This really has nothing at all to do with music, but hey…sometimes it’s fun to write about things other than the usual “I recorded this song about sticking my big toe in the toaster and waking up in Mexico, and it’s got a killer woodblock solo in it” business.
For years I thought anime was a bit of a joke. Shows like Sailor Moon and Pokemon were all I knew of the art form (my sisters would watch the English dubbed versions on TV before we went off to school in the morning), and I found it all pretty lame and cheesy. I assumed that was pretty much as far as it went — hyperactive kids shows with voices that didn’t really seem to fit the material.
One night about five years ago I was channel-surfing and came across a commercial on the Independent Film Channel (or IFC, for all of you digital cable fiends) advertising some sort of anime week. This didn’t look like kids stuff at all. I’d never seen anything like it. Over the next few days i watched a few little pieces of the Cowboy Bebop movie, which I couldn’t really get into without the context of the actual series under my belt, and Ghost in the Shell, and though the English dubbing still didn’t feel quite right to me, I wanted to know more.
I did some research on the internet and discovered there was this whole other world of what I’ll call “adult anime”, a universe and-a-half removed from the likes of Sailor Moon. I ordered a bunch of DVDs, because when I’m interested in something I tend to jump right in without bothering to test the water first. It’s a good way to drown. You see some interesting things on your way down.
I started digging into these DVDs. The first thing I watched was Ghost in the Shell. It just about blew my brain apart.
I liked the way the animation opened things up and allowed for imagery that would never be possible with live action while also tapping into a kind of heightened emotional realism. I liked that the main character was a woman and she was tougher and more complex than anyone else in the film. I liked that the story was complicated and forced me to use my brain to figure out what was going on.
Watching it with subtitles and the original Japanese voice acting made a world of difference. This was serious stuff. This was a real movie with real ideas. It just happened to be animated.
Right off the bat I seemed to gravitate toward the dark, weird stuff. Perfect Blue was a lot of fun, kind of like a cross between David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, filtered through the brilliant brain of Satoshi Kon (who sadly passed away not long ago). It seemed fitting somehow that after watching that movie I went on to have a dream in which psychotic croutons (yes — the kind you put on a salad) were devouring any plant life they came across. There was some concern that they might behave the same way around people, so I ran around a large park closing a bunch of medieval-looking gates in an effort to prevent them from spreading.
I thought I’d eat a few of the croutons while I was at it, and they were surprisingly tasty for crunchy pieces of deadly seasoned bread. For some reason I didn’t suffer any adverse effects. Later, I was playing basketball while wearing a Santa Claus suit and one of the other guys shooting hoops started getting in my face because I wasn’t the real Santa Claus. So I started beating the shit out of him.
And that wasn’t even the strangest dream I had that night.
Some things I liked more than others. I enjoyed the original OVA version of Vampire Princess Miyu, and the original version of Vampire Hunter D had a certain creepy/campy charm to it, but neither one hit me anywhere near as hard as Jin-Roh: the Wolf Brigade. What can I say? I guess I like my anime dark and depressing, with a cynical/fatalistic edge to it.
I found myself getting sucked into Serial Experiments: Lain, to the point that it too influenced my dreams for a while. I also delved more deeply into Japanese film in general, discovering the work of people like Takeshi Kitano (who’s made at least three films I would put up there with the best things I’ve ever seen), Shinya Tsukamoto, and Takashi Miike.
But the game-changing moment for me was when I sat down and started watching Cowboy Bebop. I’d read a lot about how Bebop was widely considered to be one the best things ever to come out of the field of anime and something of a gateway drug, in much the same way the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue is considered a good point of entry for people who are new to jazz.
In my case the cliché proved to be true with Miles, but not with Cowboy Bebop. I waited until I’d absorbed several other anime titles before getting around to this one, in part because I accidentally read a gigantic spoiler on a message board that no one bothered to tag with any sort of warning and I felt it might take some of the enjoyment out of the show for me. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’re lucky enough to forget no matter how much time passes.
They don’t call them spoilers for nothing.
In the end I decided I might as well watch the show anyway, even though I already knew how it would end, just to see if it really was that good.
And it was. I ended up burning my way through all twenty-six sessions (or “episodes” if you prefer) and the movie in less than a week. I wanted to space it out, but I couldn’t help myself. It was similar to what would end up happening a few years down the road when I got sucked into The Wire.
This was like some sort of animated nirvana for me. Yoko Kanno’s music was part of it (her soundtrack has to be some of the best music any series/film has ever been lucky enough to call its own, ranging from jazz to folk, blues, strangely alluring ballads, and all sorts of weird crevices in-between, somehow always feeling like it belongs, practically becoming another character), but every element came together to create a world that felt real. I found myself caring about animated characters as if they were real people. When I reached the end, I felt a little empty, and it didn’t matter that I knew what was coming. It still hit me like a punch to the gut.
