Welcome to my secret underground list, Austin Powers. This is supposed to be a top ten, but I decided to do things a little differently. I've selected one show for the top spot; the rest of the entries are devoted to a few shows that I like, to varying degrees, listed in no particular order. I've set up my list this way because as I said, I really only have one favorite cartoon, but I've seen some other good or great shows over the years, and I wanted to talk about them as well.
Zoids: Chaotic Century
I've always had a natural attraction to Zoids, but I never understood why. Zoids wasn't supposed to be interesting or engaging. It was supposed to be terrible. I mean, here's a show that's based on a line of model toys and a pretty ordinary comic, is intended for children, and relies on stock character types and a simple war story as the basis for its action. But the folks at TOMY recognized that Ueyama's story had a lot of potential and they made the most of it, wisely deciding to shell out the money needed to get the job done right. They called on relative newcomer XEBEC and its top-notch CG production department to handle the animation and (amazingly) hired the sound design wizards over at Q-Factory, run by industry veteran Robert Etoll, to score it. The result is my all-time personal favorite TV show.
Like many stories, Van's tale has humble beginnings. He lives in the Wind Colony, a remote village in the Elemia Desert, and wants to follow in his father's footsteps by (somewhat predictably) finding his own Zoid and becoming the best Zoid pilot ever. The events in the early episodes hint at something big: Van discovers secrets of the past - Fiona, an amnesiac girl, and Zeke, a small, wild Zoid - hidden away in a ruin. He knows nothing about them (and neither do we!). Fiona remembers fragments of a past life and future mission in "Zoid Eve", and the show makes excellent use of foreshadowing early on with the introduction of the Valley of Rarehertz, and throughout the rest of the series as well (including Guardian Force, Zoids' second season). But the show's writers were careful to withhold plot exposition until the right moments, allowing the details of the planet's history, and of Zoid Eve, to unfold slowly. In the meantime, Van and Fiona are forced to deal with more immediate concerns as they continue their search.
The conflict with the Desert Alcabolino Gang, which is what allowed Van to discover Zeke and Fiona in the first place, is hardly mere filler. The bandits don't just fade out of the story; as it turns out, they were once Imperial soldiers, so they are interested in capturing Zeke not just for fun but because they want to return to the military. This means that we'll see them often (and we do, especially in the early parts of the show), working behind the scenes for Marcus, an Imperial officer who is trying to curry favor with Prozen, but in most cases just trying to take the organoid (Zeke) back by themselves. And they also have important parts to play later on, thwarting Prozen's early attempts to assassinate Rudolph. Eventually, Rosso and Viola realize that they're not wanted by the Empire, so they switch sides and start fighting for the Republic, which conveniently allows Van to get out of trouble on more than one occasion. (At some point, it's revealed that Rosso and Viola are really Rudolph's parents, but I don't buy it. To me that seems tacked-on, like it's just giving them unnecessary additional motivation to come to Van's rescue.)
As the supporting cast is introduced, which eventually comes to include sassy Moonbay and tough-guy Irvine, so too is the war that engulfs the continent. Van and company don't really want to participate in the conflict, but their adventures run right alongside it, and occasionally their paths intersect, so it's inevitable that they will be forced to choose sides. Allowing the characters to side with the Empire would have been problematic for all the usual reasons, so the writing staff (here, Katsuhiko Koide and Katsuyuki Sumisawa) skillfully set up the crew to help out the Republic for the rest of the series. When Van, Fiona, and Zeke first meet Moonbay, she is carrying the Empire's ammo, but it's destroyed by Republican "sleeper" Zoids, and the resulting explosion in turn destroys the sleeper Zoids. The Republican army hears about this incident and captures the crew, and after the army lets them go, Moonbay manages to arrange a deal to work for them because they just happen to be around, and she needs the money. Afterward the group continues to help the Republican cause (since they're being paid, of course). So the simple fact that they happened to be captured by the Republic, along with the fact that we were told early on that Moonbay works as a transporter and needs the money, makes the gang's actions of siding with the Republic seem entirely natural.
