As I scroll down Twitter these days, I’ll occasionally happen upon what seems to be an insightful article or piece. I know it’s probably worth reading, and that I’d get something out of it, but something prevents me from clicking and actually looking. I’m not exactly sure why that’s the case, but the fact that the people who wrote these pieces (or decided to link to them) often feel like they have something to prove about themselves exhausts me. At the same time, I’m well aware that a younger me from 10 years ago would likely have thought differently, and would be more eager to engage.
I think this is what it feels like to mature/grow older. Not enough for an actual IRL mid-life crisis, mind you—more like the fandom version. I think it’s clear from my posting history on this blog that I still engage with my passions pretty regularly, but something else that probably comes across is that I sort of exist in my own world. Sure, I read and view what catches my attention, I think about where the industries and fandoms are going, and I keep writing as an exercise in contemplation. And I talk to other fans every so often. However, what I don’t really do is actively engage with the fandom at large or try to explore the absolute depths of a given topic. More and more, I feel in my body that time is finite, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to go full-steam ahead on any fandom, general or specific. Heck, I don’t even listen to podcasts as much as I used to, and that was an easy way to check out the opinions of others.
Doing my own thing isn’t actually all that terrible. Perhaps one of the reasons I interact less is because the discourse is poisoned by how social media currently works. Still, it comes with a drawback of me feeling disconnected from other fans, especially younger ones who grew up from grade school with manga in their local libraries and such. I’m happy we’ve gotten to that point of easy access, but it fundamentally changes the presence of manga in one’s life. Similarly, the fact that The Simpsons has become the mark of a Millennial/Gen Z divide based on whether people engage with the original jokes or the memes that sprung out of them is fascinating, yet revealing of the passage of time.
I also know that to many older individuals, I still probably come across as a young and spritely sort, and that there are plenty of people with decades on me who still have passion and energy. Taking that into account, maybe the sensation I’m experiencing is that I’m aiming to walk a few blocks to get to my destination, and I’m seeing others sprint or run marathons. My journey is worthwhile, but it’s short and more leisurely, and even though it’s not a competition (and I don’t view it as such), I nevertheless can’t help but notice the people who pass me by.* It’s less about comparing accomplishments and more about being on different wavelengths, and I’m getting used to shifting between them.
*For the record, I used to be part of a casual running group, and I was anything but swift, so I also know this feeling from actual experience.
One of the biggest transformations that occurred from the internet of my younger days to that we have now is the integration of the web into our flesh-and-blood lives. Whereas once you could reasonably maintain some kind of distinction between “online” and “IRL,” the latter term isn’t even really used anymore because it’s kind of pointless. Every major platform wants you to integrate because it helps them make money.
I’m under no false assumptions that Virtual Youtubers are some defiant rebellion against the greed that makes companies share information, but what they do represent is a purposeful separation of selves between who you are among close friends and who you are to an audience—while also making it obvious that there is a distinction in the first place. Of course, there are plenty of famous cases of performers being very different in public and private (see Freddie Mercury for one famous example), but the use of stylized moving avatars reduces the chances of the two sides being conflated.
The way VTubers have reintroduced and even kind of re-normalized an element of pseudonymous presentation makes me wish that they arrived sooner. Perhaps the internet would look different if VTubers were more quickly embraced before Facebook, et al could make everyone think that putting photos of yourself everywhere for all to see should be the default.
Very broadly speaking, that’s what online icons and avatars were for. And when it comes to hiding your face but wanting to communicate, things like chat rooms and voice chat have and still fulfill that function. But where VTubing is able to go a step further is in its ability to convey facial expressions that add an additional layer of interpersonal connection while also keeping that active and outright facade in place. How much more comfortable might people be talking “face to face” if the faces are virtual?
In the video above, Apex Legends player discusses his favorite Virtual Youtubers, but also brings up all the points I’ve made above. Namely, he likes the fact that it gives viewers something to look at while still maintaining some semblance of privacy for the streamer, even if it’s for someone who shows their face normally.
I understand the programs used by VTubers can be expensive and time-intensive, especially if you want something professional-looking like your favorites. Still, I imagine a world where this sort of thing becomes accessible to a great many more people, and they can maybe engage with their online communities more comfortably.
A confluence of events has me thinking a lot about how people connect to Virtual Youtubers. Just recently, we’ve had both the final concert from pioneer Kizuna AI—who coined the actual term “Virtual Youtuber”—and the termination of Hololive’s Uruha Rushia not long after a different incident involving controversy over a rumored real-world relationship. When I think about just those two examples, I realize that their respective stories have a lot to say about the very way people engage online through these highly detailed virtual avatars.
VTubers generally exist as a form of kayfabe. They want viewers to embrace the idea that these artificial selves are real, and even when all parties understand it’s an act, the willful suspension of disbelief is important. But there are a few key differences between AI’s approach back in the burgeoning days of VTubing and the style that Rushia, as a member of Hololive, engaged in. First, AI’s content for most of her career involved uploading clips to YouTube with streaming being secondary content, whereas Rushia is the opposite in that live streaming was the foundation. Second, one of the big AI controversies was when fans thought they were trying to make her into more of a brand than an individual performer, while Rushia ran into trouble because of the perceived blurring of lines between her virtual and real selves.
The fact that streaming is live (as opposed to pre-recorded) inherently changes how viewers interact with someone. It means being there in real time, more or less. Certainly, there are things like superchat readings, where messages sent with monetary donations aren’t responded to until a later stream, but you know that when the figure on screen reacts to something, you’re seeing it right then and there (or at least with a slight delay). It’s somewhat like the difference between video chatting with a friend versus receiving a video message from them, and I don’t think it’s surprising that many would find the former more engaging.
Having things live also means that things can go in unpredictable directions. That’s often seen as a plus, but that uncut nature is exactly what brought Rushia trouble. After all, the initial ruckus happened because she seemingly received a Discord message from a guy—a male YouTuber with his own massive and intensely devoted following—which for her more obsessed fans broke the immersion they had with her character personality as a yandere wife. The situation, in turn, is made all the more complicated by the fact that devotion to VTubers is often expressed through money via things like the aforementioned superchats. This exact series of events couldn’t happen to a VTuber who only uploaded clips, or at least not nearly as easily.
In contrast, one of the biggest controversies of Kizuna AI came not from the perception of peeling the curtain back too far, but from practically the opposite. Up until a couple years ago, it was not officially known who was the voice behind Kizuna AI, but fans knew there was a singular person bringing the character to life. When Activ8, the company behind AI, started the “Multiple AI Project” that would result in her being split into multiple versions, the fan backlash was the result of fear that they were going to replace the original, ater revealed to be voice actor Kasuga Nozomi. In other words, the concern was that making AI a vessel or suit that anyone could jump into and “become” her would be essentially stripping the character of her unique identity (brought forth by Kasuga) and providing cheap imitations. If we go by wrestling terms again (a natural extension of describing all this as kayfabe), then this was a Fake Diesel and Razor Ramon moment:
I’m also reminded of the Vtuber kson, who is a rarity in that she is willing to stream both as her flesh-and-blood self and as a Virtual Youtuber. In an interview on the Trash Taste Podcast, she mentioned that her fans in Japan enjoy her IRL stuff less. While kson says she’s not sure why that’s the case, she thinks it’s because they relate to her anime form more. Here again, immersion seems to be a big factor. This is not to single out Japanese fans or anything, but it speaks to the different wants and desires from VTuber fans, as well as the power of “chara moe.” Only, now these characters can be directly interacted with on a level not seen before.
