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Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.
Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.
For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.
Juusou Kikou Dancouga Nova, the 2007 sequel to the 1980s anime series Choujuu Jishin Dancouga, can be considered in some ways the epitome of an “average” anime. A more accurate description, however, would be that it’s a show that is overall somehow fun and satisfying despite not living up to a lot of the ideas it presents, which is evident in not only its narrative but also its sense of characterization.
The basic premise of the anime is that four unrelated people in Japanese society are summoned to pilot the mighty super robot Dancouga Nova, which intervenes in battlefields around the world in order to aid the losing side. However, rather than simply aiding the weak, this mission of Dancouga Nova’s is quite literal, as it will defend a military force one day and attack it the next, depending on that force’s relative strength in any given scenario. It’s an interesting idea to be sure, and Dancouga Nova even takes some steps to explore its consequences (a journalist character actively questions whether or not Dancouga Nova’s actions are merely creating stalemates that perpetuate war, for instance), but given the obvious question of what this will all possibly lead to, the series responds by more or less dropping the issue like a hot potato and shouting, “aliens!!!” Then they fight the aliens and it’s fairly exciting, but it leaves one wondering where the rest of the story went. As an aside, for some reason I find this less disappointing than how Gundam 00 transitioned between similar plot points despite being a stronger work overall.
Given these issues, it would be reasonable to expect the show’s treatment of its characters to be equally inconsistent. This is indeed the case to a fair extent, as the members of the Dancouga Nova team are all defined by sets of traits that seem destined to lead jokes about their personalities that fall pretty flat, (though they don’t come across as unbearable). Dancouga Nova gunner Tachibana Kurara for instance does the Golgo-13-esque “Never approach me from behind” thing, but the fact that she says it every time the situation calls for it turns it from an interesting character trait to a catch phrase that wears out its welcome (like most of the quips in the series). Main character and team leader Hidaka Aoi has the fewest of these qualities, which makes her lead position more enjoyable than if anyone else had as much of a spotlight.
However, whatever weakness in plot and characterization that exists in the show, it’s worth nothing that its portrayal of the female pilots is for the most part neither putting them on a pedestal above men nor subordinating them to supportive roles. A number of series that focus on groups of female characters both inside and outside of the mecha genre have a tendency to be about how beautiful and wonderful the girls are, a setup which has its place, but here the team of four is divided between two men and two women, all of whom contribute in battle evenly.
(It’s also interesting that all of the pilots are adults, rather than teenagers).
An additional female character is added later, but is shown to be just as effective as the others (and for a while is even their rival). Aoi herself is more or less a solid if underdeveloped character in terms of her portrayal, and while one possible criticism might be that she lacks agency in that she’s thrown right into the thick of things with little say in the matter, that’s more a problem for all of the characters in the show regardless of gender. In fact, the only point of “inequality” might be that the female characters (Kurara is a narcotics officer, Aoi is a professional racer and model) are more glamorous than the guys’ (salaryman and hobo). However, beyond this, neither male or female characters are rendered useless, and even the sole situation that might be considered a “damsel-in-distress” situation is more a matter of a female character staying to fight knowing that she’s at a clear disadvantage due to a number of factors wholly unrelated to her gender.
This is not to say that this series is aiming for a strong sense of feminism. On some level, all of the girls in Dancouga Nova are clearly supposed to be attractive feminine ideals, albeit in different ways. Fanservice, or more broadly the overt sexualization of its female characters, is certainly present in the series in quite a noticeable way. However, while creatively positioned camera angles and bouncing breasts appear throughout the anime, at the same time they are also not so prominent that fanservice becomes raison d’être for Dancouga Nova unlike a number of other similar series. For the most part, the anime keeps the “cheesecake” separate from the fighting, so battles do not consistent of prominent T&A shots while the female characters are being tossed around in their cockpits. Some revealing shots do occur in the action scenes, but they’re usually brief and fairly mild, and instead the summoning of weapons and the destruction of enemy mecha comes across as powerful and mostly gender-neutral.
When it comes to Aoi in particular, I do find it notable that while she is a fairly hot-blooded type as befits a super robot protagonist, she still comes across as relatively subdued as far as passionate yelling pilots are concerned, especially when compared to the hero of the original Dancouga, Fujiwara Shinbou. In contrast, there is a similar character in Dancouga Nova, Kamon Sakuya (the homeless one), but his attempts at playing the role of the 70s super robot hero are, like Kouji from Godannar, mostly a source of comic relief. A part of me wonders if this is making some kind of statement, that the old school nekketsu inevitably makes way for a newer type to fit modern times. I must admit that my impression of Dancouga comes mainly from its appearance in Super Robot Wars and just a little bit of the actual show, but even from this partial view Dancouga is famous for its passionate yelling and a dynamic visual style that makes even standing still an exciting assault of flashing lights and colors and crazy exaggerated proportions courtesy of Obari Masami (animator on Dancouga, director of Dancouga Nova). Perhaps in light of this, the look of Dancouga Nova is not as exaggerated either. I would have chalked this up to “digital animation,” except Choujuushin Gravion, also directed by Obari, proves otherwise.
