SUPERVERSIVE: Four Anime Reviews

Tuesday , 13, February 2018 58 Comments
Image result for cowboy bebop

Cowboy Bebop first

Given that I have now reviewed over a dozen movies from Studio Ghibli I figure it would be worth my time for me to put out my official reviews of the four anime series I have watched.

Spoilers will be avoided as much as possible, but it’s impossible to avoid everything, so move ahead at your own risk. Still, I did make an effort to avoid ruining the shows for new viewers.

These are my micro-reviews of “Cowboy Bebop”, “Death Note”, “Gurren Lagann”, and “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood”:

1) Cowboy Bebop – Spike Spiegel, a former hitman now on the run from the Red Dragon Syndicate, teams up with former cop Jet Black to catch criminals on the spaceship Bebop. Along the way they pick up a ragtag crew of misfits, and together they come to terms with their mysterious pasts.

Review – Outstanding in every aspect, but particularly in the soundtrack, atmosphere, and rich characterizations of its leads. “Cowboy Bebop” is often called a masterpiece and is a masterpiece, with equal amounts serious drama and goofy humor, both executed expertly. The show had a strong pulpy feel with influences ranging from noir to western and everything in between. It also has the BEST OPENING EVER:

Cons: The finale is much praised but to my eye rushed; when a major character is killed (those who saw the show know who I mean) the killer should have been Vicious. When the series ousted its humor and went for pure drama it sacrificed something that I felt was one of the best parts of the show (the best episode is “Mushroom Samba”). Are these nitpicks? Yes, yes they are, but that’s what you’re going to get with a show as outstanding as “Cowboy Bebop”

Is it superversive? – Tricky. The main theme of “Cowboy Bebop” is the need to let go of the past, and the difficulty of doing so. It’s sort of a more serious take on “Lupin III”, which makes it a deconstruction in some ways. I would say that “Cowboy Bebop” exists in a world where good and evil do exist but where the lines are often blurred; the stalwart crew of the Bebop aren’t exactly white hats. So it isn’t really superversive, but it isn’t subversive or nihilistic either. It has its own particular point of view and proceeds accordingly.

Overall Score: 9 of 10

Image result for death note2) Death Note – Light Yagami is a highly intelligent but otherwise normal teenage boy whose life changes the day he picks up a mysterious notebook with the power to kill anybody whose name is written on the inside. Within days of finding the notebook Light commits hundreds of murders, attracting the attention of the enigmatic Interpol detective known only as L.

Review – I did a four part series on “Death Note” on this very blog, so you already know I’m a fan. “Death Note” is basically two animes. The first half of the anime is a masterpiece of pacing and plot, with one of the most compelling mental battles in all of fiction.

The second half is a big fat dud that perks up just enough at the last episode to avoid complete anti-climax…and even then the manga version of the finale is superior.

Even so, the brilliance of the first half cannot be denied. “Death Note” is the most carefully plotted show I’ve ever seen, and it keeps up a level of constant suspense and tension that would make Alfred Hitchcock blush. There are MULTIPLE iconic scenes, and Light and L can take their place alongside Holmes and Moriarty as one of the all-time great cat and mouse duos.

Is it superversive? – There is actually some debate on the subject, but in light of Near’s speech in the “Death Note” finale, I would say yes. Near rejects the idea of right and wrong being subjective to the individual and decided by the will of the strongest, and instead claims that it can be discovered through the use of reason, an objective code independent of any particular person or time. This is superversive in a very Old Testament sense – not noumenal, but superversive nonetheless.

Overall Score – 9.5 of 10 first half, 5 of 10 second half

Image result for gurren lagann3) Gurren Lagann – Deep in the heart of an underground city a young boy named Simon drills the tunnels needed for the people to eke out a meager existence, even while his reckless and boastful friend Kamina tells tales of a world above their world known as the Surface. While digging Simon finds a small battle robot known as Lagann, which triggers an attack from the surface world that draws Simon and Kamina into an adventure to end the reign of the Spiral King so that humans can live on the surface once more.

And then things get really crazy.

Review – “Gurren Lagann” is awesome with a side of awesome and an extra helping of awesome. It’s so awesome I had to take breaks to process the awesome. The show is very stupid, but it’s so awesome that you don’t care. JUST WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK I AM?!?

