Understanding Femininity: Yuri vs Shoujo Ai

I should probably start this by saying I’m a dude and I do not fully understand the female gender even at the best of times.  Luckily that isn’t what this post is about, though it will touch on perceptions of femininity in anime.  No the dish of the day is the division between the genres of Yuri and Shoujo Ai.  If my own experience is anything to go by then I’m guessing you’ve probably stumbled across both genres at some point, perhaps more importantly you likely walked into one genre expecting the other because of a lot websites just use the catch all term Yuri to denote a series with any level of lesbian action, be it steamy girl-on-girl ecchi or romantic girl-on-girl undertones.  These two things are very different and as such shows which feature one or the other behave differently and it’s the differences in behavior and storytelling within these two closely related genres that I’m going to talk about.  From here on there will be some scattered spoilers.

So Yuri, true Yuri, is about physical action with regards to lesbian characters.  Whether it’s a show that leans towards romantic and keeps the girl-on-girl action to kissing ala Sakura Trick or if it decides to go full blown ecchi, in order for a show to be labeled Yuri it needs some kind of physical intimacy.  What this ends up meaning is that most Yuri shows are written with dudes like me in mind because I would be hard pressed to find a heterosexual man who can’t admit to finding lesbian action hot on some level.  If I’m going to be honest with myself I can admit that Yuri shows are generally written on a more basic level than their Shoujo Ai counterparts because their main draw is the physical action, which is pandering to the male gaze plain and simple.  I’m not going to say all Yuri shows are bad, Sakura Trick for instance was a show I thought was very cute because it incorporated more emotional intimacy elements into the story, but they are by design made to be a little trashier than Shoujo Ai.

The main draw of Shoujo Ai is the emotional romance and intimacy as opposed to the physical stuff.  Probably the best example of Shoujo Ai is Maria-sama ga Miteru or St. Mary is Watching.  It’s essentially a slice of life show that details the activities and adventures of the student council in an all girls school.  Despite the lackluster description however, I found the series to be way more interesting than the typical slice of life, because it’s focus was about exploring the depth and growth of relationships between the six or so major girls on the student council.  If I were to make broad sweeping generalizations I would say Shoujo Ai is written with a female audience in mind most of the time because it’s focus is on admiration-cum-romance and emotional intimacy.  And to that end I do think Shoujo Ai hold itself to a higher writing standard because it is trying to appeal to an audience that fully understands women not an audience that is constantly being distracted by their boobs.  For example I always felt that the most profound moment of Ga Rei Zero was when Kagura went to visit Yomi after her mauling at the hands of the Nine Tailed Fox kid.  At this point in the story Yomi’s fiancé is forced by his family to give up on marrying her because she been left in such bad shape that she will be bed-ridden probably for the rest of her life.  Kagura then goes to comfort Yomi and while the scene is tragic it’s also powerful at the emotional level.  I feel like this relationship the creators really wanted to display because it was more intimate than any kissing scene could ever be.  Yet most dudes I know, know Kagura and Yomi as those two lesbians from Ga Rei, which is ironic considering both girls are actually straight but have an intensely intimate relationship with each other on an emotional level.

I’m not going to say Yuri or Shoujo Ai is better than the other because that comparison ignores that fact they are aimed at different audiences and delivered in different ways.  Yuri stories are generally more straightforward, they revolve around creating a scenario that will result in girl-on-girl action, like having both girls get locked in the gym equipment room.  By comparison Shoujo Ai is much more subtle more often than not, it has its direct moments but the overall story has more to do with psychological pressure, atmosphere and the gradual growth of emotional intimacy like how in Maria-sama ga Miteru, the main girl actually rejects becoming her lesbian crush’s petite soeur (little sister) at first because said crush is initially using the main girl to get out of a responsibility she doesn’t want but much later down the road she can recognize the main girl when they get separated even though the main girl is in a full body mascot costume because the two have grown so intimate over the course of their time together.  What I will say is that Shoujo Ai tends be more powerful in its storytelling whereas Yuri is more sexy.  Both can be good or bad but each one is trying to do something very different and it’s up to the audience to find the genre that is right for them.  An easy way to think about the division is this, Shoujo Ai is like a traditional shoujo series but where the both sides of the central relationship are girls.  Yuri is more like the ecchi/harem genre except all the participants are girls.  So if you don’t like Shoujo, odds are you will not particularly like Shoujo Ai, though I myself am something of an exception to my own rule since I actually prefer Shoujo Ai despite my dislike of traditional Shoujo.  Anyway that should be enough rambling on about which kind of lesbian itch you want to scratch, now that you know the basic guidelines you can avoid the disappointment of walking into the wrong genre.  Hopefully you enjoyed this post and I’ll see you in the next one.

So I’ve Been Nominated for an Award…

Creative Blogger Award

This is my first award and though you can’t see my face I’m pretty excited about it. A huge thanks to Zataku of The Anime Analyst for nominating me for this award.

On to the ceremonial rules that come with this award.

Rules and Regulations:

  • Thank the person who nominated you and include a link to their blog.
  • Share 5 facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 – 20 bloggers and add their links.
  • Notify the bloggers you included.
  • Keep the rules in your post to make it easy for everyone to know what to do!

Facts About Me

  1. I will occasionally speak in a Scottish accent despite not being from Scotland nor ever having been to Scotland, I blame Braveheart for this.
  2. I can quote from memory almost the entire script of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
  3. My favorite genre of anything from any medium is Fantasy.
  4. I once wrote a 28 page, single spaced, rant/analysis of all the arcs of SAO but decided to scrap it when it took me a few hours to read it each time I wanted to look for mistakes or make improvements.
  5. My favorite anime of all time is Katanagatari in case my blog’s name and header didn’t clue you in already.


