Every month, I collect highlights from Genshiken author, Kio Shimoku’s, tweets. This month’s provide some interesting insight into Kio’s work history beyond the manga he’s known for!
Kio started filling this bookshelf back when Rakuen: Le Paradis (home of Spotted Flower) began, and now it’ll be full in two years.
Later, he remarks (while promoting a half-off sale) that he only does three chapters a year, but somehow it’s reached the point of having so many.
Kio doesn’t know how to use the Stream Lines tool [for making Speed Lines] in the art program Clip Studio Paint.
Color proofs of all the covers from the Genshiken Shinsouban Edition!
The announcement that next month’s Hashikko Ensemble is the final chapter. “I hope you’ll all stick around to the end.”
Kio quotes a tweet about a special one-shot manga in Monthly Afternoon by Samura Hiroaki (Blade of the Immortal, Wave, Listen to Me!) about the life of the renowned second chief editor of Afternoon, Yuri Kouichi—a man who, prior to Afternoon, was responsible for bringing hits like Akira and Ghost in the Shell to publication. In the manga, Samura mentions his interactions with the famous manga artist Takano Fumiko, and Kio says in his quote tweet that he once worked as an assistant for Takano. He only did screentones for her, but she smiled and said to him, “I don’t care whether you’re a rookie who’s yet to debut—you did a good job.” The moment stuck with Kio.
3 out of 4 of the CDs for his 2010 doujinshi work seems to not be working. While he has the original 350-page paper manuscript somewhere (for a Star Wars parody called Sister Wars Episode I), he doesn’t know where it is. A fan mentions wanting to buy it, but Kio’s not sure what format he should sell it in. He also feels a desire to make Episode II. He’s had plenty of ideas for it, but he feels like he’s been forgetting them lately, so he probably needs to get it done sooner than later.
(Kio mentioned Sister Wars in his interview with the Vtuber Luis Cammy. You can read my summary of that interview here.)
Oguro Yuuichirou, the chief editor at Anime Style, gives high praise to Hashikko Ensemble and its characters, story, and visual presentation of music. Kio tweets being happy about it, to which Oguro re-expresses how genuinely good he thinks the manga is. Kio gives a thank you.
December featured an online extra for Spotted Flower that focuses on the editor character Endou. Kio responds to fan feedback, including from a fellow Ogiue lover and Twitter mutual of mine!
Kio is done with the last rough drawing, whose expression he changed around four times. A fan (who’s a huge Jin from Hashikko Ensemble fan) asks which character it is, to which Kio responds “the ostensible protagonist, Fujiyoshi,” and then reacts to the fan’s Jin profile picture.
Kio gets excited over fellow artist Ikuhana Niro making good on his word and getting a new car.
Kio bought another Motorhead figure from Five Star Stories.
Ikuhana Niro mentions that a new doujinshi of theirs is out, and Kio comments that he remembers how “that doujinshi” is under a different pen name.
Kio makes a cryptic tweet about not being able to ride the turbulent waves, and says, “See you tomorrow.”
We’ll come to know what “fogged glasses” looks like in the winter. I think this refers to Spotted Flower, but I’m not certain.
He took some kind of online quiz, I think, and the result it gave him was that he lives life on “hard mode.” Kio responds with “What the?” The test also apparently says that someone like him wants a life where they love and are loved. He thinks this might be fitting for a manga artist.
Kio got a back-support corset for when he has to do heavy lifting, like taking out tons of garbage.
Kio retweets Kotobuki Tsukasa (character designer for Saber Marionette J, Gundam: The Origin) talking about turning 50, and realizes he himself turns 50 next year.
Next month is going to be the end of Hashikko Ensemble, so I suspect there is going to be lots of reminiscing on Kio’s timeline. Here’s hoping!
WARNING: SPOILERS for Season 2 of The Mandalorian.
The Mandalorian has managed to bring Star Wars fans together in ways I never expected. No matter which movie or trilogy is your favorite (or least favorite), or even if Star Wars has never been your cup of tea, The Mandalorian feels faithful to the heart and spirit of the franchise without being too overly bogged and down and reverential to the films. But I’ve seen a strange reaction online, mostly from people irrationally angry at Episode VIII:The Last Jedi, who attempt to use The Mandalorian todraw lines in the sand where there are none. Their goal: to push a narrative that, somehow, The Mandalorian helped fix the “wokeness” that “ruined” The Last Jedi.
The climax of Season 2 of The Mandalorian has the protagonist and his allies trapped in a situation from which there appears to be no escape from a small army of murderous droids, when suddenly a lone X-Wing docks into the Star Destroyer they’ve stormed. Out pops a mysterious hooded figure wielding a green lightsaber, who single handedly wipes out every robot soldier with awe-inspiring ease. When he reaches the Mandalorian, he reveals his face, and it’s the original hero of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, post-Return of the Jedi and more powerful than we’ve ever seen him in combat.
