Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #5: Over the Moon for Isao Takahata

Whenever the topic of Studio Ghibli comes up, inevitably casual consumers of anime are thinking about Hayao Miyazaki movies, not Isao Takahata movies. I remember having a conversation about Ghibli with one of my film professors, who likes some anime, and he was surprised that Grave of the Fireflies was a Studio Ghibli production. It’s not surprising when you realize that popular image of Studio Ghibli is its accessible family films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. The somber and very-Japanese Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday don’t fit in with Ghibli’s popular image, and to be fair aren’t as fun to watch (though I’d rather sit through Grave of the Fireflies than My Neighbor Totoro). Takahata is Miyazaki’s senior, but he hasn’t enjoyed the same level of acclaim as Miyazaki. Yet Studio Ghibli wouldn’t exist without him, and I’m thankful that he was able to put out one more film this year, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

On the surface, one might think that Princess Kaguya would have been more suitable for Miyazaki. A fairy tale about a spunky lovable girl seems like the basis for a Miyazaki film, but after watching Kaguya I realized how perfect it was for Takahata. Takahata has never been interested in the fantastical European-like settings of Miyazaki’s works, and sets all of his stories in Japan. His films are approachable for outsiders with enough knowledge, but he is directly speaking to a Japanese audience. He assumes that viewers already know something about The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and rather than trying to update it for a modern audience, it’s extremely old-school. Life for women in the 10th century (okay, all centuries really) was extremely limiting. Kaguya’s father, obsessed with fitting in with nobility and customs to escape his mountain peasant roots, has Kaguya raised to be a perfect princess. She’s forced to shave her eyebrows, paint her teeth black, and not allowed to be seen by her many suitors. Yet she maintains her playfulness and desire to be in the outside world. The film is sympathetic to her conflict and takes pleasure in seeing her outwit her suitors by making them eat their words and find the impossible objects they compare her to. Kaguya is the story of a young woman wishing to experience a world she is forbidden from due to society’s strict patriarchal rules. The ending is bittersweet. It’s sure to confuse many not familiar with the original folktale, but is successful at articulating what Kaguya has lost.

Kaguya-shot

Two connections with Takahata’s previous works instantly sprang to mind while I was watching this film. One, the artstyle of Kaguya recalls the beautiful watercolor scenery of My Neighbors the Yamadas. Every brushstroke is detailed and gorgeously rendered, and during a dream sequence, comes apart chaotically to represent Kaguya’s inner conflict. It’s the visual standout of the entire film and left me breathless. The Wind Rises looked good, but it never seemed as though Miyazaki was pushing his artstyle. Takahata created a film that cannot be confused with any other Ghibli film and I thank him for that. Takahata’s reverence for the countryside, as seen in Only Yesterday, returns as well. Both Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s films have had environmental elements, but Takahata specifically seems critical of city-life. It works better for me here than it did in Only Yesterday. Kaguya’s nostalgia for the mountain makes more sense when you realize just how terrible and limiting being a noblewoman was back then.

I saw Princess Kaguya while I was taking a history seminar called “Women and Gender in China.” While Princess Kaguya is Japanese, not Chinese, I couldn’t help but compare it to the stories I had been reading in that class. The stories of how society restricted women put me in the right mindset for Kaguya. The professor of that seminar also saw Princess Kaguya the same weekend I did, and we had a great discussion after class about the movie and the original folktale. Rarely do I get to talk about anime in-depth like that with a non-anime fan, and a history professor to boot!

When asked which filmmaker I prefer, Miyazaki or Takahata, I must honestly say I prefer Miyazaki. The man has been able to make more films that resonate with me, and doesn’t have the reputation of going over-budget and taking forever to make movies (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness features many Ghibli employees complaining about Takahata’s work ethic). However, I have much respect for Takahata. Not just because he was a co-founder of Ghibli, but because he always made a good contrast to Miyazaki. His voice reaches a smaller audience, but that smaller audience appreciates him for it. Miyazaki has mixed feelings toward him, saying he’s “abandoned him as a filmmaker” (again, watch The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), but the two have a long history together. Takahata discovered Miyazaki. Without Takahata, would Miyazaki have become the internationally-acclaimed director he is today?

I hope The Tale of the Princess Kaguya gets an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. It’s hard to imagine anything beating The Lego Movie, but if Takahata’s potentially final film were able to win an Oscar, then it’d be a great victory for anime fans and a final huzzah for the dying Studio Ghibli.

