Chainsaw Man and Women in Refrigerators

WARNING: HEAVY CHAINSAW MAN SPOILERS

The manga Chainsaw Man by Fujimoto Tatsuki recently concluded “Part 1” of its story, and having heard fans both real and virtual praise the series up and down, I decided to marathon through it. Count me as a convert, as I think it’s one of the best things to come out of Shounen Jump in recent years. The narrative turns are compelling and the characters are charming in their foolishness. 

However, there’s a large twist in the series that brings to mind a trope that sparked discussion around superhero comics back in the early 2000s: Women in Refrigerators. Originally coined by Gail Simone (who was still a critic and not a writer of comics at the time), it refers to when characters close to the hero—often a lover or companion—is killed in service of making the villain appear more nefarious. While not automatically bad, its overuse reduces female characters to discardable pawns. Manga, especially male-oriented titles, can have their own instances of fridged women, but Chainsaw Man seems to lean fully into the concept in ways I’ve never seen before.

The protagonist of Chainsaw Man is Denji, a lonely guy who doesn’t think life is worth living, but is given a second chance when a demon he befriends known as the Chainsaw Devil offers him a chance at the normal existence he’s always wanted.  Denji’s discovered by a beautiful female government agent named Makima, who recruits Denji to fight demons as Chainsaw Man. In addition to being a target of Denji’s immature affections, Makima provides him with companions, including a female fiend (half-human, half-devil) with blood-based abilities named Power. Over time, the bond between the two of them grows, and they make a great if chaotic team—like two violent Monkey D. Luffys with bad attitudes but good hearts. Eventually, though, Makima reveals that her motives for recruiting Denji were anything but pure. In an act of cruelty designed to cow Denji and leave him in despair, Makima murders Power in front of Denji with little warning, Power even having been carrying a birthday cake for Denji in anticipation of a celebration. Death of named characters in Chainsaw Man is not uncommon, but Power’s death hits especially hard.

It is undoubtedly a moment where a female character is killed so as to create a psychological impact on the male hero, but what Chainsaw Man also reveals this to have been Makima’s plan from day one. As Makima explains, Denji inadvertently entered a contract with the Chainsaw Devil where Denji is meant to receive a normal life in exchange for their fusing together, and the only way to deny him that basic happiness is to manipulate his life. As such, Makima purposely gave Denji friendships so that she could snatch them away and keep him under her thumb. Unlike many superhero instances of Women in Refrigerators, this is not tacked on as a way to raise the stakes, but is core to the overall story and the truth of Chainsaw Man’s world. The trope isn’t just kind of there thoughtlessly—it’s front and center, and fully exposed. 

To be accurate, Power isn’t completely gone, as her blood-control powers allow her to exist within Denji, and his motivation transforms into finding a way to bring her back. At the climax of the story, Denji also delivers a fatal blow to Makima using a chainsaw made from Power’s blood. Narratively, it’s explained that Power’s blood can prevent Makima from regenerating—Makima’s actually powered by a devil just like Denji, and has come back from death over 20 times—but there’s also a great symbolism in having Power get her payback in essence. Power is neither fully alive or fully dead, and while reducing her physical existence does potentially play into the idea that her role in the story is subordinate to Denji’s, the manga does such a strong job of portraying their relationship as that of equals (albeit two incredibly idiotic equals). The result is that Power looms large over Chainsaw Man as it enters Part 2, and is still one of the most important characters in the manga. She’s also consistently the most popular character in the series among English and Japanese fans.

Part 1 of the manga actually ends with a woman in a refrigerator. After defeating Makima and keeping her from regenerating, he tries to figure out a way to keep her from coming back from the dead. His solution: chop her up, store her in the fridge, and slowly cook and eat her entire body as a way to deny Makima her wish, which is to be eaten by the devil Chainsaw Man due to certain unique properties that Chainsaw Man possesses. Denji actively engages in cannibalism as himself and not his transformed state to prevent this from happening. He also chooses this gruesome route because he sees it not as an act of malice but a perverse way of wanting to be “together.” I don’t believe that this is the author of Chainsaw Man intentionally calling out the trope, but it’s hard to ignore, and it still winds up with a woman being literally fridged in service of a greater goal.

Chainsaw Man is a manga that can come across as brainlessly violent and gross, but it’s proven itself to be the product of extreme thoughtfulness. Even though its characters are often brash and simple, the story itself is not, and the handling of its own Women in Refrigerators does not feel like it detracts from the series other than making readers angry that Makima dare kill the best character. Power’s influence on the series continues to loom large, and it helps avoid the feeling that being fridged trivializes her character, and keeps Chainsaw Man as a whole from being subsumed by the wastefulness of the trope. In an Obi-Wan Kenobi sort of way, striking Power down makes her more powerful than we can possibly imagine. 

