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I saw Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World a few days after its release, and have been thinking about it every day since. If only I could leave work right this minute and go down to a theater to watch it again, I would in a heartbeat. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much at a movie. What an imaginative and fun film this was! If you’re reading this blog, odds are you’re probably interested in some of the same things I am. That being the case, I’m sure that you’ll enjoy Scott Pilgrim on at least some of the same levels that I did, so I feel safe in highly recommending that you go see it as soon as possible. It’s smart, funny, heartwarming, and just a wonder to sit back and look at. You owe it to yourself to see it today. You’ll be glad you did!
And if you are thinking of catching it in theaters, you might want to get around to it pretty soon. The film debuted at #5 in its opening weekend and has struggled since, despite a healthy marketing campaign leading up to its release and overwhelmingly positive reviews (currently holding a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 81%). Neither the Internet nor word-of-mouth helped spread word of the film like they should have, leaving it in danger of bowing out of most theaters in less than a month.
Why wasn’t Scott Pilgrim a blockbuster hit? With a PG-13 rating, it was open to any kids to watch and potentially enjoy it (unlike Kick-Ass, which was undoubtedly hurt by its extremely necessary R rating), and up against such films as Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, The Expendables, and Eat, Pray, Love, it seemed poised to be the default film for any young people going to the movies in August to end up seeing (unless this honor instead went to Step Up 3-D). But alas, the film has underperformed and seems destined, at best, to be a future cult favorite once it’s out on DVD. Oh, and Blu-ray too (which along with Inception, makes me salivate over the prospect of eventually upgrading to Blu-ray and an HD television).
Do moviegoers simply crave predictably reliable sequels with characters they already know (Iron Man 2, Twilight: Eclipse), movies featuring cheap 3-D gimmicks and expensive ticket prices (Piranha 3-D, The Last Airbender), or films that spell out their entire plot in the title (Lottery Ticket, Predators)? Here’s an inventive and fun movie that’s bursting at the seams with ideas and energy, doing things on screen that I’ve never seen before. Isn’t this what people go to the movies for? Or, well… what they used to go for?
Box-office receipts aside, how well-received was the film was from fans of the books? My extremely-limited impressions gleamed from a handful of fans online seem to suggest… not very well. But who knows? Apparently, even the film version of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa — almost universally-beloved by anyone with an interest in anime as film — falls short in the eyes of viewers who’ve read his epic manga of the same title. Does this say anything important about either film, or simply tell us what we already know about comic aficionados? I’ll definitely be reading both Scott Pilgrim and Nausicaa sooner or later, so hopefully I’ll find out.
Genshiken is widely acclaimed for its realism, making it one of the more respected anime in the “slice of life” genre. I find this statement difficult to judge, as the show deals with the sort of subject matter that I have little or no first hand knowledge of. Like most slice of life stories, it’s set in Japan, but how realistically it portrays contemporary life and culture there is a complicated matter that’s beyond me and my simple gaijin ways. Perhaps there are some American viewers who could weigh in on the subject with authority, but I remain committed to my belief that most of us don’t know half as much about Japan as we think we do.
In a nutshell, Genshiken is about a group of college students in a club devoted to manga, anime, and video games. When it comes to anime and manga, I’ve yet to truly experience it in a communal setting similar to the small group comprising the Genshiken members. Sure, I’ve been to a few conventions. And of course, my girlfriend loves this stuff as much as I do (possibly moreso). But I’ve never really found a place where I could indulge in it with a group of people on a regular basis. It’s something I keep to myself, basically, preferring to avoid the kind of awkward explanations that inevitably have to take place once you out yourself in a group of people who have very little understanding about what “anime” is. So just how realistic of a portrayal of modern (and surprisingly well-adjusted) otaku culture Genshiken is (in Japan or here, for that matter), I cannot say.
Browsing the Internet for discussion on the series, I find myself encountering common complaints: Genshiken is unrealistic, too idealistic, “wish fulfillment.” These are most commonly hammered out from the Mountain Dew-stained keyboards of self-proclaimed hikikomoris, mostly young, out-of-shape, shut-in Internet addicts who were all too happy to latch onto the Japanese term once it reached our shores, as if it suddenly validated their miserable existence, selfish choices, and “fuck the world” attitude. The big mistake here is assuming that Genshiken was really attempting to profile all otaku, or at least the lowest common variety of them. I’m sure that hikikomori exist in the Genshiken universe, but thankfully they’re all off-screen, giving us a clear look at some intelligent and sympathetic characters instead. If Genshiken is guilty of petty idealism, then so are all of us. We all want to find companions that will understand and accept us for who we are. We all want to connect with others who share our passions and interests. If this is suddenly wrong, then maybe it’s time we ended this social experiment we call civilization, go back to living in caves and pass our time stabbing each other with dirty pikes.
