Standing in a Whirl of Confusion—Gundam Reconguista in G Part II: Bellri’s Fierce Charge

The G-Self in combat

Gundam Reconguista in G compilation films Part I and Part II are currently available on the official Gundam Youtube channel. Having previously seen the first film at Anime NYC 2019, I wondered if the smart changes that made Part I significantly better than the TV series would also carry into the sequel. I’m happy to say this is indeed the case.

Gundam Reconguista in G Part II: Bellri’s Fierce Charge continues where Part I: Go! Core Fighter left off. In this era of the classic Gundam‘s Universal Century timeline, the massive space wars of the past are ancient history and the nations of the Earth are managed by a central mediating body known as the Capital Tower, home to a space elevator that receives energy batteries from space and distributes them across the world. Bellri Zenam is the son of Capital Tower’s leader, but after the Tower’s defense force, the Capital Guard, starts to be supplanted by the more militaristic Capital Army, Bellri gets caught up in the middle of a new conflict. As the pilot of the mysterious G-Self, he ends up traveling with what is ostensibly a pirate crew as he tries to figure out his place in the world.

Bellri in tears while in combat

This film continues the trend of being far more understandable compared with its source material, though that’s not to say it’s easy to follow—merely easier. Director Tomino Yoshiyuki’s style can be famously obtuse and bombastic, and that’s the case here as well. However, Bellri’s Fierce Charge establishes the characters more solidly and allows them to act as a focal point for the story. So while the complex and sparsely explained politics of the G-Reco setting can still be a recipe for confusion, viewers can anchor themselves to the emotions of those characters who are often equally confused. If there’s anything viewers might get mixed up on that the characters take for granted, it’s the distinction between the Capital Guard and the Capital Army, which reflects an ongoing debate over the role of the Japan Self Defense Force and Japan’s constitutional anti-war stance.

This is especially the case with Bellri himself, who in the TV series could sometimes unintentionally come across as carefree at best and a sociopath at worst. Here, what should have been a major turning point in his life in the original version gets a proper amount of attention, and you can see the degree to which there is a clash between Bellri’s ideals, his frustration at adults for making the world a worse place, and the decisions he feels forced to make.

Barara Peor next to a wall

Other characters shine as well. Whether it’s Captain Mask, Aida Surugan, or even Bellri’s mom, the strong portrayals of their personalities—facilitated by great animation—give Part II an extra oomph that keeps it memorable and shows the complexity of their world. Yoshida Ken’ichi’s character designs are always excellent, with side character Barara Peor (above) being an especially strong design.

I think the Gundam Reconguista in G movies are well on their way to becoming the definitive version. The new edits and footage take what were excellent but obtuse ideas and criticisms about humanity’s current relationship with war, and convey these ideas much more solidly and emotionally. I would have watched the entirety of the tetralogy already, but now I’m really looking forward to seeing the end again.

One final note: The main theme of Bellri’s Fierce Charge is by the famous Japanese group Dreams Come True, arguably better known internationally as the composers of the first two Sonic the Hedgehog games. The theme, shown above, can be found on their official channel.

Speedwagon from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure shouting "Gaaaaah! Even Shakespeare is afraid!" in reference to lyrics from the Dreams Come True song, G.

It’s the ’Hara Knock Life: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 43

Akira, Jin, and Mai singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to little kids

We get a glimpse of Kousei’s home life (and a Christmas concert!) in Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 43.

Summary

The Chorus Appreciation Society is visiting the orphanage where Kousei’s been raised, and they plan to hold a Christmas concert for the kids there. ItThere, Akira and the others meet three people in particular: Zenba Yoshimi, the assistant director of the orphanage; Hayase Minori, a 6th grader; and Sawamura Rikurou, a middle school delinquent. Rikurou clearly looks up to Kousei, and he doesn’t understand why Kousei would hang out with the Chorus Appreciation Society or take up singing.

The day of the concert, members of the Appreciation Society are dressed for the occasion, with Kousei taking on the role of Santa Claus himself. The Tsuyamers then come in as namahage (New Year’s demons) to “scare” the children, only for a fight between Santa Kousei and Hage Tsuyama to be interrupted by Kozue dressed as God. Though part of the show, the tension between Kousei and Tsuyama is all too real. 

God Kozue proposes a singing competition instead. Tsuyamers go with “My Neighbor Totoro,” while Akira’s group sings “Let It Go.”

Happy Holidays

Kozue, dressed as God, declares a sing-off between Santa Kousei and Namahage Tsuyama

I appreciate the particular blend of cultures we see around Christmas and New Year’s in Japan, between the Santa stuff, the namahage, and Kozue as the Judeo-Christian God with stereotypical white beard and all. The fact that they didn’t go with Jesus probably says a lot.

Imagination Station

I find it noteworthy how this chapter is how it starts, which is right at the orphanage. There was no scene in the previous chapter showing Kousei explaining his past to the other characters, nor was there any discussion regarding singing at his orphanage. And yet, because the characters have such strong and rich portrayals, it’s easy to imagine how this ended up happening. In particular, because Kousei has opened up over time, one gets the sense that he barely okayed this because he’s easily embarrassed but would like to give back to the place where he grew up. 

It’s also through the new characters we meet that we can get a glimpse of what Kousei’s life has been like since he was rescued from his abusive mother. 

The People in Kousei’s Life

Yoshimi, the assistant director of the orphanage, mentions that Kousei used to cry into her chest at night

Yoshimi, Minori, and Rikurou each make quite strong first impressions, and it’s easy to see how they’ve affected and been affected by having Kousei in their lives. 

At the start of the chapter, Kozue asks Yoshimi what Kousei was like as a kid, and despite Kousei angrily telling Yoshimi to keep shut, she nonchalantly mentions him often crying at night. She seems like a tough lady who takes no shit from anyone, and someone who’s accustomed to handling children like Kousei and Rikurou. I can also easily see her attitude rubbing off on Kousei. The orphanage itself also seems well run.

Minori tries to act mature, explaining that she’s not like the other little kids there. Yoshimi explains to the group that she’s smart, but she’s also in a hurry to grow up. From the little we see of her, she does come across as actively trying to have a good head on her shoulders, even dispensing advice to the older Rikurou. Minori is the one who points out that Kousei established the rule about not hitting anyone younger than you at the orphanage, and calls out Rikurou’s anger as jealousy over possibly losing Kousei.

Rikurou is the closest in demeanor to Kousei, to the point that much of it is probably him trying to emulate his role model. The kid clearly thinks the world of Kousei, and he’s threatened by the Chorus Appreciation Society the way an only child might feel about a new sibling. There’s fear and pain there, and Rikurou likely tries to compensate for it with his tough-guy persona. 

Speaking of Jealousy…

There are a few moments concerning the ever-so-slightly icier relationship between Jin and Akira. Jin mentally notes how much Akira has improved, while Akira realizes he kind of likes the change in attitude from Jin towards him. While not explained why Akira sees an upside to this, it’s probably because Jin has always been this larger-than-life figure when it comes to singing. For Jin to look at Akira with any kind of envy is, in a certain sense, a sign of Akira’s own progress.

Songs

Because they’re singing for an orphanage, all the tunes this month are for kids.

(Note that Youtube doesn’t let you add children-oriented videos to playlists, so many of these won’t be included on the big Hashikko Ensemble playlist).

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (Japanese)

“Awatenbou no Santa Claus” (Hasty Santa Claus) is a Christmas song of Japanese origins.

“Jingle Bells (Japanese)”

“My Neighbor Totoro” from the Studio Ghibli film

“Let It Go” (or “Ari no Mama de” in Japanese) from Frozen

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that the three characters we meet at the orphanage are all different age groups compared to Kousei. Their interactions show less of a peer dynamic and more of a somewhat intergenerational one. Because these three aren’t high school age, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a whole lot of them, but I’m sure they’re going to pop up from time to time even after this specific story ends.

Mashle Is the Answer to Harry Potter (No, Really)

Harry Potter is synonymous with magical school fantasy, defining the genre for an entire generation. However, one criticism I increasingly see is that it’s more about maintaining/restoring the status quo rather than trying to effect a real and lasting positive societal change that goes beyond defeating evil. While it’s a bit unfair to pigeonhole the books in this way, it’s also hard to deny that Harry Potter eschews structural issues about the world it presents, and that this is not all that uncommon in similar fiction.