I don’t actually know that many blogs, so…

Fujinsei (I’ll be honest this blog looks like it should’ve gotten this award several times over but I couldn’t find any notification of the award)

Omnibus Writing

And that’s about all of the blogs that I think haven’t gotten the award yet and know of or at least had access to. Sorry I was unable to add more. I’m a new kid on the figurative block.

Thank you for reading. Hopefully I’ll see you in the next one. Cheerio.

Understanding Characters: Villains 101

Over the course of my various posts I have spent a lot of time talking about villains.  Unfortunately a lot of that time was spent explaining how shitty certain villains are.  So I figured it was time to condense my thoughts on the subject into one post for your convenience.  Ladies and gentlemen today I lay down some basic guidelines for making decent villains complete with examples of how to fuck it up.  From here on there will be scattered spoilers, you have been warned.

Let’s begin with the basics, do not make your villain one note unless everything about this person is built to support that one note.  When you want to make someone compelling the key is to find ways aid the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  One way to do that is to make your character, in this case the villain a balanced character.  Real people are not one note, even figures we love to ridicule for their single-mindedness like Hitler or Stalin were not one note men.  So creating a villain who is one note will subconsciously ring false.  For example Sugou from SAO, the villain from the Alfheim arc is utterly unbelievable because he has one character trait and that’s it.  A good villain is often even more complex than the hero of the story, after all it takes a certain kind of life experience to end up being a villain whereas any kid can want to be the chosen one who saves the day.  Case in point Tamiya Ryouko of Kiseijuu.  Tamiya Ryouko was more complex than Shinichi, her thinking was constantly evolving as she came to better understand her surroundings to the point where minor one note villains turned on her for her complexity of thought.  I’m not saying every villain should or realistically can be another Tamiya Ryouko but keeping the villain interesting is crucial and one note is rarely interesting.  The exception to this rule is when everything about the character contributes to their one note status, and I mean everything.  You can’t just do what SAO did with Sugou and be like “well he’s a rapey bastard” and call it quits there.  The character’s backstory, philosophy, and actions should be intertwined in an airtight bubble.  A good example would be Makishima Shogo from Psycho Pass, although he’s not so much one note as he is focused on a single goal.  Makishima’s experiences growing up in an environment controlled by the Sybil system combined with his exceedingly rare status as a Criminally Asymptomatic person work together to determine his philosophy as an adult, which in turn becomes the basis for all of his actions.  Makishima makes sense, there is a clear chain of events and circumstances that lead to his actions.  Everything we know about him points to single direction, and therefore he is incredibly compelling and believable.

The next thing to keep in mind although its closely related to the first is the villain’s motivation.  Going back to Makishima, part of why we works so well is that we understand his motivation so clearly.  The motivation doesn’t have to be particularly complicated, it can be simple greed for all we care, but we need to be able to understand it.  You can’t expect me to take a villain who doesn’t even know why he’s a villain seriously unless there are some very special circumstances at play.  To see how this is done wrong, look back to SAO.  Kayaba the creator of Aincrad a world where thousands of innocent people die doesn’t even know why he trapped anyone in the game to begin with.  It’s so fucking lame and really it’s more than a little embarrassing that a man who writes for a living can’t be bothered to make a motivation for a major villain during the climax of an arc.  It didn’t even have to be that good.  For example if Kayaba was perhaps taken with a certain kind of story to the point of lunatic obsession and then made it his life goal to see the story enacted… well it has some problems but it at least would give us something to go on.  This is rarely a problem so I think I’ll stop here and talk about the exception I mentioned.  There are certain circumstances where a villain could feasibly be believable and not know their own motivation.  If the villain was indoctrinated or raised by other villains and has no proper concept of right and wrong, if the villain has amnesia and is constantly coming under attack and has to defend themselves, or something along these lines could work.  But in most such cases the villain is victim of circumstance and rarely a true villain at all so it can be tough to work with.  One of the only good examples I can think of is Wrath aka King Bradley from FMAB because he was raised to be a bad guy, understood he was doing evil and decided to keep doing evil anyway.  A character that works in a similar way would be Kotomine Kirei of Fate Zero, a man who is empty and adrift and is pushed towards evil without initially being a villain.  In either case this sort of setup is rare and difficult to do well.

