Dr. Toon looks over a period of American animation history when racism and hatred toward the Japanese was prevalent.
Red Garden: Collections 1 & 2
2008 TV Series (episodes 1-12, 13-22). Director: Ko Matsuo. 300 minutes (each). DVD, bilingual, $49.98 (each). Distributor. Funimation.
The lives of Kate, Rachel, Claire, and Rose are seemingly transparent. The upper crust of New York City engendered them. They attend a prestigious academy. Everything should be at their fingertips: boys, grades, the world itself. But then a blow comes that knocks them into the gutter. They're not alive at all. They're dead! More to their dismay, a mysterious woman appears, explaining the two choices before them. They can either kill zombie-like monsters and live forever, or die now.
As I've said before, anime centered on zombies/monsters and the heroes charged with their destruction is growing tiresome. So much so, that I wasn't very excited about viewing Red Garden. Fortunately, I was joyously surprised. There's actually a story here. Behind the fashionable skirts and fine coifs lurk lamentable bloodstains and failing families. The hearts and souls of these girls are being devoured by both the disappointments of life and their ineffable role as midnight assassins. There are no heroes here, only flawed humans. Moreover, these zombie-like beasts do not magically materialize from an unknown, ethereal plane. Rather, they are rooted into the familial history of the city itself. There is a greater mystery pushing the ill-fated destiny of our heroines as they choose between immortality and death. In a nutshell, Red Garden has depth, and it's hardly about action. Consequently, we witness the evolution and devolution of four would be shallow girls.
Red Garden is Gossip Girl in Hell. Set against the backdrop of gritty New York, it's got that dirty sex appeal. I highly recommend this series. Trust me, as odd as it sounds, you'll get attached to these four dramatic, and even annoying, teenage girls. In fact, when it ends, that melancholy feeling will inundate you as the wondrous OVA pierces your pupils.
Tokyo Majin, Part One: Dark Arts Chapter
2008 TV Series (fourteen episodes). Director: Shinji Ishihira. 350 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $59.98. Distributor. Funimation.
The nocturnal streets of modern-day Tokyo are littered with inexplicable vanishings and murders. Much worse, their corpses suddenly appear during the day and are controlled by dark forces. With the police clueless, who can combat this threat? That's right, high school students. Enter Tatsuma, Kyouichi, Aoi, Komaki, and Yuuya. With their supernatural powers they run the streets, intent on unveiling the uncanny force driving the undead.
OK, this is what I'm talking about. Tokyo Majin is right off the cookie-cutter press. Don't get me wrong, there's an abundance of elegantly drawn action to hold your attention. But herein lies the problem. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, story has become the slave of audience expectation. Seriously, this series is as predictable as a romantic flick inspired by a Nicholas Sparks novel! Tatsuma is the aloof expert in martial arts. Kyouichi is the bad boy, whose attitude is as sharp as his bokuto. Aoi is our naïve heroine, who is coming to terms with her powers and her attraction to Tatsuma. Komaki takes down the undead with her unwavering skill in Kyudo. The clichés of anime thus run rampant on the streets of Tokyo Majin. And, of course, duels between humans and monsters always end on a point of supposedly-uncertain climax. Get the point? Or do I need to delve more into this horror induced, supernatural Scooby-Doo?
If you're a fan of the usual "teenager battles monster with sword and fist" anime, then pick up Tokyo Majin. It's not bad. It's even entertaining. But it would be nice to see a little more creativity and innovation. I should also mention that this DVD represents only the first fourteen episodes. So, it may get better.
Negima: Season 2, Part 1
2008 TV Series (thirteen episodes). Director: Shin Ohnuma. 315 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $59.98. Distributor. Funimation.
Assigned the task of teaching English at Mahora Academy in Japan, Negi Springfield is a 10-year-old wizard from England. His dream: to become a Magister Magus (a master wizard) and to find his missing father. There's just one problem. Mahora Academy is a school for girls! Consequently, Negi's path to greatness and familial unification is comically paved with magical contests and awkward teenage hormones.