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Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #4: The Wind Rises, Ghibli Falls

You’re not a REAL anime fan if you tell me you don’t like any Studio Ghibli movies. Okay, that’s a lie as the whole “real anime fan” concept is bullshit, but most anime fans will admit to loving at least one of the prolific studio’s films. For many fans, their first anime was probably a Ghibli film. The studio has been around for nearly 30 years, and one of its co-founders, Hayao Miyazaki, announced his retirement from filmmaking after the release of The Wind Rises.

The Wind Rises is as final as a film can be from a filmmaker. Using real history as a metaphor for Miyazaki’s career, The Wind Rises is clearly a personal statement. Aside from Porco Rosso (btw, in the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki recently called Porco Rosso “a foolish movie” because it was made for adults instead of children), it is Miyazaki’s only film made specifically for adults. Aside from the film’s dream sequences with an Italian plane designer, the film is lacking in the fantasy and whimsy that Miyazaki is famous for. Honestly, the only audience that I can see loving The Wind Rises is one that is obsessed with Miyazaki as an auteur. To outsiders, The Wind Rises is a slow-moving, not-all-that-fun-to-watch biopic with decent animation. As Miyazaki’s final statement on his film career and his obsession with work, it becomes much more engaging.

This is technically a 2013 film, but I didn’t see it until February of this year, hence why I’m including it in this blog series. Next to Terror in Resonance, The Wind Rises is the anime I had the most frustration with this year. As a final film for Miyazaki, it’s essential to watch, but as a historical film, hoo boy is it problematic. The film’s protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi, was the real-life inventor of the Zero fighter plane, the plane used by Japan in World War II. Given Japan’s war crimes towards Korea and China that even today it refuses to address, making a film about the man who invented a killing machine was already controversial. Miyazaki is openly anti-war, both in his previous films and in real life, so I expected The Wind Rises to handle the controversial subject accordingly. Amazingly, The Wind Rises doesn’t seem all that concerned with the consequences of the war, as at the end of the film, Jiro is more concerned about the planes being destroyed than the lives destroyed by the planes. It’s all okay though, because Jiro’s imaginary Italian boyfriend and dead wife tell him to move on with his life.

Some have interpreted the ending of The Wind Rises to be anti-war, but it’s hard to take it that way when the film refuses to show the consequences of the war. The film is more concerned with Jiro’s obsession with building planes and how it leads to him neglecting his dying wife. The closest we get to the film having a discussion about the consequences of building planes for the Imperial army is a discussion between Jiro and his imaginary Italian idol. They use the pyramids as a metaphor, explaining that it was built with slave labor, but they’d rather live in a world with pyramids because they’re impressive, even if they were built with less-than-moral means. It’s a discussion on what limits there are to making art.

Miyazaki’s fascination with planes has always been evident. Flying machines have been a big part of Miyazaki’s films, and Miyazaki’s father helped create planes for World War II. The contradiction of Miyazaki being anti-war yet loving the Zero fighter plane is discussed in the Ghibli documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Miyazaki loves the craftsmanship of airplanes. He denies being a plane otaku, but humorously in the same documentary he’s caught playing with a toy airplane with Hideaki Anno. I think Miyazaki clearly understands the consequences of the Zero, but instead chose to focus on Jiro’s inner conflict because he resonated with it more. As a result, The Wind Rises is a deeply personal film, but one that almost completely ignores the politics that Miyazaki is known for.

I was pretty disappointed in The Wind Rises when I saw it this year. I can’t say I love it now, but I’d be a fool to dismiss it entirely just because I took issue with its portrayal of history and sluggish story. After seeing The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I have a lot more respect for Miyazaki as an artist. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s bold with his statements. He’s a grumpy old man, but some of the stuff he says is really true. Lot of anime fans hated his comments on otaku ruining anime, but he’s got a point. Anime is catering to the obsessives these days, and as a result we’re getting a lot of garbage. Mind you, we’re also getting a lot of great anime among the trash like Kill la Kill and Space Dandy, but Miyazaki still has a point. We did get dreck like Mahouka and Cross Ange this year. Mahouka, with its right-wing nationalist bent, would definitely be the kind of otaku anime that Miyazaki would hate.

