The Gamble Is Afoot: Greatest M ~Mahjong Tournament of Eminent Figures~ Volume 2

Greatest M ~Mahjong Tournament of Eminent Figures~ starts with a premise that sounds like something out of a Type-Moon Fate series parody: What if famous figures from history competed in mahjong to inherit God’s position? And while there actually is a Fate mahjong series as well, this one works from the headline-worthy premise of having a cute anime-girl depiction of Helen Keller as the protagonist.

Volume 2 continues the story along largely expected lines: big hands being played by bigger personalities. Helen Keller’s “Miraculous Girl” title and ability are explained as her being able to stand up to even the greatest obstacles through her bond with Anne Sullivan—the moniker actually refers to both of them at once.

The results of the second match are decided off-panel, with a genderswap Toyotomi Hideyoshi emerging from a one-sided victory. While I’m not well versed in Japanese history, I’ve never seen the idea that Hideyoshi was really a woman, so I wonder where this might be going. In any case, the manga goes straight into the third match, which features three big names from France…and the world’s most famous detective.

Le Chevalier D’eon, Marie Antoinette, and Jeanne D’arc are all famous figures (and all three have been characters in anime and manga already), so it’s no surprise that these three would end up in Greatest M. However, for all three to be at the same table is a curious move. Moreover, the fourth seat—Sherlock Holmes—opens up the realm of possible contestants to not just historical figures (embellished though they might be), but also fictional characters. The Fate comparisons stay strong. I’m fond of all the character designs here, especially Jeanne’s battle-weary look, but the depiction of Sherlock is downright theatrical.

This manga could easily wear itself thin, but the third round also introduces the idea of alternate rulesets that can potentially spice things up. In this case, you can give a “Jong Command” and order your opponent to either discard a specific tile, force them to call a discard and open up their hand, or make them reveal their wait. It’s sort of like Go Fish, only the penalty for guessing incorrectly is losing 10,000 points. Especially with Sherlock in the picture, I expect a lot of predicting opponents’ motivations and deceptive strategies. That said, I actually expect there to be a twist, and for Sherlock to not make it through—possibly due to the chaos of mahjong itself. 

At this point, part of the fun of Greatest M is seeing just who will compete. What are the odds of Jesus showing up…?

Smash Ultimate and the Shmup Life of Jigglypuff

I like watching Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournaments, but it’s only over the past year that I’ve started watching individual streamers more—chalk it up to a pandemic. During this time, one player I’ve been enjoying is Super Smash Bros. Melee “god” Hungrybox try his hand at Ultimate as a Jigglypuff main. But while a part of the fun is in seeing a top Melee player use a heavily toned down version of his signature character to become a low-tier hero, I’d felt that there was also something inherently compelling about Jigglypuff itself. Then, realization hit me last year as I watched the Touhou game Shoot the Bullet during Summer Games Done Quick 2020: Jigglypuff in Ultimate is a lot like a ship in a shoot ‘em up boss fight.

Shmups are a genre where your character is besieged every level by an endless procession of enemy ships and projectiles, generally culminating against a boss character of some kind. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that your playable unit will typically die in one hit, so the ability to evade and barely make it out of harm’s way is key to success—especially if you’re playing for some kind of record or achievement. 

Jigglypuff in Ultimate is in a similar position. It excels in moving back and forth through the air thanks to a high air speed, multiple jumps, and a slow fall speed. Being the second lightest in the game means it can’t withstand many attacks, but its small size means being able to dodge things other characters can’t. The character also has short reach on its attacks, thus any opponent with projectiles or a long weapon like a sword presents a daunting wall that Jigglypuff must surmount through effective weaving. Like the heroine Aya in Shoot the Bullet, there is a clear edge that Jigglypuff’s foes have in the fight, in that their ability to threaten and cover space is something Jigglypuff cannot match.

This is somewhat different in Melee due to the strength of Jigglypuff’s back-air. In that environment, it’s a deceptively far-reaching attack that makes Jigglypuff the “wall” that players must deal with instead of the other way around. Jigglypuff’s ability to throw out repeated beefy back-airs while juking is even referred to as the “wall of pain.” Jigglypuff in Ultimate not only has less range, but the character automatically turns around after throwing a back-air out, preventing the ability to string multiple back-airs together. 

