The Mike Toole Show
The Anime Alphabet
by Michael Toole,
I was browsing the web last week when something caught my eye, and dragged it in mercilessly. It was yet another one of those list articles that the entire internet is turning into, but the topic was a hard one to resist: the best animated TV shows ever, from A to Z! I knew damn well that this was going to be a light affair, something slapped together to drive a fun reader discussion. But sometimes that's really all you need, and so sufficiently baited, I clicked.
The first thing I noticed is the comments, which were a trash fire of complaints and arguments about how anime wasn't featured more prominently. I kinda expected that, to be honest; unless explicitly mentioned, anime tends to occupy its own little corner of the mainstream entertainment writing continuum. Then I saw that the top show for the letter ‘O’ was The Oblongs, and my hand reflexively closed the browser window.
Seriously now, The Oblongs? Over the Garden Wall might be a little too new, but how about Outlaw Star? Or Odd Job Jim? (Anyone outside of Canada besides me even remember that show? Sorry, I'm a Don McKellar fan.) Then I saw that, while Cowboy Bebop got an honorable mention, it was still bumped out of the ‘C’ slot in favor of The Critic, an animated vehicle for Jon Lovitz that was so lousy it got cancelled twice. Oh, it may have had some funny jokes, but it was not a good show. The only other anime entrant on the Onion's list was Evangelion, which was listed under ‘N’ for ‘Neon Genesis’ instead of ‘E’ for ‘Evangelion, which is kind of like cheating because if they'd properly put it under ‘E’, they would've had to choose between it and Eek! The Cat.
Thus emboldened with purpose, I set out here to make my own A to Z list, only with all anime shows. It took thirteen Onion writers to make their list, but I can do one all by myself. To keep it interesting, I set three rules: it has to be TV productions only, it has to consist of titles that haven't been discussed at length in this column before, and it can't be the obvious best show in the letter. Instead, I'll try to dodge the #1 in favor of #2, and tell you why you should watch that instead.
Someday I'll get my wish, the world will open up to me, and I'll get to watch the entire run of Apache Baseball Team, which, judging from the opening, is surely the greatest television show ever created. Until that day, though, I'll happily settle for Arakawa Under the Bridge, Akiyuki Shinbo's 2010 TV series about a ruthless young businessman whose life changes completely when he meets the people who live under the Arakawa River's bridge. It's got a compelling romance between the never-satisfied Kou and Nino, a flighty girl (played with a delightfully deadpan delivery by the great Maaya Sakamoto) who thinks she's from Venus. The show's got a weirdly pleasing color palette (a trademark of Shinbo's) and a great cast of goofball characters, including a verbally abusive farmer and a guy who dresses like a kappa. There's a sequel season, but it suffers from an affliction known as Not-As-Good-As-Season-1-itis.
Only one show can own the letter B, and it's not Letter Bee. Despite appearances, Battle Athletes Victory, AIC's 1997 entry into the “cute girls doing cute stuff” race, is at turns hilarious, tearjerking, bizarre, and inspiring. In spite of its simple setup (a reluctant but talented girl must train for futuristic athletic supremacy) and broad, borderline-offensive stereotypes (the Chinese girl loves money and cheats at everything! The African girl goes barefoot everywhere and chants nonsense!), what we have here is a winning series about family, friendship, and competition. It's also got one of the most unexpected twist endings ever, as heroine Akari Kanzaki learns just why the ultimate athletic title is called “Cosmo Beauty,” even though she's only been competing against other human beings. Only with persistence, spirit, and guts can she hope to win the day.
I could point to the durable, influential Cyborg 009, or the intriguing Chevalier d'Eon, but I think we need to have a good talk about Candy Candy instead. Toei's landmark adaptation of Kyoko Mizuki and Yumiko Igarashi's shoujo manga is riveting melodrama, anchored by the titular heroine, a plucky orphan girl from Michigan. Candace “Candy” White exudes levity and happiness, works hard at school and at home, and occasionally has savage fights with her jerky adoptive siblings or is threatened with deportation to Mexico. She's also a genuinely tragic heroine with not one but two dead boyfriends. This series was hugely influential, and not just to the anime medium—along with the contemporaneous Rascal the Raccoon, Candy Candy led directly to the colonization of Japan by raccoons, as little girls across the nation asked for a little buddy just like Candy's pet raccoon, Klint, then released them into the wild when they got too old and grouchy to be playmates anymore. Candy Candy has aged well—it's full of color and energy and is still fun as hell to watch today. Sadly, a protracted legal struggle between the creators means it's been MIA in English.
