On De-platforming

As someone who has traditionally valued online discussion, I’ve long believed that de-platforming is something of an extreme measure. However, as multiple social media platforms have banned Donald Trump for inciting further violence akin to the attempted coup on the United States capitol, one thing that’s clear to me is how de-platforming is not about robbing someone of their freedom of expression. Rather, when used properly, it’s about protecting those who would wish to engage in honest discourse from those who seek to use the facade of debate and social interaction as a Trojan horse to further causes that seek to oppress and diminish others.

In far too many cases, “change my mind” ends up simply being a smokescreen. It’s become a running joke. Often, those who throw such statements out are not actually open to ideas but are performing images of strength and indignation in the presence of those who are potentially vulnerable to their posturing. The use of bots to spread disinformation and make an outlandishly dangerous opinion have greater support than is actually there only contributes to this weaponizing of public discourse. To leave social media open to such actors is to invite them to continue to bamboozle people through demagoguery.

I do have concerns when it comes to de-platforming. I fear is that if it’s taken as too default an action, then it can become incredibly easy to label anyone with whom you disagree as “arguing in bad faith” without it necessarily being the case. One of my core beliefs is that people grow at different rates. While there are those who never let go of their hatred, anger, and/or ignorance, there are also those who need the right person or people to communicate with them, and to encourage a level of change that doesn’t meet self-resistance or induce a backlash. I worry that people may be so perpetually drained both mentally and emotionally that they push anyone and everyone into the “bad-faith” category to spare themselves both the pain of having to engage a potentially disingenuous person on the other side and the stress of constantly trying to discern whose minds can be changed and who are lost causes.

But while I encourage people to give others the benefit of the doubt initially, once someone has revealed themselves to be a snake, you don’t let them crawl back into your nest. It might seem like a game without stakes, but it has become painfully clear that there are deadly consequences: COVID-19 is ravaging the world and especially the United States at an unprecedented level that can only get worse, and we just had a mob try to take over the US federal government in order to re-install their hate-filled savior figure. How many lives could have been saved if we had not let Trump and those like him keep their online megaphones for so long?

If anything, the skill that I think needs to be developed most robustly for human beings going forward is being able to discern between those who come to the table actually open to an exchange of ideas and those who are simply pretending to be. In the meantime, while freedom of speech is an inherent right of all Americans, there should be consequences for those who seek to abuse it—especially for the leaders who play games with lives.

Today is January 20, 2021, and a new US president is being sworn into office. I hope that the lessons of these past four years are not in vain.

Chainsaw Man and Women in Refrigerators

WARNING: HEAVY CHAINSAW MAN SPOILERS

The manga Chainsaw Man by Fujimoto Tatsuki recently concluded “Part 1” of its story, and having heard fans both real and virtual praise the series up and down, I decided to marathon through it. Count me as a convert, as I think it’s one of the best things to come out of Shounen Jump in recent years. The narrative turns are compelling and the characters are charming in their foolishness. 

However, there’s a large twist in the series that brings to mind a trope that sparked discussion around superhero comics back in the early 2000s: Women in Refrigerators. Originally coined by Gail Simone (who was still a critic and not a writer of comics at the time), it refers to when characters close to the hero—often a lover or companion—is killed in service of making the villain appear more nefarious. While not automatically bad, its overuse reduces female characters to discardable pawns. Manga, especially male-oriented titles, can have their own instances of fridged women, but Chainsaw Man seems to lean fully into the concept in ways I’ve never seen before.

The protagonist of Chainsaw Man is Denji, a lonely guy who doesn’t think life is worth living, but is given a second chance when a demon he befriends known as the Chainsaw Devil offers him a chance at the normal existence he’s always wanted.  Denji’s discovered by a beautiful female government agent named Makima, who recruits Denji to fight demons as Chainsaw Man. In addition to being a target of Denji’s immature affections, Makima provides him with companions, including a female fiend (half-human, half-devil) with blood-based abilities named Power. Over time, the bond between the two of them grows, and they make a great if chaotic team—like two violent Monkey D. Luffys with bad attitudes but good hearts. Eventually, though, Makima reveals that her motives for recruiting Denji were anything but pure. In an act of cruelty designed to cow Denji and leave him in despair, Makima murders Power in front of Denji with little warning, Power even having been carrying a birthday cake for Denji in anticipation of a celebration. Death of named characters in Chainsaw Man is not uncommon, but Power’s death hits especially hard.

