05 August 2014

otakon 2014: elements of style rundown

Best Otakon Ever. While there should be at least a partial rundown of the entire weekend within the coming days, since I will be up in Northampton for In-CON-cievable, much of that will likely come from Kit. Needless to say that between the two of us, we managed to fill up panel 7 three times, and have a truly awesome weekend down in Baltimore.

But for now, this is a rundown of what was shown during my Saturday "Elements of Style: Anime Openings" panel. Situated between one lecture on Sacred Japan and another on Ninja history, this panel was meant to be a correction for some errors made during last year's "50 Years of Anime OPs." During that mammoth two-hour chronology, I neglected to spend time covering some of the stylistic changes found within the opening sequences as a whole, instead focusing on a broad definition of how technology has changed the openings. This year, a trimmed down version of the panel was focused on how openings convert atmosphere, character development, musical experimentation, and incorporated symbolism.

What's important to remember here is that this panel was focused on the OPENINGS themselves, not the series they were from. While these 90 second sequences are often meant to introduce a show, for a good deal of the clips I showed, I had not scene more than a smattering of the attached property. Rather, I was choosing to present how the openings had changed stylistically and aesthetically over the years, changing and redefining what being an opening could be. We tend to forget that a solid opening sets the stage for a solid series, and an experimental one can draw in more viewers than something more straightforward. We also forget how in some cases, the intro has potential to outlive the series it is attached to, especially if the music, images, or pacing is particularly catchy or evocative. That was one of the reasons I began this panel with "Not Every Anime Opening Ever"- sometimes the unconventional choices made by content creators end up leaving a more lasting impact on the medium.

Chronology: To set the stage for the panel, it was important to highlight how far anime openings had come. From the days of black and white, limited frames to the modern flash of computer animation and colorful backgrounds, the chronology's job was to firmly demonstrate how things have changed over the years.

