Girls und Panzer and the Potential for Propaganda

What I’m about to say might sound like I made up the whole thing, but I swear it’s true.

It was at a screening of the Love Live! Sunshine!! film that I struck up a conversation with a young mother. Although she was there in part to accompany her daughter, she was clearly an anime fan herself. At some point, the series Girls und Panzer came up, and she expressed skepticism over the tank-battling anime. From the tone of her voice, I could sense her concern over glorification of the military, and the potential role of the series as propaganda for something more sinister.

I tried to assuage her fears and present the anime as more of a sports series with a plot close to that of Love Live (save the high school from shutting down by winning a big competition). I don’t know whether or not she ultimately believed me, but I understand her hesitation, especially given today’s political climate. Although I consider myself a fan, in a world where guns are glorified and strongman politicians try to create cults of personality built around violence, I sometimes grapple with my fondness for Girls und Panzer.

I’ve argued before that Girls und Panzer separates a love of tanks and strategy from a love of warfare and nationalist loyalty, and I still believe this to be the case. In the anime’s setting, tanks are considered purely for friendly competition, and all ammunition is designed not to kill. There’s even a team of characters introduced in the first film who are basically a criticism of meaninglessly charging toward defeat out of a sense of “honor.” But it’s not as if the series is impossible to interpret as pro-military, especially if one takes only a surface glance at it. And in this world, sometimes a surface glance is all anyone has time for.

Girls und Panzer is not entirely devoid of concerning elements, as I think it’s hard to actually fully decouple tanks from their origins—especially because all the tanks in the series are from around World War II. As an individual viewer who tries to stay open yet critical, I feel that I’m able to stay open but at least somewhat skeptical. I can see what the series does well and the positive messages about keeping things in the realm of mock combat, and at the same time, my radar goes up for more alarming aspects. However, I’m aware that it’s possible someone more naive or predisposed to enjoying the glorification of military violence might take from Girls und Panzer what they want, and in the process twist the friendliness of the series into a “cute girls tell me war is good” message. It’s the old Gundam problem, where toy sales of cool giant robots obfuscate the anti-war message. As to whether or not Girls und Panzer is anti-war, it at least portrays a world where true war no longer exists.

Having the heroines use the minds and tools available to them to overcome opposition and achieve their goal is simple and effective storytelling. Couching it in historic military hardware makes it a near-endless pool for nerds to deep-dive into. But while I truly think that the series is not made to push people towards a militaristic patriotism, I can’t deny that some of the ingredients are there. It sounds odd to say that supervision is necessary to watch Girls und Panzer, but I think there’s a certain truth to it. If someone can’t provide their own voice of reason and caution, it can be treacherous territory.

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The Hero in Smash Bros. Ultimate and the Skill Found in Randomness

When the Hero from Dragon Quest was first revealed as a playable character in Smash Bros. Ultimate, there were hints as to how the character would function, but few were able to predict that the character would be so volatile. Because the Hero has not one but multiple random mechanics that can make him both inconsistent and unpredictable, part of the conversation surrounding the character has revolved around whether the character’s “luck” elements hurt competitive Smash Bros. There’s even talk, however small, about the possibility of banning the character outright.

The Hero has smash attacks that can randomly trigger critical hits (effectively double damage). He has a spell menu the contents of which are random every time you open it. He even has a spell inside the spell menu that gives random results. So the fear is somewhat understandable—especially given the scene’s general dislike toward and removal of spawning items (i.e. a major random element) from tournament play.

While there are many arguments to make for why banning the Hero is a bad idea—the character is simply too new to understand his impact on high-level play, for one—I want to make a different case about his merits. Specifically, I believe that the Hero and his special mechanics provide new and interesting tests of skill that revolve around managing randomness without the major downsides and stigma of items-on play.

Skill and Luck Are Not Opposites

Before this argument can move forward, it is necessary to try and dispel an idea that has plagued competitive Smash since the earliest days: the false dichotomy between skill and luck. On a surface level, randomness interfering with skill makes sense because a coin flip, for example, can’t be modified through talent and effort.

But competitive scenes exist for games with heavy elements of chance, and in these environments, the question of how to navigate, take advantage of, and cope with random chance is ongoing.

Magic: The Gathering

People complain that their opponent topdecked their only out the turn they needed it, but do not realise that often their own poor play either gave their opponent more turns to draw the out or overcommitted turning the eventual out into one in the first place. —“There’s No Such Thing as Luck.”

