Though not always at the forefront of mainstream entertainment around the world, anime and manga have had a significant influence on a lot of artists’ and creators’ work. Some aim to create “anime” or “manga,” while others are show the impact of Japanese popular media in subtler ways, Prominent series such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and the more recent Steven Universe tend to be at the center of these discussions, and all of this leads to questions such as how one defines anime, or whether or not something “counts” as manga.

When thinking about whether or not Steven Universe or Megatokyo can be defined as anime or manga, what I find important isn’t the semantics of definition or how close to a certain truth we need to get, nor is it necessary to have to strictly categorize anime or manga. Instead, it reminds me of something that a classic anime dirctor, the late Ishiguro Noboru (Macross, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Space Battleship Yamato) had to say about what influenced his own work in Japanese animation. At Otakon 2011, Ishiguro cited as some of his influences Czech puppet shows and animator Norm McLaren, both of which are visually extremely different from Japanese animation both old and new.

While Ishiguro did not state that he was creating Japanese Czech Puppet Theater (OJP Animation instead of OEL Manga?), what I think is more important is understanding that how art influences art does not always result in something visually familiar. How it’s processed from its presentation to the creator who sees it, who then incorporates it in their own work, is unpredictable, and it might end up looking new and different. So, while Avatar: The Last Airbender looks closer to what people think of when they hear the term “anime” and Steven Universe looks a lot closer to an “American cartoon,” both are examples of series that draw influence from Japanese animation, and on some level it should be expected that there would be a transformative process when anime crosses, time, space, cultures, and different artists.

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Fighting game anime do not have the best reputation. While we’re not at the absolute depths of the 90s and such wonderful stinkers as Tekken and Battle Arena Toshinden, most of the time the individual stories you experience by playing each character one at a time in fighting games are all mashed together into a paste. The result is that characters do not even have enough screen time to properly showcase their already flimsy narratives, and what carries a fighting game anime to any kind of success is enough flair for the characters’ personalities to shine through in their limited actions.

BlazBlue: Alter Memory is not the worst anime in this respect. Based on the popular BlazBlue fighting game series, the fighters themselves are designed to be as bombastic as possible, and while the story is convoluted to no end it seems very intentional. The narrative and presentation of BlazBlue: Alter Memory revels in its anime aesthetic to the point that it ironically suffers from not being as beautiful in the animation department as its source material because they can’t be as meticulous compared with the intricate sprite animations used in the games. I have to admit that I’ve barely played the games, but from what I can read the anime successfully captures the fact that the story involves alternate timelines, powers that are ridiculously vague in their function, and a seemingly endless stream of little sisters.

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Ragna the Bloodedge is our white-haired, Sugita Tomokazu-voiced protagonist with a beefy sword. His little sister Saya was killed in the past, and he swears revenge against the man who did it. However, he keeps coming across girls that appear similar or even identical to Saya. There’s military police officer Noel Vermillion, who is arguably the series’ secondary heroine. There are robots that come possibly from the future (or something?) who have her face. Even one of the main villains turns out to have connections to Ragna’s little sister. I had a passing idea of the narrative of BlazBlue before watching, that time travel was involved, and that it is basically the Guilty Gear series with the anime dial cranked up to 13, but I didn’t realize that the story is basically Super Kyon (from Suzumiya Haruhi) and his deluge of imoutos.

When people use the term “anime fighter,” they’re referring to games like BlazBlue, and while it’s often associated with certain game mechanics such as air dashing and elaborate combos, the aesthetic is also important. BlazBlue, and by extension Alter Memory, takes all of the popular little trends in hardcore anime of the past seven years or so and throws them together to make something gloriously confusing. You have Catgirls and actual cats. There’s a 12-year-old looking vampire girl who’s a fan favorite. Yandere are seemingly everywhere. Angst and ninjas and flourishes of power are presented in such obtuse yet highly cinematic ways that Bleach creator Kubo Tite would blush. The sheer importance of little sisters in BlazBlue is not surprising, then, given just how increasingly prominent they have been in anime, manga, and light novels.

I think if there’s any major flaw of BlazBlue: Alter Memory, it’s from the fact that it’s an anime in the first place. This doesn’t seem like the kind of story you’re meant to experience by just watching. Rather, I think it’s supposed to kind of wash over you as you back in the aesthetic environment of the world and its dynamic characters. Maybe I should play the games more.

