A View of Anime From a non-Otaku

Editorial by Alec R Lee

Several months ago, I had been searching for a television show to consume a large amount of my time.  Adding to my frustration was the fact that several other of my regular shows, Korra and Game of Thrones would not appear on the air for many more months.  I was in a bind, so I asked some of my friends what shows they watched that contained large amounts of action with a linear storyline.  Almost all of their responses gave an anime TV show.  This was a bit disconcerting to me, as I had never originally been taken in with the Japanese animation wave, so I was most assuredly not an Otaku, or “fan of Japanese animation.”  I’ve never really watched an anime for a long period of time in my life, excluding Pokemon, so why should I start now?  They all looked rather alien to my Americanized palate and nonsensical.  Another problem that anime has is that a lot of them are so esoteric to the point that new viewers have to start over at the beginning of the series just to make sense of things.  The problem with that is, the main anime shows have episodes numbering in the hundreds, a deterrent for anyone squeamish about sacrificing their precious time.  And the fun does not stop there.  Several anime series have spinoff series, or sequel series, or series taking place in another timeline, or series that are just remakes.  There is such a cacophony of material to watch that finding the right series to watch would be damn near impossible.  The only reason why I watched animes in my childhood such as Pokemon, F-Zero, Kirby, and Sonic was that they were based on video games to begin with, material that we had prior knowledge of before watching these shows.  Clearly, with these problems outlined, more was going to have to convince me to take a look.

That “more” arrived last summer, with the release of the Guillermo del Toro movie, Pacific Rim, a film that featured giant robots fighting giant monsters.  The comparison of the movie just being a live action anime adaptation was rather logical, as mecha does dominate a significant portion of all Japanese animation.  But once the trailers for the movie began surfacing on the internet, anime fanboys began clamoring, “Oh, it looks just like Neon Genesis Evangelion!”  At first, I was like, “What the hell is a Evangelion?”  They were spouting words that made no sense so at first I ignored them, until the incessant clamoring became so severe that I finally took the time to look it up.  It turns out that Neon Genesis Evangelion is a mecha anime that was created in the 90s.  I saw that it only lasted 26 episodes, but has an enormous cult following.  Add to the fact that many non-Otakus have seen it and liked it, so I’d figured that I would give it a shot.  I mean, only 26 episodes plus a movie?  That ought to keep me occupied for a week while acting as a good determinant in whether I should watch more anime.

So, did it work all right for me?  Yes and no.  By the time I finished watching the series, I was feeling very frustrated.  I did like the premise of Neon Genesis Evangelion in the fact that the situation between humans and aliens is a little more dire than Pacific Rim.  However, it was undermined by terrible character writing that made want to tear my ears off every time one of them opened their mouths.  I found the main character to be a wimp, an idiot, and extremely unlikable, and one of his mecha partners to be excruciatingly annoying.  Also, this anime also carried over the rather uncomfortable Japanese trope of oversexualizing the characters on the show.  “A 14 year old girl on the show?  Why not give her some G-cups and an extremely short skirt?  That sounds about right.  Oh, how about these soldiers working for the military?  Screw the dress code, have them unbutton their shirts to reveal their cleavage!  Oh, the genius!”  I had hoped that the Japanese would have learned something about tact but even today, it is apparent that this motif will not be going away anytime soon.  But the godawful characters were not the main reason why this show frustrated me.  To be fair, this show did feature some cool fights between robots and monsters, but it turns out that animating all of these fights, caused the budget to run out earlier than expected.  This resulted in the last two episodes of the show recycling old footage and using the dialog to tie up loose ends.  In the end, this backfired tremendously, and the studio soon put together enough money to create a two hour long movie that replaced the last two episodes.  The results were even worse, in my opinion.  Nonsensical sexuality, killing off almost every character, and using inane visuals helped the show dig its own grave for me.  I had had high hopes for this show and the ending just squandered every one of them.  Surely I would never try to watch anime again.

Or so I thought.

After a few weeks, I was back to square one, aimlessly searching for another show to watch, when I stupidly tried to look up anime shows again.  In spite of my dislike for the genre, one did catch my eye that looked a little more promising: Macross Plus.  Macross Plus had only four episodes, but those episodes were each an hour long, not much time to be wasted (a plus for the show).  The show also featured the simple plot of a rivalry between two fighter pilots in the future as they struggle to determine which one of their jets will win the contract for the Earth’s military.  That touch of realism, combined with the main character being voiced by Bryan Cranston, of all people (WIN), convinced me to check out the series.  In the end, I was rather impressed.  Yes, some characters were still oversexualized, but it was less blatant, the dialogue was fine, and there was plenty of action.  I would even go so far as to recommend this series as a good gateway to anime, it was, surprisingly, that good.