So I can’t testify how “realistic” Genshiken is overall, but I can say with certainty that its characters’ emotional complexities are as genuine as they come, revealing a both a passion for their hobbies but often a deep ambivalence as well. In the first scene of the series, Sasahara wanders through his university’s club fair, spotting the booth for the manga club but quickly averting his gaze when he catches the club members’ attention. For the rest of the series, he struggles with his identity as an otaku, slowly feeling it out at first with the help of his fellow Genshiken, until he’s eventually given the reigns of the club and decides to go all-in. But the mounting pressures of graduation and finding a job eventually leave him questioning his decision. Would he have been better off shrugging off his hobbies at the beginning of college and investing his energies elsewhere? I imagine that many otaku eventually find themselves at a similar crossroads as they struggle to find their direction in life and pinpoint what’s most important to them.
Madrame, one of the Genshiken’s senior members, dodges such doubts by wholly embracing the otaku lifestyle. Total devotion to his hobbies provides him an escape from dealing with the kind of frustrating social puzzles that left him scarred in his younger years, which Madrame is more than happy to leave behind. For him, the Genshiken not only serve as an outlet for his passions, but as a safe haven where he experiences a sense of control and occasional social mastery. Needless to say, he’s in no rush to leave the Genshiken behind for a nine-to-five job, no matter how inevitable and necessary a transition it is.
I don’t know if I was naturally drawn to the character of Ogiue as I watched the second season of the series (or rather, as I read the manga about a year or two beforehand) or if I was predisposed to liking her after reading countless essays devoted to her from sdshamshel on Ogiue Maniax. The most intriguing character in the series, her gradual shift from the angry, toxic fujoshi stereotype she’s first introduced as into a complex and sympathetic character is believable and perhaps Genshiken‘s most emotionally satisfying development.
Both seasons of Genshiken (and the OVA episodes, frustratingly missing from both boxed sets…um, until this week, apparently) constitute some stellar entertainment. The series’ blend of drama and comedy, along with its unique setting — I’m trying to think of other college-themed series, and failing hard — puts it in a unique niche that’s almost all its own. My only quibble with the series would be its sudden end, which leaves several key issues unresolved. Would any viewer who hasn’t read the manga be troubled by (or even notice) this? I cannot say. But the series, which finished airing in late 2007, is long overdue for the proper conclusion that it really deserves (and is looking less and less likely to ever receive).
Genshiken‘s portrayal of the otaku lifestyle can’t please every viewer. Whether or not it should is another matter. Viewers who come to it with an open mind, or at least a willingness to accept anime fans that might be slightly different than themselves (gasp!), will find watching it just as fun as hanging out with a group of friends. Those who’d criticize it for being too positive, or simply dismiss it for not reflecting their own pathetic existence: hopefully your next bag of Doritos will be the one you choke on. Stick to /a/ and leave real life to the rest of us.
Before I even get this entry under way, I’m posting a link to an article that was published on Popmatters.com all the way back in 2001.
I’m referencing this as a springboard of sorts, though not to agree or disagree with the tangents that the author takes with it, or to even address any of the observations or conclusions she comes to. No, I’m throwing it out there for simply existing at all, because finding any “mainstream” — in the general sense of what’s on the Internet, I mean — outlet like this willing to devote a feature to such an easily-dismissible show as Digimon, much less actually letting the writer take it seriously (and personally), is a tiny miracle given the punching bag-treatment that it endured so long from both “serious” anime fans as well as a dismissive public. It also validates my past fondness for the series, which I privately harbored with a small sense of shame during the years it aired while I was in college.
For those of you who may have been unemployed or in college over the last two years or so, you can skip the next paragraph. You all doubtlessly spent many an aimless afternoon with Digimon reruns.
Ah, vindication. Unless Ms. Schwartz was suggesting that Digimon was a turn of the century precursor to the stoner favorite Yo Gabba Gabba!, then there was nothing out of the ordinary about me spending my decidedly aimless afternoons with the series, which despite being a bit more complex and sophisticated than Pokemon — which it was doomed to be labeled a mere imitation of — was still a cartoon aimed at viewers half my age. A staple of the late Fox Kids weekday afternoon lineup, Digimon usually aired at 3:30 or 4:00 CST, if I remember correctly, that part of the day when I was finished with classes and content to loaf around until dinner at 5:00 rather than take the time to study or do anything productive. My friends and roommates were usually away during this time, so I found myself regularly settling down to watch the show throughout my 2nd and 3rd years of school. Occasionally a friend of roommate would appear and watch with me, during which time I likely played it off my enjoyment of the show as ironic. Little did they know that it was a ritual that I actually looked forward to.
