Michaele Jordan is the author of the period occult thriller Mirror Maze and her stories have appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, Interstellar Fiction, The Crimson Pact, Volumes 4 and 5 and Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can visit her website at MichaeleJordan.com while waiting for the upcoming steampunk adventure Jocasta And The Indians.
by Michaele Jordan
I recently surfed past an article by Meredith Woerner touting the virtues of anime. Headlines like, “Animated movies that are better than most live-action blockbusters” tend to stop me in my tracks, and this one was no exception. I am always interested if seeing animation claim a larger, more respected share of the film market. But, alas, I was disappointed.
The fault was not Ms. Woerner’s. She was focusing on films that could compete with summer blockbusters. So I shouldn’t have been looking for films that might garner respect. Nor am I saying she listed a lot of trash. She did a reasonable job of balancing Japanese films against American, and for the most part they were all good movies. (Okay, I could quibble that. . . No. Won’t go there.)
They were good movies. But they were kids’ movies. Some used wit (a great deal of wit, in the case of The Incredibles by Brad Bird) to placate grown-up escorts. Miyazaki films, such as Spirited Away, do not need to placate the parents; they are told with enough charm for any market. But of nineteen films, only four could be accused of aiming at an adult audience. Three of those were Japanese, and the fourth, Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal, was from 1981. Not only are we not keeping up in the West, we are falling further and further behind.
It’s not that I particularly seek out films full of sex and violence. But my tolerance for sweetness and cute is low, and there is rarely much middle ground. Anime is one of the places I go to look for that middle ground.
It starts with television. Television is what most people watch all the time. It shapes their expectations for what movies they want to see. The Japanese (yes, we’re back to the Japanese; they remain the cutting edge) do not view animation as something for kids. They view it as a cost-effective means of production in the cut-throat television market. Their TV networks feature ‘cartoons’ as routinely as we feature crime dramas. They don’t just offer anime fantasy and science fiction. They also have anime detectives, anime serial killers and anime sit-coms. All aimed at adults.
I first encountered this phenomenon when Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim featured Ryôsuke Nakamura’s Monster (a Shogakukan Production 2004-05). This is an edge-of-your-seat political thriller/psychological crime drama. It is NOT for children. Nor is it SF/F, unless you count the hypnotic charm of the serial killer as a fantasy element. It ran 64 episodes.
Of course, I am a fan, so I prefer SF/F. I’ve just signed on to CrunchyRoll, largely because they were offering seasons two and three of the wonderfully drawn Hell Girl, from Aniplex. I fell in love with the show when I stumbled across season one (2005-06) on Netflix. As you might guess from the title, Hell Girl is fantasy. Very, very dark fantasy.
Ai Enma is a solemn, soft-spoken little girl, as big-eyed and beautiful a child as any in anime. She serves as a sort of gatekeeper to the underworld. If you make a contract with her, she will dispatch the object of your retribution to Hell. In every episode, we see her rowing her little ferry across a dark lake, dotted with little glowing lanterns. Of course, you pay for this service. When you die, you will follow your victim to Hell. Most of her passengers deserve their fate. Some don’t. Very few of the clients deserve theirs.
There is no sex to speak of in this show, and not really much violence either. But it remains utterly inappropriate for children. It is so slow-moving that you probably couldn’t get them to watch it anyway. Nor does the story advance much from episode to episode. But it is compelling; a series of sad, cruel little tales of fear and futility, in which the characters torment each other until one of them breaks the loop in desperation. It’s about karma, and karma, when all is said and done, is the human inability to learn from past failings, the endless recycling of yesterday’s mistakes. I repeat, it’s not for kids.
I cannot honestly say I expect to see anything like this to reach American TV, whether or not it is animated. Technically, it would be easy enough to remake in English with live actors and a Judaeo-Christianized Hell. But no one would watch it. This one is a ‘special dark’. It makes Hannibal look cheery. (And yet, it ran three seasons in Japan.) Still, I would certainly like to see something animated on TV, or in the theatres, that is not for children.