Listening/reading log #23 (September 2021)

I’m tired. Do you ever feel like you keep walking even though you have no strength left, just because you have to? Maybe that’s the human condition.

But I don’t want to get too philosophical and/or bullshitty here. I already did that this past month. For now on to the usual, starting with this month’s music:

Mirage (Camel, 1974)

Highlights: Parts of Nimrodel/The Procession/The White Rider and Lady Fantasy stand out

Digging a bit deeper into the progressive rock bin once again, this time for a band that’s totally new to me. Camel is yet another British prog band, but unlike the others I’ve looked at in these posts, they’re generally grouped in with a “second wave” of prog bands along with overseas contemporaries like Rush and Kansas that got their starts a few years after those original boys did.

But just because its influences are pretty obvious doesn’t mean Mirage isn’t worth listening to, because it’s pretty damn good. I love Camel’s sound here; they mix those softer, more acoustic parts with plenty of flute (some Jethro Tull feel in those parts, maybe for that reason) together with the hardcore jazz fusion-sounding stuff skillfully, and both flow into each other nicely through the album without clashing. In fact, the only real drawback to Mirage that I can see is the relative weakness in the vocals. The singing just isn’t that great, and I can’t even make out the lyrics sometimes. I think “Nimrodel” is supposed to be about Gandalf? Those 70s rock guys and their Tolkien.

But the band seemed to realize this as well, because most of the album is instrumental. That’s fine by me, because these guys are at their best for me when they’re shredding along at 300 mph (ex: the part starting at 3:44 in “Nimrodel”.) Though “Lady Fantasy” does have some nice sung sections as well.

Finally, because the subject can’t be avoided: yeah, the album cover looks like a pack of Camel cigarettes as seen through the eyes of a profoundly drunk man. Otherwise the art is the same; even the lettering they use is identical to the brand’s logo. At first I thought it might have been part of a sponsorship deal. However, according to this interview, my reasoning was backwards: Camel the band came up with the parody cover on their own, and Camel the tobacco company tried to make a sponsorship deal with them after seeing it. But the band didn’t want to associate themselves with lung cancer and the deal was canceled. So much the better, though I’d say the tobacco executives got a decent deal from the publicity alone.

Utamonogatari (Various, 2016)

Highlights: Renai Circulation, Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari, Perfect Slumbers, Mousou Express

I don’t feature soundtracks in these posts very often, so when I do they’re special cases, and this one definitely qualifies as special. I bought this two-disc set a while back and only now got around to really listening to it, probably because I was already so familiar with some of its songs — but it is absolutely worth a listen on its own.

Utamonogatari is a collection of opening and ending themes from the Monogatari anime series, from Bakemonogatari through Nisemonogatari, Nekomonogatari Black and up to the end of the stretch of short series under the Monogatari Second Season umbrella. As far as I’ve watched it, I’d say Monogatari has a lot to recommend it, and its music is one of its strongest points right up with its great characters and unique visuals and dialogue. A lot of work was obviously put into the soundtrack, especially considering the fact that not just every season or sub-series but rather every story arc throughout the series has its own opening theme.

These openings also double as character themes, being tied in as they are with the stories of specific heroines like Hitagi up there on the cover, Tsubasa, Mayoi, and all the rest. And it’s all the more impressive that the singers are also the voice actors for these characters — even to the point that the artist on each track is listed as the character herself with her VA in parentheses.

But even if you haven’t seen a single episode of Monogatari, you can still appreciate its music, because it is extremely well done. Pretty much every song is a hit here, but some I’d bring up specifically include the closing “Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari” by Supercell, an accomplished band in its own right, and two of Tsubasa’s themes, “Perfect Slumbers” and Sugar Sweet Nightmare. Maybe the latter choice partly has to do with Tsubasa being my favorite character in Monogatari so far (I’m only up to the beginning of Nekomonogatari White now, hoping that doesn’t change) but I also like how these two tonally very different songs express aspects of the same character, with “Perfect Slumbers” being softer and more somber and “Sugar Sweet Nightmare” having more of an edge (complete with a butt rock guitar solo near the end, nice.) I also like Hitagi’s Fast Love, which sounds like it owes a lot to city pop somehow. Or maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’ve just been listening to way too much city pop lately?

My absolute favorites are still Nadeko’s themes, however. The most famous of course is “Renai Circulation”, which most people have probably heard at least once if only in one of the many parody videos it’s been used in. There’s a good reason “Renai Ciruclation” is still so popular — it’s one of those earworms, only the good kind, because who the hell wouldn’t want Kana Hanazawa stuck in their ear all day. And the same is true for Nadeko’s later but also tonally very different theme “Mousou Express”, which is arguably even better.

But these distinctions don’t matter much when all the music in this series is this good, including all the background and scene instrumental pieces that aren’t featured on this album. So be sure to check the soundtrack out at least, and all the better if you can find a more complete version. I plan to pick up Monogatari again soon after a year away from the series, and listening to Utamonogatari was a nice way to get me primed for it.

TOWERS (TOWERS, 2019)

Highlights: I guess “TOWERS IV”, but it all feels like one piece really

After all these years I’m still torn over some of the bigger “subculture” internet music trends like vaporwave and future funk. I like the strange part-fantasy 80s/90s aesthetic of it, and some artists really get creative with the samples they use. On the other hand, some just seem to slow down and add reverb to an old city pop or American 80s hit or a track off of a Genesis game, and that feels too low-effort to me to give much credit.

But TOWERS feels different, even if it does technically sort of (?) fall into the vaporwave category. I found this one while digging around for new music on YouTube, and I was drawn in by the strange album cover depicting a man either floating through or falling into a dark cityscape (and bonus points to the first person who can identify where that cityscape comes from, because it’s very likely you’ve seen it in its original form.)

TOWERS really seems to fall more into the dark ambient genre along with the Caretaker’s work, because even if the sound is very different, the effect is similar: it’s ambient, but instead of being nice chillout music something like City Girl, it creates a dark atmosphere. The hour-long album is broken into four pieces of roughly similar length titled “TOWERS I” through “IV”, but it’s hard to tell where one piece ends and another begins, since they mostly blend into each other — the sound is minimalistic, mostly a drone in the background with some other synths in the mix and occasionally electronic and acoustic instruments and other sounds playing over it.

That description might make the album sound boring. And maybe it would be if you were trying to actively listen to it, since there aren’t really any songs to speak of. Even so, it made a strong impression on me: I could see myself in a large empty-feeling city in the middle of the night, maybe with just a few streetlights or neon lights around to break up the darkness. This impression seemed to be what the makers were going for, and if that’s really the case, then they succeeded.

That said, TOWERS is probably about as minimalist as I can get without actually getting bored. Too much minimalism in art and I can’t even draw a vague impression from it. To give you an example, I don’t understand the appeal of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings, even though so many people love them and call them masterpieces. But maybe I’m just a dumb ignorant philistine. Tell me what I’m missing.

Now on to the featured articles:

Opinion: Sony’s Pricing Model is Fucking Dumb (Frostilyte Writes) — Opening with something I’m equally annoyed about, Frostilyte expresses his feelings about Sony’s new approach towards its customers and fans, specifically with regard to its pricing model for PS5 owners who want to play their PS4 games on the new console. If there’s any time to just switch to PC, it’s probably now.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Justice for All (Nintendobound) — Matt at Nintendobound reviews the Ace Attorney game Justice for All. At least one Ace Attorney game is on my to-play list just because I feel it really should be, but it probably won’t be this one based on Matt’s review. But is it worth a look for series fans? Check out Matt’s review to find out (and also follow his site if you aren’t anyway.)

Donkey Kong Land (Extra Life) — I never had a Game Boy growing up, though I did borrow friends’ at times — but that’s not quite the same of course, and so I missed out on a lot of Game Boy games that are fondly remembered today. It doesn’t seem like I missed much out of the Donkey Kong Land games, however. Red Metal goes into detail in both this and his review of the sequel here.

Returnal Is Everything I Love About Metroid (Gaming Omnivore) — I know I’ve been dumping on Sony and the PS5 in general, but not for the quality of its games necessarily — and Returnal sounds like one that’s well worth checking out if this piece on Gaming Omnivore is any indication. If you’ve got a PS5, be sure to read it!

Anime Review #64: Rebuild Of Evangelion 1.0/2.0 (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — I haven’t seen anything Evangelion-related since watching the original way back in 1998 or 99, long before “weeb” was even a term anyone used. But my interest has been raised again by the recently completed new run of Evangelion films. I’ve heard a lot of conflicting opinions about them, and Traditional Catholic Weeb has added his own as usual perceptive thoughts on Rebuild 1.0/2.0. One more to add to the list!

My Favorite Summer Series: The Detective Is Already Dead (Otaku Post) — I think I might have missed out not watching the summer anime series The Detective Is Already Dead — all my interaction with this show so far has been “hey, the premise looks interesting and I also like white-haired kuuderes” and that was it. Johnathan’s overview of the series makes me feel like picking it up (or at least adding it to my long to-watch list.)

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid – Sometimes Ecchi Bugs me (A Richard Wood Text Adventure) — Ecchi and fanservice are always controversial subjects in the context of anime — for every ten fans you might hear fifteen opinions on the matter. Wooderon here gives his own opinion on the subject, using the popular series Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid as an example of when ecchi works for him.

ActRaiser – Cupid at day, hardcore stone statue at night (Nepiki Gaming) — A review of ActRaiser, an interesting-looking SNES 2D action platformer/simulation hybrid that I totally missed out on as a kid. Nepiki goes into his usual incisive detail and depth in examining the game.

If Left is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right. The Left-Handers of Video Games, Part IV! (Lost to the Aether) — Aether continues a series of posts about left-handed video game characters. It’s something I never really noticed — not being left-handed myself, it’s probably just not something I think about. Also, I agree that Strega kind of sucked. The only weak part of the Persona 3 story I think.

