I’m Happy to Have Chihayafuru Season 3

The Chihayafuru anime is back after nearly six years, and I’m just thrilled. Rarely is there a series that so deftly balances interpersonal drama, the excitement of competition, and the effective portrayal of its characters through both of those aspects.

Chihayafuru is about playing karuta, a game based on matching cards to recited poetry. It looks like the kind of thing kids would play when they’re bored, and it is. However, the series does such a convincing job of making competitive karuta look like a fierce and deep game, and it does so without necessarily needing to go for an over-the-top presentation. There’s nothing like ancient Go ghosts, basketball powers, or ultra mahjong luck. The “powers” aren’t otherworldly, but rather play styles based on individual traits and personalities, with just a slight dramatic flair. Chihaya, the heroine, doesn’t have superhuman ears, but the idea that she has better hearing, and that it pushes her toward a more aggressive style makes sense. Her old friend Arata’s memorization is uncanny, but not beyond the realm of mortals, and the fact that his grandfather was a former king of karuta gives him ample reason to have spent time on the game.

When the series introduces new characters and potential rivals, it rarely feels contrived or as if certain characters are clearly there to take the loss. Whether they’re former queens, players from other high schools, or even small children, they feel very human, both through their personal motivations and idiosyncrasies, as well as through their play. A lot of series bank on having large casts, but Chihayafuru‘s maintains an intimate feel.

Here’s to another season, and the hopes that we’ll be getting lots of emotional intensity and bad t-shirts.

(All hail Shinobu.)

 

Soul of Chogokin Gordian vs. Baikanfu and the Matryoshka Robot Legacy

In the world of giant robots, what you see traditionally has not always been what you get. The cool robot that appears in an anime might look significantly different from the toy it’s based on due to the fact that metal and plastic are limited by the physical world in ways drawings are not. The difference between the gimmick-laden early Gundam toys and the more show-faithful model kits that followed is a prime example. This disparity is why the announcement of the Soul of Chogokin Gordian is of particular interest to me, despite me not having much emotional investment.

When it comes to being true to both toy and anime sides, the Soul of Chogokin line of deluxe figures is arguably the best there is, and I have no doubt that they’ll faithfully reproduce the designs from the anime Gordian Warrior. By itself, this would be the story of an obscure 1970s series getting its due in the Soul of Chogokin line, but there’s an extra wrinkle—a child or clone twist, perhaps. There’s actually a robot toy that originally began as a repurposing of the Gordian Warrior line known as Baikanfu (or Vikungfu) from Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos, and this particular robot was already made into an SoC figure back in 2007. Yet, because the associated anime are so aesthetically different from each other, this practically necessitates two different approaches.

Gordian Warrior has very little presence in the English-speaking world, as its toy came and went as part of the 1980s Godaikin line, and the anime’s only official (streaming only) was by the now-defunct AnimeSols. Still, one look at the opening is all it takes to understand why the Gordian robots with their Matryoshka doll–like stacking gimmick would be fun and attractive toys. It’s likely why they were revived for Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos, and when you see the toys from each anime side by side, the connection between the two series is all the more obvious.But thanks to the magic of art and imagination, these two extremely similar toys end up being portrayed wildly differently on TV. In animation, the three Gordian robots—Protesser, Dellinger, and Garbin—have less exaggeratedly hypermasculine proportions compared to their Revenge of Cronos equivalents, Rom Stohl, Kenryu, and Baikanfu.

Despite Harbin being the biggest robot in Gordian Warrior, its simple blue and white color scheme and its slender body look downright austere compared to Baikanfu. And because the Soul of Chogokin line aims to embrace both the fun of the action figure and the style of the anime, it means getting to see how the same basic toy design ends up interpreted through two different lenses as prestige objects. Where will they differ? Where will they show commonality?

Gordian and Baikanfu are not the only example of designs being reused. One notable example is the Transformer Six Shot, a robot with stuff forms whose toy was repainted and resold as the ninja robot Shadowmaru from Brave Police J-Decker. Like the two stacking robots, Six Shot and Shadowmaru look so different in animation that it’s a surprise to find out their toys are virtually the same.

The Soul of Chogokin Gordian from Gordian Warrior is more than an opportunity for nostalgia, as it’s also a chance to look at how the same line has interpreted it’s design with respect to its spiritual successor in Baikanfu from Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos. It’s ripe ground for appreciating some smart, nostalgic toy design along with the creative interpretation of toy to anime transitions.

 

Do It, Akirapella: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 21

The delinquent fans of Mimi-sensei are here to show their singing chops, and they have some unexpected help. Is it a defection or something else in Chapter 21 of Hashikko Ensemble.