If I was skewing new I'd go with Death Note, or skewing old I'd go with Dirty Pair. But instead, let's… actually, let's skew old anyway and talk about Dr. Slump. I figure that any TV show that co-stars a talking pile of poop is a good one, and Dr. Slump has that base covered. Akira Toriyama's whimsical tale of the world's lousiest scientist and his robot “daughter” (remember, Dr. Slump is the scientist. When you mention his robot, Arale? That's Dr. Slump's Monster) is one of those things that's so jam-packed with jokes that it's hard to remember which one you started laughing at. I consider the comics to be the greatest manga of all time, and the anime's no slouch, either—it's jammed with the kind of parody, gags, and fart jokes that everyone from toddlers to grandparents can enjoy together. It's kinda hard to believe that the same guy who created Poop Boy also made the tense, action-packed Cell Saga from Dragon Ball Z.
Hey, remember Eden of the East? …No, I don't either. I do remember Evangelion, Eureka Seven, Escaflowne… man, the letter E is stacked! Let's go with Ergo Proxy, which is classic “let's swipe from the Blade Runner playbook… again” stuff, only it does it a lot more artfully than, say, Solty Rei. What sells this particular series is its setting—in a medium already bristling with foreboding domed cities, Ergo Proxy dishes up a damn good dystopia, one populated by vat-grown people, their robot servants, and shadowy nigh-omnipotent beings deep in the shadows. If you're not drawn in by its compelling setting, you'll at least recognize the Radiohead tune that plays over the end credits. Another one of Ergo Proxy’s appealing features is that a lot of it is kinda self-contained, so it's easy to just filter out the less awesome stuff. I'd love to visit the terrifying dystopian world depicted here, but I wouldn't want to live there.
Alright, fess up. Who's the one person who really likes Fafner and buys all the Fafner things and keeps convincing Xebec they need to make more Fafner? I'm getting kind of Fafner-ed out, to be honest. But that's a bit beside the point, because I'd rather discuss the true target of this entry—Fighting Foodons! Er, I mean, Flint The Time Detective. Er, actually, Fushigi Yuugi. No, quit laughing, I'm serious this time! Those of us old enough to remember look askance at Fushigi Yuugi now, but Yuu Watase's fantasy adventure was an instant classic on its release in 1996, with hordes of fans across the globe clamoring for it. Nowdays, most fansubs don't help shows become more popular in a really noticeable way, but Fushigi Yuugi was one of those rare titles for which early fansubs led straight to a domestic video release and then great success. It's easy to see why this series hooked so many—even with some dumb, repetitive story points across the saga of ditzy schoolgirl MiakaYuki and her band of warrior priests, plus some 1-dimensional characters, the series’ mixture of kung-fu action, historical drama, romance, high adventure, and silly comedy was like almost nothing we'd seen before. Nowadays I look back at this shoujo classic and wince a bit at its “Your Handbook for an Unhealthy Relationshp” hooks, but there's a reason why it's still in print almost 20 years later. If you haven't thought of it for years, maybe it's time for a rewatch?
“That's not a TV series!” you all wail. You're right, I just wanted to use that image. Heh heh. You know, Gantz was one of 2005's most popular anime series, at least here in North America. How has it held up? Not well, which is why I'm electing to sell you on Grander Musashi instead. Grander Musashi, you see, is a show about fishing lures. Good fishing lures! Evil fishing lures! Fishing lures with magical fish-attracting properties! At the summit of the sports fishing world is the ultimate fishing lure that can catch any fish—the God Legender! Grander Musashi is a sports anime where the sport is fishing, and considering that we've got similar shows about golf and cycling and sumo, I guess it's not too weird. But still, there's no denying the absurd magic of a shounen tournament anime where “ssh, don't scare the fish!” is a pivotal theme. All that's missing is a grand metaphor for the life of Musashi Miyamoto, but while hero Musashi Kazama seems to exhibit some of the legendary swordsman's qualities, he doesn't have to beat up a rival sport fisherman with a boat oar at any point.
