X-Men Anime: Unpalatable for North Americans

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Have you heard of the anime-style X-Men series? Marvel Comics basically gave Japanese animation studio Madhouse permission to recreate Marvel's X-Men in order to appeal to a Japanese market. Madhouse is doing a whole series of these, including Iron Man, Blade, and Wolverine. This makes sense for Marvel because it will help create a stronger foundation for their international film market in Japan, which is important as the the film industry becomes more reliant on international appeal.

But, what might be appealing to a Japanese market is may not appeal to a North American one. In this anime series, the X-Men themselves are more or less the same. The series focuses on a slightly re-worked Astonishing X-Men roster: Cyclops, Emma Frost, Wolverine, Beast, Armor, and Storm. Their powers and basic histories are nearly identical, but the story being told is very much Japanese; a great deal of weight is placed in the common Japanese anime theme of "trying your best."

If you've ever seen an anime you'll notice a lot of words repeated. This might include "kawaii" (cute), "baka" (idiot) and "ganbare" (do your best). There is a lot of depth to these expressions, particularly "ganbare" (which is a derivitive of the verb "ganbaru"). Ganbare isn't just a word that gets re-used a lot, it can also refer to a state of mind. When someone says "ganbare" it's a reminder to continue to hope, to work hard, and to persevere in the face of adversity.

"Trying your best" is a large part of the X-Men anime. When the series begins we see Jean Grey destroy herself to save the world from the Dark Phoenix power. The X-Men disband for a year. Beast goes to teach, Storm is seen on a cruise. Cyclops seemingly spends all his time in the ruins where Jean died. When a mutant girl, Hisako Ichiki (Armor), goes missing the X-Men must discover the larger reason behind her disappearance.

I'm not really spoiling anything by revealing that they find Hisako and she ends up joining the team. What the X-Men anime is really about is Cyclops overcoming Jean's death, which is mirrored by Hisako overcoming her fear of her newfound powers. They are "trying their best" to become better people.

The first episode has a striking appearance and depth. We are given a brief preview of each X-Man and their powers. We see a close-up of Wolverine as he draws his hand in front of his face. His claws unleash and the frame pauses for a moment, then he leaps at oncoming debris which his claws shred into golden shimmering pieces. The Dark Phoenix Saga is a powerful place to begin the series and suits the dynamic art style. It does, however, seem to presume an existing knowledge of X-Men characters. And this is the anime's problem: it uses a brief glimmer of a big storyline and starts strong, but quickly becomes stuck in its own boring narrative.

After the first few episodes there's a lot of discussion. Things people say get repeated. It seems like "catch up" for people who haven't seen other episodes and are entering fresh, but there's little to keep new viewers interested. There's action, sure, but not much. Then comes more talking.

I went back to the 90's X-Men cartoons to see why I loved them so much. Surprisingly there wasn't a lot of action there either. Action sequences in animation require a lot of work (and money). The American cartoon also had a lot of talking, but there was also a lot of joking, which doesn't translate culturally. You don't mind talking as long as you get quips from characters like Gambit, who flirts with a stationary store clerk by saying, "I like solitaire OK. Unless I have someone to play with."

An advantage the 90's X-Men series had was time to explore new stories. It had time to go through storylines like Days of Future Past, the Dark Phoenix Saga, and the Savage Land. These stories became more interesting as our heroes and their pasts were more thoroughly defined.

But for a Western viewer it becomes arduous to sit and wait for something to happen in the X-Men anime. The Japanese voice actors sound lofty, as though each statement comes from a calm, introspective place. By the sixth episode in the twelve episode arc, I'd had enough. I can understand using a new storyline that plays heavily on the young Japanese Hisako character, but I didn't care about Cyclops or Hisako trying their best. So when action did occur, I wasn't invested.

At the end of each episode the credits scroll over a background of X-Men legends. Juggernaut. Stryfe. Mystique. Jean. Magneto. I once started a childhood friend down the comic book path by purchasing him three issues of X-Cutioner's Song. He spent years collecting the rest and using them as a basis to find other characters to love. I sincerely hope that the X-Men anime creates this kind of love in some Japanese child. But from a Western perspective, I would be much happier with a story yet untold in television or film: the story of Cable, the Askani'son.

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