Buried Treasure
Human Crossing

by Justin Sevakis,

Among serious film aficionados, there's a short TV series that is considered the Holy Grail. It's called “The Decalogue,” a Polish series of ten hour-long episodes made in the mid-80's. They're stark and simple, and have a budget less than some people spend on lunch in a week. But they're tales with so much truth in them, and crafted with such a strong knowledge of humanity and how it operates, that they transfix; to watch them feels like staring into the eyes of our creator, watching ourselves in the reflection.

The Decalogue, made by director Krzysztof Kieslowski a few years before his breakout hits “The Double Life of Veronique” and his “Three Colors” Trilogy, was almost completely unknown before its DVD release in 1999. (The unwieldy format of the shows made screenings nearly impossible.) Thanks to the efforts of many film critics, the series found an audience. I owe those critics a lot of gratitude; it was thanks to their writings that I discovered the series, and Kieslowski as well. I consider him one of my favorite filmmakers, and DVD's of his films adorn my shelf. I consider my life slightly better for having seen them.

It's in the spirit of those writings, by such notables as Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan and Michael Wilmington, that I write Buried Treasure every other week. To find a neglected show and to share it with people who may treasure it is a feeling that's at once exhilarating and humbling. I write to be able to help people find these experiences the way I found some of my most adored cinema, and every time I pour over the forums after each column goes up, trying to gauge how successful I was. And this week, oddly enough, I'm finding myself setting out to write a series that could almost be mistaken for an anime version of “The Decalogue.”

Human Crossing

It's not too often these days that an anime gets released by one of the bigger anime companies in the States and slips by entirely unnoticed. But that happened just last year, when Geneon released the completely unknown series “Human Crossing.” And unknown it stayed. When I met with the US release producer I told him I loved the show, to which he replied, “In three years, you are the first person to tell me that.”

Based on a best-selling seinin manga that ran between 1980 and 1990 in Shogakukan's “Big Comic Original” magazine (with the poorly translated English sub-title “Human Scramble”), Human Crossing is an anthology of short one-episode stories of everyday life in modern Japan. Well, perhaps “everyday” isn't quite accurate - what we see is more often the most important day in its characters' lives.

How much you enjoy “Human Crossing” depends entirely on how much you're able to relate to other people's problems. If you're the sort of person that tells people to stop whining, this show is not for you. As for me, listening is something I enjoy. To hear the complex inner monologues of loved ones as they grapple with the defining elements of their lives is something I find fascinating; to see them work through it is the most beautiful thing in my life.

There are moments here and there that are so observant that it's almost impossible not to relate to them. Take one episode, where a father excitedly brings a new bike home for his kid, and is positively dumbstruck when the boy can hardly be bothered to look away from the television. “A bike was everything to me when I was a kid.” He truly can't figure it out at all. That night in bed, it's still bothering him, whereupon his wife informs him that he's only 35, far too young to start waxing nostalgic about the good old days.

Now, I don't know many people who haven't had incidents like that in their lives. In fact, I would bet money that my parents had a near-identical conversation after my repeated refusals to play catch with my dad. We don't see moments like this often in TV or movies. They're moments of quiet observation, and most people wouldn't even notice them as they passed us by.

There are episodes during which I barely even moved a muscle. The first episode, where a top boxer forces himself to reunite with his estranged mother, is easily one of my favorites, but the next one, about the successful chairman of the prestigious school he once attended, and the indifference he has when his nephew applies, is nearly as good. These stories are thought provoking in a quiet, sage-like way. They force a reexamining of our own lives.

For all its triumphs, there are a few pitfalls. One early episode about a young lawyer trying to find a sense of direction literally ends with him solving a bitter custody dispute by saying something to the effect of “can't you all just get along?” (I have to wonder if something from the manga got lost in that episode.) Occasionally the show's simple, almost stiff animation becomes distracting, or a particular ending tries too hard to ratchet up the pathos (or the schmaltz). And that's to say nothing of the dichotomy between the stone-faced subject matter and the almost Simpsons-level cartoon art style. The strength of the stories are hurt by the art form, as its target audience is one that's less likely to take the medium of animation seriously -- in both countries.

That lack of audience is what may have doomed Human Crossing to neglect before it was even released. But for those of us who can appreciate the art as art in service of what are mostly unforgettable stories of people finding their barrings in a rough world, the slog becomes bearable -- nay, rewarding.

The dub is uneven. An Ocean Group dub, it starts out fairly strong, with a solid English rewrite and performances that, while not quite strong enough to match the Japanese original, at least manages to maintain its spirit quite well. But by volume 2, the crew seems to have given up entirely. The rewrite took a nosedive (if they even rewrote it at all), and so each line is spoken so slowly that any sort of emotion gets lost. By volume 3, the cast is back in top form. Of course, none of these performances hold a candle to the Japanese originals (each episode's lead character is voiced by a famous live action actor -- live action GTO star Takashi Sorimachi is in one of them).

Human Crossing is one of anime's rare moments of genuine humanity. It's proof that anime can be art, regardless of the budgetary or creative restrictions imposed on its creators. After all, what is art but a reflection of humanity?

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How To Get It:

This is easy: Geneon made really nice DVD's, 13 episodes in four volumes. Go buy them. I doubt you'll find them at a brick and mortar store, but any online store selling anime should have them in stock.

A TV drama series based on the manga aired last August on NHK. I have not seen this version, but I have high hopes. A movie also exists, but I can't find any information on it.

Screenshots ©2004 Kenshi Hirokane/Masao Yajima/Shogakukan/OB Planning Co., Ltd./TV Tokyo.

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