A review of Shirobako

I’m not the biggest expert on anime out there — there are plenty of other writers here on the platform who have watched much more of it than I have. And there are some personalities on YouTube that are very knowledgeable as well worth watching if you can look past all the weird drama those types sometimes find themselves in. I’ve watched a decent amount of it since growing up as a kid in the 90s, back when watching anime wasn’t as socially acceptable as it is now (and I am thankful those days seem to be at least sort of over.) But one aspect of it I never knew much about was how it’s actually made.

The high school anime club that doesn’t just sit around watching anime but actually makes it

This is partly why I’m happy I finally got around to watching Shirobako (lit. “white box”, referring to the copy of an anime episode distributed internally in a studio before release.) This 2014-15 24-episode original series centers on Aoi Miyamori (center with the light hair) and her four high school friends who make up their school’s anime club. Anime club at my school just involved watching it (or that’s what I heard — as weird as this might sound, I never joined it) but this club creates anime, doing everything: the drawing, coloring, animation, sounds and voices. At first, Shirobako looks like it might stick around in high school following these girls’ antics for a while before they graduate. But three minutes after the opening, they all swear a pact on a bunch of doughnuts (???) that they’ll work in the industry as professionals and make anime together, and then there’s a jump forward a few years to Miyamori sitting in her car with a binder full of work and an exhausted expression.

Shirobako is an adult show, but not in the lewd sense — rather in the sense that it’s about a bunch of adults trying to make it in the world, and in this case, the world of anime production. The narrative doesn’t always stick to Miyamori, but she is the most central character among the show’s large cast. Her job as a production assistant at Musashino Animation requires her to coordinate with many other staff members and contractors, including animators, character designers, 3D modellers, sound engineers, and episode directors. And perhaps most critically with the series director himself, who’s talented but also lazy, requiring Aoi and her colleagues to constantly prod him to keep working. While she shares her duties at the production desk with a few other assistants working under the chief producer, there’s more than enough work to go around that she often feels stressed and has to work out how to cope with her schedule.

You might think of that scene from Office Space, but it’s really not like that.

Of course, Miyamori can’t only think about herself: her responsibilities as a production assistant force her to consider the schedules and workloads of many of the studio’s other employees. The way in which she and her colleagues at the production desk have to stay on top of their other colleagues makes their jobs very delicate, but also extremely important — they have to be understanding of the other creators’ workloads while also keeping them motivated and moving along at a regular pace.

On the surface, Shirobako is about an anime studio turning out two series, one in its first 12 episodes and another in the last 12. But it’s really more about all the personalities working on the shows, personalities that sometimes clash violently. Both within Musashino Animation and outside of it, conflicts flare up around the production of these two shows that Aoi and her production desk coworkers have to sort out. One such conflict involves a fight early on in the production of an action magical girl-looking show called Exodus! between a 2D and a 3D animator. The two fight over the use of 3D instead of 2D for a particular key action scene, with the 2D artist essentially storming out in protest. Eventually the two manage to find common ground and get back together on the team, but it takes some skillful diplomacy by Aoi and a couple of her colleagues to make this happen.

A completely different fight over which voice actresses to hire; this is one of my favorite scenes

There are several other character clashes like this throughout this series, and all of them feel very genuine, as if they could have easily been pulled out of real life. The same is true for the bonds of friendship we see develop, thanks largely to these employees all being thrown into the apparent meat grinder of anime production. Even when clashes occur, they manage to keep their professionalism and smooth things over. This is for the sake of the anime they’re putting out, but I also got the sense that the writer meant to express a sense of common respect among them. Anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to work in an office with a good, productive culture can probably relate. Deadlines are tight and demands can be difficult to meet, but when everyone pulls together things usually work out (by contrast, in a dysfunctional office with a toxic, backstabby culture, it’s usually just the opposite — you instead wonder how the hell the company is still operating.)*

For that reason more than any other, Shirobako feels like a very real-life show. This is true even when it shifts into its frequent fantasy sequences. Most of these involve two of Aoi’s keychain characters, a bear and a gothic lolita pirate captain-looking girl, coming to life and commenting on whatever problem she’s dealing with at the time — sort of like seeing two sides of her mind trying to work that problem out. It looks goofy, but it’s actually a great way to depict Aoi’s thought processes without just constantly going into internal monologue mode (not that that’s always bad, but I appreciated the different approach here.)

Plus some shared hallucinations, why not

Of course, it’s not possible to sustain a constant pace of work without burning out. To its great credit, that’s another aspect of working life that Shirobako addresses. Deadlines in anime production are apparently very tight, with one small delay in one piece of work potentially causing a massive ripple effect down the line. It’s very easy to see how this could result in extremely high levels of stress and burnout in those employed in the industry, especially at companies with reputations for high-quality work to uphold (the stories I’ve read of just how stressful working at Studio Ghibli can be, for example, make even more sense now, and not just because of Hayao Mizayaki’s apparently really complicated character.)

All these pressures often foster doubts in Aoi and her young colleagues just getting their starts in the industry. Even the veterans aren’t immune from the stress, but the natural doubts many younger people carry around about their talent and their goals in life can be hard to bear in these high-stress situations.

Aoi trying to comfort one of her high school friends Ema Yasuhara, an animator at the same studio.

Instead of just pushing through and eventually suffering from a stress-induced attack, Aoi and her colleagues find ways to cope with the stress while still maintaining their professionalism and work ethics. Part of this involves what some people now call “self-care”, stuff like exercise and walking around outside, along with Ema’s dance routine on the roof that makes for one of my other favorite scenes. Of course, there’s also plenty of drinking together to wipe that stress away, though I don’t think anyone in the show ever drinks to excess (aside from one freelance animator later on, whose drunkenness comes in handy when the team needs someone to agree to help with their series on short notice. Agreements made when you’re drunk aren’t enforceable where I live, but it all works out for Aoi and friends.)

It’s also admirable to see Aoi’s old friends from school sticking together, even when some of them aren’t quite making it yet. This sort of thing can sometimes inspire bitterness, but not here. While the five friends are mostly doing their own separate things throughout the show, they all eventually come together in the end in a way that’s satisfying, though I won’t spoil exactly how that goes.

Sometimes you just have to eat your losses and move on

I wouldn’t call Shirobako a “feel-good” story exactly, since it does acknowledge all the awful bullshit that can occur when you’re working. However, it also has a positive message. Hard work isn’t quite enough to make it, but if you have the support of your friends and colleagues and manage to keep your ego in check, you can create great things. It’s a mature and realistic series. But it’s not deadly serious or overblown either; there are some pretty nice and relaxed stretches as well, and even in the high-pressure chaos stretches of the show, there’s some comedy.

So I highly recommend Shirobako. It’s a fascinating series to watch if you have an interest in anime; I learned something about the technical aspects of anime and some of the inner workings of the industry by watching it. However, even if you’re not interested at all in that, or even in anime in general (in which case thanks for reading my post about an anime series this far!) I’d say it’s still worth watching, since a lot of that message can be applied just as easily to most any industry. I think Shirobako has a really wide appeal, even if it might seem to be about a bit of a niche subject. And of course, the most important reason to watch: it’s entertaining. I don’t have a clever (read: stupid) way to end this review, so that’s it. I liked Shirobako and I think you should watch it.

 

* One of the reasons I think I connected so much with Shirobako is that I’ve had the good fortune to have worked in both kinds of offices. Thankfully, I’m at the good sort of company now, but I learned a lot from my time at the bad one, lessons that I might not have learned otherwise about the extreme importance of reading character and building professional relationships of trust. Shirobako really gets into the psychology of work in that sense.

Artbook reviews #3 (Shunya Yamashita, Kantoku, Kazuma Kaneko, Rie Tanaka)

I recently bought a large haul of books, CDs, and doujins straight from Japan. Since I didn’t get the chance to deepen my debt at an anime con last year thanks to the virus, I decided to do that shopping over on Suruga-ya and managed to get these, all used but very affordable considering the outrageous prices some dealers charge at conventions here (this is not a paid promotion by the way; I’m still the same poor bastard you’ve always known without any sponsors, and that probably won’t ever change.)

I was able to pick up some interesting artbooks in this lot, a few of which I’ve coveted for a long time and others that I just discovered. So I’ve decided to have a look here at a few of these books, in the spirit of two past posts I wrote in 2018 and 2019. Which I believe makes this the laziest and least regular post series on the site, even more than that “games for broke people” one I started years before. I should really pick that one up again. Anyway, first up is:

Wild Flower (Shunya Yamashita, 2008)

Here’s an artist I’ve never talked about here before, but he’s a great one. Artist and character designer Shunya Yamashita has worked on magazine covers and games as varied as Final Fantasy X and Makai Kingdom, but he seems to be best known for exactly what you see above: fantasy-themed sexy girl stuff. That’s not everything in this book — there are also some male character designs and monster designs, as well as a few pieces of art with really nice backgrounds, but the book’s cover gives a pretty good idea of what you can expect. If you’re not a fan of the “extremely impractical bikini armor” look then you probably won’t like this stuff; some of these women’s outfits are very skimpy and involve some gravity-defiance (one of the benefits of drawing, I guess.)

It also looks like Yamashita takes a lot of inspiration from western pinup photos, those vintage ones from the 50s and 60s. In that tradition, everything racy in here is kept strictly erotic without crossing into truly 18+ material, though it’s still not a book you’d necessarily want to have out on your coffee table, unless you just really don’t give a shit. There are also a few pages of short notes on each piece by the artist in the back, though they’re all in Japanese (this is going to become a pattern — none of these books seem to have English editions.)

15th Anniversary Book (Kantoku, 2018)

If Shunya Yamashita’s style isn’t your thing, you might prefer Kantoku, an artist who also draws a whole lot of girls but this time in a very cute style as supposed to the former’s sexy one. I wasn’t too familiar with Kantoku before buying this artbook, but he’s done work for quite a few visual novels and light novel covers none of which I’ve read, as well as an anime series called One Room that I haven’t seen. But I do like his style. While the girls seem to always be the focal point in his art (I don’t think there’s a single male character in this book, not that I could find anyway) Kantoku doesn’t skimp on the backgrounds at all — in fact, I’d say those backgrounds add a lot to his work. I love the attention to detail in his art, and I’ll be on the lookout for more of his stuff in the future.

For Japanese readers, there’s also a nice treat in this book: a very long interview between Kantoku and several other artists whose work is also featured in here near the back. Of course, I mostly can’t read it, but if you can, it might be something to check out if you have any interest. From the bits I can read, they’re talking about character design and art, but you could probably guess that anyway without knowing a word of the language.

Digital Devil Apocalypse (Kazuma Kaneko, 1999)

It would be a real disappointment if I didn’t post anything Megami Tensei-related, right? So here’s one of those books I mentioned that I’ve wanted for years: Digital Devil Apocalypse, featuring the work of the great Kazuma Kaneko. I’ve written a bit about his work in my running MegaTen deep reads series — he’s responsible for the great majority of its iconic demon designs and for a lot of early character designs up through the Shin Megami Tensei games and the first few Persona games. I really like his surreal designs, even when they get truly bizarre (Mara, but he’s not the only one, just the most infamous.)

There’s also a very long interview in this artbook with Kaneko that I mostly can’t read, so that’s nice. I really need to pick up my Japanese studies again, because I’d like very much to fully or even just mostly understand it. In addition to the interview, we also get some photos of the man himself looking cool and smoking a cigarette (but really, don’t smoke, kids. It’s extremely bad for you.)

The only real drawback to this book aside from the language barrier, which is entirely my problem, is that it’s currently 22 years old and doesn’t contain any of the many new character and demon designs from Nocturne on. However, I’d say Digital Devil Apocalypse is still very worth buying for MegaTen fans, especially for those who know Japanese. Even if the pentagram cover makes it look like some kind of Satan book. (Well, Satan is technically in it, and Lucifer too, but you know what I mean. Speaking of them, my next deep reads post on Megami Tensei will hopefully be coming soon! Dealing with some potentially touchy subjects this time, but in a mature way I hope.)

