Best Anime Characters of 2020

BEST MALE CHARACTER

Sorano Appare (Appare-Ranman!)

Having the protagonist of a racing anime be a serendipitous inventor makes for an interesting dynamic. Appare chafes against the cultural norms and restrictions expected of him in his home life in Japan, and an impromptu trip to the US (along with an entry into a transnational motorcar race) allows his eccentric genius to flourish. Above all, there are two main things that make Appare great. The first is that his interactions with others both big and small make for a very convincing portrayal of a protagonist whose way of thinking, priorities, and philosophy run along a different path from everyone around him. The second is that he grows tremendously on his journey—in part due to his initially reluctant racing partner Kosame—and ultimately ends up with both a passion for technology and compassion for his fellow human beings in equal strength.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Kanamori Sayaka (Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!)

In one of the greatest celebrations of the creative process ever made, the most impressive character is Kanamori Sayaka, the practical-minded “producer” of the main trio. The very fact that she embodies that producer mindset (as opposed to director, artist, or animator) is a rare treat, and while she’s basically the fun police in terms of the narrative, the story portrays her as integral. There’s something downright refreshing about how grounded and logical Kanamori is in contrast to the rampant imaginations of her friends Asakusa and Mizusaki, and it makes a character who would otherwise recede into the background stand out all the more. In certain ways, she reminds me of Kasukabe Saki from Genshiken—always a fine character to be compared to.

Final Thoughts

When I look at my choices for best characters of 2020, the thing I see in common is that both are unorthodox characters who provide windows into the act of creation, be it artistic or mechanical. Funnily enough, Appare and Kanamori play opposite roles in their respective stories, with Kanamori being the straight man to her friends’ disregard for pragmatism and Appare being the unimpeded tinkerer who Kosame has to manage. It would probably make more sense if I had picked two similar characters on each side, but in both cases, the way they upend expectations makes me believe in them.

I’d also like to make an honoroable mention for Kaburagi from Deca-Dence, who was extremely close to being my pick for male character of the year. Kaburagi is an aged combat veteran, but as we learn more about his life and perspective, we can see the inner struggle in him extends beyond merely his loss of zest for life and into what it means for a society to survive versus what it means to prosper.

A turbulent year full of worries and delays has nevertheless seen many wonderful anime come out that both challenge norms and provide hope and inspiration.

Christmas, Nostalgia, and Shinkalion

It’s not uncommon for children’s cartoons to offer something to the parents watching with their kids, yet when it came to Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion: THE ANIMATION, I had believed that there wasn’t much in it for adults beyond those who already have an appreciation for a more classic type of kids’ anime. Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that what Shinkalion offers its older viewers is a dip into nostalgia—not only because of its relatively old-fashioned narrative beats, but also literal callbacks to pop culture moments of yesteryear.

In a recent tweet, fellow mecha enthusiast Tom Aznable points out how Shinkalion actually features near shot-for-shot re-creations of late 1980s Christmas-themed commercials for Japan Railways, complete with 4:3 aspect ratio, a faux-CRT filter, and actual recordings of “Christmas Eve” by the renowned Yamashita Tatsuro. You can see side by side comparisons in the link above, as well as the full commercials below:

I was unfamiliar with that particular song, but it’s apparently considered a Christmas classic in Japan. And, like so many things Japanese, it just oozes nostalgia, and now it’s forever on my playlist. 

In the context of the anime itself, the protagonist Hayasugi Hayato is a supreme train otaku, and so he thinks of everything—including other characters’ romantic recollections—in relation to trains. But the show is clearly using these moments to trigger powerful memories in its older viewers. Shinkalion doesn’t even limit it to Christmas commercials, either. Given all this, it becomes clearer that the Evangelion episode of Shinkalion, where Hayato visits Tokyo-3 and Shinji pilots a Shinkalion version of EVA-01, is also meant to play into this nostalgia.

