Otakon in 2020 Was Fun but Strange

Whether it was in Baltimore or DC, part of the Otakon experience for me has always been the trip there and back, for better or worse. It could be smooth sailing, or a train could break down and leave the passengers stuck for hours (this really happened). That’s why this year’s Otakon was such a pleasant surprise. Rather than the three-plus hours it would normally take, the total travel time from bed to convention was approximately 20 seconds. From the start, I could tell there was something very different about this 2020 version of Otakon.

Unlike previous years, Otakon this year was a Saturday-only event on August 1st, which had its ups and downs. For one, while I do like immersing myself in the con environment for an extended weekend, I didn’t have to take time off to attend. And although the food in DC has been great, it usually was a bit of a trek to get anything to eat (even inside the Walter E. Washington convention center). This time, amazing home-cooked meals were just a few steps away. 

Panels and Workshops

Unfortunately, I did not have any panels accepted, so I was purely a spectator. This year, panels were significantly shorter, clocking in at 30 minutes per panel as opposed to the traditional one hour, but I saw it as a way to fit more presenters into the one-day event, making it a net benefit. Notably, the audience for every panel I saw was quite impressive, not only because they often numbered in the hundreds, but also because there was no trouble in getting into the panels despite such large attendance numbers. While there were some audio and video hiccups in some of the panels, they were fairly quick to resolve.

30 Years Ago: Anime in 1990

The first panel of the day I saw Daryl Surat’s “30 Years Ago: Anime in 1990,” which went through some of the highlights of anime from that time. It gave the sense of being a really transitional year, and I appreciated his highlighting of Brave Exkaiser, the first entry in the Brave franchise. He ended the panel with loving praise of the infamous Mad Bull 34, and tied its story of a rule-breaking, trigger-happy cop to current events in a manner humorous yet critical.

Carole and Tuesday

From there, I stepped into the Carole & Tuesday panel. The panel was already in progress, having started with a viewing of the first episode, but because I’d already seen the entire series, I thought it safe to skip. Amazingly, the travel time between Daryl’s presentation and this one was near-instantaneous, so I didn’t miss much. The panel started off with a beautiful musical performance by Celeina Ann (the singing voice of Tuesday Simmons), and led into an interview with her, director Watanabe Shinichirou, and (I believe) producer Makoto Nishibe. One thing I learned was that Alba City, the main setting of the show, is also a city in Cowboy Bebop. They also showed a vide of the recording and animation process, and seeing the amount of effort and collaboration that went into the show gave me a very positive impression.

Chibi Chibi Drawing Time

I normally don’t attend workshops at Otakon, but with things being so convenient this year, I decided to check out Chibi Chibi Drawing Time, which taught people how to draw super-deformed characters. It’s been a while since I scratched my art itch, and I used this opportunity to follow along with the spirit (though not always the letter) of the presenter’s guides. You can see the results below:

Into Another World: A History of Isekai

It’s the big genre that’s been sweeping the anime industry for a while, and thanks to this panel, I got to learn a little more about isekai. My main takeaways are that the introduction of gaming-oriented isekai helped to bring forth non-isekai anime in gaming-heavy settings (think Goblin Slayer and Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?), and that the number of shows seem to multiply exponentially. 2019 looked to have about three times as many isekai anime as in previous years, and I have to wonder when the juggernaut will finally slow down.

Godzilla, Kaiju Eiga and the Amazing Toho Studios

This was perhaps the best panel I saw of the entire convention, as it was meticulously researched and gave a lot of insight into the making of Godzilla as well as the kaiju movies that propelled Toho to additional fame. I was intrigued to learn about all of the different players of this time, including Godzilla director Honda Ichiro and Ultraman creator Tsuburaya Eiji. If you have the chance to see this panel, either in person or via recording, I highly recommend it.

