Monday, May 17, 2010

The Privilege of being a Survival Anime: Jyu Oh Sei, GANTZ and Tokyo Magnitude 8.0

There must be as many kinds of anime in this world as one can count stars in the sky; mindfuck, idiotic fluff, allegorical stories, adventure and action, anime with societal themes, psychological, martial arts, anime exploiting mature sexual themes or anime that keeps getting stuck at middle-school level. There is anime that presents itself as a fable, stories which are an intellectual challenge even to the smartest of the fanbase, and there’s also anime that isn’t intending to be smart or amazingly well constructed, solely focusing on the level of entertainment. There’s also anime that mercilessly makes you laugh hysterically without being able to stop. Stomach ache sucks, but I still love you Ouran xD!

In principle, there’s a lot of interesting things to say about almost all genres, but today I really feel like highlighting one in particular. I’d like to point out the survival anime, as it holds a curious place among other genres. It’s substantially different from the others in a few remarkable ways.

First, let me tell you a bit about three survival anime that have recently graced the retinas of my eyes: Jyu Oh Sei, GANTZ and Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. They’re all survival anime and while
 I’m aware of the fact that they are totally different from eachother, there are also some noteworthy similarities between the three.

Jyu Oh Sei is about the 11-years old Thor and his twin brother Rai. They live on the advanced space colony Juno, but when their parents are murdered by the special forces they are kidnapped and abandoned on the prison planet Chimera. On Chimera, carnivorous plants have supreme reign over the rest of its inhabitants. Plagued by the extreme seasons and low chances of survival, in a world where humanity has reverted back to the principles of survival of the fittest, Thor must become stronger than all the others and take the only ticket off the planet: becoming the Beast King.

Aside from having a totally kickass and rythmically interesting OP (listen to the OP here), extremely neat animation, good character designs and Kazuya Nakai (Zagi in JOS, Zoro in One Piece (kyaaaa xD), Hijikata in Gintama, to name a few of his splendid roles) as one of the seiyu, I must applaud JOS with a few of its achievements. Firstly, its world concept is incredibly convincing and engaging. The rich-coloured designs of the plant population of Chimera, the tribe-like structered society, it all draws your attention instantly – and sustains it. Characters constantly have to be on alert as their lives could be taken in the blink of an eye if they slack off for a second. Action is done neatly, and the interplay between the three most interesting male leads (Thor, Third and Zagi) makes for an engaging, mature watch. The only major flaw of JOS is possibly also it’s most tragic one; instead of slowly developing Thor as a human being maturing and becoming stronger, the anime uses a kind of awkward time leap at ¾ of the story and ends in a pretty cheap sci-fi way. It would have been so much more interesting to see more of the inner workings of the tribe system and the character development of Thor. But well, what shall I say, in spite of the time leap which was awkwardly chosen at best, this was a great survival anime with an engaging story and a very convincing world concept.

GANTZ is about Kei, a perverted, instantly unlikable human being, and his self-sacrificing childhood friend Katou. They both die a messy death in episode 1 by being torn apart by a train and subsequently materialize in a room full of strangers and a black sphere called GANTZ. To keep living, they must now follow GANTZ’ game and fight for their freedom by killing aliens with an arsenal of guns, suits, and a very low survival rate.

As cheesy as this premise may sound, its execution is actually done in quite an original way. The blood and gore easily rival Elfen Lied, main characters die in the most gruesome ways and the aliens make sure survival rates barely rise above zero, though they look and act majestically lame. The most interesting part of this anime, though, is the heavilly flawed main character. Kei is easily one of the biggest jerks on the planet. Yeah, you heard it right – at the end of the first episode you’ll have lost your faith in the good and sincere side of humanity. Although Kei’s foul attitude only changes a little when the series progresses, it’s truly interesting to see him morphing from a pathetic coward into a reckless, courageous fighter. Katou, on the other hand, wants to save his friends at all cost, but can’t bring himself to kill the aliens. Usually he waits for others to beat the shit out of the extraterrestrials, so in spite of his sincerity he comes across as hypocritical at times. Kei (the woman, she has the same name as the male lead, geez why did they do that, I wonder) could have been incredibly interesting, but sadly is just used as sexual relief. What makes this series truly interesting is the rawness, sex and violence without idealizing them or making them pretty. The ugly sides of human kind exposed without any kind of shame. It was a very intriguing watch – still, I hated it for only having 26 episodes and consequently a lame ending (the manga progresses differently at some point). The whole thing could easily have had more depth if they ‘d have wrapped it up nicely in the end and explained something meaningful about the situation they were in.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. Teenager Mirai unwillingly accompanies her little brother Yuuki to a robot exhibition, when an earthquake hits Tokyo with a magnitude of 8.0 on the scale of Richter. Together with an adult woman called Mari, they try to get home. It’s a dangerous journey full of collapsing buildings, aftershocks and a disturbing shortage of medical care.
First of all, it’s quite fascinating to see a massive city like Tokyo collapse all down to the core, and seeing a city that large in such a state of chaos is indeed quite unsettling. It was a true visual spectacle. The leads are nothing special; just normal people and normal children, when, pushed to their limits, clearly show their weaknesses and unexpected strengths. This shows that it can go either way: some people only care for themselves in life-or-death situations, others show remarkable signs of altruïsm. Some people give up on their lives easily, others are blessed with incredible tenacity and will to survive. Also, this show was realistic in the sense that it was based on an awful lot of research. Finally, I haven’t cried myself senseless like this since Clannad After Story, so prepare for a truly hearth-wrenching ending.

