Hearts and Minds: Empathy, War, and the Problem of Us vs. Them

What I value most about history and film, my two favorite subjects in the world, is their ability to generate empathy. There’s a great Roger Ebert quote from the documentary Life Itself that comes to mind: “… for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Films and history can give voices to the voiceless and expose different sides of the dominant voice. On the flip side, films and history can reinforce false narratives to keep the voiceless oppressed and the dominant voice unchallenged. Films as recent as Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper reinforce the narrative of the savage enemy and the heroic American who puts them down. American Sniper was the second-highest grossing R-rated film ever, so clearly there was a demand for it, and those demanding it voiced their racist opinions about Arabs after seeing the film. It’s propaganda fanning the flames of nationalism and racism. However, film’s empathy-generating power can counter propaganda. Hearts and Minds is one of those essential examples of counter-propaganda.

Hearts and Minds is a Vietnam War documentary that depicts Vietnamese victims of war, the soldiers that bombed and poisoned them, the politicians and generals that told them to do so, and the American people’s attitude towards the war. The Vietnam War is remembered as America’s first real loss in a war, when people bother to remember it. Hearts and Minds shows in an interview with Captain Randy Floyd, a pilot whom ran 98 bombing missions in Vietnam, asking him what we’ve learned from Vietnam, he says “I think we’re trying not to.” 1974 was the year before the Vietnam War was truly over, and folks were already trying to unlearn everything they learned.

Some of those who chose to remember tried to justify their actions in Vietnam. One could take the side of Lt. George Coker, an American POW who appears in the film speaking at several conventions about his experiences as a POW and his views on patriotism. Several times Coker says things like “I was what you made to be.” He says this in front of young Catholic students and elderly women. He unflinchingly uses the word “gook” to describe the Vietnamese. He dehumanizes not only the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong, but also the South Vietnamese by calling all Vietnamese backwards. This attitude comes directly from the top. General William Westmoreland tells director Peter Davis “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” This scene is juxtaposed with a gut-wrenching Vietnamese funeral for a man most likely killed by American bombs or napalm. Hearts and Minds takes the side of the Vietnamese as victims of a foreign invasion, but in order to do so effectively it must document those invaders. We must understand the oppressors if we want to work against oppression, but not excuse them.

It’s important to note that in depicting Vietnam as a victim, Hearts and Minds also avoids infantilizing the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese knew what was happening when American soldiers sprayed poison and napalm to destroy their crops and jungles. The South Vietnamese government was complicit in these actions because they benefited from the corporations and power America gave them. American companies like Ford, Coca-Cola, and Bank of America were setting up shop in capitalist South Vietnam. There’s a scene featuring the political leaders of Saigon having a lavish dinner party in a country club telling crude jokes about women. One of the leaders asks them to stop so they don’t look ridiculous in front of the camera. If there’s a flaw in Hearts and Minds, it’s the depiction of the North Vietnamese Army. That is to say they’re barely featured in the film. It’s understandable that Peter Davis would have an easier time filming in America and South Vietnam, but it would have been nice if the film could have presented a more complete picture of Vietnam. What Davis captured of Vietnam is still impressive and helps to understand the mindset of the South Vietnamese contrasted with the Vietnamese refugees. It demystifies Vietnam as the “Oriental” Other that General Westmoreland saw them as.

We justify acts of atrocity all the time as heroic or necessary. We had to accept Vietnam as a loss, but many refused to see the war as wrong. Ronald Reagan tried to justify the war with this speech in 1980 at a Veterans convention: “It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause.  A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest.  We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned.  They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war.  They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern.” Note the language used. Vietnam was “newly free from colonial rule” and “sought our help… against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest.” This is the same rhetoric used by America to today to justify wars in the Middle East. We coat our ignorance of foreign affairs in the language of a savior of the weak. However, Vietnam was not “free from colonial rule.” The Vietnamese refugees saw Americans as colonists. The only difference between the French and Americans was the language they spoke and the companies they built.

I believe in respecting veterans, but I also believe in criticizing our involvement in war. I believe it is necessary to understand both sides of the conflict. We must not paint these narratives as black-and-white us vs. them politics. That leads to dangerous propaganda like American Sniper, which fuels hatred of Arabs and Muslims by depicting American murder of them as heroic. This kind of narrative not only affects movies, it affects video games as well. One of the writers on Battlefield Hardline recently said “I wrote one about this guy getting back together with his ex-girlfriend. Someone on the team pointed out that ‘hey idiot, this is someone you are about to shoot in the head, not deliver flowers to,’ so we decided, let’s not go down that route. We had to cut out the dialog and make it more informative. We had to make sure the bad guys felt like bad guys so the player isn’t as emotionally conflicted about the gameplay.” This is an admittance of removing empathy from the narrative, because empathy would make it less enjoyable for the player to murder people. To get back to Vietnam, think of how the Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter portrays the Vietcong. The Vietcong are depicted as sadists that enjoy forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. The film is willing to show Americans as complex and empathetic, but unwilling to extend that same empathy to the Vietnamese.

We must take care in how we portray all sides in any conflict. Not all sides are equally valid, of course. Modern hate groups like GamerGate should never be given the same legitimacy as the women they harass. Understanding does not excuse atrocities, but it can help us deal with atrocities. Films like Hearts and Minds resist the simplicity of the black-and-white narrative that we are spoon-fed in films like American Sniper. Whether you’ve studied the history of Vietnam in-depth or not, Hearts and Minds is a must-see. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, and appeals to my desire for empathy.

Q&A: Seeing Myself in Yurikuma Arashi

I’ve often thought about putting some of my ask.fm answers on my blog, either compiling related ones I’ve already answered, or turning longer ones into a single post here. I liked the way Bobduh has done this on his blog, and figured it would help me create more frequent content. But for whatever reason, I never got around to it–until now. Because one of you asked me a really good question, but my answer went over ask.fm’s word limit. And by God if I was gonna let that stop me from giving this the thorough answer it deserved.

