animes at this point are, in no particular order... Puella Magi Madoka Magica, El Hazard: The Magnificent World, Love Live!: School Idol Project, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. However, there are hundreds of anime shows that I like. The main purpose of this blog is to provide meta-commentary on anime, and the anime industry - to try to cast a critical, though appreciating, eye upon this entertainment genre that I believe has tremendous potential, but can also be easily wasted. I have always been a fan of animation in general - in the 80s, I grew up on western cartoons like He-Man, She-Ra, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. Through out the 90s, I was a hardcore comic book fan, for the most part. I'm also a big fan of Star Trek. Right now in my life, though, anime is my principal entertainment passion.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Strengths of Anime

This blog, particularly in recent weeks, tends to focus more on the weaknesses of anime; particularly of modern anime. It does this not out of a love of derision, but as a labor of love.

A very large percentage of the most captivating, imaginative, enjoyable, and moving, works of fiction that I've ever read, watched, or played through, has come in anime. I thus hold its potential in very high esteem, and can't help but to critique it whenever it falls significantly short of that, in my opinion.

But, this can no doubt leave me sounding like a negative nattering nabob. ;)

So, for this blog, I will focus not on the weakness that I sometimes see in anime, but rather on the strengths that I have frequently seen in anime; strengths that caused me to hold anime's potential in very high esteem in the first place.

I will look at what, for me, are anime's seven key points of strength; particularly in comparison to modern western animation.

Please join with me, cherished reader, as I outline the seven distinctive strokes of success of anime...

1. Full Range From Comedic to Serious

From the stupendously stupefying silliness of Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, to the slighty more serious but still exquisitely explosive eccentric feel of Nabeshin's Excel Saga, to the even mixture of crisp careening comedy with dark daunting drama represented by Mai Hime, to the starkly serious sentimentality of Grave of the Fireflies, anime covers every point on the sliding scale of comedy.

Having a full range of options between complete chaotic comedies to stern suspenseful stories means that anime can appeal to a large array of fans, of a wide range of sensibilities and tastes.

Beyond that, it means that if you like a balance of comedy with drama in your entertainment diet, anime is readibly able to provide that balance for you all on its own.

This is in sharp contrast to western animation, where comedies definitely dominate disproportionately.

Many champion how "cartoons" are now more "adult" and "mature". They point to the Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, American Dad, and South Park to demonstrate their point.

And they are right in how these cartoons are definitely intended for an adult audience (with the possible exception of early seasons of the Simpsons which were very accessible to almost all ages).

However, as adult as they are, they also speak as loudly as an excited Peter Griffin would to the modern limitations of North American cartoons. That limitation is "comedies only".

Truthfully, North American-made cartoons are less serious now than they used to be. In some ways, then, they are actually less mature and thought-provoking.

I think of cartoons like the great Canadian cartoon The Raccoons...

The Raccoons had a playfully comedic streak to it, much like the streaks that Bert Raccoon would soar through before hitting a tree. ;)

However, the Raccoons also had sincere themes of family, friendship, forgiveness, generosity, and environmental stewardship that are not presented terribly different from how they are in Clannad: After Story and Princess Mononoke, respectively.

And, along with the Raccoons, North America used to produce cartoons like Babar, Chip N' Dale's Rescue Rangers, Ducktales, Gargoyles, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. All of these tried to convey heartwarming wholesome values in a serious and sincere way. Sadly, North America doesn't really produce cartoons like these anymore. Not from what I've seen anyway.

Thankfully, however, anime now fills this vacuum with many of the Key adaptations, and also recently with animes like Kimi ni Todoke, ef: A Tale of Memories, and some of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli's works.

Anime realizes that the entertainment medium of animation shouldn't be restricted to pure comedy alone. Anime also realizes that the entertainment medium of animation has just as much potential to move and stir and impact upon its viewers as any other entertainment medium does.

2. Full Range of Genres and Styles

From the badass blade-brandishing Bleach butt-kickers, to the musically masterful moe of K-On!, to the sweet sparkling shojo of Card Captora Sakura, to the eloquently elaborate epic of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, anime covers a full range of anime genres and narrative types.

It is true that the popularity of each of the anime genres have peaks and valleys, but there's usually at least a new anime title or two covering every prominent genre that there is. Once more, we see anime be far more diverse than modern North American animation.

Futuristic war narratives like Legend of the Galactic Heroes, or even the various Gundams, are not something that you really see in western animation any more. And the aesthetic flair of an anime like Card Captor Sakura, or even K-On!, has largely been missing from western animation for a very long time as well. And the dark atmospheres and moods that frequently permutate through out Bleach is equally alien to modern North American cartoons.

Anime proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the potential that the animation medium holds for telling narratives of virtually all types.

This potential for variety is helped along a great deal by the third strength of anime that I'm about to get into.

3. Not Concerned With Political Correctness

One of the characters in this DBZ image
is very politically incorrect.
Can you tell me who it is? ;)

Respect and toleration for people of different cultures, genders, ethnicities, nationalities, races, and religions is generally a wonderful thing. It can lessen boundaries between people, and encourage a greater degree of mutual understanding and sense of common humanity. I certainly do not question that.

