Ukiyo-e and the Concept of Anime Sameface

One of the common criticisms of character designs in anime and manga is that characters often have the same face with variations in hair, clothing, and accessories to set them apart. This is viewed sometimes as lazy, or a sign of a lack of skill or talent, in other words a crutch in lieu of true character proficiency. However, in a number of instances it can be argued that “samefaces” aren’t the same at all, that subtle variations such as the angle of the eyes can suggest enormous differences between two characters.

While sameface certainly isn’t absent outside of Japanese pop culture, I’ve begun to wonder if Japan’s own art history has contributed to not only its presence but also its acceptance. I’ve taken a cursory look at ukiyo-e recently, and one thing that strikes me is that portrayals of both men and women, especially attractive individuals, tend to use very similar kinds of faces, with greater attention paid to—you guessed it—hair, clothing, and accessories.

I’m well aware that there’s a tendency to try and force a connection between ukiyo-e and manga, and I don’t intend to go that route. Stylistically, the two are very different, even if ukiyo-e is a kind of predecessor in terms of being a popular, mass-produced art that emphasized reveling in momentary pleasures. Hokusai manga doesn’t really have anything to do with manga, and the panel progression of manga isn’t really present in ukiyo-e. Also, there is actually quite enormous variation in the depictions of people in both ukiyo-e and manga when you look at the broader picture. That being said, in terms of character design and the priorities present in ukiyo-e I suspect that there’s some lineage at work that seeps into manga on some level.

Utamaro_(1793)_Three_Beauties_of_the_Present_Time.jpegUtamaro (1793): Three Beauties of the Present Time

What stands out to me about portrayals of women in ukiyo-e is the amount of attention paid to the hair. While the faces remain absolutely unrealistic (much like manga and anime but in the opposite direction in terms of proportions and what is aesthetically appealing), women’s hair in ukiyo-e prints are frequently rendered with such loving detail to the point of being in some ways hyper-realistic. Similarly, kimono are given bold colors and patterns, and so at first glance what distinguishes two women is everything but their faces.

There are a couple of other things that crop up when reading about ukiyo-e that wouldn’t sound out of place if the discussion were anime or manga. First, while many women in ukiyo-e were portrayed similarly, what was considered the image of the “ideal woman” changed as the years passed by. Second, small variations in facial features and expressions could mean all the difference between a “stereotypical” design and a “realistic” one.

How does this relate to an idea such as kyara moe, where characters’ stories are told almost entirely in how they look and through collectively accepted meanings behind visual elements? When looking at a series like Love Live!, it can seem to an outsider like the girls are just the same template, but those unique features relative to each other make a world of difference.

Of course, all of this is a very preliminary impression. Feel free to prove me ignorant in the comments!

 

 

Advertisements

10 Years After: Ogiue Maniax 10th Anniversary

10 years. What kind of fool keeps blogging about anime for an entire decade? It’s a milestone, but not the end of the journey. Still, looking back on my time here, there’s a lot to reflect on. That’s why I’m devoting this celebratory post to writing a not-so-brief history of Ogiue Maniax.

The Birth of Ogiue Maniax

Back in 2006, I had already been interacting with my fellow anime fans online for years. Long, essay-style forum posts were the norm in my communities, and it was just fun to read and write them. However naively, it felt like we were pushing critical thinking about anime and manga. However, the spaces in which I wrote began to dry up, or saw a new generation of moderators too afraid of what outsiders thought, shrinking beneath the judgment of their peers. I wanted a place where I could write what was on my mind.

At first, I didn’t think to start my own blog, and tried my hand as a “guest contributor,” a charitable term for “asked friends if I could post stuff to their sites.” The otaku news blog Heisei Democracy agreed to post an odd essay I had originally wrote for class, titled “Moe as Commodity”-—perhaps more relevant a topic today than ever before. Shiro, who ran the blog Toward Our Memories, offered me a chance to write about Gurren-Lagann and its connections to giant robots of years past. It was thanks to these opportunities that I thought maybe, just maybe, I could go off on my own.

