Refreshing Noodles: Min Min in Smash Bros. Ultimate

A lot has happened in the Smash Bros. community over the past two weeks, with multiple instances of sexual abuse and assault among its competitive scene coming to light. This is a serious problem, and its exposure is ultimately for the better, especially for the victims and those who would have been potential victims.

This has also overshadowed some of the happier Smash news—namely the reveal of Min Min as the new DLC character—so I want to focus on that. Hopefully, we can embrace the good without looking away in willful ignorance as to what needs to change.

Min Min

When an ARMS character was announced as DLC for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate two months ago, the online reaction felt less than enthusiastic. Although ARMS is a fairly successful Switch game, the previous DLC pack had hardcore fans craving for more outlandish choices in the vein of Hero and Banjo-Kazooie. Amazingly, I think the developers and Nintendo have managed to turn opinion around with their reveal of Min Min as the winner, and it’s thanks to a combination of factors. 

First, ARMS just has fantastic character designs that ooze personality, and Min Min is one of its best. Second, she brings a unique fighting style that gives players something new and different to try out. Third, she happens to be associated with the Etika, the gaming Youtuber who tragically died by suicide almost one year ago. All three worked together to make a perfect storm.

Character Design

Min Min looks cool when she probably should look ridiculous. She is a ramen shop owner with noodles for hair, a ramen bowl hat, a dragon for an arm, a somewhat stereotypical Chinese outfit, and she does kung fu. Yet, somehow, it all works together. She comes across as fun and lighthearted, yet serious and strong. Her martial arts animations are impressive, and they lend her a lot of flavor.

The trailer itself also did a great job of conveying her personality. As the other ARMS fighters battle to obtain a coveted Smash Bros. invitational letter, Min Min is at her shop watching Captain Falcon and Kirby eat ramen. It’s only after Captain Falcon has completely finished his bowl with utter satisfaction that Min Min leaves to fight for the Smash spot. This shows how important her restaurant and customers are to her, that she would on some level prioritize them over what is arguably the ultimate prize. Min Min just comes across as charming and powerful in the best ways, even to those who have zero familiarity with ARMS.

Min Min is also the first playable Chinese character in Smash Bros. history, giving her a unique factor. Because she speaks Mandarin Chinese in the trailer, I was curious as to who her actor is. It turns out the voice behind Min Min is Takutsu Haruna, a Japanese performer who studies Chinese as a hobby. I appreciate the fact that they chose someone who has put in that much effort, even if all she’s saying is, “I love ramen!”

Fighting Style

Min Min might very well become the bane of online play with her long reach and dual-arm game mechanic. Zoners and projectile specialists are the bane of many Smash players, and it seems like Min Min is only adding fuel to the fire. But Sakurai’s video demonstration makes her look more exciting than one might have expected, notably because she controls differently from pretty much every Smash character before her. Whereas most characters have a clear delineation between their normal “A-button” moves and their special “B-button moves,” for Min Min, they control her left and right ARMS respectively. Moreover, she can move while her attacks are coming out. Thus, she’s able to deliver long-range one-two combinations at a player’s chosen timing or send them in different directions to cover a wider area. 

The closest comparable character is Mega Man, who’s able to move and attack in a similar way thanks to his pellets, but even that doesn’t fully prepare players for the Min Min experience. Just from using her for a few days, it feels like you’re playing a completely different game—my fingers stop knowing what to do with other characters when I try to switch back. She’s someone who will take time and dedication to use at even a functional level, which also means she’s offering something you won’t find in other characters. It’s unclear as to how strong she actually is, but it will take time to figure out regardless.

As an aside, while not related to ARMS, this left-right setup could also be the perfect way to add a Tekken character to the roster. Heihachi is probably out given the Mii costume they just announced, but who knows? Maybe we’ll get Kazuya MIshima or Jin Kazama instead.

Etika’s Legacy

The late Etika was one of the most visible figures in online Smash fandom, and was probably the very face of “Smash reaction videos” thanks to his genuine passion towards character reveals. While he would invite controversy constantly, it became sadly clear in the end that he suffered from mental illness, and every one of his fans wishes that things turned out differently.

