Welcome to the NHK! – (Never) Learning to Fly

Having just finished watching episode 19, this must be the first time I’ve left off Welcome to the NHK feeling happy! It was fantastic to see a smiling Torotoro-san biking around and about the streets of Tokyo; you can see in his grinning face that suddenly life is worth living again.

Despite Satou’s constant whining, I’m not convinced his mental condition is dire. He has friends to keep him company, hell – Misaki’s even cooking him dinner now – and having all this is so important. At the other end of the Hikkimori scale is Torotoro-san; a genuinely scary dead-beat with no friends and no Misaki; I can’t help but think his sad condition is closer to the real life of a hikkimori. He lives in the lonely perpetual hell of knowing his life sucks but being too afraid (and too paranoid) to do anything about it. People fear change and responsibility, and if given the choice will often take the easy way out.

Both Satou and Torotoro-san had one thing in common – they can rely on others to survive. Satou can afford to live like a hermit because his parents are funding his isolation, likewise Torotoro-san’s sister will do anything and everything for him. They are spoilt kids – never kicked out of the nest and taught to fly. Only when Torotoro-san’s sister disappears for a few days is the guy forced to decide whether to eat (and live) or starve (and die). Given NHK’s track record, I was expecting Torotoro-san’s suicide, but I guess the human spirit isn’t that ridiculous. My heart was ready to break. All it takes is a bit of tough love though – Satou’s parents take note.

As a side note the animation of episode 19 was a lot more fluid than usual. Despite sacrificing some facial detail and hair texture, for once I really enjoyed seeing the characters actually glide through a scene and physically convey their feelings – it helped the slapstick humour, and the interesting use of facial shadows meant this was a particularly good looking and stylish effort.

Reflecting on Kemonozume – Too cool for otaku

It’s fair to say that the creative staff “working on” (more like playing with) Kemonozume must have had so much fun, from flying heads and sexed up monkeys to a perverted old man shoving a pair of severed female arms down his skanky speedos – this is a show that clearly had no pretension of sensibility and instead embraces insanity, playing out like a giddy reimaging of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s apocalypse. If there is an on-going theme, it is love; and the sad things that love can do to you! The end result is a spectacular if rather superficial show, it leaves us with no sense of tragedy or enlightenment, but one can’t help but be enthralled by such an enthusiastic and eccentric stab at animated story telling.

It’s important to note the word “animated” here. A lot of anime seems to revolve around depicting everyday cold, hard realism – so much so that we almost forget that this is actually animated. It’s a shame because the beautiful thing about animation is that anything is possible, why the need to ground us in reality when there are no limits? Actually that’s wrong, the only true limit is the artists imagination, and imagination is rare. Just look around – most anime looks the same, borrows the same boring old archetypes and sticks to tried and test formula. The industry is still looking for a new Miyazaki; an innovative and important new director able to speak to fans beyond the typical otaku crowd, but they struggle because for years they have been stuck recycling shounen, slice of life, harem and fan service anime for the masses.

In the sea of generic trash that largely makes up today’s anime and despite its somewhat limited popularity even within anime fandom, Kemonozume is one of the few shows unique enough to find a lasting audience. If there is hope for the future of anime, it’s to be found in a show like this or Mushishi, where whimsical and exciting animation takes precedence over easy money.

US TV and anime: innovation and degeneration

When I became an anime fan in 2003 what appealed to me (perhaps more than anything else) were serial stories (like Naruto – my first fansubbed anime) with gradually developed characters; personalities that could grow from despicable bastards to likable rogues, or fall from grace to become evil incarnate. At the same time American TV (at least in my eyes) was largely episodic; characters never changed and the story would often reset to zero at the beginning of every episode. You knew someone was the hero, you knew that they had to win, and that was that; predictable, plastic and boring.

Lately I’ve found myself watching more US TV though. Lost, Heroes and especially Battlestar Galactica – I’m now anticipating these shows as much as I am an average episode of Death Note or Black Lagoon. Back when I became an anime fan I genuinely believed the genre was an untouchable world-class art form, unparrelled in its ability to “bring out the fanboy” inside of me. Three years on and I’m starting to change my tune.

I’ve mentioned three US TV shows in the above paragraph – all three offer serial stories that depend on development of character as much as ridiculous eye candy. Like it is with a lot of anime, you go on a journey with the characters, watch them fail, struggle and succeed. This “back to basics” approach has really snagged my interest.

It’s almost embarrassing to compare these shows with today’s anime. Although you get the occasional attempt at mature story telling (Naoki Urasawa’s MONSTER being a prime example), anime is almost exclusively devoted to a bunch of high school kids running around doing “stuff”. Once you’ve sat through 3 years worth of anime, got bored of the spunky girl, smooth bishounen and brooding anti-hero, the love triangles and angsty mecha pilots, the genre starts to fade. The creativity is consigned to demographics, the characters have become predictable. There is very little new or exciting to experience, anime just feels boring. Perhaps now that I’m a little older, I’m just losing interest in following annoying teenage characters I have nothing in common with.

