From the 60s’ Astro Boy to the 70s’ Robotech to the 80s’ Akira to the 90s’ Neon Genesis, Japanese animation – anime – has been doing things live-action cinema never thought imaginable. While most film magazines and critics have ghettoised anime, it hasn’t gone away. Indeed, over the last quarter century it’s gone from strength to strength in both Japan and the Western world.
Many westerners’ disdain for anime comes from two areas – (i) big cute eyes; and (ii) atrocious American dubbing. The big eyes – I can’t help you there. The Japanese just like drawing big eyes. But bad Americanised voicing – try the ‘menu options’ on your DVD and simply turn it off. When those voices try to match the otherworldly events of anime, it’s very, very wrong.
For the uninitiated, here’s 50 reasons why anime is very, very right.
For some, great cinema hits all the right marks and scores every time. Coming completely from a non-Western perspective, anime features work under a different logic. When you synchronise with its weird convolutions, you’ll discover some amazing twists on sound, image and storytelling.
Tracing the fateful intersection between wild girl San and the young Ashitaka who has been infected with a form of viral hatred, Princess Mononoke is an engrossing drama of great weight and uplifting consciousness. Princess Mononoke is everything a Hollywood executive would trounce: a historical saga with excessive period detailing; a central figure who is an animalistic girl raised by wolves who doesn’t speak much; some extreme violence in what some think should be a family movie; and a multi-leveled story of political intrigue. While its eco-concerns are wonderfully articulated through touching characterizations and amazing landscapes,
A cyber-punk classic with chilling apocalyptic moments, Akira tracks the dormant psychic power unleashed within the delinquent Tetsuo, showing how explosive the future can be. Akira shuttles us to an indifferent destitute future. An anime which requires you to concentrate and take note of what’s happening, Akira combines socio-political subterfuge with outright philosophical pondering. With memorable music and indelible imagery, it’s a postmodern masterpiece.
The all-female crew of the Gall Force space ship typify a mainstay in anime – women do it better than men. Especially in outer space with lots of fire power. Not all anime need appear portentous and cosmically dense. Gall Force – Eternal Story is a sly combination of relatively puerile fare and gender-raising issues of heroic action. Mixing comedy, pathos, adrenalin and tragedy, Gall Force might appear a hodge-podge, but a careful viewing will reveal that the very Japanese approach to not stating the obvious. Plus, this anime contains some freakish sexual moments which stick in the mind.
Set in a hyper-congested Asian metropolis in the not-so-distant future. Lt, Motoko is an artificially designed android programmed to track down human terrorists intent on curtailing the powers of cyborg empires. The mind is completely messed with by Ghost in the Shell. Motoko does her job well in a mix of erotic allure and impressive physical control of her bodily machines. But she continually ponders her sense of self and the state of her existence. The ending is violent, disturbing and ultimately confusing – but it deliberately queries how different a robot mind might be from the human one we think we have.
Giovanni has a dream one night of traveling a train across the Milky Way with his friend Campenella. Part adventure, part premonition, he wakes to discover some startling changes. Night on the Galactic Railroad contains none of the traits many associate with anime – but it’s humbling tone and gorgeous momentum qualify its rich creativity. Portrayed by waking/talking cats with Italian names, the superficial strangeness soon dissolves into a somber reflection on friendship, loss and being on one’s own. Sounds depressing, but this anime is more a poem than anything else. Beautiful artwork, a sweeping score, and a sense of rhythm that is at once traditional and highly inventive.
The endangered indigenous raccoons of Japan – Tanuki – decide to fight humans and stop the urban sprawl which is threatening their natural habitat. Pom Pokko is a mix of political satire and sharp sociological analysis – yet it remains a hilarious and sometimes moving film. The tanuki are shown to be all-too-human in their irascible yet endearing shortcomings in what unfolds as a fable of human shortsightedness. Contemporary renditions of traditional enka folk songs flavour the visuals while the multiple animation styles and techniques generate a complex engagement with the story.
Surviving as orphans after the Kobe fire bombings in WWII, Seita and Setsuko wander in search of food, shelter and human empathy. Unfortunately, they find little. Charting the near-morbid decline of these two homeless waifs Grave of the Fireflies is an anti-war movie that unexpectedly depicts the negativity a country brings upon itself in such times. A haunting demonstration of eerily still animation reinforces the deathly pall that hangs over this sad tale, yet the emotional capture of Seita and Setsuko will have you forgetting that you’re watching hand-drawn images. Luckily you can watch this at home – because your tears could be very embarrassing in public.
