The Mike Toole Show -The Worst Anime of All Timeby Mike Toole,
Goku and Superman tangle furiously, then get caught up in a tender embrace; bystanders swarm them, holding up mobile phones to capture the moment. A massive line of kids, teenagers, and adults in an assortment of wigs, hats, and other odd clothes starts moving, its participants trading high-fives as they pass each other. A scraggly-haired young man energetically launches into a recreation of Shia Lebouf's YouTube motivational speech; a complete stranger stops to join in. Less than fifteen feet away, a lady sits against the wall, reading manga raptly, oblivious to the commotion. There's an imposing stack of books next to her. At the venue's front door, the white string bikini version of Super Sonico placidly strolls outside. It's ebulliently warm and sunny; she's dressed for the weather.
Yep, I'm at a convention again. Let me tell you what I was up to last night.
“It's ridiculous,” my publisher contended over dinner one evening. “You outdraw most of the guests of honor at these things. Why shouldn't they just make you a guest?” I reminded him that I don't actually do anything—I just type “WORST ANIME” into the web form, and after a few months of preparation, a football field's worth of attendees just shows up. This conversation echoes through my head as I once again set up for THE WORST ANIME OF ALL TIME, a panel that I frequently present at Otakon, the sprawling convention that takes over Baltimore's inner harbor every summer. I say “frequently” because there was one year when I didn't feel like doing it, and so I spent the entire weekend fielding “why no worst anime?” questions. People really want this stuff!
I always start by posing the question: what's the worst anime you've ever seen? The respondents scatter their answers across the board without rhyme or reason. They cite everything from forgettable TV fare like Cyber Team in Akihabara and Infinite Stratos 2 to modest-to-mediocre old OVAs like Grey: Digital Target and Ultimate Teacher. Recent trashy favorites like Guilty Crown and Cross Ange are thrown on the woodpile as frequently as recent artistic triumphs like Ping Pong: The Animation. And for some reason, someone always suggests Frozen. No, not Freezing— Frozen.
Even the very worst of these isn't bad enough, though, not even close to being bad enough. They have some lazy writing, some animation mistakes, some poor acting, some questionable direction, but you kinda need to have all of those things happening at once, in perfect accord, like an amazing audiovisual symphony, to truly achieve high-level badness. Usually this only lasts for a matter of seconds, or perhaps an entire episode, like that one particularly bad episode of Lost Universe (which I've written about), that one particularly bad episode of Tokyo Mew Mew, or more recently, that one particularly bad episode of Wizard Barristers.
Few studios accumulate the deeply dubious track record that Knack Productions has, and I can think of no equal to their crown jewel, Charge Man Ken. It's somehow magnificent, almost otherworldly. Watching an episode is like watching every comedy-movie waiter ever all falling facefirst into a cake, in slow motion. But its nutso and delightful vagaries aren't calculated—instead, they're the product of sloppiness, or incompetence, or laziness, or some combination of the three.
The title character of Charge Man Ken is a superhero, of sorts. He's a ten year old boy who struts around in a bright yellow jumpsuit, emblazoned with an enormous K so we remember that he's really good at striking batters out. Occasionally, he must execute a rudimentary henshin sequence and protect the earth from the Juralians, rubbery one-eyed invaders in clunky, slow-moving flying saucers. When he isn't doing that, Ken taunts his little sister Caron viciously, making fun of her weight, her looks, and her habits. He beats his pet robot mercilessly. He doesn't disrespect or talk back to his parents, not exactly, but he sometimes takes command of the situation from his towering, mustachioed father in an abrupt, alarming way. The characters in Charge Man Ken each have no more than three expressions—goggle-eyed shock, wild amusement, and total, terrifying blankness. They slide through the world, consuming as few animation frames as possible, traversing a medium that is frequently free of sound effects. More ambitious scenes, such as Ken throwing a punch, are not wasted, but reused again and again and again. The characters frequently look exhausted and/or scared. Nothing ever looks quite right.
The show's strange character and deeply weird production details are surprising enough, but we must then consider the stories. Tipping Charge Man Ken's most famous episode, “Dynamite in the Brain,” is almost too easy. It may involve our heroic kid using his telepathic powers to discover that a grandfatherly old professor is actually a re-animated corpse with high explosives packed into his cranium, but there's so much to this show beyond Ken's typically sadistic solution (it involves dumping the human-bomb scientist out of his own ship and onto a pursuing Juralian ship). Other episodes relentlessly explore Ken's darker impulses, and the madness that spirals through the world he lives in.
In one story, Ken and his family unflinchingly gun down several native American horsemen in an old west scenario, which merely seems dated until you notice that the natives aren't actually carrying any weapons. We soon learn that, in a touching tribute to Westworld, the show insists that all of these murder victims are actually just robots. The robots are controlled by aliens, so Ken proceeds to kill them instead. Like all Charge Man Ken episodes, it's all over in five minutes. In another episode, Ken achieves victory by murdering thousands and thousands of savage, flesh-eating butterflies. In another, he encounters a mummy that looks nothing like a mummy, and kills it. He foils a corrupt mental hospital director's plot to blow up Europe by pretending to be crazy, then driving his adversary to suicide. His sister Caron buys a hit pop record that murders people by playing the show's stock background music.