Here’s the question: Are there parts of Yurikuma [Arashi] which resonate with you as a bi woman? I am a cis homosexual woman myself and find the characters too “moe-infantalised” to find attractive, but I do identify with their experiences. I am just interested in your opinion. yurikuma for blog 2 And my answer:

One thing that resonates with me a lot about Yurikuma is the way social exclusion is used to enforce the heterosexist status quo, since “being made fun of even more by the other kids” was a big reason why I suppressed my attraction to girls as a teenager. My parents were perfectly accepting and I didn’t give a shit about religion; it’s because I was already weird, already being teased and I didn’t want more of that. yurikuma for blog 5 Another thing is the way that it blurs the line between friendship and romance. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for that but I think it’s absolutely intentional and ties in with the show’s themes, and it’s also something particular to the queer female experience (as in, it’s less true for gay and bisexual men, since the line between “platonic” and “romantic” affection with guys more strictly enforced). Even here, where we don’t have the weird Class S baggage per se that Japanese culture has about lesbians, female friendships can be very affectionate and it’s often hard to know if your interest in another girl crosses that line–and easily to deny it if it does. I had an inkling even at 13 that how I felt about certain other girls–being unable to stop looking at them in class, fantasizing about being close to them, feeling this powerful yearning to be around them all the time–was not that different from my crushes on boys. But because I didn’t want to believe it, it was easy to pretend it was just a “strong friendship” feeling. Which I think Yurikuma captures well with the way that all these girls who are clearly in love with each other keep referring to their girlfriends as “my special friend” or “best friend” or whatever.

(Two things that make this worse that also don’t apply to men: Girls spend a lot of time looking at each other to compare and compete (that part in the movie But I’m A Cheerleader where Megan realizes she’s looking at other girls for different reasons than everyone else also resonated with me). Also, while boys are implicitly encouraged to do things like look at porn and otherwise try to explore and understand their sexualities, girls are not or even actively discouraged from doing so. That stuff can confuse even straight girls, so of course it compounds the problem further when you have a minority sexuality. In parentheses because that’s getting off-topic from Yurikuma specifically, but I thought was worth noting anyway.) yurikuma for blog 3 I also found some of the sexy parts titillating in spite of the girls’ “moe” appearance, and in a way that kind of illuminated for me why a lot of anime doesn’t do that for me. There’s a noticeable difference between portrayal of lesbian sexuality for actual lesbians (or bi women, in my case), and for straight men where you don’t want to disrupt their entitlement to watch or otherwise be a part of it. Something about Yurikuma’s sexuality is very “NO BOYS ALLOWED” and a lot closer to the ways that lesbians actually have sex (that probably seem kinda gross to the straight guys who fetishize us). That might just be my impression, but the fact that the Sakura Trick fanboys seem really uncomfortable with Yurikuma would appear to back it up. (And man, does their rage warm my heart.)

I don’t know how Ikuhara does it, what pact he’s made with the Lesbian Goddesses or whatever. But he’s consistently the best at depicting the lesbian experience in film, in spite of not living it himself. Certainly way better than Actual Lesbian Ilene Chaiken, anyway.

Re-posted From Tumblr: Princess Tutu, Media Analysis and Feminism

This is an entry from my old Tumblr (the one I deleted about a month ago). I was requested to make this available again, so I dug it out of my archives and reposted it. I first wrote this on February 5, 2014.


I’ve thought a lot about what frustrates me about social justice conversations about media on Tumblr, and something that Gabbo articulated in response to a post I made about FMA (of course) keeps coming back to me. It’s not just that the social-justice conversations push out every other way of analyzing media – though that’s part of it – but the way people are talking about it. They’re making representation arguments, and not thematic arguments.

Representation and “strong female characters” are important, but it’s frequently a very…surface-y way of looking at a narrative. It’s also primarily a systematic problem, rather than an issue with one particular narrative. Even one or two “badass” female/POC/LGBTQ characters doesn’t necessarily mean a show is overall progressive, which usually has far more to do with its themes. So, you see people using the “representation” argument to completely miss the real point of the story with regard to social-justice narratives…in both directions. There’s plenty of using it to beat up on a fairly progressive story, and using it to applaud a more reactionary one.

But perhaps what’s most frustrating is when those things line up, and there is a good feminist reading to be had but… people won’t talk about other than “it has badass ladies!” Like with anime, I think the only ones where I’ve seen a lot of discussion on how it promotes feminism through its themes are ones where it’s really obvious, like Revolutionary Girl Utena or Sailor Moon. Otherwise, it’s all about “this has great ladies you should watch it because ladies!” which is just the tip of the iceberg.

One such example of this is Princess Tutu. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I consider it a “feminist” anime, since for me, that definition requires actually focusing on issues related to gender roles and sexism, not merely having good female characters. Ahiru and Rue are great, don’t get me wrong, but writing women well and focusing on their stories seems like something we should expect from media, not something that gets you a gold star. But as I’ve delved more into the themes of Princess Tutu in working on my thesis, I’ve discovered there is a lot there to qualify it for a feminist reading. It’s not as explicit as it is with something like Utena, but it’s there.

(ETA: SPOILER ALERT FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES)

For example, there’s the issue of “agency” and how it’s denied to women by a patriarchal society that dictates our choices. I’m not a fan of how the concept gets distorted on Tumblr, as you know, but it is an important issue. Princess Tutu is all about the characters in the story regaining it from the writer who controls them from beyond the grave. Drosselmeyer could easily be read as a patriarchal figure and so the characters’ struggle against him, to be allowed to design their own fates rather than fit into his boxes, is a feminist one. I don’t know if that’s what would argue, since two of those four main characters are male (including the one with the overall least amount of agency throughout the story, Mytho), but then again… someone could counter that saying that Mytho’s and Fakir’s arcs show how patriarchy can hurt men, too.

