Harsh Lessons in Teamwork: Eyeshield 21‘s Kongo Agon

One of my favorite characters to think about is Kongo Agon from the football manga Eyeshield 21. He’s not a favorite in the sense that I would put him on a top 10 or even top 100 best characters list, but what he does provide is an entertaining and exciting role as an antagonist whose presence allows a more complicated story about what it means to be a successful teammate.

In Eyeshield 21, Kongo Agon is the undisputed best high school American-football player in Japan. His reaction time is unmatched. While others might be stronger or faster, no one has the optimized combination of both like him. Anything you can do, he can probably do better. Agon isn’t even one of those characters who is strong individually but is especially bad at teamwork. He knows how to work within a group, at least to a certain extent. The fact that he’s so superior to everyone else, however, lands him into a classic trap for someone of such extraordinary talent: he finds less worth in those who can’t keep up with him.

When mentioning what his ideal team would be, Agon describes a hypothetical team that’s 21 of himself + one teammate who has a few unique skills. And in a way, he’s right. An All-Star All-Agon team would probably beat every other team around. However, that team fundamentally cannot exist (Eyeshield 21 is not a science fiction series), and this is where Agon begins to falter. He may be perfect, but no one else is, and his inability to truly accept that is what opens up the cracks in his armor and leads him on the road to defeat.

One of the most famous athletes in history, Michael Jordan, ran into a similar problem. Jordan in his rookie days was a once-in-a-generation talent, but felt he couldn’t trust his teammates. What turned it around was his coach, Phil Jackson, who pushed Jordan to assume the role of a true leader, and to motivate his teammates into believing that Jordan trusted them. No small part of this was Scottie Pippen, who could mediate between Jordan and the rest of the bulls and lead by example in the process.

A lot of what made Jordan able to overcome his over-reliance on himself are the very things that Agon ends up failing to learn for a long time. Agon, despite being the best player around, is not an effective leader for a team; he’s closer to a tyrant than a captain. Moreover, the man who could be his Pippen, his brother Kongo Unsui, is shown little if any respect by Agon. Because he views everyone else as so beneath him in talent, he can’t even fathom the relatively minuscule accomplishments of opposing teams as matter at all—only for such an “insignificant” change to hand him a devastating, skin-of-his-teeth loss. Agon is decent at teamwork, but if only he respected his teammates and his opponents more, he could have been invincible.

Perhaps the biggest character development moment for Agon in Eyeshield 21 is the day that he finally bothers to train. Much like Frieza in Dragon Ball: Resurrection F, Agon is begrudgingly pushed to the point that he has to actually try, only Agon’s storyline predates Frieza’s in this particular sense. That realization by Agon, that he has to work at maintaining his dominance, is the ultimate blow to his being. He’s forever transformed, unable to ever go back to thinking that he, by simple virtue of being himself, is enough to defeat everyone.

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New York Comic Con 2018 and Thoughts on the Asian-American Experience

New York Comic Con is the only non-explicitly Japan-focused convention I typically attend. In that respect, it gives me an opportunity to explore in greater detail the aspects of comics and media fandom that I normally prioritize less. This year, while I did my fair share of anime and manga-related activities—namely see Son Goku’s esteemed voice actress Nozawa Masako—my main takeaway from NYCC 2018 was that the shifting cultural landscape beneath the United States at this moment is of the utmost importance in comics and entertainment.

I went to many events during the convention, but the main stand-out was Super Asian America. A Q&A and discussion about Asian-Americans in comics, animation, and related media, the panel featured a bevy of guests: comics writer Marjorie Liu (Monstress), actor Ryan Potter (Hiro in Big Hero 6), comics writer Greg Pak (creator of Amadeus Cho), Kickstarter publishing’s Camilla Zhang, comics creator Nidhi Chanani, and host Mike Le. Much of the discussion was about the surprisingly good year that Asian-Americans have experienced in the entertainment industry between the successes of Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Ever Loved, and Searching. The main takeaway was that this is a good step, but that convincing the Hollywood machine that falling back on its old racist and conservative mindset for “safety” reasons is going to take a lot more. Moreover, the United States as it currently stands is a troubling place for non-white ethnic groups, and this fight extends to more than just movies and TV shows.

