All posts by Karen

Review: Reborn as a Polar Bear

[This review originally posted at The Fandom Post]

Creative Staff
Original Story: Chihiro Mishima
Art: Houki Kusano
Character Design: Kururi
Translation: Christine Dashiell
Lettering: Thalia Sutton


The most important thing to note about this title is that the art is stellar. The establishing shots are incredibly lush and detailed, and the character art has a lot of personality. The main polar bear looks realistically bear-like while still expressive and cute, which is a difficult balance to pull off. There’s a real sense of motion here, whether Kumakichi is squaring off against another bear, or we’re just seeing the breeze tease one of the girl’s hair as they forage for food. Sometimes the storytelling does degrade into a bunch of typical talking heads, but the other art is more than high-quality enough to make up for it.

That said, I have mixed feelings about the story being illustrated. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the likes of Polar Bear Cafe and A Polar Bear in Love, but I expect these talking bear stories to be rather whimsical. Reborn as a Polar Bear seems to be on the fence about whether it wants to be whimsical or not. Sometimes, it’s all sweet and cuddly, yet other times painfully realistic. Our bear hero’s first introduction to Lulutina, the main heroine, comes when he saves her from an attempted gang rape.

To the manga’s credit, the assault isn’t eroticized; no ripped clothes or questionable positioning. But if this is supposed to be a charming story of an out-of-place polar bear making his way in an enchanted forest, this seems a rather inauspicious beginning. The manga seems to want to have its cake and eat it too in terms of tone, and I’m not sure it works. Some manga can pull this off, but the inherent ridiculousness of Kumakichi waking up as a talking polar bear after falling off a mountain make it hard to take the story seriously when it gets deeply serious.

The volume isn’t without its charms. As opposed to a lot of selfish isekai protagonists, Kumakichi is almost immediately concerned with protecting the wolf sisters. The fact that he’s less worried about the how and why of becoming a polar bear and more worried about helping someone else makes him a likable protagonist. However, I’m not sure there’s much of a pull to read the next volume. Kumakichi seems to be even stronger than a normal polar bear, to the point of being nearly invincible; how worried about him can we possibly get? I think we’re supposed to worry about the werewolf girls, but hey, they’re werewolves; not exactly chopped liver. They may be weak compared to Kumakichi, but still tough in their own right. Despite the dark opening, somehow it just doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of danger here. I could probably never read this series again and be content in the knowledge that Kumakichi and his gal pals are off building a log cabin somewhere, happy as can be.

This volume may break my streak of absolutely loving every anime and/or manga about polar bears, and for that, I’m a little annoyed. I love the art, and Kumakichi is a good protagonist, but the rest of the series is just lacking. Lulutina and her sisters feel like stock protagonists, and what hints there are of a larger plot have yet to pique my interest. I may keep up with this one just to look at the beautiful art, but that essentially means that this title has succeeded as an art book, but failed as a manga.

In Summary:
A beautifully drawn manga with a likable everyman protagonist that unfortunately lacks a strong narrative hook. You probably won’t regret buying this, but you won’t exactly be waiting on pins and needles for the next volume either.

Review: Dark Roast Houjicha

I’ve gotten really into drinking tea in the last few months, so I figured I could take advantage of this blog to review different types of Japanese tea. I was going to start with a classic green, but after watching the first episode of The Helpful Fox Senko-san, where Senko serves Houjicha to Kuroto, I realized I had to try this mysterious, roasted tea.

No thanks, Senko-san, I have brewing instructions from the vendor.

I ordered some Houjicha from Yunomi, a really cool online tea retailer that I recommend. In addition to sending me delicious tea, they also sent me a little “guide to green tea,” with brewing advice. I even got an email from the owner, thanking me for buying their tea. If you’d like to support a Japanese business that really appreciates its customers, try picking up some tea from Yunomi.

Some technical info: Houjicha is roasted over charcoal, so it has a different flavor from most other green tea, which is steamed. It’s made from late-harvest leaves (Bancha), which have less caffeine than leaves picked earlier in the growing season. This is part of the reason why Senko-san served houjicha to Kuroto after dinner; since it has less caffeine, it’s a good tea to drink in the evening. Some versions of houjicha are made with younger leaves, and thus are likely to contain more caffeine, but I didn’t try that kind; the kind I bought is a more standard houjicha, assuming “standard” is an appropriate term here.

An appealing package.

Tea: Dark Roast Houjicha from Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms. Roasted Yanagi Bancha

Aroma: The tea smells a bit like fish and seaweed, which I found off-putting at first. I think it’s just a general umami smell, which can smell like fish if you’re new to Japanese green tea. It also has a bit of a coffee smell, but that could just be the term “dark roast” playing tricks on my mind.

Flavor: It tastes like toasted rice. Imagine you toasted rice in a frying pan, and it has just started to caramelize; that’s the kind of toasted flavor this tea has. Originally I thought I wouldn’t like Houjicha that much because I really like the grassy, sweet flavor of a good Japanese green tea, and I thought the roasting would obscure the grassiness. That’s not really what happens though; instead, the roasted flavor and the grassy flavor play off of each other. As the roasted flavor recedes, you get the more typical sweet/astringent green tea taste, so the tea has a sweet aftertaste. It’s a lovely, refined flavor.

There is definitely a mild seaweed flavor, so keep that in mind if you hate seaweed with a passion. I think the roasted and grassy flavors overpower the seaweed, but if you hate the idea of your tea tasting like seaweed, this is likely not the tea for you. The amount of seaweed flavor may also be related to brewing temperature; I may be brewing at a higher temperature than the package directions call for.

Verdict: I’m really happy with this purchase. It’s always a relief when a tea I like has low caffeine so I don’t need to worry about upping my caffeine intake too high, plus this provides a nice alternative to my typical green without changing things up too much. Also, I can take the leaves and re-steep them in cold water for an even lower caffeine cold-brew, so I can really get my money’s worth out of it. I haven’t tried this tea cold-brewed yet, but usually teas that I find delicious hot only improve in cold water, due to the lower astringency.

I have some other teas from Yunomi that I have yet to try, so expect more tea reviews. I probably won’t get another perfect anime tie-in like I had for Senko-san, but we do the best we can in the otaku-blogging biz.

Review: How to Write Light Novels and Webnovels

Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of books on writing and self-publishing, and this one suddenly popped up on my Kindle the other day.