Hypnosis Mic “Rhyme Anima,” aka Yu-Gi-Oh! DMX

It was Spring 2018 when I first encountered the Japanese multimedia franchise known as Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle. I was on vacation in Japan, and on a visit to Ikebukuro, I happened to walk past a Hypnosis Mic collaborative cafe. Not wanting to disturb the customers, I quickly left while wondering what it was I had just seen, though the large images of handsome anime guys with microphones told me that it was something at least idol-adjacent. I eventually learned the gimmick of Hypnosis Mic—rap battles!—as well as its incredibly odd premise (more on that below), which both puzzles and intrigued me. So when the anime was announced (full title: Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle “Rhyme Anima”), I thought it would be my chance to finally see firsthand what this was all about. The result: a show that’s not the most sophisticated work per se, but is consistently fun and ridiculous.

The outline: In the aftermath of World War III, Japan’s government has been taken over by a women-led political group called the Party of Words, who have managed to outlaw all weapons and replaced them with special devices called Hypnosis Microphones. These microphones can affect people physically and mentally, and they’re most powerful when wielded by talented rappers. In this environment, men are only allowed to live in specific areas of Japan called divisions, and in the present time, groups of men from each division are tasked with forming rap crews in order to compete in a tournament known as the Division Rap Battle.

The four main groups of Hypnosis Mic are uster Bros!!! (three brothers from Ikebukuro), Mad Trigger Crew (a combo of yakuza boss, police officer, and military veteran from Yokohama), Fling Posse (a fashion designer, a literary author, and a gambler from Shibuya), and Matenro (a doctor, a host, and a salaryman from Yokohama. Both intra-group and inter-group dynamics between the characters make for prime shipping fodder, especially because the leaders of each have a shared history.

I certainly was confused upon hearing all this first explained to me, as I had a ton of questions about the political implications of the plot. Women are clearly the target audience, so why are women also the primary antagonists of the series? What does it say that women are both responsible for demilitarizing Japan and saving it from itself but also are incredibly authoritarian? What would a feminist activist or a men’s rights activist think if they watched Hypnosis Mic? My best guess is that the setting is mostly a pretense, and that all contradictions are secondary to style and drama.

One thing I have to acknowledge is that because I’ve come to primarily know Hypnosis Mic through the anime, I had a fundamentally different experience from the fans who were there at the start.  In its original format of music CDs, fans could purchase and vote for their favorite groups to advance—akin to voting for one’s favorite idol in AKB48 or Love Live! In its anime incarnation, Hypnosis Mic is mostly about cool rappers shooting music laser blasts with and against one another, like a bunch of hip hop Nekki Basaras from Macross 7. They call forth ethereal sound sets through which they deliver their verbal beatdowns, and it’s heavily reminiscent of how characters from Yu-Gi-Oh! might summon the Blue Eyes White Dragon or the Stardust Dragon. I titled this post after a gag from Yu-Gi-Oh! Abridged because it just so perfectly sums up Hypnosis Mic that I couldn’t resist. Also, I think there really is a similar spirit of spectacle between the world’s most famous card game anime and the world’s only anime about superpowered rappers.

As for the raps themselves, I’m not the best judge of quality, even as I’ve been trying to learn. However, I believe there to be a genuine desire from the franchise to make rap exciting and interesting to an audience that is probably not well versed in it, and from what I’ve read, they do use experienced hip hop producers. The lyrics for certain songs can get pretty clever, and while not every voice actor in the series is a bonafide genius on the mic, the quality is generally high, and there are a few standouts.  I’m particularly fond of Jyuto’s bars, the cop character from Mad Trigger Crew. Speaking of them, I don’t know if I’d call Mad Trigger Crew my favorite group, but I do like how Rio (the military guy) keeps accidentally grossing his teammates out by feeding them dishes made with bugs and other unorthodox things—someone I can relate to. My actual favorite character is the leader of the Party of Words, Touhouten Otome, but she doesn’t rap in the anime, so you can see where my preferences lie.

Hypnosis Mic is a trip, and the anime is worth checking out just to see with your own two eyes that such a show really exists. I love the idea that the franchise as a whole is potentially introducing rap and hip hop to people who might not have bothered with it otherwise; something akin to Hamilton. Much like how Hetalia inspired fans to learn more about history, it can be a gateway into discovering an entire musical genre. Though hat I really wonder is, how would the real world’s rap greats look in the world of Hypnosis Mic? Would someone like Tupac, Rakim, or Eminem summon rhymes so strong that they shatter the Earth itself?

The Mandalorian Season 2 Doesn’t Contradict The Last Jedi

WARNING: SPOILERS for Season 2 of The Mandalorian

The Mandalorian has managed to bring Star Wars fans together in ways I never expected. No matter which movie or trilogy is your favorite (or least favorite), or even if Star Wars has never been your cup of tea, The Mandalorian feels faithful to the heart and spirit of the franchise without being too overly bogged and down and reverential to the films. But I’ve seen a strange reaction online, mostly from people irrationally angry at Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, who attempt to use The Mandalorian to draw lines in the sand where there are none. Their goal: to push a narrative that, somehow, The Mandalorian helped fix the “wokeness” that “ruined” The Last Jedi.

