Life on Repeat: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 9

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

Summary

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

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

They Laughed, They Cried

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

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

Orihara’s Abuse

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

Himari’s Personality

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

Songs

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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A Look Back at an Aikatsu! Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Can-do Candy: Dagashi Kashi Full Manga Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beyond Expectations: Planet With

Imagine a long-running anime series that finally hits its climax, and winds down with an incredible conclusion. It seems like the perfect place to end the story, satisfying and complete yet somehow making you feel like you’d like to dive back into that world someday.

Now imagine if this anime received a follow-up. You love this series, but feel trepidation. After all, sequels are notorious for often failing to live up to the original, and you want your memory to remain untainted. Still, you give it a chance…and it’s even better than the first one! How is this possible? While you’re reeling from having your faith rewarded, you find out that, once again, this isn’t the end. Another sequel has been announced! And another. And another. Each time, you worry that something might go wrong, but it never does. Before you know it, hundreds of episodes have passed, and you can’t help but feel that the world is a different place.

Except you realize it’s only been twelve episodes. All of those years you swore had passed you by were contained within three months. That feeling is essentially what it’s like to watch Planet With.

Based on a manga by Mizukami Satoshi (Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, Spirit Circle), Planet With is rare among anime adaptations because the original author actually specifically created the storyboards for the animated version. While the anime and manga apparently do diverge, there’s a certain level of consistency that can only be achieved through such hands-on involvement. If it wasn’t clear from the opening paragraphs, the value this provides comes across in the final work in spades.

Initially, Planet With feels “unstable.” It’s difficult to establish a foothold as a viewer. What are these bizarre, giant totems flying through the air? Who is this seeming hodgepodge of people declaring that they’re here to defend the Earth? Where did they get their mysterious-looking armors from, and are they science or magic? Who is this kid who’s clearly supposed to be the main character, and why is he living with an overly cheerful maid who translates for an eerie bipedal cat that looks related to Chiyo’s Dad from Azumanga Daioh? Who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy?

The answers come, with time. As the story moves forward, the scope and the stakes expand exponentially, but Planet With never feels emotionless or distant. There’s something very personal about the series, but rather than fighting with the increasingly grandiose scale, those two sides feed off of each other. It’s a work that feels both impossibly large and unfathomably small, as if it took some of the best parts of Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, Brigadoon, Gurren-Lagann, and (of course) Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer and mixed them all together.

The most pleasant surprise about Planet With is that while it seems to go to the ends of the universe and back both literally and metaphorically, it never stops being an uplifting piece of science fiction. Somehow, it takes even the wackiest possible moments and contextualizes them into gripping scenes that ignite both heart and mind and asks the two to harmonize. From beginning to end, it can practically feel like a lifetime, and I mean that in the best way possible.


Sticky-Fingered: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 8

Love is in the air! …Or wait, that feeling might actually be “guilt.” It’s a chance to learn about Koizumi Himari in Hashikko Ensemble!

Summary

Having heard Akira’s deal—if we repair your earphones, you’ll have to join the Chorus Club—Orihara responds with disgust and tries to take a swing. Jin blocks Orihara’s fist, inadvertently breaking his finger (but not seeming terribly bothered by it). Jin wants to fix the earphones regardless of any deal, but he can’t find anyone in class who’s up to the task.

Some days later, however, Himari (Akira’s next-door neighbor) is actually in school for the first time in a while, and she turns out to be (for reasons unknown) a deft hand at soldering. Jin, who’s in the same class as Himari, tries to convince her to help repair the earphones, but she hesitates. After some conversation, mostly revolving around how she hates Akira’s puberty-induced ultra-bass voice, Jin convinces Himari to a deal: if he can show the appeal of Akira’s new voice through song, she’ll help them out.

