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I have an optimistic view of pop culture. I believe it to be a resource of creativity, a space for people to explore, and an interaction between different groups. While I acknowledge that pop culture can have deep ties with capitalism and that customers are just as often viewed as bags of money as they are people (if not more), I do not think of pop culture as a controlling force designed to influence our very way of thinking.

But what about when it is?

I’ve been taking a cursory look at North Korean pop culture recently, and generally speaking its main purpose is to reinforce the ideology that dominates the country. From television to film to music, the purpose of North Korean popular culture is propaganda. What could be considered an implicit effect of pop culture in other parts of the world is a very intentional utilization of media.

Given how obvious the elements of propaganda are in North Korean media in particular, it is very easy to draw a line between “our” popular culture and “theirs.” Their performances come across almost as outdated to our sensibilities, and the fact that they show images of missiles being launched in the middle of concerts says just about everything. However, what if I were born and raised in North Korea, or were somehow indoctrinated into its culture? Given my optimism, would I be defending North Korean pop culture the way I defend anime and manga? Would I ultimately view the cultural output of North Korea to its people as something benevolent?

That question has been with me over the past few years, mainly because I’ve had to really reflect on my approach to popular culture and its effects on people. It’s easy to champion interesting works and to point out how fans can engage with media actively, but even if these actions are possible does that mean an actual de-fanging of the controlling aspects of having what’s considered the “conventional” way of doing things appear in media (appearance, mannerisms, etc.)?

The biggest danger of optimism towards pop culture to me personally is the point at which it becomes blind faith, and it’s what I seek to avoid even as I look at it in an overall positive light. I think it’s very easy to fall towards cynisim in the process, but my hope is that I never do.

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In a recent blog article on the site Wave Motion Cannon, blogger tamerlane laments two aspects of how we talk about anime. First, he discusses lack of appreciation (one might even say disdain) that many American fans and experts of animation have towards anime. Second, he argues that sakuga fans (essentially fans of especially expressive, dynamic, and powerful Japanese animation) aren’t doing enough to help spread appreciation of the animation in anime. On these general points, I completely agree. Whether it’s anime or manga, the technical skills of Japanese creators are often unfairly get derided, labeled as being full of shortcuts and cop-outs. Anime defies the rule books of animation that people take as gospel, so critics prefer to point a finger at anime rather than the rules themselves. Similarly, I also find that sakuga fans can often sabotage themselves, but one thing that tamerlane might not realize is that in his very post are those risky elements, that which makes sakuga fans, perhaps unfairly, seen as an insular group.

To start off, I want to highlight a couple of  lines from the article:

That is, strip away all those aspects of animation that have superior alternatives elsewhere – story, music, draftsmanship – and look at what’s left. That is animation.

Animation shouldn’t exist for its own sake, certainly, and there’s no shortage of animated films that are as vacuous as they are pretty, but without any way of meaningfully differentiating itself from other forms of art it might as well not exist at all.

In other words, animation should do what is uniquely suited to it, otherwise there’s no point. It’s simple… or not.

The problem with such a sentiment is that, while it might seem like the proper way to view animation, there are serious limitations to pinning a medium down to what is unique to it. Granted, it’s not a bad way of viewing things. An artist might want to push the boundaries of the medium, and in doing so create something great. However, it leads to what philosopher and scholar Noël Carroll refers to as an over-reliance on “medium essentialism,” where in trying to emphasize the qualities of animation that cannot be replicated elsewhere one ends up ignoring the “common” aspects that can also empower a form of artistic expression. Comics scholar Thierry Groenstein describes comics in general similarly, that it is because comics are a mixture of elements found elsewhere that it can create interesting outcomes. Try telling someone who plays visual novels that they should either read a book or play a real game. Try telling someone that they shouldn’t enjoy Inferno Cop because of its intentionally terrible animation (though I have to acknowledge the possibility that one only begins to appreciate Inferno Cop if they are a fan of the act of animating itself).

