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Sign wa V! (The V Sign!, by Mochizuki Akira, is among the most popular volleyball manga ever. Debuting the same year as Attack No.1 (the volleyball manga in terms of notoriety) in 1968, both of these titles capitalized on the success of the volleyball boom that had began in 1964 when the Japanese national women’s team won the gold at the Tokyo Olympics. Sign wa V! even received over the years not one but two live-action television dramas. Like Attack No.1, Sign wa V! is a “sports guts” story, where intense training and passion are the keys to victory. At one point, the main character tries to smash her hand with a rock because playing volleyball might mean ruining her mom’s life but she just can’t because she loves volleyball that much.

The main reason I’m writing this post, however, is not to review or promote Sign wa V! (but you can read it online here), but to talk about a particular character and her possible influence on anime and manga. A few volumes into the series, Sign wa V! introduces a new character, Jun Sanders (pictured above). Half-black, half-Japanese, she’s characterized by an intense desire to compete in volleyball, and sensitivity over her skin color. Her name is a mix of Japanese and English, though Jun sounds similar to “June,” and Sanders is not her real last name but taken from the orphanage where she was raised. When Jun first appears, she has an intense rivalry with the main character. Curiously, in the 1969 drama she was played by an actress of Taiwanese descent.

The first sign that Jun Sanders may have had some impact on Japanese media, at least as far as I can find, is the 1974 anime and manga Great Mazinger. A sequel to the seminal giant robot series Mazinger Z, this follow-up focuses on a new hero, a new demonic threat, and a more powerful robot to fight them. In this series, the protagonist has a female assistant (pictured above) who aids him in battle using her own giant robot, Venus A. Her name is Honoo Jun (written surname first), and she’s half-black, half-Japanese, with a strong and fiery personality. Though perhaps merely a coincidence, her default outfit looks similar to one worn by Jun Sanders.

Fast forward to 1999 and the release of the video game Gate Keepers, which also received an anime and a manga. I have no experience with Gate Keepers myself, but according to plot summaries it’s about an alternate-universe post-WWII Japan with alien invaders.This series features an American character named Jun Thunders (pictured below) who, just like Jun Sanders and Honoo Jun, has relatively dark skin and long, dark hair. What makes Jun Thunders even more clearly a reference to Sign wa V! is that “Thunders” and “Sanders” are written the same way in Japanese (サンダーズ). Moreover, Gate Keepers takes place in 1969, the same time in which Sign wa V! is set (which was the “present” at the time). Also, the Gate Keepers Jun might also be a reference to the Great Mazinger Jun because honoo means “flame,” so there’s a thunder-flame elemental connection.

There might be more characters in the Jun Sanders lineage, but these are the only ones I can find at this point. If anyone has any more information or knows other characters influenced by Jun, feel free to leave a comment.

 

While at this point we have an understanding of the concept of a “weak” protagonists in giant robot anime thanks to characters like Ikari Shinji from Evangelion, rarely are main robots allowed to exude an image of weakness and vulnerability as well. If we even look at Shinji himself, while he’s known for being passive and lacking in will, the actual EVA-01 looks monstrous and acts even more terrifyingly.

In most cases when there is a “weak mecha,” it ends up being a joke character’s ride, whether that’s Boss Borot from Mazinger Z or Kerot from Combattler V. In terms of actual main-focus giant robots, the closest this concept gets its maybe Dai-Guard the almost-literal “budget robot,” or perhaps the perpetually incomplete Guntsuku-1 from Robotics;Notes. Maybe the Scope Dog from VOTOMS counts because it’s so disposable, but like Dai-Guard it still at least looks strong.

Of course it only makes sense that mecha tend to be on the powerful side; they’re giant mechanical humanoids after all. It’s just something I’m starting to consider a potential limitation of the genre and an interesting space to explore.

The Japanese manga site devoted to free and legal distribution of out-of-print manga, J-Comi, has relaunched as “Zeppan Manga Library.” This change has been effect since at least July 10th of 2014, when the tablet app was updated to reflect this new name.

