What Is Love?: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 46

Jin is on one heck of an emotional arc in Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 46.

Summary

The girls of the Chorus Appreciation Society (plus Yukina and Yumerun) start on their Valentine’s Day mini-concert—Kozue’s idea for bringing Jin out of his musical funk. But within himself, all he can seem to hear are their flaws. Still, while they’re lacking either skill, group coordination, or both, they seem to have the very music in them that he’s lost.

Right before they can start their encore, however, Shion brings out her Valentine’s chocolate for Kousei and makes another confession. Kousei deflects by asking Jin if she has any hope of getting into a music college and having a career (the chances are rough. Kousei further comments that Shion’s not that good with the technical work needed for their high school either—as if to imply that Shion wouldn’t be prepared for the hardship of dating him. 

At that point, Yukina cuts in and remarks that Kousei is underestimating Shion, and promises to help Shion with her schoolwork. Yukina actually only has a month until she graduates, which prompts the two girls to leave the concert and get started practicing. Losing its alto in Yukina and its accompaniment in Shion, the concert comes to an impromptu end, to Kozue’s chagrin.

Yumerun tries to brighten the mood by delivering an intense confession of her own to Jin (“Please go out with me with the intent of marriage!”). While she says her feelings for him were likely always obvious, Jin (ever oblivious) mentions that he never even noticed. When Jin asks what kind of feeling “love” even is, Yumerun replies that it’s to treasure someone—while also thinking inside that it’s about wanting to have someone all to yourself—Jin curtly replies, “I don’t think I’m worth that much,” and leaves. Akira immediately gets up to chase, but Kozue stops him, saying that he shouldn’t be the one, and goes off after Jin herself.

The Details of Drama

The above summary is a lot wordier than I would typically prefer, but I felt that the contours of this chapter are important this month—especially because of how serious Hashikko Ensemble is getting. The drama has ramped up in many ways even if there’s still a dose of levity, with the Jin-Yumerun interaction emphasizing that contrast. In some ways, it reminds me of the Karuizawa story in Genshiken (where Ogiue finally pours her turbulent heart out to Sasahara), but the difference is that Ogiue started out full of pain, and Jin’s recent turn is more drastic compared to how we first meet him back in Chapter 1.

Jin and Love

Jin is the main focus throughout here, and I love what they’re doing with his character. The conflict that’s broiling inside him feels so real. Jin’s impressions of the girls’ performance come after Akira’s, and their differences in this moment really drive home how out-of-sorts Jin feels. Akira’s perspective comes from a less experienced place: He can tell how strong Yumerun is, that Kanon sings like it’s karaoke, and how Kozue is uncharacteristically not that great at it.  Jin’s analysis, on the other hands, is very cynical and clinical, which feels so unlike what we expect of him. It’s like he’s turned a harsher ear on others as a consequence of becoming harsher on himself.

Then, when he’s asking Yumerun what it means to “love,” I get the impression that he’s not just talking about people. I suspect that he’s doubting whether he truly ever understood what it means to love music. Perhaps he feels that he’s been confusing his highly dedicated study and time poured into singing with genuine passion. When he says he isn’t worth that much, I think it might be because he seems himself as something of a fraud.

Master Yukina

Kousei continues to resist his interest in Shion, but one fun development out of this is Yukina and Shion’s friendship! I’m a fan of how Yukina and Shion quickly lose track of what they were talking about in the first place—It’s like watching a real and genuine friendship grow. Shion starts to call Yukina Shisou (“Master”), and I hope we get more of this in the future.

Jin, Kozue, Yumerun

Given the tiny bit of blushing, I can’t help but wonder if Kozue feels something for Jin beyond his surprisingly muscular body. The fact that she has a thing for that childhood friend of hers already means she’s potentially into multiple guys—a nice change of pace from so many other manga. The story seems to be going towards forging a bond between Jin and Kozue, and I think maybe it’s precisely because Kozue can’t sing all that well that she’s the right person to talk to Jin. Akira might very well drive Jin further down the hole, while Kozue’s lack of skill means that “having the music inside yourself” isn’t necessarily tied to one’s ability.

The fact that Jin was entirely unaware of Yumerun’s love for him is completely unsurprising, and I still wonder if he might be somewhere on the spectrum. Yumerun’s near-yandere romantic emotions are equally unsurprising. If there is some kind of love triangle at work here, I don’t know which I would cheer for. All possibilities are excellent, even the less orthodox ones.

