Does “The Simpsons” Really Have a Problem with “The Problem with Apu?”

The Problem with Apu, a documentary by comedian Hari Kondabolu about growing up Indian with the well-known Simpsons character as the most prominent representation of his people, has been the center of a new and energized discussion about stereotypes and tokenism. Recently, an episode of The Simpsons referenced this debate, and it was criticized, including by Kondabolu himself, for being dismissive.

But the more I think about this scene, the more I’m uncertain that the writers of The Simpsons are actually opposed to Kondabolu. What I believe happened is that the writers tried to be a little too clever for their own good in trying to explain their stance.

The last scene of the episode has Marge reading Lisa a bedtime story while trying to censor all of the unsavory parts, only for Lisa to ask for everything to be kept in. She proceeds to say, “It’s hard to say,” Lisa responds, breaking the fourth wall. “Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” She then looks at a photo of Apu, which says, “Don’t have a cow, Apu.”

Reading this one way, it seems as if Lisa is saying, “Oh well!” and that the people finding Apu “politically incorrect” are wrong. The “Don’t have a cow” can be thought of saying, “This isn’t a big deal. However, the scene, especially the use of that classic Simpsons line, sticks out to me in two important ways.

First, it’s a famous catchphrase from the earliest episodes of The Simpsons TV series originally meant to show Bart’s rebellious attitude, but is now viewed as a relic of its time. As far as I know, it hasn’t been used on the show in years except maybe ironically, and it dates any episodes in which it is used as being of the fairly distant past.

Second, it’s being attributed to Apu, a Hindu. With that in mind, the line can be interpreted differently. “Don’t have a cow” now references the fact that it is morally wrong to eat beef according to Hinduism.

Together, I believe the scene and that photo are highlighting a couple of things. For one, there are parts of The Simpsons once thought irrevocable that in hindsight had to change with the times. The “bad boy” Bart Simpson and his once-signature catchphrase have been supplanted by even more controversial characters with mouths that are far more foul. The Bart of the early 90s wouldn’t last today. The Simpsons is not as immune to cultural shifts as might be assumed for a show that’s been on TV for decades.

The Apu-Hinduism aspect touches on another consideration: cultural context changes how words and phrases are interpreted. A culture that assumes America and whiteness by default has classically resulted in The Simpsons and its particular portrayal of life, but if the presumed target was an Indian demographic all along, how might it have changed?

Together, these two points reveal to me a desire from The Simpsons to approach the criticisms brought up in The Problem with Apu with a degree of subtlety, and the issue is that The Simpsons has never been a vehicle for nuance. Sure, it’s been extremely clever, sure, and some of its humor in the past has required viewers to think a little harder, but an age of social media and the speed at which online discourse occurs means it ended up vulnerable to the harshest interpretations, with no real way to defend itself.

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A Belated Samurai Jack Season 5 Review

It’s been a long journey for fans of Samurai Jack. A cartoon that’s always been notable for its visual creativity, the original series ended abruptly, leaving viewers without any sort of resolution to the battle between Jack and his arch-nemesis Aku. 13 years later, Samurai Jack finally has a decisive conclusion to cap off Jack’s journey. This in itself makes the fifth and final season something special, but what makes this concluding chapter stand out even more is how the darker, more mature feel of these last episodes are not as effective without the more kid-oriented approach of the past providing context.

As explained in the opening each episode, 50 years have passed since Aku sent Samurai Jack into the future. During this period, Jack discovers that he does not age, possibly as a side effect of time travel. Jack at the beginning of the fifth season seems almost like a different character, worn down by the death and suffering of others and his inability to vanquish Aku and save the world.

In the old Samurai Jack, Jack only destroyed robots as a consequence of its kid-friendly rating. Stories could be mature, but they had to toe a certain line. In the final season, he is shown to confront the issue of taking mortal lives on numerous occasions. While the story of a man who tries his best not to kill being forced to do so is compelling enough, it works especially well because of that past history as a children’s show. Moreover, the 13-year gap between the previous season and the final one means that the show’s audience has also aged, and I imagine that this creates a degree of empathy towards Jack, even if it hasn’t been 50 years for us.

