Best of the Decade: 2003

 Air Master, Anime, Cromartie High School, Gunslinger Girl  Comments Off on Best of the Decade: 2003
Dec 222009

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.

Honorable Mentions

Gunslinger Girl

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

Air Master

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?


Dec 202009

If you listen to the young crowd, 2002 may as well be ancient history. Not quite the “mythic age” of the late 90s where legendary heroes like Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion traipsed around the countryside, but the early 00’s may as well be set in Byzantine Rome in the eyes of “modern” fans.

So let’s take a look at the awesomeness that was airing on wall of bath houses while those Romans were doing their orgy thing.

10. Please Teacher!

Yeah, I don’t buy that “oh, he’s really over 18, he just looks young because of some mystery anime sleeping diseaseshit. Please Teacher is all about that fantasy of scoring with that one hot teacher almost every teenager has at some point in high school. And it’s totally OK because she’s an alien! Your fantasies are totally legal, dude, and they’re even more exotic! Score! It’s pretty baffling that this series ended up being watchable, much less pretty decent. A lot of that comes from the side characters. Their issues and relationships are far more interesting than anything that happens to the dream couple. And the whole thing has a decent sense of humor to it. But yeah, dude, you’re not an adult. Stop lying to the audience like that.

9. Haibane Renmei

I don’t love this series. It just doesn’t do it for me the way it hits those buttons for other people. Redemption stories aren’t what I’m interested in. I don’t get the same warm fuzzies other people get when they see someone overcome those sorts of personal odds. I’m weird like that. What interests me is the actual world that’s created in this series. It’s a cool take on Purgatory. It may be a bit too idyllic for my tastes, but the series does a great job of crafting this image of a pastoral world with just a hint of sinisterness lurking about. In a way, it’s something of a miracle that this series even makes it onto one of my lists. It’s way too nice for me.

8. GetBackers

GetBackers is similar to Heat Guy J in that I hated its first episode. I also hated its second episode. I was all but forced to watch the third. And that third episode was pretty cool. And then after that the series became kinda awesome. It has insane characters with insane powers, and said characters get into insane action scenes and shit. That’s about it. It’s shallow shounen action. It isn’t nearly as good as something like Air Master. But it has characters with names like Mr. No Breaks. Seriously. That’s one of my favorite anime character names ever. A getaway driver named Mr. No Breaks, whose “poweris that he never uses the breaks. That’s some brilliant character stuff there. That one character represents everything I like about this series.

7. Chobits

One of my earlier posts compared this thing to Blade Runner. Not so much in terms of quality or anything, but in terms of the whole “just how human is an AIthing. Yeah, it probably isn’t relevant anymore to ask if artificial intelligence is real intelligence. Fiction’s weighed in on that enough to where the assumption is pro-AI. Chobits then asks “can you do all that other stuff you do with an equal human intelligence with an AI.The result is something that’s kinda creepy, but it’s kinda fascinating in that sort of “CLAMP has some weird fucking tastesway.

6. Trava: Fist Planet

Call it a dress rehearsal for Redline. It hits a lot of the same buttons as that awesome movie, except we see everything through the eyes of a couple of slacker salvagers. It isn’t the sort of “against the oddsstory like Redline. It’s more of a world-building piece where the creators are setting and exploiting the boundaries of the anime’s universe. It’s kinda inconsequential, I guess, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun and stylish.