Best of the Decade: 2006
“What happened to 2005” you ask? 2005, in terms of anime, sucked ass. That year gave us the 00’s worst anime series, Eureka Seven (Yeah, I know I’ll get flack for that, but that’s how I feel.). The only worthwhile series I saw that year was Speed Grapher, and my love of that anime has more to do with the fact that it played out like an anime version of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut than anything else. I kind of enjoyed Pani Poni Dash, but in retrospect it feels more like a dry run for the far superior Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (You’ll see that on my 2007 list.). I missed out on Mushishi, which I hear is good, but other than that the year was rife with mediocrity at best.
In comparison, 2006 feels as if God looked down upon the world and said “Sorry, my bad about last year being so crappy. Here’s a bunch of awesome anime to make up for me being such a fucking idiot.”
Many of the “also-rans” from 2006 would easily be “honorable mentions” or even “best of’s” if they aired in other years, particularly Ouran, Coyote Ragtime, and Red Garden. And Bartender has one of the best anime theme songs I’ve ever heard. But they have the “misfortune” of airing during what’s easily the best year of anime ever.
Along with Kusanagi and Batou, the relationship between Rock and Revy is one of my favorites amongst anime characters. The scene early in the first season where they light up cigarettes in the back of a taxi is one of the most subtly romantic moments I’ve ever seen in an anime. That scene says more about their feelings towards one another than any number of inner monologues, shy glances, and any other bullshit that you get from your typical “romance” anime. The fact that this scene comes from an homage to action movies says a lot about the (lack of) quality in romance/relationship anime.
It’s these sorts of characterization moments that elevate Black Lagoon. Much like Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, and other similar series, Black Lagoon allows the characters’ actions and attitudes develop the characters. While we get a handful of flashbacks in the series, Black Lagoon doesn’t rely upon those sorts of narrative crutches that are over-utilized in anime. We learn more about Rock and the other characters by the way they react to situations, the way they behave, how they talk, and other elements that are worked into the overall plot. We don’t get a long string of details from a character’s past we get brief glimpses that say just as much, if not more, about the character than any expository scene would ever reveal. We see Dutch wiring money to an unknown account in another country. Is he sending money to relatives? Is he doing this mercenary business to help people he loves? Or is he just setting aside money so that when this little group inevitably breaks apart he can quietly escape and live off his plundered goods? It’s situations like that which make for interesting characterization.
Another key element to Black Lagoon’s success is time period. There’s several hints that the series takes place in the early 90’s. There’s a reference to a new Dracula movie coming out, and Coppola’s Dracula came out in 1992. Pretty sure the picture of the magazine that talks about this Dracula movie looks a lot like Gary Oldman’s version of Drac. The time period is important because the early 90’s were the last few years of the dominance of the sort of the action movies of which Black Lagoon is an homage. Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger were still big box office draws and their breed of action movie was still favored by the public. This was before the likes of The Matrix, super hero movies, and Michael Bay flicks (Armageddon, etc) “ruined” this breed of movie. Placing Black Lagoon during the very time period where the Die Hard series, John Woo’s blood operas, and other big time action movies were still very relevant in the public eye is a brilliant stroke. It almost makes Black Lagoon nostalgic for this era, wishing we could go back to a “simpler” time when gunplay was about badasses shooting up shit and getting off on getting bloodied up.
Even when Black Lagoon allows modern tropes to seep into the mix, the series does this to subvert those tropes rather than celebrate them. Roberta is a perfect example of this. She appears to be a quiet, demure, subservient “maid” character. She’s polite has the whole glasses-girl thing going. She play up to several otaku fetishes. Then she turns around and goes El Mariachi on a group of South American thugs. Her umbrella, a device a cute girl will use to hide her face, is turned into a shotgun. It’s no longer a prop for someone’s moe fetish, it’s become a dealer of cold-blooded death. Her Rei Ayanami-like persona is subverted as well when her emotionless motions morph into something reminiscent of a T-1000 from Terminator 2. Even Rock can’t help but remark about how she seems to be like a character from a movie. Everything that would be a stereotype that would allure a certain facet of fandom is turned into an action movie stereotype, and in the process those otaku tropes are completely subverted, much to the pleasure of an action-loving fan such as myself.
All of this, coupled with numerous action scenes that would be beautifully executed in a normal live action movie, makes Black Lagoon one of the smartest action shows of all time. In that regard it’s the Die Hard of anime. That’s a very lofty comment as far as I’m concerned.
