The time has come again – one year and six anime titles later and it’s time to wrap up the (retro) Watson Watches series. In this final post of the project, we look back on the shows I forced requested Watson to take a look at, and hopefully come to a few general conclusions based on his experiences. As a quick reminder, here are the specific shows I chose for Watson over the course of these articles, starting from the late 90s and working our way backwards: Cowboy Bebop, Evangelion, Sailor Moon, Ranma ½, Dragon Ball, and Rose of Versailles.
Using any kind of ranking system that appeals to you, how would you score each anime that you were given to watch?
Cowboy Bebop takes first place with ease, earning a hot 12/8 beat and a smoky sax solo that feels like a mixture of silk and good whiskey. It has soul, and the music is so smoothly integrated into that it’s impossible to imagine the show without it. Perhaps the biggest draw for me was the characterisation. Though I might not have liked all the characters I thought most of them were well-portrayed. I had moments of sympathy for all of them except Ed (never Ed!), which is better than I usually do with the shows Artemis gets me to watch.
Rose of Versailles moves into second place, thanks mainly to the fact that it engages with an actual historical setting. Having actually visited the Chateau de Versailles, I also have no hesitation in awarding this show 1,000 sheets of gold leaf (about enough for one window frame, given Louis XIV’s gilt complex). I feel that the show took good advantage of the wealth of detail that is available about Versailles, and the fact it is used as an educational resource speaks well of it.
Sailor Moon put up a strong bid for second place, mind you, but in this particular case its very accessibility let it down. The English dub retroactively contaminated the episode I watched, an amazing feat only matched in utter pointlessness by the “Sailor Says” segment which was tacked on at the end. On a positive note I think the show did do something interesting with the female empowerment aspect, and I kind of liked how most of the characters interacted. I’ll give this a makeup kit full of sparkles and a moon wand.
Fourth place? Evangelion, mainly because it was willing to grapple with some difficult themes. It descended into self-absorbed wankishness and I think the creator badly needed a trip to the beach or something, however credit is due for engaging with them to start with. So here’s your EVA unit, but you only get 5 minutes on internal power with it.
I’m going to reluctantly award fifth place to Ranma ½, and it only earns its yellow belt with green tips because of the comedy value provided by a giant panda in 1980s Japan. It had precisely one interesting idea and didn’t do much with it. I suppose it has some value as a historical curiosity, however.
Which leaves Dragon Ball in last place, and I would like to make clear that it only gets that because I can’t think of anywhere worse to put it. Having had a few extra weeks to reflect, I think what annoys me the most about the show – a tough decision itself, by the way – is the almost wilful misuse of its advantages. It really is quite incredible, because it started with a lot in its favour: a whimsical fantasy setting with all that implies, some interesting characters, a rich cultural heritage to draw from, and an ongoing story which could allow for more or less anything. And all of this, all of it, was discarded in favour of poop jokes and sexual harassment. It takes a special kind of reverse-genius to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory like this. I am sure the lead-plated thinking caps the creators receive for this “achievement” will come in very handy, weighting them down as they are dropped into the deepest, murkiest swamp outraged anime fans can find. No, no, don’t tell me the truth. I prefer my version.
As with our previous series of articles, these anime were chosen based on the potential for an interesting response rather than on your personal taste. Regardless, would you say it’s been an overall enjoyable experience?
Well, let’s look at the score card. One show I really liked; two that I didn’t hate but which didn’t really do anything for me. After that we’re down in the dregs, with one show which was painful to watch because of its subject matter handling and two shows which were just painful, period. On balance I think it was a worthwhile exercise, but it was certainly much less enjoyable than the first time around.
One thing that remained the same, however, was the community response. So once again I’d like to offer my thanks to the audience, for engaging with this, and to Artemis, for taking care of the shows and the questions. Any performer is only as good as the people they work with and for… and I feel this series has been magnificent.
Of course, the shows were also chosen because of the time of their release. Our previous Watson Watches series focused on more contemporary popular anime, most of which had been released within the last decade, whereas this time we were focusing on much older titles. Technology aside, would you say anime has improved, worsened, or remained much the same over the years?
