I’m Bad at Understanding Rhythm, but the Manga “Wondance” is Changing That

For the life of me, I’ve always had trouble with musical concepts like rhythm and beats. Even though I was in a couple of band classes as a kid, and even when I’ve tried to read up on it or look up videos, I just couldn’t wrap my head around these things. But recently, I think that’s starting to change, and I actually have manga to thank.

I recently began reading a new hip hop dancing-themed series called Wondance. Because that genre of dance is likely unfamiliar to many readers, the manga uses its main character as a way to introduce ideas. Kotani Kaboku is a basketball player with a speech impediment who discovers that dancing might just be a way for him to express himself, and he even applies some of his b-ball knowledge to his new interest.

In Chapter 4, titled “After-Beat,” Kaboku’s dance teacher talks to her class about a crucial difference between the music they might be accustomed to (J-Pop, anime songs, etc.) and the kind they’re dancing to now (hip hop, R&B, and funk)–what part of the beat the music (and thus the dancing accompanying it) emphasizes. If a basic beat is “1-2, 3-4,” then pop music tends to emphasize the “1” and the “3” while hip hop emphasizes the “2” and the “4.” The “2” and the “4” are called the “after-beat. To put it differently, if the beat track of a song goes “bumm-chh, bumm-chh,” the “chh” is the after-beat.

For anyone who’s into music and dance, this is probably child’s play, but this one page was actually the catalyst for me to actually “get” ideas that I knew of but could never actually understand. That simple explanation above, as well as the demonstration of dance moves at the bottom of the page, opened up a window I thought would be forever inaccessible. I listened to both anime songs and hip hop, my ears now aware of that difference in emphasis. When I watched videos teaching about beats, I had a better notion of what they were saying.

There’s even a moment from Chapter 3 of Wondance that subtly introduces these ideas, and in hindsight it’s actually brilliant. Kaboku notices something about the rhythm of hip hop dancing, and he compares it to dribbling in basketball: if the rhythm of the basketball is down-then-up, then hip hop feels like the “up” is being emphasized, and it’s the prime moment to make a steal. In other words, the ball hitting the floor is the “bumm” and the ball returning to the hand is the “chh.” When I remembered that scene, it hit me like a sack of potatoes.

While I highly doubt that I can ever truly feel the beat as so many others can, or apply it to something like rap or dance, I feel like a new world has opened up to me. It’s almost like learning a new language. I also think it might say something about me that it took reading a comic in a foreign language to finally comprehend something as pervasive as music, but maybe that’s part of the beauty of comics. And between Wondance in manga and Tribe Cool Crew in anime, I hope we see this genre continue to grow.

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“Very East-Coast Avengers.” War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas

Every year, New York Comic Con is a torrent of color and energy squeezed into a space that will barely fit everyone inside. But I’ve gotten fairly accustomed to it after so long, and at this point it’s basically an annual ritual. But eight months removed from the last NYCC in 2018, I still think about the Asian-Americans in Comics panel held there. Discussing everything from the success of Crazy Rich Asians to the challenges of portraying Asians in media in a landscape eager to work off of old, exotic stereotypes, it made me more invested in a fight I’ve had a stake in all along, even as this blog has concentrated primarily on anime and manga.

So when I read that Marvel was debuting a comic with an all-Asian team, I decided to break my years-long hiatus from traditional superhero comics and purchase the first issue of War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas. But without even seeing a single image or piece of dialogue, I instantly sensed who the writer for this brand-new series was, or perhaps hadto be: Greg Pak, a long-time champion of introducing Asian characters to comics who was also one of the biggest names on that NYCC panel. Joining him on art is Gang Hyuk Lim, and on color Federico Blee.

The first issue opens up with a very familiar problem in Asia: a territorial dispute. Wave, a Filipino superhero, is chasing after a disturbance only to run afoul of a Mainland Chinese superhero named Aero, who tells her that she shouldn’t be outside the Philippine Sea. The comic instantly frames the level of detail the series aims to have by not only touching upon the ongoing disagreements over borders between Asian countries but also implies that the Filipino and Chinese heroes have different levels of connection to their respective governments.

