The Infinite Potential of Japanese Pudding in Anime

f you’ve watched even a small amount of anime, Japanese pudding is incredibly hard to miss, specifically in the form of a caramel custard flan generally known locally as purin. If I had to say why purin is so popular in anime, my guess would be that there are two reasons. First, its ubiquity in Japan means the food is familiar and comes in many forms, which allows it to traverse class and social status, allowing it to fit into a variety of narratives. Second, its jiggly consistency and unique appearance are ideal for both elaborately detailed animation as well as simpler and more limited animation.

Purin Across Strata

According to the website for Kakeien, a Japanese purin maker, the dessert came to Japan in the late Edo to early Meiji period. Since then, it’s become a staple of Japanese sweets, and depending on how it’s made, it can be a humble treat to decadent, high-class dessert, or somewhere in between. This also means that purin can show up in multiple situations and be a source of conflict, whether it be in the context of drama or (especially) humor.

Pre-packaged versions can be found in the thousands of convenience stores all across Japan, making it a quick and easy snack. This is the purin seen above in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which becomes a prime target for time travel shenanigans so that its heroine, Makoto, can savor it over and over.

Purin can also be made at home for cheap, and this can lead to either mishaps or mildly absurd developments. Minori in Toradora! takes this to an extreme by making a gigantic and self-explanatory “bucket purin,” scaling the small and simple snack into an example of hilarious excess.

High-quality versions of purin can also exist, with expensive patisseries making them in limited quantities. In anime, this “premium” quality can create tension between characters, either by highlighting a class difference or by positioning the purin is an exceedingly rare treat. In Magia Record, Rena buys expensive purin as a reconciliation gift, but all the girls get stomach aches because Rena took too long to make up with her friend before giving it to her. Different “levels” of purin can signify a lot about characters and their places in their worlds.

Purin as the Animation Ideal

In addition to the cultural aspect, the very physical qualities of purin lend themselves to animators and visual artists. It usually has a very distinct contrast in color between the custard and the caramel topping. It wriggles to and fro under the slightest bit of force, and when you scoop a little up, the spoon slices through its pale yellow body, leaving its mark. There’s a three-dimensionality to purin that makes its distinct features all the more appealing.

The recent series Princess Connect: Re-Dive demonstrates the strength of purin as an object in animation. It has an entire episode dedicated to purin, entitled “Flowers in Eternal Darkness ~Cursed Pudding~.” Numerous renditions of purin show up this episode to comedic effect, and are mostly portrayed in very simple 2D animation where the two-tone contrast is a clear identifier of the snack. However, at the end of the episode, one of the characters makes a large deluxe pudding, its gelatinous makeup conveyed through the use of 3DCG. Whether you’re dedicated to the craft of animation or merely need it as a visual device, purin has a role to play.

In Short

This is mostly my conjecture, but to me, purin is everywhere in anime because it is everywhere in Japan—both literally and metaphorically. It can be found in stores of all kinds, and it can play the role of the humble snack or the rare treasure. Its physical appearance means that it can be rendered simply and easily, while its wiggly nature means the potential to creatively portray its qualities through motion is tremendous. In other words, writers and artists of all kinds can utilize purin to their own advantage, and they’ll know the viewers will instantly recognize the delicious treat.

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.

Quality of the Moe

Moe discussion in anime fandom seems to ebb and flow, and whenever it turns into an argument, both sides tend to overreact greatly. Bikasuishin over at tsurupeta.info recently pointed out a trend among moe detractors who try to argue from a position of intellectual superiority, where they attempt to give a sense of scale, history, and purpose to their examination of moe but get a little too ambitious and fail in the process, an overreaction in the sense that they are overeager to show how moe hurts anime. I want to address what is in a sense the other side of this, the tendency for moe supporters to be overly defensive in protecting their cherished genre. I will not be using as amusingly sarcastic a tone as Bikasuishin, but will instead be offering what I think is a better solution for people who tend to take the defensive position, one of understanding and civility, rather than exacerbating an “Us” vs. “Them” mentality.

Before I get into the meat of things, I want to just clear the ground for the kind of “moe” I’m talking about. Now, I am of the strong belief that feelings of moe are a very personal thing and that you can get them in works that are not specifically designed to be moe. For the sake of simplicity and convenience though, I’m mainly going to focus on titles that are usually considered “moe” either by the desires of creators, marketers, and what have you, or by the fans themselves. In other words, “moe anime” as opposed to “anime that can be moe.”

