S-M-R-T! I mean, S-M-A-R-T: “Fist of the North Star Side Story: The Genius Amiba’s Otherworld Conqueror Legend”

Isekai are so ubiquitous these days that there exist genre parodies of famous properties. Whether it’s being reborn as Yamcha from Dragon Ball Z or Kycilia Zabi from Gundam, we have yet another twist to a familiar gimmick. I generally don’t pay attention to such works, but I made an exception for a recent manga that asks, “What if Ameba (aka Fake Toki) from Fist of the North Star got sent to another world?”

That’s Fist of the North Star Side Story: The Genius Amiba’s Otherworld Conqueror Legend. And upon hearing this premise, it felt so perfect. After all, one common trope is that the characters who get reborn and transported tend to be pitiful “losers” given a second chance, and Amiba is among the most pathetic of Kenshiro’s opponents. He’s also a terrible person, so the story feels ripe for both comedy and the possibility of greater development. For the most part, Amiba’s Otherworld Conqueror Legend does not disappoint.

At the start, the manga reveals that the way Amiba gets isekai’d ties directly into the events of Fist of the North Star: Kenshiro makes Amiba’s hands explode, then uses his pressure-points to force the delusional villain to walk backwards off a precipice. What’s worse, he never even hits the ground before exploding into a puddle of goo. Amiba probably wishes he got killed by a truck.

He then awakens in a new world that looks oddly similar to the post-apocalypse he once called home, but there are some notable differences. Namely, fantasy elements like magic and dragons are fairly common, no one has any clue about “Hokuto Shinken” or other martial arts, and a number of characters resemble established FotNS faces. Unlike Kenshiro’s young companion Lin, the girl Amiba first runs into is Lilin, a foul-tempered mage who reluctantly teaches him magic—which he turns out to be awful at. But Amiba insists that can’t be the case because he’s a genius. He does manage to make effective use of his piddling magic by the end of Volume 1, so maybe there is something to his claims, but the manga makes it clear that Amiba is perennially just as much a dumbass as he is intelligent.

The series is quite good at playing on expectations from both isekai and FotNS. Amiba isn’t a terrible fighter—he’s just hopelessly outclassed in his original world. However, in his new world his combination of fairly extensive knowledge of Hokuto Shinken and its counterpart, Nanto Seiken, makes him a unique presence as per the standard isekai protagonist trope. The manga also shows that he got a power-up after reincarnating in true isekai fashion, though the gag here is that the boost is very minimal. 

As mentioned, many of the characters are intentional knock-offs of minor FotNS characters: Lilin, Pat, Devil Reversible, and so on. While their appearances are close, their personalities can differ tremendously, and often the “bad guys” aren’t so bad. A fairly major character’s counterpart even shows up at one point. I appreciate the joke, but wonder if it’s being overused, and if the series could benefit from having more characters who are original.

The idea that this is Amiba’s chance to find glory, and the way his arrogant personality both helps and hinders him, is what makes The Genius Amiba’s Otherworld Conqueror Legend work. Is he going to find an odd sort of redemption? Or is he going to repeat the same mistakes? The fact that he likely will end up doing both makes me want to see where the story goes from here.

Mother of Mercilessness: Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film that defies tidy categorization. It’s both ostensibly and fundamentally the story of a Chinese family struggling to keep things together, and it adds a hearty helping of what feels like every genre under the sun and moon that nevertheless achieves a bizarre harmonious blend of flavors. There’s a lot worth discussing about EEAO, but where I want to focus is its exploration of a familiar topic: intergenerational trauma. Particularly, I find that centering the story on the mother, Evelyn Wang (played by Michell Yeoh), brings a powerful and challenging perspective to the subject.

When it comes to stories about the Asian diaspora, intergenerational trauma seems to be big on Asian creators’ minds. Turning Red is an animated feature about the pressure a Chinese-Canadian girl feels towards her mother’s expectations. Himawari House is a comic about different Asian women moving to Japan to find themselves. Crazy Rich Asians shows how the decisions of one’s ancestors can ripple forward in time, affecting individual descendants in disparate ways. Messy Roots is about growing up Wuhanese in a predominantly white American environment. These works tend to describe families that come into conflict over the frustrating combination of expressing familial love through familial structure and obligation, but in every case, it’s the sons and daughters who are the main characters. 

