Ahh Real Babies: Hosoda Mamoru’s Mirai

Director Hosoda Mamoru is nearly synonymous with family themes in anime films, but his newest work, Mirai (in Japanese: Mirai no Mirai) takes it to a whole new level. Whereas his past films such as Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and The Boy and the Beast explore the value and meaning of family, Mirai is more focused on the authentic feel of raising (and being) real flesh and blood children, and the challenges that come with having a family.

The story of Mirai centers around Kun, a bullet train-loving toddler who’s meeting his newborn little sister, Mirai, for the first time. As is typical of only children who suddenly have a sibling in their lives, he quickly grows jealous over all the attention given to the new baby. However, his tantrums lead him to discover that his backyard is the gateway to something magical, and that it lets Kun discover places and times he never could have otherwise. Through these voyages, which bring him to see his family members past and present in a new light, Kun is witness to the many small steps that lead him to being who he is.

At least, that’s the way the film presents Kun’s adventures. Mirai has almost a Calvin and Hobbes feel in that they never explain outright whether it’s all his imagination or if there really is time travel, and I think that ambiguity is a strength. While Mirai leans more toward the notion that Kun is actually accessing his family’s history given the amount of details he picks up, it doesn’t discount the possibility that Kun, like so many young children, is paying more attention than anyone realizes.

What makes the film truly memorable is the way it so realistically portrays the behavior and learning process of small children in Kun and Mirai. Speaking from my own experiences, I have plenty of friends and family at this point who have raised kids of their own, and many of the obstacles the parents face in dealing with Kun and Mirai actually perfectly mirror the experiences I’ve seen in those close to me. In particular, there’s a scene where Kun refuses to change out of his favorite pants—a stubbornness I’ve seen firsthand. It can feel almost too real, as if Mirai is trying to tell parents that it understands what they’re going through. Moreover, Kun’s mother and father also have to deal with delegating responsibility in their “working mother + work-from-home father” situation that’s quite unusual in Japanese society, which leads to even more examination of the “roles” of family in the modern age. To little surprise, in an interview shown at the screening, Director Hosoda discusses how having children of his own influenced the making of this film.

But it’s not just the parents that the film successfully empathizes with; the portrayal of the experience of being a young child is just as vivid and authentic. There’s one scene in particular toward the end of the film that successfully captures a child’s fear of being in a strange and unfamiliar place. While I’ve not been a baby in a long, long time, Kun’s reaction to his surroundings reminds me of the nightmares I had as a kid, as well as the times where I got lost in a mall or similarly large and eerie spaces.

Mirai feels more like a series of small episodes tied together into a single movie, but perhaps that’s the way childhood is. There’s no grand scheme or single obstacle to be overcome. It’s a learning process for the entire family.

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For Hymn: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 10

In this chapter, the secrets of Orihara—his hearing and his traumatic past—are revealed in full.

Summary

Waking up inside the nurse’s office, Orihara explains that he suffers from a chronic high-pitched ringing in his ears. Jin figures out that Orihara suffers from a slight degree of hearing loss due to overexposure, specifically in the 3khz range—the same frequency as a baby crying or a woman screaming. Jin, however, believes Orihara’s brain is likely still picking up sounds at 3khz even if his ears aren’t, which is why Orihara can somehow “hear” things that he “can’t hear.”

During this talk, Orihara reveals two things about his past to the others. First, his little brother died. Second, the one time he was able to get rid of the ringing in his ears was in third grade, at a recital by a choir of old men, and a specific religious foreign song—hence, why he keeps listening to similar music. For this reason, Jin uses his connections to bring Orihara back to that choir from his childhood and have him repeat the same song. Hearing it again, Orihara is moved, but while Jin’s scientific explanation seems right, Akira has a simpler one: Orihara was healed by this music. Envisioning (?) a young voice from heaven speaking directly to him, Orihara smiles.

Later, at school, Jin comes barging in to get Shinji and Orihara (given name Kousei) for chorus club practice. Orihara is now an official member of the Chorus Club. The days pass, and coming up now is the MHK Concours—aka M-Con—an amateur chorus competition!