The last major thing I want to touch on is managing scale.  This is mostly a problem for long running shounen but it can crop up elsewhere and it’s pretty important.  When I’m talking about scale and villains I generally mean either their power or the level of their level of influence over a story.  I already touched on the issues of brokenly overpowered characters here, but here’s a quick summary.  Characters that are too powerful make the story less believable because they don’t quite feel like they belong in the world the story takes place in.  Likewise simply scaling up your villain’s power level to surpass a continually growing hero is a bad idea that can quickly get out of hand and ruin the experience.  As for influence, a villain should be an influential force on the story however I want to apply this specifically to villains who are playing the role of manipulators.  Manipulative bastards make for good villains because they are easy to hate, and combine intellect with ruthlessness.  However, any given villain, even a manipulative one can only have so much influence over a story and still be compelling.  Take for example Aizen Sosuke from Bleach.  His initial debut as a villain was awesome but somewhere along the line his story fell apart, that point being when he declared that he had manipulated Ichigo’s growth as a shinigami from birth and had a hand in which opponents he faced in what order he faced them and holy fucking shit this sounds so goddamn retarded.  Likewise Madara just pulled a similar stunt during the most recent episode of Naruto at the time of this writing, claiming that he had manipulated the Hidden Mist village into implanting Rin with the Sanbi all so he could Obito to fall to darkness.  In both these cases the amount of influence the villains are claiming over the story is absurd especially when you consider the circumstances.  Aizen could not have possibly manipulated Ichigo’s growth to any real degree, it would require him to always have access to information he shouldn’t have and that everyone involved follows his suggestions without question and wow this is sounding really stupid too.  Likewise Madara is his own goddamn mess.  First off I have no idea how he survives his fight with Hashirama, the First Hokage had mastered Sage Arts and Wood Style there’s no way he wouldn’t be able to know whether Madara was alive or dead after their fight.  But even ignoring that how can Madara, who at this point is super old and only alive because he has linked himself to the husk of the Juubi, go out and influence the Hidden Mist Village in any tangible way?  He is essentially chained to the Juubi statue, he has no business understanding the current status of Hidden Leaf or Hidden Mist let alone devising plots to ruin both on the basis of understanding the personal relationships of one random team of Hidden Leaf Ninjas… this is fucking absurd.  You can’t just dump all the major events in a story on the villain because they’re the biggest bad guy, even the major league villains have to have limits or else the story goes to shit.  And the sad part is the manipulation doesn’t have to be all encompassing to be dramatic and compelling, case in point Naraku from Inuyasha.  In Inuyasha Naraku is such a powerful manipulator not because he’s the biggest bad guy around but because he has personal ties to everyone he manipulates.  His story is deeply intertwined with the that of the main characters, i.e. he has a long history with them so he can manipulate them.  He also doesn’t determine every encounter along the way either, he is only one of several forces that influence the main characters throughout the story and there is nothing wrong with that.  In fact it makes far more sense than some villain everyone thought was dead suddenly coming out the woodworks and basically saying they own the story.  There’s no need for bullshit like that and I can’t fathom why anyone would write their story that way.  I assume it’s for a dramatic twist but it’s just so stupid, why would anyone create a scenario that is full of plot holes and logical fallacies while stripping away the agency of almost everyone else involved in the story.  It doesn’t make any fucking sense.

Anyway to summarize the above.  Villains should be complex either in their construction as a multi-faceted character or in the circumstances that enable them to be more one note and yet remain compelling.  Villains need to have motivations that we the audience can understand unless the story has been built around their lack of a motivation and accounts for it somehow.  Villains need to be reigned in just as much as heroes in terms of their power and their influence on a story.  Good villains should be strong and influential, this is true, but they should not be brokenly overpowered nor have too much influence over the story.  There are always going to be other forces at work in the story from random chance to helpful mentors, do not take away the agency of everyone in the story to make the villain seem bigger, it creates far more problems than any perceived increase in dramatic tension is worth.  And that wraps this one up.  Thank you for reading, hopefully you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Unpopular Opinion: Kiseijuu Sei no Kakuritsu

Warning there will be spoilers for Kiseijuu aka Parasyte.  You may not know this but I’m a more of a fantasy guy than a scifi one.  As a result I tend to watch fewer scifi shows and care less about them.  That being said, Kisejuu is not only one of the best scifi shows I’ve seen, its arguably the best show to have come out in 2014.  It’s not without its flaws but there is just so much it does right that I have a hard time not forgiving them.  So without further ado let the digging commence.

For the sake of not gushing all once, I’ll start with the bits of the show I didn’t like.  The characters were surprisingly hit or miss in the show.  In particular I found most of the high school girls to be kind of annoying.  Murano is especially tough to deal with during the middle segments of the show when she just keeps asking Shinichi “Are you really Izumi-kun?” or something to that effect.  Ordinarily this wouldn’t bother me too much but the girls get quite a bit of screen time focused on them which  is a shame since there were other characters who were just so much better.  Likewise I think some of the episodes towards the middle of the show, the ones that dealt with how Shinichi perceived himself and how those around him perceived him was an interesting and even ambitious idea to work into a story at the conceptual level but the execution fell a bit flat mostly thanks to Murano.  I also found the police chief Hirama to be less than compelling even if his characterization didn’t really have any issues.  But what about the rest of the characters?

Well the rest of the important characters are either really good or I bear them no good or ill will.  Shinichi and Migi make a great combo especially after Shinchi almost dies and undergoes some major changes.  I think they did a really good job balancing out his human reactions with his ability to shutdown his emotional reactions, it gave him the strength and confidence he needed to operate in the deadly world of the parasites but enough humanity to still be relatable.  But so long as we are talking characters the winner by a landslide is Tamiya Ryouko.  Tamiya Ryouko is one of the best written and most compelling female characters I’ve seen in a long time.  Even in a show like this one where there are other good characters to consider she stands head and shoulders above them all.  Mere words cannot express how much respect I have for her character and how she was handled during the show.  She had it all really, the intelligence to be dangerous to everyone, even herself.  The curiosity to move the story forward in ways the other parasites and even Shinichi never could.  And last but not least the grace to make her death scene one of the most powerful I’ve sat through.  Tamiya Ryouko was a rare and powerful character that I feel I can never do justice, it was a privilege to witness her and one I’m very glad I was lucky enough to have had.   Anyway what else do I like about this show.

