Twelve Days of Anime #7: Kiritsugu Emiya vs. Philosophy 101

If you’ve ever taken a philosophy class, you’ve probably been faced with the “trolley problem”: A runaway trolley is headed toward a group of five people. You have the option to save them—but only by pulling a lever that switches the track over to where just one person is standing. Would you pull the lever? Most people, at least at first, will say yes. It’s simple math, right? Five is greater than one. The only struggle is the fact that you have to get over the compulsion not to kill, not to get your hands dirty. And that’s just your selfish emotions talking, right?

The “trolley problem” is supposed to be up for interpretation, but I always thought its framing made it fairly clear that you’re supposed to pull the lever. It simplifies the complex issue of intent vs. results, of means vs. ends, down to a mere mathematical inequality. In doing so, it makes our human instincts against killing feel illogical. As someone who knows she wouldn’t be able to pull that lever—knew it at 17 when I first learned about the trolley problem in school, know it now—I find it a little insulting and amoral. And as a fan of his anime, I suspect that Gen Urobuchi would agree with me.

Fatezero_cover

It’s easy to forget that I first watched Fate/Zero only earlier this year. The “Fate” franchise is the sort of thing that consumes you so much that you forget that you weren’t always familiar with it. Then I remembered this scene as I was preparing the “Vash vs. Legato” post that’s coming up in this series. It serves a similar purpose in being a moral argument about “pacifism” as a philosophy, but Urobuchi takes it from a very different angle.

Trigun, as I’ll explain in a future post, supports pacifism because of the idea that killing robs people of their free will to determine the course of their lives, and that everyone deserves that chance at redemption. (It’s a very Christian story, so it’s a big-time believer in the power of redemption and forgiveness. That’s why it ends the way it does. But more on that later.) Urobuchi believes very strongly in the human spirit and in free will, but not in quite the same way or for the same reasons as Trigun does. And so, when Urobuchi gets to be his most direct in pleading for “ethical killer” Kiritsugu Emiya to change his ways, this is how he does it:

Kiritsugu is the sort of guy who would never hesitate with the trolley problem. He’d pull that lever in a jiffy. The Holy Grail shows him why he’s wrong when it turns the trolley problem on its head, by repeating it to the point of uselessness. Even if Kiritsugu continues choosing the option where he kills less people, he’s still ultimately killed the majority of the people in total. It shows the folly of reducing this issue to a math problem—because if you make a life philosophy out of this, the math doesn’t even check out, anyway. You’ll eventually have killed far more people than you’ve saved.

And that’s exactly what Kiritsugu has done. The “long trail of bodies” Kiritsugu has intentionally left behind him is more his legacy than the people he supposedly saved with them. Violence can’t solve violence, the Grail tells him; only ending the cycle in the first place will do that. Urobuchi makes more philosophical, less mathematical arguments for this in Fate/Zero and many of his other series (Bobduh has a good post about this topic on his blog). But I thought it was neat that Fate/Zero showed that even from the math front, even when you do reduce the issue that way, it still fails if you set up the numbers like they’d check out in the real world.

Irisviel knows better than you.

Irisviel knows better than you.

So if I were to teach a Philosophy 101 class, I think I would try to find a way for my class to watch Fate/Zero, or at least the relevant bits of it. (If only it were an easier show to chop up like that!) Maybe then my students won’t all see the “trolley problem” as one with such an easy answer. Maybe they won’t think that dispensing with what makes us human is the inherently more “logical” choice.

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #7: Sword AIDS Online

If you can recall, my first post on this blog was about Sword Art Online and its treatment of female characters. Spoilers: it’s not good. For as much as I hated the Fairy Dance arc, it was bad enough that I was compelled to watch it all, and then watched the next season, Sword Art Online II. To my surprise, Sword Art Online II was a huge improvement! Okay, it’s not actually GOOD because the characters still revolve around the cardboard male-power fantasy that is Kirito, but it was much more entertaining, it tried to give its female characters their own story arcs, and there was less sexual assault! Okay, it’s not that much better, but if you’re seeking bad soapy trash to hatewatch, Sword Art Online II is good for just that.