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I don’t believe tamerlane means to come across as so completely essentialist, and at the very least he points out that the two schools of thought discussed in his article about animation (anime vs. Disney-esque animation) are equally valid. However, I think it’s still important to focus on the idea that to be a fan of animation (or anime) is to be a fan of the construction of animation, that it is of the highest priority for anyone who calls themselves a fan of animation. In response to this, I would argue that, while it might be impossible to just ignore the act of animating outright, one’s interest in animation can rightfully be defined by elements outside of appreciate of technical or expressive skill.

I’m going to use myself as an example. I am not the average anime fan, and I have what I would call a fairly passable understanding of sakuga and animation. I can’t necessarily recognize an animator’s work just by seeing a cut in isolation, but I appreciate Kanada, Umakoshi, Itano, and so on. However, appreciation of animation is but one facet of my interest in anime, which I would more generally describe as a fascination with the interaction of ideas and emotions across Japanese animated cartoons and their narratives, and given limited time I do not prioritize it above all else. I leave that up to the experts, whether certified or self-proclaimed, because even if they’re the latter their passion leads them further.

In fact, the reason I started looking into animators is because of Ben Ettinger, the guy behind the blog Anipages. Based on his writings, he is very clearly a fan of animation in the same sense that tamerlane and other sakuga fans are. He knows the names of the animators. He can recognize their work. He looks into the most obscure and even uninteresting shows to find strong animation. However, most crucially, I don’t sense hostility from his writing, or the idea that his way of viewing things is the right way or the only way.

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The problem comes when sakuga fans, as ambassadors of quality animation, deride the uninitiated for not “getting it,” or not understand the values of others. This can only serve to push their potential audience and potential comrades further away. If there is not an actual inability to relate to non-sakuga fans, it can appear to be the case.

It’s not my first time reading what tamerlane has to say about anime or animation. A couple of years ago, he commented on some Kill la Kill posts of mine, and expressed that one of the issues was that the characters weren’t fun to watch, tying this into his passion for the act of animation, while also stating that those who enjoyed the series only had weak reasons to do so. I disagreed on the simple basis that, while I could recognize some of the weaknesses he mentioned, they weren’t a deal breaker for me, and what I valued in Kill la Kill was still very present and very strong. However, this also gave an image of tamerlane as someone with a very specific and at times contentious point of view, so much so that I almost chose not to read his post.

I want to emphasize two things based on what I just said. The first is that, if I had ignored his article based on past interactions, I would have been the stupid one. It would have been an example of me judging someone purely through some brief internet talk where communication was marred by a number of factors that weren’t just on his side. I think it’s more than possible to see both sides, or to disagree about one thing while agreeing on another, but most importantly I believe it’s possible to respect the other side.

The second point is that not everybody can ignore their initial impressions, and how one communicate to others as fellow human beings can be just as important as what you have to say. I know, because I struggle with this to. I understand what it’s like to be frustrated that others don’t share my point of view, or to not be able to express myself well. However, at the end of the day, positioning one’s own reasons for liking a show as just inherently better will always rub people the wrong way.

Even if accusations against sakuga fans are unfounded, the impression one gives when communicating can plant that idea in the reader or listener’s head, and whether you’re talking to hostile skeptics or people eager to know more about animation, driving them away by telling them to get on your level is only going to convince a few. Sakuga fans have to speak to other fans on their own terms and empathize with them. And if not, they have to at least let their passion come across in a way that is not confrontational. Sakuga fans need more Carl Sagans, and if not him, then at least some Neil deGrasse Tysons, who can be both snarky and personable.

I’m going to leave off with some screencaps from Episode 3 of Aoi Honoo, a J-drama about the school where many future luminaries of the anime industry came from. Though obviously different from real life interactions and conversations, I think it’s worth nothing how Anno Hideaki (or rather the actor who plays him) is shown to express his love for animation, in spite (or perhaps because) of his lack of social skills.