Having a dumb plot should not be mistaken for being badly written. Plotting is just one part of a story, most of the time not even the most important part, and it’s not as if the show didn’t know what it was doing. “Gurren Lagann” is absolutely outstanding at character development. The character of Simon at the end of the series is a natural progression of the character as seen at the beginning, even though they are completely different. And everyone’s reactions to the death of a major character are strikingly realistic.

That death midway into the first season sparked a major tonal shift in the series. Pre-death the show was balanced on the razor’s edge of parody and legitimate mech show, but post-death while the humor and absurdity remains we’re asked to take the story much more seriously. The jokes about Yoko’s assets and Leeron’s effeminacy are placed in the background, removed from front and center focus, and Yoko is treated more seriously as a character in her own right rather than as an excuse to draw a gal with a gun.

This is to the series’ benefit – both “versions” of the show are good but if it hadn’t grown it would have gotten old quick. As it happens I was having so much fun I accepted the new status quo readily, if sadly, considering which character had died.

The final two minutes are garbage. I’ll leave it to John C. Wright to explain why.

Is it superversive? – Outside of the last two minutes, absolutely.

Overall Score – 8 of 10 for 99% of it, negative infinity of 10 for the final two minutes. Seriously, read Mr. Wright’s article, it really was that bad.

Image result for fullmetal alchemist brotherhood4) Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – The young boys Edward and Alphonse Elric are prodigies in the field of alchemy, a form of sorcery commonly used in the country of Amestris. After their mother’s untimely death the boys commit the ultimate taboo and attempt to bring her back to life via human transmutation. The process backfires, leading to Ed losing an arm and a leg and Al losing his entire body, alive only because his brother bound his soul to a suit of armor. Determined to regain their bodies Ed passes a difficult examination to earn the rank of state alchemist, using the resources his title as Fullmetal Alchemist provides to research the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, their best lead on a method to regain their bodies.

Review – Ah, and now we’re here. I loved this show. Loved. This. Show. It is brilliant. It is amazing. It is outstanding. It is the best thing I have watched since “Justified”. It might – Might! – even be better than “Justified”. It is just. That. Good.

I don’t know what there isn’t to praise about this series. The animation? Fantastic. Character designs? Fantastic. The dub? It might be even better than the legendary “Cowboy Bebop” dub. I can’t think of a single actor who didn’t nail their role – Colonel Mustang’s voice actor in particular deserves some sort of award. The soundtrack is understated compared to the other three series but excellent regardless. The characters are complex and striking and memorable. The moral landscape of the series is complicated and nuanced but without sacrificing a recognition that good and evil exist and we are to seek the good. The action scenes are stellar.

There is so much going on. At certain points we have three separate plotlines going at once, and in 64 episodes there is almost no filler at all. Seriously, somebody actually measured it out, the show is made up of an astonishingly low 3% filler. Midseason episodes carry as much weight and have just as high stakes as season finales, and there is suspense and tension in every episode. Characters are introduced over halfway into the show’s run that end up being focal points of the climax, and we are completely invested in them. Enemies and allies shift and change their roles as the series progresses, and it is one of the only things I have ever seen where in the leadup to the finale I actually stopped and thought to myself Wow, I have no idea how this is going to end!

And man, that ending! Brilliant. Just brilliant.

As far as cons go there is this one early episode where the show obnoxiously mocks a Not-Catholic Priest, places its faith in Science!, and mocks and belittles a woman for having faith in religion. This attitude is never displayed again and the show’s relationship with God is subsequently shown to be far more nuanced, and in fact how Ed and Al and the other alchemists relate to God is a big part of the series’ thematic underpinnings. The show seems to view God in a rather Gnostic light, actually.

That’s it. That’s the only criticism. One episode displaying an attitude that never comes up again. Out of 64.

(As a side note – I have been told the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime is far more obnoxious in this regard. Having never seen it I can’t really comment except to say that that’s not the case in “Brotherhood”.)

Is it superversive? – Hell yes. To see why you need to watch it.

Overall Score – 10 of 10. A must-watch and an all-time classic.

Next up: No idea. I have a few recommendations from friends, and I suppose I’ll go from there, plus a few more Ghibli movies before I finish the retrospective.