More of what I’d say would be from the “weaponized femininity” angle: again, another idea that gets distorted a lot on Tumblr, but which I think is pretty awesome when that’s really what’s going on… and I strongly believe that is the case with Princess Tutu. This anime is a truly genuine case of a feminine-coded “compassionate” value system triumphing over masculine-coded “aggressive” one. Ahiru heals people through the Power of Love, expressed through dance. Rue’s crowning moment is about compassion and sacrifice, and about learning what genuine love is and that she is both deserving of it and capable of giving it to others. But it doesn’t end there. Because the thing that makes Princess Tutu really and truly feminist in my mind, and that makes it a shining example of “weaponized femininity” is that this – get this – isn’t limited to the girls!

A lot of what bothers me about how (distortion of) the “weaponized femininity” concept is used on Tumblr is that it is gender-essentialism (so, a type of sexism) dressed up in a progressive veneer. People are so quick to talk about how awesome it is that this or that female character is admirable and courageous but still girly, but still a non-combatant… and ignore that the boys are still being praised and held up as role models for their masculine combativeness. The boys are still marching off to battle while the girls stay home. They’re not praising femininity, they’re praising fitting within your gender role. And that’s not progressive and it’s certainly not feminist, no matter how you slice it.

But Princess Tutu doesn’t do that. Its weaponized femininity, its uplifting of feminine-coded values like compassion and sacrifice and that someone can be a lover and accomplish just as much as a fighter, extends to the boys. It’s truly committed to upholding peace and compassion and creativity, all those things that make up feminine-coded “ethics of care”, over masculine-coded aggression. Both its boys have some shades of this – Mytho can only become the heroic prince through gaining his heart back, after all, and through his friends’ compassion – but the big one here is Fakir.

If it’s not obvious, Fakir is my favorite character in Princess Tutu. I’ve joked it’s because his superpower is writing, which is what I do best, but it’s more than that. Fakir’s arc is about him embracing his identity as a lover, not a fighter, and realizing his talents and abilities matter even if they aren’t the ones that he’s been told they should be. His “place” in Drosselmeyer’s story is as the knight, destined to protect the princess (Ahiru) with his sword. (And die in the process, because Drosselmeyer’s an asshole who doesn’t care if he wastes the potential of the best fucking character in the entire damn story.) But Fakir’s not very good at being a knight, and he doesn’t really want to be one except that he’s told that that’s what he’s expected to do. More or less, Fakir can be read as an example of how boys are hemmed-in by gender roles, too, since the patriarchy tries to force him to be a masculine combatant that he’s just not.

Fakir’s arc in the second half of the show is all about embracing his real talents, which are about creativity. It turns out he has a real knack for writing, and a rare gift that he can change the fates of his friends and himself by putting pen to paper. Ah, there’s that classic adage about the limited power of war and aggression: the pen is mightier than the sword! That’s Fakir. And it’s in using this power that he’s ultimately able to help save Gold Crown Town.

(Oh, and we can also go on about how much he, like Rue, realizes his talents through love – realizes it through his love for Ahiru – but I’m not going to turn this essay into gushing about my OTP. I won’t, I won’t!)

So through Fakir, we see that our culture’s bias toward masculinity and masculine-coded types of conflict-resolution hurts everyone, and femininity and feminine-coded values are presented as liberation for everyone. It’s not about fitting in with gender roles, because femininity is valued across the board. And it is only through embracing that femininity that our characters can fight those trying to destroy and control them, so it is truly weaponized.

I’m not a huge fan of “difference feminism” (where this “promote feminine values” stuff comes from) a lot of the time, but I do agree that the bias against the feminine in our society is a reflection of society’s bias against women, and as such, it hurts women even if they’re more masculine. And it hurts men, too, in how it discourages them from understanding the women around them, and forces them to try to be someone they’re not if they have any feminine qualities. Princess Tutu‘s embrace of femininity as a source of power is, thus, subversive and feminist.

But we never get to talk about this when we make issues of social-justice all about representation. It’s important, but the issue of whether a work as a whole is progressive or not should really come down to its ideas, its themes… what it teaches people. And it’s not only because focusing on representation only can give undue credit to not-so-progressive works, but that we rob the ones that are doing it right of what is truly interesting about them, why they are doing it right. And one of those is Princess Tutu.

That said, even Princess Tutu has way more to it than just how it deals with feminism, and those conversations are getting pushed to the wayside, too. But I have to save that shit for my thesis…

Tokyo Ghoul is Better Than Parasyte, and You Should Be Watching It

Every year we get several anime that are beloved by the general otaku community, but send critics and bloggers turning up their noses. For most of these, that response is warranted, but there are always at least a few who don’t deserve it. This year that honor goes to Tokyo Ghoul, which even I dismissed during its first airing as a soulless gorefest. I have a bit of an aversion to ultraviolence, and without hearing much else to recommend it to me, I decided I’d skip it in my already-loaded summer itinerary. I revisited it last month, though, after my friend and fellow critic Hope Chapman talked it up so much in her episode reviews for ANN, and now I can see it’s fully deserving of not just fannish excitement, but critical analysis.

There's still plenty of blood, though.

There’s still plenty of blood, though.

Tokyo Ghoul probably gets dismissed because it’s the latest in this year’s trend of shounen anime, featuring a world where humanity is preyed upon by a monstrous Other and one boy is the “bridge” between the two groups. Because our protagonist has aspects of both, you see: he’s a titan-shifter, like Eren Yeager from Attack on Titan, or he’s got the man-eating alien hiding in his hand, like Shinichi from this year’s anime adaptation of Parasyte. The latter especially is probably why so many Serious Anime Fans decided to skip over Tokyo Ghoul, deciding to wait for this similar thing based on this old horror manga that so many senior anime fans remembered fondly. Yet, as it becomes clearer and clearer to younger viewers that we chose wrong—that Parasyte is little more than “Anime Spiderman”—it’s probably time to take a second look at Tokyo Ghoul. And in doing so, you’ll find that it’s a much richer, more “human” story.

