The Kickstarter that Seeks Better Pay for Japanese Animators

A common question among anime and manga fans is “How do I support the creators in these industries?” The simplest answer is to subscribe to legitimate anime streaming sites and purchase manga from publishers (whether they’re the Japanese companies or licensors in your country), but it’s undeniable that there are still issues with people in these fields not getting paid enough. 

Back in August, I wrote about different ways I found to support creators more directly, and the most ambitious idea was Sugawara Jun’s New Anime Making System Project—a method of production that involves having animators work directly with musicians to create music videos. Recently, they launched their new Kickstarter, and it runs until November 22, 2020. They’ve gotten a number of musicians to provide music for them already, including Donna Burke, the voice of Raising Heart from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha

As of this post, they’ve actually hit their target goal of 5 million yen (about $48,000 USD). Actually, I’d been planning this blog post for a while, but by the time I got around to it, they’d already been funded! That being said, it’s still possible to contribute and make the project even bigger. As for myself, I’ve already supported them through their gogetfunding page, which still hasn’t reached its goal, but unlike Kickstarter, is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

I’m not savvy enough to predict how successful this whole endeavor will be, but I like that Sugawara is trying to innovate. I’ve also been a long-time supporter of his other project—the Animator Dormitory—and the fact that they’re trying to tackle the problem from both ends (housing and salary) gives me hope. Maybe something can truly change.

Mind Craft: Steve in Smash Bros. Ultimate Impressions

The impossible has happened once again as Steve (and Alex) from Minecraft joins an increasingly unthinkable roster in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. While I’ve never touched Minecraft, I appreciate its creativity and the joy it has provided so many people young, old, and virtual. Having now played (and played against) him for the past few days, I would say that in both visual style and gameplay, Steve from Minecraft is likely the most bizarre character in franchise history. 

Where most characters end up having their appearances updated or at least rendered in finer detail, Steve joins Mr. Game & Watch in having a look deliberately hyper-faithful to his source material to the point of incongruity with the rest of Smash. In terms of his skill set, Steve moves differently, attacks differently, and his block-formation + resource-mining mechanics only have the loosest similarities to other fighters. He’s a little bit Olimar (gathering resources), a little bit Robin (resource management), and some degree of Mega Man (movement while attacking), but also far beyond being a simple chimera of those three. His blocks also kind of resemble what Kragg in Rivals of Aether and Olaf Tyson in Brawlout are capable of, but Steve’s version exists as more than just an unusual recovery move. 

I have quickly come to the conclusion that I’m not a good Steve player (and likely never will be), so I can’t offer any tips or hints as to how to best play the character. I can, however, talk about how it feels to struggle with and against Steve.

With Steve, moving around feels counterintuitive to what I’m accustomed to in Smash. For example, in Ultimate, one common way to avoid attacks is to jump. Unlike in previous games, all characters take the same amount of time to leap, so you can go above a lot of things, especially grabs. Steve, however, has one of the worst first jumps in the roster, and so he can actually get grabbed in situations where others wouldn’t. Steve needs to burn his second jump instead, which would be a bad idea for most other characters—except unlike everyone else, he can create a block underneath and restore his jumps instantly. You have to literally approach concepts like being grounded and being airborne in a new way compared to everyone else, and for me, it is taking a lot of time to get used to. 

In addition to not having any ups, Steve has some of the worst mobility stats in the game—roughly bottom 10 in nearly everything. He feels sluggish when I’m in control of him, but when I play against him, he somehow feels incredibly squirrely. I believe this is because of a combination of qualities Steve possesses. 

First, he can attack while walking in a fashion akin to Mega Man and Min Min, so he can retreat and advance with ease, even if he’s slow.

Second, he has a deceptively thin hurtbox that makes spacing moves against him difficult. “Hitting” his arms doesn’t do any damage, and often attacks that seem like they hit will whiff easily when combined with his ability to move back and forth easily.

Third, it’s very hard to tell what he’s doing based on his animations because so many of them overlap or look extremely similar. His walk, dash, run, roll, jump, and even his getting-hit animations all have the same ramrod-straight stance with arms and legs flailing, and his other actions aren’t far off. The fact that he remains “standing” while getting hit in the air also means he sometimes lands on platforms where others wouldn’t.

