Darling in the Franxx: Thoughts on a Divisive Anime

WARNING: Spoilers for Darling in the Franxx, Gurren-Lagann, Evangelion, and Daitarn 3 (yes, you read that right)

When I first wrote about Darling in the Franxx and its sexual dystopia, the series had just presented some major revelations, among them how Hiro and Zero Two first met, and the true identity of the Klaxosaurs. Seven concluding episodes later, it turns out those “bombshells” were only the tip of the iceberg.

But this show has been full of surprises, and fan reactions to all of these twists and turns has been just as fascinating to follow as the show itself. Darling in the Franxx is, in a word, divisive—perhaps more than any other anime I’ve seen in a long time. I believe the reason for this boils down to one thing: the show attracted a wider range of fan types than most anything else, and the conflicting takes are a product of these differences. My own take is tha the series only got better as it went along, but I’m well aware that many do not share my view to the extent that it seems as if we were all watching different anime. When I give my opinion and analysis of Darling in the Franxx, it’s with this caveat in mind.

Eye of the Beholder

Let’s get into some of the major reveals in the last quarter of the series.

  • Magma energy is revealed to be the energy source that has allowed humanity to achieve immortality.
  • The Klaxosaurs don’t consider humans their true enemy, because the actual problem is a non-corporeal alien race of conquerors called the VIRM, who all but destroyed Klaxosaur civilization both directly and indirectly thousands of years ago.
  • “Papa” is actually one of the VIRM. They infiltrated the human race and purposely pointed them towards magma energy as a way to weaken the Klaxosaurs. This is because the planet’s magma is actually made up of Klaxosaurs who purposely sacrificed themselves to become an energy source for the monster-form Klaxosaurs to fight off the VIRM.
  • The VIRM basically takes the minds of all of the adults because their goal is to integrate all species in the universe within themselves. This leaves only the non-adults (namely the Franxx pilots!) left to fight. The remaining humans join forces with the Klaxosaurs and go into space to fight the VIRM.
  • Ultimately, through the power of love and friendship, Hiro and Zero Two manage to truly become one (more on that later) and defeat the VIRM. Humanity has to rebuild without the use of magma energy, fully aware of the price they paid for draining the planet of such an important resource, and out of respect for the Klaxosaurs.

That’s quite a lot for a series where the initial main debate was “which girl is better, Zero Two or Ichigo?”, and for every fan who fell in love with the show from episode 1 only to be disappointed by where it went by episode 24, there seems to be another fan who thinks the opposite. Moreover, unlike series such as Dragon Ball Z, where the things that fans love about it are the very same things the haters scoff at, no one can actually seem to agree what Darling in the Franxx is about or what it’s saying, let alone which parts are good or bad.

The anime appears to have drawn in a larger variety of anime fans to it than is typical, combining a multitude of genre signals (mecha, science fiction, romance, love triangle) with provocative, often sexual imagery. As a result, the disparate values (both in terms of personal values and ideas as to what makes a show good) of the viewers meant that people came to the show with wildly different expectations from one another. In this environment, I’m not certain I can change anyone’s minds, but I can at least put my thoughts out there.

Defying and Affirming Conventional Humanity Through Romance

Take the subject of my previous post: whether or not the anime reinforced heteronormative values, extending to the rule of man and woman as father and mother. While Darling in the Franxx indeed ends with multiple characters having children in heterosexual relationships, it’s still notable that the main couple of the story cannot have children together. The ultimate expression of their union and happiness instead involves Zero Two becoming a literal giant robot version of herself, in a cross between a wedding dress and Mechagodzilla, while Hiro pilots her from within, carrying connotations of both penis and womb but also referencing the series’s own world. Hiro, in a way, acts like the magma energy that powers the Klaxosaurs, moving away from “conventional humanity” in order to be with the one he loves.

On a less dramatic scale, Ikuno (the only lesbian in the series) ultimately does not have children, but instead devotes her life to science and medicine. Without having any offspring of her own, she makes for herself a position that can help ensure humanity’s future. Hiro, Zero Two, and Ikuno all found ways to help humanity without having to be directly involved in pregnancy. And while not entirely clear, it might just be the case that Ikuno found someone who reciprocated her feelings as well. So I can’t see Darling in the Franxx as being all gung-ho about baby-making at the expense of other people’s life choices, though those more sensitive to the topic might see the degree to which the core cast decides to have children to be the stronger message.

Through the Lens of a Long-Time Mecha Fan

Another criticism of this series is that it’s shallow, schlock entertainment more interested in M. Night Shyamalan-esque swerves than any actual substance. What exactly this has meant in the context of Darling in the Franxx has changed over the course of the series, but one of the big sticking points is the VIRM reveal. Online discussion revolved around whether this was an unnecessary twist that betrayed the feel and purpose of the series, or if the show had cleverly set it up all along, and that it made perfect sense for Darling in the Franxx. I personally lean towards the latter, but I think this comes partly from being a long-time fan of the mecha.

