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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.

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Superhero revivals are a dime a dozen, but few are like The Shadow Hero by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew. The basic idea behind the comic is that it provides an origin story to a hero who never had one, the golden age character known as the Green Turtle, but Yang and Liew take it further by essentially “reclaiming” the character for Asian-Americans.

Originally created by a man named Chu F. Hing, the publisher for The Green Turtle had tried to make its titular hero white. Hing, it is argued by Yang and Liew, appears to have defied this order by never showing the Green Turtle’s face, either having him face away from the reader or having his features obscured by a cape or something else. Yang and Liew take this further by actually making the Green Turtle undoubtedly Chinese-American, but what’s really remarkable about this series is that it manages to ground this character in both Chinese culture and that early 20th century United States in which they live so well that it actually made me realize I’ve been missing out on an important component of superhero comics all along.

While superheroes have been created since the beginning by people of practically every ethnicity (the most famous example being Superman’s Jewish creators), they have traditionally exuded predominantly a sense of whiteness. This does not make them bad stories or bad superheroes. Nor does it make them unrelatable. I don’t need to have my uncle shot and killed to understand why Peter Parker takes Uncle Ben’s famous great power, great responsibility line to heart. After all, I’m mostly a manga reader and I do not connect all that directly to Japanese culture, either. However, what’s amazing about The Shadow Hero is that, as an Asian-American, the relationship the protagonist Hank Chu has with his family hits so close to home that it makes me feel as if my own culture, that hybrid of my parents’ values and the values of the country I was born and raised in, is being expressed right there on the page.

The best example I can think of comes fairly early in the story, when Hank’s mom is rescued by a Superman-like hero and becomes enamored with the idea of superheroes in general. Wanting the best for her son, she decides Hank should be a superhero too, and goes above and beyond to try to make it happen. Whether it’s dragging him close to chemical spills or getting him to train in martial arts, the mother has her mind set on the idea that the best future for Hank is for him to don a cape and tights and fight crime.

When I replaced the word “superhero” with doctor, lawyer, engineer, pharmacist, or whatever is the most current profession that my parents and older relatives and their friends mention as being the most reliable path to success and prosperity, it all just clicked in my head. Here in The Shadow Hero was something my siblings and I, as well as many of the kids we knew growing up, would encounter on a regular basis. We knew their eagerness over this one thing could be a bit much, but we knew they meant well.

Other signs of Chinese culture can be found throughout. The main villain’s daughters are named after mahjong titles. When Hank first becomes a superhero, his mother makes him an outfit with the Chinese character for gold/money on it, because in Chinese culture it’s common to wish people well by saying that they’ll makes lots of money. This sounds like something you’d do to mock DC superhero Booster Gold, but here you can sense the mother’s earnestness, as well as Hank’s own conflicted feelings towards her.

For the longest time, I’ve felt that I do not look enough at comics that represent Asian American culture. Over the years, seeing David Brothers consistently question the marginalization of black characters in superhero comics and how this is reflective of the historic injustices done to the black community in the United States has made me aware of how little I look at my own culture in the mediums that I love. The Shadow Hero, and that sense of inherent cultural understanding I experienced, made me even more keenly aware that there is so much more I can do.

Free! and Free! Eternal Summer spoilers below.

Whenever Free! ends, it really knows how to communicate its core values, whether it’s the original series or Eternal Summer. Ostensibly about competitive swimming, these finales basically say that, unlike so many other sports anime and manga, that winning not only isn’t everything, but it isn’t even that important in the first place.

At the end of season 1, the character Rin joins his old friends for a relay at a high school competition, revitalizing the lifelong bond he’s had with them. They swim better than they ever have before and even win the race, but run into the issue that Rin is from a different school that’s also competing at the event. The team is disqualified, but what’s emphasized here is that getting first was not the point. Rather, what they have truly achieved is strengthening their relationships with each other.

In the final episode of season 2, the main cast reaches the nationals for relay, and during the race each character has a vision of the joy of swimming. The main character, Haruka, is the last member to race, and upon entering the water sees his teammates swimming alongside him. When he reaches the finish line, everyone cheers, and we’re greeted with images of the team smiling and hugging. By all narrative and film convention, it looks as if they had won the whole thing, but later we see that they only got 6th place. They weren’t celebrating their championsip, but their accomplishments as a group. Moreover, Haruka, who throughout Eternal Summer has felt pressure over the fact that becoming a professional swimmer means having to care about trophies and times, ultimately finds that, for him, winning is merely a way to swim more, a means to an end.