Summary

In a shocking turn, Akira has seemingly joined the enemy as he provides the bass line for Tsuyama and friends’ a capella rendition of Spitz song “Cherry.” A flashback shows the amount of work that went into this, including a couple of the guys learning to sing falsetto and the fruits of Ouga’s practice with Jin and Akira. Takano-sensei is the one responsible for introducing the idea to sing a capella, but it needs at least five people—hence Akira’s actions.

Unsurprisingly, Jin is completely okay with this development, but now Orihara is unusually raring to go. The other group’s performance impresses Mimi-sensei (the judge for this competition), but the Chorus Appreciation Society has come prepared with their own Spitz number.

Takano-sensei’s Lessons

Takano-sensei apparently taught a lot in very little time. This includes the history of “a capella” and its shift from religious use to just “voice-only performance.” She also gives a few tips on how to sing falsetto: try to imitate Michael Jackson’s “Hooo”s and “Heehee”s, and also practice speaking in falsetto. She’s not nearly as technical as Jin in her explanations, but that’s probably a good thing. It speaks to her character and her role as a music teacher.

It’s still not clear why Takano-sensei is helping out, but based on her personality, I don’t suspect anything remotely malicious. Perhaps she wants to teach the students a lesson on life. Perhaps she wants to just shake things up a bit. Perhaps she’s just indirectly teasing Mimi-sensei. I know I want to see more of her, though.

Akira’s Doo-Wops in Art

It’s hard to convey differences in music through art alone, especially if there is little visual iconography to latch onto. The help of the text element in comics and manga makes it a little easier, however, and I love the way that a capella is portrayed in this chapter. Not only are there notes with accompanying percussive “lyrics” to show the a capella, but Akira’s portrayal in particular is great. I can practically sense the deep, deep bass in the image above. It also shows Akira with a sense of purpose rarely if ever seen from him.

Songs

“Viderunt Omnes” was going to be the Chorus Appreciation Society’s song of choice for this competition. Instead, both sides are using Spitz songs to try and win Mimi-sensei’s favor. As mentioned in the last chapter, it’s like her favorite band.

“Cherry” by Spitz

“Sora o Toberu hazu” (“You’ve Gotta Be Able to Fly”) by Spitz

Final Thoughts

I really liked that this chapter was dedicated to one performance (with some backstory accompaniment). It’s not often that Kio does such a straightforward chapter, and I think that gives it more impact.

 

 

Ooh, Where Does This Door Go?: Aikatsu on Parade! Early Thoughts

Seven years is more than enough time for a franchise like Aikatsu! to do an anime mega-crossover. However, it’s one thing to do the occasional crossover movie or TV special, and it’s another to make an entire series about it. Having watched the first couple of episodes, I can feel a genuine desire to celebrate and respect all aspects of Aikatsu!, but I have to wonder if they’re letting the genie out of the bottle.

The Aikatsu on Parade! Anime (based on the arcade game) ostensibly takes place in the same world as the previous season’s Aikatsu Friends! Kiseki Raki is a transfer student to Star Harmony Academy, where she dreams of becoming a great idol fashion designer. Unbeknownst to her, Raki’s sister has engineered a special school pass for her that in addition to allowing her to transform for performances, gives her access to “doors” that open up to other Aikatsu! series settings.

There’s a lot of care put into this new series to not make Raki seem like a subordinate fangirl to the previously established stars. Her fashion path, more akin to numerous side characters, doesn’t put her in as direct a  “competition” with the older heroines. Also, her personality (basically Dee Dee from Dexter’s Laboratory with a little more common sense) is strong enough to not get outshined by the characters she meets. That being said, she’s still yet to meet the titan that is Hoshimiya Ichigo, which will be the real test. I recently watched the premiere of WWE Friday Night Smackdown, which had The Rock on as a guest, and his charisma is so strong that it overshadowed even one of the biggest current stars in that company.

Perhaps the easiest place to tell that the creators are being thoughtful and considerate as to how the Aikatsu! characters would cross over is the first episode’s ending, where you see practically every significant character ever walking together. They’re grouped in rough categories according to a combination of personality and story purpose, and you can really see that it’s not shallow or haphazard.

Of course Mizuki and Elza would be with each other, and you can imagine each one firmly believing she’s the best. Given that the new series is also going to be having characters from different series singing and dancing together, it’s a golden opportunity for some dream collaborations.

I’m curious as to why they decided to make each of the Aikatsu! series distinct…universes? Timelines? Whatever it is, they establish early on that all these idol schools aren’t just in different parts of Japan—they exist entirely apart from one another, as if they’re wholly separate existences. There’s no wrong approach here, but I’d still like to know the creators’ reasoning for going this route.