Sword Art Online II was split into three arcs: Gun Gale Online (the best arc of SAO in my opinion), Excalibur (a three-episode interlude that is mostly just screwing around with Kirito’s harem), and Mother’s Rosario, the only arc where Kirito is not the main character! I was really sick of Kirito, so to see Asuna, a character that’s been largely portrayed as a helpless waifu since Fairy Dance, have her own story was an exciting idea. So of course, her conflict ends up being kind of lame (her mom doesn’t approve of her playing video games oh noooooo). The main character ends up being Yuuki, probably the only girl to ever beat Kirito in a duel (though there’s a bullshit implication that Kirito went easy on her, because we can’t have our tough male badass lose to a girl fairly). Yuuki wants to beat a boss so she and her guild, the Sleeping Knights, can have their names carved into a rock. The stakes aren’t nearly as high as previous arcs until it’s revealed why the Sleeping Knights want their names immortalized in virtual reality so badly: they’re all terminal. Specifically, Yuuki has AIDS.

Oh, and not only does Yuuki have AIDS, her entire family is dead and she’s been confined to a hospital room for almost her entire life, and her only means of communication with the outside world are VRMMOs. The piling of “sad moe girl” tropes, all in one episode by the way, was so comical in its execution that I knew that I had to write about it for 12 Days of Anime. Sword Art Online has always been a soap opera for male nerds in the same vein that Clannad is. They create male leads that nerds can pretend to be like and give them baby fantasy girls for them to fix and protect. The difference is that Sword Art Online pretends to be an action show, and in its final arc swaps out its male lead for a female lead. Having a girl protagonist could have made for an interesting subversion, but Asuna is much more passive than Kirito, and Kirito is still used to solve a lot of the problems she faces. The conclusion of Sword Art Online II has her saying she’ll be with Kirito forever, proving that the entire point of Asuna’s existence is to be Kirito’s girlfriend and nothing more. Basically, the author of Sword Art Online cannot write women.

Asuna sure is a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER!

Asuna sure is a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER!

Twelve Days of Anime #6: How Phantom Blood Made Me A Jojo’s Fan

2014 was the year I was introduced to the generation-spanning juggernaut that is Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. I started watching the Stardust Crusaders anime this spring, and enjoyed it enough to check out the 2012 anime series this past month. It’s a long, strange trip of a show unlike anything else out there, and fully deserving of its passionate cult following. But it wasn’t Stardust Crusaders that really made me a part of that following, that turned me into one of the Jojo’s obsessives who can’t shut up about it on Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong, Stardust Crusaders is an excellent show on just about every level; I put it on my top five for the year for a reason. It has great visuals, an awesome soundtrack, fun larger-than-life characters and is constantly topping itself in plot weirdness such that it’s impossible to look away. Yet, as much as I loved it, it wasn’t enough to suck me into the larger vortex of the Jojo’s franchise. I enjoyed its larger-than-life characters and ridiculous gags, but didn’t feel like I had a reason to care about the overarching story of the Joestar family and their dealings with Dio Brando. That only came this past month, when I started watching the 2012 anime that preceded it. Yep, Phantom Blood, derided by many as a boring slog and the weakest part of the Jojo’s anime so far, is what made me a Jojo’s fan.

JJBA PB Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 4.02.36 AM

It actually really puzzles me why people don’t like Phantom Blood. I get that Jonathan Joestar is pretty dull as Jojo’s protagonists go, although I personally found his selfless do-gooder personality endearing. But Jonathan is far from the only character, and the other ones—especially Speedwagon and especially Dio—are enough to carry a series on their own. Honestly, Jonathan’s simplicity and sincerity is a lot of why Phantom Blood works for me. It makes sense why he’s the kind of guy who would draw so many people into his orbit willing to help him—something his descendants have struggled with in Stardust Crusaders. It also adds a lot of humor to Dio’s intense grudge against him. It’s hard to understand why anyone would hate this guy, let alone hate him intensely enough to spend every waking moment trying to ruin his life.

