The Terrytoons Studio: The 1930 Shorts

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Walt Disney’s emergence in the late 1920s and 1930s as the head of the most prominent (and popular) animation studio in the United States developed as the result of various shrewd business decisions, including the employment of various animators (such as those who became known as the “Nine Old Men”) who could produce high-quality animation for his company’s productions and the incorporation of new techniques, such as synchronized sound, that would distinguish the studio’s work from rival companies; the Disney company itself would nearly go bankrupt several times in the following decades (most notably in the immediate postwar years leading to Cinderella‘s release in 1950, as well as the narrow avoidance of a takeover by Saul Steinberg in the 1980s) but it survived each individual difficulty with resurgences in its popularity. Such is the fame of Disney that the company that bears his name remains the biggest individual studio in the United States, although numerous other companies such as DreamWorks produce their own animated fare to draw audiences; however, Disney was not the only studio active in the early days of American animation. In fact, various rival studios existed at the time and even before – John Randolph Bray supervised the first major American animation studio (which he founded in New York in 1914), and through this implemented the assembly line process that eventually became standard practice for many years. One of Bray’s employees, Paul Terry, will be a focus for this post – Terry began his career in animation at Bray’s studio, before establishing his own studio in 1917 (which eventually closed when the United States entered World War 1). His greatest success came with his Terrytoons studio, which he founded in 1929 after being fired by Amadee J. Van Beuren for refusing to adapt synchronized sound into his films; through Terrytoons, Terry introduced the character of Mighty Mouse, as well as the crows Heckle and Jeckle (perhaps the studio’s most enduring legacies).

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Yu Yu Hakusho Episode 1: Sacrifice and Trial

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One of the most popular shounen series ever produced, Yu Yu Hakusho initially ran in the pages of Shounen Jump between 1990 and 1994 – it relates the story of hapless delinquent Urameshi Yusuke as he discovers the world of the spirits and develops mystical powers, opposing numerous monstrous forces along the way.  The term used her to refer to the spirit world, reikai, originated in Shinto theology as a general term denoting the world inhabited by supernatural beings (in contrast to the material world inhabited by humans); Yu Yu Hakusho quickly establishes the duality between the spirit and physical worlds in its first episode by demonstrating how a human could traverse from one realm to the other through Yusuke, and how the two realms interact regularly, even if humans might not realize it. What makes this series fairly unusual is that it presents its protagonist as a delinquent with a reputation – Yusuke performs an altruistic act by saving a young boy from certain death (thus showing him to have compassion), but the brief flashback reveals his place in society as a boy who apparently became so notorious in his community that rumors circulate about his abilities as a juvenile delinquent who leads a rather large gang. Yusuke seemingly speaks to the audience by providing details of his day prior to his untimely death, serving as the episode’s narrator; he struggles to meet social expectations in a world critical of him, although he does disregard school and get into fights with other delinquents (thus cementing his reputation among everyone else as a man not to be trifled with, even though he has done nothing to deserve such a perception). As the episode progresses, however, we see a more compassionate side of Yusuke – his death allows him to reflect on his life after seeing those around him attend his wake, and he has no regrets in his decision to save the boy (even though he learns, after the fact, that the boy was destined to get struck by the car and survive without injury).


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Serial Experiments Lain Episode 1: Connecting to the Wired

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Serial Experiments Lain occupies an odd niche in anime – it debuted on 6 July 1998, running until September of that year, during the formative years of the increasingly social nature of the Internet (prior to the advent of popular sites such as Youtube, with Google founded the same year as the series’ initial broadcast). The emergence of the Internet as a social phenomenon in the early 1990s occurred after the globalization of the TCP/IP protocol suite during the previous decade – the 1980s marked the first forays into Web socialization, with bulletin boards popping up throughout the decade, and the 1990s saw further developments with the likes of the first true websites (such as the very first, operated by CERN, which they announced back in 1991). These elements are important, because Lain focuses on the far-reaching nature of the Internet and the World Wide Web and their effects on human society – by 1998, the practical applicability of both concepts became apparent, as major companies such as Warner Bros. (who set up websites promoting films during the decade) opted to incorporate the technology into their marketing, and a handful of anime at the time (such as Lain and .hack//Sign) began exploring the social implications of the technology.


