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This post is my latest participation in the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa Project, wherein fellow bloggers anonymously recommend each other some anime and everyone writes a review of one of their “presents.” Given the Christmas theme of the endeavor, it is perhaps all the more appropriate that I review an anime which takes place in a land of endless winter, but really the reason why I ended up picking Overman King Gainer out of the choices I was given is that I had always wanted to watch it but had never gotten around to doing so.
Overman King Gainer is a 2002 anime from the mind of Tomino Yoshiyuki, the famous creator of Gundam. He’s a man with a long history and resume in the industry, and when people talk about Tomino anime, they usually divide them into two categories: Depressed Tomino Anime and Happy Tomino Anime, with the amount of bloodshed and trauma varying accordingly. Featured above is a gif of Tomino during the production of Overman King Gainer; I’ll let you decide which kind of show this is.
At first glance, Overman King Gainer is a strange show, not only because of its extremely catchy opening courtesy of Fire Bomber and JAM Project’s Fukuyama Yoshiki, Gaogaigar composer Tanaka Kouhei, and both characters and giant robots alike doing the Monkey (possibly the show’s most enduring legacy in anime), but because it presents new information about its world constantly and without any prior warning, making the whole thing quite difficult to summarize.
In the future of Overman King Gainer, humanity attempts to survive a harsh and close to uninhabitable planet by living in massive shelters known as “domepoli,” but among the people there are movements to participate in “Exoduses,” mass pilgrimages to lands with potentially more opportunity and resources, accomplished through the use of massive moving cities. The main character is a boy named Gainer Sanga, a video game champion who becomes the pilot of a mysterious organic robot he dubs the “King Gainer,” and who ends up becoming a part of the Exodus despite his objections to it. There is a complex world underpinning the main narrative, but we the viewers only ever get to see a few slivers of the whole, and even into the final episode the show still keeps a lot of its secrets. In that respect it reminds me of Xam’d: Lost Memories, which shares that similar pacing of world-building = plot progression, but much like Xam’d that’s also where a good deal of its charm lies.
Watching this show, I couldn’t help but feel that, more than Ikari Shinji from Evangelion or Kira Yamato from Gundam SEED, Gainer Sanga is the true updated version of classic Gundam hero Amuro Ray. Gainer has this strange introversion to him, as well as an aversion to the situation he finds himself in, but he adds this additional modern otaku element from the way he engages in his gaming. As an aside, the fact that he engages in games instead of tinkering with machinery reminds me that the original Gundam came out in a very different era of video games.
The character designs in this show are excellent, with both male and female characters clearly showing that a lot of care was put into their creation. The designs are full of vibrancy and personality, and though not the sole character designer on the show, the influence of Yoshida Ken’ichi (who would go on to do character designs for Eureka Seven and Xam’d) is both quite obvious and welcome. I have to wonder what material would have been made for Overman King Gainer had it appeared in a post-Megami Magazine, maybe even post-Pixiv fandom environment. The show has a large number of female characters who seem to have a fair deal of enduring popularity, and I suspect that characters such as the strong-willed Sara Kodama, the spunky child princess Ana Medaiyu, the spy-turned-humanities teacher Adette Kistler, and the eccentric Cynthia Lane would’ve won the hearts of many current fans had the show been made in the last few years.
Tomino is often known for having rather stiff dialogue, and it’s easy to put Overman King Gainer in the same category, but I feel like that doesn’t quite tell the whole story, because it doesn’t take into account for its usage as a comedic element. The awkwardness of the phrasing and the responses they engender from other characters feels like this constant revolving tsukkomi, and when you take that sort of interaction and apply it to a diverse range of characters, including crazy Koyasu Takehito (see current anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure for reference), it makes for a fun if confusing anime which exudes a strange sort of energy that’s hard to find in other anime.
Another element of the anime that really stands out from other shows is its mechanical design, which both Yoshida and Yasuda “Akiman” Akira of Capcom fame worked on. The robots in Overman King Gainer come in two categories, the more basic and grunt-like “Sillhouette Machines,” and the “Overmen,” strangely powerful robots with a variety of abilities from invisibility to lightning bordering on the super (natural). Between their organic appearances and elements (artificial muscle tissue in the limbs for instance), as well as their striking appearances, probably the part of the show which most clearly describes the aesthetics of the anime, and that’s putting aside the whole Monkey-dancing thing.
