Unpopular Opinion: Sloths of the Whales

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Children of the Whales, to use it’s proper name, is a decent show.  It’s definitely one of the most distinct and intriguing shows I’ve seen in a few years with regards to concept, art and setting.  However it has what could very well be considered a fatal flaw – it’s way too fucking slow.  There will be spoilers ahead you’ve been warned.

I have two theories as to why Children of the Whales is so slow.  One is that, as others have noted, it is trying to be a very emotion driven series and thus moves along at a glacial pace to build up scenes and make certain deaths emotional.  I think that if that’s true then it is wholly misguided.  This approach would make sense if people died rarely but Children of the Whales is one of the most violent shows airing this season – it has easily 10 times the body count of the death battle show Juuni Taisen.  This contradictory approach just doesn’t work. For example Sami’s death was supposed to be really hard hitting but it wasn’t, at least not in and of itself.  Sami had a fair amount of screentime but most of Falina’s, the Mud Whale’s, inhabitants are boring.  They live boring peaceful lives and the majority of them die of natural causes in their twenties and thirties anyway.  Sami was not interesting and so her death doesn’t really mean anything.  it’s also poorly timed.  She dies in the assault on Falina which kills dozens of people on the tiny floating island.

Now the attack itself was a huge emotional success I think.  In contrast to the bland Sami having a death scene which totally lacked impact the attack itself and the indiscriminate slaughter that followed hit like a heavy punch to the gut.  The boring peaceful lives of Falina’s people was shattered by the robotic, systematic violence of the attackers and they died in their droves.  In fact they survived because the enemy retreated and gave them a week to prepare on purpose.  In hindsight it’s kind of annoying that almost no one fights back against the attackers once we learn about the self defense force and the force’s captain, who is likely stronger than any enemy soldier by miles, but whatever the long scenes of remorseless slaughter get the point across and the future of Falina suddenly looks very grim.

What follows is a few episodes of preparation and then the counterattack on Skylos, the enemy ship.  The assault itself was fine up until Ouni and the Skylos’ captain get involved.  The ambush on Falina’s sneak attack squad was perfect if all to predictable and it was over in a flash – as it should have been.  But when Ouni comes in and starts turning the tables the enemy captain shows up and shoots in him the leg.  Then he holds him at sword point and calls him worthless.  Then he hands the lieutenant the word and lets him cut Ouni, but he doesn’t die because Ouni’s friend Nibi jumps in and they have an action scene so slow that not only is there a ton of dialogue but the out numbered Ouni and Nibi have time to turn away from their attackers and help each other.  Then Nibi inevitably dies and Ouni goes berserk and unlocks new powers and kills everyone -the end.

Keep in mind that only four people from Falania are present through an episode and a half’s worth of time spent in one room and there are like 20 Skylos people.  The fight should have been over in a minute or two tops and we’ll give it five minutes due to dialogue interrupting the flow of the action.  Yet somehow this takes around 20 minutes to conclude and it ends in the way that it basically had to anyway.  Nibi’s death was also drawn out to be emotional but it was so obvious that it didn’t matter. Once again the real emotional impact came from the ambush where the majority of Falina’s attack force is wiped out, though seeing Ouni go berserk was satisfying enough to make some of the overlong buildup worth it.  But the main problem still stands, Children of Whales is rife with pacing best described as glacial – in sharp contrast to the aforementioned Juuni Taisen whose episodes have started to fly by in recent weeks.

The other theory I have is that there is just not enough material.  I mean this comes from a manga so theoretically it should have plenty of story to work with but there is the possibility that the manga is not very long.  Alternatively perhaps there is a short simple kind of introduction to the series before it gets way more complicated and the staff decided to only tell the simple part of the story knowing they would never be able to get through some of the complex stuff in time.  Or maybe the manga is slow as shit too.  Point is i think part of the reason why Children of the Whales is so slow is that they episodes are really stretching the manga chapters for one reason or another.  Because the setting certainly suggests the world of Children of the Whales is much larger and more complex than the tiny Mud Whale we’ve been mostly restricted to so far.  My assumption is that Children of the Whales is  supposed to go into more an epic grueling adventure where Falina travels the world in search of protection and potentially to free the world from the emotion draining Nous who seem to me to be the root of most of the greatest horrors the world of this story has to offer.

Obviously there’s no way in hell they can manage that in 12 episodes so maybe they are settling for a clean and self contained arc which has a “read the manga” ending.

For all the ragging I’ve done on the show so far I don’t think it’s entirely bad.  I like the art style a lot and the setting would be perfect for a grand adventure show a la Log Horizon or Magi.  And the tone of the show very much reminds of me of Shin Sekai Yori, a show which put a ton of emphasis on mystery elements, psychic powers and the suppression of information between generations.  Children of the Whales is nowhere near as dark and unnerving as Shin Sekai Yori but it has powerful dark elements of it’s own and the idea of following a formerly pacifist society being thrust into war by a genocidal foe is awesome.  Likewise the enigmatic Nous and their goals, true natures and whatnot would be fascinating to explore.  Sadly the show will not last long enough for that but we can dream.

Speaking of dreaming, here’s my ideal 12 episode version of Children of the Whales.  Imagine if we tightened up the pacing a bit and got what has taken the show 9 episodes to take 6 episodes and then have a huge timeskip and have the back half of the season follow the surviving main characters as adults leading Falina, which due to decades of attacks and struggle has become a society defined by violence.  Think about it, the kids are already being forced to become killers – some kindergarten kids killed the pink haired psychopath in episode 8 – and they are fighting an enemy so lacking in empathy that not only does it kill anyone it sees regardless of age, intent and capability but they send child soldiers of their own to fight in droves.  Such a deranged and implacable foe would almost certainly cause Falina to become a remarkably warlike society in order to survive.