Yoshitoshi ABe provided the character designs while Ryūtarō Nakamura directed; ABe later went on to produce Niea 7 and Haibane Renmei, the latter of which examines a mysterious, dreamlike work inhabited by angelic beings known as the Haibane. Lain incorporates numerous themes into its framework, mostly from literature and computing technology; as such, it can be quite complex to understand, and it is quite serious in tone. In fact, the show begins with the suicide of Chisa Yomoda, who attended the same school as Lain, the protagonist – this somber moment ultimately brings us to the core of the anime, that of the social connectivity and ramifications of the Internet. When the show depicts the suicide, it frames it through the imagery of people going about their day, unaware of what’s around them – the world seems a cold, indifferent place, surrounded by numerous reminders of the sort of technological advancement that came to define not only Japanese society, but the world at large. We, as a species, have become more connected than ever before, but paradoxically, people do not seem to capitalize on that ability to connect; much of the first episode, in fact, places Lain in a clearly delineated space separate from those around her. When Chisa jumps from the building, she is framed as alone in the world; her reason for committing suicide is unclear, but individually-framed fragments of what appear to be a text message inform the audience of her emotions – she’s despondent, as one would be in that situation, and she feels like she has no real recourse but to take her own life.


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The lingering feeling from these opening shots seems to be one of lost connections, trying to cope with a world increasingly become disconnected with life in general; the world around Chisa either pays her no mind or (in one case, with the women who laugh) doesn’t seem to understand what she’s going through. Chisa cannot rely on the strangers around her to reach out; her suicide becomes more tragic when one realizes those near her could have intervened, but didn’t. This element is reflected in a later scene, but for now, Chisa dies alone, with no one nearby to assist her in her most tragic moment; with her final message spread across the screen, she apparently already decided she doesn’t wish to remain in “a place like this,” indicating a deep bitterness of the world around her. Upon her death, the world seems to absorb her energy; the scenery turns black, with a saturated light emanating from an unknown source, splotches of red (seemingly representing blood) dotting the landscape. One statement is shown, “if you stay in a place like this, you might not be able to connect” – an ironic statement, in that the world now offers a far greater opportunity to connect to others via the Internet, but Chisa could not find any connections in the world.

The entire world seems connected in Serial Experiments Lain – Lain herself observes the power lines found throughout her neighborhood, offering electricity to everyone, and the train she rides connects her to school and everywhere in between. The streets of Shibuya (where the opening is set) further cement the theme of connectivity; humans are more intertwined than ever before, thanks to advancements in culture and technology, but one girl is dead because the potential for social connections didn’t materialize. Lain, the protagonist of the series, seems fairly aware of this fact – one scene, involving her taking the train to school, shows her listening to indistinct, incomprehensible noises that mimic distant conversations, and it bothers her. The world seems ethereal, confusing, as if spirits inhabiting the world are trying to communicate; this ties into the underlying sentiment of the spirit world, where humans can occasionally come into contact with beings who otherwise would not converse with the average person. The emergence of the Internet brought with it a new frontier in communication – shows like .hack and Serial Experiments Lain observe how social organizations such as gaming (in .hack‘s case) and even religion (with Lain‘s case – more on that later) can capitalize on the new platform to facilitate intrapersonal communication, and sometimes people can be corrupting.


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At school, fellow students trying to console a grieving colleague (who apparently received a text message from Chisa after her death) inform her that the message she received is some sort of prank – said message spread throughout the school in the week following Chisa’s suicide, but only one person can be seen crying about her loss, which indicates that Chisa didn’t have that many friends or acquaintances in life. Those students who speak in this scene are more interested in the message than the girl whose name is attached to them; Chisa’s legacy appears to be an unusual piece of digital mail, an unusual (and rather tragic) legacy, to be certain. Even Lain is unfamiliar with Chisa – thus Chisa now exist more as a mysterious girl, someone whose memory may not be shared amongst her colleagues. However, her presence is not completely gone – Lain discovers that the world around her warps and distorts, as if reality itself were coming undone as a result of some unknown force exerting itself. This, along with other indications (such as various shadows), informs the audience that the world may not be what it seems, that an external force can influence how it operates; either someone (or something) can alter the senses to make hallucinations appear, or Lain caught a glimpse into a more complex reality that allows for such strange occurrences to happen.


