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Anime Reviews: Must-Watch Anime

As a warm-up for the upcoming Anime Expo, James Brusuelas shares some of his favorite titles from the recent and not-so-recent past.

In light of the upcoming Anime Expo in Los Angeles and the Comic-Con in San Diego, I thought I would offer a few words on some anime that I just cannot stop watching. So, when you're strolling the packed halls of these convention centers, keep an eye out for these titles.

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? is a rare gem from 1984. © Bandai Visual.

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?

1984. Director: Shoji Kawamori. 115 minutes. DVD, bilingual. Distributor: Bandai Visual.

For anyone who found anime during the 1980s, Macross (a.k.a. Robotech) is a cherished word. In a very Proustian way, it can conjure up memories of hunting down manga, toys, and VHS tapes at hard-to-find comic book shops. Lynn Minmay, Rick Hunter, and Lisa Hayes, to some, are undoubtedly household names. And for Americans growing up on G.I. Joe, where no one ever dies, the drama of their lives and relationships were probably didactic in their overall influence.

Now, rather than looking back to the televised series itself, I would suggest you seek out and find this rare gem from 1984. Macross: Do You Remember Love? is a full-length Japanese feature set in 2009. In the film, which fundamentally retains the same plot structure as Robotech, the space fortress Macross has made its disastrous jump to the edge of the solar system. However, the human race now finds itself embroiled in a three-way war with the Zentrans (male Zentradi) and the Meltrans (female) as it limps back to Earth. Here, the familiar love triangle between Hikaru Ichuyo (Rick), Misa Hayase (Lisa), and Lynn Minmay unfolds. But by the time they reach Earth, it has already been destroyed, and only the remnants of an ancient song can ultimately reveal the common ancestry between the humans, Zentrans, and Meltrans.

Obviously, for anyone familiar with this long-running series, there are no surprises in regard to story line. The love triangle works out as expected, as does the eventual alliance between the aliens and humans. Be that as it may, the sheer artistry of this production is a visual feast. That's right; it was all done by hand. Moreover, it still surpasses (in my opinion) any of the computer-enhanced anime being produced nowadays. Better yet, this film displays a powerful dramatic vein that is undeniable, even to the toughest critic. At its heart lies the concept of protoculture -- literally, the "first culture." And this is what Macross/Robotech is all about; the discovery of mankind's origin, and what it ultimately means to the future of the race.

Macross: Do You Remember Love? is undoubtedly a classic, since Robotech literally gave birth to a generation of anime fans (myself included). Find it.

Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles taps into what made the original series so popular: the lead characters and their families. © Funimation.

Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles

2006. Director: Tommy Yune. 88 minutes. DVD. Distributor: Funimation.

In anticipation of the Robotech booth at the Anime Expo next month, I feel compelled to mention this somewhat new series. Tommy Yune (its director) will be there talking about the future of the project, as well as perhaps announcing the live-action feature film. Now, this is arguably the most successful Robotech series since the original television series of the 1980s. After all, unlike the rather uninteresting sequels produced over the years (Macross II, Macross Plus, etc.), The Shadow Chronicles taps into what made Robotech so popular: the original characters and their families. Finally, we have a sequel that incites our curiosity and desire to know what happened to Admiral Rick Hunter, Max Sterling, Dana Sterling, Scott Bernard, etc.

Literally picking up where the earlier series ended, Shadow Chronicles finds the alien invaders the Invid abandoning the Earth and abruptly ending their war with the Robotech Expeditionary Force. From this point, two main story lines dominate the plot. First, as Scott Bernard reunites with the RDF, his love interest Ariel quickly follows. However, her actions are not so much fueled by emotion, but by premonitions of a new and deadly enemy on the horizon. Second, Vince Grant, who has been sent to find Rick Hunter and the missing SDF-3, encounters a mysterious alien fleet that easily forces him to jump back to Earth's orbit. Not surprisingly, the alien force Vince encounters is the same entity that appeared in Ariel's vision. The long-alluded-to Children of the Shadow finally appear on the Robotech scene!

For fans of the Robotech series, Yune is a veritable prophet, if not savior. He has blended together the characters from all three series, as well as their now extended families, into one cogent story. So, it's like returning home after a long absence and reconnecting with old friends. Some new faces may appear, but in one way or another they are intimately connected to the group.

Moreover, Yune smartly uses both old and new Robotech mecha. Never-before-seen battleships of the RDF, Alpha fighters, Cyclones, and even the Skull Squadron, with their newly designed fighters, are all present. Simply put, this concise blend of the old and new firmly grounds you in the Robotech tradition, while simultaneously creating a new direction, a new path forward. Better yet, it's like you never stopped watching.