If you like Shirobako and Girls und Panzer, step on back an entire decade to Haré + Guu, to see the style of director Tsutomu Mizushima take form. Haré + Guu used to be one of those “this will never get licensed” deals, owing to its weird title and zany setting, but never say never, I guess. The director's energy is evident and infectious as Hare, a high-strung kid, struggles through the day trying to keep up with Guu, an enigmatic lifeform (nominally disguised as a little girl) that just seems to enjoy bothering him. The weird, brightly-colored jungle neighborhood keeps things interesting, and the show is really made by Rikako Aikawa's inspired, motormouthed performance as Hare. I'm hoping that someday I can write about the worldwide commercial release of Hyōka (do we need to start a kickstarter for the dump truck of money Kyoto Animation ostensibly wants for this and Amagi Brilliant Park?) but for now, we'll make do with Haré + Guu.
The obvious occupant for the letter I is Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which is why I'm going with I'm Gonna Be An Angel. This is one of a relatively small number of shows that never got a complete release in the DVD era, and I really wish it had been. The series is colorful and has a puffy, cartoony look that sets it apart from a lot of TV anime. Ostensibly yet another “boy has lots of weird would-be girlfriends” deal—it does, after all, open with the female lead falling into the male lead's lap, stark naked—it takes a few neat left turns. My favorite of these details is the family of our would-be angel, Noelle. They're all monsters—big brother's a vampire, mom's a witch, and dad is a Frankenstein's Monster-looking dude. Now usually, in shows like this, the family hates the hell out of the boyfriend and torments him, but that doesn't exactly happen here. Noelle's family are curious about the boy, Yusuke, but they like him immediately and are soon moving into his house and dragging him along on their adventures. For his part, Yusuke isn't really taken with Noelle at first—she's energetic, but kind of stupid.
Say, speaking of stuff that starts with ‘I’, whatever happened to all those weird “Isshoni” videos starring a busty, pigtailed girl walking you through simple tasks? There was Isshoni Training. Isshoni Sleeping, Isshoni Doing Taxes, Isshoni Cleaning the Gutters, and Isshoni Installing a New Car Stereo, right?
I wish I could sit you down and explain the deal with Jean Valjean Monogatari, an anime Les Misérables before there was the Anime Les Misérables, and one without all of that distracting singing. But the fact is, it's a TV movie, not a series. Good thing that Jigoku Sensei Nube is a TV series. An old fansub favorite that never got its due. Nube was something of a Hellboy: The TV Series for the 1990s. As teacher, it's Mr Nube's responsibility to make sure his students are learning the material, scoring well on their tests, and not getting killed by demons from hell. To help facilitate his spiritual protection of his wards, Nube's got something called the Demon's Hand – a glove with a demonic secret. The show eventually falls into formula, but it's reliably fun to watch Nube and his enthusiastic students battle the forces of darkness.
K, K-ON, or KO Beast? None of the above. What I'll touch on instead is a historically important series—the first anime to be simultaneously broadcast in Japanese and in English. The Space Dandy team will say they were the first, but it was actually January 2009's Kurokami: The Animation that would debut in English, in just a few markets, at about the same time as the Japanese telecast. The series is based on a popular manga series, directed by the great Tsuneo Kobayashi, and features your typical dumb teenager stumbling across a massive struggle over the world's spiritual balance between good and evil. He helps one of the good guys, a Terra Guardian, and loses his arm in the bargain. But that's okay, because the Guardian, Kuro, happens to have a spare for him. This is a really fun, engaging action cartoon that didn't get nearly enough love during its first, troubled release, one that saw the aforementioned extremely small simulcast, plus blu-rays that had both a low episode count and no subtitled version. Happily, it was part of the package of old Bandai properties that Sentai Filmworks acquired. I hope they release it soon.
