I’m Bad at Understanding Rhythm, but the Manga “Wondance” is Changing That

For the life of me, I’ve always had trouble with musical concepts like rhythm and beats. Even though I was in a couple of band classes as a kid, and even when I’ve tried to read up on it or look up videos, I just couldn’t wrap my head around these things. But recently, I think that’s starting to change, and I actually have manga to thank.

I recently began reading a new hip hop dancing-themed series called Wondance. Because that genre of dance is likely unfamiliar to many readers, the manga uses its main character as a way to introduce ideas. Kotani Kaboku is a basketball player with a speech impediment who discovers that dancing might just be a way for him to express himself, and he even applies some of his b-ball knowledge to his new interest.

In Chapter 4, titled “After-Beat,” Kaboku’s dance teacher talks to her class about a crucial difference between the music they might be accustomed to (J-Pop, anime songs, etc.) and the kind they’re dancing to now (hip hop, R&B, and funk)–what part of the beat the music (and thus the dancing accompanying it) emphasizes. If a basic beat is “1-2, 3-4,” then pop music tends to emphasize the “1” and the “3” while hip hop emphasizes the “2” and the “4.” The “2” and the “4” are called the “after-beat. To put it differently, if the beat track of a song goes “bumm-chh, bumm-chh,” the “chh” is the after-beat.

For anyone who’s into music and dance, this is probably child’s play, but this one page was actually the catalyst for me to actually “get” ideas that I knew of but could never actually understand. That simple explanation above, as well as the demonstration of dance moves at the bottom of the page, opened up a window I thought would be forever inaccessible. I listened to both anime songs and hip hop, my ears now aware of that difference in emphasis. When I watched videos teaching about beats, I had a better notion of what they were saying.

There’s even a moment from Chapter 3 of Wondance that subtly introduces these ideas, and in hindsight it’s actually brilliant. Kaboku notices something about the rhythm of hip hop dancing, and he compares it to dribbling in basketball: if the rhythm of the basketball is down-then-up, then hip hop feels like the “up” is being emphasized, and it’s the prime moment to make a steal. In other words, the ball hitting the floor is the “bumm” and the ball returning to the hand is the “chh.” When I remembered that scene, it hit me like a sack of potatoes.

While I highly doubt that I can ever truly feel the beat as so many others can, or apply it to something like rap or dance, I feel like a new world has opened up to me. It’s almost like learning a new language. I also think it might say something about me that it took reading a comic in a foreign language to finally comprehend something as pervasive as music, but maybe that’s part of the beauty of comics. And between Wondance in manga and Tribe Cool Crew in anime, I hope we see this genre continue to grow.

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Why Are There So Few Recent Titles in Super Robot Wars T?

When a series gets into a Super Robot Wars game, for the first time, it’s a momentous occasion, especially when the game in question is one of the “mainline” iterations. The mecha (or even spaceships these days!) can be from old and obscure works, cult favorites, and even the new hotness. When playing through the recent Super Robot Wars T, however, I noticed that there’s a significant dearth of recent series, and I’m using that term loosely—out of every anime included, only two are from the past 13 years.

Even that number doesn’t tell the whole story. One of the anime referred to above is 2018’s Mazinger Z: Infinity, a film sequel to the original Mazinger Z anime franchise. While technically “modern,” it’s meant to be a nostalgia work. That leaves only Expelled from Paradise, a 2014 film. The next one after that is Gun x Sword from 2005. It’s not inherently a bad thing, and there are a number of welcome surprises in SRWT like Magic Knight Rayearth, Cowboy Bebop, and Captain Harlock. In a Famitsu interview, the director, Terada Takanobu, mentioned that one of their decisions for including new titles was a desire to have something for every age group. So in the sense of newcomers alone, it’s a pretty even split. However, the heavy lean towards the old is still noticeable, and I think a number of factors go into this.

