Monday, May 23, 2011

Japanese Anime Cartoons

Why I went
I was away this holiday weekend watching “anime,” or, as I jokingly call it with my unaware mundane friends, “Japanese cartoons.” I don’t know how to tell the mundanes they are prisoners of their culture, like most Americans, chained into assuming cartoons must always be for children. Not so.

Actually, when it comes to Hollywood, it’s as if live action shows, too, are broadcast for children. You may recall that Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners inspired a cartoon shown after supper, —when evening cartoons were unheard of!— The Flintstones, about a modern stone age family, a show which years later was easily aired at four p.m. If The Honeymooners had been in color, then surely it too would have eventually been shown during the children's hour. (Before the parents come home to nap) Has our culture changed much since the days of black-and-white TV? Put it this way: If Hollywood ever does yet another remake of the Disney movie Freaky Friday, the film where a mother and teenage daughter swap bodies, then the show will yet again be as harmless as white bread—and just as nutritious.

In contrast to U.S. cartoons and live action, today I was moved by the anime TV series Living For the Day After Tomorrow. Here was a freaky body swap, but with such different characters! These guys have suffered. In this version the "teenage" girl is a kindergarten girl who has grown up too fast. She has learned to cook and be tidy because she “doesn’t want to be a burden.” The “mother” is a spinster, warped by unrequited love. The anime is a “cartoon,” but not a light comedy: Viewers see the girl, the night after the swap, waking up sobbing, “This is not my body.” Not exactly suitable for Disney.

Another show I saw today, one that also made me sad, was Clannad After Story. A father, self described as “weak and pathetic,” is raising a little girl. He yells too much, never holds her, and never sees her cry. Not exactly suitable for Saturday morning cartoons.

The rating for both shows is merely PG. And in both series, unlike for U.S. TV, the characters change and grow.

I’m sure there’s been only one U.S. animated action show that did not talk down to the audience, albeit having no-growth characters, and that show was a way back in the mid 1960’s. It aired at 7:30 p.m. Next day kids across the land would talk about it in “show and tell.” Too bad Hollywood producers never had the guts to make a second season. Granted, the show wasn’t processed white bread: I dimly recall the producers had to stipulate the first episode to be aired must be one where the kids successfully combat a whole bunch of frog men: Because then the following episodes would not seem so scary. I still have fond memories of scenes of the boy hero’s adult bodyguard visiting a prostitute, or, after the boy sees a bad guy crash, the adult saying, “It’s a terrible way to die, Johnny, but he deserved it.” I don’t think a kid’s show needs to be childish.

Years later, a white bread sequel was made, with Johnny a few years older, called The Real Johnny Quest, but it was nothing like the unreal, unimproved original. Nope. The original was not exactly a show that would be made today.

The first anime series I ever saw delighted me with how the camera work was so slow, and used zen-like repetition, instead of assuming the viewers have a child-like need for a rushing plot. That was Serial Experiments Lain,  made "for ages 16 and up"where Lain is a 13-year old nerd—a nerd not from being smart, but from being abused by her parents, and where her classmate is shown committing suicide.

No wonder I like anime. I could have spent this holiday weekend relaxing in a lawn chair with a beer and a soothing campfire, but no, I preferred the bustling excitement of the Japanese anime and manga (comics) convention, called Otafest. Many of the costumed kids were too young for beer, but they were old enough to know what they like. And what they like isn’t just safe U.S. cartoons but anime that isn’t afraid of wild emotions and mature themes. I’m going back next year, for sure.