I think I watched the two-part ending of Bebop six times in a row. I’d invested so much in the story, I didn’t want it to be over.
I also watched the whole thing in Japanese with subtitles, and I now know I couldn’t have done it any other way. Arguments rage all over the internet on the “sub vs. dub” topic. My position is simple: I want to watch a film or series in its original language. Always. I understand the argument that reading subtitles makes it a little more difficult to fully enjoy the animation (or, in the case of live action films, the cinematography), but once you’ve watched enough foreign films it gets to the point where you don’t even feel like you’re reading anything anymore, so fully has your brain adapted to compensate for the extra work you need to do. That’s what’s happened in my case, anyway.
Cowboy Bebop does have one of the better English dubs out there. The voice acting isn’t wince-inducing like it is in, say, the English dubbed version of Akira. Still, it doesn’t have anything close to the same emotional impact for me. Maybe it’s because I stuck with the Japanese soundtrack my first time through, and maybe I’m biased because I’m fascinated by Japanese culture and love the sound of the language, but I’m not so sure. I think the creator of any cinematic work has an innate understanding of what they’re trying to say that will always surpass any subsequent attempt at reinterpreting the material, no matter how well-executed it is.
This is part of the reason I feel remakes of foreign films are almost always little more than chunks of warmed-over shit that fail to ever justify their existence. Compare the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire, which is a poem on film, to the dire Hollywood bastardization renamed City of Angels (Nicolas Cage screams! Meg Ryan has sex! Dennis Franz gets naked!), and you’ll see what I mean.
Or, in Cowboy Bebop, there’s a scene in the very last session/episode where two main characters are sitting down to talk for what they know will be the last time. One of them tells a story that sounds like some sort of Japanese parable, and in a sly way it’s a comment on what he’s been through and the action he’s decided to take. The Japanese voice actor imbues the words with a gentle sadness that adds a great deal of poignancy to the scene.
As an experiment, right after watching that scene I went back and turned on the English soundtrack instead. Then I watched it a second time. The English voice actor, as good as he was at nailing the “I don’t give a shit” attitude that sometimes was just right for the character, didn’t seem to have any other notes to sound. It came off like he was amused by the story without feeling any deeper connection to it, and that changed the meaning of the whole scene. The spell was broken. It just didn’t work for me.
But arguments for or against dubbing are kind of beside the point. The main thing is, watching Bebop was sort of a “eureka!” moment for me, and one of those great experiences where a piece of art takes you places and makes you feel things nothing else has before. Some people feel it’s overrated, and I’ve only ever known one anime fan who felt the same kind of connection with it I do, but for me it’s become the benchmark by which all the rest are judged. So far nothing has managed to surpass it.
When I went back and watched the whole thing for a second time last summer, I think I enjoyed it even more than I did the first time around. I even picked up on some subtleties I think I missed at first. I really hope the planned live action remake never happens. The thought of Keanu Reeves as Spike makes me want to swallow my own tongue and lick my brain until I pass out from liquid pain.
Why can’t those Hollywood leeches leave the good stuff alone? Accept that you’ve been creatively bankrupt for years now, admit that your remakes are pathetic and repugnant, and take the advice the late great Bill Hicks gave to people who work in marketing — kill yourselves.
Of all the standalone anime films I’ve seen, one stands out here as well — Mamoru Oshii’s Angel’s Egg. One of the things I like about anime in general is how, unlike most modern american animated films, computer-generated imagery is not the be-all and end-all. A lot of anime is still largely drawn by hand, and this film is entirely hand-drawn, with not a single computer-enhanced frame anywhere. The craftsmanship involved is kind of astonishing.
The film itself is strange, surreal, and existential. It’s almost silent (there’s maybe a total of five minutes of dialogue through the whole thing), which just makes the details in the animation stand out that much more. The story really only involves two characters, one of whom is a young girl protecting a large egg while inhabiting a desolate, decaying city. The ultimate meaning of the film is left for the viewer to interpret. Character designer/main animator Yoshitaka Amano once said that he felt it was a very personal film grappling symbolically with Oshii’s loss of faith in Christianity.
Whatever it means, I’ve never seen anything else like it. It’s art in the purest sense, and the ending is powerful whether you know what it means or not. I’m still not sure I “get” it, but I feel it. If that makes sense.
There are a lot of things I haven’t got around to watching that are still sitting on the shelf…things like FLCL, Elfen Lied, Whisper of the Heart, Mindgame, Spirited Away, and others I’ve read about but have yet to pick up. I’ve been meaning to watch Grave of the Fireflies for years now, but I’ve heard it’s one movie that will reduce even the most hardened viewer to a sobbing wreck, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet. Someday.
If it wasn’t for that little commercial I happened to catch one day on IFC back in 2006, I may very well have never seen any of these things, and I might never have discovered just how much creative and far-ranging work has been done within the realm of anime. So hooray for happy accidents.