The war ultimately ends in a stalemate as the Emperor dies and his successor, Crown Prince Rudolph, orders a ceasefire, bringing the conflict to a halt. Prozen, as regent, dislikes this so he secretly plots to have the prince assassinated. Meanwhile, Van and co. leave the army behind in the search for Zoid Eve, but eventually their leads run out. In a great twist, although it had been strongly suggested that they were the location of the Zoid Eve, the Gurill Ruins were empty. They did, however, contain a very important first clue: the Death Saurer. But just as the gang is feeling down about the fact that their search has hit a dead end, Rudolph falls right into their lap. Then another awesome story arc begins as Van and co. attempt to return Rudolph to his throne, located in the Imperial capital of Guygalos.
Van and co. struggle to outwit the military along the way and come up with some very cool ideas to continue safely on their journey (Moonbay's wedding; forcing Rudolph to wear girls' clothing) and run into familiar faces along the way, some old (Moonbay's ex-boyfriend, McMahon) and some new, all of whom have their own solutions to help Van and Zeke get out of trouble. The show is full of pleasant surprises, too, at one point bringing back the soldier whom Van helped escape from New Helic City, allowing the soldier to return the favor and also allowing Van to escape from certain capture. More great writing here: Kenichi Araki's script brilliantly set up Van's imprisonment and subsequent escape well in advance by having Van help the prisoner escape in an earlier episode, which also allowed Van to have a nice personal growth moment when he saw the consequences of his actions - the prisoner ended up causing enormous amounts of damage to the city while making his escape. Later, Araki was free to allow the Imperial Army to capture Van, Irvine, and Rudolph, which adds a ton of credibility to their journey - the gang did have to get captured sometime with the whole empire on their trail. So the Imperial soldier helps Van escape, and we get great closure to our mini-drama, as the soldier is seen running away from the army he has now betrayed, never to be heard from again. And before he leaves, the soldier reveals that his mother, his only surviving family and the one person whom he wanted to see more than anything after he escaped from the Republic, died long before he returned home, nice touch of realism there too. Van sees a sad ending, and he also learns that, at least in this case, his freedom came at the cost of someone else's. The best part is that the whole scenario is plausible enough that it could have actually happened in real life.
I admire the subtlety and realism of Prozen's plot. He doesn't just show up and declare that he will kill the heroes (as Hiltz does in the following season); he does it secretly, using his position of authority to order the hit and dealing with Van and co. through the military, rather than attacking them directly. He also uses Raven, who, it is revealed, is simply a maverick Imperial soldier under Prozen's command, to kill off the search parties sent to find Rudolph. As the first season's story progresses toward its conclusion, Prozen's true motivations come to light. It turns out that he has been using his position as regent to direct the Empire's resources toward researching ancient Zoidian texts and performing archaeological digs with the overall objective of reviving the Death Saurer, which will allow him to control the Empire, and ultimately the entire universe (yeah, I know). As the entire project has been carried out in secrecy, though, other characters and even we, as viewers, are mostly left in the dark about the details. Even a character like Dr. D, otherwise the most perceptive and knowledgeable member of the group, is unsure about what's going on, concluding that Raven's new Geno Saurer is actually the Death Saurer; and important figures in the Empire itself, like Prime Minister Homaleff, are just as clueless.
Honestly, the first season's final episode is pretty terrible. The biggest problem is that it focuses on what is one of show's weaker aspects: the Zoid battles. In other such episodes, the show usually managed to shift the focus away from the "engagements" by giving one or more of the main characters something interesting to do (Van making his way across the Red River gorge, Moonbay and Fiona trying to cause a volcanic eruption at Mt. Osa, etc.), but not this time. I hated watching all the characters from both sides join up and sit around talking to each other, and I hated watching Prozen talk to the Death Saurer (apparently possessed by its "evil consciousness"), all while being forced to listen to the single most irritating piece of music from the show's soundtrack. But even here, in the lame final episode, the show has one last tasty morsel for the viewer to savor: we learn that the person responsible for the death of Van's father is none other than Prozen himself. (Raven has a connection with those events, too, and we learn about them later on, during the second season.) One of the things that I like best about Zoids is that, not only does it give the viewer background information about each of its characters, but it is capable of distinguishing between those bits of information that are worth disclosing to the viewer and those that are not (the untold reasons for Rosso's discharge from the Imperial Army being a perfect example of the latter), and it always does so at exactly the right time.