At any rate, all four shows are highly recommended. Enjoy!

58 Comments
  • Mr. Tines says:

    A good part of the charm of anime is that of Japanese culture being resistant to the poz that has infected the entertainment industries of the English speaking world.

    As an entry to the medium the series you’ve listed have the advantage of accessibility — there’s nothing that requires a knowledge of Japanese culture or current events to appreciate, nor do they carry too much in the may of odd tics that are “just the way these things are done”. That’s not to say that they are isolated, though — Gurrent Lagann is pretty much an appreciation of the history of the super-robot genre, culminating in a call back to the studio’s earlier and massively influential _Neon Genesis Evangelion_ in the confrontation between Simon and Nia, followed by a climax meant to relaunch the super-robot form out from under that shadow.

    But at four series, you’ve yet to scratch the surface, or seriously explore the range of genres covered in animation over the years. Which means you’ve got a lot of fun yet waiting for you out there.

  • Go look for Wolf’s Rain, from about the same vintage as Bebop. By my estimate, 7 out of ten. Superversive 8/10
    Also see Attack on Titan (not the live-action film or the “junior-high” spinoff). Overall 8.5/10, Superversive 7/10?

  • windsong says:

    Thank you for the review. I’ve only recently discovered how many wonderful stories there are in animé and manga and will definitely give these a try.

  • JD Cowan says:

    Good choices to watch. If you liked Cowboy Bebop you would probably like Trigun and Outlaw Star, the other two parts of the anime Space Western Trilogy of the late ’90s. They are a touch more superversive than these four, especially Trigun.

  • If you want to put in the time, Legend of the Galactic Heroes pays off big time. 110 episodes is a lot, but in just the first 26 you get a story with heft that a lot of anime doesn’t even try to lift- and that ending will leave you wanting more.

  • Constantin says:

    I’ve never really been much into Anime or Manga. I’ve only ever read/watched Naruto, One Piece or Fairy Tail(the latter of which I tell everyone to avoid like the plague). I’ve heard of Death Note but didn’t get into it because it seemed way too melodramatic(although most Anime are like that). I’ll try these out.

  • Constantin says:

    I just have a question; which versions are better, the english dubbed or original Japanese?

    • Mr Tines says:

      The Cowboy Bebop US dub is generally acknowledged as one of the rare times that the US dub is the preferred choice. As a general rule, though, the Japanese voice cast are actually being directed as part of the production, often with the voice parts recorded first and then animated after so the lip-flaps fit. And unless you’re familiar with conversational Japanese, it’s not so obvious when performances are just being dialled in. You just have to bear with the girls being higher pitched all the time.

      While it doesn’t affect these series, which are all a decade or so old, there has been a worrying trend in recent series for the US dub script to introduce outright SJW lines that are not in the original.

      • Constantin says:

        “While it doesn’t affect these series, which are all a decade or so old, there has been a worrying trend in recent series for the US dub script to introduce outright SJW lines that are not in the original.”

        I had no idea about that. Thanks for the warning, as I despise SJWism and got to Anime and Manga precisely to get away from it.

        And thanks also for the Cowboy Beepop information. English it is.

        • Nathan says:

          Funimation is the prime offender, having changed dialogue and characterization for political purposes for close to 15 years now. However, the more mainstream a title, the less likely it is that they will mess with it.

          • JD Cowan says:

            Only buy Funimation if it’s a re-release of an old series like Slayers or Escaflowne or a big franchise like Dragon Ball or My Hero Academia. They can’t be trusted otherwise.

      • Alex says:

        I could not, in good conscience, recommend any audio where Megumi Hayashibara is replaced with Wendy Lee.

    • Anthony says:

      All 4 series mentioned have excellent dubs. I’m a dub guy, so that’s important to me.

      Cowboy Bebop and FMAB particularly are superb.

      • Nathan says:

        Same. After learning about the Rodriguez Effect, dubs have become a higher priority. (The Rodriguez Effect states that people will perceive more meaning into a show because it is subtitled than actually is present. Discovered by Robert Rodriguez after seeing all the lavish fan theories that cropped up around his goofy little Mexican exploitation flick called El Mariachi. It’s also why some fans flee shows after the dub; they’re forced to deal with the fact that a show might just be nothing more than a goofy cartoon instead of carrying all that fan-perceived symbolic and narrative importance.)

