This is the third part in an ongoing retrospective of my experiences with anime. Make sure you’ve read from the beginning!
One Saturday night during my sophomore year of high school, I went to play laser tag with some friends. When I got home it was around midnight, and on Cartoon Network there was a new anime being aired that I hadn’t seen before. It was a quiet show with ambient music. It was digitally animated, but retained the beautiful style of backgrounds from traditional animation, something I didn’t see as often anymore. This show must have been airing for a while, because the first episode I was watched was right in the middle of the series. I naturally didn’t understand what was going on, but I was absorbed and wanted to watch again next week.
This show was .hack//SIGN, and along with Evangelion, it would become my favorite anime.
.hack (pronounced “dot hack”) was, at the time, a new franchise consisting of a TV series, a PlayStation 2 RPG separated into four games which also included a DVD with each game featuring an episode from a miniseries, and a manga series. Sound confusing? It was. But I loved the complexity of it back then. Each of these individual titles all featured events surrounding an online game creatively titled “The World.” But aside from that and a couple recurring characters, that’s where the story-related similarities end.
.hack//SIGN (pronounced “dot hack sign) followed the events of Tsukasa, a player who, for lack of a better explanation, was trapped in “The World” and couldn’t log out. The show begins touching on many mysteries this online game and series had while setting up the events that led to the PS2 games. The PS2 games (which all have different titles, but for convenience I’ll just refer to them as the .hack games) blended RPG storytelling and what I’m assuming is a simulated experience playing an online game. You play as a character named Kite, who’s trying to find out why his friend fell into a coma as a result of playing the game. You check e-mails, message boards, and team up with other characters to explore the game that continually deteriorates, glitches out, and ultimately affects the real world. .hack//Liminality is a short miniseries about a group of people in the real world investigating how the online game is affecting it. Each episode is on a DVD bundled with a game, and I believe they were meant to be viewed while playing each game, as the miniseries is supposed to take place alongside it. Finally, .hack//Legend of the Twilight is a three-volume manga series (which was later adapted into its own anime) that takes place after the events of the PS2 games. It was about… something. I’m sorry, but I was honestly never a big fan of it. It’s more of a cute little side story compared with the rest of the initial stuff.
Sound confusing? Yeah, it was. But again, I loved the complexity of it. I don’t know why, but the more convoluted and complex an anime was in telling its story, the more I believed it was deep. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling any of the .hack stuff bad, but… well, we’ll talk more about this later.
Anyway, .hack//SIGN, along with being a visual and audio delight, also had a really interesting story and characters behind it. It’s not every day I could say a show with a concept as stupid as “someone gets sucked into a video game” could have been so moving. It was really interesting to see the characters play in the online game and slowly reveal different parts and struggles in their real lives. While most of the show took place in the game, there were a few grayscale scenes that depicted their real world selves, which I thought was a very interesting insight to remind the viewer that there are different, real people behind their in-game characters. And to top it off, .hack//SIGN, like Evangelion, featured a main character with severe self-esteem and family issues, which always made a more interesting story for me.
I caught .hack//SIGN when I could on television, although I wouldn’t see the series in its chronological episode order until I received the box set as a Christmas gift during my junior year. I received the first PS2 game (along with my PS2) for Christmas when I was a sophomore. I also started buying the manga around this time, and continued to purchase the next game or volume whenever it became available or when I had the money to do so. .hack wasn’t something that came into my life all at once; it gradually kept building up over the course of high school. I think this is one of the reasons why it seemed so much bigger to me. Although I always preferred shows that began and ended within a season and manga that didn’t go on for 10+ volumes (some of them never end!), .hack felt different because each of its initial series felt like its own thing. You didn’t necessarily need to experience one title to understand and enjoy another one, but each entry added something new to understanding the overall setting and plot of the entire franchise. And at the time, there was just the anime, the PS2 games (and their bundled DVDS), and the manga. It was a bigger project collecting these than any other anime-related experience I’d had, but it was still doable. It was exciting.
And it was mine.
Since starting high school, I felt like I’d relied on the recommendations of friends to discover anime, manga, or RPGs. I don’t know if anyone else ever went through this, but when someone introduced me to something they’re into, it always felt like “their thing.” Regardless of how much I enjoyed it, it always sort of felt like I copied someone else’s interests. Evangelion was the only anime that felt like I’d discovered on my own, and it was refreshing to know I’d discovered .hack in a similar way.