Irodorie (Rie Tanaka, 2009)

Hey, yeah, that’s me on the left in the reflection of the cover. It’s the most you’ll ever see, too, at least on this site.

The subject of this book isn’t so reserved, though. This obviously isn’t the same kind of artbook as the above three: it’s instead a photobook featuring the prolific voice actress Rie Tanaka. If you’ve watched many subbed anime series or played many Japanese games, you’ve almost certainly heard her voice at some point. The list of anime and games she’s acted in is very long; among many other characters, she’s the voice of Neptune from Hyperdimension Neptunia, Chii from Chobits, and Lacus Clyne from Mobile Suit Gundam.

And as seen above, she’s also the voice of Mitsuru Kirijo from Persona 3, center, and Suigintou from Rozen Maiden, right. This book isn’t nearly as racy as the cover makes it look; most of it just involves Tanaka cosplaying as characters she’s acted. In fact, I’m pretty sure both this book’s covers were chosen specifically because they’re so eye-catching, making it look like a gravure work of the kind that contains near-softcore photography.

But that’s not what this is. Really, this book is just kind of a weird curiosity to me, even if there are a ton of similar photobooks featuring popular VAs, actresses, and idols out there. I’m not into the idol scene at all (unless we’re talking virtual idols of course) so this is all pretty foreign to me, and I don’t have any particular interest in buying more of these kinds of photobooks. This is a nice one, though. I’m also a fan of Rie’s work — and if I’m being totally honest, she’s pretty damn attractive, so it’s not like I disliked what I saw in here from that angle (especially the bunny suit photos, which are about as spicy as the book’s contents get not counting the front and back covers.) But that aside, the cosplay stuff itself looks great. Not that I’m much of a judge in that area.

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That’s all for now, but I might write another one of these posts in the near future. Things at work are heating up, but I’ll do my best to post as close to weekly as possible. Until next time!

Fanservice done right

Now here’s a subject that I really care about. Probably way too much. I’ve featured a few pieces from other writers around the communities here on WordPress on just this issue in my end-of-month posts, but I sometimes disagree with their opinions even when I feel they make some good points or interesting arguments.

So it’s time for me to put out my own dumb take on fanservice and on the broader subject of sexual content in games and anime and related works. It’s one that I’m sure won’t surprise anyone at all, since I’ve already written about it in the context of law and popular culture a few times, and also considering a few of the works I’ve reviewed in glowing terms here. Even so, I think this is a matter worth bringing up and looking into more closely, since it’s such a constantly controversial one on social media in anime and game circles. As usual, if others won’t shut up about it, then neither will I (though I hope I can at least make real arguments to support my views, unlike some of the kneejerk reaction types we see.)

Also, the usual disclaimer: this post deals in part with sexual content, don’t read if you’re not into that, etc. You know the deal.

If you’re thinking “oh, another excuse for AK to post a bunch of half-dressed catgirls again” well, maybe it’s partly that, but that’s not the main point here.

First: what is the controversy here that people are talking about? Fanservice has been present in anime, comics, games, and related media both western and eastern for decades. Defining it is a bit difficult, though, because people disagree on the boundaries of fanservice, drawing their own borders according to their own reasoning. According to the top-rated definition on the esteemed reference Urban Dictionary, “fan service refers to scenes designed to excite or titillate the viewer. This can include scantily-clad outfits, cleavage shots, panty shots, nude scenes… if it has little plot-redeeming value, but makes the viewer sit up and take notice, it’s probably fan service in one form or another.”

The author of that definition also notes that a broader definition might include gratuitous action, explosions, and other types of non-sexual fan-pleasing scenes, but I’m only concerned with the narrower definition here, since that’s what most people seem to refer to (and complain about) when they use the term.

I won’t deny that there’s a whole hell of a lot of sexual content out there. It’s an old maxim that sex sells — that’s been true for thousands of years, probably ever since someone in Uruk decided to start a peepshow for guys drunk on that ancient beer with the grain floating in it.1

There was fanservice even back in Babylonian times.

But there’s an important distinction to be made here. I believe a necessary part of this concept of fanservice is that it’s gratuitous, that it’s added into an existing work that would have been complete and whole without it. Above I’ve posted a screenshot from the first episode of last year’s Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, an anime series that undoubtedly contains a whole lot of fanservicey shots of certain popular characters like Mash Kyrielight (above) and Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and fertility who looks exactly like Rin Tohsaka for some reason. I think these kinds of shots can be safely put into the fanservice category because they’re pretty damn blatant and clearly gratuitous. When the Servant Mash is protecting her Master by using her Noble Phantasm while they’re falling out of the sky, do we need the above kind of shot specifically to get what’s going on? Not really.

Of course, games also contain plenty of fanservice. A few days ago I saw a review of Atelier Ryza 2, the newest entry in Gust’s long-running Atelier series. This review mostly praised the game but did complain about all the “fanservice”, by which it meant shots of characters in conversation with low camera angles. Presumably these angles focus a whole lot on the protagonist Ryza, since her thighs have become famous (and I still wonder whether she was designed at least in part to appeal to the American market, because if she was, the plan seems to have worked.) I haven’t played Ryza or its sequel, so I can’t say whether that reviewer was making too much of it, but I have seen a few of those conversation scenes in bits of playthroughs and yeah, those shots certainly do exist in the games, though I can’t say how frequently they come up.

However, there are other works in which I’d argue that the “titillating” material is not gratuitous. I’ve written a bit about the Monogatari anime adaptation here, which I mean to pick up again this year because of how much I liked its first few series. Though it had been on my to-watch list for a long time, I have to admit that part of what got me interested in it was the griping I saw about it from some Twitter users for being “horny” in their words. And then I resolved to finally start watching it to see if there was anything to those complaints.

What I found was a series that did contain some material people would call fanservice but that worked in the context of the series, that suited the tone of the story and didn’t involve any out-of-character nonsense. Moreover, this material was largely woven into the story, since confusion between romantic love and mere sexual lust is a pretty prominent theme of Monogatari, at least in the first few series that I’ve watched so far. You could certainly argue that author Nisio Isin pushed the envelope with Nisemonogatari, but in general I never felt like I was being pandered to or watching something meant merely to titillate. And even Nisemonogatari didn’t feel too off to me since the series had established a kind of absurd tone by that point, mixing that in with the more serious dramatic material in a way that I thought completely worked.

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (2015). Fighting hundreds of bikini ninjas at once is just a normal day in this game

And then there are games and other works so filled with sexual or borderline content that they’re defined by it, but those don’t bother me either. It’s not like I can argue otherwise after everything I’ve written on this site until now anyway. But I think the most important reason I’m not bothered by such works is that they don’t pretend to be something they’re not. When you buy a Senran Kagura or Gal*Gun or HuniePop game, you know exactly what you’re getting. The same goes for anime and manga series with strong erotic elements.

I always find sexual content-based complaints about these works strange. It would be like me reviewing an album by a noise rock group and complaining about how noisy it is. Well shit, what did I expect? I completely understand why these kinds of works put some people off, but I also don’t think complaints over fanservice apply to works that don’t make any secret of what they are. Just read the M for Mature or 18+ notice on it and move on if you’re not into that sort of thing.

Nekopara Vol. 2 (2016), just filling my self-imposed catgirl quota for this post.

I feel the same to be true of optional material in games. As much as paid DLC sometimes annoys me, I don’t have any problem with giving players the option to choose whether they want the spicier parts of a game. The Nekopara series of visual novels provides a nice example: the all-ages versions are cute romance/slice-of-life stories with some light ero sort of stuff thrown in, while the 18+ versions go hardcore by adding the sex scenes. (The full 18+ version of Nekopara Vol. 4, which I’ve recently started reading, is even considerate enough to ask if you’re playing the game while other people are present, and you’d better take it seriously when it asks.) I’d put skimpy DLC costumes in games in the same category — they’re there if you want them, but if you don’t they’re easily ignored.

But then what does that leave? There’s a narrow slice of artistic content that I’d call fanservice that actually annoys me. That’s the type that’s clearly present only to pander to what the creators think I want to see and that either distracts from the story, breaks the tone, or causes characters to act in bizarre or stupid ways or against their established personalities, assuming the characters in the work have personalities worth caring about in the first place. I wouldn’t even include shots like those brought up in F/GO Babylonia or Atelier Ryza 2; my only complaint is with those works that allow the fanservice to seep into the substance, the story and characters, in ways that warp them and screw them up.

I can’t think of any specific examples to illustrate this point, but I know they’re out there. Take your average harem comedy for a general example, the kind that has a dumbass protagonist bumble around and waver between a bunch of girls who inexplicably all like him. I can’t stand this sort of work. It’s not so much the fact that there are usually erotic elements to it, but rather that they’re put there in service of a bunch of boring characters getting into predictable situations.

Obvious fanservice here in Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!, but this didn’t bother me too much.

This is part of why I usually dislike romantic comedies unless there’s something really special about them. The Uzaki-chan anime didn’t deserve all the silly controversy it got itself into last year, but it did come close at times to falling into that boring overused trope category for me — that was the only real complaint I had about it. Even stuff like the standard beach episode seen above didn’t bother me, since it’s not unusual for people to go to the beach on vacation, and nobody was acting out of character in this part. It’s only when the characters repeated the same old gags, going through that tired cycle of “are we just friends or more than that” bits that I got irritated. I know that’s the whole point of the series, but there are more interesting ways to do it (see again Nagatoro, but maybe I should reserve my judgment to compare its own anime adaptation to that of Uzaki, especially since I haven’t read the Uzaki manga.)

So really, I guess my only complaint about fanservice is when I feel I’m being very obviously pandered to in a cheap way, or when I’m being bored by something overly predictable. It’s not enough to just have some cleavage or thighs on screen every so often; you need to provide an interesting story or compelling characters or fun gameplay, and then you can throw in all the titillation you like as far as I’m concerned as long as it fits into the work naturally and isn’t just a dumb distraction. The real sin in my mind is creating something that’s dull — as long as the game or series in question is entertaining, I’m fine with these sexual elements, and used in the right way and context I think they can even add to the appeal of a work.

Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica (2007). This JRPG contains some suggestive conversations and some eye-catching costumes, but I’d say these are examples of fanservice done right, presented in an interesting and clever way.

Finally, I want to address an argument I’ve seen brought up that I find interesting: that anime and related games and other media should be cleaned up somewhat to get rid of the stigma some people attach to them. This very argument was raised by an article I featured on the site back in October, which dealt specifically with fanservice in anime. I agree that this stigma is a real thing; certainly some people think poorly of anime in general at least partly because of its sexual content. However, I don’t agree that the stigma is a problem. Those who dislike anime are free to find other media to enjoy, and that’s provided they never discover that there’s plenty of anime out there they probably would like. Creators shouldn’t feel compelled to water down their work in the hopes that they’ll reach a wider audience, especially since a lot of established fans would likely be upset by it. If they want to take that risk, that’s their choice, but I believe in most cases that it would be the wrong one.

Of course, I get that a lot of people would disagree with me on these points. I obviously don’t have the same moral objection to h-games or similar 18+ material that some do, and my tolerance for sexual content in games, anime, manga, and VNs and in art in general is pretty high.2 These are just my opinions, and as usual, I’m always happy to read differing ones as long as we all keep things civil. But we always do here anyway, don’t we? We can keep all the stupid fighting for social media. I think I’ve gotten used to Twitter’s bullshit by now, at least enough to not be driven crazy by it. 𒀭

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1 On this subject, it’s not really my concern anymore, but I think it’s pretty weird that all these modern breweries try to replicate these very old drink recipes like Dogfish Head’s ancient Egyptian-style beer, which from what I remember tastes like liquid ass. Probably for a reason: people back then were making alcohol from whatever they had around, and when you’re a commoner tasked with building King Menkaure’s pyramid, life probably sucked enough that you were fine as long as you could get hammered every day. This has nothing to do with fanservice; it’s just something else I wanted to complain about.

