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As Hato and Yajima struggle to make more manga, Kuchiki announces that he’s finally finished his senior thesis and wants to have a club trip in celebration. Though Kuchiki would prefer to travel abroad, the other members can’t afford to do so and they ultimately decide on going to Nikkou, and to stay at Yajima’s parents’ house, which is close to Nikkou. However, the club soon finds out that not only is Madarame coming along but so are some of the girls interested in him—Angela and Keiko. Moreover, Yajima somewhere deep inside sees this as an opportunity to get closer to Hato.

I feel a bit sorry for Kuchiki at this point. Think about it: Genshiken is the closest thing he has to friends, and all of them barely tolerate his existence. They have good reason for treating him that way, of course, but even what’s supposed to be a farewell vacation in celebration of Kuchiki finishing his senior thesis is secretly a “finally Kuchiki will be out of our hairs for good” adventure. On some level, I respect Kio for keeping Kuchiki around all this time, even if he’s rarely present. I feel that with a character this grating, most manga would have jettisoned him for the sake of popularity, but there Kuchiki was, being “that guy” after Haraguchi graduated long ago. It’s as if there’s a need to remind people that being a dork isn’t always endearing, but that the issue comes less from just being socially awkward and more from lacking consideration for others in your words and actions. The only question is, if this manga continues, will someone new and equally irritating eventually take his place?

As for the real meat of the story this month (sorry Kuchiki but you’re a side note even in this chapter), it looks like the feelings of jealousy (?) expressed by Hato towards Yajima and her superior manga-making skills are blossoming into something more. Though, to be accurate, it’s more like Yajima is trying to passively seize this opportunity to get closer to Hato in a way she never could, as an equal (or perhaps even a superior). It wasn’t so long ago that Yoshitake was barely able to get Yajima to admit that she has feelings for Hato, and to see her begin to sort of, kind of make a move is nothing if not impressive. I think the idea being expressed through their interaction is that, for Yajima, being able to see Hato as imperfect boosts her own confidence and thus her ability to see Hato as a “possibility” in her life. This comes across clearly when Yajima gives Hato advice on his manga, saying that it’s only half-done. Yajima has never acted like that around anyone, let alone Hato, the closest being when she acts as the “big sister” (or maybe something more?) to Mimasaka, or when she’s looking to strangle Yoshitake. There’s also something very real about the creator’s blocks that Hato and Yajima are experiencing, as Hato is struggling to get his story out in a cohesive sense while Yajima’s brilliance came from a lot of pent up emotion and a situation that is just difficult to replicate.

One of the main factors in the trip to Nikkou is Madarame and the Girls Who Love Him, which is not only a cruel joke against Kuchiki but also evidence that, despite some traumatic experiences with them, Keiko and Sue’s stories aren’t over yet (Sue isn’t mentioned but I’m sure she’ll be a part of the trip somehow). On top of that, it’s now Angela’s turn to have her chapter, and the fact that the setting is a trendy tourism spot makes me wonder if it’ll be Angela’s flirtation cranked up to 11 (especially if she catches wind of what Keiko attempted), or if she’ll go for a more subdued approach in her (mostly accurate) assessment of how to nab an otaku boyfriend.

As a final, Ogiue-related note, Ohno’s comment on the Karuizawa trip being the start of Sasahara and Ogiue’s romance made me realize that, probably much like Ogiue herself, I had always associated that whole thing with trauma and pain. You can even see Ogiue’s reaction to this when Kuchiki mentions Karuizawa and she’s the only one with a sweatdrop. However, Ohno has a point, and it really is the turning point for Ogiue, her sense of self, and her happiness. Karuizawa is when she managed to finally let it all out, whether in a long and sad drunken rant to the other girls, or to Sasahara as they were walking. It’s kind of amazing that the meaning of such a significant moment in Genshiken, for Ogiue, and by extension for this blog Ogiue Maniax, could still continue to change.

 

When Disney announced that they had purchased Marvel, they opened themselves up to three things: jokes, cross-promotional opportunities, and new material from which to create new stories. The first two have been well in supply, while the third has just made its debut in the form of Big Hero 6, a 3DCG film loosely adapted from a Marvel comic series of the same name. The result is a movie that wears its lineage as the offspring of Disney and Marvel upfront, and which for the most part benefits from combining the raw, simple excitement of superheroes with the old Disney desire of creating family-friendly and uplifting animated films.

Story-wise, Big Hero 6 is an overall strong affair. The film centers around a 13-year-old boy named Hiro Hamada, a young robotics prodigy from the awkward portmanteau of “San Fransokyo” who mostly squanders his talents. Due to the influence of his older brother Tadashi, as well as Tadashi’s own creation in the form of a gentle healthcare robot named Beymax, Hiro is set on a path that leads him to not only pursue his ambitions but become a full-fledged superhero in the process. Big Hero 6 balances humor with action and a bit of tragedy, and it’s amazing how much can be done with a simple fistbump joke. On top of that, though, there are two qualities in the film, or I should say the protagonist, that stand out to me.

First, Hiro is an Asian protagonist in a field that is classically connected to the image of white heroes. At first, this might not seem that important because both Disney and Marvel have histories with Asian characters. Disney has Mulan and American Dragon Jake Long, and if we’re counting the Middle East as part of Asia as well, then there’s also Aladdin. Marvel has numerous superheroes that are ethnically Asian, such as Sunfire and Jubilee. However, I what’s special about Hiro is being able to see an Asian hero at the center of a big, important Disney + Marvel movie as someone whose abilities are not derived from his “Asian-ness,” especially because of how both companies have historically projected an image of “whiteness,” intentional or otherwise. Both companies have most recently shown a greater concern for diversity in characters (see Princess and the Frog and the new Ms. Marvel for a few examples), and while Big Hero 6 may not be the first, it is a clear and concerted effort to further show heroes of all kinds. To have powers derived from some mystical East Asian aspect is not inherently a bad thing, but it is quite overdone. While there is the risk of the association of Japan with technology and thus a kind of Techno-Orientalism, it never comes across that way even as San Fransokyo greatly resembles a Disney-fied Blade Runner Los Angeles.