It is undoubtedly a moment where a female character is killed so as to create a psychological impact on the male hero, but what Chainsaw Man also reveals this to have been Makima’s plan from day one. As Makima explains, Denji inadvertently entered a contract with the Chainsaw Devil where Denji is meant to receive a normal life in exchange for their fusing together, and the only way to deny him that basic happiness is to manipulate his life. As such, Makima purposely gave Denji friendships so that she could snatch them away and keep him under her thumb. Unlike many superhero instances of Women in Refrigerators, this is not tacked on as a way to raise the stakes, but is core to the overall story and the truth of Chainsaw Man’s world. The trope isn’t just kind of there thoughtlessly—it’s front and center, and fully exposed. 

To be accurate, Power isn’t completely gone, as her blood-control powers allow her to exist within Denji, and his motivation transforms into finding a way to bring her back. At the climax of the story, Denji also delivers a fatal blow to Makima using a chainsaw made from Power’s blood. Narratively, it’s explained that Power’s blood can prevent Makima from regenerating—Makima’s actually powered by a devil just like Denji, and has come back from death over 20 times—but there’s also a great symbolism in having Power get her payback in essence. Power is neither fully alive or fully dead, and while reducing her physical existence does potentially play into the idea that her role in the story is subordinate to Denji’s, the manga does such a strong job of portraying their relationship as that of equals (albeit two incredibly idiotic equals). The result is that Power looms large over Chainsaw Man as it enters Part 2, and is still one of the most important characters in the manga. She’s also consistently the most popular character in the series among English and Japanese fans.

Part 1 of the manga actually ends with a woman in a refrigerator. After defeating Makima and keeping her from regenerating, he tries to figure out a way to keep her from coming back from the dead. His solution: chop her up, store her in the fridge, and slowly cook and eat her entire body as a way to deny Makima her wish, which is to be eaten by the devil Chainsaw Man due to certain unique properties that Chainsaw Man possesses. Denji actively engages in cannibalism as himself and not his transformed state to prevent this from happening. He also chooses this gruesome route because he sees it not as an act of malice but a perverse way of wanting to be “together.” I don’t believe that this is the author of Chainsaw Man intentionally calling out the trope, but it’s hard to ignore, and it still winds up with a woman being literally fridged in service of a greater goal.

Chainsaw Man is a manga that can come across as brainlessly violent and gross, but it’s proven itself to be the product of extreme thoughtfulness. Even though its characters are often brash and simple, the story itself is not, and the handling of its own Women in Refrigerators does not feel like it detracts from the series other than making readers angry that Makima dare kill the best character. Power’s influence on the series continues to loom large, and it helps avoid the feeling that being fridged trivializes her character, and keeps Chainsaw Man as a whole from being subsumed by the wastefulness of the trope. In an Obi-Wan Kenobi sort of way, striking Power down makes her more powerful than we can possibly imagine. 

Hypnosis Mic “Rhyme Anima,” aka Yu-Gi-Oh! DMX

It was Spring 2018 when I first encountered the Japanese multimedia franchise known as Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle. I was on vacation in Japan, and on a visit to Ikebukuro, I happened to walk past a Hypnosis Mic collaborative cafe. Not wanting to disturb the customers, I quickly left while wondering what it was I had just seen, though the large images of handsome anime guys with microphones told me that it was something at least idol-adjacent. I eventually learned the gimmick of Hypnosis Mic—rap battles!—as well as its incredibly odd premise (more on that below), which both puzzles and intrigued me. So when the anime was announced (full title: Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle “Rhyme Anima”), I thought it would be my chance to finally see firsthand what this was all about. The result: a show that’s not the most sophisticated work per se, but is consistently fun and ridiculous.

The outline: In the aftermath of World War III, Japan’s government has been taken over by a women-led political group called the Party of Words, who have managed to outlaw all weapons and replaced them with special devices called Hypnosis Microphones. These microphones can affect people physically and mentally, and they’re most powerful when wielded by talented rappers. In this environment, men are only allowed to live in specific areas of Japan called divisions, and in the present time, groups of men from each division are tasked with forming rap crews in order to compete in a tournament known as the Division Rap Battle.

