Best of the Decade: 2001
2001 can be best defined as a year of flawed greatness. The best series of this year had some fairly major drawbacks, but those drawbacks ultimately didn’t mean much considering each series’ strong points were pretty damn awesome.
It was also an awfully violent year for anime. Lots and lots of beautiful blood.
The TV version of Hellsing gets a bad wrap. Yes, the second half of the series wasn’t all that. It’s because of this second half that many fans freak out when someone mentions an anime deviating from the original manga. But I find most of these reactions exaggerate the second half’s flaws. I thought the new villain was somewhat unique. He wasn’t yet another Eastern European myth-based vampire like we’ve seen time and time again. He was an African vampire with a cool visual scheme. Seeing Alucard/Dracula face off with a vampire based on a different culture was pretty fascinating. The end results might not have measured up to the first half’s storyline, but I think most of the criticism comes from the fact that it deviated from the manga rather than actual criticism of the episodes themselves. Had these episodes not been called “Hellsing,” I doubt we’d be hearing as many complaints. In the end, I found these episodes comparatively weak, but at the same time they kept the relative tone established by the previous episodes.
That said, the first half of Hellsing is pretty damn brilliant, and that brilliance comes to a head with the Valentine Brothers story arc. Even taking the manga’s storyline into consideration, I think the Valentine bit is the height of Hellsing. This is the part where Hellsing’s pattern is established. Alucard is seemingly pushed to the brink. The “villains” seem to have the upper hand. The supporting cast throws in their help, but they aren’t enough to win the day. Then, when all seems lost, Alucard laughs in his typical maniacally gleeful tone and goes apeshit on the place while revealing that he’s just been toying with his foe. The situation, setting, and enemies may change, but that pattern remains the same throughout the series.
The Valentine arc also establishes the series’ inherent nastiness and amorality. There had been flashes of this ultraviolent attitude in previous episodes, but the scale upon which this particular story takes place best cements the stakes at hand. The Hellsing compound is assaulted by a horde of zombie-like pseud0-vampires decked out in SWAT gear. Despite being ready-made, Wal-Mart-grade shocktroops, they lay waste to the Hellsing mansion. They also give the supporting cast their chance to show their stuff. This is the first time we see Walter bust out his dental-floss-fu, and we see Integra show that you don’t need to be a vampire or a super soldier to be thoroughly badass. And the gore factor is glorious.
I also want to re-emphasize the “Hellsing has an awesome dub” point that many have made before me. Considering that this is an anime that takes place in Britain, it feels considerably more natural to see the characters speak in English. And hearing actual accents for the region makes it all the better. I’d go so far that the only area in which the original Japanese is preferable to the dub is Alucard’s voice. That voice actor hits those low “notes” with far more menace. Otherwise, I’ll be a loyal Hellsing dub fan for life.
And to boot, the series’ soundtrack is my vote for the decade’s best. The best way to describe it is “gothic blues.” No other series from this decade sounded this good.
Flashbacks can be a useful narrative device. They can be used to give important information that would otherwise be inaccessible. Unfortunately, Noir feels the need to use the same flashback repeatedly and does so long after said flashback has worn out its welcome. If you can ignore this narrative crutch, Noir is a great action series that owes just as much to non-Japanese live action movies as it does to anime. Obviously, I’m a big fan of the action movie.
Between Mireille and Kirika, we get two angles on the action movie. Mireille represents the American/European style. Not only is she of European descent (she’s from Corsica), she also behaves in ways that a stereotypical “western” action hero would behave. Her style of gun play is considerably more straightforward than Kirika’s. Before the advent of The Matrix, few western action movies skewed towards acrobatics and such in their action scenes. While great action scenes still made use of movement and location, the action heroes in question were rarely trained in the sort of acrobatic, John Woo-like style prevalent in Hong Kong movies. There’s less “fluidity” and more of an emphasis on the rough, brutal aspect of violence. Mireille’s style falls more in these lines. She’s far more likely to stand and fight gun to gun, man to man. You could see her inserted into Die Hard or Leon: The Professional.
The same can’t be said of Kirika. Conveniently, she’s of Asian descent (Japan, obviously), but she also fights in a manner very reminiscent of the John Woo-inspired blood opera/heroic bloodshed movies that cropped up in the late 80s. Her style utilizes far more martial arts and acrobatics than Kirika, making her gun play considerably more “stylized” than Mireille’s. The two characters have differing, and in some ways opposing, manners of fighting, and that dichotomy makes for something of a yin-yang effect on the series.
