Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)

In the year 2015, a group of teenagers are called upon to save the world from a predicted apocalypse known as Third Impact. “Evangelion” throws us straight into the action with a decimated Tokyo under attack from a huge flying alien called an Angel. Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata) is picked up by Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi) and whisked away to NERV headquarters, where he meets his estranged father Gendo (Fumihiko Tachiki). Shinji his told that he must pilot a giant humanoid robot and fight the Angel to protect humanity. Along with two other pilots, the mysterious Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara) and the fiery Asuka Langley Soryu (Yuko Miyamura), Shinji is tasked with bringing down the Angels who continue to attack the NERV. The reason for these persistent attacks becomes apparent later as NERV and the shadowy Seele organisation begin discussing plans for the Human Instrumentality Project.

Writer and director Hideaki Anno will forever be remembered for this series, which changed the expectations for what anime could be. “Neon Genesis Evangelion” brings together incredible action with a story that is driven by its characters. While the impressive battles between Angels and Evas provide excitement and ramp up the tension, the real draw is the interpersonal relationships; Shinji must navigate a complex emotional environment, dealing with his father’s rejection, and the burden placed on him by Misato and others at NERV. As the show progresses the line between the external struggle against the Angels and Shinji’s internal angst becomes increasingly blurred. Shinji’s greatest enemy is his own sense of impotence and crushing anxiety, about being unable to live up to expectations and connect with others. The show alludes to Christian theology, but in a way that doesn’t require much foreknowledge of it. The supercomputers are named for the Magi, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior; there are the Angels, mentions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Spear of Longinus, Adam as a progenitor of human life, and numerous shots of crucifixes. However, at heart the show is deeply rooted in mankind’s war to overcome the darker aspects of its own nature; to understand why we feel pain and help us accept our own mortality and inadequacy.

Every major character in “Evangelion” is given an interesting back story, full of mystery and tragedy, often interconnected to the others. A parental death, unrequited love, and themes of hurt stemming from human interaction are prominent themes. Most of the characters are suffering because of the actions of others, or their inability to deal with their own situation or accept it. Gendo Ikari is a prime example of the sort of grey character the show excels at. A terrible father, we later come to learn of his own tragedy, and his absolute belief in what he is doing to protect humanity and force its evolution to what he believes is a more perfect state. While he may not be likeable, by the end of the series we at least understand better why he behaves as he does. Misato Katsuragi is another fantastic example, perfectly encapsulating the idea that people wear masks depending on their situation; her heavy drinking, raucous, childlike persona at home is entirely absent when in the role of commander at NERV. Characters like Akagi (Yuriko Yamaguchi), whose backstory is only revealed late in the series, also offer an incredible depth to the drama, in creating a believable world full of well realised characters. “Evangelion” is heavily influenced by anime and films that have gone before, both kaiju and war films in particular, and features the knockabout comedy of sitcom style shows alongside the serious ‘command centre’ moments. In drawing on these elements the show appears on the surface to be only an incredibly well done animation, with all the elements (quirky characters, robot-alien battles, high-school heroes) that typify this genre. But the story it is trying to tell, one of universal and timeless significance is what sets it apart, taking in psychology, philosophy and theology in a bold narrative that tackles major questions about humanity’s future.

The ending of Evangelion received much criticism when it was first broadcast. The final two episodes seem to be a departure from what has gone before. They take place inside Shinji’s head as the Human Instrumentality Project is underway, and deal with a concept that is incredibly difficult to portray. However, if you have followed the essential themes of the show, these final two episodes are a powerful denouement as we see Shinji deal with the central dilemma he has been facing since the first episode. In short, the Human Instrumentality Project intends to merge all human conscience into a single entity. This is a concept that is hard to conceptualize and even harder to depict. While stories about the show running out of budget may be to blame for what we get in these final two episodes, they should not be shrugged off as a failure or in any way a poor end to the show. In fact, they offer something that very few anime ever attempt. If the show is about discovering what is in other people’s hearts, then this finale delivers exactly that for our protagonist. All boundaries are brought down, there is no shame, no fear, no anxiety, no prospect of suffering or war. It is a utopian vision… in a way. Shinji comes to realise that the only person he has control over is himself; and that he has the power to change his entire world by deciding how he engages with it.

