Jews, Otaku, and People of the Book

I’m Jewish. You could probably tell due to my penchant for using words like “shtick.” Even if I hadn’t mentioned it before on this blog, which I’m pretty sure I have, this would be one of those reveals that surprises no one.

What’s odd is, I don’t really believe in the Old Testament. I believe that parts of it are historical (or at least based on real historical events, the facts of which have become distorted through time); I believe that some Biblical stories have good morals, and I believe the entire thing has value as a piece of literature. But if you were to ask me, point-blank, “Do you believe in the Torah?” the answer would have to be no.

And yet, if I don’t believe the Torah, doesn’t that mean I’m not a Jew, pretty much by definition? If you want to be pedantic about it, I’m a Jewish-born person with non-Jewish beliefs, I think. However, many Jews, if not most, are like me: people who self-identify as Jews, but don’t take the Torah literally, or even think about the Torah much in particular. How does that work? How do you have a group of increasingly secular people who still cling to a religious label, and cling to it with no small amount of pride?

I think the answer lies in the fact that the base concept of Judaism is the idea of a People of the Book, and what that means when you really break it down. If you really love one Book, chances are you’re going to want more than one. You’re going to write books about the one Book, then commentaries on the books about the Book, then eventually other books entirely. And the more you get into all these different books, the less importance the original Book has to you.

Really, a religion of People of the Book is self-annihilating, because once they become People of BOOKS, PLURAL, they’re not the same people anymore. The irony of Jewish history is that people were trying so hard to kill a religion with built-in obsolescence. It’s like, guys, stop trying so hard to kill the Jews. You’re just expediting the production of stuff like Maus, where People of the Book become People of the Comic Book, and then the whole thing goes topsy-turvy and we don’t know who’s who anymore.

Wow, I may have reached a new level of twisted logic; asking the people of Earth stop killing Jews not because it’s wrong, but because it creates literary confusion.

Anyway, this has relevance to the sciences, where a lot of the people who came up with all the great stuff about physics that tells us about how the universe actually works were Jews. It’s primarily the people who are supposed to value the Book of Genesis most who have told us all the reasons why the Book of Genesis is a fairy tale that makes no sense.

Where am I going with this, other than Judaism is weird and I too am weird? Well, I think that the core idea of being a People of the Book is something that may have started with Judaism, but now extends far beyond. To me, the enthusiasm for the likes of Star Trek, X-Men, anime, etc. is the new version of being a Person of the Book; having tremendous enthusiasm for one text, a text that is parts fictive and parts real. Nerd arguments are the new Talmudic Commentary. They say that the great Rabbis go to the Academy on High after they die, where they can argue about Torah for all eternity in heaven; I wonder if the same thing is true of TV Tropes. Anyway, Jews could cease to exist tomorrow (don’t get too excited, alt-righters), and our culture would still be deeply embedded with the legacy of Judaism.

Now, I have a certain amount of respect for Orthodox Jews; I mean, if you’re going to live by the Bible, do it, don’t half-ass it because you want to go to the movies on Saturday and shrimp happen to be delicious. Commit to it, own it, the way the Orthodox have. However, I don’t feel much kinship with Orthodox Jews; we may have common ancestors, but that’s about the extent of the connection. I feel more of a connection with the people arguing about whether or not Avatar: The Last Airbender counts as an anime than I do with “my people.” In fact, anywhere people are arguing about the minutia of a book, or any piece of art really, that’s where I feel like I’ve found “my people.”

To bring this back to Otaku, I’m not saying that Otaku are Jews, really; more that they are a step on the same continuum. The Japanese are a different kind of People of the Book, starting with The Tale of Genji, the world’s first proper novel. After World War II, Japan reinvented itself partially based on manga, on a book of a different nature. For the Japanese, the key foundational document isn’t the Torah, but Tezuka’s Astro Boy. Oversimplification? Of course, but talking about any topic this huge is going to require that.

But think of Comic Market. Hundreds of thousands of people, sweltering in the summer and shivering in the winter, standing in line for hours because they want to get a book (doujin) that’s based on another book (manga) that’s all ultimately based on something Osamu Tezuka and his friends drew in the 1950s, after a cataclysm. If you don’t see a parallel with religion here, well, I don’t know quite how else to put it to you.

I guess all this is a roundabout way of saying that I feel close to Otaku because I recognize fellow People of the Book, which has long ceased being defined by religion; Most of the passionate People of the Book are not Jews, do not need to be Jews for any reason. That’s why I didn’t feel like I had to marry a Jew; I married someone who loved the same things I loved. I’m not religious, but I am in the sense that I am the natural evolution of a people who believed the things they believed very passionately, and maybe that makes the question of whether or not I’m religious a non-issue; I’m not religious, but religion created me. Maybe God did too, but I’m not talking about God right now.

This is why whenever your typical smug internet atheist talks about religion being stupid, or how it makes no sense that the Red Sea would actually split in two, blah blah blah, I have to file that under the category of “not even wrong.” Like sure, that whole part about stoning people to death for not following the Sabbath is pretty dumb and self-defeating and I think even the most Orthodox Jews can admit that now, but that’s not why religion is important in this day and age.  There’s a reason why, even though I believe in the Big Bang Theory (the actual theory, not the sitcom, although the sitcom is okay) and not the Garden of Eden that I still call myself a Jew instead of, say, a science-believing person. I don’t see a conflict there, because being a Person of the Book was always going to include science eventually.

I don’t know, maybe this post is just hilariously offensive not only to Jews, but to everyone who likes Star Trek and Yowamusha Pedal alike. I’m not a good judge of what’s offensive anymore, if I ever was. It’s just me trying to explain my world view, which is that while I feel my Otaku and more general geek interests are entirely consistent with my Jewish background, I don’t feel like these interests are in any way limited to people of Jewish lineage. The idea of a People of the Book may have started with Judaism…or maybe with some other people that history has forgotten, who knows (and I’ve heard some provocative things about the Zoroastrians.) But the concept has spread far beyond a small and insulated group of people, far beyond DNA, and now exists out in the wild.

Synagogues are nice, and the art is beautiful, but wherever people are arguing about anime or Battlestar Galactica on the internet, that’s where I feel “my people” truly are. Someday, I may succeed in getting this to make sense to someone other than myself; I sense that day is not today.

What’s the Point of Aniblogging, Anyway?

I realize the question I’ve posed above has a very simple answer: there is no point to anime blogging; there is no point to anime, for that matter. In fact, we are only primitive water-based lifeforms clinging desperately to a piece of spinning rock in space, and ultimately, nothing matters. Now that we’ve covered the ultimate answer, which I see as a matter of doing my due diligence, let’s move on to something worth talking about, because the ultimate/existential answer happens to be really boring.

Seriously, why do we blog about anime? To entertain? To some extent that’s true, but then you run into the problem that certain kind of shows lend themselves to that much better than others. I had a lot of fun blogging Wizard Barristers, which was a pretty bad show, primarily because it was a mess and it gave me tons of material to make fun of. I also had fun with Madhouse’s X-Men anime.* However, doing episodic blogging of a show that’s actually good is of questionable value. For a lot of shows, all you’re left doing is speculating about what’s going to happen, which is kind of pointless; it’s not like you’re going to win a prize if you’re right. And for some shows, like Girls Last Tour or even March Comes in Like a Lion, providing the kind of flippant commentary that blogging seems to lend itself to would feel downright disrespectful.

So episodic aniblogging can be entertaining, providing you’re covering a bad show that wouldn’t be worth watching on it’s own merits…meaning, it’s a format best used for shows that really shouldn’t be worth the effort in the first place. For better shows, especially shows of a more serious nature, it’s better to watch the whole show (or at least a significant chunk, like a season), and then blog about it. This produces better writing, at least in my experience, but it does feel rather limiting. So you watch a 12-episode show, about 4 hours worth of anime, and then produce maybe a 1,000 word essay. That’s it? Seems a little anti-climactic.

There’s another problem with episodic blogging, regardless of show quality, and that’s the tendency for the blogger to become a wanna-be writer; we start predicting where the story’s going to go, then get upset when it doesn’t necessarily go there. With a lot of shows I’ve written about, I’m not sure if they were disappointing because the writing wasn’t that good, or because I was irritated that the show didn’t do what I felt it was supposed to based on the hints that I thought I’d picked up on. So in this case, reading an episodic blog of a show is watching the blogger finish the story in their head, then have a gradual angry breakdown when the story reveals itself to be something entirely different. Maybe that’s fun if you have a sadistic streak, but it doesn’t seem like something we should be aiming for here.