Instead, Jigglypuff must bob and dance, hoping to be in the right place at the right time to nickel and dime the opponent without overextending. While it has an ace in the hole in the form of Rest, it’s hard to hit and requires a lot of planning and game sense (and maybe even a bit of luck). Every mistake is a costly one, and the frail nature of the character means defeat is often snatched from the jaws of victory. 

Does this make for a particularly strong character? Probably not. But it sure makes for a tense and exciting viewing experience, and it’s why I keep watching Hungrybox, as well as other Puff mains like Bassmage. Also, when I think about it, this would also make a great template for a Touhou character…

PS: If I ever had the chance to rebalance Jigglypuff to be stronger, I’d give Jigglypuff a kill throw because being such an air-focused character means shielding is especially effective against it. Due to its floatiness, slow ground speed, and lack of range, Jigglypuff also has a harder time landing grabs—so I think it’d still be fair.

Digimon Tamers, Konaka, and Cancel Culture

In the latest episode of “Discovering Your Favorite Creators’ Alarming Beliefs,” the writer of Digimon Tamers, Chiaki J. Konaka, recently penned a new script for the show’s 20th anniversary that revealed him to be influenced by right-wing conspiracy theories. In his new entry (read by the original actors themselves), he positions the greatest threat to humanity to be “extreme political correctness” and “cancel culture,” going as far as to use these specific English terms. This naturally created a backlash from those rightly worried and support from those who share similar beliefs. I find myself extremely disappointed by this news, but I also know that right-wing politics and a tendency towards conspiracy theories are both fairly common among anime creators. Thus, I want to share my thoughts on the matter.

First: Yes, cancel culture does exist. No, neither it nor “extreme political correctness” are the greatest threats to humanity. And no, I don’t know if Konaka always held such beliefs, or if this is new.

I think the far right often tries to portray “cancel culture” as attempts to police and censor dissenting opinions, but that’s not the case. Rather, cancel culture—which is basically about calling someone or something out en masse—is a side effect of the need and desire to hold the powerful accountable. It comes from a fear that harmful or abusive behavior and beliefs are not properly kept in check by those with the power and influence to do so easily, so it’s up to regular people online.

Plenty of people have been canceled for the right reasons. You’ll also find people who were unjustly attacked due to a misunderstanding or because someone with that power and influence decided to lean into it—either out of innocence or malice. Cancel culture can be abused by the unscrupulous, but so can the fear of cancel culture. There’s a risk of mob mentality on either side.

But I think the biggest concern is less Konaka’s thoughts on cancel culture and more the notion that extreme political correctness is one of humanity’s greatest obstacles. While the threat of censorship has been a very real issue in Japan (down to book burnings and all), Konaka has seemingly failed to recognize how criticism of political correctness has been used as a Trojan Horse to sneak in more extreme-right beliefs. The right likes to portray their hatred of political correctness as a reaction to a looming threat, when it’s very much the opposite: cancel culture is the reactionary symptom of people who feel powerless.

While Konaka’s past works suggest a proclivity towards conspiracy theories, I think what it might boil down to is that he comes from a generation that fought against Draconian censorship and still has to keep up the battle even in recent times. The Tokyo Metropolitan Ordinance is less than a decade old, and before that, the spectre of Miyazaki Tsutomu cast a dark shadow on otaku culture. To those for whom the battle has always been censorship vs anti-censorship, the sides seem pretty cut-and-dry. But they belie the fact that the far right actively uses this simple dichotomy as camouflage to mask its true intentions: demonizing the other as a means to authoritarianism. Freedom of expression is a valuable concept, and one I personally highly value, but it has many fragile components that are easy to exploit—see the classic “conservative guy goes onto a college campus and demands that liberals debate him” scheme. It’s an ambush disguised as a fair exchange of ideas. Konaka, born in 1961, is also possibly susceptible to the kind of disinformation that has infected us all.

I sometimes feel that people are so eager to right wrongs that they end up jumping the gun and causing more damage than they intended—which is compounded all the more by social media and our current media environment. More needs to be done to keep people from going 0 to 100 on any subject. But the general desire to see the world be a better and more accepting place is central to much of this mess, and it behooves us to remember to be bigger than the immediate, to be the biggest dreamers we can.