The way that Shinkalion taps into a past zeitgeist makes me further aware of the improbability of the series ever getting licensed in English. The series is already focused primarily on viewers in Japan by virtue of its purpose and subject material. The show wants you to buy bullet train toys from Takara Tomy and encourages you to ride the train more (not exactly unwelcome in the grand scheme of things), and without the merch and the accessibility to the shinkansen—or, for that matter, the familiarity of Japanese high-speed rail—it would remain a weird and foreign thing to most kids in the US and other English-primary countries. When you throw the 80s and 90s Japanese media references on there as well, it becomes an even more difficult sell. Yamashita Tatsuro might be gaining more of an international reputation than ever thanks to his role as the king of city pop, but it’s those commercials just aren’t going to hit nearly as hard as they did with Japanese viewers.

There will always be something lost in cultural translation, but there need to be a lot of moving parts for this to work out, including likely a licensing process involving Japan Railways. And while Shinkalion has managed to reach beyond Japan and to places like Hong Kong, Asia’s relationship with anime is very different from the rest of the world’s due to proximity. 

Still, I wouldn’t mind a Christmas miracle whereby Shinkalion gets licensed in some form—even a streaming-only release. There would likely be some music rights limitations that would alter the experience, as even the Japanese official Youtube versions of Shinkalion episodes had to replace “Christmas Eve” and “Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” but it would be a relatively small price to pay. As the line from the Japan Railways Christmas commercials puts it, “Getting to see you is the ultimate present.”

Thoughts on HoloModels

Augmented reality is a funny thing to me because its appeal feels somehow both obvious and yet elusive. Whether it was participating in Pokémon Go at the height of the craze or seeing people on Twitter post videos of their iDOLM@STER characters occupying “real” spaces, I end up thinking “that’s really cool” and “but do I really want to blur that line?” simultaneously. 

I was asked this month, by Patreon request, to discuss HoloModels, which is an AR figures app by the company Gugenka. Essentially, rather than having physical PVC or resin kit models, you collect virtual ones that you can pose and “place” wherever you want. I had actually seen images of it without realizing what exactly I was looking at, thanks to retweets of the Lina Inverse HoloModel that have been filling my Twitter timeline. “Was it some video game? Maybe a fan project?” I thought.

Before trying out the app itself, my understanding of HoloModels led me to think that the advantage was basically like that of ebooks: the ability to keep a bunch of models without any of them taking up physical space. They can be placed and posed any way you want, so there’s also a certain degree of freedom for creativity. However, when I saw that HoloModels can be resized to pretty much any scale, I realized that the potential I had pictured was too limited.

The versatility of HoloModels means you can have life-size models, as if they’re less figures and more characters who have entered our world. Perhaps you can even pretend that they’re a friend or a lover. And even if you’re not into that sort of thing, you can still use them in a variety of different ways. You can use them in virtual dioramas or even as action figures after a fashion. What’s more, you can’t really “damage” them by accident. And of course, even this view is still probably a drop in the ocean of possibilities.

Because of the proximity of HoloModels to Virtual Youtubers—they’re essentially two ways of blurring fiction and reality together through anime aesthetics—I also had to see if there was any stronger connection between the two. It turns out that the default model you get when you first install HoloModels, Shinonome Megu, has since become a Virtual Youtuber with 40,000+ subscribers as of December 2020. I believe the HoloModels figure came first, based on comparing news articles announcing HoloModels with the oldest video on her channel, but if anyone has more information, feel free to share.

Am I interested in sticking with them? Not really. HoloModel figures are awfully pricey in my view, as less expensive characters run around 3,500 yen, and the Lina Inverse mentioned above is 5,000 yen. I might just be the wrong person to understand the true value of these AR characters—I’d still rather have a physical one, even if I can’t make it Godzilla-sized. That all said, if we compare HoloModels to another form of “virtual character collection,” i.e. mobile game gacha, the luck element is completely removed. That does make me wonder if that gambling high is part of why mobile game character lotteries work in the first place, but that’s another conversation for another day.

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can personally request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.

Getter Robo Arc and the True Ishikawa Style?