First, as the years go by, what is considered an “old” title vs. a “new” one widens. Second, mecha anime just isn’t the bustling industry it once was, at least not in the same way. Third, I think that, as much as they tried to pull in fans of all ages, their core demographic seems to be working adults somewhere around 25-39, given both the themes of the game and the title selection itself.

For many younger anime fans, a span of five years might very well cover their entire fandom, let alone the now five decades that have elapsed since the original Mazinger Z anime debuted. For Super Robot Wars, this goes double, as it often takes quite a few years for a hot new mecha title to get the spotlight. Back in the early 2000s, Gaogaigar (1997) and Shin Getter Robo Armageddon (1998) were considered fairly young upstarts when they appeared. Now, in Super Robot Wars T, they’re grizzled old veterans. Outside of Super Robot Wars specifically, it’s always fascinating to see a title like Cowboy Bebop (1997 debut but aired on Adult Swim in 2001) go from being the hot new thing in the US to being a virtually canonized masterpiece that’s sometimes more discussed than viewed.

The relative oldness of the entries in SRWT is in part a consequence of how giant robots are simply not the industry juggernaut that they once were. Long gone are the endless number of children’s mecha shows, and the robot anime that do remain know that their audience will often skew older. Super Robot Wars, given its nature as a crossover celebration of what is increasingly a niche genre, is sort of tailor-made for nostalgia, compounding the sense that its appeal does not lie in attracting newer, younger anime fans, but those with a lot of experience watching and loving mecha anime. There are newer titles to pull in, but will they have the same draw as these assumed childhood/youth favorites?

In that sense, it’s interesting to note just where the nostalgia hits hardest for SRWT. Many of the titles are squarely in the 1990s without being made as sequels or reimaginings—Cowboy Bebop, Magic Knight Rayearth, Nadesico, G Gundam, Gaogaigar, and Might Gaine—while plenty of other titles are late 80s or early 2000s. Director Terada mentioned that international fandom was a consideration for which titles to include, and while not the case with every country, I think that the 90s is an especially strong time for fan nostalgia now—or at least the 90s anime they may have seen years later because anime distribution wasn’t nearly as speedy back in the days of VHS tapes and Real Media Player.

It’s also telling that the gimmick of the main heroes is that they’re salarymen, i.e. full-time working adults around ages 25 to 39, instead of teenagers. In some sense, it works as a gimmick, but when past original characters have been decidedly less mundane in their basic premises, the idea of “loyal company employee” stands out. There’s something to be said about how the notion of the salaryman as the default position for adults in Japan has been shattered for many years now, but I won’t go much into it except to say that while a heroine who just really likes a steady paycheck might have seemed like the most milquetoast thing once upon a time, in our current global economy, that idea almost borders on escapist fantasy.

Or maybe the team just really wanted to do a story with Jupiter as a focal point. Between Shin Getter Robo Armageddon, Nadesico, Crossbone Gundam, Aim for the Top!, Gaogaigar, and Cowboy Bebop, the fifth planet from the sun gets major play.

There’s one last possible reason the series is lacking anime titles from recent years: they’re saving them for a direct sequel. While there’s no news yet of a true follow-up to Super Robot Wars T (as opposed to just another game with a completely different cast and universe), there are enough loose threads in this game that a continuation would not be surprising.

The Healing of Heisei Anime

EvangelionIt’s difficult to succinctly describe or summarize anime and manga in the Heisei era. After all, that’s a lot of time to cover, from 1989 to 2019. But when I think about the works that have come out over the past thirty years, one word keeps coming to mind: therapy.

The Heisei era is defined by many things, but one of the biggest is the bursting of the 80s bubble economy, leading Japan into a recession it’s never fully recovered from. It has affected everyone young and old, flipping norms and assumptions on their heads as the idea of a stable future weakened and crumbled. I find that many of the trends in Heisei anime reflect this uncertainty. Heisei covers the birth of healing anime. It marks the emergence of concepts in Japan like NEETs, hikikomori, and fear of declining birth rates, which then make their way into anime. Deep introspection and escape from reality alike were in full force, asking viewers whether they needed to manually get away or to find solutions.