Ultimately I think the weakness of Children of the Whales is that it is almost certainly going to be great in the long term but the anime doesn’t get to be long term.  So instead they have to interest us with a simpler arc which has an easily packaged and digestible conflict while still introducing some elements which would be the real intrigue later down the line.  However this conflict is perhaps too short as it is and so the anime really has to slow down to not overstep the intended stopping point.  This is a real shame but it’s what we have.  I love a lot of the ideas in the story but unless you can sit through some very slow episodes I’d recommend you give this show a pass.

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How to Hero: Boku no Hero, Tiger & Bunny and Gatchaman Crowds

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Superheroes are everywhere.  In the US every time you turn around there’s another superhero movie coming out and calling Boku no Hero Academia one of biggest anime of the year feels like I’m selling it short.  However I have a bone to pick with a lot of superhero stories, a lot of bones in fact, chief among them their simplicity.  With that in mind I wanted to talk about three very different superhero anime that I like and do a little compare and contrast.  There will spoilers, you’ve been warned.

I’m going to assume most of you have seen Boku no Hero Academia and even if you haven’t it’s a shounen battle story, you don’t need a long plot description to figure it out.  To sum up what I’m going to explore in more detail, Boku no Hero Academia’s greatest strengths as a story the myriad of character stories it uses to create rivalries and relationships.  How these character stories emerge and clash is integral to growth of all the major characters and it’s something the show absolutely nails.  It also nails some great shounen battles, tournaments and training, taking the building blocks of the genre and making the most of them.  However in comparison to the other two shows mentioned in the title Boku no Hero Academia is the least interesting, if no less engaging than the other shows.  It’s about as straightforward as stories come and while it does a great job in the details the overall story is very by the numbers for shounen fare and it’s not exactly brimming with ideas.  None of these are weaknesses necessarily just factors to consider.

By comparison Tiger and Bunny looks like the seinen onii-chan to Boku no Hero Academia’s shounen.  They have a ton of similar features, like a character whose power is declining, an older hero who is symbolic of all superheroes and whom is greatly admired and an industry built around heroes and their feats in pursuit of villains.  But Tiger and Bunny really goes all in on these ideas in a way that makes it a hell of lot messier than Boku no Hero Academia.  It also nails character stories but because the cast is so much smaller we get a lot more intimate with most of them, and their stories tend to be about how their personalities and goals clash with or complement their jobs as heroes as opposed to setting up rivalries.  It is however, ultimately pretty close to Boku no Hero Academia in a lot of ways so the two are easy to compare.  This brings us to the problem child of the bunch, Gatchaman Crowds.  Gatchaman Crowds is far and away the show which focuses most on ideas and crams the most concepts into it’s story.  If Boku no Hero Academia is about trying to become the greatest superhero and Tiger and Bunny is about how different people struggle with being superheroes then Gatchaman Crowds asks, what is a hero anyway?

Let’s start with the Boku no Hero Academia and Tiger and Bunny comparison.  In terms of premise the three greatest things separating the two shows are relative numbers of people with special powers, how detailed and important the superhero industry is and the age of the main characters.  In sharp contrast to Tiger and Bunny, as well as comic equivalents like X-Men, in Boku no Hero Academia the people with special powers make up the vast majority of the population and the heroes are the ones who take it upon themselves to become heroes.  Their Quirks are of course important in determining how effective they are but a look at Deku’s class shows you don’t have to be a Deku, Todoroki or Bakugo to be a hero, even Mineta can do it if he really tries.  This doesn’t really apply in Tiger and Bunny, for the most part heroes are heroes because they have the right kinds of powers to be heroes.  The only noteworthy exception is Origami Cyclone whose power is no use in combat.  This creates a lot of tension within the character because despite his power’s weakness he is still making a living despite not doing any work, the sponsors just want him to pop up in the background and flash their logos.

In fact Origami is the perfect example of the kind of hero Stain from Boku no Hero Academia hated, one who couldn’t and didn’t do anything but wore the title of hero nonetheless.  However there is no Stain in Tiger and Bunny, and the conflict between being a real hero and being a “fake” hero is something the character struggles with internally – to the point he almost quits/lets a former friend kill him because he feels so worthless.  And that character arc could never have happened if Origami Cyclone’s non-heroics were not financially viable, but they are because of how deeply entrenched the superhero industry is in Tiger and Bunny.  It seems to be the main form of entertainment and it rakes in the cash like there’s no tomorrow.  In fact Tiger’s biggest issue with the superhero industry is that it often calls on him to hold back or stay on standby in order to make the show more exciting, while Tiger is an old-fashioned hero who doesn’t really give a shit about the business end of things and just wants to save people.  Again this exists in Boku no Hero Academia but it’s a much smaller issue because it is given so much less attention – the worst example I can think of to date in Boku no Hero Academia is the hero internship where Yayorozu spends the whole time in photo shoots, but that’s nowhere near the glamour and excess shown in Tiger and Bunny.

The age difference is important too.  Deku is a kid coming into his powers and trying to control them so that he can succeed later in life.  Tiger is already a successful hero and is reaching over-the-hill status especially when Barnaby (whom he nicknames Bunny) shows up since the two have the same ability.  The age difference is most important though when it comes to a story beat which is shocking similar across both stories – the decline of power.  In Boku no Hero Academia that portion of the story belongs to All Might but in Tiger and Bunny it belongs to Tiger, and also Tiger and Bunny’s All Might equivalent, Mr. Legend.  Mr. Legend and All Might are extremely similar, both serve as symbols of all superheroes, both attempt to hide their decline in power and both inspire the main character of their respective shows to become heroes.  (Also this isn’t really relevant but I just want to mention that Ida is basically a teenage ripoff of Sky High from Tiger and Bunny seriously watch one episode and tell me I’m wrong) Mr. Legend is ultimately the more human and messy of the two because the setting and story allow for that but functionally they are all but the same.  However Tiger’s opposite trajectory from Deku, when combined with the fact he’s an adult and knows nothing but being a hero, this complicates his character story tremendously.

