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About three years ago I began to delve into an art form that is becominging increasingly popular in this country, Japanese Anime. It means, quite simply, Japanese produced animations. I describe below some of what I discovered within this art form.

The Japanese have shown that they take animated features very seriously. Many of them are are inspired by comic books, which are extremely popular among all age and economic groups in Japan. The stories presented are complex, thought provoking, and often quite violent and disturbing. It is not unsusual to see some nudity and sexual activity in some of them, too. Ratings can range from G to R.

Many of the anime tell stories in which it is difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys. More often than not, they are neither good nor bad: they just have different agendas. Unlike most American adventure movies and television shows, these productions are slow to explain to the audience what is going on. The audience is expected to figure out what is going on by themselves from hints provided throughout the show.

The following are short descriptions of a selection of some of the Japanese animated creations that I am particularly interested in. The term "anime" seems to relate more to television series, and movies based on them, rather than on stand alone movies. For my purposes, I chose to include a couple of movies also. In the Becket Anime Collector magazine, Issue #50, a list of top 50 anime was listed. The ratings given by the magazine for these anime are given where appropriate.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

TV Series with full-length movie conclusion.
Rating: 8

I consider this series to be something very special. On the surface it is a science fiction supernatural thriller. Giant robots, called evangelions, are employed by NERV, a secret organization, to fend off attacks from strange creatures called angels. The story begins fifteen years after something called Second Impact knocked the earth off it's axis, melted the Antarctic ice cap and killed off one third of the world population.

As you get further into the series, you realize that there are some disquieting things going on with NERV and it's parent organization, called the U.N. Committee. We discover that the evangelions are not robots, and they are intended to do a lot more than just defeat angels. There are occasional hints throughout the series that powerful, unseen forces are manipulating events toward and end that no one can foresee. The producer of the series says he got his inspiration from the the Book of Revelations in the Bible and various Jewish and Christian traditions and legends.

We become very familiar with a number of main characters. Most of them are fundamentally unhappy, wrestling with all kinds of personal demons. The majority of them seem to be fairly decent people, who are just trying to do their best in a bad situation. Very few know what the real goals of their leaders are. But the angel attacks and the evil within threaten to consume them all. One gets a feeling of impending disaster as the story advances. In the later episodes we see insanity and/or death take a number of the main characters.

The final catastrophe, called Third Impact, happens in final two episodes, which were presented to the public in a movie. It is both beautiful and terrible. The fate of the human race falls into the hands of one of the evangelion pilots, the main character in the story. He is emotionally hypersensitive, week willed, lonely, and he hates himself for his shortcomings. On top of that he has been horribly traumatized by what has just transpired, and feels abandoned by everyone. Will he save the human race, or will he destroy himself and all life on earth to escape his pain?

There is one especially curious aspect of this saga. It has two alternate endings. The movie actually resulted from a public outcry by the fans unhappy with the original ending, which showed the NERV organization winning and imposing their dreams of a new god and a new heaven on the rest of humanity. It is a happy ending that probably will give you a really creepy feeling.

The series has sparked a lot of discussion about what everything means, and how this story relates to the human condition. I have the entire collection sitting on my shelf next to the "Lord of the Rings." trilogy. It's that good.


Television series based on the comic strip plus two movies and some original animated videos
Rating: Honorable mention

This is a teen-age martial arts comedy that centers around the trials and tribulations of Ranma, a sixteen year old martial arts expert. He is the type of person that trouble just seems to seek out. Actually, most of his problems result from irresponsible behavior on the part of his father. For one thing, he promised his son to marry a number of different girls, all of them martial arts experts. Ranma also unwittingly became obligated to marry another girl by defeating her in combat, another mess that his father got him into. At the beginning of the series he gets promised again to the daughter of a friend of his father. They are invited to stay there indefinitely. Unfortunately, the girl, named Akane, and Ranma do not get along well at all.

But Ranma's worst problem by far resulted from something that happened while he and his father were training in China. He fell into the Cursed Spring of the Drowned Girl. Now, whenever he gets hit by cold water, he turns into a girl. Hot water reverses the process. A number of other characters in the series have had bad experiences with cursed springs. Ranma's father turns into a giant panda. Three other main characters turn into a cat, pig, and a duck, respectively.

With two different identities, both of them being courted by members of the opposite sex, Ranma's life is very complicated. You see a close relationship between him and Akane develop, but neither one is willing to tell his or her true feelings. One of the main gags you see again and again is Akane getting mad and beating up on Ranma. Actually you have a lot of people getting mad at Ranma and attacking him, though usually it is not his fault. Lucky he is a better fighter than just about anybody else. The series contains numerous humorous martial arts battles.

Armatage III

TV episodes and movies edited from them.
Rating: Did not make the list.

This is a futuristic cop show. Ross Syllibus has been transferred to Mars to join the police force there. He is teamed up with Armatage, a small, sexy, utterly fearless policewoman. Their first murder case becomes very bizarre, when they discover that the victim was an android (called a Level III), that is indistinguishable from a human. Other murders follow. Because they are not human, and their existence is illegal, the police are not allowed to stop this mayhem. In fact we find out that the killing has been called for by a secret provision of a new treaty between Earth and Mars. The primary reason for destroying Level III's is that they are capable of passing as humans and can give birth to human babies.

