Toons of the 2000s: Anime That Still Haven't Made It To America
For a decade of anime that was defined by paying top-dollar for
mid-season licenses and co-productions, a surprising number of gems
haven’t made it to America yet, and post-crash, they may never get a
proper release here. So, the blog staff and I set about trying to
decide which five unlicensed anime from the past decade we’d absolutely
love to see come over to the states – the shows we would buy if we were
Gen Fukanaga or John Sirabella.
Now, picking the five best series out of everything that hasn’t been
licensed is not at all easy. I mean, do you go with sharp, fresh
comedies like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Maria Holic (licensed as we were writing), or Detroit Metal City? Do you look for series with ties to previous domestic releases like Higurashi Kai, Macross F, Mononoke, or the Strawberry Marshmallow OVAs? Do you look towards titles already quite popular with Japanese otaku like Kobato, K-ON, or Minami-ke? Do you look to series that managed to carve out a unique niche for themselves like Daughter of Twenty Faces, Nodame Cantabile, or Kūchū Buranko?
In short, a lot of praiseworthy shows that are great in very different ways
have sat on the sidelines this decade, waiting to be licensed, so how
does one choose only 5?
Ultimately, we limited our choices to TV series only (OVAs and movies shall wait
for another day). We put it up to a vote amongst our staffers, and we found ourselves with the following list, none of which happen to be
mentioned up top, though we recommend checking out pretty much
everything noted above as well.
5. Michiko to Hatchin
Contributed by Karl Olson
tied to crossover titles – series that not only get otaku fired up, but
are also accessible enough that they can get a run on TV. Perhaps the
best examples of this are Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo,
two shows that blend genres with ease and grace. I can’t count how many
times I’ve heard people say “I hate anime” only to qualify that with
“but Cowboy Bebop and/or Samurai Champloo is/are great.” Now, you might
say it’s been a while since a title with that kind of crossover appeal
has hit the US. You’d be right. However, it’s not because there isn’t a
perfect candidate: enter Michiko to Hatchin.
It’s the story about a young girl named Hatchin and a bombshell gangster girl named Michiko, and the insane,
action-packed yet comedy-and-drama loaded journey they make across
Brazil in an attempt to find Michiko’s lost love (who also happens to
be Hatchin’s absentee father). The series represents the directorial debut of Sayo Yamamoto (who previously had only been a storyboarder and episode director on little shows like Death Note, Gunslinger Girl, and Samurai Champloo), and the animation, direction, pacing – everything on the technical front – are all excellent. The setting is not just Brazil, but a breathtakingly
accurate Brazil. The music direction by Shinichiro Watanabe (yes, the Cowboy Bebop director) is fantastic.
Further still, for the seemingly simple premise of two
girls trying to find one guy, they get into all sorts of antics, virtually none of which comes from the standard anime playbook. The
characterization is excellent as well. While Michiko may seem like a
badass mix of Spike and Faye initially, she’s gradually fleshed out,
and the same can be said of Hatchin, who evolves from a mix of
stock Ghibli heroines and Cinderella into one of the most unique
young girls in anime since Nausicaa. Thus, just like Bebop and Champloo, Michiko to Hatchin is a vivid, complex, and well-developed world where very interesting
characters go on one-of-a-kind yet sometimes smartly referential
Before the anime crash happened, this show would have been a
co-production or at least licensed mid-season. Now, 9 months after it
wrapped up in Japan, it’s sitting unlicensed, with no rumblings that
it’ll be picked up any time soon. I mean, this is probably the most
commercially accessible title on our list, as of anything unlicensed
currently; releasing Michiko to Hatchin in the US would be like PRINTING MONEY.
Contributed by Ben Applegate
With theaters worldwide still cursed by Twilight: New Moon, it’s a
relief to watch Kemonozume again and remember that a werewolf story
can be done right. All it takes is smarts, style, and sex – lots of it.