The climax of Season 2 of The Mandalorian has the protagonist and his allies trapped in a situation from which there appears to be no escape from a small army of murderous droids, when suddenly a lone X-Wing docks into the Star Destroyer they’ve stormed. Out pops a mysterious hooded figure wielding a green lightsaber, who single handedly wipes out every robot soldier with awe-inspiring ease. When he reaches the Mandalorian, he reveals his face, and it’s the original hero of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, post-Return of the Jedi and more powerful than we’ve ever seen him in combat.

After this episode, Star Wars fans came out with cries of joy, but among the praises were voices that tried to twist this into some kind of admonishment of The Last Jedi’s director, Rian Johnson. According to this narrative, The Mandalorian succeeded in its portrayal of Luke where The Last Jedi failed, the latter acting more as character assassination than character development. “This is how Luke should have always been.”

The Last Jedi is my favorite of the sequel trilogy, especially because I see Episode VII: The Force Awakens as decent but overly safe and Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker as the product of abject cowardice. I also do think the stance that The Last Jedi betrayed the franchise is often disingenuous, and partly a way to push a strange right-wing agenda that is bitter at the generally liberal-leaning environment of Hollywood and entertainment media. Even so, I want to address it for one reason: It incorrectly assumes that, for whatever reason, those who enjoyed The Last Jedi would be somehow upset at Luke Skywalker being a badass.

The Last Jedi’s portrayal of Luke as a man scared to repeat his greatest mistake—training someone in the ways of the Jedi who then becomes corrupted—is indeed a stark contrast from the never-give-up attitude of his younger self, and so it’s easy to see why that older Luke can be so jarring. However, I think what Episode VIII smartly does is set up parallels between the reality of the the viewers and the story of that galaxy far, far away: the better days promised to us in decades past have not panned out, and the older generation who were supposed to lead us to prosperity and understanding could not reach that lofty goal because they were ultimately limited by the circumstances of both the world at large and their way of thinking. The idea is that Luke Skywalker is powerful, but he couldn’t do everything, and he had a breaking point.

This personal flaw in no way conflicts with his portrayal in The Mandalorian unless belief in Luke Skywalker requires him to be beyond reproach. He can still be the guy who cut through a squad of Dark Troopers and also the guy who felt such immense guilt that he banished himself to the farthest reaches of space. It reminds me of the anger people feel over criticisms of the US’s founding fathers as marred by their own racism, and it comes from what I think is the way we place our heroes, both fictional and real, onto pedestals that somehow require them to be as perfect as possible. I think it’s no coincidence that similar anger exists over actual Confederate monuments (statues that were cheaply mass-produced to take advantage of ingrained racist beliefs decades after the Civil War), or how treating Donald Trump like a messiah requires an ever increasing—and now deadly—amount of suspension of disbelief.

The Mandalorian itself encourages the idea that one’s deep-seated beliefs may not always align with the truth. When the Mandalorian himself meets others of his kind, he finds out that the sacred vow he took is not one universal to those of Mandalore, but the product of a particular extremist sect. In this respect, while Luke Skywalker does get his moment at the season finale, the greater show also discourages unwavering loyalty purely based on tradition and dogma. Ultimately, the argument that his appearance as symbolic of a push against Rian Johnson is little more than posturing, and is yet another attempt to create outrage at perceived enemies of an archaic and dangerous form of traditionalism.

Naomi Osaka with Lightning Powers: Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi

I knew that Naomi Osaka was supposed to get her own manga. What I didn’t know is that it would be drawn by the artists responsible for the Precure manga, nor that it would be about futuristic space tennis. Having read the first chapter, I think Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi is going to turn out amazing.

In the year NKY2770, five elemental planets (light, wind, water, earth, fire) compete in space to determine the next king after the previous King of Light suddenly died and left the planets vulnerable to the forces of darkness. A 15-year-old girl named Naomi travels with her family to the wind planet to support her dad’s dream of becoming a space tennis coach, but an old man Naomi rescues reveals to Naomi her immense potential, and puts her down the thrilling path of a player.

One thing I did not expect from Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi is that it’s much more action-packed than I expected. While the Precure anime is known for its fight scenes, Kamikita Futago’s manga renditions usually eschew superpowered combat in favor of friendly conversations and non-battle storylines. Not so here, as part of what puts the “space” in space tennis is elemental-powered strokes and tense matches that would feel at home even in a shounen magazine.

In terms of racial sensitivity, while I can’t say much, the Kamikita twins have prior experience drawing a darker-skinned heroine thanks to their work on the Star Twinkle Precure manga, which features the half-Mexican Amamiya Elena. From what I can tell there, the artists drew Elena very respectfully, and I see a similar approach being used here.

