Of puppets and Pop Teams
Anime is a relatively young medium—this applies even more so to TV anime, which has only been around in any notable form since the 60’s. While this may seem like a long time, consider that film has been around since the late 19th century, novels date back to the 15th century and visual art is as old as humanity itself.
This is perhaps why there are few examples of truly avant-garde TV anime—there simply hasn’t been enough time to experiment with the format. And while you might point out that video games are even newer, the increasing ease of independent production in the past decade has already made “But what is a game, really?” a question everyone is incredibly tired of hearing. By comparison, anime is incredibly expensive and time-consuming—indie anime just isn’t viable, and those holding the money are reluctant to fund anything truly outré for fear of taking heavy losses.
This isn’t to say there are no avant-garde, genre-pushing anime, though.
One notable example, Belladonna of Sadness, is a 1973 film produced by Mushi Productions—the studio of Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astroboy—consisting mostly of pans over beautiful watercolors drawn in a style that bears little resemblance to what one would generally think of as anime. It’s an art film through and through.
But what about more recent attempts at experimentation—especially ones aired on TV? Well, for the most part, they’re shitposts—dumb, trashy, and most importantly, utterly lacking in self-seriousness—which is what allows them to break away from the restrictions of conventional anime production and try something truly new.
Thunderbolt Fantasy might seem fairly typical at first blush—an action-adventure show about demons and magic swords inspired by Chinese wuxia epics, written by the infamous Gen Urobuchi (Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero). What makes it stand out is that it’s not actually animated at all—it’s a puppet show. While MyAnimeList still refuses to acknowledge its status as anime, Crunchyroll has, and it’s become something of a hit—for its snappy writing, over-the-top energy, gorgeous production values, and the inherent entertainment value of watching puppets explode. Whether or not you want to call it anime, there’s nothing else like it.
Tesagure! Bukatsumono—roughly translatable as Let’s Feel Around for Club Activities—has not achieved the same level of popularity—perhaps unsurprising, but it’s a shame considering that it’s doing some of the most boundary-pushing work in the medium. It’s a transparently cheap CG-animated show about four high school girls who brainstorm alternative club activities. The first half of episodes is scripted in the usual fashion and generally unremarkable—what we’re here for is the wholly unscripted second half, in which the voice actresses all get together and shoot the shit. It’s fascinating to see the way the improv bleeds into the scripted characters as their personalities get more fleshed out with every dumb pun and every dirty joke.
And while there have been anime featuring improv in the past—the most well-known example being GDGD Fairies—later seasons of Tesagure! expand the conceit with party games and even a recorded trip to the amusement park. Improv has been a standby of live-action television for decades, so perhaps it was inevitable that it would show up in anime as well, but the hellish production schedules of most anime make it difficult, since voice recording is usually done after the animation is completed. This is why the show is made on the cheap, incidentally—it’s the only feasible way to get it done on a schedule, not to mention that it minimizes potential losses on a risky, experimental project.
And finally, there is Pop Team Epic, queen of shitposts. An adaptation of a famously anarchic 4-panel manga, the production staff decided that the best thing to do would be to embrace the chaos. Eschewing a plot, continuity, consistent aesthetic, and really everything else one would expect of any kind of creative production, PTE is perhaps best described as a mixtape—one made by someone with a weird sense of humor and a dedication to fucking with you. While each episode does have a “main” segment, the majority of time is given over to short clips produced by a number of different people, each doing widely varying things, brought together only by the presence of the main characters and the overall ethos of “we thought it’d be funny.”
There are stop-motion, felted puppet music videos! There are solo CG-animated French-language segments, introduced by the creator in unsubtitled French! There are the hellishly ugly Bob Epic Team clips, warping the character designs into barely-recognizable grotesques! There are filmed recordings of the voice actors breaking down in the booth and yelling at the creators! And of course there is the magnificent, the legendary, Hellshake Yano, which must be seen to be believed. Episodes are fifteen minutes long, played twice in a timeslot with different voice actors and slight changes in the replay—the main characters are never voiced by the same people twice. It’s utter madness. It’s magnificent. It was an absolute smash hit.
It’s only by pushing the boundaries of a medium that true art can be created. Am I saying any of the above shows are true art? Maybe not. But they are important steps in breaking down the borders of a medium traditionally confined by attempts to minimize the risk of costly, time consuming productions.
The methods employed by these shows aren’t necessarily unique in anime, but they take them to the absolute limit of what’s possible—there are plenty of international co-productions in the medium, but only Thunderbolt Fantasy is the result of a collaboration with a puppet company. Use of CG as a means of cutting costs and saving time is nothing new, but only Tesagure! has the balls to openly declare—in character, no less—that an episode won’t be animated at all because they couldn’t make the deadline otherwise. And while enlisting people from outside of the anime industry is increasingly common, it’s usually necessary to incorporate them into a show’s aesthetic—simply slotting in segments as they’re completed would be impossible for anything but the chaotic variety show that is PTE.
Is this production innovation a result of trying to make something that couldn’t otherwise be made, or is the genre-pushing nature of these shows a result of their extremely unconventional productions? Well, yes—what’s important is that ten years ago, the idea of an anime made with puppets, or featuring improv, or existing as fifteen minutes of barely-connected experiments might well have seemed impossible. But if shows like this can get made and even be successful, who knows what kind of groundbreaking work we may see in the future? It’s an exciting time to be an anime fan, walking towards a shining future on a road paved with beautiful trash.