Negima is the brain child of Ken Akamatsu, who is largely known for his bishojo work, anime/manga defined by its highly-attractive female characters and lightly sprinkled with romantic comedy. Since 31 girls in tiny plaid uniforms surround Negi, romantic comedy does ensue. But Akamatsu focuses more on the comedy and less on the romance. Conscientious temptation sweats from the pores of these girls and this boy. Accordingly, such self-consciousness yields remarkable hilarity. As Negi and the girls take on supernatural threats and academic exams, they intentionally engage in a libidinous banter that playfully reflects all aspects of Japanese culture, whether this be samurai, anime, or Japanese art itself. And while romantic tension does build between Negi and his student Asuna Kagurazaka, a loving union is not the point. Negima has one goal: the creation of a metafictional comedy (it knows it's being funny) reminiscent of hit TV shows like Moonlighting or even Family Guy.
The pre-teen age of most of the characters does make this series juvenile. Nevertheless, it's pretty damn cute.
School Rumble: Second Semester, Part 2
2008 TV Series (thirteen episodes). Director: Takaomi Kanasaki. 305 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $59.98. Distributor. Funimation.
School Rumble: Second Semester continues the problematic love triangle between shy Tenma, the enigmatic Karasama and the thuggish artist Harima. Be that as it may, the fictional Yagami High School is never a mundane, repetitious environment. While Harima lacks the courage to confess his love to Tenma, he falls into romantic situations with her best friend Eri and her younger sister Yakumo. Oh yeah, this ain't no drama! Let the hilarious hijinks begin!
School Rumble is arguably a high-school age Friends or Seinfeld, Japanese-style. For a series that runs 52 episodes, the love triangle between Tenma, Karasama, and Harima is the essential plot. If so, how can it run so long? Well, it's not the point. This love triangle is an excuse for Jin Kobayahsi, the author, to comically and self-consciously (here comes that big word again: metafiction) play with Japanese culture and the genre of manga itself. ThrouSchool Rumble knows very well what it is: manga (or in this case anime). Consequently, comedy arises from a series of hilarious non-sequiturs rooted in the genre itself: cybernetic love, girl-on-girl action, a shipwreck and even a fugitive red panda. Fun and play, Japanese-style, surround our romantically-inept protagonists. In true comic fashion, the series as whole isn't really about anything (just like Seinfeld)!
If you fashion yourself an expert on manga, anime, and Japanese pop culture, you'd better know School Rumble.
Afro Samurai: Resurrection
2009. Director: Fuminori Kizaki. 97 minutes. DVD $34.98. Distributor. Funimation.
The last time we met Afro Samurai he had avenged his father and entered a life of tranquility. Our afro-draped hero had reaped the rewards of playing the good samurai. Yet, epic heroes cannot remain dormant for long. After the body count stacks up, the past always comes knocking. Fortunately for us, the past manifests in the curvaceous form of Sio. This hottie will stop at nothing to avenge those who have fallen before the hip-hop blade. And, of course, to be the best means you have to kill the best. To wear the number-one headband elicits a life continually defined by single combat, a life lived on the razor's edge. The journey of Afro Samurai is far from over.
OK, at this point who doesn't know Afro Samurai? The marriage of Samuel L. Jackson with Bob Okazaki's animated offspring has arguably reinvigorated the popularity of anime in the West. Forget otaku and the stereotypical cosplayer. Afro Samurai is the topic of conversation at the water cooler, the locker room, and even the bar at Le Cirque! How did this happen? Well, take an age-old samurai tale of vengeance and redemption, blend the immaculate world of medieval Japan with futuristic technology, sprinkle in beats by RZA, and lastly add one hyperbolic afro and you have an atemporal hybrid of Japanese culture and Western hip hop rhythms. From the elegantly drawn sword duels to the bootylicious Sio, Afro Samurai: Resurrection engages its contemporary audience with a world both familiar and fantastic. Finally, someone knows how to reinvent a story as old as man itself! Moreover, as Afro and Sio collide, we get a further peek into the past of our beloved, bad-ass samurai. This is a great, bloody ride! When is the next installment coming out?!
With voiceovers by Samuel L. Jackson, the delectable Lucy Liu and even Mark Hamill, Afro Samurai: Resurrection is not just anime. It's film, art even. After all, it could only be produced at this very moment in time.
Raised on such iconic, westernized giants as G-Force, Voltron and Robotech, James Brusuelas is a classicist and freelance writer based out of Orange County in Southern California.