A review of Touhou Suzunaan ~ Forbidden Scrollery (Vol. 1-7, complete)

The cover of Vol. 1, featuring new character Kosuzu Motoori

Each morning, Kosuzu Motoori opens her parents’ bookstore for business and waits on their customers. Suzunaan carries all sorts of books for rent and sale, both natively written and from the mysterious world outside of Gensokyo, its human village, and the surrounding wilderness. Some of these books aren’t even written by humans, and a select few contain potentially dangerous magical powers. Not that Kosuzu minds — as a true book-lover with the special ability to translate any text no matter the language, she’s happy to get her hands on anything interesting, rare, or valuable. And if it contains some sort of arcane power, so much the better.

Kosuzu is at the center of Touhou Suzunaan ~ Forbidden Scrollery, a manga based on the Touhou Project game series as the title suggests.* Written by series creator and game designer/composer ZUN himself and illustrated by Moe Harukawa (since ZUN famously can’t draw all that well) Forbidden Scrollery was serialized in Comp Ace from 2012 to 2017, producing 53 chapters over its seven standalone volumes. Forbidden Scrollery is only one in a series of Touhou-based manga, but as far as I know, it’s the only one that’s gotten an official translation and release in physical form.

I don’t bring Touhou up as often as some series here, but it is one I’ve been a fan of for a long time and that I still follow a bit. It’s had amazing staying power over the years, starting in the 90s as an indie shmup game series on the PC-98 made by one guy drinking beer in a basement. 25 years later, Touhou has produced dozens of both official and fan games and thousands of other fan or doujin works. I’ve already obsessed over the music a few times, considered by many, including me, to be the biggest draw of the series given just how good a composer ZUN is.

By contrast, I used to not consider the writing one of the series’ strengths. Touhou features dozens, maybe now over one hundred, characters, almost all girls who have magical laser/bullet-shooting powers displayed in the games that are central to the series. But the games don’t have much in the way of story to them. Most of them just seem to focus on series main characters Reimu Hakurei the shrine maiden and Marisa Kirisame the witch, both magically powered laser-firing girls, fighting through a gauntlet of youkai or non-human spirit/nature sort of enemies, or vampires, moon people, gods, or whatever other supernatural types are threatening their home of Gensokyo and the humans who live there.

Vol. 2 featuring central character Reimu Hakurei, the youkai-exterminating shrine maiden, on its cover.

This is where ZUN’s manga come in, fleshing out the small world of Gensokyo and its inhabitants, both human and youkai. Forbidden Scrollery is the first official Touhou manga I’ve read (though not the first unofficial one, not if doujins count) and it contains a lot of what I think makes Touhou so enjoyable from a story and character perspective. While the games are naturally full of action and fighting and present stories more or less about magical conflicts, Forbidden Scrollery is mostly a more relaxed slice-of-life tale centered on Kosuzu’s life at Suzunaan and her interactions with her customers and friends, most notably Reimu and Marisa and several non-human visitors who disguise themselves as humans to rent out books, make conversation, and occasionally to try to get their newspaper stocked (and fans already know that means Aya will show up.)

Before getting any deeper into the substance of the manga, it’s important to at least outline the setting of the Touhou series, since it’s where Forbidden Scrollery takes place and is central to the story itself. Gensokyo (literally “Fantasy Land” or more poetically “Land of Illusions”) is a small section of rural Japan home to a population of both humans and youkai, a varied set of non-human natural spirits and beings, who in the 19th century waged a series of wars with each other for control. After the powerful youkai started breaking out into neighboring lands, their home was cordoned off into its own dimension in 1884 by a magical and extremely powerful barrier meant to keep said youkai in.

As another result of the border’s creation, the human population was now trapped in this small dimension with their youkai enemies. Yet they still have a hidden advantage: because the youkai are born from and powered by human fears, they need the humans to exist. Partly for that reason, youkai generally do not threaten the one human village in Gensokyo, and the various youkai factions (foxes, tanuki, tengu, kappa, etc.) hold each other in check, with the humans as the central element in this balance of power.

Another reason for the youkai reluctance to mess with the humans too much are two of the other central characters in this story and in Touhou overall. Reimu is the shrine maiden and only employee of one of the local Shinto shrines, one that barely sees any human visitors because of its remoteness from the village (and so she’s always hurting for offerings, a running joke in the series.) Her friend and sometimes rival Marisa is a much more carefree girl, a witch who lives in a nearby forest. Both also double as “youkai exterminators”, a job you actually carry out in a lot of the Touhou games.

“Exterminator” might sound like an extreme description, and it really is especially considering that far more often than not, neither of them actually “exterminate” their targets. Even in the games, winning a bullet hell fight with a powerful youkai character doesn’t see you killing them but merely roughing them up, after which they’ll often complain about the rough treatment and make a joke that may or may not translate into English very well. And very often, these characters return in later works, sometimes even showing up at Reimu’s shrine.

Kosuzu Motoori in her bookstore Suzunaan with Reimu Hakurei and Marisa Kirisame as visitors

Official art by Moe Harukawa, a two-page spread from one of the volumes: Kosuzu tends her shop with Reimu and Marisa as guests.

This was one of my favorite aspects of Forbidden Scrollery. Though the story as a whole is still very slice-of-life/comedy, there is an underlying tension throughout having to do with this delicate balance between the human and youkai populations. This might be a little offputting for some readers at first, since most fantasy stories like this, both in manga/anime and in western works I’ve seen, involve a mix of fantasy races that are more or less treated as equals even if they’re at odds with each other.

By contrast, the humans of Gensokyo fear the far more powerful magic-using youkai for good reason — humans can easily be kidnapped or even eaten if they stray too far from the village unless they have their own magical abilities like Reimu and Marisa do (hence why they can survive outside the relative safety of the village.) At the same time, youkai who step out of line might be hunted down and punished or even eliminated, sometimes even by other youkai upset at this breach of protocol and the chaos it might cause.

The powerful disguised tanuki Mamizou Futatsuiwa drinking with a misbehaving newly formed youkai in the human village, about to teach him a rough lesson in youkai-human relations and etiquette.

As the story of Forbidden Scrollery develops, then, it becomes clear that the human-youkai relationship is a lot more complicated than simply “humans and youkai are enemies.” Reimu can come off as a real hardliner against the youkai, and when she learns that Kosuzu collects and obsesses over “youma books”, or books containing magical elements and often written by youkai themselves, she decides to keep a close watch on Suzunaan both for Kosuzu’s sake and for the village’s in general. Her hard line turns out to be more of a practical caution, however — as longtime fans know, Reimu spends a lot of time around youkai and is even on sort of friendly terms with some of them, but she does so partly to keep watch and because she knows how to handle herself. The same goes for Marisa.

Kosuzu, on the other hand, is still unaware of a lot of the dangers surrounding the knowledge she seeks out, and when youkai like Mamizou and Aya are attracted to her bookstore and start building rapport with her, she doesn’t understand quite what she’s getting into. Kosuzu is a great protagonist for the story Forbidden Scrollery tells because she’s such a novice in this way despite her intelligence and curiosity. A lot of this story has to do with her growth into a wiser person.

But the same is true for Reimu. Anyone who thinks Reimu is just a plain old anime girl main character should read this (or probably some of ZUN’s other manga, which I haven’t read yet myself) because there’s plenty both interesting and entertaining about her, not least of which is how she’s really kind of an asshole sometimes. But the kind you like. At least I like her.

Reimu complains to Kosuzu about rival shrine maiden Sanae Kochiya and her underhanded donation-seeking tactics (that Reimu also uses.)

It’s also nice to see so much Marisa in here, though since she’s practically a co-main character with Reimu that’s to be expected. Again, she might come off as a pretty typical “cute witch” sort of character you find in some manga and anime, but her tomboyish style and seemingly (but not actually) reckless approach to danger sets her apart. Together with the few new characters introduced in the manga and a whole load of recurring ones (the human historian Hieda no Akyu, tengu writer Aya Shameimaru, kappa inventor/engineer Nitori Kawashiro, and Reimu’s other other rival, the Buddhist nun/priest Hijiri Byakuren, and this is just a short list) there’s an excellent mix of characters to enjoy in this series. My only real complaint with this cast is that my favorites Patchouli and Alice don’t make an appearance, but then I guess they probably figure much more prominently into one or more of ZUN’s other manga.

But I don’t have any real complaints about Forbidden Scrollery. It was an enjoyable read with some nice art, a fine escape into another world (quite literally, since Gensokyo technically exists as a separate sort of pocket dimension in our own world in the Touhou universe.) I might even check out some other Touhou manga, though it may have to be less officially translated since I don’t think any of ZUN’s other manga works have been licensed. And to those readers who don’t know a damn thing about Touhou: I’d recommend picking this series up too. It works as a pretty decent introduction to the series and its world, especially if you don’t feel like jumping into the real deep end with Mountain of Faith or one of the other hellishly difficult bullet hell games that Touhou was built on. Though of course I recommend those too if you have the nerves for them.

 

* I can’t go without endnotes anymore, so here’s one about the title. Every official Touhou work as far as I’ve seen, whether it’s a game or manga, has a title formatted partly in Japanese, always Touhou [something], then the other part in English. This manga is sold in the West with the partial English title Forbidden Scrollery, which doesn’t make it all that easy to actually associate with Touhou unless you’re already familiar with ZUN as the author or the characters on the cover of each volume.

The Touhou part of the title rarely if ever seems to be translated anyway — if you’re interested, Touhou means “eastern” and Suzunaan translates into “Bell Hermitage”, though that’s really just the name of the bookstore in the manga and would probably cause some confusion if it were actually translated and put on the cover.

Why AI content generators can’t kill art (part 1: the legal framework)

Last year, I wrote about the short anime series Time of Eve, a science fiction story dealing with the relationship between humans and a set of androids with newly found sentience. In the course of that deep dive into the anime, I went on a tangent into AI “art” generation tools, asking whether artificial intelligence can truly create art as opposed to simply whipping up something derivative based entirely on user prompts and inputs and drawing from a pool of human-created work.

Time of Eve does indirectly deal with the issue of AI and creative expression, but I’ll be getting to that in the second part of this post run. The series is good though; go watch it.

I’m happy to say, reading that post back that after just a year, that it feels badly outdated, because we now have tools available to create far more impressive images, word collections, and sound files. The image generator Midjourney is so impressive that it generated a piece that won first prize in a digital art contest at the Colorado State Fair — a choice by the board of judges that pissed a lot of people off and got a ton of publicity for the winner, one Jason Allen, a tabletop RPG creator.

