The Big O and Loving Robots

Warning: Spoilers for The Big O.

Artificial intelligence is one of those staples of science fiction, a bridge between the mechanical and the biological. For if an AI can achieve true sentience, it entails a whole host of questions about the meaning of life. In anime, one recurring topic is how artificial intelligence intersects with love—whether AIs are capable of love, and whether it is morally right to love an AI.

While something like Chobits is more (in)famous in its approach to the subject of love and AI, my favorite example is actually the mecha anime The Big O. While not the central narrative, protagonist Roger Smith’s relationship with his robot assistant R. Dorothy Wayneright is an ongoing plot thread that grounds an otherwise stylishly obtuse series.

Throughout The Big O, Roger is often verbally dismissive of Dorothy, bringing up her android qualities as evidence of what makes her unable to compare to humans. However, this is portrayed as a kind of denial defense mechanism, as he gradually finds himself attracted to and more in love with Dorothy. The impression is that Roger believes he’s not supposed to love her, and that perhaps he’s only drawn by her created and manufactured traits. Yet Dorothy, despite exhibiting very “robotic” mannerisms, seems to have an all too human side of her. And while her characteristic monotone is a source of comedy, it also seems to be a defense mechanism of her own—a constant reminder for herself and Roger that there are supposedly limits to how close they can be.

In one episode, Roger and Dorothy are Christmas shopping, and Roger steps into an elevator. He beckons Dorothy to get in as well, and she initially hesitates. When she finally does join Roger, the elevator comes to an emergency stop. Dorothy, weighing many times more than any human, put it over the weight limit. A moment of awkwardness ensues between the two, at least visibly on Roger’s side. Whether or not Dorothy is bothered by it is difficult to discern due to her apparent nature. Still, Roger and Dorothy seem to share a special connection. Nothing says more about their relationship than the iconic shot of Dorothy inside the Big O, her hand over Roger’s as he readies for a fight against three enemy Megadeuses at the end of Season 1.

Underlying all of this is the notion that love comes part and parcel with sentience. If Dorothy is nothing more then an android whose artificial intelligence is nothing more than a highly advanced computer, then that love feels “wrong” for Roger. But if it speaks toward a complexity beyond prediction, then Dorothy is an equal to Roger and therefore just as capable of love and being loved. In that situation, she must possess agency, and cannot be an object merely to be used. She must be her own being to the point that she can love or not love, and then make decisions of her own as to whether or not to follow along. In other words, it is morally right to love an AI if they can truly reciprocate, if human and robot stand on even footing.

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.

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Aikatsu Stars! Christmas 2017 Thoughts

I was asked to talk about the Aikatsu Stars! 2017 Christmas episode, so here I am!

Christmas isn’t the utter juggernaut of a holiday in Japan as it is in the United States, but it’s still celebrated in its own way: as a time for romance and appreciation. It’s not uncommon to see anime and manga feature Christmas stories, notably the many shoujo series where dates happen on and around December 25th. In some cases, series can be long enough Christmas episodes themselves become annual traditions, and this is the case with Aikatsu! Apparently, they even sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” every year:

As a Christmas-focused story, episode 87 of Aikatsu Stars! stands out to me for a few reasons. Generally, with these seasons-long children’s anime, the Christmas episodes are pretty self-contained. Maybe it’ll be about meeting Santa, or just having fun with friends. With Aikatsu Stars!, there’s a surprising amount of overall narrative progression. It’s not like they’re throwing revelations left and right, but the fact that M4 (the series’ premier male idol group) is branching off into their own solo careers is kind of a big deal. That there was some romantic development between perennial cat(-like) girl Saotome Ako and M4 member Kiri Kanata is also notable.

I only watch Aikatsu Stars! on and off, so I didn’t realize that Kizaki Rei is from New York City. As someone who just stopped by Rockefeller Center to see the giant tree right before Christmas, and as someone who kind of takes its presence for granted, I found the show’s presentation of it as this stand-out example of “Christmas around the world!” charming. If there’s one thing AIkatsu! has done right that many other series haven’t, it’s having more non-Japanese characters.