After this episode, Star Wars fans came out with cries of joy, but among the praises were voices that tried to twist this into some kind of admonishment of The Last Jedi’s director, Rian Johnson. According to this narrative, The Mandalorian succeeded in its portrayal of Luke where The Last Jedi failed, the latter acting more as character assassination than character development. “This is how Luke should have always been.”
The Last Jedi is my favorite of the sequel trilogy, especially because I see Episode VII: The Force Awakens as decent but overly safe and Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker as the product of abject cowardice. I also do think the stance that The Last Jedi betrayed the franchise is often disingenuous, and partly a way to push a strange right-wing agenda that is bitter at the generally liberal-leaning environment of Hollywood and entertainment media. Even so, I want to address it for one reason: It incorrectly assumes that, for whatever reason, those who enjoyed The Last Jedi would be somehow upset at Luke Skywalker being a badass.
The Last Jedi’s portrayal of Luke as a man scared to repeat his greatest mistake—training someone in the ways of the Jedi who then becomes corrupted—is indeed a stark contrast from the never-give-up attitude of his younger self, and so it’s easy to see why that older Luke can be so jarring. However, I think what Episode VIII smartly does is set up parallels between the reality of the the viewers and the story of that galaxy far, far away: the better days promised to us in decades past have not panned out, and the older generation who were supposed to lead us to prosperity and understanding could not reach that lofty goal because they were ultimately limited by the circumstances of both the world at large and their way of thinking. The idea is that Luke Skywalker is powerful, but he couldn’t do everything, and he had a breaking point.
This personal flaw in no way conflicts with his portrayal in The Mandalorian unless belief in Luke Skywalker requires him to be beyond reproach. He can still be the guy who cut through a squad of Dark Troopers and also the guy who felt such immense guilt that he banished himself to the farthest reaches of space. It reminds me of the anger people feel over criticisms of the US’s founding fathers as marred by their own racism, and it comes from what I think is the way we place our heroes, both fictional and real, onto pedestals that somehow require them to be as perfect as possible. I think it’s no coincidence that similar anger exists over actual Confederate monuments (statues that were cheaply mass-produced to take advantage of ingrained racist beliefs decades after the Civil War), or how treating Donald Trump like a messiah requires an ever increasing—and now deadly—amount of suspension of disbelief.
The Mandalorian itself encourages the idea that one’s deep-seated beliefs may not always align with the truth. When the Mandalorian himself meets others of his kind, he finds out that the sacred vow he took is not one universal to those of Mandalore, but the product of a particular extremist sect. In this respect, while Luke Skywalker does get his moment at the season finale, the greater show also discourages unwavering loyalty purely based on tradition and dogma. Ultimately, the argument that his appearance as symbolic of a push against Rian Johnson is little more than posturing, and is yet another attempt to create outrage at perceived enemies of an archaic and dangerous form of traditionalism.
Kio Shimoku has historically been a very private person, not even revealing his face until 2018. Shockingly, the Genshiken author had his very first audio interview, and it was by a Virtual Youtuber to boot! Luis Cammy is apparently a big fan of Kio’s work, and talked with him for a whopping 80+ minutes.
Translating the whole thing would be a whole endeavor in itself, but you’ll find all the notes I’ve taken from the interview. There’s a lot of it that’s all-new information and insight into Kio’s creative history.
Note that Kio has a remarkably deep voice. Personally, he reminds me a bit of Kugayama from Genshiken.
Also, as a final disclaimer, it’s possible I misunderstood some of the things spoken about. If anyone has corrections, feel free to leave comments!
Introduction and Miscellaneous
Luis has been a fan of his work since Gonensei (“The Fifth Year”), an early Kio manga and dark sequel to his prior work, Yonensei (“The Fourth Year”).
As part of their collaboration, Luis sang a cover of the Kujibiki Unbalance opening, and Kio provided drawings of Luis cosplaying as Ritsuko Kübel Kettenkrad for a music video. The video
It’s meant to resemble late 1990s to early 2000s galge/dating sim intros. Luis looks like Saki from Genshiken/Ritsuko already, so it was a challenge to differentiate her.
Kio learned about VTubers from manga author gatherings. He doesn’t watch YouTubers much, let alone VTubers.
When asked if he knew how popular his work was at the time, Kio said he didn’t really look at comments online, but felt he rode the wave of the era.
The very beginning of Genshiken was Kio wanting to draw otaku as normal people. He want to madk what he himself wanted to read.