And I’m right there with the angry torch and pitchfork mob this time. The idea that an AI-generated image can win an award in the category of “digitally manipulated photography” might seem pretty logical — after all, that sounds like digital manipulation, doesn’t it? But digital tools made for artists like Photoshop and GIMP still require complete human control and input, whereas Midjourney requires that the user enter text prompts. If you’ve used DALL-E, you know how this works: type in whatever it is you’re looking for and you’ll get some depiction of said thing, assuming the AI can work out quite what it is you want. These tools don’t create art, as far as I can tell: they generate images that may or may not resemble art depending on how broadly you define the term.

In that Time of Eve analysis last year, I suggested that this material isn’t art, in part because there’s no intent to express anything behind the generation of each specific work. Some people may define art differently, but I can’t consider something art without at least this intent to express. I don’t like abstract expressionism; the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and the color field paintings of Mark Rothko leave me completely cold, but I would never accuse them of not being art for just that reason. The same is even true of two guys I completely dumped on a while back, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons — I find their work totally soulless and empty, but I can’t say they’re not trying to express something through it, even if that something is just “I like tricking rich people into thinking this piece has value” (in which case I actually respect that, but that’s a different matter.) And no matter how I might feel about their work, all four undoubtedly used techniques and put thought into those techniques in the creation of their work.

I actually like this “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” image in itself more than a lot of what the above four guys have created. If you had just showed this to me and told me a human had painted it, I’d believe you, and it seems the judges felt the same way. It’s aesthetically pleasing.

I was going to post “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” here, but the legal status and proper attribution of the image is in question, so instead here’s Kiryu on the dancefloor as a placeholder. I might replace this in the future if possible.

It’s also not art. It’s a mix of elements from pieces, images many of which were created with human thought and intent behind them, but put together in a way without that intent to express, by a machine fulfilling the requirements of a series of prompts.

Shockingly enough, US law isn’t lagging as far behind on this high-tech matter as it usually would be. One of the most relevant cases to this issue has to do not with AI but with animals. You may have heard of the “monkey selfie” case Naruto v. Slater, billed as an Indonesian macaque named Naruto (?) suing a wildlife photographer, David Slater, over the ownership of photos a group of macaques took when Slater placed his camera on the forest floor and let them approach it.

A few of these photos turned out well, and when they were published on Wikipedia without Slater’s permission, he came down on the Wikimedia Foundation arguing that he held copyright to the “monkey selfies”, with Wikimedia arguing in its defense that no one held copyright because the creator of the photos was a non-human and hence that they were in the public domain. The US Copyright Office found in favor of Wikimedia, putting the case to rest and letting Slater at least compile these and other photos into a book of his otherwise copyrighted work.

And now in comes People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, inserting themselves into a controversy that nobody asked their opinion about but that they insisted on contributing to. PETA disputed both Slater’s position that he held copyright and Wikimedia’s that nobody did, instead asserting that Naruto himself held copyright since he snapped the photos. PETA sued as next friend of Naruto, a method of bringing legal action on behalf of a minor or of someone not mentally competent to act in their own interest. (They also very generously volunteered to act as administrator of the proceeds resulting from Naruto’s copyright.)

The Ninth Circuit on appeal found that PETA hadn’t properly established next friend status with Naruto, but far more importantly for our purposes here, it also found that PETA had failed to show that Naruto had standing under the Copyright Act, standing being someone’s right to sue in the first place.1 Part of the reasoning behind the decision not to extend copyright protection in such a case is that non-human animals don’t have the ability to express an “original intellectual conception.”2

The caselaw surrounding AI-generated images and other media is still nearly nonexistent, but early this year, the US Copyright Office confirmed that it will not recognize copyright in such media because it lacks sufficient human authorship. This decision arose from an ongoing fight in which one Dr. Stephen Thaler, co-creator of another AI image generation system called the Creativity Machine, claimed copyright over an image titled “A Recent Entrance to Paradise”. Dr. Thaler has filed suit disputing the Copyright Office’s rejection of his application to the DC district court, where the case is now pending.3

As Thaler’s attorney has argued (linked in the Smithsonian article above):

A.I. is able to make functionally creative output in the absence of a traditional human author and protecting A.I.-generated works with copyright is vital to promoting the production of socially valuable content. Providing this protection is required under current legal frameworks.

Setting aside Mr. Abbott’s use of the extremely vague term “socially valuable” to describe AI-generated content (it might have some social value anyway, sure, but that may even work against his argument considering the social value of the public domain concept) I believe his argument is total nonsense.

So let’s take it apart. AI makes “functionally creative output in the absence of a traditional human author.” But there is a human author involved. Many human authors, in fact, since the AI wouldn’t be able to generate a damn thing without its pool of existing human-created work to draw upon. That argument also ignores the human input necessary to generating said output, though I’d argue as the Copyright Office does that creating prompts, even many of them for the purposes of fine-tuning, doesn’t count as “human authorship” and doesn’t invest the prompt-writer with copyright ownership.

I suppose that’s why Abbott inserted the “traditional” to qualify his use of “human author” here, but it hardly matters, because again, this is an unforgivably vague term. What’s a non-traditional human author? The prompt-writer? The thousands or more of artists whose work was used (with permission or without, I’m not sure — that’s another issue entirely) to train these AI generators?

And while we’re picking apart his words, how about the use of the term “functionally creative”? Either something is creative or it isn’t. Using “functionally”, as far as I’m concerned, is basically an admission that both Abbott and his client know they can’t exactly argue AI-generated works are “created” in the same way as human-made works are, with actual thought and consideration instead of mechanical processes. In fact, I’d argue Naruto the macaque had a better claim to copyright over the photo he took than Dr. Thaler has to “A Recent Entrance to Paradise” through the Creativity Machine for the simple reason that a non-human animal can at least act independently and make its own choices without human prompting, whereas an AI can’t.4

Not yet, at least. But I’ll leave that for the second part of this post when I move away from the legal aspect of the AI “art” generation question and into the philosophical and moral ones. That’s something I’m not actually qualified to talk about, but I will anyway, because this really is far more than just a legal issue and I take an interest in both of its sides.

In the meantime, if you have any interest at all in these questions, be sure to follow the progress of Thaler v. Perlmutter, linked above at Court Listener. It may turn out to be a landmark case, though I hope not for the wrong reasons. Really, the suit should probably be thrown out on summary judgment.

From Pupa (2014), as a reminder that even bad art is still art. This isn’t a question of quality but rather of intentional creation.

Before I end this post and start working on the next, I’ll make a depressing prediction (as you expect from me!) I believe that as large, influential corporations see the value of AI-generated content, they and their special interest groups will push for changes to the Copyright Act to get rid of any ambiguity around the human authorship requirement commonly read into it in favor of AI-generated work that they don’t have to pay real flesh-and-blood visual artists for (and eventually also writers and musicians.) At the very least, I think they’ll be attracted by Stephen Thaler’s “my AI system is working for me under the work for hire doctrine” argument. I don’t see how this can be avoided unless these corps can somehow be shamed into not taking this route.

Well, regular people like us have just about no power over that. It still matters, but as with so many other things in this world, it feels to me like watching a trainwreck in slow motion — you can’t stop it from happening but just have to look on in horror as other people cry and laugh at it all.

But since it’s all useless, an effort may as well be made, because what do we have to lose? More on that whenever I can get to it, and maybe even without an endnote section nearly as long as the post proper. Until then.

 

1 I should note that the standing of animals under US law in general is a more complex issue. However, the Copyright Act specifically excludes non-human standing, and as a practical matter it’s hard to imagine what a macaque would do with its copyright ownership if the court had found in its favor. Naruto certainly didn’t know or give a damn about any of this nonsense, and the court rightly expressed doubts about PETA’s ultimate motives in their involvement.

2 Arcane legal hair-splitting time now, because it can’t be avoided. The US Copyright Office states in section 310.5 of its guide to copyrightable authorship that it “will not consider the author’s inspiration for the work, creative intent, or intended meaning” in determining the originality of authorship. However, it also states in section 306, The Human Authorship Requirement, that “copyright law only protects ‘the fruits of intellectual labor’ that ‘are founded in the creative powers of the mind.’ (TradeMark Cases, 100 U.S. 82, 94 (1879).)” (Citation included in case you really want to dive deep into the exciting history of US copyright law.)

I read this to mean that while the Copyright Office doesn’t care about the artist’s specific intent and won’t bother making courts try to be mind-readers in that sense, it also demands that there be some kind of intent to create, which is proved simply by the creation of the work. Whether any of the smartest/most potentially self-aware non-human animals are capable of “original intellectual conception” (higher apes? Dolphins? Maybe crows?) is an interesting scientific question, but the legal one has been answered, at least for now.

Finally, I should note to be fair that the Copyright Act doesn’t explicitly require human authorship — this is just the understanding of the Act’s plain language by the Copyright Office and courts up until today. There’s good reason to believe that won’t remain the case too much longer, as I note near the end of the non-endnote section of this post.

3 Thaler is trying to pull a pretty absurd trick here. While acknowledging that the Creativity Machine can’t legally hold copyright in its product, Thaler himself claims the copyright under one of two possible legal theories: first, as the owner of the AI and therefore the AI’s product according to the accession and first possession doctrines of property law, just as a farmer owns the calf birthed by a cow he owns, or as the owner of a 3D printer owns whatever it produces. The trouble for Thaler here is that neither these nor any of his other comparisons (see p 13 of his complaint on) have anything to do with copyright investment and ownership.

In the alternative (meaning if the court were to properly reject the above argument) Thaler argues that he holds copyright in the Creativity Machine-generated piece under the work for hire doctrine. This is a well-established doctrine that grants copyright ownership to employers who hire artists and writers to create works.

Thaler is using this doctrine in a novel way here, to put it politely. To put it impolitely, I think his interpretation of work for hire is a load of shit. But we’ll see what the court thinks assuming his suit gets that far.

And just one more dig at Dr. Thaler and/or his attorney because I can’t help it: read paragraph 31 of the complaint. This argument of “well we could have tricked the Copyright Office by not telling them it was AI-created” is so beside the point it’s almost hilarious. But it’s also a scary point to make considering that the best AI-generated visual “art” does closely resemble human-created work.

4 I believe this point highlights one of the contradictions from the pro-AI copyright camp in this argument: on one hand, some defending Jason Allen and “his” piece claim a program or system like Midjourney or Stable Diffusion is merely a tool like a paintbrush or Photoshop, but then Dr. Thaler in his complaint claims that these systems possess creativity (see the “functionally creative” comment from his lawyer above.)

I see these as more tools than not, though they’re clearly not simply like a paintbrush or a program manipulated directly by a human artist as some are claiming (and even disingenuously claiming, maybe.) But I think the “AI generated content is art” crowd will have to pick an argument and stick with it. You can even see this self-contradiction in Thaler’s complaint: his first argument implicitly takes this “my system is just a tool” approach.