Imagine a somewhat extreme and simplified argument against moe, such as “moe anime are terrible and devoid of any real value and is a sign of stunted emotional growth.” In such a situation, I often times see a defensive, albeit well-meaning response from moe fans, something along the lines of, “Leave us moe fans alone! We’re just enjoying ourselves.” That’s fair enough, but the problem here lies in the way the accusation was brought up. Nested inside that negative statement on moe is the following statement: “Prove me wrong.” There’s a discrepancy between the attack and the response, as if the two are on completely different wavelengths.

But even though defense is not the best defense, offense is an even worse option. If the counterargument essentially boils down to “No, you’re the man-children and your anime sucks compared to glorious moe,” that accomplishes nothing. This is because hidden inside the nested statement of “Prove me wrong” is another idea: “Moe fans have no standards.” So whether the moe fan has gone completely defensive and tries to trivialize the concept of “quality” or has instead decided to counterattack by showing how moe is “just as good as” or “even better than” other anime out there, to the detractor it seems as if the moe fan could not handle the implicit debate set forth.

Rather than turtling up or fighting fire with fire, my advice is to show that you do have standards… about moe. Show that you can point to one of two moe shows and say, “I think this is a better moe anime,” and be able to state your reasons why. They don’t have to be reasons based purely on logic and rationality and a devotion to a well-crafted story, nor do they have to be overly exacting standards where only .1% of moe is really okay. You can even include your feelings towards the titles in question in your explanation. In fact, I encourage it. The key here is to be able to say, “I find this moe anime personally valuable and here’s why,” perhaps even, “This what I feel moe positively brings to anime.” By doing so, you can show that you are discerning towards the very genre of which you’re a fan, and that the moe genre itself is not simply what happens when you take anime and make it inherently worse, as some might see it.

The goal is not to convert people to moe. Some people simply cannot be convinced, and even if you show your own value system towards the anime you like (or don’t), not all reasons are going to work for everybody. If you tell me you like Show A over Show B because Show A has ten girls and Show B only has nine, while you’re free to say that, I’m just as free to find that to be a terrible reason. But by showing that you have personal standards when it comes to moe, and can perhaps even point out a moe anime that a person who is not a fan of moe can enjoy, you can make your opinion known in a respectful manner, and if they decide they can’t agree, then there’s nothing more to do. You made your case, after all. The key to this “defense” is to not defend at all, but to let people know that moe is a genre that can be utilized effectively, one that can succeed or fail on its own terms, however you want to define the terms of success.

It’s pretty much impossible to defend every single title that falls under the banner of “moe anime,” just as it’s impossible to defend every single giant robot anime or every romantic comedy film, because not only is it highly unlikely that every single one will succeed in what they’ve set out to do, but it’s even more unlikely that a single person will enjoy every approach taken no matter what. However, defending all of moe is not the same as defending moe as a genre. One is defense in absence of personal discernment and the other is defense of the potential of a genre, with hopefully some real examples to support.

If you want to see a more concrete sample of what I’m talking about, take a look at my review of Toradora! It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written, and looking back I think I’m a little too hard on the Kugimiya Rie-voiced tsundere character type, but I think it does a pretty good job of showing why I find Toradora! to be a remarkable moe show, and I don’t expect impeccable writing from every single person writing about what they like about moe. You can also see me defending the show after someone left a negative comment. I have to admit that I got a little too spirited in defending Toradora!, but that’s exactly the kind of experience which has me writing this very post.

Box vs Sphere: What is a Well-Developed Character?

What is a one-dimensional character? What is a well-developed character? And how is it that two people viewing the same exact anime can reach entirely different judgments on whether or not its characters feel “real” or not? Those are the questions that have most recently been on my mind.

It makes me ponder the differences in the way people perceive the world and the people around them, as well as how those perceptions are then translated into the world of fiction. What do some people prioritize in their concept and understanding of a “three-dimensional personality” that runs so counter to the opinions and values of others?