The second important aspect of hero, which I’ve already mentioned, is that he’s a nerd. At this point nerd chic is old hat, and we’re at a point where so many people play video games that there’s little of the stigma that used to be there, but I think this is still important because of the portrayal of nerds in media, especially in Disney and Marvel properties. Again, both companies are not inherently against hyper-intelligent characters; Phineas and Ferb, a comedy about two genius kids, is one of Disney’s most successful properties in recent memory, while Marvel has characters like Professor X leading the X-Men. However, in both cases the go-to formula for hero vs. villain primary conflict has been some form of brawn vs. brains, where intelligent characters are scheming connivers: Scar to Mufasa, Jafar to Aladdin (who granted is more clever than anything else, but it’s a different type of smarts), Captain America vs. the Red Skull, Hulk vs. Leader. Big Hero 6 doesn’t just flip this into a good brains vs. evil brawn scenario, but actually makes it brains vs. brains. At the climax it’s a matter of pitting intellects against each other (albeit intellects redirected to look a whole lot like brawn) which are doing battle.

Of course, the brainy Asian who’s good at math is still a prominent stereotype, but this is mitigated by the fact that many different characters, Asian and non-Asian, are shown to be intelligent and into robotics. The rest of the core cast, which is mostly comprised of Tadashi’s college friends, are Asian, Black, White, etc., who are all so enthusiastic about developing technology that they went to college to accomplish that. Additionally, these characters have not just ethnic diversity but also a kind of physical diversity as well. While it doesn’t go as far as to include, say, handicapped or transgendered characters (which is still probably a risky step for a company like Disney and so unlikely to happen), the characters have a wide range of body shapes and sizes. Compare for example the difference between the tall and thin Honey Lemon and the shorter and rounder Gogo, both of whom are portrayed as beautiful in their own ways without their beauty being their most defining features or their primary functions in the narrative.

Speaking of diversity, the character Wasabi, who in the context of the film is the nickname for a black character, was originally a source of some controversy because his name was “Wasabi-no-Ginger” for an Asian character. I can see why this got a bad reaction, but I do wonder if it was supposed to be a reference to how manga characters are sometimes named. Most famously, Toriyama Akira, creator of Dragonball Z, names most of his characters after food (Vegeta), food-related products (Freeza), or underwear (Trunks). Here, the choice to change a Japanese character with a potentially offensive name into a black character might in a vacuum be considered on the same level as turning a non-white character into a Caucasian, but I think the contexts are different. My opinion on this is still undecided, but I think it’s the result of both an increasing awareness of cultural sensitivity and how important that can be, along with Disney responding to a market that increasingly cares about this issue.

This being primarily an anime and manga blog, I also want to mention all of the references and similarities to anime and manga that litter the film. From Hiro’s not-Mazinger Z wall clock to the fact that his superhero outfit looks awfully similar to Priss Asagiri’s hardsuit in Bubblegum Crisis, there’s much love paid to mecha in a way similar to Pacific Rim and even anime like Robotics;Notes which are also love letters to robot shows. Having seen it only once in theaters I couldn’t go over it with a fine-toothed comb, but attention is paid to Japan and its own history of animation. Given Frozen and its enormous success in Japan, I wonder if Big Hero 6 with its Japanese protagonist can perform similarly

Overall, Big Hero 6 is a strong first step in a lot of different areas. It’s good as the true debut of the Disney-Marvel alliance, and even better as a product of both companies’ increasing efforts to represent and inspire a multicultural environment. There’s clear intent at franchising this film, so I’ll be curious as to where it all goes.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun was one of my favorite anime of last season, only I never got around to talking about it. Fortunately, I’ve gotten a second chance thanks to one Mr. Bradley C. Meek, who has started up a new show, the Anime Now! Podcast. You can listen to us talk about one of the funniest shows in recent memory, where perpetual misunderstandings make would-be romances even more charming at the same time that the series riffs on shoujo manga tropes.

Anime Now! Podcast Episode 1

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Note: This post contains spoilers.

When you look at the manga Mysterious Girlfriend X, it’s hard to believe that it lasted for over eight years. Sure, it’s not much compared to  Ah! My Goddess, which also ran in Monthly Afternoon but for an astounding 25+ years. Yet the everyday romance of a boy and a girl connected by, of all things, a literal swapping of saliva, feels less like it should have been a consistent presence in manga and more an odd one-off (which it originally was). But last Mysterious Girlfriend X has, getting over the years not only an animated adaptation that is available both streaming and on home video in the US, but even seeing the actual manga itself available in English.

Given its long publication history, I’ve found that my life has naturally progressed since I began reading it all those years ago, and that when I come back to the title it’s from a different place. Yet, I still remember my feelings towards Mysterious Girlfriend X from back then, and it’s interesting for me to compare both the feeling of reading it one month at a time versus all at once, and from a person about 8 years younger to where I am today.

Mysterious Girlfriend X is the story of a young couple. Tsubaki Akira one day meets the eccentric Urabe Mikoto, and on some bizarre impulse decides to taste some of her drool that had been left on her school desk. Afterwards, he finds himself ill in a way inexplicable to doctors. Eventually, he learns the cause from Urabe herself: he’s having withdrawal after not being able to taste her saliva after a few days. The reason? Love, simple as that. According to Urabe, Tsubaki has fallen in love with her, and their only choice is to become a couple, especially given how Urabe herself reciprocates his feelings. However, their relationship is an unconventional one, and though they won’t even kiss or hug, they’ll taste each other’s drool. For some strange reason, this “bond of drool,” which allows them to communicate unspoken thoughts and feelings with each other, is a connection beyond typical human comprehension, brought about by love and desire.

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Given this description, it would be very easy to assume that Mysterious Girlfriend X is some kind of saliva fetish manga, but in that regard the title is often misunderstood. What I described above is the initial premise to get things moving, and rather than having the manga consist of different ways to present drool lust as some sexual deviancy, it’s more a means to an end to explore various facets of their relationships, from Tsubaki learning about Urabe, to Urabe understanding her own feelings better, to the growth of their relationship in comparison to others’. In Bakemonogatari, the character Senjougahara comes up with a word to describe the main character Araragi’s feelings towards her: not moe or whatever, but captivation. Tsubaki’s view of Urabe is a similar phenomenon.

