Some anime I like! Two old classics, and one newer one I saw recently.
I’m surprised to see I haven’t reviewed this yet! This is one of my favorite animes of all time, so let’s fix that!
This is a bit of a complement to Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s similarly an anime adaptation that took a typical shonen kudzu plot and streamlined it into something that actually engages with the themes outlined in the beginning.
This is also an example of a story that’s really hard to sell, I think, as the trappings are pretty unrelated to the real content. Here’s the back-of-the-box pitch: it’s a far-future post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure on a desert planet, starring a superhuman pacifist gunslinger. Here’s what the story is actually about: a deconstruction of absolute pacifism and selflessness, and the worth of ideals compared to human lives. It asks the question: If you show mercy to a murderer who then goes on to kill more people, do you share responsibility for those deaths? Can you really say you haven’t killed anyone just because you personally didn’t pull the trigger?
There is a scene establishing the hero’s and villain’s motivations that I find a brilliant metaphor: as children, the two encounter a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web. The hero tries to delicately pry the butterfly free, but the villain walks over and callously crushes the spider.
“I wanted to save them both!” says the hero.
“That’s stupid. If you keep saving the butterflies, the spiders will die of starvation,” says the villain. “It’s the same result either way. You have to kill the spiders if you want to save the butterflies.”
Then the hero punches the villain in the face while screaming obscenities.
And the entire plot is that played out in macrocosm. This is, genuinely, the deepest analysis of this topic I’ve ever seen in media. It’s so often that we see heroes who nobly refuse to kill, but I’ve never seen a story that so thoroughly engages with all the motivations, philosophies, and consequences that come with that.
The Vision of Escaflowne
This is my favorite anime of all time. It is, once again, a brazenly irreverent AU fanfic of an adaptation. It’s a trapped-in-another-world fantasy, but does so many clever twists on it and has a totally nonstandard protagonist, all while being incredibly beautiful and well-constructed. The plot is complex, but makes perfect sense the whole way through; everything is brilliantly foreshadowed down to the finest visual details, and the final message is one that I think is incredibly important for people to see.
Also, the reveal of the villain’s identity is simultaneously hilariously absurd and makes total sense. The show is worth watching just to see it.
The other thing I loved about this is how it handled its female protagonist. This blog has talked a lot about how much authors seem to struggle with inserting women into typically male-dominated narratives, from our very first review of The Hunger Games and Katniss renouncing all her femininity to fit herself into a typical male action hero role. Escaflowne does not do this. Hitomi is an ordinary person surrounded by people with swords and magic and mechas engaging in epic fights — but instead of being forced to join in on this paradigm, the story itself shifts to suit her skillset. The story decides it’s not going to be about fighting. It’s about the tragedy and horror of fighting, and Hitomi leveraging her own unique skills to come up with completely orthogonal solutions to that problem. She saves the action hero who should be the typical shonen protagonist in almost every episode, not through martial skill, but simply because she has visions of the future and the proactiveness to try to change them. The fighting consistently remains a background presence; what is important is Hitomi, her perspective, her wants, her decisions, how even as a civilian she can change the course of fate. I’ve never seen anything else that handles this so well. This show should be mandatory watching for anyone wanting to write “strong female characters”.
Mob Psycho 100
A shonen story by the author of One-Punch Man. It is an absolutely hilarious parody and deconstruction of typical shonen tropes, while at the same time being surprisingly poignant. The typical shonen power fantasy is cranked to its logical extreme, with a comically overpowered protagonist who can overcome any obstacle. But what’s interesting is that he doesn’t see himself as special in any way — banishing ghosts is just an afterschool job to him. The real emotional conflict of the story centers around his mundane life and mundane problems. He has all the power in the world, but all he really wants is the approval of his classmates. The story constantly draws attention to how childish the shonen power fantasy really is, and shows us that real power lies in emotional maturity and social competence. My favorite character is definitely Reigan — I love what a complete inversion of Mob and the typical shonen power fantasy he is, that this pathetic cowardly con man is portrayed like a god because he’s the equivalent of Mob at social skills. His scenes are a joy to behold.
I also like that Mob is just a really nice person. A scene that really struck me early on is when he encounters another psychic who’s using his powers to hurt people. I expected this to go the way it always does: the Superman protagonist jumps at the chance to find an excuse to let loose, that because this person is using magic they no longer get the same protections as people. But that’s not what happens. Mob refuses to use his own powers against him, even as the guy’s beating him into a bloody pulp, because using powers on people is wrong. He’s later heartbroken to learn that his brother was jealous of his powers, because it genuinely would never even occur to him to think that his powers made him better than other people. And even Reigan, who initially appears to just be using Mob for selfish reasons, actually turns out to be giving Mob genuinely good life lessons and morals. There’s such an earnest goodness to everything in the show, even as it’s wrapped up in such utter absurdity.