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Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans and Gundam Thunderbolt seem to be the Gundam anime a lot of people are looking for. Whether it’s the story of child soldiers of the former or the hard SF feel of the latter, they both capture in different ways the idea of Gundam as that realistic war story with a science fiction twist. While I’ve been enjoying both of these quite a bit, I wanted to step back and look at the previous Gundam anime, 2014’s Gundam: Reconguista in G, because I think it was a legitimately strong series whose merits went underplayed and under-appreciated.

Gundam: Reconguista in G has a reputation for being confusing, convoluted, and nonsensical. Even the writer and director himself, the original Gundam creator Tomino Yoshiyuki, considered G-Reco a disappointment. I disagree. While the series is rife with Tomino-isms that make the narrative and its characters’ decisions hard to follow, one thing rings out loud and clear: G-Reco is the story of people who, for better or worse, have no true connection to war.

G-Reco takes place many years after the end of the original Gundam timeline. In this new era, the Regild Century, voyage into space is restricted, and energy resources are rationed out to prevent the world from falling into the same catastrophes which scarred previous generations. Over the course of the story, characters frivolously and repeatedly switch sides, the ones most eager to fight have the least conception of war’s effects on humanity, and ultimately even as soldiers die left and right, the consequences of their warfare, if you can call them as such, are vague and ambiguous. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a story worth following, but I believe that it all emphasizes a central point, which is that the more humankind is distanced from war, the less they understand its repercussions.

Tomino was born during World War II, so it should come as no surprise that the original Mobile Suit Gundam had a strong anti-war message. While the children of that generation weren’t born in an era of conflict, the adults knew full well what post-war reconstruction was like, and many anime and manga creators have strongly believed in the dedication to pacifism stated in Japan’s constitution. However, G-Reco debuted in a different era, in this current time when forces in the Japanese government have clamored and have now even successfully reduced the influence of the Japan’s official stance on pacifism. Similar to Gatchaman Crowds Insight, G-Reco argues that, while there are merits to a world where large-scale global conflict is a distant memory, namely because it means people don’t have to suffer to the same degree, it ironically pushes war and violence even further into the realm of appealing fantasy. It becomes about heroes and villains, about glory and pride, rather than death and destruction.

At the same time, the characters in G-Reco are largely positive and optimistic, and while its ending is rushed and its final scene is undoubtedly the most confusing part of the anime, it also speaks towards a great deal of faith in the youth of today. They make plenty of mistakes, and they’re in some ways just as guilty of treating war as play, but they’re also not beholden to the manipulations of adults and the older generation. In this respect I get a vibe from G-Reco not unlike that of Evangelion 3.33, though the unique tendencies of their respective directors make for different overall presentations.

I think it’s fitting that the last battle in G-Reco concludes with no clear winners and no real fallout, but also has some notably unceremonious deaths. It pushes the idea that war is both meaningless yet full of things that cannot be undone, and it is up to the current generation of humanity to take advantage of our distance from war by keeping it there, while remembering that such distance comes with its own perils.

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Last year, I forgot about my anniversary for about a month. Always looking to improve Ogiue Maniax, I decided that it wasn’t enough, so this time I’ve over a month and a half late for the annual retrospective.

Whoops!

Eight years sounds kind of crazy for anime blog, doesn’t it? A lot of old friends and comrades have set aside their keyboards while others keep marching on, but of course that doesn’t mean anything about their passion for their hobbies. Blogs are just one way of doing things, and it’s the format I’ve come to prefer the most. It’s just informal enough to feel comfortable, while also providing plenty of space to get serious if need be.

Though I think it a bit obvious, by far the biggest change to Ogiue Maniax this past year was the launch of my Patreon. Thanks to my patrons, but also everyone who reads and shares and even just thinks about what I have to say, I’ve managed to make a decent chunk of change from blogging. It’s not a full-time career by any means, but I think it shows that good written content is appreciated for the ideas contained within, even if the tendency in “content creation” is often towards simpler things like lists. Just the fact that my longer posts garner greater attention gives me a little more faith in the world.