I’m not someone who thinks that having strong feelings for online performers, virtual or otherwise, is inherently a doomed path. In my eyes, it’s not all that far removed from other forms of escapism and fandom, which I think are beneficial overall. However, what’s clear to me is that the varying degrees to which people want to engage with both the virtual and the real means that every strategy comes with inherent advantages and disadvantages—especially when you factor in the desire for success as a Vtuber, however one wants to define it. Perhaps what all this comes down to is a genuine human desire for safe emotional connection and authenticity, and Virtual Youtubers allow for a taste of that in times when we feel alone. It’s just not without risks to both performers and viewers alike, and I hope everyone can maintain their sanity because doing this can make anyone extremely vulnerable.
“Fascism is not a specific ideological system with particular content. It’s just a strategy for taking power and maintaining power against the rule of law, and against the majority in a democracy.” –Jamie Raskin
Years ago, I wrote my thoughts on the use of slurs online by gamers to insult others (language warning). I expressed the idea that many of the people who use these words aren’t aiming to be racist or sexist, and that part of the problem is that we live in a society where describing someone as gay, black, or whatever else can be viewed as demeaning in the first place. But the above quote from United States Congressman Jamie Raskin stuck with me because of the way it describes fascism as a strategy rather than a belief system, and it had me reflecting on the strategic use of words to harm others.
What I’ve come to realize is that I had approached the topic of online toxicity from a limited angle. Freedom of expression and the full repertoire of a language are important things that I still support, but there’s another dimension to consider.
One problem with how easily slurs get thrown around online isn’t as simple as whether or not the words are deeply offensive to different peoples and cultures. It doesn’t matter how silly it is that some gamers will throw these words out even if they don’t actually apply to the person on the other side of the screen. The individuals who behave this way, whether they’re conscious of it or not, are basically trying to hurt the person they’re talking to by any means necessary. They’re using slurs as buckshot and hoping the spray will do damage. Similar to fascism, this is less an indicator of beliefs and more of a method to exert power over others—however limited in this specific context—even if they might also actually be racist or whatever. But what happens when the context gets larger?
It’s no secret that Gamergate was basically a precursor to the fecal stain that is Trumpism and the alt-right in the United States, which bring with them the very real threat of actual fascism. And while I truly do not believe that all gamers who ever used slurs to insult others are inherent fascists or will inevitably turn into them, that desire to use words not for the ideas they represent but as tools to probe cracks and fissures in order to do harm feels all too similar to what I see from the fascists who try to undermine American society day in and day out. Donald Trump, right-wing media, the Republican Party, and others in power lie endlessly because “meaning” is meaningless to them—they’re just trying to find the thing that sets people off and helps them maintain power.
Beyond the scope of words alone, this mindset bears scary resemblance to the kinds of strategies we’re finding out were deployed in an attempt to stop the transfer of power in the US on January 6, 2021. Whether through enraging a mob and turning them violent, or trying to exploit gaps in the Constitution and other legal documents, what we saw a year ago was an attempt to twist words and their meaning into crowbars to try to pry open and undo American democracy. Though cliche, I can’t help but think of a famous line from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power.”
Calling someone a slur whether in frustration or contempt is not an automatic pipeline to undermining the foundations of a government; I’d even hazard a guess that most people who engaged in the former never got anywhere close to the latter. But the ease by which words are weaponized in smaller contexts feel like they should be scrutinized more carefully. After all, the alt-right specifically targets gamers, seeing gaming as a resource for young and disaffected men. The racism and sexism expressed in them are a major part of the problem of how words are abused, yet they’re also reduced down to cudgels meant to inflame and diminish. While we should avoid censorship as a blunt form of enforcement, the less weight we feel the weight of the words we use, the more easily they become the tools of fascism.
14 years is a strange milestone—it almost doesn’t feel like one. As the date approach, I kept wondering what would I even talk about. Then came the death of disgraced Something Awful founder, Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka. I never knew the man, but I definitely knew his site, and as I reflected on it and my earliest days blogging, I came to a realization.
If not for Something Awful, I might have never started Ogiue Maniax.
I never contributed directly to Something Awful, nor would I say that it gave anything directly to me, but I found a community of fellow anime fans through various unofficial offshoots of the site. Chatting and posting among them were some of the early bloggers and podcasters who helped inspire me to start blogging myself—in my 10th anniversary post back in 2017, I thanked numerous people, and more than a few of them I came to know through these communities. For that, I have to be thankful in some part.
Many words have been written these past few days about how Something Awful’s complicated legacy defined much of the standards of internet humor and discourse we see today. In terms of the good, my favorites include the disastrous video game attempt known as The Zybourne Clock and the man who tried and failed to hike across America, both of which were kneecapped by unbelievable amounts of hubris.
But while the big achievements and the major consequences are more visible, I can’t help thinking about the ironic combination of personal authenticity and endless posturing that defined interactions on that site and its descendants. It’s been a very long time since I looked at Something Awful on a regular basis, and a major part of my walking away was the frustrating degree to which posters there would become increasingly afraid of their own shadows, too eager and desperate to chase the crumbs of a specific kind of “respectability” that would provide at least a moment of respite from endless mockery. Irony was both the sword and the shield, and I assume that’s still the case today, given how the responses to Lowtax’s death turned out.
Something Awful’s community liked to create scapegoats to make its users feel safe and superior. Anime fans were one such group, with furries getting arguably the worst of it. It’s very easy to slip into these mentalities as well, and in hindsight, the fact that the furry community ended up being famous for encouraging inclusive behavior without allowing bigotry to permeate its ranks makes me reflect on how wrong Something Awful got it as a whole.
Even then, the joy of seeing people genuinely communicating their likes and dislikes at length despite an often-caustic environment—a scenario common to more than just Something Awful—made me appreciate when such discussions could occur. Even if someone vehemently hated a particular series, I appreciated when it didn’t come from trying to maintain a position of specific standards of taste one was supposed to have. Part of what motivated my blogging in those early days of Ogiue Maniax was the desire to present myself authentically, and while I hope I’ve changed for the better 14 years later, I’d like to think that desire is still there.
I also find myself reflecting on the fact that writing and communicating in a “real” way is a challenge for so many, and I think about those toxic environments that have and still exist where the toxicity is, in part, a product of defensiveness. Evangelion talks about the “hedgehog’s dilemma,” and so much of the nastier parts of the internet 20 years ago through today is influenced by the degree to which people are afraid to get hurt and expose themselves. In fact, I think many of the problems of today related to discrimination and communities rooted in fascism comes from people taking advantage of those vulnerabilities I mentioned, exploiting the hurt of people to a foul end. Funnily enough, absolute intolerance for Nazis has become a common trait between furries and Something Awful.