The Wind Rises deserves criticism for its problematic content, but as a final film for Miyazaki, it’s fitting. It doesn’t hold up with his best work, and I think Porco Rosso is easier to swallow as far as personal films go, but it’s as final as a film can be. Miyazaki has had a long, interesting career with an equally interesting personal and political life to match. I imagine we’ll still be talking about him for long time after his retirement.

Day 5 preview: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and the other Ghibli co-creator, Isao Takahata.

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #3: Getting Back into JoJo’s

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has been around for decades and been called one of the most influential Shonen Jump manga ever, but it’s never been a big deal in the United States until recently. There’s always been a fandom for it thanks to the 90’s OVAs and the memes spawned by the video games such as “ZA WARUDO”, and Part 3 of the manga was published by Viz Media, but it’s never been discussed with the same fervor as say Dragon Ball or Death Note. That all changed this year with the anime adaptation of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders, the famous Part 3 that introduced the concept of Stands to the series and has used as its main appeal since. Yet I was not looking forward to Stardust Crusaders when it aired this spring. In fact, I was ready to hate it.

OH NOOOOOOOO!

OH NOOOOOOOO!

My prior experience with JoJo’s had not been all that pleasant truth be told. I enjoyed the 90’s OVA well enough despite not getting the story since it only adapted parts of the Egypt arc. The highlights for me were the poker match between D’arby and the Crusaders and the final confrontation with DIO. I may not have known the backstory for DIO and the Joestars without Wikipedia, but DIO is so cool that he doesn’t need explanation. So in 2012 when JoJo’s was getting a TV adaptation of the first two parts of the manga, Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency, of course I was excited. I wanted to know more about this strange franchise. This was before Crunchyroll picked up the show, so I had to resort to fansubs to watch. I dropped after the first three episodes.

On paper, Phantom Blood is okay. It sets up the conflict between the Joestars and DIO that is present throughout the first 6 parts of JoJo’s. And yet, I dunno, I just couldn’t get into Phantom Blood. Jonathan Joestar is a bland protagonist, I thought the conflict with his father liking Dio more than him was kind of lame, and there were no Stands! Nothing was as gripping as that gambling match with D’arby in Part 3. Worst of all, Phantom Blood looks so ugly. It easily has the worst animation of all the anime adaptations, and the purple-and-green filters look cheap, not cool. Coming from the 90’s OVA, I just found the whole thing jarring and unpleasant to look at, and I wasn’t enjoying it.

Some former friends of mine were big JoJo’s fans, and they gave me a really hard time about not liking Phantom Blood, to the point I grew sour towards JoJo’s as a whole. I wouldn’t bother with JoJo’s again until this spring. Getting back into Stardust Crusaders helped me learn to love JoJo’s. Its first episode was a tremendous improvement over Phantom Blood. Already the color palette, animation, and direction were much better, old Joseph Joestar was a riot, and it introduced Stands! I think Stands  are the coolest invention of Shonen Jump manga. Not only do they allow for infinite possibilities of superpowers, unlike Hamon, I just like the idea of having a cool ghost to summon at your side to fight with you. RIP Hamon.

JoJo Kars Laugh

As of now, I’ve not only bought and read all of the Stardust Crusaders manga, I went back and finished the 2012 JoJo’s anime. I’m still not a fan of Phantom Blood, but thankfully it’s short. However, I’m glad I sat through Battle Tendency. It may not have Stands, but it does have Joseph Joestar, easily one of the most fun Shonen Jump protagonists ever. He has no desire to be the best at whatever, he’s not even that good of a fighter, and he runs away a lot, but that’s part of his charm. Like Indiana Jones, which Battle Tendency as a whole seems to be influenced by, Joseph’s charm comes from his ability to bullshit his way through circumstances and survive by the skin of his teeth.

I’ve also been reading the later parts of the JoJo’s manga, and they’re so good. Part 4, Diamond is Unbreakable, screws around a lot and doesn’t have quite the forward momentum of earlier parts, but it also has some of the most creative battles and goofiest moments in all of JoJo’s. Part 7, Steel Ball Run, is the best by virtue of having the most compelling story and character writing in the whole series, and seeing how Araki’s art has evolved over 7 parts is really interesting. It’s a homoerotic race across America involving shapeshifting dinosaurs, dimension-hopping presidents, and Jesus Christ himself. I really hope this gets an anime adaptation, but we got 4 other parts to get through first!

