The Lightness of Light Novels and the Magnified Hate of Light Novel Anime

Today’s anime industry is filled with light novel adaptations, many of which revolve around tropes that are loved by some and hated by others. Common ones include ridiculously long and descriptive titles, an average passive guy who discovers a special power, and the throngs of girls (some of whom may or may not be his little sister) who fall for him as he saves the world. For those who aren’t fans, the term “light novel anime” has come to be filled with a certain level of apprehension. “Oh, it’s a light novel anime, but don’t hold that against it.” However, while the contents of these stories contribute a large part in why they draw ire from some anime fans, what I think is an equally important factor is the implication that a good deal of money is required to adapt a light novel into an anime.

Generally speaking, the “light” in light novel refers to the fact that they’re supposed to be light reads. Sure, they might be full of esoteric jargon (hello Index) and long and complicated word play (Monogatari), but for the most part light novels are meant to be easy to pick up, finish, and put down. It doesn’t cost much to write a light novel, relatively speaking: it’s usually one person writing, and one person doing a handful of illustrations. Overall, while the industry itself isn’t necessarily cheap, the act of writing requires only a pen and paper (or keyboard and computer).

Imagine you’re presented with a book that’s full of the same tired elements, and even reeks of some author’s self-insert revenge fantasy. Its prose seems stiff and workman-like, without any creative flair. You read it, make a face, and then put it away. No harm, no foul, and even though you might later find out it’s popular and don’t personally understand why, this simple “light” book is no skin off your back.

However, then you find out that the book is being made into a Hollywood movie. They’re pouring millions of dollars into it. It feels weird, almost as if it weren’t meant to stand on this grand of a stage.

This, I think, is akin to what happens sometimes when a light novel gets adapted into an anime. Of course, there is much, much less money in the anime industry compare to big budget films, but there’s still a transition from a light novel, a piece of fiction similar in function to old American pulp magazines, to something that requires funds, hiring of talent in great numbers, and just a great deal of combined energy. As Shirobako has shown, anime production is a grueling process, and the idea that the anime industry is putting all of that energy into making some bad light novel look good can seem to detractors like a waste of finite resources.

The industry standard for the “look” of anime involves a certain higher level of polish and presentation. Most shows on a very basic level pass the test of “does this look like it was drawn and created by professionals?” What this means, then, is that whether an anime is based on some award-winning novel or something else entirely, they have similar levels of professionalism. The amateurish qualities of a light novel, which might have been forgivable for more people if they remained in that realm, vanish, and this causes fans to look at these stories from a different perspective.

In other words, if all light novel anime looked like gdgd Fairies or Ai Mai Mii, I don’t think they would get quite as much hate. Actually, that’s something I would love to see.

Icons: Combat Arena and the Social Establishment of Character Archetypes

The desire to create competitive games in the vein of Smash Bros. often comes with the intent to court the existing player base for Smash Bros. Melee—the hyper-fast entry of the popular Nintendo franchise with the most storied tournament history. This is evident in the recently named Icons: Combat Arena. With its EVO 2017 gameplay trailer showing off attack animations and characters a little more than reminiscent of Smash Bros., the comparisons are more than inevitable. One of the consequences of this courtship is that, not only is the intended character roster inspired by high-level Melee play, but there is also a clear assumption from the creators of Icons that how the strongest characters have emerged from within Melee‘s environment have shaped the very foundation of the genre of the platform fighter subgenre.

The name of the studio behind Icons, Wavedash games, is by itself sufficient evidence for the team’s reverence for Smash and Melee. It’s named after the most well-known of the “hidden techniques” of Melee. The developers have even released videos over the past year detailing their design philosophy and inspirations. However, the fact that the Melee top tier is virtually replicated in the Icons roster revealed thus far is the biggest indicator of Melee‘s influence.

