2010–2019 Part 2: Looking Back

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

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

Bookended by Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fujoshi Integration and the Permanence of the Otaku Hero

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

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

Moe in Moderation

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

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

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

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

American-Style Superheroes

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

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

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

Steps Towards Mainstreaming LGBT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ascendance of Mobile Games

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

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

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

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

Anime as Faithful Reproduction Instead of Creative Interpretation

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

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

Fantastic Remakes

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

Official Simultranslations

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

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

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

What Lies Ahead

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

Thoughts on Left-Wing YouTube

Recently, I was surprised to discover that an “edgy gamer” streamer I was familiar with from a decade ago had transformed into a notable left-wing figure on YouTube. Steven Bonnell II, known to the internet as “Destiny,” got his start with StarCraft II and gradually becoming a prominent personality with a loyal following and detractors alike. He would argue against policing language, and that the common slurs gamers use were no big deal. And yet, here he is now, not only arguing against using such language, but also being noticeably effective at debating alt-right YouTubers who have risen to prominence on the wings of racism and intolerance.

It’s not just that he makes good points or that he knows how to dissect arguments, but that he hits right-wing figures where it hurts most: in their desire to appear strong to their followers. Regularly, he reveals that the emperor has no clothes, and I think it in part comes from him being so familiar with gamer culture and the things that leave it so vulnerable to alt-right personalities. When others on the left retreat, he’s willing to confront while also not falling prey to their debate traps. It’s something the left needs to learn.

This is also why I was not caught off guard by seeing his name listed in a New York Times article discussing the growing strength of left-wing YouTube as an answer to the hatred spewed by alt-right and manosphere personalities. Like ContraPoints, another major left-wing YouTuber, Destiny addresses the other side’s use of memes, pop culture, and opportunistic arguments head on, exposing their tools and often disarming their tactics without resorting to them. The key is that Destiny, ContraPoints, and the main subject of the article, Faraday, know how the alt-right thinks, and they aren’t afraid to use that knowledge to their advantage.

If I have any criticism for progressives online, it’s that people’s radars are often overtuned. Any slight whiff of conservative political views seemingly sets off alarm sirens in their heads, and there’s an annoying tendency to cannibalize potential allies because they’re not right at the vanguard of progress. Of course, it’s impossible to have a perfect radar, and people I thought to be more moderate in their views have turned out to be disturbingly right-wing. But I truly believe that residing in a left bubble, while good in some ways, can often fail to inoculate people against the disingenuous tactics of the alt-right. It’s important that Destiny and ContraPoints don’t have beliefs that overlap 100% yet are still able to see accomplish similar things.

De-platforming harmful individuals—taking away their ability to communicate en masse—is often a good thing because such people usually hide behind free speech without acknowledging that they’re doing the political equivalent of shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. At the same time, I increasingly wonder if “avoid the other side entirely” is creating a kind of frailty in the left that plays right into the goals of the alt-right. Destiny, Natalie, and others like them provide examples of what can be done to avoid that fate: to engage and to understand the other’s goals, and to win the debate in a way that makes the other side look bad to their followers both real and potential.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and the Potential Positives of Project Wendy

One of the strangest trends in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate hit YouTube recently, as countless creators began putting out videos centered around Wendy O. Koopa—a character who, in a sense, isn’t one. She’s an alternate costume for the playable Bowser Jr., so the fact that this one skin was singled out above all others reeked of conspiracy. Indeed, it looks like this was all a combined effort by all of these YouTubers to highlight one of the least popular characters in Smash Bros.

In a sense, this is the very definition of a forced meme, though fans seem to be rolling with it. However, there’s another potential consequence outside of fun, stupid jokes involving a fast food restaurant or a Samoan pro wrestler (see above): giving a spotlight to an otherwise neglected character. Bowser Jr. (and his seven Koopaling skins) is one of the least talked-up and least talked-about characters in Smash Bros. Ultimate. In tier list after tier list, Bowser Jr. is placed firmly in low tier. It’s certainly possible that he’s one of the worse characters in the game, but the Ultimate meta is still young (barely a month old), and opinions can changes. What can turn opinions around, then, is research and exposure.

