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otakon2014-nicohanayo

General

Fortune and misfortune came in roughly equal parts at this year’s Otakon, as the best weather in years for the convention mainly served to provide some reprieve for the long and grueling ticket line. Some technical difficulties forced the registration to extend all the way until Friday at 4pm (registration began Thursday). Being press I did not have to deal with this myself, so I don’t want it to sound like I am speaking entirely from personal experience, but I did accompany a couple of friends as they moved through what was a seemingly unending parade of otaku before giving up at roughly the 2-hour mark and waiting for the next day.

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Some panel room shuffling this year meant that panels could hold larger audiences, while little details like dividers helped traffic flow along. The bottleneck sky bridge between the Baltimore Convention Center and the Hilton could still get backed up at times, but not quite as much as last year. Again, the weather was a major boon as it meant that even if certain parts of the con got jammed, it was a simple matter of leaving the con center and entering at a different point. Unfortunately, many of the presentations also had tech issues that mostly seemed to stem from the Otakon equipment rather than presenters’ laptops and such. However, Otakon smartly implemented 15-minute breaks between panels, which gave people time to set up and mostly work through any problems, and even if things still went awry it at least only ate into their time somewhat.

Once people actually got into the convention though, Otakon turned out for the most part to be as great as ever.

Industry Panels

This year, due to still recovering from jetlag, I took a more relaxed pace compared to previous Otakons. Having no panels to run for myself made this easier, and while the guests were good, none of them were must-see for me. Of course, even simply picking and choosing means that there are still a number of interesting panels. The best industry panels this year had to be the Q&As with director Katabuchi Sunao (Mai Mai Miracle), Otakon mainstay Maruyama Masao, founder and former producer of the anime studio MADHouse and current founder of MAPPA (Kids on the Slope, Teekyuu), and character designer/animator Matsubara Hidenori. Their new project is a film adaptation of the manga In this Corner of the World (previously released on JManga as To All Corners of the World) by Kouno Fumiyo, about a young girl living in Hiroshima during World War II. Kouno previously received critical acclaim over the similarly themed Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, and having read In This Corner of the World myself, I have to say that I am extremely looking forward to this project.

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I managed to ask a couple of questions of Katabuchi. One had to do with some criticism of Kouno’s work I’ve seen in the past, where people accused her of not being directly critical enough of the Second World War and issues such as Japan’s militarism at the time. While it’s clear upon reading the manga that the work is actually quite critical and is merely subtle in its approach, I wanted to know if 1) they were aware of this criticism 2) they were prepared to address it. Katabuchi’s response was quite satisfying in this regard, as he himself gave an example of how the original manga does portray a larger world with many political issues but through the eyes of a young girl who isn’t necessarily aware of everything around her but is nonetheless affected by it in her everyday life.

In particular, Katabuchi pointed out how the main character’s desire for a yo-yo is actually a reference to the fact that yo-yos had become popular in Japan at the time, but the manga does not bother to mention this because a little girl would not be thinking about the significance of popular trends to a society. In other words, while this yo-yo example says nothing directly about the political climate at the time, it shows the awareness that the work has about what was happening in society. Given this response, and the fact that an elaborate art exhibition of their layout and design work for the movie showed just how much research they were putting in to depict a pre-atomic bombing Hiroshima, it gives me confidence that the movie will properly tackle its difficult subject matter. While Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises drew a similar kind of controversy (the criticism that it had whitewashed Japan’s role in history), I feel that, similar to Miyazaki’s film, that this will not be a simple black-and-white anti-war film.

The other question had to do with the fact that he actually worked on the, shall we say interesting, American Street Fighter cartoon. No, not the anime film with the dub soundtrack featuring Korn, nor Street Fighter II V, but the one best known for its M. Bison memes. I basically asked if he had any recollection of his experience there, and he said that it had been so long ago that all he remembered was drawing Chun-Li at some point and eventually feeling like he should have been in charge of the whole thing. At another point in the panel, Katabuchi also mentioned how he has an advantage over Miyazaki because Miyazaki is never allowed to direct something like Black Lagoon but everything is fair game for Katabuchi himself.

