Summer 2016 Anime Season: What to Watch – Part 2

Here is the rest of my list of “what to watch in the summer anime season,” with more long-winded explanations for each of them! The previous post is here.

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#5 Love Live Sunshine!

I should start this out by admitting that I am a Love Live virgin. I have no previous experience with the franchise, except for a few attempts at the mobile game. So I can honestly say that you don’t need previous exposure to enjoy Love Live Sunshine!, which follows a completely different group of girls from the previous series. You don’t need to know much about it except the premise and that the last series’ idol group was called µ’s (pronounced like “muse”). The new crop are admirers of the old one, with their own personalities and reasons for wanting to be school idols.

“Cute girls in a school club” anime are not really My Thing, so I should explain why I find Love Live so compelling. The first reason is the sheer amount of energy on display in every single episode. This isn’t sleepy, “healing” moe fare: Love Live is excited about idols and wants to make sure that you are, too. Its conflicts are all small stakes, always revolving around Aquors, the new series’ idol group, but they treat every single one like it’s a big deal. Love Live passionately demands your attention at every moment, so you can’t help but be taken in by it.

The other reason is just how good this show looks. Like its predecessor, Love Live Sunshine! has great art and animation. It makes everything feel shinier and more inviting, like you just want to get lost in its happy world. The seaside setting for this particular incarnation of the franchise just adds to this effect. Love Live Sunshine! puts a lot of its out-of-school scenes on or near the beach, making every visit to its world feel like a summer vacation.

I also think, for me, there’s something very familiar and nostalgic about idol shows, with the conflicts so similar to the old-school Hollywood backstage musicals I grew up watching. Maybe I should watch more of them. If they’re as good as this one, I think I’ll have a lot of fun.

Current Episode Count: 5/13. Streaming Saturdays on Funimation.

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#4 Thunderbolt Fantasy

So this one isn’t technically an anime, but how could I not include it on this list? Thunderbolt Fantasy comes from the twisted, fascinating brain of Gen Urobuchi, of Madoka MagicaFate/Zero and Psycho-Pass fame. For real this time: this is not a drill, this is not one where he’s just listed under “story concept,” he’s actually writing the thing. Crunchyroll even has a preview episode that discusses the conception and technical details of the series’ production: Urobuchi went to Taiwan and saw the puppet theater troupe that moves the characters in this show. He loved it, and wanted to make the art form popular in Japan, and so here we are.

Thunderbolt Fantasy is basically wuxia, a type of historical drama that’s China’s version of our lords-and-ladies medieval fantasy. The plot is a fairly straightforward version of the genre, but where Urobuchi sells it is by turning the camp up to 11. Thunderbolt Fantasy knows the whole idea of “puppet TV” is kind of silly, and what’s more, the puppets need exaggerated movements and speech in order to fully come off as “human.” It gives it a really strong charm that helps to sell the silliness of the plot.

It’s hard to tell yet if Thunderbolt Fantasy will show any of the same moral dilemmas or character archetypes that are familiar from his other series. But it’s definitely fun, and hopefully leads to a whole new trend of campy puppet shows from other anime auteurs.

Current Episode Count: 4/13. Streaming Fridays on Crunchyroll.

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#3 91 Days

91 Days is a pretty basic story: set in the Prohibition era in the United States, a young man returns to the town where he grew up on a mission. The mob killed his entire family except for him ten years ago. Now, he wants his revenge, and will do whatever it takes to get it–even if he has to compromise his remaining humanity for it.

There are so many stories like this in anime, and so many in the “gangster” genre worldwide. I think what makes 91 Days stand out from other “gangster” anime, such as Baccano! and, well, Gangsta, is how much it’s in dialogue with the previous works in that genre. It’s not just the obvious visual reference to The Godfather films in the series’ logo or in events like structuring a key plot point around a mob boss’s daughter’s wedding, but arguably the whole thematic struggle of how the bonds that make us most human can lead us to actions that deprive us of our humanity. So many mafia stories are rooted in the fact that people do these awful, bloody things for family.

