OGIUE MANIAX

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A Harbinger of the Future? My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom

If there’s any recent series that I think is capable of uniting disparate parts of the anime fandom, it’s My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! By design, it’s an isekai series that draws upon many of the familiar tropes that have the genre so popular and arguably overplayed: reincarnating to another world, having unique knowledge or gifts no one else does, and having every other character fall madly in love with the main character. However, it also bucks the trend in many ways.

The Appeal of My Life as a Villainess

In a genre that has recently been dominated by male heroes, My Life as a Villainess stars a female protagonist, Catarina Claes, who defies her character archetype of the antagonistic rich girl. The series is very positive and uplifting, while also avoiding a lot of the sexism and occasional homophobia that permeates popular isekai work. Here is an anime that can appeal to those who love a good power fantasy and those who want something heartwarming as well.

Arguably, this puts My Life as a Villainess in the same territory as a lot of older isekai shoujo series such as Fushigi Yuugi, but one thing that works in its favor is that Catarina is extremely charming. Somehow, her near-perfection comes across as endearing due to her enthusiasm, energy, and the fact that she’s both cunning and naive at the same times. When it comes to harem (or reverse harem) series, my belief is that they work best when you can see why so many people would fall in love with the main character. Catarina passes this test with flying colors. 

The Tip of the Villainess Iceberg

The specific term translated as “Villainess” is akuyaku reijou—literally “the eldest daughter in a villainous role.” It describes a type of character seen throughout the long history of shoujo anime and manga, as well as all that it has inspired. A 2016 Japanese blog post attempts to go through the history of akuyaku reijou from 60s shoujo manga all the way to the present day, and the archetype is ubiquitous. The first otome game, Angelique, features just such a character and some of the most memorable faces in anime, e.g. Naga from Slayers and Nanami from Revolutionary Girl Utena, fall within this archetype. The Japanese title for My Life as a Villainess is Otome Game no Hametsu Flag Shika Nai Akuyaku Reijou o Tensei Shita… (“I Reincarnated as a Villainous Eldest Daughter Who Only Triggers Demise Flags…”), specifically emphasizing that it takes place within a girls’ visual novel.

The reason I put specific emphasis on akuyaku reijou and not just antagonistic female characters is because “reincarnating into an akuyaku reijou” has actually become a huge trend in light novels and related media. Searching for it in Japanese on Bookwalker returns 251 results (some being multiple entries within a series), and a significant number of them feature the exact term in their very titles. The oldest entry is Akuyaku Reijou Victoria from 2009, which puts it five years before My Life as a Villainess

To a Future of Villainy?

If My Life as a VIllainess is as successful as I hope it is, this could mean seeing other titles in the genre adapted into anime and manga as well. The tricky thing here is that whereas the English title is meant to be fairly snappy, it ironically might make it harder for other titles to distinguish themselves. I don’t think “Villainess” is that bad translation for akuyaku reijou—merely a somewhat imprecise one that trades accuracy for efficiency. Because of that, I’m curious if other English translations are going to willingly adopt the term as a clear genre identifier, or if they’re going to try to avoid getting crowded out by bigger titles. As with so many other trends, we’ll probably get a combination of forgettable misses and memorable hits, but I don’t think I’d mind the process at all.

Ohohohoho.

Try Angles: My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax!

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (aka My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, as I Expected) is the modern light novel anime that reminded me to never judge a book by its cover. While on the surface it looked to be another series about a cynical protagonist who ends up surrounded by attractive girls, it quickly became clear that what the series is selling is less a fantasy and more observations of reality—namely the ups and downs of growing mentally and emotionally in the messiest yet sincerest ways. Now, the final anime season has arrived, and what we’re left with is a satisfying conclusion that stays true to the series’s identity.

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax! once again revolves around loner Hikigaya Hachiman, bubbly Yuigahama Yui, and no-nonsense Yukinoshita Yukino as they run the Service Club: a group dedicated to problem-solving for any student who asks. All three are very different in personality, which makes their views on how to fix a given issue very different, but they complement one another well. This season, their main obstacles are pulling off an American-style prom, dealing with Yukino’s impossibly perfect mother who maps out her daughters’ lives to the letter, and the three main characters (at long last) resolving their feelings. 

