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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

 

Anime

Note: This started as a simple observation and then turned into a comprehensive review of three shows. So it is a bit long. The key point of this whole post is, Fullmetal Alchemist is an incredible epic and emotional show, and you should watch it.

It is sad when I, as someone who doesn't speak any Japanese and has only heard about a hundred hours of spoken Japanese, can tell when a Japanese person just plain sucks at talking. There's this one ending song to the anime series Bleach where the first few lines are in English, and the rest is in Japanese. And the singer's English sounds better than her Japanese despite the fact that she's Japanese.

Anyhow, I've almost finished watching all of Bleach up until the current episode. I'm in the mid sixties out of 72 right now. Before that, I watched the entire 51 episode series of Fullmetal Alchemist. So, I've sort of been thinking about anime of late.

The first obvious observation is that they take it damned seriously in Japan. They air cartoons during primetime, garnering huge audiences. It is so popular that voice actors are as popular there as movie stars are here. Bands create modified versions of their songs for anime opening and closing songs (which tend to change every season), limiting the number of verses and even cutting out bars from instrumental parts to make them fit (They obviously do this because of the huge exposure they get). Many anime shows have full orchestral soundtracks that are as good as any blockbuster movie in north america. And the voice acting is, of course, of excellent quality.

And yet, in North America, we don't take anime (or cartoons in general) seriously. Locally (being this continent) produced cartoons are all targetted at children (with the exception of movies). And when Anime is translated here, it is censored to be targetted towards children, and amateurish voice actors are used that destroy the characters by removing the emotion from the performances while turning every character into an angsty teenager. We don't air anime in prime-time, we air it censored on YTV in the afternoon.

This is why I don't watch dubbed (officially licensed and translated) versions of shows, but only the original Japanese with subtitles. Many fans of anime would find this to be reprehensible. There is an understanding between the fansubber groups (the groups of fans that translate anime shows). The fansub groups stop translating a show when it is licensed outside of Japan, and in exchange, the companies producing the shows let them translate shows unhindered (It is very rare for a fansub group to get a copyright takedown notice for an unlicensed show). The Japanese companies know that they getting the better end of the deal, because they build up an audience for the show before it even makes it overseas. These fans then procede to watch the show and buy lots of English DVDs.

My problem is that a lot of anime in north america is translated by companies like funimation and viz. These companies are the ones that get the amateur voice actors and censor everything to hell. If the English voiceacting performances were as good as the original performances, I would have no problem watching the dubs. In fact, I'd prefer it to the original Japanese, if I could get the same emotion in my native language. But since that doesn't happen, I stick to the original Japanese.

So, at this point, I've watched three series seriously in the original Japanese. They are Inuyasha, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Bleach. The first, Inuyasha, I stopped watching at about episode 30 (out of something like 150). The show was an endless stream of one-off episodes with very little plot connection. After 30 episodes, nothing had really changed, and they were still where they were after the first few episodes. I understand that when they stopped making the show (without concluding it), they were still in about the same place.

The second is Fullmetal Alchemist. The show is bloody amazing. It was relatively short, at only 51 episodes (30 minute blocks, usually about 20 minutes of content per episode), but had a full and seemingly complete pre-planned arc. The best thing about the show was that it easily qualified as epic. And by this, I mean an epic plot. The plot was coherant, consistent, emotional, and arresting. The show made me cry on more than one occasion, and laugh on many others. I'm desperately hoping that they make a second movie, as the show had a theatrical movie done in Japan in 2005.

The third is Bleach. Less epic, some big inconsistancies, but the story arcs seem to be planned in advance, and it remains extremely enjoyable. The subject matter is very interesting, the story moves at an acceptable pace, and I intend to continue watching it every week. It is really quite good. Certainly not on the same level as Fullmetal Alchemist (Which was obviously a much higher budget show), but still excellent. I understand that Bleach is currently one of the most popular anime shows right now.

Music is very important to me. In videogames, movies, shows, etc. So, I'd like to talk a bit about the music of the three shows.