I still wish to write and share with little pretense, and I hope that comes across in what I still do. Next year is the 15th year of Ogiue Maniax, and I hope to see you there.
In the latest episode of “Discovering Your Favorite Creators’ Alarming Beliefs,” the writer of Digimon Tamers, Chiaki J. Konaka, recently penned a new script for the show’s 20th anniversary that revealed him to be influenced by right-wing conspiracy theories. In his new entry (read by the original actors themselves), he positions the greatest threat to humanity to be “extreme political correctness” and “cancel culture,” going as far as to use these specific English terms. This naturally created a backlash from those rightly worried and support from those who share similar beliefs. I find myself extremely disappointed by this news, but I also know that right-wing politics and a tendency towards conspiracy theories are both fairly common among anime creators. Thus, I want to share my thoughts on the matter.
First: Yes, cancel culture does exist. No, neither it nor “extreme political correctness” are the greatest threats to humanity. And no, I don’t know if Konaka always held such beliefs, or if this is new.
I think the far right often tries to portray “cancel culture” as attempts to police and censor dissenting opinions, but that’s not the case. Rather, cancel culture—which is basically about calling someone or something out en masse—is a side effect of the need and desire to hold the powerful accountable. It comes from a fear that harmful or abusive behavior and beliefs are not properly kept in check by those with the power and influence to do so easily, so it’s up to regular people online.
Plenty of people have been canceled for the right reasons. You’ll also find people who were unjustly attacked due to a misunderstanding or because someone with that power and influence decided to lean into it—either out of innocence or malice. Cancel culture can be abused by the unscrupulous, but so can the fear of cancel culture. There’s a risk of mob mentality on either side.
But I think the biggest concern is less Konaka’s thoughts on cancel culture and more the notion that extreme political correctness is one of humanity’s greatest obstacles. While the threat of censorship has been a very real issue in Japan (down to book burnings and all), Konaka has seemingly failed to recognize how criticism of political correctness has been used as a Trojan Horse to sneak in more extreme-right beliefs. The right likes to portray their hatred of political correctness as a reaction to a looming threat, when it’s very much the opposite: cancel culture is the reactionary symptom of people who feel powerless.
While Konaka’s past works suggest a proclivity towards conspiracy theories, I think what it might boil down to is that he comes from a generation that fought against Draconian censorship and still has to keep up the battle even in recent times. The Tokyo Metropolitan Ordinance is less than a decade old, and before that, the spectre of Miyazaki Tsutomu cast a dark shadow on otaku culture. To those for whom the battle has always been censorship vs anti-censorship, the sides seem pretty cut-and-dry. But they belie the fact that the far right actively uses this simple dichotomy as camouflage to mask its true intentions: demonizing the other as a means to authoritarianism. Freedom of expression is a valuable concept, and one I personally highly value, but it has many fragile components that are easy to exploit—see the classic “conservative guy goes onto a college campus and demands that liberals debate him” scheme. It’s an ambush disguised as a fair exchange of ideas. Konaka, born in 1961, is also possibly susceptible to the kind of disinformation that has infected us all.
I sometimes feel that people are so eager to right wrongs that they end up jumping the gun and causing more damage than they intended—which is compounded all the more by social media and our current media environment. More needs to be done to keep people from going 0 to 100 on any subject. But the general desire to see the world be a better and more accepting place is central to much of this mess, and it behooves us to remember to be bigger than the immediate, to be the biggest dreamers we can.
Trigger Warnings: September 11, COVID-19, and all they entail—death, suicide, etc.
I still remember visiting the Twin Towers with friends after school. We would go semi-regularly, with the Japanese restaurant on the underground level being our favorite destination. Between the massive riceballs and the generous helpings of udon and soba, it was always something to look forward to. Then 9/11 happened, and I never even learned if the people running that place even survived. I still wonder.
20 years is a long time, but there are still feelings and memories that stick with me to this day. No one among my friends and family were hurt or worse, so I have much to be thankful for, but I remember the panic of a friend whose dad worked in the World Trade Center. I remember the shudder of the school building as something happened—I think it was as the second plane hit. I remember the eerily calm evacuation, and me handing a half-full water bottle to a firefighter who was desperately gathering any water he could. I remember meeting up with my siblings in Manhattan—one of whom walked miles on foot, another who was close enough that day to see bodies falling. I remember having a dream that night in which the block where I lived was seeing invasion by futuristic caterpillar tanks, of all things.
I also remember how naive I was at the time, and how much I wanted this to be a truly unifying moment for the United States of America. I didn’t understand why one classmate refused to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. I wanted to believe that President George W. Bush would utilize all this good faith for the better. I was someone who didn’t really know or understand politics, and my greatest concern in that respect was trying to find a mental compromise that would reconcile the beliefs I’d been taught and the questions I’ve always had.
Now here we are, those hopes long since dashed, and facing a new problem in COVID-19 that makes those lives lost on 9/11 seem horrifically quaint by comparison. Thousands of bodies have made way for hundreds of thousands and counting. But while that sense of unity in 2001 was fleeting and illusory, it was still more than what we’ve gotten out of fighting the coronavirus. Sure, some of that could be explained by the fact that the US is more divided now, driven to the brink in part by the poison of disinformation. However, I think there’s something else: in the aftermath of 9/11, we had in Osama Bin Laden an enemy we could hope would be on the receiving end of a bullet. In recent days, as I reflect on the events of the past year but also the past 20 years, I’ve come to realize that the US (and perhaps human beings as a whole) are more comfortable with a flesh-and-blood target we can attack through physical violence.
Columbine was just two years before 9/11, and started two generations of kids on their path of customary active shooter drills. What’s a common refrain when it comes to the epidemic of gun violence we see in the US? “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” We actually think the solution is to just have more, better guns and to shoot harder. I truly believe this is because the US (or at least a significant portion of it) has an incredibly hard time dealing with problems that don’t just involve overwhelming them with brute force. But COVID-19 can’t be defeated by guns, glaciers will not unmelt if we bomb them…and yet, part of the nation keeps desperately seeking that living, breathing entity to vilify.
I recently read an article called “25 Essential Notes on Craft from Matthew Salesses,” which is an excerpt from a larger book by Salesses about the rules we construct around what makes good or bad fiction, and how this can differ between cultures. In it, he points out that Western critics often label Asian stories as “undramatic” or plotless” because of their lack of “conflict.” While I’m under no illusion that discrimination, intolerance, and scapegoating are somehow absent in Asian cultures (and in fact are often downright prevalent), I do think that this Western obsession with stories needing conflict also bleeds into how we as a culture approach so many other things. That includes the narratives that are built up in the news and in media—to create easily identifiable villains to vanquish. It’s the Chinese. It’s Dr. Fauci. It’s Joe Biden. It’s Greta Thunberg. It’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s Mexicans at the border. It’s a secret cabal run by Democrats who abduct children to create an immortality elixir. And I’ll even admit that Trump has made a hell of a foe to rally against because he is demonstrably a monster of the worst kind.
