Digging up backlogged gems, like Great Teacher Onizuka

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If MyAnimeList has taught me anything, it’s that for every merely-good new anime series airing right now, there are many more excellent but old (and therefore, forgotten) gems just waiting to be found. Since I joined that site, I’ve spent countless hours trawling through their hefty archives of anime, trying to build up a well-structured list of everything I’ve ever wanted to see. And now, as of speaking, there are 87 TV series, movies or OVAs on my official back-log; scary, but as long as I’m an anime fan, the list will never drain.

Building such a resource is a daunting task, but at the same time, it provides me with a useful reference for the future. If I’m looking for some comedy, or action, or drama, all I need to do is consult my list. For example, I doubt I’d even think to watch something as obscure as “Animation Runner Kuromi” had I never bothered to note it down on MAL, but I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be an entertaining little comedy about the anime industry, helmed by one of my absolute favourite directors, Akitaro Daichi, he of “Fruits Basket” and “Now and Then, Here and There” fame. Discovering that, amidst everything else that’s supposedly vying for mine anime-viewing attentions, was well worth the effort.

I found the anime of this blog-post, a certain Great Teacher Onizuka, for the same reasons. I’ve often read mentions of GTO, but up until the end of 2007, I’d always ignored it. However, since the dawn of the new year, I’ve been feeling tired after work and regularly struggle to keep my eyes open long enough to get through even one episode of so-called thinking-man’s anime (because, you see, thinking is too much effort). I suppose big, dumb Great Teacher Onizuka looked like the perfect antidote, and indeed, I was right; light entertainment for the win.

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Great Teacher Onizuka’s real name is Eikichi Onizuka. He often introduces himself as a 22 year-old bachelor looking for lurrrv, but his blonde hair (quite rare in Asia, apparently!) and hot-blooded, aggressive attitude fails to conceal his history as the legendary leader of one of Japan’s most violent motorcycle gangs. Indeed, he only starts teaching because of the many “hot girls” at school, but quickly realizes his passion for setting straight an abusive class of misfits; themselves more than willing to squish his fledgling career.

That’s all you need to know about the plot of GTO, it’s that simple. Onizuka isn’t like other teachers; he isn’t up-tight, strict or serious, he’s the opposite. He’s a punk, irresponsible, easy-going and up for laugh; consider that he wins the admiration of one student by asking him for porn, while he punishes bullies by hanging them upside-down from trees.

So much of the fun is in seeing how Onizuka’s lack of regard for social boundaries (e.g. spanking a female student) knows no limits; the bemused reactions he forces from parents, teachers and students alike are priceless. You know they’ll never defeat Onizuka, but the bigger the bastard, the harder they fall. Of course, there are the obligatory slips into serious drama too, but it’s apt, and in some cases, heart-rending. In one particular arc, there is a rather-weak boy that’s being bullied by a group of girls; he considers suicide. It ends when he strips down naked in front of a packed hall of PTA members to reveal the extent to which his body has been battered and bruised.

With the animation from Studio Pierrot, the studio behind the likes of Bleach and Naruto, GTO is a fairly standard looking anime from 1999, but some of Onizuka’s facial expressions are hilarious; it’s like he suddenly tenses every muscle on his face to emphasize the sense of embarrassment or confusion he’s started feeling. It’s really unique and amusing to see, and was apparently based on the actor who played Onizuka in the live action drama.

Talking of Pierrot, they also curse GTO with their other major affliction, ridiculous random filler episodes. It’s not as bad as Naruto though, well, not as obvious, anyway, considering Onizuka proves himself capable of sitting an exam with a gun-shot wound to the stomach; no-one even notices until he passes out! You can’t really get more ridiculous than that, right? Besides, GTO has no plot to speak of, it’s just Onizuka rescuing the hearts and minds of a group of kids who, at some point or another, lost faith in school.

Though it’s low-brow and stupid, Great Teacher Onizuka is entertaining and likeable. Sometimes, that’s all I need; nothing too intelligent or opaque, but just wholesome, good-hearted fun. I doubt I’ll ever watch it again, but I’m glad I did. Now, back to the back-log, any suggestions?

Spiralling into insanity, looking at Junji Ito’s horror manga Uzumaki

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I’ve been reading a lot of manga lately. In the past, I’d go through brief fits of reading the stuff, but it always felt temporary, like a fling while my romance with anime hit the buffers. This time, it’s totally different; I’m ready to devour as much as I can find.
By and large, anime is defined by its limitations; it only looks as good as the money spent on it, but manga is typically drawn by one talented artist; someone with a consistent vision, capable of imagining a fantastic landscape without ever needing to worry about budgets and frame-rates. It’s an untainted, purer style of story-telling, burdened only by the singular abilities of its author.

