One of the anime I looked forward to most this past season was Aldnoah.Zero. Although from the beginning it feels heavily derived from many other popular and classic mecha anime, it increasingly reveals itself as a series that can stand on its own merits. Akin to a patchwork quilt, Aldnoah.Zero takes all of these influences and merges them into something that is also remarkably fresh and new.

The story in Aldnoah.Zero focuses on the effects of a lopsided war between the Earth and the extremely powerful space empire known as Vers. Having been resoundingly outgunned in their previous conflict due to the power of the Vers’ giant robots, the Earth has seen an uneasy peace for many years. However, an attempt to bridge the two sides ends in disaster, which leads the planet back into a battle it likely cannot win.

At first glance, Aldnoah.Zero looks like it comes from the Code Geass school of cool teens fighting political battles, yet it also has clear influence from Gundam. Which Gundam though? Its basic Earth vs. Space Colonies plot and its “ship on the run” ongoing storyline resemble the original Mobile Suit Gundam. The way each of the factions in the enemy Vers forces treat the Earth like a battlefield to assert the pride of their respective clans is more reminiscent of Mobile Fighter G Gundam and the literal use of the Earth as a ring for different nations to battle it out. Then there’s the princess-in-disguise plot thread, which evokes the events of Turn A Gundam. On top of all of this, while he looks less muscular, the character Inaho’s logical nature, reticent personality, calm under pressure and his decision to consistently use what amounts to a generic no-frills mecha calls to mind Chirico Cuvie, the hero from Armored Trooper Votoms. In certain ways, it’s a strange mishmash that typically only works in something like the Super Robot Wars games where the “rules” of cohesiveness can be bent liberally, but Aldnoah.Zero manages to pull it off gracefully.

This is probably most apparent in how Aldnoah.Zero handles mecha battles. Given an opponent with vastly superior technology, the rag-tag Earth forces that we follow have to rely on wit and ingenuity, while also taking advantage of the fact that the Vers soldiers tend to be a little too overconfident in their weaponry. The battles are one of the highlights of the series, and what makes them interesting and consistently both fun to watch and intellectually stimulating is the fact that the gap is so large that it more or less feels like the “real robots” of the Earth vs. the “super robots” of Vers, and seeing just how Inaho dissects the opponents’ mecha. Usually sides are either individual robot vs. monster (Mazinger Z), military vs military (Mobile Suit Gundam), dominant real robot mowing down enemy forces until the enemy comes up with something equal (Gundam W), or super-powered equals, which makes what Aldnoah.Zero does remarkably rare, if not outright unheard of.

The series even goes out of its way to make sure this technological and aesthetic contrast is there for the viewer to see in every battle. The mecha designs of the Orbital Knights look fanciful and tend to incorporate more fantastic weaponry such as rocket punches, beam swords, and powerful energy barriers, while the Earth forces use mostly ammunition. Even the one moment when the series could have given Inaho his own protagonist-level prototype weapon gets subverted, as he decides to remain in his mass-produced grunt machine.

Of course, not everyone will care about the quality of the robot action, but the story itself looks to be holding up well. Aldnoah.Zero has a lot of narrative elements that, again, feel as if they’re hitting notes from past anime, but for the most part they drew me deeper into their world rather than making me question how everything fits together. Of particular note is the character Slaine, a Terran on the side of the Vers forces who is caught in the middle, and who may be the real main character rather than Inaho. That said, the first season just finished recently, and we are left at what is clearly a turning point. It’s difficult to judge how the story will turn out in the end, as these kinds of series can often crash and burn from the changes they decide to make the second time around, but for now I’m looking forward to what comes next.

I’m attending a midnight launch for the new Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and of course I’m super excited. In the coming days, if you see a Mega Man on wi-fi called Nobie, that’s me. Let’s fight like gentlemen.