There’s a “million monkeys on a million typewriters” effect to a certain extent. If Project Wendy inspires scores of players, even mostly lower-level ones, to pick up Wendy, Bowser Jr., or any of their alts, then the sheer increase in quantity can push that character further along than any sort of on-paper theory-crafting. That’s the funny thing about competitive gaming: often times, how deep and complex your game is ends up being less important to competition than the player population and their eagerness to push ahead. Regardless of motivation, whether someone truly adores Wendy, or whether they’re just jumping on the latest bandwagon, this is a chance for Wendy and her fellow Koopa Clown Car warriors to get some attention. Characters die when their communities get stagnant, and pushing a meme is one…unique…way to try and avoid that.

I might be a bit idealistic in terms of the long-term effects of Project Wendy, but who knows? The next great Wendy/Bowser Jr. player might emerge out of this crazy effort. Imagine…

The Significance of the Classic Anime Devilman in Devilman Crybaby

Devilman Crybaby made quite a splash when it was released earlier this year on Netflix, introducing Nagai Go’s classic series to a new generation of anime and manga fans. While there are stylistic differences stemming from both difference in era and the aesthetic of director Yuasa Masaaki, Devilman Crybaby is largely the same as the original 1972 Devilman manga at its core, showing that the series’s story of a human who uses demonic powers to fight other demons and its themes of human strength and ugliness are still culturally relevant.

While Devilman Crybaby is hardly the first adaptation, spin-off, or sequel, it does do one thing that most other Devilman works try to shy away from: it incorporates elements of the kid-friendly 1972 Devilman anime TV series. In that cartoon, Devilman is closer to a superhero than a brutal demon in appearance and demeanor. Even his theme song calls him a “hero of justice” while listing all of his special ability (Devil Wing, Devil Eye, Devil Beam, etc.).

It’s so different from every other iteration of Devilman, and Devilman Crybaby repeatedly uses it in such specific scenarios, that I believe TV anime Devilman has special significance in Crybaby beyond providing an addictive remix of the classic theme song, which can be found below.

Whenever that song, “Devilman no Uta” is used, there’s an element of innocence or human compassion attached. It’s often paired with an actual image of the TV anime Devilman himself, who shows up on television screens or on YouTube videos and the like. It’s especially prevalent in Ryo’s flashbacks, where a young and orphaned Ryo can be seen staring at the green, heroic Devilman on TV. Ryo appears to be drawn towards it.

There’s a third symbol too: Devilman’s actual design in Crybaby. Devilman adaptations tend to draw more from the manga than that old anime series, and this extends to the aesthetics of Devilman himself. In almost every version, Devilman feels more like a beast than a man, and Crybaby’s is generally no exception. However, there are times in Devilman Crybaby when Devilman himself feels more reminiscent of the “hero of justice.”

Devilman the character can be thought of as having two original strains—the Nagai manga original and the classic TV version—with different iterations veering towards one or the other. If a work wants to hint at a more hyper-violent Devilman, they portray him along the lines of the manga. If, however, it wants a cleaner and friendlier Devilman, then the TV version is the way to go. Crybaby Devilman strikes a very interesting middle ground. While he has the fur, the facial features, and the overall demonic appearance, he takes aesthetic elements from the TV version. Namely, he has those distinct stripes on his shoulders, and he’s often portrayed with a blue/greenish tint to his skin. It’s unclear if his skin is actually supposed to be green, or if the creative lighting of the series just makes it look that way, but there’s a clear commonality between Crybaby Devilman and TV Devilman, at least in part. What’s also noticeable is that the green skin seems to be most noticeable in scenes where Akira is trying to defend the innocent, like when he protects a group of innocent people from being stoned to death out of fear that those poor souls “might” be demons.

In other words, the incorporation of elements of the TV anime Devilman into Devilman Crybaby isn’t merely for referential purposes, or a clever wink and nod—It’s actually important to the themes and symbolism of the series. While Crybaby largely follows the plot of the original manga and not the TV anime, the presence of the superheroic Devilman is ongoing, and it hints at Akira’s inherent goodness. He struggles with himself and the devil inside, but Akira ultimately wants to fight for what’s right and just, whether his foes are human or demon. The old anime Devilman is who he aspires to be, even if he ultimately cannot live up to that ideal.

