Vaughn & Arlys’ Top Ten Anime Picks

Above, the SOS Brigade with Haruhi Suzumiya.

They say television is a wasteland, and although things have improved with cable series like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, it’s no secret that America’s entertainment industry gets much of its inspiration from foreign sources. TV executives in America are risk-averse and will always back a proven money maker over an untested concept. Not so in Japan, where a burgeoning animation industry produces dozens of new quality series per year, a significant portion of which are aimed at adults. My son Lowell, who is now in college, got us hooked in Japanese animation, popularly called anime, and over the last five years we’ve watched at least 40 complete series. Below I’ve listed some of our favorites, with brief summaries for the benefit of the uninitiated.

None of the shows in our list are “kid’s” cartoons, and nothing in our list would be appropriate for young children but most would be fine for teenagers. I’ve deliberately omitted any feature-length movies, and we avoid the super-popular teen series such as Bleach or Fruits Basket. Nonetheless, most of our picks are relatively popular within anime fandom. All ten of them happen to be science fiction or fantasy, though there is quality content in every genre.

Most of these shows were derived from manga (the Japanese term for a graphic novel) though neither us have read many of those. We prefer to watch these shows (and, for that matter, all foreign films) with subtitles. After watching a few episodes with English-language dubbing, we decided that the subtitles seem to be better capture the writer’s original meanings, as well as the subtleties of Japanese culture. This glimpse into Japanese life, as well as their view of Western society, is fascinating as well as entertaining.

Here they are, listed in Letterman-style reverse order.

10. Black Butler (2008-2009) – Set in Victorian London, this show’s protagonists are the wealthy orphan Ciel Phantomhive and his guardian/butler Sebastian, who is secretly a demon in human form. My son derides this as a “teenage girl” series but nonetheless it fits our preference for the dark and quirky. The show mixes elements of horror and the supernatural with the slapstick comedy of the manor’s bumbling servants. The intense devotion of Sebastian (his favorite tag-line: “I’m one hell of a butler”) for the angry, brooding Ciel borders on creepiness. Perhaps reading the manga would clarify their relationship.

9. Steins;Gate [sic] (2011) – A sci-fi series based on a visual novel/game that was later made into a manga. It involves a group of teenagers/young adults who stumble upon an ingenious way to alter the past, by inventing a device that let them to send text messages to their previous selves. Much of the story arc revolves around the tragic death of innocent young Mayushii and her friend Okarin’s dogged determination to undo that event. With every attempt he makes, his interventions in the time line have further unintended consequences.

8. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006) – This seems at first like the typical “slice of life” high school comedy until we realize that the title character, a bright but domineering teenage girl, unknowingly possesses godlike powers over time and space. Upon arriving at her new school, she forms a social club called (for no particular reason) the “SOS Brigade.” Unknown to her, the other club members have been tasked by mysterious entities to keep her happy, so that she won’t accidentally destroy the universe in a fit of temper. The protagonist, the long-suffering Kyon, complains constantly but secretly enjoys his newly interesting life. He is the only member of the club without an extraordinary power of some sort. The show combines adventure, interpersonal drama and humor in a very entertaining mix . The writers make some very interesting choices with the story arc.

7. Bakemonogatari (Ghost Story) (2009) – Translated literally, the name means “monster story.” This is the first of a collection of anime series starring a high school boy named Koyomi Araragi, who was recently turned into a vampire and then “cured,” though her retains some supernatural abilities. The story line revolves around Araragi’s relationships with the many females in his life, including his two sisters, several classmates, the ghost of a middle schooler, and a blonde vampire woman who ages in reverse. All have some mysterious curse to overcome, though some of these maladies don’t come to light until the later series. It’s visually superb, very quirky, and occasionally erotic, though at times the pace bogs down under excessive dialog. The sequels (all with names ending in -gatarai) are also interesting but unfortunately the talkiness increases. This first one is definitely the best.

