Friday, December 13, 2013

Anime Top 10s: (My) Top 10 Best Anime Intros

By Andrew Braid

Over the years anime has risen in prominence outside of Japan, a style of animation so ubiquitous that it has become recognized as a whole medium in and of itself outside of animation as a whole. Think about that: we herd hand-drawn, stop-motion and computer animation all together into one group, and yet anime gets to be an exception because its various tropes and characteristics are just so well-known. It seems so specifically tied to Japanese culture in ways that animation studios in other countries just don't really tend to do. If an animated film or series comes from the U.S. or Canada or France (or any country, really), there isn't some certified guarantee that it will specifically take after the given country's house style. Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Teen Titans have heavily lifted from Japanese anime for their art styles, and recent box-office smash Despicable Me 2 is based in a decidedly more French-European style in both visuals and humor (no wonder it grossed so much overseas). But if it's an animated series or film made in Japan, no one ever thinks twice: it just has to be anime.
But I'm getting waaaaay ahead of myself here, so any musings on animation history will have to wait for some other day. What I really wanted to talk about is the art of the anime intro (or opening, or whatever you want to call it). Whereas such cool, memorable intros are in danger of being phased out entirely among most Western animated series, they remain an integral part of selling an audience on any anime they see. Anime just isn't anime without one, be it funny, action-packed, moody, or blasting out high-pitched J-pop while you struggle to make sense of what the hell you're watching. So I thought it would be fun to see, from the perspective of a 20-something Canadian, what stand out as the best in a large field of 90-second introductions to all our favorite anime series. 
To be clear once again, these are all personal favorites (although the top 2 are indisputably great).If your favorite isn't on here, either I haven't seen it (most likely) or I didn't really consider it. Okay? Okay.
Well, no more delays! Let's get these Top 10 Anime Intros started with...

#10: Baccano!

We start off our list with... an anime I've been meaning to get around to watching for forever, but still haven't actually seen! (Don't you just love those?) On the plus side, the buzz I've heard about Baccano! (Lost-style plotting mixed with bloody violence and raucous action) got me to check out its killer intro, which does its main job all too well: making me feel even more guilty that I haven't started watching it yet...

#9: Trigun

When all else fails to make your show look cool as hell, there's always electric guitar rock. Trigun is one of the true anime greats, and just from its intro you can see why it'd become so popular. It's an opening that makes Trigun look as genuinely badass as it possibly can, which will make it all the more surprising once you see the show is a lot like this:

And then surprise you all over again when the show eventually becomes more like this:

Yeah, anime can be a bit weird sometimes.

#8: Persona 4: The Animation (2nd Opening)

 So yeah, I've become a big fan of Persona 4, though I never got to play it on its initial release and had to wait before I could get a Vita and play P4 Golden. Having already decided to get Persona 4 Arena, I actually decided to catch up on the story by watching the anime series first. Not only was P4: The Animation a very good series in its own right (and a very faithful adaptation of the game), but the penchant for dangerously catchy music was also retained in its game-to-series translation. While the first intro for the series is good too, it's the second one that really gets the right balance between catchy J-rock beat and dynamic visuals.

#7: Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad

Yeah, you can already tell I like this one, huh? It's pretty rare to see an anime (especially an anime intro) based so heavily around American culture and imagery, and that influence is a major part of what makes Beck feel unique (and not just among slice-of-life shows). Just watching the show (which you should do, especially if you're a huge music buff) will show you just how it stands out. This is a show where many of the characters will speak both Japanese and (often hilariously) English, where 20th century American music history is discussed and referenced on a frequent basis, and I'm honestly struggling to remember if there really were any songs sung in the whole show that weren't in English, 'cause it sure doesn't feel like there were. Also there was a cockatoo, I think? There was some subplot about getting it to respond to the music somehow, I forget the specifics...
And seriously, what is up with that dog?

What was I talking about again? Oh well.

#6: Samurai Champloo

This one took a little time to grow on me. I'll admit I'm far from the biggest fan of rap, though I'm certainly not the kind to dismiss the whole genre- I usually just have different preferences (that are still to be determined- yeah, music is a thing that falls more into the "and more" part of my blog description). What I'm saying is a good song is a good song, regardless of genre, just like a good piece made in any other artistic medium. It takes a few episodes of Samurai Champloo to realize just how good its intro really is, and how perfectly it embodies the show's anachronistic sensibility, mixing many facets of modern American culture into its Edo-period Japan setting.
Pictured: Anachronism, in its natural habitat.

The song, "Battlecry" (performed by Nujabes and Shing02), is also very representative of the cultural wars that are often thrust into the limelight throughout the series, with newer rebellious counterculture styles and ideologies clashing with more traditional elements (hence the mix of more classical piano in the song). It sets the tone for the viewing experience: this ain't the stuffy old history you may know.

#5: Pokemon (1st English Opening)

I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry...
I just couldn't help it, okay?! The nostalgia... it's just too strong!
And really, how could it not be? For most kids in the 90s generation, Pokemon was probably their very first anime, and I'm positive it was mine too (with Dragon Ball Z being the second, cooler one that we all watched afterwards). And as much as we all realize growing up just how shamelessly formulaic and repetitive the series really is (just how many times is enough for Team Rocket to try and steal the same damn Pikachu?), absolutely everyone who watched it back then still remembers that theme song, that opening that got us pumped for adventures with Ash, Misty and Brock (because Tracy who?) every time we so much as heard it, let alone saw it.
Admit it, you're singing along to it right now, aren't you? Don't be embarrassed, you're not alone...