I made a lot of memories with both the show and games, and the music was a big part of that. I’d been slowly getting into and appreciating video game music and anime soundtracks since starting high school. Final Fantasy VII was such a great game to me that I ended up finding the soundtrack for it online and asking for it for Christmas my freshman year. I’d bought two Zelda soundtracks from a Nintendo service when I was in middle school, but the FFVII soundtrack felt like the first proper one I’d received. It had four discs, 85 tracks, and an insert that was written almost entirely in Japanese. Along with that, a couple of friends had made me a couple of mix CDs featuring a number of songs featured in anime intros and endings (only they were full length!) as well as tracks used in shows themselves.
I listened to these CDs a lot during high school, and I found myself listening to them more than actual music, which is a shame because that definitely didn’t help the whole “anime fans are weird” stereotype that had become more and more apparent as time went on. But regardless, I was interested in expanding my soundtrack collection. FLCL had a pretty kickass soundtrack featuring a lot of vocal tracks from an actual Japanese band called The Pillows, and I found myself wanting to listen to the music outside of the show the more I rewatched it. And now, there was .hack//SIGN, perhaps the most ambient and atmospheric music I’d heard in an anime to date. I began developing a genuine intrigue to listen to this kind of stuff, music I didn’t hear on the radio or music that no one really knew about except for other anime fans.
Well as luck would have it, a couple of the malls I visited had Suncoast stores that started carrying not only anime, but other anime-related merchandise like plushies, keychains, and yes, soundtracks!
I don’t remember when exactly I picked it up (I’m assuming either late sophomore year or early junior year), but I still distinctly remember holding the first soundtrack for .hack//SIGN in my hands. I hadn’t seen all of the show (it may have honestly not been a lot), but I was so intrigued by what little music I had heard that I made the decision to buy it right then and there. It became one of my favorite CDs in high school; it was extremely soothing and atmospheric, perfect for helping me deal with the drama high school brought. Two FLCL soundtracks followed shortly after (one of them may have even been that day), and from then on Suncoast became my go-to place for anime soundtracks. Some I couldn’t find, and for those I’d order online from different websites, but Suncoast was always my top preference.
The latter half of high school
Most of my anime friends graduated by my junior year. I found myself relying on my own experiences to discover and continue enjoying anime from then on. I fell out of touch with most of them; while they were fun, I never saw or talked to them very often outside of school. Most were a couple years older, and I’m sure many people remember feeling a natural barrier between under and upper classmen. I’d still see some of them occasionally. A few of us kept in touch on AIM for a while, but from then on it was just me and my closer friends, who held varying degrees of interest in anime. I was able to share some things I liked with them, so now it felt like I was the one filling other people in on the world of anime. I’d pick up more anime, manga, and RPGs as high school continued, although…
Some of the “new” was beginning to fade. After being a new anime fan for three years, my desire to see new shows, read new manga, and play new games had less to do with fascination and innocent curiosity, but felt more like a responsibility, for lack of a better word. I felt like as an anime fan, I needed to keep experiencing new stories, collecting the soundtracks and merchandise that followed, to continue building up shelves in my room with more and more stuff. Back then I was really into it, so it’s not like it felt like work. Enthusiasts of anything probably feel something similar. But that need to do it, the one that overwrote the want – that was something I felt growing for the remaining years I was an anime fan, and I didn’t understand it until much later.
A lot of people didn’t understand my enthusiasm for anime in general, which of course made it harder to like without feeling like there was something wrong with me. While I always dealt with criticism for it from people that weren’t interested, I couldn’t help but notice it build up around this time. Maybe it’s because I was mostly collecting manga, but once I started coming home with soundtracks, plushies, and other merchandise, some more heads started to turn. Maybe it’s because during the second half of high school, especially senior year, people started focusing more on where they wanted to go to college and do with their lives as opposed to me, who planned on going to community college and still spent his free time with anime and video games. Maybe it’s because anime stopped being something I was interested in and became something I was sort of obsessed with. I don’t want to say obsessed, but considering how into it I was, it was clear it was more than just a hobby.