Finally Ross has to deal with the shock of learning that his partner is a Level III android herself, and incredibly powerful. In the course of trying to protect her and other surviving Level III androids in a number of battles with some very formidable robots, Ross and Armatage become fugitives themselves. And finally, at the end of the movie, they fall in love. In the next movie, they are living elsewhere on Mars with false identities and a seven year old daughter.

Armitage seems to be happiest when she is doing what she was designed and trained for, police work and going after bad guys, human and otherwise. Though she loves her husband and daughter, she seems uncomfortable doing the domestic duties expected of a mother. She tries to show a positive attitude, but it is clear she is deeply troubled by the fact that she is not really human. At one point she laments, "If they don't want me, why did they create me?" There is a traumatic moment in the second movie when her daughter shrinks from her in fear when she discovers her mother is not human.

Serial Experiments Lain

Television series.
Rating: 41

This is a really creepy series that reminds me a little of "The Matrix." A secret organization, called the Knights, has come up with something called Internet Protocol 7, which allows them to download programs and data into people's brains without their knowledge. Their purpose is world domination. The story centers around a strange girl named Lain. You know from the very beginning that something is very odd about her. She can see radio waves and she can hear voices going over telephone wires. She is so shy and lonely, you can't help but feel sorry for her, at least until you learn what she really is.

In the course of the series, Lain discovers that she is a computer program playing in the brains of seemingly everyone in the city. She is able to physically enter the internet through a high performance computer in her bedroom. As time goes by, reality gets more and more distorted to the point you can not tell for sure what is real. More and more bad things keep happening. A lot of young people are either killing people or committing suicide.

Lain eventually learns that she is being used as a tool by the Knights to accomplish their goals. She discovers and publishes their names, resulting in their immediate deaths at the hands of "men in black," who have been investigating the organization. She finally does battle with the real mastermind behind the plot, and succeeds in killing him. Then, for the sake of humanity, she makes the ultimate sacrifice. She erases herself from everyone's memory and becomes invisible to them, leaving her all alone.

Super Dimension Fortress Macross

Television series.
Rating: 1 (2 for the entire "Robotech" saga).

This is the first installment of the "Robotech" series, an interstellar war epic that spans a period of over fifty years. Produced in the 1980's, this series demonstrates the evolution of anime from essentially children's programming to something more serious. It all starts when an alien starship crashes upon the earth, killing it's entire crew. The aliens, who are geneticallly modified humans, are fifty feet tall. The people on earth are able to repair the starship, and develop a new "Robotech" technology from what they have learned.

Unfortunately, another group of giant humanlike aliens show up with a large starfleet to retrieve the space ship. We learn from their conversations that they believe that the spacecraft contains something that is necessary for their long term survival. Of course, the Earth has no intention of giving up their only starship, which they have named "Super Dimension Fortress Macross." Especially when they see the potential threat to the earth of an entire fleet of alien starships. So the result is war. Most of the series involves the aliens' repeated attempts to forcebly gain control of the Macross without destroying it. The starship's incredible weaponry, and a fleet of transforming Robotech fighter craft, are able, through repeated battles, to fend them off. Earth hurries to arm itself for the possibility of all out war.

Though the humans are inferior in technology and firepower, they do have a formidable weapon: human culture. Spies sent to give intelligence about the humans tell everyone about this strange and wonderful culture, and they bring video players to show it to their fellows. Further exposure comes when they capture some humans. Initial exposure to the music and sexual affection exhibited by humans shocks and and confuses them. But soon many of them come to adore these strange people, especially a certain pretty singer. They lose their desire to fight against a planet where there is music and love. A large number of them shrink themselves to human size and defect to the Macross.

For a while hope grows on both sides that all out war can be avoided. But unfortunately, the alien high command has other ideas. Because they see human culture as a threat to their very existence, the order is given to wipe out the entire human race. When the alien commander realizes that he and all the people under his command (numbering about a million ships) are also going to be destroyed by his masters because of human social contamination, he negotiates a quick peace with the captain of the Macross and both join forces in the coming fight.

The inevitable battle dwarfs anything seen in "Star Wars" or "Independence Day." The enemy fleet, numbering almost five million ships, are hit hard by the newly allied human-alien force, an Earth-based super weapon called the Grand Cannon, and paralyzing broadcasts of the pretty young lady singing a victory song. A final, nearly suicidal attack on the enemy's mother ship by the Macross produces a titanic explosion that destroys most of the enemy fleet. The remaining enemy either surrender, or are wiped out by the human-alien alliance.

But the price of victory is terrible. The Earth has become a nearly lifeless wasteland. The surviving three hundred thousand humans now share their planet with about ten thousand aliens, with whom they try to keep an uneasy peace. Both civilizations work to repair the damage and build a new space fleet. More attacks are sure to come in the future, so they must be prepared. The future holds the promise of more conflict as the people of earth and their alien allies move out into space to claim their place in the universe.

