An Open Taisho Secret: Demon Slayer and Fashion History in Taisho Era Japan

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Demon Slayer anime.

Introduction

What’s the first image that pops into your mind about Japan? When people bring up their ideas of Japanese aesthetic, their minds probably gravitate to two images. For Japanophiles and history buffs, they might think something “traditional:” homes of cedar or clay-tile roofing, opaque paper sliding doors, eave-sheltered porches of wood surrounded by serene, immaculate, miniature displays of nature. For futurist aficionados and cyberpunk doomsayers, they might think something Ghost-in-the-Shell: vistas of tall glass and steel, towering into the nighttime skyline, its darkness displaced vaguely by multi-colored hues of strobe and neon. The first image hearkens to a period in Japan “untouched” by the influences of the outside world. The second image conjures a picture of Japan “consumed” by it. Regardless of how totally accurate these images are, they’re probably the two most people gravitate to when thinking about Japan…

…except there’s a third image that’s also memorable to many Japanese. It’s a moment of transition in Japanese history, the traditional aesthetic of Edo Japan intersecting with the imported aesthetic of the West unleashed during Meiji. Kimono and business suits, obi wraps and hats, men and boys, women and girls amble the sumptuous Western-inspired streets of day-lit Ginza or the sultry electric-lit thoroughfares of nightlife Asakusa in traditional, Western, and syncretic (or traditional-and-Western mixed) fashion. It’s this fashionable third of transitory excitement that Demon Slayer manages to capture pretty well. Let’s explore some of that mixed fashion and discuss how urbanites in Japan fell in love with it, historically.

Continue reading

Fate/Zero and Lord El Melloi II: Fakers Chasing Their King’s Shadow

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for both the Fate/Zero and The Case Files of Lord El Melloi II: Rail Zeppelin Grace Notes anime.

If there’s one thing that Fate fans and others who’ve watched Fate/Zero can seem to agree on, it’s that Waver Velvet is a good character. Some Fate verse fans have been annoyed by kinds of expectations Fate/Zero has set up to newcomers to their beloved franchise, particularly Fate/stay night. In many ways, with the exception of Heaven’s Feel route, Fate/Zero is a big stylistic and tonal departure from the original VN narrative. Non-fate fans who’ve watched Fate/Zero accuse it of being too edgy or pretentious for its own good. Fate/Zero has gruesomely distressing scenes, is brutally unfair to its sympathetic characters, and just dunks and dumps on its paragons with relentless waves of cynical philosophizing and worldbuilding. Waver may be Fate/Zero original, but his propensity for being awkward and earnest is a familiar and welcome sight to Fate fans. Those same qualities endear the non-Fate ones, who see his goofiness and kindliness as a break from and counter to the oppressiveness of Fate/Zero’s gloom and doom. In the end, violence forces Waver to part with his partner Iskandar (aka Alexander the Great, his heroic spirit during the last Holy Grail War, and his king). Hope remains though that Waver is able to emerge from his coming-of-age character arc a more mature and still compassionate person.

In some respects, Waver has become more mature as he’s taken temporary mantle of Lord El Melloi II; however, as the Lord El Melloi II anime reveals, his parting with Iskandar has left him with regrets. These regrets make him feel like a faker, which makes the Faker that appears later more than a coincidence. Or maybe it’s just self-projection, since he’s the one who came up with the name? They’re each other’s character foils. Like the person he’s dubbed the rather crudely direct Faker, Waver is perhaps giving himself less credit than he deserves. In chasing the shadow of his king, he’s downplaying the shadow he’s cast on others.

Continue reading

[Update] About a Year, a Month, and a Week into Living in Japan

Non-management: I was asked by a colleague one day of the places I’ve traveled to during my vacation days. I don’t keep an active bucket list of where I’ve been… more just a vague mental note of places I want to go to. I pondered the question a bit before giving an answer detailed enough to leave my colleague vaguely impressed. It was an incomplete answer though, and it struck me that I should write where I’ve gone down. Outside of the locales of my Tokushima home and towns briefly passed to get elsewhere, there’s these places:

Tokyo (City), Tokyo Prefecture

Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture

Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture

Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture

Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture

Kyoto (City), Kyoto Prefecture

Uji, Kyoto Prefecture

Hieizan, Shiga Prefecture

Osaka (City), Osaka Prefecture

Sakai, Osaka Prefecture

Nara (City), Nara Prefecture

Hasedera, Nara Prefecture*

Koyasan, Wakayama Prefecture

Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture

Himeiji, Hyogo Prefecure

Naha, Okinawa Prefecture

Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture

Shit, that’s a lot of places I’ve gone to alone.

