Anime That's Good in Both Senses
I've been watching anime this afternoon. The Rurouni Kenshin movie, in fact (which for marketing reasons is called Samurai X: The Movie here in the US). If you've never caught Rurouni Kenshin on Cartoon Network, you might want to check it out. It's set in 1879, twelve years after the Meiji Restoration, in which the power of the shogunate was thrown down and the emperor made a constitutional ruler. But the present government is far from perfect, some people resent the European customs and technology being brought in while others use them for their own gain, and rebels and the dispossessed are everywhere.
Kenshin Himura, the main character, was once the most skilled swordsman among the Meiji rebels and employed as their assassin. (A true historical fact.) But when they won, he didn't take up the high position he'd earned. He disappeared into the life of an anonymous wanderer, repenting the killing he'd done, vowing never to take a life again, and carrying a sword with a reversed blade lest he break his vow. At the beginning of the TV show and manga, he ends up settling at one of the first kendo schools, where Kaori and her pupils only use wooden swords and also swear not to kill. There are a host of interesting characters: Kaori, running her dojo and half in love with Kenshin; Yahiko, the stubborn orphan boy who's her best student (and Kenshin's); Sannosuke, the martial artist from a much less aristocratic background than Kenshin, Kaori, or Yahiko; and Hajime Saito, also a historical character, who was a Shinsengumi guard for the Shogunate and now is the best policeman in Tokyo for the Meiji government. (His slogan, also historical, is "Aku Soku Zan" -- Kill Evil Immediately. There is a certain winning simplicity to it, no?)
I think Rurouni Kenshin would have been popular at any time. It's a good show. But I suspect the reason it got so popular so fast, even while it was only available in fansubs, is that it is set in a complicated time and gives the characters complicated problems, but espouses a morality as simple as a sword's edge. Kenshin does everything he can to fight evil, but he stays within the law and he will not kill. There is also a great deal of exploration of where patriotism and idealism becomes terrorism, and where you have to cut your losses for the sake of the common good. The Rurouni Kenshin movie includes some very good examples of that. One character talks about his father's illness, but is willing to forget about it for the sake of what he's doing. But another character asks him, "If we cannot take care of our families, what are our qualifications for caring for a country or the world?"
That said, for its "important episodes" the TV show also espouses the same slower-than-molasses story style as Dragonball Z, in which a single swordfight may last for four or five episodes worth of slo-mo, thoughts by the participants, commentary by the spectators, speculation on what will happen next, and gradual increases in damage, philosophical battle patter, desperate determination, and moral authority.
I've also been thinking about .hack//SIGN. (I've mentioned this before, too.) The more that I watch it, the more I think the popularity of the show rests on its sensitive but clear-eyed portrayal of gamers and the gaming community. Not since Otaku no Video have I seen such a fan-oriented production. But Otaku no Video is also savagely self-critical. .hack//SIGN just uses realistically flawed characters, and uses more of the time-honored Japanese technique of saying little and assuming you can see all the implications. It's flattering, in a way. Usually, we Western viewers are watching anime shows in contemporary settings from the outside, as foreigners. Suddenly we are on the inside as long as we are gamers. (Of course, if you've played MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games), or the various .hack videogames, you are even more an insider and know even more secrets and implications. But hey, I'll take what I can get.)
The show also plays a bit with the classic gamer contention that, darn it, we know more than people give us credit for. This is "let geeks figure out what's going on and help their fellow gamers" instead of "give geeks guns and power" (Undocumented Features or The Hunt for Red October) or "geeks can fix any situation with duct tape and a Swiss army knife" (McGyver), but it's essentially the same fantasy, or empowerment scenario. Since we geeks don't get very flattering portrayal in most media sources, we are suckers for shows that let smart people kick butt.
Of course, it's not a show for gamers without a little meditation on the nature of reality in games versus the "real world". :) But I suspect the real attraction of the character interaction is the complicated nature of socializing online. How much can you say to people whom you don't know in real life? How can you give them advice without pushing into their personal lives farther than they want you to go? Which in-game actions are beyond the pale, and which should you just chalk up to "playing the game"? Millions of people do these things every day, and yet most of the media totally ignores it. Only through fanfiction, and a very few professional works such as this which are written by and directed toward fans, can people see their own lives reflected in story.
(Insert "mainstream literature is out of touch with most people's lives" rant here.)
But just as with Rurouni Kenshin, .hack//SIGN espouses a fairly simple morality of looking out for people, caring for the common good, and celebrating life. I don't think such simple things are celebrated enough in modern culture. When they are, especially in a subtle but built-in worldview of the characters, I think their power often increases a show's popularity. It made Due South a hit. (And then brought it down again, as the show lost touch with its own values.) It probably also makes the cast and crew more enthusiastic about performing, because they can put their hearts into something that deserves it. Values do matter, and a good show is often good both in its workmanship and its message.
(Sorry if you're getting bored with all the anime talk here. But just think how this blog is sparing my friends from getting lectured!)