Dancouga Nova is a simple show that presents a female mecha lead who, while not exactly at the forefront of feminism, is strong, confident, narratively significant, and passionate enough that it’s easy to wonder why more characters aren’t like Aoi. It’s not so much that she’s a shining example of a great protagonist, but rather that she (or a character like her) should be the base line of what is minimally required for a heroine in this type of show. Aoi can be a bit simplistic, but in that way that defines a generation of male heroes in giant robot anime. Of course, as Dancouga Nova shows, being able to portray a female character well doesn’t necessarily mean a show itself is going to be amazing or that it won’t have its fair share of problems, but all the same Dancouga Nova is made better for having a lead like Aoi.
Gundam Build Fighters is a fun series about people using Gundam model kits to fight each other, and it’s absolutely oozing with references to both popular and obscure parts of the Gundam franchise. In the last episode, the anime pulls out what I think is the best reference of all, especially given the concept of the show.
In the final battle against the (scale-model) space fortress A Baoa Qu, the characters work together to take down a common threat. Among these characters is the father of the protagonist Iori Sei. Having won the silver medal at a previous tournament using a model of the original Gundam, in this scene Sei’s father Takeshi brings out the Perfect Gundam.
Though it did get a Master Grade model kit a number of years ago, the Perfect Gundam is not the most well-known Mobile Suit in the franchise. Its relative lack of popularity, however, is less important than its actual origin. The Perfect Gundam is featured as the hero’s Gundam in the 1982 manga Plamo Kyoushirou, which is premised around kids using Gundam models to fight each other in virtual reality environments. In other words, the appearance of the Perfect Gundam is actually an homage to the spiritual predecessor of the Gundam Build Fighters concept, reinforced by the fact that it’s the father of the hero who is using it.
I finished watching Sengoku Majin Goshogun recently. It’s notable for being an earlier work from the director of the early Pokemon anime, though overall it’s an okay show at best with a kickin’ rad opening. There are, however, a few things about the show that really stand out, and make the show fairly memorable.
Goshogun is abouta mecha-loving boy named Kenta who, along with the crew of the mighty robot Goshogun and their teleporting airship the Good Thunder, fight against an evil organization bent on world domination. While the episodes are often kind of bland and episodic, the ones which explore the pasts of the main characters tend to be quite interesting. It’s one thing when the lead pilot Shingo is a generic do-gooder type, but it’s another when you learn that his past was full of danger and tragedy and that he actively chooses to be the Good Guy in spite of all that.
Actually, the show in general has amusing characters. Remy Shimada is the fiery female character of the series, and while she often talks about not being able to get married and settled down due to her giant robot work, it’s clear that she doesn’t really mean it when she actively chose her path. The villain Prince Bundol is a handsome blond who plays classical music when he goes into battle and cherishes beauty so much that when someone tries to betray the heroes he dismisses the guy and doesn’t follow through on his tip because “betrayal is ugly.” One of the other villains, Kerunaguru (pictured above), a guy whose name basically means “Kick and Punch” and who owns a robot designed specifically to be beat in fits of anger. In one episode, he opens up his own fried chicken joint without any ulterior motives. The guy just wants to sell some good fried chicken on the side while assisting in global domination.
By far the most fascinating reveal of the show however is the secret behind Goshogun’s ultimate attack, the Go-Flasher Special. First, it answers what the “blue button” mentioned in the opening does. Second, as it turns out later in the series, the Go-Flasher works by allowing the normally non-sentient enemy mecha to gain self-will, which causes them to override their controls and then voluntarily explode because they don’t like being used for violence and evil. Basically Goshogun’s greatest weapon is to give the enemy robots an existential crisis which makes them commit suicide. Now that’s an attack.
Oddly enough, the best way to enjoy the character interactions of Goshogun is to watch the movie Goshogun: The Time Étranger, which curiously does not feature the robot at all.
Last spring marked an unusually robot-heavy season of anime where three mecha shows, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, and Valvrave the Liberator, took three different angles each of which had their own unique appeal. I originally wrote about them as a package, so now with all three shows finished (aside from the fact that Gargantia has another series on the horizon) I figure it’s best to look back on them all at once.
Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, which had a strong tokusatsu or even 90s anime feel to it, ended up progressing almost as expected, but without it being tedious or losing something in the process. In shows like Majestic Prince, there’s usually some sort of humble beginnings, in this case the main heroes being the “losers” of their class, and comedy gives way to a more serious story as the narrative progresses until it ends up in a giant space battle. It’s par for the course, but while I can’t say Majestic Prince will change the way we think about giant robot anime, I do find that the show is a little bit of everything, nothing in particular that screams, “Wow, this is amazing!” but lots of minor things done well which make for an overall satisfying experience, and a more consistently forward-moving story compared to Gyrozetter. It’s a popcorn anime, something you might show to an anime club or a group of friends to relax, where you find yourself gradually more invested by the final string of episodes. Because of this, Majestic Prince is the show I simply have least to say about, though I do want to point out that it has one of the most memorable death lines ever. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Although Majestic Prince isn’t a show I can talk about too extensively in terms of conceptual or thematic depth (it skims the surface of topics like genetic engineering and human behavior at the very mosy), Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is the strongest of the three shows in terms of both its ideas and how it presents them. Its initial format, where Ledo, a boy from another galaxy who knows only war, is exposed to the everyday lives of the Earth characters and their concept of family, acts as a part of the science fictional exploration of its world and which become the backdrop for the show to reveal its secrets was somewhat of a source of disagreement and controversy. As people wondered how the story would turn out, there were both complaints that Gargantia spent too much time focusing on the daily lives of characters and that it too much time on its narrative drama. Personally, I think it ended up striking a very nice balance, as we got to learn about the culture of Earth away from the galactic war which they were ignorant of (perhaps for the better), but when it came time to get “serious,” the show effectively used the context it established to make the circumstances and solution directly connected to the characters’ “everyday.”