I guess what I’m really wondering is, what are people really looking for from anime blogging, assuming they want it at all? I like it when a show first airs and people are posting all kinds of screenshots, jokes and speculation; I like the community that forms around that process. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s something tailor-made for social media and chat services; Twitter, Discord, etc. It’s a collaborative play on the show that needs multiple people to work, and not something a single blogger can do.

Well, I suppose you could do a blog about an anime and just post screenshots and jokes and silly captions, but then you’re just doing what social media does, only worse. I’d like to think that there’s still some use for the blogging format without watering it down.

I like writing about anime, and I’d like to continue doing it. I don’t think it’s pointless, even though some of the more popular models of anime blogging seem increasingly pointless to me; I think there’s a better way of doing it, and I just haven’t figured out what it is yet. I feel like there’s an obvious answer right in front of my nose, and one day I’m going to smack my forehead and yell “Aha! This is how anime blogging should work in 2018! This is what this format really has to offer!”, but that day is not today.

If you’d like to help me out, you could let me know in the comments what you enjoy about anime blogging and why. Then, if I ever discover the secret to Aniblogging 2.0, I’ll be sure to credit you in my upcoming book, “How to Justify Spending Huge Amounts of Effort on Wastes of Everyone’s Time.” It’s a working title.

*Blogging about X-Men was a little different from blogging about another bad anime because the X-Men were pretty much my first love when I was first getting into the whole geek lifestyle. I wanted that show to be good, and when it wasn’t, I enjoyed making fun of it, but it was still kind of bittersweet overall.

Fall 2017 Anime Season Wrap-Up

After a season or two of not really feeling it, I was really into anime this season. Not only did I watch a bunch of shows to completion, there were a bunch I wanted to see that I just didn’t have time for; hopefully, I’ll catch up on them soon. I promise I’ll get to you, The Ancient Magus Bride.

I wonder: was anime really good this season, and that’s what pulled me back in? Or is it an entirely cyclical thing, and my biological clock just has an “anime addict” setting that got switched on again sometime around October 2017? I guess I’ll never really know. Isn’t it cool that even when you start to get old, you still don’t understand why you do any of the things you do? Keeps life interesting, right?

Ahem, anyway, I already put down some thoughts on Recovery of an MMO Junkie, Urahara and Girl’s Last Tour over the past few weeks. Here’s a roundup of the rest of the lot.

Animegataris— What a strange animal this show turned out to be. At first, it was a show all about the experience of being a student anime fan, kind of like a poor man’s Genshiken (or a rich man’s Genshiken, if you happened to prefer these characters.). There were teases that some strange supernatural stuff was going on in the background, but it was still pretty grounded. Then in the last third, the show went super-meta and became about anime characters becoming aware of the fact that they were really anime characters, and it was just…wow. I mean, saying that the show “broke the fourth wall,” would be a massive understatement; it’s more like, there’s only the faintest sprinkling of plaster dust left somewhere near where the fourth wall once stood. That wall got fucking vaporized.

It was a fun ride, but it wasn’t exactly coherent. While the show did drop numerous hints that something odd was up from the beginning, I’m not sure that the hints dropped actually matched up with the bizarro ending that we got. It felt more like the creative team knew they wanted to do something different with the last few episodes, but didn’t decide what they were actually doing until the very last second. I definitely got the “we’re making this up as we go along” vibe at the end, and maybe that’s okay?

Still, personally I think it would have been stronger if it had all felt planned out from the beginning. I’m a stickler for Chekhov’s gun on the fireplace; in this case, there wasn’t a gun on the fireplace, there was a banana-cream muffin, then somewhere around episode nine the show goes all like “look at this MASSIVE GUN that’s been on the fireplace the whole time!” and I’m like “Shut up, you have muffin all over your face and now you just look stupid.”

Did that make any sense? No, of course it didn’t. And that, perhaps, is the genius of Anime Gataris, and why I still kind of recommend it despite the fact that it was all over the place. We just don’t get these kinds of crazy, disjointed experiences that often, in anime or otherwise– at least, not intentionally.

A Sister is All You Need— Another strange bird that had it’s moments, but didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. It did a good job of balancing the fanservice and lewd humor with some genuinely insightful and poignant moments, but I wonder if it really went far enough in either direction. Despite the frequent fanservice, I don’t think the show wasn’t really ero enough to appeal to the audience who were watching it primarily for that reason, and the emotionally resonant moments, while powerful individually, didn’t seem to amount to much by the end of the show.

The ending did provide some closure, but not enough to make the experience feel complete at 12 episodes. It was a “here’s juuuuuust enough closure so you’re not pissed as hell at the writers, but we sure hope we get a second season!” kind of ending.

At the beginning of the season, I was hoping that this show would break down the trend of little sister fetishism and explore why some otaku develop this particular obsession, rather than just reveling in it, and to be fair, I think the show really did start to do that. It just feels like they went about halfway there and then ran out of episodes. I’m torn between wanting a second season so they can finish the job, and feeling like they actually had enough time to do it in 12 episodes and shouldn’t have wasted so much time on filler.

All that said, if you’re a writer at any level, this show is worth watching for how spot-on it is about writers and all their various insecurities. That’s one thing this show did better than perhaps any other anime I’ve seen, and that’s kind of impressive for a show that so many people wrote off completely based on its first episode.

Blend S— This started out really fun, but it seemed like the creative team didn’t know how to fully take advantage of the premise. About halfway through the show the characters started taking frequent field trips to anywhere but the cafe, which felt like a waste, since all the funniest stuff always happened at the shop. In theory, they could have gotten a lot more jokes out of Maika’s “accidental sadist” character, as well as the other waitresses’ quirks, but it seemed like the writers just ran out of ideas way too early.

I know there was some talk about the age gap between the two love interests (Maika and Dino, the manager) being too big, but honestly, I was so focused on the show’s diminishing laugh value as it went on that I hardly noticed. I mean, yeah, there’s at least a 10-year age difference there and that’s generally not good, but both characters have the emotional maturity of a wet sponge, so does it really matter much in this case? I’m having trouble worrying too much about poor, innocent Maika, demon-faced scion of aristocrat millionaires, being taken advantage of by the world’s most clueless small business owner.

Some fans really liked this one and are hoping for a second season, and judging on how popular memes and fanart for this show were online, it seems like there might be enough demand for another round of Blend S. If they do make more, I hope they take copious notes from Wagnaria and make better use of the cafe setting instead of trying to run away from it. Because if we get another season that was like the second half of this one, that sounds so boring that even I might skip it…and you know how I feel about shows that take place in coffee shops.

Food Wars: The Third Plate— Perhaps the last thing I expected from this show was for it to get political, but it just goes to show that you should never underestimate everyone’s favorite show about panty shots and experimental gastronomy. Things in foodgasm-land have gotten so political, I almost wrote a post called “How Food Wars! Predicted Trump’s America,” but then decided to hold back. Because whenever I do something like that, people take it deadly seriously for about three years, and then eventually someone will drop by and leave a comment saying “Lol, nice parody,” and I’ll know that at least one person got it.

The show has gotten political in a pretty ridiculous way, considering that the main villain’s plan seems to involve turning the school into some sort of authoritarian cuisine factory, where individual goals and creativity mean nothing and all that matters is stamping out identical portions of fancy-pants gourmet food. Main villain also seems to have plans of destroying all the restaurants in the world that are not fine dining establishment, which is, err…do economics exist in Food Wars? Because I see several practical problems with that, problems which should be obvious even to an evil chef demagogue.

For some people, the show has gotten too ridiculous to be taken remotely seriously, but honestly, this show was always so inherently ridiculous to me that I don’t feel like much has changed. Now instead of the Totsuki Academy-brand of meritocracy where 90% of the student population washes out, we’re seeing the other end of the spectrum, where there can be no meritocracy because everyone is forced to be identical. I assume we’re eventually going to end somewhere comfortably in the middle, which seems like a good long-term plan for the series.

Even if the show has completely jumped off the deep end though, would it matter? This is Food Wars!, the show where a really delicious meat bun can blow your pants off. All I really ask from this show is food porn, which it delivers in spades, and just enough reason to care about the characters that I don’t feel guilty for only watching for the food porn. Right now, this show is holding up it’s end of the contract, no matter how insane Erina’s psycho Dad turns out to be.

Konohana Kitan— I got really bored with this somewhere around the middle of episode 4 and dropped it. I’m still kind of curious if it was doing the whole episodic occult show thing, or it ultimately veered closer to a slice-of-life show that just happened to contain fox-eared girls and other supernatural critters, but not curious enough to actually watch more of it. If anyone out there watched it all, feel free to let me know in the comments what was really going on here.