That’s… a big question. Because what is anime, really? And what are we talking about when we say better or worse?
I think anime has become more refined, certainly. More recent shows like Free! are much slicker, more expertly crafted, and overall more polished in terms of how they check off the points on a list. And yet, at the same time, a price has been paid for that. It feels like there really is a list, of permissible types of show and how they can be handled. I didn’t like Ranma ½, for example, but for all that it still had a kind of sincerity in how it did the things I didn’t like, and its central conceit is something I can’t imagine being taken on today (yes, I realise this may just be a failure of my imagination). The further back in time we went the more it felt like people were still working things out, and that freedom to try new ideas is something which I’m not sure has survived into the 21st century.
I also think there might have been a change in what the anime viewership is willing to tolerate from the shows it watches too. This is something I noticed with Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop; there’s a sort of openness about difficult themes – almost a wistfulness – which I don’t recall seeing after the new millennium dawned. I suspect it is much easier these days to find a show which fits one’s tastes, and much harder to find one which makes viewers beneficially uncomfortable. These two factors may be related. I don’t know if this is a positive or a negative or something else completely, but it was noticeable to me in comparison to newer shows.
I’m more reluctant than usual to say whether I think anime has improved or not, partly because that’s a highly subjective decision and partly because I really don’t feel I have the background to make an informed statement. But I do think it has changed, and I don’t think all the changes have been improvements.
You drew some conclusions about anime in general in our previous wrap-up party. Have any of those conclusions changed now that you’ve watched these older titles?
Refinements only, I think my original conclusions hold up pretty well. Earlier anime are much more accessible to viewers, it seems to me, which fits with the idea that anime as a whole has gotten into the habit of assuming viewers have that sort of shared ‘cultural context’. This in turn means more recent anime tends to take shortcuts, rendering the barrier to entry higher for people who are not already familiar with the tropes (and perhaps contributing to the ‘checklist’ feel I mentioned earlier).
Sexual issues are also still obviously a major factor in anime. Can I just point out that four of the six shows I saw in this series featured sexual behavior as a major element, and three of those revolved around homosexuality and gender identity? It’s starting to look like the anime community as a whole is obsessed with such subjects… although interestingly the first ‘Watson Watches series seemed to have a somewhat lower proportion, so perhaps the growth of the industry has diluted this effect. I no longer think the prevalence of sexual elements is down to cultural differences, incidentally – I’m fairly sure this is all intended to give the audience a thrill.
Solely on the basis of the shows for this series it would be the 90s, no question. I like that heart-on-your-sleeve openness, I liked the visual style much more than earlier decades, and all in all it seems to fit my sensibilities better than the self-indulgent 80s or the agonizingly-prolonged 70s.
Final question. Having watched these retro titles, would you now consider yourself more of an anime fan, or at least more interested in the medium, than you were a year ago?
Oddly enough, no. In fact, I would say the reverse has happened: I’m less interested in the medium than I was after the first series. See, in the first series everything was new, so I could approach it all with equanimity. Now, however, I have an idea of what I’m in for. I don’t know what criteria Artemis has been using to select shows for me to watch, but these days I approach them with a degree of trepidation. What atrocity will be inflicted on me next? Hearing that some of these shows are regarded as classics makes me rather thoughtful about whether I want to be associated with people who feel that way about them.
Sturgeon’s law clearly dictates that 90% of everything will be crap, of course, so I don’t believe that anime is universally shit. And I have come across some shows that I genuinely liked or that, even if they didn’t succeed, at least tried to do something interesting. Some goals are so noble it is worthy even to fail, after all, and I do not decry those who fail while attempting something worthwhile.
All in all, however, I think I prefer to be an onlooker. I’ll watch anime from time to time, and if a trusted source recommends something I’ll give it a go, but I am not comfortable being called a fan.
Question of the post: Any final thoughts and/or questions regarding the retro Watson Watches series? Got a retro anime recommendation or two for Watson that you think might actually be to his liking? Last chance, so sound off in the comments!