Tokyo Ghoul is, like Parasyte, a protagonist-centered tale: it focuses on Kaneki, a human stricken with ghoul appetites and abilities when he gets a ghoul’s organs transplanted into his body. The first series follows him throughout his “metamorphosis” of sorts, as he comes to accepting the “ghoul” side of him as inevitably dominating over the “human” one, and his place in ghoul society. This isn’t like Parasyte, though, or like District 9, where the protagonist’s irreversible transformation happens over time. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, he wakes up completely transformed; Kaneki may retain his human eye, and a “human taste” as some unscrupulous ghouls later find out (but more on Shuu in a bit, ugh), but he’s all ghoul in the ways that matter. And it’s why he can never go back to the life he had before all this, even if he can hide it for a while from his human friends like Hide. While he does change physically at the end of the whirlwind that is Episode 12, it’s in largely cosmetic ways, and the real changes come psychologically. As Kaneki is tortured, he retreats into a void where he encounters the ghoul girl who gave him his organs, and Kaneki realizes he has to accept one side of himself over the other. Kaneki picks the only one that makes any sense: “I am a ghoul.”

One boy, many faces.

One boy, many faces.

So Tokyo Ghoul gets points over Parasyte for its much deeper and more original portrayal of a character gradually losing touch with his humanity, and coming to terms with changes in himself. Parasyte’s changes for Shinichi are largely the physical, in the form of Peter-Parker-like superpowers, though of course there are some cliché bits about how he’s becoming more beep-boop logical and losing empathy. Kaneki retains his human emotions, however, since ghouls are shown to have just as much emotional depth as the non-cannibalistic humans are; his journey is about acceptance and, in the last episode, about responding to trauma. Speaking of the ghouls’ emotional depth, though, that’s another place where Tokyo Ghoul is leagues above Parasyte: it gives all the characters emotional arcs and believability. Parasyte is almost Death Note-like in how much its two protagonists, Shinichi and Migi, tower above the walking plot tools who inhabit the rest of the story. Tokyo Ghoul has a larger story to tell; it centers on Kaneki but it’s not just about Kaneki.

Of course, that’s not to say that Tokyo Ghoul is that complicated. It’s still a shounen-manga, and outside of Kaneki and Touka, a female ghoul who is Kaneki’s closest friend among them and strongly drawn to him, most of the characters fall into familiar archetypes. Yet, they still have their own struggles and stories, in spite of their simplicity. There’s Hinami, a sweet little girl who lives her with her protective mother, with all the childlike naïveté you’d expect from a kid who doesn’t need to eat human flesh in order to survive. Her mother dies protecting her, and it’s a story as much about her own loss of innocence as it is about Kaneki’s. What’s more, the show also fleshes out the human characters, including the ones who kill ghouls we care about like Hinami’s parents. Amon, an investigator with the CCG (a police-like organization that hunts ghouls) is the next most-developed character in the series after Kaneki and Touka. The series spends a lot of time with him despairing over his colleagues dying and toying with his conscience.

Very sexily, I might add.

Very sexily, I might add.

It’s comparing and contrasting Tokyo Ghoul’s approaches to the human and ghoul characters that make it so rich for analysis. Unlike a lot of sci-fi and fantasy analogues for understanding real-world prejudice and conflicts, Tokyo Ghoul presents both sides as equally sympathetic and rational in their causes. Ghouls are pretty disgusting and present a real threat to humanity, but they didn’t choose to be that way and some of them take pains to limit how much they harm humans (as with the ghouls at the Anteiku café where Kaneki and Touka work, who only consume the corpses of suicide victims—which raises its own question about why those suicides are so regular in the first place). Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? Who deserves our sympathy? It’s not for the show to say—it’s up to the audience.

Which is where it gets hard to recommend this show as a “sci-fi metaphor for prejudice and the cycle of hatred,” as Hope puts it in the first of her episode reviews. Real-life prejudice, at least within a society (rather than between two warrings ones), is normally a lot less complicated than that. Members of privileged majorities rarely have any rational reason to feel threatened by oppressed minorities. Their irrational feelings are understandable, but usually the result of ignorance of the larger causes that leave them searching for a scapegoat. The human society of Tokyo Ghoul’s world does seem to have some bigger problems, sure (like…whatever’s causing all those suicides), but the ghouls present an actual threat. Most ghouls aren’t Anteiku, and actively feed on humans. There are other ghoul gangs, like Aoigiri, that actively fight against both humans and human-sympathetic ghouls, and if they’re supposed to be analogues to minorities who choose more violent and aggressive means for standing up against their oppressors…well, that’s more than a little suspect in a way we see too often in anime like this. That’s not to mention that Tokyo Ghoul isn’t so great when it portrays real-life oppressed minorities among their characters, as Eric detailed in his post about the show’s queer-coded villain, Shuu.

tokyo ghoul shuu

This is about what you can expect

I’m giving it some legroom before I write it off there, though, because it’s an incomplete story that may end up completely surprising me. This could be especially true of Tokyo Ghoul √A as it spends more time among the Aogiri, with post-breakdown Kaneki joining their ranks. Plus, this show has so much else to recommend it: its portrayal of Kaneki’s psychology and, most of all, the interesting lens it turns on us, on humanity, especially in response to similar shows. Attack on Titan and Parasyte both indulge some amount of lifting up humanity as a whole, celebrating its “specialness” in response to the monstrous titans and cold parasites. Both Shinichi and various titan shifters fret over losing their humanity to their inhuman other sides. Yet Tokyo Ghoul, in how it prioritizes the everyday lives and emotional development of the ghouls, frames humans as the other. Even Amon doesn’t get as much time on-screen as do the slice-of-life moments in Anteiku, and that’s on purpose: to put the viewers on the outside with the ghouls, looking in on humanity. Looking in on ourselves. Are humans really all that special after all, or could our “special” qualities be managed just as well—if not better—transferred into other bodies? Is “humanity” really worth protecting?

