Minmaxer Fiction: The Intersection Between Dungeons & Dragons and Isekai

I saw a tweet recently from someone complaining about isekai series that introduce and highlight stats and numbers the way an RPG would despite ostensibly being set in non-game fantasy worlds. 

In response, I  wrote the above tweet to give my two cents on the appeal of such an approach. However, it also got me thinking in another direction that takes this RPG fantasy game genre all the way back to one of its roots—good ol’ Dungeons & Dragons—and I realized something: these game-esque light novels feel like they’re written by what tabletop RPG players call “minmaxers.”

I was introduced to playing D&D thanks to Alain from Reverse Thieves, and after years of playing with him, I’ve come to learn firsthand that roleplaying is a very different experience compared to prose fiction or a television show. Essentially, it’s more like collaborative interactive storytelling compared to other mediums, and one aspect of this nature is that many different people with different goals come to the same table. You might have someone who’s more into exploring the world. You might have someone who wants the glory of slaying the monster and saving the day. You might have someone who wants a dramatic narrative. Because this dynamic is so important, many people have devoted many hours to categorizing the various D&D player types and thinking about how to best cater to them or even deal with their worst excesses.

Among these player archetypes, a common one is the minmaxer: the person who’s all about designing strong characters from a statistical perspective by minimizing certain scores and maximizing others, often prioritizing power over all else. There are also less extreme versions of this, such as someone simply interested in game systems and how different stats interact with one another, but it falls in the same general space. However, whereas a Dungeon Master running a game might have to take into account all the potentially different priorities of their players, a web novelist or light novelist can write the stories they want without necessarily taking into account an audience composed of varying tastes, and instead tell a story where the “game mechanics” are front and center. Adding to this intentional rigidity is the fact that many of the light novels that fall into these minmaxer worlds are clearly more inspired by video games such as Japanese RPGs and MMORPGs, where mechanics mastery is often highly valued and encouraged by the games themselves—sometimes even over storytelling.

When you look at the typical trends of protagonists within these game-style fantasy worlds, this angle becomes all the clearer. Many isekai heroes are able to peer deeper into the inner workings of the world (So I’m a Spider, So What?), have some kind of special ability that lets them defy stat restrictions (Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?), or just know that there are game-like qualities to their world (My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!). What these features have in common is that they “break” the rules, and it’s even easier when the rules are just numbers and calculations. If you’ve ever been or seen someone who wants to be praised for an interesting build or stat investment in a game (“Check out how I combine Helmet A with Sword B to deal with Situation C!” “I gave my monster 248 speed instead of 252 so I could add 4 to defense!”), it’s that same energy. When you combine it with the glory-seeking player type, you get the overpowered perfect light novel protagonist who masterfully exploits the mechanics, defeats the villains with ease, and gets the harem.

A picture of the four personalities of Kumoko from So I'm a Spider, So What? All of them are excited in different ways.
So I’m a Spider, So What?

Which isn’t to say that the minmaxer approach to writing stories is inherently bad or incapable of making for good stories. Rather, where I think the disconnect between those who want more classical fantasy stories and what light novels are offering today is that the minmaxer is traditionally very much not the kind of person who gets into writing or reading fantasy novels. To be that way, you have to come from an environment where numbered stats are even a thing in the first place, and that can only be the result of a world where Dungeons & Dragons popularized the notion of codifying fantasy-genre elements into stats with pros and cons for the purpose of gaming—a quality that then became the basis for many of the JRPGs that have influenced a generation of Japanese people, among them the writers of web novels and light novels. It’s a far cry from Lord of the Rings.

This contrast actually reminds me of an episode of the sitcom Home Improvement, of all things. In it, the mother character, Jill Taylor, is asked by her father (a retired colonel) to review his autobiography manuscript. But try as she might, Jill finds it incredibly boring and sleep-inducing because her father mostly writes about battle strategy and military formations, as opposed to dramatic exploits or anything emotionally resonant. Her father clearly values the mechanics of war, but what he wants his book to convey is not appealing to those with little interest in such things. Given this example, it’s also worth noting that D&D itself is descended from a miniature wargame called Chainmail, and one of the ways that D&D would eventually expand its audience was by adding elements that would appeal to those who care about things other than combat.

So while fantasy traditionally caters to those who want to witness a world of swords and sorcery where the sense of the mysterious and unknown is paramount, the minmaxer fiction that is so ubiquitous in fantasy light novels over the past decade or two is almost the opposite. In these worlds, all surprises can be overcome with deeper or prior knowledge. It’s no wonder why the latter approach can be so bothersome to those who seek the former, and there’s no Dungeon Master who can try to cater to both in real time.

How Incineroar in Smash Bros. Embodies Japanese Pro Wrestling

Incineroar is one of my favorite characters to play in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. He’s the first truly traditional grappler character in the franchise, and his entire moveset directly reflects the Pokémon’s pro wrestling background. However, what I think is really fascinating about Incineroar’s implementation in Smash is that the character draws most directly from an old-school Japanese professional wrestling aesthetic and history.

