The Moral Trolling of Prison School

What if I told you that there’s a manga that points out the vanity of its male heroes, and ends by emphasizing the degree to which their shallow treatment of women is their undoing? Now, what if I told you that this series is actually, of all things, Prison School—a series generally known more for its gratuitous T&A and absurd toilet humor? By the time Prison School reached its conclusion, that’s exactly what we got. 

Prison School is about a group of teenage guys who are the only male students at Hachimitsu Academy. When they get caught peeping, they discover that the school actually has a complex prison system underneath run by the “Shadow Student Council,” three powerful girls who are all extremely attractive and who all hate men with a passion. Over the course of 277 chapters, the manga gets increasingly ridiculous in just about every way possible, from fanservice to schemes to the fact that the series will set up exceedingly complex plots just for the sake of delivering a stupid pun.

If you look at the fan reaction to the end of Prison School, a great deal of comments express utter disappointment. There were shipping wars over who the hero Kiyoshi would end up with. There’s frustration that the story went far off the rails from where it started. Somehow, people read this series as if it was some kind of romantic comedy, as opposed to an exercise in the absurd. What’s more, I truly believe this this bitter response towards Prison School by its former fans is actually what the author, Hiramoto Akira, was actually going for. Prison School was a long, elaborate troll to point out the inanity of anyone who cheered for the heroes.

The Case of Kiyoshi

Kiyoshi is the hero of Prison School, and throughout the series he’s motivated by a few key factors. Early on, he develops a crush on one of his classmates, Kurihara Chiyo. She’s the first girl to really talk to him in class, and one of the reasons he strives to escape the school’s prison is so they can go on a date together. However, while he’s unusually smart in certain respects, he’s also an incredible dumbass who’s 1) ruled by his hormones and 2) often jumps to the wrong conclusion about things.

Kiyoshi does good deeds, but he’s not necessarily a good person, and his antics lead him to having oddly close love-hate relationships with two of the Shadow Student Council members. Early on, he accidentally sees Midorikawa Hana (the Shadow Student Council secretary) peeing in the woods, which starts this bizarre bond based in trying to see the other pee and involves angry kisses, swapping underwear, and other “unorthodox” forms of affection/revenge. And while Shadow Student Council president Kurihara Mari starts off as Kiyoshi’s greatest nemesis, the two eventually end up as erstwhile allies who begrudgingly respect each other. Also, one time Kiyoshi had to suck snake venom out of her butt.

By the end of the series, Kiyoshi is ready to confess to Chiyo (to Hana’s frustration). He’s been thinking about Chiyo all this time and sees her as his ideal girl, despite the fact that many of his “firsts” are with Hana. Chiyo, for her part, sees Kiyoshi as a brave and noble soul. However, Kiyoshi has tried to get by entirely on his ability to bullshit others, and it all comes home to roost at the end. Chiyo is an avid fan of sumo, and Kiyoshi pretends to like the sport too to get closer to her. Kiyoshi and Hana at one point accidentally switch underwear, and both realize that they’re more comfortable wearing the other’s. When Chiyo asks what happened to Hana’s panties, Kiyoshi tries to tell a half-truth by saying that he keeps them in a drawer and is ashamed about it—except that’s a lie, and he’s wearing them during his confession. Early on, in regards to Kiyoshi, Chiyo prophetically says, “There’s no such thing as a bad person who likes sumo.”

When Hana suplexes Kiyoshi and flashes Chiyo with the truth, Kiyoshi accidentally pees on both of them. All of his graceful ploys and last-minute reversals of fortune are for naught because, in Kiyoshi’s own words, “I never learned anything.”

The Case of Gackt

Gackt is one of Kiyoshi’s fellow inmates, and is known for his absolute love of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He even speaks Japanese in an old-timey way (never mind that it was originally Chinese) as if to emphasize his love of the literary classic. Part way through the series, he begins developing feelings for a girl named Yokoyama Mitsuko, a hyper-klutz who also happens to be obsessed with Romance of the Threee Kingdoms.

(Fun trivia: Mitsuko’s name is a reference to Yokoyama Mitsuteru, legendary creator of Tetsujin 28 and author of one of the most beloved Three Kingdoms manga adaptations ever!)

Despite all the trials and tribulations, Gackt and Mitsuko seem destined for each other. However, one major curve ball shows up in the form of a character nicknamed “Slut-senpai” (real name unknown). Slut-senpai starts to fall for Gackt, and it motivates her to start learning about Romance of the Three Kingdoms to the point that she develops a genuine interest as well.

