An avalanche of Anime

November 21, 2008

By Avi Green

Years ago, in my childhood, one of the first Japanese cartoons I saw was Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman, which was first adapted and aired in syndication in the US under the title of Battle of the Planets and then as G-Force: Guardians of Space. The thing is, back at that time, I was but a pup, and had no idea that primarily in Japan, manga and anime have a culture and reputation all their own, and are so intertwined and transcending, you almost couldn't tell the difference!

It’s only been years later that I was able to fully appreciate manga, but particularly anime, for what it is - something that offers a lot more intelligence and sophistication than most American and even European cartoons usually do.

In Japan, manga and anime alike are BIG business, with children and adults alike all reading them everywhere, and the anime production success is so huge, they've even come up since the mid-80s with the concept of Original Video Anime (OVA), to help facilitate the demand.

And there's only so many series worth noting here that are worth watching. I'll try to list some of the best I can think of.

Of course, let me also note that many can be an acquired taste, since they involve adult situations, violence, sex, and even shock tactics that us westerners may find objectionable. But if you can work your way past some of that, there is plenty of good stuff to find in anime.

So here goes:

Speed Racer. This was one of the most famous anime series that proved even more popular outside Japan than it did at home. The adventures of a young sports car racer named Go Mifune in the original Japanese, but renamed Speed Racer in the English adaptations, it's got plenty of good slapstick and even serious moments of suspense. The cast even includes Trixie, Speed's girlfriend, and Pops and Mom Racer, and also little Spritle, the younger brother of Speed, and his pet monkey Chim-Chim. The latter two provided plenty of comedy relief as they stowed away in the trunk of the Mach 5, Speed’s racecar. Our racing hero strives to win the world tournament while facing many menacing criminals along the way. It's the kind of suspense story where serious sci-fi elements appear around the edges, as action takes the front seat.

Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. One of the most famous cartoons produced during the early 1970s, broadcast in the US as Battle of the Planets and later as G-Force: Guardians of Space, this was about a team of five youngsters trained by Dr. Kozaburo Nambu, a leading member of the International Science Organization, a division of the UN in a future era, whose mission was to battle the evil forcers of Galactor, a terrorist organization governed by an alien creature named Leader X, whose second in command is Berg Katse, a crazy, masked figure who, as we later learn towards the series' end, is meant to be a sci-fi variation on a transvestite! More precisely, what happened is that Leader X took two fraternal twins, male and female, and merged them into one entity that could even shift between sexes, making for one of the creepiest villains I've ever seen in a cartoon. There were two sequel series that came a few years later, Gatchaman II and Gatchaman F (short for Fighter), where Leader X tried to strike back, first by exploiting a child named Sammie Pandora by trying to transform her into a tall being called Gel Sadra in the second series, and then by hiring the services of one Count Egobossler, in the third series (where a surviving fragment of Leader X had first mutated into Leader Z). The story ended with the death of the alien warmonger, but also with that of Dr. Nambu. And there was no clear telling: were the Science Ninja Team still alive? It was later remade as an OVA in the mid-90s.

Getter Robo. This was the first mecha series to feature one that's formed together from a few different machines. The plot involved a future war the human race found itself entangled in with a reptilian race called the Dinosaur Empire, comprised of lizardlike foes who were determined to make humans extinct and return the Earth to the era of dinosaurs again. Based on a manga book by Go Nagai and Ken Ishikawa, it starred three teenaged pilots from the same school, a soccer player/martial artist named Ryo Nagare, a rebel loner named Hayato Jin, and a short, stocky judo master named Musashi Tomoe. Together, they were assigned by Professor Saotome, who'd initially worked on the project for space exploration, to manage the three airships that would comprise the giant robot to combat the reptilian menace and their dino-shaped mechs.

Some of the teen drama featured here was surely inspired by that in Gatchaman, and there is a female pilot here too that the heroes vied and cared for, Michiro Saotome, the lovely daughter of the scientist who heads the project. The series would later lead to some sequels, Getter Robo G (which was broadcast in the United States under the Force Five compilation in the early 1980s), Getter Robo Go, Shin Getter Robo, and even some OAVs that remade some of the stories.