Continue reading

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid: The Hidden Reason Behind Sports Day

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid anime, especially Episode 9.

For a mightily questionable premise of “the adventures of a bespectacled Victorian maid-obsessed salarywoman and the busty live-in dragonoid maid that wants to lovey-dovey to quite-erotic things with her”, Kyoto Animation’s anime adaptation of the manga series is surprisingly thoughtful. A caveat though… I wouldn’t call it entirely wholesome.  The adaptation doesn’t completely excise all its questionably horny gags: a dragon woman’s lack of boundary respect for a middle school boy, a middle school girl’s less-than-prurient feelings for dragon girl classmate. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (henceforth just Dragon Maid) is nevertheless thoughtful where it talks about family and community. Rather than their dynamic being solely defined by comedy that exploits their bizarre situation, Kobayashi and Tohru’s queer relationship is nurtured numerous moments of appreciation and intimacy. By the end of the first season, a Kobayashi that invited Tohru in during a drunken stupor has become a Kobayashi that she misses her dearly while fully sober: not just because Tohru’s the maid she’s always wanted (she’s not Victorian), but because she feels rent without Tohru in her life.

Much like how Kobayashi, Tohru, and later Kanna eventually live together under the same roof as strangers-turned-family, Japanese society reproduces and reinforces familial and communal values in the people that comprise it. Kobayashi begins the show as nerdy workaholic loner, not necessarily opposed to socializing, but mainly focused on personal interests: day job and maid hobbies (the real Victorian shit). By the end of the show, Kobayashi lives in a family sized apartment with Tohru, spending money and making time for Kanna’s school supplies and functions.

From the family side of things, her atypical depiction in anime and Japanese media in general as a rather unfeminine looking-computer programming-salaryperson slaving-maid otaku raving-ultimately queer woman doesn’t prevent her from forming a happy family complete with a child. Japanese society promotes making families for the sake of raising children for Japan’s future. Dragon Maid deviates but doesn’t fully depart from that goal. If you can be open-minded about her lesbian relationship with a rather motherly Tohru and the non-blooded connection to her still effective daughter Kanna, Kobayashi’s character slots rather snugly in that customary role of father. Kobayashi is the stoic tie-and-slacks breadwinner.

From the community side of things, Kobayashi’s desire to provide for Tohru and Kanna, make them happy, and keep her world welcoming to them puts her into situations that require her to engage with society more broadly than she previously had. Nothing better illustrates this change in Kobayashi more than Sports Day. But… what is Sports Day exactly? What’s so special about it? As a person currently in Japan teaching kids there for a living, I’ve had the opportunity to spectate and even participate in Sports Days. I studied the games and activities whilst cheering for my students. Somewhere, I realized a educative purpose to it all that doesn’t have to do with athletic fitness.

Continue reading

Instrumentalism, Masculinity, and Humanity in Dororo

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Dororo anime.

Instrumentalism, Expressivism, and Dororo

Wooden statuette carving of the Boddhisattva Kannon, Buddhist saint of compassion and patron of mothers. Typically depicted in Japan as a woman.

Historically, many societies have long associated certain actions and behaviors as being discretely masculine or feminine. At some point, academics came up with whole new terms to describe what makes some actions masculine and other behaviors feminine: instrumentalist and expressive. Instrumentalism is concerned with material provision, action, and violence. Expressivism is associated with emotional consideration, empathy, and caring. Given the patriarchal structure of the these societies East and West of the Bosphorous and up until (sadly) the present day, there’s long been argument and conflict between the assumed dichotomies of male and female as to which gender is superior over the other. Unfortunately, the female gender role has often been relegated the short end of the stick.