Rarely do I get into a franchise after initially hating it, but sometimes it pays to delve a little deeper and give them a second chance. It’s easy to see why JoJo’s has endured and finally gained popularity in the United States. Few series are as consistently entertaining and embracing of weird shit like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. So now that I’ve given JoJo’s a second chance and ended up loving it, maybe I should give the Monogatari series another chance? Eh, maybe not.

Day 4 preview: Part 1 of a Studio Ghibli retrospective. I discuss my mixed reactions to The Wind Rises and my thoughts on Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement.

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #2: I’m All About That Dandy

It’s been a busy year for fans of master director Shinichiro Watanabe. Not only are we getting treated to a blu-ray release of Cowboy Bebop this month (I just ordered it at the time of this writing), we saw two brand new shows directed by Watanabe this year. As usually expected of the acclaimed director, both were highly ambitious anime with high production values and great music, but my opinions on the two shows could not be any more different. Terror in Resonance, my biggest disappointment of the year for anime, will get covered in a separate post, but since I’m riding high on the wave of praise from my Kill la Kill, let’s talk Space Dandy.

When Space Dandy was first announced, everyone was calling it the second coming of Cowboy Bebop. It reunited Shinichiro Watanabe with the screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, Studio Bones was producing the animation, it was about bounty hunters in space, and it held infinite possibilities with its episodic content. They even share the same currency of woolongs. There are parallels to be found between Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy, but to fixate on that connection is to overlook what makes Space Dandy special. Comparing the scripts, Dandy comes ups short. The plots are often flimsy excuses for jokes about dimensional travel and wicked-cool animation unrivaled by anything else that came out this year. Cowboy Bebop is an animator’s wet dream, functioning as a playhouse where an animator can do whatever they want and not have to worry about continuity. The titular Dandy and his crew die in the first episode in a blaze of glory, and continue on their adventures in the next episode like nothing happened. Eventually there is an explanation for the continuity resets, and while it makes for some cool sci-fi, American audiences are already so used to episodic animated comedies like The Simpsons that we could deal with no explanation. It’s still neat that Dandy went the extra mile, and rather than being a boring exposition dump of science mumbo-jumbo, it becomes a statement for what the show is all about; infinite possibilities in infinite universes. Space Dandy is a goofy argument for why animation should exist, and I could not be happier about that.

Despite having a restaurant called "Boobies." Dandy is definitely all about dat booty.

Despite having a restaurant called “Boobies.” Dandy is definitely all about dat booty.

Okay, so I guess I’ll reference Cowboy Bebop again here, even if Space Dandy deserves to stand on its own merits and totally does. Anime fans love to talk about their favorite episodes of their favorite anime, but I find that really hard to do with a medium that I remember more for its collective themes and developing character arcs rather than specific episodes. Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy, by nature of having adventures that wrap up in single episodes with changing genre and visual styles, practically begs viewers to pick favorite episodes. For Cowboy Bebop, my favorite episodes are the “Jupiter Jazz” sessions, the two-parter story that serves as the second act of the Spike vs Vicious story at the center of the show. Space Dandy is even more episodic than Cowboy Bebop due to its alternate-dimensions gimmick, and has more of a focus on comedy rather than Bebop’s bleak neo-noir drama. When I think of favorite Space Dandy episodes, I think of which episodes were the funniest or featured the most unique art style and animation. The Redline homage “A Race in Space is Dangerous, Baby” was the first episode I can recall where I was totally drawn in by both the humor and animation. The episode was written by Kimiko Ueno, who wrote most of the episodes for the show and could be considered the defining voice of Dandy next to Watanabe. She’s great at embracing the show’s absurdity, writing the best jokes while letting the animators do as they please. Any episode that ends with a metaphor for gay sex and becoming Space Buddha is a good episode in my book.

Space Dandy: deep allegory for Buddhism? Nah, I'm in it for the booty.

Space Dandy: deep allegory for Buddhism? Nah, I’m in it for the booty.

To be honest, one of the few disappointments I can say I have with Space Dandy is Keiko Nobumoto’s episodes. She brings her trademark bleakness to episodes like “The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby” and “There’s Music in Darkness, Baby,” but they play out more like weaker versions of her previous stories in Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain. But she did write “We’re All Fools, So Let’s All Dance, Baby,” the Saturday Night Fever parody featuring a dancing disco alien named Ton Jravolta. While not the only episode based around music and dancing (“Rock n’ Roll Dandy, Baby” is another favorite of mine, written by Kimiko Ueno and directed by “needs to direct more shows” Sayo Yamomoto), it’s easily the most fun. The dancing animation is so much fun to watch, and as dumb as his name is, Ton Jravolta’s one of my favorite alien designs in the whole series. Any episode that ends with dancing cat sperm is a good episode in my book.