Love is Like a Cocktail— Thanks to Chi’s amazing bust, this was the stealth fanservice hit of the season. Yes, it was a little 3-minute short that was primarily about mixed drinks, but do you really think people were watching for the recipes?

I feel like they could have done more with this, but that seems almost unfair to demand of a 3 minute show with a simple premise. Then again, I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying is in the same category yet seemed to make better use of its limited run time. In any case, if you haven’t seen it, it will only take a half an hour or so to watch the whole thing, so if you like booze (or boobs, or some combination thereof), you might as well.

Ame-Con!— I have tried to love Rainy Color/Rainy Cocoa and its spinoffs, and I just can’t do it. I don’t know if this show just doesn’t work as a 2-minute short, or if there’s no length that would work here, but something is just missing from this show. Even for someone like me who basically has a fetish for anime about brewing coffee, this show is just boring; I have no idea how they pulled that off, but it’s kind of perversely impressive. This may be the only coffee-shop anime that does nothing for me.

 

The Comforting Bleakness of Girls’ Last Tour

[Spoiler Warning for all of Girls Last Tour. Normally I don’t bother with spoiler warnings, but in this case, I wanted to play it safe; because if you haven’t seen the show yet, you really should watch it in its entirety before you read anything about it.]

It’s funny. Until recently I would have thought the words “bleak” and “depressing” were synonyms, but after finishing Girls’ Last Tour, I have my doubts about that. Because while the show was incredibly, unrelentingly bleak, I never really found it depressing.

I guess the difference lies in whether or not there’s a sense of wrongness, a sense of “should”– when things should be different than they are, should be better than they are, that’s depressing. In GLT however, there’s a sense that everything that’s happening is inevitable, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s purely neutral. It’s the end of all life on Earth, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, and so on and so forth.

Usually with this kind of post-apocalypse story, it’s meant to serve as a cautionary tale. “Don’t make these mistakes; don’t let humanity end like this.” And you can make the argument that GLT is the same way; the video montage in the last episode, which makes it clear that the kick-off for the apocalypse was a war initiated by Japan, implies that. However– and I freely admit this could just be me– I didn’t get the pleading “don’t let this happen to your world!” feeling from that sequence. I get the impression that, if Japan hadn’t started the war that led to the end of humanity in this continuity, it would have been somebody else. Maybe it would have been 100 years later, even 1,000 years later, but still, it was going to happen.

To be honest, I’m having a hard time processing a show about the end of humanity that doesn’t seem to be warning against it like it’s a bad thing. There’s a kind of comfort there; maybe, some things are just out of our control. Maybe getting all caught up caring about geopolitics is a fool’s game, and eventually, it’s going to be Chito and Yuuri, or some people very much like them, scavenging the ruins of old munitions factories for abandoned rations, no matter what we do. Then you can just stop worrying about nuclear holocausts, or international pandemics, and all that terrifying horrible shit, because it doesn’t really matter which one ends up being the culprit; the end result will be the same.

I hadn’t given this any thought until recently, but when it comes to “the future of humanity,” most people seem to be kind of stuck between considering two possibilities. One is the “we’re all going to die, because we suck and we deserve it,” Planet of the Apes scenario; our greed and stupidity gets the better of us, and we take ourselves out before our time. The other possibility is the Star Trek-style post-scarcity world, where scientific advancement has solved a lot of our practical problems, and the whole nature of life in the universe (human and otherwise) takes on a very different character. The world of GLT is certainly a lot closer to the first scenario than the second, but I think it does raise the question that it could be neither.

After all, the civilization in the show has progressed further than ours, at least technologically. Maybe humanity in this show didn’t end before it’s time, but right about when it had exhausted its potential; they’d already built massive structures that reached to the sky. Maybe there was nowhere else left to build, because there was no oxygen left. Maybe the apocalypse was downright overdue.

I think that’s a really scary idea, personally; a future that just kind of meanders while we wait for something to happen. I mean, of course a nuclear holocaust is scary, but you kind of know what you’re getting with that. I wouldn’t want to live through one (or er, be murdered during one) but conceptually, you know what’s going on there. What about a world where we neither self-destruct prematurely, nor do we develop sufficient technology to solve our most pressing problems? We just keep existing, keep having the same basic problems, over and over, in gradually more sophisticated housing units, waiting for a dramatic change that’s never going to occur?

Can you imagine if, 5,000 years from now, we’re all hanging out in these super-futuristic houses that look like they came out of The Jetsons, only we’re still having the same exact conversations about health care and income inequality? Will there be enough good stuff left to watch on Netflix for life to still be worth living at that point?

I’m getting kind of far afield of the show, which is the danger when you talk about any show that’s really worth talking about, I guess. But to return to GLT more specifically, what makes the show especially bleak is the fact that no one on the show believes that any kind of civilization is desirable, or possible. When Chi and Yuu run into other people, as they sometimes do, you’d expect them all to get together and pool their resources; maybe work together to try to build a new life for themselves in this mostly-empty world. But they don’t stay together, because they don’t see any point to it. You get the impression that maybe 100 or so years ago, the survivors of war tried to get together and start a new, peaceful civilization, only for that to end in a bloody conflict that killed 90% of the remaining human population, and now no one has any faith in human cooperation whatsoever. Chi and Yuu are perhaps the great-great-granddaughters of the last person who actually believed that there was merit in humans working together. Even the partnership between the two girls is tenuous, at times; the girls depend on each other, and obviously love one another, but it’s made clear in the first episode that complete trust is off the table.

Girls Last Tour isn’t a perfect show; sometimes, I think it’s too on the nose for it’s own good. After watching an entire episode of the girls scouring old military bases for food, I really didn’t need Yuu to say “If only people back then had made fewer weapons and more food, we’d be in better shape right now.” The staff of this show seems to have decided from the beginning that subtlety just wasn’t something they were interested in, and I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, in a story where 99.99999999999999999% of humanity is already dead, what is there to be subtle about? On the other hand, some things are more powerful if left unstated, and the sometimes the girls drain the power out of a scene by spelling out what it’s about in so many words.

Even so, I can forgive all that for that one scene where the girls fall over some beer, get tipsy and start dancing. That moment, and other moments when the girls discover simple pleasures– the music of rain, the taste of a freshly-grilled fish– are what give the show it’s odd mix of unrelenting bleakness and life-affirming joy. That shouldn’t be possible, right? If we’re sharing the girls’ joy as they dance, then that’s a happy moment, and thus a break from the bleakness, in theory. But I don’t think you can ever really separate the girls’ pleasure from their dire circumstances. In the dance scene, for example, I was worried that a drunken Chi was going to accidentally push Yuu over the edge of the platform to her death, only to realize that even if she did, would it matter? She would be saving her from a death of slow starvation, the most likely end for both of them.

I felt gutted after watching episode 12 of Girls Last Tour. I know the manga is still ongoing, and with the revelation that the contents of the highest level of the city are still unknown, anything could happen. Conceivably, there could be a group of survivors on the highest level who’ve hoarded enough food to last for decades, and the girls could be welcomed into a whole new life. But I don’t believe that’s what will happen; that would feel like a cop-out to me, even though there’s no logical reason why it should be. I feel like I just witnessed the final activities of the last two humans on Earth, and having the story reveal itself to be anything less extreme than that, any less brutal than that, would feel wrong on a level I can’t really articulate.

And yet, once again, I’m not depressed. I’m not depressed because even though the characters on the show have given up hope for civilization, I haven’t yet. Maybe I will someday, but as of now, it’s still up in the air. Just because I’m afraid of what might happen in the future doesn’t stop me from being able to imagine the good things that could happen, or the neutral things that could become good if we have the right attitude. And if the future really does end up resembling the one in Girl’s Last Tour, well…at least there’s dancing. We could do a lot worse, and I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty comforting right now.

 

The Frustration of Urahara

I don’t know if calling Urahara a disappointment is really fair. I could pretty much tell everything I didn’t like about it from the very beginning, and though I kept watching in the hopes that the show would get better, I never honestly believed it was going to. So I never really held it in high enough esteem for it to disappoint me. Still, watching it was a frustrating experience, because it could have been so much more.

Considering how little discussion there was online about the show as it was airing (at least in among the English-speaking anime fandom), you would think it was just a bland, boring show that didn’t have much to offer. However, there were some pretty cool ideas in Urahara; the premise of these super cute, super-competent girls protecting their Tokyo neighborhood from creepy supernatural threats, all while learning important lessons about the power of friendship, sounded like some kind of strange union of Card Captor Sakura and Durarara!!, and what’s not to like about that? That sounds like it has the potential to be one of those high-value combinations, like peanut butter and chocolate. Plus, some of the plot twists late in the show were, if not necessarily shocking, quite ballsy for their willingness to mess around with the show’s world.

