Operating on Different Scales: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 37

An electrifying performance dazzles the audience in this chapter of Hashikko Ensemble.

Summary

Hot off another victory, the Chorus Appreciation Society moves on to the semifinals of the school’s Cultural Festival music competition. This time, having experienced some kind of epiphany, Kousei reacts to Shion with a powerful blush, leading everyone to respond with a mix of confusion and curiosity. A heart-to-heart of sorts with Yukina helps him see what he wants, and at the moment, it’s to sing with Shion.

While the remaining groups are impressive in their own right, the Society’s fierce rendition of the song “Etupirka” bowls everyone over. However, Jin’s mom fails to see this performance too, as she and Yumerun are stuck in traffic.

Yukina’s Maturity and Kousei

After Kousei heads outside by himself, Yukina comes up to him and drops some heavy statements in a surprisingly casual way by discussing a possible future with Kousei, including who would work and how many kids they would have (two or three!). Kousei doesn’t seem bothered in any way by this conversation, though his response is “Right now, I’m having plenty of fun singing with her”—a rejection, at leat for the time being.

This whole conversation is full of unexpected words and responses, and while I don’t know if “realistic” is the right word, the dialogue between Kousei and Yukina has a kind of depth and dimensionality to it because of how they seem to be thinking about the concept of time relative to their wants and desires. Kousei essentially has a choice between the rough-and-tumble girl who’s more like him or the classy girl who’s his complete opposite, and his feelings about it are rooted in the possibility of stepping into a world he long thought cut off from him due to his upbringing. But Yukina takes the long view, and appears to be thinking, “Even though Kousei’s all about the cute girl now, there’s always a chance he’ll come back around eventually.” I find Yukina’s particular brand of maturity interesting, like she’s somewhere between Saki and Keiko in Genshiken.

Kousei’s “Right now” is an interesting choice of words. What I think it implies is that, rather than being about love and seeing oneself with someone for a long time, it’s about Kousei figuring out his emotions in the moment. Does he value the ability to connect with Shion through song more than the inherent mutual understanding he shares with Yukina? The way Shion seems to instantly know what Kousei has on his mind when he hesitates to communicate what he wants out of her piano-playing for the next song, it speaks to a potential deeper connection through music. But whether that bond goes beyond music is something I’m looking forward to seeing.

ETUPIRKA! ETUPIRKA! ETUPIRKA!

Just like in the last chapter, we have an amazingly drawn scene of a Chorus Appreciation Society performance. What stands out to me about their “Etupirka” is that even if you don’t know what the song actually sounds like, Kio’s artwork conveys its sheer intensity. It’s not just the trembling line effects throughout the performance, but the way the characters are drawn with such dynamism even while they’re standing still, as well as the choice to use that initial extreme angle to depict Shion’s piano-playing (as seen in the top image) makes it seem like the ground is trembling. It borders on a more exaggerated representation that one might find in an action-packed shounen manga that uses music as its gimmick the way Yakitate!! Japan and Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma approach food.

(And if you want to hear a performance of “Etupirka,” it’s in the “Songs” section below.)

Hanyama’s “Tone Deafness” Isn’t

At one point, the subject of Hanyama’s inability to sing on-key comes up, and Jin reveals that what everyone assumed to be a case of being tone deaf is actually something else entirely. He recounts having tested Hanyama, and it turns out that the guy unconsciously sings on a scale different from the traditional Western music scales due to his family running a Buddhist temple. Instead, Hanyama sings according to what the Japanese calll junpachi gyakuroku (“upward eight, lower six”) or sanpun son’eki ho, which is also known as the Chinese 12-tone musical scale—which coincidentally is also the same as Pythagorean tuning. It results in the kind of music you get from Buddhist chants (shoumyou) and Japanese imperial court music (gagaku).

If this is all Greek to you, you’re not alone. Akira in the manga is completely baffled by everything Jin says, and so am I. But the gist of it—as much as I can understand, anyway—is that Hanyama has internalized that particular understanding of music, and it makes his attempts to sing more conventional popular songs go awry. Even if I don’t fully grasp everything, I find that pretty fascinating, and I’m glad Hashikko Ensemble goes into it, however briefly.

Songs

Half Monks: “Guts Daze!!” by Ulfuls. This is the song in a flashback to Hanyama’s singing in the competition while they’re explaining the quirks of his musical sense.

Electrical First-Years A Capella Group: “Racing into the Night” by YOASOBI

This is noted as being a Vocaloid song performed using six voices. While there’s no available equivalent online, there are Vocaloid covers of this song.

Wind Instrument Club: “The Galaxy Express 999” by Godiego

Chorus Appreciation Society: “Etupirka” composed by Hirose Ryouhei

Final Thoughts

Though we only got brief glimpses of them this chapter, I quite enjoyed the presence of both Akira and Jin’s mom. I’m still entertained by Akira’s mom and her delight over her son having friends, and I’m further anticipating the arrival of Jin’s mom at the school. I do get the feeling nothing Jin does will impress her, and I wonder if Yumerun will have any role to play in terms of bridging their strained mother-son relationship.

Also, Volume 6 of Hashikko Ensemble comes out next month! I wonder what store-exclusive bonuses we’ll get this time.

That’s Ruff, Buddy—Nichijou: My Ordinary Life

A review of the comedy manga Nichijou: My Ordinary Life by Arawi Keiichi has been long overdue. I’ve referenced the series off and on since 2011 when the anime debuted, but it’s only in the past year that I finally completed my Nichijou manga collection. Thus, while it’s a few years later than I would’ve preferred, I’m here to lay down my final verdict:

It’s so goddamn funny. 