Three generations of spirited inventors – Ray, Eddy and Lloyd – become embroiled in wild techno-creation and thrilling intrigue on the eve of WWI. Steam Boy opens all valves to paint a future that never happened in 19thC Manchester. It’s a mind-boggling improvisation of technology with deep views on how we define machinery. Of particular note is the level of detail in the animation of some amazing antique machines and gadgetry which Ray and his family invent. Such ‘reverse future-history’ is a key feature of much anime, and Steam Boy is an exemplary manifestation of how the future happened a long time ago.
Warrior Princess in a far-off future of despoiled planetary conditions, Nausicaa uses her eco-consciousness to navigate treacherous and devastating events unleashed by environmental decay. Nausicaa is well-crafted story-telling at its best. Not in a literary sense, but in a sophisticated meld of image, sound, light and colour. A study of people politics in an eco-threatened future as war is mounted engrosses, while the themes and issues symbolically threaded throughout some sumptuous animation prove how message and entertainment can be uncompromised by their fusion. The landmark ‘girl-hero’ anime, Nausicaa peaks with incredible action and powerful emotional portraiture.
The connection between beautiful geneticist Misaki and a newly discovered mutant monster dwelling in Tokyo Bay is tediously unravelled by detectives Kusuri and Hata. A strange genre hybrid of monster movie, investigative cops, mega bio-peds and a mother’s love for her departed child, Patlabor III paints the future as a mix of the mundane, the poetic and the operatic. The result is a near-unclassifiable film. Some might find it a mish-mash, but a careful viewing will uncover many subtle interconnections with this truly mutant movie. Only superficially connected to the long-standing Patlabor TV series, this third film instalment deviates in fascinating ways.
As anime ‘directors’ don’t deal with actors, cameras and locations, the art and craft of directing is qualified differently – especially in Japan. Most anime directors started out as animation artists and supervisors. The art of animation is very important to them, and it shows in their results. Many move into supervising complete production and working tightly with regular teams and production studios. ‘Auteur’ recognition is not so straight-forward – especially as many specialise as much in TV series and OVA (Original Video Animations – short run series designed solely for sale) – but some names are recognised innovators.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Spirited Away (2001)
Howl’s Moving Castle (2006)
Currently, the most famous anime director in Japan, Miyazaki established Studio Ghibli as the means to achieve his visions. Focussing on theatrical features alone, his movies are deliriously successful in Japan and celebrated for their strong heroines, beautiful scenery, and a fascinating transposition of fantasy Euro-settings into a world of Eastern drama.
Pom Poko (1994)
Only Yesterday (1991)
Graveyard of Fireflies (1988)
Partner of Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli, Takahata has delivered a steady stream of low-key contemplative dramas and social allegories. Grounded in a realist tradition and with keen observation of human interactions and their dramatic consequences, his films attest to the emotional power of anime.
Steam Boy (2004)
Memories (2000 omnibus)
The director most responsible for exporting Japanese cyber-punk to the West, Otomo’s dual career as animator and manga artist has been celebrated internationally. To some an uneven director, he is emblematic of anime artists being more interested in their own critical fixation than broadly entertaining audiences. As such, his take on ‘hard sci-fi’ is uncompromising and unique.
Ghost in the Shell 2 – Innocence (2005)
Patlabor 2 (1998)
Urusei Yatsura 2 – Beautiful Dreamer (1984)
Oshii is one of the few directors to have moved between live action and anime and still retain the key themes and issues which interest him. While outwardly dealing with the sci-fi genre, his work consistently explores Japan’s position within the Asia-Pacific, speculating on how social and technological changes will be affecting people in everyday life.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1997 series & films)
Anno is the first anime director to posit a critical view on the otaku phenomenon – and in the process sharpen and intensify the type of content that continues to push anime fans into new territories. Pushing story structure, plot flow and psychological analysis to near-experimental extremes, his work promotes a duality of alienating and exciting audiences.