91 Days is also indebted to film depictions of rural early 20th-century America, especially road movies. It’s an interesting mix of genres, along with the character focus and more drawn-out, breathable story typical of anime TV series. There is a lot more that I can say on this point, but I want to write a longer post about this series, so I’ll leave it there.

Oh, and it easily has the best soundtrack of this season, or at least tied with my next choice. That’s enough reason alone to check out this anime riff on a very American genre.

Current Episode Count: 4/13. Streaming Fridays on Crunchyroll.

did i mention this show is weird

#2 Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable

This is the one exception to the “get in now so you can catch up to it” rule: the current Jojo’s is now 18 episodes strong, and it relies on a lot of references to the previous arc at first. You can’t really go into Diamond is Unbreakable blind. It’s very well-worth the engagement, though, because Jojo’s continues to be excellent, in a way completely different from the series that came before it.

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure always involved some epic good-vs-evil battle, even if it played out in different ways across those first three arcs. Diamond is Unbreakable starts that way, but as former enemies turn to Josuke and Koichi’s side, it’s becoming clear what the point of the series really is: suburban teens goofing off, but with superpowers. And because it’s Jojo’s, and it’s goofy and over-the-top and also has top-notch production values, it’s strongly compelling. It might just be my favorite Jojo’s arc, and not just because it’s doing a great job with the sort of stories I tried and failed at as a teenager. I think it gets at a really tonally accurate depiction of suburban life, in a way all the moodier ’90s fare about it that I think the show is building off of didn’t. It’s not that bad, but it’s not that great, either. It’s mostly just weird, and also kind of boring unless you try to have fun with it. A lot of being a suburban teen is finding ways to have fun with it.

Diamond is Unbreakable is basically the version of suburbia that suburban teens wish it was: all the creature comforts but with just a little more excitement to them, to spice them up.

Also, the Stands are amazingly weird, as the picture shows. Rohan is a great addition to the group, a manga artist who lives pretty much purely for his craft, constantly in search of more story material and not caring who he has to cross to get it. Of course, he has a stand perfect for it, that just reflects how much more interesting the Stands are getting as Jojo’s moves further and further away from the theme-based “logic” of the Stardust Crusaders ones. The sky is the limit now, and anything goes. And against the mundane suburban setting, it just makes the weirdness all the more pronounced.

I haven’t read the manga, so I have no idea where the show is going with this. But I don’t care if it’s building to an epic confrontation with a Big Bad, or if it’s just another season and a half of Josuke, Okuyasu, Koichi and Rohan finding goofy ways to entertain themselves in Morioh. Either way, I’m game.

Current Episode Count: 18/39. Streaming Fridays on Crunchyroll.

orange-anime blog

#1 Orange

Yep, the atmospheric teenage melodrama about suicide, romance and time-travel is my no. 1 pick for the season, surpassing even the inimitable Jojo.

I am also planning to write a longer post (or set of posts) about Orange, so I don’t want to use this section to spoil too much of that. But I think I should go into detail a bit about why this show wows me so much, because this genre isn’t usually the sort of thing that blows me away to the extent this series has.

Orange is just really good at capturing the emotions and high-stakes of adolescence. Something like Mob Psycho 100 tells, but Orange shows. It manages to find the perfect middle-ground between the extremes that anime usually goes to in depicting adolescence. It’s never too over-the-top or too subdued to be unrealistic. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those approaches, but it makes something that reaches for the perfect, most accurate middle feel refreshing.

I don’t think I’ve experienced an anime series that really got the emotional roller-coaster of adolescence since Paradise Kiss and Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad. Osamu Kobayashi was really good at that, in fact. Until he’s directing series again, we’ll always have Orange.

Current Episode Count: 5/13. Streaming Sundays on Crunchyroll.

