The Melancholy of Anime Openings

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.

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Analyzing the X-Men Manga and What It Says About Manga and American Comics

This is a follow-up to the images from the X-Men manga I posted yesterday. Now that I’ve given people time to ruminate over those pages, pages which I selected partly to show how various characters are portrayed but mostly to show how the artists took a very “manga” approach to the material, I’d like to go into further discussion about them.

I’d also recommend checking out my post about what I think is a recurring defining trait of American comics.

There’s two things we can say about this comic. First, is that it’s based off of the 90s X-Men cartoon, which was actually shown in Japan with new openings specific to the Japanese broadcast.

Second, is that this isn’t a terribly good comic. It’s an interesting piece of cross-cultural collaboration and all but of course isn’t nearly as high-profile in America as, say, Nihei Tsutomu’s Wolverine comic “Snikt.” It is, to put it simply, okay but not great, and there are many, many runs of the original American X-Men comic which are better and more influential. But of course that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.

While this page doesn’t really show any X-Men and in fact just has Mystique in disguise, I think it tells us a lot about some of the fundamental differences between manga and american comics, and it has largely to do with the fact that it is such a low-profile throw-away comic. It is not the pinnacle of manga achievement, but that’s what makes it so useful.

After all, if you only try to learn from the very best you’ll only end up seeing a fraction of the whole image.

Here we have Mystique disguising herself as per her shape-shifting powers. Clearly the goal of the artist here was to portray an attractive female so that when the thug accosts her she can turn her head into a grotesque abomination for contrast. The result is an almost Matsumoto-esque female figure, particularly in the face. She’s disguised as a mysterious, alluring sort of woman, and it’s one far more in line with the Japanese version of such a concept as opposed to the more American va-va-va-voom type, despite this being an adaptation of an American property.

Now what I find to be even more interesting than the character designs is the panel arrangement of this X-Men manga. Again, it is not the best example of panel flow in a manga, but it is a very good example of what is considered “standard” for panel progression.

Panels are arranged as if they do not all exist on the same plane. Intra-panel depth cues are not nearly as important as seeing the panels placed one on top of the other to achieve a smooth progression throughout the page. A lot of emphasis is placed on shifting facial expressions, and those faces help to carry the reader’s eyes through the page.

Of course, this is only in a page with no action and how could I make a proper comparison without some fighting going on?

Below is an example of a fight scene from this manga, and an example of a fight scene from popular X-Men artist Jim Lee’s run, which was going on at around the same time.

Now it’s not exactly a fair comparison as Jim Lee is considered among the best artists who have ever worked on X-Men and there simply aren’t a lot of X-Men manga to go by, but what’s important here are the small differences.

Notice the degree to which the characters separate from the backgrounds. In the case of the manga, the separation is much more stark despite the Jim Lee panels having color on their side, color generally allowing an artist to much more easily separate foreground and background compared to black and white.

Then there’s the vertical progression vs the horizontal one, which admittedly this is not a good example for. This is perhaps my own pet theory, but I believe that a comic in a language which is generally written vertically will tend to have a vertical progression, while comics in a horizontal language will put an emphasis on the horizontal just short of having books actually being wider than they are tall. The most prominent example is the Japanese 4-Koma vs the American 3-panel strip, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Basically what the X-Men manga here has shown us is what features are so naturally a part of manga and people’s and artist’s perceptions of manga that they crop up in a comic based on American superheroes.  Because this is a comic based off of the X-Men with obvious attempts to match the look of the cartoon and comics, the Japanese and manga influences in the drawing style come out even more.

CRY FOR THE MOON

X-Men by Yasue Kooji and Higuchi Hiroshi, published 1994.

By the way, this is NOT a doujinshi.

Note: The Japanese Word for “Snikt” is “Jakin.”