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Rant #307
(published December 7, 2006)
More Than Pikachus And Purple Hair: The Truth About Animé
by Alex Kim
Coughing, I grasp my mug of honey lemon tea as I take a seat in front of my computer. Taking a long sip, I bring up my buddy list and find myself facing an endless yellow wall of small "away" post-it notes. It's Friday night, and everyone else is either out having fun or in their beds catching up on their sleep. And here I am, with only a blanket and a tissue box to accompany me, and a throbbing headache that, wonderfully, just won't let me fall asleep and put an end to what was undeniably the best night of my life.

I go downstairs and turn on the TV. Fake reality shows, biased news programs, and some guy named Mencia who's supposedly "controversial" and "funny". I then suddenly remember Adult Swim and change the channel to Cartoon Network. But Fridays are the only night of the week when [AS] doesn't air. At this point, I'm just about ready to just give up and get ready for bed. But then I remember that I have episodes 31 to 37 of Yakitate Japan on my computer, downloaded and fully ready to enjoy. Forgetting my headache I drop my blanket and rush up the stairs to get back on my computer.

You're probably wondering what was it about Yakitate that kept my Friday evening from becoming a miserable night of boredom and suffering. Heck, what is it about any animé that makes animé worth your time? After all, isn't animé just strange little creatures and seizure-inducing backgrounds? Think whatever you want for now, but one thing that I'm absolutely sure you can see is that animé offers a much better alternative to the totally stagnant entertainment industry that we are stuck with today. Adam Sandler manages to stay successful with his formulaic plots and immature humor. Disney and Dreamworks strike again with yet another wave of CG-animated cute talking animals whose only purpose in life is to be talking animals who are cute. And the crazy Scientologist stars in another movie filled with bomb blasts and bombshells. And in case you don't get the picture now, may I just simply mention Little Man?

So, what do I mean by saying that animé is better than any of the stuff we've got here? And what the heck am I even talking about when I'm using the word, animé? I'll address the second question first. Animé, originally called Japanimation, is a style of animation that hails from (guess where) Japan. Derived from comic art called manga, animé spans genres, settings and tones, and can be anything from dark, cerebral and artistic to lighthearted, warm and fuzzy. There are many stylistic indicators of animé, the most famous of which are oversized sweatdrops, which indicate stress, unnatural hair colors such as pink and green, and large, exaggerated eyes.

This last feature, big eyes, is one that's often criticized by those who are unfamiliar with animé. It's too childish and unrealistic, or something like that. But large eyes are a crucial component of the subtle and expressive nature of animé. In animation in general, faces are unable to be as expressive as they are in real life, and so, to convey emotion, the characters use often use dramatic, transparent, and unrealistic dialogue. So what do animé artists do to avoid this situation? They draw big eyes. As windows to the soul (don't laugh), the detailed and colorful irises of animé characters shine even from a distance, and the viewer's attention is naturally drawn to them, and so shifts in emotion are clearly and unmistakably visible, but in a way that seems natural and not so obvious.

Some of you are still wondering why I insist animé is better than what we've got here. And I can't really offer any other explanation than this: animé is just simply better than American film and television in every possible way.

Animé directors pay a lot more attention to music than we do. Searching Amazon for the name of any animé, you can usually find on sale both the DVDs and OSTs (original soundtracks) of the show or movie. J-Pop, rock, and symphonic arrangements are the most common types of music found in animé, and they all work together to form an emotionally deep and powerful experience in many animé. And the fact that these songs were produced halfway around the world ensures a freshness in style that can relieve our tired American ears. If you think that "Gotta Catch 'Em All", the theme song to Pokémon was ridiculous and musically bankrupt, you're absolutely correct. But "Mezase Pokemon Masutaa", the original theme song to the series sung by Rika Matsumoto, would go straight to your iPod if you heard it just once. (Seriously.) And of course, leitmotifs that signify a character, place, or mood eventually pick up such a powerful and profound resonance with the viewer who has vicariously experienced so much with these characters to these particular songs, that good themes become extraordinary.

And the art in animé is just that: art. Although live action is unchallengeably realistic and accurate, the visuals present in animé are just so much more vivid and beautiful. In the 1960s animé, Kimba The White Lion, there are countless sequences, like the dance of the evil hyena assassins or the appearance of Kimba's parents to Kimba from the sky, that lull the viewer into a trance-like state due to their gorgeous, muted, dreamlike colors. And in Naruto, the mists on the Wave Island bridge, the filtered light of the forest in the Chuunin exam, and the waterfall at which Sasuke and Naruto fight all seem to belong on a scroll hanging from someone's wall. And of course, there's the breathtaking action sequences of animé that so far have only been replicated by the hi-tech wizardry present in the Matrix franchise.

These are the only constants I can tell you are always present in animé. Things like plot construction, characterization, relationships and so on can vary greatly in animé, as they do in our TV and film as well. Even in the show Naruto, which juggled a huge cast and overarching storyline while portraying everything perfectly down to the last line or gesture, when the series switched to fillers (meaning the story stopped progressing at all) and the production house took the scriptwriting into its own hands, Naruto became predictable, shallow, and excruciatingly painful to watch. Therefore, when watching any animé, don't expect your viewing experience to be similar at all to when you watch any other animé. There's good animé and bad animé, just like there's good Canadian television (Clone High), and bad Canadian television (Falcon Beach).

I'm not saying that all American entertainment blows and all animé is godly. I'm also not telling you to suddenly become a Japanophile and illegally download fan-subtitled bootleg copies of animé. It's just that although many Americans appreciate animé and its expansive range of artists, genres, and subject matter, there seems to be something that's blocking the vast majority of Americans from exploring this rich and diverse body of works. I'm willing to bet my stuffed Mashimaro (named Funny Bunny) that this something is simply ignorance (and maybe ethnocentrism, jerkfaces). But anyways, now that you're armed with the little bit of knowledge that this rant has given you, I hoping that you'll do more than just turn on the TV or go to the movie theater when looking for something to entertain yourself.

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