In defence of Haru (Eleanor Rees Gaming) — Speaking of Persona, this one is a bit of a deep cut for those who have played Persona 5 and know who Haru Okumura is and why she might need a defense. I was confused myself, since I liked Haru and felt she got short-changed with how little screentime she received in the game (outside of her own Confidant Link anyway, which came so late in the game a lot of people missed out.) But apparently some fans hold that and a couple of dumb plot occurrences against her, which is bullshit, because Haru is great. And Eleanor does a great job defending her, so read her piece above if you’re deep enough into Persona to know what it’s about.

Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey – The Second Quest (MoeGamer) — Pete Davison at MoeGamer is continuing his extremely long-running Atelier feature with the fairly recent Atelier Firis. He gets into great depth with a series that doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves here in the West, so be sure to check his work out. I’m going to be playing Firis once I get to that point in the Mysterious trilogy myself, so I’m already fully onboard the Gust train; see the end of this post for more on that.

Some More Unexpected Aspects of Living in Japan (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — Yomu’s thoughts about life in Japan are always interesting, and he’s written more of them this month. Humidity really can be a killer, though I didn’t realize Japan had that issue. It’s one of the many reasons I will never live in Florida.

Tuna in the Workplace: Laws on Business, Fish, and Smells (Professional Moron) — The human side of me loves tuna and fish/seafood in general, but the lawyer side of me can appreciate the many laws restricting the consumption of tuna at the workplace cited by Mr. Wapojif above. The human side as well, I guess, because it still astounds me how many grown adults either don’t care for the comfort of their co-workers or lack self-awareness to the extent that they still bring fish to have at work for lunch.

How to Convert People to Anime Without Really Trying (I drink and watch anime) — And finally from Irina, a comprehensive guide on how to convert every one of your friends into anime-binging weebs like yourself. If you read my site, there’s at least a two-thirds chance that that describes you, so please read her guide. I endorse 100% of her advice absolutely and without qualification.

So what’s coming up? My next post will most likely be a review of Atelier Ryza, the fourth Atelier game and fifth Gust-developed game I’ve completed this year. And since the sequel to Blue Reflection is coming out near the end of the year, I’ll probably cap 2021 off with a Gust game as well. And I just started Atelier Sophie DX… maybe I’ll get tired of Gust in 2022 and go back to Atlus for a while?

I also have more anime lined up to watch, including the rest of Monogatari or at least the Second Season stuff. I’m still not sure how to break that series and all its sub-series up when I almost certainly write about them later. Maybe it will come to me after I’ve watched it.

Whatever happens, anyway, see you next post.

Politics in art and the value of escapism

Warning: it’s a real load of bullshit this time. I talk about politics, angry people on the internet, and the end of the world, and it’s probably a mess. Maybe. Judge for yourself. I had to get this out, anyway. Next time I’ll post something more normal.

I’ve written about politics here on occasion, usually in the context of law when it relates to the main subjects on this site — games, anime, etc. Anyone who knows me well in real life can tell you roughly where I fall politically (because I probably went on about it once in a caffeine-fueled rant to them, something like this one): I believe in maintaining the rule of law, in fair and equal process without discrimination, in improving both the access to and quality of essential social services like public education and health, and in rebuilding and repairing the national infrastructure. I consider one of the most important roles of government to be the maintenance of a balance between individual freedoms and the good of society as a whole. And I wish we’d have a metro system where I live that’s not a complete fucking embarrassment.

Even the shitass train and highway system in my old, long-gone SimCity 2000 save is better that what we have in my city.

But why am I talking about my politics now? Because apparently the subject just can’t be avoided, even if I were to stick to writing about games, anime, and music on this site without any reference to politics. Because the concerns I’ve brought up in past posts on the subjects of access to art, on public censorship and private pressures to freeze out NSFW/18+ work, apparently put me in the alt-right camp where some of these are used as talking points. So I’ve been told in a few conversations. Sure, I’m alt-right… even though I’d be thoroughly despised by just about everyone in that camp for most of the views I expressed above.

But no, they’re correct. I must actually be in the alt-right without knowing it. Well, it makes sense — after all, people with anime avatars and by extension anime-styled game-themed avatars are probably mostly extremist trolls. And do you like the wildly popular Attack on Titan? Be careful — it’s also a favorite of the far right.

Of course, some people believe that all art is political and so it’s only natural that the conversation involves politics. But then I don’t agree with that stance at all. Is some art political? Absolutely. Art has been used to express political ideas for thousands of years. And of course, anime and games are included in that set of work: it would be ridiculous to suggest Legend of the Galactic Heroes doesn’t involve politics for example; it can’t even be talked about meaningfully without bringing its politics up. And some works that don’t explicitly address such issues can still be examined from political, social, and economic angles.

And LOGH is more relevant now than it’s ever been since it aired.

But is all art political? Is a pure jazz album without lyrics or any apparent message like MSB political? What about an ultraviolent over-the-top gangster story like Vice City? What about a surrealistic slapstick gag comedy like Asobi Asobase, or a silly romantic comedy like Uzaki-chan Want to Hang Out? Where’s the politics behind these works? According to the definition of “political” I’ve sometimes seen used, any work of art that deals with any aspect of life at all is political. To me, this definition is so broad that it becomes completely meaningless.

And even if we agree that a more ambiguous work of art deals with politics, how can we pin down what sort of politics it espouses? The New Republic article above is a good example: the author, a professed left-winger and a fan of Attack on Titan, comments on how both left- and right-wingers have interpreted the series in very different ways that fit their own worldviews. By the end of the article, he notes that manga author Hajime Isayama doesn’t want to tell his readers how to interpret his work — a feeling that I understand and sympathize with myself. But the writer of the article seems almost to blame Isayama for not correcting posters on the virulently right-wing sections of 4chan and elsewhere about what Attack on Titan is supposed to mean. As if that would prevent such people from making their own interpretations of it anyway.1

Another problem I have with this “all art is political” argument is that it often seems to be used as a way to argue some work or other is socially harmful to justify its removal from a private platform, or to try to discourage and freeze out NSFW styles of art. I already addressed this argument here, so I won’t go through it again in detail, but the gist of my response was that if a great enough social harm can be shown to justify removing access to the work in question, I’m fine with having it kicked off platforms. However, the justification I hear so often of “because I think it’s distasteful/disgusting” without more isn’t enough to prove this kind of harm. The burden of proof on those arguing to remove access to artistic works has to be set extremely high, otherwise it’s too easy to turn out any work with anything near a sharp edge that might put a few people off. Granted, I’m not talking here about a legal burden of proof — I leave that for arguments involving the First Amendment, which this one doesn’t necessarily. But I think the concept can and should be applied in a similar way when considering not just the creation of art but of access to it.

I don’t think any of the points I’ve made here are particular to a right-wing mindset. To any right-wingers who might be reading, feel free to tell me if I’m wrong, but you’re not the only ones who profess to believe in free expression, are you? On the contrary, we’ve seen throughout history that those greedy for control and power, regardless of their political stance, are happy to deny freedom of expression and to deny the public access to artistic works they dislike. For the most recent major example, see Xi Jinping’s wide-reaching crackdowns on popular culture in mainland China — anything that even smells like a hint of diversity away from the standard he and his CCP hold up seems to be a target now.

But outside of those really oppressive examples, why does any of this shit matter? There’s still another argument I’ve heard that none of the above matters very much in the face of far more serious social, economic, and political problems — another one that I’ve addressed once before.

Again, I’ll acknowledge that the entire human race faces massive obstacles, some of which may not even be possible to get over. To me and to many others, climate change is the greatest of these obstacles. Together with the threat of civilization-scale suicide by nuclear war that’s been around since the 1940s and more generally defects in human nature that haven’t disappeared or arguably even diminished very much since ancient times,2 and with COVID on top of that, it’s no wonder there’s so much talk about apocalyptic scenarios these days (at least for us humans. The roaches will still be around, damn them.)

And yet again, I say: all the more reason to have a permissive attitude towards escapist styles of art. What the hell else are people supposed to do to let off steam? Yoga, exercise, and healthy eating just aren’t enough sometimes, and certainly not now. Art has practical uses in addition to its inherent value. One of these is its use as a way to express political ideas, yes, but another is the power it holds to let people escape from reality for a while into a novel, a game, an anime or TV series or comic — and of course, there’s nothing to say the two can’t be combined in the same work.

A lot of the anger over games and other popular art forms being “attacked” or “invaded” by people with political agendas is misplaced, I think — all art should be open to criticism, and it’s impossible to “remove the politics” from anime and games since some of these works clearly deal with political and social issues. Certain right/alt-right figures in the gaming and film spheres especially have used this anger to stir the pot for their own purposes, making and inspiring arguments based on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other -isms and -phobias (see some of the criticism of the last few Star Wars films or The Last of Us Part II for examples — though of course some defenders of these works were all too happy to paint all criticism with that brush, which was completely inaccurate and disingenuous.)

At the same time, I understand the mistrust some fans feel towards the especially vocal critics who speak against works full of sexual and/or violent elements. This debate around the contents of popular media, and especially of video games, has been raging for three decades now, and for what? There’s never been proof (despite constant claims of it) that these kinds of expressions affect real-life behavior for the worse. On the contrary, it feels to me more natural to think that they act as a sort of “release valve” for people to indulge in extreme behaviors they never would in real life. If you’ve played GTA, for instance, how many wild, murderous rampages have you gone on in game? Does that mean you’d go on any in real life? Have these in-game experiences even made you more callous towards real-life suffering? Similar questions can be raised about sexual content in games, anime, and elsewhere.

I just wanted to play GTA for half an hour but suddenly I’m okay with murder as a result. Shit.

Too often I’ve heard it said with complete authority, but no factual support, that “fiction affects reality” with the implication that writers, artists, and others involved in the creative process have a duty to always create in a socially responsible way. Maybe it’s a mark of my embarrassing immaturity, but I can’t agree with that, or at least not in all cases. If the work is meant to address serious issues — if the creators opened that door — then I agree that such criticism is completely warranted. But there has to be room for pure escapism as well. Age-restricted if necessary, of course, but beyond that, without an extremely strong argument I don’t think it’s warranted to call for the removal of games or series from platforms, bookstores, or any other shops or the freezing out of such works on these grounds.