The joy of Space Dandy was all in seeing what new thing would be thrown at me next. Not all the episodes were winners, but even a bad episode of Space Dandy was ten times more interesting and enriching than your average anime. Well, okay, I didn’t really care for “A Merry Companion Is a Wagon in Space, Baby,” but maybe I just don’t like cutesy stories about needy kids. For fans of animation auteurs like Masaaki Yuasa and his protégé Eunyoung Choi, we were treated to two different episodes from them that, well, look like they were made by Yuasa and Choi. Yuasa’s loose-and-runny style doesn’t appeal to everyone, but in a series as committed to being something different every episode, it’s perfect for Space Dandy.

Had I been blogging during the show’s run, I would have loved to do a weekly blog on the series. Space Dandy isn’t a narrative masterpiece, but it’s less about narrative and more about a team of artists experimenting to their heart’s content without a committee telling them what to do. Anime is a medium with potential to break artistic boundaries, but is rarely allowed to do so because of the market’s demands. That Space Dandy was allowed to even exist is cause to celebrate. That Space Dandy is as excellent and unique as I hoped is cause to be hopeful for the future of anime.

Day 3 preview: ORAORAORAORAORAORAORAORA! *vogues*

space dandy jojo posing

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #1: The Endearing Simplicity of Kill la Kill

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for Kill la Kill

I try not to think about organizing my favorite anime into lists. Blogs and websites alike love to make lists because fans like to categorize things from best to worst. My go-to answer for favorite anime for the longest time has been Revolutionary Girl Utena, but beyond that it’s hard to come up with a top 10 or 20 list of my favorite anime ever. It’s rare that I come across an anime nowadays that I would seriously consider putting on that hypothetical list of favorite anime. Yet after watching Kill la Kill three times in a single year, I might consider putting it on that list.

Kill la Kill began in 2013, but it solidified itself as a favorite of both mine and anime fandom when it concluded in 2014. To be honest, when I first began Kill la Kill I was apprehensive about it. Hiroyuki Imaishi is a talented director, but I’ve never been in love with his works. Gurren Lagann was fun but brainless, Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt was one of the least funny comedies I’ve ever seen, and I loathed Dead Leaves. His work is distinct for its manic energy and animation, something I really appreciate, but his stories and characters never came together for me. Kill la Kill started entertaining enough, but its use of fanservice did worry me. Would the novelty of good animation, crazy art, and fun action wear off on me like it did with Gurren Lagann?

 Actually no, it didn’t wear off. With each new episode, Kill la Kill improved and showed better writing than any of Imaishi’s previous works. The world and characters of Kill la Kill were far more interesting than Gurren Lagann’s. Ryuko was cool, but had more flaws than Kamina ever did and was able to show some more complexity for it. Mako was hilarious and the effective emotional center of the show, grounding Ryuko whenever she lost her way. The two made such a perfect couple that I’m surprised I didn’t think of them ending up together until the very end. Mind you, I rarely watch anime for shipping, but I did end up getting a little caught up in the Mako/Gamagoori shipping that the fans wanted and the show teased with Gamagoori developing a crush for Mako.

How can you not love this face?

How can you not love this face?

I’m a sucker for good character writing, and Kill la Kill has a treasure trove of likable yet distinct characters. I wouldn’t say they’re as complex as, for example, Gen Urobuchi characters, but they all fulfill their different roles and are oodles of fun to watch. My heart goes out to Gamagoori, who was always entertaining but solidified himself as one of my favorite characters after seeing him transition from antagonist to hero. The rest of the Elite Four goes through this transition as well, but for some reason Gamagoori felt the most developed out of them. Blame it on his crush on Mako, or blame it on him being the funniest, he became one of the most endearing characters in a cast that by the end felt like one big family.

