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AICN Anime - 10 Years, 10 Favorites - Part One - Heroes of Anime

Logo handmade by Bannister Column by Scott Green
It's late November, so time to mark another year's passing at AICN Anime. This one's a round number... hit the big 1-0. Counting the years when I was contributing to the defunct AICN Asia column, not counting the various efforts I was making elsewhere online the three or so years up to that point, it's been ten years. Given how rocky the anime/manga industry has gotten and given the nature of AICN, I'm mildly surprised that I made it to this point. To mark the milestone, I've decided to offer some insight into my questionable taste. These aren't what I consider to be the best in the field, and I'm very fond of other works. I'm just indulging in some talk of my favorites. Check back later this week for the other two parts.

Air Master

People who use [the term "guilty pleasure"] are usually talking about why they like Joan of Arcadia, or the music of Nelly, or Patrick Swayze's Road House. This troubles me for two reasons: Labeling things like Patrick Swayze movies a guilty pleasure implies that a) people should feel bad for liking things they sincerely enjoy, and b) if these same people were not somehow coerced into watching Road House every time it's on TBS, they'd probably be reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Both of these assumptions are wrong. - Chuck Klosterman on Guilty Pleasures This is an unordered list, but I'll start with my number one not-guilty pleasure choice, Air Master. What really speaks to how much I like this anime is how often I've gone back to it. I've never done that much anime re-watching. Well, I used to do a bit in college when I'd see something myself, and with friends, and with an anime club (and, sometimes when the VHS tapes were getting duped). But, since then, it's been rare apart from spot rewatches for reviews. Air Master is the rare exception. I've probably rewatched the whole 27 episode series a half dozen times, and specific scenes countless more The thing is, I like watching fighting, especially unarmed fights. It makes sense to me. Never big on stick and ball sports, wrestling and jiu jitsu have been the sports that I've gravitated towards. MMA is the one I watch. While realism is great, there's nothing like in anime I enjoy more than watching an imaginative animator work the dynamic of two fighter trying to thump each other, bending the laws of physics in a complex exchange of attacks. I'll forgive anime a lot if it has dynamic, interesting fights. That's why I keep trying to watch the notorious Ikkitousen and dropping it when I discover it's fights aren't terribly good. Dragon Ball director Daisuke Nishio produces his, what's in my opinion, best work in Air Master. The series does have some lousy animation, but it's always as good as it needs to be. Moves are recognizable from real techniques and styles, then bent into anime spectacle. With a demonstrated understanding of how a punch and kick work, the anime freely captures twists of action. Even if it doesn't sound impressive, a character catching a punch and turning it into a throw has almost the impact of live action. Nishio delves into choreographing the flow of the fight, where it isn't just exchanging and defending blows, but a story of how one move causes a reaction, affecting an opponent or giving them something to work with. In the way that the fighters twist around each other, react and dance, there's a progressing narrative in the combat and not just an exchange of big, distinct attacks. Little is more disappointing than anime that purports to be action driven then settles conflict with flashes of light against a black screen. Even in fairly good fight anime, there's an attack, block or evade, alternate attacker and repeat count down to a protagonists uber-technique. While no one is going to mistake Air Master's fights for anything realistic, flow and psychology works story telling into the engagements such that they have their own narrative and aren't just plot punctuation. No opportunity is wasted. Every fighter has a distinctive style, and puts on an entertaining fight. A submission grappler approaches a fight differently than a throw focused one. With the anime's thoughtful approach, in a fight between a grappler and a striker, the striker gets in their first hit, the grappler recovers and gets in their take down. This is anime, and the consequences aren't entirely present (though there is meaningful reference to joint damage and a character that lost hearing in an ear due to a beating). It does only point out that getting slammed into concrete can be quite lethal rather than at lease seriously injuring the person on the receiving end, but there are plenty of bloody noses and split lips. It's credible in its own way even if that way is hugely exotic and exaggerated. Even something patently stupid, like a combatant who fights with