Songs

“Haru yo, Koi” (“Come, Spring”) by Matsutouya Yumi.

“Mugi no Uta” (“Song of Wheat”) by Nakajima Miyuki. The lyrics of this song in particular feel like they’re talking to Jin and his current problems. “Even if the wheat loses its wings, songs have their wings.”

Final Thoughts

Akira refers to Yumerun as “Yumeru” in this chapter, and I can’t entirely tell if that’s actually her name or if Akira is just misremembering it. If it’s the latter, it’s a reminder that they barely met each other.

Mama Is a 5th Grader???: Galaxy Express 999’s Maetel in Shinkalion Z

I don’t necessarily feel obligated to write about every crossover character in the Shinkalion franchise, but when she’s a rendition of one of my favorite heroines from one of my most beloved anime, I just have to say something.

Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion Z has continued the propensity for surprising cameos by introducing a new character based on the mysterious Maetel from Galaxy Express 999. Given that she comes from a manga that prominently features a space vehicle shaped like an old steam locomotive, Maetel is arguably a more sensible guest character than Shinji from Evangelion or Hatsune Miku. However, the fact that she turns out to be a Shinkalion pilot feels like an even bigger (but still welcome) twist.

Maetel, in this case, is not the charming and motherly figure who gives an orphan boy a train pass to go on a never-ending journey to the stars. Rather, she’s an 11-year-old from Hokkaido who has trouble talking in person but likes listening to ham radio and 70s enka. In the story of Shinkalion Z, she learns about Shinkalions through a broadcast by a confused and forlorn antagonist from the first series, and discovers the existence of the Shinkansen Ultra Evolution Institute that commands the Shinkalions. Key to this is someone who’s clearly the commander of the Institute from the first series, thinly disguised. Having made a handful of appearances since Episode 20, she reveals her own Shinkalion in Episode 28: The Shinkalion Z H5 Hayabusa.

It’s pretty much impossible for Shinkalion Z to have kept any of Maetel’s original backstory, so I understand why they went a very different route. Her Shinkalion is also the spiritual successor of Hatsune Miku’s, the latter of whom has a connection to Hokkaido through the annual Snow Miku festival—but I’m not sure if there’s any such relationship this time  Somewhat like Miku (who uses a different kanji for Hatsu-ne in this anime), her name is slightly off in Shinkalion Z: Her full name, Tsukino Maetel (“Maetel of the Moon”), is a sideways reference to Hoshino Tetsurou (“Tetsurou of the Stars”), the main character of Galaxy Express 999

While the aesthetic of Shinkalion is quite different from Galaxy Express 999, I hope they can incorporate the latter somehow. The gimmick of Shinkalion Z is that the bullet-train robots can combine with other trains for upgrades—could the H5 Hayabusa get some steam-locomotive arms?

Shinkalion Z episodes are typically only available for free on YouTube for a week or two, so that’s why I’m posting this now. In a rare moment, Episodes 21 through 27 are available until the 30th of November, so if you want to see more of Tsukino Maetel, now’s your chance.

Transformative Ties: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a tricky balancing act it strives to achieve. As the first Marvel film with an Asian protagonist as well as having a majority Asian cast and creative team, it must consider the audience in the US, the audience in Asia, and the Asian diaspora around the world that sits in between and among the first two. As an American of Asian descent myself, I can only speak to two of the three, but I found myself really connecting with the film and its characters’ struggles, while also enjoying it as a high-quality mainstream superhero action film.

Shang-Chi puts a heavy emphasis on family. I think it’s because family is such a common thread that connects Asia to its diaspora, and thus the most surefire way to have a story that resonates across the divides that exist between the two, and even between Asian cultures. It’s the relationships of Shang-Chi—between spouses, parents and children, siblings, and friends—that really spoke to me on a personal level.

My father, who I’m pretty sure is not a thousand-year-old magical conqueror, is nothing like Xu Wenwu (aka the Mandarin)—and I am certainly no Shang-Chi. However, the story of a person chafing against the upbringing his father tried to instill in him feels incredibly real, especially the fact that the characters’ emotions regarding these experiences is so complex. Shang-Chi was raised to be the ultimate deadly martial artist by Wenwu after losing Shang-Chi’s mother, and the situation basically forces Shang-Chi to run away from his home and his family. In a way, Shang-Chi is both the story of an immigrant trying to start a new life and one of someone who has to reconnect with his estranged past, and this makes the character capable of connecting to multiple generations of Asian viewers. 

