Miscellanea and Ephemeron
01/29/2005 Archived Entry: "Anime Review: Inuyasha, Vol 26"
Review by Kelly Taylor
Imagine that you are a television producer in a hypothetical foreign country. You are in charge of finding programs for young adults. You buy a bundle of American television series that feature teenaged characters. In the box next to "Totally Raven" and Phil of the Future you find Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When you screen the series, you are surprised by the presence of parody, satire, and self-referential jokes in what you assumed was a series aimed at 8-14 year olds. You are horrified by the amount graphic violence and are completely bumfuzzled by the irreverent sexual humor. What do you do? Do you dive in with the scissors and edit like a mad dog? Do you bowdlerize scenes that seem odd or inappropriate? Do you simply let puzzling or troubling lines go untranslated? Do you slap a parental guidance sticker on it and let the chips fall where they may? Do you work for years producing a lovingly accurate translation with footnotes?
(Here's a clue: if you picked the "with footnotes option," odds are that you do not and probably never will work in the broadcast industry. Also, the nation you imagined is really probably a college instead of a country.)
These are the unenviable choices faced by the English translators of the works of Rumiko Takahashi. Takahashi, the author of anime classics like Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikkoku and Ranma 1/2, writes for a more mature audience. And when I say, "mature," I mean Adult Swim mature, not Anna Karenina mature. Cartoons in Japan are not exclusively for children like they are in the U.S. Anime encompasses kid cartoons like Pokemon, adult cartoons like Akira, and teen-to-college-age cartoons like Inuyasha. The anime market in Japan is much more like the comic book market in the U.S. In other words, there's the equivalent of Richie Rich and Archie, but there's also Maus and Love and Rockets with a lot of Teen Titans and The Amazing X-Men in between.
Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Inuyasha is simultaneously an engaging example of a supernatural action/adventure series and a parody of the conventions and pretensions of that genre. As on Buffy, Inuyasha alternates between "continuity" episodes that further the plotline of the struggle between Inuyasha and his brother or the half-demon Naraku and comic "character" episodes that center around defeating an interesting foe and/or giving the minor characters some face time.
The plot shares a great deal with Takahashi's Fire Tripper series from the 1980's in which a Japanese schoolgirl travels through a dimensional portal to the past and meets a powerful warrior... Speaking of power, let me just get this out of the way... Inuyasha, the hero of this story, has a really big sword. It's not only outrageously big; it expands at moments of extreme need. His mentors all tell him that he needs Kagome, the heroine of this story, to help him learn how to control and use his sword, but he prefers to experiment with it on his own. His older brother is murderously jealous because Inuyasha inherited this really big, powerful, expanding sword from their father while he got a smaller, less powerful sword. Nothing Freudian here, right? Now I am just going to quietly leave the valley of phallic symbol jokes and move right along without making further comment. You, however, may remain here as long as you care to.
As is her habit, Rumiko Takahashi started this series with a reasonable number of characters. However, by season three where this collection of episodes takes place, the cast has reached epic proportions. You know, I think that's what happens to the anime adaptations of her manga. They aren't cancelled. They just reach critical mass and collapse under the weight of their own opening credits.
At first I didn't particularly like Kagome, the Japanese schoolgirl who falls through a magical well to Japan's mythical past. She's a ninth-grade schoolgirl who behaves, surprisingly, like a ninth-grade schoolgirl. She's cute and spunky, but can also be pushy, silly, over-confident, and inarticulate. She is resourceful and brave, but might also panic, over-react, or drop everything to play matchmaker or argue with Inuyasha. Kagome grows on you, though. She's a refreshing change from the standard anime female who can be easily positioned on the standard female characterization continuum set with good, helpless virgins on one end and evil, self-reliant whores on the other. (This "range" for female characters is standard in other cultures, too... Cultures whose name I will not mention... except to say their initials are U.S. ... In fact, in most cultures, if you find a female character who is a good, self-reliant virgin, you are probably either reading a children's book or a book written by a woman... Not that I'm bitter, or anything...)