Etika also happened to be a big fan of Min Min, though not always for the purest of reasons, as his LEGS t-shirt above makes clear. Regardless, when Min Min was first shown in that trailer, those who followed and knew Etika probably all had the same thought: the man would have loved this. It’s even possible to imagine how he would have reacted—with an expressiveness few can ever match.

In the End, Nothing’s Wrong with First-Party Characters

Min Min’s announcement had it all: a strong character aesthetic that can make new fans instantly, a showcase of interesting gameplay brought by her, and an online presence that goes beyond the familiar borders of Nintendo in the form of Etika. What’s just as important is that it showed how you don’t need an off-the-wall unpredictable pick to create excitement and hype. “An ARMS character” is something probably anyone could have predicted, but what they perhaps couldn’t account for is having the whole package executed so well. My hope, however futile it might be, is that fans can appreciate the characters that are coming, even if it’s not necessarily the ones they want. They might be able to win us over, just like Min Min.

The Importance of the Song in the Final Episode of Wave, Listen to Me!

Wave, Listen to Me! is a great manga and anime about a woman who unexpectedly becomes a radio host—a mature comedy that is about five genres away from author Samura Hiroaki’s most famous work, Blade of the Immortal. I recommend everyone check it out. For those who have recently finished the anime TV series, I’m here to point out that the song played in the finale has a special kind of relevance to the episode.

SPOILER WARNING, of course.

In episode 12, an earthquake hits Hokkaido, causing blackouts. As the characters look up at a starry night sky, a song plays: Kyu Sakamoto’s “Miagete goran, Yoru no Hoshi o” or “Behold the Nighttime Stars.” This song originally came out after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and it responded to the fact that the lack of light pollution made the stars more visible than normal. A common interpretation of the song’s lyrics is that the stars are also the souls of those who died in the disaster. In short, having “Miagete goran, Yoru no Hoshi o” play was an active choice with a specific meaning to Japan.

Incidentally, I actually only learned about the song and its significance because I’ve been following Kio Shimoku’s current manga, Hashikko Ensemble. The tune has a central role in the narrative up to this point, and one of the characters goes as far as to explain everything I mentioned above. I find it a little funny that these two streams dovetailed so nicely together.

Both Wave, Listen to Me! and Hashikko Ensemble run in the magazine Monthly Afternoon, so maybe this synergy isn’t totally out of the question. Most likely, however, is that they’re both referencing the same major moment in Japanese history.

Our Better Angels: Superman Smashes the Klan

When I was more actively into superhero comics, the prevailing sentiment about Superman was that he’s a “boring” character whose nigh-invulnerability and moral uprightness were far less interesting than the grim and gritty Batman or what Marvel Comics had been doing. But I think that was as much a reflection of the kinds of people who called themselves comics fans as well as a kind of blindness towards the very fact that Superman is a reflection of both the ideals and the shortcomings of the United States. It’s a country built upon both racism and opportunity, and Superman as the “ultimate immigrant” stands at that crossroads. 

Plenty of works about Superman have helped to showcase his humanity, from All-Star Superman to Smallville to the 1990s’ Superman: The Animated Series to even the controversial Man of Steel, but Superman Smashes the Klan by writer Gene Luen Yang and artists Gurihiru that I think presents an especially poignant story about Superman’s internal conflict through his own status as an immigrant.

Superman Smashes the Klan is an adaptation/re-imagining of one of the most famous stories ever told in the old 1940s radio show, The Adventures of Superman, in which Superman faces off against a Ku Klux Klan analogue. The catch: the show had actual KKK secrets and code words, and helped to expose them to a greater American audience, weakening their ability to recruit new members. Where Yang makes his mark as the writer This particular arc also includes the Chinese Lee family as minor characters, and that’s where Yang—whose previous comics focus heavily on the Chinese experience in the US—makes his mark by giving them extra attention. The topics of racism and the immigrant experience are portrayed with an incredible amount of nuance that leads to far more than just a “racism is bad” moral lesson.