Japanese mahjong (plus poker)

Poker players think a lot about how to maintain a strong table image…. [I]t’s going to be a lot easier to get lucky if the other players aren’t gunning for you because they’re afraid you’re too strong for them. When I’ve played Mahjong with him, Sarukawa maintains a fierce table image and it definitely makes me think twice about declaring reach even with a strong hand, thus increasing his chances of getting lucky and decreasing mine. —Nagare, Luck, or whatever you want to call that crap

There’s even a very good video from Game Developer’s Conference 2017 by designer Skaff Elias all about the false dichotomy between skill and luck.

Those who think that they have unfairly lost a Smash Bros. match due to a Mr. Game & Watch Judge 9 would likely fall into a coma if confronted by some of the agonizing probability-based losses that Texas Hold ’em players have to go through. But whereas Smash players have historically shunned randomness, other games use randomness as an opportunity to test two things: how well you can take advantage of good luck and how well you can mitigate bad luck. While complete randomness with no opportunity to interact doesn’t provide much room for interaction, good games of chance give players plenty of opportunities to show how they can roll with the punches.

Although it’s early on, I feel that the Hero provides enough avenues for both the user and the opponent to manage the character’s random elements. This, in turn, is what makes him different from turning on items—which, for the record, I am also not against, but I’ve learned long ago that trying to convince Smashers to play with items is a losing battle. Still, I think there’s hope for the Hero.

Random Factor 1: Critical Hits

Let’s first look at the Hero’s smash attacks. They are quite strong in terms of sheer power; forward smash can kill a Pichu at the ledge at around 50%. But there’s also a 1 in 8 chance to land a critical hit, which turns a roughly 20% damage attack into a 40%+ monster capable of KOing opponents close to 0%. There is no way to prevent or induce a critical hit artificially once an attack lands, so neither the Hero or the opponent can control when they happen.

The only way to guarantee not getting blasted by a critical hit is to avoid getting hit at all. But while that sounds ridiculous at first, there are a couple of limiting factors: the Hero has to actively choose to use a smash attack, and the actual moves have numerous flaws that make landing hits easier said than done.

The Hero’s up smash is similar to Marth and Lucina’s—a vertical stab straight up into the air—but unlike theirs, the Hero cannot hit anyone standing next to him. In fact, the horizontal range of the smash attack is so narrow that the opponent has to be virtually right on top for it to connect. Down smash is fairly quick and hits both sides, but is the weakest and unlikely to KO without the power of a critical hit. Forward smash is the best one, but it’s relatively slow and doesn’t reach quite as far as one might expect. Outside of the critical hit factor, all three are lacking.

And much like Mr. Game & Watch’s Judge hammer or Luigi’s Green Missile, the Hero’s smash attacks have to be deliberately chosen. They do not just happen randomly without anyone’s control, as if they were Bob-ombs spawning into a player’s attack. So the critical hits are random and they are extremely powerful, but they’re locked behind slow, somewhat unreliable moves that leave the Hero vulnerable.

Every smash attack is a roll of the dice, except those dice are cumbersome gigantic novelty ones and the table you’re rolling on is a toddler’s high chair. While they don’t have any random negative side effects like Judge, they’re inherently risky. Most importantly, the Hero player has to actively make the decision when and where to take those swings—they don’t just happen automatically.

Random Factor 2: Command Selection

Hero’s down B special is Command Selection, in which the Hero pulls up a menu of spells and special strikes, and it’s the other area of contention in regards to fairness because of how multiple layers of randomness are built into the move. First, only four spells can be displayed at a time, and it will change every time the menu is re-opened. Second, the order in which the spells show up is also inconsistent. Third, two of the spells—Whack and Thwack—have a probability of instantly KOing an opponent; the higher their damage, the more likely they’re toast. Fourth, the spell Hocus Pocus is literally a spell that randomly triggers either a move from the existing list of commands or additional modifiers both beneficial and detrimental. Although highly unlikely, it is actually possible for the Hero to hit down b, blindly pick Hocus Pocus, have Hocus Pocus trigger Thwack, and kill an opponent at 0%.

While there’s no doubt that getting destroyed by such an unusual chain of events could tilt just about anyone, I think focusing on those edge cases would be more a symptom of focusing too much on isolated results in the short term rather than consistency in the long term. Moreover, while the spell list is random, it doesn’t remove skill. Rather, it tests the players’ ability to assess what is worth using every time it opens, and to act accordingly.

