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An Introduction to Anime

The appeal of Japanimation.

by S.E. Shepherd
November 2, 2001

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An Introduction to Anime_S.E. Shepherd-The appeal of Japanimation. Anime, or Japanimation as it’s sometimes known, is still a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. Ask the average American what Anime is and he or she will most likely respond, “Huh?” If you try to explain what it is, they’ll most likely respond, “Oh, it’s like that Pokemon thing my kids watch!” Well, yes and no. Pokemon is Anime, but it’s Anime for kids. There is a larger, adult medium of Anime that has created remarkable films well worth viewing.

I am no expert on Anime, just a casual fan, and aficionados of the genre could give you a much more in depth view than I could. However, as a fan, I feel it my duty to try to gain a larger audience and understanding of Anime. So if to you, Anime seems weird or silly or both, allow me the chance to introduce this exciting new genre.

Anime is closely related to the Japanese Manga, or graphic novel. Many Anime movies are adaptations of Mangas, and vice-versa. Characters of the genre are recognized by their overly large eyes and small noses and mouths, and main characters are usually adolescents or young adults. While most Anime carry a Science-Fiction theme, stories can cover romance, relationships, and even topics as somber as the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki.

To my knowledge, Anime was first introduced to the U.S. in the form of a TV series called “Astro Boy,” released in the early 60’s. I know very little about it, other than that the main character was a boy (robot?) who could fly. Much more familiar to American audiences was the series “Speed Racer,” about a racecar driver and his “thunderous Mark 5” racecar. Speed would overcome incredible odds and numerous villains to always win the very important race. Other series, such as “Battle of the Planets” and “Robotech” reached American airwaves during the 70’s and 80’s, but the Anime films were mostly lost on American audiences.

Then, in 1988, “Akira,” became the first Anime film released for mainstream American theaters. “Akira” is a masterful film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. It tells the tale of a gang of motorcycling street punks in Neo-Tokyo 2017. One member begins developing strange telekinetic powers, and the military seeks him out to control him. Much more violent and gory than anything Disney would even dream of making, “Akira” is nonetheless visually stunning and breathtaking. Never before and never since have I seen animation move with such fluidity.

Since “Akira,” several Anime films have had American theatrical releases; each reaching larger audiences and much critical acclaim, though the vast majority of Anime is still released direct-to-video here in America. Like all genres, Anime has its good films and bad films, so for those uninitiated to the world of Anime, allow me to suggest several titles to whet your appetite. Again, aficionados may find fault with my list, but I repeat my position as a casual fan, and not an expert on the genre.

1. “Akira” – Again, this is the film that started it all. The plot is sometimes difficult to follow, and the violence may be more graphic than you’re used to, especially in an animated film, but for vision and artistry, very few films can match “Akira”

2. “Ghost in the Shell” – Another film released in movie theaters across America, 1996’s “Ghost in the Shell” will remind viewers of “Blade Runner,” though I feel Masamune Shirow poses the question of human sentience much better. What makes human existence “real?” If we put the “essence” of a human being into a machine, would it still be a machine or would it be human?

3. “Princess Mononoke” – Released in America in 1999, “Princess Mononoke” is an excellent film set in a medieval land, where the age of myth and gods comes into conflict with the age of man and progress. It is a tale where no character is evil, just determined to fulfill his or her agenda. “Princess Mononoke” is also the first Amine film released in America to use the voice talents of well-known American actors.

4. “The Mystery of Mamo” – Part of a series of films, starring its main character, master thief Arsene Lupin III and his offbeat sidekicks, “Mystery of Mamo” isn’t as well drawn as some of the other Anime films. However the characters and dialogue make this one of the funniest and most enjoyable Anime films I’ve seen. Described as Indiana Jones meets the Marx brothers, it is a nice change of pace from the more serious films listed above.

Even without seeing these films, one can see the impact Anime has had on American movies. 1999’s “The Matrix” has been aptly described by some as a “live-action” Anime film. Disney’s “Atlantis” attempted to create a bridge between the traditional Disney films and the more adult-oriented stories of Anime. Even in Disney’s “Tarzan,” the characters’ eyes are much larger and more expressive, like those of Anime characters.

Anime is more than “cartoons for adults.” It is a legitimate art form, and should not be scorned because it falls into the realm of animation. At it’s best, Anime tells stories in ways that would be impossible to tell in a live action movie. It takes us to fascinating worlds with complex stories and complex characters. If you haven’t seen Anime, then you haven’t seen story telling at its best.

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Puddleglum from Southern Ettinsmoor, Narnia writes:
November 7, 2001
To the honorable Mr. (Ms., Mrs.?) Shepherd (I assumed Mr. because anime tends to be an art form more appealing to males), welcome to the siblinghood of anime-watchers. While anime (read here, GOOD anime - not Pokemon or DragonBall Z) is an impressively visual art form, it tends rather regrettably to conform to Moore's Law (90% of everything is worthless).

so, with your permission, I would like to share with you and your readers some of the anime titles which I have found to be well worth the time and rental money.

1) Perfect Blue - very well done, but rather an oddity in the anime realm, as it is not concerned with space exploration, Toaist philosophy, medieval fantasy, or robots. what it is concerned with is a pop star who leaves her group and begins to suspect that she is losing her mind. If you like movies such as Sliver and Single White Female, this is your kind of film.

2) Vampire Hunter D - this was the inspiration for Blade, only it has a more ambiguous feel, sort of like the Clint Eastwood man with no name-type westerns. the artwork is extremely good and the story is interesting, even if very violent. I mean graphically violent.

3) Armitage III - preceding Princess Mononoke, this film could be argued to be the first to use the voices of American stars. such an argument would hinge on a) your willingness to call Elizabeth Berkley and Keifer Sutherland stars, and b) whether you count dubbing as using the voices. The artwork is merely average in my opinion, but the story makes up for it. This is a good one if you are a Blade Runner fan.

4) Battle Angel - This is a film obssessed with cyborgs and genetic mutations. the look and feel of the film makes it an excellent introduction to anime. The themes and characterizations are also a good example of what most good anime tries to achieve.

5) Iria: Zeiram the Animation - another good introduction to anime. It's the age-old tale of brother and sister try to salvage a spaceship, brother gets killed by monster, sister chases monster halfway accross galaxy for revenge, pauses to take shower, discovers the spirit of her brother has been transferred to a computer, and challenges monster to final showdown.

6) Go Shogun - (btw, good luck at finding this one) very pychedelic tale of a female warrior in a coma and the traumatising experiences on an alien planet that put her into the coma. with some scenes, you are never really sure if you are seeing actual flashbacks or her mind is messing with the flashback due to the trauma involved in the original experience.

Along with Ghost in the Shell and Princess Mononoke, the above make up my list of recommended anime films to see to give you a good idea of what the medium has to offer. hope you enjoy them, as I did.

S.E. Shepherd writes:
November 8, 2001
Thank you for your additions. I have not seen all the titles you mentioned, though I have enjoyed the ones I have seen (I had even planned on mentioning Iria in my article, but didn't.)

You're right, there is an awful lot of anime (and an awful lot of awful anime). The purpose of my article was to give the spotlight to some of amine's best, and also to those films that I felt would appeal most to non-anime fans. I also chose films over series, as renting series can be costly and a hassle (chains like Blockbuster sometimes carry 3 of a 5 tape series).

Anime does seem to attract male audiences more, but I think the best films would appeal to either gender. Thank you for welcoming me to the siblinghood. Hopefully with your help, we have interested a few more people in this fascinating art form.

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