The Wired, Lain‘s analogue to the Internet we see in real life, may hold the answers – Lain’s forma introduction to the Wired comes at home, when she brings home a computer capable of connecting to the Internet. When she boots it up, it asks “who are you?” – a philosophically complex question that likely helps understand the world of the show. Chisa is somehow able to make herself known through the Wired and communicate with Lain, indicating that her spirit (or essence) has extricated itself of her physical body and exists in a liminal space between realities; she is no longer the person she used to be, as she may no longer have a physical body to identify with. Her mention of a “god” immediately brings us into the world of the spiritual – does the Wired exist as a means of finding a spiritual existence beyond what is known in the mortal realm, and has Chisa discovered it? What’s unusual is that Chisa has a means of connecting with others seemingly in the afterlife – through her message, she insists that she is still alive, even without a physical body, and that a god is present. Her cryptic statements may show that she got involved with some religious/spiritual society – who is this “god” she refers to, and did she discover something that encouraged her to commit suicide? This ties back to connections; Chisa likely had no deep connections in life, and Lain herself struggles with her family. Lain’s mother is silent at the dinner table – she shows no interest when Lain tries to engage her in conversation. As for the father, he seems wrapped up in computers himself, more so than speaking with his daughter; we see him surrounded by monitors and other computer equipment, smiling as the glow of the computer screen but not looking at Lain as she expresses mild interest in computing. His explanation of how society functions through connections is ironic, as he shows little interest in Lain; the images of headless people on the computer screens shows how he doesn’t truly make connections through his technology, while Lain has a greater connection to it because of Chisa.


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The final scenes of the first episode follow Lain as she is followed by the specter of Chisa, whose presence is still felt in the real world – this is predicated on an accident involving the train, where someone else seemingly took her life by running in front of it, the second death in the series. Everything seems unusual and disturbing now, as Lain is now seeing the consequences of lost connections through visions of girls who have unfortunately claimed their own lives; these two girls now have a means of “communicating” with a world that they left behind, and Lain is attempting to understand these events. The Wired now exists as a space for which she can figure out the details of Chisa’s death – Chisa herself seems to be imploring Lain to help, as her ghost’s presence at the end of the episode suggests she wants someone to find her. After all, she suggested outright that she is not truly gone, in her message to Lain; she anticipated that people would consider her message a hoax, and reached out to the one person she felt would understand her situation.

Natsume Yujin-cho Season 1 Episode 1: What’s In a Name

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Japan’s legendary past (as seen in works such as the Kojiki and various folk tales) is depicted as fraught with youkai and kami, and encounters with them tend to occur around sacred places like shrines or nondescript locations; youkai can be quite mischievous, as tales recounting humans encountering kitsune attest to, but not all exhibited that trait, as part of the animism tradition in Japan attributed supernatural behaviors to all things. Even unassuming items such as umbrellas can achieve spirit status – there exists a category of “tool kami,” tsukumogami, describing objects that can become spirits after reaching their 100th birthday, and numerous works of art (ranging from woodblock prints to video games) depict said tsukumogami as either neutral beings or mischievous creatures, sometimes even antagonists. Anime depictions of youkai exhibit the same trends; one of the more famous examples is InuYasha, featuring the eponymous half-dog demon whose initial antagonism towards Kagome morphs into respect as the two protagonists embark on a quest to recover the shards of the Shikon jewel. Youkai and kami are represented throughout Japanese culture as complex beings whose relationship with humans are mixed – this leads into the show featured here, Natsume Yujin-cho, an anime that debuted in 2008. This anime’s depiction of youkai in relation to humans rests primarily (if not exclusively) on the central human figure, Natsume Takahashi, whose grandmother Reiko compiled a ledger full of the names of the various youkai she encountered in her life; Takahashi has the ability to see youkai, a rare power that few others possess, and his familial connection to Reiko naturally attracted a lot of attention from the youkai who simply want to recover their names from Reiko’s “book of friends” that she produced many years ago.

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One Piece Episode 1: Luffy’s Journey Begins

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One Piece happens to be one of the major franchises of the anime world – the manga began on July 22, 1997, among the pages of Weekly Shounen Jump, and it received an anime adaptation that first aired on October 20, 1999, and runs to this day. Saying it’s a popular series is an understatement, as it stands as a long-running production (going into its 19th year of continuous broadcast, with new episodes still being produced), and it makes sense to see where it all began so many years ago; I’m looking at the first episode here, to show how Luffy’s travails as a pirate started. What’s unusual about the first episode is that it doesn’t show its primary protagonist, Monkey D. Luffy, right away – instead, it focuses on the pirate captain Alvida and her crew attacking a cruise ship for its gold, while Nami (whose formal introduction comes later) simultaneously seeks to also abscond with the treasure inside. It takes several minutes before Luffy appears; this allows for some build-up, giving some context into the world of One Piece before introducing the main character. From the outset, the world is beset by a noticeable pirate presence – Alvida, the heavyset woman who commands her crew to attack the ship, happens to be the first pirate presented in the show, and it’s not flattering. Her underlings refer to her with the -sama honorific, a very formal one that the crew likely use out of fear of reprisal from Alvida, rather than respect. This indicates that Alvida has a very high opinion of herself, feeling she is beyond reproach and can get away with disrespecting others and lording herself over those in her employ.