The four main groups of Hypnosis Mic are uster Bros!!! (three brothers from Ikebukuro), Mad Trigger Crew (a combo of yakuza boss, police officer, and military veteran from Yokohama), Fling Posse (a fashion designer, a literary author, and a gambler from Shibuya), and Matenro (a doctor, a host, and a salaryman from Yokohama. Both intra-group and inter-group dynamics between the characters make for prime shipping fodder, especially because the leaders of each have a shared history.

I certainly was confused upon hearing all this first explained to me, as I had a ton of questions about the political implications of the plot. Women are clearly the target audience, so why are women also the primary antagonists of the series? What does it say that women are both responsible for demilitarizing Japan and saving it from itself but also are incredibly authoritarian? What would a feminist activist or a men’s rights activist think if they watched Hypnosis Mic? My best guess is that the setting is mostly a pretense, and that all contradictions are secondary to style and drama.

One thing I have to acknowledge is that because I’ve come to primarily know Hypnosis Mic through the anime, I had a fundamentally different experience from the fans who were there at the start.  In its original format of music CDs, fans could purchase and vote for their favorite groups to advance—akin to voting for one’s favorite idol in AKB48 or Love Live! In its anime incarnation, Hypnosis Mic is mostly about cool rappers shooting music laser blasts with and against one another, like a bunch of hip hop Nekki Basaras from Macross 7. They call forth ethereal sound sets through which they deliver their verbal beatdowns, and it’s heavily reminiscent of how characters from Yu-Gi-Oh! might summon the Blue Eyes White Dragon or the Stardust Dragon. I titled this post after a gag from Yu-Gi-Oh! Abridged because it just so perfectly sums up Hypnosis Mic that I couldn’t resist. Also, I think there really is a similar spirit of spectacle between the world’s most famous card game anime and the world’s only anime about superpowered rappers.

As for the raps themselves, I’m not the best judge of quality, even as I’ve been trying to learn. However, I believe there to be a genuine desire from the franchise to make rap exciting and interesting to an audience that is probably not well versed in it, and from what I’ve read, they do use experienced hip hop producers. The lyrics for certain songs can get pretty clever, and while not every voice actor in the series is a bonafide genius on the mic, the quality is generally high, and there are a few standouts.  I’m particularly fond of Jyuto’s bars, the cop character from Mad Trigger Crew. Speaking of them, I don’t know if I’d call Mad Trigger Crew my favorite group, but I do like how Rio (the military guy) keeps accidentally grossing his teammates out by feeding them dishes made with bugs and other unorthodox things—someone I can relate to. My actual favorite character is the leader of the Party of Words, Touhouten Otome, but she doesn’t rap in the anime, so you can see where my preferences lie.

Hypnosis Mic is a trip, and the anime is worth checking out just to see with your own two eyes that such a show really exists. I love the idea that the franchise as a whole is potentially introducing rap and hip hop to people who might not have bothered with it otherwise; something akin to Hamilton. Much like how Hetalia inspired fans to learn more about history, it can be a gateway into discovering an entire musical genre. Though hat I really wonder is, how would the real world’s rap greats look in the world of Hypnosis Mic? Would someone like Tupac, Rakim, or Eminem summon rhymes so strong that they shatter the Earth itself?

The Mandalorian Season 2 Doesn’t Contradict The Last Jedi

WARNING: SPOILERS for Season 2 of The Mandalorian

The Mandalorian has managed to bring Star Wars fans together in ways I never expected. No matter which movie or trilogy is your favorite (or least favorite), or even if Star Wars has never been your cup of tea, The Mandalorian feels faithful to the heart and spirit of the franchise without being too overly bogged and down and reverential to the films. But I’ve seen a strange reaction online, mostly from people irrationally angry at Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, who attempt to use The Mandalorian to draw lines in the sand where there are none. Their goal: to push a narrative that, somehow, The Mandalorian helped fix the “wokeness” that “ruined” The Last Jedi.