The action is intense and memorable, the fights are dynamic and I really looked forward to each and every one.  In a similar vein I was big fan of all the creativity that went into the different parasite transformations.  Especially when Gotou arrived and we saw full body transformations, that shit was awesome.  The stunning levels of gore were also a nice bonus.  But perhaps the best part was that while the show had good action it also did a good job being thought-provoking during the downtime.  At no point in this show was I bored because even when there wasn’t some crazy action going on the show didn’t stall.  It explored how the parasites evolved and grew in their understanding of the world and humans.  In fact one of the better details was the shift from parasites as solitary predators to the parasite organization, as it reflected their ability to grow and their intelligence.  But even when it was just Migi and Shinichi talking to each other the downtime was interesting, the two were constantly learning new things about each other and each others’ species and I was a big fan of that kind of dialogue.  It was also a setting where lots of exposition would flow naturally instead of just being dumped in our face so we can understand the story.  I also thought the environmental message added some interesting flavor even if it was pretty heavy handed in the delivery.

Overall this is a show with an interesting story that delivers.  It doesn’t just rely on a cool premise and nice artwork unlike some of its contemporaries, it brings the whole story to life and made a hell of a name for itself.  And while it does have some flaws and rough patches the overall narrative is highly interesting, the most important characters are really good and the show just does a good job making sure we the audience never gets bored either by awesome action or thought-provoking dialogue.  This show was a treat, and that’s really all there is to say at this point.  Thank you for reading, hopefully you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Understanding Storytelling: Visual Art in a Narrative

I once said in a previous post about sequels, that the one of the dangers of reboots was that some shows already had either the perfect or at least a better art style in the original and that the reboot would always suffer because it would naturally do away with the old art style.  So I figured now was as good a time as any to examine what makes for a good art style in stories.  From here on there will be scattered spoilers, you have been warned.

Let’s begin with something really basic, your artwork should reflect the themes of the story.  If you’re a show about hope, adventure and eagerly seeking out the next horizon like Magi, then your art show look vivid, colorful and bright.  It should be a world that looks inviting and exotic, somewhere we the audience want to get just as immersed in as the characters.  And for Magi’s part it nails the art.  But there are plenty of shows that often fail at even this basic stage.  Take for example Jujin no Fafnir and Seirei no Tsukai Blade Dance.  Neither of these shows were particularly good, they both were harem shows and not even great by the dubious standards of that genre.  However both also had dark story elements to them, and these could have made the show more interesting but there was one minor problem, you can’t expect me to take dark and serious themes seriously when your characters look like they were designed specifically for figures and body pillows.  Fafnir was particularly bad on this front since all of its characters look way too young as well.  But this kind of basic failing isn’t restricted to just mediocre shows.  There’s a guy on Youtube called Demolition D+ and he did this great three part analysis of Neon Genesis Evangelion vs the Rebuild movies.  I’m not going to rehash his points, go watch the videos they are really good, but one of the things he didn’t bring up was the art.  Looking at NGE vs the Rebuilds side by side I always thought the original series looked way better than the Rebuild films.  This might be a bit counter-intuitive since the films came out later and have shinier prettier graphics, but I thought the old art style did a better job communicating both the themes and atmosphere of the story than the Rebuilds’ art style ever could.

This is where we get to the next big thing about art, it should play into the atmosphere of the story.  In Evangelion the themes lead towards the dark and the atmosphere is brooding, often depressing and horrifying even.  This is shown well in Evangelion’s art style, the colors are more muted and mostly realistic, when bodies are torn apart we see the bones and the organs, the kind of shit that other super gory shows are too afraid to show more often than not.  It makes the show more unsettling, more frightening and it plays into the psychological tension and pressure that Shinji feels throughout the show.  Compare that to the Rebuilds.  In the Rebuilds the colors are brighter, the art is neater and less gritty, the gore is now reduced blood piñatas and utterly lacks the kind of unnerving feeling we get from see the shattered bones and shredded organs in the original.  It looks nothing like a dark and brooding show should.  And so on that level I have always found the Rebuild films to be weaker than original series although the art is only the beginning of that tale.  This isn’t really all that complicated, if your story is about dark shit a bright color scheme is usually not the way to go.  But it goes beyond the mere color scheme.  The level of detail or realism is another thing to consider.  I mentioned in my post on Shin Sekai Yori, that the show would occasionally switch art styles in order to more effectively communicate the emotions a story was meant to inspire, like the story about the karma demons in episode 2.  I also mentioned that art looked at its best when it was portraying the twisted and the dark.  During the middle arc of the show we run into multiple scenes of otherworldly environments, with lots of shadows and strange lighting.  And in my opinion that’s the best looking arc of the entire show, because the art style best communicates the eeriness of the world during these episodes.

The final thing to consider, and it’s closely related to the other two, is tone.  If you’re talking about a story that oozes despair and desperation then it should look like what I described in this post here.  The difference between the tone and atmosphere is minute but I suppose an easy way to look at is like this.  Atmosphere is what kinds of feelings the show projects onto the viewers and the characters, so in say Shin Sekai Yori the atmosphere is eerie.  Tone on the other hand is bit more like statement about what level of seriousness we should take the show at, so if your show is not to be taken seriously, it should look ridiculous.  I described this somewhat in my post Understanding Stupidity, but I think the shows that really capture my meaning with tone are the famed Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill.  I wouldn’t say Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill look pretty so much as they look perfect.  What I mean is that I cannot imagine those two shows looking any other way and still being quite as good.  There is something in their art work, in my opinion the style more than anything else, which just fit the show perfectly.  Their artwork has been considered sort of in a league of their own and in retrospect I don’t think it’s hard to see why.  Both shows have more style than almost anything else in anime, but more than that they have tailored their designs and color schemes to be big, bold and utterly ridiculous, much like the shows themselves.  You can almost feel the attitude of both shows just by looking at them and this kind of balls-out, go big or go home art style that each show is rocking really separates them from the rest of the shows around them.  Another example is Fairy Tail vs Fairy Tail 2014.  Both shows are upbeat and fun and not to be taken very seriously.  In both shows the character designs reflect the stupidity of the show, but the color schemes tell a different story.  In the original series the colors were bright and vivid, reflecting the upbeat nature and tone of the show.  By contrast 2014’s colors are more muted and it’s art style more flat, draining a lot of life out the experience.  But at this point I think you all get my gist, so let’s wrap this up.  Hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Unpopular Opinion: Zankyou no Terror

Warning there will be spoilers for the titular show.  Ok so I must say this was one of the big disappointments among recent anime.  It was a Shinichiro Watanabe, of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo fame, anime and it looked gorgeous.  And the first few episodes were really good, lots of action, some nice police investigative drama on the side, also cool explosions.  But sadly the rest of the show simply did not live up to the great beginning for reasons I’m about to explain.