And I don’t think saying so puts me in a certain political camp. Unless that camp is “people who like lewd anime girls”, and despite efforts to make that seem like an alt-right thing, I’m also committed to helping defend democracy from the extremists who would destroy it. Quite literally: I took an oath to defend the US Constitution when I joined the bar, and I take it seriously. I’m also worried about the future of my country for perhaps obvious reasons. That said, I’m not going to simply fold up and drop this other subject, since I feel more than anything that they go hand in hand.

Yeah I picked this screenshot to place here because they’re holding hands, but it’s also relevant because The Expression: Amrilato was briefly removed from Steam for supposedly being too spicy. Which it really isn’t.

As usual, please feel free to tell me if you think I’ve lost my mind. More likely I’ve never found it.

To be more serious, I know my own life experience colors my feelings about all of the above, and though I do my best to consider my arguments fairly and without too much bias, it’s not possible to remove myself from them. It’s probably not advisable anyway, even if I could. Otherwise what would be the point of writing here? But for this reason and others, I’m always happy to hear differing opinions. In the end, after all, we’re all in the same boat — a boat that might be sinking.

 

1 This isn’t to say that an artistic work with an explicit political message is any worse than one with an ambiguous message or none at all. It all depends on how honestly the work approaches the beliefs and the issues it’s dealing with and how much or little credit it gives its audience. i.e. don’t talk down to me like I’m a child or try to pull some silly straw man bullshit to “prove” your stance is correct.

2 Here I’m starting down an entirely different path that involves history, psychology, sociology and a lot of other -ologies (all ending in eschatology, of course.) I love reading and thinking about history, but I’m an amateur at best in that field and can’t even call myself one in the others. Still, here’s my dumbass opinion: I feel we have far stronger norms these days generally speaking that keep us in line and cooperating to some extent (see international organizations and agreements that only became a standard thing after World War II — I’m not counting the clusterfuck that was the League of Nations) but in the end, human nature seems like it’s still more or less what it always has been. Read Thucydides to see a good example of that. What struck me most about his History of the Peloponnesian War, written 2,400 years ago, is how familiar all the political deceit and militaristic dick-swinging he describes felt, especially at the time I read it in the mid-2000s.

But that’s a debate that I won’t engage in any more deeply because, once again, I’m not really qualified to do so. I’m not academia and never have been. Though a gig as a law school professor would be nice — those people are so incredibly overpaid that it’s practically a crime.

A review of A Place Further Than the Universe

Man, now this was a series that took a while to get through. Not because it’s long, however. Not because it’s bad, either — just the opposite, in fact, but this is another one of those “it’s complicated” situations.

A Place Further Than the Universe is a 13-episode original anime series that aired in 2018. It feels like it’s been around longer, however. I’ve heard it brought up so often in must-watch anime lists that it seems to have reached classic status more or less instantly. Part of its high profile might have to do with its makers: Madhouse is another excellent anime studio, responsible for some of my absolute favorites like Kaiji. Between being a Madhouse production and its general reputation as a great story, I had very high expectations going into A Place Further Than the Universe.

And while those expectations were absolutely met and even exceeded, again, this is a complicated series for me to sort out and write about. A lot of that probably has more to do with me and my own feelings about life than about the series itself, so warning: I might get a bit personal this time. But if you’ve read this site for a while, you know what to expect from me. And if you’re new — welcome, thanks for reading, and I hope you’re okay with some personal griping. It’s part of what I do.

Enough of that shit for now — on to the show itself. Serious massive ending spoilers warning this time; A Place Further Than the Universe isn’t the most plot-heavy show ever, but the plot it has is pretty damn heavy and it’s hard to say anything meaningful about the show without addressing that aspect of it. If you prefer to go in raw, go ahead and watch the show because I recommend it without qualification, but more on that below.

Our story opens with Mari Tamaki a.k.a. Kimari, a high school student who’s desperate to do something interesting with her life before she graduates and enters the dreaded real world. The trouble is Kimari doesn’t have any particular interests and seems too timid to take any kind of risk. She can’t even bring herself to cut class to take the train to Tokyo one day, simply taking the train going in the opposite direction right back to school, where she meets her classmate and childhood friend Megu with a defeated feeling.

That changes when Kimari has a chance encounter with Shirase Kobuchizawa, another one of her classmates. Despite them being in the same grade at the same school, Kimari doesn’t know Shirase very well. Nobody does, in fact, because Shirase is shrouded in mystery. After she accidentally drops an envelope full of money on the train platform (a million yen, less than it might sound to some — about $9,000 as of this writing, but still a massive amount for a high schooler to be carrying around) Kimari recovers it and returns it to Shirase.

Get used to more emotional outbursts as the series continues

Partly out of gratitude and partly because Kimari is now privy to her situation anyway, Shirase tells her that she’s saving money to go to Antarctica to find her mother Takako, a researcher who was lost there a few years before and hasn’t been heard from since. And to Shirase’s surprise, Kimari asks if she can go along — this is just the adventure she was looking for. A little more of a commitment than taking the train from Gunma to Tokyo, as Shirase warns her, but Kimari is determined, and the pair start working on their plans. Along the way, Kimari and Shirase find still another girl to join them, more or less by chance. Hinata, Kimari’s co-worker at a convenience store, overhears her conversations with Shirase about their plans and expresses interest in going as well, saying she doesn’t have much else to do anyway.

The final addition to their team is the least likely, but also the most helpful in some sense. After being refused a spot on the next civilian expedition to Antarctica staffed by Shirase’s mother’s researcher colleagues, the now-trio of girls stumbles upon Yuzuki, another high school student who also works as a pop idol. Yuzuki actually has a spot on the same expedition that Shirase and friends were trying to land, part of a marketing scheme arranged by her agency, but she doesn’t want to go. After becoming fast friends with the group, however, she’s moved to tears by their kindness and decides to go — but only on the condition that Shirase, Kimari, and Hinata can join her. Following some arm-twisting she gets her way, and the four friends are now on the long and hard path to Antarctica.

Yuzuki and Hinata. I skipped over a lot of details, but it’s pretty much the power of friendship again. But not quite as usual.

A Place Further Than the Universe feels like a prime candidate for one of those “what I watched/what I expected/what I got” templates. What I expected was a cute, nice slice-of-life kind of series about four girls going to Antarctica. Normally I don’t go in for slice-of-life by itself, but this series is highly regarded enough that I wanted to give it a shot. Aside from that, I also have an interest in Antarctica, though I’ll probably never get to go myself. There’s something about how isolated and far from civilization it is that appeals to me, though it’s apparently not exactly “unspoiled” the way it’s sometimes talked about (see Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary Encounters at the End of the World for more on that — it makes a nice companion piece to this show.)

I did get all that from watching this, but while the show is about four girls going to Antarctica on the surface, that’s not quite what it’s about at its core. I didn’t pick the above screenshot randomly: Universe really is about friendship. And of course, that might elicit some groans — another anime that talks about the power of friendship, how original.

Sightseeing in Singapore on the way down, but it’s not all good times

To its credit though, Universe gets a bit deeper into the subject than you might expect, exploring not just the nature of solid friendships but also that of fragile ones. Just before Kimari leaves for Antarctica, her friend Megu confesses that she’s been spreading ugly rumors about her and Shirase, about how they were able to get the resources and money to go on their trip. But it’s not quite out of jealousy that she can’t do the same — Megu is really upset because she now feels useless to Kimari, who used to rely on her heavily but is now standing on her own. After confessing to her vile acts, Megu declares that they can’t be friends anymore and turns away from Kimari.

And then the show subverted my expectations, but in a good way. Instead of returning Megu’s bitter feelings and letting her walk away, Kimari hugs her from behind, rejects her “break-up”, and runs off, with the implication that they might be able to rebuild what they had after she returns. Megu is left in tears, obviously feeling like a massive piece of shit, likely all the more so because instead of the mutual rejection she was probably expecting she was shown love instead.

Kimari really doesn’t let much get to her.

That kind of subversion might not always work, but it worked for me because it’s consistent with Kimari’s character. Throughout the series, the bonds between the four main girls are also tested in various ways, and while there are a few arguments and plenty of tears (a whole lot of tears, in fact) they come through it all the stronger and more closely bound.

These emotional moments aren’t the cheap eye-rolling kind, precisely for the reason that they’re pretty well earned. Universe does a great job at building well-developed characters quickly — a must considering how much it tries to do in its short 13-episode run — and as a result, all the ups and downs they go through are backed up by the proper context. I never once wondered while watching this series why the hell Kimari, Shirase, Hinata, or Yuzuki were doing, saying, or thinking something, or at least not once their reasons were revealed. I read a review shortly after finishing the show that accused it of cheap emotional pandering, but this is my response — everything that happens in Universe has the necessary context, and I didn’t even find the many crying/outburst scenes all that excessive.

There really are a lot of them, I can keep posting these screenshots all day

It’s also important to note where Universe didn’t subvert my expectations, but again to good effect. From almost the beginning of the series, Shirase expresses her desire to go to Antarctica to find her mother, carrying the book she wrote about her travels with her (titled A Place Further Than the Universe, a nice title drop there.) For a while, nobody brings up Takako’s almost certain fate — not even her friends and colleagues in charge of the expedition who end up supervising and mentoring the girls — but eventually reality has to be faced.

This is where Universe really proved its worth to me. When I saw the title to the second-to-last episode — the same title as Takako’s book and the series itself — I knew what I was in for, but the way the show executed the revelation of her fate and Shirase’s response to it was just about perfect. I don’t even want to spoil it here, even though I gave that urgent spoiler warning above. All I’ll give you here is an admission that it moved me to tears.

That’s not a light statement coming from me — I’m normally like one of those Easter Island stone faces; I hardly ever cry at anything. I don’t say that to imply that I’m a real tough guy, but rather that I’m kind of unromantic and emotionally cold or at least extremely guarded. Yet this show managed to break through that armor and get to me.

So unless my bullshit and sappy nonsense detection meter is completely out of wack now, I don’t think there’s anything cheap about Universe or the feelings its characters express and share. It’s a well-done coming-of-age story about four girls finding themselves and learning what it means to truly be friends and to cope with loss.

Again, that really is the core of the series. Most of it doesn’t even take place in Antarctica — it takes our protagonists about a third of the show to even leave Japan and another third to actually make it down to the continent, and there are plenty of slice-of-life-style bits throughout, all the way up to the last episode when the girls return home.