Well, that took a load off. Until next time!

In all seriousness, reading through all of Nichijou had me laughing uncontrollably on multiple occasions, interspersed between joyful chuckles and lip-puckering smiles. Plenty of anime and manga are wacky, subdued, over-the-top, subversive, and heartful, but rarely do they find themselves packaged in such a perfect package. The main joke of the series is its title—the series is indeed the exploration of the everyday lives of its characters, but their personalities, experiences, and interactions are simultaneously so mundane and bizarre that they play with your expectations at all turns. When you expect them to go zany, you’re hit with a reality check. When you expect something subtle, they might deliver something so hyper-subtle that it loops back around to absurd. 

The core characters of Nichijou come in two groups. The first is a trio of high school friends: the energetic but somewhat dim Yuuko, the powerful closet fujoshi Mio, and the intelligent master troll Mai. The second is a robot named Nano who wishes to have the conspicuous wind-up key removed from her back so she can better pass for a normal girl, and her creator, a child genius called “Professor” who is as immature as she is brilliant. In both cases, the bonds between these characters are equal parts caring support and mind-bending frustration, and it only gets more extreme in both respects as the series continues.

About the closest thing that comes to mind in terms of humor is actually the old webcomic Perry Bible Fellowship in the way that both series are capable of delivering humor and anti-humor with laser-like precision, and you don’t necessarily know which one you’re going to get. One big difference with Nichijou is that it tries to build a fairly consistent world for its comedy to build upon, and this only gets more elaborate as the series goes on. Three of my favorite examples are as follows:

  1. There’s a dog who shows up whenever someone is in a sorry situation whose only purpose is to lay its paw on the hapless individual as a show of pity. At some point during the series, it’s revealed that the dog doesn’t show up out of nowhere—it has an owner who is always extremely confused whenever his pet seems to suddenly start running away with a sense of purpose. 
  1. Mio’s sister, Yoshino, and Mai are both known for their pranks. For most of the series, they don’t really interact, and their forms of humor are similar yet different—Yoshino’s trolling is all about teasing, whereas Mai’s is about defying expectations. Their jokes sometimes cross paths, such as when an attempt to share sides for lunch results in a “Sucks to be you!” sign in Mio’s bentou, and Mai reveals her bentou container to have nothing more than a pre-packaged energy jelly drink (which she then starts to squeeze onto Yuuko’s rice). When Yoshino and Mai finally interact for an extended period, it’s like a glorious clash of the titans.
  1. One of the side characters in the story invents a fake sport named go/soccer so he can start a club and slack off in its clubroom. However, he later discovers that go/soccer actually exists (thanks to a new student who was his middle school’s MVP), and that one of the high school’s teachers was a champion back in his youth. But rather than go/soccer being something in the vein of chess boxing—a combination sport that involves taking alternating rounds between the chess and boxing—go/soccer is completely inscrutable in every facet imaginable, like a serious version of Calvinball from Calvin & Hobbes.

One last thing worth talking about is how the manga compares to the anime that introduced so many (including myself) to Nichijou. There are the more obvious things: the manga continues past where the anime left off, and some of the jokes in the anime come from another series by the author: Helvetica Standard. The most major change, however, comes from the fact that the Nichijou anime was done by Kyoto Animation, whose excellent animation is gorgeous and polished in just about every scene. Ironically, that can sometimes work against the humor of the series, and this can be seen in moments of the manga where the slightly crude art style makes the same joke three times funnier. That being said, I hope that KyoAni can someday come back to animate the rest, despite the tragic setback they’ve faced.

Nichijou: My Ordinary Life is only 10 volumes long, and it’s so very worth reading. I know I’m extremely late in getting this review out, and that it might be a distant memory for many anime and manga fans, but for those who have yet to discover this magnificent gut-busting manga, there’s a real gem waiting. 

God Mars and the Legacy of BL Fan Shipping

There are two success stories to tell about the 1981 giant robot anime Six God Combination God Mars. The first is about a combining giant robot that was better as a toy than as an animated figure in motion: toy sales were strong enough to extend the series beyond its first year, but the awkward stiffness of the titular God Mars itself is something of a running gag (as seen in the YouTube comments here). The second, and I think the one that should get more attention among English-speaking anime fans, is about the tremendous influence of God Mars on Japan’s female anime fandom and doujinshi scene. In a time when pairing same-sex characters from your favorite series was not yet the full-on cottage industry it is today, God Mars was a cornerstone title alongside Captain Tsubasa.

I personally came to know about God Mars twenty years ago, although knowledge about the two aspects of the series came at different times. It was a collection of giant robot anime openings around 2001 that introduced me to the show and its impressive-looking mecha, but it was actually 2004’s Genshiken Official Data Book (of all things) that first brought to my attention God Mars’s popularity with women. Years later at Otakon 2010, voice actor Mitsuya Yuji mentioned among his most popular roles a character from God Mars named Marg. Now, I have the entire series on physical media thanks to Discotek (with 25 episodes up for free on TMS’s Youtube channel), and I’ve finally come to understand what made God Mars one of the granddaddies of fandom pairing in Japan.

Simply put, it’s Marg. Once you know about him, it becomes crystal clear why a female fandom around God Mars developed.

Marg is not the main character. That honor goes to Myoujin Takeru, a guy with psychic powers who discovers that he is actually an alien named Mars sent from the planet Gishin to destroy Earth. However, Takeru manages to defy the evil Emperor Zul and use the very weapon originally meant to eliminate Earth to instead form God Mars and beat back the Gishin Empire. Along the way, he discovers many truths about his original home world, including that he has a long lost brother—Marg—in Zul’s clutches. The dramas that emerge from their familial relationship include attempts to reunite, the pain of separation, and even the crossing of swords due to various plot contrivances. 