This is still the tip of the iceberg; Charge Man Ken would be held up as a surreal, halting masterpiece, if it wasn't so obviously meant for small children. Still, it's a galvanizing and engrossing show, because of the way it ruthlessly exposes every single frailty of the creative process. It's a show that never, ever fails to elicit shrieks of astonishment and amusement. Quite rightly, it emerged as a cult hit in Japan after its DVD release in the mid-2000s, but we need to keep spreading the Charge Man Ken gospel on this side of the world.
I'm very fond of the artwork of Satomi Mikuriya, who spun out a few hits in the 1980s, including Nora, which got adapted into a light, fun anime OVA. His linework is delicate, and his titular blonde heroine is brash and funny and completely adorable. So it was with no trepidation at all that I first queued up Twinkle Nora Rock Me, a spinoff OVA created not too long after the original. What I saw next was almost completely unrecognizable, a 35-minute sizzler that charges heedlessly from scene to scene, shedding in-between cels with abandon. Actually, I need to correct that: there are almost no in-between cels to begin with. The entire thing, from start to finish, jerks from moment to moment, spastically. That alone is enough to render a show almost unwatchable, but it's compounded by the ugly, smeared character artwork, with figures that melt and distort from one scene to the next. The lack of tweens also frequently means that there isn't much mouth movement, so it's never really clear who's talking.
It's pretty incredible, really, because the one saving grace of a brief, plotless OVA is its animation quality, but there's none to be found here. At the beginning of the episode, Nora seems to dispatch a kidnapper by replacing his hostage with a ghost. Later, she'll recruit a weird, bushy-haired kid to help collar an intergalactic crook. She charms him over to her side by dancing with him, only the results are akin to asking someone who's never tried to animate a scene or do a dance to suddenly combine the two. It's electrifying in all of the absolutely worst ways. Of course I ported this to the big screen at the panel. “Do you want more?” I askedthe stunned crowd. “NO!” they responded, in a gigantic, agonized shriek. I immediately started the next clip. Back home, they'll steal away to their laptops, to watch the whole thing on YouTube.
Ever heard of the game company Idea Factory? They're doing pretty good at the moment—they're the Hyperdimension Neptunia folks, and I just know that some of you have been playing the video games and watching the TV anime that came out last year. But back at the turn of the 2000s, their flair for tie-in animation wasn't so developed—instead of modest and enjoyable fare, they visited upon us the likes of School City Valanoir, Skelter Heaven, Mars of Destruction, and Spectral Force, all of which have become miniature beacons of compelling awfulness in the intervening years. I've written about Valanoir before—its greatest achievement still lies in dodging the need to animate a man's mouth by having him speak entirely though a cheeseburger.
Spectral Force might ring a bell, since it was actually localized and released on DVD. Not long ago, I asked my friend Brett Weaver, who played the male lead in the show, if he could remember anything about it. His most striking memory involved him strolling into the booth and picking up the script. “What's the name of my character, the hero?” he inquired. “Hero,” responded the ADR director. It only got worse from there, as he tried to keep up with the show's queasy, tacky mixture of 3D and 2D graphics.
Mars of Destruction is a little more well known—it's one of those productions that's given rise to a number of rapid-fire, shouty YouTube reaction videos, many of which have viewer counts in the tens of thousands. It's brief and ugly, and all you'll really remember about it is its shocking twist ending reveal: humans are the real aliens. Skelter Heaven is a little more rare, an OVA tie-in for a mediocre dating sim/mecha combat game. The girls in the game, largely devoid of personality, struggle listlessly for the male lead's attentions. When one of them dies in combat, another screams gratingly, echoing for seemingly the rest of the episode. All of this stuff is really hard to watch, which is why it's necessary to break it down into tiny chunks for the purposes of the panel. You can't give your audience a large dose of stuff that radioactive.
Over the years, I've inflicted all of these above shows on audiences in varying quantities. They keep coming back, and in greater and greater numbers. I feel like I understand why, but after last night's show, I had to explain myself. I was approached by the in-room technician, an ingratiating older gentleman who was a professional, rather than a fan volunteer. I'd chatted him up earlier as he ran sound and video check, since I work in the same business during the day. He was impressed with the crowd and the energy, but he had one burning question: Why do so many people want to gather in a big room to watch stuff that's bad?
It's an interesting question, isn't it? I pondered his inquest. “I think people come together to see this stuff because it helps them gain a deeper appreciation for the medium. By exposing the flaws of these productions in an amusing way, it both affirms our own affinity for Japanese animation and helps us to accept our own flaws,” I articulately typed, twenty hours later, in a silent hotel room. (I think what I replied with at the time was, “Buhhhh, bad anime fun yes!” The tech still gave me a high five.)
There's still one question left to consider, though. What's the worst anime you've ever seen? Weigh it against one of the selections in this article, and consider if it's really bad enough. Then, tell me what it is in the forum.
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