Free! is geared towards a female audience. Whether it’s the well-animated flexible and muscular swimmers’ bodies on the cast, gentle yet strong personalities, or their close and sometimes tumultuous bonds, this is an anime that provides visual fanservice in a way that not even series like The Prince of Tennis or Kuroko’s Basketball could offer. Those other series, still grounded in their shounen sports manga formulas, end up emphasizing winners and losers first and foremost, but Free! is all about the relationship known as friendship, reflecting a desire to get away from the stereotypically male desire of victory through competition.

This is not to say that manga for male audiences based in competition necessarily always emphasize winning (see the manga Touch!), nor that there is no such thing as a manga for a female audience that stresses the competitive environment (Chihayafuru). However, when looking more broadly, what I find is that series that try to draw in men and boys primarily will often use friendship and teamwork as a means to victory, while series that target women and girls will do the opposite and use competition as a means to friendship and teamwork.

Sometimes targeting a demographic isn’t wholly intentional, but this is how a fanbase is formed anyway, and other times it can be hard to tell which is which. It might even flip back and forth throughout a given series. Free! doesn’t have any of that ambiguity. It knows exactly what it wants, and in the end we have to wonder for ourselves if winning is that big of a deal.

Captain Earth centers around an alien force attacking humanity known as the Planetary Gears, who see humans and their “libidos” as a food source. The main character is Manatsu Daichi, who, as a child, befriends a boy and a girl and is thus set on a strange path that ends with him becoming the pilot of a giant space defense robot known as the “Earth Engine.” At the same time that he defends the Earth with his friends, he must deal with the fact that there is another faction on Earth that believes that the only way to save humanity is to create an Ark to save the best of the best, and who are willing to get in “Captain Earth’s” way to do so.

When I watched the first episode of Captain Earth, I felt that the show had to be somehow related to the anime Star Driver, a previous work from the same studio, BONES. Like Star Driver, “libido” is presented as some kind of important power or energy source. The enemy mecha, known as Kiltgangs, bring to mind many  of the “Cybodies” from Star Driver as well, not only in terms of design but also in their pilots’ very “spirited” (read: erotic) reactions. Mysterious songs herald the arrival of an enemy. In the end, it turns out that these allusions remain only as such and that there were no direct narrative connections between these two works, but I do still find it valuable to compare them because Captain Earth more or less feels like a more conventional, less wild re-telling of Star Driver.

Above: Enemy mecha from Captain Earth, Below: Enemy mecha from Star Driver

Whereas Star Driver has a main character whose sense of justice has him appear out of a rift in space like some kind of giant interdimensional Zorro, Daichi in Captain Earth is mainly inspired to do good by the example of his deceased father, and undergoes an elaborate combination sequence that has him launching into multiple space stations. While quiet scenes in Star Driver are set on a mysterious island and battles take place in an enigmatic pocket outside of time and space, fights in Captain Earth uses Tanegashima (home of JAXA in reality), and its most signature fights take place in orbit around the Earth. One thrives on symbols and mystery and is akin to being a giant metal Utena, while the other plays out more closely to a typical super robot anime, yet they share many of the same strengths and flaws as shows. Both shows have vibrant and expressive characters, a consistent sense of mystery about the enemy that gradually reveals itself, and beautiful animation especially focused around dynamic action sequences. However, they also share unusual plot reveals that are strangely abrupt, as well as changes of heart in characters that basically make sense but could be better if they were focused on more. Both stories feel liable to fall apart in a structural sense, but are held together by the dynamism and energy of their characters, for better or for worse.

How does this manifest in Captain Earth in particular? There are two points that stick out to me. The first is the fact that the Planetary Gears have an intriguing inverse relationship with their robots, in the sense that they are basically giant robots who take on the guise of their “human” pilots rather than the other way around. This is quite a unique idea, but it never gets explored as much as I would have preferred. The second point comes in the last episode, when Daichi is back to basics, fighting the enemy with just the Earth Engine and no additional weapons or frills. It’s something that happens at the end in a lot of giant robot anime such as Gurren-Lagann or Gaogaigar, but when Daichi calls out the Earth Engine’s attacks, I realized I didn’t actually remember any of them, because the story couldn’t quite ever focus on the main robot as this symbol of good and make its attacks memorable. What makes the scene a partial success instead is the fact that we are there with Daichi as he grows into the role of “Captain Earth,” and his romantic relationship with the character Hana.

