Dongs of History: Golden Kamuy

After two seasons of Golden Kamuy, I think I finally have an understanding of how I feel about it. A combination of historical fiction, action/adventure, slapstick comedy, multicultural spotlight, and cooking show, it’s a series that messes with conventional genre boundaries. If Golden Kamuy were a chef, it would be the kind who puts in more lemon juice when you ask for more sugar. Even so, I’ve come to really appreciate that it can be so jarringly disparate, as the work comes across as genuinely passionate and uncompromising.

Golden Kamuy centers on Sugimoto Saichi, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, and his pursuit of a hidden Ainu treasure. Having earned the nickname “Immortal Sugimoto” for his military exploits—namely his seeming ability to survive any wound or calamity no matter how severe—he teams up with an Ainu girl named Asirpa. Together, they form a powerful bond that takes the two through layers of conspiracy, eccentric enemies and allies alike, and greater understanding of each others’ cultures and customs.

It can sound like a fairly straightforward and serious work, but its mood can swing wildly from one moment to the next. Golden Kamuy can go from showing Sugimoto’s PTSD, to featuring Asirpa’s hilariously wacky faces as she cooks, to displaying a bloody and merciless battle, to presenting a seemingly endless parade of dick jokes, to focusing on a genuine and heartfelt moment between Sugimoto and Asirpa. Combined with an overwhelmingly large cast of characters who are individually memorable but also hard to keep track of due to sheer size, experiencing Golden Kamuy can sometimes feel like whiplash. But when all engines are running at full steam, there are few series that can compare in terms of excitement, comedy, and emotion. You just kind of never quite know what you’re going to get, except maybe “everything.”

As of Season 2 of Golden Kamuy, the stakes are higher than ever, and the series leaves me with a lasting impression of its bizarre charisma. Season 3 can’t come soon enough.

Distillation of the Busty Failure: Ponkotsu Musume no Nichijou

A couple years ago, I noticed a trend in characters that I called “busty failures”—a translation of the Japanese terms ponkotsu plus kyonyuu. Their primary qualities are, as the term implies, big chests combined with a tendency to be unreliable wrecks. In hindsight, maybe “busty disasters” would’ve been a better choice.

Often times, characters breed unspoken archetypes, which lead to categorization. At some point, these archetypes might become explicitly acknowledged by the very medium they’ve come from. I think the busty failure has reached that point with the recent four-panel gag manga Ponkotsu Musume no Nichijou (“Failure Girl’s Everyday Life”) by Kawakami Masaki.

The series is as expected: an attractive girl (name: Ponkotsu Ato) tries to get through life but mucks things up in the process. It’s fanservicey as all heck (as implied by the cover), and lacks any sort of topical veneer like Dagashi Kashi does with the “cheap snack foods” gimmick. It’s very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get title.

In other words, Ponkotsu Musume no Nichijou is geared towards a very specific audience, i.e. the kind of person who revels in busty failures. Personally speaking, I think I’d prefer just a little more substance. A series so unabashedly horny isn’t inherently bad, and the character does feel more relatable than other instances of the archetype, but it could aspire to more. Who knows? Maybe it’ll go places over time.

 

Mewtwo vs. Mewtwo: Notable Voices in “The Wonderland”

The Wonderland (Birthday Wonderland in Japanese) is a film packed with whimsy, imagination, and a tale of a young girl finding the strength to keep going. The movie is directed by Hara Keiichi (Miss Hokusai), and I really recommend it. 

But there’s also something about the film that delights me on a much more personal level: it features not one, but two different voice actors who have played the Pokemon Mewtwo.

In the role of Hippocrates the Alchemist is Ichimura Masachika, who voiced Mewtwo in the anime film Mewtwo Strikes Back, Mewtwo Lives (aka Mewtwo Returns), and Super Smash Bros. Melee. He’s known for much more than anime—being the original Japanese Phantom of the Opera—but it’s his performance as the Genetic Pokemon that is nearest and dearest to me. He brings a similar gravitas to his Hippocrates, though The Wonderland also allows a more comedic side as well. 

The antagonist of The Wonderland, Zan Gu, is played by Fujiwara Keiji—Mewtwo in Smash 4 and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. He’s known for roles such as Makes Hughes in Fullmetal Alchemist and Holland in Eureka Seven. Zan Gu is actually more similar to Mewtwo, but Fujiwara doesn’t give the two the exact same vocal quality.

As an aside, if you want to hear both of them perform dialogue as Mewtwo, switch your copy of Melee and Ultimate to Japanese.

Having two Mewtwos is a rare distinction for any work, and it’s all the better that they give such stellar performances in a strong movie like The Wonderland. I’m not saying you should go see the film just for the acting, but they definitely make it even better.