The Lee family, for example, is portrayed as each having different relationships with the concept of “Americanizing.” Tommy, the son, loves baseball and will even make jokes about his Chinese-ness as a way to befriend the white kids around him. Roberta, Tommy’s inquisitive sister, sees his behavior as incredibly fake, and doesn’t want to have to put on a show or play into stereotypes. Their father is so intent on presenting himself as a model minority that he tries to dress the part of the professional scientist even in dire emergencies. Their mother gets fed up with her husband’s insistence on speaking English instead of Cantonese even though it’s a much more comfortable language for her to express herself. Even though all four characters are Chinese and even related to one another, they’re shown to be influenced by the tension between their Chinese background and American life in different ways. 

The white characters are given a similar treatment, where Tommy’s baseball rival, Chuck Riggs, is shown to have both good and ill within him. He worships Superman and the righteousness he embodies but also has a white supremacist upbringing that influences how he sees others. It’s the conflict between these two aspects of him that defines Chuck’s own development throughout.

Superman’s part in this story mirrors that of the Lees. He actively tries to portray himself as a Good American just like any other—albeit with superhuman strength and speed—but has to deal with knowing that he’s not human like everyone assumes he is. One antagonistic character even assumes that Superman is white, and asks how Superman could betray his own race, a scene that touches upon those with non-white backgrounds who are able to pass as “white” in American society, and reap the benefits as a result. There’s even an acknowledgement of Superman’s parallels to the Nazi idolization of Nietzche’s concept of the “Die Ubermensch” by having a Nazi villain constantly call him “The Superman.”

There’s one aspect of Yang’s writing of Asian characters that I must praise, and that’s his willingness to portray them as having their own problematic beliefs. After the Lee home is attacked by the Klan, a group of black men driving by stop to help them out. However, Roberta and Tommy’s father immediately sees them as a threat and treats them as such. Here, his racism and stereotypical assumptions of black people reveal themselves, even as he himself tries to fight racism towards himself and his family. As an Asian-American myself, the capacity for Asians to both bristle at the discrimination inflicted upon them while being complicit in racism against other peoples is one of my greatest frustrations in life, and I am glad to see Superman Smashes the Klan showing both the fact that this happens and the complexity it carries. It’s very much in line with the kind of well-rounded yet complicated depictions seen in Yang’s previous works such as American Born Chinese and The Shadow Hero.

While I focused mostly on the writing aspect for this review, I want to give credit to Gurihiru’s excellent art. As always, their work feels both approachable yet filled with a sense of quiet grandeur. The care they give to showing the differences between the characters through their body language ends up enhancing the greater themes and important points of the comic overall.

Superman Smashes the Klan feels ever more relevant as the United States is seeing the rise of hate groups and increased violence towards non-white groups of all stripes. It is an accessible book that is worth reading by kids and adults alike, and I think it would especially resonate with Asians living in the US. It’s worth not just a look, but also a close examination of how America succeeds and fails at the ideals it presents to the world.

Never Forget that Black Lives Matter

“I’m conscious of race whenever I’m writing, just as I’m conscious of class, religion, human psychology, politics — everything that makes up the human experience. I don’t think I can do a good job if I’m not paying attention to what’s meaningful to people, and in American culture, there isn’t anything that informs human interaction more than the idea of race.”

― Dwayne McDuffie 

Black lives matter. An anime blog isn’t necessarily the best place to make that statement, but I felt the need to do so. More than simply leaving it at that, however, I want to write my own thoughts about the intersection between race, racism, and privilege, because I see in parts of anime fandom an alarming component of rancid intolerance and ignorance. I’ve tried in the past to couch explanations of privilege in more analogous terms—comparing it to a fighting game super meter or imagining worlds where privilege is more concretely shown—but I’ve come to realize that such approaches only go so far. There’s a reality staring us in the face about the way black lives are not valued in the United States.