I’ve long struggled with an unfortunate truth: many Asians, especially from older generations, are extremely racist. Readers might be wondering what this has to do with New York Comic Con, but my view of my fellow Asian-Americans is not always charitable. It always saddens me to see a kind of “we Asians need to get ahead” mindset that seems to come at the expense of others, the kind of attitude that encourages ingratiating ourselves to white people and avoiding association with other ethnic groups. So for years, I’ve seen those struggles for better representation in Hollywood and such, and felt myself being a bit skeptical. “How many of these people are really thinking about equality and opportunities for all?” Now I realize I’ve been conflating more than a few things that should be considered separate yet loosely related.

It is true that many Asians living in the US have been racist, and have tried to emulate “white success” to some degree. It’s also true that the Asian communities often focus on themselves to almost a deleterious degree, ignoring the reality of the politics surrounding us. However, the fight for better representation of Asians and Asian-Americans on screens and pages big and small is itself a fight against the racism that lingers within our communities among fellow Asians. There are generations of stereotypes that Asians have to fight against, like being weak and ineffectual compared to rugged European folk (unless we’re doing martial arts), and the sooner we remove the seeming need to graft the problematic elements of white privilege onto our own identities, the sooner we can make all Asian-Americans feel like they don’t have to conform to others’ ideas of who we can be.

Can-do Candy: Dagashi Kashi Full Manga Review

Two years after I declared Shidare Hotaru the best female anime character of 2016, I’ve finally read all 11 volumes of her manga, Dagashi Kashi. Now, it’s time for a full review of this eccentric and wonderful series about Japanese snack nostalgia and the thirstiness of youth

Shikada Kokonotsu is a small-town high school boy who dreams of drawing manga professionally, but his dad wants him to take over the family business—a shop that sells dagashi, a category of Japanese snacks that are made to be cheap so that kids can afford them with their small allowances. One day, the vivacious heiress to the Shidare snack company, Shidare Hotaru, arrives at their store with a mission: to recruit Kononotsu’s dad to her family’s company. However, in order to do that, Kokonotsu needs to take over their shop. Thus, Hotaru takes it upon herself to convince Kokonotsu to embrace the dagashi passion in his blood by making daily visits and challenging Kokonotsu in various snack-related ways.

I love reading reactions to Dagashi Kashi because of how it seems to frustrate many anime and manga fans. At first, it seems to be a fanservice-heavy rom-com/harem work with a veneer of Japanese snack nostalgia, only to quickly reveal itself as the opposite. Sure, Dagashi Kashi is filled with attractive and powerfully charismatic girls, but it’s their passionate and humorous interactions over the snacks themselves (as well as the history lessons provided) that are the true backbone to this series. This might not be what others want out of Dagashi Kashi, but it’s exactly what won me over.

One can hardly call Dagashi Kashi an ultra-complex manga, but it’s endlessly entertaining, and its characters memorable and fully realized. Hotaru is the lynchpin of the series, a whirling dervish of intensity, passion, and mild misfortune, but every character carries their weight in making it a delightful comedy. For example, Endou Saya, a childhood friend who harbors a secret crush on Kokonotsu, is a perfect “normie” character—someone who only has a casual connection to dagashi but rounds out the main cast as a result. Every time a new character is introduced, they also quickly endear themselves. The key example is an employment-challenged character named Owari Hajime, who shows up when Hotaru vanishes for a brief period. While the hole Hotaru creates in her absence can’t be filled by anyonese (a plot point in the series), Hajime differentiates herself by being this adult who’s both more mature than the kids around her yet ill-equipped for the real world.

The humor comes across to me as a kind of manzai battle royal. While manzai comedy classically involves one boke (buffoon) and one tsukkomi (straight man), the classifications are modular within the context of Dagashi Kashi. Most of the time, Kokonotsu is the one who’s reacting to characters’ shenanigans, be it Hotaru, his best friend Tou, or even his dad. But sometimes, Kokonotsu lets himself be carried away by Hotaru’s dagashi antics, and it’s up to Saya or even Hajime to call him out on it. However, Kokonotsu’s casual reactions can be completely disarming to her, which puts her out of the driver’s seat, so to speak. The humor is sort of like a cross between Lucky Star and Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei, and if that doesn’t quite make sense, it’s because Dagashi Kashi is kind of its own thing in the end.