Originally, the plan from creator Genndy Tartakovsky Samurai Jack was to do a feature film that would finish the story. While that would’ve likely been good in its own right, and likely more in line with how the series was back then, I’m glad we got this version instead. Plenty of shows these days, from Full House to Twin Peaks, are doing this “years later sequel” thing, but I can say for sure that Samurai Jack doesn’t suffer for it. The final season is artistically and negativity ambitious, and any flaws in it are in my opinion forgivable.

Voltron: Legendary Defender, Gurren-Lagann, and Human Connection in Robot Cartoons

Voltron: Legendary Defender is huge in a way I think few would have predicted. Previous attempts at reviving Voltron have been iffy at best, and super robots just aren’t an attractive feature to many current anime fans. What gives the series so much presence in the general fandom space is that its characters are charismatic, but more importantly their interactions with each other fuel the burning desire in fans to see relationships form and grow.

The fandom situation with Voltron: Legendary Defender reminds me a lot of when Gurren-Lagann started to hit it big with anime fans of all stripes. In light of its popularity, you could sometimes find more dedicated giant robot enthusiasts wonder what the big deal was with Gurren-Lagann. After all, didn’t works like Shin Getter Robo: Armageddon, Gaogaigar, and Aim for the Top! all exhibit the escalating scale of power and war long before that? The difference, it turned out, was the characters and the way they bounced off of each other. Even those who cared little about fighting robots connected to the friendship and camaraderie shared by the members of the Dai Gurren-dan, and moments like Kamina’s famous speeches (“Believe in the me that believes in you!”) opened up the opportunity for viewers to become fans of these close, emotional bonds.

I hardly find fault in how non-mecha fans connect to mecha series, but I do get the impression that the majority of fans of Voltron: Legendary Defender don’t really care about the robots at all—a far cry from the impact made by the old 1980s series. In that case, if people remembered anything at all, it was Voltron itself. This approach isn’t wrong, but as someone who always holds a soft spot for giant robot appreciation, I sometimes feel as if there’s a crucial part of Voltron fandom missing. In a way, it reminds me of when I first stumbled upon Gundam Wing fanfiction as a kid, hoping that it would be stories of awesome unique Gundams. What I got instead was swathes of stories pairing all of the Wing boys together (as Relena got killed over and over to make room for them).

The fandom that Voltron: Legendary Defender has garnered sometimes feels reflected in the design of the new Voltron itself. This updated version is much rounder, giving it an appearance almost like a human athlete. It comes across as more “organic” in some sense. Yet this makes the robot Voltron itself more like an action hero and less like an imposing mechanical colossus, which is the impression I always get when looking at the classic Voltron/Golion.

Voltron: Legendary Defender might very well be what brings giant robots back into the forefront of fandoms, but it might be something less recognizable to those who have dwelled in the caverns of Planet Mecha. I have to wonder, then, if the robots themselves can ever hold great appeal to those viewers who prioritize the passionate interactions between characters. Perhaps the more the robot lions and Voltron itself are given hints of personalities, the more even non-mecha fans can come to appreciate them and their aesthetic.

Before San Fransokyo, There Was Washinkyo from Hurricane Polymar

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When watching the Disney animated film Big Hero 6, one of the first things that stands out is the city in which the characters live: the portmanteau of “San Fransokyo.” How it relates to either San Francisco or Tokyo remains a mystery, but it’s probably meant to pay tribute to both Disney’s own American origins and the inspiration Big Hero 6 takes from Japanese media.

However, Big Hero 6 hasn’t been the only work of fiction to combine American and Japanese cities. One such work is an anime that dates back to the 1970s: Hurricane Polymar.

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A series by Tatsunoko Production, the same studio responsible for classics such as Gatchaman and Casshern, Hurricane Polymar comes from that same era and young Amano Yoshitaka-derived aesthetic sense. A mix of Inspector Gadget, Bruce Lee, and Superman, the series takes place not only in the capital of “Washinkyo” (Washington DC + Tokyo), but in the country of “Amehon” (America + Nihon [Japan]).