The credits also for the series also include supervision from Naomi’s older sister Mari, who’s also a tennis player. I’m curious as to what exactly her involvement is. Does she provide tennis expertise? Is she a fan of shoujo manga? These are probably questions I’ll never know the answer to.

Even if the series ends up being pretty by-the-numbers, I’m looking forward to it. Sure, it looks fun so far, but more importantly, I think it has real potential to make some social impact. For its first chapter, Unrivaled Naomi Tenka-ichi graces the cover of its magazine, Nakayoshi. While I don’t know how many dark-skinned heroines have been cover girls for Nakayoshi, I suspect that it’s been more the exception than the rule. I can imagine a young Japanese girl who’s self-conscious about her own skin color seeing the fictional and real versions of Naomi proudly displayed on the cover, and drawing confidence and inspiration from it. Maybe it’ll help them see themselves in a prouder light. And if this manga reaches a worldwide audience, then it’s all the better.

A European Tour: Izneo Comics App Review

In recent years, I’ve turned more and more to digital comics as a resource. While there is something lost in not being able to hold a physical book, the sheer amount of manga, webcomics, and the like that I try to keep up with means that I would soon run out of living space. I purchase ebooks on a regular basis (in English and Japanese), and have subscriptions to multiple comics and manga services.

I was recently contacted by a digital comics platform called Izneo, who asked me if I’d like to review their service. They offer a variety of American comics, manga, and webtoons, but what really caught my eyes was their robust European comics selection. While Ogiue Maniax is ultimately more focused on anime and manga, I spent a few years living in Europe, and I tried to use that opportunity to learn more about the storied history of Franco-Belgian comics (bande dessinee), Dutch comics (stripboeken), and just about anything I could get my hands on. Still, it’s an area of comics where my knowledge of comics is relatively weak, and knowing that Izneo seems dedicated to promoting European comics digitally encouraged me to write something.

Izneo was actually started by several large comics publishers in France, and so while they might not be as big as the elephant in the room, Comixology, they have a particular edge when it comes to European comics. From what I could tell, they tend to get new European releases sooner, and their premium service (which is first month free before switching to $7.99/month) has a lot more European titles readily available than Comixology Unlimited. For example, I compared the classic Belgian adventure comic Blake & Mortimer. As of December 2020, a Comixology subscription has nine volumes available to read at all times, whereas Izneo’s offers fourteen.  I think that alone can justify the subscription, but it doesn’t hurt that the selection of non-European comics is still quite decent. You can also buy the comics as individual purchases on there without a subscription, so there’s some flexibility in terms of cost.

I tried out Izneo’s apps on multiple platforms—a tablet, a smartphone, and even the Nintendo Switch—and what quickly became clear to me is that the tablet offered the best reading experience because of the traditional format of European comics. Unlike manga, which come collected into fairly small books usually somewhere between 144 to 208 pages mostly in black and white, European comics are around 48 to 64 pages, come in much larger dimensions (even bigger than the typical Marvel or DC hardcover collection), and are lovingly detailed in both linework and color. Although each European comic album is relatively short, it can often take a single artist months or even years to complete a single book, and they’re ideally read with the entire page visible to appreciate the overall visual composition. Because of this, it’s a challenge to read on a smaller screen, especially when you hit a word balloon that’s just stuffed with exposition. The best solution might be to just have an extremely large monitor, so you can even read the comics as full double-page spreads all the way, but that’s not a solution available to everyone.

Izneo is well aware of this limitation and offers a couple of workarounds for those using smaller devices. First is their “eazy comics” view, which breaks the page down so you read it one panel at a time. Second is that you can display each page zoomed in so you see about a third of it at a time. Of the two, I much prefer the latter, especially when it comes to older titles that stick more closely to the “three ‘strips’ per page” format. I also want to reiterate that I’m focusing on this issue not because it’s some fatal flaw of Izneo specifically, but because it’s an inherent compromise that comes with digital releases of European comics across all comics services.. The offerings for manga, American comics, and of course webtoons (which are generally created to be read on smaller screens) don’t run into these issues nearly as much. 

In order to do this review, I received the one-month premium subscription from Izneo, but I actually plan on continuing to use Izneo. I haven’t decided if I’ll keep the premium service or go into a la carte purchases, but their digital service just gives me such an opportunity to really explore European comics, and it means supporting the publishers and artists more directly. My only real wish is that they get more titles in the future. I would love to see Yoko Tsuno on there, and for the release to go beyond the few volumes released (out of order) in English previously. If possible, I also hope that they could eventually get non-Franco-Belgian European comics on there, like the Dutch series Agent 327. Overall, when it comes to Izneo, I like what I see, and I want more.

Dark Waters: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 35

Heartache and bracket upsets abound in Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 35.

