Anime for people who hate anime: Welcome to the NHK!

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I’ve consumed plenty of books, games, and shows that I’ve enjoyed. But only a few have really hit a nerve with me. Welcome to the NHK!, a novel-turned-anime series aired several years ago, is one of those few.

NHK is not, as I first thought, about a young journalist starting a new job at Japan’s biggest national news network. It is instead the story of a hikkikomori – roughly speaking a jobless, asocial shut-in. Tatsuhiro Satou is 22 years old and a college dropout. We soon learn the reason he left school. A powerful scene depicts Satou walking to college from his home, all the while imagining the thoughts of people he passes on the street: “Disgusting”, “what a loser”. Of course, these thoughts are purely in Satou’s head, but the anxiety they produce drive him to shut himself into his tiny apartment until he’s kicked out of school for non-attendance.

NHK satou

The first episode of NHK gives us a depressing look into Satou’s daily life. He sits inside all day, sometimes watching TV, eating and drinking, but mostly sleeping (16 hours a day, as Satou himself narrates.) He receives no visits from friends and effectively has no life outside his apartment. He ventures outside only to buy food and other necessities and to visit a nearby park at night, when no one else is around. Without a job, Satou relies on his parents for support, but conversations with his mother suggest that source of support is about to run dry. Satou knows very well that his life is going nowhere, but he feels powerless to stop his downhill slide. On the contrary, in the course of his isolation, Satou has started to imagine a nationwide conspiracy keeping him in his miserable state, blaming his problems on the Japan Hikkikomori Society (or NHK in Japanese. Hence the title of the series.)

One day, someone comes to his door. This surprise visitor is a sort of door-to-door religious missionary lady. Satou isn’t interested and tells her to go away (while simultaneously freaking out a bit at having to talk to another human being.) However, as she leaves, Satou notices the young woman helping her.

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Satou tries to put her out of his mind, but the very same young woman ends up dropping by later on to drop a message into his door’s mailbox asking him to meet with her at his regular park haunt that night. Satou has no idea what this girl might want with a shut-in loser like him, but he finally decides to go to the park after fighting with himself over it. As it turns out, this girl, Misaki, has a plan to “cure” Satou of his hikkikomori-ness and get him out into the world.

Satou reacts to this surprise pronouncement from this girl he barely knows in the same way most people would: “Who the hell is this person?” Regardless, Satou agrees to Misaki’s “program” and even signs a written contract to that effect.

Misaki and Satou.  The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

Misaki and Satou. The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

As the series proceeds, we watch Satou’s character change in serious and sometimes unpredictable ways. Satou’s progress isn’t always forward, either: he meets with some serious setbacks as well, with funny but also depressing results. He’s introduced to MMOs and spends hundreds of hours addicted to a game that is Final Fantasy XI but that the show can’t call that for legal reasons. He’s unwittingly drawn into a suicide pact and into a pyramid scheme, both by different former female classmates. He wastes a week of his life downloading hentai to the point that his hard drive is full. A lot of this action is moved along by Kaoru Yamazaki, Satou’s next-door college freshman neighbor and other former classmate, who fits the nerd stereotype perfectly (more specifically the otaku anime-loving nerd one.)

NHK manages to both be genuinely funny and emotionally affecting. Satou, Misaki, Yamazaki, and the other few secondary characters that show up are interesting and three-dimensional, and this helps the viewer care about them. Despite the wacky situations the characters sometimes find themselves in, nothing in the show really comes across as unnatural or forced. One of the best scenes in the show depicts Satou spying on Yamazaki’s meeting with one of his female classmates in the hall at their college. He’d formerly claimed to Satou that this classmate was his girlfriend, but after tailing Yamazaki to school, Satou discovers that Yamazaki was bending the truth: she’s no more than a casual acquaintance. Yamazaki continues to insist she’s his girlfriend, though not in a creepy or obsessive way – the viewer gets the impression that Yamazaki has a thing for this girl but simply can’t admit to himself that she’s not interested in his nerdy self. It’s funny and pathetic, and it’s also a feeling that I’m willing to bet you can relate to.

If don't you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that's a good thing.

If don’t you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that’s a good thing.