Cowboy Beebop

Television series and at least one movie
Rating: 10

This is a futuristic adventure about a group of interplanetary bounty hunters. They travel in a spaceship that looks like it was salvaged from a junkyard. The name, Cowboy Beebop is painted crudely on the hull. They are a bunch of interesting characters who spend all of their time going after desperados, and repeatedly getting themselves in trouble with the law. The government is corrupt, there is a lot of poverty, and the bounty hunters outnumber the criminals. Every show has some good chase scenes, and the fights are furious. The musical scores for the shows contain some very fine blues music. The programs I have seen are mostly stand alone, and do not require any knowledge of previous ones to enjoy.

Record of the Lodoss War

Television Series
Rating: 22

This is the saga of a young man named Parn, who wishes to become knight like his father. The story takes place on the continent of Lodoss, located on a mythical world. This is a magical place with dragons, dwarfs, elves, goblins, and a host of other very strange folk. It has a lot of similarities with the Dungeons and Dragons game, except the purpose of the fighting is not to gain wealth and power. It is to save Lodoss from an evil king who is intent to conquer all of Lodoss. His march leaves a path of death and destruction wherever he goes.

During the course of the story, Parn continually hones his skill until he is worthy of becoming a knight. He is accompanied by some friends who he finds to be very useful. There is an elf princess, a dwarf, a wizard, a cleric, and a thief among his party in the beginning episodes. The principal theme of the story is the war between good and evil. There are some great battles with a desperate ferocity resembling those shown in Lord of the Rings.

At the end of the series, a theory is presented by the spirit of a dead sorcerer, who had been manipulating events all along. She says that good can not exist without evil, and that human conflict is necessary to prevent too much power from being concentrated in a few peoples' hands. Her purpose is revealed: to continually provoke conflict among the people of Lodoss. The theory is demonstrated in the conclusion. It takes the combined efforts of both the hero and an evil prince to stop a foolish wizard from awakening the goddess of madness and destruction. Then they have to fight each other. In the end, Parn manages to prevail, and the "good guys" win.


Not Rated

This movie was inspired by the 1920's movie classic "Metropolis," and a Japanese comic strip, "Astroboy." It takes place in a giant, very modernistic city in central Russia probably sometime in the mid twenty-first century. One could argue that the main character in this story is the city, itself, which is presented in just about the most intricate animation I think I have ever seen. "Star Wars" could have taken some lessons from it in making their special effects. The humans and robots are presented in a more cartoonish style, apparently to match the characters in the original comic strip.

The city has a tremendous contrast in wealth, between the affluent people who live in the towers of the city, and the desperately poor underclass, who live in the lower underground levels of the city. The movie is an object lesson on how class warfare and fear of a common threat, i.e. the increasing reliance on robots, can lead to a fascist dictatorship.

A detective from Japan, accompanied by his nephew, is looking for an international criminal who has been accused of doing illegal biomechanical experiments on humans. The boy succeeds in rescuing a cute, sweet little girl from a burning building where the man had been working. For much of rest of the movie they are hiding from a fascist gang that for some reason is intent on killing the girl. We are given a number of hints that she is not what she seems. First, she has no memory of her past. Secondly, she likes to stand in the sunlight, and it makes her glow.

We eventually learn that she is neither robot nor human, but a super sophisticated military device. She is intended to coordinate the nation's military forces, and control a super weapon that is intended to assure world domination by a powerful and wealthy industrialist. She is eventually found and "plugged in" to the system, with disastrous results. A number of fine jazz pieces are played throughout the movie, highlighted by Ray Charles singing "I Can't Stop Loving You," during the catastrophic finale. This movie clearly demonstrates how Japanese animated movies are different from what we are used to watching. The mood of the movie is dark and violent, and it does not have a very happy ending.

Spirited Away

Not Rated

An eleven-year-old Japanese girl and her parents become trapped in an alternate spirit world in which humans are definitely not welcome. In order to save herself and her parents, who have been turned into pigs, she has to sell herself into slavery at a fancy bath house that caters to the needs of supernatural creatures. This is fundimantally a story of raw survival. Through her perseverance, courage, and loyalty, and help from some new friends, she is finally able to save her parents and herself.

The movie is beautifully animated, with a wide range of very interesting, some quite humorous, characters. Still, the story is quite dark, and you get the feeling all the way through that one misstep could result in her immediate death. There are no cute or cuddly creatures like you would find in a Disney movie. It really is stark realism in an alternate existence. At the same time it takes a very Japanese look at human society, and their visions of the supernatural.

Other Titles

Here are some other titles that might interest you. You should be able to find lots of information about these on the internet. Asterisks indicate the ones I have seen.

Full Metal Alchemist*
Azumanga Daioh
Chrono Crusade*
Peacemaker Kurogane
One Piece
Dragon Ball*
Sailor Moon*
The Vision of Escaflowne*
Tenchi Muyo*
Excel Saga
Full Metal Panic*
Ghost in the Shell*
Bubblegum Crisis
Voices of a Distant Star*
Jin Roh
Martian Successor Nadesico

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September 2005
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