So yeah, Zoids has a lot going for it, but it's Van that makes Zoids so rewarding for me. Of course, there's no denying that Van is a very typical shonen lead in a lot of ways. We see Van's ignorance and his insecurity - about losing his friends, about his skill as a Zoid pilot, and occasional doubt about his ability to achieve his dream. And despite all of that, he is still very devoted to his friends, Zeke and Fiona, even though he doesn't really understand them, and he seems to retain a strong enthusiasm for all things Zoids. Van also matures very little during the course of the series. In fact, most of the way through the first season, Van still throws tantrums and gets depressed (as teenagers do), and though he gradually improves over the course of the series, he still mostly sucks at piloting - he needs to be bailed out a lot by gangsters-turned-superheroes Rosso and Viola, and only wins his last battle against Raven thanks to a near-miraculous revival of his trashed Blade Liger. (He then proceeds to use that finishing move over and over again for the rest of the series.)
Even so, Van is, for me, the heart of the show's appeal. He is an extremely well-presented character, and it is a joy to watch him continue along on his journey. He encounters all the stuff you'd expect a sheltered, teen-aged, first-time traveler to encounter: lack of money, of "street smarts", the inability to defend himself...but the show has reasonable solutions to each of these problems, which makes Van's adventure even more
believable & fun to watch. Van's irresponsibility doesn't just lead to funny moments or make for a great adventure all the time. It actually gets him into real trouble: he gets a gun pointed in his face, his friend Zeke dies, he gets thrown in jail a lot, and so on. Van also comes up with really dumb ideas sometimes (again, not surprising for a kid), like deciding to leave Moonbay behind with her ex-boyfriend because he thinks it'll be good for her, or taking on an entire unit of Imperial Redlers by himself. But Van's youthful idealism serves him well in the long run, and it's great to see him pass along the lessons he has learned to a younger person in Rudolph, who comes to admire Van and see in him what the rest of the group always did. And then there are the funny parts. My favorites are when Van spends too much money on his "special protein energy boost", which ends up as a hilarious joke, and when he is forced to admit that he's feeling homesick. The cumulative effect of all this is that Zoids convincingly manages to turn its lead character into a real person. It's so easy for me to get caught up in Van's adventures, to share in the thrill of his victories (especially when he finally beats Raven for good at the end of the first season, probably Van's sweetest Victory ever) and feel bad for him when he loses (and he does lose, A LOT) because the staff did such a good job paying attention to detail when constructing his character.
Obviously in order to make the best use of its teenager, Zoids needed some older characters to play an important part in his journey. What's really impressive here is how well Zoids managed to assemble such a diverse cast. Sure, Irvine would be a great addition to the group, but having a cynical character like him travel around with Van indefinitely would've been stretching it since a lone wolf like Irvine would have no reason to want to travel around with anyone, much less a kid like Van. This is where Zoids gets creative, throwing in Moonbay, who already knows Irvine really well, and is appealing enough to encourage him to stick around, even though he would never admit it (of course as a loner he could leave at any time, and does on a few occasions). The presence of adult figures in Moonbay and Irvine allows Van to act like a stupid kid, to make mistakes, and learn valuable lessons in an appropriate context. Just like real parents, Moonbay and Irvine make all the major traveling decisions, provide the food and supplies to keep the journey moving along smoothly, and they get irritated with the "kids" from time to time, which means they have no problems telling Van when he has messed up. And there are plenty of opportunities for Moonbay and Irvine to remind Van that he still has a lot to learn, like at the Sand Colony marketplace, where he has little interest in stocking up on food; in the Iselina mountains, where he gets into a little too much trouble with bandits; and after his Shield Liger is destroyed. Likewise, there are plenty of opportunities for Van to get irritated with Moonbay and Irvine. In one of my favorite episodes, "A Voice from Afar", Van feels betrayed by his friends, Zeke and Fiona, because he thinks that they abandoned him (which they did, in order to revive his Liger, though he has no way of knowing that), but the rest of the group doesn't understand. He runs away from them out of frustration, and heads to the top of some ruins, where he reflects, doubts, and dreams. The timing is perfect here. Not only has Van just lost his Liger, which he loved, and now his best friends, but Prozen's hired thugs have just enlisted the help of Stinger, a mercenary. This particular moment allows us to witness our teenage hero mired in a bout of depression in a very genuine way, but it also allows Stinger to move ahead with his plot and ultimately clears the way for Van to come to the rescue. There are more such moments too, not all serious; there's a part where the gang is forced to choose between two paths. Van of course opts for the more risky path, and makes fun of Moonbay and Irvine for their hesitation. Zoids proves it can make you laugh when the situation calls for it too.