That’s why the last place I expected to see a more boldly progressive take on the inequities of a wizarding society would come in the form of a comedic shounen manga called Mashle: Magic & Muscles.

I want to be clear that Mashle is not some leftist manifesto that proudly announces its overthrowing of capitalist oppressors. Jack London’s The Iron Heel this most certainly is not. But when you compare how Mashle and Harry Potter tackle the same premise, the differences stand out.

Both protagonists, Harry Potter and Mash Burnedead, enroll in a magic school where they must deal with being outsiders while also being under the benevolent watch of the school’s wise, old leader. However, whereas Harry Potter at the start is simply inexperienced with wizardry but has potential for greatness, Mash is completely incapable of magic. In order to get through his classes and achieve his goal of becoming Divine Visionary (a motivation from the beginning unlike Harry’s initial uncertainty), Mash has to overcome his disadvantage through sheer physical power. 

The contest between Mash’s muscles and the occult abilities he contends with is generally played for laughs, but there’s another layer to that contrast. Sure, it’s funny to see his “magic” be activating different muscle groups and his “spells” amount to suplexes and punches to the face. Yet, because he is doing this purely through his human physiology, his victories over other students both read differently from Harry’s accomplishments and are received differently by the very mages he bests. By beating them without magic, Mash makes his opponents realize on some level that they are themselves victims—because they get drawn into the incessant and blinding obsession with hierarchy and power. The problem is not exclusive to any specific group of rogue ne’er-do-wells, it’s systemic.

Mash himself is not a sharp mind capable of bold leadership. He’s from that Goku/Luffy/Saitama lineage where thinking is not their strong suit. He merely wants to live a comfortable life with his grandfather, but he’s forced to attempt the impossible and become the top of a magical school because his world despises the weak. Mash defies his society in multiple ways: upending what strength means, as well as rejecting the notion that those with less deserve less.

Around Chapter 65, the “Voldemort” of the series is revealed, as are Mash’s true origins. While not quite the same as the concept of horcruxes relative to Harry and Voldemort, Mash and the main villain share a similar connection. Mash turns out not to be the everyman he assumed himself to be, but that doesn’t change the fact that he uses his particular skills to upend people’s preconceived notions. The difference between Harry discovering the magic within and Mash working to overcome the magic he lacks remains stark.

That all said, it’s hard to think of Mashle as being in the same league as Harry Potter when it comes to the ability to capture people’s imaginations. It simply doesn’t have that sense of wonder that makes Harry Potter so enduring; instead, it goes for lots of comedy, absurdity, and the occasional cool fight. Spiritually, it’s cut from the same cloth as Kinnikuman and early Dragon Ball, during the kid Goku era. I have trouble seeing children running around pretending to be Mash because Mashle doesn’t really provide for that.

Mashle and Harry Potter both operate under the idea that the power of love is in a category of its own. But where Harry Potter‘s is either abstract in its sentimentality or all too literal, Mashle‘s manifests in a grandfather taught the value of human life, and a grandson who strives to live up to that ideal through both word and deed.

Farewell, Old Friend—Evangelion 3.0+1.01: Thrice Upon a Time

Bringing closure to as tumultuous and influential an anime as Evangelion is a task of confounding proportions. Back in 2007, the Rebuild of Evangelion film series started with the intention of being the definitive final word on the franchise, but when it came time to produce the fourth and final installment, numerous setbacks delayed its premiere from 2008 to 2015, and now to 2021. With so much anticipation and so many expectations to answer, it would hardly be surprising if the movie was a spectacular flop. But against the odds, Evangelion 3.01+1.01: Thrice Upon a Time is exactly the conclusion that we needed.

Before I get into the weeds, I want to make it clear that I’m coming at this as a long-time fan of Evangelion. What Star Wars has been to so many, Eva is for me, with the added benefit of helping me explore the inner depths of my psyche. I discovered the series in high school thanks to friends, and spent many days discussing and speculating every aspect of it with them. Even my screen name is a reference to the series. And as a fan whose identity was shaped in part by this experience, Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01 (also known as Shin Evangelion) is an immensely satisfying work. While I had plenty of questions by the time the credits rolled, I came away feeling…at peace. It’s as if the 20+ years since I discovered Eva, and the personal journey I’ve taken as a human being during that time, are reflected in the progression and transformation of the characters themselves. 

Warning: Heavy Spoilers Ahead

Neon Genesis Evangelion

The TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion is an exploration of the inner turmoil of people who desperately try and fail to connect to others while engaged in a futuristic battle of biblical proportions. The protagonist, 14-year-old Ikari Shinji, is brought before his estranged father, Gendo, and ordered to work for his organization, NERV, by piloting a mysterious biomechanical titan known as an Evangelion (or EVA) to fight off reality-defying monsters from above called Angels. But Shinji suffers from severe depression due in part to being abandoned by his father at a young age, and his relationship with his father is one of craving acceptance and acknowledgment. He soon meets other EVA pilots (collectively known as the Children), notably the hauntingly quiet Ayanami Rei and the aggressively competitive Sohryu Asuka Langley, each of whom have their own complex issues. Later, Shinji also meets a pilot named Nagisa Kaworu and establishes an intense bond, if only briefly.

An overt recurring theme of NGE is the idea that it’s impossible for humans to truly understand one another. Often mentioned is the Hedgehog’s Dilemma: a metaphor for people who are afraid to pursue close relationships because of the risk of hurting themselves. The EVAs and Angels fight using Absolute Terror Fields, nigh-impenetrable force fields that are revealed to exist to a lesser degree as the psychic walls that separate human hearts and minds from one another. Another concept thrown around is “Instrumentality,” a state in which all humans are fused together physically and spiritually, and where no barriers to misunderstanding exist.

NGE’s legacy is in part the popularization of what would become the mysterious doll-like character archetype (Rei) and the tsundere (Asuka), but it also does an amazing job of articulating psychological and emotional pain. That said, one potential weakness is that it does little in the way of offering solutions or steps to overcome that internal suffering, despite a desire to inspire and motivate its viewers by the end. In fact, the bizarre and trippy final episodes of the series were heavily lambasted at the time of airing, with director Anno Hideaki discovering that angry fans were discussing ways to kill him—an experience that contributed further to his depression at the time. In response, he created a pair of bitter “compilation” movies that revised the last parts of the TV series into a brutally violent trauma festival where the protagonist Shinji rejects Instrumentality but fails to make an actual firm decision on which direction he wants humanity to take.

Rebuild of Evangelion (Thus Far)

In a sense, the Rebuild films are heavily revised formations of Eva that are far more than either a retcon or, in Star Wars terms, a “Special Edition.” Existing elements might be 99% similar, but that 1% makes a crucial difference. A new pilot, Makinami Mari Illustrious, is introduced, and she seems to lack the baggage of the other Children. Most importantly, compared to NGE, Rebuild sees the characters initially tracing the same path, but taking gradual steps to challenge the Hedgehog’s Dilemma instead of living in fear of it. Each film gets further and further away from the original, and by the time of the third entry—Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo—thrusted the characters fourteen years into the future, the idea that Anno had ruined Eva was accepted by many.

I disagreed and wrote a long review of Evangelion 3.33 that was part defense and part analysis of how Anno was trying to “address the differences between older and newer anime narratives, create a Tale appropriate for contemporary culture, and respond to current criticisms of youth culture.” I began by referencing an essay Anno penned expressing concern about the decline of the “Tale”—the kinds of grand narratives like the “journey to another galaxy to save the Earth” plot of Space Battleship Yamato that used to be common in anime—and his desire to see them return. I ended by making my own prediction on what the “Tale of Evangelion” would be, based on my analysis of the third film as a criticism of those who admonish the youth for being not hard-working enough:

A 14-year-old boy estranged from his father and suffering deep personal agony is thrust into a situation far greater than him, and though he is told to sacrifice himself for the greater cause, through the connections he makes with his peers he finds that he would lose too much in the process, including his own identity. This prioritization of the self and what he finds valuable in life does not come without its own consequences, but it becomes the potential ground for him, and those like him, to find their own solutions to the problems of the world. Of course, the fourth film has yet to debut, so we’ll see if I’m right.

