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This film is part of the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been able to attend the NYICFF. While in the past I mainly prioritized Japanese animated films, I’ve recently been making more an active effort to diversify my interests in animation. Hearing others talk about the frequently stunning visual presentation of French animated films, I decided to take a look at Mune.

An important note to readers from anime and manga fandom: it’s pronounced “Myuun,” and is not about what you think it is.

Directed by Alexandre Heboyan and Benoît Philippon, Mune centers around a world where the sun and moon were brought to the planet long ago, and the guardians who must guard the movements of these celestial bodies. The protagonist of the film is a night creature named Mune, who despite viewing himself as a nobody, ends up in an unlikely position of power and responsibility.

I found Mune to be a film whose main strength was the portrayal of an intriguing world that revolves around the clever elaboration of its own creation myth. The way the planet divides between day and night, the designation of creatures that thrive not only in day or night, but also dawn and dusk, and especially the designs of the inhabitants all worked to give a sense of a living world. What most impressed me were the towering giants that pulled the sun and moon across the sky, one a four-legged rock golem, the other a camel of sorts, though I also need to mention the antagonist Necross, a dark and menacing figure with a waterfall of lava continuously pouring out of his chest. Another notable aspect of its visuals is that Mune uses primarily 3DCG animation but occasionally switches to traditional 2D animation when presenting either stories of the past or other worlds.

However, when it comes to narrative and characterization, Mune falls short where it matters most, in Mune himself. While other important characters have some sense of growth throughout the movie, such as the well-meaning but arrogant sun guardian Sohone who learns the importance of selflessness, Mune changes, sort of, but it feels incomplete. This is not to say that a protagonist necessarily needs “character development,” but the film specifically sets him up to have a character arc where he discovers that the true power was in him all along. The issue is that Mune’s realization of confidence is not only rather abrupt, but doesn’t really require him to learn anything. If this were a Dreamworks film, I could picture them overlaying I’ve Got the Power. Similarly, one of Necross’s demonic minions is shown to struggle with the idea of being “evil,” and I had assumed this would set him up to contribute to the plot more, but he mostly ends up as comic relief.

A lot of similarities, though perhaps mostly surface ones, can be drawn between Mune and Disney’s Hercules. I feel that, if the film had borrowed more of the character progression that the latter shows, then it could have been more complete in its storytelling. While a work of animation can certainly succeed without the need for denouement and all that by focusing on its aesthetic qualities, Mune comes across as being stuck somewhere in the middle.

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This film is part of the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival

Studio Ghibli is by far the most famous and well-regarded Japanese animation studio, but over the past two years Ghibli has been defined instead by a sense of finality. Director and co-founder Miyazaki Hayao, known for the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, has declared the challengingly self-critical The Wind Rises to be his last feature-length film. Though not saying anything to that degree, his fellow co-founder, the 79-year-old director Takahata Isao (Grave of the Fireflies), might very well end his career with the artistically beautiful Tale of the Princess Kaguya. For a long time people have been speculating as to what would happen once Studio Ghibli lose Miyazaki and Takahata, leading people to ask who might be Miyazaki’s successor. The problem, of course, is that “the next Miyazaki” is a weighty title that no should be burdened with carrying.

Nevertheless, this is perhaps the challenge that faces director Yonebayashi Hiromasa and his latest film, When Marnie Was There, a book adaptation that has the distinction of being the last Studio Ghibli film in production, at least for the time being. However, while Yonebayashi’s films for Ghibli undoubtedly utilize the “Ghibli look” that is derived from Miyazaki’s personal drawing style, what becomes clear upon watching Marnie (as well as Yonebayashi’s previous film The Borrower Arrietty) is that Yonebayashi’s directorial style is unmistakably distinct compared to the veterans who originally founded and defined the studio.

When Marnie Was There centers around a 12-year-old Japanese girl named Anna, an adopted child who suffers from asthma and perpetually feels like an outsider among both her classmates and her family. Her adopted mother, concerned for her well-being, decides to send Anna to live in the countryside, where the fresh air should be good for her. However, even in a different environment, Anna still continues to feel alone, until she comes across an old, mysterious mansion and a blonde girl named Marnie. She immediately connects to Marnie, while also feeling that there’s something oddly familiar about her.