A Look Back at an Aikatsu! Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Unreality of Virtual Youtubers

If you haven’t heard of virtual youtubers, they’re a recent phenomenon that might be the ultimate intersection between anime fandom’s love of cute girls and the ever-rising prominence and allure of youtuber as identity/occupation in Japan. Virtual youtubers are quite similar to regular old youtubers in that they’re online video hosts who use charismatic and often energetic performances to entertain fans, but their difference is most easily understood by watching:

While a number of the virtual youtubers out there play up the idea that they’re robots, AI, or some kind of existence outside of normal reality, one thing I find noteworthy is that they don’t have quite the same sense of appeal through artificiality as a Vocaloid. Hatsune Miku and Megurine Luka don’t sound like anything like a normal human being, but that is precisely what makes them memorable.

With virtual youtubers, there’s still a very human component behind the voice and video filters that you can feel come through to varying degrees; at the very least, there’s a sense of human-esque imperfection conveyed, as opposed to the uncanny valley of Vocaloids. Kizuna AI has a very smug, almost Yazawa Nico-like attitude that can come back to bite her in the ass. Kaguya Luna sounds like she’s always on edge, and the fact that she sounds like she’s being recorded in a garage hints at the reality behind her. Ojisan’s youtuber persona is a cute, small fox girl, but he doesn’t even try to hide his identity as an older man.

The conveying of “humanity” even comes across in small, subtle elements. You’ll see Kizuna AI videos featuring lots of clear cuts—a common style for youtubers, especially for the more bombastic types. At the same time, she constantly has this windswept appearance that doesn’t make sense (see her ribbon fluttering constantly!), but it makes her appear more active and lively.

Perhaps the biggest thing about the virtual youtuber concept is that it’s simply not meant to cater to the same audience as idols, virtual or otherwise. They can be good singers, but they don’t have to be. They convey a sense of closeness, but they inevitably keep a greater distance because the performative aspect of the virtual youtuber is more obvious. Toeing the line between natural and unnatural is part of why anime characters in general capture so much attention, and virtual youtubers also take advantage of this.

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

Chala Head Chala vs. Rock the Dragon and the “Image” of Dragon Ball Z

In a recent blog article, I wrote about how the character of Vegeta in Dragon Ball Z is portrayed differently in Japanese and English, and how this has resulted in something of a divide among fans. The article was a surprising success, quickly becoming one of my most popular posts in recent memory, and the numerous responses I received (especially on Twitter) prompted me to think more about how Dragon Ball Z (and the Dragon Ball franchise in general) is perceived differently depending on how a person came across it.

Is Dragon Ball a gruff fighting series, or a heartful adventure? How big a role should comedy play before it goes too far? Many factors go into how the series is viewed, including whether or not someone started with adult or kid Goku, but I came to realize another influence: theme songs. On some level, I believe that the core difference between how Dragon Ball can be summed up in the contrast between “Rock the Dragon” and “Chala Head Chala.”

Before I delve more deeply, I do want to say that, while I prefer “Chala Head Chala,” my taste in music is not important here. Nor is the fact that “Chala Head Chala” came first. Tthe anime is based on the manga, which has no actual sound at all, let alone opening and ending themes. “Being the original” is not a sound argument to make. What I will be focusing on is mainly, how do each of those themes make its viewers feel?

“Chala Head Chala” feels fairly light-hearted, with quite a few odd lyrics (“If I discover a dinosaur in ice, I want to balance it on top of a ball” ???), yet there’s also a quiet sense of gravitas thanks to Kageyama Hironobu’s warbling voice. While the theme does suggest action and excitement, it emphasizes more a sense of “adventure” and “discovery,” though perhaps not to the same extent as the Dragon Ball opening, “Makafushigi Adventure.” Most of the visual imagery in the opening is concentrated on movement—flying and running. Motion is the key.

“Rock the Dragon” is all about heavy use of electric guitar riffs. The song puts all of its emphasis on high-octane thrills, and the the lyrics (as repetitive as they are) further push to the forefront the idea that this is not just a series with action, it’s the action series. Instead of the first image being a rotating dragon ball, it’s the dragon itself in all of its majesty and glory. All of the footage aside from that is fighting, fighting, and more fighting.

