Valentine’s Day “Dead Eyes Extravaganza”

In honor of Valentine’s Day, that romantic holiday transformed in Japan into a way for girls to express their feelings for guys, I present an image mosaic of one of my favorite character traits: dead or empty eyes.

deadeyes-mosaicCreated using Mosaic Maker

Dead eyes, that is to say empty eyes without luster, are usually associated with characters who have been mind-controlled. However, I’m more fascinated by them when the characters who have them are in full control of themselves. Rather than being a sign of a loss of will, they’re often symbolic of something else. They can be intensity, trauma, otherworldly perspective/experience, or even a swirling madness. Just think about how all many of the characters in the image above have notably different personalities!

Do you have a favorite character in the image above? Is there a dead eyes character you’re a fan of? Let me know!

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Amae Koromo and Her Weird Japanese Speech Patterns

Amae Koromo, demon of the high school mahjong world, is the first major opponent in the manga Saki. Able to oppress her opponents using the power of the moon, her physical appearance is deceptive: though she’s a year older than Saki herself, she resembles a small child, which causes her grief to no end. Those of you who’ve seen the anime and read the manga, however, might not be fully aware of just how much Koromo’s strange mix of naivete and maturity also comes across in her speech.

When Koromo speaks, the two main elements to notice are that 1) she often mispronounces words and names like a child would, but that this is contrasted with 2) she uses a heavy, heavy amount of classical Japanese idioms and obscure, old-fashioned vocabulary. So just as often as Koromo will call Nodoka “Nonoka,” and act like a spoiled brat, she’ll throw in phrases like 黄壌 (koujou, afterlife) and 神算鬼謀 (shinsan kibou, ingenious scheme). Her Japanese is so dense and difficult at times that Japanese people themselves have trouble. If you do a search for many of her lines, you’ll find even Japanese speakers asking, “What in the world is she saying?”

The result is that Koromo comes across as a girl who is very well-read and intelligent, but also sheltered and unaware of what the commoners enjoy. This, as readers of Saki know, is exactly what she’s like.

This site collects Koromo’s idioms up to Volume 8 of the manga, while this one has some other examples of her strange vocabulary. And as always, may the Haitei Raoyue be with you.

Return to Saki Vols 1-2: A Yuri Mahjong Retrospective

saki-reign

Saki is special to me. While I certainly was no stranger to anime and manga when it first aired, Saki (along with Akagi) formed the foundation of my interest in Japanese mahjong. As I learned and improved at the game, my experience with Saki also changed, going from not understanding the nonsense going on to realizing how much Saki mahjong is nonsense (fun, but nonsense nonetheless). I’ve had a lot of fun throwing panels about mahjong and analyzing the amazing powers that crop up in Saki. I also know I’m not alone in this respect: Saki is known for changing the genre of mahjong manga from the exclusive domain of yakuza narratives and hard-boiled intensity to girlish yuri and high school competition. They even made a tongue-in-cheek parody manga about the author!

With that in mind, I recently picked up the first two volumes of the English digital release of Saki by Yen Press. Had I realized the first volume was already out for two months I probably would’ve nabbed it sooner.

Saki is the story of a young girl named Miyanaga Saki who, similar to Takumi’s role in Initial D, has an immense talent for mahjong but is not a fan of the game. She gets roped into her school’s mahjong club, where the class president notices her absurd strength at the game despite Saki’s best efforts to hide it. She eventually joins the mahjong club and starts their path towards the high school championships.