Summary

After being rejected by Kousei, Shion is emotionally devastated. Yukina asks why Kousei would word his rejection so harshly, while Jin correctly (and inappropriately) brings up Kousei’s mom as the reason he doesn’t like to deal with girls.  At the same time, seeing Shion confess to Kousei has put Akira into a funk, which impacts his singing as a part of Tsuyama’s group in the school music competition (once again, Akira got roped into participating with them as well). Combined with a lack of practice and a focus on girls over music, the “Tsuyama All Stars” are defeated by a group of otaku singing an iDOLM@STER song. 

Dropping out in Round 1, all of their girlfriends instantly reject them as losers, and Tsuyama is on the verge of kicking Akira’s ass. However, Kurotaki Mai steps in to defend Akira by pointing out that Tsuyama and company’s song choice betrayed them, as they clearly lacked the conviction they showed when singing a Spitz cover at the previous competition against the Chorus Appreciation Society. The Tsuyama crew then realize the “error” of their ways and go back to worshipping Mimi-sensei. But Mai also criticizes Akira, and relays something that Jin taught her: the low notes are the foundation of harmonizing, and as possessors of deep voices, they’re vital to the success of their respective groups’ performances.

But right when everyone expects the Light Music Club to win their round, they’re actually beaten by a mysterious masked group calling themselves “Basso Masters.” Who are they, and why are there 52 of them?!

Oh, Mai

With all the romantic drama coming out over the past few chapters, it’s no surprise that a look into Mai’s inner thoughts would reveal that she has feelings for Akira as well. Sure, all the blushing and gratefulness since her introduction into Hashikko Ensemble was a pretty strong hint, but after giving Akira advice, she thinks to herself, “Liking someone who likes someone else…It happens all the time.” In a different context, it might come across as more ambiguous, but then it’s followed up by Himari seeing everything and reacting with a thought of her own: “…Ugh. Looks like she’s gonna be a real pain.” Himari is clearly seeing something there, though I’m still not sure how Himari herself feels. Being Akira’s childhood friend, is there something more? The love web somehow gets more defined and more convoluted as the story continues.

Meanwhile, Akira’s mom is there in person and seeing this tangled web of emotions in action, thrilled at her darling son experiencing the ups and downs of youth. As with the last chapter, I love how supportive she is, and when I think about something like Genshiken, the sheer parental presence in Hashikko Ensemble sticks out all the more.

Shallow Love

It’s ironic that Tsuyama’s crew, the ones who made it look like music was the key to dating success and the most visible symbol that the school had changed, were mercilessly tossed aside by their girlfriends and are now back to square one. It’s a humorously tragic moment, simple in its brutality, but also speaking to the dangers of romance through prestige. Both the guys and the girls involved likely got into it for shallow reasons, though in what ways they were shallow changed. I could see Tsuyama and the others jumping at the very first opportunity to have some cute girlfriends, while the girls merely liked the cool cache brought to them by dating these guys. When Mai is telling them off, she mentions that their song choice was clearly made in order to please their girlfriends, who know nothing about music and shouldn’t have been such a significant factor. 

It’s implied that their devotion to Mimi-sensei was on a whole other level, and that whatever they were feeling for their girls just wasn’t quite the same. I feel sorry for Mimi-sensei for having to deal with them again, and it’s not exactly a happy ending, but i am amused by how confused she is in the aftermath. 

Jin Is Never Smooth

Some chapters ago, I wrote about how I think he’s supposed to be a non-neurotypical person, which came through in his inability to understand the more emotional and subjective aspects of music. Now, he seems incapable of reading the room, and loudly blurts out something that hits at Kousei’s greatest sore spot: his neglectful and abusive mother. I can’t quite recall if Jin has all the details about Kousei’s life, but just about anyone else would have known to keep quiet about it. Although nowhere near as terrible, Jin doesn’t have the best relationship with his own mom, and I wonder how much his social awkwardness (whether or not it’s due to a psychological or physiological condition) contributes to that tension.

Songs

Tsuyama All Stars: “Pretender” by Official Hige Dandism

Team “Promise” (a bunch of otaku): “Yakusoku” (Promise) from The iDOLM@STER

Half Monks: “Guts Daze!!” by Ulfuls

Electrical First-Years Acapella Group: “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” by Yoko Takahashi (electronic version using Vocaloid software)

Wind Instrument Club: “The Galaxy Express 999” by Godiego

Light Music Club: “Ai Uta” (Love Ballad) by GReeeeN

Basso Masters: “Daichi Kinshou” (Hymn of the Earth) from the cantata “Tsuchi no Uta” (Song of the Land)

I appreciate that the competition has a nice mix of genres and sources—including pop, rock, anime, and classical—from across the decades. The performances themselves also showcase different ways to make music, and I would love to see the electronic version of “Cruel Angel’s Thesis” if this ever got made into an anime.

You can find the above songs, along with previous references, in my Hashikko Ensemble Youtube playlist.

