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Kino’s Journey: The Ubiquity of the Light Novels vs. the Scarcity of the Anime

How do you end a series about observing humanity’s foibles with an action sequence involving a flock of angry sheep?

The answer is, “Who says it’s an ending?”

The 2017 anime of the light novel Kino’s Journey: The Beautiful World is garnering mixed reviews. This is partly because the series seems to be less focused on atmosphere and consistent theme compared to the 2003 version, despite them taking from more or less the same source material. One major point of contention with the newer series is its choice of final episode, adapting the story “Field of Sheep”—a story that borders on Schwarzenegger-in-Commando-esque antics featuring a ring of fire, driving through sheep in a jeep, and a dramatic lone gunman standoff with the woolly foes.

Because the anime clearly skips around chronologically from episode to episode, I decided to take a look at which episodes come from which chapters. Out of a currently 21-volume light novel series, most are taken from around volumes 7 through 9. “Field of Sheep” is by far the newest story, coming in as the final chapter of Volume 20. It’s likely even the latest chapter at the time the 2017 anime went into production.

It seems unusual to end a series on such an odd note, but that’s only within the context of the anime. Kino’s Journey rarely gets new adaptations. There’s the 2003 series, the 2017 one, and two films in 2005 and 2007 in between. It’s been 14 years between TV series and 10 years between animated versions. It’s possible that it’ll take another 10-15 years to get another one, perhaps leaving fans scratching their heads.

But for light novel readers, it can’t really be considered an end by any stretch of the imagination. Even though it’s the last part of Volume 20, the sheep story is yet another entry into the world of Kino’s Journey, which shows no signs of stopping. A new volume has come out pretty consistently (about once or twice a year) for the past 17 years. Volume 21 just came out in October of 2017. In other words, to the anime viewer, “Field of Sheep” is an unusual curtain call. To the light novel fan, it’s just another stop in Kino’s travels.

I have to wonder if the point of adapting that sheep episode last is just a way to say, “Read the light novel!” Except, it only works in Japan (or if you can read Japanese). For those abroad who rely on anime to get their Kino’s Journey, they’re left in an arguably baaaad situation.

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Nerds in the Mist: Katou Megumi and the Role of the Non-Otaku

With a series title like How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend, a certain image comes to mind. Given the existence of Japanese dating sims, the success of “raising sims” such as Gainax’s famous Princess Maker series, as well as the tendency towards popular otaku tropes such as nerd protagonists in harem situations, it’s easy to assume that the series is about creating a bland, milquetoast love interest. Is this an attempt to revive the old-style dating sim heroines such as Kamigishi Akari from To Heart, that childhood friend who once stood at the top of the harem totem pole? Is Katou Megumi, the titular “boring girlfriend”—more accurately “boring heroine” in Japanese—one man’s “ideal waifu” the way Asuna from Sword Art Online is, or something else entirely?

To my surprise, Megumi’s aggressive mediocrity actually turns out to be a subversion of her seeming purpose as a no-personality love interest or another character in the yamato nadeshiko mold. While the fact that the other characters keep talking about how aggressively mediocre she is might point in those directions, her role in Boring Girlfriend is closer to that of Kasukabe Saki from Genshiken—the “normal” one who contributes by being an outsider.

In works about groups of otaku there is often a non-otaku, though their purposes can differ. In Otaku no Video, the main character Ken is the “commoner” who gradually falls in love with the otaku lifestyle, while his girlfriend, Yoshiko, becomes increasing disgusted. The dating sim Comic Party (as well as its anime adaptations) follows a similar pattern, with protagonist Kazuki becoming more involved with doujinshi as his sporty childhood friend (and canon love interest) Mizuki just can’t seem to fathom what these nerds are jabbering about.

Owing to the fact that Genshiken gradually pushes its characters from the relative safety of a college environment into the real world, Saki as the non-otaku becomes a kind of guiding force. While she begins the series antagonizing the otaku and begrudging the fact that her boyfriend is an otaku, she eventually becomes a close friend whose understanding of human social interactions (notoriously lacking in otaku) provide answers that the others could not arrive at by themselves. While she isn’t as aggressive and outspoken as Saki, Megumi in Boring Girlfriend accomplishes the same things by being more observant than the perpetually self-centered and inward-looking otaku characters she has befriended.

