Honestly, when I started my anime blog and podcast in 2010 I really didn’t know what to expect. I thought I would write about Cartoons, then talk about them on the Podcast. I figured people who liked anime would listen, everyone would get along great. It was extremely quickly that I realized that it wasn’t that simple.
There is an underlying problem in anime fandom: There is so much anime. I’ve written about this a hundred times but I keep coming back to it because it remains a barrier to new fans who attempt to come into the medium. Fans looking for an action show, they get turned off by the fans who watch high school romances. Fans of high school romances quickly get turned off by the people who are obsessed with science fiction. The fans who skirt the line and try to be “anime fans,” fans of the medium at large, are few and far between. I remain one of those fans, I simply watch the things that look interesting to me. I go from Kill la Kill, to Cowboy Bebop, and back to Toradora. I did not expect the in fighting and drama that followed.
The biggest was the complete paranoia of Moe fans who, at the time, were just coming up as the most vocal group in the fandom and many of them fight attacked from anime fans who didn’t like little girl cartoons. There were thousands of words written about how Anime News Network was a biased cesspool that wanted to destroy Moe because they prefer other shows.
It’s difficult enough to try and justify a love of cartoons without having to deal with some of the most horrible stereotypes of Japanese Animation. How can we escape from the visions of tentacle monsters, exploited little girls, and screaming muscle men? Well, it’s when great story strands on it’s own apart from the trappings of the medium. This is one of the reasons I was so excited for Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma. The show is about Soma, the son of an excellent chief who has worked his entire life to try and beat his father. It has all the markings of a show that could break out into mainstream success. Food is a universal passion no matter which culture you come from, on top of the excellent way the show exploits the shonen formula to keep the viewer gripped while Soma goes on and on about the beautifully food that he has crafted. It’s almost a show that I would recommend to a lot of my non-anime fan friends who love food and cooking. Almost.
I decided to watch the first two episodes while on the treadmill in the gym. I thought it would be safe, an anime that I might not be embarrassed to watch in public. But the trend of shocking the audience to grip them with the first episode has entered an exaggerated stage with Food Wars. Only a few minutes into the episode Soma offers a disgusting dish he created, Peanut Butter octopus, to one of his friends. The visual representation the show uses to describe the feeling is the woman girl being raped by tentacles. Almost immediately a show that’s presence should help break into mainstream made itself completely inaccessible. It took minutes.
Japanese games used to dominate the western market. There was a time when Nintendo, Sega, and later Sony were the only names in mainstream games. As the PS2 and Xbox era matured Western games quickly overshadowed their Eastern counterparts and since then they have not been able to impact the market like they had in the past. In ways, Wonderful 101 is a beautiful reminder of why Japanese games are fantastic and at the same time why they will probably never have the impact in the west that they used too.
Wonderful 101 has its roots in a Super Sentai style aesthetic and narrative. A group of normal citizens transform into powerful Super Heroes called the Wonderful 100. Each individual hero has their special powers and weapons but when they come together and unite their powers multiply and lead to more powerful and effective attacks. The game starts you off with “Unite Hand” and “unite sword” but as the game goes on they add whip, hammer, bomb, boomerang, and more. Specific abilities are required throughout the game to defeat monsters and solve puzzles.
Culture is a word I haven’t used much when talking about media, which is odd because no better word exists when discussing art and entertainment. We are all consumers of culture. We all give back to culture. Culture is defined by what people choose to consume and what they choose to ignore. It is used to define groups of people who consume a certain type of media that detracts from the mainstream: sub-culture. These are cultures that exist inside the larger cultural body. They are in ways isolated from normal culture but what they consume and create also gives back to the main culture as a whole.
Members of subcultures become blind to the fact that they are part of a subculture. There are a couple of key factors that lead into this kind of thinking. The chief among them is they start spending so much time and energy living in the subculture that they start to believe that everyone else thinks like they do. This happens, especially in the age of the internet, because the deeper they dive into the subculture the more they find and interact with people who think the way they do. This cements them into the subculture, gives them a feeling that they belong, and establishes a world view based around the subculture. Giving people a sense of community is great! But what this breeds is group think; the community becomes an echo chamber because the members of the community are surrounded by the people most likely to agree with them.
I had the pleasure of sitting in on Charles Dunbar’s Con-vergence panel at Otakon Vegas, in which Charles addresses the issues around why other fandoms seem to be taking over anime conventions. Charles’ conclusion is that anime conventions are more welcoming places, that the anime fandom is just more accepting of other fandoms. Then there is the more bleak side of things, the theory that anime fandom is just a secondary or lesser fandom than some of the more prevalent media represented.
The chief cause of the weakening presence of anime at anime conventions is that anime is a medium, not a genre or a single show. So where a group of ten thousand people may not have that many shows in common, three thousand of them have all seen Doctor Who and the other seven thousand has seen the Marvel film adaptations. So the Iron Man cosplayer is going to have more positive attention than the Lupin cosplayer sitting in the corner. Anime is a unique beast in this respect. Single media conventions, like a Star Trek convention, assume that all attendees share at least a common cannon. Even the old school science fiction conventions were dominated by the mass media properties like Star Trek, Battlestar, and the like. With anime there can be almost zero connection between the forty year old fans drinking in a bar discussing the tape trading days and the fourteen year old girls running around in Hatialia cosplay.
