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As much as I love μ’s, the main group from the original Love Live!, I dig their anime rivals A-RISE (especiallyt their leader Kira Tsubasa) just as much. The reigning champions of the Love Live! school idol tournament, they represent the top of the pyramid, and their music in contrast to μ’s is techno/dance-heavy, with a high-budget sense of professionalism.

In episode 6 and 7 of Love Live! Sunshine!!, we’re introduced to Saint Snow, a duo whose slick dance moves and techno-style music are the first sign that the girls of Aqours have a lot of catching up to do. Given their similarities to A-RISE, I’ve come to wonder if that style of music has come to represent the “adversary” in the franchise.

It’s clear why A-RISE was placed in that position. Initially, μ’s are the underdogs, and A-RISE with their super ritzy high school and position as top idols are there to contrast with the homegrown, down-to-earth feel of the heroines of the story. Saint Snow, though they also hit some stumbling blocks, carry a similar contrast to the rural Numazu area that Aqours comes from.

There’s also a contrast in motivation that seems to come with this style of music. In episode 12, when Saint Snow meets up with Aqours once more, it’s clear that Saint Snow see being school idols as a competition. They want to stand on top and see what the view is like from the summit. This is presented not as a wrong way to approach being school idols, but exists in contrast to Aqours who are in it more for the experience, even if ostensibly they’re doing it to save their school. Similarly, in The School Idol Movie, Tsubasa from A-RISE expresses her ambition to continue being an idol even after she graduates, whereas Honoka is implied to not quite follow that path.

Is there any possibility that the “rival” sound will become associated with the central characters of Love Live!? Or will it at best always be relegated to subgroups within the main cast, such as BiBi and songs such as Cutie Panther?

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What does it mean to create a follow-up act to a multimedia franchise as successful as Love Live!? That’s the challenge facing  Love Live! Sunshine!! To fans, each of the original girls is something special, something unique, and renewing that fervor can be like catching lightning in a bottle. Of course, a franchise like Love Live! is designed to do just that, across different characters and different iterations of the concept, but it’s still not necessarily an easy task. Though I might be jumping the gun with what I’m about to say, I think the people in charge of Love Live! might now have a much clearer idea of what is most effective, and this potentially manifests in the physical appearances of the characters themselves.
I decided recently to see how the physical characteristics of the μ’s girls stack up to those of Love Live Sunshine!!‘s Aqours. Thanks to Reddit, I found a convenient chart comparing all of their heights and bust sizes. What’s noticeable is that the Aqours members are all closer to each other physically. Toujou Nozomi and Yazawa Nico are at the extremes in terms of bust size (to no one’s surprise), but a character like Hanayo who is above average compared to the rest of μ’s is decidedly normal in the world of Love Live! Sunshine!! Similarly, while half-Italian American Ohara Mari is the tallest, the other girls are also relatively close to her. Keep in mind that the disparity is not especially large, especially when it comes to height. The difference between “tiny” Kunikida Hanamaru and “towering” Mari is a mere 4 inches (or 10 centimeters). Already, there’s a certain narrow range median that reminds me of something anime voice actress Nonaka Ai once mentioned when I interviewed her: she wanted to be an actress but was considered too tall. Similarly, Hanayo’s voice actress Kubo Yurika is the tallest of the μ’s cast. Like Mari, she is 5’4″ or 163 cm.

I think it’s worth entertaining the thought that the success of Love Live! School Idol Project, which grew gradually from a modest success to a cultural phenomenon, has informed the current version in terms of what is the best median to take, at least in terms of physical traits. Moreover, given the seaside venue of Love Live! Sunshine!!, I believe that there is a greater push for sex appeal, though I’m sure they’re aware that keeping the fanservice from going too overboard is important for maintaining Love Live!‘s large female fanbase.

That being said, while they’re more similar in size, I’m not sure the same applies to the characters’ personalities. In many ways, they feel more extreme and more adhered to certain archetypes, such as Yohane’s chuunibyou identity, Kurosawa Dia’s “Kanzuki Karin” levels of haughtiness, or her sister Ruby’s ultra moe shyness. The closest we have to Ruby in in the original was Hanayo, and at this point we’re aware that Hanayo is kind of a maniac. That doesn’t mean the Aqours characters are bad, however. In a way, perhaps it helps to distinguish them further from each other.

