Reading Edge: Anime and Cartoons, the End of Cultural Quarantine?

With the shambolic response of tRump’s insane clown posse to the coronavirus, I think the virus restrictions will be lasting all Fall ( til November 3?), so I broke down and got a new TV. Now I’m able to stream and binge-watch a lot of stuff I hadn’t seen for years, such as Adult Swim cartoons. Given my recent reading list, it was no surprise that I wound up spending time with Anime classics, as well as Anime-influenced American cartoons.

Cowboy Bebop: I watched this on my brother’s videos in the early 90’s then saw quite a few episodes replayed on Adult Swim. They are very stylish though characteristic 80’s anime with a creative musical soundtrack. The backstory is of bounty hunters in the farthest reaches of the solar system in the 2060’s, but as the episodes go on, a more developed romantic backstory featuring two rivals for the same woman emerges. Characters are added along the way, and their backstory is explored as well. 

Thus, a fairly typical retro futurist genre pastiche takes on a bit of emotional heft. There’s humor and violence, but the surprising twists in the back story keep things fresh. Nonetheless, the overall concept is genre, and much of the backstory feels a little grafted on. There’s a lot of violence, in the mode of the ‘stylish’ violence of the 90’s.

In constructing this clever pastiche of popular genre tropes ( sci-fi, detective noir, western, with a strong dash of very 60’s Hollywood action thriller), the Japanese/ American creators seem to be borrowing a page from Sugiera’s 70’s/80’s Gekiga manga style. Pop Culture influences are mixed and matched in an almost off hand way. As with Sugiera, the American cultural appropriation is very prevalent, but the series retains its eastern flavor. The music helps to keep things fresh, provides a thematic glue between disparate styles and time periods, and seems to inform the pacing of the visuals, also reminiscent of Garo-era gekiga, such as Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy. The series held up well after a long lapse in watching it, and seems to fit in with its place in Japanese Manga/Anime. 

Samurai Jack, Genndy Tarkovsky: This was a turn of the century Adult Swim staple, but one I did not get to spend a lot of time with owing to schedule and other priorities ( Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Home Movies, Space Ghost Coast to Coast). It was always unique and intiguing, and never easy to just drop in in the middle of. This differs from those above in every way. It’s neither cartoon brut nor Hanna Barbera mash-up rescued from the vaults. It was a true original cinema-style cartoon series conceived by Tarkovsky and others and was clearly intended to advance the animation art stylistically. It’s certainly one of the most visually beautiful animation series ever, combining Oyvind Earle-style mid century modernism and landscape design with a color sense that borrows from cubism and 50’s advertising art, but also Japanese folk art and 60’s psychedelia. It really is a treat for the eyes, and won many awards for its visuals. 

This is not to say that the story doesn’t ascend to compelling heights at times, though it doesn’t always attempt to transcend its home genre, a bushido action series with many fight scenes. But Jack, the hero, must make difficult choices and this often redeems the regular violence, along with the pure stylistic energy of its animation. A class in color theory could be taught around its schemes, with their minimal elegance, ranging from complex tonalities to eye opening complements with rich secondaries a linch pin for its almost literally surreal naturalism. I’ve always extolled thoughtful secondary colors, balanced with hot primaries, and well considered neutrals in my work and in my classes. I enjoy Samurai Jack as a delicious bit of eye candy.

The stories are minimal as well. Jack has been banished to a dystopian retro future that is both medieval and coldly metallic by a demon, Aku, he has defeated in battle. In order to administer the coup-de-grace, and set his people, as well as future generations free, he must find a way back to the past. So he travels on a quest for a way back, helping peoples he meets, and battling demon monsters and robots. All in the rich chameleon colors and anime-influenced stylizations. An evocative simplicity rules.

The show is not really anime, but in its stripped down but elegant animation and nods to bushido and eastern martial arts, it feels that way at times. The pacing is patient and the cartoon enjoys the ride. There’s a joie de vivre in the half hour increments of Jack’s journey. The series went through 4 full seasons during the aughts before it was cancelled without reaching a conclusion. A movie was vetted before it finally returned in 2017 for a concluding 5th season. The wait was worth it, as the final season includes many masterful segments before reaching its stirring, even delicate, conclusion. Unlike the earlier seasons which meandered without any real momentum at times, the final season accelerates without sacrificing its evocative visuals and contemplative pacing. 

I haven’t seen all the episodes (101!), but this would be one well worth owning a collection, as even now, I watched rapt as episodes replayed. They really are that gorgeous. I think Akira is probably an influence ( another anime I haven’t seen in a long while) and of course, peak-era Disney. But this is a very original series and really has set the bar for a modern cartoon. Its vision speaks to the art of animation, as few cartoons do. 

Sherlock Hound, Hayao Miyazaki: Miyazaki is the ‘Japanese Disney’ to some, though others insist on Osamu Tezuka. The appellation itself may be a bit racist, as neither is really derivative of the House of Mouse, though Tezuka was definitely influenced in his early years, before Astro Boy. At that time, of course, Japan was awash in American pop culture such as comic books and movies, during the occupation from the mid-40’s to mid 50’s. It’s fascinating to see how they processed and appropriated these influences in Manga and Anime ( e.g, Sugiera’s pop Nansensu- nonsense) And my discovery of Sugiera’s freewheelin’ mash-ups got me curious about the roots of manga and anime. Miyazaki came later, and this series, which was an Italian-Japanese collaboration dubbed into English for British, and then American audiences bears his unique stamp at times. 

Sherlock Hound is an adaptation of Holmes, of course, with anthropomorphic dogs. It’s a fairly run-of the-mill Saturday morning concept, but the 6 episodes that Miyazaki directed bear his signature pastoral steam-punk stylings. Some of the same giddy panoramas are here, depthless blue skies, and the love of retro-futurist machines. There was some sort of interruption in production, and by the time the series came back, Miyazaki had launched Nauusica of the Valley of the Wind, and did not return to it. 

These are available on the Open Culture web site, where you can see anime from as far back as the 20’s, including a 30’s Fleischer Brothers- influenced short about a haunted temple. As an aside, there are classics from Jan Svankmeier, The Brothers Quay, and also Lotte Reiniger, for those who read my review of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly: The Rat.

If anything, the return influence of these early Japanese pop culture inventions on American creators is probably underrated. The American stubbornness on infantilizing cartoons ‘ for the sake of the children’ stunted creators until well into the late 70’s, and in Tartovsky and Adult Swim, Raw Magazine and Watchmen, more recently, Pretty Deadly and Jimmy Corrigan, you can see American creators beginning to rise above the weight of censorship. (Not all of those titles are completely American productions, of course.) Garo magazine revolutionized manga and anime in the 70’s. Alternative comics and Adult Swim followed in the 80’s and 90’s.

So it’s a very exciting time to explore cartooning, which cannot at all be separated from earlier innovations by Japanese and European creators. I was excited to receive a copy of Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy in the mail this week. It’s a beautiful book I’ve read before from the library, that I’m excited to re-read in the context of these later landmarks. Exploring this history is a counterpoint to the American exceptionalism that has stunted all forms of American culture. We’ve proven that exceptionalism is a recipe for disaster in health policy. Let’s not make the same mistake in our readings of pop culture.

Leave a Reply