Wishing for Hope, Reaching to Help

I’m grateful to be in a position where I am mentally and emotionally well, even in this pandemic. It’s easy for me to assume that fear and concern over COVID-19 is what’s on people’s minds, but the recent deaths of so many people and figures in my social and fandom spheres just has me hyper-aware of the challenges many face that are likely exacerbated by current circumstances. 

In the world of anime, Zac Bertschy of Anime News Network died in his apartment on May 21, 2020. In wrestling, Shad Gaspard died at age 39 after helping save his son from a rip current on May 17. Another wrestler, Hana Kimura was 22 when she died by suicide on May 23 after online harassment due to her appearance on the reality show Terrace House. And while this isn’t recent, it’s been almost a year since the suicide of gaming youtuber Etika, who was 29. Death may be unpredictable and inevitable, but the fact that they all left so young makes me shake my head in disbelief.

I wasn’t close to any of the people I mentioned, so my perspective is not as a friend or peer, or even necessarily as a fan or follower. Yet, I feel something: sadness, anger, frustration, or maybe something else I can’t describe. In the case of Hana Kimura, I kept saying to myself, “I really need to check out Stardom because she seems like a star,” and now all I’ll have is past videos to reference. It makes me want to reach out to my friends, and those I’ve lost contact with over the years. It’s easy to just assume that the last image you had of them is roughly how they are today, but time passes and people face challenges both internal and external. I always worry about overstepping my boundaries or thinking I’m closer to someone than I actually am, and maybe I just need to find the tiny ounce of courage to get over that and maybe, just maybe, help someone turn away from a bad decision. 

I used to frequent a chat room that was named after the anime Maria-sama ga Miteru (aka Maria Watches Over Us). A few years since I last visited, I decided to stop by, and the chat topic included a person’s name: “So-and-so ga Miteru.” It turns out they had passed away. A couple more years passed, and I visited again. This time, more names had been added to the topic. It feels like I blinked, and more of the people I knew had vanished. As far as I know, none of those deaths were due to suicide, but they stung nevertheless. And while I never really interacted with them on any deeply personal level, it made my infrequent visits feel like “too little, too late.” When it’s related to physical health, there’s only so much any of us can do. When it’s not, it hits differently. 

I hope we can connect to our fellow human beings, those we love and even those with whom we have the barest connection, so that we can help lift up one another. If you’re feeling like life isn’t worth living, reach out to suicide prevention for professional help. If you’re hurting and just need someone to listen, feel free to even leave a comment below or contact me on Twitter

Remember: you’re worth something.

The White Fear of Mediocrity

For the past couple of years, I’ve been listening over and over to the song  “Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan. Despite being from the 70s, it was only a recent discovery for me, and the only prior exposure I had to Steely Dan was though the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure character of the same name. 

But it’s a timeless song that has me revisit it on a regular basis and to think about its messages. Its first-person narrative about a guy in the suburbs who dreams of a nightlife of playing saxophone, getting drunk on Scotch whiskey, and dying in a car accident indicates an unease I find reflective of the song’s very specific context: a distinctly white, male, and suburban fear of mediocrity. What strikes me most is that this fear still clearly exists today, and it bleeds heavily into American culture. Whether it’s drug abuse in suburban communities to escape the everyday drudgery or people turning to games to exercise their power fantasies, the general mood of “Deacon Blues” persists.

I’m not white and I’ve never lived in the suburbs, so I can’t directly relate to the malaise and yearning described in “Deacon Blues.” From my perspective growing up in the US, the suburbs were more of a distant dream for hard-working parents to strive for—even if I myself was never a fan of that vision. So as an outsider with respect to white suburban culture (or lack thereof), what I see is a community where people can be in so privileged a position that it creates certain unique challenges which strike at the core of how people define themselves and their success. Fear of mediocrity assumes there’s a safety net that keeps one from falling through the cracks, which is not a luxury everyone has. 

Just consider that the white suburban fear of a boring, mind-numbing existence resulting from limited success would be a mere pipe dream for many people of lesser means and fewer opportunities. There’s a saying about how black people don’t go camping because it’s just white people spending lots of money to pretend they’re poor–it’s not that different from what’s being said in “Deacon Blues.” The narrator there is glamorizing a life of pain and struggle because it’s something he can’t have while in his comfortable, repetitive life. 