Aikatsu Stars! (and Aikatsu! in general) is that it really is in its own world when it comes to idol anime, or magical girl(ish) anime. Other series will be fun and wacky, or they might be a bit serious, but there’s rarely the almost Saved by the Bell-esque feel you find in Aikatsu! Even when the anime are literally about idols using their singing to defeat galactic empires, it lacks that particular brand of mild absurdity that permeates AIkatsu!. This is why Aikatsu Stars! is the sort of anime that could either go episodic forever or rapidly develop into an elaborate story at any moment, and both are equally welcome. Perhaps the Christmas episodes are indicative of that balance of story advancement and self-contained amusement.

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.

Love Live! Sunshine!! and Improved CG

Animating nine girls dancing onstage is hard work. It’s why the Love Live! anime usually reserves 2D animation for moments with three girls or less, and has 3DCG do the grunt work when showing the entire ensemble. One consequence of this is that, throughout the original Love Live! anime’s run (as well as the music videos made prior to the anime), the transition to 2D and 3D would look fairly awkward. However, what I’ve noticed from the first and especially the second season Love Live! Sunshine!! is that its CG portions are a lot better at removing the kind of “plastic” feel from the characters.

While I think the CG has just generally gotten higher in quality, making the models just look better overall, one major change I noticed that I think goes an extra long way in smoothing the switch between 2D and 3D is how the eyes are portrayed. In the 2D sequences, the girls’ eyes have a kind of soft glow that gives them an appearance of liveliness, of soul and depth. In the two Love Live! openings, when the CG switches occur, their expressions just look much blander, as if they’re puppets in the shape of the characters. With Love Live! Sunshine!!, the girls of Aqours have very pronounced and bright eyes even in the CG portions of their performances. In the second Sunshine!! season, the performance scenes keep the angles of backgrounds more consistent to make the transitions much less jarring.

This reminds me of a talk I went to at Japan Society in New York City, where anime writer Sato Dai (Eureka Seven, Battle Spirits) was giving a presentation on 3DCG in anime. One of the things he mentioned was that capturing “kawaii” in 3DCG was a major step in its implementation in Japanese animation, and I think we’re seeing the fruits of it. If the appeal of characters approaches appealing to the inner feelings of its viewers, then having eyes that appear to reciprocate emotionally would serve that direction quite well.

Teikoku State of Mind: Anime NYC 2017

When a brand-new convention decides to call itself “Anime NYC,” it’s practically asking to have the deck stacked against it. Running a first-year convention is no small task, doubly so if it’s in the heart of Manhattan. And with no reputation to go by, potential attendees may feel reluctant to try things out. Small attendance numbers can mean a lack of overall interest and the inability to justify the high costs of NYC, while large numbers means a greater chance of disaster striking if mismanaged. As a longtime resident of New York City, I’ve seen cons come and go, but somehow, someway, Anime NYC went so swimmingly that I almost can’t believe it was real.

General Impressions and Exhibitor’s Hall

Those who attended New York Anime Festival and the first few New York Comic Cons might recall what it was like to go through the Jacob Javits Center without feeling like sardines. Walking through Anime NYC felt reminiscent of that environment, as the con was fairly heavily populated but with plenty of elbow room to spare. Panel rooms were right next to the Exhibitor’s Hall, making transitions between checking out the goods and listening in on industry and fan talks. Special events were held in a Main Event Hall that was a fair distance away, though nowhere near as disorienting as, say, the Baltimore Convention Center where Otakon used to take place.

Because it was so easy to navigate (without the space feeling overly empty), I came out of the three-day con feeling satisfied yet unstressed. Usually one comes with the other due to the hustle and bustle of trying to get everything done, or because there’s so little to do at the event itself that boredom and lethargy set in. Anime NYC struck a Goldilocks-type balance with a schedule that thrilled but did not overwhelm body and mind.