  • Cyborg 009- Up there with Astro Boy and Speed Racer, this opening represents a lot of the style found in 60s anime. Basic, but also fluid, it serves its hub as an introduction to a world and a cast, delivering a taste of what is to come. It's a good 60s opening for a great 60s anime. 
  • Gatchaman- Is there much of a difference between this and Cyborg 009? Not really. The addition of color is the major separator between them. But at the same time, in an age of Mazinger and Cutey Honey, the music is faster, the animation crisper, and the title more effective. It's not Yamato, but it delivers its message loud and clear. 
  • City Hunter- The 80s were a time of experimentation in anime, and a time of excess in the world. City Hunter rides that same line, embedding references to Western pop culture alongside colorful expositions and emerging tropes. Anime was evolving, and this opening tells a tale of how. Combine this with Dirty Pair and ZZ Gundam, and suddenly anime doesn't feel like "anime" anymore. It's becoming more global than Japanese. 
  • Outlaw Star- My favorite 90s opening embodies a lot of what made the decade special: bombast, color, over-the-top music, and a decided emphasis on flair. This opening didn't re-invent any wheels, it just made them bigger, flashier, and more fun. It also highlights a time when opening sequences were becoming more like 90 second music videos, instead of show intros.
  • Pokemon- This opening didn't push any lines or redefine any genres, but it did manage to grab hold of a generation of fans and show them what anime was. The lyrics are iconic (I wanna be/the very best), and point to a time when anime was on the cusp of global domination.
  • Sengoku Basara- Played here so my friend Brakus could dance. Much like Outlaw Star, this opening is over the top. I've never seen the series, but based solely on what's on-screen, it promises to be satisfying when I eventually do.
  • A Certain Magical Index- One of my colleagues called this the blueprint for modern shounen shows. I tend to agree. Good buildup, a great attached song, and just enough character to familiarize viewers. Index itself is a solid evolution to shounen shows, and this first opening hints at what is to come. And excellent use of new technologies and ideas for the 21st century.
  • Attack on Titan- I stopped this clip specifically to point out the list of people working on it. It's meant to show just how far openings have come, and how much emphasis has been placed on them. They're not just a way to open a show, now they can be seen as being JUST AS IMPORTANT as they show they open. The size of the crew attests to the importance of the sequence. Plus this OP has images from the manga attached to it, which we rarely see. 
Atmosphere: The most abstract of categories, when a series elects to use its opening to build atmosphere, it usually wishes to convey a sense of emotional depth to the sequence. Rather than simply settle for something straightforward, the atmospheric opening needs to evoke a certain emotion in its audience. When it succeeds, the end result can be either haunting or uplifting, but it's the fact that an emotion was cultivated that stands out. 
  • Paranoia Agent- This is quite possible the most haunting opening sequence ever created. From its first bars, to the laughing faces trapped against their own dooms, this sequence never fails to send chills down my spine. The addition of chirps and gasps to the already chaotic score, coupled with images of nuclear annihilation and dystopia prove that Satoshi Kon was indeed a master of creating not fear, but dread in his audiences. This is raw emotion on display, and needs to be felt, not related. Words cannot describe what those 90 seconds embody. 
  • Higurashi When They Cry- Nods to folklore and impending bloodshed give this opening its bite. Higurashi is itself a blend of several genres and storytelling mediums, so its fitting that by the time this opening is done, the viewer is either scared or intrigued. Its colorful, cute, and disturbing, all at the same time. 
  • Bunny Drop- Atmosphere need not always be dramatic. Bunny Drop is the rare opening that uses metaphor and images to convey a sense of latent joy or optimism to a story that can be dark at times. But seeing the young bunny with her older relative informs the viewer that something wonderful is happening, despite any tears or fears that might accompany it. 
  • Psycho Pass (2nd OP)- This is a perfect opening: colorful, evocative, well paced, and well executed. While it might not devote much time to character introductions or world building, it offers just enough of either to be alluring. The music sets the stage, and the colors set the tone for the coming drama, and leave the viewer wanting more. 
  • Ping Pong The Animation- Repetition and chaos rule this roost. References to sentai and sports anime flesh out its identity crisis, as a series that cannot decide to which genre it belongs elects instead to take a little bit of all of them. By the closing bars, the viewer knows whether or not they will like the show, which is what a solid opening should be all about. 
Character Narrative: The goal of any opening sequence should be to introduce characters to the audience. But some openings choose to go the route of showing the cast at the expense of the world or the plot. Single characters receive extra time to showcase motivations, while casts are extracted from their stages and highlighted for their traits and quirks. For character-centric openings, the people are on display. 
  • Azumanga Daioh- What sets this opening apart is its extreme reliance on the characters themselves. Removed from any indicators of their show, this truly is a showcase of personality traits and interpersonal relationships. By sequence's end, you know a good deal about the who, and next to nothing about the what (save for what can be inferred from wardrobe changes). An interesting tactic, with enormous backfire potential, that manages to succeed admirably.
  • Baccano!- The large cast of players, split across multiple narratives and time frames, is given entirely equal footing here. A few seconds tops, enough to give a name and a brief action sequence that envelops it. Those names are important, though, and the OP makes sure you know them well. This is a show about people first, so the grounding pays off later on. 
