MIND MELD: Underrated Anime (With Videos!)
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Everyone looking to watch some good anime knows the popular ones: Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Tototro, Battle Angel OVA, Grave of the Fireflies, Howl’s Moving Castle, Serial Experiments Lain, etc. But what about anime that falls below the usual radar? We asked this week’s esteemed panelists:
Here’s what they said…
Cowboy Bebop, Evangelion, Escaflowne, Berserk, Rurouni Kenshin, Samurai Champloo, GTO, Azumanga Daioh, Patlabor, and Death Note. I just wanted to make mention of these terrific AND popular anime than didn’t make your intro list because I don’t want to catch any flak for seemingly overlooking them in my list.
Some ten years ago, when I was preparing for professional life after Stargate, I started picking up anime with an eye to finding a potential property that would make a good live action film or television series. The idea was to come up with a couple of titles, option them, and eventually set one up at a studio or network. Well, turned out my plans for that next project had to wait as, ten years later, I’m still working on Stargate. In the meantime, my anime collection has swelled to about a thousand titles.
That initial research gave way to a respect and love for the genre and, today, I watch an anime episode a day in a bid to keep current, improve my Japanese language skills and, of course, find that next big project in preparation for life after Stargate.
What follows is a list of my personal underrated favorites:
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo – A futuristic re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, Gakutsuou’s complex characters wind their way through a labyrinthine plot teeming with crosses, double-crosses, and hidden agendas. The whole is complimented by classical music, original pieces by Kasamatsu Kouji and Jean-Jacques Burnel, and a stunning visual style.
Now and Then, Here and There – A brutal but incredibly engrossing 13-episode mini-series about a boy transported to a bleak, alternate (perhaps future) Earth where water is a scarce commodity, a military government rules, and humanity’s survival may well depend on a mysterious girl. Now and Then, Here and There doesn’t pull any punches in its dark depiction of war, exploitations, and loss. It’s smart, mature story-telling that proves anime ain’t just for kids.
Noir – A beautiful soundtrack underscores this moody, haunting entry in the girls-with-guns sub-genre. Two young female assassins – an orphan named Mireille and an amnesiac named Kirika – embark on a journey, both professional and personal, encountering mayhem and mystery along the way.
Infinite Ryvius – It’s Lord of the Flies meets Survivor in space. An act of sabotage sends the space station Liebe Delta into an immense and mysterious plasma field, killing its adult crew and stranding some five hundred young cadets aboard. As hopes of rescue fade, factions are formed, plots are hatched, and the struggle for control of the Liebe Delta begins.
Revolutionary Girl Utena – As far as kick-ass young heroines go, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better than Utena Tenjou, a student at Ohtori Academy where disputes are settled by sword duels. Romantic, surreal, and remarkably stirring, its grand operatic qualities leave me wondering why it has yet to be adapted for the stage.
Excel Saga – Officers Excel and Hyatt are agents of a secret organization bent on saving the planet through world domination. Standing in their way: the equally shadowy government agency led by fake moustache-sporting Dr. Kabapu. Bizarre. Outrageous. Spooferifically hilarious.
Kino’s Journey – A precocious kid and his talking motorcycle (Yes, you heard me. Talking motorcyle.) wind their way through what seems like a post-apocalyptic steampunk Eastern Europe fraught with wonders and dangers. Lyrical and touching.
Boogiepop Phantom – A month after a strange pillar of light inexplicably manifests in the night sky over a Japanese metropolis, high school students start disappearing. Are these disappearances related to the mysterious light? Is there a connection to a series of serial killings that gripped the city some five years ago? And who or what is the Boogiepop Phanthom, an urban legend that has seemingly taken on a life of its own? The mystery unfolds in unsettling, non-linear fashion…
Black Lagoon – If Tarantino did anime, this is the anime he’d do. Our heroes are a team of mercenaries who always seem to find themselves caught between shifting alliances, the settling of underworld, and some truly weirdly unique psycopaths. Tempering the fireworks is the hapless Rock, a young Japanese businessman who finds himself beholden to the trio who once kidnapped him.