However, political correctness, which basically serves to persuade people to hold such approaches, is of more questionable worth. The reason being that even a well-intentioned idea or law, can be enforced overly strictly, become a bit too zealous and overreach, or have unforseen negative side-effects.

I believe that this is true of political correctness, particularly in the realm of fiction.

As I've already argued in this blog entry, fiction is strengthened by variety. By having every point on the sliding scale of comedy covered. By having entries for every prominent genre, and narrative type. And, perhaps most importantly, by having true diversity in character types and personalities. Diversity is not only displayed at the physical level, as is the case with visible minorities. Diversity is also displayed, and perhaps most importantly so, with different personalities.

The problem with political correctness is that it says, to put it as simply as possible, that you can't portray certain characters in certain ways.

You can't have a female character like Kasumi Tendo (pictured above) from Ranma 1/2, who is perfectly happy and content living the life of housekeeper for her family. You can't have a soft-spoken bookwormish girl like Yuki Nagato or Kotomi Ichinose. Going by political correctness, every fictional female character should be strong, very witty, outspoken, and generally kickass in everything that she does.

There's certainly nothing wrong with a female character like that... but not every female character should be like that, just like not every female character should be like Kasumi Tendo, Yuki Nagato, or Kotomi Ichinose.

The central reason being that the more you have of the same basic type of character, the less valuable each character of that type becomes. Hitagi SenjŨgahara is an excellent character, but if every female character in Bakemonogatari was like her, it would make Hitagi (and the rest of the female cast of Bakemonogatari) seem far less special because of it.

Political correctness also can make fictional stories, and the dialogue within them, very predictable. Frankly, you can often see the heavy-handed PC theme coming from a mile away, and hence it lands with a thud like an anvil being dropped on Wile E. Coyote.

Due to its lack of concern with political correctness (not going out of its way to be politically incorrect, nor trying to be politically correct), anime avoids these pitfalls that so often plague modern western entertainment.

Its character casts are rich and diverse, and its stories are frequently unpredictable because it's altogether possible that the anime will throw ideas or themes at you that would never pass the North American PC police.

Of all of my seven points, I suspect that this is the one where I will meet with the most opposition by my fellow North American anime fans. ;)

However, keep in mind that I'm not saying that characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer are bad. Not at all. I'm just saying that a full range of characters, unconcerned with political correctness, leads to a more sincere and subtle piece of work with a greater liklihood of each of the characters shining for their own distinctive elements.

4. It's Actually 2D!

Which of the bottom two images looks the most like the top one?
Here's a hint: It's
not the one distributed by Disney. ;)

As you've no doubt guessed by now, I'm a big fan of animation in general. I loved the afforementioned He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, as well as many of the serialized 2D cartoons produced by Disney back in the 80s, and early 90s. I also liked Transformers, Captain Planet, and a whole host of cartoons, when I was a kid growing up.

Saturday mornings were once famous for their several hour cartoon blocks, and I used to look forward to it every weekend, with gung-ho giddy glee. Some kids wanted to sleep in on Saturday morning, but not me! There's no way I'd miss one of my favorite shows. ;)

Along with random video game playing, those shows were the biggest treat of the seven-day week for me, back when I was a kid. I look back very fondly on my childhood, and 2D cartoons is a big reason why.

Sadly, the era of the Saturday morning cartoons has largely gone out with pet rocks, wild 80s hairstyles, and campy sitcoms. Furthermore, the Walt Disney company has, almost exclusively, taken to fancy CGI and 3D imagery for its "cartoons", particulary in movies.

I don't mind a 3D CGI-filled show from time-to-time, but it shouldn't take the place of 2D animation. Old fashioned hand-drawn 2D animation has its own distinguishing charm and visual appeal, imo. The subtle streamlined stylings of a Kyoto Animation have a visual flavor to them that 3D CGI simply can't capture, in my view. And this is a flavor that I don't want to lose, and hence I'm glad that Kyoto Animation (along with many other Japanese animation studios) continue to be influnced by Walt Disney to this day, and arugably moreso than even the company that bears his name does.

Many perhaps don't know this, but Haruhi Suzumiya owes her big eyes to Mickey Mouse. All big-eyed anime school girls do. The big-eyed look that has come to typify anime was inspired by Mickey Mouse. While the Walt Disney company increasingly turns its back on Walt's initial style, Japan continues to revel in it. And, as a big fan of 2D animation, I love seeing that. ^_^

5. Philosophical in a Practical Way

It's been said that Japan's culture values collectivism, while America values individualism. In other words, and to use a pro sports analogy, Japan focuses on the team, while America tends to focus on the star player. This is, of course, a huge generalization, but there probably is some truth to it. A real sense of brotherhood, sisterhood, or camaraderie is present in many animes, reflecting this fact. For all of its simplicity, even an anime like K-On! conveys a sort of sweet and dependable camaraderie better than anything I've seen in western entertainment in a very long time.

Perhaps because of this, the first fictional works to truly take a thorough and in-depth look at what impact the internet would have on our lives, came in anime. Much of the Matrix movies was inspired by anime. Animes like Serial Experiments Lain, and Ghost in the Shell.

A collectivist culture is one that has a good cultural context for exploring the impact of increased interconnectivity, which is, of course, what the internet brought to us. This increased interconnectivity poses many practical modern-day philosophical questions like "Where does the cyber world end, and the real world begin? When I interact with people on the internet, are they seeing the real me, or just a part of me? What is my place, as an individual, within a wired world?"