The Unquenching Desire for Villains: 9/11, 20 Years Later

Trigger Warnings:  September 11, COVID-19, and all they entail—death, suicide, etc.

I still remember visiting the Twin Towers with friends after school. We would go semi-regularly, with the Japanese restaurant on the underground level being our favorite destination. Between the massive riceballs and the generous helpings of udon and soba, it was always something to look forward to. Then 9/11 happened, and I never even learned if the people running that place even survived. I still wonder. 

20 years is a long time, but there are still feelings and memories that stick with me to this day. No one among my friends and family were hurt or worse, so I have much to be thankful for, but I remember the panic of a friend whose dad worked in the World Trade Center. I remember the shudder of the school building as something happened—I think it was as the second plane hit. I remember the eerily calm evacuation, and me handing a half-full water bottle to a firefighter who was desperately gathering any water he could. I remember meeting up with my siblings in Manhattan—one of whom walked miles on foot, another who was close enough that day to see bodies falling. I remember having a dream that night in which the block where I lived was seeing invasion by futuristic caterpillar tanks, of all things. 

I also remember how naive I was at the time, and how much I wanted this to be a truly unifying moment for the United States of America. I didn’t understand why one classmate refused to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. I wanted to believe that President George W. Bush would utilize all this good faith for the better. I was someone who didn’t really know or understand politics, and my greatest concern in that respect was trying to find a mental compromise that would reconcile the beliefs I’d been taught and the questions I’ve always had. 

Now here we are, those hopes long since dashed, and facing a new problem in COVID-19 that makes those lives lost on 9/11 seem horrifically quaint by comparison. Thousands of bodies have made way for hundreds of thousands and counting. But while that sense of unity in 2001 was fleeting and illusory, it was still more than what we’ve gotten out of fighting the coronavirus. Sure, some of that could be explained by the fact that the US is more divided now, driven to the brink in part by the poison of disinformation. However, I think there’s something else: in the aftermath of 9/11, we had in Osama Bin Laden an enemy we could hope would be on the receiving end of a bullet. In recent days, as I reflect on the events of the past year but also the past 20 years, I’ve come to realize that the US (and perhaps human beings as a whole) are more comfortable with a flesh-and-blood target we can attack through physical violence.

Columbine was just two years before 9/11, and started two generations of kids on their path of customary active shooter drills. What’s a common refrain when it comes to the epidemic of gun violence we see in the US? “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” We actually think the solution is to just have more, better guns and to shoot harder. I truly believe this is because the US (or at least a significant portion of it) has an incredibly hard time dealing with problems that don’t just involve overwhelming them with brute force. But COVID-19 can’t be defeated by guns, glaciers will not unmelt if we bomb them…and yet, part of the nation keeps desperately seeking that living, breathing entity to vilify. 

I recently read an article called “25 Essential Notes on Craft from Matthew Salesses,” which is an excerpt from a larger book by Salesses about the rules we construct around what makes good or bad fiction, and how this can differ between cultures. In it, he points out that Western critics often label Asian stories as “undramatic” or plotless” because of their lack of “conflict.” While I’m under no illusion that discrimination, intolerance, and scapegoating are somehow absent in Asian cultures (and in fact are often downright prevalent), I do think that this Western obsession with stories needing conflict also bleeds into how we as a culture approach so many other things. That includes the narratives that are built up in the news and in media—to create easily identifiable villains to vanquish. It’s the Chinese. It’s Dr. Fauci. It’s Joe Biden. It’s Greta Thunberg. It’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s Mexicans at the border. It’s a secret cabal run by Democrats who abduct children to create an immortality elixir. And I’ll even admit that Trump has made a hell of a foe to rally against because he is demonstrably a monster of the worst kind.

There’s a certain comfort in having physical, human obstacles to overcome instead of abstract ones. One of my favorite anime genres is giant robots, and that’s built on a basic premise of “big metal man punches monster to death and saves the day.” Sure, plenty might house anti-war or anti-racism messages (Tetsujin 28, Gundam, Voltes V), or even act as metaphors for the struggles of the human mind (Evangelion). But even those tend to depict physical struggles, even if they might be symbolic in nature. Superheroes are in a similar boat, more traditionally geared towards stopping an arch-nemesis than childhood malnutrition. It’s hard for stories like these to deal with systemic issues, especially those that would be better solved by policy and activism.