Significantly, the series did not do the predictable thing and “bring the war to the people.” Instead, it brought the philosophy and ideas which came out of the eternal state of war in which mankind out there in space had become accustomed to, and challenged the people of the Earth (as well as the lead Ledo) to confront and address them. The everyday lives of the characters became the very “weapon” by which they could defy the way of thinking imposed by the world Ledo comes from, and I think there’s a lot to think about in that regard.
Out of the three anime, however, I suspect Valvrave the Liberator will, if not be the most memorable show, stick around the longest in the overall consciousness of anime fandom, though not necessarily for the best reasons. The rape scene in Valvrave is going to remain infamous, and it’s something which is impossible to ignore but also shouldn’t define the entire show. I really think the creators of the show wanted to use it for dramatic purposes but didn’t quite understand what they were getting themselves into, evidenced by the fact that they eventually just drop the subject after some questionable followups. Whether that’s better or worse than keeping at it, I’ll leave you to decide that, but one thing I will say is that having the victim still be in love with her attacker doesn’t inherently make for a bad or “harmful” story, as Watchmen manages to deftly incorporate something similar into its narrative and point out the difficulties associated with such a circumstance.
I was once asked why I kept up with Valvrave even though the show has a lot of odd and nonsensical twists to it, and I explained that the appeal of the show for me was about seeing if Valvrave was trying to celebrate the power of youth or criticize it. Even within the same episode it became difficult to tell if the show was saying, “Kids are the future, a source of new ideas and ideals,” or, “Kids are so damn stupid! Man, I can’t believe we let them touch anything!” I think by Season 2 it leaned more towards the former, but never entirely, and to its credit I think the second season was a huge improvement on the first, as its ridiculous qualities were focused down into a clearer direction while still remaining just as strange. Overall, I think the show turned out okay in the end even with the issues mentioned, if only because it managed to use its social media aspect to great effect, and shows a kind of tempered idealism. It also has a more satisfying conclusion than the Gundam 00 movie despite being fairly similar, but I’m not really sure why I feel that way.
It’s difficult to judge the effect of having so many mecha shows close together has had on anime, if any at all, but it is true that a number of new giant robot shows premiering in 2014, from Captain Earth to the bizarrely named Buddy Complex. I think what I liked most about having each of these shows is that even through their ups and downs, Majestic Prince, Gargantia, and Valvrave all manage to maintain their identities as shows, with developments, characters, endings, and themes which keep the mecha genre from feeling like “more of the same.” None of them are really similar in any way, and I hope this trend continues.
One of the defining traits of director Imagawa Yasuhiro’s adaptive works is the way in which he takes a large mass of disparate information pertaining to a particular work and organizes it such that the themes and concepts are strengthened and made more vibrant through cohesion and consistency. With Giant Robo, it’s an amplification of the history of legendary manga creator and Tezuka contemporary Yokoyama Mitsuteru. With Tetsujin 28 (also originally by Yokoyama) it’s about highlighting Tetsujin 28 as a connection between post-war Japan and the militarism which had preceded this period. With G Gundam, in spite of the fighting tournament setting, it’s about the effects of continued conflict on the Earth. Shin Mazinger Shougeki! Z-Hen takes Mazinger Z’s iconic status as the super robot and shows just how much influence it’s had on the genre as a whole while also providing an argument for how Mazinger as a whole gives much food for thought if only one delves a little deeper.
What I find particular interesting about Shin Mazinger as an adaptation is the way in which Mazinger Z’s attacks themselves have been reorganized to strengthen the image of Mazinger. For example, take the Photon Energy Beam, Mazinger Z’s eye lasers. Generally they’re considered one of its weaker attacks, even often being the first and least-damaging move for Mazinger Z in the Super Robot Wars franchise. In Shin Mazinger, however, it is initially Mazinger’s strongest weapon When taking into consideration what Mazinger Z is supposed to be, a robot whose basic power comes from a combination of its Super Alloy Z (which the bombastic narration is very keen on making the viewer remember by deliberately repeating its name) and its miraculous Photon Energy power source. Tapping directly into the very thing that moves Mazinger Z only makes sense as a highly destructive attack.
When it comes to Mazinger Z’s arsenal and its cultural influence, however, there is nothing in all of the history of super robots with more imitators, successors, and homages than the Rocket Punch. What does Shin Mazinger do? For one, it makes the Rocket Punch the very first attack that Mazinger Z does in the show while giving it a fanfare worthy of the gods, but Imagawa doesn’t even leave it at that. He adds new elements to Mazinger Z so that the Rocket Punch, or a variation of it, is the greatest, most visually striking, and memorable thing that Mazinger Z can do. When Mazinger Z performs the Big Bang Punch, it literally transforms its entire body into a massive fist and becomes one with the Rocket Punch, such that Mazinger Z’s most lasting legacy (outside of the act of actually having someone control the robot from within) is also its most potent weapon.