Another interesting aspect of the series is that it’s a very different experience reading it compared to a Japanese audience. For many who grew up in Japan, dagashi are just a part of life, and part of the appeal of Dagashi Kashi is that it’s a trip down memory lane. For foreigners like me, however, it’s more about discovering a little-explored aspect of Japanese culture. In that regard, I love learning all this dagashi trivia, and there’s plenty to go around. In fact, the series can be so information-dense that it’s sometimes hard to believe that Dagashi Kashi chapters are generally only eight pages.

It’s hard to decide which chapters are my personal favorites, but a few stand out upon reflection. First, there are a couple that are meant to celebrate the announcement of the anime (seasons 1 and 2), and they’re intentionally drawn to be dynamic and action-packed, as if to challenge the animators to do something about it. Second, there’s a chapter that features Snickers, of all things. It lets a non-Japanese reader like me sort of get the nostalgic experience that’s expected from Dagashi Kashi. (As an aside, Hotaru actually presents Snickers as an ideal emergency survival food due to its high sugar, fat, and calorie content.) Third, there’s one about red bean ice cream bars. Hotaru, for some reason, essentially asks which would win in a fight: a red bean bar in the summer or a red bean bar in the winter? The question is as nonsensical in the story as it is in this paragraph, and that’s what makes it great.

With a series like Dagashi Kashi, it can be difficult to see how the series ends or whether it’s satisfying. I will say that I enjoy the conclusion, but it more or less resolves in an open-ended fashion. While it’s not entirely ambiguous, be it in romance or the pursuit of dreams, it feel as if the message of Dagashi Kashi is that these characters are still young and have their entire lives ahead of them. In other words, even as the manga finishes, the characters are capable of doing so much more. It’s a nice message to end on, and an appropriate way to send Hotaru, Kokonotsu, and the rest of the crew off.

 

Good Harems vs. Bad Harems: Morality in Polyamorous Manga

The term “harem” gets thrown around often in anime and manga, but series considered to be part of the harem genre rarely feature actual polyamorous or polygamous relationships. Instead, the purpose of many of these series is pure, carnal power fantasy. However, I’ve noticed that a few series make a distinction being “good harems” and “bad harems.”

Case 1: Tales of Wedding Rings

For the most part, Tales of Wedding Rings is a fairly orthodox harem fantasy series about a boy who gets transported to another world and must wed powerful princesses across the land to defeat an evil entity revived. The girls are all beautiful in different ways, and unlike those works which tend towards having the hero choose a true partner, the implication is that none of the heroines mind a polygamous relationship. It’s no strings attached. Or is it?

More recent chapters have revealed an interesting wrinkle. The hero, Satou, is the new “Ring King,” and for most of the series, his predecessor has been spoken of as a legend savior. But one of his former wives reveals a dark secret: as he continued in his role as the first Ring King, his thirst for for power grew in more than one sense. Knowing that his might relied on his physical and emotional bonds with his wives, he began to abuse and even rape them. The wives endured all they could, but ultimately they worked together to take revenge and kill the Ring King.

Suddenly, a manga about an ideal male power fantasy, the harem of hot and powerful babes, carries a lesson that there’s a difference between genuine love and the desire for control and power that leads to abusive relationships. It’s not enough to have all the women, but to treat them with respect as well. Otherwise, the fate that the first Ring King brought upon himself through his violent behavior might very well befall Satou as well.

Case 2: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

The Gundam franchise traditionally doesn’t stray too far from heteronormative relationships, at best teasing about the prospect of other types of attraction and love through its characters. Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans is a major exception to this rule. Its romances feature homosexuality, major age gaps, and yes, actual harems.

The character Naze Turbine commands a ship piloted by his many wives. But while he might appear to be a dubious personality at first, his real goal in marrying so many women is to take them out of dangerous, dead-end situations. He makes them his wives so as to afford them the protection of his yakuza-esque organization, Teiwaz, and he provides training and education for them so they have the skills to survive in their own. He doesn’t even require his wives to actually sleep with him, so some are spouses in name only. Of course, he won’t refuse a physical relationship either, and has fathered many offspring as a result.