You can watch BlazBlue: Alter Memory on Hulu.

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One of the most common pieces of advice when it comes to the internet is simply, “don’t read the comments.” Whether it’s arguments about Justin Bieber on YouTube music videos or angry and insensitive comments on an article about a sensitive topic, comment sections can become minefields. It makes sense that we’re advised to ignore comment sections. However, while that’s generally sound advice, I think that it’s a mistake to believe that comment sections do not matter at all, especially in our current environment where social connections (both strong and weak) are made through online media.

Nowhere is this more relevant than with sites that utilize live chat feeds, such as Nico Nico Douga and Twitch. The difference between watching a game on Twitch with and without chat is basically the difference between watching alone or watching with a crowd. For those who want to share in the excitement of something as it happens (like a virtual crowd at a pro wrestling event), it becomes a vital part of the spectator experience. At that point, it’s not just about wanting to see comments or not, it’s about being a part of a collective bonding.

If you want to know how important the live chat is to Twitch, you only need to look at one of their more recent developments: saved chat logs for VODs. In the past, if you wanted to see what the chat was like for a previously recorded stream, your only hope was that someone captured it with the chat in progress. Now, anyone can step in a week or a month after a broadcast and see what people were saying at the time, and in many ways it enriches the experience. Imagine watching an old football game or something and having the crowd muted out. It certainly wouldn’t be the same, and while I understand that by not watching it live the experience changes anyway, there’s now a middle point.

This brings me to what I really wanted to talk about: the degree to which Twitch chat can become an unwelcoming place, and the potential harm it can cause. For me, personally, I experience this when I watch a Smash 4 tournament, and the chat is inundated with comments about how boring the game is, and how people can’t wait for Melee. It doesn’t matter how interesting the actual game being played is, people are ready to criticize and diminish its value. I think Smash 4 is awesome, and to some extent the trolls are just being trolls, but it results in an inhospitable environment that can turn away people who potentially have interest in a game. Perhaps they see huge portions of the chat calling the game a snooze fest, and think, “If this many people are saying that, maybe it is boring after all.” Or perhaps they just don’t want to deal with all of the nonsense and would prefer to watch another game with a chat that isn’t secretly hoping for the clown from Showtime at the Apollo to drag away what’s currently on.

That’s only a “your game vs. my game” scenario, though. Consider the tendency for Twitch chats to explode with comments whenever a girl appears on stream. I understand, lots of guys are horny, and by connecting to Twitch through one’s own personal devices, be they computers, mobile phones, or whatever, there’s a sense that what you’re seeing is merely an extension of your private space. Talking with your friends about how that girl was incredibly hot isn’t a bad thing, but stream and chat become this nebulous space where private and public intersect, and it’s not surprising that women would choose to hide their identities in chat, or prefer not to participate in the zoo that is Twitch chat (though that zoo can be fun and positive too).

In fact, I think comments online in general are a kind of extension of private space into public territories that can be both welcome and unwelcome. In a way, this blog is doing the same thing, as is Twitter, Facebook, and wherever else people are placing a part of themselves into their words. Social media and the internet as it exists today is not a separate entity from the real world. Ignoring elements of “IRL” space can be done too, but it usually comes with the awareness that it is cutting you off from a certain experience and resonance with others. Doing the same online might be necessary at times, but we shouldn’t act like the solution is to just encourage everyone to turn their eyes away from the problems that exist. The problems themselves need to be addressed too.

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As we get closer to the premiere of Love Live! Sunshine!! I’ve been trying to get my analyses of the original μ’s girls out for you to check out. This time, I’ve written about Ayase Eli and the way the series utilizes her “Russian-Ness.”

Harasho!

sailormercury-coverSailor Moon was one of the seminal shows of my anime fandom. I recall the joy of waking up every weekday morning to see what would happen next just as much as the embarrassment of being a Sailor Moon fan (I was a dumb kid for sure). However, as formative as that series was in certain respects, one thing I had only heard about but never directly experienced was the Sailor Moon manga. Now, 20 years later, thanks to Kodansha Comics’ re-translation of not only Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon but also its predecessor Codename Sailor V, all of that’s changed.