Despite a lot of its otaku trappings (trips to Akihabara to buy figures, a running plotline about Satou and Yamazaki creating a dating sim, Yamazaki’s pining after “2D girls”, etc.) NHK can also appeal to people living outside that weird circle of nerds (of which I’m sort of a part myself.) The reason NHK spoke to me was its theme of social anxiety and the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. I was never quite as bad as Satou – I never physically shut myself into my room or my apartment – but I did mentally and emotionally shut myself in, shoving away potential friends. Those feelings of despair and worthlessness that drive Satou at the beginning of NHK to sit inside every day and dog him throughout the show are all too real for countless people around the world. I’m not even sure they totally go away. Even now, as a more or less normal person (at least as far as public appearances are concerned) those poisonous thoughts nag at me occasionally. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never been in such a situation – as if you just missed out on some vital information on how to live life that everyone else in the world seems to have been born with. It’s a lonely, painful experience, and NHK addresses it in a meaningful way.

So that’s Welcome to the NHK! It’s a genuinely good series that I believe has appeal for viewers both in and outside of the “typical” anime-watching crowd. I should also note that NHK is based on a novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, a writer who I think must have experienced some of Satou’s travails, the story tells them in such a realistic way. I haven’t read the novel or the following manga series, but I understand they’re quite different from the anime in terms of where their stories lead.

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

What a way to start the new year. To everyone, but especially to those wrestling with social anxiety, insecurity, a lack of purpose, and all those inner demons that drive you to seek solitude, I wish you a happy one. Remember that, for better or worse, the future is unpredictable. Life is never worth giving up on, even though it might seem like there’s no light at all at the end of the tunnel – hell, I still feel that way sometimes. Satou might be a fictional character, but his story is a real one, and his final “recovery”, even though it’s not quite complete, is a part of that story too.

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Anime for people who hate anime: Humanity Has Declined

Being an ambassador to a newly discovered race of fairies is hard work. This is evident from the first episode of Humanity Has Declined (Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita), an anime series aired in the summer of 2012.

Pictured in the OP: nameless protagonist and a bunch of fairies.  Note her dead, despairing eyes.

Pictured in the OP: nameless protagonist and a bunch of fairies. Note her dead, despairing eyes.

“Anonymous blog writer”, I hear you saying. “What is this cutesy bright pastel-colored bullshit you’re showing me. I don’t want to watch that!”

Well nonexistent blog reader, don’t be misled. This series is anything but normal or typically cutesy. Known to fans as Jintai for short, the series tells the story of a young lady, the nameless protagonist, who is growing up at a time when humanity is in decline just like the title says. For some unspecified reason, human civilization has pretty much collapsed and returned to a sort of medieval way of life – the world protagonist lives in is full of bits of modern technology and has some modern-looking buildings around, but the technology is mostly unused and the buildings are overgrown with trees and weeds.

The mysterious fairies.  Yes, they always have this facial expression.   Always.

The mysterious fairies. Yes, they always have this facial expression. Always.

Our heroine is tasked with making contact with the fairies, the “new humanity” (so called because they recently appeared after humanity’s collapse and seem to be on the rise.) The fairies are a strange race: they seem to be able to use magic to create something out of nothing. They try to use this skill for the good of the old humans (i.e. us) because the old humans are the only ones that can make the candy they crave. Unfortunately for everyone, the fairies’ efforts just make things worse. It’s really hard to describe how this happens, but it does.

As a result of her assignment (from the United Nations, no less, albeit a way crappier and smaller UN because of the whole decline of humanity thing) Nameless Girl has to deal with the magical fairies and try to figure out what they want and how to develop a mutually beneficial relationship. And she’s a great protagonist: outwardly nice and polite about carrying out her duties but inwardly frustrated and sarcastic. This is understandable, because the fairies put her through all sorts of unintended trouble. I won’t give any of that trouble away because it would spoil a lot of the story, but it’s enough to say that you won’t find this kind of content most anywhere else. Time travel happens. Bizarre cases of mistaken identity happen. Etc.

I refuse to explain this screen to you, but I'm still not sure I even understand it.

I would refuse to explain this screen to you, but I’m still not sure I even understand it.