Games for broke people: HoloCure

Well here’s a nice surprise from itch.io, though not a surprise that I’m covering it. HoloCure is a Hololive fan game, what else, about a set of VTubers affiliated with the agency.

These multi-talented girls are usually only tasked with entertaining their fans on stream by playing games or singing or whatever, but one day a mysterious evil force makes said fans into drooling zombies who love their favorite VTubers blindly and go mad (is this some subtle commentary?) forming mobs that their favorites have to subdue. It’s a story worthy of the Beatles back when they made movies like A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, or maybe the Spice Girls’ Spice World. When was the last time you thought of that movie, if you’re even old enough to have been alive when it came out?

Gawr Gura fighting enemies in HoloCure.

Which Spice Girl would Gura be, tell me in the comments after you smash like and subscribe and ring that bell

HoloCure is a takeoff of Vampire Survivors from what I hear. I haven’t played that one, so I don’t know how this game stacks up to it, but even if you’re new to this sort of game like I was, the mechanics are simple: just aim your automatic attacks at the enemies running towards you, collect the powerups and other drops they leave, and use them to upgrade existing skills and learn new ones.

Ina (Ninomae Ina'nis) in HoloCure

Ina is somewhere in this mess. The tentacle is her main method of attack, which can be powered up as you defeat enemies/subdue fans. See also the huge miniboss at the bottom right — these guys will show up in fixed intervals to challenge you.

The current version of HoloCure has four sets of characters to play with, coming out to 20: all 11 ladies in the English-language branch (not counting the recently recruited guys in Tempus) and 9 in the Japanese branch — nowhere close to the total, so if like me you were hoping to play as Pekora, you’ll have to wait for a future potential update. But even so, there’s nice variety in the available characters’ styles, with some being slow and tanky and others being quick and agile, and still others I have no idea how to use because I’m terrible at them since their attacks require precision to pull off well.

Nekomata Okayu in HoloCure, fighting walls of Deadbeats

Like Okayu, who chooses to throw rice balls at enemies that annoyingly arc in the air. The onigiri won’t help her against these shield walls of Mori fans.

I hadn’t played this game before the update just yesterday, but from the several hours I’ve played of it now (yes, this is what I’ve been doing since stopping work on Friday evening, no grass-touching for me) I could already tell a couple of things about independent developer Kay Yu, the first being that they’re clearly huge fans of Hololive and its streamers/characters/personalities, with a ton of references in the powerups and descriptions especially that all check out.

Upgrade menu in HoloCure

Like Plug Type Asacoco, which is exactly what it looks like. It’s not just the game being crass, this is a “real” product from a parody morning show created a year or two ago; here it’s just another weapon.

The second is that these creators care about making a quality game. The gameplay is smooth and the sprites look great (both VTuber and fan, and there are many fan/enemy types that correspond with the “fan names” and art depicting them. The music is catchy, and I’m pretty sure the few tracks in the game are based on a few of the girls’ original songs, though I couldn’t tell you which they were. (The opening/menu theme sounds a little like “Hare Hare Yukai” from Haruhi Suzumiya — hopefully a better fan can help me out here.)

All that leads me to a different question — can you enjoy HoloCure if you’re not a fan and know nothing about any of this Hololive or even VTuber bullshit? Obviously, you won’t get as much out of the game if you don’t pick up on or care about the references, and you certainly won’t get the inside jokes that come from well-known stream incidents like the Plug Type Asacoco above or Miko’s Elite Lava Bucket. HoloCure was made by fans, for fans, and also for the VTubers themselves, who have naturally been playing this on stream as well.

Takanashi Kiara in the Hololive offices, HoloCure

Kiara in the newly added Hololive HQ/office setting. This one feels a lot more challenging than the first stage’s open field since you can easily become trapped by enemies in here if you’re not careful.

Even so, I think a non-fan can still enjoy this game. It’s not just running around and killing/dodging enemies; there is a little skill involved at least mixed in with the RNG element of whether you’ll get good weapon and skill upgrades as you level up. I didn’t think I’d have that much fun with the game for its gameplay, but I have, and all the better that you can actually upgrade the characters as you progress by collecting coins and rolling to unlock new characters. In fact, the gacha element might make the game a little easier for non-fans, since they won’t be obsessively rolling to unlock best fox/cat friend Fubuki (who I still don’t have… damn. Soon, though.)

A-chan doesn't care about what you want. HoloCure

Pleading with the talent director A-chan won’t help. She won’t even look up from her screen; she’s just here to work.

So I’d say even if you know don’t or care a damn for Hololive or anything like it, you still might want to check this game out. It’s a free fan work and extremely high quality for that. And hell — I love itch.io, and I think indie gaming is the true future of the medium, but the fact is itch.io is filled with no/low-effort tossed-off crap that you have to dig through before finding the worthwhile games. The gems are there, but they can be hard to dig up, so any time I have one I’m likely to highlight it here.

And I barely even watch Hololive anymore, honestly. I am still waiting for an update that includes Pekora, but even more than that, I’d love to see a NijiCure. Maybe that’s just a dream. I certainly don’t have any of the skills necessary to putting a game like this together, but that’s a benefit to being the biggest: you generally get the most and best fan works (see also Touhou.) Though Nijisanji is huge in Japan too, and they’re catching up here as well, so maybe it’s just a matter of time.

YAGOO statute in HoloCure

Look out YAGOO, Anycolor is coming for Cover! Maybe this is why we keep getting denied that Pomu/Kiara collab, anyway — is HoloEN management afraid of attracting attention to the competition? The nice thing about smaller agencies is that they don’t seem to have such hangups with each other assuming that’s what’s going on here.

A lot of the above is probably gibberish to anyone who’s not deep in the rabbit hole like me, so I’ll shut up right now and just say that I had a good time with HoloCure and that you might too, even if you’re not in that hole. Just try not to get dragged into it yourself.

A review of K-On! (Season 1)

I finally got around to watching another anime standard. K-On! is one of the first names in relaxed slice-of-life comedy anime, a manga adaptation by the first-rate studio Kyoto Animation, better known as KyoAni.

I say it’s a standard, but K-On! isn’t universally beloved. As one of the best-known and most-cited examples of a “cute girls doing cute things” series (see also the much older Azumanga Daioh, much newer Yuru Camp, and contemporary Lucky Star) it gets a lot of disdain from some anime watchers depending on their tastes. Back in 2009 when this first season aired, I remember that “cute girls” anime trend was in full swing in the same way the isekai trend seems to be now, and along with all its popularity it also received plenty of backlash.

But was that backlash deserved? I used to ignore this genre myself, aside from Azumanga which somehow felt like an exception, being an older series and heavy on both comedy and surreal weirdness alongside all the high school slice-of-life material. Watching Yuru Camp early this year convinced me that I was wrong to ignore it, and I even found a lot to like in a pure slice-of-life series a bit later on with Akebi’s Sailor Uniform. So finally I decided it was time to watch the first season of what many consider the best CGDCT/slice-of-life series ever. Would I fall in love with K-On! like I did with Yuru Camp? (Yeah, I’m leaving you in suspense for a while this time, sorry. Unless you just want to cheat and scroll to the middle/end.)

As much as that “anime girl running to school with toast in her mouth” thing is a standard opening (so much that the Niigata prefectural government early this year complained that it was depressing rice consumption in introducing their new “anime girl running with onigiri in her mouth” campaign) this is the first time I’ve seen it in a while.

K-On! opens with Yui Hirasawa rushing off to her first day at Sakuragaoka High School. As a new first-year student, Yui is immediately set upon by representatives of every club at the school because if anime has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing on Earth more serious than Japanese high school club membership. Yui has a problem, though: she has no idea what club she wants to join. When her far more responsible childhood friend and classmate Nodoka Manabe asks her two weeks later what club she’s going to join, Yui is still drawing a blank — she doesn’t seem to have any real interests aside from eating and sleeping.

Nodoka, a new student council representative, won’t let Yui just join the Go Home Club and tells her she’ll end up a NEET if she doesn’t take some initiative, so Yui goes for the easiest and most fun-looking group she can find: the Light Music Club.* Thinking “light music” means she’ll get to play the castanets or some other easy-looking percussion instrument (which yeah, I know they’re not easy to play well and the show does acknowledge that later, so the percussionists reading this can put down their beating sticks) Yui walks into the club with full confidence and absolutely no musical training.

Club president Ritsu camping out in the music room. I don’t think they ever use the staves on the board back there to write any music, or not that I saw at least.

Meanwhile, Yui’s fellow freshmen and Light Music Club members are waiting to get a fourth member so they can be recognized as a proper club by the student council and school administration. Drummer Ritsu Tainaka, bassist Mio Akiyama, and keyboardist Tsumugi Kotobuki are specifically looking for a guitarist so they can form a four-piece band. When Yui shows up at the music room to visit, they’re all excited and assume she’s a guitarist, piling up tea and cakes in front of her to convince her to join.

Yui is surprised to learn that this club has such specific standards and finally admits with some embarrassment that she can’t play the guitar at all (and shit, maybe they should have written we need a guitarist on the flyer?) But it all sort of works out for everyone: since the student council is about to axe the club, they take Yui despite her lack of experience and promise that they’ll teach her how to play.

And since their keyboardist is the heiress to a company that owns a musical instrument dealer, they manage to get her a fucking Les Paul for her very first guitar, amazing luck for Yui. And have fun getting those calluses.

The rest of the season follows Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Tsumugi (aka Mugi as the girls call her) as they work on their music, write a few original songs, and get ready to perform in front of their classmates at their school festivals. An entire year breezes by halfway through this season, and with the new class of first-years comes an already skilled guitarist in Azusa Nakano, who makes the Light Music Club into a five-piece band. The club hits a few rough patches but gets through them, managing to write a few songs that become hits with their classmates and getting a taste for putting on live shows. And of course, they eat cake, drink tea, and screw around a whole lot while also doing their best to stay on top of their studies, but the last only really being an issue for Yui, who has the ability to actually study but not much in the way of discipline.

This is supposed to be a makeup midterm study session for Yui specifically, who screwed around so much she failed her first time around. But I like tea and cake too, I admit it, so I can’t judge them for this. (Also that lump on Ritsu’s head is from Mio’s much-deserved corrective slaps.)

K-On! is an interesting series to me largely for its impact on anime and the community (here in the West anyway, since I don’t know about the situation in Japan, but I assume it was probably a big deal there as well if not even bigger.) Like Azumanga, it was a huge hit online. It doesn’t seem to have had quite as wide of an appeal, but K-On! still received a lot of love, and I can see why, because there’s a lot going for it. KyoAni is highly regarded for good reason: the animation throughout this first season of K-On! is excellent. While I’m not a particular fan of their “squishy” character designs, Yui and her friends also have a unique look to them, and the style is recognizable and consistent.