I don’t think Sailor Moon needs much of an introduction at this point, but just to cover my bases: A young girl named Tsukino Usagi discovers that she has magic powers that lets her transform into a costumed fighter named Sailor Moon. Along with her allies whom she gathers over time, the Sailor Guardians, she fights against numerous forces threatening the Earth. What makes Sailor Moon so memorable is its ever-continuing story of twists and turns, the powerful image of strong female characters fighting without needing to be rescued by a man (though occasionally a man will show up to give some moral support), and just the way it sparks imagination in audiences young and old.

The manga is no exception, though if there’s anything that stands out immediately about the Sailor Moon manga, it’s the relatively brevity compared to its animated counterpart. Instead of a 200-episode TV series, we have instead a 12-volume manga (15 if you count Sailor V and some additional side stories). While this typically implies a great deal of filler or extra stories to pad out entire seasons, and this is indeed true of Sailor Moon, it’s rarely to the degree seen here. Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star takes 26 episodes to reach his first major adversary, Shin, but only one volume of manga to do the same. The Sailor Guardians fight Jadeite in the anime for 13 episodes; he lasts only 3 chapters in the manga. Sailor Moon cuts through villains and entire story lines like a hot knife through butter, and covers most of the major arcs that the anime does in a fraction of the time.

This is a significant change of pace compared to the anime, which is based around a kind of episodic peek into the world of Sailor Moon. Each week, there would be a monster to fight and a problem to solve, and while the overall story would gradually move along, it’s sort of like visiting some friends. The feel of the show is slower, and I don’t mean that necessarily in a bad way. With the manga, however, everything moves forward at such a fast clip that I feel as if the dynamism of the characters themselves, as heroic figures, as beings with style and physicality, progress the narrative through their bodies and the actions they take with them. There’s a kind of connectivity from panel to panel that’s achieved through the statuesque shoujo designs of the characters and their fights that can’t be found to quite such a degree in the anime, even when taking into account the elaborate transformation sequences.

By the time Sailor Moon finishes, I get the sense that Usagi herself has changed tremendously. However, I’m not entirely sure if her maturation is entirely convincing. There are moments when Sailor Moon seems to have learned important lessons about doing what’s right/right for her, and then there are others where the manga tells you that she’s grown, or she suddenly shows a greater sense of compassion and responsibility, but it seems to have come from out of nowhere. In a way, having the story move as quickly as the manga does can make some events feel a little too rushed, and Usagi’s character development might just be one of those aspects. On the other hand, some of the weirder aspects of Sailor Moon (Chibi-Usa’s entire story) come and go just as quickly.

As a final note, I’d like to just give an aside about my favorite character, Sailor Mercury. It’s funny to think about what drew me (and a lot of other boys growing up on Sailor Moon) to the character. To put it simply, I was a nerd, and she was a nerd too, one who prized knowledge and study and interest in books and science. These days, that’s the norm for a lot of characters, and specific attention is being given to encouraging more girls to get into math, science, and the highest of higher education. Nerd girls are so expected of the world that they’ve entered the realm of stereotype. That’s how much things have changed since I first saw Sailor Moon, but the admirable qualities of its characters, whether in manga or anime, are what help make it timeless.

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kiminakare2-nobuko   I recently appeared on the Veef Show podcast, where I talked briefly about chapter reviewing Kimi xxxru Koto Nakare. However, I realized, upon trying to say the name of the series, that I didn’t know how I’m supposed to pronounce “xxxru.” It’s not like XXXHolic or Hunter x Hunter where the x is silent, because it’s supposed to be a variable verb. “You shall not ______.” In any case, for future reference, I’ll probably refer to it as its official shortened name, Kimi Nakare, when speaking from now on.

Summary

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Chapter 2 of Kimi xxxru Koto Nakare picks up right where Chapter 1 left off. Nobuko is a young celebrity comedian, known more for her ability to get a laugh than her homely looks. Shuuto, a childhood friend and classmate, is a popular idol who’s in love with Nobuko. Upon hearing Shuuto’s confession, Nobuko tells him that it can’t happen and runs away, clearly flustered. As Nobuko goes home early we’re introduced to Nobuko’s mother, who’s a famous actress known for her beauty.