In addition, this show was singled out as one to watch because of it’s largely female creative staff; it was the show that was supposed to impress on us the “importance” of women working in anime, at least according to the now-defunct Teen Vogue. And this is where things start to get a little weird and uncomfortable, because it was the whole feminine approach to things that seems to have really sunk the show.

Now, how do I explain this without sounding like an awful, self-hating woman? I mean, it’s not like having a feminine perspective, or a feminine style, is bad in any way; that should go without saying. It’s just that in Urahara‘s case, they took that whole angle so far, it started to feel like an outright parody of a feminine anime. Like, if you got a bunch of really obnoxious misogynists together, got them all hopped up on beer, and asked them “So, what would happen if we let a bunch of chicks make an anime?”, they would very quickly start describing something that sounds a lot like Urahara.

“LOL okay so like, girls can’t do math and they hate using rulers and T-squares and shit, so the backgrounds in the anime would be all scribbling and wonky, with bad perspective. And they’re lazy too, so they wouldn’t bother to draw any PEOPLE in those backgrounds., so the world would feel all dead and empty. And the character design would suck, because chicks wouldn’t be willing to make the girl chars look sexy, but they wouldn’t know any other way to make the designs pop, so every design would just be like, whatever, like why did you even bother?

“And chicks are obsessed with sweets, like cakes and stuff, so the villains would probably turn into cupcakes or some shit at the end of every episode. Oh, and like half the chicks making the anime would probably be pregnant too, so instead of having normal flavors like ‘vanilla’ and ‘chocolate’ they’d always be going on about ‘coriander sweet potato’ or ‘spicy peppermint horseradish’ or some other weird thing. Oh, and chicks can’t make decisions for shit, so instead of having a dedicated color palette, they would just use EVERY. SINGLE. COLOR. all the time, until your eyes wanted to explode–”

Ahem. Now, it should also go without saying that Urahara is not actually indicative of women’s contributions to anime; plenty of talented women professionals have been working in the field for years, blah blah blah obviouscakes. But I guess it’s kind of like a monkeys-on-typewriters situation; if you have enough anime coming out each year, and a certain percentage of them are poor quality, you will eventually get an anime that is poor quality in exactly the way a basement full of inebriated misogynists might predict, right? I guess it was bound to happen at least once.*

Moving aside from the weird gender angle, there were other problems. Considering the fact that the character relationships were about as deep as a puddle, the show was clearly going for style over substance, and there’s nothing wrong with that– certainly not in animation, where the style can become the substance if done right. However, for the style-over-substance approach to work, the show would actually need to have good style, which is where the show repeatedly failed. The pastel colors were nice, but most of the character designs just weren’t very good; the outfits looked goofy instead of fashionable, which is inexcusable in a show that was supposed to be at least partially about fashion.

Somewhere out there, I know there are people who think that these designs are good and go well together. I wish I could see what these people are seeing.

This is of course highly subjective, but to me, the only really good character design on the show was Misa; everyone else, particularly the girls in their magical-girl attire, ranged from dull to embarrassing. Plus, as mentioned above, the fact that there didn’t seem to be any guidelines in regard to color (beyond “Anything Pastel is Automatically Fine”) often led to a cacophonous viewing experience.

The emptiness of the show’s backgrounds not only made the show’s world feel hollow, but actually undermined one of the story’s greatest moments. Late in the game, the Urahara girls find out that everyone they’ve been interacting with in Harajuku since episode one has been a product of their imaginations; they’ve been alone in the city this whole time. This should have been a pretty stunning revelation, but it was hard to feel anything about it at all, since it had always felt like the girls were completely alone in the city. Other characters were shown, but so few and far between that it felt like the population of Harajuku was about 6 people, so the revelation that the city was actually empty fell completely flat.

And that’s what made the show so frustrating; every good idea seemed to be canceled out by a bad one. Another plot twist, the fact that the sweets the girls had been eating were slowly turning them into the evil Scooper aliens, is pretty nifty if you think about it. Think about the Scoopers’ plan here: They planned to let the girls defeat their soldiers, knowing that the girls wouldn’t be able to resist eating the corpses of their enemies, at which point they would be reprogrammed into Scoopers themselves, giving the Scoopers unlimited access to the girl’s creativity. That’s a pretty creepy, evil plan, and it served as a nice “gotcha!” for everyone who wrote off the enemies-turning-into-sweets thing as a harmless joke.

But by the time we’d gotten to that point of the story, the characters still had yet to come alive beyond very basic character outlines, so the fact that the evil corpse-eating plan was succeeding didn’t even seem to matter. What would have happened if the girls really had turned into Scoopers, anyway? Presumably, they would have flown off with Misa and her peons, to go inhabit another pastel world that would be strangely devoid of life. There’s no feeling of urgency, even when the story is giving us reasons why there arguably should be.

All this aside, I did like the show’s message about creativity. The general “Being creative is fun and good!” vibe is hardly original, but the way this works in regard to the Scoopers is interesting. It becomes clear over the course of the show that the Scoopers (whose primary activity is stealing culture from other planets because they can’t make their own) actually do have the capacity to be creative, they just don’t realize it. I wonder, how many people have that problem in real life? How many people go around thinking “I wish I could make something cool, but I’m not a creative type of person,” and never realize that there’s nothing stopping them from taking out a pencil and paper and changing that?

The idea that creativity is as much about choice as it is an innate quality is a more unusual message, and to its credit, the show even acknowledges the important role that copying other art plays in the process of learning to create your own stuff (and does so a lot more explicitly than it deals with any other theme, curiously). But in the end, it’s still a show populated by boring characters that we don’t care about; I should be psyched wondering what kind of creative stuff Misa and her clan will come up with when they go off to explore the universe with new vigor, but I just don’t care. It feels like Misa will provide the solar system with some shiny beaded necklaces, or maybe a knitted tea cozy, and that’s nice for her and all, but it’s nothing to get excited about.

That’s the tiny tragedy of Urahara; A show about creative artists fighting aliens, who worship creativity but are unable to recognize it in themselves, filled with over-the-top action and whimsy, should have been a delight to watch, and it just wasn’t. Every season there are anime that fall short of their potential, but I feel like it’s rare to see one that had so much going for it on paper fail on so many different levels. The sad thing isn’t even that Urahara could have been good; the sad thing is that if it had been good, it would have been something really unusual and charming. It’s still unusual, and not entirely devoid of its own peculiar charm, but only a shadow of what it could have been.

*I almost wrote about this show on Anime Misogynist, but that would have required some Galaxy Brain-level, crossing-the-line-three-times shit. I couldn’t figure out how to criticize Urahara, with complaints that sounded like they came from an actual misogynist, on a site that was all about the inherent ridiculousness of using misogyny as a critical perspective. If I’d managed to pull that off, I might have ascended to a higher plane of existence and be writing to you from Ironic Blogger Heaven right now, but I am just not that awesome, and so here we are.

 

 

Gender in Recovery of an MMO Junkie

No, you did not accidentally click on a link to a different blog. I really did title this post “Gender in {Show}.” I think I’m okay, but I’m due for a physical soon anyway, so I’ll let you know if this turns out to be the result of a brain tumor.

Seriously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with examining the way any given show portrays gender; it’s just that the resulting analysis is something I usually find counterproductive. With most shows, you can usually find examples of gender tropes being reinforced, but also examples of these tropes being subverted. People will use either a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full perspective (“Why this Popular Show Secretly Hates Woman,” versus “Why this Popular Show is Surprisingly Feminist,”) to push whatever view they feel like on that particular day. On the rare occasion that someone is honest about what’s really going on with the show in question, then we get an essay that basically says that the show is gender-conforming sometimes, but not all the time. Which, despite the virtue of at least being honest, is a really boring read.

Therefore, most “Gender in {Show}” articles are either:

A) a lie

or

B) insipid.

Rarely do we get a show where enough of the meat on its bones is really about gender, meaning that writing about this topic is actually relevant. Recovery of an MMO-Junkie, (“Net-juu” if you’re saucy) is one show where a lot of the story actually relates to gender; how people think of themselves as female vs. male, how they present themselves, and what happens when they playact as the other gender.

The focus on gender isn’t that noteworthy in and of itself, because other anime have tread similar ground; what surprises me about Net-juu is just how nuanced the portrayal of gender is. When Morioka plays a male character in the MMO Fruits de Mer, she experiments with acting how she imagines a young man would act. However, what this show does that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere in anime, is acknowledge the fact that even her appearances as a woman involve a kind of role-playing.