Long before Gurren-Lagann took “go big or go home” to the most lovingly ridiculous degrees, sudden shifts to space or to larger-scale stakes were part and parcel of an anime genre founded in kids’ entertainment. The series Daitarn 3 (1978) literally goes immediately from Earth to space for the first time (barring flashbacks) in the final episode. In time, more creative and ambitious shows tried to incorporate that dramatic build-up more effectively, and I see the heavy emphasis on personal relationships and sexual tension of early Darling in the Franxx as an effective low-key cornerstone that sets up the eventual ramp-up in the long-term. Even the rapid pace of the last few episodes bothered me little for similar reasons, but fans who did not come into anime on shows that preferred such abrupt shifts could very well see it as clunky, headless-chicken writing. I understand, yet I still feel the progression to be appropriate and maybe even nostalgic.

Final Thoughts on the VIRM, and the Ending

It’s not uncommon to see Darling in the Franxx compared to either Evangelion or Gurren-Lagann for aesthetic and thematic reasons, but there’s another factor all three shows share: the idea that they in some way or form betrayed their audiences. Evangelion is probably the most famous example of an unexpected ending, with its compete stylistic departure and its abstract, introspection-heavy final episodes. Famously, the staff of Evangelion actually received death threats for it. Gurren-Lagann pulled the brakes on its do-anything, push-the-envelope mentality for its conclusion, which stung fans who watched it precisely to revel in that feeling of “doing the impossible.” Darling in the Franxx is capable of “betraying” large swathes of its diverse viewership, but I do not think the series actually crumbles when looked at with greater scrutiny.

While the opinion that the VIRM twist comes “out of nowhere” isn’t shared by all—some even accurately predicted the show’s move into space—I think an essential difference between detractors and supporters of the final episodes is that the finale comes with a tonal shift from being an anime that was focused heavily, at least on the surface, on the personal, intimate, and erotic. If that’s what you came to the show for, then it might feel like the two pieces don’t connect.

As mentioned previously, however, I don’t mind this change one bit. The reason? Because Darling in the Franxx has emphasized that something is terribly wrong with its world all along, and not just in terms of the Klaxosaur attacks. Whether it’s meeting other Franxx pilots and realizing how emotionally stunted they are, to the adult/child divide, to the sheer sterility of their cities, something has felt amiss from the start. Perhaps the VIRM being “the real enemy” can feel contrived, but taking a wide view of the series means seeing the depiction of a false Utopia that humankind bought into and that the children had to eventually make up for. Not enough people questioned the gradual consolidation of power around Papa and his organization, APE, or the exact nature of magma energy. Theirs was a society of ignorance, and it led to children like Hiro being punished for trying to fight that ignorance.

Even though Hiro and Zero Two manage to deal a crippling blow to the VIRM, the real challenge is trying to survive as a species without any magic bullets like magma energy. The libidinous energy that was once literally redirected into warfare goes to expressing love, whether that’s through making children, helping children, or just creating happiness. While personal perspective plays a significant role in how one interprets the series’s message, is it strange to see the main cast, poised to change the world since the first episode, end up doing so?

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The Important Lesson Nadesico Teaches Us About Entertainment

Current discussion of entertainment media is filled with questions as to what messages, intentional or otherwise, are conveyed to audiences. Does a work promote racism or sexism through its characters actions? Does a series portray as heroic characters whose values are misanthropic? In this time, one work to look back on is the science fiction anime Martian Successor Nadesico, which highlights the idea that creative works are ultimately subject to personal interpretation, but that those subjective outlooks can have real consequences.

In Nadesico, many of the characters are fans of an old giant robot anime called Gekigangar 3. Cut from the same mold as 70s-era anime such as Getter Robo and Voltes V, it’s a simple story about heroes of Earth defending against alien invaders through the power of friendship and passion. At first, this series within a series acts mainly as a fun retro contrast to the setting and aesthetics of Nadesico itself. This all changes, however, when it’s revealed that the enemy forces are also fans of Gekigangar 3. In fact, they’re not just fans—they’ve based their entire civilization on Gekigangar.

Jovian men dress like the male heroes of Gekigangar 3. The women pattern themselves after the sole female character, Nanako. Even the robots they use to fight the Earth forces are made to look like the titular Gekiganger III. This mutual love of the same series between the space battleship Nadesico’s crew and the Jovians opens up the opportunity for peace. After all, Gekigangar 3 is all about friendship and passion, right?

One character, Jovian Vice-Admiral Kusakabe Haruki, does not see it that way, and he acts as the main antagonist at the finale of the TV series. When asked how he could defy the principles of Gekigangar, Kusakabe argues that his actions are completely in accordance with the show that forms the basis of Jovian society because Gekigangar 3 is about victory for the righteous against evil.

The same action scenes that the main crew of the Nadesico viewed as the bridge to peace also acts as the pretense for war and violence. While it’s possible to argue that Kusakabe’s interpretation was misguided and a too-narrow reading of Gekigangar 3, the reality is that it fuels his actions, and that even if the work had the best of intentions, the work does not exist in a vacuum and is subject to both social and personal perspectives.