Final Thoughts

A group of 52 singers showing up incognito is sure to cause a stir, but it also makes me wonder if they’re actually another school in disguise—maybe Nishigafuchi. The combination of their song choice and their sheer numbers makes me think they’re not from around these parts.

Christmas, Nostalgia, and Shinkalion

It’s not uncommon for children’s cartoons to offer something to the parents watching with their kids, yet when it came to Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion: THE ANIMATION, I had believed that there wasn’t much in it for adults beyond those who already have an appreciation for a more classic type of kids’ anime. Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that what Shinkalion offers its older viewers is a dip into nostalgia—not only because of its relatively old-fashioned narrative beats, but also literal callbacks to pop culture moments of yesteryear.

In a recent tweet, fellow mecha enthusiast Tom Aznable points out how Shinkalion actually features near shot-for-shot re-creations of late 1980s Christmas-themed commercials for Japan Railways, complete with 4:3 aspect ratio, a faux-CRT filter, and actual recordings of “Christmas Eve” by the renowned Yamashita Tatsuro. You can see side by side comparisons in the link above, as well as the full commercials below:

I was unfamiliar with that particular song, but it’s apparently considered a Christmas classic in Japan. And, like so many things Japanese, it just oozes nostalgia, and now it’s forever on my playlist. 

In the context of the anime itself, the protagonist Hayasugi Hayato is a supreme train otaku, and so he thinks of everything—including other characters’ romantic recollections—in relation to trains. But the show is clearly using these moments to trigger powerful memories in its older viewers. Shinkalion doesn’t even limit it to Christmas commercials, either. Given all this, it becomes clearer that the Evangelion episode of Shinkalion, where Hayato visits Tokyo-3 and Shinji pilots a Shinkalion version of EVA-01, is also meant to play into this nostalgia.

The way that Shinkalion taps into a past zeitgeist makes me further aware of the improbability of the series ever getting licensed in English. The series is already focused primarily on viewers in Japan by virtue of its purpose and subject material. The show wants you to buy bullet train toys from Takara Tomy and encourages you to ride the train more (not exactly unwelcome in the grand scheme of things), and without the merch and the accessibility to the shinkansen—or, for that matter, the familiarity of Japanese high-speed rail—it would remain a weird and foreign thing to most kids in the US and other English-primary countries. When you throw the 80s and 90s Japanese media references on there as well, it becomes an even more difficult sell. Yamashita Tatsuro might be gaining more of an international reputation than ever thanks to his role as the king of city pop, but it’s those commercials just aren’t going to hit nearly as hard as they did with Japanese viewers.

There will always be something lost in cultural translation, but there need to be a lot of moving parts for this to work out, including likely a licensing process involving Japan Railways. And while Shinkalion has managed to reach beyond Japan and to places like Hong Kong, Asia’s relationship with anime is very different from the rest of the world’s due to proximity. 

Still, I wouldn’t mind a Christmas miracle whereby Shinkalion gets licensed in some form—even a streaming-only release. There would likely be some music rights limitations that would alter the experience, as even the Japanese official Youtube versions of Shinkalion episodes had to replace “Christmas Eve” and “Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” but it would be a relatively small price to pay. As the line from the Japan Railways Christmas commercials puts it, “Getting to see you is the ultimate present.”

Attack on Expectations: Deca-Dence

Anime about game-like worlds have something of a stale reputation these days. The sheer ubiquity of virtual reality and RPG-inspired isekai anime results in many series taking relatively shallow treatments of their science fictional aspects. Obsession with game mechanics and/or power fantasy are par for the course. Amidst these trends, Deca-Dence is not only refreshing for its interesting worldbuilding and compelling characters, but it also feels like a genuinely innovative look as well as subversion of game-derived concepts within the context of a society built around them.

Deca-Dence is a tricky anime to review due to its many plot twists. It’s not the type of series that is “ruined” by knowing the big spoilers, as full knowledge of what’s really going on just invites more questions to ponder over, but I think it’s more knowing less so that the show can work its initial magic. 

Thus, the most I’ll say about the basic premise is this: Deca-Dence takes place in a world where humanity is confined to a mobile fortress called the Deca-Dence, which is key to their survival against mysterious monsters called the Gadol. Assisting them in their fight is a system reminiscent of the vertical maneuvering gear of Attack on Titan: backpacks that allow people to levitate, and harpoons capable of draining a vital fluid from them that can be used as a power source. The story focuses on a girl named Natsume, who loses both her father and her arm in humanity’s battle against the Gadol, and it’s the clash between her desire to become a front-line fighter and her self-perception as a relative nobody that gradually opens up the secrets of the world to her. Of all the people she gets to know, the most important is a man named Kaburagi, a former combatant who’s tired of living.

