A Peek into Japan’s Rabbit Hole: Of Absurdity, Style and Charismatic Simplicity

By Alok Gokhale and Shrey Patnaik

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A lot of our friends often stare at us with shock and disbelief when we remark that some of the most profound and memorable stories we have experienced are through anime. OK, who are we kidding; we’re only met with mild amusement and a few eyebrows raised here or there. But seriously, anime is awesome, and as Animax puts it, there are some stories that need to be told anime style.

To a newcomer, the sheer volume of material can be intimidating, and honestly, a lot of it is crap. However, there are few gems that have survived with us throughout the years. Seeing anime grow, and growing with anime has given us viewing pleasure and insight, insight into a world we never knew existed. Here are five stories you should experience as well.

DISCLAIMER: As much as we are fond of Goku and his flying comrades, we will be excluding some popular anime you have probably seen, and maybe dismissed (Naruto, we are looking at you). These hand-picked anime offer a fair representation of the best the medium has to offer across genres.

COWBOY BEBOP (1998)

164250One part Tarantino, one part cheap cigarettes and whisky, and one part its own heady mix of action and pop philosophy, Cowboy Bebop is arguably the most significant anime to have come out in the last few decades, stylistically. Completely hand-drawn, the visuals of this show are still gorgeous fifteen years since its release. The plot follows the misadventures of the motley crew of The Bebop, a spaceship in a future fifty years from now. Each one of the bounty hunters aboard The Bebop has a dark history which they must eventually confront and the series explores the question of whether we can ever truly outrun our past. The show itself is an epilogue of sorts; Cowboy Bebop is about stories of the past subtly explored through the present. Boasting an excellent soundtrack (a personal favorite being The Real Folk Blues) that will be a treat for jazz lovers especially, it gives us a story that is told with a style that will be a treat for cinephiles, as director Shinchiro Watanabe’s vision is something that can only be experienced, not told. Trust us and watch the first episode. This trailer will give you a good idea as to just how sexy and fun the show is.

WELCOME TO THE N.H.K (2006)

welcometothenhkfull8121Lets get this out of the way: Welcome to the N.H.K is depressing. The protagonist Sato is a NEET (Not in Employment, Education and Training), characterised by an acute social anxiety causing individuals to seek extreme isolation and confinement, and the show explores his various attempts to seek meaning in his increasingly insipid life. Termed by academics as a psychosociological commentary on an actual societal malaise, at it’s heart the show is an examination of the human condition, modern society and the costs that living in it inflicts on each one of us. Punctuated by soft instrumental pieces (Pearl Kyoudai’s symphonies being the most well woven) interspersed with the odd jarring punk-esque song, this show is our pick for its lasting quality and the depth of its character-driven narrative. Sato somehow manages to earn both your sympathy and infuriation; his growth takes us through so many ups and downs convincing us that he will never change that we hardly notice when he actually does. Yet it is this realization that completes the full circle, leaving a warm afterglow of realization and friendships fostered. The show takes some time to get into; however, you will be hooked a few episodes in, if only to see how Sato’s story ends.

NEON GENESIS EVANGELION (1995-96)

Neon.Genesis.Evangelion.full_.1353773Evangelion is set in a world where humanity is attacked by superhuman entities called “Angels”, and humanity’s only line of response is a series of organically controlled mecha (a mecha is common trope in anime, normally a giant robot piloted by a human). Sounds generic? The show is anything but that. Condensing Evangelion’s thematically dense plot is a herculean task, and you can rest assured that we can’t do a very good job of it. This anime is about people, about the existential questions that arise from the uncertainty of this world as young mecha pilot Shinji Ikari comes to terms with his responsibilities of protecting the world, straining the limits of his emotional stability. Cleverly disguised as a story of defeating Angels and protecting the world, the series is actually a dissection of human psychology and the costs associated with overcoming insecurities. It is an exploration of the limits of human sanity and self-loathing, deep within the mind of director Anno Hideaki. Though the show is demanding to watch, and can get extremely brutal amidst its increasingly negative overtures, it remains immensely satisfying.

TORADORA! (2008)

866b439883c064b65ba6b640bb45a750This deceptively simple story of highschool romance is one which leaves you sobbing, yet satisfied. Enter Ryuji, a menacing looking teenager who is a harmless homemaker on the inside. At school, he bumps into the fiery Aisaka Taiga. The two form an acquaintance for mutual benefit, and so our roller-coaster ride through teenage romance begins. We know what you are thinking. However, Toradora! is a fine example of highschool romcoms done well. The animation is superb, the music is breathtaking (especially Hashimoto Yukari’s heartrending Lost my Pieces) and the anime is genuinely humorous. The characters are extremely well written, and the voice acting (featuring an all-star cast) really brings them to life. In a genre overburdened with sheer mediocrity, Toradora! lurches from being absurdly comic to simply heartwrenching. It is this ability of Tatsuyuki Nagai to amphibiously balance the two emotions (also exhibited in his other work, Anohana) that transcends this anime to the upper echelons of anime hall of fame. Watch a preview here!

STEINS;GATE (2011)

steins-gate-baka-10Yes, Steins;Gate is about time travel. However, we believe that it really shines because of its characters; this anime is about humans, their hopes and aspirations, and their relationships. Protagonist Okabe Rintarou is everything a protagonist should be: dementedly funny, occasionally smart and caring, with appropriate helpings darkness, self-doubt and tragedy. To be fair, he represents the emotions and tone depicted throughout Steins;Gate well. The anime chronicles the escapades of the members of the Future Gadgets Laboratory, who accidentally create a time-machine. Steins;Gate is what John Leonetti’s The Butterfly Effect should have been. Okabe’s incredibly emotional journey as travels through parallel timelines looking for a future perfect for everyone he cares about is absolutely heartbreaking and clever, and will leave you wanting for more. Couple this with the incredible background art throughout the show, the anime is a stellar example of storywriting and production design. Steins;Gate is a journey no one should ever miss, because Okabe and his companions are people that will remain in your memory for years to come. Let the directors steadily build up the characters in the first-half if its run, and then just sit back and enjoy the ride. El. Psy. Congroo.

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2 thoughts on “A Peek into Japan’s Rabbit Hole: Of Absurdity, Style and Charismatic Simplicity

    • It’s quite smart and fast, if that helps. I liked it. Definitely give it a try, and finish it quickly. It’s only 16 episodes.

      Like

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