Otakon 2016: Trying To Make Anime Great Again

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If there’s one theme I noticed from what I saw at Otakon 2016 this past weekend, it was trying to revive the way anime was during the 80’s and 90’s. I obviously didn’t see everything at the convention, but the panels and screenings I did attend at least signal some concerted effort in the anime industry to revive something that has been lost.

Almost anybody who still watches anime today has probably noticed that in the last decade or so the medium has seen a huge uptick in shows mainly about cute high school-aged characters. This has probably been a cornerstone of anime (and Japanese media) for decades, but there’s a sense that in the last several years “moe” has almost taken over the whole industry. A 2011 article I linked a while back actually does a good job of laying out why. There seem to be groups however trying to resurrect the era when westerners saw anime as the source of stylish, provocative, and lovingly-crafted animation.

One of the first things I saw at Otakon was a screening of Under the Dog — the result of a kickstarter project that was actually announced at Otakon 2014. Based on a script from 1995 and handled by the director of Sword of the Stranger, it’s an attempt at resurrecting the image of that era of anime but with today’s advances in technique. In the end the creators could only produce a 38-minute short, but what it contained was pretty neat if you ask me.

A short-story, Under the Dog is only able to give a glimpse at what seemingly was supposed to be a wider world involving special forces, assassins, high schools, and really just all sorts of military action mixed with a tinge of sci-fi. That action is the heart of the production, and it’s probably some of the best I’ve seen in anime recently. The level of violence is pretty similar to Stranger, but with US soldiers, and displays them in ways very similar to recent American military movies. I thought it was both a reminder of the kind of action scenes anime is capable of, as well as what it’s capable of when combined with some of today’s western imagery.

Another thing I saw was the first three episodes of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, a new prequel miniseries to the original 1979 Gundam show. Overall I liked it even though one or two things about it grated on me.

It’s supposed to shed some light on the political intrigue that led up to the creation of Zeon — the enemy faction from the original series. The first episode does a satisfying job of this. I’d actually just watched the movie compilation trilogy of the original series right before going to Otakon (I didn’t know Origin would be screened there), so having it fresh in my mind made let me more easily put things into context. Though the original series is a more serious war drama than even most anime war dramas, Origin feels slightly less so, but not enough to damage the believably of its setting.

The other purpose of Origin is to give some backstory to some of the series’ main characters, which brings me to one thing that irked me — young Sayla was honestly kind of insufferable through the first two episodes. She’s supposed to be shown as a little girl almost broken by the horrors of war and political maneuvering, but I think Origin tries a bit too hard with the cute factor leading up to this, nearly turning her into a caricature. She’s almost nothing like the Sayla in the movie trilogy.

The third episode is where the action really kicks up and was probably my favorite. It’s the one where young Char really takes center stage and where you get to see the conditions that brought up the generation of Zeon soldiers who fought in the main series. At the very least this has gotten me more interested in continuing to investigate Universal Century Gundam shows. It’s reminiscent enough of classic Gundam shows with some modern flair.

Origin does however rely heavily on one thing I’ve hated seeing in so many recent anime — lavish CGI. I liked CGI in animation when it subtly supplemented 2D animation like back in Gonzo’s good old days, but studios seem to be using it for more and more things that used to be done in 2D, like entire shots of characters. It’s why I’m not into the new Berserk anime.

I’ll admit CG allows for angles and shots that would be impossible in 2D, and we do see a lot of this in Origin. The space battle scene at the beginning of episode one looks more animated and dynamic, showing Char do things you’d never see him do in 2D animation. My problem with the CG though is that it just looks low quality to me. A lot of the time the CG looks worse than console video games, which to me just signals low budgets. Just look at CyberConnect2’s Naruto games on the PS3 and PS4. They animate the characters and frame the camera to look often indistinguishable from the 2D TV episodes even though they’re running in real time on a game console as opposed to being rendered on CG computers. Guilty Gear Xrd is just on a whole other level.

One panel I attended was for Discotek Media — an anime distribution company I’ve been interested in for a while because of its dedication to rescuing lapsed licenses of classic anime and even remastering some of them to sell in HD for the first time. They brought back things like Ronin WarriorsSamurai Pizza CatsGolgo 13, and Lupin III. The presenters at Otakon went over some things like their painstaking remastering process, even showing the difference between the old Magic Knight Rayearth footage they had to work with and what they turned it into. The difference was stunning.

One of the Discotek panel’s main subjects was its upcoming Blu-Ray release of Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie — from my observation one of the more popular anime films with some mainstream western audiences. It’s supposed to be the first ever really, really uncut-for-sure-this-time English version, and they had it for sale two months early at Otakon. One of the last things Discotek announced is that it’s doing an HD remaster of Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture. Personally I was pretty hyped because this was one of the first anime I ever saw. I rented it countless times without ever buying it for some reason.

In any case, if I haven’t said it before on this blog, if you think anime is dead or you just stopped caring about it because of all the moe, great anime still get’s made. The problem is that it’s a lot harder to find it these days. Furthermore, a lot of the anime people liked 15-to-30 years ago has actually been getting re-released pretty rapidly for the past four years or so, and that trend seems to be keeping on.

BULLETS:

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