All posts by Karen

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

Review: Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon Vol. 3

(This review originally posted on The Fandom Post.)

A sentient snack vending machine continues to do a better job romancing the ladies than you might think.

Creative Staff:
Story: Hirokuma
Art: Ituwa Kato

This volume focuses less on the mechanics of Boxxo’s existence as a vending machine, and more on developing the supporting cast. On the face of it, this is good; how many times do we need to find out that Boxxo added a new kind of corn soup to his products? Do we really need to know how many points Boxxo has accumulated at any given moment? Probably not.

However, I think this series is meant for a particular type of reader, and we’re the kind who enjoy this kind of minutia. I’m the kind of person who actually enjoys organizing (and re-organizing) long lists of items in RPGs, and that’s part of the reason why the extremely detail-heavy nature of the first two books appealed to me. Several times during this volume I found myself asking “How many points did Boxxo just spend to do that?”, something I’ve never had to wonder with this series before. One of the things that made the series initially compelling is the fact that Boxxo’s point total is effectively his life; if he runs out of points, he stops operating, essentially death for a vending machine. I think you need to really care about how many points Boxxo has left in order to be fully invested in the story, and that’s something that doesn’t work as well when the narrative starts glossing over the numbers.

Regardless of whether other readers get hung up on the lack of detail (maybe it’s just me being obsessive compulsive?), this volume does benefit from the greatest strength of this series: the fact that, as a vending machine, Boxxo’s solutions to problems are never what you would expect from a more typical hero. His use of different vending machine functions is a little less creative here than earlier, but it’s still interesting to see him utilize the benefits of practically every single kind of vending machine created by humanity. This time around, he even starts functioning as a jukebox, which seems like a bit of a stretch to me– that’s a different kind of machine, right?– but I’ll allow it.

This volume does continue the narrative of Boxxo’s party’s struggle against the mysterious dungeon bosses, but most of it is spent on downtime with the ladies in Boxxo’s life: particularly Lammis, the mighty but surprisingly timid adventurer who carries Boxxo on her back, and Shui, an archer with a bottomless pit for a stomach and a heart of gold. The focus on Shui was somewhat surprising (in fact, I barely remembered that she existed before this volume), but not unwelcome, and an eating contest is certainly tailored toward the strengths of this series. I’m hoping we’ll eventually get more background on Director Bear, the trustworthy public servant who happens to be a grizzly bear, but I guess I’ll have to wait for another volume for that. There are some fanservice scenes (which illustrator Ituwa Kato appears to have some fun with), but they’re pretty mild altogether.

My one big complaint about this volume (and this series in general) is the fact that the main character feels the need to remind the reader that he’s a vending machine waaaaaay too often. Dude, the premise of your series is unique, it’s not like any of us are going to forget anytime soon, you know?

In Summary:
A more character-driven installment that tones down on the “gamey-ness” of previous volumes, which can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much you liked the focus on vending machine stats earlier on. It still reads like a breath of fresh air compared to more formulaic series. Also, don’t read this book when you’re hungry: just don’t. You’ll probably end up demolishing an all-you-can-eat buffet, but if you planned on doing that anyway? Full speed ahead.

Be Careful With This Anime “MeToo” Moment

I feel compelled to talk about what’s going on with voice actor accusations in anime fandom at the moment, because at the rate we’re going, somebody’s life is going to be ruined. Some actor will be falsely accused of sexual assault, or maybe even rape, be blacklisted from the industry, and eventually kill themselves. Then we will all look at each other, blinking, confused, and wonder “how did this happen?” If I have a even a chance of preventing that from happening by speaking out now, I need to take advantage of it.

Before I go on, yes sexual assault happens at cons, it’s a real problem, and this should have been addressed way before now; I’m not disputing any of that. However, what I see happening now is that people feel guilty that they were asleep at the wheel on this issue for so long, and now they’re pouncing on any opportunity to remedy that, judgement is getting clouded, and potentially innocent people are getting caught up in it. What I’m advocating for here is not to ignore evidence of sexual assault (we all did that for too long), but only to treat every case as separate, so innocent people don’t get tarred with other people’s actions. This may seem like such a common sense warning that it doesn’t even need to be said, but many people are already starting to make this mistake.

