Your eyes will bleed when you watch Studio Ghibli’s Mononoke Hime. Slobber will dribble down your chin and pool in your lap as you marvel at the full on CGI three point perspective action scenes. The arid magical forests of ancient Japan flawlessly rendered in the extravagant backgrounds will make you reach out your shaking hand for that world beyond the movie screen. Ghibli can create more emotion and human empathy out of 2D cartoon characters than Oscar has awarded in the last 50 years. Mind-bendingly fluid animation supporting humankind’s most difficult moral battles set in familiar alien worlds is the Studio’s trademark. Every production they release is an instant classic including Naussica, Laputa, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, My Neighbor Totoro and the aforementioned Mononoke Hime to name a few. This is anime in its purest form. Ghibli is the benchmark that all other feature length anime should be judged.
Anime has at least three distinct levels of quality: motion picture, OVA and TV. Most popular anime series can span all three levels with an initial TV series leading into a shorter OVA series and finally into a feature length film. The Tenchi Muyo franchise is a great example of how an anime can span this cross section of formats. It started out as an OVA then into a TV series back into a series of OVAs and finally into a few movies (think of this as a lite example as I have not closely tracked the history of Tenchi). Unfortunately, many theatrical releases of anime series are just reedits of OVAs or TV series like Macross Plus The Movie, most of the Gundam movies and Evangelion: Death. The reedits are just a way to bilk a few more bucks out of the otaku willing to devour any anime thrown their direction.
After watching years and years of anime the gaps in quality become obvious and you can then easily judge a show’s worth in the proper context. On the low-end TV shows carry the telltale signs of badly synched voices, two or even one color cel shading, thin soundtracks, few backlight or CGI special effects and formulaic, repetitive storylines. High-end TV anime that easily cross over into OVA quality include Escaflowne, Evangelion and Gundam W. OVA (original video animation) were created as an easy way to distribute hentai anime like Cream Lemon. After a few years of success in the mid-eighties the format grew to include all genres of anime. OVAs will grant the viewer higher frame rates for more fluid animation, better music, ripe special effects and more adult themes like swearing, violence and a little fun T & A in intriguing storylines. Recommended OVAs include Macross Plus, El Hazard and Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz. At the top of the heap are of course feature length movies. This seventh heaven of anime is ruled by the big studios like Gainax, Studio Ghibli and Production I.G. Movies are recognized by their realistic motion captured animation look, meticulous background detail, highly developed and most times more human than cartoon character designs, symphonic soundtracks, high budget CGI effects and stories more confusing than X-Files: Fight the Future. Anime’s top feature films include The Wings of Honneamise (current US DVD release is unwatchable due to the worst edge enhancement ever), Akira, The End of Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor 2 and Mononoke Hime.
It will take plenty of comparative viewing to notice these subtle differences in quality between anime, but when you do you be able to pick a gem from the marbles.