Talkin’ About Shaft: Oogami-san, Dada More Desu

Hot on the heels of Teasobi and Change!, another one of my current manga of choice has ended. In this case, it’s the quirky romance manga Oogami-san, Dada More Desu, or in English, Oogami-san is Letting More and More Out.

The story of Oogami-san follows Oogami Meiko, a teenage girl with an overactive and dirty imagination. She writes erotic fiction, constantly fantasizes, and spends significant portions of her day thinking about guy parts, all while keeping this side of her secret. She becomes curious about one of her classmates, Shinichirou Yaginuma, a quiet and distant guy, but she soon discovers that he has a secret: anyone who touches him blurts out whatever they’re thinking deep down. For Oogami, her true feelings come out as “Show me your dick.” That’s the start of their relationship.

It’s a pretty gimmicky romance manga at the start, but the early chapters are really carried by how fun and expressive Oogami is as the main character. Her and Yaginuma both have things they don’t want to share with others, and they sort of become mutual confidants. But as the two grow closer and even make other friends, the series goes into not judging books by their covers, bullying, overprotective parents (who have a genuine reason to be that way), jealousy, and other topics that give Oogami-san more weight—all without abandoning the ridiculousness of its base premise. It’s a ribald comedy with a touch of seriousness, where characters love and learn and one of them likes to talk about penises. A lot.

Oogami-san, Dada More Desu concluded in December, and the 7th and final collected volume came out in Japan on January 23. It’s the kind of bizarre love story that is right up my alley, and I think it’s definitely worth a read.

You Are, All of a Sudden, a Mechanical Man: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 24

A new character flips everything upside down in Chapter 24 of Hashikko Ensemble.

Summary

Shion has sprained her wrist, and the Chorus Appreciation Society is forced to do something about it. Given a few options, they ultimately land on getting an alternate pianist to accompany them, though Akira expresses that he doesn’t think anyone could really replace her. Shion pulls a favor with her mom, and gets an old acquaintance/friend to take her place: Mashino Shuusuke, a guy who carries around a sun umbrella and who just has an aura that screams “elite.”

However, after just one song, Shuusuke finds the Hashikko boys to be fundamentally inadequate. He critiques each of their weaknesses one by one—and actually declares Jin to be the most hopeless of all! While the rest of the group is eager to prove Shuusuke wrong, Jin seems uncharacteristically glum.

Their Unique Problems

It’s interesting to see where each character’s singing flaws are, as pointed out by Shuusuke. It’s not easy to convey in comics, so the exposition is welcome. Also, it might be a hint at how the characters might develop over time.

Akira is trying too consciously to sing low, and his enunciation is suffering. He’s pushing his vowels out at the expense of his consonants.

Kousei doesn’t sing with purpose. According to Shuusuke, Kousei comes across as someone who thinks passion and feeling can make up for that, but it can’t.

Shinji is a total beginner, so there’s not much to be done there. Shuusuke says this as if there’s nothing specific he could say to help, which makes Shinji all the angrier

Jin knows how to “sing,” but what comes out of him isn’t “music.” In terms of criticisms, this one hits the hardest.

A Hurdle for Jin

I find the introduction of Shuusuke to be one of my favorite story developments so far because it’s the first time that Jin has been challenged as a character. Up to this point, Jin has always been the fount of knowledge who knows more about sound and music than anyone else. To have that called into question, to have someone say that Jin’s singing is merely technically proficient, is a major change-up. Adding to this is the fact that Shuusuke is clearly a legitimate talent at the piano.

The only times in the past that Jin has looked even remotely that taken aback is when he mentions his mom. We have the sense that there’s something messy underlying his interest in music, and I have to wonder if Shuusuke’s comments are related in any way.

Shuusuke and Shion (and Akira?)

As implied by the chapter’s title page, there’s a history between Shuusuke and Shion dating back to their piano concert days (Shion, as we see, has always been herself). There’s a clear frustration he has over her choosing to go to a technical high school–my best guess is that he saw her as a rival, or at the very least, someone who’s wasting her talents. There might not necessarily be any romantic sparks (or at least not reciprocal ones), but the “childhood friend” history is a reliable, if not as common a trope as it used to be. Given Akira’s bit of blushing early in the chapter when he comments on Shion being irreplaceable, there might be some tension there.

Songs

“Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” (Behold the Nighttime Stars) by Kyu Sakamoto make another appearance here.

Final Thoughts

In frustration, Shion says that it’s actually Shuusuke’s fault that things aren’t going well, and that they’re much better when she plays. It’s hard to tell if she’s just being stubborn or if there is some merit to her words, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the answer is in the end.