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Haibane Renmei Episode 2: Exploring the World

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In the introductory episode of Haibane Renmei, Rakka entered the enigmatic world of Glie, specifically the house she will inhabit as a member of the Haibane; the entire episode consisted of her being “born,” emerging from her cocoon and developing her wings (a painful process in which the wings in question break through her skin). As one might imagine, this leaves a rather dramatic first impression on Rakka – she has no memories of her life prior to Glie, so she must begin anew among a new, angelic family of Haibane who accept her into the fold, since they likely went through the same experience when they arrived in the town. The cocoon where Rakka spent roughly the first third of the episode certainly represents rebirth, but where is she reborn into? As one might expect, episode one provides precious few details concerning where, exactly, Rakka appears; it is the first episode, after all, but we can gather from the surroundings that the building is fairly old, with dust accumulating everywhere, and empty rooms seemingly everywhere.

Episode two helps tremendously in giving some background – whereas the previous episode focused exclusively on Old Home (the erstwhile-abandoned building that now serves as as residence for the central cast), this outing opens up the world to show the setting in a wider context. But before that can happen though, Rakka finds herself adjusting to her new environment; she finds herself feeling sore because of the wings, and her nondescript dress feels somewhat out of place against the cleaner, more average design of Reki’s clothes. In fact, we first see Rakka putting on said dress; she’s newly born, so she has no other option aside from this one piece of clothing to wear. The rest of the cast had time enough to shop for necessities, but they see no fault in providing second-hand clothes for a Haibane who so recently joined their home – they’ve had to deal with purchasing clothes second-hand, as well, and they’re grateful for everything they have. This helps illustrate the point that Rakka is a newcomer – the rules and regulations of society are foreign to her, and thus she has to figure them out and come to terms with a new society that she doesn’t recognize. This aspect of the show identifies a key issue in the series – the nature of reality, and how one travels from one “world” to another. As Rakka originated elsewhere, we can understand her dream and cocoon as metaphors for her rebirth; life exists on a spiritual continuum, where the immutable spirit can reside in one realm, then transfer to another via death/detachment. We can therefore understand Glie as a sort of “other realm” wherein the spirit takes on a new identity – in the first episode, Rakka realizes she doesn’t remember her old name, so her identity here represents a new life, one unique to the world of Glie and indicative of the fact that people may change physically and spiritually when in different realms. That the Haibane appear angelic in form can be understood through that context – ABe may not have had too much in mind when he created the series (after all, the series is ambiguous, and one can draw different conclusions), but Haibane Renmei does reflect the spiritual in this regard. Glie could very well exit “outside” the world we recognize – it’s vaguely European in design, and the world beyond its walls is never defined.

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Galaxy Express 999 Episode 3: The Death of Claire, A Stop on Titan

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As the 99 traverses space, more and more of the universe becomes accessible to Tetsurō; as we can imagine, this experience is entirely new to him, who spent his formative years on a planet ravaged by social divides. As I mentioned in my commentary on the first episode, Tetsurō grew up on Earth, where his perception of robotics was heavily influenced by the major social-cultural divisions that emerged – the wealthy could easily afford cybernetic replacements for their bodies, while the poor languish in a social underworld far away from the cleanliness of the urban center, and Count Mecha exemplified the dangers inherent in interpreting oneself as “above” humanity. By now, Tetsurō and Maetal traveled quite a distance, but still remain in the solar system; Mars illustrated how people could maintain social expectations built on Earth, as the robot became a pervasive element of “improvement” throughout the system. As one might expect, Tetsurō remains driven to obtain a cyborg body – he made a promise to his mother to endure any hardship to get on the 999, and his experiences thus far helped him open his eyes to a broader perspective. After all, he starts to understand that other planets and moons have their own distinct cultures and outlooks on life, much like Earth does; Titan will enlighten him further, as we shall soon see.

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