The Best of Anime...Music

America’s anime fans were pretty busy in the late 1990s. We weren't satisfied just watching Robotech reruns on Toonami; we fervently devoured favorite series, wrote letters to keep Sailor Moon on the air, and went to conventions in numbers previously unseen. We also spent lots of money on anime and its ancillary merchandise. So great was our hunger that some of us thought it a momentous privilege to pay thirty bucks for the imported soundtrack to a movie or series we enjoyed.

In that light, The Best of Anime seemed like a great deal. Rhino Records released it in 1998 at the same price as a new album from Weezer or Neutral Milk Hotel, and it settled the question of anime's finest music for all time.

The Best of Anime aimed itself as much at new fans as it did at old-timers, and it shows in the cover choices. The CD comes with an illustration of either Cutey Honey or Speed Racer, and the art itself is a thin cel-like sheet posed before the booklet’s cover image of a Silent Mobius cityscape. I was a teenage boy at the time, and despite Speed Racer’s ironic cred, I went with the Cutey Honey cover. And then I tucked the cel inside the booklet before anyone could see it on my shelf.

Despite the title, this isn't an authoritative collection of the finest music spawned in Japan’s animation circuit. If it were, it’d have the Orguss 02 opening.

No, this is less a Top-40 countdown and more an educational sampling from three decades of popular anime series, and it might be more accurate to call it The Best of Anime That We Could Afford to License. It’s helped by some nice liner notes from Fred Patten, who introduces each series and explains just how it fits into the broader vein of anime. He also provides a brief rundown of just how certain shows and the attendant fandom took off in America—starting with an anecdote about the heroine of Brave Raideen kicking an enemy soldier in the crotch.

And the songs themselves? The Best of Anime is a hodgepodge of corny opening tunes and disposable puffery surrounding a few genuinely good numbers. In other words, it’s a perfect encapsulation of anime music.

The Best of Anime begins where a lot of anime begins, stylistically speaking. Astro Boy is so enduring that even stodgy old Bill Watterson referenced him for a Calvin and Hobbes joke, and his theme song is a memorable little jingle about countdowns and blastoffs. The same doesn’t go for the second track; it’s the Gigantor theme, a plodding number that, as Patten notes, endured because kids could rework it with insults. No matter. It’s over quickly, and then we’re on to the rousing Speed Racer theme, which had more than nostalgic value by the late 1990s thanks to pop remixes and Volkswagen GTI commercials.

The collection ventures into the 1980s and less familiar ground with “Lum’s Love Song.” Urusei Yatsura is a cornerstone of the industry and anime fandom in general, but I’m not sure if its opening music has the same traction. I was an anime nerd for about five minutes before I picked up on Urusei Yatsura’s legacy: the wacky jokes, the bikini-clad alien princess, the deliciously odd second movie from Mamoru Oshii, and so on. The song wasn’t part of that.

Also influential is the source of the next track: Megazone 23. It’s a groundbreaker (that The Matrix ripped off; tell your friends!), but “Sentimental Over the Shoulder” is just a vaguely wistful ditty. If Rhino wanted the best song from the series, they could have looked to the more memorable “Himitsu Kudasai,” a pop dirge that plays as Tokyo is ripped apart and the hedonistic façade of the 1980s collapses. That's what I remember about Megazone 23, anyway.

If there’s one persistent drawback to The Best of Anime, it’s that most of the songs don’t stand out when extracted from their sources. Windaria’s “Beautiful Planet,” however, is a nice, gentle number on any account. Windaria wasn’t one of the you-gotta-see-this standards of anime by the late 1990s, but it’s a pretty wad of melodrama about a fantasy kingdom where love and war make everyone do really dumb and tragic things. Perhaps it was kept obscure by the lack of an uncut release; the version we Americans had in the 1990s was heavily re-edited even for a Streamline job, and the later DVD arrival didn’t have the original Japanese version. But you can get its closing song completely intact on The Best of Anime!

This brings us to one of the two tracks that made me buy this collection: “Active Heart” from Gunbuster. I’ve been a fan of the series from the moment I rented it from Blockbuster and shotgunned all three hours over one evening, so of course I was after the peppy opening number. It definitely loses something without the intergalactic pullback and space robot battles, but I suspect that most of us who picked up The Best of Anime weren’t hunting great music. We just wanted some songs from our favorite series and didn’t want to bother stealing them online.

The lineup returns to slower ballads with “Adesso E Fortuna” from Record of Lodoss War, the OVA series that’s sometimes described as a Lord of the Rings anime even though, as Patten’s notes imply, it’s more like watching a tabletop Dungeons and Dragons session that you can’t join. The song itself is pretty but forgettable—just like Lodoss War. I think the TV series opening, “Kiseki no Umi,” would’ve been a better choice, but that was perhaps too fresh off the grill.

What’s next? Why, it’s “Full Moon Light” from Devil Hunter Yohko, the OVA series that put ADV Films on the map and introduced many viewers to Japanese cartoons with naughty naked partner! Unlike most of the songs here, “Full Moon Light” is actually better when extracted from the anime, which offer little more than dull schoolgirls battling demons and losing their clothes. Devil Hunter Yohko was never good, and neither is this song in the long run, but it’s bubbly enough while it lasts.