Anime was posing (and in some cases, attempting to answer) these practical philosophical questions. When philosophy interconnects with practicality, you arrive at a point of purposeful and heightened discussion and contemplation. You arrive at points that can help you better prepare for the future, and to be more successful in finding a satisfying niche in the world.

But even older animes, like the ones starring Char Aznable, would pose pressing practical philosophical issues. These issues also related to people finding a place in an often hostile world, while simulataneously exploring the impact of hostilities themselves upon humanity.

Anime's astute ability to be thought-provoking in a practical way is definitely one of its greatest strenghts, in my opinion.

6. How it Handles Settings

The Bugrom Palace, of El Hazard, is in a region of dark ominous clouds of a purple tint. The Hive itself is very mechanical in appearance, but also very organic. It does make one think of insects... but it also makes one think of the Borg, from Star Trek. And yet, on the interior, it's crystalline corridors and chambers and throne room are luxoriously gorgeous and convey a regal beauty. It is a setting that feels both alien, yet inviting. It truly captures the imagination, as it reflects a vibrant imagination on the part of the setting designers for El Hazard.

Anime has a magnificent sense for aesthetics, and settings that jump out at you, leaving an incredibly indelible impression on your memory and mind. When anime wants to "wow" you with architechture and interior decor, it very rarely fails.

But, at the very same time, when anime wants to put into place a realistic setting that makes you feel that it is very alive and natural, it tends to succeed here as well. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a great example of this, as its settings are based strictly upon real places in the real world. The settings are basically animated copies of those places; detailed line drawings, if you will.

Good, well-designed settings can make a huge difference to the quality of a fictional work, particularly those presented in a visual medium. For a fantasy anime like El Hazard: The Magnificient World, a fantastic setting can go along way to immersing the viewer in that anime, and making him or her feel a part of a grand journey or exploration.

And for an anime like the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a
hyper-realistic setting can prove very helpful in enabling viewers to suspend disbelief when it comes to the more surreal or extraordinary elements of the anime. I'm of the opinion that the more realistic a setting and central characters are, the more a writer can get away with when presenting elements that some may otherwise find hard to suspend disbelief for.

For example, I've never had any difficulty whatsoever when it comes to suspending disbelief while watching the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, in spite of how it contains aliens, time travelers, espers, sliders, and God-like power within a teenage girl. There's some really weirdness there that many would find hard to swallow, but I never did, and I suspect that couching all of that within hyper-realistic settings like North High helps me in that regard.

Anime as a whole is often like this, as we see with hyper-realistic roads, traffic lights, and electric line poles. The latter has practically become a staple of anime scenes.

7. Romances That Feel Real

Not all anime romances resonate with me, but many do. And the ones that do are quite possibly my favorite fictional romances of all.

The romance between Tomoya and Nagisa (of Clannad and Clannad: After Story) is a perfect example of one such romance. It develops gradually, at a believeable pace, and it never ceases to feel heartfelt and warm. Tomoya and Nagisa's caring for one another moves, after a time, to close friendship, and that in turns moves, after a time, to a deep and abiding romantic love. This love manifests itself with sincerity, as both expresses that love with clear, unambiguous words and gestures to one another.

In its own way, the romance between Hitagi and Araragi (of Bakemonogatari) has this as well. Yes, Hitagi's teasing words to Araragi can often feel overly pointed, and she is a bit prone to pushing literal points up against Araragi during moments of bad temper, but yet... Hitagi is open and honest to Araragi about her feelings for him, and Araragi reciprocates to that in a manner that's easy to accept and feels natural for him given his generally laidback but helpful to others personality.

Perhaps due, in part, to its lack of concern for political correctness, anime is able to present sweet and tender romances that move the heart, and touch the soul.

Yes, anime has tsunderes and yanderes that are occassionally overdone, but many of its romances feel very real, and they're presented with honesty and integrity. It's not hard to see why anime can inspire many people to become passionate shippers for one pairing or another.

I bolded the word "integrity" above, because I believe that integrity is the common strand that runs through all of the greatest strengths of anime. Anime is at its best when it's telling stories in a honest and forthright way, and when it's true to the genres, characters, character types, character dynamics, and ideas and themes that it decides to explore. When its not concerned with appeasing or appealing to any one group of people in particular, but is only concerned with telling a certain story, based on true human nature and fitting settings, in a certain way with characters that can both reflect upon what's real while capturing the imagination.

Well, that sums up this post on the seven key strengths of anime, as I see them. I hope that I did justice in delving into them as I did, and I welcome any and all comments from others on those seven key strengths. :)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Kyoto Animation: My Take On It

Recently on the Haruhi board of Anime Suki, a lot of debate has sprouted up over the animation studio of Kyoto Animation. This relates to how soon it will be before future Haruhi content is adapted into an anime format, and it also deals with just how highly regarded Kyoto Animation should be by its fans, and by anime fans in general.

Basically, what should we make of this revolutionary animation studio that many would say has taken the anime world by storm?

Some, like Kaioshin Sama, has argued that Kyoto Animation enjoys a bit too much hype and praise for, in their view, merely accomplishing what many other animation studios also manage to accomplish.

