Unpopular Opinion – Anime of the Year Edition: Zombieland Saga

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One of the things I believe most attracts to people to anime is the novelty and surprise factor of it all.  There are anime about subjects, both the incredibly mundane and the brainbustingly highbrow, which traditional films and TV wouldn’t touch with a Colossal Titan-sized pole.  Now obviously surprise and novelty are not bywords for success, there are plenty of nasty surprises after all, but when a surprise hit comes along, it hits all the harder and is all the more memorable for it.  And in that regard, I do believe Zombieland Saga takes the crown.  Not for this season, nor even this year like you might infer from the title.  Ever.  I have never been pleasantly surprised harder by any piece of media than I was by Zombieland Saga.  And boy did that pay out for the show’s favor in spades.

Keep in mind I know full well that Boku no Hero Academia had one of the greatest shounen battles of all time this year with All Might vs All for One.  I cried during that shit, I felt like I could’ve been one of the in-universe spectators watching the live battle on the news, tearing up and almost chanting.  I think that All Might is one of the best crafted characters of his archetype in anime history, if not the best.  I was more invested in All Might during his major battles than Isaac-fucking-Netero during his big showdown during HunterxHunter’s Chimera Ant arc, and the final battle with One for All was the greatest battle of the year by far.  Not because it was complicated or well animated or what have you – but because it was the most emotionally impactful battle, scene even, since… fuck me I don’t think I’ve been that emotionally invested in an anime scene since the death of Ouki (Wang Yi) from Kingdom – and I’m a fucking Kingdom fanatic.

But even with Boku no Hero Academia’s biggest moment to consider, I can wholeheartedly say Zombieland Saga won me over.  No other show this year has made me laugh, smile or get pumped like Zombieland Saga has and I swear to God Japan, if you don’t make another season like the ending hinted at I will petition Trump to nuke you all over again.  I am that fucking hype for this shit.

So what’s going on here?  – Spoilers, Come On!!! – Obviously surprise factor alone could not do this.  Certainly the fact that this show exploded onto the scene from so out of left field was in it’s favor but there’s more going on here.  I think many others will join me in saying they got hooked on this show despite the fact none of them watch or like idol shows.  Fuck I pretty much despise normal idol crap and I know I’m not alone in this.  Making the idols into zombies should not be enough to get us past that, and while it did ultimately take more than that, let it be said the creators maximized the shit out of the zombie factor right from the get go.

Sakura’s sudden death after her cheerful morning scene was a pretty attention grabbing way to get the show started but climaxing with death metal idols doing neck-breaking headbanging bashed down any walls of skepticism that still remained and powered it’s way right into my heart.  They had me.   That is some use of shock factor so good it should go down in a textbook somewhere.  More surprising still were the character stories and innovative concerts that were to come.

But before we get there we have to look at what the legacy of that initial shock factor was that serves to contrast with the aforementioned character stories – they made this show fun as shit.  Zombieland Saga’s ability to be so brimming with life and energy is more than mildly ironic considering the zombie protagonists, but more importantly it meant I was never bored.  Long before the character stories came in to make their fucking fantastic mark on the show, the energy and wild abandon of the show kept me hooked until the creators brought out the big guns.  This is best exemplified by the legendary Yamada Tae, followed closely by Kotaro, the idol manager-cum-necromancer apparently.  Even though we never really get to their character stories, just a hint for Kotaro, the energy of their movements/actions and speeches respectively do a lot to keep what would otherwise by a drab morning meeting, random conversation or activity fun and/or hilarious.  Fuck even during the more somber part of Sakura’s arc over the last two episodes Tae in particular was fucking amazing.  There was clearly a lot of heart put into these characters and they deliver for the show.

That being said I would lying if I said the character stories didn’t play a big role.  Setting aside the fact that Tae never truly awakens and Yugiri is from such a far removed point in time – 200+ years if memory serves – that her story never gets told, the differences between the girls and the eras they died in really came to the fore in a way that obviously made them clash at first but makes them all the more endearing in the aftermath.  Saki is a particularly interesting case because she is the most vocal opponent of the whole idol project from the outset given her background as a biker gang leader.  I thought they had more or less nailed her character in episode 2 during the spontaneous rap battle she had with Sakura but fuck me did they really bring on the heat with the biker gang episode.  Her saving her best friend’s daughter by replicating the same stunt that actually killed her in 97 was ballsy as fuck and it was really heartwarming stuff.  Same goes for Lily’s episode where he is able to mend the emotional wounds of his hulking dad from beyond the grave, it wasn’t quite so ballsy but damn was it a feels train.