I did not write the first anime blog, of course. The “scene” was well established when I started, with many more cropping up alongside my own. However, as I began to write in those early days, I noticed a tendency for other bloggers to slow down. Sometimes it had to do with real life—something I understand more than ever 10 years later. But in other cases, I heard a common refrain that there simply wasn’t enough to write about. Too many anime were too similar. Yeah, there’s some good stuff, but how much is much is out there, really?

I saw this as a challenge. I truly believed that there was always something worth writing about when it came to Japanese pop culture, and I wanted to see if I could keep it up. My ideal was to publish at least one post, long or short, once a day for seven days a week. It was an odd thing to get stubborn about, looking back.

While I’m no longer writing every single day of the week (I simply don’t have that amount of time or mental energy to devote to Ogiue Maniax), I think I’ve kept the flame of that original desire alive. Sure, I’ve sometimes talked about things that aren’t strictly anime or manga—esports theory, fandom and politics, and mahjong—but I see those topics as an extension of how I’ve grown as a writer, scholar, and human being. Anime isn’t isolated from the rest of the world, and even the decision to draw back and “heal” through media interaction carries effects and consequences.

Blogging as Blessing

Reaching a greater level critical thinking and expressing it through Ogiue Maniax is itself the product of the good fortune that has come from blogging. Back when I first started to gain some traction among online fans, I actually ran into one reader named Erin. At the time, she and her boyfriend (now husband) Noah had their own anime podcast called Ninja Consultant. While I’m naturally introverted and loathed the act of networking, meeting Erin and Noah was enormously beneficial. I didn’t even really consider it networking; it was just meeting new people. That encounter helped set me on a path to working various media jobs over the next few years, and was a catalyst for positivity in my life.

Not long after, I met through my blogging the woman who would one day become my wife. While writing Ogiue Maniax had been beneficial for a number of reasons, I never considered myself a particularly good writer. I just saw myself as someone who wanted to think more deeply about entertainment and media, with the blog being the conduit through which my thoughts are shared. But my wife helped foster in me an unusual, unfamiliar feeling: confidence. She told me that my ability to make complex and difficult ideas accessible and comprehensible to a wider audience was an admirable skill that reflected both my writing ability and my outlook on life. Last year, I decided to take a Harry Potter Sorting Hat test online and it put me in Hufflepuff, the school focused on humanity and providing opportunities for all. In hindsight, it makes sense.

Eventually, this led me to actually living abroad in Europe and taking my academic interest in manga and anime to the next level. For four years, I poured hours and hours of research into manga to an extent I didn’t even think possible, and it filled both my waking hours and my dreams. Even during this time, however, I still blogged. I looked at all that Ogiue Maniax had allowed me to achieve, and I loved the site too much to want to abandon it, even if might have preserved my sanity more effectively. This is the point at which I had to dial back my daily posts into something more manageable: two to three entries per week. Even with the reduced schedule, the constant swirling of ideas and readings and attempts to articulate labyrinthine thought processes brought about a change in Ogiue Maniax. I found myself compelled to delve deeper into my musings on anime and manga as it relates to not just pop culture or subcultures, but human culture in general. It forever changed the way I approach Ogiue Maniax for the better (at least in my opinion).

A Measured Success

More recently, I started my Patreon, and I make a modest amount every month. It’s not enough to make a living, but it supplements my existing income quite nicely. I’ve never had the largest readership around, and it’s even declined as anime blogging itself has dropped off. The Ogiue Maniax path is certainly not what you should try if your goal is to make writing your career, but I think my modicum of success is a reflection that I’ve held onto those core beliefs that originally fueled this blog at its inception even as I, the anime industry, fandom, and the world have changed. More than ever, I believe that there’s always something worth saying about anime and manga, and I hope that I’m able to inspire others to think the same as well.

