[posting][review] Top Five Intellectual Anime Shows

One of the common misconceptions about anime is that it is a strange and goofy genre designed for middle school students, but while that is true about quite a few that have had massive impact in Western culture (I’m looking at you, One Piece and Naruto), quite a few anime have been created specifically for adults – and not simply for hentai content. Today, I’m gonna list the top five intellectual anime shows (TV shows with episodes) that I believe address some seriously heavyweight topics.

FIVE
Samurai Champloo

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Samurai Champloo, a journey into Edo Tokyo culture, is an anachronistic jaunt, drawing on modern Japanese and hip-hop culture references to explore samurai culture, ukiyo-e art, international politics, religion, drugs, revenge, pariahs, and crime. Other concepts such as gunboat diplomacy, American ethno-centric supremacy, and (religious) persecution are also taken in hand, which can be ignored in order to enjoy the story’s basic plot, yet when taken into consideration, greatly enhance the narrative.

In all, I don’t think that Samurai Champloo is heavy-handed, but it does make you think a lot – if you take the time to get beyond the great artistic aesthetics, fantastic seiyuu [1] and the smooth animation. The comedy and drama of Samurai Champloo allow it to be stimulating, yet highly accessible.

What I find most fascinating about Samurai Champloo is their use of hip-hop culture (dancing, movement, and music) to talk about rebellion, individuality, and freedom. Some might call it cultural appropriation. I call it a conceptual homage that does what it is supposed to: connect a modern audience to a timeless message set within a fantastical past.

FOUR
Steins;Gate

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After films like Interstellar, time-travelling journeys like Stein’s Gate might interest some people. Looking at the importance of cause and effect when it comes to time manipulation is a key theme of Steins;Gate, which I found fascinating as a writer, because anytime you write time travel or manipulation, time paradoxes abound. Learning how to negotiate past and present is a tricky thing. The characters of Steins;Gate learn this the hard way. Of course, along with this dialogue on the responsibilities of time manipulation come the usual explorations into technology and conspiracy theories (shadow organizations and all).

I found the narrative approach of Steins;Gate a little jarring at first. Most viewers may come away from the first episode feeling like… “What just happened?” All I can say is, “Hang in there!” It all makes sense by the end.

As someone looking forward to seeing if Loki will return in Avengers 4, I am concerned about the rumours suggesting time travel will happen. As I said above, this is because time travel is a tricky thing to handle plot-wise. Steins;Gate, given a nice set of episodes to unravel the dilemma does a fantastic job. I hope Marvel takes their cues from this anime!

THREE
Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei

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When you are laughing so hard while scrambling to hit the pause button on VLC Player, you know you are watching Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei (literally translated: Farewell, Mister Despair). Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei, filled with on-screen writing and lists, requires a sharp eye for detail as the viewer watches the antics of Nozomu Itoshiki (a suicidal teacher) and his class of seriously messed up students. Exploring the stereotypes and problems found within modern day Japanese society, this anime provides a hard look at topics like depression, social anxiety, paranoia, OCD, agoraphobia, Aspergers, and stalking, among other things.

A good subtitled version of the show will require you to pause multiple times so you can keep up with the scrolling lists often used to highlight societal trends and patterns. The blackboard behind the teacher has ongoing commentaries from the animation staff and writers, which are quite hilarious if you keep following them and know a bit about Japanese culture. That being said, there is a lot about Japanese culture that I don’t know, so some of the humour passed over my head. However, if you are viewer like me, that only feeds your curiosity about Japan and its culture even further.

Aesthetically speaking, Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei is “quirky sublime”. I really love the staging and form of story-telling because it quick and to the point, yet intriguing and stimulating. I highly recommend this show to anyone who wants a ground-level satirical exploration of Japanese culture.

TWO
Psycho-pass

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My friend and I were up until two in the morning watching and talking about Psycho-pass. It is that kind of show. To the initial viewing, it seems like a souped-up, sci-fi, criminal investigation drama – but then it becomes so much more: a dystopian look at engineered societies. In Psycho-pass, for the safety of society, everyone’s mental health is checked around the clock by the Sybil System. When situations arise where someone’s mental health deteriorates to the point of causing harm to society, the police are sent in. Since it takes one to know one, latent criminals called “Enforcers” work alongside the police, using their abilities to find on-the-loose criminals. Does this remind anyone of Witch Hunter Robin?

It should. However, unlike Witch Hunter Robin, the story takes a different turn. The Enforcers, using a special kind of gun – “Dominators” – can only take down people with a psychologically unhealthy “number”. What happens if you witness a crime, but your Dominator doesn’t register any form of psychological unhealthiness? It is at this point that Psycho-pass moves from being a show about the complexities of social engineering, the dangers of technology-based social regulation, and criminality to being a show about sociopathy, psychopathy, and situational ethics.

Slick animation, believable dystopian aesthetics, and a great seiyuu cast makes for a deep dive into a world of action and reaction. There’s no wonder why my friend and I were so stimulated by this show’s themes. I hope you find it just as interesting!

ONE
Ergo Proxy

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Few shows make me feel stupid. Ergo Proxy was one such show.  That didn’t stop me from writing fanfic, but time has probably changed me and has also changed how I would view it now. That’s very Ergo Proxy of me to say, but I don’t know… I have to go back and rewatch it and see if my 36-year-old brain has a better grasp of its themes than my 25-year-old brain. Ergo Proxy is a dystopian narrative set within the future. Those who remained on Earth hide within domes, for the most part with each dome unique to its own culture and social patterns – and secrets. Lots of secrets. Each dome relies upon a Proxy to protect and support it. As the show progresses forward, questions arise. What is a Proxy? What are they meant to do? What is their future?

Through the eyes of Re-l Mayer, an investigator, we come to an understanding of what Ergo Proxy is and stands for – both physically and metaphorically. Due to the sci-fi nature of this story, there are quite a lot of sci-fi related themes like technological progress vs travesty, robotics, ethical use of robots, AI, the mind-body problem, and the ghost in the shell. Other philosophical themes are broached as well: postmodernity, ubermensch, solopsism, and hubris. There are so many references to European philosophy, aesthetics, and ideologies – it blows your mind.

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Points for you if you know if you get the two cultural references in this screencap!

Although Ergo Proxy is a real treat intellectually, visually, and vocally, it is fantastic,  it isn’t the kind of show you just sit down for lolz to watch. I hope to rewatch it sometime soon, but I really wanna put aside some time to really chew it over as an older (and hopefully, wiser) viewer who can appreciate the small references that can be found everywhere. Ergo Proxy is a prime example of how intellectually ambitious an anime can be.

NOTES

[1] Voice actors

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