I know I’m talking more about the components of Overman King Gainer than I am the overall feel of the series, and it’s something I normally prefer to avoid when I write reviews, but again I have to point out that the show kind of messes with expectations. Overman King Gainer is an unusual hodgepodge of elements which perhaps shouldn’t work together but do, and it defies categorization in the sense that it’s hard to say whether the anime is extremely straightforward or extremely obtuse, but which ends up being fun and clever.
For the 2011 edition of the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa, I was given three excellent titles to choose from. Given that I have been hearing good things about Planetes for a very long time though, I felt that it was the right and proper choice to make. After having watched through all 26 episodes, I find the series to be one that is difficult to pin down because of how it handles so many of its elements extremely well, and asks a great deal of its viewers without making it necessarily a “challenging” watch. It is a show which eases you into its difficult, mentally engaging portions but also doesn’t let up on them either.
Planetes takes place in the early years of space colonization, when mankind is utilizing resources found outside of the Earth and has established cities on the moon and on orbiting satellites. In this era, space travel is naturally common, but decades of collected junk (old satellites, garbage launched into space, etc.) around Earth’s orbit have made it potentially dangerous. Even a seemingly harmless object becomes deadly when controlled by the unrestrained laws of motion. In order to combat this serious issue, mankind has developed the profession of “debris hauler,” a job which is absolutely vital to space travel but is treated with about as much reverence as a janitor. The story of Planetes focuses primarily on these debris haulers, especially the brash-but-serious veteran Hoshino “Hachimaki” Hachirota, and the new recruit filled with lofty ideals for people and space, Tanabe Ai. Together, they work for the Debris Section of their company, derisively referred to as the “Half-Section” for being perpetually understaffed.
Though I cannot comment on the accuracy of the science in Planetes, I can say that it plays a large role in the series, particularly how inertia works in space. It is taken seriously, and though the show feels light-hearted, the seriousness of their respective positions is also made immediately apparent. As space debris is dangerous, so too is the work of a debris hauler, as they have to be prepared for the fact that every time they are out on the job could be their last.
The challenges of space travel are not simply limited to the tasks at hand, either. When it comes to expanding humanity further into the universe, there are very real consequences. Space development is seen as a way to benefit all of mankind, but the truth is that the wealthiest nations, the ones that have the funds to develop space programs, are the ones that profit the most. The gap between nations grows ever wider. Planetes is an anime that questions progress and development, the interaction of politics and science, personal motivations, the nature of human interaction, and even the way we view ourselves individually.
The beauty of the series, however, is that it does not give a clear winner in the conceptual battle of “cynicism” vs. “idealism,” nor does it say which side is which. Planetes does not push one side over another, as if to say that once you weigh all of the advantages and disadvantages of space travel relative to the state of mankind, you can figure out which is right. The answers are as myriad as the the show’s cast of characters, all of whom are fantastically developed and who contribute heavily to the unlikely combination of feel-good comedy, political intrigue, and genuine speculation, balanced in a way that very few works of science fiction are able to accomplish. Even when you disagree with them, you cannot deny their convictions.
Hachimaki decided to go into space because he wanted to go faster and further than ever before. Fee Carmichael, the pilot of the Half-Section debris ship “Toy Box,” is a chain-smoking pragmatist whose skills are the best in the business, but who shirks at the chance to get promoted because she feels her skills are most needed out in the ”field” instead of being behind a desk. Werner Locksmith, the developer of the first inhabitable ship to Jupiter, is a brilliant mind whose emphasis on science over humanity can be shocking to those who expect empathy, but his attitude is also necessary for pushing space development technology further. Tanabe herself strongly believes that the key to everything is love, and that actions without love are lesser for it, an attitude which can be grating to those who see reality as a much harsher place. And yet it must be asked, who is truly naive, the one who believes that love connects humanity, or the one who believes that people are forever alone?