From there, the series introduces the main Agents of Atlas team, which consists of Asian characters from all around the world, with some established Marvel characters and some all-new. Here, while also showing individual character motivations, the comic also highlights something important: they may all be Asian and raised Asian, but they’ve all been brought up in different ways with different values and assumptions based on the countries of their respective people and where they call home. For many Asian-Americans, there’s often a bit of cultural dissonance when going back to Asia because of the Western values they’ve grown up with. In other words, the first issue specifically emphasizes that just because they’re all “Asian” doesn’t mean they can be painted by the same brush.

The comic goes on to show various other heroes, including a number of Korean ones, as if to imply that superheroes have really taken off there. Amid attack by an outside enemy (from another REALM!), confusion ensues, and a lack of communication and a whole lot of jumping to conclusions leads to heroes fighting one another rather than their common foe.

What impresses me about this first issue is how much it respects both the similarities and differences of Asian cultures around the world while also pointing at the sensitive topics endemic to Asia and its diaspora. It’s the classic and universal idea of “we have to put aside our differences and work together to overcome this obstacle” but through the lens of Asian characters. There’s no exoticizing of any of the heroes, not even the older ones who came about in a time of exoticization.

While I know Greg Pak values and pushes for Asian characters, I have to wonder if part of the reason why Marvel as a business has gone ahead with New Agents of Atlas and its all-Asian team (and non-affiliated Asian heroes) is due to the success of the Marvel movies in China especially. The afterword suggests this, such as when it mentions how stories featuring Aero and Swordmaster can be found on NetEase, a Chinese comics site. As China exerts influence on entertainment and media, companies increasingly try to cater to the country and it’s government’s values. At the same time, however, if appealing to a Chinese audience potentially means more portrayals of Asian characters are respectful, is it a net positive? I don’t really have an answer myself at the moment.

So War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas is off to a good start more or less. Here’s to hoping it keeps its momentum.

Growing Step by Step: Run with the Wind

To tell a story about  competitive running is to instantly conjure up images of winners and losers. Even “The Tortoise and the Hare,” with its moral of consistent hard work reaping rewards, is framed as “slow and steady wins the race.” But the anime Run with the Wind emphasizes a lesson different from the old folk tale and even many other sports anime: while there will always be those who are faster and stronger, ultimately the true race is the one you run against yourself.

Titled Kaze ga Tsuyoku Fuiteiru (“The Wind is Blowing Strong”) in Japanese and based on the novel by Miura Shion, Run with the Wind centers around the dream of one Kiyose Haiji. A senior at Kansei University, he wants to win the Hakone Ekiden: a 10-man relay marathon that pushes the limits of its participants. However, the group he’s managed to assemble is about as rag-tag as it gets–from a literal prodigy to a manga otaku who hasn’t experienced a real sweat in his life. Even qualifying for the event seems like a pipe dream, let alone winning.

Because the characters come from such wildly differing circumstances, each has a personal challenge to overcome. Kakeru, the aforementioned savant, is far and away the best of the group, but a troubled past leaves him conflicted about both running and being a team player. The geek, nicknamed “Prince,” is on the far opposite end, and is unable to even imagine running 20 kilometers. There’s practically a 0% chance that Prince could ever catch up to Kakeru even if he trained for a decade, but the series emphasizes an idea: it’s less important to prove superiority over others than to grow as an individual and to help others grow as well. Fujioka Kazuma, a character introduced later as the #1 college athlete, views his running not as an opportunity to triumph over others, but as a way to push himself to greater heights. The use of the Hakone Ekiden in the story itself beautifully reinforces this concept, as individual runners must overcome their own section and the expectations both internal and external set out for them.

Speaking from a personal perspective, I am ostensibly a runner.  I go running once a week with a group, though I’m nowhere near the fastest person, and my times haven’t gotten better in a long time, but I can look back at my old self and say, “I thought I could never run this much, but here I am.” “I used to think I couldn’t keep going, but now I know I can do it.” I never finish first, and I doubt I ever will, but challenging myself to keep at it, and then beating it, always tells me I’m going somewhere.