Take, for example, the character known as Kidd, an anthropomorphic goat character who’s also an homage to Joseph “Mang0” Marquez. One of the “five gods” of Melee, Mang0’s nicknames include “The Kid” and “The GOAT” (in reference to his numerous achievements). According to the creators themselves, Kidd is purposely patterned after the characters Fox and Falco from Star Fox, two of the top tiers. More than simply taking cues from these two, Icons considers the “space animal” to be a mainstay character archetype for platform fighters, the way that the “shoto” (a balanced character with fireball, anti-air uppercut, and horizontal movement special move) or the “grappler” are in traditional fighting games.

The positioning of the space animal as an archetype is very telling because, while there are shared qualities between Fox and Falco (the latter being a “clone” built directly from the template of the former), what really defines the significance of “spacies” to the platform fighter is their dominance in Melee and the reputation of superiority that precedes them. No character embodies competitive Melee more than Fox—his speed, incredibly good tools, difficult technical requirements, and overall role as “master of all trades” helps to define that high-pace action Melee is famous for. In other words, the reason the space animal is an archetype is because they’re so absurdly strong in that environment, a notion which extends to many of their archetypes listed by Wavedash Games in one their development vlogs:

The eight archetypes are: space animal, swordsman, speedy brawler, floaty, duo, projectile master, alternate weapon, and grappler. Of these, the first four can be found directly in Melee‘s upper echelons. The fifth, the projectile master, is arguably best seen with Solid Snake in Smash Bros. Brawl.

From 1 through 8: Space Animal, Space Animal, Swordsman, Speedy Brawler, Floaty, Floaty, Duo, Speedy Brawler

To be clear, this is not accusing Wavedash Games of lacking creativity. While certain attacks shown so far are quite obviously taking cues from Smash Bros. and especially Melee, there’s also a clear intent to innovate. Ashani the speedy brawler is supposed to be “30% familiar, 70% new.” Even so, Ashani is clearly assembled from the building blocks of Captain Falcon in Melee. This makes sense, given that Captain Falcon is arguably the most beloved Melee character due to his flashy, up-close combos, and the fact that he’s good, but not so overwhelming as to be stigmatized for it. Another Icons character, Zhurong, is a sword wielder clearly modeled after Marth (another Melee top tier).

If not for how competitive Melee turned out, it’s highly likely any of these categories wouldn’t even be thought of as archetypes in the first place.

That might seem like an obvious point. After all, why wouldn’t a genre grow based on the successes of past releases? However, I still think there’s a vital difference between how Icons defines its archetypes and how other games, including other competitive ones, have gone about it.

Look at Street Fighter, for instance. In Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the Spanish ninja known as Vega/Balrog/Claw is one of the best characters while also possessing a unique fighting style. Yet later fighting games inspired by Street Fighter didn’t consider “Claw” to be a foundational character style. They were more likely to go with archetypes that, while based on Street Fighter‘s success, aren’t necessarily based on tier lists—the Zangief-esque grappler, for example, fluctuates up and down the tier lists from one game to the next, and wasn’t especially strong in Street Fighter II. At this point in Icons, there seems to be no indication of a “Mewtwo”-esque character, possibly because Mewtwo is a low tier in Melee.

The archetypes established for Icons: Combat Arena do not come from the success of Smash Bros. and especially Melee as competitively viable games alone. They also derive from the collective Melee community’s perception of what is assumed or expected of a game that is trying to exist within not just the same world, but practically on the same city block. If Melee didn’t have the space animal or the swordsman, its history would’ve been far different, but the lopsidedness of its tier list also means that many of the characters who could’ve been archetypes are perceived as otherwise due to their ineffectiveness. For a competitive scene so firmly built on the top being home to only a handful of characters, it is arguably the best way for Icons to say, “I am familiar territory, don’t be afraid to try me.”

