The Healing of Heisei Anime

EvangelionIt’s difficult to succinctly describe or summarize anime and manga in the Heisei era. After all, that’s a lot of time to cover, from 1989 to 2019. But when I think about the works that have come out over the past thirty years, one word keeps coming to mind: therapy.

The Heisei era is defined by many things, but one of the biggest is the bursting of the 80s bubble economy, leading Japan into a recession it’s never fully recovered from. It has affected everyone young and old, flipping norms and assumptions on their heads as the idea of a stable future weakened and crumbled. I find that many of the trends in Heisei anime reflect this uncertainty. Heisei covers the birth of healing anime. It marks the emergence of concepts in Japan like NEETs, hikikomori, and fear of declining birth rates, which then make their way into anime. Deep introspection and escape from reality alike were in full force, asking viewers whether they needed to manually get away or to find solutions.

In that struggle between therapy as problem-solving and therapy as respite, in my opinion there’s no show as emblematic as Neon Genesis Evangelion. While it takes from works past, what Evangelion does so well, and part of why its legacy has endured for so long, is that it pushes the psychological fears and doubts of its characters to the forefront, enveloping viewers in their inner worlds. Their struggle to understand themselves and navigate youth, violence, love, and lust is still powerful today. However, another significant part of Evangelion‘s legacy is the commodification of its characters, their wispy yet mature bodies the subjects of figures, posters, ad campaigns, and more. Their idealized forms themselves provide a form of fantasy that consequently flattens and simplifies their presences.

And yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean the two sides of Evangelion never mingled, and their dual influence is reflected in 21st century anime culture in major ways. Whether it’s Rei as the progenitor of the “emotionless” blue-haired girl trope or Shinji and Kaworu as an evergreen fujoshi pairing (despite, or perhaps because it only lasts one episode), the clash of consumption, creation, reflection, and escape all continue to swirl around today. It’s fitting that the Rebuild of Evangelion movies, which show the characters trying much harder to communicate with one another and overcome the cycle of doubt and despair, is set to conclude in the Reiwa era after a ten-year delay.

The anime of the past three decades hasn’t been all doom and gloom, nor has it solely been a psychological bomb shelter shielding its viewers from the world. Heisei birthed the Yuusha/Brave franchise, with its positive messages (albeit with the occasional sprinkling in of anti-toy-company cynicism). It covered Sailor Moon and Ojamajo Doremi and Precure in terms of magical girl works that give viewers a sense of hope and optimism. Perhaps the function of these shows, however, is that they also provided positive messages to young kids in a society that didn’t necessarily provide it through other means.

While anime as therapy was born out of Japan’s own recent history, I think the global success of anime in the Heisei era shows that there were people all around the world who needed it as well, myself included. As is probably the case for many reading this, my entire otaku history has been in the Heisei era, and in retrospect I have to be amazed at how much it’s shaped my life even from the perspective of “therapy.” I learned to embrace unconventional views of masculinity and femininity through Cardcaptor Sakura. I found peace and comfort (but also artistic inspiration) from Hidamari Sketch. I discovered what means to live with confidence by reading Genshiken. I made introspection a part of my life thanks to Evangelion. This won’t necessarily change just because there’s a new emperor on the throne of Japan, but I hope I can look back again in thirty years with a similar fondness.

This post was made possible thanks to Johnny Trovato. If you’d like to request a topic or support Ogiue Maniax in general, check out the Patreon.

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Amateur Thoughts on the Atelier Games

I’m not terribly familiar with the Atelier RPG series. I’ve never played any of the games, and I didn’t even realize that Sue was cosplaying the main heroine from Atelier Meruru in a chapter of Genshiken (see above). But I was asked by one of my Patreon sponsors to write something about the games, so I decided to do some research. While I can’t even pretend to call myself an expert, what I’ve found out about the Atelier games has intrigued me, particularly the way they eschew Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest-style “save the world” scenarios.