I remember this strange obsession beginning during the autumn break of my 2nd year. It was a lonely afternoon at home with the house to myself, and I was brooding over the questionable decisions I’d made that lead me to the academic and social quagmire that I now found myself firmly stuck in at college. I turned on the TV out of sheer boredom, or at least to find something else to focus on instead. I came across a strange cartoon featuring a group of kids and small monsters walking through a forest. I’d seen promos for it before, but it didn’t look at all like the loud and violent cartoon that it was being pitched as. I think I tuned in at around the 5-minute mark in this clip, and I struggled to make any sense of the scene that followed. It was strange to come across a kids’ show with so much dialog, and where for several minutes, nothing much seemed to be happening at all. Characters walk, talk, discuss subjects incomprehensible to anyone just tuning in, come across a bank of phone booths on the beach (which are never actually explained), and sit down in the sand to talk some more. Scenes like this would be less common as the series progressed, but at this time I found it oddly intriguing. The character designs were simple but drawn in a cheap but colorful style far removed from the more dark and detailed anime I’d been able to watch up to this point. If the lushly-illustrated Ghost in the Shell and Akira were buttermilk pancakes and eggs benedict, then Digimon was the visual equivalent of bargain bag brand Froot Loops. I knew I really shouldn’t be watching this or letting myself get caught up in it, but I couldn’t turn it off. And as it turned out, this was the first of several episodes being aired that afternoon. I watched another hour’s worth and was hooked.
At the time I was still discovering anime, as my exposure to anime had been mostly limited to the slim pickings at Blockbuster Video (mostly movies). I was privvy to how elite anime fans scoffed at the series — out of a need to bolster and reaffirm their personal identities as truly cultured and discerning otaku, I would later go on to assume — but I wasn’t the least bit concerned as to how well it held up next to the best anime of the day or what my fondness for it said about me. Watching it was a welcome escape from the increasingly boring and disappointing routine that college had lapsed into, and probably satisfied a certain longing I was beginning to feel for childish things as the semesters ground on. More importantly, it would whet my appetite for more anime, not so much as a gateway title as one that would eventually push me to go all-in as a fully fledged fan.
Looking back, I’m not sure exactly what it was that made the series so great, or for that matter, if it was even half as good as I remember it being. A quick summation of the original plot of Digimon Adventure: seven children meet at summer camp, only to find themselves suddenly transported to a strange new world. There, they’re greeted by a band of pint-sized creatures called Digimon, who quickly bond with the kids and vow to protect them from the larger, less-friendly Digimon of the Digital World. Their respective bonds form a kind of psychic symbiosis, allowing the Digimon to “Digivolve” into higher and more powerful forms. This proves crucial as the kids face increasingly powerful enemies in the both the Digital World and eventually back home on Earth. Their battle to survive and eventually defend their own world brings them closer to both each other and their Digimon, not to mention forcing them to grow up fast and face up to each of their own individual shortcomings in the process. I’m not sure if Digimon Adventure really brought anything original to the table, but I did admire its scope — OMG, it’s more than just “a monster of the week” series! — and the relative respect that it seemed to have for its (young) audience.
In my opinion, the franchise wouldn’t really come into its own until the second series, Digimon Adventure 02, a continuation of the original series which finds a new generation (er, a scant three years younger than the original cast) taking the reigns and teaming up with a new group of Digimon to defend the Digital World, and once again, the Earth, from new threats. I found the characters to be more well-rounded this time around, a little less stereotypically “typed” and more sympathetic, and the plot just more interesting overall. This time around the protagonists can enter and leave the Digital World at will, resulting in more scenes in the surprisingly well-rendered real world — which I always preferred anyway, no disrespect toward to the creators’ often whimsical and imaginative efforts in inventing the Digital World — and more interesting conflicts involving both human and non-human characters. Digimon was still a kids’ anime, and an often frustratingly Americanized one at that, but it was during this season that I latched onto it with a naive devotion that I’ve rarely felt since, consuming anything about the series that I could find online, including mounds of fanfiction (a guilty pleasure that I kept all to myself, and for good reason).