Please do not assume because there’s a lot of evidence that Person A is guilty, that Persons B, C and D must also be guilty. Even if there are a million pieces of evidence that Person A has been harassing people at cons, all of that evidence pertains to that individual; it proves nothing about Person B. I already see another problem developing with Affirmative Consent, where people who see AC as the unquestionable standard are going to classify people as rapists, which people who do not accept AC as a concept will dispute. But then you’ve already started tarring someone’s reputation with something as monstrous as rape, where we should tread very carefully. There are a lot of dicey areas here.

I feel pretty sure this is going to fall on deaf ears– ableist, I know, but I can’t think of a better metaphor at the moment. (For the record, I am hearing-impaired myself, so I am part of the group one could accuse me of denigrating here.) People are wrapped up in “believe the victims, believe the survivors,” they want blood, and they don’t particularly care if one or two innocents are hurt because of it. Please keep in mind that you can support victims in general without unquestionably believing every single thing that someone says about someone else. Please keep in mind that it’s not hypocritical to say “There seems to be a lot of evidence that Person A is guilty of committing sexual assault, but much less evidence that Person B is. I’m convinced in one case, but not the other.”

Please keep in mind that while this situation mirrors what’s going on in Hollywood, this is not Hollywood. If someone accuses George Clooney or Brad Pitt of sexual assault, they have millions of dollars and armies of lawyers to fight it. Some anime VAs may seem famous within our little fiefdom here, but they do not have the same resources that Hollywood actors and actresses have. I think people sometimes feel pretty free to accuse famous people of bad things on the basis that these people are very powerful and can defend themselves (or at least comfort themselves by diving in their Scrooge McDuck-esque tanks of money if nothing else), but that does not apply here. If a working VA gets blacklisted from the industry over something they didn’t do, they don’t get to comfort themselves in their sprawling LA mansion; they are going to have a problem making rent, buying groceries. Claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault should be taken seriously, but let’s at least exercise some care before we put someone in that situation, okay?

 

On She-Ra And The Princesses of Power

I like the Netflix She-Ra reboot. Considering that I’m one of the people who grew up with the original as a kid– in fact, some of my earliest memories are of watching the Filmation cartoon– the fact that it won me over is somewhat impressive. After all, I’ve had about 30 years to remake She-Ra in the back of my mind, thinking about what I would change, and how can someone else’s vision compete with my long-simmering, highly personalized one? I tried to be neutral, but to be honest, I think I went into the show ready to hate it…but I didn’t.

It’s not perfect, but it picked up on the main weakness of the original show and improved upon it, and for that I have to give them a slow clap. Plus, the main things I didn’t like about it are things that I never liked about the show in its original incarnation either, if I’m being honest. Perhaps more importantly, this series brings up several interesting topics– the pitfalls inherent in updating character designs, the arguable responsibility tied to relaunching a property that has a passionate existing fanbase, and so on, that I wanted to discuss a little bit. It’s not that these topics haven’t been discussed, but in relation to this show, the conversations have been VERY polarized.

I’d like to say that I want to bring a little more nuance to these discussions, but that sounds like an incredibly pretentious-ass thing to say. However, the way discussion of this show online has been, I could probably run around hitting people with a literal sledgehammer and still be more nuanced than the current dialogue. So I’m going to go forward with my goal of trying to look at the show with a more discerning eye, my delusional sense of self-importance be damned.

First, I want to talk about the main things the show did right. Then I’ll get into the character designs and the other elements that have made the show more than a little controversial.