Speaking of Mega Man, I’ve already played the hell out of the demo. While this only gives me limited exposure to the cast and how they can fight against Mega Man, one thing I do want to say about the character is to not give up on him. He may seem awkward and clumsy at first, but it’s because he’s actually really counter-intuitive to how you’d typically play a character in Smash Bros. All of you aspiring Blue Bomber players, keep that in mind!

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.

As Madarame licks his proverbial wounds after his “close encounter” with Keiko, Hato reveals to the Genshiken club members that he’s decided to finally try and draw manga, and non-BL stuff to boot. Frustrated over her own lack of talent compared to Hato, Yajima decides in a moment of frustration to draw her own manga as well. The next day, both of them give their comics over to Yoshitake and Ogiue to read, at which point the unexpected occurs: they love Yajima’s manga much more. While Hato’s artwork is superior as expected, his story is inscrutable. Yajima, on the other hand, although lacking talent in terms of pure draftsmanship, is actually Hato’s better when it comes to the comics format.

For this chapter, I feel that there are two major points of discussion.

The first is that Chapter 104 is all about revealing new facets of characters we should have been more than familiar with at this point, and how this potentially changes their interpersonal dynamics in the process. Yajima up to this point has felt consistently “defeated” by everything around her, from her looks compared to the other members of the current Genshiken, to her poor drawing skills, to even having the little attempts she makes to try and “catch up” backfire. Hato has served to further magnify this inferiority complex, an issue further complicated by her feelings for him. Yajima is a character who survives off of stubbornness and perseverance, but now for the first time, possibly in her entire life, she has “won.” She has displayed a skill that is not easy for most people, outdoing Hato in the process, and perhaps even Ogiue the manga professional. Yajima might finally get the confidence she’s been missing all these years, and it potentially changes her relationship with Hato as well.

There’s also an important lesson for readers in that creating comics is not simply about being able to draw well. As is mentioned in this chapter, having your ideas come across effectively is often considered to be just as if not more important, and there are plenty of manga which succeed not because they look the best, but that their style is conducive to storytelling, or is just plain entertaining even if they might look ugly as sin.

As for Hato, it’s actually quite interesting to see the degree to which Hato is fazed by his lack of success in creating his first manga compared to Yajima. Since the start of the second series, Hato has consistently been shown to be unusually talented in pretty much anything he puts his mind to, be it judo, crossdressing, or even mimicking the drawing style of the girl he looked up to. While he isn’t a perfect being, seeing as Hato has hit obstacles in the past such as his eccentric drawing style when out of girls’ clothing, it’s clear that Hato is in a way unaccustomed to failing when there are no mental blocks in his way. For the first time, he may have to realize his limits, but in the process might become more thankful of the myriad talents he does possess.

There’s a strong likelihood that this new angle leads to collaboration between Hato and Yajima. The last campus festival was all about team efforts to create manga, and seeing as the two potentially complement each other better than the Hato/Ogiue or Yajima/Yoshitake duos, it could lead to great things. Of course, the burning question in all of this is, could this collaboration be the catalyst for something more romantic? Given Madarame and his woes, it’s impossible to predict Genshiken anymore, but there is a precedent of sorts with Sasahara and Ogiue.

Speaking of Ogiue, even she shows another side of herself in this chapter as we get to see her ultimate goal for Genshiken. Having inherited the club from Ohno, she’s been not-so-secretly desiring the end of the club’s reputation as a “Cosplay Research Society,” but only now are the pieces in place to mold Genshiken in her image as a manga-creation club. Though I don’t think Ogiue is any sort of devious mastermind, I do have to wonder if the executive decisions we’ve seen out of her so far—the return of the Genshiken club magazine Mebaetame, encouraging the creation of manga for the campus festival—were all building blocks for this. Overall, I’m honestly surprised at how much this chapter feels like it changes everything, and yet is such a sensible progression of the story as the characters’ emotions are on full display.

That leads me to the second major pojnt of discussion for this chapter: THE FACES.

