Unpopular Opinion: Medaka Box

medaka box

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: Shokugeki no Souma

Shokugeki no Souma is one of the best shows I’ve seen in recent years.  Granted I came to the cooking party a bit late, but off the top of my head the only show that I might like better since it came out was One Punch Man.  This is some seriously top tier shit.  However while Shokugeki no Souma is most famous for it’s foodgasms and general over the top-ness, I think the real key to the show’s success lies in the characters and the central character dynamic more than anything else.  There will be spoilers ahead.

What makes Shokugeki no Souma’s food battles really interesting, assuming you aren’t there for the crazy recipes, fiery shounen attitude and fanservice (all of which are much appreciated by the way), is that most of the battles boil down to the gifted vs the experienced.  Typically, by which I mean in other shounen anime, this kind of rivalry manifests as talent vs hard work, think Rock Lee and Neji/Sasuke way back in the Chuunin Exam for a good reference.  Shokugeki no Souma takes that premise a step further and focuses on the gifted or the fortunate vs the experienced.  The most prominent rivals Souma has to overcome in the anime are Erina and Hayama, people who have been blessed with a gift, in this case hypersensitive senses, which give them a huge edge over any competition.  They didn’t earn these gifts, they were just born with them.  In addition to these gifts, though they still have talent and hard work boosting their cooking skills.  This isn’t some Sharingan copy-skills-you-see-effortlessly-bullshit, these are people who have incredible gifts and talent but also work hard to perfect their craft.  By comparison Souma is described by his own father as someone without talent, but he has more experience than any of his peers, often by huge margins.  Much like Rock Lee, Souma’s only real gift is the ability to just never give up no matter how many times he fails, which is hardly a gift only he can have.

What makes this dynamic interesting though is that most shounen shows would ultimately favor hard work over talent whereas Shokugeki no Souma is less certain in its answer.  People with lots of experience tend to do exceptionally well, but the gifted are nearly insurmountable obstacles and the show constantly goes back and forth as to which of these two arbitrary sides is winning.  For example, Nikumi’s gift is her ability to pinpoint the internal temperature of meat, as well as being filthy rich because that’s it’s own kind of gift, and she loses to Souma.  But on the other hand Souma loses to Hayama in the Autum Elections Final.  Gifts and experience prove their worth throughout the show and they are constantly beating each other.  The gifted are certainly more venerated in-universe but the show spends a lot more time showing us the audience how impressive the experienced are, balancing the two out and making them appear equally valuable.  In addition to gift vs experience, the food battles put a ton of emphasis on tactics, personality, ingredients and equipment.  Especially in the second season, the dishes being served have a lot less to do with being better responses to specific challenges, like for example in the first Shokugeki where Souma makes a beef don that is easy to eat and tastes delicious in comparison to Nikumi’s more expensive but less well-coordinated wagyu don, and becomes a battle of personalities.  The tactics become less widely applicable, like how in the training camp Takumi and Souma pass because one makes a duck dish instead of fish dish while the other gets creative to make the only uniquely textured dish, and more focused on who the specific opponent is.

Once the Autum Elections roll around the cooking and tactics get much more personal.  Kurokiba brings power to the table, Alice brings chemistry, Hayama brings fragrance, Sadatsuka brings stench, etc.  The battles and trials of earlier episodes were already great, the buffet and Megumi vs Shinomiya were especially good, but the intensity gets turned way up as things get personal.  For starters everyone’s dishes tend to get more focused on playing to their signature style, but more importantly, the other parties’ tactics begin to play a bigger role.  Prior to the Autumn Elections, the tactics used are generally only focused on the dish and making it as good as possible without too much thought being on the opponent’s tactics.  It’s not that opponent’s dish is totally irrelevant, the Nikumi vs Souma match is predicated on the idea that she’s bringing the best meat to the table, but they have little influence over the tactics used.  By comparison the battles of the Autumn Elections feature tactics that are very much aimed at specified opponents.  Megumi creates her ramen specifically to go head to head with Kurokiba’s powerful seafood ramen.  Kurokiba uses umami and fragrance bombs against Hayama, and Souma pulls the latter trick as well in his attempt to beat Hayama.  To sum it up, the battles get more intense because both sides are paying a hell of a lot more attention to the competition and making bigger and ballsier moves to take their opponents down.