Private Morioka: tousled hair, boring clothes, bags under her eyes and a furrowed brow. Poor gal could probably use a shower something fierce.

Left to her own devices, Morioka is unkempt: loose clothes, messy hair, heavy bags under her eyes from staying up too late in front of the PC. However, when she’s asked out on a date, she won’t go as her sweatpants-wearing, MMO-addict self. Her checklist for the things she needs to do to make herself attractive are very much like putting together a fairly elaborate costume. Does she need new stockings? Does she have stylish clothes that fit? How many different kinds of make-up does she need to buy? How is she supposed to know what hairstyle is considered optimal?

The post-makeover Morioka looks very different; classy, bright-eyed and healthy. Her skin seems to glow, likely because she’s wearing make-up on her face for the first time in months. She walks daintily in heels, as opposed to rough the way she throws herself around her room when she’s alone. She is essentially a different person.

However, is this pretty Morioka a fake? Not at all; dressing like this, being this person, was her life for a decade when she worked an office job. She’s a bit uncomfortable changing back to her old self after spending a long time shut up in her apartment, but once she’s there, she slips back into her old persona fairly well. Simultaneously, Morioka is putting on a performance (being the pretty, polite, well-coiffed woman that’s very different from who she is in the privacy of her bedroom), but she’s also being genuine; this is a different side of her than the one that plays a male warrior in Fruits de Mer, but it’s still her. But if her identity as a woman is at least part performance, doesn’t that make Hayate, her character in-game, a legitimate manifestation of herself? After all, whether she’s presenting herself as her actual gender or not, in both cases, there’s a large element of play-acting going on. What’s the difference?

Out-on-the-town Morioka: Stylish hair, Pretty outfit with jewelry, no lines on face (make-up, or just proper sleep?), etc. That little heart necklace calling attention to her clavicle is an especially feminine touch.

Sakurai presents another interesting case. A sensitive, soft-spoken man, he plays a pink-haired female healer in-game, where his kind nature is seen as an asset instead of a sign of weakness. We don’t see that much of his struggles with traditional ideas of masculinity (primarily because he’s not the main character), but it certainly seems like playing his female avatar is refreshing for him, something which probably wouldn’t be true if his role as a male didn’t grate on him sometimes.

Later in the show we find out that his elderly adoptive parents died when he was young, and that playing MMOs is the way he recreates the feeling of having family. Curiously though, as a nurturing-type character– not only a healer, but the kind of person who helps newbies by giving them great equipment– Sakurai is taking on the role of the kind of mother-figure that he clearly wishes he had. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to get on the receiving end of that kind of relationship? Maybe, on some level, he doesn’t believe he deserves it. You could even say that playing the unfailingly generous Lily is a way of running away from his own neediness.

Then we have Koiwai, who makes the whole thing into a farce. He creates a female character, but purposefully makes her as large and muscular as possible. He has no real interest in role-playing as a woman, so it doesn’t make any sense for his avatar to look particularly feminine. If anything he’s just trying to be quirky, to stand out, but like a lot of fun-loving people, he may not fully realize the implications of what he’s doing. The whole point of Koiwai’s beefy Homare avatar seems to be that she looks out of place in the game; without necessarily meaning to, he’s reinforcing the idea that there’s something inherently ridiculous about masculine women.

So the show is about pretending to be the opposite gender online, but also pretending to be your real gender in real life, because you try to present a more idealized version of what your real gender is. It’s also about people who see the whole thing for the sham it is and treat it as a farce, which is admirable in some respects, but can also accidentally cause harm to those for whom the nature of their gender identity is a very serious affair. And all of this is complicated by the fact that the majority of these interactions occur online, where obfuscation of your real identity is not only allowed, but encouraged…until you reach a certain point of intimacy, at which point lying about who you are starts to feel dishonest, even if it’s “only” a game.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not aware of how much analysis of MMO culture is out there; I’m a single-player gamer, and I generally have no reason to even think about MMOs. So it’s possible that there’s a whole body of literature that discusses this sort of thing, and Net-juu isn’t breaking any new ground at all. But from my (admittedly uninformed) perspective, it seems like the show is not only tackling the thorny issues of gender identity, but it’s doing so with the added complexity of gender in the age of limitless, anonymous online experiences, where gender is a reflection of something the player wants to express with their avatar. Furthermore, online, gender is something that’s optional to buy into; people can try to make their characters seem particularly masculine or feminine (however they define those two terms) all of the time, some of the time, or not at all, entirely on a whim.

As I write this, the show still has two episodes left to air, so I’m probably jumping the gun here. However, the show’s interesting portrayal of gender dovetails with what I believe to be the show’s main theme, which is that the online world only seems like an escape. It may be liberating to play as someone who looks completely different than you, is a different gender than you, and does things that you would never do. But we’re all roleplaying to some extent most of the time anyway; the online variety is just more explicit about it. So no matter how much you’d like to use a game to substitute for real life, it’s not going to work, because wherever you go, there you are. You can try to play a man when you’re really a woman, or play a woman when you’re really a man; that will never change the fact that the only person you can ever really play is yourself.

An Open Letter to Funimation

I have some concerns about the way you’ve been handling anime localization lately. It appears that Funimation staff members in charge of dub scripts are taking liberties with the material, such as inserting lines that were not present in the original script in any form. This is not only distracting, but disrespectful to the creators of the anime.

Now, I’m not completely ignorant of the complexities inherent in localization, and translation more generally. I understand that a good translation is more art than science, and there’s never going to be a true consensus of opinion on what the “correct” translation is for any given line. While calling a translation an art form in and of itself is perhaps further than I’m willing to go, there’s definitely an element of artistry to it, which makes it hard to set the kind of parameters for right and wrong that we would be able to for a more  technical task. I also understand how difficult it can be to balance literal meaning with emotional resonance, which can be a thankless job; after all, the people who are quickest to criticize translations usually aren’t fluent in both relevant languages, meaning they may not really understand the nature of the choices the translator and localization team had to make. It’s not an easy job.

However, even with full knowledge of all of the above, the localization of episode 7 of the anime Hajimete no Gal crossed a line. Items of dialogue like “Plus, most of the freaks who come in here hate women, so seeing girls degraded gives them boners and makes them happy,” and “Maybe they don’t want to be debased just so you can sell a few more [bleep] chickenwings to horny losers with mommy issues,” are incredibly liberal translations of what was actually said (to put it mildly), but more importantly, they change the nature of the scene. While the original scene definitely had some implied criticism of otaku culture, the explicit and mean-spirited lines directed at the customers in the dub seemed to truly be directed at fans who enjoy sexual content in otaku media; in other words, the exact audience for a show like Hajimete no Gal. The localization added explicit insults to the show’s audience that were very subtle in the original (arguably subtle to the point of non-existence) and pretty much invented new dialogue out of whole cloth.

There are of course many discussions to be had about sexually explicit otaku media, and to what extent these properties may be misogynistic, but that is not the point; regardless of any merit to the issues the dub was raising, it was inappropriate to insert them into the script. If the writers of the anime wanted to include a statement about the apparent misogyny present in light novels, they would of course be entitled to do so, but in this case, the choice was taken out of their hands.

This may seem to be a small thing; only a few questionable lines in the English dub of a rather low-profile anime. Obviously, when considering the scope of problems in the world that I could be worrying about right now, it is a small thing. However, as the western market becomes increasingly important to anime, I think it’s more important than ever to ensure that the intentions of the original Japanese creators are respected; it’s also important to respect the fans who want to see this original work, without added changes or commentary by a third party.

If the way anime financing is going is any indication, western companies are going to have more and more power over anime in general; I don’t think it’s paranoid or unreasonable to have concerns about that power being abused. Choices like those made in the dub script for Hajimete no Gal indicate to me that Funimation is either unaware that this potential for abuse exists, or worse, does not care. If this were an isolated incident, I would likely shrug it off, but after the controversial choices made with the recent dub of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, this kind of irresponsible localization appears to be becoming a pattern with Funimation.

I do not plan to purchase any more Funimation products while the company displays this chronic lack of respect for both anime creators and fans. I understand that, due to the volatile nature of social media, some of the complaints that Funimation has already received about this issue have been vulgar and abusive; that’s upsetting to hear, and a shame. However, because of these inappropriate responses, it may be easy for Funimation staff to believe that the only people upset about recent dub choices are angry internet trolls, who are unlikely to purchase anime legitimately in the first place; I’m writing today to tell you that this is not true.