Those two points distill the things that work so well for me with Phantom Blood compared to Stardust Crusaders. The first is the character relationships. The team in Part 3 hit off each other well, too, but that’s not fundamentally why they’re there. They just happen to have a common goal. Yet, so many characters join Jonathan’s fight against Dio simply because they’re enraptured by Jonathan. Of course I’m mainly talking about Speedwagon, a random London bum who is so overtaken by Jonathan’s forthright personality he instantly falls in love with him. (This isn’t debatable.) Will Zeppeli is so immediately impressed by Jonathan’s drive that he dedicates himself to teaching the boy a complicated art he’s spent his life perfecting. It’s these bonds that tie everyone together that make it so heartbreaking when these characters meet tragic fates as the series progresses. Even as little development as Erina gets in Phantom Blood, there’s enough that it destroys me when she watches her new husband die on their honeymoon. (Battle Tendency, of course, does a lot more with her character, and displays just how smart Jojo’s character writing is. How did the sweet girl turn into such a gruff old lady? Because, as one of my friends put it, life kept kicking her in the ass. Anyone would harden from that.)

The other thing that I love about Phantom Blood is the humor. Stardust Crusaders made me laugh out loud a whole bunch, too, but I knew when that was coming. All its jokes are completely intentional. With Part 1, sometimes you really can’t tell what is supposed to be funny and what is the show earnestly trying to make its silliness serious. I’m talking about moments like “my sword of LUCK and PLUCK,” or Dio bragging from his throne about how “this town is now mine” while surrounded by a menagerie of chimeras. Let’s not forget Speedwagon’s ridiculous expressions for every possible moment. How can you not love this face?

I'm committed to getting as much use out of this screencap as possible.

I’m committed to getting as much use out of this screencap as possible.

Phantom Blood–the 2012 series in general, really–also is extremely impressive on the visual front. I thought that Stardust Crusaders had some psychedelic color schemes, but the first part uses them to even greater effect, and more frequently. Not only does it just look way cool, but it highlights the characters’ psychological states to suddenly change their coloring and textures when we’re looking in their heads. Stardust Crusaders used this a little bit, but mostly only for battle scenes. It makes me feel like I’ve come to know Part 1’s characters a lot better. And…did I mention it looks cool? REALLY REALLY COOL.

JJBA PB Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 10.26.15 PM

Now I’m well on my way into Part 2: Battle Tendency, which so far, combines the strengths of Parts 1 and 3 into what is basically the perfect Jojo’s arc. (It doesn’t hurt that Joseph is one of the show’s best protagonists, either, far superior to either his grandfather or grandson.) Battle Tendency is a fun show all on its own, as it introduces a new crazy cast of Joestar allies to fill out its Indiana Jones-style adventure plot. Yet, it’s more resonant knowing the piece it plays in the larger Joestar family saga, knowledge that can only come about because of that story’s first part. Phantom Blood is the heart of the Jojo’s story, what started it all and what makes it so meaningful. I would think that to love Jojo’s is to love it. Or, at least, Speedwagon.

Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #6: Fate/Please Stay Good

For the longest time, Type-Moon was a mystery to me. I would hear fans talk about Fate/Stay Night, a lady King Arthur, and some other in-jokes I would not get at all until recently. The problem with Type-Moon is that to an outsider, its material was daunting. The works of Kinoko Nasu form a weird universe of different stories akin to Marvel comics, and the fandom is very similar to comic book fans. Obsessed with worldbuilding, sequels and spin-offs, and eager to explain every banal detail of their fan knowledge, I was never too keen on experiencing anything from Type-Moon’s catalog. That is until Fate/Zero got an anime adaptation a few years ago, and the world of the Fate franchise was opened to me. It was the rare prequel that was good and could be appreciated by established fans and newcomers alike. I’m still obsessed with the characters Rider and Waver, who made for an adorable odd couple with Rider’s unwavering dream of conquest and Waver’s journey of self-discovery.