Alice in Borderland (2020)

A series of violent games tests the wits and courage of young Tokyoites as they work to find out who is behind them. Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) is a jobless gamer, berated by his elder brother for not helping out. Leaving home he meets up with his best friends: barman Karube (Keita Machida) and office worker Chota (Yuki Morinaga). After hiding out from the police in Shibuya, they emerge into an empty city. It appears that the entire population besides them has instantly vanished, leaving everything behind. Game arenas begin to appear with across the city, all managed by some unseen force. Completing these dangerous challenges rewards them with more time to live; failing means death. Arisu and his friends find themselves fighting for their survival, meeting other characters such as the athletic Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), who is trapped in this otherworld with them, trying to return home.

“Alice in Borderland” is based on the manga by Haro Aso and does a good job of converting the frenetic energy and pace of that format to a live-action drama. The opening episodes set up the characters with minimal effort, introducing us to the three friends and immediately establishing their rapport. Kento Yamazaki is likeable as Arisu, a failure in life who suddenly finds his talents an indispensable asset in the world of the games. Keita Machida and Yuki Morinaga give off a warmth as his friends and the three have a great chemistry and dynamic. As the series progresses, this pattern is repeated, with instantly relatable characters introduced with a short backstory in flashback that lends motivation or personality to their role. Later in the series, the characters join a larger group who are working together under the leadership of Hatter (Nobuaki Kaneko) to escape back to the normal world. These characters live in a hotel complex renamed “The Beach”, where they spend their days lounging in swimwear, and their nights competing in the games to earn playing cards for the leader (believed to be the only way to return to the normal world). There is a definite slowing of pace at this point. While the first three episodes are almost non-stop action, we move into more character study and contemplation of the situation. That is not a bad thing as many of the new characters are equally, if not more, intriguing than the old characters, such as Hikari Kuina (Aya Asahina) and Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami), whose story becomes one of the most exciting. Direction and cinematography give the whole series a sleek look, particularly during the action moments. The CGI is far better than most live-action manga adaptations and used sparingly enough that it does not detract from the story.

Japan is no stranger to the ‘death game’ genre, from “Battle Royale” to “Gantz” there are several examples of this type of story. “Alice in Borderland” follows these with a few fresh twists on the format. We have a mysterious presence who is running the games, forcing the humans into conflict and struggle; a hero who believes that there is a better way than killing to escape the game; and a series of deadly scenarios. As the title suggests, the series makes several references to “Alice in Wonderland”, with playing cards used to determine the type and difficulty of the games, characters named “Usagi” (Rabbit) and “Hatter”. Rather than fighting each other, or an alien force (as in the other examples of this genre given), here they are challenged with puzzles, tests of strength, and tests of honour or loyalty. Much like those other series, the sense that this is a chaotic new world is replaced by the realisation that in fact this is the real world stripped back to its most essential and atavistic elements. Later in the series the references to authoritarian government and the role of the military in supporting oppressive regimes are unavoidable. The Beach is a darkly satirical reflection of a society that is happy to accept horrific things so long as they can enjoy themselves. The people there show no desire to find out who is behind the games (that kill large numbers of them); nor do they make any attempt to change a hierarchy that sees them as expendable tools in the acquisition of power for the leaders. When they are forced into playing a “Witch Hunt” game, the sight of them throwing dead bodies onto a fire will recall for many the horrors of fascist dictatorships. “Alice in Borderland” draws clear parallels between the behaviour of individuals in this new world, and society in general. The games act as a test not only of their intelligence and strength, but their moral character. For fans of this genre, there is a lot to enjoy, great action sequences, likeable characters, and an curious mystery at its heart. What it says about humanity may be disturbing but is also a poignant reminder of our many weaknesses as well as our capacity for courage and triumph against the odds.

Smoking (2018)

An unlikely group of assassins work together to give various petty gangsters their come-uppance in this blackly comic crime series. Sabe (Ryo Ishibashi), Hifumin (Kaito Yoshimura), Goro (Tomomi Maruyama) and Haccho (Nobuaki Kaneko) are four homeless individuals who provide a service to those with the money to pay; namely killing gangsters and other ne’er-do-wells. Their gimmick is that Sabe, who has some medical training, flays the tattoos off their victims backs, delivering them as grisly proof that they have eliminated their target. As the series progresses we learn that Sabe was formerly employed by a shady organization known as The Cleaner, who also specialised in underworld killings. The other three members of his team, the mute teen Hirofumin, intelligent and kind; the heavyweight prize-fighter Goro, whose terrifying proportions strike fear in their victims; and the sharply dressed Haccho, each have their own tragic backstory that brought them together one by one to form this team known as “Smoking”.