Luis mentions that otaku and their status have changed drastically since the days of Genshiken (when otaku were picked on and persecuted), like how there are light otaku now. Kio says his daughter is in middle school right now, and to her, she doesn’t get the whole otaku-as-negative thing. A group of popular kids in her class have Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba merch. Kio responds, “Times have changed, huh?”
Luis talks about how even regular folks say they like her, and it’s like the wall between normies and otaku isn’t there. Madarame has become a popular representative of otaku (to the extent that he’s Kio’s visual stand-in for this interview).
Kio talks about how, in the very earliest planning stages, the first idea he sent to editorial was about the relationship between Madarame, Kousaka, and Saki. The love triangle was inspired by Ping-Pong Club, the nose-hair chapter in particular. That scene was thought up very early on, back when Genshiken was a mere chick. In a sense, Madarame and his romantic relationships were a part of Genshiken from the start.
Luis talks about her mahjong teacher, Saito Go (a professional player and mahjong VTuber), likes Genshiken. He especially remembers that scene with Madarame and Saki eating sushi together, and then not talking afterward on the train ride home.
Luis points out that Kio likes to use silent panels, which Kio agrees with. However, he thinks overdoing it with those types of panels isn’t good either. The nose-hair chapter ends in silence too. Luis says a lot of information can be conveyed in such panels. Kio says it can convey a sense of realism.
Luis points out that the recording was the day of Saki’s birthday!
When creating character profiles for the compiled manga volumes, Kio had to come up with birthdays. He actually used Gundam Horoscopes to think them up. [This has been mentioned in other sources before, like the Japan-only Genshiken Official Data Book.] Actually, it was sort of like a backwards horoscope, in that he picked a mobile suit that would fit Saki well, and decided the birthday based on that. Sasahara is a Ball.
Personal Questions and Family Life
Kio is into Gunpla. He got into it when he was a 6 thanks to his bigger brother. Plamo-Kyoshiro (the 1980s precursor to Gundam Build Fighters) was his “bible.” He would categorize himself as a plastic model otaku above all else. He still wants to continue it as a hobby, but he’s busy. In Plamo-Kyoshiro, the way they used cardboard boxes in the manga really sparked his imagination as a kid.
Luis asks if Kio’s daughter ever says, “Why is our home filling up with more [otaku] stuff?” Kio says that his workplace is different from his home, so it’s his workplace that gets filled up instead. Doesn’t think his daughter is an otaku, but can’t say for sure. Luis jokes about Kio’s daughter showing up on the live recording and telling him not to say so much. Kio mentions that she doesn’t know about this, so Luis responds that she could come in saying, “It sounds like you’re doing a broadcast with someone from Nijisanji.” Kio comments that she might actually know what VTubers are.
Kio’s daughter has always walked in while he’s drawing manga, so she’s been reading manga for a long time. Kio still reads current manga. Luis says that manga has become like a “communication tool” these days, like, “What? Do you know this title?” as a conversation starter.
Genshiken More In-Depth
Luis describes the first Genshiken as being about ancient otaku. She asks Kio, if there was a Genshiken Third Generation, would it have VTubers and stuff in it? What kinds of characters and what sort of content would it include?
Kio concurs that they’re ancient otaku. His thinking was, “If I try to draw something totally new, it’ll quickly date itself. But if I make them feel older, than it’ll age better.” He doesn’t consider himself to be on the cutting edge. Genshiken came from whatt he personally wanted to draw. As it continued, it progressed into fujoshi stuff.
As for VTubers, once they become old, maybe then they’d show up in Genshiken. Kio says that plenty of current manga have VTubers in them already.
Luis asks if Kio is happy to have ended Second Generation when he did, and Kio says yes. “It felt like, ‘That’s about where it should stop.’” He explains how the sequel started out as a one-shot, but he’s not good at doing extra stories and the like, so he kept on working on it. Kodansha editorial (the publisher of Genshiken) said he should do enough to fill one volume. It was originally supposed to be a short serialization.
Kio began with the thought of “How would Ogiue and the others continue the club?” and of course, it would end up with a bunch of fujoshi. But would it be all girls? What about guys? Hence, Hato.
Kio really went back and forth about whether or not to include a character like Hato. When he was drawing the manuscript, he kept having the feeling of “Is this really okay?” Coming up with the idea of Hato purposely using a more feminine voice is when he finally thought he could make it work. Fujoshi and otoko no ko (boys who dress convincingly as girls) are the main aspects of Second Generation. Kio didn’t want to put Hato through so much hardship, but as the story progressed, he felt that’s what should happen—though he did worry over it.