There’s some good information here, particularly on all the different genres of light novels and web novels. I thought I knew what all the different light novel genres were, but come to think of it, I’ve always been a bit confused about the difference in categorization between, say, Sword Art Online and Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? This book does a good job explaining the differences between all the different genres and subgenera that are popular in web fiction and Japanese LNs in particular. It’s especially useful to have information on Chinese and Korean-specific genres, since that whole realm was a big unknown to me.

However, there are some major editing problems here. Normally when I say that I would be referring to typos, but if anything, that’s less of a problem here than it is with most self-published Kindle books. Either R.A. Paterson is a good proofreader or got someone experienced to proof his copy, and more power to him for doing it.

The problem here is a lack of content editing. The book is way too wordy and repetitive, and a good editor could have easily cut the fat here. Somewhere during Paterson’s description of the Rising Hero Stories, I realized I was reading the same thing over and over again and started to get really bored. He also makes a point of emphasizing things that anyone who takes fiction writing seriously should already know intuitively, which is a common problem in writing books in general.

Yeah, everyone can benefit from some tips, but if you really need to be told that your characters need to have character and the action needs to have stakes, a writing book may not be able to do much for you, you know? You mean…the audience needs to care about your characters? Wow. That is grade-A information right there.

Another problem with the book is one of authority. Paterson does have a portfolio of writing work online, but his real expertise seems to be in producing audio dramas. Has he really had the level of success with these varieties of fiction specifically to be providing advice? Maybe he’s racking up the reads on Wattpad or something, but if he is, I’m not aware of it. I certainly don’t want to be too critical of Paterson, because he’s made much more progress creating otaku-centric fiction than most people; I’m just saying that, if the book is about writing light novels, you would typically expect it to be written by a successful light novel writer.

That said, if you’re really interested in light novels and web serials and happen to have Kindle Unlimited, it’s not a bad idea to give this a borrow. You’ll probably learn something about a genre you didn’t know existed (like I did) and may find yourself psyched up to get moving on your writing projects. Just don’t expect a fully professional, polished book; I certainly wouldn’t recommend paying the listed price of $6.99.

This book should be edited and polished, be sold for a lower price, or preferably, both; otherwise, I only recommend it to those who can borrow it through KU. However, if Paterson or his team make the necessary changes, I will be more than happy to revise my review.

Review: Good Omens

The book version of Good Omens occupies an odd place in my personal pantheon. I have great fondness for it, yet even at the time I first read it (sometime in the mid-90s), I wasn’t convinced it all came together that well. Like some of the middle volumes in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, a lot of the page count is taken up with seemingly pointless diversions that aren’t nearly as amusing as they were intended to be. There are whole sections of the plot that you could cut from Good Omens, and the result would probably be a better, more focused narrative.

Here’s the unfortunate thing: the TV miniseries repeats all the mistakes of the book version, practically word-for-word. Pretty much everything about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is completely superfluous, and a lot of the minor characters seem like they got lost on the way to one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. The series didn’t need six episodes; it could have worked as a two-parter, or perhaps a movie.

And yet, I can’t be all that disappointed that the show made these mistakes, because they were made for reasons that resonate with the themes of the show. Writer Neil Gaiman kept these questionable elements out of respect to the late Terry Pratchett, out of the humanistic belief that human creativity is as close as we get to the divine, and thus a well-edited adaptation, while narratively superior, would be in some sense…ungodly. Gaiman was too busy living by the moral code he and his coauthor developed in the book to make a perfect adaptation of said book, and I for one am far too impressed by that on a meta-level to be that concerned over whether this thing is going to win any Emmys for scriptwriting.

I realize that whole last paragraph may not make any sense whatsoever to many readers, so let’s take a step back and do some more traditional review-type behavior. Then hopefully by the end I can explain what exactly I mean by Good Omens having it’s own kind of moral code.

The Good: Azriphale and Crowley

Michael Sheen and David Tennant are perfectly cast as Aziraphale and Crowley, the angel-and-demon pair who seek to circumvent the apocalypse. At first I thought that Tennant’s Crowley was by far the more important of the two, and to be fair, Crowley gets most of the show’s most important lines. However, Sheen’s non-verbal acting is deceptively important to the story. While Crowley is skeptical of everyone, even his own “side” (the demons), Aziriphale is a True Believer in heaven; if he weren’t, he would have already fallen. Aziraphale thinks of himself as too good of a fellow to ever be a demon, so he has to maintain a naive belief that heaven is unilaterally good, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

However, Aziraphale’s beliefs are sorely tested by God going Old Testament on humanity, as he does: allowing children to drown in the Flood, sitting back and doing nothing as various horrors are visited on Earth, etc. You can see the cognitive dissonance in Sheen’s performance; he knows that some of the things that God (and the heavenly bureaucracy) do really are not good, but he can’t allow himself to probe that thread too deeply, because then his whole identity goes out the window. By the end of the series, he’s asking enough inconvenient questions that he really should be a demon; if they make a Good Omens Season 2* and Aziraphale doesn’t switch teams, I’m calling shenanigans.

Clearly, Aziraphale is the one with the stronger narrative arc; he goes from believer to skeptic, whereas Crowley appears to have been a skeptic from the moment the Almighty uttered “Let there be light.” However, Crowley is usually more interesting to watch due to David Tennant’s bizarre magnetism. Tennant can go very broad, too broad for some viewers, but his performance fits when the material is broad in a complementary way. Like Doctor Who**, Good Omens also deals with the nature of morality in a universe with a supreme being, just from a slightly different angle, so it’s a good use of Tennant’s talent.

Given that one is an angel and one is a demon (complete with color-coded wings), we’re primed for conflicts between Aziraphale and Crowley to be clashes between good and evil. But that’s not what we get. Fortunately, we don’t get the opposite of that either, ex. “The Demons are really the good guys!” because that would be banal. Instead we get a conflict that isn’t really based on good and evil at all, but rather self-deception versus self-acceptance, and similarly muddy concepts.

What, you don’t think self-deception is a muddy idea on a moral scale? Lying to yourself about who you are is bad, but from another angle, you have to lie to yourself if you ever want to be better than you are. That’s what Aziraphale does: he’s not filled with unconditional love (he certainly doesn’t have unconditional love for God, whatever he says about it), but he pretends he is so he can better act the part. Crowley is more honest about himself, which is a good quality on the surface, but it means he’s free to indulge the worst aspects of his nature, because he has no incentive to try to hide them. Lying is bad, except when it’s good.