I’ve been looking at the idea of being a “content creator” recently, and one thing that’s crystal clear is that written content, especially given how much time and effort is required of it, is often viewed as a losing battle. Video and podcasts are where it’s at. Of course, it’s more than possible to create quality work on YouTube or wherever, and the convenience is something even I take advantage of as a viewer, so I’m not knocking people who focus their energies in that direction. Rather, in light of this, I actually feel pretty good that there are so many people who think my writing is worth something. While I don’t need a confidence boost to keep writing, it at least is comforting to know that the energy I’ve put into Ogiue Maniax can be felt by so many.

Thanks for 8 years, everybody.

ms-marvel-9-coverIn recent years, diversity in representation of peoples has become a frequent topic of debate among fans of animation and comics. Whether it’s the rise of Steven Universe and its positive portrayals of strong female characters, or the increase in panels on women in comics, minorities in comics, and more at New York Comic Con, there has been a strong move both from fans and creators to make sure that tokenism is never a thing, and that the Rule of Three (see the video below) doesn’t stop any group from finding themselves in cartoons.

In 2014, at a Women in Comics panel at NYCC, one of the panelists mentioned the importance of learning how to communicate with the old, white men who run these companies if people want to make a difference up top. The following year at NYCC, a Diversity in Comics panel had multiple industry members talk about how management across multiple companies are realizing that other groups besides the white, male demographic are customers and are worth appealing to. Ultimately, people are communicating in the language that executives understand most of all: money.

However, while the net result seems to be in favor of a strengthening of cultural diversity, there’s a question that nags at the back of my mind as I see the talk of a changing tide. Are those executives, those old, white men, actually learning why cultural diversity in comics is important, or are they simply seeing it in terms of potential sales? Part of the reason why comics appealed to that white, male demographic for so long, aside from latent racism, was that it was seen as a reliable market, but catering too much to that aging audience has stymied its growth among the population at large. This means more attention is paid to women, LGBT, racial minorities, and more, but does it just all come down to the bottom line?

My fear is that, if diversity is simply seen as the latest ticket to profit, that if comics and animation start to be less successful, will the companies and their heads be just as quick to jettison the desire to bring different groups of people to comics? Are we ultimately beholden to entertainment media as a product of popular culture in a capitalist society?

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What is good character design?

Different people will have their own ideas about what helps the design of a character (including myself), but over the past few years I’ve begun to consider more how the elements often described as contributing to character design are a kind of double-edged sword.

Take the idea that a character should have a unique look achieved through simple yet elegant means, and that they shouldn’t be mistaken for anyone else in the cast. This is ideally achieved through stylization, and to some extent exaggeration. For example, I find the character designs in Heartcatch Precure! to be fantastic, and part of this is achieved because the girls are varying heights, and that their distinct personalities come across very clearly in the way they look. However, that same dedication to simplicity and really conveying a character’s particular characteristics through their appearance are the same tools that can be used to, for example, create harmful stereotypes. How do you make a character look more Asian? Give them squinty eyes and buck teeth, because that will immediately communicate their Asian-ness.

Of course, there’s a significant difference between making a character that expresses their uniqueness through their design, and drawing to conform a character to a general stereotype in that one is about individualizing and the other is about generalizing, but I think that the two ideas exist on the same spectrum. Take for example a political cartoon mocking a particular politician through the use of symbols and signs meant to represent that individual. A large hooked nose in this case might become the symbol of a racism against Jewish people in another context. The very tools artists use to express ideas of love, equality, and growth can also be used to spread hatred, discrimination, and regression.