When I think about both Marnie and how it feels different compared to other Ghibli films, the first word that comes to mind is “haunting.” This is not to say that the film is dark or depressing, and though weighty in its own way, it also feels different from something like Grave of the Fireflies or even Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Much like Arrietty, I find that the film, though basking in its gorgeously rendered environment and all of the little details that go into it, is much more introspective. The narrative conflict is less a manifestation of our inner struggles (as so many films and anime are), and more just a straight-up look at Anna’s own emotions. While Miyazaki cast Anno Hideaki, director of Neon Genesis Evangelion, in the starring role of The Wind Rises, it’s Marnie that feels almost like a Ghibli take on some of the themes of Evangelion. Anna’s somber worldview and her initial resignation towards her lack of sense of belonging make clear that her circumstances are emotionally complex, made all the more difficult by the trouble she has communicating with others.

It wasn’t until the end of the film that I came to realize what it was Anna was searching for, and though I assume this was fully intended given the mysterious air surrounding Marnie and Anna’s relationship, I had jumped to numerous erroneous conclusions while watching. Perhaps it’s my own experience watching other anime, but the friendship between Anna and Marnie appeared to be so intimate that I wondered if Anna and Marnie’s difficulty fitting it might come from the repression of lesbian sexual desires, now let loose through a time-space paradox. I wondered if Studio Ghibli would be so daring, and when taken individually I think these scenes can still evoke that sort of impression, but ultimately it’s nothing so bold. That certainly doesn’t make it a worse movie as a result, though it leaves me to consider what would happen if a studio as renowned and with such international presence as Ghibli indeed made an animated movie with a lesbian protagonist.

Overall, Marnie fits into the rough mold of a Ghibli film, with its attention to environment and space and its story of a young girl learning about herself and about life in general, but it really stands on its own by speaking to that feeling of not being able to quite fit in, and having the solution amount to more than just gaining confidence. Whether Yonebayashi continues with Ghibli or some other studio, I’m looking forward to what he does next.

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rollinggirls-motorcyclefallSource: Kirishii

The Rolling Girls is currently my favorite anime of this season, even more than Yuri Kuma Arashi which I think is incredible. Both shows have quite a bit in common with each other in terms of creative visual presentation, but whereas Yuri Kuma Arashi has more of a theatrical and fairy tale feel, Rolling Girls I think can best be described as “charismatic.” When watching I sometimes feel like I’m falling in love, not so much with the girls in the story, but rather with how its world is presented and how its people move through their environment. I’m not sure just how popular The Rolling Girls is inside or outside of Japan, but I’d like more people to watch it, so I’m hoping to make a convincing argument as to why it’s at the very least an interesting show, as well as a refreshing and invigorating experience.

The overarching premise of The Rolling Girls has Japan split into a variety of independent territories, somewhat like a contemporary warring states period. In this new era, different factions try to get ahead, either by fighting other territories or through peace. People are divided into two categories: exceptional individuals known as Mosa (meaning “valorous individuals”, translated officially as “Bests”), and the regular masses who at best provide support in conflicts but mostly stand out of the way, known as Mobu (literally “Mob” but translated as “Rests”). Without going into too many details, the somewhat off English subtitle for the show explains its concept well: “Rolling, Falling, Scrambling Girls. For others. For themselves. Even if they’re destined to be a ‘mob.'”

In other words, a group of girls, despite not having any superhuman abilities, try to do their best in their crazy world, and following them has been an absolute joy.

rollinggirls-alwayscomimaSource: Beautiful World

I imagine that the first thing people will notice about The Rolling Girls is its colorful palette, attention to environment and backgrounds, and stylish animation, reminiscent of Kyousou Giga and to a lesser extent Kill la Kill. Any time a character says something, does something, or even just stands still, there’s an energy and vibrancy to their actions. The Rolling Girls has the feeling of a really dazzling billboard come to life, and while anime is no stranger to slick animation and bright colors, what I especially enjoy about the series is how this presentation emphasizes the connection between the characters and their world.