6. XXXHolic (2006) – Though the name represents a generic term for addiction (alcoholic, shopaholic) such obsessive behavior is not the primary focus of the show. The protagonist is Watanuki, a teenage boy who lives alone, having lost his parents. His curse is his ability to see the invisible spirits (nature spirits, not ghosts) that populate the modern world. While searching for a cure, he comes into the service of Yuko, a mysterious, sultry “witch” who helps clients with psychological problems. When not dishing out advice, Yuko lounges around the house in a kimono, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and constantly ordering Watanuki around. The characters (which include Yuko’s familiars, two creepy “spirit” girls and a talking rabbit-like creature) have many amusing and sometimes harrowing interactions with the supernatural world of Japanese folklore.

5. Uchouten Kazoku (2013) Translated as “Eccentric Family,” this is probably the most obscure entry in our list. This show is a gem that combines comedy and tragedy in a story line that is surprisingly moving. The primary characters are the Shimogamo family, a dysfunctional clan of tanuki, or “raccoon dogs,” animals who according to Japanese folklore have the ability to shape-shift and live in human society posing as people. The show focuses on Yasaburou, the family’s third-eldest son. His father, formerly head of all the tanuki clans in Kyoto, has died tragically, having been made into hot pot and eaten by humans in a New Years’ celebration. Other magical characters include the Shimogamos’ tutor, a tengu (bird man) called Professor Akadama, and his selfish, manipulative human girlfriend Benten. The show features some interesting gender-bending as the fun-loving Yasaburou, when in human form, likes to switch between male and female identities.

4. Attack on Titan (2009) In Japanese it’s called Shingeki no Kyojin, which means “Advancing Giants,” which is far more appropriate than the English title. Set in the distant future, the last remnants of humanity live in a multi-walled city. Here they take refuge from the Titans, giant mindless humanoid monsters who roam the earth, gobbling humans whole. In the initial episode, an extra-titanic titan breaches the outer wall, allowing the monsters to pour in. The city’s military mobilizes to drive back the creatures and save the human race. The show’s heroes are three teenagers – Eren, Mikasa, and Armin – who enlist in the Survey Corps, the first line of defense against the titans. Having no heavy artillery, the humans must kill these monsters by stabbing them in the back of the neck. Each corpsman wears a harness connected to a series of tethers and pulleys, which allows them to swing from trees and rooftops and maneuver high enough to make the kill. Some anime conventions have rated it 18+ due to violence, though I feel that in its fantasy setting it’s really no worse than Lord of the Rings. Attack has spawned a booming costume business. The tan and white Survey Corps uniforms are very popular at anime conventions. Though we fans are eagerly awaiting the sequel, its release date keeps getting pushed back.

3. Psycho-Pass (2012-2013) – This is set in a futuristic dystopian Japan ruled by an all-powerful networked computer system called Sybil. The rule of law has been replaced by a police state which constantly monitors the mental health of all citizens. The “psycho-pass” is an identification document which changes color to reflect the bearer’s mental state. The show features a unit of the police agency charged with apprehending (and in extreme cases, terminating) anyone whose “psycho pass” shows mental distress exceeding the legal limits. The heroine is the rookie cop Akane Tsunemori, a strong and complex female character who, contrary to anime convention, is not overly sexified.

2. Death Note (2006-2007) – Here’s another mega-popular show that’s been a long-time favorite for conventions and cosplayers. If one disregards the supernatural premise, it’s a crime drama that pits an eccentric detective against a brilliant villain. Death Note considers the question of what happens when a good person acquires absolute power. “Light” Yagami, Japan’s top honor student, finds a mystical notebook (intentionally abandoned by a shinigami, or “death god”) that grants him the power to kill anyone he wishes. All he needs to do is write the name in the notebook along with the cause of death, while keeping the person’s face in his mind (to eliminate the issue of duplicate names.) Light begins with the goal of ridding the world of violent criminals, but at this power goes to his head, his criteria for execution grow ever less stringent. As the police close in on him, he abandons all his former principles, using the notebook to eliminate anyone who threatens to apprehend him.

