The Mike Toole Show Ten Years Later
by Michael Toole, Jan 29th 2012
Alright, the anime of the century is finally available in stores! You've heard some hype, no doubt, but now it's time to prepare yourself for 4,000 words about REDLINE, because we definitely have not talked about it enough yet!... OK, yeah, I'm not doing that. At this point, it's just low-hanging fruit; you've already heard plenty about REDLINE and should know by now if you should pick it up or not (hint: you should). Instead, I'm going to do what I do best and talk about shit from a long time ago!
This time, instead of focusing on things from before I was born that involve hours of plugging terms into Nico Nico and bugging better-schooled associates for data, I'm winding the clock back a mere decade, to the far future year of 2002, which took place just three years before the events of Transformers: The Movie. I'm going to try to at least give a shout to most of the stuff that came out, with special attention given to ten or so shows, good and bad, that are a bit lesser-known but still worth remembering. I'm zeroing in on this year for two reasons. First of all, in my last column, I pointed out that Fullmetal Panic and Rahxephon were headline-grabbing hits in Japan that year, which prompted some in the forum comments to point out that this was pretty goddamned scary. That's right, folks - time does pass! Keep in mind that the anime you watch today will definitely be regarded as "old-school" by fans in 2022. The second reason I'm jumping back to '02 is a bit murkier, but I'll try to frame it for you: Our current season, Winter 2012, seems awfully weak, with only a few offerings, like the sensationally-titled Bodacious Space Pirates, coming out of the gate strong. This isn't that unusual - if you watch the release calendar carefully, you'll notice that the big shows tend to hit in the fall and spring, with summer and winter serving as less extravagant "bridge" seasons to showcase second-tier and experimental fare.
Back in January of '02, what was on the tube in Japan? Well, Beyblade was entering its smash second season, which would shortly thereafter be imported to our shores as Beyblade: V-Fighters. Here's a scary thought for you: BeyBlade, which your little brother or nephew probably enjoys, is more than a decade old. But aside from top-based toy commercial anime, January of 2002 was this weird bonanza of stuff that came out here. There was the aforementioned RahXephon and Fullmetal Panic. There was Please Teacher, and Panyo Panyo Digi-Charat, and Seven of Seven, and Mirage of Blaze, and Love Hina Again, and Ultimate Muscle. Toei posted up a TV adaptation of dating sim Kanon, which flopped - the series that some of you love is actually the second stab at putting the game franchise to TV animation. Some kid named Makoto Shinkai got his almost entirely self-created featurette, Voices of a Distant Star, to the people. Perhaps most importantly, millions of viewers all over Japan tuned in to watch what has become a beloved classic, Arcade Gamer Fubuki.
Ha! Gotcha. What really impresses me about January 2002's offerings is the fact that, with virtually no exceptions, every single title came out in the west, either on TV or home video. In fact, the only notable exception is The Secret of Cerulean Sand, which kind of sucks because I always thought that show looked interesting-- at least, more interesting than Aquarian Age TV. So how did we get from Please Teacher and Ultimate Muscle to High School DxD and Another? Well, Japan's mighty animation-producing engine really heated up once the spring arrived. After a smattering of offerings like the debut of Megaman: NT Warrior and a new season of Doremi, April got off to a banging start with The Twelve Kingdoms. You can usually count on NHK to deliver the good stuff (Future Boy Conan, Cardcaptor Sakura, Master Keaton, etc.) but for me, this series really cemented them in my mind as "if they're broadcasting this, it's probably good" - since then, they've helped produce and broadcast the likes of Dennou Coil, Moribito, Tweeny Witches, Giant Killing, and Bakuman. Twelve Kingdoms, a striking and serious tale of a girl's strange journey to a mythological world, was probably the strongest offering in a month that also saw the launch of Azumanga Daioh, Chobits, and hack//SIGN. But fans already know and love those shows. I'd rather talk about two April offerings that came out in North America, but aren't quite as well-remembered.