Others, like Bri, view the animation studio in a very positive but perhaps mildly guarded light.

Finally, there are those who think that Kyoto Animation is the best thing since okonomiyaki.

Here in this blog post, I will try to add something of worth to this discussion by giving my own broader take on Kyoto Animation. Kyoto Animation has enjoyed a rapid enough rise up the ranks of prominent animation studios, and enough success overall, that I definitely think that it bears careful looking at for numerous reasons. In future blog posts, I may return to other topics that I have already hinted at writing blog entries for, so don't worry there tigermoon. ;)

Just to be clear, this blog post will be a bit deep and lengthy, and will delve into the business side of anime. It won't be for every reader, certainly, but I hope that some, at least, will appreciate it.

First, I will speak on what I think are fairly unique strengths for Kyoto Animation; strengths that have helped mould and shape an imposing brand image and reputation for the company. These strengths, I believe, come in the form of a few key combinations...

1. Moe Meets Realistic Anatomy

One of Kyoto Animation's greatest strengths is, simply, the quality of their actual animation. And at least most of their artstyles.

Sometimes when an anime tries to have one or more of its characters look cute, or moe, it goes too far, and the character no longer looks realistic because of it. Poor anatomy frequently results, and this can kind of drag the viewer out of the story. Poorly drawn characters, or characters that don't have realistic body types, can quickly sever the viewers suspension of disbelief, or at least the viewer's ability and willingness to become immersed within the story.

Kyoto Animation largely avoids this pitfall. Yes, Lucky Star's art style is not very realistic, but it's not meant to be; no more than Crayon Shin-Chan or South Park's art style is meant to be.

And, yes, K-On! can sometimes degrade into an amorhous moeblob character design style. But even K-On! has its moments of good anatomy...

The hands in the picture above are a bit scrunched up, but other than that, this picture looks pretty good, in my view. The key strength is the ratio of leg length to side length. In some animes, the legs of female anime characters look far too long relative to the rest of their bodies. Kyoto Animation largely avoids this, and makes their characters look both very attractive to gaze upon, as well as realistic to that gaze.

2. Moe Without Ecchi

I personally believe that there are some anime fans that loves a moe art style, but prefer to see their favorite female characters displayed with a sort of innocence to them; an innocence that ecchi and certain sorts of fanservice can undermine.

Kyoto Animation probably captures this particular sort of art style and art direction, to a greater degree than any other animation studio out there today.

Moe is typically accompanied by ecchi, as shows like Bakemonogatari and the Nanoha animes, display. This may certainly draw in a certain audience that may otherwise not bother with watching the anime... but it can also serve to downplay the moe aspect of the characters. A certain preservation of innocence; a playful lack of jaded or traumatized psychology, is key to moe, I believe.

By almost always presenting moe without ecchi, and by placing that moe within the confines of anatomically correct character designs, Kyoto Animation reaches a certain idealized form of moe. A moe that feels real and sincere. A moe with integrity, in that it doesn't come across as quite so fanservicey because its not accompanied by ecchi.

In Kyoto Animation titles, the presence of moe feels more like a honest and respectable artstyle and/or character design choice, and not like simple lowbrow pandering to the fans. That is my take, anyway.

3. Faithful to Source Material but With Wise Wondrous Flourishes

One of the most common complaints you'll find for many animes that are adapted from a manga, light novel, visual novel, video game, or 4Koma source material, is that the anime in question is "not faithful to the source material". In some cases, this is certainly true. There's no question, for example, that the Shana animes have deviated quite a bit from the Shana light novels. In other cases, this frankly can seem a bit nitpicking to me, as a complete pure translation from one entertainment medium to another is both unrealistic, and perhaps even undesirable.

Why is it undesirable, in my opinion? Because a narrative that may work fine in a novel or a game may be a bit too slow (novel) or a bit too fast (game) in an anime format. Basically, what works in one entertainment medium may not work in another.

Kyoto Animation, I think, are acutely aware of this. That is why Day of Sagitarrius, Live Alive, and Mysterique Sign all contained grand creative flourishes that added content to them that was not present in the source material. This added content suited the anime well, and made for a much more enjoyable viewing without detracting significantly from Kyoto Animation's faithfulness to the source material. The idea is to take a line of novel content, and expand upon it in a logical way.

Viewing the video game battle between the SOS Brigade and the Computer Club from within the game itself (as oppossed from the perspective of someone walking around the SOS Brigade's club room) does not alter the the plot in any meanginful way, but it does make the anime episode more explosive, flashy, and theatrical. These elements are frequently not important in a novel, but they are often very important in a visual medium like anime.

So, Kyoto Animation typically does a superb job of balancing the desire of many anime fans for faithful adaptations with the realization that some novel scenes need to be spiced up to work in an anime format, and some pieces of game content need to be greatly expanded upon to work in an anime (here is where Kyoto Animation's work with Clannad shines).

These spiced up scenes, I think, are often what leaves the biggest impact on viewers. One of the redeeming qualities of Haruhi 2009 was what I call "money shots". These are specific scenes of great plot importance that are portrayed with breathtaking artstyle and animation fervor, as colors and lines and symbolic imagery and striking shades explode upon the screen with a dramatic intensity that even Shakespeare himself would applaud.