Summer 2016 Anime Season: What to Watch – Part 1

So a few weeks ago, I said I would do a sort of “summer season so far” post. Well, when you’re writing a book, it has a way of catching up to you and delaying all your other projects. Still, I wanted to make sure I had this done before the first month of the season was over, so here we are.

We’re now several episodes into each of these shows, making it a little less “preview” than I wanted. Luckily, we’re only at episode 4-5 at most: so there’s still plenty of time to catch up anything you weren’t watching. And there’s a lot to watch: summer has an incredible number of shows, and a pretty high number of them are worth a shot! There’s a little bit for everyone, from comedies to dramas, to sports to idol shows, to slice-of-life. There are even a couple of historical fiction series. (Is it just me, or is anime making more of those? I like this trend. Please continue.)

This was originally a single post, but it was getting crazy long, especially for the higher entries. So I’m going to put #6-12 on here. The top 5 will go up later this week. This list will not include short series, but I might do a post on them later.

cheer boys article screencap 2

#12 Cheer Boys

I don’t think there’s ever been as fangirl-friendly a premise as “boy’s cheerleading team.” I’m definitely of the fangirl mode in a lot of my tastes, so I went into Cheer Boys expecting to love it.

I didn’t…at first. The first episode was a little slow-paced, and it wasn’t helped by the occasionally sloppy animation. Luckily, by the second episode, it was already a lot better, and kept improving as the group added more members.

What’s interesting about this show is that, even though everyone is based on the same archetypes as every other sports show (for example, the glasses character has a very similar personality to Rei from Free!), they feel and act more like real people. They’re like the more realistic, grounded versions of those archetypes. Watching Cheer Boys, you feel like you’re sitting in on a real college club as they get themselves together.

Oh yeah, that’s the other thing: these characters are in college. How often do we get that in anime? So many high school shows, so few college ones.

Current Episode Count: 5/12. Streaming Tuesdays on Funimation

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#11 The Morose Mononokean

The Morose Mononokean follows a boy named Ashiya whose first day of high school is ruined by an energy-stealing yokai (a sort of Japanese nature spirit). When he calls an exorcist after many unsuccessful nurse office visits, he gets the creature off his back, but to pay for the service he’s now working as the exorcist’s assistant. This leads to Ashiya gaining a deeper understanding of these quirky creatures he’s supposed to exorcise, and the colorful world from which they came.

If this series is low, it’s only because this season is so stellar. If you’ve been reading my ANN reviews, you know I’m loving The Morose Mononokean. Its most recent episodes weren’t quite on the level of the previous three, but there’s still a lot to love about this show–and that sets it apart from other supernatural comedies.

Where others just stick to the biting humor, The Morose Mononokean has a big heart, making you well up with tears when you’re not laughing. It’s almost better at being a heartwarming slice-of-(magical)-life than it is at being funny, though there are lots of laughs to go around, too. Each yokai has a cuddly story that teaches a lesson about the need to appreciate, understand and value all life, making The Morose Mononokean sort of like a bishonen comedy version of Mushishi. Not nearly on that show’s level of quality, of course, but still a very special thing on its own.

Current Episode Count: 5/13. Streaming Sundays on Crunchyroll.

new game for article

#10 New Game!

I didn’t expect to love New Game! as much as I am, but from the first episode, I was hooked. Maybe, between this and Shirobako, “workplace comedy” is my kind of moe show, because this series is one of my most anticipated going into each week.

New Game! follows Aoba, a teenage girl fresh out of high school, and living the dream as a video game character designer. She’s at the company that made her favorite game, and now she gets to work on the sequel! Along the way, she meets the colorful characters who populate this all-female company, from a shy girl who can’t talk except through IM, to the goofy head of the art department who sleeps by her desk in her underwear.

The show doesn’t include nearly as much about game design as Shirobako did about anime production, so you might be a little disappointed if that’s why you’re watching. (There are a few details here and there, though, especially in episode 3, where Aoba has her first real crack at creating NPCs.) What it is great at is capturing the experience of your first job, and the camaraderie among female friends striving for their dreams. Which is another really strong thread in Shirobako, so if you loved the relationships on that show, I’d highly recommend checking out this younger sister anime.

