Anime Supremacy! (2022) by Kohei Yoshino

A first-time anime director becomes involved in a ratings war with her hero while attempting to see her creative vision brought to fruition. Hitomi Saito (Riho Yoshioka) quits a solid career as a public servant to enter the highly competitive world of anime. Seven years later, in charge of her first project as director, she is keen to see her story realised, not least as her series will be going up against another from famed director Chiharu Oji (Tomoya Nakamura), whose work first inspired her to enter the industry. Hitomi must navigate issues with her staff as well as concerns from the network and her production manager Yukishiro (Tasuku Emoto), who wants the reserved Hitomi to do more promotion for the show. Meanwhile, Oji is also going through creative issues much to the frustration of his assistant Kayako (Machiko Ono).

“Anime Supremacy!” is a fun, drama based on a novel of the same name by Mizuki Tsujimura, that shows us behind-the-scenes at an anime production company; showing the high-paced, combative reality of creating what is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Japan, and increasingly the world. We see the rush to deadlines, the vast amount of talent it takes to put an episode together, and the conversations between the creatives and the business-minded management. Riho Yoshioka gives a superb comedic performance as Hitomi, with her charmingly expressive characterisation also leaving room for moments of thoughtfulness and passion. Tomoya Nakamura and Machiko Ono also have great on-screen chemistry, with the troubled artist constantly at odds with his overworked assistant. There is a huge supporting cast here and some of them miss out on character development. This is particularly true with Kazuna (Karin Ono), whose side-story goes nowhere despite her being an engaging addition as a brilliant artist completely wrapped up in her own world. The direction is energetic, with occasional flashes of creativity, especially the animated additions showing the battle between the two shows as an ongoing race between the protagonists.

Fans of anime will no doubt enjoy the film as a look at the creative processes and some of the characters who bring to life these fantastical shows. While at times the film is confused in its messaging, attempting to juggle the stories of Hitomi, Chiharu, and to a lesser extent Kazuna, the characters are interesting and the central rivalry ensures we are invested in the ending. Hitomi is someone who has a singular vision and this single-mindedness leads her to neglecting or under-appreciating her colleagues. As she matures through the film we see her gradually begin to understand the value of teamwork and the efforts of others. There is also a strong theme running through about the struggle of artists to protect their work from the predations of corporate interests who want to sanitise everything for marketability. Interestingly both animators in the film choose a different path in the end and it is left to the audience to decide what is most important, success as defined by financial gain or popularity, or as defined by cleaving to your own ideals.

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Spike Spiegel (Koichi Yamadera) and Jet Black (Unsho Ishizuka) are bounty hunters and the sole crew of the spaceship Bebop. The show opens with plenty of questions as to their backgrounds and relationship, not least in the intriguing noirish flashbacks we see featuring Spike. The pair live in a precarious financial situation, chasing bounties that just about ensure they have enough food to live. Their crew is later expanded when they unwittingly come into posession of a Shiba dog with expermentally enhanced intelligence named Ein; and later a woman on the run from serious debts named Faye Valentine (Megumi Hayashibara). Their motley crew gains another member when an orphaned super-hacker named Edward (Aoi Tada) joins them.

The strength of “Cowboy Bebop” is in its blend of genres, part-noirish crime thriller, part-western, with elements of science-fiction and comedy. This allows for a variety of storylines and the majority of episodes are stand alone, both narratively and thematically. The stories are fast-paced, necessarily so as they set up fresh villains, problems, concepts, worlds and solutions in the space of a single episode. There are a few episodes that could be considered throwaway or filler, such as the horseriding bounty hunter, but the majority do a great job in creating a novel challenge and cast of secondary characters that keep things interesting. One unusal aspect of the characters is that they seem quite isolated from themselves, more so than the usual odd couple relationship, they are simply five individuals who happen to be thrown together and the series only briefly touches on the relationships between them. Some of the best episodes are those that uncover the backstories of Jet, Spike and Faye, as these give a much-needed emotional counterweight to the visual bombast of gunfights and chase sequences.