Love Hina was an important show, right? Right?! Come on guys, it had a lasting cultural effect. You can point at its strict adherence to formula, but this is still the show that's probably most responsible for popularizing the ahoge (hair antenna), not to be confused with the ahegao (O-face). I wasn't bowled over by what would be the quintessential harem comedy of the 2000s when I first saw it; I always felt like Keitaro, a nebbish student struggling to pass his college extrance exams was too good for Naru, the occasionally violent apple of his eye. Much of the show's comedy revolves around misunderstanding, the old falling-into-boobs trick, and the resulting getting-punched-skyward. But even if it's too familiar for the likes of me, Love Hina got a lot of people into the castle of anime fandom. Sadly, the Funimation box set that's still easy to find only has the TV series, and so does not contain the Love Hina Christmas/Spring Special, Love Hina Again, or Love Hina Meets the Harlem Globetrotters.
It's Marmalade Boy time! Marmalade Boy was a perennial favorite of 1990s shoujo, but it's largely forgotten now. It shouldn't be, because it's a show with a weird premise and a great, twisty soap opera of a plot. Teenaged Miki Koishikawa comes home one day to find genuinely mortifying news—her parents have met and fallen for another couple, and they're all switching spouses and moving in together! Not only that, but this other couple also have a kid her age—a handsome boy named Yuu. Yuu almost immediately steals a kiss from Miki; he instantly loves messing with her head. He'd better watch it, though—at school, there's a romantic rival, an old flame, and other goofy tales of teen romance to discover. Later in the series, Miki and Yuu visit America, where they learn that almost all Americans are scheming jerks (hey, it's true!). Despite the TV series being something of a vehicle for toys, dolls, and other crap, this is a really entertaining show that deserves to be rediscovered. Good luck finding the DVDs!
Nadesico kills off a beloved character within the first three episodes. The show dusts off imagery and character archetypes straight out of Getter Robo and Macross and Section Chief Kosaku Shima. There's a cutie-pie girl with pale skin, but she's not demure like the one from Evangelion; she's cocksure and insults her crewmates at every turn. I like this series a great deal. It has fantastic production design, an enjoyably self-referential plot, and a huge cast of interesting characters, from the sometime voice actress to the ship's cooks to the calm, businesslike accountant. One of my favorite moments in the show happens when this accountant is helping our heroine, Captain Yurika Misumaru, get off of earth in his corporation's flagship, the Nadesico. The earth government wants the ship, but the mild-mannered exec simply explains, in pointed language, that the government cannot seize the Nadesico because they do not have a receipt for it. That's the kind of humor this series trades in, and it's aged extremely well. It's even easy to overlook the dub's odd name pronunciation, where Yurika and Akito become “Eureka” and “Aikido.” I'll always have some time for this series.
One Piece, you say? Nobody watches that anymore—it's too popular. Instead, you might check out Orguss, a 1983 mecha TV series made by a bunch of the team who'd just wrapped up Macross. Orguss opens with a series of compelling science-fiction imagery, of a working orbital elevator and a cross-dimensional bomb. It's got mecha that look like weird cousins of the Macross robots, because they were designed by Macross designer Shoji Kawamori's mentor, Kazutaka Miyatake. But at its core, it's a very different story – one of Kei Katsuragi, a talented but jerky military pilot, who's thrown across time and space by a mission gone awry. In his strange new world, he takes up with a crew of merchants, even as the local warlords notice his arrival, brand him an “anomaly,” and attempt to capture him. The result is a wild and fun ride, and a compelling alternative to Macross.
Paradise Kiss, at least in anime form, is in the Springfield Mystery Spot. Initially licensed by Geneon, it was eventually passed to Funimation, but quickly went out of print. That's too bad, because the series is directed by the talented Osamu Kobayashi, and based on what is quite possibly the best josei manga ever made. The genius of its creator, Ai Yazawa, is in the way she never lets her heroine, Yukari, really lose her head. As she takes up with a crew of talented fashion students, is thrust into the world of modeling, and falls for her designer, Yukari keeps her cool and uses her experiences to learn and grow. The resulting coming of age story is as beautiful as it is satisfying, and while the anime adaptation necessarily trims some of the story out, it's still a strong entry in the josei anime race. A decade ago, a show like this just might've broken through to a wider audience than manga fans. Music producer Hiroaki Sano must've sensed this; he managed to nab the popular Franz Ferdinand to provide the ending tune. But the breakthrough never happened.