Shonen action shows love to trot out friendship and family as themes, but I thought Kill la Kill managed to handle these themes in a way that didn’t feel rote. There’s a fierce sense of individuality in Kill la Kill. The day is won not by the hero proclaiming “because I have the power of friendship!” but “because I don’t make sense, but I’m okay with that!” Up until the end, the excitement of Kill la Kill came from seeing which new visual gags the show would have, what shocking new twist would be revealed, and generally taking pleasure in seeing the characters fight and interact with another. But by the end, all the threads both literal and metaphorical came together into something really special for me. Everyone in the end mattered, but not as a formless collective, but rather as a group of weirdos with their own independent personalities and quirks. The conflict between Ryuko and Ragyo is personal, but Ryuko succeeds by accepting not just the help of her friends, but her own strange existence. It’s a simple idea that’s been done before, but the crazy weirdness of Kill la Kill managed to package it in a new and endearing way that I hadn’t seen before.

Such a loving family. Also I just love how Kill la Kill uses shifts in art design for comical effect.

Such a loving family. Also I just love how Kill la Kill uses shifts in art design for comical effect.

There’s been a lot of debate among fans over whether Kill la Kill is a deep series or not. Personally, I have issues with describing a show as “deep”; it’s often used as shorthand for “I really like this show and want to seem smarter for liking it!” which can be annoying. To describe a show as being deep, I’d rather talk about why the show resonates with me and what I got out of it. I think that’s more revealing and more fun than arguing over vague notions of intelligence in a cartoon. Kill la Kill makes its ideas accessible to everyone by announcing them verbally and visually. The first episode invokes the Nazis while introducing the concept of superpowered uniforms to let the audience know that fashion is being used as a metaphor for authoritarianism. Kill la Kill is nakedly open about its intentions. It’s a series based on a pun; fashion is fascism. That it was able to get 24 episodes of nonstop creativity and excitement out of a dumb pun is really impressive.

It may seem odd to say that I love shows as artistically challenging and complex as Revolutionary Girl Utena and Wolf’s Rain and then say the same breath that I love the much simpler Kill la Kill, but Kill la Kill deserves to be uttered in that same breath because it reminded me of why I still watch anime. I watch it because of the medium can be a playground for creativity and stories that would not work in other mediums. Kill la Kill can only work as an anime, and is unashamed of its manic off-putting sensibilities. It’s by no means perfect. The fanservice still presents some problematic male gaze, and the use of molestation later in the series crosses the border of taste that no other part of Kill la Kill did.  But it brought anitwitter together in a way that few shows did. Every week, anime fans would tweet about the new episode and wouldn’t stop talking about it. That’s really damn cool, and the only other show where people were tweeting about it on that scale was Attack on Titan. For as divisive as Kill la Kill could be, everyone wanted to watch and talk about it. I’ve watched it three times, once with my little brother who doesn’t watch much anime but also really liked Kill la Kill. I’d gladly watch it again and spend time with those characters and their world of weird talking clothing.

Day 2 Preview: I talk about the other anime that reminded me why I love animation, Space Dandy!

Serious Talk About Comedy: Monthly Girl’s Nozaki-Kun

Comedy often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to artistic discussion. Comedy is often viewed as a vehicle for escapism, something that makes you feel good rather than make you think. If you were to look at the Best Picture winners throughout history, drama almost always trumps comedy. But good comedy is just as important as good drama. Comedy is as necessary for the soul as thoughtful morose drama, and comedy can be just as intellectually stimulating. I say all of this because when it comes to writing about comedy, I feel less equipped to talk about it than I do about something serious. Good comedy is worth talking about though, so I’ll try my best to talk about why Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is a great anime comedy and needs to be seen.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is about a mangaka, the titular Nozaki, who writes for a popular shojo manga magazine. He’s assisted by Sakura, who works on the beta and has a secret crush on Nozaki, and a cast of eccentric schoolmates that often serve as inspirations for Nozaki’s manga. It’s a simple premise and there’s not much an overarching story or much progression for the characters. It’s structured like a sitcom, with two different situations filling out a 23 minute episode each week. There’s no guarantee that Sakura will ever confess to Nozaki, no guarantee that there will be any meaningful progression, but that’s okay because the jokes are amazing and timed perfectly. Sitcoms often lean on archetypes, and Nozaki-kun is no exception, but Nozaki-kun plays around with its archetypes in unexpected ways. The overarching theme of Nozaki-kun is expectations vs reality.