Before I go further, I’d like to thank two YouTube channels: ValkyrieAurora, whose overview of the entire Atelier franchise allowed me to better understand the overarching themes of the games, and WeLoveGUST, whose Atelier Meruru play-through introduced me to the feel of an Atelier game. Watching them is no substitute for actually playing, of course, but they were quite helpful nevertheless.

Video games have classically had a violence issue. I don’t mean that violent video games are bad, or that they inherently corrupt people, but that fighting is a convention that’s so easily relied upon in games that it can be a kind of crutch. Fight to save your kingdom. Fight to get revenge. Fight to prove your worth. This doesn’t define all games, but those that step away from violence, also tend to go so far left-field from that world as to be considered a practically different universe. I’m talking about puzzle games like Tetris or gentler games like Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons or Animal Crossing. There’s a wide space in between those approaches (“violence solves everything” vs. “what’s violence?”), and the way the Atelier games strike a middle ground is rather fascinating.

Rather than having a looming evil that must be defeated, the narratives of Atelier games are more often based on personal growth. The key gameplay involves the player as the main character learning to make potions and other concoctions in a quest to master the discipline of alchemy. Experimentation is encouraged, and while the games can vary in terms of how demanding the clock is, they more often than not lean towards the leisurely. It’s still clearly a non-mundane environment, and there is combat involved when it comes to gathering ingredients, but violence clearly takes a backseat.

In this respect, I find myself drawn to Atelier Meruru‘s soundtrack, which is very heavy on recorder and flute usage. There’s a certain sense of innocent fun that permeates the game as a result, and it communicates a certain message, that there’s room to breathe, explore, and maybe even relax. It really sells the games well and really entices me to try out one of the games myself.

The franchise is hardly devoid of a more fantastical setting, as all of the Atelier games take place in classic fantasy settings full of magic and kings and queens, but the balance it strikes is very alluring. It’s not so far into “farm plants and drive trucks” territory as to feel like a simulation of the mundane—the games give the impression of adventure, just not in the “defeat evil” sense. At the same time, I do wonder if it can be hard to balance the niche appeal of that classic Atelier pacing with the desire to draw in a more mainstream audience. In her video, ValkyrieAurora talks about how some of the games put more emphasis on going out on a quest. It makes me wonder if GUST (the company behind Atelier) thought that they needed to draw in more general RPG players, perhaps at the expense of the more core fans.

Atelier is hardly the only RPG series to try and minimize the impact and importance of violence, but its approach is a refreshing one, at least to someone like myself who didn’t really know about these games. It’s a celebration of a certain mellow pace that the world could use more of.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. To find out how to request topics, visit the Ogiue Maniax Patreon.

Kio Shimoku’s Kagerowic Diary and Its Influence on Genshiken and Spotted Flower

A special edition of Kio Shimoku’s Kagerowic Diary (aka Kagerou Nikki) just came out last month, which prompted me to read an ebook of it I purchased ages ago. Having now finished it, I find myself reevaluating certain aspects of Kio’s more recent titles in Genshiken and Spotted Flower.

Kagerowic Diary is split into two parts. Part I concerns a female college student named Suzuki Touko (above) who seemingly has it all figured out but hides the fact that she’s a virgin from her friends. Part II follows a different woman in college, Tachihara Hatsuho (below), and the complicated web of sex, emotion, and deceit she finds herself in. To Genshiken fans, it can feel both comfortably familiar yet also exotic due to the strong emphasis on physical relationships.

Touko’s story shines new light on Genshiken, specifically the final volume of the first series. In the epilogue, the characters begin a discussion of how Saki, the sole non-otaku of the bunch and by far the most mature character, could be viewed through a moe lens. After some deliberation, Madarame says that she would have to be a virgin (Saki very clearly is not). When I previously read this scene, I thought the purpose was merely to show how Madarame’s mind works and to embarrass Saki. Now, I realize it’s actually a reference to Touko and Kagerowic Diary.