As for Maruyama, it’s more or less the case every year, but the man is arguably the most important person at Otakon every time he attends. In This Corner of the World is a MAPPA production and so a lot of the focus was on that, but he was of course open to questions in general. I asked him if his production style had changed now compared to his early days at MADHouse on shows such as Aim for the Ace!, but he responded that his approach to production has changed little in the 3+ decades since, as he prefers to give the creators themselves freedom to work. The only drawback is that it means he’s not the best with finances, which is why MADHouse was eventually purchased by Nippon TV.

Another interesting question courtesy of Kate from the Reverse Thieves was whether the subject matter of the current anime Terror in Resonance (terrorism and nuclear weapons) had caused any controversy or run into any problems. Maruyama responded that both he and the director Watanabe Shin’ichirou (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Kids on the Slope) had concerns that the TV stations would refuse to air the show, but that the two of them went forward with it anyway because that’s their style. It reminds me of the production issues that the Coppelion anime ran into that caused it to cover up all overt references to radiation, and I’m personally happy that the same fate has not befallen Terror in Resonance, or at least not yet. Overall, I have to stress that going to a Maruyama panel is always worth it, and as sad as it sounds the man is not getting any younger. That said, he did joke that he’s the same age as Miyazaki but whereas Miyazaki retired Maruyama is doing more work than ever before. Maybe it’s a MAPPA trend to make jokes referencing the famed Ghibli director.

The last guest to attend the convention that was related to In This Corner of the World was Matsubara Hidenori, known for his character design work on the Sakura Wars games and more recently for his animation work on the Rebuild of Evangelion films. He was a guest in 2009 as well, and after having heard how interesting his Q&A was at the time I made sure not to miss it. Sadly I couldn’t ask him any questions myself, but his responses in general were quite informative. In particular, he talked about how glad he was to not have to necessarily draw young, cute girls all the time anymore, and that one of the works most influential to him is the World Masterpiece Theater series En Famille or The Story of Perinne. He also mentioned that while he once tried to switch to using a drawing tablet, in the end he had to go back to pencil and paper.

I briefly mentioned the In This Corner of the World art exhibition, but it really deserves at least is own paragraph to talk about how amazing it is. I’m actually a little sad that photos weren’t allowed because the amount of work and research that went into them is nothing short of astounding. In order to properly capture the Hiroshima area of World War II Japan, they did things like find out how seaweed was dried using bamboo instead of reeds, and they even looked into the train schedules at the time to see what times would be accurate for trains in the backgrounds in certain scenes. A lot of this work would arguably be unnecessary and very few people are even alive today who remember that period, but it shows just how much they want to capture the feeling of living in that environment.

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otakon2014-kozaki2I also attended the panel for character designer Kozaki Yuusuke, and while I’m not quite the fan that others are (having only barely played No More Heroes and never having played Fire Emblem: Awakening), it was fun to see him take audience drawing requests. The two images above were the result of this, and it turns out that Kozaki even drew the cover art for the Otakon guidebook this year. This was quite noticeable as generally the artwork for Otakon stuff has traditionally ranged from subpar to mediocre. It also made me really want to read his manga Donyatsu, which is about donut-shaped dogs and cats in an apocalyptic world; in one of the images above, Donyatsu is featured being eaten by a Fire Emblem character. The main reason Kozaki was at Otakon, however, was to promote a new anime project, Under the Dog, which based on its initial material is trying to invoke a Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex-type feel but with more action. In fact, at the panel they mentioned getting an animator who worked on GitS. If you want to help make it happen, a Kickstarter went up just this past week.

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Fan Panels

While the guests are generally great at Otakon, it’s the fan panels that are in my opinion the heart and soul of the experience. Compared to Anime Expo, for example, Otakon boasts a much larger set of non-industry panels, which results in a general sense of genuine enthusiasm over the experience of watching, reading, and thinking about anime, manga, and related topics.