Whereas Deku has deal with the pain of not being able to handle his power and ultimately needs to worry about not destroying himself before he fully comes into it, Tiger has to start worrying about his ever decreasing time limit while using his power, which he could only use for five minutes per hour anyway.  Tiger’s struggle is by far the more interesting from conceptual standpoint and it’s handled fairly well but ultimately I think Tiger is at his best when he’s interacting with people.  Barring his age he’s closer to the loud, obnoxious shounen hero than Deku is but because of his age he can also impart life changing lessons to younger heroes and Nexts (mutants basically).  In fact one my favorite scenes is early on in the show, when instead of arresting a teenage Next trying to hurt people because they treated him like a freak, he talks the kid into giving himself up, assuring him that he can be a hero too if he tries, and he even tricks the kid into solving an impending disaster caused by his own rampage.  Likewise his short arc with Blue Rose a teenage idol-cum-hero who never really wanted to be a hero in the first place and only agreed because it would boost her singing career.  Tiger’s attitude is not all that different from Deku’s but the difference in age allows for Tiger to involve himself in a much broader range of stories.

All that said I want to stress I don’t think that necessarily makes Tiger and Bunny better than Boku no Hero Academia.  Boku no Hero Academia absolutely kills Tiger and Bunny in the action department and Stain is probably coolest character across both shows.  What Tiger and Bunny offers is a story with more messiness, more adult concepts and problems and more twists and turns.  It’s no mindfuck but there’s definitely a lot more going on behind the scenes in Tiger and Bunny whereas Boku no Hero Academia mostly survives on good but limited character stories and action – it’s definitely weaker when those two things aren’t present.  This brings us to the complicated one Gatchaman Crowds.

Gatchaman Crowds is the least action oriented of the three shows.  In fact in the beginning the Gatchaman operate in total secrecy and fight against limited alien threats, a big difference compared to flashy crime scenes and tournaments of Tiger and Bunny and Boku no Hero Academia.  Gatchaman Crowds also spends a lot less time spelling out how characters think and what their backstory looks like, barring the occasional flashback Gatchaman Crowds gives us a lot less to chew on.  But that’s also kind of the point.  Gatchman Crowds spends a lot of time looking at subtle reactions and planting cryptic hints that it expects you to sort of read between the lines to get the meaning of.  It’s not so complex or subtle that I would call it especially challenging but Gatchaman Crowds is willing to expect more from the audience, which given the main ideological struggle of the show is quite thematically appropriate.  And I’m using ideological on purpose, Gatchaman Crowds is not really a battle of good vs evil and superhero vs supervillain, it is a clash of ideas made manifest with the main questions regarding heroes and nature of humans.

And it’s precisely because the aim of the show is so different that its main character is similarly a far cry from Tiger and Deku.  Hajime is a blob of energy who is extremely hard to pin down.  She comes off as goofy and air-headed but she is surprisingly sharp.  She has no love for social boundaries, she’ll happily chat with children, city mayors and godlike aliens with the same casual, bubbly attitude.  What this means when she becomes a hero is that she begins questioning the Gatchaman ways immediately and generally approaches potential enemies with curiosity rather than violence.  She isn’t a pacificst but she never kills anyone either, she’s eager enough to get into the action and suppress minor bad guys but she inevitably tries to communicate when faced with a real opponent.  And I’m not kidding when I say she’s hard to pin down, the second season Gatchaman Crowds Insight, features an alien who can quantify people’s thoughts and emotional state by way of colorful thought bubbles, and Hajime is one of only two people shown whose thought bubble is gray and never changes.  One second she is an adorable lass hugging every cute person and object and sight and the next is discussing seriously philosophical question in the exact same tone of voice.

Hajime is a character who communicates more with emotion than reasoned language but this belies her ability to cut right to the heart of her stance on complex questions or her ability to connect with what the villains are saying.  Another baffling aspect of her character is with regards to one of the main themes of both season, the role of individuals versus the role of community.  This will get a bit detailed but one of the major aspects of Gatchaman Crowds which separates it from the other two shows is the emphasis on social media.  In Gatchaman Crowds there is a social networking system called Galax which is very popular and extremely useful in coordinating people.  It’s headed up by X a super AI developed by Rui, one of the other most interesting characters in the show, who eventually joins the Gatchman.  It can greatly enhance everyday life by for example, alerting lawyers of that a nearby person has posted a legal question online, but the main purpose of this wealth of information is disaster relief.  Unbeknownst to most Galax users, Rui wants humankind to advance and believes that by creating a means to motivate people to take action rather than rely on the current system, humans will advance.  Rui also has the power to create CROWDS which are invisible to most people but are powerful entities born of the users’ minds.  In the first season one of the biggest questions posed was what was better, CROWDS a system by which all people could step up and become heroes, or the Gatchaman, a select few superheroes who would solve the problems no one else could.  Rui, is resolved to advance humanity by disposing of heroes entirely and using the CROWDS to lift everyone up to being heroes.

Hajime disagrees but she doesn’t ever spell out why she disagrees.  If I had to hazard a guess at her motivations it would be foresight.  Hajime has an uncanny knack of understanding the vague prophecies which direct the Gatchaman as well as the villains’ riddles, moreover various hints she drops in her own confusing and airheaded speech shows that she can see what will become the heart of a potential problem or solution well before said problem or solution arrives.  The only thing which I can reasonably ascribed to Hajime which is purely heroic in the traditional sense is her willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of defeating the various enemies she has to face, none of whom she defeats in straight contests of power and skill.  Hajime’s greatest weapon is how flexible her thinking is, because the problems of Gatchaman Crowds aren’t the kind you can end with a super strong punch, they are tied to human nature, how humans interact with each other, and how technology or alien super powers influences how we behave.