2 This is also not strictly related to what I’m writing about here, but I do believe drawn and animated 18+ material can be a moral substitute for people who have objections to similar live-action videos — especially relevant now considering certain large websites that have collapsed in on themselves thanks to apparently practicing little or no oversight over their content. But then many people who object to live-action videos also seem to object to the 2D adult material, sometimes in even far stronger terms, so maybe their problem is with the subject matter and not the people involved in depicting it.

In any case, it’s important for the purpose of regulation to make a distinction between suggestive and downright pornographic material, both in live action and in drawing and animation. Conflating the two leads to serious problems (and unfortunately that’s something legislators seem all too willing to do, especially if they see votes in making a moral issue out of art. But I’ll save the political/legal soapbox stuff for a later post.)

Deep reads #5.3: Getting personal with Persona

My post focusing on the Persona series is finally done. I still have more to go in this set of posts, though. Hopefully the next one won’t take three god damn months to write. A couple of general plot trends and minor spoilers in here, particularly about one confidant link in Persona 5, but aside from that, you can read without fear since this post deals generally with the modern Persona games, their themes, and how I’ve related to them. Sorry for getting so personal this time (that title isn’t just a dumb joke even if it looks like one) but I’m also interested in how you’ve related to these games if you’ve played them — the comments section is always open.

As before, I’ll also let you know that this is the third part of a series about Megami Tensei. If you want more context for this post, you can get it from the first part, but it’s not that necessary to understand what I’m talking about here.

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I don’t think it would be any shock to regular readers of this site if I admit that I’m not a very social person. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought my extreme introversion up before, in fact. It’s something I’ve mostly gotten past purely out of necessity, but I still much prefer to be alone most of the time.

Partly for this reason, my feelings about the Persona games are a bit complicated. On one hand, they provided my way into Megami Tensei as a whole — Persona 3 back in 2007 was the first MegaTen game I played, and I was hooked from my first time stumbling into the Dark Hour with the P3 protagonist up until today. Over the last 14 years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Persona 3, 4, 5, and their expansions alongside the mainline SMT games and other spinoff series I’ve explored. On the other hand, the Persona games alone among all the other MegaTen titles, starting with 3, combine the traditional demon-fighting JRPG mechanic of the series I like so much with a social sim, introducing extra depth and story for the characters along with some weird pacing issues that the series never had to deal with before. Persona wasn’t the first game series to take this approach, but it’s definitely been the most visible and commercially successful one to try it out, and this dungeon crawling RPG/social sim hybrid setup is now a series standard.

It didn’t start that way, though. Fans often acknowledge the 1994 Super Famicom title Shin Megami Tensei if… as the spiritual predecessor to the Persona series, since it was the first to take place in a high school setting and focus on a group of students. Like SMT if…, the first three actual Persona games, Megami Ibunroku Persona in 1996 and the two parts of the Persona 2 duology in 1998 and 1999, were more or less straightforward JRPGs. However, they did put a lot more emphasis their characters and the relationships between them than the mainline SMT games, which mainly focused on the broader story and had pretty thin character development.

Persona 3 inner cover art by Shigenori Soejima

This trend continued with Persona 3, which came out in 2006 in Japan and 2007 here in the States. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Megami Tensei or any of its already massive 20 year-long catalog, even though I was already deep into some JRPG series at the time. My future favorite game SMT III: Nocturne had been released in America a few years before but apparently without much commotion. But I did hear Persona 3 talked about around its release, probably because of its novelty over here as a hybrid RPG/social sim. Of course, back then people were calling it more of an RPG/dating sim, which was a pretty big simplification if an understandable one — the game does feature a dating mechanic, with five of your female classmates available for you to romantically pursue in the original game.

But although the dating might have been the flashiest feature in the game, there was a lot more to its social aspect than that. Persona 3 takes place in the city of Tatsumi Port Island, a nice seaside spot that’s been stricken with a condition called Apathy Syndrome, which causes its sufferers to sit around not caring about doing anything even to the extent that they can starve to death. The protagonist, a transfer high school student, soon learns that this strange condition is connected to the Dark Hour, a “hidden” hour that takes place at midnight every night and corresponds with the appearance of a giant tower called Tartarus that just happens to be at the same site as his new school, Gekkoukan High. Protagonist’s new dormmates are all in on the secret as well — he and they are some of the few who actually experience the Dark Hour, with everyone else suspended in time for that period and therefore left unaware of it.

You also all happen to possess the power of Persona, magical representations of your alter egos that have the ability to fight and defend against both human and otherworldly entities, up to and including gods. To me back in 2007, this was where the game really stood out. From the very beginning, when your unnamed1 main character enters his new dorm late at night and is approached by a mysterious ghostly boy who asks him to sign a shady-looking contract, there’s a strange, heavy atmosphere around the place. P3 doesn’t waste much time getting to the point — the protagonist is special; not only does he hold the power of Persona, but he’s also a “wild card”, meaning that unlike his friends, he can summon any number of Personas to fight for him.

“When you’re done with class today, do you want to get together and fight some shadow demons in the nightmare world only we can access?” “Sure, sounds good.” (Source, CC-BY-SA)

This all fits into the usual setup of Persona collection in battle and fusion in the Velvet Room, mechanics taken straight from the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series and adapted into this new format. However, Persona 3 adds that social aspect on top, allowing your protagonist to create bonds with his fellow students and certain people around town who are sorted into different Tarot Arcana categories that the Personas are also grouped into. By leveling up these “Social Links”, the player is able to make progress in battle through bonuses in fusion to the corresponding Arcana.

These links are often made with people you might not normally expect. Many of them are with your teammates and other school friends and colleagues, only natural considering that you’re all going through the horrible ordeal of high school together (and especially natural in the case of your fellow Persona-users, who also have to juggle school and social lives with fighting shadow demons in that nightmare world of Tartarus.) As you progress through the story, your bonds with your teammates in particular get stronger thanks to all the dangers you’ve gone through together trying to defeat the growing menace of the Dark Hour, but the same is true even for your bonds with other friends who don’t realize what you’re going through.

At some point in there, you also all had a shared dream about a dance competition one night. And yeah, this is part of the canon as far as I know.

As a result, the Persona games feel a lot more personal to me than others in the overarching Megami Tensei series. Like mainline SMT, they take place against apocalyptic backdrops with demon and shadow invasions of the human world and all that, but they also feature stories about individual struggles and the power of true friendship and love that help us break through them.

So then what’s an embittered, world-weary jerk like me doing enjoying games like this with such positive approaches to life? There’s a lot about the Persona series I like, and part of that has to do with its acknowledgement that even though the power of friendship can be great, life can also be profoundly, remorselessly, and unbelievably shitty. In fact, I think that’s part of why they emphasize the importance of forming bonds with others so much. Life doesn’t always work out in these games: broken bonds between characters aren’t always perfectly fixed, dilemmas aren’t always sorted out nicely by the end like they are in old sitcoms. And when a character dies, with a few major (and controversial) exceptions, they’re dead for good. So sometimes, there’s no happy ending — the resolution to a social link story might only consist of a character accepting and coming to some kind of peace with a less-than-ideal situation.

That’s something I can appreciate. As embittered as I am, I still don’t believe that humanity is all shit, that it’s just naturally evil or corrupt. I think this is a stance too often taken by hack writers and artists who think being dark automatically means you’re being deep. It’s both inaccurate and intellectually dishonest — it should be clear to anyone looking at it with a more honest approach that human nature isn’t nearly that simple. For the same reason, the other extreme of false optimism feels just as dishonest to me. Because yes, maybe life really is a wonderful gift that I should cherish. Yes, I know it only happens once,2 and I get that it was incredibly unlikely that it was going to happen to me, that I’d be given this opportunity. I can tell myself that all day, but it doesn’t change the fact that life sometimes feels like complete dogshit, a burden that I have to carry rather than a gift that I should be thankful for.

The social link rank-ups help, though.

I see a lot of this false optimism in the society I live in. As a way to cope with the hardships of life, I completely get it — if telling yourself all of the above really helps you make it through the day, I can’t criticize that. To me, though, that approach ignores a lot of the negative aspects of life that really cannot be overlooked if you’re trying to write personal stories like these. For the most part, the side stories that the Persona games tell strike a nice balance between these two extremes.3

And yeah, I am taking the tonal differences between the modern Persona games into account when I say that. Persona 3 is generally considered much darker and more pessimistic in tone than later Persona games, and that’s a characterization I’d agree with. However, even the later games feature some side stories that have somewhat sad or bittersweet endings. While there are probably better or more obvious examples to use here (the links with the terminally ill young man in Persona 3 and the widow in Persona 4 both come to mind) the one standout figure in this sense to me is Yuuki Mishima from Persona 5.

Mishima is one of your classmates who you meet during the game’s first story arc. He quickly becomes a devotee of the Phantom Thieves, the secret team the protagonist and his friends create when they realize they have the power to make criminals have changes of heart and confess their crimes through the typical Persona-using methods. He also figures out pretty early on that the protagonist and company are in fact the Phantom Thieves, after which he sets up a fan site where people can express their support and even suggest those who might need a change of heart. In this way, Mishima feeds the protagonist new target info while maintaining a “wink and nod” attitude about his secret identity.

All this is well and good, but a few scenes into Mishima’s social link, it becomes obvious that he’s starting to go on a power trip, taking some liberties with his influence as de facto leader of the Phantom Thieves online fan community. After he starts insisting that you target a popular male celebrity he’s jealous of, you and your friends decide to track down and give Mishima’s shadow self a visit. Finally, Mishima realizes he’s been an asshole and sincerely apologizes, maturing a bit and becoming somewhat more secure in his identity.

Even so, Mishima doesn’t exactly get what he wants by the end. What he really seemed to want was to be the protagonist himself, or at least a very visible hero of some kind. By using his newfound power, he tried to take the lead and have his own way and to achieve his own selfish ends, and he ends up getting rebuked for it. Mishima’s feelings are very understandable, at least to me — the character comes off as an outsider, a guy who’s seen as nice and pleasant enough but also a bit obsessive and irritating to others. He’s also something of a doormat, and this seems to be the source of his power trip, which starts when he feels he finally has some control and isn’t just being pushed around by everyone else. By the end of his social link, Mishima has grown a bit and gained some real backbone, but he’s still behind the scenes and hasn’t become the hero he wanted to be.

But that’s okay. Mishima accepts his place and commits to becoming a better person, even if he can’t have exactly what he wants. A lot of the other social link stories in the Persona series proceed along the same lines, ending with resolutions that aren’t usually totally happy for those involved but at least involve some new understanding and growth. I’ll admit that a few of these links fall flat, with characters who don’t feel very realistic or just aren’t all that appealing or sympathetic, and a few others that resolve themselves a little too neatly, but in general, they feel pretty satisfying in this sense.

I’ve even lightened up on my feelings about Marie a bit. Not much, though.

Most of the villains of the modern Persona games also fit pretty nicely into this framework. This is at least true for those who act as foils to the games’ protagonists. There are a very few other Persona-using characters who possess the same wild card ability as the protagonist, but typically they differ in that they use their powers for evil rather than good. That might sound pretty standard and boring, but I think there’s more to it than simply the “hey, I’m the story-appointed bad guy” stuff you’d expect from RPGs like these. The wild card ability carries great potential, represented by the protagonist’s place in the Tarot Arcana as the Fool, the card denoted by the number zero — here not a negative but rather a positive, meaning the protagonist can become anything he likes and use his ability to achieve things others can’t.

But not without the help of his friends and colleagues. This is the major difference between the Persona protagonists, who build relationships of trust with the people around them, and the antagonists who possess the same wild card ability but decide to reject these relationships, either because they’ve been burned in the past or because they feel they’re not getting their proper due from society. So they give in to feelings of bitterness, and ultimately they can’t achieve what the protagonists can for that reason.