The first panel of the convention that I attended was the Intro to Josei panel, and it was clear that they were inexperienced as presenters. The panel had two parts to it, a brief history and rundown of the significance of josei (manga for older women), and then some examples of interesting titles. Their intentions were good, but the panel had two main problems. First, it felt like two panels in one, with the seam between the history and the examples made especially visible by the fact that the first and second halves just felt completely different. Second, it was more of an introduction to J-Drama panels than one about josei anime and manga, as all of their visual examples came from dramas, even in cases where anime counterparts were available (like Nodame Cantabile). The result was that the panel didn’t feel like an introduction, but more a brief gleaning of what’s available. If they could include more anime and manga and really figure out what they want to say, then I think it would be much improved for the future.

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I’ve known Daryl Surat for a long time now, and have listened to the Anime World Order podcast for even longer. As was the case last year (and possibly the years before that, I can’t remember), Daryl was a featured panelist at Otakon, and he always manages to have a strong mix of smart and stupid that keeps things fresh, entertaining, and even educational. While his Anime’s Craziest Deaths panel is an Otakon mainstay at this point and pretty much always delivers exactly what its title states, he also did a panel on ninja in anime, one on the long relationship of influence that exists between pro wrestling and anime, and one on showing some of the many references in Kill la Kill. The ninja panel was the lightest in terms of content and was more about seeing how wide and varied the perception of ninja has become to include just about anyone doing anything as long as they’re called a ninja. The pro wrestling/anime panel approached that connection from a unique angle, positing the idea that, more than simply being about one referencing the other and vice versa, some of the very fundamental storytelling aspects of anime and manga (particularly shounen fighting works) are influenced by the wrestling storylines that were popular when television first emerged in Japan. It also went into detail about the female pro wrestling scene in Japan and how it was for a long time not about appealing to men through sexy outfits but about giving girls idols to aspire to, which then created certain archetypes in anime and manga as well. Really great panel, I recommend going even if people don’t have an interest in pro wrestling.

The Kill la Kill references panel 1) made me want to watch Sukeban Deka, the show about a yo-yo-wielding delinquent girl that inspired much of Kill la Kill 2) emphasized that what makes Kill la Kill work is that it does not live or die by its references but uses them to enhance the experience (something I agree with). It was fun to see the audience’s brains light up as they realize how many things went over their head, and also great to see how many Kill la Kill fans were at Otakon (more on that later). I have to give a very personal thanks to Daryl, because while he mentions appropriating this post of mine on the puns and wordplay in Mako’s spotlight scenes, he gave me full credit for it and even encouraged people to come read Ogiue Maniax. The applause I got at the panel was one of the best moments of the con for me.

I also attended two of the fan panels run by members of the Reverse Thieves, “The Visual Stylings of Kunihiko Ikuhara” and “The Measure of a Man. The Nature of a Hero: A Fate/Stay Night Panel.” The Ikuhara panel focused on the Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum director and the unique flair he brings to his work, tracing his visual motifs from his days on Sailor Moon to his more recent work. One thing that they really emphasized was how important pattern and repetition were for Ikuhara, which along with his use of visual cues from dramatic theater really shows how Ikuhara values graphic design in his animation work, and doesn’t treat it simply as “drawn film.” As they mentioned, it’s easy to believe that Ikuhara does things purely for style’s sake and that it doesn’t contribute to the overall narrative at all when in fact it very much does, but it could have been highlighted even better. Although there were some technical mishaps, Alain’s Fate/Stay Night panel was also quite successful. In showing how each of the three main story paths in Fate/Stay Night follow a different philosophy in terms of what it means to be a “hero,” Alain pointed out how attempting to mash them all together for the first TV series led to its downfall because it was literally putting three conflicting sets of ideas together. I remember years ago seeing fans of Tsukihime being similarly upset over that anime, and given that it is also a Type-Moon property I can’t help but feel a similar thing happened there.

