Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
So I got an automated call from UPS earlier today that my Xbox 360 is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. It seems someone has to be present to sign off on the package, which is a slight pain as I’ll be the only person at home for a few days, but UPS usually arrives mid afternoon before I head to class, so it should be all good.
With that, I will likely retire Metal Gear Online forever. With the collective screaming, controller throwing, fist balling, and general rage, I feel like I’ve lost five years of my life to this game. I tried really hard to hone my skills and try to workaround the many, many, many exploiters and laggers that made my life hell, but I can only take falling into last place in every match before I ultimately snap.
Of course, if the community had been kinder, and bothered to use a mic instead of spamming the text chat like it was an MMO, I could have enjoyed the Metal Gear aesthetic and quirks, but instead I will probably file this game as the worst online game I have ever played, and hopefully ever will. Ironic, considering that I’ll be making another attempt to getting back into Gears of War 2, an online game I have shown equal hatred to. At least with the latter, there’s a legitimately good game there, it’s just been suffering from an absolutely terrible automatching system and a community who loves quitting mid-match.
Anyway, I’ve done enough bitching, so now it’s time for some praising.
I’m sure there’s many of you out there who is aware of Japanese Animation, but haven’t actually watched any of it. You’re probably curious what all the fuss is about, but don’t know where to start. I can certainly sympathise, considering how over-saturated the anime market is nowadays. You can’t tell a Gundam from a Gurren, you stroll by one crazy hairstyle after another, and your Google searches turn up pictures of female characters with impossibly massive breasts, or an angled shot at an underage girl’s undergarments (and heck, sometimes both at the same time). Either way, it’s a quick way to get fired from work.
Well, I’m here to help you out. Listed here are, in my opinion, ten essential anime shows that newbies, casuals, and veterans should seek out and watch. These choices represent the best and most varied series Japan has to offer.
Keep in mind that this list excludes anime movies, which will be getting its own list later on (and I’ll try not to fill most of it with Miyazaki’s films), and is tailor made for entertaining modern newbies. That’s why I’m not listing long established classics such as Astro Boy or Gundam, and are focusing mainly and my favorite shows instead of something I haven’t watched. Remember, it’s a personal list, but it’s also what I would recommend most to introduce someone to the world of Japanime.
In no particular order, my choices are:
1. Neon Genesis Evangelion
Getting the most obvious one out of the way, Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most referenced animes of all time, as well as one of the most influential; nearly every anime created after Evangelion has drawn inspiration from it, even if it doesn’t feature robots or emotionally distraught teenagers. It’s a series that doesn’t apologize for its cliches, including city-smashing robot battles and smoking hot fourteen year olds, but instead propels them to new heights of development that they become living, breathing characters. Ignoring the heavy religious symbolism, which was originally a selling point, it’s the men, women, and children that make this series live up to the tremendous hype and admiration it continues to receive. Regardless of who you are, you’re likely to find a little of yourself with one or more of the characters, sometimes to a disturbing accuracy. It might sound absurd that an anime could have a personal influence on your life, but Evangelion is certainly the most likely candidate to do so.
2. Giant Robo
In contrast to Eva’s sleek, futuristic style, Giant Robo looks more like a Saturday morning serial from the ’60s. Yet hidden underneath its oldschool appearance is seven of the most spectacular episodes you’ll ever witness, a carefully produced mini-series featuring gorgeous animation, a massive orchestral score, and a fast moving plot that will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Each episode of Giant Robo feels like a big budget summer action movie, but is also an emotional rollercoaster that loops and turns with no moments to catch your breath. Even if you weren’t around during the era that Giant Robo flawlessly embraces, you’ll still feel like a kid again as you watch the rock ’em and sock ’em action with eyes wide open. Robo may not be pimped out like a space Gundam, but he’ll be the one robot you’ll remember the most.
3. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Don’t let the little tank robots with the cuddly voices deter you: Ghost in the Shell: SAC is one of the most mature animes you can watch. Like an NBC cop drama set in the far future, GitS splits its two seasons between “Stand Alone” episodes featuring individual cases, and “Complex” episodes that connect to unravel a looming mystery. From a grizzled war veteran, to a rookie cop married with a child, to a cybernetic woman who questions her very existence (and at times, her own gender), the characters of SAC let their personalities shine forth even when the focus is in their dangerous jobs. When the inevitable pursuit of a suspect occurs, watching these supercops hop over buildings, wear Predator-style cloaking devices, and wielding high-powered weapons feels as natural as it is exciting to watch. The digitally enhanced visuals and the fantastic soundtrack by Yoko Kanno (a name that every anime viewer should revere), followed by very deep and often political writing (that also often reaches Star Trek levels of head-scratching technobabble) add up to a mature experience that is rarely seen in other animes. Unless, of course, that series was adapted from a novel…
4. Legend of the Galactic Heroes
Despite the title, Galactic Heroes does not feature superpowered warriors, but instead focuses on regular men and women engaged in war. Waging battles in spaceships are two sides embroiled in a conflict for interstellar supremacy. At over 100 episodes and an even larger number of characters to keep track of, LotGH can be a daunting series to commit to, but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a brilliantly written narrative where no side is absolutely good nor evil, but different groups with different beliefs. One side may engage the other in a chess-like game of ship placement and surprise maneuvers, but the surviving members have enough courtesy to salute one another afterwards, and even engage in ceasefire conversations that increase each other’s respect. However, the number of twists, betrayals, and sudden deaths bear such a strong resemblance to George R. R. Martinn’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, one has to wonder if George was a closet fansub watcher. Legend of the Galactic Heroes isn’t available for purchase in America, but a Google search should turn up some sites that have the entire saga up for download. Enjoy the most un-anime anime series ever created.