Having re-read the entire series recently, I noticed that marathoning it results in quite a different experience. This is obvious to a certain extent, but what I mean more specifically is that when I originally read the series month to month, it was easier to notice long trends (some might even call them ruts) that the manga was going through. However, reading it all at once made me aware that Mysterious Girlfriend X has rough arcs and turning points for Tsubaki and Urabe. I doubt the series had some kind of intricate forethought behind it (Legend of the Galactic Heroes this manga is not), but some seeds were sowed along the way, and by the end they bear fruit.

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At the start of Mysterious Girlfriend X, the narrative is mainly about Tsubaki trying to learn about firstly what it means to have a girlfriend and secondly the utter enigma that is Urabe. Here, both he and the reader get to see for the first time not only the bizarre “bond of drool,” but also Urabe’s superhuman skill with a pair of scissors that she tucks into her underwear, her willingness to swap spit but not kiss, her refusal to ever let Tsubaki have a photograph of her smiling, and other eccentricities that separate her from others. She comes across as alien both literally and figuratively, perhaps even occult, especially when compared to the relatively normal relationship between Tsubaki’s best friend Ueno Kouhei and his girlfriend Oka Ayuko. We also learn about Tsubaki’s family, particularly his very motherly sister.

Gradually, the layers of mystery surrounding Urabe are peeled back. The first major turning point comes amidst this relationship between Tsubaki, Urabe, and the reader, as we learn about Tsubaki’s late mother through the fact that Urabe can read his latent memories from when she passed away (through his drool of course). Though Tsubaki is unmistakably a reader-insert character to some degree, here he becomes an individual of his own, and the connection between the two deepens.

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From there, we get to see how Urabe herself changes, how she sees the relationship from her perspective. In particular, the manga begins to present Urabe’s own character flaws, such as her possessiveness (which turns out are also shared by Tsubaki), as well as her own growing desire to be with Tsubaki. Here, she becomes more human, and while still an unusual person is less mysterious by virtue of how much time the two spend together. The most notable events in this part of Mysterious Girlfriend X occur when Tsubaki’s bond with Urabe is put to the test. First, an old crush of Tsubaki’s comes back to try and seduce him. Second, an idol who bears a striking resemblance to Urabe (and thus a source of jealousy for Urabe when Tsubaki begins to secretly collect magazines of her) trades places with Urabe. When I first read these storylines, they felt like mini-arcs much like what came before, but now I realize that they are more or less milestones for Urabe and Tsubaki, the points at which their feelings resonate more strongly than mere appearances or past loves.

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At the same time, the introduction of the Urabe look-alike, Imai Momoka, also signals another turning point for the series, towards what might be the most meandering and out-of-control part of the manga. Here, Mysterious Girlfriend X begins to enter a realm of fantastic occurrences and even stranger fetishes. While Mysterious Girlfriend X is not exactly a realistic series in certain key aspects, it starts off feeling somewhat grounded in an almost palpable sense of intimacy and desire between Tsubaki and Urabe. In early chapters, the dark attractiveness of Urabe is expressed in moments such as this, which are weird but understandably are thrilling for Tsubaki:

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In contrast, immediately after Imai Momoka we get, of all things, “eating bacon while wearing cat ears”:

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Other questions from this part of the manga include “Wouldn’t it be great to count the moles on your girlfriend’s body?” and “What’s more attractive, droopy eyes (like Nozomi from Love Live!) or slanted eyes (not in the racist sense, but like Ogiue)?  Eventually the series is able to parlay this into some forward progression between the two, introducing another rival for Urabe in the competition for Tsubaki’s affections (the aforementioned “droopy eyes”), but when you’re reading from month to month it can feel like a kind of narrative limbo. I do want to point out once again though that all of this has more or less nothing to do with saliva, further reinforcing the fact that the drool in Mysterious Girlfriend X is more a kind of means to an end, and representative of many more things than simply a fetish. It’s a substitute for kissing but also much more, a way to access each others’ feelings and to capture the otherworldly feeling of being young and in love.

Even with the holding pattern that the series suffers, one thing that becomes especially clear during thatmost unusual section of Mysterious Girlfriend X is the evolution of the creator Ueshiba Riichi’s art style, which becomes less round and cute as was his way in his previous manga, and a bit sharper and more angular. Whereas his characters looked shorter and roundrr, by the second half of the series they begin to look not only more mature but more expressive as well, especially with Urabe’s cat-like eyes. Even Ueshiba himself points out this change when he discusses how his changing art style might make things difficult for the character designers.

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Another clear indication of Ueshiba’s improved character drawing skills is Oka, who physically is supposed to be as small as an elementary school student but with the body of an adult. The way this is originally portrayed is rather jarring, as Oka looks more like a human being who was hit by a shrink ray, but as the series progresses she ends up looking more properly like a girl who’s simply really short.

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Eventually though the series begins to wrap up, and I think the most telling thing about Mysterious Girlfriend X and its motivations as a bizarre romance come from how it builds up towards its conclusion. The most significant developments at this point are not characters taking the next step physically so much as them sharing more information with each other. We learn how Oka and Ueno became a couple. More and more characters learn about Urabe and Tsubaki’s relationship, notably Tsubaki’s sister, who throughout the series has run into Urabe multiple times under the pretense that she is merely one of Tsubaki’s classmates. As Urabe reveals the truth about her connection with Tsubaki (conveniently leaving out the drool thing), there is a passing of the torch as Tsubaki’s sister, who has pretty much been a mother to Tsubaki all his life, acknowledges Urabe as the one who will become the most important woman in his life. Whether reading on a monthly basis or altogether, the way in which Mysterious Girlfriend X heads towards its ending is somehow surprisingly tame yet still quite appropriate for how the series has been throughout.