Ninja Scroll (1993)
Demon City Shinjuku (1988)
Wicked City (1987)
A supreme visual stylist, Kawajiri’s anime is noted for its calligraphic flair and heightened decorative veneer. His work draws on a long history of imaginatively ornate Japanese illustration, and his canny ability in transferring these effects and sensibilities to a wide range of genres has been widely noted. A master of poetic motion and hyper-kinetic combustion, he truly animates his vision.
Vampire Princess Miyu (1988 OVA)
Fight! Iczer 1 (1985 OVA)
A key figure in the early 80s anime explosion, Hirano’s flair is great characterization with excess sex appeal. Nominally credited as being both animation director and character designer, he typifies a key aspect of anime being akin to puppet theatre. His big-eyed tight-clothed characters are suitably doll-like and uniquely Japanese in their mix of cute visage and imposing combative strength.
Sheep’s Song (2003 OVA)
The Tale of Genji (1987)
Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)
Sugii’s track record extends back to directing TV episodes for the seminal Astro Boy. His work has progressed considerably since then, and amongst his more mainstream TV work are a crop of highly poetic films, all based on notable novels or respected manga and each one a languorous delight.
Legend of the Forest (1987 short)
Marvellous Melmo (1971 series)
Many attest to Tezuka being responsible for kick-starting the anime industry and introducing its appeal to the West. This is certainly true, but his many and extremely varied animations also prove his vivid imagination and strive toward experimental form. His TV series (Astro Boy, Kimba, Princess Knight, etc.) stand the test of the time, as do his numerous shorts and featurettes.
Galaxy Express 999 (1979)
A comrade of Tezuka’s and a key director of many memorable titles from the 70s and 80s prior to the more contemporary-toned explosion of anime which governs current times. Taro’s well-crafted work and solid grasp of animation technique have always guaranteed engaging work.
Anime is produced under complex team-based multi-functional conditions. In Japan – and now in the West – the main attraction for audiences is the characters rather than the creators. A strange star system exists – with anime characters often delivering greater emotional impact than many live Hollywood stars.
As seen in Devil Man
The main reason you’re a westerner is because you’re hung up about sex. Akira – aka Devil Man – isn’t. Half-devil, half-man, he fights like a lover and loves like a fighter – in hell and on earth and all between. A hunky tortured soul, he comes complete with dorsal muscle wings and mascara. Resembling a wrester from some Asiatic Goth band, Akira hurls himself between dimensions, pummelling all manner of demons in a series of psycho-sexual bouts.
As seen in Astro Boy
Doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or boy – because Astro is kind of both – Astro is cute, tough and everything in between. Unlike most humans, he’s unduly compassionate – a typical creation of manga god Osamu Tezuka. With a nuclear reactor in his heart, gun power in his butt, sexy legs with red boots and power rockets, plus the inimitable two-point hair-piece – what more do you need in life?
As seen in Violence Jack
When it all goes down, it’ll be survival of the fittest. If you like reality shows, then see if you can tackle the towering 2 metres of the hulk that is Jack. No surname – just Jack. No past, no future, nothing. Having risen from the post-nuclear depths of Tokyo, he has been erased of all soul and psyche. Luckily, Jack is a good guy, but he can dish it out beyond all comprehension. You’ve been warned.
As seen in Gantz
As the theme song says: “Yes, now, this instant – die, die, die.” And that’s what Katou does again and again. Tripping badly while shuttling between the afterlife and ‘the living’ Katou is forced to play the deadly ‘action game’ Gantz and kill aliens. Messily. A desultory high schooler bordering on the dysfunctional, he manages to pull through and get it together, dressed in a bizarre black rubber power suit. Each to his own.
As seen in Fist of the North Star
When Kenshiro hits town, he really hits town. Armed with a strange awesome karate technique based on harnessing the constellation of the North Star, he harbours within his corpus a very dangerous weapon. In a future wasteland, he wanders, not wishing to harm anyone, but trouncing a long line of psycho hot-heads who think he’s a push-over. Inspired by the original pre-wig Mad Max, Ken would whip Mel any day.
As seen in Maison Ikkoku
Recently widowed Kyoko who runs a rental apartment seems like an unlikely candidate for a memorable character, but it is her charming quietitude that frames her exquisitely. Sporting no sexy outfits or mind-boggling machinery, she wears an apron and carries a mop. Her appeal is her calm interaction with the apartments colourful characters – plus the melodramatic pull between her and the young student Godai.
