The Other Side of East – Heavy Hitters
The Other Side of East – Heavy Hitters
Longest-running and best anime
- One Piece
- Hunter x Hunter
By Michaele Jordan
You may remember that I said in my last column that the 90’s produced many of the tropes and images that still shape animé today. I wasn’t just talking about general ideas. The 90’s produced animé series that are still being marketed.
Let’s start with InuYasha. It was first. And you may have heard of it—its fame has penetrated to some far corners. The original manga, InuYasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale, launched in 1996. The title refers to the Sengoku period, which lasted from 1478 CE to 1605. But don’t worry that you’ll have to brush up on Japanese history. Certainly the author, Rumiko Takahashi, never bothered.
The manga featured an appealing combination of modern mini skirts and elegant medieval costumes, interwoven in a complicated tale of reincarnation and magic, black and white. Pretty young Kagome from the 20th century struggles to make her way in the 15th century among handsome demons, restless spirits and a sex-starved monk. Fortunately she can head home for snacks when the going gets tough.
Naturally it was picked up for an animé series, which ran 167 episodes from 2000 to 2004. It was followed in 2009 by a 26 episode sequel series called Inuyasha: The Final Act. And a good thing, too! In Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale they never caught the villain! Unforgivable! There are also four movies and an animated short. And there’s a stage play in production in Tokyo right now. You can go on-line and check out the cast. (I’m sad to say that Inuyasha comes and goes on Netflix. They had it a couple of years ago. They may again, now.)
I dare not try to tell you the story. You would only roll your eyes, and walk away. It is complicated and histrionic, involving a cursed priestess, a desperate quest, and a sacred jewel which is somehow embedded in the flesh of the reincarnation of its previous owner. There’s a half demon lover, a cute little kitty who can turn into a giant fire leopard when angry, and a shrine that just happens to connect the present to the past.
It’s dark and dangerous enough that the Japanese don’t really consider it kid-fare, but it’s well within PG-13 parameters. There’s plenty of comic relief: an adorable little fox spirit, and the above mention sex-starved monk. The overall tone is light-hearted and satirical enough to keep you laughing.
There is true love and dark love and love that transcends the grave—plus some plain old fashioned lust. There is unspeakable evil that looks so pretty and smells so bad. There are brothers fighting brothers, and fathers to avenge. For sheer overwrought, utterly absorbing madness, it puts ordinary modern, live-action soap operas to shame. It is, of course, hopelessly addictive. So curl up on a comfy sofa and binge watch. You’ll love it, I promise.
In 1997 another classic manga appeared: One Piece. The animé series followed soon after in 1999. It’s still running. Episode 780 aired March 12, 2017.
Did I say Inuyasha was crazy? What was I talking about? Compared to Once Piece it’s an exercise in Pythagorean logic. One Piece simply makes no sense at all. It’s hilarious. It stars Monkey D. Luffy, a scrawny kid with a silly straw hat who wants to be the King of the Pirates.
It’s a big job, being a pirate, because it requires exploring “the Grand Line” (which seems to be a long, straight line drawn across the ocean, separating pirate territory from the mundane world) searching for treasure. Not just any treasure. The only way to become King of the Pirates is to recover the lost treasure of the previous King of the Pirates.
Luffy’s chances are good. He accidentally ate some Devil Fruit, which turned his entire body into a walking, talking rubber band. Since no attempt to strike him meets any resistance, he’s essentially invulnerable. Devil Fruit does something different to almost everyone who eats it, so Luffy frequently comes up against villains with very peculiar powers.
He picks up some buddies: Zoro, the master swordsman famed for his three sword technique (he carries the third sword in his teeth); Sanji, the softhearted and lovelorn chef who always has a cigarette in his mouth; Nami, the gorgeous babe genius navigator; and Usopp, the world’s greatest liar.
They set off in a tiny boat under a pirate flag featuring a skull and crossbones wearing a ridiculous straw hat. Because, of course, they are the Straw Hat Pirates, and they throw terror into the hearts of evil doers everywhere. If that’s not what you expected pirates to do, try to keep in mind that these are GOOD pirates.