However, I'll concede to Haruhi and KyoAni critics that these "money shots" can mask weaknesses. E8 is not a good arc just because of the last few minutes of Part 8 of it. As glamorous and stunningly impressive as those few minutes are, it would be wrong to think that they alone can make up for a bad arc (if that's what you held E8 to be up to that point; if you were liking it all along, then the last few mintues of Part 8 simply make it even better of course).

And yet, I will say this... years after I watch an anime, what I remember most are specific scenes that really captured the imagination and left me feeling like I was watching something larger than life. So, on the whole, I very much like Kyoto Animation's approach to putting an added special dash of soaring sparkling stupendousness into the key scenes of the material that they adapt.

So, Kyoto Animation has many strengths, it has to be said. And, finacially, they have carved out for themselves a very nice corner of the anime industry.

They have created a certain specialization for themselves (school-based comedies/dramas with moe character designs), and they have mastered that specialization. They have helped make the sort of animes that they like to do a very profitable part of the overall anime industry.

Where I think other studios could perhaps learn a thing or two from Kyoto Animation is through them trying to specialize with certain sorts of anime as well, hence perfecting their work with one certain type of anime, instead of simply being a kind of 'jack of all trades'.

In some ways, Kyoto Animation is to anime with CLAMP is to manga artistry. CLAMP similarly specialized in certain sorts of fictional works. In CLAMP's case, they focused on somewhat surrealist works (like xxxHolic) and pretty magical girls (Cardcaptor Sakura and Magic Knight Rayearth). CLAMP hence developed a reputation as producing works that had a distinctively feminine and slightly off-kilter look to them. They specialized in certain sorts of works, and developed a reputation from doing so. So for lovers of that particular kind of work, CLAMP became a "trusted name"; if an anime had CLAMP's handiwork behind it, lovers of the CLAMP sort of works could feel secure that they would love that anime.

This, I think, is what animation studios probably need to aim for from now on; building a kind of brand recognization as "the audacious artists of action anime!" or "the exemplars of ecchi!" or "the hallowed heroes of horror!", just as Kyoto Animation has become "the masters of moe!".

But... it is here that I think it's important to recognize Kyoto Animation's limitations. For just as being "the masters of moe!" has earned them an enviable spot of having a core base of fans that will almost always give them the benefit of the doubt and enthustiastic support, it also means that Kyoto Animation appeals very little to people who aren't into school-based comedic dramas, or into moe character designs.

Sunrise is still, in my estimation, the most important animation studio for anime. A vast number of the most successful anime titles of all-time have been produced by Sunrise.

Sunrise is probably known best for its mecha anime works (Gundams in particular), of course, but it's also been involved in such diverse animes as Cowboy Bebop, Dirty Pair, InuYasha, Mai HiME, and Witch Hunter Robin.

Its range is impressive, and its successes (most recently Code Geass) are many.

A strong case can be made that Sunrise has helped anime's fortunes and image in foreign markets more than any other animation company has.

So, as great as Kyoto Animation has typically been, it's impact on the anime world and industry can be blown out of proportion. It is also a very new studio, and so I'd like to see it consistently prove itself for at least a few more years before always giving it the benefit of the doubt. It's admirably true that Kyoto Animation has very, very few finanfical flops or artistic failures to its name... but then it hasn't had the time to really accumulate many, unlike the old animation studio standbys that have long records that hence will naturally include some disappointments.

And yet, it is the old standbys like Sunrise, JC Staff, Madhoue, and AIC that are the companies who set the stage that Kyoto Animation currently sings upon.

You could say that Sunrise is the Jimi Hendrix that helped pave the way for Haruhi Suzumiya. ;)

And Hendrix didn't need any bunny girls or witches to win fans, either. :-p

But, all told, Kyoto Animation has done some nice work for fans of the sorts of animes that it produces, and I'm one of those fans to be sure. But no company is infallible, and hence treating Kyoto Animation like it is is probably going too far.

Kyoto Animation has certainly earned a place of adulation, prominence and respect, at the table with the old animation studio standbys, but it shouldn't be placed on a pedestal above them.

And that's my final word on Kyoto Animation.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Anime Should Chart Its Own Course

Follow the example of Lelouch!
Chart your own course, anime!!

In recent years, the movie industry has primarily been an adaptation industry. It takes the most popular book, cartoon, comic book, and video game properties that are out there, and adapts them into live-action (and/or CGI animation) movies for the big screen. I don't have solid numbers for this, but I at least get the impression that a very solid majority of modern live-action feature-length movies are adaptations rather than "Hollywood originals" or "film originals".

In other words, Hollywood scriptwriters tend to now spend much more time adapting the most popular works of other entertainment or narrative forms than they do creating their own original works. Lately, we've seen them race through virtually every prominent Marvel comics property there is, even with such niche titles as Ghost Rider and Blade achieving star-studded splendor as Hollywood blockbusters. The days of Star Wars, Aliens, Rambo, Rocky, Robocop, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, the Matrix, and the Terminator appears to be fading into the background.

... Remind you of anything, anime fans? ;)

Anime in Japan is very much analogous to Hollywood movies in America, only with two big exceptions.