#4: Death Note (1st Intro)

Once again this choice is driven at least partly by nostalgia (hey, the title does mention that it's my personal list... barely), but hey, Death Note, so a lot of you reading probably aren't complaining.
Death Note was an anime that came to me at exactly the right time, as I was in the midst of my high school years, growing tired with many of the seemingly never ending anime series that were also the only ones actually getting aired on the more major TV networks. And yet here comes Death Note, a show that seemed to have it all: a unique premise, a crazy twist-riddled plot that's always shaking things up, characters that don't have to be likable (and in Light's case absolutely isn't) but still manage to be engaging, great animation, and a fantastic score. On top of it, the show is both mature and over-the-top, managing some kind of near-magic equilibrium where one doesn't seriously outdo the other. The opening itself reflects the tone just right, displaying both the grounded detective elements and the Kira/L battle, elevated to just the kinds of mythic status one would expect Light's mind to jump to. Again, personal nostalgic choice, but I can't deny I still love this intro, getting me pumped to see who one-ups who (and then how that person one-ups the other back) each week.

I feel like I must give a good, honorable mention to the series' second opening. Not because I particularly love it or anything (though it has its moments, and I totally get why others might prefer it), but rather because it proves so memorable for its sheer bats*** insanity. I... I'm not even sure how to describe it adequately. There's so much that doesn't work about it, be it the tonal dissonance from what the show actually is (a cat-and-mouse detective thriller with a supernatural twist), to the grab bag of interchanging visual styles, to the music that pounds you over the head in ways that will make most heavy metal haters suffer a splitting headache (sorry, had to do that reference sometime). And yet there's still something admirable, almost transfixing about how it simply does not give a f*** whether or not you understand or even comprehend it.
Probably for the best if you just watch it and judge for yourself.

So... moving on...

#3: Fullmetal Alchemist (2nd Opening)

Fullmetal Alchemist undoubtedly ranks as one of the most popular, beloved, and widely recommended anime series ever made, be it the original 51 episode series or the more recent remake series Brotherhood (which is seen as a more faithful adaptation of the manga series). While I haven't seen Brotherhood (which is the main reason why it's not one of the many intros for that series on this list), I can definitely attest to how the original series more than lives up to its reputation. The original series has 4 different openings, each of them good in their own right, but my soft spot is for the second one, namely because it best sells the more adventurous and comedic elements of the series (which was more what the series was at this point), yet still throwing some hints at the darker roads ahead. And once the series' later episodes really put the characters through the ringer, you'll find yourself looking back on those older days, lamenting how those more wide-eyed, black-and-white days of youthful innocence have passed our heroes by (not that things weren't ever dark in the earlier episodes either- good God, "Night of the Chimera's Cry"...).

#2: Neon Genesis Evangelion

Evangelion is that one anime series that is inescapable, that makes itself a must-see nowadays mainly through force of cultural will, because the diehard fans are numerous and very, very vocal. It can make one forget that, love it or hate it, it was truly groundbreaking when it was first released. The mecha genre was all but dead before it first aired, Shinji Ikari is basically the anime standard for the emo teenage lead by which all others are measured (not to mention how Rei's character template has been ripped off by too many shows to count), and the heavy emphasis on religious symbolism and complex psychology made it clear that this was anything but a simple show where giant robots fight giant monsters (though what we get of that is damn good). As it stands, it's a flawed yet fascinating and truly personal work (inspired by director Hideki Anno's real-life bout with depression) that did much for anime as a medium.
Plus it has giant mechs.
Pictured: (supposedly) why people watch this show.

Groundbreaking is also a term that applies to its famous opening titles, which essentially established a template that has inspired all future anime intros since. From the song that will (probably) never escape your head after hearing it to the action-packed, borderline-subliminal editing of the final third coming after the calmer, more emotional build preceding it, Evangelion's intro feels like everything you think of when you imagine an anime opening. In this case, there's a good reason for that. And no list of great anime openings can feel complete without it.
Plus it has giant mechs.

#1: Cowboy Bebop

Because really, what else could it be?
Do I really need to explain this choice? Do I?
*sigh* Fine...
Aside from being the greatest anime series ever (and you know it's true), an all-around masterpiece of a 26-episode series, and something something *insert effusively hyperbolic words of praise here*, Cowboy Bebop also has without a doubt the best anime intro sequence ever created. It's an excellent representation of what the series is: an all-out genre mashup oozing with enough style and cool to spare for about four other shows. The theme song "Tank!" signals the viewer immediately to its more Western-based cultural influence, all while providing the perfect upbeat anthem to get the viewer ready to watch the latest episode of Firefly: The Anime, Only Better! (and oh man did I just piss off a huge portion of the internet). It's the definition of a show where you never even think to skip over the intro, no matter what the reason.
And I should probably stop here, because even I'm starting to get tired of myself endlessly frothing at the mouth over Cowboy Bebop.
Spike Spiegel: waiting for this list to be over already... and still looking way too cool doing it.

Thanks for reading, everyone! If there's any sloppiness on my part in this one, then it's because I'm still recovering from an onslaught of essay assignments, and the time and concentration for blog posts has been hard to come by. So yeah, sorry about that.
Regardless, make sure to check in again soon!