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 #11: Vash vs. Legato, and Trigun’s Peculiar Approach to Pacifism

I’m finally writing this post, after I’ve promised it over and over. I’m finally writing this post, on one of the most emotionally-devastating parts of one of my favorite anime, at 5 am on Christmas morning because I can’t sleep. Season’s Greetings!

Once again, full-series spoilers for the Trigun anime ahead.

If you’ve talked to me about it at all, you probably know that Trigun is one of my favorite appraisals of pacifism as a philosophy in fiction, and especially in anime. On my Tumblr, I’ve posted before about how I think other series (namely Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) get pacifism wrong in comparison to Trigun by making it too easy for their heroes, always giving them a convenient out when they have to struggle to uphold their philosophies. Vash the Stampede gets no such outs. He repeatedly makes sacrifices for his “no-killing” credo, and it’s up to the audience to decide whether he’s making the right decisions or not. Other, sympathetic characters also repeatedly challenge him on this philosophy (namely Wolfwood), and make Vash wonder if it’s actually as sound as he thinks. This comes to a head in Vash’s final confrontation with Legato Bluesummers.

When I first watched through this anime, it was confusing to me how this scene fit in with Trigun’s pacifist themes. Vash really has no choice but to kill Legato here. Legato stacks the deck against him, by making it so Meryl and Milly will almost certainly die horrifically if Vash doesn’t obliterate him. I couldn’t understand why a series devoted to pacifism would put its hero in a situation where it couldn’t possibly work. And yet, Vash’s confrontation with and killing of Legato actually furthers Trigun’s more nuanced approach to the idea, an approach that makes it more salient than other shows’ takes on it.

Vash the Stampede has lived nearly 150 years without killing anyone, and it utterly destroys him when he does in this scene. It was a promise he made to Rem when she was alive, and so he feels like he’s failed her and that her spirit has finally left him for good. Yet, in the remaining episodes, Meryl’s appraisal of Vash’s values and the importance of letting people live to give them a chance at redemption—and that killing them passes judgment on their lives that no one deserved to—recommits Vash to his beliefs. It makes him realize he hasn’t failed, just because once he was backed into a corner. After this, he can go on to confront Knives without killing him, giving his brother a chance to rebuild his life. We’re left not knowing whether Knives actually does this, but true to its Christian values to the end, Trigun asks us to have faith in him. Even someone as awful as Knives has been up to this point, deserves that chance.

Vash does spend a lot of bullets wounding people, though.

Vash does spend a lot of bullets wounding people, though.

The take-away here is that Trigun approaches pacifism as a project, rather than a strict set of rules one must always adhere to or they fail. It recognizes—unlike other series like Fullmetal Alchemist—that there will be times we can’t commit to our values, that we’ll have no choice but to do something else, even something contrary to them. Yet, that doesn’t mean they’re no longer worth it. We should still try, if we can still explain why they are worth it. And Trigun certainly explains why pacifism is a worthy value system.

It gives people like Legato too much power if we let them back us into a corner and make us doubt ourselves. (And Legato certainly intended to break Vash with his dying breaths—a mind-gaming devil to the end.)

Look at this smarmy shithead.

Look at this smarmy shithead.

I specifically contrasted this with Fullmetal Alchemist, so let me explain this. In the manga and the Brotherhood anime, Edward Elric is frequently verbally challenged on his “no killing” policy, including by sympathetic characters. Yet, it’s always in practical rather than moral terms, unlike how Vash is challenged in Trigun. What’s more, Ed never actually has to make a tough choice between killing someone and saving others. Even when it appears that he will need to do so, a third option always presents himself, allowing him to keep his moral purity intact. In the first anime, Ed does actually have to make the difficult choice to kill a few times—and it results in him examining the faults of and eventually discarding his previous value system. He finds it gradually easier to kill bad people.

I’ve seen fans commend Brotherhood for its commitment to “killing is bad,” but I always thought that the convenient third options undermined it. Like a lot of Brotherhood’s thematic stuff, it’s shallow shonen morality that doesn’t hold much resonance in the complicated real world, where if you live in the violent kind of life Ed does, you will inevitably have to choose between your ideals and the best end result. I think Trigun is stronger for putting Vash in the impossible position that Legato does—and still finding a way to uphold his values after that.