All three storylines come down to battles of words and wills, and it’s this angle that highlights just how important language is to SNAFU. This series loves its wordplay—it’s why all the character names sound like superhero alter egos—but it doesn’t end there. SNAFU absolutely revels in both utter verbal ambiguity and extremely precise word choice that the Japanese language is so frustratingly good at. 

Take a couple of the keywords that showed up in the second season and present themselves here in full force: tasukeru and honmono. Tasukeru can mean “to help” or “to save,” and the ambiguity between the two gives a certain weight to Yukino’s words when she says it. But it’s also precisely because the characters can be so roundabout that they find a certain kinship. Honmono, introduced by Service Club faculty advisor Hiratsuka-sensei, can be translated as “genuine article,” “real deal,” “something real,” and so on. What exactly that means can change with context (is it more physical or more abstract?), and it’s not even clear whether Hachiman himself quite understands—other than it might just be worthwhile even while the fear of losing what you already have (even if it’s built on lies) is ever-present. Each character is both hurt and helped by how they utilize language, and it’s their strong friendship that brings them both smiles and tears.

The title of this series was originally about how the kinds of teenage romances celebrated in media are a lie, and that Hachiman’s life is anything but picturesque. By the end, but the meaning has morphed into the idea that it might not have been what the cool and popular kids get, but it’s something just as special. In a way, it’s perfect that SNAFU Climax! puts such emphasis on a prom, that classic symbol of Hollywood and American rom coms. The fact that the battle over the prom is more important than the event itself is especially fitting.

I’m happy to see this series to the end, but it also makes me aware of how different my own life and perspective has become since I watched the first season seven years ago. Back then, the sinews of high school and college social interaction still felt somewhat  fresh in my mind, and I could see pieces of myself and friends I knew in Hachiman. Now, my interaction with SNAFU has transformed from relatable experience to nostalgia. It’s as if I started as Hachiman the student and became Hiratsuka-sensei.

2010–2019 Part 2: Looking Back

Another decade of anime and manga has passed, which means it’s time to reflect on all the things that have happened in and around our favorite Japanese art and entertainment forms. With more anime than any time previous, there’s an overwhelming amount of history to look at, so I’m going to be focusing on what I consider interesting and/or important trends.

I also covered some of 2010–2019 through my review of my old predictions, so for the sake of keeping a long post from getting further out of hand, I’ve kept further discussion of topics there to a relative minimum.

Bookended by Tragedy

This decade more or less began and ended with painful events that have shaped and will continue to shape Japan and its anime and manga industries for years to come. March 11, 2011 was the day that a combined earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing nuclear meltdowns. July 18, 2019 was the date of the arson attack on Kyoto Animation, killing over 30 people, injuring even more, and leaving the famed studio’s main building in flames.

The Fukushima triple disaster was brought in part by nature but also human negligence at the highest levels of authority, and it destroyed villages, displaced people from their homes, took lives, and contaminated land and water. The area, one known for its rice crop in a nation where rice is a staple food, had to deal with the all-too-familiar fear that nuclear power conjures up in Japan via Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Fukushima’s consequences are far, far bigger than any one industry, but that’s precisely why they have had an indelible effect on anime and manga. Suddenly, there was the realization that whatever anti-nuclear messages existed in pop culture weren’t enough. It was almost too poetic a timing that Coppelion, a manga about genetically engineered girls having to rescue human survivors in a post-meltdown Tokyo, began only months prior to Fukushima. Anime such as Madoka Magica that were aired during that period suddenly had their surrounding contexts changed.

But the disaster also brought support from across the anime and manga industries to Fukushima and the surrounding Tohoku region. Creators left messages encouraging and praying for a revival, and as the land has started to improve (though to what extent is up for debate), there’s an active push by the government to encourage tourism and purchase of local goods. Anime and manga also play a role here too as part of the campaign to bring people back.

In contrast, the Kyoto Animation attack was like a direct strike to the heart and soul of the anime industry. Not only was it the worst domestic attack since World War II—even worse than the Tokyo sarin gas attack—but KyoAni has been a pioneer of better wages and better gender equality in anime in addition to their creating popular and critically acclaimed works. It’s unclear how the anime and manga industries will react to this over time (aside from better security), but the biggest question mark will be about what could have been.