Current Episode Count: 5/12. Streaming Mondays on Crunchyroll.

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#9 Battery

Amazon’s first show from its deal with Noitamina was the very atypical Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, a bombastic action show from the director of Death Note and Attack on Titan. It was a strange expectation-setter, when most of Noitamina’s shows tend to be more understated teen dramas and slice-of-life. Battery is closer to that mold, as a baseball anime about the friendship between two boys, from the creator of another Noitamina series, No. 6. Which, of course, means it might turn out to be something more than friendship down the line, but it’s hard to tell from these early episodes.

Either way, Battery is a very soothing character drama, the sort of series that gets labeled iyashikei (or “healing anime”). That might make it too slow for some, and it was for me at first, but it’s slowly crept into my heart as the episodes have worn on. This one doesn’t grab at the strong emotions of adolescent life the way that something like Orange does, but it has that same understated appreciation for the complexities of teenage relationships, whether that be with friends, family or their passions (baseball).

Current Episode Count: 3/11. Streaming Thursdays on Amazon Prime.

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#8 Mob Psycho 100

What a visual marvel. Mob Psycho 100 comes from the same mangaka as One-Punch Man, and reflects ONE’s iconic character designs just as that series did. Mob Psycho 100, though, takes it a step further. It’s animated by Studio BONES, and they take the series through a dizzying array of art styles. The second episode alone ranges from charcoal drawings to actual painting effects (as seen above). The featured image for this article is also from the series, just to get a sense of its range of art styles.

Originally, I had this series lower on the list because it seemed too thin on the plot and characters. Mob Psycho 100 is comedy about a psychic teenage boy trying to figure out his place in the world, while he works at an exorcist shop. (Is something in the water this anime season?) It’s funny and self-aware, with nods to other anime. It has nothing on One-Punch Man‘s affectionate parody of shonen superheroes, but it’s a hilariously surreal walk through teenage life in its own way.

And as of episode 3, it’s started to show some serious promise of its own on the writing front. The third episode featured a strange cult that hypnotized its followers into laughter and happiness, no matter how skeptical they were…everyone, except protagonist Mob, because he has no emotions. Rather than dismiss him as creepy and weird, Mob Psycho 100 decides to explore this side of Mob, and the social consequences he’s felt for lacking such a basic component of humanity. When the cult leader continues to push this button…let’s just say it does not end well for him.

So, bit by bit, Mob Psycho 100 is revealing its cards, making it clearer what kind of story it wants to be. Still, it’s the aesthetics that make Mob Psycho 100 such a marvel, They’re like nothing you’ve ever seen before in anime, and make the series well worth checking out.

Current Episode Count: 4/12. Streaming Mondays on Crunchyroll.

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#7 Sweetness and Lightning

Sweetness and Lightning should be familiar for fans of Bunny Drop (before the latter got gross, anyway). It’s the sweet story of a single dad and his daughter. In this case, it’s not that the daughter is adopted, but that her mother has passed away. Her father has to learn how to care for his preschool-aged tyke all on his own, while also navigating his job as a high school teacher. Luckily, he makes friends along the way, including with one of his students, whose family owns a restaurant and who helps him with making meals for his daughter when her mom is away.

The series lives up pretty well to the first word in its title. It’s basically just a big chunk of heartwarming every week, as we watch the tiny family make their way through the world. Tsumugi, the daughter on the show, acts like a real preschooler, getting in fights and misunderstandings with her friends at school, excited and curious about everything she comes across in the world. The relationship between the dad, Kohei, and the student, Kotori, so far shows no chance of heading into Creepytown. They’re just people who’ve found a family of their own in the absence of their real ones.

Oh yeah, and the food always looks delicious. The series also shows them making it step by step, so maybe if you paused a lot you could take down the recipes yourself!