 

Transition and Transience: Weathering with You

WARNING: THIS REVIEW DISCUSSES SPOILERS FOR WEATHERING WITH YOU AND MAGIC KNIGHT RAYEARTH.

Ever since Your Name, the fourth-highest grossing Japanese domestic film of all time, director Shinkai Makoto has gone from critical darling to household name. His latest movie, Weathering with You (aka Tenki no Ko), is a visually brilliant animated work that ends up feeling more like a transitional work—a stepping stone to this next project. As Weathering with You grapples with being the mainstream successor to Your Name, it also presents a vortex of ideas and themes that aren’t necessarily always cohesive but do leave a lasting impression of emotions and frustrations over how society treats its youth.

The story of Weathering with You focuses on Morishima Hodaka, a high schooler who runs away from home to Tokyo but ends up living on the streets, unable to find work, as the weather gets worse and worse by the day. A couple of chance encounters unites him with a girl named Hina, who he later discovers is a “sunny girl” whose prayers can call forth good weather. Hodaka gets the idea to turn Hina’s ability into a profitable venture, unaware that it could come at a price.

The pressure of being the follow-up to one of the biggest Japanese films of all time is all too real, and I could practically feel it in every name-brand sponsor that dots the Tokyo landscape in Weathering with You. Whether it’s Hodaka sitting at a McDonald’s only for Hina to give him the most lovingly animated Big Mac ever, or the many real shopping malls such as Mylord and Parco, this is a movie with real big sponsors who clearly had high expectations. It’s not a surprise, then, that Weathering with You is also a boy meets girl story with supernatural themes connected to the religion and culture of Japan. One big difference, however, is that the teens in Weathering with You feel much more “lost,” like they’re in a foreboding environment that they’re trying to scratch and claw against. There’s a certain sense of powerlessness that feels very sloppy and therefore very real in the process.

That powerlessness and frustration ties into what I believe will be of the most enduring debates about Weathering with You: whether its characters ultimately made the right decision, and how it ties into our current global crisis with respect to climate change.

Hina has the ability to bring about pleasant weather, but every time she prays, it takes a toll on her body. This is part of the “natural order” of sorts, that there will be people who can fix the weather at the expense of their lives. However, at the turning point of the film, Hodaka manages to rescue Hina and prevent her sacrifice, all while exclaiming that he wouldn’t be able to stand a world without her. In many films, this would be considered the heroic move, except we find out in an end-of-movie timeskip that Tokyo is half-submerged in water three years later. In a sense, Hodaka sacrificed an entire city for one girl, instead of the other way around.

There’s a part of me that wants to criticize Hodaka as being selfish. Right now, we live in a world where the actions of one person cannot truly change the losing fight we’re having with saving the Earth’s environment, and it’s tempting to wish we could magic it all away. However, the more I think about it, the more I find myself realizing that Hodaka and Hina aren’t supposed to be heroes. Sure, they’re the main characters of Weathering with You, but they’re just kids who are trying to do what’s right for them, who are struggling against the expectations their world places on them for being young. And while Hina could have solved the issue, is it right for adults to foist all that responsibility onto kids, and to have a system where one gets sacrificed to keep the weather at bay?

There’s a subplot involving a handgun in Weathering with You, and it can feel incongruous with the rest of the movie. Perhaps it ties into the above theme, placing this enormous amount of power into a kid’s hands, and the danger to himself and others that comes with it. At the same time, if that is what the film is saying, it’s not conveyed very cleanly, leading to some of the lack of cohesion. While Your Name is the obvious comparison, this sort of loose meandering reminds me at times of another Shinkai film: Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below.

After I saw Weathering with You, I made the joke that Zagato from the anime and manga Magic Knight Rayearth would love the film. He’s also a character willing to sacrifice the world for the one he loves—a world that puts all the burden of maintaining peace and order on the prayers of a single unfortunate soul. Hodaka and Zagato essentially make the same decision, but with the differences in setting (Tokyo vs. a faraway fantasy land) and role (protagonist vs. antagonist), I wonder if it changes how we perceive their decisions and their integrity.

Our Rap Battle Goes On: “Change!” Final Review

I find that my favorite manga tend to finish in groups, and now following Teasobi is the news that the rap battle-themed series Change! is done. This was clearly not the intended way to go out, as it basically leaves off with an “our fight goes on!”-style non-ending. Despite that disappointment, I think it’s a really worthwhile manga that does its subject justice.