1. Cowboy Be-bop (1997-1998) – The oldest show in our list is a consistent favorite with anime fans. It’s a space opera series in which the “cowboys” (bounty hunters) Spike Spiegel and Jet Black pursue interplanetary fugitives to a classic jazz soundtrack. During their travels they accumulate a crew of oddballs and misfits, including Faye, a gypsy woman who’s awakened from 50 years in cryo-sleep, Ein, a corgi fitted with electronic implants for smuggling information, and Edward, a genius-hacker kid who has made her escape from the devastated planet Earth. Be-bop endured for just one season, but it has held its fans’ attention for far longer than that.

Bonus: one we’ve barely started:

Arly’s son David recently turned us on to Paranoia Agent (2004), another dark and quirky series that we’ve only just begun watching. A pre-teen boy known as “Lil’ Slugger” skates around on Rollerblades and attacks random people with an aluminum bat. The series appears to focus not on Slugger but his victims and how the “blow to the head” changes their lives. (And no, this isn’t a Will Smith “Concussion” drama.)


Attack on Titan

At the 2013 Saboten Con, which was held here in the Phoenix area, we all heard a lot of buzz about a new anime called Attack on Titan. The show’s popularity was obvious from the full conference room for the panel discussion on the upcoming season. There were also showings of the actual episodes, which were restricted to 18+, supposedly due to graphic violence, so I was unable to attend with my son. Intrigued by all the fuss, I vowed to check it out.

The first thing I realized was that the title is a mistranslation. There’s no place called Titan (certainly not the famous moon of Saturn) being attacked. Instead, there are beings called titans which attack humans, and are attacked in return. So it should either be Attack of the Titans or Attack on the Titans. Like a lot of anime, this show was based on a manga, which was also released as a light novel.

Secondly, the claim of graphic violence was a gross exaggeration; I would rate it a PG-13. True, people get eaten by titans, but this is typically shown from a distance. As such, it’s no more violent than Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in which people were eaten by giants and monsters all the time. The one possible exception was a flashback scene in which the main protagonist, at the age of 9, uses deadly force to rescue a friend from murderous human traffickers. Yet surely this episode, bloody as it is, provides valuable lessons in “stranger danger” and the importance of self-defense.

My third observation is that the show’s immense popularity is at least partially deserved. The action is gripping, the characters engaging, and the art style is interesting, especially when portraying the titans. The opening and closing themes are much better than average, and surprisingly relevant to the show – though not all the lyrics are subtitled. Having said that, I’ve seen many science fiction animations that were better done and less hyped.

One of the strangest things about Attack is its backstory – though admittedly, many anime have strange premises; if you’ve even seen Speed Grapher you know what I’m talking about. In an unspecified future, humans fall prey to a race of giant humanoids called Titans, who seemingly come out of nowhere. Perpetually hungry, they devour almost the entire human race, except for the inhabitants of one city, which judging by the character names, seems to be somewhere in German-speaking Europe. The surviving city has three concentric 50-meter-high walls to protect its inhabitants against the predators. This enclosed area has just enough agricultural land to feed its people, and there the human race survives for a hundred years.

As the series begins, a “colossal titan,” larger than any ever seen, arrives to kick a hole in the outer wall. Dozens of hungry titans pour in to devour the population of the outer ring. Our unfortunate protagonist, a teenage boy named Eren Jaeger, escapes with his two best friends, but not before witnessing his mother being gobbled up by one of the marauding giants. He then swears to exterminate the entire titan race.

The weird thing about the Titans, which makes the whole plot line a bit difficult to swallow, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that they’re both slow and stupid. They don’t speak or wear clothing. They vary in size from 3 to 15 meters in height, and mostly look like giant naked men without genitalia (probably omitted more for reasons of censorship than plot.) Yet they are surprisingly difficult to kill, and never lose their appetites for human flesh. They are perfect “eating machines,” like two-legged land sharks.

