Top Five TV Series For Getting Into Anime

Anime. It seems interesting to many folks, but then they get turned off by its reputation for creepy juvenile fantasy. And that's really too bad, because the genre has a lot to offer if you know where to look. Like many folks, my first introduction to the anime genre was via popular films by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, etc.) and then later with lesser films such as Wonderful Days. But when I first tried to expand my awareness of the anime genre into the realm of television, I was immediately struck by how many of the highly-recommended shows seemed to be rather childish and really struggled to compete with live-action sci-fi/fantasy for my interest. Was anime simply not for me? I didn't want to write off an entire genre of film, and so I continued sorting through the dross until I was able to identify the sort of anime series that I actually liked. This list is intended for casual viewers who find themselves in a similar position.

The difficulty with coming up with Top 5 lists is that they are often so subjective. Elements that can make a show a favorite can also be deal-breakers for other viewers. Since I came at this list from the perspective of a sci-fi fan rather than an anime-lover per se, I'm quite sure that some of my reasons for excluding veteran shows will be anathema for some. For example, this list is mostly composed of newer shows since I don't feel that the animation and characterization of many older anime has aged well (like Macross/Robotech). Cue vitriol.

That said, I made my picks based on the following criteria: Good animation and sound production, well-written characters with a minimum of teenage angst (the otherwise excellent Full Metal Alchemist, for example, is clearly intended for kids), and considered plot development are a must. And while a degree of awkward romance, misogynistic fan-service and simplistic deus ex machina is to be expected from the genre, they're not elements that I particularly admire. I also looked for general accessibility - shows with lots of exaggerated Japanese archetypes or sprawling epic narratives like Legend of Galactic Heroes are difficult for a casual viewer to get into. The same can be said for niche works like the artsy and ethereal Mushishi, whose beautiful storytelling needs a certain amount of cultural familiarity to be understood. And finally I tried to pick out shows that have those elusive qualities of style and creative design that catalyze a decent show into a great one that is worth watching independent of the genre.

Top Five TV Intro Anime Series

1. Cowboy Bebop

Shinichir┼Ź Watanabe's 1998 classic regularly tops these sorts of lists, and for good reason. Its compelling combination of strong characterization, aware writing, and imaginative setting makes for a fantastic watch. An outstanding soundtrack by Yoko Kanno and consistent themes of Blues and film noir adds a layer of cultural sophistication to the show and helps define each episode. Widely-considered a "gateway show" to the anime genre, Cowboy Bebop tells the story of a small group of space-faring bounty hunters on a constant hunt for their next meal-ticket. Fans of Joss Whedon's Firefly series will find the concept eerily familiar. Featuring an accessible episodic structure that can feel slow-paced to some, it's been recommended that viewers start with the fifth and sixth episodes (which introduce the over-arching narrative) before returning to the pilot episodes (which focus on assembling the cast).

Note: Cowboy Bebop can be found on YouTube.

2. Samurai Champloo

Watanabe followed up his acclaimed Cowboy Bebop in 2004 by leaving the sci-fi genre in favor of a medieval Japan chock-full of samurais with a hip-hop attitude. Gorgeously-detailed animation and a distinctly modern tone clearly differentiates Samurai Champloo from his previous show, though astute viewers will see plenty of similarities in the construction of the two works (from prominent sound design to a reliance on hunger to advance the plot). With constant references to art, music, history and culture, the story follows a pair of odd couple sword-fighters who journey all over Japan while helping a feisty girl find the mysterious "Samurai who smells of sunflowers". While many anime series have been set in the Edo Period and featured questing samurai, Champloo does so with such style and aplomb that it quickly outpaces the rest. As J.J. Abram's Star Trek interjected youthful vitality into its franchise, Samurai Champloo takes a tired formula and reboots it with all the confidence of a MTV music video.

Note: Samurai Champloo can be found on Netflix streaming.

3. Ghost in the Shell

Coming from the cyberpunk tradition of classic anime like Akira and 1980's sci-fi like William Gibson's Neuromancer, the Ghost in the Shell series has some serious street cred that the others in this list lack. This is reflected in its placement on the list, since it's precisely the kind of unique quality that catalyzes a mere TV show into a cultural phenomenon. GITS abounds with the mixture of techno-futurism and meta-philosophizing that characterizes great science fiction, and its ability to seamlessly move between the two marks it as a series well-worth watching. Set in a dystopian near-future, a group of tough urban cops battle corporate overreach and cyber-terrorism as the show explores the conflict between society and technology (in particular cybernetics). If it sounds too much like a clich├ę, it's only because so many others have emulated the concepts that it pioneered (the Wachowski brothers directly pitched The Matrix as a live-action version of GITS) . There's several versions of Ghost in the Shell available, but start with the 2002 release of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Note: Ghost in the Shell: SAC can be found on YouTube.