There’s a certain comfort in having physical, human obstacles to overcome instead of abstract ones. One of my favorite anime genres is giant robots, and that’s built on a basic premise of “big metal man punches monster to death and saves the day.” Sure, plenty might house anti-war or anti-racism messages (Tetsujin 28, Gundam, Voltes V), or even act as metaphors for the struggles of the human mind (Evangelion). But even those tend to depict physical struggles, even if they might be symbolic in nature. Superheroes are in a similar boat, more traditionally geared towards stopping an arch-nemesis than childhood malnutrition. It’s hard for stories like these to deal with systemic issues, especially those that would be better solved by policy and activism.
It’s okay to think weapons are cool. It’s okay to think fights are cool. Tanks, guns, lasers, planes, kicks and punches, mecha—I love seeing this stuff in fiction, and I think people do need some kind of outlet. However, in our actual societies, when we focus too much on punishing perceived evildoers instead of creating an environment that minimizes the likelihood of such people arising in the first place, we do ourselves greater harm still. An education system able to equip people with the skills to truly think critically and a healthcare system where people aren’t deathly afraid to find out what might be afflicting them would be a good place to start. While there are indeed always going to be bad people who need to be stopped, we have to understand that violence comes not just in the form of a terrorist with a bomb or a shooter with a gun; there’s also the harm caused by dehumanizing others, whether because of their race, culture, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of our beings. The collateral damage of 9/11 was more than just the lives lost, and I hope we can learn that lesson before it’s too late.
Harry Potter is synonymous with magical school fantasy, defining the genre for an entire generation. However, one criticism I increasingly see is that it’s more about maintaining/restoring the status quo rather than trying to effect a real and lasting positive societal change that goes beyond defeating evil. While it’s a bit unfair to pigeonhole the books in this way, it’s also hard to deny that Harry Potter eschews structural issues about the world it presents, and that this is not all that uncommon in similar fiction.
That’s why the last place I expected to see a more boldly progressive take on the inequities of a wizarding society would come in the form of a comedic shounen manga called Mashle: Magic & Muscles.
I want to be clear that Mashle is not some leftist manifesto that proudly announces its overthrowing of capitalist oppressors. Jack London’s The Iron Heel this most certainly is not. But when you compare how Mashle and Harry Potter tackle the same premise, the differences stand out.
Both protagonists, Harry Potter and Mash Burnedead, enroll in a magic school where they must deal with being outsiders while also being under the benevolent watch of the school’s wise, old leader. However, whereas Harry Potter at the start is simply inexperienced with wizardry but has potential for greatness, Mash is completely incapable of magic. In order to get through his classes and achieve his goal of becoming Divine Visionary (a motivation from the beginning unlike Harry’s initial uncertainty), Mash has to overcome his disadvantage through sheer physical power.
The contest between Mash’s muscles and the occult abilities he contends with is generally played for laughs, but there’s another layer to that contrast. Sure, it’s funny to see his “magic” be activating different muscle groups and his “spells” amount to suplexes and punches to the face. Yet, because he is doing this purely through his human physiology, his victories over other students both read differently from Harry’s accomplishments and are received differently by the very mages he bests. By beating them without magic, Mash makes his opponents realize on some level that they are themselves victims—because they get drawn into the incessant and blinding obsession with hierarchy and power. The problem is not exclusive to any specific group of rogue ne’er-do-wells, it’s systemic.
Mash himself is not a sharp mind capable of bold leadership. He’s from that Goku/Luffy/Saitama lineage where thinking is not their strong suit. He merely wants to live a comfortable life with his grandfather, but he’s forced to attempt the impossible and become the top of a magical school because his world despises the weak. Mash defies his society in multiple ways: upending what strength means, as well as rejecting the notion that those with less deserve less.
Around Chapter 65, the “Voldemort” of the series is revealed, as are Mash’s true origins. While not quite the same as the concept of horcruxes relative to Harry and Voldemort, Mash and the main villain share a similar connection. Mash turns out not to be the everyman he assumed himself to be, but that doesn’t change the fact that he uses his particular skills to upend people’s preconceived notions. The difference between Harry discovering the magic within and Mash working to overcome the magic he lacks remains stark.
That all said, it’s hard to think of Mashle as being in the same league as Harry Potter when it comes to the ability to capture people’s imaginations. It simply doesn’t have that sense of wonder that makes Harry Potter so enduring; instead, it goes for lots of comedy, absurdity, and the occasional cool fight. Spiritually, it’s cut from the same cloth as Kinnikuman and early Dragon Ball, during the kid Goku era. I have trouble seeing children running around pretending to be Mash because Mashle doesn’t really provide for that.
Mashle and Harry Potter both operate under the idea that the power of love is in a category of its own. But where Harry Potter’s is either abstract in its sentimentality or all too literal, Mashle’s manifests in a grandfather taught the value of human life, and a grandson who strives to live up to that ideal through both word and deed.
Bringing closure to as tumultuous and influential an anime as Evangelion is a task of confounding proportions. Back in 2007, the Rebuild of Evangelion film series started with the intention of being the definitive final word on the franchise, but when it came time to produce the fourth and final installment, numeroussetbacks delayed its premiere from 2008 to 2015, and now to 2021. With so much anticipation and so many expectations to answer, it would hardly be surprising if the movie was a spectacular flop. But against the odds, Evangelion 3.01+1.01: Thrice Upon a Time is exactly the conclusion that we needed.
Before I get into the weeds, I want to make it clear that I’m coming at this as a long-time fan of Evangelion. What Star Wars has been to so many, Eva is for me, with the added benefit of helping me explore the inner depths of my psyche. I discovered the series in high school thanks to friends, and spent many days discussing and speculating every aspect of it with them. Even my screen name is a reference to the series. And as a fan whose identity was shaped in part by this experience, Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01 (also known as Shin Evangelion) is an immensely satisfying work. While I had plenty of questions by the time the credits rolled, I came away feeling…at peace. It’s as if the 20+ years since I discovered Eva, and the personal journey I’ve taken as a human being during that time, are reflected in the progression and transformation of the characters themselves.
Warning: Heavy Spoilers Ahead
Neon Genesis Evangelion
The TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion is an exploration of the inner turmoil of people who desperately try and fail to connect to others while engaged in a futuristic battle of biblical proportions. The protagonist, 14-year-old Ikari Shinji, is brought before his estranged father, Gendo, and ordered to work for his organization, NERV, by piloting a mysterious biomechanical titan known as an Evangelion (or EVA) to fight off reality-defying monsters from above called Angels. But Shinji suffers from severe depression due in part to being abandoned by his father at a young age, and his relationship with his father is one of craving acceptance and acknowledgment. He soon meets other EVA pilots (collectively known as the Children), notably the hauntingly quiet Ayanami Rei and the aggressively competitive Sohryu Asuka Langley, each of whom have their own complex issues. Later, Shinji also meets a pilot named Nagisa Kaworu and establishes an intense bond, if only briefly.