This is not to minimize the effect of suburbs on the psyche–there’s evidence that their strangely sterile construction and layout does affect people negatively. Nor am I trying to trivialize the cultural circumstances that make being a minority in the US a challenge. But I think people in the suburbs (or indeed similar situations) often want something to fight against as a way to stave off a rutterless sense of direction. It leaves many vulnerable to manipulation, as they’re convinced that their “purpose” is to loyally fight for some terrible and often xenophobic cause.

I actually think the general dimensions of these feelings of inadequacy are not exclusive to white American culture. In Japan, for example, the presence of hikikomori (chronic shut-ins) and the recent popularity of isekai (parallel world) fiction both seem to suggest a society where people often feel powerless and directionless. Hikikomori generally have the luxury of being cared for by relatives in a way that makes them seem coddled, but a fear of what lies outside is all too real. Isekai fiction tends to be very heavy on male power fantasy, but it’s a particular kind of fantasy tied to one’s gaming and nerd knowledge. It speaks to a desire to have one’s time and effort validated. There’s even a similarity when it comes to each country’s fight with recession, and the way that both the “lost generation” of Japan and the millennials of the US were forced to notice that the seemingly endless prosperity of their parents’ generation was abused to the point of near-failure.

However, one difference is that the American suburban mood is ultimately tied to a failure to reconcile the American dream’s inherent contradictions within a capitalist society where success and failure are supposed to say something about one’s character. The fear of mediocrity creeps in, taunting minds with notions of “What if I could’ve been more?” And it’ll continue to haunt the suburbs for as long as they remain dull and discouraging towards expression.

Their Problem is Our Problem: The Promised Neverland, “Coronavirus,” and the Systems that Force Inequality

WARNING: THE PROMISED NEVERLAND MANGA SPOILERS

In Chapter 172 of The Promised Neverland, there’s a collage that’s rather conspicuous, given the actual pandemic hitting the world at this moment. As the heroine Emma is confronting an enemy leader about how differences in positions are the root of conflict, one of the images has a wall with the word “coronavirus” graffitied on it. 

Up to this point, it’s been established that the main characters live in an alternate dimension from the regular human world, but there haven’t been direct calls to the reality in which we, the readers, live. I think this “coronavirus” page is a direct message from the creators of The Promised Neverland, Shirai Kaiu and Demizu Ponsuka, and what that message says is: “The ideas conveyed in this manga are not meant to be taken as mere vague abstractions about generally making the world a better place, but as very real criticisms of society.”

When The Promised Neverland first began, it was an interesting manga about a cat-and-mouse game and a battle of wits in a dystopian setting. Originally, the focus was on escaping an orphanage designed to turn children into food. Then, it was about surviving against the demons on the outside. Over time, however, the series has revealed a greater world where the real evil of the series is not scary human-eating monsters but how the corrosive desire to hold onto power at the expense of the greater good. 

In order to survive, some children strive to become mothers—essentially overseers of the human farms, but also chattel themselves due to being the literal suppliers of the chain through giving birth. Mothers are told that the best among them can become a “grandmother,” supervising all the mothers, making them compete desperately too. It’s even revealed that the demons themselves have an oppressive class hierarchy. Eating human meat is what has allowed them to gain a high level of intelligence, but a steady diet is necessary because otherwise they’ll revert back to beasts. The rulers of their world get access to the best meat, and can thus maintain their already massive advantage. Moreover, there turns out to have been a way to permanently prevent the demons from losing their intellect, but the ruling class purposely and violently obscured that information to keep the masses dependent on those in charge. In other words, everything about society in The Promised Neverland is premised around pitting the lower classes against one another to distract from the intentional systemic issues imposed by those in power.

How does that apply to our own world? “The top 1% hold 99% of the wealth” is about how massive inequality concentrates all the power in a select few who inevitably enrich themselves at the expense of others. In regards to keeping the lower classes at one another’s throats, US president Lyndon B. Johnson famously said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Writer and lecturer Douglas Rushkoff even wrote an article in 2018 about how some of the ultra-rich are preparing for the apocalypse by figuring out how to save themselves while still wondering if it would be necessary to lock down their guards’ food supplies to force loyalty.  And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing how the very same types are retreating further into their massive safety nets, leaving those with less to struggle. It’s crystal clear to me that there’s a similar sentiment at work fueling the overt criticism of the disparity in power and resources in The Promised Neverland

The fact that Weekly Shounen Jump comes out with brand new chapters of manga on a regular and consistent basis can be a blessing and a curse, but one advantage of the accelerated pace of a weekly manga magazine is how quickly it can potentially seize upon the relevant events of the day. What that “coronavirus” graffiti communicates is simple: the crises your heroes are facing in The Promised Neverland are not that far from the problems that plague the very reality in which you live. Emma, as the heart of this series, staunchly opposes false dichotomies that lead to zero-sum situations where one group can only “win” by sacrificing another. Perhaps The Promised Neverland wants us all to be allies in this struggle, and to be aware of the real problems that gave way to our current global crisis: racism, social inequality, intentionally massive disparities in wealth and resources, and an economic environment where those in power are encouraged to let the whole world burn if it means keeping their positions.