Still, poor Vash. :(

Still, poor Vash. 😦

A strong philosophy such as pacifism is a life-long project. We’ll inevitably make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we’ve strayed off the path. As long as we recommit ourselves, that commitment is still there and it still matters. We are all worthy and capable of redemption.

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 #8: Ikuhara’s Kitty-Cats In Love

For one of my earlier 12 Days posts, I talked about Sailor Moon, my issues with Crystal and why I think the franchise has diminishing returns in 2014. So as a fan of the franchise who’s spent a lot of time with it this year, I wanted to dedicate another post to something I really loved about it. Namely, one of the highlights of my re-watch of the original series this year, made possible by Viz’s re-licensing of the series and streaming all the episodes on Hulu.

rhett butler cat

The “Rainbow Crystals” arc, starring Zoisite as main villain and featuring the Senshi and Tuxedo Mask squaring off with him to find the mysterious Silver Crystal, is one of the highlights of the first season of Sailor Moon. Each of the “rainbow crystals” that, when combined, makes up the Silver Crystal, is hidden in a normal person who has obtained special powers from it. Each of these people gets their own backstory that resonates with the Senshi and their story (one is a love interest for Ami, one for Makoto—but they’re not all boyfriend material, I swear!) It was entirely anime-original, and it provided ample room for the talented creators on its staff to play around and show off their original voices, so it’s one of the places I go to when extolling the virtues of the Sailor Moon anime to newbies. And one of its best episodes was directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Penguindrum fame.

In this episode, “Loved and Chased: Luna’s Worst Day Ever,” the Crystal-bearer isn’t actually a person, but a huge fat cat named Rhett Butler. He’s in love with Luna, and rescues her when she’s chased by a horde of alley cats. It’s kind of fitting that this would be an Ikuhara-directed episode, since his original work likes to blur the lines between humans and animals/objects, and their roles (see: Nanami as a cow). I’m not sure if it was his creative choice to put a cat in a human role, but it definitely fits. A good chunk of the episode is the characters taking forever to realize this, as they chase after his owner, thinking she’s the Crystal bearer. When they figure out it’s her cat, she completely disappears from the story, Rhett Butler taking center stage.

There are a lot of weird, surreal set pieces in here, another Ikuhara staple. The original Sailor Moon anime gets trippy on the visuals a lot of the time, but there’s a noticeable uptick in episodes with Ikuhara at the helm. Here’s an example:

trippy kitties

One of my favorite sequences is this episode is when Zoisite chases Luna and Rhett Butler through the sewers under Tokyo. After complaining repeatedly about how dirty he’s getting (Zoisite, you fop, I love you), he founds out the fuzzy things he’s pressing against are (really cute) sewer rats, and he shrieks as they surround him. It’s not just because I adore Zoisite that I love that scene. It’s the sort of silly physical comedy that Utena used so well with Nanami in the curry episode, so another great shape of things to come.

sewer rats zoisite

The trouble with tribbles…

I could go on talking about how it relates to some of Ikuhara’s later work, as that’s a lot of the fun of dissecting his early Sailor Moon episodes. (Ikuhara would go on to oversee the second half of Sailor Moon’s R season and the whole of the S season, where the comparisons become more palpable.) Yet this episode is such a wild ride on its own. The episodic nature of a lot of Sailor Moon’s “filler” arcs gave the creators room to flesh out characters by focusing on one each and putting her in a new situation. And “Luna’s Worst Day Ever” tells us a lot about its title character, how as sage of a mentor to Usagi as she is, she’s kind of defenseless and fearful on her own. How she’s stoic and poised but easily-flattered. It also has a lot of fun with Rei, who gets mad at the other Senshi for attacking the transformed Rhett Butler because of how they’re interrupting his and Luna’s “moment.” As brusque as she can be, Rei has a big heart deep down, one that BELIEVES IN KITTY-CAT LOVE.

Really, that’s the Ikuhara sensibility best personified by this and other of his early Sailor Moon episodes: Over-the-top theatrics and humor combined with strong character moments and symbolism. It’s what made his future works masterpieces, and what makes Sailor Moon so much fun.

rei how could you ruin

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.

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 #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.

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.