I think it’s really about how trying to define yourself as evil or good can’t help but have a paradoxical effect: if you try to be good, you have to maintain lies about yourself that are shameful on some level, and if you try to be bad, you’re engaging in a dialogue with the world about your desires that is praiseworthy by virtue of its naked honesty. You could try to be neither, but I think Good Omens is skeptical of being too skeptical. Then you’re like Anathema Device, watching events play out from afar while rarely participating, and that’s not a good lifestyle; note that she rejects it by the end.

All that, and just watching Sheen and Tennant interact is a bloody good time.

*I actually hope they don’t make Season 2 because it doesn’t seem necessary. I’m just saying that if they were to continue the story, it seems inevitable that Aziraphale would join Crowley as a demon. Or, to put it a different way, “The only thing separating Aziraphale from the bowels of hell was time.”

**If you’ve watched Doctor Who and you don’t think that the Doctor is supposed to be God (or at least a stand-in doing God’s job as an adjunct until he completes his PhD), I have no idea what to say to you.

The Bad: Too Much Apocalyptic Nonsense

None of these people need to be here.

Some of the supporting characters are necessary, because you can’t have Crowley hiding in his answering machine if he’s not running from someone. However, the show didn’t need the Witchfinders, the Horsemen, or even Adam’s friends. In fact, if Adam’s friends had been excised from the adaptation, then we could have seen more of Adam’s relationship with his human father, Adam Young, which you’d think would have been more important.

The device of the postman rounding up the Horseman of the Apocalypse is cute, but it’s so self-consciously cute that I actually found it kind of annoying. Like, “here, look at this clever framing device, isn’t it so cheeky and on the nose?” and it seems like it all works brilliantly until you remember that the characters he’s summoning never do anything that a  janitor named Bob could not have done. Really, one of the demons could have just possessed a janitor at the base and made him start launching nukes and the whole apocalypse plan would have worked just as well.

Cutting the story down as much as possible may not have been the way to go; the Archangel Gabriel, in particular, was a welcome addition. But when you have more characters than the story really needs, doing plot non-critical stuff, it calls attention to the fact that you have a lot of people running around in very silly prosthetics being ridiculous, which is not what you’re supposed to be thinking about. This could very well be the result of a clash between Terry Pratchett’s style and Neil Gaiman’s. In Discworld, people running around and looking/acting ridiculous is always mission-critical, whereas Gaiman’s oeuvre is different; not that he’s never ridiculous, but he holds that element at arm’s length, from what I’ve read of his work.

Nowhere do we see a better example of Pratchett’s characters imprisoned in Gaiman’s world than the Horseman Death; such a delight on the Disc whenever he appears, here he has nothing to do except make a joke about Elvis…which is only alluded to in the adaptation, not even stated.

Then again, it’s a good thing that Death is standing around with not much to do. The version of the story where Death is very busy would be much less interesting.

The Divine: Pratchett’s Legacy

Sir Pterry, forever.

We’re talking about a TV adaptation here, but Good Omens is fundamentally about books, and I’m far from the first to make this observation. It’s about the form of the book, gleefully paraded around with all the footnotes you could possibly want, and it’s about the unknowable true nature of books. Anathema’s desire to puzzle out the meanings of her omniscient ancestor parallel the desire of humans to understand the meaning of the Bible. It’s about the frustration of never fully understanding a book.

To get back to what I was talking about at the beginning, cutting aspects of Terry Pratchett’s work for the sake of an adaptation would have been anathema (not-really-a-pun intended) to Gaiman. Since Terry Pratchett is gone, all we have left of him are his books, jut as all we have left of most of humanity are the ideas they left behind. To cut down his ideas, even his failures, would have put less of him in the adaptation. Gaiman wanted the TV adaptation of the book to do what all human art does– to bear witness to life that once was– more than he wanted it to be good. Sometimes, it isn’t good. But it was always going to be an adaptation to another medium of a story that was primarily about its medium, so trying to be good might have been a lost cause anyway.

I don’t want to get in the habit of giving out awards for narrative mistakes. I don’t want to hear frequent claims of “Oh it may be sloppily written, but it has tremendous meaning in a larger context that transcends your pedestrian notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad.'” I mean, in general, I want to nip that sort of thinking in the bud. Something can be meaningful and good at the same time, and usually, that’s preferable. But I think, just this once, I’m okay with it.

Review: Penguin Highway

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way: the back-of-the-book blurb for Penguin Highway confidently proclaims “Everything made sense…until the penguins showed up!”, which may just be my favorite book summary of all time. In fact, I’m thinking of adopting that phrase as my personal motto.

Now that I’ve made a mental note to reprint all of my business cards, onward. Often, the highest praise you can give to a book is claiming that you couldn’t put it down. With Penguin Highway I had the opposite experience, which might lead you to believe that I didn’t care for it that much. In reality, this was the inverse of the I-can’t-put-it-down phenomenon; I wanted to keep putting my reading on hold, because I knew that once I finished the book, I could never again return to that strange, beautiful world. I could always read it again, but it would never the same as the first time. Despite the fact that this book is a rather petite little volume, I spent a whole week reading it, dragging it out as much as possible so I could savor every moment.

This book is written from the perspective of a child– an extremely precocious one, but a child nonetheless. Sometimes reading from a child’s perspective is nice just to be reminded of one’s own childhood, but Penguin Highway takes it to another level by making me nostalgic for a childhood I never really lived. This is something all great stories featuring children have in common, I find; they make you relive being a child, but not in quite the same way as you actually lived it. There’s enough overlap with things you really thought and did at that time to feel authentic, yet there’s something uncanny about the fact that you find yourself longing for a simple time that A)was never actually simple and B)didn’t exist. Yet the longing remains.

Our scientist-hero, Aoyama, is a smart kid, but he make the typical smart-kid mistake of assuming he must be the smartest person who’s ever lived (he never admits that out loud, but you can tell he totally thinks so). That’s why he’s so stymied when he runs into a mystery he seemingly has no hope of solving: penguins, and other creatures, are randomly appearing throughout Aoyama’s small town. Aoyama knows that the penguins have something to do with the lady who works at the dentist’s office (whom, coincidentally, Aoyoma has a massive crush on), and quantum physics are somehow involved. But even for a child genius with a bunch of fresh notebooks and a dream, that’s not a lot to go on.

Don’t go into this book expecting a rich feast of detail, because it’s not that kind of story. For one thing, though she’s the most important character in the book besides Aoyama himself, the lady from the dentist’s office is only ever called “the lady.” We never learn her name, or a lot of the other things we would like to know about her. Aoyama’s friends do get names, but the whole setting is detail-light, in general. The book does provide enough information to paint a vivid picture of the town and nearby forest where the action takes place, but once the setting is established, things are explained rather tersely. I thought the restraint was deliberate and interesting, but some others might have difficulty suspending disbelief, considering that some pretty incredible events are explained with minimal detail.