The element that made anime so appealing was that it was an entire world of media waiting to be explored, but that allows individual fans to go off into a million directions. This issue can be visibly seen at conventions. There are people who go to the conventions just to cosplay, play dress up and hang out with their friends. There are people at the same event who want to seek out academic programing in order to learn more about the medium they’ve come to celebrate. The latter is a much larger and younger group, one that may never make the transition to going to panels about anime. So if their friends shift over to dressing up as a non-anime fandom that is where most of the group will go. Anime fandom on the Internet is similar. I can write my essays all I want but the mass of people looking at screen caps and writing fan fiction isn’t going to care.
This was a difficult year to nail down a top five list because I’ve been watching less anime, but the anime I have watched has all been excellent. Years where I watched a ton of shows allowed the gems to really stand out, but it is much harder to pick out gems among gems.
I wonder why 2013 was a year I watched only a handful of good shows. Am I becoming a better judge or more careful of what media I consume? Was the gap between excellent show and bad show wider this year with no middle of the road shows to buffer the extremes?
Whatever the reason: We got a lot of good anime this year. Here are five you should definitely check out.
5. Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan has the potential to be one of the biggest anime in a long time, mainly because it constantly remains interesting. Every few episodes it tosses in a twist that reinvents the entire show; twists that lesser shows would run with for season long arcs.
It’s exciting, has good characters, a solid premise, and a great pace that makes me want more almost constantly. More importantly: The anime greatly improves on the art of the Manga.
We still have a long way to go before the end but Attack on Titan is a solid first part of the story and I can’t wait for the next season.
The Otakon name has a certain amount of weight associated with it. The name conjures images of a crowded Baltimore bristling with teenagers in cosplay trying to survive an oppressive heat. It brings to mind long lines, crowded hallways, and the biggest celebration of Japanese culture anyone could imagine.
So when I walked into Otakon Vegas on the first day and saw a handful of people milling around the expansive hallways of Planet Hollywood’s convention center my first reaction was doom. No one knew how well the new Vegas counterpart was going to do in its first year but the Otakon name carries with it some weight that, apparently, means nothing on the west coast and did nothing to boost the numbers of what turned out to be a decent first year convention showing.
Maybe I was expecting too much. What Otakon Vegas always was is a way for Otacorp to expand and spend some of its profits to fulfill its mission statement. Being a non-profit company, Otacorp needs to get rid of its excess cash and it decided to do that the only way it knows how: throwing a convention. Otakon Vegas may just be the greatest excuse for a weekend in Sin City ever conceived.
Conformity in anime is a common theme because the nature of the Japanese relationships to family and a structured class system. Even in the most mundane slice of life show having characters refer to elders with a special title creates a ridged class structure that the characters obey. There are some anime that tries to challenge some of the expectations of this class structure. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya challenges many normal anime tropes and structures included that social structure. Haruhi moves in and dominates her shy upperclassmen Mikuru. We rarely see a break in this kind of social structure.
Kill la Kill looks at all forms of conformity common to Japanese animation and gives them a giant middle finger. Our protagonist, Ryuko Matoi, walks into high school on her first day and makes a direct challenge to the social and political structures set in place.
This is first illustrated by her uniform, which she acquires shortly into the first episode and becomes her weapon against the school. The uniforms in Kill la Kill have become a status symbol. Students who are high ranking are giving uniforms that grant them special privileges and powers. Students who have no ranking get a standard bland uniform. Ryuko walking into the school wearing a nonstandard uniform serves as a symbol for her challenge to the authority established at the school. By not wearing a uniform she is rejecting the ranking system the student council has put in place and exists outside the social order.
Fish out of water stories are fairly easy to construct. You take a person and drop them into an unfamiliar situation and then each episode going forward features this character exploring the world they previously knew nothing about. It automatically accomplishes two tasks: giving the audience a compelling world to explore and a character to grow while exploring them. Silver Spoon follows this formula to the letter, and that might be its greatest strength.
The story follows Yugo Hachiken an overachiever at academics but a dispute with his parents convinced him to move to a boarding school as far away as possible. He is accepted to Oezo Agricultural High School where he is surrounded by the children of farmers who already are adept at most of the lessons. At Oezo, normal academics take a backseat to learning how to tend livestock, harvest crops, and all manner of the menial labor of farm life. Hachiken is forced to adopt to his new lifestyle and learn the skills of working on a farm in order to pass High School.
The start of From the New World might be the most unsettling and interesting opening scene in recent memory, on par with Serial Experiments Lain. The quick images of children, blood, chaos quickly shows the start of events that lead to the utopian like society scene in the rest of that first episode. Mystery, irony, and pulling the curtain back to reveal the larger picture are what make From the New World a compelling piece of fiction.
From the New World is about a group of children growing up in a seemingly idealized society based on feudal japan, except with some comforts of a technologically advanced society. We experience and see the world through the eyes of these children as they grow up from middle school aged to adults working as productive members of their community. The main tactic the show employs is using these children to guide the narrative forward. The audience is slowly introduced to the details of the world as these children, who are mostly ignorant of how their society works, grow up and experience the price humanity had to pay for living a peaceful life.