So, with a few misconceptions of the genre rectified in my mind, I renewed my search for other anime shows in the hope that they would all be as good as Macross Plus.  It soon became apparent that I was looking in the wrong place, why search for shows when there are several films to be viewed?  And who better to try out than Miyazaki?  For those who don’t know, Hayao Miyazaki is considered the greatest anime director of all time with all of his films achieving rave reviews and one even winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (Spirited Away).  Unfortunately, most of his films did not seem to fit any of my interests with some looking too fantastical to make any sense of it, and some too childish.  A few Wikipedia articles later, and I settled on watching Princess Mononoke, one of Miyazaki’s most beloved films.  Right away, I could tell that this was a different type of anime.  The animation was quite a few steps above that of a show (bigger budget), the music was actually orchestrated, the dialogue actually seemed natural, and the voice cast was dubbed by movie stars such as Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, and Billy Bob Thornton.  The story of a terminally ill young man stumbling upon a conflict between spirits of a forest and man, who is expanding their town by clear-cutting the surrounding forests, was easy to follow.  All of the characters were well written and the lead was very likable.  To be honest, as a non-Otaku, I was shocked at how good this film was.  The fanboys were right.  Miyazaki is definitely a master at his craft, even if some of his films don’t appeal to you, at least check one out so that you can say that you tried.

With such successes, why haven’t I become an anime fan yet?  Well, there is the other half of the apple.  Post-Miyazaki, I tried another mecha anime from what I thought would be a definite winner, one of the Gundam series, Gundam SEED to be exact.  The plot is just one part of humanity waging war against another part of humanity but they fight with giant walking, flying robots called Gundam.  It didn’t seem all that bad on paper, but I should have looked harder.  First off the bat, I noticed a lack in quality with the dialogue in the show.  This is a problem most animes have as the dubbers have to try and match English words when the mouths on the screen are synced to Japanese words.  In the right hands, this can yield good results, but if it is a slap-rush job (4Kids) the dialogue will suffer and the characters suffer as well.  Such examples would be the actors having to pause mid-sentence to wait for the mouths to move, or by spouting incredibly dorky lines to try and avoid any swearing.  A line like, “You goddamn bastards!” could be changed in English, to, “What monsters you are!”  It sounds so dumb and the voice actors take all the crap for their bad performance when the dialogue does not allow them to talk like normal humans (kind of like the Star Wars prequels).

I’ve gone off on a tangent, haven’t I?  Yes, the dialogue is bad, the characters are bad (unlikable lead, again), the story was boring, there were several annoying characters (is it a requirement to have at least one annoying character in an anime?), the fights between the robots had no weight as it didn’t feel like there were two robots clashing metal.   A good comparison would be that in Pacific Rim, the audio effects helped every punch have weight and make it sound like it actually hurt, weight was taken into account as the robots moved slowly and fought slowly, and the camera shook with every impact made upon its body.  The audio effects in Gundam are stale, the robots move like they’re made of paper and the camera angles are rather static.  Needless to say, I didn’t even make 10 episodes in before just giving up on it, bringing my consensus on anime in general down to a “meh.”

I understand why anime remains popular with some people, it’s just that I do not particularly care for it myself.  I concede that while there are some great anime shows/movies out there, there are a huge number of shows that refuse to deter from the annoying tropes that the Japanese insert into almost every series: the annoying character, the terrible dialogue, the uncomfortable oversexualization.  But where does the blame belong to?  Is it the Japanese writers of the show, or the American localizers who are notorious for dumbing down foreign television shows?  It stands to reason that you need a good and interesting story to help suck in viewers, while also maintaining a solid dub for English speakers (we can’t all be expected to learn Japanese).  The Japanese need to grow up and purge all annoying characters from the script and stop objectifying women in these shows.  The American dubbers also need to try harder with their work, as their clunky dialogue ruins the pacing of what could be a good story, and mars the careers of the voice actors who do their damndest to put these words to the screen.  This is where Miyazaki succeeds, he manages to have both these elements in his films so that his vision is coherently presented for Japanese speakers, as well as English.  If more animes were created with these points in mind, then there would definitely be more otaku converts today.

This editorial was written with the purpose of it being a sort of segue into a new review I hope to have completed soon.  I recently finished another television show which I will review and make comparisons to anime in general, as well as the source material.  If you think I have been unfair to anime with this review, drop a hint in the common box on which shows I should be looking at next.

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