Shirase even takes some time during a party with her adult colleagues to beat their asses at mahjong. This looks just like a still from Akagi, in fact — maybe because Madhouse also produced that show! Is this a subtle reference?

The only issue I think some viewers might take with Universe is just how quickly it can turn from cute girls doing cute things slice of life messing around to intense drama and emotion and back again. Several of its episodes have this kind of roller coaster quality to them, with some serious lows and highs. A couple of those “high” scenes early on got to me in a bad way, as full as they were of youthful optimism for the future — exactly the kind I’ve more or less lost as a bitter, depressive adult (coming off of my stint as a bitter, depressive teenager, but at least I did have more wonder about the world then than I do now, or more than zero anyway.) But I won’t hold that against the series; it’s entirely on me.

And I can really relate to Hinata’s feelings here.

I’ve seen people suggest Universe as a good “relaxation” sort of series, but while it is beautiful-looking and has some light elements to its story, I don’t know if I’d recommend it as a light watch myself for the above reasons. Most of these episodes had a lot to take emotionally speaking, which is part of why it took me a while to get through the whole thing despite only being one cour long.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. I highly recommend A Place Further Than the Universe to just about anyone. It’s well-written, has compelling characters going on an intense and difficult journey, both physically and emotionally, and it looks amazing on top of all that with just the kind of quality work you’d expect from Madhouse. Do yourself a favor and watch it.

It also has penguins, because what kind of series about Antarctica would miss out on penguins? Apparently they stink, though.

Listening/reading log #22 (August 2021)

Another month spent watching the world fucking burn. I mostly spent it working, and the parts I didn’t I spent mostly watching anime and doing other degenerate kinds of things. What else is there to do? At least for now, while we’re still trapped indoors (not that I really mind, of course. Actually my state is completely open, but hell if I’m taking chances.) For the time being, let’s just get on to the usual thing: music and great writing from around the communities.

Animals (Pink Floyd, 1977)

Highlights: Dogs, Pigs (Three Different Ones)

Yet another set of guys who don’t need any introduction — I think even kids today know who they are thanks to YouTube (and TikTok? I don’t go there, so I have no idea.) But in case you don’t know them, Pink Floyd were another English art/prog-rock band that got their start in the 60s and went on to massive popularity with heavily concept-based albums in the 70s before breaking up soon into the 80s and suffering through legal battles over the rights to the band name. Look those up; they’re fun in a morbid way.

Animals gets a little overshadowed by two of Pink Floyd’s other big projects, Dark Side of the Moon before it and The Wall that came directly after, but I think this one deserves just as much if not more praise. Because for me, Animals is where both the music and the concept it’s based around come together to create a really cohesive and entertaining album.

Not that the concept is all that complicated. I think Roger Waters read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and just decided to adapt the idea of dogs, pigs, and sheep representing different classes of humans in an unfair, unjust societal structure (the dogs being the enforcers for the rich/ruling class pigs, and the sheep being the rest of us I think.) Maybe it works just because it’s pretty simple and straightforward, but then Waters’ lyrics thankfully aren’t so straightforward that they’re battering us over the head with the message.

And most importantly, the music totally fits the theme. Pink Floyd were great at creating atmosphere especially between Dave Gilmour’s guitar and Rick Wright’s keyboards, and Animals creates a pretty oppressive, dark one appropriate to its theme. “Dogs” is an excellent example of this, probably my favorite song on the album; doesn’t feel its 17-minute length at all. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” is also catchy, and likely the one song from Animals you’ve heard if you’ve only heard one of them. Out of the three big pieces on the album, Sheep is a little less memorable, but it still works well in the concept and puts a nice cap on it with an ending that reminds me a lot of “The Knife” by Genesis with that “kill them all!” vibe.

So I’d recommend checking out Animals. Especially if you want to feel depressed about the horrible uncaring bullshit society we live in. Don’t look to Pink Floyd for happy positive funtime music, but you already know that if you’ve heard or seen The Wall. And best of all, Doug Walker will never get his hands on this album, since it never had a film adaptation.

Siren of the Formless (City Girl, 2020)

Highlights: “Serene Tears, Elysian Eyes” and “Devote Ember” are nice, but it’s all very even

Well, maybe you don’t want to meditate on how fucked society is and how we’ll probably destroy ourselves sometime this or next century because of faults inherent in human nature that have existed since the Stone Age. If that’s not your thing and you’d rather relax instead, here’s a better option. I’ve covered City Girl once before, but she (at least I guess she, though again I’m not sure; could be a group for all I know) has put together quite a few albums that are posted in full on YouTube and are also available on Bandcamp and other platforms for sale.

Siren of the Formless is another nice album for chilling out and sitting back in your chair on a rainy morning, full of smooth, slow lo-fi tracks. I especially like the combination of acoustic and electronic instruments; there’s plenty of synths together with what sound like piano and actual strings being played, and they blend together well.

As for the songs themselves, there are a few that I especially enjoy like the ones listed above, but the whole album itself sort of blends together when I listen to it. In some cases, that would be a bad thing, but here it works, and it feels intentional as well. The album cover fits the contents perfectly — it feels like I floated through the whole album, like that girl floating in that lake. Not sure how to describe it in a less artsy pretentious way, but that’s just the feeling I get from it.

If you’re not generally a fan of “easy listening”, I’d still give this a try, because it’s the tasteful and well-thought-out kind rather than the artificial-feeling plasticy kind. I’ll keep following City Girl myself, and I’ll be on the lookout for similar stuff coming out on YouTube and Bandcamp and elsewhere.

MSB (Masahiko Satoh & Medical Sugar Bank, 1980)

Highlights: Ridin’ Out, Fly, May Fly, Overhang Blues

And finally, Japanese jazz, yeah. Why not. YouTube keeps dropping these recommendations in my sidebar and I’ve started listening to them. It seems Japan was really big on fusion in the late 70s and 80s (see my very first one of these posts featuring Casiopea) which makes sense when you listen to say the OutRun or one of the early Sonic soundtracks. There has to be a web connecting this jazz/fusion stuff with city pop and new jack swing and leading to that music I heard so much of in my childhood.

This particular album was created by pianist Masahiko Satoh and the strangely named band Medical Sugar Bank. MSB is a fully instrumental jazz album, though it varies a whole lot in tone from piece to piece. I only like part of it, though thankfully the larger part that falls into the more fusion-sounding funky category like “Ridin’ Out” and “Fly, May Fly”, songs that remind me a lot of the really good stuff off of Casiopea. I’m also pretty all right with the ending free jazz freakout “Overhang Blues”, probably because it’s just short enough to make that controlled chaos really work for me.

The rest of the album roughly falls into two categories: more sections of dissonant avantgarde horn wailing that I can only take in small amounts, and “heavenly” sounding pieces like Saga Unknown that I don’t care for in any amount at all. The latter gets too close to standard smooth jazz for my taste, just the kind of easy listening I don’t like as opposed to the kind on the album just above this one. It also probably doesn’t help that some of these tracks sound like they feature a lot of soprano sax (see Nebulous Suspicion for example.) Not that the soprano sax did anything to deserve its reputation — it’s a fine instrument, but Kenny G has kind of defined its sound after all, and he didn’t do it any favors in my opinion. Though if you want to hear it really done well, check out John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things.

But before I sound like way too much of a snob (forget it, I’m years too late for that) I’ll mention that all the playing is extremely professional and I can see even those tracks I don’t care for much working as nice mood-setting music. Maybe especially if you’re trying to set a romantic mood. See, I’m no romantic, so I don’t have any sense for this stuff. I’d end up playing some crazy shit like Amon Düül II and scaring the woman off (or discovering she’s exactly as weird as I am — maybe this is actually a great idea?)

So take what I have to say with a grain or a handful of salt, or sugar, or whatever. I basically like the greater part of MSB, and if 70s/80s fusion is your thing and you don’t mind a little sap you’ll probably like the whole thing more than I did. And even those sappier pieces have some cool parts in them, albeit ones that I don’t feel like pulling out and hearing again myself.

Now for the featured posts:

Let’s Get this Roadshow on the Road: SHIROBAKO the Movie (OGIUE MANIAX) — I liked Shirobako a lot, but the fact that it had a sequel movie slipped my mind until I read this review. Another one to add to the list along with the Youjo Senki movie that I need to see anyway in preparation for season 2 of Tanya the Evil. There’s so damn much to watch… but this one looks like it’s well worth the time.

Uma Musume Pretty Derby: Whole-Series Review and Reflection (The Infinite Zenith) — I have to admit that the concept of Uma Musume came off as weird to me at first — a bunch of horse girl idols who race against each other in derbies and also sing in concerts and do typical idol stuff. However, this review got me interested. P.A. Works already has a pretty good track record with anime as far as I can tell, and honestly the idea behind Uma Musume isn’t any weirder than that in say Nekopara, or those shipgirl games like Kantai Collection or Azur Lane (which in a way are quite a bit stranger.)

Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter! (Extra Life) — Red Metal has done something I could never do myself and played through and reviewed the whole Commander Keen series in depth, ending with this sixth installment. Do yourself a favor and read them all if only to understand what kinds of platformers PC-only players had to choose from in the early/mid 90s, before emulators were a thing. Feel some of that pain. I was one of those kids back at the time who had to sponge off his friends and relatives to play their SNES and Genesis, so I can relate.

Yakuza 0 – Punching human pinatas for mad cash (Nepiki Gaming) — That title says it all, really. I’ll probably be writing a review myself whenever I manage to actually finish it (which could be anytime this or next year, lacking discipline as I do) but in the meantime, you should read Nepiki’s review of Yakuza 0. I will also agree that the game provides poor explanations of mahjong and shogi — I already knew how to play mahjong so I was all right there, but I gave up on that old man’s shogi challenge two minutes in. There’s a sidequest I’m guaranteed never to finish. Good thing I don’t care about 100% runs.