It’s okay to think weapons are cool. It’s okay to think fights are cool. Tanks, guns, lasers, planes, kicks and punches, mecha—I love seeing this stuff in fiction, and I think people do need some kind of outlet. However, in our actual societies, when we focus too much on punishing perceived evildoers instead of creating an environment that minimizes the likelihood of such people arising in the first place, we do ourselves greater harm still. An education system able to equip people with the skills to truly think critically and a healthcare system where people aren’t deathly afraid to find out what might be afflicting them would be a good place to start. While there are indeed always going to be bad people who need to be stopped, we have to understand that violence comes not just in the form of a terrorist with a bomb or a shooter with a gun; there’s also the harm caused by dehumanizing others, whether because of their race, culture, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of our beings. The collateral damage of 9/11 was more than just the lives lost, and I hope we can learn that lesson before it’s too late.

It’s a Secret to Everybody: Giant Gorg

Tagami Yuu, a young boy in an explorer outfit and a beret, looks back at Giant Gorg, a large blue robot, in the background

In many ways, 1984’s Giant Gorg feels like an “anti–giant robot” anime. Sure, it has Yasuhiko “Yaz” Yoshikazu (one of the chief visionaries of Mobile Suit Gundam) as both director and character. And it’s indeed about a boy and his mecha guardian in the middle of a conflict that stands to change the entire world. But where most giant robot series before and after would aim for some combination of bombast, gritty science fictional realism, and/or gripping human melodrama, Giant Gorg often comes across as more concerned with atmosphere and conveying a sense of place in the world.

Giant Gorg follows 13-year-old Tagami Yuu, a Japanese boy who travels to New York City following clues about the death of his father. This takes him on a whirlwind adventure, all the way to the mysterious New Austral Island, where he learns about a mysterious organization named GAIL that seeks to discover the island’s secrets. There, he encounters a massive robot—Gorg—that seems to obey his every command. With a group of allies by his side, as well as the might of Gorg, Yuu works with the natives to push back GAIL, but he may have an even closer connection to the truths of New Austral Island than he realizes.

I enjoyed Giant Gorg for its moody feel, its excellent artwork and animation, and the fact that it feels more like you’re jumping into a specific time and place in world events. On the other hand, I would not call it “riveting.” While I had the ability to watch many episodes in one sitting, I rarely would watch more than two or three because the anime doesn’t really set itself up to compel viewers to keep going. Events that finish a given episode in Giant Gorg feel like the half-way point for an episode of Mobile Suit Gundam. Whereas the latter might leave you off with tears and shouting, the former more often hits the ending credits with the reveal of a hidden cave or something. 

Because of this, Giant Gorg feels unabashedly Yaz. Whether it’s a manga set in the dawn before the Russo-Japanese War or his retelling of the Gundam story in Gundam: The Origin, Yaz tends to focus on giving his stories the same feel as a fascinating but dense historical text. This makes it all the easier to see what he and Gundam director Tomino Yoshiyuki each brought to that franchise—Yaz’s attention to detail and physical realism contrasts with Tomino’s chaotic energy and far-reaching visions. It’s like Yaz is a master baker who can produce incredibly well-made cakes, but never quite got the hang of how to do amazing icing. Giant Gorg, in turn, can feel both like a distillation of one man’s style and half an anime.

As a final note, I want to end off by recounting a sort of “personal history of Giant Gorg”:

I was studying abroad in Japan in 2005 when I saw a commercial for the upcoming DVD release of Giant Gorg. I had heard of the series before, but was mostly struck by how fantastic the robot itself looked. It’s an aesthetic that stayed with me for a long time.