Michelle Yeoh also plays a mom of one of the main characters in the Crazy Rich Asians movie. There, she’s a Singaporean mom trying to prevent her son from marrying a Chinese-American girl who comes from outside the vast-yet-insulated world of the ultra wealthy. Like so many of these stories, she as a parent is not necessarily a “villain,” but she and those of her generation are at least a source of stress for their kids as they try to carve out their identities.

EEAO flips the script, with Evelyn being both the figurative and literal hero. On the one hand, she’s a mother struggling with her non-serious husband, her teenage lesbian daughter, her judgmental elderly father, and a tax audit on the family’s laundry business. On the other hand, her endless string of failures apparently have made her the perfect candidate to stop the destruction of the multiverse. To say that it’s rare for a character like Evelyn to be this kind of protagonist is to make the queen of understatements. 

Through the metaphor of the multiverse, I find that EEAO explores so many facets of that Asian intergenerational experience. It’s stated that Evelyn made sacrifices to move to the US from China, and that she has a tendency to leave a lot of goals unfinished, giving a sense that she’s, well, trying to be everything everywhere all at once. Similarly, the pressure she puts on her daughter to be better than her through a combination of shame and criticism—well-intended but nevertheless painful—is one of the major sources of conflict in the film. 

By having all of this told primarily from the perspective of Evelyn, however, the Asian mom ceases to be a close-yet-distant figure in the story to eventually understand, and becomes the primary conduit through which these conflicting emotions are experienced. And it all comes down to trying to figure out how to deal with the expectations of others while trying to raise a child to exceed all expectations.

There’s actually a lot more I’d like to discuss about Everything Everywhere All at Once, especially the daughter and the husband Waymond, and how they each add to the wonderfully complex milieu that the film provides. But Evelyn is the main character and star, and the stalwart yet wobbly pillar around which the story is built. It’s an uncommon but welcome sight, and it has me wondering if I need to view my own mother a little differently—even if that doesn’t come easily.

Kinoko Loco: Sabikui Bisco

I’m a fan of the combination of serious and silly in the anime Sabikui Bisco. Its premise of a post-apocalyptic world that revolves around conflicting views on mushrooms is patently absurd, but the sincerity of its characters is endearing and gives weight to their actions and decisions.

The world of Sabikui Bisco is full of peculiar individuals. There’s Milo, a gentle doctor who experiments with black market mushrooms in the hopes of healing his sister who’s afflicted with the “rust” disease that plagues humanity. The same sister, Pawoo, leads an elite guard in their city using her depth-defying strength. There’s the corrupt leader Kurokawa, who controls the city with an iron fist and goons in mascot heads. And then you have the brash protagonist Bisco, a member of the mushroom tribe who slings mushroom arrows and knows the truth about fungus: While it’s commonly believed to be the cause of rust, the reality is quite different. This here is an eclectic bunch, to say the least—but as ridiculous as they are, they’re all deadly serious about either saving the world or controlling it.

The general energy of the series reminds me a lot of the 1990s anime I grew up with. It’s not so much that Sabikui Bisco traffics in 90s tropes, but rather that it has a particular brand of irreverence combined with a lack of archetypes common to anime made in the 21st century. Had it emerged two or three e decades earlier, I don’t think it would look out of place alongside titles like Slayers or Trigun. In fact, there’s something very Vash the Stampede–esque about Bisco.

The anime thus far only covers part of what is an ongoing light novel series, but it ends in a satisfying place and never loses sight of that balance of earnestness and absurdity. Sabikui Bisco is about heroes going out there and doing things, and that simplicity is welcome.

La+ Darknesss, Dance, and True Power Levels

Since her debut, Hololive’s La+ (pronounced Laplus) Darknesss has become one of my favorite Virtual Youtubers. Her premise states that she’s both a mighty demon whose power has been sealed off, as well as the founder of Secret Society HoloX, an organization with designs for world domination. In practice, however, La+ comes across as a cheeky and overconfident brat. It’s within this context that the biggest surprise about her characters was revealed: the fact that she’s actually a fantastic dancer. I find myself re-watching her dancing clips, even though I normally don’t do that—not with VTubers, not with flesh-and-blood performers, and not even with the many anime dances over the years.

