The Mike Toole Show
The Lost Decade
by Michael Toole,
Of course, my deadline is looming large, and while I have about a dozen columns in various states of progress, there aren't really any that are ready for prime time, mainly because I like to be thorough and am still waiting to hear back from interview subjects and haven't finished checking my sources. So hey, we're at the end of the year, and the end of a very interesting, turbulent decade for Japanese animation. We saw the meteoric rise of DVD continue through 2001 and beyond, augmented by the emergence of blu-ray midway through the decade. We saw Studio Ghibli win an Oscar. We watched in dizzy joy as anime fandom seemed to catch fire, with the country's top conventions ballooning to gatherings of 20,000 or more. Then things started to level off; a perfect storm of crashing home video markets, unexciting content, and internet piracy brought the curtain down hard on the anime business. The industry is in the midst of adapting, experimenting with premium home video releases and cheap or free internet video streams to compete with the bootlegs.
Plenty of venues are going to be talking about the best anime of the past decade, so obviously it was necessary for me to spin the idea in a different direction. Instead of a list of smash hits, critical darlings, and fanboy favorites, here are ten anime titles from the past ten years that should've hit big, but didn't. Some of them are obvious favorites that were fixtures on the fansub circuit but never got a legit, accessible release. Others are artful affairs that didn't get enough attention, period. Still others have mixed artistic merit, but seem like they would've been surefire crowd pleasers on North American TV or home video. Two caveats: first, they're not in any particular order, and second, just because I missed your favorite doesn't mean that I "forgot" it. I can only do ten of these for some reason, okay?! Alright, let's get to it:
Macross Zero / Frontier - The reason we don't have good-quality, official means of enjoying the latest chapters of one of anime's most storied franchises can be summed up in two words: legal problems. Back in 2004, a series of lawsuits related to Macross trademarks and copyrights was settled. It was ruled that the owner of the Macross brand was Tatsunoko, who had initially licensed the property to Harmony Gold USA. Because of this, these newer chapters of Macross would have to go through Harmony Gold before being localized in North America, which isn't very favorable for fans because the other half of the franchise's intellectual pie is owned by Big West, who do not like Harmony Gold very much. Now granted, Zero ain't great - it's a prequel to the original Macross, so we get some background on the old wars and Roy Focker's career as a military pilot, but at the same time, director Shoji Kawamori fills it with all manner of batshit crazy mysticism. But the much more recent Macross Frontier TV series and film is a little more coherent and a lot more vital - deftly mixing modern bishoujo aesthetics into the franchise's tried and true melange of pop music and love triangles, it's created new cartoon idols in the form of Ranka Lee and Sheryl Nome. Neither one of these girls is anywhere near as annoying as Minmay, but as long as the current situation prevails, Macross Frontier will rack up torrent downloads while the money sits on the table.
Trava: Fist Planet - The iron seems very hot indeed for this strange duck, a 2003 short film produced by Madhouse and directed by the odd couple of anime veteran Takeshi Koike and successful film and TV commercial director Katsuhito Ishii. It's brief - its four vignettes combine for about forty minutes of fun. It's colorful and weird - Koike is at his kaleidoscopic, kinetic best, just after getting noticed by western fans for his weird World Record segment of The Animatrix. It's full of action, and - get this - it's a predecessor of sorts to the brand-new, hotly anticipated REDLINE. It used to be that arty little action shorts like this would get scooped up by the likes of Streamline Pictures or Manga Entertainment, but it didn't happen for Trava, the tale of a pair of odd planetary surveyors who end up locking horns with a swarm of robot bugs. Its relationship to REDLINE is obvious at a glance, but Trava also echoes the better parts of Birth, the glorious but incoherent animation masterpiece of the late Yoshinori Kanada. With REDLINE, Koike seems to be taking up Kanada's mantle - shame that it isn't going to be just as easy to pick up Trava: Fist Planet.