And with that in mind I can say with confidence that Gatchaman Crowds is my favorite of the three superhero anime listed in the title – and by extension my favorite superhero anything.  It’s willingness to run headlong into more complex concepts with messier and less obvious solutions is an incredible breath of fresh air.  Gatchaman Crowds really marks itself out not just by questioning what it means to be a hero but by drastically changing the nature of its villains.  It’s not about the biggest, scariest monster or craziest, cleverest schemer.  It’s not even about heroes fighting each other over differences in values.  Gatchaman Crowds is all about our struggle against ourselves, be it our baser impulses, best intentions gone wrong, lack of foresight, or various social pressures – and it highlights that struggle by cleverly forcing superheroes into the mix.  I don’t think Gatchaman Crowds is especially complicated but it takes an important step toward becoming what I would describe as a mature story – and that alone is enough to put it head and shoulders above the competition.

In conclusion all three shows are great shows, Gatchaman Crowds is just the best of the three – to me anyway.  All three of them have very different strengths regardless of how similar they are to each other.  Boku no Hero Academia brings out the best of what the shounen genre is known for, battles, backstories and rivalries.  Tiger and Bunny takes a formula anyone familiar with superhero movies and shows knows at a glance and then makes it messier, more nuanced and slightly shifts the focus away from the battles to the people under the masks and in the super suits.  And Gatchaman Crowds brings the most complex setting details, concepts and the most unusual obstacles for the heroes to overcome.  I highly recommend you watch all three if you haven’t already.  I hope you enjoyed this post and I’ll see you in the next one.

Shokugeki no Social Justice: Food Woke

 

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Communist cooking.

Jesus I never thought I would have to put those two words together.  I’m not going to lie this whole post is going to be extremely petty and not particularly important.  But after seeing how the latest episode of Shokugeki no Soma played out and having seen how both My Little Pony and Power Puff Girls put out anti-social justice episodes years ago, I can only believe that this was done on purpose to attack social justice.  And that’s fucking hilarious.

In case you’re not caught up on things, the recent events are as follows.  Six members of the Elite Ten have voted to oust Erina’s grandpa as the principal and replace him with Erina’s dad, Azami- who it turn’s out is a psychotic, manipulative asshole aiming for a gourmet utopia using Erina’s God Tongue as a the centerpiece of this utopia.  I have a handful of problems about the setup of the whole arc but I’ll do that at the end.  Right now we have funnier shit to address.

So the first thing Azami does, besides insult all kind of industry heavyweights in first appearance, is call for the dissolution of all clubs and “autonomous groups.”  This ends up including the Polar Star Dorm because it’s totally self sufficient thanks to the efforts of prior generations.  In addition to destroying all independent groups, Azami also creates a group called Central which will decide the cooking curriculum for the entire school, by which I mean not only what people HAVE to cook but also how the HAVE to cook it.  Individual flair and experimentation are not welcome in Azami’s communist Totsuki Academy.  This obviously pisses off a huge section of the student body and of course the audience, and I’ll go ahead say that was the point.

The only seemingly redeeming feature of the Azami administration is that Totsuki will abandon it’s hilariously over the top meritocratic system that would see 90% of the students fail so that the best 10% can reach their maximum power level.  Azami calls this unfair (which it is but so is life) because people learn at different speeds, so under his new system everyone will graduate so long as they follow Central’s rules.  The flaws in this system are immediately apparent when it drags down Ibusaki, one the Polar Star members, because he performs one step of cooking a dish differently than instructed.  It’s amazing how quickly and how thoroughly they make Azami’s reign look bad and that’s before Eizan allows people to challenge him Shokugeki’s to avoid having their clubs disbanded, but buys out the judges and proves to the whole school the contest will be blatantly unfair.

This is fucking hilarious.  I love the fact that a cooking show of all things immediately demonstrates the problems with communism and social justice attitudes of equality and fairness.  Central deprives the students of their freedom, individual expression and most importantly for their careers, their merit.  The only people who benefit from Central are the leadership and Central itself, as well as the students who aren’t in any clubs and/or are most likely to fail.  The equality Azami speaks of doesn’t make anyone better it just drags everyone who was already better down.  Also the system shows how corrupt it is right off the bat by allowing Eizan to do away with fair challenges.  He even explains that he’s doing it to crush everyone’s spirit into following the new way of things.  They even make note of the fact that 3 of the 4 members not involved with Azami have been missing since all the chaos began.  You could hardly paint a more accurate comparison of communism in the context of a culinary school.  Seriously all that’s missing are the mass executions and famines, i.e. expulsions and lose of industry support.

Which is of course what would absolutely happen.  If Central was not challenged and beaten, which it will have to be for self-evident reasons I’m about to get to, Totsuki would die.  Azami has this vision of a gourmet utopia but not only is it incredibly limited in scope of meal choices in comparison to the wider market it’s also suicidally limited in who it will serve.  Keep in mind that Azami believes even industry heavyweights aren’t all good enough and that Erina, and by extension Central, will have to select from a tiny customer base.  The market would kill this shit off in an instant which is why, manga spoilers, Azami sets his sights on wiping out all restaurants in Japan which don’t follow his credo, because if he didn’t his utopia would be bankrupt in a week.  Does that sound dystopian enough for you yet?  Because, more spoilers, he even has professors who go out of their way to sabotage people who reject Central’s teaching, in much the same way we have professors who join Antifa to hit people on the head with bikelocks for disagreeing with them.