If I had to greatly simplify, I’d say that “Rock the Dragon” is more about “body and spirit,” and “Chala Head Chala” is more about “heart and soul.” They both introduce the same overall series, about Goku and his allies taking on ever-increasingly powerful threats to the Earth, but one revels in the fighting and the other suggests fighting as a means of expressing character. Because of this difference, I think it cements different core images of Dragon Ball in people’s minds, and this affects how subsequent works (Battle of Gods, Dragon Ball Super) are received as well. Looking ahead, the opening of Dragon Ball Super, “Limit Break x Survivor,” is actually a kind of middle point between “Chala Head Chala” and “Rock the Dragon” with a dash of “Makafushigi Adventure.” Could it be the theme that unites Dragon Ball dub and sub fans once and for all?

Tonight was the Night: The End of VGCW, Video Game Championship Wrestling

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016 marked the final episode of Video Game Championship Wrestling, and the end of one of the most bizarrely enjoyable spectacles I’ve ever known.

VGCW was a federation that used the WWE video games’ “Create a Wrestler” feature to fill its ranks with video game characters, celebrity gamers, and even Vegeta and Nappa from Dragon Ball Z. Pitting not human opponents but rather (often incompetent) computer-controlled wrestlers against each other, VGCW stood out amidst a universe of “Let’s Plays” and eSports titles in ways few other phenomena could. VGCW was the flagship show for the VGCW Network, which also includes a women’s federation and a developmental one.

One of the more fascinating aspects of VGCW was the fanbase that surrounded it. Viewers in Twitch chat would cheer on their favorite wrestlers, despite knowing full well that their rabid typing would not actually affect the routines and patterns of the AIs. While story threads presented by the creators of VGCW provided the stakes for many matches, what has been really the heart and soul of this whole concept of video game AI wrestling is the ability for the fans to willingly give meaning to the actions of these virtual marionettes who represent out favorite heroes and villains.

While the same could be said of actual pro wrestling, the difference is that audience interaction there tells the wrestlers if they’re doing well and if they need to change anything to keep the audience’s attention in a predetermined match. In VGCW, match results are unknown even by the creators.

I remember seeing Little Mac redeem himself by knocking out Dracula and throwing him in a casket. I recall Phoenix Wright returning from captivity to vanquish his alternate-dimension evil doppelganger (affectionately known as Phoenix Wrong), an achievement celebrated by having Fall Out Boy’s “Like a Phoenix” play over the end credits (see above). I enjoyed seeing the Gameshark force the wrestlers to leave WWE 2K14 and enter the N64 game WWE No Mercy. Gabe Newell, founder of Valve, wrestled and defeated Jesus, teamed with Deus Ex 2 hero Adam Jensen, became an all-powerful villain, and died. Scorpion from Mortal Kombat is arguably the greatest champion of all time with his record six title defenses.

For the recent finale, the championship match featured Ganondorf, the only triple crown winner in VGCW history, against perennial underdog Zubaz—a rejected Street Fighter design popularized by the Super Best Friends YouTube channel who became a playable character in the bare-bones fighting game Divekick. On top of that, they actually commissioned former WWE announcer Justin Roberts to announce the match. Calling VGCW a wild ride would be an understatement.

My personal connection to VGCW lied not just in the excitement it brought, but also in that it helped me deal with tension in my life. When I first started watching VGCW, I was still living in the Netherlands, and due to the pressure of trying to finish my dissertation I could sense that my nerves were constantly frazzled. Watching anime and reading manga was fun, but it wasn’t relaxing because consuming titles caused my brain to keep firing on all cylinders. During this time, I found that what soothed the cacophony inside my head was episodes of VGCW. It was, in a certain sense, my version of “healing anime” such as Aria.