Bootleg Anime from South Korea

I’ve attended this panel by Mike Toole before, but I always welcome an opportunity to see more “creatively appropriated” giant robots. It reminds me that, around the world, you really can’t decouple animation fandom from bootleg products, and it results in interesting products and cultural output nevertheless. I’m still waiting for that Soul of Chogokin Taekwon V.

Overall

I appreciated how different Otakon was for 2020, and the heavy focus on panels appealed to me a lot (I truly think they’ve always been the best part of the con). At the same time, I think I’m still a bigger fan of the regular version. The unusual format meant there were no autograph signings or big live concerts this year, and I didn’t really get to spot any unique or unusual cosplay. I also miss doing interviews.

I wouldn’t another Otakon like this, but I’m hoping 2021 provides a return to the tried and true classic.

Healin’ Good Precure and the Age of Coronavirus

In recent weeks, many of the anime that were on hiatus due to COVID-19 have begun returning, and one question that arises is how these series might be affected by the delay going forward. Many, like Demon Slayer: Mugen Train and The Millionaire Detective, are adaptations, and so wouldn’t be affected content-wise. Similarly, historical fiction like Appare Ranman! can easily ignore current events. But there is one series I’m looking at as potentially being deeply impacted by coronavirus on a story level, and that’s Healin’ Good Precure.

The main motifs of Healin’ Good Precure are healthcare and the environment. The girls essentially act as doctors trying to heal different Earth spirits when they fall ill, their interactions with their fluffy mascots take a veterinary angle, and their magical dresses briefly resemble physician lab coats during transformation. It’s an incredible coincidence that this would be the Precure series we have in the middle of a global pandemic, but here we are.

The Precure franchise as a whole does not have any source material—the anime are the original works. Everything else, from manga to video games, are subordinate to it. What this means is that there’s no source material to reference or adhere to, so it likely has a degree of flexibility in terms of potentially changing its story. The fact that Precure shows are typically around 50 episodes also means there’s plenty of time to pivot and try to take into account current trends and real-world concerns. Also, while the series was on hiatus, the official Precure LINE channel actually had videos featuring Precure stuffed dolls talking (via the voice actors) to kids and playing games with them, so i think there is an awareness that children are feeling the effects of self-quarantine and the like.

While I don’t think Healin’ Good Precure is going to do anything as drastic as explicitly introduce coronavirus into the show, I do wonder if they’re going to try and incorporate some of the good behavior into the girls’ special moves or equipment. For example, what if one of the mid-series upgrades are special magical masks that give the Precures enhanced powers? What if the girls learn a special attack that requires them to stand six feet (or two meters) apart from one another? Of course, it’s also possible that the show will keep ignoring the environment created by COVID-19 in the hopes of giving young kids an image of how things are “supposed to be.”

Regardless of how far Healin’ Good goes to address current events, Precure’s general positivity and supportive messages are very welcome. I’m just waiting to see how far it goes.

The Sincerity of Tokusatsu

I have watched a lot of anime, but it comes to tokusatsu stuff, I’m far less experienced. When Toei launched their official worldwide tokusatsu channel on Youtube a few months ago (despite a major hiccup where they accidentally banned themselves), I originally saw it as a way to legitimately watch more obscure giant robot anime such as Lightspeed Electroid Albegas and Space Emperor God Sigma. However, thanks to the sheer range of shows available—stuff leading back to even the black & white era of television—I thought it was high time I made a more concerted effort to watch tokusatsu and form my own opinions.

What I’ve come to notice is that I enjoy these series a lot more than the adapted tokusatsu works I’ve seen over the years in the US—Power Rangers, VR Troopers, Super-human Samurai Syber Squad, etc.—and I think I know why. When it comes to Japanese tokusatsu, there is a greater degree of earnestness that makes these shows more enjoyable overall. They might not have much of a budget, as shown by their threadbare special effectss, but everything feels somehow more sincere.

