A review of Nekopara Vol. 4

Well my list of reviewed games is all screwed up now. For years, I’ve had a review of something called Nekopara Complete Edition listed, a bundle that included the short visual novels Nekopara Vol. 1 through 3 and the prequel Vol. 0, the story of how one baker and patisserie owner strives to improve his art with the help of his catgirl harem who he’s also training as waitresses and assistant bakers. Truly, Kashou Minaduki is living the dream, having both established a successful French bakery and won the hearts of all six of his family’s catgirls in an exceedingly intimate fashion. Their story seemed to be done.

But back in 2020, series artist and creator Sayori and her independent studio NEKO WORKs put out Nekopara Vol. 4. So where do I put that on my list? Won’t it look stupid sitting under the supposed Complete Edition, now quite incomplete? I’m not sure whether Sayori initially meant to end her visual novel series with that trilogy, but if so she must have later changed her mind, which I can’t blame her for considering its success. Nekopara has even gained some status as a memed upon game for that “catgirl harem” theme. You know your series has made it at that point, so why stop if you have more to say?

Chocola and Vanilla, Nekopara Vol. 4

Once the catgirl train is rolling there’s no stopping it

And Sayori does have more to say, so here’s my review of Nekopara Vol. 4. Spoilers as usual also, because despite their status as horny fiction or whatever people are calling such works on social media now (and which, sure, fair enough in this case) they do have actual stories, and this one especially. Like before, I should note that these games are sold in all-ages versions with the sex scenes removed and full 18+ versions when the sex scene patch is bought and applied.

And also reader discretion is advised, as I’m playing the full 18+ form of Nekopara Vol. 4. Because what kind of review would this be if I didn’t take in the full experience as its creator intended? Even if the sex scenes don’t contribute as much to the plot as certain 18+ VNs, they’re still part of the experience if you choose to have it. So this is all about artistic and reviewer integrity, you see. Of course.

Are there any people around you? Nekopara Vol. 4 NSFW warning screen.

No one was around.

At the start of Nekopara Vol. 4, depending on which version of the VN you’re reading, the player character Kashou is either in La Soleil on a busy morning directing his six-catgirl staff or he’s a couple of hours before that in bed with Chocola and Vanilla, his first two “catpanions” (get used to that one) waking him up in an extremely effective way, even more so than a pot of coffee.

Kashou seems to have everything he should want now: a successful French bakery where he can bring the flavors he loves to his hometown in Japan and the undying love of six catgirl girlfriends who he all also loves equally. And of course, the overly strong love of his sister Shigure, who naturally also features prominently in the story (though the story never takes that route thankfully.)

It’s all professionalism in the kitchen as Kashou trains his catgirls in the art of making and serving French pastries and cakes.

Despite all these blessings that he truly appreciates, Kashou still feels something is missing. His cold war with his father, the head of the long-running Minaduki Japanese sweet-making operation, hasn’t ended. His father doesn’t approve of his shift towards Western confections, but he doesn’t explicitly disapprove either. Nevertheless, the situation is frosty.

When Kashou’s sister Shigure arrives at La Soleil that morning, she mentions that their mother’s birthday is coming up and that Kashou should bake a cake for her to bring to the party. Kashou agrees but is apprehensive about how his father will react to the cake or whether he’ll eat it at all. His catgirls all love his baking, as does Shigure and their mother, but there seems to be more to the matter than mere quality of taste. Kashou and his sister wives attend the party at the family house and bring the cake along, but as we might have predicted, while his mother loves it, his father doesn’t even have to taste the cake to know Kashou can’t measure up yet, telling him his baking lacks a “core.”

The ultimate cake showdown

When his father quickly whips up some whipped cream and Kashou tries it, he’s shaken to find it’s far better than his, and he walks out of the party back home in shock. But naturally his live-in girlfriends Chocola and Vanilla run after him, catching him on the way back and snapping him out of his stupor. Kashou, now resolved to bake a cake that would prove his skill to his father, returns home to the bakery and the kitchen and begins seeking the “core” his baking seems to lack.

So the big conflict is set up, and Kashou has to determine just how to proceed. But naturally, wherever Kashou is, his sister isn’t far behind. She determines that everyone needs a trip to a hot springs to relax, and the crew all close the store for a day while they head off to a resort.

No, not the sex scene in this chapter, that’s about five minutes after this scene when Azuki and Coconut start giving Kashou a massage and then things go exactly how you’d expect.

Following their hot springs vacation, Kashou starts trying to improve his work, baking cake after cake after hours as his catgirls fret over his anxiety and health. Kashou determines that it might be better to personalize his cakes more, baking four cakes based on the specific tastes of four of the girls, and while the experience is enlightening, he still can’t find that “core.” One night later on, Cinnamon and Maple find him still laboring in the kitchen, and what a coincidence they’re the two girls we haven’t had a sex scene with yet.

I wonder what that could be

And then, in his post-nut clarity while in bed with Cinnamon and Maple, Kashou’s brain clouds finally clear and he realizes he has to go back to France to seek the advice of his old mentor Beignet at her own La Soleil bakery.

But having already taught Kashou everything she knows, will she be able to guide him to the core of his cooking? Will Kashou be able to convince his father of his determination at the Christmas party the family has planned? And regardless of the outcome of that epic father-son battle, will the game end back at Kashou’s bakery/apartment in a seven-way with his six cat girlfriends? (The answer to the last question is yes, but again only if you have the patch.)

Good luck buddy. But maybe he doesn’t need any luck. The man is a fucking fountain that never ends, and take that statement however you like.

It took me far too long to get back to this series. I can’t say why it sat around in the backlog for so long, but it was destined to get a post here some day. Nekopara Vol. 4 is a nice conclusion to the family unrest that was established at the very beginning of Vol. 1, when Kashou sets off on his own to start La Soleil, and it’s a natural extension of the story of both his bakery and his relationships with all his catgirl companions (I can’t repeat “catpanion” outside of this parenthetical, I just can’t.) Even if there’s no major development in those relationships here more than Kashou realizing he can’t just labor thoughtlessly but needs to take their points of view into account, and their helping him mature as a result. But then that’s a kind of development too — a subtle one, but that was just what this story called for.

Shigure and Awayuki, Nekopara Vol. 4

Come for the cute catgirls, stay for the subtle family drama. And also the catgirls.

Nekopara being a pretty upbeat series, it probably isn’t a big surprise that Kashou does manage to find that core his father spoke about and to somewhat mend the rift between them. It’s interesting to see him face a challenge that isn’t all that romance-related this time, aside from the roles his catgirls play in helping him get there, but the outcome wasn’t really in doubt.

Yet it still works well as a base for the VN to stand on. We know Kashou is good, and his customers and catgirls alike love his baking, but the man is an artist and has to bake not just to satisfy his father but also himself. I’m no baker — I can just barely make toast. But as a writer at least, I can understand that drive for the ideal. Not perfection, which is impossible and even meaningless when taking about art, but achieving the ideal you set out to reach. Since Kashou’s ideal is Beignet’s flavor, he has to go to Paris to find that core again, but what he leaves with is something a little different: a realization that he has to bake to reflect his own character and feelings. I don’t know how that translates into the taste of a cake, but I get the general idea very well.

Fraise, Nekopara Vol. 4

At La Soleil in Paris, where Kashou is reunited with Beignet’s adopted catgirl Fraise.

Since I’m no baker, I don’t get a lot of the technical aspects of baking beyond “add eggs and sugar” and that basic kind of stuff. However, these sweets bring back memories of watching my mother baking cookies and my aunts making namoura and katayef on Ramadan nights (for those who think that month is all penance and fasting, sure as hell not when the sun is down — those desserts are excellent and you should try them.) I also like a few types of cakes a lot, specifically carrot cake, cheesecake, and kanafeh (aka Arabic cheesecake; try that as well.)

I’d like very much to eat Vanilla’s cake

Despite the tense drama looming over most of the story, then, Nekopara Vol. 4 has a nice comfortable feel much like the other volumes have. I’m not even factoring the 18+ scenes into that, though they are very well done as usual with full voice-acting and animation. No, most of the all-ages scenes that make up 80% of the game at least are appealing in just that way. And Sayori’s art is beautiful as usual, adding to that effect. I’ve been a fan of her character designs since I saw Chocola and Vanilla before reading through the VNs a few years back, and they are consistently excellent together with her CGs.

Since there’s no gameplay to speak of in Nekopara aside from the optional petting function, this being a kinetic novel (a VN with no branching action or dialogue paths) all that’s left to address is the story, and it’s good. And legitimately good, not just “good for an h-game” or however you might put that. The stakes to this story aren’t the highest in the universe, no — Kashou is already successful by most any standards at the outset — but they are stakes that matter to both him and his father. Nekopara has consistently been increasing the weight of its plots since Vol. 2 added a little tension, and Vol. 4 does nicely with its story without ever getting melodramatic.

The drama in this Maple vs. Vanilla ping-pong scene is completely justified

At first, I admit, I thought dad was an asshole. I understood where he was coming from on some level — putting myself in his place, thinking about my son and intended heir to my Japanese confectionary kingdom running off to France to bake cakes instead, I can understand some bitterness even if it is Kashou’s absolute right to pursue his own path. But to dismiss your son’s efforts so utterly and harshly, without even trying to be understanding, seemed too much to me.

However, Kashou never really bears any ill will towards his father, and it seems despite his harshness that his father doesn’t bear any towards him that’s very meaningful: this is a classic case of strict parenting and/or mentoring, where Kashou’s father is only harsh because he cares so much about his son’s success. Otherwise he might just eat the cake and say it’s fine, lying to Kashou about his feelings. He still might not have been as much of an asshole as he really kind of was at the first party, but it’s clear at least that it came from a positive place.