Fourth, his actual attacks are surprisingly fast, and the ability to rapidly throw out simple moves means it’s hard to tell when he’s vulnerable and when he isn’t.

When Steve is at full strength—plenty of resources to burn and diamond tools for early kills—he seems very strong. He lets a player be as creative as they want, and already, people are discovering unique combos, techniques, and glitches (that will likely get patched out). What he lacks in movement, he makes up for in fast, strong, and useful attacks, somewhat like Luigi. The Minecart looks like one of the best moves in the game at the moment, as it protects Steve from attacks, and the ability to stay in the cart (for an attack) or jump out (turning the cart into a grab) is a scary mixup. It’s basically Diddy Kong’s Monkey Flip on steroids, and I’m unsure of whether it’s the online setting that makes the move frustratingly difficult to react to, or if it’ll be just as potent online. I do feel that the character benefits a lot from lag, but it’s very possible that his quicker properties would be of greater benefit offline.

I’ve still yet to fully decide which characters I think do especially bad against Steve, but Little Mac’s reliance on ground movement means that blocks mess him up pretty easily, and his recovery is rife for exploitation by Steve’s crafting blocks and down-tilt (a descending fire attack). Big-body characters get comboed to hell and back by him, but I can see certain ones doing better or worse. I can’t quite figure out if Mewtwo does well against Steve or not, but I think the online environment plus the strength of Minecart is skewing my perceptions. 

As for which characters seem to demolish Steve, it’s likely characters who can either outcamp him, or who can quickly get close and overcome his attacks with better range. Zelda’s Din’s Fire can be a pain for Steve because its properties let it circumvent block placement. Marth and Lucina have the speed, strength, and long pointy swords to make life difficult. Shulk’s Monados may be hard to contend with as well. Also, the rigid hurtbox of Steve comes with a potential drawback: it looks strangely easy to hit him with sweetspot attacks, like Zelda’s lightning kicks and Marth’s tipper sword attacks. 

Of course, that’s all speculation on my part. Steve is such a decidedly non-cookie-cutter character that it’s going to be months or even years before he’s even halfway understood. If Smash Bros. is about bringing together all these different video game legends and showing off their unique qualities, then Steve feels like they imported an entirely new game engine into that universe. He’s both fun and annoying at the same time, and I suspect we’re going to be seeing a whole lot of him for a long while.

A Harbinger of the Future? My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom

If there’s any recent series that I think is capable of uniting disparate parts of the anime fandom, it’s My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! By design, it’s an isekai series that draws upon many of the familiar tropes that have the genre so popular and arguably overplayed: reincarnating to another world, having unique knowledge or gifts no one else does, and having every other character fall madly in love with the main character. However, it also bucks the trend in many ways.

The Appeal of My Life as a Villainess

In a genre that has recently been dominated by male heroes, My Life as a Villainess stars a female protagonist, Catarina Claes, who defies her character archetype of the antagonistic rich girl. The series is very positive and uplifting, while also avoiding a lot of the sexism and occasional homophobia that permeates popular isekai work. Here is an anime that can appeal to those who love a good power fantasy and those who want something heartwarming as well.

Arguably, this puts My Life as a Villainess in the same territory as a lot of older isekai shoujo series such as Fushigi Yuugi, but one thing that works in its favor is that Catarina is extremely charming. Somehow, her near-perfection comes across as endearing due to her enthusiasm, energy, and the fact that she’s both cunning and naive at the same times. When it comes to harem (or reverse harem) series, my belief is that they work best when you can see why so many people would fall in love with the main character. Catarina passes this test with flying colors. 

The Tip of the Villainess Iceberg

The specific term translated as “Villainess” is akuyaku reijou—literally “the eldest daughter in a villainous role.” It describes a type of character seen throughout the long history of shoujo anime and manga, as well as all that it has inspired. A 2016 Japanese blog post attempts to go through the history of akuyaku reijou from 60s shoujo manga all the way to the present day, and the archetype is ubiquitous. The first otome game, Angelique, features just such a character and some of the most memorable faces in anime, e.g. Naga from Slayers and Nanami from Revolutionary Girl Utena, fall within this archetype. The Japanese title for My Life as a Villainess is Otome Game no Hametsu Flag Shika Nai Akuyaku Reijou o Tensei Shita… (“I Reincarnated as a Villainous Eldest Daughter Who Only Triggers Demise Flags…”), specifically emphasizing that it takes place within a girls’ visual novel.

