Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Heart of Winter: the 2006 Anime Year in Review

A Heart of Winter
or, The 2006 Anime Year in Review

It’s been an extraordinarily busy year for new anime; too busy, really, for anyone to follow it all. At least, too busy for anyone with obligations that don’t involve watching Japanese cartoons to follow it all.

Akagi faces his greatest challenge: Suzumiya Mahjong.

Below is a list of my “big five” anime for 2006. Such lists are bound to be idiosyncratic, affected by inscrutable personal opinion, and limited to what the author had the time and opportunity to sample. I’ve tried to incorporate some more-or-less objective criteria for my selections: did a show become widely known, and did it generate positive commentary and intelligent discussion among anime enthusiasts? Does it accomplish things—visually or with its story or characters—that haven’t been done a hundred times before? Does it possess the potential to influence the direction of future anime productions? Some shows that I’m rather fond of got excluded based on these criteria: Yume Tsukai was great, but it never caught on, and six months later is all but forgotten. However, in the end these are really just the five shows that kept me more entertained than all the rest.

Eyebrows will probably be raised by various omissions from this list. I don’t have any way of viewing new Japanese theatrical releases, so three movies that have garnered a lot of attention are perforce ignored: Paprika, Toki o Kakeru Shoujo (The Girl who Lept Through Time), and Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea). On the TV front, Ergo Proxy is outstanding in numerous respects, but I just haven’t gotten around to watching enough of it to comment usefully. Death Note is huge right now, and understandably so, but I’ve already written about it and don’t feel inspired to write more at the moment. Then there’s Nana, Utawarerumono, Air Gear, etc., etc… If I’ve neglected your favorite, write a comment!

5. Kanon
A remake of a TV series from four years ago, based on a famous tearjerker romance video game, Kanon is probably the shakiest choice for this list: a more detached analysis would probably swap it out in favor of Death Note. The Kanon story has been kicking around the memetic ecosystem for long enough that most anime fans will have some familiarity with it. The 2006 version has been so enjoyable and so skillfully executed, however, that I can’t resist talking a bit more about it, questions of originality be damned.

Yuuichi. Hold on, there are guys in Kanon?

The essential problem, I think, that faces adaptations of video games to anime or other non-interactive medium is this: games very often allow the player to follow multiple paths, experience different events, and interact with a manageable subset of an unwieldy cast of characters, depending upon decisions made in different playthroughs. Faced with the challenge of creating a single narrative from this type of source, most filmmakers opt for what is really a series of barely interconnected vignettes. The resulting anime might cover all of the characters and events that fans of the original game will be expecting to see, but is ultimately unsatisfying and incoherent.

The original Kanon anime from 2002 suffered severely from the one-episode-for-each-character game anime syndrome. The current version of Kanon seems to be consciously avoiding the typical pitfalls of game adaptation, and with great success, as of the halfway point through the series. Part of the secret is merely that 24 episodes provides enough space to comfortably accommodate several separate plotlines, with sensibly paced introductions and segues. But much credit also goes to director Tatsuya Ishihara and the rest of the crew at Kyoto Animation, who have clearly put considerable effort into creating an anime that stands on its own merits.

Various techniques are employed to make the 2006 Kanon into a unified work. Most obvious is the famous snow: meteorology functions as an almost personal continuing presence in the Kanon world. In too many anime that take place in cold climates, the settings look like the usual Tokyo metropolitan locales, with white spots drifting around and neat piles of snow sitting on top of the lollipop street trees. In contrast, the weather in Kanon is an omnipresent unifying force, starkly setting off the heartwarming interactions of the characters. And the icy setting veritably oozes authenticity: heavy wet flakes look almost black against misty skies on stormy, mild days, and crystalline flurries from a brief squall sparkle in the sun on pitilessly cold, clear days. Somewhat less authentic are the improbably short skirts favored by the young women of Kanon. But I, for one, am willing to chalk those up to moetic license.

Nayuki. The animation (the OP, anyway) actually looks like that. Good god.

The actual continuing personal presence in a bishoujo game-based anime is the Hero, an audience proxy who is, by convention, a complete nonentity. Kanon, however, takes the risk of investing its hero, Yuuichi Aizawa, with a personality, and this works wonders; the viewer actually winds up caring about the main character in a bishoujo anime. Tomokazu Sugita, an actor who has recently been getting some interesting roles, voices Yuuichi with a distinctive gentle sarcasm, and is certainly someone to listen for in the future.