The fight scenes are probably the best we’ve ever seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, drawing from a long history of martial arts movies. Their execution is what tells me that the creators have the utmost respect for the films that paved the way and the actors in them, as they’re easy to appreciate on both storytelling and choreography levels. Shang-Chi is supposed to be the “master of kung fu,” and actor Simu Liu makes for a strong performance. 

But as solid as Liu is in the role of Shang-Chi, I’m in agreement with virtually everyone who saw the film that Hong Kong legend Tony Leung stole the show. One might even say that it was a very good Shang-Chi film but a fantastic Mandarin film. Leung is so utterly convincing as a multifaceted antagonist with conflicting emotions and a deep sense of pain that it strikes right at the soul. A common criticism of the Marvel films is that the villains tend not to be terribly memorable, but Shang-Chi is practically the opposite. If there’s one thing that lingers in the mind after the film is over, it’s Leung’s Wenwu. Much like Mr. Freeze from Batman: The Animated Series, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has permanently influenced all future portrayals of the Mandarin even in the comics. In other words, we’re quite removed from the entertainingly bombastic yet still kind of offensive Mandarin from the 1990s arcade game Captain America & the Avengers.

Having Wenwu/the Mandarin as Shang-Chi’s father is a significant change from the source material, where his father was Fu Manchu, the face of the highly racist Yellow Peril portrayals in American media. But the Mandarin was not exactly free of that racist tinge, and the steps taken by the film and by Leung go an incredibly long way towards freeing that character—and by extension many of the Asian characters in Marvel—from the stereotypes that plague them. The film even pokes fun at the clumsy results of how the Iron Man films attempted to tie in the Mandarin’s character, and it’s Leung’s delivery of the US’s fear of a pale imitation of the real deal (i.e. himself) that makes this self-referential mockery feel less like a halfhearted apology and more like a genuine understanding of Asian culture. 

Shang-Chi also gives a lot of attention to the women portrayed in the film, and while the push to show them as equals to the men of the story can be somewhat hamfisted, it’s still appreciated. Key to this being more than a shallow “girl power” demonstration is the degrees of difference each female characters have in comparison to one another—things that either hint at or reflect specific aspects of how and where they were brought up, and how they see the world.  

Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings truly feels to me like a film that tried its very best to be a respectful representation of an Asian hero that celebrates Asian culture without overly burdening it with the need to show everything. The very personal stories that unfold between Shang-Chi, Wenwu, Katie, and all the others already captures so much of the Asian/Asian diaspora experience that it makes everything feel satisfyingly real. This is ultimately what helps make Shang-Chi, a B-tier hero in terms of the Marvel pantheon, feel like a worthy equal to those who came before him.

Megalobox, Nomad, and Science Fictional Development

Nomad is the sequel to science-fiction boxing anime Megalobox. Though the two series differ overall in terms of substance, they complement each other incredibly well. It’s rare that you get a sequel that manages to be both its own thing and connect well to the original, but this is what Nomad accomplishes. That being said, I realize I never actually reviewed Megalobox, so consider this a kind of two-for-one deal. I promise I’ve done my best to not spoil either series.

While writing about both shows together is convenient for me, doing so also helps highlight the strengths of each more clearly in my mind. Megalobox was made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the seminal boxing manga Ashita no Joe. It’s impossible to overestimate the cultural footprint of Ashita no Joe in Japan, from the general love of cross counters (Joe’s go-to move) to the iconic final moments of the series with the protagonist Yabuki Joe slumped dead in his chair at the ring corner, smiling. What Megalobox does is take the DNA of that all-time classic and tell a similar-yet-different story. Instead of the story of an orphaned street punk who discovers a passion for boxing, it’s about a similar character (also named Joe) doing so in a futuristic setting where technology has become part-and-parcel with the sport—now named “Megaloboxing.” All boxers now where equipment on their arms (known as “Gear”) in order to hit harder and faster, with eventually one notable exception: Joe himself.

