Unpopular Opinion: Medaka Box

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Ok so in my last post I argued that Nanbaka was just a crappy version of Medaka Box.  So now I figured I may as well talk about Medaka Box and what I think makes it way, way better than it’s current 7.2 MAL score.  But before I get to that I’ll do a nice spoiler free summary about the show because it came out in 2012 and was therefore doomed to be overshadowed by the likes of SAO and AoT, which is a shame really since this show wipes the floor with both of those shows.  Here’s the spoiler free version.

Medaka Box takes place in a high school, I know big surprise right?  It follows the story of Medaka, the student council president, who could’ve guessed?  As well as her childhood friend Hitoyoshi Zenkichi, who at least looks like a delinquent punk so yay we filled the delinquent archetype too.  As they work solve the various issues of their students via the a suggestion box, which quickly is given the nickname of the Medaka Box, hence the show’s title.  As you might expect from such a bland and generic concept of a show, Medaka is mostly a slice of life comedy show with sports, seishun and stupid shenanigans.  However, what I’ve yet to mention is that Hakoniwa Gakuen, the school setting of the show, is utterly fucking nuts and it’s students are likewise a bunch of quirky oddballs.  That may not sound like the kind of saving throw a generic high school bullshit show needs but trust me it’s more than enough.

Tweaking the setting like Medaka Box does turns the entire nature of the show and it’s style of comedy on it’s head.  Medaka Box is neither a generic battle high school anime, like the Asterisk War nor a boring student council comedy like Seitokai Yakuindomo. Yes Medaka Box has a lot of club-based conflicts but almost every conflict in the show is less about solving the problems of an individual or a club but instead about examining and improving the psychology and human nature of the people involved.  Which isn’t such a surprise when one considers that the author of Medaka Box is none other than NisioisiN of Bakemonogatari fame.  However Medaka is far more accessible than the Monogatari franchise in that it has a lot less of NisioisiN’s obtuse word play and is generally more straightforward than the Monogatari franchise.  That said the examination of geniuses, a common theme in NisioisiN’s work is central to the story of Medaka Box, as Medaka herself is quite possibly the most perfect genius NisioisiN has ever created.  Medaka is about as close to a literal goddess as a human being can come, she’s stunningly beautiful, inhumanly intelligent, a master of anything she tries her hand to and totally unconcerned by most, if not all, social norms.

Actually to interrupt my own chain of thought for a minute, I just realized that Shokugeki no Souma is a great parallel to Medaka Box when it comes to the setting and characters.  Medaka Box doesn’t have Shokugeki no Souma’s fiery shounen attitude but it does have a crazy, huge campus full of students ranging from total normies to unmatched geniuses and both shows place a lot of emphasis on the differences between people with and without inborn talent as well as the different levels of talent.  Hell both male leads even fall under the same basic characterization, they have no special talent whatsoever but by dint of experience and hard fucking work they prove themselves worthy to stand along side with and go toe to toe with geniuses.  So if you liked Shokugeki no Souma you might like Medaka Box as well, though it’s not the place to come for cooking battles because that’s not Medaka Box’s entire deal.

Personally I love the kinds of examinations into the nature of humans and the various levels of talent or genius and how said talents affect people that Medaka Box provides.  Of the NisioisiN stories that were made into anime I like Medaka Box’s commentary on people and talent the best, and that’s coming from someone whose seen almost every story of his put to animation.  And speaking of animation, Jesus Christ Medaka Box looks phenomenal, both in the stills and in motion.  Medaka Box’s character designs are not particularly complicated, with a few exceptions, making it easier for the animators to make them flow well in motion.  The character’s also have high stylized designs with mostly realistic bodies and most of the design attention being given to the eyes and hair, the hair of course being most likely to be unrealistic.

