Real vs. Perfect: The Two Opposing Idol Values

1983’s Creamy Mami was the first idol anime, and it made an idol out of Mami’s voice actor as well. Watching her videos from back then, a 15-year-old Ohta Takako comes across as awkward and unaccustomed to the spotlight, even in “Love Sarigenaku” above, her most “grown-up” song. Compared to many of the slickly produced pop hits of later years, Ohta can come across as almost unprofessional, but that’s exactly where her appeal lies. When it comes to Japanese idols, there are two general directions: “unrefined and real” or “polished and perfect.”

When comparing the Japanese idol juggernaut AKB48 to the K-Pop sensation Girls’ Generation (who have been enormously popular in Japan), the latter visually comes across as a much more “professional-looking” group. While calling them idolsTheir dance and choreography are on point, and their music videos make them look like a million bucks. But while the girls of AKB48 have a kind of awkwardness about them, and many aren’t the greatest singers, there’s a sense of them “trying their best,” and this is exactly what the fans want. In other words, perfection isn’t necessarily desired. It can be, but that strain of inexperience and perseverance is just as strong.

These dual forces can be seen in idol anime in spades. In Love Live! School Idol Project, the main characters are the ragtag group μ’s (pronounced “Muse”), and the defending champions are the practically-professional A-RISE, who come from the richest high school in Akihabara. In Aikatsu!, Hoshimiya Ichigo is shown as having some kind of natural spark of genuineness that contrasts her from the seemingly unassailable Kanzaki Mizuki. And in Macross Frontier, the main love triangle features, as seen above, the humble waitress Ranka Lee (right) vs. the sultry Sheryl Nome (left). In every case, what causes the “small fry” to ascend isn’t that they transform into polished and perfect idols, but that even as they improve, that unrefined and authentic quality shines through. Perhaps it says something that the main heroines of these shows tend to lean that way as well.

And yet, as touched on briefly in the beginning, voice actors who play idols in anime actually end up being idols themselves. When the girls of Love Live! hold live concerts their flaws come out, but that’s part of the appeal of seeing them in person. When watching the characters in the anime or in music videos, that imperfection doesn’t come across in the performances so much as in the dialogue and supporting materials. A similar phenomenon exists all the way back with Creamy Mami. She comes across as much more “polished” than Ohta Takako does, yet they share the same voice.

An interesting case of the strange interaction with the 2D vs. 3D and real vs. perfect contrasts are those that toe the line, like Hatsune Miku or virtual youtubers. With Miku, her limitations—the fact that her voice sounds robotic—is considered part of her appeal. With virtual youtubers, the fact that there’s a person performing behind the character is much more obvious, and the idea that they start to break down or break character is what lends a sense of “realness.”

In this regard, California-born Japanese idol Sally Amaki is especially interesting. A member of 22/7, an “anime-style characters” idol group in the vein of Love Live!, she plays the bilingual character Fujima Sakura while bringing along her own fans as Sally. Not only does she perform the virtual youtuber role as Sakura, but her native English fluency brings an interesting dynamic that highlights a sense of “realness,” especially for English-speaking fans. Not only is there often a contrast between Sally’s “cute, practiced idol” voice and her Californian mannerisms when switching between Japanese and English, but she’ll mention something that only someone growing up in the US would know off the cuff. This lets American fans connect with her sense of authenticity in ways that they might not have been able to in the past.

In the end, “real vs. perfect” is not a true dichotomy by any means, and every idol/idol group approaches that divide in different ways. Whether you’re an idol fan or not, which do you prefer?

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Lolita vs. Gothic Lolita Characters

Lolita fashion (and in fact fashion in general) is one aspect of Japanese pop culture that I never really looked into. However, I’ve come to learn a lot about the culture, its fans, its philosophy, and the sheer range of styles available that fall under the umbrella of “Lolita fashion.” What once looked to be “large bows and frilly dresses” turns out to have a good deal of subtlety and expression.

One of my discoveries in this period has been about how there are many different types of Lolita fashion. Prince Lolita involves a more masculine appearance. Sweet Lolita aims for a more child-like look. There are other variations as well, but what I’ve come to wonder is why Gothic Lolita in particular captures the imagination of anime and other related industries. If there’s a Lolita character in anime, more often than not she’s Gothic.

Some readers might be asking, “What’s the difference?” In fact, before I started reading up on the subject I didn’t know that there was a distinction myself. “Aren’t all Lolitas also Gothic Lolitas as well?” If others fell under similar misconceptions, then it’s perhaps no wonder that the Gothic variety would be so much more prominent.

