Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of ‘90s Anime

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

It’s shocking how easily perfectly innocent hobbies turn into rabbit holes.

So it was with me and anime. I’d been dabbling in it for years, watching the well-known classics, picking up anything that Studio Ghibli put out of course, keeping an eye open for any new Oshii movies. There’d been a time when I’d watched series, but eventually the effort of figuring out what was worth the effort had proven too great. In short, I’d become a casual fan, devoted to the medium in theory but in practice paddling around its edges.

Then—I don’t entirely know what happened.

I mean, I have a few ideas. At the end of 2013 I gave up my day job to concentrate on my writing, with the side effect that I suddenly had a little free time, a novelty I’d just about forgotten. I realized that my video rental service of choice had a good percentage of the series released over the last two decades, even some obscure titles I’d missed the last time through. I found myself a little disheartened with the mainstream western narratives I was seeing time and again, and feeling ready to broaden horizons that lack of time and energy had been narrowing over the years. In fact, I suppose that there were no end of reasons for me to get back into anime, which after all I’d never stopped feeling passionately about.

No, the point where it got weird and inexplicable was when I drifted into nineties anime.

And this time, I really don’t know how it happened. Suddenly, for no good reason, I found myself on a quest, where the goal was to lay my hands on every anime film or OVA (Original Video Animation. Generally a one-off special or a miniseries, with somewhat higher production values then you’d expect from an ongoing series.) produced between the end of the eighties and the start of the noughties, and within the considerable limitations of what had been released in the UK, a nation that never seems to have embraced anime to the same degree as America or the rest of Europe. The worst of it was, I had a holy grail in mind, and it was one I soon began to realize might be unattainable: I was hunting for lost classics.

Suddenly my casual interest was a rabbit hole and I was falling down into it. Because lost classics, it turns out, are rarer than you’d think, and yet that doesn’t make the temptation to hunt for them any the less strong. On the contrary: the more I discovered that a great deal of nineties anime had been uninspired, crudely animated, commercial and derivative, the surer I became that I was just looking in the wrong places, or perhaps looking in the right places but not seeing what I should be seeing.

A few months on and I’m viewing the entire experiment through somewhat more jaded eyes. But oh, the sights those eyes have witnessed! Ghost sweepers and mechanized pensioners, tentacle demons, half-dragon girls, combat archaeologists and giant robots of every conceivable shape, manner and form. I have no regrets. I’ve watched some things that could kindly be described as terrible, many that were profoundly silly, a few that were genuinely great, but I wouldn’t take any of it back.

Well, except for Dangaioh. That was pretty much dreadful.

Now, unless I really have been looking in the wrong places—and I’m not for a moment denying that possibility—there were not a lot of truly great anime movies and miniseries produced between the years 1990 and 2000. There’s a reason that the acknowledged masterpieces have become acknowledged masterpieces, and a reason they aren’t particularly great in number. On the other hand, though a great deal of nineties anime is less than perfect it’s also rarely less than entertaining. Sure, it’s full of tropes, but there are reasons that tropes become tropes. Frankly, if you hate watching giant robots punching each other then you probably also hate kittens and ice cream. Or kittens punching ice cream. Or giant robot kittens punching…

Wait, I had some sensible points to make here. Okay, here’s one: without vast amounts of study and specialist knowledge, it’s risky to make categorical statements about a subject as vast as anime—a term, in itself, so broad as to be meaningless—but even with that caveat, I think it’s fair to say that the nineties was a period of phenomenal transition for the medium. To pick one obvious but significant example, you can see the rise of computer-assisted animation, which made the representation of certain objects—vehicles, say, and buildings—both massively easier and more suited to complex representation. Some of the early incorporations of CG objects are painfully crude, but by the turn of the millennium it was being used all but invisibly, and allowing shots of a complexity that would have been unimaginable ten years earlier. Or, another obvious example, we’re looking at the decade that brought anime in a meaningful way to the West, and—surely not entirely a coincidence—the decade when Studio Ghibli and others, Production IG and Gainax amongst them, dared to suppose that the medium could produce works of genuine, lasting meaning and artistry.

Yet, as I read over the above paragraph, I find myself drawn back to my earlier point: a lot of this stuff was tremendously silly, rushed, cheap and about a thousand miles away from a Princess Mononoke or a Ghost in the Shell. Yet even at its worst it’s also full of energy and moments of genuine creativity, in a way that so much less-than-perfect art just isn’t. Yet…

It’s been a confusing experience, I suppose is my point.

Have I learned anything concrete? Hell, I don’t know. Maybe that sometimes just letting yourself obsess over something is a lot of fun in itself. Or—no, here goes—that when you employ artists to create something, then, however commercially minded the project, however low the budget, however strict the resources, those artists will sneak in moments of beauty and greatness: a gesture here, a lovely background there, a frame or two that’s a stunning example of the animator’s trade. And if you can train your mind to look for those flourishes, those moments of considered artistry, then there’s a huge amount of pleasure to be found in works that are not necessarily, objectively, what you might consider as good.

With all of that said, it seems mean not to end with a few recommendations—because while I may not have unearthed any lost classics, I did manage to stumble over a few that I’d personally been unaware of. I would advocate without hesitation for Orguss 02, Spriggan, Macross Plus: The Movie, Roujin Z and both Patlabor movies. I’d hesitantly suggest that Landlock and The Dark Myth are better than they generally get credit for. And anyone with a sense of humor should seek out Dragon Half immediately; it’s the most phenomenally silly thing you’ll ever witness.

And if you find yourself liking all of those, I’d suggest that there are worse ways to spend the better part of a year than watching all the nineties anime you can lay your hands on…

David Tallerman is the author of the Tales of Easie Damasco fantasy trilogy, the graphic novel Endangered Weapon B, and around a hundred short stories, comics, and film scripts. His novella Patchwerk comes out from Tor.com on January 19th.

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