Friday, October 9, 2015

Reflections of an Old-School Otaku

Anime... A collective of animation that had achieved such mainstream success it is now a catch-all category to anything that even emulates its style, regardless of its origins, even if its its a cheap cash-grab made by people who see the medium as profitable to exploit, without any understanding or respect for what they are emulating.

The mainstream success can largely be contributed to a cartoon lineup called Toonami on Cartoon Network. In 1997, Toonami was an afternoon showcase of western cartoons and some anime thrown in. If you wanted less-edited anime (that was toned down to PG-13 violence, with mild cussing and nothing too risqué), you watch their midnight run. Beyond shows like Gundam Wing and Big-O, one of the most approachable anime aired was Cowboy Bebop. Cowboy Bebop tanked in Japan, but it was a huge success in North America, with it's recognizable archetypes and pop culture references (most episodes were a nod to some American movie, and show titles based on music and album titles). This was when most adult anime fans of today first got their feet wet with the hobby. To an anime historian, Cowboy Bebop is a milestone, with BCB (Before Cowboy Bebop) and ACB (After Cowboy Bebop) used by some of the younger fans. Since then, there have been a number of TV outlets for anime, and even dedicated Netflix-styled subscription-based net-channels like CrunchyRoll.

Before this mainstream success, Japaneses anime had different name — Japanimation — and it was a whole other hobby, with a whole other fan-following. In the years BCB, the hobby was so obscure, mainstream culture had yet to find any real labels or stereotypes placed on the medium or fanship, much less be on their radar, and finding anything or anyone within the hobby was like a grand quest to find The Fabled Legendary Treasure of Epic Legends that would supposedly make you wet yourself over its greatness! Mind you, there was no internet — or what we know as in internet — so we had to brave our greatest enemy: that blinding ball of light that appears in that big blue room the inhabitants call "The Great Outdoors." Braving horrible skin-blisters and possible permanent blindness, we old-school otaku (for a lack of a better name, as we just called ourselves "fans") set forth seeking others like ourselves in darken holes called "Comic Book Shops," and grand pilgrimages to massive gathering halls called "Conventions." There, we meet new people, talk about our interests, and establish networks to help acquire the items we quest for, namely bootlegs. Before the the early-to-mid-'90s, were you could find OVAs (made-for-home-video movies or mini-series) in the "special interest" isles of video rental stores, we had to find and buy them through underground networks of pirated videos.

How this worked, was that sailors who worked in the US Navy and US Coast Guard would be stationed in Japan for a time, were they setup VCRs in their barracks to recorded shows that aired on Japanese television. Thankfully, the Betamax was a highly popular recording system in Japan, as it produce higher quality video than the VHS — unfortunately, that was the standard system in the US. So, when the sailors come home, they sell their tapes to people who would use those tapes as master copes for a massive collection of bootlegs. They would duplicate the shit out of the master copy, and then those copes would be further and further duplicated into granny-as-shit copes. This is a lot like the first "wood-grain box" edition of OD&D, where only one-hundred copes of D&D were published so far, and sold out quickly, so most people had to contend with granny multi-generation Xerox copes of the rules until TSR were able to get more copes to market. They also used video equipment to add translated subtitles (of differing quality) in an old video font that would become harder and harder to read with each new generation. Those bootlegs would then get distributed in conventions, and were sold as "behind the counter merchandise" at comic book shops, where they were not advertised to the general public (they were technically illegal contraband). Although, fans know when a comic book shop sold bootlegs and other anime merchandise (typically toys and model kits), as they would have posters of anime series and characters covering the front widows alongside more iconic scifi characters and comic book superheroes. As a kid, there was no better sight then a storefront with posters and cardboard standies of Captain Harlock, Astroboy and obscure fighting robots standing shoulder-to-shoulder to the likes of Capt. Kirk, Boba Fett, Wolverine, and Superman! (There was also Doctor Who, but I did not know who he was until I was much older.)

In those days, D&D, comic books and Japanimation often gone hand-in-hand. You not just found bootlegs and rare collectibles at comic book shops; people used to hangout in the backroom to play role-playing games. It got nerds out of their dungeons and meet fellow nerds; to play fun games, and watch "cartoons" the FCC and whinny, uptight parent groups would never allow on television. Yeah, one of the big appeals with anime is how ultra violent they can be, and the fact that they casually show T&A in programs targeted at children, but the truth is, you can see all that in R-Rated movies that fulled theaters in the '80s. But where Hollywood spends millions to produce scifi/fantasy spectaculars, animation can produce more of the same results, and have room to explore characters, concepts and settings, while taking greater risks, like mixing genres. For example, Leiji Matsumoto (of Space Battleship Yamato (Starblazers), Captain Harlock, and Galaxy Express 999 fame) likes to take mythologies and fairylands, and craft them into grand space epics with normal Earth-bound vehicles (sailing ships, steam trains, etc.) made into spaceships. While watching the series, you are pulled more and more into his worlds, full of memorable characters. His works are imaginative, beautiful, and make for great settings to role-play in. To me, he was Miyazaki, before Miyazaki.

