Surprise, I’m not just here to talk about video games. Today I shall introduce another side of my mysterious list of interests in the hopes that intelligent discussion can be had. Like most, my tastes in anime has changed over time. Late middle school/early high school me, all charged with unsatisfied love (by which I mean hard chemical hormones) became obsessed with tasteless ecchi and comedy shows. It says something about me then that I actually had more interest in the Rosario+Vampire anime than I did the manga.
Nevertheless, time has a way of adjusting our perspectives and soon enough I was done (mostly) with that sort of entertainment, sharpening my taste to appreciate the genius shows like Death Note, Elfen Lied, Welcome to the NHK, and Mushi-shi. Seinen became my go-to genre, as it offered a far more varied array of complex stories and characters.
More recently, my attention has moved once again, this time to anything that manages to astound and perplex me visually and thematically. The single most important element I look for in anime today is its nonconformity. So to explore this change more, I thought I’d spend my column this evening on listing, describing, and analyzing my top five “weird” anime.
Before I begin, though, I should clarify that I don’t watch as much as perhaps many of you readers. There are going to be series missing from this list. Yes, I’m sure the likes of Cat Soup, Nichijou, and Arakawa Under the Bridge deserve to be included here, but I simply haven’t seen them. I suppose take this as an invitation to comment your suggestions in a friendly manner, instead of misunderstanding the list as a challenge against your tastes. But perhaps that’s asking too much…
#5: Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro Chan
I’ll admit it, this show is one of the many I watched as a young lad for the promise of general attractive female anime blobbiness, but it’s managed to stick around in my memory longer than any other for no greater reason than it’s overwhelming absurdness. What do you get when you combine South Park equivalent comic violence, unending anime reference humor, and even absurd international political themes in a series six episodes long? A show with no character arcs, resolution, or overarching plot of any kind.
In most cases, this would be the sign of something horrible, a reminder that humans have the dangerous potential to devolve into apes and defecate into each others’ mouths. But then you have to wonder why in this specific example any of these choices were made at all. Perhaps, through the power of over-analysis, deep statements about the medium as a whole can be found! Viewing this series from that level connects a few of the seemingly pointless dots. Sakura, the protagonist, is an unendingly common slice of life, moe, or predictable high school romance comedy character. He establishes the expectations from his audience that are usually generated when viewing such a show.
Much like Sakura’s skull at the strike of Dokuro Chan’s spiked metal bat, however, all of the audience’s expectation of the ordinary is obliterated into a bloody mess. In many ways, Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro Chan‘s humor is intended to be a self-reflection of a tried medium filled to its brim with repeating tropes, situations, character archetypes, and themes. Even still, it’s a show that leaves its viewers confused over whether the goal was to poke fun at anime stereotypes or simply conform to them to the extreme. It’s never quite clear what the audience is meant to take away from the show, or whether the animators wanted to actually say something or just fill up an abnormal six episodes of time with whatever strange meandering they could think of.
I still include this series on my list though because no matter the original intent, this is a show that makes a very, very surreal viewing without loosing any value as a piece of entertainment.
#4: Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei
Very rarely do I see intelligent comedic discussion of Japanese society and culture in anime without turning to international comparisons or pop culture references. Enter the work of absurdist mangaka Koji Kumeta. Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei is incredibly refreshing for not only its nonconformist structure and flat art style, but for its superb understanding of Japanese language quirks, an aspect that makes this show hopelessly impossible to localize anywhere that isn’t Japan. Too much of its humor requires lengthy notes from the translators to explain its astonishing complexity.
Pun humor is always difficult to translate but exceptionally so when the source of the puns is in the multiple possible pronunciations of pictographic writing. It took me three viewings of the first episode to finally understand why Itoshiki Nozomu becomes “zetsubo” (lit. despair or beyond hope) when the first two kanji are combined (and I’ve been studying Japanese language for seven years). This makes this series very difficult to appreciate to its fullest by those even only a little unfamiliar with Japanese complexity.
In a way, though, that’s why I like it so very much. It has almost Shakespearian understanding of its source language, leaving no line, character name, or situation devoid of some kind of language trick or pun. I can only wish that I could understand and appreciate this show as a Japanese person would, without having to study the jokes before comprehending them. But I’ll resign to watch as an outsider, and even then it’s beautiful in its surreal yet clean visual style coupled with a hilariously dark tone. It’s really like no other, and I can see no greater reason than that to include it on this list.