At the time I write this, the narrative and the world of the story have barely begun to unfold as they travel from one place to the next, experiencing the unique customs and cultures that have arisen since Japan broke apart as a nation. I want to find out more about their world and their characters. It’s kind of like Kino’s Journey in certain respects, only without the idea that the beauty of the world is in its ugliness, and even sometimses reminds me of Redline in the way that the world seems to be constantly teeming with activity. The aesthetics of the show enhance the world-building not so much because of beautiful backgrounds or other more expected ways, but because the world and the people seem to be breathe as one, and that breath is somehow chaotic and erratic and all the better for it.

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The vacation has turned into a house party. As Keiko and Angela try to butter up Madarame with alcohol and sex appeal, Yoshitake and Ohno give Kuchiki somewhat similar “VIP” treatment. Kuchiki asks Ohno if he can touch her breasts, who unsurprisingly refuses, especially when Kuchiki references Ohno’s tendency to avoid getting a job. Hato gets tired of Angela and Keiko and tries to make Madarame jealous by appealing to Kuchiki, but accidentally makes him pass out from too much alcohol. After some arguing where Keiko and Angela try to use this as an opportunity to be alone with Madarame, Hato and Madarame are tasked with bringing Kuchiki back to the hotel.

This chapter has made me realize that breast-touching, or the prospect of it, has been a recurring theme of sorts in Genshiken Nidaime. I know that might sound kind of absurd, but hear me out.

Between Kuchiki futilely requesting Ohno, Madarame’s risque evening with Keiko, and even the fact that Kuchiki has already indeed crossed this threshold (albeit unconsciously), the “value of boobs” has been present for many chapters. At first glance, this might very well appear to be the descent of Genshiken into something cliche and unrecognizable, but I think that there’s a certain critical or observant eye towards the division between guys and girls that still exists to a certain degree in Genshiken, otaku culture, and perhaps even culture at large.

The reason I believe this to be the case, though for the most part it’s probably just an opportunity for jokes, is that one of the notable differences about the second series compared to the first is the mostly female main cast. It’s a point I and others have brought up again and again, to the extent that it’s arguably not even necessary to repeat, but Genshiken currently consists of this very candid, almost unglamorous look into the lives of these female otaku. Even in this very chapter, you have Kuchiki talking about how every guy in Genshiken secretly wanted to feel up Ohno juxtaposed with three girls in the bath, casually nude, talking casually, while none of them are the “targets” of this desire. On the one hand, breasts are almost a holy grail of manhood, a reflection of the mentality of the Genshiken old guard. On the other hand, girls are letting it all hang out and breasts aren’t a big deal, an indicator of how things are now.

All of this is further contrasted by Angela and Keiko. There’s a certain chasteness among the other characters and even the idea that the boob grab is this life-changing event, and then there are these two characters who are so far beyond the borders of whether or not a guy has touched a breast before, so distant from even the question of virginity, that I can imagine the other people on this vacation seem almost quaint to them. In fact, they’re utilizing their breasts for the exact reason of appealing to Madarame’s innocent awkward otaku mindset, and even the Madarame Harem itself consists of two characters who are highly experienced when it comes to sex and relationships, and two who are absolute beginners. In a way, it reminds me of the image and existence of otaku culture itself, which is in a way childish (this is not a bad thing) but also filled with adult concerns (also not a bad thing), and I don’t even mean that in an “otaku suffer from arrested development” sort of way.

What I think this all leads to is an emphasis that there are many different perspectives at work, to the extent that the idea of the otaku is not as simple and monolithic as it once was. This is perhaps what Tamagomago was trying to get at when he said that the concept of “otaku” as we knew it no longer exists.

While I don’t want to put too much into author intent, it’s a fact that Kio Shimoku is married and has a kid now. He knows and has had the experience of touching a breast. In fact, I bet a lot of manga creators have had this experience, even the ones who draw the most fanservicey, harem-y series around. I have to wonder how much Kio has maintained this theme for the purpose of remembering that being an awkward, unsocial guy who can’t even talk to girls can make it seem as if breasts are attainable only in fantasy, only he’s tempered it by taking into account the point of view of girls as well, not as objects of desire, but as people. In the case of Angela and Keiko, and perhaps even Hato, they’re people actively working to present themselves as objects of desire. Hato himself might be the center of this storm, a male otaku who is also a fudanshi, who has to come to realize his own sexual orientation, and who actively works with symbols of the feminine both inside and outside of notions of romance. Even this chapter features male Hato in makeup for the first time, as if to say that the borders within himself are becoming nebulous. That’s not to say that guys can’t wear makeup, but for Hato makeup has a very specific function.