There’s a bit of controversy surrounding the ending to Mysterious Girlfriend X, as the manga throughout its 92-chapter run has teased a kiss between Tsubaki and Urabe while also showing many other couples kissing. Even in the final chapter a kiss never happens, as while Urabe finally asks for one, Tsubaki refuses upon learning that it would mean the end of the ritual that has defined their relationship up to this point (kissing is basically exchanging saliva, so there would be no need to do it the other way). Instead, Tsubaki asks if they can’t just keep doing their routine as they always have, at least until they graduate high school. For some readers, this ending is the ultimate denial of what the series had building towards, and indeed the series appeared to be working its way towards their first kiss. However, I find that it’s clear, given how much their relationship grows over the course of the manga, that their first kiss will happen, they will have sex for the first time at some point, but these events will happen off the page, in a future that the manga does not allow us to witness except in our imaginations. By keeping their kiss away from readers’ eyes (but at the same time showing plenty of other characters kissing throughout the series), it is the final emphasis the bond of drool as representative of their strange love as indicative of not just how love looks when you’re young, but also how it feels. Following that, one might say that the point of those almost-kisses is purely in the tease and enjoying that tease is fun in its own way.

The final chapter also has a number of callbacks to significant events throughout the series, including Tsubaki’s late mother, and the excitement that sparked Tsubaki and Urabe’s relationship in the first place. The example below also of course shows off the difference in art mentioned above.

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Ueshiba writes at one point that he never had a high school romance, let alone something as unusual as the one depicted in Mysterious Girlfriend X, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to find that the quirks that were seemingly brought forth through sheer fantasy on Ueshiba’s parts are closer to reality than perhaps he even realized. Moments which seemed ridiculous five to eight years ago are not so far from actual reality as I’ve witnessed it. Sure, I haven’t seen anyone stick their finger into someone’s mouth and eat their drool, but the meaning and intent behind those actions also exist in reality, or at least the “realness” of one’s emotions.

I’m not a dancer. In fact, I don’t have a single rhythmic bone in my body, and the only reason I can or will ever dance is because I’m fairly shameless when it comes to humiliating myself. That’s why it might come as a surprise that my favorite anime out of the current season is Tribe Cool Crew, a show about street dancing. Though only a few episodes have aired, I find myself looking forward to Tribe Cool Crew every week because of how it combines the best of boys’ anime and girls’ anime for children.

The thing that really drew my attention to Tribe Cool Crew from the very beginning is the dynamic between the main characters, a boy named Tobitatsu Haneru, and a girl named Otosaki Kanon, both of whom love to dance. The two complement each other well not only in terms of personality and style, but also because they’re essentially the typical morning boys’ anime protagonist and typical morning girls’ anime protagonist who have met up in a single show. Haneru is small but energetic with a constant in-your-face attitude, and his burning desire to be the best and to meet his idol, Jey-El, wouldn’t be out of place in shows like Mushiking or Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal. Kanon is shy but comes alive while dancing as the anonymous internet celebrity “Rhythm,” utilizing her great height and long limbs to accentuate her moves. In many ways she reminds me of Hanasaki Tsubomi, the main heroine of Heartcatch Precure!, especially because the show takes time to focus on her gradually building confidence.

Essentially, I find that it combines the ambition of the boys’ anime with the care and consideration of the girls’ anime. Though Tribe Cool Crew is still incomplete, it gives me the same general vibe as anime such as Battle Spirits: Shounen Toppa Bashin and Ojamajo Doremi, both of which I consider to be among the best of children’s anime. As the dances are all done in motion-captured CG, it’s also clear that the show is a response to popular CG dance anime such as Pretty Rhythm and Aikatsu!, taking what was previously solely the realm of idol anime and giving it a bit of a hip hop twist. It’s the kind of expansion of a genre or trend that I can really get behind, even if I don’t quite understand dance.

One aspect of the show that might be difficult for people looking for more plot-centric or character aesthetic-focused shows is that Tribe Cool Crew is still a show meant for kids at the end of the day. For example, the show sometimes features lessons for young, aspiring dancers on topics such as isolation. That said, the anime does feature some characters that an older audience might relate to better.

The look of the show might also take some getting used to, as the character designs are somewhat unusual for anime. They appear to take lessons more from Disney or other American cartoons that emphasize heavy variation in silhouettes to a heavy level of caricature, which can be a bit jarring. It has its own charms, however, such as in the case of Kanon, who is portrayed as an awkwardly lanky girl that perfectly fits both her personality and age, looking as if she just hit puberty and is beginning to feel conflicted between how she believes her upper-class family wants her to be and her inner passion for dance.

You can watch the show on Crunchyroll. Overall, I think Tribe Cool Crew is a really solid show and perhaps the sleeper hit of the season. It has a lot of potential, and I look forward to seeing where it all goes.

This month, we have our first ever Madarame and Sue-exclusive chapter. Sue tries to jettison her feelings for Madarame as only Sue can, by handcuffing him to a chair and putting funny masks on him until her perception of Madarame changes and encouraging him to date Hato. At the same time, Madarame, still reeling from his nearly physical encounter with Keiko, is trying to comprehend women’s behavior, which might as well be an ancient and inscrutable language to him. In the end, a poor of choice of words on Madarame’s part, a comment on breast size, may have resolved Sue’s problem for her.

Back in 2010, I wrote a small post on how interesting it is that Sasahara and Madarame essentially “traded preferences” when it came to their real-life vs. anime love interests. Namely, despite Madarame being into the character Renko (who is closer in personality and looks to Ogiue), he was head over heels in love with Kasukabe, who was closer to Sasahara’s favorite character Ritsuko. In Chapter 105, Madarame mentions the fact that, in a harem series, Sue’s type, a young-looking westerner with slender limbs and small proportions, is his favorite kind of character, and I think it’s quite notable that Madarame is only now realizing this himself. The explanation Madarame gives in this chapter is that Keiko and her attempted sexual advance on him has messed with his view of the world and how he approaches the subject of women, and it makes total sense, seeing as how the worlds of 2D and 3D have begun to blur in his head.