At least that’s how I read it. Again, all this is a bit strange for me on a personal level, because I feel like I can identify with these antagonists sometimes a bit more than I can with the protagonists. Maybe it’s only natural, after all: I’m also a bitter person with an extremely skeptical view of society in general, and there’s nothing in the world I’d like to do more than escape from it all. But then again, that’s really not an option, and I have to admit that the antagonists in these games are selfish assholes — and as bitter as I feel sometimes, I never want to become one of those.

I can’t even bring myself to kill shadows or demons when they beg for their lives; that’s how soft I really am.

So despite what some people say, Persona isn’t all style and no substance, not even close. There is a whole lot of style to the series, though. A big part of this has to do with the music, which I already touched upon back in my first post. Shoji Meguro is the composer responsible for most of the music in these games. Aside from just generally writing excellent music, Meguro writes each soundtrack with its own character, so that one doesn’t sound much like the rest. Comparing the three mainline modern Persona games alone, Persona 3 has a strong rap sound with a lot of pop mixed in, Persona 4 is much more pop/rock-sounding, and Persona 5 goes heavy on 70s style funk and jazz. My personal favorite is 5 just because I’m into that style the most, but they’re all fantastic.

And then there’s artist Shigenori Soejima, who has done just as much as Meguro to define the feel of the modern Persona games. Soejima is one of my very favorite character designers, with a style distinct from Kazuma Kaneko’s but that still fits pretty well with Kaneko’s original work on the games’ many MegaTen demons. Even if you’ve never played Persona before, you may have seen Soejima’s work, since he’s also responsible for the art and character designs of Catherine and its PS4 expansion Catherine: Full Body. Though I can’t say I prefer one style over the other, I love his art — I don’t own both his artbooks for nothing.

The English versions of Soejima’s artbooks (left) seem to be extremely hard to find and expensive now, but used Japanese-language copies (right) are still going cheap on eBay. On the plus side, the Japanese copies are a bit nicer and sturdier, with protective transparent dust jackets that the English versions lack. At this point, if you’re interested, I think you’re a lot better off going for the Japanese ones even if you can’t read the text in them.

As for the shipping and waifu wars the modern Persona games have inspired thanks largely to that dating mechanic I mentioned, I don’t have anything to say about those. Have fun fighting on Twitter or Reddit over that dumb shit if you really feel like doing that. Not me — I will maintain as I always have that Aigis is best girl, not just in Persona 3 but throughout the part of the series I’ve played, but I respect your tastes completely no matter what they are. Even if you like that alcoholic journalist from Persona 5 the best. Yes, even Ohya is a fine choice. I’m not one to judge.

I also like Lisa Silverman a lot, but I haven’t finished Persona 2: Innocent Sin yet so I can’t make a definitive call on her yet.

And that’s really all I have to say about Persona, even though there is a lot more to say about it. I could write an entire set of posts dedicated to this spinoff series alone, or even to one of the games in it. But that’s not my goal here. Others have gone into great depth about Persona already, and I’m not sure I have that much more to add at this point, except to say that it’s a series worth getting into.

So next time, we’ll take a look at issues raised more by the mainline SMT series, specifically with matters of the divine, the human, and the very weird and complicated relationships between the two. Will I be condemned forever for my bizarre heresies? Probably! All the more reason not to follow my example, if reading this post didn’t convince you of that already. 𒀭

* * *

1 The protagonists of these games do have official names, one taken from the manga adaptation and usually a different one for the anime and for later spinoff works. However, in true Megami Tensei fashion, Persona lets you name your protagonist whatever you want, so there is no official name at least as far as the games themselves go.

2 Unless you believe in reincarnation, and there are hints throughout Megami Tensei that it does exist in-universe, at least in a few cases.

3 I’ve seen it argued that Persona 5 leans too much towards the optimistic side, even more than the relatively bright and cheery Persona 4 does. I don’t think P5 goes too far myself, but I can understand these arguments, especially considering how easy it seems to be for Joker and co. to resolve their friends’ problems by changing people’s hearts in Mementos. I wouldn’t be surprised if Persona 6 takes a slightly darker turn again for that reason.

Listening/reading log #16 (January 2021)

Here’s the usual month-ending post. One day early because of my very inconvenient schedule coming up, but if anyone posts anything astounding today that I end up missing, I’ll be sure to include it in the February post.

Considering how busy I’ve been this month, I got more done here than expected: I put together another awards show and indulged in some nostalgia. I finally finished Gust’s magical girl JRPG/Mel Kishida art showcase Blue Reflection, which deserves a lot more attention and regard than it’s gotten. And I listened to all of the mind-bending six-hour-plus album series Everywhere at the End of Time in one sitting, which was probably a mistake. I don’t mean it’s not good; it is, but listening to the whole thing at once is pretty taxing, and not just because of the length.

Everywhere didn’t hit me quite as hard as it did some other people, but it still had enough of an effect on me to make me seek out lighter music to wash my brain out with. If you want the specifics, check out my review linked above, but I needed something to get Misplaced in time and Back there Benjamin out of my head (even considering the mental breakdown context they’re presented in, the original songs they’re based on are really catchy, so these uncanny twisted versions still stick in there and won’t leave.) The following albums are pretty good for that purpose. I cover those below, and then it’s on to the featured posts this month.

Hogaraka na Hifu tote Fufuku EP (Zutomayo, 2020)

Highlights: Study Me, Milabo, Ham, really the whole thing though

A while back, this animated music video started showing up in my YouTube recommended lists, and when I finally decided to check it out I was very happy I did. This was “Study Me”, a song by the Japanese pop/rock band Zutomayo (full name Zutto Mayonaka de Iinoni, but they also go by this shortened name, so I’ll use it.) The members of this band apparently don’t name themselves; nobody even knows what they look like or if there’s a stable lineup of musicians aside from the recurring singer ACAね (or ACA-ne) who hosts very occasional unarchived YouTube livestream concerts, meaning you have to be there or else you miss out on it forever.

All that’s very mysterious, but Zutomayo’s music is the reason I’m writing about them here, because it is very very good. This is one of those cases where I’m hard-pressed to say anything except “listen to it.” Great singing, great playing, and hooks that might get stuck in your head, but in a good way. Each of these songs also features its own animated video, each of which seems to tell a story that the lyrics probably tie into. They’re all available on YouTube in that form, but the EP itself is also out there if you want a more basic music experience.

A lot of work obviously went into both the music and videos, and it all paid off. “Study Me” was the one that hooked me in, but the rest of their songs are quality too. It’s a nice time to pick up Zutomayo as well, since they have a full album coming out this month that you can bet I’ll be trying to get. (Now if only physical copies of these albums were easier to get over here…)

Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls (George Gershwin, 1993)

Highlights: Rhapsody in Blue, Novelette in Fourths, So Am I, Sweet and Lowdown (but again, they’re all good)

This compilation was released in 1993, but the recordings on it with one exception were produced over the years 1916 to 1927 (come to think of it, this might have been a weird choice coming off of Everywhere considering it’s from around the same period as a lot of the music that samples, but it worked for me so whatever.) George Gershwin is most famous for his work on classic musicals with his brother, the lyricist Ira Gershwin, producing a lot of standards like “Summertime” that went on to be covered by ten billion future artists. However, these pieces are not typical musical numbers but rather solo piano pieces, some of which are versions of songs better known in their musical form.

There’s another reason these recordings stand out: some of them are written for four hands, not just two. And aside from a later recording of “An American in Paris”, every piano part on the album is played by Gershwin himself, or at least by his piano. The piano roll was a long sheet of perforated paper run through a player piano, which would automatically play back the track by reading the paper. Gershwin took advantage of this automation by writing another pair of hands into some of these tracks, creating a sound that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get at the time without having to coordinate two pianists at once.

This old technology is interesting, but it’s not really why I like this album. Gershwin was a master composer, a fact that I think is made even more obvious when his music is presented in this form. My favorite has always been the epic-length “Rhapsody in Blue”, which is probably known better in its full orchestral form (aka the United Airlines theme that the airline played on its commercials in the 90s.) Most of the pieces are pretty short and concise, though, and those are great as well.

Dream in the Street (Noriyo Ikeda, 1980)

Highlights: Dream in the Street, Adios, 愛のかけら (Ai no kakera)

And finally, let’s check out some city pop. I love a lot of what I’ve heard out of this genre — it’s another thing the internet went weirdly crazy over with Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” blowing up again decades after it was first released, but I totally get the appeal.

Dream in the Street is in that city pop category, but it also has some Latin jazz mixed in with tracks like “Adios”. “愛のかけら” is a nice slow song that has a bit of a bossa nova feel, which is even better. And then there’s my favorite, the title track, an extremely catchy single written by Tatsuro Yamashita, the “Ride on Time” guy (speaking of, if any fellow shrimps are reading, here’s a great request for Gura’s next karaoke stream.)

This was apparently Noriyo Ikeda’s only album, which is too bad, because it’s a really nice one. Makes me nostalgic for the days when I was a guy living in Tokyo in the early 80s. Or maybe I’ve just been playing too much Yakuza 0 lately.

Now for the featured articles:

22/7 (Raven の Nest) — There are a whole lot of anime series out there to discover, and reading Raven の Nest is a good way to find some new ones. I’d never heard of 22/7, but it sounds interesting — a story about idols with a bizarre twist ending? Right up my alley.

2021 Nintendo Anniversary Challenge (Gaming Omnivore) — Unlike me, Gaming Omnivore is someone who cares about setting real goals, and this is one I can appreciate: in honor of the many major series anniversaries Nintendo has coming up this year, Omnivore plans to play at least one entry from the Donkey Kong, Zelda, Metroid, and Pokémon series each. I’ll be following, and so should you!

I Might Be A Real Blogger, Also Let me Tell You About an Anime Art Exhibition (I drink and watch anime) — Certainly no one would dispute that Irina is a real blogger, but she did write about an anime art exhibition, specifically of a showing of beautiful work by Studio 4°C. I miss going to exhibitions like this since the virus exploded — there’s something about the different kinds of atmospheres they set up. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m still very much in lockdown in one of the most virus-infested states in the union but if you’re able, this is something to check out.

Pokémon Glazed – ROM Hack Showcase (Nepiki Gaming) — There should really be more reviews of ROM hacks out there. Yeah, I’m saying this even though I’ve never done any, so I shouldn’t talk. However, if that is something you’re interested in, be sure to follow Nepiki, who here takes on the Pokémon Glazed ROM hack.

PS4 LE Unboxing: Persona 5 Royal Phantom Thieves Edition (CK’s Blog (or second site) — I can appreciate these kinds of unboxing posts sometimes. I got the steelcase version of Persona 5 Royal, but I was too cheap to go for the Limited Edition — CK here shows us what you get if you do buy it. I like those mini-artbooks and mini-soundtracks that come with some deluxe game packages, even if they’re really no substitute for the full versions you have to buy separately.

Gushing about Bastion (Lost to the Aether) — Aether does just this in this post, forcing me to remember that I own this game in my Steam library and that I should probably actually play it one day, because he makes it sound like a great experience.

You Should Play: Carto (Frostilyte Writes) — And another post that turned me on to a game I think I may like: Carto, a map-based sort of adventure puzzle-looking game. I have a weird obsession with old maps in real life, so this sounds like my kind of thing.

The Power of Two: Tatsuhiro and Misaki (The Overage Otaku) — Welcome to the NHK! is one of the most insightful anime series out there, well worth watching for just about anyone. The Overage Otaku has some excellent analytical posts on the series, including this new piece on the weird, complex relationship between its two leads.

Reel Life #30: A Simple Plan, The 39 Steps, and Fail Safe (Extra Life) — Red Metal has brought back an old feature with “Reel Life”, a post series in which he gives short looks at some interesting films. I definitely need to watch Fail Safe.