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tritem_index_3Anime-style idols (and of course idols in general) have been of the most enduring trends in current Japanese pop culture. Between franchises like The iDOLM@STER, Love Live!Ensemble Stars, and King of Prism by Rhythm, more and more pop up seemingly every week. Trinity Tempo is one such franchise, but what makes it unique is the degree to which it takes the AKB48 “vote with your money” concept to the next level. That’s because Trinity Tempo exists almost purely in terms of merchandise, with nothing else to anchor it.

Ever since AKB48 and their annual elections, the idea of idols competing against each other with fan support has been prominent within that world. Fans vote by getting CDs because one purchase equals one ballot, and the idea is that the more you love your favorite idol the more you will buy buy buy. Currently a little over a year old, Trinity Tempo‘s premise is that different schools compete against each other in idol competitions, and you get to determine who wins by buying merchandise for your favorite team. You literally get to influence how the overall story progresses by spending cash on character-specific goods, with certain items giving you more “votes” than others.

“Where does Trinity Tempo come from?” you might be asking. The iDOLM@STER began as a game with visual novel elements. Love Live! got its start as a series of songs. All of these properties aim for the media mix, with anime and manga adaptations, coverage in magazines, and more, but they tend to have at least one or two initial starting points. After all, how would you know who your favorite characters or what your favorite songs are?

The answer is… there is nothing. No CDs. No anime or manga or games. Trinity Tempo exists almost purely in “merch space,” where potential fans are supposed to be drawn into it based primarily on their attraction to the concept and the characters themselves. Since release there has been at least one Drama CD, but that’s about it.

I think this speaks to the idea presented by Azuma Hiroki that fans take bits and pieces of characters, worlds, and stories and merge them together in what are known as “database narratives.” I’m oversimplifying the idea, but I think it can be argued that Trinity Tempo aims to commercialize the otaku desire to gather these fragments together on a level even beyond something like Kantai Collection. Whether or not they’ll succeed in the end remains to be seen.

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Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements is a good book that tries its best to call out the rewriting of past events by both the victors and the defeated. While this can detract from the magical aura that surrounds anime and the joy of experiencing anime as more than just a struggle between industry, profit, and glory, it does highlight one recurring trend that shouldn’t be forgotten—many times, when we think of some trend or change as emerging fully formed during a given period of interest, its threads can be traced back much earlier.

One thing that always comes to mind is something that Gundam director Tomino Yoshiyuki mentioned back at New York Anime Festival 2009, which was that while Gundam started courting female fans much more actively in later years (notably with Gundam Wing), it was the girls who were the biggest fans of the original 1970s work. While things have certainly changed since then, Gundam Wing also did not emerge as some kind of “sudden” targeting of a female audience.

Similarly, when it comes to Clements’ book, one example he gives has to do with the idea that the video game industry is a significant contributor of “brain drain,” that is to say a unidirectional flow of talent from anime to games. While this is often viewed as a symptom of the last decade or so, a product of the mainstream lucrativeness of the contemporary video game industry, Clements points out (on page 194) that this was already occurring in 1992, which would be during the age of the Sega Mega Drive and the Super Famicom. Thus, the battle to keep newer and more rapidly expanding entertainment sectors from drawing away the best of the best is not a relatively new phenomenon, but an ongoing quest.

One last thing I’d like mention is the fact that this brain drain is partially attributed not just to video games’ international mainstream success, but the fact that Tezuka Osamu himself undercut the cost of animation in Japan decades prior in order to get it onto Japanese television. This undervaluing of anime, known as the “Curse of Tezuka,” is what necessitates projects such as the Animator Dormitory Project, an annual fund to provide housing for animators in an industry that pays very little (by the way, that Indiegogo ends today!). To see anime change in the future is perhaps to understand the long reach of past decisions.

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Why are plushies popular with anime fans?

When I got into anime, the internet was a very different place. While I was never part of the old Usenet groups (and in fact I never learned how to use them), I would talk with my fellow fans about whatever was hot at the time. Part of the fan experience was a kind of lighthearted role playing (no, not that kind, and no, not that kind), and one thing I notice was the virtual exchange of “plushies.” These dolls didn’t actually exist, but they were playful gestures to show friendship and support, or to present oneself as cute and fun and lovable. When I think of “anime fans and plushies,” I think of an era of the Anime Web Turnpike and Kisekae (KiSS) dolls, both relics of late 90s, early 2000s internet fandom.