In Search of… Kaiji, the Ultimate Survivor (In Search of Number Nine – an anime blog) — Kaiji is easily in my top few (top three/five/whatever, I don’t really count them) anime of all time, so I’m always happy to see other bloggers writing about it. Iniksbane has some interesting points to make about the first season of the series here, with observations that I hadn’t really considered before. Be sure to read it (and also watch Kaiji if you haven’t!)

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles (Nintendobound) — All I’ve played of Ace Attorney was some of the very first game on the DS so long go that I don’t remember much about it. Perhaps shameful to say for a hybrid lawyer/gamer like myself, but that’s the fact. However, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles sounds just like the thing for me to try to get into the series again if I ever take the shot. Matt gives the game a comprehensive review here.

A Guide to Soloing Alatreon in Monster Hunter World (Frostilyte Writes) — While I’m in the process of degrading my serious gamer status or however that works, I’ll also mention that I’m not into Monster Hunter. Frostilyte is, however, and he’s written an in-depth guide to soloing a boss fight in Monster Hunter World. I really like seeing these kinds of narrow-focus but extremely deep guides, though I haven’t written any myself — they remind me a lot of the old days on GameFAQs. Those were the days. No bills to pay or any of that shit. Before I start complaining about my life again, I’ll just recommend that you check out Frostilyte’s guide if you have an interest in this game.

The Summer of Love III: Final Thoughts on Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya (Shallow Dives in Anime) — Dewbond gives his concluding thoughts on the magical girl-themed Fate spinoff Prisma Illya following a series of posts on the anime. I was already thinking about picking it up myself — I’ve already covered one Fate spinoff series, so why not another? Dewbond makes it sound well worth the watch in his post.

Shangri-La – Let’s Watch a Random Anime (#6) (Side of Fiction) — Every month, Jacob spins a wheel full of anime hosted at randomanime.org and watches whatever comes up. This is a brave undertaking, and not one I’m equal to (when I went to randomanime.org, I got a painfully generic-looking harem comedy, and fuck if I’m watching that. Not my thing.) But Jacob here writes about his sixth randomly selected anime, Shangri-La. Sounds like a mixed bag but possibly an interesting one for some people; I might just check it out for the concept and because it’s another Range Murata-involved project like Cop Craft was. Murata being a character designer, that’s no guarantee of the story’s quality — I just like his designs (though maybe Last Exile is a better bet than this?) I also look forward to seeing what random anime comes up in this post series going forward.

Uniformity With God’s Will In Anime #1: Sakura Kinomoto (The Traditional Catholic Weeb) — And speaking of magical girls, Traditional Catholic Weeb in this new post series features Sakura Kinomoto from Cardcaptor Sakura with a focus on the challenges she faces. The magical girl genre seems a lot heavier than I used to think it was, and that’s even setting aside the famously dark Madoka Magica.

Should Nintendo Fire Game Freak from Pokémon? (A Richard Wood Text Adventure) — I’m not a particular fan of Pokémon, but I have noticed a lot of the discontent among fans over recent entries in the series. and the role of original development team Game Freak might have a lot to do with that. I’d argue the same about Sonic Team and the Sonic series myself, but that’s another matter. (Just give the keys to Christian Whitehead for God’s sake; he actually knows what he’s doing. But I’ll save those complaints for later.)

Olympic Gold (Shoot the Rookie) — Pix1001, in honor of the recently ended Tokyo Olympics, has put together a set of predictions for which game characters would dominate in a hypothetical video game version of the competition. No arguments from me about these picks; I’d put money on all of them. Watching Bayonetta try the pole vault would be entertaining as well.

Fry Force and How to Use Anime Influences For Marketing (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — Commercials tend to be hated, and for good reason: they’re trying to sell us things we usually don’t need, and they’re often doing so in the most irritating, mind-numbing ways possible, with “wacky” characters who make me wish I lived on a desert island with no access to goods or services at all (see GrubHub, Liberty Mutual, those horrible McDonalds spots that play on Soundcloud for some of the worst offenders.) However, Taco Bell has somehow gotten it right with an ad that takes serious influence from anime as Scott sets out here. Credit to the Taco Bell ad people for putting actual effort into their advertising, even if I’m not much of a fan of their food (and points for the Gawr Gura cameo — of course I couldn’t go without mentioning that.)

Cooking with Testosterone: Ahi Tuna Steak (Lost to the Aether) — While I’m not about to start cooking myself anytime soon (too busy, or lazy, or dumb, make your choice) watching Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family did make me wish I could cook like Shirou if only to be surrounded by dozens of women constantly like he is. Fortunately we have Aether, who has brought back an old series of cooking posts with his method of preparing an ahi tuna steak. I had this once; it’s good as hell. Maybe I’ll even try my hand at this one day. Can I really afford not to under the circumstances?

And from the same blog: Disgaeadventures — I don’t usually feature two posts from the same blog, but Aether also recently gave his thoughts on Disgaea 1 for PC and brings an interesting angle both on the characters and gameplay and on some aspects of them that might not be obvious at first glance. I’m always happy to see more people picking up Disgaea of course, so I had to feature this as well. (I also still promise I’m not a Nippon Ichi shill.)

Blogging Banter: Blogger Boundaries (Ace Asunder) — And finally from Solarayo, a reminder that we can see online conflict even in our usually civil blogging communities along with suggestions for trying to avoid it. One of the nice things about online communities is that you don’t really have to deal with people you don’t get along with, a luxury that we generally don’t have when dealing with family or work colleagues. Setting personal boundaries is always important in any case.

And that’s it for the month once again. Work has been especially busy for me recently, but I still intend to keep making progress through the long-haul games I’m playing. More anime reviews are also on their way. And I haven’t forgotten about those indie games in the summer bundles I bought from itch.io. And I just bought Long Live the Queen… shit. Anyway, there’s more coming. Until then.

Anime short double feature: Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san / Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family

I’m back sooner than expected, and with more anime shorts! This time, I’m taking up another set of half-length-episode one-cour series — 12 to 13 minutes times 12 to 13 episodes, again not a massive time commitment for the busy viewer. This post isn’t boob-themed like the previous one, so apologies to the near-ecchi fanservice fans who read this site, but I’ll cover something else soon enough that should make you happy.

As for the series I’m covering today, one is as chaotic as the other is relaxing (and that one is also chaotic in parts) but they’re both worth a look.

Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san

Definitely a strange series, but one that feels like it’s steeped in real-life experiences. Honda-san is an employee in a Japanese bookstore who for some reason is a skeleton, but one who can talk, eat noodles, and drink beer, and his colleagues all wear various sorts of masks. This bunch of overworked employees, along with their section chiefs and managers, have to deal with all the ins and outs of selling manga, western comics, artbooks, novels, and other hard copy media.

I used to frequent bookstores a whole lot (not so much these days, obviously, but it might be nice to go back at some point if any are still left alive after Amazon and COVID.) I always had a sort of idyllic and very probably inaccurate concept of what working at a bookstore would be like — I even tried applying for a couple of jobs at bookstores back in the Great Recession days, though without any luck. Maybe American bookstores aren’t quite so hectic, but I suspect they face at least some of the same challenges we see in Honda-san — customers asking for recommendations or making requests for obscure books that aren’t in stock, or that show up in stock but turn out to be in a box of shipments that haven’t been unpacked yet. Or suppliers sending in stocks of books too late or too early. Or shelves being piled up with books until there’s no room left, forcing hard decisions about which volumes to keep on display and which to send back to the publisher.

Or being asked about BL. I know a bit about GL, but I’m lost regarding BL, and so is skeleton man here

Honda-san himself does his best to take all this in stride, but there are situations he dreads, like being approached by foreign customers who he has to try out his somewhat poor English with, or people looking for hentai manga or doujinshi (the latter of which he makes a point of saying that normal bookstores don’t sell — you have to go to special shops for that stuff apparently. Makes sense.)

But Honda’s not carrying the burden on his skeletal frame alone. His colleagues are all in the same boat, and a lot of the comedy in the series comes from their interactions, juggling urgent problems and complaining about demands from customers and the higher-ups in the company and time pressure caused by supply chain issues.

Shooting the shit in the stock/break room with colleagues

That might not sound like the most exciting stuff, but I really liked the inside look at this bookselling world Honda-san gave me. It’s a kind of surreal comedy, but the real-world grounding it has makes it more interesting. I’ve always heard retail is a rough job no matter what industry you’re in — I had my own sort of semi-retail experience once, so I can relate at least a bit to the pressures we see here. None of that feels sugarcoated here.

But Honda-san isn’t really cynical either; it puts all this hectic energy into a positive context. Honda and his colleagues and superiors work hard, but they seem to mostly enjoy their work, taking the stressful parts as they come.

It’s nice to see happy customers, just don’t tell them Naruto is sold back home too

So that’s still another recommendation, and this time to more or less anyone reading. I’ve liked every work-based anime I’ve watched so far, in fact, including Shirobako and Blend S. Maybe I should pick up more of these.

Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family

It’s hard to imagine a series in the world of games and anime both that has spread as far as Fate has. Starting with the original Fate/stay night visual novel* (which is good, but also 50+ hours with three routes and a ton of branching decision paths, so you’d better have some time if you want to try it) the series has extended out to animated prequels, sequels, and spinoffs, one of which is Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family.

This show is exactly what it looks like from the poster and the title: a cooking-based series. That might seem like a strange choice considering that F/SN and most of the successive works in the series are about massive wars between mages and the heroic spirits they summon to fight over the Holy Grail. But this really is a natural choice considering how much the original VN obsesses over food. Much of the time we spend with protagonist Shirou Emiya in F/SN is in the kitchen and the living room where he and his friends and relations eat.

I can’t say how much exactly, but it could actually be five percent or even more. Original Fate writer Nasu doesn’t edit himself very well, but you could say that’s part of the charm of the original visual novel. I’ll still back it up as worth playing, but just as long as you get the Realta Nua patch first.

And here we learn how a relatively dense guy like Shirou can manage to surround himself with women constantly: by being an amazing cook. Despite still just being in high school, this guy astounds everyone with his cooking skills, from regular human friends to the magical spirits of dead heroes. Everyone, whether friend or foe, is moved by the power of Shirou’s recipes.