Moreover with such a sizable percentage of students, some of them among the best in the academy, up in arms it’s hard to see how this could even be remotely viable.  Given that Azami pissed off all the industry heavyweights whom he thinks aren’t good enough and all the students who want to focus on their individual cooking style, the previous principal could legit just start a new school and destroy Azami’s Totsuki.  The old man already has all the connections he needs and if he gave them the option of another great cooking school all the students opposing Azami’s rules cold just up and leave.  In addition Azami’s style could ruin Totsuki’s reputation all on it’s own, reducing the allure of the academy by default and thus giving anyone fed up with his style no reason to stay.

Naturally none of this happens because that would be a buzzkill for the characters in the story even if people like me would find it deeply satisfying.  There is however a fly in the ointment, a bone I have to pick the with creators – Rindou.  In comparison to most of the other Elite Ten members Rindou has by far the most exotic and chaotic cooking style, most of the other Elite Ten are masters of a certain traditional dish or genre, Rindou’s only real competition with regards to bizarre dishes is Soma, his dad, and one of my favorite side characters Sadatsuka.  It would not entirely be out of character for Rindou to get Azami in control to shake things up, but his vision is utterly incompatible with her style and she shows no signs of compromising her style for anyone.  It would make more sense if she got Azami in power and then immediately turned on him for the sake of battling the other Elite Ten – probably just for the fun of it.

That’s all I had to say really.  I can’t confirm that the creators of Shokugeki no Soma are in fact anti-social justice.  But even if they aren’t they did a hell of a job illustrating what the problems of communism and social justice attitudes about being fair are.  And that alone is well worth watching season 3 for, it definitely helped spice up a season that is much slower than it’s predecessors because of how close it is to catching up to the manga.  I hope you enjoyed this inane babble and I of course hope you enjoy the show.  Shadilay my dudes.

Halloween Special – Japan Wins at Zombies

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I remember reading once that on the whole the Japanese think zombies are just ridiculous because of differences regarding burial practices, they do cremations most if not all the time, so the dead would never rise up.  That being said zombies rising from the dead has gradually shifted from being the standard in the West to the realm of more hardcore fantasy stuff while more mainstream zombie works typically use a more scientific explanation like a virus to bring about the zombie apocalypse.  Why then does Japan win the international zombie contest I just made up?  Because they made a couple of zombie shows which outclass anything I seen come out over here and I think I have a handle on why, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  In the meantime the shows I’ll use to justify this position are, in the order I saw them, High School of the Dead (oh come on you knew that had to be on this list), Koutetsujou no Kabaneri and Gakkou Gurashi.  There will be spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned.

If I had to list just one reason why the Japanese seem to do zombies so well it would be that the zombies themselves are not the focus of any zombie story – the best example of that I’ve come across is the manga I Am a Hero, but in that case the zombies are especially fucking weird.  Maybe that’s too generic a way to put it as it’s not like zombies are the main focus of a movie like Zombieland but it nonetheless rings true.  Based on the zombie movies I’ve seen, it seems like the modern American style is to focus heavily on either floods of zombies overrunning an area like in World War Z or to put a lot of emphasis on seeing a small band of survivors gun down zombie hordes Left 4 Dead style (i.e. the finale of Zombieland).  By comparison the Japanese approach seems to put much more emphasis on the confusion caused by a zombie outbreak and especially how the survivors, well survive.  That last bit is especially important because it not just about how characters fight off zombies and forage for food, the strain surviving the initial outbreak or prolonged survival periods puts on the survivors and how this strain manifests is a huge part of Japanese zombie shows.

Another major difference seems to be the relative differences in human agency in a zombie apocalypse.  Japan gives the humans a much greater share of agency and influence than the zombie menace.  This isn’t to say human enclaves aren’t overrun by zombie hordes from time to time or that human society doesn’t collapse due to the zombie outbreak as is the case in Western zombie movies, however the survivors don’t need to rely on intense firepower to survive the way they do in western movies.  In Gakkou Gurashi the primary deadly weapon the four cute girls had access to was a goddamn shovel, and even in HOTD which had more guns a lot of the time a boktou, a mop haft, a nail gun and baseball bat were all the characters needed to get by.  Koutetsujou no Kabaneri did require more firepower but in that specific case the zombies were made exponentially harder to kill unless you took big risks and got up close to say cut their heads off and even so, as I’ve discussed before the most destructive force in the show are humans – the ones with ill intent – not the Kabane.

As I mentioned above one of the major aspects of Japanese zombie shows is the psychological effects the zombie outbreak has on the survivors, and where applicable the world at large.  Of the three shows I mentioned Gakkou Gurashi hits this particular nail most firmly on the head with it’s main character Yuki though all the cute girls struggle with this issue.  Yuki was so traumatized by the zombie outbreak and in particular the loss of the only remaining authority figure in her life that her mind just straight up broke.  She doesn’t perceive the world properly and is basically a Chuunibyou character except her Chuunibyou is clearly a coping mechanism instead of teenage kids being retards.  Biba, despite all the criticism thrown his way is also a great example of the psychological strain of survival.  His circumstances were extreme even by zombie apocalypse standards but his worldview has dramatically shifted not just because of his time out spent commanding the fight against the Kabane but because he’s seen how others behave because they’ve been consumed by their fear of the Kabane.  Ikoma is similar in that regard, part of his drive comes from his disgust of everyone else’s fear and his own past failings with fear.