        • Albert says:

          The thing about dubbing is that it’s consider unprofessional to have the dialog and the lip-flaps* out of synch, so dubs are required to fit the rhythms of the original language. Those who can’t stand dubs are likely more sensitive to this.

          Cowboy Bebop is one of two dubs I can tolerate (the other being Black Lagoon), but I haven’t given FMA: Brotherhood a try yet. Perhaps I should.

          *No, localizers can’t just edit the mouth movements to fit the local language. Not only is it a massive technical headache – just ask any guy doing an Abridged series – but there are often legal issues. (Ones that Abridged series will try to sidestep by declaring themselves as parodies.)

          • Anthony says:

            See, one thing that struck me about Brotherhood is how well the dub and sub matched up (I had the subs going at the bottom of the screen because the room was loud sometimes). It’s terrific.

          • Pat D. says:

            English with Japanese rhythm is my main complaint with dubs. Didn’t know it was considered unprofessional to not match the lip flaps.

          • JD Cowan says:

            You also have to be careful of hyper-literal translation. There was a trend in the early ’00s where translators would re-translate licensed manga like Flame of Recca and in the process remove any flavor in dialogue or action in the process.

            Dubs which are 1:1 translations are always terrible and stiff. They wouldn’t work.

            The best dubs and translations are those close enough to the original but with flavor to hook the audience.

          • Albert says:

            Pat D: Yeah, if you look at mid-20th century movie localizations, you get English dialog that doesn’t match the mouths of the characters at all. Mostly live-action during that period, of course, which just highlighted the discrepancy. It got mocked quite a bit, and admittedly it does look rather odd.

            I’m sensitive about dubbing to the point that I can’t watch English dubs of French cartoons, and English is partly descended from old French. But Black Lagoon and Cowboy Bebop are tolerable as dubs, and I look forward to seeing if FMA: Brotherhood joins that list.

          • Nathan says:

            I have a longstanding grudge with anime translations that include gratuitous Japanese as jargon, Japanese grammar in English, and, on the dub side, matching the tones of the original actors. (Register and pitch can and do have different connotations in different languages. English dubs that try to match Japanese pitch often don’t sound right.)

            For a look inside the translation world, including some of the difficulties and preferences by fans that interfere with best practices, I recommend reading about the Persona 5 issues here:

            http://www.personaproblems.com/

          • Alex says:

            Worst is when dubs would try to literally translate certain archaisms and certain characters’ speech affectations.

            Kenshin was really bad about this.

      • Constantin says:

        Thanks for the comments. Time to watch more anime.

  • Taarkoth says:

    FMA:B is easily one of my top three animes.

    You mentioned not having seen the first show; I don’t recommend it. Unlike the later (and faithful to the manga) Brotherhood, the first show has an extremely stupid explanation for alchemy (with just the one type of it, too), Lust is the Elric brothers’ mother, and Hohenheim is the villain.

    • JD Cowan says:

      What? Lust isn’t their mother and Hohenheim is not the villain. Did you watch to the end?

      The problem with these two series is that there are some who prefer the first series and some who prefer the latter and, for some reason, those who like one absolutely detest the other.

      They’re both good.

      • Anthony says:

        Heh, I would deny that but I really dislike the original FMA so I suppose I can’t.

      • Taarkoth says:

        Partially right, I misremembered.

        FMA ’03 Lust is a woman Scar and his brother were in love with.

        It’s SLOTH who is the Elric brothers’ mother. And Hohenheim is indeed a villain.

        • Anthony says:

          Google fu tells me that Hohenheim WAS a villain but repented by the time of the series. Repentance is a big theme of FMA.

  • Slim934 says:

    The review of Gurren Laggan kinda reminds me of my feelings towards Psycho-Pass (1st season).

    The show was just great from the characters (the main male protagonist is especially great) to the art to the world building.

    I think it also suffered from a poor resolution though.

    Still very much worth it overall.

    Also, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it but I think Kill la Kill would count as really superversive.