The original Genshiken was supposed to be in real time, and things moved quickly. But it stopped being that way during the Ogiue story at Karuizawa. At the time, Ogiue was a “problem child” when it came to drawing the manga, as he didn’t know if he could resolve her backstory. It’d be difficult to do that and still maintain the “real-time” thing, and he would’ve selfishly wanted to end the series in the Spring if it had stuck to being in real time. But it took multiple months to get through the Ogiue story.
The series was supposed to end at Volume 8, but then there were plans for the second special official doujinshi [the first one was included with Volume 6]. Because of that, they decided to continue the series up to Volume 9. The original Genshiken features Ogiue’s turmoil, and Second Generation features Hato’s turmoil.
Luis comments how there are the Ogiue fans, and then there are Hato fans. Kio responds, “The Ogiue fans really are somethingl…” and then trails off. [Ogiue Maniax note: I feel attacked.]
There are things that were hard to put into Genshiken, like sexual stuff. That’s where Spotted Flowercomes from. From here, the two jokingly pussyfoot around Spotted Flower’s similarities to Genshiken.
Luis talks about how Spotted Flower is a different world (tongue-in-cheek), but it has kind of a crossover feel. Kio responds that they’re ostensibly different characters. Luis replies that the series is like a “what-if” universe (if-sekai in Japanese).
Kio says it’s not supposed to be them, but through it, he can do what he couldn’t in Genshiken.
Luis says, “What-If Madarame has a ‘Why youuuu!’ feeling.” Kio laments the husband as well.
Spotted Flower was supposed to be just a few short pages for Rakuen: Le Paradis magazine. The resemblance to other characters was originally not planned, but is actually something he noticed after the fact. He didn’t explain the meaning of the title to them when he submitted it [madara means “spot” and saki means “bloom”], so they probably didn’t realize at first. So he figured, “Why not keep going?” and it developed along the way.
“And now there are four volumes,” says Luis..
Kio’s feelings: “It’s not a book that comes out often, but if it interests you, I’m grateful.”
It was one thing when it was just the husband and wife, but then he added the Hato-like character, and the Kousaka-like character, and so on. He still can’t really say for sure that it’s them.
Hashikko Ensemble and Kio’s Overall Career
Luis finds the Hashikko Ensemblemain character Akira cute. Kio says that he began with the idea that Akira would have that gap between his very deep voice and his shy personality.
Volume 5 of Hashikko Ensemble should be coming in September.
Kio says he’s been in the manga business for 25 years. Luis thinks all his works are great, in terms of information provided, emotion, and atmosphere all being wrapped up in them. “It’s no small stuff.” To Kio, he sees all the things she mentioned as his shortcomings Luis comments that she enjoys seeing Kio reflect on his work.
Kio is the type to regret not saying this or doing that. Luis remarks that this is a live broadcast—is Kio okay?
Kio doesn’t recognize his own voice when recording. Luis said she never thought of her voice as anything special but the fans would say it’s cute. Luis compares Akira’s voice to Kio’s. Kio never had any experience with singing or choruses, but figured, why not give Akira a deep voice like himself?
He thinks people who can come up with characters purely from imagination are amazing.
Hashikko Ensemble a story of the passion of youth, but Kio didn’t originally plan it that way. Like Genshiken, he wanted the story to be something ridiculous and fun, and landed on “chorus club high schoolers.”
Luis loves stories about the passion of youth (seishun), like Yowamushi Pedal and Big Windup. Kio replies that he’s never drawn manga in that vein—like Chihayafuru—but thought, “If I put all I had into it, could I draw one?” The characters in Genshiken are all pretty mellow. He wasn’t that good at drawing the kind of youthfulness that appears in Hashikko Ensemble, at first.
Luis makes the argument that the original Genshiken is a “passion of youth” story, because it’about figuring out what club to join and what to do? Like, Kugayama’s waffling on whether or not to draw, or Ogiue’s decision to go, “I guess I’m gonna draw.”
The kinds of “passion of youth” stories Kio enjoys are a little strange—not so much “hot-blooded stuff.” Luis describes Madarame as a hot-blooded otaku. As for being a passion of youth story, what about that story with Saki mentioning Madarame looks good in his new glasses?
Originally, Genshiken was supposed to be a club that doesn’t put anything out. One of the things that made Ogiue tricky is that she wanted to draw herself, so Kio had no choice but to make a story about her trying to get into Comic Festival [the Genshiken in-universe equivalent of Comic Market].
Luis says Genshiken is what made her want to attend Comic Market as part of a circle. She asks Kio if he ever participated as an artist. Kio says yes!
Kio released a doujinshi at Comic Market in 2003 (Luis points out that 2004 was the year of the first Genshiken anime, which Kio totally forgot about).