To those who are unfamiliar with Hololive and specifically the process by which its Vtubers go from “2D” to “3D,” most start off as flatly animated characters. In this “2DLive” format (named after the program used to rig their animations), La+ and others like her are able to move and tilt their bodies and heads to some degree, but it’s generally not meant to track the entirety of the performer’s physical movements. Over time, a Hololive member receives a 3D polygonal model, and can use more robust motion capturing to match the movement of their entire bodies. In other words, you generally can’t tell how comfortable a VTuber is with physical activity like dancing before they make their so-called 3D debut.

La+ was the last of HoloX to make a 3D debut. Prior to that, she was primarily defined by two things. First, despite being the leader of her clandestine group, she’s actually the smallest; her oversized horns further emphasizing La+ being a relative pipsqueak. Second, she has an extreme degree of ego that swings wildly between being justified and unjustified. So when she started busting a move, I felt a degree of cognitive dissonance. “Wasn’t she supposed to be bad at this sort of thing?” In a later collaborative stream with the rest of HoloX, the sheer contrast in dancing ability between La+ and her subordinates (who are usually her betters in a variety of ways) hammered home that she’s a cut above the rest.

I think the reason this aspect of La+ works so well is that it ends up making her feel even more like a being of contrasts. She has that aforementioned “shortest but most important” quality, but in terms of competence, it’s like you never know if she’ll be a Hellmaster Fibrizo (Slayers) or a Katyusha (Girls und Panzer). If this really were an anime or something, La+’s dance reveal would be that moment where Yoda or Shifu from Kung Fu Panda gets serious. It’s a winning trope, generally speaking.

La+ Darknesss is neither fully an anime character or a fully flesh-and-blood performer, which is why the combination of her character background plus her strength as a dancer shine through. Like other VTubers, she lives in that transitional space between the real and fictional worlds. The fact that she’s so physically talented is inevitably to the credit of the performer, but it’s the surrounding setting that gives La+ the stark contrast to render her moves to be even more unforgettable.

Happy Girlmore – “Birdie Wing: Golf Girls’ Story”

As far as I can tell, no one expected Birdie Wing: Golf Girls’ Story. A yuri anime? Sure, there are plenty out there. An over-the-top sports series? That’s a well-established subgenre. A world run by powerful underworld forces? Organized crime is not an uncommon subject matter for Japanese media. To have all three and unexplained deep-cut Gundam references, and to put it all in an intensely bright package is to approach the schlocky majesty of Birdie Wing.

The heroine is a blonde teen named Eve, who lives in the fictional country of Nafrece. She’s a career golfer, but not in the traditional Tiger Woods sense. Rather, she plays high-stakes gambles where risk and reward are intense, and she does so by breaking almost every textbook convention possible. To Eve, golf is but a tool for psychologically attacking her opponents through her signature “bullets”—swings that embody the gunshot-like style taught to her by a mysterious mentor who sounds a lot like Char Aznable. 

However, when Eve meets Amawashi Aoi, an elite legitimate high school golfer whose skills are different yet similarly mindblowing, the gambler’s world begins to change. Eve begins to think that playing with Aoi would be the ultimate thrill, but what would it take for the two to meet? Is she willing to stake her livelihood, or perhaps even more? 

Eve, Aoi, and everyone else’s golf is sheer absurdity. It takes from the fine tradition of exaggerated competition like Star of the Giants, Saki, and Prince of Tennis—but just as much from gambling series like Kaiji and One Outs. In fact, Eve’s use of only a handful of golf clubs is reminiscent of the One Outs protagonist using only fastballs thrown at different rotational speeds. Yet, as ridiculous as the golfing is, I realized what makes Birdie Wing transcend even further is that the world surrounding the golf is even more mind-boggling. 