Moments like those only work because of the characters, and these characters are so great that I even love watching them talk to each other. One of the things that Moonbay brings to the table is her Zoid, the Gustav, whose trailers can carry Van's and Irvine's Zoids, allowing them to rest and relax during the journey. The gang spends a lot of time traveling around together in this way, and a fairly large portion of the show takes place inside the Gustav. That sounds pretty boring, but Zoids manages to turn the group's chatter into one of its strengths. In fact, for me the many scenes in the Gustav are collectively one of the show's highlights. This group of characters converses and interacts so naturally
that it's easy for me as a viewer to completely forget that they are just four individuals who came together by coincidence. Zoids succeeded in turning its cast into something that actually resembles a real family, and that is one of its greatest achievements.
Of course, all that effort would've been wasted if the characters sounded strange or unnatural, so it's a good thing that the Blue Water regulars were up to the task. Here the studio delivered what has to be one of its best dubs ever, especially considering that it was normally known for its mediocre efforts (Banner of the Stars, G Gundam, Dragonball GT). Almost every character sounds good (except for maybe Rudolph, who is flat at times), but the standout is Matthew Erickson, whose performance in his role as young Van is head and shoulders above the rest.
Manga artist Michiro Ueyama deserves a ton of credit here, too. He wrote and drew the comic on which Zoids is based, and it wasn't the greatest, but almost all of Zoids' characters made their first appearance in his comics and were left virtually unchanged when they were adapted for the cartoon, including the Van/Fiona/Zeke/Moonbay/Irvine group that I love so much. And Ueyama's original version of the story was full of good ideas; more than anything, the writing staff simply followed the loose outlines of his plot and improved it as they went along. Perhaps that's what makes this installment of Zoids so much better than the others that came after it - it had a solid foundation to build on.
But by the end of the first season, Zoids had exhausted almost all of the villains and plot lines provided by Ueyama's comics. That left the staff with a season's worth of episodes to do something with and really only one important secret left to reveal. So in the second season, we find Van and Fiona together again as part of a law enforcement unit called the Guardian Force, and the premise of just about every episode involves the GF dealing with troublemakers (an approach that, not surprisingly, results in a ton of filler garbage). The intention was clearly to build up to a large-scale conflict between Hiltz and the Guardian Force, but there's nothing resembling logical progression in the way the second season's events play out, and the writers desperately wanted to keep Hiltz's plot tucked away in the background. A smart move, but with a single, overarching conflict no longer in place (as there had been in Chaotic Century with the war), there is absolutely nothing for the heroes to do in the meantime. As a result, the writers were forced to rely too heavily on well-established characters to fill the void. This means that one of the first things to go is the quality of the villains. In Guardian Force, a character like Raven (who met an awesome end in his season one climactic battle with Van and really should've stayed dead) is
the story. The guys in the GF spend a lot of time preparing themselves for their next encounter with Raven; there's even a (terrible) episode specifically devoted to improving Guardian Force "tactics". The battles themselves are virtually identical to each other: Raven shows up, kills some GF flunkies, then beats Van but doesn't kill him. Then there's the babbling: Raven constantly reminds us that Van has to die; Van, on the other hand, constantly reminds us that he will "be ready" to face Raven the next time they meet. The Van-Raven relationship is thus reduced to an extremely stale "good guy versus bad guy" dynamic, whereas in the first season, Van's battles with Raven were simply a neat parallel to the main story and an effective way to highlight Van's inexperience and gradual improvement as a Zoid pilot.
