#116 : Aim for the Ace (TV series)

AftAtv_1The sun beats down as sweat drips from your forehead onto your hands. Those hands are gripping a tennis racket and as you pant for a moment of breathe you concentrate your stare upwards to your opponent. It’s your turn to serve, its match point and you are about to finish the game of your life. … (shakes head) … Wow, daydreaming really takes your mind away from where you are. Almost as if you are in the ‘game’ so to speak; the game of tennis in this instance. We are not here to discuss the actual sport itself, but an anime about a girl’s rise into the world of high school tennis. Serve, smash, volley… welcome to the original TV adaptation of Aim for the Ace.

AftAtv_2For shojo sports anime, Aim for the Ace is perhaps the grand dame of the genre. The elder spokeswoman, yet not the originator. A volleyball themed series from 1969, Attack No. 1, is from my research the first anime to show girls in the world of sport. Aim for the Ace is perhaps remembered better because of the popular and excellent film adaptation from 1979, but this entry will look at the previously released TV series of 1973. Both tell the same story with a small amount of variation to story, both were created at TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsha) under the direction of Osamu Dezaki (GENIUS!) and both are hallmark titles representing the growing sophistication of anime in the 1970s. The movie may have a more technically sophisticated presentation (which is ‘SO’ important in our HD obsessed world), but the TV series has a few tricks up it’s sleeve that I found endearing.

AftAtv_3Like many sports entries, Aim for the Ace is a simple coming of age story. Our heroine Hiromi Oka, though being a complete amateur (and at times a klutz), wins a spot on the coveted varsity team at Nishi High School. Nishi’s coach Jin Munakata sees much potential in the abilities of Hiromi, which in typical shojo fashion starts a soap opera of drama between the other girls on the team. Kyoko Otawa, in particular, would loss her spot on the varsity squad, which brings out a very jealous and deceptive character. And then there is the queen herself, the best player on Nishi’s squad, Reika Ryuzaki a.k.a. Ochoufujin (Madame Butterfly). At first, Rieka lives up to the sempai relationship towards Hiromi by becoming a shining example to follow. Yet when Hiromi’s skills begin to improve and challenge those of Reika’s is when we see the dark side of the beautiful butterfly. Needless to say the greater length of this TV series lends itself to more story and character development compared to the movie.

AftAtv_4Visually, Aim for the Ace is a great example of manga come to life. Gorgeous watercolor like backgrounds and rougher lines push the look of being hand made. There is a simplicity within the rawness that makes it feel honest and have a lot of heart. So while this may have been par for the course for animation back in the day, it is welcome to see a cartoon not look too overly polished and sophisticated like many productions of today. Then again this was all completed under the direction of Osamu Dezaki and I have many times commented on how much I enjoy the way he approaches animation. Dezaki knows just how to make it all look so… so… so damn good!

Much like Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam, Aim for the Ace was cancelled early due to low ratings (well thats what Wikipedia says!). All three series through the effort of loyal fans, reruns and eventual film adaptations would become legends. Often in our current glut of all that we have nowadays, how often does this opportunity of a second chance gets to come to a fruition. But much like many of these other shows from the 1970s, Aim for the Ace would get it’s second chance, but if you ask me, it was just right for what it had to bring to the table the first time around as well. I loved the movie, but I also loved this TV series for what it was, still is and always will be… a forerunner… a classic… a beautiful anime!

#93 : Galaxy Express 999 (movie)

If one must set out for a voyage to the stars, you must do it with an element of style. An ordinary spaceship will work for many, but come on now… let’s push the boundaries of imagination. What about traveling through space in a train? Hmm?… I like it… all wood grained and classic black iron, now that is classy! As well, a voyage to the stars should be something personal, a journey to not just discover what is out there, but also what is within yourself. Galaxy Express 999 is such a journey that once you ride this train line, you will never be the same.

GE999_movie1Here is an idea… let’s say you want to honor your goal to achieve immortality by adopting a mechanical body and the only way to do that would be to board a train to the stars that will take you to this fated destination. Only problem is that this train ticket is quiet expensive and sought after. Plus, you also wish to avenge your mother’s wrongful murder since you have so much spare time with all this other stuff going on. Are you in consensus with our hero Tetsuro Hoshino for a ride on the Galaxy Express 999? Great… we have a ticket for you, except you have to have the classiest lady in all of anime join you in your journey.