If you go
Be prepared for a constant sense of excitement, and knots of young people trooping by. Half the attendees wear homemade costumes, but there is no pressure to do so. My camera I left at home, because once you start shooting the sweet costumes, when do you ever stop? (Of course, I could always ration myself… by bringing some polysided D’nD dice and rolling for every person I met…) Lots of amateur artists set up on six foot tables to sell their stuff in the “artists alley” (I supported them) and many commercial stores had booths in the vendors room (I bought there too, mostly anime and figurines)

Part of the reason people attend is to find out what the best new anime is, so they can spend their cash wisely. I am pleased to report that while "Sturgeon’s law" is accurate for Hollywood police shows, sitcoms and westerns, the ratio is skewed for anime. Sf writer Theodore Sturgeon once said, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Yes, but anime is still so new that no one will bother to translate the poorest stuff.

Another reason to attend Otafest is to experience how certain American cultural beliefs are not worldwide—including our belief that cartoons are always comedies, suitable for children... And as for Japanese cultural beliefs about sex, wow, let me tell you—… nah, that can wait for next year’s essay, after Otafest 2012.

Sean Crawford
On the Queen Victoria Day weekend,
Calgary 2011
Music, and Later Thoughts, of March 2014
(Reminder: if you click on the box thingy in the bottom right corner the "TV" fills the whole screen)

Here is the opening theme for Angel Beats. The teen angel at the piano is lonely because she actively opposes the rebellion against God. That's why she's not in the band or with the other energetic kids.
Here is the opening theme for Lain. The images reflect the way much of the series is about cyberspace.  Lain reminds me of a damaged, bleeding soldier or car accident victim who keeps thinking of others. She is a nice kid—too bad she's so messed up.

{Update, same month
Did you know the literal translation of manga, or Japanese comics, is whimsy? Or so I've heard. On a whimsy, I am including, for those in the mood, a ten minute review of Lain… on Youtube, complete with comments. Don't worry, it's not by an analytical English teacher, but by a young fan having fun.}

Western productions, since Aristotle, have striven for "the unities" and being, say, tragedy or comedy but not both: But the Japanese are not so uptight. The fine series Trigun develops into sober tragedy but begins with the lead character seemingly looney, hooting and bounding over the plain dodging bullets. (I bought the diorama of the insurance agent with a bullet riddled desk)

Angel Beats is about "rebels against the god." Set in a heaven-high school, it starts with teenagers with guns who can't die—because they are already dead—and in good high school spirits, and it ends with solemnity and people passing away. For me it's as sad as the final story in Winnie the Pooh, the one nobody dares read to their kids.

The dramatic series about the Ronin with the X scar (from the movie where he renounces killing) doesn't end each episode with humour, like some US shows and TV commercials do, but instead you can set your watch by the joke in the first few minutes of each Ruroni (Ronin) Kenshin episode. That was the series where I first came to understand—and I've noticed it in other series—another difference about the Japanese: The artists there, just like artists over here, may be unsuitable for a military life, yet unlike ours they are very sympathetic to the tragedy of the soldier. I'm thinking of how the guys who die charging a gatling gun are remembered by name and their spirits appear.

In recent years I've seen two modern movies, filmed in black and white, set on a street in Tokyo in the 1950's when society has finally recovered economically from the devastation of war. There is a touching scene where a veteran brings a fellow veteran home from a re-union and they cry in their cups all night. The wife and daughter notice a firefly by the window—how unusual for urban Tokyo. 


  1. thank you so much, this helps me for my research project about the difference between anime and cartoons! I needed to find other opinions similar to mine. I will make sure to reference you. :)

  2. Hi Rae,
    I'm so happy to be of service, and so happy you commented.

    ...It's funny how I've gotten used to "being referenced" just as I no longer look behind me when I am addressed as "sir." Yes, I'm finally used to being a grownup.

    Note: My grim piece on "The Anime Elfien Lied," under my label "anime," links to a dense essay, by a man my age over in Russia, about that series.

    Also: For more clarity on "character growth" versus a "standard franchise-series" see my lengthy "Television Appreciation" essay earlier this year, 2012, expanding on my "Death of Buffy" essay back in January of 2012.

    Rae, I think it's nice that your comment has inspired me to add a "note" and an "also." ... Many read, but few comment.