Megalobox follows a more conventional route for a boxing story, focused on an underdog who rises through the ranks. If you’ve seen Rocky and the like, it’s of a similar vein, though the SF aspects brought in by Gear and all the money surrounding the technology make the divide between the haves and have-nots far more pronounced. Megalobox is great storytelling from beginning to end, with great artwork and music to boot, and I even liked the way the future setting was incorporated into the narrative. However, a part of me felt like it was more often an aesthetic flourish, and that the story could be told about as well if it were just set in the modern day without all the cybernetics.

Not so with Nomad

Taking place a few years after the end of the first anime, Nomad sees the characters older and in most cases very different places. Here, not only is the plot less about characters striving to succeed in the sport of Megaloboxing, and more about the struggle of just being alive. Migrant discrimination, drug addiction, and severed bonds among family are among the topics explored in Nomad, where the sense of a world on the brink of dystopia looms large but also feels close to home.

Here, Megaloboxers’ Gear take on a more vital role in more ways than one. More than just being a way to augment one’s skills in the ring, the way each Megaloboxer views and utilizes them tells stories about how they’ve gone through life. Ast the series progresses, one particular Gear is at the forefront of a potential scientific revolution, but the ethical aspects of its development become of central import to the overall story. Whereas Megalobox felt like a boxing story with science fiction elements in it, Nomad is more the other way around in the best way possible. It’s not just SF because it features newfangled technology, but it challenges viewers to think about the influence and repercussions such changes would have on individuals, society, and humanity. 

In conclusion, watch Megalobox. Then, once you’re done, watch Nomad. It’s hard to find a one-two combo as strong and as impactful. 

Real Character: Love Live! Superstar!!

In my estimation, Love Live! Superstar!! is the best Love Live! anime from a storytelling perspective. It doesn’t necessarily have my favorite characters, but what it brings is a sense of both personal and interpersonal development that feels satisfyingly cohesive and speaks to real worries that people have. 

Superstar!! is the story of Shibuya Kanon, a girl who is a wonderful singer but is constantly held back by severe stage fright. Over the years, her optimism has waned, especially after she failed to get into Yuigaoka Academy’s prestigious music program due to freezing up during auditions. Resigned to enter its general curriculum instead, Kanon thinks singing will only ever be a private thing for her, but that all changes when she’s discovered by Tang Keke, a student from Shanghai. Keke loves school idols (essentially idols who act as mascots for their school), and she thinks Kanon would be perfect for it. However, not only does Shibuya feel that she simply doesn’t have it in her—the school itself forbids school idols as something that would drag down its reputation.

Kanon’s sense of defeat at the start of the series feels all too real, and it’s what makes the generally positive attitude of Superstar!! that much more poignant. Kanon stands out from past Love Live! heroines because her struggle reflects a genuine doubt that comes from believing she is physically and mentally unable to pursue her dreams. But thanks to the friendships fostered with Keke and the other eventual members of the group (not a spoiler because they all appear in the opening), as well as the way they help each other rise to the occasion, her gradual steps to overcoming her situation feel well earned.

All this applies to the other girls as well. Whether it’s Keke’s enthusiasm often running ahead of her ability, Arashi Chisato’s relationship with both dancing and her childhood friend in Kanon, Jeanna Sumire’s frustration with being a former child actor who always seemed destined to never shine, or Hazuki Ren’s conflict between upholding her family’s honor and her own desires, there are challenges each of them face that feel simple yet profound. The hope they give each other fights back against the fear in them, and helps them stand.

The fact that there are only five girls (instead of nine or more) also helps greatly with making the series feel more complete. Not only does it give more time for each character’s story to develop, but there’s a far better sense of how they complement one another. When you have nine-plus like Superstar!!’s predecessors, they often seem like well rounded groups just through sheer brute force. With a smaller main cast, their connections feel deeper without having to delve into ancillary material (drama CDs, etc.). It also results in what I think is the most robust cast overall—it’s hard to pick a definitive favorite, but I lean towards Keke.

Unlike Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club, which began with character designs more in line with the previous series and then given a different spin for its anime, the Superstar!! designs have been their own thing from the start. This gives this generation a somewhat different visual impression overall, and the animation does a great job of having both that idol sheen and a sense of the personal. The songs are standard idol/Love Live! fare but fun and uplifting, while the physical performances are portrayed incredibly well. They do an especially good job of showcasing Chisato’s superior dance skills compared to the rest of the cast.

Out of all the Love Live! anime, this is the one I would most readily recommend to people unfamiliar or wary of idols and idol-related media. The story of Kanon and the others feels like it exists a little beyond the parameters of idoldom, and thus more accessible while also just being really solid and beautiful overall. While this season ends well, there’s little doubt that a second season is coming. I can’t wait.