GE999_movie2Leiji Matsumoto’s vision of science fiction is beyond brilliant. What sets him apart is his use of tenderness and emotion. I always shed some kind of a tear due to the enduring qualities and almost simplicity of Galaxy Express 999. That almost motherly womb of nurturing I get from this movie is summed up in that lady I mentioned earlier, Maetel. Her name is derivative of mother, matter, maternal, Mary, or mare (sea/waters) at least that is my hypothesis. Beyond being a near protective saint, she has the longest blond hair I have yet to see and dresses in a Russian styled black fur coat and hat. So classy! If the story tells the meat of the experience, Maetel represents the symbolic image of this story. I hate to see her as a mascot, more like an ascended master in the form of an anime heroine.

GE999_movie3The essence, or perhaps theme of Galaxy Express 999, is beyond the awesome space operatic elements. Often we are watching a story set in the future, but the true teachings are of the present moment. Life is something to be cherished and in two ways particularly. One, the fact that we are mortal and the time that we have is precious and our presence in this very moment is precious. And two, love yourself for who you are and what you believe in; your highest dreams and aspiration. Love yourself, love the environment and welcome all opportunities, you never know who you may meet on your journey when you just go with the flow. Just ask our hero Tetsuro.

GE999_movie4Galaxy Express 999’s movie adaptation is more than just a basic re-telling of the epic TV series. True we follow Tetsuro Hoshino’s path of maturity, which is sped up and abbreviated due the compression of the mammoth length of the manga/TV series original, yet we also have the inclusion of Matsumoto’s other great sci-fi epic which ran concurrent with Galaxy Express 999. That being of course Space Pirate Captain Harlock. This movie could be the ultimate expression of the constant retelling and reimagining of all that is the Leijiverse. And not just Captain Harlock the character, crew and mythology, but also that TV series’ director, Rintaro. Always a visual feast, so typical of Rintaro, this may be his most coherent film where the story does not get lost within the presentation of powerful imagery.

Stories of the hero’s journey number in the infinite and often times we are telling the same over yet again with a slightly different veneer. The origins of Galaxy Express 999 may borrow elements of Night on the Galactic Railroad and Star Wars (or perhaps Yamato?), but in the end it is something far different. A classic among classics, a step above the rest, Galaxy Express 999 may be one of the best coming of age stories ever created. Thank you Leiji Matsumoto and Rintaro for this great gift.

#68 : Galactic Drifter Vifam

“Wipe away all your tears, together we will conquer fear, come and give us a hand, in search of a new land, I wonder where you are my friend, tell us what is left in the end…”

Vifam_11983 was a grand year for mecha. In particular, let us take a look at what was made at Sunrise. Yoshiyuki Tomino made Aura Battler Dunbine. Ryusuke Takahashi released his crown jewel, Armored Trooper Votoms. And that other guy known as Takeyuki Kanda took an original idea from Tomino based loosely on Jules Verne’s Two Years’ Vacation (a story that influenced Adrift in the Pacific and Infinite Ryvius) and made one of my ALL-TIME favorite shows. The brilliant, fun, and at times adorable Galactic Drifter Vifam or Round Vernian Vifam.

Vifam_2For me Vifam is one of those shows I would recommend in a heart beat, even to those of you who are not into robots at all. Much like My Neighbor Totoro, Vifam touches the joy and innocence of being a kid and growing up, just in a more sci-fi adventure kind of way. This cast of kids is one of the best ensembles ever conceived (my opinion) and they range from the early teens down to almost being out of diapers. That and having Toyoo Ashida as your main character designer only adds to their appeal. The story begins with these 13 kids on board a starship with a group of adults as guardians. Soon the tides will shift when our cast of youngsters have to go it alone. Now if you think this will be like Lord of the Flies, fret not, these kids are responsible and end up working together sharing every emotion from joys to sorrows on a voyage of a lifetime.