After years making Crayon Shin-chan weirder as an animation director,
Masaaki Yuasa broke out on his own with 2004’s Mind Game, an epic
comic mystery drama love story that exploded with color, creativity and
pure joi de vivre. Two years later he returned to television and moved
to Studio Madhouse, where Kemonozume confirmed his place as today’s
boldest anime auteur.
In ancient times, the gods cursed certain humans to become shokujinki – “man-eating demons” – and down to the modern day, a line of swordsmen
called the Kifūken have carried on a secret fight against them. Inside
the dojo, Toshihiko and his stepbrother Kazuma are in a competition to
inherit the order until Toshihiko meets a woman, Yuki Kamitsuki, and
falls in love. She turns out to be a shokujinki, and the two go on the
run just as Toshihiko’s father, the head of the Kifūken, is murdered.
Kazuma takes over, planning to replace the old ways with robotic Buster Suits, but there are forces at work that will take even him by
Madhouse’s animation, almost all produced in-house in an age when such
things simply aren’t done, is a feast. In an industry quickly falling
into formulaic stagnation, Yuasa and his team are carving out a
breathtaking new style. The designs, kept deliberately sketchy, dance
delicately and bulge grotesquely. The fights with the demons are
thrilling and mesmerizing, featuring furious splatters of digital ink and pencil
lead. The team rotoscoped over actual photographs for the backgrounds (as
many anime studios do), but here the technique has more in common with
the pseudo-reality of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life than with the
pretty and detailed but uninspiring work we’ve come to expect of, say,
Kyoto Animation. And like Mind Game, some shots are actually
rotoscoped over film, making the Linklater connection more
explicit. Yuasa even gives his underlings the chance Shin-chan once gave him –
to animate their own mini-vignettes before the title sequence of many
But it’s not all action; the characters provide lighter moments too,
especially the oversized detective Bon and his kung fu master monkey
Okay, it may not actually be a literal story about werewolves – the shokujinki are sort
of zombie-werewolf-like monsters who transform when they get aroused – but Kemonozume is still just what adult animation should be, drawing on
myths older than Oedipus with maturity, humor, and artistic skill. It’s
also more accessible than Yuasa’s follow-up at Madhouse, Kaiba,
though that fantasy homage to Osamu Tezuka also comes highly
3. Twin Spica
Contributed by Karl Olson
Hard science fiction and poignant storytelling are rarely wrapped up in an accessible, almost all-ages package, but with Twin Spica the rare happens. Set in the near future where Japan has its own
manned space program, complete with launch vehicles and an astronaut
academy, it’s the story of a handful of students in said school who are
hard at work to become astronauts. While that alone makes for a fairly unique
premise, it’s really the execution that knocks it out of the park. Twin Spica effortlessly weaves the hard, real issues with space flight and space
training with emotionally stunning and somber characterization. Further
still, it wastes no time getting that emotion from the viewer; you’ll
probably be crying by the end of the first episode and then repeatedly
throughout the rest of the show. Where other series attempt that kind
of emotion, Twin Spica constantly nails it again and again for it’s entire run, within a very unexpected setting, largely because it puts direction and storytelling first. It’s also very well produced. The opening theme is catchy and modern, and the animation is lovely thanks to the NHK not skimping on the budget. The finishing touch? It’s clean enough and educational enough that you could run it as E/I content in the US, and for once E/I wouldn’t mean uninteresting.
Now, hard sci-fi anime have not been a lock for success in the US; one
need only look to the canceled limited edition singles of PlanetES for evidence. Add to that Twin Spica’s somewhat shoujo overtones, and there is a legitimate question about whether it could turn a profit
in the West. However, the raw quality and emotion of the series would at
least make it a great pick-up in today’s direct-to-boxset, sub-only
happy market. Companies like Sentai Filmworks and Media Blasters have
certainly licensed worse, though at least we can look forward to a
domestic release of the manga in 2010 from publisher Vertical Inc.