The fact that his father is brought to tears by Kashou’s newest cake and escapes the Christmas party for a few minutes to compose himself says a lot about the guy’s true feelings, and Kashou by this point is mature enough to fully get it, especially since he now knows the full extent of his family history: that his mentor Beignet was in fact his grandmother, who had married his father’s father while in Japan and had his father there but had to return to France to take over her own family’s bakery. What a small world, but it really isn’t too much despite the coincidence of his apprenticing under his grandmother without realizing it.

And Shigure shows up unannounced in Paris to help, of course.

So you might say this story is light, but again, the stakes matter to the characters, and since Kashou is a hardworking and earnest guy they matter to me too. Most of Nekopara has a nice mix of slice-of-life comedy with a little drama and tension to spice things up and with sex scenes to spice them up more if you’ve got the patch, and to me that’s the perfect mix for such a story. The protagonist earns what he receives, both in terms of his love and professional lives, and we get to see him overcome himself in a satisfying way. I couldn’t ask for more from a romance visual novel. Though at its core, I would say it’s about family, and that’s what’s so powerful about it.

Merry Christmas. I generally don’t like turkey this way, but add some cranberry sauce and stuffing Thanksgiving style and I am in

So aside from the very well-done scenes of both the all-ages and not-all-ages varieties, there’s a lot to like in Nekopara Vol. 4 as there was in previous volumes, but I’d say it’s most effectively done here. The food also all looks extremely good in true anime or visual novel CG fashion, and not just the cake either.

Sorry, but damn Nekopara for making me hungry. This game series is largely about pleasures, but sometimes you have to make a sacrifice to achieve your goals, and the pleasures will still be there later. And they’re all healthy pleasures anyway, though Steam has of course not put up the 18+ DLC for Vol. 4 on its page, requiring a separate download from another site (and if you’re interested, see here (NSFW of course.)) Though it’s been a while and I don’t remember whether that Denpasoft patch is compatible with the Steam version, but I believe it is, since I think that’s where I got it. There are plenty of guides online about getting the patch working, anyway.

Well, maybe Valve just doesn’t want to promote polygamy? With catgirls? I got into the weird ethical implications of catgirls in this world a little in my first Nekopara post, but you just have to accept those if you’re going to read through this series. Fair enough if you can’t — it’s certainly not for everyone.

But even in the all-ages version, Kashou still has his six catgirl wives. Not six wives like that asshole Henry VIII, who only had them one at a time and was a pretty bad husband generally speaking (you like that understatement?) but six all at once. Nekopara is the kind of series that you should know whether you’ll like just looking at the trailers, anyway — it’s mostly pure sugar, but beautifully crafted like one of Kashou’s cakes. Again, it’s very far from being for everyone, but for its target audience, Nekopara Vol. 4 is just about perfect as a seven-hour or so trip into a different world. Better to cater to that target audience successfully with an ideal work than to try to make it milder or blander to appeal to everyone, and likely having it appeal to no one as a result: a lesson that some creators still have to learn. It’s one I’ve taken to heart myself.

And for fans of the series, you can look forward to the upcoming entry Nekopara After: La Vraie Famille. I wonder where this could be going. A true mystery.

As for me, it’s Sunday as of this writing, so I have one more day to spend as I like before I have to return to the grind at a job I don’t really care for. I know there’s debate on this point, but doing what you love as a job really seems ideal to me too. Maybe because I’ve never done that in my life, but at least I can try to keep enough free time to maintain my hobbies. So until next time!

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 18 (The ConstruKction of Light, 2000)

I’ve really slowed down on the full* King Crimson run since I started, haven’t I. It took me less than two months to get all the way through to the end of the 80s, but three or four more months just to traverse the 90s. I guess I was just really excited to tell you about my favorites like Crimson King, Red, and Discipline, but now I’ve hit the stuff I don’t know nearly as well. Weirdly enough, since I wasn’t even alive for the end of the 80s band but was actually walking around and doing shit when The ConstruKction of Light was released in 2000, go figure.

Somewhere between 1996 and 1999, the six-member “Double Trio” version of Crimson fell back to four, losing 70s/80s originals drummer Bill Bruford and bassist/stick guy Tony Levin, leaving Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn respectively to fill those roles (now called a “Double Duo” together with guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, even though it’s just back to a regular quartet?) This nth incarnation of Crimson recorded its next studio album The ConstruKction of Light before going on tour and putting out yet another live record. Dropping the strange sound effect titles a la VROOOM and THRAK and all that nonsense and somehow finding an even more bizarre titling tic of shoving “Kc” in wherever they could. I don’t know, ask Mr. Fripp. At least they wouldn’t keep this up too long.

As for the music: it’s pretty okay. Fine. Once again — aside from a few highlight tracks, I wasn’t in love with THRAK, and the same is true here. The ConstruKction of Light starts strong with the strange but fitting strung out rock song ProzaKc Blues (again with the “Kc”, get used to it for a couple of posts) where Adrian Belew makes himself somehow sound like Captain Beefheart on Trout Mask Replica. It’s a memorable song and has some pretty nice and sadly relatable lyrics about your doctor prescribing you Jack Daniels and the title drug Prozac for your depression.

This light fun song is followed by the title track, which is also pretty damn good. Though a bit long in the beginning instrumental section, it contains some sharp double guitarwork like Fripp and Belew did in the 80s leading into a cool sung part. With my very favorite lyric in Crimson history: “And if Warhol’s a genius, what am I? /
A speck of lint on the penis of an alien.” I don’t know, ask Mr. Belew. He wrote it, not me.

Seems like a lyric Miyako would come up with. (Also, watch Hidamari Sketch, it’s good.)

Past that, the album gets a little rough for me aside from a couple of other highlights. The World’s My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum is kind of a musical shitpost, but a shitpost from massive talents is usually still pretty good, and it’s fun hearing the usually pretty serious Crimson cutting loose. With one exception, the rest passes me by, though. None of this stuff is bad, but a lot of it does feel like Crimson just reaching back into their own 70s and 80s periods to give us 00s versions of those styles, which I don’t feel is all that critical. FraKctured as its title suggests is a new take on “Fracture” from Starless and Bible Black in 1973, and they even went back again to revive the Larks’ Tongues saga with “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part IV”.

Aside from the unexpected and nicely done coda of Larks’ Tongues Part IV, none of it feels like it’s adding anything to what came before. Same for the sludgy Into the Frying Pan, though I can’t say where exactly the inspiration for that one was. The 90s? At least the closing Heaven and Earth is nice, sounding more like some of Fripp’s atmospheric/ambient work. (If I haven’t mentioned yet that he also wrote the sounds and themes for Windows Vista, I’m doing it here. From what I remember of Vista, Fripp’s guitar/synth .wav files were probably the best thing about the system.)

Well, again, none of ConstruKction of Light is bad. Like with THRAK, I think it would be easy to love a lot of this music — the trouble is I know where it comes from and there’s not much reason for me not to put on Larks’ Tongues or Discipline or whatever instead. But then maybe it’s too much to expect a band at 30 years old to continue with the hardcore innovation.

I think I said that in the THRAK post too, didn’t I? Maybe I’m getting old myself. I’m certainly over 30, anyway. Until next time in this series, hopefully sooner than last time, in which I’ll be taking on the companion live album Heavy ConstruKction.


* Not really full because that would be insane. But I will probably write an epilogue covering important stuff I missed in the main series.

A review of Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul

This return to Made in Abyss took a while. Last year, I watched the first season of this fantasy adventure series that quickly turns into a fantasy horror drama. An extremely impressive one, but one that was also hard to watch at times thanks to the very specific kind of horror Made in Abyss contains.

It took me too long to get around to this, but I finally watched the next part of the anime series. Released in 2020, the film Dawn of the Deep Soul was the third of three Made in Abyss films and the only one not to be a recap of the first season.

So setting those first two aside, let’s rejoin Riko, Reg, and Nanachi deep in the Abyss. As usual with these kinds of posts, I won’t get into the background here that I covered in my review of the first season. Also, extreme spoilers this time, and a more serious warning since this is generally a plot-heavy series. Maybe I should just make a *SPOILERS* graphic at this point. If I had any design skill I might.

Riko, Nanachi, and Reg in a field of flowers, Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul

The crew evaluating a threat in the field of flowers where Riko’s mother is (maybe) buried.

Dawn of the Deep Soul starts exactly where season 1 of the series left off, with Riko finding the fabled field of flowers that her mother may or may not be buried in, right under her legendary pickaxe weapon stuck in the ground. Riko takes the pickaxe, but as they explore the field, Nanachi and Reg detect danger. Reg encounters a strange masked man in the field, one of the dreaded Bondrewd’s men, who warns him that the field is full of brain-eating flying insects that are just about to wake up because this is Made in Abyss and of course there are fucking brain-eating insects.

The trio are able to escape from the onslaught of insects and follow the masked man down the Abyss to his master/boss/whatever’s base, a massive stone complex with a rotating outer wall to keep out unwanted visitors. The crew manage to get to the entrance, and they’re unexpectedly welcomed in by a cheery girl, Prushka, who says her “papa” is on his way to meet them. And then the man himself appears with his entourage.

Hey, Bondrewd seems like a nice guy. Maybe we were wrong about him?

Bondrewd warmly welcomes Riko, Reg, and especially Nanachi, complimenting them for somehow managing to release Mitty from her suffering. The trio are understandably conflicted by all this to say the least, but in order to make it further down the Abyss, they’ll have to get through Bondrewd’s fortress, and since cooperation seems like the only option at this point they agree to stay the night in one of the complex’s many rooms.