Above, I mentioned games like Yu-Gi-Oh! as examples where players must randomness into account when strategizing. When it comes to Command Selection, this comparison is especially apt, because opening up the menu is not unlike drawing cards in a TCG. While there is an element of luck, it’s the responsibility of the player to be able to adjust their approach–to sometimes turn lemons into lemonade. There’s also a common mechanic in trading card games called a “mulligan,” where a hand that’s sufficiently terrible can be discarded and replaced in its entirety. The Hero essentially has the ability to mulligan his hand at any moment, but with the caveat that the opponent can see what the Hero’s options are, and that he can’t keep any of the “cards” he doesn’t use. A good Hero has to be able to build upon the tools available to him in a given moment, and just because it’s uncommon in competitive Smash doesn’t mean it’s not a skill worth testing and valuing. The ability to improvise on the fly and be effective at crisis management in the face of external forces somewhat beyond the players themselves is good.

Conclusion

Luck can bless the Hero, or it can curse him, but there are multiple caveats that make him a worthy character who should be welcomed in tournaments. First, he has to be in a position to test that luck in the first place, and most if not all of his random-outcome moves are telegraphed or announced in some way. Second, just because he gets a lucky or unlucky move doesn’t mean the match ends there—both Hero and opponent have to be able to make the best of a situation. The result is a character who works to find chances and has to adjust on the fly to external forces, and those who master this are the likeliest to find success built not on favorable fortune but the ability to seize opportunity.

Spoilers Matter

Between Avengers: Endgame, Game of Thrones Season 8, and the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker—all concluding parts for their respective stories—pop culture has been in prime “spoiler warning” territory. If you’re plugged into any sort of social media, and you don’t have the opportunity to watch things as they’re released, it can be a struggle to avoid any and all information. This also means it’s incredibly easy for a few trolls to ruin other people’s days, but what I’m even more concerned about is a recurring notion I’ve been seeing, about how people’s anger and frustration over being spoiled is some kind of sign that these works are less about art and storytelling and more about shock value and surprise. They might even say something like, “Truly good works are good even when spoiled.”

Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps they’re not. Either way, it still doesn’t mean that a desire to go in relatively “blind” is somehow valueless. In fact, I find it to be quite rude and even a little elitist to value a work over people’s own desires to such an extent that negatively impacting their experience is somehow “okay” because it shows how “limited” both the people and their “shocking” entertainment can be. While it’s true that some things stand the test of time better than others, and that a piece of media that can be enjoyed over repeat viewings is strong in many ways, you still only get one chance to see something for the first time regardless. Just because something is even better the second or third time around doesn’t mean that the initial exposure should be diminished.

Granted, even without spoilers, “going in blind” means different things to different people. Some might have ideas as to what they think will happen, and will be bracing for the moment that their pet theories are confirmed or denied. Others might be looking at character interactions and trying to see if their chosen characters have any romantic developments. Personally, I purposely try to avoid pushing my expectations onto a work as much as possible. But whatever one’s approach, and even if a work holds up after spoilers, being aware of what happens changes the way a work is experienced. You go from trying to navigate the work on your own terms to being aware in the back (or front) of your mind that an Important Thing is going to happen. That’s not necessarily bad, but if you view a work once without spoilers and then a second time with spoilers, it means you get to have both experiences.

Note that there are a few caveats. The choice of spoilers vs. no spoilers is anything but binary, and that something as simple as a movie trailer can be “too much” for some and “not count as spoilers” for others. There’s also a difference between “being okay with spoilers” and, say, people who want advance warning on anything that might trigger them and cause deep psychological pain. And for instances where a work might come from a very unfamiliar time and culture, and not knowing the proper context can mean not catching many of the meanings and signals that are assumed to be “obvious” or “common sense” to anyone from that original time or place. Foreknowledge can be significant, but having it isn’t inherently better than not having it. First impressions can potentially be based in ignorance, but that ignorance can be corrected afterwards. You can’t take back a spoiler.

If all a film, TV show, book, or whatever has is shock value, so be it. If it has more to offer, all the better. That still doesn’t make those who wish to be surprised or who wish to focus on the unexpected somehow symptoms of an ailing entertainment industry, or make their experiences trivial. They can always come back, and if the problem is that people don’t want to revisit after the first go-around, that’s not an issue with anti-spoiler culture—that’s an issue with time and its usage. But ultimately, if people only have enough time to see something once, they should be able to do it on their terms, and not ones set by some externally imposed values rooted in notions of how “true quality” is defined.

