[Anime News Network] “The Horror and Romance of Rural Higurashi”

Non-management: Before coronavirus really took off in Japan and everyone started taking it seriously here, I was able to manage a trip with a friend to rural Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture. I’ve obviously had to put a hold on it for now, but I’m determined still while I’m still working here to travel around as much of Japan as I can. I can only travel so much though — finite time, finite money — so I have to prioritize where to go first. My interest in history plays a massive role with my traveling decisions, to Tochigi, Nara, and Himeji, for example. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa is historically interesting in some respects, though not in any momentously eventful way. Shirakawa is home to no grand religious structures or military fortifications, nor did any especially notworthy people live or battles take place there. So as you might have guessed, the tipping point toward me planning a stay was my interest in anime, and in Higurashi more specifically. The setting of Higurashi is the rural village of Hinamizawa, and it’s heavily based off the rural village of Shirakawa.

The Higurashi anme has this reputation of being gory-psycho-murder-torture-loli-horror-schlock, and I can see where this… err… colorful impression comes from. No one’s really obligated to push deeper into the show if they’re turned off by this characterization, since the beginning of the show doesn’t really do its deeper story many favors. But if you commit to trying to understand why the murders take place (and keep taking place), you might soon discover how thickly layered the narrative ends up becoming. The horror of Higurashi doesn’t only lies in the whiplash subversion of the comedy slice-of-life or the moe aesthetic. It rises from the breakdown of communal trust in rural villages, as the fatal mistrust that boils between the show’s band of friends draws comparisons and connections to the one rural village they all live in. The village of Hinamizawa had a proud history of villagers banding together to survive and flourish against adversity. That proud history now stands in contrast to the suspicious and unsympathetic atmosphere that hangs currently in the air: a fear of outsiders, a fear of change. These fears are issues that the shrinking and greying Japanese countryside grapples with today, including the Shirakawa area.

Anyway, I’d like to give a big thanks to ANN’s Lynzee Loveridge for commissioning my article. Below is a summary short of the article. If you’re interested in reading further, click the link embedded in the title or at the end of the article sample:

The rural village setting is a staple of many works of horror. Many horror stories see rural settings as sites suspect, estranged from rational civilization, operating under odd reason. Outsiders passing through or settling in the countryside find themselves uncomfortably out-of-place, with everything around them discomfitingly alien. And yet, the rural village setting also happens to be a staple of literary modernism. Many modernist stories characterize city living as a melancholic livelihood, doomed to numbing transaction, and detached from human connection. Outsiders musing about or moving into the countryside desire welcoming communities and tighter relationships, but what they think of as a dream come true can just as often turn into a trap. The rural village becomes especially nightmarish when these assumptions merge together and then twist apart. Nostalgic warmth unravels into fanatic hysteria. Villagers turn on outsiders and then themselves. “Resting your bones” becomes a double entendre.

The Higurashi series explores the perpetually latent horror at this village fork of dream and nightmare, and it does so by basing its story setting of Hinamizawa on a small Japanese village I had the opportunity to stay at: Shirakawa… READ MORE

[Anime News Network] “History and Momotaro in One Piece’s Wano Country Arc”

Non-management: I think it was one of my Japanese language college courses when I first got acquainted with the actual story of Momotaro. It was told in kami shibai style, where the story was told by a gesticulating speaker and pages of unbound illustration that are swapped with new pictures as the story progressed, and I remembered asking myself: Wow, this is a boring story. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t exactly a kid anymore when I was first told it, but then again, many folk tales are replete with some fascinating (and eccentric) material that even adults can chew on for thought. By comparison, Momotaro felt so basic by comparison. It is true that Momotaro has straightforward morals that make it suitable for teaching kids and boys especially certain values: kids and boys especially should be ambitious; they should value friendships and collaboration; they should offer respect to their parents. It is interesting that these values are so thoroughly baked into the narrative arcs  of so Japanese anime aimed at kids and boys especially (shounen anime), even if you discount the outright homages like in One Piece.

And yet, the actual text of Momotaro was so tedious to listen to and read about directly that I still wondered even after considering all the fine educational points how this tale about a young man who defeats generic demon-ogres on an island with the help of his animal friends end up leaving such an indelible mark on Japanese culture. One major reason is Japan’s history with war and imperialism, and One Piece makes a nod to that controversial history in its homage to Momotaro. Well, it’s more like a retelling of Momotaro from the perspective of a creator with modern Japanese sensibilities both… looking back and moving forward.