Riko wakes up in the middle of the night and finds herself alone, Nanachi having wandered off to the center of the complex to meet with Bondrewd and try to make a deal to let Riko and Reg at least continue on their journey. We’re still not sure where Reg is, but we learn soon enough when Riko decides to brave a staircase leading up (and here’s a good time to be reminded of how the Curse of the Abyss works: quite literally moving up even slightly causes illness, bleeding, and in extreme cases serious mutilation and even death.)

Prushka, who’s definitely going to make it out of this film in one piece.

Riko can’t make it up the stairs without getting cut up a bit and falling back to the bottom, but Prushka comes along to help her, showing her how she navigates her way upwards with the help of her pet whatever it is, a cute fluffy/blobby entity who guides the girls through the abyssal curse with its special senses.

And up this corridor we learn where Reg is and that yes, this is Made in Abyss: Reg is bolted down to a medical chair surrounded by creeps in helmets holding scalpels and saws, who begin studying him in a horrific manner, tearing off his robotic right arm. Riko collapses in tears, but Nanachi soon joins them when they realize Bondrewd’s plan and attacks the masked men, tearing Reg away from them and escaping with Riko. Prushka is understandably terrified by her realization of what her father is doing and leads them to a boat at the dock outside the complex, promising that she’ll talk to Bondrewd as the trio return to the shore.

Our protagonists now have to deal with getting through Bondrewd and his minions and down to the sixth level of the Abyss after getting Reg’s arm back (and the arm with his massive atomic cannon weapon no less) and all while Bondrewd and his men set out to catch them. Will the crew get out of this bind?

Big ass spoilers from this point on, though this might not be: yes, Riko, Reg, and Nanachi do advance down to the next Abyss level where things are probably even weirder. I figured that anyway since the series’ second season The Golden City of the Scorching Sun aired not long ago. What I didn’t know was exactly how they’d get around this Bondrewd guy, who for most of the first season exists as a terrifying and largely unknown threat looming over the crew. We met him near the end of that first season in Nanachi’s flashbacks, an evil and perhaps insane man with immense power and influence thanks to his White Whistle. The series having built him up so masterfully, this film had a lot to live up to.

Bondrewd isn’t your standard villain, he’s way more fucked up than that

And I’m not going against the consensus this time: Dawn of the Deep Soul indeed lives up to expectations. It’s pretty much a natural extension of the first season; ever since episode 3 or 4 at least I knew how extreme it would probably get, and this encounter has been foreshadowed since Riko and Reg’s stay with Ozen way further up. She calls Bondrewd something like a “real bastard” and one to watch out for — quite a character statement coming from someone as hardened as Ozen.

The man certainly fits that description. Though debatably “man” doesn’t suit him — maybe more like entity. The series has established by this point that the Abyss kills many and twists the few of those from the surface who can live in its depths. Ozen was twisted in just such a way, though she did turn into a mentor by the end of Riko and Reg’s stay.

Bondrewd, by contrast, is not merely twisted but pretty well insane. By the start of the film, we already know a lot of what he’s done from Nanachi’s account, using the poor children of the surface for sacrificial experiments. Nanachi is one of these subjects, one of the only ones to survive in a meaningful way Bondrewd’s forced carnival ride down a pit and then up rapidly to bring on a severe case of the curse. The team is obviously extremely suspicious of him from the beginning, therefore, and when we learn what he plans to do with Reg it’s not a big surprise to anyone aside from Prushka.


Given the weight of this encounter, already established by the end of the first season, it’s impressive that Dawn of the Deep Soul still manages to be shocking in a way appropriate to the story. In my review of the first season, I addressed the complaints I’d read about the show’s extreme subject matter, including references to bodily fluids and parts and the horrors inflicted on our protagonists, both naturally by the Abyss itself and by Bondrewd and his minions in Nanachi’s flashbacks.

Deep Soul compounds upon those. I didn’t expect Bondrewd’s adopted daughter to survive the film, at least in any kind of recognizable form, and no surprise, she doesn’t. Prushka follows her father out to the shore when he goes after Riko, Reg, and Nanachi, where they use some nice trickery to catch him in a trap, calling up a group of carnivorous worm/insect-like creatures to kill him and his crew. But Bondrewd being something like a monster, he survives the attack — until Reg faces off with him and manages to quite literally drop a boulder on him.

Here we learn Bondrewd’s true nature: one of his henchmen walks up to his mostly crushed corpse, removes his helmet, and becomes Bondrewd, assuming all his memories and powers. Having shown the protagonists this limited form of immortality, he walks back to his fortress with Prushka, knowing that his visitors will still have to get through him to descend deeper into the Abyss. And just as he expects, they infiltrate the fortress again, Reg managing to cut off its power and absorbing massive amounts of power himself in the process by hooking himself directly to its electrical system.

Reg merging with a group of consciousnesses and going berserk

Here we get the final fight of the movie, in which Bondrewd and a berserk one-armed Reg manage to destroy an entire section of the fortress. After coming back to his senses, Reg works with Nanachi and Riko to bring Bondrewd down by drawing him out of the pit the explosion created and using his severed arm cannon, which somehow still works and is presumably going to be reattached to his body at some point.

In the end, Bondrewd isn’t exactly defeated — he’s more or less an immortal at this point. However, he seems satisfied with his opponents’ resolve and strength and finally allows the group to pass through to the sixth level of the Abyss. But not without a sacrifice, of course: here it’s revealed that he did to Prushka what he’s done to so many of the orphans in his “care”, cutting her to pieces and placing the rest of her, more or less conscious, into a suitcase to use as an antidote to the abyssal curse.

Riko and co. are naturally shocked that Prushka’s own adoptive father could bear to do this to her, but it turns out that he’d been planning on this fate for her all along. Perversely, he still speaks of her affectionately, and he points out that the creation of a White Whistle demands just such a sacrifice. Prushka’s desire to go adventuring down the Abyss with Riko and friends has somehow transformed what was left of her into a White Whistle made specifically for Riko to use. So even more scarred than before, but with even greater determination, the crew takes along Prushka’s remains and her fluffy pet and jumps into whatever awaits them below.

Looking forward to even more horrors to come

My feelings about Deep Soul aren’t all that different from my feelings about the first season of Made in Abyss. The production standards are still excellent, and the music is still impressive and builds upon the series’ otherworldly atmosphere. The fight between the berserk Reg and Bondrewd is especially notable, Reg temporarily turning into a monster himself with what look like metal tentacle-arms, and his face replaced by three black holes for eyes and mouth. I’m not exactly an action anime guy (just look at all the slice-of-life anime listed in the anime index page up top) but Made in Abyss generally and Deep Soul in particular use action scenes effectively by making them nightmarish in parts and providing more than enough characterization and story background for us to actually care about the outcome of the fights and the fates of the fighters. The high production values here only add to that effect.

More great otherworldly Roger Dean album cover settings too, which I always appreciate.

Then there’s Bondrewd himself. This film is his and Prushka’s story as much as it is our protagonists’, and he’s more than interesting enough to justify that focus. The guy is undoubtedly extremely immoral, or at the very least amoral — he’d probably argue the latter, that normal concepts of morality don’t apply in the Abyss, but to my mind and probably most others, anyone who’s sacrificing the lives of orphans and turning them into hellish living meat creatures for him to use as “curse repellent” is the truest of assholes.

Yet Bondrewd really doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with what he’s doing. The man is notably calm most of the time and is even exceedingly polite, at least in his speech and manners, approaching Riko, Reg, and Nanachi as special guests and telling Prushka they’re “important” and that she should befriend them. He maintains this outward politeness even in the middle of a life-and-death fight, taking it all as a matter of course. And then of course, there’s his kawaii and subarashii: Bondrewd finds the horrors he inflicts to be wonderful and even cute, insisting that Nanachi has to rejoin him so they can help him with his work, and calling both Nanachi and Prushka “blessings” of his. In some sense, the fact that he knows the names of each one of his sacrificed suitcased meat vessels (a term I never thought I’d have occasion to use in my entire life) is even more chilling than if he’d simply used and discarded them without thinking.

This contrast between Bondrewd’s outward politeness and the joy he takes in his work, on one hand, and the horrific nature of that work on the other, is a large part of what made him memorable to me, aside from that iconic neon Daft Punk helmet he wears. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a good guy or anything close to it — he’s without a doubt a complete villain — he’s not exactly wrong either, at least in his conclusion about the kind of sacrifice Riko and co. require to advance to the sixth layer. As other experienced explorers including Ozen have confirmed, Riko can’t use her mother’s whistle to open the gate down to that layer, beyond the true point of no return, since each White Whistle is made specifically for its owner and no others. Despite her horrible fate, Prushka in some twisted sense got what she wanted by becoming Riko’s whistle in the end.

Though whether any of the other kids Bondrewd brought into the Abyss under arguably false pretenses were happy with their fates is a different matter. In the legal world, we call that lying by omission. And contracts with children are voidable anyway. But I guess there is no law in the Abyss other than the good old law of power.

There’s an interesting point here — at least I thought it was — about the kind of wonders the Abyss contains. To go on a tangent about language for a bit (I know, I never go on tangents here, so please excuse me) the term “wonderful” is almost always used in a positive way, but the root word wonder has more of a mixed connotation if you dig back to its root. In Old English, a wundor described a miracle or any astonishing thing, but of course something horrible might also astonish, including an atrocity. So it was written, according to my hazy memory of studying old European history at college, that one of the early kings of England around or after the time of the Norman Conquest “committed wonders” in the land — meaning he killed a whole lot of people. (It might have been referring to William I, who did kill a whole lot of people and was a Bastard true to his title in the sense we use it today, but I can’t say that for sure.)