Ten years later, I found myself sitting near the front of the Sunrise anime studio panel at New York Comic Con 2015, alongside my friend Patz. The presenter was going through a list of Sunrise series available in the US, when Giant Gorg came on-screen. The series had been licensed for US release just months before, and as mecha nerds, both Patz and I began shouting with excitement. We were sitting close enough to the presenter that she noticed and, with a surprised look on her face, asked, “Really?” The two of us responded by shouting, “GOOORG!” in unison. We were just excited for the opportunity to own such an obscure and gorgeous piece of anime and mecha history. While Giant Gorg won’t go down as one of my all-time favorites, its flavor is unmistakable and appreciated.

PS: There’s an antagonistic group in the show called the Cougar Connection led by Lady Lynx. The jokes are silly and obvious, but I can’t help chuckling every time it comes up.

Standing in a Whirl of Confusion—Gundam Reconguista in G Part II: Bellri’s Fierce Charge

The G-Self in combat

Gundam Reconguista in G compilation films Part I and Part II are currently available on the official Gundam Youtube channel. Having previously seen the first film at Anime NYC 2019, I wondered if the smart changes that made Part I significantly better than the TV series would also carry into the sequel. I’m happy to say this is indeed the case.

Gundam Reconguista in G Part II: Bellri’s Fierce Charge continues where Part I: Go! Core Fighter left off. In this era of the classic Gundam‘s Universal Century timeline, the massive space wars of the past are ancient history and the nations of the Earth are managed by a central mediating body known as the Capital Tower, home to a space elevator that receives energy batteries from space and distributes them across the world. Bellri Zenam is the son of Capital Tower’s leader, but after the Tower’s defense force, the Capital Guard, starts to be supplanted by the more militaristic Capital Army, Bellri gets caught up in the middle of a new conflict. As the pilot of the mysterious G-Self, he ends up traveling with what is ostensibly a pirate crew as he tries to figure out his place in the world.

Bellri in tears while in combat

This film continues the trend of being far more understandable compared with its source material, though that’s not to say it’s easy to follow—merely easier. Director Tomino Yoshiyuki’s style can be famously obtuse and bombastic, and that’s the case here as well. However, Bellri’s Fierce Charge establishes the characters more solidly and allows them to act as a focal point for the story. So while the complex and sparsely explained politics of the G-Reco setting can still be a recipe for confusion, viewers can anchor themselves to the emotions of those characters who are often equally confused. If there’s anything viewers might get mixed up on that the characters take for granted, it’s the distinction between the Capital Guard and the Capital Army, which reflects an ongoing debate over the role of the Japan Self Defense Force and Japan’s constitutional anti-war stance.

This is especially the case with Bellri himself, who in the TV series could sometimes unintentionally come across as carefree at best and a sociopath at worst. Here, what should have been a major turning point in his life in the original version gets a proper amount of attention, and you can see the degree to which there is a clash between Bellri’s ideals, his frustration at adults for making the world a worse place, and the decisions he feels forced to make.

Barara Peor next to a wall

Other characters shine as well. Whether it’s Captain Mask, Aida Surugan, or even Bellri’s mom, the strong portrayals of their personalities—facilitated by great animation—give Part II an extra oomph that keeps it memorable and shows the complexity of their world. Yoshida Ken’ichi’s character designs are always excellent, with side character Barara Peor (above) being an especially strong design.

I think the Gundam Reconguista in G movies are well on their way to becoming the definitive version. The new edits and footage take what were excellent but obtuse ideas and criticisms about humanity’s current relationship with war, and convey these ideas much more solidly and emotionally. I would have watched the entirety of the tetralogy already, but now I’m really looking forward to seeing the end again.

One final note: The main theme of Bellri’s Fierce Charge is by the famous Japanese group Dreams Come True, arguably better known internationally as the composers of the first two Sonic the Hedgehog games. The theme, shown above, can be found on their official channel.

Speedwagon from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure shouting "Gaaaaah! Even Shakespeare is afraid!" in reference to lyrics from the Dreams Come True song, G.

Pumpkin Spicy Takes: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for September 2021

The past month has been quite a ride for me as an anime fan. I attended my first live convention in ages, I watched the finale of one of my favorite franchises ever, and I stumbled into my most popular tweet in a very, very long time.

I’ll definitely be watching the second G-Reco movie next month, so watch out for that review!