2. Windy Tales
Contributed by Karl Olson
A lot of anime this decade tried to play with much
more pastoral, ambient pacing. While a plethora of titles were
ruined by this trend but were licensed anyway, Windy Tales managed
to be paced like a Philip Glass song yet be unbelievably compelling.
Sure, maybe the simple but breathtaking soundtrack courtesy of Kenji
Kawai helped it out. The radically unique visual style ensures that
no one can write it off for looking like anime at all, let alone some
sort of particular trend within the medium. However, excellent and
distinct technical execution is but half the secret.
You see, while other shows slowed down to try making their simple action or romance roots seem intelligent and deep, Windy Tales did it because the reality depicted demands it. Nothing seems more
natural than a slow school day, and that realism provides an elegant
contrast for the subtle-yet-essential magical elements of the series like flying teachers and flying cats. Much like some other critics’
favs such as Niea_7 and Kamichu!, Windy Tales brilliantly
succeeds at putting real emotion and surreal elements into the most
grounded and humble of settings. By doing so while creating a
completely congruent-yet-unique visual style, it succeeds on an
entirely different level than even some of the best ambient anime from
this decade. To put it another way, Windy Tales has everything
Ghibli movies are lauded and recognized for – excellent female leads, a
semi-nostalgic slice of everyday life, top-notch visual communication,
realism where others would have indulged in stereotypes or lazy pandering
– but then it raises the bar with very fresh direction and visuals.
Now, nothing like Windy Tales has ever made it to
the US, but that’s a good thing. Sure, there are some close cousins,
but they aren’t this show. Maybe that makes it a little too dangerous
for a lot of the remaining localization houses, but in an era where
both the majority of Japanese animation studios and the majority of
American import companies seem inclined to fall back on the toyetic and
the otaku-centric, Windy Tales appeals to the audience that came
to anime not for the tropes about power levels and hot springs but for
truly one-of-a-kind stories done right. If anime has a future beyond
the generic, shows like Windy Tales are now what cut that path.
1. Dennō Coil
Contributed by Ben Applegate
I knew Mitsuo Iso’s work – from Evangelion, FLCL, and one of the most
memorable episodes of RahXephon – before I had any idea who he was.
Benjamin Ettinger’s Anipages calls him the “flagbearer of the new realism,” an animator whose attitude toward
detail and motion made him a god of anime nearly two decades before his
directorial debut. Iso pioneered an animation style somewhere between full and limited, where each and every frame is drawn by a key animator. His digital processing and effects skills are also impressive, beginning with his work on Blood:The Last Vampire. After three years of apparent inactivity, with the help of Madhouse and a host of guest animators, Iso reemerged with his own creation, Dennō Coil.
The fruit of over a decade’s planning and persuasion by Iso, Dennō Coil is the
tale of a “circle of children” who play in an augmented reality layered on top
of this one, accessible through networked, computerized glasses. Today, various elements of this technology are in their infancy, waiting to be pieced together. In Iso’s world, however, it’s developed across all of Japan, and the city
where it was born is home to glitches and strange daemons. The
children exploit holes in this other reality through virtual ofuda that can only be seen through the glasses. Fishing poles are pulled out
of thin air. Computerized pets wander off through walls into corrupt non-spaces. Anti-viruses virtually patrol the streets, while bugs creep through the shadows.
Where other directors might have set an action-packed, Matrix-style
thriller, Iso crafts an unsettling ghost story in classic Shinto
tradition – with a heaping helping of modern alienation. At the same time, this is a mystery with no shortage of children running about, frequently out of breath; much attention is given to kids being kids, without slipping into extremes of fetishized innocence or merciless spite. Masumune Shirow meets Hayao Miyazaki is one way to put it, but what Iso has crafted stands on its own unique merits.
Dennō Coil is worth a look for these qualities alone. It’s the
refreshingly three-dimensional characterizations, impeccable pacing,
and, of course, the chance to watch a brilliant animator at work that make
it a masterpiece. In its home country, the series earned several awards and honors (shared with the well-received Gurren Lagann), but Western audiences – and not just hard-core anime fans – deserve the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.