The “cultural” half of my project has been neglected a little, but then so has the current affairs and politics half in the midst of the first real English summer in seven years. I love my writing, just not when the sun is out, though as mentioned this is England and the weather usually permits me to be prolific. A friend has prompted me to talk a little about one slightly esoteric area of my entertainment canon, that admittedly I completely agree gets short shrift outside of certain circles in the West. I speak of Japanese animation, or animé.
Japanese media throughout the last several decades has often been of the most outstanding quality, and it’s certainly easy to find someone to fawn over Akira Kurosawa films, myself included. That reference on its own might be like a foreigner saying to you, “I’m such an American film buff, I think Stephen Spielberg is amazing!”, but I actually don’t consider myself to be a resounding expert, certainly not yet anyway. Also the focus here is animé, which to my sadness is often misperceived in Western understanding as limited to the high escapist tendencies of the largely superb Hayao Miyazaki films, or as being the refuge of overly sexualised young female characters for a pervy male audience, or worse.
These genres certainly do exist, and the prevalence of harem ecchi styled media, which feature dominant central male characters surrounded by a cast of scantily clad and usually worshipping ladies, doesn’t help expose other audiences to what in some cases are some of the finest things to ever be made for a screen, period. Skip over the ultra-violent, the nigh on soft-pornographic or otherwise the downright weird and there are some true diamonds. What I might offer up here is likely only scratching the surface in terms of a real otaku (borderline obsessive mange or animé lover) but I wouldn’t want to take you on an expansive hipster odyssey anyway.
Locate for yourself two particular series, both by the same genius mind, one Shinichiro Watanabe. Knowing eyes surely roll, as I’m recommending to you none other than Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. To begin, they stand out as sensational works of art. These are all animated after all and the drawing is of a remarkably high standard, so if that’s something you take any appreciation from, don’t hesitate. What I particularly love about them, and is a trademark Watanabe stylism, is wonderfully imaginative genre blending. Bebop is a crime noir space western, if you can wrap your head around that, and Champloo mixes the Edo period of Japan with anachronistic elements of hip-hop and youth subculture.
These conceptual aberrations aren’t the only reason to love these two series however, I’m not just advocating these for being quirky. They are genuinely exceptional in their characters, plots, development, pacing, emotive quality, you name it, any and every cinematic facet of value is present in abundance. If there was one cultural lost in translation factor it might occasionally be the sense of humour, although Watanabe is considerably more disciplined than some of his industry compatriots. I’ve seen a few series that would otherwise be outstanding and objectively accessible but for the slightly skitty or frenetic injections of rather over the top comedic segways.
But no, these Watanabe productions are mature and thoughtful while still being outrageously entertaining. They are surely the best place for the uninitiated to start what could end up being a long journey. I’ve met very few people who weren’t engaged by these, regardless of their preconceived notions of animé or affected dislike of something sometimes seen as a bit nerdy. A love for animé however, is comparatively little more than a love for any major cultural media institution. The Japanese invest just as much creative firepower into this world as any other country might into whatever the mainstream media form is, hence the great breadth of genres, styles and degrees of propriety and quality.
The best of it stands with the best of anything. Go and have a look, really. I’m highly confident you’ll be pleasantly surprised.