There was a lot of talent lost, notably The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi and Kobayashi-san’s Dragon Maid director Takemoto Yasuhiro, and it’s sad that they will have the chance to keep working and creating. There is one bright side, however: KyoAni has started up their animation school again, and their mission to prepare the next generation is more vital than ever.

An aside: One odd bit of humor to come out all this was that the days after the disasters, the only commercial on Japanese TV was apparently ads telling people to greet each other more. These drove Japanese viewers nuts, so some of the more artistic ones started turning the animal mascots in these commercials into transforming robots.

Fujoshi Integration and the Permanence of the Otaku Hero

Back when I originally started Ogiue Maniax in 2007, one thing I was interested in was the portrayal of otaku characters, and by extension the fujoshi characters that began appearing more and more at the time. Going into 2010, this feeling was still quite strong, but as I continued to keep an eye on series with otaku in them, it became harder and harder to keep up. The Fujoshi Files, my on-going archiving of fujoshi characters, is on semi-hiatus right now because I’ve simply been overwhelmed by the fact that you just never know when a fujoshi character will show up for two episodes in an obscure TV series. In other words, otaku characters aren’t just commonplace now—they’re arguably an over-saturated archetype.

This is especially the case with the isekai genre and fantasy light novel series, where having an otaku of some kind (it doesn’t necessarily have to be an anime otaku) is de rigueur for the kinds of power fantasies that are ubiquitous in that realm. But the prevalence of the Otaku hero isn’t even limited to that particular world. Onoda from Yowamushi Pedal and Deku from the wildly popular My Hero Academia, both straightforward shounen leads, have otaku minds. At this point, sometimes it’s easier to ask whether a protagonist isn’t an otaku.

Moe in Moderation

Throughout the 2000s, it was “moe” this, “moe” that. There were haters, there were supporters (me included), and those caught in the middle. In 2019, however, it’s past its prime (at least in the old familiar form) to the extent that the term itself has faded immensely in the otaku lexicon.

In hindsight, I think of moe as like a food with a very intense and peculiar flavor that is probably good in reasonable doses. The problem is that people gorged on it until they got sick, and had to eventually learn when less is more. The occasional smorgasbord happens, not now you see hints or accents of moe in more things—music, horror, and even the most serious and mature titles. It’s part of why I think sports series have started to gain traction in the United States when there was like success in the past: people realized that the core appeal of sports anime and manga was less the athletics themselves and more the human drama that comes with exploring characters’ weaknesses and struggles. Even a softer shounen hero like Tanjiro in Demon Slayer has moe qualities that quite possibly outstrip even his sister’s tremendous qualities.

I one commented to anime podcaster and ex-Crunchyroll guy Evan Minto that Eureka Seven was a moe show. He found it absurd, but I was serious, because moe came from empathizing with its characters vulnerabilities. Just because a character can be moe doesn’t mean they’re useless, and I think that’s a big lesson that has been taken to heart by anime and manga as a whole.

Plus, you can still totally find all-you-can-moe buffets whenever you feel the need to go nuts.

American-Style Superheroes

Perhaps due to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the American conception of the superhero (in contrast to the Kamen Rider, for example) is now a regular part of anime and manga. Putting aside the Marvel and DC co-productions, this decade has seen Tiger & Bunny, One Punch Man, and My Hero Academia all reach enormous success (albeit not always for the same reasons). You also have series like Heroman, and the fact that Disney’s Big Hero 6 film has a Japanese protagonist perhaps says something about the desire for international appeal.

It’s interesting that so many specifically embrace an American aesthetic, whether it’s red, white, and blue motifs in its characters or American-style cities as settings, and it really speaks to the fact that they’re aiming for that “capes” aesthetic. However, what’s even more noteworthy is the way these manga and anime have been embraced by superhero comics fans as being better at telling superhero stories than many current American comics.

Superheroes also create an amazing bridge for being American comics fans to come to manga and for manga fans to check out American comics. It’s perhaps easier than ever to transition between the two.