Actually, when I think about it further, Captain Earth doesn’t feel like simply a different, less surreal version of Star Driver, but more the lovechild of Star Driver and another BONES work, Heroman. The Earth Engine basically looks like an upgraded version of Heroman with its red, white, and blue color scheme and its overall “physique,” while Daichi’s personality is right in between Takuto from Star Driver and Joey Jones from Heroman. What’s even more notable, however, is the fact that many of the other high and low points of Captain Earth that it does not share with Star Driver can be found in Heroman. In particular, when Captain Earth is focused on its main story, it has a sense of urgency and excitement, but often it ends up meandering in a way that is less irritating and more puzzling: “Why put this diversion here of all places? It’s not even humor to break up a serious moment?” With Heroman it’s the long number of episodes they spend dealing with that mad scientist villain, and with Captain Earth it’s the time they spend on Earth chasing down unawakened Planetary Gears. While the latter makes more sense, it just feels as if it comes at an unusual point in the overall story.

While its aesthetics don’t have quite the flash and razzmatazz of anime like Utena or Kill la Kill or indeed Star Driver, the show’s more by-the-books approach to looking good enhances the series and its viewability by giving care to both its characters and its mechanical designs. At the same time, I can easily see why someone looking for a cohesive narrative above all else would find Captain Earth infuriating, even if I did consistently enjoy and look forward to the series. I wouldn’t say it’s a show that you shouldn’t think about too much, but that you should think about it while well aware of where the characters and their emotions fill in the gaps that might not otherwise make much sense.

Most of the fights in the mecha anime Aldnoah.Zero follow a roughly similar pattern: In a reversal of the typical structure of giant robot combat, a technologically superior and seemingly invincible enemy is overcome by the tactics and ingenuity of the protagonist Inaho and his allies without the need of secret prototype weapons or trump cards. What I think makes these battles and the opponents’ eventual defeats work really well both narratively and thematically is that their downfall is usually based on them being blinded by arrogance.

One might argue that this is unrealistic, or more specifically that an opponent with such an edge in terms of firepower would likely not have overlooked some of the weaknesses that end up being exploited by Inaho. However, given the culture of the Vers Empire, the feudalistic space culture that attacks the Earth, I find that it makes a lot of sense. The subjects of the Vers Empire, especially their “Orbital Knights,” have been raised to believe that they are inherently better than people from Earth, and that this superiority derives from their discovery and use of a powerful technology called the “Aldnoah Drive.” While from our perspective it’s easy to point out that the “inherent” superiority of the Vers is anything but because it derives from an outside source in the Aldnoah Drive, actually history has shown that similar reasoning, as strangely illogical as it can seem, has often been used to justify similar mindsets or even forms of racism.

Consider the hypothetical example of a nation of people who believe they are simply better than their neighbors because they were born on land that was more arable. Although one could easily say that this is just a matter of luck or probability to an extent, it wouldn’t seem that strange for them to believe that they were somehow blessed by God or some other great power, and that they deserve this blessing on some fundamental level. It’s circular reasoning to be sure, but that doesn’t necessarily stop anyone from believing it.

Thus, the Orbital Knights believe that they are inherently superior in every way over the Terrans, therefore they receive the more powerful technology, therefore they are inherently superior in every way over the Terrans. They buy so much into not only the idea that the people of Earth are too stupid to figure anything out, but that they actually have no Achilles’ heels to exploit in the first place. With nothing to challenge them and without even acknowledging that they may have overlooked something in their robots (or “Kataphrakts” as Aldnoah.Zero calls them), potentially preventable defeats are addressed too late.

Genshiken has portrayed elaborate fantasies, some nudity, and implied sex, but Chapter 103 may be the most erotic chapter the manga has ever seen.

At the end of the last chapter, Madarame was headed with Keiko to her apartment. While it was a little unclear (though heavily implied) that Keiko was using this situation to her advantage, all doubts are erased in Chapter 103 as Keiko does everything in her power to seduce Madarame. On the verge of success as she bids Madarame to feel some real skin, they are interrupted by a phone call from Keiko’s boyfriend, who plans to come over. After Keiko casually admits to having affairs pretty regularly, Madarame escapes, though Keiko expects for him to return.