Shin Mazinger takes Mazinger Z’s attacks and asks, “Why are these moves fun and exciting?” In doing so, it is able to play around with Mazinger Z as a cultural object and bring attention to not only what made it conceptually interesting to its fans in the first place, but also what potential still lies within it.
Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter is about a world where everyone can drive, including 8 year olds. Cars can also turn into robots called Gyrozetters. This technology comes from a prophetic tablet known as the “Rosettagraphy” which also contains a list of “chosen drivers,” kids with the attitude and will to drive the most “wicked cool” Gyrozetters in order to fight evil or corrupt fuel companies or whatever.
If it wasn’t clear from my summary, I think Gyrozetter is an odd show, but what I think is really strange is how typical it is without veering towards tedious or amazing or even average. Its mostly episodic format gives off “standard kids’ anime” vibes in spades, but it neither comes off as a refreshing take on the formula nor so rote as to be unentertaining. I find it difficult to talk about if only because I definitely enjoyed the show in a way which would have me looking forward to more, but it doesn’t feel quite special. People say that the hardest shows to talk about are the ones that are utterly mediocre, but when it’s “better than average, though not great,” a show like Gyrozetter poses its own review challenge. The robots/cars are fairly well-designed , the characters are fun and expressive, and both the episodic elements and the overarcing plot work well enough together. I think the best I can do though is to talk about some aspects of Gyrozetter which I found fairly notable.
First, is the endings which are pretty much Precure-style dance sequences but done with giant robots. It’s eye-catching if anything.
Second, even though it’s a kids’ show it spends a lot of effort on attractive ladies. Apparently in some interview the director or producer said something along the lines of wanting to make the show “erotic” but I don’t know how seriously to take that.
Third, the villains are an appealing part of the show, and though they start off fairly serious they get increasingly Team Rocket-ey as the series progresses. Curiously, as this is happening the plot is also getting more dramatic so there’s this almost schizophrenic feel to Gyrozetter which isn’t offputting but gave me pause every so often.
Fourth, it’s a boys’ show which develops the relationship between the main character Todoroki Kakeru, who’s very much of the Ash Ketchum-type (or Satoshi if you prefer) and his would-be girlfriend Inaba Rinne to a surprising extent. He’s 10, she’s 12 (or somewhere along those lines), and it’s actually really close to if Pokemon had spent more time overtly pushing Ash x Misty as a thing instead of just giving the vaguest of hints. Maybe that’s what’s oddly refreshing about the show even though it’s so formulaic.
Fifth, Mic Man Seki, who is literally voice actor Seki Tomokazu. His job is to hype up everything ever, and he certainly does a good job of it.
Sixth, the Valentine’s Day episode.
Gyrozetter is a bit different from other giant robot anime because it’s not based on a toyline or pushing sales to nostalgic older fans, but comes from an arcade game where you’re supposed to drive around for a while collecting powerups and then transform into a robot for a 3-on-3 battle. Apparently the anime didn’t do well, and I wonder if it was partly because the show’s format (children of destiny use their car robots to save the world!) was too different from the actual game, and I did notice that towards the end they tried to actively foreground the arcade gameplay in the actual anime. However, it seems like the arcade game itself wasn’t terribly popular and is going away, so maybe there’s plenty of blame to go around.
From what I’ve been told (by Kawaiikochan author Dave), the arcade machine is the embodiment of rad as the giant cockpit-like arcade machine will literally transform into a battle mode as you shift gameplay modes and do so in the flashiest way possible. I have to wonder if maybe the game was too much, as a lot of the popular arcade games for kids seem to be the super automated games where characters dance or fight on autopilot based on a special card you use.
In terms of favorites, the best robot design in my opinion Rinne’s second Gyrozetter, Dolphine. Its curved design makes for a pleasing sillhouette and its figure skating gimmick reflects Rinne’s own interests (her dream is to be an Olympic skater) in an interesting fashion. I can’t pick a favorite character but I was fond of Kotoha the bridge bunny (the one in green and glasses), Haruka, who is shown in the shot of the villains above, and the secretary character Kouno Saki.
If I stretched even further, I think I could say some things about how the show addresses the concept of destiny through the later developments concerning the Rosettagraphy, but I’ve said a lot more about a show I find to be “not bad” than I was expecting. With that, I’ll just end with some final screenshots.
When the Robotech/Voltron crossover comic was announced a few months ago, my immediate response was, “Why?” Of course the answer is “nostalgia grab,” but there’s something strange about both of these works and their continued presence in the geek public eye (and perhaps even beyond that). Unlike Transformers which not only has a huge variety of toys both old and new, as well as a long history of cartoons both from America and Japan (not to mention the live action films), both Robotech and Voltron do not really renew themselves, aside from the occasional thing like the The Shadow Chronicles or The Third Dimension.
Though this speaks more about the people I associate with, I can’t say I’ve ever talked to anyone, online or offline, who is hardcore into either Robotech or Voltron. I know that there’s a Robotech community of course (they even have an official site for it), though I have little interest in it. With Voltron, I know people who have fond memories of it, myself included, but the foundation that Voltron has in geek culture seems not only deeper than Robotech‘s but to the extent that, when you say cool giant robot with a signature finisher, Lion Voltron is just the default, or it shares that spot with the Megazord from Power Rangers. It’s like Voltron as a source of nostalgia goes so far beyond itself that the vague perception of it exceeds the influence of the actual anime.