My totally unnecessary and long-winded point is that it’s not exactly wrong to see the Abyss as being full of wonders, both in the beautiful and positive sense and in the horrible and negative one (or see also the common root of awesome and awful — both inspiring awe.) And maybe subarashii has a similar dual meaning, though I couldn’t say that for sure either. Bondrewd sure seems to think so, at least, in his twisted mind.

Riko joyfully telling Prushka about that time she almost fucking died to the Curse and had to have her arm broken without a painkiller to survive. What fun!

Despite all this body and mind horror, Made in Abyss still maintains a positive tone. By the end of the film, Bondrewd and his remaining soul vessel assistants watch as Riko, Reg, and Nanachi descend further into the Abyss, apprehensive but still motivated to continue. It’s very much in the vein of the first season in that sense, and I expect Golden City of the Scorching Sun to continue with it, though considering how absolutely fucked Bondrewd has become living in the fifth layer, there’s a worrying question as to what Riko’s mother Lyza is like these days assuming she’s alive somewhere at the bottom.

But that’s something to worry about once we get there, assuming we ever do. As for Dawn of the Deep Soul, I liked it a lot and would recommend it to anyone with the stomach to handle it. Though you do have to have the stomach for it: the horror in this series is far more shocking and effective than simply having blood and guts flying around, and the couple of surgical scenes might be too much for some viewers considering just how much of a visceral reaction they might cause. Even a bitter, emotionally hardened asshole like me was affected by them. So there’s a warning for you. For everyone else, I hope you’ll enjoy the film and the show as a whole.

I’ll be watching the next season of Made in Abyss, but I need to wash my brain out with something a little lighter first, so you can look forward to more slice-of-life antics soon. Until then!

Quantity over quality, product over art

A few days ago, one James Yu unveiled a new AI writing tool. Sudowrite, according to Mr. Yu, can give advice on and even write long-form stories. AI writing tools (or text-generation tools, as I would rather call them) until now haven’t been able to tell a story without losing track of characters or meandering off into total nonsense, so this is a bold claim.

It may also be a true claim. I don’t plan to judge the technical quality of Sudowrite or any other such tool, not beyond the couple of free services I messed with last year to see what the fuss was about. In fact, let’s just assume for the sake of argument that Sudowrite can generate a more or less coherent long-form story, maybe a novella-length one, with prompts and some editing required on the user end. Even if that’s the case, I question the value of such a tool in creating fiction and the need for AI-generated fiction at all.

I won’t go over the same old arguments I and many others have made against the widespread use of AI text and image generators, and what I consider to be the totally ineffective counterarguments comparing their use to that of digital tools by illustrators or of sampling, drum machines, and synthetic vocals like Vocaloid by composers.1 Tools and instruments like those aid the creator — they don’t themselves create. A set of prompts by contrast generates work that can’t reasonably be considered property of the prompt writer, the connection between the prompts and the end result being far too weak. The arguments go deeper than this, and no doubt they’ll be raised in cases involving copyright.

Today I’m concerned with a different aspect of this problem: the treatment by these AI developers of art as pure product.2 Art is usually product in some sense at least: unless they’re a hobbyist, the artist has to earn money, and so they have to consider their audience, the possible demand for whatever story they want to tell, and how they’ll market that story. It would be naive and ridiculous to deny that there’s often a commercial aspect to the creation of art.

Computer, give me a screenshot depicting the human love of money

However, an artistic work is not a commodity in the same way as a can of tuna or an office chair or a car is. It makes sense to talk about volume and cost-efficiency when producing commodities like those. People need to eat and sit, and in most places they also need to drive.

People also need art, but in a different sense: art is an expression meant to teach lessons, to convey feelings, or perhaps simply just to please the senses. Even one of those anime girl pinups I was talking about last post — it might not be profound or anything, but I get something from that art knowing it’s the artist’s particular expression of beauty or sexuality or some mix of those. In very real terms, one illustration by one of my favorites has far greater value to me than one thousand pieces of superficially similar AI-generated work.

The same will doubtless be true of fiction. Say Sudowrite can produce a spy thriller or a romance or a fantasy adventure with some input and guidance from the human user (who I won’t call the author or writer for obvious reasons.) What will that prove? That an AI tool can generate a readable paint-by-numbers story. I believe this text generation tech probably is capable of following a formula just as it now is with visual art. But what purpose does that actually fulfill? It potentially floods an already crowded market with mediocre trash. Most of the million-plus novels in existence are already mediocre trash, and there’s no shortage of them, every one written by a human. Just ask any writer if demand for fiction outpaces supply and see if they don’t laugh at the question.3

I’ve said before and I will repeat that I’m not really fighting the development of this kind of technology. It’s hardly possible to stand against it, to try to shove that genie back into its bottle. Maybe Sudowrite would make for a decent brainstorming tool like ChatGPT has become. And hell, even if I call the work it churns out paint-by-numbers, I’m not against that in principle. Some people enjoy painting by numbers, after all, and who am I to criticize that?

However, painting by numbers damn well doesn’t make you an artist. And I would rather slam my hand in a car door repeatedly than use one word of anything Sudowrite or any similar tool had generated in one of my stories. The creators of Sudowrite seem to believe that writers are interested in taking prefab parts and using those to construct a novel in the way you might a barn. I disagree: any “writer” who builds a novel using a text generator is anything but, at least for the purposes of that particular novel. I write to express myself, and I neither need nor want help from an AI text generation and analysis tool to do that.

I also won’t despair over all this. In fact, I feel all the more motivated now to write when I have the time. Even if it’s pointless, I have to do it.


1 To the techbros: go ahead and call me a Luddite.

2 Certainly Mr. Yu and similar types will argue that they’re not treating art as pure product but are rather aiding in the creation of art. Maybe they even really believe that, but I don’t for reasons I’ve already expressed in past posts on the subject.

3 I think this also calls into question this article from The Atlantic. It’s an interesting piece, but I fundamentally disagree with the author’s conclusions, falling back as he does on the old “it’s like sampling in hip hop” analogy that I don’t accept. But at least he admits that he’s not the author of the AI novel he generated (though he does say he’s legally the author, which is extremely debatable as far as copyright is concerned. At least for the time being: see the ongoing federal case Thaler v. Perlmutter for more on that point.)

A review of Endless Monday: Dreams and Deadlines

Corporate life is hell. For a long time, the only comic depiction of that hell that many people knew about was the strip Dilbert, drawn and written by what turned out to be a jerkoff (and a litigation-threatening one too who doesn’t seem to appreciate parody, which we knew about long before Twitter existed.)

Tiger-chan is legitimately a far better strip anyway, newspaper comics need to get with the times

Well, fuck the Dilbert guy, because we have something far better in Endless Monday, a concept created by the artist hcnone, who specializes in cute office ladies complaining about work, celebrating the weekends, and wishing they could be doing something else other than toiling at a faceless corporation. So of course I’ve been following that account for a long time since that’s very much my thing, and when they put out a short visual novel project early this month, I decided to buy it. Not that I have much money to be spending on new games right now, but I’m far happier for my ten dollars to go to an independent artist than EA or Ubisoft or similar corporate shitheads (and man, I will be complaining more than usual this post, won’t I. Though not about the game.)

Time to finally work

Endless Monday: Dreams and Deadlines stars Penny, an artist in the creative section of a company that builds robots with strangely specific and seemingly useless functions. At the start of the game, Penny is sitting at her desk on Saturday night, just starting work on an ad project for the mysterious ZINEBOT 6000. Penny has no idea what ZINEBOT 6000 is or does, her only clue being a vague email describing the project’s goals and a series of blueprints of a rickety-looking robot.

Penny has had several weeks to complete this project before its deadline of Monday morning, but of course she used all that time not to work but rather to play mobile games and draw comics featuring her original character Tiger-chan seen above. However, she’s now under extreme pressure to come up with six ad illustrations and slogans within about 36 hours. Penny’s heart might not be in this work, but she has to pay rent, and she doesn’t want to let down her former college senior and supervisor Miss Whiskey.

The very first decision I made was to join her at the club, and I didn’t regret it. They don’t call her Miss Whiskey for nothing.

Penny is scrambling for ideas at this point. Thankfully, she has current and former colleagues she can call for help or possibly to get scolded depending (or to get pressured to get a higher-paying job in the case of her mom, which felt like an extremely real conversation in a way I didn’t like.) Penny can also roam the empty office to hunt for more ideas, which looks disturbingly like my own office with its open floor plan and chest-high partitions that you wonder why they even bothered with if we’re not even allowed to have real cubicles.

But at least there’s an also very real-looking dumpy office breakroom, complete with a pot of very old cold coffee that may or may not be dangerous to drink from. In this desperate hour, anything might give Penny some inspiration, even the odd hallucination or space abduction.

I can’t say I’ve hallucinated one of my characters yet from pushing myself too much at work, but that might just be because they still only exist in text form and I only have a general image of them. I’d make character sheets if I had an ounce of illustrating skill.

I didn’t have much idea of what to expect going into Endless Monday, since I’d only really seen hcnone’s work on Twitter, usually a panel or two of office lady eating a burger or crying over a deadline like Penny here or maybe in cosplay getup on occasion. A visual novel is quite a bit more involved than that of course, and I didn’t know exactly how all the corporate worker depression would translate into a story.

Compliments to hcnone then, who both created some great character portraits and illustrations and wrote a short story that was fun all the way through. Endless Monday is kind of a surreal comedy despite its very mundane setting — truly anything can happen when Penny drinks that stale as hell coffee and her sight gets blurry. I’ve recently gone on about how I don’t care that much for mundane settings, but one of the exceptions I’ll make is for stories that mix some bizarre and unexpected elements in, like a talking tiger woman magically climbing out of your dreams and into reality. Reminded me of Shirobako a bit, especially with their common theme of work-related stress and deadline pressure.