For an ultraviolent shounen, Tokyo Ghoul poses many thought-provoking questions. Add in its fantastic production values (from its vibrant color scheme to its varied and energetic musical score, it’s a pleasure to see and hear, even when it’s gross), and it’s a show with a lot to recommend itself to all kinds of anime fans. Even squeamish babies like me.

Top 10 Anime Soundtracks of 2014, Part 2

As the long-awaited follow-up to the first post, here are my top five favorite musical soundtracks of all the anime I saw in 2014.

5. Space Dandy

Composers: various

Space Dandy was a hard anime to place here, because it had such a huge team of people handling its music, to wildly varying results. The show was an anthology series in the truest sense, with the creative vision changing from piece to piece, and that included sonically. Some musical moments in Space Dandy are truly sublime, like those scored by the ever-reliable Yoko Kanno (who shows up again a little higher on this list), or any embracing the show’s love of all things funky. Others are…well, there was that weird “High School Musical” episode. Overall, though, I don’t remember many truly bad music choices in this series, and it always paid the close attention to musical placement that you’d expect from a Shinichiro Watanabe series. And it was fantastic enough times to earn its place on this list at number 5.

4. Tokyo Ghoul

Composer: Yutaka Yamada

Tokyo Ghoul’s composer seems like a newcomer to the anime-scoring biz, only 25 years old and with no other credits to his name in the ANN encyclopedia apart from this one and its sequel. What a debut it was! Tokyo Ghoul has a richly varied score, servicing the show’s many tones from the gentle slice-of-life scenes in the Anteiku café to, of course, its gory battles. It gets extra points from me for doing so much of the stuff I really, really love in horror scores: ominous chanting choirs (but not in the over-the-top way that Death Note ruined for all future anime), atonal piano and string flourishes, and punctuated low-string ostinatos. Consider how many different timbres, moods and harmonic progressions the above-linked track explores, and that’s just the battle music. Yamada’s score alone is enough to get me to watch his name on future shows, but the way the show uses the music adds even more to its greatness. The show knows just where to place each weird little cadence, and many of its best scenes wouldn’t be nearly as effective without his energetic music (up to and including Kaneki’s psychological torture sequence in episode 12).

3. Ping-Pong The Animation

Composer: kensuke ushio (various episodes of Space Dandy)

Ping-Pong itself left me a little cold, and I didn’t end up finishing it. But it was hard to deny how good its music was, and how well it fit with Yuasa’s unusual direction. Heck, most of the time I found I was watching more for the music than for anything else in the show. Sports anime can live and die by their soundtracks and how much they do or don’t match the energy of the action on-screen. That appears to result in more and more of them, from Free! to Haikyuu, embracing music that’s heavy on the electronic beats to match their high-intensity matches. Ping-Pong does this, too, for much of its soundtrack, but its much more ambient and minimalist than its brethren, with its tracks slowly building as gradual processes rather than rushing at you head-on. It’s like this even in its non-electronic tracks, like the one I linked above. I use the word “minimalist” to describe film scores a lot, but few go so far as to make you ask “are you sure Steve Reich didn’t write this?” Ping-Pong does, and in applying techniques like phasing to the click-clack of its plastic balls, it takes the trends of sports-anime scoring to their logical and transcendent extreme.

2. Terror in Resonance

Composer: Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Escaflowne, Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex….need I really go on?)

It’s pretty much inevitable at this point that if Yoko Kanno composes the music to something, I’ll probably enjoy it on at least some level. Terror in Resonance was a muddled mess that I, nevertheless, still mostly enjoyed. It can’t just be excused as “not being what people wanted it to be about” like I saw its fans say; Terror in Resonance made it clear it wanted to say something about terrorism, and was way out of its depth in doing so. Yet, its smaller moments exploring the psychology of lost, abandoned children were powerfully resonant (hehe) in their grasp of the loneliness and ennui that comes from society leaving you behind. I don’t want to dismiss them because its larger aims failed.

Either way, though…those Watanabe production values! Especially the music!

Terror in Resonance is a little harder to categorize than most of Kanno’s scores. While she always traverses all over the stylistic map, there are certain trends that dominate one work or the other, from Cowboy Bebop’s jazziness to Wolf’s Rain’s orchestral heaviness. Terror in Resonance has its own distinct character for sure, but in a way that can’t be so easily summed up with a particular style. You’ll get the ballad linked above, in the style of Simon and Garfunkel or Pet-Sounds-era Beach Boys, or you’ll get gentle instrumental lullabies like this track. And then the steadily-creeping dread of this. And then…whatever this is. In general, it’s more atmospheric, less full of easily-hummable “tunes” than many of her other scores, but it sifts through a lot of different atmospheres. It shows the same great attention to detail, to episode, to moment that Kanno always does.

1. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders

Composer: Yuugo Kanno (Psycho-Pass, Birdy the Mighty Decode)

Hopefully this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, with how much I’ve gushed about how I adore the music for Stardust Crusaders on all my social media platforms. Maybe a surprise that I ranked it above a Yoko Kanno score. But now, you know…I really love the music in this show. Probably what I love about it is it’s just as weird, and wild, as the show itself. I talk about “variety” so much with music, but man, does Jojo’s score really show a lot of it, even though the series doesn’t vary much in tone from episode-to-episode. And it’s that variety that sells it so much for me. While none of the tracks alone are particularly bizarre or particularly “Jojo’s”—except for maybe the one I linked above—taken together, they’re a colorful rollercoaster of different instrumentations, moods and styles. It matches with the show’s own funhouse of Stands, environments and challenges as the characters make their way across Asia to confront Dio in Egypt. What’s more, the show has the bonus of bettering even the fantastic score and music direction of the 2012 series: not an easy feat!