I also like some of the music featured in K-On! It would be hard to forgive the show for failing to deliver at least a few good songs given its musical theme, and it does: Don’t Say Lazy, the ending theme, is a real earworm and a nice one even if the lyrics are a bit embarrassing (but that’s in character for the band’s lyricist Mio, so it’s all right) and Fuwa Fuwa Time is just god damn good. If my school had a band that could have written originals like these and performed them as well as the girls in K-On! do, that would have been impressive as hell. The show doesn’t skimp on the visuals and animation in these sections either: the playing actually looks realistic, at least to me. The instruments themselves are very real-looking as well, modeled as they are after real-life instruments (and hey, I’ve played a Korg synth a few times — not sure what model Mugi is using though.)

A rare scene of the girls actually practicing

Being a sort-of very amateur musician myself, I thought this series would be a perfect fit for me, especially since I’ve been on this cute slice-of-life binge. But it wasn’t, not quite. At least I can say this first season of K-On! hasn’t seized me in the way Yuru Camp did from its very first episode, and that series is about girls camping, a hobby I have absolutely no interest in. It’s weird how that works, isn’t it?

Before the legion of K-On! fans breaks down my door and demands an explanation, I should clarify that I didn’t hate or even dislike this run of episodes, not even close to it. If I had, I would have dropped it halfway through, because I don’t have the willpower to keep watching something I don’t enjoy on some level. I was hoping for more, though, based both on my own expectations and on the series’ great reputation.

My problem certainly wasn’t with the very light plot, which can be summed up as “high school girls play music and eat cake and drink tea.” By this point, I’ve watched enough anime more or less like that, only replacing “play music” with “go camping” or “just mess around all day” to know that this relative lack of plot absolutely isn’t a dealbreaker for me. But I think I’ve nailed down what I do need to really enjoy such a series, some mix of the following: 1) a compelling/entertaining cast of characters; 2) comedy that hits for me; 3) atmosphere so well done that the series sucks me into its world (and yeah, this last one sounds pretty flaky and hard-to-define to me writing it out, but I’m not sure how else to describe it.) I loved Azumanga and Yuru Camp for their characters and their comedy, and Akebi got me largely with its atmosphere.

This proves I really can’t live on cuteness alone

K-On!, or again at least its first season, was somewhat lacking in those areas for me. The characters in particular just didn’t grab me, aside from one, and having an interest in one character alone isn’t enough with an ensemble cast like this to keep my interest.

The “one” above isn’t the most central character Yui. With all her clumsy cuteness, you’d think I’d have liked her as much as I do Nadeshiko or Osaka, but no. I think my issue with Yui is that everything just comes too god damn easy to her, to the point that I’m not sure what exactly I should think of her — I guess she’s a lazy layabout who secretly has genius-level natural abilities judging by what she pulls off, but that’s not all that interesting to watch taking place. She has barely any motivation to study and fails her midterm, but it just takes one night of Mio drilling math into her head to get her a 100%; she seems to have not all that much work ethic or discipline but gets to be pretty damn good at the guitar in just a year to the point that she can do great in front of an audience (though the show acknowledges she’s not nearly as good as Azusa, sure.)

The same goes for the rest of the band, more or less. Aside from Azusa and Mio, the group has barely any motivation to practice, with the goof off Ritsu and flaky Yui being the main culprits and Mugi following along and providing a constant supply of tea and cake to go along with their leisure time. They do eventually get around to practicing, yeah, but they apparently also have a chronic case of laziness to the extent that Mio and later Azusa are pretty consistently annoyed by it. But despite all that, the girls put on great shows at their school festivals. (And maybe that’s why the ending is “Don’t Say Lazy”? Are they preempting this criticism?)

Practice?! Fuck that, let’s go to the beach

This might be an entirely stupid complaint. I didn’t watch K-On! expecting to watch the characters just practicing for 20 minutes per episode. But it does annoy me a little that there don’t seem to be much in the way of consequences for their general discord and fucking around. The real problem here might be with me and my own hangups: I never played in a band, but I did play solo piano from my childhood on, enough that even though I haven’t consistently kept it up for a while now, all that practice and muscle memory is burned into my brain and I can still do decently and polish my extremely rusty playing if I put the effort in.

The point is that I know playing well takes serious practice and discipline because I had to put that work in, and the same is true of even a natural genius which I’m damn well not. We do see Yui practicing her guitar a few times along with comments from her also far more responsible younger sister Ui that she’s gotten more focused, so that’s something, but a band is going to sound like a fucking mess if they spend most of their days in their club room eating cake and bullshitting.

That brings me to the one character in K-On! I really like so far: Mio. She has drive, discipline, and a backbone, and on top of all that she’s the only one in this first season with much of a real character arc, being forced to get over her shyness a bit so she can take the role of lead singer when Yui slips up and forgets her lines in their first performance. I don’t dislike Mugi, Ritsu, or even Yui although I complained about her a bit — they’re all fine. Same with Azusa, who also has plenty of motivation but unfortunately gets manipulated with cake bribes (which again I admit I completely understand.) But Mio is by far my favorite character at this point. Without her there grounding the rest at least somewhat, K-On! might have been a hard watch for me.

Then there’s the comedy, which doesn’t always hit for me. I think it’s pretty hard to write about why I find some jokes funny and not others — shit, I found Osaka’s sata andagi scene in Azumanga hilarious and I absolutely can’t explain why except that I really probably do have brain damage. K-On! does have some good bits, my favorite probably late in the season when the imposter Yui shows up (I won’t spoil it, but see if you can detect her) but too many of the jokes get repeated or fall flat for my taste.

The absolute worst offender for me in this regard is the club’s teacher advisor, Sawako Yamanaka, a former metalhead and Light Music Club member herself. I was on board with her “nice teacher turns out to be a weirdo/irresponsible shit” role for a while, sort of a Yukari going back to Azumanga (or for a better analogy, Chug-sensei from Yuru Camp — Yukari never made a pretense of being nice) until she started turning into a bit of a Kimura. I guess she’s meant as comic relief, but even so, I ended the series nearly hating Sawako for just this reason.

Oh God please shut the fuck up

I have no idea why Sawako’s character had to go in this direction. Even her enthusiasm in dressing the girls up in sometimes embarrassing costumes might have just been linked back to her theatrical rock past, her pining for her student life and the potential boyfriend who got away and all that tied up with it. But then she occasionally turns into a pervert and gets near-gropy with her students and god damn is that a dealbreaker for me.

If you’re new to this site or just haven’t read it for very long, you might think I’m being squeamish or prudish or something, but I can assure you I’m not. I love a good h-game, I’ll freely admit that. Stick around for a while and you’ll probably see me posting about one soon enough. But there’s a particular character type that shows up in anime every so often, the aggressive sort of pervert who’s more or less tolerated by the surrounding characters for some inexplicable reason, that gets under my skin to such an extent that I can’t stand it. At least Sawako doesn’t actually do anything beyond being a fucking creep sometimes (again, a bit like Kimura) but still, holy hell. (And now you might say “Okay, you loved Azumanga, but what about Kimura in that case?” But being a creep was his entire thing, and almost every other character recognized him as one and acted accordingly, which is largely not the case here aside from some sideways looks and comments and the occasional exceedingly deserved slap.)

And yeah, I know it’s all just meant to be more comedy, but I still can’t help feeling this way.

There’s also Mugi’s very occasionally expressed thing for yuri that I have no problem with (I mean I have a bit of a thing for yuri too, honestly) but it also comes out of and goes nowhere.

K-On! has clearly captivated a lot of fans since it started its run 13 years ago, to the point that people still watch it and talk about it on a regular basis. And again, I can see the appeal. All the complaining above might make it sound like I hated this series, and I don’t want to give that impression because it would be the wrong one. I enjoyed some of the cake-eating and tea-drinking fun times the girls shared, and I really liked the attention to detail surrounding the music and performances when the show focused on those elements. Details like Mio being left-handed and the difficulties that presents with finding a suitable bass, or some of the references that obviously weren’t just shoehorned in with Mio going on about how great a guitarist Jeff Beck was when asking Yui about her influences in the first episode, or about how Ritsu is basically a schoolgirl non-alcoholic/not constantly stoned version of Keith Moon (and I understand he’s her favorite drummer, which completely makes sense given her temperament and playing style — in fact she and Mio feel like they have a Keith Moon/John Entwistle sort of dynamic going on. Now I really want to hear the girls’ take on “Heaven and Hell.”) I get the impression the original manga author Kakifly has a real love for this music too.

The Who comparison only goes so far, I guess. Yui certainly isn’t a Pete Townshend and there’s no Roger Daltrey around either. But be sure to listen to Live at Leeds anyway, one of the best live albums ever recorded.

So if I absolutely had to say whether I liked K-On! or not with no other qualifiers, I’d say I liked it. Drowning myself in this fluffy slice-of-life feels almost therapeutic now, and KyoAni did a great job with the production. Aside from the bits that include Sawako prominently, I didn’t really dislike any part of this first season. I’ve also heard that the second season of K-On! is stronger than the first, and I think I enjoyed the first just enough to want to continue watching based on that recommendation. Ritsu claims they’re going all the way to the Budokan, and if they do, I’d like to see how they make it there.

And hey, the final performance was mostly nice and heartwarming too, and again “Fuwa Fuwa Time” is a good enough song that it probably salvaged all the not-so-great parts for me.

But maybe I’m just a jerk who still doesn’t truly get it. I’ve heard K-On! called the peak of this CGDCT/slice-of-life anime genre, but I think if I’d started with this instead of Yuru Camp, I might not have tried getting any further into this genre considering my biases not too long ago. But maybe I will get this series when I start watching the second season. Feel free to tell me exactly what I missed in the comments: that’s what they’re there for. If you’re really skilled you might even get me over my near-compulsive dislike of Sawako, though good luck with that if it’s your plan.

Either way, I’ll be continuing the series after starting/getting through a few more in the backlog, so look forward to more on K-On! at some point. Until next time!

 

* Language note that most of you probably know about already: the title K-On! comes from keion, short for keiongaku or “light music.” Just like Yui, I’d never heard the term “light music” before hearing about this series years ago, but apparently it’s another term for pop. Not exactly easy to play either.

A review of Azumanga Daioh

Azumanga Daioh coverLast month, early in my August daily writing binge, I put up a short post about the Azumanga Daioh opening theme Soramimi Cake and the memories it brought back. Memories of resting the morning after puking my insides out from college antics, so not exactly the best kind (or not the most wholesome anyway.)

