My exposure to anime is limited to two kinds: the Ghibli Studio productions and cyber-punk manga. In the past few days I've doubled my modest intake, which has only whetted the appetite.
My wife and I checked out the latest from Ghibli in the theater, "Tales from Earthsea". I thought this was going to be another amazement from Hayao Miyazaki, creator of "Spirited Away" and "Howl's Moving Castle". The quality of animation was about the same but the story was darker and more linear - more like a conventional Western fantasy story. Which is what it is, as I found out looking it up on IMBD: an adaption of Ursula K. Le Guin stories. And Miyazaki didn't direct the movie, it was left to a lieutenant in house Ghibli.
"Howl's" was set in a Euro-smorgasborg setting - taking styles and architecture from across the continent, from ancient to medieval to Renaissance - in a typically Japanese take on "Europe". I wonder if "Earthsea" was a continuation, a deepening, of that stylistic fetish, but it wasn't quite as effective. In a way it was too European because it was written by one, whereas a "Europe" conceived by Japanese fantasists is something altogether more charming but alien. (Remember the Japanese tourists who need to see a shrink because Paris turned out to have dirty streets and rude waiters.)
Now to the cool stuff.
The missus got "Innocence" on DVD. But this is actually a sequel to "Ghost in the Shell", which was produced in 1995. You gotta check these out but do it in order. Partly for the plot, but mainly because the animation technology has advanced so much. "Ghost in the Shell" still looks gorgeous but "Innocence" is amazing and makes the former look slightly frayed.
The plots in both movies are jam packed and complex and philosophical, and yet crammed with great action sequences, cool guns and female cyborgs that are, well, carefully rendered by the team under director Mamoru Oshii. They are based on mangas developed by Masamune Shirow (if that means anything to you). There's definitely some cross-cultural feedback going on, as these films have clearly drawn something from Ridley Scott's "Bladerunner" - which in turn was obviously based on Asian and specifically Japanese forms and sci-fi work. But the film is ahead of its time, at least for Westerners. "This is years before 'The Matrix'", my Asian wife reminded me.
My favorite sequences in both movies are the montages of city life in 30 year's time, set to the same eerie, exotic music. Oshii's imagination seems unbound and we enjoy wallowing in pure cinema. The plots are tightly wound and serious, and the themes - human identity, existence - are explored fundamentally. I wish these movies would just keep going. "Innocence" (which came out in 2004) is, if anything, even deeper and more interesting, while the plot - involving sex androids that murder their customers - plumbs the depths of humanity. But who cares, the visuals are gorgeous, the action is awesome, and the future is drawn with such detail that it's fun just to go along for the ride.
If you like sci-fi, challenging ideas, intellectual movies, action flicks, cool moody cinema, Japanese animation or just looking for something new...check out "Ghost in the Shell" and "Innocence".