Friday, July 17, 2009

HardDoor--The Third Anniversary:: How I Got Into Anime

Wow, it's only been three years since HardDoor's inception?! It's been a fun, enjoyable ride all this time (in spite of the recent bouts with dwindling computer access time), with the introduction of the seasonal anime and boxing previews coming within the last year. Yet, throughout the time I have been writing this blog on anime and boxing, I have never delved into how I got into my two favorite subjects.

Since I expunged about the history behind HardDoor's moniker for its first anniversary, it seemed only fitting to do something similar for its third anniversary year (and 200th post!). It might be a little harder to peg down the origins of my boxing interests, but I can go into what got me involved in the strange, near "other-worldly"--at the time (and sometimes, still is)--realm of Japanese animation--or "Japanimation", as it used to be called back-in-the-day. What was once a "passing impression" and curiosity more than a decade and a half ago has now turned into something that I hold with considerable admiration--that little thing called "anime".


Ever since I was little, I liked watching animated programs. It wasn't deep quite yet, but it was something that I enjoyed seeing quite a bit, like most preschoolers and kindergartners. What types of animation or where they came from didn't preclude me from enjoyment or created derision of any one, though I always found myself more fascinated with claymation shows like Gumby (which I still adore), foreign shows (European and Canadian productions of the likes of Babar, Rintin, and Danger Mouse), and the occasional weird cartoon that most likely was not American-borne. Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, and other older cartoons were among the domestic ones I liked, including The Simpsons.

Disney was a property that was, and still is, near-and-dear to many hearts. But even back then, I never had a liking to much of anything from them, except for a few of their older titles, such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Alice in Wonderland. While old animation has never fazed me (quite the opposite), I could never get into Disney films, so much so that I absolutely dreaded watching them in class, electing to either tune them out or sleep my way through them. The same could be said for Don Bluth films and many others from the late 80s and early 90s. From the excessive and exaggerated mouth and body movements, and the time-filling and oft-annoying song numbers, to the overly kid-/family-friendly themes, and stories that I either felt indifferent to or thought were being drowned out by those facets (or well-worn cliches), there was little that I liked about them and it irritated me to no end.

Animated television series of that period were decent and more bearable, but weren't anything I was that "deep" into, outside of perhaps The Simpsons and Transformers. The early- to mid-90s brought with it one the first show that I called myself a real "fan" of: Ren & Stimpy. That bizarre, uncanny cartoon probably had a helping hand in discovering my knack for strange, odd stories and things, but unbeknowst to me, I was also being introduced to a foreign cartoon that, back then, was at once known, unknown, and "taboo". In the past, I had enjoyed watching shows like Transformers, Maya the Bee, and Noozles, but never knew that they were produced by Japanese studios, merely think they were just another show made in America. The former was less of a mystery given the adage of "giant robots = Japan", but as was the case with other ones like Robotech, it wasn't something that passed my mind too often.

My only knowledge and exposure to Japanese animation at the time were the occasional feature that would show up on TV (usually cable) and a set of commercials from a company called Manga Entertainment. They would always be preceded by what would be the equivalent of a "Parental Advisory" sticker on a CD, stating that the preceding footage was suitable for adults only, that would promoting it as a gory, blood-and-flesh-filled menage of violence and sex. To their credit, they were quite right, with the stickler being a clip of someone mercilessly getting Swiss-cheesed by a torrent of gunfire (picked from the classic film Akira). Blood in of itself never bothered me in the slightest, but in the context of graphic violence, and being at the young age that I was, I was very reluctant to cross paths with something like that, making me unsure of "Japanimation" and of the stories I've heard. Godzilla and Gamera movies were as close to the "hardcore" Japanese stuff that I was willing to see.

Those kind of films, which I would later come to know as "kaiju eiga", never popped up on Siskel & Ebert, but I did enjoy watching the two famed critics duke it out and critique the latest films from Hollywood. More often than not, their recommended picks proved to be right on (12 Monkeys not withstanding...), so I took their opinions with great interest. One week's show in 1996 featured an assortment of movies that I do not remember, except for one in particular--one decidedly not from Hollywood--that vividly stood out. It was of a Japanese-animated, or "anime", movie called "Ghost in the Shell", which the two spoke glowingly of. By way of the video snippets, I could see that it was unlike anything I ever saw before, not animation-wise or even like those "adult" movies from the commercial. Their description of it and the artistry present created a great deal of interest and intrigue in me. It was something I knew I had to see.

As it was annouced to be on video, I fervently asked my parents if they could pick up a copy at the video store. The weekend was always a time to watch movies, so my personal pick was Ghost in the Shell. As it was late in the afternoon Saturday, they were busy preparing dinner, which solely left to watch it. From the beginning of the film through the opening credits, I could tell it would be very different--and not for all the right reasons. I had never caught the rating or content warnings beforehand, nor did it ever crossed my mind to, but within those first segments, I found myself face-to-face with the very matters that I tried avoid from those TV commercials (ironically, Manga Ent. co-produced and distributed Ghost in the Shell). First, the main character disrobed herself (so she could activate her skintight and -toned invisible cloak), and soon after, one character got his head clean blown off--and onto everything else--followed by a montage of the cyborg woman being constructed layer by layer, which entailed sequences of extensive nudity. Being only ten years old, I was on unfamiliar grounds viewing the sort of things that weren't, to put it, "age appropriate".