The climax of Season 2 of The Mandalorian has the protagonist and his allies trapped in a situation from which there appears to be no escape from a small army of murderous droids, when suddenly a lone X-Wing docks into the Star Destroyer they’ve stormed. Out pops a mysterious hooded figure wielding a green lightsaber, who single handedly wipes out every robot soldier with awe-inspiring ease. When he reaches the Mandalorian, he reveals his face, and it’s the original hero of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, post-Return of the Jedi and more powerful than we’ve ever seen him in combat.

After this episode, Star Wars fans came out with cries of joy, but among the praises were voices that tried to twist this into some kind of admonishment of The Last Jedi’s director, Rian Johnson. According to this narrative, The Mandalorian succeeded in its portrayal of Luke where The Last Jedi failed, the latter acting more as character assassination than character development. “This is how Luke should have always been.”

The Last Jedi is my favorite of the sequel trilogy, especially because I see Episode VII: The Force Awakens as decent but overly safe and Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker as the product of abject cowardice. I also do think the stance that The Last Jedi betrayed the franchise is often disingenuous, and partly a way to push a strange right-wing agenda that is bitter at the generally liberal-leaning environment of Hollywood and entertainment media. Even so, I want to address it for one reason: It incorrectly assumes that, for whatever reason, those who enjoyed The Last Jedi would be somehow upset at Luke Skywalker being a badass.

The Last Jedi’s portrayal of Luke as a man scared to repeat his greatest mistake—training someone in the ways of the Jedi who then becomes corrupted—is indeed a stark contrast from the never-give-up attitude of his younger self, and so it’s easy to see why that older Luke can be so jarring. However, I think what Episode VIII smartly does is set up parallels between the reality of the the viewers and the story of that galaxy far, far away: the better days promised to us in decades past have not panned out, and the older generation who were supposed to lead us to prosperity and understanding could not reach that lofty goal because they were ultimately limited by the circumstances of both the world at large and their way of thinking. The idea is that Luke Skywalker is powerful, but he couldn’t do everything, and he had a breaking point.

This personal flaw in no way conflicts with his portrayal in The Mandalorian unless belief in Luke Skywalker requires him to be beyond reproach. He can still be the guy who cut through a squad of Dark Troopers and also the guy who felt such immense guilt that he banished himself to the farthest reaches of space. It reminds me of the anger people feel over criticisms of the US’s founding fathers as marred by their own racism, and it comes from what I think is the way we place our heroes, both fictional and real, onto pedestals that somehow require them to be as perfect as possible. I think it’s no coincidence that similar anger exists over actual Confederate monuments (statues that were cheaply mass-produced to take advantage of ingrained racist beliefs decades after the Civil War), or how treating Donald Trump like a messiah requires an ever increasing—and now deadly—amount of suspension of disbelief.

The Mandalorian itself encourages the idea that one’s deep-seated beliefs may not always align with the truth. When the Mandalorian himself meets others of his kind, he finds out that the sacred vow he took is not one universal to those of Mandalore, but the product of a particular extremist sect. In this respect, while Luke Skywalker does get his moment at the season finale, the greater show also discourages unwavering loyalty purely based on tradition and dogma. Ultimately, the argument that his appearance as symbolic of a push against Rian Johnson is little more than posturing, and is yet another attempt to create outrage at perceived enemies of an archaic and dangerous form of traditionalism.

Naomi Osaka with Lightning Powers: Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi

I knew that Naomi Osaka was supposed to get her own manga. What I didn’t know is that it would be drawn by the artists responsible for the Precure manga, nor that it would be about futuristic space tennis. Having read the first chapter, I think Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi is going to turn out amazing.

In the year NKY2770, five elemental planets (light, wind, water, earth, fire) compete in space to determine the next king after the previous King of Light suddenly died and left the planets vulnerable to the forces of darkness. A 15-year-old girl named Naomi travels with her family to the wind planet to support her dad’s dream of becoming a space tennis coach, but an old man Naomi rescues reveals to Naomi her immense potential, and puts her down the thrilling path of a player.

One thing I did not expect from Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi is that it’s much more action-packed than I expected. While the Precure anime is known for its fight scenes, Kamikita Futago’s manga renditions usually eschew superpowered combat in favor of friendly conversations and non-battle storylines. Not so here, as part of what puts the “space” in space tennis is elemental-powered strokes and tense matches that would feel at home even in a shounen magazine.

