Why is Japanese Animation worth watching? There are many answers. Some are obvious. Others are deceptively simple. Among the obvious ones are Anime’s wonderful imagery and aesthetics. In its use of sexuality and beauty, the imagery can be as tantalizing as a Klimt or a Goya. In its evocation of fantasy and myth, the imagery reminds us of the 19th century Romantics. In its presentation of giant fighting robots fighting for freedom, Space cowboys fighting against corruption, and vigilante flying ships juxtaposed against an utterly black void, Anime shows us the irrepressible power of freedom.
If imagery is a partial answer to the question of Anime’s continued place in popular culture, so too is its music. The music can be upbeat, sad, stirring and peaceful, but like a Wagner opera, it is always a central part of, not a mere addition to, the narrative. The music borrows from all idioms; we are as likely to hear jazz and hip-hop as we are to hear heavy metal, classical or blues. And it is all done to move the story forward, to be a seamless part of a film’s entire fabric.
Anime shows us the irrepressible power of freedom.
But these two reasons for watching anime, imagery and music, belong in the domain of the connoisseur; they are derived primarily from the animators’ technical skills, and while they, in themselves, are certainly valid answers to the question why we watch Japanese Animation, there are two others that I believe are at the very core of the art. Without them, the other two are not possible. I am referring to the power of its characters and the universality of its themes. The characters in Japanese animation are deeply and melodramatically human; they feel intense love, happiness, and rage, yet they also certainly feel isolation and alienation. We are drawn to these characters because at their essence they are just like us. We have experienced their joy. And we have endured their loss. Just as the characters are human so are the themes. They address real world topics; themes of relationships, themes of corrupt corporations and politicians, themes of alienation and power, and certainly themes of rebellion, liberation and freedom. Themes are often organized within the structure of Japanese mythology, seriously addressed by their directors and creators.
As Darren Ashmore, an old friend who teaches at Yamanashi Gakuin University noted several weeks ago, much of animation was for kiddies, but Japanese Animation creators didn’t trivialize the characters, their stories, or their themes. But, you ask, where can we watch such wonderful stuff? Japanese animation can often be hard to find. Fortunately, the folks at Netflix recognize the importance of Japanese Animation. As a start, I would recommend these six. I think they’ll cause you to make Anime a regular part of your diet…
1: The Animatrix
Synopsis: The Animatrix, which came out in 2003, is an anthology of nine different short episodes occurring in different time periods and across many themes in the world of the Matrix trilogy. The episodes “The Second Renaissance Part I and II”, for example, are about what started the war between humans and the machines and “Detective Story” is about a lonely Detective who must track down the heroine Trinity. Other episodes like “Kid Story”, “Beyond” and “World Record” or “Program” take place between each Matrix film and only borrow the overall plot from the trilogy. And, still others, like “Final Flight of the Oasis” are completely derivative. In these, members of the Zion army warn the city of Zion that the Machines are digging their way through underground tunnels and are planning to attack the city. The last episode, “Matriculated,” is about a rebel team who captures a runner robot and must log out of the matrix to defend their base from the machines. Eventually one of the rebels and the robot reenter the Matrix but become stuck and unable to log out.
Why it`s on the list: The Animatrix is on this list because its completely fantastic imagery is built around a universal theme with which we can all identify. In the two short films “The Second Renaissance Part I and II”, we are confronted with the issue of a classic AI story. Humans build robots that have Artificial Intelligence and because of that the robots start to question their existence and realize that they are no different from humans. The Robots start demanding rights and ask to be treated with the dignity accorded humans. Ultimately, the contradictions between humans and robots cannot be reconciled. The result is rage, war and wholesale destruction. The universality of the theme is obvious. Can the contradictions between those who have power and those who do not result in an apocalyptic end? Is that our future? And if so would it go the point of nuclear fallout? Like its namesake, the matrix itself is a metaphor for alienation and authoritarian control, one in which all of the characters feel existentially detached by the very world that they live in.