Shinji sees this scenario as many might: a path to romance between Akira and Himari, but Himari’s initial response to Akira and Jin’s duet is to pull out an old picture book from Akira’s collection instead and apologize. Apparently, she stole it when they were young, and it’s the reason she avoided him for so long. In fact, it turns out that Himari’s really, really good at swiping things in general, which she reveals by showing off the resistors she took from class. She agrees to help, all while showing subtle hints that she might not be so unmoved by Akira’s singing after all…

The Himari Show

As the latest character to join the main cast, Himari is a major part of Chapter 8. Frankly, I think she’s fantastic, but awkward, surly girls drawn by Kio Shimoku are my aesthetic. I find that she bounces off all of the other characters quite well, and it makes me look forward to future interactions involving her.

Himari blushes a lot, but it can be hard to tell what exactly it means at any given moment. Because she seems to have a non-stop chip on her shoulder on top of being socially standoffish, her red face seems to shift from displaying embarrassment towards herself, embarrassment towards others, and maybe some feelings for Akira himself. Based on the brief glimpses of her memories, she appears to treasure her childhood with Akira—though she appears at first glance to not be especially different personality-wise back then.

One aspect of her that intrigues me is her proclivity for five-fingered discounts. It’s such an expected personality trait that she’s instantly memorable in my eyes. Also, I get the feeling that her talents in this area are related to her adeptness with a soldering iron. Something she does outside of class might make her a dexterous girl in more ways than one.

Akira’s First “Concert”

While it’s in a stairwell instead of a hall, and the audience is one childhood friend instead of an audience of many, this chapter’s performance is a huge step for Akira. We may not be seeing every single step of Akira’s development, but it’s clear that Jin’s training has been paying off. The pacing of his progress feels right.

Songs

Two previous songs are mentioned this month, specifically because Himari forbade Jin and Akira from singing them: “Believe” and “Kanade.” The song they do pick is1982’s “Tooi Hi no Uta” [Song of a Far-Off Day] by Iwasawa Chihaya. The song is actually based on Johann Pachelbel’s Canon, with Japanese lyrics added.

Final Thoughts

This is more a personal note, but when Himari pulls out the resistors she swiped, I recognized them from a digital engineering class I took back in high school. Their authenticity makes me feel that Kio is putting his best foot forward researching all aspects for Hashikko Ensemble.

Next chapter is going to focus on the school sports festival, and I’m curious to see how this shakes out at a technical high school. How much of mechanics and engineering is brain and how much of it is brawn? Whatever the case may be, it’s implied that something crazy is going to happen.

Aikatsu Friends! Choreography Has Won Me Over

I generally enjoy the AIkatsu! idol anime, but one aspect of it that never really hits me the way I think it’s supposed to is the idol performances at the end of each episode. As I watch Aikatsu Friends!, however, I feel like that’s finally changed for me.

I’m no expert in song and dance choreography, but the impression I get is that Aikatsu Friends is better at integrating those performances into the show itself. To some extent, I think this has to do with the improvements to the 3DCG that have happened to the franchise over time, but I don’t think it’s just about technical progress. Instead, I find that the performances themselves give a far better sense of who each character is, and what makes them tick.

Yuuki Aine

Protagonist Yuuki Aine is new to being an idol, and it shows. She’s not the best singer, and her dance moves are pretty simple, but they highlight her natural authenticity, and the friendliness that is her most outstanding quality.

Minato Mio

Minato Mio, her partner, is known for a kind of perfectionism that isn’t overly obsessive, which is reflected in the subdued music that accompanies her performances, as well as her simple yet graceful movements.

Asuka Mirai

Where it stands out to me most is the fact that Asuka Mirai, one of the top idols in the series, performs differently alone compared to when she’s a part of the duo Love Me Tear. As one half of a whole, she and her partner Kamishiro Karen exude elegance and maturity. When she’s by herself, however, Mirai is all about a kind of wry playfulness—the quality she exhibits when she’s trying to help Aine get comfortable acting for television.

The song and dance routines in Aikatsu Friends! encapsulate what we’ve learned about the character, or what the characters themselves have learned during the episode. Somewhat similar to how a different kind of show might take all the lessons presented during the episode and boil them down to a conclusion by the end, these performances leave a lasting impression about who these individuals are and why they strive to be idols.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.