I think it’s fun to imagine what an actual “Amehon” would be like, or where it would come from. Would it literally be the US and Japan deciding to be one nation? Would it be some strange alternative universe where they were the same land mass all along? Would anime fans who despise American culture and love Japanese culture be more at home, or would the appealing “foreignness” of Japan be lost in the process? Going back to anime itself, could Hurricane Polymar himself be considered a blend of American and Japanese superhero tropes and qualities, similar to how the characters of Big Hero 6 occupy a similar category?

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Everyone Digs Robots: Big Hero 6

When Disney announced that they had purchased Marvel, they opened themselves up to three things: jokes, cross-promotional opportunities, and new material from which to create new stories. The first two have been well in supply, while the third has just made its debut in the form of Big Hero 6, a 3DCG film loosely adapted from a Marvel comic series of the same name. The result is a movie that wears its lineage as the offspring of Disney and Marvel upfront, and which for the most part benefits from combining the raw, simple excitement of superheroes with the old Disney desire of creating family-friendly and uplifting animated films.

Story-wise, Big Hero 6 is an overall strong affair. The film centers around a 13-year-old boy named Hiro Hamada, a young robotics prodigy from the awkward portmanteau of “San Fransokyo” who mostly squanders his talents. Due to the influence of his older brother Tadashi, as well as Tadashi’s own creation in the form of a gentle healthcare robot named Beymax, Hiro is set on a path that leads him to not only pursue his ambitions but become a full-fledged superhero in the process. Big Hero 6 balances humor with action and a bit of tragedy, and it’s amazing how much can be done with a simple fistbump joke. On top of that, though, there are two qualities in the film, or I should say the protagonist, that stand out to me.

First, Hiro is an Asian protagonist in a field that is classically connected to the image of white heroes. At first, this might not seem that important because both Disney and Marvel have histories with Asian characters. Disney has Mulan and American Dragon Jake Long, and if we’re counting the Middle East as part of Asia as well, then there’s also Aladdin. Marvel has numerous superheroes that are ethnically Asian, such as Sunfire and Jubilee. However, I what’s special about Hiro is being able to see an Asian hero at the center of a big, important Disney + Marvel movie as someone whose abilities are not derived from his “Asian-ness,” especially because of how both companies have historically projected an image of “whiteness,” intentional or otherwise. Both companies have most recently shown a greater concern for diversity in characters (see Princess and the Frog and the new Ms. Marvel for a few examples), and while Big Hero 6 may not be the first, it is a clear and concerted effort to further show heroes of all kinds. To have powers derived from some mystical East Asian aspect is not inherently a bad thing, but it is quite overdone. While there is the risk of the association of Japan with technology and thus a kind of Techno-Orientalism, it never comes across that way even as San Fransokyo greatly resembles a Disney-fied Blade Runner Los Angeles.

The second important aspect of hero, which I’ve already mentioned, is that he’s a nerd. At this point nerd chic is old hat, and we’re at a point where so many people play video games that there’s little of the stigma that used to be there, but I think this is still important because of the portrayal of nerds in media, especially in Disney and Marvel properties. Again, both companies are not inherently against hyper-intelligent characters; Phineas and Ferb, a comedy about two genius kids, is one of Disney’s most successful properties in recent memory, while Marvel has characters like Professor X leading the X-Men. However, in both cases the go-to formula for hero vs. villain primary conflict has been some form of brawn vs. brains, where intelligent characters are scheming connivers: Scar to Mufasa, Jafar to Aladdin (who granted is more clever than anything else, but it’s a different type of smarts), Captain America vs. the Red Skull, Hulk vs. Leader. Big Hero 6 doesn’t just flip this into a good brains vs. evil brawn scenario, but actually makes it brains vs. brains. At the climax it’s a matter of pitting intellects against each other (albeit intellects redirected to look a whole lot like brawn) which are doing battle.