In that struggle between therapy as problem-solving and therapy as respite, in my opinion there’s no show as emblematic as Neon Genesis Evangelion. While it takes from works past, what Evangelion does so well, and part of why its legacy has endured for so long, is that it pushes the psychological fears and doubts of its characters to the forefront, enveloping viewers in their inner worlds. Their struggle to understand themselves and navigate youth, violence, love, and lust is still powerful today. However, another significant part of Evangelion‘s legacy is the commodification of its characters, their wispy yet mature bodies the subjects of figures, posters, ad campaigns, and more. Their idealized forms themselves provide a form of fantasy that consequently flattens and simplifies their presences.

And yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean the two sides of Evangelion never mingled, and their dual influence is reflected in 21st century anime culture in major ways. Whether it’s Rei as the progenitor of the “emotionless” blue-haired girl trope or Shinji and Kaworu as an evergreen fujoshi pairing (despite, or perhaps because it only lasts one episode), the clash of consumption, creation, reflection, and escape all continue to swirl around today. It’s fitting that the Rebuild of Evangelion movies, which show the characters trying much harder to communicate with one another and overcome the cycle of doubt and despair, is set to conclude in the Reiwa era after a ten-year delay.

The anime of the past three decades hasn’t been all doom and gloom, nor has it solely been a psychological bomb shelter shielding its viewers from the world. Heisei birthed the Yuusha/Brave franchise, with its positive messages (albeit with the occasional sprinkling in of anti-toy-company cynicism). It covered Sailor Moon and Ojamajo Doremi and Precure in terms of magical girl works that give viewers a sense of hope and optimism. Perhaps the function of these shows, however, is that they also provided positive messages to young kids in a society that didn’t necessarily provide it through other means.

While anime as therapy was born out of Japan’s own recent history, I think the global success of anime in the Heisei era shows that there were people all around the world who needed it as well, myself included. As is probably the case for many reading this, my entire otaku history has been in the Heisei era, and in retrospect I have to be amazed at how much it’s shaped my life even from the perspective of “therapy.” I learned to embrace unconventional views of masculinity and femininity through Cardcaptor Sakura. I found peace and comfort (but also artistic inspiration) from Hidamari Sketch. I discovered what means to live with confidence by reading Genshiken. I made introspection a part of my life thanks to Evangelion. This won’t necessarily change just because there’s a new emperor on the throne of Japan, but I hope I can look back again in thirty years with a similar fondness.

This post was made possible thanks to Johnny Trovato. If you’d like to request a topic or support Ogiue Maniax in general, check out the Patreon.

Spoilers Matter

Between Avengers: Endgame, Game of Thrones Season 8, and the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker—all concluding parts for their respective stories—pop culture has been in prime “spoiler warning” territory. If you’re plugged into any sort of social media, and you don’t have the opportunity to watch things as they’re released, it can be a struggle to avoid any and all information. This also means it’s incredibly easy for a few trolls to ruin other people’s days, but what I’m even more concerned about is a recurring notion I’ve been seeing, about how people’s anger and frustration over being spoiled is some kind of sign that these works are less about art and storytelling and more about shock value and surprise. They might even say something like, “Truly good works are good even when spoiled.”

Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps they’re not. Either way, it still doesn’t mean that a desire to go in relatively “blind” is somehow valueless. In fact, I find it to be quite rude and even a little elitist to value a work over people’s own desires to such an extent that negatively impacting their experience is somehow “okay” because it shows how “limited” both the people and their “shocking” entertainment can be. While it’s true that some things stand the test of time better than others, and that a piece of media that can be enjoyed over repeat viewings is strong in many ways, you still only get one chance to see something for the first time regardless. Just because something is even better the second or third time around doesn’t mean that the initial exposure should be diminished.