The most contentious of these stories is undoubtedly Sakura’s as the tone is far more serious and there’s a lot of nothing happening because the main conceit is that Sakura feels like putting in effort is pointless due the fact whenever she did she would reach the top only to have a random accident ruin things.  As much as I can see people not liking this one, since it’s all about everyone else trying to motivate Sakura and the extremes of her bad luck are so played up it’s almost comical, I really liked her arc.  Them going in whole hog on the bad luck probably should have made it all seem fake and goofy but I felt that it lent enough weight to her depression, for lack of a better word, to make it totally worth it.  Over the span of  two episodes Sakura manages to be depressed and somber despite all the efforts of everyone around her to encourage her, and I fucking felt for her.  The idea of putting your all into something only to fail due to circumstances beyond your control, it bites, and while I’m sure everyone’s experienced something like that at least once in their life Sakura’s obsession with this idea, with how she believes it defines her life, with her o’er example being her sudden death on the way to her idol audition – it justified all of it to me.  And fuck me did it make that last concert lit.  With Sakura being all shaky in the first part, the venue collapsing due to the heavy snowfall and then her triumphant return, pushing ahead with a song all about rising up and never giving in – 10/10, would buy all the fucking glow sticks in the world to see that live.

Still I do believe the crowning moment of series goes to the Ai and Junko arc, and of course the lighting concert.  Setting the concert aside for a second I really like the base concept of Ai and Junko’s conflict.  This is the arc where the age difference, i.e. how long ago they died, really comes into play.  Both of these girls were idols before their deaths but they were idols in eras 20-30 years apart and because of that they have very different attitudes.  Junko does not like the way modern idols operate, in her time being an idol was a classier gig and there was a much more pronounced gap between idols and their fans.  She has trouble squaring the current idol world with her own career and the lessons learned therein.  Ai on the other hand can’t really bring herself to sympathize because she has a sort of ‘that’s just part of being successful attitude’ and refuses to compromise.  The ironic bit then is that when the concert goes down and Ai is barely able to perform due to the lightning and her crippling fear of it – she died by being struck by lightning at an outdoor concert – it’s the loftier standards that Junko holds herself to which save the stumbling performance and get Ai back in the game so to speak.

Now let’s talk about the lightning concert.  It’s a work of genius and I honestly think the thought process had to start from the song.  Keeping in mind this is conjecture, follow me down this train of thought.  Say an anime studio wants as many cost cutting measures as they feel they can get away with, as they often do, and someone says, “What if we remix one of the songs, that should be cheaper than recording another original one?”  Then someone asks:  “How can we do that in a way that makes sense in the story?”  And then a mad genius goes – “What if we let them get struck by lightning to give their voices electronic effects?”  And then the team runs with it and creates a character story based on the lightning strike, so the character can overcome their fear of lightning, the team can remix the song without issue and the show can have the most lit idol concert in human history.  I don’t know if that’s what happened but fuck I really want that to be true because it would make the whole sequence even better for me.

Anyway that’s enough of me drooling over Zombieland Saga.  I expect that for many it won’t be king of the season let alone king of year.  But I say fuck you Goblin Slayer, fuck you Rascal Doesn’t Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai – I like you but you’ve been topped.  And yes, in advance I cordially say, with no malice, spite, ill intent or seriousness, fuck all of you who disagree – I’m having way too much fun right now and so long as I have Zombieland Saga there’s nothing you can do to stop me.  It is in fact the show the anime community needs and the one we deserve!  Happy 2018 and I’ll see you in the next one – whenever that is.

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How to Hero: Boku no Hero, Tiger & Bunny and Gatchaman Crowds

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Superheroes are everywhere.  In the US every time you turn around there’s another superhero movie coming out and calling Boku no Hero Academia one of biggest anime of the year feels like I’m selling it short.  However I have a bone to pick with a lot of superhero stories, a lot of bones in fact, chief among them their simplicity.  With that in mind I wanted to talk about three very different superhero anime that I like and do a little compare and contrast.  There will spoilers, you’ve been warned.