Going over these early chapters (which I had really only seen in anime format), quite a few things strike me as noteworthy, all of which can be summed up by the fact that, at this starting point, Saki is still trying to find its way.

saki-yuri To say that the series did not have any basis in the yuri genre this early would be a baldfaced lie. In fact, the first thing that happens in Saki is Saki remarking on the beauty of her eventual teammate and best friend, buxom digital mahjong warrior Haramura Nodoka. One thing that does fade into the distant background, however, is the sole male club member Kyoushirou, who seems to start the series as a kind of male audience stand-in but eventually becomes all but fused with the background. I think at this point the series was trying to decide whether it would be more of a harem or more of a girls-only world, and it’s come to lean clearly in the direction of the latter.

saki-haremAnother aspect that’s changed significantly would be the artwork. As creator Kobayashi Ritz’ style has developed, the girls have gotten softer, their features more simplified yet pronounced, and I don’t even mean that only about Dragon Ball Z-esque chest size power creep that has occurred over the years. Some of the girls look very different here than they do in the current chapters of the manga, and both look quite different from the official anime character designs. I personally don’t have a preferred style for the characters.

saki-earlysatoha

I also noticed that the manga actually sets up one of the major opponents for Saki and the rest of Kiyosumi very early on. As seen in the page above, one of the players is clearly Tsujigaito Satoha from Rinkai, which is a really strong school from later in the manga. There are no details about how Satoha basically dismantles opponents with pure skill as opposed to mahjong magic, but she’s there nevertheless.

The last thing I want to say is, as someone who’s approaching Saki with a firm grasp of mahjong now, I can’t quite say how reliable the translation is for those who don’t have a clue. What’s notable is that it mixes official English terms from mahjong in general with a few Japanese-only terms, and I wonder if that helps or hurts, say, people who are only familiar with Chinese or even American-style mahjong. Does that matter at all? I certainly enjoyed the series in its anime incarnation despite a lack of knowledge, but do the still image flourishes of manga have the same impact as seeing the titles fall? Does the electricity of a riichi call work in panels as it does on screen? That’s something for a new generation of Saki readers to decide.

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Saki Individuals Tournament Dream Match-Ups

Over yonder, beyond the horizon, is the Saki individuals tournament arc. It’s been referred to frequently throughout the series, and though at this point the manga is a long, long way from reaching it, it does give me the joy of speculating who might face whom as they go through the brackets (or round robin system, not sure which they’re using). One I’ve already mentioned before is Amae Koromo vs. Oohoshi Awai because of how their strengths lie at opposite ends of the game, but there are plenty of others.

Minor manga spoilers, by the way. Remember though, these are not actual matches but just ones (in no particular order) that I’d like to see.

1) Kataoka “Tacos” Yuuki vs. Usuzumi “Hell’s Gate” Hatsumi

I think this one is pretty obvious. Imagine Yuuki as dealer in the East round (meaning she’s double East) versus Hatsumi in the North position. To whom do the East tiles go?

2) Oohoshi “Double Riichi” Awai vs. Anetai “Undertaker” Toyone

Awai’s insane Double Riichi vs. Toyone’s Pursuit Riichi. Who overpowers who?

3) Matano “Fisherman” Seiko vs. Inoue “Strategic Pon” Jun

Both have a tendency to call for tiles but for very different reasons (winning vs. control). Seeing them in the same match would likely make for a very aggressive game.

4) Funakubo “Osaka Data Girl” Hiroko vs. Sawamura “Nagano Data Girl” Tomoki

Two characters who specialize in gathering information on their opponents. Who is the better strategist?

5) Aislinn “New Zealander” Wishart vs. Hao “Chinese-Style” Huiyu

Aislinn is capable of envisioning the perfect scenario in her mind and having it play out to her advantage. Mako ruined her day by disrupting the discard patterns that Aislinn had set out, but then Huiyu tends to prefer closed, quiet hands. At the same time, Huiyu’s Chinese-influenced play style is highly unorthodox and could disrupt Aislinn possibly without any effort on Huiyu’s part.

The Perfect Nickname for Saki’s Anetai Toyone

The new season of the Saki anime is here, and with it comes a whole slew of new characters. I’m quite fond of a number of them, but perhaps none more than Anetai Toyone. At 197 cm tall (over 6’5″) she’s not just “anime girl” tall, but actually a dark and imposing figure (at least physically).