I recently watched the 1942 film The Talk of the Town. While it features a primarily white cast and is not explicitly about racial discrimination, the spirit of the film is very much in line with some of what I’m feeling: 

“The law must be engraved in our hearts and practiced every minute to the letter and spirit. It can’t even exist unless we’re willing to go down into the dust and blood and fight a battle every day of our lives to preserve it. For our neighbor as well as ourself!“

It’s easy to think one can avoid controversy and sensitive political topics by just sticking to one’s fandom. Shamefully, I thought for many years that I could stay distanced from these matters—concerned and saddened, of course, but powerless to do anything. However, even geek fandom itself is rife with discrimination and passive exertions of privilege in ways that poison the ability for something like anime or superhero comics to bring people together through love and passion. When a black cosplayer dresses as a non-black character, there is inevitably a reaction from a vocal segment about how they’re doing it “wrong,” that dark-skinned people should cosplay as dark-skinned characters. A lot of media assumes lighter-skinned characters to be the default, yet when those who don’t match the inherent appearance of a character try to express their own personal take on it, they’re harassed. When light-skinned characters are viewed as the “standard” in so much of our entertainment and media, and dark-skinned fans face gatekeeping that discourages them from expressing themselves through cosplay or other means, there’s a very stark message about what we as a society consider to be “normal.” It’s not that far a leap to go from seeing this, to seeing how black people’s lives are disregarded in America.

I am not black. I am Asian-American, and because of that, I’m going to bring up a topic that is hotly debated among Asians in the US: affirmative action. Examples of affirmative action such as college admission and hiring are sometimes framed as evidence of how white people and Asians are discriminated against in favor of black people. The idea is that because there are these systems in place to give black people help, they are therefore the real beneficiaries of our society. “How can white privilege exist when black people can get into college more easily? Isn’t that black privilege?” But that reaction in itself is very telling. To those on the outside who don’t understand the tacit power their appearance grants them in society at large, “privilege” comes only in the form of concrete milestones like receiving higher education or landing a job.

Privilege is at its strongest not in these big tent-pole life events, but in the small everyday interactions that permeate every single person’s life. Consider the simple choice of how we dress. You might choose to dress well because you like to look good, or maybe it gives you confidence. Maybe you don’t care about fashion and just want clothing that is functional. Or perhaps you grew up in a place where you were ridiculed for your clothing, and you began dressing a certain way as a form of protection against bullies or assholes.

For black people in America, their choice of clothing can be the difference between being viewed as a “respectable member of society” and a “dangerous criminal,” and even then, it might not be enough. There’s a 2016 CNN article titled “For affluent blacks, wealth doesn’t stop racial profiling.” In it, a black Republican senator, a black trauma surgeon, and a black Harvard professor all recount the police approaching them as potential criminals because of their blackness. When Amy Cooper threatened to call the police on Christian Cooper, who simply was trying to tell her to follow mask-wearing rules in Central Park, she purposely pitched up her voice to ham up her role as a “frightened white woman” up against a “scary black man.”

Philando Castile was shot by police in his car in front of his wife and daughter despite following all the rules. He mentioned to the officer that he was a licensed gun owner, and that his gun was in the same place as his license and registration. He was compliant in every possible way, and he still died for it. By default, black people are seen as potential threats to a country and society built on white privilege and black labor, and no amount of dressing well or making enough money can paper over that inherent injustice. What hope did Amadou Diallo, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, or countless others have? 

What’s more, you can even see the damage white privilege causes to black people and the US at large in the malignant counter-arguments against “black lives matter.” “All lives matter” is an attempt to take focus away from a specific and stark problem brought about by the US’s history of enslaving black people and building its economy on their bones. “Blue lives matter” is an attempt to inflame tension and reinforce the dichotomy built upon the assumption of black criminality. These are disingenuous in their intent, and need to be understood as such.

I say it again just as much for myself as I do for any readers: black lives matter. I hope the energy that has come out of the worldwide protests and the calls for justice continue for as long as it takes.