This season also saw the release of the Digimon: The Movie, a truly strange re-edit of three different Digimon movies from Japan. Arriving over a year after the blockbuster success of Pokemon: The First Movie, Digimon: The Movie failed to fill seats (doing less than $10 million in business) or do much to build the Digimon brand, which was already beginning to wane in America. The film was a near-incomprehensible mess, patched together in a loose fashion with a late 90s pop music soundtrack thrown on top and a bizarre opening sequence featuring characters from another Fox Kids cartoon (that unfortunately remains intact on the English dub-only DVD release). I bought a ticket for an afternoon showing during its second week, and watched it by myself in an empty theater. Whether this was one of the highest or lowest points of my life, I’m not sure, but I look back on it as one of the defining experiences of my budding otakudom.
I don’t know if it was my favorite, but I’d have to say that the third series, Digimon Tamers, was probably the creative peak of the franchise. Its characters were the most complex and fully-realized yet, its action scenes more convincingly set up and better orchestrated than ever, and its story inventive and emotional enough to overcome the cheap, commercial foundation that the series was rooted in. The story takes place in a world much like our own, where “Digimon” is a popular card game (whether it’s also an anime, I cannot recall). When real Digimon begin appearing throughout Tokyo, no one’s more thrilled than the three children who find themselves partnered with their own personal Digimon. But being a real-life Digimon “tamer” is nothing compared to the game, as each child and their Digimon quickly find out. As expected, most episodes culminate in battle scenes, but there’s a greater emphasis on the real consequences of such violence, leading to unexpectedly complex moral territory. Past seasons attempted to touch on the themes of loss and death, but they look sentimental and trite compared to the depths to which Tamers dares to go in both separating and killing off characters. Not what anyone expected from a franchise which, only two years earlier, was constantly tossed aside as “a Pokemon rip-off.” “Gotta catch ’em all,” this wasn’t. Tamers also tackled the question that past seasons had dodged: what are Digimon? The answer is complex and intriguing, and takes Tamers to some of the most emotional scenes that Saturday morning TV has ever seen.
Thanks to the decline and eventual end of Fox Kids, I missed out on most of the 4th season, Digimon Frontier. I liked what little I was able to see, but unfortunately I was without cable during its run. Season five is a mystery to me, and a cruel irony of sorts: I don’t have much desire to see Digimon Data Squad (because of the character designs or my dwindling interest, I’m not sure), but as of now it’s the only season available on DVD in America. Overall, aside from a few VHS tapes (!) collecting a handful of episodes from the first season, the first four seasons of Digimon were never released in America. Meanwhile, nearly every other kids’ anime that hit it big in the West, from Pokemon to Yu-Gi-Oh to Dragonball, has received DVD treatments several times over. Why Bandai was unable or unwilling to do the same with Digimon during its heyday or today is a mystery to me as well as countless other spurned fans, although I’m sure they have their reasons.
But overall, Digimon always seemed to me like it was never given the kind of truly strong push here in America that it needed to reach its potential. Either by arriving on our shores too early for anyone to really know what to do with it, or perhaps too late, its presence in the popular consciousness of kids, anime fans, and the media in general always seemed second-rate. It spawned quite a few video games, but to my knowledge, these had little to do with the series itself and were a mild success at best. The movie came and went from screens within a fortnight, DVD sales were literally nonexistent, and merchandise ended up in closeout sales and bargain bins. It presses on somewhere out there on cable TV, but in our 500-channel world, what doesn’t? Did it change anything, and would anime be any different today if it had never existed? I’m not sure.
Still, my time spent with this show was formative to my evolution as an anime fan, and I say this not as someone who watched it as a wide-eyed, impressionable child, but as a young adult who was still rolling his eyes at most other anime shows on TV at the time (discerningly, I thought at the time, but quite idiotically, I’ll now admit in hindsight). Maybe I was bored with life, craving an adventure of my own, and was happy to experience one in half-hour chunks every day. Maybe I admired the independence and freedom of the characters, who moved through their world(s) of their own accord, making tough choices on their own, unencumbered by responsibilities, rules, or authority figures (ie. the opposite of life on a stodgy Christian college campus). Or maybe I just wanted to feel like a kid again. Maybe I still do?
Adventure 02 is now streaming with subtitles. A new season finally debuts in Japan. Other bloggers have recently reminisced about the franchise, all perhaps suggesting that Digimon, even in 2010, is far from dead. All this makes me both nostalgic and hopeful for the future, a future where the series undergoes a reissue and eventual renaissance and is no longer treated like a doormat for incoming fans. Hopefully it also involves me kicking back in a leather armchair with some scotch and enjoying the complete series on Blu-ray.