Other Panels

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This might not sound especially different from the panels I normally attend, but by being less focused on must-see events, I also was able to be more experimental in my con experience. For example, while a former boss of mine was big into sumo, I had never really gotten into it myself. However, being somewhat aware of the fact that sumo takes a lot of skill, going to the Sumo Demonstration on Saturday was actually pretty informative. There, five-time US sumo champion Kelly Gneiting took on the world’s largest Japanese man, Yamamotoyama Ryuuta, and showed the flexibility and strength required to be a sumo wrestler. To give you an idea of what it takes, imagine trying to lift 500 lbs. that is actively trying to push itself against you, adding more weight and stress to your attempt. It’s no wonder that matches last only a short while and require long breaks.

Another unusual panel that leaped out of the schedule was something titled “Gunma Prefecture Office” with no description to accompany it. What could it be? Was it actually people from Gunma’s tourism division? It turns out that it was something along those lines (though not in an official capacity), as former Otakon president Alice Volkmar introduced the crowd to the Gunma Prefecture and all of its little details. The things I got most out of it were that hot springs are a big deal there (which of course makes me want to visit), and it’s known for its three mountains, all of which are featured in the intense races of Initial D. Truth be told, I was originally considering just asking Initial D questions the entire time.

The last panel I will mention is the Otakon Game Show, a perennial Otakon feature that has both contestants and audience participating in a battle of who knows more about anime. It’s generally fun, though I feel like the questions are too geared towards knowledge of minutiae from popular shows and not so much a well-rounded knowledge of anime, and the ask the audience section needs to go. I also had problems registering my phone for the audience participation section, and many of my answers did not go through. Other than that, it was a fine time.

I do have to say, though, and this might just be me nitpicking, but yaoi does not rhyme with kazowie. That’d be like saying Aoi rhymes with Howie.

Concerts

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I was originally not planning on attending any concerts this Otakon, but upon remembering that the band Altima consisted of not only one of the singers from Fripside (A Certain Scientific Railgun) but also motsu from the recently disbanded group m.o.v.e. (Initial D), it meant I had to check it out if only for a little while. This wasn’t the first time I got to see motsu as I actually attended another con where he was a guest, Anime 2012 in the Netherlands, so I knew that the man brings the hype. The music really got me pumped up, but I actually had to leave the concert early as I could feel it destroying my ears (I failed to bring earplugs).

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I am also not big into J-Rock, but X-Japan member Yoshiki has such a reputation about him that when I managed to get a ticket for the concert I also decided to see what he’s all about. You may have to forgive me for being ignorant when it comes to X-Japan, but I had no idea that their style was a mix of heavy metal and classical. Yoshiki was there more for the latter side, performing primarily classical-style pieces on piano while accompanied by a string quartet and a singer. The highlight of the concert was when he played a song in tribute to two members of X-Japan who had passed away over the years, a long, 10+ minute torrent of emotions that culminated in Yoshiki smashing the keys as if he was trying to shove them through the piano itself. This was actually a transition from his classical self to his metal self, as suddenly two other X-Japan members made a surprise appearance and rocked out. I apologize for not knowing their names.

Overall

Because of the fact that I personally did not approach Otakon as frantically as I had in previous years, in a way it would have been difficult for the convention to have disappointed me. That’s not to say that Otakon made no effort to make this year as enjoyable and as comfortable as they could, but I did not run into any major problems that ruined the con experience. The only thing that is a concern is the gradual countdown until the move to Washington D.C. in a few years, and the farewells we’ll have to bid to Baltimore and its food.

I’ll sign off here with a collection of cosplay photos. Shout outs to the Nogami Aoi cosplayer for referencing something as cool as Zettai Karen Children, the Yazawa Nico and Koizumi Hanayo (Love Live!) cosplayers in the photo all the way up top, the impromptu and unintentional VGCW match, and all the various Jakuzure Nonons that attended. Given that she has more outfits than just about anyone else, it was fun seeing how many variations of Nonon I could photograph.