Watching the then still pretty recent slice-of-life comedy Azumanga (this was back around 2006 from what I remember, and no I wasn’t 21 yet: I remember that much) helped ease my mind a few of those mornings. It was an unusual choice for me — back then, I didn’t have much of an interest in anime like this and was far more into the adult-oriented action, that dark and gritty stuff for manly men like me. I’m pretty sure I picked up Azumanga for the sole reason that images and animated gifs of it were all over the internet back then, or at least around the anime-enjoying parts of it, and those gifs especially were entrancing enough to make me take an interest.

Azumanga Daioh knucklehead dance

I just had to know, you can’t blame me

After writing that post, I decided to check back on the first couple of episodes of Azumanga. This 26-episode series aired over the spring and summer of 2002, based on an original manga by Kiyohiko Azuma published from 1999 to 2002 in Dengeki Daioh (which I went over in that post, but I can’t go without repeating the origin of the series’ name in this one.) Twenty years now makes this officially “old anime”, or maybe classic or vintage if you want to be fancy about it, and watching it again after 16 or 17 years felt like seeing it again for the first time, only with some hazy memories that made it all feel familiar: the very best kind of rewatching experience.

That was the feeling I had watching the first two episodes again, like a warm blanket on a cold morning, and about as close as I can get anymore to the warmth of a glass of whiskey along with it (though not in the morning, not even back then.) This feeling was so nice that I watched a few more episodes, and a few more the next day, and at some point I was halfway through and well on my way to a full rewatch because Azumanga Daioh ended up holding up even better than I thought it would. Strangely enough, even though it’s set in high school and mostly follows a central cast of six friends living their high school lives, I think I got more from the series as an embittered working adult than I did as a drunken idiot college student far closer in time to those days.

Yukari and Nyamo drinking

Part of it had to do with these two, but not entirely. Also yeah check out that 4×3 aspect ratio, such memories. That’s how you know Azumanga is vintage anime.

I plan to explore that feeling and others further along this post. But I don’t plan on writing this review in the typical way. The plot to Azumanga is extremely simple: a bunch of friends go through high school from start to finish. That’s really it. Azumanga isn’t the first anime series I’ve written about with no real plot to speak of beyond “cast of characters live their lives”, with just a couple of character-specific side-plots that show up now and then. But it is maybe the least plot-heavy (plot-lightest?) one I’ve taken on in comparison to its extremely strong emphasis on its characters. Since this is one of the most character-driven shows I’ve watched, I feel like outlining the central and supporting cast before getting in depth with my thoughts on the series as a whole. Starting with:

Sakaki

Sakaki from Azumanga Daioh

Just Sakaki — her given name is a mystery. She starts as a bit of an outsider thanks to her quiet and mild demeanor and her imposing aura — she’s tall and striking, excelling at both studies and sports and inspiring sort of girl-crushes in her class (and an actual romantic crush from another character I’ll get to later.) Despite her reputation, Sakaki loves cute things, especially cats (who don’t reciprocate her love and usually bite her when she tries to pet them) and wishes to be cute herself. She also has a tendency to daydream, making up elaborate fantasies that she occasionally mistakes for reality, though thankfully in a pretty harmless way. Though she’s not all that talkative, Sakaki slowly becomes a solid part of the central cast’s friend group.

Kagura

Kagura from Azumanga Daioh

The other girl in the central group with just one name we know. Kagura starts out in a different class from the rest of the group and sees Sakaki as a rival at athletics when they’re in different classes their first years (though not in academics, which she’s terrible at.) After being in the background for a while, she transfers to the main group’s class in their second year and befriends Sakaki and the rest. As the resident tomboy, Kagura is a tough girl, but she also has a softer side (so a pretty typical anime tomboy type? Still like her though.)

Koyomi Mizuhara

Koyomi Mizuhara from Azumanga Daioh

Better known as Yomi. Studious and serious, Yomi is often the voice of reason in the group, except when she loses her temper. She often fights with the next girl on this list, her childhood friend and classmate Tomo Takino, for reasons that are entirely understandable. Sometimes has a bit of a sarcastic and occasionally even a mean streak and is more than capable of scheming, but her heart’s usually in the right place. Yomi is also constantly watching her weight (and getting teased by Tomo about it.)

Tomo Takino

Tomo Takino from Azumanga Daioh

Yomi’s childhood friend and long-time classmate, and the self-appointed class clown and Kagura-appointed “idiot wildcat”, or I think that’s how it was translated. Tomo has an endless supply of energy, yet somehow she consistently shrugs off her studies, gets bad grades, and even fails at athletics. She’s also generally a reckless nuisance who inserts herself into any and every conversation and situation she feels like, often speaking and acting before thinking, and usually aggravating Yomi and starting fights between them. Despite Tomo’s obnoxious nature, she’s also a source of positive energy (sometimes positive anyway) and is still counted as a close friend of the group, bringing them together in sometimes unexpected ways. Even if it’s only to get yelled at by everyone else.

Chiyo Mihama

Chiyo Mihama from Azumanga Daioh

In some ways the most remarkable member of the central group, Chiyo is a newly minted high school student at only ten years old, a child prodigy who jumped several grades out of elementary school. You might expect a precocious brat out of a character like Chiyo, and though she is both from a wealthy family and extremely intelligent (not just for her age, but even compared to her much older classmates) she doesn’t have a superior attitude and tries hard to just be another high school student. Her total lack of physical coordination also helps balance her out a bit character-wise.

For their part, her friends at school treat her largely in just the way she wants, as just a friend and fellow classmate, though she does become something of a class mascot during their sports and cultural festivals. Chiyo also gets a bit bullied for her small stature sometimes, particularly by Tomo and their homeroom teacher (and man, more about her soon too.)

Ayumu Kasuga

Ayumu Kasuga (or Osaka) from Azumanga Daioh

And then there’s the most truly remarkable character in this central cast. You might not know the name Ayumu Kasuga, but find any list of popular anime characters over the last twenty years and you’ll find Osaka somewhere in there — this is the legend herself. Ayumu joins the class at the beginning of Azumanga as a transfer student from Osaka to Tokyo, yet despite Osakans’ reputation for being rowdy and loud (something like New Yorkers’ or Bostonians’ reputation here in the States maybe?) she’s just the opposite, both slow- and soft-spoken. Even though she defies Tomo’s expectations about how Osakans are supposed to act, Ayumu still gets pinned by her with the nickname “Osaka”. This new name instantly sticks to the point that it’s easy to forget that’s not her actual name, and also to the point that I’ll just be calling her Osaka too from now on.

There isn’t any other character quite like Osaka. She’s sometimes considered dumb, with her constant trailing off and her difficulties with her studies, but she’s anything but — her mind just operates on a completely different wavelength than everyone else’s. Osaka often isn’t paying much attention to what’s happening around her, but that’s because she’s wondering about the origins of common expressions or words or simply about why life is the way it is. Like Sakaki, Osaka has bizarre dreams that she confuses with reality, but unlike Sakaki, she also seems to forever live in a semi-dreamlike state. She’s my favorite character in Azumanga without question, and that’s a high bar to clear.

In addition to this main cast, Azumanga features several important supporting characters, some of the more prominent including:

Yukari Tanizaki

Yukari Tanizaki from Azumanga Daioh

An English teacher and also homeroom teacher to the central group. Yukari is casual and offhanded despite her role as a teacher, even letting her students refer to her by her given name and even as Yukari-chan. Yukari still seems to want to be a student, an irresponsible adult if there ever was one — she’s inconsiderate and cheap as hell, a real contrast to her friend, former classmate, and current colleague Minamo Kurosawa. It’s not a big stretch to say Yukari is probably how Tomo will turn out if she stays on her current course.

All that said, Yukari still has a real impact on her class and on the central characters, most of whom are with her all three years of high school. I’d say her heart is also in the right place but I’m not so sure with Yukari. But then she sure doesn’t give any fucks, and I guess I can respect that to some extent.

Minamo Kurosawa

Minamo Kurosawa from Azumanga Daioh

A P.E./gym teacher and homeroom teacher in the class next to Yukari’s. In contrast with Yukari, Minamo is actually respected by her students throughout the series for her maturity and kindness, often inspiring jealousy in Yukari that she doesn’t bother to resolve by being a better teacher herself. Minamo and Yukari are still close friends despite Yukari being Yukari — they attended the very same high school they work at in the same class years earlier, and Minamo soon becomes known as Yukari’s nickname for her, “Nyamo”, by the central characters. In some ways, Nyamo is the most relatable character to me, which I suppose is probably a good sign for my mental maturity.

Kaorin

Poor Kaorin

Another student in the same grade as the central cast. Kaorin is friendly with everyone, and while she isn’t quite a solid part of that central cast, she does get invited along to hang out with them sometimes. Kaorin’s main thing, however, is her massive, no-question actual romantic crush on Sakaki — she’s constantly trying to find a way to get closer to her beloved, though sadly for Kaorin that love is never reciprocated. Though to be fair Kaorin never really expresses it either, and Sakaki does live in her own world most of the time and isn’t the most observant except when it comes to animals. Poor Kaorin.

Kimura

Kimura is a creep, Azumanga Daioh

Poor Kaorin, because the only person who expresses that kind of feeling about her is this guy. Kimura is the school’s Japanese literature teacher, an exceedingly strange and creepy man with a passion for high school girls. Yeah, specifically the girls. He’s shockingly open about his feelings and his thankfully futile attempts to get the girls to wear their swimsuits to class and so on. There are plenty of absurd aspects of Azumanga, but maybe the most absurd is the fact that Kimura still has a job by the end of the story. (But then again, maybe that’s not so unusual.)

There does seem to be a little more to Kimura than that, and he never goes beyond some creepy and bizarre behavior particularly towards Kaorin, who’s tragically placed in his class in her third year. But still, man. This fucking guy.

Chiyo’s father

HELLO EVERYNYAN

He’s a cat. Don’t tell him he isn’t a cat. Also speaks English, can fly, and has other useful powers.

These and a few other characters (a couple of other students, a few cats, a dog, and a mysterious woman you’ll get to discover for yourself) spend 26 episodes just living their lives. Again, there really isn’t any plot to speak of in Azumanga. That’s by design, because the show clearly doesn’t mean to have a plot, unless “high schoolers coming of age” counts. There’s no romance (aside from the running “Kaorin loves Sakaki” joke, and something that one-sided hardly qualfies) and no drama, only a bunch of comedy bits strung together across three years of high school and its full run of classes, exams, cultural festivals, sports days, and summer vacation trips.