At the time, I expected to get an answer fairly quickly, but history repeated itself and Anno fell into depression again, with the catalyst that brought him back being, of all things, working on the film Shin Godzilla. So now, coming into 3.0+1.01, I indeed wondered how my predictions would fare, but more importantly, I wondered how this final film might choose to resolve (or leave open) much of the baggage of Eva, both within the works and within Anno himself.

Finally, Shin Evangelion

The end of the third movie has the three pilots surviving a traumatic battle and wandering into a post-apocalyptic world, with Asuka pulling Shinji up and out of his cockpit, and Rei (or rather, a clone of Rei) following along after having just awakened to her own individuality. The symbolism of that moment, of seeing them reach out to one another, encapsulates the challenge to the Hedgehog’s Dilemma that Rebuild of Evangelion. Evangelion 3.0+1.01 comes in almost directly after that moment, and leads into what I can only describe as a thorough (yet never boring or tedious) conclusive response to all the thematic and cultural fragments of Eva that have piled up over the years, and that the general contours of my above prediction about Evangelion 3.0+1.01 have come to pass.

Shinji and Space

The early part of the Evangelion 3.0+1.01 sees Shinji, Rei, and Asuka staying in a makeshift farming village, where they reunite with some old school friends who have established their own lives. It can feel far removed from what’s expected of Eva, but there is a great significance to this part of the story. During this time, Shinji most greatly resembles the Shinji of the old TV series: retreated into his shell in a state of depression, too weak to do anything but not weak enough to want to die. But while NGE would have characters, at best, try to force Shinji out of his shell, here you see him finally get what he needs to heal: support that understands who he is and the space he needs to find himself. It’s a process that can’t be rushed. In this town without any EVAs to pilot, the characters experience a slice of what it would be like to discover themselves and what they truly want. 

Rei and Opportunity

Rei is a major catalyst in Shinji’s change, and I’m reminded of something her voice actor, Hayashibara Megumi, wrote in her career memoir: In order to help Hayashibara understand the character better, Anno explained that Rei doesn’t lack emotions—she’s just unfamiliar with them. The result is a person who doesn’t have the filters humans establish to operate in society, and with the different Rei’s we’ve seen over all of Eva, we see it play out in different ways. 

It’s witnessing the current Rei clone in an environment where she can discover life with child-like wonderment that awakens Shinji and brings him to a state of calm that we have never seen in any mainline Evangelion work (Super Robot Wars and Shinkalion don’t count). Back at the very, very beginning of both NGE and the first Rebuild film, Rei was Shinji’s original reason for piloting EVA-01 due to his guilt over seeing her in pain. But while this Rei ends up in an even worse place, what seems to be in Shinji’s heart is not guilt or regret but determination to help others. He decides to fight for the happiness of those he cares for, instead of as a desperate attempt to find acceptance. 

Asuka and Time

Evangelion 3.33 begins with a 14-year jump forward in time. Much of that third film feels very jarring because of how much the characters have changed and how bitter they feel towards Shinji for triggering the apocalypse, but in Evangelion 3.0+1.01, it also shows how time has transformed characters inside and out. Toji and Hikari (two of Shinji’s old classmates) have a family together. Katsuragi Misato, Shinji and Asuka’s old guardian, takes on a gruff, Okita-like exterior which, along with WILLE (the organization she leads to oppose NERV) come from her desire to protect her children, both figurative and (as we find out) literal. But out of all the characters, Asuka’s growth in this timespan is especially significant.

Due to being an EVA pilot, Asuka has not aged physically. However, she has matured mentally, and the final film establishes how she’s grown over those 14 years while Shinji was in stasis. She’s still Asuka at her core, but an Asuka who doesn’t seek validation, and it helps her communicate with others in her own way. Earlier in the film, when Shinji is listless, she basically forces food down his throat, in essence telling him that she’s going to help whether he wants it or not. Later, she has a brief heart-to-heart with Shinji about how one of his biggest problems isn’t that he makes the wrong decisions, but that he’s afraid of making decisions and owning them—and such indecisiveness can end up making things worse. As Asuka departs for combat, she even mentions that she did indeed have feelings for him back then, but she’s grown past that point. In other words, Asuka is no longer the tsundere who can’t be honest with her feelings. 

Between Asuka, Shinji, and Rei, one gets the sense that the timeskip is also addressed toward the viewers. The jump into the future brings those characters out from their 1990s roots and shows how people like them (or indeed character archetypes like them) might have transformed two or three decades later. 

Action and Homage

The fights in Evangelion 3.01+1.01 do a lot of things at once. While they’re thrilling from a technical perspective (sometimes to the point of being overwhelming), they’re also windows into the components that make up Eva as a whole. Some of the fights are closer to that classic Eva style, drawing inspiration from the tokusatsu stylings of Ultraman. Others completely flip the script on what Eva fights are supposed to look like, as the enemy they face isn’t individual Angels but rather entire armies of chimeric EVAs that almost trivialize the specialness of the EVAs themselves.

And then there’s the battle that basically comes across as Anno’s love letter to Space Battleship Yamato. The third film introduces the Wunder, a flying fortress that functions, and in the fourth film we see it engage in a ship-to-ship combat scene straight out of Yamato, complete with the old-fashioned orchestral soundtrack. If Yamato is the gold standard of the Tale, and that style of story is woefully underrepresented in anime over the past two decades, then putting in a Yamato-esque fight potentially feels like there’s a desire to indeed bring Rebuild of Evangelion into one cohesive whole. At the same time, Anno’s ability to add in all of these elements of his life—his favorite shows, his depression, his feelings about Eva itself—suggest a desire to communicate another important lesson: when it comes to stories, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can put in all the escapist elements and the otaku fantasies, but you can also bring it all together and motivate people to return to reality.

Out of all the battles, though, there’s one that stands head and shoulders above all as arguably the most important conflict in all of Evangelion: At long last, Shinji directly confronts his father, Gendo.

Shinji vs. Gendo

Seeing Shinji finally come face to face with Gendo, determined to settle things once and for all, was a powerful emotional experience. Even before anything truly began, I couldn’t help but smile as my body was jolted by a strange catharsis. To see this culmination of two and a half decades, to see Shinji do what he has never dared even try—it’s like the film and Eva as a whole are showing how Shinji has truly healed and grown into a better place. In that moment, the boy has finally become a man, and it has little to do with the new generation taking over the old. Rather, Gendo is the source of so much of Shinji’s grief, but in the ensuing confrontation, Shinji sees Gendo not as the distant and intimidating patriarch but another human being who, like him, has trouble sharing his feelings.

Gendo reveals that he has merged with an Angel and given up his humanity, and the fight between Shinji and him takes them on a tour through Shinji’s memories. It’s explained as them being in the realm of God that defies all physics and human comprehension, Minus Space, and so this is how Shinji’s mind is interpreting what’s there, but it’s also a two-fold callback to Neon Genesis Evangelion. First, many of the Angel fights featured psychological deep-dives full of abstract imagery. Second, NGE uses quite a bit of recycled footage in artistic ways. Rather than truly reused scenes, however, the fight sees their respective EVAs, EVA-01 and EVA-13, clashing against familiar backdrops without consideration for size and scale differences, as if to say that this fight is about the big as well as small moments that permeate Eva.

During their battle, Shinji notices that they’re in a stalemate—all of his EVA-01’s moves are mirrored by Gendo’s EVA-13. Shinji comes to the realization that this conflict cannot be solved through violence, and begins a true conversation with Gendo. He asks his father about what makes him tick, what motivates him to take things so far as to try to essentially remake the whole of humanity, and the answer is that Gendo is all too much like his own son.

Gendo goes through his entire history, explaining how as a boy, he cherished solitude and the calculated predictability of things like a finely tuned piano. Meeting his future wife, Yui, taught Gendo that he could find happiness living with others, but after her tragic death/disappearance (she was caught in an EVA experiment gone haywire and absorbed into it), Gendo was afraid that he could no longer return to his old way of being. Gendo has actually never been contemptuous of Shinji but rather scared of him—scared of having another connection that could be severed. This is even visually manifested when Gendo’s AT Field activates to his own surprise; it implies that he feels (absolute) terror towards his son. The only way Shinji can make it through was by handing Gendo back the old portable music player that both have used as a mental respite from the world. 

