Recently, I found myself sat in a bar at two o’clock in the morning and caught a snippet of conversation from the next table over that caused my head to snap 90 degrees right and daggers to fly from my eyes into a stranger’s back. The half-heard words were “isn’t that just, like, weird cartoon porn?” Before the protestations of the other side of that conversation sputtered into life, I already knew what the subject of discussion was: anime.
For those not in the know, anime is what we in the West call the particular brand of animation produced and popular in Japan. It is characterised by bright colours and exaggerated eyes and hair, often in inhuman colours. It is also a hobby of mine, after a fashion. I don’t really consider media preferences a hobby per se – the enjoyment is more a matter of taste. Really, this is all beside the point other than for disclosure going forward; I am into this stuff. With that bias on the table, let me try to convince you that there’s more to anime than you might think.
There are two main stumbling blocks I hit when trying to convince people to try anime. The first was mentioned in my riveting opening anecdote. “It’s just porn”. This is demonstrably not true, the vast majority of anime is not pornographic and none of the high quality material is. However, the ever ominous “but” rears its ugly and unwelcome head. There is this uncomfortable thing called “fanservice”. Fanservice is, at its most basic, exactly what it says on the tin, service to the fans. This can be as simple as an in-joke or some reference in the background for those who notice it. The fanservice I’m talking about is flat out titillation, however – we’re talking unnecessary trips to the beach simply to provide an excuse to put the female characters in swimsuits. This isn’t ubiquitous, but, especially in recent years, it is prolific.
Western television is hardly innocent of this (yes, you Game of Thrones, you know those tits were gratuitous), but we’re so accustomed to the way it’s done that we barely notice it. For me, that’s true in anime too: it’s a thing I no longer really notice unless it’s really in your face, but when first encountered, it can be really off-putting. In practice, though, it’s something that exists to cover up otherwise poor or mediocre content, so if you stick to the good stuff (recommendations will come, I promise), you should avoid it for the most part – exactly as is the case with the TV you consume from here and the States.
The second excuse to not give it a go is, perhaps, even more ignorant. Stop me if you’ve ever had something like this conversation:
Idiot: “Pfft, of course I don’t watch that trash. Cartoons are for kids, man.”
Idiot’s friend: “So what do you watch then?”
Idiot: “Family Guy. It’s, like, the best thing ever.”
If I had a penny. Now, in practice, this view is understandable because in the West it’s true. Well, the large adult fanbases of even cartoons for kids in the West should disprove this. Shows such as Spongebob Squarepants, My Little Pony and Adventure Time are examples. But that’s a more recent trend over here. Now, I’d be willing to bet that, for those who grew up in the 90s, one or more of these five shows are treasured memories: Sailor Moon, Digimon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Dragonball Z and Pokémon. Was I right? If so, I’d then wager it had more underlying themes and tones that we’d consider “adult”. And that’s with the dubs that dumbed them down, particularly Sailor Moon, which, from the source material, is most definitely not a kid’s story. Now, of course, there are anime for kids, but there’s so much more aimed at teens, young adults and just adults. Even some of the kid’s shows aren’t kid’s shows, in particular I’m thinking of Digimon Tamers‘ third season, which goes into full-on horrific mind-screw territory in its third act, delving into themes such as the mental damage caused by child neglect and how even the best of intentions can be corrupted and destroyed if fuelled by hatred.
So, are there excuses not to watch anime? Yes, of course there are and they pretty much can all be collected into one. “I do not like the aesthetic.” If the art style doesn’t appeal, if the tropes of a foreign culture are off-putting, if the humour simply doesn’t translate or you simply don’t like the style, that’s fine. I don’t like olives. Trite but it’s basically the same thing, no matter how many olives I eat, I will never like olives, but even then taste changes as we age so who knows? But to know that I don’t like olives I had to eat an olive. So now allow me to serve up some olives for you to try. Don’t worry, watching one anime will not turn you into one of those cosplaying weirdos who flock to Comicon (though you might enjoy that too if you let yourself, you judgemental git).
Now, I’ve given myself a couple of rules for the following tasters:
- You can watch it in English and enjoy it to the full (some dubs are seriously naff).
- The show is easily available in my country of choice (the UK) legally.
- I’ve seen it. Can’t really recommend something I haven’t seen in good conscience now can I?