Inuyasha would have to be the most original score of the three, although a better term might be the best use of themes. There are several melodies, themes, and styles, that are use in many of the musical pieces. The score is all orchestral, like many anime shows, and the use of well defined themes lends the show a sense of having very dramatic music. The score is quite good, but doesn't always play to emotion very well.

Fullmetal alchemist also uses a primarily orchestral score. The style is essentially that of a movie soundtrack. It isn't so much about themes and recurring melodies, but about evoking emotion in the viewer. There is certainly a lot of music for the show, with something like 100 unique pieces of music for the 51 episodes (not counting the movie's own soundtrack). The emotion evoked by the music was a big part of why the show was so succesfull in producing an emotional response in me. One of the few non-original pieces of music used (I assume it was non-original, it could easily be that the show's composer produced a song in russian, like Bleach's composer has produced english songs for that show) was a russian piece called "Bratja". The name translates to "Brothers", and it is naturally the theme representing the terrible struggle of the Elric brothers (the two main characters) to restore their original bodies. It is an orchestral piece with a combination of a boys choir and a single boy solo in parts. The piece is incredibly emotional, and just hearing it alone makes me sad. When combined with the particular scenes in the series, it brings me to tears each time it is used.

The budget for Bleach seems to be much smaller than the other two shows. There is less original content per episode, after the intro/opening, recap, closing, preview, and short bonus end segment are considered. There is less animation, with single frames being used more often by panning or only changing a bit. This is reflected in the musical score, which is more limited than the othe two shows. While the score in itself is excellent, there are a limited number of pieces that are used repeatedly as themes. It isn't an orchestral score, but a more electronic type of music. The music fits well, though, so it isn't a terrible problem. One could say that the score, while not outstanding, is sufficient, and good.

Now then, I should probably talk a bit about each show. If you're still reading at this point, you might actually want to watch one of these shows.

The first, Inuyasha, is about a half-demon half-human living in feudal Japan. A modern teenage girl falls through time and becomes rather attached to the half-demon, who is named Inuyasha. The series follows them and their gang of people that they gather in Inuyasha's quest to obtain a jewel that can make him full human. It is an action-adventure love story. Unfortunately, the plot never really goes anywher, and it ends up being a monster-of-the-week type of show, which is why I lost interest.

The second show is Fullmetal Alchemist. This one had a very unique and complete backstory. It takes place in a country much like nazi germany, with a technological level akin to that of the early 1900s. Instead of technology being the dominant force, in this world, alchemy was real. Alchemists transmute objects through the process of equivalent trade, with alchemy amounting basically to magic with limits. The alchemist draws a transmutation circle, puts an object into it, and transmutes it into something else. The show follows Edward and Alphonse Elric. The two boys lose their mother at an early age, and try to bring her back to life via human transmutation. Human transmutation is a horrible taboo, however, and for good reason. In the process of the failed transmutation, Ed loses an arm and a leg, and Al loses his entire body. It is only by sacrificing his arm that Ed manages to seal Al's soul to an empty suit of armour. The series follows the two brothers on their quest to restore their original bodies by obtaining an item known as the philosopher's stone. I haven't spoiled anything here, since this setup is only the first two episodes.

The third show is Bleach. It follows a teenager named Ichigo who can see ghosts. One day, while an evil spirit called a hollow is attacking his family, a Death God shows up to fight it. The death god are spirits that send ghosts to heaven and hell, and fight against hollows to free their souls and stop them from harming both ghosts and the living. During the battle, the death god is gravely injured, and tries to transfer part of her power to Ichigo so that he might save his family. She accidentally transfers all of her power into Ichigo, and so he must act as a substiture death god until she can recover. That about sums up the first episode. The show follows Ichigo's adventures as a death god, among other things.

If you are looking for an anime show to pick up, start with Fullmetal Alchemist. As I've said, it is incredibly good, albeit a bit short. If you still want an ongoing show after that, look into Bleach. There are currently 72 episodes with new ones still airing weekly.

