Aikatsu! and the Power of Not Running Jokes into the Ground

WARNING: Spoilers
For all of their abundant, game-shilling elements, the Aikatsu! anime have done a remarkably good job of standing on their own. Whether it’s Ichigo or Akari from the first series, or Yume from Aikatsu Stars!, the franchise creates fun, interesting protagonists and then surrounds them with a large cast of equally charismatic and compelling characters. Another important quality of Aikatsu! is that it excels at not letting any of its running jokes overstay their welcome, which is best seen in how it handles its famous “cliff-scaling” gag.

In an early episode of Aikatsu!, Ichigo tries to get in contact with a world-famous fashion designer who lives atop Angely Mountain. Ichigo, willing to do whatever it takes, ends up climbing all the way up, unaware of the fact that she could’ve taken an elevator. After meeting the fashion designer, Ichigo goes on to view her as a guiding voice of sorts, someone to ask for advice. And every time she visits, she takes the hard way.

Ichigo’s “pilgrimage” is not overused. It doesn’t show up every episode, or even every other episode. Every time that mountain shows up, it’s an opportunity to laugh but also to view progress. Eventually, Ichigo climbs it with such ease that it becomes symbolic of her drastic improvement as an idol. I knew that, whenever that cliff showed up, I would smile with glee.

Not every running joke is used as sparingly. Yurika’s vampire gimmick is prevalent. Even here, however, the frequency with which Yurika plays up her faux-occult origins becomes part of the humor. Because Yurika works hard to maintain what pro wrestlers call “kayfabe” (essentially living the role), it becomes one of her endearing qualities. Her constant refrain of “I’ll suck your blood!” is presented as one of the many reasons Yurika’s fans love her.

When it’s revealed late in the first season that Ichigo’s mother is a legendary idol, nothing is more perfect than the further revelation that Hoshimiya Ringo is already well accustomed to visiting Ichigo’s designer. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done this,” she says, ready to climb. The cliff-scaling is not a gag exclusive to Ichigo, but actually permeates the entire idol universe of Aikatsu! 

In one of the later openings, Akari (Ichigo’s successor as heroine) can be seen climbing along with her friends. Thanks to the context established by Ichigo, the scene encapsulates what’s great about Aikatsu!, instead of feeling like a callback to a worn-out image.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

Chala Head Chala vs. Rock the Dragon and the “Image” of Dragon Ball Z

In a recent blog article, I wrote about how the character of Vegeta in Dragon Ball Z is portrayed differently in Japanese and English, and how this has resulted in something of a divide among fans. The article was a surprising success, quickly becoming one of my most popular posts in recent memory, and the numerous responses I received (especially on Twitter) prompted me to think more about how Dragon Ball Z (and the Dragon Ball franchise in general) is perceived differently depending on how a person came across it.

Is Dragon Ball a gruff fighting series, or a heartful adventure? How big a role should comedy play before it goes too far? Many factors go into how the series is viewed, including whether or not someone started with adult or kid Goku, but I came to realize another influence: theme songs. On some level, I believe that the core difference between how Dragon Ball can be summed up in the contrast between “Rock the Dragon” and “Chala Head Chala.”

Before I delve more deeply, I do want to say that, while I prefer “Chala Head Chala,” my taste in music is not important here. Nor is the fact that “Chala Head Chala” came first. Tthe anime is based on the manga, which has no actual sound at all, let alone opening and ending themes. “Being the original” is not a sound argument to make. What I will be focusing on is mainly, how do each of those themes make its viewers feel?

“Chala Head Chala” feels fairly light-hearted, with quite a few odd lyrics (“If I discover a dinosaur in ice, I want to balance it on top of a ball” ???), yet there’s also a quiet sense of gravitas thanks to Kageyama Hironobu’s warbling voice. While the theme does suggest action and excitement, it emphasizes more a sense of “adventure” and “discovery,” though perhaps not to the same extent as the Dragon Ball opening, “Makafushigi Adventure.” Most of the visual imagery in the opening is concentrated on movement—flying and running. Motion is the key.