I have to give a shout-out to the defunct multiplayer spinoff called “NWTOH,” which first featured a bizarre entrance for obscure Final Fantasy VI character Banon. A shining example of what one might call “anti-cinematography” due to the non-sequitur nature of its transitions, Banon’s entrance can make me laugh so hard that I can literally feel the stress leaving my body every time I watch it:

Although the main VGCW show is gone, it leaves with successors and descendants. All of the more recent episodes are on YouTube, and a little digging around can uncover older ones as well. Women’s Video Game Championship Wrestling (WVGCW) is gearing up for its own finale. Developmental show Extreme Dudebro Wrestling (EDBW) still has some life left in it, and might just step out of the shadow of VGCW now. Belmont Wrestling Alliance (BWA), which will be live tonight, recently made its return, and it has perhaps the most eccentric and eclectic roster of all.

To Bazza, TOH, and everyone who worked to make me and the other VGCW fans sports entertained, thank you.

 

Just Enough Magic: Flying Witch

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When it comes to stories about witches, it’s quite common (and perhaps even expected) to have magic be prominent. Whether it’s American sitcom classic Bewitched, Archie’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch comic, or an anime and manga like Witch Craft Works, the influence of spells and sorcery is, if not grandiose, at the very least quite large. The anime Flying Witch is a much mellower series in comparison. As a show where just the lightest of touch of the supernatural appears, it makes for a most delightful series.

Adapted by J.C. Staff from the manga by Ishizuka Chihiro, Flying Witch follows the daily life of Kowata Makoto, a teenage witch who moves in with her cousin Kuramoto Kei’s family as part of her coming of age. Residing in Aomori Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan, the people there still have a fairly strong connection to nature, and just going back and forth from school is enough to take in the greenery. For the most part, magic doesn’t make much of an impact, but when it shows up it’s just enough to make their world feel a little bit more unusual, and a little bit more wonderful.

Though the show consistently succeeds at its sparse but effective interaction between the human and witch cultures, the most memorable example has to be in the very first episode. Makoto is walking home from school with her new friend, Nao, when she sees an unusual plant. For anyone who’s familiar with stories about witches and wizards this is a red flag. Sure enough when she gives it a hard tug a mandrake pops out and gives its shrill cry.

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As Makoto cradles the demon plant, she cheerfully explains to an aghast Nao that it’s a good thing that they found a young Mandrake because an adult one can literally send people to the hospital or worse. The anime doesn’t stop being this fairly laid-back series, but the result is that the tiniest bit of magic feels that much more amazing.

What also helps Flying Witch is that all of its characters, guys and girls, are extremely charming. Makoto’s older sister Akane is a more experienced witch whose penchant for mischief contrasts delightfully with her younger sibling. The Kuramoto family is entertaining all around, whether it’s the dad’s thick Tohoku accent being indecipherable for Makoto or Kei trying to get his little sister Chinatsu to try more vegetables.

The fanservice in this show also has a deft touch akin to its use of magic, to the point that it might not even be right to call it fanservice. Just to be clear, generally speaking the female characters in this series are all extremely attractive, but Flying Witch never goes out of its way to show them off. When it focuses on Makoto or anyone else, the anime just lets the audience see how nice they look without lingering or leering.

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Another notable aspect of Flying Witch is its focus on Aomori, because it at times feels like a promotion for the prefecture. In fact, it makes me wonder if this is one of the reasons it was adapted from manga to anime. The Tohoku region has in recent years been known more for the Fukushima disaster, and a lot of effort has been put into reviving the region in terms of agriculture, tourism, and more. A series like Flying Witch might be just the thing to really get people to visit Aomori and Tohoku again.

Overall, because of how delightfully mellow yet powerful the show’s humor and characters are, Flying Witch has become one of my favorite anime of the year. When I get the opportunity, I’m definitely going to pick it up, possibly in multiple formats. If you want to check it out, you can find the entire anime on Crunchyroll, and Vertical Comics is releasing the manga in 2017.

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Discussing Hulu’s Anime Eradication on the Speakeasy Podcast

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Hulu is removing hundreds of anime from its catalogue on June 1st, and I hopped onto the Speakeasy Podcast with Alain to talk about it and to speculate about what it might mean for anime streaming in the future.

If your favorite show is on Hulu, there’s a good chance it’s also on other legitimate streaming services, but it’s still notable because of how big Hulu is.

Sadly, this means Hulu viewers might no longer be able to experience the excellent Show by Rock!!