5th Blogiversary Week: Politics in a Creator’s Works (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — The role of politics in art has always been a hot issue. The same is true for anime in particular — just get on Twitter (or again, better yet, don’t) and see how pissed off people get about the subject. Scott raises a few excellent points on the subject in this post.

St. Pius V Corner: In Defense Of The Anime Avi (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — Not the first time I’ve featured a post here on the subject, but it is one that’s personal to me. Traditional Catholic Weeb gives his own perspective on the matter, and though I’m in no position to address the religious aspect of his argument, I think he does make some great points (and I agree with the conclusions he makes about the use of anime avatars on social media platforms, so you know, that helps.) Again, it would be great if “lol you have an anime avatar” weren’t considered a solid argument by so many people online, including prominent figures (blue checkmarks on Twitter, etc.) but unfortunately that’s not the world we live in.

Writing Prompt: Is it strange to not rate based on enjoyment at all? (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — Yomu brings up some great points about the role of enjoyment in rating anime. It made me think about my approach here as well, especially since I recently reviewed a work positively that was also a bit painful to get through (but I’d say I enjoyed it from some kind of weird psychological perspective even so — see, it gets complicated, doesn’t it?)

Waifu Wednesday: Ayesha Altugle (MoeGamer) — And finally, Pete over at MoeGamer takes a look at another great female protagonist (there’s no shortage of them, despite what you might think! You just have to be looking in the right places.) Ayesha, the lead of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk, helps set a very different tone from the previous bright, cheery Atelier Arland series. I’ve recently started playing this, and I’m a fan of hers already. Though I also like Marion Quinn a lot so far. There’s something about a cute girl in sharp business attire. Yeah, might just be something I’m into. Okay, I’ll stop, sorry.

And that’s another month. Everyone is hoping this new year isn’t bullshit like the previous one was. I wouldn’t mind continuing to be inside — forever if possible (I still have some of those NHK Tatsuhiro tendencies; that series hit a little too close to home for me) but I’m hoping the same. Work continues to pile up, but I look forward to getting out a few hopefully interesting posts this coming month. I did just get a massive haul of artbooks and music recently, so maybe I’ll have a look at some of that as well. Until then, all the best, and thanks for reading.

A review of Everywhere at the End of Time (Stages 1 – 6)

Disclaimer: this post deals with dementia. If you know anything about the work I’m taking on in this post, this will come as no surprise, but fair warning: please skip if you don’t feel like reading about such a depressing subject. My next post will be a lot lighter in tone. It’s hard to imagine how it could be any heavier than what’s coming up, anyway.

Today’s subject might seem like it’s pretty far outside the scope of what I usually write about here. But listening to the six-album project Everywhere at the End of Time raised some points that I found interesting and that connect back to some I’ve written about here. Since getting so popular online, it’s also become a “big internet thing” or whatever you’d call it (though that didn’t seem to be the intention of the artist at all) and I have an interest in those as well. Finally, writing about this work is also a way for me to try to “unstick” the experience I had with it a bit, because it has stuck with me, and that’s not entirely a pleasant thing.

The cover of Stage 1

But it might sound like I’m being unnecessarily dramatic here, so I’ll explain. Some months back, I started seeing a thumbnail on YouTube in my recommended list of videos come up again and again: a painting of something that looks like a rolled-up newspaper without any print standing on its side. The attached video was also six and a half hours long. After seeing it so many times, I finally gave in to my curiosity and clicked the link and heard track A1: It’s just a burning memory, and then thought “okay it’s some kind of reverbed old-timey ballroom music; that’s fine, but I don’t need to listen to that for six damn hours.”

Of course, I was wrong: that’s how this project starts, but that’s not nearly all it is. After reading more about it recently, I got interested and decided to try to listen to the whole thing. Everywhere at the End of Time is a set of six albums by British artist Leyland Kirby, going by the name “The Caretaker” for the purpose of this project. This series of albums, ordered in stages from 1 to 6 and released from 2016 to 2019, is meant to depict the slow mental and emotional decline experienced by a dementia/Alzheimer’s patient.

Not exactly a light listen, not something you can just throw on while making dinner or cleaning the house, and despite its length it’s definitely not something to listen to on a road trip. This album series is an ordeal to get through and maybe not something you’d want to subject yourself to in one sitting assuming you had the time to do it. You might not even want to subject yourself to it at all.

Stage 1 might trick a listener going in without prior knowledge like it did me, because it’s deceptively easy listening, without much of a hint as to what’s coming next — it really is just a set of old ballroom music with some reverb and crackling as if it’s being played on a gramophone. But that seems to be by design, because Stage 1 is about the aged subject of the album remembering their young days and not yet realizing that they’re entering the early stages of dementia. Stage 2 sees an increase in the crackling and reverb, and the songs themselves start to become distorted, stretching out, slowing down, and suddenly cutting off or flowing into the next track without warning. At this point, the subject of the work seems to realize what’s going on and is trying to hold onto their memories, but when Stage 3 hits, it’s obvious that those memories are fading and becoming more confused. The music is still recognizable, but it’s starting to distort badly and get buried under noise.

Stage 4 represents a shift into the “post-awareness” stages of consciousness, and the music reflects that — the protagonist is now completely confused and can’t recall much of anything clearly. The last three stages take up most of the play time of this project, lasting about an hour and a half each, and they consist of a lot of noise, droning sounds with recognizable music occasionally fighting its way to the forefront but quickly getting drowned out again and disappearing. It feels in parts of the fourth and fifth stages like the catchy big band songs and ballads from Stage 1 have been stretched and distorted until they’re just a mess of random horn, string, and piano notes, as if they’re still in the patient’s mind somewhere but can’t be recalled in a coherent way anymore.

Thankfully, there’s a resolution to all this. The final stage is more peaceful — not exactly pleasant, but it’s a nice break from the nightmarish mess of the preceding two stages. And then there’s the ending, which I won’t give away except to say that it does put a cap on the whole thing in a satisfying way.

The cover of Stage 5. I see a lady in a fancy old-fashioned dress on a flight of stairs, but who knows what this might be.

So why would I listen to this thing all the way through? That’s something I asked myself before and even after I did it. There were a few things about Everywhere at the End of Time that really interested me. One was the artwork attached to each of the albums. All the covers are paintings by artist Ivan Seal, who worked closely with Kirby on the project. I’m not the hugest fan of abstract painting in general, but I really like Seal’s work. He depicts a lot of strange-looking objects that almost look like things that might exist in the real world but are unidentifiable, and I enjoy that kind of mind-trick stuff, especially when it’s not trying to just get by on shock value. Each of his covers also feels like it suits the mood of the corresponding album well.

And then there’s the effect this music has apparently had on a lot of listeners. Despite being a six-hour-plus piece of experimental music, something you’d think wouldn’t be all that popular, Everywhere at the End of Time blew up online — the artist himself posted the whole thing on YouTube, and it has over six million views as of this writing. Before diving in, I read accounts from people who claimed this album made them break down crying, that it followed them into their dreams, and that it even changed their outlook on life as a whole, making them appreciate it more, or driving them into existential despair and depression.

I tend to be pretty skeptical about claims like this. I don’t doubt that art can make people feel strong emotions, but “life-changing” is a tall order. It was enough to get me to listen, though, just to see how much there was to this thing. The worst that could happen would be that I wouldn’t care for it, and as for the depression — I’m already depressed! What more can this to do me?

Reviewing something like this is a bit difficult, but I’ll just give my opinion here: Everywhere at the End of Time didn’t change my life, but it was interesting. First, it’s obvious that a lot of work was put into it. It’s easy to be dismissive of abstract art, especially when it feels too abstract to really grab onto and get any feeling out of. These albums, however, were understandable — Kirby himself wrote the descriptions for each stage along with what he intended to express in them, all of which can be read in the text under the video, and his ideas are expressed very clearly in his music with its gradual degradation and decline from music into pure noise.

However, even though he’s very straightforward about what this work is meant to represent, he’s still able to express his ideas in subtle ways. To me the most interesting parts of the work are the first three stages, before the subject has totally lost himself to dementia and still has some memory. Kirby uses a few specific themes that come up a few times throughout these stages, but in successively degraded states. The most obvious and memorable of these themes is the opening “It’s just a burning memory”, based on the 1930s big band love song Heartaches. This song gets reprised a few times up until it’s nearly unrecognizable at the end of Stage 3, where it’s heavily distorted and stopping and starting again, as if the subject is trying desperately to remember their old favorite song but failing.

The decline isn’t a constant slope down, either; there are a few ups as on “Last moments of pure recall” on Stage 2, which as the title suggests is a return to the relative clarity of Stage 1. But things quickly take a turn for the worse after that track. Even on the fairly normal Stage 1, there are signs that all isn’t well — the fifth track “Slightly bewildered” is a kind of muffled, unassuming piano loop that passed me by at first, but looking back, it seems to suggest some early confusion both in the title and the music itself.

The final three stages are interesting in a conceptual way, but they make for very rough listening, especially Stage 4 and 5, which make up three hours and nearly half the length of the entire project. The musical ideas from the first three stages are still there in bits and pieces, but they’re very brief and disjointed when they do appear, suggesting that they’re still floating around but that the patient has perhaps stopped trying to remember them at all. These two albums are supposed to depict the confusion and fear experienced by the dementia patient after losing their coherent memories, with 20 minute-long tracks bearing titles like “Post-Awareness Confusions” and “Advanced plaque entanglements”. I guess they’re effective at that, because both albums were extremely unpleasant and even disturbing in parts. Stage 6 is a welcome change to more of a peaceful sound, even if the traditional music is still almost entirely gone, but that seems to represent the patient’s slip into their final period of life towards death.

The cover to Stage 6. You can probably elicit some emotion from a few people just by showing them this image based on what I’ve seen.

Reading comments under the full project on YouTube, some people have said that they connect strongly with these albums, especially those who have family members and friends suffering from dementia. Even dementia-sufferers have commented that Everywhere at the End of Time is an accurate depiction of what it’s like to have the disease — stretch each stage out from a number of hours to a number of years. It makes a lot of sense to me that some listeners might have broken down while listening for this reason. It’s a reminder of what can happen to the brain, taking away the personality and everything that makes it and leaving a shell of a person behind.

It might also explain why I didn’t break down or have my attitude towards life changed by these albums. Because I can’t connect with it on such a personal level: the closest I’ve experienced to this was near the death of my grandmother, who thankfully only had some mental confusion very shortly before she went, and then she only seemed to be living back in the past, mistaking me for one of her long-gone brothers and my mother for one of her aunts, things like that. I think a lot of people have such stories. If you have a much more personal and bitter experience with dementia, though, this work might really shake you.

If you don’t want to listen to Everywhere at the End of Time, I totally understand that. It’s very interesting, a piece of abstract art that comes off as thoughtful and well-made. It’s also a hard listen. After finishing it, I thought back to a post I wrote last year taking on arguments being made by some critics that a game that’s not fun to play and puts the player through an intentionally miserable time (specifically The Last of Us Part II) can make for a more meaningful experience somehow than a game that is fun. I stand by everything I wrote then, but I do think Everywhere at the End of Time is the kind of depressing, hard-going artistic work that gets it right. It’s thoughtfully produced, subtle, and has proper respect for its subject matter.

Here on the site, I’ve written about games that I feel also successfully take that approach. Saya no Uta, like Everywhere, is intentionally ugly in parts and can be hard to get through for that reason, but it also uses those elements to address ideas about mental health by getting into the mindset of someone suffering from severe delusions. You can make the same case for the early Silent Hill games. These are rightly regarded as classics, even though they’re not entirely fun experiences.

And as with those games, I can’t give a massive, “everyone should hear this” sort of recommendation to Everywhere at the End of Time. You might argue that you can just as easily get down the experience of feeling pain by slamming your hand in a car door or something, and why the hell would you do that — and I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that way. Listening to Stage 5 does feel like the aural equivalent of doing that for 90 minutes. But it’s probably not possible to express the idea of dementia through music without this kind of pain, so if you don’t want to hear it, better just avoid it.

