SUPERVERSIVE: Anime and the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Fan

Tuesday , 21, February 2017 45 Comments

I come by my love of speculative fiction honestly: my parents. They both like and appreciate Science Fiction– and fantasy, to a lesser extent– and are actually fairly big consumers of Sci-Fi television and movies. Neither are what I’d call a nerd, exactly, but neither are they really mundanes. And maybe that’s why I find their unwillingness to attempt to watch anything animated– particularly anime– so mind-boggling.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. I’ve known a couple other folks of their age who appreciate the fruit of the nerd world and won’t touch animated works. Mom can’t get images of Speed Racer out of her head, apparently. But then, I know a few people out there of my age or younger who also won’t touch the stuff. And I suppose, at first blush, it’s reasonable. Until recently, the stereotype has been big eyes and poorly-dubbed, poorly animated cartoons; as of late, the stereotype is big eyes and probably a little sleazy, or else cute monsters and children.

So why do I keep dragging up anime shows in this column? Why should the uninitiated care?

Here, the genuine “weeb” would probably lecture you about the superiority of Japan and Japanese animation. I’m not; I think a lot of it has been utter crap lately. (Though I think it’s likely that Sturgeon’s Law is just more visible with the internet making importing foreign entertainment easier. Once upon a time, we had to wait for a company to decide it was worth importing and localizing an anime, or a fansub group deciding it was worth their time; now it takes about 12 hours for even amateur fansub groups to translate and release an episode.) What I do think anime has going for it is, A), a limited-run format that typically encourages shows to have complete story arcs, B), a willingness to gamble and creatively stretch due to that limited-run format, C), a foreign culture that gives fresh perspectives on things, and D), what is, as far as I can tell, an almost complete lack of SJW taint.

The Vision of Escaflowne, an Arthurian-tinged steampunk high fantasy with giant robots.

Anime is a medium dominated by genres: mostly the speculative fiction genres (fantasy, scifi, and horror), slice-of-life, comedy, and romances. There are all the usual sub-genres, plus a healthy dash of things that more or less originated with anime, such as the magical girl show (Sailor Moon, Puella Magi Madoka Magica) and the giant robot (“mech”) show. (And yeah, Heinlein probably had the first mechs in Starship Troopers, but I wonder if that was so much the inspiration as it was a parallel evolution.) I don’t know if steampunk really originated with anime, but I know that I was definitely seeing steampunk settings from Japan well before I’d heard the word or saw anything steampunk from the West.

The limited run format is a huge draw for me with anime. There are some series (Naruto, Bleach, etc.) that go on forever, but it’s more common for a show to run 10-13 episodes or 24-26, and that is that. Second seasons are uncommon, and when a show is good enough to get one, it’s usually more of a sequel series than a second season per se. What this means is that you usually get a complete story from anime: series are frequently written with an end in mind and in sight, and you have very little worry about a show you like being cancelled midstream, ala Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles or Dollhouse. Even Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, despite running sixty-some episodes, is almost straight story with little filler material. (Even anime has filler problems.)

Spirited Away, the gentlest movie you’ll ever see about a girl getting trapped in the spirit world and selling her name to a witch.

That limited run format for televison also opens the medium up for experimentation. That isn’t to say that anime tropes can’t get stale– we’re in a period of terrible big-eyed staleness– or that producers don’t meddle. (The near-future, Tom Clancy-esque mech show Gasaraki made its producers highly antsy when they found out it would contain precisely two types of robots, both of which would be fairly drab and military in appearance. “But how do we have toy sales with only two robots?”) But when you’re only on the hook for twelve or thirteen episodes, you can get a little crazy. Try to imagine a slow, surrealist cyberpunk series about an adolescent girl surviving on Western television; if it ever got out the door, I’d imagine it’d be canceled after the first season. But Serial Experiments Lain ran its whole arc and became a classic.