What’s more, human technology has at this point devolved to something like a steampunk level. The only way a person can kill a a titan is to don a special jet pack which allows him or her (it’s an equal opportunity army) to fly close enough to stab the Titan in its only vulnerable spot, the base of its neck. Often as not, this maneuver results in the demise of the soldier rather than the Titan.

Though I won’t give any spoilers in this column, I will say that my guess about the Titans’ origin, which I made about 4 episodes in, was substantially correct. Another aspect of the show I greatly appreciated was its stealth libertarian message: the city government is portrayed as being incompetent to defend the people and callously indifferent to their fate.

On a scale of 1-5, I would give the show a 4. I recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction action and doesn’t mind a little blood. You also need to have the capacity for a Harry Potter-esque suspension of disbelief. Be advised that the tragic events of the first 2 or 3 shows are really disheartening. Keep watching; it gets better.

Episodes of Attack on Titan are available for streaming on and

Super Milk Dud and the Suicidal Sensei

For some reason, most science fiction fans also love Japanese anime, and I’m no exception. Perhaps that’s because these shows are much more creative than American animation, and the stories and settings are often quite bizarre. Those anime that incorporate humor are well-suited for my warped, Monty Pythonesque sensibilities. Occasionally, though, I find something that’s too weird even for me.

Last week my teenage son introduced me to The Super Milk Chan Show. Although we like a lot of the same things, this one had me puzzled. First of all, on the website we were on, it was designated for “mature audiences” and I had to log into my Facebook account to view it. That was amusing, given that I can watch full-fledged pornography on my computer simply by clicking a button that says “I certify I am over 18.” In any case, Milk Chan appeared promising at first. On the first episode we watched, the characters were discussing a news story about a world’s record being set for the longest human turd. Perhaps this is what passes for Japanese gross-out humor. If so, the Japanese are more fastidious than we are, because the few shows we saw wasn’t nearly as cool as The Ren and Stimpy Show.

The protagonist of the show is a little girl named Milk Chan who wears a costume and investigates crimes. Though she fancies herself a superhero, she has no powers except her obnoxious personality and rampant greed (when someone mentions money, yen symbols appear in her eyes.) Her sidekicks are Tetsuko, a nagging robot who looks like a talking water tank, and Hanage, a green slug, who never speaks. If I had to pick a favorite character, it would be the slug. Was it silly? Yes, extremely. Was it funny? Not particularly.

On the other hand, if you want more cerebral, albeit morbid, humor, you can’t go wrong with Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei, which in English is Goodbye, Mister Despair. This is another of my son’s favorites, and this time I agree with him. It’s a light-hearted romp about Nozomu Itoshiki, a chronically depressed high school teacher, and his dysfunctional students. In the first episode, cute teenager Kafuka Fuura (who is so relentlessly optimistic that she enters the realm of denial) saves his life by preventing him from hanging himself. Surprise, he later shows up at school as her new teacher. All of Nozomu’s female students (the class is coed but the show mostly ignores the boys) suffer from various maladies that include obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, stalking, and domestic violence.

The humorous treatment of these serious topics will surely offend politically correct Americans, but so what? One of humor’s most important functions is to help people cope with life’s problems. It’s also healthy to laugh at oneself. My favorite character is Kaere Kimura, a foreign exchange student with obviously American traits. She’s the class’s only blonde, and is much taller and bustier than the other girls. If anyone gets a glimpse of her panties (which happens frequently, due to the shortness of her skirts) she screams, “I’ll sue you for sexual harassment!”

Mr. Despair, or SZS as it’s also known, has one more interesting feature. All the characters’ names are Japanese puns, which are achieved by regrouping the characters of their names. That’s why poor Nozomu Itoshiki is always depressed. Regrouped, his name reads “Mister Despair.” The episodes in the first series are quite strange- the various characters are introduced, have identity crises, disappear and reappear. The second season doesn’t quite match the first season’s morbid brilliance. It’s dominated by observational humor a la Seinfeld (in one episode, for example, Nozomu and his students poke fun at snooty restaurants that don’t accept “first-timers.”) Yet it’s still pretty funny. At its lowest point it’s still miles above the ridiculous Milk Chan.

