I don’t know what my mental block is with anime. I love comics. I love animation. I love superhero and adventure stories. I’ll dive deep into countless geeky passions. But big eyes and tiny mouths have never been my thing, despite being constantly surrounded by smart people with good taste in anime.
And like, what even is anime anymore? I thought I had a good idea, but a deeper explanation shows that I still have much to learn. Is American-made cartoon Avatar: the Last Airbender anime? What about Torkaizer, which is produced by studios from the Philippines and the UAE? The more I learn, the less certain I feel.
I solicited lots of suggestions from friends and geeky compatriots as to which show I should cut my anime teeth on. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Firefly, which led me to its direct inspiration Cowboy Bebop, the only anime I had ever seen. I received hundreds of suggestions, and used them to parse out subgenres, to explore the differences between shonen and shojo animes, and to revel in the depths of my ignorance.
In the end, I settled on four shows. The first, Neon Genesis Evangelion, is considered by most to be a definitive classic. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was highly recommended as a smart show, full of themes familiar to fans of the superhero genre. The next one, Attack on Titan (also called Shingeki No Kyojin or SNK) was recommended to me by a former customer from my comic book store days, he always had impeccable taste. The last one Death Note, was recommended by former high school seniors I taught, now young college students, who I remembered would never shut up about anime in my English class. I figured they knew what they were talking about.
Before we dive in, I’d like to share some of my trepidations about anime. To be perfectly honest, it always seemed like something I’d get into. I love ensemble character pieces, I love complicated serialized narratives, I love deep mythos, I love soapy character drama. Anime though was different to me. Anime is weird. There’s something about the way sexuality is treated that makes me uncomfortable. There’s an impenetrable culture surrounding anime- where do you find it? When do you watch it? And there’s just so damn much of it. My students were constantly talking about their favorite, Naruto. A quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that the original Naruto anime ran for a daunting 209 episodes.
So I settled into an old bootleg DVD of Evangelion obtained by an old high school friend, from before a time of video streaming. I had been told “subs not dubs”, and I knew that the DVD only had the Japanese voiceovers with subtitles. The show seemed to be about garishly colored alien monsters that the people of Japan dub angels (despite not looking remotely like any angel I’ve ever seen) and the giant robots that are built to fight them. The most promising robot pilot is young Shinji, who’s abusive father created the giant robots. His mentor is a slightly older pilot, Misato.
I really dig this setup. I love giant things, be they robots or monsters. The character drama too is well established. From episode one, I’m really curious to see if Shinji will be able to reconcile with his awful father and what his relationship with the flirty and fun Misato is going to be. From a storytelling perspective, I’m hooked. But something was holding me back. Maybe it was the strange way each episode ended with Misato promising “more service” if we came back next week (a Google search taught me that this was short for “fanservice” and meant more T&A). Maybe it was the way that what appeared to be a pretty typical Lovecraftian-style alien invasion was being dressed up to be something biblical and thus serious. At the end of the day though, Evangelion was weird! I knew that going in, but the non-sequiturs and the strange almost dada ways the episodes would end mostly served to alienate me from becoming too invested. Still, the show had the most kick-ass theme song I’ve ever heard.
I moved on to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (which I’m going to call FMA for short). FMA is the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric. Edward, the older of the two, is a gifted alchemist and has a nifty metal arm. Alphonse, the younger brother, is not just trapped in a hulking suit of armor- he is the suit of armor, which appears empty. The two brothers were cursed by an alchemical experiment gone wrong, which failed to return their deceased mother to life and disfigured the boys. Now, they’re cool adventurers, who want to become state-sponsored alchemists, which seems to mean they are cool secret agent heroes.
I loved the animation style. The city the anime is set in looks vaguely European and utterly fantastical. It feels like a real place, but not one that could exist on our planet. The characters for the most part, were pretty cool. Still, there was a running gag coming from one character, Armstrong, that made me pretty uncomfortable. Armstrong has this problem where he likes exposing young boys to his bulging muscles. He spends quite a bit of his screen time ripping his shirt off and pursuing the young protagonists to lock them in a hairy, muscular embrace. I understand that I’m coming at this from a different cultural context, but I never found the appeal in that joke.