  • Great Teacher Onizuka- Possibly the best character-driven opening of all time. Eikichi Onizuka is one of those enigmatic, layered characters that takes time to fully process and appreciate, and this opening only hints at who he truly is, mostly embodied in the face he puts on for the world. And like Onizuka himself, this opening only scratches the surface on the coming story, which leaves the viewer looking for more. 
  • Watamote- Its the music that makes this opening. Snarls, screams, rapidly changing guitar riffs, and an alternating tempo are a mental clue on who exactly Tomoko Kuroki is. Add in the chains, the broken glass, and the scratchy art, and you have a profile of a girl desiring freedom, but not quite understanding how to go about it, or why she even wants it. 
Music: This entire category is more an extended rumination. Music experimentation was been part of anime OPs for a long time, and while J-pop might be the preferred "flavor" today, creators have frequently gone out of their way to push the envelop when it comes to influences or blended ideas. Consider this a rough outline on the ways music has influenced anime through the years. 
  • Lupin III (Series 2, OP3)- While arriving late in the Lupin canon, this opening is a wonderful blend of the things that make Lupin great. Taking the same theme used the entire season, this opening elects to strip out the lyrics and focus on the hybridized funk-jazz stylings that came to define the second part of the thief's story. It's firmly situated in 70s culture, and reflects that placement with fast cars, colors, and differing characters. 
  • Kimagure Orange Road- This is a show that has almost as many openings as Lupin. In fact, I'm not even sure where this one came from (I'm told it was an OVA). But the fact that it looks and feels like a Peter Gabriel music video speaks volumes. Its experimental for sure, but also familiar- a sort of bridge between two different cultures, existing in both, but part of neither. As a prototype for what came later, it casts a mold that simply waits to be broken. 
  • Cowboy Bebop- Somewhere there is a rule that every anime OPs panel must play this video. And for good reason- Cowboy Bebop is another perfect opening, a blend of genres that transcended time and space (literally, in the case of the show). This mix of jazz, blues, country, and rock cemented the musical genius of Yoko Kanno just as much as it smashed together westerns and space opera. Ahead of its time, timeless, and experimental all describe it, but cannot contain the nuance and brilliance TANK! evokes from its opening bars. 
  • Samurai Champloo- Take everything I wrote about Cowboy Bebop, and copy it here. Using hip hop as a means to illustrate Edo "gangsta" life draws wonderful parallels, and only proves that when it comes to Watanabe, lightning can strike twice. 
  • BECK- Like Kimagure Orange Road, this opening plays out like a music video. Focusing primarily on 90s alt-rock, grunge, and fusion styles, it tells the story of a group of young men out to change music in Japan, influenced by a generations worth of western imports, pushing an envelope that needed desperately to be pushed. More than anything, the opening is the show, as much as the show is also the opening. 
Symbolism: Using incorporated imagery can be VERY hit or miss. When focusing on concepts like yokai and shinto, openings usually hit a home run. When focusing on outside ideas…well, they'd best explain them, or risk losing an audience. This is the highest risk category, because the line between hit and miss is very thin. 
  • Evangelion- Alongside Cowboy Bebop, this OP is also shown in most OPs panels. And it's a hot mess. Reflecting a good deal of the "madness" of Hideaki Anno, the assortment of divine imagery and symbols goes largely unexplained, and serves more as "eye candy" than a demonstration of depth. That said, this OP is still iconic, and recognizable to many fans.
  • Death Note- Like Eva, this opening borrows a chunk of classical images. Unlike Eva, it adapts these works from Renaissance masters in the most obvious ways possible for audiences to digest. For a show that frequently satirizes Western (read US) morality, the co-option of images like la Pieta speaks volumes about what the show intends to present and skewer. 
  • Eden of the East- From its deep colors to the use of Oasis' music, this opening is a flashy, stylized tribute to the story it tells. Unfortunately, the use of Psalms and almost messianic phrases lose their depth once the viewer realizes that there's more style than substance going on. 
  • Nura Rise of the Yokai Clan- A good example of how to incorporate images properly. This time it's yokai on display, and the OP doesn't disappoint. It's a shounen series, so battles and action are front and center, but enough time is devoted to the various monsters and goblins that the viewer knows this isn't just another DBZ ripoff. This DBZ ripoff has yokai in it. (Pair this one up with the OP to Mono-no-ke, which showcases the same yokai in their native ukiyo-e style, and you get a lovely cross-section of how art can be incorporated into a series as well as an image.)
Closing Ideas: I mixed together the WTF and Fancrafted sections for the panel, mostly due to time constraints. I wanted to give a clear message on how flops happen, and also how fans choose to contribute their own spin on things. As anime is an active fandom, with many participants, it was important to at least give examples on how we engage with our media, and make it our own. 
  • Berserk- This opening is another hot mess. It really can't decide what it wants to be- the music is atrocious, half the clips look like a modeling shoot, and there is literally zero references to the plot of the show. Had I not known what Berserk was ahead of time, this would easily have turned me off. 
  • Don Dracula- Given that this show came out in the 80s, the opening has a decidedly 60s feel to it. And it should: this was a Tezuka series, and it smacks of his style. That the entire opening is meant to be ridiculous is obvious, as Tezuka had a way to making even the most serious of tales humorous. 
  • Fist of the North Star, live-action- Putting yourself in the opening is not rare, as youtube has plenty of examples of eager fans acting in front of a blue screen and overlaying the image onto their favorite openings. While this one is hilarious, bear in mind that the two youths devoted time and effort into making it as accurate as possible. 
  • Cosby Bebop- TANK! has been parodied more times than I can count. This one is the worst of the bunch, but I have to give credit for making it so utterly, completely unnecessary, and fun beyond words. 

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