All Eyes On: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 45

Akira asks everyone whether they think a beginner can get into music college.

So much of what I’ve been wanting and anticipating has finally hit in what is one of the most impactful chapters of Hashikko Ensemble yet.

Summary

At a meeting, Akira openly asks the Chorus Appreciation Society members if they think he has what it takes to get into a music college. While Tsuyama gets mad at him for bringing that up among students at a vocation-focused technical high school, Jin points to Akira’s many impressive qualities as a singer. However, while Jin’s words are filled with praise, his demeanor barely hides his conflicted emotions. But even though Jin doesn’t understand what exactly he’s feeling, it has a real effect on him physically and psychologically—Upon attempting a rehearsal, his voice cuts out, and he finds himself unable to sing. To everyone’s surprise, Jin takes a break from chorus activities.

Without Jin, the society’s general mood turns sour, and as Valentine’s Day approaches, Kozue gets an idea: Hold a private Valentine’s Day performance in their meeting room, with all the girls—even the normally non-participatory Kanon and Mimi-sensei—as the singers. The girls give the guys their chocolate (including certain romantic hopefuls trying their luck), but the “concert” itself has a couple twists. First, as per Japanese tradition, this Valentine’s Day event is to be reciprocated by the guys via a White Day performance. Second, a couple of guests are included among the girls: Hashimoto Tech’s resident arm wrestling champion,Yukina, and Jin’s childhood friend and ace soprano, Yumerun. As the performance begins, the chapter ends.

Jin Reaches the Breaking Point

Jin starts to sing but then suddenly stops, and it almost looks like his entire being is shattering from around the throat area.

Jin’s spiral was more a matter of “when” than “if,” and it signals a crucial moment in Hashikko Ensemble. Up to this point, the friendship between him and Akira has been the lynchpin of both the manga and the Chorus Appreciation Society within. To see a serious metaphorical fracture is the most direct drama we’ve seen as of yet.

Jin’s inner conflict seems clear to me: His mind and his heart are at odds with each other. On the one hand, he intellectually understands on a deep level everything about Akira’s talents and continuous improvement, and even wants him to succeed as both a friend and a person undeniably passionate about music. On the other hand, seeing Akira accomplish so much more in such a short period (even earning praise from Jin’s infamously blunt mother) must fill him with an envy that’s hard to isolate from his other emotions. As Jin states in his thoughts, he feels proud that he’s the one who discovered Akira and who first recognized his potential, but for the master to have been surpassed by the student so soon is itself a blow to Jin’s pride in himself that he achieved through hard work. It’s like Jin wants Akira to both succeed and fail, and this has compromised his ability to approach music itself.

I live for this kind of complex emotional richness in manga.

The Girls Do Their Thing

Kozue announces Yumerun as the special guest.

I’ve been hoping to see the girls do their own thing. It’s not just for some arbitrary requirement to fulfill, but simply that there are so many excellent female characters that I feel they could use a spotlight that’s founded in the very gimmick of Hashikko Ensemble: music. I did not expect Yukina or Yumerun to show up, but their presence is welcome.

I suspect that the reason Yumerun is part of the performance is because this is, in part, Kozue’s plan to get Jin out of his funk, and she’s been in regular contact with Yumerun ever since M-Con. The way Jin instantly beams upon seeing Yumerun shows a connection that’s different from what he has with everyone in the main group, including Akira, and I think Kozue recognizes that bond. The deal about the guys having to return the favor on White Day only adds to the idea of this performance being a way to encourage Jin to find back.

Speaking of Yumerun, I love the reaction to her from Mai. While Hashikko Ensemble is full of eccentric personalities, there’s something about Yumerun that exudes “odd duck” vibes. It’s not just the fancy dress either, as her mere presence—especially that “anxious confidence” look she always has on her face—kind of feels like a disco ball in human form.

Mai, Yukina, Kanon, Kozue, Yumerun, and Mimi-sensei singing.

I also love this image of all the girls singing together because you can really see their personalities shining through. Kanon is nervous and unsure of herself. Kozue is earnest but also in an unfamiliar situation. Yumerun is, well, Extremely Extra.

Songs

“III. Blue” from “The Wings of Mind”

“Haru yo, Koi” (“Come, Spring”) by Matsutouya Yumi. This is the song the girls start performing at the end of the chapter.