Marg is ridiculously beautiful both inside and out. He has lush locks of long green hair, and eyes that can express the deepest kindness but also the most fervent passion. His voice is gentle yet powerful, and his forlorn communications with Takeru express a longing and desire to see Takeru—unless he’s being brainwashed into being the enemy, of course, at which point his anger is spine-tingling. Whenever Marg shows up, he becomes the most captivating figure on screen.

Given that we’re talking about shipping and coupling, it’s not entirely accurate to pin it all on Marg. The popularity of a series among female fans traditionally hinges on the relationships between characters rather than singular personalities, and Takeru himself is no slouch. Not only does he look like a more handsome version of many a 70s robot protagonist, but he is perhaps the angstiest hero ever to grace a giant robot anime. Sure, Shinji from Evangelion is traumatized and depressed, and Heero Yuy from Gundam W is dark and brooding, but they don’t angst the way Takeru does. Naturally, more often than not, that anguish has something to do with Marg. And yes, they’re brothers by blood. Whether that was an additional awakening for fans in 1981, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Even before God Mars, there were plenty of good-looking and charismatic secondary characters in mecha anime. Between directors Tomino Yoshiyuki and Nagahama Tadao, they all but cornered the market: Prince Sharkin (Reideen), Garuda (Combattler V), Prince Heinel (Voltes V), Richter (Daimos), and both Char Aznable and Garma Zabi (Gundam). The key difference between these major rivals and Marg is that the latter is so many things in one. He’s an adversary at some times, but at other times he’s basically a damsel in distress.

There is something I need to make clear: Unlike so many later anime, which could be constructed from head to toe with a female audience in mind (or at least pay regular lip service to that side of fandom), God Mars is still built on the foundation of a toy-shilling kids’ anime. It is 65 episodes long, and not every episode is exactly compelling. There’s an unsurprising inconsistency in terms of the show’s quality with respect to storytelling and animation quality. In addition to the notorious stiffness of God Mars the robot, the anime is rife with fights between characters with psychic powers that revolve around dramatic poses in still shots in lieu of actual movement—a style of action scene the book Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga mocks for its laziness. And dashing canon hopes of brotherly love, the series pairs Takeru with a female character, albeit one with a connection to Marg. In other words, back in 1981, fujoshi had to walk uphill both ways to get their BL shipping fix. 

Even so, a girls’ fandom emerged out of God Mars, and plenty of evidence exists that the creators became aware of this audience eventually. The TV series keeps finding ways to bring him back in different forms. A 1982 movie recap of the first 26 or so episodes reduces the screen time of other supporting characters in favor of more Marg, and the poster advertising the film even features him prominently (see above). A later OVA released in 1988—well after God Mars’s heyday—centers around Marg entirely. A look at God Mars merchandise reveals both official and unofficial works where Marg takes up a lot of real estate.

When I was going over my own prior history with God Mars, I omitted one thing: the game Super Robot Wars D for the Gameboy Advance. God Mars is one of the titles included, and in the game, you can manage to not only recruit Marg to your side but also have him pilot an alternate God Mars from that 1988 OVA in which he’s the star. Once together, Takeru and Marg can perform combination attacks like the “Double Final God Mars.” I can’t help but wonder if there were both kinds of God Mars fans working on this game, bringing together the hopes and dreams of those whose lives were changed in some part by God Mars and its two successes.

Eminently Relatable: Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club

In the beginning, there was Love Live! School Idol Project. Then came the sequel, Love Live! Sunshine!! And now, we arrive at the anime adaptation of the third story about a high school club stepping into the world of idol performance for the sake of school spirit, Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club. Well, technically, the fourth project is already underway, but I still want to commit to paper (so to speak) my thoughts on the girls of Nijigasaki.

I began as a Love Live! skeptic of sorts, but the first anime won me over thanks to the sheer presence of its characters. Love Live! Sunshine!! is also a treat, but even though it has elements that help to differentiate it from the original, they still feel built from the same essence. In both cases, while each of the girls that comprise their respective groups all have their own particular charms and personalities, their philosophy is that of group unity and togetherness. In Nijigasaki High School Idol Club, however, the focus is on the characters as solo idols. The first two thirds of the series spend each episode focusing on each character, with a special musical performance highlighting the star of each episode, before bringing everything together leading into the finale. This can even be seen in the fact that they have no formal stage name as a whole. Whereas Love Live! has μ’s (pronounced “Muse”) and Sunshine!! has Aqours (pronounced “Aqua”), these girls are just the “Nijigasaki High School Idol Club.” 

If I had come to this anime as my first Love Live! experience, I probably wouldn’t have thought that this series’ emphasis on individuality as especially notable, but because I’m not new to the franchise, this change of direction stands out all the more. Combined with a different visual style (the character designs come across more “matte” than “glossy”), and Nijigasaki comes across as more of an alternative than a sequel. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the previous Love Live! anime, and I have my favorites among the characters, Koizumi Hanayo chief among them. But when it comes to Nijigasaki, I find myself personally relating on some level to all of them. I’m not certain if it’s by general design (“They should all be relatable!”) or if it’s just my own specific circumstances that lends me to directly empathize with the Nijigasaki girls, but I didn’t quite have the same experience with the previous works. Whether it’s Asaka Karen’s lack of directional sense, Konoe Kanata’s perpetual sleepiness, Tennouji Rina’s struggles with outward expression (it’s why I’m a lot better at writing than speaking), or any number of qualities, it’s like I can find fragments of myself in each character—including the audience insert character, Takasaki Yu, and her desire to find her own dreams. 