After a while, you get used to Japan and the Japaneseness of things. It’s easy to forget that, despite being probably the most Western-style nation of Asia, they come at that from a very foreign perspective with a different set of foundational assumptions. It’s probably most clearly seen in the fantastic Studio Ghibli’s films: Princess Mononoke, viewed by some as a environmentalist sort of film, is actually more reflective of Shinto beliefs and values than it is any sort of legitimate environmentalism. The studio’s gentler follow up, Spirited Away, draws even more heavily on Shinto beliefs: it is largely set in a bathhouse for the multitudinous “spirits” of Japan, the kami, and while you don’t need to understand Shinto to watch the movie, it really makes the film pop when you have a basic grasp on it. (There’s an easy to read and fantastic book by a former professor of mine, Dr. Thomas Kasulis, that’s a good intro to Shinto.) The different fundamental assertions of Japanese society makes for, if not a more creative approach to fiction, at least a more novel one; the creators of this stuff are working from a different perspective, and that’s refreshing, especially given the sudden desire for conformity to a political agenda we’re seeing in the US. And that’s probably one of the really refreshing things: Maybe it’s the physical distance, or maybe it’s the cultural difference, but I don’t know the last time an anime tried to lecture me about social justice concerns. They don’t really seem to have bought into the wholesale politics-mongering that we get from US and European works; they’re usually more interested in telling their stories than they are in anything else.

Josh Young is  a seminary student, Castalia House author (featured in Forbidden Thoughts and author of the forthcoming Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep) and blogger at Superversivesf.com. He can be reached on Gab.ai @BadgerSensei. If you enjoyed this, we’d love to have you visit our main site!

45 Comments
  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    A good article; it’s largely the same feeling I get.

    • Being and Nothingness says:

      “I hate myself. But, but maybe, maybe I could love myself. Maybe my life could have a greater value. That’s right! I’m no more or less than myself! I am me. I want to be myself! I want to continue existing in this world! My life is worth living here!”
      Shinji, Neon Genesis Evangelion, episode 26

  • Nathan says:

    I first got into anime in the early nineties, where “Japanimation” in the West was sex, violence, and rock & roll in short straight-to-video movies and series. The stereotype was a strange mix of Heavy Metal with space opera. Since then, the stories told by the medium and the formats have changed a lot. 26, 39, and even 52 episode series used to be normal before the economics of TV shrank the average run to 13 episodes or less, making a 26 episode series a massive investment. After a recent crash caused by the staleness of a certain type of anime show (I don’t want to get into moe, eroge, and hardcore vs. filthy casuals right now as that could be an article in itself), the medium is flailing around as tries to find the Next Big Thing. There are sparks of creativity, but nothing has yet caught fire.

    • Josh Young says:

      I was the early to mid-90s: After finging out that my beloved Robotech books were based on a TV series, I tracked down a friend at church who had them… and he accidentally grabbed his fansubbed Record of Lodoss War VHS and gave it to me anyways. What I had seen up until that point had mostly been 8-Man and the odd episode of Speed Racer, so I was working on the “cheap” side of things. I didn’t discover the violence until after watching Lodoss… which watching Ninja Scroll shortly after showed me was still on the very tame side of things.

    • JD Cowan says:

      Japan made a concentrated effort to hook the hardcore of the hardcore and lock many fans out back in the mid-00s.

      They admit it themselves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6ZCXKTTHq4

      Things appear to be changed very slowly, but I’m very hopeful they will get back on tracker sooner than later.

      • Nathan says:

        That strategy crashed around 2011 and 2012 when they realized the hardcores were no longer buying the memorabilia like they used to. (I call it the Great Moe Crash of 2011.) Since then, the medium has been in transition, although who knows what to. There are some positive trends, though. Characters instead of collections of quirks, female characters having actual character flaws, stronger male leads, etc..

  • Steampunk goes back to Jules Verne (and H. G. Wells).

    One reason your parents may not be interested in anime specifically, is that so much of it is (or has been – may have changed) ultimately about teenage angst. Older folks likely don’t get into that. I know I don’t.

    • Josh Young says:

      Verne and Wells are *sorta* steampunk now, but that’s not what they really were at the time they were writing– they were just scifi. Steampunk is an intentional throwback to the 19th century; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was essentially a hard scifi novel.

      Your point about teenage angst is valid, but I’ve never even gotten them far along enough to discover that. I’ve mostly been trying to force Macross Plus on them.

  • Andy says:

    I got into anime in the late 80s, probably. Of course I’d watched Speed Racer, Star Blazers, Voltron, and Robotech when they were on TV, then rented Akira when it came out on video and started watching some of the edgier stuff. I have an enthusiasm for anime but I wouldn’t say I’m a committed fan who watches out of habit. I’m just more of a general animation fan, really. When I was with an anime crowd growing up, I was often the jerk who would say that the greatest cartoons ever were actually the American ones from the 30s and 40s :p

    I was really into Bubblegum Crisis in college, and I watched a few other OAVs afterward. Sort of fell out of it after that, aside from random stuff like Cowboy Bebop. Lately I’ve tried to get back into it but it’s been tough because there’s so much crap out there. My Hero Academia is really good, though, and I just started getting into JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.