The flaws of this show are many and run deep, and it shows even in the premise.  So the story follows two geniuses who commit terror attacks that kill nobody and announce their attacks via riddles.  Ok so to skip forward a bit, the two geniuses came from a facility where the Japanese government tried to manufacture a group of geniuses that would guide them in the future.  But the drugs used to boost these kids to savant levels of intellect began to kill them.  So our two characters escaped and are committing their attacks to draw very subtle attention to the masterminds of the plan which birthed them.  This on its own seems unnecessarily complicated, couldn’t they just make like Snowden and release the classified information to the public from a position of responsibility?  I mean people today seem pretty suspect of their government here in the US, is the situation any different in Japan?  And then to compound this problem further they use the EMP of a nuke to destroy Japan’s electronic infrastructure, which means communicating the existence of the government’s secret program to the masses has now become exponentially harder.  But even assuming they didn’t need everyone to know and just wanted to let Inspector Shibazaki in on the secret they could have done in a much more direct way and without the nuke.  They literally could have just taken the nuke to get the right people’s attention and that would be it.  But no they use this stupidly roundabout plan that accomplishes very little and see them both die at the end anyway.  So what else is problematic?

The characters mostly suck.  Nine and Twelve are pretty hard to root for during most the season, especially Nine.  Moreover they are just so narrowly focused that they don’t develop or grow in any way.  Twelve escapes this a little by having an attachment to Lisa, but even he is extremely limited in his interactions with her and the world around him.  Lisa herself is a bit too unlucky and useless to be realistic.  Maybe it was the creator’s way of making her endearing but I just had a hard time liking her because she was always screwing up at every little thing and just had so few redeeming qualities, this was a shame because I initially liked her and I wanted to see her shine a bit but ultimately she was just as limited in her own way as Nine and Twelve.  And then came the catastrophe called Five.  Five was a character who seemed to just be there to pad out the length of the series, her development doesn’t really happen, her actions are ultimately meaningless and she in no way contributes to the story in any manner beyond putting Nine and Twelve through new action set pieces.  The only really good character was Shibazaki, he was a very compelling disillusioned inspector.

These two problems combine and give the show a horrible flow.  The first two episodes are fast-paced, action-packed thrillers.  The third and maybe fourth are high tension police drama thrillers. And then the story starts to go haywire because Five steps in and forces Nine and Twelve through needlessly complex mind games in order to frame them.  But after the first few episodes the show feels like it just stops going anywhere.  The segments with Five are essentially filler, the premise is simple and the only reason it takes so long to come full circle is because the main characters decide to declare their intentions in the most roundabout way possible.  And there is no character development to fill the gaps because the characters are mostly restricted in their interactions and growth.  In hindsight I think Zanyou no Terror might have been great if it had launched as a six episode OVA instead of a full season.  Keep in mind six episode OVAs aren’t generally my thing but this is a show that takes a long time to tell a very simple and straightforward story.  Instead of filling extra time with Five’s mind games and explosive defusing scenarios, they should have cut down on the roundabout storytelling and unnecessary bits and made a short but focused story, one that used the little time it had well and did what it needed to do without distractions.  Because Zankyou no Terror had some potential and the art style was great, but the overall package was rather underwhelming given the great start the show got off to.  Anyway that wraps this one up.  Hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Understanding Storytelling: Nuance in the Setting

So I’m doing this a little different from the normal way these posts are written.  I’m going to compare the settings of four different series each in a set of two.  The first two will be To Aru Majutsu no Index and Strike the Blood.  The second set will be No Game No Life and Mondaiji.  There will be some spoilers for all of the series involved, you have been warned.

Ok so To Aru Majutsu no Index, or A Certain Magical Index in English, is a world where both magic and advanced technology exist.  This is actually pretty cool and it’s something I enjoyed about the show.  But I had one minor problem, the world was just too black and white.  Magic only existed outside the scientific one, which was confined to Academy City.  There was essentially no overlap between magic and esper powers because the two worked against each other and having both destroyed one’s body.  Now I’m not saying that Index’s setting is bad, quite the opposite, at the conceptual level its rather interesting but I found it to be overly simplified.  It’s too neat, all the bad mages come from the Catholic Church, all the good Mages from branches of Protestant churches.  Most of the scientists in Academy city are evil and corrupt while most of the teenage espers are good guys.  I am over-simplifying a bit, but the situation is mostly as I’ve described.  All the bad guys and good guys are separate, all the mages and espers are separate.  This has implications which go beyond the mere simplicity of the setting.  Because the world is divided up into such neat and well defined groups, the conflicts are simplified.  Mages deal with mage problems and espers deal with esper problems, there is almost no overlap between the two save for the main character who is neither an esper nor a mage but whose power affects both.  In fact one of my favorite arcs of Index was the Golem one, not because Shelley was a good villain, but because the Academy city forces went head to head with her.  It was the only time I can recall where magic and science entered direct conflict with each other and that alone was enough to make the arc more exciting.  But the series never does the same thing again and it’s plainer for it.

