Even though what has filtered to the U.S. over the years has been mostly shoved into the hyperviolent, sexually explicit category, anime remains the eclectic mix that it has always been, appealing to a wide range of audiences. For every title that satisfies a WWF Monday nitro fan, others exist to fulfill the "Days of Our Lives" junkies. For every title that titillates the closet porno fan, numerous others make kiddie dreams come true. Though I am cynical and heartless, I admit, I have a weakness for melodramatic plotline, well-drawn (especially male) characters, and damn it all, I love polygons.
Though shoujo anime labels its titles specifically for us ladies, nothing could be further from the truth. While in some titles romance is the plot, shows on occasion may include elements that overlap other diverse areas such as shounen(boy) and mecha (robots); what results is a grab-bag of romance, adventure, comedy and maybe even family values. Before encountering shoujo anime recently, I had become increasingly dissatisfied with the palette of cartoons that graced our television networks. Plotlines were nonexistent, voice-overs shallow; cartoons were trivial, something to waste your afternoon on and nothing more. I never developed an attachment to the characters; they remained two-dimensional drawings that moved in two-dimensional worlds. So I was totally prepared to pidgeon-hole anime when I popped in a tape of "Fushigi Yuugi" (Mysterious Play), a popular series in Japan. Boy, was I wrong.
Behold, an emotionally engaging storyline! "Fushigi Yuugi" revolves around two best friends, Miaka Yuuki and Yui Hongo. The girls are accidentally transported into the world of an ancient Chinese novel. Through a series of tragic events, both girls become enemies as opposing priestesses in an ensuing war between two enemy nations. As the story unfolds, it becomes a soap opera of epic proportions. What struck me most was the attention given to character development and relationships. Not only were past deeds and motives given careful attention to but the characters grew, made mistakes, and matured throughout. Heroes weren't infallible and enemies weren't always evil.
I was intrigued by this apparent anomaly. What an utter antithesis to Bugs Bunny and the Road-Runner! Surely, "Fushigi Yuugi" was just an exception. Satisfied with this conclusion, I reviewed another popular mainstream series. Vision of Escaflowne (VOE), similarly, transported its heroine, 15-year old Hitomi Kanzaki, to an unfamiliar world, named Gaea. She aids the King of Fanelia, 15 year old Van Fanel, in protecting his kingdom from mysterious "invisible" invaders. Sounds flimsy right? You'd be surprised. Again, another tightly crafted storyline, with strong, evolving characters in a fascinating backdrop, which interwove the right mix of action, romance, comedy into a cohesive whole.
So what was going on? My preconceptions were sorely tested. Surely, this was on the level equal if not better than the works of Disney. And this comes from a hard-core fan of Disney classics. First, is the level of voice-overs. Unlike the anonymous cartoon actors of America, the seiyuu (anime voice actors) in Japan are highly respected not to mention highly paid. To earn that salary, seiyuu undergo strenuous hours of practice in order to train their voices to convey the right degrees of emotion. The result? Angst, fury, grief and sheer joy were never expressed so thoroughly.
Secondly, akin to the Disney industry, anime boosts its franchise through soundtrack releases. Amazingly, each show comes packaged with its own CD of best hits, or two or three or four. But none of those characteristic "toony" jingles. Composed mainly by Yoko Kanno, prominent composer in the soundtrack industry, it represents an eclectic mix of lyrical ballads, orchestral vignettes, with a funky Gregorian chant piece thrown in as well. With a beautifully incorporated soundtrack, any dramatic moment in anime can be enhanced tenfold.
But what is most encouraging of all is the unsqueamish nature of anime; it doesn't hesitate to cross boundaries Americans normally consider taboo in their kids' programming if the plot is enhanced through it. Realistic deaths of characters, intimations of rape, even cross-dressing, if woven in properly, can lead to some wonderfully executed climaxes.
Needless to say, shoujo can be so emotionally binding as to be supernatural. With intriguing plot twists and complex characters, it commands one's attention thoroughly. The subtleties and nuances can convey so many different emotions; if a cartoon's sole purpose is to provide entertainment, it successfully achieves its objective on a level exceeding Hollywood. I no longer hold an air of disdain for animation. If anime can reach a typical, jaded college kid, it deserves a special place of recognition in the public's eye. The hype is well worth it.
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