What’s funny about a show like Voltron and its emblematic presence in US geek culture as de facto super robot is that the process of dubbing and adaptation that turned the anime King of Beasts Golion and Armored Fleet Dairugger into Voltron: Defender of the Universe happened with different anime in different countries to similar effect. In the Philippines, Voltes V exploded with popularity. In France and Italy, UFO Robo Grendizer captured attention as Goldorak and Goldrake respectively (with success in the Middle East to boot). In Brazil, Gloizer X became O Pirata do Espaço, the country’s first real exposure to giant robots. While it’s possible say that this was all a matter of timing and that they’re all interchangeable in that respect, I do think that the specific properties of each show had a major impact on how each country perceived giant robots from that point forward (I’m less sure about Gloizer X so if any Brazilians want to help, feel free to leave a comment).
One thing that I do believe plays a role in how these series become more specific in their nostalgic output is the level of support the original works have in Japan. I visited France recently, and when I went into the comic stores I would regularly see displays of Grendizer merchandise. Whether it was the Super Robot Chogokin or the Soul of Chogokin or a chibi version, it was all straight from Japan, sitting prominently in the store. Grendizer has enough cultural presence in Japan that it can continue to get these toys and even a fairly stable presence in Super Robot Wars, whereas Golion has had to content itself with just one Nintendo DS appearance. In lieu of support from Japan, Voltron‘s had to carve its own place, and often times it’s not even from the company World Events which holds the Voltron license but from fans conjuring it up in their own minds. And while Robotech is an utter legal mess due to the way it stifles the presence of Macross in the US, if you put that aside part of Robotech‘s prolonged presence comes from the fact that its fans want new Robotech to constantly feel like old Robotech, whereas Macross changes according to the whims of its dark lord Kawamori Shouji.
Actually I wouldn’t mind at all if Voltron got a revival with a solid piece of fiction to support it which doesn’t rely too much on nostalgia. I know we got Voltron Force, but the less said about that the better.
I’ve come to notice that there are few female characters in anime with seductive personalities.
There are characters who are physically good-looking, characters who are proud of their appearance, characters who are in love, and characters who try to get closer to the person they’re interested in. Rarer is the type of female character whose mannerisms ooze fiery passion in such a way that their sexuality is more than simply their physical design.
Here’s a character who I think qualifies: Fuwa Aika from Blast of Tempest. Good-looking but not to an incredible degree, you can sense in her interactions with her boyfriend Yoshino not only the way she focuses all of her charm on him, but also the strong physical and emotional response that Yoshino has to Aika’s desire. It’s difficult to capture this impression in a single image.
Another lesser example comes from a few years ago in Macross Frontier. The character of Sheryl Nome is more sexy than seductive normally, but in one scene both she and Ranka Lee are trying to out-sing each other in order to demonstrate their interest in the protagonist Alto and why he should choose one over the other. In that moment, both Sheryl and Ranka exude strong desires which fill the space they’re in.
In thinking about this, I’m reminded of an old post on Heisei Democracy, in which Shingo states that lips aren’t moe. The argument is that lipstick denotes an assertive un-moe character, while lips in general are a sign of active sexuality which is counter to moe’s ostensible image of innocence. I don’t quite agree with that premise, and my discussion of characters isn’t limited to just those who would be considered “moe,” but I do feel like there’s something relevant in Shingo’s argument. There’s this rough idea that moe characters, even when they are attractive or overtly sexualized, at most tend towards conflicted expressions of desire (e.g. tsundere) or displays of innocence even in less “innocent” moments. If you then move the idea to being about the difference between sexual/seductive, maybe it’s not so unusual for seductive characters to be a rarity.
This year’s Otakon was its 20th anniversary, and as expected of the staff they brought out the big guns, with names such as Watanabe Shinichirou, Kanno Yohko, and Seki Tomokazu. As with every year, one of the biggest strengths and weaknesses of Otakon is that there’s too much to do, and it leaves me feeling both satisfied and a bit disappointed.
For one thing, I didn’t get to see the Space Dandy trailer.
Watanabe Shinichirou (Cowboy Bebop)
Possibly the biggest news to come out of Otakon was the announcement of Watanabe’s new anime, the aforementioned Space Dandy. Described by Watanabe as “80% comedy, 20% serious” in contrast to Cowboy Bebop‘s “80% serious, 20% comedy,” the series sounds just plain interesting when you hear how much they’re putting into it. In terms of music, for example, Watanabe stated that they would have over 20 artists contributing to the soundtrack, and in terms of production every episode would have different episode directors and different designs for the aliens inhabiting their planets.
I managed to ask Watanabe about having Thomas Romain (Basquash!, Oban Star Racers) on staff for ship design, and Watanabe mentioned that he had been impressed with Romain’s work for a while. Also, while Romain is Satelight staff and normally wouldn’t be able to work at Bones for Watanabe, Romain turned out to be a huge fan of Cowboy Bebop which gave Watanabe the leverage to get him on board for this one project.
I do wonder how it’ll be received among American fans, because there was some disappointment from the fanbase over Watanabe’s previous work, Kids on the Slope. While Space Dandy is closer to his action-ey works, the “80% comedy” part might be unwelcome by those fans looking for drama and grit. That said, I’m certainly looking forward to it.