An overt recurring theme of NGE is the idea that it’s impossible for humans to truly understand one another. Often mentioned is the Hedgehog’s Dilemma: a metaphor for people who are afraid to pursue close relationships because of the risk of hurting themselves. The EVAs and Angels fight using Absolute Terror Fields, nigh-impenetrable force fields that are revealed to exist to a lesser degree as the psychic walls that separate human hearts and minds from one another. Another concept thrown around is “Instrumentality,” a state in which all humans are fused together physically and spiritually, and where no barriers to misunderstanding exist.
NGE’s legacy is in part the popularization of what would become the mysterious doll-like character archetype (Rei) and the tsundere (Asuka), but it also does an amazing job of articulating psychological and emotional pain. That said, one potential weakness is that it does little in the way of offering solutions or steps to overcome that internal suffering, despite a desire to inspire and motivate its viewers by the end. In fact, the bizarre and trippy final episodes of the series were heavily lambasted at the time of airing, with director Anno Hideaki discovering that angry fans were discussing ways to kill him—an experience that contributed further to his depression at the time. In response, he created a pair of bitter “compilation” movies that revised the last parts of the TV series into a brutally violent trauma festival where the protagonist Shinji rejects Instrumentality but fails to make an actual firm decision on which direction he wants humanity to take.
Rebuild of Evangelion (Thus Far)
In a sense, the Rebuild films are heavily revised formations of Eva that are far more than either a retcon or, in Star Wars terms, a “Special Edition.” Existing elements might be 99% similar, but that 1% makes a crucial difference. A new pilot, Makinami Mari Illustrious, is introduced, and she seems to lack the baggage of the other Children. Most importantly, compared to NGE, Rebuild sees the characters initially tracing the same path, but taking gradual steps to challenge the Hedgehog’s Dilemma instead of living in fear of it. Each film gets further and further away from the original, and by the time of the third entry—Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo—thrusted the characters fourteen years into the future, the idea that Anno had ruined Eva was accepted by many.
I disagreed and wrote a long review of Evangelion 3.33 that was part defense and part analysis of how Anno was trying to “address the differences between older and newer anime narratives, create a Tale appropriate for contemporary culture, and respond to current criticisms of youth culture.” I began by referencing an essay Anno penned expressing concern about the decline of the “Tale”—the kinds of grand narratives like the “journey to another galaxy to save the Earth” plot of Space Battleship Yamato that used to be common in anime—and his desire to see them return. I ended by making my own prediction on what the “Tale of Evangelion” would be, based on my analysis of the third film as a criticism of those who admonish the youth for being not hard-working enough:
A 14-year-old boy estranged from his father and suffering deep personal agony is thrust into a situation far greater than him, and though he is told to sacrifice himself for the greater cause, through the connections he makes with his peers he finds that he would lose too much in the process, including his own identity. This prioritization of the self and what he finds valuable in life does not come without its own consequences, but it becomes the potential ground for him, and those like him, to find their own solutions to the problems of the world. Of course, the fourth film has yet to debut, so we’ll see if I’m right.
At the time, I expected to get an answer fairly quickly, but history repeated itself and Anno fell into depression again, with the catalyst that brought him back being, of all things, working on the film Shin Godzilla. So now, coming into 3.0+1.01, I indeed wondered how my predictions would fare, but more importantly, I wondered how this final film might choose to resolve (or leave open) much of the baggage of Eva, both within the works and within Anno himself.
Finally, Shin Evangelion
The end of the third movie has the three pilots surviving a traumatic battle and wandering into a post-apocalyptic world, with Asuka pulling Shinji up and out of his cockpit, and Rei (or rather, a clone of Rei) following along after having just awakened to her own individuality. The symbolism of that moment, of seeing them reach out to one another, encapsulates the challenge to the Hedgehog’s Dilemma that Rebuild of Evangelion. Evangelion 3.0+1.01 comes in almost directly after that moment, and leads into what I can only describe as a thorough (yet never boring or tedious) conclusive response to all the thematic and cultural fragments of Eva that have piled up over the years, and that the general contours of my above prediction about Evangelion 3.0+1.01 have come to pass.
Shinji and Space
The early part of the Evangelion 3.0+1.01 sees Shinji, Rei, and Asuka staying in a makeshift farming village, where they reunite with some old school friends who have established their own lives. It can feel far removed from what’s expected of Eva, but there is a great significance to this part of the story. During this time, Shinji most greatly resembles the Shinji of the old TV series: retreated into his shell in a state of depression, too weak to do anything but not weak enough to want to die. But while NGE would have characters, at best, try to force Shinji out of his shell, here you see him finally get what he needs to heal: support that understands who he is and the space he needs to find himself. It’s a process that can’t be rushed. In this town without any EVAs to pilot, the characters experience a slice of what it would be like to discover themselves and what they truly want.
Rei and Opportunity
Rei is a major catalyst in Shinji’s change, and I’m reminded of something her voice actor, Hayashibara Megumi, wrote in her career memoir: In order to help Hayashibara understand the character better, Anno explained that Rei doesn’t lack emotions—she’s just unfamiliar with them. The result is a person who doesn’t have the filters humans establish to operate in society, and with the different Rei’s we’ve seen over all of Eva, we see it play out in different ways.
It’s witnessing the current Rei clone in an environment where she can discover life with child-like wonderment that awakens Shinji and brings him to a state of calm that we have never seen in any mainline Evangelion work (Super Robot Wars and Shinkalion don’t count). Back at the very, very beginning of both NGE and the first Rebuild film, Rei was Shinji’s original reason for piloting EVA-01 due to his guilt over seeing her in pain. But while this Rei ends up in an even worse place, what seems to be in Shinji’s heart is not guilt or regret but determination to help others. He decides to fight for the happiness of those he cares for, instead of as a desperate attempt to find acceptance.
Asuka and Time
Evangelion 3.33 begins with a 14-year jump forward in time. Much of that third film feels very jarring because of how much the characters have changed and how bitter they feel towards Shinji for triggering the apocalypse, but in Evangelion 3.0+1.01, it also shows how time has transformed characters inside and out. Toji and Hikari (two of Shinji’s old classmates) have a family together. Katsuragi Misato, Shinji and Asuka’s old guardian, takes on a gruff, Okita-like exterior which, along with WILLE (the organization she leads to oppose NERV) come from her desire to protect her children, both figurative and (as we find out) literal. But out of all the characters, Asuka’s growth in this timespan is especially significant.
Due to being an EVA pilot, Asuka has not aged physically. However, she has matured mentally, and the final film establishes how she’s grown over those 14 years while Shinji was in stasis. She’s still Asuka at her core, but an Asuka who doesn’t seek validation, and it helps her communicate with others in her own way. Earlier in the film, when Shinji is listless, she basically forces food down his throat, in essence telling him that she’s going to help whether he wants it or not. Later, she has a brief heart-to-heart with Shinji about how one of his biggest problems isn’t that he makes the wrong decisions, but that he’s afraid of making decisions and owning them—and such indecisiveness can end up making things worse. As Asuka departs for combat, she even mentions that she did indeed have feelings for him back then, but she’s grown past that point. In other words, Asuka is no longer the tsundere who can’t be honest with her feelings.