“Rock the Dragon” is all about heavy use of electric guitar riffs. The song puts all of its emphasis on high-octane thrills, and the the lyrics (as repetitive as they are) further push to the forefront the idea that this is not just a series with action, it’s the action series. Instead of the first image being a rotating dragon ball, it’s the dragon itself in all of its majesty and glory. All of the footage aside from that is fighting, fighting, and more fighting.

If I had to greatly simplify, I’d say that “Rock the Dragon” is more about “body and spirit,” and “Chala Head Chala” is more about “heart and soul.” They both introduce the same overall series, about Goku and his allies taking on ever-increasingly powerful threats to the Earth, but one revels in the fighting and the other suggests fighting as a means of expressing character. Because of this difference, I think it cements different core images of Dragon Ball in people’s minds, and this affects how subsequent works (Battle of Gods, Dragon Ball Super) are received as well. Looking ahead, the opening of Dragon Ball Super, “Limit Break x Survivor,” is actually a kind of middle point between “Chala Head Chala” and “Rock the Dragon” with a dash of “Makafushigi Adventure.” Could it be the theme that unites Dragon Ball dub and sub fans once and for all?

Bootleg Products and the Defiance of Value

Growing up in New York City, bootleg products have always been a common sight. Whether it’s Louis Vitton bags, cashmere scarves, DVDs, or even plastic anime models, one could easily find a lower-cost (and lower-quality) version of whatever “big thing” was out there. Given that these products are often shoddily made, violate intellectual property rights, and in some cases actually fund organized crime, it’s very understandable why the official companies whose products are being bootlegged would take umbrage with the existence of knock-offs. However, putting aside the questions of both legality and quality, I’ve begun to wonder if bootleg products serve a certain function in a consumerist, capitalist, and image-driven society.

I recently read the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a memoir about growing up as a hillbilly in Appalachia. At one point, Vance mentions how many hillbillies are very bad at properly budgeting their money, and they will use their welfare checks to buy expensive products like smartphones and cars instead of for necessities. This is also a common story among people in the inner city, and in Korea they have a term: doenjang girl, or someone who cuts out essentials so they can buy luxury items. In all of these cases, there’s more to this behavior than simply trying to cheat the government, or starve oneself. In actuality, it has a lot to do with trying to chase the image of prosperity, to live as a “have” even if one is a “have-not.”

To state a truism, expensive things are expensive. They add up. The role of bootleg products, then, is that they allow people who cannot afford (or do not want to buy) the products the full price to at least obtain a facsimile. Sales, discounts, and even big box stores all fall along this general trend, but rarely can they compete with the rock-bottom prices of bootlegs because they’re beholden to things like laws and standards. If expensive, name-brand goods carry with them the image of success and fine living, then bootlegs are the shortcut that allows someone with less to access that fantasy without having to sacrifice everything else. Of course, many of these products are luxuries and therefore unnecessary. However, because of how much people value image and social capital, they can become more important than even food and shelter in a certain sense.

There are two different types of consumers of bootleg products: those who know they’re buying bootlegs and those who don’t. The latter are more uninformed victims. I know I’m not the only one who bought those “Son May” anime CDs back in the day, and the counterfeit Nendoroids keep improving their box designs to fool people. For the former, the surface image presented by someone who can show to the world (and to themselves) a version of oneself as living a “properly prosperous lifestyle” is enough.

Things are a little different when it comes to digital products, such as streaming anime or movie torrents. Strictly speaking, one does not wear or display their illegal streaming site episodes like one would a bootleg necklace, but there is a certain gain in “knowledge” and “status” as a result of consuming these products. Watching Game of Thrones through “alternative means” allows someone who wouldn’t be able to keep up with the buzz surrounding that series and thus keep up with conversations concerning GoT. On the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell, that, the hosts discuss the concept that scans of comics allow a greater number of people to become experts on comics because it reduces the economic barrier to that amount of knowledge. [Unfortunately I can’t remember the episode, if anyone knows, please tell me!]