Expectations vs reality is a classic comedic theme. The best jokes are the ones you don’t expect, that genuinely shock you so much that you can’t help but laugh. Nozaki’s existence as a male shojo mangaka, while not unheard of in real life, is still something most people wouldn’t expect. The joke of the first episode is that no one believes Nozaki when he tells them what his job is, and the show sells the joke by making Nozaki a tall stoic man. The rest of the cast includes an indifferent troublemaker with a lovely singing voice, a beautiful prince who’s a girl, a shy lady killer, and an amazing actor who’s too short for the leading role. All of these characters fit into certain archetypes, but the show derives humor from theme not quite fitting those archetypes as neatly as they’d like.

How Nozaki Gets Into Character

How Nozaki Gets Into Character

Nozaki-kun’s premise also allows for good jokes about the relationship between fiction and reality, specifically, the way in which Nozaki conducts social experiments in order to better understand the protagonists of his manga. Nozaki claims to be an expert on girls because he writes for a girl’s magazine, but he’s never once dated a girl and his advice often shows that. The best episode so far, episode 4, uses this character flaw of his to build the funniest jokes around a visual novel that he and his friend Mikorin are playing. The utter seriousness that Nozaki has around every facet of his life adds to the absurdity when he role-plays as his female protagonist for a day to better understand her feelings.

For as absurd and large as the entire cast is, they’re all extremely likable and fun characters to watch. When an episode decides to focus on a different character, the show is still enjoyable even if that character isn’t your favorite one. I look forward to episodes featuring Mikorin, the pretty boy who’s easily embarrassed and the model for Nozaki’s female protagonist, but I’ll take an episode featuring Seo or Kashima and laugh just as hard.

Greatest Girl Prince since Utena?

Greatest Girl Prince since Utena?

High school romantic comedies are perhaps the most common genre in anime today, but few feel as fresh or funny as Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. Its take on the genre’s conventions aren’t just cheap jokes that amount to “hey isn’t it funny how this always happens in this genre?” but instead truly original, and original high school rom-coms are a rare breed. How many other shows feature two straight boys drawing gay fanfiction after playing a dating sim? Exactly.

Mikorin is best girl

Mikorin is best girl

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun is currently being simulcasted on Crunchyroll.

Sword Art Online: Objectification and Male Power

(Content warning: this article includes depictions of molestation and domination)

Sword Art Online was easily one of the most popular and talked-about anime series of 2012. The premise of a bunch of player being trapped in an MMO video game where dying in the game meant dying in real life was enough of a hook to attract thousands of viewers. To be honest, the show lost me halfway through after wasting time discussing game minutia that wasn’t all that interesting and building a harem for the show’s protagonist, Kirito. The show has been around long enough that critics have already had enough time discuss the show’s myriad problems, so what’s the point of digging up old material? With season 2 airing this summer, now is the perfect time to discuss the worst part of season 1, which I just finished last week at the time of this writing. That would be the Alfheim Online arc, the second half of season 1.

The Alfheim arc begins with Kirito’s awakening from Sword Art Online, haven beaten the game and escaped after 2 years of virtual confinement. However, Kirito’s girlfriend and former badass warrior Asuna has yet to wake up despite Sword Art Online no longer existing. The reason for this is that her mind is trapped in a new virtual reality MMO game called Alfheim Online, which is basically just Sword Art Online with flying fairies. In Alfheim, Asuna is literally trapped in a cage by Alfheim’s gamemaster Sugou, who’s introduced in real life smelling the Asuna’s hair while she’s comatose.

This guy is quite the charmer as you can see.

This guy is quite the charmer as you can see.

This is the first sign of the major problem with this arc of Sword Art Online. I could complain about how Alfheim is somehow less interesting than SAO, or why people are still playing virtual reality MMOs after the most popular one was responsible for the deaths of many real life people, or the creepy subplot of Kirito’s newly introduced sister having a crush on Kirito, but those complaints could fill up their own articles. Instead, let’s focus on what is easily the most repulsive aspect of Sword Art Online, the depowering and objectification of Asuna.

Sword Art Online’s track record of treating its female characters like people is incredibly poor. In the first arc, every female character exists to be impressed by and fall in love with Kirito because of his impressive combat skills. Basically Sword Art Online is a typical male power fantasy in which the male protagonist that male gamers in the audience can identify with are rewarded with the idea that their video game skills will make girls love them. Basically Kirito is a bland character with no distinguishable flaws or well-rounded personality traits. But within the narrative of Sword Art Online, Kirito is unmatched by other players with the possible exception of Asuna, a player who is a high ranked member of the Knights of the Blood Oath, the most powerful player in the game. She is shown as being the most capable player in the game next to Kirito. Which makes her treatment in the Alfheim arc all the more frustrating and illustrates that no matter how capable a character she is, by being a girl she must exist only to fuel Kirito’s motivation.