Sure, the localized shows have their own merits, and there have been memorable storylines over the years that lend at least an air of seriousness and compelling storytelling to their worlds. In Power Rangers alone, there’s the original Green Ranger storyline from Mighty Morphin’ and the bond between Astronema and Ecliptor in Power Rangers in Space that revealed the two more than just evil villains. However, they feel more like exceptions to the rule—-chances for otherwise very non-serious stories to reveal an edge.

With Japanese tokusatsu, on the other hand, even the very first episodes feel like they’re working hard to get viewers emotionally invested. They’re also still ultimately kids’ shows as well, but their presentation is such that they expect the young viewers at home to enjoy drama and tension in their entertainment. When you hear the ending theme to Janperson, even if you don’t know Japanese, there’s a strange yet heartfelt sense of passion. It’s definitely cheesy, but it’s a convincing kind of cheesy. The difference is akin to the kind of pro wrestling that easily makes you suspend your disbelief versus the kind that takes you out of the magic.

Anyway, if anyone has recommendations, I’m all ears. A part of me wants to check out Space Ironmen Kyodain and Akumaizer 3 just because of Konata’s fiery karaoke from Lucky Star, but I’m down to keep exploring.

Idiots: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 30

Emotions run hard and Hasegawa gets to the heart of the matter in Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 30.

Before we get into the review, I have a couple things to share, for those that missed previous blog posts:

The final episode of the anime Wave, Listen to Me! features “Miagete Goran, Yoru no Hoshi o,” the song that the Hashikko characters have been singing and practicing up to this point. I talk about it here.

Also, I took extensive notes from a recent interview with Kio Shimoku by Virtual Youtuber Luis Cammy. It’s long, but I recommend you all check it out! There’s a whole lot of insight into Kio’s life and career, and it’s his first ever audio interview! If you ever wondered where Akira’s ultra-deep voice comes from, it’s a reflection of the author himself.

Summary

Shion is lost somewhere in the woods, but Orihara manages to be the one to bring her back to safety. The image of him carrying Shion on his back haunts Akira to such a degree that he dreams of the two in a loving embrace. This awkwardness persists through breakfast the next morning.

Later, Hasegawa tries to get all four of the Chorus Appreciation Society’s singers to resolve the question of whether to do an a capella performance for the school festival (Jin’s stance) or to involve Shion on piano (Akira’s stance). In order to coax Jin’s true motives out, Hasegawa brings out a live video chat of Yumerun, Jin’s condescending childhood friend). Her casual conveyance of the dismissive words of Jin’s mother causes Jin to reveal the truth: he wants to do something musically impressive to show his mom up, knowing that she’ll be watching. 

However, just as it seems consensus has been reached and a capella is the way to go, Hasegawa turns around and declares everyone to be idiots. She explains that Jin is so caught up in trying to prove his mother wrong, he’s forgotten their actual goal: to attract new potential members in order to graduate from appreciation society to full-fledged club. With everyone now on the same page and their eyes on the prize, Hasegawa is poised to reveal the popular, catchy, possibly anime-related song they’ll be doing next.

It’s Ghibli, Isn’t It?

In Chapter 14, Hasegawa goes ballistic when she discovers that multiple members don’t know Studio Ghibli and its famous music. GIven that their goal is to try and do something that’ll have wide appeal to students at a technical high school who likely don’t know much about music, this seems to be the natural choice. 

The question, then, is what song (or songs) has Hasegawa decided on? I have my own favorites (“Carrying You” from Laputa: Castle in the Sky, “Hikoukigumo” from The Wind Rises, “Always with Me” from Spirited Away), but what’s tricky is that most of the Ghibli songs are performed by women. One hint might be Orihara’s interest in harmonizing, but given my limited musical knowledge, I don’t think I’d know what a “good song for harmonizing” would even be.