Interdependence Day: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for July 2020

It feels like 100 years have passed since June and July. The world feels liable to change in the most drastic ways, but also to revert back to the same old ignorance. We’re all just individuals in the end, but I hope that we can enrich ourselves just as much as we help those around us. As COVID-19 spikes around the US, I want everyone, even those I vehemently disagree with, to have long, healthy, and fulfilling lives, and to remember that we’re in this together. It shouldn’t be “every man for himself” in this situation.

Thank you to my Patreon sponsors, who support me even as I deviate from the main topics of this blog at times.

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Dsy (NEW PATRON!)

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

I like to think that everyone who follows Ogiue Maniax knows my passion for anime and manga is genuine, even if there are times when more important things are at stake.

Blog highlights from June:

Beyond “Friendship, Hard Work, and Victory”: The Promised Neverland

A full-series review of one of the best shounen manga ever.

Beastars and the Fight Against Behavioral Absolutism

My interpretation of what Beastars has to say about civilization.

Learning About the Butterflies and the Bees: Saotome-senshu, Hitakakusu

A great and silly boxing-themed romance comedy series. Highly recommend.

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 29 shows a bit of tension between Akira and Jin—a first for the series.

Patreon-Sponsored

Thoughts on Open-World RPGs and the D&D Legacy

It basically turned into a post about JRPGs vs. WRPGs.

Apartment 507

The Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba manga has finished. Could this mean one of the overall best anime adaptations ever is on its way?

Closing

A new anime season is upon us, but in this current situation, that means a lot of shows that went on hiatus due to coronavirus are coming back. I’m most stoked for Healin’ Good Precure, which is finally going to be streaming on Crunchyroll in the US. It’s time for Precure to claim its rightful place!

Dissenting Voice: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 29

Akira vs. Jin?! It’s Chapter 29 of Hashikko Ensmble!

Summary

The Hashimoto Chorus Appreciation Society arrives at the site of their training camp, which is packed with seemingly all the audio equipment they’ll ever need. But as Jin is living in audiophile paradise, Akira is still thinking about seeing Jin at Himari. Jin explained that he was there to help Himari build her own speaker, but it still doesn’t sit well with Akira. 

Hasegawa (who has declared her intent to join the club proper as conductor—and drag Kanon in along as well) reveals to Akira that having Jin help Himari was all her idea. In fact, she purposely timed things so that Akira would be on the previous castle trip. Hasegawa also prods Akira about his obvious feelings towards Shion.

Jin talks about his next plans for the group, which involves having the guys all sing a capella for the school festival. His motivation seems a little off somehow, but what’s even more unusual is Akira vehemently disagreeing with the decision—a first “fight” for the two. The group later goes outside to look at the stars and to practice harmonizing, only for the debate about the school festival to continue. However, the argument is suddenly interrupted when everyone realizes that Shion is missing!

Feelings and Tensions

It feels harder and harder to write chapter summaries for Hashikko Ensemble. Whether it’s the burgeoning (?) romances or the friction that exists between the characters, everything feels important and frivolous at the same time. Jin and Himari could just be as innocent as they claim, seeing as Jin is not one for deception, but maybe there’s still something sparking there. Akira’s crush on Shion seems to only grow stronger, and it’s clear that his reluctance towards doing a capella is that Shion (who’s only just recently healed from her hand injury) wouldn’t be able to play. Meanwhile, I suspect Jin’s eerily forceful desire to do a capella comes from wanting to further defy his mysterious mother.

Orihara seems especially tense, but I can’t really tell for sure what the reason could be. He seems like he’s trying to work through something possibly related to Shion, but I feel like the series is trying to use him as a red herring romantic rival. Orihara’s a complex yet simple character, so it’s hard to peg what he’s about, even when knowing his tragic past.

Sound Training

I like seeing Jin nerd out about audio electronics, even if I don’t fully understand everything that’s going on or how it’s supposed to all fit together. To be fair, that’s something I share with most of the characters in this chapter. Still, I at the very least learned that Accuphase is a manufacturer known for its power amps, and that with sufficiently good equipment, you can even hear where the singers were positioned in a room. 