For ‘Q,’ we'll go with Queen Millennia, because it starts with a Q and is better than Queen's Blade and Qwaser of Stigmata, nobody remembers Q-Taro well enough, and there isn't enough of Q Transformers to really make a ruling.Seriously, if other people are gonna be all “well, there aren't a lot of titles starting with Q” then I get to do that, too. Even the Onion did that, though it involved them having to choose between Queer Duck and Disney's Quack Pack; Donald and his nephews lost. Queen Millennia is an archetypical Leiji Matsumoto show in many ways, with willowy women and fabulous spaceships. But the title character, named Yayoi Yukino in real life, soon stumbles across a vast conspiracy – one that may see her ascend to a mysterious throne, one that only opens every thousand years. It's a good thing that the show is called Queen Millennia and not Queen Fortnight!
Roujin Z. Royal Space Force. Redline. Aw crap, do I really have to write about a TV series?! I guess that Requiem from the Darkness deserves a shout-out. I've always found horror anime and manga to be weirdly non-scary, but this series, based on the classic Hundred Stories by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, has, on occasion, given me the creeps. In this 13-episode romp, Edo-era writer Momosuke wishes to write a collection of 100 great Ghost Stories. In his quest to do this, he takes up with the Ongyou – a trio of supernatural executioners, who punish the wicked and send them to hell. Momosuke is taken with these three grim specters, and wishes to join them—but they're not about to let him do that. I can say from experience that this show is good to watch late on Halloween night, so remember this when the leaves turn.
SaiKano, also known as She: The Ultimate Weapon, poses a simple question: What if your adorable, petite, vulnerable girlfriend was actually a weapon of mass destruction? High shool student Shuji learns the brutal answer to this question, as his girlfriend, an experimental warrior, is repeatedly called away to the front—a front that inches closer and closer to his idyllic seaside home in Hokkaido, with collateral damage rising to claim his family and friends. Turns out that nobody can escape the consequences of the war—a war that threatens to wipe out the world as they know it. This series is a bit deliberate – it rams its point home really hard – but it's memorable, with a distinctive, cute look to it that contrasts nicely with the hellish despair that the protagonists are plunged into again and again. War stories that are this grim and matter-of-fact are always effective viewing.
I'm not even gonna mention anything else that starts with ‘T’ besides Teekyū. Just watching a few episodes will trigger an incredible range of responses in a short time—a rapid-fire “What is this?!” followed by “This is awful,” and then “I can't believe how dumb this is,” and finally, “oh boy! Let's watch another episode.” It's about a high school tennis club, but really it's about four girls screaming at each other in a bizarre, barely-coherent gag story. Beyond that, Teekyū kind of defies description; all you can really do is watch it. Each episode is only a couple of minutes long, so you can watch an entire season in half an hour. Be careful, though-- your brain will pack a suitcase and attempt to escape.
The big ‘U’ has gotta be for Urashiman. This show is a longtime favorite of mine, one I've pretty much had to beat myself into not mentioning in the past year, as Sentai Filmworks quietly prepared it for subtitled release on Hulu and The Anime Network. But now we've got the series in all of its pure, colorful, unadulterated fun. Here is a show that lives and breathes 1983, as a delinquent teen on the run from the cops is suddenly cast almost 75 years into the future, landing in the Neo Tokyo of 2050. A criminal syndicate called Necrime wants him, convinced that the time trip has given him special powers. But that trip has also given him amnesia! There's nothing from him to do but to take a slightly comical name—Ryuu Urashima, after “Japan's Rip Van Winkle,” Taro Urashima--- and fix up his ratty VW Beetle and six-shooter so he can use them in service of the good guys. This show is notable for its great animation and color design, its expert mix of comedy and more serious action, and its shocking and brilliant ending. I dare you to not like Urashiman a whole bunch!
