Vrai’s Favorite Things: Anime (5 to 1)

Numbers 20-16
Numbers 15-11
Numbers 10-6

Here we are – the end of the countdown. The anime that are nearest and dearest to me. The ones that I’m quite happy to proselytize with all the spare air in my lungs  and talk about until the sun comes up. (I feel almost as though I should give brief mention to the anime that almost-but-not-quite made the list. Eh, perhaps another day).

If you’re of legal age and in the mood for a quick bout of stomach pumping, feel free to take a shot with every glowing superlative I bust out this week. Your liquor cabinets will be as empty as my heart is full.

the cutest

5. Baccano! (2007)

Watch it On: Youtube, Hulu (listen, I don’t care how you track it down, but this may be the one case where the dub is superior to the sub in every conceivable way – find it, dear readers)

In Brief: In 1932 a transcontinental steam train crosses the US, and arrives with over half the passengers slaughtered. In 1931, a girl tries to navigate between feuding mafia families to find her missing brother. In 1930, an elixir with fantastic properties winds up in unlikely hands. In 1711, the passengers of a storm tossed ship seek answers in the occult. Wherever you choose to start a story, there’s always a new perspective to tell.

A Depression-era gangster story, with supernatural underpinnings, told in the style of Pulp Fiction? Shut up and take my money. And that’s vefore we even get to (what you may have gathered) my pet fondness for stories-about-stories, a theme that the show uses its unique structure to explore with a deft hand. Baccano! is part of what is easily my favorite trend in Japanese media: the retelling of inherently Western genres (cowboys and gangsters, as the show’s commentary track posits, may be some of America’s only true native myths) through an Eastern lens. Like being told a movie secondhand, it’s less about the story itself and more about viewing the trappings of that story colored by their storyteller, making something old that is also new. And this is a show that’s done its research, too.

Not that historical accuracy is ever going to be the point in a show where someone gets pumped full of lead and gets up just fine (the Tarantino homage extends not just to the narrative structure but to some pretty creative gore), and the world’s most harmless robbers charm their way from coast to coast. Nah, the setting is all just a heady atmosphere of originality for the characters stewing in it (and the ecstatic energy with which the show executes its every moment). And what characters they are, lively and unique and lovable. Even on a first watch, when the piecemeal story might seem confusing, the strength of the personalities onscreen is always enough to ferry audience interest through (this might be one of the most delightfully character driven stories on this list, too – at every juncture there’s a tangible sense of how a character’s actions reverberates through the story and against the actions of others, creating the “white noise” for which the series is named).

And speaking of characters, Baccano! has a special place in my heart for the writing of its couples, in that it has them. Not two people on a team who have squishy feelings for each other and occasionally forget that knocking on bathroom doors is a thing, only to tentatively not-admit said squishy feelings to each other at the end and avoid any type of realistic conflict; no, the relationships are two peoplewhose feelings are long since settled, and who face the world and its problems as a unit, who squabble and face danger but unquestionably have each other’s backs. Nor is every relationship written the same (I’d take some diversion from the aggressive heteroness around every corner, but nothing is perfect), offering unique dynamics from sadist and masochist Ladd and Lua, to opposites-attract childhood sweethearts Nice and Jacuzzi, to perfectly matched idiot savants Isaac and Miria. It may be a small thing, but in a show that shoulders so much of its appeal on its cast, it makes a noticeable difference.

A final note on the dub: this isn’t just a great dub. It’s the crown jewel of English dubs. Its cast is a mix of unknowns (Maxey “Chrona and Alphonse” Whitehead made her debut here) underutilized actors from Funimation’s stable (am I the only one who hadn’t heard Bryan Massey in anything since Dragonball?), and big names who are all about the part rather than their ego (blessedly, there is no Vic Mignogna in sight). Combine that with a quick witted and lovingly adapted script filled with creative touches and slang from the era, and you have a heartaching labor of love that is absolutely not to be missed.


4. Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2012)

Watch it On: Hulu, Funimation (both language tracks are quite solid, if you were wondering, give or take a superior Japanese Lupin and English Oscar)

In Brief: “Who is Fujiko Mine?” Entrancing to many, known to few, the clever lady thief wants nothing more than to live free, taking whatever catches her eye. But between fellow thieves, cops, and an ominous organization of owls, freedom may not be as much in her grasp as she thinks it is.