Elfen Lied – In near-future Japan, scientists experiment on a new strain of humanity. Although genetically different, the Diclonius appear very similar to their human counterparts. But their innate telekinetic abilities and propensity for violence are a dead giveaway. When “Lucy”, a mutant test subject, escapes from a research facility (in appropriately gory fashion), a frenzied manhunt begins. And while the Special Assault Teams comb the area in search of their dangerous quarry, a couple of locals take in a sweet, child-like girl with no memory of her past… Extremely visceral!
Honorable Mentions: Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, Last Exile, Red Garden, Banner of the Stars, Trigun, The Twelve Kingdoms, The Hakkenden: The Legend of the Dog Warriors.
Master Keaton by Naoki Urasawa.
It’s a strange mystery why this title is so obscure. It’s far better than 21st century boys or Monster.
The character has very much affected my personality. When I look back on my life, it’s as if I am following his life.
Well, after giving it some thought – since this is a roundtable I can trust the other contributors to cover the more specialized material, so I’m just
going to mention some of the less known* titles that hooked and kept me interested in anime, while still trying to include different genres.
- Hols, Prince of the Sun
- Space Warriors Baldios
- Ulysses 31
- Kimagure Orange Road
- Wings of Honneamise
- Venus Wars
- Heroic Legend of Arslan
- Legend of the Galactic Heroes
- Demon City Shinjuku
- Karasu Tengu Kabuto
- Nadia: Secret of Blue Sea
- Miss China
- A Wind Named Amnesia
- Gurren Lagann
- Asobi ni Ikuyo
* e.g. a personal favorite of mine, Saint Seiya, used to be quite popular everywhere but the States.
One of my favorite fantasy anime from a decade ago was Slayers (three seasons and more movies and direct-to-videos than you can count to date). One of my friends commented at how a lot of anime in the fantasy genre is a combination of high-fantasy and comedy and Slayers is a well-executed example of that statement.
Those looking for a more sci-fi bent should really watch Legend of the Galactic Heroes, based on the novels by Yoshiki Tanaka (unfortunately, no one in the US has licensed it, although fansubs are out on the Internet). It’s a very serious show (unlike my previous example) and actually utilizes plausible science fiction elements. It has a more military science fiction bent to it but throughout the entire series, it also asks questions like which is better: a benevolent dictatorship or a corrupt democracy. Even though the regular series is 110(!) episodes long (i.e. this is how you do a proper adaptation of a series of novels), the tension is always upbeat that you’ll breeze through them quickly.
While the original Giant Robo TV series is as campy as you’ll ever get, the Giant Robo direct-to-video (Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still) is a fantastic modern interpretation that includes everything from steampunk and martial arts without sacrificing character development and character depth. It’s just 7 episodes long (although fans at the time had to wait almost a year for each installment) but each episode outdoes the previous one.
Most people might recognize Satoshi Kon for his films like Perfect Blue and Paprika, but fans of suspense and the eclectic should give his TV series, Paranoia Agent (just 13 episodes), a try. In a certain way, it feels like a surreal Philip K. Dick with each episode building up to a crescendo.
- Mobile Police Patlabor – A great series of films, OVAs, and television episodes. Although Mamoru Oshii’s involvement in the series may get a lot of attention (particularly from me), the franchise in general is worth paying attention to. It’s a realistic take on the giant robot genre, but it doesn’t overemphasize the technology to the detriment of the characters and their relationships.
- Dead Leaves – An OVA directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi. The story? Really, it doesn’t matter. Just pay attention to the crazy animation. Imaishi would go on to direct Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, if that gives you any indication of his style.
- Trava Fist Planet – I think 2010 may be the year of Redline, the visceral anime thrill ride directed by Takeshi Koike and written by Katsuhito Ishii. However, seven years ago Koike and Ishii worked together on Trava Fist Planet, which has themes and animation styles similar to those of Redline. (The main characters of Trava even make a cameo appearance in Redline.) It’s definitely worth tracking down the Japanese DVD, which has English subtitles.
- Heat Guy J – Just because.
Seirei no Moribito
Based on a series of novels by Nahoko Ueshashi and known as Guardian of the Spirit in English, this is the story of a bodyguard named Balsa working off the karmic debt of the man who raised her. Her “one last job” arrives in the form of Prince Chagum, a twelve-year-old boy whose body carries a water spirit that may bring drought to the New Yogo Empire. Balsa agrees to protect the boy despite knowing that his death will save her adopted country. It’s a lifetime appointment, and the solitary spear-wielder finds herself confronted with both the new expectations of adoptive motherhood and the old demands of her battle-weary conscience.