The final joke about Gekigangar 3 is that the ending is pretty bad and hokey. Negating the noble sacrifice of one of the characters, Joe (whose design and narrative purpose is a mix of Hayato and Musashi from Getter Robo) conveniently comes back from the dead for a last-second save reminiscent of the finale of Mazinger Z when Great Mazinger shows up. The main hero of Nadesico, Tenkawa Akito, talks about how he held off on watching the last episode of Gekigangar 3 for a long time, only to find out that it’s nothing special. In a way, everyone who worshipped Gekigangar 3 put it on a pedestal that far exceeded its actual content, but at the same time the way it inspired people to strive for their best and to live with passion in their hearts is seen as a net-positive. “Remember this anime at its best” is the takeaway for the crew, but it requires an already-held belief of wanting to take a positive and humanity-affirming spin on any media consumed, which won’t always be the case for everyone.

Even works with the best of intentions, like Fight Club, are infamous for being misread. Entertainment meant to portray something in a negative light might accidentally be seen in pop culture as supporting those ideas. So for those shows and films like Gekigangar 3 that aren’t necessarily meant to be deep or extremely thoughtful, the opportunity for both loving and hateful interpretations is even greater. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of those watching to give their takes on a work, even if it’s not 100% intended by the original creators, so that a work’s interactions with the cultural and social symbols that live and grow among us can be discussed and debated upon.

Project Z Revived! “Hakai-oh – Gaogaigar vs. Betterman Part 1” Novel Review

Being a fan of Gaogaigar is to know joy and suffering. Its increasingly grandiose-yet-ever-personal story makes for one magnificent crescendo after another. But then, at the climax, fans were left with a bittersweet cliffhanger. The heroes we had cheered for were stuck in another galaxy, the only escapees the two alien boys who found loving home on Earth. For years, fans and characters alike were left in limbo, the one glimmer of hope—a proposed sequel called “Project Z”—dashed by sponsor and studio conflicts.

Then, out the blue, came a new light. Sunrise, the studio behind Gaogaigar, announced their own light novel imprint. From it has sprung The King of Braves Gaogaigar Novel 03: Hakai-oh – Gaogaigar vs. Betterman Part 1, a true novel sequel written by Takeda Yuuichirou, a former staff member on the Gaogaigar anime, and guided by Yonetani Yoshitomo, the original director. The book was created using Project Z as its foundation, so those who kept the fire alive for the Gutsy Galaxy Guard can finally be rewarded.

Note: There is also a two-part novelization of Gaogaigar Final, hence why this one is “Novel 03.” I’ve not read those prequel novels, so I don’t know what may have changed, or what new information might be available in them.

Plot

While there are many parts to Gaogaigar vs. Betterman, the main story focuses on Amami Mamoru and Kaidou Ikumi, the two extraterrestrial boys at the heart of the original anime. Where once they supported the brave robots, however, now they themselves are the pilots. Older and wiser but still full of passion, they pilot Gaogaigo, a combining mecha modeled after the original Gaogaigar with some added new powers. As the heroes of the new “Gutsy Global Guard, ” Mamoru and Ikumi must defend the Earth from old threats (namely the terrorist organization Bionet) and deal with a world where communications are crippled, all while trying to find a way to bring their old friends and comrades home. Looming over everything is a mysterious entity known as “Hakai-oh” (the “King of World-Conquerors”), whose visage appeared in the sky after a fateful event, and who bears an eerie resemblance Genesic Gaogaigar.

A Labor of Love

Thanks to the author and Yonetani’s efforts, the story is just jam-packed full of details from all facets of the Gaogaigar universe. That car above, shown for about five seconds at the start of Gaogaigar FINAL episode 2? That’s Polcott, a transforming robot that becomes a key member of the new GGG. Other new members of the Super Robot Corps reflect the use of Even the Gaogaigo is a “Neuro Mechanoid,” combining the Super Mechanoid technology featured in Gaogaigar with the Neuronoids of Betterman—a robot/occult horror series in the same universe. It makes sense, because without Galeon or Gaofar, they need something that can handle the burden of being the core machine.

Those are just a couple of details that show the unbelievable amount of love and care put into the novel. Whether it’s how characters have grown over a span of nine years, or connecting the mythos of Gaogaigar and Betterman together, or even drawing from all manner of obscure material without feeling forced, it made me happy to step back into its world. Of course, I wanted to know more than anything the fate of Guy and the rest of the old heroes (more on that later), but just seeing how the world has changed is a tremendous delight.

The Betterman side of the story is less prominent, but many of its elements permeate the story. An ongoing plot thread focuses on Lamia warning Mamoru and Ikumi of the threat of Hakai-oh, while also trying to convince his fellow Somniums if they should have a hand in the upcoming fight or leave humanity to their own devices. Many of the Betterman characters are also major players in the story. Chief Akamatsu, the designer of the Neuronoids, is the head of GGG (and apparently, Shishioh Liger’s son!). Sai Hinoki, the heroine, is a science and research officer at GGG as well. Seeing Keita and especially Hinoki at age 28 is wonderful in its own way.