With my above enthusiasm in-tow, the first stopping point on this fresh journey into the black/white country of comics was always clear; Uzumaki by horror maven Junji Ito. Given I’m still reeling in claustrophobia thanks to his deliciously weird short-story “The Enigma of Amigara Fault“, the idea of slipping into his most acclaimed work to date was an ambition I’ve held for many months.

Uzumaki is the Japanese word for “spiral”. If you know your anime, it will immediately conjure up two obvious references; the main character of Naruto is named “Uzumaki Naruto” and, of course, spirals (and anti-spirals) represent living energy, perhaps even the soul itself, in the excellent Gurren Lagann. I’m not sure why this symbol in particular seems so prevalent in Japanese culture, but Ito’s sinister ideas are quite persuasive. Spirals are obsession.

The dread conjured by completing Uzumaki was similar to the fright I felt when reading of Africa’s army ants. These aggressive colonies, which number in the millions, are constantly on the move. They form a “living architecture”, using their own bodies to build bridges and protective walls against the ravages of the African climate. They feed on almost anything by hunting en-mass, crawling over their prey in their millions and stripping it to the bone; even animals as big as horses have fell victim. Just reading about them, I’m disturbed by their unrelenting aggression and ambiguous intelligence. There is no point in trying to understand their intentions, it’s simply a case of running for your dear life, and that’s Uzumaki in a nut-shell too. A town haunted by a faceless, creeping, crawling malevolence, an unfathomable, undiscriminating curse hell-bent on the total destruction of every man, woman and child.

Beginning in a fine fashion then, the first chapter is brilliantly weird. To the utter bemusement of his relatively normal family, a typical Japanese salary-man is suddenly obsessed with spirals; at first he’s satisfied by merely staring into a snail’s shell, but as his mind gradually unhinges, he starts experimenting with his body too. He doesn’t simply admire the spiral, he wants to become one.

The first two volumes (out of three) are fairly episodic, making up a series of bizarre encounters with the spiral obsession, most of which range from the darkly comic to out-right disgusting. When I say the latter, I’m talking about cannibalistic pregnant women and insane doctors feeding their hungry patients umbilical cords and placenta that, for whatever reason, take root and grow when chopped from newly-born babies; and there’s more, but I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. All of the horror in Uzumaki is, as is Ito’s signature style, sticky and organic; we’re supposed to be sickened, disturbed and freaked by the way he twists and contorts the apparently flexible human body to new extremes.

uzumaki_350.jpgIt would be fair to say that I enjoyed the first two volumes, but they were merely fun for the sake of horror; I felt nothing for the characters, and the thread-bare plot offered little more than an uneven patch-work of horrific adventures. That is to say, I wasn’t heading into the third (and final) volume over-flowing with enthusiasm, yet it’s a quite remarkable end.

The entire town, now well beyond rescue, has been completely smashed by the dreaded curse. The last few survivors are starved and confused, tightly grouped together in small wooden huts, hiding from the many terrors roaming the streets outside, including tribes of cruel children capable of riding giant twisters through the wretched remains of modern civilisation. These last few chapters are post-apocalyptic, bereft of hope and beautiful; the landscape is desolate and open, forcing a real fear of loneliness on this reader that’s far more potent than the cheap thrills of earlier volumes.

Ito’s true strength isn’t necessarily his detailed depictions of gore, but his manipulation of human nature, the way he exploits our physical relationship with life and our worries of the unknown; he knows what’s lurking in the darkest caverns of reality, willing to fathom the moon-lit shadows being cast across our bedroom walls.

Thoughts on blogging; mass-market episodic anime blogging

Come hell or high water, it’s like they have to write about every episode because their readers demand that ‘service’ in doing so, and don’t forget, you have to post it as fast as possible or you’ll likely lose a dozen of those superficial one-line comments too. Is that even blogging?

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I’m feelin’ kinda lost right now. Writers block, you might call it. Much as I want to say something exciting, profound or interesting, I’m basically runnin’ on empty, still searching for a tiny shred of inspiration. All through this week, I’ve intended to write something; anything. I want to be a more regular blogger, but I’ve never been able to stick to a schedule. The truth is that I’m not like the others, I can’t write all the time. You know, this anime blogging lark, it’s a good laugh, but its hard work too, like a responsibility burning a hole in my pocket. That’s not to say I hate doing this, on the contrary, I love it, but even still, I’d be lyin’ if I said I’d never considered jacking it in.

In between in this lull, I’ve found solace in writing news posts for my other website. No-one needs opinions in those, so it’s easy, I’m just documenting short and sweet moments in time, but it’s funny how my energy swings between the two, the swing of the pendulum always favouring one over the other. I suppose right now, I’m just bored of (my) opinions; may be it’s the icy season, or the sudden dawning of a new year, but inside, it’s like I’m struggling to engage my enthusiasm for anime.