Music: When Science and Magic Collide

Orihara’s story, in my eyes, adds an interesting wrinkle to the ongoing theme of music as something that straddles the line between the known and the mysterious. Jin’s explanations make sense, yet I can’t help but wonder if Orihara’s deceased little brother might actually be trying to communicate with him. The manga itself never really says one way or the other, but regardless of the actual (meta-) physics, it’s notable that Orihara feels the song in his head and in his heart. There’s an important lesson here about how even as we might “understand” music on a theoretical level, there’s still an almost magical or spiritual quality to song that captivates the soul. As dominant as Jin is in this manga, his perspective isn’t the only one.

That being said, I doubt the manga is trying to push any sort of religious angle. It seems more an acknowledgement of the significance of the church in Western music.

Bouncing Back from Tragedy

Orihara’s story is the heaviest I’ve seen a Kio manga get, and that’s including Ogiue trying to commit suicide as a kid. There’s something really tragic about child abuse, and the degree to which Orihara’s anger is a product of his trauma. Although not said outright, it’s extremely likely that the guy suffers from PTSD. The story basically implies that Orihara can’t hear the 30khz frequency because he was constantly being subjected to the anguished screams of his mom and his brother. And somehow, the series manages to swing around into silliness not long after.

It’s really not easy for a narrative to get so serious and then switch back into lighthearted humor, but I think Hashikko Ensemble does it well by actually making the awkwardness in that transition more prominent. In particular, when Orihara mentions his deceased brother, Jin seems to obliviously bring the topic back to music and science. But is Jin as ditzy as he acts? His ambiguously strained relationship with his dad, or indeed something else, might hint at this being a willful act of feigned ignorance.

Songs

The featured song this chapter is “Viderunt Omnes,” a Gregorian chant composed in the 11th century by Protein. Gregorian chants were traditionally used in Roman-Catholic churches.

Final Thoughts

Next chapter promises to focus on Kurata, whose intensity and dislike of the frivolous has me intrigued about her. However, given how quickly the manga jumped from “Orihara’s on board” to “Competition!”, I’m worried that Hashikko Ensemble is suffering from a lack of popularity and his rushing things forward. I genuinely think this is a very strong manga from Kio Shimoku, so I hope it has a long life ahead of it.

The Significance of the Classic Anime Devilman in Devilman Crybaby

Devilman Crybaby made quite a splash when it was released earlier this year on Netflix, introducing Nagai Go’s classic series to a new generation of anime and manga fans. While there are stylistic differences stemming from both difference in era and the aesthetic of director Yuasa Masaaki, Devilman Crybaby is largely the same as the original 1972 Devilman manga at its core, showing that the series’s story of a human who uses demonic powers to fight other demons and its themes of human strength and ugliness are still culturally relevant.

While Devilman Crybaby is hardly the first adaptation, spin-off, or sequel, it does do one thing that most other Devilman works try to shy away from: it incorporates elements of the kid-friendly 1972 Devilman anime TV series. In that cartoon, Devilman is closer to a superhero than a brutal demon in appearance and demeanor. Even his theme song calls him a “hero of justice” while listing all of his special ability (Devil Wing, Devil Eye, Devil Beam, etc.).

It’s so different from every other iteration of Devilman, and Devilman Crybaby repeatedly uses it in such specific scenarios, that I believe TV anime Devilman has special significance in Crybaby beyond providing an addictive remix of the classic theme song, which can be found below.

Whenever that song, “Devilman no Uta” is used, there’s an element of innocence or human compassion attached. It’s often paired with an actual image of the TV anime Devilman himself, who shows up on television screens or on YouTube videos and the like. It’s especially prevalent in Ryo’s flashbacks, where a young and orphaned Ryo can be seen staring at the green, heroic Devilman on TV. Ryo appears to be drawn towards it.