Anyway, I’d like to give a big thanks to ANN’s Lynzee Loveridge for commissioning my article. Below is a summary short of the article. If you’re interested in reading further, click the link embedded in the title or at the end of the article sample:

History and Momotaro in One Piece’s Wano Country Arc

Once upon a time, there was a young man. The young man set out on a grand adventure, expecting challenges along the way. On this same journey, the young man meets and makes friends. Those friends join him, and they share their food and the road. Eventually, the party of friends reach journey’s end and together, after a fiercely epic struggle, overcome the last difficulties standing in their way. The bruised but merry party returns, their quest completed. Basking in how much they’ve accomplished on their adventure, they also reflect on how things have changed and how they’ve changed.

This version of the hero’s journey is generic enough to apply to all sorts of stories, ranging from ancient mythological tales to adventure shōnen series; One Piece is no exception. The archetypal narrative of fights and friends rather neatly encompasses the latest arc as well as a Japanese folktale called Momotaro.

Wano Country is both a homage to and a retelling of Momotaro with a twist: a reflection of how much Japan has changed and how the Japanese have changed since their homeland’s isolation from the world ended well over a century ago. While older versions of the Momotaro story may have been floating around before the Edo period, it was during the that period that the story was finally set to paper for mass audiences. But the seemingly simple story of Momotaro didn’t end there, as the decades following the end of Edo re-imagined and re-interpreted the story again and again – through restoration, war, devastation, peace, reconstruction, and now the present, with Eiichiro Oda giving his own twist to this classically journey-weathered tale… READ MORE

[Anime News Network] “‘Gekokujo’ and Revolution in Ascendance of a Bookworm”

Non-management: I absolutely adore Ascendance of a Bookworm, to the point that it’s become the first light novel series I’ve actively following and spending money on: I bought all the available novels on Bookwalker, took out a subscription from J-Novel Club, and now I’ve written an ANN article on the anime that basically doubles as my own idiosyncratic love letter to the story. I was skeptical at first before a friend sat me down and had me take a second look at it. I really like how much promise fantasy isekai settings hold, though that might mean something different to me than others. A lot of fans like the escapist fantasy adventurism that isekai can easily accommodate for, and I can’t say I don’t find that part of the genre unappealing . But as a social scientist, I see isekai settings as a golden opportunity for creating allegories that can help educate fans understand and wish for a better world around them. Log Horizon and, to a lesser extent, That Time I Got Reincarnated into a Slime, does this.  Yet so many isekai end up being otherwise uninspired stories that use isekai settings as a lazily gimmicky way to to hook people in like some cheap spice.

A series about a girl obsessed with books, but it’s also an isekai story, screamed as gimmicky to me, and the lukewarm reception to its first episodes didn’t convince otherwise at first. I understand how exhausted some people are with the male-centeredness and exploitative violence of recent isekai (I’ve grown sick of it too), but I wasn’t convinced that Bookworm would be a good story even if it hit the opposite isekai checkboxes. But boy was I wrong. Its worldbuilding is marvelously complex; its application and handling of historical inspirations, political systems, and social issues are thought provoking; its characters are full-bodied products of their environment who change as the world and people they interacts with change. I just wanted to showcase Bookworm as a skeptic-turned-convert in the best way (and most known way) I know how: talking about its revolution and history.

Anyway, I’d like to give a big thanks to ANN’s Lynzee Loveridge for commissioning my article. Below is a summary short of the article. If you’re interested in reading further, click the link embedded in the title or at the end of the article sample:

It’s a recurring trope in history and fiction: outsiders are salad tossed into a pre-established society. Due to a whole world of difference, these immigrants arrive with fresh perspectives, new ideas, wide-eyed energy, and ambitions, irrevocably shaking their new world’s status quo. Immigrants and isekai are natural marriage partners: Log HorizonThat Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, and Ascendance of a Bookworm are several examples in anime where outsiders from other worlds usher systematic change in their adopted one.

The systematic change these outsiders usher in is comparable to events like the Protestant Reformation, the Japanese Warring States Period, and other periods of “gekokujo”. Gekokujo is a term in Japanese referencing periods of sociopolitical upheaval: times when those of lower position seize control from those of higher status. While Ascendance of a Bookworm (henceforth just Bookworm) is the series’s official name, Honzuki no Gekokujo, the series’ Japanese title, suggests more than just the singular rise of a girl who loves to read. It presents change worthy of the title “revolution” thanks to the power of books… READ MORE

[Anime News Network] “How Similar is Beastars to Zootopia, Really?”