Change! revolves around Kozono Shiori, a meek girl at an elite high school who also has a love of the art of the Japanese language. She discovers that a classmate of hers, Miki, has been sneaking out to a club (how scandalous!), only to find that it’s a hip hop club where rap battles are the main event. While she initially writes it off, Shiori (now MC Shiorin) realizes that rap resonates with her deep fondness for Japanese poetry, and enters a new world.

One of the main themes of Change! is that while Japanese rap could be seen as just an importing of American culture, it is just as much a part of Japanese (and international) culture as classical poetry. There are elements of the Japanese language, such as the combination of onyomi and kunyomi ways of pronouncing kanji, that make rapping in Japanese a unique experience. Shiori also draws comparison between rap battles and an old Japanese type of poetry competition called uta-awase. While this can come across as an attempt to justify rap’s existence, Shiori’s role in the story emphasizes the idea that the lyricism of rap can be enjoyed by those with an open mind and an appreciation for good wordplay. In this respect, she’s somewhat similar to Tupac, who could be inspired by things like Shakespeare and the music of Kate Bush.

The manga puts more emphasis on the artistry of rap and hip hop than how it grew from specific cultural circumstances, and there’s relatively little notion of its origins in African-American neighborhoods or its ability to give a voice to those who might not have one otherwise. Despite that, there’s a clear and genuine love for rap that permeates the series, and I can understand why a series that’s probably introducing a lot of people to the world of hip hop in the first place might not delve into deeper topics—especially because it ended before its time.

Speaking of, another sign that the manga was in trouble was that the digital versions of Change! started to get a new title: Waka no Ojou-sama Rap Hajimemashita, or A Japanese Poetry Princess Gets into Rap. Titles usually only get this when it seems like not enough people are even giving it a chance. See Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live, Die, Repeat) and Gundam Sousei (aka The Men Who Created Gundam) for examples.

There’s an episode preview in the first Genshiken anime where one of the characters talks about how all the best series get canceled early. Sometimes, I really believe it—because while manga can be an avenue for very unique and off-kilter comics, many ambitious series never get the chance to keep flourishing. Chances are slim, but I hope Change! can come back in some form (it would make for a great anime!). I wish the best of luck to Soda Masahito, Tomiyama Hiromiya, and lyrics supervisor Shinpeita on their future projects, and thank them for a fine piece of art.

Hammerman, Hammer: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 23

 Summary

The Chorus Appreciation Society has emerged triumphant over Tsuyama’s group, and now the M-Con competition is only one week away. But while that ought to be everyone’s highest priority, Shion is still trying to complete a hammer-and-chisel woodworking assignment she just can’t seem to figure out. Meanwhile, everyone else is wary that the group’s only pianist is potentially putting her own fingers in harm’s way.

Thanks to a handy demonstration by a surly Orihara and an idea from Jin and Akira to treat the process like playing piano, Shion manages to get it done. However, Shion accidentally bumps into a storage locker and sends a bunch of chisels crashing down towards her hands, only to be saved by Orihara, who accidentally grabs her chest. After a bit of awkwardness, things seem resolved…only for Shion to later fall while changing out of her workshop clothes and appear to sprain her wrist anyway.

Working to Music

Hashikko Ensemble is all about the contrast between the characters’’ vocational classes and the songs they’re singing, but most of the time, it’s the science and engineering side facilitating learning about music. This time, it’s more the other way around. The chisel work that Orihara demonstrates shows a kind of softer and more meticulous side to him as well, especially in how shaving off the wood in layers is this gradual process.

It’s also interesting to see where the different characters in this series can and can’t relate to one another. It’s Jin who suggests likening different degrees of taps of the chisel to piano terms–forte, mezzopiano, etc.–but it’s Akira who brings it all together by wondering if Shion could literally do it to a specific song. It’s like it took all three guys here to eventually connect to her way of thinking.

When Anime Haircuts Die

After Tsuyama’s group loses, they all shave their hair in preparation for finding internships, all while taunting Orihara that this is likely his head’s fate as well. Could that actually happen in this manga? Could the main characters end up losing all their nice-looking anime hair if Hashikko Ensemble goes on long enough? It would certainly be something different.

Shion Is Great

I don’t know if this is what Kio always intended, but Shion is really stealing the show at this point. From the beginning of the chapter and Shion’s Ito Junji-esque expression as she declares Akira to be a traitor to just the overall antics that follow, she’s becoming one of the most memorable parts of this series. There’s a point in the chapter

The wrist sprain is very akin to Madarame’s from Genshiken’s (he fell while at a doujin event), and it makes me wonder if Shion is actually supposed to be the Madarame of this series, only less self-aware. She has a sort of ponkotsu quality, but it’s not like she’s untalented or constantly failing. You could call her moe, but she’s less endearing and more exasperating. There’s a point in the chapter when Shion is describing how she doesn’t understand how anyone could do keep track of all the different subtleties in how hard to tap, nor how anyone could do two completely different things with their left and right hands, only for the rest of the characters to yell at her about how that’s a perfect description of playing piano.