Favorite Moments

Here are two of my favorite details from the novel. First, is that Mamoru still carries around his old GGG beeper. Second, is Gaogaigo’s use of Hell and Heaven. Much like in the real world, Earth in Gaogaigar is now filled with smartphones and the like, but 19-year-old Mamoru still holds onto that memento out of hope, and to keep his conviction to rescue everyone. That one item just says spades about where Mamoru is mentally and emotionally.

As for Hell and Heaven, fans of Gaogaigar might recall that the way this finishing technique worked was by combining the protective powers of Gaogaigar’s left side with the destructive properties of its right, allowing Gaogaigar to remove Zonder cores without harming them in the process. Gaogaigo’s works differently. Instead, it takes advantage of the fact that its copilots are Ikumi and Mamoru, bringing together the former’s J-Jewel energy with the latter’s G-Stone energy—a combination shown in Gaogaigar Final to create a power far more than the sum of its parts. Working with the technology, resources, and heroes they have, the Gutsy Global Guard have figured out different ways to protect the Earth.

Other Details

The novel comes with a number of extras. There’s a side story all about what happens with Ikumi when he landed in Australia unconscious (as briefly shown in Gaogaigar Final, above). Afterwords written by Yonetani and Takeda are very revealing and informative, chronicling the struggles of the original toyetic Gaogaigar production, the feeling that there wasn’t enough space to do everything desired in Gaogaigar Final, and the long path to making Gaogaigar vs. Betterman happen. The novel also includes an entire Gaogaigar glossary for every obscure term you might need to know, in addition to a timeline stating where every event—yes even the “Silverion Hammer” side story as well as random side stories from drama CDs—occurs within the Gaogaigar/Betterman universe.

Like other novels/light novels, illustrations are included throughout. Character drawings are by the original character designer, Kimura Takahiro (one of my favorites!), with mecha designs by Nakatani Seiichi, who was an animation director on the original Gaogaigar. The mecha drawings seem kind of weak overall, but I think that’s just because they seem a bit rushed or lacking in polish. Nakatani can clearly do good things with robot designs; they just lack dynamism on still pages.

The Big Questions

Now, I know a good chunk of you want to know what actually happens in the novel. You’ve been waiting years and years to find out the fate of Guy and the rest. So let’s get into…

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS (Highlight to view)
The very start of Gaogaigar vs. Betterman has the old GGG crew (plus Soldat J and friends) trying to get back to Earth through special wormhole technology from Galeon. After that first chapter, no trace of them is seen…until the climax at the end of the book. Mamoru and Ikumi, along with the other new GGG members, travel to Jupiter to confront Hakai-oh, who’s been compressing Jupiter into a black hole (or something like it). During the fight, which also includes an ally in an awesome combined Betterman (built from the monstrous forms of the Somniums), Guy suddenly emerges from a rift in space! Apparently, the rest of the old crew had went ahead previously, but their whereabouts are unknown. Guy, meanwhile, confirms that Hakai-oh is indeed Genesic Gaogaigar, but somehow controlled by a primal force that is the original source of THE POWER.
Guy is without a robot of his own to fight, but thanks to the Limpid Channel through which the Somniums communicate (featured in Betterman), Chief Akamatsu is able to talk to his uncle, Shishioh Leo, and bring along the prototype Phantom Gao. This allows Guy to form Gaofighgar and inform Mamoru and Ikumi of his main goal: get to Hakai-oh and rescue Galeon. However, during a grueling battle where they almost extract Galeon, the robot lion actually repels them and sends them away from Hakai-oh, sacrificing itself in the process. Guy is back (albeit the same age as ten years ago due to time dilation), Hakai-oh is still at large, and J and the old GGG are somewhere in the universe.
I have to admit that I jumped in my seat when Guy popped out. What’s even better is Guy hearing Mamoru’s deepened voice and not entirely recognizing him for a second. To Guy, Mamoru’s supposed to be this elementary school kid, and now he’s about the same age as when Guy first started piloting Gaogaigar. I may or may not have shed a tear.

Next Mission

Suffice it to say, I can’t wait for the next one. It truly feels good to have Gaogaigar back in my life.

Real Robot Sincerity: Pacific Rim Uprising

I enjoyed the hell out of the first Pacific Rim. Being able to see a big-budget film directly inspired by the giant robot anime I love was all I could ask for. At the time, the film under-performed at the US box office, which made the prospect of a sequel fairly unlikely, but against the odds (OSCAR AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR) Guillermo Del Toro managed to produce an update in Pacific Rim Uprising.

Taking place ten years after the original film, Pacific Rim Uprising focuses on Jake Pentecost, son of the deceased hero Stacker Pentecost from the first movie. A prodigal son, Jake appears to be a scoundrel in every way his father was a shining example of humanity, but a chance encounter with a mechanically gifted young girl named Amara Namani leads Jake on the path to redemption. Originally kicked out of the military despite his skill for piloting the titanic Jaegers that helped defend humanity from the vicious Kaiju all those years ago, he reluctantly returns to fight and train a new generation of fighters.