To start off, a major part of Incineroar’s Japan-inspired wrestling design is a part of its identity as a Pokémon. It clearly takes a lot of influence from the beloved fictional wrestling character turned actual flesh-and-blood wrestler Tiger Mask—both are cat-themed athletes who are ostensibly heels but have a soft spot for children. But if you take a look at the relative strength of Incineroar’s attacks, you’ll find that it’s based on Japan’s cultural understanding of pro wrestling.

Incineroar’s forward smash is an Enzuigiri, and it has immense damage and KO potential. To a viewer mainly familiar with American promotions, the Enzuigiri is mostly used as a transitional move to something stronger or a counter to an opponent’s offense. However, the technique has a greater legacy in Japan, where it is the finisher of Antonio Inoki, one of the three most famous Japanese wrestlers of all time. Inoki is a legend as both a champion and the founder of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and was even used as the model for the character Fighter Hayabusa in the NES game Pro Wrestling, where the Enzuigiri is known as the “Back Brain Kick.”

If you look at what Incineroar can do off a grab, you’ll find a similar phenomenon. Of the character’s four basic throws, the deadliest one is the German Suplex. Again, you have a move that, outside of Japan, is seen as kind of generic; maybe at most, people might associate it with Kurt Angle or Brock Lesnar. But the German Suplex is also the defining hold of Karl Gotch, the man known as the “god of wrestling” in Japan. Gotch had an enormous influence on the Japanese pro wrestling style, and even today whenever a wrestler pulls off a German Suplex in Japan, it’s seen as a big deal that can potentially end a match right then and there.

Another powerful throw Incineroar uses is the Argentine Backbreaker. While this move is seen in the US as more impactful than the Enzuigiri or German Suplex thanks to wrestlers like Lex Luger and the man who originally popularized it, Antonino Rocca, its footprint is even more prevalent in Japan. Not only did Rocca wrestle in Japan later in his career and is possibly the namesake of Antonio Inoki, but the Argentine Backbreaker also gained notoriety in the pages of the manga Kinnikuman. There, the character Robin Mask (a wrestler dressed like an English knight) uses it as a finishing move, calling it the Tower Bridge. Moreover, it’s clear that at least Sakurai Masahiro (the director of the Smash Bros. franchise) knows Kinnikuman: he posted to Twitter an image of Smash characters mimicking the Muscle Docking technique from the series:

Moving on, Incineroar’s best attack is arguably its side special, the Alolan Whip. While the name itself is a parody of the Irish Whip, the more important part is the follow-up: a vicious Lariat. 

One of the most famous American wrestlers to ever entertain fans in Japan is Stan Hansen, whose Western Lariat became downright iconic everywhere he fought. On the Japanese Wikipedia page for “Lariat,” the history section literally begins with a mention of Hansen, and in current times, the Japanese wrestler Okada Kazuchika is famed for his “Rainmaker” Lariat. Incidentally, Incineroar also has another related move taken from the Pokémon games—Darkest Lariat—but that’s closer to Zangief from Street Fighter II’s Double Lariat.

Generally speaking, I find that pro wrestling has a lot more of a longstanding influence on Japanese pop culture than it does American pop culture, despite the fact that pro wrestling as we know it has its origins in the United States. Even today, manga and anime wholly unrelated to wrestling or hand-to-hand combat (like Laid-Back Camp) will throw in a few references, as if to assume a common understanding among readers. So while having a wrestling cat for a Pokémon is not altogether that unusual regardless of culture, I find the execution of such a concept in Smash Bros. Ultimate to be very reflective of that enduring legacy. The fact that Incineroar so embodies the values of Japanese pro wrestling makes it all the more fun to play, win or lose.

Courage and Experience: “Hakai-oh – Gaogaigar vs. Betterman Part 2” Novel Review

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST GAOGAIGAR VS. BETTERMAN NOVEL

The Hakai-oh – Gaogaigar vs. Betterman web novel series has been a blessing for giant robot fans. Taking place in the Gaogaigar universe ten years after the cliffhanger ending of the Gaogaigar FINAL OVAs, it tells the story of how the world has changed since the Gutsy Galaxy Guard got trapped in another universe, and the new challenges those on Earth must face. A now twenty-year-old Amami Mamoru has gone from plucky kid companion to a seasoned robot pilot in his own right, working alongside his fellow alien adoptee Kaidou Ikumi to control Gaogaigo, a successor to the King of Braves in the fight against the forces that threaten the world. The series is being collected into print novels, and that’s the way in which I’ve been reading it.

