Some Buddhism from Dororo and A Spider Girl’s Thread

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, specifically Episode 7’s “The Story of the Jorogumo Silk Spider.”

If I’m not already on the public record for this, I guess I’ll make it here: I like Spider Girls. I like Spider Girls a lot, and I don’t mean the Marvel variety. I mean the monster-kind: half-carapace and arachnid appendages, top hair and human flesh. Hell, I wrote a fan fic about Spider Girls and Dark Souls once, but never mind that. I like Spider Girls for reasons other than the suggestive ones you’d might suspect. I like them for ways that set them apart from the other popular monster girls.

I like Spider Girls for their baggage. People fear spiders, after all. People loathe them. They see the multiple eyes, multitude legs, mandibles, cuticles. They see spiders and other features related to them, and their foremost instincts to them, their gut reactions to the critters, are to jerk away quickly or smash them into paste. People will recoil or lash out at spiders, their fight-and-flight mechanisms on the fritz, even if they’re non-venomous or really quite harmless. I don’t necessarily blame folks for doing that. It’d be hypocritical if I did. I’m guilty of one and the other, many times over, paths less frequently tread, blood on my shoes’ soles.

That terror and fury isn’t an unusual condition of the mind, because your brain rationalizes it as being better safe than sorry. People aren’t born with discriminating eyes, after all. They need to be trained on the details. They need to be taught what means danger. In the light of this perspective, phobias are shortcuts — they have their uses. Yet even then, it’s not as though the more dangerous spiders mean anything spiteful or cruel when they bite you or brush up against you or find themselves in their way. Everyone finds themselves in the wrong place and time. No one really knows any better when first contact is made.

Buddhism builds on this empathetic logic to approaching life. From the strongest human to the smallest spider, every life is subject to the cycle of samsara, or reincarnation. Every entity is subject to the pain of existence. Every life is a precious thing. Life reincarnates into higher or lower forms of existence when they die. A spider may have once been human, and a human may yet arise from a spider. In the light of this perspective, Buddhism asks us to have pity and compassion for living things, regardless of their past misdeeds or current station. Buddhism is a deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, and spider encounters are a common Japanese experience. It’s no surprise then the country is home to all kinds of tales combining spiders with Buddhism, from a Ryunosuke Akutagawa short story to a Spider Girl in Dororo.

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Getting Out of Your Headspace with Mob Psycho 100

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 Mob Psycho 100 anime, especially Season 2’s Episodes 3-5.

I don’t use social media as much as I used to, and in some ways, my decision to step back has improved my stress levels. It was around maybe the beginning of college when I created a Twitter account. I was looking for sharp and animated discussion on the anime I liked. I was also looking for an easier way to keep up with political news. I’m a political scientist, after all, and I’m also an anime fan. I followed a lot of anime critics. I turned my social media feed into a news aggregator. The two spheres of Twitter that I joined ended up overlapping each other in key areas. I found myself among  politically conscious anime fans, and at the beginning, I enjoyed being a part of that community. I owe my outlook towards art and life to those critics, to minds who stressed how both areas intersected with the other. They were also silly and fun, and I felt that I could let loose with them. I’ve made some great friends during those dog days of college.

The dogs were let lie and eventually put down, and my relationship with social media changed for the worse. Change marches onward regardless of our wants, and people are angrier than before. Laying alone in bed with nothing but a Twitter app, I could feel myself slipping into misanthropy. I’ve been cynical about things for as long as I could remember. I’ve always known articles to prioritize scandalous and sensational headlines. In many respects, it’s a great thing that people are more critical and skeptical about the status quo. But in remaining hooked to social media IVs in its new tenor– its drip-feed medley of terrible news and violent rhetoric — I could feel my mind wasting . My body felt heavy with the futility of existence, possessed by entities whose names in legion mean The World. I noticed it crouched over my shoulders, and I felt its weight with my own.

What with my tendency to look at events from a macro-scale (studying history does that to you), I began to see every moment of living as this tragic microcosm in the larger story of human suffering: cyclic, ceaseless, immutable, inevitable. “Bad People are a mistake,” my motto began, and then I started cutting out the “Bad.” But then I started distancing myself from the larger Twitter discourses. My headspace started clearing like god rays breaking through clouds. My career as a cloistered student is past, the me of present now teaching English to kids. There’s a joy in watching mouths gasp in understanding, in seeing eyes sparkle while tiny arms clutch black-dyed jeans during “Black!” Color Touch. There’s a sanity in working with people who know the struggles of managing children, with colleagues who want to small talk with you and invite you to their outings. The morning sun began feeling crisp everytime I stepped outside, and the mountain trees that greeted me on every drive started glowing warmly with color.

What happens to a person when he gets stuck in headspace like that for too long? How does a person get out of it? I had a choice to cut back on Twitter. Mob doesn’t when a villain traps him in a negative headspace. The villain is determined to to turn him into a raging misanthrope, and like Joker and Gordon of Batman fame, he attempts this by trapping him in an nigh-real simulation of his perspective. It lasts six months.

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Angels of Death: The Clunky Existentialism of a Serial Killer

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 Angels of Death anime.