Vifam_3Escaping from an alien force and adrift in space trying to return home to find their parents, our cast of young survivors would happen upon and learn how to pilot a few robots known as Round Vernians. One of them, the Vifam, will become the main hero and under the piloting hands of our main hero, Roddy Shuffle, a force to be dealt with. Now if this sounds far fetched… hey, it’s anime. The other element of this show that has to be highlighted is the concept of xenophobia. Katue Pearson, a young girl with the Earth children, looks a little different and it comes to show later that she is one of the alien Astrogaters (odd name?). How will this affect the relationships of our young cast to know one of their own, in a way is not, but at heart is still very much a part of the group?

Does this kind of remind you a little of the original Gundam? Yes? However, Vifam has it’s own elements to be original in it’s own way. Vifam was created at a time when mecha anime was still king of the shonen market and still had great stories to tell. As I said earlier, 1983 was a great year for mecha in the overall, but I have to give all the credit to Sunrise. Before Gundam took over as the flagship brand of Sunrise anime, you had shows like Vifam and many others.

Vifam_4And that robot, that Round Vernian known as Vifam, with that number seven being proudly displayed, is my second all time favorite. The SPT Layzner from it’s own eponymously named show still takes the top spot for me. But the Vifam is a very functional looking piece of machinery, yet has an aesthetic flavor that is inviting. What do you think? And… and as for that epic theme song, that for some reason reminds me of something Pete Townshend of the Who would write, it’s in English! TAO’s Hello Vifam may be the first theme song to be completely recorded in English and if you have sources to back this up I would appreciate it. This would have been ready made to bring over to the West back in the day, all you needed was a dub and like magic… an instant hit for all us kids. Just don’t forget all the toys and merchandise!

Vifam is such a joy and I look forward to when I can get another round of watching this show again. Never underestimate the power that children can accomplish… if only adults could put kids in charge. And if you are still young, or young at heart, don’t surrender anything!

… and for fans of Eureka Seven. Compare Roddy Shuffle and Katue Pearson to the designs of Renton Thurston and Eureka. See any similarities?

 

#67 : The Door into Summer

DiS_1The line between childhood and adulthood can be very arbitrary, if it even exists at all. Physically growing is one thing, but the emotional and psychological circumstances are often the more pronounced to us no matter the age. Sometimes we are ready for growth and other times it smacks on us so hard in surprise that it leaves us in a state of shock. Coming of age stories in anime are many in number with several being dramatic… no… melodramatic. And then there is this 1981 hour long movie that defines, redefines and then turns everything I once knew into a soap opera beyond description. One of my all time favorites, The Door into Summer (Natsu e no Tobira).

To be honest The Door into Summer is much like a guilty pleasure for me. And it shouldn’t be so much, but this production has hot sexual hormones written all over it. And not in the way of being pornographic as The Door into Summer is very sensual in it’s eroticism and yet very dangerous at the same time. Like those naughty romance novels you can’t put down, because each new page is getting to a better part than before. The openness of sexuality is quite an eye opener for 1981, yet… Japan has always been a little more honest about sexuality told in any art form, even though they are known for being a more reserved culture.

DiS_2When begin ironically at an ending, always a great way to start a movie, where we see two boys looking to duel each other the old fashioned way with pistols over the love of a girl. The protagonist, Marion, rushes in to stop this senseless act and asking what has happened this summer break. From here we learn that we are in France in the 1840s as we go back to the beginning of the summer where Marion is left alone at his school residence hall with his school friends due to the fact his mother would rather be with her new husband that her only son. Marion is known as a supposed king of ‘cool’ by being the most rational in his group of friends. After all he stops a fight between two boys who are fighting over a girl that actually loves Marion. In the process, he enters a chicken competition with one of these boys by standing on railroad tracks and waiting for the next train to arrive. Very bold indeed.

DiS_3Upon beginning the movie I began by scratching my head as to the character designs. The Door into Summer is definitely a shojo manga adaptation, but these eyes, these face shapes… who penned these original designs? Then a familiar name came into my lap from some light research… the name of Keiko Takamiya. Ah yes, the original creator of Toward the Terra and Andromeda Stories, this is the answer. And as a shojo in general, the designs in this movie are very, very pretty. Kind of like Rose of Versailles injected with all the best of bishonen of perhaps Saint Seiya. Add to this the fact this was produced by Studio Madhouse showed another level of quality. For me Madhouse equals the creme of the crop and the line work, color and pastel like backgrounds add an ambience that are beyond verbal description.