There’s also an interesting little training regimen shown in this chapter, meant to strengthen your voice and your muscles at the same time. In fact, the manga itself points to the original source, “Muscle Voice Training,” which can be found on Yamaha’s official Youtube channel!

As for its portrayal in this manga, one thing I find curious is that Shinji is able to generate more force in his “He!”s than the bigger and stronger Orihara. I think either Orihara is just not trying very hard (possibly out of embarrassment), or there’s something about Shinji’s castle-exploring cardio that gives him a slight edge.

Songs

You know the drill by now. It’s“Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” by Kyu Sakamoto. Most likely, things will change now that we’re seemingly moving into a new arc.

Final Thoughts

Kanon joining the club seems inevitable, but I have to wonder what role she’ll end up in.

Also, this series being a manga and all, I often picture Akira’s voice in my head as something soft and light, only to remember that he’s supposed to have a  serious bass to his voice. It’s so unlike what’s typical that I want even more to see it in anime form.

Thoughts on Open-World RPGs and the D&D Lineage

Open-world RPGs have never really been my thing, though it’s less about genre preference and more about circumstances. I was never much of a PC gamer when RPGs like Baldur’s Gate were around, and by the time similar games (such as The Elder Scrolls series) emerged on more powerful console hardware, I didn’t have any of those systems. But from a distance, I find the branching paths of Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs to be such a wonderful story of diverging Dungeons & Dragons lineages—namely how the former has taken more from the customization and self-insertion aspects of tabletop roleplaying in contrast to the latter and how the latter has went on to emphasize the narrative and storytelling components by way of old Western computer RPGs such as Wizardry.

It might be my ignorance and unfamiliarity at work, but I see expansive open-world RPGs as putting less emphasis on defining strong characters through which a story unfolds. More often than not, my impression is that they are about putting the player in the driver’s seat and trying to convey a virtual environment where they can do “whatever they want” within the boundaries of a game’s programming. Even if they have set things to do and accomplish, these games are meant to feel like your story.

That being said, plenty of JRPGs have user insert characters, including Dragon Quest and Pokemon have audience insert protagonists, and the latter even allows for heavier aesthetic customization now. However, I do feel that there is a more defined sense of a default look and feel to these generic JRPG player characters, and the result is that they also end up feeling like someone you’re observing from a distance—like you’re in a dream seeing yourself from a third-person perspective.  For me, personally, I’ve traditionally preferred that direction.

Of course, I’m making certain assumptions and generalizations when I define Western RPGs as more expansive and open-world, as even those words can change meaning and significance depending on what players are used to and how they perceive the importance of those qualities. For example, it’s interesting to me that the prevailing online opinion on Pokemon Black & White has changed so drastically in the ten years since its debut. 

Back when it first launched, the games were criticized as being too easy and hand-holdy—you always knew exactly where to go next. This was a far cry from the original Pokemon Red & Blue generation-1 games, which gave far fewer explanations and kind of left a lot of things ambiguous. But now, Black & White are touted as being one of the gold standards of Pokemon, and its descendants inferior for their perceived lack of strong and focused storytelling. Red & Blue, in turn, are seen as cumbersome relics that don’t do enough to guide players. It comes down to a generational divide, but even within the specific realm of Pokemon—hardly what you’d call a premiere example of open-world gameplay—this debate about the two Dungeons & Dragons lineages takes place.

I feel that the success of expansive open-world RPGs on an individual level comes down to whether or not the inevitably less defined bits of narrative that are a consequence of heavy personal customization and gameplay systems that encourage defining “your” story as opposed to following someone else’s. Both it and the JRPG style are capable of capturing people’s imaginations, but it’s what we want to do with our captive imaginations that highlights our differences.

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.

