What it’s about: Despite being the second son of the Japanese Emperor, Prince Genji was removed from the line of succession due to his mother’s status as a concubine. As a young man, Genji is listless and without an outlet for his ambition. He spends his days seeking pleasure and leisure, seducing the beauties of the court and building a reputation for himself as a serial womaniser and romantic. But in his heart, he pines for the woman who helped raise him, the Emperor’s new wife Lady Fujitsubo.
Why you should watch it: The Tale of Genji is one of the oldest known novels, and a true classic of Japanese literature. The anime adaptation is a mature romantic drama, exploring the character of a young man who wants for nothing – except perhaps for love. The show condenses the story admirably, moving through the highlights of Genji’s story – his conquests and his failures – without lingering or rushing. The visuals are bright and aesthetically quite pleasing. At the start, the character designs seem a bit odd. But they evoke the classic origins of the story quite nicely. All in all, it’s a melodrama with its own very distinctive style. Try it if you want something different in the romance department.
Caveats: The show is first and foremost a soap opera. It’s written to appeal primarily to the demographic of older women, and this is reflected in every aspect from the characters to the dialogue to the overall feel of the show. As a fairly faithful translation of a classic work, it suffers a bit from outdated ideas about romance – Genji himself is given a bit more sympathy than I’d be personally willing to extend over his own actions.
Themes: Ennui. The power of love, including its power to destroy through jealousy, lack of reciprocation or pining for a forbidden romance.
What it’s about: The Light Music Club of Sakuragaoka Girl’s High School is on the verge of disbandment. With all of its members having graduated the previous year, it’s down to a new crop of girls to get together and decide what direction the club is going to take. The end result is more of an afternoon tea club. where the four girls – Ritsu, Mio, Tsumugi, and Yui – get together and try in vain to practise their music while being distracted by the draw of beach holidays, tea parties and shopping.
Why you should watch it: K-On! is a fantastically cute, funny and heartwarming slice-of-life show. It knows exactly what kind of show it is, and plays up to its strengths. The character animation is fantastic, with each of the girls drawn as living, breathing human beings. The songs are perfectly crafted to be catchy and charming while still being believably written by high school girls. When it’s all over it’s not who did what that you remember, it’s how well they did it and how much you liked seeing them do it. You react not to specifics of detail or situation, but to the whole, to the relationships between the characters, and to your emersion in the setting. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what makes K-On! stand out from the crowd within its genre, but it really, really does. If you want to watch something set in a perfect world untouched by sadness, drama, or conflict, K-On! is there as a warm blanket – a place you can hang out with friends and not worry about anything serious.
Caveats: I really can’t fault K-On! in any of the areas where it actually puts in the effort. It’s not an ambitious show, but that doesn’t lessen its appeal at all. I can easily imagine something better than K-On!, and I can imagine something quite different than K-On!, but I have a hard time imaging K-On! as it exists being made much better.
Themes: This really is not a show to watch for its thematic content.
What it’s about: For ten years, Humanity has been at war with an alien menace, a space-borne race with innumerable ships and whose only aim is the consumption of stars and the destruction of mankind. Noriko’s father was killed in one of the first fleet actions of the war, and now she trains in the hope of fighting back from the cockpit of a combat mech.
Why you should watch it: Gunbuster’s main claim to fame is being the directorial debut of Hideki Anno (creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion). This sells it a bit short, though – the show stands on its own two legs as a great example of 80s “giant robot” battlers. Noriko’s journey from her time as a trainee to her final battle is well mapped-out, and the audience gets to see her struggle and overcome her fears, feelings, and failings, as well as the various perils of space combat. One particularly impressive element is the show’s use of realistic time-dilation as a plot point. On top of the dangers they face in the fight itself, they know that every battle drags them farther away from home.
Caveats: The first episode is a deliberate parody of the tennis show Aim for the Ace!. If you haven’t seen it before going in, this is the reason for the absurd mecha gymnastics and sports-show storyline. Things do pick up in later episodes, but it exacerbates the problems of a short run-time – the emotional impact that events have on Noriko doesn’t match up with the audience’s experience because we’re not given enough time for things to soak in. Finally, Gunbuster is very much a product of its time; the soundtrack and the visual aesthetics are pure 1980s. Be prepared for cheese. And random nudity.
Themes: Mortality and the transience of life. Even in a worthwhile cause, time is spent faster than you might think. But the relationships people forge are truly eternal.
Similar works:* The follow-up Diebuster is a good place to start. Otherwise, Knights of Sidonia for another standard mecha vs alien show, or Neon Genesis Evangelion for more of Anno’s vision of how the genre should work. Outside of anime, Ender’s Game bears a lot of similarities.
What it’s about: Kotetsu “Wild Tiger” Kaburagi is a superhero. Since the emergence of superpowered individuals some years ago, corporations have begun to sponsor heroes; they pay for the damages their crime-stopping tends to accrue in exchange for prominently display of corporate logos and participation in an ongoing televised reality show. With his ratings dwindling and the acquisition of his sponsors by a larger group, Kotetsu is partnered with the upcoming hero Barnaby Brooks, who views the whole endeavour of saving civilians and being a hero as nothing more than a job.
Why you should watch it: Tiger and Bunny is an oddball anime. It combines elements of Super Sentai shows with Western comic books, drawing a lot of inspiration from animated adaptations such as **Batman: The Animated Series**. At its heart, it’s a buddy cop action show with superpowers. It does a good job of contextualising superheroes within a wider society, the different views and approaches to the idea of vigilante justice and the way that the job impacts on the daily lives of those caught up in it. Each character starts as a stereotype, an eccentrically dressed superman who stops crime and saves lives, but still needs to pose handsomely at the cameras lest their public image suffer. But by the end of the run, they all have their own quirks and personalities firmly established. The plot itself is not overly deep, but it’s entertaining, charming, and most importantly just plain fun. It’s an excellent show for younger viewers, though there’s enough there to keep any anime fan absorbed.
Caveats: The character development is there, but it’s mostly for flavour. The same is true of a lot of the ideas and themes of the show – they’re hooks to dangle the flashy action scenes off of, rather than elements to be explored in depth. Which is fine – not every superhero story has to be Watchmen – but do go into it with the right expectations. The show also uses CGI for a lot of the fighting and moving about. I think they pull it off pretty well, but we’ll have to see how well it ages a few years down the line. There are two movies attached to the franchise. The first (The Beginning) is half-recap, half-standalone. The second (The Rising) continues on from the main story.
Themes: Trust is a common thread throughout many of the storylines and the character development. The show touches upon some ideas about crafted identities – of how images are created through marketing, commercialism, and public expectations that people then have to live up to. It also deals with the issues surrounding being a middle-aged single father, struggling with maintaining relevance in the changing values and attitudes of a younger generation.