In terms of racial sensitivity, while I can’t say much, the Kamikita twins have prior experience drawing a darker-skinned heroine thanks to their work on the Star Twinkle Precure manga, which features the half-Mexican Amamiya Elena. From what I can tell there, the artists drew Elena very respectfully, and I see a similar approach being used here.

The credits also for the series also include supervision from Naomi’s older sister Mari, who’s also a tennis player. I’m curious as to what exactly her involvement is. Does she provide tennis expertise? Is she a fan of shoujo manga? These are probably questions I’ll never know the answer to.

Even if the series ends up being pretty by-the-numbers, I’m looking forward to it. Sure, it looks fun so far, but more importantly, I think it has real potential to make some social impact. For its first chapter, Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi graces the cover of its magazine, Nakayoshi. While I don’t know how many dark-skinned heroines have been cover girls for Nakayoshi, I suspect that it’s been more the exception than the rule. I can imagine a young Japanese girl who’s self-conscious about her own skin color seeing the fictional and real versions of Naomi proudly displayed on the cover, and drawing confidence and inspiration from it. Maybe it’ll help them see themselves in a prouder light. And if this manga reaches a worldwide audience, then it’s all the better.

A European Tour: Izneo Comics App Review

In recent years, I’ve turned more and more to digital comics as a resource. While there is something lost in not being able to hold a physical book, the sheer amount of manga, webcomics, and the like that I try to keep up with means that I would soon run out of living space. I purchase ebooks on a regular basis (in English and Japanese), and have subscriptions to multiple comics and manga services.

I was recently contacted by a digital comics platform called Izneo, who asked me if I’d like to review their service. They offer a variety of American comics, manga, and webtoons, but what really caught my eyes was their robust European comics selection. While Ogiue Maniax is ultimately more focused on anime and manga, I spent a few years living in Europe, and I tried to use that opportunity to learn more about the storied history of Franco-Belgian comics (bande dessinee), Dutch comics (stripboeken), and just about anything I could get my hands on. Still, it’s an area of comics where my knowledge of comics is relatively weak, and knowing that Izneo seems dedicated to promoting European comics digitally encouraged me to write something.

Izneo was actually started by several large comics publishers in France, and so while they might not be as big as the elephant in the room, Comixology, they have a particular edge when it comes to European comics. From what I could tell, they tend to get new European releases sooner, and their premium service (which is first month free before switching to $7.99/month) has a lot more European titles readily available than Comixology Unlimited. For example, I compared the classic Belgian adventure comic Blake & Mortimer. As of December 2020, a Comixology subscription has nine volumes available to read at all times, whereas Izneo’s offers fourteen.  I think that alone can justify the subscription, but it doesn’t hurt that the selection of non-European comics is still quite decent. You can also buy the comics as individual purchases on there without a subscription, so there’s some flexibility in terms of cost.

I tried out Izneo’s apps on multiple platforms—a tablet, a smartphone, and even the Nintendo Switch—and what quickly became clear to me is that the tablet offered the best reading experience because of the traditional format of European comics. Unlike manga, which come collected into fairly small books usually somewhere between 144 to 208 pages mostly in black and white, European comics are around 48 to 64 pages, come in much larger dimensions (even bigger than the typical Marvel or DC hardcover collection), and are lovingly detailed in both linework and color. Although each European comic album is relatively short, it can often take a single artist months or even years to complete a single book, and they’re ideally read with the entire page visible to appreciate the overall visual composition. Because of this, it’s a challenge to read on a smaller screen, especially when you hit a word balloon that’s just stuffed with exposition. The best solution might be to just have an extremely large monitor, so you can even read the comics as full double-page spreads all the way, but that’s not a solution available to everyone.

Izneo is well aware of this limitation and offers a couple of workarounds for those using smaller devices. First is their “eazy comics” view, which breaks the page down so you read it one panel at a time. Second is that you can display each page zoomed in so you see about a third of it at a time. Of the two, I much prefer the latter, especially when it comes to older titles that stick more closely to the “three ‘strips’ per page” format. I also want to reiterate that I’m focusing on this issue not because it’s some fatal flaw of Izneo specifically, but because it’s an inherent compromise that comes with digital releases of European comics across all comics services.. The offerings for manga, American comics, and of course webtoons (which are generally created to be read on smaller screens) don’t run into these issues nearly as much. 

