Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The dark side of Cartoons. All that yelling and screaming goes to good use.

When I was but a wee teenager I would spend my hours wasting away before the TV, because growing up where I did there was little else besides drinking to do (and I did a lot of that, too) but as anyone growing up in England during the late 90's and early 2000's can agree when I say that a lot of our broadcasting was shite to say the least, and if you were cursed to be stuck with the basic television package, terrestrial TV provided even less. So, torn as I was between BBC's mix of end-of-the-world news and psuedo-drama and ITV's upper-class "laugh at the poor people" news and mind-bogglingly boring period-drama, I found myself ecstatic the day my mum came in and announced we were getting a Sky TV dish installed. Suddenly I was spoilt for choice with 900 channels of equally nothing-of-interest broadcasting (and by 900, I mean somewhere in the vicinity of 150 crap channels, 40 news channels and about 300 Shopping Networks... The rest of that number were missing somewhere in the ethereal realm of dead air).
                I was on the verge of giving up on television entirely (something I have done in the years since) until I discovered the post-watershed options. Now, sad to say, I was not like most teens at that time, and what excited me most about this world of after-the-kiddiwinks-bedtime, censorship-free excitement was not the porn channels, but Cartoon Network. Well, not Cartoon Network itself, but the magical thing it turned into after the last of the Hanna-Barbera bedtime hour (The Flintstones, some Huckleberry Hound, Scooby Doo, good stuff, but still not enough for me) had drawn to its conclusion. Like the mythical werewolf, the man forced to hide his monstrous alter-ego until it tore him inside-out at the coming of a full moon, I discovered that Cartoon Network had its own dark side, and this night-time creature was called "Toonami".
                Toonami was host to a small community of "adult" cartoons, things I would later discover were called "anime" (and, to my further horror, available 24-7 in Japan and specialised channels on American TV). In these cartoons the heroes were free from the shackles of childish stereotypes; they were capable of being both good role models, like their daytime counterparts, but also of being real people, people with problems and attitudes that went further than the rebellious "I'll stay up after my bedtime" punks from daytime cartoons. In this world the good guys drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, swore and even killed people (they never "thwarted" plans, but solved the problems set to them by their antagonists by actually killing them, usually with some form of firearm or giant robot or super power). It was more than my little mind could fathom, and I was hooked.
                day after day I would ignore the large glass box in the living room, disenfranchised by the goody-goody actions of what classed as "my TV" and wait until the clock struck 9 and the trouble-free world of childhood faded into its own little dream world. I would then take up the controls, activate the television, the Sky box, and hit the numbers 6-0-1 (then the number for Cartoon Network, I have no idea what it is these days, and have no interest in finding out) and before me would flash the farewell message of fun-filled, family-friendly cartoons and when that was gone, on would explode Toonami, the dark side of cartoons laid bare for me to consume with my eyes and mind.
                Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop, Big-O, Tenchi Muyo, Gundam, all of these would be my new friends, and I loved every minute of it, but what captivated me the most was a rather lengthy series in which the sole purpose of the show was to see its protagonists constantly beat the shit out of their enemies, or be beaten in turn if they weren't strong enough. There was screaming, grunting, groaning and lots of death and destruction (perhaps I was too rash with my "not being into porn" thing earlier) and I was fully captivated by it. This thing was something called Dragonball Z. It drew me from the start, with its heavy opening theme, all guitars and shouting, and carried me further when its protagonists shot onscreen in white and yellow bursts of raw power. This was a world where evil could be beyond powerful, where the bad guys didn't try to steal or cheat but destroy whole worlds, or kill countless innocent civilians, and the only people who could protect it were those who trained night and day simply to punch them in the face harder than they could be punched themselves.
                Since those days my tastes have changed somewhat, but at the time Dragonball Z was the highlight of my day. I would tune in every day to watch Goku and his friends face a new foe, train, be beaten, train again and beat the foe in turn, and I loved it. I loved its simple nature: there were no deep storylines that had to be followed, like with Cowboy Bebop or Outlaw Star, there was simply the good guys beating the bad guys, with talk thrown in now and then for them to insult one another. A simple premise for a simple kid, but as I said, my tastes have changed over the years. I still love anime and the insane depths it will trawl to entertain people, but as my mind grew sharper so did my need for deeper stories and characters. This was when I started to better appreciate Toonami's other shows, and even now you can find a few of those previously mentioned titles (and many more besides) on my DVD shelf, but still, there is that part of me that loves Dragonball Z.