She’s joined by her strange and domineering grandfather, an important researcher; the mute young boy assistant he pushes onto her who turns out to be massively helpful to her; and a friend who’s overly obsessed with reading and writing erotic fiction comics. Together, they all have to manage to survive from day to day and deal with the fairies, who grow increasingly powerful and increasingly irresponsible.

Jintai might sound like an irritating SO RANDOM sort of series – that’s why I avoided it at first – but it really isn’t. Most of the weirdness has some sense behind it. Plus I just love sarcastic-quipping protagonists. Also, her grandfather is pretty much exactly the same character as Hououin Kyouma from Steins;Gate only fifty years older. At least that’s what my idiot brain told me. Am I crazy, or do you agree? Or you do know what the hell I’m even talking about?

Protagonist's very realistic response to being told she has to undertake a new job.

Protagonist’s very realistic response to being told she has to undertake a new job.

So should you watch it? I enjoyed this series partly because it wasn’t a goddamn high school setting series, and honestly, this was one of maybe three or four airing series I’d watched in a long time partly for the reason that really interesting stuff seemed so few and far between. But even so, I can say that Jintai is worth a watch. It’s just strange enough to be interesting but not so strange as to be annoying or nonsensical.

Then again, your mileage may vary.

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Anime for people who hate anime: Akagi

a.k.a. Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness

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I’m going to approach this series a little differently. Instead of writing a normal review of the show, I’m going to take you through the first episode. Why? Why not? I do have a reason for doing this, but it might not be apparent until the end of this post.

The first episode opens with a minute of background. The setting is late 1950s Tokyo. Japan is finally over its post-war slump and is starting to grow again.

This is all explained by the narrator.  He talks constantly throughout the series, but he's not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you'll get used to him.

This is all explained by the narrator. He talks constantly throughout the series, but he’s not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you’ll get used to him.

The story begins in a smoky hole-in-the-wall mahjong parlor. Four players sit around a table. Big deal, so they’re playing some mahjong. Nothing strange about that.

But this game is different. One of the players, Nangou, is deep in debt to the mob. Three of the other players are Yakuza guys. One of them, a local mob boss, has had his mistress take out a life insurance policy on Nangou. You can see where this is going.

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Since the Yakuza are nice guys, they let Nangou try to cut a path out of his debts by beating them in a mahjong match. Sadly for Nangou, it’s not going too well for him. He’s nearly out of points and is about to lose the game and his life. Nangou reaches into the wall of tiles to pull one, praying to anyone, even the Devil, to help him out of his predicament. At that very moment, the door to the parlor opens.

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A kid (yeah, he is a kid, even if he doesn’t look like it) is at the door, seemingly looking for shelter from the driving rain outside. The Yakuza thugs try to throw him out, but Nangou tells them he called the kid to the parlor just in case he, you know, “went missing.” Of course, Nangou and this kid have never seen each other – Nangou just wants a break from the game to collect his nerves. Luckily for him, the kid plays along with his story.

After a few minutes, the game is back on. Nangou prepares to make a deal that he needs to complete to build his hand. However, he gets nervous, because that same tile is one that his main opponent (Ryuuzaki, the boss) might need to complete his hand. Nangou decides instead to deal a “safe” tile – a defensive rather than offensive move. After all, if he loses this hand, it’s quite literally all over for him.

He’s all set to make this defensive play when the boy sitting behind him speaks.

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Nangou turns around and asks the kid what he’s talking about.

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This kid admits to Nangou that he’s never played mahjong before, but that he could sense Nangou’s feeling of hopelessness. He tells Nangou that to survive, he’ll have to be aggressive – to take a risk. Nangou turns back to his hand and realizes that the kid is right. He returns to his original deal – and it passes! Nangou ends up completing his hand and winning on the next deal. His life – at least for now – is safe. (Incidentally, as the narrator explains, that “safe” tile deal would have completed a different player’s hand, meaning Nangou would have lost had he dealt it.)

The Yakuza guys, disappointed that they couldn’t finish Nangou off then and there, break again for a few minutes. In the meantime, Nangou questions this mysterious kid about his identity and what he’s doing hanging around a Yakuza mahjong parlor at midnight. The boy is 13 year-old Shigeru Akagi, but beyond that he says nothing. For the first time, Nangou notices something strange about Akagi: his clothes are covered in sand. He guesses (rightly, as we’ll soon learn) that Akagi came close to death that night.