The term I use to describe Natsume and many of the other characters is “NPCs,” or non-player characters. I understand that the term might raise some eyebrows, as it’s commonly used by the alt-right to demean and diminish those who don’t follow their hate-filled ideologies, but here it’s meant in the context of characters who “matter less” within their world because they’re not supposed to be the ones going out and achieving glory. There’s a very clear divide in their society, with a group of extremely skilled warriors known as the “Power” at the very top, whose battle prowess seems all but unattainable for the common folk. It’s as if their world is structured to follow game-like notions of character importance, and Natsume is the one who inadvertently moves beyond her “station” as an NPC of sorts.

Deca-Dence is a satisfying robust science fiction series that both entertains and challenges the viewer. It’s a show that encourages you to think and imagine in the best way possible. I highly recommend it, and am considering writing a spoiler-heavy review just to go over some of the important and provocative ideas to come out of it.

Multi-Talented Competition: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 34

The competitive escalates in an unexpected way in Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 34.

Summary

After the Rugby Club’s surprisingly strong rendition of a Radwimps tune in the high school’s cultural festival singing competition, the Chorus Appreciation Society fires back with a performance of their own. They win handily, showing the fruits of their training camp. However, even though the Rugby Club captain accepts the results, he has one last request as a third-year soon to graduate: he wants to challenge Jin to an arm wrestling competition! 

Jin accepts, but thinks it should be a best-of-three. Sora (the guy who confessed to Kozue) immediately challenges Kousei, and Yukina (who was last year’s school-wide arm wrestling champion) jumps in to be the third participant for the Chorus Appreciation Society. The impromptu matchup ends with a 2-1 victory for the Chorus Appreciation Society, with Jin putting in an impressive but ultimately losing effort against the Rugby Club captain. Reactions differ among the crowd, ranging from hype to Yumerun’s utter disinterest.

As Yukina is celebrating the win and talking with Kousei, Shion can’t help but think that they look great together. Suddenly, she sticks her arm between them and confesses directly to Kousei: “I like you. Go out with me?” Kousei’s response: “What? No.” That rejection is also the title of the chapter.

Yukina’s Turbo Controller

I genuinely thought that Yukina’s arm wrestling prowess wouldn’t really factor into the story beyond some displays of strengths, but here we are, with a sudden arm wrestling match. It almost makes regret making an Over the Top reference already. The surprise is welcome, however, and it adds to something I really enjoy about Hashikko Ensemble: the series is somehow both extremely predictable and unpredictable at the same time, and where those cards fall seems to just make for a more enjoyable manga most of the time.

All this arm wrestling talk also makes me think of my childhood playing the Track & Field II arm wrestling minigame. Whenever any arm wrestling happens in media, I just think of the background music and the grunting faces.

The Performance

As the guys are singing, Takano-sensei makes mention of how much they’ve all improved (as well as Kozue’s excellent conducting). In particular, she remarks about their successful balancing of both the lyrics-heavy nature of J-pop with getting the right musical accents. She also uses a couple terms that I think are worth noting—mostly for my sake, as someone who’s not musically inclined.

The first is legato, which is singing in a smooth and connected way; the opposite of staccato. It is not, in fact, simply a Trigun villain.

The second is syncopation, which is singing on the weak beats. 


The general idea, from what I can tell, is that they’ve managed to adapt a J-pop tune into something that utilizes the musical training they’ve all been going through. I wonder if the goal is to strike a middle ground between doing appealing songs to get more members and doing something technically impressive for Jin’s mom and her high standards.

Romantic Perceptions

It’s poetic that Akira has these dramatic nightmares about Kousei and Shion, but to Shion, Kousei and Yukina are the picture-perfect couple. There’s a self-consciousness at work in each case, where one sees themselves as somehow not looking “right” for their love interest. 

I feel like this is a fear that Kio Shimoku tends to express and explore in his works. In Gonensei (The Fifth-Year), one of the core conflicts is how the boyfriend feels a level of inadequacy because he couldn’t graduate at the same time as his girlfriend, and the two drift further apart. In Spotted Flower, the husband similarly panics when he just lays eyes on his wife interacting with her ex-boyfriend, believing that he pales in comparison, despite the fact that he and his wife  just had a daughter. I don’t think it’ll be anywhere near as dark and ugly in Hashikko Ensemble, but I’m interested in seeing how the love web continues to get tangled.

The chapter further contrasts how Shion and Yukina each see Kousei—the former as a strong hero and the latter as an adorable underclassman. As Yukina watches the performances, she recalls happening upon Kousei practicing his singing in private. Unbeknownst to Kousei, Yukina actually sat hidden behind a staircase, listening to him the whole time. It’s as if both girls have feelings because they’ve managed to see what’s on the inside, only it’s two different aspects of the “real Kousei.” If I had to give a preference, I like Kousei/Yukina, only because it’s more hilarious.

