2003 was all about schoolkids doing shit they shouldn’t be doing. That phrase describes most anime series, but the exception here is that they were doing bad stuff in genuinely good ways.
Gunslinger Girl is one of the few “little girls doing stuff adults normally do” series that works. The logic is a bit convoluted, but it comes off as a plausible action anime scenario: Unwanted girls are taken in by the Italian government, worked over Million Dollar Man-style, and turned into black ops types. Yeah, as far as action scenarios go I can buy that.
It’s this situation that leads Gunslinger Girl to its strongest point. I love the juxtaposition between the quiet, character-driven moments and the brutal action scenes. This juxtaposition best compares to Beat Takeshi’s yakuza movies, like Sonatine and Hana-bi. Takeshi’s movies usually consist of slow, dialogue and atmosphere-driven scenes that establish a certain feeling. In Hana-bi, the main character is taking his dying wife on one last trip across the countryside before she passes away. Most of these scenes are quiet and minimalistic. They do a good job of conveying that feeling of impending loss and the attempt to make these last few weeks memorable. This atmosphere is occasionally disturbed by flashes of violence. The main character is also on the run from the yakuza, since he pulled a fast one on them and stole a good amount of money or something along those lines. They want him dead and don’t give a damn about him trying to spend some time with his dying wife. Because of this vendetta, Hana-bi erupts into moments of intense, unforgiving, graphic violence. These scenes are short, but they do a good job of contrasting with the serene moments that dominate the rest of the movie.
This is Gunslinger Girl’s main strength as well. Despite their virtual slavery to the Italian government, the girls try to live relatively normal lives. They like normal stuff. They like hanging out. They like gossiping and whatever else. They do their best to pretend that their lives are like any other kid’s. Then, when everything seems relatively normal, they have to kill people. This gives the action scenes a degree of weight that you usually don’t see in anime. Not only do you care about whether the girls will survive, there’s also a certain degree of uncomfortableness in seeing them fight. While the action is fairy visceral, since the scenes are well-choreographed, you almost feel bad for enjoying the carnage. These girls shouldn’t be forced into performing such acts of violence, but you enjoy watching it none the less. It brings the idea of why we enjoy violence to the forefront and makes you pause to ask yourself if you should be enjoying such spectacle.
Yeah, I have no shame in enjoying it.
Cromartie High School
It’s completely normal for a robot, an ape, and Freddie Mercury to go to a Japanese high school along with all of the town’s delinquents. Yep, nothing out of the ordinary there. That’s the root of Cromartie’s charm: outrageous, outlandish things are presented in a dry, matter-of-fact way. “Yeah, aliens invaded yesterday. What else is new?”
Most anime series would overplay these quirks or have these quirks not be quirks at all by having everything be strange. That’s to say that most anime series go for overexaggeration while Cromartie goes for an approach that’s a bit out of the norm for an anime comedy. It best compares to a British comedy series than most anime comedies. Look at a British comedy like The Young Ones. That series has all sorts of outlandish puppets and characters mixed into a comedy about slacker college students, but these bizarre things are presented to the audience as if this is how things are in everyday life. “So London flooded and there are sharks swimming outside the house. What else is new?”
And much like Azumanga Daioh from the previous year, Cromartie High School has a certain sadistic streak to it. Mechazawa, the signature robot character of the series, is often destroyed, manhandled, and deconstructed into various household objects and no one ever seems to care. He’s just a robot after all, but he’s also a humanized and sympathetic one. Hell, he’s probably the smartest and kindest character in the entire series and he’s abused for our amusement. That’s saying something about people when we find great humor in the most innocent of people being tormented for our amusement. Shoving over a Chiyo in a penguin suit? Essentially killing Mechazawa to turn him into a motorcycle? That’s just plain sadistic. That’s how I like my comedy.
There isn’t that much to say when it comes to straight-up comedy series. You can only say “this is how it’s funny” so many times. So, yeah, it’s funny. Watch it already.