A major contrast between Anime NYC and NYCC is that the latter is focused on being a general comics pop culture event, with a film and television presence that all but overshadows the “comic” in comic con. Anime NYC, on the other hand, is first and foremost concerned with anime and manga. A few features branched out from that core, such as the presence of Overwatch voice actors who were there to meet the fans and sell autographs, but this was certainly no “anime ghetto,” as fans took to calling New York Anime Fest when it began to be dissolved into NYCC.  For those who love anime and love a big convention feel but think New York Comic Con’s a bit too much, Anime NYC has potential to be a gathering point for anime fans in the tri-state area.

Concerts

Anime NYC featured two concerts that shone in different ways. The first was Anime Diva Night, while the second was the Gundam Thunderbolt Concert.

At Anime Diva Night, three Japanese musical guests performed as part of the Anisong World Matsuri. Two of the singers, Ishida Yoko and TRUE, are amazing vocalists in their own right, but the third, Yonekura Chihiro, was the reason I wanted to attend. She’s the voice of so many amazing anime themes over the years that it almost doesn’t compare. Notably, she sang the opening and ending themes to Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team.

While having Yonekura alone would’ve sufficed in my case, all three did a wonderful job. Some singers sound significantly better in the recording booth than they do onstage, but this was not the case for the Anime Diva trio, who sounded incredible even though the makeshift Main Events Hall did not have ideal acoustics.

The concert had a somewhat unusual format. Rather than move from one act to the next, each performer would do a few songs, perform a duet with another, and then the newer singer would take over before the next duet. There were two rotations in total, with all three singers performing together at the start and end of the show. All of the group performances were cover songs of popular anime themes—”Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” “Moonlight Densetsu,” “God Knows,” etc.—while the solo acts were their signature songs. Yonekura did indeed sing the Gundam 08th MS Team opening, but also an old favorite of mine in “Will” from the anime Hoshin Engi (aka Soul Hunter). Highlights from the other two singers included TRUE performing the first Sound!! Euphonium opening and Ishida doing arguably her most famous song, “Otome no Policy” from Sailor Moon R.

There were a couple of songs that didn’t make the concert that I was hoping for: Yonekura’s “Yakusoku no Basho e” from Kaleido Star and Ishida’s “White Destiny” from Pretear, but it was a small loss for an otherwise amazing concert.

The Gundam Thunderbolt Concert was highly unusual compared to what typically happens at an anime con performances. Generally, they’re closer to Anime Diva Night, sounding like the j-pop or j-rock one expects out of anime. To have the Gundam Thunderbolt composer Kikuchi Naruyoshi lead a jazz band himself on saxophone was a truly rare treat, and it’s one of the most unique experiences I’ve had at an anime con. The closest equivalent I could think of was Kanno Yoko’s concert at Otakon 2013.

I am no jazz aficionado, but thanks to the concert, I felt as if I began to understand the almost primal appeal that jazz holds for listeners. As I listened, an analogy popped into my head: jazz is like constructing a human being from music. They can be loud one moment and quiet the next. They can be a mess of contradictions, yet still function. I’m unsure if this will send me towards checking out more jazz in the future, but my curiosity is definitely piqued.

I’ve been more or less referring to the Gundam Thunderbolt Concert as a “jazz performance,” but that’s not entirely accurate. To everyone’s surprise, the concert also included performances by the singers of some of the 50s/60s-style pop songs from the Gundam Thunderbolt anime. In the context of the series, the two main characters, Io and Daryl, are two soldiers on opposite sides of a war who each listen to music as they battle. Io is an intense man who loves equally powerful jazz, while the handicapped Daryl prefers softer ballads.

At the Gundam Thunderbolt panel, Kikuchi mentioned that these are basically his two favorite genres of music, and he thought both fit the characters well. Interestingly, while the Gundam Thunderbolt manga included jazz already, Kikuchi composed entirely new songs that he felt fit Io’s character better.