Kio did not use the name “Kio Shimoku” for Comic Market. He sold 200 books, which impresses Luis. For reference, Luis says that 100 is considered a lot, and she herself sold 50 copies of her own doujinshi at a Comitia [a major doujin event primarily dedicated to original, non-fan works].
The doujinshi was indeed pornographic, and an original work. It bears resemblance to Kujibiki Unbalance and Genshiken.
Luis talks about how big sister loves Kujibiki Unbalance, to the extent that she put out a pornographic doujinshi starring Ritsuko. Luis helped her a lot with it, including stapling it together.
“Putting out a Kujibiki Unbalance-esque doujinshi yourself is like actually being in Genshiken,” says Luis.
Kio also participated at Comic Market a second time—in 2010. It was a doujinshi based on a “certain space opera that uses Episodes,” flipping around the genders of the character roles involved. The inspiration was that with some wordplay, the title resembled the phrase “Sister Wars.” He drew what was supposed to just be a manuscript based on Episode 1, but it ended up being 350 pages. Kio wanted to draw up to six.
“Please complete it!” Luis says.
“But I wouldn’t be able to sell it!” Kio replies.
[Ogiue Maniax note: One of Ogiue’s characteristics is prolific output, just like Kio here.]
Luis asks if there’s anything he’s watched lately, old anime or new anime. Kio doesn’t have anything, and Luis says his free time to just sit down and watch without moving must have decreased. Kio agrees.
Kio wants to absorb more shows, but just doesn’t have the time.
Questions from Kio for Nijisanji
As future reference for manga, Kio asks if VTubers wear sensors to track movement. Luis responds that it uses 3D tracking. She quickly “corrects” that the animated figure you see is the real her.
Luis says that Kio’s participation in Comic Market makes his manga feel more real.
The two talk more about the Kujibiki Unbalance music video they collaborated on. Kio says it’s like a doujin-style fan work. Luis talks about how she has Genshiken and Kujibiki Unbalance merch. Luis has the Kujibiki Unbalance Ritsuko school swimsuit clear file drawn by the light novel artist, Yagumo Kengou. Kio mentions that the image was a request from him [Ogiue Maniax note: Not 100% sure about this last sentence].
Kio mentions that he gets some harsh comments, but others will say “That’s the kind of author he was all along!” But he doesn’t want to remember himself from the Gonensei era.
What an Interview!
There’s a lot to unpack in this interview. I hope to follow up with an analysis.
Also, I can’t believe there’s a Virtual Youtuber who’s into Genshiken, Kio Shimoku, and mahjong! It’s like someone designed a VTuber especially for me.
Between Avengers: Endgame, Game of Thrones Season 8, and the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker—all concluding parts for their respective stories—pop culture has been in prime “spoiler warning” territory. If you’re plugged into any sort of social media, and you don’t have the opportunity to watch things as they’re released, it can be a struggle to avoid any and all information. This also means it’s incredibly easy for a few trolls to ruin other people’s days, but what I’m even more concerned about is a recurring notion I’ve been seeing, about how people’s anger and frustration over being spoiled is some kind of sign that these works are less about art and storytelling and more about shock value and surprise. They might even say something like, “Truly good works are good even when spoiled.”
Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps they’re not. Either way, it still doesn’t mean that a desire to go in relatively “blind” is somehow valueless. In fact, I find it to be quite rude and even a little elitist to value a work over people’s own desires to such an extent that negatively impacting their experience is somehow “okay” because it shows how “limited” both the people and their “shocking” entertainment can be. While it’s true that some things stand the test of time better than others, and that a piece of media that can be enjoyed over repeat viewings is strong in many ways, you still only get one chance to see something for the first time regardless. Just because something is even better the second or third time around doesn’t mean that the initial exposure should be diminished.
Granted, even without spoilers, “going in blind” means different things to different people. Some might have ideas as to what they think will happen, and will be bracing for the moment that their pet theories are confirmed or denied. Others might be looking at character interactions and trying to see if their chosen characters have any romantic developments. Personally, I purposely try to avoid pushing my expectations onto a work as much as possible. But whatever one’s approach, and even if a work holds up after spoilers, being aware of what happens changes the way a work is experienced. You go from trying to navigate the work on your own terms to being aware in the back (or front) of your mind that an Important Thing is going to happen. That’s not necessarily bad, but if you view a work once without spoilers and then a second time with spoilers, it means you get to have both experiences.
Note that there are a few caveats. The choice of spoilers vs. no spoilers is anything but binary, and that something as simple as a movie trailer can be “too much” for some and “not count as spoilers” for others. There’s also a difference between “being okay with spoilers” and, say, people who want advance warning on anything that might trigger them and cause deep psychological pain. And for instances where a work might come from a very unfamiliar time and culture, and not knowing the proper context can mean not catching many of the meanings and signals that are assumed to be “obvious” or “common sense” to anyone from that original time or place. Foreknowledge can be significant, but having it isn’t inherently better than not having it. First impressions can potentially be based in ignorance, but that ignorance can be corrected afterwards. You can’t take back a spoiler.