Aikatsu on Parade! is on track to being a fun, excellent series that gives Aikatsu! as a whole its proper due. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that this is precarious territory for a franchise to go. Is there really any going back after this? What will it mean for the future of Aikatsu!? There’s no way to tell at the moment, but hopefully everyone in charge knows what they’re doing.

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Pump Up the Jam: How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift?

Sports anime have been a pillar of Japanese animation since its earliest days, but very rarely, if ever, have any shows focused specifically on exercise. In comes How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift?, a series that emphasizes actively pursuing fitness, whether it be at the gym, at home, or on the beach.

Dumbbell follows Sakura Hibiki, a high school girl who wants to lose weight and attract guys. Surprisingly, on a visit to a local gym, she runs into her rich classmate, who turns out to be an absolute fitness enthusiast. Together, with the deceptively handsome gym trainer Machio, they go through different exercises and approaches for achieving one’s fitness goals—and learning about the role weightlifting can play.

The series has a clear focus on the girls, and there’s no denying that sex appeal is a  fundamental part of Dumbbell. However, there’s an important distinction to make, and the best way is to compare it with another anime that puts focus on exercise: Issho ni Training: Training with Hinako. That short has the viewer watch a lightly dressed girl named Hinako, who goes through her exercise routine as the voyeuristic camera ogles her from multiple angles. But while Training with Hinako uses exercise as an excuse for fanservice, Dumbbell instead uses fanservice to promote exercise. To that end, it actually gives tips on weightlifting and other areas. In fact, the opening theme specifically points out what muscles are worked out by common and popular lifts.

Also, while the body diversity in the series is somewhat limited—the girls don’t have literally the same exact body, but they all fall along conventional ideas of attractiveness—each of them have their own reasons for going to the gym. The main character, Sakura Hibiki, wants to lose weight and look good, i.e. the most expected reason. Soryuin Akemi is obsessed with muscles (both on herself and others) to a fetishistic extent. Uehara Ayaka is the daughter of a retired boxer-turned-coach, and so exercise is as natural to her as breathing. Gina Boyd is a Russian who competes in sambo and arm wrestling, so strength training is just her way of staying fighting fit. Tachibana Satomi, their teacher, is a secret cosplayer who wants to look good for photos and fight the aging process. At the very least, the series promotes the idea that weight loss is not the sole reason to work out.

As one last aside, I once wrote that I’d be interested in a competitive bodybuilding manga because of how the posedown has a heavy psychological element. There is actually a competitive bodybuilding episode of Dumbbell, though it doesn’t quite go as far as I have hoped. Still, it’s forward progress.

How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift? is not going to upend people’s understanding of weight and diet culture, but it also makes a sincere effort to teach people to exercise in ways that fit their specific situations. It’s as if the show is saying, not everyone can do everything, but as long as you’re moving and sweating, it’ll work out.

Burn to Fight: Promare

Promare, the new anime film from Studio Trigger (Kill la Kill, Inferno Cop) and director Imaishi Hiroyuki (Gurren-Lagann) is a visual spectacle that encapsulates everything that makes the studio stand out among its peers.

Starting from its announcement all the way to its release, there had been a deliberate vagueness around what Promare is even about. The only things available to potential audiences were some character designs that seem to draw inspiration from previous Trigger anime, a very basic plot outline, and the sense that the creators themselves weren’t always entirely sure what the premise was. Even the meaning of the title, Promare, is kept secret. But rather than this ambiguity being a weakness, it has actually ended up being a strength. There’s a certain degree of “feel, then think” that Promare emphasizes, and the result is an energizing work that comes across as a kind of full-body experience.

Promare takes place thirty years after a great disaster. One day, random people around the world suddenly began to spontaneously combust and gain the ability to control games, causing significant changes to society. The protagonist, Galo Thymos is a brash but courageous fellow who believes strongly in the firefighter spirit, and who works for the group Burning Rescue. As he deals with the flames, he begins to discover that everything he knows about the flames and the people who create them, is far from the truth.

The beginning of the film can be challenging to comprehend because it’s so visually overwhelming. The art style largely eschews black outlines, and the heavy use of flat, vibrant color planes along with the constant emphasis on action makes it initially difficult to even know what to concentrate on. However, this assault on the senses acts as an introduction to the aesthetic of Promare, and by the middle of the film, it was like my eyes had fully adjusted to the world. By then, virtually everything, particularly the fighting, was a treat—somehow artistically daring yet also comfortably familiar, like avantgarde pro wrestling.

This is not to say that the film is all pizzazz, without any worthwhile storytelling. While wrapped in a package of flashy action scenes and detailed animation, there is a strong message about taking the steps to understand more of the world around you, including those you’ve misunderstood, and unjust actions you may have previously ignored. The characters are similarly simple yet multifaceted.