Part of the reason this focus on psychology is so effective is because the stories themselves are paradoxically less concerned with the zombies than the character stories which arise from the zombie outbreak and yet put more detail into the zombies than most of their western counterparts.  The shows don’t overly concern themselves with the spread of the zombie outbreak the way say World War Z, the movie not the novel, did.  Like even in HOTD where the outbreak happens when the story starts the zombies overrun the school and surrounding city in like maybe an hour and the rest of show from that point is focused on how the characters will get from the school to each of their various objectives while getting past zombie hoards which are usually too large to fight, and how the strain of that journey affects them – and also fanservice.

On the other hand all three shows also invest at least some time making the zombies extra special or unique somehow.  Takagi spends the early episodes of HOTD trying to figure out the characteristics of the zombies and the Busujima makes sure to point out that relying on established biology, like how fast the corpses would rot, is not something they should take for granted.  In Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, the Kabane are terrifying because they are fast, aggressive and display a moderate amount of intelligence like being able to operate trains or set up an ambush, but what makes them special are their durable hearts and the more advanced forms they can take like the Wazatori and the fused colony.  Even Gakkou Gurashi were the zombies were the most in line with conventional ideas about zombies, they had a nasty surprise by making the teacher all the girls loved be the “final boss” of sorts for the series and the fact she maintained enough of herself to continue her patrols and even attempt to write in her diary despite being a zombie was fucking awesome – seriously the first time they teased that she was around by showing the hidden room and her diary with the crude zombie writing mixed in with the teacher’s was some of most hair-raising shit I’ve ever seen, the build-up was fucking amazing.

Another edge zombie anime have over Western zombie films are the fact they can be so wildly different.  Of the Western movies I think of there are really just two forms, serious zombie movies and comic zombie movies, both of which still rely on a lot of the same scenarios and action scenes.  By comparison HOTD, Gakkou Gurashi and Koutetsujou no Kabaneri are all very different.  While three shows have a certain amount of overlap they ultimately have very different hooks, art styles and narrative arcs – and all of them are very different to what Western films, at least those I’ve or am aware of offer.  And they are all worth a watch in the event you’ve not seem them either.

HOTD is about boobs, tits, oppai, “the plot” and BOOBS.  I mean it’s also about the journey of the main cast as they try to navigate the zombie infested area around them, and that journey is surprisingly engaging, but we’ve all seen matrix boobs – after that I thinks it’s hard to argue that fanservice isn’t what HOTD is really all about.  It has a nice mix of action, suspense and drama mixed in for good measure but overall it’s just a good time and it knows when to take itself seriously – and when to take Gainaxing to the next level.

Gakkou Gurashi really goes all in on the psychological aspects of surviving the zombie apocalypse, with Yuki and her broken mind being the standard bearer of that idea.  There is also an intruging mystery aspect to the show as later episodes imply that the zombie outbreak may been known about in advance and might have even been an experiment. What really sets Gakkou Gurashi apart though is just how powerless the cast is relative to most zombie-braving bands.  Even taking Kurumi’s high physical capabilities into account, the group’s best weapon is a shovel – not exactly much of an arsenal.  And Kurumi is still quite vulnerable to emotional reactions which can stop her in her tracks, like when she’s forced to kill the zombie of a former friend.

And Koutetsujou no Kabaneri is an awesome steampunk action show which really makes a point of highlighting how, even when they are surrounded by super zombies, incredibly dangerous the humans are.  The show takes a thorough approach to this as well, showing how high people can rise in the face of adversity through Ikoma and the main group and also the depths they can sink to via Biba and his troops.  And while Biba is clearly the villain his actions are not the actions of someone who’s just turned feral as is frequently the case in zombie works, where minor characters take advantage of the loss of society to create their own group wherein they have all the power and take advantage of those around them.  Biba’s actions are those of someone driven mad by his own struggle against the Kabane and the actions of the other people around him, which in his case was to generally leave him to die and hide behind their walls.  Also I want to stress how the Koutestujou no Kabaneri was able to make the Kabane consistently terrifying throughout the show, something many zombie-fests struggle with.

In conclusion, if you wanted a couple of Halloween anime recommendations, you have them now.  And I made up for the fact that Anime Trick or Treat totally failed – so we are all good here.  Go get your zombie on and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

Raging Rant: Games and Cheating

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I have a problem with anime that are all about games.  Be it those with terrible games to begin with like Kakegurui, those whose games vary from good to bad like No Game No Life or even the greats like Kaiji – I invariably find myself annoyed at some point while watching these shows.  And it’s all because of the cheating.  There will be spoilers ahead.

In all of the anime named above there is no such thing as a pure contest of skill, unless you consider the creativity of the players cheats to be a skill.  The games in these shows are practically defined by cheating – the only one I can think of offhand where that isn’t the case is during No Game No Life’s best game, Materialization Shiritori (I think that name is off a little but whatever it’s the shiritori game against Jibril).  Now in Kakegurui and Kaiji the cheating is more understandable since all of the games they play, at least of all the games I saw for Kakegurui, would be largely based on luck – so if you add cheating into the mix you not only give people more agency you also give then a greater chance to show their wit as they uncover and beat the opponents cheat.  And sometimes this works out to great effect.  However I also don’t think it’s necessary because the Poker scene from the James Bond movie Casino Royale was still a great scene with no cheating involved at all – there was nothing there but intuition, guesswork and drama and yet it still turned out great.

Moreover what I’ve been describing thus far with regards to cheating is the “good stuff” there’s plenty of cheating which actively makes me hate a game/contest more than if it had been absent.  Both No Game No Life and Kaiji have scenes where the cheating is stupidly blatant but the game goes on anyway and it just makes me want to tear my hair out.  Take for example the magical chess game in No Game No Life.  Keeping in mind that this game has a third party judge I think it’s weird that the opponent even got away being able to move her pawns an extra space forward because that’s against the rules of chess – but she hand-waved it by bullshitting everyone about one’s ability to command so they let slide.  That’s not terrible even if it doesn’t make sense.  But when the opponent is on the back foot, because Blank are objectively better than her at Chess, and uses magic to start turning Blank’s white pieces which touch her own pieces into more black pieces I call BULLSHIT.  That’s so blatant she should lose by default, especially in No Game No Life where you say look this is clearly magic, and we – Blank – can’t use magic ergo she’s cheating.