This is not to say that his confused behavior is Keiko’s “fault,” however, as Madarame himself sees it, but that the younger Sasahara putting the moves on Madarame has forced him out of the warm and comforting shell of his 2D complex. To Madarame, his former distinction between 2D and 3D is that 2D is where he can channel his desires both emotional and sexual, and 3D, the land of the mysterious creatures known as “actual women,” was so inaccessible to him that the best he could do was fawn over Kasukabe from a distance. When Angela was trying to get in his pants, Madarame likely saw that as so far outside reality that it might as well have been a dream within a dream. Keiko’s actions introduced the word “possible” to his real-world (meaning real women) vocabulary, and so in a way his protective layer of ignorance has been shattered in a manner different from Kasukabe rejecting him. Now, Madarame is conscious of the idea that women might be trying to send signals, but he’s basically a man who has been living in a cave all his life seeing sunlight for the first time. It is probably to his benefit that he becomes aware that women who like him can exist, but for now he’s merely blinded and clawing at open air.

Thus, Madarame tries to “read” Sue, given his limited context. “She’s on my bed! We’re by ourselves!” It’s very possible Madarame could have made a big mistake if not for Sue immobilizing him with those handcuffs, but it’s also understandable in that, when it comes to the opposite sex, he’s more or less a baby who has just learned to crawl, let alone walk. His comment to Sue that, well, Hato doesn’t have any breasts, is born from a brief moment of overconfidence (one might say even hubris) and a relative lack of interpersonal communication skills. Earlier in the chapter, Madarame notices that Sue is not completely flat-chested, and so in stating that Hato “doesn’t have any breasts, huh,” he tries to make a distinction between Hato and Sue. However, Sue has been shown to be sensitive to this subject, so it comes across as more of an insult. And even then, this sort of detail which otaku can elaborate upon extensively, the difference between an AA and an AAA cup or whatever, is not exactly going to win any points when talking to an actual girl.

As for Sue, I find that she’s trying to do what Hato himself had attempted before. Sue asks Madarame to date Hato, much in the same way that Hato was pushing Madarame towards being more assertive with his feelings for Kasukabe, and in both cases they were ways to distance themselves from their own feelings. “If he’s in a relationship, I can get over him!” For that matter, Madarame sort of did the same thing to himself with respect to Kasukabe, and even Yajima, who is not in this chapter, has been shown cheering for Hato x Mada as a way to keep her own attraction to Hato bottled up. With Sue specifically, however, it looks like this is her first ever crush, unlike the others who appear to have some unrequited feelings in the past, and so much like Madarame it is also Ms. Hopkins who is learning to crawl. However, Sue is arguably even more of an otaku than Madarame is, and in that way I can really see the perspective of Sue x Mada supporters. They even have that consistent interaction where Sue will pull out a reference and Madarame will instantly recognize it (this chapter it was Saitou Hajime from Rurouni Kenshin). While there are those who believe this swing and a miss on Madarame’s part is the death of this pairing, much like Keiko x Mada I find that it only opens things up more.

I don’t know if this actually a reference or not, but I find Sue’s “funny mask therapy” to be similar to one of the storylines in Space Brothers. At one point, the younger brother Hibito suffers from panic disorder due to a near-death encounter on the moon, which leaves him unable to wear a spacesuit. The treatment recommended to him is to wear various outfits, from football uniforms to animal mascot costumes, in order to gradually lighten the pressure his mind puts on him when in a spacesuit. Obviously, it doesn’t work the same way seeing as Sue is not the one wearing those ridiculous masks, but a similar effect is desired on her part.

The chapter ends with Hato struggling to draw manga. It might be setup for the next chapter, but what I find interesting is that Hato is having difficulty making his manga more interesting, as opposed to being unable to draw BL. Progress!

 

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As an anime and manga blog largely focused largely on commercial output, it is rare that I will report on and review an Art Show in all of its capitalized glory. However, I feel it important to discuss the “Empty God Core” show at the B²OA Gallery, featuring the works of Japanese artist Umezawa Kazuki.

I am well aware of the fact that anime and manga have been subjects of exploration, self-discovery, and exploitation since at least Murakami Takashi and his “superflat” movement. Often times challenging and presenting the exoticism of Japan’s visual culture, artists like Murakami tend to feel as if they come not from the otaku subculture itself, but are reacting to it as it has grown over times. While I would not go so far as to say that this is some unforgivable flaw in his work, that he may not be a “true” otaku, it does make me notice when a piece of art conveys the perspective of someone who has embraced the lights and sounds of anime and manga as almost existential hazes.

That is the impression I received from Umezawa’s work, though even before I saw the actual show itself I had an opportunity to meet him for the first time thanks to our mutual friend, Ko Ransom. If there is anything that stood out to me most about him at first glance, it would have been his A Certain Scientific Railgun pins adorning his clothing. The one most prominent could be seen on his chest, a chibi version of Nunotaba Shinobu, my favorite character in the Index universe. A teenage scientist with a propensity for interlacing her speech with English, Nunotaba comes nowhere near the default choices for popular characters in her series, so I knew that Umezawa was serious business.

That being said, while I was aware that Umezawa was an otaku before I saw “Empty God Core,” I would have jumped to that conclusion almost immediately if I had come in without knowing a thing. Umezawa’s works consist largely of collages of anime characters, scrambled to the point of almost losing all recognizable qualities, and then rearranged to create futuristic, apocalyptic landscapes and large, god-like figures. I say “almost,” because the first thing I spotted in one of his digital paintings was the characteristic blonde poof of Cure Peace from Smile Precure! Soon after, I spotted bits of other characters as well, but it made me realize how distinct Precure hair is designed to be, so that, even divorced from the very bodies on which they sit, one can see that, yes that over there is a piece of Cure Blossom, and down by the side is Cure Beauty. The iconic nature of anime and manga characters jumps to the forefront, and their fragments are used to construct worlds.