Non-management: Whether it was do to its eccentrically compelling story or the fact it was funded and distributed through Netflix, Beastars did end up punching outward and achieving some popularity inside some niche circles outside of the typical anime forums. But the discussion I ended up seeing often out there (and in the anime community to a lesser extent) was how similar or better it was to Zootopia. It doesn’t seem particularly fair to me how the lionshare of discussion around Beastars seems to be doomed to being compared to another title when you can very well describe the show without having to resort to that… but that’s kind of rich coming from someone who did just that with this article. Beastars and Zootopia in the same title is just a really effective hook to reel in readers. That said, I didn’t really want take sides over which is strictly better or maturer. I ultimately opted to evaluate their similarities and differences on their own merits, using that evaluation a springboard to touch how the worldbuilding of stories, via animal allegory in the case of these two media, can inform or undermine different interpretations on stories’ moral messaging.

The worldbuilding of Zootopia supports an interpretation about the movie wanting to make a clear stance on real-life racism, while the worldbuilding of Beastars support for a similar interpretation more perilous to make. Obviously part of that stems from them telling two radically different kinds of stories through two different digital mediums (movie format vs TV series), once you discount their similar settings, but it’s looking like they’re going to come to different conclusions of toward their primary conflicts anyway.

Anyway, I’d like to give a big thanks to ANN’s Lynzee Loveridge for commissioning my article. Below is a summary short of the article. If you’re interested in reading further, click the link embedded in the title or at the end of the article sample:

As more and more people watch, come to like, and recommend BEASTARS, many have ended up comparing it to Disney’s Zootopia. It’s hard to blame them for this connection. BEASTARS and Zootopia are both stories about talking animals in a society, and in general, short comparisons are just simpler to put together than whole summaries or synopses. Zootopia has enjoyed popularity ever since its release in theaters, enough popularity that even if most people haven’t watched it themselves, they’ll probably know something about the movie. Like Harry Potter, critics of Zootopia have pointed at certain story elements as being shorthand for addressing real life social issues.

Arguments have sprung since BEASTARS‘ debut as to which animated tale about animals in a society is better or deeper than the other. I’m not really interested in that discussion. Instead, I’m more interested in the differences in how both these stories use their animals in a society, in how those differences ultimately end up making BEASTARS and Zootopia apples and oranges. They are stories with similar settings, but fundamentally different themes… READ MORE

[Anime News Network] “A Song of Refugees and Fire”

Non-management: I work at a school in Japan, at the moment of this writing. I assist in teaching English, and one of my English teaching colleagues here loves to play English songs to the students before starting each class of hers. In particular, I’ve heard “We Are the World” dozens of times, to the point I don’t know just the lyrics. I can nigh mimic the stylizations and flourishes of each contributing artist, and the contributors are all musical superstars: Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, and others. Under the collaborative banner of U.S.A. for Africa, all these singers intended the song to be the centerpiece of a fundraiser for famine relief efforts in Africa. If an appreciation for music is universal, then so should our concern for others, no matter their place of origin — or so the thinking back then went. I imagine for many now that that idealism no longer rings true, if ever it rang with anything more than hollow dullness.

This same song features in a Japanese English textbook for that still hails Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi as a model for human rights despite her silence over the genocide of the Rohingya and her defense of the powers that be perpetrating it. Perhaps she doesn’t like the Rohingya much herself, or maybe she’s just prioritizing her tribe. In any event, ethnic and racial nationalism is on the rise from every corner of Mother Earth, attacking the minority and migrant. The ideal of the human family that U.S.A. for Africa sang of are under assault. As the careers of U.S.A. for Africa’s storied singers can amply demonstrates, music has never been a medium that’s been wholly apolitical. Carole & Tuesday is just building on top of that tradition, yearning for the same ideal while acknowledging the enemies that ideal has come to face. It is no longer, if ever, an enlightened liberal democratic society extending top-up and without to those below and wanting. It is a embattled liberal democratic society struggling from foes within, wishing to eviscerate and reanimate it into something more callous and cruel.

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

Carole & Tuesday has some good music, but good music isn’t made in a vacuum. Music is created by musicians, and whether they’re strumming guitar strings, singing mezzo-soprano, or scribbling notes on staves, aspects of musicians’ lives end up bleeding into their songs. People are partly a product of their societies, and those societies are subject to political turbulence and changes.