Eventually, the girls confront Gackt and ask for him to decide. However, he ultimately is unable to make a choice, and the two basically leave him and become friends with each other instead. In other words, Gackt based his entire criteria for his ideal girl on a good but ultimately limited trait—sharing a common hobby—and he couldn’t handle the possibility that there might be more to consider. Even his supposed preference for a chaste and innocent girl fell by the wayside at the prospect of a girlfriend who was willing to get down and dirty.

The Case of Andre

Unlike the two examples above, this one results in a happy ending—arguably against all odds.

Another one of the boys allied with Kiyoshi, Andre is a gentle soul and also a raging masochist. When he finds himself in his school’s prison, nothing excites him more than being under the eye of Meiko, the Shadow Student Council Vice President and the very epitome of a dominatrix.

But one day, another girl named Risa enters the picture, and around the same time, Meiko has a traumatic experience that turns her mentally into a meek 10 year old. For Andre, this means losing the very person he worshipped, and he spends most of the series trying to bring her back. At the same time, however, Risa sees a kind of inner strength in Andre and has fallen in love with him. Yet, because she cannot match the lofty ideals of sadomasochism Andre possesses, he has trouble seeing her in the same light.

Eventually, Meiko does recover, and all seems right in the world for Andre. However, what he realizes in the end is that Meiko might be the pinnacle of his carnal desire, but his heart and his feelings belong to Risa. Andre may have one hell of a kink, but in the end, it’s not enough to be the basis for an entire loving relationship. Andre chooses a person over a fetish.

Lessons Learned

Prison School is a series where one character, despite having multiple potential love interests, ends up with nobody because he’s ultimately an immature idiot who can’t truly take others into consideration. A different character has two romantic prospects but ends up with neither because his entire criteria for “ideal girlfriend” is “likes the same book.” Not only that, one of the few guys who does end up in a relationship chooses the girl who truly cared for him (and he, in turn, her) over the girl he’s worshipped and fetishized for ages. “Did you really cheer for this jackass of a protagonist?” Prison School asks, as it ends, perhaps against all odds, on a moral note. Goodness and genuine human connection win out. Shallow reasoning and deception are the realm of losers.

M-Pros: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 27

It’s the Hashikko boys’ first real test: performing at the M-Con!

Chapter Summary

The Chorus Appreciation Society is up at the M-Con, and their performance impresses at least one of the judges. While they’re part of the “free” section—i.e., participation only—Akira and the rest take it very seriously. In a powerful moment, members of the audience could swear they heard an angel, thanks to the harmonizing by the four on stage. In the final moments, Jin’s thoughts are about proving how great choruses are.

Afterwards, many congratulations are had, including from Shion’s mom and the Nishigafuchi club members who attended. Nishigafuchi’s message is loud and clear: you’re good enough to compete. Elsewhere, Yumerun is observing from a distance, and seems upset about Jin to the point of tears. Hasegawa spots her and, mysteriously, offers to exchange Line account info with Yumerun.

Shuusuke, who was on piano due to Shion’s injury, offers to take a photo of the club (plus associated classmates). However, when Shion tries to assert that she’ll be the one playing for them next time, she trips and falls into Shuusuke’s arms in a repeat of a childhood moment between the two. The situation seems ripped straight out of a romance manga, which causes a great deal of shock and blushing, albeit for different reasons. While Akira very clearly has feelings for Shion, Kousei is just mad that Shion’s nickname for Shuusuke, Shuu-chan, is what he used to call his deceased little brother. In the end, they manage to take a rather awkward but hilarious group photo, while also giving (Mashino) Shuusuke a new nickname: Masshie.

The Judge’s Thoughts

I found the aforementioned judge to be an interesting part of the chapter because it showed how an expert would see a fairly amateurish club and still recognize in them some potential. In my view, the key is when he describes what proper harmonizing is: It’s not about thinking, “I will try to let my voice out in a way that matches up with the others,” but rather, “If I let my voice out, it will match up with the others.” 

He also expresses being impressed by the way they transform into tenuto in their performance, which is a musical direction meant to convey “holding a note for its full length.” (I’m not sure I’m using that term correctly, so feel free to correct me!) Jin actually reaches him for comments afterwards, and he encourages them to get more members so they can participate in different types of competitions.

I hope this isn’t the last we see of him.

Romance in the Air?