You’d think the only people that would still understand my passion were other anime fans, but truth be told, other anime fans were becoming harder to get along with. I don’t know what exactly happened in my school after my original anime friends left, but the ones in my grade and below seemed to have differing opinions on what it meant to be a “true” anime fan. Some people insisted that you weren’t a real anime fan unless you peppered your speech with various Japanese words like “kawaii” and “chibi.” Other fans only liked the cute stuff. Another group of fans only liked uncut shonen shows like Dragonball Z and Naruto. Some fans only liked shows with a ton of blood and violence. In fact, one time during college, I was at an f.y.e. with a friend looking at anime DVDs, and this girl showed up behind us.
“Ew, what’s One Piece doing in the anime section?” she asked in a semi-valley girl tone.
My friend and I looked at each other and didn’t know what to say, so being a smartass, I said, “Uh… because it’s an anime…?”
“No it’s not,” the girl insisted. “Real anime has a ton of blood and fighting and cursing. One Piece doesn’t even look like an anime.”
I swear this conversation happened. I know it sounds like something someone would make up, but I swear it happened. Just… what!?
People always preferred different anime, of course. But around this time I started noticing a pretty big divide. Especially when I started watching .hack//SIGN. It was a show with a lot of focus on talking and not action, and anime fans either appreciated it or hated it.
To top it off, no one really seemed to be collecting anything anymore as far as shows and manga went. Everyone sort of started watching or reading stuff illegally online. They all kept saying the English dubs and subs sucked, and they weren’t accurate to the original source. As you can tell, I liked the English translations of anime. I’d been watching, reading, and collecting them for three or four years by this point. The people that got me more into anime had done the same. So it was a little unusual to hear so many people suddenly jump on this bandwagon. I know they have their opinions about the English releases, but…
Well, I’ll get to that in a future part. Oh, I certainly will.
Anyway, that’s sort of what anime life was like for me in the latter half of high school. .hack was a huge part of it, I remember getting into the Negima! manga, which was the next series Ken Akamatsu (creator of Love Hina) began as well as the Excel Saga manga, which was pretty different and honestly a lot better than the show. I picked up the anime version of Love Hina at some point, although it honestly didn’t even hold up to the manga for me. When Samurai Champloo started releasing episodes on DVD and Adult Swim, I immediately got into that (as a Cowboy Bebop fan, I was pretty excited about it). I was still drawing anime characters a lot, and it’s with mild embarrassment that I admit to even drawing myself and my friends as anime characters, too.
Out of my four close friends that weren’t as interested in anime, only one of them regularly watched or read new things I bought, which was fine for the time. It was kind of sad to know I didn’t have a group of anime friends around anymore, and the rest of the anime fans in my school were often a little much to deal with (although I did become friends with some of them). But my close friends fulfilled more of a role in my life up until this point. It didn’t really matter if they weren’t as enthusiastic about anime. They didn’t hate it, at any rate.
During my senior year, however, we ran into some problems. There were some fights, some falling outs, and a lot of awkward tension. I’m not really going to go into it; this really isn’t the time or place. But I feel like it’s worth noting because during my senior year, a handful of shows really caught my attention and focus. I think a large part of this was to keep me distracted from personal problems.
The first major anime I got into that year was Hellsing. One of my friend’s brothers was always raving about how cool it was, and my dad had just started a Netflix account. Put two and two together, and bam. Hellsing arrived in my mailbox four separate times on four separate discs. Hellsing was an action show that made me obsessed with vampires that year. It was about a gun toting vampire named Alucard who worked for the Hellsing Organization to stop vampires and other supernatural things from taking over London. It wasn’t particularly deep, but I still liked it.
This show was really all about Alucard. His character design was really cool; he had a dapper hat and sunglasses that made silhouettes of him look great. He was confident, badass, snarky, and really funny. A lot of that charm came from Crispin Freeman’s voice work. Anime fans can say what they want about English voice acting, but when I hear Crispin Freeman play a role I can’t help but think those fans haven’t really been paying attention to how far voice acting has come.
I eventually started picking up the manga one volume at a time over the course of senior year. I had just gotten my first job, and now that I had a stable income I was able to spend a little more money. I remember closing after school a couple nights a week, and sometimes I would walk over to the nearby Barnes and Noble, buy a manga, and come back during my break. The manga started out the same as the show, but took a drastically different turn about three volumes in. It turned into a war between the Hellsing Organization and Nazi vampires, and it kind of just goes crazy from there. The artwork was great, and there were a lot of cool silhouettes to draw from. Or what I called anti-silhouettes, considering they were white outlines on black backgrounds. The manga released volumes sporadically. My senior year in 2006 had seven available, and one more would be released about once every year until the final volume all the way until 2010. Geez, that was a pretty long wait for a ten volume manga!
