Panties and Cults Are the Punch Line

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 Punch Line anime.

You think that a show that front loads the first-time viewer with shots upon shots girls flipping up their skirts wouldn’t have anything sophisticated to say. You would be mistaken though, because Kodaka Uchikoshi of the Zero Escape game series is behind the show’s writing. In my opinion, you would also be off assuming that Punch Line’s narrative strength ends at being a compelling mystery. The popular mystery game writer has inserted strong sleuthing elements to the show, to be sure, but the show’s ultimate puzzle pales in complexity to the games of his that I’ve played. More than its mystery and certainly more than its panties, the depth of Punch Line lies in how well it sets up its commentary on how people are attracted to and fall into cults.

Portrayals of manipulative and millenarian religious cults have featured fairly frequently in anime ever since the 1995 Sarin Gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway line by the notorious Aum Shinrikyo. In the aftermath of those attacks, novelist Haruki Murakami put together a book containing an essay on his musings about the event and interviews he conducted with those involved in some capacity with Aum Shinrikyo: Underground. It’s the same book that I referenced a while back in a write-up on Psycho-Pass and the muted Japanese reaction to developing disaster. Compared to Psycho-Pass ‘ treatment of the average citizen, I’m more interested in the embattled cultists of Punchline, and most specifically Guriko. How is it that of the experimental orphans three, Pine, Chiyoko, and Guriko, Guriko became the antagonistic cult leader? In contrast, Chiyoko and Pine became heroes and protagonists. Didn’t they grow up together? Weren’t they once all good friends? How did they become so different?

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Puella Magi Madoka Magica and the Heroes of the Postmodern Era

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 Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime.

Since its release, a lot of buzz has been made about Puella Magi Madoka Magica as this revolutionary deconstruction of the mahou shoujo, or magical girl, genre. A lot of bickering and controversy has ensued from arguments pertaining to deconstruction: about whether Madoka Magica qualifies as a deconstruction and whether its supposedly nature as a deconstruction is meaningful. It’s true that the writing of Madoka Magica subverts myriad elements of magical girl anime into a variety of horrific scenarios. It’s true that those subversions do violence to preconceived notions of what magical girl anime could be until now.

But as far as the connotations of revolutionary are concerned, Madoka Magica doesn’t really overturn anything in the magical girl genre that is worth a revolution. More than a few prior and acclaimed magical girl shows have already played with darker themes and sterner material, if not quite to the degree of Madoka Magica. Furthermore, Madoka Magica doesn’t really dissect any of the troubling subtext that the magical girl genre has a history of presenting. Magical girl anime has a  record of being vehicles for capitalist consumption in the form of selling toys and other merchandise. Magical girl anime has a past of placing limits on the girls they claim to empower by retiring them from action before they grow up.

But even whilst magical girl shows moved product into family households and placed limits on what young women were allowed to do, the magical girls themselves were doing other things that weren’t questionable and were in fact quite admirable. They fought for others out of a sense of community and altruism. They saved and protected people because they believed were worth saving and protecting. Magical girl anime showcased kindness and heroism as good things. They taught compassion and community as principles worth emulating. And yet, it’s these virtues that Madoka Magica scrutinizes in its take on magical girls, and not the others. But why these qualities? Is there something so sinister about them that they need to be proven as entirely disingenuous?

Not sinister, in Madoka Magica‘s case, but naive.

Not naive in that everyone who believes in them in real life are cons or suckers.

Naive in that it’s challenging in real life to stay committed to them.

On storyboards, modern fictional heroes such as magical girls can make it look so easy folks to be better versions of themselves for their communities. By contrast, the newspapers can make it look like people are little more than animals, with their communities being little better. If you will, imagine, visually, the human lifespan: people being kids and people becoming adults. Your average well-adjusted first-world child is probably informed by the optimism of the superhero media that they regularly consume. Their optimism becomes tempered by knowledge of how malicious and indifferent people continue to be with each other. They look back to their superhero media of yonder and re-evaluate their relationships with them. They make a determination. Do they break up with their old stories like a spouse who’s discovered evidence of cheating?  Do they reject their old heroes for betraying their trust by speaking lies or half-truths? Or do they negotiate a different understanding with them because, at the end of the day, you can’t help but wish for the naivety to be true?

To me, the depth of Madoka Magica lies less in its debated worth as a magical girl deconstruction and more in its painful resonance as a critique of modernism through the magical girl genre. The darkness in Madoka Magica is not so much an exercise in self-indulgent edginess as it is a reflection of the systematic coldness and callousness of postmodern living. In many ways, the thematic priorities of magical girl anime, as with other works of heroism, reflect modernist assumptions: an optimism towards humanity and an idealism toward humanity’s future. As is per convention, the magical girl heroine fights for people and the world because of the underlying assumption that they are universally worth saving. Madoka Magica challenges that convention by portraying these same people and the very world as the cause of their suffering. Compassion in contemporary society not so much demonized as it is sparing, and cruelty of postmodern life seems so profusive as to be unstoppable.

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Your Name: Disastrous Places and Liminal Spaces

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 Your Name anime.

We’re acquainted with these tales of from folklore and myth, the premises of horror stories, those testimonials people caught on special TV channels: a place of some awful significance is haunted by undead spirits. Moldering graveyards, abandoned asylums, scarred battlefields, places of disaster… In the fields of Gettysburg, for example, some locals claim that they can hear the dead, soldiers from long ago who haunt the former battlefield. Gettysburg was the location of the American Civil War’s bloodiest battle, and its legacy as the site of mass slaughter has made the more superstitious perceive it as a site of restless energy. In the popular imagination, these places serve as liminal spaces, locations and sites where all-too-natural dichotomies are not normally observed: death intermingling with life, life intermingling with death. The dead have not passed into the afterlife, the ether, or permanent rest as they ought to have. Instead, their undead spirits wander the grounds, bound to some place of awful significance.

