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I’ve written a new post at the Waku Waku +NYC blog, about how ketchup is treated as a versatile ingredient in Japanese food in contrast to its reputation in the US as a one-note, non-exciting condiment.

What do you think of ketchup? Is it worthy of respect, or another example of people having no taste?

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As part of my Patreon rewards, I was recently asked to write about “Voca Nico Night,” a series of concerts celebrating Vocaloid music broadcasted over the Japanese streaming site Nico Nico Douga. This topic is somewhat outside of my normal purview, as I will admit to not being especially knowledgeable about Vocaloids or the scene surrounding them (I enjoy the music and recognize the characters but would not call myself a devoted Vocaloid fan), but as I watched recordings of Voca Nico Night I found that the performances seen at Voca Nico Night can be viewed as a reminder that, at the end of the day, talented human creators are an integral part of the success of Vocaloids and the music that is created using them.

The story of how virtual idol Hatsune Miku became an international sensation is the kind of tale that can cause some to proclaim the green-haired, leek-twirling, robot-voiced “singer” as the sign of a glorious future, and others to describe her as the death of music. For years the music company Yamaha had put out a voice synthesis program, but with some improvements to the software and the use of a cute girl in chic, futuristic clothing, things changed. Suddenly it was embraced by composers, musicians, music enthusiasts, artists, and writers both amateur and professional, and you can find countless examples of Vocaloid music, art, and more on sites such as Youtube, Pixiv, and Nico Nico Douga.

All of this has culminated in Vocaloid live concerts, where holographic projections of the Vocaloids sing and dance as live crowds cheer them on. This presents a fascinating contrast in the “life” of the Vocaloid. At the same time that Miku and the others become more “real”, their artificiality becomes even more pronounced. After all, even if she were to be brought into reality, Miku still has the appearance of an anime character, and that stylization and abstraction cannot be divorced from her even they’re re-drawn and individualized by various creators.

This can be viewed as a strength, as Miku’s self, constructed from the effort and desires of millions, makes no illusions about the synthesized elements of her music (as opposed to the auto-tuning that regularly occurs in popular music these days), but for those who believe that music comes from the soul, that way of thinking is certainly difficult to swallow. While I’m more of the former opinion, the latter I think is something worth keeping in mind.

This is where I think Voca Nico Night really shines, because without the expensive holograms, without the explicit desire to see Hatsune Miku or Megurine Luka or the Kagamine Twins, what’s left are the DJs, the musicians, the performers at center-stage, engaging with their audience both online and in the flesh. You can still hear the distinctly robotic tones of the Vocaloids, but their images are not taking all of the attention. Instead, the Vocaloids’ role as tools for producing music comes to the forefront, and while talking about the “functionality” of an actual musician would be crass and unfair, the origins of the Vocaloids means that they can be as “useful” or as “soulful” as one needs them to be. Voca Nico Night exists somewhat opposite the live concerts that get all of the attention, and while I hesitate to use a “yin-yang metaphor,” I do think that having both is for the better.

In many ways it reminded me of the times I’ve attended chiptunes concerts (another scene where I have interest but cannot call myself a true fan). Like the Vocaloid scene, chiptunes creators and fans embrace a type of music often associated historically with a visual component that arguably puts less emphasis on the music or the musicians (video games in the case of chiptunes), but people who love chiptunes use concerts to show their appreciation and their talents outside of what is typically expected out of a “performance.” I have to wonder if Vocaloid concerts and the like are at an intersection between the rock concert where band members are sometimes viewed as gods, the orchestra where the relative significance of the individual musicians versus the composers’ original scores can be argued, and the club where a DJ combines beats and melodies together to form something new.

Though a fair number of anime studios can be characterized to some extent by the types of shows they put out, the only current ones I can think of that have a house “look” on a character design level are P.A. Works (SHIROBAKO, Hanasaku Iroha) and Kyoto Animation (Suzumiya Haruhi, Tamako Market). I think this is especially noticeable with the latter studio, as the “Kyoani Face” is instantly recognizable, and is even sometimes imitated, such as with Sound of the Sky.

While watching the first episode of Kyoto Animation’s newest work, Sound! Euphonium, it occurred to me how versatile the Kyoani face is to a certain extent. It’s not so much that Sound! Euphonium alone that made me realize this, but rather that it was a slow culmination of watching their shows over the years. Namely, i find that their iconic face can be fitted, or perhaps was slowly adapted over the years, to match not only a variety of body types but also a range of character designs from cutesy caricature to more realistic proportions.

freeguys

The most obvious example of this would probably be the Free! character designs, shown above, but I think you can see it in their more historical tendency to make stories about cute high school girls. All of these characters are supposed to be roughly the same age, and yet while they share that signature look in terms of their faces, their bodies are all noticeably different. I’ve even made all of the characters the same “height” in order to emphasize this.

kyoanigirls-comparison-small

From left to right: Ritsu from K-On!, Hazuki from Sound! Euphonium, and Gou from Free!