My Funimation DVDs. Some of these are technically my husband’s (since I’m far too chicken to buy Hellsing: Ultimate), but you get the idea.

I’m an anime fan of over 20 years, I have an anime disc collection, and I’m a Funimation customer. I even subscribe to the Funimation NOW! service (although that won’t be true for much longer). I know other people who fit the same description (although the younger ones haven’t been fans for 20 years, yet), and they too have stopped purchasing Funimation products due to these concerns. If you have any illusions that the people who have been complaining about your current practices are not your real customers, than I hope to disabuse you of that notion. Dedicated anime fans want to see the creators original intent when we watch an anime, whether subbed or dubbed; please respect our preferences, before you do any more damage to your brand.

All I want from you is for these irresponsible dubbing practices to stop; if your localizations do not display these issues going forward, then I see no reason not to go back to buying your products. If this behavior continues, I can’t in good conscience send any more money your way. Anime is too important to me.

Sincerely,

Karen Mead of The Otakusphere

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 12: There is now a WordPress blog where people can submit open letters to Funimation, provided they are respectful and on topic. I just submitted my letter.

Submit Your Letter to Funimation

Fall 2017 Anime Impressions

Since I’ve been watching more anime than usual lately, I figured I may as well take advantage of it and talk about the new shows like a proper Aniblogger. Here are my takes on some of this season’s offerings; keep in mind I only watch shows that are available on legal streaming services. This is less of an anti-piracy stance, and more of a “I am too goddamned old to be dealing with malware on my computer from dling torrents,” stance, but let’s all pretend it’s because of my unimpeachable moral compass.

Urahara– This show puts me in a bind; I really like what I think it’s trying to do, but it’s just not working. The washed-out color palette, the intentionally wonky hand-drawn backgrounds, the surrealist feel, the enemies that turn into candy when defeated? I love all of that. But somehow the designs and the art style just don’t seem to work together, and the story has all the urgency of watching paint dry. It’s just so nonsensical that it’s impossible to care about anything that’s happening; it also doesn’t help that the magical girl designs are the absolute worst part of the show.

Right now it feels like a half-baked version of Flip Flappers, a show that often felt surreal but managed to maintain a sense that what the characters were doing actually mattered on some level. I’m probably going to stick with it, just because I like some of the things the show is experimenting with, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for bailing out; it’s pretty much an incomprehensible, silly mess right now.

Anime-Gataris– There was something off about the art in the first episode that made me wonder if this was the studio’s first anime, but it turns out Wao World, the studio responsible for Gataris’ animation production, is prolific. The production company, DMM Pictures, is new, but I’m not sure how much that actually matters. The director, Kenshirou Mori, has relatively few credits, but one of them is the first episode of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. So, not exactly a newbie.

Normally I stay away from this kind of inside-baseball approach to anime, because I don’t know much about what goes on in production, but something about this show really made me want to try to figure out what the hell was going on. It looked like the show was made by people who had watched anime and taken a lot of notes, but had never actually made it before; there was something just slightly off-kilter about the colors, the shading, the backgrounds, etc. Even the piece of stock animation that Arisu uses to summon her butler looks like it was made in 1998. By the second episode, things had smoothed out a bit, but I’m still wondering if the weird look the show started with was a real phenomenon, or if I’m just hallucinating.

In terms of the story, there isn’t much to discuss. It’s a show about people talking about anime, so it runs on in-jokes and nods to otaku culture. The main thing it has going for it is that it’s making nods to very recent shows, so it’s more topical than these in-jokey shows tend to be. I’m going to keep watching it, but it doesn’t have a lot to offer unless you’ve been actively following anime for the last year or so.

The Ancient Magus Bride– I have to admit, I was distracted during this show because I couldn’t help wondering what Anime Feminist was going to think of it. A young girl sells herself into slavery, to a huge monster dude who calls her pet names and treats her like a dog? Including forcibly bathing her? How could the show itself possibly compete with the entertainment value of feminists having a complete meltdown over it?

Turns out, the person who reviewed it for AniFem has read the manga, so was able to reassure feminists that the sundry “red flags” in this episode are not truly indicative of the story’s overall quality. You would think this experience would lead AniFem to question their policy of “Screen all first episodes for problematic content and judge them accordingly,” but apparently not. Remember, I may defend AniFem’s right to exist, but that doesn’t mean I have to think that anything they publish is any good.

Oh right, I just wasted time talking about another anime blog and not the show itself. So far, it’s high quality overall, but it’s a bit of a cypher to me…I need to see more before forming an opinion, which is rare for me because having opinions tends to be one of my strengths, really. I think I was just too distracted by wondering about how this show was going to be perceived to pay enough attention to the substance of it, and that’s on me, not The Ancient Magus Bride.

Blend S– One of the Immutable Laws of Karen is that I will watch any anime that takes place in a coffee shop; keep in mind that I have watched not just one, but both seasons of Is the Order a Rabbit?, making me quite possibly the only straight woman on Earth who has done so. Maybe it’s my love for coffee in general, maybe it’s pure nostalgia for Polar Bear Cafe, but this is The Law; I must watch all of Blend S, because it takes place in a coffee shop. It doesn’t matter if it’s terrible.

Fortunately, it’s not terrible. The premise sounds like it’s going to be toying with some S&M vibes (since the main character is roleplaying a sadist as part of her gig at the cafe), but right now it’s very reminiscent of the lighthearted workplace comedy of Working! and its sequels. The whole S&M hook is really just a tease so far, since the humor is about as adult, as err….well, Working! The only slimy thing about it is how Maika’s boss continually hits on her, which is only really objectionable if you’re on the “anime must never depict anything that would not be acceptable IN REAL LIFE” train. I don’t know why anyone gets on that train, it’s a boring-ass train.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie– Another anime about people who spend much of their lives inside an MMO, although this one has an unusually adult take on it. Instead of teenagers and college students, the characters on this show are definitely old enough to drink, so they can drink screwdrivers in front of the computer while they wonder why they’re wasting their lives grinding for levels. (No one has actually done this one the show yet BTW, but it seems like something they would do.)

It’s gender-swapped, with the female character playing a male avatar in the MMO and vice versa, and it looks like it’s mainly going to focus on the romance between the lead characters. Normally, I would expect betrayal when they find out about each others’ true identities, followed by inevitable reconciliation, but this show is sophisticated enough about MMO culture that I trust it to go somewhere more interesting with the relationship. It would be really cool if after the reveal, both players just went “Oh, well that’s not surprising,” and just continued playing as normal.

A Sister’s All You Need– This show turned people off with an introductory scene that tried to portray little sister fetishism as disgustingly as possible, and succeeded, with stomach-turning results. Some concluded that the show was simply gross, but I think I get what they were doing by taking the little-sister trend to it’s logical (if unsettling) conclusion. And the show features interesting relationships between insecure writers, who are all insecure for different reasons, and that’s right in my wheelhouse.

This show actually reminds me of The Pet Girl of Sakurasou, which also received some early backlash for having a “gross” premise, which turned out to be entirely overblown. Now, it may turn out to be just another forgettable show trying to earn some points with shock value, but it could also be the little sister show that actually examines why people develop this obsession, which would be interesting. I would call it “a deconstruction of Oreimo and it’s ilk,” except A)I don’t actually know what ‘deconstruction’ means and B)that sounds so pretentious I would have to slap myself. Let’s just say that this show has the potential to do something different with its premise, and hope that it does.

Konohana Kitan– This feels incredibly bland to me. I think it’s trying to be that kind of episodic occult show where the supernatural-creature-of-the-week is the focus, and the main characters are more there for consistency than anything else. (See: Mushi-Shi, The Morose Mononokean.) However, too much attention is given to the little fox girls in the foreground for the show to have that kind of oblique feeling, which would be okay if the fox girls weren’t such boring characters.

It’s cute as hell, and if you like anime girls with fox ears and/or tails, this could be your Show of the Decade, but I’m not sure if it has much to offer besides moe/fetish appeal; it doesn’t have the sophisticated appeal of an occult anthology show, nor does it have strong enough characters to work as a slice of life show.

Love Is Like A Cocktail– As a big fan of I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying, I was anticipating this one; anime about stable, married couples are rare and intriguing. However, it’s hard to get excited about something that’s three minutes long. I get that these kinds of shows are designed as shorts, and they’re not meant to sustain full 22-minute episodes, but I still think three minutes is a little lean; I would prefer half-length episodes, like Muromi-san and Encouragement of Climb.

It’s cute, and having each episode themed around a drink works nicely, but it makes me wish there was more to it.