This book will have you asking an awful lot of questions, and it’s hard to say whether or not we ever really get answers. Yes, we do find out where the penguins are coming from, among other things, but every piece of information leads to about ten more questions, many of which remain unanswered at the end of the book. This ambiguity mirrors the themes that Morimi is dealing with, like the mixed blessing of growing up. When Aoyama gets what he wants and grows up to become “an important adult,” will he be happy? Or will he be regretful that he tried so hard to act like a grown-up, that he let his childhood pass him by? As his sleepy little town develops, will he relish the new conveniences and opportunities? Or will he long for the peace and quiet he never truly appreciated before?

Suffice to say, if you like a clean, meticulous ending where everything is properly explained and wrapped in a neat little bow, Penguin Highway may not be for you. This book is a mess, but it’s a strange, elegant mess, if you can imagine such a thing. To me, it’s an unusually energetic and charming rumination on the nature of mortality, and that’s how I’ll likely remember it. I was going back and forth in my mind over whether the 13 & Up rating is really necessary, but all the talk about death probably is a bit intense for a younger audience. Younger children may enjoy reading about Aoyama and his research (and be tempted to start research projects of their own), but may not be equipped to handle the darkness hiding behind a cheery facade.

This edition features an analysis from Moto Hagio, one of the mothers of Shoujo manga. It’s a nice feature, but if you were expecting Ms. Hagio to do the heavy lifting for you and explain what this whole thing was supposed to mean, you’re out of luck. In fact, the main thing Hagio does is ask more questions, so it’s less of an analysis and more of a gesture of shared confusion. Let’s all have fun being confused together, and if waddling penguins are involved, so much the better.

In Summary:

A seemingly wacky premise belies a tale with resonant themes about mortality, growing up, and human progress. Some may find the concepts underdeveloped and the writing spare, while others will take the book’s concise nature as an invitation to fill in the blanks on their own.

[This review originally published at The Fandom Post].

Game Of Thrones Showed The Failings of “Punching Up”

Many viewers were disappointed by the final episode of HBO’s fantasy behemoth Game of Thrones, but I was not one of them. While invested in the story to some extent, for a long time, I’ve valued the series as a pop-culture phenomenon rather than a narrative, and in that sense, it’s never disappointed me. Even when I wasn’t interested in what Daenerys, Cersei and Tyrion were doing, it was always intriguing to see other people trying to justify how these quasi-medieval characters’ actions could be consistent with 21st-centruy political ideologies. Sometimes this took the form of heartfelt, insightful critique; other times, incredibly energetic mental gymnastics. It was entertaining either way, arguably more entertaining than the show itself, and certainly more entertaining than most other television.

That all came to end with the series finale, “The Iron Throne.” With this episode, fans could no longer pretend that the series was addressing their pet political grievances, and that was a bitter pill to swallow—especially for intersectional feminists, who had long held that Queen Daenerys Targaryen’s penchant for freeing slaves would lead to the end of systems of oppression in this particular fantasy world. For Daenerys’ hard-core fans, the hope was always that the end of the series would chronicle the birth of a feminist, egalitarian utopia—or at least, something clearly on its way to that. Not only did this not come to pass, but the series had the chutzpah to present a solution that was only a slight variation on the status quo, which must have read as not just a disappointment, but a slap in the face.

To be fair, most of the disappointment with the finale was likely nonpolitical in nature. Fans complained about the shortened series (the final two seasons were both shorter than the series’ standard 10-episode season), leading to insufficient character development, and plot twists that seemed rushed even when they made sense in theory. The staff’s decision to take an extra year to create Season 8, leaving all of 2018 sadly Thrones-less, played a big role; with a whole extra year to anticipate the ending, fans had ample time to build gargantuan expectations that could never be met by any TV drama, even a stellar one.

There’s also the disappointment of book readers, something which, if not unique to this show, was nevertheless another source of friction. Readers of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels hoped that some of the elements that had been seemingly trimmed from the TV series might make a last-minute appearance in the finale. When it turned out that popular characters from the books like Lady Stoneheart and Young Griff were well and truly excluded from the TV canon, that was just another nail in the coffin.

In fact, most of the criticisms of the finale were focused on pacing and production issues, essentially apolitical factors. Still, a small, but extremely vocal minority wants us to know that Game of Thrones failed them because it failed their politics, and that reveals some interesting things: Both the extent to which politically-motivated viewers were watching the series through a distorted lens all along, and the desperation to fit the story into paradigms that it doesn’t get along with. To some extent, these people were watching a different show altogether.

One of the reasons why this phenomenon is so significant is because the show was a big enough cultural phenomenon to attract high-profile politicians, who used it unabashedly in their campaigns. Both Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren lamented Queen Daenerys’ dark turn at the end, implying that this development was anti-feminist, if not in quite so many words.

“We were getting so close to having this ending with just women running the world, and then the last two episodes, it’s like, “Oh, they are too emotional.” The end,” said Ocasio-Cortez. Not only does Ocasio-Cortez seem to treat it as a given that “just women” ruling the world would be a good thing, she also misrepresents Daenerys’ story. As fans well know, Daenerys was the product of a powerful family that practiced incest for hundreds of years, spawning many emotionally volatile people, most of whom were male. To characterize Daenerys’ turn to madness as something viewers were supposed to interpret as the fault of her gender, rather than her (incredibly loaded) family history, would require ignoring the entire backstory of Game of Thrones.

Warren, who changed her allegiance to Sansa Stark after Daenerys’ homicidal turn, expressed disappointment that her woman of choice didn’t end up on the Iron Throne.

“She walks away saying, “I’ll still be Queen in the North.” Come on Sansa! Go for the big one!” said Warren. Her enthusiasm for a Sansa-led monarchy is endearing, but seems blind to one of the main points of the series: seeking power leads to destruction, almost inevitably. In fact, everyone who set out to rule the Seven Kingdoms ends up dead; the only one who survives is Sansa, and that’s arguably because she limited her ambitions to the North instead of the entire continent. As a fan of Sansa, Warren should be pleased that the flame-haired Lady of Winterfell essentially dodged a bullet there. If Warren had any inkling that her desire to see a woman gain the power of the highest level of monarchy was inconsistent with the show’s thoroughly anti-monarchy message, she has yet to discuss it.