Like first Ring King in Tales of Wedding Rings, there is a character who represents the “bad harem” in Iron-Blooded Orphans: Jasley Donomikols. Another member of Teiwaz, he constantly tries to bribe Naze’s wives to his side with gifts of money and power with no success, failing to realize that what they value most in Naze is not riches but love and caring. Eventually, Jasley is murdered out of revenge by Naze’s wives.

Naze’s approach to love ends up influencing even the main love triangle of Iron-Blooded Orphans. At one point, Amida (Naze’s #1) says to a young Atra Mixta that a true man has enough love to go around, a lesson Atra takes to heart.

So What’s the Difference?

In both Tales of Wedding Rings and Iron-Blooded Orphans, a clear distinction is made between a healthy harem and an unhealthy one. The former is based on caring and generosity, while the latter is founded in greed, selfish desire, and the treatment of women like objects. Both the first Ring King and Jasley make this mistake, and end up paying the price for it.

This notion of the “selfless harem” is fairly idealistic and at odds with how harems are generally envisioned. Normally, they are wish fulfillment fantasy for boys and men filled with lust and eyes for many, or for those who don’t want to choose. Institutionalized polygamy (like the kind found among Fundamentalist Mormons) can become a dangerous source of power imbalances in communities, harming both men and women. The irony is that according to the series which champion selfless harems, they can only be truly obtained when one does not greedily desire for them, like some kind of Zen or Taoist riddle.

Darling in the NYCCs: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for October 2018

New York Comic Con is this week. I’m hoping to see Nozawa Masako (the legendary voice of Goku) at the Dragon Ball Super: Broly film showing. I wish she had a signing—she plays Tetsurou in my favorite anime ever, Galaxy Express 999—but alas.

Thank you as always to my supporters on Patreon and Ko-fi, especially the following!

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

My favorite posts from September:

On Loli Vampires, Fiction, and Morality

A complicated topic I’d been wanting to write about for a while: the complexities of morality when it comes to large age gaps in fiction.

Akira Yuki (Virtua Fighter) for Super Smash Bros.

My interpretation of how Akira would work in Smash!

Please Tell Me! Galko-chan and Portrayals of the Nerd/Bombshell Romance

How does the uniquely insightful, uniquely horny Galko-chan handle one of the classic romance tropes?

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 8 puts the spotlight on Koizumi Himari, a childhood friend who’s more than meets the eye.

Patreon-Sponsored

Aikatsu Friends! Choreography Has Won Me Over

The dancing has improved in Aikatsu! and notably so.

Closing

This month is actually my first ever wedding anniversary! It’s crazy to think that I’ll have been married for one whole year. Here’s to love.

Beyond Expectations: Planet With

Imagine a long-running anime series that finally hits its climax, and winds down with an incredible conclusion. It seems like the perfect place to end the story, satisfying and complete yet somehow making you feel like you’d like to dive back into that world someday.

Now imagine if this anime received a follow-up. You love this series, but feel trepidation. After all, sequels are notorious for often failing to live up to the original, and you want your memory to remain untainted. Still, you give it a chance…and it’s even better than the first one! How is this possible? While you’re reeling from having your faith rewarded, you find out that, once again, this isn’t the end. Another sequel has been announced! And another. And another. Each time, you worry that something might go wrong, but it never does. Before you know it, hundreds of episodes have passed, and you can’t help but feel that the world is a different place.

Except you realize it’s only been twelve episodes. All of those years you swore had passed you by were contained within three months. That feeling is essentially what it’s like to watch Planet With.

Based on a manga by Mizukami Satoshi (Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, Spirit Circle), Planet With is rare among anime adaptations because the original author actually specifically created the storyboards for the animated version. While the anime and manga apparently do diverge, there’s a certain level of consistency that can only be achieved through such hands-on involvement. If it wasn’t clear from the opening paragraphs, the value this provides comes across in the final work in spades.

Initially, Planet With feels “unstable.” It’s difficult to establish a foothold as a viewer. What are these bizarre, giant totems flying through the air? Who is this seeming hodgepodge of people declaring that they’re here to defend the Earth? Where did they get their mysterious-looking armors from, and are they science or magic? Who is this kid who’s clearly supposed to be the main character, and why is he living with an overly cheerful maid who translates for an eerie bipedal cat that looks related to Chiyo’s Dad from Azumanga Daioh? Who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy?

