Pandemic Anime: Revisiting Old Favorites in Quarantine, Part II — Things Aren’t Okay
This is Part II of a series of posts looking back at the 2000s-era anime I watched during quarantine in the early days of the pandemic. Part I can be read here.
As the pandemic wore on, it became increasingly clear that the situation was not going to clear up in a matter of weeks. Or months. Or years. Or ever? I began to think… “Thinks Aren’t Okay.” And strangely enough, the anime I decided to revisit started to focus on darker themes as opposed to cute girls in school or schmaltzy nostalgia.
Speed Grapher (Includes Spoilers)
This is another one that dropped right as I was getting into fansubs–but unlike Kamichu, it came out weekly thanks to the efforts of Shinsen Subs. Also, it was hard-subbed, meaning it didn’t screw up my at-the-time weak-sauce PC.
I was keen on this one right from the previews–being a fan of things like Cowboy Bebop, I was looking for something hardboiled, and the trailers promised dark and gritty action along with intrigue. However, with dodgy animation and a half-baked story, the show failed to properly scratch this itch… but still, something compelled me to tune in each week as a high schooler regardless.
Despite getting a US release, I had vowed to only revisit Speed Grapher via a “pure” Japanese release that kept the Duran Duran Girls on Film opening intact. Well, joke’s on me, because the very recent Japanese Hulu stream doesn’t even have that! Anyway, Duran Duran or no Duran Duran, it was a trip watching this again. Yes, the animation is as bad as I remember–but after nearly 20 years of sitting through mediocre-looking Japanese cartoons, the quality of Speed Grapher’s draftsmanship doesn’t hurt that much now. What hit me the most this time around was the story. Well, less the story, but more what the story was trying to say about the inequality that was developing in Japanese society at the time–and still continues today. Don’t get me wrong, the story is still super half-baked, but damn if this isn’t some prime Lost Decades commentary.
There is a lot to say about the fact that the main super-rich villains’ headquarters is a giant skyscraper in the middle of Roppongi. This structure doesn’t actually exist in real life, but it may as well, given how that part of Tokyo refuses to part with Bubble Era excess. Meanwhile, locales like Kita Senju up in north-east Tokyo (you know, a place where the normal folks live) are depicted exactly as you see them in real life, creating this very convincing and jarring contrast which sets the tone for the story. Of course, the fact that all the bad guys are personified versions of their vices seals the deal–I could list off any number of the insane villains in this series, but the best one with the best power is the prime minister who just eats more and more shit and grows more and more vile. If that’s not a perfect metaphor for how politicians champion capitalism for their own personal gain, I don’t know what is.
I also love the noble intentions of the big bad–it’s kind of cool how Suitengu gets into bed (literally) with the Tennōzu Group in order to get revenge on them for propelling Japan into recession. He is an all-too-straightforward (but again, pretty awesome) representation of the post-Bubble frustrations held among folks in Japan who never got a piece of the Bubble Era pie. Meanwhile, the main character Saiga–who despite a cool design–falls into the background in the face of this heavy-handed commentary, and comes off as silly spouting typical “heroic” lines about how the bad guys shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing because it’s bad. And while Kagura is a cutie, she doesn’t have much going on. Ultimately, while the main characters are weak, the commentary hits hard. Especially now.
Welcome to the NHK
This is another one from our friends at Gonzo, and one of the first anime I ever reviewed. I was quite harsh on it then, but I found myself liking it a lot this time around. With a long time between now and having read the manga adaptation, along with the experience of the novel (albeit years ago as well), I was able to approach the TV adaptation of the story with a more balanced point of view.
First and foremost, one thing I like about the anime version of Welcome to the NHK is its slick, poppy look with bright colors and clean drawings. The character drawings are supported by subtle, naturalistic lighting and expertly-rendered backgrounds that accurately capture 2000s-era Japan, be it the Tokyo suburbs, boisterous izakaya, train interiors, downtown Tokyo… or, of course Sato Tatsuhiro’s room. I had loved the opening animation since watching the first episode raw via a Perfect Dark download back in 2006, and I still love its visual flairs, be it the creative scene transitions, or how the credits integrate themselves into each shot. Matched to the killer song by Round Table Featuring Nino, it’s simply superb. On the subject of music, the excellent soundtrack from the Pearl Brothers—which covers a wide range of genres from rock, blues, to lounge-inspired tracks—raises NHK above the level of other similar anime comedy-dramas.
I have a feeling the show got a lot of flak back in the day for not leaning deeply into the grungy aesthetic of the manga in order to drive home its dark premise. And as an edgelord 18-year-old watching this as it aired, I was inclined to think the same. However, watching it as an emotionally-dead 30-something, the distinct gap between the actual events unfolding on screen and the clean aesthetic now strikes me as much more effective. Sure, events are presented in the manner of a stylish J-drama, but between the elementary-school-girl-stalking, suicide retreat, pyramid scheme, MMO addiction, and countless other insane situations, the content itself is shocking enough that the visuals leaning further into that feels like too much of an obvious choice.
Of course, now into my eleventh year of living in Japan, I was struck heavily by the character dynamics. Misaki, despite being younger than Sato (and a stranger), addresses him quite casually. Meanwhile, Yamazaki’s default manner of engaging with Sato is with respect… except for when Sato fucks up–it is only then that Yamazaki immediately becomes sharply condescending. And as a working member of Japanese society now, all the societal aspects of NHK also shine clearer—examples include Sato’s ashamed interactions with his mom, Kashiwa’s uncomfortable position at her company, and the tension between Yamazaki trying to achieve his dreams in Tokyo and being pulled back to his family in Hokkaido. This is of course supported by great acting on the part of the voice cast. While it certainly feels like “anime acting,” the realistic setting does mean the actors can speak a bit more naturally.
Of course, I still don’t think it’s perfect–for all the praise I have for the aesthetic, some episodes still look a little bit janky. And I do feel that the show works better as a dark comedy, faltering a little bit when attempting straight drama. But it’s still a great look into what continues to be an issue in Japanese society, and I feel it’s one worth going back to.
I think we all know where it goes from here, folks. In the final installment of this series, I will revisit some of the darkest shows among my 2000s favorites. Look forward to Part III, coming soon!
“However, watching it as an emotionally-dead 30-something, the distinct gap between the actual events unfolding on screen and the clean aesthetic now strikes me as much more effective.”
Ooooh, that’s a great observation. And an excellent set of reviews. As a note from across the pond on Speed Grapher, which I adore despite it’s sluggish second half, the American dub turns the whole thing neo-noir. OTT brooding metaphors are pumped into Saiga’s monologues to make him a proper enjoyable MC.
Fantastic reading and insight!