I'm a programmer, so I read a lot about programming. One of the writers I always end up coming back to is Steve Yegge. He works for Google, and I hear they only hire geniuses, so I must have good taste in bloggers.
In a somewhat recent post, Steve talked about how he and his wife discoved Anime, or Japanese animation. This might not be shock to most people, since programmer == nerd == likes cartoons with robots, but it was interesting to me for two reasons: first, because he tried to clue everyone in to Sturgeon's Revelation, and second, because he asked for recommendations and got a flood of comments.
I want to give some recommendations (Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain) and talk a little about the odd position Anime has in American culture. First, though, is Theodore Sturgeon's* famous Revelation: 90 percent of everything is crud.
This is true for virtually anything, but it doesn't stop people from really getting into genres. Liking a particular genre isn't necessarily a bad thingâ€”after all, you can count on the familiarity of guilty pleasures like mystery novels, old Star Trek episodes, and Atari games to decompress after a long day. Sometimes, though, people get into a genre to the exclusion of all else â€“ that's when the 90 percent rule starts to hurt. If you're only interested in Anime, and you are interested in all Anime, then it follows that most of what you watch every day is crap.
That said, Anime really is interesting. There are myriads of sub-genres, since animation in Japan is a lot like â€œHollywood moviesâ€? in the U.S. - so mainstream that it must contain lots of different styles and storylines. Many of the conventions and tropes seem foreign and illogical to American viewers. And I bet you can't name another cultural artifact that is equally likely to be found on shirts worn by middle age programmers, 8-year-old girls, and hiphop DJs.
Anime seems always poised on the brink of more mainstream American acceptance â€“ just look at the reviews and box office receipts for Spirited Away, the ever-growing shelf space at Best Buy, or what kids watch on Saturday morning. If you are interested, here are two very subjective recommendations to help you avoid what might be called Yegge's Minefield â€“ if 90 percent of everything is crap, there's a good chance the first thing you see will be crap, giving the impression that the figure is really 100 percent.
Neon Genesis Evangelion â€“ I'll start with a controversial choice. Although Evangelion ends up on a lot of people's top ten lists, many people think it's overrated or utter crap. I recommend it though, because it's a great story about deeply flawed characters in startling situations and an examination of what isolates people from each other as individuals. The art and direction is amazing, and the religious and technological symbolism is pretty interesting, with a lot of visual metaphor.
Common criticisms of Evangelion include that it's just more giant robots fighting each other, that the characters are annoying and neurotic, that it doesn't make any sense, and that it falls apart at the end. There's some truth to each of those but I think they can be strengths as well as weaknesses.
Serial Experiments Lain â€“ The series opens with the death of one of Lain's schoolmates and mysterious emails that seem to have come from her account. As Lain turns on her personal computer for the first time and starts to learn more about the net, she only seems to uncover more questions and confusion. Like Evangelion, the art and direction really drew me inâ€”why don't we have user interfaces like Lain's Navi? Some people might not like the slow pace of the series, but I think it contributes a lot to the mood.
For other perspectives, take a look at A Parent's Guide to Anime and the The Librarian's Guide to Anime and Manga. If you have any other recommendations (or disagree with mine), feel free to post a comment below.
*An aside: for the longest time I confused Sturgeon with Kilgore Trout, another great, but little known pulp science fiction author.