Granted, even without spoilers, “going in blind” means different things to different people. Some might have ideas as to what they think will happen, and will be bracing for the moment that their pet theories are confirmed or denied. Others might be looking at character interactions and trying to see if their chosen characters have any romantic developments. Personally, I purposely try to avoid pushing my expectations onto a work as much as possible. But whatever one’s approach, and even if a work holds up after spoilers, being aware of what happens changes the way a work is experienced. You go from trying to navigate the work on your own terms to being aware in the back (or front) of your mind that an Important Thing is going to happen. That’s not necessarily bad, but if you view a work once without spoilers and then a second time with spoilers, it means you get to have both experiences.

Note that there are a few caveats. The choice of spoilers vs. no spoilers is anything but binary, and that something as simple as a movie trailer can be “too much” for some and “not count as spoilers” for others. There’s also a difference between “being okay with spoilers” and, say, people who want advance warning on anything that might trigger them and cause deep psychological pain. And for instances where a work might come from a very unfamiliar time and culture, and not knowing the proper context can mean not catching many of the meanings and signals that are assumed to be “obvious” or “common sense” to anyone from that original time or place. Foreknowledge can be significant, but having it isn’t inherently better than not having it. First impressions can potentially be based in ignorance, but that ignorance can be corrected afterwards. You can’t take back a spoiler.

If all a film, TV show, book, or whatever has is shock value, so be it. If it has more to offer, all the better. That still doesn’t make those who wish to be surprised or who wish to focus on the unexpected somehow symptoms of an ailing entertainment industry, or make their experiences trivial. They can always come back, and if the problem is that people don’t want to revisit after the first go-around, that’s not an issue with anti-spoiler culture—that’s an issue with time and its usage. But ultimately, if people only have enough time to see something once, they should be able to do it on their terms, and not ones set by some externally imposed values rooted in notions of how “true quality” is defined.

Hip Hop Manga: “Change!” and “Wondance”

Whether by chance or perhaps some broad editorial intent, it’s a curious thing that hip hop culture would be a prominent theme in two currently serialized Kodansha manga in Japan. Change!, running in Monthly Shounen Magazine, is the story of a Japanese poetry-loving girl named Shiori who ends up being drawn into the world of rap battling. Wondance, from Monthly Afternoon, focuses on an athletic boy with a stutter who discovers hip hop dance as a way to express himself. Each series, almost by necessity, takes a very different approach to their respective subjects, and juxtaposing the two highlights the power each work possesses.

Change! naturally places great emphasis on verbal dexterity, and as a series about Japanese rapping, there are also certain aspects to the language that make it differ from English. Japanese has fewer vowel sounds, which means that many more things in the language can technically rhyme, which in turn means that the rhymes that do occur can be even more varied yet precise aurally. The heavy emphasis on syllables also gives Japanese a certain sense of rhythm, especially because extending those sounds can change the meaning of a word entirely.

All of this needs to be effectively conveyed in the manga, and the approach Change! takes is to place more emphasis on word balloons than most manga. Words and syllables can appear larger or more erratic in order to highlight what key words in one line are being correlated with in the next line. The classic staple of many manga, furigana to aid in the reading of difficult kanji, take on added importance due to both the sheer number of homonyms that exist in Japanese and to make sure the reader keeps track of what’s being said syllable by syllable.In the images above, the male rapper connects the word “underground” with “Alice in Wonderland,” working off the fact that andaaguraundo and Arisu in Wandaaraando both start with an “a” and have the similar raundo vs. rando. He then follows up on the next page with Atama no naka made pinku iroka? / Orera no otogibanashi wa Kingu Gidora!, or, “Is even the inside of your head the color pink? / Our fairytale is King Ghidorah!” Pinku iroka lines up perfectly vowel-wise with Kingu Gidora, and the talk of fairy tales follows up to his comparison of Shiori as being as out of her depth as Alice is in her story. While the passionate expressions and the metaphorical imagery shown contribute to the atmosphere and to hammer home the meanings behind the words, the actual word balloons do a great deal of heavy lifting.