If all a film, TV show, book, or whatever has is shock value, so be it. If it has more to offer, all the better. That still doesn’t make those who wish to be surprised or who wish to focus on the unexpected somehow symptoms of an ailing entertainment industry, or make their experiences trivial. They can always come back, and if the problem is that people don’t want to revisit after the first go-around, that’s not an issue with anti-spoiler culture—that’s an issue with time and its usage. But ultimately, if people only have enough time to see something once, they should be able to do it on their terms, and not ones set by some externally imposed values rooted in notions of how “true quality” is defined.
The story of Neon Genesis Evangelion is partly one of a creator who tapped into the zeitgeist of his viewers, who then began to travel along a path divergent from the very people that called themselves his fans. Anno Hideaki is not an isolated incident. Any time a creator makes a sequel and it’s considered to do more harm to the series than good by some (J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, Tomino Yoshiyuki and Gundam), there’s a sense that ideas and sensibilities did not align as well as they could have.
Of course, fans are individuals too. What one might call the general fan reaction to something is akin to an aggregate or a median of all of the different values that exist, and one might even argue that there’s no such thing as a singular “audience” or “fandom.” However, I think that’s a significant contributing factor to why it’s so hard for so many characters to achieve great success more than once, why there are so many flashes in the pan. Even when they’re attempting to chase their audience and please them, it doesn’t necessarily work out as they might hope. How likely is it for one person to tap into the collective feelings of a group, and do so consistently over a period of years?
Love ’em or hate ’em, this I think this situation is why production by committee/audience testing exists. If you want lightning to strike twice, why not try to find out as much information as possible? Why not try to approach the group mindset with a smaller group of your own? It’s safer and arguably more reliable.
The issue with this approach is that it’s more likely to discourage risk and experimentation. This doesn’t mean it can’t ever result in strong works, but the Mr. Plinkett review of the current state of the Star Wars franchise explains it well. Disney knows exactly what the fans love about their beloved far, far away galaxy, and will keep tapping that well for as long as they find if feasible. These can be favorite characters, changing trends in how people perceive media (gender and racial diversity), or something else, but rarely would a work like this try to challenge or anger its audience.
This, I believe, is the danger zone that Anno saw all those years ago as fan response to Evangelion became one that encouraged an objectification and consumption of its characters. That conversation is more complex than this post is going to get into (and keep in mind that I’m not necessarily against either side), but it keeps me thinking about the divergence of creators and fans.
The term “Mary Sue,” originally meaning a kind of overly perfect self-insert character in fanfiction who would be dropped into a story to solve all of its problems, has been a battlefield of sorts in popular culture. Characters are called Mary Sues if they show even the slightest bit of wish fulfillment, and in response there is a feminist movement to reclaim the term, fueled by the idea that idealized male characters are the norm and similar female characters are unfairly maligned. This is what is fueling discussion concerning the character Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, I feel that, as the discussion over which characters are and aren’t Mary Sues due to their perfect (or perfectly dramatic) natures, the fact that the term derives specifically from fanfiction gets lost in the shuffle, and that it is crucial to remember that its origin comes not from big blockbuster movies but from fans of popular culture navigating their chosen works and worlds.
Before I go into greater detail, I want to make a few points clear. First, I do not think wish fulfillment characters are inherently bad, whether they’re male, female, or something else entirely. Second, I believe fanfiction does have merit as a space for active participation, as a source for good and/or interesting stories, and everything else in between. Third, I understand that the meanings of words can change over time. Basically, this isn’t a criticism of fanfiction, or lack of originality, or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the natural evolution of language.
The earliest known use of the term “Mary Sue” comes from Star Trek fandom, specifically from Paula Smith’s parody of a common trend in Star Trek fanfics at the time. Essentially, many stories would involve a young girl (most Star Trek fanfiction was written by women in the 1970s) who would become the center of attention, would have some unique visual identifier that instantly screamed “unique,” and would have just enough tragedy to emphasize how special they are. While you can think of many characters in fiction who fulfill these categories (Uzumaki Naruto, Bella in Twilight), I think the real key to the “Mary Sue,” and why its fanfic origins are so important to remember, is that by being the center of attention they were viewed as 1) drawing focus away from the world and characters that form the basis for that fandom 2) their idealized natures, rather than feeling universal, felt overly specific to the point of making it difficult to empathize.