As for me… I was very impressed by this work, it did make me feel something (even if I didn’t break down and cry at it), and I’m probably never going to listen to it again. That shouldn’t be taken as a negative judgment, of course — it probably speaks more to just how effective it was at achieving what it set out to do.

Seven things that remind me of my childhood

What is it about nostalgia that’s so popular? It seems like it’s always been a thing to look back fondly on certain aspects of the past. You can probably go back to ancient Sumeria, assuming you have the means, and find people talking about how great the 2230s BC were and how kids these days just can’t appreciate the songs from back then. Nostalgia is also part of why I write on this site — not the entire reason or even close to it, but sometimes I do dig back into my own past to get some ideas about what next to watch/read/play/listen to, though, and on occasion a new game or anime series will even make me remember some long-forgotten piece of that past.

Just as a break from the usual, and because I don’t have my next posts prepared anyway, I’ll write about some things that give me those nostalgic feelings. Starting with…

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

That’s how old I am now, yeah. I don’t hate the 3D games or newer games in general like some people do, but to me the Genesis/Megadrive Sonic titles will always be the best (and Sonic Mania is up there as well, though a lot of that might have to do with how much of the spirit of those games it captures.) In particular, Sonic 2 brings me back to my days as a babby gamer — one of my first game-related memories is playing as the invincible 2-player mode Tails running behind my older cousin, who always insisted on playing as Sonic, and helping him beat Dr. Robotnik.

I guess that’s not the Floating Island in the background, is it? Just some other island. This used to confuse me as a kid, since Sonic 3 & Knuckles also had an island setting.

The music also has a lot to do with those feelings. I think this is really the first game BGM that was burned into my brain. I’ve written about a bit of musician and composer Masato Nakamura’s work on the first two Sonic games here before, but it’s worth revisiting for how damn catchy and good it all is. I also love the soundtracks to the following Sonic CD, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles, but I think Sonic 2 will always be the standout for me in terms of music, even if I have to give the best game award to the combined S3&K (my favorite platformer period, even more of a favorite than any of the Mario games from the same period, though I love those as well.)

OutRun

This wasn’t by design, but it seems now like a lot of the games I write about fall under the Sega umbrella. That became especially true after Index Corporation dissolved, causing a bit of a freakout among fans until Sega bought Atlus, creating a new subsidiary also called Index Corporation that also became the parent corporation of Atlus and then was renamed Atlus itself and merged into that company (or something like that.) So now all my MegaTen stuff on the site is technically Sega-related as well.

OutRun is another Sega game I remember playing in my faraway distant childhood. This racing game originally came to arcades in 1986, but it had a very long life and was still popular by the time I came around and got coordinated enough to understand and play a game like this. I was lousy at it and I still am, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have nice memories of it that take me back to the early/mid-90s. Once again, the music is a big part of this nostalgia trip — the original BGM is very short, consisting of just three main racing themes and a short high score screen theme that you can’t hear all the way through during normal play because of the 30-second “insert your initials” timer. But I’m not alone apparently, because for a while there’s been a whole subgenre of music called “Outrun” that seems to take a lot from 80s electronic, creating a kind of retro-futuristic sound. A bit like future funk, which I really like.

Playing OutRun in Yakuza 0 has only reminded me how fucking bad I am at it.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

It’s been a long time since I actually watched Evangelion, but I still have fond memories of it as the first anime series I ever watched in a serious way. This might be hard to believe, but before this show, I really wasn’t into anime at all. Admittedly, I was way too young back in 1998, when I watched Eva through 100% totally perfectly legal means and not in Winamp in 360p, to get all the themes Hideaki Anno probably meant me to get. Back then I really just liked the style, the massive robot fights, and the weird religious symbolism. Eva also introduced me to my first fictional sort-of crush in Captain Misato Katsuragi, years before “waifu” became an English-to-Japanese-back-to-English loanword.

Classic waifu. I miss that 90s anime look sometimes too.

Winamp

Yeah, speaking of Winamp, that reminds me of my childhood too. It’s still the best Windows media player program in my opinion, even if it has been dead for several years now. Remember all those skins?

The Beatles Past Masters Vol. 1

Now all right, I’m not so old that the Beatles are from my childhood. But I did grow up hearing a lot of them as a kid in the 90s, because they did come from my mother’s childhood, and she played the hell out of the above compilation. Later on I got into the Beatles’ more artsy out there stuff starting from the 1965 album Rubber Soul on, but as a kid I knew them from their early poppy stuff, which is exactly what Past Masters Vol. 1 contained. And the songs are still really good, even if they don’t have that weird edge. Nothing wrong with some good pop music like A Hard Day’s Night, even if I’ve heard it so many times I never need to hear it again in my life.

Unfortunately, it didn’t contain any of that later stuff, not even the 1965 ones before they really went artsy like Paperback Writer (a great song with a very dumb nonsensical story in the lyrics, but still fun) or Drive My Car (also the theme to the local news morning traffic report, specifically the “beep beep, beep beep, yeah” part. I don’t even know why I remember that. More nostalgia at work I guess.) Still really good, though.

Churros

Moving into the realm of food now, something I almost never write about here, but taste after all figures a lot into nostalgia and childhood memories, at least from what I understand. Churros originated in Spain and from there went off to Latin America and then up here to the States. As a kid, though, I didn’t know this history — I only knew them as those fried dough sticks with sugar on them that we got at the state fair I went to every year. Along with corn dogs, churros are one of my old, very unhealthy childhood favorites for just that reason. They are excellent, and I regret that I haven’t had one in years now.

Source: Licensed under CC BY 2.0, by Jude Adamson, a guy who took a photo of this churro in something called Catalan cream alongside a dessert wine. Not how I consumed it as a kid, but it does look good.

Open fields/plains

Here’s a strange one. I grew up in the suburbs, but on the very edge of them — outside the development I lived in, there was a whole lot of nothing stretching for miles, so far you could see mountains on the horizon. Since leaving that place as a kid, I’ve almost always lived in large cities, so maybe seeing an open plain like that just reminds me of the stark difference between that part of my childhood and becoming a teenager and ultimately an adult. But it might also have to do with this liminal space concept I found out about a while back, in which depictions of places you’ve never even been are supposed to remind you of distant memories or something. Obviously I don’t understand it very well, but it seems interesting. This YouTube guy made a comprehensive video about the concept. (His video on the bizarre complications of creating a real-life anime girl is also quite something, though I do disagree with him about what he sees as the more negative aspects of escapism through future technology. Still interesting, though!)

I don’t look back too often to my childhood in general — it was fine, I can’t complain about any of it; it’s just something that happened, and while being an adult has its own challenges, I can’t say I’d want to go back and relive the 90s or anything. But it’s still nice to reminisce sometimes. Now that I have it out of my system, though, I’ll go back to trying to make high-effort posts instead that take actual planning and work. Unless you want a line-by-line breakdown about why the story to “Paperback Writer” makes no sense at all, and nobody wants that. So what are you nostalgic for? Please leave a comment and join in if you feel like it.

A review of Blue Reflection (PS4)

Here’s a post that’s been a long time coming. From the very back of my backlog, or at least the backlog I’m actively keeping track of, comes Blue Reflection, a JRPG developed by Gust and released in 2017. Gust is principally known for the extremely long-running Atelier series (see Rorona and Meruru and a bunch of others) but Blue Reflection was something very different — instead of the fantasy Renaissance European cities and towns we’re used to from that series, we get a modern Japanese high school setting, and instead of an alchemist for our protagonist, we get a magical girl. This game was created under the supervision of Mel Kishida, the character designer and artist who also worked on Gust’s Atelier Arland games, and apparently he really wanted to make a magical girl game.

And that’s just what Blue Reflection is. If you’re looking for a game that fulfills the requirements “turn-based JRPG” and “has magical girls” this is probably the title that will come up first. You likely won’t be disappointed with the result either, at least as long as you’re in that very specific demographic. Blue Reflection does feel like it has niche appeal, which might partly explain the mixed reviews and generally cold reception it seems to have gotten here in the US outside of the hardcore Gust fan circle; I don’t even see it brought up much among JRPG fans in general. Which is really too bad — it does have flaws, but I found Blue Reflection a unique and interesting game. At the very least, you can’t say it’s like any other game out there (barring some possible Japan-only games I’ve never gotten to play before.)

I’ll get into all that in depth below, however. And all without getting into plot/character spoilers beyond the basic story setup, so don’t worry about those this time around.

Japanese high school is no joke

This is our protagonist, Hinako Shirai. Before starting high school, Hinako had a promising future as a ballerina, but a leg injury has forced her to put those dreams on hold. Blue Reflection begins during her first year at the prestigious Hoshinomiya High School, a small all-girls school divided into special classes for those pursuing careers in the arts and sports and regular classes for everyone else. Now stuck in the regular class thanks to her injury, Hinako is understandably depressed about her situation.

Then she meets an unusual pair in her class, the twins Yuzuki and Raimu Shijou, or simply Yuzu and Lime. These two quickly befriend Hinako, and after hearing her story they decide to offer her a special gift: the power of the Reflector. Reflectors have the ability to enter the Common, a weird metaphysical mindscape full of demons that represent and are empowered by human emotions. When these emotions get out of control, the demons start to act up, and Hoshinomiya just happens to be on some kind of emotional fault line that’s causing its students to become especially distraught and wild. As a Reflector, Hinako will have the responsibility along with Yuzu and Lime to fight and subdue these demons, and by doing so they can help resolve their classmates’ emotional distress.

Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime in the only nice-looking section of the Common; the rest are pretty fucked up

And yeah, Reflectors are magical girls, complete with those transformation sequences you’ll know if you’ve watched any magical girl show ever made. Blue Reflection also features massive, monstrous bosses to battle in the form of the Sephira, who are trying to use all this emotional chaos to take over the world. So just like a proper magical girl, Hinako is now basically going to be tasked with saving humanity along with her new friends, assuming of course that she accepts the twins’ offer.

Hinako does accept, partly because Yuzu and Lime tell her by defeating the Sephira she’ll be able to gain a wish. For Hinako, this wish is obvious — in her current state, there’s no guarantee that she’ll ever be able to dance again, so she reasons that this is a sure way to heal her leg and get back on stage.

Hinako at home reflecting on her situation (get it?! …yeah, sorry.)

The game proceeds along this path, with Hinako spending her days at school studying, making new friends, and fighting shadow monsters using her magical girl powers. The story is broken into chapters, each of which starts out with some major event usually leading to a big boss fight, and then to a block the game calls “Free Time” in which you’re free to run around school talking to fellow students, solving their issues by fighting demons in the Common alongside Yuzu and Lime. Most of these chapters are also broken up by side character stories resulting in a new classmate for Hinako and co. to befriend.

This social element is only part of the game, however. Blue Reflection is still a turn-based JRPG and features plenty of fighting, mostly in the dreamlike world of the Common. Thankfully, this isn’t the plainest turn-based combat system around: Blue Reflection relies heavily on timing and using skills to slow down and knock back enemies. Hinako, Yuzu, and Lime also draw power from a common pool of “Ether” that they can charge up while fighting. Collecting enough Ether unlocks the massively powerful Overdrive ability, which allows the use of multiple skills in a single turn at reduced MP use rates.

The frilly dress is cool and all, but I wish I didn’t have to fight these weird deer monsters

Luckily for Hinako, the power of friendship isn’t just a metaphor for the happiness and fulfillment she gains from the confidants she makes throughout the game. It is that, sure, but it also adds to the magical girl trio’s actual strength in battle by manifesting as “Fragments” formed from said emotions that give various bonuses when equipped to skills. To that end, and also because it’s a good way to break up all the fighting, the player will spend most of the time they’re not fighting with their schoolmates, having lunch, playing sports, and going out to various spots in town to raise Hinako’s affection points.