The same goes for Kaiji during the his bloated battle against the pachinko machine called the Bog.  When the casino manager Ichijou turns on the blocker and blocks two hundred straight balls, of which 6 or 7 should have gone through, and everyone watching the game knows he’s cheating, HE SHOULD LOSE.  But he doesn’t because Kaiji keeps playing and busts the blocker anyway.  And since there was some setup and Kaiji’s workaround was predictable at least in the broad strokes, fine, I’m still annoyed but whatever it was cool to see how he broke it.  But then comes the vents, when Kaiji reaches a point in the game where he literally can’t lose, Ichijou activates air vents to block the jackpot even though he said they were too obvious in the past.  Again it’s fishy as fuck even the first time it happens when it knocks away two balls but when the plate is overrun by balls and none can drop in the only open hole it becomes obvious that he’s cheating – and he should lose be default.  He doesn’t because he’s a mafia run illegal casino but to me he should have lost by that point and not having him do so seems like little more than a way to lengthen a game which is already taking too fucking long.

All of that said it’s not like I hate all cheating.  Ironically enough Kakegurui has the best consistent cheating because the games and characters themselves are of such a lower caliber in comparison to the other shows that they are generally made subtle enough not to totally break my suspension of disbelief like the cheats of the last two paragraphs did.  And when Kaiji cuts his own ear off and covers it up to beat Tonegawa in E-Card, that shit was badass.  Again though, these cheats are more manageable because they are subtle or hidden in some way and it’s not obvious to everyone watching exactly what’s going on.  The only time I can of where blatant cheating was good is my favorite episode of Kaiji when he reveals how Ootsuki is cheating at chinchiro and then with everyone’s approval uses a better cheat of his own devising to rob Ootsuki of all his money.  This works because it’s satisfying as fuck to watch and also because after Ootsuki’s cheat is revealed the in-universe audience are on his side, the opposite of how they reacted to Ichijou’s cheating with the Bog.  That said I do think it’s telling that my favorite games in No Game No Life and Kaiji are the games with no cheating and crowd-sanctioned cheating respectively.

And that’s because I would rather see a contest of wit and skill go unaltered by cheating.  Which incidentally is why my favorite game-centric anime is Mondaiji (sorry Kaiji you were great but Mondaiji never made me angry the way the Bog did).  Mondaiji is practically devoid of cheating and all of the contests are overcome by skill, strength, wit and teamwork when required.  In fact the only real cheating is before the game when an enemy team might do something to sabotage the good guys or stack the odds in their favor going in – and even that is rare – but even in those cases the games themselves are not based around the cheating, they largely play out as intended so long as the protagonists get gud and over the cheat without using cheats of their own.  Does that make the games more basic?  Sure, nothing in Mondaiji comes close to the complex twists and turns which turn of games into the convoluted trials which Kaiji has to overcome.  But that doesn’t mean Mondaiji can’t have complex and challenging games of it’s own, it uses mythology and stories to excellent effect when crafting some of it’s more complex contests – even if strength is the ultimate deciding factor.

Ultimately I have a strong attachment to fair play and most of the well known and/or well regarded game-centric anime are all about the cheating.  And like I said above, while this does work out great sometimes it also can bust big time and drag me out of the action and actively piss me off.  Not to pick on Kaiji because overall I did enjoy it but during the last few episodes of the Bog arc I wanted to scream obscenities at anyone who would listen – and my neighbors and roommate were lucky in that I’m not rude enough to wake them up to do that.  By comparison fair play is always solid in my book, even subtle cheating that is clever and not something which drags me out of the experience will generally lose to decent contests of fair play.  Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it.

Anime Trick-or-Treat 2017

This idea has more or less failed for two years straight – but I’m going to do it anyway.  In the past I included rules, let’s forego most of those, they just make it more complicated.  Just think of this as anime-themed AMA and comment about any show, characters, tropes, powers, ideas, and so on to your heart’s content.  Also keep in mind I will totally cap this at 30 questions because I’m going to pump it out in one day.  If you’re interested in participating just leave a comment on this post and check the follow-up released on Halloween.  See you then.

Character Cache: Ruby Rose

 

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There are a lot of reasons I like RWBY and I’ve spoken of them in more extensive detail here.  And with Volume 5 coming out in a couple days now is as good a time as any to talk about RWBY’s leading lady, Ruby.  There will be spoilers ahead.

In my most recent post I talked about how well lead characters fit the role given to them and this applies to Ruby as well.  This is most clearly shown in Volume 2, when while out on a mission the professor in charge asks the other three members of Team RWBY – which for those not in the loop are her elder half-sister Yang, the Faunus (beastmen and an oppressed group in the in-universe lore) Blake and the heiress to a wealthy company, Weiss – why they wanted to be Huntresses in the first place.  Ruby is conspicuously not asked this question, instead her time alone with the professor is a mini-lesson or words of warning about some of the most powerful Grimm monsters Ruby has ever seen.  The unspoken implication here is that Ruby is a perfect fit for a Huntress and as such asking her why she wants to be one is a pointless question, an implication strengthened by the following scene where the other girls mull over the professor’s question and their reasons for being a Huntress while Ruby subsequently tracks down the covert enemy presence they are here for in the first place.