Kurosaki Kaoru on Watsuki Nobuhiro (Rurouni Kenshin)
One of the more unique guests this time around was Kurosaku Kaoru, a novelist in her own right, but also more relevant to the otaku audience as the wife of Watsuki Nobuhiro, author of Rurouni Kenshin. Originally Watsuki himself was supposed to come as well, but he was unable to due to working on Embalming. Kaoru also held a panel all about Watsuki, but because of the way she went about it the crowd also learned a lot about some of the most famous Shounen Jump manga artists, as well as the workings of Jump in general.
There was also a gallery of Watsuki’s works, the first of its kind, but sadly even though we could take photos we are not allowed to share them online. (I’m sure somebody has though.)
Watsuki we learned is a big fan of American media, as one of his biggest regrets about not being able to attend Otakon was not being able to visit a Toys “R” Us and look at the Pacific Rim merchandise. He’s also a big fan of American comics, and his favorite superheroes are the X-Men. We also got to see his daily work schedule, which is mind-bogglingly arduous but also par for the course. According to the breakdown, Watsuki works from 10am to 6pm, from 7pm to late, and midnight to 4am. Sleep is 4am-9am, and the other gaps are for meals. That’s 5 hours of sleep versus about 15 hours for work. If he keeps on schedule, he gets four days of rest at the end of each month.
Kurosaki also provided a monthly breakdown of his schedule, and while inking comprised the majority of it, it was especially fascinating to see that the “name,” an extremely rough preliminary version of the manga which is mainly about panel and page layout and narrative flow, takes four days to comple. Kurosaki mentioned that the “name” is so simple as to use stick figures, but the attention paid to this part of the manga-creating process does emphasize how important panel flow is in manga.
Kaoru also took us through the process by which Watsuki makes color images, which involves drawing a thumbnail and then going over it with a Japanese calligraphy brush and copic markers for color. Watsuki apparently thinks that It’s good for one shot illustrations but not the manga itself, as it requires more concentration but the lines become more dynamic, and it acts as a time-saving measure for color images. The traditional feel that the brush art gives off also matches the theme and feel of Kenshin. Related to that, when someone asked about the setting of Rurouni Kenshin, the answer was that Watsuki wanted to draw a period piece with sword fights but didn’t want to draw topknots (they were strange-looking to a modern Japanese audience as well as an international one), so the Meiji period was the only point in history where you could have the former without the latter.
I wish I could’ve asked more about copics, as I find it interesting that they’re such an industry standard.
In terms of former assistants, Watsuki’s lineup is near-Olympian, counting among them Oda Eiichirou (One Piece), Murata Yuusuke (Eyeshield 21), Shimabukuro Mitsutotshi (Toriko), Mikio Itoo (Normandy Secret Club), and Takei Hiroyuki (Shaman King), all of whom consider Watsuki a friend. From Kaoru we learned that there are three breaks a year for Jump artists, and that during those breaks everyone either gathers at Watsuki’s or Oda’s house. Shimabukuro is a current neighbor of theirs, while Takei is a former neighbor. Murata, now known for his exquisite artwork on One Punch Man, used to be an assistant on Gun Blaze West, though at the time Watsuki thought his drawings were “no good.”
Mikio Itoo is known as the “cameo king,” appearing multiple times in One Piece, Shaman King, and even Kenshin in background posters and crowds and such.
Another major name who worked with Watsuki on Kenshin was former editor-in-chief of Shounen Jump, Sasaki Hisashi, who worked with Watsuki from his first submission all the way to the end of Kenshin. The basis for a certain character in Bakuman (he even uses the fictionalized version of himself as a Twitter avatar), Sasaki is often asked about the accuracy of Bakuman, to which the official reply is, “Things depicted in Bakuman are neither true nor false.” We also learned that Jump employees are not supposed to give comments outside the office using their real faces.
Not limited to people who have worked directly with, over, or under Watsuki, we also saw comments from Kishimoto Masashi (Naruto), Inugaki Riichirou (also Eyeshield 21), Matsui Katsunori (La Sommelière), and Suzuki Shinya (Mr. Fullswing). Did you know the last chapter of Kenshin ran in the same magazine as the first chapter of Naruto? Kishimoto saw this as a kind of passing of the baton, and credits Kishimoto for making Japanese culture popular in manga again (but also believes that now it’s become too much). For this reason, Kishimoto calls Watsuki the leader of a generation.
Inugaki’s comment was that Watsuki taught him techniques to speed up the manga-creating process, namely giving rhythm to the use of detail and not trying to draw every little thing. We then learned from Kurosaki that both she and Watsuki play German board games often with Inugaki and his wife, and are especially fans of Dominion. As someone who hasn’t played it but has played games like it and has heard much about it, the intrigue continues to build for me.
Suzuki’s message talked about Watsuki’s fandom, as he once found an entire box full of fan letters for Watsuki. Matsui, whom Kurosaki commented that he’s especially good at drawing cute girls (I would agree), actually did not send any comments, except to promote him in the US. As much as I’d like to see that, I know Drops of God didn’t knock the manga community off its socks, so I don’t know how well the less adventurous La Sommelière would do.
What was maybe the most interesting bit of trivia of all, however, was that a lot of the Jump artists use the instant messaging service LINE to talk to each other and joke around. Watsuki doesn’t use it because he’s bad with computers, so his wife has to tell him what’s going on.