                I have recently been re-watching the show, back-to-back, every episode of every season (at the time of writing this I have just begun the fourth season, the Garlic Jr./Trunks/Androids saga) and I have to say, as much as I love it I can see why many others don't. It is repetitive, each season in the same as the last, with the only difference being how much stronger the antagonists are and how much work must go into beating them. Sure, it has its deeper moments, but its convoluted at best. I have developed a game while watching it: try to figure out how long in real time the show is portraying. It's pretty simple, and all in the title really, I just watch the show and try to judge how much of it has occurred in real time and how much in the super-fast fight-speed time that the battles last for. Depending on which season you watch, it can stretch anything from a year per episode to only a few seconds.
                A major case in point is the third season, the Frieza Saga. I found myself many times during that season thinking to myself "seriously, how LONG is this going to take?". The whole thing, which consists of (I believe) 33 episodes chronicles just ONE fight, that between the Z fighters and the destroyer of worlds, Lord Frieza. At the beginning the time frame is somewhat larger: Goku is in the ship's healing tank, and it will take about an hour for him to be restored to full working order, so in the mean time Goku's son Gohan, his friend Krillin and his fellow Saiyan/enemy Prince Vegeta must hold Frieza off long enough for Goku to be tagged back in. So there's a good time frame, one-hour. It is said many times, so one can safely assume that the time between episode 01 of the season (show episode 75) when the fight begins and episode 10, when Goku is revived, constitutes one hour of real-time. Since each episode is roughly 20 minutes long, that's 200 minutes of our time spent watching just 60 minutes of theirs (though, you have to account for time spent showing things happening elsewhere, so think of that as concurrent and you have a system wherein the same minutes can be replayed a couple of times to show what other characters are doing at the same time), evidence enough that they play with time a little, but you can accept that, there's a lot of things going on, a lot of different characters in different places suffering different fates, and you have to get it all in somehow, but it's later in the series that it really starts to mess with your mind.
                Episode 22 of the season (97 overall) has the beaten Frieza unleash a last-ditch effort to end the battle: a direct powerful attack on the planet's core. He explains that his power, depleted through fighting, was not enough to destroy Namek outright, but that it will gradually degrade until it's full destruction in just five minutes (another number that is often reinforced, mind) so we have a new time-limit with which to judge time in the show. Five minutes is not long, so we'd expect it to all be over soon. Going by the show's previous effort at time stretching, I'd give it 2 episodes, with room for concurrent stories. However this passes, and suddenly things are still happening. I won't bore you with details (you've probably already seen it, if not, I've given away a lot of spoilers already) but put simply the fight continues for another NINE episodes. NINE EPISODES. One Hundred and Eighty minutes of our time is spent showing just FIVE minutes of Dragonball time. Now you might say, "oh, it was just an estimation, it's probably more than that" but I'd say "watch it again. Hear the characters, Frieza, Goku and King Kai all say at different points that there are only minutes left, and refer to the previously mentioned five-minute time limit often too". The show REALLY does stretch five minutes into 180, and it's just mind boggling. What's worse (but also good, for the show does know how to make that time work) is that you'd think each episode would be uniquely boring and just contain the same stuff over-and-over again, but somehow it doesn't.
                Somehow the creators of the show have made it so that in each episode something important happens, in tiny little doses, so that overall you get one whole story. I tried to skip through some episodes, cutting through some of the standing and growling moments to get to more story, only to find that at some point in those growly moments they had put in important parts of the story that left me confused after I missed them, forcing me to go back and watch the whole thing. It really is astounding. It's like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are numbered as to where they go, only you have to go to a certain place at a certain time to get the individual pieces from some strange puzzle-man, and if you miss any one of those time slots the puzzle cannot become complete in any logical manner, rendering your time spent useless. It's maddening, astounding, and somehow damned good story telling. It's like the show is rewarding those viewers who are willing to sit through every excruciating second of watching a grown man shouting until his hair turns yellow with an underlying and somehow intriguing story, like some reversed dog trick wherein the dog performs the trick only when you're watching closely and then it gives you a toffee for having seen it.

                Japan, you crazy... But you do tell a damned good yarn!

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