Gendo built up power and a fearsome presence as protection for his own emotions. In doing so, he passed down his suffering to his son. It’s only after Shinji tries to understand (but not necessarily forgive) his father that this cycle could be broken. Just like in The End of Evangelion, Gendo could never forget Yui and would go to any lengths to bring her back (down to killing the gods if he needed to), but Shinji effectively saves him from that path—and as it’s revealed, Yui saves them both in turn.

Healthy Connections

The Shinji we see as Evangelion 3.0+1.01 starts its build to the end is one who has found his center and now aids the other Children in reaching peace and acceptance themselves. This process of Instrumentality is not the forceful clashing of souls that bring all the ugly demons to the surface like in NGE, but something calming and joyful. The world Shinji looks to remake isn’t one where humanity has evolved into a single entity, but one where humanity has the ability to move forward, and where EVAs don’t exist. 

One notable aspect of these scenes is that they call back to not just the previous Rebuild films but also what came before. Regardless of whether this is meant to be merely symbolic or is actually saying that all the Eva anime exist in the same multi-reality and are all connected, the result is a move towards resolution as a whole. When talking with Asuka, Shinji and her return to the beach at the final parts of The End of Evangelion. This Asuka is actually wearing the plugsuit uniform of NGE (a visual marker of the difference between Sohryu and Shikinami), and when Shinji says, “I loved you too,” he’s both responding to the future Shikinami’s casual reveal of her old crush and the more emotionally stormy Sohryu. 

Similarly, when Shinji is talking with Rei (who is initially presented as a kind of ethereal presence with uncharacteristically long hair), behind them is footage from The End of Evangelion during Shinji’s mental breakdown. In that movie, Rei wanted to rescue Shinji by starting Instrumentality, and giving him control, only for him to reject it partway (thus resulting in another half-decision). This time, Shinji is the one who seeks to say goodbye to all Evangelions (a statement that clearly has a double meaning between the mecha and the franchise) but has peace and compassion in his heart rather than conflict and shame.

Unlike The End of Evangelion, Instrumentality in Evangelion 3.01+1.01 is not initiated with the Spear of Despair, Longinus, a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that in the context of Eva is a weapon capable of piercing the divine protection of AT Fields. It also doesn’t use the weapon obtained initially by Shinji, the Spear of Hope, Cassius. Rather, Instrumentality is accomplished by using the Spear of Will, Gaius, a new weapon created by Misato aboard the Wunder. This isn’t supposed to be possible, but it’s all in the name: Gaius has been willed into existence. This also reflects the vital difference in Misato’s organization, WILLE, compared to all the other groups that have shown up in the Eva franchise. Unlike NERV (“nerve”), SEELE (“soul”), and GEHIRN (“brain”), WILLE (“will”) is about what humans create rather than what has been created for them.

Looking again at my prediction about the final film, I wrote, “This prioritization of the self and what he finds valuable in life does not come without its own consequences, but it becomes the potential ground for him, and those like him, to find their own solutions to the problems of the world.” I believe this plays out through the Instrumentality of Evangelion 3.0+1.01. Prioritizing the self means helping oneself in order to help others, and that process wills a solution into existence.

Kaworu and Love

Aside from Asuka and Rei, there’s another character Shinji connects with during Instrumentality: Nagisa Kaworu. While I only briefly mentioned Nagisa earlier, and he indeed only appears for one episode in NGE, the character actually has an outsized impact on Eva as a whole. The twist with Kaworu is that he reveals himself to actually be an Angel in human form, that Rei is much like him, and that he was sent by the organization above NERV, SEELE, in a betrayal. Even so, it’s clear that his love and compassion for Shinji is genuine, and Kaworu even allows Shinji to kill him at the end in one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the TV series. Because of this portrayal, Kaworu has long been a popular character—especially among fujoshi—because of how he could establish a bond with Shinji when no one else truly could.

Kaworu exerts such a tremendous influence that other versions of Evangelion (such as the manga drawn by character designer Sadamoto Yoshiyuki) make the move to introduce him sooner. That includes Rebuild of Evangelion, where Kaworu first appears acting as if he’s been through all this before, and is determined to save Shinji this time around. Here, his actions amount to trying to spare Shinji the pain of the past—even going as far as ending his own life in Evangelion 3.33 to keep the blood off Shinji’s hands this time around. In Instrumentality, Shinji says that Kaworu reminds him of his dad, but in a positive way. Kaworu’s love is so powerful, yet he is literally a higher being to the point that it’s hard to tell how much is romantic and how much is angelic, or if that distinction matters to Kaworu at all. For his part, while that love is genuine, Kaworu made the mistake of thinking he wanted to make Shinji happy, but he himself was looking for happiness through Shinji.

But Kaworu is not the only minor character with major influence, and this requires me to talk about Makinami Mari Illustrious.

Mari and the Outside View

Rebuild of Evangelion is where Mari makes her introduction to the franchise as a whole, and her presence in the films can be puzzling. She’s another pilot, but her story is never explored in depth for three entire films. Yet, it turns out that she’s crucial to Evangelion 3.0+1.01, which drops a number of revelations about her.

Mari is revealed to actually be “Mary Iscariot,” and the name implies that she is both bringer of good and betrayer—though what she betrays (the gods?) is unclear. Mari is also shown in flashbacks as being a peer of Gendo and Yui’s, implying that she’s much older than she actually appears. I speculate that this means Mari was the first EVA pilot, but the importance of her age comes down to shifting expectations as to what her role truly is. It means she’s more mature than everyone else, and that—much like Asuka—it gives her a certain long-yet-decidely-human view that the others don’t have, not even Kaworu.

Mari is the one who fights on the “outside” while Shinji is warring with his dad on the “inside,” and the one who comes to bring back Shinji during Instrumentality. Notably, Mari is also the only one of the Children with whom Shinji does not have that final talk about their feelings, as if Mari simply doesn’t need it the way the others do. And at the very end, in a world without Evangelions, Shinji and Mari are older and romantically connected.

I’ve seen much criticism of Mari—that she’s a shameless marketing ploy, that she’s pointless, that she does too much or too little, and that she should not be the one with Shinji given how small her proverbial shadow is. But I think that—much like Kaworu—this is the point of Mari. Her role is that of the external force who brings a new perspective and can spark bits of change in people caught in a spiral. We think that major characters should do major things and minor characters should do minor things, but that’s our assumptions about storytelling.

Is Mari “Anno Moyoco”?

Anno Hideaki’s wife is manga artist Anno Moyoco (Anno is actually her maiden name, by coincidence, albeit written with different kanji), and the film makes a number of references to her. A poster for Sugar Sugar Rune shows up in the background, as does a physical copy of another series by Moyoco called Ochibi-san—and on the cover is Ochibi-san talking to a porcupine. Given that Shinji reflects so much of Anno, it’s easy to think that Mari is therefore based on Moyoco. Both Studio khara and Moyoco herself deny this, though.

I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It’s not so much that Mari is Moyoco, but that she’s based on her manga, or more specifically, the strength of Moyoco’s manga. In Moyoco’s thinly veiled autobiography about their married life, Insufficient Direction, Anno writes some illuminating commentary. He describes Moyoco’s works as consistently accomplishing what Anno never could: bring the reader back into reality from the fantasy of the story and leave them energized. Not only does Evangelion 3.0+1.01 feel like Anno finally getting it down, but Mari literally shows up to pull Shinji from disappearing into the work that is Eva. In another callback to NGE, Shinji and the world around him starts to break and the way down to initial outlines used in anime production, only to come back to full color once Mari arrives.

