At one point I was toying with the idea of making a list of anime clichés that I’m fed up with to post on this site. Then it struck me that there isn’t really a ton of anime love on Unreality in spite of the focus on geek culture, and it just seemed wrong to come here and bash an entertainment medium whose flag I proudly fly when I could focus on the positive instead.
While Japanese animation certainly has a lengthy list of tropes that are often instantly off-putting to Westerners and become tiresome after a while even to the hardcore fans, there is no shortage of series that buck these trends and create something really unique and special that can and should be appreciated by a wide audience.
The fact is that the genre as a whole has an image problem in the West the likes of which comic books and video games wouldn’t trade places with in a million years. As much as I hate to give them credit for anything, Disney’s wide distribution of Studio Ghibli’s films has been a step in the right direction, but outside of those family films most people picture lame kiddie toy commercials like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh or pornographic hentai and the occasional nondescript teenagers-flying-around-in-giant-robots show when they hear the word “anime”.
The truth of the matter is that Japanese animation consists of thousands of titles covering every possible genre and inventing several along the way. It’s a medium as varied as film and television, and in much the same way the best you’ll ever find is the stuff you have to dig for. Relying on American television to air high quality anime is a losing game, with Toonami/Adult Swim being an occasional exception. Assuming all anime is like Naruto or Dragonball Z is the equivalent of watching Jersey Shore and concluding that all American television must be for like-minded meatheads.
So today I’m going to try and spread the love a little bit by sharing some of the coolest and most interesting titles of the past several years. Anime shows that shirk the clichés of giant robots, nerds with ten different kinds of sexy girls fighting over them, ridiculously prominent breast physics, over the top powers, childish depictions of romance, and the like.
These are some true originals that stick to the basics of great fiction: great characters with great stories; and they often contain complex themes that you seldom see even in the most sophisticated Western series. If that isn’t something you are interested in, then you are doing life wrong.
Eden of the East
Here’s the concept on this one: an eccentric wealthy man selects eleven individuals, gives them each ten billion yen and asks them to reverse the plummeting fortunes of Japan in any way they see fit. He also gives each of them a cell phone linked to an AI supercomputer with pretty much unlimited power that will do anything that they ask.
It’s an interesting idea to begin with, but the creativity and originality this series exhibits is stunning. The Seleção (as the chosen are called) are wildly varied and their strategies range from serial killings to terrorism, philanthropy, and political power grabs, to name a few. But the series’ protagonist has the most interesting strategy of all.
Akira Takizawa’s vision for a better Japan is one where it harvests the capabilities of Japan’s NEETs (Not in Employment, Education, or Training…essentially, losers) to rebuild the country’s political system and separate it from its troubled past once and for all.
Eden of the East is the name of a cell phone app that acts as an online pooling of knowledge where you post a picture of anything or anyone and everyone updates it with anything they know about it, like a visual Wikipedia. This turns out to be an important tool in Takizawa’s quest and the immense conglomeration of knowledge resulting from small individual contributions serves as his inspiration.
So Eden of the East as a narrative is kind of a celebration of our generation’s mastery of technology and an illustration of the potential of even the biggest losers among us as part of something bigger than themselves while maintaining the importance of the individual. The series began with a thirteen episode television series and was concluded with two feature films, all of which are currently available for streaming on Netflix.
One of my biggest complaints about anime (and Japanese pop culture in general) is their typical portrayal of romance. Too many idealized yearning platonic romances going on there for sure. There needs to be a realistic medium between nasty hentai and grade school puppy love, but too often there isn’t. I need something I can relate to once in a while. And if it could have some seriously rocking music involved and make me laugh my ass off that would be a bonus.
Nana is one of the most compelling shows I’ve seen in years. Two young women from different walks of life meet on a train to Tokyo, each chasing different dreams. One wants to be a rock star, the other seeks romantic fulfillment. They are both named Nana and end up sharing an apartment together. It’s often not the grand gestures, but the smallest coincidences that change your life forever.
This series is extremely relatable for young adults. If I had to compare it to any existing show, I’d have to go with HBO’s Girls, because I feel like both shows come from the same place of portraying their characters as extremely flawed individuals who are nevertheless deserving of love as they struggle through life grasping at any semblance of happiness they can find. Nana is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to real life in animated form.
It will make you smile and laugh, and then it will rip your heart out before putting its arms around you and telling you everything will be all right. For me, Nana was that rare rollercoaster ride of emotions and human experiences that seems to sum up the meaning of life, which is to say that it is whatever you make of it. And like I said before, the music is freaking awesome.
Picture Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and John Woo collaborating on an animated series, if you would. That pretty much sums up Black Lagoon; one of those shows you feel bad for the rest of the world for not knowing about. It’s a rare merging of style and substance that makes you want to rave the second you get off of the couch after watching it.
