Anime's Magic Kingdom
Visit these animeted sites Visit these animeted sites
My first exposure to the glories of anime was in 1965, when I watched the great battles of a giant robot: Gigantor! He was bigger than big, taller than tall, quicker than quick, stronger than strong. Not only did he have a great theme song (covered superbly by The Dickies in 1980), but a little kid controlled him. How cool was that to a 5-year-old!

Gigantor and other heroes like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Kimba the White Lion, and the crew of the Argo in Star Blazers are all the products of Japanese animation, or anime. Just as these characters greatly influenced the youth of a generation, so too are the latest anime creations having an impact on youngsters and adults alike ... and I'm not talking about epileptic seizures like those created by the Pokémon TV show.

Getting wild-eyed over anime Getting wild-eyed over anime
Dump any preconceptions you have about "cartoons," and forget about singing teapots or happy-go-lucky genies. In anime, the teapot is more likely to douse you with boiling water, and the genie is a malevolent ghost who wants to suck out your soul. Anime isn't made for a strictly kiddie audience, like Disney films are. It combines spectacular animation with sophisticated plots and characters that are fleshed out (often in more ways than one).

As any otaku (anime fan) can tell you, anime covers a wide spectrum, with movies, TV shows, and videos ranging from the family-friendly My Neighbor Totoro to the risque farce of Ranma 1/2 to the adult themes and epic scope of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Try to catch up with the soap-opera relationships in Tenchi Muyo (think Babylon 5 meets Dawson's Creek), or roll your eyes at the hysterical heavy-metal fantasy spoof, Bastard!!

In Japan, anime and manga (the comic books upon which most anime is based) are watched and read the same way that American audiences would watch a Spielberg film or read a Tom Clancy novel. Fully half of the movie tickets sold in Japan are for animated films. Princess Mononoke, the latest work by anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki, recently shattered domestic box-office records in Japan and is due to arrive in the States in April. Already, Gillian Anderson, Claire Danes, and others have signed up to read the English-language script from fantasy/comics author Neil Gaiman.

This resurgence of interest in what had been a kid's medium began in 1988 with the release of Akira. Katsuhiro Otomo's masterpiece is based on the manga of the same name, and it's a masterful mix of Blade Runner-ish cyberpunk, violence, action, and apocalyptic imagery. Akira was an international hit and became the first anime film to get mainstream attention in the U.S., thanks to film critic Roger Ebert's praise on television.

Akira introduced a common theme in anime. Whereas Western animators like to give life or humanity to inanimate objects like candlesticks, anime often shows human beings becoming more machine-like -- literally. Tetsuo, the tragic figure in Akira, turns into a horrifying mass of flesh and cybernetics. Major Motoko Kusanagi, the main character in the critically acclaimed Ghost in the Shell, is a cyborg who questions her existence in a world where identities can be artificially constructed and downloaded.

In recent years, unfortunately, anime's reputation has been slightly soiled by those who make X-rated features for a quick buck. Also called hentai, this type of anime often has helpless nubile women, sex-crazed demons, and lots of probing tentacles. Happily, as a longtime otaku, I can attest that this does not represent more than the fringe of Japanese animation, just as Jerry Springer is not representative of humanity as a whole.

Yes, there is violence and nudity in many anime movies, but those who hold that against anime in general are unfairly judging it by Saturday morning standards; think of it instead as a medium with its own G-, PG-, and R-rated features. For every naked body and severed limb in anime, there are family works like the adventures of Sailor Moon and Hayao Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service. I've seen Miyazaki's work, and he's amazing. My Neighbor Totoru, now on video, is a delightful fantasy, regardless of your age. If you don't enjoy it, it's time to call Dr. Kevorkian.

Anime is all over the Web right now, and you can download pictures, movies, and sounds from hundreds of sites, as well as buy videos and soundtracks online. Check out the next page for a comprehensive list of terrific anime sites.

--Ken Hart, who hated 7-Zark-7 in Battle of the Planets

Copyright © 1999 OneZero Media, Inc.