The reason I put specific emphasis on akuyaku reijou and not just antagonistic female characters is because “reincarnating into an akuyaku reijou” has actually become a huge trend in light novels and related media. Searching for it in Japanese on Bookwalker returns 251 results (some being multiple entries within a series), and a significant number of them feature the exact term in their very titles. The oldest entry is Akuyaku Reijou Victoria from 2009, which puts it five years before My Life as a Villainess

To a Future of Villainy?

If My Life as a VIllainess is as successful as I hope it is, this could mean seeing other titles in the genre adapted into anime and manga as well. The tricky thing here is that whereas the English title is meant to be fairly snappy, it ironically might make it harder for other titles to distinguish themselves. I don’t think “Villainess” is that bad translation for akuyaku reijou—merely a somewhat imprecise one that trades accuracy for efficiency. Because of that, I’m curious if other English translations are going to willingly adopt the term as a clear genre identifier, or if they’re going to try to avoid getting crowded out by bigger titles. As with so many other trends, we’ll probably get a combination of forgettable misses and memorable hits, but I don’t think I’d mind the process at all.

Ohohohoho.

Hungry Hungry Hime: Princess Connect! Re:Dive

Anime based on gacha games generally have one overarching goal: get you to play the original mobile game. It’s unclear whether this approach is lucrative, and if anything, it comes across more as a serious flex to say, “Look at how much money we can put into making these gorgeous-looking anime adaptations. In this arena, Cygames is one of the kings. Between strong anime versions of Granblue Fantasy and Rage of Bahamut, among others, it’s exceedingly clear just how much money they have to throw around, given the gorgeous animation, strong writing, and excellent direction seen. 

In this respect, Princess Connect! Re:Dive is another success story. Despite the fact that it’s clearly meant to lure viewers into spending their paychecks, there’s no denying the ridiculously high production values and effort, as it ends up being one of the best-looking and most enjoyable anime of 2020. 

Princess Connect! Re:Dive takes place in a fantasy world and centers around an eclectic group of adventures who end up forming the Gourmet Guild, which is dedicated to trying out delicious foods all across the land (and not afraid to slay a monster or ten to get some grub). Leading the charge is Pecorine, an ultra-strong princess knight with a bottomless appetite, and joining her are white mage Kokkoro, the cat-eared black mage Karyl, and the strangely amnesiatic human boy Yuuki—the last of whom is clearly the “player character” from the game. 

I went into the Princess Connect! Re:Dive without any foreknowledge of the original game, and only with a faint awareness that it was getting high praise from animation buffs. I don’t know how much is based on the source material and how much comes from the anime staff putting in their own spin on things, but there were two main impressions I came away with:

First, the general world and premise are standard fantasy-mobile-game fare—a setting that ostensibly has an overarching ongoing story, but is more a vehicle for you to fall in love with the characters (and want to roll for them once you play the game). Second, the character work is so strong and consistent that it makes the first point more palatable. Major and minor characters alike are ridiculously charismatic, and well-traveled tropes like the moeblob, the tsundere, the yandere, and even bland male lead are portrayed in fun and refreshing ways. Yuuki’s characterization in particular is impressive, as the anime leans so hard into the concept of him being a potato that it falls through the ground and ends up on the other side of the world.

It might just be because I’m an adventurous eater and that I love food-themed anime and manga, but the very idea of the Gourmet Guild holds a lot of appeal to me. It gives plenty of opportunity to animate some amazing-looking dishes, and there’s a certain heartwarming vibe that comes with basing an adventuring team on “eat tasty things.” That innocence also becomes a narrative point, as the day-to-day pursuit of something so simple and pure connects with the motivations and inner conflicts of different characters. Sure, the big-picture story is pretty convoluted, but I still want to see Pecorine and the others succeed within that ridiculous world.

After I finished the anime, I looked up the original game, which is actually the second iteration of the Princess Connect! mobile game franchise—hence the Re:Dive appellation. Apparently, the two versions are tied together in some way, and the anime itself hints at this heavily. It’s not particularly clear what the connection is, and feels more like an attempt to simultaneously introduce Princess Connect! newbies like myself and inform veteran players alike of what’s going on. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters too much.