Similarly, some problems are seen as trivial when faced by issues of a larger scale, seemingly insurmountable ones which affect entire countries, but those in turn are dwarfed by the vastness of a perspective with the entirety of the universe in mind. Suddenly those “small problems” of the individual start to play a much greater role. In the end, Planetes never leaves you with a definitive answer to any of the questions it posits, leaving you to decide for yourself.
Before I finish, I feel that I must emphasize once again that somehow through all this, Planetes is fun and even a bit romantic. It takes itself seriously, but it also doesn’t neglect the personal joys that can be found in life. There isn’t anything quite like it.
I recently appeared on the Reverse Thieves‘ podcast, the Speakeasy, where we discussed the topic of recommending giant robot shows for people who have had negative experiences with that genre. If you’re not sure what that means, it is not referring to fans who have simply never seen any mecha anime and are just waiting to discover the glorious territory that is giant robots, but people who may have preconceived notions about the limitations of giant robot anime based on prior exposure.
Even though that’s the main topic however, I think there’s a little something for others as well, whether you’re a robot expert or mecha newbie. Have a listen, and make sure to comment on either the Speakeasy or the Reverse Thieves’ blog.
The Reverse Thieves recently made a post about the level of acceptance that anime fans have for fanservice (meant here as sexual fanservice and not intricate weapon details, for instance) in their shows, where they discuss how the view towards cheesecake seems to get increasingly polarized the more extreme and perhaps fetishistic broadcast anime becomes. Having just written my own thoughts on a similar subject, I feel like the question of how fanservice is both executed and perceived, and I think the film Redline provides some good insight into the matter, especially when compared to a representative otaku fanservice show such as Kanokon.
Redline is an anime very different from the norm, and especially different from what is popular with the current generation of otaku. Featuring a wild aesthetic somewhat similar to that of Dead Leaves, Gerald and Tim Maughan on Anime World Order referred to it as the anime they’d been waiting for since Akira. What that means is that Redline is a film capable of drawing in both anime fans that had left the scene long ago, as well as attract an audience similar to those people. It has a manic edge that’s got a certain dangerous appeal to it, and that extends to its fanservice as well.
The women in Redline are definitely overtly sexualized. Between two chesty music idols named the “Superboins” and the most important female character Sonoshee getting an extended topless scene, there is no argument that the film wants you to think of those characters as extraordinarily attractive. They are, to a certain extent, designed for fanservice, but compared to the fanservice from a series like Kanokon, it feels very different.
It would be easy to say that there is a “right” kind of fanservice, and to make the argument that “Kanokon’s fanservice is creepy and Redline’s isn’t. That’s not quite right, though. It’s too simple, and based on too many assumptions, like the idea that just because Kanokon is designed to sell through its harem and Redline‘s appeal lies primarily in its visual design that there is something inherently wrong with the former. Personally speaking, I vastly prefer Redline over Kanokon, but I’ll save that for a possible review in the near future. The real difference, I think, lies not in simply how the girls look (lolicon is not even a topic of discussion or possible misunderstanding with Redline), but with how they present to the viewer, particularly male viewers, what kind of qualities a man should have in order to obtain the idealized women in each respective series.
With Kouta, the main in Kanokon, the defining traits of his character and by extension the things that get the women flocking to him are his quietness, his sensitivity, and his decency. In Redline on the other hand, the portrayal of the women emphasizes “he-men, men of action,” as the old Charles Bronson Mandom commercial goes. Protagonist JP sticks up for his beliefs even if it gets him beat down, and the man he idolized in his youth can be seen in a flashback kissing two bikini babes simultaneously. Both are versions of male fantasy, the nice guy who is appreciated by all of the women and the daredevil who sets girls’ hearts aflutter, but they have a decidedly different appeal to them that doesn’t just have to do with how much Kanokon toes the line between fanservice and outright porn. They exist on somewhat opposite ends of a spectrum of male behavior, and the manner in which the women are sexualized, not just visually but also in their actions within the story, runs accordingly. With that in mind, I think it can be easy to see why there would be conflict between the two sides.