Changing of the Guard in Fandom

ComicsGate, or what remains of it, has been a thinly veiled campaign to bully women out of comics, and the “movement” itself is hardly worth talking about as anything more than unjustified harassment. However, I find that it pulls its energy from a profound change occurring in readers of the superhero genre: the ever-increasing presence of women as both readers and creators, and with it, a change in how the comics-reading community determines what is worthy of praise. I’ve seen it on a personal level, as I went from understanding comics fandom as a boys’ club filled with casual sexism and jokes about Hal Jordan’s punches to one where a mutual understanding and acceptance of such things can no longer be assumed.

I previously wrote a blog post exploring the interaction between canon, fanon, and headcanon, and in it I used those terms the way one would when talking about narrative continuity. However, I think the contrast between those concepts still exists if we use the other definition of “canon”: the commonly accepted masterpieces of a given medium. The challenging of “canons” and “fanons” in that sense is what I’ve seen as a result of the changing demographics of superhero and comics fandom. Over the course of many years, women and girls have come in with their own ideas about which artists to respect and what ideas should be taken away from a given comics, and those deeply entrenched in the older ways feel the ground shifting beneath them. Guys like that can be vulnerable to a smooth-talking neckbeard snake whispering to them, “They’re changing the rules. They’re outsiders. What happened to the things that matter?” Losing the place they belong can be more important to some than trying to address political issues in communities.

Fandom is built in partly on passion, partly on accruing knowledge and experiences. This combination lets fans both embrace that which they love—be it a book, musician, film, or anything else—and perhaps even take it to places that the work by itself would never travel. Fandom creates communities and communication, and it encourages fans to pool their resources together and establish some common ground. But when that common ground is challenged, or finds its foundation shaken by newer generations eager with different preconceived notions of what’s good or acceptable in both people and works, it can create schisms between fans.

In a way, it reflects the world’s politics at large, as previously established majorities have seen their numbers slowly dwindle in ways where numbers alone will not let them hold onto power, and a loss of influence can be downright frightening for those accustomed to always being on top in their own universes. Even if there’s an intellectual understanding that the actions of today are meant to address certain past injustices, it can be a bitter pill for those who assumed a stable foundation in their comics fandom.

You (Meaning I) Don’t Need to Know Everything

The original intention of this blog post was to review Ikeda Riyoko’s Claudine, a scandalous and emotionally intense look at a man born in a woman’s body and the complications it brings. It provides an interesting contrast to Ikeda’s most famous work, The Rose of Versailles, whose protagonist, Oscar, is raised as a man but is ultimately a woman inside.

However, as I tried to shape my thoughts on Claudine, I began to worry about whether or not I was the right person to be writing about a transgender-focused manga, never mind that Ikeda herself, as far as I know, isn’t transgender either. It’s not as if I haven’t written about similar topics before, but I’ve been increasingly self-conscious about it. My concern with writing about Claudine was that I do not know how actual transgender people might experience its narrative. Is the dominant tragic aspect of the manga considered a step backwards?

Then something dawned on me. While I consider my constant desire for knowledge a strength, this pursuit of expertise has its downsides, one of which is an inner need to say things from a place of authenticity that isn’t necessarily in reach. I expect myself to be able to understand everything eventually on a deeper level, but in some situations, as with the transgender experience, there’s only so far I can go. While there are many ways I don’t match up to the ideal male image society upholds, I don’t know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable in my own skin to that degree—to feel like who I appear to be on the surface isn’t who I am.

What I’m realizing is that it’s okay that my knowledge will forever be limited to a certain degree. I don’t need to try and be an expert in everything; I can listen to the voices of those with direct experience and those who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of equality. Support when I can, guide when I can, and learn when I can: that’s the way to approach life, especially as I grow older.

PS: I’m well aware of the irony of me taking what should have been a review of a manga about a member of a trans man and making it all about me realizing the limits of my emotional knowledge when it comes to trans people. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Privilege is a Super Meter: A Fighting Game Analogy

The concept of “privilege” is a tricky one, because it’s extremely apparent to those who lack it, and yet often unnoticeable to those who possessed it. And given the dominance of the white male in gamer culture, others have attempted to make video game-based analogies to help the unaware comprehend “privilege.” But the most prominent comparison, the idea that being privileged is like playing a game on easy mode, is ineffective for multiple reasons. While its simplicity gets the point across easily, it’s also pretty antagonistic and liable to make people defensive. “How dare you say my life is easy, just because I’m a man?”

So I propose a different analogy: being privileged is like starting each round of a fighting game with a full super meter.

Not everyone is familiar with fighting games, so this bears some explanation. Typically, when you start a match, both characters have full health, maybe somewhere between zero to 50% super meter, and placed at a neutral distance where neither has an automatic leg up on the other. Super meter is a gauge that, when sufficiently full, gives access to powerful moves that can aid players in various situations.

