Those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter wouldn’t know this, but I’ve actually been watching a number of anime series, both old and new, this season. I actually kind of picked the habit back up last year, when Space Dandy was making its first run on Cartoon Network’s Saturday late-night Toonami block, but thanks to some old favorite creators getting back on the horse, some shows I remember liking OK returning after absences (some of a few months, others of several years), and a decision to finally burn through some of those backlogged DVD & Blu Ray box sets I’ve bought from so many Right Stuf holiday sales, I’ve actually got quite a list going right now. Today I’ll be sharing five of those shows with you and letting you know whether or not you should be joining me in inviting these shows into my eyeballs.
The Rolling Girls (2015)
Boy is this a bit of brightly-colored fluff. I should have backed away from this during week two, when I saw that the opening sequence was the four girls you see here all in a band singing the theme song, but the first episode was entertaining enough and the cliffhanger had me hooked. The premise is that following some sort of major conflict, the city of Tokyo is divided up into a number of warring districts, with conflicts resolved by super-powered “Bests.” (Normal folks are referred to as “Rests,” naturally.) The first two episodes centered on a feud between a haughty, fancily-dressed rich girl who does that awful, haughty anime girl laugh and a tokusatsu hero in a green outfit called “Maccha Green,” who turns out to be the real main character’s “older sister” figure. This provided some cool, well animated fight sequences between the two that ended in the two being laid up in the hospital. The second episode ended with the four girls you see in the promo art hastily being thrown together so they could then have adventures through the other districts, where I guess we’re meeting other “Bests” as the girls hunt down mysterious heart-shaped stones that — SPOILER ALERT — are what actually give the “Bests” their super powers. (This is hinted at in episode two and made extremely clear in episode three, even though nobody in the show seems to get it.)
Sadly, the main characters are super-boring — the main girl is defined by being totally average and kind of plucky, the blue haired girl has no sense of direction, the black haired one wants to be strong but gets in over her head, and the blonde is mysterious and wears a gas mask and might be autistic or something. They’re just not very vividly sketched, well defined characters. The “Bests” feel a little more three-dimensional, but that might only be because they don’t seem to have been designed only to be defined by a single trait in the way that the core cast has. The plot for the second pair of episodes is, sadly, the dumbest thing, and I’ll probably drop this thing after I watch episode four unless it shows any signs of reaching the candy-colored, ludicrous heights of the first pair. (Bring back the club member who wears an alligator mask everywhere. It’s not that he’s actually interesting, but it’s just fun to have a guy defined by wearing an alligator mask hanging around.)
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders (2012 – 2015)
Thank goodness this show is back. For those who haven’t joined the cult of JoJo yet, it’s a multi-generational saga (based on a long, long-running manga by Hirohiko Araki) pitting the muscle-bound Joestar family and its descendants against a bevy of supernatural villains including the charismatic immortal Dio Brando, who at this point in the series harbors a century-old grudge against the Joestars.
The first two generations, adapted into twenty-six TV episodes from 2012 to 2013, are pretty typical shonen action fare, a little bit weird and kind of funny, but mostly an action-packed nail-biting ride with great cliffhangers and heroes overcoming impossible odds, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Dio Brando was an excessively cruel villain, delighting in his own spite for the cluelessly honest Jonathan Joestar, and the almost god-like Pillar Men who were a thorn in Joestar’s cocky grandson Joseph’s side had that whole “we see you as little more than ants” thing going on that made booing and hissing at them quite easy and every victory against them a nearly heart-stopping relief.
It’s the third generation, Stardust Crusaders (originally published in Shonen Jump from 1989-1992), that’s being adapted for television at the moment, and this is not only where JoJo became super-popular in Japan, but it’s where the story takes a turn and becomes something of a dark comedy. The earlier stories’ heroes fought using martial arts and techniques to harness the body’s life force through breathing control, called Hamon. The heroes and villains of Stardust Crusaders instead rely on wacky familiars called Stands, each possessing a range of daft powers, that only other Stand-users can see. Early on the Stands are based on the cards of the Tarot, but as Araki ran out of Tarot cards he began plucking ideas from other mythologies; the storylines being adapted right now feature Stands based on Egyptian gods, which is appropriate given that the heroes are trekking across Egypt at the moment.