This scene is hardly the only indicator however.  In fact Ruby herself is a full 2 years younger than the other 8 main characters who make up team RWBY and team JNPR and she’s awarded entry into Beacon academy anyway thanks to the Headmaster’s judgement.  She is also arguably the best fighter in her class – the show does suggest that’s not necessarily the case as Pyrrha is the one most widely recognized as the best in an official capacity and team RWBY has Yang go to the finals during Volume 3’s inter-school battle tournament.  However Ruby is consistently the one who finds the enemy first in various situations, she actually beat all of team JNPR by herself during the Great Food Fight of Volume 2 thanks to strategic use of her surroundings and her Semblance – a power all humans and Faunus have but which manifests itself in a unique form for each individual – which in Ruby’s case is super speed.  I don’t think it’s that hard to explain why super speed is hard to deal with but if any medium really seems to underestimate speed it would be anime.  Ruby’s Semblance makes her almost untouchable unless her enemy is sufficiently skilled enough to predict her movements, has special attacks or equipment of it’s own to counter her speed, or if there are enough enemies in the first place.

This can also be shown by her kill count.  This is a sort of unfair metric since no noteworthy deaths resulted before Volume 3 but thus far the only villains who have died, or even been grievously injured, have done so while fighting Ruby.  I mean technically she didn’t cut them down herself but her efforts paved the way for their deaths, if not for her presence they almost certainly would not have died.  And the fact she was fighting 1v2 against characters who had handily defeated other major characters, Neapolitan especially as she beat Yang so easily in Volume 2, shows that at the very least Ruby is dangerous enough to be one of the biggest thorns in the villains’ sides of the people in her age group.  And she did totally fuck up Cinder, the main villain of the first 3 Volumes, and cut off Tyrian’s stinger.  Likewise she displays excellent tactics during the Initial Beacon exam where her plan allows her future team to kill the strongest Grim in testing grounds.

All that said perhaps perfect is overselling it a little.  Ruby is still in many ways a child, and childishness still tinges her character and actions, albeit to a far lesser degree following the events of Volume 3.  Ruby also has plenty of struggles being a team leader and in retrospect it would not surprise me if Ozpin, the aforementioned Beacon headmaster, assigned her to that role specifically to have her overcome this weakness.  Her strategic ability would probably be enough to earn her the spot but Ozpin is very insightful and the leadership role would force Ruby to confront one of her biggest weaknesses – personal communication.

Ruby is kind of a dork.  When she’s not hunting down villains or cutting down monsters there honestly very little for her to do.  She can be socially awkward to a painful degree and while she is friendly with all 8 of the main characters she doesn’t really connect with anyone else besides Penny, a weirdo herself, because Penny is actually an incredibly advanced robot trying to be a person.  This isn’t to say Ruby can’t talk to anyone or that she doesn’t improve this facet of her character throughout the show, but in the beginning this one of her biggest shortcomings.  And even later on after she opens up she’s notably uncomfortable in larger social settings.  To this very day my favorite line of dialogue in RWBY came from Volume 1 when Ruby explains to Yang that the reason she’s so excited about other people’s weapons is because “seeing new weapons is like meeting new people, only better.”  Which should give you an idea how much she struggles on the social front, though it’s not for lack of trying.

This flaw in her character is necessary though and to me it really helps cement the idea that Ruby is the Huntress equivalent of autistic savant – deficient in many aspects of her life but incredibly good at one thing she’s interested in.  This is also suggested in Volume 1 because of her weapon, a scythe-sniper rile hybrid.  It’s certainly one of the most unusual weapons even by RWBY’s very liberal and open standards of what can be a valid weapon and only one other character we know of is skilled with a scythe.  And she built it herself, which is yet another indicator of her interests.  The weapon aside her clear and consistently demonstrated talent in combat and investigation/tracking make her a great candidate for a Huntress.  Personally I feel like given a few decades Ruby would be very much like her uncle Qrow, minus the alcohol – a lone wolf type perfectly capable of taking down all but the most dangerous foes by herself.  For now though, as good as she is, she does need the team, for personal growth, safety and as the situation turns more dire after the events of Volmune 3, moral support.

Then we reach a new facet of Ruby, one introduced mere seconds after the greatest tragedy of the entire show, Ruby’s eyes have special powers of their own and they are extremely dangerous to Grimm and Maidens alike.  Qrow’s only hints about her powers are that in folk lore silver-eyed Hunters and Huntresses were always considered especially dangerous and that this belief had to come from somewhere, i.e. Ruby’s new power.  Salem, presumably the true arch-villain of the series seems to know more about them but as yet her comments on the matter are cryptic.  I think of this as more of a “chosen one” or “main character” factor than what I described above though.  Does this make her even more suited to be a Huntress?  Yes.  But it’s not something she actively pursued or otherwise gained, it was just a special power given to her.  It has very little to do with who she is and what she wants to be in-universe and everything to do with who she is in the context of RWBY being a story, and presumably her mother as neither Yang, her father nor Qrow has silver eyes.  This is reinforced by the fact she has no control over it and doesn’t even appear to realize she has this power at all nor any desire to use it.

I think what really makes Ruby work is that despite it all she’s a kid and to many a relatable one.  If not for the fact she goes around killing monsters and dueling villains she would just be an adorkable teen.  She has almost all the trappings, and more importantly the shortcomings, of a nerd – even if her preferred hobby is both deadly and an occupation.  This goes a long to grounding the series with all of it’s fantasy and scifi elements, which are many.  It also makes her someone we can easily sympathize with and whose story we can get invested in.  Of course I also think that she’s such a perfect fit for what she wants to be, at the expense of other facets of her personality is a very nice touch and part of what makes her especially interesting.  That’s it really.  I just wanted another excuse to gush about RWBY and Ruby.  Hope you enjoyed it.