Of course, not every one of their shows uses the Kyoani face of course (Lucky Star being the notable exception), but I think it goes to show just how important that particular facial structure is to the identity of the studio. Otherwise why would they use it again and again? At the same time, I wonder if it also shows Kyoto Animation’s willingness to experiment, at least within their particular areas of specialty, in terms of both story and visuals.

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I’m someone who’s interested in anime and manga about “nerds,” be they otaku, fujoshi, geeks, or any number of labels. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this stuff, and I’ve noticed that often when a character speaks using internet lingo in real life, the translation to English, whether it is official or fan-derived, often utilize some fairly offensive terms. A riajuu (someone who is content with their real life situation) becomes a “normalfag.” An otoko no ko (a boy who dresses rather convincingly as a girl) becomes a “trap.” On the one hand, it would be simply a matter of just not using those terms. On the other hand, I could see the argument that if a character is, say, someone who spends most of their time on internet messageboards, that the Japanese equivalent terms should be met with equally ubiquitous terms among English speakers. If term A comes from 2channel, why not look to 4chan for the English equivalent? However, the very fact that the vocabulary has this negative quality makes me feel that there is something buried deep within how internet anime fandom has structured itself that tends towards insults.

Obviously not all anime fans use these terms, but they pop up in a number of places that are not directly connected to the fandom that populates 4chan and similar sites. In this respect, one thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to how these phrases are used, it’s not simply a matter of trying to offend or upset others. For example, just as often as someone will call another person a “normalfag” or something similar, internet posters will use these terms to refer to themselves. At the same time that such phrases are clearly derived from words being used as insults, they’re also embraced on some level, becoming what I see as self-deprecating badges of honor, somewhat like willingly calling oneself an otaku or a geek. That said, the –fag suffix is clearly meant to maintain its offensive qualities, and as much as attempts are made consciously or unconsciously to separate the purely insulting quality of the phrase from its origins deriding homosexuals, it is nevertheless still present.

In contrast, “trap” is  a term where the connections to homophobia cannot be denied. This is not to say that everyone who uses the word is trying to be insulting, and even I’ve thrown the term out in the past before later reconsidering my own vocabulary, but the origins of the term and the implicit meaning behind it is obvious. The basic etymology is that an extremely feminine male character excites a presumably straight guy, and when he finds out it’s really a boy it makes him feel “tricked.” The important thing to consider here is that this is not merely some imaignary scenario but that people have genuinely felt this way, and the term is on some level a way of maintaining a sense of heteronormativity. Just the same, however, is the fact that some of those guys who have been “fooled” into arousal eventually realize that they are especially sexually attracted to the concept of the crossdressing boy. Whether or not that makes them actually gay or not (Is attraction towards men somehow solely about the “penis” or is it something more holistic? For that matter, what about the Kinsey scale?), often I see the term “trap” then used willingly, from people asking for more. Again, as with “-fag,” there’s this sense of mild self-hatred with use of the term trap, because just as people announce their love for them there’s also the implicit idea that they are not normal because of their interest and do not consider themselves normal. In some cases, they might not even be realizing what they’re saying.

What I find is that these terms are turned against others, as if to maintain divisions (we’re this way, you’re that way), or they might turned inwards to be used as a defense mechanism to keep outsiders away. Can a person survive the barrage of insults they receive and still be there? Are they “one of us?” To share a common vocabulary, after all, is one of the easier ways to become “accepted” in a community. At the same time, the fact that these phrases are often used in a self-deprecating manner communicates the idea that they don’t necessarily feel as if they belong to the majority, be that the majority of society or the majority of an immediate online community. The easy thing to say would be that this all derives from “hate,” but the fact that it appears to be “hate” not only for others but also for oneself leads me to believe that the use of these terms is an attempt to carve out an identity while feeling somehow “abnormal.”

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As I imagine is the case with many fans of anime, one of the first things about anime that caught my attention, one of the things that helped make me into a fan, was the quality of openings. Whether it was the music itself or the animation that accompanied it, anime openings felt like they blew the cartoon intros I was accustomed to out of the water, not to mention the dubbed anime openings which populated American TV. This is not to say that anime music is the best music ever, but once upon a time I often felt that way.

Recently I began to reflect on this feeling. What was the appeal? What was different about them? The more I think about it, the more I believe that it has to do with the sense of melancholy, angst, and forlornness that often appears briefly in anime openings.