Yes, even his enemies: Today’s Menu takes place in a nice alternate-universe Fate setting where the Holy Grail War isn’t happening and all the Servants are just hanging out with their Masters. If this were Unlimited Blade Works, a lot of these characters would be killing the shit out of each other, but this spinoff is all about relaxing, cooking, and eating good food.

I was always more of a Rin guy, but this show makes Saber so god damn cute that I’m examining my feelings now.

Each episode of Today’s Menu involves a particular dish, usually prepared by Shirou. These dishes are varied in style and taste — they’re variously Japanese, Chinese, and western in origin, and some suited for cold or warm weather. The recipe is also detailed in each episode for those who want to try it, with ingredient lists and instructions. The best I can do is making grilled cheese without burning it, so I’m not really in that demographic, but if you like cooking, this show might be specially made for you.

But speaking as a non-cook, I’d say Today’s Menu is also made for me. Or for anyone who likes food, which is just about everyone. This show manages to present food in a way that makes me wish I were eating it. Which is good because it says a lot for the quality of the animation and the care put into the show, but also bad because I don’t need to get a craving for baked salmon when I clearly don’t have the motivation to make it myself. Then again, maybe this anime can work as a tool to get people to learn to cook?

Yeah, no way can I make this myself. But now I want to visit the ramen bar nearby and see if this is on their menu (though again, when it’s safe. Nuts.)

The only possible issue with watching Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family is that you’ll have no idea who any of these characters are if you haven’t at least seen one of the Fate series or played the VN. Ufotable’s Unlimited Blade Works is probably your best bet, at least from what I hear — I haven’t seen it, but I understand it’s a much more thorough and adequate adaptation of the original UBW route than Studio Deen’s.

So it might be worth checking out first and saving Today’s Menu for dessert. Part of the appeal of this show to me is seeing all these characters I enjoyed when they were brutally killing each other in magical combat just take it easy and eat and drink together. That’s obviously not a benefit you’ll get if you haven’t seen or played any of the core F/SN works. Finally, you’ll also miss out on the basics of character relationships and some references that don’t come through unless you already know this story and setting.

This year I might try to start that Illya magical girl spinoff too. May as well since I’ve already done my homework.

But then it’s not like you’ll get arrested for starting your Fate journey with this show if you really feel like it. There isn’t an anime police, not last I’ve heard, anyway. And if there is, I’m probably going to be in trouble for some dumb thing I’ve written about anime here. I’ve never seen or read One Piece — there, that should be enough to get me banned from ever mentioning anime again.

Unless or until that ban goes into effect, I’ll be back with more anime soon, both shorts and full-length. Until then!

 

* I know Tsukihime came before F/SN and that it’s connected to Fate in some kind of weird meta-universe way — at least both sets of characters are present in Carnival Phantasm, though that’s a completely wacky comedy spinoff series to be fair. In any case, none of those older characters show up here, so no need to go back that far.

It seems like Type-Moon has forgotten about Tsukihime anyway. Where’s that fucking remake that keeps getting promised? At least make a proper anime adaptation. Life is hard for us Akiha fans, I tell you.

Currently watching (The Aquatope on White Sand / The Great Jahy Will Not Be Defeated!)

Last post, I went over a few of the very long, involved games I’m currently playing. But when I’m way too tired to play a game (because I am so old, after all, and I work long hours sometimes, so this happens all too often now) what can I do to entertain myself? I’m still watching a ton of anime, including two currently airing series that are longer than the standard one-cour 11-14 episode setup. These two are very different in tone, which is nice because it means I can watch whatever better suits my mood at the time.

The Aquatope on White Sand

Starting with the more dramatic, serious stuff, because from its first six episodes, I can tell that The Aquatope on White Sand is going to deal with some heavy subjects.

This series starts out with two lead characters, opening with Fuuka Miyazawa, an aspiring pop idol  forced out of her position by her agency. With her dreams destroyed, Fuuka is set to return home from Tokyo to her family, but she can’t bear the thought of going back a failure. While on her way back, she sees an Okinawa advertisement, and in a spur of the moment decision she instead boards a plane down there without telling her family what she’s up to.

After arriving in Okinawa, Fuuka aimlessly wanders the streets with her luggage in tow, since it turns out she doesn’t know anyone on the island and has nowhere to go or to stay. After falling asleep on a beach and nearly getting dehydrated, she’s helped by a friendly tourism department official who takes her along to her destination, a local aquarium.

This is where we meet the other lead: the director of Gama Gama Aquarium, Kukuru Misakino. Despite still only being a high school student, Kukuru has taken on the position of acting director in place of her grandfather. She has both the knowledge and the drive to keep the aquarium going, but unfortunately she’s struggling to make it turn a profit, and rumors are flying that Gama Gama will be forced to close soon.

While exploring the aquarium and staring into one of the tanks, Fuuka is taken by a strange vision in which she’s in the ocean, surrounded by the fish. Kukuru notices her dreamlike state and snaps her out of it, telling her that the aquarium can have that effect. After introducing herself, being shown around, and hearing that the aquarium is desperately looking for help, Fuuka suddenly decides that she wants to work here and asks Kukuru to take her in. Kukuru is naturally taken aback, but she sees the conviction in Fuuka and accepts her offer.

Working with penguins. Did they paint that tuxedo pattern on this one? Because there’s no way in hell that’s natural.

Aquatope is produced by P.A. Works, the same studio that made Shirobako, so I had extremely high expectations going in. And so far, those expectations are being met. I was first struck by how damn good everything looks — I’ve never been to Okinawa, but I want to go even more after seeing it depicted here. The same goes for the characters and all the animals they take care of in the aquarium; everything is high-quality.

But then even the most beautiful anime can be trash if its characters and story suck. Fortunately, Aquatope is also doing well in those areas. The central “save the aquarium” plot is pretty mundane, but I actually like that — it’s obvious that this place is extremely important to Kukuru, her family and friends, and to a lot of their town’s residents. Fuuka’s involvement as an outsider also mixes things up in an interesting way as she deals with the fact that she’s running from her old life to pursue a new one.

There’s also an element of magical realism in Aquatope, with a few characters now having had visions in which they’re in the ocean along with some kind of spirit/local god hanging around who seems to be involved in these experiences. It’s still too early to tell where that’s going, though.

The only aspect of this show I can see being a sticking point for some viewers so far is the nature of the Fuuka/Kukuru relationship. Most of the discussions I’ve seen online include some kind of “will this be yuri?” debate. From what I can tell Aquatope is an original anime, so there’s no source material to reference, but a lot of this talk honestly seems like people are reading too much into things. I may be a totally inept idiot, but I don’t see two girls holding hands and immediately jump to conclusions like that.

That’s not to say Fuuka and Kukuru’s relationship couldn’t take a romantic turn — if it does, the show is admittedly building a pretty solid base for that so far. But I don’t see any real evidence that it will go in that direction yet. If that’s a hangup for you, either because you’re not into yuri or because you are into yuri and might get frustrated at what you see as “yuri-bating”, then you might have some issues later on with this show depending on where it takes their relationship.

Udon-chan being the audience stand-in here.

Personally, I don’t care if it’s yuri or not as long as Aquatope maintains its current high quality. It’s a relaxing show, and its slow pace works well for that reason. I get the impression that life in Okinawa moves at a pretty slow and relaxed tempo anyway, or certainly compared to life in the massive metropolis of Tokyo, so the pace fits in that sense too.

Though it does deal with those emotionally heavy subjects I mentioned, I’m finding Aquatope to also be a nice escape from the current chaos and bullshit and everything in life, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone based on the quarter of the show that’s aired so far. It’s scheduled to run for 24 episodes from what I’ve read, so plenty of time to relax as well.

The Great Jahy Will Not Be Defeated!

And now on to the somewhat less serious.

Our protagonist and titular character, the great Jahy-sama, is an extremely powerful demon lord from an alternate dimension that was destroyed when a magical girl shattered the mana crystal maintaining its stability. As a result of this, Jahy got reverse-isekai’d, being thrown into our world and losing almost all her power save for whatever magic she can squeeze out of a small crystal shard she managed to keep.

Now living in a shitty slum apartment and working a job as a waitress, Jahy has vowed to find the remainder of the crystal and restore the Dark Realm — that is assuming she can keep making enough money to eat and not get thrown out into the street.

Going off of my still extremely janky kanji knowledge, Jahy’s shirt says something like “Demon World Revival”, so she’s not really making any secret of her goal.

If you want an explanation for why Jahy usually looks like a kid, there it is: she doesn’t have enough magical power to maintain any other form for very long. It’s somewhat annoying to me that she’s in this form most of the time (so far at least) because she does use her magic to turn back into her adult-looking form while working as a waitress at her landlord’s sister’s restaurant. And her adult form is pretty damn hot, but we don’t get to see it that often. On the other hand, Jahy’s diminished form emphasizes just how much power she’s lost and how difficult it will be for her to achieve her goal, so I guess it works on that level.

It’s really not that kind of show anyway, but still, come on!

Aside from that, I’m liking the character interactions so far. Jahy is still extremely haughty — she is a demon lord, after all — but she’s forced to deal with humans on an equal level, which she finds she doesn’t necessarily completely hate. Though she does still try to avoid paying rent, much to the irritation of her landlord. Some of the best moments so far have been in her relationship with her boss, an extremely kind woman who accepts Jahy’s explanations about the Dark Realm and her quest to collect the mana crystal shards but also asks her to use her crystal’s power to clean the drains in the kitchen.

Jahy used to live in a palace in the underworld and drink wine out of a giant pool, but now she’s reduced to choosing between salt and mayonnaise as dressing on noodles. A long way to fall.

Jahy is currently only three episodes in. It had an unusual kind of staggered start a few weeks into the summer season and will run for 20 episodes. More than I expected for a light comedy/slice-of-life series like this, but I won’t complain if it maintains the stupid fun and the general quality I’ve seen out of these initial episodes. No wonder I like the show; I get a real Disgaea vibe from it — Jahy herself feels like she’d fit right in with the cast of one of those games, and the story is in a similar vein with all its slapstick and immature jokes.

But it’s the kind of self-aware immaturity that works for me, just the kind you’ll find in a Disgaea game. There’s also all the underworld demon lord stuff that obviously fits as well. Maybe Jahy will show up as a DLC character in Disgaea 6? That kind of crossover would make a lot of sense.