Final Thoughts

Volume 7 of the manga is on sale in Japan and worth checking out. There’s a picture of Mai and Yumerun together in swimsuits, and the fact that it came out before this chapter (which is their official first meeting) is interesting. 

A Tribute of Violence and Reverence: Getter Robo Arc

Getter Robo Arc is one of the most unusual Getter Robo anime ever, doing what none of its predecessors even bothered to try: Be a generally faithful adaptation of the manga. This choice is all the more unusual because 1) the manga never finished, and 2) watching any (or even all) of the previous Getter Robo anime only prepares you to a certain degree. But Getter Robo Arc has different priorities than many anime, including its predecessors, and that’s to be a letter of love and gratitude to the original creator of Getter Robo, the late Ishikawa Ken.

Getter Robo Arc is the story of Nagare Takuma, son of the original head pilot of Getter Robo, Nagare Ryouma. Having experienced tragedy and now filled with a desire for revenge, he travels to the Saotome Research Institute (the home of Getter Robo) to get some answers. However, heading the Institute is his father’s old co-pilot, Jin Hayato, and the old scientist recognizes in Takuma the same fiery spirit as Ryouma. Hayato draws Takuma into piloting the mighty Getter Robo Arc against a mysterious force from beyond the cosmos bent on wiping out humanity known as the Andromeda Stellaration, and joining him are Takuma’s friend Yamagishi Baku, a psychically gifted monk whose older brother also has ties to Getter Robo, and Shou Kamui, a half-dinosaur descended from the first Getter Robo’s enemies. As they battle, their struggle takes them to the core truths of what the mysterious “Getter Energy” is.

It’s difficult to exaggerate how varied the Getter Robo anime prior to Arc have been. Sometimes they’re approximate counterparts to manga versions with the edges shaved off a little, like with Getter Robo, Getter Robo G, and Getter Robo Go. Sometimes they’re heavily reimagined sequels and reboots that play with elements of the franchise like Lego blocks, as is the case with Shin Getter Robo Armageddon, Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo, and New Getter Robo. So while Getter Robo Arc is supposed to be the last manga entry and the direct sequel to every manga version before it, watching literally every anime that has come out before will give you a rough preparation for what’s going on, but there will inevitably be a lot of blank spaces to fill out in terms of understanding. Someone coming in with this as their very first Getter Robo anime may feel lost for at least two or three episodes.

Yet, even with this confusing aspect of the series and animation that comes across in the best of times as desperately trying to make the best of limited talent and resources, I really enjoyed the ride that Getter Robo provides. Even if Takuma, Kamui, and Baku can never stay on-model from scene to scene, the anime conveys their intensity in spades. Though the story feels like a rickety minecart, the franchise’s general emphasis on the positives and negatives of limitless human potential ring loudly here in a way that shows the original manga’s undeniable influence on works like Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann. And while the battles aren’t quite as gorgeous as the ones found in the 2000s OVAs like Armageddon, they’re still impressive and exciting. 

I didn’t go into this show knowing what I’m about to mention, but I think it can be important for fans to know an important SPOILER about the Arc manga:

It never finished.

Similar to Miura Kentaro’s recent passing and Berserk, Getter Robo Arc and Getter Robo as a whole are in a state of limbo because of Ishikawa’s death in 2006. While the question of whether Berserk will continue is still unknown, the anime version of Arc barely adds anything extra to the cliffhanger that greets viewers by the end. I can’t say I’m entirely satisfied with that approach, as I think it wouldn’t have been a terrible idea to at least try—the manga’s still there, after all. But much like with Miura and Berserk, it might not have felt appropriate to take a generally faithful manga adaptation to a conclusion not envisioned by an author like Ishikawa, who clearly had an entire universe of Getter in his mind.

Overall, Getter Robo Arc comes across as crude and inconsistent in execution, yet filled with love and passion. In a way, it perfectly encapsulates the Getter spirit. It does make me wonder if we’ll ever see more Getter Robo anime, but I think that’s, in a way, an inevitability.