I’ve written a good deal about the potential for romance and love triangles in Hashikko Ensemble, but I’ve tried not to focus too much on it because I didn’t want these reviews to overly emphasize that side to the extent that people might assume this was a primary focus of the series. That being said, it’s now crystal clear that Akira has a thing for Shion, and that it wasn’t just him being somewhat naively overprotective. There also might be something going on with Yumerun too, but those tears are kind of ambiguous. 

I still wouldn’t quite classify Hashikko Ensemble as a romance manga, though. Rather, it’s a story about human connections through the world of music, of which love is one possibility. It’s exactly the kind of story Kio Shimoku excels at, and why I continue to be such a big fan of his.

Back to the subject of Yumerun, I would think that everything about this chapter—the encouragement Jin got to find more members, Yumerun’s reaction, Hasegawa’s gesture—would lead to her joining them. However, that would first require her to transfer to Hashimoto Technical High School, an environment likely unsuited for her implied musical talents overall. It would be a hell of a move, and if it happened, it would signal some very clear intent on Yumerun’s part.

I also got a kick on the little swerve we got in terms of Kousei. It seemed like he had some feelings for Shion, but it turned out to be something about his little brother instead. It’s a bit of dark humor that ironically lightens the moment.

Songs

Naturally, the only song this month is (once again) “Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” by Kyu Sakamoto. 

Final Thoughts

It’s clear from previous reviews that I didn’t quite understand what the “free” part of M-Con meant. I took it more as like, an “open competition,” as opposed to being the distinction between “For Fun” and “For Glory,” to use Smash Bros. terms. 

I think this is probably inevitable with my writing about Hashikko Ensemble because of how music is not my forte. It makes me want to see someone who does know a thing or two about music read and review this series!

When Comedy Goes Nuclear: Spy x Family

Comedies based on perpetual misunderstandings can be really hit or miss. Characters misunderstanding one another’s intent and motivations can work as an endless source of humor, or it can eventually lead to frustration over a lack of progress. The manga series Spy x Family by Endo Tatsuya falls square into this category of humor, but it’s able to achieve a nice place between its overarching plot and its chapter-to-chapter antics that keeps it fresh, enjoyable, and even a little heartwarming.

Spy x Family tells the story of Twilight, an unparalleled spy who is given an order to start a family in order to get close to this next target. In order to make the charade seem as real as possible, he takes on a new identity (Loid Forger), adopts a daughter named Anya, and finds a woman willing to pretend to be his wife (Yor Forger). However, while Loid is extremely good at his job, what he doesn’t realize is that his new family members have their own secrets. Anya is actually a telepath, and Yor is actually a top-class assassin known as “Thorn Princess.” They all have their own reasons for wanting to keep this act going, with only Anya knowing the full truth but loving every minute of these bizarre circumstances.

In both story and presentation, this manga is superb. The character designs are excellent and the artwork is consistently solid no matter the situation or setting. The characters themselves are endearing and memorable. Every time I finish a chapter, I find myself wanting more. Spy x Family juggles a lot of balls in the air, whether it’s shifting settings between its three core characters, switching between comedy and action (or a mix of both), or portraying the way they grow closer even as they continue to keep their respective cards close to their chests.

The closest manga I can think of in terms of being this good at the “comedy of misunderstandings” shtick is Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, but that title is far more extreme when it comes to keeping its characters forever ignorant. Spy x Family, on the other hand, is more than willing to have both long- and short-term plot threads, and it does each kind so well, I would be easily satisfied if it stuck with one or the other. However, it manages to pull both off well, and we’re all the better for it. I think part of the reason Spy x Family succeeds despite not taking the Nozaki-kun route is that there’s actually a character who is privy to what’s really going on in Anya Forger. From her hilarious reactions to everyone’s true thoughts and feelings, to the contrast between her powers and her lack of smarts, to her strong desire to keep the charade going so that she can keep her happy little nuclear family going, Anya might just be the lynchpin of this series.

Spy x Family is available on VIZ’s Shonen Jump app, and chapters come out roughly once every other week. There’s a lot to love about this series, and I don’t see it wearing out its welcome anytime soon.

Mogusa-san Finds New Success on Twitter

Amid these uncertain times, a strange success story involving one of my current favorite manga artists has emerged over the past few weeks. 