One of the themes of the Matrix trilogy was about how we use our imagination and resilience to overcome the banality of the mundane world but also how we are often pulled back and forced to live in it. Like the Matrix series itself, some of the episodes in The Animatrix speak to an often silenced need to be liberated from all of the trappings of our social existence either by fighting back against that social existence or by using our imagination. Too often we try to be different from the world that surrounds us but are pulled back in by the power of social control and forced to re-join society. To take but one example, the main character in the episode “Detective Story”, while searching for Trinity, realizes that he is living in a world that is a façade but he can do nothing about it. And when he dies, the ultimate horror occurs. He, or in this case, his “remains”, become a permanent part of the Matrix. In a wonderfully creative, yet terrifying episode “Beyond”, agents of the Matrix take away the imagination of children by burning down a house that the kids believe is haunted and that allows a space to be creative, a place to escape, if only for brief moments, the bureaucratic and stultifying effects of the Matrix. The film’s imagery, both the apocalyptic scenes showing nuclear fallout and its suicidal effects are powerful and compelling. With The Animatrix‘s solid grounding in familiar real-world theme, it’s a great way to introduce yourself to anime.
2: Harlock: Space Pirate (2013)
Synopsis: This version of Captain Harlock is a story for folks who like political films. The film begins by introducing us to a young boy, Yama, who must atone for the sin of not being able to save the woman he loved. He decides to infiltrate the Arcadia, a state owned ship and stop Harlock, the ship’s captain, from terrorizing the universe. On board, Yama discovers that the real enemy is not Captain Harlock. Rather it is the state itself. The state and its political agents are lying to everyone. It has ravished the Earth to the point where it becomes uninhabitable and they are using a hologram to cover up that fact and to show that the Earth is as it always was. In realizing this, Yama decides to collaborate with Harlock and his crew and uncover the tragic truth.
Why it`s on the list: This modern reboot of the classic manga and Anime is worth watching for several reasons. First, its themes of government cover up, state supported killings, environmental pillage and illusion are universal and contemporary. People want to know the truth and want governments to be truthful, just as Harlock wants Gaia (the government) to tell the truth about what happened to the Earth. Second, people like the lone anti-hero who is alienated from the world. We admire people like Edward Snowden who can take on the vast power of the state and uncover the truth but who also feels different and alienated from the rest of society. That is exactly what Captain Harlock does and what he feels; his obvious alienation drives his need to confront the government and to help other people. Indeed, one person’s matrix is another person’s hologram. Finally, this film is worth watching, if only for technical reasons. The 3D style animation is gorgeous and meticulously put together. The characters move with remarkable efficiency, either when just talking or during highly dramatic action sequences. They move like real people, unlike some of the clunky 3D animation that that causes many to abhor this often over-hyped technology. The imagery of the space battles will remind space opera fans of the epic battles in Star Wars and Star Trek movies.
3: Fullmetal Alchemist (2003)
Synopsis: What begins as a simple Monty Python-like “comedic” adventure involving two challenged brothers, Edward and Al, who work for the State Alchemist program, quickly turns into a plot about government secrecy, lies, death, and the power of brotherly love. Edward and Al want to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary stone that would be able to repair their ravished bodies. Along their journey, they discover the moral ambiguities of worldly decision making. They learn both that the making of a Philosopher’s Stone requires the blood of hundreds, if not thousands of people, and that the State Alchemy program is simply using them to retrieve the stone so that the President can use it for reasons that I will not give away. Eventually they end up creating the stone and uncover the secrets and the lies endemic to the State Alchemy program. While on their great adventure, Edward and Al form an inseparable bond with each other, as they experience the joy, horror and sadness of life itself.
Why it`s on the list: Yet another government conspiracy, however well developed, is not why this anime is on my must-watch Netflix list. By now it should be clear that conspiracy is ubiquitous in anime. Rather, what puts this Anime on the list is love of two brothers, the libretto’s leitmotif, if you will. Its greatness rests on questions of how far and how much can be sacrificed in the name of sibling loyalty and love. How strong are our primordial ties? These are real human questions that many of us have had to ask: How far would you go to save and help your own blood? How much are you willing to sacrifice to make your brother whole? In Fullmetal Alchemist, the answer is pretty far. The extent to which these brothers are willing to go beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior raises another moral question central to the series’ leitmotif: Are Al and Ed really heroes? Watch this brilliantly conceived anime and answer the question for yourself.
Synopsis: The narrative structure of this Anime, unlike the others I have recommended, does not really have an overarching story, but is more like an episodic anthology. Mushi-Shi chronicles the travels of Ginko as he moves through Japan in a faux era taking place sometime between the Edo and the Meiji periods. Ginko is researching Mushi (bug demons) and helping people who have been infected by these bug demons.