Current Episode Count: 5/12. Streaming Mondays on Crunchyroll.

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#6 Planetarian

Planetarian is based on a Key visual novel, a phrase that comes with a lot of baggage. What makes this one different is that it’s a pretty early work from the studio, pre-Clannad, that’s just now getting an OVA. There’s a cute, sad girl, but the story has a strong emotional core based in real human feeling. That’s despite the fact that the girl is a chipper robot living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The robot girl runs a planetarium and still enthusiastically greets any “customers” and offers a presentation, oblivious to the changes in her world. The story is based on her encounter with a gruff, jaded man who stumbles into the planetarium. There’s a cliché Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl sheen to the premise, of the cute, perky girl who has a brief encounter with a sad boy and gives meaning to his life, etc., but I think there’s more to Planetarian than that. There’s also a larger question about what life does mean in such a bleak, uncompromising world, where all the usual trappings of civilization are gone. As of the most recent episode, I get the impression that Yumemi, our robot girl, is wiser to the realities of her life than she lets on, and her continuing to play the planetarium attendant is her way of giving her life a purpose.

Planetarian also just appeals to me as someone who always wanted post-apocalyptic stories to be more about the people and less about the circumstances of their world’s demise. Sure, that stuff is fascinating in its own way, especially if there’s some meaty theme behind it, but don’t you always wish you knew more about everyday lives in these hypothetical futures? I did. Planetarian is pretty much all character drama, with very little fleshing-out of the world beyond the characters’ mundane observations. It’s a really simple, but surprisingly effective thing.

Also, it’s only five episodes! So when it finishes this week, you could breeze through it in an afternoon.

Current Episode Count: 4/5. Streaming Thursdays on Funimation.

That’s all for now! Tune in later this week for the top five.

 

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.

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!

Twelve Days of Anime #10: Much Ado About Kill la Kill

One of the weirder aspects of my engagement with anime fandom this year was the Twitter/Tumblr firestorm over Kill la Kill. The show began last year, but I didn’t really start watching it until the end of the fall season. I’d seen people go nuts over it on Tumblr, as well as get furiously angry at its fanservice and other perceived offenses. I figured there had to be something to this show to attract so much controversy, so I checked it out.

kill la kill ryumako

Kill la Kill is many things, among those being bombastic, weird, and certainly like nothing else out there. I mean, it’s a story about sentient pieces of clothing that threaten humanity, and the scissor-blade-wielding quasi-magical-girl who stands up against them. It’s been compared to everything from Gurren Lagann to Evangelion (but what anime isn’t compared to the latter in some way), but none of this really explains Kill la Kill. There are some things Kill la Kill decidedly isn’t, though. One of those is “deep”—despite any indications it may have been leaning there during its run, it didn’t make anything of them. All that was sacrificed in service of its fun-loving heart.

Another of those things is “feminist” or “anti-feminist.” Kill la Kill indulges in a lot of over-the-top fanservice, that made me feel a bit icky whenever I had to look at Ryuko’s cameltoe in her transformation sequences. It also has some moments of questionable use of sexual assault imagery, as with Satsuki being fondled by her mother—though, I never felt that they were outright tasteless, and they served a narrative purpose in showing how imprisoned and helpless Ragyo made her. Yet, the series still seems to fundamentally respect its female characters, and gives them equal development and prominence to the male ones. In fact, most of its important characters are female. This is certainly not a rule against an anime being sexist (as the “battle vixens” genre proves) and Kill la Kill plays a lot to the male gaze, but it rarely felt truly exploitative (or at least, no more than every other aspect of the show). I found a lot to enjoy from its portrayal of women as a feminist anime fan.

This girl was my favorite.

This girl was my favorite.