 

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BONUS: motsu achieving the speed of light

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In discussion of anime online, it is not entirely uncommon for someone to say that a certain anime is “made for autistics” or that “autistics dislike this show because they’re unable to pick up on the subtleties of human expression.” While there is a clear problem in terms of turning the term “autistic” into this general sort of insult, I would like to set that somewhat aside and to honestly consider what the following idea: what if anime (or other forms of media) were intentionally made for autistic people?

This post has actually been in the back of my mind for a few years now but I’ve always felt uncomfortable enough with the idea of writing it. My worry has been that, in bringing up a serious topic such as autism that I know very little about, I wouldn’t be able to do it proper justice even within the very limited scope of what I want to explore. However, after recently reading a post by Alain from Reverse Thieves about how the desire for “good” narrative pacing in anime among different people is more of a “horizontal” structure of preference than a “vertical” hierarchy of superior vs. inferior taste, it prompted me to move forward. In part, this is due to the fact that Alain launches his argument from a video of a talk given by Malcolm Gladwell, and in watching more videos of him, I came across this video where Malcolm talks about the strengths and weaknesses of making snap judgments, where he explains that everyone has periods of what he calls “momentary autism,” or points at which people are incapable of “reading minds,” something most non-autistic people take for granted.

As far as my personal experience, while I am not autistic myself (though I’ve of course been accused of it as some point in my internet life), I did have a roommate who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and he made me aware of what this concept of being unable to pick up on emotional cues really means, and how difficult it can be to deal with it in everyday life. While he explained that he himself had high-functioning autism/Asperger’s, which meant that he could participate relatively well in society, he also was unable to participate in the humorous banter common among our group of friends at the time. This was partly because of the difficulty in picking up social cues, but it was also because surprise and moments of improvisation can be downright frightening. Instead, he would read up on jokes and prepare them in advance, so that he could contribute to the laughter.

This idea has stuck with me for years, and over time it’s transformed into the question I asked at the beginning. Imagine what a true “autistic anime” would be, something that does not assume the ability to infer people’s intentions as a default, but says, “this anime/cartoon/movie assumes its main audience to have autism and attempts to be as fulfilling for them as what is expected of the majority of entertainment for non-autistic people.” Here, the horizontal structure of different preferences as equal would include those with the inability to pick up on others’ emotions easily. Or, perhaps to take it further, what if the majority of the people in the world were autistic and as a result most of our entertainment had to cater to such an audience if it wanted to be successful on a larger scale?

Of course, this is the point at which I should be presenting various conceptions of what such anime would possibly look like, but I’m at somewhat of a loss. I don’t remember if I actually read this somewhere or if I’m making it up in my head, but I recall seeing somewhere the idea that anime as it currently exists can often be appealing to autistic people because of the fact that in so many works characters announce their emotions very directly. I think the idea is that, when Naruto shouts that he won’t forgive Sasuke and his cartoonish face has all of its features exaggerated for instance, there’s little ambiguity. Perhaps there could also be something more structural in terms of narrative, so as to foreground surprises or even be designed to encourage multiple viewings such that the content becomes increasingly familiar but also has more to explore each time. I do not meant to encourage the stereotype, but I have to wonder if the way works such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, Gundam, indeed even Naruto have created fanbases that work off of re-watching these shows and delving into their tiniest details (often regardless of the context of character motivation) results in a similar appeal.

I think it’s easy to tell that my own ideas in this regard are kind of rudimentary and lack extensive research and familiarity with the subject of autism, but I wanted to express my own simple ideas in the hopes that someone more well-versed in the subject either personally or professionally might be able to tackle this subject better.

 

I was unable to go to AnimeNEXT this year, but thanks to the Reverse Thieves and their con report, I’ve learned that the Studio Trigger panels were fantastic and I’m totally jealous of them for being there. Obviously I can’t write about the experience, but there are two points in their post on Trigger that I find interesting to look further into.