That might not sound terribly impressive or interesting to you, and reading the premise on paper it doesn’t to me either. At least I would have said that before starting to get into the slice-of-life genre early this year. Azumanga feels very much like a precursor to that strangely anime/manga-only “slice-of-life/cute girls doing cute things” sort of hybrid genre, containing a wide variety of series with Lucky Star, Nichijou, Yuru Camp, and K-On! among the best-known. This series introduces a lot of the comedy and surreal humor this genre would become known for, and though these following series would have their own unique blends of those elements, some leaving out the surreal parts and others jacking up them even more (Nichijou, from what I’ve seen — it’s also on my list to watch) I think they all owe a lot to the work of Mr. Azuma and the team at the studio J.C.Staff that produced this adaptation.

Chiyo and her dog Mr. Tadakichi talk to Sakaki

Mr. Tadakichi is the dog

A lot of the character in Azumanga comes out of the VA performances. I’ve only watched the show subbed (I know, I’m that snooty sub elitist) and the voice actors all do excellent jobs, with Osaka’s languid trailing off lines being a special highlight for me. I still don’t have that much of an ear for it, but her VA Yuki Matsuoka is an Osaka native as well, and I know at least enough Japanese to hear some of that dialect in her speech — a nice touch there, like getting a Bostonian character an actor actually from Boston who doesn’t have to try to put on that accent.*

But setting my subtitle elitism aside, I’ve also heard the dub is pretty damn good and even iconic. Rare enough for an anime from 20 years ago to get that kind of attention to detail and quality in localization, though it still seems like a point of controversy that they decided to make Osaka into a country girl in her speech patterns both in the translated manga and the anime dub (look at Google Earth and go to Osaka; it’s anything but country.) But I’ve seen a few dub clips and it all works in the strange sort of way that somehow fits with the general strangeness of Azumanga. The only potential issue with watching the dub is that a few jokes based on language puns might not translate so well, but that’s not a new problem for translators and localizers working from Japanese to English. Maybe they found some creative ways around those issues.

Osaka from Azumanga Daioh wondering about the difference between escalators and elevators

This one doesn’t need explanation since they’re using English loanwords. When you think about it, “escalate” and “elevate” describe the same act, don’t they?

These characters don’t have a whole lot of development outside of Sakaki, who has her own separate story running through the series that resolves in a really nice and heartwarming way (and I don’t even mean “heartwarming” in the sappy sarcastic sense — it really works perfectly.) But I don’t think that matters since Azumanga stands well enough on its sometimes absurd comedy and on the occasional warm feelings it creates. I don’t think this series had a single episode I disliked or was at all bored by. That’s even considering the fact that some of its gags are drawn out with pauses and a lot of repetition, but they work perfectly well in this context.

Osaka floats off into the sea, Azumanga Daioh

Again, a lot of these scenes involve Osaka, seen here floating off totally oblivious into the sea. I think whether you like Osaka is a good test for whether you’ll like the series as a whole.

Maybe it’s strange that I like Azumanga so much. I’ve heard other fans say that the sense of nostalgia it creates is a big part of its appeal, and I can see that myself. It’s one of those series that transported me back to a time when I didn’t have bills to pay, and when life still held at least a little hope — when I still had some sense that there might be something out there in the world for me that I just hadn’t found yet. It’s a little melancholic going back to Azumanga so long after all that hope’s been fully crushed and disposed of, but my feelings when rewatching it were far more positive than that on the whole.

No, the strange part in my case is that my high school life was a fucking misery too, just in a different way. Being a painfully awkward and socially inept kid through most of middle school and the first few years of high school, I holed up with books and games. Not so much with anime, not back then, but I had plenty to keep me occupied in my own bubble, and by the time I’d started finally getting fed up and breaking out of my shell a bit, it was far too late to overcome first impressions, so I waited until college to bother with that.

So why the fuck should I enjoy a show about high school? Or any of these shows set in high school for that matter? I don’t have any warm fuzzy feelings about that godforsaken place, not even today, looking back near two decades after leaving.

Yukari and Nyamo at their desks at work, Azumanga Daioh

Depends on who you were and what you mean by easygoing, Yukari. But Yukari is easygoing even as an adult.

Maybe Azumanga works for me despite that because it’s still pretty far removed from my own American high school experience. On top of all the show’s surreal weirdness, that may create enough of a distance that I’m not exactly reminded of my own school life while still getting the benefit of nostalgic feelings from earlier childhood before that bullshit began. I can certainly relate to the girls’ struggles through their entrance exams, but I’m mostly digging the nicer memories of being a kid up from those earlier years.

At the same time, my current self can strongly relate with Minamo’s thoughts about adulthood in particular (since Yukari doesn’t seem to have those thoughts too much herself.) The idea of having to “get serious”, thinking about starting a family (and getting pressure from family yourself) is almost painfully relatable. Maybe a bit less for a man than a woman, but at least in the culture I was partly raised in, we get it as well.

If anything at all pained me about watching Azumanga, it was these occasional looks into my present and future as an adult with responsibilities. The show doesn’t dwell too much on these adult moments, but they’re nice breaks from all the high school-related insanity going on for the vast majority of its running time, and I especially like how the students are depicted as looking up to Minamo and not quite as much up to Yukari (and as for Kimura, again, the less said, the better.)

Yukari and Nyamo at nighttime, Azumanga Daioh

I’m looking for a Nyamo in my life, but I’ll probably end up with a Yukari, God help me. I also wonder what Yukari said to make their surprise blind dates bail on them — it’s left a mystery.

Once again I’ve written probably far too much about a simple comedy. But you know, sometimes what seems simple really isn’t, and seeing Azumanga again stirred up a lot of feelings in me, so I had to express them fully. Looking back now, the soundtrack did a lot to stir up those feelings too: I already wrote about the appropriately bizarre/lighthearted opener “Soramimi Cake”, but the show is full of memorable background music, many tracks that instantly came back into my mind the moment they began playing. I would post examples here, but there are so many that I’ll just put up this playlist I found on YouTube of both OSTs.

Sakaki and Kagura walking home from Azumanga Daioh

Oh such memories, such a simpler time, having to deal with evil stray cats on the way home

My final word on Azumanga Daioh is that it’s a great series that truly deserves to be called a classic. Maybe the production value isn’t quite up to today’s standards — certainly Azumanga isn’t nearly as detailed or nice-looking as some modern series — but the style works perfectly in its context, and every other element of the series works so well that I didn’t even notice the aged look of the show (though again this is coming from someone who loved almost all of Legend of the Galactic Heroes as well, and the original version too.) Azumanga may not be for you, for example if you absolutely need some serious action in your anime or you’re so deathly allergic to school-setting series that you can’t stand the sight of a sailor suit in any context at all. But even if these describe you, I’d encourage you to at least watch the first episode, because you might find something new to love like I did.

 

* Watch Scorsese’s The Departed. Good movie if you’re up for a lot of gang violence, but apparently it features some of the worst Boston accents in any movie. If you’re a Bostonian maybe check it out and see what you think of it.

The end of Blaugust, a few lessons, and a look forward

This Blaugust challenge month is finally over. It’s been an interesting time for me — before this month I can’t even remember whether I’d posted two posts on consecutive days since starting the blog nine years ago, and now I have a full 31 days of posts. I’m not writing this particular post to blow my own horn though, but rather to go through a few lessons I’m taking away from this challenge (whether these are reasonable lessons to take away, you can be the judge) and to think aloud about the future. Starting with the lessons:

1) I can’t maintain a daily posting schedule.

This might seem like a strange conclusion to draw from this challenge since I’m on the brink of fulfilling my goal, but now I know just how much it takes to keep up a daily schedule. I actually had some help this month: a few extremely sleepless nights combined with a restlessness that wouldn’t let me even lie down at 1 am. Nothing else to do but come up with post ideas. I should note that these just happened by chance — I’m not loading myself up with caffeine (not too much of it, at least) or other substances to keep me going, I just can’t sleep very much some nights.

Aside from that restlessness and intermittent semi-insomnia, I just dug up a lot of post ideas that I normally wouldn’t run with or that I’d combine into one large post. I know Google doesn’t care much for the 3,000+ word posts I’ve been writing more of lately, and while Google can go fuck itself as far as I’m concerned since I don’t care that much about view count, I can’t exactly write those on a daily basis. If I were trying to monetize I’d probably adjust along those lines, since shorter and more frequent posting seems like the way to go for view count purposes (a nice hint for those who are going for monetization.) But my job is my job, and I don’t plan on getting a cent for my writing, not since I basically quit freelancing. In any case, I’ll be returning to a roughly weekly schedule in September, but it’s nice to know I can pull this daily schedule off on occasion at least, and I have a new respect for those who can hack it every day.

2) I can’t stop writing.

I already knew this, but this month just reinforced it. Writing is really the only thing I do that I both enjoy and am any good at at all. It also has a therapeutic effect on me. It might not be a coincidence that I started thinking about living an actual healthy not-killing-myself-slowly life in 2019, the same year I got serious about writing here and started connecting with other bloggers in the same spheres. I tried to take a break once a while back because of mental health sorts of concerns, but I ended up right back here a couple of weeks later.

That’s not to say a hiatus isn’t necessary for anyone to ever take. I’ve known bloggers who have taken them and returned after a month or two or even longer refreshed. People deal with their issues in various ways, and stepping away for a while might be yours. And stepping away from social media sure as hell can be a good idea too, and I’ll include myself in that. Scrolling on Twitter can exhaust the soul.

3) Online writing is still alive and well.

I also already knew this one, but hell if some people online don’t love to talk about how blogging is dead. Sure, podcasts have risen massively in popularity over the last decade — I’m a regular listener of a few history podcasts myself. The same is true of YouTube and streaming. But people aren’t done with reading, and I don’t believe they ever will be. Especially when Google still rules the Earth and directs users to our posts (assuming we’re lucky enough to have those posts on page 1 for the relevant search terms. I need to brush up on the SEO when I have some time.)

That’s about it. I’m not taking anything profound away from this month; I just had a good time with it and was happy to see other writers taking part. Maybe I’ll even do it again next year if I can scrape up 31 more post ideas like I miraculously did this month.

As for the rest of the year and beyond, I’ll be continuing with the pretty strong focus on anime. I’ve completed a few series that I still have to collect my thoughts about, and I have a few more I’m now watching and still more on that long backlog to get through. I also have plenty of games to dig through in the backlog, mostly on the shorter side. Games I actually have a hope of completing this year in other words.

I’m going to have a massive amount of work over the next four months, but I won’t stop writing here — my pace might slow a bit at times, but that’s all. For now, there’s nothing else to say except compliments to my fellow writers, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll continue to follow me.