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Bootleg Products and the Defiance of Value

Growing up in New York City, bootleg products have always been a common sight. Whether it’s Louis Vitton bags, cashmere scarves, DVDs, or even plastic anime models, one could easily find a lower-cost (and lower-quality) version of whatever “big thing” was out there. Given that these products are often shoddily made, violate intellectual property rights, and in some cases actually fund organized crime, it’s very understandable why the official companies whose products are being bootlegged would take umbrage with the existence of knock-offs. However, putting aside the questions of both legality and quality, I’ve begun to wonder if bootleg products serve a certain function in a consumerist, capitalist, and image-driven society.

I recently read the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a memoir about growing up as a hillbilly in Appalachia. At one point, Vance mentions how many hillbillies are very bad at properly budgeting their money, and they will use their welfare checks to buy expensive products like smartphones and cars instead of for necessities. This is also a common story among people in the inner city, and in Korea they have a term: doenjang girl, or someone who cuts out essentials so they can buy luxury items. In all of these cases, there’s more to this behavior than simply trying to cheat the government, or starve oneself. In actuality, it has a lot to do with trying to chase the image of prosperity, to live as a “have” even if one is a “have-not.”

To state a truism, expensive things are expensive. They add up. The role of bootleg products, then, is that they allow people who cannot afford (or do not want to buy) the products the full price to at least obtain a facsimile. Sales, discounts, and even big box stores all fall along this general trend, but rarely can they compete with the rock-bottom prices of bootlegs because they’re beholden to things like laws and standards. If expensive, name-brand goods carry with them the image of success and fine living, then bootlegs are the shortcut that allows someone with less to access that fantasy without having to sacrifice everything else. Of course, many of these products are luxuries and therefore unnecessary. However, because of how much people value image and social capital, they can become more important than even food and shelter in a certain sense.

There are two different types of consumers of bootleg products: those who know they’re buying bootlegs and those who don’t. The latter are more uninformed victims. I know I’m not the only one who bought those “Son May” anime CDs back in the day, and the counterfeit Nendoroids keep improving their box designs to fool people. For the former, the surface image presented by someone who can show to the world (and to themselves) a version of oneself as living a “properly prosperous lifestyle” is enough.

Things are a little different when it comes to digital products, such as streaming anime or movie torrents. Strictly speaking, one does not wear or display their illegal streaming site episodes like one would a bootleg necklace, but there is a certain gain in “knowledge” and “status” as a result of consuming these products. Watching Game of Thrones through “alternative means” allows someone who wouldn’t be able to keep up with the buzz surrounding that series and thus keep up with conversations concerning GoT. On the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell, that, the hosts discuss the concept that scans of comics allow a greater number of people to become experts on comics because it reduces the economic barrier to that amount of knowledge. [Unfortunately I can’t remember the episode, if anyone knows, please tell me!]

Regardless of the ethics of buying counterfeit products, bootlegs (even ones that are not physical), carry consequences beyond simply the damage they cause to creators and owners. They act as shortcuts to public image, emotional satisfaction (in terms of living the “proper” lifestyle), and even expertise. As a result, for better or worse they defy the prices for products set by companies and proprietors, while also reinforcing the images of those products as premium items.

Tiger Mask W and the Lack of Friendship Redemption Arcs in Pro Wrestling

WARNING: Tiger Mask W spoilers

My decision to watch the anime Tiger Mask W came during a time that I’ve been watching more pro wrestling than I have in more than a decade. As I’ve re-acclimated myself to that world of holds, slams, betrayals, and glory, it only makes sense that a wrestling anime would hook me. The fact that it’s a sequel to a beloved classic that tries to capture the feel of the original but projected through the lens of today made that doubly possible. Watching Tiger Mask W and its story of revenge and redemption, however, made me extremely aware of the fact that real pro wrestling has plenty of the former but little of the latter.

One of the main plot points of Tiger Mask W is the rivalry between Tiger Mask and Tiger the Dark, two friends seeking vengeance on a common foe yet who aren’t aware of each other’s true identity. Eventually, they make amends and they grow stronger for it. This sort of narrative is incredibly common in anime and manga—think Naruto and Sasuke. In comparison, pro wrestling has backstabbing and teams imploding galore, but I can only think of very few cases where the reforging of bonds once broken actually seems planned in advance.