When I was first really getting into anime, it seemed as if the classic 1970s giant robot franchise Getter Robo was in the middle of some sustained renaissance. Whether it was 1999’s Change! Shin Getter Robo: Armageddon, 2000’s Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo, or 2005’s New Getter Robo, it felt as if another anime was always just around the corner. But then the well dried up (albeit not necessarily for other popular classic robots), and it’s been 16 years since. But finally, in 2021, we’ll be seeing a new entry: Getter Robo Arc, based on the manga by Nagai Go and Ishikawa Ken. Notably, this might also end up being the first fairly straightforward adaptation of a Getter Robo manga, and the first to try and really get close to Ishikawa’s art style.

The funny thing about the various Getter Robo anime is that there has never been a straight adaptation of any of the manga. You might be thinking of a long shounen fighting series ending up with a filler arc or three, but I’m not even talking about that. Rather, since the original inception of Getter Robo, the relationship between the many manga and anime have been an odd one. The first Getter Robo manga and the first Getter Robo anime debuted around the same time in 1974, but whereas the former depicted its heroes as virtual psychopaths, the latter portrayed them as relatively kid-friendly good guys. 1991’s Getter Robo Go took similar diverging paths with Ishikawa’s drawings being relatively unchanged and the anime adapting its character designs to a late 80s/early 90s look. 

The later works were not much different. Change! Shin Getter Robo: Armageddon and Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo both take elements from throughout the franchise’s history and try to show a more action-packed style reminiscent of Ishikawa’s art, but neither quite goes all the way, balancing 21st-century anime designs with a throwback feel. What’s more, the two aren’t even meant to be connected to each other. New Getter Robo is in a similar boat, being a reboot of sorts that brings some of the insane personalities from that original 1974 manga, but changing just about everything else. This trend is par for the course with Dynamic Pro properties, be it Devilman, Mazinger, Cutie Honey, or anything else. “Canon” and “faithfulness” are distant concepts in this arena.

However, that’s also what makes the initial images for the Getter Robo Arc anime stand out all the more. Both the promo image and the trailer seem to exude a roughness that immediately calls to mind Ishikawa’s aesthetic, where trying to create eye-pleasing shots comes second to pushing a kind of gritty intensity. It’s understandable that anime want to try to grab audiences with more appealing character designs, but here we have Gou, the guy on the promo image, feeling like he almost fell straight out of the manga and onto a poster. If the animators at Studio Bee can really pull off making the anime adaptation look Ishikawa as hell, I will give them all the props in the world.

PS: Kageyama Hironobu was a guest at Anime NYC 2018, and during the Lantis Matsuri concert he actually sang “HEATS,” the opening to Change! Shin Getter Robo: Armageddon. Now, the Getter Robo Arc anime is bringing the song back as “HEATS 2021,” and I have to wonder if Kageyama knew back then that he would be called upon to revive that old banger.

Attack on Expectations: Deca-Dence

Anime about game-like worlds have something of a stale reputation these days. The sheer ubiquity of virtual reality and RPG-inspired isekai anime results in many series taking relatively shallow treatments of their science fictional aspects. Obsession with game mechanics and/or power fantasy are par for the course. Amidst these trends, Deca-Dence is not only refreshing for its interesting worldbuilding and compelling characters, but it also feels like a genuinely innovative look as well as subversion of game-derived concepts within the context of a society built around them.

Deca-Dence is a tricky anime to review due to its many plot twists. It’s not the type of series that is “ruined” by knowing the big spoilers, as full knowledge of what’s really going on just invites more questions to ponder over, but I think it’s more knowing less so that the show can work its initial magic. 

Thus, the most I’ll say about the basic premise is this: Deca-Dence takes place in a world where humanity is confined to a mobile fortress called the Deca-Dence, which is key to their survival against mysterious monsters called the Gadol. Assisting them in their fight is a system reminiscent of the vertical maneuvering gear of Attack on Titan: backpacks that allow people to levitate, and harpoons capable of draining a vital fluid from them that can be used as a power source. The story focuses on a girl named Natsume, who loses both her father and her arm in humanity’s battle against the Gadol, and it’s the clash between her desire to become a front-line fighter and her self-perception as a relative nobody that gradually opens up the secrets of the world to her. Of all the people she gets to know, the most important is a man named Kaburagi, a former combatant who’s tired of living.