Re: Cutie Honey - The appeal seems obvious. In 2004, Hideaki Anno (yes, the Evangelion guy!) gave the world a manic, cheap, but surprisingly watchable live-action Cutie Honey movie. Hot on its heels was this three-episode OVA series. Anno supervised these new OVAs, which give the characters a stylish, streamlined, and surprisingly sexy new look, but his hand is barely evident - instead, the series is way more obviously the baby of Gainax mad scientists Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masayuki, with outrageous gags and over-the-top action. I happen to dig Cutie Honey, Go Nagai's tale of a valiant android babe who changes costumes - spectacularly, I might add - and superpowers to adapt to her adversaries' unique challenges. She's kind of a bawdy 1970s cartoon version of Megaman, you know? Anyway, ADV Films released a 1990s OVA reboot of the story, which turned out to be reliably popular for over a decade despite its dated character designs, so it seemed like Re: Cutie Honey would be an obvious choice for localization. Six years later, it hasn't happened.
Nodame Cantabile - I caught some flak for neglecting to mention the live-action film and TV adaptations of this series in my column some weeks back. I'm sorry about that, but I'm even more sorry that this anime version, itself an adaptation of Tomoko Ninomiya's brilliant manga about romance between two very different but equally gifted musicians, hasn't gotten into the hands of fans on these shores. Unlike some of the titles on this list, however, it isn't completely inaccessible; Sony produced a dubbed version of the TV series using a cast of well-known Los Angeles voice actors. I can only assume that this version aired on TV in Asia. Here, Nodame never made it to TV, but you can watch the dub on crackle.com. I've taken in several episodes, and I think it's quite solid. The fact that it never came out on DVD, even as a cheap box set, just seems like a missed opportunity to me.
Dogtato - Hey, stop laughing! Seriously guys, this isn't a joke entry. Dogtato is exactly what it sounds like - the whimsical tales of a jolly half-dog, half-potato. He inhabits a village composed entirely of half-roots, half-animals, like Eggplooch and Strawbatty; don't ask me why, I don't understand it either. What I can say is that the show's brief stories, limited but very clean animation, wacky music, and cheerful, absolutely guileless stories are fun to watch whether you're 2 or 92. Unrepentantly bizarre and enjoyably dumb, Dogtato would make a tidy fit on Nick Jr, or possibly as a part of Adult Swim's "cartoons for pot smokers" block.
Denno Coil - Man, anime that airs on NHK is almost always really good. The station also aired the well-regarded and finely-crafted Twelve Kingdoms and Moribito, and Denno Coil, a 2007 sci-fi fable courtesy of Madhouse, stands up right alongside these favorites. I like to think of Denno Coil as sort of a spiritual successor to last decade's Serial Experiments Lain - just like in Lain, the protagonists are kids, and just like in Lain, they're using technology to push the envelope of human experience. Lain explored the idea of a cyberspace alter-ego, but Denno Coil opts to examine the dangers of one's online self being separated from their physical self. This is one of those shows where the end of each episode triggers immediate desire for the next episode-- if you stumble on it, be mindful of this! Unfortunately, you won't stumble on it at the video store, because despite being a popular, accessible show from a respected studio, it never came out in North America.
Hataraki Man - Most anime is about robots, or magic, or martial arts, or annoying teenagers, or some mixture of these elements saving the world. I am totally down with this, I love the escapism and the cool characters. But sometimes anime that's a little more grounded in realistic stories and imagery is just as good - despite its convoluted plot, Satoshi Kon's superb Paranoia Agent, with its broad, mostly-adult characters and contemporary urban setting, was a breath of fresh air. Hataraki Man, based on the comics by Moyoco Anno, is even more grounded - the only fantasy you'll see here is inside the head of the title character, a pro magazine writer named Hiroko Matsukata. But Hiroko is a girl's name, right? Why is this show called Hataraki Man? That's because Hiroko is an ambitious professional who readily adopts the habits of the classic hardened working man - "hataraki man" is her co-workers' nickname for her. Despite this, the 28-year-old Hiroko dreams of romance with her boyfriend, the only man in Tokyo who's even more of a workaholic than her. Hataraki Man was a very different kind of show from most anime - I kinda wish a publisher or TV channel had taken a chance on it.