Haven’t had enough of female politicians being mad that HBO did not fulfill their feminist fantasies through Queen Daenerys or Queen Sansa? You’re in luck, because New York Senator (and Warren’s fellow Presidential hopeful) Kirsten Gillibrand was also on board.

“She’s (Daenerys) somebody who made sure the lowest income, the least empowered could have a voice and that was who she was. And why did the writers have to turn her into a Mad Queen? That was not part of who she was,” said Gillibrand.

While Senator Gillibrand is correct that Daenerys was concerned with the fate of the poor (at least as far as delivering them from slavery; it seems unlikely she would have given poor people a voice in her government, had her reign in Westeros lasted for more than ten minutes), saying that the Mad Queen was not “part of who she was” requires ignoring a pile of foreshadowing bigger than a sleeping dragon. As early as the first season, Daenerys spoke of making her enemies die screaming and showed no remorse when subjecting people to painful deaths. This tendency toward violence only increased as the show continued, and while some of her victims were truly evil and likely deserved their fates, others did not. In order to think that Daenerys’ turn toward madness in the penultimate episode came out of nowhere, either Gillibrand missed several key episodes, or she simply ignored anything that didn’t jibe with her personal view of Daenerys as a good-hearted champion of the downtrodden.

All three politicians appear to have viewed Daenerys primarily through the lens of modern feminism. The fact that her story was a cautionary tale about the corrupting nature of power—a problem that knows no gender—was either lost on them, or ignored by virtue of being politically useless to them. What’s concerning is not that they brought their own ideas with them to the show (we all do that); it’s that the feminist lens seems to have rendered certain parts of the story blurry, even impenetrable. None of these women are stupid, yet either all three of them missed (or forgot) crucial elements of the story, or they selectively ignored what they didn’t want to see.

Politicians were far from the only ones trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in this regard, however. Naturally, TV critics were each viewing Daenerys’ storyline through their own questionable lenses.

“Now, the worst thing for me was the subtext of this last story because Dany saw herself as this freedom fighter who was liberating the oppressed in their kingdoms,” said NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.“And in a show with almost no characters of color, her followers, some of them who were former slaves, were the closest thing to that. She was killed by a son of the people who originally ran things.”

So despite being a platinum-blonde princess, descendant of the god-like Dragon Lords of Valyria with magical powers, according to Deggans, Daenerys’ real role in the story was as a proxy for under-privileged people of color. From this perspective, Jon’s murder of Daenerys was not a reluctant hero putting down a genocidal tyrant, but the status quo triumphing over progressive change. That makes a certain amount of sense if you buy into Daenerys’ rhetoric as a liberator of slaves (though she did very little liberating in the final seasons, and a whole lot of murdering), but seeing Jon Snow as a symbol for ingrained power structures is a stretch. You mean, the guy who was denigrated for supposedly being illegitimate his whole life, ran off to the edges of civilization because that was the only place he could find acceptance, was literally murdered because he choose to give illegal immigrants a chance, functions as a stand-in for the white, male patriarchy? If Jon was supposed to represent entrenched, institutional power, he was amazingly bad at it (which, to be fair, is very in character. Jon Snow is bad at most things, which is what makes him so lovable. Or maybe it’s just that pouty face.)

So the “subtext” that Deggans objects to is apparently that an advocate for oppressed people of color (sort of) was killed by a white man with extensive privilege, which is hard to reconcile with anything we know about these two characters. Granted, subtext is subjective, but I like to think I have seen enough event television to be a proud graduate of Subtext Boot Camp, and I’m having a really hard time seeing Deggan’s political reading as anything other than a desire to twist the narrative into a privilege-themed pretzel, having little or nothing to do with what actually transpired on screen.

Speaking of privilege, Laura Hudson of Wired* was so committed to the tenets of intersectionality that she perhaps missed the point the show was making about the nature of violence as a solution. When Tyrion Lannister spells out for the audience that Dany’s repeated acts of violence only made her more confident that violence was the answer, no matter how justified she was the first few times she did it, Hudson characterizes this as Tyrion advocating a complete abnegation of moral judgement.

“…Tyrion laments enabling her and makes a very bad argument about Dany’s use of force, which essentially begins, “First she came for the slavers of Astapor and I said nothing…” Ah yes, it’s too bad she didn’t just sit back and decide to see if the slaves could free themselves by winning against their masters in the marketplace of ideas! It’s a facile analysis of force that conveniently erases all power structures from the equation, that imagines there is no moral difference between Dany rising up to kill slave masters and murdering thousands of innocent children.”

Yes, it would be foolish to suggest that Dany could have defeated slavery non-violently in the marketplace of ideas, if Tyrion had said any such thing. Of course, Tyrion’s argument is not that there’s no moral difference between killing the slavers of Astapor and killing innocent people; it’s that after killing enough slavers of Astapor, and others of their ilk, it gradually becomes easier to kill in general. When you have a big enough hammer, everything begins to look like a nail; Tyrion is smart enough to realize that Daenerys’ had come to see the whole world as a bed of nails. That’s a problem for viewers on the far left, because the distinction between Punching Up and Punching Down in social justice ideology is supposed to be a clean one; the idea that doing a lot of Punching Up might eventually make you more prone to acts of excessive Punching Down is an uncomfortable subject.

“While it’s hard to resist the pithy moral absolutism and easy applause line of “violence is always wrong,” it’s also worth noting that despite its superficial patina of fairness, this argument invariably benefits the powerful; not only do they get to pretend that there’s no difference between punching up and punching down, they get to robe themselves in self-righteousness and claim the moral high ground while they do it. Who’s the real Nazi—the Nazi or the person who punches a Nazi, hmmm?” Hudson continues.

In truth, I’m not sure if the setting of Game of Thrones really gels with this modern conception of Punching Up versus Punching Down, regardless of the evergreen punching-Nazis hypothetical. It works in the most general sense (doing something bad to evil people is more justifiable than doing something bad to good people) but once you get any more specific than that, it’s hard to reconcile. Most of the people in the fictional world of Westeros are peasants who have no role in the decision-making process, and they’re the ones who suffer no matter which direction the people in power like to think they’re punching. That’s a problem to a certain extent even in the modern era (which is frankly why I’m personally skeptical of this whole Punching Up vs. Punching Down concept in general), but especially true when the society you’re dealing with still practices feudalism.

More importantly, advocates of Punching Up like to seem to ignore the “if you have a big enough hammer” problem entirely; to them, presumably, when you partake of political violence (but only against despicable targets who totally deserve it), your hammer always remains just the right size; big enough to hurt your enemy, not big enough that the strain of carrying it takes a toll on you. Sadly, Tyrion Lannister is not real, so I will never have the joy of explaining this Magic Hammer idea to him and seeing what kind of incredulous expression he would make.