Personally speaking, I find characters to be particularly well-developed in personality when I can sense that there is something more to them than what they are saying. It’s not like I want characters who are saying one thing and thinking another, however. It’s more about showing or at least hinting at a thought process behind those words. Genshiken, Eureka Seven, and Toradora! for example are particularly good at this, in that you can see the transmission from personal desire to choice of words getting filtered through the characters’ own personalities and values. But then I know there are plenty of people out there who dislike these series while accusing the shows of the very opposite of why I praise them. So again, what causes this conflict?

Many times when a character is seen as “artificially deep,” the accusation leveled at them is that they are simply there to fulfill a checklist. This isn’t necessarily wrong or unwarranted, and even I’ve used the “checklist” criticism before and have no real regrets doing so, but the question then becomes, how did these checklists form and who is responsible for them? To what extent are those negative checklists generated by one’s own standards of realism and authenticity?

What is more important for a well-developed character, that they start off with an almost palpable personality that reveals a heart and mind in them, or that they grow their hearts and minds over the long term?

What is more important, what you let the audience see, or what you let the audience infer for themselves? If you keep on revealing more and more angles, is the purpose to imply a sphere, or simply a many-sided polygon?

And how much of it is tapping into the familiar vs the unfamiliar?

It’s food for thought I haven’t really digested myself yet.

Best Anime Characters of 2009

While my recent posts on remembering the past have been about the entire decade, I’m keeping the annual Best Anime Characters entries limited to this year. Besides, if I were to actually pick best characters of the decade, it’s pretty obvious who would win.

Looking back, there were quite a few good characters in 2009, so it wasn’t entirely easy to pick favorites. Still, I think each character is more than deserving.

THE BEST ANIME CHARACTERS OF 2009

BEST MALE CHARACTER

Takizawa Akira (Eden of the East)

Eden of the East emerges as one of the most smartly written shows of 2009, and its male protagonist Takizawa Akira really stands out in the way he manages to turn many cliches and conventions on their collective heads. Takizawa is able to take the concept of an amnesiac main character and make it work, with his lack of personal knowledge never holding him back from accomplishing what needs to be done.

Unlike other characters who are able to shine on their own however, Takizawa is at his best when he’s alongside female protagonist Morimi Saki. Their relationship is an interesting mix of trust, good-will, and a genuine desire to see the other happy, and it keeps Takizawa a cheerful and overall optimistic guy even in the face of the harshest realities.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Aisaka Taiga (Toradora!)

Anime these days is full of girls whose cold exteriors mask their true feelings and intentions. Under the term “tsundere,” it’s become a trope of anime, a cliche, and its execution easily mishandled and capable of leading to a character who is simply two layers thin. But if ever people want to look at what can be achieved with the tsundere character type, where the girl’s emotional development over the course of a series is never compromised, then they should look no further than Aisaka Taiga.

One of Taiga’s finer qualities is that she is very sincere even when she doesn’t want to be, and it goes a long way to make her an incredibly convincing character. To quote myself from my  article on her Saimoe victory, “Taiga’s reactions to circumstances don’t come from a set of patterns, but from a mix of thoughts and emotions that bubble forth uncontrollably, like a raging pot with the lid still on. You can tell from the bit that seeps over the edge that the broth inside is of the finest quality, though it’s only a hint of what’s actually there.”

But then Taiga doesn’t simply stay this way. As her friendship with Ryuuji grows, so too does she, and by the end you can look back and see just how much she’s changed.

Final Word

Taken in their entirety, the best characters of 2009 are-

Wait a second.

I forgot that there’s one more award left.

BEST CHARACTER, MALE AND FEMALE

Baron Ashura (Shin Mazinger Shougeki!! Z-Hen)

No, I’m not kidding. Baron Ashura is one of the most well-known villains in anime history. Their antagonizing of Kabuto Kouji and Mazinger Z provide a classic example of how to be an evil foil to the intrepid hero. In a sense, all subordinates in giant robot series can trace their lineage back to Baron Ashura. They’re cliche because they are the cliche.

Things have changed, however. In Shin Mazinger Shougeki!! Z-Hen, Baron Ashura gains a level of development that they never received in previous incarnations to the point of Baron Ashura becoming arguably more important a character to the series than even Kabuto Kouji himself. You get to see Baron Ashura’s motivations, fears, and hopes, and you get to delve into their past. Most of all, you learn that Baron Ashura is a man-woman not to be underestimated.