This is not an indictment on either type of male character or the series which they come from, especially with JP in Redline who is shown to be sensitive in his own way. Neither portrayal is inherently worse than the other, but problems can arise. Indeed, while both the “nice guy” and the “man of action” can be portrayed well as men of character and strength, they can also be pushed to unpleasant extremes, though the nature of that negativity can itself be different. The nice guy can be so passive as to absolve him of any mistakes he should be responsible for, and the man of action can often times be seen as a man who treats women purely as playthings to be manipulated. It is also not an indictment on the fans who identify with either character type, as the meaning of terms such as “wish fulfillment” and “role model” can get complicated. Is it better for a quiet nerd to prefer the quiet nerd character he is, or the active warrior that might wish he wants to be? I think that question lies at the heart of the difference in how fanservice is executed.
In my childhood I read a fair amount of mystery novels, but it wasn’t until I listened to the Speakeasy podcast that I became acquainted Knox’s Rules, a 10-point guide designed to make sure that a detective story does not violate the mystery’s logical structure and thus remove the reader’s desire to solve the case as well. That said, at least one or more rules are broken in every detective story, but the idea is that they should be kept in mind. More important though is the fact that adhering to those ten rules does not guarantee a good story.
The reason I bring this up is that the more I read about and examine the structure of comics, particularly manga, the more I find myself having to make sure that my reading of comics theory does not then overwhelm my reading of manga as I am looking at each page. The potential pitfalls here aren’t limited to just “overthinking” things or being too distanced from the work at hand, but that it risks making my viewing of comics, manga or otherwise, an exercise in dissection for the sake of dissection, and also can possibly lead me to believe that a comic is “better” if it follows those rules. That’s not to say you should just turn a blind eye to the things you learn, but in my experience, it can poison both the well of analysis and the well of enjoyment if mishandled. For example, in being more aware of the Ki-Shou-Ten-Ketsu (Introduction-Development-Twist-Conclusion) 4-part structure commonly used in manga (especially 4-panel manga), I have found myself looking for it everywhere in manga, and I have to make sure I don’t force it to appear in places where it does not necessarily exist just because I want it to be there.
Perhaps letting my own emotions towards a story mix in with the more distanced viewing is key to mitigating these situations.
I was recently on the Podlabor podcast, where host Patz, fellow guest Narutaki from the Reverse Thieves and the Speakeasy, and I discussed the 90s super robot anime, Brave Police J-Decker. For those unfamiliar with the series, it’s from the same franchise as the more well-known Gaogaigar, and features giant robots who are also detectives. If that didn’t scare you off, have a listen, and if it did, you might be surprised to find out how much heart J-Decker has.
We also discuss a bit about Otakon, which is this weekend.
Occasionally people say that anime and manga have a dearth of strong female characters, that they are relegated to supporting roles where they must step aside for the male leads. But while such characters do exist, to think that they are the majority of female characters in anime and manga betrays a myopic view of anime and manga fueled primarily by titles designed for guys looking for some kind of power fantasy.
I recently began reading Attack No. 1, a 60s shoujo manga about volleyball and one of the most famous sports manga series ever. Being a 60s title and well before the advent of the Showa 24 Group, I somewhat expected the main heroine Kozue to be demure and dainty and in need of a strong man, but I was proven completely wrong. That part in the anime’s opening where Kozue goes, “But I shed tears. I’m a girl, after all?” That is a complete diversion from what she really is.
In the first few chapters, Kozue is a transfer student who antagonizes the teacher by sleeping through classes, then goes up to the girls’ volleyball team and accuses them of not truly understanding volleyball. She then makes a bet that she can beat their trained team using just a ragtag bunch of complete beginners, and then in order to achieve her goal trains her erstwhile teammates so hard that they collapse from exhaustion repeatedly.
Everyone talks about how Hagio Moto and her comrades revolutionized shoujo manga, and they surely did, but going back even to the prior decade we can see a heroine who shows strength, both inner and outer. And as you continue along throughout the decades, you can see more and more examples. Don’t let the popularity of certain titles and genres blind you.