The only American industry panel I attended was Sentai Filmworks’, where they were very excited over their recent Girls und Panzer announcement. I also ran into an unfortunate bit of luck, discovering that they had license rescued Betterman, a show which I had just recently scoured Amazon for in other to get the complete release of the original Bandai DVDs. It’s a shame, because it definitely would have been a show I would’ve bought and supported, mainly because it’s such an unusual piece of work.
I asked Sentai Filmworks about the translation issues in their release of Mawaru Penguindrum but the answer given was ignorance, claiming that they had not been aware of the criticisms brought out against their translation choices. Oh well.
While many of the industry guests and panels are excellent, every year the most stand-out guest is Maruyama Masao, founder and former producer at MADHouse, currently founder and producer of MAPPA (Kids on the Slope). Even though he’s been at one Otakon after the other, his Q&A panels are consistently informative and interesting. To give you an idea of how great his answers are, when asked about production delays for Redline (which took 7 years to complete), Maruyama answered that Redline was not late, it took as long as it should have, which was a lot of time due to the amount of work required for it. Maruyama then said that he left MADHouse to take responsibility for the debt that Redline put them into but then said in English, “IT’S A JOKE.”
In one of my favorite moments of Otakon, I asked Maruyama to share some stories about the recently departed Dezaki Osamu (director of works such as The Rose of Versailles, Aim for the Ace, Black Jack OVAs, and even Dear Brother), to which he replied with what was about a 10-minute long answer. Maruyama stated two significant events responsible for his long career in anime: working with two Osamus. First, he worked for Tezuka Osamu at Mushi Pro, and then formed MADHouse with Dezaki. Their first non-Tezuka work was Ashita no Joe. Eventually when the Ashita no Joe 2 film was in planning, they had creative differences where Maruyama believed it was unnecessary and Dezaki wanted to work on it, so he left and formed a studio called Anapple. They would not work with each other for many years, though they were still friends and still played mahjong with each other.
During the time they were apart, Maruyama produced directors such as Hosoda, Kon, Kawajiri, and had no time to work with Dezaki. Eventually, as they both reached old age, they decided to work together once more, and their final project together was, of all things, Ultraviolet. Dezaki wasn’t sure if it was the right work, but it was the only one in the pipeline at the time and the only chance they had to work together. Maruyama said they were happy to make it, though said nothing of the quality of the show. Maruyama then mentioned that Dezaki’s final work, Genji, had Dezaki tryingg to put in everything he couldn’t put into Ultraviolet. Then Maruyama said that with the time he has left on Earth, he would try to bring Dezaki and Kon’s remaining works to the world.
The panel also included a special showing of a short titled Hana wa Saku (Flowers Bloom), directed by Katabuchi Sunao (Mai Mai Miracle) with music by Kanno Yohko, whose purpose was to encourage the people affected by the earthquake. I hear in his other panel he also showed a video directed by Rintaro which was a funeral tribute to Kon Satoshi.
I managed to get interviews with both acclaimed voice actor Seki Tomokazu, as well as Tachikawa Yuzuru and Suwa Michihiko, who are involved with the Anime Mirai project. Keep checking Ogiue Maniax for those.
In terms of fan-run panels, this year was a mix of new and interesting subjects as well as a few “greatest hits” to celebrate the 20th anniversary. Mike Toole’s panel on “Outsider Anime,” his take on the Henry Darger-esque idea of “Outsider Art” looked at a number of creative and off-the-wall artists who, while for the most part not totally “outsiders” still push the boundaries. Names such as Shinkai and Yuasa are somewhat familiary to anime fans at this point, but I hadn’t heard of Tomioka Satoshi and his bizarre toilet humor rabbit animation Usavich for instance, and only recently learned about Mizue Mirai and his abstract animations. I was especially glad though to see him mention Iseda Katsuyuki, a man infamous for creating anime pretty much on his own with… unique results.
I attended the “45 Years of Shounen Jump” panel (while also singing along with the anime openings). Run by landofobscusion, it was a short “greatest hits” breakdown of the magazine. I learned quite a few things. For example, I did not know Sexy Commando was a top 3 title at one point, nor did I know that the end of Dragonball lost the magazine 500,000 readers while Slam Dunk’s finish lost them 2 million. What was even more interesting was hearing the crowd react to all of the titles mentioned. Yu Yu Hakusho for instance got a gigantic pop that I wasn’t quite expecting, as I knew people liked the show but didn’t know it was nestled that fondly in the hearts of fans who watched it on Cartoon Network.
Because of this panel the second City Hunter opening is stuck in my head now.
Speaking of surprising fan reactions, I am pleased to see the mecha fandom’s opinion of Gundam SEED turn around tremendously. Traditionally, when you go to a giant robot or Gundam-themed panel, there is a valuing of the Universal Century timeline over the alternate universe counterparts not named G Gundam. (The Seki Tomokazu panel I attended taught me just how many people love G Gundam, to the extent that more than one attendee exclaimed Domon Kasshu as a role model for how to live as a man.)
In the past Gundam SEED was seen as a black spot on giant robot anime, “the beginning of the end,” and all it took was a panelist to go “Gundam SEED! BOOOO!” to get the crowd to follow along. This time, though, when I attended the Mechapocalypse panel, Gundam SEED received largely applause rather than jeers, and it just warms my heart to see a mecha fandom which accepts what SEED brings to the table. We all agree though that SEED Destiny is still terrible.