Hasegawa is the Saki of Hashikko Ensemble

By cutting through all the reticence, the veiled reasonings, and the personal hang-ups, Hasegawa fulfills a role akin to Kasukabe Saki in Genshiken. She’s direct, keeps her eye on the prize, and seems more insightful when it comes to human relationships compared to the others. Granted, she doesn’t seem to have the social grace of Kasukabe. In that sense, Hasegawa reminds me of something akin to Hikigaya from My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong, as I Expected (aka My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU)—good at finding solutions but willing to play dirty in the process. I wonder if her contacting Yumerun is just for this, or if she’s actually formed a friendship with the strange girl.

Jin himself comments on Hasegawa’s effectiveness, telling her that he’s glad she’s on board as their conductor. Jin also uses Hasegawa’s first name—Kozue—for the first time, which she herself points out is quite the milestone. Jin calls people by their first name extremely easily (including Orihara!), so it’s interesting in the first place that he had previously avoided doing so with Hasegawa.

Love Triangle Man

Everything seems to be pointing towards both Akira and Orihara liking Shion on a romantic level. A part of me still suspects that Orihara’s and maybe even Shion’s reactions are being misread by Akira, but it could really be that obvious. Whatever the truth may be, the important thing is how self-conscious Akira is about the whole situation, and that it’s likely going to get worse. Akira’s overactive imagination even comes into play a second time (the first was with Shion and Shunsuke). There’s a chance Hasegawa (or maybe Kanon?) will find some way to untangle this mess, but I think it’s going to get crazier and crazier.

I still want to hear from Akira at some point what he likes so much about Shion. I know people shouldn’t necessarily have to articulate their feelings, but I’m genuinely curious.

Songs

No songs this month.

Final Thoughts

I’m looking a few chapters ahead and thinking if any new faces will join the appreciation society after the upcoming school performance. I’ve still got my eye on Kurotaki Mai, the deep-voiced girl who helped Akira, and the possibility of a girls’ vocal group starting up. If Yumerun somehow ends up at Hashimoto Tech, that would be wild.

The Importance of the Song in the Final Episode of Wave, Listen to Me!

Wave, Listen to Me! is a great manga and anime about a woman who unexpectedly becomes a radio host—a mature comedy that is about five genres away from author Samura Hiroaki’s most famous work, Blade of the Immortal. I recommend everyone check it out. For those who have recently finished the anime TV series, I’m here to point out that the song played in the finale has a special kind of relevance to the episode.

SPOILER WARNING, of course.

In episode 12, an earthquake hits Hokkaido, causing blackouts. As the characters look up at a starry night sky, a song plays: Kyu Sakamoto’s “Miagete goran, Yoru no Hoshi o” or “Behold the Nighttime Stars.” This song originally came out after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and it responded to the fact that the lack of light pollution made the stars more visible than normal. A common interpretation of the song’s lyrics is that the stars are also the souls of those who died in the disaster. In short, having “Miagete goran, Yoru no Hoshi o” play was an active choice with a specific meaning to Japan.

Incidentally, I actually only learned about the song and its significance because I’ve been following Kio Shimoku’s current manga, Hashikko Ensemble. The tune has a central role in the narrative up to this point, and one of the characters goes as far as to explain everything I mentioned above. I find it a little funny that these two streams dovetailed so nicely together.

Both Wave, Listen to Me! and Hashikko Ensemble run in the magazine Monthly Afternoon, so maybe this synergy isn’t totally out of the question. Most likely, however, is that they’re both referencing the same major moment in Japanese history.

Our Better Angels: Superman Smashes the Klan

When I was more actively into superhero comics, the prevailing sentiment about Superman was that he’s a “boring” character whose nigh-invulnerability and moral uprightness were far less interesting than the grim and gritty Batman or what Marvel Comics had been doing. But I think that was as much a reflection of the kinds of people who called themselves comics fans as well as a kind of blindness towards the very fact that Superman is a reflection of both the ideals and the shortcomings of the United States. It’s a country built upon both racism and opportunity, and Superman as the “ultimate immigrant” stands at that crossroads. 