I mentally refer to her as “the Undertaker” because on her resemblance to the WWE wrestler, particularly his early-to-mid 90s look, and I’m encouraging everyone else to do the same. It’ll make the actual experience of watching the show that much richer, and I want you to think of that signature gong every time you see Toyone.

Perhaps Kakura Kurumi (the small one) could be her Paul Bearer.

Alpha vs. Omega, Awai vs. Koromo

As a manga about cute girls with mahjong superpowers playing in tournaments, Saki constantly adds new characters as opponents for its heroines. We’re getting to the point where the cast is not just large but enormous, which has me wanting to see characters who are not normally associated with each other paired together. I don’t mean that in the yuri sense, but in the mahjong throwdown sense.

The two characters I really want to see square off against each other, possibly in the national individuals tournament, are the lunar-powered Amae Koromo, Miyanaga Saki’s final opponent in the Nagano prefectural team tournament, and the double-riiching Oohoshi Awai from Shiraitodai, who is a teammate of Saki’s sister Teru. The reason why I want to see a mahjong match between them is because their respective abilities appear to function almost opposite to the other’s.

Koromo has two main abilities. The first is that she can consistently win by drawing the last tile in a game, also known as Haitei Raoyue, or “scooping the moon from the bottom of the sea.” When combined with her second ability, which is that she can bog down her opponents’ hands, making them unable to reach tenpai no matter how hard they try, it means a slow, painful death to her adversaries.

Awai also has two abilities. Rather than winning on the very last tile Awai is firstly able to reach tenpai on her opening hands and call a double riichi, and then combo off of it for big points. Along with her second ability, which is to induce awful starting hands in her opponents, it means she’s able to reach victory more quickly while everyone else is scrambling to assemble even a semi-decent hand.

So you have a character who wins by giving herself a large advantage at the start, and who aims to win early, versus a character who stifles opponents’ progress throughout the game and wins by dragging them down. If you look at those power sets, it would appear that Awai has the advantage as she can get to tenpai at the very start, and win well before Koromo gets to the last tile. However, this also means that Awai’s negative influence on her opponents’ starting hands affects Koromo less because she generally aims for Haitei anyway (though neither of them have to use their powers). The impression I get from them is the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object, and it all hinges on whether or not Koromo’s ability to prevent hands from forming affects someone already in tenpai. Other factors that might contribute to how this plays out are that Awai doesn’t win off of her kans but simply uses them to bolster her hand in big ways, as well as what appears to be a limitation of Awai in that she can’t use her powers simultaneously while Koromo can. I suspect that the degree to which one character’s abilities outrank the other’s will have to do with Koromo’s tendency to be influenced by phases of the moon.

I’m aware how ridiculous this all sounds, and at the end of the day Saki abilities don’t actually make sense. However, I do think this confrontation is likely to happen as Saki continues, so I remain hopeful towards seeing it happen in the actual story.

Girls und Panzer is the Best Show of Its Kind

Girls und Panzer is one of the latest in a long line of anime and manga which mix a unique activity or concept with a cast of cute girls, in this case World War II-era tanks. I’ve enjoyed many such shows over the years, but I think Girls und Panzer is actually the strongest anime I’ve seen in this genre because it possesses qualities which give it the capacity to reach an audience beyond the fanbase one would normally expect. More than the spectacle and the juxtaposition of girls and tanks, Girls und Panzer delivers a good story.

In the world of Girls und Panzer, the act of piloting tanks is considered a traditional feminine martial art and widely revered sport, much like archery. Referred to as senshado, or “way of the tank,” in a fashion similar to how bushido is “way of the samurai” and judo “the gentle way,” and tankery in the official subtitles (invoking the similarity in reputation to archery), the main character Nishizumi Miho comes from a prestigious family and school of senshado. Because of an event in her past, Miho has deliberately transferred to a school without any tankery in order to escape it, but has the unfortunate timing of coming in right when the school decides to bring it back. As the only person in the entire school with experience in senshado, Miho gets roped into participating so that they can compete in a national tournament, and along the way rediscovers her passion for the art.