a BMX bike is made to look like what they are doing could work. There's a central gimmick of a gymnast turned street fighter, and that ability to spin or launch in reaction to a strike or throw bounces with exhilaration. As much as I love Air Master's fights, I love its fighters. There isn't an anime heroin quite like Maki Aikawa. The now 16 year old was coached by her mother into prominence as a gymnast when she was young, but has been living alone since the death of her mother (her father shows up in the series, he was 15 when she was conceived, and subsequently lived a separate life). Maki, now over 6 feet tall, and well muscled, breaks out of a depressed haze when she discovers the stimulus of combat. Subsequently making her name on the street fighting scene as the Air Master, where she can strike and grapple with the best, but also command any situation in which she leaves the ground. Though socially ill at ease and really not used to doing much thinking, she proves to be a fighting savant, not only utilizing her skill from her previously life, but figuring out how to borrow and integrate the moves of her opponents. In a relaxed physics environment where not everyone is jump punching or fighting mid air, a fighter who can not only leap, vault and swing, but master her momentum in reaction to a strike can be as impressive as any animated fighter. The series has a nice regard for its characters. Despite Maki's size and commitment to street fighting, she's more of a quiet, uncertain teen. Not a typical anime basket case, she's someone who falls into bouts of depression symptoms when she has too many emotional stimuli to sort through. Beyond that, her lesbian sexual orientation is unusually well handled in that the series doesn't make a big point out of it, and for a often humorous series, it isn't a joke in of itself. The plot doesn't take itself seriously, and from screaming wanna-be self made person/rival Kaori Sakiyama down to even extra Go Nagai-ish Renge, a high school girl with a grade school body, and a deep voice that sounds like Crayon Shin-Chan mixed with fingers on a chalk board (Azumanga fans will be amused, the voice actress is Chiyo's), it's a love, hate, or love to hate cast. Nothing is less exceptional than anime that trades in nonconformity. Not just that, street fighting as the prescription for breaking out of a funk is hardly unique to Air Master. Teens without a sense of self seem to find it with their fists all the time in anime and manga. Air Master stands out as having found a way to exhilaratingly cartoon that process. Watching its characters scream, quickly think through desperate situations and bruise their knuckles, it's honestly exciting to watch how this casts chooses to define themselves. While Maki literally towers over the rest of the crew in this pursuit, there are treasures among the rest. For example, screaming, rage-aholic, uncompromising loser Kaori Sakiyama might as well be the patron saint of would-be overachievers. Brilliant character study it's not, but I adore Air Master. Some of Air Master was actually released on DVD in North America. With some recent output standing as counter examples, releases of anime from Japanese companies without American middle people have been disastrous strings of poor products and poor prices. Anime giant Toei fell victim to this when it got into the North American business with basketball phenomenon Slam Dunk and Air Master. Especially since the anime boom, there haven't been too many releases that have been as half assed as Toei's entrance into the field. From unskippable opening logos, to a lack of intra-episode chapter breaks, to a lack of next episode previews or any extras, to the fact it went back to the menu after each episode, Air Master was not a good DVD package. Worse were the subtitles. In terms of unreadable size and colors, as well as throwing huge amounts of text into single blocks, it was hard to find a fan project that bad. Four feet away from the TV with decent eye sight, they were hard to read. The same script is used for the English dub and subtitles. It was more liberal than many subtitle scripts, it had all of the sound cues for the chief characters, down to the text "(battle cries & impact grunts -- very fast paced)" or "(grunts 'n stuff)" or "(3 confused huhs)" appearing on the screen. For a fight anime, it would have been nice to have some concept of fighting terminology. In a fighting series, not every martial art name should have been translated as "Kung Fu" and if there is a masked guy who talks about training in Mexican wrestling, he was probably saying lucha and calling himself Lucha Master, not roo-cha and Roo-Cha Master (five episodes in a Japanese voice actor pronounces the name correctly, and it's still Roo-Cha Master, and the pronunciation makes it into the English dub). Though that release didn't last long, ,Air Master is currently legally streaming on just about anywhere anime streams with a better script.