The end of Part 1 saw the triumphant return of Shishioh Guy, the original pilot of Gaogaigar. However, his comeback was not without cos,t as the robot lion Galeon nobly sacrificed itself to free Guy from the clutches of their mysterious god-like adversary, Hakai-oh (“World-Conquering King.”) The second novel, Part 2, picks up directly from that point with a new challenge: a reunion with some old and familiar faces, not as allies but as enemies. Guy and Mamoru must fight across the world, respectively as the Mobile Corps Commanders of the Gutsy Galaxy Guard (GGG Green) and the Gutsy Global Guard (GGG Blue).

Genuine Care for Lore and Characterization Alike

When I read Gaogaigar vs. Betterman, I’m always struck by how much attention is paid to its own history and lore. While it can sometimes get a little too into the weeds, the general feeling that comes across is real affection and respect on the part of the creators for the universe they’ve created, as well as the fans who have embraced these stories. From the way fights play out to moments of character introspection, everything and everyone is portrayed with a robust three-dimensionality that rewards readers who remember both Gaogaigar and Betterman

For example, we’re reminded that Neuronoids (the robots of Betterman) are powered by artificial brains based on neurological patterns of actual species. This novel answers the question of what brain is in Gaogaigo: a dolphin from the Gaogaigar video game who was turned into a G-Stone cyborg like Guy, and who ultimately had to pass when the “Invisible Burst” that compromised electronics before the successful establishment of the Global Wall made it impossible to maintain the dolphin’s cybernetics. During a fight, it’s revealed that Gai-go is actually extremely strong in underwater combat—a product of being based on a marine creature.

There’s also a side story at the end of the novel that takes in the space between Part 1 and Part 2, where Guy and Mamoru visit a transit museum to see the original Liner Gao, the bullet train that becomes the shoulders of the original Gaogaigar. As they converse, the topic of the Replicant Mamoru from Gaogaigar FINAL comes up. While Repli-Mamoru ended up being merely a clone of the real Mamoru, Guy still carries a lot of guilt over killing him—especially because Guy hasn’t aged and still remembers that trauma as if it were mere weeks ago. It would have been all too easy to forget that part of the OVAs, especially because of the grandiosity of its later battles, but both the author (former Gaogaigar staff Takeda Yuuicihirou) and supervisor (the original director, Yonetani Yoshitomo) put in that extra mile. 

As a funny little moment during this side story, Guy is less astounded by the giant “Global Wall” defense system that allows wireless communications to work after a previous disaster than he is by Mamoru’s smartphone. When he last left, beepers (like Mamoru’s special GGG version) were still the norm, and to see the progression of human technology (as opposed to G-Stone technology derived from Galeon) puts a smile on Guy’s face.

Spotlight on Betterman 

Because Gaogaigar is the bigger franchise between the two marquee titles, it gets the (robot) lion’s share of the attention overall. However, Part 2 does devote more pages to the Betterman side of things than previously—while the first novel’s Betterman-focused pages are mainly about the Somniums (the titular “Bettermen”) and the question of whether they would help defend the Earth, this novel explores the original main characters, Aono Keita and Sai Hinoki, in greater detail. In particular, Keita was a relatively minimal factor in Part 1, but here, his romantic relationship with Hinoki is front and center for a significant portion of the book. Keita’s portrayal is interesting because of how humble his situation is. Rather than staying in space with Hinoki (who has since become highly educated and is a science officer for GGG Blue), Keita is without a college degree and works at an electronics store, where his otaku knowledge makes him an ideal employee. But Keita also works hard with the dream of providing a home that Hinoki can come back to, especially because Hinoki tragically lost her family as a young child.

The color insert at the beginning of the novel also has colored design images of Keita and Hinoki courtesy of the original character designer, Kimura Takahiro. As a huge fan of Kimura’s art (and his work creating Hinoki), it’s a welcome addition.

Intense(ly Clever) Battles and the Value of Experience

The real meat and potatoes of Part 2 are the many fights that take place throughout. Because they’re a pretty major surprise and make up such a huge portion of the story, I’m going to put an extra SPOILER WARNING here.


While there’s a bit of fighting between Guy and Betterman Lamia that makes the Gaogaigar vs. Betterman title technically true, the main thrust of conflict in Part 2 comes in the form of the old Gutsy Galaxy Guard members who have now been taken over by the “Triple Zero” energy that comes from Hakai-oh. Now greatly powered up and known as the “Hakai Nobility,” Brave Robots and human GGG agents alike now fight against the Earth with the goal of bringing “divine providence” to the universe. 

The first character who shows up to oppose the heroes is actually Hakai Mic Sounders, and I will say that “Evil Mic Sounders” is indeed quite a trip. Still using his characteristic mix of English and Japanese, it’s easy to not take a line like “SORRY, but I have to destroy you” seriously—that is, until you’re reminded of how powerful Mic truly is. With the ability to produce sound waves that can break down anything (if given the right information), Mic Sounders is capable of rendering even the toughest armors useless. The only reason they win is because a Betterman who can control sound herself is able to provide a counterbalance.