Of course, the brainy Asian who’s good at math is still a prominent stereotype, but this is mitigated by the fact that many different characters, Asian and non-Asian, are shown to be intelligent and into robotics. The rest of the core cast, which is mostly comprised of Tadashi’s college friends, are Asian, Black, White, etc., who are all so enthusiastic about developing technology that they went to college to accomplish that. Additionally, these characters have not just ethnic diversity but also a kind of physical diversity as well. While it doesn’t go as far as to include, say, handicapped or transgendered characters (which is still probably a risky step for a company like Disney and so unlikely to happen), the characters have a wide range of body shapes and sizes. Compare for example the difference between the tall and thin Honey Lemon and the shorter and rounder Gogo, both of whom are portrayed as beautiful in their own ways without their beauty being their most defining features or their primary functions in the narrative.

Speaking of diversity, the character Wasabi, who in the context of the film is the nickname for a black character, was originally a source of some controversy because his name was “Wasabi-no-Ginger” for an Asian character. I can see why this got a bad reaction, but I do wonder if it was supposed to be a reference to how manga characters are sometimes named. Most famously, Toriyama Akira, creator of Dragonball Z, names most of his characters after food (Vegeta), food-related products (Freeza), or underwear (Trunks). Here, the choice to change a Japanese character with a potentially offensive name into a black character might in a vacuum be considered on the same level as turning a non-white character into a Caucasian, but I think the contexts are different. My opinion on this is still undecided, but I think it’s the result of both an increasing awareness of cultural sensitivity and how important that can be, along with Disney responding to a market that increasingly cares about this issue.

This being primarily an anime and manga blog, I also want to mention all of the references and similarities to anime and manga that litter the film. From Hiro’s not-Mazinger Z wall clock to the fact that his superhero outfit looks awfully similar to Priss Asagiri’s hardsuit in Bubblegum Crisis, there’s much love paid to mecha in a way similar to Pacific Rim and even anime like Robotics;Notes which are also love letters to robot shows. Having seen it only once in theaters I couldn’t go over it with a fine-toothed comb, but attention is paid to Japan and its own history of animation. Given Frozen and its enormous success in Japan, I wonder if Big Hero 6 with its Japanese protagonist can perform similarly

Overall, Big Hero 6 is a strong first step in a lot of different areas. It’s good as the true debut of the Disney-Marvel alliance, and even better as a product of both companies’ increasing efforts to represent and inspire a multicultural environment. There’s clear intent at franchising this film, so I’ll be curious as to where it all goes.

The Ending of The Legend of Korra Season 2, or Let’s Talk About Setup

With the recent conclusion of season 2 of Avatar: The Legend of Korra, I’ve seen a number of complaints that a lot of the finale seemed to come from “out of nowhere.” Notably, the two aspects fans appear to take issue with involve Jinora and Korra herself. While I have my own issues with the writing, characterization, and pacing of the series, I find that Korra set up the pieces in fairly obvious ways which make me find it so surprising that people are accusing the show of employing Deus Ex Machinas.

Before I go on, obviously there’s a spoiler warning here.

First, in regards to Jinora, she was shown throughout the second season to have a strong connection to the spirits. When Tenzin rescues her, she disappears as a spirit separated from her body, then reappears during Korra and Unalaq’s fight still as a spirit, and uses her strong affinity for the spiritual realm to locate and draw out Raava’s diminished being from Vaatu where Korra (who is not as spiritual as Jinora) could not. There’s no need for an elaborate explanation as to “how she did it,” except perhaps that one needs to remember that neither Raava or Vaatu can truly destroy each other and that there must always be the tiniest fragment of one in the other. Yin and yang and all that.

Second, when it comes to Korra I find that people think that Korra as a giant blue spirit somehow didn’t make sense or work as a part of Korra’s narrative. When Tenzin explains to Korra that before people bent the elements, they bent the energy within themselves, it’s a callback to the The Last Airbender and how Aang learns how to energybend from the last lion-turtle. Korra’s spirit has become imbued with that very same energy, and it’s no coincidence that the shade of blue that Korra’s spirit becomes in order to fight Vaatu is the same blue that can be seen within Aang when he takes someone’s bending away.