To expand on both points, when we look at anime and see the generic shounen hero with a unique and special power, or the generic shoujo heroine who all the boys fall in love with, they can be seen as attempts to have a broader, more general appeal. Even if they end up being cliches, and even if they’re considered by more hardcore fans as being “boring”—though I think this comes from a time when fandoms were more niche and the deepest fans tended to prefer the subversive/evil/morally gray characters—there is a desire for broader appeal. When a character’s quirks or backstory or overall qualities make them wish fulfillment for people at large, that is different from when those same traits make them inaccessible to a reader due to being overly specific. In other words, when a character feels as if they are designed solely to appeal to only the author and no one else, then the term “Mary Sue” comes to light.
Of course, even that criteria is subjective, as different people will connect to different characters, whether they come from fanfiction or not. Also, if the “Mary Sue” was such a problem that Paula Smith had to address it, perhaps it could be argued that there were enough people with that same fantasy that it could be considered a broad enough desire to not be thought of as “overly specific.” It also needs to be pointed out that the Mary Sue derives from an amateur space, where writers do not have editors or marketers or even the need for a coherent narrative. These sorts of stories tend to happen naturally from those who do not consider common “good story rules” such as conflict, character depth, etc., and in a way we all have our Mary Sue stories inside of us where everything just goes right.
However, the idea of the Mary Sue did not originally come from an explicit connection to women, narratives, and society, but rather an implicit one. Because Star Trek fanfiction was the domain of women, it is possible to argue that its values developed in a feminine space, which when expanded to also include men to a large degree made Mary Sues a target for criticism and conflict in ways that trivialized the wish fulfillment of women more than men. Perhaps the biggest issue with the “Mary Sue” is in her name: chosen to be generic, and to reflect a recurring type of character in fanfiction, the doubly feminine nature of the moniker infuses it with gender values. Even though alternatives have been created for males (Gary Stu, Marty Stu), they simply never caught on as much. It’s also interesting to note that criticism of the Mary Sue originally took place between women.
I have one last question to ask: does the term Mary Sue even need to be reclaimed? Have men really seized it as their own, or has it never really left the grasp of women at all?
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As the final part of the generation-themed Gundam AGE begins, I’m reminded of the “Machete Order,” a way of watching the Star Wars movies which supposedly introduces all of its elements in the best ways while cutting away some of the excess. Specifically, “excess” means “Episode 1,” as the entire adventures of a very young Anakin were deemed unnecessary and even perhaps detrimental to enjoyment. While I don’t think any of the parts of Gundam AGE are awful, it does make me wonder if it’s actually possible to watch the third and fourth Gundam AGE arcs without having watched the prior two.
While it would be sad to lose characters like Woolf and young Emily, I feel like the third part introduces you enough to the returning characters that someone who got into the show right at that point wouldn’t take long to fully grasp the story, and perhaps because the ratings were so low they actually made it with this in mind. While you don’t get to see Flit go from idealistic young boy to supportive but crotchety old man, you also get to immediately see the differences between him, pirate Asemu, and noble Kio. Obviously as someone who’s already watched the previous parts I can’t simply use my own experience to judge the effectiveness of omitting the earlier parts, at least not without much scrutiny and testing on willing subjects, but I would be interested in hearing thoughts on this matter.
The other day I went to see the movie Fanboys, about a group of Star Wars fan one year before the release of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I won’t say much about the movie itself except that I thought it was hilarious, but it reminded me that there’s a lot of Star Wars “lore” out there. I had borrowed a Star Wars character guide from a friend long ago, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, so I decided to hop online and take a look at the compiled information on the universe that is Star Wars. Upon reading I began to feel this sense of dread.
One of the very important lessons then Western Art took from Eastern Art was the concept of negative space, that leaving spaces blank can be just as effective a tool as filling in every detail. Essentially, it means less can be more. When applied to storytelling, it means that not every detail has to be explained and that in many cases the more explanation that arises the less effective the storytelling becomes. This is what I saw with the information on the Star Wars Universe. I saw unnecessary explanation after unnecessary explanation, as if making sense of the world and filling in the gaps is far more important than maintaining the feel of the story and characters.
The idea of fans filling in the gaps is not something that’s necessarily bad. In fact many times I consider it to be a good thing as I feel it’s a very important foundation of fandom, whether it’s imagining stories in between major events, inventing new characters, or even fleshing out one-dimensional characters. One can argue that having these complex technical explanations is one type of fan’s way of exploring the universe of the story, but once it reaches a point where it becomes some kind of hybrid canon/fanon that influences or restructures the original story, I can’t help but feel that it is done at the detriment of core vital elements of a story. Obi-Wan and Yoda learned how to maintain their identity in the Force. Why does this need an explanation? Obi-Wan is a magical old man, and Yoda is an even more magical and even older man. There, that’s your explanation.