For example, over the past year, numerous duos in the world of the WWE have come apart when one character turns traitor. Kevin Owens attacked Chris Jericho during a celebration of their friendship. Tommaso Ciampa assaulted Johnny Gargano, ending the tag team DIY. Goldust hit R-Truth from behind, breaking up their alliance. Big Cass booted Enzo Amore in the face with disdain. All were and are meant to lead to feuds between former allies, the aftertaste of betrayal making them that much more bitter. Wrestling seems to be very much about building up teams only to tear them down and start an intense battle between the two, but actually bringing them back together is never part of the plan, at least not at first.

There’s always the chance that wrestlers will make amends. Perhaps one day Enzo will be fighting against the odds, when Cass runs out and saves him. After all, face turns (switches from evil to good) are part and parcel with the industry. But they’re not woven into the narrative from the start so much as something that’s done once a rivalry has run its course. They’re treated as two separate stories: the betrayal that occurs, and then later (if they really need it) the redemption and reunion.

But I want my “anime as hell” stories about a hero trying over and over to rescue a former friend from the darkness. I want face turns to come from realizing the errors of one’s ways. I want more Tiger Mask and Tiger the Dark narratives. I don’t want the restoration of friendship to be an afterthought, but something actually planned as part of a greater arc.

When Kirito Met Marcus Fenix

When looking at the generic male protagonist found in light novels, one finds that he usually has some combination of the following traits. First, he’s a guy. Second, he’s Japanese. Third, he has short hair. Fourth, he has a fairly slender figure. Fifth, he has either minor or major otaku vibes. Sixth, he has some trait that speaks towards passiveness, whether it’s an aspect of his personality or some sort of special ability that emphasizes defense or neutralization. Titles that fall along this criteria include Sword Art Online, Ore Imo, A Certain Magical Index, Baka Test, Re:Zero, Rise of the Shield HeroBakemonogatari, and so on. In effect, the Light Novel Protagonist plays a similar role to the “gruff brown-haired white guy,” an archetype that has populated mainstream video games over the past ten years.

The Light Novel Protagonist’s appearance renders him the “everyman,” but taken to a kind of extreme mediocrity. His appearance is roughly that of a teenager or early 20s adult who could probably pass for a salaryman if not for his clothing and lack of a stable job. Even though he’s often a “failure” in the eyes of society, he’s ready to show himself as capable if given the right (often nerdy) circumstances. In this way, the Light Novel Protagonist resembles the Video Game Hero in that both reinforce a rough image of masculinity. Where they differ is that the Light Novel Protagonist is often a kind of “bare minimum” of manhood, while the thick-necked rugged white guys of video games are the apex of masculinity in that arena.

This difference is evident when looking at how generic light novels and generic mainstream video games approach the topic of homosexuality. Putting aside a few exceptions from both sides, the protagonists of light novels are more willing than their angry, shooting counterparts in games to dance the line when it comes to gender. Kirito’s video game avatar gets long hair in later parts of Sword Art Online. Hachiman in My Youth Romantic Comedy and Akihisa in Baka Test find themselves attracted to extremely effeminate male characters. However, not only is the possibility of a homosexual ending unlikely, but the sheer femininity of those ambiguous characters’ appearances renders them essentially girls in all but name. As a result, masculinity and heterosexuality are preserved.

Nevertheless, that difference between portraying a masculine world versus a hyper-masculine world seems to be what allows light novels to attract a female audience a little more easily. This is actually something girls have learned to do for a long time, navigate the “boys’ world of entertainment” and carve out their own spaces, but games like Gears of War seem to actively reject any notion of appealing to people beyond their assumed young, male, heterosexual audience. In contrast, light novels pull from the many tropes of anime, manga, and Japanese games, which exist in a complex relationship of pulling aspects of girl-oriented titles toward male audiences and vice versa (e.g. shounen sports being made for girls, magical girls being made for guys).

