Though I was never a big fan of the show, I’ve been impressed by the Japanese Medarot (aka Medabots) opening theme. It’s surprisingly intense, and it hits with just the right hint of melancholy as anime songs tend to do. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that others who grew up with the show on TV in the US did not quite agree. If you take a look at the YouTube comments for the opening, there’s a pretty even divide between those who think the English opening is better vs. the Japanese one.
While nostalgia likely plays a big factor in many of these opinions, I believe that there’s something more, some essential differences between the two songs and the messages they try to convey. Essentially, while the English opening emphasizes “coolness,” the Japanese opening is all about “fiery passion.”
In the case of the English version, there’s a sense that “Robattling” is the hip thing to do. Get your gear, get your robot, and engage in this cool activity. In contrast, the Japanese song is focused towards the energy of youth, and that’s even putting aside the lyrics, which occasionally mention things being “white hot” and such. The song itself ends with the idea that the world of Medarot is one of intelligence and bravery.
The more I thought about this difference, however, the more it became clear to me that Japanese cartoons for children have historically seemed to be more willing to emphasize the value of being young. Be it Digimon or Cardcaptor Sakura or something else entirely, I get the sense that these openings want kids to feel like being a kid is fantastic. American openings for cartoons and other shows, on the other hand, tend to skew towards the desire for kids to grow up. While they’re not telling kids that it’s great to be a 20-year-old or anything, there exists a general marketing idea that kids do not connect with characters who are younger than them. Neither side exists at an absolute extreme, and you can find plenty of exceptions (Precure features characters in middle school while targeting elementary school children), but I can’t help but feel that this is what actually underlies the Medabots vs. Medarot theme song divide.
As I imagine is the case with many fans of anime, one of the first things about anime that caught my attention, one of the things that helped make me into a fan, was the quality of openings. Whether it was the music itself or the animation that accompanied it, anime openings felt like they blew the cartoon intros I was accustomed to out of the water, not to mention the dubbed anime openings which populated American TV. This is not to say that anime music is the best music ever, but once upon a time I often felt that way.
Recently I began to reflect on this feeling. What was the appeal? What was different about them? The more I think about it, the more I believe that it has to do with the sense of melancholy, angst, and forlornness that often appears briefly in anime openings.
A lot of anime openings make the viewer feel as if they are privy to the characters’ inner turmoil. In some cases, this is almost the entire point of the opening: see, for example, the “Tsubasa Cat” arc from Bakemonogatari (warning, it’s kind of not work-safe). The Galaxy Express 999 opening above doesn’t even have characters in it. In others, this feeling will be concentrated into a single, perhaps introspective moment. Think of the first Gundam W opening and Relena in the snow, or the Slayers NEXT opening when Lina reaches for Gourry. This melancholy is even mildly present in the opening to Fist of the North Star until it roars into overdrive during the chorus, accompanied by images of Lin, Bat, and the other destitute wanderers.
However, its ubiquity doesn’t end there, as it will appear in shows you might not expect to care about that sense of melancholy in the first place, such as Bistro Recipe (aka Fighting Foodons) and Medarot (aka Medabots). The openings for these anime both feature brief scenes where the main characters appear to be lost on an emotional level, despite the fact that they’re largely absurd comedies vaguely built around the concept of competition. It even shows up in one of the openings to the Japanese dub of the 1990s X-Men cartoon!
On some level, I wonder if openings might be a make-or-break moment for some as to whether or not they become anime fans. It’s the kind of thing that can easily cause someone to exclaim from the rooftops that anime is the best, or to dismiss it for not being as aggressively powerful as, say, the 1990s X-Men opening!
This is not to say that having this quality automatically makes an opening better, even if it is what likely caught my attention every time. Rather, just the fact that so many openings in a whole slew of genres utilize it at least to some extent feels like it speaks to something more deeply ingrained into, if not Japanese society, then how anime is viewed by society. Anime has gone from having openings designed specifically for the show itself to becoming vehicles to promote musical groups and back again, and consists of both shows designed for large audiences and hardcore fans, and yet somehow these melancholic moments have persisted over the years through all of these changes. I can only believe that there is a tacit assumption that anime openings, more often than not, should on some level evoke a strong sense of sympathy in the viewer, and this influences their structure.
Recently, I was compelled to watch the Kiddy Grade opening, followed by the opening to its sequel, Kiddy Girl-and. For those of you who have never seen either show, I can best sum up the series as being a “girls with guns, maybe” show in a futuristic science fictional setting, and probably one of the shows that sticks out in people’s minds when you say “Studio Gonzo.”
Actually, the shows can probably best be summed up by watching the openings, which I invite you to do. Don’t worry about it, I’ll wait.