It’s the eye work however that I find most fascinating.  Medaka Box schools um, EVERYONE, as far as I can tell when it comes to animating expressions where the eyes are concerned.  There’s generally a lot of extra line work around the eyes and they change in appearance and texture to enhance a characters expression.  The most common visual tricks in the anime industry with regards to eyes is to either make them blank to indicate surprise or airheadedness, fill them in with red when a character’s angry to make them seem intimidating or to make them look flat and lifeless, usually to show mind control or depression.  Medaka Box has lot more tricks in the bag and it doesn’t even use the common ones.  Perhaps the most noticeable trend is the change in eye shape, when Medaka Box’s characters are having a good time a lot them will have sort of moe eyes, large rounded eyes with irises that seem to have a lot shine to them.  But when it’s time to get serious, not even mad necessarily but whenever a character is taking a serious earnest approach to something the eyes will inevitably become more angular and smaller but they’ll still be large enough that it doesn’t actually look like the character is narrowing their eyes in response to the situation.  It’s a nice subtle trick that works like gangbusters in combination with the extra shading and line work shown around the angular eyes to really emphasize their expressions.

Additionally characters eyes do tend to lose their shine when they get more serious, but rather than looking flat and dead the way the normal animation trick works Medaka Box’s character just look more serious because the eye still keeps a lot of color and their expressions convey a lot of character, whereas dead eye characters tend to be totally expressionless.  Medaka Box also uses what I’m now coining as Rinnegan-lite, where they make certain characters’ eyes, mostly the villains, have a couple extra circles in the irises to make them look more shark-like and menacing.  Some of the rarer tricks used by Medaka Box include character’s whose eyes change color and characters whose eyes are lack pupils entirely and instead just have a big colorful iris.  Undoubtedly the best part about all this though is that all of the design elements and tricks feed into each other beautifully.  When a villain has the Rinnegan-lite irises, in angular eyes surrounded by heavy shading and framed by the thick eyelash-outline thing (for a point of reference on what I’m talking about check Tanya’s eyes in Youjo Senki, it’s a similar style but Medaka Box does it better) and pointy hair common to just about everyone, he looks like a fucking badass before he’s even done anything.  All in all it’s a style of character design I’ve never seen in any other anime and it’s quite possibly my favorite design style, it looks fucking awesome is what I’m saying.

And as mentioned in that Nanbaka post, Medaka manages an excellent transition from lighthearted comedy show to intense battle show, the pacing stays tight, characters stay in character and we get real, meaningful character growth, some intense battles between a bunch of geniuses with a wide variety of intelligent techniques and crazy powers.  I will say though that I don’t think Medaka Box is particularly funny, even during the comedy focused arc, it draws some laughs here and there but where the comedy arc succeeds is that it really endeared me to the characters.  I liked the whole student council and the recurring side characters long before they hulked up and did some badass action scenes,  they might not be a hilarious bunch of goofballs but they are very likable and fun goofballs.  And they only get better as they get serious, because unlike Nanbaka I’m invested in these people, I want to see them grow or stand their ground in the face of impossible odds, I’m backing them 100%.

So as far as the spoiler free section is concerned, the art is super fucking good, the characters are good and the execution of the story far surpasses the surface of what the plot summary and setting would imply at first glance.  It’s a great time and you should watch it.  Now it’s spoiler time.

As anyone whose watched the show knows season 2 ends on major cliffhanger, where following the collapse of the Flask Plan, Kumgawa aka the most popular character in the manga has wrecked like 12 people whom had already been established as badasses and is clearly set to challenge Medaka once again like he did in middle school.  The final episode then adapts what I believe was a short Kumagawa spin-off manga where we meet Ashin’in, a super important character in the long term, and we get to see Kumagawa’s power All Fiction in action.   Now let’s not beat around the bush here, I want to see Medaka Box Minus, you, fans of Medaka Box want to see Medaka Box Minus, everyone wants to see Medaka Box Minus (they just don’t know it yet).  I think it’s safe to say that the Minus arc is by far the most hype arc of the manga, not surprising since the most popular character in the manga is the central villain of the arc.  Like, I know there’s no such thing as a sure bet but as far as sequels go that seems like as close as you can get.  Everyone who cares about Medaka Box will be on that shit in a heartbeat, and in an industry where all kinds of new shows get split cours and sequels, why don’t they try Medaka Box Minus?  I fully admit I know nothing about how much the prior seasons of Medaka Box made in terms of profit, but I guarantee it has a better shot of success than something like the second cours of Nanbaka, which most people I’ve talked to or heard from haven’t even seen.