Oh look, another show I spent several months of my life dissecting out of love. In many ways, this series came out of nowhere like an answer to my prayers, both the regeneration of and the sustaining embers of my love for the Lupin franchise. Lupin has a lot to offer in the way of imaginative heists, physical comedy, lovable rogues…but its consideration for women has always bordered on lukewarm at best, never more obvious than by the fact that its one recurring female character is a habitual backstabber (in a world where the thieves can mostly be trusted to have honor to each othere) and as like as not (depending on the capability of the writer) to have all the consistency and intrigue of a busty sheet of paper.

It’s something of a historical black mark, the kind you deal with and excuse to age. You know when you like something and habitually wonder what it might’ve been like without its telltale flaws (like, what if the original Evangelion had been able to manage its budget, or what if Black Butler II had had the guts to just focus on its new characters instead of shoehorning in the old ones to disastrous effect) but have resigned yourself to never knowing the answer? Well, this show is that answer, strong enough to stand alongside the franchise but without eclipsing it. Its question: what is a Lupin III that looks not at women but from her perspective?

And as a work building off a franchise tradition, it’s a damn canny one – the show’s littered with homages to works from that 40 year history (and I mean in a ‘oooh this is thematically relevant’ way rather than the JJ Abrams ‘how can we cynically pretend we care about this storied history’ way), and its black comedy noir is both like and removed from the black cynicism of the original manga.

What’s that you say? You have no interest in the past works of one of anime’s greatest pop cultural icons? That’s fine, because this series is here for you too (as I believe I mentioned, I was familiar with and fond of precious little Lupin before this series tugged me all the way back in). It’s an excellent and intriguing introduction to the characters if you want to seek further, a masterfully plotted stand-alone thriller if you don’t (and dark, whoo boy is it dark, if an entirely earned and never gratuitous darkness – what with central themes involving child abuse and psychological torture). Its visual aesthetic is breathtaking, its direction assured and tightly controlled (this is Sayo Yamamoto’s second series, showing more promise by the day), and its noir tone pervaded with enough dark humor and creative action (the theme park climax features an especially dazzling roller coaster sequence) to keep from feeling ponderous or unbearable.

Perhaps what endears it most closely to my heart is its refusal to waste its opportunities. Wrapped up in the central idea from which the story blooms are a series of incisive and well executed themes: about how women are confined by the expectations of others, about how their voices are coopted and controlled, and about the rediscovery of identity and self (as well as, through its only new addition to the major cast, a gut-wrenching thematic play on queer voices). It does all of this without falling into didacticism or blunt-force trauma to the viewer, urging them to think on these things without derailing the characters that we’ve come to invest in. It’s brilliant, brilliant storytelling.

While its self-contained nature has earned it accusations of being essentially pointless, I would step back and ask them whether they’re really accusing the Lupin franchise of being in dire need of continuity. Nay, far better to have a breath of fresh air in the wake of content that spent a near decade stewing in its own juices of increasingly unimaginative mediocrity (there’re a few gems, but mostly everything post-First Contact is one long descent of bland). Better to try something new, to fearlessly experiment with characters who endure because they are essentially timeless, because they take to different themes and tones and time periods without losing their essential essence. It’s doing what the series has always done best: variation on a theme, playing in an infinite sandbox that finally saw fit to let someone new in.


3. Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)

Watch it On: Youtube, Hulu (tragically only the dub is legally available. Which is better than nothing, but only marginally. It’s…it’s a pretty awful dub)
UPDATE: the sub is now legally available to stream here

In Brief: Utena comes to Ohtori Academy seeking the mysterious prince who once gave her a rose sigil ring, having sworn on that day to become a prince herself. She quickly gets drawn into the Student Council’s duels over Anthy, the so called “Rose Bride” said to give her betrothed the power to revolutionize the world.

You may be noticing something of a pattern here. Yes, it’s another character-centric show with queer undertones, fantastical elements, and enough thematic density for a viewer to drown in (as well as being the crown jewel of feminist allegory)! Every argument that pops to mind for why you should watch this show seems somehow trite: it’s the magnum opus of an industry great! It is to shoujo what Evangelion is to mecha! It’s a poignant and thorough exploration of the pains of adolescence! It’s really, really pretty and surreal! It’s surprisingly funny and charming for a show relegated to the dusty halls of Very Important Works!

All those things are true, but they fail to sculpt the whole image of what I love so much about this show. At the end of all that craft, ingenuity, and beauty, what I really love is how deeply earnest this show is. This is a show that values its cast, and strives to show them all to us at both their best and worst. Even in the sea of Technicolor hair, every character feels vulnerable and real and young in a way that High School Anime almost never captures successfully. Their problems are individual and yet grand, pieces of a system that holds them (and, by extension, us) back; from Saionji’s self-loathing and raging male entitlement to Anthy’s quiet, cutting vengeances on a world that’s constantly strangling her.