I'll start with Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. This series is by no means unknown-- it is, after all, a GAINAX production-- but I've seen a lot of sources lump it in with the studio's second-tier fare like Mahoromatic, This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, and Melody of Oblivion. (Cue avalanche of hatemail from fans of these franchises. Sorry, dudes!) For me, the series opens promisingly, with a tune that sounds a bit like Quincy Jones-era Michael Jackson until the singer comes in and you realize it's actually Megumi Hayashibara. The story, concerning a pair of Osaka kids named Sasshi and Arumi, seems like a coming of age tale at first glance - they've grown up together in a merry but deteriorating neighborhood shopping district, and she's preparing to move away. Sasshi doesn't want her to go and can't face what's ahead-- but an odd set of events finds them transported to a series of increasingly absurd versions of their neighborhood (RPG world! Kung fu world!), where they begin to piece together the arcade's surprising history. Abenobashi is a startlingly rich urban fairy tale that fecklessly mixes the life story of Heian-era scholar and mystic Abe no Seimei with a neverending avalanche of nerdy tropes and imagery. The DVD version is particularly crucial, because the dub is a truly rare case where the crew are able to use their language and local accent to the show's advantage - the Osaka dialect that Sasshi and Arumi speak is usually rendered as either a Southern drawl or gangster-talk, and while neither are 100% accurate (Osaka-ben is supposed to sound both tough and a bit provincial), the Houston-based cast at ADV Films use their own accent to great effect, which is amplified further by the show's country-ish background music and Sasshi's ubiquitous cowboy hat. The result is a version that is quite faithful to the Japanese, but very natural-sounding. I think the series itself is at least as good as better-known GAINAX fare like Nadia and His and Her Circumstances - check it out!
That same April of 2002 would give us Full Moon o Sagashite. Based on a popular shoujo manga from the pages of Ribon, the series gained a bit of notoriety in the west for its unexpectedly dark trappings. Ostensibly a magical girl series about a 12-year-old girl using magic to fulfill her dream of becoming a pop superstar, Full Moon gets darker the closer you look at it. Not only is heroine Mitsuki an orphan, she suffers from esophageal cancer that makes it difficult to breathe deeply or yell loudly. Corrective surgery would probably kill the cancer, but would also damage her vocal cords to the point where she wouldn't be able to sing any more. It sounds like a routine tragedy, until the girl is visited by a pair of grim reapers (I love the fact that shit like this is common in anime, don't you?) who let slip that she only has a year to live. Emboldened by this news, Mitsuki makes a deal: she'll pass away without a struggle, if the grim reapers, a jolly, colorful duo named Takuto and Meroko, allow her to fulfill her dream of becoming a pop star. The male half of the duo, Takuto, does her one better-- he allows her to transform into a vivacious 16-year-old for her singing appearances. The resulting 52-episode series is a heady mix of highs and lows, as Mitsuki goes through the standard wish-fulfillment fare of singing to packed venues and using her power of transformation to get close to her first crush - all with the specter of death hanging over her! Full Moon's got a pretty good reputation, but its western release is also a sad story - while Viz were able to release the 7-volume manga easily enough (it's still in print), the 52-episode series proved too tough a prospect - they only made it to episode 28 before cancelling it all. They should've struck a deal with Takuto...
An awful lot of the rest of April 2002's offerings came our way - fare like Tenchi GXP, Galaxy Angel A, Tokyo Mew Mew (who remembers the 4Kids dub?!), and Gate Keepers 21. May and June would bring a smattering of weird OVAs and movies, some of which made it to DVD over here - did anyone see Blue Remains? How about the Samurai Shodown Nakoruru OVA? Deeply divisive auteur director Romanov Higa got his big start with the release of URDA at this time. I can't stand the guy's work, but someone keeps giving him money, so whatever. King of Bandits Jing, which seemed like it could've gone a long way but didn't, launched in May; so did Cosplay Complex. But the best release of this period before the rock-a-lanche of new goodies in July had to be Yokohama Shopping Diary.