In practice, this means that the following shows are on UK Netflix. Good? Now here we go. When reading these quick plot summaries, try imagining it’s the hit series du jour off HBO or similar, just forget it’s anime for a bit and see how we do.
Ghost In The Shell
If you’ve ever taken a brief interest in cyberpunk or even sci-fi, you may well have already heard of this. Picture a future, not that far away, where man and machine interface freely, where you can put your brain in a robot body and people barely notice. In this future, we follow a specialist law-enforcement team “Section 9” as they attempt to catch and bring down a mysterious brain-hacking cyber criminal. Prepare for conspiracy, politics and intrigue. It’s even a film so won’t take too much of your time, though there is a spin-off series if you like it.
Continuing in our near(ish) dystopian future cop show theme, I offer you Psycho-Pass. Here, instead of cyborg technology, we have the Panopticon – a computer system that runs, facilitates and analyses our every day. In this future, you have several metrics attached to you, including how likely you are to commit a crime. Once you breach a certain threshold, you’re labelled a latent criminal and put into “rehab”. We follow a six-man team in the Public Safety Bureau, two Investigators and four Enforcers, the latent criminals they employ as hunting dogs. After all, to catch a thief…
Attack on Titan
Let’s shift gear to high octane fantasy. Imagine a world where all mankind lives behind three giant walls, built in concentric circles, due to the threat of extinction. Man is no longer the apex predator, now eternally hunted by the enormous titans whose only driving thought is the literal consumption of man. An underdog story in the truest sense, a few brave and foolish dreamers look beyond the walls, hoping one day to retake what has been lost. Be warned this ride is wild and thoroughly enjoyable, but the story isn’t finished, we live in hope of a second series.
Terror In Resonance
Okay, how to sell Terror in Resonance? This is a show about two terrorists who call themselves Sphinx and send riddles to the police (via YouTube) about what they’re about to blow up. Except it isn’t. That’s what happens, but really it’s an astoundingly beautiful piece of character work with perhaps a touch of social commentary. I’m still trying to figure this one out, see if you can beat me to it. Bit of a cheat including this one since you’re going to have to watch it in Japanese, but the series is easily good enough to merit an inclusion here.
Okay, back to the classics. Do you like detective stories? How about serial killer thrillers? Intellectual (and perhaps literal) tennis? Then you’ll like Death Note. A lot. This was one of my first and follows the story of a bored, disillusioned high school genius who finds a blank notebook. Blank except for some instructions on the inside cover detailing how, if you write someone’s name in the book, they’ll die. We also follow the story of the world’s greatest detective who gathers a taskforce to try and catch the criminal who’s behind in legendary killing spree that’s leaving convicted criminals dead in their cells the world over. Which one of them understands the truth of “justice”?
This is one of those stories about the time travel. The twist here is that what our resident mad scientist can send into the time stream isn’t himself but text messages. Text messages that can only go backwards. A slow burner, this one as it takes the time to build up your relationship with its varied cast before throwing the arrogance of messing with time back in the faces of our protagonists. This one’s a personal favourite, give it the time to become one of yours too.
Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
If we’re talking about classics, this is a big one. Picture a fantasy world with early twentieth century technology and the magical science of alchemy, whereby you can change anything into anything so long as you follow the golden rule of equivalent exchange. Except there is one taboo – you cannot transmute humans. Follow the struggle of two brothers who, in their childish naiveté, sought to bring their mother back from the dead. Now they search for a miracle so that they can undo the wrongs they committed. One thing I should mention is that there are two versions of FMA, one from 2003 and Brotherhood from 2009. If you can, find the 2003 version and watch it first as both have the same beginning and Brotherhood rushes through it to get to the new stuff, assuming you’ve seen the original. It can be a difficult find though, so don’t deny yourself this gem if you can’t get your hands the original.
And there you have it, I hope you can find something to your liking amongst that and, if not, I have plenty of other shows to offer, though they might be a little harder to acquire. But, when all’s said and done, all I really want is for you to try that olive. You don’t have to like it, not really, just realise there’s something to it and that those of us who do like it aren’t childish or weird. Well, not really.
WORDS: JAMES ARNOLD
Has James won you over to animé? See if he can do the same with his defence of the ‘Back to the Future’ series.