Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Rediscovering an old love

At some point in high school, I fell in love with anime. At that time, it seemed like a natural extension of my love of Japanese video games, which began with Mario and Zelda, and culminated with Final Fantasy IV and VI on the SNES. These latter games were personally significant for two reasons: they introduced me to complex long-form storytelling in video games, and they made me crave more from the entertainment I consumed.

Having mostly outgrown villain-of-the-day shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, and He-Man, I wanted something more - something with bite and with more relevance to my own life and the world around me; something with a little more edge and appeal to my teenage mind. Something with blood, robots, and existential angst. Little did I know that this type of entertainment was already being created in the same country that had already given me the compelling adventures of Cecil, Rosa, and Kain.

Never forget. Though simple today, this was emotional AF for me circa 1994
Oddly enough, I didn't fall into anime through the common gateways of Dragonball, Sailor Moon, or Pokemon like so many of my friends. It wasn't that I didn't like those shows; they just didn't strike a strong chord with me even if I did appreciate their aesthetics. I actually don't remember the show or series that tipped things off for me, but I'm sure the late night weekend offerings on Teletoon played a factor. Canada’s answer to The Cartoon Network frequently showed anime films on Saturday nights, and I was ready for that next level of mature animation, be it Ninja Scroll, Wings of Honneamise, or Macross Plus.

The visceral energy of Ninja Scroll distilled into one image

There was a magical feeling watching these weird and challenging movies on my own right up until midnight. They had blood. They had sex. And they dealt with mature and often uncomfortable topics, such as murder, war, betrayal, and the consequences of each. I felt like I had stumbled into another world and was part of a small secret club.

And I was. Kind of.

Thanks to a friend of ours who was part of it, my friends and I began frequenting an anime club called the Otaku Society for Anime at McMaster University in Hamilton. (OSAMU for short) They would rent out a theatre space at the university and show a hodgepodge of anime series and films for 5-7 hours on a Friday night. It was glorious, and it was where I saw my first Hayao Miyazaki movie, the mind-blowing Princess Mononoke, and where I was introduced to shows that would become part of the shared entertainment lexicon between my friends and I: Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Vision of Escaflowne just to name a few.

Teenagers with problems, religion, and giant sentient robots: the series
It was an awesome time. I got visceral reactions from these shows that I wasn't getting from anywhere else, and I felt like my mind was being challenged and opened to new and exciting ideas and stories on a regular basis. These shows were filling a need I didn't know I had, and speaking to me in a language I needed to hear; I could relate to the struggles of the characters, be inspired by them, or just be in awe of the epic themes and imagery unfolding on the screen. Sometimes, the visuals and the music were enough. Who wouldn't be moved by the absolutely wicked battle theme from Escaflowne, for instance?

Massive robot battles set to the music linked above made for levels of epicness rarely matched
One of the things that made these shows so special was how difficult they were to access for a teenager who only worked weekends and summers. A lot of them were beyond reasonable when it came to prices, often charging $40 for a VHS tape that would only have three or four episodes on it. It's what made OSAMU such an attractive option, what made Teletoon a must on Saturday nights, and what made any chance to see these shows a special occasion. While I did spend money on VHS copies of Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, and a few others, I mostly relied on borrowing tapes from friends if I wanted to watch a full series that I just couldn't afford.

Since that golden period, I've always kept a casual eye on what's been going on with anime, but I've never matched the level of unapologetic fandom I had for the medium when I was first discovering it.

Bringing things up to the present, I've been slowly adding to the Studio Ghibli library that I'm building for my two daughters, including classics like Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, and My Neighbour Totoro. As a parent, it's hard to describe the feeling of showing something that you used to love when you were younger to your child, and realizing that they love it too. I literally had to hold back tears the first time I watched Kiki's Delivery Service with my four-year-old to Kiki and saw how much she enjoyed it, even dressing like the character for Halloween, while her sister dressed up as Jiji, Kiki's black cat and closest friend.

Absolute magic
This nostalgia and wishing to pass on my love of the medium to my kids has made me take a closer look at it myself recently. I've started re-watching The Vision of Escaflowne on YouTube, and I recently finished and tremendously enjoyed a series I never got around to when I was at the height of my anime fandom: Berserk.

A bloody bromance with an ending that promises to mess you up, and a soundtrack that is just wonderful
It's incredible that many of these shows, which you used to have to pay $40 for just to watch three or four episodes, are now available in their entirety for free on YouTube. Does that take away some of the magic of having to track them down or find creative ways to get a hold of them? Maybe. I'm not sure. It's impossible to say as a thirty-six-year-old man who has been exposed to tons of television and storytelling since he first laid eyes on his first mech battle or gut-twisting graphic death. I will say that Berserk had me as captivated as any show I've watched in recent memory, though. In fact, I felt compelled to write this post just because I wanted to share my love and appreciation for the show. It gripped me, made me cheer, made me cringe, and stirred my heart in much the same way those old shows from my early fandom used to.

Going into more detail, there is a surprising amount of complexity and thematic risk-taking in this twenty-year-old show that is, at its core, about a big muscly guy who only gets meaning out of his life when he's swinging around his big sword. (plenty to take apart there, and it gets explored) Really, it's the cast of characters and how they interact with one another that makes the show worth watching, even today. There's a badass female warrior who has to struggle with being a woman in a world of men, even going into battle while dealing with her period in one episode - and it's great. There's an androgynous and explicitly bisexual leader of a mercenary group who will stop at nothing to achieve his dream of essentially ruling the world, even if it means performing sexual favours for older less attractive men who are in positions of power. And there are brutal deaths and power struggles that will anger you and hit you at the gut level. There is also rape and the implication of rape in a couple of the episodes, which is always divisive in terms of what or how much to show - if anything - but its purpose isn't to glorify, but to elicit feelings of sympathy, anger, and sadness on the part of the viewer. In those respects, the show succeeds.

In the end, anime has always been able to elicit powerful emotions from me. To keep this post relevant to this blog, most, if not all of these shows are rooted in fantasy, and just go to show how powerful an effect the genre can have on a person, and how viable it is for illuminating social, cultural, and personal issues at a relatively high level. I'm glad I've been able to rediscover my love of these fantastic shows and films through my kids, and that they still manage to engage me and fill me with real and nostalgic pathos. All the best stories do, regardless of which genre or medium they come from.
So much pathos. All the pathos. God damn it

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