1) When a popular franchise makes it to the big screen, that in and of itself is considered a huge deal for the popular franchise. The movie itself is everything; it doesn't exist purely to increase the success of the popular franchise, but rather it is considered the pinnacle of success in and of itself. With anime, the animes that are adaptations of other works are generally considered the lesser cousin in its relation to that non-anime source material.

2) The ratio of adaptations to original works is probably even higher for anime than it is for movies.

This is, in some ways, a cause for concern, I think. Especially when you consider that anime is coming close to exhausting the full store of good Japanese light novels, visual novels, and mangas that are or were available for adaptations. Anime truly is running through light novels like Hollywood is running through Marvel comics titles. Eventually, you start to scrape the bottom of the barrell, at least as far as sheer popularity of the original work itself is concerned.

This, of course, leaves anime in a position of dependence. It makes it impossible for anime to fully chart its own course, as it must await the creations of artists and writers in other fields before it can bring much new material to the fore. In some cases, this means mind-numbing filler material, which is often little more than extremely limited and restricted fanfics.

Another negative of this dependence is one that frequent blog commenter tigermoon brought to my attention in his response to my "The Evolution of Anime" blog entry. And that negative is that it means that anime is left working with whatever narrative genres and settings and character types that happen to be popular at the moment (or a year or two ago) in other entertainment and narrative mediums. In recent years, that has meant a disproportionately high number of school-based anime, and a disproportionately low number of animes with epic stories.

Don't believe me?

Well, then lets consider five of the most prominent anime original animes of all time...

These are five of the most beloved and popular anime original animes of all time... and they all had epic stories...

Neon Genesis Evangelion - Story Premise: To try to save the world from "angels" that threaten the entire human race! Later on, a devious plot that would forever change almost every person on the planet is set into motion.

El Hazard: The Magnificent World - Story Premise: An alien world is at war! A battle of wits between two Japanese teenagers explodes into a conflict that will determine the fate of an entire alien planet.

Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha - Story Premise: Capture the Jewel Seeds to prevent a potentially cosmic disaster! Later on, deal with threats of similar magnitudes.

Gurren Lagann - Story Premise: In a dystopian future, humanity fights back against Beastmen oppressors! Later on, the Earth itself is threatened by beings of great cosmic power.

Code Geass - Story Premise: The world is at war! Japan seeks to rise out from under the bloodthirsty thumb of Britannia, and like El Hazard, two former friends chart the course of the conflict.

Considering that there's not all that many anime original animes to begin with, the fact that five of the most prominent all contain very epic stories, speaks to how the minds behind anime original works may tend to favor such stories.

I would say that a reason for this is that anime naturally lends itself to such stories.

One of the strengths of the animation medium is that it can portray certain scenes that would require very lengthy descriptions in a purely textual format (as the old saying goes: a picture says a thousand words), and that it can portray magnificently imaginative conflicts of a grand scale that would cost countless millions in special effects budgeting to do in a live-action format.

This is, in fact, a big part of the reason why I'm a huge fan of animation in general... both of the anime variety, and of the western cartoon variety. This particular entertainment medium simply lends itself to certain types of stories much moreso than any other entertainment medium (except, perhaps, video games) does.

Effectively conveying action scenes that are on an epic scale, and purely in words, is generally not easy. It is thus quite understandable why most light novel and novel writers tend to stay away from such scenes. Furthermore, visual novels and games involving romantic routes, tend to be very dialogue-based by nature. They certainly can have epic moments, but generally not an epic narrative or story.

There is another key factor here that I think bears looking at.

A common complaint that I've heard of many of the more popular anime that have come out since the start of 2009 is that the pacing of these animes is off. I've very recently heard this complaint applied to otherwise very well-recieved titles like Okakami Kakushi and Durarara!!

There' s a very important reason for why such animes may lack desirable degrees of pacing.

And that reason is this:

The sort of slow and methodical plot pacing that can work splendidly in a light novel, a novel, or a visual novel can seem extremely slow and tedious when cut up into 24 minute anime adaptated chunks. Because there's only so much written material that can fit comfortably within such 24 minute animated chunks.

Now, the anime can, of course, slash and burn vast quantities of source material in order to attempt to trim the story down to where it has good (or at least palatable) pacing for these 24 minute animated chunks. But that tends to result in this...

Beatrice is the Umineko Anime in this pic
Battler is the typical fan of the Umineko source material. ;)

The Umineko anime has been absolutely ravaged with harsh criticism for cutting out so much of the visual novel source material. And, having recently read though most of the first Umineko visual novel, I can certainly see why! I'd estimate that at least two thirds of all of the material within the first visual novel was murdered as though coming in contact with the Stakes of Purgatory... ;)

This is quite possibly the main reason why the first volume Umineko DVD bombed in sales. There are other possible reasons for such an incredible sales failure that I may bring up in a future blog entry, but for now, I'm focusing on the impact of enormous content chops made when adapting Umineko from visual novel to anime.

However... I also know why the producers of the Umineko anime sliced off so much of the source material content. The reason why is because there would be no other way for the Umineko anime to have an even sane level of pacing for an anime.

I think that most anime fans want to see something of plot importance happen each and every episode. This is a big part of the reason for why Endless Eight was not more well-recieved. For Umineko to keep even three quarters of its original source material would have resulted in an anime so plodding, and so uneventful in the first few episodes, that virtually every anime only watcher of Umineko would have dropped it like a rock.

