For a while, I didn't even know the name of the first anime series I ever watched. I didn't even know it was "anime". It was merely this curious-looking TV show that appeared in one of the leased-time programming blocks on a UHF station that reached my house in northern New Jersey in the early 1980s. Most animated shows were about cartoon animals beating each other into bloodless submission; this one was about a boy with a shaved head living in Japan's distant past. I had no way of knowing how deep my idle curiosity about that show and my fascination with Japan would run because of such things, but run it did. And here I am, thirty years later, still curious, still fascinated.
How I got here ...
If it started anywhere, though, I suspect it started with the above-mentioned Ikkyu-san, since that made me go back to the leased-time programming block to see what else might turn up. Sure enough, later on, other shows also from Japan appeared: Space Battleship Yamato, Galaxy Express 999. All of them, including Ikkyu-san, aired with English subtitles. (Between those and the foreign films that aired on PBS, the idea of reading my movies was something I got comfortable with at an early age.) But again, the idea that I was watching something special called "anime" hadn't entered my mind yet.
In a way, I got into anime backwards. The idea of Japan being a place of interesting things had lodged in my mind early enough that at the tender age of ten, I found myself spending one of my last dollars on a Yukio Mishima novel that proved too tough for me to plow through at the time. A little later came Akira Kurosawa's Ran, just then in theaters for the first time, and the impact of that sent me scurrying back to the library with a whole passel of names to research: Kurosawa himself, composer Toru Takemitsu, actor Tatsuya Nakadai. The books I unearthed about Japan's live-action film industry dated from too far back and were too narrow in scope to say anything substantive about animation. There had to be more.
It wasn't until six years later, when AKIRA got fairly dropped on my head by a friend, that I was reminded in a full-blown way that yes, Japan did animation too. Boy, did they ever. With far more ambition and enormity of purpose than most anything in this side of the Pacific, too, from what I'd seen. That touched off the second phase of my "Japan thing", punctuated not only by buying up anime itself, but back issues of the late lamented Mangajin and remaindered copies of Anime UK. A whole culture of others existed who were as curious as I was.
I wasn't aware of how the very nature of my enthusiasm would become its own obstacle. For the longest time, it was difficult to sit down at a table with other anime fans who didn't know anything about Japan per se without feeling mildly sorry for them: look at what perspectives and insight you guys are missing out on! And I was the one to bring it to them, of course. It took some time to learn, sometimes the hard way, how this snobbism and elitism was counterproductive. (Heck, there might well be plenty of people in Japan who don't get all the references either.)
... and where I'm going
A large part of why I launched Ganriki stemmed from wanting to talk about anime in a thoughtful but not stuffy way — to explore the ideas I was developing and bring them to a wider audience, and to make my own process of discovery into a shared one. In the year since I've launched the site, I've not only found a voice for it but refined it, and refined the mission around it as well.
For one, I no longer limit the scope of Ganriki to just talking about the greatest and best of anime. In fact, I've found that's counterproductive — not just in the sense that it would give a reader a distorted sense of what anime is and can be, but because it deprived me of that many more things to talk about. Few people consciously set out to create something bad, and any show that arrives trailing a great deal of popularity in its wake must be saying something to all those who strain to hear it. Identifying those things, turning them over and looking at their undersides, popping them open to see what makes them tick — all that is just as much worth it for a not-so-good show, or a bad show, as it is for a good or even great piece of work.
Another thing I've realized is how you stump for a great show makes all the difference. Not every fan responds to the idea that something is mandatory viewing just because it's an older show, or because it influenced this or that other thing. (The only people who care about who got there first, or who influenced what, are critics themselves.) What they want to know is where the greatness really is: what does this show do so well, or so unlike anything else in its class, that's still worth picking up on after all this time? Is it the kind of greatness that tends to be handed down between critics (Angel's Egg), or the kind that most anyone can pick up on (Cowboy Bebop)? It was easy for me to confuse those distinctions before, or pretend they didn't exist out of convenience.
One thing that's even clearer to me now than when I first launched the site is how over the last fifteen-plus years — the span of time during which I can safely say I was watching anime actively — anime has changed in ways I now have a hard time thinking of as anything but inevitable. The last several years have borne witness to a brutal implosion of the market, no thanks in part to the industry catering all the more to an audience that grows both older and smaller. The technical sophistication of your average show has gone way up, but the spectrum of ingredients has contracted. Less of it is aimed generally at young people who watch TV, and more of it at a self-selecting, insular group called "anime fans". The venerable Studio Ghibli has found itself treated as a near-irrelevancy.
And yet I'm not inclined to write off the industry altogether. Each season yields up at least one surprise, and the last couple of years have yielded productions whose popularity is entirely deserved: Attack on Titan, Free!, Psycho-Pass. Other productions have come out of nowhere that are as daring, experimental, or dazzling as anything released in decades past, better even: [C] - Control, Wandering Son, RED LINE, The Tatami Galaxy. Not all of these titles have received the attention or the distribution they've deserved, but the mere fact of their existence is good news. More independent distributors like GKIDS and Cinelicious are picking up underappreciated or out-of-the-way anime titles, not just for enshrinement on Blu-ray Disc but for in-theater screenings too. Titles I would never have imagined receiving a legitimate release are making their way into the market. Legal streaming services have put more anime titles than ever within the reach of fans, even those on tight budgets.
Out of all this has come another understanding, one I started Ganriki with but which has become all the more sharpened by my time with it so far. It makes little sense to complain about the commercialism of anime, in big part because commerce is an aspect of just about any creative act apart from the most insular ones. Anime is an art form, no matter how it comes into existence or in what guise. I always hope for that many more Mushi-shis or Gurren Laganns and that many less harem "comedies", but I know now how what looks like a mundane, routine piece of work can conceal unexpected surprises. The other week I was sent a show called The Devil is a Part-Timer, and was prepared to write it off just from the title alone. I'm glad I didn't.
The motto I devised for Ganriki upon its inception was "anime seen anew". I realize now what I meant by that. It wasn't just for the sake of what I would be showing to others, but what I'd be realizing for myself: that the great things are not just the ones that announce themselves, but are also where you choose to look for them. Here's to many more years of looking with new eyes.