So you know how gross it is that this arc opens with Asuna being molested by Sugou, who wants to marry her despite her inability to consent? Turns out that Asuna being molested and dominated is a theme of this season! Don’t forget the copious crying and struggling either! Yes, the only girl who could possibly be close to Kirito in skill level has no power anymore and only exists to make Sugou look like the worst person imaginable and Kirito look noble for avenging and rescuing her.

They made a toy depicting Asuna caged and chained. In case you weren't depressed enough already.

They made a toy depicting Asuna caged and chained. In case you weren’t depressed enough already.

The two worst examples of this occur in episodes 21 and 24. The first is an example of anime’s good old friend and internet punchline, tentacle molesting. During the one time Asuna is able to escape her cage and discovers that Sugou has captured the minds of other SAO players to experiment on, she is captured by two tentacle slug monsters that work for Sugou. During the scene the monsters tell her “stop struggling” and “I’m bored with dolls, but you look like someone I can have fun with!” Cue multiple panning shots of Asuna being grabbed and squeezed with close-up shots of her legs and exposed stomach.

Fanservice is common in Sword Art Online, but until this point it was rarely this exploitative or about dominance. Fanservice isn’t inherently bad. To see positive examples, see Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club. All though Free! is aimed at an audience attracted to men, it avoids the gross dehumanization of Sword Art Online by not being about dominance or control. Free!’s fanservice is shameless, campy, and sex-positive, while Sword Art Online’s fanservice is invasive, humorless, and controlling. Scenes like this in theory are supposed to illicit anger from the viewer at the mistreatment of a character they are supposed to like, but the direction of the scene is erotic. The camera eroticizes the act of Asuna struggling and takes advantage of the situation to showcase her exposed body to the viewer. Asuna, the second most powerful warrior of Sword Art Online, has been reduced to an object to be sexualized and humiliated.

The molestation scene in episode 24 is where the theme of Asuna being objectified to motivate Kirito is the most blatant and horrifying. Sugou chains Asuna, gropes her, and licks her face in front of a defeated Kirito. It’s all a show of dominance. Sugou shows his power over Kirito by hurting his woman. Asuna’s sexual objectification reaches its climax here, and essentially turns the Alfheim arc into a rape revenge story. Kirito gets to play the heroic avenger of his girlfriend’s assault, and not only defeats Sugou at his own game, he humiliates him by magically acquiring admin privileges and reducing Sugou’s level to 1. He emasculates Sugou and cripples Sugou’s real life body by increasing the pain felt in-game to unhealthy levels. It’s okay though, because Sugou deserved it because of his actions according to Kirito.

Gross gross gross!

Gross gross gross!

Sugou is objectively a horrible person, but he’s written specifically just to anger Kirito and take away his girlfriend. Asuna becomes just a trophy for Kirito to win back, not a character with her own feelings. The audience that’s meant to sympathize with Kirito ends up thinking of Asuna as an object as well due to the framing of the show, and the show is all too gleeful to encourage the audience to think a submissive Asuna is sexy. In a show where girls are objectified for the audience, Asuna’s objectification ends up being the worse due to both the severity of her objectification and loss of power from the first arc.

It’s important to recognize how narratives that serve to empower the male hero like this end up depowering the girls the male hero saves. Worse, the girls must be put in severe danger solely to motivate the male hero, and the male hero is entitled to love after saving the damsel in distress. That Sword Art Online chooses to use the lazy and misogynist cliché of turning Asuna into a sexual abuse victim is the final straw.

The Alfheim arc of Sword Art Online is by far one of the worst anime storylines I’ve ever seen, yet I’ll be watching Season 2 of Sword Art Online. It’s still not a good show, but morbid curiosity and the fact that Sword Art Online is still one of the most popular shows on Crunchyroll means I have to keep watching it. Season 2 also introduces a new girl for Kirito to team up with, who’s shown to be the best sniper in the MMO Gun Gale Online. So how is this character introduced?

Sigh.

Sigh.

Well, it can’t be as bad as Alfheim Online, right?