Unlike most characters caught in an alternate dimension, Kagome can travel back through the enchanted well to her own home. Thus we don't have to waste a lot of time listening to her moan about wanting to go home, when we know good and well the series will be over when she does and that she'll be totally bored once she gets there. Kagome brings back useful items like her bike, medical supplies, and ramen noodles - which are a big hit in mystical feudal Japan, let me tell you.
Men, on the other hand, are dogs... Or at least half-dogs. Inuyasha, whose name literally means dog-demon (and you have to wonder about parents who decided to go with "Dog-Demon" for their baby instead of Justin, Brandon, or Troy, don't you?) is a teen-aged half-demon trying to grow up, come to terms with his mixed heritage, and get control of that expanding sword-thing like I said before and am still not making any jokes about. Inuyasha will be a very familiar character to fans of Ranma 1/2. Inuyasha, like Ranma, can best be described using contradictory descriptors. He is arrogant, na´ve, proud, cute, mean, ambitious, abrupt, and vulnerable. The creators of the series even got the same voice actor who played Ranma to voice the role.
The art style is standard big-eyed Japanese pop, but with little touches of subtlety here and there. For instance when Miroku and Sango are having an highly charged emotional moment where they are strenuously not expressing their true feelings for each other, the camera pulls back to watch a snail crawl across a leaf, giving us a nice visual metaphor for how slow subjective time is passing for these characters. Not Kurosawa by any means, but a lot more arty than what you're going to get in Dragon Ball Z.
VIZ has delivered the collected series in a nice, three episode, DVD packages. Episodes are presented unedited, with all the un-family-hour sex and violence intact. Viewers have a choice to watch in English or Japanese, with or without subtitles. If you're a fan who prefers to watch in English without subtitles, you're probably sick to death of hearing pretentious anime snobs like me tell you that Japanese shows are better in Japanese. Well, all I have to say in response to that is, "Dude, it's like totally better in Japanese." (See how using the words "dude," "like," and "totally" has completely sucked all the pretentiousness out of that statement?) The English translation isn't bad and the American voice actors aren't horrible, but they're... just not as good as the original.
The American voice actors don't put enough emotional shading into their performances to really convey the dramatic impact and charm of this series. For example, the Japanese actor who voices Sesshomaru, Inuyasha's half-brother, clearly conveys through his use of pitch and intonation that this is an aristocratic character who, despite the fact he tightly restrains his emotions, is filled with bitterness and malice. The American actor's voice gives you the impression that Sesshomaru is really fond of Vicodan. The American playing Inuyasha gives him with the same "Golly-gee, Batman" teen-aged hero voice you might hear on Digimon. He completely fails to capture the tough but vulnerable characteristics that make the Japanese Inuyasha so... well, sexy, in a cartoon sort of way. Most importantly, the American actors simply do not have mastery of the vocal acrobatics that the Japanese actors perform to clearly convey the sense of "Okay, now we're going to switch from high melodrama to low comedy... And now we're back to being serious again!" For me, it's these rapid gear-shifts between deadly earnest drama and dead-on parody that make the series clever, goofy fun instead of just goofy.
If I have one complaint to direct towards the good people at VIZ who have provided us with these lovely, pristine, unedited versions of episodes from this series (by the way, thank you, good people at VIZ!) it is that since this is a DVD, not broadcast television, I would like to have the footnoted version. I'd like more extras than just the Japanese promos and a few sketches. Granted, Inuyasha isn't as complex as Ranma 1/2 (in which, for example, one character has a name that is a pun in four different languages), but I would still love to at least have a page that gives American viewers a little background on the pieces of Japanese folklore, history, or popular culture referenced in each episode.
If you like your horror/action/adventure with a heaping side dish of romantic comedy and aren't morally offended by the thought of having to read while you watch television, try Inuyasha from VIZ in the original Japanese. Trust me, your love for the series will grow like a rapidly expanding, huge, mystical sword-thing!
The Wapshott Press
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