Steps Towards Mainstreaming LGBT

Queer romances have long been a part of manga and anime—Hagio Moto’s Heart of Thomas from the 1970s is generally considered the first one shounen ai manga. The portrayal of BL and yuri can differ significantly from real relationships, with the former often being for the pleasure of non-queer audiences, but this openness has attracted many fans, and there are more and more works that try to support a queer audience as well. But Japan is still in many ways a conservative culture, and positive mainstream depictions of non-heteronormative characters can come with a lot of baggage.

While there is still a ways to go, there is a general trend towards more consideration for LGBT characters these past ten years. Gatchaman Crowds, for example, features three characters each with different types of non-cishet expression, going beyond the original Gatchaman and Berg Katze’s dual genders while keeping them respectful. Genshiken Nidaime (aka Second Season aka Second Generation) has a crossdressing fudanshi with complicated feelings at the center of it’s story who tries to navigate the difference between BL fandom and homosexuality. Yuri!!! On Ice features the gradual development of a clearly gay relationship as its core, but its lack of standard BL flourishes engendered a debate about whether it should be called BL at all. Tagame Gengoroh’s My Brother’s Husband won both Japanese and international acclaim.

One stand-out example of LGBT becoming a little more mainstream in anime and manga, to me, is how it’s been handled in the Precure franchise. While it’s always had its yuri fans, and Kira Kira Precure A La Mode even strongly hinted at something between two of its characters, it’s 2018’s Hugtto! Precure that made an entire subplot out of the burgeoning gay relationship between two minor characters—one of whom is implied to struggle with his self-directed homophobia. While the franchise still doesn’t have the courage to say the word “gay,” it at least has these characters holding hands, giving hearts to each other, and telling presumably very young viewers to not let anyone else define who they are. Sailor Moon had Neptune and Uranus, but this is another layer.

From Sekai-kei to Game-like Isekai, Ironic Isekai, and Beyond

In the previous decade, one of the popular genres of Japanese fiction, especially in the realm of anime and manga but also light novels and games, was sekai-kei. Literally meaning “world-style,” it’s actually almost the opposite of what you probably think. Instead of being focused on world-building, it’s about stories where the outcome of the world rests upon the relationship between two characters. I would call Haruhi an example of sekai-kei because their fate rests upon Haruhi and how Kyon interacts with her.

I feel that, since 2010 or maybe even a little sooner, we’ve been seeing fewer and fewer sekai-kei stories. In their place has been a surge in isekai (transported to another world stories) that’s impossible to ignore.

Isekai is nothing new, and there are examples in modern Japanese fiction dating back to the 1970s. Even Gundam director Tomino’s Byston Well series is an isekai. The big difference now, however, has been the game-like approach to isekai. Whether the hero is literally trapped in a video game (Sword Art Online, Log Horizon) or where it’s simply an extremely game-like universe (KonoSuba, Re:ZERO, Overlord), there’s a presumption about RPGs as a common-knowledge experience. Here, the fate of the world usually rests on the hero who’s simultaneously underpowered and overpowered. Rather than necessarily being about exploring the new world, these stories have been mostly either power fantasies or responses to power fantasies.

Japanese scholar Azuma Hiroki wrote about “game-like realism” in the sense of a reality with no beginning, middle, and end, and plenty of alternate realities. While it doesn’t map perfectly, current isekai can be seen as a kind of attempt to wrangle these notions back into a straightforward, albeit open-ended and often meandering format.

Isekai has gotten so prevalent that some online novel contests have even begun to forbid isekai entries. But it also means that it’s ripe for parody. The Devil is a Part-Timer! is a reverse-isekai where a hero and a demon lord end up in modern Japan. The Hero is Overpowered But Overly Cautious plays on an idea that many RPG players are familiar with: making absolutely sure everything is perfect to the point of virtual neurosis. They’re not all winners, but there’s a desire to explore isekai as an archetype, and it’ll be interesting to see how far this goes.

The Ascendance of Mobile Games

Part of the story of the 2010s the world over is the rise of mobile games, and in Japan this translated to character-focused gacha. These digital waifu and husbando slot machines are a powerful thing, and the devotion they engender can veer straight into “gambling addiction” territory, but it also can’t be denied how much of an influence they’ve had on anime, manga, and fandom.