Brief Thoughts on Anime, Manga, and COVID-19

It’s rare that anything can have such a visibly profound global impact, but that’s what we’re seeing with COVID-19. I find it funny that I tried last year to predict what the 2020s would hold in store, and it hasn’t even been six months before everything has gone sideways. For many people around the world, it has disrupted various aspects of life, and even the anime and manga industries have already felt its effects. Notably, A Certain Scientific Railgun T was delayed for a little while specifically because of the novel coronavirus, and its situation portends to a general trend going forward.

But COVID-19 likely won’t just change the production logistics of anime and manga—there’s also storytelling, themes, visual expression, and just about all the things we might take for granted or perceive as the norm. While we’re probably see works that either try to explore disease and pandemics (either directly or metaphorically), even more escapist entertainment is going to have the specter of the coronavirus hanging over. What does a harem manga even feel like in an era of social distancing? What about seeing characters just give one another hugs? To what extent well even the fantasies of fiction feel odd? In recent days, I’ll look at old videos from a month ago—including but not limited to anime and manga—and their tacit assumptions about the world already feel…dated.

Another big factor is how globally common the problem of COVID-19 has become. Something like 9/11 affected the US differently compared to other countries (though the US’s actions continue to have widespread effects). 3.11 hit Japan in life-changing ways, but that’s not as much the case in other areas. COVID-19 feels different in that its basic consequences are similar the world over. The disease spreads very easily, and it doesn’t discriminate. Old people are most at risk but no one is necessarily “safe.” Restaurants, theaters, and other social gathering sites cannot function as normal. Staying home as much as you can in order to help out is the name of the game. This universality means any media or entertainment made in response to COVID-19 will be understood virtually anywhere. 

Incidentally, Season 2 of the Cells at Work anime was just announced for January 2021. How ironic it would be if that series got delayed due to these circumstances…

The way COVID-19 has changed and will continue to affect everyday life is difficult to fully grasp, and I hope humankind can come out of this safe and sound and ready to tackle whatever problems still face us. In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see how our art and entertainment reflect this new world.

2010–2019 Part 1: Prediction Results

Ten years ago, I made a blog post titled 2000-2009 Part 2: Looking Forward, where I tried to foresee where anime would go over the next ten-plus years. Now that we’re in 2019, it’s time to see how it turned out!

The First Digital Generation

In about 20 years or so we are going to see an entire generation of adults in Japan (and around the world) who have grown up primarily on digital animation…. Over time, I think that the peculiarities of digital animation, such as the computer-based shortcuts, will become part of the style itself, but less direct about it than, say, Studio SHAFT’s current output…. But if there are any, they will be making in-jokes and references about the early, nostalgic days of digital animation and not light boxes and such.

For better or worse, as a new range of ideas and techniques emerge, parts of animation technique and philosophy born out of cel-based anime will fade away, perhaps forever. After all, Miyazaki can’t live forever.

Digital animation has been embraced in full, with the last cel-based series, Sazae-san, switching over to digital in 2013. The style of early-2000s anime is understood, but the nostalgia for anime is still somewhere in the 1990s, so we haven’t reached the point where those early digital animation works and their aesthetic are a part of the cultural lexicon.

While digital animation is the industry default now, it’s not as if the more daring uses of digital animation have become standard. At the same time, I would argue that integrating 2D and 3D animation has been much more successful—something that is made easier by the transition to digital. Two works that stand out to me in this regard are Girls und Panzer and Kids on the Slope.

As for Miyazaki, he’s still around, and he’s coming out of retirement for what may be the 500th time. He also used this decade to make one of his most daring films ever, The Wind Rises.

Flash Animation

In light of the anime industry’s history of low budgets, I think that more companies, be they animation studios, broadcasters, or otherwise, will start to look at Flash as a viable method to keep things low-cost and at-home. Now I don’t think it will eliminate today’s more “traditional” animation, especially when it comes to bigger-name, bigger-budget works, but it will be an appealing tool for those middle-of-the-road shows, and shows for kids.