Welcome to the NHK
Welcome to the NHK is a perfect companion piece to Genshiken. Both series deal with the idea of “fandom,” but while Genshiken is a love letter to the positive aspects of being a fan, NHK deals with the negative aspects and the downward spiral one can be faced with when fandom and its associated vices become the sole focal point of one’s life.
Granted, Satou has mental problems from the get-go. He secludes himself from the world and becomes a hikikomori long before the fandom aspect seeps into his life, but it’s his introduction to the world of anime, games, and the like that sends him further into the abyss. It’s the willingness of NHK to confront these problems that makes it infinitely more interesting than the glut of “slice of life” anime series that focus upon fandom that have littered this decade.
While NHK is ultimately a tale of redemption, that redemption is decidedly bittersweet. Satou and Misaki, the girl who tries to “save” Satou, are both troubled individuals. Satou is essentially a paranoid schizophrenic and Misaki has intense problems with her home life. Neither one of them is particularly well in the head.
Satou needs her because she’s the only woman in his life that is “attainable.” His former classmate is married and he can’t bring himself to have an affair with her, and any other woman belongs to the very world that he believes is a part of the NHK “conspiracy.” Even though he believes that Misaki is a part of this conspiracy as well, he has actual contact with her. She’s an enemy that he can see and touch and hear, and in his mind that’s as close as he’ll ever come to an ideal woman: an enemy that’s there at his side rather than lurking in the shadows.
Misaki needs Satou because he’s the lone person she’s met that’s “below” her. She’s lived a life where she’s never had control. Her parents were a mess, her mother committed suicide, her classmates mock her and ostracize her, and her relatives are borderline cultists who want to dominate every aspect of her life. With Satou she’s found the one person that she can control, and this is a feeling that she refuses to let go of regardless of how many times he may yell at her and insult her. Satou may be abusive, but she’s ultimately in control of the relationship. That position of power is what she’s wanted all of her life and she won’t give it up.
And in this they make a perfect couple. They’re in a mutually parasitic relationship, each of them leaching off of the other to maintain some semblance of sanity in a world that has rejected both of them.
But to get to this pathetically happy ending we have to witness Satou trudge through the depths of many hells. We watch him squander his last dollar buying anime paraphernalia. We see him venture into the world of doujin games, only to embarrass himself and his best friend in the process. We see him lose himself to online RPGs, where he develops a relationship not with the person behind his adventuring companion but the character herself. We watch as he nearly looses what little assets he possesses to a pyramid scheme. Satou loses every remaining link to reality as the series progresses. His best friend moves away to join the family business. His former classmate and former crush finds happiness in her marriage. Another former classmate who could have become a friend lures him into a borderline illegal business scheme in order to exploit him.
Many of his downfalls have their roots in fandom. He becomes obsessive with anime and games, but while he immerses himself in these worlds he looses sight of everything else around him. He’s obsessive about the details of creating the “perfect” game girl, but he can’t even push himself to write a basic script for a video game with his friend. He deludes himself into believing there’s money to be made selling imaginary goods in a MMORPG and deludes himself into believing that the relationship he has with a catgirl pixel is anything more than basic infatuation.
His experiences with fandom make his already fragile grasp on reality all the weaker. While many anime series will poke fun of the obsessive otaku type, they never address the side of that stereotype that’s ugly and dangerous. While only a handful of fans reach the level that Satou reaches, it’s a reality that’s never faced in any other series. For that NHK gets a lot of props.
Best of the Year
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
I deliberately used the second season’s opening. I dig it more than the first season’s.
The first episode of Melancholy, the one depicting their film for the cultural festival or whatever it was, is the single greatest episode of an anime series ever. There’s a few episodes that rank pretty close (Ballad of Fallen Angels from Cowboy Bebop, the first episode of the latest Mazinger series, the episode of Revolutionary Girl Utena where Nanami literally turns into a cow), but none of them are quite as all-encompassing as The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina.