The Good: Honing in on Adora

A few years ago, I bought the DVDs of She-Ra: Princess of Power and watched them all. What struck me as an adult viewer was how much of a missed opportunity the show had in Adora’s character. Here you have this woman who was raised very nearly from birth to be a soldier for a fascist government, about two clicks away from being a Nazi SS officer. Then she realizes that everything she has ever been told or believed in her whole life is a sham, and her compliance has been at least partially caused by mind control. She leaves her “family” in the Horde, and starts a completely new life (in hiding) among the people who used to hate her as an oppressor. She also discovers that she has a real family, but they live on another planet and if she chooses to stay with them, she’s abandoning the world she grew up in to a hellish, dystopian future. So she can’t see her real family until Etheria is “free,” which may never happen, and she knows it. Pretty darn rough hand to draw, all told.

This, by the way, is why I always thought that She-Ra had a much more interesting premise than He-Man, who never had any such conflicts in his life. When Filmation launched She-Ra, they could have just done a simple gender-flip of the character, but they didn’t; they added a whole lot of morally fraught stuff that just begged to be explored. The fact that they barely explored any of it is disappointing, but at least some of that can probably be blamed on the perceived limitations of animation at the time. Filmation may have had good ideas for Adora’s character, but played it safe for fear of making the show too complicated for its intended audience of five-year-old girls.

In the original show, Adora adapts to these massive changes in her life so inhumanly well that it’s a non-issue. After the introductory Secret of the Sword miniseries, the only relevance Adora’s background usually has is that she knows how to get around the Fright Zone; one episode deals with her meeting up with an old friend from the Horde. But for the most part, once she gains the ability to become She-Ra, she becomes just like any other cheerful, freedom-loving member of the Rebellion– well, other than the turning into a magic-sword-lady part.

The Netflix reboot wisely focused on Adora’s character and the kind of culture shock someone in this kind of extreme situation would go through, and how others would respond to her. They show it in broad ways (Glimmer’s initial distrust of Adora, to the point of outright paranoia; Adora’s general lack of understanding of social norms), but they bring it home in surprisingly subtle ways as well. I especially liked the detail that Adora felt weird sleeping on a feather bed, because she’s slept in the barracks for her whole life. It also followed logically that sleeping alone creeped her out, since she’s always been surrounded by the sounds of the other soldier trainees at night. Cynically, putting Adora in bed with Glimmer for one night was a little nudge to the fans who want to see lesbian pairings, but on a character level, it made perfect sense.

One interesting change is that while the original Adora was magically mind-controlled by Shadow Weaver to obey the Horde, this new Adora was only controlled by Weaver through mundane emotional manipulation. I think that reflects a difference in attitudes about free will and compliance over the last 30 year or so. For the original creators, a non-mind controlled Adora might have seemed potentially responsible for what she did as a member of the Horde, and thus inherently unheroic. From a more modern perspective, we know that being controlled by a nefarious authority figure can be pretty darn powerful, so the new Adora didn’t need to be outright mind-controlled to qualify as a victim of  Shadow Weaver’s manipulation. That’s neither here nor there I guess, but noteworthy.

So to boil it down to a simple bullet point, the new show’s decision to make Adora a more psychologically realistic, and hence sympathetic, character, was a great decision, and one that the writers deserve a lot of credit for. There were attempts to add depth to other characters, with varying degrees of success, but the new Adora absolutely delivers where original-recipe Adora lacked. That’s why I ultimately have to put this show in the “win” column, despite all the other criticisms I’m about to go into.

What I’m more ambivalent about is the way the show seems to be focusing on the relationships between the female characters to the exclusion of the few male characters who were actually important in the original show. In SheRa:POP, it was Hordak who stole Adora as a baby; in the reboot, its Shadow Weaver. Personally, I always found the twisted father/daughter relationship between Hordak and Adora/She-Ra to be potentially very interesting, but that dynamic is effectively non-existent in the new show, with Shadow Weaver having completely taken over the surrogate parent role. I’m afraid that the show is going to continue to ignore Hordak for having the audacity of being a male villain in a female-focused show, but honestly, it looks like they may just be saving his role for later seasons, so I’m withholding judgement on that until I see more.