Nothing dates a prediction post quite like hyping up outdated technology and programs, huh! The world, including the anime industry, has moved away from Flash animation, but the simple, flat style can still be seen in the many short anime (as in 13 minutes or less) that have come out since, such as Inferno Cop and Ai-Mai-Mi.

Looking away from Flash specifically, many tools have emerged that facilitate creating anime with limited resources. Most notable among these is the 3D animation program Miku Miku Dance—itself an extension of Vocaloid as an artistic tool for creators both professional and amateur—and the bizarre yet endearing shows that have been made using MMD. Most of the time, that meant oddities like gdgd Fairies and Tesagure Bukatsumono, but also the surprise smash hit that was Kemono Friends.

Changing Views on Hikikomori and NEETs

The chronic shut-in known as the “hikikomori” is a topic that Japan for the past decade has been in debate over….

But the reality of the economy is such that not having a good job (or a job at all), living at home, and having your parents’ support will be an increasingly common sight. Some will become hikikomori and try to close themselves off from the world, but there may be a sizable group that is only partially hikikomori, who will not completely lose their ability to interact with others or to engage in meaningful activity, and they will have a cultural and social “pulling” effect on the full-blown hikikomori….

The result may be that Japan’s view on the hikikomori and the NEET, especially in the face of having these groups increase in size, will be a mixture of greater panic and greater relief as they will fret once again that this is potentially very dangerous for Japan, while the internet will provide this larger hikikomori population with the group setting in line with Japanese ideas of “group….”

In many ways, the image of hikikomori and NEETs hasn’t changed that much, with the same criticisms about them being a drain on society still persisting. I think one thing that is becoming clearer and clearer to the younger generations both in Japan and around the world is that the blame cannot be laid squarely at the feet of the shut-ins. The adults of the world have failed the youth on some level, and the kids are only starting to fight their parents in the street to find out who’s right and who’s wrong.

There’s also been a rise in a kind of “NEET pride” that permeates anime, most notably in the ascendancy of light novel isekai—series that often have hikikomori heroes who possess powers tied to their previously less than stellar lives. In a good work (e.g. My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected), these characters, and their struggles and growth, tell stories about being human.

Perhaps no example is bigger than the transformation seen in No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Unpopular, aka Watamote, started off in the early 2010s as the story of an utterly hopeless otaku girl whose personal vices made her a relatable character to the self-proclaimed losers of 4chan. Despite Tomoko’s seeming fate as a perennial failure of a human being, even she has begun to change in the series.

Thematic Responses to the Economy

In about three to five years, I predict that we will begin to see both anime and manga which address the idea of global recession itself and incorporate it into the themes and settings in these works, to have it become a concept that is to be explored, whether directly or indirectly. Evangelion and other shows were responses to the recession that befell Japan starting in the early 90s, and I don’t think it would be unusual for an international economic downturn to have a similar effect.

With the global recession on everyone’s minds 10 years ago, it’s no wonder that I thought it would become a bigger subject. There have been anime that touch upon money and politics, but it’s not as if there was a huge influx. Back in 2009, Japan was already in the middle of a decades-long recession, so it didn’t affect them quite in the same way it did the United States. Instead, it would be tragedies like the Fukishima Triple Disaster that would highlight the real cost of greed and neglect.

While there were few anime made in response to the global recession, there were series that tried to highlight the challenges of political participation and governance ethics in the second decade of the 21st century, such as Psycho-Pass and Gatchaman Crowds.

The New Escapes

There are two basic forms to “escapism.” The first is a type of introverted escapism, that is, to become increasingly insular. The second is an extroverted escapism, where you want to project outwards, to go beyond yourself….

In that sense, I think that in the near future the escapism for anime and manga will be increasingly introverted, but will soon give way to a more extroverted form as a response to the desires of more and more fans who want to be released into other worlds…. I think we will see a lot of stories about worlds with wide scope focused through the lens of personal characterization, and in a way in which the former affects the latter significantly and vice versa.

One of the big genres of the 2010s has been isekai, i.e. being transported or reborn in a different world, and I think that it is a prime example of mixing both internal and external escapism. There is literally another world to explore, and the protagonist is often simultaneously special and unspecial, allowing readers to indulge in both dominant power fantasy and being the underdog. But there is often a lingering awareness of who the protagonist was in their previous life, and in a sense, their fears and doubts are still akin to the more introspective and flawed heroes of the past.

