[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.

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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.

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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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.

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[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

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.

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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. Now… 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.

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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.

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