The Mike Toole Show In Between Cups
by Michael Toole, Jun 15th 2014
When I first took this gig, I spent a merry stretch of days furiously pumping out a bunch of text, because I was just about to jump on a plane to the World Cup. Four years and over one hundred columns later, here I am, furiously pumping out a bunch of text because I'm just about to jump on a plane to the World Cup. In 2018, look forward to me furiously pumping out a bunch of text because I'm just about to jump on a plane to the World Cup. 2022? Bunch of text, World Cup. We all know that anime is habit-forming, but from my experience, so are World Cups. But in my typical desperate flailing for a solid topic, I found myself asking the question: what's changed in these past 4 years, the time between World Cups?
My viewing habits have changed, for one. It's kind of funny, I was in an editorial lull in 2010, only picking up occasional work for outlets like Otaku USA and Blastr. My anime consumption kinda reflected that; I nibbled here and there, but breezily took a pass on fare that I'd later discover and love, like Princess Jellyfish, Tatami Galaxy, and of course, Sekirei: Pure Engagement. I signed up for a Crunchyroll account that year to get on board the Giant Killing train (Giant Killing, which is still near and dear to my soccer-loving heart, is something I extolled in one of my earliest columns), but had trouble staying in the habit of visiting the site. If only there was some way to easily and seamlessly watch Crunchyroll on TV…
In the ensuing years, streaming's gone from an intriguing sideshow to a key element of the anime dork experience for most. Heck, 2010 was the year Anime News Network itself experimented with licensing and streaming fare on their own, like OreImo. But before Giant Killing, Crunchyroll was just this weird sometime-pirate site that I'd heard of but never really investigated; the fact that it'd already established itself in huge swaths of the world was lost on me. Nowadays I watch four or five shows per week on the service-- that's what I meant about my viewing habits changing. What got me using Crunchyroll in earnest, and later other portals like Funimation's EVS and Daisuki? That'd be the 2011 reboot of Hunter x Hunter.
I'd love to devote an entire column to Hunter x Hunter, given that it's winding up the fantastically bloated—and let's face it, fantastic—Chimera Ant arc this summer. But I can't do it yet, because I haven't seen all of the Nippon Animation version of the show from the 90s. (Youtube is rife with really neat, interesting comparisons of key moments depicted in both shows, like this one.) How am I gonna speak with any authority if I haven't literally seen it all?! I've also taken the masochistic route and refused to read the Election Arc of Yoshihiro Togashi's manga, because I want to save myself from the forthcoming TV episodes that'll address that portion of the story. I am intrigued by one thing: what will happen when Madhouse well and truly catch up to Togashi's manga? Togashi, who's taken a number of vacations from the series, is back on the job, but eventually they'll be running neck and neck. I like to think that this is the time when Madhouse will roll out the episode where Gon and Killua have to get their driver's licenses.
Actually, I will volunteer one other thought about Hunter x Hunter, 2011 version: it's a sin and a shame that there's no dubbed version. I realize that it'd have to fight like hell for a place at the table with the similarly long-running Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece, but I've been wanting for years to spring the damn thing on my nephews, who aren't quite old enough to want to put up with subtitles. The show's storytelling path is really quite impressive—it later tackles tropes from horror, sports manga, and tournament fighting, but the opening stories about a kid and his new buddies taking the fabled and fearsome Hunter Exam are wonderfully adventurous. When I tried to show an episode to one of the kids, for a moment he appeared to be yanked towards the TV, as if by some unseen force. But the subs were a bit too much for him. I also look dolefully towards the Hunter x Hunter movies (yes, there's two of them), which, given the show's lack of presence stateside, don't appear to have a path to release here, either. Maybe Hunter x Hunter can be the next Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, in terms of “old favorite suddenly catches fire among fans in North America.”
In 2010, Aniplex USA's first wave of releases were just coming over the horizon. Anyone remember which ones they were? If you guessed the Gurren Lagann movies, well… that was my guess, too! Which means it's probably wrong. Come on, you trust me, don't you? Anyway, the release was something of a head-scratcher—subtitled-only discs, deluxe and regular versions, sold only through a couple of retailers, and priced a fair bit above other releases. Like the rest of the mob, I pointed and laughed and reminded everyone of that great Bandai Visual USA “we know everything about ANIME FAN WANTS!” presentation, convinced that history was about to repeat itself.
But Aniplex USA hung in there, and trickled some more premium releases onto the market. Their Rurouni Kenshin movie and OVA blu-rays sold out. Their OreImo special edition DVD set sold out. Their release of the Garden of Sinners movies on blu-ray, priced at the seemingly comical rate of four hundred dollars, sold out. Oh shit. Bandai Visual USA stumbled out of the gate and fell on their faces, but Aniplex had somehow cracked the code for these otaku-centric premium releases. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been too surprised. BVUSA were steered by Tatsunori Konno, a savvy executive who made the mistake of entering a market he didn't have a lot of firsthand experience with. By contrast, Aniplex USA is headed up by Hideki Goto, who rode the Pioneer/Geneon rollercoaster all the way to the top (and, later, the bottom). More than BVUSA, he's a guy who does understand anime fan wants.