And difficult conversations like this one in a possibly moldy coffee-induced flashback. Whiskey is pretty damn cool, but she’s also down to business when necessary.

Despite those surreal elements, Endless Monday is one of the most hard-hitting stories I’ve read recently while also being consistently funny. The comedy here feels like hcnone’s regular work translated into a story, so if you follow them anyway you’ll probably be happy with it as well. And I say “hard-hitting” in the sense that it hit me hard specifically. Though I’m sure millions of others can also relate — with the stress, sure, but also the feeling that your soul is being drained of even its last few drops of hope, hope that one day you’ll be able to quit and live on your passion instead. All the better when you learn how scummy your employer really is and you lose any faith you might have had left in it.

Friend and former colleague Skye, whose passion isn’t quite working out for her as a living.

So while Endless Monday is really an absurd comedy, it does have some nice real moments like that. I might not be a corporate artist, but having worked in offices for years now, this all felt like a very relatable satire.

And all the better, one with several colorful and memorable characters, with a couple that I recognized right out of the gate in art that I probably liked when I was simultaneously “doomscrolling” as the kids say and looking at the half of my feed that’s anime girl pinup art. I’m a big fan of good pixel art and of hcnone’s expressive style and character models, and they work beautifully here, contributing to the nice hand-drawn look of the game.

Aside from the purposely old RPG look of this place. Nice reference too. The kids won’t get this one, but Clippy was a real bastard back in the old days of Windows 98 and XP.

On top of all that, Endless Monday has a very fine set of BGM (my favorite: Tiger-chan’s island theme with the cheesy midi roar effect in the middle.) I always appreciate a game with music better than “it’s there” but this is still another one that well exceeds expectations.

Really, all that might improve the experience is voice-acting, which Endless Monday doesn’t have. Yet, at least. Maybe we’ll get a patch later on, though voice-acting might be too much to ask from every indie game. If that bothers you anyway, just imagine you’re back 15 years in the past, when barely any visual novels had voice-acting. And maybe the creator had different reasons for leaving it unvoiced. Either way, it doesn’t bother me, but it’s just something to know.

They did include a game-within-the-game though, and points for that. This lumber girl game could easily be a real one on the app store, maybe even a hit.

Not much more to say than that. I completely enjoyed Endless Monday, and if you like some absurd yet maybe relatable humor, I think you will too. I also appreciate a good short VN, since so many of the interesting ones look long as all hell; I got through the game in only three hours but found that short time to be well worth the cost (and again, the money feels a lot better going to an indie artist, who have over the last several years collectively beat the asses of the AAA guys in terms of innovation, storytelling, and presentation.)

So here’s hoping we see more of this kind of work out of hcnone — I’ll be following. Happy Monday as of this writing, and until next time.

A review of Hidamari Sketch (S1/2)

Continuing my watch through a run of now-classic slice of life anime. Is 2007-8 considered retro now? I can’t say getting older is really that bad, but it takes some getting used to.

Good thing I can take my mind off of all that with Hidamari Sketch, a slice of life comedy firmly in that CGDCT tradition and maybe even having a part in creating it, having started its run in 2007. Hidamari Sketch aka Sunshine Sketch tells the story of four high school girls (surprise) as they live their lives together at a small apartment building.

How is that very different from several other series I’ve covered on the site recently? It’s a fair question, but Hidamari Sketch is different from most even aside from its status as an early slice-of-life comedy of this kind, and thanks largely to Studio SHAFT and director Akiyuki Shinbo.

If you know their work, the sometimes minimalist art style should be familiar. Look at all those dots.

But first, the story. Up there in the center of the cover with the X hair clips there’s Yuno, a young aspiring artist and our central character. Despite her doubts about her talents, she’s made it into Yamabuki Arts High School after passing its entrance exam. This school is far from home, however, so Yuno moves out to live on her own in Hidamari Apartments, a small six-room residence just across from the school’s front gate. Here Yuno meets the other three residents of the building: her next-door neighbor and fellow freshman Miyako and the second-years Sae and Hiro downstairs.

Hiro and Sae, who are very close. And a point for you if you get the joke in this screenshot.

The four quickly form a strong bond, all being art students living away from home. Sae and Hiro soon step up to guardian-like roles with their extra year of experience as well, creating a sort of surrogate family feel for Yuno while she gets used to living away from her parents. Miyako meanwhile becomes fast friends with Yuno, despite her cheerful recklessness that sometimes puts Yuno’s nerves on edge.

Yuno reacts normally to a shocking scene, but Miyako takes an innocent kind of joy in chaos

This central cast is rounded out by a few adult characters, most prominent among them Yuno and Miyako’s homeroom teacher Miss Yoshinoya, who much like Kimura from Azumanga probably shouldn’t have lasted more than a month as a teacher considering her many personal issues. In addition to being a borderline exhibitionist (being generous with that “borderline” too) Yoshinoya acts like a bratty teenager, always doing her best to avoid work and the Principal, who is constantly and rightfully berating her.

Yoshinoya has some issues, but the Principal is always there to resolve them

That describes most of the first two seasons of Hidamari Sketch, titled Hidamari Sketch and Hidamari Sketch x 365* respectively, because of course a SHAFT series can never just have a second season titled “season 2.” This post covers these first two seasons out of four, the two I’ve watched. I wasn’t sure about how to break these down by post at first, but these two seem to fit together well, since they fill in each other’s purposely left gaps.

Because while most of the 25 episodes between these two seasons take on one day in Yuno’s life, starting with her rising from bed and ending in the bath in true slice-of-life fashion, you’ll notice that these days are out of order. At the beginning of season one, Yuno is worrying over some homework she forgot to finish and runs off during her lunch break to create a collage to bring back to school; at the beginning of the season two, she’s heading off to Yamabuki for the first time to take its entrance exam.

An extremely relatable experience

The rest of these two seasons’ episodes are also chronologically shuffled around. I’m not sure if that was true of the original manga by Ume Aoki (represented in the anime by the frog (?) on top of Hidamari Apartments who shows up a few times per episode, voiced by the mangaka herself) but it works in the anime given its very light plot. Similar to Azumanga, Nichijou, and a few other of these “cute girls” comedies I’ve covered here, Hidamari isn’t so much about a series of events that have to be told in chronological order but rather about the friendships that form among the main characters, so although Hidamari is the only series out of these that uses this format, it works even when purposely told out of place.

Yuno in a dream, hiding behind a bust of Brutus that they were sketching in class that day. Yuno’s fever dream episode in the first season is a special highlight.

Of course, this kind of series doesn’t work if the characters aren’t likable or at least fun to watch, but these characters are both. Yuno and Miyako have a great contrast, Yuno being cautious and Miyako being borderline reckless, but both are also energetic and positive in a way that only first-year students can be (before their spirits are utterly crushed of course.) Their second-year seniors Sae and Hiro, meanwhile, are a bit older and more experienced, but not necessarily that much more mature given their occasional fights.

Sadly this isn’t an animated gif, but imagine Miyako swaying her hips side to side in a hypnotic motion and you’ve got it

While these four are the central characters, they share the stage with several others including Miss Yoshinoya, the Principal, Sae’s peppy younger sister Chika, Sae’s extremely tsundere friend/rival Natsume, and their cool landlady I almost certainly would have had a minor crush on if I’d somehow seen this when I was 12.** These characters do more than fill out the cast — they all have their own moments, especially the above-mentioned Yoshinoya, who may be in a race with Yukari from Azumanga for anime teacher with the most personal problems (not counting Kimura of course, who wears that crown forever.)

Good thing, because also just as with Azumanga and a few other slice-of-life comedies I’ve covered, the characters entirely drive the show. Once again, there isn’t much of an overarching plot outside of the usual “high school students progress through high school while getting into wacky trouble” stuff, but the characters carry the series anyway, not much plot needed beyond the episodic stuff.

Miyako has an idea as Hiro and Yuno look on in terror

Somewhere, I forget where, I saw Hidamari Sketch compared with Seinfeld. I’m not sure how far that comparison can really go, but I agree with whoever wrote that in at least once sense: that both Seinfeld and Hidamari are “shows about nothing” in that often nothing much of consequence happens in an episode. Characters sit around their apartments or hang around school for long stretches of time complaining, joking, and arguing, and somehow it’s all entertaining.

Entertaining for me at least, but then I only ever give my opinion on this site. Looking from the perspective of someone who doesn’t like comedic banter for whole halves of episodes, Hidamari Sketch would be a miserable watch, but since I’m all about the banter, I thoroughly enjoyed it. For that matter, the same rule applies to Seinfeld, and also to Friends, which I liked to a lesser degree. (And yeah, I’m old enough to remember when people under 60 watched cable TV and we had those huge sitcom lineup nights in the 90s. NBC had a monster lineup back then, but I have no idea what any of the networks are airing now aside from the terrible late night shows. That format died when Conan retired.)

It’s sad. Americans watching normal TV have to switch to Food Network for this kind of stuff, but slice-of-life anime watchers get our comedy and food-related escapism in one dose. And man, I wish I could bring some tonkatsu home to eat, but you know, pork. (Not that that stops me from eating it on occasion.)

Though it also wouldn’t be fair to say Hidamari Sketch is “about nothing”, because it also features some insightful looks into the creative process and especially into Yuno’s process and her coping with self-doubt over her abilities. Early on in the series, the students submit work to the school’s cultural festival, and when Yuno falls asleep in the middle of her drawing and intended submission, Miyako submits it anyway without realizing it wasn’t complete.

Yuno isn’t criticized for the drawing’s incomplete state — visitors seem to believe the blank spot in the middle was a stylistic choice instead of an accident and they praise her work. But Yuno has mixed feelings about the feedback, as positive as it is.