Armored Trooper Votoms is probably the most consistently excellent, engrossing mecha series ever created. It is Gundam's fuming, angst-ridden, emotionally distant little brother, a show that takes the colorful mass-produced war machines of Gundam and reduces them even further, to drab green and blue stand-ins for tanks. Protagonist Chirico Cuvie is caught up in a sprawling war between the Balarant and the Gilgamesh governments. When his unit turns on him, he has to flee to the seedy streets of Uudo City, procure a new AT unit, and start fighting his way towards some answers. During that trip, he'll uncover a galaxy-wide conspiracy—one to keep the war going indefinitely, with him at the center of it. VOTOMS is intelligently crafted and also sports absorbing side story OVAs and sequels galore. In the mid-2000s, Central Park Media dubbed a single episode, wondering if they could somehow turn it into the next Gundam over on these shores. They couldn't do it, so VOTOMS is still waiting to be discovered.
I can remember a summer in the early 2000s, when it seemed like every prim, pale female anime fan donned the same black dress and red coat ensemble, ready to hit the convention floor dressed as Witch Hunter Robin. This Sunrise series is yet another artifact of the early/mid-2000s bubble, a dark and grim story of magic-users hunting down, subduing, and sometimes destroying witches in the modern world. At one point, the show had stature similar to huge hits like Cowboy Bebop, so it's interesting to see how rarely it's brought up these days. It's a solid show that abruptly gets even better midway through, when the title character realizes that she might be working for the wrong side.
Xam'd. was the series that Sony offered as an online exclusive, in a bid to entice people onto their Playstation Network. Was this show enough to get anyone interested? It wouldn't get me interested until years later, when it finally hit home video with a fresh new dubbed version. But once it became easy to see, it was a no-brainer—after all, it was a star-studded affair from the great Studio BONES. At its best moments, Xam'd is wild, primal, and weird—main character Akiyuki can turn into a big crazy monster, the better to fight off hostile forces from both the North and South. Before he can really figure out, he encounters a girl that looks kinda like Nausicaä, who offers him a spot to camp out on the postal ship she works on. The show's looks are better than its story, but it's still good enough fare to finish up—and just like ‘Q’, the field for TV shows in the ‘X’ category is awfully narrow.
I can't believe I've never really talked in detail about Yū Yū Hakusho. This perennial favorite's first 2 seasons are great, arguably the single best shounen fighting tale ever told in animation. What also impresses me is Funimation's localization; they took a very Japanese show—much more Japanese than even Dragon Ball Z—and made it a broad hit, complete with toys and video games as well as the usual DVD releases. But the real star of Yū Yū Hakusho isn't the story or characters; particularly in season 2, it's the amazing animation of the fights, which put Dragon Ball Z and Saint Seiya and almost every other fighting anime I've seen to shame. As for the series itself? It's got the same problem as a lot of ensemble shonen shows, where you lose interest in the brash but boring hero and root for his sidekicks. In Yū Yū Hakusho's case, I kept hoping they'd give give Kuwabara more to do!
Zipang is The Final Countdown, only with the sides swapped. Ever seen The Final Countdown? It's about a modern US warship mysteriously going back in time to World War II, and being faced with a daunting choice—should they withdraw and try to find a way back to their time, or intervene directly and change the course of the war forever? It's a particularly interesting conflict in the case of Zipang, because the modern Japanese crew grew up in a peaceful, prosperous Japan, and they know their history well enough to wonder if aiding the country's wartime regime might hurt things in the long run. Ultimately, Zipang manages to not be too self-aggrandizingly patriotic; I really appreciate the moment that a rescued WWII officer realizes that his saviors are from Japan of the future, and this dedicated patriot, in his crisp white uniform, exclaims “Oh thank god! This means that Japan will not be completely destroyed by this war!”
So, there's the second-best of anime on TV, from A to Z. Looking at the Onion's list, I think the only one they got right is Yogi Bear. But stuff like Daria and Pinky and the Brain? I don't know, man I'd lean towards Dai-Guard and Planetes. Anyway, how close was my anime alphabetical power ranking to yours? Do you see some crossover between our tastes, or do you want to take me to task for not mentioning Burn Up! Excess? Get at me in the forums!
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