The episode works on two levels. First, it does a brilliant job of essentially telling the entire story behind the series A) in one episode and B) without revealing to first-time viewers that they’re essentially having numerous plot elements spoiled long before some of them will become relevant. Not only does the episode reveal that Mikuru’s a time traveler, Itsuki’s an esper, and Yuki’s an alien, it reveals that there’s an undercurrent of animosity and distrust between the three of them that isn’t outright revealed until late in the second season. There’s also various tidbits tossed in, like the disparity between the cheesy special effects and the “realistic” effects Itsuki uses at the end of the movie and the talking cat. All of these seemingly insignificant points hint at things not being quite “normal” despite the seemingly average (if a bit quirky) high school setting.
But all of this hinting at things to come would be irrelevant if the episode aired chronologically, since by that time we’d know what’s going on and all of these oddball moments would be far too obvious to have any real meaning. Therefore, this episodes meaning is enhanced due to where it’s placed in viewing order. By having the movie air first, a definite sense of “what the hell is going on here” is built up in viewers. Despite the complaints that have been levied at the “tv order” during and after the fact, that feeling of “what’s this all about” created a desire in viewers to want to continue watching. Once people see this oddball student movie, complete with inept editing and camera angles, they want to know what this series is about. It’s a perfect hook to lure viewers in, regardless of any fan bitching that may occur.
It’s this sense of mystery that makes the first season of Melancholy interesting. By airing episodes out-of-order, there’s a deliberate disconnect between what the viewers know and what the viewers are watching. Bits of information are revealed to the audience in such a manner that makes dramatic sense, rather than chronological sense. Chronologically, the series “climaxes” with episode six, with the remaining episodes acting as a rather long denoeument and resulting in a lackluster finale.
By shuffling the order of the episodes, Melancholy creates tension both in the story and in the viewers. The story is building to a climax throughout the entire series, and with the way the episodes are laid out we actually get two episodes that work in conjecture as separate climaxes. The final episode, where Kyon rescues the world from one of Haruhi’s closed spaces, is an obvious conclusion, but the episode at the cultural festival where Haruhi and Yuki join the band and Kyon finds himself seeing a side of Haruhi he’d never seen before acts as a separate climax. Rescuing the world is a dramatic, narrative finish, but Kyon’s revelation is an emotional climax. By airing both episodes in relative proximity to one another, the series manages a finale with far more impact than the chronological order would allow.
The fact that the tv order created such a rabid fan following is proof that audiences don’t really care about narrative cohesiveness as much as they claim. Much is said about the chronological order making more sense, but if that’s the case would the tv version have created such a large fanbase? There’s something to be said about “how” a story is told is just as important as “what” the story is telling. Melancholy is proof that the “how” can entrance an audience just as much as the “what.”
Then again, the “how” can also turn fans off when it doesn’t quite pan out. The second season of Melancholy,which fills in several chronological holes that I felt didn’t really need to be filed in, attempted to pull a similar stunt with the narrative. While the episodes were aired chronologically, with new episodes airing when they’d appear in the timeline, we got the whole Endless Eight debacle.
I use the word “debacle” not because I think it was a bad move, but because the fanbase made an uproar. The series took a simple short story about time repeating itself during the last two weeks of summer vacation and turned it into Groundhog Day. The main problem with this is that it lasted eight episodes. The idea makes perfect sense. Endless Eight, eight episodes. BAM!
I rather like the concept. How else does one create a sense of repetition and ennui due to repeating a sequence of events over and over again except by having the viewers experience that repetition first-hand. The problem is that, despite the episodes acknowledging the fact that there were discrepancies in many of the “repeats,” we never really see these discrepancies. Yuki claims that there were times where they never went to the summer festival, times where they had different jobs, and other differences. Yet we see the same events in each episode, with only a change of costume and with each episode emphasizing certain events in different ways.
The series attempted to address this by using different art styles and imagery in each episode. I personally liked this, but I understand that these minute differences didn’t win over most fans. Only someone who really cares about the craft of animation is going to get into this stuff. Most fans are concerned with the narrative and characterization, so this sort of thing is going to turn them off. I can understand that, but I don’t agree with that assessment.
In the end, I’d have to call Endless Eight a bold failure. It tried to do something different and pretty much fell on its face. At the same time, I’d rather see a series strike out while wildly swinging, mainly because it was trying. And that’s Melancholy’s ultimate strength. The series is trying to do new things with a storyline that, honestly, isn’t all that interesting when viewed from a conventional standpoint. Had Melancholy been aired in a typical fashion, I doubt I’d have liked it nearly as much as I do. Without the narrative flourishes, it’s just a slightly better than average school anime with a few quirks to barely distinguish it from the pack.