Best of the Decade: 2004
The Genshiken guys dug Guilty Gear, so I wonder if they liked BlazBlue or thought it was a lame Guilty Gear ripoff. The world may never know.
Samurai Champloo is Cowboy Bebop, just with hip hop replacing jazz/blues and samurai/martial arts archetypes replacing spaghetti western and space opera archetypes. That’s awfully reductive, but it’s awfully correct and nothing close to an insult.
Champloo works great as a complimentary piece with Bebop. Champloo improves upon certain aspects of Bebop. I found Fuu to be far more interesting than Faye or Ed. All three characters share similar storylines (they’re all looking for something they’ve lost in the past), but Fuu’s story arc doesn’t come off as tacked-on (like Ed’s) and doesn’t all but ruin her character (Finding out that Faye’s just a lost little girl who can’t remember her past ruins her strong-willed, doesn’t take crap from anyone persona. It doesn’t add “depth” to her character, it just turns her into yet another weak female anime character.).
Fuu’s storyline may boil down to “I wanna find my daddy,” but it leads to some interesting plot points. You rarely see anime address the way Christians were oppressed during this era of Japanese history, yet you get an entire episode devoted to this since Fuu’s quest to find her father leads them to a group of secluded Christians. The episode may not have delved into it with great detail, but it was cool to see this mentioned.
It may be sacrilegious to say it, but I prefer Champloo’s soundtrack over Bebop’s. That’s not to say that Bebop’s was crappy or anything, but Bebop’s soundtrack just doesn’t measure up when you compare it to other jazz and blues acts. I’d rather listen to Miles Davis or Jet’s “spirit guide” Charlie Parker. Champloo’s soundtrack, though, measures up with the best hip hop out there. It could be due to the fact that they got several actual rap and hip hop groups to do the soundtrack, while Bebop had musical-mercenary Yoko Kanno at the forefront. Sorry Yoko, you have great range, but your best music is still the soundtrack to the SNES game New Horizons.
In addition to commenting on Japan’s reaction to Christianity, Champloo takes the time to reference Japan’s reaction to foreign culture in ways you often don’t see in anime. The baseball episode almost plays like Inglorious Basterds, in that it’s something of a wish-fulfilment story. In Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers get to brutally and satisfyingly kill Hitler. In the baseball episode of Champloo, a group of Japanese citizens get to kick the imperialistic Americans out of the country by beating them at their own national pastime. I’m sure that made even your typical apolitical Japanese otaku feel a little warm deep down inside.
My favorite episode is the one in which the Dutch trader tries to mask himself as a Japanese man so he can experience the country’s culture firsthand. It plays off as a wonderful lampoon of your typical westerner that’s absurdly fascinated by Japanese culture. Yet while the episode is getting laughs at the expense of this proto-weaboo, the episode isn’t ridiculing him. It presents the situation in a matter-of-fact way: Once the fanboy sees his object of obsession firsthand, he realizes that his viewpoint es just a little skewed.
Oh yeah, and he action scenes rock. Can’t forget that. That’s some good slicin’ and dicin’. The series is a lot like Noir in that we see various styles of swordplay intermingling into a cohesive whole. Mugen’s “modern” breakdancing style is contrasted with Jin’s traditional kendo in the same way Mireille’s “classical” gunplay is compared to Kirika’s John Woo-inspired antics.
Shame Manglobe’s gone from stuff like this to swill like Sacred Blacksmith. Almost makes a guy want to cry.
If Satoshi Kon was a little more prolific, I’d argue that he’s the most important person making anime at this point in time. Even with a meager four movies and one TV series under his belt in the past ten years or so, he’s the most consistent and reliable director in the anime business.
What makes his style so remarkable is his ability to marry anime and live action sensibilities. Watching stuff like Paranoia Agent and Perfect Blue, it’s obvious that he’s been influenced by the likes of Hitchcock and Lynch in addition to various anime directors. It’s this merging of styles that strikes me as his most significant contribution to the anime industry, and I’d love to see more directors draw their influence from outside the medium in addition to drawing from within.
As for Paranoia Agent itself, it boils down to a criticism of the cult of shifting responsibility. Every character in the series is guilty of attempting to shift the blame for their personal problems onto another person or cultural artifact. It’s a criticism of the way people blame family members, minorities, the media, and other outside influences for the ills of society and for their own persona problems, and how this ever-increasing mentality will bring about nothing but harm for society as a whole.