The term I use to describe Natsume and many of the other characters is “NPCs,” or non-player characters. I understand that the term might raise some eyebrows, as it’s commonly used by the alt-right to demean and diminish those who don’t follow their hate-filled ideologies, but here it’s meant in the context of characters who “matter less” within their world because they’re not supposed to be the ones going out and achieving glory. There’s a very clear divide in their society, with a group of extremely skilled warriors known as the “Power” at the very top, whose battle prowess seems all but unattainable for the common folk. It’s as if their world is structured to follow game-like notions of character importance, and Natsume is the one who inadvertently moves beyond her “station” as an NPC of sorts.

Deca-Dence is a satisfying robust science fiction series that both entertains and challenges the viewer. It’s a show that encourages you to think and imagine in the best way possible. I highly recommend it, and am considering writing a spoiler-heavy review just to go over some of the important and provocative ideas to come out of it.

The Prince of All Rating Systems: The Vegeta Level

There are many areas in which we can judge anime and manga. We can talk about animation quality, narrative consistency, excitement factor, or even just emotional resonance. Recently, I’ve come up with a system that I think provides a new perspective on how we view titles—I call it the Vegeta Level.

Named after the Prince of All Saiyans from Dragon Ball, determining a work’s Vegeta Level starts with a simple question: “How many Vegetas are in this?” In other words, are there any characters who embody—in part or in whole—the qualities of Vegeta, and if so, how many of these characters are there? Vegeta qualities include but are not limited to: short, spiky hair, intense, arrogant, a rival status, current or former villain with a smidge of emotional development. Sometimes, there’s an intangible quality where you can’t quite say why they’re a Vegeta, but you can definitely feel it. 

A series with a relatively high Vegeta Level can have one extreme Vegeta, or it can have so many partial Vegetas that they add up to one or more whole Vegetas. The degree to which each Vegeta quality is present can also factor in. For reference, Vegeta himself is 10 out of 10 Vegetas.

The genesis of this idea actually came from the volleyball anime Haikyu! When I first started watching, one of my recurring thoughts was, “There sure are a lot of Vegeta-like characters in this show.” Hinata and Nishinoya are both short, spiky-haired hotheads with something to prove. Kageyama is a scowling and hyper-competitive “king.” Tsukishima has all the arrogance in the world. And then, as you expand to the other teams, the number of Vegetas only grows—see Bokuto to some extent, and especially Hoshiumi. There’s Vegeta-like energy in all of them.

Even though there’s a clear standard for this metric—Vegeta—there’s still room for subjectivity. In a sense, how you perceive a Vegeta is as much based on how you see Vegeta, whether you’ve actually read/watched Dragon Ball or not. Bakugo in My Hero Academia is very clearly a Vegeta, but how Vegeta is he? One could argue that only Vegeta should be a 10 out of 10, but Bakugo is so nasty and angry and has such a character arc that he might be considered just as Vegeta if not moreso.

So let’s work through an example. Dragon Ball is clearly at least Very Vegeta due to the man himself. Are there any other Vegetas? Technically, there are literal relatives of Vegeta in here, but this is more about personality and archetype. Of his kin, his dad King Vegeta is probably around an 8/10, and Future Trunks (but not modern-day Trunks) is more like a 6/10. Among antagonists/rivals, Tienshinhan, Cell, Piccolo, and Frieza are all fairly Vegeta—I’d say about 4/10, 5/10, 6/10, and 7/10 respectively. From that rough look, that’s 49 Vegeta points. Again, it’s not wholly objective, much like the star rating system in professional wrestling, so there’s room for argument.

So what use does the Vegeta Level have? Well, if you like Vegeta, it’s probably a great way to find a series that interests you. But also, Vegeta as a character is so embraced not just by fans but also shounen manga in general, and I think the presence of Vegeta-like characters are a way to give a series an extra edge without necessarily making it “edgy.” That being said, an all-Vegeta series would make for about the edgiest thing ever.