How can Nangou tell? Because, as he explains to Akagi, he’s near death as well. Nangou then makes a request of Akagi.

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Nangou can sense something great in Akagi, something that Nangou himself doesn’t possess. Despite never having played mahjong before, Akagi agrees to sit in for Nangou and gets a five-minute primer on the basics of mahjong.

And we get to learn along with him!

And we get to learn along with him!

When the game starts again, the Yakuza players have no idea what the hell is going on but they roll with it anyway, figuring that some kid will probably be even easier to beat in mahjong than Nangou. And they might be right.

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Perhaps in a case of extreme beginner’s luck, Akagi’s very first hand is a monster: he has pairs of each dragon tile. A hand with three of each of these tiles (white, green and red, all on the left) is one of the biggest hands in the game – a dai san gen. It’s also one of the most difficult to get, because completing a dai san gen usually involves having to call someone else’s dragon tile when they deal it, and any hint of a dai san gen will cause the other players to act defensively and not deal dragons.

Still, Akagi will have to call those tiles to complete the hand. The first dragon is thrown out.

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One by one, each of the other dragons are thrown out, and Akagi lets each one pass, completely wrecking his hand. Nangou starts cursing himself for letting this stupid kid take over his life-or-death mahjong game.

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What the hell was Akagi thinking?

At that moment, there’s a knock on the door of the mahjong parlor. It’s a police officer. Turns out the police are looking for the survivor from a game of chicken that involved severe casualties.

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Everyone in the room turns to Akagi, who says nothing. The Yakuza boss is duly impressed by Akagi’s guts and tells his henchman to shoo the policeman away. Akagi, however, knows that that’s not going down, because the cops followed him here on a lead and won’t let him go. So he decides to make a deal with Nangou.

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Nangou is pretty miffed at this suggestion. This kid just let a monster hand get ruined and he wants me to help him? Nangou points out that Akagi needs something to offer him to make such a bold request. Akagi says he does have something to offer.

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Suddenly Akagi’s hand has three of each dragon tile, where before it only had pairs. Akagi has a dai san gen one tile away from completion. At first, Nangou has no idea what the hell is going on, but then he realizes what Akagi has done: he used the Yakuza guys’ distraction in dealing with the policeman to covertly steal each of the dragon tiles he needed from the pond (the center of the table where players put their discarded tiles.) Now Akagi doesn’t have to call anyone’s tiles: he can win right away.

Not wanting to lose his shot at a huge win, Nangou agrees to provide Akagi with a cover story. A few seconds later, a detective barges into the room.

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The detective pinpoints Akagi as the chicken survivor he’s looking for. Nangou, however, springs to action and covers for Akagi.

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He claims Akagi has been in the parlor all night. Ryuuzaki and the other gangsters go along with Nangou’s story because they want the police to leave.

The detective isn’t buying this story, so he decides to hang around for a while. The Yakuza dudes at this point are distracted and pissed off that they couldn’t get rid of the cops, so Akagi reminds them that they’re in the middle of a round of mahjong and that they should get back to playing.

Still caught in a daze, they turn back to their game, and one of them immediately deals into Akagi’s dai san gen. Only too late do they notice that the pond is missing a few tiles.

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Ryuuzaki and his buddies would love to beat the shit out of Akagi right now, but they can’t – because the cops are in the room with them. As it happened, Akagi planned on this as well. So Ryuuzaki gives Akagi the dai san gen and lets him off with a warning.

Could be worse.

Could be worse.

The gangsters, now thoroughly pissed off, take yet another break and go into a back room. One suggests they call in their “rep player” – a guy whose sole job is to win mahjong matches for the mob. Ryuuzaki is offended by this suggestion.

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The boss says he can’t call in their rep player just to take care of some amateur punk kid. All Akagi did was pull off a massive cheat – he won’t be able to do it a second time. They’ll defeat Akagi and kill Nangou without the rep player’s help. They all return to the game, with the detective watching. Sadly for the Yakuza guys, they don’t realize just how much Akagi can do.

