Tokyo After Dark

Escaping into the anime of the A.M. on the Cartoon Network

Owing to an overwhelming case of reality fatigue, I'm off heavy-duty dramas and reality-based shows for the time being. Note that I didn't say reality shows; I still tune in to The Real World: San Diego to see who's going to be arrested this week. But I'm avoiding the Discovery Channel empire for the time being, as I'm turning into one of those people who can't watch Animal Planet's Miami Animal Police without plunging into despair. (What just god would tolerate a world where people starve animals for the hell of it?) Humanity is bumming me out, and my misanthropy has even soured me to TV's pet bald sociopaths Tony Soprano (The Sopranos, HBO) and Vic Mackey (The Shield, FX).

So what better way to handle a temporary case of extreme sensitivity than watching only fire-wielding witches and killer robots on the Cartoon Network? I've been mainlining the anime block of the network's Adult Swim programming, and it's exactly what the space medic ordered. Adult Swim, which airs after 10:00 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday, is a blend of sly, tongue-in-cheek comedies (Home Movies, Harvey Birdman, Sealab 2021) and dearly departed network gems (Family Guy, Futurama), capped by two hours of anime. The Sunday and weeknight lineups differ, but you're guaranteed at least an hour of entertaining viewing. If you're an insomniac, you might make it through the whole Adult Swim lineup twice. That ought to console you when you're staring at the clock and groaning over the cruel thought that you're going to be at work in four hours on only three hours of sleep.

The anime block--Witch Hunter Robin, InuYasha, Big O and Cowboy Bebop--doesn't look like that Digimon crap kids watch after school. This sophisticated animation, which has long enjoyed a cultish popularity, is uniformly pleasing to watch, with marvelously detailed backgrounds, smooth motion, and riveting action sequences. The aesthetic here is shadowy and urban: Watch these programs with the lights turned down and you'll find yourself distinguishing between multiple shades of dark gray and blinking in surprise when the color red shows up. It's a sleekly noirish metropolis where the streets are always wet at night, the skylines appear pocked with the alien yellow glow of lit windows in tall buildings, and pale women sweep down the sidewalk in long black frock coats.

Are you trying to look up my undercarriage? The Cartoon Network's 'Big O'
Sunrise Inc.
Are you trying to look up my undercarriage? The Cartoon Network's 'Big O'

This world is eerily reminiscent of either a William Gibson novel or a Stanley Kubrick film in the sense that the narrative habitat is entirely man-made. Nature is present only in people's murky motives. You won't see houseplants flourishing on a desk or people walking their dogs as they head down the rain-slick avenues. The deliberate visual disconnect from the organic world only enhances these shows' escapist qualities.

InuYasha stands out from this desolate realm. It showcases a schoolgirl in the leading role, as opposed to a crime-fighting operative with the potential to go rogue. The program is filled with giant magical fleas, and demons with pointy ears, and time travel, and many slapstick hijinks. It also has the potential to embarrass you if someone walks in during an episode--which, granted, is not a high threat at 2:00 in the morning.

If one of the reasons you find yourself awake and anxious in the middle of the night is the continued absence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you may find comfort in Witch Hunter Robin. As with Buffy, the title here tells a good chunk of the story. Robin is a teenage visitor from Italy who joins a Japanese team that hunts witches. This isn't a campaign against friendly Wiccans, but a defense against deranged creatures who shoot bolts of fire and electricity. When Robin isn't hunting witches, she's often brooding. Witch Hunter Robin is a show that strains to make everything even darker and more portentous. The mood, in fact, recalls Chris Carter's Millennium, where you often found yourself muttering, "Would it kill you to crack a smile every week or two?" Also like that show, the combination of secret powers and lurid mysteries will likely have you tuning back in for the hunt.

Big O is a little less somber than Witch Hunter Robin, possibly because the mayhem is more random. The show's lead is like Bruce Wayne and Batman rolled into one--he even has his own loyal butler. But the guiding motif of this program involves a whole bunch of robots. A lot of anime's most ambitious epics, such as Serial Experiment: Lain, and Ghost in the Shell, have used artificial intelligence to question what defines us as human in an age of machines. Big O is no different, returning frequently to the idea that technology can simultaneously lift up the human race while rendering some of its members profoundly inhuman.

Trading in robots for a space station, Cowboy Bebop is what Joss Whedon's Firefly could have been if it weren't A) cheesy and sophomoric, and B) cancelled. It's a gritty and irreverent look at a dystopic future whose black-market habitués can slay you with either a quip or a well-placed slug to the chest, depending on what mood they're in. It also has the best soundtrack of the bunch, with playful jazz riffs (the titular bebop) that do more to add to the futuristic feel of the show than the usual Philip Glass noise would.

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