That battle introduces the recurring idea in the fights against the infected Brave Robots: GGG is a great asset when on the side of humanity, but beyond dangerous when its powers are turned against Earth. Goldymarg’s signature toughness (enough to withstand the power of the Goldion Hammer when in Marg Hand form) makes him able to withstand just about anything, and it takes a “Goldion Double Hammer” weapon wielded by Guy in Gaofighgar to even begin to even the odds. Tenryujin and Big Volfogg make for similarly intimidating opponents with their own unique strengths, Volfogg’s role as guardian of a young Mamoru in the past providing an extra layer of stakes in that particular fight. But it’s also not just the robots who are a threat—the human members have also become Hakai Nobility, and the tactical prowess of Commander Taiga and the genius hacking skills of Entouji provide extra hurdles for GGG Green and GGG Blue. 

Another recurring theme throughout these fights, however, is that the time dilation difference between the old GGG members and the current ones means that Mamoru and the others have ten years of their own experience under their belts. There’s a moment at the beginning of the novel where Mamoru says that he’s willing to relinquish the role of GGG Mobile Corps Commander to Guy, only for Guy to reject his offer and to praise Mamoru for having clearly been through many tough trials of his own, and at this point actually has fought with GGG for longer than he has. He further explains that he was originally just the right man for the moment, having been an astronaut transformed into a G-Stone cyborg to save his life, and wasn’t a born fighter himself.

And so we see that sentiment play out. In the fight against Tenryujin, her younger “sister” Seiryujin, the latter targets Tenryujin’s knees—a seemingly odd move, until one remembers that the individual robots that compromise the “Ryu” series all turn upside down to combine, meaning their chests (and thus their Hakai-infected AI boxes) are located in the legs. When dealing with Entouji’s computer virus, GGG Blue member Inubouzaki Minoru takes center stage. Originally a jealous rival of Entouji’s who became a Zonder in the TV series, and later returned as an ally when the Gutsy Geoid Guard became the Gutsy Galaxy Guard, Inubouzaki shows the progress he’s made the past decade not only in terms of improved skills but also being more at peace with himself and his past.

Just as everything seems to be going Earth’s way, however, the next Hakai Nobility appear: Goryujin and Genryujin (who both have access to THE POWER), as well as Soldat J and King J-Der. The preview of the next (and last!) volume hints at what’s to come with the key to victory: something called “Goldion Armor.”

To the End

The web novel version of Hakai-oh – Gaogaigar vs. Betterman has concluded, and the concluding print release is supposed to be out this summer. While I could jump in and start reading it online now, I think I’m going to wait once more. If I could wait close to 15 years before, I can withstand a few months. 

In the meantime, I’ve also been reading the manga adaptation of this series, which provides some of the visual flair that’s inevitably missing from the prose version. I can only hope that we might see an actual anime come out of this someday.

Business as Usual: The Unchallengeable Trider G7

1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam is a milestone in anime history, a show whose evergreen influence as the ancestor of the “real robot” genre has continued across four decades. But like so many innovative and revolutionary works, it’s not as if Gundam changed everything overnight. Nowhere is this clearer than with Gundam’s immediate Sunrise robot anime successor—1980’s The Unchallengeable Trider G7, a series so straightforwardly kid-oriented that it feels like the anime’s goal was to try to turn back the hands of time.

Trider G7 (sometimes written as Tryder G7) is the story of Takeo Watta, an elementary school boy who also happens to be the president of his own business, Takeo General Company. Having inherited it and a powerful giant robot called Trider G7 from his deceased father, Watta has to juggle being a kid who attends school just like everyone else, keeping his company in the green, and defending the Earth from the Robot Empire of Planet Gabarl.

Titled in Japanese as Muteki Robo Trider G7, the anime is considered a part of the Muteki trilogy along with Muteki Choujin Zambot 3 and Muteki Koujin Daitarn 3. But while Daitarn 3 could get extremely serious at times, and Zambot 3 was consistently brutal, Trider G7 steers clear of that mood, instead presenting itself as a lighthearted fantasy for a young boy audience. Nothing sums this up better than Trider G7’s launch sequence, which involves having the robot emerge from the local playground (of which its head is a centerpiece) while a loudspeaker announcement kindly requests everyone clear the area. Unlike its fellow Muteki anime, Trider G7 is not directed by Tomino Yoshiyuki, instead being under Sasaki Katsutoshi. This likely helps the “not-traumatizing” aspect.

Unlike many series I write final reviews for, I did not watch all 50 episodes of Trider G7. Instead, I used the 10 episodes temporarily uploaded by the Bandai Spirits channel on Youtube as a kind of “essential episodes” list, supplementing it with some reading. (Side note: that project in the link provided never got off the ground). While this does compromise my ability to gauge the complete series from beginning to end, I still think it gave me a good idea overall. My verdict: Trider G7 is a pretty mediocre anime, and it feels intentionally so.

I’m not someone who disparages children’s shows or episodic ones, as I believe both have important places in anime. Some of my favorite works are “incident-of-the-week” and aimed primarily at kids, but what I love to see is when they try to really bring something to challenge their audience while still being fairly conventional. Trider G7 only ever seems to hint at greater potential without ever reaching it. 