GF also made the mistake of allowing Reese, one of the minor characters, to take over the story. She is never much more than Hiltz's sidekick, but we have to watch several episodes' worth of her life story (and most of the important parts were edited out of the English dub anyway). And then we have to watch her fall in love with Raven (?!) and nearly ruin the last two episodes of the series with her whining and complaining. Occasionally there's an episode that gives this kind of attention to a worthy character such as Raven, but it doesn't happen often, and as is usually the case elsewhere, these kinds of episodes are just a huge waste of time.
What saves Guardian Force is the fact that it never loses sight of its main objective, which was established way back in the early episodes of Chaotic Century - finding the Zoid Eve. When the group is finally reassembled, GF moves into high gear and doesn't look back. It had been implied throughout GF that Hiltz, when he wasn't coming up with fun ways to make everyone's life miserable, was steadily advancing his own master plan. Towards the end of the series, he emerges at last, threatening our boring-as-hell group of way too many heroes - as well as the rest of the planet - saving the entire second season from total disaster. From there, Zoids very neatly wraps up its tale over the course of eleven episodes
- the direct result of having such a wide-open second season - giving us a fitting and satisfying conclusion to the entire series.
Remembering that it started in a small ruin, it's amazing how far Van's journey has taken us. From a skirmish with bandits in the remote Planet Zi deserts to political intrigue in the Imperial capital to a final battle for the fate of the planet, Zoids managed to slowly but steadily increase the size and scope of its conflicts while slowly revealing the secret of the Zoid Eve. It's equally remarkable to see just how far Van has come, due in large part to the people he met along the way. Throughout the course of his adventure, Van met a great group of characters who wanted to help him, who taught him about the real world and raised him, each in their own way, guiding him while he made his transition from headstrong, impulsive teenager to fully mature adult. But most importantly, they allowed him to realize his dream, to embark on a journey so real and so memorable that watching Zoids almost makes me want to begin one of my own.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
This show gets a spot on the list simply because it was my favorite cartoon when I was a kid. I have no idea why, though.
Other Shows I Like
The Ren and Stimpy Show
One of the few shows savvy enough to have a cool guest like Frank Zappa. I remember liking it as a kid (with reservations), and that's probably because it was always pushing the envelope in terms of violence, gross-out humor, and general craziness. It's still one of my favorite shows today, largely for those reasons. I love how irreverent it is (Powdered Toast Man uses the Constitution to kindle a fire), love its bizarre sense of humor (Stimpy traveling into his own belly button, Ren babysitting a 200-pound convict, the two of them selling rubber nipples, etc.) and its traditional animation style. You rock, John K.
Rocky and Bullwinkle
Rocky and His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends...this show probably has at least a half-dozen different names. Anyway, what's great about Rocky and Bullwinkle is the fantastic sense of humor laced throughout the series, like the adventures of Mr. Peabody, in which the dog/human relationship is inverted, putting great twists on traditional stories in "Fractured Fairy Tales", watching clueless Dudley Do-Right try to save the day...even the Bullwinkle spotlight segments like Bullwinkle's Corner are hilarious. And of course the serial adventures of main characters Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose, which make up the bulk of the program, are a total blast. In sum, great Saturday afternoon entertainment.