Mindgame / Kemonozume - Here's double trouble from Masaki Yuasa, the acclaimed director of last year's really fantastic Tatami Galaxy. The former is an unquestionably bizarre feature film that employs constantly shifting visual styles to tell its story, about a guy named Nishi who yearns to be a comic book artist, runs afoul of the yakuza, gets shot, and ends up in an even stranger place. The latter is a TV series that is also visually atypical, though not as chameleon-like as the film, about love blooming in a story of hunters versus supernatural monsters. Kemonozume is a hard sell, I'll grant you - it doesn't look like anime, and Yuasa fearlessly mixes light romantic comedy with scenes of horrific violence. But Mindgame's continued absence on these shores is a mystery to me - I have pals in the business who tell me that a deal was on the table until a leaked YouTube copy soured things, but that sounds fishy to me. Either way, these are great works by a director who's really been making a name for himself, and we're missing out!
Kaiji - It's fantastically ugly. It's cheaply animated. It's about the biggest loser you ever met, a shabbily-dressed, unemployed jerkbag with a Joe Dirt-caliber mullet, as he completely screws up his life by participating in a series of increasingly outlandish high-stakes gambling contests. Interestingly, Kaiji has gotten more exposure than some of the shows on this list - it was actually legally streaming for a brief period at joost.com - but it's slipped back out of sight. Despite its odd subject matter and intensely rough character artwork, the series is run through with entertaining lowlifes, odd situations, and intoxicating moments of suspense. I'd love to see this dubbed, just to hear what the completely bonkers narrator might sound like in English, but it doesn't look like that's in the cards. Ha ha, cards, because Kaiji gambles with cards. I just made a pun there, see? Cards.
Michiko & Hatchin - To this day, this production has got to be the most glaring example of an anime series that seems like an absolute shoo-in for broad international release, but it's just not happening. It's got an exotic, highly interesting pair of main characters, one young, one slightly less young. It's got a great mix of comedy, drama, action, suspense, and all of the other good stuff. It feels western in a way that few anime do - which makes sense, because it's produced by manglobe, the Samurai Champloo guys. Champloo was a big hit outside of Japan (not so much inside Japan, for some reason), and so was its spiritual predecessor, Cowboy Bebop. Michiko & Hatchin has a similarly accomplished staff and pedigree, so what's the holdup? I've been avoiding fansubs of this show for years because I'm expecting to see the dubbed version show up on Hulu any minute now!
Okay, so there's ten good ones from the past ten years that just haven't had things break their way. Could I talk about more? Absolutely. I could probably write about this subject for days. I guess I'll just squeeze in a few honorable mentions: Bartender, Basquach, and Shin Mazinger Shougeki Hen. There ya go. The funny thing is, though, an awful lot of these shows are from the middle part of the decade - almost all of the good stuff from early in the 2000s got released in some form or another thanks to the anime boom, and most of the best stuff from the past season or two has at least gotten simulcasted. The part of the decade when anime DVD sales started to decline, but before streaming sites got up to speed, is a blind spot. Hopefully, we won't see another blind spot like this in the next decade - I'm afraid to think about what awesome shows might slip by, undetected.
Got a favorite that you thought should've been on the list instead of, say, Kaiji? Well, too bad, Kaiji is awesome! Seriously, an awful lot of the last decade's goodies are out there and easy to find - but not all of 'em. Talk about your own hidden favorites of the 2000s in the talkback thread, and follow me on twitter at @michaeltoole if you want to hear more ramblings from a crazy old anime dork in this brave new year of ours.
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