The Russian Roulette of Comedy: Mahou Shoujo? Naria Girls

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I love the dumb, yet incredibly clever humor of gdgd Fairiesstyle humor. Typically combining incredibly cheap animation with a cleverly absurd dialogue, a splash of improv comedy, and willful ignorance over their own premises, these anime always bring a smile to my face. The team behind gdgd Fairies has since gone on to do a variety of shows in that vein, including one about robot girls trying to discover humor, a Transformers series, one about personified Sega consoles, and now we have come to their most daring (and perhaps low-budget) work: Mahou Shoujo? Naria Girls.

Though technically a background story exists, it really doesn’t matter. Three young girls get magic powers to rescue a far-off magic kingdom, but it just so happens that every monster of the week’s scheme “coincidentally” resembles an improv skit like what you’d find on Whose Line Is It Anyway? It’s the kind of show where the girls transform from their school uniforms… to their school uniforms, with no discernible difference.

Unlike the other series mentioned, which are very simply animated using programs such as Miku Miku Dance and Flash, Naria Girls actually uses motion-capture, directly translating its actresses’ motions onto 3D anime-style models. Motion capture can be a finicky thing, and it can take a lot of careful work to not make character movement appear unnatural or to avoid tiny mistakes that come from trying to automate such a process. Naria Girls does not care. Its use of mocap is very rudimentary and constantly exposes its flaws, but then I think that blatant disregard for what is supposed to be a “professional quality work” is what makes the show kind of charming in the first place.

The other appealing quality of the series, though I must warn that it is paradoxically what makes it difficult to watch as well, is that it takes the improv element of the gdgd Fairies-style show to the extreme. If Seha Girls is one end of the spectrum, where all the jokes are scripted and planned out, then Naria Girls is the opposite. From start to finish through each 8-minute episode, all of the jokes are clearly made up on the spot. If that wasn’t enough, the show was revealed in June for a July broadcast, and they were still auditioning for cast members.

The result is that the show can be funny, but often times isn’t, namely because the actresses themselves are not particularly good at improvising. Even eight minutes is hard to maintain if the comedians themselves aren’t experts at it. However, the Russian Roulette element of watching Naria Girls, where you truly cannot tell if the show will be amusing from one moment to the next, is why I enjoy it. When a joke works, it’s a cause for celebration. When a joke falls so utterly flat that it’s like humor itself has been sucked into a black hole, it somehow comes out the other side still being an interesting artifact.

Naria Girls isn’t as good as its predecessors, but it is its own exciting experiment and adventure. That’s why I’m on board.

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Push vs. Pull: Thoughts on the Attraction of Characters

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I’m generally not a fan of yandere characters, but I feel that I can understand why some people love them.

In a lot of my favorite characters there is a kind of intensity that emanates from them. Whether it’s Ogiue from Genshiken‘s withering stare, or Urabe Mikoto’s eccentric behavior in Mysterious Girlfriend X, it’s like their very beings pierce my soul and linger there for a while.

From there, it’s a hop, skip, and jump towards tsundere, and then eventually yandere as well. In other words, yandere characters exist on a spectrum where powerful emotions (sexual or otherwise) are valued, and their feelings are so overwhelming that it warps their minds. “Deep love” they call it.

This intensity has gotten me to think more broadly, past the typical labels, such as yandere, genki girl, Kansai native, etc. What I’m beginning to form is a theory of character attraction that takes a lot of these categories and places them into two distinctions: “push characters” and “pull characters.”

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Push characters are like many of the ones stated above. It is as if the characters’ attitudes, visual look, and other qualities invade your space. They pierce and break down the barriers in your heart. Kurosaki Rendou, creator of Houkago Play and other racy titles, specializes in this type of character for both guys and girls. Akashi from Kuroko’s Basketball is also what I’d call a “push character.” They can perhaps be called aggressive characters as well, but I don’t think that it fits entirely neatly. Rather, in shounen terms, it’s more like they’re the “strong fists” of Rock Lee from Naruto or Raoh from Fist of the North Star.