  • Pat D. says:

    I echo JD’s recommendations of Trigun and Outlaw Star and add Space Adventure Cobra. It’s a likely inspiration for those shows as well as Cowboy Bebop. Also check out Blood Blockade Battlefront, it’s a great modern day fantasy from Trigun’s creator Yasuhiro Nightow.

    I disagree with Wright’s take on Gurren Lagann but that would take a long post to explain and I’d probably have to start my own blog for it. Suffice for now to say that I highly recommend G Gundam, it has a similar feel to Gurren Lagann but you’ll probably like its ending a lot more.

    Also, watch Ushio & Tora. Seriously, just do it.

    • JD Cowan says:

      Ushio & Tora is the best shonen anime. Way above Naruto, DBZ, or Bleach. Plenty of action, adventure, and a perfectly paced plot that doesn’t drag out like so much in the genre.

      I’m amazed that it’s not more popular.

      • Taarkoth says:

        U&T is flipping great.

        BBB is pretty good, and I agree with the Outlaw Star rec. Fist-fighting space ships and Evil Taoist Space Wizards.

  • Vlad James says:

    The first three series are all excellent, and I would even call Cowboy Bebop a 10/10 for what a unique accomplishment it was. While there was a significant drop-off with the second half of Death Note, I didn’t dislike it as much as most, and thought the ending was very effective. Plus, Episode 7, where the main character talks to the talented female detective, is one of the greatest episodes in any medium I’ve seen. Another 10/10 show for me.

    As for FMA: Brotherhood, I would give it a 2/10. Worse than the original series in every way, and I couldn’t stand more than 9 episodes or so.

    Samurai Champloo, Kaiji, both seasons of Grappler Baki, and the Berserk series from 1998 are all 10/10s for me, too, and Akagi is a solid 9, among shows I would unreservedly recommend to anyone.

    • Anthony says:

      Sometimes things just resonate for some people and not others I suppose. I’ve tried watching some of the original FMA the past few days and didn’t like it at all.

    • Anthony says:

      As for Death Note I know what episode you mean and it is great, though there’s so much excellent stuff from the first half I don’t know if I can pick a favorite.

      There’s also a good DN light novel about Naomi Misora.

      • Vlad James says:

        Yeah, I’ve been meaning to check out that DN light novel for a few years now. Have you read it?

        Unlike manga and anime, I’ve never delved into the light novel medium before (not even for Battle Royale, despite how much I love the manga), but have heard positive reviews about that one.

        • Anthony says:

          I did read it. It’s a fun Easter egg for DN fans, a solidly entertaining mystery that gives us more time with a popular character who had little screen time – no more, no less.

        • Nathan says:

          LN releases stateside, until recently, have been driven more by the release of associated anime series instead. Unfortunately, they tend to plagued by the same issues that dampen my enthusiasm for manga and anime translations.

          That said, the best I’ve read have been Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Bakemonogatari. Both translations are excellent, and are more grown up in theme and content compared to the moe isekais that currently flood the market. Spice & Wolf, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and A Certain Magical Index are also good, but have YMMV quirks.

        • Alex says:

          Battle Royale wasn’t actually a Light Novel.
          But either its US translation wasn’t very good, it didn’t translate well into English, or was not that great to begin with and only had shock value going for it.

          I did think it was funny that the the edgy rebellious music the main character listened to was Springsteen.

  • The only troubling thing I can think of as regards religion in the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime is the statement made at one point that Christianity once existed in their world and has died out. Ed scoffs at some (non-Christian) religious ideas at times but that’s just him. I’ve seen it in its entirety twice and I really don’t know what this person was talking about.

    Agreed heartily on the rightness of Near’s speech on the rationality of Good!

  • LG says:

    You’ve hit most of the major Anime works that will work for a non-Japanese and still be excellent. Japanese works almost never aspire for any cross-cultural view points, so unless you’ve got a solid appreciation for certain subtle details, some very fine works are going to be lost on the non-native viewer. (This is the Mushi-shi issue. One of the greats but unless you want to crash course yourself in Japanese Folklore, you’re going to be horrifically lost.)

    The Anime medium is mostly sustained as an advertisement for other products — mostly Manga but Light Novels as well — so it’s quite full of amazingly forgettable works. However, for non-Japanese works, here’s a few suggestions.