By contrast, Strike the Blood is a pretty mediocre series with a fan-fucking-tastic setting.  In Strike the Blood, the line between magic and technology is blurred to the point where it can be difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.  In the first arc for example, the huge man made islands our characters live on, one of the greatest feats of human engineering ever is dependent on a powerful magic artifact to function.  And in the third one country is able to use technology to power up their magic and summon the False Holy Sword which only the strongest of mages could have done alone.  Unlike Index where the two are separate, in Strike the Blood magic and science are closely intertwined.  And all the extra nuance and complexity that comes with Strike the Blood’s setting is a powerful thing, if they decided to make a random story unrelated to Strike the Blood in the same setting I would be all over that shit because they did such a good job with the setting.  I’m not saying simple is bad, it’s much easier to work with, and looking at both Index and Strike the Blood I would say that Index handled its simple setting much better than Strike the Blood handled its strong one.  However, despite all the flaws of the Strike the Blood story, the setting is amazing and I would very much like to see another show down the road rocking something similar.  Simple isn’t bad, but a complex and nuanced setting that is used well will almost invariably beat a simple setting that’s used well.

Now I mentioned in my No Game No Life review, that I thought Mondaiji was the better series but I never touched on the differences in the setting.  Both worlds involve a variety of races, magic and conflicts that are settled by games.  But of the two, No Game No Life’s is much simpler and neater.  In No Game No Life every race is unified into one nation, all races except the humans and maybe the war beasts can use magic and everything is solved by games.  In Mondaiji things work a little differently.  The races are not unified wholes and there are no countries, instead there are communities which function more like MMO guilds.  In this world, the Little Garden, all players involved have some kind of gift, be a special physical ability, magic or anywhere in between.  And while everything is solved by games the rules are not as hard and fast as the ones in No Game No Life.  For example in every game in No Game No Life one of the big “twists”, I’m using air quotes since it literally always happens, is to see how Sora and Shrio’s opponents are cheating and how the two overcome the cheating.  By comparison Mondaiji has no cheating during its games but there’s still plenty of room for foul play.  For example in the early episodes we find out the most powerful local community rose to prominence by taking hostages and then challenging other communities to games which would see them get absorbed into the hostage taker’s community.  I found this to be a lot more believable and satisfying than No Game No Life’s games because it built up the downtime in between games with potential for action and intrigue, as opposed to more Sora and Shrio shenanigans.  Also it made the games more enjoyable because none of them got twisted by cheating.  Another side effect of Little Garden’s looser rules means more variety in its games.  In No Game No Life, all the games are ones we would know except with magic involved, chess, shiritori, FPS, etc.  By comparison Mondaiji’s games are more varied, ranging from simple battle tournaments and tests of physical ability, to obscure puzzles based on mythology.  In Mondaiji mythology plays a pretty big role, for example if you wanted to challenge the Perseus community to a game you first have to beat the Kraken and the Gorgon in their own mini-games just like Perseus did in Greek mythology.  All of this culminates into a world that is more lively, interesting and believable despite its clearly  fantastic nature.  Nuance is a powerful tool when used properly and nuance lends far more believability to a setting than simplicity, which is important if you story strains at our suspension of disbelief at every turn.  Anyway that about wraps this one up.  Hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Unpopular Opinion: Kimi ni Todoke

Ok since I have no idea how popular/ well known this series is I’m going to start with a quick premise summary and recommendation for those who haven’t seen it.  Then I will do my usual analysis thing.  First off the quick summary.

Kimi ni Todoke is a shoujo anime, which means it’s a romcom set in high school.  What sets this particular show apart from most of its contemporaries is that the female lead is characterized by terrifying others on accident since she looks like the girl from The Ring, and that she really really sucks at communicating.  This gives the show a very odd and in my opinion very funny sense of humor that really makes this show not only stand out, but be engaging as well.  It makes the show a little less predictable and certainly less annoying than I find shoujo anime to typically be.  So if you happen to be in the mood for some high school romcom I’d recommend this show, it’s a lot better than most everything else the genre has to offer in my experience.  From here on there will be spoilers you have been warned.

Now I am not a shoujo man, if you couldn’t tell already.  It’s one of my least favorite genres of anime, for example Ao Haru Ride or Blue Spring Ride was a shoujo show that I gathered was relatively well received and I couldn’t fucking stand it, the main girl was so goddamn annoying.  Anyway so when I say I think a shoujo show is good, y’all better fucking pay attention.  In all honesty this show is really good.  Well at least season one is good.  Season two on the other hand was one of the most painfully average shoujo slogs I’ve ever sat through.  But I’ll get into that later, let’s start by looking at what made season one great.

I already mentioned that the comedy was very good, this is huge because it keeps the show more interesting.  I found another shoujo with a similar effect, albeit to a much lesser degree, to be Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun which spiced up the romance with decent comedy.  What makes Kimi ni Todoke so effective in this regard is that everyone expects our heroine Sawako to be creepy and everyone runs when’s really the sweetest person imaginable but looks like Sadako from The Ring.  Sawako also frequently goes into a chibi mode during soliloquies and other events which makes her character adorable.  As I describe it the comedy doesn’t sound that impressive but for whatever reason I found it very endearing, which brings us too…

Sawako is an endearing character which is really, really fucking important for a shoujo series.  Most of the time, see Ao Haru Ride above, I don’t really care about a shoujo series’ leading lady and that means I don’t give a rat’s ass about her struggling to confess to her crush.  Sawako is different from the typical shoujo heroine, and a lot of how the show works with and around those differences is what makes it so much better than typical shoujo fare.  Also where I found Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun’s heroine to be sort of funny but not lovable and found Ao Haru Ride’s to be this annoying helpless girl, Sawako is a girl I can root for.  She’s a an endearing person between her awkward communication, funny misunderstandings and her incredibly kind conduct, in fact you almost can’t help but root for her, she deserves the guy she wants and works hard to get him.