It’s also this decade that Madoka Magica took fandom by storm, and while that series isn’t exactly lighthearted, it too feels like a work responding to the desire for stories to be both more internal and more external. And when it comes to looking inward but going beyond, My Hero Academia is a series where that’s a central theme. You can even extend this to series such as A Place Further Than the Universe, where instead of going to another world, the characters find themselves through a journey to Antarctica.

Increased International Integration in Collaborative Efforts

…I predict that over the next decade and beyond, we will be seeing collaborations on animation and comics where the staff producing these works will be much more closely integrated. International collaboration isn’t new to manga and especially not to anime, but the work is usually cleanly divided between the countries involved. So it’ll be less Gurihiru drawing for Marvel’s Power Pack and more Oban Star Racers.

This decade saw more and more international artists working in anime and manga. Thomas Romain, who worked on Oban Star Racers, is a staple of Studio Satelight shows. Animators such as Bahi JD from France contribute the world over, whether that’s Toei Animation’s Philippines division, or freelance animators outside of Japan working on key frames/genga on a variety of shows.

But one other big development has been foreign funding for anime, especially through Netflix, which solidified itself as perhaps the go-to streaming services and has been expanding into anime ever since. In some cases, such as with Devilman Crybaby, the production team and creative is still mainly Japanese. In others, such as LeSean’s Cannon Busters, they’re developed cooperatively with artists and creators abroad.

Another important note is the success of Studio Trigger (Little Witch Academia, Kill la Kill, Promare) in their desire to appeal internationally. Many studios attempt this, but I think it’s Trigger that has best understood the international market, especially the Western market.

Age Demographics in Japan vs Age Demographics Abroad

…I believe that in time the manga audience in the US will slowly mature and eventually reach a point where they want something that is more in-line with how they feel about entertainment, their lives, and the world at large.

The key however will be whether or not Japan realizes that age demographics do not map one-to-one between Japan and the US … and they will have to somehow find a way to understand just what this slightly more matured manga-seeking audience is looking for, possibly through the greater international collaboration.

I think the overall maturing of the anime fandom abroad has happened in a big way, and it’s clear from the kinds of series that have found better success over the past ten years, and it’s not just because people got older. While shounen fighting and other popular genres stay evergreen, I believe that stranger-looking series such as Land of the Lustrous and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure needed the non-Japanese fandom to develop to the point that they could be better appreciated. There’s also the increasing popularity of sports series, which were once a death sentence in the United States.

As for Japan understanding that age demographics don’t line up, I think it’s happening because they themselves are aware of it happening in Japan.

Multimedia Customization

I think that starting in the next few years this is all going to start changing until we reach a point of personal customization in our anime and manga: You will be able to make exactly the purchase you want with exactly the things that you want, on-demand.

This definitely did not happen. In fact, we’ve seen some companies release even more deluxe editions that only hardcore fans willing to shell out $400 or more can ever obtain. At the very least, many of these expensive series are available streaming, thus giving access to those who can’t afford to own them.

New Paths for New Talent to Appear

I think anime is heading in a direction where people won’t have to be skilled at every aspect of animation production to be considered a Big Deal. One possibility I’ve thought of is “anime festivals” for amateur creators, be they industry-sponsored or independent, with competitions and awards for categories such as storyboarding and writing in addition to full-on animations. More importantly however, these anime festivals could take place entirely online.

Manga too will start to have online festivals…. It’s not so much specialization as it is realizing again that not everyone talented is multi-talented.

While there’s nothing quite like an online-only Comic Market, there have been projects to encourage new artists.

On the anime side, three main examples have emerged as opportunities for young animators to show their skills. First is the Young Animators Training Project, which has less experienced Animators animators work with established studios to create anime shorts. Little Witch Academia is probably the most famous work to result from this. Second is the Japan Animator Expo started by Evangelion director Anno Hideaki, which encourages more experimental work. Third is the more practical Animator Dormitory Project, a crowd-funded way of giving young and old artists a place to blunt the cost of living in Tokyo on a meager animator’s salary.

On the manga side, I look less at the competitions which exist and more at the fact that sites like Pixiv have brought about a number of success stories. Among the series that began as amateur webcomics on Pixiv are Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san and Wotakoi. Seeing them go from creator pages to Pixiv Comics to physical releases to full-on anime adaptations has given me joy.

Overall

I’d say I was about 50/50 in terms of predictions. Nothing hit the target dead-on, but I think I was able to see at least in part the various trends and where they were headed. In some cases, I was maybe too ambitious or naive. Let’s see how I do in the next ten years, but before that, next time will be a more thorough look back at 2010–2019.

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.

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.