    – Steins;Gate: Pure Sci-Fi with some unforgettable characters
    – Trigun: Most Christian animated work of all-time, which is why it was a hit in the States. (Manga author converted to Catholicism at the beginning and it shows through.)
    – Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (2 seasons): one of the best written series of all time. Most of the staff worked on Cowboy Bebop, amazingly enough.
    – Time of Eve (Eve no Jikan): Pulpish Scifi and extremely well written.
    – FLCL: Scifi, coming of age and an alien maid riding a Vespa. One of the all-time greats, but a huge amount of Japanese references.
    – Angel Beats: School-set series, but worth a look. (It’s not what it seems.)
    – Usagi Drop (Bunny Drop): Male-only recommendation, even if very slice-of-life. Most Women will want to kill a character in the middle. (Not a joke.)
    – Eureka 7: the reconstruction of the Mecha genre and one of the greatest character arcs in Anime history. Plus, skysurfing.

    On the Anime Movie side of things:

    – Redline: Space Racers. It’s worth the experience.
    – Summer Wars: Less Sci-fi already and far more prophetic warning about Facebook. But really fun!
    – Wolf Children: What happens if your husband is a wolf?

    Quite a lot of Anime & Manga do go subversive, but most sit in a category that doesn’t fits Western Thought very well. If a Japanese work has any intentions of deeper meaning, it tends to be a reflection on “that which is”. It’s an amazingly calm place to think about things, but it’s not actually attempting to influence in any direction.

  • C. Mac says:

    How about a review of G Gundam? Street Fighter with giant robots and a dub that sounds like a Shaw Brothers film.

    • Vlad James says:

      Yeah, it was a good, fun, over-the-top action series. Not sure how it stacks up to the rest of the Gundam series, though.

      I have a soft spot for Gundam Wing, despite the teen angst and an occasionally imbecilic plot since I watched it as a kid.

      However, I possess only faint memories of the original from when I was a 4 year-old in Moscow, and haven’t seen the newer ones like Gundam Seed, which are also supposed to be good.

  • Jay DiNitto says:

    I’d like a take on Ergo Proxy. All of the episodes are on Youtube, and there’s an explanation of what went on in a few places online (reddit, etc). It’s a rather confusing, oddly-paced series with a constant technical issue (everything seems too dark), but its premise and storyline are pretty unique.

    • LG says:

      Ergo Proxy is a tour through the history of Western Philosophy. The real problem with the series is that even with the “light” touch they took, you’d need to read up extensively on what they were on about. It makes the series interesting, but it just requires too much background information to feel like the narrative works.

      As for the technical side of things, that’s an issue with color space & codecs. The series uses a dark color palette and most video codecs compress that too much. With a good version of the video, it’s very well done. Though it’s a hard series to normally recommend, even if it is interesting.

    • Vlad James says:

      Related to this, the number one anime series I need to watch is Texhnolyze.

  • A. Nonymous says:

    I’ll second the cry for Ergo Proxy. Amazing series.

  • Vlad James says:

    What most surprises me in the comments is the love for Trigun.

    I hated the series and thought it was lazy, imbecilic pap appealing only to the lowest common denominator of preteens and weebs.

    But apparently, there is more to it than meets the eye!

    • Alex says:

      When I finally saw Trigun I was baffled that folks put it in the same pantheon as Cowboy Bebop. I kinda thought it was a tedious drag.

    • JD Cowan says:

      There is quite a lot going on under the surface in Trigun. For an example, JesuOtaku (before he went insane) did a video series on it that was very in depth in behind the scenes, the manga, and the direction.

      It’s always been my favorite anime.

    • LG says:

      Trigun’s Manga creator is a Catholic who wrote a sci-fi Western. The thematic elements are thus very familiar to someone from a Christian culture. The series starts out as in a familiar, not an alien, place, which automatically makes it easier to bridge cultural issues.

      Solid dub and, if you compare it to practically everything else of its time frame, it holds up. It did fine in Japan but wasn’t any type of breakout hit, but it almost assuredly sold far better in the States than Japan. Which has always been a rare thing.

      Even now, 20 years later, it’s something unique within the Anime space, even if the story archetypes are very common in the West.

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