It’s like Shion does what she wants and pushes the story along as a result, but perhaps hat describes most of the characters in Hashikko Ensemble.

Songs

The song Akira suggests Shion tap along to is the one they plan to perform for M-Con: “Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” (Behold the Nighttime Stars) by Kyu Sakamoto.

Final Thoughts

Orihara plays a major role in this chapter, and in it, he keeps expressing that he really hates girls. The way he says it, however, seems to speak to something deeper. Could it be that he’s expressing his anger towards the mother that let him and his deceased little brother be abused for so long? It can be hard to tell, given how Hashikko Ensemble can move between the serious and the comedic in such striking ways.

 

2010–2019 Part 2: Looking Back

Another decade of anime and manga has passed, which means it’s time to reflect on all the things that have happened in and around our favorite Japanese art and entertainment forms. With more anime than any time previous, there’s an overwhelming amount of history to look at, so I’m going to be focusing on what I consider interesting and/or important trends.

I also covered some of 2010–2019 through my review of my old predictions, so for the sake of keeping a long post from getting further out of hand, I’ve kept further discussion of topics there to a relative minimum.

Bookended by Tragedy

This decade more or less began and ended with painful events that have shaped and will continue to shape Japan and its anime and manga industries for years to come. March 11, 2011 was the day that a combined earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing nuclear meltdowns. July 18, 2019 was the date of the arson attack on Kyoto Animation, killing over 30 people, injuring even more, and leaving the famed studio’s main building in flames.

The Fukushima triple disaster was brought in part by nature but also human negligence at the highest levels of authority, and it destroyed villages, displaced people from their homes, took lives, and contaminated land and water. The area, one known for its rice crop in a nation where rice is a staple food, had to deal with the all-too-familiar fear that nuclear power conjures up in Japan via Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Fukushima’s consequences are far, far bigger than any one industry, but that’s precisely why they have had an indelible effect on anime and manga. Suddenly, there was the realization that whatever anti-nuclear messages existed in pop culture weren’t enough. It was almost too poetic a timing that Coppelion, a manga about genetically engineered girls having to rescue human survivors in a post-meltdown Tokyo, began only months prior to Fukushima. Anime such as Madoka Magica that were aired during that period suddenly had their surrounding contexts changed.

But the disaster also brought support from across the anime and manga industries to Fukushima and the surrounding Tohoku region. Creators left messages encouraging and praying for a revival, and as the land has started to improve (though to what extent is up for debate), there’s an active push by the government to encourage tourism and purchase of local goods. Anime and manga also play a role here too as part of the campaign to bring people back.

In contrast, the Kyoto Animation attack was like a direct strike to the heart and soul of the anime industry. Not only was it the worst domestic attack since World War II—even worse than the Tokyo sarin gas attack—but KyoAni has been a pioneer of better wages and better gender equality in anime in addition to their creating popular and critically acclaimed works. It’s unclear how the anime and manga industries will react to this over time (aside from better security), but the biggest question mark will be about what could have been.

There was a lot of talent lost, notably The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi and Kobayashi-san’s Dragon Maid director Takemoto Yasuhiro, and it’s sad that they will have the chance to keep working and creating. There is one bright side, however: KyoAni has started up their animation school again, and their mission to prepare the next generation is more vital than ever.

An aside: One odd bit of humor to come out all this was that the days after the disasters, the only commercial on Japanese TV was apparently ads telling people to greet each other more. These drove Japanese viewers nuts, so some of the more artistic ones started turning the animal mascots in these commercials into transforming robots.

Fujoshi Integration and the Permanence of the Otaku Hero

Back when I originally started Ogiue Maniax in 2007, one thing I was interested in was the portrayal of otaku characters, and by extension the fujoshi characters that began appearing more and more at the time. Going into 2010, this feeling was still quite strong, but as I continued to keep an eye on series with otaku in them, it became harder and harder to keep up. The Fujoshi Files, my on-going archiving of fujoshi characters, is on semi-hiatus right now because I’ve simply been overwhelmed by the fact that you just never know when a fujoshi character will show up for two episodes in an obscure TV series. In other words, otaku characters aren’t just commonplace now—they’re arguably an over-saturated archetype.