Between Asuka, Shinji, and Rei, one gets the sense that the timeskip is also addressed toward the viewers. The jump into the future brings those characters out from their 1990s roots and shows how people like them (or indeed character archetypes like them) might have transformed two or three decades later.
Action and Homage
The fights in Evangelion 3.01+1.01 do a lot of things at once. While they’re thrilling from a technical perspective (sometimes to the point of being overwhelming), they’re also windows into the components that make up Eva as a whole. Some of the fights are closer to that classic Eva style, drawing inspiration from the tokusatsu stylings of Ultraman. Others completely flip the script on what Eva fights are supposed to look like, as the enemy they face isn’t individual Angels but rather entire armies of chimeric EVAs that almost trivialize the specialness of the EVAs themselves.
And then there’s the battle that basically comes across as Anno’s love letter to Space Battleship Yamato. The third film introduces the Wunder, a flying fortress that functions, and in the fourth film we see it engage in a ship-to-ship combat scene straight out of Yamato, complete with the old-fashioned orchestral soundtrack. If Yamato is the gold standard of the Tale, and that style of story is woefully underrepresented in anime over the past two decades, then putting in a Yamato-esque fight potentially feels like there’s a desire to indeed bring Rebuild of Evangelion into one cohesive whole. At the same time, Anno’s ability to add in all of these elements of his life—his favorite shows, his depression, his feelings about Eva itself—suggest a desire to communicate another important lesson: when it comes to stories, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can put in all the escapist elements and the otaku fantasies, but you can also bring it all together and motivate people to return to reality.
Out of all the battles, though, there’s one that stands head and shoulders above all as arguably the most important conflict in all of Evangelion: At long last, Shinji directly confronts his father, Gendo.
Shinji vs. Gendo
Seeing Shinji finally come face to face with Gendo, determined to settle things once and for all, was a powerful emotional experience. Even before anything truly began, I couldn’t help but smile as my body was jolted by a strange catharsis. To see this culmination of two and a half decades, to see Shinji do what he has never dared even try—it’s like the film and Eva as a whole are showing how Shinji has truly healed and grown into a better place. In that moment, the boy has finally become a man, and it has little to do with the new generation taking over the old. Rather, Gendo is the source of so much of Shinji’s grief, but in the ensuing confrontation, Shinji sees Gendo not as the distant and intimidating patriarch but another human being who, like him, has trouble sharing his feelings.
Gendo reveals that he has merged with an Angel and given up his humanity, and the fight between Shinji and him takes them on a tour through Shinji’s memories. It’s explained as them being in the realm of God that defies all physics and human comprehension, Minus Space, and so this is how Shinji’s mind is interpreting what’s there, but it’s also a two-fold callback to Neon Genesis Evangelion. First, many of the Angel fights featured psychological deep-dives full of abstract imagery. Second, NGE uses quite a bit of recycled footage in artistic ways. Rather than truly reused scenes, however, the fight sees their respective EVAs, EVA-01 and EVA-13, clashing against familiar backdrops without consideration for size and scale differences, as if to say that this fight is about the big as well as small moments that permeate Eva.
During their battle, Shinji notices that they’re in a stalemate—all of his EVA-01’s moves are mirrored by Gendo’s EVA-13. Shinji comes to the realization that this conflict cannot be solved through violence, and begins a true conversation with Gendo. He asks his father about what makes him tick, what motivates him to take things so far as to try to essentially remake the whole of humanity, and the answer is that Gendo is all too much like his own son.
Gendo goes through his entire history, explaining how as a boy, he cherished solitude and the calculated predictability of things like a finely tuned piano. Meeting his future wife, Yui, taught Gendo that he could find happiness living with others, but after her tragic death/disappearance (she was caught in an EVA experiment gone haywire and absorbed into it), Gendo was afraid that he could no longer return to his old way of being. Gendo has actually never been contemptuous of Shinji but rather scared of him—scared of having another connection that could be severed. This is even visually manifested when Gendo’s AT Field activates to his own surprise; it implies that he feels (absolute) terror towards his son. The only way Shinji can make it through was by handing Gendo back the old portable music player that both have used as a mental respite from the world.
Gendo built up power and a fearsome presence as protection for his own emotions. In doing so, he passed down his suffering to his son. It’s only after Shinji tries to understand (but not necessarily forgive) his father that this cycle could be broken. Just like in The End of Evangelion, Gendo could never forget Yui and would go to any lengths to bring her back (down to killing the gods if he needed to), but Shinji effectively saves him from that path—and as it’s revealed, Yui saves them both in turn.
The Shinji we see as Evangelion 3.0+1.01 starts its build to the end is one who has found his center and now aids the other Children in reaching peace and acceptance themselves. This process of Instrumentality is not the forceful clashing of souls that bring all the ugly demons to the surface like in NGE, but something calming and joyful. The world Shinji looks to remake isn’t one where humanity has evolved into a single entity, but one where humanity has the ability to move forward, and where EVAs don’t exist.
One notable aspect of these scenes is that they call back to not just the previous Rebuild films but also what came before. Regardless of whether this is meant to be merely symbolic or is actually saying that all the Eva anime exist in the same multi-reality and are all connected, the result is a move towards resolution as a whole. When talking with Asuka, Shinji and her return to the beach at the final parts of The End of Evangelion. This Asuka is actually wearing the plugsuit uniform of NGE (a visual marker of the difference between Sohryu and Shikinami), and when Shinji says, “I loved you too,” he’s both responding to the future Shikinami’s casual reveal of her old crush and the more emotionally stormy Sohryu.
Similarly, when Shinji is talking with Rei (who is initially presented as a kind of ethereal presence with uncharacteristically long hair), behind them is footage from The End of Evangelion during Shinji’s mental breakdown. In that movie, Rei wanted to rescue Shinji by starting Instrumentality, and giving him control, only for him to reject it partway (thus resulting in another half-decision). This time, Shinji is the one who seeks to say goodbye to all Evangelions (a statement that clearly has a double meaning between the mecha and the franchise) but has peace and compassion in his heart rather than conflict and shame.
Unlike The End of Evangelion, Instrumentality in Evangelion 3.01+1.01 is not initiated with the Spear of Despair, Longinus, a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that in the context of Eva is a weapon capable of piercing the divine protection of AT Fields. It also doesn’t use the weapon obtained initially by Shinji, the Spear of Hope, Cassius. Rather, Instrumentality is accomplished by using the Spear of Will, Gaius, a new weapon created by Misato aboard the Wunder. This isn’t supposed to be possible, but it’s all in the name: Gaius has been willed into existence. This also reflects the vital difference in Misato’s organization, WILLE, compared to all the other groups that have shown up in the Eva franchise. Unlike NERV (“nerve”), SEELE (“soul”), and GEHIRN (“brain”), WILLE (“will”) is about what humans create rather than what has been created for them.
Looking again at my prediction about the final film, I wrote, “This prioritization of the self and what he finds valuable in life does not come without its own consequences, but it becomes the potential ground for him, and those like him, to find their own solutions to the problems of the world.” I believe this plays out through the Instrumentality of Evangelion 3.0+1.01. Prioritizing the self means helping oneself in order to help others, and that process wills a solution into existence.