The Real Final Word

The main points that all three winners have in common this year is that they 1) Defied convention despite being firmly planted within a set of cliches and 2) Were made better by their fellow characters.

It’s not uncommon to see people claim that “there are no new ideas left” in fiction, let alone anime and manga, but even if that were true (and I don’t believe it is), Takizawa Akira, Aisaka Taiga, and Baron Ashura all show that just because something’s been done before doesn’t mean that those areas can’t continue to be explored. Ideas can be revisited countless times, and when combined with the exploration towards new ideas the result can often be more satisfying than having the two separate.

Personal Growth, If Not Physical: Toradora!

Sometimes I get filled with a certain sense of dread in preparation for a new show based on the information available at the time. “This seems oddly familiar…” is the prevailing feeling. Fortunately, sometimes this is just a false alarm and I end up with something far greater than my expecations. Such is the case with the anime Toradora!

When first reading up on the anime adaptation of the light novel Toradora!, there were a number of warning signs. All we had to go by was that there was a tiny violent tsundere girl played by Kugimiya Rie, master of tiny violent tsundere girls (and also Alphonse Elric), and that it would be set in school and characters would be in love with each other. And while I still quite enjoy these types of shows, the mere fact that I said “these types of shows” implies that a certain formula has been passively agreed upon between these shows.

“Uh oh, I’ve seen this before.” This was the feeling I initially had with Toradora!, but by the end of the first episode I knew how totally wrong I was. This carries on throughout the entire series, with the end result being an incredibly satisfying show to laugh and cry over. Toradora! is different. Toradora! is ambitious. And it’s ambitious within the context of this high school romance-comedy-moe, and that makes it all the better.

Toradora! stars Takasu Ryuuji, a nice fellow with a love of household chores who has reluctantly inherited the deadly stare of his departed Yakuza father, and Aisaka Taiga, a diminuitive girl whose aggression and unsocial personality are legendary at their high school. Though the two of them do not get along, once they realize their respective love interests are best friends with the other they decide to work together to achieve mutual happiness. After the positively energetic Kushieda Minori (best friend of Taiga) and the confident and honest Kitamura Yuusaku (best friend of Ryuuji), the main cast is rounded out by Kitamura’s childhood friend, the two-faced Kawashima Ami who also works as a professional model.

Toradora! takes its name from the first names of the main characters. Taiga is a play on the English word “tiger,” for which “tora” is the Japanese equivalent, and the Ryuu in Ryuuji means “dragon,” or when written out in Japanese romaji, doragon. The tiger and the dragon are famous rivals in Japanese mythology, and if you’ve played Art of Fighting, King of Fighters, or Super Robot Wars (Alpha, OG) then the concept should be somewhat familiar to you.

The character designs are genuinely appealing, being cute and full of life without drowning in its own pool of kawaii, and the backgrounds and animation are executed with skill and grace. The voice work is top notch especially with Kugimiya as Taiga, who reaches new and exciting levels of depth with Taiga on a level of Mizuhashi Kaori playing Ogiue. In terms of presentation though, the biggest stars are, as I’ve said in the previous review, the pacing and atmosphere. It was true then, and it still holds to the very end, except where the early episodes are slow and pleasant, the later ones are passionate and dynamic. And all throughout the show remains surprisingly subtle.

There are many factors as to why Toradora! succeeds, but I feel that the real reason is that the characters actually change. The Taiga you see in episode 1 is not the exact same Taiga you see by episode 13 or by episode 25. All of the characters influence each other, and the result is that you get to see some genuine growth by all of the characters as they deal with the ups and downs of young love.

If you want to know what the difference is between cash-in instant cup moe and honestly good, moving moe, the answers are growth and change. You care for the characters not because you want to see them preserved forever in a glass dome, but because you want to see them fight on, succeed, win in their own little personal battles.

Toradora! is joy. Toradora! is wonder. It’s also heartache and maturation and learning to accept one’s feelings even if there are consequences. So yes, it’s a romantic comedy anime, but if you do not like this sort of thing, scratch that, especially if you do not like this sort of thing, I still advise you to take a look.

I-it’s not like I want to be tsundere, okay?!

Yes, this is another post about Aisaka Taiga. Let’s call this a Taiga Weekend Carnival.