A lot of the humor comes from the characters’ fairly flat personalities; Joseph, hero of the second generation, has become an out-of-touch old man. His grandson Jotaro, ostensibly the series’ new lead, is supernaturally calm and brusque, though decent at his core. Silver-haired Polnareff, a French swordsman, provides most of the humor by being highly excitable, over-emotional, and fairly dense, which gets him into the most trouble of anyone in the party. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the most entertaining character in the show, and his Stand, Silver Chariot — which resembles a heavily-armored knight wielding a rapier — is also a favorite of mine, though Jotaro’s, Star Platinum (which resembles a purple, wild-haired superhuman fighting game character) is pretty rad, too.
The key addition to our heroes’ team at this juncture is a nasty little dog called Iggy, who is also a Stand-user. (Earlier our heroes fought a Stand-user who was a gorilla, so it’s not that much of a stretch.) Iggy is a mean, selfish, and sort of ugly dog that farts a lot and can only be tamed by feeding him coffee-flavored gum. He and Polnareff kind of hate each other, though I’d say Polnareff started it by being, as always, quick to judge and kind of a jerk to Iggy right off the bat. Then again, given Iggy’s temperament, their animosity was probably inevitable.
The first half of Stardust Crusaders did suffer from a feeling that the heroes were just kind of goofing off across the globe; there’s supposed to be a ticking time bomb running through the series in the form of Jotaro’s mother Holly’s Stand slowly killing her, with the only remedy being our heroes finding Dio Brando and killing him once and for all. (Dio is possessing the body of his old arch-enemy Jonathan Joestar, Jotaro’s great-great grandfather and somehow his Stand-wielding power has cursed the rest of the Joestar bloodline with it; while Joseph and Jotaro are strong enough to harness this power, Holly, being an ordinary person, is dying from it.) Despite that, until the end of the last run of episodes in the Fall everyone seemed pretty indifferent to how often they were getting delayed and sidetracked and held up by the foes Dio kept sending their way. I’m not really feeling that way anymore, but maybe that’s just because it’s been so long since the root of their problems has come up that I’m suffering from this indifference along with them.
Despite that — or maybe because of it — JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is an enjoyable, mad romp of a thing. My only other criticism of it at the moment is that because it is adapting boys’ action material from ’89 to ’92 right now the show’s female representation is kind of lousy; since we left Hamon teacher Lisa-Lisa behind in the second generation, we’ve only met a damsel in distress, a batty old crone, and a clingy princess who turned out to be more than met the eye in a kind off-putting way. I don’t think things get any better in Stardust Crusaders, but I know later eras are better stocked with decent female characters.
Yurikuma Arashi (2015)
From a show all about fancily dressed muscular men to a show all about young girls who fancy each other — Yurikuma Arashi, according to Wikipedia, translates to “Lily Bear Storm,” but those who’ve followed Japanese media for a while recognize yuri as a term for lesbian-focused anime and manga. This is the new show directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, the director of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum, and as such the presence of girls who are into other girls shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. Nor should the show’s ludicrous premise: a faraway planet called Kumeria explodes, sending a meteor shower across the planet and causing the world’s bears to go mad and start eating people. Mankind then creates The Wall of Severance as a protection from the bears.
And yet, bears still get through. Only, most of them arrive disguised as human beings. Two such bears are stern-looking Ginko and bubbly Lulu who, disguised as schoolgirls, transfer into Arashigaoka Academy and set their sights on eating fair-haired Kureha, who absolutely, positively hates bears. But one has to wonder … though we do see the two genuinely devouring other students, as one does to survive, is that what they have in store for Kureha, or is this a weird metaphor for love?
Ikuhara is laying the symbolism on a bit thick with this one, to the point that while it’s clear that a lot of what we’re seeing is a series of metaphors for sex, the actual plot of the show is a bit hazy. When we’re seeing creepy bears feasting on human flesh, do we trust what Ikuhara is showing us, or is that also a metaphor? Ginko and Lulu have to ask permission to eat the students from a bizarre court (that always rules in their favor), but this then seems to trigger some sort of magical girl transformation sequence that drags Kureha into it, saves her from whatever peril she’s in — from other bears in human form, proving the Wall of Severance is pretty damn useless — and then leaves her dazed for a bit. It’s still not entirely clear what’s going on there.
If nothing else, it’s a great-looking show, with the kind of cool architecture, smart graphic design, arty cinematography (reminiscent of the sort of staging Wes Anderson does in his films), and sharp costume designs you’d expect from something Ikuhara put his name to. (Chieko Nakamura is credited as the show’s “art director,” and appears to have served similar roles in both Utena and Penguindrum, so I expect some of the credit should go her way.) I especially like the school uniforms, which I realized early on look an awful lot like nineteenth century European hunting garb — that’s why Kureha’s rifle doesn’t look particularly out of place.