While Your Name is not a horror film in the way the genre is conventionally understood, the narrative of Your Name plays an awful lot with liminal spaces. The concept of liminality in religious and anthropological studies has a definition that’s a little broader than just the spaces the mortal and the infinite. Liminality is the concept referring to transformation and intersection, where clearly delineated dichotomies of “one” blur and bleed into the “other,” branching into or becoming new and distinct entities. Life and death is the domain of liminality, but so is the profane and the sacred; the child and the adult, the individual and the communal, this direction and that, this person and that, and even time and space itself. Directed by Makoto Shinkai, Your Name is a story layered with examples of its characters passing through various thresholds, states, and spaces of liminality to resolve a conflict. The film starts with the blurring of one traditional dichotomy: the inexplicable bleeding of its two protagonists into each others’ lives, a body-swap. Midway, the film grounds its supernatural gimmick with its extant reason: a place of disaster.

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Angolmois: The History Behind the First Mongol Invasion

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 Angolmois anime.

Introduction

Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the destiny of the Mongol people was transformed. From the squabbling horse tribes of the steppe, they were now the mounted conquerors of empire. Unified as a people, the Mongols challenged the august authority of the Celestial Empire: China. They took that authority for themselves, tearing the stars from their skies, crushing Chinese resistance in the north and declaring themselves China’s new rulers. The grandson of Genghis Khan and the third leader of the unified Mongol horde, Kublai Khan turned his conqueror’s appetite toward the Land of the Rising Sun and ordered the first of two Mongol invasions of Japan.

It is in this historical backdrop that Angolmois: Record of Mongol Invasion finds its setting and conflict: Tsushima, 1274 – the first frontline of the first invasion of Japan by the Mongols. Kuchii Jinzaburo and a band of exiles – a fellowship of petty scoundrels and disgraced warriors – find themselves ferried out of death row and shipped into a battlefield. There, those among them willing to fight alongside Tsushima’s defenders make their own contributions to s drama of bloodshed and sacrifice that, judging by the history, will amount to little more than a delaying action for the Mongols’ ultimate goal: the Japanese mainland.

But how did it come to this? How do the events from the history inform this animated fiction?

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[Update] About One Month into Living in Japan

Non-management: Long time, no hear? Well, this hiatus in blogging hasn’t been as long as others I’ve taken. Some of you still might be curious about when I’ll get back to writing. I’m curious myself about when I’m going to have the time and drive to get back to writing. My hope is that I’ll be able to do so pretty shortly now that I’ve settled my Japan situation.

Right. I’m living in Japan now.

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[Crunchyroll Article] “The True Meaning of Anime Haircuts”

Non-management: My latest article for Crunchyroll discusses a variety of shows.

I’d like to give a big thanks to Crunchyroll for commissioning my article. Below is the (summary) short to the article. If you’re interested in reading it, click the link embedded in the title or at the end of the short:

The True Meaning of Anime Haircuts

When a haircut isn’t just about getting rid of your split ends

If you ask people which part of anime characters’ designs most catch their attention, chances are good many of them will point to anime hair. Anime hair comes in all sorts of over-the-top styles, and in garish and unnatural colors. In general, it sticks out as something unique to the medium. Whether you’re a fan of it or not, anime hair exists for a reason – to make characters look more striking and by extension… more memorable.

Anime’s hair craze doesn’t stop there, though. It’s also obsessed with haircuts… READ MORE HERE

[Anime News Network Article] Homelessness in Japan and Hinamatsuri

Non-management: Hinamatsuri caught me by surprise. It was a show that was marketed ostensibly as a comedy that managed to deliver some excellent character drama alongside its laughs. The intersection between these two elements is, admittedly, not unheard of in anime. Hinamatsuri shares similarities with Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, in that respect. What actually caught me off guard about Hinamatsuri and prompted me to write about the show was its commentary on homelessness in Japan. It was a commentary that that at once sympathetic to the homeless and damning against the privileged in the other, both compassionate in its approach to the subject material and outraged over its existence as a real-world issue. Not since Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers have I seen an anime address Japanese homelessness. Using its examples of aged homeless men, I sought to use Hinamatsuri as a springboard into a larger discussion of homelessness in Japanese society. I pitched what I wanted to write to Anime News Network, and it got accepted as a Feature Article.

I’d like to give a big thanks to ANN’s Zac Bertschy for commissioning my article, and Jacob Chapman for editing it. Below is the (summary) short to the article. If you’re interested in reading it, click the link embedded in the title or at the end of the article sample:

Homelessness in Japan and Hinamatsuri

Hinamatsuri is supposed to be a comedy, and it’s true that the show delivers its hilarity in spades. However, for an anime that primarily markets itself as the whacky adventures of two girls with psychic abilities (and one girl that’s an underaged bartender), Hinamatsuri also delivers some excellent character drama. This series can dip into some heavy territory before resurfacing back to making us laugh without missing a beat, and one example of this is its unexpected focus on the issue of homelessness in Japan. Not since Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers has anime dared broach the topic of Japanese homelessness in recent memory, let alone approach the subject of homeless Japanese in a pertinent and sympathetic manner.

Like with homeless populations in other parts of the world, Japanese homeless have a troubled history and relationship with their Japanese society, but every culture has unique aspects that distinguish the struggle of their homeless populations from others. What Hinamatsuri does well is capture the face of that homelessness in Japan in ways that help illustrate the issue to audiences around the world… READ MORE HERE