Given that Fate/Zero was a success, it was inevitable that another Fate anime would be made, and of course it would be Fate/Stay Night, the original story that Fate/Zero was created to lead into. Yet I dreaded this adaptation. Having experienced the visual novel earlier this year thanks to a stream some of my friends hosted, I thought the show was going to suck, because honestly the visual novel sucks. Bad prose, terrible inner monologues, toxic misogyny, and terrible pacing made the visual novel unbearable. It was clear to me that Gen Urobuchi, who wrote Fate/Zero, was a much better writer than Kinoko Nasu. Nasu’s universe of Holy Grail Wars and Heroic Spirits is a neat concept, but he was not the best choice to execute those ideas, and certainly not in visual novel form. Fate/Stay Night isn’t even very good at being a visual novel, with there being very few player choices and only three different routes. Wouldn’t it be cooler if there was a different route where a different master wins every time? Wouldn’t it be better if there weren’t any terrible comedy vignettes based around Fujimura?

Rin SAY WHAT

Turns out ufotable knows how to turn shit into gold, as so far Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works has been one of the best anime I’ve seen this year. The story hasn’t been significantly altered, but the change in format and the changes to the plot have fixed the story. The biggest issue, Shirou, has been fixed. In the VN, he was an insufferable protagonist because the player is forced to read through his redundant inner monologues about every single detail in any given scene. Worse, he framed everything in gender-essentialist terms, reducing all the women in the cast to their gender and telling King Arthur herself that she should be more feminine. None of Shirou’s sexism is in the anime, and he is immensely more likable for it. The anime also benefits from having gorgeously animated fight scenes in place of the VN’s hilariously cheap flashes of light.

I’ve grown more attached to the story of Fate/Stay Night than I expected to. I’m currently playing through the visual novel just so I can more thoroughly compare it with the anime, and everything the VN does, the anime does better. However, I continue to be nervous about some upcoming events in the anime. In the VN, there’s scene involving Saber, dresses, and sexual torture and I really do not like it. They’ve avoided the sexism of the VN by removing unnecessary dialogue, but some scenes in the VN are inherently sexist for the actions committed by certain characters not named Shirou.

I have faith in ufotable though, and I’m actively rooting for Fate/Stay Night to remain good. I think I may be a Fate fan now. Right now I’m planning to check out the Garden of Sinners movies, based on light novels written by Nasu, and there’s a cornucopia of Fate spin-offs that have not been adapted into anime that I’d like to see in that format. I’m not so blinded by fandom that I’m willing to try the magical girl spin-off or overlook how problematic Nasu’s writing is, but he’s created an interesting universe with some cool ideas that I’d love to see explored. I can’t help but love the idea of Alexander the Great and other historical and mythological figures duking it out for the Holy Grail. Urobuchi was able to use his talented voice to turn those ideas into gold. If other writers, like the ones at ufotable, can do the same, I’ll be sure to check out more Fate for awhile.

Twelve Days of Anime #5: Streaming Anime and “Power Hours”

In the spring season, the two far-and-away best series (by most viewers’ estimations, anyway) were Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders and the new season of Mushi-shi. The latter’s new season was vastly superior to even the excellent first, and a lot of people felt the same way about Jojo’s (as I make my way through the first two arcs, I’m not entirely sure I agree with this). Since just about everyone was watching and enjoying both of these shows and they aired on the same day (Friday), they gained their own nickname on Twitter: the “Jojoshi Power Hour.” A lot of it was a joke about what completely opposite shows they were (as I briefly detail here), and how jarring it was sometimes to watch them back-to-back. Yet, a surprising number of us started doing that, including me. Those Fridays in spring were some of the best hours I’ve had in anime-viewing this year.

JJBA Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 5.33.39 PM

“Power hours” as a concept, if I’m not mistaken, come from children’s programming blocs (or channels, like Toon Disney or Cartoon Network) that would air two episodes of the same show “back-to-back,” or ones of separate shows that were linked in some way. (At least, I remember those channels describing stuff that way when I was a toon-watching kid.) As an adult, where you’re voluntarily watching these series whenever you want, it’s a fun way to organize your viewing habits. A lot of us grown-up anime viewers also watch a lot of live-action American TV dramas, whose episodes are usually an hour rather than half-hour long. It can be a fun way to keep our attention spans stable across the two media. And when a bunch of people were doing this, it helped ensure you were watching along with everyone else—one of the best things about the proliferation of legal anime streaming. Anyway, 2014 gave us a lot of opportunities for “Power Hours.”