Characters that start out as stock archetypes or petty villains are all allowed their day of understanding if not redemption, striking a tone that’s often true to life in the face of all those people getting swords pulled out of their chests. And speaking of – when I say it’s a show about adolescence, it’s not content to idle over the surface level gripes of fitting in at school or getting awkward feelings for that kid you didn’t know you like (though it also covers those). Issues of sexuality, self-worth, abuse, codependency, coercion, and self-destruction are all taken on with a careful hand and a touch that isn’t flinching but doesn’t allow itself to wallow (and makes damned clever use of that symbolism in what aired, beginning to end, as a children’s show).

It’s not a series that’s in any hurry, walking casually through the lives of its duelists and their loved ones and exploring the tangled webs of love and hate and uncertainty that’s a part of growing up. For those inclined to stick it out, though, it culminates in a beautiful tapestry of a love story and a credo about self-worth and breaking free of the coffins of predetermined roles.


2. Tiger & Bunny (2011)

Watch it On: Hulu, Available to rent on Youtube but fuck that nonsense (sub, watch the sub, it’s not the same without Hirata’s Kotetsu – the dub is pretty good for a second watch, though the adaptive script plays a bit too fast and loose for my liking, particularly in a show that leans so heavily on comparatively subtle and deliberate characterization moments via dialogue)

In Brief: In the last 100 years there’s been an influx of humans born with superpowers, known as NEXT. Never one to miss an opportunity, the media turned those NEXT into heroes, and the heroes into hugely popular reality TV. Veteran hero (and idealist) Kotetsu, supposedly ‘past his prime,’ is paired with the calculating star rookie Barnaby Brooks Jr. as the hero world’s first duo.

Continuing on with our theme, T&B is a far richer experience than the paint by numbers buddy comedy its summary implies. Intention isn’t much if it doesn’t show up in the end results, but if you reverse engineer a show that ‘feels’ as different as this, you’re quite likely to find a refreshing perspective.

For example: T&B’s series director comes from a background of live action dramas, leading to an unprecedented level of nuanced body language and nonverbal clues in the characters; it was explicitly made to appeal to an older audience who had been fans of anime and manga but fallen out of it due to adult responsibilities, resulting in an older lead (Barnaby is 24, Kotetsu is at least in his mid-30s) and a tone that balances the wonder of the hero gig with the mundane responsibilities and disappointments of adult life; the creative team wanted to create a series that embraced the worldwide popularity of anime, leading to a multi-racial and ethnic cast and a global over regional sensibility, and BluRay releases that came with English subtitles for fans interested in imports.

Those factors color what makes the show so great, but they’re not even all of it. For a show that loves bombastic superhero action it takes care to preserve a delicate humanity to its characters, taking stock story tropes and making them into something human and endearing. It carries the subtlety of its live action roots while taking full advantage of the animated world, and is tenfold the richer for it.

Famously, director Ozaki stated that the relationship between Kotetsu and Barnaby was deliberately created to be interpretable as a friendship or a romance. It’s a move I would normally call marketing bullshit on, but in this case it feels fairly true to the understated nature of the show (and it helps that the show is a) not afraid to have female characters around without falling into the trap of using them as ‘Totally Not Gay’ shields and b) never uses that cheap Sherlock move of having the characters denounce assumptions of a relationship while playing up the subtext for all the dirty money it’s worth). And that relationship (you get no points for guessing my interpretive sway) is the glue that holds the whole thing together, founded in two flawed peoples’ attempts to get over past pains and heartbreaks and lean on each other, causing more than a little new heartbreak in the process. The slow growth of that trust never feels manufactured even when hitting on moments that should feel predictable, and it tackles natural developments (like what comes after the initial tsundere-lack-of-trust stage) with the same earnestness and heart that makes the rest of the series such a treat to watch. Combined with a killer ensemble cast, strong pacing (half episodic content that highlights the supporting characters, half building underlying mystery), and a fantastic soundtrack, this is a must for anyone who’s ever held love in their heart for the medium.

take a poor sinner's hand

1. Gankutsuou – The Count of Monte Cristo (2004)

Watch it On: Youtube, Hulu (Sub. Suuuuuuuub. Risk missing veteran Joji Nakata act against then-breakout star Jun Fukuyama? Perish the thought)

In Brief: Young nobles Albert Du Morceff and Franz D’Epinay run afoul of gangs during their trip to Lunar Carnivale, only to be saved by the much-rumored and little seen Count of Monte Cristo. Captivated by the worldly and mysterious Count, Albert offers to be the man’s guide to reintegrating in Parisian society, not at all suspecting the wolf he may have welcomed at the door.