This chapter review has turned more into a small essay, it seems. I think I’ll cut it short here so I can mention a few other things. Yajima’s mom continues to show that she’s more Yoshitake than Yajima. Mimasaka continues to confirm that her attachment to Yajima is probably something bigger. In the extras of Genshiken Volume 17, Angela tried to send Madarame some dirty footage of herself for Valentine’s Day(whether it’s photos or video they never show or say) , but they got intercepted and destroyed by Ohno before reaching their destination. I have to wonder if Angela is operating under the assumption that he was able to see it.

As always, I prefer to end each review talking about or showing something Ogiue-related, and sadly I could not fit “on the title page Ogiue is wearing that boob window sweater that’s become a popular meme in Japan” into what I was talking about above. It’s the obvious joke, that Ogiue doesn’t have the size to properly fill out that sweater, an idea that fan artists have already leaped on with other similarly-proportioned characters. While I know that Genshiken is full of references to popular culture (Sue makes references to both Dragon Quest and Sakigake!! Otokojuku this month), it’s much rarer for a meme of this kind to reach the pages of Genshiken. At the same time, no one really draws Genshiken fanart, so I guess it’s up to the creator himself to undergo the task.

What’s funny is that, if not for the boob window, this is very much the kind of outfit that Ogiue would wear.

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harupolishi-yandereface

There’s a popular joke when it comes to manga that is rooted in the harsh realities of failure in the industry. Known as “Our Battle Continues!”, it is the signal of a title that has been abruptly canceled, and usually shows the entire cast of characters appears in the last panel charging towards the “unknown.” The Attack on Titan anime even references this, as the final end card for the first series is an image by the original author, Isayama Hajime, parodying the idea. Sadly, there are countless manga that have had to resort to this, including those which showed great potential but were nevertheless unsuccessful.

In the case of the 5-volume Haru Polish from 2011, it’s clear that there was neither a lack of talent nor a lack of interesting ideas or characters that led to its “Our Battle Continues!” ending. Rather, it was simply unable to attract a large enough audience to keep going.

harupolish-youngharu

The main character of Haru Polish is Okamoto Haru, a high school girl who is so obsessed with swords that she borders on Fighter from 8-Bit Theater-like behavior. As a small child, she came across a mysterious blade at her grandparents’ place, and ever since that day she’s been looking to reunite with it. Being denied the opportunity to reunite with her beloved blade even as she reaches high school, she decides instead to join her school’s Iaido Club to get her fix. Though Haru is completely untrained, the president (and only member) of the club sees great, perhaps even disturbing levels of potential in her. The title refers to the fact that the Japanese word for polish, migaku, can refer to both polishing a blade and refining oneself as a person.

It would normally be simple enough to determine how a manga like this would go. You have the club expand, you have its members fight in practice or in tournaments, and you leave plenty of room for depicting cute girls swinging swords. It’s arguably even expected, given its creators’ histories: Totsuka Masahiro is probably best known for Bamboo Blade and Minamoto You [pronounced “Yuu”] is responsible for Asu no Yoichi. However, while much of this does indeed happen, there were clearly some problems along the way. This is best exemplified by the fact that the character actually only have one team match, and it’s in the final volume of the series, when the writing was likely already on the wall for Haru Polish.

Rather than being a continuous story, there is clear evidence of the series stopping and starting over and over again as it re-calibrates to find its audience, going from the everyday hi-jinks of a club, to something about occult curses within swords, to its last hurrah that includes both the aforementioned team match and then a time skip. It’s such a shame that it was unable to find success, because I think the series is legitimately entertaining. It has endearing characters, detailed and vibrant artwork, and manages to stay fun and fresh even as it is recomposed over and over again. If only one of them had hit home with its readership, then I think it could’ve been something great.

harupolish-team

There are two comments by the creators of Haru Polish that speak towards its inability to grab a readership. The first comes from the artist Minamoto, who states at the end of Volume 1 that he was originally feeling glad that he could now do a series that was lighter on fanservice and didn’t really have panty shots, only for the editor to come in and tell him that Haru Polish needs more panty shots (and indeed this is where the manga goes). The second comes from the writer Totsuka, who, in the final volume states that he introduced a male character named Shun (written with the same kanji as Haru) in order to act as a second protagonist because readers just didn’t understand or connect to Haru. I was actually surprised by this because Haru was by far my favorite character while reading due to her cute appearance, her infectious love of swords, and, as seen in the first image above, her tendency towards yandere faces that don’t require her to want to stab a boyfriend (a welcome change to that character type in my opinion). It makes sense though, given the magazine that Haru Polish ran in.