There are a lot of pronouns to remember, but the series itself is easy on the eyes and the mind. This isn’t to say that it’s insipid — far from it. This a smart series that asks hard questions about the nature of power and the value of sacrifice. But the real pleasure of watching it is discovering the painstaking worldbuilding and design, and watching Balsa and Chagum re-discover themselves through and with each other. (Don’t look at me that way; this is a very clean show, aside from the occasional impaling by spear.) It’s a fantasy series that doesn’t feel like a fantasy series: there are no saving throws and no real villains, either. Each character’s actions make sense in context, even when the viewer finds them abhorrent. If you enjoyed Princess Mononoke for its moral difficulty, natural beauty, and precise detail, this is the series for you.
Similarly, Mushi-shi, based on the manga by Yuki Urushibara, is a horror series that doesn’t feel like a horror series. The monsters here are the tiny mushi (“bugs”) that occasionally infest villages, body parts, and dreams. They can be benign or malignant, often existing in a kind of symbiotic relationship with humans. But when that relationship sours, a “bug master” named Ginko tries to mediate. Ginko has a special ability to track the mushi, because a colony of them inhabits one of his eyes. His eye also attracts other mushi, which forces him to live on the road rather than settling down anywhere.
There are a lot of anime series out there about supernatural creatures who need ganking by peripatetic exorcists or priests. (The anime adaptation of Supernatural is only the latest.) Where Mushi-shi differs is by framing the exorcism as a problem that can be solved with the scientific method, rather than appeasement or ritual. Ginko spends more time on research than anything else, and his clients almost always lie or are themselves misinformed as to the nature of their problem. Ginko isn’t just a supernatural exterminator, he’s a spiritual detective and a wandering confessor. The people he serves are almost always afflicted with a deep sorrow in addition to their bug problem, and some of the episodes are emotionally horrific in addition to being just plain creepy.
A good old powered robot suit story. Such devices are used for everyday work – and hence need their own police units to solve the crimes surrounding them. People who like Ghost In the Shell may well like this and also Parasite Dolls, which is along the same lines (and a spinoff of Bubblegum Crisis below), but talking about human looking androids instead. There are various movies.
Again a setting like Patlabor where robots are used for labor or entertainment and sex (Parasite Dolls). There is a special police group here for robot crimes, as well. The heroes of this piece are an all-female superhero team called The Knight Sabers who of course have powered armour supersuits. The antagonist in true cyberpunk fashion is an evil corporation with their twisted plans for both robots and humans. Patlabor, Bubblegum Crisis and Ghost In the Shell would make an interesting thematic megaset.
Space Adventure Cobra
A space pirate who decides he doesn’t want to be gets drawn back into action along with his cyborg partner – and cyborg supervillain archenemy and a handful of femme fatales, including some sisters. He has his own superweapon. Drawn in the more realistic adult style I prefer.
A series definitely along the lines of Neon Genesis Evangelion, with a young man discovering who he is – and it is pretty bizarre with worlds just hanging around. He, of course, can control a supermecha. Weird attacking alien entities abound here, too. Music plays an important part in this one. A little more comprehensible and less annoying than Evangelion can get at times, too. Plus, no cash cow rehashes.
Darker Than Black
The Japanese do science fiction weird rather well, and that is what is at the heart of this superhuman science fiction series. The real sky and stars are gone. Strange alien bases now exist and are largely impenetrable (one of them being in Tokyo). With this has brought the rise of the Contractors – people that gain superhuman abilities, but with a generally severe psychological quirk to go along with them. Another odd part of this story is that with the real stars gone, each Contractor is linked to a ‘fake’ star. The story follows a man who is a Contractor and assassin called The Black Reaper – and a mild-mannered student in his secret identity. He works for the now flourishing Syndicate, along with a team. This incursion also made Dolls, who are basically clairvoyants with a need for a particular medium like water. A woman like this is on their team, as is a bodysnatcher stuck in a cat because his human body died. His world, and that of the chief of police of the unit and some superhuman spies dealing with Contractors slowly intersect, as what is going on unfolds and builds to a crisis point at the strange Heaven’s Gate.