Hatsuho’s story, on the other hand, makes me feel that Spotted Flower and its adultery subplot are not as out-of-left-field as fans assumed. While it’s a far cry from Genshiken, the tangled web of love and lust in Spotted Flower is not unlike the plot of Part II in Kagerowic Diary, where Hatsuho sleeping with a male friend of pity and then discovering that her boyfriend cheated on her too (and probably has been for a while) It’s charged, it’s messy, it’s complicated. In other words, Spotted Flower is sort of a return to the old days for Kio, when writing realistic characters meant more than just realistic portrayals of awkward nerds.

In addition to Kagerowic Diary, there’s a special edition of Kio’s Yonensei (“4th-year Student”) out too. I intend to read through it and see how that other early work of his compares to his more famous material.

Kio Shimoku and Genshiken Trivia, Courtesy of “Mou, Shimasen Kara”

Over the past year, the manga magazine Monthly Afternoon has featured interviews in comic form with its own serialized manga authors through the series Mou, Shimasen kara. Afternoon Gekiryuu-hen by Nishimoto Hideo. This past month’s issue puts the spotlight on Genshiken and now Hashikko Ensemble creator, Kio Shimoku, so I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing all of the Kio factoids in it.

-For the first time ever, Kio actually reveals his “face” (albeit in manga form). He’s known for being a private person, but he decided show himself through this manga. He reasons, “I’m over 40 now, so what does it matter if I show my face or not?”

-Kio used to work analog, but has been an all-digital artist ever since Jigopuri. He does everything, from thumbnails to color, all on his Wacom. He doesn’t customize his pen or brush settings much.

-He almost never uses assistants. Kio had one assistant on Genshiken Nidaime and none for Hashikko Ensemble, his new series. For those who don’t know, this is highly unusual.

-Kio got the inspiration for Hashikko Ensemble because his daughter joined a vocal ensemble, and he happened to listen to an all-male group.

-He was never a musician, but knew a local group, so he did do some singing for them about once a month, and even had a voice trainer. He’s a second tenor, which was the basis for Akira’s baritone in Hashikko Ensemble. Kio has a fairly deep voice himself, so he decided to exaggerate it for the manga.

-Once, in school, he saw two kids harmonizing on the way to class, providing further inspiration. “I want my manga to make readers want to sing.”

-Kio was in the softball club in elementary school, the judo club in junior high where he was the captain, and the art club in high school.

-He submitted his first manga in high school, for Shounen Sunday. It was about a high school student who works at a used bookstore and discovers an ancient text that he then tries to decipher.

He drew a lot when he was kid, and was an otaku in middle school, where he imitated Doraemon, Kinnikuman, and Captain Tsubasa.

-However, he stopped drawing between 4th grade of elementary and the start of middle school. This was because he was really into Miyazaki Hayao as a kid, and when he couldn’t copy Miyazaki successfully, he got depressed and stopped trying for those few years.

-In middle school, he helped a friend out by drawing backgrounds for his manga, only for Kio to realize he was also better at drawing the characters too. One day, when he tried to draw Miyazaki characters again, he noticed he had gotten way better.

-He wanted to be an animator, but Ghibli only wanted people 18 and up. Once, he created a manga based on the Laputa novel in a couple of notebooks.

-In college, he majored in Japanese art because he thought the pencil and brush skills would translate to manga.

-Kio’s dad worked at an insurance company, and while he wasn’t flat out against Kio’s aspirations, he would constantly ask him to consider the risk of being a manga creator. This made Kio want to quickly win a manga reward, to help his parents accept it.

-The school he went to had a club called the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture, becoming the inspiration for Genshiken. Surprisingly, however, Kio was actually only a member for half a year. He didn’t quit because if anything in particular, he’s just not good with group activities.

-Despite what it might seem, the Genshiken characters are not based on any real life counterparts.

-In response to the realism of his characters, Kio says he tries to convey a sense of “presence” with them.

-Kio feels Genshiken came at the perfect time, matching the zeitgeist of the era. However, it makes him feel like a one-hit wonder. If Hashikko Ensemble fails, he’s going to feel enormous pressure.

-He didn’t attend a technical high school so he needs more research. One of he authors of Mou, Shimasen kara. did, and the other has a sister who attended one, so they try to help out.