J-Comi was originally created by Akamatsu Ken, author of Love HinaNegima!, and currently UQ Holder. As a show of his dedication to the project, he began by putting the entirety of Love Hina on the site.

Prior to the re-branding I had not visited the site in quite a while, so I don’t know for sure what changes have occurred as a result of this transformation. One interesting note, however, is that light novels are on the site now. While people might know about modern light novels-turned-anime such as Sword Art Online, Toradora, and My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute, most of the light novels on the site are older, less commonly known titles, such as Hayami Shinji’s Summer Road,which was first published in 1988, and Arisato Akara’s Under Heavens Family from 2001. I haven’t read any of the light novels yet myself, but the idea of approaching different sets of tropes compared to contemporary light novels sounds pretty exciting.

There’s also a manga in the “sexy” category that ran in CoroCoro Comic called Famicom Rocky (pictured above), and I can’t wait to find out what the heck that’s all about.

The sexy category is not to be confused with the site’s adult section.

Just as Marilyn Monroe graced the first issue of Playboy, it’s often somewhat telling who a magazine gets to be their first cover girl. For the anime magazine Newtype which debuted in 1985, it turns out to be Cham, the fairy girl from Aura Battle Dunbine, and I have to wonder what message that sent at the time.

Honestly when I found this out I was pretty surprised. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been given the Newtype -> Gundam -> Sunrise -> Dunbine connection. And yet, of all of the female characters to be the visual centerpiece for a debut, Newtype went for the cute fairy girl as opposed to even, for example, other girls from Dunbine like Marvel Frozen (a prediction of Disney’s eventual purchase of Marvel nearly 30 years later?!). What could it mean, especially because she would be back only a few issues later?

I may not be the best person to speak on this. I never finished Dunbine, and I don’t have any real idea as to how popular Cham was at the time among anime fans. However, whether they were trying to appeal to a fanbase of Cham lovers or trying to push her as the next big thing (though at this point Dunbine had been over for a while), I feel as if Cham’s status as the inaugural spokesmodel of Newtype says something about where anime fandom was in Japan at the time and where it’s gone since.

You often hear about how anime’s changed and the advent of “kawaii” and “moe,” but where did it truly begin if it began in anime at all? Then you look and see that at the very start of this magazine for anime fans from 1985 and see a cute little pixie.

The depiction of race and culture in Pokemon over its nearly 20-year history has been a work in progress. Much of this has to do with the very Japanese origins of the game and their exportation to the rest of the world. A mostly assumed Japanese cast of characters suddenly wasn’t, like when the character Sakaki was renamed Giovanni to evoke the image of an Italian mob boss. At the same time, Pokemon with seemingly innocuous elements within Japan such as Jynx became a legitimate concern against the increased awareness in the United States of the history of discriminatory visual depictions of black people. Since then, thanks in all likelihood to its international success, Pokemon has taken considerable steps to try and be more culturally sensitive and inclusive, mainly through the depiction of characters with different skin tones and features. In some cases, the characters have more definite racial features, and in others they’re left vague, and the question of whether or not an “ambiguous brown” is for the better becomes an especially difficult question which is nevertheless worth exploring.

124Jynx_OS_animeJynx

The change to include characters who are neither vaguely white or Asian in appearance began with Pokemon Black and White, a series which I would argue not-so-coincidentally takes place in Pokemon universe equivalent of New York City, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the entire world. Unlike the regions of Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, and Sinnoh (all based on areas of Japan), the Unova region (Isshu in Japan) would not reflect the NYC influence properly if everyone was of the same skin color (what sometimes gets referred to as Friends syndrome).

