Popular culture is supposed to be the social antithesis to the cult of traditional bourgeois art. Not bound to ritual, nor dependent on time honored hierarchy, popular culture, in its very nature is a protest either by promising change or by transporting us to a new reality. With few exceptions, it overpromises. Ritual, cultism and celebrities are everywhere. One possible exception is Anime, which still operates on the boundaries of mass culture and still offers the promise of a dialectical conversation with the status quo. Examples of this are found in six classic anime which, while often underappreciated, show us the promise of art as a fundamental vehicle for helping us create a new reality and ignite our imagination.
These are not necessarily my favorite anime films. But I would argue that if the term “classic” even has a hint of legitimacy, then these six titles must be included among the classics. My hope is that this discussion is a point of departure for a larger conversation on anime in popular culture. I hope also that these titles are a useful introduction to those who wish to discover the variety, depth and beauty of classic anime. Enjoy them. I believe they’ll be around forever.
1: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 1st Gig and 2nd Gig
Synopsis: The year is 2030. Most people have been turned into cyborgs or have robotic parts attached to them. The Japanese government and other social organizations have become extremely corrupt. Confronting this cesspool of institutional venality is Section 9, a secret government task force headed by Aramaki and his compatriot Major Kusanagi, a female cyborg who, with her band of merry men, takes no prisoners in the fight against corruption. In the first season, Section 9 is assisted by a hacker, The Laughing Man (an homage to J.D. Salinger’s alienated storyteller), in their fight against a medical company with powerful connections to the government. In season two, Section 9 fights a terrorist group, the Individual Eleven, who want to start a major war.
Why it’s a classic: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex should be considered a classic, though it is not underappreciated by any means. Its politics are transcendent and are especially relevant to our emerging Orwellian reality, in which corrupt politicians and evil, blood sucking corporations destroy people`s lives. This theme is as germane to an unemployed Greek student in the EU as it is to a Walmart worker on the west side of Chicago. Section 9 is a gateway into the “if only” dreams of nascent class consciousness, capturing our fantasies about how we would like to deal with these parasitic politicians and corporations. If this anime would make the Marxists proud, the neo-Freudians are right behind them. Ghost in the Shell addresses the often repressed levels of our universal sexuality. In this anime, sexual expression is one of the few means left to survive in a corrupt world and to express what is left of our humanity. Ghost in the Shell asks two fundamental questions often found in great anime: As Kubrick would ask, what does it means to exist in a world of shit? And even more basic, the question we might ask ourselves everyday if it were not so painful: Who are we and why do we exist? With great animation, great directing, and wonderful music by Yoko Kanno this anime is certainly a classic and well worth the watch, again and again.
2: Samurai Champloo
Synopsis:Samurai Champloo is one of the most approachable “life’s a journey” stories that I have ever seen. It is about three totally different people, a classical swordsman named Jin, a non-conformist sword fighter from Okinawa named Mugen and, a young girl named Fuu who carries around a chipmunk- like creature named Momo. Together they must find a man who smells like Sunflowers so that Fuu can get her “revenge”. Along their journey through a street culture inflected pseudo-historical Japan, these three somewhat irascible, but extremely appealing characters meet a motley crew of mobsters, corrupt Christian groups, graffiti artists, assassins, Dutch politicians, nefarious American military groups who play baseball, zombies (yes, really, zombies), teachers, and other crazy people who either want them dead or want to help them.
Why it’s a classic: Surprisingly, this anime is underappreciated outside of the Otaku/Anime community. Awareness is not the issue. People do know the anime; with 4+ million views on YouTube it clearly hasn’t been ignored, but folks seem to rarely talk about it in Anime discussions. I hardly ever see it on fan lists of great Anime shows (only on lists by “hardcore” Otaku). That said, there are select groups of older Anime fans who do consider it a classic. I believe they are right.
Samurai Champloo is a testament to the infinite adaptability and universality of Samurai and Edo culture. This deeply expressive homage to trans-national popular culture seamlessly integrates Samurai and Edo affectations with American urban street and rap culture. It compares distinct social worlds by incorporating historically and culturally specific expressions of protest as mechanisms to maintain freedom and survival. Rap and Hip Hop permeates the score. A rapper or graffiti artist uses words like “slay” to take down “the man”, and a samurai uses his sword to slay “the man.” While the metaphors are different, they have the same impact: They cause political disruption. Deeply political, this anime takes aim at corrupt religious figures, organizations and governments. And while the three main characters are often powerless, they always manage to fight with their own version of freedom of expression, their own “way of the sword.” For this multi-culturalism to work it needed to be skillfully directed, and it is skillfully directed by Watanabe Shinichiro. With music by Tsutchie, Fat Jon, Nujabes and Force of Nature, Samurai Champloo is a cult classic. It deserves much more than that.
3: Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
Synopsis: Very loosely based on the original French novel by Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Gankutsuou is an epic anime. The story is mundane: Albert, a young boy, is saved and befriended by the much older Count of Monte Cristo and eventually Albert introduces The Count to his family and to the other aristocratic families of Paris. Not knowing that The Count has plans to exact revenge on these families, Albert finds himself in a world of pain, suffering, betrayal, secrets, lies, death, and nightmarish family drama.