4. Ouran Koukou Host-bu (Ouran High School Host Club)

Ouran High School Host Club struggles under many of the same burdens as Kanon, but doesn’t overcome them through narrative finesse. Instead, Ouran charges ahead, turning its weaknesses into strengths by maintaining a sense of humor about the absurdities of its genre. Ouran is—as the characters themselves discuss in one sequence—a reverse-harem show. Heroine Haruhi Fujioka is an ordinary-looking, middle-class girl who attends prestigious Ouran High School on a scholarship. Haruhi winds up working for the Host Club, a group of beautiful young men from wealthy and powerful families, who while away the hours providing elegant entertainment for the female students.

The Host Club (Haruhi in center).

Nothing in Ouran Host Club is done halfway. The school is a Versailles-esque shoujo manga fantasy, complete with acres of rose gardens and a clock tower that looks like Big Ben, but painted pink. The Hosts themselves are a series of shoujo manga fantasies, from the handsome but none-too-bright king of the Host Club, Tamaki Suou, to the adorable Mitsukuni “Honey-sempai” Haninozuka, and reaching a peak of female-oriented moe in the pseudo-incestuous twins Kaoru and Hikaru Hitachiin. It’s all so hilariously over the top that Ouran has generated a considerable following outside of its target demographic (16 year old girls, presumably), even to the point of being featured in a poster in Megami Magazine (a bishoujo-character monthly), despite the fact that it has only two female characters of any significance, one of whom looks like a boy.


As mentioned in the discussion of Kanon above, the main characters in harem shows are almost always audience proxies: blank-slates with whom the viewers can identify. In Ouran, the proxy is Haruhi, whose primary characteristic is that she is aggressively noncommittal. While the personalities and pasts of the Hosts are covered in great detail, she stays comfortably ambiguous. We do see a bit of Haruhi’s eccentric family now and then, but her inner life is almost a total mystery. The fevered imaginings of the Hosts, gamely struggling to understand the plebeian among them—and coming up with mental images of a glassy-eyed half-starved Haruhi clutching a package of expired convenience-store sushi—are far more memorable than any of the scant details of Haruhi’s real life that we learn.

Ouran Host Club is by all accounts one of the year’s best shoujo anime, but I think it falls short of what it could have been. Haruhi remained an enigma to the end—with only faint cracks in her façade emerging in the last few episodes—genially aloof and unresponsive to the abortive romantic advances of various Hosts. If a relationship between Haruhi and one of the Hosts had been allowed to develop, the plot might very well have bogged down in contrived adolescent angst, and the fans of all of the other Hosts may have been upset. But if handled with enough skill, some serious romantic developments might have lifted the show into the realms of shoujo greatness. I suppose that in the end, the manga author and animators didn’t want to risk it.

3. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When the Cicadas Cry)

Eight months after it started airing, Higurashi has settled in as part of the anime landscape, becoming a familiar and almost comfortable landmark for its fans. But even now, a late-night viewing of the opening—with its rumbling electronic score and images of unnatural flowers and unhappy girls—is likely to serve as a reminder the powerful, unnerving strangeness of the show.

Fan art of an uncharacteristically placid Shion.

Higurashi is difficult to describe, in part because of the absence of similar works to which it might be compared. It takes place in the tiny agricultural village of Hinamizawa, which is modeled after a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gifu Prefecture. Hinamizawa is portrayed in bright, cheery watercolors, and the cartoonish character designs of the anime suggest a light school comedy. But, come sunset, the higurashi (evening cicadas, Tanna japonensis ssp. japonensis) begin their uncanny whistling calls, and the dark forested hills start to press a little too closely around the quaint dwellings and rice fields of Hinamizawa. As newcomer Keiichi Maebara gradually learns, the ancient town and its friendly inhabitants hold many secrets.

The Higurashi anime is based upon a series of doujin “sound novels”—amateur electronic books with carefully choreographed music, sound effects, and images—and is divided up into chapters that initially seem independent, but which gradually build into a picture of the events surrounded a local Shinto rite called Watanagashi, in June of 1983. Higurashi is at heart a horror/murder mystery tale, with occasional scenes of disturbing violence. But as with any good horror story, it takes its time building atmosphere before delivering its chills. Rena Ryuuguu’s iconic machete always features prominently in Higurashi illustrations, for instance, but she doesn’t do anything with it until the show is almost over. But after many hours of buildup, when the time is right for the machete to see some action, it’s intense: you hardly know whether to cheer, or to hide underneath the blankets with your fingers in your ears and every light in the house turned on. Nor does the horror in Higurashi depend solely on blood and guts: other potent sources of primal dread are tapped: betrayal of sacred trusts, biological and spiritual contamination, and disintegration of the self.

Rena stops by for dinner.