One funny coincidence of sorts when it comes to Kikuchi’s choice to add a golden oldies aspect to the Gundam Thunderbolt score is that one of the biggest names in classic mid-20th-century American pop, Neil Sedaka, once composed the theme songs to Mobile Suit Z Gundam in the 1980s. I’d be curious to know what Kikuchi would think about this.

Artist Alley

More than Exhibitors’ Halls, Artist Alleys at cons can be affected heavily by the space they occupy. Regardless of the artists’ skills, or the amount of people in the alley, a bad space can make an attendee want to leave as quickly as possible, while a good space encourages more browsing and exploring.

Anime NYC’s is probably the best I’ve ever seen. Held on the top floor of the Jacob Javits Center, natural light shined down on the entire Artist Alley from an entirely windowed roof. At times, it almost felt like an outdoor European boutique, which made it just a pleasant place to peruse.

I purchased a few items at the Artist Alley, mainly from Japanese artists (something of a rarity even at anime cons). One booth was ran by the wife and assistant (pictured above) of manga artist Ohno Junji, creator behind the manga for obscure titles Mobile Suit Gundam: Missing Link and Mobile Suit Gundam The Origin MSD: Cucuruz Doan’s Island. Unfortunately, the artist couldn’t attend himself. They were selling art packages from Ohno himself and his assistant, Ally Suwabe:

Ohno Junji

Ally Suwabe

Axel Rex is Ohno’s original web comic he drew for Kodanasha/Yahoo!! Comics from 2008 to 2009.

The other Japanese artist attending was Tatsuyuki “Mikey” Maeda, who’s worked for the past 10 years as a manga assistant. In a way, while manga artists themselves only attend cons sparingly, their assistants are even rarer. Maeda was selling a short guide called “Secrets of Manga: Basics of the Tools & Trade.” In it, he gives various technical tips to aspiring manga creators, the kinds of things that often get glossed over in favor of “character design” and “how to draw mecha.” The guide talks about differences in pen nibs (such as what you should use if you have a light touch vs. a heavy hand), how to effectively use white-out, and more. I highly recommend it.

Panels

Gundam Thunderbolt Panel

Panels are an important part of the con experience for me, though due to my schedule I could not attend as many as I would have liked. Still, the Gundam Thunderbolt panel was highly informative, as were the Inifini-T Force and LeSean Thomas panels.

Infini-T Force is a current 3DCG anime series crossing over the classic heroes of Tatsunoko Production—Gatchaman, Casshan/Casshern, Hurricane Polymar, and Tekkaman. The fact that Tatsunoko, one of the most influential anime studios ever, had a con presence at all was the main reason I decided to attend their panel. Overall, it was a fairly basic introduction to Tatsunoko, but I like that they conveyed a bit of the studio’s historical significance. They’re one of the most influential studios ever, pushing the limits of animation in Japan since their inception in the 1960s. They were also willing to discuss a bit of the reception Infini-T Force has received in Japan, such as the fact that the primary female character is a little contentious to Japanese audiences. This is also somewhat unusual for Japanese companies, and was somewhat refreshing.

The LeSean Thomas panel was a general Q&A, but was one of the highlights of Anime NYC. It was inspiring to see attendee after attendee express how Thomas inspired them to keep working at their art, and how his success as a creator of color gave them the courage to never give up. I previously interviewed him at Otakon 2016, and he does make for an excellent role model.

Cosplay

In this case, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

In Conclusion

Given how much I’ve praised Anime NYC, it might seem like I’m a paid shill, but I assure my readers that this is not the case. The con was actually executed so smoothly that there’s little I can complain about that would be the fault of the convention itself. While I attended for free as press, even the weekend ticket was affordable, especially compared to New York Comic Con ($60 vs. over $200 to buy four 1-day NYCC passes).

At approximately 20,000 attendees, Anime NYC has already become one of the larger anime cons in the US. The convention appears to have done a sound job of attracting locals, and I’m curious to see how much more it can grow. If the convention keeps up this level of quality, I’d be happy and proud to call Anime NYC “home.”