While a series like Yu-Gi-Oh! revolves around card games as the premier form of entertainment, this doesn’t seem to be the case in Birdie Wing. Sure, golf is a common sport used for illegal gambling, and there are entire high schools in Japan with elite golf teams, but the setting of the series is such that it would be a haven of bizarre world where sometimes a public figure just gets murdered by rocket launcher. 

I don’t think anyone could have predicted the places Birdie Wing has gone. For me, the peak so far might be the moment you think that the series is going for a powerful visual metaphor, only for it to be REAL. Even the de-escalation of hijinks that happens in the second half of this first season feels like a challenge to expectations. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that the monster is still there, like they stapled Aim for the Ace! to the Mutant League cartoon. When the series comes back, there’s a 50/50 chance the girls are going to end up putting in outer space, and I’m all for it.
Is Birdie Wing about golf? The sport does play a prominent role. Does it feature girls? Yes, they are the stars. Is it a story? Boy, is it ever.

We’re All Stars: Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club Season 2

As a franchise, Love Live! encourages people to be unique and do what they love despite self doubts. That said, I found its third incarnation, Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club to be the first to really shake things up for the franchise. It emphasizes not just uniqueness but also individuality. Its anime utilizes a different art style from the rest. And it’s the first to challenge what it means to be a school idol. Season 2 of the anime brings more of that welcome divergence from the standard, most notably in a message that encourages people to not box themselves in. It’s as if Love Live! Nijigasaki is saying, “In life, there’s no such thing as ‘minor characters.’”

At the end of the first season, Nijigasaki High’s School Idol Club successfully pulled off the School Idol Festival, bringing fun and inspiration to all attendees. Now with newfound fame, the girls want to do even more as school idols. However, a couple new arrivals at Nijigasaki High are looking to shake things up: Zhong Lanzhu from Hong Kong, whose confidence lives up to her immense talent, and Mia Taylor from New York, a young prodigy and professional songwriter. Lanzhu finds the School Idol Club’s desire to treat the fans as equals to be a mistake, and believes that school idols should be about demonstrating to fans that the performers are a level above. Her defiant attitude leads to exploration of unfamiliar territory among the members, each of whom approach the challenge differently. Perhaps the most affected of all is Takasaki Yu, the only member of the club who’s not a school idol, and who has taken up piano as a way to help the other girls and to find herself.

One of the things I greatly enjoy about Season 2 is its celebration of lesser spotlights. To start with, three of the girls (Shizuku, Emma, and Kanata) began as generic “normal-rarity” characters in the first mobile game before being “promoted” to full-on franchise reps, but it doesn’t end there. Throughout the series, they meet and talk with school idols from other schools in the Odaiba area, and all of them are actually other “N girls”—the peers of Shizuku, Emma, and Kanata before Love Live! Nijigasaki came into being. Given life through voice and animation, they go from throwaway characters in a mobile game to people with lives and ambitions of their own.

Takasaki Yu also falls into this idea of elevating characters beyond what they’re “supposed” to be. An unusual presence in Love Live!, Yu is actually based on the player character from the second mobile game, Love Live! School Idol Festival All Stars. There, she has neither a default name or a character design—both came as a result of the Love Live! Nijigasaki anime. In Season 1, she more or less fills this role of audience insert/support, but Season 2 makes a concerted effort to flesh out Yu by giving her struggles and conflicts all her own. Together, both Yu and the N girls bring about this sense that everyone has their own journey.

The Nijigasaki Idol Club’s school idols do have the biggest spotlight, but even their stories end up being about taking the path that brings you joy, and to hell with sticking with what “suits you best.” This philosophy comes into play with Lanzhu, Mia, and especially a third new girl named Mifune Shioriko, but it also echoes across the club—and the anime—as a whole. Notably, whereas the other Love Live! anime make getting into and competing in the titular Love Live! national school idol tournament, it’s more of a background element here. The many performances throughout the season end up acting as culminations of personal and interpersonal growth, rather than a showcasing of talent and showmanship progress as idols.

Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club Season 2 places greater attention paid to what would otherwise be less prominent characters. It also introduces new characters as a way to challenge notions of what a school idol is supposed to be like. Then, it looks at the expected goal of school idols, and turns that on its head too. Over and over, this anime expresses how there is no one-size-fits-all approach to passion, and that passion need not be precluded by having the accepted forms of talent. Because of all these qualities, I find Nijigasaki to be perhaps the most encouraging Love Live! of all. Plenty of fiction talks about the importance of being yourself, but this feels special nevertheless. That message is expressed with a powerful sense of grace and caring that leaves a lasting impression.

The Musician and the Mastermind: Ya Boy Kongming!

Ya Boy Kongming! is an anime with the most absurd, yet perfect premise: What if legendary Chinese Three Kingdoms–era tactician Zhuge Liang was reincarnated in modern-day Shibuya, and became the manager of a fledgling musician? The concept is relatively succinct and easy to envision, though it feels like it could lose steam pretty quickly. But that’s why Ya Boy Kongming! is all the more impressive: Where it truly shines is in taking what could be a one-note gimmick and executing it in a way that feels fun, uplifting, and never stale.

Based on a manga, the Japanese title for this series is Paripi Koumei. The former word is short for “Party People,” i.e. people who like to get out and live it up, and the latter is the Japanese pronunciation of “Kongming,” Zhuge Liang’s courtesy name.

There’s a basic formula to Ya Boy Kongming!: Tsukimi Eiko—the aspiring singer—faces a challenge that can further her career or sink it. There are rival musicians looking to get ahead of themselves, and they seemingly have Eiko outgunned in every way. However, Kongming’s brilliance comes through, and using tactics inspired by his most brilliant ideas as found in Records of the Three Kingdoms, he helps Eiko overcome all obstacles. It’s reminiscent of a series like the mahjong manga Akagi, both in getting to see a genius on display and the fact that prior knowledge of the central focus (Chinese history in this case) isn’t required. It’s also charmingly lighthearted: Seeing one of Kongming’s famed stratagems in the context of exploiting the architecture of a Shibuya night club, for instance, is a great blend of silly and compelling. 

If it remained rigid in its format, Ya Boy Kongming! would be a quirky little thing that people can point to as an example of how wacky anime can get. But what the series also does to remain engaging is to give its characters a real sense of growth. This applies not only to Eiko and others she meets in her journey, but also to Kongming himself. Whereas Eiko is on a journey to stand on bigger stages and sing her heart out, Kongming is all about wanting to change the world in a time of peace rather than war. 

The show also just looks and sounds good. The art style is conventional, yet still charming. Eiko’s songs are beautiful and properly convey her as a hidden gem to whom Kongming is rightfully devoted. The themes are actually covers of popular club songs, which fits the series to a tee, and has helped Ya Boy Kongming! reach beyond a niche audience.

Applying war tactics to a music career reminds me of something I’ve heard often, which is that all businessmen should read Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The difference is that CEOs reading about how to be brutally efficient in war sounds like everything that is wrong with the world we live in, whereas Kongming’s gentle applications of theory in this specific context are fun and never void of human decency. It’s that gentleness and purity of premise that allows Ya Boy Kongming! to be both eminently memeable and fully capable of standing on its own legs. It possesses both fluff and substance, and watching it makes me feel better about the world.

Dance Dance Danseur, Ted Lasso, and Healing Masculinity

There’s a problem when it comes to toxic masculinity, and I don’t just mean that it exists. Rather, the recurring issue is the fact that it gets easily misconstrued by detractors as meaning “masculinity is inherently toxic,” which then gets extrapolated to be an insult towards men as a whole and an attempt at widespread emasculation. The counter to that erroneous view is to point towards non-toxic examples of masculinity, but often they exist in the abstract. Recently, however, I’ve watched two shows, one anime and one American live-action, that go beyond toxic masculinity or even non-toxic masculinity, all the way to what I’d call “healing masculinity.” Those are Dance Dance Danseur and Ted Lasso.

To clarify a key definition to start, toxic masculinity mainly refers to the damage done to men and those around men by the dread of not living up to societal standards of manhood. “Boys don’t cry” is the classic example, as is the general reluctance to open up to others emotionally out of fear of being vulnerable. Dance Dance Danseur and Ted Lasso each address this in somewhat different ways, but the result is encouragement for guys to not be held back by what men are “supposed” to be like.