I believe that Run with the Wind’s lessons are extremely relevant to people today, as I increasingly see people both young and old who are paralyzed by the fear of competition and comparison. In their eyes, there’s no point in building up the stamina to climb a hill when others have successfully scaled Mt. Everest, no point to learning martial arts because they’ll never defeat a world champion, no point in working on personal appearance because they’ll never be as handsome or beautiful as movie stars and celebrities. But what Run with the Wind says is that the race to be #1 is not the only race worth running. Those who have given up before even trying, and those who trivialize their own improvement simply because they’re not better than the rest, should take this to heart and find their confidence, however small.

Small Town, Small Girl, Big Feels: Okko’s Inn

I believe strongly art and entertainment meant for kids that isn’t afraid to challenge them. It shows respect for the emotional complexity and growing intelligence of children, while still understanding that guidance is important. With respect to that sentiment, Okko’s Inn (Wakaokami wa Shougakusei! in Japanese) is an anime film that flits between the light-hearted and the somber, successfully channeling both in ways that resonate with young and old alike.

After a life-changing event, grade schooler Oriko (nickname: Okko) ends up moving in to her grandma’s traditional Japanese inn. There, she discovers that she can communicate with a few local spirits, and winds up becoming a junior innkeeper. Learning and laughing alongside both the ghosts and the humans she meets, Okko matures little by little.

Okko’s Inn is cute and heartwarming both on the surface and deep down to its core, but it doesn’t mean its story is all fluff. While the portrayal of the humble everyday bustle of a Japanese inn provides an almost meditative atmosphere, Okko’s internal and external conflicts are made all the more poignant by the way both joy and sorrow touch her life.

There’s one character who steals every scene she appears in: Okko’s classmate Matsuki, whose family is also in the inn business. Both wealthy and refusing to conform to expectations, she’s a wonderfully gaudy princess-type who is actually anything but shallow. Okko and Matsuki’s rivalry/friendship is a thing of beauty, and one of many relationships that make the film fulfilling.

While Okko’s Inn is an emotional ride, it’s never to the extent that it feels incongruous or conducive to whiplash. Whether you’re 5 or 95, its story, and all the little moments that make that story up, are hard to forget.

Menagerie, Menagerie: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 15

In this chapter, we see our first school outside of Hashimoto Tech! How will these students react to the eccentricities of the main cast?

Summary

The Chorus Appreciation Society is running into a few walls. This is partly because so many of its members lack experience, partly because of clashes in personality (especially between Orihara and Shinji), and partly because Mimi-sensei herself doesn’t know much about music. Thanks to the reluctant help of music teacher Takano-sensei, however, the Chorus Club gets a chance to do some inter-school practice. They visit Nishigafuchi Private High School, a strong music school with numerous accomplishments in competition and automatic entry into the elite Nankan University. It’s the Hakone Academy of choruses, in Yowamushi Pedal terms, perhaps.

The Nishigafuchi students are surprised at the wildly varying appearances and demeanors of the Hashimoto students. The Hashimoto students split off into their respective vocal sections, but when Akira goes to meet the other bass vocalists, he’s recognized by a student from his middle school days, Kidamoto, who asks what he’s doing there.

Pronunciation 101

There’s an interesting demonstration of some tongue exercises led by Jin. Namely, he shows how while Japanese people are typically taught vowels in the order of “A, I, U, E, O,” the more natural and comfortable order for the mouth would be “I, E, A, O, U.” I rather like how the manga drops bits of knowledge like this, as it both lends an air of authenticity while also making a kind of narrative sense given Jin’s scientific approach to music.

Too Many (?) New Characters

A lot of characters are introduced in this chapter, namely students at Nishigafuchi. Because there are so many, including the leaders of each of their club’s chorus section, I wonder which of them will be important down the line. It’s hard to tell with Hashikko Ensemble, given how we already have some minor characters ascend. I get the feeling that the bass leader, Honma Tadashi, will play a role in helping Akira improve.