The series acknowledges that Watta is still a kid, and that the burden of being a company president is not easy for someone so young, but it’s mostly played for laughs. The Gabarl Empire is run by a super-AI called Mother Computer Sigma, and one of the recurring flaws of the enemy Mega-Robots is their reliance on pre-programmed data in battle, unlike Watta’s human intuition and experience. This is touched upon somewhat often, notably in an episode where we learn that Trider G7 itself was built by the Robot Empire’s top scientist who had defected due to the soulless nature of his designs, but it doesn’t go beyond “rah, rah, human spirit.” It also doesn’t have a whole lot of style points, given that the robot itself is nowhere near as cool as Zambot, Daitarn, or the Gundam; the animation isn’t even off-the-wall enough to make up for a bland design like with Gold Lightan. Trider G7 does have a female character whose popularity is fairly enduring, an attractive OL named Sunabara Ikue (who also provides the aforementioned loudspeaker warning), but that seems to speak more to her status as an early crush for young boys rather than anything related to the anime’s quality. 

I do want to give some praise to the opening and ending themes because of how silly and creative they are. The opening has the amazing line, “Do we fight to protect our company funds? NO! We fight to protect peace on Earth!” The ending, in turn, has lyrics that basically sound like a speech delivered to all employees working at a company, with lines like “The future fate of our company is about 1) guts and 2) effort.” Amazing.
The legacy of The Unchallengeable Trider G7 is mainly in nostalgia through things like Soul of Chogokin toys and appearance in Super Robot Wars, where the aesthetic can be updated just enough that it can give adults some sense of what it’d be like to enjoy the series as a child. This is probably for the best, as it’s where Trider G7 shows its strongest self: as a kind of cool, kind of cheesy return to a more innocent era of kids’ giant robot anime.

Whack Chin: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for April 2021

It feels like I blinked and now a new anime season is upon us. There are plenty of shows that are catching my eye, including 86: Eighty Six, SSSS.Dynazenon, NOMAD: Megalo Box 2, and of course, Thunderbolt Fantasy Season 3. I hope everyone is doing well, and in a place where they have something that can provide them joy and comfort in trying times, whether it’s anime, manga, or something else entirely.

COVID-19 vaccines are in full swing at the moment, and while I’m not sure I should be the one to say it, everyone should get vaccinated when they can, and continue to practice safety measures like wearing face masks. I look forward to the day we can comfortably see our loved ones and maybe even attend an anime convention or two without fear.

Thanks to April’s Patreon sponsors:

General:

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Blog highlights from March:

Wellness for the Self, Wellness for the World: Healin’ Good Precure

My review of 2020’s Precure anime.

The Perfect Storm of Virtual Youtubers

My thoughts on how Virtual Youtubers unite different groups on the internet.

Thought on Anti-Asian Racism in the US

Something more personal, and less anime-related. I hope you’ll read it.

Apartment 507

I tried out Joy Sound Karaoke on the Nintendo Switch, and it’s a decent way to get in your karaoke fix.

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 38 features Jin’s mom, and she is ammmmazing.

Closing

I hope that we remember that pitting the poor and minorities against one another is exactly what powerful bigots want. It keeps us divided and unable to see the systemic problems that keep people oppressed. Do not let the racism foisted upon us control our lives. Do not misdirect your anger.

Trials of Identity: Calamity

This film was part of the 2021 virtual New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Calamity is a 2020 French-Danish animated film that tells the fictionalized childhood story of the real Martha Jane Cannary, showing how she took her first steps toward becoming the renowned Calamity Jane. Having been a fan of director Rémi Chayé’s previous film, Long Way North, I had fairly high expectations that Calamity easily surpasses.

Martha Jane Cannary is traveling with her family as part of a wagon train to Oregon, where they hope to find land and a better life. While not much is expected of her because of her gender, Martha Jane believes she’s capable of doing more. When her father is severely hurt trying to rope a runaway horse, Martha Jane takes it upon herself to learn the skills necessary to keep their wagon going, but her fellow travelers (including her own dad and sisters) don’t take so kindly to her trying to behave like a man. 

I only know the barest details about Calamity Jane (and mostly from a 1990s cartoon), but I know she has a place in the United States’ cultural legacy as a feminist icon: someone who could keep up with the boys and who is as much a legend of the wild west as Billy the Kid or Buffalo Bill. Within the context of the film itself, although I can’t relate to her specific circumstances, Martha Jane’s struggle with the expectations foisted upon her by a society with very rigid gender roles, really hit me deep inside. Martha Jane lives in a world that tries to box her into a certain way of being, a world that would rather keep her tied down even if letting her free would be beneficial. When others see Martha Jane wearing pants, they are shocked and outraged. This might seem like a relic of the past, but that view persisted deep into the 20th century—a reminder that the fight for equality is ongoing. 