The original home for Haru Polish was Shounen Champion, published by Akita Shoten. While Jump, Magazine, and Sunday are the big names of shounen manga, Shounen Champion essentially is the greatest bastion left of old-fashioned, rough ‘n tumble dudes fighting, series that are meant to appeal to boys above all else. While there are an increasing number of exceptions to the Champion style, such as Squid Girl, even its current most popular title, Yowamushi Pedal, clearly reflects its Champion origins even as it simultaneously embraces its large fujoshi audience. Both Shun and the use of panty shots were attempts to grab the Champion audience, but in the end Haru was possibly too strange a heroine for them. It’s to the credit of its creators that, even as the series began to wind down, it put is best foot forward, with amazing images such as this:

harupolish-killingintent

I want to end by talking about one of the most interesting stylistic flourishes of Haru Polish, which is its use of ink splotches to depict imaginary blood. The intent behind this is to represent an Iaido practitioner swinging a sword with real killing intent. Within the context of the manga, because the characters do not use real weapons (being a high school club and all), this becomes a way for the manga to show that, if they were really fighting, their opponents would probably be dead. In this first and only team match, depicted above, the manga reaches the absolute height of its visual style, as if the creators were saying, “This is what could have been.”

Indeed, I wish there were more.

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Over the years, I’ve written a couple of reviews on Ogiue Maniax for a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan called Donburiya. It served many types of Japanese foods, but as per its name, its claim to fame was its donburi: large bowls of rice with various toppings on them. I’m truly sad to inform everyone that Donburiya closed its doors at some point over the past few months, and I only found out upon arriving and seeing the entire place abandoned.

I haven’t been this upset about losing an excellent food joint in a long while. The last time this happened, it was The Pink Teacup, a soul food restaurant that literally, literally served the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. In that case, the flavor penetrated the chicken all the way down to the bone, and in the case of Donburiya just about every dish I ever ordered there had a similar level of quality. Whether it was the Chirashidon (sashimi), Oyakodon (egg and chicken), Katsudon (pork cutlets), or Unatamadon (eel and egg), or even the curry, I will cherish my memories of that restaurant.

I know it might sound silly to some, but as people might have picked up from my writings, I’m a huge food enthusiast and food is a very emotional subject for me. To lose a place that has served me well, not only in terms of the quality of its dishes but also as a space to gather with friends and to celebrate, makes me wish I could’ve gone back just one last time.

By the way, if anyone knows any fantastic donburi places in New York City, I’m all ears. And mouth.

 

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milkyholmestd-milkyholmes

The original Tantei Opera Milky Holmes is an anime I viewed as largely a disappointment. Ostensibly about a group of cute female detectives with superpowers, the premise is more window dressing for moe comedy and reference humor. That combination can be okay, but in Milky Holmes the jokes are very hit or miss (mostly the latter). The majority tend to be rather one-dimensional (That’s from that anime! Haha!), though every so often there would be a truly impressive gag. Case in point, I fondly remember the “Baritsu” gag, which spent an entire episode setting up the name of a semi-fictional martial art found in the Sherlock Holmes novels in order to deliver a pun based on the climax of Laputa: Castle in the Sky. However, because the show felt so flimsy and the humor fell flat so often, when it came to the next one, Futari wa Milky Holmes, I felt little need or desire to check it out even if there were some brighter moments.