Does such a series exist? One friend suggested to me at least one series that could outstrip it: The Sopranos. According to him, practically every character in that show is a high degree of Vegeta. 

Food for thought: Could there theoretically be a work with a Vegeta Level that’s over 8000 or 9000?

Holicow: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for December 2020

On the other end of what I hope is the biggest and most important election of my lifetime, I feel a mix of joy and nerves. I also begin to wonder if there is a need for me to continue to bring politics into my writing here, only to realize the answer: of course there is. That being said, one of the goals of Ogiue Maniax has always been to encourage people to think through the lens of anime and manga, so I’ll strive to strike a better balance moving forward. Let’s just say that the last two months were more of an emergency call to action, and even then, it’s only one step in a long journey to a more just and equitable world.

Part of the last month or two has also been me realizing how many Japanese creators are being sucked in by right-wing conspiracy propaganda, which puts me at different degrees of empathy with Harry Potter fans, but I think I might leave that for a full blog post. Or not.

Last month marked 13 years since I began Ogiue Maniax, and it’s probably the heaviest anniversary post I’ve ever written, in no small part due to everything that has happened in 2020. COVID-19 literally changed the way I blog (even if the actual content might not be so different), and it feels strange to head into December—normally a time where I spend time away while reflecting on anime and manga as well as my personal life—while hyper-aware of the fact that things are simply Not Normal this year.

As 2020 comes to a close, I want to thank my Patreon sponsors, especially the following:

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

And while my Patreon rewards are such that I only include people above a certain pledge amount every month, I want to give a special shout-out to those who’ve supported me for a long time who choose not to have their names on public display. I really am grateful.

Blog highlights from November:

Gold Lightan Is Bananas

Go watch Gold Lightan. It is a ridiculous anime that few can match up with.

Pokémon Journeys, the Original Mewtwo, and Playing with Canon

Thoughts on the recent anime return of the OG Mewtwo from the first movie, Mewtwo Strikes Back

500 “Easy” Steps: Rivals of Aether

My review of the Smash Bros.-style game Rivals of Aether has turned out to be one of my most popular articles in recent memory.

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 34 shows both the grace and might of its student body.

Patreon-Sponsored

Let’s Make an Entire Show Out of Dance CG: D4DJ First Mix

My early thoughts on this anime about cute girls DJing.

Apartment 507

Love Live!, Nijigasaki’s Setsuna Yuki, and the President Archetype

Comparing the student council presidents of Love Live! past and present.

Closing

May we have a 2021 that is full of light and hope, and where we can all laugh and sing together again.

In the meantime, stay home for the holidays if you can. Let’s all protect one another.

Pokémon Journeys, the Original Mewtwo, and Playing with Canon

In a surprising move, the current Pokémon TV anime (called Pokémon Journeys in English and simply Pocket Monsters in Japanese) recently brought back the original super legendary, Mewtwo. And not just any Mewtwo, but the one who debuted over 20 years ago as the Viridian City Gym’s trump card. Mewtwo is my favorite character in all the anime, so there’s a personal thrill to seeing its return, but there’s added significance as well: the continued acknowledgement of the canonicity of events in and connected to the first film, Mewtwo Strikes Back, and an emphasis that what has happened over the anime’s long history still matters.

The Pokémon anime tends to play a little fast and loose with its canon, resulting in strange discrepancies, especially when it comes to the divide between the films and the weekly series. Aside from Mewtwo Strikes Back, whose plot ties directly into the TV anime, it’s always unclear—likely intentionally so—whether the events of the other movies actually “happened.” This isn’t unusual when it comes to films based on popular anime—nearly all the Dragon Ball Z movies are non-canon, and the popular movie-only character Broly had to be reintroduced into that universe in a canonical entry, Dragon Ball Super: Broly

In the world of Pokémon, this has meant that, despite the fact that certain legendary Pokémon are meant to be the only one of their kind, Satoshi (Ash Ketchum) has encountered multiple versions. After he helped a telepathic Lugia save the world in Revelation-Lugia, he would later encounter a different one that could not communicate psychically and, in fact, was trying to raise a child (Lugia is not supposed to be able to breed). Even Mewtwo, whose whole story is that it is a one-of-a-kind artificial creation made to be unmatched in combat, would see a second distinct version show up in the 16th movie.