Obviously, I was startled and taken aback. I had known it was going to be a more mature movie by the preview footage alone, but not that much so. Yet, at the same time, it wasn't like the stuff they showed in the commercials. The nudity didn't feel overtly gratuitous, out-of-place, or exploitative, but rather, it felt artistic and in tasteful done. The violence, as graphic as it got, wasn't over-the-top, nor was it totally excessive, as it fit the atmosphere and realistic touch of the film. Instead of turning away or stopping it, I stayed affixed in my seat, with my eyes glued to the screen. The sophistication and intellgence of the story, the superb animation and design work, the haunting score, the intriguing characters and thought-provoking dialouge--it was all so mesmorizing and totally immersive.

Even through some of the more graphic content and intellectual discussions in the last part of the film, I was still absorbed in it, and more importantly, understood what was being said. As I gazed at the end credits, still all by myself in the room, I remained still in position, still in a "state of shock". It truly was unlike anything I had ever seen from any standpoint: no annoyingly goopy animation style, no pointless song-and-dance numbers, no sugary or stale family-tailored stuff. It was something daring, more "realistic", sharp, and completely unhinged from the conventions of your usual cartoon or other animated fare. It was something that I was always looking for and was altogether different things I saw before. Right there, I knew I had to know more about this stuff--about anime.

Not very long after, Cartoon Network debuted on my cable system and its presence would prove to be a major portal in feeding--and cementing--my budding interest in the medium It started off with the appearence of a block of old Hanna-Barbera action shows like The Fantastic Four and Jonny Quest, as well as G-Force, one of the many Americanized reversions of the 70s anime classic Gatchaman (not that I knew at the time...). Like a ritual every Saturday afternoon, I would sit down with lunch in tow and enjoy myself with the block of classics. G-Force was one of my favorites, despite the noticible localization, but anime was fairly sparse at the time.

This changed when CN began to advertise a new action block that looked to host a number of such shows on weekday afternoons. The tongue-in-cheekly named "Toonami" showcased many that would become the foundation for many anime fans in the U.S., such as Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z. Another soon-to-be landmark show was being heavily promoted few years after, hailing from a purportedly "legendary" series in Japan. The rather neat-looking trailer showed what looked to be some war-like Transformers knock-off, but the presentation and story seemed intriguing enough. Also, I liked Transformers (and giant robots, in general), so it was worth a look, at least.

On the oft-mentioned date of the show's arrival--billing itself as "Mobile Suit Gundam Wing", I quickly got my homework done prior to its start time so that I didn't have to mess with it afterwords and relax. I eagerly watched its premiere episode once it came on and following its end credits, sat dumbfounded by what I just saw. It was terrible, easily the worst show I ever saw. I couldn't begin to place where the problems began, considering how confusing and stupid it all was, never mind the inane dialouge and situations (as represented in the ridiculous final scene). I was absolutely baffled at how any of it could be "legendary", that much had to have been a lie!

As much vitriol I spewed about it, I wanted to keep with it, to see if things might get better, or at the very least, it would be worth seeing how much worse it could possibily get. The second episode came about the following week; not as bad as before, but still interminable. Soon, the third, fourth, and fifth passed by, continuing the trend of being slightly better than the last, but instead of remaining in a state of morass, the episodes that preceeded them were actually pretty good. I actually found myself enjoying the series more and more as time went by. Its serious nature and use of giant robots in a war setting were intriguing, and unlike any other robot show I've seen (or any others ones, for that matter), but it was also the characters, the interactions, and the drama that I once chided that helped draw me in (that they all improved also played a big role). By Ep. 48, the final episode, I had already long declared Gundam Wing to be my most favorite show. And with it, my interest and fandom in anime had been cemented.

To this day, Wing is still my favorite--watching it in full for the twelveth time last year--though it has since had to share that same soft spot with another show that I have become so infactuated with, RahXephon. Over the years, I have viewed hundreds of other titles: most good, a few bad, and some that were unmitigated masterpieces. What has kept me so into Japanese animation is much of what got me into it in the first place with Ghost in the Shell (which I still hold in high esteem): solid storytelling, innovative ideas, boldness, inventive artistry, attention to score, and coverage across numerous genres. Works like Gungrave, Mobile Suit Victory Gundam, 5 centimeters per second, Gunbuster, The Galaxy Railways, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Black Lagoon, Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, FLCL, among many, many others, have continued to whet my enthusiasm and admiration for it and each new season brings with it another new work to enjoy. Even if that were not the case, there are still plenty of titles from decades past and of recent that I have yet to see. And in my enjoyment of anime, I have learned to have an open mind about the myriad of shows and genres out there, as there are some real gems that one can find in the least likely of places.

In closing, I am very glad to have come across Ghost in the Shell and Gundam Wing, as they opened my eyes to Japanese animation and all of its possibilities. The medium has also certainly opened them to a number of aspects that stretch far beyond the screen, from storytelling to topical issues, and it's been insightful and great fun all the way.

And so, that is how I got into anime. :)


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