This series became a lightning rod for feminist debate on the Internet, and it was incredibly polarized. Either you thought Kill la Kill was the next Utena or a “female Evangelion,” or some sort of deep metaphor for female puberty (here’s where I have to stifle a laugh)… or you thought it was misogynistic, rape-apologist trash. It got pretty ugly and personal on both sides, with those who disliked it being accused of “looking for things to dislike,” and those who liked it in turn hearing that they were “just making excuses” and being unable to admit they “liked problematic things.” I thought there was a lot of confirmation bias on both ends—I know I was a little too quick to believe some of the pro-KLK theories I heard, and I’ll never for the life of me understand what some people’s big issue with episode 3 is—but also some intelligent arguments that it was frustrating to see so easily dismissed. The whole time, I couldn’t help but think it was odd to see so many people taking an anime incredibly seriously that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously.

kill la kill this is crazy

It was also a strange place for me to be since, then and now, I never really had a strong feeling either way about Kill la Kill . That goes for the series’ overall quality, not just in terms of its “feminism” and whatnot. It’s a very visually-inventive and entertaining anime, with a really fun cast of characters. Yet, it never really captured my heart the way it did others. I found the first half hard to get through (and I marathoned most of it), and even the more engaging latter half never made me feel as emotionally-invested as my friends were. However, I seem to be pretty much the only person (apart from Bobduh) with such a middling reaction to this show. For whatever reason, it draws strong opinions.

Which I find very interesting, as Kill la Kill certainly doesn’t seem to be made with that in mind. It’s like a non-stop party, meant to be a rollicking good battling time and little else. Yet, if you were following anime in the winter of 2014, you couldn’t escape hearing people discuss everything I’ve mentioned and more: Is Kill la Kill good or bad? Does it treat its female characters well or not? Does Mako belong with Ryuko or Gamagoori? And above all: what does it mean? The series appeared to answer the last one for us: it didn’t mean much of anything, and it didn’t have to. It’s not meant to inspire so much thought and reflection. It only wants to entertain you.

The finale also answered another of those questions, too.

The finale answered another of those questions, too.

The endless Kill la Kill debates were an interesting time in anime fandom for me, as they made me realize a lot of why I disliked the discussions around feminism in media online. Fandom is all about personal investment in media, and too often, that gets mixed in when those same people try to critique it. That goes both ways, too—plenty of the people I saw reading offensiveness into Kill la Kill in places where it wasn’t, seemed to be justifying other issues they had with the show (perfectly legitimate ones, I might add). Let those conversations be a lesson for 2015, to be more honest about what we’re trying to say when we talk about feminism and other fraught issues in media. And maybe consider whether the work we’re looking at is really engaging with these issues (or any) in the first place.

Twelve Days of Anime #9: Watching Anime With My Sister…And My Cat?

kyo kara maoh

My younger sister and I have always fought with each other…over everything. When we were little kids, while we watched a lot of the same TV shows and got obsessed with the same trends, we invariably had different opinions about them. For example: Even though she played drums and I play bass, we could never start a band, because our musical tastes were too divergent. She liked pop (especially J-pop); I liked classic rock. We were like oil and water on every topic, except for anime and video games (usually of the Japanese variety). Those were the places we could bond: Fullmetal Alchemist, Pokemon, and Animal Crossing.

So when I got back into anime two years ago, this was a huge relief for us. Finally, we had something we both liked we could talk about again! The problem is, the more I get into anime, the more my sister and I find reason to fight over it, because our tastes are so different.

My sister’s opinions on anime are a lot more… “fangirl?” than mine are. Her favorites are popular anime-fan favorites, at least for anime fans who started watching in the mid-00s. She keeps up on long-running shonen anime like Naruto, while I don’t (although I do mean to check out Hunter x Hunter like everyone keeps telling me). She prefers FMA Brotherhood to the 2003 anime, and you all know how I feel about that. She falls firmly on the “subs” line of that classic fan debate while I’m more ambivalent, which resulted in a big argument between us last time we both stayed with our parents. (It was over Digimon, of all things.) I’m sure she’d probably have some choice words for me and my snooty, artsy-fartsy tastes and opinions, too.