The other crucial component of Tenzin’s explanation is that Korra needs to find within herself not Raava but her own spirit, the very core of who she is. This giant spiritual form of Korra wears her standard outfit instead of the coat she came in, showing that this is her default self-perception, but what’s even more notable is the way that Spirit Korra fights. Rather than doing any sort of elaborate bending moves or showing any signs of formal training, Korra is a brawler at her roots, and there’s probably nothing more indicative of this than the fact that giant blue Korra performs an Argentine backbreaker on Vaatu/Unalaq. Korra from the very beginning of her show is portrayed as a very direct, confrontational individual, and though her spiritual side is lacking, by the end she is able to connect to it in a way that suits her, a way which strengthens her identity.

I think the other elements of The Legend of Korra Season 2 are more contentious, but I hope that people critical of those two aspects of the show look back and see that they were not so sudden after all.

The Legend of Korra and the Conflict of Fighting Styles

Avatar: The Last Airbender was an enormously popular show, but its sequel The Legend of Korra has been a bag of mixed opinions among fans. Although there are many reasons for this discontent towards the new Avatar, including the writing, characterization, and the different format (seasons are shorter), the one that I find most intriguing is the general complaint that the quality of the fighting went downhill in the transition. I find that it speaks a lot to the difficulties of creating a sequel which is trying to progress the world of its story, to change its status quo, but also maintain the status quo which brought fans to it in the first place.

The Last Airbender exhibits Wuxia-esque action scenes, informed by many classic Chinese martial arts styles (waterbending is tai chi for instance), which gives the fights in the first series an overall grandiose quality. Movements are elaborate, meant to evoke a sense that the very motions benders take are part of what give them such mystical strength.

The Legend of Korra, however, involves much more straightforward uses of bending. Here, amidst the large population of Republic City and the popularity of pro-bending, the manipulation of the elements comes across more as a sport, a structured system within the bounds of the law (though still easily abusable in its own way), much like what judo is to jujitsu. Gone are the classical gestures and poses, replaced by simple and direct actions.

Given that the new series is meant to take place 70 years after the original and highlights how a number of social and technological developments have impacted everyday life, it’s clear that the less majestic qualities of “modern” bending are meant to also be a sign of this change. Even when I mentioned that on Twitter, however, one of the responses I received basically said that it didn’t matter if there was a story reason for the change, if it’s less fun to watch then that’s the end of it.

Certainly the guy had a point, and the new type of fighting could be seen as a kind of downgrade, but of course this depends on your definition of what a good fantasy martial arts fight scene should be like. Contemplating this aspect of individual perception, I’ve come to realize that perhaps part of the difficulty The Legend of Korra faced in its bending was that it had established a way of visual presentation which captured the hearts of fans in the previous series, but then tried to fight against the very entrenchment of accepted visual style they created. The wuxia style in The Last Airbender is one of the many reasons the series garnered fans, defining for many what “cool fight scenes” are meant to be, and to remove that aspect is to undo in their eyes the very identity of Avatar‘s combat.

Essentially, if fighting in The Last Airbender is classic Chinese martial arts, then fighting in The Legend of Korra is modern mixed martial arts. Though I can’t say to what extent the fanbases between Avatar and MMA overlap, the disagreements over the style in Korra remind me a lot of the arguments I’ve seen concerning MMA as an optimized style ideal for the very sport it created and fostered, a scientific approach to what has for a long time carried an almost metaphysical connotation. Though effective, neither modern bending nor standard MMA look “pretty” by the standards of fans of the more classical styles. Consider that good old question of  MMA: “why are those fighters humping each other on the ground?” Probably if The Legend of Korra were less modern Ultimate Fighting Championship and were more like the first UFC, which was meant to be a clash of various martial arts styles from Karate to Greco-Roman Wrestling, then perhaps it would have found greater appeal.