As a note, I really do suggest you grab fansubs of the shows and not the official english translations (dubs). There really is an enormous difference between them, taking a show like Fullmetal Alchemist from incredibly amazing to make "An OK show". For Fullmetal Alchemist, I like the dubs done by "KickAssAnime", or KAA. For Bleach, the best is Lunar. Unfortunately, Lunar is a "professional" fansub group, so they stopped subbing when Bleach was licensed. There are still other lesser quality groups subbing the new episods.

Comments:
I dislike the attitude you and many other animu lovers share. I dislike how sacred Japanese culture has become to some people. If it's made here in good ol' North America, it's just a Cartoon, a comic book, a nerd. If it comes from Japan, it's Anime, a manga, an "otaku".

And yet, in North America, we don't take anime (or cartoons in general) seriously.

In North America WE don't take anime seriously? There are tonnes of tentacle death rape lovers here. Thousands. They have conventions all the time. They aren't even a tiny subset of the population, anime is becoming a ridiculously well known, and has a huge fanbase. You really shouldn't ever say anything in general about "we North Americans" as if you can just generalize everything with this one, big, homogenous group.

Also, saying in NA cartoons aren't taken seriously is sort of stupid. What is the longest running prime time comedy show airing in North America? The Simpsons, seventeen seasons and still running... crappily, but running. Cartoons are a powerhouse in NA. Look at Fox's sunday night lineup and count the cartoons.

Of course, you're right in that cartoons are more popular in Japan, but that's as profound a statement as saying the Japanese take McDonalds way less seriously than us good ol' NAers.

Locally (being this continent) produced cartoons are all targetted at children (with the exception of movies).

How profoundly incorrect is this statement? Let me count the ways. It's really hard to make any statement that is absolute and all encompassing. Saying "all" cartoons made in NA are targetted at children means I can prove you wrong with 1 contradictory example. Wondershowzen. Family Guy. The Simpsons. Futurama. Aqua Teen Hunger Force. All of the Adult Swim lineup on Cartoon Network. American Dad. The list is bloody endless. See how many times you're wrong?

And when Anime is translated here, it is censored to be targetted towards children, and amateurish voice actors are used that destroy the characters by removing the emotion from the performances while turning every character into an angsty teenager.

Anime is censored and targetted to children here for two reasons. The first is that anime is not very popular with the adult market at this time, or at least I suspect. I doubt the majority of people my dad's age even know what anime is. The second reason is that TV execs aren't fucking retarded. They aren't going to waste money dubbing a bunch of thinly veild kiddy porn and try to force it down the throats of unwilling viewers. Hence, it gets censored, shittily redubbed, and aired on YTV, where it does well for it's intended audience.

These companies are the ones that get the amateur voice actors and censor everything to hell.

The reason for this is, again, twofold. The first reason is that the target audience for these companies is largely children. North American children, for better or for worse, are generally sheltered from graphic violence, nudity, and sexuality. Also, they're usually not picky about voice acting. Ask a 12 year old DBZ fan why he doesn't watch the subtitled copies instead of the shitty dubs and he'll tell you to piss off, reading's hard and he doesn't think the voice acting is too bad. The second reason is that these companies aren't fucking retarded, know they can get away with cheap dubbing, and will spend as little as possible to get the show out there. It's about money.

If the English voiceacting performances were as good as the original performances, I would have no problem watching the dubs.

You would? I wouldn't, and it's not because of my burning hatred of all things anime. It's because I've never once, never in my life, seen anything dubbed that was dubbed such that I couldn't tell. It's always painfully obvious that the syllables aren't lining up, whether live action or cartoons. It sucks balls. It's one more barrier to suspension of disbelief, which I believe is an important aspect of enjoying a show.

It would be hard for me to be so critical if I'd never watched any animes and was totally uninformed. But, by jove, I'd been forced into it. I've seen Cowboy Bebop, every goddamn session, FLCL which was actually not too bad but I'd have been happier watching Arrested Development, Dragon Ball Z, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Overall my impression was "hyped bunch of cockteases that want to deliver stag films but stop just a tiny bit before." In short, anime to me is the Saturday night pornos that air on Showtime, but with the tits blocked out by tiny pieces of animated cloth.

The show made me cry on more than one occasion

Ha!

Much love,
sjwalter
 
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