Little Slugger/Shounen Bat represents the manifestation of this cult-like mentality. He is the personification of everyone’s refusal to accept responsibility. When he attacks someone, he “frees” them of their ills, but at the cost of almost everything that makes them who they are. They may be “happy” after the attack and may seem to be “cured,” but their hollow shells of their former selves. This plays upon many of the themes that are seen in Boogiepop Phantom, and the two series compliment each other well. The only way anyone can be truly “free” is to accept their problems and acknowledge that, more often than not, their issues are born out of personal mistakes rather than the actions of others. At the same time, the series acknowledges that this is a trend that can’t quite be conquered. You may defeat Little Slugger and stem the tide, but there’s always something lurking in the shadows ready to take his place.
Another good companion piece to Paranoia Agent would be No Country for Old Men. No Country is about the realization that the world has always been a dark, grim, brutal place. Tommy Lee Jones’ character goes through the movie believing that the world is on the decline, but at the end of the movie he realizes that the world has always been a bad place. He tries to blame criminals (Anton Chigurh is something of a Hollywood Little Slugger to that extent) and changes in culture for the world’s ills, then he hears a story from an old friend that details a similar series of events that happened almost 100 years before the present. It’s with that story that he realizes that he’s been shifting the blame to forces that were essentially created by this refusal to accept the truth. The key difference between Paranoia Agent and No Country for Old Men is the fact that this revelation doesn’t stop the dismal tide, it just puts Tommy Lee Jones’ character at ease realizing that the Little Sluggers and Anton Chigurhs of the world are essentially forces of nature that will always be there.
In the end, all one can do is accept that there are problems in the world and hope for some sort of personal salvation, because society as a whole is beyond saving.
Best of the Year
When I watched Genshiken for the first time with a few friends, one of them looked over at me and said “This is your life story.”
Yeah, that’s a pretty fair assessment.
If Keiichi was me ten years ago, give or take when I was in my early college years, then Sasahara is a perfectly good cipher of me during the mid 00’s. I’d graduated from college, but I was taking additional classes in order to get my teaching certification. I was trying out various clubs in and out of school in order to broaden my base of friends. One of said clubs was the university anime club. My personal experiences don’t mirror Sasahara’s, but his experiences (and Saki’s to a certain extent) do a good job of representing the clash between my sensibilities and the sensibilities of “otakudom.” The key difference is that I never quite “converted” the way Sasahara did.
I can also see quite a few of my friends in the Genshiken characters. I have a friend who reminds me a little too much of Kousaka. He’s the type that, upon first meeting him, you wouldn’t take him for an anime fan. But deep down inside he’s the one that throws himself into the fandom more so than anyone else. I have another friend that reminds me of Madarame. Their fandoms are pretty similar (the dude owns a Zeon flag and has a similar love of military pop culture and anime stuff) and the dude even kinda looks like him, a fact that I tease him about to this day.
My love of Genshiken has a lot of personal basis, more so than almost any other anime. At the same time, the series stands on its own as a brilliant anime.
Genshiken does a good job of balancing satire with homage. The series likes to poke fun at fandom’s eccentricities, but at the same time it clearly understands and loves those quirks. The level of obsession that each character has for their respective fandoms is the source of humor, but the series never mocks the characters. We’re laughing just as much with the characters as we’re laughing at them, and that’s the best way to tackle such a subject.
The characters themselves are some of the most developed ones I’ve seen in an anime. Without getting into a lot of monologues and exposition, the anime allows us to get into their heads and know who they are simply by observing them. It almost plays out like a well-made documentary by allowing us to know them through their actions rather than depending on a bunch of talking heads telling us what to think. The author behind the original manga clearly knows what makes a fan tick and isn’t afraid of showing it to us from every flattering and embarrassing angle.
The series also works as a comedy. I’ve said much about what I think makes for a great comedy in other posts, so if you’ve read those you have a good idea what I’m getting at here (sense of timing, etc). Humor isn’t the only focal point of the series, but when it’s funny it’s pretty damn funny.
The best aspect of the series is the way it handles Saki, the only “outsider” of the group. The series never “indoctrinates” her into fan culture. She never becomes “one of us.” At the same time she grows to understand what it’s like to be a fan, whether it’s through comparisons to her own passions (shopping for plastic toys is little different from shopping for clothes) or through her willingness to hang out with them and get to know them as people rather than as fans. If the series has a “main character,” it isn’t Sasahara. The main character of Genshiken is Saki, and if the series has a main “plot” it’s her progression from outsider that hates fandom to outsider who gets what’s going on. She’s like a scientist observing and getting to know and love a pack of animals, and it’s through contrasting her with the Genshiken crew that the series can really show what it’s like to be a fanboy.
Being a fanboy isn’t all that bad so long as you can laugh at yourself.