Black_White_IrisBlack_White_MarshalBlack_White_Lenora_2

Iris, Marshal, Lenora

Major characters of color were introduced during these games, such as the Gym Leaders Lenora (Aloe) and Iris, as well as the Elite Four’s Marshal (Renbu), all of whom are bosses one must face before eventually challenging the final opponent, the Pokemon League Champion. All three of these characters are shown to be strong trainers, and Iris even featured prominently in the Pokemon anime. At the same time, all three possess varying degrees of ethnic identifiers. Iris is difficult to pinpoint, Marshal has features which indicate black, and Lenora is undeniably black to a possibly stereotypical fault. Originally wearing an apron in her official design, the proximity of this depiction to the Aunt Jemima-esque mammy stereotypes of the United States (in a game based on a US city!) prompted a revision which portrays Lenora simply slinging the apron over her shoulder (though she still wears it in the in-game sprite). This is far from a Jynx scenario, as Lenora is both a clever gym leader and the curator of her own museum, and her design is still fairly restrained, but it is rather telling that the approach taken with the next generation of games, Pokemon XY, lean closer to Iris’s style.

XY_Grant                XY_Olympia

Grant, Olympia

Pokemon XY, which takes place in the France-inspired Kalos region, features not only Gym Leaders Grant (Zakuro) and Olympia (Gojika) but also individual trainers throughout the game such as the male Pokemon Ranger and Rising Star. As is evident from their designs, a greater amount of care is put into them as well. The location of not-France is also perhaps an influence here, as taking into account the centuries-old Arabic influence in Europe, colonialism, and even just recent immigration from other continents creates a complex milieu of cultures that differs in significant ways from that of the United States. The vagueness of these character designs may be a reflection of that aspect.

However, the biggest change is undoubtedly the fact that Pokemon XY actually allows you to choose the skin color (and eventually hair color) for your player character. Now, in addition to choosing gender (a feature available since the second-generation Pokemon Crystal), it is possible to get closer to having your avatar appear the way you do (or don’t, as the case may be). The ethnic vagueness idea comes to the forefront here, as only three skin tones are available, which leads to the question of whether or not this is the right direction to take, if it’s perhaps a washing out of cultural identity.

malecharactercustomizationchoices

femalecharactercustomizationchoices

I’m of two minds about this. With some characters such as the Gym Leader Marlon (Shizui), it’s actually difficult to tell if he’s supposed to be a darker skin color or just someone with a nice tan. The lack of concrete information, as well as the fact that many of the characters have very Japanese-sounding names in Japanese regardless of appearance, makes it easy to accuse them of just taking “white/Asian” designs and swapping the hues. On the other hand, it’s erroneous to assume that certain features are meant to be evoke one race rather than another. After all, it’s a classic mistake to assume that anime characters “look white” because of their large eyes. When the racial features are relatively nondescript, perhaps it gives them a versatility that prevents those features from being abused as stereotyped caricature. That’s not to say that future games couldn’t benefit from adding more skin tones, for example, but there’s something to be said about allowing players to make their own interpretations.

Whether or not the racial ambiguity of character designs in Pokemon helps or hinders (or both), one positive that is hard to deny is the benefit of just having so many depictions of characters of color being happy and successful. They talk to dragons, climb mountains, run museums, practice martial arts, and go on adventures. They’re intelligent, dedicated, compassionate, funny, people you can look up to and want to know better. They’re role models with limitless potential. It’s especially notable that, in the follow-up games of Pokemon Black 2 and White 2, Iris would go from being a Gym Leader to being the Pokemon League Champion herself. The Pokemon games have always done a good job of portraying female characters, with three of the most recent games featuring female Champions, and to have a woman of color be the strongest and most celebrated individual in the land is nothing to scoff at.

Black_2_White_2_Iris

In the end, what I see as the greatest contributing  factor in the depiction of diversity in Pokemon is that the series has not gotten complacent. With every passing generation of games they continue to make improvements, and it’s a likely sign that this will continue as long as Pokemon stays alive.

This is a follow-up to my previous post, A Sexy Star is Born: Thoughts on the History of Romance in Shoujo Manga.

While romance has been the dominant force in shoujo manga for over 40 years, lately I’ve begun to wonder if a quiet revolution is occurring within the shoujo manga industry, or at least within the publisher Kodansha.

For example, recently there has been a comedy manga about young girls who use model guns and play in survival games. “But Stella Women’s Academy C³-Bu isn’t shoujo!” you might say. You’d be right, except that I’m actually talking about the shoujo manga Survival Game Club! by Matsumoto Hidekichi.