Thoughts

Kio’s done a lot!! He sort of seems like a renaissance man.

That bit of surprise aside, it is fascinating finding out just how many aspects of his own personal life and career have made their way into his manga. The attending a Genshiken-like club is one thing, but it’s notable that he was in the judo club and then the art club—just like Hato. He also converted to using a tablet monitor for manga at some point—just like Ogiue. While his characters aren’t based on any real people in particular, he takes bits of himself and places them in his creations. While not stated outright, I think it’s pretty clear that Jigopuri (which is about raising a baby) is the product of firsthand experience.

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Spotted Flower and the Role of the “What-If”

The manga Spotted Flower is more than just a story about a male otaku and his non-otaku wife. To fans of the author, Kio Shimoku, the series is also a thinly veiled alternate universe version of his most famous work, Genshiken. With nearly all of the characters in Spotted Flower having direct analogues in Genshiken, the manga is constantly nudging and winking at the audience. Recently, one of those nudges turned into more of an elbow to the solar plexus, and many assumptions about the series have gone out the window. A story seemingly about marital bliss (despite some ups and downs) has become a tale of adultery, and Genshiken fans are left reeling.

The buildup to the big moment occurs shortly after the birth of the husband and wife’s first child, who is named, appropriately, “Saki.” Visited by her ex-boyfriend, the ease with which she and her former lover banter back and forth drives the meek husband to wallow in quiet envy. In a moment of weakness, he ends up sleeping with an old mutual friend—one who’s female up top, male down below, and who still identifies as male—and cheats on his wife. Only, instead of doing the deed, he winds up on the receiving end.

Jealousy and Betrayal

It’s clear which Spotted Flower characters map to which Genshiken identities. The husband is uber nerd Madarame Harunobu, while his wife is the no-nonsense Kasukabe Saki. The ex-boyfriend is Kohsaka Makoto (who is Kasukabe’s actual boyfriend). The one night stand (?) is with Hato Kenjirou, the male BL fan who ends up falling in love with Madarame. Seeing all of these characters act so terribly to each other can feel like a betrayal, especially to fans of the popular Madarame-Kasukabe pairing. But the situation begs the question: where do the Genshiken versions end and the Spotted Flower ones begin?

Spotted Flower resembles fanfiction in the sense that, while it’s possible to enjoy it standalone, the work encourages and even to some extent assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the source material. What use is a story about Mikasa from Attack on Titan turning into a robot, if the reader doesn’t know how Mikasa is supposed to act normally? To that extent, I suspect that the controversial decision to make the husband an adulterer is part of stressing Spotted Flower as the space where all the things not possible in Genshiken become real. The very premise of the series is built on that idea—Kasukabe ultimately rejects Madarame because she loves Kohsaka.

If the husband does all the things Madarame didn’t or couldn’t do, then his poor decisions make sense. At one point in the second manga series, Genshiken Nidaime, Madarame comes close to sleeping with his friend’s little sister, Sasahara Keiko. As it turns out, Keiko is actually trying to cheat on her current boyfriend with Madarame, and her casual admission to this fact sends Madarame running for the hills. Madarame is unwilling to be an accomplice in another’s unfaithfulness, but the husband in Spotted Flower is not. Later in Nidaime, Madarame ends up alone with Hato in an awkward spot. Hearts racing, the two come close to having something happen, only for happenstance to deflate the tension. Madarame ends up rejecting Hato later, out of concern that Hato should be with someone better. The evening that goes nowhere in Genshiken certainly ends up somewhere in Spotted Flower.

What’s more, where Genshiken deals in relatively tame kinks and features mostly faithfully monogamous relationships where available (Keiko notwithstanding), Spotted Flower thrives on the unconventional. The not-Hato (hereafter referred to by his artist pen name Asaka Midori) is already in a physical relationship with his manager who’s the Spotted Flower version of Genshiken character Yajima. But rather than being upset or surprised, the manager was already well aware of Asaka’s desire for the husband. She even goes as far as to ask how it was giving anal sex to him. At another point, it’s implied that another character (a manga editor who maps to original Genshiken protagonist Sasahara) could maybe potentially be having threesomes with his girlfriend and her very touchy-feely American girl friend, but doesn’t. “Open relationships” seems to be the name of the game, which further emphasizes the Bizarro Universe-esque aspects of sexual relations in Spotted Flower relative to Genshiken.