Meanwhile, I’d also like to thank the following Patreon sponsors for their continued support:

General:

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Blog highlights from August:

I actually think I posted some of my best work in a while, so I recommend readers check out everything this month, but if you only have a little time, these are probably the best.

Farewell, Old Friend—Evangelion 3.01+1.01: Thrice Upon a Time

My extensive analysis and personal send-off of the final Eva film. Clocking in at over 5,000 words, it’s one of the longest pieces I’ve ever written for the blog.

Risk vs. Reward: Otakon 2021

I attended Otakon this year! In person! See my thoughts on con-going in the COVID-19 era.

The Fight Against Oneself: Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway

Like Shin Evangelion, another look at the past and then the future—this time, in the form of my review of the latest Gundam movie.

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 43 is the first time we’re Kousei’s orphanage—a significant development for the character, in my opinion.

Kio Shimoku’s Twitter account has some interesting Eva tidbits in August.

Apartment 507

In terms of setup and interesting storytelling, I think Love Live! Superstar!! might be the best the franchise has to offer.

Closing

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve noticed a funny thing with my blog stats.

Throughout 2020, I received many more hits than I have over recent years. This trend started to subside around spring this year (when the vaccine rollout started getting some steam), but now over the past couple months as the delta variant ravages the US (where most of my visitors come from), I’m seeing an uptick in blog views again. As much as I like having more people read my stuff, I’d rather everyone be alive.

Go get vaccinated and wear a mask in public and when around others. Stay safe, and I wish you all good health.

Kio Shimoku Twitter Highlights August 2021

Not a ton of tweets this month, but if you’re interested in Kio’s thoughts about Rebuild of Evangelion (as well as his bout with work exhaustion and illness), here they are!

Works-Related

During a sale on the Kujibiki Unbalance manga, Kio talks about how this came before Jigopuri and Nidaime. “In a sense, it’s an original work closest to being a Genshiken spinoff.”

Kio has two volumes coming out in September (Spotted Flower v5 and Hashikko Ensemble v7), and he expressed that the amount of work he needs to put in to draw all the extra stuff was a challenge. However, he eventually managed to finish more recently.

Kio planned to take a 20-minute nap that turned into an hour. However, because his hands were feeling great, he called it a win.

Hase-san’s eyes quickly draw you in. (I think this is referring to Hasegawa Kozue from Hashikko Ensemble, but I’m not 100%.)

Kio makes a joke about his LCD tablet being really “hot,” except he means literally high-temperature. He realizes that he’s always used the tablet in air-conditioned environments, so he never really noticed it until now. He then decides the next day to use the AC after all.

Sick Kio

Kio was all prepared to hold a “lavish party” (which might just be “getting more work done”), but between his schedule and the side effects of this medicine (vaccine side effects?), he wanted to cancel. As he went back and forth between at least trying to work, he realized it wasn’t possible.

Evangelion, etc.

Last month, I left this tweet untranslated because I hadn’t seen Evangelion 3.01+1.01 yet. Now I have, and it’s time to delve into it. WARNING: SPOILERS

Kio was apparently a fan of the theory that Asuka and the other characters in Evangelion 3.33 were all from the old The End of Evangelion timeline, and the Rebuild characters were all imprisoned.  He also came into the final film ready to not be surprising by anything, but it was the gentleness of the movie that got to him.

Kio was too busy to go see Evangelion 3.0+1.01 in theaters again, so he listened to the soundtrack while working, and mentally recalled scenes from the film.

Kio commiserates with someone else about needing to pee partway through Evangelion 3.0+1.01—the nature of a movie that’s two-and-a-half hours long

Kio reacting to this month’s Five Star Stories. According to him, the designs can be disappointing in some ways, but the contents of the story are so rich. He seems to really feel the Shinnomaru and the Akatsuki. He had originally gotten some of Volks’s “Mighty Series” model kits, but didn’t build them. When someone he knew gave him the Akatsuki, though, he ended up finishing that one.

Music

A recounting of his experiences at the Secondary Culture Choir Festival, previously mentioned in the July tweet roundup. He’s not super knowledgeable about music still, but he enjoyed the sense of freedom with which they sang, and is grateful for the experience. He was announced as a “manga creator,” which he’s flattered by.