I do like the fact that this version of Hordak appears to be chillingly competent. The buffoonish nature of Hordak in the original series seemed like it was due to Filmation trying copy their success with Skeletor, but Hordak was just never likable the way Skeletor was; he works better as a flat-out villain than comic relief, and I’m glad he’s being used that way.

Another change that I’m still left scratching my head about is the new Catra. Original Catra was a pretty simplistic, at times outright stupid character. She was jealous of Adora because of the time when Adora was “Hordak’s favorite,” but that seemed to be less due to any deep feelings concerning Adora, and more because she wanted everything to be about her. She was just vain and dumb, and I see why they needed to change her to make her anything more than a one-dimensional villain.

The new Catra is much more interesting and sympathetic than the original (which, to be fair, wasn’t that hard to accomplish), but I find it odd that Adora’s most important relationship in the show is now with her, when that relationship previously didn’t really exist. I do think they needed to expand on Adora’s “family” within the Horde, but I’m not sure if I really wanted the primary character in that family to be Catra. Oh well.

The Questionable: The Character Designs (AKA Who Are These People?)

There are a lot of things to talk about regarding character designs, but for the sake of having a clear place to start, I’m going to focus on one just one character: Frosta. In SheRa: POP, Frosta was something of a femme fatale who famously flirted with He-Man. If you want to see a real classic of the “How did they EVER get away with this on children’s television?” sub-genre, check out the episode Sweet Bee’s Home from the original series.

This lady is on the prowl! Lock up all your young men…perhaps your old men too, she’s not that selective!

In the new series, Frosta is…12. Technically 11-and-three-quarters. Barring the fact that she too has power over ice and snow, she has so little in common with the original Frosta that she may as well be a completely different character.

Here’s the new Frosta: lock up your candy and uh, fidget spinners? What are kids even into these days?

I’m not the kind of die-hard fan who’s going to be kept up at night by this, but still, I find it a little worrisome. What’s the point of rebooting an existing franchise, if you’re going to redesign the characters to the point that they aren’t the same character anymore and the names are just artifacts? Like most of the characters in the original series, Frosta didn’t have a ton of personality, but the personality she did have was all about being a pretty shameless flirt. By making the new Frosta not only completely different looks and personality-wise, but also prepubescent, they took away perhaps the one thing she had going for her as a character, which was her flirty nature.

The thing is, it’s not even like I dislike the new Frosta. The fact that she has some of the most powerful magic in Etheria, but she has to fight for respect due to her young age, is pretty interesting. She’s a good character; she just couldn’t possibly have less to do with the original Frosta if they’d tried. And that can come off as more of a rejection of the original show than a reinterpretation of it.

Why does it matter? Well, when I said that some of my earliest memories were of She-Ra, I didn’t mean just my earliest memories of television, or my earliest memories of cartoons; I meant my earliest memories period. I think that’s true for a lot of people my age. When something has that kind of formative status in your life, you want to see it treated with respect, even if it was silly in many ways. The people who complain “This new cartoon is RUINING MY CHILDHOOD!” are obviously exaggerating (and not helping their cause in the slightest), but hey, childhood memories are precious to us. If you want to ignore the source material and create  your own characters, by all means, create a new show; don’t take something that has a special place in many people’s hearts, then make arbitrary changes that go beyond modernization to the point of ignoring the original story and characters.

No, Netflix’s She-Ra is not ruining my childhood; it’s not ruining anyone’s childhood. And the changes to Frosta, or Glimmer, or Bow, don’t make it a bad show. But I think there is a certain amount of responsibility inherent in relaunching something that people associate with their childhoods, and I’m not sure that the creative team behind this reboot was fully cognizant of that. I’m all for inclusion, but if you want to include everyone, “people who loved the original show” are part of everyone; if you ignore that, you aren’t being very inclusive, are you?