Some of the most well-known and celebrated musicians were politically outspoken: Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, John Lennon. These artists were vocally anti-war. Likewise, there are music genres borne from the political. Rap was originally developed by African Americans and was used as a protest vehicle for issues like police brutality. Carole and Tuesday bears echoes of the African American experience of struggle for freedom… READ MORE

[Update] Japanese Blues and New Year’s Progress

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Non-management: Since I first arrived in Japan, I’ve been lying to myself. The public face of thankfulness and gratitude I’ve been wearing for a year now in reality masked loneliness and alienation. I’m here living in and traveling around the place of my dreams since I first realized where anime came from, so how does that make sense? Japan is an amazing opportunity a relative few get to enjoy, is it not? Sure, I’m being paid as much as other jobs I’ve had so far but, but I’m certainly working under less mentally taxing circumstances (or so I thought). But even in my more shitty service job, I got along better and become fairly chappy with my coworkers. We shared a common comradeship running operations despite the odds, grumbling about poorly behaved customers and aching callous feet, but in Japan, teaching English? Not so much easy affinity between my English-speaking co-workers: complaining incessantly, keeping to themselves, few interests shared, so self-interested and casually unkind. My living arrangements are pretty nice, my work hours and pay serviceable, but the social isolation still hurts. The JET Program admits all kinds of people, the aforementioned ones and the shy and clumsy ones like me, hoping for warmer receptions where they might get none.

I’ve been lying to myself in my initial Update posts. The reception I got was as frosty as today after the initial honeymoon, and the stress of that, the stress of getting started, the stress of being me, built until it blew into a self-aware meltdown just before last New Year’s.

This New Year’s, I’m doing better, and that’s an honest declaration, I think, never mind the cold.

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A Silent Voice: The Adults Aren’t There

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains spoilers for both the anime and manga of A Silent Voice.

A Silent Voice begins with a flashback way back in elementary school, an insensitive thrill-seeking Shouya Ishida bullying a meek and deaf Shouko Nishimura.  Flanked by his pair of male childhood besties, the anime gives audiences a concrete illustration of Shouya’s escalating campaign of harassment:

screaming loudly into her ears; aping her tone-deaf nasally speaking; saying nasty things about her behind her back; writing nasty things about her on the blackboard; scribbling nasty things about her on her desk; stealing her school materials; ditching her school materials; stealing her expensive hearing aids; destroying her expensive hearing aids; making her ears bleed while ripping them off her ears; getting into a full-on scrap

All the while, the rest of her classmates grew distant from her, annoyed by the accommodations they’re asked to make for her special needs, afraid of being targeted for being seen as too close. A few  even join Shouya and pals in some of the lighter harassment.

Missing in this flashback and my description of these elementary school days are the adults. Well… more literally in my description and less literally in the flashback. A music teacher does make a brief appearance, a homeroom teacher with more frequency. More precisely, what’s actually absent here is responsibility, the responsibilities we expect adults to model for kids: parents and teachers especially. At the end of the day, school is more than just making kids absorb academic information. Much of that information ends up not being relevant and useful to most anyway, later discarded and forgotten. More than teaching kids math and science, school is also a socialization agent; it teaches kids how to live and get along with others in society.

The adults at school who fail to guide the kids they’re in charge of set those kids up for terrible failure as they grow up. Bullying between kids goes on in A Silent Voice in part because the responsible adults fail to notice or care enough to step in properly. The bullied develop debilitating social anxieties and crushing self-esteem issues. The bullies grow up with warped personalities and thought processes. The bystanders learn to be cowardly or callous, in huge part because of the homeroom teacher’s example. While this homeroom teacher maintains a significant role at the beginning of the movie, important scenes of his in the original manga story unfortunately didn’t make the film cut. His presence is that important to the themes of A Silent Voice that his actions and attitude in the anime and manga still bear addressing, regardless.

Now, at the moment of this writing, I’m also a teacher, and to a lesser degree, I’m afraid that fiction is being reproduced in reality with several, insensitive, thrill-seeking boys.