Without spoiling too much, the film is packed with the things people come to Trigger for, and as someone who resonates with the Studio’s themes and aesthetics in general, it was right up my alley.

So in conclusion, abolish Freeze Force.

Trick and/or Treat: Halloween in the Aikatsu! Franchise

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One of the interesting things about the 2014 Aikatsu! Episode “Halloween Night Party”  is how it showed that the holiday was relatively new in Japan. Characters repeatedly translate the English “trick or treat” into a Japanese explanatory sentence as if to hammer home the concept. The first few seasons of Aikatsu! didn’t even have Halloween episodes. But it’s been five years since then, and while it hasn’t been a straight line, the concept of “Halloween” is integrated into Aikatsu! pretty thoroughly. At the same time, the degree to which they embrace Halloween varies significantly, as if it’s unclear from year to year how much they should push for Halloween.

2015’s “YOU! GO! KYOTO!” perhaps barely qualifies as a Halloween episode. Instead, the focus is on a trip in Kansai, where the main trio gets together with Hattori Yuu, a friend of Akari’s who’s made a name for herself as a “tour guide idol” of sorts. The girls help her out with a Halloween special, and they do a themed performance as a follow-up. The lack of “trick or treat” is noticeable.

2016’s “Halloween Magic” returns to the Halloween episode format from 2014, albeit with an entirely different cast of characters in Aikatsu Stars! Not only do they bring back explaining what “trick or treat” means, but they even include a special competition just like in “Halloween Night Party.” This episode stands out to me more than any of the others simply because of Rola’s taiyaki outfit, seen above. Taking a relatively serious character and having her go around in the most ridiculous getup without even batting an eye speaks to her character having a certain charming roundedness. I have to wonder if maybe the concept of Halloween needs to be introduced again for newer, younger viewers coming in. Also, while “Halloween Night Party” made a reference to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Halloween Magic” has one of the characters moonwalk while doing MJ-style “Whoo!”s, as if to say that the King of Pop is as much a part of Halloween as pumpkins and candy.

2017’s “Halloween Surprise” from Aikatsu Stars! places extra emphasis on the “trick” in “trick or treat,” albeit without actually using the words. The second half of this particular series involves a rivalry with another idol school, so the idea of competing takes on a new dimension in this Halloween episode compared to previous ones. Here, participants lose when their heart rate goes over a certain level, so the two sides have to try and scare or surprise one another. It’s kind of a twist on the original formula, and it does a decent job of acting as the stage for a bit of character growth on the character Koharu’s part. There’s a greater emphasis on using Halloween as an opportunity for pushing storylines compared to previous years. Also, for some reason, they reuse the costumes from the previous year. Could it be out of convenience (they already have the character designs laid out), or perhaps the costumes were just that popular?

2018’s “Aine’s Halloween Panic” from Aikatsu Friends! Incorporates Halloween into the show pretty thoroughly without drawing a ton of attention to it. Aine, the most recent heroine, has split off from her Aikatsu partner Mio so that they can train separately and come back stronger than ever. For this purpose, she plays the part in a TV special of a girl who discovers her senpai is a witch. The magical focus is the clear tie to Halloween, but once again there’s no “trick or treat.” In fact, there’s only one trick, as Mirai (seen above) tries to scare a couple characters during the episode. They treat Halloween as the most natural thing—is it a sign that it’s approaching Christmas in terms of cultural integration in Japan?

Looking at all these episodes, a couple things stick out to me.

First, it really is a shame that Yurika, the vampire-inspired idol from the first series, didn’t get any Halloween episodes when she was a more common character due to the relative lack of exposure for the holiday.

Second, the notion of “trick or treat” as a package deal seems to ebb and flow, but its constituent parts, i.e. pranks and candy, remain. One thing worth pointing out is that the tradition of going door to door to trick or treat never took hold in Japan, so maybe it’s no surprise that it would end up as something less codified. That being said, I’m aware that even in the US, trick or treat (especially in big cities) is more organized these days for safety purposes.

So what remains is the aesthetics of Halloween, costumes and all, with a cultural twist. That includes a taiyaki costume, and there’s even one girl in Aikatsu Friends! who dresses as a jiangshi (Chinese hopping ghost popular in Japan). Also, I guess Michael Jackson is part of that aesthetic as well.

Given that the pattern for Aikatsu! Halloween episodes exists, but that each year puts its own spin on the idea, I’m curious to see what direction this year’s takes. Because 2018’s Aikatsu Friends episode took a less upfront approach, could this one be more in the classic style? And with the new giant crossover series Aikatsu On Parade! on its way in 2020, Halloween Idol Activities might very well combine the styles of all previous shows.