 

Aikatsu Stars! and Nikaido Yuzu, the Ultimate Kouhai/Senpai

At first glance, Nikaido Yuzu in Aikatsu Stars! is not an especially unique character. She’s an energetic, bubbly character in a show filled with energetic and bubbly characters, in a genre (idol anime) conducive to energetic and bubbly characters. One or way or another, however, she comes to stand out over time, especially with the slight shift in her role between seasons from kouhai to senpai.

I previously wrote a little about how the heroine of Aikatsu Stars!, Nijino Yume, undergoes a similar transition. At the start of the series, Yume’s the new girl aiming for the top. By the time Season 2 rolls around, Yume’s at the apex as a member of the elite idol group S4. In contrast, Yuzu starts off already a part of S4, going from the youngest member to the oldest between seasons. But unlike Yume, who has to get used to being looked up to, Yuzu’s personality and approach to life transitions almost seamlessly.

To the former members of S4 who graduate, Yuzu is a bundle of youthful enthusiasm. But to the younger members of S4 who come in after her, Yuzu is an eccentric wise man of sorts, her decisions seemingly bizarre but ultimately with some underlying purpose or reasoning—even if Yuzu herself doesn’t quite know what that is herself. This balance is on display in episode 67 of Aikatsu Stars!, when Yuzu sets up an elaborate treasure hunt on Aikatsu Island.

Yuzu tells the participants, many of whom are her underclassmen, to find a treasure that’s so well hidden that even she can’t remember its true location. As one hint after another comes up to help the hunters along, there’s a certain sense that they’re not just clues, but philosophical ideas about what it means to live. In a twist straight out of “The Purloined Letter,” the actual treasure is revealed to have been disguised as an overly obvious giant treasure box-shaped prop at the very beginning, and the treasure within is…friends. Literally. Out of the enormous box comes the three former members of S4. In that moment, between S4 girls new and old, Yuzu is simultaneously the wide-eyed “kid” and the experienced “adult,” so to speak.

Compare this to Yazawa Nico from Love Live!, a character known for being older but acting younger. Nico’s cutesy behavior is meant to contradict the fact that she’s a third-year in high school, and lets her act as a foil to the young-but-mature Nishikino Maki. Yuzu, on the other hand, isn’t really a “contradiction”; she just “is.” Her actions and behavior fit, whether she’s dispensing advice or giving it, because they reflect a generally positive approach to life that’s all about excitement without being beholden to “newness.”

Aikatsu Stars! is generally a fairly lighthearted show bordering on the wacky, and Yuzu fits well within that universe. Energetic and bubbly she may be, but those are surface qualities that open up to a sense of loyalty and adventure, rendering her a unique figure. She’s the kind of character who could thrive in any degree of prominence, whether main, side, or even background figure.

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.

Tomino Yoshiyuki’s “Big Picture”: Why the Gundam Creator Can Be So Hit or Miss

Director Tomino Yoshiyuki is a perplexing figure in the anime industry. He’s the creator of Gundam, which makes him a legend to a certain type and generation of anime fan. He’s been described as passionate and even frightening by those who’ve worked with the man. Also, because his anime range from legendary to seemingly non-sequitur nonsense, Tomino has a George Lucas-esque reputation, where people can’t tell if he’s a genius, a fool, or a one-hit wonder. While this might mark Tomino as an inconsistent director, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that a major factor in the effectiveness of his anime is length. Tomino is a creator who’s better with longer-format series than shorter works.

I think one of the roots of all this is the way he approaches setting up an anime. In a recent episode of the Anime World Order podcast on the Tomino-helmed mid-2000s animation Wings of Rean, the hosts referenced an interview included with the DVD release. When asked  about his approach to film by using a classic ramen analogy (do you start with the ramen itself or with the steam that suggests its presence?), Tomino says that he prefers to start right at the point the noodles reach the lips—and if the lips are sexy, all the better. This seems like a very roundabout answer that might not make sense at first glance, but it’s actually a very good description of how Tomino constructs narratives.