Some of her friends are pretty damn weird, but they mean well. And despite the implications of the term “affection points”, no, there’s no dating in this game. Sorry if you’re a yuri fan; you’ll have to look elsewhere for that.

Now I might guess what some readers are thinking — isn’t this familiar? Isn’t there another series of games that are turn-based JRPG dungeon crawler/social sim hybrids and that use the protagonist’s links with their friends to support them in battle? Yeah, this game drew a lot of comparisons to the Persona series when it was released from what I remember. That it came out only months after the big hit Persona 5, which was still very much talked about at the time, probably contributed to those comparisons.

The Persona comparisons might have also led to some disappointment, because aside from their superficial similarities, Blue Reflection doesn’t feel at all like a Persona game. To its credit, it also doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a pale imitation of Persona but rather to do its own thing entirely. Unlike Persona, which builds fairly realistic worlds full of people both in and outside the school setting to interact with, Blue Reflection concerns itself exclusively with Hinako and her classmates, ignoring almost everything else around them. Hoshinomiya High School is all filled out with students hanging around in classrooms, club rooms, the library, sports field, and courtyards, but the only points outside of school featured are the various hangout spots Hinako can visit with her friends and Hinako’s own room, where she prepares for her next day of school and goes to sleep. Though it’s implied that they are around, we never see any adults — not even a single teacher is seen at school, where almost every scene takes place after classes are out.

Hinako helping one of her generic non-story classmates through her existential crisis on the school roof. As you can see, there’s this whole town down there, but you never get to interact with anyone in it.

Moreover, unlike the calendars that the modern Persona games strictly follow, Blue Reflection doesn’t keep track of how many days you spend in free time hanging out with friends, going home, and returning to school. Unless it’s a lunch or school activity event, every one of these sends Hinako home when they’re finished, but the game doesn’t seem to mind if you spend a month or two during a chapter of free time (though I don’t think I ever got that far myself, just projecting based on what I did with Hinako’s schedule.) Eventually you’ll run out of events to watch in a given period anyway and will probably want to move on at that point by reporting your progress to Yuzu and Lime, but this quality gives Blue Reflection almost a strange Groundhog Day sort of feel even if that’s not what’s actually going on.

Another field in the Common, with enemies stalking around in the background.

However, it seems to me like that’s what the creators were going for. This might be a stretch, since I have no idea what their intentions actually were, but Blue Reflection has a dreamlike feel to me — everything from the weirdly sparse real world outside of the school to the surreal areas of the Common you have to visit to fight demons adds to that feel. Whether or not that was how they intended players to feel, Blue Reflection is clearly not trying to be a sort of budget Persona or anything like that. It’s too different in tone for me to get that impression.

The art and music in the game both contribute to that dreamlike feel as well. Mel Kishida seems to have had a huge influence on Blue Reflection as the supervisor, and a lot of the game feels like a showcase for his character and monster designs and his settings, which contrast strongly with each other in a way that I think works. The soundtrack by Hayato Asano, full of relaxing piano-based pieces and driving battle themes, is also excellent and enhances this feel. Even if you have no interest in this sort of game, I recommend at least checking out the OST.

If Yuzu and Lime’s constant social life management wears you out, at least you have nice music to listen to while you try to meet their demands before the story can progress.

I did bring up flaws at the top of this post, though, because Blue Reflection has some pretty glaring ones. The biggest issue I had with the game was its pacing, especially with a couple of seemingly major story beats that came up near the end and then resolved themselves so quickly they may as well not have happened. It’s strange to say, given how lenient the game is about letting Hinako take time out to hang around with her friends in between giant otherworldly monster attacks, but the story seemed very compressed by the end for this reason. These left me with a few gaps in characters’ judgments and reasonings, specifically in Hinako’s, that I think weren’t explained very well.

The game is also pretty damn easy. HP and MP are replenished after each encounter, so there’s no reason not to go all out in every fight you get into in the Common. After unlocking more advanced offensive skills, I was able to clean up most fights in the game with one massive all-enemy attack from Yuzu. And once you master the use of knockback skills, Ether collection, and Overdrive in battle, even end-game bosses become complete jokes. Hinako’s magical sword is the most powerful weapon in the world apparently. If she got to use it in the real world or while not fighting Sephira, she could probably take over the world herself (not that she’d really want to, though there is one character she’d definitely have to hide it from. If you’ve played Blue Reflection, you might know who I’m talking about.)

Hinako about to destroy another giant horrific world-eating monster

Finally, it generally feels like there was some untapped potential to expand the story and explore some of its characters and themes more deeply. Maybe there were budget or timeline issues in the game’s development. The translation is a bit sloppy with some typos left in the script, but that’s a localization problem, and Blue Reflection came out in North America six months after its Japanese release, so that doesn’t seem like it would indicate anything about the game being rushed out. So maybe there were no development issues and this game turned out exactly as the creators intended, though in that case I wish they’d added a bit more to the story and character interactions.

Even with these flaws, however, I liked Blue Reflection. The dreamlike, unreal nature of the whole experience was a positive in my mind. I thought it suited the story the game was telling, and it also set it apart from the other modern real-world setting JRPGs I’ve played. I haven’t seen much magical girl stuff really, so I don’t know if the story of Blue Reflection would be played out to someone who’s deep into that genre, but I also liked that the story dealt with themes of friendship that weren’t trite but actually dealt with loss of identity and sacrifice in a way that more or less worked.

Hey, I can read some of this finally. Not all, though. Thanks for reminding me I need to get back to my kanji studies, blackboard.

I get the feeling this is a highly personal sort of work. If you can’t get enveloped in the world and the atmosphere the game creates, or you’re just not into the style or look of it, you might just be bored and frustrated by it. I can understand why many players would feel that way about it, but I’m happy that I finally got around to playing Blue Reflection. There have been rumors of a sequel around for a few years now, and I hope if that happens that we get something even better, more polished and fully fleshed out.

The Second Annual EIBFY Game Awards!

Yeah, I said I’d do it again, didn’t it? Screw those “official” Game Awards. I’ve got something better: a collection of my own awards based on total nonsense categories and accompanied by no physical trophies and no prestige whatsoever. Who wouldn’t want that instead?

As before, I’ll be considering games I played this year, not games that were released this year, because that would be a very small pool of games. And I don’t keep up with the times anyway, so it wouldn’t be right for me to even try something like that. Enough talk now; let’s start the show.

***

Best free game (that also comes with a harem)

Winner: Helltaker

I’m pretty cheap usually, unless I’m out eating with friends and don’t want to look like a stingy asshole. What with COVID, that hasn’t happened since last March, though, so I’ve been holding onto my money — but it’s still nice to find a good game that doesn’t cost anything to play. Helltaker is just that: a pretty simple block-moving puzzle game that wouldn’t be all that remarkable but for its cast of cute demon girls plus one angel who somehow managed to wander into Hell. All these ladies join up with the protagonist, who’s breaking into the underworld specifically for the purpose of building a harem of supernaturally powerful women all of whom can easily kill him if they really want to. That’s an interesting choice, and I have to respect it.

Sure it’s depicted as a set of cute triplets in Helltaker, but remember, Cerberus is still the guard of the gate of Hades. Not one to be trifled with.

Helltaker itself is fairly short and simple, but I think there’s a lot of potential in these kinds of characters with something like a visual novel if creator Łukasz Piskorz were inclined to make one. I also love the game’s unique art style. Here’s hoping we see more!

***

Best nightlife

Winner: Yakuza 0

A while back, I decided to settle down in my personal habits and my life in general, quitting all that boozing and street fighting I was doing. You know how it is — fast living catches up with you. But I still feel nostalgic for those days sometimes, so I’m happy that I have a chance to relive them by playing Yakuza 0. This is a game I’ve barely scratched the surface of as of this writing, but I did start it in 2020, so I say it counts. Especially for the purposes of this category, since no other game in my list comes close to recreating anything like Tokyo’s Kamurocho or Osaka’s Sotenbori, commercial and red light districts that are based on real-life neighborhoods in those cities. This is my first Yakuza game, and also the first that allows me to get in a fight instigated by hooligans who don’t know any better, beat money out of them, and spend that money on a meal to replenish any health I lost.

Pretty sure this guy is advertising okonomiyaki. I could go for that right now.

Honorable mention goes to Persona 5 Royal, which I also haven’t finished somehow, but that has already provided a pretty nice experience of life in Tokyo, recreating several of the city’s districts. However, the nightlife just isn’t the same. You play as a high school student in that game instead of an adult, so there’s a limit to what the game lets you do. No drunken street-fighting in that one. But it still provides a nice tour of a few prominent wards of Tokyo.

For the purposes of any other possible awards I dream up, though, I’ll reserve final judgment of Persona 5 Royal for next year’s ceremony. I’m not even to the game’s third semester yet. Lazy, I know.

***

Best-looking food

Winner: Atelier Meruru DX

One of the big draws of the Atelier series is the level of detail the games get into about the various items your alchemist protagonist can craft. This isn’t just any old crafting system, either: it’s a central gameplay mechanic, and one that I always find fun to master.

Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland is no different from the other games in the series in that regard. Also like the other Atelier games, and particularly in the Arland sub-series, Meruru has a ton of beautifully illustrated food items to craft. These do have practical uses in restoring health and mana to your characters in battle, but the characters also talk a lot about both crafting and eating food in the game’s many dialogue breaks and cutscenes. Just as in real life, being good at cooking and baking are great ways to make friends, and the same goes for making food magically through alchemy. Serious credit goes to artist Mel Kishida, who I believe was responsible for this artwork along with the game’s character designs and backgrounds.

Mont Blanc is the best dessert right alongside cannoli. The Italians and French know their sweets. If I lived in either of those countries I’d definitely be in lousy shape right now.

This year’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim comes in a close second in this category and therefore gets an honorable mention for also containing a lot of talk about food and nicely illustrated food items that made me hungry while playing. However, 13 Sentinels didn’t feature any Mont Blancs. Crêpes are good too, but Meruru wins for having the better dessert.

***

Best physics

Winner: Wolf Girl With You

I didn’t play a Senran Kagura game this year, so this 2016 h-game gets the coveted Best Physics award instead. I don’t know how much Wolf Girl With You really counts as a game, though. It’s more a series of 3D animations strung together with some short sets of dialogue. But really, that’s close enough in my opinion. It’s just a game about having some private time with your cute werewolf girlfriend, so I don’t think it needed more than that anyway.

Hey, this one also has food in it. And so does Yakuza 0. If I end up gaining weight again anytime soon I’ll have to blame it on all these games.

In any case, creator Seismic deserves all the credit for the physics displayed by his 3D model of Liru from the anime Magical Pokaan. I was already a fan of this wolf girl, but the bounce added a lot to the experience. Though Magical Pokaan itself featured some of that too from what I remember. That outfit Liru’s wearing is her regular one from the show, after all, so you can’t blame the creator of this game for that bikini/shorts look if you don’t like it. (No complaints here, however.)

***

Least amount of time played before eyestrain

Winner: Radical Solitaire

Seriously Vector Hat, change your fucking color scheme. The colors above do change, but they still clash and glare in my eyes in horrible ways. I still like this one, though. Radical Solitaire is an interesting game I found in a huge itch.io bundle last summer that combines Klondike Solitaire (also known as Patience, I think in the UK?) with Breakout. Check it out if you can bear all the neon and the weirdly contrasting dark layout in the main game sections.

***

Best educational game

Winner: The Expression: Amrilato

Every year, I’ll probably give out an award that only one game I played even comes close to qualifying for, and this time it’s best educational game. Arguably the only educational game I played this year was The Expression: Amrilato, a visual novel that centers on a yuri romance plot but also teaches the player the basics of Esperanto. If that sounds like a strange mix, then yeah, it is, but I found it worked pretty well, with the game managing to weave its lesson sections in naturally with the plot as you learn the Esperanto-inspired in-game language Juliamo along with the protagonist Rin. The girl-girl romance stuff is also nice if you’re into yuri — I’m not a dedicated fan of it, but I also have no problem with it and find it a nice break from the usual thing sometimes. (Back in the day we called it “shoujo-ai” over here. Is that different from yuri? I don’t even know. Feel free to educate me in the comments if you do.)