A selection from Silent Mobius seems odd on the surface. The first movie and the manga were available in North America, yet they weren’t in the spotlight by 1998. Heck, I liked Silent Mobius a lot at the time, and I never met anyone else who did. Patten’s notes shed some light on its inclusion, though: it fits the cyber-future quota for anime in place of a more expensive song from Bubblegum Crisis (or better yet, AD Police), and “Sailing” isn’t that bad of a number. It’s a standard catchy pop trinket with some odd noisy bits at the center. Any break from the radio-friendly bedrock is appreciated, considering how most of The Best of Anime is about as experimental as Deep Blue Something.

All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku-Nuku is pretty much what goes through some people’s heads when they heard the word “anime,” even if they’ve never seen this particular OVA. It’s full of wacky robot catgirl nonsense, and it wasn’t all that prominent even in the 1990s. But the song “Happy Birthday to Me” gives this collection a taste of Megumi Hayashibara, who was by that point the biggest voice actress in the anime industry.

What’s the worst song on The Best of Anime? My vote goes to “Just Beyond the Time,” a drab semi-rock piece from New Dominion Tank Police. No, that's not the earlier Dominion Tank Police OVA that you might have rented from Hollywood Video or caught on the Sci-Fi Channel; it’s the later one that no one really remembers. So why is the song here? Masamune Shirow. He was among manga’s most popular names in North America in the late 1990s, and his Dominion comics are a lot better than their anime versions. Sure, The Best of Anime could’ve swiped something from the Ghost in the Shell soundtrack, but its haunting atmospheric tones don’t really fit a pop collection.  

Oh My Goddess! is another series better known for its manga incarnation, which, as Patten points out, is pretty much an optimistic version of Urusei Yatsura’s instant-girlfriend wish fulfillment. “My Heart I Can’t Say, Your Heart I Want to Know” is a disposable and syrupy thing, but I’ll grant it this much: it has the most awkward title on the list.

Given the collection’s chronological order, it might seem strange that Cutey Honey wedges itself alongside late-1990s fare. The original and highly influential series dates back to 1973, and so does its theme song. But this is the revamped version from 1994’s New Cutey Honey, and thankfully it’s the Japanese cut instead of the oddly translated English one. Cutey Honey was far less popular in the West than it is in Japan, and putting it in The Best of Anime didn’t really change that.

The Best of Anime now turns to the second reason I bought it—and the best track on this collection. It’s Yoko Kanno’s “Voices” from Macross Plus. A beautiful, slow-building ballad from an equally gorgeous series, it presages Kanno’s rise as one of anime’s most popular composers (no matter the accusations of borderline plagiarism). Today we know her music from Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell and even otherwise bungled series like Wolf’s Rain, but Macross Plus sure wasn't a bad introduction.  

Sailor Moon loomed large over anime nerds in the late 1990s, and it was onlygetting started with its TV airings and fan circles. The collection loops back to Americanized openings with the English version of the theme song, which I will forever mock for lyrics about “winning love by daylight.” Not that this kept Sailor Moon from taking over.

Dedicated anime fans will notice plenty of exclusions. For starters, the old guard skips Star Blazers and its memorable theme song. I suspect licensing issues kept it from The Best of Anime, and the same might apply for other heavyweights that go unrepresented here, including Bubblegum Crisis, Ranma 1/2, Tenchi Muyo!, and, of course, Gundam. You could find domestic soundtracks for Ranma 1/2  and Tenchi Muyo! at your local Suncoast by 1998, and no one wanted competition in the cutthroat world of anime music.

The Best of Anime would be very different had Rhino assembled it a few years later. By the end of the decade, Sailor Moon had only grown in popularity, Dragon Ball Z came into its own, Gundam Wing’s uncut airings were a major breakthrough, Neon Genesis Evangelion was a cult hit, and a little series called Pokemon made it impossible for a big chunk of the American populace to escape anime. In this new era, Windaria and Devil Hunter Yohko would barely rate mention.

That’s why I find The Best of Anime fascinating: it’s a snapshot of just what this fan subculture was like before the rampant DVD releases of the 2000-2006 anime bubble and the wide-scale streaming of today’s latest shows. It was a time when just about any anime seemed part of some great undiscovered realm of exotic and strange cartoons, and exploring it was as accessible as your nearest video store. And if you found The Best of Anime waiting in their CD section, it was another fascinating map fragment of this new land.

But really, they didn’t include The Adventures of the Little Koala or Noozles? I could understand choosing between them, but to completely ignore ‘80s koala-bear anime is a crime against history.

1 comment:

  1. Yep, aren't you talking about the opening song of Orguss 02 aren't you? Fantastic opening , the soundtrack was composed by Torsten Rasch , and there are two openings, the second opening that Hiroe Ueda sings is the one that ices the cake ( by Torsten itself ) ... the first one is not that great but not bad imho.

    Anyway, a really deep anime, more than it seems at first glance.