In the recent episode, there is no mistaking that the Mewtwo seen is the original. When it first appears, Mewtwo slowly descends as ominous background music from Mewtwo Strikes Back and the Mewtwo Lives TV special can be heard. When Mewtwo speaks, its gruff yet soulful masculine voice is that of the original actor, Ichimura Masachika, as opposed to the feminine voice of the 16th movie Mewtwo’s Takashima Reiko. And when Satoshi and Goh lay eyes on Mewtwo, their reactions couldn’t be more different: whereas Goh is shocked by seeing something unfamiliar, Satoshi and Pikachu immediately recognize the Genetic Pokémon and even say its name. 

However, it’s not as if Mewtwo and Satoshi start to recall their two encounters. Mewtwo doesn’t even say anything about already knowing Satoshi, and Satoshi doesn’t bring anything up beyond that initial recognition. While this might be frustrating to fans who’d like to see a more concrete nod to Mewtwo and Satoshi’s connection, I think the current anime is trying hard to balance a lot of different paradoxical elements that exist within Pokémon and Satoshi himself. He’s somehow both the veteran with years of experience under his belt and the plucky young amateur who has much to learn—perpetually 10 years old for over 20 years. Satoshi’s many adventures have happened (including at least one film), but he’s also still meant to be an audience-representative character for young viewers tuning into the anime for the first time, even as Goh fulfills a similar role (though his character is closer to a scholar or researcher). Furthermore, by having Satoshi not say much, it reinforces the idea that he hasn’t let his previous experiences get to his head. A similar moment happens in the second episode of the current series, where Lugia speaks to Satoshi (and only Satoshi) telepathically, hinting that this one might just very well be the one we see in the second movie.

Trying to fully reconcile the Pokémon anime canon would be a foolish endeavor because it’s only as consistent as it needs to be in any one moment. Satoshi is forever a challenger, even as he wins championships. But given what the anime is trying to be, a long-running series that wants to feel both familiar and new at the same time, it’s not a bad place to be. And seeing the original Ichimura-voiced Mewtwo n the year 2020 is a nostalgic and thrilling experience. Mewtwo’s appearance speaks to the idea that the past of Pokémon still matters even as we continue to move into the future. 

Let’s Make an Entire Show Out of Dance CG: D4DJ First Mix

It might be serendipity that the same season a rapping anime comes out (Hypnosis Mic), we also see an anime about DJing: D4DJ First Mix. My early impression is that it’s pretty run-of-the-mill series rife with standard tropes of anime: cute girls doing an Activity, a Yu-Gi-Oh!-esque setting where DJing is the be-all and end-all, a plucky newbie with lots of potential, and a path that’s probably gonna lead to some tournament or competition to be the best. That being said, I am highly receptive to those tropes, and the fact that I know next to nothing about the world of DJs and have been trying to improve my understanding of music makes me an ideal audience for D4DJ First Mix’s beginner-level expositions.

There’s a lot that’s head-scratchingly awkward about D4DJ First Mix—little oddities that collectively make the show at times feel like an alien wearing a human skin. The title of the show is actually short for Dig Delight Direct Drive DJ. The show is done entirely in CG, bringing to mind Love Live! and Aikatsu! performance sections. The main heroine, Aimoto Rinku, is a Japanese girl who recently came back from Africa, and at least from early episodes it’s unclear what that’s supposed to mean for her character. At one point, she panics that the lunch she left out might get stolen by monkeys as a nod to her time abroad, but is her ability to intuitively sense the beat through her body supposed to be a result of her experience in Africa, or is it something more innate? The facial expressions remind me more of Virtual Youtubers or Comipo software models, like they’re aiming for a very conventional idea of anime aesthetic. This is doubly noticeable because of the sharp contrast between important and unimportant characters, the latter of which look like different versions of the “default” setting of a create-a-character mode.