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Pull characters, then, are more like the “gentle fists” of Hyuuga Hinata (Naruto) or Toki (Fist of the North Star). Rather than striking actively, their auras are passive and receptive. It is as if they have a gravity or magnetism that draws you to them. Softer, kinder characters would fall into this category, such as Daidouji Tomoyo from Cardcaptor Sakura, Maetel from Galaxy Express 999, or Teppei from Kuroko’s Basketball. It’s as if their warmth envelops your being.

Now there are a few aspects I’m thinking through as I bring out this half-formed way of considering characters. The first is that, many characters probably don’t fall into one category or the other. Sort of like a Myer-Briggs personality test, the “lesser” quality still exists. For example, I’d consider Koizumi Hanayo from Love Live! to be a “pull character” because of her typically shy personality, but the excitement of her two main loves—rice and idols—is enough to transform her into a “push character.”

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Second, perhaps this distinction is actually entirely subjective, and one person’s “push character” is another person’s “pull character.” Does this render the terms meaningless, or is it more like moe where a broader understanding exists but the minutiae can get incredibly personal?

Lastly, to what extent do these terms match up with the idea of “seme” and “uke” characters in BL. Would “push characters” be those who tend to be seme, while “pull characters” are more commonly uke? If that’s the case, could this be a way to translate those terms to other types of relationships, such as heterosexual, yuri, or whatever other combinations can exist?

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Just Enough Magic: Flying Witch

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When it comes to stories about witches, it’s quite common (and perhaps even expected) to have magic be prominent. Whether it’s American sitcom classic Bewitched, Archie’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch comic, or an anime and manga like Witch Craft Works, the influence of spells and sorcery is, if not grandiose, at the very least quite large. The anime Flying Witch is a much mellower series in comparison. As a show where just the lightest of touch of the supernatural appears, it makes for a most delightful series.

Adapted by J.C. Staff from the manga by Ishizuka Chihiro, Flying Witch follows the daily life of Kowata Makoto, a teenage witch who moves in with her cousin Kuramoto Kei’s family as part of her coming of age. Residing in Aomori Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan, the people there still have a fairly strong connection to nature, and just going back and forth from school is enough to take in the greenery. For the most part, magic doesn’t make much of an impact, but when it shows up it’s just enough to make their world feel a little bit more unusual, and a little bit more wonderful.

Though the show consistently succeeds at its sparse but effective interaction between the human and witch cultures, the most memorable example has to be in the very first episode. Makoto is walking home from school with her new friend, Nao, when she sees an unusual plant. For anyone who’s familiar with stories about witches and wizards this is a red flag. Sure enough when she gives it a hard tug a mandrake pops out and gives its shrill cry.

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As Makoto cradles the demon plant, she cheerfully explains to an aghast Nao that it’s a good thing that they found a young Mandrake because an adult one can literally send people to the hospital or worse. The anime doesn’t stop being this fairly laid-back series, but the result is that the tiniest bit of magic feels that much more amazing.

What also helps Flying Witch is that all of its characters, guys and girls, are extremely charming. Makoto’s older sister Akane is a more experienced witch whose penchant for mischief contrasts delightfully with her younger sibling. The Kuramoto family is entertaining all around, whether it’s the dad’s thick Tohoku accent being indecipherable for Makoto or Kei trying to get his little sister Chinatsu to try more vegetables.

The fanservice in this show also has a deft touch akin to its use of magic, to the point that it might not even be right to call it fanservice. Just to be clear, generally speaking the female characters in this series are all extremely attractive, but Flying Witch never goes out of its way to show them off. When it focuses on Makoto or anyone else, the anime just lets the audience see how nice they look without lingering or leering.

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Another notable aspect of Flying Witch is its focus on Aomori, because it at times feels like a promotion for the prefecture. In fact, it makes me wonder if this is one of the reasons it was adapted from manga to anime. The Tohoku region has in recent years been known more for the Fukushima disaster, and a lot of effort has been put into reviving the region in terms of agriculture, tourism, and more. A series like Flying Witch might be just the thing to really get people to visit Aomori and Tohoku again.