I do have to agree with those who’ve said this show is a hard sell to anyone who isn’t already a fan of Ikuhara’s previous directorial efforts; even fans of his earlier shows, myself included, finished that first episode and wondered, “What in the hell did I just watch?” But as of episode four I think the picture’s getting a bit clearer, and I expect things to come together nicely over time. And even if they don’t, I still expect to have a good time enjoying the sight of Ikuhara’s stylistic excesses finally getting the better of him. (See also, Yoshiyuki Tomino’s currently airing Gundam: Reconguista in G, which I’ll probably talk about next week.)
Zatch Bell (2013)
Those of you who’ve been following me across the internet for over a decade might remember me talking about this show at one point on a blog long-ago lost to the ages. Zatch Bell (originally Konjiki no Gash Bell!! in Japanese) dates back to 2003, but was freshly uploaded to the anime streaming site CrunchyRoll a few weeks ago. Based on the manga by Makoto Raiku, it’s a shonen fight manga that borrows a lot from games like Pokemon and Digimon, except that instead of young teenagers fighting one another using weird monsters, it’s teens to adults fighting one another using weird-looking kids from the demon world, with the prize being the winning weird-looking kid ascending to become king of the demons. The title character is the weird-looking blonde kid above, and the other guy is his human partner Kiyomaru, a surly know-it-all who, with Zatch’s help, becomes a better, friendlier guy while also having his life frequently threatened by monsters, evildoers, and weirdos — and folks who fit all three descriptions.
The version of the show on CrunchyRoll is the English dub that aired on television in the mid-2000s, and like most English dubs made for television there’s heavy censorship of bloody violence, realistic guns, nudity and anything related to human sexuality, and any sort of serious peril inflicted on small children (such as an obvious quick cut away as a villain delivered a nasty kick to Zatch). There are also a number of moments in the dub where the dialog and the actors’ emotions don’t seem to square entirely with the animation, and it’s been enough years since I saw Konjiki no Gash Bell!! subtitled that I can’t tell exactly how wrong the dub is. However, the casting is pretty good, the performances generally hit the right notes, and the English reversioning doesn’t strip Zatch Bell of its greatest strength: its overwhelming goofiness.
To wit: this is a show where Kiyo’s only other friend besides Zatch, Suzy (Suzume in the original Gash Bell!!), breaks into a massive cry when she can’t find her way to his hospital room, and then upon arriving presents him with a series of citrus fruit, of ascending size, with hilariously ridiculous faces on it. He’s completely distracted, though, and as Suzy’s trying to get his attention, the basket of citrus fruit falls, splitting the small tangerine with a worried, crying face open at top. A perfect, oddball visual gag. This is also a show where one of the demon children resembles a tiny, useless (but adorable) horse, and another a duckbilled child in pajamas; the latter demon kid is partnered with an Italian singer in a leisure suit named Parco Folgore who, to rally his strength, sings a hilarious march called “IRON FOLGORE.” Sadly, his other major song, which is about the wonders of bouncing breasts, was censored for the English version.
So despite the sort of uneven dub, and the censorship, and the kind of weak American theme song, I’d say Zatch Bell is still good fun. The folks responsible for the English language version seemed to be starting to hit their stride in the last episode I watched, and if nothing else so far they’ve perfectly translated the most important thing of all: the typical shonen action mantra that the combined powers of friendship and stubborn perseverance will always win the day.
Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972)
During the last big Right Stuf holiday sale I decided to grab Sentai Filmworks’s blu ray release of Casshan, Tatsunoko Productions’s 1973 hero series pitting its title cyborg against the evil android overlord Buraiking and his evil robot army. But then I thought to myself, didn’t I buy Sentai’s release of Tatsunoko’s iconic 1972 superhero series Gatchaman (which you may have seen on TV as either Sandy Frank’s Battle of the Planets or Turner’s G-Force) last year and not watch any of it at all? Shouldn’t I rectify that before I drop any money on another ’70s Tatsunoko show?
Of course, the sale only lasted through the end of the year, and Gatchaman is 105 episodes, so I wound up starting Gatchaman and buying Casshan to watch later. And here’s the thing about Gatchaman: it’s shockingly good. The TV animation is startlingly good for its time, the character designs all at once are reminiscent of the look of other 70s anime (Toei’s adaptations of Go Nagai‘s manga, for instance), John Romita, Sr.’s Spider-Man art, and Hanna Barbara cartoons, and at least for the first twenty episodes or so the villains actually seem like a legitimate threat despite our heroes clobbering them every week. Seriously, the evil forces of Galactor usually manage to inflict some serious damage before the Science Ninja Team arrives on the scene, causing scenes of mass panic, exploding buildings, crumbling nuclear power plants, and such severe violence that the skies are burning red with flames.