In the summer, there was the Fujoshi Power Hour on Wednesdays, with fangirl-bait Free! Eternal Summer and actual BL title Love Stage both airing that day. I loved both those shows and, with the exception of Free!’s weird (but excellent) streak of more psychological episodes in the middle, they usually hit the same tonal notes for me. So I could easily mix and match them, though Free! coming out a few hours earlier meant it was usually what I watched first. But not always. Sometimes, I just need to wake up my senses on Wednesdays with the clueless baby-gays.

No, not these two.

No, not these two.

This season’s “power hour” is the ART Hour on Thursday, when we have Shirobako and Your Lie in April. Both deal with the struggles of young people trying to make it in artistic fields, with a mixture of comedy and drama. (The latter is considerably more dramatic than the former.) This is one I can’t really “break,” per se, because I have to review both shows for ANN. It still makes it kind of difficult to watch them back to back considering their overlapping subject matter, and how much both resonate with my life as a writer and musician. I kind of have to put a few hours’ distance between my viewings of each just to make sure my impressions don’t bleed into each other. I envy some of my friends who can watch them days apart, and not have to go through an existential crisis about their career every Thursday.

With this pair, I’ve been pretty strict about watching Shirobako first, since it airs first and therefore my “deadline” for it comes up first. I’m starting to wonder, though, if that’s really the best decision, especially since I usually turn these guys in with ample time to spare. Your Lie in April’s last few episodes have been very emotionally draining, and now it’s hard to look forward to doing more work with that show if I’ve just been perked up by Shirobako. (At least, that’s how it makes me feel most of the time. It’s pretty good at laying on the pathos when it wants to, but rarely with the devastation that Your Lie in April achieves. Shirobako hasn’t broached child abuse yet, after all.)

Still, it can hurt when it wants to.

One of Shirobako’s more hurtful moments…

There were less “powerful” hours, too, this year. Saturdays in the summer, Aldnoah Zero and Captain Earth formed my “mecha” hour, and both ended up failures to various degrees. (Aldnoah Zero was at least like watching a trainwreck in slow-motion. Captain Earth was just boring.) That was a slog, and if I got through it, it was just that the “hour” gave me the chance to burn it out of my system really quickly. The things I do for you, anime, and my desire to be a well-rounded anime watcher who’s seen both the good and the bad.

I’m interested to see if the next year will bring with it any oddly similar (or in the Jojoshi case, strikingly dissimilar) shows that happen to be airing the same day, that we can organize these ways. Bring on the winter season and its own power hours!

(P.S. In case you’re wondering why this is so behind, I had a lot of work to do yesterday that left me unable to blog on here. I’m planning to write two posts today to make up for this.)

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.

Twelve Days of Anime #4: The “Year of Sailor Moon” That Wasn’t

sailor moon viz poster

So, I think pretty much everyone knows at this point that I’m a huge Sailor Moon fan. I’ve seen most of the 1992 anime, and read the entire manga. I’ve even seen the live-action series, in fact. It’s a story I’d say I know pretty damn well, which meant I was pretty psyched when I found out about this year’s new anime and North American re-release of the old one. And I was pretty bummed when it all fell apart.

I could detail the problems with Sailor Moon Crystal endlessly—in fact, I already have—but I’m not sure if I need to at this point. As fun as it initially was just to have a new Sailor Moon anime to watch, it’s degraded to the point where it’s more of a slog than something I eagerly anticipate. It’s not even fun as a hatewatch unless you’re a diehard for the franchise. Which I am, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Crystal’s problems now go far beyond the poor animation and soulless delivery, because it’s progressed to actively disrespecting the source material. It’s making the story all about underdeveloped romances instead of the girls’ strong friendships and emotional journeys that earned it its fanbase. Its theme song may say “we don’t need the protection of men” but week after week, the girls fall apart when they don’t have it. In truth, I think a manga reboot might never have caught on as widely as I’d originally hoped, since the manga is far more standard shojo-fare than the more creative, quirky 1992 anime. Yet the Crystal anime waters down and cuts up the manga as well, leaving just a shallow husk. If this is really what Naoko Takeuchi wanted out of a Sailor Moon anime…then I can’t help but be glad she didn’t get her way the first time around, you know?

I am looking forward to the second season, though.

I am looking forward to the second season material, though.