We do have some common ground, though. One of the main things is that we’re both diehard fujoshi, so something BL-flavored is a good bet for us both to enjoy. So when she got the old out-of-print DVDs of Kyo Kara Maoh for Christmas last year, we marathoned it every night after our parents went to sleep. We still ended up disagreeing—on which dude the protagonist should be with from his shonen-ai harem—but it was in good fun, and we bonded a lot while watching the show.

Yuuri belongs with CONRAD. Isn't it obvious?

Yuuri belongs with CONRAD. Isn’t it obvious?

Kyo Kara Maoh is the story of Yuuri Shibuya, a baseball-obsessed Japanese teenager who falls through a toilet (yes, really!) and finds himself in a medieval European fantasy kingdom. He learns it’s called the Demon Kingdom and he’s its new king, and now he’s suddenly surrounded with pretty boys accompanying him on adventures and diplomatic challenges. It’s a weird, bloated light-novel adaptation, full of filler arcs combined with more substantial plot and character development. Running 78 episodes in total, it’s probably best experienced in marathon-form, skimming through the filler at breakneck speed with another fujoshi seated next to you. I wouldn’t recommend it if you aren’t a fan of BL or of reverse harems (Kyo Kara Maoh feels like a parody of certain notable examples of the latter, like Fushigi Yuugi), but if you are, it’s great slumber-party fare.

And we weren’t even the only ones who liked it. My cat Casey spent 10 straight minutes during one episode staring at the TV. He never does this! But Kyo Kara Maoh drew him in, I guess. I think his favorite character was Gwendal.

He also has a crush on our Christmas tree skirt, though, so I'm not sure what Casey's opinion is worth.

He also has a crush on our Christmas tree skirt, though, so I’m not sure what Casey’s opinion is worth.

My sister’s engagement with anime is a big part of my own. It was the degree of her obsession as a teenager that turned me off it for a while. Now it’s become a way for us to connect as adults, even if we often disagree. I value her opinion enough to ask her what she thinks whenever I finish an older series. Having friends with wildly different tastes who still understand yours is a valuable experience when you spend your life thinking about and discussing media. For me, that friend is my sister.

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.

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.)

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.

Twelve Days of Anime #2: How Nicholas D. Wolfwood Made Me Cry

This is the first of what will likely be two or three posts about Trigun in this series. It was one of the first anime series I completed this year, and it says something that it’s still rattling around in my mind 11 months later. So if you’re a Trigun fanatic, rev up your engines—and you know there’s only one way to do that:

(Also, this is going to include a butt-ton of spoilers for the anime series, so if you haven’t seen it and you want to keep your Trigun virginity intact, you might want to skip this post.)

This blogging series is supposed to be about moments–in anime, in anime fandom—even if I kinda violated the rule with the previous post being more about a gradual realization. Anyway, as soon as I read the description, I knew that I’d be talking about the death scene for my favorite Trigun character, Nicholas D. Wolfwood. It had such an impact on me when I first saw the show that I originally planned to start this blog off with a series on character deaths in my favorite TV series, and why they worked or didn’t work. I can admit now it was just an excuse to talk about this dork:

trigun_nick0042

Along with the ending of Madoka Magica, Wolfwood’s death is the only time that anime has actually made me break down in tears. And that’s from no lack of engaging with tear-jerking anime: I made it through all of Wolf’s Rain, Penguindrum, Fullmetal Alchemist, the ending of Cowboy Bebop…all without any waterworks. What is it about Wolfwood that did it for me?

I think it’s that he didn’t want to die. And moreover, he didn’t need to die.

trigun wolfwood smoking

The smoking probably would’ve eventually killed him anyway

Oh, I’m sure people will argue with me on this, but I firmly believe this. And I’m someone who can easily admit when characters I love need to die. I think Hughes’s death in FMA is a brilliant turning point and tonal shift, and can’t see how it could have been executed any other way. I think Spike Spiegel died at the end of Cowboy Bebop and it absolutely had to happen to close off his character arc and make the point Keiko Nobumoto wanted to make. And for a non-anime example: I think Don Draper needs to kick it at the end of Mad Men for similar reasons.