The original was fairly popular back in 2002, and seven years later out came its sequel, which I heard was not that well-received even by the typical diehard Japanese anime fan. Regardless of success or lack thereof however, when I watch those openings back to back, I can feel the flow of seven years of anime history, more than I can with other comparable methods. I can watch all of the Cutie Honey and Gegege no Kitarou openings and perceive the changes that have occurred over decades, but I can’t feel quite as much as with Kiddy Grade. I think the reason this difference exists in me is because this past decade was the time when I as an anime fan (and many others) could watch new shows within days or week of Japan, a dream at best for most people prior to the advent of the internet. I was there, man. It was intense (no it wasn’t).
But I don’t think it’s just the fact that I lived in this period that gives me the sensation of time flowing. It’s a definite factor, no doubt about it, but I think there’s also something different about the qualities of each opening, not just the fact that they feature different characters with different personalities, but also the way they introduce their content. Thus, though I’ve seen both shows either in part or in whole, I’m going to be thinking about them purely from what their openings have to stay about them (though I will be using their names for convenience’s sake).
The Kiddy Grade opening aims to give a sense of intrigue while introducing its main characters as two mysterious and attractive ladies. Eclair, the brown-haired one, is leggy and busty and is portrayed as the “muscle.” The “brains,” Lumiere, is decidedly younger in appearance, and seems to be taken from the same quiet, blue-haired mold as Evangelion‘s Ayanami Rei and Nadesico‘s Hoshino Ruri, though with significantly more smiling. Every scene has them contrasted with each other in some ways, whether it’s Eclair shooting a gun vs. Lumiere throwing a wine bottle, Eclair standing on one side with her lipstick whip with Lumiere and her “data trails” on the other, or the “kiss” scene, again, to create intrigue, sexual or otherwise.
The Kiddy Girl-and opening on the other hand is anything but mysterious in its presentation. It seems to want to convey an everyday sense of fun, and the two main girls are decidedly sillier in the intro compared to Eclair and Lumiere. They also are less different from one another compared to their Kiddy Grade counterparts, with Ascoeur (the pink-haired one) and Q-Feuille (the purple-haired one) having closer body types, though it’s clear that the former is bubblier than the latter. Rather than being presented as enigmas, Ascoeur and Q-Feuille are up-close. Personal, even.
Of course I can’t ignore the music itself either. Music isn’t my specialty, but I can tell you that Kiddy Girl-and‘s song is clearly sung by the voice actors of the heroines, whereas Kiddy Grade‘s with its mellow tones is not, and both songs lend themselves to the descriptions I gave. While having the seiyuu sing the opening was nothing new in anime even before 2002 (Slayers, Sakura Wars, to name a couple), I’d say that they’re supposed to be singing as the characters in the Kiddy Girl-and opening.
So then what are the big changes that this transition between openings represents? Well I don’t know if I’d call them “big” per se, but I feel that the Kiddy Grade opening exemplifies what was typical of its time, and the same goes for the Kiddy Girl-and opening. The much more “futuristic” vibe of the Kiddy Grade opening leads to the future-as-typical feel of its sequel’s intro, in a sense representing an increase in slice-of-life/”the everyday,” as well as a move away showing narrative-type elements as a prominent reason to watch. I wouldn’t go as far to say that this is an example of Azuma Hiroki-esque breakdown of the anime “Grand Narrative” though, as that’s a lot more complicated than just “less plot in anime.” Of course, there’s also the feeling that “moe” has changed as well, as I think that all four girls are supposed to be “moe” to certain extents, and seeing how their “moe” is conveyed in those openings is probably more indicative of that seven-year gap than anything else.
Neither of the shows are particularly amazing or special, and are probably best described as “the median” or “mediocre” anime, depending on how kind you want to be. However, that’s exactly why I think their contrast shows the path anime has taken so well, because while it’s great to see how the really pioneering, experimental, and enormously popular works operate, looking at the middle of the road gives a good idea of how anime as a whole moves.
Recently, after years away from the Naruto anime, I decided to check out a few recent episodes of the second series, Naruto Shippuuden. Watching the opening, I saw the Konoha ninjas fighting off an invasion of their home village, with each character getting their own time in the sun, as if the intro wanted to tell you that each and every character is Important. Given the immense cast of Naruto and the 90 second limit of the opening, this means that each character gets no more than a few moments. In fact, Uzumaki Naruto himself, our titular protagonist, hardly has more screen time than others. All in all, the opening is quite hectic.
Afterwards, I decided to go back and watch the very first Naruto opening, and right from when the orange ninja beckoned me to “C’mon,” I was getting an entirely different feel from the Shippuuden intro. Instead of the scores of figures that currently populate the series, the first opening features only four characters. Rookie ninjas Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura, as well as their teacher and leader Kakashi are each focused upon extensively, and it makes the newest opening feel almost claustrophobic by comparison.
Part of this has to do with the open-endedness of the first opening. With no specific plot developments to hint at, it’s as if the characters and the intro itself are given room to breathe. You get a real sense that these characters are important, Naruto in particular. In a way, it’s quite relaxing.
