A Nerd of Circumstances, and Better for It

As I get set to return to the United States this month, almost a year since I left, I remember my birthday, where I received a copy of Anne of Green Gables. After that, I never managed to read the whole way through, which is something I’m trying to correct now, but rather than feeling any sort of guilt over not reading it all, it makes me reflect on how my habits have changed from being in a different environment.

In New York, I have the most convenient reason in the world to read a ton: the subway. Commuting to Manhattan takes up a good half-hour to an hour (or more) depending on where you come from, and it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on manga, to read a novel, to draw, and in my younger days, to do homework. Had I still been living in New York City, I know that I would’ve definitely finished Anne of Green Gables. Same thing with my Pokemon games. I’m a long-time fan of the series, but I haven’t even touched my copy of Pokemon Black yet because of how I never finished Heart Gold, and I refuse to leave a Pokemon game unbeaten. This would’ve been a lot quicker if I had that hour or so to and from Manhattan every day, but alas.

So I ask myself a question, “What do you think of your interests when they can be swayed so easily by circumstance?” To that, I answer myself with “Who the hell is keeping count? I’m the person I always was!” Yes, I’ve taken on certain hobbies and pursued them in ways that are in line with where I was living and where I came from. In New York, I have Japanese bookstores to fuel my collection and a commute to utilize them. In Japan, due to the distances of things, I rode my bike extensively and I watched anime on TV. Here in the Netherlands, I’ve got super-powered internet and a short walk to work. Had I grown up in a mountainous region, maybe I would’ve developed a fondness for rock-climbing. All I know is that these things influence how I function as a person and as a passionate fan of media, and I’m fine with that.

A good analogy for how I’m feeling might be how manga has developed as a black and white comics medium. Manga was originally printed in black and white out of necessity. It’s cheaper than full color and thus easier to mass-produce. From that practical limitation, manga grew out, with artists figuring out ways to best utilize their monochrome palette, including strong usages of negative space and creative application of screentones. Yes, if they had the money to afford full color back then, none of this might have ever happened. But it did, and even if manga were to change to full color now, we at least have that background and history to show us that path

Circumstances exist, but what we make of them is part of what makes life wonderful.

Anne of Green Gables: It’s the most wonderful story of an orphaned girl whose life is changed when she is adopted and gets to live on a beautiful farm with birds singing and glorious trees full of splendid color and she meets a girl and they become best friends. Ah, how I wish I could be her! Why, everyday I would

World Masterpiece Theater is a very long-running series in Japan, where famous stories from around the world are adapted into television anime series. Even today new series are running under the World Masterpiece Theater banner, and in practically every case it’s produced a series loved by many and considered to be of the finest quality in Japanese animation. One particularly exceptional series comes to us from 1979: Anne of Green Gables. Adapted from the novel of the same title by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, or “Akage no Anne” as it’s called in Japan, is the story of a young orphan named Anne Shirley and the positive impact she makes upon the life of a pair of elderly siblings, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, as well as the little Canadian town of Avonlea in which they live.

Now, I’ve never read any of the novels and never really planned to, but two factors piqued my interest enough to watch the anime. First was the fact that it is so well-regarded in Japan, and second was that it bears one of the more remarkable pedigrees in anime history. The director and first layout artist for Anne are two names you might recognize: Takahata Isao and Miyazaki Hayao. They are the two men who would a few years later found Studio Ghibli, perhaps the most respected and highly acclaimed Japanese animation studio of all time. Also on board were Kondou Yoshifumi on character designs and Sakurai Michiyo, who would take over from Miyazaki on layout. The two would go on to do key animation for various Ghibli titles such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso (Yoshifumi), Castle in the Sky Laputa (Sakurai), and even direct for Ghibli (Yoshifumi on Whisper of the Heart). Both also did key animation for Grave of the Fireflies. Simply put, this show did not suffer from a lack of talent.

While this was not the first time the duo of Takahata and Miyazaki had worked together, nor was it the first time they had done any World Masterpiece titles, Anne of Green Gables is one of the best examples of what they were able to accomplish. Anne of Green Gables takes full advantage of its fairly episodic format by making each and every episode a joy to watch either on its own or in large chunks of multiple episodes. It makes the show approachable at any stage, and the show becomes a pleasant yet compelling experience, especially when you factor in Anne Shirley herself. Anne, who introduces herself as “Anne with an E but I’d rather be called Cordelia,” is a shining example of a main character who just carries a story. All of the other characters are good too, mind you, from Anne’s best friend Diana to the rascally Gilbert Blythe, but her name’s in the title for a reason.

Anne’s most endearing trait is probably her tendency to get caught up in her own imagination. When combined with her love of storytelling, it results in seemingly endless declarations of love and hate, with flares of drama or comedy or passion depending on how she’s feeling and where her sentence construction is taking her. Anne is never satisfied with a simple story, and will turn even simple lies into elaborate tales just to fulfill her sense of the dramatic. Give her one episode and you’ll be likely be drawn into her world.