Why it`s on the list: What makes this Anime series worth the watch is its imagery, the quality of the animation and Ginko`s deep commitment to understanding Mushi, his field of study. It is his “calling”; his submersion in it is both informative and us makes us more curious about these bug demons. The Imagery in this series is absolutely beautiful, specifically the landscapes. The lands that Ginko travels in are full of rich lush forests of wonderful colors such as verdant greens, luminous greys and Tuscan browns. Town images are equally exquisite: they are full of life and quiet energy. The film’s animation has a fluidity rarely seen. We can virtually see the wind; the characters move with the grace of dancers, the trees sway rhythmically, and the furthest backgrounds are fully animated, finally emancipating perspective from its traditional passive imagery. Everything is constantly moving, never still, never standing still in time but always moving with time.
That’s not all that makes this anime worth watching. Ginko’s deep intellectual commitment to understanding Mushi, and the ways in which the film express that commitment is wonderfully done. He is always studying and learning more. The series does this without being condescending to the audience; it assumes that we understand and that we are curious. There is no “dumbing down” that we too often see in popular anime. Combine all of this wonderful imagery with the curiosity of an intellectual at work and a great soundtrack, and we have one of the greatest anime tales of all time.
Synopsis: Inuyasha is probably the most traditional anime on this list. It’s about a human girl, Kagome, who is dragged back to the Sengoku period and, with a half demon, half human hybrid at her side must find the shattered shards of a magical Jewel. She must do all of this before the shards of the magical jewel are found by Naraku, a truly evil demon. Along the way, they meet colorful characters who help in their search and others who want the shards of the jewel for themselves. Kagome must routinely time-travel from her own time period, which is modern Japan, where she is a student, back to the Sengoku period, where she faces the daunting and very dangerous task of finding the shards.
Why it`s on the list: Although the story by Rumiko Takahashi is a wonderful one and quietly comforting in its simplicity, that is not why this Anime is on the list. Rather it is the complex and poignant portrayal of Kagome’s and Inuyasha’s human emotions that resonate so deeply with its audience. Kagome is a fully realized human character; like in a Murakami novel, not only does she have to address the mundane problems of how to keep up her studies at school while also crossing the boundaries between ancient and modern Japan, but she also has to confront the vagaries of love and the power of evil on her journey. All these feelings that she has are human, complicated and universal. Falling in love often results in confronting fundamental contradictions, between social groups, families, social classes, a modern life or maintaining a traditional life style. Kagome and Inuyasha must each decide what world they are part of. For Kagome, will it be the Sengoku period or the secular and modern era? And like real people whose love evolves from initially deep animosity, she must recognize and rationalize her own feelings about Inuyasha. Inuyasha, like Kagome is in a similarly conflicting situation. For Inuyasha, will it be life as a full blooded demon or as a human? He will be stuck in either case. Combine the drama of these human emotions with good animation that has scenery reminiscent of medieval Japan and this Anime is necessary Netflix viewing.
6: Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I – The Egg of the King
Synopsis: Without giving away any spoilers, this first of a three part series is about a loner named Guts who travels throughout a European like land fighting on behalf of different kingdoms in an era of state consolidation and centralization. On his travels he battles Griffith, the leader of a mercenary army. Guts and Griffith join the Kingdom of Midlands to help fight for unification. Eventually in one of their struggles, they must fight a demon that upon seeing a neckless (a neckless that I will not spoil the point of) on Griffiths neck, tells him that their future is full of despair and doom. Griffith becomes more power thirsty and his plans to take control include assassinations, marrying the princess of Midlands and creating his own kingdom. When Guts becomes aware of Griffiths’ venal nature, the story takes a powerful turn for the unexpected.
Why it`s on the list: The character, Guts, is the organizing principle of this film and the primary reason to watch it. Guts is deeply disturbed, both because of his past and because of own insecurities. He is profoundly alienated and limited in his capacity to form and maintain enduring relationships. The mercenary army provides his only source of solidarity and sense of belonging and, even then, he remains lost in his own isolation. In its dialogue, animation and music, Guts embodies the lost samurai in search of a world that will never really satisfy him and a connectivity that he, by virtue of his very existence, can never have. The battle scenes are troubling because of the violence they show, but they do remind us of the romance of the Arthurian legends. Large battles are beautifully animated with everybody doing something either in the foreground or the background. With beautiful animation and disturbing characters who each have their own personal or political narrative, this first film in the series is a must watch.