I am pro-freedom of expression, so I do not believe in restricting even the more negative and harmful uses of art, but I do understand that a price is paid as a result. Images persist that can strip young people of confidence, make them feel as if they never have a chance in the world. While one way to combat it is to provide even more positive images, the inevitable difficulty is helping them to navigate all of the disparate messages without necessarily forcing them to be blind to everything that’s out there. When the strategy to helping others out is to block their access to material that might change them, then that itself can become a problem.

I myself don’t entirely know the point I’m trying to get at, but I believe it’s something along the lines of “artists have a lot of responsibility.” Whether you use your art to fight for a cause, against one, or just want to draw things that are cute, cool, gruesome, even actively traumatizing, that is a decision to be made, and to be felt, and you it is good to be prepared for the consequences that arise.

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Recently, there was an incident where a Steven Universe fanartist named Zamii was bullied online through Tumblr, actively harassed over what the aggressors stated to be the artist’s racist, sexist, and problematic fanart. More than simple and well-meaning criticism, it reached the point that the artist attempted suicide, and even the Executive Producer of Steven Universe had to step in and essentially defend fanart as a form of freedom of expression. It gets more complicated than that, but here’s a helpful article that summarizes the whole controversy.

I wanted to say something about this issue, but the problem was that there’s actually so much wrong with this situation that I was having trouble deciding where to begin. So, I think I’m going to start from the basics, the core ideas that I think need to be understood and appreciated so that people willingly reflect on their actions. If these are communicated successfully, then maybe I’ll branch out further in a future post.

We currently live in a time where people are increasingly aware of how perceptions of themselves and the world are shaped in part by the media around them. If you’re a girl and you grow up in a world that tells you women are sluts, that’s going to affect you on some level, even if you ultimately defy it. If you’re a minority and you’re told that you can only work certain jobs, or you’re fat and being told that you can never be beautiful, then it’s going to stay with you, needling at the back of your mind. This is what makes Steven Universe such an interesting series: its diversity of representation, and the strength and growth of its characters are not only well-written but can even be said to question race, gender, and sexuality norms in an uplifting manner. This is what attracts many fans to Steven Universe, and why diversity is at times at the forefront of discussion about the series.

Were the harassers right about Zamii’s art being problematic? I do not believe so personally, but on some level it doesn’t matter how justified their position was.  They could have been 100% right for all I care. The problem is—and I want not just people involved in this situation but everyone to read this—even if you are right, it does not give you the license to be an asshole.

Of course I know things aren’t so cut and dry. There are strong emotions at work, and unlike those who believe that emotions are inherently counter to logic, I think that they actually can help to reveal some of the issues with ourselves and our societies in ways that complement the use of reason. In fact, I believe that emotion is of utmost importance to those bold words above because it’s a matter of empathy, and empathy is a quality that is worth extending to everyone, even those with whom you vehemently disagree.

Ideas can be thought of as living entities, ever-changing as they interact with other ideas. What seems like a sound notion that benefits the greater good in one decade may be revealed to be harmful or dangerous in another. What makes thinking and learning so crucial to societies is that there is the possibility of growth, and that we as human beings are not beholden to the doctrines of yesterday. This is what has allowed race and gender equality to take hold and make progress, even if only a little bit. When you honestly believe in your righteousness to the extent that you feel it necessary to fulfill its demands no matter the consequences, then you are falling into the very trap that all of this progress was meant to avoid. A bully clad in the conviction of helping others is still a bully at the end of the day.

This is not to say that people should never stand up for what they believe in, or that no actions should be taken when someone or something is wrong. However, when you take such an extreme position, that you are right and the “enemy” is wrong and must be brought to justice, mob or otherwise, you paint yourself into a corner. If you harass them directly, create websites dedicated to discussing how terrible they are, or even go as far as to obtain their personal information for the purpose of tormenting them, then you are pretty much saying that the ends justify the means. If that’s the case, then here’s a simple question: how would you feel if it happened to you?