The Super-Dimension Fortress Macross. This was the most important part of three series shown in the US under the umbrella name of Robotech. It was an allusion to the Cold War, which is now returning, and the story was about the attack led by an alien race called the Zentraedi to reclaim technology aboard a ship which had crashed on earth a few decades before the series takes place, which serves the goodies in this series for making robots disguised as F-14 Tomcat fighter jets. Through an accident in an attempted space warp, the huge ship not only warps into the farther reaches of the solar system, it even takes the whole town that grew up around the project with it, and the battle continues from there.

Yep, that's right. It was courtesy of series like these that the Transformers were inspired and became popular in America. Though in this series, all this serves as a backdrop for human drama, as relations develop between some of the leading players, including the main protagonists, Hikaru Ichijyo, Linn Minmay, and Misa Hayase. During the course of this series, Minmay goes on to become a famous idol singer and inspiration for many earthlings, and her music helps to bring the enemy down and convince many to defect and surrender.

This led to a lot of followup series, films and OVA over the course of many years afterwards, featuring many other protagonists in the brave new world of 30 years into the future, and is still one of the most well regarded anime productions to this day.

Sailor Moon. A standout example of a magical girl adventure, this was about a young teenage girl, Usagi Tsukino (named Serena in the English version) chosen to become the carrier of the Sailor Moon gemstone and fight the Dark Kingdom, which long ago destroyed the Silver Millennium kingdom, which was located on the moon. She's approached by a talking cat named Luna, who provides Usagi with her first tips on how to get into action. She sometimes gets backup assistance from a boy named Mamoru Chiba, who goes under the disguise of Tuxedo Mask, whom Usagi falls in love with. As the series progressed, our heroine was joined by a couple other cuties who use the names of the various planets in the solar system, and together they became quite a team. It was series like these that popularized miniskirts for heroines in adventures like these, and Sailor Moon went on to become one of the most famous anime productions of the 1990s, with various extra merchandise appearing in its wake.

There's only so much more I could name, but that would probably take a bit too long, so I'll conclude here, and if to cite more, I'll leave it for a later occasion. But for now, this is just some of the most notable examples of anime productions from Japan worth noting.

What's great about how the Japanese write their manga and anime is that they can involve a lot of things that you might not see being discussed in trashy, worthless cartoons like Scooby Doo: there’s talk of economy, military, environment, politics, even if they’re futuristic-type, and even different nationalities.

Plus, their animation cels and other techniques are far superior to the cheapjack animation you see being used in American cartoons on Saturday morning TV. Toei Animation's famous Puss in Boots film from 1969 (whose title hero, Pero, later became the company mascot), had animation that was far better than Disney’s phony-baloney cartoon motion. And more recently, anime has taken on splashier styles that can even mimic zoom-lens effects you could see in a live action movie.

One minor shortcoming though, is that while the Japanese can certainly draw hot girls, they may not emphasize the size of their lips enough, which is a shame, as I think it'd make them a lot sexier if their lips were bigger and with more color. Nevertheless, they're still quite good-looking, and certainly do qualify as good-girl art.

Of course, it should be noted that anime and manga also involve their share of adult situations, among other things that may not be suitable for children. Unlike America, and sometimes even Europe, where cartoon popularity among adults is iffy, in Japan, adults are solidly into the art form as well as children. So there are many that have violence you may not be used to seeing in a western-produced cartoon, as well as sex. Things that by western standards can be considered blatantly insulting, but by Japanese standards, are iffy. Thus, for some westerners, manga and anime can be a very acquired taste. But there are still plenty of things that are well worth noting in the art form, and quite worth reading and watching to check out. It all depends on how you view it and if you're prepared for what to expect.

Now, I'm off to check out some more of this interesting art form from the far east. And with any luck, I'll try and write more about manga/anime in time.

Copyright 2008 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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