I’ll be honest when I say that, if it weren’t for my Patreon sponsor Johnny Trovato, I probably would not have given the franchise a second look. As wide as my tastes are in anime, and as willing as I am to give shows a second chance, I had ignored it in favor of other current series. That’s why I was rather surprised to find that the third and latest anime, Tantei Opera Milky Holmes TD, is pretty much an improvement all around compared to its original predecessor.

milkyholmestd-jojo

While the humor continues to be a mixed bag of weak, one-note references and stronger, more developed jokes, what makes Milky Holmes TD work better is that its story provides just enough stability that the anime doesn’t live or die by its gags alone. The four main characters, Sherlock, Nero, Cordelia, and Hercule (all named after famous fictional detectives), must solve a rather bizarre missing “persons” case. An idol, whose songs are powered by fairies that have been a part of her since birth, have gone missing, and nobody knows who is responsible. What makes this mystery even more difficult is that the fairies end up in the bodies of people who are unassociated with the original crime, and so the girls of Milky Holmes work towards finding them one by one, with the ultimate goal being to find the original culprit. Though not much actual detective work goes into the series, it’s enough to get a sense of progress from one episode to the next, and to inspire a viewer to feel invested.

Essentially, as the girls find each of the fairies, there is this general forward movement where they move one step closer to accomplishing something. In contrast, although the first anime starts off somewhat similarly with the Milky Holmes girls themselves losing their powers and by extension their positions as the best detectives in school, that storyline doesn’t go anywhere until the last episode (which admittedly was an enjoyable finale). I doubt that existing fans of Milky Holmes care too much for that sort of thing, at least within the context of Milky Holmes itself, but I think it gives an “in” for those who might otherwise pass it up. It might not seem that significant, but I believe this is the sort of thing that can expand a franchise’s fanbase, if only a little.

milkyholmestd-raohmarshmallow

Speaking of abilities and reputation, I like the fact that the Milky Holmes girls are re-introduced in Milky Holmes TD with a kind of reverence. I think it’s meant to show just how far the Milky Holmes media franchise has come, and that while they were “rookies” of sorts in the original, now they’re back and better than ever. Also, because they have their powers and at least try to make use of them, you can believe that they’ve actually had past success in helping others out. It’s a fine line, I think, because it’s not like the girls show powerful deductive reasoning, and for the most part that is barely even a consideration in Milky Holmes. However, having capable yet humorously hopeless characters appeals to me more than just having them be all but useless.

From my perspective, you can more than easily skip the original series and go straight to Tantei Opera Milky Holmes TD. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but I think it stands a better chance of drawing in an audience beyond those who think “cute girls and anime references” are enough content. Now if they start to better utilize their detective and phantom thief motifs better, then it’ll really turn some heads.

PS: Akechi is the best character.milkyholmestd-akechi

cureprincess-gunblow

Once again, I’ve sat down with Alain from the Reverse Thieves to talk anime. This time, we discussed the end of HappinessCharge Precure! You can also hear our thoughts on the overall quality of the series, as well as how it stacks up to previous anime in the Precure franchise.

Check it out here.

 

In Chapter 108 of Genshiken II, Yajima’s mom plays “Are you a Man or a Woman,” Yajima tries to get closer to Hato, and the club meets Yajima’s dad. As Kuchiki has a surprisingly heartfelt moment.

I think Genshiken in general has a knack for conversations that feel natural while reflecting the awkwardness of its characters, and nowhere is this more evident than in the scene between Hato and Yajima this chapter. As Hato and Yajima are going to pick up Madarame and Kuchiki from the nearby hotel (motel?), Yajima begins to talk to him about his comic. It’s the one subject where she believes that they’re on roughly even ground and that they can both relate to in a way that the others (sans Ogiue) cannot, so she’s going to use it for all that it’s worth. It’s a moment that really says, “Yes, this is what Yajima is about.” What makes this scene really work for showcasing Yajima’s feelings, though, is the artwork itself, where Yajima is trying her best to work through her own awkwardness and continue conversation.

Obviously that scene references the previous chapters where Yajima and Hato have been working on their manga, but there are actually quite a few callbacks to events much further back in Genshiken as well. The first one worth mentioning is Yajima’s mom trying to guess which of the girls is in fact a boy. You might recall that this happened in Chapter 56, the very first chapter of Nidaime, when Madarame predictably couldn’t figure it out and Saki was able to with one look. Looking back, it’s kind of amazing how that was Madarame and Hato’s first meeting, and now it’s gotten to this crazy stage. Also, the logic Yajima’s mom uses to single out Keiko is clear, even if she’s off the mark: all of that effort put into her makeup and appearance has to be for something, right?