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Will Akagi continue to win? Will Nangou survive the night? How will Akagi deal with the detective on his trail? If you want to find out, watch the second episode! It’s all on Youtube, and I’m sure you can also torrent it if you wish, as Akagi has never been licensed in the US.

If the art style and the subject matter of Mahjong Legend Akagi seem familiar, that’s no coincidence: it’s another Nobuyuki Fukumoto work. Akagi isn’t much like Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, though, and that’s because of the differences in their respective title characters. Kaiji Itou, the protagonist of Kaiji, experiences fear. He often panics when in a dire situation before realizing exactly how to escape it. Perhaps most importantly, Kaiji makes mistakes. He’s a genius, but a very human one.

All of these things make Kaiji much more relatable than Akagi, who is less a human than a force of nature that destroys everything in its way. Unlike Kaiji, Akagi has no doubts about his abilities and no compunction about using those abilities to completely destroy his opponents. Really, the only thing that makes Akagi not a villain is the fact that his opponents are all gangsters and thugs or other gamblers working for criminal organizations. Except for his final opponent – but I can’t tell you who that is. Just watch the show! I’m not one to claim I have “favorite _____s” usually (I can’t say I have a favorite album, for example, because I love a lot of music) but I can make an exception here: Akagi is my favorite anime series. Not a second of the show is wasted. There’s absolutely no filler, no scenes simply for their own sake – everything moves along the plot or establishes character. And Akagi has plenty of great surprises in store for you if you decide to watch.

Note on the mahjong terminology: If you’re scared off by all the crazy jargon, don’t worry: that’s completely normal. The story does a pretty good job of explaining the whats and whys of everything that’s going on, so don’t worry if you don’t know what a “tan yao pin fu dora dora” is. For this purpose, I recommend getting the Triad subs if you decide to go for a torrent: the notes at the top of the screen explain a lot of the terms that often crop up throughout the series.

Anime for people who hate anime: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

More travel stuff is coming soon, I promise. In the meantime…

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Wow. I don’t know why I’m doing this. Not because the 80s-early 90s anime series Legend of the Galactic Heroes isn’t good – it is extremely good. The reason for my apprehension is that it is a massive series, with 110 episodes and several hour/hour and a half-long films, at least two of which are required watching if you want to follow the main story and understand certain characters’ motivations. All of this is based on an original (and also very long) series of comics. LOGH could really have an entire blog dedicated to it alone. Instead, I’m going to try to cram all of that into one post. The reason this review is short and worthless is that it’s near impossible to describe what this behemoth is about in less than 10000 words.

LOGH is not only big in the sense of length, but also in its sheer scope. Here we have a series that deals with a galaxy-wide war between two great powers (well, not galaxy-wide really; that would be way too big. Stellar cluster-wide, maybe?) The two powers are the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance, a democratic breakaway state. Right off the bat this might sound like anime Star Wars, but it isn’t. It really, really isn’t. If you’re looking for anime Star Wars, stop reading right now.

For one thing, Star Wars didn't feature long discussions between its characters about the merits of various political systems (unless you count Star Wars II, which I like to call Star Wars: C-SPAN in Space.)

For one thing, Star Wars didn’t feature long discussions between its characters about the merits of various political systems (unless you count Star Wars II, which I like to call Star Wars: C-SPAN in Space.)

How isn’t it anime Star Wars, you might be asking. LOGH turns the typical “Evil Empire working to crush Good (and Plucky and Underdog-ish) Democratic Alliance” model on its head. It does so by telling the stories of two characters, one from the Empire and one from the Alliance, and their rise through the ranks to the tops of their respective navies. This rise involves their meeting several times in battle. The trouble (?) for the audience is that there’s really nobody here you can “root against” characterwise among the main lot. Reinhard von Musel, one of the Empire’s greatest admirals, is a principled young man who believes in justice and in social reform of his stagnant homeland. Yang Wen-li, one of the Alliance’s premier tacticians, is a popular naval officer who hates war as wasteful and evil and just wants to go home to study history. Both of these men are likeable and have mutual respect for each other, and they spend a good amount of the series thinking about how to kill each other in battle.