Because Saki begins from a place similar to Yoshiko in Otaku no Video and Mizuki in Comic Party, Megumi doesn’t quite have the same development as her. Instead of that period of conflict with the otaku, the changing dynamic comes from the gradual reveal that Megumi indeed has a mind of her own, and that her seemingly mundane nature throws a wrench in the assumptions of the others. Moreover, her “boring” status provides a sharp contrast to the other girls in the series, who fall more in line with familiar tropes: a tsundere, an adorable underclassman, a cooldere, a tomboy cousin.

While those other characters have their origins in the same era that spawned Akari from To Heart and Mizuki from Comic Party, taste in otaku consumption has changed over time such that characters with more extreme and pronounced character traits tend to be more popular. The shape of “moe” has changed, and everyone but Megumi falls into that line. However, because Megumi is present, and because the series is named after her, it’s as if Boring Girlfriend is setting up and knocking down its own pieces to say, “Subtlety has its place.”

In this sense, How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend and Megumi remind me of two other series. The first is My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong, as I Expected aka My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. It’s a series that also goes against what its title implies and plays around with its characters supposed archetypes to create a greater sense of depth. The other is The World God Only Knows, which features the character Kosaka Chihiro. Though she has a different personality compared to Megumi, and that series has only one real otaku character, Chihiro fulfills the role of being defiantly “normal.” Her behavior runs against everything that Katsuragi Keima believes in as someone who bases his life entirely on dating sims, and Megumi by virtue of her supposed blandness accomplishes much the same.

 

Friendship Never Dies: Ojamajo Doremi 16

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A sequel is a curious thing, beholden to the expectations created by the original. If you stay too close to what came before, then the work runs the risk of being a pointless retread. Stray too far, and the spirit that made the work special can fade away. Across multiple year-long seasons, the magical girl anime Ojamajo Doremi, managed to never grow stale. Between its lived-in world, genuine respect for its young audience, characters both central and supporting who truly grow as human beings, and a sharp sense of both drama and humor, it’s an example worth holding up.

But what happens when the next sequel is not only removed from the elementary school days of the anime, but also in another medium entirely? That question is what brings me to the main topic of this review: Ojamajo Doremi 16, the first in a series of light novels that shine the spotlight on Harukaze Doremi and her friends in the exciting new world of high school.

At the end of Ojamajo Doremi Dokkaan!, Doremi and her classmates graduate from elementary school. However, rather than continuing on into middle school together, Doremi and her closest friends all go their separate ways in pursuit of their dreams or in support of their loved ones. At the same time, while they had spent the last four years as witch apprentices, they ultimately decide to forego their abilities as they stood on the cusp of becoming full-fledged witches, preferring to live as humans. Three years have passed, and now high school is on the horizon. Doremi discovers that her old friend Senoo Aiko is in town, having moved back from Osaka, and together with Fujiwara Hazuki have reformed their original trio. Not surprisingly, their reunion also becomes a new encounter with the Witch World they had left as kids.

One of the challenges of the light novel comes in how to convey that these are the same characters as the ones from the anime, only older. To this end, the vocabulary of the first-person narrative of the light novel, Doremi’s that is, effectively conveys the idea that she’s matured quite a bit. At the same time, it is clearly Doremi speaking, as her voice sounds very close to the same girl from back then, whose clumsiness belied a special talent for inspiring others. The other characters share similar changes. It can be hard to imagine them as their current selves and not just picture their smaller selves from the anime, though the updated character designs from Umakoshi Yoshihiko (who worked on the Doremi anime originally) certainly help.

Another sign of this change comes in the form of romance. Love for the main cast was never much of a focus for the Doremi anime, and even in this light novel it doesn’t play the most major role, but it underlies many of the other stories that take place. Hazuki’s close friendship with misunderstood delinquent and (bad) trumpet player Yada from their elementary school days has blossomed into a full-on relationship. Aiko is mentioned as having had some boyfriends, but is currently single. Kotake, the boy who began the series picking on Doremi but clearly fell for her by the final TV series, has grown tall and handsome, as well as becoming the star of the high school soccer team, and their being 16 potentially allows them to communicate in ways that they could not as immature kids.

While there are plenty of differences, the actual feel of Doremi 16 in terms of how its stories are told feels right at home. Rather than try to tell one grandiose plot in the span of its 300-odd pages, the light novel tells many smaller stories that both stand alone well and build off of each other to varying degrees, creating the sense of connection between characters that Doremi as a series is so good at. One of Doremi‘s greatest strengths was its excellent side cast, and in Doremi 16 you get to find out how they’ve also grown, whether because they’re the focus of these new stories, or because they simply exist as part of the world.