I’m going to assume most of you have seen Boku no Hero Academia and even if you haven’t it’s a shounen battle story, you don’t need a long plot description to figure it out.  To sum up what I’m going to explore in more detail, Boku no Hero Academia’s greatest strengths as a story are the myriad of character stories it uses to create rivalries and relationships.  How these character stories emerge and clash is integral to the growth of all the major characters and it’s something the show absolutely nails.  It also nails some great shounen battles, tournaments and training, taking the building blocks of the genre and making the most of them.  However in comparison to the other two shows mentioned in the title Boku no Hero Academia is the least interesting, if no less engaging than the other shows.  It’s about as straightforward as stories come and while it does a great job in the details the overall story is very by the numbers for shounen fare and it’s not exactly brimming with ideas.  None of these are weaknesses necessarily just factors to consider.

By comparison Tiger and Bunny looks like the seinen onii-chan to Boku no Hero Academia’s shounen outoto.  They have a ton of similar features, like a character whose power is declining, an older hero who is symbolic of all superheroes and whom is greatly admired and an industry built around heroes and their feats in pursuit of villains.  But Tiger and Bunny really goes all in on these ideas in a way that makes it a hell of lot messier than Boku no Hero Academia.  It also nails character stories but because the cast is so much smaller we get a lot more intimate with most of them, and their stories tend to be about how their personalities and goals clash with or complement their jobs as heroes as opposed to setting up rivalries.  It is however, ultimately pretty close to Boku no Hero Academia in a lot of ways so the two are easy to compare.  This brings us to the problem child of the bunch, Gatchaman Crowds.  Gatchaman Crowds is far and away the show which focuses most on ideas and crams the most concepts into it’s story.  If Boku no Hero Academia is about trying to become the greatest superhero and Tiger and Bunny is about how different people struggle with being superheroes then Gatchaman Crowds asks, what is a hero anyway?

Let’s start with the Boku no Hero Academia and Tiger and Bunny comparison.  In terms of premise the three greatest things separating the two shows are relative numbers of people with special powers, how detailed and important the superhero industry is and the age of the main characters.  In sharp contrast to Tiger and Bunny, as well as comic equivalents like X-Men, in Boku no Hero Academia the people with special powers make up the vast majority of the population and the heroes are the ones who take it upon themselves to become heroes.  Their Quirks are of course important in determining how effective they are but a look at Deku’s class shows you don’t have to be a Deku, Todoroki or Bakugo to be a hero, even Mineta can do it if he really tries.  This doesn’t really apply in Tiger and Bunny, for the most part heroes are heroes because they have the right kinds of powers to be heroes.  The only noteworthy exception is Origami Cyclone whose power is no use in combat.  This creates a lot of tension within the character because despite his power’s weakness he is still making a living despite not doing any work, the sponsors just want him to pop up in the background and flash their logos.

In fact Origami is the perfect example of the kind of hero Stain from Boku no Hero Academia hated, one who couldn’t and didn’t do anything but wore the title of hero nonetheless.  However there is no Stain in Tiger and Bunny, and the conflict between being a real hero and being a “fake” hero is something the character struggles with internally – to the point where he almost quits/lets a former friend kill him because he feels so worthless.  And that character arc could never have happened if Origami Cyclone’s non-heroics were not financially viable, but they are because of how deeply entrenched the superhero industry is in Tiger and Bunny.  It seems to be the main form of entertainment and it rakes in the cash like there’s no tomorrow.  In fact Tiger’s biggest issue with the superhero industry is that it often calls on him to hold back or stay on standby in order to make the show more exciting, while Tiger is an old-fashioned hero who doesn’t really give a shit about the business end of things and just wants to save people.  Again this exists in Boku no Hero Academia but it’s a much smaller issue because it is given so much less attention – the worst example I can think of to date in Boku no Hero Academia is the hero internship where Yayorozu spends the whole time in photo shoots, but that’s nowhere near the glamour and excess shown in Tiger and Bunny.