Consider the Fate franchise, which went from being once defined by its original visual novel to being known primarily through the absurdly successful and profitable Fate/Grand Order mobile game. Also look at Granblue Fantasy, which helped make the company Cygames into a major player—the Granblue Fantasy anime shows a budget few can even dream of.

Even The iDOLM@STER, which began as console games, has in part taken on new life by having a virtually limitless selection of idols to obtain through its apps. Love Live! found success through various channels, but there are many people who became fans solely through the School Idol Festival game. And Kantai Collection technically started as a browser game, but it’s cut from a similar mold, and it’s notable that it’s become one of the franchises that dominates Comic Market.

There have been tons of light novel anime and manga adaptations, but the amount of works based on mobile games steadily increased over the decade as well. This doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad—Rage of Bahamut Genesis is one that sticks out to me as exceptional—but it’s certainly become a crowded field where “adaptation as advertisement” and “adaptation as mark of prestige” exist in the same space.

Anime as Faithful Reproduction Instead of Creative Interpretation

In decades past, whenever there was an anime adaptation of something with multiple paths—a dating sim, for instance—the common approach was to synthesize all of the different routes into a single story with the canon heroine being the winner. But starting in 2010 with Amagami SS (or possibly something even sooner) it started to become more common to adapt every path. Each couple of episodes was basically a different what-if where the protagonist ends up with a different girl. The most extreme version of this might be the movies fully dedicated to the alternate stories of Fate/Stay Night, Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel.

In a way, it’s an extension of what we saw with Kyoto Animation’s adaptations of Key games. While those shows still synthesized all the routes, there was a more active adherence to the look and feel of the source material, right down to using the original theme songs. Anime, rather than trying to do its own thing with the material given, is more likely to try and stick to the script. Filler arcs or anime-original material were out, and season delays were in, for better or worse. 2009’s Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (intentionally made to follow the manga’s story more than the first anime) also set a precedent.

Fantastic Remakes

Not everything is about adhering to a source material, however. While nostalgia is a strong force in media and entertainment, it’s still possible for a remake or re-imagining is able to go well beyond and turn into something unique and special. Every decade has its own fair share of excellent revivals, but I found the 2010s to be full of especially smart and creative takes on classic franchises. The aforementioned Gatchaman Crowds took the idea of the superhero team and pushed it into an age of social media and gamification. Devilman Crybaby is essentially the original Devilman manga retold, the signature art style of Yuasa Masaaki gave it new life and also highlighted the fact that a lot of the 1970s manga’s theme resonate just as much, if not more today. The Rebuild of Evangelion movies have all been impressive and have dared to go in strange directions, though we’re not actually seeing the conclusion until 2020 rolls around. In the most on-brand move possible, director Anno Hideaki became depressed after the third film, and it wasn’t until he directed the excellent Shin Godzilla (another update to a classic franchise) that he found the spark to go back to Shinji and friends.

Official Simultranslations

Once, getting translated anime and manga the day after release in Japan was a foolish dream. Then, with the advent of high-speed internet it became technically possible—but it was the domain of speed subbers and speed scanlators, with the requisite decline in quality. But now we’ve had a decade of not just quick releases but ones that are official, whose success can and will be noticed by Japan. Crunchyroll, HiDive, and Comixology are among the many resources available to fans, and while Netflix is often not technically a simulstream most of the time, its presence in the world of online streaming can’t be denied.

This is partially a tale of the direction of technology. More smartphones and better tablets mean streaming decent-quality images is more likely than ever before. Gone are the specific limitations of the past that made trying to view anime and manga a chore. It’s also the story of Japan being dragged into the current age, as much as its companies (especially manga) have tried to resist the digitizing of these mediums.

The amount of legal digital anime and manga options is ever increasing even in Japan. Comic Walker and Book Walker make following new releases almost trivial. Bandai Channel is more expansive than ever. Many manga publishers have series that start off as free webcomics now. Notably, the second iteration of One Punch Man started on Tonari no Young Jump. The amount of digital users keeps rising around the world, and it’ll likely not stop for a long time.

What Lies Ahead

While it’s mere coincidence, the fact that Japan is heading into the next decade of anime and manga alongside a newly coronated emperor seems poetic. For Part 3 of the 2010–2019 series, I’ll be giving my predictions as to where I think anime and manga will go in 2020 onwards.