Fiction-loving Yokokawa Nobuko became a successful manga creator in middle school alongside artist and friend Maruyama Miho. Segawa Onpu, idol and former magical girl antagonist, has struggled with the transition from child star to full-blown actress. Doremi 16 brings you right back into their stories, and it feels immensely satisfying catching up with them, and it never gives the impression that the light novel is simply asking its readers to wax nostalgic purely for its own sake.

At the same time, however, I have some doubts as to whether someone could approach Doremi 16 without any prior experience with the series. I do think it’s excellently written in general, but it relies heavily on a cast of characters that have been previously established through years of anime. While I believe that the light novel quickly sums up its characters well so that you can get an immediate sense of who they are, I’m not sure how much it would matter to a complete newbie to the Doremi universe that Nagato Kayoko, who once suffered from a crippling fear of going to school, has now actually won awards for academic excellence. New characters are established, but the return to the town of Misora where Doremi and the others live is a significant factor in this book’s appeal.

That might appear to contradict the notion that Ojamajo Doremi 16 isn’t just for nostalgia, but it would only truly be a nostalgia-focused work if its story simply dwelled on the good times of the past. Instead, Doremi 16 actively builds on the paths that the girls of Ojamajo Doremi take towards the future, and it encourages readers to similarly reflect on their own lives. Although the three years from elementary school to high school isn’t nearly as long of a wait as the seven-year lull prior to the light novel, I can imagine that the high school world of Doremi 16 is a reminder that time brings about change, and that friendship and discovery are on-going processes whose magics are well worth exploring.

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HEY YOU! RIDE THE SUBWAY: Kyo Girls Days Light Novel Review

In my recent visit to Kyoto, I discovered two interesting manifestations of Japan’s interest in anime and manga. The first I first came upon while taking public transit: posters featuring anime-style high school girls who act as mascots for the Kyoto Subway system’s “Ride the Subway” campaign. After being redesigned in 2015 to match a more contemporary anime aesthetic they’ve really caught on, and have even been featured in TV ads:

The second I had already planned to visit, which was the Kyoto International Manga Museum, an archive of countless manga from all decades that is open to the public. Like the girls of the Kyoto subway, the Manga Museum has its own mascot, Karasuma Miyu, to whom I was immediately drawn. I think it’s clear why, given her design:

miyu-and-mamyuu

Now aware of this Ogiue-esque character (though also clearly much more cheerful in comparison), I felt compelled to buy some kind, any kind, of Karasuma Miyu merchandise. This led me to the light novel known as Kyo Girls Days, written by Motoki and illustrated by Kamogawa. Featuring both the Kyoto Subway Girls and Karasuma Miyu, it not only celebrates the subway and the Manga Museum, but also Kyoto tourism in general.

kyogirlsdays

Kyo Girls Days follows best friends Uzumasa Moe, Matsuga Saki, and Ono Misa as they decide what to do for Golden Week. With an initial plan to visit “power spots” all across Kyoto, they end up running into Karasuma Miyu, who works at the manga museum. Not only a manga enthusiast but also a Shinto miko, Miyu imbues the girls with supernatural sight, allowing them to see the various kami and other spirits that populate the old capital that is Kyoto, and transforming their vacation adventure in unforeseen ways.

Light novels can often follow certain trends. They’re frequently designed to be adapted into anime and manga as part of a media mix. They’ll feature young protagonists to whom an otaku audience can relate, with narratives that emphasize wish fulfillment fantasies or twists on well-worn tropes. Others get more creative, and fight against the reputation of light novels as trashy and lacking in substance. However, a promotional light novel, especially one that is an offshoot of a city government effort to encourage more frequent use of its public transportation, is a unique beast all its own. While this means that there’s a certain inevitable sheen of safeness in Kyo Girls Days, the result is actually kind of pleasant given that there’s less concern over whether the narrative is trying to go for cheap titillation, or objective exploitation of the girls beyond their roles as mascots.

If anything, the exploitation takes the form of the girls being a little too upstanding as people. Moe’s primary qualities are her love of helping others and her encyclopedic knowledge of the Kyoto Subway. Saki is sporty and tomboyish, and Misa is the otaku of the group, who even bought a guitar because of K-On! Another important character, Tokyo transplant, photographer, and Moe’s classmate Shirakawa Sumi, is shy and nervous about befriending Moe. None of them have any particular flaws, the closest being that Saki is somewhat impatient, while Misa is kind of lazy and can often be late to gatherings. In fact, there’s actually a scene where Misa arrives late and blames it on the trains, and Moe’s response is basically, “That’s silly, the trains in Kyoto are never late!” as a reminder that, yes, this is promoting public transit.