Strangely enough, watching Hellsing made me really interested in vampires. I read Dracula that year as a result, and my senior paper ended up being about the evolution of vampires throughout literature. Back then this was really cool to me, but Twilight has kind of sucked the fun out of vampires since then.
Around Christmas, two new shows I bought were Azumanga Daioh and Noir. Azumanga Daioh was cute, and I enjoyed it enough to buy the four volume manga, but it didn’t really stick with me. Noir, on the other hand, certainly did. I first learned about Noir from a Suncoast flyer, and I even drew one of the characters that was on it. I kept it in mind to look into at a later date, and as luck would have it Best Buy had the whole series for only $40. It was a good show, actually one of my favorites back then. Although to be honest I’ve forgotten a lot of the plot, so I don’t think I could give much of an accurate summary.
But the big thing I took away from Noir was the music. It was so eerily similar to .hack//SIGN’s that I bought both soundtracks once I saw them in Suncoast. And with a little compare and contrast of the composers, I found out that both shows’ music were written and performed by the same person. Yuki Kajiura and her band See-Saw composed the soundtracks, and I was so delighted to find that out. See-Saw would become my go-to answer whenever someone asked what my favorite band was. I didn’t even care if they never heard of them. For the first time since I started listening to Japanese songs and music, I finally had a band name I could answer with. You have no idea how awkward it was to say I liked Japanese stuff whenever someone talked to me about music. It’s not like it was all I listened to, but at the time it was my preferred genre.
Noir also inspired some art from me. Along with a Hellsing project I did for art class, I made a collage of my favorite character from the show. Ah, high school art class. My teacher was really easy-going, and always encouraged us to work on our own projects. Or maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he just wanted us to be working on something. Whatever. He was still cool. He helped me learn more about blending colors, anyway.
Finally, senior year brought me Fullmetal Alchemist. I’m not sure when it started airing, probably sometime during late junior or early senior year. But I came into the series about halfway through when I caught it on Adult Swim one night. It was probably around spring, as I remember really getting into it towards the latter part of the school year. It was the story about a couple of boys trying to get their lives back to normal after an accident involving alchemy. In this show’s world, alchemy exists as a sort-of-but-not-really magic, where alchemists have limited control over certain properties. Two young boys were going to try bringing their dead mother back to life, something forbidden in their world. One brother lost his arm, which was later replaced with a prosthetic metal one. The other lost his entire body, but due to quick thinking by the first, his soul was attached to a suit of armor as a temporary replacement.
It’s a really interesting show, and probably one of the few I would still be interested in rewatching. It’s not without its clichés, but it doesn’t have a lot of the awkward fan service so many other anime tend to throw in for the sake of throwing in. It’s an all-around appealing show, mixing elements of adventure, humor, action, and emotion. And it never goes over the top. One thing anime tends to do is dramatically shift between different tones and it gets really annoying after a while. Shows like Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and Fullmetal Alchemist were good at keeping and balancing consistent tones throughout the series.
Strangely enough, my friend’s mom was into anime and she had the first half of the series on DVD. I borrowed them, caught up, and watched the rest of the series on Adult Swim throughout the rest of high school. Along with Hellsing, I also started collecting the available manga one by one with part of my paycheck. I was surprised how differently the manga was turning out from the anime, and throughout college I would be continually impressed as each new volume was released.
During the summer between high school and college, I used some of my graduation money to start buying the DVDs for Fullmetal Alchemist. Best Buy was having a great sale where each DVD was only $20 (which was pretty good in 2006), so I stocked up and bought almost the entire series that summer. It may not have been the smartest thing to do with my money, but anime’s an expensive hobby. Unless you’re watching/reading pirated stuff. But again, I’ll get to that later.
I invested a lot of myself into these new shows. There was also a manga I started reading called Chrono Crusade, which I guess I spent a lot of time with as well. It had good art, I really liked the shades of colors on the covers, it had a pretty solid story, and it was only eight volumes long. I reread it frequently that year and I guess it stood out just as much back then, but I honestly can’t remember a lot about it. It’s been a really long time, after all. But that was pretty much senior year of high school. Like I said, the changes in my personal life weren’t something I was good at dealing with, so now more than ever anime was a sort of safe haven for me. Even bigger changes were in store for me with college around the corner. But we’ll talk more about that next time.