For that reason, I also can’t quite decide on a favorite Nijigasaki character, though I lean a bit towards Yuki Setsuna due to her Clark Kent/Superman duality as the student council president and how her love of anime and manga comes out in joyful bursts due to a strict family that looks down on such things as frivolous. It’s been a long time since I was in high school, but I can still remember those feelings.

One of the entertaining aspects of Nijigasaki is that it’s full of references both meta and cultural. The characters of Nijigasaki first emerged via the Love Live! mobile games, and that origin is paid homage throughout the anime. Three of the girls started off as “normal rarity” cards in Love Live! School Idol Festival, and many of their former peers show up in the anime as the school idols of other schools. While a different series would treat these characters as nobodies, Nijigasaki does the opposite. To use pro wrestling lingo, it would be all too easy to bury them and present them as lesser, the anime makes them the established idols of nearby schools that the Nijigasaki club aspires to match. At the end of the series, the event they hold is called “School Idol Festival,” bringing the name of the games they came from to the forefront, only now as a literal festival and not just something that sounds neat. As for non-Love Live!-specific references, their school is literally Tokyo Big Sight (complete with interior architecture that works great for a convention center but is weird to have for a school), and the anime’s Odaiba setting features cameos by the life-size Unicorn Gundam model currently located there. Sunrise, the studio behind Gundam, also does the Love Live! Anime.

Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club brings something new for existing fans of Love Live!, but it’s also a solidly pleasant anime for fans of all stripes. While the original is still closest to my heart, I appreciate what this series does, and I feel the most personally connected to the characters and what makes them tick. I look forward to a second season, especially if a certain Hong Kong–native makes her appearance.

“冇問題”

Superdimensional Forte: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 36

The Chorus Appreciation Society is performing "Do You Remember Love?" All the members are portrayed as standing apart, but also as if they're bing connected by the music.

Everyone gets hit by a Minmay Attack in Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 36.

Summary

The next round is on, and the Chorus Appreciation Society takes the stage once again. Before that, though, Kozue asks Kousei why he doesn’t try to cheer Shion up after his rejection of her, and he replies that they’re just from different worlds: a safe rich girl vs. a delinquent with a lot of baggage.

This time, it’s “Do You Remember Love?” from the anime film Macross: Do You Remember Love. Akira and the others deliver a powerful performance that doesn’t just wow the audience, it seems to actually bond the members (and those close to them) together in a way that only music can. As they finish, Kousei seems to have Shion on his mind as he thinks, “Maybe our worlds aren’t so far apart after all.”

Elsewhere, Yumerun is pacing frantically, when finally the person she’s waiting for arrives: Jin’s mother, Kimura Reika, who turns out to be a highly eccentric 31-year-old soprano. The chapter ends as the two head out to Hashimoto Tech (Reika reluctantly so) in order to see Jin and the others sing.

Darkness and Light

Hashikko Ensemble is a series that’s high on levity, but the glimpses of darkness are astoundingly brutal. As Kousei is talking about his past, the first image shown is what appears to be a first-person perspective of one of his abusers (his mom’s lover, I think) rearing for a punch. This then transitions into Kousei throwing a punch at someone on the street in a fight. There’s a lot of trauma in his life, and the manga conveys a link between the violence inflicted on him and his rough attitude. 

Kousei is singing "Do You Remember Love" as Yukina suddenly sheds a tear.

That’s also what makes the portrayal of the society’s “Do You Remember Love?” all the more powerful. You can see in Kousei all this internalized fear, anger, and self-loathing, and it seems to just wash away as he sings. During the performance, Yukina (the arm wrestling champ who has a thing for Kousei) suddenly begins to cry during his performance, and she isn’t sure why. The way I see it, what she’s sensing is how strongly Kousei’s feelings are reaching out to Shion, and she’s realizing they’re not for her. Only in song is Kousei able to be honest.

I Love You So

I’m not well-versed in music, let alone the sheer breadth of what’s thus far been presented in Hashikko Ensemble. Many times, what this means is that outside of seeing the lyrics on the pages, I don’t always fully internalize what the songs are conveying in a chapter. This is not the case with “Do You Remember Love?”—it’s a song I know all too well, and it’s a staple of my karaoke sessions. In other words, I can really “feel” this chapter in ways that I haven’t been able to before. 

“Do You Remember Love?” is indeed a love song, but it’s also about reaching out to others and connecting. “I hear you calling out to me.” “I’m no longer alone, because you’re here.” Characters make mention of how well Akira and Kousei are harmonizing, as if they’re on the same page emotionally; most likely, it’s because they’re both singing to Shion. 

Questions are asked throughout the chorus of the song: “Do you remember when our eyes met?” “Do you remember when we held hands?” And while these lyrics are more romantic, their juxtaposition against Kousei’s traumatic memories makes me think that he’s actually, in a sense, remembering what it’s like to love The contrast between the beauty of the song and the violence of Kousei’s past is very fitting for a song played during the climactic battle of the Macross movie.

Jin’s Mom Is a Surprise

A comics page introducing Kimura Jin's mom, Reika. She definitely looks related to Jin, but is much more fierce in demeanor. She's complaining that it doesn't matter if she's late to see a bunch of amateurs singing, but also accidentally almost walks into glass because of her nearsightedness.