Overall, because of how delightfully mellow yet powerful the show’s humor and characters are, Flying Witch has become one of my favorite anime of the year. When I get the opportunity, I’m definitely going to pick it up, possibly in multiple formats. If you want to check it out, you can find the entire anime on Crunchyroll, and Vertical Comics is releasing the manga in 2017.

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Do! Do! Do! Dreaming Again: The New Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card Saga

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There’s a new Cardcaptor Sakura manga in town—Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card Saga—and I practically tripped over myself in excitement to get it. The series is one of my favorite anime and manga of all time, and its charming characters, light yet dramatic story, and cute aesthetic make it a classic of the magical girl genre. But it’s been a long time since we last saw Kinomoto Sakura and the rest of the cast proper (meaning no weird Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle alternates!), and CLAMP, the creators of Cardcaptor Sakura, have also changed a lot since the late 90s when the original manga debuted.

Thus, while reading I had two questions in mind: in what ways does this new iteration try to capture the old CCS charm, and to what extent does it reflect a more contemporary sensibility?

The Story of Cardcaptor Sakura

The original Cardcaptor Sakura follows Kinomoto Sakura, a 10-year-old girl who is tasked with collecting mystical cards known as Clow Cards. As she retrieves them, the cards give her magical abilities such as flight, and command over the elements. Eventually obtaining all of them, Sakura soon discovers that she must also transform them into her very own “Sakura Cards” and become their new master. After much hardship (and a developing romance between her and Chinese rival/friend Li Shaoran), she succeeds, leaving her to be quite possibly the most powerful magician on Earth.

The Clear Card Saga takes place during the same timeframe as the epilogue of the original manga, when Sakura is in middle school and reunites with Shaoran, who has transferred back from Hong Kong so they could attend school together. In this chapter, we see many familiar faces, including Sakura’s family, her best friend (in fact the best friend in all of anime and manga) Tomoyo, and her magical guardians, Kero and Yukito. The first chapter is mainly there to re-introduce the cast and to set up a reason for Sakura to take up her magic wand once more, and in that respect it is a welcome homecoming.

No Pasta

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One of the most immediately notable aspects of the new series is that it lacks any signs of current CLAMP’s “noodle people” style that has permeated their works over the past decade and change, wherein characters have unusually long and distended-looking proportions. All aspects of the series seem to be geared towards reviving the original Cardcaptor Sakura look, albeit refined with many more years of experience.

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In one scene, Sakura mentions that she hasn’t had to use magic in a long time, and I find it to be a striking moment for a couple of reasons. First, while it’s impossible forget that Sakura is indeed a magical girl series, I almost didn’t notice that there was little mention of magic prior to her staring fondly at her old wand. Cardcaptor Sakura is well grounded not just in its fantastic elements but also its human relationships (both platonic and otherwise), and the series draws much of its strength from them. Second, while she doesn’t state it herself, she can indeed be argued to be the strongest magician there is, but she still behaves like an innocent young girl with a heart full of love and energy. Would it be strange to compare her to Saitama from One Punch Man?

Tomoyo: Return of the Queen

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I don’t think I’m alone in saying that, as fond as I am of Sakura herself, Daidouji Tomoyo is the one I’ve been most looking forward to seeing again. For years, she was my favorite anime and manga character, and it actually wasn’t until I discovered Ogiue that this changed. Even so, Tomoyo is still my #2 because of her warm heart, support of Sakura, and series of minor eccentricities. Her grand return is nothing short of spectacular, and I look forward to seeing more of her and her ridiculous wealth (and bodyguards).

Her role in this first chapter is mainly to get Sakura to blush profusely as she takes candid video of Sakura reuniting with Shaoran. Tomoyo is the kind of person who wouldn’t mind just recording Sakura in her daily life, but I’m confident that she’s going to be the most excited of all that Sakura’s going to have to sling some magic again. I can just picture the inevitable stars in her eyes in the coming chapters.

