Daiblogger XV: Ogiue Maniax 15th Anniversary

I still remember writing this blog’s tenth anniversary post, and how it felt like such a milestone. Now we’re actually half a decade past that?! It makes me realize that Ogiue Maniax is theoretically supposed to be leaving its chuunibyou phase, but will that ever actually happen? I mean, it’s still a primarily text-based anime blog in the year 2022.

While I don’t want to focus on the short-term too much for a celebration of 15 years, I have to acknowledge that this comes at a time when Twitter is on fire due to the unfathomable competence of one jackass of a billionaire. The reason this resonates with me is that I actually spent the last anniversary post waxing nostalgic on the Something Awful Forums after the death of its founder! And here we are again with another major platform exploding. To go from Lowtax dying to the unfunniest man on Twitter setting $44 billion on fire feels like every year from this point will end up with some piece of the older internet being met with tragedy. What’s next, 4chan’s servers getting eaten by raccoons?

15 years also just makes me feel my age. There are anime fans establishing their tastes and their influences who are as old as Ogiue Maniax (though I get the feeling none of them are reading this blog). I’ve proven the site to possess the magical recipe of longevity known as stubbornness, as even the Patreon is less about making a profit and more about providing a way for the blog to pay for itself. If there’s a way to make big cash-money off it, I don’t have the energy or time to figure that out anymore.

I do worry that as my responsibilities grow elsewhere, I might not be able to keep writing as freely as I do. At the very least, though, there’s a good chance I can outlast the bird app. In the meantime, I’m still loving anime and manga, and I hope my passion for it never fades.

Daiblogger, it is youth.

Daiblogger, it is love.

Something, something, spinning cool weapons.

Dear Media Companies, Stop Trying to Flood My Brain

I am tired of media and entertainment companies trying to monopolize my attention.

Fourteen years ago, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe had begun bringing to the silver screen the crossovers that defined superhero comics, I was on board. I love a good superhero team-up, and the MCU films came without decades of baggage. When the first Avengers movie hit theaters, it felt like just the right amount of reward for time spent.

Fast forward to now, and I just cannot keep up, nor do I want to. The problem isn’t just that Marvel is putting out so many more movies and TV shows. I really don’t mind sprawling mega franchises that fans devote their hours to. Nor is it that I’ve just gotten older. Rather, what I’m bothered by is that Marvel seems to be trying to push out all other competition from people’s brains until they’re all that’s left.

Compare this with something like Pokémon. You could easily spend every waking hour (and potentially even your sleeping ones) to these Pocket Monsters. But Pokémon doesn’t act like every game, manga, and anime is interwoven, nor does it imply that missing even one of them means failing to have the whole story. In fact, almost every game starts from the assumption that it’s introducing new players to the world of Pokémon, and they don’t draw specific attention to prequels. Marvel, however, wants you to watch show after show, film after film.

Another example of mind-monopolizing media is just gacha games in general. Between the stamina bars that either encourage players to spend money or keep a close eye on when they refill, the constant limited-time bonuses, the never-ending new stories, and the gambling-esque character rolls themselves, I constantly find myself wishing I could enjoy these games. That’s not to say that I avoid them entirely, but I have to actively minimize their presence in my life. The worst of them take from the old Farmville school of essentially holding your game hostage.

I’m not inherently against Marvel, mobile games, or similar, but I can’t stand how they discourage exploration by trying to monopolize attention. I love to explore different stories, different forms of art, and different creators. I’m not going to be nerd-guilted out of that passion.

In Fandom, Is Age Just a Number?

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.

I Wish Virtual Youtubers Became a Thing Much Sooner

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.

Kizuna AI, Uruha Rushia, and the Search for Authenticity

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.

What Do Toxic Gamers and Fascists Have in Common?

“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.

Imagine Fourteen Balls on the Edge of a Cliff: Ogiue Maniax 14th Anniversary

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.

Digimon Tamers, Konaka, and Cancel Culture

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.

The Unquenching Desire for Villains: 9/11, 20 Years Later

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.

Mashle Is the Answer to Harry Potter (No, Really)

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.