On a variety show where both she and Shuuto appear, Shuuto talks about how Nobuko is cute, but because Nobuko is not considered beautiful the host reacts incredulously. Nobuko takes advantage of this and takes on the role of the “ugly pursuer,” who comically keeps chasing after Shuuto, which becomes a popular gag over multiple shows. Nobuko claims that it’s because Shuuto has to remember the fact that he’s an idol (and idols can’t date), but it’s clearly a way for her to ignore her feelings. Eventually, though, Shuuto finally gets to be alone with her, and asks Nobuko about how she feels, and her face says it all.

Nobuko’s View of Herself

One of the most pleasant surprises of this chapter happens right at the beginning, with the story being primarily told from Nobuko’s side. The first chapter concentrated on Shuuto, and I had to wonder if this trend would continue, but it’s clear now that they’re basically sharing top billing in this manga.

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Nobuko’s mother, and the fact that Nobuko herself has not inherited her looks, appears to be one of the main reasons that Nobuko lacks such confidence in her appearance. While her mother adores her and is shown dressing a young Nobuko up in a flashback, Nobuko is being judged not only by the fact that she looks more like her father but through comparison with her mom. Alone, Nobuko remarks that “Something must be wrong with Shuuto’s eyes,” which is basically a self-deprecating statement.

In this respect, I can’t help but feel for her. Having grown up in the world of entertainment where looks can be paramount, Nobuko is made hyper aware of how she does not fit traditional images of beauty. What should have been an unrequited love due to the contrast between her appearance and handsome Shuuto’s is made reality by Shuuto and it scares her. The sense I get from Nobuko is that she feels that this isn’t supposed to be happening, that it’s a fantasy that she wasn’t meant to be a part of.

Comedy as a Tool

The fact that Nobuko purposely takes on the role of the unattractive admirer, a kind of Steve Urkel to Shuuto’s Laura Winslow, showcases not only Nobuko’s talent for comedy, but also how Nobuko is using humor to lighten the load that her heart has inflicted upon her. At home, Nobuko says to herself, “If I can’t pull away to deal with the situation, then I’ll push,” meaning that by trivializing the idea of a relationship between the two of them, by turning it into fodder for comedy, she can cope with it. This gives great insight into how Nobuko thinks, and how flexible and adaptive she can be.The way that Shuuto once again cuts through Nobuko’s defenses, then, is why I think the last scene of this chapter is so good. Nobuko, who’s dressed like a monkey to continue her on-screen obsession with Shuuto, ends up alone with him in her dressing room. Shuuto uses the classic “kabe don” of shoujo manga fame, and Nobuko’s facade cracks, as shown previously. The fact that all of this happens while Nobuko’s still wearing that monkey suit makes the scene somehow more poignant. The monkey suit is supposed to make the idea of a romance between them nonsense, but Shuuto isn’t having any of that.

Serious and Silly Artwork

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I love how so many of the moments in this manga can be both serious and silly at the same time. Okamichachi’s style captures this seeming contradiction very well, because she has a shoujo (and I think BL?)-influenced style that still leaves plenty of room for exaggerated expressions and a willingness to not have her characters look perfect. While this is less the case for Shuuto, who’s supposed to be naturally handsome, seeing him with a relatively serious expression as Nobuko makes kissy faces only enhances the sense that the two are entering this weird space where their feelings for each other are enhanced yet also diminished by being on-screen. Shuuto’s reactions show that the situations portrayed in front of the camera, even if they are weird, still land in the realm of what he really wants, and he can’t help but blush himself as a result.Last ThoughtsRight now, the cast is fairly small, and there aren’t any romances happening between the few side characters that exist. I have to wonder if this will change, as that’s pretty much the fate of all romance manga.

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I have an optimistic view of pop culture. I believe it to be a resource of creativity, a space for people to explore, and an interaction between different groups. While I acknowledge that pop culture can have deep ties with capitalism and that customers are just as often viewed as bags of money as they are people (if not more), I do not think of pop culture as a controlling force designed to influence our very way of thinking.

But what about when it is?

I’ve been taking a cursory look at North Korean pop culture recently, and generally speaking its main purpose is to reinforce the ideology that dominates the country. From television to film to music, the purpose of North Korean popular culture is propaganda. What could be considered an implicit effect of pop culture in other parts of the world is a very intentional utilization of media.