Anne of Green Gables is not only one of the most beloved novels of all time but also one of the most beloved anime of all time. Just this very year, the prequel novel Before Green Gables was adapted into a currently-running TV series to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original anime. 30 years is a long time, but Anne of Green Gables has aged very gracefully. Kannagi director Yamamoto Yutaka said at one of his Otakon 2009 panels that he considers Anne to be the best example of how to do a long television anime series, and while I cannot say it is the best, it certainly sets a good precedent. In fact, my only real regret with this series is that we are no longer able to see Miyazaki and Takahata use their talents on television series, as they’ve moved on to feature films and almost nothing else.

Anne of Green Gables has a level of quality and accessibility that few anime can live up to, and just as the original novel still carries relevance today, so too does Akage no Anne.

I Do Not Envy the Staff of Before Green Gables

Before Green Gables, known also by its Japanese title Konnichiwa Anne, is a prequel to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original Anne of Green Gables (Akage no Anne) anime. It’s even being done by the same production company that did the original. Obviously with the show a month or two away by this point I have no way to actually judge it, but what I can say is that its predecessor is a tough act to live up to.

If you look at the staff for the original Anne of Green Gables anime, you’ll perhaps see some familiar names, and none more familiar than “Miyazaki Hayao” and “Takahata Isao.” That’s right, this anime was made by the team that would go on to form Studio Ghibli. Sure it was back when they were younger and less experienced, but I really do not envy the current staff.

Perhaps they can benefit from the fact that it’s a 30th anniversary and many people today would be too young to remember the original. In any case, I feel like no matter how the show ends up I want to do my best to not constantly compare the two works. You know, despite this entire post being all about the comparison.

Factoring Time into the Visual Aesthetics of Anime

Having spent yesterday and today hesitating on whether or not to buy the special edition Cardcaptor Sakura movies, I decided to sit down and watch some episodes of Cardcaptor Sakura, to see if it would swing my decision one way or the other. As of now, it’s still undecided, but just like every other time I’ve decided to re-watch Cardcaptor Sakura, I was reminded of how good the show looks. Years from now, the show will still look good. And this got me to thinking about the way time relates to an anime’s visuals.

In animation, there is a race to see the visual quality of animation improve over time. Though it’s not as drastic or hotly contested as the race that video games have gone through, it’s not uncommon to hear from people that a show looks outdated. This is a dangerous way of thinking, as it assumes that the shows you like today will be considered inferior in ten, twenty years. One might say then, that “timelessness” is the ideal to pursue, but at the same time I don’t think “timelessness” of visuals is necessarily a good thing. Much like how making anime for an international audience can take away some of the uniquely Japanese aspects of anime, I think a similar problem can occur when the creators of a show try to isolate it from its own time. At the same time, this isn’t an excuse for a show to look bad or have poor art direction and using either “timelessness” or “representative of its time” as an excuse.

Different shows seem to approach this issue of time and its relation to the animation quality. In Cardcaptor Sakura, it’s the well-thought-out “camera” angles, transitions, and just the way the show flows naturally from scene to scene and action to action that makes it stand the oft-mentioned “test of time.” Koutetsushin Jeeg and Re:Cutie Honey, both updates of 70s Nagai Go works, merge the visual cues of 70s anime with a modern sense of perspective and consistency towards animation. Casshern SINS, a current show, takes an interesting approach. Its main character is said to be immortal, and to show this the design of Casshern references anime throughout the decades. Casshern himself is a 70s anime character, while his hair and musculature are similar to 80s characters, his figure and facial features are reminiscent of 90s bishounen, and the overall aesthetic of the show is very modern. Anne of Green Gables, a 1979 anime series directed by Grave of the Fireflies director Takahata Isao (with Miyazaki on staff as well), is an adaptation of an already well-known novel, and though there wasn’t a lot of resources in animation at that time, they worked with what they had to make the show very engaging.

“Working with what you have” may not always produce the best or most well-remembered shows, but I think it’s an important step in making a show whose visuals will be well-remembered years down the line when what was once cutting-edge will become as old-hat as wearing a skinned sabretooth tiger. One thing that Cardcaptor Sakura, Koutetsushin Jeeg, Re:Cutie Honey, Casshern SINS, and Anne of Green Gables have in common is that you can see the sheer amount of effort put into these shows. Judging “effort” is tricky business, and might even be scoffed at as impossible or even arbitrary, but when there’s this much effort involved I think you can’t help but notice. And when people, year after year notice this, that’s when a show’s visuals can be called “timeless.”

Though if you don’t aim for “timeless” art direction, that still doesn’t mean your show cannot be great.