I have not seen the first film since I originally watched it in theaters, so my memories of it going into the sequel are faint. That being said, the general impression I got from Uprising is that it’s simply a superior film in most respects, and especially in terms of being a piece of giant-robot fiction. The action is snappier and more stylish, with plenty of robot fighting to satisfy genre fans. The acting is much more fluid and natural, thanks in large part to John Boyega’s performance as Jake Pentecost being amazing compared to the wooden performance of Charlie Hunnam as Part 1’s protagonist Raleigh Becket. The characters are developed just enough to get a sense of their characters and their personal development without slowing down the pace of the film or its emphasis on combat (see Girls und Panzer der Film for a similar example). In a way, the film feels a little more “cartoonish,” like it’s really trying to bring more Mazinger Z into its world, but the sincerity of the performances also makes it feel more serious as well.

A lot of the film takes place on a Chinese military base, and both mainland Chinese and Taiwanese characters have a much greater presence in Pacific Rim Uprising compared to its predecessor. I believe this has to do with the great success China had in bolstering the first film’s box office success. The US might not have been so keen on super robots, but it looks like Asia took to them like young boys to combination sequences.

Pacific Rim Uprising is worth watching for any mecha fan, and it doesn’t even require seeing the first film to really get it. As excellent as I think the film is, however, I feel a bit hesitant recommending it to skeptics. What makes the film work is how it embraces the tropes and the feel of giant robot shows and movies, because sincere fondness for that type of storytelling is what holds the film up and provides the structure by which viewers can delve deep into the fast-paced and emotional world it presents. On the flip-side, an open mind can do wonders, and Pacific Rim: Uprising will likely be rewarding to those willing to extend their hand first.

The Legacy of a Knight. Mazinger Z: Infinity

A mechanical titan emerges from a pool of water, piloted by an impetuous youth. With the power of Japanese science, this boy and his robot use lasers, mjssiles, and (of course) rocket punches to defend the Earth from the forces of evil. This simple concept became one of the foundations of anime and manga, helping to spawn the “super robot” genre as we know it, and made Mazinger Z a household title across Japan. The 2018 animated film, Mazinger Z: Infinity is the latest iteration, joining other recent Nagai Go revamps such as Devilman Crybaby and Cutie Honey Universe.

As one of the seminal works of an entire genre, Mazinger Z has been re-imagined and reworked time and time again. Whether it’s a mythological alternate world (God Mazinger), an ultra-macho 90s edition (Mazinkaiser), a mid-2000s meta epic (Shin Mazinger), or something else entirely, there’s always a desire to return to the father of super robots. Common to all of these works is a desire for action, tension, and spectacle, so it’s interesting to see how each film navigates the balance between new and nostalgic, as well as where on the Nagai spectrum of “goofy to gory” it falls.

Mazinger Z: Infinity takes place ten years after Kabuto Kouji, the hot-blooded hero of the original series, defeated his arch-nemesis, the mad scientist Dr. Hell. Now in his late 20s and a scientist, he researches photon energy (the power source of Mazinger Z) alongside his childhood love interest, Yumi Sayaka, spreading a clean energy source around the world. But when the forces of Dr. Hell reemerge with the goal of retrieving Mazinger Infinity—a mysterious robot/artifact that dwarfs even Mazinger Z in size—the people of Earth and Kabuto Kouji have to decide how to best protect their planet. Key to this conflict is a girl found inside Mazinger Infinity named Lisa.

The action scenes are amazing, as expected. The very first thing the audience sees is Great Mazinger in combat, piloted by Tsurugi Tetsuya, using nearly all his signature moves as if to make clear that this film revels in the thrill of combat. Later sequences are similarly impressive, especially in how they focus not on the classic one-on-one battles of the 70s but on large-scale clashes. The rest of the film, i.e. the non-action moments, tend to feel kind of safe and harmless at least in terms of presentation, like what one might typically expect from a Tezuka Production anime (Mazinger Z: Infinity is by Toei Animation). Visually speaking, Devilman Crybaby this is not. If Mazinger Z: Infinity was just about fighting, it probably would have been good enough. The film, however, is surprisingly ambitious.

This desire to do more can be seen in both the world-building and the messages conveyed, as blunt and hamfisted as they are in execution. Throughout the movie, there are numerous cases that show, “what if the technology of the Mazinger world has progressed?” Not only is photon energy ubiquitous, but it was even instrumental to helping the world rebuild from disaster—which is probably Dr. Hell-related but also draws parallels to the 3.11 Fukushima triple disaster. Robots of a global peacekeeping force are based off of the Mazinger series, and Kouji’s little brother Shirou is a pilot.

Yet while Mazinger Z being powered by a miraculous energy might have once been interpreted as a kinder look at nuclear power, Mazinger Z: Infinity takes a contemporary stance in light of 3.11. At one point, Sayaka expresses that although photon energy is an incredibly clean source of energy, it can still be exploited by humans for less than altruistic purposes. Mazinger is classically described as having the potential to be a “god or demon”—a notion that not so subtly reflects humanity’s relationship with technology. Messages about life and family further reflect a desire to communicate social morals, which is quite different from most of the previous sequels and re-imaginings.