This is all just a long winded way of saying “right now, I don’t have much to say”. Of course, I’m having fun watching the likes of Kaiji and Ghost Hound, but to write anymore than that would be a waste of time, and generally, I think it’s pointless talking about anime that’s already being adequately covered elsewhere. This is something that I’ve never really grasped about episodic anime blogs too, because so many of them copy the same formula of mini screen-caps, boring plot synopsis and a couple paragraphs of tacked-on opinion. Inevitably, most of them are saying the same things, all written within hours of each other and titled “Clannad 14” or whatever.

Lemmings? Not really, it’s just the different ways people approach blogging anime (and, I suppose, TV in general). I like recommending anime, telling people when something is worth watching; it’s taken me nearly two years to understand that about myself and this site, but I can only say “this is good” so many times. Much like web forums, episodic blogs are more about in-depth commentary and discussion; simultaneously, they attract hardcore fans, but alienate those like me, people looking for broader and opinionated reviews that draw on more than a measly 20 minutes worth of stilted animation. Episode reviews are great from a fans perspective, but they sure make the anime blogging community insular and inaccessible to outsiders. May be they are better off being discarded as things of the past and placed where they belong, on series-specific forums, instead?

What this comes down to is how we perceive blogging. I’ve always treated it like writing a public diary or journal, if I’m passionate about something, I’ll write about it, if not, I won’t, but I get a different feeling from a lot of episodic anime blogs. Come hell or high water, it’s like they have to write about every episode because their readers demand that ‘service’ in doing so, and don’t forget, you have to post it as fast as possible or you’ll likely lose a dozen of those superficial one-line comments, hence a raft of “Clannad 14” all within hours of each other. Is that even blogging?

All of this, it’s not intended as a jab at anyone; it’s aimed at this community as a whole. If you’re having fun writing your identikit couple of paragraphs every week or two, that’s perfectly cool with me, I just think it’s lazy and decadent and right now, I’m just waiting for all those rip-off spring ’08 previews to roll-around. You know, the ones with the little thumbnails, synopsis, urls etc. They are all the same too, but we’re going around in circles and I’ve been reading the creepy Uzumaki lately.

Another step Toward the Terra, circa 1980; old or not, it’s still great

Be it 1980 or 2008, To Terra…. is just a wonderful story, a timeless one, even, that I can always watch or read and be completely lost in imagination.

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Although I like to recommend older anime, sometimes even I can find it hard to sit through something that was created in decades past. My problem isn’t necessarily anything to do with the old fashioned animation or digging the vintage aesthetic, rather I have issues with the story telling; while modern anime flows and climaxes with a clearly calculated (and looking at the “moe” genre, I should say cynical) vision, much from the “classic” era of anime (running from the 1970s until the mid/late 1980s) seems prone to eccentric (almost goofy) characterisation and a choppy sense of direction (I’ve been burnt by watching too much Yoshiyuki Tomino anime). Basically, old anime clearly feels different, foreign and slower, and compared with the break-neck pace of today’s offerings, it can be hard to acclimatise, but, and I want to make this clear, it’s worth making all the effort you can muster to watch the 1980 movie version of Toward the Terra (a.k.a Terra e), especially if you loved the 2007 TV series; indeed, it’s just as good.

If you can remember my original review of Toward the Terra, I lamented it’s somewhat cliche opening few episodes. Our hero Jomy discovers that he’s a part of the psychic Mu tribe and retreats into obligatory phases of angst and denial. This was probably the most boring and over-wrought section of the TV series, but the movie really captures the chilling reality of living within such a strict society; a place where daring to question the rules is met with only one answer, execution. When Jomy is forced to leave his mother behind, knowing full well all his beloved memories are to be erased, it feels genuinely wrong, unnatural and ultimately, painful. His liberation is a relief.

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The other major difference between the TV series and the movie is a delicate romance between Jomy and Karina, which ultimately conceives the precocious nipper Tony; the first natural-born human for decades. This thread includes the particularly lovable scene of a nervous Jomy strutting back and forth in a hospital waiting-room while Karina is in labour. For some reason, and no doubt, to the delight of the shonen-ai fans, they never hooked up in the TV series, but Tony ended up regarding Jomy as his “grand-father” anyway.

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Of course, since the movie runs a little less than 2hrs, which is a paltry sum compared to the nigh-on 10hrs worth of TV episodes, there are a number of secondary characters who either lose a lot of their importance or simply don’t appear at all. Soldier Blue, Matsuka and especially Shiroei show up for little more than confusing cameo roles before being cast aside, while Swena is no where to be found at all. Thankfully, Keith was as interesting as I remembered him; a callous monster willing to commit mass-genocide while his lonely soul gradually discovers empathy in the Mu’s struggle for peace.

