Some people like to party on New Year’s Eve, myself included. However, my idea of a party is plopping down on the couch with a bottle of wine, a pound of fudge, and a stack of anime films on VHS. Yes, my brother Daniel and I went “old school” for the last day of 2017. And believe me, having a couple glasses of wine makes watching 1990s anime even more hilarious. The previews were a blast even before the feature presentation started. I haven’t actually sat down to watch any anime, new or old, for a while, and a thought struck me during our viewing: anime combines some weird-ass shit.
I know, that isn’t really news, especially for anyone who’s ever watched an anime. But it’s one thing to know something and quite another to really sit down and think about it. And something that anime tends to do, especially the kinds I enjoy, is to mix and match indiscriminately from other genres. It’s not uncommon to see magic spells alongside giant robots or television and lollipops in an otherwise classic medieval setting. And absolutely no effort is expended on explaining it or to make any logical sense of it. You either accept it and go along for the ride, or you spend the entire 90 minutes going, “How the hell does that work?”
We watched three anime on New Year’s Eve. The first was Slayers: The Motion Picture. Daniel and I already love Slayers, which riffs on D&D and fantasy tropes. It’s primarily sword and sorcery, but you’ll also get some more modern-ish stuff thrown in, like souvenir shops selling jellyfish T-shirts or a water wizard wearing a top hat and a speedo. (Yes, that looks as terrifying as it sounds.) Most of it is over-the-top silly, but there are some moments that suddenly hit you in the gut with terrifying and/or gross visuals, or a really skin-crawling idea. The prime example I can think of from this film is when the sorceress Lina Inverse comes to a village and the inhabitants turn out to be walking corpses animated by a demon who then, just to prove that he can, destroys the souls of the humans still trapped inside the rotting flesh. That’s… rather far removed from the bumbling bandits and clam-eating contest at the beginning of the film.
Next we saw Peacock King: Spirit Warrior, Parts 1 and 2. This was set in a more or less modern era, but with exorcist Buddhist priests facing off against robotic Neo-Nazis. This was a lot more serious and dramatic than Slayers, but the progression of the plot actually makes far less sense. (They enjoyed using the plot device of, “Let’s repeat all of the mythology that we introduced to the audience at the very beginning of the movie!”) While the mystical elements are clearly fanciful, there’s a lot of tantric terminology and historical references. (The music is really neat too!) And yet, despite the story being an illogical mess with cardboard characters and rather random shots of gore, the ending still hit a pretty powerful emotional chord.
The final film of the night was actually a 2-episode OVA. Dragon Half flips between realistic scantily-clad teenage girls… to chibi scantily-clad teenage girls. The characters (especially the main half-dragon girl, Mink) clearly have no idea that what they are wearing is wildly inappropriate, and yet really act like typical teenage anime girls, with family drama and female rivalries. There are medieval castles, music CDs, magic swords, and laxatives. It’s laugh-out-loud hysterical in its absurdity so that it almost seems like a comedy for kids. But the dub definitely adult, filled with cussing, sexual innuendos, and characters with names like “Dick Saucer.” (No, I’m not kidding. That’s the name of the popular rock star Mink and her girl friends have a crush on.) Like… neither of us really knew what to make of it, whether we should be laughing our asses off (which we did) or be utterly shocked at how this managed to pass U.S. censors (which we were). I couldn’t even find ratings on the boxes of the tapes themselves… except for “Parental Guidance Is Suggested.”
So what is the point of talking about old not-really-especially-good animated TV movies? Basically, I wanted to show how anime cheerfully breaks the rules of genre. That doesn’t mean it always works, not by a long-shot. Some pieces just don’t work well together, others could work but fail in the execution. But no one can claim that these genre-mashups aren’t risk-takers as these random elements are tossed together to see what happens. It provides an element of off-the-wall fun that I think we sometimes lose in our pursuit of crafting fiction that others will take seriously. I know that crazy spark has become harder for me to access in recent years, and I’d like to get that fire lit again. While I think that pulling off a good bizarre combination that retains its emotional impact and internal logic can be pretty difficult, especially for up-and-coming writers, it’s still a tool in the box we can play around with. Sometimes you just gotta shake things up and have fun tossing the genre salad.