While the movie is meant to take place a decade later, that 10-year difference feels massive and more like the 50 years that have passed since Mazinger Z debuted. Yes, Kouji is still in his prime, so his inevitable return to the cockpit can be less of a Rocky Balboa or The Last Jedi Luke Skywalker situation. But for everything else, that decade of time embodies various cultural and historical changes since Mazinger Z debuted, and includes idols, home computers, the internet, and more. Lisa, with her robotic personality, can even be seen as a Nagai version of Ayanami Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion. On a similar note, Kouji is faced at one point with a very Shinji-esque situation, but approaches it as only the very first super robot pilot would.

One aspect of Kouji’s aging I enjoy is the fact that he became a scientist; it’s the future I always wanted for him. His grandfather and father were both scientists who built Mazingers, so I always thought it would only make sense. I just wish he would build his own robot finally, but perhaps him being more of a “peacetime” scientist is important.

Before Mazinger Z: Infinity, there were special interviews with the staff, and what’s notable is the utter lack of pretention. When asked what they key point of the film is, the response was “entertainment.” When asked what fans should look out for, the answer was essentially “cool robot fights.” It’s a largely straightforward film that wears all of its messages on its sleeve, speaking to kids and adults alike.

A final note about nostalgia: One original character for Mazinger Z: Infinity is the leader of the joint forces that defend against Dr. Hell’s mechanical beasts. That character is voiced by Ishimaru Hiroya—the original voice of Kabuto Kouji.

Gattai Girls 8: “Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars” and Moriyama Nayuta [Anime Secret Santa]

Introduction: The above title might seem like a confusing mess. The reason is that this post originally began as my annual review for the Reverse Thieves’ Anime Secret Santa, only for me to realize it also qualified for my ongoing Gattai Girls review series—posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre. So it’s a double special!

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, preferably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.

 Overview

In the year 2070, middle school student and small-town resident Murata Hajime witnesses an extraterrestrial attack. To his surprise, Hajime’s neighbors in his town of Tenmo barely flinch, not even when a mysterious floating titan appears to stop the invader. It’s the beginning of a new life for Hajime, especially when he gets to know two of his classmates tied closely to the secrets of Tenmo: new transfer student Subaru Muryou and student vice-president Moriyama Nayuta.

2001’s Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars is an eclectic series. Also known as Gakuen Senki Muryou (“Record of School Wars Muryou”), Shingu combines science fiction mystery, small-town suspense, and everyday school life in a way that makes its continued enigmas consistently satisfying, even when it withholds answers. While the teasing of revelations and the subsequent disappointment of their reveals can often tank even the mightiest of works, Shingu always says just enough and encourages the use of imagination to fill in the blanks without feeling like a cop-out.

The deftness by which Shingu lays out it mysteries can be seen in one of the first scenes, when Muryou shows up for his first day of class in a school uniform. While this seems perfectly normal, it turns out that school uniforms haven’t been a thing for decades. Immediately, Muryou is shown to be unusual by placing him in an environment where what we perceive to be typical, i.e. school uniforms, simply isn’t. It’s an effect also used in the manga Coppelion to convey the uncanny quality of its main characters. The only explanation given is that Muryou got the uniform from his grandfather as a way to blend in, which puts Muryou potentially out of time, or at least sheltered from the world.

Moriyama Nayuta

It’s actually difficult to pin down a true “main character” for the series. Based on the English title, it sounds like Nayuta is the central protagonist, due to the fact that she can transform into the titular Shingu. However, the Japanese title centers on Muryou, who is a major catalyst in the narrative. And while Hajime can come across as a generic audience stand-in, his seeming blandness actually plays an important role in the series, as his ability to go with the flow and keep and open mind are key to humanity’s development. Because this is a Gattai Girls entry, I’m going to focus more on Nayuta and how her role as the Shingu works in the anime.

Nayuta feels cut from the same tsundere cloth as Evangelion‘s Asuka, especially when contrasting her with another female character, the taciturn Mineo. Nayuta has a not-so-secret crush on Hajime and sports the signature hairstyle of the tsundere, the twintails, but she’s not solely defined by those traits. Bullheaded, hardworking, and always eager to do the right thing, Nayuta’s closer in kindred spirit to Sonoda Umi from Love Live!, at least if Umi had the ability to transform into an alien behemoth.

Incidentally, Nayuta is not voiced by the tsundere master, Kugimiya Rie. Instead, Kugimiya plays a different character, Hajime’s adorable little sister Futaba, with Nayuta being played by Park Romi. Shingu is one of many series where Park and Kugimiya work together, perhaps most famously Full Metal Alchemist.

The fact that each of the trio fulfills a very different role, with Hajime and Muryou generally providing support for Nayuta, also means that she is rarely ever overshadowed in battle. As for the Shingu itself, it’s is an unusual design—a hollow vessel resembling paper that is then “filled out” by taking control of a nearby energy source or element such as water. It feels more reminiscent of the monsters found in series like Evangelion and RahXephon, with a dash of Ultraman thrown in. Aesthetically, the Shingu comes across as a combination of the alien other and beings from Japanese folklore, like a science fictional shikigami or tsukumogami.