This is CGI anime, and watching work like this and Appleseed you wonder if you ever want to go back to seeing the 2D stuff. Again, robots and Japan are at the heart of the weird. The world decides against further research into AI. Japan says screw you and shuts themself off in an adamantium curtain fashion. A raid by an American commando unit on a corporate meeting discovers evidence of very worrying banned research, so they decide on a desperate infiltration on Japan to get information. Vexille is one of the SWORD agents sent in to discover the terrible truth about this country. This one isn’t a battlesuit/mecha combat fest at all, though. The 3-D version of the theme talked about above if you like.
Here are my list of six anime that tend to be overlooked or underrated. Four of these series are out of print, but a quick check of Amazon and Ebay tells me they can purchased pretty cheap, if you don’t need the DVD’s to be in collector’s condition. With more and more anime being streamed, it’s making it easier to watch little known series.
1. Witch Hunter Robin – 26 episode TV series- This series was actually shown on Adult Swim during the height of the anime craze in 2004. It’s the story of Robin, a witch trained by the Catholic Church to hunt other witches. She has been assigned to the Japanese branch of SOLOMON, an organization that essentially hunts down witches it doesn’t control. Witchcraft in this series isn’t an appeal to some outside entity for magical abilities, but instead a superhuman genetic ability. Being a witch is similar to being a mutant in the Marvel universe.
Over the course of the series, we learn the history of witches and their persecution. As Robin learns more about witchcraft, SOLOMON, and her own abilities, she becomes uncomfortable with what she is doing. She’s finally forced to decide what she will do with this knowledge and her life.
Witch Hunter Robin isn’t an underrated series. In fact, it’s a critics darling. It’s more of a forgotten series. It enjoyed a brief period of popularity, but was buried in the tidal wave of new releases coming out in 2004 and 2005. Fans quickly moved on to the next big thing.
It’s time for this series to make a comeback. It’s beautifully animated, has solid characters, a well-constructed plot, and even great music. It’s very a atmospheric show with conspiratorial overtones. Given Dan Brown’s popularity, it would be nice for a show that knows how to do secret histories and organizations well to gain the audience it deserves. So it’s time for some anime company to reintroduce Witch Hunter Robin to America.
2. Dai-Guard – 26 episode TV series- Dai-Guard never got the chance to be on American TV, which is a real shame. This series is a marvelous deconstruction of the giant robot genre. The 21st Century Defense Corporation has a 100 ft robot called Dai-Guard. It’s a fully functioning robot that they currently use as promotional prop.
Shunsuke is a young member of the department in charge of Dai-Guard. He is also an otaku and dreams of taking the robot into battle. It doesn’t take long before he gets his chance. As any self respecting alien will tell you, it’s a cosmic right-of-passage to attack Tokyo.
The genius of this series is that it tries to be as realistic as possible. It’s hysterical to watch the corporate bureaucracy agonize over the cost of operating a giant robot. Buildings get damaged during the fight and the landowners sue over damages. Plus, there are the real world physics and technology that take away from the glamour of operating a such a large machine.
I’m not a giant robot fan and I found this series fun and engaging. This show will appeal to anyone who is enjoys well-developed characters, a good sense of humor, and some nice fight scenes.
3. Crest of the Stars/Banner of the Stars – 36 episode TV series- The 13 episodes of Crest of the Stars ran on Tech TV back in 2002. The series follows Jinto Lynn, a noble’s son from a world conquered by the Abh race. He is sent off to school to learn the ways of the Abh and help integrate his world into the Abh empire. He meets and befriends the Abh princess Lafiel.
This is a subdued space opera series. That makes it a hard sell for an American audience. Mature, serious science fiction has never been very popular. Add into the mix, Crest of the Stars is a slow paced show that focuses more on politics than space battles and that’s a recipe for obscurity.
Crest of the Stars is intelligent and requires the viewer to pay close attention to understand what going on from episode to episode. It’s a brilliant show for the hardcore science fiction fan. This is great example of anime for adults.