The Best Sports Manga You’re Not Reading: Shoujo Fight

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Shoujo Fight by Nihonbashi Yoko (released in English as Shojo Fight) is my favorite volleyball manga. Yes, even more than Haikyu!!, and even more than Attack No. 1. The series is great in so many different ways, but I think the key is how it manages to succeed at being both a story about volleyball and a story with volleyball in it. The drama is compelling on- and off-court, and the characters’ continued growth in both arenas feels both organic and satisfying.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this manga, but after 16 volumes released in English digitally by Kodansha, I realized I’ve ever written a proper review to talk about why I love Shoujo Fight so damn much. Now I’m here to correct that oversight.

Shoujo Fight is the story of Oishi Neri, who we first meet as a second-stringer on the prestigious Hakuunzan Middle School Girls’ Volleyball Team. Although she may seem unfit for the sport, it’s soon revealed that she’s on the bench not for a lack of talent, but because she voluntarily chooses to hold herself back for fear of alienating her teammates. Volleyball has been her way to cope with major trauma in her life, but the intensity with which she plays drives others away.  After Neri is mistakenly kicked off the team due to a supposed sex scandal, she is unable to join Hakuunzan’s high school division and instead ends up at Kokuyoudani High: a school infamous for its heelish misfits. However, it’s only by joining their volleyball team that Neri begins to find teammates who will accept her flaws, help her overcome them, and even recognize when they’re actually strengths.

Neri alone would be enough to carry the series and keep me hooked, but I can’t emphasize enough that the entire cast of characters is incredibly strong and memorable, from major to minor figures. Not only do they have outstanding personalities that rarely come across as one-note, but they develop in interesting ways too. As players, their strengths and weaknesses on the court give hints as to how they approach the game and how they function within teams, but Shoujo Fight also explores how these qualities within the context of volleyball are but fragments of whole human beings with thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams.

Aside from Neri, the best example of character growth in Shoujo Fight is Odagiri Manabu, a nerdy girl who starts off as an old classmate of Neri’s more interested in drawing manga in class, and who looks up to Neri for her inner strength. She eventually joins Kokuyoudani’s team just to try it out, and though an absolute novice in every way possible, the senior members of the team see something in Manabu. Her personal traits of kindness, thoughtfulness, and sense of imagination gradually translate into volleyball and take her on the path to becoming a great setter.

My favorite character by far, though, is captain Inugami Kyouko. As Kokuyodani’s premier setter and master strategist, her coming onto the court spells trouble for the other team every time. However, her lack of stamina (due to being asthmatic) means she can only provide a temporary boost. Not only does this make for exciting moments, but she is shown to purposely based her play styler around being a shot in the arm. More importantly, though, she is a practical jokester par excellence whose masterful trolling is also a result of skills honed due to the limitations of her physical condition. Her mischievous personality combined with her keen game sense means that she can swing from serious to silly and back, and it never feels out of place. Though, that’s not actually something exclusive to Kyouko—Shoujo Fight as a whole does a great job of expressing both the dramatic and comedic at once. 

When I say that it manages to somehow both be about volleyball and simply include it, what I mean is that the sport can act both as background and foreground depending on which storyline is involved. When it’s about team rivalries or maybe animosity between two players, then the game of volleyball and all its quirks are front and center. When familial political maneuvering is happening and characters are caught up in it, then volleyball becomes the backdrop through which the drama plays out. They’re two sides of the same coin, and often it’s hard to tell what’s heads and what’s tails. For example, while Shoujo Fight doesn’t really have “antagonists” per se, one character introduced later is basically a woman with deep pockets and a lot of clout whose desire to build stronger national volleyball teams sees her going as far as to manipulate families into arranged marriages for both political convenience and to create super athletes. Shoujo Fight never feels like merely an ad for volleyball or the power of friendship in volleyball, but it’s also not above celebrating these concepts.

Shoujo Fight is, in essence, a manga where a variety of dueling contradictions come together to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Its energy is pure and innocent, yet also down and dirty. Its storylines and characters can be filled with ennui yet lighthearted as it gets. High school feels like Neri and the others’ entire world but also just a temporary stop in life. Shoujo Fight is all things, and it’s a world that’s both amazingly accessible and remarkably deep. 