There is a general idea when it comes to anime fandom that a lot of its qualities arose from the perception of 1980s Japan as a kind science fictional space. Like Blade Runner, which envisioned a future city amalgamated from Tokyo and various Chinatowns, the common discourse positions otaku as products of their time, and their subculture a result of changes to the world, the economy, and the degree to which societal values crumble or ossify in response. In this environment, otaku have historically been viewed in a negative light, people who cannot confront reality, loners who can only consume their media in ways which reinforce their divorce from society, while anime and manga become increasingly shallow and lacking in any real substance. What Umezawa’s work does is flip that script on its head, and show how this otaku subculture and its inhabitants can utilize the “vapid” qualities of anime and manga and its devotion to signs and icons of cuteness, beauty, and sexuality as building blocks, as atoms to form universes. Rather than a dystopian cityscape creating the otaku, the otaku creates the dystopian cityscape. He turns lemonade into lemons.

This post is regrettably a little late, but if you’re in or around New York City, the show is running until November 15th. The B²OA Gallery is at 515 west 26th street in Manhattan, and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am-6pm.

Any adaptation of a folktale must inevitably face two challenges. First, in conveying a story that “everybody” has heard of, how much should the audience be expected to know, and how much should it act as an unfamiliar experience? Second, to what extent should the narrative and cultural qualities be adapted to more contemporary sensibilities? In the process of transforming the classic Japanese story “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” into Studio Ghibli’s Tale of the Princess Kaguya, director Takahata Isao (Grave of the Fireflies, Anne of Green Gables) has found it appropriate to use this 1000-year-old story to question the relationship between happiness and security, and in the process has created a film that is extremely accessible to audiences around the world.

In both the original story and the film, an old bamboo cutter finds a small girl inside of a bamboo stalk and, along with his wife, raise this girl as their own. As the girl grows into a woman of incredible beauty, the man regularly returns to the bamboo forest in which he does his daily business. There, he frequently finds bamboo filled with gold, and using this newly-acquired prosperity, moves his family to the capital. However, the film first concentrates heavily on the early period of Princess Kaguya’s humble life in the forest, during which she is shown to be a tomboy who loves running in the fields and forests, and then focuses on her struggle with the splendor, pomp, and adherence to customs that are valued by the wealthy nobility. As a result, the film conveys both the experience of watching a child grow up through the eyes of loving parents, but also life from the perspective of Kaguya herself.

Kaguya’s active personality and disdain for the formal are, at least to my knowledge, original aspects of the film, and through her character shapes the classic story into a criticism of the assumption that life is at its best when one is free of monetary worries, and that upward social mobility is worth any amount of sacrifice. Of course, this is not a new theme in fiction, nor even in anime. After all, even Kill la Kill addresses this theme at one point with the “Fight Club Mako” episode and its similar transformation of a poor family into the upper class. What Tale of the Princess Kaguya does to really magnify this point, though, is to present many of the values from the time in which the original folktale was written, and to have it juxtaposed with Kaguya’s own free-spirited personality draws attention to how much life in the capital wears on her, and indeed how much women had to do to be “proper women.” Apparently, a true lady never runs, and most of the time should not even get up while sitting, nor does she laugh or shout. A true lady does not need eyebrows because she will never sweat. Everything is about staying put, but Kaguya inherently loathes this way of thinking, try as she might to adapt to it for the sake of her parents. In this respect, the film at certain key moments carries a strong feminist vibe.

In a way, Tale of the Princess Kaguya comes across as something of a mix of Disney’s Frozen (adapted from “The Snow Queen”) and Pixar’s Brave. It gives a new sensibility to an old fairy tale, but it also concentrates heavily on a daughter and her unwillingness to bend to the rules that her society tries to force upon her. The similariities to Brave are especially highlighted at the point in the story when Kaguya is presented with five noble suitors who, only hearing of her beauty rather than seeing it (as was the custom of the time), rush to take her hand in marriage. This is also present in the original story as just a matter of course, but here the film uses it to display the cheap and shallow notions of love that pervade the capital, its people, and old notions of femininity. One difference is that, unlike Merida in Brave, Kaguya does have a love interest of sorts (also an original character to the film).

While the thematic elements are important, it would be remiss of me to not mention the visuals style of the film. Unlike most other works from Studio Ghibli which, while always splendidly animated, tend to go for a cleaner look, Tale of the Princess Kaguya looks as if it were a picture book or an old Japanese painting come to life. The style seen in the promotional posters for the film is how the movie looks, and it creates a strong ethereal quality that falls in line with the overall themes of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” Even most of the characters look quite unconventional in terms of more attention being paid to differentiating them on a design level, with the only character who truly looks like a Ghibli-style heroine being Kaguya herself. It was clearly an enormous task for the animators, and even looking at the credits one can see that many of the top Japanese animation studios contributed, including Studio 4°C and BONES. Tale of the Princess Kaguya may be worth seeing just to experience its aesthetics.

Most people know Takahata for Grave of the Fireflies, and in that sense it sort of feels as if he and his old Ghibli partner Miyazaki Hayao have swapped places in what might be each of their final films. Miyazaki creates the overtly political and morally challenging The Wind Rises, while Takahata tackles a classic Japanese story about a beautiful girl. However, certain qualities of the film remind me of one of Takahata’s directorial works from his pre-Ghibli days, namely Hols: Prince of the Sun. Kaguya and her struggle recall the conflicted heroine Hilda in Hols, which perhaps makes it less of a new path and more of a return to, and evolution of, established aspects of Takahata’s history, something rather appropriate for an adaptation of an old folktale.

 

 

 

In my previous review of the card game anime Battle Spirits: Shounen Toppa Bashin, I stated that the series is the best show of the collect-em-all TCG competition genre that I’ve ever seen. Having finished the series, I stand by that opinion more than ever. Though the climax and resolution of the series is a bit too abrupt, the overall sense of consideration for what it’s trying to convey and the continued growth and progress of its characters on both emotional and “competitive” levels was remarkably deep and a joy to watch.

Spoiler warning.

In the transition to the latter half of the 50-episode Shounen Toppa Bashin, the series moves its characters from elementary school to middle school. This brings with it a whole host of changes, such as the shift to school uniforms. However, what is fundamentally different about the anime from this point forward is that the characters are beginning to be viewed as young adults, even if their designs don’t change that much.