In order to do this review, I received the one-month premium subscription from Izneo, but I actually plan on continuing to use Izneo. I haven’t decided if I’ll keep the premium service or go into a la carte purchases, but their digital service just gives me such an opportunity to really explore European comics, and it means supporting the publishers and artists more directly. My only real wish is that they get more titles in the future. I would love to see Yoko Tsuno on there, and for the release to go beyond the few volumes released (out of order) in English previously. If possible, I also hope that they could eventually get non-Franco-Belgian European comics on there, like the Dutch series Agent 327. Overall, when it comes to Izneo, I like what I see, and I want more.

Oxen, Free: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for January 2021

A part of me understands that years are really just arbitrary designations of time, but I still feel a sense of relief that 2020 is officially behind us. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I desperately hope that current and future generations learn the lessons we need about the important of healthcare, of helping those who are marginalized, and understanding that while competition is a part of humanity, it should not define us to the point of mutual destruction. Leave the power fantasies of invincibility to isekai anime, and let’s help one another out.

I also want to draw special attention to the Georgia runoff elections that will determine control of the US Senate. If you’re registered to vote there, you have the power to shape the future in your hands. If we want to establish even the chance for a future that benefits those in need rather than those addicted to power, this is our best opportunity for the next two years.

Anyway, thanks to the following Patreon sponsors at the start of 2021:

General:

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Blog highlights from December:

Best Anime Characters of 2020

See my picks for the top two!

The Prince of All Rating Systems: The Vegeta Level

A simple question: How Vegeta is your favorite anime?

Christmas, Nostalgia, and Shinkalion

A look at how the anime Shinkalion utilizes nostalgia, and what makes it difficult to license in English.

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 35 brings the pain!

Patreon-Sponsored

Thoughts on HoloModels

My initial impressions on the augmented-reality anime figure line.

Closing

On a less somber note, it’s the year of the ox, and we’re seeing a lot of cow cosplay anime fanart. I’d say something about being careful about NSFW pieces, but I get the feeling most people are currently at home.

Best Anime Characters of 2020

BEST MALE CHARACTER

Sorano Appare (Appare-Ranman!)

Having the protagonist of a racing anime be a serendipitous inventor makes for an interesting dynamic. Appare chafes against the cultural norms and restrictions expected of him in his home life in Japan, and an impromptu trip to the US (along with an entry into a transnational motorcar race) allows his eccentric genius to flourish. Above all, there are two main things that make Appare great. The first is that his interactions with others both big and small make for a very convincing portrayal of a protagonist whose way of thinking, priorities, and philosophy run along a different path from everyone around him. The second is that he grows tremendously on his journey—in part due to his initially reluctant racing partner Kosame—and ultimately ends up with both a passion for technology and compassion for his fellow human beings in equal strength.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Kanamori Sayaka (Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!)

In one of the greatest celebrations of the creative process ever made, the most impressive character is Kanamori Sayaka, the practical-minded “producer” of the main trio. The very fact that she embodies that producer mindset (as opposed to director, artist, or animator) is a rare treat, and while she’s basically the fun police in terms of the narrative, the story portrays her as integral. There’s something downright refreshing about how grounded and logical Kanamori is in contrast to the rampant imaginations of her friends Asakusa and Mizusaki, and it makes a character who would otherwise recede into the background stand out all the more. In certain ways, she reminds me of Kasukabe Saki from Genshiken—always a fine character to be compared to.

Final Thoughts

When I look at my choices for best characters of 2020, the thing I see in common is that both are unorthodox characters who provide windows into the act of creation, be it artistic or mechanical. Funnily enough, Appare and Kanamori play opposite roles in their respective stories, with Kanamori being the straight man to her friends’ disregard for pragmatism and Appare being the unimpeded tinkerer who Kosame has to manage. It would probably make more sense if I had picked two similar characters on each side, but in both cases, the way they upend expectations makes me believe in them.

I’d also like to make an honoroable mention for Kaburagi from Deca-Dence, who was extremely close to being my pick for male character of the year. Kaburagi is an aged combat veteran, but as we learn more about his life and perspective, we can see the inner struggle in him extends beyond merely his loss of zest for life and into what it means for a society to survive versus what it means to prosper.