In Game of Thrones, using violence as a solution is a problem not because there are no deserving targets of violence, but because of what it does to the mind of the user. In Game of Thrones, a woman can be a power-mad tyrant, and a world ruled by women is not necessarily a peaceful one. Good motives can decay, and the most righteous causes (like eradicating slavery) can provide the best cover for tyranny. For people who are heavily invested in the idea that political violence can be used surgically against the right targets, or invested in the idea that loudly advocating for egalitarian policies surely inoculates one from corruption, Daenerys and her messy, punching-mostly-sideways world are more than just a little disappointing; they’re threatening. It’s a lot easier to accuse the show of delivering a bad ending than to grapple with the possibility that it reveals bad ideology.

*I have disagreed with Hudson before. I’m not a fan of her work, but I do appreciate that she points out arguments that I disagree with more clearly than other people I disagree with, if that makes any sense.

Welcome To Starbucks Westeros

In the latest episode of HBO’s popular medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones, a disposable coffee cup was visible on screen during a feast at Winterfell. Most viewers thought this was simply a production goof, however, those of us who have read the books and all of the other relevant literature and apocrypha know better. Fans have theorized for decades that Starbucks locations exist within Westeros, and with Season 8, Episode 4, “The Last of the Starks,” it’s safe to say that these rumors have been proven true.

Of course, a Starbucks in Westeros would not be the same as a Starbucks in say, Albany; there’s the local culture to consider. For that reason, as an enlightened scholar who has read all the books and other materials, including a discarded notebook that George R. R. Martin left on a bus one time, I’m going to share with you what Starbucks is like within A World of Ice and Fire. Before you leave a comment in disagreement, please keep in mind that this is now strictly canonical and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Beverage Rules:

–You must give your full name, including the name of your House, to the barista when you order. This is a nuisance, but on the plus side, if anyone misspells your name, you can have them drawn and quartered before dawn.

–If you give a Bastard surname like Sand, Snow, or Waters, in theory the whole menu is available, but you can only order decaf. Regular is not for the likes of you.

–The lowborn can only order plain drip coffee, no lattes or other specialty drinks; plus, the coffee tastes about 5x as burnt as Starbucks coffee normally does. Not recommended.

–If you answer the request for your name with “A man has no name,” your latte will be at least 90% cyanide.

–If you claim ancestry from the First Men, you may have dairy milk. If you claim ancestry from the Andals or the Rhoynar, you may have soy milk. Those who ask for almond milk are weak and will not survive the winter.

–If your noble birth qualifies you for milk in your coffee, but you don’t want it, you have several options: you can order your coffee black “as a Trueborn Baratheon’s locks,” black “as a Dragonglass Dagger,” or black as “The Dread.” You can also request coffee that is “dark and full of terrors,” but there’s an excellent chance that you will end up with a cup full of scorpions.

–Giant’s Milk Frappucinos only available at locations North of the Wall.

–Anyone who demands that their espresso shots be poured over the foam in their drink, specifically, will be ritually burnt at the stake. Not as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light, but just because they obviously deserve it.

–If you say “Dracarys!” while your drink is being prepared, that’s a cue to the barista that you want it Extra Hot. They won’t actually make it Extra Hot, because scorched dairy is gross and everyone should know that by now, but they’ll imitate dragon screeches out off the side of their mouth and pretend they’re doing it.

–You can try asking for your drink “Kissed by Fire” if you want it with cinnamon. However, that’s a stupid idea since this is a Starbucks, and everyone knows that the cinnamon is located at the Condiment Bar: put it in yourself.

Food Rules:

–All pastries and breakfast sandwiches are made with 100% Free-Range dragon eggs.

–Bagels are only served with cream cheese, not with butter. In addition, anyone who asks for jelly on a bagel will be flayed alive until they are the color of said jelly.

–If you order anything gluten-free, you must swear on the Light of the Seven that you actually have Celiac Disease and aren’t just a trendy-ass motherfucker.

–Anyone who orders quiche will be disembowled out back. No one knows why, this is simply how it’s always been done, and what’s good enough for our ancestors is good enough for us.

–Lemon cakes are available, but only for young girls who have been forced into political marriages with dwarves or sociopaths.

General-Purpose Rules:

–Eunuchs receive a 50% discount because really, they deserve something.

–Anyone who leaves garbage or crumbs at their table, regardless of birthright, will be castrated. On the plus side, see above.

–Once you claim a table in the cafe area, only you and your trueborn offspring may use that table. Illegitimate children can sit at your table, but they have to sit in that awkward, half-the-butt-hanging-off-the-chair position.

–Lighting other tables on fire to increase legroom is not just allowed, but encouraged.

–Starbucks Westoros is not legally responsible for what will happen if you attempt to ally with guests from other tables for any reason.

–You may get up and go to the bathroom at any time, however, once you return, the political situation will have changed so much that you won’t know where you’re sitting.

–If you sit down at your table with a laptop and begin working on a novel, you must finish the goddamned novel. If you open a browser or a video game instead, you will be forced to run naked behind a stallion until you die.

–Sex in the cafe area is allowed, but only as long as you narrate your entire life story during the act. Anyone making love silently will be asked to offer the appropriate amount of exposition or leave immediately.

–Gender-neutral bathrooms are available, but only in Dornish locations. On that note, popular “Orgy Thursdays” are only available in Dorne (and occasionally Highgarden, but only if you know who to ask.)

–Fire exits are only guaranteed to work for regular fire, not Dragon fire. Once the dragon shows up, it’s safe to say that no one’s getting out.

–Other than the aforementioned penalties and legalized executions,  violence, war and genocide are not permitted at Starbucks Westoros locations. Starbucks Essos, on the other hand….

Racism in Run With The Wind

Run With The Wind was a great show, one that goes to show just how broad a category like “sports anime” can be. Among the other things it did well, it tackled the subject of racism, and did so in a kind of understated, nuanced way. I rarely see this kind of thing done so well, and especially not in anime, so I thought it was worth taking a moment to call attention to it.