That's right, another show with "shopping" in the title! Actually, the Yokohama Shopping Diary OVA series I'm referring to is the second series - there was a previous stab at it in 1998. YKK, as it's known to devoted fans in the west (it's an abbreviation of the original title, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou), has got to be one of the most intriguing anime/manga franchises that hasn't yet seen release in the west. The original manga by Hitoshi Ashinano is coveted by comics fans around the world for its delicate linework and graceful, charmingly weird story, and the OVAs serve as a fine adaptation. YKK's world is one where human civilization is in deep decline - not post-apocalyptic, exactly, but after an unnamed cataclysm, the sea levels have risen, infrastructure is shattered, and the world has had about enough of mankind. The series is about Cafe Alpha, a quaint little shop that serves the flooded Yokohama area, and its proprietor, a bubbly, pretty robot girl named Alpha. The shop owner is on a trip, she's running things while he's away, and so we see the world through her eyes. YKK is very, very good, and I simply can't believe we haven't seen it on our shores yet. This OVA is directed by the great Tomomi Michizuki, a man deserving of his own column - if you're a recent fan, you'll know his fine adaptation of House of Five Leaves. The OVA adapts some chapters from the middle of the manga, which involves the cafe getting wrecked and Alpha hitting the road. YKK is a sweet, quiet little delight, and it bums me out that I can't point you at a legit stream or DVD to watch.
As with previous seasons, July of 2002 would give us an awful lot of shows that came out in the west - Shrine of the Morning Mist, the forgettable CCG tie-in Dragon Drive, and Earth Defense Force Mao-chan. We also got the more broadly popular Witch Hunter Robin and Samurai Deeper Kyo, and the critically acclaimed SaiKano. Interestingly, July 2002 kicked out a couple of shows that would come out much later here - the OVAs Futari H and Lupin the 3rd: Episode 0. But while it was a pretty alright season, I think it's time to start talking about interesting failures. 6 Angels was a pretty interesting failure, alright. I first saw this film courtesy of my pals over at THEM Anime, who touted it as one of the worst things they'd ever seen. I'm not convinced it's quite that bad, but it is really, really awful, an intriguing fiasco on the level of Gundress. What makes it intriguing is the sheer level of talent involved - it's directed by Giant Robo mecha maestro Makoto Kobayashi, with music by fellow Giant Robo alumna Masamichi Amano. The character designs of the title girls seem cute enough - at first glance, I was sure they were provided by Utena character artist Shinya Hasegawa, but further investigation revealed that they're by Hiromi Kato, who backed him up during Utena's production and would later make her name doing color and character work for Ghost Hunt and Kobato. The confusing, tattered plot is about the Guard of Rose, a team of six hotties who storm a dangerous underground prison in Utah(?!) to prevent a criminal mastermind from blowing up the earth. It's interesting to watch 6 Angels, because unlike Gundress, it's a complete work with decent enough animation, character design, and performances. Amano's music is a rotten, jangly synthesizer affair, which is odd, given his excellent work for Giant Robo. Kobayashi's direction is good enough during specific scenes, but 6 Angels absolutely, positively does not work as a movie - it feels alarmingly disconnected from itself. I think it's telling that shit like Gundress did get licensed, but 6 Angels stayed on the shelf.
2002 also saw the rise of goofy, otaku-bait harem shows like Kanon (the first wave), Happy Lesson, and Sister Princess. I find most of these shows to be of dubious merit, but I'm not here to trash them, because something much worse came out in July of 2002 - G-On Riders! See, nowadays fans see the name SHAFT and get all excited, because everyone knows that SHAFT makes cool, fun stuff like Madoka Magica, Arakawa Under the Bridge, and Pani Poni Dash! Thing is, SHAFT also provides animation work to a number of less exalted shows - and I can think of few shows less exalted than G-On Riders, a TV series all about cutie-pie alien-fightin' magical girls, all of whom wear glasses. There's really nothing wrong with that - it's a bit pandering, but hey, whatever! The thing is, the show took pandering to a whole new level, opening the series with our plucky heroine, Yuuki, losing her underpants right at the start of an alien invasion. The aliens turn out to be bumbling underage girls, and Yuuki ends up joining the Grand Reflect Armor, an agency that uses stereotypical girls (quiet shrine maiden, bodacious nurse, etc.) to repel the invaders. Even the normally pliant otaku audience in Japan scorned G-On Riders, which simply took the "guys no, it's actually a PARODY" hand-waving defense a little too far - I can't find 'em anymore, but it used to be easy to find clips of the show on Nico Nico, jammed to bursting with japes and insults from the show's very target audience. We in the west, however, remain safe from G-On Riders... for now.
