The Anime Conundrum

As this blog will attest, I’m pretty much the complete stereotypical nerd. I like video games, comic books, science fiction, Dungeons & Dragons, etc. But there’s two typical nerdisms that I have always proudly be unassociated with: Anime and Live Action Role Playing. In this post, I want to talk a bit about Anime. The picture above is a poster from a Japanese cartoon called Thunderbirds 2086. This show has the honor of being the first piece of Japanese animation that I was ever exposed to…. and I hated it.

I don’t recall many of the details because I was probably around pre-school age. But I believe this series was being aired on HBO in the early 80s and for some reason, my father taped it for me. Not having anything else to watch, I watched Thunderbirds. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, and I didn’t like it any better after the 50th time I saw it. But for some reason, I watched it.

Today, I couldn’t tell you what it was even about. I won’t cheat and look it up online either. All I remember are big yellow machines, some kind of underwater expedition and a bunch of starfighters that reminded me of something out of Star Wars. Aside from this show, and a healthy dose of Speed Racer cartoons, I had no other exposure to Japanese animation for quite some time.

I next stumbled into Japanamation (that’s what we called it at the time) with the debut of Voltron on American television. Now this show was cool! Bright colors, robotic lions that could connect into one butt kicking robot! This show had it all. However, shortly after becoming interested in Voltron, the show seemed to vanish from the airwaves. So, my interests returned to more American shows like He-Man and Silverhawks.

A year or two later, I found myself living the life of an Air Force brat on the island of Okinawa in Japan. Back then, there were only three channels available to watch. One armed-forces-ran English channel and two local Japanese channels. 9 times out of 10, it was English-speaking channel that was on in my home. But occasionally, I enjoyed flipping it over to the Japanese stations. Japanese programming was quite different from anything I was used to. Crazy game shows, cheesy-looking soap operas and of course, anime cartoons. Around the time I was living there, Dragon Ball Z was just in its first run in Japan. It was actually quite popular among the American kids, even if we had no idea what it was about. We traded Dragon Ball trading cards, we had Dragon Ball pencils, it was everywhere. I thought it looked cool, but I wasn’t able to understand the storyline because I didn’t speak a word of Japanese. A few years after I returned to the states, Dragon Ball had made it’s way here and I remember being amused by everyone thinking it was something knew. No one believed me when I told them it was at least 3-4 years old.

At this point, I was very indifferent to anime. I really enjoyed the artwork visually, but I had no real love for the shows themselves. My next stint with anime is where I think I really began to disdain the genre. I was dating a girl, and she basically forced me to watch this bizarre sex/alien-based cartoon called Legend of the Overfiend. I didn’t enjoy this show at all. I remember something about giant alien penises tearing apart a city, and monsters with tentacles raping women. It was totally not my cup of tea. It burned me from anime for a very long time. Almost 10 years to be exact.

Flash forward to around 2006, I find myself being an avid player of Final Fantasy XI online. Many of the people I play with are major otakus. In fact, I realize I am slowly becoming the minority with my peers in the game. Everyone is watching anime. Everywhere I turn people are talking about things like Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion. I try watching some of these shows, but to me they still seem slow-paced and boring.

Then one day, I find myself at the book store and I look up to see a shelf of Manga (Japanese comics). I pick up a Dragon Ball book and flip through it. I find myself liking it, so I buy it. I loved the comic so much that I went back and purchased a bunch more. Man, I’m really digging this book! So maybe this is it, I think. I decide to give Dragon Ball another shot and I put it on my Netflix list. Well, the DVD comes, and I fall asleep watching it. It’s just…. too childish. I try again with another Manga that I really enjoy, Chobits. This show is not childish at all, but it still doesn’t click with me.

A few more years go by, and now it seems like everyone is into anime but me. So finally a few weeks ago, I bite the bullet and ask some of my friends in Final Fantasy XIV to recommend a few titles to me. I summarize my experiences and I get quite a few suggestions. One of these is a series called Sword Art Online. It’s a show that’s essentially about a futuristic virtual reality-based MMO. After everyone logs in on launch day, they find themselves trapped inside the game world. It turns out this trap was laid out by the game’s sadistic creator as twisted experiment of sorts. If you die in the game, the VR machine sends a shock to your system terminating you in real-life (think, Matrix). It was fantastic. Simply amazing.

After watching only one episode of this show, I was hooked. I finally found an anime cartoon that enjoy. Thanks to some Netflix suggestions, I have a few other titles on my list that I’m going to try out as well. So I’m very curious to see if this one show is an exception to my rule of “I hate anime” or if it will actually be a doorway that gets me into the genre. I’m genuinely curious. – but needless to say, I recommend this show.

If any of you have some good suggestions, please feel free to either comment or send a message. I will be sure to check it out.

Despite this new development, no matter what, I still refuse to dress up and participate in any LARPing whatsoever. So there’s always that.

J-Pop

extralarge   Princess Princess

J-Pop. AKA: Japanese pop music is another interest of mine that just won’t die. There’s something about these magical singing/dancing pixie people that enthralls me. The first time I was exposed to J-pop was my second day living in-country. I turned on the radio and searched for the military network, I heard Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and immediately turned it off. I sat there for a moment, pissed at realization that my days of being entertained by the radio were probably on hold for the next three years. I flipped it back on and decided to see what type of nonsense was being broadcast over the local airwaves….