Focused practice is supposedly the ideal way to improve a skill; knowing your weaknesses and drilling them into strengths is how one should approach the honing of a craft. I did no such thing. I brute forced it by making myself adhere to a schedule and making myself put out something—anything—on a regular basis. While I don’t always produce the best-edited pieces (a string of typos over the years can attest to that), I like to think that it’s made me unafraid of putting my thoughts and feelings out there in the world. Courage is a flower that needs to be nurtured.

Shout-Outs

Seeing as Thanksgiving is around the corner, I’d like to express my gratitude to the following:

Kio Shimoku: Although I know you’ll never read this, thank you for creating Genshiken. It’s been an inspiration in more ways than one, and has helped me grow as a human being. キオ先生は多分読まないけれど、本当に先生の事、感謝します。『げんしけん』のお陰で人として成長しました。

My fellow Genshiken fans: Whether early on in the blog’s life, or later as I did my chapter reviews, I’ve received much love for my Genshiken musings. Thank you for reading.

MrShadowAnt: My friend for many, many years, you were one of the first people I could truly nerd out with. Thank you.

6th Floor: There are fewer times I look back on more fondly than those afternoons and lunches spent playing games, talking anime, and just being friends. I believe those conversations became a major cornerstone of how I approach the world and my writing. Thank you.

Alain: Thank you, Al, for being someone to bounce ideas off of, and for providing a measured perspective on things.

Anime World Order: To Daryl, Gerald, and Clarissa, thank you for providing a template for how to talk about anime and manga while being entertaining and informative. You’re one of the reasons I even considered starting Ogiue Maniax at all.

Arco: When I think of ridiculously long posts, I think of you. Thank you for writing.

Jeff Lawson: Although you’ve long since left the aniblogging game, thank you for linking to Ogiue Maniax way back. It was the first boost in views I ever got, and I consider it a major cornerstone in the blog’s history.

Shiro: When I first felt that itch to blog about anime, you were one of the first to give me a platform to tackle my ideas. Thank you for providing me that opportunity. That Gurren-Lagann post became one of the two pivotal moments that prompted me to start Ogiue Maniax.

Shingo: Thank you, Shingo. I wrote the article “Moe as Commodity” many years ago at this point, and I think it stands as a precursor to what Ogiue Maniax would become. Also, I want to give an even more personal thank-you for showing me around Akihabara in 2005. I still haven’t forgotten!

Johnny Trovato: Thank you for believing in me and my Patreon more than anyone. I look forward to your requests every month.

Dave Cabrera: It’s funny how we met years before seeing each other in person without realizing it. You’re definitely one of the funniest writers I know, and as you strive to get out there and make yourself known, it inspires me to push ahead. Thank you, and Rosa GIgantor forever.

Veef: Thank you for being an ally in measured mecha fandom, eager for dialogue and civil even in disagreement. I always look forward to podcasting with you.

Patz: Another robot ally, thank you for helping to show the world that robot fans can be more than their stereotypes. Let’s do more con panels together.

KRansom: Whether we’re working together professionally or just for fun, it’s always great to get your thoughts on goings-on in Japanese pop culture and scholarship. People still read the Nausicaa article we translated. Thank you.

David Brothers: We first met on a fighting game forum, but at some point I began to see you not just as a friend, but also as a writer whose strength of voice and desire to do good in the world was something to aspire to. Thank you for making me want to better myself.

Divine: Thank you for having my back in the Netherlands. I do not underestimate how much it helped to have a familiar face abroad.

My friends and colleagues in Europe: Thank you for challenging me and pushing me to improve how I construct and express ideas.

Mitch: I know life has you busy, but I’m still grateful for when you’d take the time to catch any typos in my posts. Thank you.

Erin and Noah: Thank you for reaching out to me. I still owe you a lunch or dinner or something.

Ed Chavez: You’re still the smartest person I’ve ever known when it comes to manga, and I value our conversations. It’s always a pleasure to pick your brain. Thank you.

My wife: You saw something special in me, and encouraged me to recognize it. We’ve been through some interesting times together. Thank you.

