Sunday, September 25, 2005



By Elaine Meinel Supkis

I grew up in more than one country, watching TV or movies in other languages. I remember my first anime, it was at this Asia Society community center. To keep us kids happy, they showed us some beautiful anime in Japanese.

Love at first sight.

I seriously fell in love just from that one day's experience. The thing that struck me hardest was the religious side of anime. In one scene, the monkey king argues with Buddha, as usual. He then laughs and jumps on his cloud and zips off. In the distance, he sees pillars that get closer and closer and suddenly he realizes they are Buddha's fingers as he closes his hand over the recalitrant monkey. Finally, I thought, someone who understands the cosmos I live in.

It set my feet on an important path, it is a cartoon that changed my religious life. It was magical.

And this is what makes anime so wonderful. The animators, over a fifty+ year time span have created a strong alternate universe, playing off of each other's works, delving into all sorts of snarly things, dark corners and estatic heights. There is a ton of dross anime that is awful but the gems created in the massive mix are astonishing, amazing and often heart breaking.

In NYC, I watched Japanese TV courtesy of Channel 68. I watched their news (and the German and Brit and French TV shows, too) and dramas and even cooking shows (Iron Chef was on that station early on). My children grew up watching tons of anime on Japanese TV shows. Not in English but in Japanese.

Here is the stupid article from the NYT:
A Japanese scientist agonizing over the terrible experiments he performed during World War II? You may not find him in a Japanese history text, but you will in the anime series "Tetsujin 28." The show, which makes its American debut on DVD on Tuesday, features three professors wracked by guilt over wartime research that produced, in the words of one of them, "things that should never have been brought into this world."

Jason Alnas, marketing manager at Geneon Entertainment, the American distributor of "Tetsujin," said: "An element of war guilt pervades the entire series. The professors all say, 'We had no choice.' " The story begins, however, with a professor who does make a choice: in the latter days of the war, when Dr. Kaneda is assigned to create the gigantic robot-soldier Tetsujin, he leaks the location of his lab to the Americans to ensure its destruction and his own death. But a decade later, the robot appears in Tokyo and encounters Dr. Kaneda's son, Shotaro, and his former apprentice, Dr. Shikishima. The boy detective Shotaro soon meets his father's rival, Dr. Furanken, who performed Frankenstein-like experiments on corpses, including that of his own son. Furanken outdoes Lady Macbeth and sees blood literally flowing from his hands."Tetsujin 28," based on the same manga as the mid-1960's series that Americans knew as "Gigantor," generated surprisingly little controversy when it was broadcast in Japan in 2004, perhaps because it juxtaposes the professors' hand-wringing with scenes of the firebombing of Tokyo. "I've seen a lot of anime, but I haven't seen any hints of war guilt before," Mr. Alnas said. "There have been lots of films in which the Japanese essentially say, 'Oh yes, we were in this war, we lost, we were victimized by it, but we rebuilt and have moved on.' 'Tetsujin 28' takes you where a lot of people don't want to go. People need to move on with their lives but not forget the past."
Give me a break. There are zillions of Japanese anime wherein the characters agonize about war guilt. You show me ONE American cartoon that shows Americans feeling guilty about...well, anything, especially war crimes...and I will laugh to death. It is about the most verboten topic in ANY American film much less, cartoon.

The few movies that did broach that hot topic were done by great directors who the Republicans hate and fear. Like Michael Moore. Pariahs.

The reason why I watch anime is precisely because it explores the interface between humanity, the gods and our deeds and Mother Nature. They dare explore the downside of living too long, living badly, exploitation of others, using violence to gain power, all these things, the bad side of technology, the responsibilities of being a god, all examined in a most critical way.

Anime characters die. Sometimes, quite brutally. I have seldom cried at an American cartoon.

I have wept so hard while watching anime, even thinking about it, brings tears of memory. Some of the most seemingly goofy looking shows often suddenly lurch into such territory. In "Chrono Crusades," when the two lead characters suddenly fall apart, become demonic, fight, then refind each other's souls and then very quietly, peacefully die in each other's arms, I could hardly stand it.
Hinotori (the firebird) is a series I love. "Tensujin 28" is done by the same animators. They also did "Black Jack", a children's series about a doctor wearing a dramatic black cape. These animators like to speculate about the futility of humans creating robots and medical systems to make people in power live forever. They show in horrible detail, how this destroys the humanity and ability to love or live like a living being. They explore, in nightmare detail, the downside of modern systems. This is why I love this animating team so much. The agony of scientists who sell their souls to the Devil that is Death is heart breaking and infuriating. They obviously have given this topic a great deal of thought.

They attack the Buddhist clergy, the politicians, the corporate owners, all those who have status or control of things are put through astonishingly harsh examination and sometimes, the animators bring us to the very edge of total despair.

One of my favorite shows is about a young aristocratic girl forced to act like a boy by her warrior father during the Onin Wars. Her brutal father murders her mother in a rage. She swears she will destroy her own father. He hears of a Buddhist nun who can cure any disease, sick in bed himself, he sends for the lady. She arrives, looks at his daughter and is filled with despair. She promises to cure the warlord but tells him she has to go back to the shrine for the magic Pheonix feather. At the shrine, she is attacked by the daughter.

In a series of lovely scenes, the conversations and art are amazing as one realizes, the two women are the same person at two different time loops, crossing each other's paths. So she kills herself and to cover up the crime, becomes herself, for the aristocratic girl is trapped in a time loop and can't leave...except to meet herself, over and over again. Each time she plays out the 18 year cycle, she pleads with the Firebird to release her from life but the eternal bird cautions her that undoing the karmic mess she created will take many revolutions.

Talk about a hard lesson! Maybe, that is why I watch this show and lean forwards, scanning each image carefully.

Even using mecha to kill hostile aliens causes Japanese animators to explore human internal conflicts as in a recent show, "Soukyuu no Fafner". Early on, a lovely young, sick girl, sacrifices herself to save a boy she admires as well as her island community. The mutal death deaths of herself and the alien she kills had me crying, it was a toothgrinding episode, not cheerful or violent just to be violent, it shoved into our faces, the despair, harsh realities of fighting and the pain of dying, the pain of those who witnessed the deaths....a difficult subject for any artist, done gloriously, as a cartoon!

I could write a million words on Japanese anime that explores war, war crimes, death machines and how humans using them are corrupted or changed. The anime American children see on our TV stations has often filtered out the shows that do all this stuff. They just aren't popular here. We want our heroes to be all powerful and to win all the time and never die.

We are the crazy ones who refuse to see what crimes we commit even today, we are committing one crime after another, all in the name of Freedom. What a joke. What a farce.
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