4. Afro Samurai

Sharing a similar setting and urban flavor with Samurai Champloo, it would be easy to conflate the two, but this show has a sharper edge. If the former is the flashy MTV music video of samurai anime, then Afro Samurai is the bloody Quentin Tarantino take on the same concept - complete with Samuel L. Jackson voicing a vengeful samurai character that is straight out of Kill Bill. Set in a brutally feudal future Japan, a handful of fighters engage in a constant battle for the ownership of the Number 1 Headband that would declare them to be the best warrior. The story is told from the perspective of Jackson's Afro Samurai character as he travels to confront the current Number 1, reflecting on his life's journey that led up to that point. With only a handful of episodes and a focus on action and mood, the 2007 release of Afro Samurai has a straightforward plot and limited character development compared to other shows in this list, but it does a great job of drawing the viewer into its world - a task fueled by the excellent hip hop soundtrack composed by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA.

Note: Afro Samurai can be found on Netflix streaming.

5. Space Battleship Yamato

Some may have noticed at this point that there's a few gaping holes in this list in terms of the types of anime. Most of these series have featured small casts, episodic production, and plots that trend toward the interpersonal rather than epic. And this is mostly because the shows about giant robot wars and magic high-school harems are typically so, so bad.  But it's about time that I throw those folks a bone and bring in at least one excellent space opera in the form of Space Battleship Yamato: 2199. It is the latest in a long line of shows that goes all the way back to the original 1974 Space Battleship Yamato, which started the so-called "golden age of anime" (along with Mobile Suit Gundam). Rebooted in 2012, Yamato represents a living history of the military anime sub-genre. And this means that Yamato inherits both good and bad elements: ambitious story-telling and imaginative sci-fi, as well as catsuits and convenient super-weapons. Fortunately this latest edition does a comparatively decent job of keeping those tendencies in check, while also leaving behind the campy animation of its predecessors, which allows the show to blossom into an excellent piece of contemporary sci-fi. Often compared to Battlestar Galactica, the show mixes politics, character drama and space battles as it follows the crew of the Yamato as they journey on a mission to save humanity.

Note: Space Battleship Yamato: 2199 can be found on Pinoy Anime TV.

Runner-up: Planetes

This contender doesn't have the chops to push its way into the Top 5, but its slow-burning character development and believable depiction of astronauts in the near future make it an excellent watch. Unlike its laser-blasting and warp jumping brethren in mainstream sci-fi, Planetes is in the highly realistic category of "hard science fiction" (as is the acclaimed 2001: A Space Odyssey). With its adherence to things like null gravity, delayed communications, and conservation of energy, Planetes showcases the difficulties of learning how to live in space. In a similarly limited vein, the story features a small crew of technicians living aboard a corporate space station, who are tasked with the thankless yet necessary job of orbital debris collection. If you like your science fiction with a second helping of space suits and vector navigation, then this is definitely worth a watch.

Honorable Mention: Avatar

Not to be confused with the with James Cameron's blue-skinned blockbuster, nor the terrible M. Night Shyamalan live-action adaption, Avatar: The Last Airbender is the flagship of Nickelodeon's latest award-winning franchise. Developed by an American company and constructed on a multi-cultural framework, the show is technically is not an anime (which took it out of the running for this list) but its Asian-themed world and characters certainly makes it feel like one. The show tells the story of a young monk who must travel the world in order to master the four elements of magic (air, water, earth and fire) and confront the evil emperor. It's not Lord of the Rings, but with consistently likable characters, good episodic writing, solid voice-acting and an engaging world, Avatar is emblematic of a kids anime done right. Even as an adult, it's very easy to get sucked into the humorous adventures of Aang and his magic-wielding friends. Its rampant popularity means that there's a very good chance that any kids you know have already watched this show and picked out what their own element would be, so you better catch up!


Homework at the Speed of Light and Sound

1. A lightning bolt releases a thunderclap as it discharges. You see the bolt almost immediately, but it takes longer (five seconds per mile) for the force of the sound to propagate through the air to your ears. Note that lightning, being electricity, of course travels at the speed of light. It generates continuous booms as it rips through the atmosphere faster than the speed of sound; this creates overpressures that move the air very quickly and create shock waves. Consider the relative speeds involved: If you see thundercloud lightning strike a tree, where does the first boom you hear come from?

2. Similarly, a fighter jet flies above you at supersonic speed. You see the jet as it passes over your head, followed by the roar of the jets a few seconds later (exactly the same sonic boom effect as the lightning bolt). It is pushed forward by a series of massive explosions but is traveling faster than those explosions are able to expand through the air and reach your ears. Note that the force has mostly dissipated by the time it reaches you, leaving you with only a sound instead of the explosive force of the engine exhaust. What would happen if the fighter pilot dropped an unguided bomb as he was passing over your head? What about if he fired a missile forward?

3. Vibration of any kind is also a decent thought experiment. Imagine striking a drum while resting your hand on the skin. You can feel the vibration of the drum as the energy of the strike moves through the material. You can hear the dull sound of the drum beat as that energy rebounds in the resonator and through the air to vibrate your eardrums*. Does the sound cease before, after, or simultaneously with the vibration in your hands? What would be the implications of the skin vibrating slower, faster, or at the same speed as sound? What would be differences between hitting a drum and striking a steel pipe against the ground?

