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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What a Dream Boat: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 25

Another new character brings further insight into Jin’s history in Hashikko Ensemble Chapter 25.

Summary

The Hashimoto Tech Chorus Appreciation Society has arrived at M-Con, nervous about competing. Day One is just for observation, though, and they see Nishigafuchi (the school they visited previously) succeed. They’re also worried about Shuusuke not showing up after he tore down Jin so thoroughly, but luckily, he arrives. However, another figure appears as well: a girl named Shouji Yumerun, a classmate of Jin’s when they were kids, and when she looked very different.

Yumerun mentions becoming a pupil of Jin’s mom, and that this means Jin doesn’t have to worry about being talentless anymore—words meant to comfort, it seems, but which have the opposite effect. Jin begins to think about why it is he’s so unable to be naturally expressive, and how he gathers people who make up for this weakness. The chapter ends with him getting ready to ask Akira a question.

Jin’s Intuition

I’m actually surprised to discover that Jin sees himself as talentless, and that all of his singing ability comes from hard work and study, if only because he has come across as such a natural in previous chapters. In Naruto terms, he’s the Rock Lee everyone thinks is a Sasuke, and it makes him more relatable in some ways.

Another character Jin reminds me of is Mike from Monsters, Inc. Like Mike, Jin has the theory down but can only take it so far due to a lack of natural ability. The fact that Jin has such an eye for talent further reinforces this image while also adding an extra wrinkle to his character. He finds people with the raw potential he himself lacks, almost to an intuitive degree.

Yumerun

We get another new character in Yumerun, who drops some hints about Jin’s past and his relationship with his mom. Apparently, Jin and Yumerun were classmates, and he helped bring her into music. Now, she’s studying under Jin’s mom, and she thinks this means Jin doesn’t have to worry about being talentless anymore—implying perhaps that Jin felt pressure to succeed his mom, and that maybe Yumerun has a thing for him?

I’m struck by Yumerun’s words, particularly when she says to Jin, “You won’t be told anymore to stop escaping into the chorus just because you lack talent.” What I interpret this to mean is that Jin likes singing in a group because it better hides his deficiencies. Rather than just being a passion, it’s also a defense mechanism.

In the Mind But Not in the Heart

Every chapter review, I record all the music terms that crop up, partially because they’re in Japanese and not necessarily common knowledge even for fluent speakers. But it’s also because I have little to no musical knowledge or ability, so I feel the need to try and understand. The fact that Jin has a somewhat similar struggle makes these sections take on a new meaning of sorts. As someone not musically inclined, it’s hard for me to tell if these flaws of his are really that basic or if it’s the difference between being decent and being elite, though the fact that no one at Nishigafuchi said anything makes me think the latter.

In this instance, Yumerun brings up all the things Jin has trouble with: enunciating s, k, and z sounds; the nuances of syncopation;  and techniques for emotional expression. Apparently, he can understand it on paper, but has trouble doing it himself. Syncopation is “a shifting of the normal accent, usually by stressing the normally unaccented beats.”

Songs

No songs this month, but the fact that the previous storyline is officially known as the “Spitz arc” amuses me.

Final Thoughts

The Chorus as a place where people who lack in certain areas can support one another feels like the story of a team sports manga, as opposed to ones about individual competitors. Hashikko Ensemble might not have the attractive characters or the pizzazz to attract regular sports manga readers, but I wonder if this possible theme of “the sum being greater than the parts” might resonate still.

Insane in the Menbre: 22/7 Anime vs. Youtube Thoughts

When the anime for fictional idol group 22/7 was first announced, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. My only exposure to them was through the Youtube channel of Fujima Sakura, one of the characters in the franchise. Played by Sally Amaki, a Japanese-American who moved to Japan to become an idol, the resulting videos were surprisingly off the wall. Videos like the one about using “menbre” as cutesy shorthand for “mental breakdown” set the tone for 22/7 in my mind as this quirky idol group that wasn’t afraid of gallows humor. Contributing to this was the fact that Sally Amaki herself would express on Twitter some of the challenges of being an idol and talk about her love of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to the extent that fans threw bags of them onto the stage at Anime Expo. It was like 22/7 and Fujima Sakura peeled back just a layer or two of the idol illusion—enough to entice but not to ruin.

So I jumped into the first few episodes of the 22/7 anime wondering if any of the above would be reflected. To my surprise, the series has taken a completely different approach: a mostly serious show about conflict and self-doubt. Fujima Sakura is a prominent part of the series, but she’s not the main character. Instead, it’s primarily about Takigawa Miu, who’s portrayed as having a crippling lack of confidence stemming from childhood difficulties. There’s tension from the very beginning in ways that I don’t see from many other idol anime. To some extent, the dramatic nature of the 22/7 anime in contrast to the silliness of the Youtube channel feels like when you go between the Love Live! anime vs. the mobile game or the Drama CDs—only that difference is dialed to 11. 

I appreciate the anime’s take on things, partly because Miu is such a different heroine compared to those found in other idol series. Whether it’s Amami Haruka (The iDOLM@STER) or Kosaka Honoka (Love Live!), they tend to fall under this umbrella of “generally optimistic and cheerful girls who are pretty normal but try their best.” Starting with someone who’s struggling internally from the very beginning (and not just in an “I’m too plain” sort of way) is pretty refreshing. The anime also has other eccentricities that at the very least pique my curiosity, such as the mysterious “wall” that gives the members of 22/7 their orders. It reminds me of a similar entity in AKB0048, only it actually seems even more bizarre in the 22/7 anime because of the relatively mundane setting.

I’m not sure if this is the presentation of 22/7 its creators wanted all along, or if maybe it’s intentionally different in order to achieve a different kind of appeal, but it’s an attempt at doing something compelling. I don’t mind it, though one potential consequence is that Sally Amaki’s Twitter seems a lot cleaner and more professional, which might ironically take away from her and Fujima Sakura’s original appeal. Sometimes a diamond in the rough stands out precisely because of its situation.

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 Maes 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.