It’s possible that you believe that it would never happen to you, because you’re morally upstanding in every way. Your philosophy on a variety of topics is in favor of acceptance, tolerance, and diversity. Will that always be the case, though? Are you sure that everything you think and feel will always be considered correct and not harmful or problematic? Whatever the case may be, if you harass and bully others, you’re pretty much saying that others would be equally justified in attacking you should the occasion arise. And even if you are indeed morally pristine, that doesn’t prevent it from still potentially happening to you. All people need to do is 1) believe that you’re somehow wrong or evil 2) stand by the idea that the ends justify the means and 3) not understand that you’re a human being too.

Before I end off, there’s another side to all of this that I think has to be mentioned, which is the allure of being on the “winning side.” I understand that, on a very basic human level, people want to feel that they’re right. They want to stand with the majority because it doesn’t only make life easier, it just feels good. As much as I’ve talked about all of this being a problem, it’s not like I’m totally innocent of this. When I was picked on as a kid, I would sometimes fall to the temptation of picking on kids even dorkier than I was. I was wrong, of course. I shouldn’t have ever done that, and to remember that I was willing to join the horrible little assholes who would make my own life hell just for that brief respite from being the target still kind of makes me sick. Please understand that your actions are not in a vacuum, and that when you join in on attacking someone because you either want the thrill of being part of the in-crowd or enjoy seeing others suffer, even if it’s “for the right reasons,” you’re condoning an attitude and approach to solving problems that only begets more hatred and more “us vs. them” mentalities that work not to bridge gaps but to widen them.

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I’m a fan of characters who support. Whether it’s Dominic Sorel in Eureka Seven, who stands by the long-suffering Anemone or Aida Riko in Kuroko’s Basketball, who coaches and manages the Seirin High School Basketball Team, often times my favorite characters are those who care less for being the “hero,” and who try to make a difference in their own way. Generally speaking, I’m of the belief that there are many ways to make a difference, and that you don’t need to be the one chopping the monster’s head off, nor should we fault others for not aspiring to be that mighty warrior. Indeed, even more recent main characters like Kuroko Tetsuya in Kuroko’s Basketball and Onoda Sakamichi in Yowamushi Pedal are protagonists whose powers are primarily based on “support.”

However, I find that, as much as I enjoy that character type, they potentially are a source of complacency, and one might even argue that they teach people to settle for less. Case in point, while I think Riko does a lot for her team and is just a great character in general, she derives from an archetype that is basically a sideline cheerleader. They’ll either be the newbie who needs things to be explained, or the informative expert who does the explaining, but when the chips are down their purpose in the story is to stare longingly as the hero goes into action. There’s some sexism historically at work here, with female characters being created to serve the male leads, but I don’t want to make the issue purely about sex and gender, especially given all of the work that’s been done to play with and expose those tropes, like how Witch Craft Works essentially genderswaps the typical shoujo heroine and shoujo ideal love interest. I also don’t want to deny the ability for a “sideline cheerleader” to be an interesting character in their own right. Rather, it’s more about the idea that “everyone is the hero of their own story,” and how there are positives and negatives to it.

On the one hand, the notion that everyone is the main character in their own lives, be it reality or fiction, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy of confidence, where one imbues oneself with agency and ambition, and accomplishes their goals. At the same time, it might cause people to seek out “glory” without necessarily finding their own definition for the word, instead conforming to what their society (or what readers supposedly think) are parameters for success.

On the other hand, if one believes in supporting others, this might afford them a point of view that could go unnoticed otherwise. Glory for oneself is unimportant, because what really matters is doing what one can. However, this same mindset carries the risk of encouraging passivity to the point that people might inadvertently lose opportunities to better themselves. Perhaps it even becomes an excuse for why they remain in their rut.

Obviously these are in a way two extremes, and that there is a full spectrum between light and shadow, to borrow a phrase from Kuroko’s Basketball. Characters like Riko and Dominic essentially work in opposite directions towards a center, with Riko coming from the manager character and Dominic defying what it means to “rescue the girl.” There’s a lot of interplay and room for interpretation, and it opens up paths for artists, be they professional, amateur, and/or fan, to explore and defy what they’re told is “normal.” I just find myself thinking about how simply saying that I prefer support characters can carry a lot of implicit meaning.