The story is based on a manga by Iwaki Hiroshi and its origins show in the colourful characters and outrageous set-ups for each episode. The four leads are almost heroic archetypes, a sort of super team all bringing their unique skills to the mix. The series is twelve episodes, each under a half an hour, in which they are usually presented with a new job to undertake. As the series progresses we learn more about each character, and the over-arching story of The Cleaner and Sabe’s past bring some unity to the story as they are all drawn into a violent showdown with this gang. There is plenty to enjoy in “Smoking” if you don’t take things too seriously. The set-ups are ridiculous, taking real world criminal activity and exaggerating it into something more fantastical. Examples of this include a gang that has an entire hospital full of elderly people who they have hooked on drugs; or an underground martial arts betting ring, where the fighters are also pumped full of narcotics before beating each other to death. The idea of peeling off the tattoos of each victim is a unique touch, showing that our protagonists are just as brutal as the irredeemable gangsters they take down. The four leads are perfect in their roles. Ryo Ishibashi (Suicide Club, Audition) lends an air of credibility to the outlandish story. Kaito Yoshimura (Love and Other Cults) does a good job as the largely silent and sympathetic Hifumin. Tomomi Maruyama and Nobuaki Kaneko are no stranger to television dramas and do a great job with the roles of Haccho and Goro, offering much of the comedy in their bickering and both excelling when their stories take a dark and tragic turn.

“Smoking” occasionally suffers from certain limitations of television drama and budget constraints. The pacing is uneven at times; perhaps unsurprising since each episode has to be wrapped up in such a short time. This could perhaps have been helped by running some of the stories over multiple episodes. It certainly helps build tension later in the series when we begin to get recurring characters and the semblance of an over-arching plot. Often there will be little discussion of what their plan is, which makes things seem matter-of-course and again does little to provide a sense of threat. Often the characters will put themselves in dangerous situations that draws their intelligence into question. These are clearly televisual shortcuts to ramp up a sense of danger, or bring all the required characters together in a particular place, but again it undermines any real sense of threat. This is not always the case and there are episodes that work very well in the short episodic format, such as the MMA betting ring episode. The direction and look of the show can also be hit and miss, with stylish shots and moments reminiscent of heroic crime dramas followed by very mundane scenes of the characters in their makeshift home, or out on the streets. It excels when it strives for a manga aesthetic and this is definitely something that could have been more prominent. The series is clearly set in a hyper-stylised version of reality, so trips itself up in going for a more believable look at times.

Crime thrillers usually follow either the cops or the criminals, whereas “Smoking” follows a group who are somewhere on the border between good and evil. On the surface their actions are horrific, killing and skinning their victims, but they are doing it for the greater good by ridding the city of violent gangsters. As Sabe flays his victims he usually delivers a short speech about peeling away their skin to reveal the monster within. It is a show that asks us to question our understanding of crime and society. The tattoos that mark these individuals are a sign of their criminality, but their sins cannot be so easily stripped away as their flesh. As things progress our natural sympathy with the protagonists is strengthened as we learn about what brought them together, each having had dealings with some criminal element. The central premise, of a group who are paid to kill gangsters, suggests an interesting irony in how we deal with crime in society. By doing this work, dealing out this punishment, that may be deemed good or even necessary, they are lowering themselves into the mud along with their victims, becoming the very monsters they are trying to eliminate. “Smoking” is well worth a watch for fans of crime dramas, with an excellent cast and a story that is fast-paced and packed with melodrama.

Gantz (2004)

Based on the hit Hiroya Oku manga, the “Gantz” anime follows the story of Kei Kurono (Daisuke Namikawa), Kato Masaharu (Masashi Osato) and Kei Kishimoto (Hitomi Nabatame) as they battle aliens and attempt to survive a deadly world. Kei and Kato are struck by a subway train and killed, after Kato jumped on the tracks to save a homeless man who had fallen. They are then transported to a mysterious apartment room where they find a large black sphere which hands them guns, high-powered suits and a mission to kill aliens that are living on earth. The missions see them again transported to the Tokyo city streets, where they are invisible to regular people, and they are thrust into do or die combat against vicious opponents.