But I also realize that it’s very easy to call just about any female character a “strong one,” particularly when they are designed to be badass action heroes. These fall into two dangerous categories, the first being the “action damsel,” where a girl is a strong and capable fighter up until the point that she gets kidnapped and needs a man, and the second being the “man in a woman suit,” as Hisui from the Speakeasy Podcast so put it. The issue with the former is that it tends to undercut all of the development a female character might have, while the problem with the latter is that it pushes a very specific idea of what it means to be “strong.”
In the same podcast, Hisui also says that his problem with the “man in a woman suit” is that it is essentially a shortcut to actual well-developed character portrayal, and that it is pretty much shallow. I pretty much agree with Hisui on this matter, but I also want to address another great danger that comes from associating the idea of “strong female characters” with “tough action hero,” and that is that it implies that the only way for a female character to be strong is to be “like a guy,” or to put it more broadly, that the only way is through physical strength and hardened grit and determination.
Think about that for a moment. It’s bad enough that we define male strength through physical prowess, but to also try to group women in there as well is a grave mistake. Putting characters and fiction aside for a moment, true strength comes from within, it is not something measured simply through muscles and athletic ability. While a person who is physically strong, male or female, can also be strong inside, the former without the latter is an empty shell. Though I know that Hokuto no Ken isn’t the best example of strong female characters, as most of them are there to just stand aside at let men fight men, I think of the little girl whom Kenshiro rescues early on, Rin.
In one chapter, Rin is kidnapped by a gang of misshapen thugs who have terrorized an entire village. In order to oppress the villagers, the gang ruthlessly forces them to walk on a pit of fire, with many casualties naturally resulting. The villagers are gripped with fear, but when it’s Rin’s turn to walk the coals, she remembers Kenshiro’s words, that she cannot give in to fear, that she cannot let them win. Rin willingly walks towards the flames, head held high, and in doing so shames the villagers. If such a little girl has the spirit to fight back, what does that say about all of the full-grown men who cowered in the shadows?
Then Rin eventually becomes some kind of damsel-in-distress and there’s a whole marrying Rin arc when she gets older, but I chalk that up more to the second part of Hokuto no Ken being terrible overall than anything else. But there it is, even in Shounen Jump you can find a display of great inner strength in a female character, albeit temporarily.
One more time, I want to state that strong female characters in anime and manga definitely do exist and in large numbers. If asked, I can even start listing them off, but the important thing to take away here is that you simply have to look in the right places with the right mindset.
In their concluding post of the Otaku Diaries, Hisui and Narutaki of the Reverse Thieves reflect back on their experiment: the ups, the downs, what could have been done differently, what they learned, and what they’d hope to learn in the future should they take up the task again. I hope to see them take a swing at it at least one more time, but that’s up to them.
One of the really remarkable things about the Otaku Diaries was that it was a concerted effort by the Reverse Thieves to learn about their fellow fans, and to do so by collecting information in a structured manner. With anime blogging (or hell, writing blogging in general), it’s very easy to play fast and loose with facts and data, and to write based primarily on feel (I am guilty of doing both), so it gives me a degree of joy to see bloggers who actually want to discover more about their peers instead of pigeon-holing them in stereotypes or talking in too-broad strokes. The project wasn’t perfect, as they’d themselved admit, but it opened up new possibilities.
Obviously I’m not telling people they can only write about anime and fandom once they’ve gathered enough information on the subject, but I’d like to see others encouraged to try similar endeavors, to really reach out and try to learn about your comrades-in-arms. I could stand to do more of that myself.
On a final note, I think they’re onto something with the idea of interviewing people over Skype instead of simply writing surveys. Provided they can make the conversation easy-going (and I know they can), it would allow a lot more otaku to open up, and would also make the conversation more free-flowing.
The Speakeasy Podcast recently released their 4th episode, wherein they talk about the “bishounen,” and all of the celebration and agony that comes from putting some eye candy for girls into anime that are traditionally considered “for guys.”