There’s a lot that’s pretty typical of the Princess Connect! Re:Dive anime, and by the time the final few episodes hit, you’ll know which of the countless numbers of cameos are probably the fan favorites. Still, even as the show is driving its sales pitch at you at full throttle, it’s still a superbly well done anime that fires on all cylinders. In a sense, efforts like these not only shatter the age-old stereotype that anime based on video games are terrible, but it’s even possible that anime like Princess Connect! Re:Dive are better than the games.

Dick Dastardly’s Gun Kata: Appare-Ranman!

The anime studio P.A. Works generally follows a consistent formula: establish an interesting setting such as an old-fashioned hotel (Hanasaku Iroha), an animation studio (SHIROBAKO), or a small town in decline (Sakura Quest), and then place front and center a cast of primarily cute girls with lots of emotion, humor, and drama. That’s why the recent Appare-Ranman!—a show starring a primarily male cast about a transcontinental race across the United States in the late 19th century—caught my eye. It’s in many ways the total opposite of the studio’s standard output. While the title is not entirely what I initially hoped for based on the premise, Appare-Ranman! turns out to be both an inspired and inspiring anime.

Appare-Ranman! stars Sorano Appare, an eccentric Japanese guy whose love of engineering and invention puts him at odds with his traditional merchant family. A series of strange events (largely of his own making) takes him and a samurai named Isshiki Kosame to the US, where Appare decides to compete in the Trans-Atlantic Wild Race. Competitors range from heroes to nobles to criminals, but unlike the rest who are using gasoline-powered cars, Appare aims to take the win with his own steam-powered creation.

Racing shows are usually about, well, racing. Whether it’s the classic Speed Racer/Mach GoGoGo, the insanely energetic Redline, the technical Initial D, or even Hanna-Barbera’s slapstick Wacky Races, one expects emphasis on three things: what the vehicles can do, who will come out on top, and how each of the competitors go about trying to win. Appare-Ranman! does highlight all those aspects to a degree, but half the time it feels like those things take a backseat to both more personal character stories and more conventional action outside of their vehicles.

This shifting of priorities is by no means a sign that Appare-Ranman! is a bad anime, and it benefits a lot from exploring its characters through their relationships with violence, adversity, and ambition. Jing Xialang is a female Chinese racer who’s had to overcome sexism and racism to find a place in the racing world. Appare himself is a great protagonist whose creative genius and flouting of cultural standards is shown to have both its strengths and limitations, and while it’s not outright stated, I get the impression that he’s non-neurotypical. In certain ways, this series reminds me of the fantastic Mobile Fighter G Gundam. That being said, the comparison to G Gundam goes beyond the multicultural cast and competitive setting. Appare-Ranman! ramps up the martial-arts-action gunfights to such a degree that, as the series reaches its climax, you begin to wonder where the heck that transcontinental race went.

Appare-Ranman! kind of swerves a bit, but it’s ultimately an entertaining anime that starts off strong and finishes well, even if it goes to some odd places. The main character’s car being steam-powered also makes the story feel like some kind of reverse-steampunk because of its portrayal as being on the way out historically. Now, what I find funny is that the focus away from racing at times actually brings to mind what I mentioned at the very start of this review: the fact that P.A. Works anime tend to use their settings as background for the real story they want to emphasize, and in a sense, Appare-Ranman! fits that bill perfectly. Only, istead of romantic drama, it’s wild shootouts.

Talk About a Scary Month: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for October 2020

The new anime season is starting up with plenty of potentially great shows, and we’re one month away from one of the most important general elections in the history of the United States. It would be an understatement to say I’m feeling some whiplash.

Before I get into the two sides, though, I want to thank this month’s Patreon sponsors.

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Dsy

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

First, the fun part:

For the new anime season, there are strong sequels galore—the two I’m hyped for are Haikyu!! To the Top part 2 and Golden Kamuy season 3. In terms of new titles, I’m curious about Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai (I’ve heard good things about the manga over the years), Hypnosis Mic (because everything fans have told me about it is bonkers), and Taiso Samurai (gymnastics + MAPPA).

I’m also looking forward to experiencing Love Live!: Nijigasaki High School Idol Club as a full-on anime instead of as the story in a mobile game. I’m curious to see how the different art style they’re using will affect the feel of the show. The Fall usually is traditionally great for anime, and while real-world events have thrown many anime off course, things are looking strong for now.