I get Death of the Author and all, but I still believe the artist’s intent matters at least to some extent.

Between this and her other artistic efforts, Yuno spends some of the series trying to prove herself worthy of being a student at Yamabuki. Though I’m no expert, her art looks good to me — we actually see some of the characters’ paintings and sculptures throughout these two seasons, which is a nice touch, since it gives us a sense of not just their artistic skill but of their artistic tastes and personalities. It’s pretty clear that Yuno is talented but is also suffering from a little of that imposter’s syndrome or whatever it’s called, which fits with her mild personality. Like Miho from Girls und Panzer, except without the tanks or the sister vs. sister stuff.

Her parents check in on her in the second season — always nice when the series acknowledges they exist, but Yuno being an only child is also an important point. Even more nerve-wracking sending your only daughter out into the world at this point, I imagine.

Hidamari Sketch also mixes in a bit of serious material between Sae and her younger sister Chika, who can’t wait to start her high school career (and I’d say if she only knew, but high school always seems like a fun time in these shows contrary to my memories of it.) Sae juggles school life with paying work as an author writing in a monthly magazine, and while she’s usually friendly, she also tries to put up a cool front that causes some trouble between her and Chika. Add in Sae’s dynamic with Hiro, who loves to cook for everyone and is the surrogate mother of the apartment building, and you have about 10% of something like a family drama mixed in with the slice-of-life/comedy style (though it’s still light, no soap opera stuff going on here thankfully.)

Sae and Chika have a slightly rocky relationship, but maybe that’s normal for siblings. Like Yuno, I’m an only child, so I wouldn’t know personally.

Art connoisseurs looking for something different might be interested in Hidamari Sketch. Partly because it’s about art, sure — I didn’t go to an art-focused school and could barely draw stick figures, so there are things about the visual arts-related classes in Hidamari I’m sure I didn’t pick up on that other viewers might relate to.

However, the style of the show itself is interesting. If you already know the style of Studio SHAFT and the director Shinbo, likely from Monogatari, you won’t be surprised by the abstract and minimalist look here. Hallways, classrooms, and streets are sometimes just sketches with extremely simple peg-looking figures representing background characters. The backgrounds themselves are also often minimalistic as you can see in a lot of the above screenshots, and the characters are sometimes depicted in a rough, sketchy form or even abstracted into a symbol for a few seconds like an X representing Yuno’s unique hair clip.

And sometimes it will do something like this for a 15-20 second stretch in the middle of a scene, with the characters’ silhouettes talking to each other while parts of their names become their mouths (here the ロ or ro in Hiro.) Why? Ask Mr. Shinbo, I don’t know. It only happened once and came out of nowhere.

You also can see some of this style in the dark comedy Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, running at the same time as Hidamari Sketch and also by SHAFT and directed by Shinbo. It’s an acquired taste, but I like it — it never feels gimmicky and fits all the more with the series’ art school setting. I have seen people criticize the first season for being a little too sketchy to the point that it looks low-budget at times, and while there is a noticeable step up in the animation in 2008’s Hidamari Sketch x 365, I never had much of a problem with the first season’s sometimes rough look.

Amazing animation is great to watch, but sometimes a unique art style is all you need, like a PS2 game that’s 20 years old but has a cool cel-shaded look that beats out a lot of modern games in the style department. Still my favorite game.

And of course I can’t go without mentioning the show’s music. SHAFT has a great record with both opening and ending themes and incidental music, most obviously in Monogatari, but its other series’ soundtracks stand up just as well, including Hidamari Sketch. Any soundtrack that includes some good bossa nova gets points from me, and here’s a nice use of the accordion, a sadly underrated instrument here in the US outside of parody music like Weird Al. And a frantic high-speed ultra-positive and sunny opener like “Hatena de Wasshoi” is always a good time, especially when the song is an earworm:

While I’m a fan of the style of Hidamari Sketch, though, it wouldn’t have held my interest for 25 episodes without its strong comedic sense, and all that credit goes to the writers, the original manga creator Ume Aoki, and to the voice actors for their great performances delivering the material. I’ve never read any of these slice-of-life series in their usually original manga forms, but so many of them (this, K-On!, Azumanga) are adapted from four-panel gag comics that I imagine a lot of work has to go into stringing those together and filling them out into sets of 22-minute episodes. Maybe that’s a strength, giving the writers plenty of room to expand upon the original manga.

For example, in the manga you don’t get to actually hear Yuno’s extremely nervous singing at the girls’ karaoke outing, though maybe you can imagine it while reading.

But after far too many words once again, there’s my verdict on Hidamari Sketch and x 365: they’re both very good. Recommended if you’re into the style and want to explore the origins of the slice-of-life/CGDCT comedy anime wave that grew throughout the late 2000s and into the early 2010s then died off, but the show is enjoyable in itself outside of that context, and the whole thing is on the streaming service HIDIVE if you’re subscribed to that.

Or else go through the usual channels if you’re not. I’m not here to tell you how to watch anime, you know? I do prefer HIDIVE to Crunchyroll at this point, though, so I’m happy to support their service for now. I just wish these and other streaming services would acknowledge more often that preservation is important — from what I understand, there is some “lost media” anime out there, and while I don’t think Hidamari Sketch is at risk of ever being lost like that, I also understand why people take alternative routes to get their anime in a more permanent form (not counting overpriced Blu-rays that may not even be available in the West.)

Anime has been and will continue to be removed from the services, which themselves won’t last forever anyway. And when human civilization ends, how can we guarantee that alien archaeologists thousands of years in the future find Hidamari Sketch and similar series and realize that we at least had something good to offer to balance our massive flaws?

Thank you for that, Mme. Ume. And also thank you to the stone statue.

Sorry for the weird tangent. I have a lot more to say about that subject, but later. To relieve more of the coming stress, I may get back on soon and continue watching through the final two seasons Hidamari Sketch x Hoshimittsu and x Honeycomb, which I’ve heard drop the achronological format and may or may not stand up to the quality of the first two — we’ll see. Until next time.


* Okay, I know why these sequel titles use it, but is it properly x, ×, or X? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

** Judging by my very first watch through Evangelion anyway. I know Misato Katsuragi is a complete disaster, but still, man.

Games for broke people: Unlikely/impractical weapon edition

Despite being an American, I’m no expert on real-life weapons. However, like many others of my generation, I have used all sorts of weapons in games. And so why not play a few games that are centered around the unique attributes of specific weapons? And since I don’t feel like spending more money at the moment, free ones. Yes, this is yet another one of these posts where I try to cram at least two free games I found into a single stupid theme. Starting with:

Shotgun King: The Final Checkmate (demo)

Shotgun King title card

This entry is a cheat on my part, I admit: it’s a demo version of a game that costs money. But considering the fact that I’ve gotten quite a bit of play out of this free demo, I’d say it counts, or close enough, at least. I learned about Shotgun King: The Final Checkmate from the excellent blog Professional Moron — compliments to Mr. Wapojif for his insightful posts. Shotgun King is a chess-based game just as the title suggests, but it’s also a rogue-like/lite. I don’t really play rogue-likes, but I do play chess on occasion, and I’m not extremely bad at it.

Shotgun King does operate on standard chess rules to some extent. All the pieces move as they normally would, at least at the outset. The setup is non-standard, however: you play as Black with a single king, while White starts with four pawns, a knight, a bishop, a rook, and a king. Not exactly fair, but you do have an advantage: your king has a god damn shotgun. As the opening sequence tells us, he was such a lousy king that his entire army left him, even his queen, and so now he’s out for revenge. This translates into a game in which you progress through floors consisting of chessboards and enemy pieces that you can blow away.

Shotgun King gameplay

Taking aim at a few poor pawns, who didn’t ask for this

Your shotgun doesn’t have much of an effective range at first, but it can be improved by applying bonuses you can choose from between floors (though each bonus comes with a paired bonus for the enemy that you’re forced to choose as well.) And remember, as in regular chess, the object is to kill the enemy king: it doesn’t matter how many pieces White has once you have the white king in your sights and down to one HP; once you’ve got him, you win and get to advance to the next board.

That’s all well and good, but the trouble I’ve been having with Shotgun King is that the RNG has really been screwing me, with some games ending after a horrifically unbalanced floor because White ends up with twelve pawns that can attack sideways and three rooks. It is possible to build an extremely powerful king to fight your opponent with, but the odds aren’t that great from what I can tell. Since I’m not a rogue-like guy, I don’t know if this is standard practice, but it is frustrating to get cornered and have to start over. The example below is a pretty decent outcome, at least: it’s satisfying to get right in the enemy king’s face and gun the dude down when most of his army including his queen are still standing.

The white king eats lead

So if you’re better at chess than I am and don’t mind some unforgiving RNG, try this game out. I imagine the full version of Shotgun King has a lot more to offer, anyway — remember that this is just the demo I’m covering here because I’m a cheap asshole. I probably won’t buy the full version either unless it goes on extreme sale, but if you’re a bigger fan of this genre than I am, it may be something to check out.

Deepest Sword

Deepest Sword title card

A dragon threatens the land and has taken your dog hostage, and it’s your job as the local brave knight (or the only local in armor at least) to slay it, using a sword specially crafted for the purpose. However, the blacksmith is only able to start you out with a short sword that’s not quite enough to get the job done. The trouble is that defeating the dragon requires you to pierce its heart, which is located at its center at the bottom of a conveniently placed hole. But unfortunately, on your first run at the beast, your sword is far too short to reach the dragon’s heart. Strangely enough, far from being relieved, the dragon seems annoyed at your sad attempt to pierce its heart before it immolates you with its fire breath and forces you to start over.

Deepest Sword: your sword isn't quite long enough to get the job done

That’s rough.