The best example of this would have to be Episode 32. In a seemingly generic boys’ show about playing other people in card games, Shounen Toppa Bashin devotes 25 minutes to exploring the mother of the main character and her feelings of loneliness as she watches her son hit that age where boys begin to emotionally move away from their parents while also dealing with the fact that her husband is never home (he’s out adventuring). As the protagonist Bashin Toppa nonchalantly ignores his mother Hayami (a case of being oblivious in general but also taking her for granted), her sudden disappearance makes him realize that all of the little moments in which she was “bothering” him were actually cries for help and attention. Upon remembering that it’s his responsibility to look after her in his father’s absence, Toppa ends the episode by declaring that card games aren’t as important as their relationship as family.

Toppa’s mother Hayami worried about losing her little boy

The obvious joke with TCG shows (thanks in part to Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series) is that whenever there’s a deep emotional connection, it’s usually in the sense of friendship, that one’s companions give the moral support one needs to overcome any adversary. Though that also exists in Shounen Toppa Bashin to a strong extent (and is better developed compared to other series as well), the situation between Toppa and Hayami is actually a moment where the show says that its own card game is meaningless if it means neglecting those close to you who are in need. The complex emotions of a mother watching her son grow up take center stage in a genre that is more often known for actively ignoring parents entirely.

However, Shounen Toppa Bashin not only expresses this sense of change outside of the card game its purported to sell but within it as well. From the beginning of the series, each character is associated with a certain color-themed deck. For example, Toppa runs a “red” deck, which is primarily devoted to outright aggression, while his main rival Sawaragi J utilizes a “white” deck, which emphasizes healing, defense, and regeneration. Conveniently, both characters are color-coded in their designs as well. Early on in the second half of the anime, Toppa finds that while he’s continuously improved as a player, his red deck has reached its limits. When another character suggests that he incorporate other colors, Toppa’s initial response is that the red attribute is a part of his identity, implying that he thinks using other colors means abandoning his very way of being. Eventually, he realizes the benefits of mixing it up and being able to grow beyond the one-dimensionality of his old methods while still maintaining it as a mostly red-oriented deck. It’s at once both an easy example for kids to learn how to improve their strategy in this game and a way of showing Toppa’s increasing maturity.

The color-coded cast

Similarly, when J goes from friendly rival to antagonistic force in the series, he abandons the white deck that had previously characterized him in order to go for something more varied and ruthlessly efficient. At the finals of a tournament, Toppa confronts J, and at the climax of a fierce, back-and-forth match between the two, Toppa plays a card that can win, provided the opponent has no white cards with which to defend. This is seen as suicide by all of the characters given J’s propensity for that color, but then the show reveals that J’s hand is devoid of any white cards. In other words, in his desire to find the “best” way to win, J forgot who he was. Combined with the lesson Toppa learns earlier in the series about varying his own deck, the result is a greater message of being open to change but not to the extent that you forget who you are and what values are important to you. And all of this is through the card game itself!

The last example of personal and emotional progression I’d like to talk about has to do with something I mentioned in the previous review, which is the development of a character from sideline cheerleader to direct participant. This is the path taken by the character nicknamed “Meganeko” due to her over-sized glasses. While you have examples of both in TCG anime, such as Anzu/Tea in Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters and Asuka/Alexis in Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, rarely does one turn into the other, and as in strong a fashion as Meganeko.

At the beginning of the series, Meganeko is essentially Toppa’s close childhood friend, unwavering supporter, and tacit love interest. Around the half-way point of the series on their last day of elementary school, Toppa and Meganeko have a fight because Toppa just wants to go play more “Battle Spirits,” whereas interprets his behavior to mean that all of their cherished memories of elementary school and their friendship mean nothing to him. Rather than merely waiting for Toppa to realize his mistake, however, Meganeko decides to learn how to play “Battle Spirits” in secret in order to understand him better and to basically meet him half-way, thus showing her active desire to better herself.

Meganeko, from supporter to equal

The typical series would have Meganeko learn the basic rules of the game and place value on simply the fact that she tried at all while at the same time placing her on a skill tier below the “important” characters. Shounen Toppa Bashin, instead, actually defies this trend by transforming Meganeko into a formidable competitor as well. Through her training, Meganeko becomes about as proficient in “Battle Spirits” as Toppa in a lesser amount of time. Not only does she find her own identity within the card game (a yellow “spell and support” deck), but she also ends up overcoming an opponent who had previously bested J, and even meets Toppa himself in the semi-finals of a tournament. Though Meganeko loses in the end, the show presents their battle and Toppa’s reactions in such a way that it’s clear that she has firmly established herself as Toppa’s peer in the very field he so cherishes through her hard work. By the end of the series, neither wins nor losses are guaranteed for Meganeko (or any of the other characters for that matter), which further highlights her position as being equal to that of Toppa, J, and the rest of the core cast.

Overall, Battle Spirits: Shounen Toppa Bashin is able to provide characterization and emotional development at various levels, both in direct relation to the card game after which the series is named and with respect to the realistic concerns that might face children as they grow up. The former can be seen in how Toppa and J are symbolized and represented through their personal decks and strategies, while the latter is most evident in the amount of care and attention the series gives to the relationship between Toppa and his mother. Furthermore, the character Meganeko presents a mix of these two aspects while also showing how a “cheerleader” female character can transform into a direct participant in an anime, thus providing a potential template for other characters as well. The cumulative effect of these and many other aspects of Shounen Toppa Bashin result in a series that is worth emulating.

New York Comic Con 2014 was my first in five years. I wasn’t around for the dissolution and complete integration of New York Anime Festival. I did not see the claustrophobia-inducing crowds created by people sneaking in that nearly drove some of my friends to never, ever go back. I was not around as the aging Jacob Javits Center itself expanded as best as it could to account for not only this convention but others as well. My experience with NYCC 2014 is almost that of a time traveler, as what I have to mainly compare it to is an old existence, before this convention was being labeled as the San Diego Comic-Con of the east coast.