The irony might be that, while both the Very Japanese Light Novel Protagonist and the Gruff White Video Game Hero are all about protecting their audiences’ masculinity, the two archetypes probably would not get along if they had to interact with each other. The video game hero is an embracing of old ideals of manliness, while the light novel protagonist tends to be a partial rejection of the former. The Light Novel Protagonist is often a “loser,” while the Video Game Hero is more frequently a “winner,” and the active acknowledgement of both might just be two different approaches to dealing with male insecurity.

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Kiryuin Satsuki and the Curse of Power Girl

I view the DC superhero Power Girl as being almost doomed by her appearance. If you ask anyone with even a passing familiarity with Power Girl about what defines her character, you’re very likely to get the response “boob window.” This is despite numerous attempts to revamp her character, emphasize her personality, and make her more than just eye candy first, superhero second.

This is not to say that Power Girl is an inherently bad or sexist character, whether she’s supposed to be an adult Supergirl (her original origin) or something else entirely. I don’t even think the boob window necessarily has to go. But what fascinates me about Power Girl’s situation is that, for whatever reason, it seems especially difficult for her to escape being seen almost as a character attached to a pair of breasts.

In contrast, when it comes to characters who have overcome a highly sexualized appearance, one need look no further than Kiryuin Satsuki from the anime Kill la Kill. In spite of the fact that her battle uniform looks like a sling bikini on steroids, her personality overwhelms even the sheer and unbridled sexuality of her clothing. Despite her breasts and buttocks often being in full display in numerous scenes what first comes to mind are her other attributes: scowl (with enormously imposing eyebrows), her ambition, and the fact that she literally radiates an aura of light that symbolizes her power.

I find myself wondering, what is the difference between Satsuki and Power Girl, or indeed Power Girl and other female superheroes who have been successfully redefined as more than just their eroticism (note that I did not say more than just their looks—appearance is just an essential part of superheroes, male and female)?

There are two major context points that separate Satsuki and Power Girl. First, unlike Power Girl, Satsuki is introduced in Kill la Kill in her full-body school uniform rather than in her skimpier attire. Second, whereas Satsuki’s existence is defined solely by one television series, Power Girl has been a part of comics for decades. While the circumstances of 2010s Japan and 1970s United States are substantially different, I suspect that Power Girl would be remembered very differently if she arrived on the scene the way Satsuki does in Kill la Kill: as someone grandiose and powerful. Perhaps it would even be possible for her to keep the boob window and still be thought of primarily for her superheroics and feats of strength.

Or perhaps my view of Satsuki is too charitable. Maybe the imprint she’s left on anime and its fandom, especially those who know Kill la Kill only from images, is just her near-naked body in a battle bikini.

Power Girl appears to be a victim of historical inertia. No matter what is done with her character to turn her away from a primary emphasis on her breasts, focus always returns to her iconic cleavage cut. Whether it’s possible to overturn this might require not just an amazing creative team where artist and writer are working towards this goal, but a comics fandom willing to accept this change.

 

The Revival (?) of Studio Gonzo

Kaleido Star: One of Gonzo’s Best

One of the persistent problems in TV anime production is the tendency for shows to start off strong and end disappointingly. Frequent culprits include inconclusive or unsatisfying endings, visible decline in animation quality as a series reaches its conclusion, or a lack of clear direction after a certain point (usually midway). Once upon a time, there was one studio particularly emblematic of this trend, and its name was Gonzo. To my surprise, Gonzo appeared in the news in 2016 because of its purchase by Japanese ad agency Asatsu-DK.

The path for Gonzo back to stability and relative prominence is an interesting one, and while I don’t have the inner details of just how Gonzo accomplished this, I want to discuss from my own fan perspective the ups and downs of Gonzo over the past 15+ years.