Project Z Revived! “Hakai-oh – Gaogaigar vs. Betterman Part 1” Novel Review

Being a fan of Gaogaigar is to know joy and suffering. Its increasingly grandiose-yet-ever-personal story makes for one magnificent crescendo after another. But then, at the climax, fans were left with a bittersweet cliffhanger. The heroes we had cheered for were stuck in another galaxy, the only escapees the two alien boys who found loving home on Earth. For years, fans and characters alike were left in limbo, the one glimmer of hope—a proposed sequel called “Project Z”—dashed by sponsor and studio conflicts.

Then, out the blue, came a new light. Sunrise, the studio behind Gaogaigar, announced their own light novel imprint. From it has sprung The King of Braves Gaogaigar Novel 03: Hakai-oh – Gaogaigar vs. Betterman Part 1, a true novel sequel written by Takeda Yuuichirou, a former staff member on the Gaogaigar anime, and guided by Yonetani Yoshitomo, the original director. The book was created using Project Z as its foundation, so those who kept the fire alive for the Gutsy Galaxy Guard can finally be rewarded.

Note: There is also a two-part novelization of Gaogaigar Final, hence why this one is “Novel 03.” I’ve not read those prequel novels, so I don’t know what may have changed, or what new information might be available in them.

Plot

While there are many parts to Gaogaigar vs. Betterman, the main story focuses on Amami Mamoru and Kaidou Ikumi, the two extraterrestrial boys at the heart of the original anime. Where once they supported the brave robots, however, now they themselves are the pilots. Older and wiser but still full of passion, they pilot Gaogaigo, a combining mecha modeled after the original Gaogaigar with some added new powers. As the heroes of the new “Gutsy Global Guard, ” Mamoru and Ikumi must defend the Earth from old threats (namely the terrorist organization Bionet) and deal with a world where communications are crippled, all while trying to find a way to bring their old friends and comrades home. Looming over everything is a mysterious entity known as “Hakai-oh” (the “King of World-Conquerors”), whose visage appeared in the sky after a fateful event, and who bears an eerie resemblance Genesic Gaogaigar.

A Labor of Love

Thanks to the author and Yonetani’s efforts, the story is just jam-packed full of details from all facets of the Gaogaigar universe. That car above, shown for about five seconds at the start of Gaogaigar FINAL episode 2? That’s Polcott, a transforming robot that becomes a key member of the new GGG. Other new members of the Super Robot Corps reflect the use of Even the Gaogaigo is a “Neuro Mechanoid,” combining the Super Mechanoid technology featured in Gaogaigar with the Neuronoids of Betterman—a robot/occult horror series in the same universe. It makes sense, because without Galeon or Gaofar, they need something that can handle the burden of being the core machine.

Those are just a couple of details that show the unbelievable amount of love and care put into the novel. Whether it’s how characters have grown over a span of nine years, or connecting the mythos of Gaogaigar and Betterman together, or even drawing from all manner of obscure material without feeling forced, it made me happy to step back into its world. Of course, I wanted to know more than anything the fate of Guy and the rest of the old heroes (more on that later), but just seeing how the world has changed is a tremendous delight.

The Betterman side of the story is less prominent, but many of its elements permeate the story. An ongoing plot thread focuses on Lamia warning Mamoru and Ikumi of the threat of Hakai-oh, while also trying to convince his fellow Somniums if they should have a hand in the upcoming fight or leave humanity to their own devices. Many of the Betterman characters are also major players in the story. Chief Akamatsu, the designer of the Neuronoids, is the head of GGG (and apparently, Shishioh Liger’s son!). Sai Hinoki, the heroine, is a science and research officer at GGG as well. Seeing Keita and especially Hinoki at age 28 is wonderful in its own way.

Favorite Moments

Here are two of my favorite details from the novel. First, is that Mamoru still carries around his old GGG beeper. Second, is Gaogaigo’s use of Hell and Heaven. Much like in the real world, Earth in Gaogaigar is now filled with smartphones and the like, but 19-year-old Mamoru still holds onto that memento out of hope, and to keep his conviction to rescue everyone. That one item just says spades about where Mamoru is mentally and emotionally.