For those of you who’ve not seen Medaka Box but went into spoiler territory anyway let me guide you through a tale of fucking awesome shit.   Three ideas which do not appear in say the Monogatari franchise, whose main focus as far geniuses are concerned rests solely on Hanekawa, are how different levels of genius interact, the desire to artificially create geniuses (which has happened in the real world, it’s called eugenics) and the opposite end of the spectrum, people so broken and dysfunctional that they are doomed to be outcasts.

In Medaka Box there are 4 kinds of people, well there’s more like 6 but only 4 matter for the purposes of this post.  These types are Normals, which is self-explanatory.  Specials, who are people with a lot of talent but are still fairly normal, they can be quirky and weird but not cripplingly so.  Then there are Abnormals, who have inhuman levels of talent and usually some kind of accompanying super power but have proportionally stronger quirks to the point most of them don’t attend school because they wouldn’t function well there.  Both Specials and Abnormals sort of align with austistic savants, Specials have the generally more limited talents of savants but have lesser degrees of social problems, while Abnormals have a much broader range of talents, and literal superpowers, than most savants but equal or greater degrees of social problems.  The last group is the Minuses, those born with crippling degrees of bad luck and ineptitude, generally resulting horribly warped personalities, twisted minds and bizarre powers of their own.

The Flask Plan is an experiment run by the principal of Hakoniwa Gakuen wherein the principal, working with a group of Abnormals called the 13 Party attempts to create artificial geniuses, however this plan could end up costing thousands of lives so Medaka sets out to stop it.  Medaka is a fascinating case study where the Flask Plan is concerned because if you remove her morals and personality she objectively judges that it could be used to perfect her, and the only reason she has a personality which would oppose the Plan in the first place is because when they were toddlers Hitoyoshi convinced her that someone with her overwhelming talents existed for the sake of making other people happy.  Yes btw, at 2 Medaka was struggling with literal existentialism, that’s the level of genius she is.  She’s so far above, and by extension removed from, normal society she wondered why the fuck she was even around at age 2.

Anyway, long story short, Medaka and friends stop the Flask Plan in a series of cool battles and as they are on their way back to the normal part of the school the defeated villains turned quasi-friends in tow they run into Kumagawa, after he defeated a mix of 12 Abnormals and Specials fighting each other.  Kumagawa was previously established as this twisted bastard who did a lot of emotional damage to Medaka and Zenkichi in middle school and as the only person Medaka was never able to reform into a better person.  The Minus arc is essentially a second battle arc where Medaka and Co. fight Kumagawa and his fellow Minuses for control of the school via a brutal series of contests based on archaic rules.  It has tons of cool set pieces, great battles, interesting new characters and some of coolest powers in the entire series.  And it introduces Ashin’in, who I think is arguably the coolest character in the Medaka Box universe.  It’s HYPE is what I’m saying.

What I’ve been trying to say in last almost 2500 words is that I love Medaka Box.  It has great battles, cool powers, interesting themes, a good narrative, endearing characters and amazing art.  And I want a third season.  And I really want more people to watch it and enjoy it so that it’s more likely to get that third season.  It’s a show I feel is worth fighting for, so God fucking dammit that’s what I’m doing.  Hope you enjoyed the rambling gushing review of Medaka Box, do check it out I highly recommend it, and I’ll see you in the next one.

Unpopular Opinion: Nanbaka

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Nanbaka is a rather remarkable show, in that everything about it is utterly insane.  I’d be hard-pressed to find another show with so many different hair colors, dual hair colors, hair styles, character nationalities and odd abilities.  Unfortunately Nanbaka doesn’t do much of note with all it’s wacky assets.  There will be spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned.