What I found intrigued me. I stumbled upon what must have been some type of in-studio concert. Two Japanese men were talking back and forth for a few moments then all went silent and a guitar was heard. The intro consisted of some pretty elaborate and speedy fingerpicking, I waited for the first verse to begin, and I waited, and waited, and waited…. It seemed like 10 minutes before the song actually started. But that couldn’t be right. Could it? Finally, an older sounding man in a raspy voice began to sing. In fact he began to croon the same line over and over again. To my young American ears, it sounded like he saying “English! Didi-la-la Didi-la-la”. Who knows what he was really saying, but he went on repeating this for nearly another 10 minutes, over and over and over. I turned of the radio and silently wondered what I getting myself into.

That was the extent of my interest in Japanese music until maybe a year later. As part of a culture exchange program, we had a teenage Japanese girl stay with my family over the Christmas holiday. She was a very nice girl and she happened to bring a tape with her of an all-girl Japanese rock band “Princess Princess”. A quick listen revealed that this was MUCH DIFFERENT from “Didi-la-la
“. She made a copy for me and I listened to it often. Despite not being able to understand the lyrics, I found the recording to be one of my favorites. I kept the tape for many years until finally it simply wore out and broke sometime in the mid-90s.

After returning to the states, the years went by and I became involved in the whole 90’s Alternative scene. It wasn’t until many years later, after I got married, that my love for J-Pop was rekindled. I had taken a hiatus from video games for most of the mid to late 90’s. After marrying and settling down a bit, my wife and I bought a brand new PlayStation 2. One of the first games we purchased was Kingdom Hearts. This game was a strange blend of both Disney characters and icons from the Final Fantasy universe. It featured a theme sung by the J-pop idol Hikaru Utada. I found the song to be quite catchy and thanks to the Internet I got my hands on some of her other works.

utada-hikaru   Hikaru Utada

Fast forward a few more years, I find myself living in Tennessee working the graveyard shift for a bank. I discover a streaming J-pop station on the Internet called J-Fan Radio. This station opens my ears to even more Japanese artists. I fall in love with idols or bands with names like:  Tommy February6, Dragon Ash, Balzac, Ayumi Hamasaki, Koda Kumi, and Gackt.

In recent years, Japanese culture has entered the American mainstream thru video games and various Anime. With them has come many original soundtracks featuring J-pop. Due to this, it’s very easy these days to get your hands on the latest music from our friends in Japan. If you’ve never experienced it, I recommend giving a listen. They make great soundtracks to late-night video game marathons. I take a bit of pride in being able to say “J-pop? Oh yeah, I was listening to that 20 years ago.” But honestly, I didn’t learn to appreciate it until many years later.

004392w9   Gackt

 

Japan

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If you’ve actually read this blog, you’ll know that as a child I was a military brat. Shortly after starting my 4th grade year, my family moved to Okinawa, Japan.

Living in Japan was one of the most defining experiences of my life. I still remember exiting the quiet, climate controlled airplane after a 22 hour flight. Stepping thru the archway of the plane and into the Okinawan air for the first time was like a slap in the face. The air was thick and moist. It was just like a steamy sauna, only with the smell of salt water and foreign foliage in the air. The jet lag had really got ahold of me, and I found myself unable to sleep in the hotel room that day. I flipped on the TV only to find three channels. One English speaking channel operated by the US government and two local Japanese channels. Watching Japanese television for the first time was a wake up call like I’ve never had. The cheesy samurai soap opera, followed by a children’s show featuring an octopus farting into a Jello mold made on thing abundantly clear; I was in a completely different world.

3772349310_7b9de77e47 A bottle of Sake featuring the corpse of a venomous Habu snake in the bottle

Living on military base in a foreign country can be a bit deceiving. Inside the confines of those walls, you could almost believe you never left the normalcy of the USA. But step outside, and there’s no question… You are in Japan. One of the first things I learned to enjoy about Okinawa, was the food. Thankfully, I love noodles, and there no short supply of them. Over my three-year stay in Japan, I became quite fond of the various flavors the orient had to offer. It’s an obsession that lasts to this day.

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The first time you taste something like Miso, or some other foreign spice or sauce, it can be a little off-putting. But once you break thru the defensive concept of “I’m not used to this”, you might just sup rise yourself with what you actually enjoy.

One thing I will say about these Japanese, they certainly like their candy. Japanese snacks and confectioneries are like no other. The variety of flavors seems endless. For example, over here in the US, we have three flavors of Kit Kats. Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, and White Chocolate. In Japan, on the shelf of any random convenience store, you might find Kit Kats in such exotic flavors as: Wasabi, Orange, Banana, Cheese, Sweet Potato, Basked Potato, Key Lime, Green Tea, etc.

In the short three years I lived there, I was never able to get a firm grasp on the Japanese language.  But I did have many encounters with kids my age. One thing that we both understood, regardless of our language barrier was video games. The Nintendo Entertainment System, or as it was called in the Japan, the Famicom was in just as many Japanese households. Many of our games were the same. Things like Mario and Zelda didn’t rely heavily on words, so there was no real need to to be concerned with communication. It was not uncommon for a Japanese friends to lend me a Famicom game to take home and play. However, the size of the carts were different. This led to a compatibility problem. Thanks to the black market, this problems was easily solved for a mere $10. Meet the honeybee.

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This beautiful piece of Asian engineering made is possible to fit a Famicom game into a standard US NES. Oh, the fun times that were had thanks to this little devil. I may have never learned the secret that the REAL Super Mario Bros. 2 was not the same as the SMB 2 that was presented to the American audience… but I’ll save that rant for another time.

I slowly became absorbed with Japanese pop culture. I viewed Dragon Ball Z cartoons on TV during their first run, I saw video games months before they were even revealed to the western audience. I read manga, collected anime branded pencils, listened to Japanese pop music. There’s so much I could write about when it comes to my experiences in Okinawa. Perhaps I will do so in future posts. For now, let this serve an introduction into my obsession with a particular genre of video game, the Japanese RPG.