However, I think there’s another component to consider, which is the popularization of the chuunibyou personality trait. Consider many of the Gothic Lolita characters that appear in anime and manga, such as Kuroneko in My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute, Kanzaki Ranko in The iDOLM@STER: Cinderella Girls, or Yohane in Love Live! Sunshine!! More often than not, their dark, Victorian clothing is supposed to be an expression of the desire to come from some kind of otherworldly, magical place. Lolita fashion enthusiasts often love it as a way of presenting themselves to the world in a way that goes against expected norms, but this resistance can be easily understood. When paired with the idea of the chuunibyou character and their wish to be the reincarnation of Demon Lord Wingding III, it enters more the realm of comprehensible fantasy and not so much feminist criticism, which is a factor in Lolita fashion in part or in whole.

When people see Lolita, they’re often probably not viewing it from the same perspective as the wearers of Lolita Fashion themselves, bringing their own values (for better or for worse) to the meaning of Lolita fashion. Perhaps in a world full of chuunibyou stories, the Gothic Lolita, more than any other Lolita type, is the visual and personality type that can resonate with the greatest number of people unfamiliar with Lolita fashion, and the result is that Gothic Lolita reigns as an archetype over others.

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Deep in the Tiger’s Den is a Het Pairing: Sasuke × Sakura’s Doujinshi Popularity

When I traveled to Japan this past May, one of my activities was to visit various doujin shops such as Toranoana. I like to see what’s popular, to get a general image of trends among hardcore fans. Which titles are popular? Which characters? Which pairings? And unlike doujin events, where many artists release their own works more for passion than profit, Toranoana is about what sells.

In Akihabara, this means going to multiple Toranoana stores, each of which specialize in a certain demographic. One in particular is devoted to girls (though nothing prevents guys from entering and shopping there), and as expected it’s primarily filled with BL.

However, one major exception was actually Naruto. In a relatively small yet dedicated section, surrounded by guy-guy pairings in most every other title, heterosexual romance took to the majority of the Naruto shelf. Of those couples, Sakura × Sasuke was by far the most popular.

I’m not against Sasuke × Sakura by any means, but I have to wonder why does it hold such a special place among hardcore female anime and manga fans. Why is it to the point that other het pairings are outshone, and the normally dominant BL pairings fade into the distance in this one ninja-themed microcosm?

One thing I discovered while searching for reasons is that Sasuke × Sakura is perhaps the most popular straight romantic pairing in English-speaking Naruto fandom, and visibly popular among Japanese fans. Given that context, it might just be the case that its sheer prominence is able to overcome even the fujoshi hegemony of the girls’ doujin scene.

Perhaps one factor is that Sakura is an easy target for female readers to project themselves onto. She’s also closer to the two most important characters in the manga than anyone else. However, given that fujoshi popularity is usually based on the strength of the pairing itself than the individual characters, it makes me skeptical about Sasuke × Sakura being an exception, even if it is a heterosexual ship.

From what I’ve read, a common reason fans support Sakura is her sense of loyalty towards Sasuke. She’s willing to support him through thick and thin, and even oppose him when she feels he needs it. The scene where Sakura tries to stop Sasuke from leaving to join Orochimaru appears to have been a flashpoint for supporters and haters of Sasuke × Sakura, because the former saw Sasuke’s “thank you” and knocking Saa away as him reluctantly pushing away those he cares about, while the latter saw it as an example of Sasuke showing flat, platonic fondness at best. Given the actual outcome of the series—Sakura and Sasuke married and had a child—the fans clearly won out, with Sasuke’s behavior best described as “reliably angsty.” Even as husband and wife, Sasuke’s #1 gesture to show affection is to tap Sakura on the forehead, and then disappear for months or years on end, undergoing secret missions to protect his family Andy his village.

Sasuke × Sakura reigns strong as a premiere het pairing, and I’m not bothered one bit. If any fans would like to help me understand the SasuSaku mind further, feel free to comment!

The Relevance of Older anime to Newer Anime Fans

This month, I was asked to write about “the relevance of older anime to newer anime fans.” The short answer is that older anime is always relevant, even if newer fans don’t think it is. I’ll leave the criteria for “older” up for interpretation, but no matter whether it’s one year or 30 years, looking back on the anime that came before is a way to gain perspective on this form of art and entertainment that enthralls us so.

