Best of the Decade: 2002
Robots, robots, and fake cats.
Heat Guy J
I hated the first episode of Heat Guy J. I saw it at A-Kon when it came out on DVD and walked out of the video room immediately after the first episode. It was about some kid that looked like an anime Leonardo DiCaprio and some old robot dude that let off steam the way that balloon guy voiced by George Takei from that Chowder cartoon lets off noxious fumes.
Yeah, the red guy. Mr. Fugu. He and J are the same character, except one has more muscles. Anyway, in that first episode they fought some other robot dude in a pretty boring way, then the episode ended. “Whatever,” I said, “I’m going back to the dealer room.”
A few months later I saw the first DVD on sale. “Whatever,” I said, “It’s cheap and I have cash, let me give this another try.” I skipped the first episode and started with the second. Yeah, it rocked. Thoroughly. Turns out that Heat Guy J is all about the inner workings of the mafia government conspiracies, weird alternate world politics, and cool action. Somehow, though, the creators decided to make a really crappy first episode despite the rest of the series rocking pretty hard. It’s almost like they were trying to chase off potential fans or something.
Heat Guy J essentially creates its own world. The world is divided into city-states. Crime and corruption is rampant. Technology is a blend of near-future sci-fi and steampunk goodness. The story plays like a buddy cop movie merged with film noir and has character designs that look like they came from a shoujo romance manga. It’s a weird combination, but it works just as good, if not better, than the series’ spiritual predecessor The Vision of Escaflowne. Escaflowne was another genre and stylistic mash-up and had much of the same creative staff, so if you dug Escaflowne you may like Heat Guy J.
And that’s what makes Heat Guy enjoyable. It merges several elements normally not seen in the same series and finds perfect harmony in those differing elements. It’s the same reason why Cowboy Bebop is so brilliant, although Heat Guy isn’t near the same level of blissful immersion a Bebop. That said, Heat Guy’s a prime example of the idea that anime should aspire to break genre boundaries rather than adhere to them, since many of the best series break said boundaries.
Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex
SAC is the ideal anime adaptation. By adaptation I mean something that takes the basic concept of a source material and creates a new, independent product. Instead of recreating the original manga, SAC takes the manga’s concept and crafts an entirely new storyline. As I’ve said in other posts, I feel that this is the route that anime should go. I fail to see the point of having every anime based upon a manga or novel or whatever be a direct translation of the source material. I want to see changes. I want to see interpretations. I want to see something different. That’s exactly what SAC provides.
I really enjoy SAC’s structure. Each season consists of an ongoing story, but there’s numerous “stand alone” episodes sprinkled throughout the series. These episodes allow for a great deal of world-building and development that isn’t always possible when the main story is the focus. We get to see the inner workings of this cyberpunk world, and by seeing these “everyday” occurences it makes the “complex” episodes have considerable more weight. Anyone that calls these episodes “filler” doesn’t get their intent.
Another change that makes SAC superior to the original manga is the relationship between Kusanagi and Batou. Their relationship plays out fairly subtly. There’s never any confession scene or inner monologues talking about how they feel about each other, but their dialogue shows that there’s something brewing under the surface. Sometimes they bicker like an old couple. Sometimes they slip in flirtations that some people observing might not catch. Their interactons make for some of the best character development I’ve seen in an anime, and they’re one of my favorite couples as well. The scene at the end of the second season where Batou is furiously searching for Kusanagi admist rubble, cumulating with a shot of Batou hoisting debris in such a way that he almost looks like Christ carrying the cross, is also one of my favorite scenes from an anime series. That scene brings all of the subtle hints about Kusangi and Batou’s relationship to a head, but thankfully leaves things unresolved. Quite frankly, their relationship works best as one that can never come to pass, and this scene does a great job of acknowledging this fact.
Best of the Year
Azumanga Daioh is sadistic. It’s a mean-spirited, nasty, evil series dressed up as an innocent, cute show about little girls doing nothing. Don’t be fooled by Chiyo-chan’s pigtails and Osaka’s vacant expressions, this is a vicious comedy that gets its humor from people being mean to each other.
Azumanga best compares to Seinfeld. Both series are about “nothing,” meaning there’s no real concept running through the series other than “normal-ish people doing what they do and doing that stuff just happens to be funny.” Both series also derive most of their humor from people being placed into various humiliating and painful situations. More often than not, Azumanga derives comedy from inflicting pain on Chiyo or Yukari abusing her students or Yomi bearing the brunt of Tomo’s selfish antics. The series is not kind to its characters and it’s all the more amusing because of this.
What other anime is going to intentionally joke about stabbing someone to death?
The above scene shows off Azumanga’s comedic timing. The scene allows things to slowly build up. There’s clearly something wrong with the situation, but they don’t rush to the punchline. That sense of timing is spot-on throughout the series. Jokes rarely overstay their welcome and most of the reoccurring gags (the biting black cat for example) find ways to remain relatively fresh until the end.
The series also gets downright weird and surreal at times.
The Chiyo’s Dad bits are used sparingly, making them all the more funny when they occur.
All in all, Azumanga is the best straight-forward anime comedy I’ve ever seen. It avoids parody and references and goes for situational comedy. It’s also deceptively nasty, and I love it all the more because of that. Shoving to the ground a girl in a penguin suit has never been more satisfying.