Ootake Toshimoto, author of Mogusa-san and Teasobi, has been drawing a comic series titled 1 Iine 1 Yen de Bangohan o Taberu Harapeko Joshi, or in English, Hungry Girl Eats Dinner Where 1 Like Equals 1 Yen. The premise: Minori Mogusa, the perpetually hungry heroine of Mogusa-san, is in a situation where she gets 1 yen for every Twitter like. Then, she’s supposed to use the amount earned in each comic on her next dinner. In the first strip above, she has 0 yen, so she’s “air-eating.” 

But while the expectation was that she’d get maybe a few hundred likes, and could build a meal based off of that, reality panned out very differently.

The first comic received 70,155 likes. 1 yen is about 1 cent USD, so that’s about $700. Mogusa freaks out.

The second comic received 115,117 likes, or about $1,150. Below is Mogusa gorging herself on 200 pieces of expensive fatty tuna (as well as some salmon roe) in one sitting. 

By the next comic, a rule was implemented so that the ratio would be 10 likes = 1 yen in certain situations to keep things reasonable.

Not only have these manga strips been cute and hilarious, but it’s giving Ootake and the character of Minori Mogusa a lot more exposure. It’s even to the point that other artists have started their own version of the 1 Like = 1 Yen dinner format. It’s fantastic. I love the hell out of the Mogusa-san manga, and I’m genuinely happy to see Ootake getting the notoriety I know he deserves. I hope this gives Ootake a lot more opportunities, and that the world will come to appreciate Mogusa as just an amazing character.

You can find all the comics in the following Twitter thread: Hungry Girl Eats Dinner Where 1 Like = 1 Yen. Bon appétit!

A Different Way of Seeing: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 26

Jin reveals an important part of himself while Akira shows his kind heart in Chapter 26 of Hashikko Ensemble.

Summary

It’s the Hashimoto Chorus Appreciation Society’s turn at the M-Con competition, but before they go up, Jin has a question for Akira: how does Akira interpret the lyrics to “Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” (Behold the Nighttime Stars)?

It turns out that while Jin can read up on the history of a song to understand what went into it, he can only ever understand lyrics at face value. After some hesitation, Akira explains in private to Jin that he picked the song while thinking about Kousei, who lost his little brother when they were young. To Akira, it sounds like a song of prayer—an explanation that seems to awaken something inside of Jin. Right after, Jin blabs to Kousei, causing some embarrassed tension, threats of violence, and teasing accusations of Kousei being a tsundere.

That little moment resolved, the guys start their performance, with Kousei drawing the most attention with his delinquent attitude in this more formal concert hall space. As they sing, they impress one of the judges in particular, but in the stands, Yumerun (Jin’s childhood friend) looka extremely annoyed for some reason.

Is Jin Neuroatypical?

Jin has always come across as a huge nerd who’s really into music as a kind of scientific phenomenon. However, based on what we’ve learned over the past two chapters, I’m genuinely starting to wonder if Jin might be somewhere on the autism spectrum, or is perhaps neuroatypical in some other way. 

Not only have we learned that he has trouble with making his singing feel more expressive, but now he’s explained that he’s basically incapable of interpreting lyrics on his own. I’m not very familiar myself, but I’ve known people who have Asperger’s, and from what I understand, people on the autism spectrum often have difficulty grasping the emotional meaning behind how things are said, or even sarcasm and the like. Hashikko Ensemble itself hasn’t said anything explicit, but I think it would explain a lot about the character, including how he approaches social interaction.

Akira and Kousei

The fact that Akira showed such concern for Kousei further fleshes out his character. There’s something about his trying to help Kousei out, as well as his interpretation of the lyrics, that reminds me of his childhood friendship with Himari and his love of children’s picture books. Akira is a kind soul, and I increasingly like him as the central protagonist of this manga.

Yumerun’s Anger

Part of the imagery of Yumerun grinding her teeth is that it “rhymes” with the panel of Shion doing the same out of frustration over not being able to play the accompanying piano. But beyond that, I really can’t seem to figure out why Yumerun is expressing some dismay over seeing Jin sing there. Their mutual past might be even more complicated than I first thought, and I wonder if maybe Yumerun is actually there on behalf of Jin’s mother. If not, maybe Yumerun sees chorus singing as somehow painfully common. I’m sure there’ll be more information in the coming months, but for now, this has me fascinated.

Songs

It’s just “Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” by Kyu Sakamoto again this time, but given that it’s front and center in this chapter, I think it’s worth it to go into greater detail about it.

