Will Kaden make me an anime believer?

“I am old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart.”

that one hobbit

That’s what I say, anyway, when confronted with such novelties as Lil Uzi Vert and My Hero Academia. I have, by all appearances, reached a certain age, where my response to popular curiosities is “Kids these days!” rather than openness. And anime is such a curiosity.

But anime is not new, is it? Its popularity is the thing. I don’t believe anime has ever been as big as it is now. Myself as a child, or my middle grades students in years past, would recognize the basic essentials: Dragonball, Pok√©mon, then Naruto and (I guess?) Avatar. But now the vast majority of the kids I teach, the faces on TikTok, the kids these days, and so on all wear anime merch. My Hero shirts and supplements marble the school book fair. And My Hero is truly just the tip of an enormous iceberg. The anime fans of today know their history; they prefer subtitles for the original Japanese performances; they subscribe to platforms like Crunchy Roll; they infest DragonCon with their indecipherable cosplays. These kids are not fooling around. And, worst of all, they have joined the straggling minority of weebs, the once-embattled vanguard nerds of old, from my generation.

My brother is among them and often sends me anime recommendations.

I try to watch them, I honestly do. I want more things to enjoy, more touchpoints to share with the younger generations. But I can never, have never, been able to get over the sheer…anime-ness of 99% of these cartoons. I’ve always felt this way. Dubious plot devices; endless exposition; surfeiting amounts of time dedicated to characters shaking and weeping (or, worse, powering up); dramatic art cooked down to exaggerated gasps; action that is more spectacle than substance; a cultural sea I seemingly cannot navigate across. When I list such qualms among my more Japanophilic friends they titter wistfully and advise me to just “push through all that,” but I often cannot. Maybe I was traumatized watching Akira at too young an age but, in similar fashion to my struggles with sword and sorcery books, it remains a noteworthy gap in my nerdy CV.

Certainly there have been anime that I’ve allowed myself to enjoy, even recently. One Punch Man comes to mind, mostly because of its tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. Without embellishment I look forward to the forthcoming Rohan anime. There was even at least one I genuinely loved, that being the classic Outlaw Star. But the overwhelming majority of the time I find these cartoons chafing and unbearable.

I like animation, though. I surely do. And I crave animation set in any iteration of my beloved, overdone, medieval fantasy worlds. Thusly, and with minimal hesitation, I decided to give the new Vox Machina a shot. Critical Role itself is too much. Matt Mercer is too aggravating; the DM version of, for example, those teachers who live at school, pour out their souls, and eventually have movies made about their lives. That is to say, I am too shameful to fully appreciate what they do because I can only see what they do cast against my own insecurities. That and Critical Role is impossibly long.

An animated version, condensed, scripted, and lovingly drawn (controversy or no)? Now that I can tuck into. And I have. It’s stupid, vulgar, gory, hilarious, well-written, and full of epic RPG moments. And now I can’t wait for Fridays for more ridiculous, over the top, needlessly crass D&D action.

But what to do in the meantime? Where to satisfy the hunger pangs of genre? That’s where we circle back around to anime.

Well, anime of a type.

I mentioned the wonderful Outlaw Star. It was unquestionably proper anime but, as the name suggests, it presented a vibe that was succinctly western. And Western, bearing out fun tales of space cowboys in the lawless frontiers of the galaxy. Avatar (and its current successor, Dragon Prince) is another show I’ve been drawn to and one that is also western and perhaps anime-adjacent. It was written and developed by an American team, even if it was animated by a Korean studio, just like Vox Machina.

So if I am drawn to anime evidently it must be anime of a type: western-tinged if not wholly American, preferably with notes of speculation. It should come as no surprise, then, as I finally summit Mount Get To The Point, that I’ve been watching enjoying the DOTA “anime” called Dragon’s Blood.

I quote “Anime” because, like Avatar and Vox Machina, it’s an American IP adapted by American screenwriters. And it’s a fun, fantasy romp, reminiscent of Record of Lodoss War probably because it’s the only other fantasy anime I’ve watched and that was some 25 years ago. The characterization is good, the writing shifts between passable and high quality, the pacing is on point. The action is surprisingly intelligible and well-animated. However, and even with such a ringer as Bryan Konietzko at the keyboard, there are still issues.

It’s unnecessarily bloody (though I suppose all anime is and must be) and of course it shows symptoms of its more “proper” anime cousins, like the ones I enumerated above. Certainly with thanks to its heritage in the blotchy Warcraft universe, the “god stuff” of DOTA is a bit of a wreck. The first five minutes of the pilot, which present the apparently necessary cosmology of the world, are unintelligible. However if one can slip this and subsequent scenes featuring the gods or powers into the mythology envelope it’s far more bearable. A final gripe I had was the inclusion of the aggravating, but (again) apparently necessary, strong and silent archetype. This figure is a hallmark of anime, the haunted cool guy who refuses to express emotion, speak in complete sentences, or look at explosions.

In Dragon’s Blood this golem assumes the form of Kaden, mustachioed dragon knight extraordinaire.

When he first appeared, I rolled my eyes. “Here we go.” The haircut, the square jaw, the resistance to personal pronouns before verbs. It all telegraphed a considerable dent to my enjoyment of the show.

For as rarely as I’ve truly loved anime, I’ve even more rarely become taken with a particular character. More often than not I’m put out by them. Gene Starwind was probably the strongest pull I’ve felt to one of these characters and I’ve no idea if his roguish, Solo-esque charms will maintain their savor at this point in my life. But the “cool character” wrinkle is essential to anime fandom, it would appear, even if I’ve rarely tasted it.

So, back to Dragon’s Blood. Having trudged the mire of his tedious backstory and accepted his inherent, if capricious, goodness, I was ready to tolerate Mike Haggar Kaden as a blunt but incumbent part of the show. Then came the battle. And the spoilers.

Kaden gets to fisticuffing with a massive dragon, the dragon, in fact, from his sadboi backstory. The worth of the show’s action scenes, which I mentioned before, pays off heftily during this battle and showcases the physicality and skill of Kaden. His armor, pieced together from the hides of every sort of dragon, is put on display. And, for once, I tasted the bliss of anime fandom.

The coloration of his flashing sword, the choreography, even the satisfying sound design of his dragon boots thwumping him into the sky caused, for the first time, my eyes to widen of their own volition. “Perhaps this is it!” I thought. This is what all those nerds have been vamping on for the last 30 years when they gape endlessly about Goku or Vash or whoever-the-hell.

And just like that, as if mirroring the heights of my own epiphany, the dragon crashed into the mountainside, nearly collapsing it and ending the episode.

The question lingered all through the rolling credits: is it possible that Kaden and the rest of the gang may finally win me over to anime? Have I, after literal decades of faltering, found my gateway drug? I doubt it, but I do like surprises.

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