The last thing I want to leave off with is a scene from Game of Thrones, when Tywin Lannister, the patriarch of the powerful House Lannister, asks his grandson what makes a good king. When the grandson replies correctly with “wisdom,” Tywin is ecstatic and explains that wisdom comes in part from knowing what you don’t know, and heeding your advisers who are experts in their fields. In this case, though the king is supposed to be the one with all of the glory, is it the case that being a king is perhaps the biggest support position of all?

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Who is the greatest moe anime character?

That’s the question that the Saimoe (literally “Most Moe”) Tournament set out to answer, and its long history of competitions, dating back to 2002, are a reflection of not so much the state of anime fandom over the past 13 years, but rather how internet anime fandom has grown, changed, and even arguably moved on past the concept of moe in both the US and Japan.

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If there’s one fact I always find interesting about Saimoe, it’s that its original winner was Kinomoto Sakura of Cardcaptor Sakura. There’s something just so appropriate about her being the first champion, given how beloved she is among anime fans of all stripes. However, Saimoe is also often a snapshot, a look into the zeitgeist of at least a corner of anime fandom, and in that same tournament it might come as no surprise that its silver medalist was Osaka from Azumanga Daioh. These days Azumanga Daioh is viewed as a relic of the Early 2000s, an excellent show for sure, but not as timeless as its fervent fans (of which I am included) would have hoped for.

Other than Sakura, who has stood the test of time as Saimoe champions? It’s okay if you don’t remember who has won Saimoe before, as anime fandom as a whole has a tendency to burn briefly yet passionately for its favorite characters, where in the moment it seems as if her fame will last forever, the sheer memetic popularity of a Suiseiseki (Rozen Maiden) or a Takamachi Nanoha (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha) blinding fans from seeing the long-term. That’s not to say that characters such as Aisaka Taiga (Toradora!) and Rosemary Applefield (Ashita no Nadja) are forgettable or bad, but that the otaku mind can be a fickle thing.

Among these titles, it seems as if Madoka Magica‘s popularity still endures, giving a kind of strength to previous winners Madoka and Mami, but one factor that also has to be considered is that the numbers for Saimoe participation rose rapidly in the mid-2000s, and then declined sharply afterwards. To give an idea, for final-round votes, Sakura won in 2002 with 580, Suiseiseki won in 2006 with 2306, and most recently Saki and Nodoka from Saki tied each other at 187. This can be explained by the fact that the mid-2000s were when Saimoe truly opened up to international participation, but also that the idea of “moe” no longer carries as much subcultural weight.

This is perhaps best exemplified by that Suiseiseki victory. It was during that time that fervent fans on 4chan and other communities figured out how to vote for their favorite characters, and whether they were genuinely voting for who they believed was “most moe,” were backing their favorite characters, were trying to push a running gag forward, or they wanted to rally behind their chosen girl, Suiseiseki embodied all three. She was the center of the DESU DESU DESU meme, Rozen Maiden was generally popular among hardcore fans, and her character does have distinguishable moe qualities overall. The heyday of Saimoe was indeed also the heyday of 4chan, and while it’s questionable as to whether Saimoe had ever been more than a popularity contest, when looking at the “rise and fall” of Saimoe, so to speak, what comes out of the other side isn’t so much as a return to the idea of “moe” from the earlier days when Cardcaptor Sakura won it all, but something new and different that I can’t quite fully describe.