As Jin explains, the song in question was written after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923  when the lack of light pollution made the starry sky visible. The stars are a metaphor for people’s souls, and the song itself functions as a song for repose of the soul. Jin’s interpretation as a song of prayer approaches it from a different angle. To him, the lyrics seem like they’re calling out to the souls of those who have been lost, but the second half makes the name of the song sound like a comforting call to those left on Earth. 

Final Thoughts

If Kio Shimoku is indeed writing Jin as having some sort of neurotypical mind, it would be new ground for him. Genshiken has a lot of eccentric characters, but that series always came across as just a bunch of fanatical dorks who really like anime and manga. Jin’s obsession with music seems driven by something different. 

Great Minds Think Differently: Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!

Whenever there’s a work of fiction about creative types, I think back to an old art professor of mine. He would lament that the artistic process was rarely, if ever represented accurately in media. But if he had the chance to watch the anime Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, I think he would be pleasantly surprised. 

Adapted from a manga by Oowara Sumito, directed by Yuasa Masaaki and animated by his current studio, Science Saru, Eizouken! is very clearly made by people who believe just as strongly in the art of animation as the characters themselves do.

Eizouken! follows three characters–director Asakusa Midori (the main protagonist), animator Mizusaki Tsubame, and producer Kanamori Sayaka–as they form their own school club in order to make anime. Asakusa has a life-long passion for external exploring as a way to fuel her imagination, and her sketchbooks are filled to the brim with ideas and flashes of inspiration–from small doodles to elaborate world-building designs. Mizusaki is a model, but her true passion is in animation, and nothing gets her more excited as a sakuga fan than the hard work that goes into the art of portraying movement. Kanamori isn’t really artistic, but she has a knack for looking at the pragmatic side of things: costs, advertising and exposure, and deadlines. The difference between Asakusa and Mizusaki as similar yet distinct creative types, as well as the contrast between their energy and Kanamori’s, fuel the conflict and the camaraderie at the heart of Eizouken!

The series looks fantastic, has memorable characters, and is such a genuine love letter to anime and animation–even putting in nods to beloved classics like Future Boy Conan and Akira. However, what impresses me most is that Eizouken! makes a lot of difficult and daring decisions. It would have been all too easy to make Mizusaki the heroine because of how people tend to focus on characters in anime in the first place, and her specialty aligns closest to that. But not only is Mizusaki someone whose love of animation goes beyond simply making characters look impressive, but it’s the more conceptually oriented Asakusa who’s the main character. There’s something a little more intangible about Asakusa’s mindset, and the willingness to have her be the primary focus is something I appreciate.

But if having someone like Asakusa as main is uncommon, then featuring a character like Kanamori at all is like finding a four-leaf clover. While a similar series like Shirobako might have characters on the production side, it’s exceedingly rare to have a character who so clearly shows the “producer” mindset. It reminds me of something I heard once when it came to Studio Ghibli: while directors Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao were considered the geniuses for their successful animated feature films, some consider producer Suzuki Toshio the real secret to Ghibli’s success because of his skills in promotion and turning a profit. Kanamori embodies this spirit, and I think that it also provides a window into how those who aren’t on the artistic side can still be big contributors to creative endeavors in a world where schedules matter.

Something that encapsulates the joy and detail put into Eizouken! is the opening video, shown above. There’s a part in the OP where it shows multiple quadrilaterals spiraling towards the center of the screen, one set for each character. Asakusa’s are chaotic, Mizusaki’s stylishly overlap, and Kanamori’s are rectangular and precise. They’re perfect summations of the girls’ respective mindsets.

Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is a series for anyone who’s interested in seeing an involved yet mildly fantastical portrayal of the creative process in action, as well as for anyone who enjoys seeing girls being passionate about what they do. There’s a lot of love that’s gone into Eizouken!, and I can’t help but expect a generation of creators to come out of watching this series eager to take the anime industry by storm. 

Recent Thoughts on Love Live's Nijigasaki High School Idol Club

In the past, the third Love Live! multimedia project, “Nijigasaki High School Idol Club” (previously known as “Perfect DREAM Project”), had somewhat eluded me in terms of its appeal. Certainly, when it comes to Love Live! In general, I’m usually something of a late adopter—it’s usually the anime adaptations that bring me in, as opposed to the games, magazines, or even the songs. I’m also not so big a fan that I’ll follow every crumb of information, or try to pick favorites before I’ve had a chance to learn about the characters.

Two things have changed since then: the Love Live! School Idol Festival All Stars mobile game (hereafter LLSIFAS) came out, and I attended a delayed viewing of the “Love Live! Fest” concert featuring the girls from all three generations. Together, they’ve given me a better insight into how this third Love Live! Is supposed to work, and its concept of “more individualized school idols” has me curious.