Another relative surprise is how the respective governments act towards their citizens. The Empire early in the series is basically the old German Empire in space (think 1870s-1918 Germany, not the later Nazi one) and it’s pretty much an old ossified piece of crap that Reinhard wants to completely overturn. However, the democratic Alliance government is equally shitty – full of self-interested politicians who use their admirals’ victories to win reelection and who send their citizens off to the front lines just because they can’t look as though they’ve “failed”. The characters’ motivations make Legend of the Galactic Heroes one of the most realistic series I’ve ever seen, actually – despite the fact that it is an anime series set mostly in space. It’s not the setting that’s realistic, but the story, because you can easily imagine these characters as real people, their motives are so understandable and human.

Speaking of, Reinhard and Yang naturally aren’t the only characters in the series. LOGH boasts a massive cast of hundreds. Reinhard gains his own group of dedicated officers who join his fellow naval officer childhood friend/”sworn brother”-style character Siegfried Kircheis. Yang has his own similar circle. Both of them have to deal with the powers that be in the government, who usually have elements trying to plot their downfall (because, after all, popularity is a dangerous thing.)

Kircheis (L) and Reinhard (R).  No, they're not gay, despite how this scene looks.  At least I don't think they are.

Kircheis (L) and Reinhard (R). No, they’re not gay, despite how this scene looks. At least I don’t think they are.

The cast is so huge, in fact, that the various characters and their positions might get very confusing after a while. Fortunately, the series realizes this and often gives the viewer a subtitle with the character’s name and rank/relation to some other character on the screen when they show up for the first time or after several episodes have passed. And as spider web-like as the series’ intertwining plots and intrigues are, it handles them really well – nothing is left unresolved, and it’s generally easy to follow who’s going where or talking to whom and why. Chalk it up to good direction in the ordering of the scenes, I guess.

Those who are put off by the intensely 80s look of the animation shouldn’t worry too much – once you get absorbed in the story, you won’t notice anymore, even if you were, like me, raised on late 90s-early 2000s stuff like Neon Genesis Evangelion that boasted amazing artwork and animation. Because unlike Evangelion, LOGH is a story that isn’t filled with DEEP religious imagery, creepy fanservice of 14 year-old girls and the weird sexual insecurities of its maker (don’t get me wrong; I love Eva, but it’s undoubtedly fucked up, and not in a good way.)

That’s not to say that LOGH doesn’t also have some good action scenes, however.

LOGH really gives you the whole package, because both of these characters are very interesting and have their own backstories in addition to trying to kill each other in a flashy way.

LOGH really gives you the whole package, because both of these characters are very interesting and have their own backstories in addition to trying to kill each other in a flashy way.

So, yeah. If the above sounds good to you and you have about ten free years to spare, why not watch LOGH? It’s never been licensed in the US, so you don’t even have to buy anything: you can freely torrent the series or simply watch it on Youtube (starting with the film My Conquest is the Sea of Stars [Note: there used to be a link to the film here, but there seems to have been a copyright takedown of it. Shouldn’t be too hard to find online, though.]) If you need any extra enticements to watch, here go you: if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll probably enjoy Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It shares a lot in common with Thrones, including the complex plot webs and political intrigues, the realistic character motivations and development, and the epic scale. The only differences are that LOGH is set in the “historical” future instead of an alternate reality past and that LOGH lacks all the sex of both the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series and its HBO Game of Thrones adaptation. Romance is a fairly common plot element in LOGH, but any sex that takes place in the series is fully implied. Which is just fine with me – who needs fanservice when you’ve got a good story?

P.S. This article does a great job at trying to narrow down why some people love LOGH and why other people can’t make it through a single episode. Check it out.

P.P.S. After watching most of the Chinese series Three Kingdoms and remembering reading some of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms years ago that it’s based on, I can see a lot of similarities between LoGH and RotTK.  Both have massive casts of characters, political intrigue, and whole episodes in which characters try to use deception in both diplomacy and battle to achieve victory.  I really recommend Three Kingdoms too, even though it’s also a million episodes long – the whole series is subbed in English and posted on Youtube, maybe because nobody can watch Youtube in China anyway (at least not legally.)  The guy who plays Cao Cao is really a great actor.