This is especially the case with the isekai genre and fantasy light novel series, where having an otaku of some kind (it doesn’t necessarily have to be an anime otaku) is de rigueur for the kinds of power fantasies that are ubiquitous in that realm. But the prevalence of the Otaku hero isn’t even limited to that particular world. Onoda from Yowamushi Pedal and Deku from the wildly popular My Hero Academia, both straightforward shounen leads, have otaku minds. At this point, sometimes it’s easier to ask whether a protagonist isn’t an otaku.

Moe in Moderation

Throughout the 2000s, it was “moe” this, “moe” that. There were haters, there were supporters (me included), and those caught in the middle. In 2019, however, it’s past its prime (at least in the old familiar form) to the extent that the term itself has faded immensely in the otaku lexicon.

In hindsight, I think of moe as like a food with a very intense and peculiar flavor that is probably good in reasonable doses. The problem is that people gorged on it until they got sick, and had to eventually learn when less is more. The occasional smorgasbord happens, not now you see hints or accents of moe in more things—music, horror, and even the most serious and mature titles. It’s part of why I think sports series have started to gain traction in the United States when there was like success in the past: people realized that the core appeal of sports anime and manga was less the athletics themselves and more the human drama that comes with exploring characters’ weaknesses and struggles. Even a softer shounen hero like Tanjiro in Demon Slayer has moe qualities that quite possibly outstrip even his sister’s tremendous qualities.

I one commented to anime podcaster and ex-Crunchyroll guy Evan Minto that Eureka Seven was a moe show. He found it absurd, but I was serious, because moe came from empathizing with its characters vulnerabilities. Just because a character can be moe doesn’t mean they’re useless, and I think that’s a big lesson that has been taken to heart by anime and manga as a whole.

Plus, you can still totally find all-you-can-moe buffets whenever you feel the need to go nuts.

American-Style Superheroes

Perhaps due to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the American conception of the superhero (in contrast to the Kamen Rider, for example) is now a regular part of anime and manga. Putting aside the Marvel and DC co-productions, this decade has seen Tiger & Bunny, One Punch Man, and My Hero Academia all reach enormous success (albeit not always for the same reasons). You also have series like Heroman, and the fact that Disney’s Big Hero 6 film has a Japanese protagonist perhaps says something about the desire for international appeal.

It’s interesting that so many specifically embrace an American aesthetic, whether it’s red, white, and blue motifs in its characters or American-style cities as settings, and it really speaks to the fact that they’re aiming for that “capes” aesthetic. However, what’s even more noteworthy is the way these manga and anime have been embraced by superhero comics fans as being better at telling superhero stories than many current American comics.

Superheroes also create an amazing bridge for being American comics fans to come to manga and for manga fans to check out American comics. It’s perhaps easier than ever to transition between the two.

Steps Towards Mainstreaming LGBT

Queer romances have long been a part of manga and anime—Hagio Moto’s Heart of Thomas from the 1970s is generally considered the first one shounen ai manga. The portrayal of BL and yuri can differ significantly from real relationships, with the former often being for the pleasure of non-queer audiences, but this openness has attracted many fans, and there are more and more works that try to support a queer audience as well. But Japan is still in many ways a conservative culture, and positive mainstream depictions of non-heteronormative characters can come with a lot of baggage.

While there is still a ways to go, there is a general trend towards more consideration for LGBT characters these past ten years. Gatchaman Crowds, for example, features three characters each with different types of non-cishet expression, going beyond the original Gatchaman and Berg Katze’s dual genders while keeping them respectful. Genshiken Nidaime (aka Second Season aka Second Generation) has a crossdressing fudanshi with complicated feelings at the center of it’s story who tries to navigate the difference between BL fandom and homosexuality. Yuri!!! On Ice features the gradual development of a clearly gay relationship as its core, but its lack of standard BL flourishes engendered a debate about whether it should be called BL at all. Tagame Gengoroh’s My Brother’s Husband won both Japanese and international acclaim.

One stand-out example of LGBT becoming a little more mainstream in anime and manga, to me, is how it’s been handled in the Precure franchise. While it’s always had its yuri fans, and Kira Kira Precure A La Mode even strongly hinted at something between two of its characters, it’s 2018’s Hugtto! Precure that made an entire subplot out of the burgeoning gay relationship between two minor characters—one of whom is implied to struggle with his self-directed homophobia. While the franchise still doesn’t have the courage to say the word “gay,” it at least has these characters holding hands, giving hearts to each other, and telling presumably very young viewers to not let anyone else define who they are. Sailor Moon had Neptune and Uranus, but this is another layer.