A lot of anime openings make the viewer feel as if they are privy to the characters’ inner turmoil. In some cases, this is almost the entire point of the opening: see, for example, the “Tsubasa Cat” arc from Bakemonogatari (warning, it’s kind of not work-safe). The Galaxy Express 999 opening above doesn’t even have characters in it. In others, this feeling will be concentrated into a single, perhaps introspective moment. Think of the first Gundam W opening and Relena in the snow, or the Slayers NEXT opening when Lina reaches for Gourry. This melancholy is even mildly present in the opening to Fist of the North Star until it roars into overdrive during the chorus, accompanied by images of Lin, Bat, and the other destitute wanderers.

However, its ubiquity doesn’t end there, as it will appear in shows you might not expect to care about that sense of melancholy in the first place, such as Bistro Recipe (aka Fighting Foodons) and Medarot (aka Medabots). The openings for these anime both feature brief scenes where the main characters appear to be lost on an emotional level, despite the fact that they’re largely absurd comedies vaguely built around the concept of competition. It even shows up in one of the openings to the Japanese dub of the 1990s X-Men cartoon!

On some level, I wonder if openings might be a make-or-break moment for some as to whether or not they become anime fans. It’s the kind of thing that can easily cause someone to exclaim from the rooftops that anime is the best, or to dismiss it for not being as aggressively powerful as, say, the 1990s X-Men opening!

This is not to say that having this quality automatically makes an opening better, even if it is what likely caught my attention every time. Rather, just the fact that so many openings in a whole slew of genres utilize it at least to some extent feels like it speaks to something more deeply ingrained into, if not Japanese society, then how anime is viewed by society. Anime has gone from having openings designed specifically for the show itself to becoming vehicles to promote musical groups and back again, and consists of both shows designed for large audiences and hardcore fans, and yet somehow these melancholic moments have persisted over the years through all of these changes. I can only believe that there is a tacit assumption that anime openings, more often than not, should on some level evoke a strong sense of sympathy in the viewer, and this influences their structure.

I’ve been reading one of Crunchyroll’s latest manga, Watashi ga Motete Dousunda (aka Kiss Him, Not Me) by Junko, which is premised around a fujoshi who loses a ton of weight after her favorite anime character dies and so inadvertently gives herself a makeover that attracts all the guys. Given the idea that the main character Serinuma Kae is supposed to be absolutely gorgeous, I find it interesting how this is expressed, because it’s somewhat unconventional for shoujo manga.

When looking at characters in manga, one can generally get a sense of who the artwork is trying to attract based on how characters’ sexual features are drawn. In manga for girls, even when a character is supposed to have large breasts, they tend not to really stand out compared to how they’re portrayed in boys’ manga. This is quite noticeable, for example, when looking at the difference between how the character Maya looks in the Survival Game Club anime vs. the manga. Another example is when a work depicts its female characters wearing unrealistic shirts that look practically painted on. You rarely if ever see this in a shoujo series.

Kae has what I would call a face that is fairly typical for beauty standards in shoujo manga, but her body is closer to what you would find in a bishoujo series, that is to say a manga for guys all about attractive ladies such as Love Hina, making her a hybrid of sorts between the two styles. Moreover, while the clothing isn’t so unrealistic so as to basically be super spandex, there are times when Kae’s figure is accentuated and her clothing clings to her chest. Again, this would not be so surprising to me if it were in a series that ran in, say, Dengeki Daioh, but Watashi ga Motete Dousunda is definitely a shoujo series, as evidenced by the fact that so much effort is made to portray the guys themselves as various degrees of angst, handsomeness, and dream-boatitude.

Watashi ga Motete Dousunda is not the only series to do this, though maybe there’s something to be said (about me or manga more generally) about the fact that the first example that immediately came to mind was another fujoshi-themed manga, Mousou Shoujo Otakukei (aka Fujoshi Rumi) by Konjoh Natsumi. Like Watashi ga Motete Dousunda, Konjoh’s series portrays its guys as tall, attractive fellows in that way you’d more typically see out of shoujo manga, but the girls, especially the character Matsui Youko, are given a kind of physical attractiveness that is more in line with guy-oriented stuff.

In his introduction to his book The Moe Manifesto (a collection of industry, scholar, and fan interviews about the subject), Patrick Galbraith makes mention of how Azuma Hideo, the “father of lolicon,” created his cute girl characters by combining the expressiveness of shoujo characters with the bodies more in the style of manga pioneer Tezuka Osamu. It could be said that Watashi ga Motete Dousunda is going for a similar effect, though of course calling it lolicon wouldn’t quite be accurate, even if one were to take into account how the definition of that term has changed over time, as it seems to be less about the intersection between youth and adulthood, and more about expressing a new type of ideal.