And then the not-so-fun part:

We are less than one month away from seeing if the United States is capable of rejecting a president who wishes he was a dictator, the corrupt politicians and businessmen who continue to enable his reckless destruction of the US, and whose combined greed and incompetence have the blood of over 200,000 people on their hands. And now, we find a president who not only denies reality when it gets in the way of him being beholden to debtors for what may be over a billion dollars, but is also currently hospitalized due to COVID-19: the very pandemic that he has tried to deny over and over again in order to prop up the economy at the expense of human lives.

I know I have readers outside the US, and you don’t have a direct say in the outcome of this election, but you’re probably concerned. I’m thinking of this as the most important election of my life, but that’s only because I hope and pray that it doesn’t get worse from here.

Now, back to good ol’ anime blogging.

Blog highlights from September:

Gattai Girls 11: “Granbelm” and Kohinata Mangetsu

Gattai Girls—wherein I review giant robot anime starring female pilots—is back!

Wyld Stallyns’ Greatest Triumph: Bill & Ted Face the Music

My review of the long-awaited sequel to one of my favorite movie franchises of all time.

Try Angles: My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax!

The anime adaptation of one of the best modern light novels comes to a close.

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 32 starts a new trimester and a new story arc for the singers of Hashimoto Technical High School, and it’s one of my favorite chapters yet.

Patreon-Sponsored

Hololive EN and Multilingual Fluency Among Virtual Youtubers

Some thoughts on crossing the language and (sub)cultural barriers through the new English-language VTuber group

Apartment 507

The Matter of Family in Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba

When it comes down to the appeal of this popular series, I really think it’s about familial love.

Closing

Take care of yourselves.

Try Angles: My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax!

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (aka My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, as I Expected) is the modern light novel anime that reminded me to never judge a book by its cover. While on the surface it looked to be another series about a cynical protagonist who ends up surrounded by attractive girls, it quickly became clear that what the series is selling is less a fantasy and more observations of reality—namely the ups and downs of growing mentally and emotionally in the messiest yet sincerest ways. Now, the final anime season has arrived, and what we’re left with is a satisfying conclusion that stays true to the series’s identity.

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax! once again revolves around loner Hikigaya Hachiman, bubbly Yuigahama Yui, and no-nonsense Yukinoshita Yukino as they run the Service Club: a group dedicated to problem-solving for any student who asks. All three are very different in personality, which makes their views on how to fix a given issue very different, but they complement one another well. This season, their main obstacles are pulling off an American-style prom, dealing with Yukino’s impossibly perfect mother who maps out her daughters’ lives to the letter, and the three main characters (at long last) resolving their feelings. 

All three storylines come down to battles of words and wills, and it’s this angle that highlights just how important language is to SNAFU. This series loves its wordplay—it’s why all the character names sound like superhero alter egos—but it doesn’t end there. SNAFU absolutely revels in both utter verbal ambiguity and extremely precise word choice that the Japanese language is so frustratingly good at. 

Take a couple of the keywords that showed up in the second season and present themselves here in full force: tasukeru and honmono. Tasukeru can mean “to help” or “to save,” and the ambiguity between the two gives a certain weight to Yukino’s words when she says it. But it’s also precisely because the characters can be so roundabout that they find a certain kinship. Honmono, introduced by Service Club faculty advisor Hiratsuka-sensei, can be translated as “genuine article,” “real deal,” “something real,” and so on. What exactly that means can change with context (is it more physical or more abstract?), and it’s not even clear whether Hachiman himself quite understands—other than it might just be worthwhile even while the fear of losing what you already have (even if it’s built on lies) is ever-present. Each character is both hurt and helped by how they utilize language, and it’s their strong friendship that brings them both smiles and tears.

The title of this series was originally about how the kinds of teenage romances celebrated in media are a lie, and that Hachiman’s life is anything but picturesque. By the end, but the meaning has morphed into the idea that it might not have been what the cool and popular kids get, but it’s something just as special. In a way, it’s perfect that SNAFU Climax! puts such emphasis on a prom, that classic symbol of Hollywood and American rom coms. The fact that the battle over the prom is more important than the event itself is especially fitting.

