Can a Bad Anime Be Art? Heat Guy J

Heat Guy J

Heat Guy J was a twenty-six episode animated series that aired in Japan in 2002 and wasn’t particularly well-received. For whatever reason, possibly in recognition of the positive reception director Kazuki Akane had previously enjoyed in the West through Escaflowne, it was exported anyway. Box sets with dub and sub experiences available were later sold by Manga UK, as well as other production companies elsewhere. In 2006 I borrowed it off the guy who lived across the hall from me at uni and I never gave it back. To be fair, he said he didn’t like it much.

Heat Guy J is an ambitious series, and it tries to do too much. It’s not “a good series.” It’s not “a good anime.” We understand certain commercial achievements when we say “series” and “good anime.” A series is supposed to have regulated quality and reliable thematic touchstones; it’s supposed to know its limits, as a limited prospect (as opposed to, for example, a soap, weekly, forever), and not to try to handle “too much.” A good anime should be graphically coherent, have a gimmick that it pulls off and ideally competent writing weekly, characters to make your favourites and, basically, be memeable, for purposes of fandomisation. “Good” is quantifiable, and for a series to be it the quality should be well-spread.

Heat Guy J is largely remembered as a failure. It’s uneven and over-ambitious. But it does have good writing; it does have good scenes and innovation, and parts of many episodes that are interesting. In my opinion, it has three notable episodes: three times that the crime writing underpinning everything is allowed to shine brighter than the cyber-steam robot politicking, the animal-headed convict assassins who can pull swords out of thin air, the ragged-edge mixture of 3D and regular cel animation, and the hints of large-scale world-building that are never really delivered upon. Heat Guy J tries to do too much, and the things it really knows how to achieve are cluttered by the things it doesn’t, but they aren’t completely sunk.

Heat Guy J
Suddenly! Tragic, amnesiac werewolf swordsman!

On the whole, I’m against the idea that an entertainment audience should be encouraged to wait for the good bit. If I watch an episode and don’t find I want to watch another, being told I’d be missing out is insulting; maybe I would, but maybe I’ve got no guarantee of that and better things to do (and you like the show as a whole, so I can’t trust your judgement here, can I?). I don’t suggest that you sit down to watch the whole of Heat Guy J; I suggest that you try one of the three notable episodes if you’re interested in entertaining it at all. My perspective is that Heat Guy J made me want to write this and that criticism and response are creative output in their own right. You don’t have to watch theirs to read mine.

(The stand-out episodes, for your reference, are MONEY, BROTHER, and TEARS. MONEY explains commodity exchange markets in chibi diagram segments so it can tell the story it wants to its non-economist audience. BROTHER exhibits the fearless masculine tenderness of The Long Goodbye and shows the viewer how being in proximity with somebody at just the right time can be the same as giving them lifesaving space. TEARS tends to survivor’s guilt in law enforcement (or social justice?). You may prefer different episodes—I find these the most interesting. I’m a great fan of crime fiction.)

I kept watching despite muddy waters and quavering focus because “stick at it” was the state of mind I was in at the time I first saw it—it’s a reflection of my personal circumstances that I got to the good stuff, not a necessary credit to the title. I can rewatch it still, knowing strengths and weaknesses, because there are interesting details in the weaker episodes that reflect pleasingly on the whole I’m already aware of. I know what’s worth what here, so “good show” is irrelevant. I watch it to learn and dissect, to analyse; it’s a pleasure of its very own type. In my opinion, Heat Guy J as a now unchanging, whole object, a pop relic is more art than commercial fiction. It wasn’t especially successful, but remains relevant as a discussion piece. I think it’s worth experiencing as a landscape, much more than complete diegesis.

Heat Guy J

In basic and immediate terms, the antagonist of Heat Guy J is Clair Leonelli, the nineteen-year-old newly-ascended leader of and blood-heir to the Leonelli Crime Family. Clair is emotionally delicate, prone to mood-swings that endanger his retainers; they love him nevertheless. The protagonist is Daisuke Aurora, the single field employee of a new task force dedicated to detecting crimes in their early stages, sub-Minority Report, and stopping them. Daisuke is young, but not as young as he looks—his youth, apparent and actual, is emphasised by his being the younger brother of a very powerful city administrator (cue comparisons between Daisuke and Clair—young men walking in strong men’s shadows). He reports to Kyoko, pink and sensible, easily put out because of her inclination towards responsibility, and is partnered with J, the only cyber-humanoid allowed in the city. A regular supporting character is Edmundo, a detective in the traditional Police force, so old school he wears a trench coat. Edmundo, of course, as the obvious hardboiled archetype, is innately opposed to not only crime, but to newfangled crime prevention methods and specialist sections within law enforcement institutions. Nevertheless, his chips fall to make him Daisuke’s basic ally. And isn’t that just a classic setup? The Good, the Bad, and the Grumbly. Daisuke, Clair, Edmundo.

Heat Guy J
Clair Leonelli.

But Heat Guy J’s legacy of quality lies mostly in dissonance. Upon the establishment of this recognisable trio, further recognisable structures are actively abandoned. Perhaps enough comfort has been afforded the audience; perhaps now we’ve one landmark to keep in sight, we can be expected to be amenable to wide exploration. For example, every case Daisuke takes to the field requires the ritual of Kyoko accessing the enormous office vault in which his gun (!) and bullets are kept. How many bullets is he issued? Never more than four. Generally, one to two. Not enough bullets for a full revolver; imagine how archaic a revolver would be among cyborg technology (see Ghost in the Shell). So guns and gunplay are referenced, satisfying expectations evoked by Private Eye fiction, by Mafia tropes, by the Western aspects suggested by the three-pronged antagonism I ended the last paragraph with (in fact one could say, in buying character and genre templates from Western/American staple media, guns become necessary). But they’re robbed of many of their assumptions of power by the limitation of their action. “You can shoot four guys, tops” is a huge swerve in a media landscape dominated by Hong Kong/Hollywood-style eternity-shootouts. Needing to submit paperwork, or at least make an acceptable case to your (female) administrator, before you even get to carry your weapon is also a change from the norm.

