Gold Panda is Wrong as Hell About Anime
In Acclaim a while back, Gold Panda was interviewed by Melbourne icon and style god Kish Lal, in which he revealed his Wrong As Hell opinions about anime.
Lots of people find themselves into an obsession with Japanese culture the same way you did, through anime. You watched Akira, but did you ever watch any other anime?
No, I find anime now to be really terrible. Everything after 2005 has just become really badly animated. It’s just all made on computers and it all looks terrible, no one ever moves. Someone told me to watch, I forgot what it’s called now, something about giants? Giant people attacking a castle or something? Do you know that one?
Can’t say I do.
I thought it was terrible. I still read manga. I’ve just been reading this one by Takehiko Inoue called Real which is about people who play wheelchair basketball and then Tokyo Tribe which is a famous kind of thing, emulating American ghetto life in Tokyo and this other one called Ayako by Osamu Tezuka who did Atom Boy or Astro Boy and lots of other weird stuff. But with modern anime… I think the last good film I watched was Ghost In The Shell.
You really beefed this one, my dude.
I don’t need to make the argument for why anime is in a better place now than it has ever been. We already did that but if you’re more a visual learner, Digibro goes into more detail here. The short of it is there is more anime and more people watching anime now than ever, which doesn’t make it better, but the hits come faster. We may never get another Ghost in the Shell, but that’s only in the same sense that we may never get another Nirvana. Maybe the era of the phenomenon is over, but there are so many chances every year to find something that means just as much to you as those blockbusters meant to the rest of the world.
I love Akira and Ghost in the Shell, but here are a bunch of shows that aired since 2005 that are just as visually stunning and/or compelling.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Haruhi set the identity for production studio Kyoto Animation as producers of nonpareil high school anime. Whether it was the shiny battle series Kyoukai no Kanata, the off-kilter visual humour of Nichijou, the soft beats of Hyouka, or the tender and music-driven Hibike! Euphonium, KyoAni spent the ten years following Haruhi bringing more colour (literally) out of high school life than any other studio. Airing in 2006, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya starts off like a typical slice-of-life series: apathetic, generic high school boy is bored of life when suddenly his world is rocked off its axis. The external force in this case is Haruhi Suzumiya, an irrepressible conspiracy theorist who believes aliens, ghosts and monsters are real — that everything they’d seen in manga or anime had a basis in reality. She turns out to be sort of right: Haruhi is kind of a dormant god whose emotional state literally changes the world around her, and while she remains oblivious, the series unfolds with the surrounding characters trying to acquiesce to her absurd theories while keeping their reality in check.
The Fate series
Fate/stay night was first adapted into anime in 2006, but it wasn’t until Fate/Zero in 2011 and Unlimited Blade Works in 2014 that the story got really good. The premise is simple: every few decades, seven mages summon seven heroic legends (King Arthur, Alexander the Great etc) and fight each other to the death, competing for the Holy Grail and the chance to have any wish granted. That sounds pretty corny, but starting with Fate/Zero, the franchise toyed with just how deeply it could inspire despair in its viewers. An ensemble of sympathetic — or if not, at least charismatic — characters systematically sell out their virtues in pursuit of an increasingly compromised idea of a Greater Good, or have those virtues compromised for them. Nobody wins on any level. Unlimited Blade Works, the Ufotable-produced adaptation in 2014, goes somewhat easier — Fate/Zero’s cast is predominantly adult and /stay night’s is predominantly teenaged, adjust expectations about demographic accordingly — but earned the nickname “Unlimited Budget Works” for its startling use of colour and animation quality.
Death Note has become as iconic a shounen series as Naruto, Bleach, One Piece and Attack on Titan, but it really shares DNA with Code Geass for its psychological bent. Light Yagami stumbles on a notebook, and he can write any name and any cause of death in it, and that’s how they’ll die. He anoints himself a champion of justice, but Lives Long Enough To See Himself Become The Villain as he imposes his idea of justice against the global order. Watching Light try to scheme his way out of traps set by his pursuers, and watching L, the prodigal special investigator on the case, inch closer to discovering Light’s identity, is thrilling. It begins to decline in the second half, but up until then it’s gripping, and its inevitable conclusion satisfying.