As for Takano, she reminds me of the characters from FLCL, and not just in terms of her full lips and pouty face. She has a kind of laid-back slyness that feels like a mix between Haruko and Mamimi.

Kidamoto

Possibly the most important new character is Kidamoto. While he doesn’t stand out at first blush, but I do like how Hashikko Ensemble is utilizing him. At the very beginning of the chapter, his face shows up in one panel (see the top image), but his level of importance is still unknown. Then, when Hashimoto Chorus Club arrives, he reacts to someone’s appearance but it’s not immediately clear who he notices, creating a bit of anticipation in the story. Is it Jin, who’s presumably somewhat infamous in local music circles? Is it Shion, who competed in piano? The fact that it turns out to be Akira is both surprising and intriguing.

So what is the relationship between Akira and Kidamoto? Is it just that Kidamoto knows about how Akira pretended to sing in middle school during class performances? I’m looking forward to getting the answer, as well as seeing how this challenges Akira.

Character Humor Deluxe

There’s a lot of excellent humor this character-based humor in this chapter that I enjoyed immensely. One is Hanyama (the bald student) expressing his sudden urge to join the Chorus Club just from watching Mimi-sensei’s adorable conductor practice. Another involves one of the students at Nishigafuchi wondering if everyone from Hashimoto is going to be delinquents (on account of it being a technical/vocational school), only to have her expectations simultaneously subverted and affirmed by the contrast between Jin and Orihara.

My favorite of all, however, is seeing Shion constantly get distracted in class by Takano-sensei’s piano across the hall. As mentioned by Takano herself, her specialty is the violin, so even as a music teacher she’s not going to be impeccable on the ivory. Seeing Shion jerk her head at every flub Takano makes (summed up entirely in one panel) is such a perfect little character moment for Shion. It not only speaks to her own piano skills, but also hints at the same personality underlying her attitude towards the Chorus Club in the earlier chapters.

Overall, much of Chapter 15 emphasizes what an eclectic hodgepodge of people are at the center of this story. I expect to see Jin upend the Nishigafuchi students’ expectations with his vocal range, as well as other similar surprises.

Songs

The song they’re practicing for competition, “Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” (Behold the Nighttime Stars) by Kyu Sakamoto, appears again in this chapter. It’s to be expected moving forward.

Another song, one that Shion decides to play on piano (and thus not helping with practice) is Friedrich Bürgmuller’s 25 Études faciles et progressives, Op.100 (25 studies for piano) L’Arabesque. It’s part of a series of pieces designed to help young pianists improve their skills.

Final Thoughts

I often wonder if I’m actually doing this manga justice. There are a lot of little details in the panels that can seem frivolous but also add a lot to the core character dynamics that fuel the series. Hashikko Ensemble grows in fits and starts, but that’s also what makes it so appealing.

 

Infinite Potential: Aikatsu Friends! Kagayaki no Jewel

I’m unsure of what kids’ marketing research took place, but I doubt it’s a coincidence that both Precure and Aikatsu!—two major girls’ anime franchises—somehow both ended up on a space theme this year. But while Star Twinkle Precure is kind of expected given how every season has a gimmick or three, it’s much more surprising that Aikatsu Friends! Kagayaki no Jewel would establish the concept of “Space Idol Activities” in its own universe. Fitting, perhaps, but surprising nevertheless.

There’s a certain level of absurdity that permeates Aikatsu! as a whole—more than enough to make “Aikatsu in space” not seem like such a bizarre direction. In fact, I think it’s what has allowed the franchise to stand the test of time as a work of art and media, independent of the arcade game it’s based on. Aikatsu Friends! Kagayaki no Jewel leans into that, whether it’s maintaining old traditions (e.g. scaling cliffs) or trying something new. So when the first episode begins with an astronaut entering the stratosphere, the main reaction from me is “sure.” In a way, it feels more fitting than something like, Yu-Gi-Oh!, which now has a history of highlighting card games in different settings—in ancient Egypt, in school, on motorcycles, in space, and so on.