A Japanese businessman, Rock, gets kidnapped by a crew of pirates while on a business trip. Instead of paying the ransom, his bosses decide to cut their losses and exterminate him along with the kidnappers, lest his knowledge of the company be used against them. Our hero develops a bit of Stockholm syndrome and ends up joining the crew of the Lagoon Company: pirates, smugglers, and escape specialists extraordinaire. But can Rock maintain his soul’s innocence while running with the devil?
The figurative devil in this case comes in the form of Black Lagoon’s poster girl, Revy –nicknamed “Two-Hands” for her prowess with dual pistols. She’s psychotic, foul-mouthed, reckless, and made entirely out of badassness. Her complicated relationship with Rock (who she alternately despises yet reveres as some sort of avatar of hope) forms the cornerstone of the series, but almost every character to play a part in this series is instantly memorable.
For a show with the tagline “Violence, swearing, bravado, and gunplay” on the box, Black Lagoon delves into some depressing philosophical territory. It’s not just cool and filled with some of the best action scenes around; it’s actually kind of brilliant. After being out of print for a while, Funimation re-released both seasons on Blu-ray and DVD and the follow-up miniseries Roberta’s Blood Trail, a complex tale of vengeance from one of season one’s standout characters, was just released after years of waiting. After shutting up, they took my money.
Spare a moment of silence for the late, great Satoshi Kon. After a spotless career of insanely creative animation, we lost him a few years ago. His films included the incredible Perfect Blue (Black Swan was originally conceived as a remake of it), his beautiful tribute to the history of Japanese cinema, Millennium Actress, and the critical darling dream journey, Paprika. But even more than those masterpieces, his television show Paranoia Agent is among the most underrated and conceptually brilliant animated works of all time.
While on the outside, Paranoia Agent appears to be about a talking plush dog and a kid with a baseball bat who is terrorizing a city, the genius is that these two things are in actuality two sides of the same coin. After all, mainstream media performs two functions for our government: to keep us distracted, and to keep us scared. As long as those two things are accomplished, we will do as we are told. And that’s just one of many themes that presents itself over the course of the show.
The series follows several characters, most of which suffer from some form of psychosis. One episode I particularly enjoyed features a woman with split personalities who leave threatening message for one another on her answering machine. That is just a whole new kind of creepy. Another episode follows an eclectic group of internet friends who made a suicide pact but can’t find just the right way to off themselves. Talk about twisted humor. There’s even an episode about a kid who can’t differentiate video games from reality.
In spite of having aired on Adult Swim, this is a show that failed to take off in America, and that makes me sad. It has one of the most cerebral black comedies you’re ever likely to find and it’s a crime that it’s out of print at the moment. But it’s still very findable online…
What would you do if you were given the power to anonymously kill any person whose name you knew? In the internet age of incivility, it’s a chilling thought. In Death Note, the protagonist, Light Yagami (who takes on the pseudonym “Kira”), decides to do the world a favor and eliminate crime by putting the literal fear of God into them after he discovers a notebook that will bring death to anyone if their name is written inside of its pages.
Naturally, this opens up a Pandora’s Box of moralist debates and calls into question the meaning of the word “justice”. As the number of mysterious deaths rises, a special team is put together in an attempt to find the source, and that’s when things get good. After all, Light’s own father is a policeman on that team. The complex mental chess match that unfolds between Kira and his mysterious pursuer “L” -who doesn’t use his name for obvious reasons- in particular makes up the core of the series and keeps the viewer in perpetual suspense in a way I’ve seldom seen.
While most of the rest of the anime on this list are somewhat obscure outside of fan circles, Death Note was a massive worldwide hit. The manga was even banned from schools in places because after becoming an irl meme where students made their own Death Notes to wish death upon one another and their teachers. It is also only anime I can think of offhand with a successful live action adaptation.
The show is a stone classic and is pretty much universally loved. I have personally made addicts out of multiple people at my work, who have passed it on. It’s just one of those shows that comes along once every so often and can do no wrong.
For some random and less intellectually dense honorable mentions I’m going to give props to the vampire-fueled horror action of Hellsing Ultimate, the sweet rock and roll of Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, the romantic sci-fi comedy Please Teacher, the twisted samurai tale Shigurui Death Frenzy, and the ninja warfare of Basilisk just to name a few more personal favorites.
This isn’t even anime’s final form. In fact, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Animation is the most imaginative of all possible variations of visual entertainment because the only limit to what it can put onscreen is the human imagination. Nobody does animation consistently better than Japan, and the biggest reason for that is that nobody ever told them it was only for children.
The medium is struggling again in America. After a massive influx, the industry tried to grow too fast and the result was companies going out of business, and numerous titles going out of circulation. It’d be a real shame to see anime retreat back to Japan simply because the general public doesn’t know what they are missing and the fans are pirating because they are too impatient to wait for the American releases.
So do both of us a favor and take a few of these guys in. Almost all of them have outstanding English dubbed versions, so subtitles aren’t an issue. There’s an entire world of fantastic animated films and shows for every taste out there just waiting to be discovered. Unless you’re too chicken, of course.