Back in the early 2000s, Gonzo shows would hit the ground running. Series such as Kiddy Grade, Vandread, and Last Exile, were full of attractive and memorable characters, and their action scenes were rife with flash and pizazz. Gonzo had two main strengths. First, was the quality of their animation. Second, was that their shows often looked visually “cutting edge.” Just as the turn of the 21st century carried with it the last vestiges of the 20th century hope for a world of flying cars and such, so too did Gonzo shows have a futuristic feel. In my own view, no studio embodied the essence of the period’s anime more than Gonzo, especially when factoring in their prominence on American store shelves, and their work on Afro Samurai.

Unfortunately, they would often start to meander around the halfway mark before barely sputtering towards the finish line. It was such a common problem for their works that terms such as “Gonzo ending” and “Gonzo show” were used among fans to describe such troubled productions. Even the Gonzo shows that people praised, especially science fiction/fantasy action works like Bokurano and Strike Witches, were often only considered good enough in that their positives would outweigh the notorious Gonzo negatives. Only a couple of shows, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, and Kaleido Star (about an aspiring circus acrobat) ended up with none of the common problems plaguing Gonzo. With the rest, it was often said among online fans that sticking with a Gonzo show came at your own peril. Fool me once…

A quick glance at their releases shows just what was fundamentally wrong with Gonzo: they bit off more than they could possibly chew. For years, multiple shows of theirs came out practically every season, and each time they all but repeated the same mistake of starting strong and ending weak. Just about every series clearly went over both time and monetary budgets for the sake of style. Perhaps the lowest point of Gonzo’s existence came in 2009, when Gonzo began animating the yuri mahjong series Saki. About two-thirds of the way through, they could no longer keep up production, and they were replaced by a studio called Picture Magic. From there, they began to fade into obscurity, working only on smaller projects usually at the behest of other companies.

However, this might have well been what saved them from the brink. Gonzo’s problem was that they were always good at micro elements such as action scenes, but faltered with macro elements like overall story and pacing. But when they could serve the role of just helping others with action, they could shine. Notably, when the Street Fighter IV expansion Super Street Fighter IV came out in 2010, they replaced the more artsy and avant garde Studio 4ºC as the provider of 2D-animated cut scenes for the famous fighting game series. Studio 4ºC has many strengths, mostly in terms of its creativity and willingness to push the boundaries of abstraction in animated works, but conventional portrayal of fight scenes was not in their wheelhouse and it showed. For Gonzo, on the other hand, it was a perfect fit.

Since then, they’ve come back to directly producing works, such as Last Exile: Fam the Silver Wing in 2011 and the Bayonetta anime in 2013. When you look at Gonzo’s output now, it’s clear that their approach has changed. Where once they tried to cram six or seven shows into a single year, now it’s generally one or two. If they’re working on more shows, it’s usually in conjunction with other studios, such as with Thermae Romae in 2012. For better or worse, they’re not even as focused on action, as their recent works tend to be more comedic, most notably the recent 2015 show Seiyu‘s Life. All the while, they still assist other studios. Perhaps what Gonzo needed was experience, going from the wild abandon of their proverbial youth to something much more reserved.

In some ways, I miss aspects of the old Gonzo. In particular, I was fond of how they often strove to be ahead of their time, even if it didn’t bear any fruit and also tanked their earnings in the process. Back when Strike Witches first aired, obtaining anime was very different. There was no Crunchyroll for legal streaming. DVDs were much more expensive than blu-rays are today. Torrents dominated, but even sharing over IRC and DC++ still happened to a small degree. In this environment, Gonzo said that they would distribute Strike Witches, episode by episode, DRM-free, and at a fairly decent video quality.

Gonzo tried to legitimize online anime viewing at a time when it was seen as impractical or even impossible, and were among the first to jump on board with the revamped Crunchyroll—a site that had gone from piracy central to forging legitimate relationships with Japan. But if it’s the difference between going out in a blaze of glory and charred bills or keeping their heads above water and slowly paddling along, then I think it’s better for Gonzo’s sake that they’ve changed. Maybe once they find themselves on terra firma, they can unleash the passion of their youth once again.