Rendou World: The Official Term for the Houkago Play Universe

One of my favorite manga artists today is Kurosaki Rendou, who’s known for lanky characters and a bizarrely sensual drawing style. Unlike a lot of manga, Kurosaki’s work actually cross over each other. For example, the main character of Receptacle is the big sister of his arguably most famous work, Houkago Play. In the past, I referred to it as the “Kurosaki Rendouverse,” but I recently found out (according to Amazon!) that there’s actually an official name: “Rendou World.”

There really isn’t much else for me to say. Kurosaki Rendou still has more new manga coming out, so I’m looking forward to seeing more characters from different stories intersect. Will we get cameos from the cast of Chou Nettaiya Orgy?

 

The Dilemma of Casting an Esports Grand Finals

No matter the game, whenever an esports grand finals rolls around, there’s contention as to the best approach for commentary. What is the best style of casting for the later stages of a tournament, when the audience tends to be the largest and the matches themselves tend to be the most high-level?

I don’t think there’s one true answer, because it really depends on the objective of a given tournament. Rather, I want to highlight to the esports-viewing audience what makes this such a difficult balancing act, and why commentary that does not cater to their own tastes is not necessarily bad or inferior.

The Top 8 and above matches of tournaments tend to get the highest amount of viewers. This means there are more non-experts watching. They might still be fans, but there’s a good chance that they’re not going to know the nitty gritty of the game. Things that a more experienced player and ardent viewer might recognize with little effort might fly completely over their heads. In this case, one sensible solution would be to cater to a relatively more casual audience. You might have to explain some of the more complex aspects of the game, or perhaps ignore or simplify them so that these viewers aren’t overwhelmed with information they can’t understand.

However, those final matches are also typically where the highest amount of skill is displayed between competitors. While earlier rounds might be filled with one-sided victories or lesser players making mistakes, by the time it hits grand finals there is a strong chance that the play will be on another level. If the accompanying commentary aims more for the larger, more casual part of the audience, it potentially alienates the more hardcore fans who want to know the small details. If a tournament wants to show the full depth of their game, it might be necessary for commentary to be more complex and high-level.

If going by a pure numbers game, the “obvious” solution is to aim for the larger, more casual audience, but there are a few monkey wrenches that need to be taken into account. The casual-hardcore dichotomy can be rather nebulous. Some fans who are casual might want to feel like they’re part of the hardcore audience, and the best way to give them that impression is through commentary. A “true expert” at a game probably does not need a commentator to tell them what’s going on, so they might find technical explanations tedious for the opposite reason that the casual viewer might dislike them. In that case, the dry delivery of top-level knowledge of a player like Mew2King can be more appealing, especially to fans of those players.

Depending on the game, there might be no such thing as a “casual fan.” After all, esports has a general issue with not being as obvious in terms of goals and objectives as traditional sports—compare looking at the score in basketball vs. trying to interpret who’s ahead in League of Legends without having any prior knowledge of either.

Professionalism is another factor. As esports scenes grow, a lack of professionalism might drive away new viewers, but at the same time a slick, polished product might come across as too sterile to maintain interest. Suffice it to say, different people want different things from commentary. There are so many conflicting values that some tournaments have even tried having alternative streams to cater to casual audiences, but that potentially leads to an inconsistent presentation for a tournament.

Any tournament, big or small, wants to put its best foot forward. The problem with reconciling all of these different factors is that no one commentary can possibly cover them all, not even a team where each commentator specializes in something different. Some consider play-by-play to be the most important. Others believe that emphasizing the human drama between the players is key. Others want deep analysis of every situation. Ultimately, it requires some sort of compromise, and I think it’s important to see it not as a concession or a loss of quality. Criticism of commentary is justified and should even be encouraged, but it should come with the awareness that one’s own perspective exists among many.