Regardless of the ethics of buying counterfeit products, bootlegs (even ones that are not physical), carry consequences beyond simply the damage they cause to creators and owners. They act as shortcuts to public image, emotional satisfaction (in terms of living the “proper” lifestyle), and even expertise. As a result, for better or worse they defy the prices for products set by companies and proprietors, while also reinforcing the images of those products as premium items.

Pre-Evo Thoughts: Video Games vs. Chess Analogies

Introduction: “It’s like Chess, but…”

One of the most common ways to try and explain the appeal of competitive video games is to make a comparison to chess. Starcraft is “real-time chess.” Smash Bros. Brawl players used to explain the importance of decision-making by saying the game was more “chess-like” compared to Melee. While I haven’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone called Dota 2 “chess where each piece is controlled by a different player.” Making the connection is essentially shorthand for highlighting a game a “thinking man’s endeavor.”

The accuracy of the comparison is often limited to the most basic similarities, and tends to fall apart under greater scrutiny. Despite that being the case, however, I find that there is another kind of chess comparison that can open up greater understanding of how we view competition through games. Namely, if we think about not just the western version of chess, but also the many variations of chess and chess-like games that exist in the world, then it can help us understand and appreciate the unique qualities of video games that are from the same series but have differing gameplay.

As a note, I am not an expert on chess or any chess-like game. There will not be any high level examples, and most of the comparisons will be based on descriptions I’ve found from others. I’m also knowledgeable but not amazing at any competitive games I mention, so keep that in mind as well.

Chess vs. Shogi: Similar Games, Different Dynamics

Chess and shogi (“Japanese chess”) have a lot in common. Both are turn-based games played on large, tile-based boards where the goal is trap the enemy king in an inescapable situation. Both have different types of pieces, each of which have different rules for moving, with the most common pieces (the pawns) having the fewest choices and the strongest pieces being much rarer. However, there are differences of opinion as to which game is better, and they hinge on a few key elements.

The queen: chess’s mightiest warrior

Chess pieces have more freedom of movement compared to ones in shogi. Chess has two rooks and two bishops on each side, who can move as far as the board (and any interfering pieces) can take them. It has two knights who can jump in that characteristic “L” shape. And it has the queen, which can move across the board in eight directions. In contrast, shogi pieces can cover much less ground. Not only is shogi board bigger (10 x 10 as opposed to chess’s 8 x 8), but players get only one rook and one bishop, and there’s no such thing as a queen. Shogi has pieces that chess doesn’t, but all of them are much more restricted in terms of their mobility.

The gold general in shogi is extremely powerful, but no chess queen

The result of this difference is that chess emphasizes the center of the board as a major point of contention because the pieces simply have more movement options. Shogi pieces take more turns to get from one place to another, but this also means skirmishes can happen all over the board. Also, whereas the king in chess is seen as a relatively weak piece because it can “only” move one space at a time, in shogi the king is a fearsome fighter because of its relative versatility.

Example in Esports

In spite of their similarities, chess is a game where greater range and possibility of movement produces one range of play, while shogi’s shorter range per piece produces another. They’re actually different enough that a person can love one but hate the other. One can find a similar relationships in other games in the same “families,” of which I’ll be listing a couple below.

Take the Street Fighter series and the Marvel vs. series, for example. Movement in Street Fighter games are traditionally very restricted. One walks back and forth and maybe has the ability to do a small dash, but jumping is a risky commitment and the game stays very grounded. In Marvel Vs. games, however, characters can make massive leaps, fire large beams that cover most of the screen, and dismantle each other quickly. Even though they’re both fighting games, tweaking certain elements means one could be great in the former type but awful at the latter.