March Comes in Like A Lion, Season 2– So, hahahahah funny story, I thought I had completed the first season of this show, only to realize that I somehow stopped watching it towards the end and had no memory of doing so. That may sound like it bodes ill for Lion, because if it were a good show, surely I would remember whether I had finished the season or not? However, I think of this show as being kind of like the Marcel Proust of anime: it’s very artfully done and nuanced and everything, but sometimes you just can’t take it anymore and need to put it down for about five months.

Anyway, now that I’ve had a nice break, I look forward to catching up on Lion and finding out what’s new with Rei and his deranged sociopath of a stepsister.

Food Wars! The Third Plate– By now, you probably know whether you enjoy the Food Wars! brand of attractive and talented people having elaborately illustrated foodgasms over curry, or not. I found the formula was getting a little stale for me by the end of The Second Plate, but it’s still amusing enough to keep up with, for now. I find myself beginning to genuinely dislike Soma though: like, why you gotta challenge EVERY chef on the show to a duel? Can’t you just be secure in the knowledge that you cook good food,? Did you watch too much Top Chef as a toddler and it totally distorted your view of eating meals?

That’s all for now; I may pick up a few more fall shows, in which case I’ll write an Impressions: Part Deux post. However, it’s entirely possible that that will never happen, in which case I would like you to forget that we ever had this conversation.

My First Comic Book Store Experience

There’s been some talk lately about how comic stores have been “historically” unwelcoming of women. Normally I would post the tweet of a person who said this, but whenever I do that sort of thing, I get a few of their friends yelling at me that I’m “being mean” for continuing a dialogue that was started in a public forum, and I don’t want people yelling at me today, so whatever. In any case, the idea that “women are made uncomfortable in comic stores” is something of an old chestnut in the realm of geek-shaming, so it really doesn’t matter who happened to say it today.

This idea is completely at odds with my own experience, which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself; Just because I had, and continue to have, mostly good experiences in comic stores does not mean that all women necessarily do, and vice versa. In fact, my one, anecdotal story really doesn’t have any value, other than the fact that it’s my personal story, and I don’t feel like I’ve seen a lot of that. How many times have you seen a woman say “This is what happened the first time I went into a comic store?”, and talk about what actually happened? It could just be me, but I never see those stories; it’s always seems to be taken as an article of faith that “comic stores are creepy, amirite?”

So here’s one story of what happened when one woman, or young girl in this case, went into a comic book store for the first time, just for posterity.

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I was 11 years old, and I was obsessed with X-Men. The Saturday Morning cartoon wasn’t enough to sate my mutant cravings, so I decided it was time to seek out these strange things I’d heard of called “comic books.” I think I had been dimly aware that comics existed for a while, but it wasn’t until X-Men that I suddenly felt a need to know more.

My mom went with me to a comic book/toy store in a local shopping center. Standing behind the counter was a petite, 30-something brunette lady with a friendly smile; thinking back, she probably looked close to the way I do now, only I doubt my smile is as warm. A little nervous, I asked if they had any X-Men comics, and she cheerfully recommended several titles to me, and answered some of my questions, which I don’t remember, but I know I had some.

My mom, never one to miss an opportunity to make things awkward, asked “Is it unusual for a girl to like comics?” The lady laughed and said that some of the store’s regular customers were women who worked at Grumman nearby (this was before they merged with Northrup and became Northrup Grumman– hahahah DATING MYSELF HERE), and women reading comics was not uncommon anymore, if it ever was. My Mom was mollified, I walked out with some issues of X-Men Adventures, and everyone was happy.

The brunette woman who had been there that day co-owned the shop with her husband, and on return visits, it was usually the husband that was there. The sight of him didn’t fill me with the same warm-and-friendly feeling that his wife did, but he was still perfectly nice and was happy to answer any of my questions about comics. So began a period where, on Saturdays, my Mom would drop a friend and I off at the shopping center, with $10 to pay for lunch. If I had any money left after lunch, I went and bought comics. Amusingly, I thought I was supposed to give the change from lunch back to my Mom, so I used to hide my comics in my room like they were stolen booty. I only found out later that my Mom didn’t actually care that I was spending maybe $4 a week on comics, which was an amazing relief at the time.

This store was my first exposure to back issue bins, which were kind of overwhelming and a little bit scary at the time; the whole comics world seemed so huge, and I had maybe $3.50 from my Mom on alternate weekends, and it just seemed like I would never know all of this extensive comic lore that cool people knew. Nevertheless, I found it interesting flipping through those stacks and stacks of comics, imagining the day when I could get a job and buy them all. One day, I happened to find this issue:

SHE’S BACK, BITCHES!!!!

I was entranced. My favorite character, Rogue, fighting some kind of terrifying zombie creature? OMG so cool! I kept looking for stories about Rogue, and I always seemed to end up with issues about Jubilee finding herself, or some crap.  I wanted to find out how Rogue was going to get out of this jam so badly, and the fact that the cover art was kind of scary and grizzly only made it more appealing; it felt like reading this comic would be an initiation into a fascinating, dangerous adult world.

Sadly, the back issue was marked up to $8, which put it out of my price range. I remember begging my Mom to let me buy it, who said something like “Wait until you’re making $20 bucks a weekend babysitting, then you can buy expensive comics.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait that long– I don’t remember exactly, but I think I scrounged up some birthday money or something to buy Uncanny X-Men #269. I think the issue had been marked up too high (even during the speculator boom), but I will say that I got my money’s worth out of it; I copied practically every Jim Lee illustration in the entire comic. When I expressed interest in drawing comics, the guy at the store special-ordered How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way for me, which I devoured. I never really did learn to draw comics The Marvel Way, but I did learn how much I loved drawing.

Unfortunately, this was during the ’90s speculator boom, and barely a year after I’d first started buying comics, the crash came. A huge number of comic stores closed, including my store. I went on to frequent other stores over the years, all staffed by guys who were always encouraging my interest in comics without crossing the line into being patronizing…which, looking back on it now, is a pretty difficult balance to hold. I’m amazed I happened to luck into several people who could do that.

I’ve really only had one “bad” experience in a comic book store, and it was kind of questionable whether it had anything to do with me. At one store in Buffalo, the guy at the register seemed kind of dismissive of me when I was buying my comics, but he didn’t say or do anything specific, so for all I know, he could have just been in a bad mood that day (and to be fair, virtually no one in Buffalo is in a good mood, with good reason. Try living in Buffalo, you’ll see what I mean.)

I’ve drifted in and out of buying American comics since then, largely because I lost interest in X-Men and other titles I used to love (which is a topic for another day.) Lately though, I’ve started reading some comics again, and my local store is pretty cool. They have a big kids section, and I’ve gotten some children’s books for my daughter there, as well as gifts for other people’s kids. Plus, the owner is a family man, so he’s understanding on those occasions when I’ve had to come into the store toting a stroller with a cranky toddler. Sometimes his kids hang out in the store, reading My Little Pony and generally being adorable.

So…yeah. If comic stores have “historically” been hostile to women, this was a period in history I never experienced. I’m not saying it never happened, and there aren’t women who had legitimately bad experiences. The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy may be a stereotype, but it was inspired by something; some people like that surely exist. I’m not trying to invalidate anyone else’s experience.

What I am saying, is this: please don’t erase me from comics history. Please don’t pretend like all girls and women faced animosity when entering so-called “geek spaces”, when it’s simply not true. It’s unfair to the genuinely nice men and women who ran most of the stores I frequented, and it’s unfair to me as an individual. If I say “I’ve always had a good time in comic stores,” because it happens to be true, I shouldn’t be accused of lying, or other nefarious intent.

Is my comic store story any more important than anyone else’s? No. But it isn’t any less important, either.

X-Men and The Fake Comics Diversity War

Some people think a female Wolverine is a cheap gimmick; this would be a more important concern if original-recipe Wolverine didn’t start out as a cheap gimmick too.

If you’re not a regular reader of American comics, you may not know that die-hards on all sides have been waging a ferocious culture war over them for the past several years. One side says that old, crusty comic book fans just can’t handle women and minorities taking over the roles of beloved superheroes, and these regressive, bigoted people need to either (preferably) die out, or get with the times; the other side says that a lot of the so-called “diversity” in modern comics is a cynical sales ploy used to deflect criticism from lazy, uninspired writing. They’re both right to a certain extent (in the same way that a stopped clock is still going to be right some of the time), but more importantly, they’re both kind of delusional.