Another interesting point concerning Tomoyo is that she’s no longer in the same class as Sakura. While most of the old Tomoeda Elementary crew has gone on to Tomoeda Middle School, many of them have been split up into different classes. It’s actually a common technique to try and mix things up in a number of series that take place in school.

This means that Tomoyo will possibly be interacting much more with other characters. While it’s not like Tomoyo only ever showed up when Sakura was around, or didn’t talk to other characters on her own, it’s still a significant shift in the dynamics of interaction in Cardcaptor Sakura.

A Premonition for the Future

I want to mention that I probably won’t be chapter reviewing this new Cardcaptor Sakura just because I’m already doing two different series now (Genshiken and Kimi Nakare), and I think three series starts to be a bit too much. However, I might make a post every month or two as a way to look in and see how everything’s going.

Thus far, it’s a great start, and even if this chapter mostly treads familiar territory it does so in a way that gives me faith that the series will turn out well.

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As a final side note, there’s a character poll at the beginning of this issue of Nakayoshi, to vote for who should appear on the cover, and Sakura is #2. While there’s no indication that placement equals popularity, I have to wonder, or perhaps hope. After all, #3 is Momoka, the morally bankrupt protagonist from Sabagebu!

If the young readers of Nakayoshi are fans of Momoka, I am both looking forward to and dreading the future. Sakura might be a safer bet overall, though I wonder if she is still as timeless as she seems.

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Finishing the Sailor Moon Manga

sailormercury-coverSailor Moon was one of the seminal shows of my anime fandom. I recall the joy of waking up every weekday morning to see what would happen next just as much as the embarrassment of being a Sailor Moon fan (I was a dumb kid for sure). However, as formative as that series was in certain respects, one thing I had only heard about but never directly experienced was the Sailor Moon manga. Now, 20 years later, thanks to Kodansha Comics’ re-translation of not only Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon but also its predecessor Codename Sailor V, all of that’s changed.

I don’t think Sailor Moon needs much of an introduction at this point, but just to cover my bases: A young girl named Tsukino Usagi discovers that she has magic powers that lets her transform into a costumed fighter named Sailor Moon. Along with her allies whom she gathers over time, the Sailor Guardians, she fights against numerous forces threatening the Earth. What makes Sailor Moon so memorable is its ever-continuing story of twists and turns, the powerful image of strong female characters fighting without needing to be rescued by a man (though occasionally a man will show up to give some moral support), and just the way it sparks imagination in audiences young and old.

The manga is no exception, though if there’s anything that stands out immediately about the Sailor Moon manga, it’s the relatively brevity compared to its animated counterpart. Instead of a 200-episode TV series, we have instead a 12-volume manga (15 if you count Sailor V and some additional side stories). While this typically implies a great deal of filler or extra stories to pad out entire seasons, and this is indeed true of Sailor Moon, it’s rarely to the degree seen here. Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star takes 26 episodes to reach his first major adversary, Shin, but only one volume of manga to do the same. The Sailor Guardians fight Jadeite in the anime for 13 episodes; he lasts only 3 chapters in the manga. Sailor Moon cuts through villains and entire story lines like a hot knife through butter, and covers most of the major arcs that the anime does in a fraction of the time.

This is a significant change of pace compared to the anime, which is based around a kind of episodic peek into the world of Sailor Moon. Each week, there would be a monster to fight and a problem to solve, and while the overall story would gradually move along, it’s sort of like visiting some friends. The feel of the show is slower, and I don’t mean that necessarily in a bad way. With the manga, however, everything moves forward at such a fast clip that I feel as if the dynamism of the characters themselves, as heroic figures, as beings with style and physicality, progress the narrative through their bodies and the actions they take with them. There’s a kind of connectivity from panel to panel that’s achieved through the statuesque shoujo designs of the characters and their fights that can’t be found to quite such a degree in the anime, even when taking into account the elaborate transformation sequences.