Dance Dance Danseur takes a more overt approach to addressing toxic masculinity. Its main character, Murano Jumpei, is a boy who fell in love with ballet when he was little. However, a combination of seeing other boys ridicule the style and his own wish to live up to the memory of his martial arts actor father leads him to suppress this passion—and take up Jeet Kune Do instead. It’s only after a female classmate notices that Jumpei’s supposedly kung fu–influenced spins look suspiciously like ballet moves that he sets back on the path of his true love. Even after starting practice, Jumpei initially tries to keep his training a secret for fear of his friends knowing, but he’s forced to confront the fact that maybe they’re just close-minded, and directly deal with their preconceived notions.

Jumpei carries a lot of classically “manly” traits. He’s loud and aggressively outgoing, and he’s very athletic. His love of ballet is expressed the same way a guy might get excited about his favorite sports team or band. However, instead of trying to play off these emotions, he embraces them even to the point of tears—all while his peers remain in their proverbial boxes.

Ted Lasso addresses toxic masculinity less directly, but arguably provides a more robust counterexample to it. Its eponymous protagonist is a successful small-time American football coach who gets hired to instead work with a soccer/association football team despite his utter lack of experience or knowledge in the latter. The English team he ends up with is full of all the expected problems: egos, lack of mutual respect, and a recent history of failure. But rather than trying to whip them into shape like a drill sergeant, Ted Lasso encourages his players to share their feelings and to develop camaraderie through emotional bonding—even the most hypermasculine among them.

Ted’s own personality is cheerful, laid-back, and optimistic to a fault (which does come into play as a point of contention). When it comes to leading by example, though, he excels and gradually changes the way his players see themselves, the sport of soccer, and their world. And while his attitude might appear to make him a pushover, Ted is anything but. He will step up to others, not out of excessive tough-guy pride, but instead a desire to lift up others in pain. This applies to his coaching style as well: Ted’s main drive isn’t wins and losses, but to make everyone on the team the best versions of themselves.

Both Jumpei and Ted remind me a bit of Guy Fieri, a figure who helped make cooking “okay” for a lot of guys. Beyond that kind of “dude-safe” presentation, however, what I think contributes to them being strong models for a less damaging conception of masculinity is that they try to aid others find their own ways out of their own trauma, all the while being far from infallible. Their approaches to life don’t come without setbacks: Jumpei’s hot headedness gets him into plenty of trouble, and Ted’s American Midwestern positivity can sometimes leave certain problems unanswered. Yet, both are able to help others by being supportive, defiant, imperfect, and vulnerable. They provide a form of masculinity that isn’t just neutral but actually heals.

Hololive Alternative, TakaMori, and the Speed of Memes

Hololive Alternative is a 2d animation project depicting the Virtual Youtubers of Hololive as active characters within a world. Two “teasers” are out currently, and they’re a treat for fans and newcomers alike. But while watching the second, the depicted interaction between Takanashi Kiara and Mori Calliope made me hyper-aware of how internet culture and its memes evolve at lightning speeds.

Kiara the Phoenix and Calliope the grim reaper are both part of HoloMyth, the Hololive brand’s first foray into the English-speaking market. Early on in their careers, they were known for having a rather flirtatious and tsundere-esque relationship, which in turn spawned the ship known as TakaMori. It was a prominent part of both character identities—even making it into Can You Do the Hololive?, a song based on all the members’ signature greetings. In it, Kiara states, “Of course the two of us come together,” and Calli responds, “Shut your mouth, Kusotori [Stupid Chicken].” 

Similarly, the second Hololive Alternative teaser shows the two eating together. Kiara eagerly takes photos of everything (Calli included), and the reaper responds by grabbing her scythe and taking swipes at Kiara. The whole interaction describes the original basis for TakaMori to a tee. 

The only problem: the nature of the pairing has changed over time. It still has fans, of course, and the two even recently had an in-person stream together that was made all the more impressive by the fact that one had to travel from Japan to Austria. However, both Kiara and Calli have talked about the fact that they decided to emphasize their solo identities more. The fans in the Youtube comments for that collaboration have remarked even on how the duo’s dynamic has changed (and arguably for the better).