Afro Samurai is one of those once-in-a-lifetime series that sounds like a schoolyard fantasy: what if Samuel L Jackson was a samurai who brutally murders juuuuust shitloads of people to a soundtrack composed by the RZA? Series creator Takashi Okazaki designed Afro to look more like a writhing cloud of smoke than any regular human, and studio Gonzo brings the same fluidity they brought to Hellsing years earlier to this adaptation, making Afro seem almost intangible, but able to solidify into an unstoppable force in fractions of a second. The merging of hip-hop and samurai story was already done by Samurai Champloo, but this is a decidedly darker take, collaborated on by two genre titans.
These series share a universe and a method of storytelling. Both Baccano and Durarara!! are told through alternating perspectives of disparate characters whose lives are inextricably entwined, and in doing so, create a vibrant, thriving world — especially in Durara!!, which is set in the district of Ikebukuro in Tokyo. DRRR!!’s portrayal of Ikebukuro feels truly alive, with setpieces and character run-ins which feel genuine and realistic. Ghost in the Shell is often praised for its beautifully ugly architecture, but Ikebukuro in Durarara!! is one of the most fully realised settings I’ve ever seen in an anime. By the end of its first season, you’ll find yourself wanting to live in its urban jungle, tangled up in its web of gangs, high schoolers, living myths, and Russian sushi.
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
Before there was Kill la Kill, there was Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. In Gurren Lagann, the screaming self-belief that bedrocks so many shounen anime is a quantifiable source of energy, which means the story is driven by the pursuit of ever-greater hype. Gurenn Lagann is relentlessly positive. It’s an unflinching flurry of blows to the dome that promises only to let up once you admit that you’re a person of worth, that you’re capable, that you have unlimited potential. Gurenn Lagann is totally beautiful nonsense, aggressively ridiculous, and sublime.
We’ve already been there, so here’s a snippet:
You go in expecting ghosts and monsters and sweet babes and you get 22 minutes of talking and piercing, emotive sound design and the goddamn most downright sumptuous art a show about teenagers has ever used, and it better be, because you will stare at it, follow its delicate golden spindle lines between shadows cast by the waning sun through the classroom windows across the floor and up the chalkboard, for hours. You will take in the factories shaded with orange-to-purple and forests of trees shaded with white-to-blue-to-green as vague but evocative as all recollection and you won’t even know it, but you will feel it. You will, after imbibing this over several days, notice that the furniture in Araragi’s house, the layout of the rooms, the layout of the house itself, is as deliberate and mystical as the house of a childhood friend. In an industry which is constantly victimized by wage-slave animators and punishing deadlines, you will fucking marvel at the fact that SHAFT and Monogatari’s other staff appear to have spent Zen Buddhist-like periods of time meditating on the essence of every frame only to express it in a form as close to purity as humanly possible.
Yuri!!! on Ice
Yuri on Ice is enjoying the kind of love usually reserved for gritty, mature dramas or inventive genre subversions, usually from what are championship teams. Series like Psycho-Pass, Madoka Magica, and Monogatari, which have become prominent hallmarks of how good anime can be over the past five years, were all produced by some of the top writers, directors and studios in the entire medium. But this show has become so popular that real live championship figure skaters have been posting screenshots of it on Instagram. For as good as everyone agrees Madoka Magica and Kill la Kill were, few Actual Celebrities were tweeting about Soul Gems and Scissor Blades. The fact that an anime about gay figure skaters is being celebrated like this is unprecedented.