Most Robotech fans have probably seen The Shadow Chronicles already. But let's keep watching it. We finally have someone with a clear vision of how to bring the lives of these characters to a fitting conclusion.

For a tale spun around mercenaries, Area 88 features a great deal of humanity. © ADV Films.

Area 88

2005. Director: Isamu Imagake. 75 minutes. DVD. Distributor: ADV Films.

Looking back to the 1980s again, I literally stumbled upon Area 88 in its manga form. At first, it was the stunning cover art (mostly done in watercolor) that caught my eye. At the time I was very interested in military jets and flying, and so these beautifully drawn A-4 Skyhawks, F-5 Tiger Sharks, and even F-14 Tomcats excited my imagination. However, as I read, ironically. I became more interested in the characters and story line than the machines themselves.

The story of Area 88 is simple. Two friends, Shin Kazama and Satoru Kanzaki, are training to be airline pilots during the late 1970s. Lusting for Shin's girlfriend Ryoko, Kanzaki tricks his best friend into signing up as a mercenary pilot with the Middle Eastern Kingdom of Asran. Forced into service, Shin has only three options: survive his three-year contract, buy out for 1.5 million, or desert and risk being hunted down and killed.

For a tale spun around mercenaries, there is a great deal of humanity in these characters. Much as in the recent phenomenon that was ABC's Lost, each pilot has a prior life unknown to those around him. As Shin begins to develop a few friendships, as well as watch a continuous inflow of replacement pilots, the secret stories of their lives are slowly revealed. As with any good novel, you can't help but get attached. You want to know who they are and why they have turned to this lifestyle. Is it simply the chance to keep flying? Are they hiding? Or are they just plain killers?

To date, two anime versions of Area 88 exist. ADV films began releasing an updated version in 2005. For the most part, it's identical to the earlier one. However, the new version contains some new characters and often seems to lose a bit of the seriousness and drama of the original. Either way, it's still Area 88, and I think most will enjoy this tale. But you should try to find a copy of the original anime. The artistry and flow of the aerial combat is balletic, while the update suffers from CG effects that often make it stale and artificial.

Ergo Proxy has all the trappings of a successful anime series, but its philosophical underpinnings can be a challenge for some. © Geneon.

Ergo Proxy

2006. Director: Shukou Murase. 100 minutes. DVD, bilingual. Distributor: Geneon.

This smart series first caught my attention back in early 2007. Quite a few years after finding Area 88, once again a piece of cover art reached out and grabbed me. Let's just say the picture of Re-I Mayer, with her long black hair and excessive blue eyeshadow, appealed to my male sensibilities. Beyond this, the backdrop revealed a city painted in dark hues, reminiscent of The Matrix in its apocalyptic vision. And, as a fluent reader of Latin, I was curious about the use of "ergo." Needless to say, I took it home.

Ergo Proxy is indeed an apocalyptic tale. Set in the city of Romdo, which is enclosed in a dome because of an ecological disaster that has scorched the Earth, the story depicts a society rigidly controlled by a small ruling body. In this supposed utopia, humans and AutoReivs (androids) live together in a symbiotic relationship. However, a virus known as Cogito is causing self-awareness amongst the AutoReivs and disrupting Romodo's societal structure.

Against this backdrop, a series of murders have been committed. Enter Re-I Mayer, the government investigator put on the case. As she conducts her inquiry, she encounters a mysterious monster called a Proxy, which ultimately draws her outside the city walls. Her quest to solve these murders and to learn the identity of the Proxy ultimately leads to a greater truth about humanity and Romdo.

On the surface, Ergo Proxy has all the trappings of a successful anime series. There is a beautifully drawn futuristic city, androids that are often cyborgs, a plot driven by elements of the detective and suspense genres, and -- best of all -- a gun-toting hottie! That being said, this series is often criticized for its heady, if not outright philosophical, vein, which, for some, can make it a bit slow at times. Nevertheless, "ergo" plus "cogito" immediately invokes Descartes' "cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am), while "proxy" is a term that fundamentally means a substitute. Thus, the greater mystery lurking behind Romdo is the issue of identity and existence. Who and what are these humans that have survived this ecological disaster? What secret about humanity can the Proxy reveal?

Contrary to some, the philosophical bent of Ergo Proxy is not as complex as it may seem. Although some of the discourse is undoubtedly academic, roll with the punch. Crack a dictionary. Expose yourself to a piece of anime that strives to be both dense and thrilling. If you do, there's a good payoff in the end.

Raised on such iconic, westernized giants as Battle of the Planets, Voltron, and Robotech, James Brusuelas is a literary scholar, critic, and freelance writer based out of Orange County in Southern California.