Rebuild Reflecting on the Past and the Future

Rebuild of Evangelion has different titles in Japanese: Evangelion: Jo, Evangelion: Ha, Evangelion: Q (Quickening), and Evangelion: :𝄂 (the musical symbol for repetition). The first three refer to the concept of jo-ha-kyu, a form of structuring found in Japanese music and noh theater. But given that it’s four parts, and the way these films have played out, I also find that they embody a different dramatic structure: kishoutenketsu

Each film ties almost perfectly into one of the four sections. Evangelion 1.11 is the awakening (ki), largely following the events of the original NGE to tell audiences that this is indeed Eva but with some notable differences. Evangelion 2.22 is the development (shou), further extrapolating the consequences of those seemingly small changes. Evangelion 3.33 is the change or twist (ten), where what we thought we knew about Eva is turned on its head. And finally, Evangelion 3.01+1.01 is the conclusion (ketsu), seeing where the story goes after that shift in expectations. I can see even more clearly now why Evangelion 3.33 left so many concerned, because without that last part, we would have been left in the dark, perhaps worrying about whether the underlying message was full of hope or despair.

One of the old criticisms of the third film is that the way people attack and blame Shinji but don’t tell him what he did seems both like bad storytelling and unfair to Shinji himself, but with the added context of Evangelion 3.0+1.01, it  feels different now. There’s a part in the final film where many of the side characters express their bitterness over Shinji’s actions 14 years ago leading to the death of their loved ones, but they also admit that they’re cognizant of the fact that Shinji also ended up saving them. He’s their “savior and destroyer,” as the movie puts it, and it’s impossible to stay rational when confronting a person like that. 

From Shinji’s point of view, he arrives at a place where he doesn’t fear decisions or blame because he understands that paralysis in the quest for perfection is a trap, and he’s willing to take the lumps to make the world a better place for those he loves. Thus, Evangelion 3.0+1.01 ends up being a look at the past, present, and future. It encourages a renewed viewing of what came before, but doesn’t leave audiences trapped there, and shines new light to illuminate what was but also what could be.

I’ve made a couple of comparisons to Star Wars, and it doesn’t hurt that here, too, the son must face the father in a battle for the soul. Along this vein, another similarity is that both have new works meant to bring their franchises into current times. However, I find that Eva manages to succeed where Star Wars could not because the latter ended up being too intimidated by the potential for actual change. Episode IX, the final part of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, is a retreat into the comforting space of its own history and popularity. Evangelion, in stark contrast, forces the spotlight on its own influence and tells audiences to let them go if that’s what will help them heal.

Ending Thoughts

Evangelion 3.0+1.01 is one of the most emotionally satisfying films I’ve ever seen, to the point that it goes far beyond the confines of cinema and animation. It’s as if Evangelion has grown up and found itself, and in many ways I find my own journey these past two decades and change reflected in the changes found in Shinji, Rei, Asuka, and the others. Rebuild of Evangelion ultimately feels like a reunion with old friends, catching up on where we’ve gone in life. And as we share our adventures and anecdotes, we can take mutual pride in the fact that we were able to find the will to do and experience so much. I understand that this sentiment is about as subjective an impression as it gets, given that not everyone who has watched or will watch Eva will have the same perspective, but I hope that those who are still lost might know that someone understands them.

Risk vs. Reward: Otakon 2021

2021 was the first year where I questioned whether going to Otakon was a good idea. It’s long been my favorite anime convention, but the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and the frightening rise of the delta variant in the United States made me anxious about attending an event that regularly brings close to 30,000 people into a single indoor venue.  Ultimately, I decided to make the trip to Washington DC—partly because I wanted to support the fan-run con that has provided so many excellent moments. But it was also because I wanted to try to do something “normal” while taking every precaution I possibly could in order to avoid straight-up tempting fate. 

Personal COVID-19 Precautions

I traveled to DC fully vaccinated and wearing the best facemasks I could obtain. I decided not to do any interviews with guests this year (though the lack of Japanese industry guests helped that). I largely steered clear of the dealer room and gaming room. And I greatly reduced my normal frantic pace of checking out every panel imaginable to eat and take respite in my hotel room, where everyone else was a familiar face who was fully vaccinated.

Otakon COVID-19 Precautions

Prior to Otakon weekend, attendees would receive emails about the numerous precautions being taken to try to ensure everyone’s safety. Masks would be mandated, the convention center would be well ventilated, and temperature checks would be included.  Vaccinations were not required, which I hope can change for next year.

In terms of masks, the vast majority of people I saw wore masks and wore them properly, and even those whose mask etiquette was questionable would at least try to fix it eventually. This was only my limited perspective, so I can’t say if there were pockets of people resistant to doing so, but it gave me at least a bit of faith that most attendees wanted this event to work. However, trying to enforce a mask mandate on 23,000 people is no easy feat, and I’m not sure if a greater amount of staff/security would do the trick.

The Walter E. Washington Convention Center is a very spacious venue with high ceilings, and was even used as a temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients in previous months. In a more cramped space, I would have been much more alarmed, but walking past people on the way to a panel felt no busier than a New York City sidewalk, albeit indoors—at least on Friday and Sunday. Saturday had more attendees (an inevitability for any weekend convention), and that had me feeling more apprehensive. I took particular care not to remove my mask for any reason on Saturday.

The panel rooms themselves could have used better social distancing, as there was no incentive presented to steer clear of others outside of one’s own desire to do so. In some cases, volunteers encouraged us to pack in for the more heavily attended panels, and I found myself (perhaps against better judgment) staying and hoping my mask and vaccinations (as well as the masks of those around me) would be enough. I feel there should have been more done to encourage social distancing in rooms, even though I understand the disappointment it would inevitably cause for those who wouldn’t be able to enter a panel or event they could have in previous years. I myself presented a panel this year with the best attendance I’ve ever seen for one of my presentations, and I feel conflicted about it because of these circumstances.

As for the temperature checks, I did not see any, and I’m not sure how they were supposed to work or if anyone was indeed caught having a fever. If anyone spotted the temperature checks in action or have more information, I would like to know more.

Fan Panels

As mentioned in the introduction, there’s a lot I typically look forward to at Otakon—interviews with Japanese guests, especially—that simply didn’t happen this year. The ability to get interesting industry guests who are willing to share greater insight into the world of anime and manga beyond just pitching their latest projects has been one of the most valuable parts of the Otakon experience up to now. In their absence, I had to wonder if the other appealing aspects of the con could carry the event.

While guests are great, I think the real lifeblood of Otakon is the robust fan panel programming, and I was happy to see it out in full force. A combination of veteran presenters and (I assume) new blood kept things entertaining and informative. While not every panel was an absolute winner, the energy that comes from seeing people onstage sharing topics they find fascinating or encouraging others to expand their scopes is always encouraging.

Thirty Years Ago: Anime in 1991

Daryl Surat from Anime World Order is always a solid presenter. He picked a nice and diverse set of works and made good cases for why they’re still memorable today. As I expected, he made reference to Brave of the Sun Fighbird, the super robot anime that gave birth to the “Is this a pigeon?” meme.

The Best Openings for Shows You (Probably) Didn’t See

This had the Anime World Order crew in full force. As advertised, there were some I didn’t see, and I liked that it had a real mix of genres. The fact that it started off with the opening to Goshogun earns it plenty of points. 

Japonisme: A History of the First Japanese Culture Craze in the 19th Century

This panel looked at the weebs of the 1800s, particularly in terms of the great artists of the century. The presenter (an art history teacher) did a solid job of showing how names like Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and more were influenced by the woodblock prints and other forms of art coming out of Japan—as well as the problematic Orientalism surrounding the whole thing. 

Manga Masters: Kentaro Miura

Patrick (The Cockpit) and manga expert Ed Chavez did a retrospective on the life and career of the late, great Miura Kentaro. Some of the big takeaways were that 1) Miura was not just a skilled artist, he was a nurturing and supportive figure to his friends and fellow artists 2) he single handedly put seinen on the map for the predominantly shoujo-oriented publisher Hakusensha 3) he changed the landscape when it came to manga and fantasy titles. Overall, it was an informative and insightful panel.

Samus vs. Ridley: A Metroid Historia

Not just a video game history panel, this one looked at how the disparate scraps of lore and storytelling gradually came together to form the Metroid we know today. It was fascinating how seemingly everything, even the Nintendo Power comic from the 1990s, somehow has found its way into the mythos in part or in whole.

Bad Anime, Bad…The 20th Anniversary!!

One of the enduring highlights of Otakon is back to celebrate twenty years of awful animation, and I think it’s important to note how much this panel acts as a predecessor of sorts for the current Youtube anime review scene. Not just limited to Japanese animation, it was good to see this still going strong—and Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned is evergreen terrible.