Granted, this isn’t quite the same as a meme naturally morphing into something unrecognizable. The fact is, one can point to a conscious decision as the reason TakaMori isn’t quite the same as it used to be: a purposeful shift in direction. Nevertheless, it feel indicative of the rapid pace at which VTuber in-jokes are formed feels indicative of the general speed of the current internet. In contrast, elaborate animations—even short ones like the teasers for Hololive Alternative—take time to be made. In that gap, the ground shifted underneath TakaMori, and its depiction in animated form can feel like a relic of the past. In reality, it’s only been a little over a year, but the fact that a year sounds like forever in VTuber time makes that difference all the more stark. Online empires rise and fall in less time, and I have to wonder what else might end up coming across as a “yesteryear meme” by the time the next teaser is done.

If You Love Literature and Violence, Gimme a Hell Yeah—Hibiki: How to Become a Novelist

Hibiki: How to Become a Novelist is one of my favorite manga of the past few years. Sure, it doesn’t have the mind-blowing thrills or soul-reverberating energy of other works. The art is also decidedly mediocre. But what Hibiki does have is ridiculous humor, unpredictability, and a protagonist I would describe as “spiritually akin to Stone Cold Steve Austin.”

The series follows a teenage girl named Akui Hibiki, who one day submits a novel manuscript on a whim. As a result, she winds up on a journey that brings Hibiki in contact with titans of the field, struggling aspiring authors, an eccentric but enthusiastic school literary club, and a whole host of other unique personalities. But while Hibiki’s quiet and thoughtful personality evoke images of a bookworm archetype or perhaps a demure “literature girl,” she also refuses to take shit from anyone. Whether it’s high school bullies, dismissive fellow writers, nosy paparazzi, or even a kid getting in the way of customers at the bookstore, they’re all met immediately with unexpected violence from this skinny girl. Hibiki isn’t particularly strong or fast, and she isn’t trained to fight in any way, but she will not let anyone try to use the trappings of civility and etiquette to take advantage of her.

Hibiki is not a malicious person. She respects creative passion in all its forms, and will go out of her way to encourage everyone to try their hand at writing so that they might express what’s inside of them, be they friends or enemies. Her fellow members of the literature club run the gamut—from the granddaughter of a famous author, to a childhood friend she knows is stalker-level obsessed with her, to a girl who likes cheesy light novels—but Hibiki supports them all. She cares little about celebrity and glamor, or the aesthetics of fame, as it’s the love of craft that motivates her. What she hates possibly more than anything else is people who shower her with praise but who clearly haven’t actually read her work. Hibiki honestly engages with the creations and feelings of others, and she expects the same in return.

That unabashed authenticity is why I liken Hibiki to one of the most popular wrestlers ever. While pro wrestling is a staged performance and everyone pretty much knows this to be the case, Steve Austin is famous for feeling incredibly genuine every time he walks into the arena as the sound of shattering glass marks his arrival. Austin’s appeal was that he 1) felt convincingly real, and 2) he would constantly kick the ass of his nasty boss, Mr. McMahon, who kept trying to humiliate him. That’s Hibiki to a tee—minus the Stone Cold Stunners, but still keeping the kicks to the gut and the chair shots (really). Though, if I were to describe her exclusively with anime characters, she’s like a cross between the eerily capable mind of mahjong prodigy Akagi Shigeru and the also-aggressive Taniguchi Mio from 22/7.

As I think about the appeal of Hibiki, I’m reminded of a series of tweets I saw by translator Dan Kanemitsu. In them, he expresses the idea that the reason Japanese culture places so much value on stories about middle and high school years is because they’re assumed to be filled with potential and agency. After you grow up, things change, and it just doesn’t come across the same way when a story is about a defiant adult. I feel that the character of Hibiki speaks to this sentiment on a very visceral level, and much of the satisfaction she provides is that she won’t let anything get in the way of that agency. In fact, the last couple of volumes of Hibiki even bring up this idea that the passion of youth can’t be maintained relative to her career. Without going into spoilers, the resulting answer is worth seeing.