Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Anime
Why it’s daunting: It’s a vast genre, covering everything from children’s shows to triple-X rape/snuff porn, and it comes with a set of prejudices on both ends of that spectrum. After years of media overexposure to various kid addictions (Pokémon, Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, Gundam Wing, and their many copycat shows and endless merchandising), some people think anime is all loud, vapid toy commercials for children, while people exposed to hardcore material like the Urotsukidôji or La Blue Girl may feel it’s for perverts and fetishists. Or for no one.
Possible gateway: Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle Of Cagliostro
Why: While Miyazaki went on to make a number of fantastic films in a more recognizable big-eyes-small-mouth anime style, they’re all far more esoterically steeped in the folklore and mythic traditions of Japan. Castle Of Cagliostro, on the other hand, is a straight-up crowd-pleaser, a funny caper adventure. In this stand-alone feature film, master thief Lupin III (grandson of Maurice Leblanc’s famous thief Arsène Lupin) sees a beautiful woman being kidnapped, and decides, in a spirit of idle chivalry, to find out what’s going on. Besides, he loves a challenge. Cagliostro has the spectacular visuals and grown-up story that tend to make anime fans out of American animation fans who’ve gotten bored with Disney and DreamWorks, but it’s all-ages safe, intelligent, and playful all at the same time. It’s also a great romantic heist, and a lovely example of old-school cel animation. Lupin III is a long-running, immensely popular character in Japan, but no previous grounding is necessary to prepare viewers for Cagliostro; it’s easily accessible and a lot of fun.
Next steps: Miyazaki’s films are almost all fantastic, but in particular, his wonderful Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke,and My Neighbor Totoro will take fans deeper into his love of Japanese myth and stunningly sophisticated, obsessively detail-oriented animation. (The latter is aimed at a significantly younger audience, while Mononoke is more a bloody adult feature, and Spirited Away splits the difference.) Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is a Hitchcock-styled noir film with striking nightmare imagery and a solid murder-mystery plot. For fans of kung-fu-film-style hyperkinetic battle action, Ninja Scroll and Afro Samurai (with Samuel L. Jackson voicing the title character on the English dub) are immensely popular, and should resonate with fans of Quentin Tarantino-style nervy dialogue and old-school violence. Those ready to dip their toes into the commitment of a TV series (which generally run to 13 or 26 episodes per season, and like British shows, usually have season-long self-contained plot arcs) might start with Cowboy Bebop, which was rightly a huge hit; each episode follows a different musical theme, and the story, about a bunch of incompetent, space-traveling bounty hunters, is jazzy and energetic, with callouts to everything from ’50s spy shows to modern action movies. (As a full-circle bonus, the lead character, Spike, is heavily based on Lupin III himself.)
Where not to start: With anything involving tentacle rape (see titles above) or anything with more than 26 episodes. (Wikipedia is generally accurate about laying out how long a series has been on, and how many times it’s been remade, retooled, or spun off. Long-running popular series in Japan often have as many reset/revised continuities as popular superhero comics in America, and are just as baffling to neophytes.)
Otherwise, it largely depends on your age. There are plenty of good entryways for children, from Pokémon to Rumiko Takahashi’s many mega-popular series (Ranma 1/2, Urusei Yatsura, InuYasha, etc.) but all the ones listed as addictions above will tend to give adults headaches, or bore them with long, repetitive, open-ended quests designed to keep a series going indefinitely. And tuning into a random series on Adult Swim or picking one up on DVD is an ineffectual crapshoot, simply because there’s so much material out there.