I compared Bleach openings, too. Once again, the simple, yet heavy emphasis the first opening puts on Ichigo and Rukia differs a good deal from the almost overwhelming number of characters featured in the current opening. Taking a step back, the sheer contrast between then and now seems to speak towards the character bloat that the most popular shounen fighting series almost inevitably experience. If you go and watch every opening back to back, be it Bleach or Naruto, you can really experience the cast creep.
Having an enormous cast of characters in a shounen title is not anything new. Kinnikuman for example sports so many wrestlers that it can be difficult to keep track of everyone. However, the anime’s openings do not try to partition roughly the same amount of time for every character. They do not try to say that everyone else is almost as important as Kinnikuman himself. And while there are a number of differing factors between Kinnikuman and Naruto, not least of which is the fact that Naruto simply has more openings, I think it also highlights the increased focus on a “pick your favorite” method of presenting characters in anime and manga.
Essentially, I believe the reason that later Naruto and Bleach openings feature so many characters with roughly equal screen time is that they know each character has their own fanbase, and they want those fans to feel that their favorites are getting treated right. While I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with this, it still makes me miss those simpler times, when it was mainly just Ichigo and Rukia.
If you want to check out the openings I’ve referred to in this post, Crunchyroll has the latest episodes of Naruto and Bleach. As for the older ones, I’ve provided links below. Keep in mind that due to copyright policies and such, most of these videos are modified somewhat, usually by making them widescreen when they originally weren’t.
Ever since Shin Mazinger, I’ve noticed that it’s been getting harder and harder to find anime openings and endings on Youtube. Oddly enough however, the song uploads themselves on Youtube go relatively unchecked.
What gives? I mean, I know the anime companies are getting more concerned about protecting their properties and preventing piracy, but I feel like having the openings on Youtube were some of the best ways to get people to notice shows both new and old. Why can’t fans keep their minute and thirty seconds of Durarara! opening from getting removed? It’s not like they’re entire episodes or even clips from the actual episodes themselves! There, I could see their point of contention, but I feel like this is different. I just want to show someone how cool an opening is without having them load the stream for an entire episode on Crunchyroll. Heck, they even do it for some decades-old shows! I’m tiring of this ham-fisted approach.
Basically, if companies are taking openings off of Youtube, I at the very least would like them to upload it themselves so that we may continue to enjoy it and they can continue to send copyright violation letters.
The year was 1973, and a young anime studio named Madhouse began work on its first big series, an adaptation of a popular tennis manga called Ace o Nerae! or Aim for the Ace! as it translates in English. Running 26 episodes, it was directed by Dezaki Osamu and had character designs by Sugino Akio, a duo that continues to work together even to this day, including Rose of Versailles, the 90s Black Jack OVAs, and Space Adventure Cobra. They also worked together on every other anime adaptation of Aim for the Ace!
With that in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to just put the openings of each of the Ace series next to each other, if only to see how time, money, and experience have affected the same series over the course of two decades.
1973’s Ace o Nerae!
1978s Shin Ace o Nerae!
1988’s Ace o Nerae 2!
It might be a little unfair to compare openings, but I feel that doing so is a good indicator for seeing how an anime series wishes to be first seen. When you look at the 1973 opening vs the 1978 opening though, you can already see a world of difference. Character designs in Shin Ace are cleaner and more consistent, perhaps at the expense of some of the wild and untamed artwork that characterizes the original. Everything is also much-better animated, with fewer visible shortcuts being taken. Fast forward to 1988 and of course you can see a huge change, brought on by overall progress in anime, an OVA-level budget and changing visual trends in anime (and in real-world fashion). Keep in mind though that unlike, say, Cutie Honey, where each incarnation is done by a different studio and different people at the helm, Ace 2 has the same core team as the first Ace, and what you’re seeing here is direct evidence of how they changed over the course of 15 years.
I think the biggest difference between the original and the later series is that by the time of Shin Ace, the anime is actively trying to portray human figures in a three-dimensional space, and Ace 2 even moreso. If you look at the original TV series, even in the opening it never wants to tell you exactly where the characters are in any given moment. It feels closer to a manga brought to life, for better or worse. In that regard, I feel that the original has a certain charm that the others lack, the kind of appeal that comes from seeing just how much people could do with so little.
Really though, I just think they should have kept the hair from the first TV series throughout each incarnation. That includes the live-action series from a few years ago.
I was thinking about how great it would be to have Jero, the first black Enka singer, perform an anime theme for a future show. He’s already got a video game theme under his belt, so I’d like to see him bring his considerable talent to a weekly tv series as well. I can’t really think of any anime these days that uses Enka for its theme songs, so his voice could invigorate anime openings the way it’s invigorated Enka itself. If they do another Hokuto no Ken TV series after Ten no Haoh, I could easily see Jero performing an ending theme.
Besides, if Kobayashi Sachiko can perform theme songs for Pokemon, then I think Jero could throw down some soulful ballads in the same field.