On another topic, the attempt to give the characters different body types may have had some results that the creators didn’t necessarily intend. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with varying the body types; after all, the only reason why all the characters on the show had the same bodies originally was because it was cheaper to animate that way. But considering the fact that She Ra herself is still a tall, slender white woman with flowing blond hair, it kind of comes off as a half-hearted gesture. Like “yes, it’s okay for all the less important, darker-skinned women to have more realistic bodies, as long as the main character is still a blond supermodel.” She-Ra’s apparent lack of breasts has sparked some debate, but to my mind, that just makes the supermodel comparison more apt.

In the ’80s, She-Ra and her friends fit the ’80s ideal of a supermodel: feminine face with obvious makeup, hourglass figure. Now She-Ra fits the more modern ideal of a supermodel: androgynous, flat chested, but still long-limbed and blond. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, if I didn’t get the impression that one of the main goals of this show was that they wanted to move beyond the whole supermodel ideal. What’s more hurtful: a world depicted with minimal diversity, where everyone has identical bodies? Or a world where people can have different bodies, as long as the one really important person is still a tall blond? This could just be me, but I find the second paradigm more worrisome. At least in the first case, it was clear they weren’t trying to portray reality at all; in the second, they go halfway there, but stop in a really uncomfortable place.

For the record, IDW’s Jem and the Holograms comic books went a similar route: diverse body types everywhere, except for Jem, who looked like a supermodel. The comic was self-aware about this though, and did some interesting things with it, but that’s another post.

The Disappointing: The Animation

She-Ra: POP was made in the ’80s on a shoe-string budget. The series was notorious for reusing stock animation, and generally being as cheap as humanly possible. What made it even more limited was the fact that Filmation was clearly reusing animation they’d already developed for He-Man, with only minor changes, so the animation was tired before She-Ra even started.

Compared to that, the Netflix/Dreamworks series is better, certainly. The animation is much more fluid, and there’s a lot more variation in camera angles, all that good stuff.  So it’s an improvement, but I wonder: is it enough of an improvement for a show that’s been dormant for this long?

Really, it’s 30-plus years later. The Animation Renaissance happened in the years She-Ra was off the air. The technology has improved by leaps and bounds; there are tools available today that the artists at Filmation couldn’t even have imagined. The animation in the new She-Ra shouldn’t just be better than the original show, it should be leaps and bounds better; night-and-day better. The fact that it’s only middling better is just sad.

Yes, the animation succeeds in the sense that it’s adequate to tell the story, but many designs lack detail; character’s heights are inconsistent (especially She-Ra herself), and the whole thing just lacks any sort of wow factor. The sequence where Adora transforms into She-Ra in the original show may have been reused 50 million times, but it was still pretty stunning when you first saw it. By now, transformation sequences are a dime a dozen, and She-Ra’s is nothing special.

One of the reasons people loved the original was because it was so beautiful. It was beautiful in a very ’80s, prefab way, but beautiful nonetheless. I’m pretty sure that’s why I latched onto it as a child, instead of a dozen other cartoons I could have become obsessed with. The new show isn’t beautiful, and the lack of beauty isn’t because they dared to give the characters more diverse body types; it’s not beautiful because beauty doesn’t appear to have ever been an important goal for the project. I don’t understand why you would want to reboot She-Ra without trying to make it beautiful, but it feels like that’s what happened.

There’s probably some larger point here about how, since ideas of beauty were once more limited, instead of acknowledging those limitations, people are now pointing the finger at beauty ITSELF as the problem– but to be honest, I don’t know if that’s really fair. I don’t know if what’s going on is really that insidious, or if I’m just really unimpressed with the animation, and I’m making too big a deal out of it. Putting huge, psychological critiques aside, let’s just agree that the animation could be a lot better looking than it is, okay?

Before I let go of this gargantuan post, here are a few more observations about the show that didn’t really fit anywhere else:

–Bow is another character who has very little to do with his original incarnation, but New Bow is so likable that it’s tempting to forgive it. Even so, if the writers thought a major character like Bow was so boring that he should be scrapped, how much did they like the original show in the first place?