Aside from Asuka and Rei, there’s another character Shinji connects with during Instrumentality: Nagisa Kaworu. While I only briefly mentioned Nagisa earlier, and he indeed only appears for one episode in NGE, the character actually has an outsized impact on Eva as a whole. The twist with Kaworu is that he reveals himself to actually be an Angel in human form, that Rei is much like him, and that he was sent by the organization above NERV, SEELE, in a betrayal. Even so, it’s clear that his love and compassion for Shinji is genuine, and Kaworu even allows Shinji to kill him at the end in one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the TV series. Because of this portrayal, Kaworu has long been a popular character—especially among fujoshi—because of how he could establish a bond with Shinji when no one else truly could.
Kaworu exerts such a tremendous influence that other versions of Evangelion (such as the manga drawn by character designer Sadamoto Yoshiyuki) make the move to introduce him sooner. That includes Rebuild of Evangelion, where Kaworu first appears acting as if he’s been through all this before, and is determined to save Shinji this time around. Here, his actions amount to trying to spare Shinji the pain of the past—even going as far as ending his own life in Evangelion 3.33 to keep the blood off Shinji’s hands this time around. In Instrumentality, Shinji says that Kaworu reminds him of his dad, but in a positive way. Kaworu’s love is so powerful, yet he is literally a higher being to the point that it’s hard to tell how much is romantic and how much is angelic, or if that distinction matters to Kaworu at all. For his part, while that love is genuine, Kaworu made the mistake of thinking he wanted to make Shinji happy, but he himself was looking for happiness through Shinji.
But Kaworu is not the only minor character with major influence, and this requires me to talk about Makinami Mari Illustrious.
Mariand the Outside View
Rebuild of Evangelion is where Mari makes her introduction to the franchise as a whole, and her presence in the films can be puzzling. She’s another pilot, but her story is never explored in depth for three entire films. Yet, it turns out that she’s crucial to Evangelion 3.0+1.01, which drops a number of revelations about her.
Mari is revealed to actually be “Mary Iscariot,” and the name implies that she is both bringer of good and betrayer—though what she betrays (the gods?) is unclear. Mari is also shown in flashbacks as being a peer of Gendo and Yui’s, implying that she’s much older than she actually appears. I speculate that this means Mari was the first EVA pilot, but the importance of her age comes down to shifting expectations as to what her role truly is. It means she’s more mature than everyone else, and that—much like Asuka—it gives her a certain long-yet-decidely-human view that the others don’t have, not even Kaworu.
Mari is the one who fights on the “outside” while Shinji is warring with his dad on the “inside,” and the one who comes to bring back Shinji during Instrumentality. Notably, Mari is also the only one of the Children with whom Shinji does not have that final talk about their feelings, as if Mari simply doesn’t need it the way the others do. And at the very end, in a world without Evangelions, Shinji and Mari are older and romantically connected.
I’ve seen much criticism of Mari—that she’s a shameless marketing ploy, that she’s pointless, that she does too much or too little, and that she should not be the one with Shinji given how small her proverbial shadow is. But I think that—much like Kaworu—this is the point of Mari. Her role is that of the external force who brings a new perspective and can spark bits of change in people caught in a spiral. We think that major characters should do major things and minor characters should do minor things, but that’s our assumptions about storytelling.
Is Mari “Anno Moyoco”?
Anno Hideaki’s wife is manga artist Anno Moyoco (Anno is actually her maiden name, by coincidence, albeit written with different kanji), and the film makes a number of references to her. A poster for Sugar Sugar Rune shows up in the background, as does a physical copy of another series by Moyoco called Ochibi-san—and on the cover is Ochibi-san talking to a porcupine. Given that Shinji reflects so much of Anno, it’s easy to think that Mari is therefore based on Moyoco. Both Studio khara and Moyoco herself deny this, though.
I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It’s not so much that Mari is Moyoco, but that she’s based on her manga, or more specifically, the strength of Moyoco’s manga. In Moyoco’s thinly veiled autobiography about their married life, Insufficient Direction, Anno writes some illuminating commentary. He describes Moyoco’s works as consistently accomplishing what Anno never could: bring the reader back into reality from the fantasy of the story and leave them energized. Not only does Evangelion 3.0+1.01 feel like Anno finally getting it down, but Mari literally shows up to pull Shinji from disappearing into the work that is Eva. In another callback to NGE, Shinji and the world around him starts to break and the way down to initial outlines used in anime production, only to come back to full color once Mari arrives.
Rebuild Reflecting on the Past and the Future
Rebuild of Evangelion has different titles in Japanese: Evangelion: Jo, Evangelion: Ha, Evangelion: Q (Quickening), and Evangelion: :𝄂 (the musical symbol for repetition). The first three refer to the concept of jo-ha-kyu, a form of structuring found in Japanese music and noh theater. But given that it’s four parts, and the way these films have played out, I also find that they embody a different dramatic structure: kishoutenketsu.
Each film ties almost perfectly into one of the four sections. Evangelion 1.11 is the awakening (ki), largely following the events of the original NGE to tell audiences that this is indeed Eva but with some notable differences. Evangelion 2.22 is the development (shou), further extrapolating the consequences of those seemingly small changes. Evangelion 3.33 is the change or twist (ten), where what we thought we knew about Eva is turned on its head. And finally, Evangelion 3.01+1.01 is the conclusion (ketsu), seeing where the story goes after that shift in expectations. I can see even more clearly now why Evangelion 3.33 left so many concerned, because without that last part, we would have been left in the dark, perhaps worrying about whether the underlying message was full of hope or despair.
One of the old criticisms of the third film is that the way people attack and blame Shinji but don’t tell him what he did seems both like bad storytelling and unfair to Shinji himself, but with the added context of Evangelion 3.0+1.01, it feels different now. There’s a part in the final film where many of the side characters express their bitterness over Shinji’s actions 14 years ago leading to the death of their loved ones, but they also admit that they’re cognizant of the fact that Shinji also ended up saving them. He’s their “savior and destroyer,” as the movie puts it, and it’s impossible to stay rational when confronting a person like that.
From Shinji’s point of view, he arrives at a place where he doesn’t fear decisions or blame because he understands that paralysis in the quest for perfection is a trap, and he’s willing to take the lumps to make the world a better place for those he loves. Thus, Evangelion 3.0+1.01 ends up being a look at the past, present, and future. It encourages a renewed viewing of what came before, but doesn’t leave audiences trapped there, and shines new light to illuminate what was but also what could be.
I’ve made a couple of comparisons to Star Wars, and it doesn’t hurt that here, too, the son must face the father in a battle for the soul. Along this vein, another similarity is that both have new works meant to bring their franchises into current times. However, I find that Eva manages to succeed where Star Wars could not because the latter ended up being too intimidated by the potential for actual change. Episode IX, the final part of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, is a retreat into the comforting space of its own history and popularity. Evangelion, in stark contrast, forces the spotlight on its own influence and tells audiences to let them go if that’s what will help them heal.