Super Milk Chan is available on and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is on,,, and probably others.

Sci-Fi Pros and Cons

Recently I attended the 39th Annual Leprecon in Mesa, Arizona. No, it wasn’t an Irish festival, but a science fiction convention, so named because it was originally held around March 17th. I have attended several of these events in the past, and this one was a good time as always. Unfortunately, Leprecon’s attendance seems to have fallen off in recent years, and 2013 was no exception.

As far as I can tell, these conventions haven’t changed much over the years. There are still lots of interesting people and activities. There are sci-fi and fantasy related panel discussions, signings by authors (including, this year, yours truly), a game room, dealer room and art show, and a theme dinner on Saturday night. The average age is increasing, though. Most attendees appear to be to be baby boomers or Gen X’ers. I’ve noticed a similar trend at Coppercon, which is the Phoenix area’s other annual sci-fi convention. Coppercon has been traditionally held in September, but for 2013 it will be August 8th through 11th.

It seems that these small, local gatherings are being upstaged by the mighty Phoenix Comicon (Phoenix Convention Center, Memorial Day Weekend), which has always been jam-packed with people of all ages whenever I’ve been there. Of course, it’s a fraction of size of the mother of all Comicon’s in San Diego. Contrary to its name, Comicon isn’t just about comic books; there are strong elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror in all media. In the past they’ve hosted talks by Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, the cast of Star Trek Next Generation, and Max Brooks, author of World War Z.

Perhaps this is just part of the overall trend of consolidation, in which small stores, organizations, and events are being supplanted by larger ones with a national or international scope. Happily, there’s another side to that story. Anime (Japanese animation) conventions are now quite popular. In the Phoenix area there are at least two – Saboten-con, which is held in September and Taiyou-con in January. Here, the attendees are overwhelmingly in their teens and twenties. Of course, anime is not the sole focus; they also focus on manga (comic books) and video games. It’s not completely Japanese, either. Recently they’ve been swarmed by legions of Homestuck fans. For the benefit of you older folks, this is a wildly popular web-comic created by an American, Andrew Hussie. At anime cons you will see hordes of teenagers dressed as the Homestuck “trolls,” which involves lots of gray skin paint, rainbow-striped “horns” glued to the forehead, and t-shirts bearing zodiac signs.

This brings me to another point – at anime conventions, cosplay (costume play) is huge, as much or more so than any stereotypical Trekkie convention. Homestuck is not the only series that fans flatter by imitation. Another extremely popular theme is the anime series Hetalia, in which characters represent the different countries of the world. Older folks (myself and girlfriend included) also enjoy dressing up, especially in the “steampunk” genre. The Dark Ones, a local sci-fi-related social group, made this the theme of their biennial Dark-Con in 2012. I have not yet made it to the steampunk-oriented Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, but I’ve been hearing great things about it. Yet another costuming craze is the “furry” scene, in which people don full-body animal costumes. (Yes, you may have heard tales – or should I say “tails” – of rampant kinkiness in this group but a friend assures me that those “creepy furries” are a small minority.) Phoenix will host a “Fur Con” this October. It sounds interesting but personally, I’m too claustrophobic to want to wear a cartoon animal head for any length of time.

Despite my initial worries, I don’t think the sci-fi/fantasy convention scene is going away any time soon. It’s just changing and adapting with the times. Since my convention experience is, at the moment, confined to Arizona and Southern California, I welcome comments from my readers about their own perspectives. Are the traditional sci-fi cons dying out? Are fan gatherings with a costume-related theme on the rise? I’m quite tired of seeing only spammer-generated comments for genuine cheap imitation designer handbags, so if you’re out there, please respond!