The Wonderful World of Yas

Another creator retrospective, this time it was for Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, the character designer of Gundam and one of the finest artists to ever grace the industry. Finding out that he was dissatisfied with his work in the 1980s makes a lot of things click together in terms of my understanding of him. I wish this panel was better attended, as I think plenty of fans would love seeing not just Yaz’s mecha stuff but also his love of history. However, it was literally up against a different Gundam-related panel.

When Anime Companies Knew Nothing About ANIME FAN WANTS

Run by George Horvath, this panel was a series of painful lessons in industry hubris. However, perhaps it had the opposite effect on me, and I kind of want to start my own anime company…

Ogiue Maniax Presents: Saturday Morning MILFs

A few years ago, I decided to turn an idle observation about anime into a panel where I introduce fans to the surprisingly wide variety of interesting and attractive mom characters cropping up in works for kids. Amid the perennial love of high school characters in anime, I thought MILFs was a worthwhile subject. Unfortunately, my initial attempts to present it were met with rejections and waitlists.

But this year, I decided to swing for the fences and apply for it as my sole panel submission…and actually got the okay! While I was out of practice when it came to public speaking, I actually had most of the panel prepared from previous years’ attempts, and felt comfortable that I could deliver something at least decent.

What I didn’t expect was to be in Panel 1 (one of the two biggest panel rooms at Otakon), and for my silly little project to have the largest convention audience I’ve ever dealt with on a personal basis. It was packed (though that was perhaps not a good thing, given COVID and all).

The funny thing about me is that I often feel a lot more pressure presenting in a vacuum than I do to an actual audience. In front of a gathering of otaku eager to see some MILFs, I worked to educate and inform, while also throwing some red meat out there (because at the end of the day, it was an 18+ panel). Afterwards, a few longtime friends complimented me on the panel, saying I successfully threaded the needle and balanced learning with pleasing the horny audience.

Industry Panels and Screenings

Despite a lack of Japanese guests, the industry panels I did attend were all worthwhile in their own way. The DENPA panel was run by Ed Chavez, and he’s always your best bet for getting an inside look at the manga industry. AnimEigo has the benefit of CEO Robert Woodhead’s many decades in the industry, and I was impressed by his company’s dedication to preserving art and design material for anime projects. Discotek panels are always a blast, but the announcement of blu-ray releases for both Aim for the Top! Gunbuster and Machine Robo: Revenge of Chronos practically stole the whole show at Otakon. I’d been waiting years for the former, and the latter never got a full release—it was actually licensed by accident

I also decided to check one off the bucket list and finally watched Project A-ko, or rather, Discotek’s remastered blu-ray edition.

In addition, there was a screening for a 3DCG short called HOME! by the animation studio Orange. It was a brief but sweet story about an astronaut and a ghost inhabiting a space colony, and it showed why Orange’s CG work is a cut above its competitors in Japan. A short panel afterwards elaborated on Orange’s approach to 3D work, and it’s easy to see the care that goes into shows like Beastars and Land of the Lustrous.

Artist Alley

Artist Alley is usually not one of my priorities, but it sort of took the place of the Dealers Room for me this year. Below are all my purchases at Otakon. It’s not much, but I think it all looks great.

Food

The places I went to this year for finer eating were Farmers & Distillers, SUNdeVICH, and Bantam King. There was also a newly opened Ben’s ChilI Bowl in the convention center (and the old dining area near the underground entrance to the Marriott was closed for renovations).

Farmers & Distillers’ claim to fame is that they get everything directly from local farms. It’s more expensive than your standard restaurants and requires a reservation, but the food is amazing. I got the Yankee pot roast and the vanilla bean cheesecake with strawberries and cream—a combination that was as delicious as I’d hoped but left me regretting the heaviness of the overall dinnerl. the next day. Take a lesson from me and try to balance your meal out better.

SUNdeVICH is a sandwich shop with a variety of solid choices with an international flair. I tried the Shiraz (Persian beef tongue) over salad and the Rome (Italian cold-cut combo) on a sandwich, and both were top notch. 

Bantam King I’d been to on my first trip to DC for Otakon, but this time I went for the curry snow fried chicken plate instead of the chilled ramen. The onions and white sauce on top reminded me a lot of coleslaw and fried chicken, and the flavor profile worked well. However, the simplicity and sheer deliciousness of the chicken drippings over white rice was the real winner.

Ben’s Chili Bowl at the convention center suffered from being short staffed (a common problem caused by the pandemic), but once I got my chili half-smoke (chili over a beef-and-pork sausage on a bun), it was amazingly solid. 

Cosplay

This year’s cosplay had the inevitable addition of masks. Some of the cosplayers would temporarily remove their masks for photos but kept them on otherwise.

Final Thoughts

The overall Otakon 2021 experience, for better or worse, was surprisingly normal. In any other year, it would’ve felt par for the course, but the surrounding circumstances at times made things awkward. There were moments where it was easy to almost lose myself in the moment, but had to get snapped back to the reality of an escalating pandemic. I’m still not sure if going was the right idea, and as the delta variant escalates, I worry about 2022. In the meantime, though, I made it back with plenty of good memories. I hope everyone else can say the same thing.

Let’s Get this Roadshow on the Road: SHIROBAKO the Movie

When SHIROBAKO The Movie was first announced, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. The original TV series is one of my favorite anime from P.A. Works, as its romanticized look at the Japanese animation industry through the P.A. Works formula (cute girls doing X in a town) delivers some pretty deep-cut in-jokes while working to encourage viewers to consider joining the anime industry. I looked forward to reuniting with a fantastic cast of characters and seeing how their careers in anime would continue. 

A few pandemic-induced delays on both sides of the ocean later, and I finally got my chance to attend a one-night-only screening through Fathom Events.

The Story

SHIROBAKO is about five girls who make a promise to join the anime industry and turn their club project into a full-fledged anime, and enter the field by specializing in different aspects of anime production. The movie takes place four years after the TV series, and sees them still working in the industry but suffering from stagnating careers. In particular, protagonist Miyamori Aoi is dealing with the decline of her studio, Musashino Animation Productions (aka Musani), after a disastrous show cancellation. As Aoi wonders if there’s any way to bring it back to its old glory, a proposal comes her way: take a risk and start production on an anime film. 

A Theatrical Feel

In many ways, the film feels like it’s trying as hard as possible to indeed be SHIROBAKOTHE MOVIE. Just as the TV series is about making shows, this involves the characters working on a feature-film. And because one of the biggest appeals of SHIROBAKO is its cast of characters, a lot of the movie is about bringing the old team back together and rediscovering the energy and inspiration they’ve lost. A couple of musical numbers—a feature absent from the TV series—also get thrown in, as if the staff is saying, “We’re doing this because we can.” It’s definitely the experience I was looking for, from reuniting with the cast (writer Imai “Diesel-san” Midori being my favorite) and it ends in a satisfying and uplifting way, though ironically, I wish I could have spent more time with them. 

Rosy, Yet Not without Criticisms

SHIROBAKO can be thought of as a story about people within an industry, as opposed to the industry itself. It peels back the curtain enough to show the strain of deadlines, creative clashes, the perils of overwork, and many other things that can go wrong during an anime production. However, it doesn’t point any fingers at the systemic issues that cause these to be common problems, notably chronic underpayment of staff. SHIROBAKO is willing to deliver a few lumps, but holds back the ugliest parts. Though, given that it’s not meant to be a hard-hitting work, I don’t really mind. At the very least, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in SHIROBAKO.

This approach extends into the movie, but this time, it’s willing to show a bit more about how precarious everything can be within anime production. Part of the reason Musani fell from grace is because the studio’s owner (who, as a reminder, is a parody of legendary industry figure Maruyama Masao) tried to get ahead of schedule by starting production before the ink had dried on the contract, and got burned for doing so. In other words, trying to be more responsible came with an inherent risk, which on some level indicates an unforgiving industry. This also ties into the direction the movie goes, as well as Aoi’s role in the process. Like Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!’s Kanamori, Aoi is a producer, and the dramatically reduced time span to finish the film seems like a recipe for disaster. Aoi has to know how to best use previous resources and experience to allow for some shortcuts, and when to put your foot down to keep on schedule vs. when to encourage and allow for greater creative flexibility. 