When a fan only watches what is newer, there’s a risk of developing a very skewed sense of what anime was, is, and can be. It’s easy to assume certain ideas are entirely new and have never been explored before, when in fact there’s a whole back catalog of shows that take on those topics. For example, the surface reputation of Gundam as vaguely “giant robots do fighty army things” can often color people’s views of what the franchise is actually like, and actually taking the time to look into those older series can broaden one’s perception.

In other cases, it’s easy to think that it’s “always been this way,” when certain stylistic or narrative tendencies are in fact the product of continued development reflecting the changing times. I recall being a young anime fan in the 90s, when most of what we got were short OVAs meant to be proof-of-concept adaptations for manga that doubled as advertisements. Often, they didn’t make any sort of effort to acclimate new viewers, so many fans were under the assumption that most anime were visually beautiful but unfollowable nonsense story-wise. We often failed to understand that it was simply what we received.

The above examples aren’t necessarily about looking backwards, but the point isn’t to position “older anime” as “better.” Not only is that highly subjective, but there are strengths and faults to anime made in any era, as well as cultural assumptions that might be controversial in hindsight. Rather, the important thing is to look beyond one’s current purview.

I understand that it’s easier said than done to get into older anime and not have it feel like a “chore.” It shouldn’t be “watch this show from 20 years ago because it’ll make you appreciate newer things—to hell with your own enjoyment!” Moreover, there are so many forces at work that directly and indirectly discourage newer anime fans from looking backwards. The newer shows take up all of the mental space through advertisements and social media discussion and who knows what else. If watching anime is a social experience for someone, it can become difficult to convince friends to abandon the opportunity to keep up with current trends. And while good aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder, older shows can at first look dated and thus lack relevance to a young, modern person. But for those who can overcome those hurdles, the reward is a more expansive library to potentially love and learn from.

This is actually why I’ve begun to think that remakes aren’t such a bad thing. Notably, Devilman Crybaby has re-introduced a classic manga to the wider world, and people have embraced it. The visuals might not be standard anime by any definition, but they’re fresher and more contemporary than what came beforehand, and they help fans to understand that the stories told in the past can still be relevant and powerful even if they look like they’re from a bygone era. If done well, it can encourage fans to break out of their shells and see.

See more, see wider, see further.

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Ponkotsu Kyonyuu: The “Busty Failure” Character

Over the past few years, a new-ish character archetype seems to be emerging in manga. As far as I know, there’s no widely accepted term in Japanese or English, but the two common words used to describe them are kyonyuu, or “giant-breasts,” and ponkotsu, or “piece of junk.” The former word is pretty self-explanatory, but the latter likely requires some explanation.

A ponkotsu character is described by the Pixiv Dictionary as a type of moe female character who seems cool and capable on the surface, but is a comedic wreck on the inside. Two examples of ponkotsu characters in recent memory are Kawashima Momo from Girls und Panzer, the student council vice president who tends to panic in high-pressure situations, and Aqua, the “useless goddess” from KonoSuba! In fact, one might argue that all of the characters in KonoSuba! count.

The small trend, then, seems to be pairing the ponkotsu type with a large chest. I’ve found who qualify for that criteria are Shidare Hotaru from Dagashi Kashi (above), the titular character from Magical Sempai, and Takizawa from Bijin Onna Joushi Takizawa-san (both below).

As heroines, “busty failure” characters appear to share many of the same physical characteristics and mannerisms, even when ignoring chest size. In particular, their facial expressions seem to exist on a spectrum ranging from “incredibly smug” to “profuse blushing,” with these characters most commonly falling somewhere in the middle. Also, they’re frequently incredibly intense individuals.

Given their beauty and their curvaceous figures, there’s an obvious sex appeal component to the archetype. What’s unclear is why this exact combination has taken traction, in contrast to the standard moeblob, e.g. Asahina Mikuru from the Haruhi. For example, clumsy dojikko types are a dime a dozen, but there’s plenty of characters of all chest sizes who fall under that umbrella. Perhaps there’s something fascinating about having these girls be, in a sense, “mentally clumsy.” Maybe it’s that having these girls be “perfect” physically provides a powerfully arousing contrast with how easily flustered they are.

Walking in Tokyo vs. Walking in NYC

As a life-long New Yorker, I am intimately familiar with living in a major metropolitan area where walking and mass transit are the norms. However, every time I’ve been to Japan, I’ve found myself at odds with Tokyo’s pedestrian traffic. Despite the fact that I should be accustomed to large crowds, something is perpetually off—as if I’m constantly on the verge of bumping into others.