The film is visually rich and stunning, giving a sense of the outdoors that is beautiful yet expresses the terror that an unknown trailer to an unseen land can bring about. Everything animates naturally yet not confined by excessive realism, with particularly impressive detail given to the high-paced movement of horses and the mischief of Martha Jane alike. I’m especially fond of Martha Jane’s thick and powerful eyebrows, as they alone seem to stand in defiance of what everyone else tells her is “proper,” and the rest of her character proceeds beautifully from that rebelliousness. 

Sometimes a film with a similarly empowering theme will mean well, but seems to get too caught up in the messaging at the expense of execution. However, Calamity avoids that pitfall in a most impressive fashion. The ups and downs experienced by Martha Jane as she tries to learn and master all the skills that aren’t “supposed” to be hers feels genuine—the right amount of grit combined with a lack of experience and a desire to achieve more. It makes her strides and her challenges all the more poignant, and by the time the film is over, the path she marked for herself feels like it can lead to greatness.

The Game is Afoot—ID: Invaded

Sometimes I watch an anime where I think, “Man, that would make one hell of a video game.” Id: Invaded is one such title. It’s a kind of Inception meets Minority Report, where the main character’s ability to jump into a serial killer’s vague subconscious sets up the story as a series of “puzzles” that bring a different flavor to the idea of a “psychological profile.”

The basic premise of ID: Invaded is that an advanced form of technology allows the police in Japan to pick up psychic traces of a serial killer’s mind, and to send someone in to try and figure out the culprit’s identity. This task is given to Narihisago Akihito, who enters these “id wells” and transforms into an alternate persona known as the brilliant detective Sakaido. The major caveats of this process are that entering these mindscapes means you do not have memories of your real self, losing your life inside feels as bad as actual death, and you cannot retain what you’ve experienced in between sessions. It’s up to the officers on the outside to process the information they receive from Narihisago, and to make moves in reality. Underlying all this is Narihisago’s own traumatic past and the ways he attempts to atone by working through this bizarre system.

What got me hooked onto ID: Invaded is that the mystery is not just the identity of a given serial killer, but trying to figure out how their mind works from within without any direct signs as to who they are. The limitations of the system, as described above, are like a crueler version of a Rogue-like, where you don’t just lose all your material progress but the things you learned in the previous session. I also like that it involves having two tracks working side by side: the “subconscious game-like world” and the world of flesh-and-blood detectives. The character of Hondomachi, a young rookie on force, grows in interesting ways as she increasingly toes the line between the two realms.

But fantastical elements or not, a mystery series comes down to how well it sticks the landing. I In the case of ID: Invaded, I think it does adequately but there are some downsides. For one, I think the series escalates a little too quickly from one storyline to the next, and the big case that defines the later episodes makes it hard to imagine what could top it in the potential sequel that seems to be implied by the end. Also, the second half starts to break some of the rules established in the first half as another way to show how the stakes have gotten higher, but it stymies that excellent puzzle game-like quality established early on. The rules of detective fiction aren’t iron-clad, and I wouldn’t mind it down the road, but it just feels like it came too soon.

Still, the characters, the basic conception, and the overall story of ID: Invaded are excellent. I’d love to see more; I just don’t quite know how they’re going to keep the “boundaries” intact enough to let the logical limitations presented by the narrative shine through stronger than before.

The Perfect Storm of Virtual Youtubers

As the days go by, I increasingly find myself looking into the world of Virtual Youtubers. I watch the clips and highlights that go around, and I sometimes tune into the live streams of my favorites. I wouldn’t consider myself a devotee of the whole concept, but I’m entertained. I know I’m not alone, as the increasing success of VTubers is a sight to behold—Gawr Gura, one of the first members of the Hololive agency’s push into English-language streaming, hit one million subscribers in just a little over a month and has since surpassed two million.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the success of Virtual Youtubers shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re in many ways a perfect storm of things that appeal to people on the internet, bringing together different groups who tend towards obsession and converging them onto this amalgam of elements.

The first group is weebs. I generally avoid the term, preferring things like “anime and manga fans,” but I feel that its usage is accurate here—it’s not just about being into the media but being into that strain of Japanese pop culture. With few exceptions, Virtual Youtubers go for that anime aesthetic, recruiting famous artists and character designers to create these avatars. In a sense, they’re anime characters come to life, and that gives them a certain charm and universality that comes with being less realistic in terms of appearance. And while VTubers now exist across the world, they’re firmly rooted in that anime/manga/light novel realm, and expectations derive from the tropes found there. 

The second group is gamers. While streaming has had some presence on the internet for decades now, gaming has become one of its absolute pillars. Between the transformation of Justin.tv into Twitch, the prevalence of esports, the enduring popularity of Youtube channels like Game Grumps, and the rise of speedrunning as a spectator activity, there’s no denying the draw. Live streaming your play session is just an easy and reliable way to connect with potential fans, and while streamers usually need some kind of physical or personal charisma to get things going, the sleek designs of VTubers help bridge that gap.