Take Reideen the Brave, Tomino’s first ever directorial work on a giant robot anime. Instead of calmly introducing the main characters, the villains, the stakes, and finally the wondrous robot (as was typical of even the best robot shows of the time), Reideen the Brave‘s first episode comes a mile a minute. The main character, Hibiki Akira, is playing soccer with his friends! Suddenly, DEATH AND DESTRUCTION AROUND THE WORLD AS LANDMARKS CRUMBLE. A voice calls for a hero to awaken. It speaks directly to Akira and tells him the AGE OF DEMONS has come about, and that he needs something called “Reideen!” A LIGHTNING BOLT HITS AKIRA.

Keep in mind that, including the opening, less than five minutes have passed.

I love this first episode because it really puts the viewers into the thick of things and leaves us to try and piece together everything going on. As I’ve watched more and more of Tomino’s works, this is clearly a trend, evident in shows from all across his history with anime, such as Space Runaway Ideon, Overman King Gainer, and Gundam: Reconguista in G. It’s the directorial equivalent of shoving someone into the deep end of the pool and asking them to make it to the surface, and when there’s enough intrigue laid out, it can become a fine motivator to stick with a series. However, this can be a double-edged sword, and the other side of that blade produces his more maligned works, like Garzey’s Wing and Wings of Rean. If that rush of information isn’t compelling enough, or doesn’t leave enough meat to sink one’s teeth into, it becomes a poor framework to build on.

My belief is that Tomino is a “big picture, big philosophy” creator who tries to show fragments of a world to give it a sense of scope and significance. By doing this, he tries to actively challenge viewers to think about the real world. The issue is that the “little picture” often escapes him. This is perhaps why creating convincing romances is one of his weaknesses—the development of relationships is a very intimate and local thing. He does fine with established romances, and he’s great at placing a romance within the greater context of a world in motion, but the actual motions of love burgeoning between two people seems to escape him. Instead, he goes for instant love: newtype psychic explosions and the like.

When Tomino has enough room to really lay something out, like in Ideon or Mobile Suit Gundam (even though those two series originally had their runs cut short), the blanks he establishes in the beginning can be slowly fleshed out and given dimension by him or whatever staff he has. Turn A Gundam is probably the best example. It was allowed to run its full length without being cut down at the knees like those other earlier anime, and the result is just a sprawling story where emotions and human actions ripple through outer space.

However, it always seems as if Tomino tries to make “big picture” anime even when time is much more limited, and this is why the shorter works end up feeling so inscrutable. Longer works can breathe, but there’s literally not enough time to fully expand on the forces that Tomino is trying to convey in his works. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the five-minute Ring of Gundam is so incredibly obtuse, even compared to the infamy of Garzey’s Wing. Something like Reconguista in G falls in the middle. There’s a lot of rushing from one moment to the next, but also plenty of indicators of how the world has changed since the era of the old Gundam anime, and the unceremonious death of one of the series’ main antagonists works satisfyingly well given the groundwork laid out by those episodes. It’s just that individual character actions often go unexplained.

Tomino Yoshiyuki will continue to be a divisive creator because certain elements considered to be fundamental to good storytelling are things he either can’t do or doesn’t care for. However, his desire to convey big ideas,  challenge viewers politically, and make them put in work while watching his anime is something to admire. This approach is poorly served in shorter works, because Tomino doesn’t try to compromise, but if given enough room he produces some of anime’s greatest.

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Ogiue Maniax Chats About Zambot 3 on The Cockpit Podcast

I was recently invited on The Cockpit, a mecha-themed podcast, to discuss one of my favorite anime ever: Muteki Choujin Zambot 3. We get into what makes the show interesting and pioneering, and why it still holds up today for the most part.

If you want to read my old review of Zambot 3, you can check it out here.

And if you want to hear my previous Cockpit appearances, I’ve also been on to talk about Brave Police J-Decker, King of Braves Gaogaigarand Pacific Rim.