As seen in Patlabor
An archetypal ‘rookie’ that appears in numerous team-spirit anime, Noa is intensely likeable because of her normal everyday demeanour. Far from exhibiting any outrageous heroics, she is dedicated to operating her Shinohara giant bi-ped – the eponymous Patlabor machine. Her relationship with this massive techno-pod borders on love, but is ultimately one of respect and harmony.
As seen in Bubblegum Crisis
The hard-rock singer from the original babes-in-suits cyber-gang series. That’s suits with in-built mecha-stilettos. Priss is as cute as hell but don’t mess with them. In her cool blue suit, she strides and struts as if feminism happened on another planet – and maybe it did. Like all intriguing heroines, she’s savagely mucked-up by events in her past, making her a strange fit with the rest of the team. But when they all pull together, she soars.
As seen in Neon Genesis Evangelion
Rei reminds you of that freaky girl in school who never says anything, is as sexy as all hell, but completely creeps you out. Part suicidal-doll, part post-human entity, she seems to already be living in a dimension beyond most of us. Counterpoint to Shinji’s naïveté and social dysfunction, Rei has deliberated an existential stance that memorably resonates. Her extreme actions can only come from someone who has excavated their inner selves, marking her as a sublime post-human in anime.
As seen in Adolescence of Utena
Utena dresses like a boy, goes to a rich school somewhere on the edge of known reality, and enjoys close – very close – relations with other girls at school. They don’t care if she’s he or she. She just wants to battle a stream of androgynous rock star types with long swords in raining roses. Polysexual and powerful, Utena strikes more poses than a year’s supply to Vogue. And Playboy.
American producers/distributors of anime have often commented that the Japanese put their music in all the wrong places. This misunderstanding arise from the way that Japanese film music often ‘sounds’ Western – but it’s really coming from a different perspective, harmonically and lyrically.
One of the most unique soundtracks from Japan or anywhere else for that matter, Yamashiro Shoji’s ensemble of traditional instruments and samplers creates a wholly unique take on so-called ‘world music’. Eerily strange and wonderfully evocative of the dimensional warping that is Akira.
J-Metal guitar god Kore blasts through a pyrotechnic repertoire of licks, riffs and chords on this rock-out soundtrack. Mirroring Priss’ hard stance, Kore’s tracks rumble and race along this remake of the original Bubble Gum Crisis series. Abundant in fuzz, squeal and noise.
Post-grunge power-pop J-style, this hyper-percolating song score by The Pillows adds a genuine teen intensity to Furi Kuri’s mind-boggling take on the–boy-with-robot anime genre. Sparkling raw production and insanely melodic hard pop anthems rocket throughout.
From Rip Slyme’s opening grime-grunge-ragga rap to the melancholic ballad by Bonnie Pink over the closing credits, Gantz’s soundtrack stretches its numerous freaky moments into every possible stylistic direction. The score greatly adds to the emotional roller-coaster ride of this death-trip anime.
Jun Miyaki, Yoko Kanno, Hiroyuki Nagashima
Otomo Katsuhiro’s stellar omnibus film also features a double-CD soundtrack of powerful proportions. From Kanno’s ethereal magic to Nagashima’s lush orchestration, the score packs in an abundance of symphonic grandeur. But it’s Miyaki’s scorching jazz fusion freak-outs that spin the soundtrack into the next dimension.
The start of Hisaishi’s long collaboration with Miyazaki, Nausicaa is a gorgeous ambient score intoned with delicate minimalist electronics. Hisaishi’s scores for Miyazaki have progressively become more ornate and richly textured, but Nausicaa remains once of his simplest and most alluring compositions.
Initially a generalist composer provided scores for numerous anime, but Kawaii’s relationship with Mamoru Oshii led to a unique compositional voice that can be registered in both Ghost in the Shell films, Avalon and the whole Patlabor series. Patlabor III is a remarkably dissonant yet enlightening score which lingers long after the film has finished.
Hajime Mizoguchi & Yoko Kanno
A seriously beautiful score for an anime based on a famously complex manga about a love triangle reincarnated over millennia. Kanno’s haunting arrangements of vocal tracks by Akino Arai provide the central theme around which sensuous sub-themes by Mizoguchi swirl.