Best of the Year
After watching Air Master, you’ll never need to watch another fighting anime again. Forget Dragonball Z, Naruto, Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, and all that other crap. You can still care about Fist of the North Star, but that’s an exception to the rule. Air Master is the fighting anime. It takes everything that you’ve seen in these formulaic, tournament-based (even when there isn’t a tournament proper), face-punching series and deconstructs these elements to their base elements. Once these base elements are found, Air Master reconstructs them atom by atom to form the pinnacle of martial arts anime.
There is no other fighting god but Maki. She is the one true god. Goku, Ichigo, and all the others are naught but golden cow idols in comparison.
Air Master’s choreography is on par with the best live action martial arts movies. Instead of relying on energy blasts, esoteric “moves,” flashing screens, and other animation and narrative shortcuts, Air Master utilizes actual fight choreography in its fights. You know where each character is in relationship to each other. When a character punches or kicks, you see what they’re doing. When Maki puts someone into a wrestling hold, you see how she’s grabbing the person. You could recreate some of the more mundane moves just by watching them. You could do a sports-styled play-by-play of what’s happening and not resort to “he’s powering up” styled commentary. This is as “real” as exaggerated anime fights can get, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Air Master would easily be one of the best fighting anime series ever simply based on the choreography alone, but the series doesn’t stop with that. The characters themselves deconstruct many of the stereotypes you see in such series. The main character, Maki, boils down all of the desires and backstories and motivations of your typical fighting anime leads. She doesn’t fight because she has a purpose or a destiny or anything like that. Maki fights for the most basic and primal reason: she fights because that’s the only thing that makes sense to her. She gets off on punching and kicking people. She’s alive when she’s flying through the air and can’t get that sense of purpose in any other way. And when you boil down any other fighting anime lead’s motivations, that’s what you get. Deep down inside, Goku and Naruto and every other main character hits people because they know no other way to express themselves. They’re simple, basic, primordial creatures, and there’s nothing wrong with this fact. Air Master simply acknowledges this idea as fact in a way that no other anime before or since. Air Master knows what fighting is about and leaves those details out in the open.
Air Master also dissects the concept of the “rival” character in the guise of Sakiyama. She’s the Vegeta to Maki’s Goku. She’s that character that wants nothing more than to see the main character ruined and prone before their feet, but she also wants no one else to have that pleasure. Sakiyama will do anything to ensure that she is the one to defeat Maki, even if that means rushing to her aid in a tag team bout. Maki is her kill, and she’ll do what it takes to be the one to get that kill. And because of this single-mindedness she can weather any foe and any situation. She has the titular iron will that you see in such rival characters, and the series makes no attempt to mask the source of her might. Sakiyama is powered by her lust for Maki. That lust isn’t sexual. It’s an instinctual drive. Sakiyama knows that Maki is her ultimate nemesis, and she draws power from this knowledge. Without Maki, Sakiyama wouldn’t be a force to be reckoned with, not unlike how Vegeta is nothing without the influence of Goku or how Ryoga is nothing without his rivalry with Ranma. These characters are defined by their nemesis, and Air Master again showcases this fact for all to see.
Air Master’s other deconstructions are a bit more subtle. I’m convinced that Renge, the short “mascot” character, isn’t “short” or younger than the other characters. I’m convinced that she’s an actual midget. The series makes no attempt to say that she’s younger than her classmates, and to my knowledge her height was never really used as a gag. Couple this with the fact that the other “short” character in the series, a mad scientist type, is acknowledged to have a husband and acts fairly “adult-like,” I think the only logical conclusion is that Renge is a midget. That’ a subtle jab at kid characters and “characters that are short for no logical reason.” There’s other jabs at fighting anime tropes, but that’s the one that sticks out the most in my mind.
Air Master essentially takes an entire genre’s traditions and condenses them into one season’s worth of episode. In all seriousness, once you’ve watched Air Master you’ve seen nearly every fighting anime ever. That’s the series’ brilliance.
Addendum: I’ll go on the record as saying that Kaori Sakiyama’s probably the greatest anime character from this decade. Second place would probably go to Ladd Russo from Baccano, Liang Qi from Canaan, or Chiri Kitsu from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, but more on them when we get to those respective years. Notice a trend in my favorite characters?