Poor Keiko. Poor Yajima. Speaking of Yajima, she really does look like the halfway point between her parents.

Speaking of Yajima’s mom, I do find it interesting that the chapter goes out of its way to point out her similarities to Yoshitake in terms of personality. I think we’re supposed to interpret that comparison in two ways, the first being that she has a kind of subtly aggressive personality as she questions everyone’s gender (including her own daughter’s!), and the second being that she gives off a warm, inviting personality. One could even argue that Yajima, who takes after her father in terms of temperament, would get along with someone who’s just like her mother. That’s probably a stretch, though.

The second callback comes from the bath scenes. Recalling the Karuizawa trip, it’s quite telling that Keiko treated the disparity in chest size between her and Ohno back then not as an attack on her confidence, but in the case of Angela she sees the American character’s body as more of a threat. No doubt this is done to show that Keiko views Angela as the most dangerous rival of all for Madarame, reinforcing also her initial view of Angela upon finding out that Angela has a thing for Madarame. I’ve talked about this before, but the friendly antagonism that exists between Keiko and Angela is something you don’t see in a lot of manga, let alone manga about a group of otaku. Both clearly have a lot of sexual experience, both are aware of this fact, and thus both see each other in a different light compared to the rest.

To a lesser extent, Ogiue and Sue’s bath scene also references Karuizawa, but it’s not as significant. It’s mostly just an opportunity to make a joke at Ogiue’s expense, though in this case it’s her own self-deprecation. Actually, when I think about it, most of the time when the subject of Ogiue’s chest comes up, it’s usually her putting words into another person’s mouth. “Now you’re going to say… I’m a small-chested tsundere!” exclaims Ogiue “Joseph Joestar” Chika, as Sasahara or Sue or whoever denies her accusation.

The last reference to the past is the most obvious, as Kuchiki is told to recount how he became a member of Genshiken in the first place. Between his initial club visit, his running away upon seeing the lovey-dovey interactions between Kousaka and Saki, his re-joining the club and causing trouble from the get-go, the scene for the most part reinforces Kuchiki’s role in the story as that annoying guy in the club you just can’t get rid of. However, Kio takes the time to put a bit of a twist on all of that when he has Kuchiki reminds everyone of Genshiken’s origins as a home for misfit otaku (the rejects of the rejects).

In this regard, I  find that his apology to Ogiue actually says a lot. As he’s giving his speech before the toast, Ogiue jokingly reminds him that in their first meeting he laid her hands on him and that she’d never forget that, and Kuchiki gets down on his knees (“dogeza”), and immediately says sorry. Within this one moment, we can see that, as much as Kuchiki is generally a completely tactless and grating individual, that he cherishes Genshiken as more than just a place where he can fantasize about being a harem lead. Rather, it’s his home, a place that accepted him when nowhere else would, and to lose that connection is to lose a sense of belonging.

A few days ago I posted a translation of Japanese blogger Tamagomago’s latest article on Genshiken, where he asserts that the distinction between otaku and non-otaku, at least as it was in the mid-1990s to early-2000s, no longer really matters or indeed exists in the same capacity. Kuchiki clearly comes from before this time (as does Madarame of course), and I think given how Nidaime has gone it’s easy to forget just how awkward the club used to be. Kuchiki is a refreshing reminder of its origins, of a time that has arguably passed ages ago, and how places like Genshiken can be important for the awkward. On a personal level, as I’ve gotten older myself I’m no longer quite the nervous teenager I once was, and though vestiges of it still exist within me (and I’m still an awkward individual to be sure), it can be easy to forget just how intense it can be to worry that you don’t belong.

In a way, I wonder if Genshiken and its titular club at this point embody not simply the idea of a group of otaku, but the idea of a space to grow.

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Two of Toei Animation’s most enduring franchises are Ojamajo Doremi and Precure. Magical girl anime that are as different as they are similar—the former is four seasons following the continuing adventures of the same core characters, while the latter is currently running 10 years strong and changes its cast almost every season)—the two are chronologically separated by only one year. What filled that gap was a 50-episode anime known as Ashita no Nadja. Literally meaning “Nadja of Tomorrow,” the title points to the idea of a young girl who, in spite of all hardships, continues to look forward.