From Sekai-kei to Game-like Isekai, Ironic Isekai, and Beyond

In the previous decade, one of the popular genres of Japanese fiction, especially in the realm of anime and manga but also light novels and games, was sekai-kei. Literally meaning “world-style,” it’s actually almost the opposite of what you probably think. Instead of being focused on world-building, it’s about stories where the outcome of the world rests upon the relationship between two characters. I would call Haruhi an example of sekai-kei because their fate rests upon Haruhi and how Kyon interacts with her.

I feel that, since 2010 or maybe even a little sooner, we’ve been seeing fewer and fewer sekai-kei stories. In their place has been a surge in isekai (transported to another world stories) that’s impossible to ignore.

Isekai is nothing new, and there are examples in modern Japanese fiction dating back to the 1970s. Even Gundam director Tomino’s Byston Well series is an isekai. The big difference now, however, has been the game-like approach to isekai. Whether the hero is literally trapped in a video game (Sword Art Online, Log Horizon) or where it’s simply an extremely game-like universe (KonoSuba, Re:ZERO, Overlord), there’s a presumption about RPGs as a common-knowledge experience. Here, the fate of the world usually rests on the hero who’s simultaneously underpowered and overpowered. Rather than necessarily being about exploring the new world, these stories have been mostly either power fantasies or responses to power fantasies.

Japanese scholar Azuma Hiroki wrote about “game-like realism” in the sense of a reality with no beginning, middle, and end, and plenty of alternate realities. While it doesn’t map perfectly, current isekai can be seen as a kind of attempt to wrangle these notions back into a straightforward, albeit open-ended and often meandering format.

Isekai has gotten so prevalent that some online novel contests have even begun to forbid isekai entries. But it also means that it’s ripe for parody. The Devil is a Part-Timer! is a reverse-isekai where a hero and a demon lord end up in modern Japan. The Hero is Overpowered But Overly Cautious plays on an idea that many RPG players are familiar with: making absolutely sure everything is perfect to the point of virtual neurosis. They’re not all winners, but there’s a desire to explore isekai as an archetype, and it’ll be interesting to see how far this goes.

The Ascendance of Mobile Games

Part of the story of the 2010s the world over is the rise of mobile games, and in Japan this translated to character-focused gacha. These digital waifu and husbando slot machines are a powerful thing, and the devotion they engender can veer straight into “gambling addiction” territory, but it also can’t be denied how much of an influence they’ve had on anime, manga, and fandom.

Consider the Fate franchise, which went from being once defined by its original visual novel to being known primarily through the absurdly successful and profitable Fate/Grand Order mobile game. Also look at Granblue Fantasy, which helped make the company Cygames into a major player—the Granblue Fantasy anime shows a budget few can even dream of.

Even The iDOLM@STER, which began as console games, has in part taken on new life by having a virtually limitless selection of idols to obtain through its apps. Love Live! found success through various channels, but there are many people who became fans solely through the School Idol Festival game. And Kantai Collection technically started as a browser game, but it’s cut from a similar mold, and it’s notable that it’s become one of the franchises that dominates Comic Market.

There have been tons of light novel anime and manga adaptations, but the amount of works based on mobile games steadily increased over the decade as well. This doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad—Rage of Bahamut Genesis is one that sticks out to me as exceptional—but it’s certainly become a crowded field where “adaptation as advertisement” and “adaptation as mark of prestige” exist in the same space.

Anime as Faithful Reproduction Instead of Creative Interpretation

In decades past, whenever there was an anime adaptation of something with multiple paths—a dating sim, for instance—the common approach was to synthesize all of the different routes into a single story with the canon heroine being the winner. But starting in 2010 with Amagami SS (or possibly something even sooner) it started to become more common to adapt every path. Each couple of episodes was basically a different what-if where the protagonist ends up with a different girl. The most extreme version of this might be the movies fully dedicated to the alternate stories of Fate/Stay Night, Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel.

In a way, it’s an extension of what we saw with Kyoto Animation’s adaptations of Key games. While those shows still synthesized all the routes, there was a more active adherence to the look and feel of the source material, right down to using the original theme songs. Anime, rather than trying to do its own thing with the material given, is more likely to try and stick to the script. Filler arcs or anime-original material were out, and season delays were in, for better or worse. 2009’s Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (intentionally made to follow the manga’s story more than the first anime) also set a precedent.