DiS_4Returning to the aspect of sexuality, it is hard to believe, but during this film we see encounters of jealous suitors in love with the popular girl, a naughty older woman seducing young Marion and a glimpse into one of the boy’s unrequited homosexual desires unfold. Marion has to come to terms with all of this happening around him and with his own sense of self worth and his repressed desires for sexual intimacy. Definitely not a lightweight and thankfully so. Did I ever have a summer like this… not even close. It is entertainment after all, but still these yearnings are the back of all our minds. That feeling of getting down and dirty so to speak, with consent of course.

The Door into Summer is so hot you may get burned… and I bet you’ll watch it again every time you get the chance.

 

#63 : Kimagure Orange Road

I have seen what could have been my ideal youth… should have been my ideal youth… could never be my ideal youth. And that is OK as this was never to be my own story, but a story about a young man of fifteen years of age having the best time of his life (wait till you get to 30 kid!). This is a TV series I could have seen earlier… should have seen earlier… could only appreciate to it’s fullest extent seeing it recently. The 48 episodes of joy known only as Kimagure Orange Road.

KOR_1Along with Touch (1985) and Maison Ikkoku (1986), 1987’s Kimagure Orange Road solidifies a trifecta of ‘shonen’ romantic comedies. And I am quoting ‘shonen‘ since Maison Ikkoku is considered ‘seinen’, but all three tell the story from a young man’s point of view regardless of the age demographic. KOR, for the record, has two distinct differences. First, there are fantasy elements, since Kyōsuke and his family are espers and can levitate objects, teleport, or create illusions. Thankfully this is used sparingly and in good measure so it does not become too much of a cliche. The second, KOR’s original manga was shown in Weekly Shonen Jump. And for a publication known primarily for fighters, it shows the diversity that the publication can offer when it allows.

KOR_2Our story begins simply… climbing a large staircase up a parkside hill, our protagonist Kyōsuke Kasuga catches a large red hat floating in his general direction. When he reaches the top he sees a girl, with long flowing black hair and they both discuss whether the staircase has 99 or 100 steps. That girl, Madoka Ayukawa, becomes the apple to Kyōsuke’s eye almost immediately. I mean why not, she is self confident, tough, a bit aloof and yet downright feminine and gorgeous. And thats all and good, except Kyōsuke has an admirer of his own after an amazing trick shot with a basketball (using those powers again!). Cute and peppy Hikaru Hiyama is obsessed with her ‘Darling’ Kyōsuke and with conflicting feelings Kyōsuke likes Hikaru, yet deep down he knows he truly loves Madoka.

KOR_3Mix this main trio with Kyōsuke’s younger twin sisters, his father, his two friends, a jealous admirer of Hikaru (poor Yūsaku) and cool headed Master, the head of ABCB (the main hangout of the cast) and we have enough ‘Kimagure’ happening on the ‘Orange Road’. Oh yeah, don’t forget Kyōsuke’s cousin Kazuya who shows up later in the show! Now even though this show is known for comedy and the unexpected, I often felt a very cool, relaxed and laid back feel to the show. I can only take so much slapstick (maybe because I am not that fun, NOT TRUE) and much like music, it’s the silences, the rests, where the true humor. Almost as if everything builds to the punchline and when it hits you are ready, but also surprised. Sophisticated in a way and well written. Plus the romance between the main trio is almost platonic and casual since Kyōsuke, Madoka and Hikaru are all friends, classmates and a bit nervous to admit their true feelings (like many of us).

KOR_4One final thing I have to thank this show for is a great and solid ending. It takes two episodes and kind of puts everything back into full circle. For a show that is not very linear, this finale is like whipped cream with a cherry on top of an ice cream sundae. I ate it all up. And for something completely different (I mean why not?)… I usually love opening sequences and themes from the 80s. The second opening for KOR, which features the song Orange Mystery, is set in a artsy MTV video setting. It’s totally rad! and it may be my favorite opening of all time as I find it satisfying beyond words. In fact I want to watch it again… hang on a second…

What started years ago as an experiment involving a couple of episodes has finally become a finished goal. Kimagure Orange Road may be a well known cult classic, but it was one of those old titles that was on my back for a long, long time. I always viewed it as one of those key shows that was important to get under my belt, at least from my eyes since it had a fairly positive reputation. So now that weight is off my back and the feelings I gained from it are now deep in my heart. Kimagure Orange Road is magic, in more ways than one.