It must be said that the Higurashi anime had more than its share of problems, though most of them were of a superficial, if distractingly obvious, technical nature. The introduction, Onikakushi-hen (The Abduction by Demons Chapter) is probably the strongest of the six chapters animated so far; one might have hoped for a bit more attention to detail in the backgrounds, but the overall effect was amazingly intense. The series reaches a low point in the third chapter, Tatarigoroshi-hen (The Death by Curse Chapter), where you’d swear—and it pains me to say it because I truly love this anime—that Studio Deen was luring homeless people off the street and forcing them to draw a few cuts of Shion wigging out. Tatarigoroshi-hen was also the point of maximum incomprehensibility in the plot; the other chapters do get complicated, but it’s possible to work out viable explanations of what is going on. Tatarigoroshi has its moments (Keiichi’s car ride with Takano-san is vintage Higurashi), but degenerates into a series of non-sequiturs.

Aside from animation malfunctions, the other frustrating aspect of watching Higurashi, especially for those of us who are not qualified to read novels in Japanese, is that the last two of the original sound novel chapters were not animated. The neglected portions of the story include the “answer chapter” which explains Tatarigoroshi-hen, among other things. Fortunately, the dedicated fans at zettai.makenaidesuwayo.com (Best Domain Name Ever.) are working on translations that can be applied to the original sound novels. There is a PS2 version of the sound novels coming soon, called Higurashi Matsuri, apparently with voice acting (there was no spoken dialogue in the original version), and extra chapters. Holy crap, I need to buy a Japanese PS2. And, the official Higurashi website has announced that there will be a second season of anime next year. There are bigger-name and no doubt bigger-budget projects in the pipeline for 2007, but Higurashi no Naku Koro ni 2 is what I’m going to be waiting for with bated breath.

A girl's best friend is her Woodman's Pal (fan art).

2. NHK ni Youkosou! (Welcome to the NHK!)

Higurashi included any number of scenes calculated to induce terror and suspense—The two teacups, The Thing behind Keiichi in the phonebooth, Shion’s “distinction”—but one of the scariest moments in anime in 2006 actually occurred in a comedy, Welcome to the NHK. After one of a string of crushing disappointments, the main character in NHK, Tatsuhiro Satou, imagines what life would be like in 30 years if he remains a hikikomori—a jobless social parasite secluded in his appartment playing videogames and watching anime—and the image is enough to send even the most stalwart fanboy/girl running screaming from the room.

An anime about a 22-year-old traumatized shell of a man, who locks himself in his room for weeks on end, sounds fairly dubious as a source of entertainment, but NHK has proven to be one of the most compulsively watchable series of the year. I get the strong impression that the original manga creators, Tatsuhiko Takimoto and Kendi Oiwa, as well as the anime staff, have more than an academic knowledge of the hikikomori/otaku lifestyle. NHK is uncomfortably real, and often unpleasant; the hikikomori antics in the manga, where Satou’s tastes in internet porn are made all-too explicit, and his self-medication goes beyond nicotine and alcohol, are only slightly more revolting than in the anime, and I’m sort of surprised by some of the things that made it past the TV censors.

Satou's hikikomori hole.

Nonetheless, there’s a definite voyeuristic thrill to any glimpse of a world that is inaccessible to normal people, and NHK provides plenty of opportunities to examine the closed world of the hikikomori. The characters in NHK are also an unexpectedly sympathetic bunch: they’re selfish losers, incongruously arrogant, and not a little unhinged, but you can’t help rooting for them as they struggle against their inevitable doom. Nor is the situation for Satou and friends entirely hopeless. Amid the marathon ero-game sessions, failed schemes to find gainful employment, and disastrous drunken phone calls to semi-girlfriends, the characters do occasionally manage to make progress towards finding their places in the real world.

Animation production for Welcome to the NHK was handled by Gonzo, of all studios, but early worries about their ability to deal with such an un-Gonzo-like project have proved mostly unfounded. The overall animation quality has been quite good, though a few episodes were obviously handled by a B-team. There are a few weak episodes in the middle of the series (why is it that stories set on desert islands are always the low point of any anime that includes them?), but the later episodes are superb. The designs are true to the manga (which is now available in English, by the way): attractive, but with a grim edge.

NHK is like reality, but with more girls.

The NHK anime is sure to draw new attention to the hikikomori phenomenon, and it will be interesting to see what people outside of Japan make of it. There is also an (unrelated to NHK) English-language non-fiction book available about hikikomori; author Michael Zielenziger argues that hikikomori-hood is mainly a reaction to the restrictive social structure of Japan. The NHK theory of the hikikomori is simpler, and strikes me as being more plausible: vulnerable individuals retreat into their own worlds because they can, because the structure of Japanese communities and families allows them to. It is estimated that there are a million hikikomori in Japan… I wonder how many there are in the U.S., and suspect that the number is small, but growing. Welcome to the Future!

1. Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)

On the first day of high school, Haruhi Suzumiya introduces herself to the class with what is destined to become one of the all-time classic anime monologues: “I have no interest in ordinary humans. But if there are any aliens, time-travelers, people from alternate worlds or psychics here, come to me. That is all,” then sits down and glares at no one in particular. The only person who talks to her is Kyon, and he’s perfectly prosaic, so Haruhi decides to create her own club, the SOS Brigade.

The better half of the SOS Brigade (promotional art from Newtype).

Exactly what the SOS Brigade is supposed to do is a mystery even to its members, who are shanghaied seemingly at random from the student population. One thing you do know about the SOS Brigade right from the start is that they film an amateur—very amateur—sci-fi movie. You know this because 95% of the first episode of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is taken up by a showing of Haruhi’s movie, which just starts, without any explanation at all, as the show begins. The movie—“Mikuru’s Big Adventure”—is painfully, hilariously awful—if lovingly rendered with what looks to be some expensive animation—but by the time it finishes, and Haruhi faces the audience and proclaims, “That was great, wasn’t it!,” its pretty clear that you’re watching one of the best anime of the year.

Mikuru’s Big Adventure was the most inventive way to start a new anime that I’ve seen in years, and a perfect baptism-by-fire for one of the more complex anime viewing experiences in recent memory. The first episode seems almost designed to alienate some portion of the potential audience, as do various aspects of later episodes, such as the playfully erratic series chronology, and the periodic philosophical digressions into topics like the Strong Anthropic Principle and the Omphalos Argument. The folks at Kyoto Animation took a lot of chances with Haruhi, but they delivered, in style, every time, with smart writing, simply perfect animation and voice acting, and a sense of humor that was alternately wry and absurdist. Also, lots of really cute girls, with designs based on original illustrations for the novels by Noiji Itou (of Shakugan no Shana fame). It's all coming soon to the US, via Kadokawa and Bandai, at whom I am ready to throw fistfuls of money.

Haruhi grabs life by the school tie.

It has been pointed out (by Shingo of Heisei Democracy) that Haruhi and Welcome to the NHK share an important similarity: both are fundamentally stories about bright young people coping with a post-industrial, post-bubble, post-Eva society, in which their successes and failures alike are largely irrelevant. But while the characters in NHK wind up hiding in dark corners, hugging their knees and trembling, Haruhi marches right up to Society, grabs it by the tie, and forces it to fetch her a cup of tea. In Haruhi, the deadening influence of modern culture is metaphorically represented by “Closed Space,” an empty alternate world that threatens to replace the cosmos whenever Haruhi gets too melancholic. Closed Space is always beaten back, of course, when Haruhi’s natural enthusiasm and monolithic will reassert themselves, with a little help from the SOS Brigade.

Haruhi is an extraordinarily rich anime, and even the weaker episodes (the two desert island stories...) only look bland in comparison to the rest of the series; they're still better than just about anything else out there at the moment. The clear fan-favorite is the school festival episode, Live Alive, and the festival’s ENOZ concert. In Live Alive, the supremely self-absorbed Haruhi, miracle of miracles, volunteers to help a student band whose singer and bassist are incapacitated. The concert looks like it’s going to be a joke: Haruhi is not the best singer or guitarist in world, and she’s wearing a bunny suit. She’s recruited Yuki Nagato, the SOS Brigade’s “silent character,” to play bass, and Yuki is still in the witch costume from her fortune-telling booth. But when the concert starts, the audience, on both sides of the TV screen, is helplessly drawn in: it’s remarkably effective, and I have to admit to getting a little choked up when watching this scene. Outside of the school auditorium, it has started raining, and the world is cold and gray, while inside, Haruhi is pouring her heart out on stage, and once again the SOS Brigade has foiled the creeping advance of Closed Space. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a strong early contender for anime of the decade.

Yuki rocks.

Well, that’s it for 2006. In 2007, I’ll be looking forward to a return visit to Hinamizawa in Higurashi 2, and to more overpowered magical girl combat in Nanoha StrikerS. Makoto Shinkai (of the jaw-dropping one-man OAV Hoshi no Koe) is directing a new film, 5 Centimeters per Second, and Gainax is promising to release the first of a series of new theatrical productions that re-imagine the quintessential anime of the 1990s, Evangelion. Director Hideaki Anno is supposed to be involved, so maybe it won't just be a FLCL crypto-sequel with lots of Eva references.

Happy New Year!


Alex said...

Interesting that our tastes are similar. But where's Honey & Clover 2? Maybe you should do a top 10!

Matt said...

Yup, H&C 2 would probably make the top ten list, along with various other shows in my introductory apology ^_^

hm.... said...

hmmm..... i agree to all but one. Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu?
i watched it but i don't know why everyone likes it so much? Maybe it's because i have bad taste? Well, anyways i don't like Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu cause it's ...ummm....not-so-interesting.....Bleach is better!And higurashi rules!!