–The dialogue is cringe-worthy at times, which was true of the original; now it’s cringe-worthy in a different way. It used to sound stilted and unnatural, now they were obviously trying so hard to sound natural with the banter that it sometimes backfires and sounds really fake. Sometimes the dialogue is great though; it really comes down to which particular episode you happen to be watching. Every mention of the “Best Friends Squad” should have been stricken from the script though.

–The lack of Kowl bugs me. I know they had about a zillion characters to introduce, and maybe Kowl was one too many, but his sarcastic comments are missed; it’s not the same coming from Glimmer.

–Speaking of Glimmer, I couldn’t decide if Karen Fukuhara was overacting, or if New Glimmer is just the kind of annoying person who would over-emphasize certain words all the time just to make a point; it’s probably the latter. The original Glimmer was pretty much an airhead, so I wish they would have done with her something more like what they did with Perfuma; made her a bit goofy, but with a will of steel. New Glimmer is probably the least likable character in the new show (and I’m including Shadow Weaver here).

–I do not care for this incarnation of Swift Wind, but I admit it’s for pretty silly reasons. I expect my winged unicorns to sound like old Jewish Grandpas, thank you very much: RIP Lou Scheimer. More seriously, the fact that Swift Wind sounded so much more mature than everyone else was what helped him stand out; now he’s like everybody else, except a horse.

–Lauren Ash of Superstore fame plays basically the She-Ra version of her Superstore character with Scorpia, and it’s pretty great. This show needs about 150% more Scorpia. Maybe I’m being hypocritical here, since New Scorpia is nothing like her original incarnation, but it’s different when you reinvent characters who were barely even in it in the first place to make them something special, as opposed to a main character.

–The writers had to walk a pretty difficult tightrope in regards to He-Man lore; they had to put enough references to He-Man in there that it will feel natural for He-Man to show up at some point (assuming the rights for MOTU ever emerge from legal hell and Netflix gets to make the He-Man reboot they surely want to make), but not SO many that the lore is dependent on him, because he may never be available. I think they did a good job of creating something that can stand as its own mythology, but could be expanded if necessary.

–The show is doing something interesting with princesses. When Adora becomes She-Ra, everyone (including her) thinks that she has now become a princess, because apparently being a princess in this world means “girl with powers” and has nothing to do with lineage; at no point does anyone speculate that Adora’s parents must have been royalty for her to be a princess. It’s kind of like they’re setting aside the actual definition of “princess” in favor of the fantasy connotations the word has. I’m interested to see where they go with this.

…okay, that’s it, I’ve written enough about She-Ra. Probably. For now. I think.

 

Status Update Part 2

I’ve been doing some thinking over the past few weeks. I haven’t been in the mood to blog anime; in fact, I have even been watching any, even the shows I really like, because the idea just doesn’t seem appealing. This will pass…it always does, eventually. But in all this time spent not watching anime, I’ve been trying to sort out how I want to spend my free time going forward.

I don’t think I’ll ever give up blogging entirely. Sometimes, I just get the urge to rant about a show or a game or whatever, and I need a place to do that. But I think I’m done trying to turn Otakusphere into any sort of larger anime site. As much as I enjoy episodic blogging, I don’t enjoy doing it all the time, and I have a lot of other interests that I’ve been neglecting. I think it would be better if I just went back to blogging when I felt like it, and leave things like seasonal coverage to the other sites.

So episodic blogging on SAO, That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime and any other shows is done for the season. Maybe I’ll do episodic blogging again at some point, if something really special comes along or if Food Wars! comes back, but I just can’t devote the time to it right now. Thanks go out to all of you who read my episode posts (and commented!), it was great to be able to make watching anime a kind of communal experience with you guys. But I’ve got to take care of myself, and my life’s ambition isn’t to be an aniblogger; it’s just something I kind of stumbled into. I have no plans of stumbling back out, but I’ve discovered that it’s probably not what I want to devote my entire life to either.

Thanks again, and I hope you’ll stick around for some sporadic (but maybe good?) otaku-centric posts.