Tstchi, Fat Jon, Nujabes, Force of Nature
If hip-hop had happened in Japan’s hedonistic Edo period, this is what it would sound like. An outrageous meld of historical visuals with nu skool hip hop and beat-mixing, this soundtrack complete confounds the head while shaking the body.
Trees of Life
An unusual one-off project by band-cum-videomaker duo Trees of Life, their score for the hyper-eclectic Tamala 2010 is an indie masterpiece. Charming, unsettling and groove-driven with inventive studio production, the album stands completely on it own without the visuals.
Anime loves robots. As with Osamu Tezuka’s seminal creation Astro Boy, they’re often used to show how machines can sometimes have more heart than humans. Plus their designs are truly imaginative.
When someone says that their Mac laptop is ‘sexy’, they obviously haven’t seen much anime. Armitage is another sex-bomb killing machine – in para-bondage gear no less. And she looks 10 years old. Her job as a detective tracking down terrorists seems to defy her appearance – but rest assured that Armitage can cause as much havoc as any Terminator cyborg. Many unsettling scenes feature her flesh-covered metallic corpus riddled with serious bullet damage, but she just keeps on going on.
A lot of anime mixes lethal killing machines with angelic pre-pube Lolitas. Alita is one of the original templates for this mix. Made from the junk heap but spirited by the soul of a mega-fu hyper-kick expert, she presents a confounding mix of cute and cruel. Her battles with other robots – including a robot who is a serial murderer of robots – are high impact detonations of drama and action.
Edward Elric seriously wishes he was a robot of some measure. He spends most of his time attempting to conjure forth alchemical powers to save his metalicised brother Alphonse and atone for mucking things up by practicing alchemy before he was ready for it. Set in another intriguingly designed past which mixes old and new, the metaloid Alphonse resembles a hulking toy version of a Teutonic robot. Despite saying little, his movement and manner make for a classic robot character.
Anime does retro better than any other medium – in the future, no less. Giant Robo is a wildly exciting mecha drama that delivers high impact in the style of classic cliff-hanger serials. With a motley crew of entertaining action-heads, the towering titan Robo shines. More a golem than a moving machine, his faux-Egyptian design replete with riveted iron and steam propulsion is a loving homage to the Japan’s giant robots of the 60s.
Mario is a secret weapon designed for the military. Something goes terribly wrong, and Mario is reprogrammed to kill Felice, the granddaughter of Mario’s creator. Mario is a titanium sleek puppet, ruthless and unstoppable. Based on traditional Japanese puppet design, his form truly is new-meets-old.
Many people complain that anime story lines are too confusing. But if you’re sick of Scriptwriting-101 assignments masquerading as movies, then anime’s confounding narratives could be the antidote you seek.
One day Naota is attacked by Haruko on a Vesper wielding a Fender bass. She wacks his skull, which later births a giant robot. Actually, she’s an alien. This robot then swallows Naota, fights other robotic entities, then excretes Naoto after each bout. The town’s hospital also resembles a giant antique clothes iron. Of course.
Nishi dies – shot in the bum by a dumb yakuza. He pleads with the gods for another chance: bingo. He’s drives like there’s no tomorrow, kills those dumb yakuza – then crashes off a bridge and gets swallowed by a whale in Osaka Bay. There’s also an old man in there as well as Myon and Yan whom he saved after the yakuza incident. They eat sushi in the whale too.
Ataru is just an average high-schooler slacker – stalked by a cute alien Princess Lum in her tiger skin bikini. In this film version of the riotous TV series, she literally constructs a dream world for Ataru to inhabit. In doing so she shapes a sombre inversion of the otherwise wacky world they know. Quietly chilling, beautifully strange and languid in its surreal flow.
Every multi-millennia, the three dimensions (human, demon and animal) converge and all hell breaks loose. The demons want to take over – which they do in an unending orgy of sex, violence and everything in between. Reincarnation, cosmic alignment, bodily expulsions and hyper-nuclear decimation occur regularly whenever anyone has sex. Yes, this is all true.
The Tobira High School is built over a gate to hell. The class prefects are a secret sect guarding the gate, keeping in The Remnant. The world is about to self-destruct at any second. So everyone parties hard and goes berko just like any high school out of control. Just how school should be.