As soon as the nine Nijigasaki girls came out on stage at “Love Live! Fest,” it was clear that the thinking behind them diverged from what went into their predecessors. Rather than appearing as a nine-member unit with matching outfits, each of the singers/voice actors dressed like their characters, who themselves all have very different concert wardrobes. So instead of, say, having all of μ’s in white for “Snow Halation,” it was a hodgepodge ranging from a Swedish dress to a fancy nightgown to a kind of Vocaloid-esque ensemble. Their styles were incongruous, and intentionally so. As explained by one of the members, the theme of the Nijigasaki High School Idol Club is to emphasize each girl’s uniqueness above all else. It’s quite a departure from previous Love Live! projects, which were all about nine girls working as one. 

Each of the Nijigasaki girls also has their own solo number (in addition to a couple of group songs), which is something that the members of μ’s and Aqours didn’t get until later. I think it actually helps convey what each of their personalities is like, as opposed to trying to figure out which girl is which when they’re all singing at the same time. Asaka Karin is supposed to have a more mature sex appeal, and it comes across in spades when she’s the only vocalist. Speaking of Karin, learning about her character was an experience. First, she came out and called herself the “sexy” one. Then, she called her fans “slaves.” Last, it showed her signature symbol: a high heel (hmm). It dawned on me that Karin (as well as the other eight girls) are likely all going for very different audiences from one another.

LLSIFAS somewhat departs from its mobile game predecessor by having more of an ongoing narrative in the story mode. In Chapter 1, you learn that the Nijigasaki High School Idol Club is in a sorry state and on the verge of being shut down. Your goal is to bring back the old members and recruit some new ones, and you basically learn about each of the characters along the way. I think this has been effective in helping me get a better sense of what each of them is all about, with the heavy amount of interaction and the clearer direction doing a good job of showing how the characters are when there’s an obstacle to overcome. Still, I wonder why the forces that control Love Live! as a whole decided to move in this direction for their third endeavor.

I’m not ready to fully embrace Nijigasaki because I find that a bit of resistance is for the best when approaching idol franchises, even the continuation of one I’m already a fan of. The original Love Live! won me over even as I was very skeptical of it, and it took some time for me to enjoy Love Live! Sunshine!!, but it happened eventually. I don’t need to pick a favorite Nijigasaki girl, I don’t need to enjoy every song, and I don’t need to go all-in from the start. That said, I’m looking forward to how the more focused format of an anime will tell their story, and how this idea of individuality will play out. And with a fourth Love Live! project on the way, the Nijigasaki idols will become “senpai” themselves.

Space Cases: Star Twinkle Precure

The Precure franchise always goes out of its way to convey a positive, inspiring message. 2018’s Hugtto! Precure is all about telling kids that they can do anything and be anything. 2007’s Yes! Pretty Cure 5 focuses on dreams and aspirations. The recently concluded Star Twinkle Precure, then, centers around curiosity about the cosmos and the creative power of imagination, and I think it does a splendid job of marrying its ideas together into an enjoyable and uplifting series.

When the twelve Star Princesses (greater beings based on the Zodiac who are responsible for maintaining the universe) are attacked by an intergalactic force known as the Notraiders, they turn themselves into Princess Star Color Pens and send themselves across the universe to prevent their power from being taken. Three aliens, a girl named Lala, a blob named Purunsu, and a fluffy fairy named Fuwa, are tasked with retrieving and restoring the princesses. They travel to Earth, where they encounter Hoshina Hikaru, a human girl who loves to draw and loves the stars. Hikaru and Lala soon discover that they can transform into warriors known as Precures to fight the Notraiders. Along the way, they make new friends and allies, among them Cure Soleil (Amamiya Elena) and Cure Selene (Kaguya Madoka), as they continue their fight to save the universe.

Star Twinkle Precure is one of the most consistently strong Precure anime I’ve ever seen, with my biggest criticism just being that it celebrates the quackery that is horoscopes. I know it’s popular, though.