What’s remarkable about Survival Game Club! is not only that it’s a manga which eschews romance in favor of firearm gags, but that it runs in Nakayoshi, a magazine whose primary demographic is 5-10 year old girls and whose alumni include Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon. These aren’t jaded manga experts looking for the next big thing, they’re readers who just want to enjoy their comics (and their free goodies). That said, the expectations for 10 year old readers might be surprisingly different, given that Survival Game Club! starts with one of its characters threatening a train molester.

Survival Game Club!

Other titles currently running in Nakayoshi include No Exit/Deguchi Zero by Seta Haruhi, about a school for aspiring actresses which becomes a survival horror story, and Kugiko-chan by PEACH-PIT (Rozen Maiden, Shugo Chara!), a gag spinoff of a manga about a ghost who is said to drive nails into people’s eyes. Both of these series not only revolve around a horror theme but are fairly unorthodox when it comes to art style.

No Exit

Kugiko-chan

According to Wikipedia (so take it with a grain of salt), the shoujo magazine Bessatsu Friend began to shift away from romance because of manga by artists such as Suenobu Keiko. Notably, her 2009’s manga Limit, a story about a group of girls in a life or death situation where the social statuses afforded to them by their school cliques no longer matter and feelings of betrayal and revenge run high, stands out as being very far from the romance-centered stories associated with shoujo. While Bessatsu Friend targets an older age group compared to Nakayoshi, I wonder if its influence slowly bled down to the younger audience.

The sense that there’s a quiet revolution isn’t just coming from shoujo manga which de-emphasize romance, however, as there’s a sense that titles about love and relationships are approaching them with greater mindfulness and breadth of topics. For instance, 3D Kanojo by Nanami Mao, about a popular girl and her otaku boyfriend, deals with the lack of respect that sexually active girls can get. One story from the girl’s past involves her trying to express her feelings of frustration and loneliness to her then-boyfriend, only to realize that he wasn’t really listening and was trying to just make out with her. Pochamani by Hirama Kaname, about a chubby girl and her handsome boyfriend, looks at body image issues and the ability to be confident in an appearance which does not fit the social standard. In both cases, these manga are about relationships already in motion as opposed to the journey towards one, and so bring to attention the challenges which can confront couples.

Of course, this is all more or less a hunch, and while I read a good deal of shoujo manga I’m not as well-read in it as other bloggers like Magical Emi or Kate from Reverse Thieves. If anyone can provide examples to further prove (or even disprove) the idea that shoujo manga has begun to move somewhat against its long-standing conventions of love and romance, I’d be more than welcome to hear it.

A common complaint against shoujo manga is that it’s too obsessed with romance. When you look at shoujo as a whole, love is not just a major factor in a lot of series, often times it’s the only factor. It all boils down to a simple question: “Why can’t shoujo manga be more ambitious?”

To a fair extent, this criticism is justified, but I finished reading the English-language release of Hagio Moto’s The Heart of Thomas recently and the afterword by Matt Thorn provided an interesting context to the romance-heavy nature of shoujo as we know it. Thorn writes about how, in contrast to the shoujo manga of the time which assumed that girls had no interest in stories in the more adult side of relationships, manga like The Heart of Thomas were revolutionary because they introduced the thrill of romance and sexual desire to shoujo manga. This is not to belittle the shoujo manga before Hagio and her contemporaries as somehow inferior as that’s certainly not the case, but it’s clear there was a trend of chaste stories about daughters reuniting with their mothers and such, which was supplanted by shoujo manga as love story. Romance in shoujo is the 800 lb. gorilla now, but it wasn’t always that way.

It actually reminds me about one of the biggest difficulties in discussing depictions of women with respect to feminism, which is that both the denial and exploitation of women’s sexuality have been used to control women in the past, and good and bad intentions exist within various a complex array of cultural contexts. Romance in shoujo manga is  a way for readers to learn about their own desires, but perhaps at the same time also a way to control their interests.