Plenty of works about Superman have helped to showcase his humanity, from All-Star Superman to Smallville to the 1990s’ Superman: The Animated Series to even the controversial Man of Steel, but Superman Smashes the Klan by writer Gene Luen Yang and artists Gurihiru that I think presents an especially poignant story about Superman’s internal conflict through his own status as an immigrant.

Superman Smashes the Klan is an adaptation/re-imagining of one of the most famous stories ever told in the old 1940s radio show, The Adventures of Superman, in which Superman faces off against a Ku Klux Klan analogue. The catch: the show had actual KKK secrets and code words, and helped to expose them to a greater American audience, weakening their ability to recruit new members. Where Yang makes his mark as the writer This particular arc also includes the Chinese Lee family as minor characters, and that’s where Yang—whose previous comics focus heavily on the Chinese experience in the US—makes his mark by giving them extra attention. The topics of racism and the immigrant experience are portrayed with an incredible amount of nuance that leads to far more than just a “racism is bad” moral lesson.

The Lee family, for example, is portrayed as each having different relationships with the concept of “Americanizing.” Tommy, the son, loves baseball and will even make jokes about his Chinese-ness as a way to befriend the white kids around him. Roberta, Tommy’s inquisitive sister, sees his behavior as incredibly fake, and doesn’t want to have to put on a show or play into stereotypes. Their father is so intent on presenting himself as a model minority that he tries to dress the part of the professional scientist even in dire emergencies. Their mother gets fed up with her husband’s insistence on speaking English instead of Cantonese even though it’s a much more comfortable language for her to express herself. Even though all four characters are Chinese and even related to one another, they’re shown to be influenced by the tension between their Chinese background and American life in different ways. 

The white characters are given a similar treatment, where Tommy’s baseball rival, Chuck Riggs, is shown to have both good and ill within him. He worships Superman and the righteousness he embodies but also has a white supremacist upbringing that influences how he sees others. It’s the conflict between these two aspects of him that defines Chuck’s own development throughout.

Superman’s part in this story mirrors that of the Lees. He actively tries to portray himself as a Good American just like any other—albeit with superhuman strength and speed—but has to deal with knowing that he’s not human like everyone assumes he is. One antagonistic character even assumes that Superman is white, and asks how Superman could betray his own race, a scene that touches upon those with non-white backgrounds who are able to pass as “white” in American society, and reap the benefits as a result. There’s even an acknowledgement of Superman’s parallels to the Nazi idolization of Nietzche’s concept of the “Die Ubermensch” by having a Nazi villain constantly call him “The Superman.”

There’s one aspect of Yang’s writing of Asian characters that I must praise, and that’s his willingness to portray them as having their own problematic beliefs. After the Lee home is attacked by the Klan, a group of black men driving by stop to help them out. However, Roberta and Tommy’s father immediately sees them as a threat and treats them as such. Here, his racism and stereotypical assumptions of black people reveal themselves, even as he himself tries to fight racism towards himself and his family. As an Asian-American myself, the capacity for Asians to both bristle at the discrimination inflicted upon them while being complicit in racism against other peoples is one of my greatest frustrations in life, and I am glad to see Superman Smashes the Klan showing both the fact that this happens and the complexity it carries. It’s very much in line with the kind of well-rounded yet complicated depictions seen in Yang’s previous works such as American Born Chinese and The Shadow Hero.

While I focused mostly on the writing aspect for this review, I want to give credit to Gurihiru’s excellent art. As always, their work feels both approachable yet filled with a sense of quiet grandeur. The care they give to showing the differences between the characters through their body language ends up enhancing the greater themes and important points of the comic overall.

Superman Smashes the Klan feels ever more relevant as the United States is seeing the rise of hate groups and increased violence towards non-white groups of all stripes. It is an accessible book that is worth reading by kids and adults alike, and I think it would especially resonate with Asians living in the US. It’s worth not just a look, but also a close examination of how America succeeds and fails at the ideals it presents to the world.