The Science Adventure franchise has yielded mixed results, but at the top of the pile is Steins;Gate. A self-aggrandizing paranoiac, his adopted sister, a chan nerd, and an actual scientist accidentally stumble upon the means of time travel. Consequences will never be the same. Steins;Gate runs twelve episodes setting up the premise and it’s adorably goofball, but the second half is unrelenting as the results — and limitations — of time travel become maddeningly apparent. Steins;Gate looks crisp and the acting is solid, but it’s undeniably the writing that carries it. The relationships between the characters and how they drive the narrative are the stars here, which is why it takes its sweet time establishing them. You can’t just know what’s at stake, you have to feel what’s at stake, and like Fate/Zero, the conclusion will leave you bereft.
Psycho-Pass is heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell which it makes clear from its opening seconds, aping the helicopter sequence that starts both the original Ghost in the Shell movie and Stand Alone Complex. Produced by Ghost in the Shell studio Production IG, Psycho-Pass is a dystopian fable about awarding too much authority to machines, and while the setting isn’t as distinct as Mamoru Oshii’s pioneering work, Psycho-Pass writer Gen Urobuchi works hard to create character dynamics as rich as the ones present in Kusanagi’s team. He also works hard to distinguish the series from its influences: Psycho-Pass takes a more philosophical bent than GitS with certain characters appearing almost Shakesperean in delivering academic soliloquies, testing various ideas about the human condition in brutal ways. It’s a pretty bleak commentary on the relationship between technology and authoritarian control set to the structure of a detective thriller.
This comedic drama has modest ambitions. Its social commentary is small scale and it never aims to expand the scope of visual expression, but by keeping the cast small and the setting relatively mundane, it’s allowed to spend plenty of time developing a tight story. It’s cute but not moe, heart-warming but not saccharine, occasionally sad but not melodramatic, intricate but not convoluted. It’s kind of magical in the way Ghibli movies are magical, drawing the mythology and wonder out of every day life. It’s hard to explain why any of that makes it compelling, but I can only say that it feels special in the way that sometimes getting a coffee with a friend is special — not epic, maybe, but in some way reaffirming.
Kill la Kill
it’s a show that literally only exists off the back of the scriptwriter, one kazuki nakashima, thinking “fashion” and “fascism” sound close enough to be a great pun and deciding to just snowball the pun-ishment from there (there’s a great moment, totally lost on anyone who can’t read japanese or can’t fake it reasonably well via application of handy cheat-sheet & sites, where a character’s name, shown as he’s begging for the protagonist to trust him iirc, nearly literally reads “YOU CAN TRUST ME, REALLY”, the righteous, good-hearted rebels are, my hand to god, named NUDIST BEACH, they are fighting against a group whose name is REVOCS — COVERS backwards); the only thing i’ve seen that goes full-bore on mucking about with on-screen text as much as kill la kill does is tony scott’s man on fire and domino and i’m completely unrepentant about sobbing miserably for like, weeks after tony scott died; it desperately wants yanki girl gangs to be a thing again, you can tell; its seventh episode is a thinly-veiled hagiography of studio trigger’s staffers’ own career experiences and opinions in retrospect of same; if it is camp (and it probably is, or wants to be), it’s camp gone acidic, so toxic it’s eating through the linoleum floor already; it needs fewer trigger warnings than the bible, but not by much, probably.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is… fucked. The character designs all involve ridiculously ripped dudes with jawlines so sharp they could grate carrots, the action involves magic energy that comes from breathing, and later, from spirits that infect the characters after they’re shot by an ancient bow and arrow. Most of the characters are named after 20th century rock references. The archvillain is named after Ronnie James Dio. Two early supporting characters are named after REO Speedwagon and Led Zeppelin. A fucking magic dog is named after Iggy Pop. You have to accept that this show is patently absurd and really funny for how straight it plays it; it knows it’s melodramatic, that the dialogue is stupid, and it leans so far into that it forgets which way was up in the first place. But it’s surreal in other ways too. JoJo’s use of colour, particularly in Diamond Is Unbreakable, gives the series a hallucinatory feel at times, which is probably rooted in the same LSD fever that inspires so many of the rock references. The world doesn’t look the way it should; when it does, the colour palette will change suddenly and inexplicably between shots. But it’s so good at making consistency out of the inconsistent that it never gets in the way. Anyone who ever got something out of Dragon Ball Z owes it to themselves to watch JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It’s everything an action anime should be, pushed way the fuck into the red.