There’s a third symbol too: Devilman’s actual design in Crybaby. Devilman adaptations tend to draw more from the manga than that old anime series, and this extends to the aesthetics of Devilman himself. In almost every version, Devilman feels more like a beast than a man, and Crybaby’s is generally no exception. However, there are times in Devilman Crybaby when Devilman himself feels more reminiscent of the “hero of justice.”

Devilman the character can be thought of as having two original strains—the Nagai manga original and the classic TV version—with different iterations veering towards one or the other. If a work wants to hint at a more hyper-violent Devilman, they portray him along the lines of the manga. If, however, it wants a cleaner and friendlier Devilman, then the TV version is the way to go. Crybaby Devilman strikes a very interesting middle ground. While he has the fur, the facial features, and the overall demonic appearance, he takes aesthetic elements from the TV version. Namely, he has those distinct stripes on his shoulders, and he’s often portrayed with a blue/greenish tint to his skin. It’s unclear if his skin is actually supposed to be green, or if the creative lighting of the series just makes it look that way, but there’s a clear commonality between Crybaby Devilman and TV Devilman, at least in part. What’s also noticeable is that the green skin seems to be most noticeable in scenes where Akira is trying to defend the innocent, like when he protects a group of innocent people from being stoned to death out of fear that those poor souls “might” be demons.

In other words, the incorporation of elements of the TV anime Devilman into Devilman Crybaby isn’t merely for referential purposes, or a clever wink and nod—It’s actually important to the themes and symbolism of the series. While Crybaby largely follows the plot of the original manga and not the TV anime, the presence of the superheroic Devilman is ongoing, and it hints at Akira’s inherent goodness. He struggles with himself and the devil inside, but Akira ultimately wants to fight for what’s right and just, whether his foes are human or demon. The old anime Devilman is who he aspires to be, even if he ultimately cannot live up to that ideal.

Life on Repeat: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 9

Orihara’s hard to understand, but it might not be for the reasons anyone assumed.

Summary

It’s the Sports Festival at Hashimoto Technical High School, but the biggest spectacle isn’t any event—it’s Orihara on a rampage. Another classmate has played a prank on him by messing with his music player, so Orihara responds by going berserk and tossing him around like a ragdoll. Jin and the others suspect that the only thing that can calm him down is his music and his noise-canceling earphones, but (as revealed in a flashback), they’ve been having trouble fixing the earphones, even with Himari’s help. However, Himari reveals that she’s spent extra time to repair them. In a mad dash, the Chorus Club and the Rugby Club work together to successfully subdue Orihara.

As Orihara listens to his music player and falls unconscious, he remembers the parental abuse he and his little brother suffered as children. He remembers hearing screaming, but can’t remember if it was his or his brother’s voice. But as the police came to take away his mom and her boyfriend, he remembers thinking it was his brother’s. In fact, Orihara can still hear his brother’s voice today.

They Laughed, They Cried

This chapter kind of reminds me of the infamous soccer episode of the anime Eureka Seven, which contained, in the same episode, both athletic filler hijinks and a plot-crucial coup d’etat. The situation in Hashikko Ensemble isn’t quite the same, as what happens at the Sports Festival contributes directly to the main story, but the contrast is potent. The general wackiness of this chapter makes the dramatic reveal of Orihara’s situation much more impactful.

As comedic as Hashikko Ensemble can be, I really don’t think this reveal is an absolute tonal shift for the manga. There’s a recurring theme of among the characters of trying to deal with the emotional and physical setbacks of their pasts, and it even creeps through in Jin’s vague descriptions about his relationship with his dad. Orihara’s story seems to be the most serious by far, and I have faith that it’ll be executed well. I mean, this is the guy who wrote Ogiue from Genshiken‘s story, after all.

