Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Title: One Piece
Season: Fall 1999 (ongoing)
Summary: Simple, superpowered, honest-to-a-fault teenager Luffy launches himself into the world of pirates determined to become the "King of Pirates" and find the legendary treasure of One Piece in Eiichiro Oda's uber-popular manga and its anime counterpart. Joined by super-swordsman Roronoa Zolo, navigator Nami, cowardly compulsive liar Usopp, and culinary genius Sanji (to name a very, very few), the Straw Hat Pirates set off on what is likely the most ridiculous and popular adventures in the history of anime.
What makes One Piece so excessively popular? The art is off-putting to some fans. It suffered from an almost universally reviled dub before eventually getting re-done by Funimation. And sometimes the series can be just plain silly.
The answer might lie in creator Eiichiro Oda's utter refusal to take the series too seriously. Not that the characters don't learn important lessons, particularly about loyalty, trust, and determination, but Oda's particular brand of childish glee is just plain infectious. It may also resonate with Japan on a different level: the country seems to worship not just the physical trappings of youth but also youthful indifference to social customs, in its popular media if not in reality.
It doesn't hurt that the colorful characters that make up the Straw Hat Pirates' crew and other groups are at the same time both familiar— how many anime feature clueless-but-remarkably-determined leads? —and different, taken to an entirely new level (such as Zolo brandishing a third sword in his mouth).
Add in consistent story-telling and character development combined with a truly enormous world populated by hundreds of larger-than-life personalities, and you've got a formula for one of Japan's best-selling anime franchises ever.
Title: Gurren Lagann
Season: Spring 2007
Summary: Cave-dwelling human boy Simon adoringly follows his "brother" (in spirit) Kamina to the surface, where they learn that the animal/humanoid species known as Beastmen force humans to stay underground, killing those who come to the surface. Allying themselves with rebel sniper Yoko and a pair of Gunmen (mechs) stolen from the Beastmen, Simon grows into an adult while fighting for humanity's freedom.
Gainax's fame has never come from its subtle touch, and with Gurren Lagann the studio seems to fling all semblance of restraint out the window— a move that could have been disastrous for the show, but instead gives it a joyful liveliness even in its most serious moments. And the show does manage to walk that fine line, keeping the show's overall story serious while also kicking the amp up to 11. Then 12. Then maybe 82. One imagines Gainax staffers sitting around a board room trying to one-up each other's ideas, coming up with the most ridiculous ways to send up classic anime tropes.
Gurren Lagann isn't mere parody, though, and its occasional lampshade or wink-nudge at the clichés it utilizes have a certain fondness to them. The series is entirely its own though, with an epic storyline that spans a number of years and the entire universe, too.
What propeled the series from good to great (for many, at least) was another balancing act: making complete, unabashed optimism also seem cool in a world where it sometimes feels like no one's allowed to really like anything, especially if that thing is popular. In a world of tough audiences and tough economies, Gurren Lagann's characters (and, yes, One Piece's as well) shamelessly tell viewers that we can all do anything if we're determined and confident enough (though it doesn't hurt to have spiral power or a giant robot, either).
It's a message that resonated with its audience at the time, and is no less powerful now— especially for fans in much-troubled Japan.
Season: Spring 2006 (ongoing)
Summary: In an alternative-universe Edo era where aliens have taken over the earth and forcibly banned carrying bladed weapons around, Gintoki is an unemployed ex-samurai who runs a jack-of-all-trades freelance business with alien pal Kagura, eager teenager Shinpachi, and anyone else who will put up with the gang's antics. Also, meet the Shinsengumi: the Shogunate's well-meaning but goofy police force.
Hideaki Sorachi's manga Gintama originally focused primarily on gags, but as the series continued, Sorachi expanded the series' focus to include more drama and combat while maintaining the comedic feel of the series. The key to this shift: fun characters with strong relationships, leading to great (and hilarious) interactions with one another. A healthy relationship with meta jokes also helps.
Gintama is hugely popular in Japan, but interest among U.S. publishers hasn't been strong; Viz has been releasing the manga and Sentai Filmworks is releasing the anime, but for a show this popular some fans wonder why it wasn't picked up by someone who would put it on television. It's probably because the show's humor and references fit better with knowledge held by the average Japanese (you know, about the Edo era, the Shinsengumi shogunate "police," and tropes and clichés in other anime and manga) than that held by their American counterparts.
On the other hand, the very traits that might make Gintama a poor choice for television makes it a perfect show for fans of Japanese pop culture: you'll get plenty of the jokes (especially the character gags), and the ones that you don't get you'll actually be interested in finding the translation notes or Wikipedia entries for. (Well, maybe.)
But by and large the comedy of Gintama derives from the series' unique characters and their quirks— traits that in most series might feel forced, but wielded deftly by Sorachi become both familiar and, more often than not, really funny.