Dissenting Voice: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 29

Akira vs. Jin?! It’s Chapter 29 of Hashikko Ensmble!

Summary

The Hashimoto Chorus Appreciation Society arrives at the site of their training camp, which is packed with seemingly all the audio equipment they’ll ever need. But as Jin is living in audiophile paradise, Akira is still thinking about seeing Jin at Himari. Jin explained that he was there to help Himari build her own speaker, but it still doesn’t sit well with Akira. 

Hasegawa (who has declared her intent to join the club proper as conductor—and drag Kanon in along as well) reveals to Akira that having Jin help Himari was all her idea. In fact, she purposely timed things so that Akira would be on the previous castle trip. Hasegawa also prods Akira about his obvious feelings towards Shion.

Jin talks about his next plans for the group, which involves having the guys all sing a capella for the school festival. His motivation seems a little off somehow, but what’s even more unusual is Akira vehemently disagreeing with the decision—a first “fight” for the two. The group later goes outside to look at the stars and to practice harmonizing, only for the debate about the school festival to continue. However, the argument is suddenly interrupted when everyone realizes that Shion is missing!

Feelings and Tensions

It feels harder and harder to write chapter summaries for Hashikko Ensemble. Whether it’s the burgeoning (?) romances or the friction that exists between the characters, everything feels important and frivolous at the same time. Jin and Himari could just be as innocent as they claim, seeing as Jin is not one for deception, but maybe there’s still something sparking there. Akira’s crush on Shion seems to only grow stronger, and it’s clear that his reluctance towards doing a capella is that Shion (who’s only just recently healed from her hand injury) wouldn’t be able to play. Meanwhile, I suspect Jin’s eerily forceful desire to do a capella comes from wanting to further defy his mysterious mother.

Orihara seems especially tense, but I can’t really tell for sure what the reason could be. He seems like he’s trying to work through something possibly related to Shion, but I feel like the series is trying to use him as a red herring romantic rival. Orihara’s a complex yet simple character, so it’s hard to peg what he’s about, even when knowing his tragic past.

Sound Training

I like seeing Jin nerd out about audio electronics, even if I don’t fully understand everything that’s going on or how it’s supposed to all fit together. To be fair, that’s something I share with most of the characters in this chapter. Still, I at the very least learned that Accuphase is a manufacturer known for its power amps, and that with sufficiently good equipment, you can even hear where the singers were positioned in a room. 

There’s also an interesting little training regimen shown in this chapter, meant to strengthen your voice and your muscles at the same time. In fact, the manga itself points to the original source, “Muscle Voice Training,” which can be found on Yamaha’s official Youtube channel!

As for its portrayal in this manga, one thing I find curious is that Shinji is able to generate more force in his “He!”s than the bigger and stronger Orihara. I think either Orihara is just not trying very hard (possibly out of embarrassment), or there’s something about Shinji’s castle-exploring cardio that gives him a slight edge.

Songs

You know the drill by now. It’s“Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” by Kyu Sakamoto. Most likely, things will change now that we’re seemingly moving into a new arc.

Final Thoughts

Kanon joining the club seems inevitable, but I have to wonder what role she’ll end up in.

Also, this series being a manga and all, I often picture Akira’s voice in my head as something soft and light, only to remember that he’s supposed to have a  serious bass to his voice. It’s so unlike what’s typical that I want even more to see it in anime form.

Beyond “Friendship, Hard Work, and Victory”: The Promised Neverland

The Promised Neverland recently concluded in Weekly Shounen Jump, and it caps off a four-year run as perhaps my favorite dedicated shounen manga of the last twenty years. It both elevates and challenges the foundational Jump motto of “Friendship, Hard Work, and Victory” by pushing far past simple power fantasies and the thrill of adventure. It dives deep into the territory of political thought as it tells an intriguing story about kids trying to both survive and make a difference in their world.