New Getter Robo

You know... that anime series that uses a knife in the shoulder as a reoccurring motif. What if the tightest wound, maniacal mixed martial artist you could think of was at the controls of a robot that punches divinities in their faces and tosses kaiju at each other. Getter Robo is effectively the bridge between what got be excited as a child and what get's me excited as an adult. Basically, it's crazy fuckers piloting combining robots. The gods are royally pissed off at humidity. Who would have the courage and wherewithal to protect the species? A kid? A sane professional? How about three pathological individuals, willing to get into an volatile giant robot fueled by an unexplained power source, grab a building sized ax and charge lanscape cracking monsters. If Bay Transformers was a mega-hit, how the hell did this superlative R rated giant robot violence flop? ('Cause non-anime fans started ignoring anime by the time it was released) What genre fan or spectacle-movie goer doesn't want to see mega shell casings crushing cars, robeasts using utility lines to garrote giant robots and crazy, belligerent men using their mecha to fight off angery gods? The last of these is what rockets New Getter Robo into bltized brilliance. Chev Chelios, Snake Plissken, Vic Mackey ... Getter Robo's violent tempered lead trio are real classics. Voltron was my childhood mecha love. It was THE anime that I caught on syndication that imprinted Japanese animation on my consciousness. I desired the toy version of its five combining lions and was especially jealous of a diecast version with all the firing missiles that a neighbor acquired in Chinatown. I stuck with it after being traumatized by an episode in which tadpoles turned into a city destroying frog monster, something that too-sensitive child-me wasn't always good about doing with other scary cartoons. It became the standard by which other robot shows were judged. Transformers held up well. Tranzor Z (the localized version of Mazinger Z, the first internally piloted giant robot), appeared like a poor Voltron knock-off, though I was fascinated by Tranzor's Go Nagai transgressiveness. I couldn't explains the trouble with that show's female robot firing breast missiles or the split down the middle hermaphrodite or the decapitated Nazi who carried his head around. I did know that they were crossing some line. It's relevant to preface this selection by bringing up Voltron, not only because New Getter Robo is my adult favorite mecha anime, but because Voltron owes a debt to the original Getter Robo, the first combining robot show - like Mazinger, from Go Nagai. (Getter Robo worked its way onto the North American scene as parts of Force Five and Shogun Warriors.) Of course, though the televised version of Getter Robo was generally sane, as the manga would demonstrate, creator Go Nagai (and Ken Ishikawa) never did anything straight. Who'd be crazy enough to protect humanity from invading cyborg dinosaurs by inventing three planes that combine into three different robots, fueled by a dangerous new power source? That'd be Professor Saotome, a stocky, unkempt, angry scientist, introduced in the manga as he screams at his assistant to bring him candidates with strong wills and strong bodies. (There's a pun concerning how Getter sounds like the scientist's wooden geta sandals. First, he finds a disheveled martial artist marching through the rain to attack a tournament in honor of his dead master/father, leaving competetors and organizers broken on the ground. The fighter, Ryoma Nagare, then takes a knife to the shoulder when he attacks a trio of debt collectors sent to check in on him. Saotome decides that this bleeding fighter would make a fine pilot The next pilot comes to Saotome. Hayato Jin is a terrorist who plans to assassinate a visiting cabinet minister. When members of his gang lose their nerve, he claws off the face of an underling, the ears of another and the eyes of a third. After a tussle, Hayato and Ryoma join forces to ply their violence against attacking dinosaurs instead of each other. The pair then find the needed third, wide judo-ka Musashi Tomoe in the mountains training as he brutally beat down some dinosaur agents. There have been two "Shin" Getter Robo anime (spelled different) 1998's Change!! Shin Getter Robo aka Getter Robo: Armageddon, with three manic episodes from Yasuhiro Imagawa and 10 more that lack the same verve, and this 2004 Jun Kawagoe directed New Getter Robo retelling of the original, with a fight against legendary oni replacing the dinosaurs. New Getter Robo used the manga versions of Saotome, Ryoma and Hayato rather than the sanized ones of the TV anime ( Getter Robo: Armageddon imagined a bleak future for the characters). Musashi and his similarly portly replacement Benkei Kurama get swapped for Benkei Musashibo, a new fat guy inspired by their legendary name-sake Saito Musashibo Benkei - an oniwaka demon-child tamed and taught to become a warrior monk. The series has plenty of fun with pulp grittiness, seldom missing an opportunity to get into the thick. A cast of people who could handle a bad situation rather than good guys keep the series pretty interesting... even before the pilots break in, the scientists are shown ready to grab any available implement to fight and tool and nail against the attacking oni. A thick, almost cell shaded look helps to keep the action cartoonish rather than dire. The madness is at its most savage early, mostly as squads of small oni rush into the lab, brutalized the scientists, get smashed by the pilots, then retreat to called and be cannibalized by giant oni, which in turn gets to be smashed by Getter Robo. Still, the anime manages to crescendo into new inspired pitches as it run, calling in legendary heroes of like proto-samurai Tsuna Watanabe and Raikou Minamoto in airships built to battle legions of oni monsters under the control of onmyouji/yin-yang master Abe Seimei... I'd forgotten how crazy it gets, before the Robo team themselves to face off against the four directional gods. And you thought the Gurren Lagann team was aggressively belligerent. New Getter Robo might not be a crisp one and done like Ninja Scroll, but if you're interested to see an anime defined by characters channeling their crazy rage into crazy violence, you can't do better than Getter Robo.