Spirit vs. Letter in Social Media Harassment Policies

Social media platforms have been under fire by critics recently due to the way they’ve let radical groups take advantage of their platforms to attack and discredit others. People on Twitter are harassed, receiving death threats and worse, yet their harassers remain unbanned. Facebook has suffered from the inundation of fake news created by Russian propagandists, as well as racist advertising using their own ad system. A recent article by Sarah Wachter-Boettcher, titled “Facebook treats its ethical failures like software bugs, and that’s why they keep happening,” argues that Facebooks’s approach lacks a true human dimension, and fails to account for the subtle and nuanced ways that people end up using social media. In other words, using a wack-a-mole method to deal with this ignores, unintentionally or otherwise, the underlying issue of people being attacked online.

I concur with this sentiment, but would like to add something. It’s not just that treating problems like racist ad targeting as bugs or glitches is the wrong way to go, but that trying to govern social media platforms with hard and fast rules creates a rigid system that inevitably lends itself to loopholes that can be exploited.

I recently had a few discussions with friends and acquaintances, all programmers and software engineers. In one discussion, I had a small debate with a friend, who argued that laws should not be open to interpretation—what says, goes, ideally. Having “wiggle room” makes things messy. In another, the subject of self-driving cars came up. Among many of the programmers (but not all, mind), there was a shared stance that giving humans more control than self-driving cars would be to open up the efficient and organized traffic of the future to the unpredictable and poor decision-making of the average driver. Additionally, any problems that occur due to the incompleteness of the self-driving AI could be solved after they arise.

I don’t mean to stereotype programmers as all having a certain way of thinking or a certain set of beliefs (you’ll find them on all sides of the political spectrum, for example), but there’s a certain desire for the human-created mechanics of the world to make consistent, logical sense that I find common to programmers—i.e. the main people driving social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter behind the scenes. A faith (or perhaps desire) in these systems, and the idea that they can just increase the granularity of their rules, instead of trying to take a more humanistic direction, leads to holes that can be exploited.

No matter what parameters Twitter puts in for defining harassment, people will always find ways to attack others without “technically” breaking the rules. This, I believe, is the reason so many people appear to be unjustly banned while other accounts that spew hate and encourage online attacks can manage to stay active. One side is likely ignorant of rules X, Y, and Z, while the other deftly skirts them. Intent, something that requires a closer analysis, is left by the wayside.

Krang T. Nelson, a Twitter user named after a certain cartoon warlord from Dimension X, recently tested these limits. In a Vice article, Nelson describes how he decided to troll white supremacists by crafting the most intentionally absurd tweet possible, about “antifa supersoldiers” planning on beheading white parents and small business owners. Not only was it a clearly tongue-in-cheek call-out of alt-right talking points, it was also loaded with buzzwords that white nationalists actively look for. Nelson then discusses how the white nationalist movement understands the ways to take advantage of Twitter’s policies, and that they used this knowledge to get him (temporarily) banned over a facetious remark. Here, we see clear evidence that the groups known for Twitter harassment also know how to exploit its technicalities and parameters for their own ends.

Adhering to the letter and not the spirit of policies and laws is what fuels the abuse of online social platforms. Having actual people at all levels checking to see how Twitter, Facebook, etc. are being used, and relying not on hard and fast rules, is where things need to change. Granted, having “wiggle room” in rules means they can be exploited in a different way, but overly strict interpretations are also clearly not working.

 

Should We Think of Light Novels as Genre Fiction?

Light novels, especially those adapted into anime, are infamous for their tropes. Their stories often involve characters trapped in games or sent to fantasy worlds. The cast frequently includes a large number of female characters, many of whom are in love with the protagonist. The main character himself ranges from aggressively passive to do-it-all wish fulfillment. Little sisters who see their big brothers as more than just siblings are a dime a dozen. 
Given how frequently these elements are used, one common criticism is that light novel stories would be so much better if they would just not include them, but I wonder if that thinking is putting the cart before the horse. The way the light novel industry works, it might be better to approach it almost as genre fiction: the tropes are the starting point, and it’s what you do with them that counts.