The first aspect I want to talk about is in regards to them having an initial version of Kill la Kill with five episodes already planned out in full, but decided to scrap it and start over again with something they felt was stronger. Back when I wrote my review of Kill la Kill I got some comments from a particular poster that criticized Kill la Kill‘s writer for making numerous revisions to the script, as if it had hacked together haphazardly, but with this clarification it’s now obvious that the drastic changes came from the planning stage and were less about cobbling together a frankenstory and more about trying to find the right direction no matter what.

The second little factoid that caught my attention is the fact that the staff at Studio Trigger is really into American superhero comics, which is sort of obvious if you’ve watched all of Inferno Cop. What I find funny about this is the fact that for American comics, superheroes are increasingly seen as this bland, boring, mainstream yet niche thing that we need to move past, while Studio Trigger has this reputation for being a new and cutting-edge anime studio, and they take inspiration from superhero comics.

This review is a part of the Reverse Thieves’ 2013 Anime Secret Santa Project.

When anime fans throw around the term “slice of life,” they’re generally either enormously broad in its usage (anything that concerns non-fantastical events is slice of life!) or they’re talking about a certain type of slow-paced anime which due to the popularity of certain titles has become largely associated with a cast of primarily girls doing cute things. Acchi Kocchi falls more in line with the latter category, but where often such shows largely eschew the Y-chromosome, Acchi Kocchi decides that guys too can engage in relatively low-key hijinks without pillaging the secret garden of girlish innocence.

Acchi Kocchi follows a group of friends in high school, primarily a quiet, diminutive girl named Miniwa Tsumiki and her crush, a stoic boy named Otonashi Io. Though a lot of the show involves the characters doing silly things, the primary thrust of the humor is about highlighting the mutual feelings between Tsumiki and Io, and the seeming inevitability that they will become a couple (if they aren’t one by default already). Within this context, the gags can range from heartfelt to absurd, like a mix of Precious Moments cards and Roadrunner-esque slapstick. The humor never quite goes beyond the level it hits in Episode 1, so if you’re looking to experience increasingly powerful laughs it’s not going to happen but if you’re satisfied at that point you’ll remain content.

One thing of note is that the show enjoys making fighting game references. Not sure where that comes from but it’s appreciated.

Romance in this type of anime is not unusual, but it’s generally between two girls, and that’s even when putting aside the highly ambiguous shows which invite interpretation as yuri from the fans. Hidamari Sketch has Sae and Hiro, Kiniro Mosaic has Aya and Youko, Yuruyuri is…basically those combinations times ten. This is not a criticism of same-sex relationships in anime, more an observation about the perhaps surprising lack of heterosexual pairings, which Acchi Kocchi manages to not only include but accomplish in an entertaining and refreshing fashion.

I think that often the worry with a boy-girl romance in these shows is that one will act as the audience stand-in and the other will be the ideal (or ideally flawed) potential significant other, but Acchi Kocchi is more like if both of them were their respective anime ideals for the opposite sex. Tsumiki is small and cute, often portrayed with cat-like features, and is sort of like a fusion between Konata and Kagami from Lucky Star. While this is maybe more expected, Io’s low-key personality is less about being bland and generic and more about being an almost butler-esque bishounen. A lot of the gags involving Io involve him speaking with such natural and unconscious suaveness that the girls around him swoon. They’re quite the anime power couple.

My favorite character by the way is the scientist Katase Mayoi. While I could say quite a bit about how her quirky personality appeals to me, I think this screenshot explains it well enough.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed the show, and while it never felt entirely fresh it wasn’t stale either. Pleasantly humorous with a unique take on familiar territory in a genre which thrives on familiarity, Acchi Kocchi can be a nice change of pace for those who enjoy their so-called slice of life shows but want a bit more variety.

I was recently on The Cockpit discussing the recent giant robots ‘n monster film Pacific Rim along with the host Patz, as well as the Reverse Thieves. The podcast is super spoileriffic so it’s recommended for people who’ve already seen it.

If you have any love for giant robots and/or giant monters, you might not necessarily love the movie, but you’ll at least like it a fair deal.

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.

Official sources for Genshiken Second Season

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