Jojo’s is a music-obsessed series even in its silent manga form, so it deserves a killer soundtrack when transferred to film. From the unsettling dissonant strings of its tenser moments, to its characters’ distinctive leitmotifs, to the funky guitars of its sillier bits, Yuugo Kanno’s fun score more than delivers. It’s far from the most original music featured in anime, but it was the most entertaining and memorable for me. I was always aware of it when watching the show, but never in a way that pulled me out of the action on-screen. At the end of the day, there’s not much more I can ask for from an anime soundtrack, so I can’t help but give it no. 1.

Top 10 Anime Soundtracks of 2014, Part 1

Music is a very important part of how I experience anime, and film media in general. It’s something that I find is often underdiscussed among fans, and as a musicologist who focuses on film scores, I find that a shame. It’s a very key part of any film work’s emotional experience, just one that succeeds too well to the point that it slips under our noses. It’s usually subliminal, and on top of that, a lot of people don’t know how to talk about music. Well, I do, and since I already wrote up a top five favorite series of the year post for ANN, this one covers my favorite TV anime soundtracks of 2014.

I’ve been promising this post for a while, so here it is in the first of two parts. I kept getting delayed partly because choosing my favorite background music is such a difficult endeavor. There’s so much to consider: not only the quality of the music itself, but how it fits with the atmosphere of the show, and how the show uses it. (I should note: this is purely judging on stuff that was in the runtime of the episode, not OPs and EDs.) There were about four shows that I floated that didn’t make the list (that I might discuss in the second post as “honorable mentions”). Here are the ones that did, and why, starting with #10-6:

10. Your Lie in April:

Composer (of original material): Masaru Yokoyama (Arakawa Under the Bridge, Rolling Girls)

As a show about classical music, it’s predictable to put Your Lie in April on here, I suppose. Of course it has good music, with all the classics in its repertoire, and of course it uses them well, since the characters are performing them and usually picked them for highly personal reasons. (One such example in the above clip, where Kaori plays a piece by Beethoven. Both her and Kosei choose Beethoven pieces early on, representing their tortured paths to and forms of artistry.) Yet, the show’s original score also shines brightly, full of ambient minimalism as a backdrop to its many personal and psychological scenes. Even beyond the Beethoven and Chopin, Your Lie in April’s music is worthy of a standing ovation.

9. Mushi-shi: The Next Chapter:

Composer: Toshio Masuda (Naruto)

A lot of Mushi-shi is an exercise in “less is more,” and that’s as true with its music as it is with anything else. Mushi-shi is very minimally scored, preferring to let the sound effects of nature do its talking for it a lot of the time. So when it does have music, it can be quite striking, even if it’s just a quick motif on a solo instrument. The dissonant chimes that come in whenever Ginko starts explaining the mushi-of-the-week are jarring, shaking awake the viewer and the feature character to listen to his explanations for the cosmic-horror-of-the-week. Yet, its music can also gently sing you to sleep again, as in the lullabies that drift into the ending credits. The track I picked is one that falls somewhere in the middle, usually coming in as the mushi works its magic. Mushi-shi’s score is pure leitmotif, only coming out sparingly for a very singular idea or mood, like the shy mushi themselves.

8. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun:

Composer: Yukari Hashimoto (Penguindrum, Yuri Kuma Arashi, Toradora!)

The slice-of-life comedy genre rarely climbs to the top of OST lists, since so much of it leans toward the predictable. It’s the same gentle piano flourishes with maybe a bit of bouncy pop when things get silly. Nozaki-kun had some of this, but it was always memorable and original in its own way. This was especially true in its choice of instruments. The tuba is the best comedy instrument, and it was the perfect accent for Nozaki, the deep-voiced stoic with a silly streak. Why don’t more comedy anime use the tuba? Why don’t more everything use the tuba?

7. Rage of Bahamut: Genesis:

Composer: Yoshihiro Ike (Ergo Proxy, Tiger & Bunny)

Like everything in Bahamut, its music sounds like a big Hollywood movie: from the frantic strings for rising action to the ominous choruses for big reveals. It’s the sort of epic fantasy scoring you’d expect in your Lord of the Rings and other movies about long journeys to fight CGI dragons or orcs, because that’s the sort of beast that Bahamut is. I think my favorite and most memorable part of the score is all the weird little western flourishes whenever Favaro did something badass, like trumpet fanfares. It’s not as creative as I initially expected it to be, which is why it isn’t higher on this list, but there’s a lot to love about Bahamut’s music anyway.

6. Kill la Kill:

Composer: Hiroyuki Sawano (Attack on TitanAldnoah.ZeroBlue Exorcist)

I didn’t do a 2013 list, so I decided to include shows that started then but continued into the next year–and with those parameters, I couldn’t not include Kill la Kill. It had some of the most memorable and fun OST tracks in a long time, the kind that fans download right along with the OPs and EDs. Personally, I wasn’t always a fan of the way the music was used in the series’ first cour, but it picked up steam by the time January rolled around. The musical styles fit the series like a glove: They could range in mood from silliness to pumping you up, but the score was always as bombastic as what was happening on screen. Like a lot of Kill la Kill viewers, my favorite track by far was Ragyo’s leitmotif, “Blumenkranz” (linked above), the singer’s clumsy German pronunciation aside. Hiroyuki Sawano sure has a knack for bringing the musical energy to battle-centric popular favorites.