I’m happy to see this series to the end, but it also makes me aware of how different my own life and perspective has become since I watched the first season seven years ago. Back then, the sinews of high school and college social interaction still felt somewhat  fresh in my mind, and I could see pieces of myself and friends I knew in Hachiman. Now, my interaction with SNAFU has transformed from relatable experience to nostalgia. It’s as if I started as Hachiman the student and became Hiratsuka-sensei.

I Love Villains with Secret Weaknesses

One of the big mysteries of One Piece is just how Blackbeard is able to use multiple Devil Fruit powers when that should theoretically kill any being. I don’t have any strong theories as to what the truth is, but I do know one thing: when we do discover the secret, I think it’ll be one of the most satisfying moments in the entire series.

I love that trope, I really do. Whether it’s Sauron realizing that the One Ring is steps away from Mount Doom, and is filled with terror, or Voldemort coming to the horrifying realization that his Hocruxes are being eliminated, one of my favorite moments in fiction is when a villain realizes that their special hidden achilles heel, and thus they themselves  have been exposed.

If I were to say why I’m so fond of this idea, I’d say that it comes partially from how it resembles “boss fight” sensibility. Of course, this sort of storytelling element predates video games by a significant margin, but it is arguably most straightforward in the context of games. Only the worst weapon can harm Dr. Wily. Lavos Core attempts to fool enemies by hiding its true self in a seemingly unimportant floating “pod.” This idea can even extend to something like Gradius, where the final boss is a weaponless and disembodied brain. Here, the idea is that your final adversary is defenseless precisely to imply that you were never “supposed” to reach it—the soft, squishy point behind layers and layers of minions and firepower was meant to be unassailable.

But that puzzle aspect is only one component, and what really makes it satisfying is that the moment of unwanted revelation about their weakness being exposed is predicated on a contradiction. Villains like Voldemort and Sauron want to be invincible, but by pursuing that goal, they inadvertently create the cracks in their own armor. Voldemort fears death above all else, so he tries to achieve immortality by placing pieces of his soul into other objects and hiding them away, which in turn makes those very items a source of obsession for Voldemort. Sauron is already immortal, but his desire to control and dominate everything results in his transferring most of his power into the One Ring. Even when he first loses the One Ring in combat, the fact that it’s near-impervious gives Sauron a certain reassurance. He will eventually reunite with the ring because nothing is strong enough to get into Mordor if it’s not on Sauron’s terms. They use both smoke and mirrors and sheer martial strength to try and hide these flaws, so to see their best-laid plans begin to crumble gives me joy.

It’s precisely because Blackbeard goes to such great lengths to hide the workings of his multiple-Devil-Fruit usage that makes me confident that the reveal (and the ultimate use of it against Blackbeard) will be one of the best plot threads to come out of One Piece. His obsession with power, and the weak-minded truth of his being provide a perfect formula for this trope to play out in the best way possible.

Creator Chemistry in A Whisker Away

The Japanese anime film A Whisker Away caught my attention early on due to its writer-director combination of Okada Mari and Sato Jun’ichi. Okada has worked on some of my favorite anime, including A Woman Called Mine Fujiko and Aquarion EVOL. Sato has helmed numerous masterpieces, especially in the magical girl realm—Sailor Moon, Princess Tutu, Kaleidostar, Ojamajo Doremi, Hugtto! Precure, among others However, this is not the first time they’ve worked together, and their last collaboration, M3: The Dark Metal, was mixed at best. Their strengths as creators are total opposites in a certain sense, which can make for a brilliant chemical reaction or an explosive mess. In the case of A Whisker Away, the combination succeeds.

A Whisker Away follows a girl named Sasaki Miyo, whose crush on her boy classmate Hinode Kento only seems to irritate him. What Kento doesn’t know, however, is that the stray cat he loves so much, Tarou, is actually Miyo in disguise through the power of feline magic. Key to the film are the desire to understand and to be understood.