Nowhere is Kyo Girls Days do-it-all character roster more apparent than in Miyu. She’s a manga fan who has the entire museum memorized. She’s lived abroad, and is not only fluent in both French and English but has extensive knowledge of French and American comics. On top of that, she can communicate with spirits on a regular basis. Miyu is all-powerful and carries within her the view point that manga is indeed international just as it says in the name of the Manga Museum. One other interesting wrinkle to her character being that she’s actually a college student, possibly as a reference nearby Kyoto Seika University’s famous manga program, which supports the Manga Museum.

And yet, I can’t really begrudge Kyo Girls Days. I knew what I was getting into as soon as I picked it up. After all, it’s like going to an aquarium and getting a picture book about the aquarium; no one should be shocked when it talks about how great things are and how everyone should visit. Conscious of that promotional aspect, the story and narrative are actually very fun and engaging. Even though Moe and the rest of the cast’s personalities and characters are a little too perfect, the portrayal of their lifelong friendship feels solid and convincing. Even the introductions of various Kyoto landmarks are interesting because they taught me a lot about the city, and a clever insertion of a quiz towards the end of the manga is a clever wink and nod to see if the reader has been really paying attention.

Another quality I enjoyed about the light novel is that all three of the subway girls speak in Kyoto dialect. It can be hard to follow, but it positions them as true Kyoto natives, and gives their portrayal a more authentic feel.

It’s unlikely that Kyo Girls Days will ever be translated officially, just because its main focus is getting native Japanese people to pay more attention to Kyoto and its subway system. It’s not really something that translates too well to an audience that enjoys light novels (or light novel adaptations) in other countries. At the same time, I wonder if it could be released by a Japanese tourism agency for use in the US and around the world. While it wouldn’t be serving the exact same purpose, it could still motivate people to travel to Japan and check out the Kyoto area.

Shimoneta, Censorship, and Education

Censorship is a difficult subject to explore because the battle over it is rife with conflicting and contradictory values. On the one hand, it usually derives from good intentions, specifically the desire to avoid exposing people to that which is deemed morally inappropriate. On the other hand, it can be a tool for control, especially when the standard for what is morally right is itself flawed through biases such as racism and misogyny. To create a work of fiction around the idea of censorship is to potentially step into a minefield.

Shimoneta: A Boring World Where the Concept of Dirty Jokes Doesn’t Exist is an anime adapted from a light novel. Its premise is that Japan has outlawed dirty words, dirty thoughts, and of course dirty pictures in order to improve public moral health. High schooler Okuma Tanukichi is the son of an infamous “dirty-joke terrorist” who resents his father and seeks to reunite with his childhood love, Nishikonimya Anna, a symbol of purity and righteousness. However, he ends up getting roped into joining a dirty-joke terrorist organization known as SOX (substitute the O), led by a girl clad in only a cape and a pair of underwear on her head who goes by the name “Blue Snow.”

Though a comedy, I don’t find the series to be that funny. Then again, it would have been foolish of me to expect extremely clever jokes from a series premised around trying to restore people’s ability to shout, “PENIS!” Rather, what ended up interesting me was how it tackles censorship, and how I can’t find myself in total agreement with its ideas on the matter.

The world of Shimoneta, or more specifically the elite school in which most of its story takes place, is an environment where people are so sheltered from profanity, pornography, and obscenity that they cannot even recognize it when it is literally thrown in their face. Aside from a few eccentrics who are either extremely good at hiding their feelings or have their interests tied up in other things (one character’s interest in sex is mostly from a scientific point of view), they are mentally unable to process their own sexual desires. From here, I believe it is easy to see why a series like Shimoneta can be simultaneously uncomfortable yet thought-provoking even if one potentially disagrees with it. The idea that the removal of dirty jokes from a country has rendered its men and women psychologically immature could be utilized as both an argument against “political correctness” and an argument against oppression of people’s rights to be sexually active. After all, women are attacked both for having sex and not having sex.