In contrast, although Wondance can be fairly wordy at times, when it comes to dancing, the manga is very much in the “show, don’t tell” category. Characters move with grace and intensity, and panels highlighting their steps litter the pages, turning them into virtual collages that practically crackle with energy. Text is sparse, and primarily brief glimpses into how the characters are thinking in the heat of the moment.In the pages above, the main character and Hikaru—the girl who brings him into the world of dancing—are dancing together in a class. The paneling supports the character artwork, emphasizing a sense of the two as a duo in sync with each other on some deeper level. This visual approach calls to mind the elaborate paneling of 1970s shoujo manga such as Swan, where panels cascade and climax in beautiful ways. The drawings capture not just the dance but the emotions of the dancers as well, making their moves the central vehicle for storytelling. In a sense, one doesn’t even need to know Japanese (or have a translation handy) to get the essence of Wondance.

Thus, on the one hand, you have a series where the words are of the utmost importance and another where images hold the power. However, they both draw upon the visual language of comics and especially manga in fundamental ways through their particular emphases. Change! and Wondance capture some of the magic of hip hop culture itself as a multi-medium, multi-angle fusion of various ingredients.

The Confession: “The World God Only Knows” Five-Year Retrospective

April 12, 2019 marks the five-year anniversary of a momentous occasion: the day of the final and most important love confession in the manga The World God Only Knows. There’s a lot that’s special about this particular ending, not least of which was the internet’s powerful reaction to it, best encapsulated in the image below, which collects before and after reactions toward the reveal. For those who want to avoid spoilers about this series, or those who would feel offended by typical 4chan speech, it would be best to turn back now. For those who want to stay, I hope you like hearing me wax nostalgic about what makes this conclusion so great.

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Changing of the Guard in Fandom

ComicsGate, or what remains of it, has been a thinly veiled campaign to bully women out of comics, and the “movement” itself is hardly worth talking about as anything more than unjustified harassment. However, I find that it pulls its energy from a profound change occurring in readers of the superhero genre: the ever-increasing presence of women as both readers and creators, and with it, a change in how the comics-reading community determines what is worthy of praise. I’ve seen it on a personal level, as I went from understanding comics fandom as a boys’ club filled with casual sexism and jokes about Hal Jordan’s punches to one where a mutual understanding and acceptance of such things can no longer be assumed.

I previously wrote a blog post exploring the interaction between canon, fanon, and headcanon, and in it I used those terms the way one would when talking about narrative continuity. However, I think the contrast between those concepts still exists if we use the other definition of “canon”: the commonly accepted masterpieces of a given medium. The challenging of “canons” and “fanons” in that sense is what I’ve seen as a result of the changing demographics of superhero and comics fandom. Over the course of many years, women and girls have come in with their own ideas about which artists to respect and what ideas should be taken away from a given comics, and those deeply entrenched in the older ways feel the ground shifting beneath them. Guys like that can be vulnerable to a smooth-talking neckbeard snake whispering to them, “They’re changing the rules. They’re outsiders. What happened to the things that matter?” Losing the place they belong can be more important to some than trying to address political issues in communities.

Fandom is built in partly on passion, partly on accruing knowledge and experiences. This combination lets fans both embrace that which they love—be it a book, musician, film, or anything else—and perhaps even take it to places that the work by itself would never travel. Fandom creates communities and communication, and it encourages fans to pool their resources together and establish some common ground. But when that common ground is challenged, or finds its foundation shaken by newer generations eager with different preconceived notions of what’s good or acceptable in both people and works, it can create schisms between fans.

In a way, it reflects the world’s politics at large, as previously established majorities have seen their numbers slowly dwindle in ways where numbers alone will not let them hold onto power, and a loss of influence can be downright frightening for those accustomed to always being on top in their own universes. Even if there’s an intellectual understanding that the actions of today are meant to address certain past injustices, it can be a bitter pill for those who assumed a stable foundation in their comics fandom.