Beyond “Friendship, Hard Work, and Victory”: The Promised Neverland

The Promised Neverland recently concluded in Weekly Shounen Jump, and it caps off a four-year run as perhaps my favorite dedicated shounen manga of the last twenty years. It both elevates and challenges the foundational Jump motto of “Friendship, Hard Work, and Victory” by pushing far past simple power fantasies and the thrill of adventure. It dives deep into the territory of political thought as it tells an intriguing story about kids trying to both survive and make a difference in their world.

This is not the first time I’ve praised The Promised Neverland. I’ve previously written about the significance of its main heroine, Emma, and the fact that the series criticizes the entrenched systems of injustice that stay in power by pitting people against one another. Now that the series has crossed the finish line, I feel that my positive opinions of the manga have been more than justified. The Promised Neverland is a series that dares to say something about the world, utilizing its world and its characters to challenge readers to imagine a better world.

The Promised Neverland places a female protagonist front and center, gives her the agency to make changes, and emphasizes the idea that we don’t have to perceive the world as some zero-sum game of absolute winners and losers—a world where the first thing we ask is how we can save as many people as we can, and not how many people we need to sacrifice to achieve a goal. Here and now in the year 2020—between COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, democratic protests in Hong Kong, and countless other human rights and safety issues—these are messages we need. 

An opinion I keep seeing online is that The Promised Neverland was at its best in the first arc, when it was about orphans trying to outsmart their sinister and powerful mother figure in order to escape. And certainly, there was a kind of thrill to the “high stakes battle of wits” that defines the  early manga. However, I am so glad that The Promised Neverland evolved past that point. It would have been all too easy for this manga to simply be about the nerve-racking excitement, but it became a genuine piece of thought-provoking science fiction—the kind that encourages readers to imagine a different world, one that looks at concepts of utopia and dystopia, and asks how one could turn into the other and vice versa. 

There is another Shounen Jump series that I feel hits with a similar weight, though it’s a far different series in a lot of ways: Barefoot Gen, the story of two siblings who live through the bombing of Hiroshima and the pain of post–World War II Japan. No, The Promised Neverland is not couched in the trauma of directly experiencing a nuclear explosion, and its pain is abstracted through its fantastical setting, but it still looks deep into who we are as a collective people called humanity, and challenges us all to be better. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons as Rorschach Test

Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived just in time to explode in popularity. With so many people staying home due to COVID-19 and in need of some respite, the series’s laid-back atmosphere might just be what the doctor ordered. I know because more than a few of my friends and loved ones have been playing it, some long-time veterans of the franchise and others absolute newbies. After a while, seeing the people I know derive such enjoyment out of it, I had to see firsthand what the fuss was all about.

I wouldn’t quite call Animal Crossing: New Horizons a personality test, but I find that it does reflect something of what’s going on in each of us. There are goals you can progress towards, and there are achievements that can net you bonuses, but the game is largely without any demands. You could do everything or you could just do the bare minimum. You gradually shape your space according to however you feel, with some harmless elements of luck and the mellow atmosphere preventing it from being something like a SimCity. Seeing my island slowly come together and comparing it with others’, I can see how we express ourselves through the game’s quirks.

Animal Crossing is clearly not for everyone, and I can think of two categories of players who might regret getting the game. The first is anyone who needs there to be a distinction between winners and losers. While there are areas in which you can potentially compete—fishing events, the size of your collection, how much money you have, etc;—they’re largely arbitrary and there’s no judge keeping score. You really have to go out of your way to make it about competition, because there’s nothing that inherently says one person’s stuff is better than another’s.

The second category is anyone who would feel anxiety over accomplishing all the million little tasks and activities the game offers. It’s possible that, rather than being a calming, almost meditative experience, Animal Crossing: New Horizons becomes a source of stress. If you feel bad about ignoring things you could be doing, and you feel like you avoided guilt rather than achieved satisfaction by accomplishing them, then playing this might be a bad idea.

As for me, I’m trying to make my island into an incongruous mix of relaxing good times and abstract horrors. Either way, my villagers look like they’re having a good time.