#15 : Touch

touch1A one hundred episode plus series is no small feat, in both the production and the stamina for one to stay the course in finishing it. Some series continue on and on and on and on (I can think of many a Shonen Jump title) with no real end and then, keep on going due to the fact that the popularity and economic factors are ever strong. Then other series have set endings and go on to a cult like status of being crowned the “greatest anime ever made” (Legend of the Galactic Heroes, great yes, greatest depends on one’s point of view). And then there was one show from 1985 based off of manga by Mitsuru Adachi that told a story over a four year time span that was one of the most beloved and popular series of it’s time; it could even still hold its viewer records today, kind of like M.A.S.H. I now present my favorite long runner, at a total of 101 episodes, Touch.

touch2Touch has nothing fancy to show. The designs are flat and plain. The setting is mundane and ordinary. What you see is what you get and what you get comes up to the surface so strong that it shows where the real value stands in the characters, story and pacing. Touch is a coming of age high school series concentrated on the Usegi twins: Kazuya (soft spoken, hard working, popular and determined) and Tatsuya (aloof, insecure, not popular and a slacker with hidden talents he shies away from with a mask of bravado) and their best friend who has lived next door since child birth, Minami Asakura, who both boys love dearly. And baseball as the glue that holds it all together. The supporting cast is just as strong although I wished you got to know more of the players on the Meisei High School team a little better. A few get spotlighted, but again they are the backing to the the twin boys. A shonen series without rivals would not be much and you get a good cross section including: goofy Terishima, chivalrous Nitta, jealous Yoshida and the cruel Coach Kashiwaba. And then you have Punch, the funniest, most mischieveous dog ever (my opinion, never knew dogs could laugh so well)? But none hold a candle to the gentle giant Harada. True he may look like a tough guy, but his real skill is being a therapist to the unsure Tatsuya (future Psych major?).

touch3Gameplay when shown is intense, the character relationships are honest, the sad moments bring massive tears and the ending, though a little open ended as of course the characters lives will go on, is solid to close this chapter on the lives of our heroes’ youth. If only all our youths were this ideal and in almost in a way… perfect? But nothing in truth is perfect. Sometimes we lose those we love, we questions our abilities, we wonder if we will ever be brave enough to face loving another, or we just are not sure what we are doing. All of this is in Touch and the trio of our main cast I could see in myself when I look in a mirror. When a show becomes so personal as if it is family, you know you have encountered something rare. Some series you watch because you want to, and then there are those which make you wonder what took you so long to get around to it? But when the time comes time to taste the flavors of something slow, gentile and personal, it can almost feel like being in love with someone special. And for me Touch was and still is beyond special.

Touch also reaffirmed another love I have and that is for the game of baseball itself. Not following a MLB franchise and being a jock-like individual, but the fact that it is a great game with dynamics and strategy that gets lost in the tribal mentality of many fans. Touch reminds me of, but is not completely similar to the movie Field of Dreams. Again a story using baseball as the glue that holds the narrative of several characters redeeming their talents or relationships. We all deserve that one time in the sun, be it in the case of Field of Dreams: a chance to bat once as a professional, re-pursuing your writing, or the reconnection and understanding between a father and son. For Touch, it is Tatsuya getting his time to show that he is not without possibility, untalented, or unloved. Sometimes passion takes time, a little guidance and a moment to just give in to fate. I for one know that to be true in regards to areas of my life.

touch4.jpgI cannot not recommend this show to anyone. I truly do love this show and loved watching it from one to 101. It took me a long time to get around to it, but presenting the anime of 1985 in a panel gave me the opportunity. It is one of those shows that for me, reaffirms my love of anime and shows that you have yet to see all the really good stuff. And as an older fan sometimes I get tired of all the flash and dazzle of fantasy, sci-fi and/or high production values. Sometimes I want a show like a glass of lemonade on a hot day or a hug from mom, real comfort food. Because sometimes, after all, simple is best.