  • Anthony M says:

    “Spirited Away” was just wonderful. Currently I’m an hour into “Castle in the Sky”, which I can already tell is surely one of the greatest adventure movies ever made.

    • Josh Young says:

      Almost everything made by Ghibli is delightful…. Although I remember being underwhelmed by Castle in the Sky, but it might’ve just been a personal taste thing.

      • Anthony M says:

        I want to get through the Miyazaki oeuvre. I absolutely refuse to watch “Grave of the Fireflies”, which I’m sure is amazing and beautiful and all that, but is DEFINITELY not my cup of tea, but “Spirited Away” was so fantastic I can’t imagine disliking Miyazaki’s work.

  • JD Cowan says:

    If there any fans of older anime that want to try something new, I highly recommend Blood Blockade Battlefront.

    It’s from the creator of Trigun, and it’s insane.

  • Paul D says:

    I agree for the most part. Personally I’ve ended at the point where as far as television is concerned, Anime is my first stop for visual entertainment – if only so I can escape the all encompassing political correctness of practically everything made here in the US.

    On many occasions I find it rather sad that I have to turn my gaze nearly half way around the world just for a breathe of fresh air. And the worst part is it’s not like Anime in and of itself is even all that special or even particularly good in general (like you said, the majority of it is crap), and yet despite this it’s practically the most reasonable place to look for genuine entertainment (as far as shows go) these days.

    I agree that the limited format can turn out a lot of gems, but at the same time I’d like to note that it’s also a double edged sword: On the other side of the coin, we now live in the age of the 6 hour long commercial, shows that (even if particularly well made in every regard) were created specifically with the intent to point the viewer towards the source material (light novels or manga, usually) if they want to continue the story, since there is no second season intended.

    In other words we see a hell of a lot less shows like Cowboy Bebop or Trigun or even Code Geass – where the producers are focused on just making a good show people will enjoy and just telling the story, as opposed to making a show people will enjoy just enough to market the source material to them.

    (Yeah that’s right, I’m looking at you Madhouse – quit leaving us hanging for once in your existence! We want more!)

  • Damon says:

    Cowboy Bebop (better sound track than… well pretty much anything), Samurai Champloo, both interesting stories though very different. They set the standard for me.

  • Eli says:

    What’s a good starter anime to see if it would be something I’d like?

    • Anthony says:

      “Spirited Away”. I barely watch anime but that was an incredible film.

    • JD Cowan says:

      Miyazaki is usually the best to start with. Castle of Cagliostro is a great one.

    • Nathan says:

      That’s a hard one, as there are so many different genres animated in Japan. It all depends on the types of movies and tv shows you like.

    • Josh young says:

      Hmm. Well…
      Cowboy Bebop is a bit like Firefly, except that they’re bounty hunters.
      Macross Plus is a short (4 episode) story about fighter pilots and returning to your childhood home as an adult.
      Gurren Lagann is an absurd and slightly raunchy giant robot series that becomes insanely epic– every time you think its got nowhere to go, it ratchets up the action.
      Trigun is a highly superversive story about a desert planet’s most wanted man– a goofy pacifist gun slinger.
      RahXephon is what you’d get if Gene Wolfe wrote a giant robot story.
      Escaflowne is a quasi-Arthurian steampunk fantasy.
      Gasaraki is what you’d get from Tom clancy writing a giant robot story.
      Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the drastically superior reboot of the original FMA. Both are about an alternate, 1920s-ish world where alchemy is a science.

      Any of these are good places to start, but it’s not an exhaustive list. And these are all TV/ OVA (Direct to video, which is not a mark of substandard quality with anime.).

      • Pat D. says:

        “RahXephon is what you’d get if Gene Wolfe wrote a giant robot story.”

        Oh wow, that sounds right up my alley. I need to watch that.

        • Josh young says:

          If you happened to have watched Evangelion, you’re going to see some similarities. There’s clearly Eva in its DNA, but it ultimately transcends that. Just FYI 😉

          • Pat D. says:

            I didn’t like Evangelion but add some Wolfe to the equation and my opinion might be different.