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[Update] Past Articles and New Re-writes

Non-management: How many years has it been since my first article on this blog? It was my 1st or 2nd year as a college undergraduate in… 2014, huh?  I’ve been doing blog writing for at least  5 years. I’ve gotten to the point that I’m… kind of okay with the current state of my writing. It’s been good enough to have been published on websites like ANN and others. As for the quality of my past writing, I… wouldn’t call it okay. Not at all. Reading it now, it reads rather atrociously: a lot of purple prose and not nearly enough editorial oversight. My writing was immature back then, sure, but I also didn’t have that much patience checking my work. I just wanted to be finished with one piece so I could start the next. It’s ironic, considering the amount of free time I had then vs now. Needless to say , I am not proud of what I produced back then, and I have a Re: Zero-style treatment course in mind.

Now, the majority of the ideas behind those articles are solid enough, even as my perspective’s matured somewhat over time. How I’ve expressed those ideas have been more awkward and half-baked than I care for though. Although… okay, there were a few ideas I had back then that are kind of crap now.

Ordinarily, I’d just put the past behind me and leave those articles be. The sheer amount of them that I’ve written overtime drives the majority of my blog’s traffic nowadays, especially as I’ve fallen behind in publishing frequency. I care about more people reading my work more often, but I also care about people reading my work that reflects me at my best. A lot of my early work falls way below my standards, which is why instead of banning it all to the blogging equivalent of the Shadow Realm, I’m steadily going to be replacing them with re-writes: complete with updated writing and maybe new titles. I’ll mention whether or not they’re re-writes in the Management section, but please look forward to them regardless. For me at least, half the pleasure of reading articles is in lyrical arrangement of the words themselves… when they’re arranged pleasingly and whatnot, of course.

Danganronpa: Guilt, Propaganda, Asociality, and Despair in Anime

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains spoilers for Danganronpa. This essay is a re-write of an earlier article on the same subject.


In Danganronpa, there is Despair and her Remnants. In addition to the Ultimate Despair Junko Enoshima of Dangaronpa 1, there are also the Remnants of Despair of Danganronpa 2. In the Danganronpa universe, the Remnants of Despair are  Junko’s agents: sewing chaos, mayhem… mass Despair, generally. According to the Danganronpa lore, most killed themselves after learning Junko was defeated. Several managed on to justify living on, causing trouble for our heroes. Some of these Remnants genuinely believe in despair and worship Junko. Others were brainwashed or manipulated into becoming Remnants. The  Ultimate Lucky Student and Hope Fetishist Nagito Komaeda was persuaded by Junko to become a Remnant. Junko convinced that if Hope prevails at humanity’s darkest hour, he’ll experience his best… release yet. All he has to pursue his agenda of hope is… help make things super dark for humanity. Nagito’s weird.

In the Danganronpa 3 anime, Former Hope’s Peak Academy Headmaster Kazuo Tengan masquerades as a Remnant, in hopes of winning an ultimate victory for… well, Hope. He organizes a terrible new killing game, hoping it will make things so bad that it will convince the Ultimate Animator to unleash his talents on the world. You might ask what’s so terrifying about an animator, and the answer to that would be because it’s Danganronpa, at least in part. Ultimate Animator Ryota has not only the capacity to make engaging and compelling anime. His animator skills also give him the ability to outright brainwash and mind control people. In his quest to craft the ultimate anime capable of moving everyone who watches it, Ryota’s talents were manipulated  by Junko to cause the apocalypse through mass hypnosis mind control. Kazuo is now trying to utilize his talents to reverse it… by also using mass hypnosis mind control.

As an arguable, albeit unwilling, Remnant of Despair himself, his skills have the power to change people for the kinder and for the terrible. To be clear, while effective propaganda can influence how people behave in certain situations, Danganronpa 3 is not an accurate example of how propaganda actually works. It oversimplifies the power media consumption have at shaping viewer psychology. Animation is a type of media, and where influencing media consumers are concerned, the power animation has over how people think is conditional. The show unrealistically imagines that it is possible that media creators in its universe, the Ultimate Animator specifically, can brainwash other people through a glass reflection’s glance if they’re “Ultimate” enough. Despite what’s possible in Danganronpa and what’s actually possible in real life, the anime nonetheless got me thinking about real-life parallels. For me, Danganronpa 3 seemed to be subtly drawing a connection between its Ultimate Ryota and Japanese creators such as cartoonists and animators. Willingly and unwillingly, wittingly and unwittingly, these artists channeled their skills into creating propaganda for certain causes, like World War II-era Imperial Japan and the cult of Aum Shinrikyo.

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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.

In case anyone would like to read it from there, a version of this article was also published on ANN.

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, towers into the nighttime skyline, 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 (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.

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