By having the characters represent two “branches” of the action movie, Noir acts as something of a meta-text on the genre as a whole. The series then proceeds to work its way through numerous action movie stereotypes (the world of assassins, criminal conspiracies, vengeance, etc) while adding in certain elements that you rarely see in such movies but often see in anime. The “chosen one” angle is distinctly anime-like, where forces are working to create “perfect” assassins to go along with an ancient prophecy. Noir is a mishmash of genres and sub-genres that manage to merge into something beautifully violent and clever.
Shame its “sister” series, Madlax and Bruja, never quite measured up.
Best of the Year
X is the greatest 13 episode anime series ever made.
Shame it takes 24 or so episodes to show us all 13 episodes.
Much like Noir, X has a repeated motif that gets old fairly quickly. We get the same “I am a Dragon of Earth and you are a Dragon of Heaven” spiel almost every episode. The same exposition is repeated constantly, not unlike a Buddhist mantra or Fox News’ “fair and balanced” shtick. We need to hear it once or twice in the early goings, so we can figure out what each side is all about, but do we really need to be reminded each time a good guy and a bad guy meets? Is it because the characters have bad memories and need to remind each other which side they’re on? I have to think this is the case, because X’s morality is pretty fucked up.
X boils down to Man vs Nature. The Dragons of Heaven wish to preserve the world as-is. They’re like Morgan Freeman at the end of Seven when he quotes Hemingway, “’The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” Many of the “good guys” know that the world isn’t that great of a place, but they don’t feel that the world should be destroyed in order to fix whatever problems may exist.
The Dragons of Earth wish to destroy the world as is, but they wish to do so in order to bring about a rebirth of sorts. They see humanity as something of a plague, and in order to ensure a better future for the world as a whole they feel they must purge the world of this disease.
Sounds pretty simple. Defend humanity or defend the earth? What side do you choose? The catch is that most people either don’t care about their particular side or had no choice in the matter.
Many of the Dragons of Earth join that side for no logical reason. Fuuma is literally forced into becoming “evil” when Kamui chooses to be a Dragon of Heaven. This was his destiny. He was born to act as Kamui’s foil, and whatever choice Kamui made would irreversibly transform Fuuma. This leads to the preordained death of Kotori, Fuuma’s sister and Kamui’s friend, at the hands of Fuuma. It didn’t matter what decision Kamui made in regards to Kotori’s fate. If he chose to be a Dragon of Earth, it would have been him dealing the killing blow and Fuuma mourning her death. Essentially, while Kamui has the illusion of choice, none of these characters could choose their fates. Kamui had to pick a side. Kamui also had to decide Fuuma’s fate and who would bloody their hands with Kotori’s blood.
Another Dragon of Earth, Nataku, was cloned for the very purpose of becoming a Dragon of Earth. While he ends up sacrificing himself for the good of one of the Dragons of Heaven, he never had a choice in regards to becoming a Dragon of Earth. It’s as if the Earth itself is luring souls in to fight for it, even if it’s against their will. In a way one could say that the Earth is ultimately selfish when interpreted in this manner. The source of all life, the planet upon which we live, is cast as a villain because it wishes to cleanse itself and start anew.
Considering the fact that many of the premonitions we see about what the Earth will be like if the Dragons of Earth win (it’s a pristine, Eden-like paradise rife with new life), it could almost be said that environmentalism is something of a negative force in the world. While I wouldn’t accuse the series of being some sort of Captain Planet-like eco-freak, there’s definately some subtext criticising the more extreme views of environmentalists. It’s fascinating to see popular culture attack the issue of the environment from the other side. Usually we see preachy stories about evil people doing things to harm the world which leads to disaster. In X we see the reverse: going against what makes us human (creating technology by utilizing the environment to out advantage) may result in an equally terrible fate.
I’d like to say that the series tries to make a case for balance between the opposing sides, but it doesn’t. The Dragons of Heaven win. Humanity is triumphant and the world will continue on as-is. The Earth, for now at least, has been beaten back and conquered. And this is seen as a good thing. While I can’t say I agree with the implications, it’s fascinating none the less.
There’s also tons of bloodshed, decapitations, elaborate fight sequences, and excellent art direction. It also gives the storyline a proper ending that’ll likely never see print in manga form. Good stuff.