Does this mean that Spotted Flower is reliant on Genshiken, or that the sense of betrayal on the part of readers would only come from Genshiken fans? Perhaps not, but the feelings are likely most intense from that established fanbase. However, I find it fascinating that, unlike fanfiction, which typically exists on a very clear line of what is “canon” and not, the fact that Spotted Flower is this very obvious Genshiken what-if with only the barest degree of plausible deniability makes that canon/non-canon distinction much blurrier. At the same time, it is fact that the Spotted Flower characters are definitely not the Genshiken ones, and not just the same characters in an alternate universe or timeline. They simply have too many different physical features that can’t be explained by the passage of time on account of the Spotted Flower characters being older. “Ogino-sensei” (Ogiue in Genshiken) has a different face structure. The blond American otaku behaves like the petite Sue but has a body like the tall, buxom Angela. In some cases, it’s not even clear who’s supposed to be who based on character design alone. Spotted Flower might be a “possible future” as both it and Genshiken like to put it, but it’s practically CLAMP’s manga, Wish—a series based on a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure doujinshi of theirs with the names and designs altered into “original” characters. Only, for Kio, he’s his own source of inspiration.

Ogiue’s Counterpart: Ogino-sensei

The question as to how much Spotted Flower should speak for Genshiken is a tricky one. The characters of the former mirror the latter. Are they the true desire of the author, or simply a chance to tell different stories? Is it precisely because the characters are alternate versions that this can happen, or does that thread of possibility mean the two are tied together? I don’t believe there to be a true answer to these questions, simply because it really depends on individual readers’ relationships with both series. But it’s also curious that some of the characters and relationships are not as different as others. Ogino-sensei is still seeing her manga editor boyfriend, and their bond seems to have remained strong. The wife’s ex-boyfriend (not-Kohsaka) looks almost the same, except his hair is black instead of blond, and his bright-eyed gaze has been replaced with some kind of seeming cynicism or darkness. Maybe there are characters who can find the same happiness on the alternative route, and those who cannot.

A new character: Endou

How much Spotted Flower will continue to be self-parody remains to be seen. Volume 3 introduces wholly original characters in Asaka Midori’s editor, Endou, as well as her publisher. I wonder if this is the signal that the manga is on the verge of becoming its own entity.

 

Nerds in the Mist: Katou Megumi and the Role of the Non-Otaku

With a series title like How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend, a certain image comes to mind. Given the existence of Japanese dating sims, the success of “raising sims” such as Gainax’s famous Princess Maker series, as well as the tendency towards popular otaku tropes such as nerd protagonists in harem situations, it’s easy to assume that the series is about creating a bland, milquetoast love interest. Is this an attempt to revive the old-style dating sim heroines such as Kamigishi Akari from To Heart, that childhood friend who once stood at the top of the harem totem pole? Is Katou Megumi, the titular “boring girlfriend”—more accurately “boring heroine” in Japanese—one man’s “ideal waifu” the way Asuna from Sword Art Online is, or something else entirely?

To my surprise, Megumi’s aggressive mediocrity actually turns out to be a subversion of her seeming purpose as a no-personality love interest or another character in the yamato nadeshiko mold. While the fact that the other characters keep talking about how aggressively mediocre she is might point in those directions, her role in Boring Girlfriend is closer to that of Kasukabe Saki from Genshiken—the “normal” one who contributes by being an outsider.

In works about groups of otaku there is often a non-otaku, though their purposes can differ. In Otaku no Video, the main character Ken is the “commoner” who gradually falls in love with the otaku lifestyle, while his girlfriend, Yoshiko, becomes increasing disgusted. The dating sim Comic Party (as well as its anime adaptations) follows a similar pattern, with protagonist Kazuki becoming more involved with doujinshi as his sporty childhood friend (and canon love interest) Mizuki just can’t seem to fathom what these nerds are jabbering about.