Just about all of the racism depicted in the show is directed at the character Musa, a black student originally from Tanzania who’s studying abroad in Japan. I was skeptical when they first introduced the character; the choice to introduce him completely naked reminded me a bit of the Kenzaburo Oe story Prize Stock, and you never want to associate Oe with anything. (Yeah, I went there. Suck it, Nobel Committee!) Having Musa’s first impression on the audience being his lack of shame at his nudity seemed to be walking a fine line between casting the character as “goofy foreigner with different ideas about modesty” and “dated idea of the noble savage, used historically to diminish darker-skinned people.” It wasn’t the most auspicious beginning, especially when black people have so few roles in anime to begin with.*

Turns out I had nothing to be concerned about, because Musa was a fully-fleshed out character for whom race was only one aspect of the whole. Yes, his race was relevant to the story and did come up at times, but he was never presented as a racial stereotype, and he was never portrayed as being different from the other characters. The characters were all different in the sense that they were supposed to be a ragtag group of misfits that somehow coheres into a team, but Musa was never portrayed as more eccentric than the other eccentrics, if that makes any sense.

The show was smart enough to address the elephant in the room right away, too. Early on, when the dorm mates find out they’ve basically been tricked by Haiji into becoming a track team, the twins comment that running will come easier to Musa, because he’s African. Musa acknowledges that assuming he’s automatically a better runner just because he’s African is prejudiced, but he doesn’t blow a fuse over it; he simply acknowledges the ignorance of the statement and moves on. Musa is presented as someone who doesn’t tolerate casual racism, but he also doesn’t hit back like a ton of bricks when he sees someone engaging in it, either. It’s clear he thinks the problem is ignorance, not malice, since his reaction seems more disappointed than upset or angry.

Things get uglier later on when Musa has to deal with racism from within his own race. The other African characters on the show are all student-athletes who are attending Japanese universities on running scholarships, and Musa is afraid they won’t accept him. His fears are valid; the other Africans blow off his attempts to be friends with them, and generally just treat him like he doesn’t exist. (I generally dislike the word “microaggression,” but I think it fits here; none of the other black athletes do anything outright horrible to Musa, they just consistently look at him with barely-concealed disdain and don’t respond to his friendly overtures.)

Why do they treat him so poorly? Is it because they’re meant to be evil, and the show is actually being racist by portraying the African  students as being so unsympathetic? I don’t think so; try looking at it from their perspective. In their lives, they are utterly surrounded by Japanese people; the only people they know who look like them are serious track runners. We don’t learn a lot about them, but it seems likely they keep to themselves. And here comes Musa, who just started running like ten minutes ago, and is a sensitive academic, not a career athlete. He has far more in common with the Japanese students who share his interests than he does with the other African  students, and everyone knows it. From their perspective, what is he doing there? Why is this guy who doesn’t even take running that seriously showing up at meets, possibly making them look less serious about running by association? Who needs that?

And yes, it is racist of them to assume that Musa should be in Japan on a running scholarship just because he’s African; that assumption, and their behavior toward him, is clearly depicted as a bad thing on the show. However, while they are being racist towards Musa, their behavior is understandable, because we can understand their insecurities. They aren’t succumbing to racism because they’re terrible people, they are making a mistake because they’re human.

This is where I think Run With The Wind is really brave in it’s portrayal of racism. It’s one thing to have an over-the-top evil Simon Legree character whom we can all denounce as racist and feel good about ourselves, quite another to show how otherwise good people can end up going along with racist attitudes. Portraying the skewed expectations that people sometimes have for other members of their own race is especially difficult to do; if done wrong, it can make it seem like you’re attempting to blame all racism on the people who suffer the most disproportionately from it. However, you can’t address racism responsibly if you only portray it as an inter-group problem; it’s an intra-group problem, too.

One more scene that’s relevant takes place later on, when the Kansei University Track Team starts to build some momentum. Kakeru and Musa overhear some guys complaining that the Kansei team has an African student on it, preferring them to field an “All-Japanese team.” The implication is that, since Musa is African, he’s not a ‘real’ Kansei University student and doesn’t count. Kakeru, hothead that he is and offended on Musa’s behalf, wants to go give these people a piece of his mind, but Musa stops him. It’s not that Musa isn’t bothered by these comments, but as he explains to Kakeru, what would be the point?

You don’t win out over racists by getting into arguments with people on the street. You don’t drown out prejudice by yelling at people who are being ignorant, because if they could understand you, they wouldn’t be ignorant. The real work to chip away at racism, as Musa well knows, is the stuff that’s going on at the old dormitory, where the other students from all different walks of life have learned to see Musa as one of their own. It also chips away at racism when Musa participates in Track and Field as a hobby, while his main focus is his academics; he’s a talented runner, but he’s not the best runner on his team, and that’s okay, because that doesn’t have to be. Appropriate for a long-distance runner, Musa is seeing the big picture. He can engage with running at whatever level he wants, and he doesn’t need to care how other people perceive that. And by living that way, he may convince a few other people that they don’t need to care either.

There’s some other interesting stuff going on in RWTW. For one thing, the fact that Haiji forces the entire dorm to start running raises some interesting questions; people are very big on questioning consent in fiction these days, but apparently only when the topic is sexual in nature. On this show, one of the main characters tramples all over his teammates’ consent, and I haven’t heard a peep from the usual suspects about it. In any case, whatever I was expecting from this show, it wasn’t such a sensitive portrayal of racism, or such a mature, likable character in Musa. High marks, all around.

*I’m not suggesting by the way that Japan is being negligent by not including more black characters in anime; the only ethnicity regularly represented in anime is Japanese, and it’s Anime-Japanese, meaning the characters usually don’t even look Japanese. The question of what greater representation for non-Japanese races should or could look like in a medium where even the majority population doesn’t look like themselves is a really complicated topic that goes beyond the scope of this article. 

 

Review: Final Fantasy VII: On The Way To A Smile

(This review was originally posted to The Fandom Post.)

I spent 100 hours leveling up to beat Sephiroth for this?

Creative Staff:
Story: Kazushige Nojima

Final Fantasy VII was the first JRPG I ever played, and only the second game I ever completed; to say that it holds a special place in my heart would be an understatement. I think there is actually entire chamber of my heart that is roped off and says “Reserved for Final Fantasy VII (and also VIII, sometimes).”

Sadly, I haven’t enjoyed any of the attempts that developer Square Enix has made to revisit that universe. I found Advent Children, the movie sequel, more irritating than anything else, and none of the prequel games that SE released seemed appealing. Maybe I just hold FFVII to too high a standard, but to me, the original game was like lightning in a bottle; a rare artistic achievement where the entire production came together to be more than the sum of its parts both as a video game and as a larger fantasy narrative.

