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One Last Time
By Janet Houck
June 01, 2007
"The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya"
© Bandai Entertainment
Over the last year, I’ve talked about most of the major anime genres, from superhero teams with robots to gushy romance. Today, in the last edition of American Otaku, I’m going to share some rather unorthodox titles, anime series which defy categorization...and sometimes, comprehension. Yet all of these titles are fun shows to watch, even if they are rather confusing.
You can’t talk about weird anime without mentioning FLCL (anime from Synch-Point, manga from TOKYOPOP). This six-episode OVA series featuring a guitar-smacking, Vespa-riding cute alien and a loser boy with objects coming out of his head has been a fan favorite since it first hit Japanese DVD players. People are still to this day arguing about what was the plot anyway, and what did the ending mean. (Best interpretation to date: FLCL is a Mage: The Ascension RPG game.) Besides the maniac animation, bright and rapidly switching between styles (a “South Park” homage and manga style being two of them), the music also drew in fans. I’m certain that The Pillows achieved the majority of their popularity outside of Japan due to their opening song and background music in FLCL. The series has been replayed on Adult Swim numerous times since its US release in 2003, and has led to countless bunny girl cosplay and yellow Vespa scooter purchases among otaku.
There is a manga adaptation of FLCL, as well as novels. The manga is darker than the anime, portraying the boy Naota as a murderer. The novels are more faithful to the anime, and do help to make the anime’s plot more understandable.
Dead Leaves (anime from Manga Entertainment) shares a pedigree with FLCL, as it also come from Production I.G., and it is equally insane in the pacing and art style. Pandy and Retro wake up in Tokyo, naked and with no memory. After a brief crime spree, the super-strong pair are sent to Dead Leaves, a prison on the half-destroyed moon with a very insane warden who wants revenge on Pandy. Lots of guns appear. Things get shot. Pandy suddenly has a baby, who emerges from the womb with machine guns.
Oh yeah. Reality has left the room.
The DVD is one of my favorites purely because of the extras. I have never seen a special interview segment that involved getting the director and Japanese voice actors drunk and mumbling out set secrets. Never. Oh, and in an interesting piece of trivia, the English voice actors for Pandy and Retro are actually a husband-and-wife team, and they got pregnant while recording the dub. How’s that for an unusual fertility treatment?
Excel Saga (anime from ADV Films, manga from VIZ Media), however, takes the cake for crazy in-joke anime. It’s a completely absurd series involve a secret organization, Across, seeking to take over the city of Fukuoka as a start towards world domination. Excel, the title character, is a member of Across, second only to the leader IIpalazzo. Along with Hyatt, Excel’s sickly partner in crime who may be an alien princess (the manga and anime differ in plots), Excel seeks to fulfill IIpalazzo’s desires and thus be praised by the cold leader, only to be thwarted by reality and the members of the city’s shadowy defense agency.
Excel Saga is a satire of Japanese society, full of gag comedy, self-referential jokes and otaku in-jokes such as sentai groups and fighters. In fact, many episodes were edited for the obscure Japanese references. The final episode was deliberately made too violent and obscene for broadcast, which says a lot. Each episode has a genre that is parodied (akin to the popular “monster of the week” format), making this a great way to learn about anime, yet it can be frustrating when you’re missing out on in-jokes. Happily, we have subtitles and notes on the DVDs and in the manga.
Puni Puni Poemy (anime from ADV Films) is a two-episode spin-off of Excel Saga, involving Poemy, who uses a fishbone to transform into a magical girl. However, she tosses away her wand and magic powers, instead using her bare hands to fight evil. Only she tends to cause more chaos than the original problem. Be aware that the second episode does parody hentai, so Puni Puni Poemy can be seen as a short hardcore version of Excel Saga.
Dokkoida?! (anime from Geneon) parodies the super sentai genre. Nineteen-year-old Suzuo gets a job working for Tampopo, a preteen alien girl who represents a toy company vying for the contract to make the Galaxy Federation Police’s new power suit. When Suzuo puts on the belt, he becomes Dokkoida, a metallic man... with a diaper. Another company has their eyes on the hefty contract, and they produce Neruloid Girl. Of course, the Galaxy Federation Police want to see how these suits work out in the field, so they conduct a test, using some of the worst criminals in the galaxy to run havoc on Earth, and our two rival heroes might stop them.
Of course, that’s too simple. In order to save costs, all of the players out of costume live in an apartment complex together... and no one suspects. To make it even worse, Suzuo is falling in love with the lovely Asuka, aka Neruloid Girl. It’s a great short anime series that never got the attention it should have.
Hare+Guu (anime from FUNimation) is set in a jungle village, centering around a boy, Hare, and Guu, a being who exists in multiple dimensions and appears as a girl. Guu has a world inside her stomach and often eats people, only to vomit them up later. (The people have no memory of visiting the stomach world.) Guu also has general reality-bending abilities and causes trouble and chaos wherever she goes, to Hare’s vocal discomfort, and then it rains. It doesn’t help that everyone around Hare is equally crazy, from Hare’s drunk and lazy mother to the lecherous Dr. Clive, who is biologically speaking, Hare’s father, and the Village Elder with his abundant chest hair.
Two older series, Boogiepop Phantom (anime from The Right Stuf) and Serial Experiments Lain (anime from Geneon), are hard to find on shelves now, but are excellent stories with their distinctive animation styles that have influenced more recent shows. Both have plots that are slowly revealed and require the viewer to pay attention to what seems to be insignificant at the time.
Luckily, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya only recently hit the shelves and is well-worth a purchase, even though it will leave you shaking your head in trying to figure out the story. The story revolves around the title character, who creates a club of her own at school, as all of the other clubs are boring. She enlists various classmates to join her club, the SOS Brigade, and help her in her plans to find time travelers, aliens and other strange things. The anime is told from the perspective of Kyon, one of Haruhi’s classmates. I don’t want to ruin the story, so I’ll end the summary here.
Anime has told some wonderful bizarre stories in the past ten years, and it is still telling them strong. As US demand has grown and DVD technology improved, these off-the-wall shows have become more and more accessible. If you’re not sure if you like anime, but you like engaging stories and animation, then give one of these series a try. Part of becoming an American Otaku is opening your eyes to entertainment beyond cable TV, and there’s no shame in that at all.
Thanks everyone for your comments over the past year. Bye-bye!