When the Tsun and the Dere are Indistinguishable

Right before the arm wrestling match begins, Kozue tells Sora to do his best. When he gets trounced by Kousei, she thinks, “Ah. Figures it was impossible.” While I originally thought that there was a possibility that Kozue might end up on a date with Sora reluctantly, it now looks like she might actually feel something for him after all. I don’t know if you’d call this tsundere, as I think that Kozue doesn’t have that characteristic loss of control of her own emotions, but maybe the childhood friend connection is real. Also, we haven’t seen what Sora looks like shirtless, but maybe he has the buffness she looks for in guys.

Or maybe being into musclemen is more of a fantasy fetish and not something she necessarily wants in a partner.

Songs

This month’s song is “March 9” by Remioromen, which the Chorus Appreciation Society performs against the Rugby Club.

Final Thoughts

During their performance, Akira’s mom is in the crowd. I don’t know why exactly, but seeing her cheer her son on and react like such a doting parent really sticks with me. Perhaps it’s just the way she seems so wholeheartedly excited about her Akira doing this new and different thing by getting into singing. I can sense the love in their relationship.

Pokémon Journeys, the Original Mewtwo, and Playing with Canon

In a surprising move, the current Pokémon TV anime (called Pokémon Journeys in English and simply Pocket Monsters in Japanese) recently brought back the original super legendary, Mewtwo. And not just any Mewtwo, but the one who debuted over 20 years ago as the Viridian City Gym’s trump card. Mewtwo is my favorite character in all the anime, so there’s a personal thrill to seeing its return, but there’s added significance as well: the continued acknowledgement of the canonicity of events in and connected to the first film, Mewtwo Strikes Back, and an emphasis that what has happened over the anime’s long history still matters.

The Pokémon anime tends to play a little fast and loose with its canon, resulting in strange discrepancies, especially when it comes to the divide between the films and the weekly series. Aside from Mewtwo Strikes Back, whose plot ties directly into the TV anime, it’s always unclear—likely intentionally so—whether the events of the other movies actually “happened.” This isn’t unusual when it comes to films based on popular anime—nearly all the Dragon Ball Z movies are non-canon, and the popular movie-only character Broly had to be reintroduced into that universe in a canonical entry, Dragon Ball Super: Broly

In the world of Pokémon, this has meant that, despite the fact that certain legendary Pokémon are meant to be the only one of their kind, Satoshi (Ash Ketchum) has encountered multiple versions. After he helped a telepathic Lugia save the world in Revelation-Lugia, he would later encounter a different one that could not communicate psychically and, in fact, was trying to raise a child (Lugia is not supposed to be able to breed). Even Mewtwo, whose whole story is that it is a one-of-a-kind artificial creation made to be unmatched in combat, would see a second distinct version show up in the 16th movie.

In the recent episode, there is no mistaking that the Mewtwo seen is the original. When it first appears, Mewtwo slowly descends as ominous background music from Mewtwo Strikes Back and the Mewtwo Lives TV special can be heard. When Mewtwo speaks, its gruff yet soulful masculine voice is that of the original actor, Ichimura Masachika, as opposed to the feminine voice of the 16th movie Mewtwo’s Takashima Reiko. And when Satoshi and Goh lay eyes on Mewtwo, their reactions couldn’t be more different: whereas Goh is shocked by seeing something unfamiliar, Satoshi and Pikachu immediately recognize the Genetic Pokémon and even say its name. 

However, it’s not as if Mewtwo and Satoshi start to recall their two encounters. Mewtwo doesn’t even say anything about already knowing Satoshi, and Satoshi doesn’t bring anything up beyond that initial recognition. While this might be frustrating to fans who’d like to see a more concrete nod to Mewtwo and Satoshi’s connection, I think the current anime is trying hard to balance a lot of different paradoxical elements that exist within Pokémon and Satoshi himself. He’s somehow both the veteran with years of experience under his belt and the plucky young amateur who has much to learn—perpetually 10 years old for over 20 years. Satoshi’s many adventures have happened (including at least one film), but he’s also still meant to be an audience-representative character for young viewers tuning into the anime for the first time, even as Goh fulfills a similar role (though his character is closer to a scholar or researcher). Furthermore, by having Satoshi not say much, it reinforces the idea that he hasn’t let his previous experiences get to his head. A similar moment happens in the second episode of the current series, where Lugia speaks to Satoshi (and only Satoshi) telepathically, hinting that this one might just very well be the one we see in the second movie.

Trying to fully reconcile the Pokémon anime canon would be a foolish endeavor because it’s only as consistent as it needs to be in any one moment. Satoshi is forever a challenger, even as he wins championships. But given what the anime is trying to be, a long-running series that wants to feel both familiar and new at the same time, it’s not a bad place to be. And seeing the original Ichimura-voiced Mewtwo n the year 2020 is a nostalgic and thrilling experience. Mewtwo’s appearance speaks to the idea that the past of Pokémon still matters even as we continue to move into the future.