When I say that this month’s chapter is especially erotic, it has a lot to do with the fact that this is the first chapter ever in Genshiken that has been primarily devoted to one person’s efforts to seduce another. Not only that, but this chapter creates an atmosphere of anticipation and sexual excitement through Keiko’s actions and gestures, going one step even further than the last chapter. Everything Keiko does, from her decision to shower to her choice of clothes, from her subtle choice of words that boost Madarame’s confidence to her serious bedroom eyes, implies advancement towards sex… not to mention that they’re in such a confined space. While I’m not typically one to analyze erotic manga (and this doesn’t quite count as eromanga in the typical sense), I would like to discuss the first panel in the image below, where Madarame’s hand is above Keiko’s open sweatshirt after she’s invited him to touch her breasts.

There’s a real sense of tension in the panel, created by its size, the lack of word balloons, and especially Keiko’s expression, which conveys excitement, anticipation, and even arousal. What’s also notable is that this eroticism is different from the fanservice scenes in the anime Genshiken 2 (not to be confused with Genshiken Second Season), which at times were virtually pornographic (the studio that made Genshiken 2 is best known for its work on Ikkitousen and Mezzo Forte, among other things). Instead, in terms of portraying sexual acts, this veers closer to what can typically be found in more adult josei manga in terms of buildup.

When looking at this chapter, I get the strong feeling that Kio Shimoku’s work on Spotted Flower is bleeding into his work on Genshiken. After all, he has a history of sorts with this, as the very first chapter of Genshiken II was made at a time when his latest work was Jigopuri, and characters looked much rounder and more in line with a moe aesthetic. One can think of Spotted Flower as essentially an alternate universe Genshiken where a man very much like Madarame is married to a woman very much like Kasukabe, and it has been an opportunity for Kio to portray adult sexual desire with far more detail than Genshiken is known for. Whether that’s through depictions of nudity, scenes about the wife trying to get the husband erect, or just the general expression of romantic lust, Spotted Flower has distinguished itself from Genshiken by being a more mature and sexually explicit series. Keiko’s interactions with Madarame venture deep into that territory, and I wonder if this will have a long-term effect on Genshiken going forward.

I think it’s useful to compare Keiko to Angela, not only because Angela once attempted to seduce Madarame herself, but that they have much in common when it comes to men. In my review of Chapter 93, I mentioned that Angela and Keiko look like they could be friends, and I think it’s no accident that Kio has portrayed them as both aiming for the boob grab as the lynchpin of their pursuits of Madarame. Both of them are quite experienced with sex, and both are aware that, for guys in general but especially a virgin like Madarame, breasts are placed on this grand pedestal. Keiko is even shown planning to moan erotically as soon as Madarame makes his move as a way to draw him in further, a bit of characterization in a sexually charged scene that indicates Keiko’s understanding of Madarame and further shows that she and Angela are of similar minds.

Now, I think a fair number of people, upon reading my description and analysis of Chapter 103, might feel that Genshiken has hit the point of no return. “Seriously? A scene where Madarame is basically about to have sex with Sasahara’s sister? What is this harem stuff? What happened to this manga?” Interestingly, the chapter features an explanation as to how Madarame finally started being viewed as attractive. At one point, Keiko says that seeing an otaku like Madarame in love with a person like Kasukabe who is (from Keiko’s perspective) completely out of his league actually makes him pretty cute in her eyes. In other words, as Keiko puts it, it’s thanks to Kasukabe that Madarame was able to exude his awkward charms. Not only that, but Keiko is sort of fond of no-good, pathetic types as well.

When thinking about the other characters, Sue, Hato, and Angela, they’ve all been shown to have also come from similar angles, either implicitly or explicitly. Sue’s wild denial that she has feelings for Madarame is the direct result of Saki seeing her kiss him. Angela already had a thing for sou-uke characters in anime and manga, and she began making her move upon learning that Madarame was feeling heart-broken. Hato, why, much of the series at this point is about his growing affections for Madarame’s character flaws, and it was even prompted by him learning about his unrequited love for Kasukabe. Of course, with Keiko it’s not as if she only has eyes for Madarame; he’s but one of many that she wouldn’t mind sleeping with. The fact that not everyone interested in Madarame has the same view of sex and relationships (which is often the case with actual harem anime and manga) is part of what makes this story arc intriguing. I do have to wonder if Keiko’s boyfriend is of a similar personality in spite of his greater financial success (he’s a subordinate of the president of an IT company).

Next chapter will be about Hato, but the question on my mind is, how will Sasahara react when he finds out about this?! I’ve read comments where people think it’s all over for Keiko x Mada, but I get the feeling that she’s not quite yet done.

Official sources for Genshiken Second Season

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