The mistakes on the Viz re-release just compounded the despair, after the old series’ return became such a hope spot for those of us frustrated with Crystal. Even so, at least its Hulu streaming schedule allowed me to revisit one of my favorite childhood shows, and the show that first got me into anime. Sailor Moon’s filler arcs are a lot less fun and more trying as an adult, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how much fun its creators had within that premise. There was clearly a lot of love and talent put into that old series, that shines through even in its most lackluster episodes. And it has its strong characters and relationships between them that captivated me at age six and still do now. It kept me watching every week as new episodes were put out…for a while, anyway.

2014 being the “year of Sailor Moon” meant that before I started writing for ANN, when I was writing for feminist/queer pop-culture media, that was basically all they would let me cover for a while. I was the “anime person” and that was the anime-of-interest for that crowd. It was hard out here for a Moonie this year, and the constant strivings and disappointments made me more than a little burned-out. I think it finally culminated when the disappointing reviews of the Viz release started coming in last month. I was in the middle of the R season’s dire Doom Tree arc, and just so fed up with stressing over that show that I had to put my re-watch on hold. I love the franchise, but even I can only take so much—especially when, at the end of the day, it’s a kids’ show that probably doesn’t deserve its mantle of That One Really Feminist/Queer Anime to casual anime fans.

Yeah, I said it. Sailor Moon is fun, empowering for little girls, and can be quite inventive in the hands of directors and writers like Kunihiko Ikuhara, Junichi Sato, Yoji Enokido and others. And yet… maybe it’s the burnout talking, but it endlessly frustrates me that this seems to be the only girl-targeted anime that the larger feminist and queer Internet wants to talk about at all. Non-anime fans know about plenty of boy-targeted shows—Pokemon, Dragonball, Naruto, maybe even Fullmetal Alchemist or Death Note—but seem to think Sailor Moon is the only girls’ show of note. It deserves that discussion about how it’s feminist and empowering and just quality girl-centered entertainment, but it always comes with the implicit assumption that it’s exceptional among anime in that regard. Even though every single one of those guys I mentioned who were involved with Sailor Moon have given us more interesting shojo series since then.

Including this one.

Including this one.

Sailor Moon’s dealings with gender are barely the tip of the feminism iceberg. Yeah, the 1992 anime creators certainly snuck in some social commentary on consumerism and restrictive fashion trends in-between the battles. Yeah, it has a wide variety of female characters, some of them even queer and gender non-conforming. But at the end of the day, Sailor Moon’s “feminist” message is mostly just that girls can be badass and do the rescuing of their love interests, not just be rescued. That’s it. There’s a lot more to feminism than that, and a lot more that media can say about it. Far from anime purely reflecting an antiquated patriarchal value system, Japan has produced quite a lot of cartoons that delve deep into the issues with restrictive gender roles, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to the works of Sayo Yamamato. There’s also anime’s (and especially the josei genre’s) tradition of strong coming-of-age stories about women that reflect gendered problems, like Paradise Kiss.

Those other works are far more challenging, and worthy of more attention and analysis, than is the so-called “weaponized femininity” of Sailor Moon and other magical-girl shows. Telling little girls they’re powerful is great, but it shouldn’t stop there. And Sailor Moon does pretty much stop there: it doesn’t do much to interrogate gender roles other than suggesting they’re too based in consumerism that can be taken advantage of, and shouldn’t be compulsory. Girls should be allowed to choose how boyish or girlish they want to be. But when Usagi confronts Jadeite over him using jewelry or fitness centers to dupe girls, it’s usually with a message that the underlying thing is good, and him using it is bad. That’s a far cry from Revolutionary Girl Utena’s doctrine that we’re all incubated from birth in this system, that both masculinity and femininity are toxic, and only through burning it all down–“smashing the egg’s shell”–can we break free:

Not that I expect a show for little girls to advocate for radical feminism and “world revolution.” But maybe that’s why us grown adults shouldn’t put those little girls’ shows on a pedestal. It is kind of amazing to me that so many American pop-culture writers think this is really the furthest that anime goes when it comes to feminism (and is just one example among many of the reductive ways that Americans essentialize and oversimplify non-Western cultures and their approaches to progressive issues).