Fantastic Remakes

Not everything is about adhering to a source material, however. While nostalgia is a strong force in media and entertainment, it’s still possible for a remake or re-imagining is able to go well beyond and turn into something unique and special. Every decade has its own fair share of excellent revivals, but I found the 2010s to be full of especially smart and creative takes on classic franchises. The aforementioned Gatchaman Crowds took the idea of the superhero team and pushed it into an age of social media and gamification. Devilman Crybaby is essentially the original Devilman manga retold, the signature art style of Yuasa Masaaki gave it new life and also highlighted the fact that a lot of the 1970s manga’s theme resonate just as much, if not more today. The Rebuild of Evangelion movies have all been impressive and have dared to go in strange directions, though we’re not actually seeing the conclusion until 2020 rolls around. In the most on-brand move possible, director Anno Hideaki became depressed after the third film, and it wasn’t until he directed the excellent Shin Godzilla (another update to a classic franchise) that he found the spark to go back to Shinji and friends.

Official Simultranslations

Once, getting translated anime and manga the day after release in Japan was a foolish dream. Then, with the advent of high-speed internet it became technically possible—but it was the domain of speed subbers and speed scanlators, with the requisite decline in quality. But now we’ve had a decade of not just quick releases but ones that are official, whose success can and will be noticed by Japan. Crunchyroll, HiDive, and Comixology are among the many resources available to fans, and while Netflix is often not technically a simulstream most of the time, its presence in the world of online streaming can’t be denied.

This is partially a tale of the direction of technology. More smartphones and better tablets mean streaming decent-quality images is more likely than ever before. Gone are the specific limitations of the past that made trying to view anime and manga a chore. It’s also the story of Japan being dragged into the current age, as much as its companies (especially manga) have tried to resist the digitizing of these mediums.

The amount of legal digital anime and manga options is ever increasing even in Japan. Comic Walker and Book Walker make following new releases almost trivial. Bandai Channel is more expansive than ever. Many manga publishers have series that start off as free webcomics now. Notably, the second iteration of One Punch Man started on Tonari no Young Jump. The amount of digital users keeps rising around the world, and it’ll likely not stop for a long time.

What Lies Ahead

While it’s mere coincidence, the fact that Japan is heading into the next decade of anime and manga alongside a newly coronated emperor seems poetic. For Part 3 of the 2010–2019 series, I’ll be giving my predictions as to where I think anime and manga will go in 2020 onwards.

The One and Only: Aikatsu on Parade! and Hoshimiya Ichigo

After just seven episodes, Aikatsu on Parade! pulls out the big guns and brings in the original Aikatsu! heroine, Hoshimiya Ichigo. I’m actually kind of surprised that they didn’t wait long, as I thought they’d save her for a climactic moment. Regardless, Ichigo (as well as Aoi and Ran) are a welcome sight, though what I like even more is how Ichigo’s presence also shows what makes Raki so different from past main characters.

Raki, Aine, and Mio first meet Ichigo and the other members of Soleil at Ichigo’s family bentou shop, where the latter are wearing Clark Kent-level disguises. But then off come the glasses, and their true selves are revealed. Ichigo, Aoi, and Ran come across as old friends with a casual yet rock-solid bond, and who accept that they’re accomplished celebrities but don’t let it get to their heads. This is especially the case with Ichigo, who despite being the top ranked idol seems more keen on being supportive.

Episode 7 is a fun re-introduction, but it’s actually episode 8 that really drives home why Raki meeting Ichigo is important. Raki meets Amahane, the designer behind the Angely Sugar clothing line that Ichigo always wears, and it fits in perfectly with her desire to become an Aikatsu fashion designer herself. Raki wants to support, and she’s supported by people who want to see her support.

In fine Aikatsu! tradition, getting to Angely Sugar involves quite a few hurdles, but it’s also here that the original series’s history conveys this real sense of weight. Raki wants to meet Amahane, and the one to arrange it for her is Ichigo’s mom, Ringo. As Ringo subtly hints at her own background as a legendary idol, an instrumental version of “Wake Up My Music”—her old unit, Masquerade’s hit song—plays. When she gets to Angely Sugar’s location, she has to do the classic cliff-scaling, only it’s shown that the original AIkatsu! wall climb is far harsher than in later series. In fact, there seems to be a lot more intense physical training to go around here, as if the original Aikatsu! girls are the equivalent of Pretty Cure’s Cure Black and Cure White in terms of raw physical strength. It makes Ichigo and the rest seem even more like idols from days gone by, but their humble attitudes keep everything down to Earth.

One other thing of note is that the CG is markedly improved over the first season of AIkatsu!, and it really shows with Ichigo, Aoi, and Ran. They just plain look better and move better, and it really highlights how far 3DCG has come in only a few years.

Ichigo’s return to Aikatsu! does not disappoint, and she surprisingly also doesn’t overshadow the new heroine, Raki. It looks like this won’t be the last we see of the classic heroine, and I’m eager to see what other interesting collaborations happen.

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can request topics through the Ogiue Maniax Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.