Perfect. I go round and around trying to find apt words for describing this series, not only my favorite anime but what I’d describe as the objective best, and ‘perfect’ is the groove I keep settling back into. Best known for its unique visual design (don’t watch the first few scenes of Carnivale in a moving car, by the way), Gankutsuou is brilliant from the ground up, both in its handling of the source material and on its own merits.

Cards on the table: this isn’t just The Greatest Anime, it’s also the most capable adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo that I’ve ever lain eyes on. Part of that is down to format – over 1000 pages of print is going to look much better on a two cour series than a two hour movie every time – but thematic focus is a big part of it too. Dumas’ original novel is a good old fashioned melodrama about a wronged man who visits just desserts on those who ruined his life. Gankutsuou is a tragedy about the corrosive effect of vengeance as framed through the would-be collateral damage. It’s a brilliant move, and the only time you’ll ever hear me say ‘wow, I’m really glad they decided to focus on the teenagers in this story over the adult characters.’ The aura of bewilderment and conspiracy that hangs over the main characters (much like the seemingly insurmountable adulthood they’ll soon face), stemming from that one moment in time, wouldn’t have been replicable without the finagling of the narrative structure. And that’s what the very best adaptations do: they resurrect old works in new lights, bringing new interpretation and meaning to a story culture has numbed itself to or forgotten.

So we find ourselves, through Albert (not infrequently accused of being too gullible to live, though given my predilection toward similarly blind hero worship at his age I’m inclined towards empathy), playing witness to a tragedy from outside; and through Albert, we dance constantly on the edge of watching a cycle repeat itself.

Gankutsuou is in no hurry to show its hand, a fact that works wonders in its favor. Saying a show is a slow-burn is often a kind way of saying it’s dull, but the underlying tension at play (we figure out much more quickly than Albert that something’s amiss, but are locked out from grasping the larger picture until things are already falling apart) keeps the viewer invested as the plot carefully and deliberately sets up its dominoes for maximum effect. Not a second of the show is a wasted effort, balancing a sizable cast and their interlocking conspiracies while weaving us further into the web of the Count’s machinations (Nakata’s voice work here is a marvel, turning the Count into a deeply beguiling figure even as we know he isn’t to be trusted). And it is possibly the single best use of throwing a concept IN SPACE that I’ve ever seen, letting the aesthetic revel in full realization of its potential while bringing us closer to the emotions of the characters for grounding.

It’s a show that reflects its two leads almost unexpectedly: cerebral and calculated in structure and artistry, heartfelt and idealistic in its themes and the fervent beat of its emotional moments. It’s a show I take out to rewatch every year or two (since 2006, making it the eight year reigning champ) and always find myself caught by familiar emotions even as my eye is caught by some new and clever detail. When my well runs dry, it reminds me why I love anime.

9 replies »

  1. It’s always lovely seeing Baccano sung praises. I also agree with you that it’s possibly the best English dub out there, and though I haven’t seen the original I might hazard a guess that the American voices actually give the world and the story an extra layer of character. I like your note about the couples, too! Always appreciate a good battle couple, or hey, a couple that can function in a story without the writers having to create drama around them for a perceived need for tension.

    Tiger and Bunny was marvellous fun too. Is the movie any good, though? I have yet to lay eyes on it

    • I actually haven’t gotten round to The Beginning (while I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, its status as a recap movie with bonus material hasn’t put me in any rush). The Rising, though, (which I was lucky enough to see in a theater during its limited US run) is ABSOLUTELY worth your time for the long overdue spotlight on Fire Emblem if nothing else (Nathan’s storyline is both beautifully told and sensitively handled, and I adored it). Kotetsu and Barnaby’s development is interesting – particularly in terms of Kotetsu, who still seems a bit stuck in his arc of martyrdom versus relying on/trusting in others – but feels more like Homura’s development in Rebellion (i.e. plausible but not really an ends so much as a stepping stone) than a proper cap on the series. But yes, absolutely worth checking out.

  2. The only one I haven’t seen out of that list is Tiger & Bunny — I dismissed it when it came out, thinking it wasn’t up my ally. Is the characterization really that rewarding?

    • I would stake so (but then, it wouldn’t be on my list otherwise) – it’s a nice change of pace to have a series that puts a great deal of character detail on screen but doesn’t call blunt attention to it, so the reward is any number of levels of character depth depending on how much you want to dig.

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