August would roll around and yield good stuff, like Junichi Sato's fantastic Princess Tutu, bad stuff like Mao Dante, and weird stuff, like Gonzo's peculiar adaptation of Chohei Kanbayashi's fine SF novel Yukikaze. We got Transformers: Armada, we got a BeyBlade movie, we got the Hare + Guu OVA, and we got the first installment of Nurse Witch Komugi. Man, I dig Komugi, so I'm gonna tell you about it. Komugi looks exactly like the kind of show I'd pass on - its heroine and her adversary are cutesy, shiny moe magical girls with brightly-colored hair, frilly outfits, and cat/bunny ears out the wazoo. Komugi is elevated by a few things - its origins are actually in the excellent series The SoulTaker, where Komugi herself appeared as a supporting character. In this version, Komugi and her SoulTaker buddies are performers for a talent agency - but by night, Komugi becomes Nurse Witch Komugi, curing the infections of the evil Ungrar! Consequently, Komugi sports the sharp, refined look of the Akiyuki Shinbo-driven SoulTaker. The second thing that makes it stand out is its background as a Tatsunoko production, which means it's chock full of zany cameos and references to famous Tatsunoko fare like Gatchaman and Gold Lightan. The third and most important aspect of Komugi, however, is the sheer strength of its script - it looks and talks like a magical girl show and is full of fanservice, but simmering just under the surface is a scathing critique of Japan's jimusho entertainment business, fond depictions of the socially-broken otaku audience, and even overt references to 2ch, the infamous underground BBS that became a major social phenomenon as the decade progressed. It's all held together by Komugi herself, who's cute but cynical, and voiced by otaku queen Halko Momoi. It's been a decade since Komugi hit the scene, but I think it holds up.
Oh god, we're only like halfway through the year! Alright, let's see what's next. 2002 was the year of Japan and South Korea's World Cup, so we got soccer anime like Hungry Heart: Wild Striker and Whistle!. I wrote all about 'em here. September would bring the second Mahoromatic TV series, the kooky and zany and 100% fun Overman King Gainer, and Petit Princess Yucie, another GAINAX TV series which is actually quite good. On the OVA side, the month gave us Ichi the Killer: Episode 0, an honestly strange, disturbing tie-in to the hit cult film. With October would come another avalanche of new shows, most of which, like I've said, came out here: GetBackers, Gravion, Kiddy Grade, Gundam SEED, Naruto! Holy crap, October was a big month! It was especially big because of Heat Guy J. You know, Heat Guy J was actually a pretty good series-- unfortunately, it was also a perfect poster child for the anime boom and bust. The best TV show of October 2002 was, in my opinion, Haibane Renmei.
I know that some of you just sat up and nodded vigorously. Haibane Renmei was, once upon a time, a fairly big deal - an auteur project by Yoshitoshi ABe, it came out here on DVD, and it seemed fairly popular at the time. Here's the thing, though: it's gone. Even the first volume goes for a hilariously inflated price on Amazon. The story is, in my opinion, quite unique - it concerns a girl who hatches from an egg and finds herself in an unfamiliar world, with a disturbing set of tiny angel wings on her back. She's surrounded by new companions, who try to teach her to how to get along in her new surroundings, a peculiar village full of secrets, and troubled by vague memories of a life before she hatched from the egg. In some ways, Haibane Renmei is extremely similar to Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which ABe acknowledges as an inspiration, but the show does blaze its own trail. I find the series quite beautiful, from its color and character design to its character performances and music. It's truly intriguing stuff. Funimation announced in 2010 that they'd licensed it from Geneon, so you'd think that a reissue was imminent - but when? It's been two years, guys...