Let’s compare the winners of Saimoe 2012 and 2014, all of whom come from the anime series Saki. 2012’s champion was Onjouji Toki, a character who is strictly moe by all conceptions of the often-nebulous term. Toki is a sickly girl whose ability to peer into the future to win at mahjong set her up as a tragic figure that overshadowed even the protagonists of her story (the ending theme to Saki: Episode of Side A, “Futuristic Player,” is actually a reference to Toki). It’s hard to describe her as anything but “moe.” In contrast, while there are cutely tragic elements to Saki and Nodoka, their dual-victory in Saimoe carries a very different set of meanings. First, it can’t be ignored that Saki dominated the overall bracket, to the extent that it could be argued that the fans who care most these days about “moe” overlap significantly with Saki fans. Second, and I think this is more important, Saki has a major yuri component, and I believe that is the true meaning behind the tie. In fact, Toki, Mami, and Madoka also all attract yuri fanbases.

saki-and-nodoka

Yuri to some extent has been a factor in people’s views of characters as moe (see Nanoha and Fate’s popularity), but the role that the cute girl plays in the aspirations and fantasies of anime fandom seem to have changed. Moe as an idea was arguably overwhelming and overpowering at its height, but now it seemingly has begun to secede, and in its place is a network of interests of which yuri is a part. I put it that way because I don’t think “yuri” supplanted “moe” as if that would even be possible. After all, yuri as a vocabulary word predates the solidification of moe by at least a couple of decades, so if anything moe was the young upstart terminology. Rather, moe may have gradually melded itself back into the fabric of anime’s iconic characters, to the extent that trying to ask who is the “moest” has become a more difficult and less directly appealing proposition overall.

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The fact that anime and manga about food is a “thing” is one of the commonly referenced points to show how diverse Japanese animation can be. Rather than fighting with weapons or fists, characters will often try to outmatch each other in the kitchen, and the results are as diverse as Mr. Ajikko, Yakitate!! Japan, The Drops of God, Fighting Foodons, and indeed the current Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma.

However, I have to wonder if America is that far off from getting something similar, based on the direction that the Food Network has taken over at least the past five or six years. Where once the main feature of the cooking-oriented Cable channel was the variety of personable chefs making food from around the world look amazing, now the most common feature on Food Network has been competition through cuisine. Chopped. Food Network Star. Iron Chef America. Cake Wars. 24 Hour Restaurant Battle. Guy’s Grocery Games. Food Feuds. Food Fight. Throwdown with Bobby Flay. The list goes on.

While one obvious difference between food anime (which doesn’t have to be about competition but frequently is), and these Food Network shows is that one is inherently fictional while the other thrives off of the idea that they’re real people engaged in real rivalries with each other, they share a similar air of dramatic narrative. Both find ways to make something as visually appealing but not as lively as, say, sports or fighting, have more intensity. Close-ups on fine knife work. Flames roaring as someone stir fries using a wok. Unfortunate accidents and injuries. All of this works together to make food preparation a fierce, perhaps even macho world in a bid to get more guys to watch Food Network in the first place.

In that respect, another point that some food anime and Food Network shows have in common is the use of sex appeal. While it’s much more noticeable for a series like Food Wars!, where the girls are drawn to be curvaceous, and eating good food is a downright orgasmic experience, I think it’s no secret that a lot of the Food Network’s female stars are dressed in ways that enhance their bodies. This isn’t a criticism of the use of sex appeal, and especially for TV it’s par for the course. Food and sex are also not unfamiliar companions, and I could see two arguments coming out of this: first, that sex appeal can add to the excitement of food, or second, that the sort of “excitement” it brings emphasizes anything but the food. Food Wars! strikes a “balance” by pushing both to the extreme.

That’s not to leave out the other common type of food anime (and especially manga), however. One of the other common trends with food-themed works in Japanese visual media is an emphasis on travel, discovery, and healing. These series are built upon finding the next interesting food, or having a particular dish or beverage be exactly what someone needs to fix an emotional problem in their life.

Perhaps what might bridge the gap and possibly even get an animated food series on something like Food Network would be to add drama through presentation, to take something like a documentary and try to give it greater expressiveness through the art of animation.

Or they could just make a series where Fieri is a Super Saiyan.

ssj-guyfieri

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