For those familiar with the manga, the anime follows the plot closely early on, diverging from the source material later. The episodes vary between high-octane sci-fi action as the team fight against these weird monsters, that take various forms, and more reflective moments as we see them in their everyday lives (between missions the team is allowed to return to the world of the living). The show does a good job of balancing these two tones, with great characters that have just enough to their personalities to keep you invested in their survival. The animation uses a mix of CG and traditional hand drawn techniques to create an interesting look to the show, allowing for shots to zoom in or swoop around the digital environments. This also enables the animators to produce incredible action sequences. The anime, much like the manga, pushes the boundaries in terms of sexual and violent content, with many scenes cut in the original television broadcast. The extreme nature of the deaths along with a adolescent fascination with female anatomy is something that will appeal to certain viewers, but it is not without thematic importance. The show heightens awareness of the human condition by distancing itself from the sanitized version of reality often served to people. The gore and nudity are justified in what they are trying to say about the key drivers of human interaction.

At the heart of the “Gantz” story are several mysteries that are never fully resolved, but allow the writers to explore various facets of the human experience. Gantz offers the people who are drawn to the room a second chance at life, although the motivations of the sphere and the figure inside are never revealed. We see people put in a high-pressure environment where they are forced to reveal their true nature. Kato’s philosophy of non-violent altruism is put to the test by the violent struggles he is forced into. Kei’s petulance and lack of authority are also exposed as he takes on the missions. Kishimoto is almost a laughable airhead in the early episodes, but as the series progresses she is shown to have great depth. With all its ambiguity, political and social satire, and themes of suicide, societal violence, death, and religion, “Gantz” is amenable to any number of interpretations. In the end, questions of what Gantz is, what it wants, or why any of this is happening, are largely unimportant. What is more fascinating is the examination of society. “Gantz” poses difficult moral questions about violence and killing and the value of human life.

The Laughing Salesman NEW (2017) by Hirofumi Ogura

Moguro Fukuzo, as he is introduced at the beginning of every episode, is a peculiar kind of salesman; he works not for money, but only to see satisfied customers. The nature of his business is also unusual. He appears unexpectedly to offer people some sort of boon or way out of any current problem. Whether this is a stressful day job, financial worries, or other personal worries. Moguro offers to help, using some magical ability to allow them to experience happiness before suddenly removing it and bringing them crashing back to harsh reality. In fact, in every case the person usually ends up far worse than they started and Moguro heads off laughing into the sunset.

It is hard to place “The Laughing Salesman” into a particular category. Blackly comic, it has elements of moral fable and psychological horror, with the ‘clients’ being led astray to indulge in their worst vices, or else being tormented by some uncontrollable compulsion. There are a few where the message seems to be clear, such as a man berated by his boss who then becomes that same monstrous power-hungry figure when given the opportunity; or the man who wants to hide his face behind a mask and is then forced to live this second life permanently along with the negatives it entails. Others are less clear and on occasion even people with no apparent foibles are accosted by Moguro who proceeds to destroy their lives seemingly for the fun of it.

It is clear that the “Laughing Salesman” character has a lasting appeal. Beginning life as a one-shot manga titled “The Black Salesman” by Motoo Abiko (also known as Fujiko A. Fujio) in the late 1960’s, the first publisher it was sent to considered it too scary to be published. It was later turned into a long running anime series with 127 episodes. This new iteration only has 12 episodes, each split into two distinct stories, but it is enough to give a flavour of the warped world of the salesman character. The writers Naohiro Fukushima, Asami Ishikawa, Midori Natsu and Hirofumi Ogura, create an anthology series that manages to not repeat itself, with each story having a unique issue or problem within the confines of a familiar structure. The animation style leans towards exaggerated caricature, which suits the “house of mirrors” style stories that show people at their worst and bring their flaws to the fore. Each character is named ironically for a personality trait or some other personality trait.

In spite of the comedic tone there is an underlying darkness as the show seems to mock individuals for their hope of a better world. The character of Moguro himself may be a reference to the devil tempting people to sin, or else simply causing chaos in the world. One of the darkest elements of the show sees Moguro take each of his clients/victims to a bar named the Magic Nest. Here they sit, the same barman continuously polishing glasses, while behind them on the wall is a terrifying painting depicting a hellscape, with a Baphomet triumphant above a crowd of lost souls. It leads the viewer to think that there may be more going on thematically than simply an eccentric character causing mischief.

“The Laughing Salesman” is a show that brings into sharp relief some of the worst elements of society, such as selfishness, greed, workplace harassment, and also popular vices such as money, women or drink. It doesn’t offer easy answers, in fact Moguro tends to make everything much worse. Instead it forces the viewer to confront the issues by deliberately muddying the waters into a moral maze from which there may be no escape. The characters are rarely heroes, and Moguro is certainly not swooping in to save them. Well worth watching if you enjoy dark fantastical fables.