The age difference is important too.  Deku is a kid coming into his powers and trying to control them so that he can succeed later in life.  Tiger is already a successful hero and is reaching over-the-hill status especially when Barnaby (whom he nicknames Bunny) shows up since the two have the same ability.  The age difference is most important though when it comes to a story beat which is shocking similar across both stories – the decline of power.  In Boku no Hero Academia that portion of the story belongs to All Might but in Tiger and Bunny it belongs to Tiger, and also Tiger and Bunny’s All Might equivalent, Mr. Legend.  Mr. Legend and All Might are extremely similar, both serve as symbols of all superheroes, both attempt to hide their decline in power and both inspire the main character of their respective shows to become heroes.  (Also this isn’t really relevant but I just want to mention that Ida is basically a teenage ripoff of Sky High from Tiger and Bunny seriously watch one episode and tell me I’m wrong).  Mr. Legend is ultimately the more human and messy of the two because the setting and story allow for that but functionally they are all but the same.  However Tiger’s opposite trajectory from Deku, when combined with the fact he’s an adult and knows nothing but being a hero, complicates his character story tremendously.

Whereas Deku has to deal with the pain of not being able to handle his power and ultimately needs to worry about not destroying himself before he fully comes into it, Tiger has to start worrying about his ever decreasing time limit while using his power, which he could only use for five minutes per hour anyway.  Tiger’s struggle is by far the more interesting from a conceptual standpoint and it’s handled fairly well but ultimately I think Tiger is at his best when he’s interacting with people.  Barring his age he’s closer to the loud, obnoxious shounen hero than Deku is but because of his age he can also impart life changing lessons to younger heroes and Nexts (mutants basically).  In fact one my favorite scenes is early on in the show, when instead of arresting a teenage Next trying to hurt people because they treated him like a freak, he talks the kid into giving himself up, assuring him that he can be a hero too if he tries.  He even tricks the kid into fixing an impending disaster caused by his own rampage.  Likewise his short arc with Blue Rose a teenage idol-cum-hero who never really wanted to be a hero in the first place and only agreed because it would boost her singing career was great.  Tiger’s attitude is not all that different from Deku’s but the difference in age allows for Tiger to involve himself in a much broader range of stories.

All that said I want to stress I don’t think what I described the last few paragraphs necessarily makes Tiger and Bunny better than Boku no Hero Academia.  Boku no Hero Academia absolutely kills Tiger and Bunny in the action department and Stain is probably coolest character across both shows.  What Tiger and Bunny offers is a story with more messiness, more adult concepts and problems, and more twists and turns.  It’s no mindfuck but there’s definitely a lot more going on behind the scenes in Tiger and Bunny whereas Boku no Hero Academia mostly survives on good but limited character stories and action – it’s definitely weaker when those two things aren’t present.  This brings us to the complicated one Gatchaman Crowds.

Gatchaman Crowds is the least action oriented of the three shows.  In fact in the beginning the Gatchaman operate in total secrecy and fight against limited alien threats, a big difference compared to flashy crime scenes and tournaments of Tiger and Bunny and Boku no Hero Academia.  Gatchaman Crowds also spends a lot less time spelling out how characters think and what their backstory looks like, barring the occasional flashback Gatchaman Crowds gives us a lot less to chew on.  But that’s also kind of the point.  Gatchman Crowds spends a lot of time looking at subtle reactions and planting cryptic hints that it expects you to sort of read between the lines to get the meaning of.  It’s not so complex or subtle that I would call it especially challenging but Gatchaman Crowds is willing to expect more from the audience, which given the main ideological struggle of the show is quite thematically appropriate.  And I’m using ideological on purpose, Gatchaman Crowds is not really a battle of good vs evil and superhero vs supervillain, it is a clash of ideas made manifest, with the main questions regarding heroes and nature of humans.