I’ve talked about the amazing expressions in Genshiken II before, but this chapter blows every previous one out of the water. Just look at these images of Yoshitake with a grin that would make the Joker jealous, and how Hato’s intensity is radiating off the page.

 

Of course, seeing Yoshitake practically melt into a pile of goo seen above is one thing. After all, Yoshitake has always been a powerful source of hilarious faces. So is seeing Hato’s expression of jealousy over Yajima’s heretofore unknown talent for manga, as it’s not that different from how he usually looks, even if it is kind of unexpected. What’s really remarkable though, at least from my very biased perspective, is the veritable treasure trove of Ogiue faces that this chapter has graced us with. In the past, Ogiue was mainly known for a perpetual expression of deep anger, and even in moments of joy (like the intimate moment she and Sasahara have in the final chapter of the original series) she still tended to stare daggers at people, if unintentionally. One of the big shifts in Nidaime is the fact that her expressions have softened up considerably over time, and in a way it feels as if this chapter is the culmination of that development.

I don’t have any exact statistics on this, but I do trust my memory as an Ogiue fan on the following: do you know when’s the last time we got to see Ogiue literally laugh out loud so hard she couldn’t control herself? The answer is never. I believe it is a first for the character, and it helps to hammer home the point that Yajima’s manga is legitimately funny, and legitimately interesting.

Next chapter looks to be focused on Madarame and Sue. Given the insanity of last month’s chapter I think this “break” from Madarame’s girl troubles is great, but seeing as this chapter was so downright enjoyable, a part of me hopes that it shifts back to the threads that have laid down here as soon as possible, even though I expect great things out of whatever antics Sue has in store.

Name: Konno (今野)
Alias: Kon (コン)
Relationship Status: Single
Origin: Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture II

Information:
A former classmate of Hato Kenjirou, Konno is a fujoshi who discovered that Hato likes yaoi and is inadvertently responsible for spreading the rumor that Hato was gay. A resident of Niigata Prefecture, Konno was a member of the high school art club along with Hato, Kaminaga, and her friend Fuji. Somewhat high-strung, Konno has feelings for Hato but has difficulty making them known, and feels a good amount of guilt over the incident with him in high school.

Fujoshi Level:
Unknown, other than that she always looked forward to Kaminaga’s BL work back in their art club days.

I recently finished Initial D: Final Stage, which brings the story of teenager Fujiwara Takumi and his inhuman drifting skills to a satisfying conclusion. I had been keeping up with Initial D on and off for almost 15 years now, which is kind of crazy to think about, but what was even bigger shock for me was realizing (thanks to the show’s ever-present exposition) that all of Initial D, whether that’s over 700 manga chapters or its anime equivalent, takes place in the narrative over a span of two years.

It’s nothing to get worked up over, and there are series with even more drastic disparities between publication and in-story time frames (see Akagi and Megatokyo), but there’s something about Initial D which feels different. It’s almost as if there were indeed 15 years’ worth of racing action crammed into two.

Other facts I wasn’t even aware of are that the manga itself ran for about 18 years, and that the author Shigeno Shuuichi was born in 1958. Somehow he was able to maintain the racing manga for almost two decades, rendering his work about as timeless as the very Eight-Six Trueno that’s at the center of Initial D.

I sometimes see people ask why so often characters in a comedy anime will explain a joke after it’s happened, as the idea of doing so is, at least in English, considered a sure-fire way to kill any and all humor (I call it the Jay Leno Effect). I’ve been doing a bit of reading about Japanese humor recently though, and based on it I think I have a better understanding of why this happens.

Japanese social interactions are loosely governed by two concepts: “honne,” or one’s true feelings, and “tatemae,” what one displays outwards to the public. While I think it’s a mistake to put too much stock into this distinction (believing Japanese people cannot express themselves is sort of ridiculous), the explanation I’ve read is that honne and tatemae are central to certain types of Japanese humor, particularly manzai comedy. In manzai, the idea of having the boke (fool) and the tsukkomi (straight-man) is that the boke does something or says something ridiculous, and the tsukkomi responds with a sharp retort and/or a wack in order to correct the boke.