So that leaves me in a weird place with On the Way to A Smile, basically a prequel to a movie that I didn’t like, but based in a world that I unquestionably love. This story collection bridges the gap between the end of the game and the beginning of Advent Children, a period of about four years. I tried to put aside my general dislike of all FFVII expansion material and approach this book with fresh eyes, but I’m not sure I succeeded. It seemed intent on reminding me of all the things I have never liked about attempts to continue the FFVII story beyond the final boss fight.

For one thing, this book is pretty dark; everyone is so despondent that you almost wonder if it wouldn’t have been kinder to let Sephiroth destroy the world and put everyone out of their misery. Now, it was always a dark world, and it’s not like I expected things to suddenly become happy and light-hearted after Sephiroth was defeated. I mean, it’s nice to think about Cloud and Tifa being married with 2.3 kids and a dog, Red XIII finding a girlfriend and having the best animal romance since The Lion King, or Cid starting the Gaia version of NASA, but I knew it would never be that easy for these characters. Still, this book goes too far in the other direction by making everybody utterly miserable. What makes it unforgivable to me is that this book requires the characters to forget the things they learned in the original game in order to be unhappy.

Remember how Barret’s character arc in the game had him realizing that while he’ll never be the father he thinks Marlene deserves because of his past, he’s nevertheless the father she has, and he needs to be there for her? Well, this book has him dump Marlene on Tifa early on so he can “settle his past,” which he should already know is a fool’s errand. When he ends up doing something useful, it’s more because he stumbles into it than anything else. Cloud and Tifa, who achieved a state of great intimacy by the end of the game- to the point where they even shared a consciousness at one point- treat each other like awkward strangers, and struggle to communicate. Yuffie goes on a useless quest that she knows has no chance of success, but does it anyway because she thinks her pluck will give people hope, or something. Wasn’t Yuffie the one who wanted results, not just idle talk? Cid is doing fine, so naturally, Cid isn’t in the book that much.

It’s certainly not all bad. It clarifies a lot of things about Advent Children that were always a bit hazy, and some of the individual stories are interesting. I particularly liked Red XIII’s story, because even though it was depressing as all hell, at least he seemed properly in character. But man, talk about going out of your way to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Most of the characters don’t even seem conscious of the fact that they saved the entire planet, because that might give them something to feel good about. Yuffie at least acknowledges it, then is promptly told that no one wants to hear about it and she should shut up.

And yet, for all my complaints, there’s something here. We’re dealing with a society that both regrets nearly destroying nature, yet fears the raw destructive power of nature; a worldwide slump brought about by extreme corporate mismanagement; an epidemic with no cure, without enough medicine or health providers to go around; A rapid increase in technology, while at the same time, a desperate need for a new energy source that doesn’t seem forthcoming. Even though this book doesn’t do right by the cast of the game, I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel relevant. It’s almost too relevant, if such a thing is even possible; I mean, I just ostensibly read a Final Fantasy book, and here I am thinking about health care and diminishing fossil fuel supplies instead of Chocobo Racing. Is that okay?

In fairness, most fans of FFVII are probably less picky and will find more to like here. If you liked Advent Children (and a lot of fans did), you’ll probably like this. And it’s always nice to see interaction between beloved characters that didn’t get much one-on-one time in the original game, like Yuffie and Red XIII. With all this sequel material though, I’m always left wondering if SE perhaps doesn’t understand the story of the original game they made, or if maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand. It’s not a good feeling, either way.

In Summary:
A short story collection that succeeds as a supplement to the Advent Children film, but may leave series fans wondering if Final Fantasy VII was always this macabre and joyless.

Review: An Invitation from a Crab

(This review was originally posted on The Fandom Post.)

Never turn down an invitation from a sassy crustacean, especially if you haven’t decided what’s for dinner yet.

Creative Staff:
Story and art: panpanya
Translator: Ko Ransom
Production: Nicole Dochych

Denpa, the new publisher on the block, specializes in publishing manga that are a little off the beaten path; either hard to categorize, or simply overlooked. This is a good thing, but I think we need to be careful not to let the company’s niche color our perception of their books too heavily. After all, if we assume that every book that comes out of Denpa is going to be some strange, art-house affair, we’re probably doing a disservice to much of what they publish; just because a book has been overlooked for English-language publication thus far doesn’t mean it’s necessarily strange.

All that said, make no mistake: An Invitation from a Crab is strange. A series of vignettes featuring the barest suggestion of a manga-style school girl traversing warped, sometimes muddy backgrounds, all the while experiencing bizarre encounters with fish and crustaceans, interspersed with essays from the author on topics like “what is that light produced by the inside of your eyeballs?” Yeah, that’s unusual, to say the least.

What’s compelling about Crab is the way it presents its own brand of surrealism. Concepts like a dolphin-powered calculator seem like they would be right at home in The Hitchhikers’ Guide to The Galaxy, but the mood is much more Günter Grass than Douglas Adams. Even the stories that deal with more mundane subject matter always give the sense that something sinister is afoot. Our sketchily rendered protagonist may be able to eat a crab hotpot for dinner, but she may not really be at the top of the food chain. The world here is one of endless consumption, where humans and animals alike are put through a symbolic meat grinder, and any attempt to reconnect with the natural world is doomed to end in failure. It sounds like I’m saying this manga is anti-capitalist, and that may very well be true, but I think that may be an oversimplification. Something else is going on here; I’m not exactly sure what, but I’m going to keep thinking about it until I figure it out. Hopefully.

Something else I need to figure out is how I feel about this book’s art. Some of the backgrounds are great, with an almost sculptural quality, like the environments have been chiseled out of the paper somehow. Other times, the art becomes more minimalist and blurry, and I’m not sure it works. Ironically, the detailed, clear backgrounds do a better job of communicating the surreal mood of the story than the more smudgy, suggestive panels. The art is always at least adequate to tell the story, but if were always as good as panpanya is clearly capable of, I think we’d have something incredible here.

Whether or not the art is up to the level of the writing (and I’m sure others would disagree with me there), this is an unusual, thought-provoking title that discerning adult readers should seek out. The book may be rated Teen, but I think it’s mature (in the best sense of the word), and likely to be of particular interest to people who have already been reading manga for many years. If any 14-year-olds want to read it, hey: knock yourself out. Don’t let me stop you! But I think part of the experience of An Invitation from a Crab is comparing it to the other manga you’ve read, and the deeper your personal catalogue is, the more you’ll get out of it.

In Summary:
A surreal collection of stories and short essays with a serious bite to them, despite the fact that they may seem nonsensical at first.

Grade: A

Age Rating: Teen (13+)
Released By: Denpa, LLC.
Release Date: December 19, 2018
MSRP: US $12.95 CAN $14.95