Why it’s a classic: This loose adaptation of Dumas’ novel led some fans to lament that the anime did not live up to its potential. I think that they are wrong. Gankutsuou`s story is a simple tale of betrayal and revenge which evokes Greek biblical and Judeo-Christian mythologies. Audiences have long related to stories such as these, because we have all experienced betrayal, and despite our public outcry against revenge, we all wonder what it would feel like to exact revenge on those who betray us. Additionally, as in many great classical stories such as Hamlet; the characters in this anime ponder their existence, their family, and their friendships: Universal existential themes in all of our lives. Combined with beautiful animation, a directing style reminiscent of David Lynch or David Cronenberg and their surreal nightmarish images of hell, and a light symphonic score, this Anime is an instant classic.
4: Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)
Synopsis: It’s the near future, and the planet has been destroyed by nuclear fallout. Resources like water, oil and gas are extremely limited. Motorcycle gangs roam the wasteland pillaging and killing innocent people. Amidst this chaos is a man named Ken who roams the land armed with only his wits and a martial art called Hokuto Shinken. All Ken has to do is wander through this apocalyptic wasteland saving lives, taking down evil warlords, confronting his old nemesis who left him for dead and stole his fiancé, and destroy his brothers’ fascist empire. All while trying to heal the sick and help the poor. Sound familiar?
Why it’s a classic: Not surprisingly, this title came out a little after the original Mad Max. Who said classics can’t be derivative? From the time we began reading the Bible apocalyptic narratives have been a central part of the popular culture vernacular. These narratives spill over in Christian, Jewish and Islamic mythologies. The apocalypse raises existential questions that cannot be answered. And, if we are to be saved, it is either through random accident of biology as in The Andromeda Strain, or it is through the transcendent acts of a great charismatic leader. Ken’s appeal emanates from this same charismatic authority. We gravitate towards apocalyptic stories because they force us to face our fears. Add the sweetness of revenge and we have a story to which we can relate. With 80s style animation, a killer soundtrack, and endless amounts of violence, this has to be put in the anime pantheon.
5: Last Exile
Synopsis: This extremely appealing Anime is about flying ships, sky battles, class tension and, yet again, revenge. The two main characters, Lavie and Clause, are vanship drivers. (A vanship is a two person flying ship resembling a race car that either does battle or delivers your mail. Lavie and Clause use their ship to deliver mail). At a dying vanship driver’s request, Clause and Lavie must deliver a little girl, Alvis, to Alex Row captain of the Silvana, a massive airship connected to no particular government. They become part of the Silvana’s crew, discover that the world isn’t as peaceful as they thought and join a new world of weaponized vanships. In this new world they must battle the power hungry Guild, their flying predatory enemy and Alex Row’s nemesis, for their own survival. Ultimately, all the governments and the free flying Silvana put aside their differences to challenge the Guild collectively and prevent the Guild from getting the last exile a weapon that whoever controls it can control the skies and heavens above.
Why it’s a classic: Last Exile reminds me of the broad cultural motifs associated with early 19th century European romanticism and the socially constructed nostalgia of that period’s art and literature. It’s a brilliant and iconic homage both to a reality that never was and to a social order derived only from our purest imagination. In the revivalist world of King Arthur, social class differences were transcended by loyalty, apocalyptic visions by the Holy Grail, and reason by imagination. Claus and Lavie are quiet, minimum wage vanship drivers for whom life has little meaning until they encounter The Guild and experience a world beyond their lowly social position. This world of pure imagination is full of chivalry, duels, tests of loyalty, and old school grudges. This Anime is thus perfect for those who still yearn to be embraced by this romanticized version of a bygone era, but in a fantastical steampunk context. And, like the great battle scenes of King Author or other romantic tales, this Anime has some of the best conflicts I have ever seen in my twenty plus years of watching Anime. It also has great music. For the consistency of its motif alone, it is a classic.
6: Galaxy Express 999
Synopsis: Galaxy Express 999 is about a boy named Tetsuro who, with the help of a young women named Maetel, travels the universe on the Galaxy Express searching for a free mechanized body. Together they go to different planets and discover different races. During their travels they encounter their dreams, hopes and fears.
Why it’s a classic: From Flash Gordon to Star Trek, space operas have captivated us. The genre itself is full of heroes and revolutionaries who can take us to a better world, where the good guy always wins, and corrupt governments are always taken down. Our captivation with this particular genre comes from our very human desire to escape the despair in our lives. We need young ambitious heroes like Tetsuro and Maetel who triumph over their mundane existence by riding the Galaxy Express. By identifying with them we, too, can be transported into pure cosmic escapism. But like all heroes, including Tetsuro, we must ultimately return to our mundane lives realizing that we must continue to fight the good fight. With great relatable characters, a beautiful soundtrack and imagery that reminds us of Stanley Kubrick`s 2001: A Space Odyssey this is an Anime that must be seen for those who want to escape into a world of cosmic wonder.