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Archive for December 18th, 2010

By Bob Clark

When it comes to the great sci-fi experiments on television in the past decade, it’s easy to be blindsided and pay attention only to the works on either side of the English speaking pond, with modern classics like Lost, Dollhouse and the Battlestar Galactica remake showing in the US, and efforts like Life on Mars, Torchwood and the revamped Doctor Who in the UK. Just as live-action science-fiction has enjoyed popularity on both coasts of the Atlantic, so too have animated efforts begun to occupy higher and higher profiles across the Pacific, almost becoming ubiquitous to a new generation of genre enthusiasts. Partly this is due to the increase of outlets for such works– between late-night cable line-ups like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, DVD releases and streaming/downloadable content over the internet, it has become easier and easier for fans of American and Japanese animation to get their fixes, no matter where they are. While the US has seen is fair share of powerful cartoon sci-fi in the past decade– from original works like Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack and George Lucas & Dave Filoni’s CGI Clone Wars series to Paul Dini & Bruce Timm’s continued and stylish mining of the DC Comics universe in Batman Beyond and the Justice League serials– the most thought provoking and adventurous fare tended to hail, as always, from the East. Kenji Kamiyama’s Stand Alone Complex series continued the Ghost in the Shell franchise in a fashion that blended Masamune Shirow’s original manga and Mamoru Oshii’s cinematic adaptation in a near-perfect synthesis of cyberpunk action and philosophical intrigue, and Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent provided an essential canvas for an artist of almost limitless creative potential, and sadly less time left than anybody could have predicted.

While these works, and plenty others, provide some of the strongest, most engaging sci-fi produced in any medium over the decade, my own personal favorite of the bunch is a show that, like many other recent genre experiments, has enjoyed a far less celebrated fate. Broadcast in Japan from October 1999 to January 2000 and debuting on American television in April 2001, The Big O was a show that flew so far under the radar it’s almost a miracle that anybody managed to hear about it at all. Yet another in the long line of anime concerning intrepid heroes piloting giant robots in do-or-die fighting to save the world, or whatever’s left of it, it at first seemed nothing more than just a rather generic knock-off of more famous series like Robotech, Gundam or Neon Genesis Evangelion, especially in the way that it attempted to assume a lot of the same kinds of hokey philosophical quandaries amidst all the fever-pitch mech-on-mech battles. Even worse, a first glance at the series seemingly revealed it to have derivative qualities of Western works, as well as those from its native Japan– its design and animation bore more than a passing resemblance to the rich blacks and retro stylings of Timm & Dini’s Batman series, a suspicion all but confirmed upon discovering the show was produced by the same studio that did work for the animated caped-crusader. As such, there were many who wrote off the show as an effort that simply wasn’t worth the time to become invested in, but those who did so both missed an opportunity to enjoy one of the smartest sci-fi blends of the decade, and to help a series find an audience just when it needed it most. But there were those of us who saw The Big O for what it was, and if it was our job back then to help earn the program a second chance at life, as fans of Firefly and Jericho would later, perhaps it’s now our duty to show everyone else exactly what they had missed out on, before, and keep the memory alive.

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(JAPAN 2001 125 min)

Director / Writer Hayao Miyazaki; Voice Acting Rumi Hiraki (Chihiro – Japanese), Daveigh Chase (Chihiro – English)

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

It is a privilege to see a young girl mature through the eyes of Hayao Miyazaki.

Visiting an old abandoned theme park on the way to their new home, Chihiro and her parents find a feast laid before them. Tucking greedily into the steaming spread her Mum and Dad will soon turn into pigs. Full of panic Chihiro wishes the strange world that has enveloped her to vanish but instead it is she who begins to disappear. Drawn bewildered into the other-worldly bath-house, her name, her very identity is taken from her. She is no longer Chihiro but Sen. Her journey, therefore, and the story of Spirited Away, is the creation of a new self: stronger and more determined, more responsible and more compassionate. She will not let herself fade away.

The world of the spirits represents the overwhelming and strange world of imminent adulthood. Chihiro faces challenges that few young girls face (back-breaking work, life and death battles with evil sorcery) but she will have to make choices that all young people will be faced with, choices that require an adult’s maturity and intelligence. When she is finally reunited with her parents, having passed a sphinx-like test to ensure their transformation back into human form, the prospect of a new school and a new home that had so daunted her before now seems like child’s play:

“A new home and a new school, it is a bit scary”

“I think I can handle it”

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