Even games within the same series can be as dissimilar as chess and shogi. When discussing what makes Smash Bros. Melee such a beloved game among its fans, one common reason given is “movement options.” Not only do platforms allow for vertical movement, but a plethora of advanced inputs exist for players to practice—wavedashing, dash dancing, ledge dashing, etc. Other games in the Smash Bros. franchise, such as the more recent Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U (aka Smash 4) have nowhere near as much range of movement, but small steps matter more. Melee top player Mang0 has mentioned in the past that walking (as opposed to dashing or wavedashing) is under-utilized in Melee. When looking at Smash 4, walking is incredibly common.

Is larger range of movement and prerequisite to a better game? The answer is that it’s largely a matter of personal preference, as opposed to any sort of objective standard. Take this 2007 post from the chess blog The Only Winning Move:

I do think [shogi] is probably more complex than chess …

Naturally, “more complex” doesn’t necessarily translate into “more fun” …. I much prefer Chess…. My favorite Chess game, in fact, is one of Bobby Fischer’s, which he describes as a “lightningbolt,” in which he absolutely castrates a fussy opponent who spends so much time setting up the perfect defense net that Fischer is able to just zap him with an unexpected sacrifice. That kind of thing happens a lot less often in Shogi, and this makes it less thrilling … Chess seems more integrated and elegant to me. It’s a beautiful thing in the hands of skilled player. I never get the same feeling of being in the presence of beauty watching Shogi players at work….

All the same, at the end of the day I would rather play Shogi – and that’s simply because it’s mindfood….

Chess is more fun to watch, and more fun to play for amusement. It’s a truly beautiful thing when done right – and thus better appreciated as a spectator sport. But I ultimately like Shogi better.

And Still More

If the chess vs. shogi comparison seems too simplistic in terms of how games of a similar genre can differ, keep in mind that there are many variations of chess-type games out there as well. Xiangqi (“Chinese chess”), for example, is famous for having a very explosive mid-game, as well as obstacles to get around in the form of rivers. Perhaps your preferred game resembles xiangqi more than chess or shogi.
Let’s Appreciate the Differences

Games can be “chess-like,” but it’s potentially better to bring that up relative to other forms of chess so that discussion can be more fruitful. The examples I’ve given do not map perfectly to chess and shogi, but the point is less to find a perfect analogy and more to show how games that can look the same on the surface can produce very different games that can carry different appeals to their respective player bases.

 

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AnimeNEXT 2017 Interview: Yuri!!! on ICE Staff

This interview was conducted at AnimeNEXT with guests Tatenaka Junpei (co-lead figure skating animation supervisor), Ito Noriko (animator), Ogawa Takahiro (production desk manager), Hirose Izumi (color designer).

Creating animation, especially for television, is a very time-sensitive endeavor. You have to work hard to get things on time. So when you were working on Yuri!!! On ICE and you were running low on time, what did you prioritize? What is most important?

Tatenaka: When creating animation, the difficult thing is that you can’t skip any parts. You can’t skip the voice, you can’t skip the music, you can’t skip the art. You have to prioritize everything.

What about terms of style, say, going for better movement or more detailed artwork during figure skating scenes?

Tatenaka: I animated the figuring skating scenes. For the first episode with Victor’s free skating, we had three chances for trial and error to fix it up. And when time is sensitive, we do one check and send it out. Most of it is just, draw it and then it’s out for production.

Maruyama Masao has been a guest at cons in America for a number of years, so there have been plenty of opportunities to get his impression of animation. What is it like working under Maruyama-san, and does he resemble the character that’s based on in Shirobako [Marukawa Masato]?

Tatenaka: Maruyama is very unique. He gives us a lot of control. The most unique thing about him is that, instead of picking what’s going to be the winning formula, he picks unusual combinations and tries them out. It’s like the chemistry of two items, two characters, two of anything that might not work—he likes to experiment with that sort of thing. So it’s either a very big win or a very big loss.

Yuri!!! on ICE has received praise from a lot of pro figure skaters. Is there anything that went into animating Yuri!!! On ICE that differs from other sports series?