Overall

Director Satou Tatsuo is more well-known for the series Martian Successor Nadesico, and much of the humor and interaction there can be found in Shingu. However, its mix of SF and the everyday also results in something that feels like the anti-Evangelion. Both Shingu and Eva focus on a trio of middle school students who have varying access to special abilities and must fend off unknown alien-like attackers. Both can arguably fall into the sekai-kei genre—stories where the personal struggles of the individual manifest into global consequences and where often the fate of the world is tied to the relationship between a boy and a girl. But Shingu is also more than just “boys and girls”; it’s about community and history, and the ability for humanity to learn and grow. Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars nonchalantly moves from one unexpected place to another, varying in scale from local to cosmic, and believing in people along the way.

Teikoku State of Mind: Anime NYC 2017

When a brand-new convention decides to call itself “Anime NYC,” it’s practically asking to have the deck stacked against it. Running a first-year convention is no small task, doubly so if it’s in the heart of Manhattan. And with no reputation to go by, potential attendees may feel reluctant to try things out. Small attendance numbers can mean a lack of overall interest and the inability to justify the high costs of NYC, while large numbers means a greater chance of disaster striking if mismanaged. As a longtime resident of New York City, I’ve seen cons come and go, but somehow, someway, Anime NYC went so swimmingly that I almost can’t believe it was real.

General Impressions and Exhibitor’s Hall

Those who attended New York Anime Festival and the first few New York Comic Cons might recall what it was like to go through the Jacob Javits Center without feeling like sardines. Walking through Anime NYC felt reminiscent of that environment, as the con was fairly heavily populated but with plenty of elbow room to spare. Panel rooms were right next to the Exhibitor’s Hall, making transitions between checking out the goods and listening in on industry and fan talks. Special events were held in a Main Event Hall that was a fair distance away, though nowhere near as disorienting as, say, the Baltimore Convention Center where Otakon used to take place.

Because it was so easy to navigate (without the space feeling overly empty), I came out of the three-day con feeling satisfied yet unstressed. Usually one comes with the other due to the hustle and bustle of trying to get everything done, or because there’s so little to do at the event itself that boredom and lethargy set in. Anime NYC struck a Goldilocks-type balance with a schedule that thrilled but did not overwhelm body and mind.

A major contrast between Anime NYC and NYCC is that the latter is focused on being a general comics pop culture event, with a film and television presence that all but overshadows the “comic” in comic con. Anime NYC, on the other hand, is first and foremost concerned with anime and manga. A few features branched out from that core, such as the presence of Overwatch voice actors who were there to meet the fans and sell autographs, but this was certainly no “anime ghetto,” as fans took to calling New York Anime Fest when it began to be dissolved into NYCC.  For those who love anime and love a big convention feel but think New York Comic Con’s a bit too much, Anime NYC has potential to be a gathering point for anime fans in the tri-state area.

Concerts

Anime NYC featured two concerts that shone in different ways. The first was Anime Diva Night, while the second was the Gundam Thunderbolt Concert.

At Anime Diva Night, three Japanese musical guests performed as part of the Anisong World Matsuri. Two of the singers, Ishida Yoko and TRUE, are amazing vocalists in their own right, but the third, Yonekura Chihiro, was the reason I wanted to attend. She’s the voice of so many amazing anime themes over the years that it almost doesn’t compare. Notably, she sang the opening and ending themes to Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team.

While having Yonekura alone would’ve sufficed in my case, all three did a wonderful job. Some singers sound significantly better in the recording booth than they do onstage, but this was not the case for the Anime Diva trio, who sounded incredible even though the makeshift Main Events Hall did not have ideal acoustics.

The concert had a somewhat unusual format. Rather than move from one act to the next, each performer would do a few songs, perform a duet with another, and then the newer singer would take over before the next duet. There were two rotations in total, with all three singers performing together at the start and end of the show. All of the group performances were cover songs of popular anime themes—”Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” “Moonlight Densetsu,” “God Knows,” etc.—while the solo acts were their signature songs. Yonekura did indeed sing the Gundam 08th MS Team opening, but also an old favorite of mine in “Will” from the anime Hoshin Engi (aka Soul Hunter). Highlights from the other two singers included TRUE performing the first Sound!! Euphonium opening and Ishida doing arguably her most famous song, “Otome no Policy” from Sailor Moon R.

There were a couple of songs that didn’t make the concert that I was hoping for: Yonekura’s “Yakusoku no Basho e” from Kaleido Star and Ishida’s “White Destiny” from Pretear, but it was a small loss for an otherwise amazing concert.

The Gundam Thunderbolt Concert was highly unusual compared to what typically happens at an anime con performances. Generally, they’re closer to Anime Diva Night, sounding like the j-pop or j-rock one expects out of anime. To have the Gundam Thunderbolt composer Kikuchi Naruyoshi lead a jazz band himself on saxophone was a truly rare treat, and it’s one of the most unique experiences I’ve had at an anime con. The closest equivalent I could think of was Kanno Yoko’s concert at Otakon 2013.