Kio has listened to this chorus before, but thinks they probably sound even more impressive in person.

…And that’s all for now. See you next month!

It’s the ’Hara Knock Life: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 43

Akira, Jin, and Mai singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to little kids

We get a glimpse of Kousei’s home life (and a Christmas concert!) in Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 43.

Summary

The Chorus Appreciation Society is visiting the orphanage where Kousei’s been raised, and they plan to hold a Christmas concert for the kids there. ItThere, Akira and the others meet three people in particular: Zenba Yoshimi, the assistant director of the orphanage; Hayase Minori, a 6th grader; and Sawamura Rikurou, a middle school delinquent. Rikurou clearly looks up to Kousei, and he doesn’t understand why Kousei would hang out with the Chorus Appreciation Society or take up singing.

The day of the concert, members of the Appreciation Society are dressed for the occasion, with Kousei taking on the role of Santa Claus himself. The Tsuyamers then come in as namahage (New Year’s demons) to “scare” the children, only for a fight between Santa Kousei and Hage Tsuyama to be interrupted by Kozue dressed as God. Though part of the show, the tension between Kousei and Tsuyama is all too real. 

God Kozue proposes a singing competition instead. Tsuyamers go with “My Neighbor Totoro,” while Akira’s group sings “Let It Go.”

Happy Holidays

Kozue, dressed as God, declares a sing-off between Santa Kousei and Namahage Tsuyama

I appreciate the particular blend of cultures we see around Christmas and New Year’s in Japan, between the Santa stuff, the namahage, and Kozue as the Judeo-Christian God with stereotypical white beard and all. The fact that they didn’t go with Jesus probably says a lot.

Imagination Station

I find it noteworthy how this chapter is how it starts, which is right at the orphanage. There was no scene in the previous chapter showing Kousei explaining his past to the other characters, nor was there any discussion regarding singing at his orphanage. And yet, because the characters have such strong and rich portrayals, it’s easy to imagine how this ended up happening. In particular, because Kousei has opened up over time, one gets the sense that he barely okayed this because he’s easily embarrassed but would like to give back to the place where he grew up. 

It’s also through the new characters we meet that we can get a glimpse of what Kousei’s life has been like since he was rescued from his abusive mother. 

The People in Kousei’s Life

Yoshimi, the assistant director of the orphanage, mentions that Kousei used to cry into her chest at night

Yoshimi, Minori, and Rikurou each make quite strong first impressions, and it’s easy to see how they’ve affected and been affected by having Kousei in their lives. 

At the start of the chapter, Kozue asks Yoshimi what Kousei was like as a kid, and despite Kousei angrily telling Yoshimi to keep shut, she nonchalantly mentions him often crying at night. She seems like a tough lady who takes no shit from anyone, and someone who’s accustomed to handling children like Kousei and Rikurou. I can also easily see her attitude rubbing off on Kousei. The orphanage itself also seems well run.

Minori tries to act mature, explaining that she’s not like the other little kids there. Yoshimi explains to the group that she’s smart, but she’s also in a hurry to grow up. From the little we see of her, she does come across as actively trying to have a good head on her shoulders, even dispensing advice to the older Rikurou. Minori is the one who points out that Kousei established the rule about not hitting anyone younger than you at the orphanage, and calls out Rikurou’s anger as jealousy over possibly losing Kousei.

Rikurou is the closest in demeanor to Kousei, to the point that much of it is probably him trying to emulate his role model. The kid clearly thinks the world of Kousei, and he’s threatened by the Chorus Appreciation Society the way an only child might feel about a new sibling. There’s fear and pain there, and Rikurou likely tries to compensate for it with his tough-guy persona. 

Speaking of Jealousy…

There are a few moments concerning the ever-so-slightly icier relationship between Jin and Akira. Jin mentally notes how much Akira has improved, while Akira realizes he kind of likes the change in attitude from Jin towards him. While not explained why Akira sees an upside to this, it’s probably because Jin has always been this larger-than-life figure when it comes to singing. For Jin to look at Akira with any kind of envy is, in a certain sense, a sign of Akira’s own progress.

Songs

Because they’re singing for an orphanage, all the tunes this month are for kids.