Lucky for you, the old blacksmith at the start of the game crafts a slightly longer sword each time you successfully make it to the dragon and fail to slay it. How many times will you have to penetrate the dragon’s sword entry point before it’s finally vanquished, and how much longer and more complicated will the cavern path to the dragon get before you finally succeed?

Now I’ll say what you already know: Deepest Sword is just one very long dick joke. But not just a dick joke: one with a purposely irritating movement mechanic. The hero’s sword is controlled by one set of buttons and the hero by another, but at times it feels like the sword is really controlling the hero, being far too large for the guy. It can be swung over the head, but it’s difficult to keep raised and will likely fall back to the ground.

However, the real obstacle of Deepest Sword is the maze you have to make it through each run, a puzzle that forces you to use the game’s physics and your sword to squeeze and pole-vault your way through. Aside from being an analog for part of the male anatomy, your sword really is like part of your body in this game, since you can’t drop it or put it away. On the positive side, as annoying as it can be to deal with, your sword is a requirement for vaulting above otherwise unscaleable heights on the way to the dragon, who kindly waits for you to make your thrust before burning you alive again.

Living in a fantasy world where blade-lengthening services actually work

So while calling a game like this “fun” is a bit much considering how much pain it put me through, a challenge like this isn’t so bad to take on sometimes. Especially when it’s free, and also really just an excuse for an elaborate sex joke while remaining completely safe for work in the technical sense.

I’m sure there are many more games out there based solely around unusual weapons, some of which might also be penis metaphors, but that’s all I have for now. I might just continue this old post series if I can dig up more interesting stuff, but that probably won’t be a for while, so until next time when I’ll be returning to my current coping mechanism of watching and then writing way too much about decade-plus old anime.

Write what you feel

Another sleepless night. Not for no reason, though — I had absolutely no weekend, pulled off to work on a new case. It’s impossible to avoid that sometimes in my line of work. I’m told I need sleep, but I don’t really want to sleep yet. So much for my health and sanity.

Being restless, I wanted to write something. But instead of the more usual kind of post, I’ll take the chance to address maybe my least favorite common piece of writing advice, at least as it’s often taken: “write what you know.” Plenty of writers have taken shots at this turd, but I thought I’d take mine too since there are enough people around still repeating it.

Too often, the old “write what you know” advice is taken at face value, resulting in people thinking they should only write situations that they have personally experienced or might reasonably expect to experience in the course of their daily lives. It’s certainly possible to write such a story well and in a compelling way. I much prefer fantastic or futuristic settings to modern everyday ones in my fiction, but lately I’ve opened up to those more commonplace settings with the slice-of-life anime I’ve binged on over the last year as a kind of pain reliever.

Like Hidamari Sketch, which takes the mundane and makes it entertaining mostly through comedy (and yeah, I just finished the first two seasons; look forward to a new post about those soon-ish.)

However, those series work in part because they offer an effective escape from everyday life — just the opposite of the result that “write what you know” would turn out for many of us, and maybe even especially for the slice-of-life watcher seeking out that relief. I would never and will never be able to create anything like Yuru Camp.

No, my stories are full of misery and self-doubt and other not-so-pleasant stuff that I dug up from my own psyche, but placed into those more fantastic and futuristic settings and situations. If I were instead to take “write what you know” literally, here’s what I’d be writing about:

  • Living in a large American city, but not one of the interesting parts.
  • Working as a lawyer, a realistic depiction of which nobody wants to read, least of all fellow lawyers.
  • Dealing with family-related headaches, which many people write about but very few in a form I’d want to read. It’s relatable, but why do I want to read about other people’s personal miseries when I have my own? Though apparently that works for a lot of people considering how many family dramas exist in novel, TV series, and film form.
  • Writing. Writing about writing? I guess that’s what I’m doing now, but in the context of fiction, this feels like a dangerous option. Picture the protagonist, a struggling author whose insight and talent just isn’t appreciated — you can see how easily a story like this can become masturbatory even for a self-effacing person like me.
  • Being miserable and depressed. Which can give rise to some good art, setting aside all the obviously awful things about them, but you need more than just misery and depression in the mix unless you want to end up with a bad copy of Notes from Underground. And see again about not wanting to read about others’ miseries unless you can make them compelling somehow.

“Write what you know” can be great advice depending upon your circumstances. Say, for example, that you’ve lived an interesting life people might want to read about and you’re writing an autobiographical work. Or maybe you really can pull off that mundane slice-of-life healing stuff in which case thank you in advance.

“Write what you know” is also good advice if you know everything. But you just know what you know.

For most of us, however, it is lousy advice the way it’s often taken, making some new writers feel they have to box themselves in unnecessarily, especially if they’re trying to write “literary fiction” (and man, I have some opinions on that whole literary vs. genre distinction too. But maybe later.)

Here’s how I would rewrite write what you know, then: Pull from your personal experiences and feelings when writing to create something that’s meaningful to you and will feel genuine to the reader. Sure, it’s not as brief and catchy as write what you know. It also leaves no room for misinterpretation to turn into a trite piece of advice people pass around as if it’s the word of God Almighty.

However, if you want to shorten my advice at the risk of it being misinterpreted, here’s my best effort: write what you feel. Feel free to write what you don’t know — there’s no better way to push your boundaries as a writer in my opinion than that. But if you write what you feel, you might write something worth reading.

For whatever that’s worth from an unpublished author, anyway. Fiction is a rough way to make a living — anyone trying to live off of their art gets my respect.

A review of Teasing Master Takagi-san: The Movie

Takagi and Nishikata at the local shrine with the kitten Hana, Takagi-san movie

Oh, my heart. How it’s still functioning properly I can’t say, not after watching last year’s Teasing Master Takagi-san film, simply subtitled The Movie (aka Eiga Karakai Jouzu no Takagi-san.) If you’re not familiar with the series this movie is attached to, I covered the first and second seasons of the anime here and the third here, but briefly, it’s about the growing relationship between middle school students Nishikata and Takagi. We almost entirely get the story from Nishikata’s perspective as he challenges his classmate and friend Takagi to battles of strength and wit. Takagi is almost always several steps ahead of him, however, and his efforts usually come to naught.

The pair are also very very much into each other. Takagi seems to realize this long before Nishikata does, but she doesn’t push him to act, instead subtly guiding him to the inevitable conclusion. That’s my read on the show up to this point, anyway. At the start of the film, the characters have three seasons’ worth of this history behind them. It’s not exactly necessary to see any of what came before to pick up on their relationship, but it does help to appreciate just how long this back-and-forth has been going. (Also spoilers, etc.)

Takagi and Nishikata at the local shrine, Takagi-san movie

Son, when will you learn

At the start of the movie, Nishikata, Takagi, and their classmates are in their final year, just about to start summer vacation (usually the end of the school year here in the US, but in Japan I think the year starts in April, at least going by the Persona games I’ve played.) Nishikata has no particular plans, which means he’ll be spending a lot of his time off with Takagi. As usual — if you have caught the first three seasons of Takagi-san, you already know how inseparable these two are. It’s to the point that, though they aren’t an “official” couple, their classmates consider Takagi and Nishikata one from how obviously attached they are to each other.

The movie starts just as another episode of the series would: with Takagi lightly tormenting Nishikata, who sits next to her in class (in the protagonist seat no less, or at least close enough) with her expert teasing. She’s not the “teasing master” for nothing, easily getting Nishikata flustered by suggesting that they might have to share an umbrella on the way home from their last day at school before summer vacation and drawing what looks like a love umbrella on his notebook but that turns out to be a fishbone. Nishikata resolves as always to get back at Takagi by coming up with games of skill that he’ll surely beat her at, but of course Takagi knows him so well that she reads him perfectly and easily finds ways to defeat him.

Takagi and Nishikata against the backdrop of the sea and an island beyond

Takagi might be the teasing master, but she only ever teases one person. I wonder what that could mean.

After some of the usual teasing, during which we see Nishikata formulate and carry out plans to outwit Takagi that fail as usual, we reach the movie’s central plot. While at a local shrine, Nishikata and Takagi find a tiny kitten hanging around, without a collar and all alone. They try and fail to find her mother, so Nishikata decides they should find a home for the kitten, cats not being allowed in either of their homes.

The pair go all in with their plan, making posters to hang around town and asking around but without success. Meanwhile, they go to the shrine daily to take care of the kitten, now named Hana after her love for flowers, and we get a lot of the usual “Takagi teases Nishikata” scenes with Hana included, increasing the sugary cuteness to a dangerous level.

Yeah, there are also a couple of bordering-on-sappy songs with montages. It would be hard to take if it weren’t so genuine.

After failing to find a home for Hana, Takagi finally gets her dad to relax his no cats policy and prepares to bring Hana home, an outcome both are extremely excited about. But of course, we weren’t going to get such a clean-cut happy ending: on the way back from the pet supply shop, they find Hana has wandered off from the shrine. Thankfully she’s not roadkill as I very briefly feared — that would have been off-tone for Takagi-san anyway — but she has been picked up by two small children, siblings, who don’t know about Nishikata and Takagi taking care of the kitten. Moreover, they loudly and joyfully declare that this kitten is their identical kitten Nana reborn, who died but must have come back to them.

Takagi and Nishikata are understandably shattered by this, but Takagi stops him when he tries to get Hana back — clearly it would be too cruel to tear the kitten away from these kids at this point. Takagi is still heartbroken, however. Nishikata comforts her, saying he’s sure Hana will be happy in her new home, and that Takagi will be happy too. And then we get this:

It does feel weird that we don’t know their given names after all this time, but still a great moment

Man, if you only knew. Maybe you do, especially if you’ve watched the 36 episodes of the TV anime that preceded this film. To see our boy Nishikata open up so completely to Takagi about his feelings after that long slow burn — if you see fans gushing about this movie, this is part of the reason why. No, it’s not a declaration of love in so many words, but when you tell a girl you’ll make her happy (and forever, as he also says) that only really means one thing, doesn’t it?

