Name of Anime: Heat Guy J
Streaming Site Used: Mystery DVD sale from Crunchyroll
Episodes Previously Seen: 0
After last week’s adventure with Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid, I’m not sure I can go any further into modern anime for a while–at least not without proving Nietzsche right and being transformed by the abyss I’m gazing into.
Instead, I’ve ordered a collection of 30 “random” DVDs (they weren’t selling well), and I’m going to blog them. The first DVD in the box was the first half of 2002’s Heat Guy J.
Heat Guy J tells the simple story of a lonely child called “Vampire.”
He’s having a really hard time getting over the death of his father–
…who is also named Vampire.
The show might think it’s a buddy cop show about a young charismatic blond–
and his robot buddy, J:
But Vampire (who the show is casting as the “villain”) is the only character in the four episodes who has any consistent characterization through action, as opposed to “honey your subtext is showing” monologues.
I’ll cut to the chase here:
Final verdict: is Heat Guy J trash?
No. It’s not. But it’s not good fiction or effective media, either.
Heat Guy J has not aged well: It’s from 2003, and when I first watched it I thought that it was from 1998 or before. It is possible that the grainy images, washed out colors, and lack of detail when I watched were the result of a bad transfer to DVD. But it’s more likely the whole project simply didn’t spend enough on its animation budget in the first place.
And it’s not just image and animation quality. The shot composition and direction is also difficult to watch: Heat Guy J looks as if the person who did the storyboards thought he or she was working with a larger budget (or more talented animators) than they actually had.
It also has early CG. The less said about early CG in anime, the better.
But the biggest problem with show is actually pacing. In the course of four entire episodes, we learn:
- The young vampire has taken control of his family’s mafia organization after the death of his father.
- This is a future without gasoline, and robots are outlawed in this city, except for J.
- Blond-kun’s father was killed by a robot (big drama)
- Vampire keeps hiring cybernetically-enhanced beast men to cause problems and hopefully kill J.
- Blond-kun secretly respects J–or at least relies on him.
The show takes four episodes and four separate ‘cases of the week’ to tell us this information. In a modern anime, I would have expected all of those plot points handled before the first commercial break in the first episode.
I would also expect some fight scenes that look better than this:
I wanted to watch something like this to see if I could find the precursor to Valkryie Drive, and I found it.
I suspect that modern “trash” anime is a reaction, a primal, erotically charged scream, against shows like this.
Each of J‘s episodes features a simple idea for that week’s case–a serial bomber obsessed with pictures of girls who blows up the buildings in the background of their photos, Vampire smuggling in napalm to blow up his enemies in a gang war, etc–and runs through it in a traditional three-act structure. The idea is established, explained, and then resolved via J punching things in the head until the good guys have won. Modern anime would assume, “You’re going to understand and believe this idea, or you can go fuck yourself,” which gives them more time to spend on being interesting, or at least doing something with each episode besides explaining the core idea.
As offensive and as problematic as the modern sexualization of every female character can be, for all the incessant “I’ve fallen and my hand is on your breast” jokes and the “How many sexy women will end up living with me” plots, modern anime is still more engaging than Heat Guy J. Everything between the initial set-up of each episode and the final confrontation between the buddy cops and the villain is utterly skippable. Even the action scenes! They wouldn’t have been skippable in 1998, but are now only watchable for the camp appeal of seeing a terrible fight scene. The climactic action sequence in each episode isn’t much better; they haven’t aged well in terms of animation or staging, and because J has no clear limits or weaknesses, they’re all forgone conclusions.
Modern anime action scenes generally work for at least one of three primary reasons:
The first (and by far the rarest) is when the action is an expression of character growth and themes present elsewhere in the narrative. Heat Guy J is not even close to this, simply because there are no ideas being expressed yet. Most modern shows are either a bildungsroman of the protagonist coming into their own by fighting (see Naruto), or the character’s skill in combat is an ironic contrast to their uselessness outside of combat (see Infinite Stratos). Alternately (and completely gross), the MC-kun might win the heart of Tsundere-chan by beating her in a fight (or fighting to protect her), something that unfortunately resonates with modern anime fans. But Heat Guy J misses any chance to build character growth into its fight scenes. If Blond-kun genuinely hated robots, and J by extension, and every fight was him coming to terms with the fact that he couldn’t win without J’s power, there would at least be the tension of “Will Blondie stop being a brat before the villain of the week kills him?” Heat Guy J has this realization happen before the first episode, so there is no drama to be had from the concept.
The second way anime action can work is the more generic excitement of not knowing who will win a conflict and what tactics they will use. In a work like Valkyrie Drive or JoJo’s, this expands out to to vast possibilities opened up in a reality unconstrained by any form of traditional logic. Heat Guy J seems to think people with the skill to cut bullets with their katanas is so surprising that they are willing to re-use the gimmick twice in four episodes, but modern anime is far, far more ridiculous than that. Besides that, the limitations of J’s power are never made clear, so there is no question of whether J is capable of winning a fight, merely how long until his robot fists will end it. As a larger concern, Heat Guy J does nothing to explain the consequences of J being damaged. Without knowing that J can’t be replaced if damaged beyond repair (for either political or technical reasons), all of the fights seem lifeless.
The last way anime action works is with the pure aesthetics of shot composition, movement, and the kinds of impossible actions that are a hallmark of comics (and CG-filled blockbusters). Heat Guy J is also terrible by this measure, because the actual movement of its characters looks poor. The composition of shots is rarely interesting, and most damningly, there’s not enough “cheating.” Modern anime aesthetics are based on using cinematic shot compositions to hide how little is actually moving in the frame. (For example, this is why Japanese animation used the close up and extreme close up to much greater effect than similar western cartoons, until relatively recently.) The classic aesthetic technique (since Gundam) of a giant robot fight being punctuated by shots of the pilots in their cockpits (and closeups of their faces screaming one liners) was originally designed to cut down on expensive, hard to animate shots of the giant robots fighting, but had the side effect of making giant robot fights work because the pilots are what really matters (see Star Wars dogfighting sequences). Heat Guy J is directed with the action in the center of the frame, and the actual animation not particularly fluid or detailed. Combined with the lack of close-ups and reactions to show how the characters feel about how their fights are going, it’s like watching stage combat from the wrong angle.
At some level, for fiction to work, it has to be at least a little surprising (whether the surprise is where the story goes, or whether Naruto will win, or even what technique he will use next). There has to be a reason for a viewer to keep watching after the first five minutes, because if you can predict everything that’s going to happen, what’s the point? Heat Guy J simply doesn’t surprise me. If the flaws of modern anime can be thought of as a terminal case of being “inward looking,” making anime with your only aesthetic references being another anime shows, it’s easy to forget that these “ur shows” did work, on both a narrative and animation level, and so all of the shows that copied them also duplicated (possibly unknowingly) the elements that made them work. Heat Guy J is its own thing, and if it were actually good, that would be laudable. Instead it makes me miss modern anime, trash or not.
Next week I’ll have another 4 episodes of this show to get through, and who knows? Maybe something will have happened I didn’t predict. (Like Blond-kun/J, human-on-robot yaoi action. That would count.) Until then, wish me luck…