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Anime: It's Not All Robots and Demons.
Still pictures of moving pictures:
Like anything else, some anime is formulaic, some isn't
I'm one of those people that never understood Anime or (for the old amongst us) Japanimation. While most Anime fans detest the Japanimation moniker, you have to realize that the first introduction most of us got of anything other than the Hanna-Barbara/Walt Disney-type cartoons were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. While the content wasn't Japanese, the animation was. It was totally different than anything else we'd ever seen before.
However, somewhere along the line, it seemed that every animated feature that came out of Japan began to incorporate a host of stock characters, settings, and plot points. It was formulaic and it turned us off. While there was good stuff being made, it sure wasn't coming to the US in large boatloads.
The typical scenario looked something like this: a (single/group of) (High/Middle/College) School student(s) learned that they possessed (magical powers/a robot/a crispy-fried wombat) and only (their school/the world/Japan) could be saved by defeating the evil (demons/aliens/Americans).
Ichigo Kurosaki (High School Student) learns that he possesses a large amount of (spiritual pressure/reiatsu) that will allow him to (manifest a spirit form with a sword/Zanpakutō). Only he and his friends with similar powers can defeat the evil (spirits/Hollows) that threaten (his neighborhood/the real world).
Now, don't get me wrong, I watched fan-subbed episodes of Bleach and couldn't wait for them to download. Once Dattebayo quit subbing them, I lost interest. It wasn't the same watching low-resolution streaming videos. And the answer to the "piracy" thing: well, as soon as the episodes came out --years later-- on DVD, I bought them. But really, guys, it's television. Me watching Tokyo TV's finest products without commercials led me to buying more of their products. Net result: More money for Tokyo TV.
Not all Anime are the same, though. While most of the elements are reused over and over again without end in sight, some things can be different. Here are a few of my favorites. No particular order to these, just randomness.
#1 FLCL. Speaking of randomness. This is like Seinfeld with a cool soundtrack and angsty middle school students. Get your TV hooked up to some great speakers and crank it loud. It's the normal, Kid gets hit by Vespa, Robot pops out of Kid's head, Robot and Kid help save the World. Add a blue Rickenbacker bass and an attractive 19 year-old to drive the Vespa and carry the Ric, and you kind of, maybe, have a plot. But probably not.
#2 xxxHolic. It has nothing to do with XXX: Either porn or the action movie. It's a project of Clamp, the female writer's group. I love the long/tall animation style and art decoish design work. For the FUNimation translation/reimagination, I especially love the choice of Colleen Clinkenbeard for Yuko Ichihara; her languorous voice drawling out commands to Kimihiro Watanuki while slyly omitting important bits of information is funny. Another Boy Plagued by Spirits saga, but beautifully done.
#3 Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad is another piece reimagined by FUNimation. Like FLCL, it's best if you crank your sound to 11. Musically centered, Beck is a slice of life, near stream of consciousness following of Koyuki/Yukio's band and his relationships amongst the band and his (jr. high) school friends. My wife tells me I need to get a banner that says "Fishing Hole" in Japanese to go by our pond to commemorate how many times one is shown in the show.
#4 Hikaru No Go. When a local video rental store went out of business, I cleaned out their Anime section. One of the things I picked up (and my wife thought totally strange) was Hikaru No Go. It's a coming of age story of a boy with a haunted Go set. Think of it as if Bobby Fischer died and haunted your chess set. He would guide you through some awesome games you could never play on your own...except you would start to learn and become a pro in your own right. While it does have little "basics of how to play Go" segments at the end of each episode, don't expect to become an expert watching the show. By the way, gaming company Atari was named for a move from Go.
#5 The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Another (high) school student, a girl this time, can change reality (Lathe of Heaven style). This is her search for unique individuals through her school club (SOS) and the underlying reality of her world. What's real and what isn't is hard to tell sometimes, but isn't that the way with the world?
If you prefer robots and spaceships, you might prefer Eureka 7. It is one of the few that I like that does involve those elements. Which is odd, 'cause I'm a big fan of written Science Fiction. I've just never been a big fan of it in Anime form. At least not the Robotech/Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers) type.
Animation has come a long way, but the innate weirdness of trying to understand another culture through cartoons is a weird experience. It's like British television to Americans: no matter how much you think you know, you're missing some important bits of the picture if you didn't grow up in the culture that spawned it.