On a certain level, the reason behind the proliferation of romance-based shoujo is obvious: money. Girls liked romance, it sold a lot, and so it became de rigueur for an entire industry. It’s understandable, as is the criticism against it. While romance is just the thing that many fans (including myself) look to shoujofor, at this point, it could stand to have some more variety.

The funny thing is, I’ve recently begun to suspect shoujo manga is undergoing just such a transformation, but I’ll leave my thoughts on that for a follow-up post.

Last spring marked an unusually robot-heavy season of anime where three mecha shows, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, and Valvrave the Liberator, took three different angles each of which had their own unique appeal. I originally wrote about them as a package, so now with all three shows finished (aside from the fact that Gargantia has another series on the horizon) I figure it’s best to look back on them all at once.

Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, which had a strong tokusatsu or even 90s anime feel to it, ended up progressing almost as expected, but without it being tedious or losing something in the process. In shows like Majestic Prince, there’s usually some sort of humble beginnings, in this case the main heroes being the “losers” of their class, and comedy gives way to a more serious story as the narrative progresses until it ends up in a giant space battle. It’s par for the course, but while I can’t say Majestic Prince will change the way we think about giant robot anime, I do find that the show is a little bit of everything, nothing in particular that screams, “Wow, this is amazing!” but lots of minor things done well which make for an overall satisfying experience, and a more consistently forward-moving story compared to Gyrozetter. It’s a popcorn anime, something you might show to an anime club or a group of friends to relax, where you find yourself gradually more invested by the final string of episodes. Because of this, Majestic Prince is the show I simply have least to say about, though I do want to point out that it has one of the most memorable death lines ever. You’ll know it when you hear it.

Although Majestic Prince isn’t a show I can talk about too extensively in terms of conceptual or thematic depth (it skims the surface of topics like genetic engineering and human behavior at the very mosy), Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is the strongest of the three shows in terms of both its ideas and how it presents them. Its initial format, where Ledo, a boy from another galaxy who knows only war, is exposed to the everyday lives of the Earth characters and their concept of family, acts as a part of the science fictional exploration of its world and which become the backdrop for the show to reveal its secrets was somewhat of a source of disagreement and controversy. As people wondered how the story would turn out, there were both complaints that Gargantia spent too much time focusing on the daily lives of characters and that it too much time on its narrative drama. Personally, I think it ended up striking a very nice balance, as we got to learn about the culture of Earth away from the galactic war which they were ignorant of (perhaps for the better), but when it came time to get “serious,” the show effectively used the context it established to make the circumstances and solution directly connected to the characters’ “everyday.”

Significantly, the series did not do the predictable thing and “bring the war to the people.” Instead, it brought the philosophy and ideas which came out of the eternal state of war in which mankind out there in space had become accustomed to, and challenged the people of the Earth (as well as the lead Ledo) to confront and address them. The everyday lives of the characters became the very “weapon” by which they could defy the way of thinking imposed by the world Ledo comes from, and I think there’s a lot to think about in that regard.

Out of the three anime, however, I suspect Valvrave the Liberator will, if not be the most memorable show, stick around the longest in the overall consciousness of anime fandom, though not necessarily for the best reasons. The rape scene in Valvrave is going to remain infamous, and it’s something which is impossible to ignore but also shouldn’t define the entire show. I really think the creators of the show wanted to use it for dramatic purposes but didn’t quite understand what they were getting themselves into, evidenced by the fact that they eventually just drop the subject after some questionable followups. Whether that’s better or worse than keeping at it, I’ll leave you to decide that, but one thing I will say is that having the victim still be in love with her attacker doesn’t inherently make for a bad or “harmful” story, as Watchmen manages to deftly incorporate something similar into its narrative and point out the difficulties associated with such a circumstance.