Now it's 2014, and Aniplex's high-end approach gets enough results that other publishers have launched similar forays into premium releases. While I do kinda wish there was a cheaper option for some of my Aniplex favorites, like the Gurren Lagann TV series (only $140, or roughly 2-3 times most new shows from the other guys), I've grown to appreciate Aniplex's model. What a lot of fans overlook in their gripes about pricing is that the company is very good about making sure that fans have access to their shows. The thing is, that access? It comes via streaming services. You can watch Valvrave on Crunchyroll, OreImo on Hulu (that's how I did it, an experience that was colored by four consecutive Third Shift Beer ads at every commercial break), and Madoka Magica on Netflix. (Actually, Dokes on Netflix gave me the opportunity to recommend it to my boss, who likes murder mysteries and critically-acclaimed films. It didn't grab him for some reason.) There are some exceptions, but the majority of the publisher's catalog can be viewed, at any time, online. I yearn for a budget label on their physical media side, but am fascinated by the weird power of their premium releases, which seem to appreciate in value as they go out of print. Turns out Aniplex USA shows are an investment!
In 2010, I had no time for Shonen Jump. I just plain didn't like the idea of a manga magazine, which would stack up in the corner after being read, waiting patiently to be shredded and turned into cat litter or kindling or confetti. I'd tried keeping up with with Manga Viz-ion and Super Manga Blast and Raijin Comics, and it never felt right, just like I was wasting money on newsprint instead of saving up for tankoban. And Shonen Jump, which was anchored by the glorious but intimidatingly lengthy One Piece and that ugly comic about the kid with magic trading cards? It just wasn't right for me.
Now, of course, I can't picture Mondays without Shonen Jump. There may not be One Punch Man, the best comic on the entire planet right now, in every single week's issue, but there's still One Piece, and Toriko. For a time, there was the marvelous and sadly under-appreciated Cross Manage, and there's World Trigger, which just had an anime version greenlit. Takeshi Obata's sensational adaptation of All You Need is Kill just wrapped up, and Hunter x Hunter is returning to the magazine's digital pages. The publication gracefully making the transition from monthly newsstand comic to weekly digital offering turned out to be possibly the most perfect, textbook case of a Japanese company really, honestly understanding what its western fans wanted and figuring out a way to deliver it to them. You do need a tablet or the patience to read on Viz's website, plus twenty-five bucks a year, to enjoy Shonen Jump. But hey, it's a small price to pay, especially if you sell the freebie Yu-Gi-Oh cards they send you in the mail.
The final and biggest change we've all gotten to witness between the World Cups? Anime as a pop culture phenomenon is back. Some of us remember well the giddy highs of the early 2000s, when Toonami was a fixture and fare like Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist roped in fans in droves. But what I remember best about anime's pop culture effect in 2010 is the lingering hangover from the previous year's live-action Dragonball movie, a nigh-incomprehensible shitshow that itself was already stigmatized by the failure of 2008's splendid but all-too-weird Speed Racer. But since 2010's passed, we've gotten to see the resurrection of Dragonball Z, the return of Toonami to Cartoon Network's airwaves, and now we're on the cusp of a promising Sailor Moon revival.
But wait a minute, those are all just nostalgia vehicles. They're gonna appeal to a hopeless old dude like me, of course, but the medium can't really stay relevant without new hits. Thankfully, we've gotten those, too. I'm all about Space Dandy, the new cartoon junk food from Team Cowboy Bebop, but it's unclear just how successful it really is. Anime's got a new 900-pound gorilla—almost literally, natch-- in Attack on Titan, plus its spinoffs Attack on Titan: Before the Fall, Attack on Titan: Junior High, Attack on Titan Babies, Attack on Titan Gaiden, Attack on Titan After Story, and Attack on Titan During Story. It's big enough to get anime merch back into mainstream outlets like Hot Topic, and more than once I've had the disconcerting experience of overhearing non-nerd officemates discuss it, since you can watch it on Netflix and everything. (Last week, it was at the top of the “Popular Shows” list in my browser, ahead of Mad Men and House of Cards.) Now, we've got a feature film to look forward to, which should hopefully be better than that Dragonball one.
What've you been up to between the World Cups, readers? Are you watching more anime than in 2010, or less? How about manga? Do you have more friends who know about this dumb stuff we obsess about, thanks to breakout hits like Attack on Titan? Feel free to chime in. This column's a touch shorter than usual, but the fact is, I haven't found enough of that Crusher Joe manga to be able to write about it yet. I'll try for it next time. In the meantime, you can find me looking for weird anime stuff and attending humongous soccer games in Brazil.
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