4. Cobra the Animation: The Psychogun/Time Drive-6 episode OVA series – You can watch these episodes online at Crunchyroll.com. These are two of the many anime shows based on the manga by Buichi Terasawa. Cobra is action packed sci-fi. What probably keeps Cobra from being popular are the female fashions that Terasawa loves. This will remind viewers of the film Heavy Metal. The woman wear only as much as needed to keep the censors happy. Also, Terasawa, like Sir Mix-A-Lot, is a lover of the female posterior and there are many long loving shots of the heroine’s backside to prove it.
Cobra is a manly man and these shows are awash in testosterone. This series harkens back to the old sci-fi pulp adventure novels. Cobra is always helping a beautiful woman keep powerful technology from the hands of the evil Pirate Guild. He does so with flair and style. Imagine James Bond working as a rogue outlaw.
Cobra is a disconnect your mind and just enjoy the ride kind of show. For people who fondly remember John Carter of Mars and Flash Gordon, Cobra is the grown-up version to scratch your nostalgic itch.
5. Tatami Galaxy – 13 episode TV series- This show is being streamed online at Hulu.com this year. It’s the story of an unnamed college student and his quest to live the rose-colored college life. He wants to be popular with lots of friends and gallivant off to exciting adventures. What he truly desires is to find the woman he will marry. The problem is our protagonist is very shy and does make the most prudent decisions. On top of this, he is friends with Ozu, who doesn’t appear to have our protagonist’s best interest in mind.
Similar to Groundhog Day, our protagonist finds himself reliving his first year of college trying to make the right decisions that will get his rose-colored life. Each time he chances a major decision and then has to live through all the consequences. It’s a great redemption comedy.
What may be keeping so many people away from this delightful series is two-fold. First, the protagonist narrates his adventures and he is a very fast talker. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the subtitles as they fly by. I had to watch each episode twice with pauses to read everything. Tatami Galaxy will need a dub to help attract casual fans.
Second, this show is very much steeped in Japanese culture. A lot of the jokes depend on the audience being familiar with Japan college stereotypes. Also, there is a lot of satire of Japan school dramas and coming of age stories. The more you know the more jokes you get. I keep hoping there will be a nice DVD release with a cultural notes feature to help explain the jokes.
I can assure you Tatami Galaxy is worth the effort. This show breaks out of the typical anime mold in so many ways. The art style is unique and based on the works of a graphic designer. The story is intelligently written. The writers know how to play with the basic setup and keep each episode fresh and interesting. The humor is just as though out and is character based instead of going for cheap laughs. The characters aren’t your typical anime stereotypes either. The show is a reminder that cartoons can be as innovative and smart as any live action show. It made me excited about anime again.
6. Master Keaton – 26 episode TV series- Based on a manga by Hokusei Katsushika and Naoki Urasawa. Master Keaton follows the adventures of an insurance investigator who hopes to complete his archeological research and become an full-time archeologist. He served in the British SAS after getting his degree from Oxford and has a knack for clever devices when needed. In America, this would have been a live action drama with the cast flying around the world shooting scenes in exotic locales. Keaton is a mix of McGyver, Indiana Jones, and Steven Segal.
This is another excellent example of anime written for adults. The show is low key and deliberately paced. Keaton has to deal with the conflict between his job responsibilities and his dreams. He only gets to visit so many countries because he is on cases for insurance companies. He has an ex-wife and a daughter that live in Japan. He loves his daughter but rarely has the time and money to fly out to Japan to visit. It’s a realistic portrayal of the 30-something business man.
Besides being beautiful to look at, the show is also well-researched. The directors and writers either visited the locations they animated or found photo references to work from. The cases Keaton gets assigned are typical in themselves, but usually something goes wrong to give each episode its dramatic tension. The archeology is believable too. Keaton isn’t proposing some radical theory that will cause us to rethink all of human history.
This show is actually feels relaxing to watch. There aren’t any hyper kinetic characters jumping across the screen. There aren’t people spewing techno babble or off-the-wall dialogue. It’s a great change of pace from the anime intended for the attention spans of kids and teenagers. The show expects the audience to be mature and pay attention to the entire episode. This is one of those rare drama series that appeals to both males and females. Any fan of a solidly written drama will find this a brilliant series.
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