Kimura Reika is very different from what I pictured. When Jin described her in previous chapters, I was expecting an older strict woman—perhaps an unforgiving taskmaster with many years of experience and even a few wrinkles. In contrast, we get this weirdly aggressive and intense ball of energy who’s similar enough to Jin that you can see the familial relation, but also different to the point that you wouldn’t mistake the two. During her introduction, Yumerun asks why in the world Reika isn’t wearing her contacts, and she responds that she forgot them but also thinks it’s too much of a hassle to go back to retrieve them. When asked why she won’t just wear glasses, Reika claims that when she has them on, it makes her feel like her voice won’t fly out properly. That’s the sort of person Jin has to deal with in his home life.

And I have to point out the elephant in the room: Assuming that Reika is Jin’s biological mother, it also means she got teen pregnant! This isn’t the first time that the author, Kio Shimoku, has explored that topic (see his two-volume baby-raising manga Jigopuri), but I’m still surprised to see it pop up here. Just what kind of life has Reika gone through?

Songs

It’s noted that most of the groups only prepared one or two songs for the competition, so there are a number of repeats from previous chapters.

Basso Masters: “Daichi Kinshou” (Hymn of the Earth) from the cantata “Tsuchi no Uta” (Song of the Land)

Team “Promise” (a bunch of otaku): “Yakusoku” (Promise) from The iDOLM@STER

Yukio feat. Mayomyon: “Shibuya at 5 o’clock” by Suzuki Masuyuki and Kikuchi Momoko (You might recognize Suzuki as the singer of the opening to Kaguya-sama: Love Is War)

Noi Majo (Kurotaki Mai’s quartet): “Hakujitsu” (“White Day”) by King Gnu

Chorus Appreciation Society: “Do You Remember Love?”

You can find the above songs, along with previous references, in my Hashikko Ensemble Youtube playlist.

Final Thoughts

I’m really looking forward to seeing more of Jin’s mom. I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of what she’s really like.

Mai’s group, Noi Majo, has moved on in the competition as well. I wonder if the groups will end up against each other. 

I named a previous chapter review “More Like ‘Protoculture Festival,’” and I wished I saved it for this one. Oh well.

There’s More to Life: Pixar’s Soul

Soul, the latest CG animated film from Disney and Pixar, speaks to me on a very deep and personal level. It’s not just that it’s about an older minority protagonist who chafes at family pressure when it comes to doing what’s safe and expected. Nor is it that the movie is set in New York City, where the familiar sights and sounds make me oddly nostalgic in a time when stepping foot outside can be a stressful decision in itself. What really hits home is one of the core messages of Soul, which is to be aware of how we as people often confuse inspiration, passion, purpose, and fulfillment—and how doing so can hold us back in life in fundamental ways.

The story of Soul follows Joe Gardner, a black middle-aged middle school music teacher who still dreams of being a professional jazz musician (the long overdue first black protagonist in a Pixar film). When a rare opportunity to play with one of the greats comes knocking, an ecstatic Joe gets caught in an accident that causes his soul to leave his body. Desperate to avoid the afterlife and get back to the land of the living (and his gig), he winds up as the mentor to 22, a soul that for thousands of years has failed to find the spark to become a full-fledged living being, and who sees her pre-life to be much more appealing than life on Earth.

Whether it’s Joe’s firm belief that his purpose in life is to play jazz, or the pre-life system that brings history’s greats in as mentors to guide those like 22 to begin life, Soul highlights the way people often think about what it means to live a great life. We celebrate those who follow their passion and transform them into monumental discoveries and achievements. We think having a greater purpose is the key to reaching greater heights. But just as Joe throughout the film is often so obsessed with his life-long aspiration that he fails to see the positive influence he gives (and receives) from those around him, it’s all too easy to feel like a failure when we focus only on destinations and not journeys.

Although I don’t see myself as being in a completely similar position to Joe, Soul made me realize something: for whatever reason, I often feel a lingering sense of guilt over not accomplishing more than I should have, or was supposed to. On a certain level, it can feel ridiculous. I’m at least fairly proud of the things I’ve managed to see and do in my life, achievements that I know took intelligence, dedication, and maybe even a bit of courage. Yet, I still see myself as rarely having ever gone the distance that can leave myself without any regrets. A career switch may have truly turned out for the better on a personal level, but still leaves me feeling that I left some potential unfulfilled. Even in the context of this blog here, I sometimes criticize myself for not having improved my writing as rapidly as I should have been, and for not having the drive to force that change upon myself. This guilt is in some ways internal and in other ways external, but the result is the same. 

Thanks to Soul, I realize now that I do indeed get caught up in conflating inspiration with passion, purpose with fulfillment, and so on. I haven’t resolved what exactly this means for me, or what it is that I ultimately will feel once I’ve sorted out these feelings and the degree to which I value them, but it has me on a long road of introspection. Not every film can do that, which makes having watched Soul all the more worthwhile.

Rookie Veteran, Veteran Rookie: The Gymnastics Samurai

The anime The Gymnastics Samurai is set in the year 2003, and nothing makes me feel older than having a fictional story ask “Remember back in the day?” about a time period that still in many ways feels like yesterday. But as the story of a veteran gymnast whose years are starting to catch up to him, it’s all too appropriate. The Gymnastics Samurai is not an altogether unique take on the trope of an old fighter trying to recapture glory, but it does stand out in a couple ways: its avoidance of faint and damning praise for its protagonist, and (for better or worse) the bizarreness of its setting details.