Previously, I’ve established my belief that moe is tied to empathy, it is the connection of viewer to character in regards to some type of weakness, though the character may not necessarily be weak, physically, mentally, or emotionally. Think of it as a character having relatable character traits-which-may-be-interpreted as flaws. In this regard, Aisaka Taiga, the tora in Toradora, is one of the most effectively moe tsundere characters I have ever seen, a tsundere moe on the level of Ogiue. Tsundere has become a very common trope in otaku-oriented media, so to describe what makes Taiga a very moe character is to explain why she stands out from her peers. And to explain that is to explain why Taiga is tsundere.

Taiga is a girl who has difficulty expressing her own emotions. When Taiga speaks, her words are the culmination of 1001 battles fought inside of her mind. It’s a violent battle, and the victor emerges not without a few scars. The result is that Taiga comes across as rude, blunt, perhaps even shy. Unlike many of her contemporaries at Tsundere Academy, who use their brash attitudes to actively hide how they feel, or Ogiue, whose tsundere is caused by years of deep-seated self-loathing, Taiga’s outward attitude is the consequence of falling short of a greater goal, that of being able to accurately express one’s feelings through words. Taiga is tsundere, but only because she can’t help it.

Clumsy, socially awkward, unable to convey the proper meaning in words when talking to others, this describes more than just Taiga, this describes a feeling that hits close to home for me and I’m sure many others. Even if we’ve gotten better over time, we can still remember the days when talking was one of the most difficult things we’ve ever had to do, and are reminded constantly that for us introverted folk, being social is not a natural talent but one that has to be learned and built upon. It is from the people watching that Taiga truly generates her moe.

Tsundere characters, be they the traditional type which slowly turn from tsun to dere, or the modern type which switch back and forth constantly, are generally girls to be sought, to be pursued. They are the goal. Taiga is not the goal. Taiga is us.

頭文字 Impressions Fall 2008

The new season is finally under full swing, and I’ve been looking forward to it for quite a while. As of now, it really doesn’t disappoint.

The new Hokuto no Ken anime tv series, the first in about two decades not counting Souten no Ken, is Raoh Gaiden: Ten no Haoh. The series is a prequel to the Hokuto no Ken anime showing a younger Raoh and his rise to power along with those two characters they introduced in the new movies, one of which is a woman who is not Completely Useless but still is clearly not there to be the main character.

The entire episode is spent with anticipation, just waiting for that moment where the calm Raoh encounters a bunch of thugs who think they own the post-apocalyptic place, and having Raoh deliver a king-sized fist to their face worthy of a fist king. And in this regard the first episode delivers. But unlike Kenshiro, Raoh has little mercy for anyone, though he’s not as quite as big of an asshole as when he first appeared in the manga. The originally manga slowly retconned Raoh from just a Jerk who Conquers to Guy Who is Trying to Save the World By Taking it Over, and this new anime reflects the latter concept.

Toradora! focuses on the relationship between Ryuuji, a guy who much to his own chagrin has inherited his puppy-killing facial features from his departed Yakuza father, and Taiga, a tiny girl whose small size belies her fierce and eccentric personality. Hence the name Tora (tiger = taiga) Dora (doragon = dragon = ryuuji). It sounds typical, but the first episode took me by surprise, and this is from someone who’s read the first novel. A lot of other bloggers will talk about how good the voice acting is and how different (and better) Kugimiya Rie is in this role versus her previous tsundere characters, but the real star of this show isn’t the voices, as good as they may be, but the pacing and atmosphere.

Whereas most shows with a similar premise would try to be more frenetic, more extreme, Toradora is surprisingly slow and subtle, even during gag scenes. The pacing actually reminds me a bit of Cosmic Baton Girl Comet-San, which I had reviewed previously.

The trailer alone made me a fan of Casshern SINS, and the first episode does not disappoint. This is Casshern for a new era, with a style darker and very different from the 70s or even 90s version, and Casshern is much more of a bishounen than in the past, but not in the way the disappointing live action movie turned out. The first episode looks like a marriage between Tatsunoko Pro and Studio Madhouse, which it is, and that’s all I really need to say.

Casshern is voiced by Furuya Tohru, so with this and Gundam 00 we’re getting double the dose of Amuro Ray.