Again... what feels like good pacing in a novel isn't necessarily good pacing in weekly 24 minute animated chunks.

Sadly, Umineko was caught between a Beatrice and a Virgilia, when it came to how much of the source material content should be carried over to the anime adaptation. ;)

To paraphrase Giovanni from the Pokemon musical... "It just can't win!"

Now, all of this being said, I largely liked the Umineko anime, and so I'm glad that it was adapted into anime form.

Still, just imagine how good an Umineko-like story could be if it was an anime original anime! Such a story would be made, in advance, to fit with the ideal pacing of an anime. The plot would be quicker and faster, but character development could still be maintained.

So... what does this all mean?

Well, what it means is that I hope that we see more anime original animes in the future. For that will lead to more animes like the five anime original animes featured in pictures in this post. It will also allow the animation medium to more readily control its own destiny; to shape its own future. And the animes themselves will have better pacing becaue of it.

Just as I hope to see Hollywood one day try to make another Star Wars , I hope to see anime one day try to make another Evangelion. :)

This blog entry and the previous one has been largely critical of the modern anime world, I will admit.

So, in my next blog entry, I will speak on what I think anime has done right, and continues to do right. My next blog entry will be a tribute to anime to balance out with these more critical blog entires.

And after that blog entry... I will finally get back to my Top 10 Countdown list, lol. ^_^;;

In the interim, though, any and all feedback is welcome. I eagerly look forward to your comments. :)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Evolution of Anime

In recent months over on Anime Suki's General Anime forum, there have been a few threads basically questioning and debating over the recent direction of anime and its industry. Most of these threads have been started by critics of that direction; those critics tending to be people who were anime fans during the 80s or 90s or possibly even before those decades.

In those debates, I've often played the role of advocate for the critics position, since that's the more unpopular position, and I think that it's sometimes good to give voice to unconventional, unpopular positions in order to put conventional wisdom to the test. This can lead discussions into greater depths, as people dig deeper and deeper to support their own positions. In doing so, within the context of a debate over anime, people can learn more about anime itself, from both their own research, as well as from the knowledge put forward by the other side of the issue.

From these debates, and from paying closer attention to recent season line-ups for anime, I am noticing a profound shift of sorts, I think.

And the shift isn't necessarily what people think it is, although it is related to that.

The Anime Suki poster Bri provided data indicating that there has been a decline in anime of the fantasy and sci-fi genres (as well as in two other genres that escape me right now). By "decline", I mean a lower percentage of the total number of animes put out each year.

But, I don't think that the issue is so much a decline in any one particular genre.

I believe, good reader, that the issue is that the genres themselves have changed. But while the genres have changed, it has lead to a particular type of anime to thoroughly dominate the industry (i.e. account for, in all likelihood, over 50% of all animes produced since the conclussion of Code Geass R2). This domination of one particular type of anime is vaguely perceived by fan and critic alike, but is often mistaken for "moe", or "ecchi", or "fanservice", or "lolicon", or any number of anime elements or conventions.

What I'm refering to is ultimately bigger than any of that, and you'll see what it is that I'm referring to shortly.

First, though, let's look at the new genres...

Genre 1 - Avant Garde Sophisticaed School

Flagship Animation Company: SHAFT

Key anime examples: Bakemonogatari, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Durarara!!

Likely Spring 2010 examples: Arakawa under the Bridge

In recent years, this genre has taken off, and has truly blossomed. It is distinct from other school-based animes in that it has a certain level of maturity and literature quality to it. It is very dialogue heavy, and relies on genuinely witty repartee. Animes of this type have a crisp comedic edge to them, but also tend to take themselves somewhat seriously by casting a somewhat darker mood than what many school-based anime have.

They aim to be hip and trendy; they are your College Professor's anime, you could say. They are the animes that you would probably find the easiest to write lengthy College papers on.

This modern anime genre also tends to be accompanied by a very avant garde artstyle and animation flare. SHAFT has mastered this artyle and animation approach unlike any other animation studio. It could even be said that SHAFT has helped to give life to this modern anime genre.

Genre 2 - SuperSpecialSweet Moe School!

Flagship Animation Company: Kyoto Animation

Flagship Source Material Provider: Key

Key anime examples: Clannad, Kanon, Air, K-On!

Likely Spring 2010 examples: Kiss x Sis, Yutori-Chan, K-On! Season 2

When people talk about moe, in reference to entire anime series' (and not just to indvidual characters), it's the animes in this modern anime genre that they are thinking of.

Animes within this genre are there to pull on your heart-strings; they're there to make you feel all warm and cuddly inside, at least about the characters involved. They're there to make you go "oooooo" and "aaaaa" over the eloquent cuteness of it all. When it comes to pure emotional investment, this modern anime genre can touch the hearts of its biggest fans like no other.

Now... none of this means that these animes are necessarily dumb, or anti-intellectual. I want to be clear about that. Clannad: After Story, for example, has a very profound and touching story to it. Its principal characters are very thoughtful people, and its familial themes are not ones to be taken lightly.

But, on the flip-side, animes of this modern genre can also be as carefree and light-hearted as K-On!

What ties K-On! and Clannad: After Story together is that they both have that same moe visual style, and they both seek to arouse strong positive emotions from the viewer through watching cute and playful non-jaded characters try to achieve their hopes and dreams.