The third group is idol fans. While it’s like every one of them eventually gets their own original songs, what attracts people to idols is that they feel somehow distant yet accessible, and Virtual Youtubers greatly exaggerate both sides of the fantasy by their very nature. The use of character avatars means there’s no mistaking their visual appearances for being the “real” individuals, but that also means being able to project onto them an idealized version. At the same time, unlike Hatsune Miku, they’re real people interacting from behind the curtain. Depending on what level of performativity vs. seeming authenticity a viewer wants, or popularity vs. obscurity (what’s more exciting than seeing your favorite personality grow from small-time to wild success?) there’s probably a VTuber for them. What’s more, the concept of superchats on YouTube allows fans to get instant gratification by giving money to have their messages read and acknowledged.

The fourth group, and there’s plenty of overlap with the other three, is those who are into celebrities. This is a more vague and generalized group, but it’s the same energy that fuels people to follow the goings-on of their favorite movie stars and singers.

A weeb might love all things anime-adjacent but dismiss Western-style game aesthetics. A fan of first-person shooters might love watching anything and everything related to their favorite games but think anime stuff looks weird as hell. But then a Virtual Youtuber who looks like an anime character come-to-life might play Apex Legends, and so now the weebs get their real-life anime girl and the Western-focused gamers get to connect to her through their favorite game. At the same time, even if she isn’t particularly good at what she’s playing, that gives her a kind of element of relatability that an idol fan might be drawn to. And even if someone isn’t an idol fan, seeing someone suffer through a game has an established history of bringing in eyeballs. The crossover appeal is hard to deny.

Thus, when the VTubers branch into areas other than gaming, they can bring all those different groups together. It’s why they can karaoke Japanese, English, and even German songs, all to praise and fanfare. When they do something completely out of the realm of entertainment, like cook, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary even if the results can range from bizarre to horrifying. The fact that their fans don’t just come from one place also gives the VTubers the flexibility to try new things and see what sticks. Non-virtual streamers who get popular because of one game can sometimes have a hard time playing others because they might not get the viewer counts they normally would, but what makes people want to see Virtual Youtubers goes beyond specific games or titles. 

I think the concept of the VTuber allows it a certain degree of freedom that flesh-and-blood streamers do not. By virtue of their virtual natures (pun intended), they invite viewers into a kind of alternate reality. From there, the ability to take that anime character identity and apply it to various domains or interests means that even activities that normally might not appeal to a person can suddenly seem interesting. It’s a lot like how manga can make certain topics more appealing to those who are unfamiliar, but with Virtual Youtubers you get both the slice-of-life hobbyism and the gutsy competition at the same time. And unlike in manga, the wins and losses are real—even if everything is ultimately made up and the points don’t matter.

Wellness for the Self, Wellness for the World: Healin’ Good Precure

Healin’ Good Precure might be either one of the best-timed anime ever or one of the worst. With themes of environmentalism, medicine, and even personal wellbeing, the anime began in February 2020 right as the threat COVID-19 was starting to increase. As a result, the series lost about a month’s worth of episodes (ending at 45 instead of around 50), and the pandemic only further increased the importance of its message. As it came back from the production delay, I myself wondered if the series would change anything to directly address COVID-19, like facemask equipment or social distancing beams.

The answer, it turns out, is “not really.” In hindsight, however, this might not be such a bad thing. Although often fairly simplistic in its messaging, Healin’ Good Precure focuses less on harsh and gritty truths, and more on the idea of trying to take care of both people and the planet together, with a few surprisingly insightful gems along the way that I hope the kids watching take to heart.

The premise: Hanadera Nodoka is a kind and gentle middle school girl who, not long ago, was hospitalized with an unknown illness. Having finally recovered and now moved to Sukoyaka City with her parents, she looks forward to doing all the things a healthy person does, but her life changes when she encounters a magical rabbit. The rabbit, named Rabirin, is one of three “healing animal” trainees who have escaped from the Byo-gens, virus-like invaders whose goal is to “undermine” everything they infect. Bonding with Rabirin to protect the healing animal princess Rate, Nodoka becomes Cure Grace, one of the legendary warriors known as Precure. Soon, she’s joined by other girls at her school who also bond with healing animals, and they fight to treat the Earth’s maladies.

In terms of overall cohesive storytelling, Healin’ Good is not one of the strongest Precure entries. It takes a mostly episodic approach with major narrative developments at mostly abrupt and expected intervals, and some of those developments are actually kind of bizarre if you think too hard about them—like something that could be read as a pregnancy metaphor but probably isn’t supposed to be. 