Orihara’s Abuse

The exact circumstances of Orihara and his little brother’s abuse is kept vague. The manga mentions that his little brother was unable to move, and the arrival of the cops clearly implies that this was not the result of illness or accidental injury. It’s unclear if the abuse was primarily physical, emotional, sexual, or any combination, and I don’t have any hypotheses at this moment. More information will likely be revealed to us over time, but the degree to which Kio holds back will be interesting to see. Whatever the case might be, the chapter is a crucial piece of the puzzle that is Orihara. He’s not just a loner, and he’s not just temperamental—his past is complicated, and having him open up to others (let alone join a club) is going to be about understanding his issues.

Himari’s Personality

Himari works hard to restore Orihara’s earphones, but I don’t get the sense that she’s doing this out of either sympathy for the guy, or out of a desire to uphold her end of the deal with Akira and Jin. She seems to me like someone who either values the technical skills needed or who has a sense of pride in her own abilities—like it’s a challenge she wants to overcome. Nothing says this more than her pantomiming the hand motions necessary to make the complicated earphone repairs. In that respect, she might make a good team with Jin, whose audio expertise potentially supplements her own strengths. His explanation of the complexities of noise-canceling earphones (like how you need to get through the urethane coating that’s meant to prevent short-circuits before you can even begin to fix them) is a perfect example in this regard.

Songs

What Orihara’s been listening to this whole time is Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem Op.48: In Paradisum.” It’s used in Catholic church funerals, which probably means that Orihara’s little brother didn’t make it.

Final Thoughts

There’s a brief mention at the beginning that Hashimoto Technical High School switch to holding their Sports Festivals on weekdays because in the old days, delinquents from rival schools would come over to pick fights on the weekends. While the culture has changed since then, they keep the scheduling. Just having this little hint at the yesteryear of the high school (as well as the fact that the one older female teacher still remembers those days) gives this funny sense of history to the school setting of Hashikko Ensemble.

Also, Hasegawa is excellent as always. I can’t help but laugh every time I see her now.

A Look Back at an Aikatsu! Halloween

In the spirit of the month, I was asked by Patreon sponsor Johnny Trovato to look at one of the Halloween episodes of Aikatsu! I chose episode 106 of the original series, which takes place after Akari has become the new main character. It’s a fun episode characteristic of all that is good and enjoyable in Aikatsu!, though a few elements stood out in particular.

Whenever the characters say, “Trick or treat!” they immediately follow by explaining in Japanese what exactly that means: “If you don’t give me candy, I’m going to play a trick on you!” It’s a redundancy that not only has to make up for the language barrier—a little kid might not know the English words—but also speaks to the fact that Halloween as a concept is still relatively new in Japan. If you look online, you’ll find articles talking about how it didn’t get any traction until the 21st century, and now it’s featured in multiple anime.

I wouldn’t read too deeply Aikatsu!‘s interpretation of Halloween—I reckon it’s as much tinged with the Idol Activities spirit as anything else. If the episode didn’t feature some wacky game that highlights all of the characters lovable quirks, then I would’ve been shocked. That’s where Aikatsu! consistently shines, though. You just know that if they’re doing a Halloween episode, vampire-style Idol Toudou Yurika is going to have a moment. They even make the expected (and desired) joke that Yurika wearing a cape and fangs while exclaiming that she’ll suck your blood isn’t that different from how she normally behaves.

“The day Yurika visited your Halloween party was the most important day of your life. But to me, it was Tuesday.”

I watched this episode semi-isolated from the rest of the series, so I don’t know exactly what has transpired beforehand. However, it reinforces something I’ve felt about Aikatsu! in general, which is that the first season’s characters seem to have the most clear-cut personalities, which makes it easier to do these silly one-off episodes. I still don’t always quite get what Akari and her friends are supposed to be like. They seem a tad more subdued, which can work better over the long term but maybe isn’t as attention-grabbing at first sight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOnqjkJTMaA#t=9m5s

It would be remiss of me to end this post without mentioning the teacher, Johnny Bepp, and his unnamed homage to Michael Jackson. With a vaguely “Thriller”-esque piece playing in the background, Johnny-sensei encourages the students to do the famous zombie dance (or whatever it’s called), which exhausts every student around—except Akari. I would think that a dance sequence from one of the finest performers ever would be absolutely grueling for even the girls at an idol academy, though in hindsight I guess this is actually a bit of characterization for Akari as a girl with immense stamina. In this case, I don’t know if it’s the “obvious” gag per se, but the payoff is again reliably satisfying. Kudos, Aikatsu!