Many series do not try to directly defy the tropes, but will twist and bend them. My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong, As I Expected (aka My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU) has a wimpy protagonist in a prominent love triangle, but he is forced to reevaluate his way of thinking thanks to the genuine friendship that forms between the three. Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is actively modeled after a game-like world (with levels and experience and monster spawn points) and includes a hero practically every female character is in love with. Yet the personality of this main character, Bell Cranell, sets him up as someone whose childhood dream of having his own harem is offset by his gentle nature and kind heart. In a sense, these titles play by the rules first, as if part of the challenge is trying to work the same old materials into something new. The Monogatari series constantly changes up what we thought we knew about its female characters, rendering that harem into an ever-shifting enigma.

Not every work becomes a winner, of course. Some try in vain to differentiate themselves, only to be unrecognizable from the rest of the pack. Even so, within a given formula, there are subtle permutations that might not register with an outsider, but could be just the thing that causes the avid fan to choose title A over Title B. Perhaps this is part of why light novel titles get so excessively long at times. Not only is it a stylistic trend, but it might just be the most efficient way tell potential readers what this title has to offer. I Don’t Like You at All, Big Brother might not seem all that different from My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute, but the former title implies a couple of things. First, it takes the younger sibling’s perspective into account more. Second, given that both titles are patently untrue, it hints at the little sister character as being more honest with herself.

Light novels (and works based on them) also should not be immune to outside criticism. Just because certain qualities and ideas are accepted by the fans doesn’t mean that nothing is ever structurally wrong. It’s the difference between evaluating a shooter-style video game from within the context of its own genre versus looking at the ways in which the genre as a whole depicts and glorifies violence. Both conversations can happen, and it’s possible to meet somewhere in the middle, as with Splatoon, which keeps shooter mechanics but de-emphasizes grit and death.

Light novels are not inherently the tropes described above, and many go well beyond the limitations associated with the format. But for those that choose to stay within those bounds, either due to personal desire, economic pragmatism, or market forces, those tropes might be better viewed as the cornerstones from which their stories are spun. Just as shooters necessarily must include guns, and vampire stories need vampires, genre light novels cannot simply be stripped of their well-worn tropes. They can be stretched and molded into new shapes, but getting rid of that core transforms them into something they aren’t and likely never try to be.

Raspatat at Koshien: An Iconic Dutch Snack at Japan’s Most Famous Baseball Stadium!

I lived for quite a few years in the Netherlands, where I learned that roadside snacking is a pretty big deal to the Dutch. Snack shops are an institution, serving foods such as kroketen (croquettes), pataat (fries), frikandel (deep-fried sausage), and more. I’d been reminiscing about these delicious treats recently, and just happened to come across one in a rather unlikely place: manga. While reading the series Kyuujou Sajiki (Three Ballpark Meals), a series about eating at ballparks all across Japan, I encountered an old friend: raspatat!

For those unfamiliar with raspatat, it’s an unusual form of french fry, essentially taking mashed potato and reconstituting it back into fry form—think of it as the Pringles of the fry world. The taste is very unique, with a kind of buttery toastiness that borders on knish territory. It’s worth trying at least once.

Here’s a commercial for it:

Anyway, not only does raspatat show up in Kyuujou Sajiki, but it’s actually found in Koshien Stadium of all places! Koshien is basically the mecca of Japanese baseball; it’s the site of the grand finals of Japanese high school baseball every year, and is enshrined in countless manga, anime, and other Japanese media. The manga is based on what you can find in real life, so you can actually travel to Koshien and get some for yourself!

On the official Koshien website, you can find it listed as rasupoteto. It’s not quite the same as the raspatat you can find in the Netherlands (they’re way longer, for one), but the website’s description specifically says it’s a style of Dutch french fries. There’s no mistaking that this is the most famous Japanese baseball stadium’s own rendition of a Dutch snacking tradition.

Even if it isn’t to watch high school athletes’ dreams get fulfilled and/or crushed, if I ever manage to visit Koshien, I am definitely getting some rasupoteto. I feel almost obliged to do so…and my stomach wouldn’t mind either.

 

 

Save