          • Josh young says:

            You’ll probably be fine then. The evangelical Evangelion fan tends to scream about superficial plot similarities (secret organization, mysterious godlike giant robots in a sci-fi setting, etc) but RahXephon transcends it pretty well.

  • LastRedoubt says:

    FWIW – gotta give props to Gurren Lagann, even with the somewhat goofy mecha.

    • Josh young says:

      Yeah. Gurren Lagann is amazing. It’s goofier than I’d ever make a story, but man. That last episode. Chills, every time.

  • Pat D. says:

    I don’t remember for sure if it was the Valkyrie or the Alpha Legioss, but my parents used Veritch Fighters to explain the Holy Trinity to me.

  • Durandel says:

    Josh, what would you recommend to a guy who liked Cowboy Bebop, and Trigun, Lodoss War, but didn’t like Samurai Champloo or any of the other offerings that Cartoon Network brought over in the late 90’s? I might need to check out FA:Brotherhood as the previous series annoyed me with its filler episodes making it feel like a soap opera.

    I was never one for the mecha animes. I like story and character over explosions.

    • Josh Young says:

      Weeeeeell. Depending on your exposure to mech anime, you might have been watching the wrong ones. Y’all are gonna get tired of seeing me type these words, but Macross Plus and RahXephon.

      Macross Plus has the same director and composer (and maybe some other folks?) as Cowboy Bebop. And the thing with Macross is that the installments are usually built on three legs: music, characters/story, and action. Generally a given Macross is fantastic on one or two of those legs, and the third is serviceable, but Macross Plus excels in all three. The story is as much about childhood friends reconnecting and the wedge that drove them apart as it is test pilots and mecha fighter planes. Also, it’s short– a 4 episode OVA– so it’s a low risk investment time wise 😉

      RahXephon is technically a mecha show, but the focus is largely on the mystery and the characters rather than the battles– which are actually fairly tame for the most part, with one or two amazing standouts. (The battle in Episode 19 is practically a Turing Test. It’s one of the most heartbreaking things you’ll see this side of the prologue to “Up.”)

      Escaflowne is another mech show worth a shot– and probably radically different from most mech shows, as it’s more a high fantasy with mostly-mystical, semi-technological 20 foot tall suits of armor.

      But otherwise…. Definitely give FMA:B a shot. I *hated* the first one for largely the same reasons you did, but Brotherhood is one of the best series I’ve seen in a long time.

      Serial Experiments Lain’s a cerebral cyberpunk show, well worth it.

      I’m on the fence about the (relatively) recent Kids on the Slope, but it is the old Cowboy Bebop crew at work again. It’s a little soapy, but it’s beautifully animated.

      If you missed them back in the 90s, the Slayers TV series are generally pretty hilarious, especially Slayer’s Next.

    • JD Cowan says:

      Champloo has always felt disappointingly hollow to me.

      I’m not Mr. Young, so I hope he’ll forgive my intrusion. I don’t know what older series you’ve seen, but I can offer a spread.

      Look up any of these: Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Slayers, Yu Yu Hakusho, Martian Successor Nadesico, Outlaw Star, Monster, Tiger & Bunny, My Hero Academia, One Punch Man, Ushio & Tora, Blood Blockade Battlefront, and Erased.

      • Josh Young says:

        Oh, yeah. I forgot about Outlaw Star and Nadesico. Outlaw Star’s definitely worth a watch as the third member of the Trigun-Cowboy Bebop trifecta.

        • Pat D. says:

          You could go back to the 80s and add Space Adventure Cobra to that list to make it a…quadfecta? I haven’t completed the series yet but what I have seen is great.

          • Josh Young says:

            Most of my 80s experience is actually films– Ghibli, Vampire Hunter D, a few others. Record of Lodoss War is probably the earliest thing I actually watched.

            Well. Besides Macross 😉

      • Nathan says:

        Captain Tylor, now that a series I wish I had kept in my collection over the years….

        I’d add Full Metal Panic and A Certain Magical Index as possibilities as well.

  • Kentucky Headhunter says:

    Any thoughts on Kabaneri of the Iron Fotress which is on Amazon Prime. Guess I’m older than most here, but Battle of the Planets was on after school on my local UHF channel back in the late 70’s.

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