Where Shimoneta stands on the subject feels somewhat unclear even after finishing the series, and this has a lot to do with the fact that the series is rife with anime and light novel tropes. Anna, for example, turns out to be a stereotypical yandere character whose burning desire for Tanukichi (she can literally smell his scent from hundreds of meters away) swings his view of her from aspiration to monster, while her large rack and hourglass figure clearly make her a sexually attractive character. At the same time, Anna is the very symbol of how a lack of sex education can negatively affect a person. Because she has been taught that righteousness is the polar opposite of profanity, she believes that anything she does in the name of righteousness is by definition pure, even if it involves pinning Tanukichi to the ground and trying to take his virginity against his will in highly sexually charged scenes.

What is Anna? Is her behavior more representative of a warning towards keeping people ignorant about sex, or is she a nymphomaniac designed to thrill the audience? For that matter, what is the ethical standing of a little girl character clearly designed for a lolicon audience, whose hair is shaped like a penis? Is it an innocent joke, or has it gone too far? And in this way, is Shimoneta directly commenting on actual society (assuming Japan but perhaps it can apply elsewhere)?

I feel that the ambiguity of that last question is what makes Shimoneta worth watching, at least for a few episodes. It opens up a potentially interesting conversation about how we view media, and even in disagreement I believe it can be a fruitful discussion.

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The Tears of Sound! Euphonium

Anime is no stranger to characters crying. Whether it’s Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star or the entire cast of Alien Nine, tears are fairly ubiquitous. Over the past 10 years, however, there’s been one studio that’s stood at the top of the salt mine, and that’s Kyoto Animation. When they animate characters bawling, the tears are so physical, so three-dimensional that they practically become characters unto themselves.

Kyoani’s new show, Sound! Euphonium is no exception to this trend. Particularly in the penultimate Episode 12, the main character Oumae Kumiko has a scene where she just cries her eyes out. However, while on a technical level this is what we’ve come to expect, within the contest of the narrative itself the tears in Euphonium they take on a new meaning compared to their old works.

[Spoiler warning]

What makes Kumiko’s tears different and indeed special within the greater works of Kyoto Animation is what they represent. In prior shows, tears generally came from some kind of deep trauma or suffering, as if the characters were so overwhelmed by their particular circumstances or the horrible truths of their existences that crying often meant a kind of cathartic, primal action. Reason gives way to sheer passion, so to speak, and the result is a very Key game-esque scenario, not surprising given how many Key games they’ve adapted.

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However, in Sound! Euphonium, Kumiko’s tears are specifically tied to her reason and logic. They’re not caused by her simply being overwhelmed by emotion, but are also tied to the fact that she knows exactly what’s causing them. At that point believing that, despite all of the time and effort she poured into improving, that she would be denied the opportunity to play as part of the ensemble in one of the most important points for a Euphonium in their competitive recital, Kumiko’s tears are frustration towards inadequacy. In doing so, those same Kyoani blobs of liquid gushing out the character’s eyes transform from this generally moe trait to actually conveying the sheer weight of failure, or at least the self-perception of failure.

In a way, in older series from Kyoto Animation, the tears were about being not in control of one’s own life. In Sound! Euphonium, there’s still that sense of lack of control, but it’s paired with a character’s earnest attempt to master her own destiny, and to fall short in the process. Sorrow through action, rather than inaction, is what defines that moment in a series that already places more active motivation in its characters than many other similar series.

The Meaning Behind Ryuugamine Mikado’s Name in Durarara!!

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Ryuugamine Mikado is the protagonist of the light novel turned anime, Durarara!! His story is that he decided to from a “gang” online on a whim called the Dollars, and due to its lax rules for membership (if there were truly ever any at all), it becomes a social phenomenon both on and off the internet. Mikado himself is not a very strong-willed individual, he rarely ever actually has to act upon his role as the anonymous founder of the Dollars, and even then he is not a leader in the traditional sense.

Ryuugamine (竜ヶ峰) is literally “dragon’s peak.” Mikado is more complicated.

The term “mikado,” generally written either as 御門 or 帝, refers to the Emperor of Japan or his estate, but is an extremely archaic and obsolete term. However, while Japan had long since dropped that particular term, probably since at least the 13th century, Western texts still continued to use it well into the 20th century. In other words, in current context, “mikado” has connotations of misunderstanding and mislabeling. Mikado the character’s name is written as 帝人, which literally means “emperor man” but is more a way to make “Mikado” look like an actual Japanese name.

In other words, “Ryuugamine Mikado” is very fitting when you think of the Dollars, with its enormous reach and influence, as the “dragon” and Mikado himself as its misunderstood and illusory “emperor.”

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