Quiz time! Match the following shows and descriptions! This will be 20% of your final grade:
Of the shows listed, three are love-comedies, persistently one of the most popular genres in anime. No wonder: Japan is much more physically uninhibited than us, and under far greater pressure to sacrifice the self to promote the group. The greater need for escape fuels higher quality escapist entertainment. Just look at how popular shows like Ah! My Goddess and Video Girl Ai are among U.S. fans. Maybe this means that Mamotte Shugo Getten is destined for U.S. popularity, since it shamelessly rips off both titles. Like the Lamune series, it is probably targeted at middle school guys whose libido overwhelms sensitivity to plot depth or characterization. At least the designers made the show slick, with bright visuals and fluid animation, probably helped by their primetime slot's budget.
Mahou Tsukai-tai!, the follow-up TV series to one of Bandai's former flagship OVAs, is cut from the same mold. This one is done by Satou Junichi, the original director of Sailor Moon and regular contributor to numerous other projects. Fan of Sailor Moon or not, it must be acknowledged that it helped alter the way we perceive the whole shoujo ("girls'") genre, and opened the field for others to follow.
Which includes Shoujo Kakumei Utena, made by the director of most of the latter seasons of Sailor Moon, Ikuhara Kunihiko. The Utena TV series has been over for some time (the movie just opened in Japan on Aug. 14), but much of its cast and staff have reconvened for another love comedy: Tenshi ni Naru Mon! This show features wacky animation and goofy characters, normally hallmarks of a show targeted at a younger audience. But the hints dropped in the early episodes suggest that the staff intends to follow the path Utena took, leading to angst and serious philosophizing. Whether this happens or not is the fun of following a series to its conclusion.
Hyper-kinetic action isn't only for love-comedy, of course. Better Man is an example of what it can do for sci-fi/horror. Sure, the main character (voiced by Yamaguchi "Kusama Daisaku" Kappei) does a lot of running away from bizarre, toy-like monsters. Sure, his bumping into the good guys in the nick of time smacks of comic deus ex machina. But watching the show, one suspects that the comedy is merely a ploy to suck the audience in, soften them up before the horror and madness descend and the body count starts to rise. The production values of this show easily rival many OVA series, testament to the rising importance of television anime and cooling of the OVA market. Better Man is a "midnight anime", aired at 25:15. Shows in this timeslot face relaxed decency standards and tend to be more violent, sexual, cerebral, or sometimes all three. The midnight anime are the nucleus of the revitalization of anime that some say began four years ago with Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Perhaps no other sci-fi show lives up to Eva's legacy as well as Gasaraki, one more top-quality series from Sunrise, Bandai's front-line animation division. Its politics and military savvy are reminiscent of the Patlabor movies and would make a fine sci-fi thriller on their own, but the addition of shadowy Shinto mysticism and echoes of Japan's feudal past equal an entrancing, bewildering mixture that tests both its characters and its audience. That Bandai, makers of the Tamagotchi, would dare pour such sums of money into a cerebral drama is yet another reminder that animation in Japan is not just for children.
One good show seems to deserve another -- since Bandai was also behind Seikai no Monshou, a hard sci-fi title that opens with an Earth surrounded by a hostile fleet of aliens... of human descent! The main character, about to join the military academy founded after Earth swore allegiance to the "Human Empire", recounts in a series of flashbacks how his father sold the Earthlings to their invaders without so much as a fight and alienated him from his own homeland. The gap in maturity between shows like this and Shugo Getten lends some credence to the claim that Japanese high schoolers consume far less anime than those younger or older than they, and that the industry acts accordingly.
Rounding out the list are Himikoden and Eden's Bowy, two offerings in the vanguard of the fantasy wave sweeping the anime industry of late. In fact, these works aren't strictly medieval fantasy like Lodoss or Berserk, but something more like the technologically-regressed fantasy of Tatooine from Star Wars. Since medieval fantasy isn't native to Japan, this isn't too surprising. With a small number of exceptions (like Record of Lodoss War), the late 80's and early 90's saw a major dearth of fantasy offerings, like that on U.S. live-action TV before Xena and Hercules appeared. It is interesting to note that while some Japanese have Western fantasy writers to equal those in the U.S., the U.S. can scarcely say the same for Eastern fantasy.
Someone once said that managing programmers was like herding cats. They should have been talking about following anime in Japan. While some channels like NHK and WOWOW are available throughout Japan, TV Tokyo and other major stations are strictly local. Even someone living in Japan would be hard-pressed to follow half of the dozens of new and old anime airing at any one time. And thanks to Japanese restrictions, fans outside Japan cannot turn to rental stores to watch them on tape -- tape shipments from friends are the slender lifeline that only a privileged few fans can cling to. Until the home video releases -- which come months after the fact and literally cost more than a drug habit for even a modest number of shows. And with an ever-increasing number of new shows rotated in quarterly, staying fully up to date is becoming a literal impossibility.
Where will the mounting demand for new titles and the declining budget to fund them take the medium we love so much? Only time will tell if the increases in production efficiency and Darwinian selection of skilled staff can stay ahead of the financial axe. One thing's for sure -- it won't be boring.
Quiz Answers: A8, B7, C6, D5, E4, F3, G2, H1.