#3: Fooly Cooly
Out of everything I list here, FLCL is surely the most well known. Most of you will already be familiar with it’s incredible visual eccentricity and nonsensical situation humor. It has been, after all, aired on Adult Swim for years and its six episode length is so approachable I imagine many of you watched it on a whim. Some find themselves attached to its blatant disregard for realism and others don’t, and while I’m certainly a member of the former category, it was only until I began to comprehend some of the finer implications of the story it told.
A friend once described the series in a single sentence with perfect accuracy: just like adolescence, FLCL makes no sense and it’s over before you know it. A perfect statement because it’s true; FLCL is about adolescence, puberty, and the absolute absurdity that it brings to everyone it affects. Thematically, it approaches topics of love, abuse, change, abandonment, jealousy, pride, and ultimate fulfillment with both subtly and bombast, a tremendously difficult task in storytelling. To me, and to many I’ve asked, there’s something oddly nostalgic about the tone. It’s the perfect emotional bildungsroman and thus I feel like I’ve been there in that city and in those circumstances.
But then again, I’ve had an adolescence, and I’ve gone through puberty. Amazingly, a show involving an alien woman, a space pirate, a servant robot, and a secret service commander with seaweed for eyebrows manages to pull from me emotions and thoughts associated with memories from that testing period of my life.
The music’s also fantastic and very unique for anime. The alternative rock from the wacky band, the pillows (lowercase intentional) ties the string on the package, giving an even more dreamy, mystifying layer through its powerful and punctual melodies.
A strongly recommended anime.
Another expected entry, perhaps. But well earned nonetheless. Paprika, by the late Satoshi Kon, breaks a wide array of visual conventions. Just one look at its animated parade of mismatched curios that makes several appearances throughout the film and you’ll see why. If FLCL focuses on the absurdity of childhood, then Paprika reflects the anarchy of dreams.
Perhaps the most telling effect of Paprika‘s genius is how it leaves the audience unwilling to trust that anything it sees is reality. Expectations are shattered and we become conditioned to expect the unexpected. Transitions between different dreamscapes are so enthralling it tends to be overwhelming. The visual art of anime is rarely so unbelievable it takes my breath away, but Paprika manages to do this on multiple occasions.
The strength of this film does not only rely on its animation, however, as it’s story and pacing manage to hold shape from beginning to end. It never drags and it’s never predictable. No, the effort was not all dumped into one area, it was equal in all parts, and it really shows.
#1: The Tatami Galaxy
I hope that most of you have not heard of this one. If you haven’t, watch it. Watch it today. You will not be disappointed. This entry tops my list of absurdist anime because it captures a mood perfectly and runs with a unique premise. It plays with time in unexpected ways, as every episode is a retelling of a a few different series of events, only with different choices made at the beginning of each. In one, the main character must decide on a club to join, in another, he must choose to pursue one of three vastly different women, and in a third time setting, he simply chooses to stay behind in his room and do nothing.
It’s incredibly difficult to describe this short, twelve episode series in mere words. It demands to be watched, as its conclusion in many ways makes completes the tone in an epically poetic (and very meta) destruction of its established yet confusing time system. Stylistically, The Tatami Galaxy is, as are many of the other items on this list, bizarre. Colors stream off the screen in utter chaos. There’s a tremendous use of background live action rotoscoping and filtering. At one point, the main character’s sexual drive is personified by a After Effects-animated cowboy named Johnny, built up from multiple independent pieces like a puppet. There’s always something extremely crazy going on in every shot. Simply put, it’s an utter joy to watch.
The show also manages to tell its story through constant voice overs, which end up being incredibly successful when paired with the abnormal animation style. Because of this, the audience is treated to unheard of character complexity, which is unusual in any motion picture art, let alone anime.
Again, there is little I can say that does justice to this series. If you’re looking for something like nothing else, something that will challenge you and trick you, then The Tatami Galaxy is for you.
Any recommendations for things I looked over? Comment and all shall know that you are more informed than I.