Well, let’s start by pointing out a few of the obvious differences between the three series. While JOS and GANTZ feature notably more action, gore and violence, TM mainly focuses on the dramatic inpact events have on the main characters. TM comes across as somewhat less cruel and bleak than the others, while it’s technically the most realistic one of the lot. Also, it’s focused on powerless children and an adult, trying their best to cope with the aftereffects of a natural disaster, while the leads in the other two series actively have to act and fight to get out of continuous pinches. The first two feature pretty kickass characters, while TM purposely focused on how normal people act in a disaster situation. At the same time JOS and GANTZ are notably less heart-wrenching and emotionally engaging than TM. In all, a lot of characters die and you surely feel that it sucks, but it is only in TM that you feel the emotional punch all down to your gut.

JOS and GANTZ, on the other hand, are much more similar. While JOS is a distinctive experience because of the world concept and shocking survival-of-the-fittest philosophy, GANTZ manages to pull you in by high-stakes-games with extreme graphic violence and sexuality. GANTZ is, in many ways, much more intense, cruel and shocking (even to the point of feeling nauseated) than JOS, in which the shock value lies more in the harsh reality of Chimera. Still, in both the leads have to continually react to their environments, be physically strong and make some cruel decisions regarding the lives of others just for the sake of saving their own. In both, dire situations call forth (unwilling) leaders who try to take control of the dangers around them, while also allowing some romantical or sexual undertones (more so in GANTZ than JOS). While Jyu Oh Sei may have the most kickass leads, naturally talented and beautiful bishies (and, not to forget the gorgeous voice of Kazuya Nakai, Kazuya Nakai and… oh yeah, Kazuya Nakai :-P), the flawed and foulminded characters in GANTZ are also endlessly intriguing.

So, what is it in survival anime that’s so interesting to watch? Firstly, I think people find it fascinating to see what happens on the edge of life and death; what decisions people make, how they react to threats, what kind of people they turn into, and most importantly, if they live or die. It makes for the kind of tension that is unknown in the shounen ring, in which series focus on totally likable and badass leads growing stronger through a lot of hardships, and at the end of their long quests attaining their goals and living happily ever after. Main characters of survival anime don’t have that luxory. They don’t have special rights of survival and just die along with all the side characters that usually die in shounen. Leads of survival anime are constantly on the move, always on alert. They are not thinking in terms of winning or losing a fight, but putting their very own lives on the line as they desperately try to survive in the most impossible of situations. Of course, the most important is the psychological impact those situations have on the main characters and I think that’s exactly what makes survival anime so intensely intriguing; the dichotomy of life and death, determination and weakness, cowardice and courage, betrayal and friendship and sometimes just being lucky or unlucky.


  1. I can really only comment on TM8.0, but there is one spot of the whole coping with disasters thing that I'm somewhat uncomfortable with and that's in Mari not seemingly taking note of the fact that Mirai is still imagining Yuuki at her side. To a certain extent, I can see how she wants to let the loss run its natural course, but you would think that Mari would step in at some point. Having it drag on for that long was a bit... odd. Maybe this is something that's attributable to Mari: willing to help with lightening others' physical pain, but not so much on the emotional ones.

  2. Yeah, when the whole situation started to sink in I also thought it was odd how Mari didn't interfere. This was such a realistic series but at the same time that event was somewhat supernatural. It didn't quite contribute to the consistency and realism of the series but at the same time I was completely blown away by the shock. That was extremely neatly done, I have to say :P. I think it's a big achievement if a series can make you cry, it's proof that I was completely taken in by it. Anyway thanks for commenting ;)!

  3. Great read, especially the interesting final paragraph - I think that sometimes we all wonder exactly what we'd do in such an extreme situation (ie, life or death), given how they don't exactly show up often in real life. It's a true measure of a person, and watching others go through it is fascinating to say the least. We all like to think that we'd be brave and do the right thing if all was going to hell around us, but how could we ever know until we experienced it?

    Another thing that I always thought linked in was the 'competition' aspect of survival anime - as in, the competition to survive in a disastrous situation, whilst trying to make morally sound choices. I'd also draw (an admittedly tenuous) comparison with some shounen tournament arcs that are done well, for similar reasons.

    Ramble over, anyway - fantastic blog guys, I love it!