Given how obvious the elements of propaganda are in North Korean media in particular, it is very easy to draw a line between “our” popular culture and “theirs.” Their performances come across almost as outdated to our sensibilities, and the fact that they show images of missiles being launched in the middle of concerts says just about everything. However, what if I were born and raised in North Korea, or were somehow indoctrinated into its culture? Given my optimism, would I be defending North Korean pop culture the way I defend anime and manga? Would I ultimately view the cultural output of North Korea to its people as something benevolent?

That question has been with me over the past few years, mainly because I’ve had to really reflect on my approach to popular culture and its effects on people. It’s easy to champion interesting works and to point out how fans can engage with media actively, but even if these actions are possible does that mean an actual de-fanging of the controlling aspects of having what’s considered the “conventional” way of doing things appear in media (appearance, mannerisms, etc.)?

The biggest danger of optimism towards pop culture to me personally is the point at which it becomes blind faith, and it’s what I seek to avoid even as I look at it in an overall positive light. I think it’s very easy to fall towards cynisim in the process, but my hope is that I never do.

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Granblue Fantasy is a Japanese mobile game that’s got tons of fans, and it’s so popular that it ends up crossing over with other franchises. Check out this small list of series that make guest appearances. As someone who got into anime in the 90s, I’m especially fond of the Slayers cameos.

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Mito Ikumi, Food Wars! Character

Within the first few minutes of the Food Wars!:  Shokugeki no Soma anime, viewers are made well aware of the extent of its fanservice. If the flavor of peanut butter squid being visually likened to being violated by a large squid wasn’t enough, as the episode progresses characters basically have reactions that are downright orgasmic. It’s the kind of reaction that can really turn people away, but I also am aware of how the seeming need to fully animate a manga can lead to a rather different (and more gratuitous) experience, even when faithfulness to the source material is considered important. This is what I believe happened with another series, Mysterious Girlfriend X, and so when I got the chance to read the manga for Food Wars, I went in curious about two things: the depiction of competition in the Yakitate!! Japan “food battle” sense, and how the fanservice compares to the anime.

Food Wars! portrays both the act of master chefs locked in fierce cooking combat and the sexually charged tasting reactions with equal care and attention to detail. The manga is certainly not a cleaner alternative to the anime, but there are a couple of points I noticed about it. First, the manga’s imagery is a noticeably different experience due to the lack of need to fully animate all of the more gratuitous scenes. Second, Food Wars! actually takes a kind of multi-level approach to its fanservice.

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Shinkon Gattai Godannar!!

I think it’s fair to judge a series by the most extreme examples of fanservice found in it, and so this isn’t really a defense of Food Wars! as sticking it to the prudes or anything. However, when it comes to anime and manga, they tend to maintain to a fairly consistent level of the kind of fanservice they want to use. Love Hina and Chobits go for mildly risque bath scenes, Aim for the Top! goes for the subdued-by-today’s-standards jiggle and “creative” camera angles, and Godannar!! and Ikkitousen are all about in-your-face shots and revealing clothing (or lack thereof). Food Wars!, in contrast to all of those, encompasses virtually the entire spectrum.

At the far end, you have the scenes described above: images that, in and out of context, look like something you’d find in a naughty magazine. However, there are also plenty of food reaction moments that are more about showing off the girls’ (and in some cases even guys’) bodies in the buff, without that added layer of sexual innuendo. There are images of girls spilling out of their outfits, but there are also relatively more conservative examples. So, while you have a character like Mito Ikumi (pictured at the beginning of this post), who wears bikinis and is based around a rather blatant “meat” theme, you also have characters like Tadakoro Megumi and Mizuhara Fuyumi, who are less voluptuous but are still involved in their own fanservice scenes relative to their designs. In those instances, the manga will decide to show for one panel the way that Megumi’s pants hug against her hips, or that Fuyumi has subtle but noticeable curves.

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Tadokoro Megumi

In terms of how men are portrayed (their clothes burst off as they salivate over a five-star meal just as much as the girls do), but I’d actually like an opinion from any readers interested in men as to whether Food Wars! hits any of their buttons in the right way. I get the feeling Takumi Aldini is popular, but I haven’t looked into it extensively.