Protagonist Aragaki Jotaro, nicknamed “Samurai,” was once a former silver medalist in gymnastics who started a “Samurai boom” in Japan and around the world. Now, he finds himself a widowed father of one, unable to even approach his past success and considering retirement. However, a chance meeting with Leo, a foreigner dressed like a ninja, changes all that. Jotaro begins to wonder if there’s a chance he can keep doing what he loves, despite the fact that gymnastics is a young man’s game. In addition to the encouragement he gets from family and friends, he’s also egged on by a much younger rival who treats Jotaro as a dinosaur who should leave the spotlight for those with potential to fulfill.

The immediate comparison that came to mind watching The Gymnastics Samurai is 2006’s Rocky Balboa, the 6th movie in the Rocky franchise. In it, the famous Italian Stallion comes out of retirement for a boxing exhibition match against the current champion of the world, but has to re-invent his style once again (a recurring theme throughout the films) to make up for the fact that his body can’t move like it used to. Jotaro is in a similar position as Rocky, with a few key differences. First, Jotaro is nowhere near as old as Rocky in Rocky Balboa (29 vs. early 60s—almost a joke, in a way), and doesn’t have to deal with calcium deposits on his bones. Second, rather than Rocky’s approach of building muscle so that every punch he can land counts for more, Jotaro’s re-invention involves a return to fundamentals, and the muscle he does gain is to compensate for his old injury.

That second point is one of the most notable aspects of the story the anime is telling, because it’s in part a criticism of the notion that “spirit” and “hard work” can make up for anything. As the anime explains, Jotaro tried to work through his injury by just throwing himself further and further into gymnastics, only to end up aggravating his shoulder further. The fire of perseverance is not inherently a bad thing, but Jotaro has to learn how to work smarter instead of hoping to gain results from a mindless grind. Over-the-top training bordering on abuse is a classic (albeit dated) trope of sports anime and manga, so it stands out when a series like The Gymnastics Samurai puts it in stark relief with a more conscientious regimen.

There’s no doubt that it does get harder to keep up one’s physical peak as time passes, but the training Jotaro goes through is also not necessarily about abandoning what used to work for him. Instead, it’s a way to let him do what he was known for by providing a more stable structure. It reminds me of how Umehara Daigo, the most famous fighting game player in the world, trained to improve his reaction time rather than leaving it to his younger opponents because he didn’t want to limit himself by thinking like an old man (Daigo ended up winning a major online tournament). Note that Daigo is also older than Jotaro, being 39.

As for the bizarreness of The Gymnastics Samurai, although the anime is centered around a fairly straightforward sports narrative, there are a lot of little aspects of the show that seem like they come out of left field. Jotaro’s action movie-loving daughter, Rei, has a gigantic tropical bird (named Big Bird) who tells people to smile more. Leo appears to be a ninja-obsessed Japanophile whose use of theatrically archaic Japanese (de gozaru) is more a Japanese person’s idea of how a weeb would speak than any reflection of reality. Especially due to the bird, it reminds me of Tamako Market, which also has an avian creature providing comedy. These details make for a jarring tonal shift at times, which ultimately don’t remove the emotional impact of key moments in The Gymnastic Samurai but can still leave a sense of bewilderment.

The Gymnastics Samurai is one of the latest instances of a story that asks whether an old dog can indeed learn new tricks. While it’s not entirely a criticism of ageism due to its hero still being a reasonably spry 29, the series does give credence to the notion that re-invention and restoration are possible, especially where passion meets wisdom. In a genre of anime and manga dominated by stories about high school athletics—and where graduating at 18 is seen as the first step into mythology—Jotaro gives at least some hope to those who still want to compete.

Chainsaw Man and Women in Refrigerators

WARNING: HEAVY CHAINSAW MAN SPOILERS

The manga Chainsaw Man by Fujimoto Tatsuki recently concluded “Part 1” of its story, and having heard fans both real and virtual praise the series up and down, I decided to marathon through it. Count me as a convert, as I think it’s one of the best things to come out of Shounen Jump in recent years. The narrative turns are compelling and the characters are charming in their foolishness. 

However, there’s a large twist in the series that brings to mind a trope that sparked discussion around superhero comics back in the early 2000s: Women in Refrigerators. Originally coined by Gail Simone (who was still a critic and not a writer of comics at the time), it refers to when characters close to the hero—often a lover or companion—is killed in service of making the villain appear more nefarious. While not automatically bad, its overuse reduces female characters to discardable pawns. Manga, especially male-oriented titles, can have their own instances of fridged women, but Chainsaw Man seems to lean fully into the concept in ways I’ve never seen before.

The protagonist of Chainsaw Man is Denji, a lonely guy who doesn’t think life is worth living, but is given a second chance when a demon he befriends known as the Chainsaw Devil offers him a chance at the normal existence he’s always wanted.  Denji’s discovered by a beautiful female government agent named Makima, who recruits Denji to fight demons as Chainsaw Man. In addition to being a target of Denji’s immature affections, Makima provides him with companions, including a female fiend (half-human, half-devil) with blood-based abilities named Power. Over time, the bond between the two of them grows, and they make a great if chaotic team—like two violent Monkey D. Luffys with bad attitudes but good hearts. Eventually, though, Makima reveals that her motives for recruiting Denji were anything but pure. In an act of cruelty designed to cow Denji and leave him in despair, Makima murders Power in front of Denji with little warning, Power even having been carrying a birthday cake for Denji in anticipation of a celebration. Death of named characters in Chainsaw Man is not uncommon, but Power’s death hits especially hard.