Their adventures are strange beyond compare. They rescue maidens from treacherous butlers, defend the dwindling race of dragons and struggle against evil Fishmen. (You know they’re evil because they’re blackmailers.) In all honesty, some story arcs are more interesting than others, but if you get bored, you can just skip ahead a season. Trust me, it never gets normal.
Allow me to digress with a confession. I’ve been finding it increasing difficult to explain the distinctions between strange, weird, goofy, bizarre and off-the-wall. Animé has so many different flavors of peculiar. Very few shows commit themselves to anything remotely resembling scientific rigor, not even those that consider themselves SF, and once they venture into fantasy, they tend to plunge into a surreal dreamscape.
They rely on an irrational concept of spirits, drawn from a completely different religious background than ours. (Their religious background is so different from ours that I worry they may accidentally offend people of faith with their skewed perception of Christian motifs. But, trust me, they mean no harm when they present mini-skirted nuns toting automatic weapons, in defense of their pet demons. They just don’t understand.)
Anyway, you need to remember that the key to enjoying animé is to relax. It won’t always make cerebral sense, but don’t worry about that. It usually makes very good emotional sense. It’s almost always wonderful to look at, like a kooky art museum passing in front of you. And it’s never, never boring. (Well, hardly ever. There are a few too many demon fighting teenagers.)
Hunter x Hunter
That said, my next recommendation is Hunter x Hunter. Hunter x Hunter is also strange (even the title is strange—what does that x mean?) but not as goofy as One Piece. It’s set in an alternate world, where every other island is as alien as another planet, with many alien life-forms. Despite the presence of very advanced technology, much of this world is unexplored or ruled by forces one can only describe as magic. There doesn’t seem to be much law and order.
Hunters are an esteemed class of persons who explore the various enclaves. There must be some sort of central government, as there is an authority that issues coveted Hunter licenses (the license alone carries enormous financial benefits), but it is otherwise invisible. (The Hunter hierarchy, on the other hand, is large and complex.) There are apparently no rules whatsoever restricting who may apply for a license. Small children and villains alike are welcome to take their chances.
Our hero—and he’s not just a protagonist—is a twelve year old boy, who discovers that his father is not—as he supposed—dead, but a Hunter, and so likely to be gone indefinitely. Young Gon decides immediately to emulate his father, and takes off to find the Hunter test. Nobody points out that he’s too young, or even warns him that it’s a bit dangerous for a kid. (Applicants are free to give up if they see an unmanageable obstacle coming, but many don’t see the danger in time.) As long as he can find his way to the testing ground, he’s eligible.
While taking the test, he meets new friends: Leorio, who claims to be in it for the money, which he needs to go to medical school; Kurapika, who is the last survivor of his tribe, and wants vengeance on those that killed his people; and Killua, another twelve year old, who’s just trying to get away from an unusually dysfunctional family of professional assassins. Gon also meets his nemesis, the arch villain of the series: Hisoka, whose costume is a cross between a creepy clown and a deck of cards. But don’t let the silly outfit fool you—Hisoka is evil to the bone.
The tests get harder and more elaborate, and many of the applicants die. By the time they reach the finish line, the thousands of candidates have been narrowed to six, and the teachers all remark that the graduating class is unusually large. Gon passes, of course, along with Leorio and Kurapika. Hisoka passes, too—there was no doubt he would, as he’s already tougher than most of the teachers.
Killua steps down; he doesn’t really care about the license. He just wants to be hang out with Gon. The friends separate, except for Gon and Killua, but promise to meet again in a year at the Grand Auction in Yorknew. That’s just the first year. In the second year they learn their license doesn’t really qualify them as Hunters. It just sets them up for the next lesson.
Glancing over the past few paragraphs, I see that I’ve said nothing about the charm of this program. The characters do not sound complicated, although they are well drawn and develop over time. I fear I’ve made it sound like it has a sensible story line. Do not be deceived! That bare plot line is the last sensible thing you’ll see. The settings, the trials, the creatures, the treasures, everything the characters touch and every place they go will startle and excite you. This has become my husband’s favorite show. I can think of no higher praise.