Beastars and the Fight Against Behavioral Absolutism

Exploring the tension of anthropomorphic animal society from the perspective of high school students, Itagaki Paru’s Beastars can at times feel like it’s encouraging a very dangerous view of the world. In a world where carnivores and herbivores co-exist peacefully and eating your fellow animal is illegal, the constant pressure faced by the timid wolf protagonist, Legoshi, for not embracing his violent, meat-eating ancestral nature seems to bleed into sexist alpha/beta nonsense territory. Yet, by the end of a first anime season filled with tumultuous and shocking developments, the message I took away was something far different and more nuanced than a simple animalistic nature vs. civilization dichotomy.

Warning: Beastars spoilers ahead

Legoshi is portrayed as shunning the spotlight. Although he’s in the drama club, Legoshi works as a meek behind-the-scenes stagehand, leaving the attention to others such as the club’s star actor, Louis the red deer. But what Louis notices is that Legoshi is clearly stronger and potentially more intimidating than he lets on. As a gray wolf, he possesses might that no herbivore can hope to match, and it incenses Louis that Legoshi can be such a pushover. When Louis gets hurt and a shuffling of roles causes Legoshi to appear in a play, a tiger clubmate named Bill tries to bring out Legoshi’s dormant ferocity.

However, Legoshi is afraid of his own carnivorous side. Not only was his good friend, Tem the alpaca, eaten by a carnivore, but Legoshi himself comes dangerously close to succumbing to his lupine instincts and devouring a female dwarf bunny named Haru—a girl he later develops strong feelings for. Legoshi does not want to be that kind of animal, which is why he looks up to Louis, who accomplishes things through grace and diplomacy. Even so, there’s no denying that Legoshi would be incredibly powerful if only he let himself be. 

Part of what holds Legoshi back is a society that discourages carnivores from exerting dominance through force. Meals for them are made with high protein content, e.g. eggs, as a way to sate hunger, but the appeal of real flesh can be overwhelmingly difficult to endure. Throughout the series, Legoshi struggles to fight that desire for meat, which then blends in odd ways with his love/lust for Haru, further complicating things in his heart.

Towards the end of the series, Haru gets kidnapped by an organized crime group—a cadre of lions called the Shishigumi—with the intent to eat her. Having discovered previously that Louis is seeing Haru (though what Legoshi doesn’t know is that Haru is extremely promiscuous as a way for her to have some control over her life), Legoshi tries to bring Louis along. However, Louis declines, having already learned about the kidnapping and being told that he must stay quiet if he is to accomplish his goal of rising to the top of society and being able to effect widespread change. Legoshi storms the Shishigumi base without the red deer, and by fully tapping into his violent side, is able to rescue Haru. 

At first, the lesson seems to be that Legoshi finally set aside his false persona of timidity for what was truly inside, but what happens afterwards communicates what I found to be the most important takeaway from Beastars: when it comes to instinct vs. reason, there is no universal answer.

Having saved Haru, Legoshi and her end up at a love hotel prepared to take their relationship to a physical level. Legoshi confesses that he was the one who tried to eat her, and Haru says she always suspected it was him but was still drawn towards Legoshi. However, just as they are on the verge of consummating their relationship, Legoshi’s mouth moves uncontrollably as if he’s going to eat her, and Haru’s body moves, as if on its own, to be eaten by him. Built into their genetics is a relationship of predator and prey, and sex between them isn’t “supposed” to happen. Even so, they’re genuinely in love with each other and they want to make it work, which means denying what their DNA is screaming at them to do. If Legoshi wants his heart’s desire, reason must prevail over instinct.

The underlying message I take away from Beastars is that the question of whether to follow or rebel against one’s animalistic nature is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are times when it can be of great benefit, but other times when it can be a mistake or lead to disastrous outcomes. Moreover, whether or not doing so is a right choice will vary from individual to individual. Legoshi is not Louis. Legoshi is not Haru. They can naturally accomplish things he cannot and vice versa, but they’re also all capable of going out of their inherent comfort zones to do even more. It is the moderation of both reason and instinct relative to each other that allows us to flourish.