I think part of what makes Sawako’s struggles to confess to her crush more interesting is not just Sawako herself, although they did a really good job with her, but it’s her friends.  Her two really good friends are both fun and interesting characters in their own right and neither of them wants to date Sawako’s crush and make this forced love triangle.  Instead they serve as interpreters almost, bringing some realism and common sense to Sawako who in typical Sawako fashion has interpreted something in an unusual way.  The three girls just make a good group and their relationships with other characters in the story add flavor and believability to the series.  Now with all these things going for it, how the hell could the second season go wrong?

Well it undoes almost everything the first season did well.  Sawako’s friends are still really good but Sawako herself suffers because of the introduction of a new guy whose all over her for some reason.  His attitude towards her comes out of the blue, feels a bit forced and to top it all off this guy is annoying as fuck.  It throws all the great chemistry the cast had out the window just by adding this guy and the thing is they didn’t need him at all.  Season two could’ve been the exact same as season one except that it covers the confession and it would have worked beautifully.  But instead they added this new element and everything went haywire.  I’m guessing they were trying to build tension or drama by adding a new guy going after Sawako but the guy himself is annoying and Sawako would never have gone for him in the first place.  So what we get is this new guy who bothers us all the time, who we know will never get Sawako and who actively messes with the chemistry everyone had before.  See Kimi ni Todoke is a show that took relationship development slow and made it work, so season two could literally have just been the same as season one and covered the relationship as it built up to the confession and it would have been fine.  Instead they tried to make the confession dramatic and sudden which doesn’t play to the first season’s or Sawako’s strengths at all.  It baffles me how the two seasons could be on such different levels.  How one could be one of the best shoujo anime I’ve seen and the other is so hard to watch is beyond me.  But whatever, there isn’t much else to say.  My advice is to watch season one, because it’s really good and then watch episode 12 of season two so you can see the confession scene, and you won’t have missed much if you do.  And that wraps this one up.  Hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Understanding Characters: The Anti-Hero

Warning there will be scattered spoilers as I discuss the various aspects of the anti-hero using examples.  The anti-hero is one of the more common characters you will see in a lot of action series.  They showcase a much darker side of the world than the more hope-filled stories traditionally displayed by heroes.  That kind of contrast and nuance in a setting and story is a good thing, however I have one overwhelming complaint directed towards anti-heroes, too many of them follow the same path or make the same mistakes.  The biggest weakness of any individual anti-hero is that they generally restrict themselves too much by being defined by their need for revenge, like Kurapika or Sasuke, or they go so far in the name of their cause they end up looking more like villains than the actual villains, like Lelouch or Light.  I’m not saying these guys aren’t compelling or can’t be interesting, but especially in the revenge case it can make the character a bit too one note.

In general I just find anti-heroes to be less interesting and compelling even though their point in the story should be to make it more interesting and compelling.  Take Kurapika, once upon a time I liked him, he was a good character who tried to balance his need for revenge with his natural disposition as a generally good guy.  But by the end of HunterxHunter 2011, Kurapika is brooding asshole who lacks the basic humanity and courtesy to visit Gon who is one the edge of death.  What the fuck happened there?  Kurapika was good precisely because he wasn’t one note but had to find a balance between a couple aspects of his personality, now he’s one note and I can’t be less interested in him anymore.  He’s a dull, brooding dude in the midst of show full of life and color, even the villains of the show make themselves more interesting than Kurapika.  Likewise Sasuke could have been a great and compelling character if he struggled more with trying to resist Itachi’s taunts and advice versus his need to get stronger.  If Sasuke had stayed in Konoha for most of the story and watched as Naruto outstripped him for a longer period of time, then the bitter brooding bastard that is Sasuke would have been more believable, more interesting and a character I could get behind on some level. Instead he runs from Konoha at the first hint that Naruto might outclass him and becomes a brooding bitter bastard out his own twisted sense of superiority and stubbornness I guess.

The other big problem I have is more applicable to Light and Lelouch.  These two go too far and while that makes them tragic and compelling it also makes a bit too one note.  In later episodes of both Death Note and Code Geass the defining the goal almost seems to be how far their next strategy goes, how much further they make themselves fall.  And I find that a lot less compelling than their initial fall.  Lelouch does a better job than Light because he has moments where he freaks out after killing a relative or accidentally getting one of his friends’ realtives caught up in the conflict.  But towards the end even he stops caring and his ensuing stratagems, while still brilliant are without exception more fucked up than what came before.  This bothers me because realistically I can see the case for someone who just keeps falling further and further but a more compelling character is one who goes back and forth.  An anti-hero who suffers from doubt and trauma for the things they did during their tragic mistake, and continually struggles with the need to go further to win versus the cost of going further will always be a thousand times more compelling than the guy who just falls and falls and falls.  And the weird thing is that these two archetypes I have described are so prevalent when there is another type of anti-hero that I have found to be much better.