Unlike the shows that bookend it, Ashita no Nadja is not a magical girl series, though it is similar in being a shoujo series geared towards a Sunday morning children’s audience. The anime’s story follows a young English orphan in the early 20th century named Nadja Applefield as she travels the world as part of a traveling troupe of entertainers in search of her mother. Initially unaware that her quest will get her entangled in the complications of European nobility, along the way she makes lifelong friends, a few bitter enemies, and manages to make almost every guy she meets fall in love with her energy and honesty. While Doremi and Precure thrive on varying degrees of entertaining “filler” episodes combined with the occasional dramatic climax, Nadja more or less continuously builds up its narrative, though not without throwing in an aggravating twist of fate every so often, to emphasize the small tragedies of Nadja’s life, and by extension her never-give-up attitude.

In this way, Ashita no Nadja bears similarities to both melodramatic 70s shoujo series such as Candy Candy, as well as World Masterpiece Theater series such as Anne of Green Gables. Namely, while the main narrative isn’t about romance, it is a constant presence in the series, and in that respect it’s also similar to Candy Candy in that Ashita no Nadja is sort of a reverse-Bechdel Test. There is rarely a single conversation in the series between two men that doesn’t somehow involve Nadja. Men rich and poor, young and old, and on all sides of the law fall for Nadja Applefield.

If this makes it sound like Nadja is something of a Mary Sue, that’s not necessarily all that far off, but it also doesn’t mean that Nadja is a bad character. The anime as a whole just wouldn’t quite work without Nadja being a strong protagonist both in terms of personality and what she contributes to the overall story. While she does have certain elements of wish fulfillment for a young audience, she always comes across as very human, maybe even ultrahuman (as opposed to superhuman). What I mean is that her humanity, her emotions, radiates seemingly without end.

This is not to say that the series is endlessly optimistic. While I’ve already mentioned that the show has tragic elements at times, I want to emphasize this point again because Ashita no Nadja can get surprisingly dark at times. Although it’s not exactly butchering people left and right, it’s not afraid to take away a beloved character or sprinkle in a bit of betrayal. Notably, the series addresses the gap between the rich and the poor during the period in which it takes place. For example, two aristocrats frustrated at the system also vehemently disagree over how to solve this problem: one believes in working within the system, using his family’s money to help the needy, while the other believes in attacking the system Robin Hood-style. Rather than confine this theme to an episode or two, or using it merely as flavoring, this portrayal of a turning point in history, when nobility is on the verge of becoming a relic of bygone times, is actually a persistent plot point throughout Ashita no Nadja.

The surprising level of consideration for Nadja’s world and the interplay between tragedy and hope are such prominent parts of the series that it even affects the merchandising engine that Ashita no Nadja was supposed to be. Like Doremi and Precure (as well as Sailor Moon, of course), Ashita no Nadja was a vehicle for selling toys. Indeed, the show is full of conspicuously toy-like products, from pink castanets to umbrellas, and even a flashy typewriter for some reason. However, at one point in the series, a male character gives Nadja a kaleidoscope, with the meta-intent being that kids will surely want this exciting new product, but the back-story they created for it is anything but joyful. It turns out to be the most prized possession of his dead mother, who lived a sad and lonely life inside the mental and emotional prison known as aristocracy, and the closest she could come to seeing the outside world was that kaleidoscope. That’s Ashita no Nadja, a show where even “BUY OUR TOYS” comes with an element of sadness.

The last thing worth mentioning about Ashita no Nadja is its visuals. Generally the show looks decent enough, full of vibrant colors and just an overall cute aesthetic. Some episodes better than others, as is expected of such a long series. In some cases, though, the animation will punch well above its weight class. While this also happens with Doremi and Precure (especially when it comes to Precure‘s fight scenes), here it is even more noticeable. In particular, episode 26 (seen above) has such eerily gorgeous character animation, set design, and atmosphere that it’s absolutely unforgettable, and even a little difficult to capture in screenshots or clips. It might come as no surprise that the episode director (and one of the key animators) was none other than Hosoda Mamoru, acclaimed director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. He also directed the opening (seen at the beginning of the post) and ending for Ashita no Nadja, which by themselves probably endorse the show far better than my humble words.

As each episode finished, I actually found it hard to skip that ending. It’s compelling and strangely addictive, which also describes Ashita no Nadja as a whole.

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