That’s enough said about the 90’s. Let’s close with the launch of the new era. In 2001, Weekly Shonen Jump (a popular manga magazine) introduced Tite Kubo’s Bleach, which ran until 2016. The animé followed in 2004. The last episode was 366, which aired in 2012 in Japan and 2014 in the US. That’s not including four feature films, ten rock musicals, and a host of video games. It’s still playing on many TV channels, and a live action film is due to be released next year. The international release extends through dozens of countries in several languages, including Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Tagalog.
For me, Bleach is a guilty pleasure. There’s no denying that it’s pure hack-and-slash, with just enough story line to justify all the fight scenes. And yet it started out as spooky. The hero Ichigo (an ordinary teen except for his orange hair, which he bemoans, and his ability to see ghosts, which he shrugs off) starts a fight when some oafish punks break a flower pot set out by a little girl to commemorate her late brother. He’s like that, something of a hothead, but always standing up for the meek and ill-used.
After he’s forced the thugs to apologize to the girl, it turns out he can see more than ghosts. He sees Rukia. Rukia looks like an ordinary human girl. She’s scarcely more than half Ichigo’s height, and considerable comedy is drawn from the sight of her arguing up at Ichigo and pushing him around. But she is not human. She’s not even supposed to be visible to humans. She’s a Soul Reaper.
I’ve often wondered about the translations of names in animé, or perhaps just the original nomenclature, You’d think something called a Soul Reaper would be evil. Not so. Here, a Soul Reaper is a spirit that fights the many predators, known as Hollows, that feed on the souls of the newly departed. Apparently souls don’t always have an easy time finding their way to the afterlife, and they are vulnerable while still in the mortal realm. After the Soul Reaper kills the attacking Hollow, they gently dispatch the bewildered soul on to its proper realm.
Rukia is badly injured in a fight and, in desperation, asks Ichigo (since he can see both her and the monster) to take her sword and finish off the Hollow before it can devour its victim. It’s a special sword called a zanpakutō, or a spirit-cutting sword, and has some remarkable properties. For starters, it can grow or shrink depending on the ‘spiritual strength’ of the user. (Animé in general, and Bleach very much in particular, has trouble distinguishing between spirit and spiritual.) From day one, Ichigo shows himself to be a prodigy. Before long, he’s lugging around a weapon the size of a canoe.
Rukia remains drained of her spirit force for a long time, so she stays on in the mortal realm, posing as a schoolgirl, and directing Ichigo on the duties of a ‘substitute’ Soul Reaper. This, we discover a season or two later, is a serious crime among Soul Reapers. She’ll be arrested and tried later on, giving us the chance to see that Soul Reapers are not always good guys and there are places outside the mortal realm that are not the afterlife.
In the meanwhile Ichigo assembles a team. There’s Chad, a huge kid who has idolized Ichigo since their childhood, and Orihime, an awkward girl who has always been a bit weird. Her late brother was the soul under attack in Ichigo’s first fight. He’d been hanging around some while, trying to watch over his little sister, and the prolonged exposure has left her a bit witchy. There’s also Uryū, a fighter from an organization that rivals the Soul Reapers, and Kon, a disembodied spirit that usually inhabits a teddy bear.
Bleach has a clear story line, and its characters tend to be straightforward good guys and bad guys. So it’s easier to follow than many. The Hollows are wonderfully strange, but they are monsters so that’s not too confusing. Over time its villains display a marked tendency toward bizarre hairstyles and make-up, but that’s actually helpful, since it helps you distinguish between them. The fights do go on and on, but they’re nicely drawn, and just as much fun as the fights in a super-hero movie. So all in all, Bleach is probably going to be the animé most like what you are used to seeing on TV. And—if you like action shows—you’re favorite.
If you give these four a try, you will know all you really need to know to keep up with the animé world. You may even know more than some of the young kids who haven’t bothered (or had time) to check out all the older stuff. So. . . congratulations! You’ve passed Level One! Next time we’ll get on to some of the new and the cool!