Acknowledgement of the gun’s place within emergency response law enforcement, and in fiction, and overt limiting of the gun’s relevance in story and circumstance. Heat Guy J: Are you interested too?

The first example of dissonance from Heat Guy J is in the moment Daisuke speaks. This is only true if you’re watching with the Japanese audio turned on, which I recommend; it’s in the difference between the expectation of sound from his character design, and the registry of sound from his VA. Daisuke looks like a bunny bunny sweetheart: his honey blond hair curls and twists puckishly, his mouth quirks up in a twee selfie smile, his eyes are big and green and framed by very long, thin, feminine eyebrows. He’s basically adorable, and one assumes he’ll sound it too. Like a boy—certainly not like a government man with a gun.

Heat Guy J
Left: Daisuke; Right: Edmundo.

In fact when he speaks, Matsukaze Masaya gives Daisuke a deeper voice than average. Close your eyes and you hear a fellow used to authority, a confident, brown-haired young man in a neat blue suit, perhaps with the collar opened, because his job is hard and he does it for long hours. It’s the voice of a man absolutely at home with himself, with his role, with his position. He’s serious, and inclined to be warm, protective. It transforms the character immediately, and as events and script play out, Daisuke proves to fit his voice much better than he does his illustrated design.

Why put such a sweet face on such a regular aural and applied archetype? Why situate the active hero within a non-heroic visage? What does it mean to the story? It means nothing. It’s irrelevant. At this early stage Daisuke begins, frankly, to make no sense as a character. He’s inexplicably built. The graphic design is a mismatch. This makes the world hard to relax in, as a viewer, and of course it makes it more like real life. Commercial? No. Provocative? Yes. This is what drew me in: a real person to understand. The emotional design is humane. The mismatch is its own relevancy. There are whispers of it Clair Leonelli, too, whose deep contempt for his beloved father and twin desires for security and chaos provide duality that any open viewer can relate to. The quest to settle one’s own honest hypocrisy—how vital.

In the third episode, Daisuke and Detective Edmundo are both working their own angles on a serial bombing case. They cross paths a few times and have little spats; what are you doing here, why are you on this case, whose jurisdiction is this, etc. Very basic, very reasonable, very pat. Two thirds of the way in comes the series’ most interesting interaction between the pair. Discovering each other by chance, at twilight, both returning to the most recent scene of devastation to mull over the details they have individually collected so far, they discuss their information in that shrugging, defeated, well-we-are-on-the-same-side manner that any cop story viewer will recognise. Until Daisuke takes out a snack bar to eat it—the first note of specialness, right there. The tiny detail of movement and human need that’s in the introduction of a snack bar to a still scene is something common to the slice of life autobio comic, the Ghibli film, even the parody. It’s a step apart from Noir’s bar scenes (these generally result in situational information and as such are plot devices) or cigarettes (these establish coolness and as such are more functional mood devices). Daisuke’s snack bar is ma—to begin with.

Edmundo skids on his heels down the slope of rubble he’s been standing above Daisuke is on. He stops nearby and he holds out his hand, no words: he says entirely through action, “give me a piece of your bar.” Daisuke does. They share food. They silently eat. And so what are these men to each other, then? What’s the intimacy between them that allows the sharing of food via gesture, in the gathering dark? Nothing prior has told us they know each other beyond professionally, nothing has suggested their friction is based in anything but juxtaposition of authority and tradition. But nobody breaks their bar in half and hands it over to a wordless gimme if they don’t have history with a guy. Not without narrative acknowledgement: negative personal consequences, or focus given to the strangeness of it. And nobody skids like a schoolboy, risking the humiliation and dust cloud of a fall, to ask their professional rival for a lick of his lolly.

There’s a deep familiarity suggested by the wordless sharing of a single piece of food, something far beyond bumming a cigarette off a fellow hardbitten. To break bread together is to acknowledge connection, but before this point, everything about their interactions had denied it and alleged incompatibility; that each, in his role and attitude, was proving the other obsolete. Were they kids together? Have they been lovers? Did they train together? Did they fall out? Their paths have clearly parted, but they both seem to be over it: too weary to keep spatting, too basically good to keep walls up out of office hours. I feel like I’ve just seen evidence of an old relationship that didn’t gain closure, but which defaulted to forgiveness. There’s a story of something, in this exchange, and it didn’t have to happen for the rest of the episode to stay the same. Edmundo gives Daisuke a tip at the end of their accidental meeting, but he could have done that anyway—they are on the same side, administratively. Edmundo hasn’t been established as particularly spiteful or as somebody especially affected by the duties of reciprocity. Even if he had been, he asked for a piece of the bar. He was the one to reach out. No reason why the reach couldn’t have been the offer of a tip or the request of shared intel instead of the request for a sharing of nutrients.

The question of this partnership is never returned to. The human factor, though, the swerve away from caricature, is a part of the story that sticks. An eloquent reminder that fiction can remind us what to notice about people, how much we can contain, as well as let us believe in brainwashed werewolf street samurai and androids who wear sideburns. Heat Guy J has a lot of logs, if it doesn’t build a cabin. I can’t say that it’s good. I like it.

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at and give me lots of money