Naturally, we get more payoff at the summer festival, once the pair have gotten past their sorrow, where Takagi returns his feelings word for word. And the post-credits scene ends the film perfectly with a jump forward to a very brief look at the pair as a married couple with their daughter Chii.

Takagi and Nishikata with their daughter Chii, Takagi-san movie

A preview of a future Moto Takagi-san anime? Hopefully

Aside from a couple of side stories about the three friends Sanae, Yukari, and Mina and a parallel slightly rockier romance between two of Takagi and Nishikata’s other friends and classmates, this was the Takagi-san movie. Like the rest of the series, it contains a lot of sentimentality, but it’s all earned and so never feels cheap. And while the film is preceded by three seasons of that slow build that helped the series earn this sentiment, even in the film alone we get a great sense for Takagi and Nishikata’s relationship, both in their cold, calculated plotting against each other during their challenges and in the mutual interest and love that emerged from it. As usual, Takagi only challenges and teases Nishikata, and only when they’re alone together: it’s a teasing driven by just that kind of affection that we get a lot more of throughout most of the rest of the movie.

It’s all effective enough that I can take some of the sap Takagi-san occasionally puts out. Take this from someone who might be a romantic, but not in the usual sense at least: the sap in Takagi-san is pretty minimal and always justified. And the singer on this soundtrack has a damn nice voice too, so how can I complain about musical breaks? (And is the singer also Takagi’s VA Rie Takahashi? Not sure, but it’s possible since she’s also a singer.)

Takagi and Nishikata’s school looks more like an office park, at least from this angle.

Throughout the film, I also found a running theme of fleeting childhood. All these kids are still in middle school, sure, but they’re also in their last year before making a serious shift to high school, and then on after just three years either to university or the working world. You’re not exactly in your childhood anymore once you enter high school, anyway, or at least that’s how I felt when I started ninth grade in the American system here.

So with the end of their carefree middle school days looming, it makes sense that most of the characters by the point of this movie are feeling the heat a bit, most obviously seen with Yukari and Mina who worry that Sanae will leave the island to pursue a high school track and field career. In my first watch through the first couple of seasons, I was a little annoyed by their antics that felt so separate from the other events in the series, but now I can appreciate that they added a little more to the story, if just in terms of reinforcing this theme. I have no idea how much this “end of childhood” theme was intended by the author or even in his mind at all, but I think it fits the central Takagi and Nishikata relationship just as well, with Nishikata especially maturing by better understanding his feelings.

Takagi and the town and sea in the background. The movie has quite a few nice shots of the surroundings like this one, part of the opening credits — credit to the studio Shin-Ei Animation again.

In a recent post, I brought up the nostalgic feel I got from parts of K-On! and its depiction of high school life in a modestly sized town, even though I only lived in suburbs of mid-sized to large cities as a kid and found high school about as fun as getting several hundred root canals in a row. I think I could feel that nostalgic sense despite having lived a different sort of life because said nostalgia was expressed so richly by the series, both visually and in the story.

The same is true for Takagi-san in general. No surprise, maybe: the town of Takagi-san from what I’ve read is modeled exactly after Tonosho, the hometown of original manga creator Soichiro Yamamoto. An idyllic-looking place too, an island town in the inland sea between Shikoku and Honshu. The series and particularly this movie portray it beautifully. And while I think Takagi-san could work just as well set in a big city, that genuinely nostalgic feel probably has something to do with the author’s own feelings about this place, even if the events of the show aren’t autobiographical (though for all I know they could be, but how many people meet their true soulmates in middle school? Maybe that’s another part of living in the countryside that I just don’t get.)

Messing around in class until the teacher tells you to shut up, though, is a universally held experience

Finally, since for all I know this is the last time I’ll be writing about Takagi-san (though that fourth season apparently really is coming from what I’ve heard) there’s a point I wanted to bring up about these kinds of sugary anime romcoms: that they’re not all the same. While Takagi-san is often grouped together with Nagatoro, UzakiBisque Doll etc. for maybe obvious reasons, it feels to me like more of a hybrid between that style and other kinds of usually romance-less slice-of-life anime I’ve also covered here, with all the wholesomeness and relaxation you’d expect. Not that Nagatoro and the rest aren’t also wholesome in their way, but they have their spicier elements as well and sometimes get stuck with the “lonely guy bait” label.

I could argue why that label doesn’t actually stick in most of those cases, but I’ve done that before. And it certainly doesn’t stick in the case of Takagi-san. I just bring it up because I’ve been seeing people still passing around that trash tweet about these kinds of manga and anime being mere bait that got a ton of likes. Likes from people almost certainly 99% of whom never read or watched any of these series beyond maybe a few trailers on YouTube. But man, whatever. I only look at Twitter for the lewd art, wish I could just filter for that and spare myself the headaches and the far more worrying/depressing “world is ending” stuff. If people want to judge books by their covers, that’s their business (and their loss.)

I won’t go on about it beyond this caption, but these shows are not about having a girl magically fall into the guy’s lap from nowhere, but rather about self-improvement and gaining true maturity to a point where the guy can understand and properly express his feelings. What a terrible fucking message, I know.

Stupid social media bullshit aside, the Takagi-san movie is beautifully put together and just what I would have expected from a Takagi-san movie, and in a good way. It feels more like a three-episode OVA, really — the movie is only 70 minutes long, but it didn’t need to be longer to tell its story. Check it out, though if you haven’t I’d still recommend watching the series itself first, or at least the third season when things really pick up between our leads.

I have no idea what’s coming up next, but I did recently make a dent in my anime backlog following a string of rough days and sleepless nights that I want to take on here, so it might just be more anime. Or maybe I’ll find something else to complain about like I always do. Until then!

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 17 (THRaKaTTaK, 1996)

Oh no, it’s THRaKaTTaK. This album seems to be a bit obscure these days — as with a few of Crimson’s more minor releases and certain old live albums, this one isn’t featured on their YouTube channel. In fact, this is yet another live album, the other regular live release by the 90s band (including the unreviewed B’Boom.) But it’s a very different kind of live album from that and the archival VROOOM VROOOM — instead of a full normal live set or two, THRaKaTTaK contains a collection of improvisations recorded by the band in various shows and compiles them on one hour-long-plus disc. And congratulations to Earthbound, because it’s no longer the worst King Crimson album I’ve heard. I’ve seen people both praise and shit on THRaKaTTaK, and while I don’t think it’s the worst album ever created or anything so dramatic, I fall much more in the second camp than the first.

You might have predicted this already from what I’ve said about Crimson’s past improvisations, sure. I’m not usually a big fan of them. But I don’t always dislike them either — I can see the value in “Requiem” on Beat, for instance, or in “Sailor’s Tale” on Islands. These are far from my favorite tracks on these albums, but at least they build atmosphere or seem to tell some kind of abstract story. There’s some sense to them. Even the live improv stuff on Earthbound might have had some potential if it had been recorded properly, and with a different singer, and if those improv pieces had just been breaks between the actual songs. Still shit aside from the recording of “Schizoid Man”, but there was something salvageable there.

No such luck on THRaKaTTaK. The album opens and closes with two minute-long renditions of “THRAK” that are just fine, no complaints there. But between them are several tracks making over one hour of janky noise, clattering, sputtering, twanging, every other sound-related verb you can think of: it’s all happening and there’s no clear sense to any of it. There seems to be barely any attempt at coordination, with the instruments instead clashing, running into each other. Occasionally the band does fall into something that approaches interesting, like a few moody sections on “This Night Wounds Time” and “Slaughter of the Innocents”  that could form an atmospheric part of a larger piece if it were in that context, but in here it’s just a very relative reprieve from a lot of bullshit. This music — and yeah, I will at least call it music, sure — does almost nothing for me. (And if you want to measure your own reaction against mine, here’s THRaKaTTaK Part I that was very kindly uploaded by some guy instead of the band itself. It’s just one small part of the album, but it gives a good idea of what almost the entirety is like.)

Yet I’m still reluctant to call this album total garbage. It’s not pure agony to sit through or anything, for one. As headache-inducing and irritating as it can be, I’d rather listen to THRaKaTTaK than some no-hook piss pop album, some radio filler autotune plastic-ass junk. But then that’s not exactly soaring praise — just because this ultra-avantgarde stuff is the exact opposite of something I hate doesn’t mean I have to like it. No, I approach this kind of pure noise in the same way as I do some styles of abstract expressionism in the visual arts, action and color field painting that produces what look to me like canvasses full of splatters or squares of color. Some people say Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 or Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue series are brilliant, and I say I just don’t see what they do. If you’re a big fan of either kind of extreme abstraction in art, please tell me what I’m missing. That’s a serious request, too.

Good place to break out one of my favorite old screenshots

So maybe it’s the same with THRaKaTTaK. Maybe some people get some real emotional resonance out of this noise. But I don’t, and if my music isn’t giving me either emotional resonance or cool hooks or at the very least showoffy technical prowess, then I don’t have any use for it. I listened to THRaKaTTaK three times over the last week, thinking that it might sink in, that I might have some kind of revelation, but it never happened, so there — either I’m an uncultured swine or this stuff is just nonsense.

Well, those two aren’t mutually exclusive either, are they? It’s also worth noting that THRaKaTTaK being stitched together from several live shows, it doesn’t represent anything like the actual live 90s Crimson experience, so at least they weren’t torturing their audiences with this cling clang shit for an hour at a time. But then that raises the question of why it’s all compiled here to torture the completionist listener.