However, that’s not really the case, is it? Plush dolls, whether specifically anime themed or otherwise, still hold the attention of many fans at conventions, online, and (I assume) with each other in other more personal settings. Also, the dolls have become more prominent, whether in artist alleys or through official channels. They might be a chibi Sasuke from Naruto or an alpaca, but they’re out there being sold and traded and loved. There’s something kind of timeless about the idea of owning a cute doll, and it’s not like this is limited to anime fans at all, but anime fans will embrace and hold onto them even after they’re supposed to have outgrown collecting dolls.


There can’t be only one reason that anime fans gravitate towards plushies. Even with the common interest of Japanese cartoons, people are too diverse for a singular cause. I could see some enjoying them because they just like dolls in general. Others might just want to collect their favorite characters. That being said, I do think that the trope of the chibi or super deformed character has no small influence on the popularity of dolls with anime fans. They appear in official parody spinoffs, in the middle of scenes, and in fanart since the earliest days. Anime fans embrace what is cute, Japanese culture has made an entire industry off of “kawaii,” and in certain ways it’s almost defiant of macho expectations given to both men and women. Frederik L. Schodt wrote in his seminal book on Japanese comics, Manga! Manga!, that part of the reason manga became so sophisticated is that the fans of manga in Japan grew up and refused to let go of their stories. Perhaps plushies are connected to this sentiment, maybe not directly but in terms of a similar mindset and desire to keep the joys of childhood.


Maybe the association between SD character renditions and plushies are why I consider plushies to be very much anchored in that 90s anime fandom. After all, the 90s were the peak of chibi character content. Though I don’t really see it anymore, super deformed characters were considered such a staple of anime fandom that they were viewed as a defining characteristic that helped to differentiate anime from other forms of animation, right along with big eyes and small mouths. While we’ve since been introduced to a much wider variety of styles, and the trends have changed over time, the anime plush doll still retains the features of a chibi character.

I personally don’t engage with anime or anime fans the way I did 15 to 20 years ago, so I don’t know to what extent the old ways of interaction still remain. Do fans still give each other imaginary plushies, or do they now take the form of digital renderings, emojis, or Line stickers? Does this further emphasize the physical aspect of actually owning plush dolls? For the anime fans who carry them through conventions and meetups and such, do they also display them in their everyday lives, or is there still a fear of being judged for being into dolls? This is a line of inquiry I’d be interested in finding out more about. If you have insights of your own, feel free to share them!

I know that, by mentioning dolls, I’m also bringing up associations with the ball-jointed (and often very expensive) kind. I think that fandom might share some qualities with the enthusiasts of plushies, but they’re quite a different group overall. Perhaps I’ll discuss that one while reminiscing about Rozen Maiden and its very passionate followers another time.

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I’ve been on an “90s anime theme” kick recently, watching various live concert performances and animated intros/outros on YouTube. When you look through them, there’s a recurring tendency in shows of the time to have ending animations highlight the token female character as she existed in the 90s. What stands out to me in particular is that a lot of these girls are designed to be fairly pretty but not excessively beautiful, talented but not too talented.

Frequently, the 90s girl is the protagonist’s love interest, especially in series with heavily male-dominated casts, and in shounen works also works as either an everyman or expositional character to get the reader up to speed on the rules of the story. She’s the ideal support for him and his passionate pursuit of whatever goal or motivation he possesses, and it’s this sideline cheerleader that has more recently fallen by the wayside in favor of a new breed of heroine, who still might not be in the spotlight but possesses some sort of “other” talent. The example that immediately comes to mind is Akagi Haruko from Slam Dunk, who knows a bit about basketball and is the target of affection for the hero, in contrast to Aida Riko and Momoi Satsuki from Kuroko’s Basketball, who have support “powers” for their teams and whose roles as possible love interests are not as prominent (perhaps influenced by the greater fujoshi influence of Kuroko). None of them are stars of their stories, but I think there’s a clear difference between then and now.