As for Hell and Heaven, fans of Gaogaigar might recall that the way this finishing technique worked was by combining the protective powers of Gaogaigar’s left side with the destructive properties of its right, allowing Gaogaigar to remove Zonder cores without harming them in the process. Gaogaigo’s works differently. Instead, it takes advantage of the fact that its copilots are Ikumi and Mamoru, bringing together the former’s J-Jewel energy with the latter’s G-Stone energy—a combination shown in Gaogaigar Final to create a power far more than the sum of its parts. Working with the technology, resources, and heroes they have, the Gutsy Global Guard have figured out different ways to protect the Earth.

Other Details

The novel comes with a number of extras. There’s a side story all about what happens with Ikumi when he landed in Australia unconscious (as briefly shown in Gaogaigar Final, above). Afterwords written by Yonetani and Takeda are very revealing and informative, chronicling the struggles of the original toyetic Gaogaigar production, the feeling that there wasn’t enough space to do everything desired in Gaogaigar Final, and the long path to making Gaogaigar vs. Betterman happen. The novel also includes an entire Gaogaigar glossary for every obscure term you might need to know, in addition to a timeline stating where every event—yes even the “Silverion Hammer” side story as well as random side stories from drama CDs—occurs within the Gaogaigar/Betterman universe.

Like other novels/light novels, illustrations are included throughout. Character drawings are by the original character designer, Kimura Takahiro (one of my favorites!), with mecha designs by Nakatani Seiichi, who was an animation director on the original Gaogaigar. The mecha drawings seem kind of weak overall, but I think that’s just because they seem a bit rushed or lacking in polish. Nakatani can clearly do good things with robot designs; they just lack dynamism on still pages.

The Big Questions

Now, I know a good chunk of you want to know what actually happens in the novel. You’ve been waiting years and years to find out the fate of Guy and the rest. So let’s get into…

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS (Highlight to view)
The very start of Gaogaigar vs. Betterman has the old GGG crew (plus Soldat J and friends) trying to get back to Earth through special wormhole technology from Galeon. After that first chapter, no trace of them is seen…until the climax at the end of the book. Mamoru and Ikumi, along with the other new GGG members, travel to Jupiter to confront Hakai-oh, who’s been compressing Jupiter into a black hole (or something like it). During the fight, which also includes an ally in an awesome combined Betterman (built from the monstrous forms of the Somniums), Guy suddenly emerges from a rift in space! Apparently, the rest of the old crew had went ahead previously, but their whereabouts are unknown. Guy, meanwhile, confirms that Hakai-oh is indeed Genesic Gaogaigar, but somehow controlled by a primal force that is the original source of THE POWER.
Guy is without a robot of his own to fight, but thanks to the Limpid Channel through which the Somniums communicate (featured in Betterman), Chief Akamatsu is able to talk to his uncle, Shishioh Leo, and bring along the prototype Phantom Gao. This allows Guy to form Gaofighgar and inform Mamoru and Ikumi of his main goal: get to Hakai-oh and rescue Galeon. However, during a grueling battle where they almost extract Galeon, the robot lion actually repels them and sends them away from Hakai-oh, sacrificing itself in the process. Guy is back (albeit the same age as ten years ago due to time dilation), Hakai-oh is still at large, and J and the old GGG are somewhere in the universe.
I have to admit that I jumped in my seat when Guy popped out. What’s even better is Guy hearing Mamoru’s deepened voice and not entirely recognizing him for a second. To Guy, Mamoru’s supposed to be this elementary school kid, and now he’s about the same age as when Guy first started piloting Gaogaigar. I may or may not have shed a tear.

Next Mission

Suffice it to say, I can’t wait for the next one. It truly feels good to have Gaogaigar back in my life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

When Kirito Met Marcus Fenix

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

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

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

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

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

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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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[Apartment 507] Teen Girl Sherlock Holmes Novel “A Study in Charlotte” Gets Manga-style Cover: US vs. Japan Marketing in Action

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So A Study in Charlotte, an American novel about a young female descendant of Sherlock Holmes, is getting a Japanese release, and it has a cover from a manga artist. I’ve written some thoughts about this method of marketing, which you can read here. Namely, can a cover like this influence people’s perception of the contents inside?

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