The characters–whether or not they’re heroines or villains, stars of side characters–are generally compelling and develop in interesting ways over the course of the series while still maintaining the cores of their identities. This even includes Hikaru, Cure Star, when often times the main heroine in these team-based magical girl shows often end up feeling somewhat generic. The series is also paced well over its 49-episode run, with more self-contained episodes rarely wearing out their welcome, and more plot-oriented episodes successfully building on one another. The theme of space travel means a strong sense of wonder and discovery both internal and external, and as the series progresses, the concept of “imagination” is explored in interesting ways–especially in terms of the heroines’ more positive use of imagination vs. the villains’ “twisted” imaginations that prey upon fears and doubts. The animation also rarely falters, and the big fights during dramatic moments in the series are nothing to sneeze at.

One of the important messages woven into the anime is inclusivity. Not only is there the basic idea of discovering and appreciating aliens from outer space such as Lala, but Star Twinkle Precure is the first series to have a human, Earth-born Precure who is not fully Japanese. Elena is Half-Mexican, Half-Japanese, with darker skin than the rest of the main cast, and her biracial heritage is highlighted in multiple episodes. A few episodes are even dedicated to her or her family dealing with feeling different from other Japanese kids. The only downside is that the series doesn’t come out and say “racism” or “discrimination,” but the implication is there, and it is powerful. I hope Precure eventually finds the courage to bring controversial topics right to its viewers without being so vague, confident that kids are smart enough to understand.

Of the Precures themselves, I’m fond of Hikaru’s love of the unknown and her catchphrase, “Kirayaba…!” but I think my favorite might be Lala, aka Cure Milky. I think her transformed outfit is really great in the way it conveys the space alien motif (namely, the clear shoulder bubbles), but I also like her backstory, about how she comes from a planet where a lot of thinking and doing is done for its people by computers, and how she wants to overcome that. But really, all of the girls are great here, and there’s no wrong answer. I hardly wrote about Madoka, but her story about carrying the weight of her dad’s expectations of perfection is something a lot of kids could benefit from seeing.

Overall, Star Twinkle Precure is just an incredibly solid series that I think communicates its messages and themes extremely well. I think it’s great for both newcomers to Precure and longtime fans alike.

One last important note: the second ending is basically Precure vaporwave, and it is fantastic.

Friends with Consequences: Spotted Flower, Volume 4

Spotted Flower has always been a difficult series to suss out what the story is trying to say, if anything at all. What once began as a thinly veiled what-if pairing of two Genshiken characters has morphed into a crazy tale of adultery, inadequacy, and a cast of characters where monogamy is rare and polyamory is chaotic and unpredictable. Volume 4 continues this trend, spotlighting all the unusual relationships that have arisen. And while I haven’t consistently reviewed Spotted Flower over the years, this one has a lot of Ogiue—er, Ogino-sensei—so I have an extra reason to write about it.

Last year, I presented a panel at Otakon about Kio Shimoku’s works, and during my research, I came to realize that Genshiken is actually somewhat of an outlier in terms of his catalogue. Most manga Kio makes, including his debut professional manga, involves extremely messy relationships and a whole lot of emotional betrayal—and not in a fetishy way, either. So Spotted Flower is actually a kind of return to the older Kio, and the fact that it hits so hard is because the characters are Genshiken analogues.

Volume 4 has the husband (Not-Madarame) and wife (Not-Kasukabe) returning home with their newborn daughter, Saki. It’s not long after the husband had a one-night stand with Asaka-sensei (Not-Hato), so he’s on-edge the whole time, and literally still feeling it in the ass. The wife doesn’t suspect anything at first, especially because Asaka was very thorough in cleaning up, but the slightest hint of perfume on just one of the husband’s sweaters—as well as some pointed questions later—have her suspecting foul play. The rest of the volume involves the husband and wife reaching out to different friends to express their worries while those friends, in turn, grapple with their own complicated situations. Also, Endou (Asaka’s editor) discovers that Hato has a penis, learns about Asaka sleeping with their beloved senpai, and inadvertently spills the beans to Ogino and Not-Sue.

I think it’s important to lay down just how convoluted the web of relations is in this series. The husband is married to the wife, who just recently had their kid, but the husband slept with Asaka out of a sense of inferiority over the wife’s ex, Not-Kousaka. Asaka is in a relationship with Not-Yajima, who knew well in advance what Asaka was planning and was generally okay with it. Not-Kousaka always really wants to have a threesome, but can’t get any, and it’s probably why he’s no longer with the wife. Ogino is living with Not-Sue and is in a physical relationship with her, but also has a real thing going on with Not-Sasahara, whom she adores. Not-Sue is extremely jealous of Not-Sasahara, and balks at the idea of them in a threesome. Not-Ohno and assumed Not-Tanaka seem to be the only ones exclusive to each other. Whew! What a situation.