Overall

SHIROBAKO The Movie is more or less what I wanted and expected out of it, and the challenges it presents its characters—trying to get out of their respective ruts and reignite their passion for anime—helps to paint an image of the anime industry as complicated and full of ups and downs. Though this is clearly a film from before COVID-19 was an issue, 

I have to wonder if it was meant to be P.A. Works‘ giving a pep talk to itself, trying to provide some hope when things feel hopeless.

[Otakon 2021] The Kitchen Sink Too: Project A-ko (Remastered)

Project A-ko is an indelible part of my anime fandom. As a young nerd in the 1990s eager for more information about this newfangled “Japanese animation,” I ran into it everywhere. The super strong A-ko, the technologically savvy B-ko, and the crybaby C-ko defined anime itself, and their antics were the stuff of legends. What fan didn’t recognize them?

But while I “knew” Project A-ko, I never actually watched it. Less a secret shame and more an ongoing omission, this representative gateway anime of those early days just never crossed my path–that is, until Otakon 2021

A Brief History of Restoration

In 2019, Discotek Media announced that they were releasing a blu ray edition of Project Ako, and what began as a state-of-the-art transfer from laser disc eventually gave way to the discovery of an original 35mm film master long thought most to the aether. Fast forward a couple years and a pandemic, and Discotek brought the first showing of the remastered Project A-ko to Otakon attendees. What better way to experience this missing piece of my history?

And so I sat in among a crowded audience, a near-even split of longtime Project A-ko fans and newcomers. Because of my exposure and cultural osmosis, I knew too much to pretend like I was viewing it in a vacuum or with a blank slate. I had read the fanfics, I had seen the websites on Anime Web Turnpike. Now, it was my time to bridge that gap between hearing everyone else’s opinions on Project A-ko and establishing my own.

Story…?

Transfer students A-ko and C-ko are best of friends (or something more). Graviton High’s queen, B-ko, wants C-ko for herself, and she’ll do anything to tear the two friends apart. However, A-ko is superhumanly strong, and neither deception nor giant robots can stop her. Though not immediately obvious, the film was originally meant to be part of the Cream Lemon erotic OVA series before spinning off into its own thing.

The premise of Project A-ko is less a central driving narrative and more of an excuse. It’s a canvas upon which the creators display all manner of gorgeous and lovingly rendered animation ranging from slapstick to tense hand-to-hand combat to fanservice nudity to science fiction set pieces that could impress Moebius. In terms of technical and artistic perspectives, Project A-ko stands the test of time. In terms of artistic indulgence, it stands near the top.

I think how much you like Project A-ko truly boils down to how much you love animation for animation’s sake, how much the excitement and titillation of its myriad spectacles draws you in, and how much you can tolerate a paper-thin plot. I found myself somewhere in the middle, blown away by the sheer beauty of it all, but feeling the drag of nothing to truly anchor it, my attention started to drift halfway through. Yet, now knowing what Project A-ko is like now, it shines a whole new light on the fandom I remember from over 20 years ago.

Hindsight Is Hilarious

Project A-ko is comedy and satire, and I think that much is obvious if you’ve been exposed to plenty of anime. But while watching the interactions between the three core characters, I couldn’t help but recall the kinds of series-related discussions I would see as a young anime fan. Chief among them was the recurring hate lobbed at C-ko, with viewers frustrated that both the cute and feisty A-ko and the beautiful and elegant B-ko would devote so much attention to a loud, whiny, blond gremlin who seems like the worst kind of shoujo heroine. But in the wise words of McBain doing stand-up: that’s the joke.

C-ko is supposed to be obnoxiously innocent, from her shrill voice to her garbage-dump lunches she eagerly makes for A-ko. The way the haughty B-ko stares longingly at C-ko when the latter is at her loudest adds to the absurdity of their interactions. And unlike Mineta in My Hero Academia, who some fans find so annoying that the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own has a tag to indicate the removal of Mineta (and any traces of his history) from MHA, C-ko isn’t just some comedic side character. C-ko is essential to Project A-ko.

But I’m aware of the fact that Project A-ko hit the Western anime audience at a very particular time when there just wasn’t much anime available. Fans at the time took Project A-ko at face value, and it took the discourse around the movie in a certain direction that’s fascinating in hindsight. It’s possible I would have fallen into this trap myself—If I had watched Project A-ko back in the 1990s, I most definitely would not have understood that their class teacher is literally Creamy Mami, for example. In other words, “If a work of satire comes out in an environment where the target of satire does not exist, is it still satire?” 

Generational Differences…in Spaaaace

In the anime Darling in the Franxx, the characters eventually take to space to fight a greater threat. I often welcome this familiar trope, having grown up on it as a matter of course, and the studio behind Franxx, Trigger, is often known for this particular kind of escalation. But to a number of viewers, this is the point at which the show jumps the shark. To them, the move to space battles makes little sense, and nothing about what came prior sets up this little twist. In contrast, I think Franxx is at its strongest after this point, and it’s because I’m of the A-ko generation without having previously seen A-ko.

That fandom generation gap is evident in the constant presence of that Star Wars–esque science fiction/space fantasy aesthetic in Project A-ko. Spaceships, aliens, and beam weapons are mixed into the setting and the narrative, and while technically there’s a twist, the plot revelation component is less important than the pretense it allows for more fantastic animation. And of course, there really isn’t any science fiction in the thematic or philosophical sense—it’s all about the explosions. “Why wouldn’t you have a space battle?” asks the 1980s/1990s anime fan, and Project A-ko is designed to be a collage of all the things that anime fans of the era adored.

A Worthwhile Experience

While I know all too well the period in Western anime fandom when Project A-ko was a definitive anime—from the obsession with chibis to the limited reference material that shaped the perception of anime in a certain direction—I also know that I can never truly return to that time. I can only look at Project A-ko from a point where it’s not the mind-blowing, life-altering experience that introduced me to all of the possibilities of animation. But that’s okay: Project A-ko still has a certain charm that’s hard to deny. The lack of inhibition it conveys and the loving care put into every second of it still stand the test of time, at least in terms of spectacle.

Card Idol Project: Wixoss DIVA(A)LIVE

Wixoss DIVA(A)LIVE is the latest anime based on the Wixoss card game, and it combines three popular fandoms in one: trading card games, MMOs, and idols. The resulting show is one that has the potential to go in some interesting directions, but ultimately decides to play it safe in virtually every way possible.

Much like the series Gundam Build Divers, the main action of Wixoss DIVA(A)LIVE takes place in an online world where players can form teams of 3 and compete against other trios in online rankings through the Wixoss TCG. One of the keys to succeeding is that you not only have to be good at the game itself, but you have to get support from the audience, who can give players boosts through cheering. The protagonist is Asu Hirana, an energetic high school girl who dreams of being just like her heroes, the legendary team “Eternal Girl.” In order to pursue her goal Hirana brings along a reluctant friend, Onko Akino, and also ends up teaming with a girl known as “Absolute Rei” due to her cold reputation for discarding weaker allies. 

The first thought that popped into my mind when seeing Hirana, Akino, and Rei is that they’re practically dead ringers for the main trio from the original Love Live! in both appearance and personality. Hirana’s positivity is very Honoka-esque, Akino’s nervousness resembles Kotori, and Rei’s serious demeanor is just like Umi’s. I don’t know if it’s coincidence, a standard contrast in characters ideal for idol characters, or something else entirely, but the specific Japanese idol visual aesthetic of their online avatars is hard to ignore. While other teams are premised around different musical genres (hip hop, rock, EDM, etc.), in the case of the core cast, it’s like watching the second-years of Love Live! play Yu-GI-Oh!

Wixoss DIVA(A)LIVE doesn’t necessarily need to be dark and cynical, and I like the generally uplifting direction, but at the same time, I loved that the first franchise tie-in anime, Selector Infected Wixoss, was so wild and unpredictable. That one arguably wasn’t extremely original either, being a sort of TCG-themed Madoka Magica, yet the intensity of its characters and world made it feel more special.