As much as a convention should be about being a magical and informative experience where fans connect to the media they love as well as to their peers, the first thing worth mentioning about NYCC 2014 is its use of RFID badges. I was informed of their inaugural usage last year, but seeing them in action made me fully aware of the boon they provide to both the convention goers themselves and the staff running the entire thing. Essentially, attendees must use a card to check in and check out of the convention area, which not only cuts down on the number of people who shouldn’t be there but means that there are plenty of opportunities to actually relax and take in the con experience. Just having a space that is outside the convention building itself but still part of NYCC was so beneficial, as it allowed attendees to catch some fresh air if they needed it. Though I didn’t know anyone personally who had difficulty handling large crowds (and the NYCC attendance population is around a staggering 100,000), I suspect having not only the front entrance but other outside spots may have been a life saver for some.

Of course, all of this is not to say that New York Comic Con 2014 was neither magical nor informative, as I found it struck a fine balance as a convention of industries, artists, and fans in terms of activities and opportunities. New York Comic Con is a for-profit venture, designed to make money and to benefit all of those who take part in it on the industry. For one thing this means greater industry presence in both the panels and the showroom floor, and fewer fan panels where enthusiasts can analyze and discuss particular interesting angles of the things they love. However, as much as I’m used to industry panels being fairly by the numbers affairs about shilling products (not that there’s anything wrong with it), at NYCC these panels, although different from fan-run events, still carried with them a lot more meta-discussion of the industry and what it means to be “in” comics. You have to expect the sales pitch to some degree, but it was rarely much of an issue.

For example, I attended a couple of panels about women in comics (be they characters or creators or fans or anything else), and it involved industry professionals of all sorts who didn’t necessarily all agree with each other discussing an important topic in a way that encouraged further conversation instead of necessarily having as their primary agenda the sales of their own products. In the “Women of Color in Comics” panel, for instance, you had both industry veterans and independent creators. One veteran emphasized the idea that if you want to change how the big companies see women, you have to know how to communicate in their language, bring portfolios that old white men would understand, while some of the freelance artists stressed the importance of being able to work for yourself to create the characters you want.

The women in comics panels were illuminating and informative overall, though I do have one criticism for a prevailing sentiment I saw: when asked about how to deal with men who aren’t even aware that there is sexism and discrimination in the industry and its fandom, the answer I saw most often was “who needs those guys, forget them.” I understand that dealing with ignorance getting asked “what sexism?” for the 1000th time is a trying, perhaps soul-draining experience, but I do think that it’s still a group of people who need to be addressed and who might honestly just not know.

It’s actually quite impressive how supportive of female fans and creators New York Comic Con was. In addition to the panels, there were large “Cosplay is Not Consent” signs that were noticeable but not terribly intrusive which aimed to prevent sexual harassment of cosplayers by appealing to the human brain’s ability to think ahead. I hear it was largely effective, though without context I do wonder if some people thought that the signs were saying that cosplaying was not okay.

Maybe this has to do with the number of artists, writers, and creators as guests instead of marketing folks, but in a lot of the panels I attended I felt that the audience was let in on their creative processes at least to some extent. Obviously they’re not taking advice from attendees, but it seemed like the answers reflected the personalities and styles of those who gave them. Notably, when manga artist Obata Takeshi (Death NoteHikaru no Go) spoke, it was clear that he was not a people person, and was unaccustomed to the spotlight. When he explained how he worked, his answers were muddled like so many other artists I’ve met. In contrast, at one of the Image panels, Matt Fraction could talk up a storm and really present the job of comics writer as something not so much glamorous but intense and personal. While obviously I can’t agree with their sentiments, seeing the panelists at the European Comics Artists panel thinly veil their displeasure towards manga was also similarly revealing.

Before going to the con, I received some useful advice for attending panels: always line up an hour beforehand. It doesn’t matter how small a crowd you think a panel is going to get, because more likely than not you’ll be on the wrong end if you don’t play it safe. Bizarrely, the lines felt rather relaxing. They were times to rest one’s feet, to chit-chat with friends and sometimes strangers, and in my case to play against other people in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. I matched my Mega Man against others and had an exciting time. More importantly, though, the fact that the lines were able to remain these fairly civil affairs (aside from The Walking Dead panel according to what I heard at con feedback) indicates how effective this year’s organization was. At Otakon one year, I had a friend from England who found it mind-boggling that a place could be so bad at queueing. While I don’t know if NYCC could hold up to his superior English line standards either, I think it would have at least gotten a higher grade.

Overall, what might be the strangest thing about my NYCC 2014 experience is that I expected a rushed, frantic time where I would feel overwhelmed to the point of some bizarre euphoria. At times, coming down the escalator and seeing the absolute mob of people in the main lobby made it seem as if I were about to descend into a pit of madness. However, what I actually got was a relaxed, comfortable experience learning about the things I love and trying my best not to spend all of my money. Now if only I didn’t have to buy four 1-day tickets because all of the 3-day tickets sold out in like two minutes, then it would’ve been a lot better.

To conclude, here are some of my convention highlights.

  • Attending my first Avatar (Legend of Korra) panel only to realize that it might be the last Avatar panel ever.
  • Getting Obata Takeshi’s autograph on Volume 1 of Hikaru no Go.
  • Obata would have liked to draw Otter no.11 as an actual manga.
  • Meeting at last my long-time internet friend David Brothers.
  • Asking Juanjo Guarnido (author of Blacksad) about whether the extremely popular comics that the Franco dictatorship in Spain used as propaganda still had any influence today (his answer was no).
  • Being like, maybe one of two people to cheer for Tribe Cool Crew at the Sunrise Panel. I yelled so loudly one of the panelists immediately looked at me. Also, watch Tribe Cool Crew. My review of it is pending.
  • TURN A GUNDAM LICENSED (also First Gundam). I was actually repeating Turn A Gundam like it was a mantra, as if I were trying to cast a magic spell. I guess it worked?
  • Seeing all of the animators’ demo reels at the Kakehashi Project (The Bridge for Tomorrow) panel. A lot of the work reminded me of the more visceral art that often appeals to me yet is rarely found in anime. I especially liked the work of Shiroki Saori.
  • Watching the US premiere of the Kill la Kill Episode 25 OVA. It was a great revisit of the series, and in one brief moment during one of Mako’s speeches I swear she transforms into Baron Ashura from Mazinger Z.
  • Playing all that Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS with people.

Official sources for Genshiken Second Season

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