Actually, the Mechapocalypse panel in general was a good deal of fun. Generally mecha panels are all about going through the history of giant robots and having everyone cheer for their favorites, and while this one retained some of that, it also mixed it up heavily with roundtable discussions of specific themes and characteristics of robot anime, all while keeping it light-hearted. While I’m already familiar with the Japanese Spider-Man, it’s inevitably a crowd pleaser whether you’ve seen it or not.
The other mecha panel (of sorts) I attended was Al’s presentation of the directorial works of Tomino Yoshiyuki, creator of Gundam. Neither full of blind praise for the man nor unfairly critical of his body of work, the panel laid out the various aspects of Tomino’s reputation, particularly his tendency for works to be either fairy light-hearted or particularly violent and morbid, and how both make up Tomino’s overall ouevre into something special. While I know a decent amount about Tomino anime, I also learned a good deal from the panel. I also realized based on audience reaction that Gundam has this strange memetic power which actually exceeds the content of the actual shows. This might be commonplace for anime fans nowadays as a lot of current anime operates actively under such influence, but I recall seeing the shouts of “Char is a lolicon!” back in the late 90s, and I think it’s what fuels some of the odder aspects of most Gundam panels, whether the panelist plans it or not.
The last panel I want to mention is “Anime Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” Although it was my first time seeing it, I learned from others that it was an extremely popular and well-regarded Otakon panel back in the day. Coming out of retirement for Otakon’s 20th anniversary , the Anime MST3K crew took down the GONZO film Origins: Spirits of the Past (aka Gin-iro no Kami no Agito), pointing out the hamfisted environmentalism message alongside the sudden and strange character/romance development points which result in the deformed child of Appleseed and Nausicaa. In addition to being hilarious, I noted that they had indeed kept up with anime over the years, spotting multiple Girls und Panzer references.
This year, Otakon decided to hold two double concerts for its four guests, which resulted in Home Made Kazoku starting for TM Revolution and Ishikawa Chiaki preceded Kanno Yohko. I saw Home Made Kazoku back in 2010 at Otakon and TM Revolution back in 2008 at the first New York Comic Con. In both cases they’re among my favorite concerts I’ve attended, and to see them together was quite a treat. One notable thing about the Kazoku/Revolution concert was that it was held in the Mariner Arena, which made lining up in advance almost entirely pointless as you could get a decent seat even at the last minute. It was a pleasant change-up compared to previous years, and unlike the time with JAM Project I was glad to see the arena fill up a decent amount. I heard that at the end the two groups had a superhero teamup and did a song together, but I sadly had to leave before that.
The Ishikawa/Kanno concert was an anomaly before it even began. Unlike every other concert at Otakon, this concert required tickets due to “unforeseen demand,” and tickets could only be picked up at specific times of the day. While I know Kanno is probably the most popular anime composer out there, it seemed to be an intentional choice to up the value of each seat, marketing at its finest. In order to keep up with demand, Otakon actually created an overflow room so that people could watch the live feed from elsewhere within the Baltimore Convention Center. The concert itself was also quite fantastic, as Ishikawa’s haunting melodies (“Uninstall” is a perennial favorite) led well into Kanno’s part, which was unlike any convention concert I’ve attended. Kanno was alone on stage with a piano, playing a number of her best hits, including of course “Tank!” and “The Real Folk Blues” from Cowboy Bebop. As the concert went on the white covering laid over the piano became a kind of projection screen which displayed graphic animations to accompany her music. It was a full-on aural/visual combination, as much an artistic performance as it was a musical concert. It was definitely another highlight of Otakon 2013.
The title of this con report comes from Kanno’s introduction by her producer, which I found quite memorable.
Baltimore and Friends
The most surprising news to come out of Otakon had to do with the convention itself, as the staff announced that Otakon would be moving out of Baltimore into Washington, DC in 2017. Citing capacity issues, I experienced firsthand the fact that the Baltimore Convention Center is increasingly unable to handle the growing attendance rate of Otakon. Friday afternoon saw for whatever reason extreme, extreme congestion on the third floor that made it so it literally took me 15 minutes to walk what should be a 3-5 minute trip, tops. I do feel pretty bad for Baltimore, as I know that Otakon provides them a good deal of money every year. On a personal level, my friends found a great hotel and great places to eat, and to leave them with the possibility of never returning does fill me with a bit of sadness. That said, I still have three years to chow down and go wild.
By the way, if you ever are in Baltimore and decide to go to Abbey Burger Bistro, I’ll tell you about my custom burger I ordered this year because it was fantastic. Duck meat burger (it’s a meat of the month so it might not be available) cooked medium rare, with brie, grilled onions, mushrooms, pineapple, and red pepper paste on thick toast. Do it.
I didn’t hang with or meet people as much as I had in previous years, but I still enjoyed seeing everyone. In terms of group activities, the highlight of the convention was watching Salty Bet in the hotel room. We happened upon a great night which pitted all of the famous overpowered characters against each other, and the unstoppable force vs. immoveable object that was Berserk vs. Rare Akuma made for an unforgettable evening.
I’ll end off with the semi-standard cosplay photo bonanza. I was not quite as trigger happy with the camera this year, but I did find some definite gems. Special shout out to the Sasha cosplayer who actually handed me a potato afterward.