Anyway, I’m going to keep watching Jahy as well, because it’s also a nice break from all the usual bullshit that life serves up. Maybe watching Jahy getting kicked around by life after having it easy so long is cathartic in a way, but I’m also rooting for her. Even if she was kind of a jerk as a demon lord, vaporizing her minions and all that. Hopefully the lessons she learns in the human world will stick with her if or when she ever gets to restore that Dark Realm.

That’s all I’m watching this season, at least for the moment. I’d planned to also watch Remake Our Life!, but it seems like keeping up with three currently airing series is just too much work for me. Usually I barely have the drive to watch even one. But if it’s really amazing, I’m open to being convinced to pick that up as well. Either way, next time I write about anime, it will be in the form of a proper review, so until then!

Deep reads #6: Artificial life in a natural world

It’s been a while since the last one of these, hasn’t it? It takes a long time to put these deep read posts together, but I always feel good by the end. This time, I dive into artificial intelligence, a field I have a lot of interest in but absolutely no technical knowledge about beyond the most basic level. For that reason, I’ve tried to avoid getting into those technical areas I don’t understand well, sticking to the more philosophical aspects that I can actually sort of write about. If you know more about the subject and can bring your own perspective to the comments section, I’d welcome that.

Also, some story spoilers for Time of Eve, and very very general ending spoilers for the film Ex Machina just in case you plan to watch these and want to go in blind, which is always best in my opinion. Just being safe as usual. And now on to the business.

Sometime in the future, society has started to integrate realistic human-looking androids into everyday life. Rikuo, a high school student, relies on his family’s household android to make his coffee and breakfast in place of his seemingly always absent parents.

One day, Rikuo checks on the movements of this android and discovers that she’s been visiting a mysterious location on a regular basis, a place that he never told her to visit. After letting his friend and classmate Masaki know about it, he decides to investigate by going there himself. And so he finds Time of Eve, a café with a special rule: no discrimination between humans and androids allowed.

Time of Eve is a six-episode original anime series aired online in 2008, sometimes listed under its Japanese name Eve no Jikan. It was on my list to watch for a long time until I finally got to it last year. And while I enjoyed it, the series also raised some questions, or maybe reminded me of questions I’d already been asking myself — questions way too big for my own puny mind about the future of humanity.

Most of the action in Time of Eve takes place in the café it’s named after. Rikuo and Masaki don’t fit in very well at first, though. The lone proprietor Nagi is welcoming and friendly, but she also demands that they stick to the house rule: no discrimination between human and android patrons. This even includes asking whether a patron is human or not, leading Rikuo and Masaki to look around and speculate about all the café’s customers.

But why would this even be an issue? As Masaki explains to Rikuo, Time of Eve operates within a gray area of the law. In response to the creation of humanoid robots so realistic that they’re passing the Turing test left and right, legislators have passed laws that require they use holographic halo-like rings to differentiate them from humans. At the café, nobody has a ring, but Rikuo knows his family’s household android has been here, and considering the house rule, it’s safe to assume that at least some of the patrons are androids with their rings turned off in violation of this law.

Further complicating matters is the fact that all the café’s customers seem human enough from the way they act. When Rikuo and Masaki meet Akiko, a chatty, excitable girl, they assume she’s a human like them.

The next day, while Masaki is teasing Rikuo about his wanting to see her at the café again, Akiko shows up at their school — not as a student, but as an android to deliver something to her owner there, now with the holographic ring over her head. The pair are shocked, and the effect is made all the stranger when she doesn’t acknowledge them there but is just as friendly as before when they return to the café later.

This strangeness ends up hitting Rikuo at home when he realizes that his family’s android — after a couple of episodes finally referred to by a name, Sammy — went to Time of Eve because she wanted to make a better cup of coffee for him and his family. Rikuo first loses it, demanding to know why she was taking her own initiative without any orders. Soon enough, however, Rikuo starts to accept the situation, and we can see him thinking of Sammy as more human-like. This invites mockery from both his older sister and his friend Masaki, who say he’s starting to sound like an “android-holic”, or someone who relies too much on androids in place of fellow humans.

This fear of androids isn’t totally unjustified. Time of Eve presents a world in which these humanoid beings, far more skilled than humans in technical ability, are taking jobs, not just as household servants and couriers but also as teachers and musicians. Rikuo has already been feeling the effects of this change — it’s revealed that he gave up playing the piano because android players were starting to overtake human ones. This is a change that hits Rikuo all the harder because being a pianist was a dream of his before, one that he clearly felt was taken away from him.

Another social change, one potentially disastrous for birth rates, is the new phenomenon of human-android sexual relations. Android-holics are even referred to as living with androids in romantic relationships. These people are somewhat ostracized and are heard being criticized and mocked. However, it’s still enough of a problem that an “Ethics Committee” headed by Masaki’s father works to keep human-android relationships in line, even running ads discouraging people from seeking out partnerships with androids, as human as they might seem on the surface.

All this boils down to a question that works in the sci-fi genre have been asking for a long time now: if an android is created that acts like a human and seems to have thoughts and feelings like we do, is it any different from a human in a meaningful way? Every year, with the development of more advanced robotics, augmented and virtual reality, and AI technologies, this question comes closer to leaving the realm of fiction and entering that of reality. How will people and their governments around the world react if or when AI starts to be integrated into society itself, even into the roles traditionally played by one’s relatives and partners?

I already wrote a bit about this theme in my extended look at Planetarian, a visual novel that’s largely about the relationship between a human and an android. But that story took place in the post-apocalypse. There’s no real concern about society in that world, where civilization has already been destroyed. Looking back, the contrast with Ex Machina might have been slightly off for that reason, though I still basically stand by everything I wrote then. However, I do think Time of Eve makes for a more effective contrast because it deals with some of the same questions Ex Machina did about the social implications of the human-android relationship, but again in a very different way.

I already wrote about all the faults I found with the treatment of this relationship in Ex Machina; you can find all that in the link above. But to put it briefly, director/writer Alex Garland seems to have assumed that humans and androids can never understand or empathize with each other. At least that’s the idea I felt Garland was communicating through the ending of Ex Machina.

Time of Eve, like Planetarian, doesn’t make that assumption. In fact, I’d say the central relationship between Rikuo and Sammy changes throughout the series because Rikuo realizes from his time at the café that they can understand and empathize with each other. The fact that Sammy is an android doesn’t seem to matter by the end; Rikuo accepts that she, Akiko, and the other androids around them may as well basically be treated as fellow humans instead of mere pieces of machinery.

These deeper issues surrounding human-AI relations are still some years off, since we’re still not close to creating a convincingly human android or AI for that matter — certainly not if Sophia is the best we can do at the moment. For that reason, Time of Eve still comes off very much as science fiction to me. Unless some of the wilder conspiracy theories I’ve heard are true, we don’t have realistic-looking human-styled androids walking among us.

However, the AI musician aspect of Time of Eve isn’t quite as far-fetched now as it might have seemed 13 years ago when it was aired, because AI has actually begun moving into — or intruding upon, depending on your perspective — artistic areas that were previously thought to be purely “natural”, purely human. In the last few years, AI tools to generate images, text, and sound files have become available to the general public. I am absolutely not an expert when it comes to the technology behind these tools, but my understanding is that consumer-level AI tools can roughly imitate human-created media by using pattern recognition.

Some of these tools are pretty damn impressive. Some time ago I came across a site featuring AI-generated paintings for sale, each piece created through a process described here. Again, I don’t quite understand the specifics behind how this works, but it seems like these pieces are generated when the AI analyzes human-created art and produces something original based on a particular style.

The AI comes up with some interesting-looking stuff as well. Here’s one example I like. Quite an abstract piece as you might expect, but the AI can also produce human figures and other subjects in more classical or traditional styles.

Visual art isn’t the only place AI has dabbled either. AI-produced music has made impressive strides, putting together songs that sound like something that might have come from a human composer if you didn’t know the difference. The above piece is a pretty basic sort of instrumental rock song, something that you might expect out of a studio that produces background or soundtrack music, but the AI does follow that formula well enough to create something coherent.

The same is even true of writing. This obviously hits home closest for me, since I’m a writer. An amateurish writer to be sure, but I still take pride in my thoroughly unprofessional work full of f-words and mediocre grammar. However, I can’t ignore the fact that AI is edging in on my territory. Predictive writing AI programs like AI Dungeon and NovelAI1 are designed to build stories based on the user’s prompts. Older programs produced pretty obvious nonsense, sometimes ending with an entertainingly bad result — see the AI-written Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash for an example of such material. But the newest technology is again pretty impressive, producing text that’s at least coherent most of the time.

The use of emerging technology for the purposes of art and entertainment is nothing new. You could argue that this process extends back thousands of years, through the creation of new musical instruments and drawing/painting tools. In that sense, even a modern innovation like Vocaloid is just one part of that long trend. For all the concern over synthesized singers replacing human ones, Hatsune Miku and her friends are essentially just new types of instruments, only with avatars and some fan-created backstory and personality attached. The songs are still composed by humans; they’re only artificial in the sense that they use synthetic as opposed to acoustic instruments.

Miku is basically a cute anime girl vocal synthesizer you can dress up. The best musical instrument since the piano, and maybe even better, because you damn well can’t put a piano in a cheerleader outfit or a swimsuit.

In the same sense, the trend towards VTubers in place of “real-life” streamers shouldn’t be a concern for people worried about the replacement of humans with AI. Funny enough, the original VTuber Kizuna Ai played on this theme, her character being an advanced AI learning about the human world. However, the only difference between a “real” human streamer and a VTuber is the use of an avatar. The fascination with VTubers might be more a part of an escapist trend, adding an element of fantasy to streaming with its cute angels, demons, and fox/dog/shark girls.2

Even so, between the increased use of synthetic instruments and tools and emerging AI art generation technologies, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which AI can put out work that resembles human-created art closely enough that it turns from a novelty to a viable, cost-effective alternative. This may be especially true of formulaic art created for mass consumption, the sort you hear and see and don’t think too much about. And I’d say it’s already somewhat true of the more abstract-looking pieces you can find on various AI-generated illustration sites — the sort that I could imagine hanging in an office hallway or hotel lobby somewhere, a piece that might just be vaguely noticed and passed by.