A turbulent year full of worries and delays has nevertheless seen many wonderful anime come out that both challenge norms and provide hope and inspiration.

Dark Waters: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 35

Heartache and bracket upsets abound in Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 35.

Summary

After being rejected by Kousei, Shion is emotionally devastated. Yukina asks why Kousei would word his rejection so harshly, while Jin correctly (and inappropriately) brings up Kousei’s mom as the reason he doesn’t like to deal with girls.  At the same time, seeing Shion confess to Kousei has put Akira into a funk, which impacts his singing as a part of Tsuyama’s group in the school music competition (once again, Akira got roped into participating with them as well). Combined with a lack of practice and a focus on girls over music, the “Tsuyama All Stars” are defeated by a group of otaku singing an iDOLM@STER song. 

Dropping out in Round 1, all of their girlfriends instantly reject them as losers, and Tsuyama is on the verge of kicking Akira’s ass. However, Kurotaki Mai steps in to defend Akira by pointing out that Tsuyama and company’s song choice betrayed them, as they clearly lacked the conviction they showed when singing a Spitz cover at the previous competition against the Chorus Appreciation Society. The Tsuyama crew then realize the “error” of their ways and go back to worshipping Mimi-sensei. But Mai also criticizes Akira, and relays something that Jin taught her: the low notes are the foundation of harmonizing, and as possessors of deep voices, they’re vital to the success of their respective groups’ performances.

But right when everyone expects the Light Music Club to win their round, they’re actually beaten by a mysterious masked group calling themselves “Basso Masters.” Who are they, and why are there 52 of them?!

Oh, Mai

With all the romantic drama coming out over the past few chapters, it’s no surprise that a look into Mai’s inner thoughts would reveal that she has feelings for Akira as well. Sure, all the blushing and gratefulness since her introduction into Hashikko Ensemble was a pretty strong hint, but after giving Akira advice, she thinks to herself, “Liking someone who likes someone else…It happens all the time.” In a different context, it might come across as more ambiguous, but then it’s followed up by Himari seeing everything and reacting with a thought of her own: “…Ugh. Looks like she’s gonna be a real pain.” Himari is clearly seeing something there, though I’m still not sure how Himari herself feels. Being Akira’s childhood friend, is there something more? The love web somehow gets more defined and more convoluted as the story continues.

Meanwhile, Akira’s mom is there in person and seeing this tangled web of emotions in action, thrilled at her darling son experiencing the ups and downs of youth. As with the last chapter, I love how supportive she is, and when I think about something like Genshiken, the sheer parental presence in Hashikko Ensemble sticks out all the more.

Shallow Love

It’s ironic that Tsuyama’s crew, the ones who made it look like music was the key to dating success and the most visible symbol that the school had changed, were mercilessly tossed aside by their girlfriends and are now back to square one. It’s a humorously tragic moment, simple in its brutality, but also speaking to the dangers of romance through prestige. Both the guys and the girls involved likely got into it for shallow reasons, though in what ways they were shallow changed. I could see Tsuyama and the others jumping at the very first opportunity to have some cute girlfriends, while the girls merely liked the cool cache brought to them by dating these guys. When Mai is telling them off, she mentions that their song choice was clearly made in order to please their girlfriends, who know nothing about music and shouldn’t have been such a significant factor. 

It’s implied that their devotion to Mimi-sensei was on a whole other level, and that whatever they were feeling for their girls just wasn’t quite the same. I feel sorry for Mimi-sensei for having to deal with them again, and it’s not exactly a happy ending, but i am amused by how confused she is in the aftermath. 

Jin Is Never Smooth

Some chapters ago, I wrote about how I think he’s supposed to be a non-neurotypical person, which came through in his inability to understand the more emotional and subjective aspects of music. Now, he seems incapable of reading the room, and loudly blurts out something that hits at Kousei’s greatest sore spot: his neglectful and abusive mother. I can’t quite recall if Jin has all the details about Kousei’s life, but just about anyone else would have known to keep quiet about it. Although nowhere near as terrible, Jin doesn’t have the best relationship with his own mom, and I wonder how much his social awkwardness (whether or not it’s due to a psychological or physiological condition) contributes to that tension.