October would also be capped by a movie, which is one of the most interesting failures I've ever seen in anime - Tamala 2010: a Punk Cat in Space. The film was created by true outsiders, an artist collective called t.o.L., so I was very excited when I first got the chance to see it a year or two later. And in some ways, Tamala works - the character design is sensational, and some aspects of the film's story do hold up under scrutiny. But overall, the movie is weighed down by pretension - it's a gonzo adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that attacks commercialism, and it stars a bored, foulmouthed cartoon kitty - and even though it's 90 minutes long, it's a chore to sit through, especially when a zany cartoon dog starts giving a marketing presentation, then abruptly dies in a fire, only to emerge as a zombie - and repeat almost everything he just said. Hilariously, t.o.L. had big plans for Tamala, envisioning a merchandising empire that would be launched by their movie that does little but criticize merchandising empires and allow a cartoon cat to swear like a sailor. Years later, all we've gotten are a couple of Studio 4C shorts that are much better than their source film. That's probably for the best. Tamala 2010 screened in arthouse theatres across the US, but got no DVD release here - which is also probably for the best.
The fall and winter of 2002 would bring more fare that probably didn't deserve to get released here but did anyway, like Spiral (who here actually liked it? Anyone?), Piano (okay, it wasn't that bad), and Knight Hunters Eternity (the series was worthless without its great English outtakes!). Winter would bring the second Inu Yasha movie, a Hamtaro movie directed by Osamu Dezaki, and Macross Zero. Macross Zero is often the subject of debate among Macross fans, who constantly wonder: which is worse, Macross Zero or Macross II? Both were projects that gave fans high hopes, but ultimately disappointed, taking the venerated Macross franchise in directions it didn't really need to go. While 1990's Macross II introduced a new set of characters that nobody cared about, Zero opted for the prequel route, depicting the earth during its initial development of Valkyrie technology and the war that preceded the first Macross episode. I have to admit, when I saw the first episode, a huge smile broke across my face as Roy Focker took the screen, opened his mouth, and Akira Kamiya's voice came out. Unfortunately, that was probably my high point - Macross Zero sports dogfights and mecha design worthy of the franchise, but its plot is a bunch of pseudo-spiritualistic crap courtesy of original co-director Shoji Kawamori, who still has great ideas but should probably be kept away from scripting duties. The series also, like Macross II, introduces us to a whole new set of characters that nobody cares about and will never again be referenced in the Macross lexicon. The weird legal mess surrounding Harmony Gold and Big West have kept Macross Zero away from our shores. I'd really love to see it come out here, because that would mean that Macross 7 and Macross Frontier would also be coming out here.
I'll close this look at ten years ago by pointing out a great piece of animation that, like Tamala 2010, isn't necessarily what we think of as anime. That'd be Atama-yama, or Mount Head, a 10-minute short by an artist named Koji Yamamura. Yamamura, according to his bio, started in the industry painting backgrounds for fare like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but eventually started making his own, personal films. Mt. Head is a neat little piece of hand-drawn work that chronicles the tale of a selfish man with a strange affliction. It's narrated in true katsudo-benshi style, with sing-song voicing and shamisen accompaniment, and has a look all its own - it was good enough to get nominated for the Oscars, but didn't win. Yamamura had to settle for an Annency award, but that's OK - he's still working. You can easily find Mt. Head just by typing the name into google, but the video doesn't look legit - more's the pity, I'd love to see more of Yamamura's work!
Alright, that does it for 2002. Ten years later, we're moaning about the lack of great shows, but you know what? It's early yet. There are more shows coming in March and April, big movies dropping in the summertime, and fare in the fall that we've barely even heard about yet. 2002 got off to a lucky start with stuff like Fullmetal Panic and RahXephon, but after a close look at the year, I can only come to one conclusion: like every other year, there's good anime and bad anime. I'm sure we'll see more good anime soon! In the meantime, what did I miss talking about? Ready to defend Happy Lesson or bemoan my igoring of Tree of Palme? Join in the debate in the comments!
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