I am no jazz aficionado, but thanks to the concert, I felt as if I began to understand the almost primal appeal that jazz holds for listeners. As I listened, an analogy popped into my head: jazz is like constructing a human being from music. They can be loud one moment and quiet the next. They can be a mess of contradictions, yet still function. I’m unsure if this will send me towards checking out more jazz in the future, but my curiosity is definitely piqued.

I’ve been more or less referring to the Gundam Thunderbolt Concert as a “jazz performance,” but that’s not entirely accurate. To everyone’s surprise, the concert also included performances by the singers of some of the 50s/60s-style pop songs from the Gundam Thunderbolt anime. In the context of the series, the two main characters, Io and Daryl, are two soldiers on opposite sides of a war who each listen to music as they battle. Io is an intense man who loves equally powerful jazz, while the handicapped Daryl prefers softer ballads.

At the Gundam Thunderbolt panel, Kikuchi mentioned that these are basically his two favorite genres of music, and he thought both fit the characters well. Interestingly, while the Gundam Thunderbolt manga included jazz already, Kikuchi composed entirely new songs that he felt fit Io’s character better.

One funny coincidence of sorts when it comes to Kikuchi’s choice to add a golden oldies aspect to the Gundam Thunderbolt score is that one of the biggest names in classic mid-20th-century American pop, Neil Sedaka, once composed the theme songs to Mobile Suit Z Gundam in the 1980s. I’d be curious to know what Kikuchi would think about this.

Artist Alley

More than Exhibitors’ Halls, Artist Alleys at cons can be affected heavily by the space they occupy. Regardless of the artists’ skills, or the amount of people in the alley, a bad space can make an attendee want to leave as quickly as possible, while a good space encourages more browsing and exploring.

Anime NYC’s is probably the best I’ve ever seen. Held on the top floor of the Jacob Javits Center, natural light shined down on the entire Artist Alley from an entirely windowed roof. At times, it almost felt like an outdoor European boutique, which made it just a pleasant place to peruse.

I purchased a few items at the Artist Alley, mainly from Japanese artists (something of a rarity even at anime cons). One booth was ran by the wife and assistant (pictured above) of manga artist Ohno Junji, creator behind the manga for obscure titles Mobile Suit Gundam: Missing Link and Mobile Suit Gundam The Origin MSD: Cucuruz Doan’s Island. Unfortunately, the artist couldn’t attend himself. They were selling art packages from Ohno himself and his assistant, Ally Suwabe:

Ohno Junji

Ally Suwabe

Axel Rex is Ohno’s original web comic he drew for Kodanasha/Yahoo!! Comics from 2008 to 2009.

The other Japanese artist attending was Tatsuyuki “Mikey” Maeda, who’s worked for the past 10 years as a manga assistant. In a way, while manga artists themselves only attend cons sparingly, their assistants are even rarer. Maeda was selling a short guide called “Secrets of Manga: Basics of the Tools & Trade.” In it, he gives various technical tips to aspiring manga creators, the kinds of things that often get glossed over in favor of “character design” and “how to draw mecha.” The guide talks about differences in pen nibs (such as what you should use if you have a light touch vs. a heavy hand), how to effectively use white-out, and more. I highly recommend it.

Panels

Gundam Thunderbolt Panel

Panels are an important part of the con experience for me, though due to my schedule I could not attend as many as I would have liked. Still, the Gundam Thunderbolt panel was highly informative, as were the Inifini-T Force and LeSean Thomas panels.

Infini-T Force is a current 3DCG anime series crossing over the classic heroes of Tatsunoko Production—Gatchaman, Casshan/Casshern, Hurricane Polymar, and Tekkaman. The fact that Tatsunoko, one of the most influential anime studios ever, had a con presence at all was the main reason I decided to attend their panel. Overall, it was a fairly basic introduction to Tatsunoko, but I like that they conveyed a bit of the studio’s historical significance. They’re one of the most influential studios ever, pushing the limits of animation in Japan since their inception in the 1960s. They were also willing to discuss a bit of the reception Infini-T Force has received in Japan, such as the fact that the primary female character is a little contentious to Japanese audiences. This is also somewhat unusual for Japanese companies, and was somewhat refreshing.

The LeSean Thomas panel was a general Q&A, but was one of the highlights of Anime NYC. It was inspiring to see attendee after attendee express how Thomas inspired them to keep working at their art, and how his success as a creator of color gave them the courage to never give up. I previously interviewed him at Otakon 2016, and he does make for an excellent role model.

Cosplay

In this case, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

In Conclusion

Given how much I’ve praised Anime NYC, it might seem like I’m a paid shill, but I assure my readers that this is not the case. The con was actually executed so smoothly that there’s little I can complain about that would be the fault of the convention itself. While I attended for free as press, even the weekend ticket was affordable, especially compared to New York Comic Con ($60 vs. over $200 to buy four 1-day NYCC passes).

At approximately 20,000 attendees, Anime NYC has already become one of the larger anime cons in the US. The convention appears to have done a sound job of attracting locals, and I’m curious to see how much more it can grow. If the convention keeps up this level of quality, I’d be happy and proud to call Anime NYC “home.”