The answers come, with time. As the story moves forward, the scope and the stakes expand exponentially, but Planet With never feels emotionless or distant. There’s something very personal about the series, but rather than fighting with the increasingly grandiose scale, those two sides feed off of each other. It’s a work that feels both impossibly large and unfathomably small, as if it took some of the best parts of Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, Brigadoon, Gurren-Lagann, and (of course) Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer and mixed them all together.

The most pleasant surprise about Planet With is that while it seems to go to the ends of the universe and back both literally and metaphorically, it never stops being an uplifting piece of science fiction. Somehow, it takes even the wackiest possible moments and contextualizes them into gripping scenes that ignite both heart and mind and asks the two to harmonize. From beginning to end, it can practically feel like a lifetime, and I mean that in the best way possible.


Sticky-Fingered: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 8

Love is in the air! …Or wait, that feeling might actually be “guilt.” It’s a chance to learn about Koizumi Himari in Hashikko Ensemble!

Summary

Having heard Akira’s deal—if we repair your earphones, you’ll have to join the Chorus Club—Orihara responds with disgust and tries to take a swing. Jin blocks Orihara’s fist, inadvertently breaking his finger (but not seeming terribly bothered by it). Jin wants to fix the earphones regardless of any deal, but he can’t find anyone in class who’s up to the task.

Some days later, however, Himari (Akira’s next-door neighbor) is actually in school for the first time in a while, and she turns out to be (for reasons unknown) a deft hand at soldering. Jin, who’s in the same class as Himari, tries to convince her to help repair the earphones, but she hesitates. After some conversation, mostly revolving around how she hates Akira’s puberty-induced ultra-bass voice, Jin convinces Himari to a deal: if he can show the appeal of Akira’s new voice through song, she’ll help them out.

Shinji sees this scenario as many might: a path to romance between Akira and Himari, but Himari’s initial response to Akira and Jin’s duet is to pull out an old picture book from Akira’s collection instead and apologize. Apparently, she stole it when they were young, and it’s the reason she avoided him for so long. In fact, it turns out that Himari’s really, really good at swiping things in general, which she reveals by showing off the resistors she took from class. She agrees to help, all while showing subtle hints that she might not be so unmoved by Akira’s singing after all…

The Himari Show

As the latest character to join the main cast, Himari is a major part of Chapter 8. Frankly, I think she’s fantastic, but awkward, surly girls drawn by Kio Shimoku are my aesthetic. I find that she bounces off all of the other characters quite well, and it makes me look forward to future interactions involving her.

Himari blushes a lot, but it can be hard to tell what exactly it means at any given moment. Because she seems to have a non-stop chip on her shoulder on top of being socially standoffish, her red face seems to shift from displaying embarrassment towards herself, embarrassment towards others, and maybe some feelings for Akira himself. Based on the brief glimpses of her memories, she appears to treasure her childhood with Akira—though she appears at first glance to not be especially different personality-wise back then.

One aspect of her that intrigues me is her proclivity for five-fingered discounts. It’s such an expected personality trait that she’s instantly memorable in my eyes. Also, I get the feeling that her talents in this area are related to her adeptness with a soldering iron. Something she does outside of class might make her a dexterous girl in more ways than one.

Akira’s First “Concert”

While it’s in a stairwell instead of a hall, and the audience is one childhood friend instead of an audience of many, this chapter’s performance is a huge step for Akira. We may not be seeing every single step of Akira’s development, but it’s clear that Jin’s training has been paying off. The pacing of his progress feels right.

Songs

Two previous songs are mentioned this month, specifically because Himari forbade Jin and Akira from singing them: “Believe” and “Kanade.” The song they do pick is1982’s “Tooi Hi no Uta” [Song of a Far-Off Day] by Iwasawa Chihaya. The song is actually based on Johann Pachelbel’s Canon, with Japanese lyrics added.

Final Thoughts

This is more a personal note, but when Himari pulls out the resistors she swiped, I recognized them from a digital engineering class I took back in high school. Their authenticity makes me feel that Kio is putting his best foot forward researching all aspects for Hashikko Ensemble.

Next chapter is going to focus on the school sports festival, and I’m curious to see how this shakes out at a technical high school. How much of mechanics and engineering is brain and how much of it is brawn? Whatever the case may be, it’s implied that something crazy is going to happen.