Upcoming anime watchlist

I usually don’t write posts like these, but 1) I need one more post to fill up this daily August challenge before the big finale tomorrow and 2) next season has a lot of interesting anime to look forward to, more than usual in my case. The following info is taken from Livechart, which has been produced charts of airing anime for a long time now. Starting with:

Chainsaw Man

At the top of the list because it’s something new to me and looks amazing. I picked up and read the first volume of the manga, the story of Denji, a poor bounty hunter who kills demons to pay off his dead father’s yakuza debts. After being nearly killed himself, Denji makes a contract with his pet, a dog with a chainsaw for a face. After this contract is made, Denji and said dog are able to merge and create Chainsaw Man, basically Denji with a chainsaw for a face, who can regenerate his wounds (lucky thing since it also means he recovered all the bits he cut out and sold of himself to partially pay off that debt, ouch.)

I don’t have much idea what to expect given that I haven’t gotten too far into the series yet, but Denji is an interesting guy so far, and his relationship with the mysterious Makima looks like it’s going to be a central element.

Spy x Family (second cour)

Of course, yeah. If you need an explanation (i.e. you’re one of the few anime watchers who didn’t get roped into the series last season, or you don’t watch much anime and missed out) check out my review of the first cour. The second cour of 12 episodes starts airing this fall, and my expectations are high just like most everyone else’s.

Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro: 2nd Attack (season 2)

After a year and change, we’re finally getting an anime followup to the first season of Nagatoro. I’ve been reading the manga, one of only a couple I actively follow, so once again the story probably won’t be a surprise at all for me, but I’m still excited to see Nagatoro and her put-upon senpai return to the screen. This one is coming up this winter, starting in January 2023, but since I know I’ll be watching it anyway I figured I’d throw it onto the list too.

Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! ω (season 2)

I’m not quite as excited about Uzaki-chan coming back, since I wasn’t crazy about the first season back in 2020. Then again, I didn’t exactly dislike it either, and I feel just invested enough in this slow-burn romance (on top of Nagatoro, Takagi-san, and whatever the hell is going on between Loid and Yor in Spy x Family, not to mention between Damian and Anya) that I’ll check out the second season this fall. Clever use of a Greek letter too, though I don’t think the ω here is meant to mean omega but rather one of those anime cat smiles.

Teasing Master Takagi-san: The Movie

Speaking of Takagi-san, the movie I brought up in my review of the show’s third season a few days ago is listed as releasing on November 15. It’s already played in theaters, so this refers to its Blu-ray and DVD debut. Not sure if it’s getting a release on stream as well, but I’ll get my hands on it as soon as possible either way.

Urusei Yatsura (2022)

And finally for something very different: a remake of Urusei Yatsura, from what I understand a series about a hot alien demon girl who comes to Earth with her friends to take it over, only she falls in love with a human guy. I guess Urusei Yatsura is a sci-fi romantic comedy from that description, which sounds like a good enough time to me to check out. The anime first aired in the 80s, based on a manga that started in the 70s — a real classic. Even though I won’t have the perspective of an old fan watching a remake that may or may not screw up the original material, it will be interesting to see how the new series is handled and to hear from people who are familiar with the original.

In addition to my still agonizingly long backlog, that’s what I’ve got to look forward to right now. There are also plenty of other interesting-looking sequels coming out as well for series I just haven’t gotten to on my list (Mob Psycho, Vinland Saga.) Damn, there’s really too much to watch. I hope I can catch up on all this stuff after I’m dead, because it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to make it before my final day whenever that is.

I’m on a slice-of-life binge right now, but I’m sure I’ll get back to the more intense anime later on. Maybe after I finish K-On!, which really feels like required watching for me at this point.

See you tomorrow for the final post of the month!

Historical drama film review, pt 3 of ?: Der Untergang (Downfall)

Now here’s a heavy subject, just about the heaviest featured on the site in a while. I couldn’t pass by this historical drama review series without bringing up the German film Der Untergang, or Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. I saw this in the theater when it aired in 2004 and remembered being extremely impressed by the whole film: the acting, atmosphere, everything seemed perfectly done. I rewatched it not long ago, so I can report to you on whether I think it held up.

Downfall is set in Berlin in April and May of 1945. If you know your history, you’ll know this wasn’t a great time for the city. After over five years of constant war throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, a war that at least in Europe was sparked by the aggression of the Nazi government based in Berlin, the German capital was finally having that war brought home. The film recounts many of the important events of this brief period, mostly surrounding the political situation — while some of the action takes place in the streets in the thick of the Battle of Berlin, more of it occurs in the Führerbunker, Hitler’s underground hideout in the center of the city’s government district.

This focus makes sense, since the story itself is based largely on two primary accounts, the memoirs of Nazi architect and minister of armaments Albert Speer and Hitler’s personal secretary Traudl Junge, both present in the bunker and around Hitler just before and in Junge’s case after his suicide. Both survived long past the war, with Speer living until 1981 after serving twenty years for his crimes at Spandau Prison. Both were also apparently very open about the monstrous nature of the regime, and if Downfall is any indication of the personally monstrous nature of Adolf Hitler as well.*

Not that Hitler needs any introduction. He’s one of the few guys in history whose name is automatically used to mean massive, unimaginable evil. One of the most impressive aspects of Downfall then is how it humanizes the dictator while not pretending he was anything other than horrifically twisted and evil. Famous German actor Bruno Ganz plays Hitler and does an amazing job at transforming into the man, and the version of him by the end of the war suffering from nervous ailments that left him a shaking mess.

This “humanization” again shouldn’t be mistaken for sympathy. I think people do a real disservice to history and to all the people who suffered through the war and its crimes and persecutions by treating Hitler like a sort of storybook monster or demon instead of what he was: a man. Again, a twisted and evil man, but I think people sometimes want to brush over the obvious fact that Hitler was a man out of a belief that no human could really be so evil (and the same goes for his nemesis Stalin, or for any other murderous and oppressive dictator.) Downfall forces us to look at the man as he was, at least according to the accounts of two people very close to him in different ways.

The other aspects of the film are also excellent. Downfall isn’t just a recitation of events but tells several stories revolving around the central character of Hitler and the regime built upon him and that would die with him. Many of the events in the bunker are shocking enough, with Hitler’s lieutenants and functionaries and his long-time girlfriend Eva Braun doing their best to cope with their imminent deaths or arrests. Downfall starts with a brief prologue in 1942 in East Prussia, right around Germany’s period of greatest territorial gain and before it started getting rolled back, but the main part of the story begins around Hitler’s final birthday on April 20, 1945. Despite the Soviet Red Army rolling in and shelling Berlin to hell, Braun and the remaining inner circle still hold a small party in his honor while the man himself is holed up in his office.

Meanwhile on the streets above, Berlin is being treated as a “front city”, and with Hitler’s remaining regular forces tied up fighting off the Soviet wave, the city’s children and old men are pressed into service carrying out street-to-street battles. Much of the early part of Downfall is centered on the impossibility of the Nazi regime’s survival contrasted with Hitler’s delusional hopes that it can stand — that one of his generals will coordinate an attack that somehow throws the Soviets out of the city and back to the east. Even after his hopes are dashed, however, he has no mercy for his own people and refuses to surrender, instead planning out his own suicide and the transfer of his powers to his remaining highest loyal officer, the infamous propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

If you were around on YouTube ten years ago or so, you’ve probably seen one of the hundreds of parodies of the above scene (or of the Fegelein scene) in which Hitler rants about being banned from XBox Live or a furry convention or whatever he happens to be angry about that day. Even though Bruno Ganz wasn’t a big fan of these parodies from what I’ve heard, and I completely understand that, it might be a testament to just how immersive this film is that people loved these scenes enough to use them for purposes totally unrelated to World War II. There’s something fascinating to me about watching a world crumble like the Nazis’ world does in Downfall, even if that downfall was truly deserved and far too long in coming. Even in this world, with some of its well-deserved deaths, there’s some true tragedy — see the fates of the Goebbels’ young children at the hands of their own parents.

Then there are the civilians of Berlin. It’s an interesting point that might not be obvious just from watching this film, but Hitler by all accounts disliked Berlin. He made his real home in Bavaria after leaving his native Austria and even makes a point of hiring Traudl Junge in the film’s first scene because she’s from Munich. Berlin by contrast was long resistant to him, a center of “decadent art” and of democratic and left-wing politics during the Weimar Republic era before the Nazis rubbed out all non-underground opposition in 1933-34. Hitler’s ultimate plan for the capital was its complete rebuilding into a neo-classical monster called Germania, the plans for which we see in an early scene still above ground between Hitler and Speer.

Considering all that, it might make more sense why Hitler was so willing to sacrifice Berlin, even if he did stay in the capital himself to die. Or maybe not — maybe Hitler would have just as readily sacrificed any people around him to hang on for another day before ending his life. I’m not a historian, but it’s an interesting question. All Germans in any case, whether they’d voted for the Nazis when Germany still had free elections or not, and whether they supported Hitler’s violent policies against the Jews and others he considered undesirables or not, fell into the hands of the Allies after the war ended, experiencing various fates depending on whose hands they were in (i.e. hopefully not the Soviets’, though considering how Germany treated the Russians and allied nations on the eastern front, some brutality in return had to be expected.)

To me, that’s just another mark of the evil of Hitler and his top officials, that in the end they didn’t even give a damn for their own people’s lives. One of the mitigating facts that saved the high Nazi official Speer from the death penalty or a life sentence when he went on trial in Nuremberg in 1946 was his sabotage of destructive orders as Germany lost the war that would have caused further suffering. I don’t think you can call any single person in Hitler’s inner circle anything near a “good” person, but there are different degrees of amorality and evil, or at least enough that the court at Nuremberg recognized a difference between them.**

Whether such matters of honor made a difference to the millions of already dead victims is a different question, but that question doesn’t go ignored in Downfall even if it’s not directly addressed by it, with Goebbels declaring to Junge his continued belief that it was all the Jews’ fault, everything. Nothing like blaming your victims for your own destruction.

So it’s a heavy post today, but I do recommend Downfall to anyone interested in the time period. I just wish we had more works set in Weimar-era Germany — now that was an interesting time, and also a tragic one considering how unstable it was and how the fragile interwar German democracy was brought down from the inside. Not a bad lesson for the future, either.

 

* Important to note here that Speer has been accused of fabricating parts of his memoirs to clean up his own reputation and image. As far as I’ve heard, the parts of Downfall based on his memoirs are pretty much accurate, however — there would have been enough people also involved who survived, like Junge, to corroborate those parts of the story.

** From a legal standpoint, the Nuremberg trials are also fascinating. I’ve heard arguments that they were illegitimate because they applied human rights principles retroactively, or ex post facto in legal jargon, to the Nazi defendants. However, there’s plenty of argument to make that the Nazis were well aware of the horrific nature of their crimes to the extent that the “superior orders” defense shouldn’t have been sufficient to save them — see all the way back to the 15th century and the trial of Peter von Hagenbach. Was Nuremberg victors’ justice? There might have been some of that involved, but the extraordinary nature of the crimes committed demanded this response. That’s my argument, anyway, and it’s not an especially brave or out-there stance to take.