Given all this talk of gratuitous imagery, I find it all the more interesting that the more I read Food Wars!, the less I think of it as a fanservice series, even though it can be so elaborate and perverted in its character depictions. It certainly is still that sort of manga and anime, but the cooking really takes center stage, and in certain ways the ever-present fanservice is actually subordinate to the food. There’s just something about the intensity and the amount of attention that goes into presenting the culinary masterpieces of the manga’s characters that shines the spotlight on their cooking above all else.

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Depending on your definition of good science fiction, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is one of the finest SF stories ever. Leaning more towards space opera, LoGH combines political intrigue with a genuine look at how people and societies can change (or even regress) as they expand out into the universe. I mentioned the anime on Ogiue Maniax many years ago but never really got into great detail about the series, but now that it’s being released in English in both anime and original novel form I thought that it’s about as good a time as any to talk about what makes LoGH such a strong series by reviewing the first volume of the novel.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes is the story of a corrupt democracy versus a stagnant empire in a far-flung future where humankind has ventured deep into space. Two figures, the unassuming Yang Wen-Li on the side of the Free Planets Alliance and the righteous Reinhard von Lohengramm on the Galactic Empire, act as both heroes and rogues within their respective systems, and their actions change the fates of their societies in unforeseen ways.

As I have seen the entirety of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes anime most of the story is not new to me. It’s been quite a few year so I may have forgotten some details, but the major notes are still pretty fresh in my memory because of how much impact this series has. The prologue of the first volume is actually a short history of how the Galactic Empire and Free Planets Alliance came to be, and how they each try to erase the presence of the other for political reasons. Something as simple as the fact that the Free Planets Alliance (which came after the Galactic Empire was formed from a Hitler-esque powergrab in its predecessor the Galactic Republic) reverted to an older calendar system instead of the Empire’s standard shows just how complex political philosophies and their manifestations in everyday life can be. A similar example exists in the real world: Taiwan’s official name is still to this day the Republic of China because it denies the idea that the People’s Republic of China is the legitimate government of China (and the PRC does the same to Taiwan). Even in the first volume, it encourages thought about how governments and even people’s everyday actions can maintain hegemony.

For some, such as myself, it’s a fascinating read that provides the perfect context for what happens in the main narrative as Yang goes about questioning the blind fervor by which people toss around the term democracy, and Reinhard similarly tries to chip away at the ossified core of incompetency in the Empire. Their personalities, but also many of the characters around them, are so well-portrayed and so effectively invite readers to pursue connections and thematic similarities among the gigantic cast of LoGH that it makes the book a pretty easy read overall. The character of Paul von Oberstein is especially notable for creating more questions than answers, and to this day you’ll have debates over what his true motives are.

Reading the first volume of the novel, one thing that stood out to me that had actually never occurred as I was watching the anime were the parallels between Reinhard and Rudolph I, the original founder of the Galactic Empire many centuries ago. Both believe that their government is suffering from stagnation and corruption, and that the best way to deal with these issues is to seize power from within. While Reinhard believes that people should be judged by their merits and Rudolph I was a staunch proponent of eugenics, the conviction by which they have sought change are strikingly similar.

Similarly, though this isn’t nearly as strong a connection, Yang is portrayed as being a brilliant but lazy man who despite all of his talents and keen insight wishes to live a quiet life. The current Galactic Emperor is initially shown to be a somewhat lost and even incompetent man, but he seems to display sudden flashes of intelligence that imply he might know more than what people expect. However, just like Yang, he prefers a more idle life.

The translation for Legend of the Galactic Heroes is overall very solid. I have not read the original Japanese, so I can’t make so direct a comparison, but the language flows well, never gets too dense or overwhelming even in the most dry of sections, and characters’ personalities are conveyed in a matter of moments. If I have any criticism of the translation, it’s less of a language issue and more of a copy editing complaint. At various times throughout the story, the spelling of Reinhard’s best friend Siegfried Kircheis changes, from Siegfried to Sigfried and then back into Siegfried. It doesn’t impact the quality of the story by any means, but that’s the kind of mistake that shouldn’t be happening.

I don’t think I can recommend LoGH enough, but then again I know pretty much the whole story. That being said, while both the overarching movements of the narrative, as well as the small details that connect with each other, build into something much greater, the first volume does a tremendously good job of setting it all up.

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