Make Anime Weird Again

_This place has only three exits, sir_ Madness, and Death._ — René Daumal (A Night of Serious Drinking) (1).png

Late last year, during one of Carlos and I’s famous hours long Skype calls, we ended up having a pretty profound discussion. You see, as two longtime anime fans, we were both a little exhausted by the recent trends in fandom. Shows like Yuri On Ice and Attack on Titan have brought muggles into our fair community. And while Carlos and I lamented the glory days of anime being strange and exclusive, a brilliant little anime strolled into my queue and actually at Carlos’ recommendation.

I want to talk about Pop Team Epic and making anime weird again.

But first, I want to talk about anime, the surreal and the strange. One of my favorite animes of all time is FLCL. It’s at its core a coming of age story but also features penis allegory robots, a giant steam-powered alien iron that wants to smooth out the wrinkles of human thought and a woman with pink hair on a Vespa who goes around hitting people with a guitar. Anime at its core has always been a little weird. And that can be said about animation in general, but anime’s weirdness is oftentimes a huge barrier to entry for many casual fans. Even excellent animes like Cowboy Bebop and FullMetal Alchemist have very strange parts to them and I’m empathetic to newcomers who are put off by some of the cultural eccentricities of Japanese popular culture.

This is probably going to sound a lot like fan-gating to those in the know and, yes, it is a form of that. When people who are not well-versed in anime critique and comment on anime, you get fresh hot takes like “Anime has a representation problem.” and “why are none of these women wearing pants?” True, holding anime and manga to a higher standard is important. I can be a feminist and struggle with poorly written female characters while also admitting that culturally Japan is very different than the U.S. in 2018.  I came into anime as a little one and struggled a great deal as a fan in the early 2000s when it wasn’t cool to be an otaku. I built anime clubs, made friends, cosplayed and went to conventions to find people who were like me. And popular animes that bring in casual fans can at times muddy the waters. There’s nothing like seeing someone who teased you in high school over a Naruto t-shirt back in the day suddenly saying that love JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. And while that may be somewhat immature to say, I’ve never said claimed to be a perfect human being.

Which brings us to Pop Team Epic. The show centers around two main characters: Pipimi and Popuko and they are surprisingly expressive considering their minimalist designs. The show is now an animated version of the popular 4-Koma webcomic and it follows many of the comic’s best gags and jokes. It’s a weird one and it’s hilariously referential and meta. There are gags that barely count as gags. Each episode is mirrored with male and female voice actors playing two teenage girls. There are crappy segments (intentionally bad ones) in the middle of each episode and there are jokes. So many jokes. And many of them are at the expense of other popular anime, video games and fan trends. Popuko many times calls fans “haters” and it’s actually quite interesting to see. I’m not normally one for self-aware humor and non-sequitur gags but for some reason, it all works for me in Pop Team Epic. And it probably is one of the best mines for reaction gifs that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in a while. Did I mention that the soundtrack is surprisingly good?

I love how unapproachable this anime is. You have to really love comics, really love anime and really love video games to catch all the references and hell, I don’t get all the references. And the humor is often dry and doesn’t go anywhere. The animation is crappy at times, but it’s intentional and the voice acting is strange and strained. The comments about how awful the show can be is rarely lost on me and if you are looking for consistent payoff for jokes, look elsewhere.

And there are plenty times where I’ll end an episode of Pop Team Epic and have no idea what just happened. It’s strange that I’d be so attached to a show like this considering that other shows with humor like that (think Rick and Morty) are not usually shows I enjoy or overly meta shows (continue to think Rick and Morty).

Watching Pop Team Epic reminds me a lot of how many people felt watching Luke Cage over on Netflix. Many said that Luke Cage was unapproachable and “too black” and to anyone who said that (mostly casual white comic book fans), you are right. He is unapproachable and too black. That’s how his character is meant to be. The same can be said for Pop Team Epic. Anyone who says “This anime makes no sense, is poorly animated and is weird.”; congratulations, you are right. It is poorly animated, makes no sense and is weird and if you cannot appreciate it for what it is, then maybe you should try something a little more mainstream. There’s nothing wrong with that. I still love plenty of mainstream animes. And that’s not to say that Pop Team Epic is some secret handshake between the “OG” otakus, there are plenty of long-time anime fans who are put off by the series and basically any actual criticism lobbed at the show is probably understandable.