Writing in hiding

Okay, “in hiding” is way too dramatic. There have been writers who have actually had to hide out of fear of being harassed or even murdered (as we saw last week.) What I’m talking about here is far more mundane and less of an actual issue, but one that I still think a lot of people who write online have to deal with: the matter of who to let in on your writing in your offline life. For some people, I think this isn’t an issue at all — either you’re writing on subjects that you feel people won’t have any issues with, or your friends, colleagues, and family are cool to the point that nothing you write about will faze them, or alternatively you just don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of you and your interests.

None of the above is true for me, and I’m guessing it’s not for a lot of writers here. Most of us have to be at least a little selective about who we let in on that we write online, since those old questions can follow: what do you write about, do you have a site/blog, where is it so I can follow it. Sometimes all these might just be polite questions that the person asking will never follow up on, but you never know when you’re talking to that rare one who might actually look your work up.

Not quite my work. I wish I had this kind of talent.

This partly links back to a post I wrote a few days ago about getting more personal. One of the reasons I think I get personal about certain issues on this blog is that I can’t do so in real life. We all have matters we can and can’t talk about with certain people — some only with close friends, some only with family (or excluding family, another important point.) And some require a kind of partial anonymity at least to talk about.

I can find at least a few reasons why I can’t share this site with anyone I know in real life. I’ve recently brought up my past issues with drinking, for example. This was a matter I felt I had to get off my chest, especially since I was going through a rough spot a few weeks ago, but most of my “real-life” friends only have a faint idea of the problem, and my family has never had any idea about it since I’ve always hidden it from them — it’s not so easy admitting to issues with alcoholism when drinking alcohol is considered not just a bad idea but a sin, a breaking of God’s direct commands. Following up on that, I’ve questioned some forms of religious belief in a couple of posts where I felt my views on it were relevant, another reason to not let on to any of my family about this blog. And of course, worst of all, I’ve reviewed games like Nekopara. That last one is probably enough to get me raked across the coals on Twitter assuming anyone even knew who I was or gave a shit about me, but far worse for people I actually know to draw some uncharitable conclusions about me (baseless ones, of course, but you know how it is.)

This screenshot has never been so relevant.

All of the above is even more relevant to my fiction. I’m not exactly Mr. Grimdark — I find that kind of excess pretty embarrassing really, unless there’s a good reason for it. But my stories are also fairly weird as you might imagine. I don’t really need to hear people asking if I’m okay assuming, again, any of them were to read what I wrote instead of just feigning polite interest (the answer: no, I’m not really okay, but there’s nothing much either of us can do about that and this is part of how I’m coping with it. Best not even to open that door.)

For these reasons, I don’t tell anyone I know in my day-to-day offline life about this blog — even if I might trust one friend enough to “get it”, you know how this kind of shit can magically spread and suddenly you’re hearing your aunt ask about something you wrote and forgot about five years ago. And just for good measure, I’ve never posted my name or face here or on social media connected with this site either. Again, I don’t think I’m in a special situation here: I think doxxing is a concern partly for these reasons on top of the potential for harassment that comes along with it.

All that said, I’d like to reach a point in my life where I don’t feel the need to conceal my interests. Bisque Doll had the right idea about that, but in some ways it really feels like a fantasy to me. In the end, I don’t have it so bad, really, but I’ve accepted that I’ll probably never be able to live as openly as I like. Now I just wish I could convince my family that I actually have “real” hobbies and don’t simply work and sleep without getting into all of the above. To readers and fellow writers, I hope you’re having an easier time with this than I’ve had, or else that you truly just don’t give a fuck and can live your life the way you like.

A review of Teasing Master Takagi-san (S3)

I had to clean my brain out after watching Pupa, and maybe you have to clean your brain out after reading what I wrote about it yesterday. So what better way to do that than finishing the third season of Teasing Master Takagi-san? The most wholesome romantic comedy anime on Earth continued its run in early 2022. And it’s wholesome and cute and all that, sure, but also so cleverly written to not be overflowing with cheese and sap. None at all, in fact, because the sweet parts are more than earned after the many (still pretty innocent) cat-and-mouse mind games between the two leads.

This post may be on the shorter side since I’ve already covered the essentials of the series and my thoughts on it in my review of the first two seasons (here, back when either a third season wasn’t yet announced or I just didn’t know about it.) The brief rundown if you haven’t watched those seasons or read that post is that Teasing Master Takagi-san / Karakai Jouzu no Takagi-san is about the friendship and budding romance between middle school students Nishikata, the boy on the right on the poster, and Takagi, the girl on the left. What makes Takagi-san unique is the dynamic between these two: they’re friends, but Nishikata also has a massive crush on Takagi but doesn’t quite realize it. Takagi seems to feel the same way about him and hints as much, but always in subtle ways. (Also general spoilers ahead for the season’s ending, so if you care about that, I’ll just recommend the series right now.)

“Subtle” is relative in this case, though Nishikata isn’t any denser than your typical male protagonist in these stories and gets a pass for still being a kid anyway.

Takagi also loves teasing Nishikata. Her teasing is usually pretty light and good-natured, but Nishikata is still desperate to get back at Takagi by defeating her in contests of all sorts that they think up for each other. These usually involve some kind of trick or shortcut that Takagi understands before Nishikata picks up on it, or that alternatively Nishikata thinks he understands until he realizes he’s blundered his way into Takagi’s trap. In short, Takagi can usually read Nishikata’s mind and predict his next move.

But on occasion Nishikata surprises her, and that’s when we get the real payoff, especially when it comes to their slowly advancing relationship. Middle school is a chaotic time in most kids’ lives, and part of that has to do with the discovery of romantic love, even if it’s just understood in a basic sort of way. Some of Takagi and Nishikata’s classmates show up and play supporting roles in the show, and while they have their own side stories that we drop in on occasionally (especially the parallel slow-burn romance between the tsundere Hojo and slightly less tsundere Hamaguchi) they also sometimes notice and comment on the relationship between the leads. By this point they pretty much consider the pair a couple, reasonable to assume even if it’s not “official” since they spend so much time together.

Say ahhh: Nishikata receiving a lotus root from Takagi’s lunch. I’ve never had lotus root, and this makes me curious about how it tastes.

This third season of the anime follows a similar pattern to the last two, most of taken up by the contests these two invent to test each other and with a couple of those big payoff moments in the middle and at the very end of the season that I won’t spoil here, except to say they’re done well and again are totally earned. The remainder of the season is filled out by that more typical slice-of-life comedy stuff we also got in the first two seasons, mostly featuring the antics of those three friends Mina, Yukari, and Sanae that I may have been too harsh on in that first review. I still don’t find those sequences all that funny, but it’s not bad to get a few minutes’ break from all the cat-and-mouse mind games, teasing, and intense blushing.

It might seem a bit weird that Takagi-san is set in middle school where most of these sorts of school-based slow-burn romantic comedies are set in high school, but I think this setting works perfectly for what manga author Soichiro Yamamoto is going for. I’ve seen a few complaints about how much of a shit Nishikata can be sometimes, and while I get that annoyance, a lot of that can be attributed to him being a middle school boy who still has some maturing to do in comparison with Takagi. It makes a lot of sense for him to be a little dense and embarrassed about romantic affairs at his age — really Takagi seems like the outlier here, being unusually perceptive and mature and seeming to create a path for Nishikata that she already knows he’ll follow, at the same time being patient about it. And Nishikata is following that path slowly: it’s clear that he really does care for Takagi’s feelings and drops his somewhat childish “I have to defeat her!” attitude when matters get serious.

Takagi’s plan never includes dressing up like a cow, this is just part of a Nishikata dream sequence. I just liked this screenshot and wanted to use it.

The only other aspect of this third season that stands out to me is its serious advancement of this central relationship. Takagi-san isn’t finished, so that big “confession scene” that everyone’s expecting doesn’t occur, but we get something pretty close to it in the final episode, with Nishikata finally realizing that he might have been in love this whole time and that Takagi’s been dropping hints that weren’t just for the purpose of teasing him and watching him turn red (though they were for that reason too, since Takagi clearly enjoys seeing him embarrassed when they’re alone together.) As usual, the show pulls this off in a clever way, connecting back to events earlier in the season and even in past seasons.

No, it looks like that big ending might be coming in the movie, which just opened a couple of months ago in Japan and even got an extremely limited-time release in the US which I naturally missed. Not that I’d really want to see Takagi-san in the theater anyway, since I don’t know anyone in real life who would also want to watch a romantic comedy anime, and this is absolutely not the sort of movie I’d want to see in the theater alone. And I’m the type who usually has no problem seeing movies in the theater alone because really who gives a shit, but you know, Takagi-san is different — it really feels like one for couples to bond over, just like the in-show romantic comedy anime movie Takagi and Nishikata themselves attend while Nishikata pretends they’re still not really a couple. Now I’m wondering whether all this was planned out.

For bonus points, see the movie with your friend while you’re both on the edge of admitting you’re really in love with each other and see what happens afterwards. Just don’t blame me for the consequences if it doesn’t work out.

Of course I still have to see the movie, but it’s not out on any of the streaming services quite yet. Judging by the reviews, fans loved it, so that’s great news, but I wouldn’t expect Mr. Yamamoto or the studio Shin-Ei to screw up at this point anyway. The manga is still releasing, so maybe the movie won’t even be an ending but just a lead-in to a fourth season, but I’m up for that too. Though hell, even the slow burn has to have an ending at some point.

Now for the only real problem with watching Takagi-san in the States (legally): those very same streaming services and whatever assholes are in charge of licensing the anime in North America. Because look: the first season of Takagi-san is hosted on Crunchyroll, the second season on Netflix, and the third season on HI-DIVE. Three services that you’ll have to pay for if you want to watch all of this series so far, and God knows if the movie will even get licensed. At this rate, flying the black flag doesn’t seem like such a bad idea (hypothetically, I’m not advocating for any particular action, etc. etc. Just saying I don’t understand why they’re doing this to fans here. And Takagi-san isn’t the only subject of this sort of chopping up, though it is the worst case I’ve seen so far. Maybe these guys were executioners in medieval Europe in their past lives for all the chopping up they seem to enjoy doing.)

No matter how you decide to watch Takagi-san, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did if you pick it up. Though instead of a fourth season of this series, I think I’d rather see a first season adaptation of Yamamoto’s sequel manga Karakai Jouzu no (Moto) Takagi-san, in which Takagi and Nishikata are married and have a daughter who joins in with her mom on playing light pranks on the poor guy. Because of course they’re going to get married, and of course Takagi won’t stop teasing Nishikata just because they’re married. But that’s probably just the way he’d want it anyway.