I was once asked why I kept up with Valvrave even though the show has a lot of odd and nonsensical twists to it, and I explained that the appeal of the show for me was about seeing if Valvrave was trying to celebrate the power of youth or criticize it. Even within the same episode it became difficult to tell if the show was saying, “Kids are the future, a source of new ideas and ideals,” or, “Kids are so damn stupid! Man, I can’t believe we let them touch anything!” I think by Season 2 it leaned more towards the former, but never entirely, and to its credit I think the second season was a huge improvement on the first, as its ridiculous qualities were focused down into a clearer direction while still remaining just as strange. Overall, I think the show turned out okay in the end even with the issues mentioned, if only because it managed to use its social media aspect to great effect, and shows a kind of tempered idealism. It also has a more satisfying conclusion than the Gundam 00 movie despite being fairly similar, but I’m not really sure why I feel that way.

It’s difficult to judge the effect of having so many mecha shows close together has had on anime, if any at all, but it is true that a number of new giant robot shows premiering in 2014, from Captain Earth to the bizarrely named Buddy Complex. I think what I liked most about having each of these shows is that even through their ups and downs, Majestic Prince, Gargantia, and Valvrave all manage to maintain their identities as shows, with developments, characters, endings, and themes which keep the mecha genre from feeling like “more of the same.” None of them are really similar in any way, and I hope this trend continues.

Between the Negima creator’s J-Comi, Viz and Kodansha, the defunct JManga, or the recent Crunchyroll Manga, the quality of official digital manga readers has varied tremendously, but they all lack one feature I keep wishing for. I want to simply be able to magnify or shrink the page quickly and conveniently on a regular computer without having to use magnifying glass icons which either make everything super big or not at all. Most preferably I would like to be able to set my mouse’s scroll wheel to shrink and enlarge the page for when I want to get a closer look at a particular panel or set of panels.

I know that it’s easier on tablets, and when I do read manga on a tablet it’s just  a pinch or a finger drag away, and that digital readers are made more for tablet users, but I just think having this option would go a long way in making the reading of manga on a desktop or laptop so much more natural and convenient.

At this point a lot of people know that it’s fun to watch other people play video games, whether it’s a Let’s Play or a competitive esports event. A subsection of these people additionally know that it’s crazy fun to watch AI opponents fight each other, provided the right context surrounds it. That’s what we get with Video Game Championship Wrestling, a gaming stream where various gaming culture icons fight each other inside of a WWE video game, and with Salty Bet, a place where you bet fake money on fighting game characters.

Though similar in that they both involve having non-human-controlled characters duke it out, they’re opposites in terms of how these AIs are used. VGCW is a curated experience where, much like actual pro wrestling, a single person writes the story and decides the overall direction of his “show,” but ironically is missing the most crucial pro wrestling component of having match results predetermined. Instead, the show clearly alters its path from week to week according to the results of its own matches. For me, the highlight of the entire thing so far has been when Little Mac came back from getting hit by a car and had an amazing match with Dracula that ended with Mac landing a powerful Star Punch counter on Dracula and then throwing him inside a coffin.

Salty Bet on the other hand is not about “story,” it’s about seeing how different characters crafted by M.U.G.E.N. creators across the world fare against each other, a complex interaction of not just who the characters are but the skills of their makers, their desires to make the strongest or the weakest characters, and even sometimes their desires to be in video games, as many of the self-insert avatars in Salty Bet show. Largely, the “drama” is created at random when two strangely appropriate opponents face each other, or a clash of gods occurs. The exception is that once every Thursday the owner of Salty Bet holds custom tournaments, often around a certain theme (the week of Pokemon X & Y‘s release there was a Pokemon character tournament).

In either case, what I find most amazing about their experiences is the necessity of the audience. Sure, audience matters at a Starcraft or Street Fighter IV tournament in that it livens up the mood and makes things just feel special, and in a Let’s Play of course you the viewer are the audience, but with VGCW and Salty Bet watching them is substantially worse when there is no chat available. The chats, with all of their memes and running jokes, make the fights feel “real” because real emotions are being poured into them. Scholars like Henry Jenkins talk about active fandom and audience participation, but with these “shows” the audience is in many ways the reason to watch. That’s not to say the work the owners of VGCW and Salty Bet don’t matter, as they’re of course important, but their successes are also tied into the image created by the very people viewing them.

Official sources for Genshiken Second Season

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