I’m talking about the regretful anti-hero, someone who went too far and knows what they did and rather than keep falling, chooses to turn their life around.  These kinds of characters seek atonement instead of revenge, seek to expunge their crimes rather than add to them and I find these kinds of characters to be infinitely more nuanced and compelling than revenge seekers and extremists.  A good example of this type of character is Akame from Akame ga Kill.  She is at the center of some silly gags especially with regards to her gluttony, but work your way past that and there is really something to her.  Where the revenge seeker and the extremist project instability and a  lack of control, Akame appears unwavering, resolute and graceful by comparison.  She does not shy away from the evils she once committed but she does what she can to make up for them.  It gives her a bit more depth, and it allows for different kinds of interactions.  Whereas revenge seekers and extremists are have their dialogue limited to “I’ll kill you”s and “out of my way”s (Korosuzou and Jama da in Japanese), Akame has a lot more options available.  For example one of my favorite scenes in Akame ga Kill is when Akame fights Bols and they stop the fight so that Bols can ask Akame why she betrayed the Empire, and after Akame answers Bols accepts it without recrimination.  This is not something you get to see very often unless the characters are mature, and that’s one of the strengths of the atonement seeker, they are more mature than other kinds of anti-heroes and their character is more interesting because of that.  To me the atonement seeker will almost always be the most compelling anti-hero and the most powerful one as well.  The kind of strength of character it takes to admit major mistakes and then set about fixing them is so much interesting than someone who drives themselves into a corner because they demand power without having strength the strength to use it properly or even understanding what strength really is.  The atonement seeker is solid and graceful and I really wish it was a more common type anti-hero.  Anyway that wraps this one up, hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Hidden Gems: Shin Sekai Yori

You know I have spent hours trying to come up with something special or clever to say for an intro, but since nothing I came up with was doing this show justice, I’ll go with honesty.  I fucking love this show and whole heartedly recommend, nay demand that everyone watch it.  So what does this little known show have going in its favor for me to be so adamant that you watch it?

Let’s begin with the premise.  Our story begins in a small village inhabited by humans who all have psychic powers.  But while the village looks like it came from the ancient past we the viewers are clued in by the first few minutes that this village came about well after the collapse of the modern world.  So we are in a post apocalyptic setting.  Our story follows a group of five psychic tweens.  And here’s where I deviate from the norm because this show has essentially two premises going on at the same time.  Each arc deals with a major conflict but there is also a persistent secondary conflict going on over the entire run time of the show.  This second conflict is the struggle between the new generation and the former, because one of the few things made abundantly clear early on is that something is wrong with this society of psychics.  People go missing, there are rumors of mythical cat beasts that hunt down bad children, and there is a frightening lack of information and transparency.  This is a story where the people our young heroes should be able to trust most, their parents and teachers, are the people who are hiding things from them.

This is one of the things that I thought made Shin Sekai Yori so special.  In an interesting twist we the audience walk into the series with a better understanding of the setting than the kids we experience the story through, but we only know the big picture, the details are hidden from us as well.  So naturally finding these details is a major part of the story.  This is where Shin Sekai Yori really comes into its own, it controls the flow of information very very well.  It never reveals too much too quickly, even when it appears to be doing just that.  The other aspect of this that makes the show so good is that the details are horrifying.  It’s a show that taunts you, giving you all kinds of incentives to seek out answers to all your questions, then when it decides to answer some of them the answers are creepy enough to drive you away from ever seeking more, before the story demands that you seek more answers once again.  It’s a vicious and even perverse cycle that rewards and punishes curiosity simultaneously, and then does all it can to provoke our curiosity.  But this gets into a different strength of the show.

Shin Sekai Yori is eerie.  It doesn’t try to scare you but it constantly feels creepy.  I’ve never had a show or movie that make my hairs stand on end as often as this show did.  And the eeriness is everywhere.  The music is full of children singing in haunting unison.  The art style is at its strongest when it’s dealing with the dark, the twisted and the wrong.  The art style even changes on occasion to a more expressive style to communicate the horror certain stories are meant to teach.  And to add to it all there are frequent and unexplained disappearances, in a society of adults of who punish harshly and never explain anything beyond the basic rules.  And this only gets muddier and murkier as the main characters discover new information, information that brings with it at least as many questions as it does answers, and the answers we have tend to be deeply unsettling.  I’ll say it again, this show is eerie.  The atmosphere is one of confusion and distrust.  But more than that everything we see just feels wrong somehow.  At some fundamental level that we have a hard time consciously explaining, this place and many of the people in it just feel wrong.

Now the level of atmosphere this show has is something to make it worth a watch on its own, but the atmosphere is just one large part of the eerie package.  Shin Sekai Yori is just plain good at storytelling and more importantly given its propensity for the strange, really good at unusual storytelling.  For example each major arc occurs at a different point in the main characters’ lives, which allows us to see how this world and society changes them as they mature.  Likewise the time gaps play into the persistent secondary conflict as the young people we follow make their way into adulthood, and learn more about what being an adult in this society entails.  But at its core this is story that pulls you in.  Every arc begins a little slow but the episodes get progressively faster and faster, and you want to race to the climax of the arc.  And like I mentioned before the show does a great job with how it dispenses information.  It never dispenses too much but it always gives enough answers to encourage further digging.  And all of this stuff comes together in a series that I consider to be very compelling and very unique, which is a combination I don’t get to see often enough.  Anyway I really have nothing further to add so I can avoid giving out spoilers.  I truly do recommend this show quite highly, my gushing praise alone does not properly convey how much esteem I hold this particular show in.  If an atmospheric mystery thriller sounds like something you would enjoy or if you’re looking to try something  a little bit more on the fringes of the anime medium, I strongly encourage you to watch Shin Sekai Yori.  Hopefully you all enjoyed this and I’ll see you in the next one.