From the opening double-bass strains of the theme song, the “Cowboy Bebop” score perfectly captures the atmosphere of a space western, with a fusion of twanging guitars and jazz. Most episodes have a musical link in the title and the score is clearly a huge part of the enjoyment of the show, giving it a sense of style and paying homage to great science fiction and western films. The visuals likewise exudes cool, with instantly recognizable characters whose design speaks to their character. It is also fun to note references to contemporary brands in the backgrounds. The animation of the fight sequences is one of the highlights of the series, with an incredible sense of movement and danger. This is helped immensely by some stunning editing that bolsters the frenetic sense of danger. All parts work in tandem, the design, editing and score, to create something that is eye-catching and engaging.

“Cowboy Bebop” gives us a future that is far from utopian, using its platform to comment on contemporary societal problems with a depressing prognosis that things are not heading in a postive direction. We see ecological catastrophe in the shape of asteroids that have decimated the planet earth; the ills of privatised medicide and unscrupulous companies; corruption rife in the government and police systems; and overall a lawless society where morality is ever shifting. References to both science-fiction and western genres, representing the future and the past, further emphasises this sense that humanity is doomed by the same weaknessess that have dogged its past, such as greed, crime, and selfishness. Despite advances in technology in the show, the society itself has failed to progress, with outlaws, bandits and criminals still barely kept under control, and an almost imperceptible line between bounty hunting vigilantes and offical law enforcement. This focus on time also plays a prominent role in Faye’s story and asks interesting questions on who we are and where we are going. Faye, suffering amnesia, is perhaps the best representative of the show’s philosophy as a whole, with no idea of either her past or her future. Human’s in “Cowboy Bebop” are simply buoyed along by the vicissitudes of fate, struggling against a deeply unfair system. A fantastic action sci-fi western with bags of charm, enjoyable characters, and a pointed satire on contemporary society.

The End of Evangelion (1997) by Hideaki Anno

“The End of Evangelion” is not a standalone film, rather it is the conclusion to the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” anime series. Many fans were dissatisfied with the ending to the series, feeling that it did not deliver on the promises of what had gone before. I discussed this in my review of the series. Writer and Director Hideaki Anno and assistant director Kazuya Tsurumaki defended that ending, but also delivered this film, which covers some of the same ground as the original two episodes of the series but also gives more of the action that was a key part of the show. It is best to consider this as a companion piece to the final two episodes of the series. In fact this film is even divided into ‘Episode 25’ and ‘Episode 26’, essentially giving the same story from a second perspective. It begins with NERV having just defeated the final Angel, Kaworu Nagisa, and sees Seele order an all out attack on NERV HQ, realising too late that Gendo Ikari intends to trigger the Human Instrumentality Project with the Eva and bring about the end of humanity as we know it.

We do see several scenes that are hinted at in the end of the series, such as the fates of various characters, Akagi, Katsuragi, Gendo, Shinji, Asuka and Rei. It also does not shy away from plumbing the psychological depths of Shinji Ikari. After all, Shinji’s story has been the focus of much of the series, and it is his fate that is tied inextricably to the future of humanity. It is great to see Asuka fighting the winged Evas, and NERV HQ being assaulted, giving us a great action sequence to balance the more abstract philosophical art, something that was perhaps missing from the end of the series, which seemed to jump suddenly from Kaworu’s death to the Instrumentality Project. If nothing else it is a more traditional send off for the characters than appearing only in Shinji’s psyche. The film also takes the correct decision in showing the apocalyptic events that follow Shinji’s ascent to the heavens. There are moments and sequences that are hard to follow or understand and that is exactly as it should be. Nobody knows what would happen if humanity did harness the power of a god and attempt to rewrite its future so this is as good a representation as any. The stunning imagery of a giant spirit, the black egg, the fluorescent crucifixes, is something that defies complete exegesis, offering itself up to any number of interpretations. The film also draws together many of the themes of the show, including the mother-child relationships, the fear of death, the fate of humanity, the terror of humankinds violent nature, and the inability of people to ever truly understand one another.

This film should be watched after the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” series. It offers an incredible ending while staying true to the themes of the show.

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.

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.