And it’s precisely because the aim of the show is so different that its main character is similarly a far cry from Tiger and Deku.  Hajime is a blob of energy who is extremely hard to pin down.  She comes off as goofy and air-headed but she is surprisingly sharp.  She has no love for social boundaries, she’ll happily chat with children, city mayors and godlike aliens with the same casual, bubbly attitude.  What this means when she becomes a hero is that she begins questioning the Gatchaman ways immediately and generally approaches potential enemies with curiosity rather than violence.  She isn’t a pacificst but she never kills anyone either, she’s eager enough to get into the action and suppress minor bad guys but she inevitably tries to communicate when faced with a real opponent.  And I’m not kidding when I say she’s hard to pin down, the second season Gatchaman Crowds Insight, features an alien who can quantify people’s thoughts and emotional state by way of colorful thought bubbles, and Hajime is one of only two people shown whose thought bubble is gray and never changes.  One second she is an adorable lass squealing with delight and hugging every cute person and object in sight and the next she’s discussing seriously philosophical question in the exact same tone of voice.

Hajime is a character who communicates more with emotion than reasoned language but this belies her ability to cut right to the heart of her stance on complex questions or her ability to connect with what the villains are saying.  Another baffling aspect of her character is with regards to one of the main themes of both seasons, the role of individuals versus the role of community.  This will get a bit detailed but one of the major aspects of Gatchaman Crowds which separates it from the other two shows is the emphasis on social media.  In Gatchaman Crowds there is a social networking system called Galax which is very popular and extremely useful in coordinating people.  It’s headed up by X a super AI developed by Rui, one of the other most interesting characters in the show, who eventually joins the Gatchmans.  It can greatly enhance everyday life by for example, alerting lawyers of that a nearby person has posted a legal question online, but the main purpose of this wealth of information is disaster relief.  Unbeknownst to most Galax users, Rui wants humankind to advance and believes that by creating a means to motivate people to take action rather than rely on the current system, humans will advance.  Rui also has the power to create CROWDS which are invisible to most people but are powerful entities born of the users’ minds.  In the first season one of the biggest questions posed was what was better, CROWDS a system by which all people could step up and become heroes, or the Gatchamans, a select few superheroes who would solve the problems no one else could.  Rui, is resolved to advance humanity by disposing of heroes entirely and using the CROWDS to lift everyone up to being heroes.

Hajime disagrees.  If I had to hazard a guess at her motivations it would be foresight, as in her view there will be times when superheroes are necessary even if the CROWDS might be a good idea.  Hajime has an uncanny knack of understanding the vague prophecies which direct the Gatchamans as well as the villains’ riddles, moreover various hints she drops in her own confusing and airheaded speech patterns shows that she can see what will become the heart of a potential problem or solution well before said problem or solution arrives.  The only thing which I can reasonably ascribed to Hajime which is purely heroic in the traditional sense is her willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of defeating the various enemies she has to face, none of whom she defeats in straight contests of power and skill.  Hajime’s greatest weapon is how flexible her thinking is, because the problems of Gatchaman Crowds aren’t the kind you can end with a super strong punch, they are tied to human nature, how humans interact with each other, and how technology or alien super powers influences how we behave.

And with that in mind I can say with confidence that Gatchaman Crowds is my favorite of the three superhero anime listed in the title – and by extension my favorite superhero anything.  It’s willingness to run headlong into more complex concepts with messier and less obvious solutions is an incredible breath of fresh air.  Gatchaman Crowds really marks itself out not just by questioning what it means to be a hero but by drastically changing the nature of its villains.  It’s not about the biggest, scariest monster or craziest, cleverest schemer.  It’s not even about heroes fighting each other over differences in values.  Gatchaman Crowds is all about our struggle against ourselves, be it our baser impulses, best intentions gone wrong, lack of foresight, or various social pressures – and it highlights that struggle by cleverly forcing superheroes into the mix.  I don’t think Gatchaman Crowds is especially complicated but it takes an important step toward becoming what I would describe as a mature story – and that alone is enough to put it head and shoulders above the competition.

In conclusion all three shows are great shows, Gatchaman Crowds is just the best of the three – to me anyway.  All three of them have very different strengths regardless of how similar they are to each other.  Boku no Hero Academia brings out the best of what the shounen genre is known for, battles, backstories and rivalries.  Tiger and Bunny takes a formula anyone familiar with superhero movies and shows knows at a glance and then makes it messier, more nuanced and shifts the focus away from the battles to the people under the masks and in the super suits.  And Gatchaman Crowds brings the most complex setting details, concepts and the most unusual obstacles for the heroes to overcome.  I highly recommend you watch all three if you haven’t already.  I hope you enjoyed this post and I’ll see you in the next one.