What I think kills Nanbaka to me more than anything is that it parallels an anime I vastly prefer, Medaka Box, and does a poor job in comparison.  Both shows feature stories that are initially comedy focused before switching to battle-heavy arcs.  Both shows have casts full of people with downright bizarre weapons, abilities, appearances or personality traits.  And both shift, seemingly at random, from lighthearted shows to shows with rather dark and heavy plots, with the differences between people and the difficulties of communication featured as prominent themes.  Nanbaka even has multiple characters who have dual colored hair which changes color in the same spot that Zenkichi’s, Medaka Box’s male lead, does.  Hell even though the setting has been changed from a high school to a prison both of them are so full of various forms of oddballs, and ironically enough equally violent enforcers, and the relationship between the various prisoners and guards relaxed enough that the only real functional difference is that no one can leave the prison and everyone in Medaka Box has to go home after school.  I mean you could argue this is a more adult setting and therefore could play home to more adult characters and stories but considering how twisted, goofy or straight up inept these convicts are at basic social functions it might as well be Medaka Box’s Sandbox Academy with more locks, bars and sparkles.  None of these things doom Nanbaka to failure in my eyes, though that is so closely resembles Medaka Box without being anywhere as good doesn’t help it’s chances.  It’s hard to summarize exactly what’s wrong in simple, concise words or phrases, most of what the show tries to do just fails to coalesce into anything really entertaining or hard-hitting for one reason or another.  That said if I had to point to a consistent issue than pacing would be the main offender.

Part of the problem is that Nanbaka is try to tell two stories at once, the goofy gag anime and the darker, more serious battle anime.  Inherently this isn’t a problem but it seems like the creators don’t know how to pace events for this combination very well.  Nanbaka introduces it’s first darker elements at the end of episode 1 in a soliloquy where Jyugo describes his black shackles and the scene ends with this fucking awesome shot of Jyugo where the artsyle totally changes and the colors undergo a dramatic shift, to make the whole thing look darker, more jagged and more badass.  So far so good.  The darkness doesn’t return until about halfway through season 1, where in the midst of stupid new year’s contest-cum-battle tournament, Jyugo is confronted by someone who knows about the black shackles’ creator and Jyugo goes berserk while fighting him.  This is also fine though I think it’s weird for to it show up in the middle of the show, because it seems more like a climactic fight.  This isn’t helped by the fact the next two episodes are slow as hell, with one being dedicated to getting Jyugo to realize he’s never had any desires before and now he does, and he needs to make efforts and be emotionally invested in his desires and… what?  What the fuck?

That episode in particular is painfully boring and it seems like a classic case of heavy handed moralizing.  That could work in theory but I don’t need a morality lesson thanks, and I’m not invested enough in anyone in this show to care about major, if entirely too basic, character moments for them.  Moreover why pop out the biggest battle of the season in the middle?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to do that near the end, after we maybe had a few more episodes to try and get invested in the main characters’ stories?  That way the moralizing and exposition part could be more of an epilogue not a boring as fuck break in the story where nothing happens before the next dark bit.  Of course that makes sense because that’s what Medaka Box did.  In Medaka Box the sudden turn to a darker, violent story line doesn’t begin until episode 8 or 9 and the major battle and the resulting character moments happen before the final episode, which returns to a low key comedy episode which fills the space during Medaka’s recovery time and concludes the first season’s narrative.  And it’s not until the beginning of the second season that we return to the serious stuff.

And just to show that I’m not only hammering Nanbaka for not following Medaka Box, the way the story continues is a fucking snoozefest.  After the two slow episodes following the fight, Jyugo meets a new antagonist, convinces himself he needs to leave to protect his prison buddies and tries to escape, only to get caught.  Then the next seasons opens with about 4 episodes of slower episodes focused mainly on lackluster comedy and some character development for a couple of random prison guards and characters because fuck it, why not?  Then the rest of the series is just a long series of battles between pre-established characters (mostly side characters), two noteworthy enemies, a couple generic prison guards and a bunch of killer doll-robots.  It’s boring.  They dedicated almost an entire episode to every character busting out their specific power, they wait like 6 episodes before Jyugo, the strongest one, starts to fight and to top it all off the whole is interwoven with random bits of backstory and character development, most of which is actually pretty interesting except for one minor problem- who the fuck cares about these guys?  I couldn’t even get invested in the main characters, I gave no fucks about the side characters and while I admire the range of personality quirks, backstories and superpowers/special techniques showcased in the second season on the whole, it took way too fucking long.  Every episode just dragged on and on while they dumped exposition on a character’s personality or power or skill and I kept waiting for them to a, hurry up and have Jyugo fight and b, fight the enemy boss Goku Enki.  The former took too many episodes to happen and the latter didn’t happen at all, instead the season ends on a cliffhanger of him about to fight one of the other top prison guards.