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #12: Yo (K)anno

Whoops, almost forgot to put up my last 12 days of anime post. I wasn’t planning on doing this series this year, so forgive the rushed nature of these posts. I enjoyed writing about my experiences with anime this year, and if I’m still blogging about anime next year, I’ll definitely do this again, hopefully with more focus and preparation.

Shirobako, like many other shows this fall season, was a pleasant surprise. PA Works has a reputation as being another Kyoto Animation in my eyes: they typically make good-looking stuff but it’s all moe fluff with nothing else to hold my interest. Shirobako is still pretty moe, starting off with a high school girl club with aspirations of creating their own anime movie, but does a good job of transitioning into a more realistic adult world of office work and stress. I’ve heard some fans of the show claim the workplace drama is “too real” for them. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s too real, as the show cushions job stress with good humor and some fluffy optimism, but it’s certainly more honest about the real world than most moe anime I’ve seen.

The last two episodes of Shirobako’s first cour, centered around Christmas time, were standout episodes highlighting the growth of main character Miyamori and the tensions between the young and old generations of animators. One of Shirobako’s major themes is the uncertainty about the future. The young generation worries about whether or not they can make a stable career out of their new jobs in animation, and the old generation worries about the direction of where anime is going. The show strikes a nice balance between the young generation learning from their elders while still figuring out who they are for themselves, and that is exemplified when Miyamori tries to get acclaimed director “Mitsuaki Kanno” to draw some key animation for the final episode of the show Exodus.

Boy, he sure looks familiar.

Boy, he sure looks familiar.

Turns out “Kanno” is actually an homage to Hideaki Anno, director of Neon Genesis Evangelion. He only gets one scene in this episode, but it one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen this year and a definite treat for anime fans. Normally I don’t like to praise reference humor since it’s usually really cheap, but here it’s in service of furthering the plot and ideas of Shirobako, plus it’s funny more because of how into anime “Kanno” is than the fact that we know he’s referencing Nausicaa. Miyamori admits her knowledge of older anime isn’t that great, having only seen the Rebuilds of “Ava” and never seeing the original series, but her passion for anime is definitely real when “Kanno” brings up Andes Chucky, a kid’s anime she’d seen in reruns.

Since I’m a young adult still figuring out what he wants to do with the rest of his life and an anime fan interested in the industry and culture, Shirobako strikes a good chord with me. As much as I think the earlier episodes leaned too heavily in the optimistic direction, I would think about my future after watching a few episodes. Shirobako balances nerdy passion and dreadful realism. Though it does favor optimism, it never lets itself stray too far into it. Since the show is willing to address actual problems with starting a career, I think it’s allowed to be optimistic. I think Shirobako‘s ultimate goal is encouraging young people to not give up on their dreams, but trying to be a little more realistic about it than other inspirational dramas. 2014 was a depressing year, so Shirobako was a good pick-me-up.

Here’s to hoping that 2015 is another good year for anime. With more JoJo’s and Ikuhara’s lesbian bears, there’s no way it can be bad, right?

Twelve Days of Anime #12: When Leomon’s Death Actually Mattered

Here it is, my very belated final Twelve Days of Anime post for 2014. I meant to post this three days ago, but got swept up in the madness of Christmas with my family. Happy Holidays! Also, full-series spoilers for Digimon Tamers here if the title didn’t tip you off.

DigimonTamers

I’ve been a Digimon fan since I was a little kid, but this year was the first time I sat through all of Digimon Tamers, easily the franchise’s best entry. I considered myself “too old” for it by the time Tamers aired on TV in 2001, but I wanted to see it when I got back into anime and heard how good the third installment is from my friend JesuOtaku’s videos about it. I watched it with her and another friend who had previously seen it, and learned how right I was. Tamers had Chiaki Konaka as its head writer, and he brought to it his signature head-trip sensibility and high-concept sci-fi that made Serial Experiments Lain such a classic.

Tamers established a lot of traditions for the franchise, but ironically, it did so in a way that deviated from the usual pattern. One of the main examples of this was killing off Leomon. A Leomon or some evolution of him dies in every single Digimon series (Adventure 02 was technically the exception since that story’s Leomon had already kicked it in the previous installment, but the one that proved the rule), and it’s become an inside joke in the fandom as a result. Yet, while Tamers was the one that made it a tradition, it also made it impossible to laugh at how it killed its Leomon.

Yeah, he's really popular with the furries. Why do you ask?

Yeah, he’s really popular with the furries. Why do you ask?

In Tamers, Leomon becomes the partner of Jeri Kato (Juri Katou if you’re watching the sub), a lonely, weird little girl who protagonist Takato crushes on, and who acts like a sort of third (fourth?) wheel to his Digimon card games with his friends Kazu and Kenta. She desperately wants to be a Tamer, collecting all the Digimon cards she can find to fit in with them. Jeri finally gets her wish by essentially the same method she used to win her friends: desperately following Leomon around and begging him to be her Digimon. Eventually, a Digivice falls from the sky allowing her to tame Leomon. She even shows some real potential for it, knowing when to activate powerful cards to enhance Leomon’s powers.

It doesn’t last very long, though, when series anti-hero Impmon—now in his Mega form as Beelzemon—decides to prove how evil he’s become by killing Leomon. In the world of Tamers, unlike Adventure, Digimon deaths are permanent. Jeri’s reaction to this is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the series:

I didn’t cry when I watched this, because I don’t usually cry when I watch anime. But I got pretty damn close this time.