What ultimately stopped my watching though, was something I totally did see the appeal in. An early episode concerns a mad scientist who harvests his daughter and her dog for pieces- and creates a horrifying chimera monster out of them. The episode was good, but left me deeply disturbed. I guess that means it was effective, but it put me off of the show for a while. I still hope to go back, but I have enough hesitance to delay me, perhaps indefinitely.
That brings us to Attack on Titan (which I’m just going to call SNK). This one is very complicated, but here are the cliff notes: it’s the zombie apocalypse. No one ever says zombie, but structurally that’s what it is. Only the zombies are giants, standing anywhere from twenty to hundreds of feet tall. These titans have eaten most of the people in the world. Our characters all live in a huge nation-sized city, protected by three concentric walls. The story concerns the men and women who defend the walls from titan attacks. After the worst of such an attack in hundreds of years, three friends join the titan-hunting army on a quest for vengeance that leads them into uncovering the secrets of their world.
The most fun idea in SNK is what my subtitles called the “3-D maneuver gear”, a rig that the soldiers wear that’s sort of a combination jet-pack/Spider-Man web shooter. Using joysticks built into the hilts of their swords, the maneuver gear shoots grappling hooks and allows the wearer to careen through the air to the back of the titans’ necks, which is their only weak points. This leads to action sequences like nothing I’ve ever seen, things that could only work in animation, which allows the camera can violate the laws of physics.
What makes SNK work for me is how committed it is to owning its own weirdness. The titans are so freaky, but they freak out the characters at least as much as the viewer. Titans are pretty hot for example (not like that!); steam is constantly coming off their bodies. They want to eat everyone they see, but they have no sex organs or butt-holes. On a lesser show this would go unacknowledged, but on SNK much talk is given to the titans vomiting up wads of undigested limbs when they get too full. The show explores the horror of this atrocious violation of biology on emotional and existential levels. Eventually you stop worrying about the superficial idiocy of the setup because it is so thoroughly deconstructed and reconstructed that it becomes clear the creators have given every angle of the show more thought than you. They are the opposite of lazy. As a current CW show addict, this level of care and thought given to narrative construction and world-building was like a drink of water after a year in the desert. I loved SNK and cannot recommend it enough. It has become one of my all time greatest shows.
This new enthusiasm I found in myself was heartening! Maybe I’ll become an anime fan yet. I asked my young experts what I should try next. They decided on Death Note. Easy enough, that’s on Netflix. I gave it a go.
Death Note has the kind of premise someone who grew up on Vertigo comics dreams of. The inexplicably named Light is a brilliant but misunderstood high schooler (I love those!). He finds a magical black notebook that very clearly explains the rules of the show:
- The human whose name is written in this note shall die.
- This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person’s face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
- If the cause of death is written within the next 40 seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.
- If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
So cool! It’s weirdly specific, but leaves itself open to all sorts of loophole abuse. I like the almost defiant way the notebook explains why people of the same name wouldn’t be affected, almost as if the notebook is annoyed that you doubted that it thought of that. I like that you can specify the cause of death, or “simply” cause a heart attack.
And it gets even better! As Light kills more and more (mostly deserving) people, a cop starts to connect the murders. It becomes a cat and mouse game as Light convinces himself he’s the smartest killer ever, the cop closes in on him, and the original demonic owner of the notebook makes himself involved with an agenda of his own. So why didn’t I get into this?
It came down a question of drama versus melodrama. I don’t know if I can explain the difference without making a value judgment, so I’ll just hold up evidence of what turned me off. The first thing was the soundtrack, which was a ponderous assortment of dour Gregorian-style chanting. It lent the entire thing an epic feel. This isn’t the story of a kid and a notebook, it’s about demons and cosmic destinies and the like. The main thing though, was the screaming. Everyone screamed everything as if they were worried they wouldn’t be heard by the people in the cheap seats. Only there weren’t cheap seats, just me and my headphones, and my ears hurt. Eventually the sonic composition of the show- the low bass chanting and the high treble shrieking- left me exhausted. It became hard to focus and I missed some critical details. I eventually gave up on Death Note.
I feel more like an anime noob than ever. Dipping my toe in the water made me realize it’s not a lake, it’s an ocean and one that runs into other oceans. The borders are hard to define. I like the rampant creativity of anime. American animation, and adventure stories draw on the same few inspirations. Anime is unapologetically, insanely, aggressively creative. My noobsday experience did not turn me into an otaku overnight, but my deep love for SNK proves that there are animes out there for me. Maybe I’ll give them a try.