The final noteworthy ingredient that cements the delicious flavor of the food battles though is the characters themselves and just how good they are.  Almost all of them are a ton of fun to watch in action, even characters like Sadatsuka, who’s only around for like an episode or two.  The character designs are highly memorable and because the cooking styles are so personalized it’s easy to keep track of everyone’s strengths and stories.  These people are very easy to like and watching them succeed, especially when they’re in a pinch, is both hugely satisfying and at times a fun, wild ride.  The show has a bunch of big moments, complete with excellent music of course, and everyone and their dishes are highly memorable.  There is however one character who deserves specific mention, and that’s Tadokoro Megumi.  Megumi is the closest thing I’ve had to a waifu in years, she is far and away my favorite character in the show.  Her position in the story is an interesting one, she has talent and experience but lacks confidence and because of her falling confidence has yet to bloom.  But the day she blooms is one of the most satisfying and emotional scenes ever made, I’m not kidding I borderline cry when I watch my two favorite Megumi scenes and it’s out of pure fucking joy.  No one quite makes the moment of success as endearing and heartfelt as Megumi does.

Out of everyone Megumi’s backstory is the most unique, she doesn’t seem to have tons of experience like Souma or Takumi or Kurokiba, she’s not super wealthy like Erina, Alice or Nikumi and she’s not gifted like Hayama or Erina.  And for a sizable portion of the show Megumi is very much Souma’s hanger-on and appears to be one of the weakest cooks in the school.  Ironically enough though she one of the most talented freshman chefs, even early on she has a strongly specialized cooking style and a well developed personality in her dishes, she is one of the few characters to carefully consider the wants and needs of the consumer in her  cooking tactics from the beginning, and she even has more experience than she lets on to boot.  She has the tools to be one of the strongest contenders among on the freshman and no one, herself most of all, even knows how good she is.  This is all because she lacks confidence and therefore tests poorly, once she rectifies that problem even Erina, who haughtily looks down on most freshman, is surprised that such a good chef went under everyone’s radar.  However her getting that confidence is a huge struggle, no one else in the show seems to have had a tougher time getting good than Megumi.  There’s plenty of scenes of her either in tears or almost in tears, scenes where she’s panicking and even despairing as the pressure of academy gets to her and drives her confidence further down.  In comparison to everyone else Megumi has had to put a lot more of her effort into fighting and eventually overcoming emotional barriers, which lends a lot of drama and emotional impact to her story, much more so than say Souma’s story which is full of memorable, high tension moments but tends to focus on triumph far more than failure.

Last but not least, Megumi’s big moments of success are the kind of thing I love to see.  In my review of Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso, I mentioned that the early performances were hard to watch because watching people embarrass themselves makes me cringe.  Megumi’s moments of triumphs are the opposite, they are moments which prove beyond a shadow of a doubt her strengths and make me smile while I hold back tears.  Nothing quite gets me as much as seeing the person who used to fail start succeeding, and the fact that her match with Shinomiya is peppered with flashbacks of her failures and emotional low points before cutting to all the professional chefs praising her dish made that scene hit home on a level few scenes ever reach.  This is then built on in the Autum Elections where she has flashbacks to all the work she put in learning to butcher the anchorfish for her family’s restaurant, before she again succeeds and all the fishermen she learned from, in addition to most of the students who used to doubt her, starting applauding.  Whereas Souma’s and Kurokiba’s, my next favorite characters, biggest moments tend to be badass and great at firing me up, Megumi’s are deeply emotional and awe-inspiring.  To me Megumi is the secret ingredient that puts this show heads and shoulders above most others, I love the fun, over the top characters and contests, but I’ve seen and liked similar things in many other shows, almost no shows have scenes with the same level of emotional impact as Megumi’s big moments.

So long story short, Shokugeki no Souma is amazing and if you haven’t watched it yet, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  It’s fun, highly memorable and at times incredibly emotional.  Also Megumi is a literal goddess and I worship at her altar daily.  Also also there are tons of cute and/or hot girls and plenty of fanservice if you want those things.  Seriously though, do watch it, it’s really fucking good and I can only hope that my words do it some semblance of justice.  Hope you enjoyed this and I’ll see you in the next one.