Wolfwood didn’t need to die. You can say he needed to be shuffled offstage to make way for Vash’s final confrontations with Legato and Knives, but I’m sure Trigun could work him in somehow or find a way to explain his absence. Heck, it does essentially work him in, since Wolfwood’s voice in Vash’s head is what pushes him along, and his giant cross-shaped gun, the Punisher, is how Vash finally triumphs over Knives. (A phrasing I think Vash would disagree with, but whatever.) What’s more, Wolfwood knows the unnecessary nature of his death, and expresses this.

The beauty of that scene is not just its exquisite direction, and use of music (I still can’t listen to “Rakuen,” Wolfwood’s theme that was used so extensively in this scene, without getting a bit blubbery). The way Wolfwood exits the world is just so human. He tries at first for serenity, to accept the inevitability of his approaching death, and muses on how he hopes to be reincarnated in a paradise where he can “live happily, with him (Vash) and the girls.” (Finally, the Milly/Wolfwood and Vash/Wolfwood shippers are united in emotional torment!) But when he takes time to really think about that dream, and how his actions in life made it impossible, he suddenly realizes he doesn’t want to die. He wants to live and make things better! His “sins are so heavy,” but that’s because he’s full of regrets, regrets he could easily make right—if only he had a little more time. “I did not want to die this way!” he screams. And then he dies.

It’s so easy to write characters who go into death with an accepting smile on their faces, but I have to imagine that everyone is at least a little like Wolfwood when they’re about to meet their maker. Even if you’ve lived a long, full life, there have to be some things you wish you could’ve done when you’re stuck there, alone with your thoughts, knowing you’re reaching the end. And Wolfwood didn’t live that kind of life: his was short (remember, he’s only chronologically 17 in the manga, and the anime hints at this a few times, too), and filled with violence and misery. It feels brief to the audience, too, since as much screentime as Wolfwood’s had by this point, we only really got to know him and his backstory in this episode.

A lot of my favorite anime are those that establish characters and ideas in really small chunks. For example, in FMA, we learn everything we need to know about Sloth in the three minutes right before Edward kills her, and it’s one of the series’ most masterful moments. Madoka told us everything we needed to know about Homura and her many lives in the space of a single half-hour. FMA had a big cast, and Madoka had a short runtime, so it was necessary for them to push to pull this off. But Trigun didn’t need to do this; it only had a few major characters, some of whom still didn’t get any real backstory in the anime (like Legato) in spite of the series’ ample time to do so across its 26 episodes. It could’ve taken its time with Wolfwood, but it didn’t.

I think it works, because it just compounds the regrets the audience feels and represents the brief tragedy of his life. We barely knew him before he left us. He barely knew himself, only just then revealing to Vash his conflicted loyalties (“Knives is in Dmitri”) and firmly deciding to fully commit himself to his friends’ ideals. In that sense, if I were going to compare Wolfwood’s death to that of any other character in an anime I love, I would compare it to Lust’s in FMA. They were only just beginning their journeys of self-discovery when we lost them, and their deaths are full of regrets about that. But it isn’t that we’re cheated; that incomplete journey, that sentence fragment is the point. It adds to the emotional punch and realism of these stories, since this happens far too often to real people, too.

trigun wolfwood confessional

How can you not love that face? How can you not cry over it?

Trigun is ultimately not Wolfwood’s story, but the story of Vash the Stampede and Millions Knives, two godlike beings struggling to make sense of their relationships to humanity. Vash is a Christ figure, showing how such a “man” would be burdened and tried by the world if he’d lived longer than Jesus’s 33 years. Wolfwood is the key to his bond with humanity, as Trigun’s most deliciously flawed, frustrated, human character. His death is the perfect coda to that.