Jeri was a character I related to quite a bit, more than any other Digimon character in the three series I’ve watched from the franchise. Jeri is a lot like I was as a little girl, from her weird social tics to her lonely desperation for friends. And she responded to Leomon’s death the way I usually respond to traumatic things in my life: by withdrawing. Her friends are too busy saving the Digital World to notice her pain, so she’s taken advantage of by one of its most destructive forces, the D-Reaper. Konaka was influenced by Evangelion for many of his series’ more psychological moments, and there’s a lot of Shinji Ikari in Jeri’s depressed mumbling to herself, especially once she’s taken into the D-Reaper’s void. Fans like to talk about “Scary Jeri,” the creepy computer puppet who replaces her, and Jeri’s horrifying nightmares, but I saw her struggle here as more sad than scary. It resonated too much with my own experiences with depression.

jeri kato depressed

Digimon Tamers is not only my favorite Digimon series and one of my favorite kids’ anime (second only to Princess Tutu, where Konaka also scripted a few episodes), but among my favorite anime series of all time. A big part of my favoritism is its portrayal of Jeri and, by extension, young people struggling with depression and loneliness. All of that hinges on when it made one of the Digimon fandom’s favorite memes into a moment that actually mattered, the emotional climax of the series. Thanks, Konaka! Or, maybe…no thanks. I didn’t ask for this much emotional trauma from a monster-battling show designed to sell toys!

Anyway, thanks everyone for a really great 12 Days of Anime! It was fun to explore my engagement with the medium over the past year this way. I’ll probably have a few end-of-the-year retrospective posts, but other than that, see you in 2015!

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #11: Snow is a Heavy Blanket

I liken Mushi-shi to a warm blanket. It’s the kind of show I turn on when I want to be in a meditative mood. In this age of digital streaming and Twitter, it’s easy to fall into the trap of live-tweeting while watching a show. It’s fun to do, but can distract from the mood of a show, and Mushi-shi is at its most effective in a dimly-lit room with all distractions removed. You need to let the emotion of the show take you in completely to get the most out of it. Mushi-shi is not bombastic, action-packed, or comedic like a lot of other anime from this year that I love, but it serves as a nice counterpoint to shows like that. The second season of Mushi-shi has many stellar episodes that put me in a good mood, but one of my favorite episodes is a little chillier, yet all the more warm for it.

This blanket is anything but warm.

This blanket is anything but warm.

“Beneath the Snow” is the third episode of Mushi-shi‘s second season. Each episode of Mushi-shi acts as its own complete story, centering around someone inflicted by a mushi, a supernatural creature with many forms and abilities. Beyond the mushi and Ginko, a mushi-shi or “mushi doctor”, each episode is standalone with a different cast of characters and different conflict. The victim of “Beneath the Snow” is Toki, who has been possessed by a Tokoyukimushi, a type of mushi that consumes the warmth of its host and causes permanent snowfall. Ginko warns Toki that if he is unable to get warm, he’ll lose his limbs to frostbite, but Toki ignores his advice because the cold doesn’t bother him.

What makes for a great episode of Mushi-shi is not the fantastical nature of the mushi, but the human emotion in the metaphor the mushi represent. Often, the real problems characters face are not caused by mushi, merely exagerrated by them. What Toki suffers from most of all is the grief of losing his sister and being unable to move past it. It’s startlingly real in the face of the supernatural elements, but this is one of Mushi-shi‘s greatest strengths. His inability to feel anything and his avoidance of warmth, even the warmth of human touch, reflects his emotional state of being. He’s locked in a state of self-destruction. The story is about exorcising personal demons and coming back to the world of living. The beautiful and deadly stillness of snow is a perfect setting for such a story. Snow is harsh and cold, but it makes the emotional journey all the more heartwarming when Toki regains his ability to feel in the end.

This is an episode for those who love stories of overcoming despair. Stories like Madoka Magica and Wolf’s Rain are near-and-dear to my heart for similar reasons. “Beneath the Snow’s” setting even makes it a great companion piece to Wolf’s Rain if you’re in the mood for great anime in wintery locations. Not many episodes of Mushi-shi‘s second season actually take place in winter and it aired in spring and fall of this year, but I can’t help but associate it with winter because of the show’s opening theme, “Shiver” by Lucy Rose. With its quiet folk tune and icy imagery, it just screams winter. While I may not live in a snowy climate, to me Mushi-shi seems like the perfect show to watch when its cold outside and you want to feel warm. Wrap yourself in a hot blanket, drink hot chocolate, turn off all distractions, watch some Mushi-shi and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported into a different realm. After the episode is over, the feelings still linger, as if you too have been possessed by a mushi.

Bonus cute Ginko in a scarf.

Bonus cute Ginko in a scarf.

 

 

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #10: The Gift of Midosuji

There were a lot of sports anime this year with strong fanbases. Haikyuu was fun and I can’t wait for a second season, Free came back for some more manservice camp with a good dose of angst, and Ping Pong brought us the deliciously weird Yuasa flavor that we love. It was such a good year for sports anime that it’s easy to forget that Yowapeda also aired. I’m still watching the show in its second season, but it suffers from Dragonball Z pacing. It’s less of a show about cycling and more of a homoerotic melodrama on wheels, but hey, no one actually watches sports anime for the sports!

I could talk more about Haikyuu, Free, or Ping Pong, but today I want to talk about Yowapeda for one reason: Akira Midosuji, one of my new favorite villains in anime. Why do I like him so much?

midosuji HOLY FUCK

JUST

midosuji SHOCK

LOOK

midosuji WATERMELON

AT

Midosuji pelvic thrust

HIM!

midosuji XENOMORPH

Yowapeda won’t be winning any awards for storytelling, but it’s easy to see the appeal of the show: all the characters are just so weird, and Midosuji with his alien-like behavior and movement is easily king of the weirdos. The sounds he makes as he moves are like a bunch of parasite aliens about to burst through his skin. At a certain point, I realized I was watching the show just to see what weird thing Midosuji was going to do next. Rarely do I watch a show as long as Yowapeda for so simple a reason, yet Midosuji was too enticing to ignore. God bless you Midosuji for giving me a folder of great weird images.