It is undoubtedly a moment where a female character is killed so as to create a psychological impact on the male hero, but what Chainsaw Man also reveals this to have been Makima’s plan from day one. As Makima explains, Denji inadvertently entered a contract with the Chainsaw Devil where Denji is meant to receive a normal life in exchange for their fusing together, and the only way to deny him that basic happiness is to manipulate his life. As such, Makima purposely gave Denji friendships so that she could snatch them away and keep him under her thumb. Unlike many superhero instances of Women in Refrigerators, this is not tacked on as a way to raise the stakes, but is core to the overall story and the truth of Chainsaw Man’s world. The trope isn’t just kind of there thoughtlessly—it’s front and center, and fully exposed. 

To be accurate, Power isn’t completely gone, as her blood-control powers allow her to exist within Denji, and his motivation transforms into finding a way to bring her back. At the climax of the story, Denji also delivers a fatal blow to Makima using a chainsaw made from Power’s blood. Narratively, it’s explained that Power’s blood can prevent Makima from regenerating—Makima’s actually powered by a devil just like Denji, and has come back from death over 20 times—but there’s also a great symbolism in having Power get her payback in essence. Power is neither fully alive or fully dead, and while reducing her physical existence does potentially play into the idea that her role in the story is subordinate to Denji’s, the manga does such a strong job of portraying their relationship as that of equals (albeit two incredibly idiotic equals). The result is that Power looms large over Chainsaw Man as it enters Part 2, and is still one of the most important characters in the manga. She’s also consistently the most popular character in the series among English and Japanese fans.

Part 1 of the manga actually ends with a woman in a refrigerator. After defeating Makima and keeping her from regenerating, he tries to figure out a way to keep her from coming back from the dead. His solution: chop her up, store her in the fridge, and slowly cook and eat her entire body as a way to deny Makima her wish, which is to be eaten by the devil Chainsaw Man due to certain unique properties that Chainsaw Man possesses. Denji actively engages in cannibalism as himself and not his transformed state to prevent this from happening. He also chooses this gruesome route because he sees it not as an act of malice but a perverse way of wanting to be “together.” I don’t believe that this is the author of Chainsaw Man intentionally calling out the trope, but it’s hard to ignore, and it still winds up with a woman being literally fridged in service of a greater goal.

Chainsaw Man is a manga that can come across as brainlessly violent and gross, but it’s proven itself to be the product of extreme thoughtfulness. Even though its characters are often brash and simple, the story itself is not, and the handling of its own Women in Refrigerators does not feel like it detracts from the series other than making readers angry that Makima dare kill the best character. Power’s influence on the series continues to loom large, and it helps avoid the feeling that being fridged trivializes her character, and keeps Chainsaw Man as a whole from being subsumed by the wastefulness of the trope. In an Obi-Wan Kenobi sort of way, striking Power down makes her more powerful than we can possibly imagine. 

Hypnosis Mic “Rhyme Anima,” aka Yu-Gi-Oh! DMX

It was Spring 2018 when I first encountered the Japanese multimedia franchise known as Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle. I was on vacation in Japan, and on a visit to Ikebukuro, I happened to walk past a Hypnosis Mic collaborative cafe. Not wanting to disturb the customers, I quickly left while wondering what it was I had just seen, though the large images of handsome anime guys with microphones told me that it was something at least idol-adjacent. I eventually learned the gimmick of Hypnosis Mic—rap battles!—as well as its incredibly odd premise (more on that below), which both puzzles and intrigued me. So when the anime was announced (full title: Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle “Rhyme Anima”), I thought it would be my chance to finally see firsthand what this was all about. The result: a show that’s not the most sophisticated work per se, but is consistently fun and ridiculous.

The outline: In the aftermath of World War III, Japan’s government has been taken over by a women-led political group called the Party of Words, who have managed to outlaw all weapons and replaced them with special devices called Hypnosis Microphones. These microphones can affect people physically and mentally, and they’re most powerful when wielded by talented rappers. In this environment, men are only allowed to live in specific areas of Japan called divisions, and in the present time, groups of men from each division are tasked with forming rap crews in order to compete in a tournament known as the Division Rap Battle.

The four main groups of Hypnosis Mic are uster Bros!!! (three brothers from Ikebukuro), Mad Trigger Crew (a combo of yakuza boss, police officer, and military veteran from Yokohama), Fling Posse (a fashion designer, a literary author, and a gambler from Shibuya), and Matenro (a doctor, a host, and a salaryman from Yokohama. Both intra-group and inter-group dynamics between the characters make for prime shipping fodder, especially because the leaders of each have a shared history.

I certainly was confused upon hearing all this first explained to me, as I had a ton of questions about the political implications of the plot. Women are clearly the target audience, so why are women also the primary antagonists of the series? What does it say that women are both responsible for demilitarizing Japan and saving it from itself but also are incredibly authoritarian? What would a feminist activist or a men’s rights activist think if they watched Hypnosis Mic? My best guess is that the setting is mostly a pretense, and that all contradictions are secondary to style and drama.

One thing I have to acknowledge is that because I’ve come to primarily know Hypnosis Mic through the anime, I had a fundamentally different experience from the fans who were there at the start.  In its original format of music CDs, fans could purchase and vote for their favorite groups to advance—akin to voting for one’s favorite idol in AKB48 or Love Live! In its anime incarnation, Hypnosis Mic is mostly about cool rappers shooting music laser blasts with and against one another, like a bunch of hip hop Nekki Basaras from Macross 7. They call forth ethereal sound sets through which they deliver their verbal beatdowns, and it’s heavily reminiscent of how characters from Yu-Gi-Oh! might summon the Blue Eyes White Dragon or the Stardust Dragon. I titled this post after a gag from Yu-Gi-Oh! Abridged because it just so perfectly sums up Hypnosis Mic that I couldn’t resist. Also, I think there really is a similar spirit of spectacle between the world’s most famous card game anime and the world’s only anime about superpowered rappers.