I really love Sailor Moon, and I know it played a big part in my own feminist and queer awakening. I just wish that the feminist conversation on anime didn’t so often stop there. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the year of Sailor Moon was a bust. Maybe Sailor Moon just doesn’t work as well in 2014 as it did in 1992. Maybe it’ll give feminists who are casual anime fans the boost to move on, and explore the larger world of anime about women, for women.

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.

Twelve Days of Anime #3: Writing My Thesis on Princess Tutu, and Finding a Place in Anime Academia

princess tutu mytho duck dance

The second Trigun post is getting delayed a day or two, since today’s a pretty busy writing day for me. That, and I realized I was about to embark on this project without talking about the biggest anime writing project I embarked on this year: my master’s thesis.

As I’m sure you all know by now, I’m a musicologist, and one of my major areas of interest is studying the use of music in film media. I knew from well into last year that I wanted to write my master’s thesis on something related to it, but it was only when I watched Princess Tutu for the first time in summer 2013 that it came to me: I should write it on the use of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in film and television. I’ve been obsessed with his four-opera masterwork since I was in high school, and Wagner’s music and writings have had a huge influence on the art of filmmaking. It’s hardly a new topic, but I’m probably the first to apply it to Princess Tutu.

The brainstorming and preliminary research took me the rest of that year, and the actual work of writing the thesis began for me in February of this year. I finally finished my thesis last month, after endless research, revisions and…oh yeah, 93 pages of writing. (Though, as I said on ask.fm, that was one of the easier parts.)

Not that it didn't feel like this sometimes.

Not that it didn’t feel like this sometimes.

“Anime academia” spreads across a wide variety of fields, but one area it hasn’t really touched down in yet is musicology. My field tends to be a few years or decades behind the times in general—we only really got on the feminist-theory bus around 1990, for instance—and so film/television studies is just now making its rounds as the Hot New Musicology Trend. That means big-name filmmakers are well documented, but there are still a lot of diamonds in the rough to unearth, and that includes anime. Academics studying anime music have written a lot on Studio Ghibli films and Cowboy Bebop, but not much else. Occasionally you’ll find something about anime in a paper on the Japanese pop music industry, which seems to draw more musicological interest than the anime behind so much of J-pop’s overseas following.

That makes it considerably easier to break new ground in talking about something like Princess Tutu than, say, in my thesis chapter on Apocalypse Now. Yet, studying something unknown brings up its own project: explaining why it should be studied in the first place. Why should anyone else care? It’s a cliché for “pop culture” academics to use their papers as an excuse to fanboy/girl all over their favorite thing for an audience, but I didn’t want to do that. No one wants to do that. My thesis was about the ways that new works reflect Wagner’s current reception and interpretations, so hopefully I managed to justify it to stuffy old classical-music snobs who don’t necessarily care about anime. Still, when I presented a paper on Princess Tutu’s music at a conference this past May, my panel was one of the emptier ones I attended.

princess tutu kraehe and tutu

Actually, that’s kind of an unfair way to characterize my field, even if its increasing focus on stuff like film scores, rock music and queer theory has received its fair share of snooty pushback. One of the things I increasingly find is that other musicologists are very accepting of and surprisingly interested in my studies on music in anime. And I don’t just mean other film musicologists, many of whom also focus on so-called “nerd stuff” (one of the new friends I made at AMS this year is writing her dissertation on Star Trek) and are used to raised eyebrows when they talk about their work. Even the people working on more traditional fare seem intrigued, especially when I tell them that the anime I’m studying uses a lot of Wagner, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and other Great Dead White Guys Canonical Masters in ways that comment on that music. Maybe I can show them that anime does have more to it than the “Pokemon and hentai” stereotype, that it can be as artistically-groundbreaking and thought-provoking as any other medium.

Or maybe academically studying anything lends you a degree of authority and respect that distinguishes you from the average fan. Or maybe they really do think I’m just like those 15-year-old otaku jabbering on forums about No Game No Life. Who knows? As long as I get room to make my case, I don’t care if some of the people letting me in are holding their noses. I’m sure I’ll win some minds and hearts over to the idea that what I research and write about has value, and a place in the field of musicology.