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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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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A Place Farther than the Universe: Journeys to Antarctica and 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 A Place Farther than the Universe anime.

There’s a lot to A Place Farther than the Universe that even a cynical guy like me can relate to. It’s a story of earnestness governed by doubts that I’d imagine speak to many folks. Mari “Kimari” Tamaki’s personality might have been too earnest for me to consider her my character favorite, but as the initial main girl introduced to the audience, her central conflict was something that hit home. You may have big dreams early on. You may have achieved little since then to realize your aspirations. You get intimidated after realizing the scale of the work and luck needed to accomplish your goals. You fall into a deep melancholy over being no where close to your aims. What was the point of everything until now? That was me in my 20s, with hair on my chin and honors to my degree, working a job for a year that wasn’t worth the time and tuition I spent for schooling. I’m still in my 20s, and I can confidently say that I’m in a better place now.

But I’ll admit, the recent memory of a year of my youth wasted still bothers me. In that spirit, I understand why folks combine new resolutions with dramatic gestures. People do it often at the turn of the New Year, promising on its midnight stroke to becoming better people no matter what. If you think about it, why it has to be on New Year’s Day is a decision people make that’s ultimately arbitrary. It would be more logical for folks to devote themselves to new resolutions as soon as they form them. However, it is romantic to follow through commitments when they’re associated with some grand spectacle. People convince themselves that a dramatic gesture will make it harder to break a promise. It gives them an extra boost of courage, or it puts extra pressure on them to save face. For Kimari, Shirase Kobuchizawa, and her other friends, her life-changing adventure was a trip to Antarctica. For me, my call to adventure was going to Japan.

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Land of the Lustrous: Mine Eyes Have Seen Much

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 Land of the Lustrous anime.

So there’s many little details in Buddhist art and imagery that are actually supposed to signify something important in Buddhism — symbolize some value that the religion itself teaches. Study the iconography of any buddha sculpted or painted, and you might notice that they’re depicted doing something funky with their hands. It turns out that how a buddha’s hands are positioned determines what kind of  Buddhist value is being communicated. A buddha depicted with an open palm forward communicates reassurance to the onlooker from suffering. A buddha depicted with a finger touching the ground communicates the realization by the figure of enlightenment. The same weighty symbolism can be said about a buddha’s eyes, which if you think about it, are often depicted in a manner that doesn’t reflect how people’s eyes normally look. They look like a combination of stoic and placid, and they’re supposed to represent what a person’s eyes would look after they reach enlightenment: aware, mindful, and content.

Of course, eyes have significations outside of Buddhist ones. Eyes attached to a face appear different between the developmental stages of infancy and adulthood. Illustrators and animators have played with how to depict eye composition and movement. Eyes are often said  to be windows to the soul in adage.  Eyes can reveal much about a person’s emotional state upon psychical study. They are associated with qualities related to people in stasis. They also convey qualities about people in action. The condition of Phosphophyllite’s eyes changes over the course of Land of the Lustrous, from wide and doey to narrow and sharp. In fact, the gem’s latter eye set looks positively buddha-eyed. Based off of the show’s more-than-flirtatious usage of Buddhist iconography, I don’t think this resemblance is a coincidence.

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Re:Zero -Starting Life in Another World- and Save Scumming

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 Re:Zero anime.

So there’s a number of games floating out there that market themselves on their permadeath mechanics or ironman modes. A member of your team or party dies, you make a misjudgment that locks you into an end you didn’t want, or something otherwise unfortunate happens during your run. If he/she doesn’t want to start a new game, all the player can do in response is suck it up and plow forward. The appeal of these punishing features is a sense of engagement, a sense of challenge that’s absent in a system that would allow you to re-do a serious mistake.  If death gives life meaning, then its threat despite your best efforts at the time makes the lives of protagonists and friendly NPCs that much more precious, when combined with a narrative that makes them likeable, relatable. Of course, permadeath mechanics and ironman modes aren’t appealing to everyone. Not everyone sits down to play a game so they can get stressed from harsh challenges. Some of them want to relax. Some of them want to feel heroic.

My excuse was story. I’m not going to make a game unnecessarily hard on myself, I says. It’ll get in the way of me enjoying the narrative, I says. There are those games though, like Dark Souls, where the difficulty of the challenge and the appreciation of the story is intended to be inseparable from each other. Every normal playthrough of Dark Souls functions as an ironman-style run, and in the process of dying and reviving over and over during one of them, I began to scrutinize why I played like a save scummer. I would characterize myself as one. I often returned back to moments in games just before I made what I perceived to be a grave error. Thing was, though, the mistakes I made in Dark Souls never ended with a “Game Over” screen. The game would acknowledge where you perceived that you failed, resurrect you somewhere, and carry on — with all the consequences your failure would realistically entail. I wasn’t so much being locked out of the game’s narrative as I was stumbling into a new narrative branch, one where, for example, I did let someone die. Out of multiple narrative possibilities, that possibility became my narrative. Those kinds of narratives always troubled me though, and as I sought to reset the run, it occurred to me that, like Re:Zero’s Subaru Natsuki, I also tend to roleplay.

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