There’s a number of provocative tropes attached to late-night and OVA-release anime. They’re over-generalizations, to be sure, but enough instances of these tropes were enough to leave impressions,  however unfair. To cite one example, back in the day, late-night and OVA-release anime had a gratuitous reputation for sexuality and violence. Some producers were willing to give creators chances on edgier ideas, and some creators obliged their edgier indulgences with fewer censorship fears. Even as graphic displays of milky and crimson fluids lack its former cultural weight because of newer genre and aesthetic trends, the older patterns still attract popular followings. Whether because spectacle remains exciting or nostalgia runs strong, contemporary anime still exploit the legacies left behind by these older tropes. To argue one example, the more recent Goblin Slayer is a fantasy-isekai anime that employs the spectacles and threats of yesteryear’s physical and sexual violence. Some newer anime, however, utilize these older tropes as springboards for different kinds of stories. For Angels of Death, it’s a horror setting that’s less about slasher scares and more about why life is unfair.

Mind you, life is probably unfair for many if not most conventional horror story protagonists, but the question of unfairness being posed Angels of Death is meant to be more existentialist than immediate. Angels of Death begins somewhat conventionally: a damsel named Rachel Gardner finds herself trapped in a labyrinthine enclosure, becomes predictably frightened and distressed by her surroundings, and is later chased down by a murderer named Issac Foster. And then there’s an early twist. Our damsel regains her memories and rather abruptly pleads to her assailant to kill her, to kill her now (or at least soon), and in monotone, no less. We get to know the both of them, Rachel and Issac, and we come to see they have some tragic things in common. Being born in broken families, being raised in shitty conditions, these tragic circumstances produce a search in a reawakened Rachel for whom these descriptions of “broke” and “shit” describe to a tee: Why is my life shitty? Why does the world suck? Is there something behind my suffering? Does the fault originate from me, or is is there really no one else to blame? How do we live with ourselves? How can we? In its own clunky way, Angels of Death interrogates people’s desperation for a reason to the suffering and a escape from it. In Rachel and others, it interrogates their desire for a God.

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[Anime News Network] “Rimuru Tempest and Robinson Crusoe: How to Build a Civilization”

Non-management: We’ve been inundated with a lot of anime isekai recently, much of it generic, some of it harmless fun, and several examples being… arguably harmful for impressionable anime fans. Many anime fans are young after all, and many haven’t made their minds up yet about a lot of stuff. As for me, I’ve never hated isekai, and I probably have a higher opinion of it now than other anime critics. That dot made, I admittedly don’t try every new isekai-themed anime that comes out every season (it’s not my job), and yet I’ve been getting worn down by them as well. I’ve been yearning for that one isekai that that’s able to take advantage of its setting to talk about something relevant and meaningful. Log Horizon has managed to do that on a big-macro-idea-level, but it’s been years since its production-troubled 2nd season ended. So it is a relief that, years later, That Time I Reincarnated as a Slime (aka Slime Isekai) carries on with that tradition of political philosophizing and society building, with great animation, no less. One other tradition Slime Isekai is carrying forward is the Robinsonade genre. It’s just a shame that Slime Isekai isn’t as… thoughtfully put together as it could be.

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 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:

I remember reading The Swiss Family Robinson over and over when I was little. Washed ashore in a strange land, marooned away from everything comfortable and familiar, a family must learn to thrive in their new unfamiliar home. Unlike the post-disaster tales saturating our contemporary mediascape, where people must do drastic things to survive savage environs, The Swiss Family Robinson is a story where the land is not altogether hostile, and the characters are optimistic about their future, acting more cooperative than territorial and more curious than fearful. The book begins in fair weather with enough food to get by, so our protagonists begin exploring. In this world, they are allowed to marvel, and in That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, readers are invited to do the same.

So The Swiss Family Robinson isn’t too different from That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime (henceforth Slime Isekai because the official title is a mouthful) at heart. Deadly disaster strikes a modern-day Japanese salaryman, reincarnating him into a strange land as a powerful slime. Finding himself relatively well off in his new body, the slime monster later named Rimuru Tempest decides to sate his curiosity and explore. He finds other monsters with sentience like himself, living in fear and tatters. Like his last name suggests, the changes he brings about for them are as paradigm-shifting as the eponymous Shakespearean storm. He builds a nation of monsters by introducing his ideas about civilization in this anime Robinsonade… READ MORE HERE

 

[Update] Christmas and New Year’s in Japan

Non-management: Baby, it’s cold outside… no, it really is cold outside. It’s really freaking cold inside too. It’s cold in Japan now. I mean, it’s probably not as cold here compared to other places in the world. It’s probably not as cold here compared to other places in Japan. I think that it’s cold though, and because of that, I’m thankful for my kotatsu. And I guess I’m grateful for other things too.

Gratitude. Thankfulness. I was asked in the waning days in the year at my junior high school to talk about Christmas in America. I decided to center my presentations around the things that people are grateful toward, the folks that people are thankful for. Looking at it one way, what I said may have been a little disingenuous. I didn’t talk about the rampant commercialism of the season. I didn’t talk about the religious origins of the holiday. I did talk about the food, trees, presents, cards, gatherings… simple things. I talked about how those things brought friends and family together. I talked about why friends and family are important on Christmas. I mentioned the coming winter. I mused about the enveloping darkness, the food scarcity, the biting cold. I made my case: amidst difficult times, Christmas was about being thankful to those who love and support you. I… think that only half of my students got what I was saying.

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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 it’s Kodaka Uchikoshi of the Zero Escape game series that’s behind the show’s writing. You’d also be off, in my opinion, 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 before. 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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