When I say that Okada and Sato have opposite strengths, what I mean is that the two specialize in very different expressions of emotion. The writer’s works are all characterized by melodramatic floods of powerful emotions (especially at the climax), while the director’s greatest strength is conveying small and intimate emotions whether the setting is humble or grandiose. It is a challenge for both types of emotional expression to exist in the same space without smothering each other, and as I discussed years ago on the Veef Show podcast, this is one of the problems with M3: The Dark Metal

I think what makes the newer work click in contrast to their previous title is that both Okada-style and Sato-style emotional expression are able to coexist. The film has moments for both styles to shine, especially given the numerous scenes of quiet introspection and frustration juxtaposed with loud and bombastic outbursts from the heart. It also doesn’t hurt that cute but trying teenage romance is the wheelhouse of both creators.

Given this long trend of two whole films, I am eager to see what comes from the next Okada-Sato joint effort. Now that I know this team can pull it off, I have high hopes that the third time around will be spectacular. In the meantime, A Whisker Away is worth a watch.

Gattai Girls 11: “Granbelm” and Kohinata Mangetsu

Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.

Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.

For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.

— 

Granbelm is a series that feels both modern and retro at the same time. The cute all-female cast is standard for current anime. Its premise, which pits these girls against each other in a Highlander-esque scenario to inherit the Earth’s magic, screams “early 2010s anime.” The story is straight-up early 2000s sekai-kei, a genre where the relationship between two characters determines the fate of the world. The mecha designs come straight out of a tradition of cutely proportioned robots from the late 1980s to early 1990s. Yet, while Granbelm isn’t shy about making its influences known, it’s also not ruled by them.

Female mecha protagonists are uncommon, which is why the lack of men in the series stands out all the more. That being said, this is not all that unusual, as there was an industry realization at some point in the industry that the total or near-total absence of male figures in anime could be a selling point to male and female audiences alike. In this sense, Granbelm follows in the footsteps of franchises like Love Live! and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, with the general mood of the show being more towards the darkness of the latter.

While having a predominantly female cast and thus passing the Bechdel test practically by default is by no means a mark of inherent feminism, these characters are varied in their personalities, motivations, strengths, and flaws in ways that emphasize their sheer presence on the screen. Whether it’s Anna (above) and her obsession with living up to her family reputation or Shingetsu and her guilt over her own power, the characters are convincing in their convictions. All the more impressive is the portrayal of the heroine, Kohinata Mangetsu (below). Although she comes across initially as a very generic protagonist, the series takes her naivete and exuberance and juxtaposes them against the others so as to highlight essential truths about her character in a manner most reminiscent of Selector Infected Wixoss

Moreover, it’s Mangetsu’s relationship with Shingetsu—their names meaning “full moon” and “new moon,” respectively—that is central to Granbelm. The way it plays out, similar yet profoundly different to Madoka and Homura’s in Madoka Magica, could only work with such strongly defined characters.

Given the general angle of Granbelm, the mecha might initially seem like an afterthought, but the series’s staff have worked hard to make them a vital part of the show in ways I appreciate a lot. Not only does the series wear its influences on its sleeve, with visual references to Gundam and even Space Runaway Ideon, but the way that characters argue with each other over heated personal and philosophical issues is right out of the playbook of Tomino Yoshiyuki, director of the original Mobile Suit Gundam and Ideon. Each robot—or “ARMANOX” in the anime’s parlance—reflects in form and function the personalities and fighting styles of each contestant. Whether it’s stealth, agility, or even emotional manipulation, you can sense through how they fight just what kinds of individuals they are. Mangetsu’s unit, White Lily, is fueled by her enthusiasm at the notion that she can be special in ways that elude her self-perception of mediocrity, and it comes across in the limit-shattering power and energy White Lily can generate.

Aesthetically, the ARMANOX draw from a very specific genre of giant robots: the chibi-fied robot tradition that began with SD Gundam and came into prominence in the 1980s to early 1990s anime thanks to titles like Mashin Hero Wataru, Mado King Granzort, and NG Knight & Lamune 40. Currently, the only modern anime that shares this look is the current 20th anniversary sequel to Wataru, which actively draws upon that visual nostalgia and carries a more straightforward good vs. evil story common to its original’s peers. The use of these mecha, with their squat and rounded appearances not only makes the visuals of Granbelm memorable against the backdrop of current anime, but also helps contribute to the cute yet foreboding feel of the anime as a whole. 

Granbelm takes cues from many anime trends over many decades, but it ends up synthesizing them all in an emotionally satisfying and thought-provoking manner. Vital to this success is the series’s portrayal of both its female characters and the giant robots they use to fight as reflections of each other and of the world they occupy.