The new season also takes place in a new semester where the Aine and friends are now in the high school division, and I always enjoy seeing the signs of progress that come with such transitions. In this case, it’s seeing the underclassmen pale in terms of aerobic an anaerobic training alike, as well as…idols in spaaaaace.

My only wish is that they push this concept as far as it can go. Why limit it to space-esque idol performances? Why not have an idol school aboard a shuttle? Why not have zero-g dancing? Please take this to the absolute limit, Aikatsu!

P.S. Did you know the best Aikatsu! characters introduce themselves by parachute? It’s true.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’d like to request a topic for Ogiue Maniax (or support it in general), check out the Patreon.

Hip Hop Manga: “Change!” and “Wondance”

Whether by chance or perhaps some broad editorial intent, it’s a curious thing that hip hop culture would be a prominent theme in two currently serialized Kodansha manga in Japan. Change!, running in Monthly Shounen Magazine, is the story of a Japanese poetry-loving girl named Shiori who ends up being drawn into the world of rap battling. Wondance, from Monthly Afternoon, focuses on an athletic boy with a stutter who discovers hip hop dance as a way to express himself. Each series, almost by necessity, takes a very different approach to their respective subjects, and juxtaposing the two highlights the power each work possesses.

Change! naturally places great emphasis on verbal dexterity, and as a series about Japanese rapping, there are also certain aspects to the language that make it differ from English. Japanese has fewer vowel sounds, which means that many more things in the language can technically rhyme, which in turn means that the rhymes that do occur can be even more varied yet precise aurally. The heavy emphasis on syllables also gives Japanese a certain sense of rhythm, especially because extending those sounds can change the meaning of a word entirely.

All of this needs to be effectively conveyed in the manga, and the approach Change! takes is to place more emphasis on word balloons than most manga. Words and syllables can appear larger or more erratic in order to highlight what key words in one line are being correlated with in the next line. The classic staple of many manga, furigana to aid in the reading of difficult kanji, take on added importance due to both the sheer number of homonyms that exist in Japanese and to make sure the reader keeps track of what’s being said syllable by syllable.In the images above, the male rapper connects the word “underground” with “Alice in Wonderland,” working off the fact that andaaguraundo and Arisu in Wandaaraando both start with an “a” and have the similar raundo vs. rando. He then follows up on the next page with Atama no naka made pinku iroka? / Orera no otogibanashi wa Kingu Gidora!, or, “Is even the inside of your head the color pink? / Our fairytale is King Ghidorah!” Pinku iroka lines up perfectly vowel-wise with Kingu Gidora, and the talk of fairy tales follows up to his comparison of Shiori as being as out of her depth as Alice is in her story. While the passionate expressions and the metaphorical imagery shown contribute to the atmosphere and to hammer home the meanings behind the words, the actual word balloons do a great deal of heavy lifting.

In contrast, although Wondance can be fairly wordy at times, when it comes to dancing, the manga is very much in the “show, don’t tell” category. Characters move with grace and intensity, and panels highlighting their steps litter the pages, turning them into virtual collages that practically crackle with energy. Text is sparse, and primarily brief glimpses into how the characters are thinking in the heat of the moment.In the pages above, the main character and Hikaru—the girl who brings him into the world of dancing—are dancing together in a class. The paneling supports the character artwork, emphasizing a sense of the two as a duo in sync with each other on some deeper level. This visual approach calls to mind the elaborate paneling of 1970s shoujo manga such as Swan, where panels cascade and climax in beautiful ways. The drawings capture not just the dance but the emotions of the dancers as well, making their moves the central vehicle for storytelling. In a sense, one doesn’t even need to know Japanese (or have a translation handy) to get the essence of Wondance.

Thus, on the one hand, you have a series where the words are of the utmost importance and another where images hold the power. However, they both draw upon the visual language of comics and especially manga in fundamental ways through their particular emphases. Change! and Wondance capture some of the magic of hip hop culture itself as a multi-medium, multi-angle fusion of various ingredients.