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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Baby steps: Learning to love anime at Animazement

Posted by on Tue, May 29, 2012 at 4:32 PM

The scene at the 2010 Animazement convention
Stuck in the doorway outside the Raleigh Convention Center on a rainy Sunday, I'm at least treated to the spectacle of a small army of middle school-to-college-aged individuals communing in makeup, corsets and the odd Pokemon hat. It's the last day of Animazement, the popular Raleigh event that attracts thousands of fans of Japanese animation or "anime," and I'm on a mission—to join in on their fandom.

Anime represents a blind spot in my nerdity, but its sense of community and wide variety of colorful series have long piqued my interest. Despite its apparent overlap with the comic books and SF/Fantasy that make up an uncomfortable part of my psyche, there's almost a separate-but-equal vibe to these worlds. Just as I complain about not knowing who any of these characters are at Animazement, one bunny-hatted girl complains to me that she had no idea who any of the superhero characters were at a New York convention I attended and enjoyed last fall.

While I am still taking furtive steps into the medium of anime, the combination of Netflix Instant, Hulu and a Roku device has allowed me to blast through a few complete series over the last few months, and where better a place to find out about quality series than a massive gathering of anime fans? Through some chit-chat, I find a number of names occur over and over.

Combined with my own experiences, here's the first episodes of 10 different anime shows that are available in the entirely for free on Hulu. I had certain grounds for inclusion: Nothing based on a card game, a bare minimum of giant robots and no schoolgirls and/or tentacles. Yes, this limited the playing field. Yes, there's still plenty of good stuff.

Gurren Lagann is a more recent series that combines many an archtypical anime trope (big robots, scantily clad girl, rebellious teenage protagonist, post-apocalyptic wasteland), but transcends them with a healthy dose of self-awareness and strong characterization. Its tale of a couple of "bros" who find a battling robot head and use it to find similarly-armed mutants on the Earth's surface takes some surprising turns, with major characters dying and a poignant ending, combined with a punkish exuberance. If you must watch one giant robot show, let this be it.

Super Dimension Fortress Macross is one of the best-known anime in the U.S.—in the 1980s, it was one of three different series stitched together as the syndicated series Robotech, which helped launch the anime craze in the U.S. The original series is on Hulu, with its storyline of a love triangle against a galactic invasion still intact, though much of the dialogue and plot points clarified and improved... though the young singer Lynn Minmay is still irrtatingly fickle (one T-shirt I've seen at a few cons reads "RULE NO.1: MINMAY IS ANNOYING," though sometimes it's the Robotech spelling of "Minmei").

As an action-packed story with developing relationships, it predicts many modern SF/fantasy shows such as the 2000s version of Battlestar Galactica and hey, big robots blowing up each other.

Another classic is Bubblegum Crisis, which has more anime archetypes (cute female mercenaries in a Blade Runner-type city with cool bikes), but does them extremely well and with style. Though it only lasted eight direct-to-video episodes in Japan (the market for that type of animation is much bigger over there), it remains hugely influential with its strong characters, deep cyberpunk storyline and rockin' soundtrack.

Princess Tutu is one anime that was recommended to me by several con-goers at Animazement with the repeated reassurance of "It's better than the title makes it sound!" It's the elaborate tale of a duck that gets turned into a princess to woo a prince...and gradually turns into an elaborately existential tale that mediates on the concept of recurring fictional tropes and pays liberal hommage to such ballets as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. High art may exist in strange forms.

A short-but-sweet anime is the six-episode series FLCL (pronounceable "Fooly Cooly"), which also combines many anime archetypes and is damn near impossible to describe. It's a metaphor for puberty about a surly 11-year-old who meets a hot girl on a scooter (again, tropes) who turns his head into a portal for TV-headed robots... yes, more tropes.

But it's one of the most utterly insane sensory-overload things I've ever experienced, up there with Scott Pilgrim in its combination of action, assorted visual styles and surprising emotional core. Make an investment in all six episodes and you still might not be sure of all the plot points, but you'll never forget what you saw.

Repeatedly at Animazement I was assured that I should watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and not the version just called "Fullmetal Alchemist." And that both were different from the other series Full Metal Panic, and all of the above were vastly different from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.

Now that you're sufficiently confused, I'll explain that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the second adaptation of a popular Japanese manga (comic book) about two brothers in an alternate world governed by alchemy and magic who wind up severely messing with their bodies in an effort to resurrect their dead mother, and set off on a quest across this world. This version is more faithful to the original material than the first adaptation, and creates a vivid and imaginative world as it tells a complete story of the brothers' quest and the many characters they meet along the way.

Black Butler (insert Benson joke here) was the series most recommended to me by Animazement fans. A black comic fantasy, it's about a young rich boy whose family is killed, and sells his soul for a demonic butler to help him. There's a dark, Victorian quality to the proceedings, along with humor reminiscent of Charles Addams.

Death Note also deals with the intersection of the real and demonic worlds. A sensation in Japan, where it originated as a manga and has spawned live-action feature films, it's built around the moral question of "if you had power over life and death, how would you use it?" In this case, it's a bored teenager who finds a book belonging to a death god, then promptly decides to use it to kill bad people in an effort to bring about a world without evil. The cat-and-mouse game between the kid and his pursuers is tense like a good thriller, while the fantasy premise also allows some serious philosophical questions.

I particularly wanted to recommend the jazzy Space Western Cowboy Bebop but it's not available on Hulu or Netflix Instant. A fine runner-up is Trigun is a horse of a different color but still massively entertaining, a tale of an outlaw named "Vash the Stampede" on the planet Gunsmoke, whose opponents include a sinner with a massive cross-gun, a nurse with many, many, many, many guns, and more. There's a great storyline and some pure absurd anarchy with the scale of the boom in this thing.

Finally, I was repeatedly recommended Ouran High School Host Club, whose comic tale of rich high school boys entertaining ladies and the girl who inadvertently becomes a gender-disguised member everything I try to avoid in anime. But lord help me, it's actually funny, clever and stylish. Say this for anime — some of the cliches held about these shows are there for a reason, but there's also a reason why they work.

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