It’s a little depressing really, because if I cared about these characters at all this show would have been a lot better.  The pacing issues wouldn’t have disappeared completely but at least the battle section wouldn’t have felt so bloated and boring.  The battle arc suffers from other problems as well though, perhaps most notably that Jyugo has actually fought and at least repelled Enki before and just forgot about it because he had no passions before and therefore didn’t bother to remember anyone.  Wait, if that was actually the case why the fuck does he remember Musashi, the fire guy who knew about the black shackles from the main battle of season one?  Why does he seem to have forgotten everyone besides Musashi, even though nothing about their first meeting implies that Jyugo saw Musashi as anyone important or interesting?  Enki’s sudden prison break and rebellion is centered around taking Jyugo and other “monsters” down, so did they have an epic battle that Jyugo conveniently forgot for the sake of a plot twist or was Enki really weak before and was inspired to get strong by Jyugo?  Nothing shown or said about Enki ever implies that he’s ever been weak and he looked more or less the same when fought Jyugo before so what gives?  Does he magically not age or was the fight pretty recent?  It can’t have been that long ago cause Jyugo’s pretty young, so why doesn’t he remember it? AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So yeah.  In addition to awful pacing there are some cringeworthy plot developments and plot holes and that sucks.  It sucks because the broad concept of the battle arc was cool and a lot of the abilities/techniques were cool and it all would have been so much better if I cared about any of these characters, especially the main villain.  He’s introduced as this badass but it doesn’t have any weight because the only person we see him fight is his little brother, who’s an annoying nobody with the worst dual hair combo in the series, I’m not kidding his hair is green and orange, it looks shit.  This is fairly minor complaint but would it have killed the creators to make him look like a badass by taking down a character worth a shit?  In Medaka Box for example, the main villain of the second season meets Medaka before the two are even explicitly enemies and demonstrates his power right away.  He’s strong enough that Medaka, previously a nigh-invincible character seeks emergency training from her brother, whose special skill is the ability to manage and “level up” people exceptionally well.  Then the conflict is given added weight when it becomes clear that the secret inhumane plan the villain supports could cost thousands of lives, making the battle a high stakes one.  The conflict just keeps getting bigger and better as every enemy introduced is an important one, a serious threat to the good guys trying to shut the plan down.  Not to mention these villains employ a mix of pure battle talent and excellent tactics that mean even the weakest of them is extremely dangerous.  Now that’s a fucking battle arc worth watching.

Long story short Nanbaka is a wacky, but ultimately boring show.  It has lots of interesting ideas and it certainly has the visual flair needed to give the story some much needed character, but none of it ever really comes together.  The awful pacing, heavy handed moralizing and the weakness of the cast comes in and robs almost every noteworthy scene of there power.  It needs something more, maybe that was efficiency in the story, better overall direction or less throw away episodes and more time devoted to getting us invested in the characters.  Nanbaka just tries to do too much at once and the result is a goofy but altogether lackluster show.  If by chance you like the plethora of crazy powers/techniques and the idea of the main cast being a collection of oddball characters, like me, then I’d highly recommend you check out Medaka Box.  And in the off chance someone from Japan reads this, which happens sometimes, please I beg you, tell someone, anyone, everyone to forget about making a Nanbaka season 3 and make Medaka Box Minus instead.  It’s got the manga’s most popular character in it and would totally do well, please, please make it.  I need it.  Anyway, I’m done here.  Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next one.