Songs

Tsuyama All Stars: “Pretender” by Official Hige Dandism

Team “Promise” (a bunch of otaku): “Yakusoku” (Promise) from The iDOLM@STER

Half Monks: “Guts Daze!!” by Ulfuls

Electrical First-Years Acapella Group: “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” by Yoko Takahashi (electronic version using Vocaloid software)

Wind Instrument Club: “The Galaxy Express 999” by Godiego

Light Music Club: “Ai Uta” (Love Ballad) by GReeeeN

Basso Masters: “Daichi Kinshou” (Hymn of the Earth) from the cantata “Tsuchi no Uta” (Song of the Land)

I appreciate that the competition has a nice mix of genres and sources—including pop, rock, anime, and classical—from across the decades. The performances themselves also showcase different ways to make music, and I would love to see the electronic version of “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” if this ever got made into an anime.

You can find the above songs, along with previous references, in my Hashikko Ensemble Youtube playlist.

Final Thoughts

A group of 52 singers showing up incognito is sure to cause a stir, but it also makes me wonder if they’re actually another school in disguise—maybe Nishigafuchi. The combination of their song choice and their sheer numbers makes me think they’re not from around these parts.

Christmas, Nostalgia, and Shinkalion

It’s not uncommon for children’s cartoons to offer something to the parents watching with their kids, yet when it came to Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion: THE ANIMATION, I had believed that there wasn’t much in it for adults beyond those who already have an appreciation for a more classic type of kids’ anime. Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that what Shinkalion offers its older viewers is a dip into nostalgia—not only because of its relatively old-fashioned narrative beats, but also literal callbacks to pop culture moments of yesteryear.

In a recent tweet, fellow mecha enthusiast Tom Aznable points out how Shinkalion actually features near shot-for-shot re-creations of late 1980s Christmas-themed commercials for Japan Railways, complete with 4:3 aspect ratio, a faux-CRT filter, and actual recordings of “Christmas Eve” by the renowned Yamashita Tatsuro. You can see side by side comparisons in the link above, as well as the full commercials below:

I was unfamiliar with that particular song, but it’s apparently considered a Christmas classic in Japan. And, like so many things Japanese, it just oozes nostalgia, and now it’s forever on my playlist. 

In the context of the anime itself, the protagonist Hayasugi Hayato is a supreme train otaku, and so he thinks of everything—including other characters’ romantic recollections—in relation to trains. But the show is clearly using these moments to trigger powerful memories in its older viewers. Shinkalion doesn’t even limit it to Christmas commercials, either. Given all this, it becomes clearer that the Evangelion episode of Shinkalion, where Hayato visits Tokyo-3 and Shinji pilots a Shinkalion version of EVA-01, is also meant to play into this nostalgia.

The way that Shinkalion taps into a past zeitgeist makes me further aware of the improbability of the series ever getting licensed in English. The series is already focused primarily on viewers in Japan by virtue of its purpose and subject material. The show wants you to buy bullet train toys from Takara Tomy and encourages you to ride the train more (not exactly unwelcome in the grand scheme of things), and without the merch and the accessibility to the shinkansen—or, for that matter, the familiarity of Japanese high-speed rail—it would remain a weird and foreign thing to most kids in the US and other English-primary countries. When you throw the 80s and 90s Japanese media references on there as well, it becomes an even more difficult sell. Yamashita Tatsuro might be gaining more of an international reputation than ever thanks to his role as the king of city pop, but it’s those commercials just aren’t going to hit nearly as hard as they did with Japanese viewers.

There will always be something lost in cultural translation, but there need to be a lot of moving parts for this to work out, including likely a licensing process involving Japan Railways. And while Shinkalion has managed to reach beyond Japan and to places like Hong Kong, Asia’s relationship with anime is very different from the rest of the world’s due to proximity. 

Still, I wouldn’t mind a Christmas miracle whereby Shinkalion gets licensed in some form—even a streaming-only release. There would likely be some music rights limitations that would alter the experience, as even the Japanese official Youtube versions of Shinkalion episodes had to replace “Christmas Eve” and “Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” but it would be a relatively small price to pay. As the line from the Japan Railways Christmas commercials puts it, “Getting to see you is the ultimate present.”