For those unfamiliar, the term bishounen literally means “beautiful boy,” and refers to characters in manga, especially shoujo manga, who are beautiful and effeminate. In being pretty, bishounen in turn violate the unwritten rules of Acceptable Beauty in a Man, where guys are allowed to look good, but only in a way that reaffirms heterosexuality by having them conform to the male view of what a lady killer is supposed to look like.
Simply put, bishounen threaten masculinity and make guys uncomfortable. But the “threat” of bishounen isn’t simply in their looks, but in their very presence, and to get to the real heart of the problem, we have to take a look at a very similar concept which also holds some very profound differences: the trap.
The origin of the term “trap,” as it’s used by English-speaking anime fans, refers to the idea that a male viewer is “tricked” into being attracted to what he thinks is a very attractive lady, only to find out that the character actually has a Y-chromosome. In some cases, it works so effectively that some will say that liking traps is still not considered “gay,” because the character is so effeminate that all they’re doing is appealing to a heterosexual man’s natural desires using the power of artistic expression.
Now what’s really interesting is that in some cases you’ll find examples of guys who love traps but hate bishounen. At first, it can appear to be a contradiction, but there’s a fundamental difference at work here: bishounen are designed to appeal to girls, while traps are designed to appeal to guys.
Of course I’m aware that there are plenty of guys who decry the presence of traps just as much as they do bishounen, guys who believe that both the moe fan and the fujoshi are killing anime. But I really believe that the thin line between bishounen and trap reveals the truth, and that it all comes down to fear.
Guys who lament the presence of bishounen are not as threatened by their good looks as they are the idea that the presence of bishounen means that guy-oriented anime will suffer in some capacity. When the bishounen talks, this is what they hear coming out of their mouths.
“These character designs are not for you.”
“We’re doing things to actively appeal to people that aren’t you.”
It’s the fear that girls will latch onto a show just for the hot guys and will ignore all of the deep and wonderful story that’s actually there and will refer to the guys as “bishies” and debate the degree to which they would “glomp” them. It’s the fear that anime which would have had excellent story and setting might end up being aborted half-way and turned into a hideous carbunkle that sacrificed its potential for greatness for scenes involving with male beauty, angst, and sparkling moonlight.
The truth of this matter is actually stated in the Speakeasy podcast: anime, in some capacity has always made attempts to appeal to girls, even in that most manly of genres, the giant robot anime. The original fans of Mobile Suit Gundam were actually mostly female. UFO Robo Grendizer found a female fanbase as well, because of some of the romance elements in the story, as well as the presence of strong female characters. Even Gowapper 5 Godam tried to appeal to girls by being the first giant robot series to have a girl as the main character. They may have been a secondary audience to the boys buying action figures, but when it comes down to it, what’s wrong with having an audience that’s 50% female?
Now that the Otaku Diaries main events are over, the Reverse Thieves have seen it fit to hit us with all sorts of tidbits, from the number of people who were officers in anime clubs (13) to the number of man-crushes on Daryl Surat (greater than 0) to the number of people who own hugpillows.
Some of the trivia also sounds like it came straight out of anime. And assuming that everyone told the truth as they were expected to, that’s amazing. For example, the person who broke up with his girlfriend after canceling a date to watch Yu Yu Hakusho reminds me of a manga, Fujoshi no Honkai, where a closet fujoshi breaks up with her boyfriend by telling him that she’s “spending time with another man,” when in reality she bought a cake to celebrate the birthday of her favorite character. And when you realize that something like a manga based on the daily lives of otaku is trying to mirror the reality of the fandom, it’s almost like the beast feeding itself.
But really, looking at this trivia hodgepodge, I think it hits me harder than any of the previous Otaku Diaries posts just how similar/dissimilar we all are as fans of anime and manga. We are all united under the banner of Japanese comics and cartoons, but that sturdy felt cloth hanging high above us belies the sheer variety of places we come from. Gone are the days that anime fans all came from a single nerdy source of science fiction fandom or from watching the Pokemon on the TV. And though I use the term “anime fan” to encompass both those who watch anime and those who read manga, there are even people who almost exclusively focus on one or the other. All of it is surprising and yet none of it is.