But you know what? It is also nice to have something that makes anime feel intimate again. There’s something nice about having an anime that is too weird, too good and too strange to live. It’s nice having something that not everyone understands and feeling like some strange unicorn again.

Just for once, it’s nice to feel like anime is special, rare and unique again.

 

My Little Slice of Night Vale

“The imaginary is what tends to become real.” ― André Breton

It’s amazing how a podcast can change a life. It’s amazing to think that any creative work can do such a thing. It hearkens back to a Romantic ideal that art: all art, should in fact move you in some way.

I started listening to Welcome to Night Vale; a podcast about a sleepy town in the desert that for some reason experiences bout of glowing clouds that take over the mind, body and soul and an unknowable dog park of pure indescribable terror that I shouldn’t even be speaking of. Welcome to Night Vale was a fandom I did my best to avoid. I missed most of the podcast boom with series like this, Serial  and the like. I didn’t understand why anyone would listen to a podcast about a town that clearly just made no sense.

I recently decided to cosplay the series’ main character Cecil Palmer: a very suave radio host and your proxy to understanding the odd little town of Night Vale. Cecil is charming, funny and almost sometimes naive. He also has no canonical description: thus making an attempted cosplay of him incredibly difficult, but I’ll manage.

There was a great PBS Idea Channel episode about how Welcome to Night Vale makes us as listeners confront our fears of the unknown and it’s very true. It’s painful to cosplay or even think of a character that I have never seen before. He has no canonical depiction, no one in the series does. We get the occasional lush descriptions of other characters like Cecil’s boyfriend Carlos and almost everyone else around him but Cecil he’s not tall or short. Not fat or lean, a smile if you could even call it that. I cannot express how much that irks me as a writer and cosplayer.

I’m not here to complain about my fear of the unknown but I am here to talk about surrealism.

To me the world of Night Vale never made sense. It was described to me in every way from a horror podcast or as just a weird thing weird people listened to. I didn’t understand it as a horror podcast. Night Vale wasn’t scary to me. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief on a town where a mayoral candidate was a literal 5-headed dragon and all the wheat and wheat-by products had turned to snakes.

But then I took a second listen to it: a close friend of mine was into the podcast and at her urging I gave it another shot. I still wasn’t hooked by episode 1 but by episodes 2 and moving forward I was sold but there was one key thing about Night Vale that still jarred me: the radio host, Cecil, was very plain about all of the goings on and to boot what DID excite him seemed to be either dreadfully mundane to me or were so outlandish that they would elicit a rise out of anyone.

Night Vale isn’t scary, but it is surreal. What’s surreal about it is that as much as we get a kick out of a world that has no more wheat due to snakes and a waterfront amusement fun complex in the desert we currently live in a world where we can talk to people across the world with relative ease and where space travel is an accepted norm as well as proposals of walls being built between countries and spy programs that tap our phones, emails and text messages. Which world is truly more bizarre? Well, yeah the one with snakes and no wheat, still; but give it thought.

I love surrealism as a movement: it’s more than just art. I melted when I got to see a Dali exhibit in Vienna (pun not intended). Surrealism seeks to turn the world on its head. It was a movement in more than just painting: there’s surrealist film, photography, radio. A surrealist podcast may sound a little strange but consider the author: Joseph Fink’s a bit of a mad-man. He reminds me in so many ways of Pen Ward of Adventure Time fame and Rebecca Sugar of Steven Universe and to create a universe that is so odd and so almost Lovecraftian means there’s a bit of the artist’s hand in the details. So while Night Vale might seem odd, strange and very confusing (it is) but in comparison to the day to day lives of so many people I challenge you to think which one is really stranger?

This time I’ll end with a quote from my so much adored Salvador Dali: “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”

And good night, readers, good night.