5. Death Note
Anyone who’s watched The Ring or The Grudge should know that Japan’s tales of horror are focused more on paranormal curses and myths. Such is the case with the titular notebook that instantly kills anyone whose name is written in its pages. Yet Death Note combines the supernatural with the trappings of a detective drama, as a select group of agents work tirelessly to unravel the mystery of these sudden deaths, while the one instigating the murders engages with the task force’s eccentric leader in a thrilling game of Cat and also Cat. The real question for viewers isn’t who will win, but who they should root for. Death Note isn’t scary in the traditional sense, but its dark setting and soundtrack, both which combines elements from Damien, Silence of the Lambs, Silent Hill, Hitchcock and other murder mysteries and thrillers add to a tension-filled series that will continue to shock and surprise you to the very end.
When it comes to entertainment, sometimes you just want to watch something that’s really gory and has a lot of ass-kicking. There are plenty of animes with stomach-turning violence, but if you want something with some brains (that aren’t just lying on the floor), Berserk is the ultimate choice. Much like 300 and Conan (with a bit of Hellraiser thrown in for good measure), Berserk features a mountain of a man named Gutts (yes, even his name kicks ass) with an even bigger sword who engages in several bloody battles against mercenaries and monsters alike. Yet despite his penchant for eviscerating large armies, Gutts rarely leaves a battle unscathed, and his inner pain hurts just as much as his wounds. Berserk is a series that practically defines dark fantasy, with grotesque creatures that feed on human suffering to its characters fighting tirelessly just to survive the next day, along with the mother of all betrayals. Unfortunately, the series ends at the worst point imaginable, with still no indications of a sequel. But at least you now have a listing for “essential manga to read”.
7. Dragon Ball Z
You might label me a conformist for this one, but there’s no denying that Dragon Ball Z is one of the most influential anime of all time, if not the most influential period. The series has defined anime action, originating as the inventor of power levels, increasingly powerful enemies, inventive special moves, a hero bursting with confidence and strength, and several minutes of yelling really loud. DBZ is a ridiculous show, where its main heroes become so powerful they consider God a wuss (and similarly surpass God’s God’s God’s God…I swear I’m not making that up), but it also revels in its insanity, and so should you. Like a combination of Rocky and Superman, Goku goes through increasingly difficult feats of training to face enemies that should prove impossible for him to defeat. Despite its macho bravado, DBZ also focuses on the bonds of family and friends, which makes its first series (Dragonball) also an essential anime to watch in order to appreciate Goku’s rise to Super Saiyan Stardom. The only problem is which version you should watch, as the show has been “remastered” countless times. The most recent DVD boxsets are the most recommended, as they give you the option of watching the english dub along with the original soundtrack, instead of the awful synthesizers plaguing Cartoon Network airings. Plus, if you’ve never watched the series uncut, it’s more violent than you may imagine…
8. Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop is considered to be one of the “coolest” anime series out there, and that has largely to due with the fact that it borrows heavily from Western movies. Nearly every episode draws inspiration from an American movie, be it Desperado, Shaft, Bruce Lee, John Woo, or any combination of the bunch. Despite its references, Cowboy Bebop also has its own identity, with a unique cast of characters that are suave, sexy, and silly. The show knows when to have a good time, but can also show off its deep side with its character driven episodes. When main hero Spike faces off against his mortal enemy in an early episode, you aren’t given many details about their past, but the expertly directed animation and the variety-filled soundtrack (once again composed by Yoko Kanno) will drop you in the middle of their conflict and have you relish the importance of it. Bang.
A 3-part OVA series that may be obscure even for anime fans, Dangaioh was the first anime I ever watched, but still holds a personal spot in my heart. Even so, it’s still recommended, because it also contains every single anime trope known to man. Giant, shiny robots, hot girls in spandex that possess superpowers, a timid male character that emits a sudden burst of manliness when the situation calls for it, Dangaioh is like a beginner’s entry into the world of Japanese Animation. Regardless, it’s also a great 80’s throwback, with some fluid animation (especially during the robot battles), cool designs, and a rocking soundtrack. Unfortunately, the series ends in an unfinished note, with a loosely-based sequel that isn’t worth your time, but for a quick thrill, you can’t go wrong. Just make sure you avoid the english dub.
10. One Piece
On the surface, One Piece appears to be your standard anime series, borrowing several elements from Dragon Ball Z with its goofy but reliable main character, its unique powers, villains surging with evil and strength, and destructive battles that last several episodes. Yet in truth, there’s nothing quite like One Piece; Making full use of its wacky character designs and visuals, One Piece focuses purely on the theme of Adventure, with the Strawhat Crew making their way to a new and unique location and meeting all sorts of oddball characters, creatures, and villains. Every encounter is so wacky and absurd, you just don’t know what to expect next…and that’s what makes the series so entertaining. Even more surprising is the level of emotional moments present in the series, with each character having a tragic, deeply written backstory that usually intertwines with the current place the group is in. Each arc is written with such exquisite detail, that they almost feel like self-contained stories; by the time the Strawhats leave for their next journey, you’ll have learned so much about the place they visited, the people they’ve met, and the great struggles everyone endured to reach a happy resolution, that you almost feel sad that the story has come to an end….until that sadness has been washed away with excitement over Luffy’s next adventure.