***

Jury Prize

Winner: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I wanted to continue the tradition of not giving a game of the year award that I started last year. However, I found a loophole that still lets me sort of give one without actually giving one: the Jury Prize. The Cannes Film Festival gives these to movies that “embody the spirit of inquiry” according to Wikipedia. I’m not totally sure what that’s supposed to mean, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

So I decided steal the idea of this award from the Cannes people. I convened a jury consisting of myself, held a closed door session by myself in my walk-in closet, and came out with the winner: 13 Sentinels. If any game I played this year embodies the spirit of inquiry or whatever, it’s this one. I posted a review gushing over it a few weeks ago, but here’s the short version: 13 Sentinels is an RTS tower defense/adventure game hybrid with a weird science fiction story and a lot of interesting character developments and plot twists. It was different and it worked, and that’s my favorite kind of game (or favorite kind of artistic work in general really.)

The beautiful art almost goes without saying for a Vanillaware game, but there’s a lot more to 13 Sentinels as well.

I don’t want to spoil anything else here, so I’ll just say this game deserves a lot more recognition than it’s gotten, which I’ve heard is largely the fault of Atlus not marketing the game very well here in the West. Considering their other bungles, that’s entirely believable.

***

Best girl

Winner: Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

Okay, so best “girl” might not be appropriate. Best woman, maybe? Though I know a lot of people will disagree, I feel like the “girl/boy” cutoff is somewhere around one’s early 20s, maybe at 25. And we first meet Esty Erhard at 26 in Atelier Rorona, while working in her role as a knight for the Kingdom of Arland. Esty is a hardworking and capable bureaucrat who helps the protagonist Rorona out in her efforts to keep her alchemy atelier open against the efforts of the government’s chief minister to close it. Even though Esty is part of the government, she and her grim-looking subordinate Sterkenburg Cranach give as much support as they can to Rorona, joining her in the field to beat the shit out of monsters while she collects vital ingredients.

Esty is one of my favorite characters in the Atelier Arland series; she has an admirable no-nonsense attitude but also has a sense of humor. The main reason she gets this award, however, is because she’s one of those characters who’s maligned pretty unfairly. Not by fans, at least as far as I know, but more in-game. Esty is chronically unlucky in love throughout the series. When she returns with Sterk 14 years later in Atelier Meruru, she’s still unmarried despite her efforts to find a match, and she has to deal with some ribbing (mainly from her younger sister Filly) over it. She even became the butt of a rather inelegant joke by the localizers at NIS America who decided to change her last name to “Dee” (yeah really.)

Meruru seen here caught in a tense conversation between sisters.

I haven’t played the newly released fourth Arland game Atelier Lulua, so I don’t know if Esty’s been granted the happy ending she was looking for, but she deserves it. I don’t see why she shouldn’t have it. Maybe the guys in the world of the Arland games are all afraid of a woman who can beat them up. Well, I’m here to say that much like the guy in Helltaker, I have no such fear. I’m all about Esty, and that’s ultimately why she’s getting this award.

***

Congratulations to all the winners! To close this ceremony out, just like last time, I was going to detail some of my plans for the coming year, but I really don’t have much to say about it after my last post aside from “expect more of the same.” Maybe that’s not so exciting, but I hope you’ve liked the posts I’ve put up since reviving the site two years ago, in which case that should be good news.

Either way, I don’t want to post a list of games or anime series I plan to write about here, because I always seem cursed never to actually finish them if I do. So I’ll maintain an air of mystery here. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably be able to guess some of what’s coming up anyway.

Listening/reading log #15 (December 2020)

We’re at the end of the year, finally — now for 2021. Not that changing the year by one number makes that much of a difference in reality, since it’s just another bit of distance of the Earth revolving around the Sun, but maybe there’s a real psychological effect in changing years. We humans made up the calendar, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. So let’s hope for better things this year as we collectively give a middle finger to the last one.

And let’s also do the usual end-of-month thing: talk about some good music and good writing. This month, I’m returning to two bands that I’ve already covered twice before. But these are both really good albums, so it’s excusable I think. The holidays are all about being comfortable anyway, and I’m totally in my comfort zone today. On to the business:

Discipline (King Crimson, 1981)

Highlights: Discipline, Matte Kudasai, Thela Hun Ginjeet

When I wrote about King Crimson’s album Red a while back, I mentioned that the band broke up shortly after it was released and wouldn’t reform for seven years. Discipline is what they came back with, “they” being constant Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, returning jazz/prog drummer Bill Bruford, and two new guys in bassist Tony Levin and guitarist/singer Adrian Belew.

80s Crimson is completely different from 70s Crimson in sound. Instead of the heavy rock, Discipline and the following two studio albums are done in a New Wave style that gets compared to Talking Heads a lot but is more technical and weird in a different way. Adrian Belew is a bit of a neurotic goofball like David Byrne, but I like his brand of strangeness too, and he’s also an excellent guitarist with an interesting experimental edge just like Fripp. Discipline mixes things up with the fierce fast-paced “Thela Hun Ginjeet” and a nice love song in “Matte Kudasai” (aside from love songs never being much of a King Crimson thing in the 60s and 70s, check out the title — “please wait” in Japanese. Were these guys also weebs before it was cool?) “Discipline” is also an insanely precise instrumental that shows off all their talents, with Fripp and Belew’s guitars going off into different key signatures and meeting up again.

I still think Red is the best album Crimson put out, but I also like that the band has changed things up so much throughout their run (well, they’ve changed their lineup a lot too, aside from the mainstay Fripp) and the 80s version of the band made a lot of good music. I also recommend the excellent live album Absent Lovers, which includes some great songs from Discipline and the following albums Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair along with a few old 70s standards like “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part II” and “Red”.

Fragile (Yes, 1972)

Highlights: Roundabout, South Side of the Sky, Heart of the Sunrise

When I said I was in my comfort zone this post I wasn’t kidding. I’ve already written about The Yes Album immediately preceding this and Close to the Edge immediately following it, so I had to write about Fragile too; I couldn’t leave that gap in there. Also, like those albums and Discipline above, Fragile features Bill Bruford on drums, making this his sixth appearance in these short reviews up until now. He really is a great drummer, so he’s deserving of that great honor.

Fragile is also just a really entertaining album. Everyone reading this probably already knows the opener “Roundabout”, either because it’s an old rock radio standard in its shorter edited form or because it was the ending theme to the first season of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and was featured in seventy million of those “to be continued” meme videos. But there are other great epic-length songs on Fragile, including the multi-part ultra-complicated super-proggy piece “Heart of the Sunrise” and my personal favorite “South Side of the Sky”, a driving heavy song about people desperately trying to cross a snowy mountain range with a really nice piano solo in the middle from Rick Wakeman. Unique among these albums, Fragile also features shorter solo-focused pieces for each band member to show off in, which are pretty fun as well.

I recommend Fragile highly together with The Yes Album and Close to the Edge, especially if you have any interest at all in that classic early 70s progressive rock period. Yes made a lot of other good music, especially in the 70s and on the 80s pop standard album 90125, but to me this run of albums contains their best work.

Now that I’m done with my fanboy nonsense, reviewing albums I’ve listened to since I was in high school like a lazy asshole instead of expanding my horizons, let’s move on to the featured articles from around WordPress:

In Memoriam: Adobe Flash (Nepiki Gaming) — Flash has been a big part of many of our lives, especially for anyone who grew up on the internet in the late 90s and through the 2000s and even the 2010s, which I have to imagine covers almost everyone reading this. Nepiki gives a eulogy for the now discontinued program.

The Romance of Space as an Ocean (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — Scott examines how certain science fiction works treat space like a massive ocean and the romantic aspects of that theme. I love space operas as well (watch Legend of the Galactic Heroes, it’s great!) and I can relate to the feelings he expresses here.

Beginner’s guide to indie (2020): part one (Later Levels) — Kim at Later Levels has posted a series on indie games, which as you know I’m all about. There are some interesting-looking titles she brings up I haven’t played either. In the same vein, her review of the indie sort of-visual novel VA-11 Hall-A is worth reading. I loved that game. Still waiting for that “coming soon” semi-sequel though. Maybe we’ll get it this year.

The Traditional Catholic Weeb Speaks: Nichijou Revisited (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — A review of Nichijou, a weird comedy anime series that I vaguely remember from years ago. Traditional Catholic Weeb’s detailed and comprehensive post got me interested in it again, and I might finally get around to watching it now.

Lightning Warrior Raidy (PC/FMTowns/PC-98): A Surprisingly Solid Dungeon Crawler (Detailed Review) (NSFW) (Guardian Acorn) — Annie Gallagher takes on Lightning Warrior Raidy, an old and famous (or maybe infamous?) h-game. Not safe for work as the title suggests, but if you’re not at work and otherwise okay with it, I suggest checking this review out.

My 5 favourite games I watched other people play in 2020 (A Richard Wood Text Adventure) — Ever since the invention of the Let’s Play way back in 2007 or around then, people have been watching other people play video games online. This might seem strange, but some games can be interesting to watch in the context of someone else’s playthrough if their commentary and personality add to the experience (and given how many VTuber game streams I’ve watched in parts lately I certainly can’t say otherwise without being a huge hypocrite.) Wooderon here addresses some of his favorite games to watch others play paired with a few particular streamers.

Looking Back: 2020 Post Mortem (Frostilyte Writes) — This was a shitass year all things considered. I don’t even really have to say that. But thankfully, some of us have been able to do something productive with the crap 2020 gave us. Frostilyte here looks back on his own year and what he got done blogging and gaming-wise. I should also thank him for being one of the people who finally convinced me to start on the Yakuza series, which I recently started at 0, so I’ll do that here. Thanks!

Early Impressions on Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Lost to the Aether) — Speaking of Yakuza, here are Aether’s first impressions of the recently released Yakuza: Like a Dragon, a game that takes the Yakuza setting and feel and combines it with a turn-based RPG mechanic. An interesting combination, but does it work? Aether takes that question on in the above-linked post.

Evangelion Sword Exhibition at Toei Kyoto Studio Park (Resurface to Reality) — I love the idea of an Evangelion-themed exhibit like the one described here at Toei Studio Park in Kyoto. As usual, I regret not being able to visit it myself, but reading about it is interesting.

Who I Want for Roommates or Neighbours in Quarantine (Anime Edition) (A Geeky Gal) — Meg at A Geeky Gal considers the following: which anime characters would you have as roommates during quarantine? A question to be carefully considered since you’ll have been stuck with them for nine months as of this writing.

December 2020 in Summary: Hindsight Is 2020 (Extra Life) — Red Metal’s overview of his last month of blogging. I don’t usually feature end-of-month recaps on other sites like the one I’m writing here right now because that feels a bit weird to me, featuring that kind of post in a similar one like this. But this one contains Red Metal’s takes on some excellent movies like Ben-Hur, The Twilight Samurai, All The President’s Men and others that should be read.

Some of my favourite openings! (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — And Yomu takes the time to write about some openings he likes. I’m a fan of #6 on the list myself.

And that’s it for the year. I’ll get more into my own plans for this year in an upcoming post, but the extra-short version is that I have a ton of games I’m either working through or have lined up in the backlog, so there should be no lack of game-related material in 2021. The same is true for anime, which I’ll keep writing about as well, along with music and the occasional pissed off set of complaints that you’ve come to expect from me. The same goes for my deep reads posts, though the latest one I’ve been working on has been giving me hell. I hope to have it out sometime this month, though.

Until next time, I wish you extreme prosperity, maximum happiness, and whatever else your heart desires this year.