Space Pirate Captain Herlock: Endless Odyssey

From maniacs to a stoic. Here's a hero that embodies uncompromising honor as he stands on the bridge of his ship, staring into the face of overwhelming threats. As the universe burns, you want to be behind Space Pirate Captain Harlock, not facing him. The execution here is solid. However, more than that, I'm overly fond of Endless Odyssey's premise for capitalizing on the nature of Harlock as the anime prompts a "wow, it's going there?!" then delivers. Marvel Comics has their Punisher, a soldier who responds to his family's murder at the hands of criminals by making the choice to become a punisher of criminals, dressing himself in black with a skull over his chest as a declation of a life dedicated to the purpose of hunting down law breakers. Anime has an even better skull emblazoned existential hero. Born in 1938, Leiji Matsumoto's experience growing up with the devastation of World War II shaped the symbolism of his work. For example, seeing Tokyo's railways as the single functional system in the city inspired him to create a train running through space as a symbol of hope and aspiration in Galaxy Express 999. Space Pirate Captain Harlock (or Herlock as it was spelled on the Geneon release, both could be argued to be official ) was a black clad swashbuckling rebel, but, to Matsumoto, the skull and cross bones on Harlock's chest, painted on his ships and furling on his banner was not a warning to potential victims. Arcadia of My Youth's incredible origin for the character spells out his descent from a line of Teutonic pirate-knights, but for Harlock, that symbol was a personnel declaration of his honor and his willing to resist oppression until all that was left of him was skull and bones. North America has gotten a fair amount of Captain Harlock over the years. Harmony Gold, of Robotech fame, edited together unrelated Matsumoto works Space Pirate Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years to meet the TV syndication episode length requirements. Animeigo, and before that Just For Kids Video, released the 130 minute melodramatic epic origin movie Arcadia of My Youth. Central Park Media released the space opera in a true sense, Das Rheingold inspired Harlock Saga OVA Media Blasters released the American west inspired Gun Frontier. And, Geneon released 2002 OVA Endless Odyssey As in a good Matsumoto-verse space opera, Endless Odyssey is set in the face of maddening despair. Most of its heroes are in self-imposed exile, dead like the genius Tochiro, or missing like Pirate Queen Emeraldas. What's awesome this time around... beyond the fact that, like New Getter Robo, it's a TV series lengthed OVA, beyond an impressive staff that includes a script by Satoshi Kon collaborator Sadayuki Murai (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress), character design by Nobuteru Yuuki (Escaflowne, Heat Guy J), and Rintaro (Metropolis) at the helm... it's a genius match-up of iconic character ideas: Herlock vs Cthulhu; the indomitable resolution of the fearless pirate against a primordial force of fear and madness(nor really Cthulhu, but one of the better implementations of a Lovecraftian ideal lurking threat, waiting outside time with unfathomable malice). While the legendary Harlock has vanished, his crew has either gone to ground or been rounded up and imprisoned. Meanwhile, the Fata Morgana, a ship sent to the reaches of space, has returned, infected by the Noo, an evil from the universe's beginnings (Blanck Time or Planck Time depending on the translation.) The cadre of grotsque elder god infected space zombie Fata Morgana explorers make their move against humanity. Obligated to his former crew, and by an oath to Earth, Harlock returns to action, and along the way picks up a resolute, but reckless young man who chases the Noo for their involvement in the death of his father. Many of anime's heroes follow the shounen manga tradition of striving towards greatness. And many Harlock stories do have that feature. Like the original anime series, Endless Odyssey has the Tadashi Daiba character, the son of a murdered scientist who ends up on Harlock ship, learning the hard way how to emulate him. But, Harlock himself is part of the tradition of the characters who open the story already the best. Think Lone Wolf and Cub's Ogami Itou. Or, Fist of the North Star's Kenshiro... conforming to the tradition of kung fu manga, and before that, ninja manga, Ken is the successor of the deadly Hokuto Shinken as that manga open. From Osamu Tezuka to CLAMP, director Rintaro has established himself as a great banner anime project adapter of characters and style, always hitting the impact points such that gargantuan spectacles like Metropolis' ziggurat or X's city top duels resonate. He launches Matsumoto's Harlock into a tense, epic. Endless Odyssey doesn't race along. Instead, the evil elements muster themselves into place with the creeping madness cornering a man who stares down armies knowing his presence and side arm can change the tide of battles, who outfits his ship with a giant knife blade for ramming attacks. Harlock steps into Endless Odyssey a grand figure. Back straight and fully committed to carrying the burden he took onto his shoulders, he's a spectacle unto himself.

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