By the time Sailor Moon finishes, I get the sense that Usagi herself has changed tremendously. However, I’m not entirely sure if her maturation is entirely convincing. There are moments when Sailor Moon seems to have learned important lessons about doing what’s right/right for her, and then there are others where the manga tells you that she’s grown, or she suddenly shows a greater sense of compassion and responsibility, but it seems to have come from out of nowhere. In a way, having the story move as quickly as the manga does can make some events feel a little too rushed, and Usagi’s character development might just be one of those aspects. On the other hand, some of the weirder aspects of Sailor Moon (Chibi-Usa’s entire story) come and go just as quickly.

As a final note, I’d like to just give an aside about my favorite character, Sailor Mercury. It’s funny to think about what drew me (and a lot of other boys growing up on Sailor Moon) to the character. To put it simply, I was a nerd, and she was a nerd too, one who prized knowledge and study and interest in books and science. These days, that’s the norm for a lot of characters, and specific attention is being given to encouraging more girls to get into math, science, and the highest of higher education. Nerd girls are so expected of the world that they’ve entered the realm of stereotype. That’s how much things have changed since I first saw Sailor Moon, but the admirable qualities of its characters, whether in manga or anime, are what help make it timeless.

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The Open-Ended Nature of Aikatsu’s “Idol Activities”

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There have been many attempts over the years to dethrone the Japanese children’s entertainment juggernaut that is Precure, but while Precure is squarely in the realm of the “fighting magical girl,” most of its challengers are themed around mahou shoujo’s sister genre: pop idols. This includes Pretty Rhythm, PriPara, Lil Pri, and the subject of today’s post, Aikatsu!

Aikatsu! began in 2012 as a multimedia franchise consisting of games, manga, and anime. The animated television series, created by Sunrise (of Gundam fame), follows Hoshimiya Ichigo, a girl who enters the idol training school Starlight Academy after being inspired by its top star, Kanzaki Mizuki. Together with her best friend and idol fan, Kiriya Aoi, and others she meets along the way, they engage in idol katsudou, or “idol activities.”

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Sunrise at this point is well known for another popular idol anime, Love Live!, and despite the fact that they don’t share that much staff, the two shows are similar in feel. Both have an overall lighthearted sense of fun and engaging character interactions combined with learning and personal development. Both feature bizarrely comedic moments (the episode where Ichigo gets into an “Obari Pose” and chops down a christmas tree is famous). Both series are also so entertaining in these respects that the actual “idol performance” moments are comparatively less interesting.

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However, one curious aspect of Aikatsu! that differentiates it from Love Live! (and many other anime) in terms of narrative is that Ichigo and the other idols don’t seem to have a concrete goal to aim for. The girls in Love Live! want to save their school and then win the Love Live. Naruto wants to become Hokage. Ichigo’s motivation is this vague sense of “becoming an idol,” but by the first few episodes she already is one more or less, and there just seems to be this general sense of forward progress. This is also what differentiates it from other more episodic works, or series such as Hidamari Sketch.

Aikatsu! has just enough on-going threads in the background and pays attention to its characters’ growth that the series carries a nice sense of continuity. Aoi becomes the mascot for a crepe company in an early episode, and after that you can always see a copy of the advertisement poster featuring her in Aoi and Ichigo’s room. The show also drops hints that Ichigo’s mom is a former idol, and as I continue to watch the series I’m just anticipating that moment where Ichigo discovers the truth. Every time her mom appears on screen, I think, “Will this be it?!” That desire to see Ichigo’s realization is actually one of my main motivations for continuing to watch.