Well, that was my experience as a kid in the '80s. With a Navel base, a Coast Guard base, lots of comic book shops, conventions that felt like monthly events, and two nerdy parents, there was a lot going on in the San Fransisco bay area for anime fans like myself. In the '90s, there was a growing market of OVAs that was a big thing for me. Yeah, much of the videos were mindless schlock, but I loved them no less. There were some great titles, like Akura, Ghost in the Shell, and Macross Plus. There was a also steady flood of localized anime like Robotech, Technoman Blade, Ronin Warriors, Samuri Pizza Cats (surprising funny, if you're old enough to get the jokes), and Dragonball (DBZ sucked balls, but the original series was great in the same way as the works of Matsumoto, as above). In the mid-or late-'90s, a PBS station in San Jose played uncut anime (subbed and dubbed) like Urusei Yatsura, Evangelion, Key the Metal Idol, alongside great British scifi like Doctor Who, Blake's 7 and Red Dwarf. The level of nerdity was off the charts!! Then there was Toonami in the late '90s that showcased a ton of anime, Anime Unleashed on G4 in '03, were found Last Exile and Serial Experiments Lain, AZN Television/International Channel was were I discovered Armored Trooper Votoms and The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, and now... Well, I dont have cable anymore ($90+/month for fucking basic! Are they out of their fucking minds!?) Now there are all sorts of options. Yeah, I have Netflix and Hulu, but their stocks are limited. I quickly found out that there are quite a number of subscription-free sites were I can see almost any anime I want!

Goddamn, video streaming would have been pure fantasy as a kid! If I had this option as a kid, I would likely missed out on great shows like Pirates of Darkwater, Fox's Peter Pan and the Pirates (that cartoon was strangely dark), Batman the Animated Series (best of the '90s), Animaniacs, Disney Afternoon and so on, as I would be too caught-up with all the edgy Japanese stuff, while dismissing the aforementioned stuff as safe, happy "cartoons." Don't get me wrong, as a kid, I loved all kind of animation, but back then, Japanimation used to be a bitch find, so you appreciated whatever you could get your hands on, regardless if its good or not. They were was so culturally obscure, it made you feel special, and with the adult content; a little rebellious. Because of all that, it felt like all anime was superior. And with that mentality, I had an elitist attitude about it, which I grew out of as I matured, as I learned that many titles I mindlessly advocated were just plain shit, while I have been too dismissive with western titles for their lack of mature content. Plus, I learned that "mature content" does not always mean it actually "mature." For example, as a kid, I was annoyed to learn that Voltron was heavily edited form the original series do to heavy violence. I was annoyed by how grown-ups changed a good show to make it more "kid friendly," despite seeing violence all the time in movies. But getting the chance to see the original GoLion series (the original title) as an adult, I was annoyed by how overly violent the show was. Basically, it was going form one extreme to another. The level of violence and brutality on display undermined all the drama, tragedy and pathos the characters are going through, and the bad guys are even more cartoonishly evil then its western counterpart! Had they tone down the violence to PG-13 levels and rewrote Prince Sincline/Lotor as a more sympathetic and misguided character, then Voltron could have been a more superior program to GoLion as far as storytelling and character depth. If they are going to make changes for the sake of a western audience, then do it right!

Nowadays, I have the luxury to be choosy with what anime I want to be invested in, to were I can better avoid dead end shit like Bleach and Inuyasha. There is such a glut of titles available to me, I can't sort though them all! I really want to find great titles, but most of them have the mentality of people who never grew past high-school — nothing but angsty-ass teens and overly-sexualized junior high-age girls! Plus, they also have to compete with some great western shows I have been caught-up with. The current is Steven Universe, which is a surprisingly deep and brilliant show, with a lot of pathos, that takes me back to why I really love shows Captain Harlock and Dragonball so much. And, if I want a truly weird and obscure collective of animation make me feel cool and special, I'll go headlong into European animation... hum...? Euro-may?  ;)

Western cartoons... Japaneses/Koren anime... European animation... Its all good!  8-)