Given that this episode is quite a few years old at this point, I am curious to see how the Aikatsu! Halloween episodes have evolved as the holiday itself has become more popular in Japan. Maybe that’ll be something for next year!

 

New York Comic Con 2018 and Thoughts on the Asian-American Experience

New York Comic Con is the only non-explicitly Japan-focused convention I typically attend. In that respect, it gives me an opportunity to explore in greater detail the aspects of comics and media fandom that I normally prioritize less. This year, while I did my fair share of anime and manga-related activities—namely see Son Goku’s esteemed voice actress Nozawa Masako—my main takeaway from NYCC 2018 was that the shifting cultural landscape beneath the United States at this moment is of the utmost importance in comics and entertainment.

I went to many events during the convention, but the main stand-out was Super Asian America. A Q&A and discussion about Asian-Americans in comics, animation, and related media, the panel featured a bevy of guests: comics writer Marjorie Liu (Monstress), actor Ryan Potter (Hiro in Big Hero 6), comics writer Greg Pak (creator of Amadeus Cho), Kickstarter publishing’s Camilla Zhang, comics creator Nidhi Chanani, and host Mike Le. Much of the discussion was about the surprisingly good year that Asian-Americans have experienced in the entertainment industry between the successes of Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I’ve Ever Loved, and Searching. The main takeaway was that this is a good step, but that convincing the Hollywood machine that falling back on its old racist and conservative mindset for “safety” reasons is going to take a lot more. Moreover, the United States as it currently stands is a troubling place for non-white ethnic groups, and this fight extends to more than just movies and TV shows.

I’ve long struggled with an unfortunate truth: many Asians, especially from older generations, are extremely racist. Readers might be wondering what this has to do with New York Comic Con, but my view of my fellow Asian-Americans is not always charitable. It always saddens me to see a kind of “we Asians need to get ahead” mindset that seems to come at the expense of others, the kind of attitude that encourages ingratiating ourselves to white people and avoiding association with other ethnic groups. So for years, I’ve seen those struggles for better representation in Hollywood and such, and felt myself being a bit skeptical. “How many of these people are really thinking about equality and opportunities for all?” Now I realize I’ve been conflating more than a few things that should be considered separate yet loosely related.

It is true that many Asians living in the US have been racist, and have tried to emulate “white success” to some degree. It’s also true that the Asian communities often focus on themselves to almost a deleterious degree, ignoring the reality of the politics surrounding us. However, the fight for better representation of Asians and Asian-Americans on screens and pages big and small is itself a fight against the racism that lingers within our communities among fellow Asians. There are generations of stereotypes that Asians have to fight against, like being weak and ineffectual compared to rugged European folk (unless we’re doing martial arts), and the sooner we remove the seeming need to graft the problematic elements of white privilege onto our own identities, the sooner we can make all Asian-Americans feel like they don’t have to conform to others’ ideas of who we can be.

Can-do Candy: Dagashi Kashi Full Manga Review

Two years after I declared Shidare Hotaru the best female anime character of 2016, I’ve finally read all 11 volumes of her manga, Dagashi Kashi. Now, it’s time for a full review of this eccentric and wonderful series about Japanese snack nostalgia and the thirstiness of youth

Shikada Kokonotsu is a small-town high school boy who dreams of drawing manga professionally, but his dad wants him to take over the family business—a shop that sells dagashi, a category of Japanese snacks that are made to be cheap so that kids can afford them with their small allowances. One day, the vivacious heiress to the Shidare snack company, Shidare Hotaru, arrives at their store with a mission: to recruit Kononotsu’s dad to her family’s company. However, in order to do that, Kokonotsu needs to take over their shop. Thus, Hotaru takes it upon herself to convince Kokonotsu to embrace the dagashi passion in his blood by making daily visits and challenging Kokonotsu in various snack-related ways.