But that’s not special; nonsensical arguments over pop culture that take place primarily on the internet are a dime a dozen. No, what makes this particular kerfuffle interesting to me is that it seems to take place in some kind of alternate universe where X-Men comics never existed. Now, considering the fact that Marvel has done basically everything to kill that franchise outside of taking it back behind the barn and shooting it, you may not believe this, but at one time, the X-Men were the most popular superheroes in the entire world; yet if you acknowledge that, the argument for not one but BOTH SIDES of this argument falls apart in pretty spectacular fashion. As tiresome as I find the “You’re a bigot!” “No, you’re the REAL bigot!” arguments, I have to admit to some fascination with this opportunistic, selective memory regarding comic book history…or, more bluntly, how can you ignore the evidence that’s right in your face?

Let’s examine the “Diversity is used as a cynical marketing ploy, and that just sucks,” side first.

Diversity for Diversity’s Sake…is Good?

The pushback against more diverse character types in comics is not about hatred of women and minorities…in most cases. (I mean sure, you can find a small group of legitimate bigots for whom that is the issue, but that’s a subject for another day.) No, the pushback is how diversity is shamelessly used as both carrot and stick for readers. Example: GenericHero, who has been portrayed as male for 40 years, suddenly passes the torch to a female successor. Marketing goes crazy: “It’s GenericHero, like you’ve never seen HER before! Forget everything you ever knew about GenericHero, it’s a new era of Ass-Kicking!” Every ad for this “event” features heroic pin-ups of GenericHero looking hella awesome, complete with her sexy (but not TOO sexy) redesigned-yet-classic costume, and from all the hype, you’d think this was the biggest thing to ever happen to comic books since Batman decided to put on a cape.

Then the new comic with GenericHero debuts, and the character does exactly the same boring shit he/she has been doing for the last 30 years; the only difference is that she often makes snide comments about how the bad guys underestimate her now because she’s a woman (or if the writers want to be REALLY edgy, they might insert a comment that vaguely alludes to the fact that she has a menstrual cycle.) When readers complain, “This is not the revolution of GenericHero that we were promised,” the answer from the creative team is invariably “Shut up, you just can’t handle the fact that there are women in comics now, you pathetic, basement-dwelling misogynists!” Then comic fans go “Umm, excuse me?”, and sales plummet. Then industry pundits say “Sales of GenericHero plummet since the mantle was taken up by a woman; indisputable proof that comic book readers CANNOT HANDLE CHANGE!” Rinse and repeat with the next costumed hero.

God, it’s tiresome.

Anyway, so we can all agree that Diversity for the sake of Diversity, or Diversity used as a mercenary selling point, doesn’t work, right? It’s always forced, and boring, and never as good as if the writers had just focused on the traditional char…..

…Oh, right. Uncanny X-Men happened. Diversity For the Sake of Diversity can actually be awesome when done right.

Make no mistake, the 1975 relaunch of the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men started out as tokenism at its finest. “Look, there’s a Native American! And a Black Woman! And a Russian, and a German, and a Japanese Guy! There’s even a Canadian named ‘Wolverine,’ because wolverines are from Canada!” Seriously, the entire concept behind Wolverine’s initial character was “let’s have a Canadian superhero, because we don’t have one yet;” then when the character failed to become popular immediately, the only thing that kept him from being written out of the book was the fact that the one Canadian who worked for Marvel lobbied for him. The only thing missing from Giant-Sized X-Men #1 was a giant sticker that said “Look How Progressive This Comic Book Is! Do We Get A Gold Star????”

If things had continued in this vein, it would probably have been a pretty cringeworthy comic, and sometimes it was (See: Banshee the Irishman and his literal castle full of leprechauns.) But writer Chris Claremont took these created-via-checklist characters and did something interesting with just about all of them. Instead of being a stereotypical Earth Mother type, it turned out that Storm’s “all-loving African Goddess” shtick was a lie she told herself to escape from the horrors of her past, and when she let go of that role, she wasn’t sure she liked the person she was underneath. Nightcrawler explored religious guilt while still being charming and swashbuckling, and never committing the cardinal sin of becoming humorless. Soviet-born Colossus struggled with life in America for reasons having little to do with his superhero identity, especially when he started to have feelings for a young Jewish girl with a vastly different upbringing. And of course, Wolverine’s character went on to explore all these huge themes that have made the character one of the pillars of the genre: the nature of violence, which victimizes even its perpetrators; the role that memory, which is fallible, plays in identity; the concept of Logan as a sort of quintessential war veteran, suffering a kind of ongoing PTSD that never gets better, because there’s always another war.

This was stuff that really hadn’t been explored in comics, and rocketed the comic to a completely unexpected level of popularity; instead of being an oddity, UXM became the standard against which other comics were judged, rightly or wrongly. And it all happened because Claremont made good use of the “Diversity First” concept he was given; taking the opportunity to tell stories that hadn’t been told, couldn’t be told, with someone like Spider-Man. The promise of all-new, all-different stories wasn’t a marketing ploy, because the stories actually were new…and that’s something that’s much easier to do when you’re starting from a different place than you were before. Diversity, whether you want to tag it with the label “forced” or otherwise, can be a great jumping off point for creativity.

So the argument “Forced Diversity Never Works,” is somewhat undermined by the fact that, historically, it can work. And as to whether or not it’s cynical…how do you even judge that? “Let’s call the Canadian character Wolverine because wolverines are from Canada and it’s a new gimmick,” sounds pretty cynical, not to mention simplistic, but look at what writers have done with that character; look what James Mangold did with the film Logan, earlier this year. Just because someone has the gall to be cynical enough to hope that something catches eyes and makes money, that doesn’t mean it necessarily has to be thematically cynical. It doesn’t mean anything, really. If a great story comes from a cynical place, it’s still a great story; if a bad story comes from an idealistic place, the best you can say is “Well, at least your heart was in the right place, dear.”

Old Comic Fans Can’t Handle Diversity, Except When They Do

Okay, so we’re all on board that diversity in comics is awesome, right? No, we still have to worry about those old, regressive comics fans, who think a character named “Iron Man” should probably be a man and not a fifteen-year-old girl. These old fossils just can’t handle women, particularly minority women, in positions of power, and all of their arguments about so-called “forced writing” and “cynical marketing” are just a smoke screen for their hate! They just want to go back to the bad old times when superhero comics were predominantly WHITE and MALE and–

In this issue: Strong black woman beats up white men because they are dumb and totally deserve it.

In this issue: Strong black woman demands the return of her superpowers from brilliant Native American engineer/shaman, because that’s just how the ’80s rolled in superhero comics.

…Oh, right, the time when Uncanny X-Men was the best-selling comic in the world was during the time when it was led by Storm, who happened to have no superpowers at the time; having lost her powers, she was leading the team with a combination of street smarts and pure chutzpah. I’m confused: are these crusty old comics fans who can’t handle minority women in the spotlight, the same comics fans who were buying Uncanny X-Men in droves during the ’80s? Or were these different fans? Considering the fact that UXM was the best-selling comic, if readers had a huge aversion to minority women in positions of power, they had a really funny way of showing it.

it’s almost like readers accept diversity without comment when diversity leads to characters they love and stories they feel invested in, and only have a problem with it when the diversity itself is used as a stand-in for telling a decent story. So the argument was never really about diversity in the first place, but about the fact that many, if not most, American Superhero comics have been fundamentally directionless for decades and need a new raison d’être if they’re ever going to be worthwhile again. What we hear over and over again, bleated as though from a group of sheep, is “Diversity this, Diversity that, grrrr!”, when what we could be talking about is “What role does the superhero comic serve now in the age of immersive videogames, where you can really feel like you have superpowers? What can a superhero comic do to remain vibrant beyond serving as mere fodder for the summer movie franchises that have all but replaced it in popular culture?” These, to me, at least, are interesting questions. “How many of the people who loved Storm in the ’80s have become misogynist bigots since then?” is not an interesting question.

An admission: yes, I’m basing a lot of this on the one-time popularity of UXM, which was only one comic among many. That said, it was not only the best-selling comic, it was essentially the flagship title of the entire industry for many years; it was the comic people gave to their friends to get them into comics. While UXM may have only been one title, I don’t think you can brush it aside as an exception when it was seen as not just a good comic, but the standard to be emulated. How can we act like “Old” comic fans are the problem, when the most popular comic from decades ago was filled with all of the things they supposedly aren’t progressive enough to handle today? How can we act like all sales-driven diversity initiatives are bad when they gave us Wolverine, which led to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine? It boggles the mind.

TLDR: This whole fight over diversity in comics is a total sham. Yes, some bigots exist among comics fandom, and yes, some writers use gender and racial diversity as a shield to deflect criticism of otherwise poor writing; both of these facts are largely irrelevant to what the medium is and where it’s going.

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