Hungry Hungry Hime: Princess Connect! Re:Dive

Anime based on gacha games generally have one overarching goal: get you to play the original mobile game. It’s unclear whether this approach is lucrative, and if anything, it comes across more as a serious flex to say, “Look at how much money we can put into making these gorgeous-looking anime adaptations. In this arena, Cygames is one of the kings. Between strong anime versions of Granblue Fantasy and Rage of Bahamut, among others, it’s exceedingly clear just how much money they have to throw around, given the gorgeous animation, strong writing, and excellent direction seen. 

In this respect, Princess Connect! Re:Dive is another success story. Despite the fact that it’s clearly meant to lure viewers into spending their paychecks, there’s no denying the ridiculously high production values and effort, as it ends up being one of the best-looking and most enjoyable anime of 2020. 

Princess Connect! Re:Dive takes place in a fantasy world and centers around an eclectic group of adventures who end up forming the Gourmet Guild, which is dedicated to trying out delicious foods all across the land (and not afraid to slay a monster or ten to get some grub). Leading the charge is Pecorine, an ultra-strong princess knight with a bottomless appetite, and joining her are white mage Kokkoro, the cat-eared black mage Karyl, and the strangely amnesiatic human boy Yuuki—the last of whom is clearly the “player character” from the game. 

I went into the Princess Connect! Re:Dive without any foreknowledge of the original game, and only with a faint awareness that it was getting high praise from animation buffs. I don’t know how much is based on the source material and how much comes from the anime staff putting in their own spin on things, but there were two main impressions I came away with:

First, the general world and premise are standard fantasy-mobile-game fare—a setting that ostensibly has an overarching ongoing story, but is more a vehicle for you to fall in love with the characters (and want to roll for them once you play the game). Second, the character work is so strong and consistent that it makes the first point more palatable. Major and minor characters alike are ridiculously charismatic, and well-traveled tropes like the moeblob, the tsundere, the yandere, and even bland male lead are portrayed in fun and refreshing ways. Yuuki’s characterization in particular is impressive, as the anime leans so hard into the concept of him being a potato that it falls through the ground and ends up on the other side of the world.

It might just be because I’m an adventurous eater and that I love food-themed anime and manga, but the very idea of the Gourmet Guild holds a lot of appeal to me. It gives plenty of opportunity to animate some amazing-looking dishes, and there’s a certain heartwarming vibe that comes with basing an adventuring team on “eat tasty things.” That innocence also becomes a narrative point, as the day-to-day pursuit of something so simple and pure connects with the motivations and inner conflicts of different characters. Sure, the big-picture story is pretty convoluted, but I still want to see Pecorine and the others succeed within that ridiculous world.

After I finished the anime, I looked up the original game, which is actually the second iteration of the Princess Connect! mobile game franchise—hence the Re:Dive appellation. Apparently, the two versions are tied together in some way, and the anime itself hints at this heavily. It’s not particularly clear what the connection is, and feels more like an attempt to simultaneously introduce Princess Connect! newbies like myself and inform veteran players alike of what’s going on. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters too much.

There’s a lot that’s pretty typical of the Princess Connect! Re:Dive anime, and by the time the final few episodes hit, you’ll know which of the countless numbers of cameos are probably the fan favorites. Still, even as the show is driving its sales pitch at you at full throttle, it’s still a superbly well done anime that fires on all cylinders. In a sense, efforts like these not only shatter the age-old stereotype that anime based on video games are terrible, but it’s even possible that anime like Princess Connect! Re:Dive are better than the games.

A Villain’s Redemption: Pokemon Masters Finally Hits an Interesting Story

Pokémon Masters continues to be a curious mobile game. It never had the ultra-mainstream appeal of its cousin Pokémon Go, and its focus on established human characters over the marketable critters themselves basically implies that the game’s target audience are already loyal Pokémon fans. Up until recently, that fanservice didn’t go much beyond seeing your favorite gym leaders and heroes interact with one another more extensively, but the Ho-oh event from last month takes it a step further by redeeming one of Pokémon’s antagonists.

The story involves Ethan and Silver, protagonist and rival of Pokemon Gold, Silver, and Crystal, looking for the legendary Pokemon Ho-oh. At this point, Ethan and Silver are no longer enemies but loosely working together. Ho-oh is said to appear to humans who are pure of heart, which Silver believes disqualifies him from becoming its partner. After all, his history is one of doing terrible things to his Pokemon, being cruel and nasty to other people, and being the son of Team Rocket boss Giovanni. However, Lance appears and explains that he has seen genuine change in Silver—a transformation clearly reflected in SIlver’s bond with his Sneasel. Ultimately, Silver proves himself worthy by choosing to save his allies instead of trying to catch Ho-oh, and the legendary Pokemon rewards him by joining his side.

There’s something about mobile games in general where I can’t really get into their narratives because of how they’re locked behind tedious gameplay requirements. Pokémon Masters is no exception in terms of feeling a bit like a chore, but I think the payoff was rewarding because of how nice Silver’s story ends up being. The original Gold, Silver, and Crystal games (as well as the Heart Gold and Soul Silver remakes) do show that Silver has started to turn a new leaf, but the result was left somewhat ambiguous. What Pokemon Masters does, though its canonicity is unclear, is to give Silver a satisfying conclusion to his journey from villain to well-meaning rival. It’s the first time that Pokémon Masters has presented a story with actual stakes, and it works to really humanize Silver. This has resulted in what I consider the peak of the mobile game currently, and one of the highlights of Pokémon as a whole.

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.