That said, the series sports some impressively expressive animation, and the fights often feel like the characters have some real heft to them—not always the case in Precure. The main cast of characters are also interesting, relatable, and inspiring enough to make the watching experience enjoyable overall. The contrasts between the three main Cures—Nodoka, Chiyu, and Hinata—mean that each girl has their own challenges they need to face and overcome, though the amount of attention paid to each of them can feel weirdly lopsided. More episodes seem to be devoted to Chiyu’s more ambitious goals of becoming a competition high-jumper and family innkeeper, though I don’t know if that’s just a result of losing those five or so episodes to the production delay.

Another factor to its credit is that I think Healin’ Good has not only some of the least annoying mascots ever, but they’re also some of the best support characters Precure has ever seen. Rabirin, along with her companions Pegitan and Nyatoran, act as both foils and complements to their human partners, and their desire to get stronger in order to keep the Earth from experiencing a fate similar to their own world feels genuine. Moreover, Rate gets a surprising amount of development that’s actually welcome rather than overshadowing the Cures.

While the series takes a fairly kid-gloves approach to the challenges it presents (not surprising from a kids’ show), there are aspects of Healin’ Good that I think are meant to teach the young viewers to face up to a world that’s increasingly headed towards multiple disasters both potential and real. When the Byo-gens infect an area of the city, failing to stop the infection only makes the monsters stronger. In this, I can see a metaphor for climate change and the need to slow it down as soon as possible, because while keeping the Earth from warming up to the point of substantial environmental change is a monumental task, it’s a lot easier than trying to bring the Earth back from that point. Additionally, all the doctor imagery strewn throughout Healin’ Good, from parents’ professions to the idea of “treating’ the planet to even the girls’ transformation lab coats might encourage more girls to go into pursuing careers in medicine and fight the sexism that pervades medical schools in Japan. In that sense, I think it builds on some of the positive messages found in its immediate predecessor, Hugtto! Precure.

It’s also notable that those very same kid gloves start to come off towards the end. There is a moment late in the anime where Nodoka is faced with the dilemma of trying to help an injured enemy who is responsible for much of her pain. But where many past stories would make its heroine some kind of saint, Healin’ Good emphasizes the need for self care, and that there is no requirement to lend a hand to someone who has harmed you, especially if you only end up feeling more hurt as a result. In other words, kindness is not a resource that should be exploited, and girls should not be expected to sacrifice their well-being because they’re supposed to be “caring.” Similarly, the environmental message calls out the complicity of humanity by the end, though is ultimately positive, as expected.

As much as I would have found it interesting, I realize now that Healin’ Good Precure did not need to tackle COVID-19 head-on. Face masks are already commonly accepted in Japan, so there’s no need to encourage people to wear them. The infection rate, although a real concern, is not nearly as bad in Japan as it is in other parts of the world (especially the good ol’ US of A). And as for not emphasizing social distancing, the series was probably created with the hope and expectation that we’ll eventually be able to return to some semblance of our former life, and that kids should be able to see what normal social interaction looks like.

Instead, we have a Precure anime that aimed to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the world through an approachable lens of the familiar magical girl tropes. Although the final product doesn’t have the riveting and finely tuned narratives of some of its predecessors, that’s not the only measure of an anime’s success—and no, I don’t mean toy sales. What Heain’ Good Precure has in spades is ambition to make improve society by encouraging a positive and humanitarian spirit in its audience. The world thirty years from now will hopefully be a better place.

Sun Guts: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for March 2021

Here we are: roughly a year since coronavirus basically forced the world to change course. I seriously could not have imagined all that has happened since, and it feels like ten years have passed in the span of one. I’m losing my grip on time a bit, but this makes me wonder if doing these monthly blog updates actually helps in some way. I can see the days and weeks go by.

In happier news, the Blocker Corps IV Machine Blaster crowdfund to digitally archive the series was successful! I talked about it in a post to drum up support, and it actually didn’t make it until literally the 11th hour by crossing the finish line with only 11 minutes left in the all-or-nothing campaign. It’s not going to be on anyone’s list of best anime ever, but knowing I helped to keep an anime alive makes me feel good.

After all, I know what it’s like to have the support of others. Thank you to March’s Patreon sponsors:

General:

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Blog highlights from February:

God Mars and the Legacy of BL Fan Shipping

A look at the giant robot anime that is foundational to the fujoshi fandom in Japan. Gundam Wing before Gundam Wing, you might say.

That’s Ruff, Buddy—Nichijou: My Ordinary Life

My long overdue review of one of the funniest manga ever.

Otakon Needs Our Help

My favorite anime convention might not survive another year due to the Coronavirus. Consider supporting them!

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 37 has the most intense musical performance yet.

Closing

The 2021 New York International Children’s Film Festival starts this Friday! Unlike previous years, it’s a virtual festival this time around, and the $40 two-week all-acesss pass is an incredibly good deal. If you live in the US, it might be worth checking out.

Also, how about that Pyra and Mythra in Smash Bros. Ultimate, huh? I’m thinking about writing something in regards to fanservice in character designs, hopefully providing a nuanced perspective.

Stay safe, get vaccinated. I wish you good health.