What I’ve come to realize is that there’s an inherent difference in how New Yorkers and Tokyoites walk in large crowds, and in a certain sense they’re somewhat opposed to each other. So for those who are traveling to Tokyo and feel overwhelmed by all the people (and bikes!) seemingly on a collision course with you, this might prove useful.

One inherent difference is that people in New York City tend to walk on the right, while in Tokyo it’s common to walk on the left, but that doesn’t explain everything. Imagine an ideal situation where pedestrian traffic is flowing through like a two-way street, with an invisible center line roughly dividing the two groups traveling in opposite directions. Take two people walking on opposite sides towards each other. What happens?

NYC-style walking

In New York City, the common tendency is to avoid the center line as much as possible. The two people will see someone headed their way, and will begin to drift away from that center line to avoid accidentally bumping into each other. In my biased perspective, I consider this “normal.” Moreover, while I don’t think NYC is as rough and unforgiving as is commonly portrayed on TV and in movies, you really don’t want to inadvertently start a fight.

Tokyo-style walking

In Tokyo, however, there’s a tendency to gravitate towards that center line as much as possible. If there’s something in the way, they’ll snake around it, hugging the “curve” so that they can get back towards the middle. I’m not really sure why, though I’ve noticed that people in Tokyo take less issue with accidentally crashing into someone. My (unsubstantiated) theory is that people in Tokyo develop a tendency to head towards their destination (e.g. the train platform they need at a station) in as direct a path as they can manage, and that means staying along the center line instead of deviating from it.

Another possibility is that bicycles are allowed on sidewalks in Tokyo but not in NYC, so it might be part of the natural way to avoid bikes. Whatever the reason, walking in Tokyo and not being aware of this can make it seem like folks are constantly making a beeline for you. You’ll think you’re gonna run headlong into someone, only for them to stop at the last second and make a sharp turn to avoid you.

This post has been based largely on my own experience, as well as from talking to people who have been to or live in Tokyo. If you’ve had a different impression of pedestrian traffic there, feel free to chime in.

The Respectful Pervert: The New Ogler Archetype in Anime and Manga

Miroku, pervert monk from Inuyasha

In today’s environment, the “pervert with a heart of gold” anime and manga archetype has not aged well. While characters such as Great Teacher Onizuka, Miroku from Inuyasha, and Saeba Ryo (City Hunter) are ultimately presented as those who will fight for what’s right, their willingness to cop a feel or lift a skirt becomes less and less charming in consider the current age. They’re ultimately fictional characters, so they can afford to be flawed, but one person’s “acceptable quirk” is another’s deal breaker. They’re not automatically villains or abusers, but they can be increasing difficult to rally behind—and I say this knowing that Ryo, for instance, is classically quite popular with female readers. But I don’t think the solution is to pretend perverts don’t exist, or to portray them negatively, and in fact, I find that anime and manga are slowly moving towards a new type of ogler for the current age.

Before continuing, I understand that my discussion of the “well-meaning pervert” is rather heteronormative, owing to the fact that these characters are derived from a tradition of hyper-straight male protagonists. When you change the dynamics of gender and gender representation, the topic enters a whole new dimension. I’m open to thinking more in that direction, but it goes beyond the scope of this post.

The “respectful pervert” actively acknowledges his love of women’s bodies, but doesn’t step over crucial boundaries—a devoted believer in the mantra “look but don’t touch.” From this cloth, two recent and prominent examples are Space Dandy from Space Dandy and Sword from GARO: Vanishing Line.

Space Dandy with Boobies waitresses

Sword from GARO: Vanishing Line, paying respects to large breasts

Both will regularly express their love of breasts, but will remain more or less cordial. Dandy mostly indulges in his fascinations at “Boobies,” a restaurant whose purpose is to allow and encourage ogling, without physical contact. Sword’s tendency to offer a prayer of appreciation for nice breasts might potentially draw unwanted attention, but his overall actions do not encroach on women’s personal space.

This new-type pervert might not be to everyone’s tastes, but I find that vis significance stands out more when comparing him to another attempt to dial down the pervert archetype: the passive harem protagonist. This archetype is perpetually in a position of convenience to have things happen to him as a way to resolve the character of responsibility. A lack of direct intent, e.g. “Oh no, I tripped fell into her breeeaaasts!!!” means self-control as an issue is ignored. In contrast, the respectful pervert is active in his expressions of sexual desire, but ultimately shows restraint. Power remains in the women’s control, without pushing the onus of responsibility onto them.

What do you think of the respectful pervert? Is it one step forward, two steps back? Is it a character you can get behind? I’m curious to hear opinions from anyone and everyone.