Here’s Your Reminder to Watch Thunderbolt Fantasy

This originally began as a review of Thunderbolt Fantasy Season 3, only for me to realize that I never reviewed Season 2 after talking up Season 1. Between that fact and an official confirmation of the next part, I’ve decided to just write about why Thunderbolt Fantasy is still one of the best shows ever. Every time a new season comes out, it is a must-watch

Thunderbolt Fantasy is an Asian-fantasy puppet-theater TV show, and is a Japanese/Taiwanese co-production featuring writer Urobuchi Gen (Madoka Magica) and the Taiwanese company PILI International Multimedia. There has long been a debate as to whether it should be considered “anime,” but I think it qualifies in spirit, if not entirely in letter. Just the openings alone convey an energy that’s hard to match

Opening 1:

Opening 2:

Opening 3:

While I’m not typically into puppets, and have no particular attachment to series like Thunderbirds or StarFleet, Thunderbolt Fantasy just succeeds on so many different levels, from the witty dialogue to the charismatic characters to the overall plot to the exciting visual presentation to the catchy music. Season 1 is overall one of the greatest viewing experiences I’ve ever had, and while there’s something magical about that first story that the sequels have never quite reached, they still get incredibly close. Even when one aspect of the series falters, though, the other factors run on all cylinders. I’m never not entertained while watching. Crucially, Thunderbolt Fantasy continues to deliver on the big moments, and it’s amazing at building up suspense and then delivering a satisfying payoff. 

Thunderbolt Fantasy truly feels like a series that never fails. Even when you think there’s a moment where it jumps the shark, it ends up going so far beyond expectations that the shark jumps over the rider instead. If you haven’t watched it already, I highly recommend starting as soon as possible. It’s an unforgettable experience.

Failure Is Technically in My Vocabulary, but I Choose Not to Acknowledge It to Make a Point: The Great Passage

“An anime about making a dictionary” sounds more like a sleep aid than entertainment, but The Great Passage defies such expectations. It heavily humanizes its story through its characters’ emotional journeys, but it also provides an interesting perspective on the fundamental role of dictionaries and how much we can take that role for granted.

The Great Passage tells the story of Majime Mitsuya, a young and awkward sales rep for Genbu Publishing who gets recruited by the company’s Dictionary Editorial Department. While his shyness and lack of people skills made him terrible for Sales, Majime shows an immense love of the nuanced and myriad ways words can be used. The department’s goal is to release a new dictionary, titled Daitoukai (“The Great Passage”), that would be ideal for modern users to have a robust understanding of how words are used in the here and now. Along the way, Majime makes friends, falls in love, and devotes his life to making Daitoukai a reality.

Majime has a certain magnetism deriving from the fact that while he’s extremely knowledgeable about words, he’s also bad at expressing himself, as if the sheer range of possibilities overwhelms his brain. This irony provides the backdrop for many of the relationships that develop throughout the series, and I appreciate that the story focuses on such an introverted character. The series isn’t subtle about this character trait at all—even stating it outright—but it’s still a very effective portrayal. The central friendship of the series, between Majime and his gregarious and sharp-witted co-worker Nishioka Masashi, sees two very different people with different strengths and weaknesses find ways to lift each other up.

In terms of the depiction of dictionaries, The Great Passage expends as much energy as it can to wax poetic about them. Dictionaries are likened to ships that help guide humans through the darkness, and it’s emphasized repeatedly that no two physical dictionaries are the same. They have to determine which words to keep and how to define them, and this results in different “personalities.” It implies that dictionaries are influenced by the priorities and biases of those who make them, even as they attempt to remain as objective as possible. In a sense, it brings the idea of reading multiple sources for news to a realm commonly considered rather staid and neutral. 

Towards the end of the series, there’s also an examination of the ups and downs of privately versus publicly funded dictionaries. While the series doesn’t delve too deeply into it, it does factor in ideas about the risk of government control over words versus the perils of being beholden to capitalism and the market. Brief though this comparison may be, it’s probably the closest The Great Passage gets to explicitly taking a difficult stance.

A more subtle yet nevertheless present point I find in the series is that it implicitly argues that “having kids” isn’t the be-all, end-all of adult life. There are a handful of couples throughout the series, and a decade-plus time skip halfway through shows where they end up. While one character is shown with children, another character’s situation quietly highlights how two people in love with each other but also possessing their own passions can find fulfillment in dedicating their lives to their respective endeavors.

The Great Passage is ultimately a charming series that takes an elegant approach to an unusual topic. Whether intentional or not, it makes for some impressive marketing for dictionaries, but much like Shinkalion does for bullet trains, it’s hard to fault something so inherently beneficial. The anime often plays it safe in many ways, but there are shadows of more daring positions and beliefs that result in a quietly complex work.