I love reading reactions to Dagashi Kashi because of how it seems to frustrate many anime and manga fans. At first, it seems to be a fanservice-heavy rom-com/harem work with a veneer of Japanese snack nostalgia, only to quickly reveal itself as the opposite. Sure, Dagashi Kashi is filled with attractive and powerfully charismatic girls, but it’s their passionate and humorous interactions over the snacks themselves (as well as the history lessons provided) that are the true backbone to this series. This might not be what others want out of Dagashi Kashi, but it’s exactly what won me over.

One can hardly call Dagashi Kashi an ultra-complex manga, but it’s endlessly entertaining, and its characters memorable and fully realized. Hotaru is the lynchpin of the series, a whirling dervish of intensity, passion, and mild misfortune, but every character carries their weight in making it a delightful comedy. For example, Endou Saya, a childhood friend who harbors a secret crush on Kokonotsu, is a perfect “normie” character—someone who only has a casual connection to dagashi but rounds out the main cast as a result. Every time a new character is introduced, they also quickly endear themselves. The key example is an employment-challenged character named Owari Hajime, who shows up when Hotaru vanishes for a brief period. While the hole Hotaru creates in her absence can’t be filled by anyonese (a plot point in the series), Hajime differentiates herself by being this adult who’s both more mature than the kids around her yet ill-equipped for the real world.

The humor comes across to me as a kind of manzai battle royal. While manzai comedy classically involves one boke (buffoon) and one tsukkomi (straight man), the classifications are modular within the context of Dagashi Kashi. Most of the time, Kokonotsu is the one who’s reacting to characters’ shenanigans, be it Hotaru, his best friend Tou, or even his dad. But sometimes, Kokonotsu lets himself be carried away by Hotaru’s dagashi antics, and it’s up to Saya or even Hajime to call him out on it. However, Kokonotsu’s casual reactions can be completely disarming to her, which puts her out of the driver’s seat, so to speak. The humor is sort of like a cross between Lucky Star and Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei, and if that doesn’t quite make sense, it’s because Dagashi Kashi is kind of its own thing in the end.

Another interesting aspect of the series is that it’s a very different experience reading it compared to a Japanese audience. For many who grew up in Japan, dagashi are just a part of life, and part of the appeal of Dagashi Kashi is that it’s a trip down memory lane. For foreigners like me, however, it’s more about discovering a little-explored aspect of Japanese culture. In that regard, I love learning all this dagashi trivia, and there’s plenty to go around. In fact, the series can be so information-dense that it’s sometimes hard to believe that Dagashi Kashi chapters are generally only eight pages.

It’s hard to decide which chapters are my personal favorites, but a few stand out upon reflection. First, there are a couple that are meant to celebrate the announcement of the anime (seasons 1 and 2), and they’re intentionally drawn to be dynamic and action-packed, as if to challenge the animators to do something about it. Second, there’s a chapter that features Snickers, of all things. It lets a non-Japanese reader like me sort of get the nostalgic experience that’s expected from Dagashi Kashi. (As an aside, Hotaru actually presents Snickers as an ideal emergency survival food due to its high sugar, fat, and calorie content.) Third, there’s one about red bean ice cream bars. Hotaru, for some reason, essentially asks which would win in a fight: a red bean bar in the summer or a red bean bar in the winter? The question is as nonsensical in the story as it is in this paragraph, and that’s what makes it great.

With a series like Dagashi Kashi, it can be difficult to see how the series ends or whether it’s satisfying. I will say that I enjoy the conclusion, but it more or less resolves in an open-ended fashion. While it’s not entirely ambiguous, be it in romance or the pursuit of dreams, it feel as if the message of Dagashi Kashi is that these characters are still young and have their entire lives ahead of them. In other words, even as the manga finishes, the characters are capable of doing so much more. It’s a nice message to end on, and an appropriate way to send Hotaru, Kokonotsu, and the rest of the crew off.