As for the raps themselves, I’m not the best judge of quality, even as I’ve been trying to learn. However, I believe there to be a genuine desire from the franchise to make rap exciting and interesting to an audience that is probably not well versed in it, and from what I’ve read, they do use experienced hip hop producers. The lyrics for certain songs can get pretty clever, and while not every voice actor in the series is a bonafide genius on the mic, the quality is generally high, and there are a few standouts.  I’m particularly fond of Jyuto’s bars, the cop character from Mad Trigger Crew. Speaking of them, I don’t know if I’d call Mad Trigger Crew my favorite group, but I do like how Rio (the military guy) keeps accidentally grossing his teammates out by feeding them dishes made with bugs and other unorthodox things—someone I can relate to. My actual favorite character is the leader of the Party of Words, Touhouten Otome, but she doesn’t rap in the anime, so you can see where my preferences lie.

Hypnosis Mic is a trip, and the anime is worth checking out just to see with your own two eyes that such a show really exists. I love the idea that the franchise as a whole is potentially introducing rap and hip hop to people who might not have bothered with it otherwise; something akin to Hamilton. Much like how Hetalia inspired fans to learn more about history, it can be a gateway into discovering an entire musical genre. Though hat I really wonder is, how would the real world’s rap greats look in the world of Hypnosis Mic? Would someone like Tupac, Rakim, or Eminem summon rhymes so strong that they shatter the Earth itself?

The Mandalorian Season 2 Doesn’t Contradict The Last Jedi

WARNING: SPOILERS for Season 2 of The Mandalorian

The Mandalorian has managed to bring Star Wars fans together in ways I never expected. No matter which movie or trilogy is your favorite (or least favorite), or even if Star Wars has never been your cup of tea, The Mandalorian feels faithful to the heart and spirit of the franchise without being too overly bogged and down and reverential to the films. But I’ve seen a strange reaction online, mostly from people irrationally angry at Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, who attempt to use The Mandalorian to draw lines in the sand where there are none. Their goal: to push a narrative that, somehow, The Mandalorian helped fix the “wokeness” that “ruined” The Last Jedi.

The climax of Season 2 of The Mandalorian has the protagonist and his allies trapped in a situation from which there appears to be no escape from a small army of murderous droids, when suddenly a lone X-Wing docks into the Star Destroyer they’ve stormed. Out pops a mysterious hooded figure wielding a green lightsaber, who single handedly wipes out every robot soldier with awe-inspiring ease. When he reaches the Mandalorian, he reveals his face, and it’s the original hero of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, post-Return of the Jedi and more powerful than we’ve ever seen him in combat.

After this episode, Star Wars fans came out with cries of joy, but among the praises were voices that tried to twist this into some kind of admonishment of The Last Jedi’s director, Rian Johnson. According to this narrative, The Mandalorian succeeded in its portrayal of Luke where The Last Jedi failed, the latter acting more as character assassination than character development. “This is how Luke should have always been.”

The Last Jedi is my favorite of the sequel trilogy, especially because I see Episode VII: The Force Awakens as decent but overly safe and Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker as the product of abject cowardice. I also do think the stance that The Last Jedi betrayed the franchise is often disingenuous, and partly a way to push a strange right-wing agenda that is bitter at the generally liberal-leaning environment of Hollywood and entertainment media. Even so, I want to address it for one reason: It incorrectly assumes that, for whatever reason, those who enjoyed The Last Jedi would be somehow upset at Luke Skywalker being a badass.

The Last Jedi’s portrayal of Luke as a man scared to repeat his greatest mistake—training someone in the ways of the Jedi who then becomes corrupted—is indeed a stark contrast from the never-give-up attitude of his younger self, and so it’s easy to see why that older Luke can be so jarring. However, I think what Episode VIII smartly does is set up parallels between the reality of the the viewers and the story of that galaxy far, far away: the better days promised to us in decades past have not panned out, and the older generation who were supposed to lead us to prosperity and understanding could not reach that lofty goal because they were ultimately limited by the circumstances of both the world at large and their way of thinking. The idea is that Luke Skywalker is powerful, but he couldn’t do everything, and he had a breaking point.

This personal flaw in no way conflicts with his portrayal in The Mandalorian unless belief in Luke Skywalker requires him to be beyond reproach. He can still be the guy who cut through a squad of Dark Troopers and also the guy who felt such immense guilt that he banished himself to the farthest reaches of space. It reminds me of the anger people feel over criticisms of the US’s founding fathers as marred by their own racism, and it comes from what I think is the way we place our heroes, both fictional and real, onto pedestals that somehow require them to be as perfect as possible. I think it’s no coincidence that similar anger exists over actual Confederate monuments (statues that were cheaply mass-produced to take advantage of ingrained racist beliefs decades after the Civil War), or how treating Donald Trump like a messiah requires an ever increasing—and now deadly—amount of suspension of disbelief.

The Mandalorian itself encourages the idea that one’s deep-seated beliefs may not always align with the truth. When the Mandalorian himself meets others of his kind, he finds out that the sacred vow he took is not one universal to those of Mandalore, but the product of a particular extremist sect. In this respect, while Luke Skywalker does get his moment at the season finale, the greater show also discourages unwavering loyalty purely based on tradition and dogma. Ultimately, the argument that his appearance as symbolic of a push against Rian Johnson is little more than posturing, and is yet another attempt to create outrage at perceived enemies of an archaic and dangerous form of traditionalism.