Tatenaka: The most difficult and challenging part of animating Yuri!!! is that there are no pauses in movements. In baseball, there’s usually a pause, but in figure skating the characters are constantly on the move, so you have to keep drawing each sequence. All of the poses and the movements are things I haven’t drawn before.

During the skating scenes, the characters have thoughts running through their heads. Did you do research into what real figure skaters are thinking about as they perform?

Ogawa: It’s probably something Director Yamamoto came up with. Because she loves figure skating.

Hirose: She actually did interview some real figure skaters to ask, “What do you think about while you’re skating?”

This next question is about the film In This Corner of the World. In between the chapters of the manga, there are a number of quirky little guides, like how to make your rice last as long as possible by adding as much water as possible and mashing it. Are these funny little moments also in the movie?

Ito: Not all of them because there are a lot of those handwritten notes, but for most of them the characters will have a line explaining why they’re doing something. In the movie, the animated sequence about cooking in the kitchen is done very meticulously. You can see what’s being done while she’s explaining.

This is a question for the female guests here: are there any unique challenges to being women in the animation industry?

Hirose: I have a child. Being a mom and doing production in a tight schedule is very hard for me.

Ito: Not being able to go home. Not being able to shower. I don’t take naps at work because I don’t want people to see me sleeping at the office. But a lot of the male workers don’t care. They’ll sleep on the chairs and on the floors. But I can’t.

Thank you for the interview. I wish you the best of luck on your future projects!

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[APT507] The Legacy of All Might: Pieces of the Symbol of Peace

My Hero Academia continues to impress, and I thought I’d write an article over at Apartment 507 concerning how different characters interpret and emulate All Might. If you have any thoughts on All Might as a character, let me know!

Tiger Mask W and the Lack of Friendship Redemption Arcs in Pro Wrestling

WARNING: Tiger Mask W spoilers

My decision to watch the anime Tiger Mask W came during a time that I’ve been watching more pro wrestling than I have in more than a decade. As I’ve re-acclimated myself to that world of holds, slams, betrayals, and glory, it only makes sense that a wrestling anime would hook me. The fact that it’s a sequel to a beloved classic that tries to capture the feel of the original but projected through the lens of today made that doubly possible. Watching Tiger Mask W and its story of revenge and redemption, however, made me extremely aware of the fact that real pro wrestling has plenty of the former but little of the latter.

One of the main plot points of Tiger Mask W is the rivalry between Tiger Mask and Tiger the Dark, two friends seeking vengeance on a common foe yet who aren’t aware of each other’s true identity. Eventually, they make amends and they grow stronger for it. This sort of narrative is incredibly common in anime and manga—think Naruto and Sasuke. In comparison, pro wrestling has backstabbing and teams imploding galore, but I can only think of very few cases where the reforging of bonds once broken actually seems planned in advance.

For example, over the past year, numerous duos in the world of the WWE have come apart when one character turns traitor. Kevin Owens attacked Chris Jericho during a celebration of their friendship. Tommaso Ciampa assaulted Johnny Gargano, ending the tag team DIY. Goldust hit R-Truth from behind, breaking up their alliance. Big Cass booted Enzo Amore in the face with disdain. All were and are meant to lead to feuds between former allies, the aftertaste of betrayal making them that much more bitter. Wrestling seems to be very much about building up teams only to tear them down and start an intense battle between the two, but actually bringing them back together is never part of the plan, at least not at first.

There’s always the chance that wrestlers will make amends. Perhaps one day Enzo will be fighting against the odds, when Cass runs out and saves him. After all, face turns (switches from evil to good) are part and parcel with the industry. But they’re not woven into the narrative from the start so much as something that’s done once a rivalry has run its course. They’re treated as two separate stories: the betrayal that occurs, and then later (if they really need it) the redemption and reunion.

But I want my “anime as hell” stories about a hero trying over and over to rescue a former friend from the darkness. I want face turns to come from realizing the errors of one’s ways. I want more Tiger Mask and Tiger the Dark narratives. I don’t want the restoration of friendship to be an afterthought, but something actually planned as part of a greater arc.