It’s a strange premise to be sure, though not that different from girls playing mahjong in a world where the game is enormously popular (Saki), or one where girls use magic to become half-human/half-airplane (Strike Witches). Also, while Girls und Panzer may not be as firm in establishing extremely distinct personalities and quirks for its characters as those other shows, it also goes beyond simply being a large cast of cute girls by doing three things especially well. First, it establishes a protagonist with a solid sense of purpose and desire in Miho, who becomes the moral, narrative, and strategic anchor for all of the other characters (of which there are many; it’s a cast of dozens). Second, it has well thought-out narrative arcs for its characters which give the story a clear sense of direction. Third, it knows how to create tension and anticipation to keep interest in both the characters and the premise of the show itself.

Compare Girls und Panzer to Saki, for instance. In both stories, the main heroines have the problem that, in spite of their talents in the specialty of their series, neither of them find it particularly enjoyable, and part of both Girls und Panzer and Saki is that they discover what it means to have fun doing either tankery or mahjong. What does it mean to have fun, though? What do they achieve by learning this? For Miyanaga Saki, it’s never really clear. She plays a lot of people who are as strong as she is, and learns that mahjong is fun, but the idea just seems to end there. For Nishizumi Miho, on the other hand, Girls und Panzer shows how moving to a different school, breaking from her family and their established methods of senshado, and discovering the fun of tanks all have a significant impact on her because Miho’s greatest strength as a commander—adaptability—is given room to grow in a way it wouldn’t be able to otherwise. In this way, Miho’s character becomes somewhat of a poster child for the philosophy of  Bruce Lee, particularly the following quote:

“In memory of a once fluid man, crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” 

It was a criticism of traditional martial arts schools for being too caught up in perpetuating restrictive rules which could prevent people from reaching their true potentials. Girls und Panzer as Jeet Kune Do analogy.

Even before all that, though, the very first episode works to establish the idea that Miho is something special, building up that sense of anticipation which pays off when you see her in action. In this regard, Girls und Panzer reminds me a lot of Initial D and how it would hint at its main character Takumi’s skill at racing, so that when he finally gets behind the wheel you’re already invested in him. The show also follows the Initial D school of stopping an episode right in the middle of action and never giving a good point to walk away, which makes it hard to watch just one episode at a time, unless you were delayed for the week, or even months as the case may be, as Girls und Panzer‘s final episodes aired after a long break.

As for the tanks themselves, I am not a tank fanatic or particularly knowledgeable about them, so I can’t comment in that regard, but what I can say is that the series does an excellent job of portraying the tank battles in terms of thrill and excitement. Each of the tanks are shown to have particular strengths and limitations, and seeing the utilization of these qualities in terms of strategy and tactics, especially positioning, invokes the same feel one can get from the battles in Banner of the Stars or even Legend of the Galactic Heroes, where the unorthodox strategist Yang Wenli is in some ways similar to Miho. The actual animation of the tank battles is also very impressive, and is probably the best integration of 3D and 2D animation that I’ve ever seen. Very rarely does the show make its use of 3D appear awkward, which makes it easier to stay focused on what’s happening and not how strange everything looks.

Another thing I want to say is that with a show like Girls und Panzer which glorifies a well-known and still relevant weapon of war, it is easy to criticize it as promoting militarism in a very direct manner. However, I think it isn’t so simple, as the transformation of tanks into a “martial art” resembles the origins of many sports, including judo, which was specifically modified from its combative origins to be a way for self-improvement and healthy competition. It’s possible to criticize all competitive sports for promoting aggressive tendencies in people, but I think  Girls und Panzer has the potential to separate the beauty of machinery from its function of war.

For some, the premise of Girls und Panzer sells itself, but for the skeptical, or those who avoid this type of show like the plague, I would dare say that this is your best bet for finding something you’ll actually want to watch. Either way, it has the potential to become the standard by which all shows of its kind will be judged.