Little Witch Academia
If Harry Potter was loosely adapted into anime, this would be it. Demolition D+ does the critical heavy lifting:
The Rolling Girls
The Rolling Girls disappointed just about everybody when it aired back in 2015. Where Madoka Magica pulled a bait-and-switch and upped the stakes, Rolling Girls betrays the premise set up by its first episode to lower them. Viewed blind, watching the Rolling Girls is mostly waiting for gorgeously animated action sequences (and waiting and waiting and waiting) but viewing it retrospectively, knowing it’s ultimately a slice-of-life series, brings out its greater qualities. Emily Rand sums up this conflict real nice here. Until FlipFlappers came along late last year, I couldn’t think of a show that interrogated platonic companionship like Rolling Girls does. And teasing those themes out of the constantly changing and imaginative settings throughout the series is some of the most fun a girl can have sitting down. It’s got a similar goofiness in parts as Kill la Kill, and it’s also pretty as hell.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
If Sailor Moon is the alpha of the magical girl genre, Madoka Magica is its omega. Its sudden shift in tone part way through the series made it infamous — writer Gen Urobuchi made sure it was originally marketed as a straight-up moe magical girl series — and from there it constantly reiterates how mature frilly dresses and make believe can get. In and of itself, ‘maturity’ shouldn’t be a benchmark for quality, and hopefully it’s obvious I don’t mean it to be given the silliness of some of the above series. But that aspect of Madoka Magica does reveal how subversive anime can get. There’s this idea that Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, and I don’t agree because I don’t think it does enough to actually critique those tropes, but I do think Urobuchi and director Akiyuki Shinbo must have processed their own deconstruction in the conception of the show. Madoka Magica comes from a place of asking what system would be in place to allow a girl to gain magical powers? What are the origins of good and evil and what about that system addresses that conflict? Urobuchi, Shinbo, and production studio SHAFT have each become synonymous with forward-thinking contemporary anime and they all collaborated for this 13 episode series. The silent partner in all this is Gekidan Inu Curry, the animation group whose collage-y style is responsible for Madoka Magica also being one of the most singular-looking series ever.
Shinsekai Yori runs in a heat with Steins;Gate and Madoka Magica for its emotional gut punches. Every element of this series is stunning. Shinsekai Yori begins with a group of children living in a society where psychic powers are part of everyday life — their use is rigidly taught but strictly regulated. As the show follows their growth from unwitting kids into fully-grown adults having taken over the responsibility for maintaining their society from their parents, the stories of that society and its participants unfolds into a delicate chain of history. As the core characters grow up and begin to understand more about the world — and the viewer with them — they begin to question the costs of their utopia. They realise their particular moment is the culmination of centuries of struggle, and they wrestle with ways to break or reshape the destinies set for them as the price of maintaining peace. In Shinsekai Yori, it’s never as simple as a malignant, authoritarian presence against which one can rebel: the characters learn and feel that they’re as much a part of the social fabric as the systems of order. Story aside, A-1 Pictures brings their resources to character designs and animation that’ll satisfy anyone who dug ‘Shelter’ (which they also produced) and the haunting soundtrack, courtesy of Dvorak’s Symphony №9 and series composer Shigeo Komori, rivals the eerie atmosphere of Kenji Kawai’s work on Ghost in the Shell.
Just listen to this. The top comment on this video is “It is a beautiful and cruel anime.” If I could never make another anime recommendation in my whole life, this’d be the last one. It’s my favourite series of all time and I’ve never seen a greater argument for the legitimacy of anime as a format.
Hit me up next time, Gold Panda. I’ll send you some links.