When D4DJ First Mix does manage to overcome the quirks of its presentation, it actually does exude a real charm and charisma. The chemistry between the characters feels nice, and it feels earnest in actually teaching its audience about the world of DJing, and to grow a sense of appreciation for their hobby and passion. I can feel myself being pulled in, and I do wonder if some of what makes D4DJ First Mix feel strange is that it’s one of those multimedia projects (like Hypnosis Mic or Trinity Tempo) built around different character groups who are all supposed to garner their own loyal fanbases. If I stick with the show long enough, maybe I can find the team that’s right for me.

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can personally request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.

Gold Lightan Is Bananas

I don’t remember exactly where I first heard of the 1981 anime Golden Warrior Gold Lightan. I think it might have been one of those English-language anime magazines, like Animerica or Newtype USA, where a writer imagined the bizarre board meeting that would allow a sentient Zippo lighter to be the star of a children’s TV show like some tobacco ad gone horribly wrong. But it was during my study abroad in Japan that I had the opportunity to check out the series firsthand, thanks to my college’s extensive anime DVD library. Unwilling to devote my entire time in another country to just watching Gold Lightan of all things, I watched a smattering of episodes just to get an idea of the series a whole: the first few episodes, some from the middle point, and the very end.

Gold Lightan turned out to be far wilder than I had imagined, as it could easily swing from boring “monster of the week” fare to intense melodrama at the drop of a hat. Its backstory alone is ridiculous but played straight: the narrator explains how villains from the “mecha dimension” aim to conquer our third dimension, as if they go in order from 1st, 2nd, 3rd, to “mecha” in the most natural way. The titular robot transforms itself from palm-sized lighter to metallic titan by shouting “RAINBOW ROOOOAAAD!” and emerging from a massive wormhole after being sent through a prism. Despite being just a chunky yellow block with arms and legs, Gold Lightan animates surprisingly well in combat. Intense fight scenes end with a brutal finisher that would make Kano from Mortal Kombat proud—the “Gold Finger Crash” involves thrusting a hand into the enemy robot’s chest to pull its mechanical heart out. The anime concludes with a finale that looks closer to the trauma of a Tomino-directed Gundam.

Against all odds, Gold Lightan is currently licensed and streaming legally in the US thanks to HiDive under the name Golden Lightan. It’s already been almost a year since the announcement, and in this time, I’ve taken to re-visiting the series every so often with the hopes of doing what I hadn’t in Japan: watching the entire series. Now, fifteen years after I first laid eyes on this bizarre anime, I’ve come to the conclusion that Gold Lightan just has an absurd amount of effort put into it by everyone involved. It’s as if the studio behind the series, Tatsunoko Pro, saw the inherently weak premise as an opportunity to just flex on everyone with their animation chops.

But that’s what Tatsunoko has always been known for: a high level of detail when it comes to animating action. Its animators pioneered elaborate explosion effects and particle animations, and the studio as a whole as a history of sleek and stylized works ranging from Speed Racer to Gatchaman to KARAS and on. What’s bizarre to me is how moments of intensely beautiful animation can show up in Gold Lightan at seemingly innocuous moments. In one episode, one of the kid characters powers up his little go-kart for a ride, and just watching the engine roar to life and the exhaust pipes bellow and shift tells me that someone had to have dedicated themselves fully to getting this throwaway go-kart scene juuuust right. 

I think the modern equivalent of Gold Lightan’s attention to quality is when an anime about some free-to-play, wallet-draining mobile game turns out to be one of the big hits of the season. The difference is simply that times have changed, trends have shifted, and these mobile game anime are a mere 13 episodes instead of a whopping 52. I’d recommend Golden Warrior Gold Lightan to those who want to check out the more obscure side of giant robot anime, to those who want a show where effort overcomes a paper-thin concept, and (I’m not kidding) to sakuga fans who just revel in seeing things lovingly animated with skill and grace. It’s a ridiculous and wonderful time.