A full super meter at the start of a round does not guarantee a win. It does not replace or remove the need for skill, hard work, or experience. It can be squandered to the point of being useless. Some players might end up perpetually unable to truly take advantage of it. However, even if it never gets explicitly utilized, the presence of that full super meter at the start of each round influences player and character interactions from top to bottom. Just by its existence, that meter affects how your opponent perceives you.

If all you ever do is fight other people who also start with a full meter, you might never notice that there’s an issue. But as soon as you fight someone who doesn’t have this perk, the dynamics change. Imagine two players with the exact same talent and skill, playing the same character, but only one of them has that meter. The two should be able to do the same things, but one starting with more resources makes it so that what should be even exchanges are always potentially lopsided. The player with the super meter has access to additional options. That means not only does it let that player get out of tight spots they wouldn’t otherwise, and press advantages that they already have, but when only one person has that starting meter, a “neutral start” isn’t actually neutral.

That’s the thing about privilege: it subtly affects how you are perceived in the world and what you are thought to be able to get away with. It doesn’t automatically mean those who are privileged have a leg up in every situation compared to those who aren’t, but its influence permeates aspects of life big and small without anyone even having to try. It’s why assuming that everyone is on a level playing field is the classic sign of someone who is privileged and unaware of it, but also why it can be so hard to grasp for those ignorant of its existence.

Love is Like a Good D&D Campaign: Advice on Relationships

As a general rule, I try to avoid discussing love and relationships on this site. This is an anime and manga blog first and foremost, and trying to dispense human advice on a regular basis would be too off-topic for my liking. However, I’ve noticed that there is an increasing sense of hopelessness, anger, and frustration among guys who feel alone, and attribute their loneliness to either structural issues about society or unchangeable flaws in themselves. I want to help, and my hope is that anyone who feels themselves teetering on the edge of destructive hate (either for themselves or for others) might consider otherwise.

When I was younger, I had convinced myself that I was inherently unattractive, that I was somehow lacking an inherent “it” factor that everyone else around me possessed. It was lack of confidence, a lack of looks, a fear of my own awkwardness—anything that fit my internal narrative. Whatever the “rules” of attraction were, they deemed me less than adequate. If love is like a video game, then I felt as if I was missing a controller to even begin to play.

However, I came to a realization long ago: attraction is only predictable to a certain point, and one’s ability to navigate uncertainty and empathize with others is what leads to genuine love. Indeed, if love is a game, then it’s not a video game RPG where you can level up, grind for the best equipment, and ensure success—it’s more akin to running a classic tabletop RPG such as Dungeons & Dragons.

In D&D and other games of its kind, the basic goal is to go on some kind of adventure, and the role of the GM (game master) is to oversee the journey. They provide a setting and a continually evolving story in the hopes of giving players an enjoyable experience. However, a good GM eventually learns that different people have different ideas of what it means to play a tabletop RPG. Some want to be heroic dragon slayers. Others want to explore the culture of the world. Certain players love to analyze the game mechanics themselves and optimize their characters for maximum effectiveness. Some might even love performing their character for an audience. Everyone has their own yardsticks for what is a “good” campaign, and the GM ideally works with the player(s) so that it feels more like fun than work. In other words, the “rules” of what works are subjective, and will vary not only from person to person but even sometimes from one moment to the next.

Human relationships are a very similar phenomenon. Some prioritize looks more than personality, while others might be the opposite. Tall and willowy might be one person’s ideal, while another might prefer hairy and burly. Shy and contemplative might win one heart, but fail to reach those who seek the bold and the daring. There might not even be a single ideal for a given person, and some don’t even realize what they truly want until they see it. Trying to see if there’s a mutual attraction is akin to figuring out what a player wants out of their D&D sessions—it’s a feeling-out process that involves understanding individuals as individuals. Yes, there are broad patterns of human behavior, but it’s the differences that become especially important. In other words, love might appear to be a rigid game beholden to codified rules, but all that really exists is a bare template that can be molded according to what the people themselves want. That foundation provides an environment for free-form interplay and reciprocation between those willingly adapting themselves to each other, and who want to create a shared and greater sense of enjoyment.

Sex and relationships aren’t “goals” to be achieved or a box to be checked off, or milestones that one must pass in order to graduate into true adulthood. They’re also not going to instantly repair whatever problems exist within yourself. Relationships can heal the pain inside, but it’s not about fixing what’s broken—it’s about people helping each other rise to greater heights.