This is not the first time I’ve praised The Promised Neverland. I’ve previously written about the significance of its main heroine, Emma, and the fact that the series criticizes the entrenched systems of injustice that stay in power by pitting people against one another. Now that the series has crossed the finish line, I feel that my positive opinions of the manga have been more than justified. The Promised Neverland is a series that dares to say something about the world, utilizing its world and its characters to challenge readers to imagine a better world.

The Promised Neverland places a female protagonist front and center, gives her the agency to make changes, and emphasizes the idea that we don’t have to perceive the world as some zero-sum game of absolute winners and losers—a world where the first thing we ask is how we can save as many people as we can, and not how many people we need to sacrifice to achieve a goal. Here and now in the year 2020—between COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, democratic protests in Hong Kong, and countless other human rights and safety issues—these are messages we need. 

An opinion I keep seeing online is that The Promised Neverland was at its best in the first arc, when it was about orphans trying to outsmart their sinister and powerful mother figure in order to escape. And certainly, there was a kind of thrill to the “high stakes battle of wits” that defines the  early manga. However, I am so glad that The Promised Neverland evolved past that point. It would have been all too easy for this manga to simply be about the nerve-racking excitement, but it became a genuine piece of thought-provoking science fiction—the kind that encourages readers to imagine a different world, one that looks at concepts of utopia and dystopia, and asks how one could turn into the other and vice versa. 

There is another Shounen Jump series that I feel hits with a similar weight, though it’s a far different series in a lot of ways: Barefoot Gen, the story of two siblings who live through the bombing of Hiroshima and the pain of post–World War II Japan. No, The Promised Neverland is not couched in the trauma of directly experiencing a nuclear explosion, and its pain is abstracted through its fantastical setting, but it still looks deep into who we are as a collective people called humanity, and challenges us all to be better. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons as Rorschach Test

Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived just in time to explode in popularity. With so many people staying home due to COVID-19 and in need of some respite, the series’s laid-back atmosphere might just be what the doctor ordered. I know because more than a few of my friends and loved ones have been playing it, some long-time veterans of the franchise and others absolute newbies. After a while, seeing the people I know derive such enjoyment out of it, I had to see firsthand what the fuss was all about.

I wouldn’t quite call Animal Crossing: New Horizons a personality test, but I find that it does reflect something of what’s going on in each of us. There are goals you can progress towards, and there are achievements that can net you bonuses, but the game is largely without any demands. You could do everything or you could just do the bare minimum. You gradually shape your space according to however you feel, with some harmless elements of luck and the mellow atmosphere preventing it from being something like a SimCity. Seeing my island slowly come together and comparing it with others’, I can see how we express ourselves through the game’s quirks.

Animal Crossing is clearly not for everyone, and I can think of two categories of players who might regret getting the game. The first is anyone who needs there to be a distinction between winners and losers. While there are areas in which you can potentially compete—fishing events, the size of your collection, how much money you have, etc;—they’re largely arbitrary and there’s no judge keeping score. You really have to go out of your way to make it about competition, because there’s nothing that inherently says one person’s stuff is better than another’s.

The second category is anyone who would feel anxiety over accomplishing all the million little tasks and activities the game offers. It’s possible that, rather than being a calming, almost meditative experience, Animal Crossing: New Horizons becomes a source of stress. If you feel bad about ignoring things you could be doing, and you feel like you avoided guilt rather than achieved satisfaction by accomplishing them, then playing this might be a bad idea.

As for me, I’m trying to make my island into an incongruous mix of relaxing good times and abstract horrors. Either way, my villagers look like they’re having a good time.