(Note that Youtube doesn’t let you add children-oriented videos to playlists, so many of these won’t be included on the big Hashikko Ensemble playlist).

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (Japanese)

“Awatenbou no Santa Claus” (Hasty Santa Claus) is a Christmas song of Japanese origins.

“Jingle Bells (Japanese)”

“My Neighbor Totoro” from the Studio Ghibli film

“Let It Go” (or “Ari no Mama de” in Japanese) from Frozen

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that the three characters we meet at the orphanage are all different age groups compared to Kousei. Their interactions show less of a peer dynamic and more of a somewhat intergenerational one. Because these three aren’t high school age, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a whole lot of them, but I’m sure they’re going to pop up from time to time even after this specific story ends.

Mashle Is the Answer to Harry Potter (No, Really)

Harry Potter is synonymous with magical school fantasy, defining the genre for an entire generation. However, one criticism I increasingly see is that it’s more about maintaining/restoring the status quo rather than trying to effect a real and lasting positive societal change that goes beyond defeating evil. While it’s a bit unfair to pigeonhole the books in this way, it’s also hard to deny that Harry Potter eschews structural issues about the world it presents, and that this is not all that uncommon in similar fiction.

That’s why the last place I expected to see a more boldly progressive take on the inequities of a wizarding society would come in the form of a comedic shounen manga called Mashle: Magic & Muscles.

I want to be clear that Mashle is not some leftist manifesto that proudly announces its overthrowing of capitalist oppressors. Jack London’s The Iron Heel this most certainly is not. But when you compare how Mashle and Harry Potter tackle the same premise, the differences stand out.

Both protagonists, Harry Potter and Mash Burnedead, enroll in a magic school where they must deal with being outsiders while also being under the benevolent watch of the school’s wise, old leader. However, whereas Harry Potter at the start is simply inexperienced with wizardry but has potential for greatness, Mash is completely incapable of magic. In order to get through his classes and achieve his goal of becoming Divine Visionary (a motivation from the beginning unlike Harry’s initial uncertainty), Mash has to overcome his disadvantage through sheer physical power. 

The contest between Mash’s muscles and the occult abilities he contends with is generally played for laughs, but there’s another layer to that contrast. Sure, it’s funny to see his “magic” be activating different muscle groups and his “spells” amount to suplexes and punches to the face. Yet, because he is doing this purely through his human physiology, his victories over other students both read differently from Harry’s accomplishments and are received differently by the very mages he bests. By beating them without magic, Mash makes his opponents realize on some level that they are themselves victims—because they get drawn into the incessant and blinding obsession with hierarchy and power. The problem is not exclusive to any specific group of rogue ne’er-do-wells, it’s systemic.

Mash himself is not a sharp mind capable of bold leadership. He’s from that Goku/Luffy/Saitama lineage where thinking is not their strong suit. He merely wants to live a comfortable life with his grandfather, but he’s forced to attempt the impossible and become the top of a magical school because his world despises the weak. Mash defies his society in multiple ways: upending what strength means, as well as rejecting the notion that those with less deserve less.

Around Chapter 65, the “Voldemort” of the series is revealed, as are Mash’s true origins. While not quite the same as the concept of horcruxes relative to Harry and Voldemort, Mash and the main villain share a similar connection. Mash turns out not to be the everyman he assumed himself to be, but that doesn’t change the fact that he uses his particular skills to upend people’s preconceived notions. The difference between Harry discovering the magic within and Mash working to overcome the magic he lacks remains stark.

That all said, it’s hard to think of Mashle as being in the same league as Harry Potter when it comes to the ability to capture people’s imaginations. It simply doesn’t have that sense of wonder that makes Harry Potter so enduring; instead, it goes for lots of comedy, absurdity, and the occasional cool fight. Spiritually, it’s cut from the same cloth as Kinnikuman and early Dragon Ball, during the kid Goku era. I have trouble seeing children running around pretending to be Mash because Mashle doesn’t really provide for that.

Mashle and Harry Potter both operate under the idea that the power of love is in a category of its own. But where Harry Potter‘s is either abstract in its sentimentality or all too literal, Mashle‘s manifests in a grandfather taught the value of human life, and a grandson who strives to live up to that ideal through both word and deed.