If the main character’s love interest is supposed to be an ideal, I have to wonder why they’re so frequently designed to not be quite so ideal in the first place. This could be chalked up to “good characterization” in some cases, and a “boring” or “plain” female character to a potential viewer outside of Japan might be seen as a “yamato nadeshiko” type perfect woman in Japanese culture (e.g. Shinguji Sakura from Sakura Wars). However, I can’t help thinking that there’s something else, like a desire to promote the plain girl as the one young readers of shounen should be aiming for. Pining for the hottest girl around might somehow have been viewed as impractical or even wrongheaded, and that the childhood friend, the girl next door, would be the far better choice. Was anime and manga trying to teach its audience what kind of love would be the more realistic choice, or is it just that having these girls be fairly plain is simply about pushing the heroes further to the forefront?



This time on Apartment 507, I explore the idea of the “anime fighter” and all of its surrounding meanings and associations. Hope you like air dashing!

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There have been many attempts over the years to dethrone the Japanese children’s entertainment juggernaut that is Precure, but while Precure is squarely in the realm of the “fighting magical girl,” most of its challengers are themed around mahou shoujo’s sister genre: pop idols. This includes Pretty Rhythm, PriPara, Lil Pri, and the subject of today’s post, Aikatsu!

Aikatsu! began in 2012 as a multimedia franchise consisting of games, manga, and anime. The animated television series, created by Sunrise (of Gundam fame), follows Hoshimiya Ichigo, a girl who enters the idol training school Starlight Academy after being inspired by its top star, Kanzaki Mizuki. Together with her best friend and idol fan, Kiriya Aoi, and others she meets along the way, they engage in idol katsudou, or “idol activities.”


Sunrise at this point is well known for another popular idol anime, Love Live!, and despite the fact that they don’t share that much staff, the two shows are similar in feel. Both have an overall lighthearted sense of fun and engaging character interactions combined with learning and personal development. Both feature bizarrely comedic moments (the episode where Ichigo gets into an “Obari Pose” and chops down a christmas tree is famous). Both series are also so entertaining in these respects that the actual “idol performance” moments are comparatively less interesting.


However, one curious aspect of Aikatsu! that differentiates it from Love Live! (and many other anime) in terms of narrative is that Ichigo and the other idols don’t seem to have a concrete goal to aim for. The girls in Love Live! want to save their school and then win the Love Live. Naruto wants to become Hokage. Ichigo’s motivation is this vague sense of “becoming an idol,” but by the first few episodes she already is one more or less, and there just seems to be this general sense of forward progress. This is also what differentiates it from other more episodic works, or series such as Hidamari Sketch.

Aikatsu! has just enough on-going threads in the background and pays attention to its characters’ growth that the series carries a nice sense of continuity. Aoi becomes the mascot for a crepe company in an early episode, and after that you can always see a copy of the advertisement poster featuring her in Aoi and Ichigo’s room. The show also drops hints that Ichigo’s mom is a former idol, and as I continue to watch the series I’m just anticipating that moment where Ichigo discovers the truth. Every time her mom appears on screen, I think, “Will this be it?!” That desire to see Ichigo’s realization is actually one of my main motivations for continuing to watch.


There’s one last element of Aikatsu! I want to discuss. More specifically, it’s a theory pertaining to Aikatsu!‘s relationship with Precure. When watching Aikatsu!‘s core cast, I could not help but be reminded of the cast of Doki Doki Precure!, which came out in 2013. While the characters are different enough to not feel like copies of each other, Mana’s blonde hair and pink color scheme in her transformed state resembles Ichigo’s, Rikka (blue) plays the role of the more level-headed and smarter best friend just like Aoi, Alice resembles Arisugawa Otome (orange) not only in name but also in appearance, and Makoto’s occupation as an idol (as well as her serious personality) feels akin to Mizuki. I suspect that Doki Doki Precure! may have taken some inspiration from Aikatsu! but I can’t be certain of this. That said, I recently checked out some of the character design notes for Doki Doki Precure! and noticed that Cure Sword (Makoto)’s design originally had longer hair, which would make her more stylistically similar to Mizuki from Aikatsu!

Aikatsu! has been a series on my radar for a while, that I had only briefly engaged with, but given just how entertained I’ve been by it I definitely want to watch more and talk more about it. Expect future posts, maybe?


