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.

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[Update] Letting Go and Blog Rec

This picture of the Kamakura Daibutsu (Great Buddha) is from a Jodo-shu (Pure Land) temple.

Non-management: During my latest trip to Tokyo, or I guess it’s more accurate to say the Kanto, there were two kinds of Buddhist temples that struck out to me:  Tendai and Zen. In many ways, the differences between the two temples are night and day: Zen temples are serene and Tendai temples are metal. That’s not to say that neither of these Buddhist denominations are lacking in grandiose buildings. Far from it, the most impressive temples I visited of these Buddhist orders, the Tendai Kita-in Temple in Saitama and the Zen Enkakuji Temple in Kamakura, boasted larger-than-life structures and sculptures placed down over vast tracts of land. They also charged me entrance fees, those cheap tonsured bastards… or is it me that’s being unreasonable? I imagine it costs a lot to maintain these massively historical properties, and following Meiji Restoration “reforms”, active temples could no longer count on estates of parishioners supporting their conditions and activities. While they probably don’t appreciate the occasional obnoxious party of tourists, the monks and laity at the bigger temples probably count themselves lucky their centers of worship are big tourist bonanzas, complete with nearby omiyage storefronts and sweet-smelling food stalls. The smaller temples of old probably struggled adapting to the changing age.  But I digress.

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[Update] Graduations and Spring in Japan

Image result for cherry blossoms japan cold

Non-management: I’d like to say that the cherry blossoms are in full bloom now and the seasonal warmth has returned like a lover’s caress, but it’s still freaking cold here. On the bright side though, the days are long enough now that I can enjoy sunset walks after work, and the mosquitoes have yet to emerge out of their spawn pools in force. Wait until the middle of spring and the approaching summer though, and you’ll see me taking a piss again about the bugs and heat. I’m always complaining about something.

Though I admit some of those “somethings” are things that are somewhat in my control. I do feel like that I’ve slipped in my diligence at learning Japanese. I hope to rectify that somewhat come the Japanese spring break, but mere hopes do not translate into results. Effort’s needed. Teaching elementary school students, I remember my own elementary school days, struggling with learning the ins-and-outs of English. Thinking about how much I struggled with English grammar back then, it’s a wonder that something thinks I’m adept enough now to teach English as a second language. Between all the time allotted in a week, I spend it assisting hundreds of students in English, writing about anime when the mood strikes hot, and self-medicating on videos to stave off a gnawing sense of inadequacy.

That inadequacy stems less from anything about Japan specifically (because that inadequacy’s more or less followed me from America) and more broadly from a gnawing sense of loneliness. I’ve been trying to spread out more, being social with people without being weird, visiting landmarks that I’ve always wanted to see. I’m an introverted nerd in the end who hasn’t fully shaken off his lifetime of social awkwardness though. There’s only so many days I can take off for extended vacations and mini-holidays. And… I suspect that I’m in love.

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[Anime News Network] “The History Behind Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo”

Non-management: I wrote before in a previous article that I thought Land of the Lustrous had the makings of a modern Buddhist classic. Well, I got a second story in that category to nominate: Dororo. I actually ended up getting noticed by ANN for said Land of the Lustrous article when initially pitching to write for them. Land of the Lustrous is a show that’s far too over and done with right now to write about again for the website, but I’ve been waiting for an opportunity ever since I was accepted as freelance to write about Buddhism in anime again. Dororo was that opportunity, and what’s more, the show was set in Sengoku Jidai. I had plenty to write about, and not enough space to write it all. I did the best I could fitting in all the relevant information, but some things I’d like to have mentioned had to be cut out. Regardless, I hope the article helps the anime community understand the history and culture of their favorite media better. I’ve seen too many anime fans scratch their heads and gawk with incredulity at the foreign beliefs and values professed in their anime. Their reactions make some sense: Dororo was primarily made for a Japanese audience. But context does not that doesn’t preclude people from learning about the world outside them.

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:

The blood of a cleric coats a sanctum’s interior like mud. The broken neck of an idol resembles a tree wrenched crudely from its stump. Dororo begins not with the adventures of its mischievous and eponymous protagonist, but with the bloodshed and sacrilege behind his future friend Hyakkimaru’s birth. Dororo takes place during the Sengoku Jidai era, a time when warfare was rampant and religiosity ran deep in Japan. Confronting its viewers with the religious and political violence of the era, this show lets its audience know up-front that the history of Sengoku Jidai is a history of war and faith.

People can enjoy Dororo without knowing the history of its setting. The show’s direction is compelling on its own, the animation is stunning, and the heroes are equal parts sympathetic and badass. Anything by the renowned “godfather of manga” Osamu Tezuka is worth a look, and his reputation precedes him in this story of a wandering swordsman and his plucky companion. However, the layers Tezuka wove into Dororo‘s story produce a depth that draws its power and inspiration from real history… READ MORE

Dororo: Buddhism 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 immediately 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 frightened and distressed by her surroundings in a predictable fashion, 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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