Owing to the fact that Genshiken gradually pushes its characters from the relative safety of a college environment into the real world, Saki as the non-otaku becomes a kind of guiding force. While she begins the series antagonizing the otaku and begrudging the fact that her boyfriend is an otaku, she eventually becomes a close friend whose understanding of human social interactions (notoriously lacking in otaku) provide answers that the others could not arrive at by themselves. While she isn’t as aggressive and outspoken as Saki, Megumi in Boring Girlfriend accomplishes the same things by being more observant than the perpetually self-centered and inward-looking otaku characters she has befriended.

Because Saki begins from a place similar to Yoshiko in Otaku no Video and Mizuki in Comic Party, Megumi doesn’t quite have the same development as her. Instead of that period of conflict with the otaku, the changing dynamic comes from the gradual reveal that Megumi indeed has a mind of her own, and that her seemingly mundane nature throws a wrench in the assumptions of the others. Moreover, her “boring” status provides a sharp contrast to the other girls in the series, who fall more in line with familiar tropes: a tsundere, an adorable underclassman, a cooldere, a tomboy cousin.

While those other characters have their origins in the same era that spawned Akari from To Heart and Mizuki from Comic Party, taste in otaku consumption has changed over time such that characters with more extreme and pronounced character traits tend to be more popular. The shape of “moe” has changed, and everyone but Megumi falls into that line. However, because Megumi is present, and because the series is named after her, it’s as if Boring Girlfriend is setting up and knocking down its own pieces to say, “Subtlety has its place.”

In this sense, How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend and Megumi remind me of two other series. The first is My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong, as I Expected aka My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. It’s a series that also goes against what its title implies and plays around with its characters supposed archetypes to create a greater sense of depth. The other is The World God Only Knows, which features the character Kosaka Chihiro. Though she has a different personality compared to Megumi, and that series has only one real otaku character, Chihiro fulfills the role of being defiantly “normal.” Her behavior runs against everything that Katsuragi Keima believes in as someone who bases his life entirely on dating sims, and Megumi by virtue of her supposed blandness accomplishes much the same.

 

Moe + Saki = Maki: A Genshiken/Love Live! Character Comparison

sakimaki

On occasion I’ve had to explain to those unfamiliar with Love Live! the appeal of Nishikino Maki. While terms like “beautiful” or “cooldere” kind of get the point across to an extent to those who already know her, I’ve found that they still don’t quite do the trick for people outside the fandom. However, I’ve recently thought up a comparison that I think works well, provided that you have some experience with Genshiken. Maki, in esssence, is like Kasukabe Saki—or more specifically, the “moe” version of Saki that Madarame once envisioned.

In the extra at the very end of Volume 9 of Genshiken (the finale of the first series), the characters are discussing why Saki isn’t “moe.” They talk about how she essentially has no weaknesses, that she’s just an extremely capable person overall. Even her boyfriend agrees that Saki isn’t moe. Then, Madarame has an idea: the only way Saki would be moe is if she was a virgin.

While this might bring to mind the issue of “purity,” it’s more that being a virgin would be a chink in the armor of Saki’s all-powerful self. She would be this smart, no-nonsense woman who just knows how to get things done, but her relationship advice would come not from personal experience. By being a virgin, she’d have that essential vulnerability that would bring her into moe territory.

When it comes to Love Live!, being a virgin isn’t any more or less special from on character to the next, as it’s implied that all of the main girls don’t have sexual experience (no matter what fans think/hope). However, the idea of an overall intelligent, talented girl with a firm head on her shoulders who is also naive in certain respects and easily flustered by embarrassing things is right in the same territory as “Moe Saki.” Within Nishikino Maki exists both the girl who keeps Nico in check, and the girl who believes in Santa.

Side Note: While Maki is basically Moe Saki, I bet Madarame’s favorite Love Live! would be Nico. 2D is different from 3D, after all.

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