Beastars and the Fight Against Behavioral Absolutism

Exploring the tension of anthropomorphic animal society from the perspective of high school students, Itagaki Paru’s Beastars can at times feel like it’s encouraging a very dangerous view of the world. In a world where carnivores and herbivores co-exist peacefully and eating your fellow animal is illegal, the constant pressure faced by the timid wolf protagonist, Legoshi, for not embracing his violent, meat-eating ancestral nature seems to bleed into sexist alpha/beta nonsense territory. Yet, by the end of a first anime season filled with tumultuous and shocking developments, the message I took away was something far different and more nuanced than a simple animalistic nature vs. civilization dichotomy.

Warning: Beastars spoilers ahead

Legoshi is portrayed as shunning the spotlight. Although he’s in the drama club, Legoshi works as a meek behind-the-scenes stagehand, leaving the attention to others such as the club’s star actor, Louis the red deer. But what Louis notices is that Legoshi is clearly stronger and potentially more intimidating than he lets on. As a gray wolf, he possesses might that no herbivore can hope to match, and it incenses Louis that Legoshi can be such a pushover. When Louis gets hurt and a shuffling of roles causes Legoshi to appear in a play, a tiger clubmate named Bill tries to bring out Legoshi’s dormant ferocity.

However, Legoshi is afraid of his own carnivorous side. Not only was his good friend, Tem the alpaca, eaten by a carnivore, but Legoshi himself comes dangerously close to succumbing to his lupine instincts and devouring a female dwarf bunny named Haru—a girl he later develops strong feelings for. Legoshi does not want to be that kind of animal, which is why he looks up to Louis, who accomplishes things through grace and diplomacy. Even so, there’s no denying that Legoshi would be incredibly powerful if only he let himself be. 

Part of what holds Legoshi back is a society that discourages carnivores from exerting dominance through force. Meals for them are made with high protein content, e.g. eggs, as a way to sate hunger, but the appeal of real flesh can be overwhelmingly difficult to endure. Throughout the series, Legoshi struggles to fight that desire for meat, which then blends in odd ways with his love/lust for Haru, further complicating things in his heart.

Towards the end of the series, Haru gets kidnapped by an organized crime group—a cadre of lions called the Shishigumi—with the intent to eat her. Having discovered previously that Louis is seeing Haru (though what Legoshi doesn’t know is that Haru is extremely promiscuous as a way for her to have some control over her life), Legoshi tries to bring Louis along. However, Louis declines, having already learned about the kidnapping and being told that he must stay quiet if he is to accomplish his goal of rising to the top of society and being able to effect widespread change. Legoshi storms the Shishigumi base without the red deer, and by fully tapping into his violent side, is able to rescue Haru. 

At first, the lesson seems to be that Legoshi finally set aside his false persona of timidity for what was truly inside, but what happens afterwards communicates what I found to be the most important takeaway from Beastars: when it comes to instinct vs. reason, there is no universal answer.

Having saved Haru, Legoshi and her end up at a love hotel prepared to take their relationship to a physical level. Legoshi confesses that he was the one who tried to eat her, and Haru says she always suspected it was him but was still drawn towards Legoshi. However, just as they are on the verge of consummating their relationship, Legoshi’s mouth moves uncontrollably as if he’s going to eat her, and Haru’s body moves, as if on its own, to be eaten by him. Built into their genetics is a relationship of predator and prey, and sex between them isn’t “supposed” to happen. Even so, they’re genuinely in love with each other and they want to make it work, which means denying what their DNA is screaming at them to do. If Legoshi wants his heart’s desire, reason must prevail over instinct.

The underlying message I take away from Beastars is that the question of whether to follow or rebel against one’s animalistic nature is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are times when it can be of great benefit, but other times when it can be a mistake or lead to disastrous outcomes. Moreover, whether or not doing so is a right choice will vary from individual to individual. Legoshi is not Louis. Legoshi is not Haru. They can naturally accomplish things he cannot and vice versa, but they’re also all capable of going out of their inherent comfort zones to do even more. It is the moderation of both reason and instinct relative to each other that allows us to flourish.