*Extra Credit: Consider that our hearing is based upon our brain's interpretation of vibrations in our sensitive eardrum. Though we experience it quite differently, it is a sensation that is functionally similar to blowing on your arm. And yet there are many limitations on hearing. Things can be too quiet or too high-pitched, and it is difficult to hear through solid objects like doors. Our ears are tuned precisely to the sound energy traveling the air we are surrounded with. If we lived in a more heavily oxygenated atmosphere, like during the Cretaceous Period when Tyrannosaurus Rex walked the Earth, the thicker atmosphere would necessitate a different tuning to a faster "speed of sound".


On The Road Mix (Part 3)

The final section of my three part travel album. Hope you enjoyed it.:

Track listing:
1. Wild Night, Van Morrison - Tupelo Honey
2. Flathead, The Fratellis - Costello Music
3. General, Dispatch - Bang Bang
4. Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison
5. Gallows Pole, Led Zeppelin - III
6. Graceland, Paul Simon - Graceland
7. The King of Carrot Flowers pt. One, Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
8. Dashboard, Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
9. The Great Escape, We Are Scientists - With Love and Squalor
10. Fireworks, yOya - Nothing to Die
11. California Sun, Ramones - Leave Home
12. Power of Moonlite, Tiger Army - II:Power of Moonlite
13. Blue Orchid, The White Stripes - Get Behind Me Satan
14. Way Out, Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
15. Shotglass, Caitlin and the Shotglasses - Caitlin and the Shotglasses
16. Homelands, Brad and Ethan - Live Recordings, Etc.
17. Barton Hollow, The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
18. The Queen's Rebuke / The Crossing, The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
13. Blue Orchid by The White Stripes, on the album Get Behind Me Satan. Great single by the Stripes - I absolutely adore Jack White and I'm sure I still have a big ol' poster of him and Meg rolled up somewhere. I even went to a concert promoting this album up in Portland one time. That's a big deal for someone that rarely spends money on shows. Fortunately my folks had season tickets so Cass and I could go. I really love his brand of raw and open sound, I thought his music documentary It Might Get Loud was brilliant. I still haven't picked up his newer stuff post-White Stripes, and I really ought to.

14. Way Out by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, on the Show Your Bones album. Another band I picked up during my sophomore year. A nice little girl band, they do a great job of mixing up Seattle riot grrl attitude with more of a Southern sound. They're easy pleasers, and I thought they'd be a good outro for my brief intrusion of showy rock. I really ought to check out what they've been up to since.

15. Shotglass by Caitlin and the Shotglasses, on their self-titled album. Another local band. I've known Caitlin and most of the band for quite a while. They basically were a group of some of the funnest townie music kids that weren't getting their rocks off just playing in pep band. Cue a burning-brightly band that put out a bunch of shows and one album just before they all went their separate ways. Caitlin and Justin have bounced around a lot, but they're back in Corvallis now and heading a pretty successful punk band called The Angries. Amusingly, I didn't notice that this track (one of their best in my opinion) also contained more than a minute of silence and a secret track. Whoops. Definitely creates a different mood there at the end of the mix. And I like it. I guess it was meant to be.

16. Homelands by Brad and Ethan on their Live Recordings, Etc., album. This song is a real winner with anyone who grew up here in the Northwest. But I'm a fan of a number of their singles including In the Mountains and Seraphim (both on the album). Another local band, though I really only knew these guys by reputation. They were a couple years ahead of me in school, but they also were big regulars over at the Beanery back when I was pounding coffee with the best of them. Amusingly, while their music is very chill my most prominent memory of them was riding a couple of hijacked shopping baskets tied to a bike down Second Street at night.

17. Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars on their self-titled album. A real newcomer to my collection compared to these local bands that I've had for years. Barton Hollow is probably my favorite single from this band, the group is generally more easy-going folk than hard-strumming country. Annabritt introduced this band to me after falling in love with it herself, and she can now do a bang-up cover of it with her friend Catherine Wright to do the harmonizing. Reminds me a bit of a Steve Earle that found a girlfriend instead of heroin.

18. The Queen's Rebuke / The Crossing by The Decemberists on their continuous album The Hazards of Love. Called a rock opera by Pitchfork and other critics, you can imagine some mix of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and a Shakespeare comedy farce playing out behind the mics. However, since the whole thing is connected it makes it rather difficult to pull out a single track. I leaned toward one of my more favorite and unitary ones, The Rake's Song, but people sometimes get a bit weirded out by its baby-killing lyrics (hey, you can't have a tragic narrator without a tragedy) so I figured I'd pick out something that didn't need as much context. However, while this track does a good job of showcasing the vocals and the band, I think that the transitions are too hard and make for a difficult concluding track. I think perhaps I should have picked something else or added additional music. I had room for another 15-20 minutes of music, but not enough time to pick something suitable.

Here are the links to the first and second parts of this mix.