Despite the seemingly eternal, historical, patriarchal constant of male superiority, uneven past and more recent developments in societal gender relations have made egalitarian statuses for male and female gender as more the norm. Still more recent discourse has sought to claim that it’s natural and healthy for men and women to possess varying degrees of instrumentalist masculinity and expressive femininity. Some especially recent thought in gender studies, influenced by postmodern theorizing, argue that instrumentalism and expressivism aren’t inherently gendered at all. Following that logic, a sporty self-identifying girl isn’t anymore performing masculinity on an objective basis than a sensitive self-identifying boy is performing femininity. Conditionally speaking though, postmodern thinking of gender relations is especially recent and not very widely accepted as standard in today’s Japan.

Just because the latest thought isn’t standard, though doesn’t mean that older gender critiques present in anime storytelling lack any bite. Take the Dororo anime, for instance. Through its narrative, the show argues that, less than making men “men,” instrumentalism without any expressivism makes people inhuman, literally “demonic.” According to Dororo, being human is to be both masculine and feminine, or at least have a healthy mix of instrumentalist and expressive qualities.

Continue reading

[Update] Seeing #PrayforKyoAni

Non-Management: This post is partly meant for me to exorcise my demons out of this whole  sad event. I ended up describing in somewhat graphic detail what I saw during my visit to Kyoto Animation, Studio 1 in the aftermath of the arson. If you’re sensitive to that, here’s your trigger warning.

Fortunately or unfortunately… the whole event has been… It feels bad to describe it all as normal luck… dumb luck? Maybe coincidence? Coincidence. By coincidence, I planned a summer trip to the city of Osaka. Osaka is pretty close to the city of Kyoto. Between Osaka and Kyoto is Uji City and Kyoto Animation and…. well, something terrible happened at KyoAni two days prior to my trip. I was already pretty close to the place from my Osaka, no more than an hours-long train ride north, and I decided I might as well pay my respects in-person. I intended to go right after starting my day in the morning, but the florist shops near my hostel had yet to open. Outside of convenience stores, Japanese businesses tend to start their earlier that what I’m used to in America. I decided to bide my time until the afternoon visiting the Kofun tumuli, but I had a hell of a time after circling around the tombs finding a place nearby that sold flowers. I eventually found some, bought some, and brought them on ride up. The ride was so smooth rolling into Rokujizo station that the sight of Studio 1 caught me surprise.

Continue reading

Higurashi: It Takes a Village to Make Change

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Higurashi anime, especially Higurashi Kai (i.e. the 2nd Season) Episodes 6-12.

One thing that a lot of good horror stories have in common is an isolated setting. Good horror involves some dimension of disempowerment, the inability to do anything in the face of an oppressive force. The small village tucked away in the mountains, hidden from the rest of civilization, is as good a place as any to promote that anxious and hopeless feeling. An almost inevitable sense of suspicion and paranoia lingers on the outsider looking in. An all-too easy fear and anger festers in a community that’s supposed to be tight-knit. Disempowerment seemingly and realistically encroaches into the lives of its protagonists from multiple facets: the interpersonal, the political, the Kafkaesque. Higurashi’s “Hinamizawa” village embodies all those aforementioned aspects. They infect the protagonists and affect all the village’s denizens, eventually, and lead them to a gradual but inevitable doom.

Well, Kafkaesque might be a little hyperbolic a descriptor for Higurashi, at least when compared to the systematic and soul-crushing absurdity of Franz Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares. But there’s a relatable enough parallel in the story arc of one small Higurashi girl. In the latest of a series of unfortunate events, a parent-less and brother-less Satoko Hojo finds herself suffering under the roof of her domestically abusive uncle… yet again. Satoko considers herself complicit in both her parents’ deaths and her brother’s disappearance, feels duty-bound to protect her family home and beloved brother’s room from her uncle, and suffers from a pathological predisposition to panic attacks. Satoko’s small frame bears the weight of terrible emotional issues, and being just a little girl, we might expect our society to have some mechanism in place to take her out of there ASAP, even as Satoko herself is hesitant to admit she’s being abused.

Continue reading