One of the biggest gut punches of Volume 4 is when Not-Sasahara explains in clear detail that Madarame’s worries over not matching up to Not-Kousaka are totally unfounded. Specifically, it turns out that the wife’s ex just straight-up left after seeing the baby—which means that he basically gave up, and confirms that the husband fucked up 10,000%. What’s amazing to me is that it’s easy to see where the husband is coming from, but just as easy to acknowledge that he’s garbage.

This also makes me wonder if something like this could’ve happened to the real Madarame and Kasukabe in Genshiken. Fans loved the idea of opposites attracting, but it wouldn’t have been out of the question for Madarame to feel like he could never match up to Kousaka. Madarame and Sue are on similar wavelengths, after all. However, there’s also a lot that’s different about Spotted Flower, and it feels as if this is maybe a symptom of how their world is, instead of the cause. Another notable change is that Endou (who is jokingly implied to be the Yoshitake of this series) never went to the same college as the rest of the cast.

During this volume, Ogino initially tries to suss the truth out of her editor boyfriend, and when he refuses to budge, she lays one hell of a deal out: in exchange for telling her what the husband spoke to him about, she will agree to a threesome with her and her blond girlfriend. The look on his face is one of deep, soul- and libido-igniting conflict, and the fact that he apparently doesn’t give in is testament to this character. Ironically, it probably makes Ogino like him even more. 

It can be difficult to figure out Kio’s intent, but there’s perhaps a clue in the extra story provided in this volume. The wife is talking about how she read Ogino’s new manga, which is more out and out BL. The husband responds, “Isn’t it good that she’s doing what she wants?” The wife follows up and says, “But I think her previous work was better.” Maybe Spotted Flower is just unchecked Kio Shimoku, for better or worse.

Given that Spotted Flower chapters come out at a snail’s pace, it’s wild how far the story has come. It’s really impossible to tell how things will resolve, but the way it portrays the differences between willing unorthodox relationships and those built on deception means things are probably going to get worse before they get better. The fact that a child is involved makes the sting that much more severe.

PS: I managed to get both a general purchase bonus, as well as a Toranoana store-exclusive one featuring Ogino and her blonde, Sue-esque roommate. Does it count as Ogiue merchandise when it’s technically not Ogiue?

Welco Metot Henex Tlevel: “Sonic the Hedgehog” Movie Review

I originally was on the fence about seeing the Sonic the Hedgehog movie. But the praise it received from those I trust to have loving but honest opinions about Sega convinced me. So in preparation, I basically went all-in on Sonic. I finally played (and beat) Sonic Mania, which I had put off for a long time. I filled my playlists with songs from Sonic and Sonic-adjacent sources. In a way, it was a homecoming for me, because my very first online community was actually a Sonic and NiGHTS fanfiction site. A part of me will always love the blue hedgehog.

One thing that struck me about the film is how, despite Sonic having a continued presence throughout the decades, Sonic the Hedgehog the movie is essentially a nostalgia film that nevertheless has appeal to kids today. It’s not set in the past (smartphones exist), and the way they portray Sonic as kind of naive and lonely fits better in today’s environment, but the overall buddy flick sensibility feels like it comes straight out of the 1990s, when Sonic was at his peak in terms of recognizability. Even though Jim Carrey isn’t portrayed with the classic girth of Robotnik, he comes across as how the character (described as having an immense IQ but the maturity of a child) could have been translated well to film even in the 90s. In fact, Jim Carrey probably could have played Robotnik back then as well.

Sonic the Hedgehog the movie is a surprisingly solid movie that feels faithful to the core spirit of Sonic as a “cool dude with attitude.” So much could have gone wrong, and the fact that it was inches away from being a total disaster makes it all the more miraculous. Most notably, the original design for Sonic in the movie was met with such widespread panning that they had to redo all the CG. And it matters a lot! That re-design basically was the difference between Sonic being an endearing character and one who induces nightmares.

The artists responsible for fixing Sonic’s look also got their studio shuttered before Christmas in the worst thank-you ever. If all the success this film has achieved doesn’t somehow go back into paying all of these employees who helped save this movie, then my opinion of it will sour immensely. But for now, I think Sonic the Hedgehog is worthy of praise.

It’s fitting that both Sonic the Hedgehog the movie and Sonic Mania are processed blasts of the 90s. Perhaps it took those three decades or so for the nostalgia to come around and make the Sonics everyone wanted into a reality once more.