Anime for people who hate anime: Kaiji

Time to scare off most of the people who came to this blog looking for travel posts! Yes, I am an extremely depressing nerd. Sorry, everyone. Anyway, this group of posts is going to cover anime series that I’ve enjoyed and that you can also enjoy without feeling embarrassed or hating yourself – I don’t care who you are.

It’s true that watching anime has a kind of stigma attached to it. Most of my friends don’t know I watch any anime at all – they think it’s all either cutesy stuff for little girls, unlimited perversity, or glowy superhuman guys throwing energy balls at each other. And a lot of it is. But some of it isn’t! Animation is just a medium, after all: the creator can fill that medium with whatever he wishes, and some have filled it with interesting characters and compelling stories.

As a side note, I’m not going to stop writing travel posts, so if you come here just for that then, you know, please don’t unbookmark me or anything. This isn’t going to become an anime review site, either – I know people with way more knowledge about this stuff than I have, so if you’re looking for “a series like _____ but with more mechs” I’m not the one to ask about that. Thanks!

Anyway, on to the subject of this post:

Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji

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Kaiji is the story of the title character, a young man without much in the way of motivation or marketable skills who is up to his eyeballs in debt because of bad decisions. As he mulls over his fate, he’s invited to join a mysterious event by a mob-connected loan shark. This just happens to be a gambling event taking place on a totally isolated cruise ship against other debtors. Said loan shark tells Kaiji that if he only joins this game, he’ll have a shot at clearing his debts if he’s among the winners. If he loses… well, let’s not think about what might happen if he loses. Despite his misgivings, Kaiji takes up the offer and shows up at the dock where the ship is about to depart. What Kaiji doesn’t realize is that he’s about to enter a world of insane gambles and deception where he have to will risk his health and even his life.

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A little background on this series: Kaiji was created by Nobuyuki Fukumoto (aka FKMT), a Japanese comic artist and writer famous for his gambling comic series. But Fukumoto’s works aren’t just about gambling: they’re really about power, skill and the meaning of life. Kaiji’s real search throughout the series is for a sense of purpose. A lot of the gambles he’s forced to take part in to clear his debts involve defeating someone else and destroying his chances to succeed for Kaiji to succeed himself. Despite this, Kaiji always manages to maintain his humanity and does his best to help his fellow debtors, even when the people running the gambles (a large, extremely shady corporation called Teiai) impose rules that seem to demand the winners sacrifice the losers.

Kaiji might look depressing, and it is.  It really is.

Kaiji might look depressing, and it is. It really is.

But Kaiji is also uplifting. Under normal circumstances, Kaiji is a loser who can’t achieve much of anything at all. But when he’s pushed to his limits and exposed to great danger, he seems to unlock a hidden genius within himself that allows him to escape, to survive and to succeed where others have failed. Kaiji will have to rely on this ability, one that he doesn’t even seem to realize he possesses, to defeat his creditors. Kaiji is all about building up tension to the point where you can’t believe he’ll be able to get out of his predicament, before he finds a way – an extreme and unpredictable way – to come out on top.

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Throughout the series, Kaiji runs into other characters, some allied to his cause and others standing against his efforts. A lot of these characters have their own interesting backstories. The “bad guys” have their own clear motivations that usually aren’t any worse than Kaiji’s. They’re simply looking out for their own interests, which happen to run directly counter to his. Even the head of Teiai, an old billionaire, is a little sympathetic despite being without a doubt the most black-and-white evil character on the show, because he’s also clearly fucking crazy.

If I ever get old and rich, I'm going to drink extremely expensive wine out of a bowl like a dog.

If I ever get old and rich, I’m going to drink extremely expensive wine out of a bowl like a dog.

So hey! If the above image didn’t convince you to go and watch Kaiji right now, I don’t know what will. The series is currently two seasons in, and the comic is much further along, though Fukumoto hasn’t finished the story. Even so, the end of the second season does have a sense of finality to it, so don’t be afraid to dive in right away. As far as I know, Kaiji hasn’t been licensed in the States so you can easily find scanned/fan-translated version of the comic and torrents and Youtube links with subtitles of the anime series. Kaiji is well worth watching if you enjoy stories about gambling. It’s also worth watching if you just enjoy good, compelling stories with a lot of truly effective suspense to them.

It also features the most detailed beer can in animation history.

It also features the most detailed beer can in animation history.