In contrast, DIVA(A)LIVE is fairly fun to watch, but there’s never a sense of any real stakes. There are rankings, win/loss records, and all sorts of ideas introduced about how one succeeds in the game, but it all kind of feels arbitrary. Sometimes there’s a bit of tension, but all issues are resolved fairly quickly. In fact, there are a few episodes that introduce some real human drama, and it seems as if the DIVA(A)LIVE is about to take the gloves off, but even that is wrapped up neatly. The concept of fandom gatekeeping also shows up towards the end, but is never really explored.

Nijisanji VTubers cameoing

One interesting thing worth noting is that every episode has cameos from the Virtual YouTubers of Nijisanji— a perfect tie-in for a series about virtual avatars. Nijisanji girls have also made guest appearances in the actual card game.

Wixoss DIVA(A)LIVE ultimately ends up being average as a TCG anime, an MMO anime, as well as an idol anime. It’s entertaining enough, but it probably could have used some more teeth, though without necessarily needing to be dark and suspenseful like its predecessors. If it does get a sequel, I’d like to have a better sense of what they’re fighting for.

The Fight Against Oneself: Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway

In my earliest days of online Gundam fandom back in the late 1990s, the vast amount of information available was like a treasure trove of juicy morsels about what was out there. Among them was mention of a certain novel—“Did you know there’s a sequel to Char’s Counterattack? It’s called Hathaway’s Flash, and it stars Hathaway Noah [sic], who pilots something called the Xi Gundam!”

Though I don’t recall ever asking out loud, chief among them were: “Would I ever get to experience this story myself?” and “Why the hell would they make a sequel about Hathaway?” 

Now, in 2021, we have Gundam Hathaway, a film (presumably the first of a series) that adapts the novel into animation. Story-wise, it follows Hathaway Noa, now in his 20s and a decade-and-change removed from the events of Char’s Counterattack. Leaders of the Earth Federation have been under attack by a mysterious terrorist named Mafty Navue Erin, and Hathaway’s own history leads to him being in the epicenter of this situation. 

The action is impressive and the character animation is gorgeous, though the lack of 2D animation for the robot fights is kind of disappointing even if the 3DCG looks good overall. When the Xi Gundam shows up, you get a real sense of the sheer size of the thing. Compared to even the oversized Nu Gundam and Sazabi from Char’s Counterattack, the long distance from cockpit door to seat sells how much things have scaled up. 

But the story of Hathaway, and his internal struggle, is where this first film shines most.

I don’t know how the young me back in 1998 would have reacted to the characters and narrative of Gundam Hathaway, but I think it would have been quite different. A couple years ago, I watched a theatrical screening of Char’s Counterattack, and coming at it as an adult instead of a teen gave me a whole new perspective. The young side characters, Hathaway and the Newtype prodigy Quess Paraya weren’t irritating fools but simply kids who are failed by adults at every turn.

In this light, an adult Hathaway makes for a compelling protagonist. While he’s portrayed as being far more skilled in combat both in and out of mobile suits compared to his child self, he never comes across as inherently exceptional the way previous main characters like Amuro Ray and Kamille Bidan were. What you have in Hathaway is a child traumatized by war, and who’s trying to prevent his past mistakes as an adult, but who doesn’t necessarily know what the right answer is. Within him are the dueling philosophies of Amuro and Char, clashing and contradicting. He wants to be the everyman and the charismatic leader, the hero who saves the people both from corruption at the top and themselves. 

Nowhere is this clearer than his interactions with the female lead, Gigi Andalusia. She’s an eccentric empath who’s probably a Newtype or something similar, Hathaway sees the late Quess in her, and while she can be a thorn in his side, Gigi’s exactly the kind of person Hathaway fights for. If he can prevent more tragic deaths like Quess’s from happening, he’ll do whatever it takes.

I’m looking forward to seeing where Hathaway’s decisions take him, though I know this is Gundam and the chances of tragedy are markedly high—especially because the original novels were written by the original series director Tomino Yoshiyuki during one of his more fiery periods. Whatever the result, Hathaway Noa is a worthy Gundam protagonist.

Kanon Indeed: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 42

Kozue commences a competition among the boys to do push-ups while singing

The Chorus Appreciation Society bolsters its ranks, but not all is smooth sailing.

Summary

In a small change of pace, this chapter is largely from the point of view of Kanon. Despite the big win and Kozue’s fiery speech, the only students who have decided to join the Chorus Appreciation Society are Tsuyama’s crew (aka the Tsuyamars) because Mimi-sensei is their advisor. And right as Kanon is resigned to not participating more actively because this Appreciation Society is guy-focused, Kurotaki Mai shows up both asking to join and clearly having her eyes on Akira. 

After some exercise (during which Kozue explains that theirs is basically an athletics club in terms of physical conditioning), things escalate into a competition between the current guys and the Tsuyamars to see who will be part leaders. In particular, Tsuyama and Kousei have a particularly fiery rivalry, on account of their both being baritones and delinquents quick to violence. Thanks to the conditioning of the veteran members, they all retain their spots, but within the little conversations happening, Kanon senses an increased awkwardness from Jin to Akira.

Kanonical Perspective

Kanon looks back toward the reader while sitting in the back of the clubroom

I’m appreciative of the fact that Kio was willing to switch things up and give Kanon a spotlight of sorts. So far, she’s largely been the relatively normal friend of Shion and Kozue, and one might uncharitably call her “boring.” But in addition to the manga emphasizing that she’s feeling a greater desire to participate more actively in some way, Kanon is also shown to have the keenest eye when it comes to social dynamics. She immediately recognizes Mai as the girl with a huge crush on Akira. She notices a greater closeness between Shion and Kousei, as well as Jin and Kozue. And, as mentioned, she can tell that Jin’s viewing Akira differently—though it’s not certain if she’s making the connection to Jin’s mom publicly recognizing Akira’s talent in front of her son.

I’ve compared Kozue a bit to Kasukabe Saki from Genshiken because of their no-nonsense attitudes, but because of Kanon’s ability to recognize shifting relationships, I think she might fit that role better in certain respects. The fact that Kozue is kind of an oddball in her own right also means that she can’t play the straight man the way Saki would. Perhaps Kanon is more like a less abrasive Sasahara Keiko? In any case, I’d like to see at least a few more Kanon-centric chapters in the future—perhaps even one where she’s the actual center instead of just the POV character.

Mai Joins the Party!

Kurotaki Mai asks if they’re accepting female members

Ever since her introduction, I have been hoping and predicting that Kurotaki Mai would eventually join the club, and now it’s finally happened. But while she’s been a potential love interest for Akira from the get-go, I really did not expect her to be waging an active campaign for his affections! As Kanon notices, not only does Mai enter the clubroom with a clear intent and purpose (even making a beeline straight for Akira), but she went as far as shortening her skirt. I think a part of me might be a little too used to a certain greater level of old-fashioned indirectness in these story situations, but I welcome whatever this is.

Kanon is surprised to see Akira react so casually and obliviously to Mai turning up the charm, to which she begins to wonder if Akira is into “bratty” girls like Shion and Himari. Kanon is portrayed as being especially observant, but I’m not certain she has an accurate peg on him, and I still believe Mai has a chance. Also, I like how right towards the end of the chapter, we get a little glimpse into more of Mai’s personality when she urges Akira and Ogawa to keep competing. While Ogawa is willing to forfeit because he has no particular desire to be the part leader for the bass section, Mai responds with, “Huh…? But there’s no point if this isn’t a serious competition?” It’s as if she wants Akira to live up to her lofty and romantic expectations of him. In other words, we’ve got another weirdo in the group, and that means my fondness for Mai only grows stronger.

Songs

This month’s sole song is “Sora mo Toberu hazu” by Spitz. It’s only natural, because of Mimi-sensei’s love of the band and, in turn, the Tsuyamars’ worship of Mimi-sensei.

Final Thoughts

First, I think this manga is going to get even better now that we’ll be seeing more Mai. I might be biased, though.


Second, while it barely got mentioned in this chapter, I’m really expecting a greater exploration of Jin’s new tension when it comes to Akira. The idea of intra-club volatility is new to Hashikko Ensemble—not only with Jin and Akira or Tsuyama and Kousei, but also Mai and Shion—and I’m looking forward to seeing what kinds of drama and silliness arise.