I started writing this article to compare US TV with anime, but now I’m wondering whether or not anime is getting progressively worse. Perhaps the new generation of directors and writers were anime fans themselves, so are now stuck emulating their favourites and doomed to produce a load of generic fan pandering nonsense. These days anime is even being remade; who needs creativity and innovation when you can just re-animate something from a few years ago? At least wait 10 years to revive your failing franchise, not even Hollywood is that bad!

I don’t think I could call myself an anime fan anymore, such a broad title suggests I will enjoy and support anything to do with anime. Clearly that’s no longer the case. Anime has its ups and downs, and I think it’s falling right now, stuck in a degenerative inbreeding loop of fan service and demographics. When Kujibiki Unbalance is chosen over Genshiken, something is terribly wrong.

Giant Robo – Man-size anime

Ably piloting his nuclear powered giant robot (sensibly dubbed "Giant Robo"), Daisaku Kusama is a brave young kid charged with the every day fate of saving the world. We join his story with his team mates in the internationally renowned "Experts of Justice" jumping (and teleporting!) from country to country fighting off the monstrous terrorists in Big Fire. Like most evil organizations, Big Fire desperately hanker after world domination, and the only people big and brave enough to stop them are Daisaku and his super-powered buddies.

Giant Robo is all about size. "The Magnificent Ten," "The Experts of Justice" and even "Big Fire" – it’s designed from that very first dot of ink to be a breath taking epic that heart racingly sweeps over cities, countries and even Earth itself. Depending on whether or not Daisaku ultimately triumphs, the fate of the world is hanging by a thread.

Begun in 1992 and finished in 1998, this 7 episode OVA is gleefully reminiscent of the pulpy fiction you would often find filling comics in the 60s and 70s; a time before sarcasm was invented and prentention was needed – I really love that about Giant Robo, it’s so clear about everything that all there is left to do is to sit back and watch the story explode with sharp, inventive action and heart-felt theatrical melodrama. And explode it does; giant robots clash amidst packed cities, ninja and samurai take to the skies and do battle, mystical priests and insane scientists are hell bent on their own idealistic ideas about scientific progress – it is a thoroughly delightful distillation of a fanboy’s dream and an exciting collision of Japan’s traditional and fantastical culture"¦ That and it has giant robots!

Welcome to the NHK! – 17 – The pyramid scheme of dreams

Just once I’d like to see Satou out smart someone. Now I know that he is a hikkimori with zero self confidence, but by the end of this episode – in which he is heartlessly conned out of precious rent money by an old school mate – it’s as though he has talked himself into being ripped off.

Satou must know that he is buying into a scam, so why do it? Subconsciously perhaps it’s an attempt to escape his bedroom life style; spending rent and food money to the point where you need to sign up for a financial loan will surely mean that his only option will be to go out and get a real job (and hopefully, rejoin normal society in the process). A hikkimori without money is a bum; he is forcing himself into situation where he will have to fight to survive.

So I suppose in this twisted way, the pyramid scheme Satou’s school mate sells really can change his life! I like how Welcome to the NHK will often parody modern societies nasty little problems; we’ve gone from porn games and MMORPGs to internet suicide clubs and now business pyramid scams, they are all easy targets but it makes for grotesque and exploitative viewing none the less. All these pursuits offer us is a fading superficial taste of success or belonging, like how the blinged-up old leader of this fraud owns an impressive “super car” but still operates out of a dingy, worn down old house – he wears and buys his happiness to hide his dingy, worn down life.

Kemonozume – 10 – Sex-starved monkeys and eating fish with giant detectives

Since we’re now hitting the final couple of episodes, Kemonozume is building up to an action packed climax. The villain, or “big boss”, has turned out to be the fat Ohba – I liken his bizarre appearance to that of a clown, and deep down, we’re all scared of clowns – their smiley made-up faces covering a deeply seeded malevolence. Just ask Stephen King! Ohba wields a double “Kemonozume” too; both his arms are transplanted claws ripped from innocent young flesh eaters – so no doubt, he will prove a fearsome opponent for Toshihiko. He is a vile and nasty piece of work.

As for Toshihiko, he’s off training with sex-starved monkeys and eating fish with giant detectives. When I’m watching Kemonozume, I hardly noticed how fucking strange this series is. Yuka has been abducted by Ohba, so he’ll need to power up if he’s going to get her back.

Artistic and mad is a word I’d use to describe Kemonozume’s typically staggering opening few seconds – this time, I imagine it could be a tripped out dream sequence seen through the warped perspective of an insane and drunk Adolf Hitler. It’s like watching a fragmented, dizzy replay of a drunken memory.

To honest there’s no easy way to sum up Kemonozume’s visual epilepsy. You really have to see it to understand how damn colourful it is; so do that. Go and watch Kemonozume.