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The end of both versions is very similar, though if just for clarity’s sake, I prefer the epilogue of the film which better explains the purpose of the Mu. They are created and allowed to live, despite ostensibly being hunted, because potentially, they represent the next stage in man’s evolution. Butchering the Mu at birth could be seen as akin to forsaking humanity’s future and condemning the next generation to weakness; forever mollycoddled by the all-powerful computer system that’s simply maintaining the status quo. That the Mu survives given a slim chance, and begins to thrive in the face of such odds suggests, as Darwin’s Law would have it, that they are the future.

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There is so much more to say about the story, but I’ll leave it at that until I get around to reading Keiko Takemiya’s award-winning original manga too. Along with several others, she pioneered shojo manga and it amazes me to think she started writing this in 1977 (and finished in 1980); it’s so old and yet, I love it; completely and utterly. Be it 1980 or 2008, To Terra…. is just a wonderful story, a timeless one, even, that I can always watch or read and be completely lost in imagination.

The world is not beautiful, therefore it is; introducing Kino’s Journey

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I quite like subversive fairy-tales; the suggestion that there is something ugly and unknown shifting beneath a veneer of superficial beauty. This is precisely why I so admired Princess Tutu, because lurking behind that familiar style of magical girl characterization was insecurity and doubt; supposed heroes and villains stalked by emotions betraying their cliche destinies. Kino’s Journey is much the same in the sense that its own depiction of beauty is often offset by a harsh reality. Supposing that one extreme of feeling cannot be defined without the polar opposite, Kino simply muses that “the world is not beautiful, therefore it is”.

3D-Fansubs recently released 2007’s “Kino no Tabi Movie 2”, also known as “Kino’s Journey -The Beautiful World- The Land of Sickness -For You-“. I still remember how I felt when I first discovered Kino’s Journey. Shocked? I had no idea of what to expect, I’d never even heard of it before, I simply got hold of the DVD and pressed play. Since then, I’ve always loved the show, it’s the quintessential unknown, underrated gem; serious, subversive and philosophical. The original TV series (13 episodes) appeared during 2003, but apparently, no-one noticed it. This is your chance to make that right.

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First off, the new movie is animated by SHAFT; everyone loves them, right? After all, they’ve produced recent favorites like Hidamari Sketch, Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei and even Ef: A Tale of Memories. As expected, they’ve actually done a pretty fine job, most notably, the previously androgynous Kino is starting to look and sound inexplicably female; now she’s suddenly paternal and caring, but still distant enough to avoid breaking her 3 day rule.

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You see, the twist of Kino’s Journey is that she’s a globe-trotting traveler who spends no more than three days in any one country, and her only companion is Hermes, her talking motorcycle. Kino may look like a frail young lady, but her seemingly weak appearance belies a great talent for pistol shooting and a rather ambiguous morality; basically, she’s capable of, and does commit, murder at the drop of a hat, but only tends to act when forced into a corner. Through out her various adventures, she travels from country to country, tasting various cultures and technologies, looking at everything from an objective point of view, much like a scientist observing an elaborate social test. She refuses to pass judgment on anyone, or feel either elation or horror, despite almost constantly facing strange circumstances.

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As you may have guessed, Kino’s Journey was an episodic TV anime, and this second movie is no different. It’s completely self-contained and runs a measly 26 minutes, essentially, it’s just another installment to add to an already impressive inventory of bizarre adventures, with the ever-chirpy Hermes in-tow. You can easily watch it without having seen the original TV series. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of the show is directed by a certain Ryutaro Nakamura, who’s most famous previous work is the similarly discordant and thoughtful Serial Experiments Lain (and as of writing, he’s also directing one of my current favorites and arguably the best series of the fall 2007 season, Ghost Hound).

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The basic plot of the “movie” goes something like this. We begin, as ever, with Kino and Hermes entering a new country; this time, it’s the worryingly named “Country of Illness”; a technologically advanced settlement purposely separated from the outside world due to the various illnesses and diseases affecting its peoples. To what depths is the country willing to sink to in order to find a cure? Are a few healthy lives worth sacrificing if it could mean salvation for hundreds more? Hell, what gives mankind the right to give or take life, even if it’s in the name of scientific advancement?

Kino herself refuses to ask these questions and considering her quiet apathy, we have no moral compass to blindly follow. There is no emotional music with its virtual “cry here” pointers seen in so much anime; you are expected to think, and feel, for yourself.

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It’s interesting how the sickness is largely represented by a helpless, cute young girl, the likes of which we’re used to seeing in moe anime like Kanon and sola. We’re being pushed to feel pity for her, yet her precious existence is only possible with the sacrifice of countless others. Our endearment to her innocence and beauty, much like the superflat movement, is intentionally subverted by the corpses propping up her health. Again, Kino reminds us that the world is not beautiful, therefore it is.