I wrote a post over at Apartment 507 looking at the nostalgia for the Showa period that seems to be cropping up in anime. Leave a comment either here or there and tell me what you think!

The term “Mary Sue,” originally meaning a kind of overly perfect self-insert character in fanfiction who would be dropped into a story to solve all of its problems, has been a battlefield of sorts in popular culture. Characters are called Mary Sues if they show even the slightest bit of wish fulfillment, and in response there is a feminist movement to reclaim the term, fueled by the idea that idealized male characters are the norm and similar female characters are unfairly maligned. This is what is fueling discussion concerning the character Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, I feel that, as the discussion over which characters are and aren’t Mary Sues due to their perfect (or perfectly dramatic) natures, the fact that the term derives specifically from fanfiction gets lost in the shuffle, and that it is crucial to remember that its origin comes not from big blockbuster movies but from fans of popular culture navigating their chosen works and worlds.

Before I go into greater detail, I want to make a few points clear. First, I do not think wish fulfillment characters are inherently bad, whether they’re male, female, or something else entirely. Second, I believe fanfiction does have merit as a space for active participation, as a source for good and/or interesting stories, and everything else in between. Third, I understand that the meanings of words can change over time. Basically, this isn’t a criticism of fanfiction, or lack of originality, or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the natural evolution of language.

The earliest known use of the term “Mary Sue” comes from Star Trek fandom, specifically from Paula Smith’s parody of a common trend in Star Trek fanfics at the time. Essentially, many stories would involve a young girl (most Star Trek fanfiction was written by women in the 1970s) who would become the center of attention, would have some unique visual identifier that instantly screamed “unique,” and would have just enough tragedy to emphasize how special they are. While you can think of many characters in fiction who fulfill these categories (Uzumaki Naruto, Bella in Twilight), I think the real key to the “Mary Sue,” and why its fanfic origins are so important to remember, is that by being the center of attention they were viewed as 1) drawing focus away from the world and characters that form the basis for that fandom 2) their idealized natures, rather than feeling universal, felt overly specific to the point of making it difficult to empathize.

To expand on both points, when we look at anime and see the generic shounen hero with a unique and special power, or the generic shoujo heroine who all the boys fall in love with, they can be seen as attempts to have a broader, more general appeal. Even if they end up being cliches, and even if they’re considered by more hardcore fans as being “boring”—though I think this comes from a time when fandoms were more niche and the deepest fans tended to prefer the subversive/evil/morally gray characters—there is a desire for broader appeal. When a character’s quirks or backstory or overall qualities make them wish fulfillment for people at large, that is different from when those same traits make them inaccessible to a reader due to being overly specific. In other words, when a character feels as if they are designed solely to appeal to only the author and no one else, then the term “Mary Sue” comes to light.

Of course, even that criteria is subjective, as different people will connect to different characters, whether they come from fanfiction or not. Also, if the “Mary Sue” was such a problem that Paula Smith had to address it, perhaps it could be argued that there were enough people with that same fantasy that it could be considered a broad enough desire to not be thought of as “overly specific.” It also needs to be pointed out that the Mary Sue derives from an amateur space, where writers do not have editors or marketers or even the need for a coherent narrative. These sorts of stories tend to happen naturally from those who do not consider common “good story rules” such as conflict, character depth, etc., and in a way we all have our Mary Sue stories inside of us where everything just goes right.

However, the idea of the Mary Sue did not originally come from an explicit connection to women, narratives, and society, but rather an implicit one. Because Star Trek fanfiction was the domain of women, it is possible to argue that its values developed in a feminine space, which when expanded to also include men to a large degree made Mary Sues a target for criticism and conflict in ways that trivialized the wish fulfillment of women more than men. Perhaps the biggest issue with the “Mary Sue” is in her name: chosen to be generic, and to reflect a recurring type of character in fanfiction, the doubly feminine nature of the moniker infuses it with gender values. Even though alternatives have been created for males (Gary Stu, Marty Stu), they simply never caught on as much. It’s also interesting to note that criticism of the Mary Sue originally took place between women.

I have one last question to ask: does the term Mary Sue even need to be reclaimed? Have men really seized it as their own, or has it never really left the grasp of women at all?

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