There is an elegant purity to the show’s core conflict. One one side stands the International Science Organization, a global think-tank using the power of science to save the environment and improve life for all mankind. They stand as a force for progress. On the other side we have Galactor, a massive technologically-advanced criminal organization building ridiculous robot monsters and hatching nefarious schemes to impede progress, control the Earth’s natural resources, and send the world into a state of chaos. Naturally, when Galactor strikes, Dr. Nambu of the ISO calls in his crack team: four teenagers and a kid in bird-themed superhero outfits with awesome acrobatic ninja skills and crazy toyetic vehicles.
If logic hadn’t broken down when the giant robot turtle showed up, or the invisible snail tanks started abducting children, or the giant lava man with the face of Jesus started threatening the countryside, then yes, it certainly has by the time the kids in bird-themed outfits calling themselves Science Ninjas turn up and start beating the hell out of Galactor’s shaggy-haired troops in panther masks. But to me, that’s part of the charm of the show. For all that it’s fairly formulaic, it’s also endearingly goofy and endlessly inventive. Even the worst episodes have joyously absurd plots and, yes, occasionally nonsensical character beats that you can’t help but laugh at. (Dr. Nambu is frequently a jerk in a way that makes you think he might not be the right person to be guiding these young people through life, much less routinely sending them into harm’s way. Likewise, serious loner Joe is often almost comically overeager to start firing missiles at any threat that turns up, and while he’s often the team member most likely to chide someone for being soft, he’s also the one who jeopardized an entire mission to save a puppy. To be fair, though, he also wound up with shrapnel in his head because of it …) It is both charming in its sincerity as a joyously violent but completely earnest children’s cartoon of the 1970s, and hilarious because it is so sincere and also full of such striking violence and jaw-dropping lunacy.
(Seriously: giant lava man with the face of Jesus. And even better, it has that face because a woman was carving the face of Jesus into an obvious riff on Mount Rushmore, complete with faces resembling three of the presidents who should be there, and Galactor replaced her Jesus with a fake that served as the entrance to that week’s secret base, and used hers as the face for their lava robot monster. Just think: Jesus on Mount Rushmore, and turned into a rampaging beast! It’s a Right-wing Christian’s dream and nightmare all in one!)
Gatchaman has become my go-to show to wind down for the night, and while I’m almost forty episodes in now, that means I still have over sixty to go, so even at an episode or two a night, I still have two months of bird-themed superhero action to enjoy. Even if you didn’t grow up with some version of this show — and I didn’t, so this has all been new to me — I honestly think if you enjoy the superheroic action and melodrama that Marvel was peddling around the same time, you’d have some fun with Gatchaman. Indeed, when you take the heroes’ tragic pasts — which occasionally come back to bite them as part of the show’s light serialization — and add to that the showy over-the-top villain plots, it’s almost like a perfect synthesis of what both Marvel & DC were doing at the time across the Pacific. A shame it took ’til 2003 for this show to reappear in the West in an unmolested fashion. And yet, even if I’m occasionally laughing at it, Gatchaman‘s inherent quality, on not only an animation and design level, but also on a pure beat-em-up entertainment level, shines through.
WHERE CAN YOU WATCH THIS STUFF?
The Rolling Girls and Yurikuma Arashi are currently streaming on Funimation.com (which is down as of this writing) and also on Hulu here and here, respectively. (Hulu is one episode behind from Funimation’s own site and the Japanese broadcast.)
Gatchaman is on Hulu and is also on both DVD & Blu Ray. (The Blu Ray image is super-sharp, but it’s also clear that no restoration work has been done to clean up the film print. Then again, it’s a decent print and I’m personally fine with the show looking its age; at worst you’re seeing dust specks and occasional shots with poor focus, not weird drop-outs or splice marks.) Hulu is also streaming the Battle of the Planets dubbed & edited version, but I wouldn’t recommend that version unless you grew up on it.
BY THE WAY …
Circumstances have put me in a position where I need to raise some extra money, so I’m selling a pile of comics, manga, DVDs, and toys on eBay. If you have a moment, please take a look here and see if anything strikes your fancy. I’ll be posting more stuff over the next few weeks, so if you are so inclined, do check back every so often. I’ll probably be tacking this link onto the end of other posts going forward, so apologies in advance, but, y’know, I kind of need the money. (I’ll explain more later.)