Evangelion 3.0+1.01 is one of the most emotionally satisfying films I’ve ever seen, to the point that it goes far beyond the confines of cinema and animation. It’s as if Evangelion has grown up and found itself, and in many ways I find my own journey these past two decades and change reflected in the changes found in Shinji, Rei, Asuka, and the others. Rebuild of Evangelion ultimately feels like a reunion with old friends, catching up on where we’ve gone in life. And as we share our adventures and anecdotes, we can take mutual pride in the fact that we were able to find the will to do and experience so much. I understand that this sentiment is about as subjective an impression as it gets, given that not everyone who has watched or will watch Eva will have the same perspective, but I hope that those who are still lost might know that someone understands them.
I never read 20th Century Boys until this year, but in some ways, I’m glad I waited this long.
20th Century Boysin 2021
A manga by the award-winning author Urasawa Naoki, 20th Century Boys (published from 1999 to 2006) is a decades-spanning mystery about a man named Endo Kenji and his childhood friends, whose innocent elementary school antics are resurfacing in bizarre and dangerous ways. A Book of Prophecy they wrote around 1970 with far-fetched doomsday predictions about plagues that seem to be coming true, and at the heart of this conspiracy is an enigmatic and politically powerful cult leader known as the Friend. But while the Friend’s identity is unknown to all, there’s a hint that Kenji should know who he is: the Friend’s symbol is exactly the same as one Kenji and his friends came up with when they were kids.
Although conspiracies, cults of personality, and apocalyptic disease are not that unusual in fiction, these elements resonate particularly strongly in 2021. Between QAnon, authoritarians such as Bolsonaro and Trump, and then COVID-19, there are a lot of parallels between what happens in 20th Century Boys and what has transpired in reality. There’s a certain poetic element to a series revolving around TheBook of Prophecy seeming to tell the future in itself, but whatever farseeing power it might have possessed are less interesting to reflect on than its portrayals of human behavior. What struck at my core from reading 20th Century Boys was not merely the presence of all these current dangers, but the all-too-real psychological reactions we’ve seen actually take place in the world.
QAnon vs. the Friendship and Democracy Party
One vital difference between QAnon and TheBook of Prophecy is that the former has not been substantiated in any way, whereas the latter’s predictions are actively made true through the machinations of the Friendship and Democracy Party led by the Friend. Regardless of actual success rate, however, the two bear some fundamental similarities. In one scene in 20th Century Boys, the character Manjome Inshu recalls how he came to know and support the Friend. Manjome, who has a history of being a snake-oil salesman, is one of the people responsible for giving the Friend his messiah-like aura to his followers. At one point, they use a rope and pulley to make the Friend seem like he’s levitating—a flimsy trick that could have been undone by a bit of swaying. However, not only does the audience buy it hook, line, and sinker; even one of the assistants who literally helped hoist the Friend up by rope starts to believe the man can fly. Manjome, thinking to himself, comes to a realization: the people are just looking for something to believe in. Like QAnon, the Friend’s following is not about logic, rationality, or even trying to understand the world through one’s emotions. It’s working backwards from a conclusion because of a particular desire to see the world a certain way, and to feel like one has a part in its transformation.
Donald Trump vs. the Friend
When it comes to the Friend’s authoritarian nature and god complex, the commonalities between him and Trump stood out to me from the very beginning. However, when the Friend’s identity is finally revealed, their resemblance only gets stronger. The Friend, as suspected, was part of Kenji’s childhood circle, but one who viewed Kenji with utter disdain. The Friend—a boy obsessed with anime, manga, and other children’s entertainment of the time—accrued knowledge, things, and experiences as a way to impress his classmates. Yet, it was Kenji who seemed to capture the attention of the other kids. The Friend was so hellbent on one-upping Kenji that, when a planned trip to the 1970 World Expo in Osaka fell through, he decided to just lie and fabricate journal entries for school as if he had actually attended the event. The wounds of failure remain so open and painful to the Friend that even in the mythos provided to his followers, it’s canon that the Friend Definitely 100% Attended the Osaka Expo and It Was Amazing.
Other clues point to a man with the mind and maturity of a little boy as the mastermind. Many of the hints about who he really is require knowledge of his childhood hobbies because they inevitably reflect what the Friend values. In this sense, 20th Century Boys is somewhat like Ready Player One, which also plays on the idea of pop culture trivia being key to everything, though in the case of 20th Century Boys there’s no Gary Stu power-fantasy protagonist. Also, prior to the big identity reveal, one character manages to get a close look at the Friend and is able to sketch his appearance from memory. When drawing the Friend, the character remarks that even though the Friend is clearly not a child, his face looks as if the man has never aged emotionally—a description that also seems to get ascribed to Trump.
In Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Dangerous Man, the author Mary L. Trump (a psychologist who’s also the niece of the former US president) explains that Trump is unable to let go of grievances. Every slight he’s ever felt sticks with him forever—as shown by an anecdote of how Donald’s older sister recalling a story of him getting a bowl of mashed potatoes dumped onto his head for being a bully still seems to hurt the man well into adulthood. He has spent a lifetime constantly trying to get others to believe that he’s the richest, the smartest, the handsomest, and the best person in the world, and even becoming the leader of the strongest nation on Earth wasn’t enough to placate that selfish desire. With the Friend, his being overshadowed by Kenji became a deep psychological scar, and he uses that motivation to reach a similar place. If you erased my memory of the publication history of 20th Century Boys and told me that the Friend is a reference to Trump, I would believe you. But that’s not the case, and what we’re left with, in retrospect, is a very accurate portrayal of how someone with the most vile qualities could win the hearts and minds of others and remain just as terrible.
COVID-19 vs. Bloody New Year’s Eve and Beyond
The spread of deadly disease is a recurring horror in 20th Century Boys, though in the manga’s case, it is a biological weapon utilized by the Friend to achieve his goals. I’m not going to get into much detail here, but I think the example I give is going to make it clear why 20th Century Boys ends up being a curiously ominous work when it comes to human psychology. In one scene, a scientist character is trying to make a colleague of hers—one who is responsible for developing new viruses for the Friend—understand at heart just how many people died from the virus they spread on “Bloody New Year’s Eve,” the name for the traumatic events of December 31, 2000. So what are these overwhelming casualties brought on by the virus? What is this horrifying statistic that defies human understanding?
That number was meant to shock and horrify when it was written. But COVID-19 has killed nearly 600,000 people in the United States, and it has taken the lives of nearly 4 million people worldwide. “150,000 deaths” was a pie-in-the-sky notion dreamed up by a manga author, and we in the real world now see that as the “early days,” when the infection rate hadn’t gotten so out of hand.
The trauma of the coronavirus is going to stick with us for a long time.
A Compelling Warning
There’s much more to 20th Century Boys than simply being prophetic, and it’s a superb manga in terms of art and storytelling. Nevertheless, the way its narrative relates to these difficult times makes it all the more powerful. What should have been a suspenseful piece of fiction with an examination of humanity now feels closer to a documentary with a foreboding warning of how easily the human mind can be warped by a diet of bad information. I hope we’re able to heed its messages.