It’s been a while since I really went in-depth about the topic of moe, but here’s me and the Veef discussing the topic. If there’s anything I’d like people to get out of it, it’s to not take such polarizing stances about the topic.

Free! and Free! Eternal Summer spoilers below.

Whenever Free! ends, it really knows how to communicate its core values, whether it’s the original series or Eternal Summer. Ostensibly about competitive swimming, these finales basically say that, unlike so many other sports anime and manga, that winning not only isn’t everything, but it isn’t even that important in the first place.

At the end of season 1, the character Rin joins his old friends for a relay at a high school competition, revitalizing the lifelong bond he’s had with them. They swim better than they ever have before and even win the race, but run into the issue that Rin is from a different school that’s also competing at the event. The team is disqualified, but what’s emphasized here is that getting first was not the point. Rather, what they have truly achieved is strengthening their relationships with each other.

In the final episode of season 2, the main cast reaches the nationals for relay, and during the race each character has a vision of the joy of swimming. The main character, Haruka, is the last member to race, and upon entering the water sees his teammates swimming alongside him. When he reaches the finish line, everyone cheers, and we’re greeted with images of the team smiling and hugging. By all narrative and film convention, it looks as if they had won the whole thing, but later we see that they only got 6th place. They weren’t celebrating their championsip, but their accomplishments as a group. Moreover, Haruka, who throughout Eternal Summer has felt pressure over the fact that becoming a professional swimmer means having to care about trophies and times, ultimately finds that, for him, winning is merely a way to swim more, a means to an end.

Free! is geared towards a female audience. Whether it’s the well-animated flexible and muscular swimmers’ bodies on the cast, gentle yet strong personalities, or their close and sometimes tumultuous bonds, this is an anime that provides visual fanservice in a way that not even series like The Prince of Tennis or Kuroko’s Basketball could offer. Those other series, still grounded in their shounen sports manga formulas, end up emphasizing winners and losers first and foremost, but Free! is all about the relationship known as friendship, reflecting a desire to get away from the stereotypically male desire of victory through competition.

This is not to say that manga for male audiences based in competition necessarily always emphasize winning (see the manga Touch!), nor that there is no such thing as a manga for a female audience that stresses the competitive environment (Chihayafuru). However, when looking more broadly, what I find is that series that try to draw in men and boys primarily will often use friendship and teamwork as a means to victory, while series that target women and girls will do the opposite and use competition as a means to friendship and teamwork.

Sometimes targeting a demographic isn’t wholly intentional, but this is how a fanbase is formed anyway, and other times it can be hard to tell which is which. It might even flip back and forth throughout a given series. Free! doesn’t have any of that ambiguity. It knows exactly what it wants, and in the end we have to wonder for ourselves if winning is that big of a deal.

receptacle-05

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

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

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

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

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

It’s come to my attention that within the next couple of months or so, three of the manga I love and have kept up with for many years are concluding. These titles would be Mysterious Girlfriend X, Fujoshissu!, and 81 Diver, and each of these titles has a special place in my heart.

Mysterious Girlfriend X

Each work appeals to me in different ways, though they all have the recurring theme of “bizarre romance.” However, of the three, this concept applies to Mysterious Girlfriend X the most, and it might very well be Mysterious Girlfriend X which first introduced me to the genre. Mysterious Grilfriend X is a work that I find to be often misunderstood as some drool fetish extravaganza, and once it ends I’ll definitely be writing a review of the whole thing. In the meantime, you can read it online at Crunchyroll.

Fujoshissu!

Of all of the manga starring fujoshi main character, Fujoshissu! is my favorite outside of Genshiken. I’ve mentioned it on Ogiue Maniax in the past, but I regret not talking about it more actively. What I like is that it’s a fun shoujo manga about three friends at various stages of their respective romances and how they (mostly) comfortably incorporate their personal lives into their otaku selves. Like Mysterious Girlfriend X, I’d also like to write a more extensive review when all is said and done. Though not available in English (by any means), you can read the first (and last!) chapter on Comic Walker in Japanese.

81 Diver

81 Diver is possibly the most hilarious manga I’ve ever read, at least Kinnikuman-level. Fortunately, I’ve already written a review of it which I still stand by, but might still do a final wrap-up (though I’m many volumes behind so it’ll take a while). It’s a shougi-themed manga that is great because, and not in spite, of its ugliness.

In a way, it’s like he end of not just one era but rather multiple ones. I feel as if I came to each of these manga at different points in my life, and they’ve rewarded me by being unique, unusual manga that make me feel good to be a fan.

 

 

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