I think one of the many reasons why I like anime so much is that it seems to understand this idea of effectively using the gaps in storytelling. It’s not just about fueling imagination so that we the viewer may fill in the blanks, but using that sense of ambiguity to excite and drive us forward. Gurren-Lagann is an excellent example, because the characters utilize this vague, ill-defined power to achieve victory after victory. They are literally powered by a lack of common sense that keeps them from questioning if anything they’re doing is truly possible. “Do the impossible, see the invisible,” as the saying goes. One does not need to explain what doing the impossible entails or how it works other than that it was driven by the hero’s desire and the support of his friends.
A more apt comparison might be Star Wars and Gundam especially given the way they’ve influenced each other, but for all of the detailed explanations and added material that has been placed into the Gundam Universe, I feel that Gundam has handled it far better than Star Wars. What even its most hardcore fans ultimately enjoy appears to be more the story and the characters and the way great tales are told, rather than little details.
Wasn’t Star Wars once in its own in a way similar to Gurren-Lagann? There was the Force as a vaguely defined aspect of the universe with vaguely defined skill sets available to its users. What’s the difference between a normal man and a Jedi? That one is a Jedi and one is a man.
I recently listened to the Ninja Consultant podcast concerning the sexualization that occurs among fangirls, and the fact that this has become more prominent in recent times, with not only yaoi becoming a common sight at conventions but also modern works such as Dr. Who and Avatar: The Last Airbender being consciously aware of this fanbase. The topic of fanfiction comes up in the discussion, which is to be expected given that fanfiction and fangirls practically go hand in hand, but it reminded me of the fact that at the beginning of my own internet-based fandom I too was into fanfiction.
When I first began using the internet, my first fandom was a NiGHTS into dreams fanfiction site. I loved the Sega Saturn game to death (and still do), and I sought out other fans of NiGHTS. It was there that I found a site called “Nightopia on the Net” which would later change its name a few more times. It was here that I not only discovered other people with a passion for NiGHTS, but also stories that expanded upon the few plot details we were given as players of the game into a rich and vibrant (at least in my young eyes) universe. I’ve never read the Star Wars Extended Universe books, but I suspect the feeling was similar to anyone who is a fan of those, a feeling that the world given to us in these initial stories is so vast and unexplored that one can’t help but wonder what else is out there.
At some point, a few years down the line, I read fanfiction less and less. By this point I had been checking out fanfiction from various sources based on all sorts of series and would even actively seek out more unusual titles and concepts. Something in me began to sour, and I could no longer take fanfiction until I almost stopped reading it entirely. Back then, my reasoning was that I disliked the stories being produced for my fandoms, feeling that more than any sort of technical errors the problem was that the writers did not understand the characters. The characters’ actual personalities as displayed in their respective shows were nothing like the personalities displayed in fanfiction, and I asked (no one), “What’s the point of using these characters if you’re not going to actually use them?”
As mentioned in the Ninja Consultant discussion, it seems as if some works these days are simply there as fan fodder. Characters are given basic traits which appeal to the “shipping” side of fandom, and fans are free to ignore or cultivate any “evidence” as to whether or not their “One True Pair” could thrive. Setting aside any original creators’ desires to actively engage this line of thought, by all rights these are the people who are responsible for me leaving fanfiction in the first place.
But really was I, and am I, all that different?
Why do people enjoy pairing unreasonable characters together? To put it simply, it’s because they find the pairing to be hot. No big mysteries there. It’s what makes the Zutara pairing in Avatar so popular: a conflict of emotions, the fire/water dynamic, the idea that “if only they would get together, they would be great.” Of course, the conflict comes from actually getting them together.
Is there something wrong with this? Wanting to dive deeper into a world, to prove through fanfiction that there is so much more to a story, one can say that trying to find deeper subtext in the relationships presented is its own form of exploration. Hell, I can somewhat relate to making unreasonable pairings. I have a rather straight-laced friend who I would like to see date girls that would be all over him 24/7. Why? Because it would entertain me to no end.
Perhaps there is a threshold, and it is crossed when fans begin to believe that their opinions constitute the truth about a work, or even what should be true. This isn’t about creator’s vision vs spectator’s vision or anything of that sort, but rather to what extent people and groups begin to believe their own hype. Other than that, I think people are free to believe in whatever they want.
Even then, such a statement borders on the idea that there’s such a thing as a “right” fan and a “wrong” fan, and really, even if I find certain fans or their reasoning distasteful, I am just one person and I am not a judge of fanfiction. More importantly, I am not a judge of the heart.
After all, as Sasahara once said to Ogiue, no one can stop you from liking something.