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There’s one last element of Aikatsu! I want to discuss. More specifically, it’s a theory pertaining to Aikatsu!‘s relationship with Precure. When watching Aikatsu!‘s core cast, I could not help but be reminded of the cast of Doki Doki Precure!, which came out in 2013. While the characters are different enough to not feel like copies of each other, Mana’s blonde hair and pink color scheme in her transformed state resembles Ichigo’s, Rikka (blue) plays the role of the more level-headed and smarter best friend just like Aoi, Alice resembles Arisugawa Otome (orange) not only in name but also in appearance, and Makoto’s occupation as an idol (as well as her serious personality) feels akin to Mizuki. I suspect that Doki Doki Precure! may have taken some inspiration from Aikatsu! but I can’t be certain of this. That said, I recently checked out some of the character design notes for Doki Doki Precure! and noticed that Cure Sword (Makoto)’s design originally had longer hair, which would make her more stylistically similar to Mizuki from Aikatsu!

Aikatsu! has been a series on my radar for a while, that I had only briefly engaged with, but given just how entertained I’ve been by it I definitely want to watch more and talk more about it. Expect future posts, maybe?

Royally Good: Go! Princess Precure

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After Happiness Charge Precure! failed to live up to its potential, I had hoped that the next series in the long-running Precure anime franchise would fare better. Fortunately, Go! Princess Precure wildly exceeded my expectations to become one of my favorite iterations of the popular magical girl anime. From the serious to the silly, Go! Princess Precure hits a homerun.

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Go! Princess Precure follows Haruno Haruka, a teenage girl who dreams of becoming a princess. As a small child, she met a handsome young prince named Kanata who inspired her to hold onto her love of princesses, in spite of discouragement by others. In the present day, as Haruka comes to the prestigious “Noble Academy” with the goal of learning what it means to be a “true princess,” she finds out that monsters have begun to attack the school, preying on everyone’s hopes and aspirations. Haruka becomes a “Precure,” a magical warrior with the power to defend against the forces of Dysdark, and is soon joined by two other girls, Kaido Minami and Amanogawa Kirara, who also use their dreams to fight back.

Princess fever has taken over amidst the enormous popularity of Frozen in Japan, and Go! Princess Precure asks, “What is a princess?” While this question (as well as the thematic flourish of the series) can potentially be criticized on a surface level as sexist and regressive, a closer look shows that Go! Princess Precure aims to claim the concept of the princess as a symbol of hard work and kindness towards others. To this point, a major villain of the series, the powerful Princess Twilight (no relation) even confronts Haruka (Cure Flora) with the idea that one can only be born a princess, and while she’s technically more correct than Haruka in terms of how it works in real life, Go! Princess Precure shows how Haruka, Minami (Cure Mermaid), and Kirara (Cure Twinkle) strive to embrace the idea of a “princess” as being the product of one’s effort. In other words, according to Go! Princess Precure, being a princess doesn’t make you a better person. Rather, being a better person who strives for their dreams and helps others is the key that allows any girl to become a princess all on their own.

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Not only is Go! Princess Precure strong thematically, it’s just an incredibly solid show in general. In terms of animation, it has some of the finest fight sequences in all of Precure as early as episode 1, and while it rises and dips in quality as is typical of a year-long anime, its overall consistency as well as its high points are notable. The outfits and character designs are all on point (In terms of narrative, the series benefits from an entertaining main cast with well thought out character development. Flora’s story at the half-way point connects to that greater theme of “princess” self actualization. Kirara as the donut-loving fashion model eager to speak her mind is one of the most unique Precure characters ever (I voted her as my favorite among the Princess Precures for this reason). The supporting characters, though not quite on the level of Heartcatch Precure!, grow admirably throughout the series as well.

Perhaps most notably, when the anime introduces a fourth Precure late into its run, she does not overshadow the rest of the cast. It’s a common problem for shows like Precure or Super Sentai, where in an effort to push the new character and her toys she ends up practically taking over the show. Honestly, I can’t recall a single bad episode.

Go! Princess Precure might be quite the hard act to follow. Whether it’s in comparison to the rest of Precure or as an anime all on its own, Go! Princess Precure is simply an outstanding work that embodies a lot of what is best in children’s shows and the magical girl anime genre. I highly recommend anyone, even those skeptical of mahou shoujo, to take a look.

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