The Busy World of Richard Scarry
Forgotten by many, but a great show nonetheless, taking the viewer to faraway places and allowing its characters to do the kind of fun stuff that I always wanted to do as a kid - fly an airplane, hop in a submarine, travel to the moon - and the kind of stuff that most kids actually do, like building a soapbox racer, camping with friends, getting into trouble, or just playing pretend for an afternoon. I've never read Scarry's books, so I have no idea how much material was borrowed from them, but the amount of ideas present here is almost endless, and that's even more impressive when you consider the show's format. Huckle's and Lowly's adventures are deliciously bite-sized, coming in at around 8 minutes each, meaning the actual number of episodes is close to 200! The show even has a great theme song, and finds time for catchy, hummable tunes with an educational or safety message. I love the look of the show too. The characters and Busy Town itself are all done in Scarry's trademark style, are well-animated, and of course they all sound great too. The Busy World of Richard Scarry really does bring his world to life, and pretty much crams as much good-natured fun as it can into 25 minutes, and for that reason it's my favorite children's cartoon ever.
Akage no An
It's rare to find a character in literature who makes an easy transition from one language to another. Such is the case with Anne Shirley, who not only maintained her popularity with the Japanese translation of her novels but earned a permanent place in Japanese culture, and later attained iconic status in the world of animation with Akage no An.
On a personal level, Akage no An is a window to childhood, with its school days, soul-mate friends, and endless possibilities. But what really makes it special is the fact that it is a near-perfect adaptation of Anne of Green Gables
. The amount of time, dedication, and just plain love
that Isao Takahata (and the rest of the staff at Nippon Animation) invested here is obvious everywhere you look, from the beautiful paintings of rural Canada to the brilliantly insightful character designs of Anne - especially Anne - Diana, and Marilla, and of course the rigid adherance to the stories found in the original novel. It all adds up to an idealistic, almost nostalgic portrayal of life on nineteenth-century Prince Edward Island; this vision of free-spirited, wildly imaginative Anne is every bit as captivating and enduring as the novel that inspired it.
I stopped watching after it stopped being funny, but in its prime this was a great show. Family Guy pulled no punches, taking shots at taboo subjects like race, religion, suicide, and the mentally/physically handicapped, and including plenty of profanity and crude sexual humor to boot. And Family Guy doesn't really get credit for it, but it's full of hilarious random ideas (Baby-Smokes-A-Lot, the "Popemobile", Peter gets his own theme music in one episode, etc). A lot of people seem to dislike it because of all the cutaway gags, pop-culture references, and flashbacks, but that doesn't bother me, and certainly doesn't change the fact that the first three seasons of Family Guy were absolutely hilarious.
An off-the-wall sitcom starring an easily irritable jerk named Dan, his wimpy friend/sidekick Chris, and Chris's wife Elise. Basically, Dan hates everything and vows revenge on whichever person, place, thing, or idea upsets him at the beginning of any given episode. This premise allows Dan to take his irritability to a ridiculous and often hilarious extreme, and allows aspiring jerks like me to escape into a fantasy world where anyone can be rude to everyone else all the time and generally do whatever he wants. The quality of the episodes seems to depend more or less on Dan's target; when the writers have the good sense to give Dan something normal to get pissed off about (identity theft, animal shelters), Dan Vs. is at its best.
Tom Goes To The Mayor
Easily the most unique show Adult Swim ever aired (except maybe Reign: The Conqueror), Tom Goes to the Mayor appealed to a lot of AS's viewers, and irritated a lot more of them (always a good sign) with its humor and animation. I feel that the animation style is one of Tom's strengths, allowing for hilarious close-ups (see above photo) and jerky, exaggerated movements that are perfectly suited to the show's general aesthetic. Just about everyone on the show is a complete idiot, including the mayor himself, and at times it almost resembles a parody of the concept of a family (Tom has an ugly wife and three demented children), of polticians (witness the city council members' speech, which is punctuated with way too much "uhhhh"), of social media (the networking website "Friendship Alliance") and of town hall itself in Tom's endless list of half-baked ideas for community improvement. But it's just as enjoyable on a more superficial level, and I love its strange sense of humor, its weird characters (Gibbons), and its completely absurd scenarios.