This anime genre fuses innocence with a gentle intelligence; represented best, perhaps, by the Clannad: After Story character of Kotomi.

Genre 3 - Lustful Lesbian Love School!

Key anime examples: Kampfer, Ikki Tousen

Likely Spring 2010 examples: B Gotta H Kei, Ikki Tousen: Xtreme Xecutor

This anime genre is basically the modern version of the ecchi genre. You can even think of this title as just "ecchi" if you wish. However, it's a bit more precise than ecchi in that it is always based within a school setting.

Genre 4 - Action School

Flagship Source Material Provider: Ryukishi07

Key anime examples: Higurashi no naku koro ni, Okami Kakushi, Mai HiME

Likely Spring 2010 examples: Angel Beats, Ichiban Ushiro no Dai Maou

Animes in this genre fuse loads of action with a predominant school or academic setting. The action can come both in a gorey type, but also in the more conventional combat style of the anime Mai HiME. The works of Ryukishi07 has really taken this modern anime genre by storm in recent years.

Genre 5 - School Sports!

Key anime examples: Prince of Tennis, Cross Game, Ookiku Furikabatte, Major

Likely Spring 2010 examples: Ookiku Furikabatte Season 2, Major Season 6

This genre is pretty self-explanatory. In fairness to Cross Game, it's about much more than just sports... but baseball certainly is a key component of the anime.

Along with these 5 modern anime genres, there is a sixth... Historical Pieces. This is a genre that seems to be rising in popularity as well.

However, for the purposes of this blog entry, I'm mostly concerned with these five.

Why, you ask?

Because they all have something in common.

If you can't figure out what it is, well... you probably should go back to school then. ;) :D

0utf0xZer0, a good friend of mine from Anime Suki, once took note of how little the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya appeared to impact on anime, at least as far as influencing future anime titles was concerned.

Au contraire, mon ami. ;)

What that anime did is become the catalyst of a vast number of new modern anime genres, all rooted to varying degrees in Haruhi's anime.

I'm sure she would be quite proud of this accomplishment...

You see, the way a new big hit within an entertainment genre influences the future of that genre is not always with carbon copies of that big hit itself. Rather, what often happens is that people are inspired by one or another particular part of that new big hit.

Haruhi's melancholic soliloquies and Koizumi's philosophical treatises inspire Avant Garde Sophisticated School

The moe character designs and art style inspire SuperSpecialSweet Moe School

Haruhi's molestation of Mikuru inspires Lustful Lesbian Love School

Yuki Nagato vs. Ryoko Asakura inspires Action School

And the Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya inspires Sports School

The five fingers of the hand of Haruhi are a creative force leading to these five new anime genres. ;)

And, as a big fan of Haruhi's anime, I do like a lot of the animes within them.

But... and you knew a but was coming, I'm sure ;) ... the result is that more and more anime are, I think, school-based.

Even animes that aren't school-based are increasingly borrowing from the school-based anime character types popularized in the Haruhi anime.

Case in point being the Sacred Boobsmi... er, the Sacred Blacksmith. ;)

This is why you don't see many of the traditional genres played straight any more in anime. The atmosphere of the school has spread out, and is touching many an anime now. Of course, a huge number of modern animes are school-based as it is.

Now, I want to be clear here on two points...

1. School-based animes can be great. As I've commented before, it's incredible how anime can make something as mundane (and usually hated) as school seem comedic, dynamic, thought-provoking, exciting, fun, and just an overall blast of adrenaline. A totally cool real rush, if you will.

However, there's only so many ways you can play out a Student Council. There's only so many ways you can play out school-based activities. School-based animes bring a nice structure with them, but because of that, they also bring limitations too. There's only so many different sorts of characters that you can have as students in a school. They generally can't be defined or fleshed out through a full-time profession or career, for example.

2. School-based animes aren't just animes that happen to have schools in them. For an anime to be school-based it needs to have a solid majority of its acitivity center around the school, and/or a group based on people who go to the same school together.

One of the limitations of a school-based anime is that it doesn't naturally lend itself to something that I've come to miss... and which I think anime has come to miss.

And that is... epic stories. Epic in the traditional pre-internet sense of the term. Epic as in stories where the fate of an entire world, for example, hangs in the balance. Basically, an epic story has a major plotline, and major reprocussions within its own fictional universe.

And... as hard as I find it to believe given what the 2nd half of its 2nd season was like... I'm really missing Code Geass now.

Code Geass and Gurren Lagann.

Because they had epic stories.

Looking at the Spring 2010 anime selection, I don't see a Code Geass or a Gurren Lagann there. The closest to it, as far as being epic is concerned, is probably Angel Beats. But that, of course, borrows much more from the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya than it does from anything else.

This, I think, may be at the crux of many of the criticisms made of modern anime.

Just a simple lack of epic stories; stories that go beyond the limitations of the school.

Nothing wrong with school-based animes, and these modern anime genres... but they should not completely supplant the older genres of fantasy and sci-fi.

Overall, modern anime is still doing pretty good in most regards, I'll admit.

But we could badly use another Rebellion against Britannia, or another fight against the Anti-Spirals, just about now.

As always, any and all comments are welcomed. My apologies to anybody I may have inadvertently offended with this blog entry.