When it comes to anime, I think that actually when another character “explains the joke,” it’s not to tell the audience in case they didn’t understand. The idea is that something so unbelievable just happened that, rather than letting it slide and preserving the situation (tatemae), the person feels compelled to express his or her true feelings about it (honne). Essentially, the act of explaining the joke is part of the humor itself, as it essentially shows how the event was so jarring or absurd that the character had no choice but to tell it like it is. Sometimes you see characters in anime do this silently, taking advantage of the fact that the format allows us to be privy to their inner thoughts.

Of course, not all jokes can be explained by this, and in fact I’ve also read that some Japanese humor is about being able to create laughter on the inside without it spilling outside, which might explain certain slice of life humor like Hidamari Sketch and Yotsuba&! and the like. That said, I find myself laughing out loud at both of those titles pretty often, so who knows.

Name: N/A
Alias: Silkwood Editor (くぬぎの編集者)
Relationship Status: N/A
Origin: Humanity Has Declined

Information:
The Oakwood Editor leads one of the most popular amateur groups to be part of the BL “douruishi” craze. Living in a time when fairies have supplanted humans as the dominant species, her circle sells 5000 books at the world’s first douruishi event.

Fujoshi Level:
Nothing is known, other than that she heads a very successful douruishi group.

receptacle-05

Kurosaki Rendou is a manga creator with certain recurring themes, notably an obsession with both food and bizarre, highly sexually charged relationships, but in terms of where those general tendencies go, the sky’s the limit. Kurosaki’s most well-known work, Houkago Play, is about a gamer guy and his leggy, sadistic girlfriend arguing with each other. On depicts a very sexually graphic homosexual relationship. Receptacle is a manga about women candidly discussing their active sex lives, who find themselves in a bizarre love triangle and mutually attracted to each other.

The last title I’ll mention, Chou Nettaiya Orgy, features prostitutes arguing with each other about mundane things, made all the more bizarre by the fact that it runs in an actual porn magazine which mostly features the kind of work you’d expect from an 18+ magazine. Imagine if there was an adult video compiling various pornographic scenes, and in the middle is an episode of Seinfeld.

Kurosaki’s gender is unknown. though I suspect Kurosaki is a woman, I have no proof, and instead merely have an inclination because of how Kurosaki’s manga runs the gamut when it comes to sex.

One interesting wrinkle in Kurosaki’s work is the fact that a lot of these manga take place in a shared universe. While Kurosaki isn’t the only artist to do this (not to mention the fact that American superhero comics tend to thrive on this concept), normally these worlds are kept separate. Yuri manga will take place in an environment where yuri is ideal; yaoi manga is a similar deal. With Kurosaki’s comics, characters from one will cross over into another, making all of these different fetishes and types of sexual attraction exist in the same space. To give kind of an extreme example, it’s as if finding out Busty Blondes 5 and Macho Firemen 3 (I made these titles up) are set in the same neighborhood.

Personally speaking, I really like Kurosaki Rendou’s artwork. Characters in Kurosaki’s manga share the common traits of heavy use of black in their designs, deep empty voids for eyes, and constantly uncomfortable (or discomforting) expressions, like a more extreme version of Ueshiba Riichi (Mysterious Girlfriend X). Kurosaki’s distinct style exudes a strange kind of sensuality that transcends typical depictions of sexuality and attractiveness in manga for either men or women. Rather than having a “male-oriented” approach or a “female-oriented” one, there is only Kurosaki Rendou style. Perhaps this is why Kurosaki is able to draw all sorts of manga, and to bring them all together into one cohesive setting.

viga-ogiue-small

Viga is a long-time Genshiken ally; we even did a panel about Ogiue together at Otakon! Naturally, when requesting a drawing to commission, there was only one real choice.

If you’re interested in her work, check out her Tumblr and Twitter.

Official sources for Genshiken Second Season

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