There’s an obvious objection to all this: that the works generated by AI lack meaning. There’s no intent behind them. It’s true that the general form of an AI-generated work might be determined by humans, who set the parameters for the program: what style to follow, what colors or tones to use, and essentially what sorts of human art it should imitate when generating something original. But the end result is something that can’t connect with an audience on an emotional level, or at least not intentionally. We humans are great at finding patterns when we want to find them, seeing shapes in clouds, hearing hidden messages in music played backwards. On that level, it might be possible to read some kind of meaning into a piece of AI-generated art, but that reading says nothing about the art itself and everything about its audience.

Shocking news: people who think rock is inspired by Satan hear Satanist messages in rock albums played backwards! I don’t need more proof than that.

To me, this lack of intent behind these artificial pieces of art makes them feel empty. Not that I hate or even dislike them — I find some of them really interesting, but only on a technical level. And some of that interest comes from seeing how these AI-generated works differ from human ones.

I think the lack of human-like thinking and intent is most obvious when an AI tries its hand at realistic-looking human figures; the ones I’ve seen have come out close but somewhat off and wrong, especially in their faces. Not in the way a human unskilled at drawing would mess them up, either — there’s a kind of technical “skill” in the AI work if you want to call it that, but details in the figure make it clear that the AI isn’t “thinking” about what it’s drawing in the same way a human would. See Edmond de Belamy,3 an AI-generated portrait of a fictional French nobleman, and how the face is smudged. Similar paintings that try for more detail seem to do a little worse, misplacing eyes and noses in curious ways and, for me, planting themselves firmly in that infamous Uncanny Valley.

Of course, there’s a lot of argument to be had over how much the intent of the artist should be taken into account when examining art. I take what I feel to be a pretty balanced view: that both how an artistic work is meant to be perceived and how it’s actually perceived are important to understanding it. When art is put out to public view, the public takes their own kind of ownership of it in the sense that they get to interpret it for themselves. But the artist’s intent still matters. Some people may feel differently, but if there is no intent behind the art, I can’t connect with it in the same way I could with a human-created piece.

But what if the art in question is so convincing and feels so meaningful that you can’t tell the difference? At that point, does the divide between the artificial and the organic even matter? This comes back to one of the central questions asked in Time of Eve. By the end of the series, Rikuo answers this question for himself by returning to the piano and playing for the café’s audience. By returning to the music he’d previously rejected because he felt it had been invaded by androids, he accepts them.

It’s clear enough that the androids in Time of Eve are essentially human in this sense. They’re completely differently when we see them in the outside world — Sammy and Akiko both act in a sort of robotic “just carrying out commands” way while in sight of humans, as if they’d get in trouble if they acted otherwise. When they’re in the café, by contrast, they act much more naturally, as if they’re letting out their breath after holding it in for a long time. It seems that all they want is to be spoken to as equals, as though they’re humans as well; the fact that they’re synthetic and we’re organic doesn’t make a difference.4

That’s the key to that central question in Time of Eve. Its androids are self-aware and have that intent and even emotion behind their actions. I think if a real-world AI can express that intent through the creation of original art not just based on analyzing scraps of existing human-created work, that would be a sign of AI so self-aware that it might essentially be considered human in the same way.5

Of course, as far as we know, we’re nowhere near that point yet. Any AI out there that the general public knows about (leaving a gap there for any possible ultra-secret experiments in progress) still thinks like AI. When I’m out driving and I have Google Maps guiding me, it still tells me to take a left turn by swinging through five lanes of busy traffic over a few hundred feet. That direction might make sense to an AI, but any human who’s ever been in a car will understand why it’s actually a terrible direction to give.

Maybe that’s the real test: when the AI understands what I’m going through when I’m driving my car in rush hour traffic and empathizes with my experience. At least enough to not suggest such a suicidal route.

Hey Google, I get that this is technically the fastest path to my destination by one and a half minutes but maybe consider my fucking blood pressure too. (Source: B137 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

As for Time of Eve, there is one criticism I can make: that it might be a little too optimistic, especially for the reason that it doesn’t really address the whole “humans losing their jobs to more skilled androids” problem beyond just acknowledging it. It is absolutely a problem, in some sense one we’ve been facing for centuries now with automation of work starting in agriculture and leading up to the development of advanced AI today. It’s not a problem we can’t solve, but it is one that will probably cause a lot of social strife before that point.

Then again, this series provides a nice counterpoint to all the overly pessimistic science fiction we have today, the sort that’s practically anti-scientific development. Again, I’m definitely biased on this subject, but the Luddite approach to this problem is absolutely the wrong one. We shouldn’t try to limit our development out of fear of what might happen as a result.

Time of Eve doesn’t imply that everything will be sunshine and rainbows in the future. But it does deliver a more hopeful message than we usually see out of Hollywood these days. As much of a pessimist as I am generally, I can really appreciate that, and I’d say it’s absolutely worth watching even if you end up coming to a different conclusion. I, for one, welcome our new android friends, and I sincerely hope they don’t become our android overlords instead. 𒀭

 

1 AI Dungeon and the AI writing programs that gained popularity afterward make for another potential deep read rabbit hole subject. AI Dungeon was previously the premier AI story creation tool, but developer Latitude placed sexual and other mature content control filters on the program leading to suspensions, bans, and an exodus of users to alternative services.

I’ve messed around with both AI Dungeon and the much newer NovelAI, and while they’re interesting (well, AI Dungeon was interesting before it was utterly fucked by its own developer — the filter was supposedly meant to prevent certain types of extreme/gray-area material from being written, but it didn’t work properly and was extremely overbroad) the few times I tried writing a story with them, I ended up taking the prompt away from the AI and continuing it on my own. And now I have the rough rough draft of a very short fantasy action-adventure-romance novel that will never be published. Not unless there’s a market for shitty novellas that indulge in escapist fantasies that are somewhat different from the Fabio-on-the-cover supermarket romance trash variety.

Not that my story isn’t also trash, because it is, but I still like it. Maybe I should rework it into a visual novel script?

2 The parasocial relationship aspect of VTubing is still another deep dive that I’m sure a few people have taken already. I don’t know if I’m qualified to address it myself, but it is an interesting subject. Maybe it’s one I should address — not like I’m qualified at all to be writing about AI, yet here I am completely bullshitting about it.

Actually, I do know more about this other subject, since I’ve spent enough time in VTuber chats on YouTube to know that at least a few people are quite serious when they send love confessions and marriage proposals to their beloveds. Then again, that’s always been a thing idols have had to deal with, so maybe nothing’s really changed.

3 You can say this image lacks intent and meaning, but it sure as hell doesn’t lack value: it sold for almost half a million dollars when it was put up for auction a few years ago, probably for its novelty value since it was touted as the first piece of AI-generated art to ever come to auction. I wouldn’t buy it for more than $20 myself, but since I’m not a member of the idle rich set, my opinion doesn’t matter when it comes to these big-ticket auctions.

4 Of course, there’s also a religious aspect to this question, since many people believe that a God-given or otherwise divinely created soul is the most essential part of what makes us human. That’s a debate I don’t feel qualified to get into — I leave it to the scientists, theologians, and philosophers to argue over all that.

5 To complicate matters further: you could argue that this is exactly what we humans do when we create art, since everything we make takes at least some inspiration from past works of art. But there’s usually more to the creation of art than just copying our influences — we filter those older works through our personal experiences and feelings and create something that’s our own, even if it’s somewhat derivative. The same can’t be said for these AI artists, at least not yet.

Listening/reading log #21 (July 2021)

Another month has passed. Two months in this case, since I skipped June. But I guess I picked a good time to return. Since many of us are once again confined to quarters thanks to this shitty mutation of the coronavirus that’s ravaging the Earth, you might have time to listen to all this music and read all these excellent posts from around our communities.

First to the music, as usual. Next month, I plan to cover some very modern music, but this time around I’ll be going way back and listening to two old classics that I remember hearing in my childhood and high school years — but they’re not from my childhood, rather from my parents’. I’d actually quit listening to all of these guys years ago because I’d heard their music so much, but lately I’ve been going back, and it’s been an interesting experience. On to it:

Rubber Soul (The Beatles, 1965)

Highlights: Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood, Nowhere Man, Girl, In My Life

Yeah, these guys really don’t need me talking them up, do they? Everyone knows about the Beatles already. But that doesn’t mean their music isn’t still worth talking about. These four dudes from Liverpool, England were massively influential and changed popular music with their work, which spread throughout the decade of the 60s, moving from somewhat sugary pop/rock in the early part of that decade to artsy and even experimental pop/rock by the end.

I like both of these well-known early and late periods of the Beatles’ music, but what happened between them? These guys started shifting their tone in 1965, most noticeably with Rubber Soul, widely known as their “transitional album” and sometimes as their first “serious” album. At first, it might be hard to spot the difference, since the album is still full of short catchy songs that are mostly about love and relationships and all that old stuff. However, the tone is very different and often darker here than you’ll find on something like A Hard Day’s Night. You still have peppy upbeat songs like the opener “Drive My Car”, which I’ll forever remember from my childhood as the song the local morning news played over the traffic report. And there are still fairly straightforward love songs like Paul McCartney’s Michelle, just the thing for playing under some girl’s window to win her affections (you know, as long as she’s named Michelle — if she’s not, you might just piss her off even more than you have already.)

But then there are songs about disappointment and wrecked and even toxic relationships, starting with John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”, maybe the most famous song about blue balls ever recorded, and ending with a pretty big overreaction from the protagonist (at least according to the popular reading of the lyrics.) Lennon’s “Girl” is even darker in a way, describing a bad relationship that’s hard to escape, and Run For Your Life goes so far as to have the singer promising his girl won’t escape their relationship alive. What the fuck, guys. It’s hard to imagine all those girls screaming over the Beatles playing that song, isn’t it? And now there’s even a non-love song with “Nowhere Man”, which is just kind of depressing as shit, but still excellent of course.

Rubber Soul is an interesting look at how the Beatles changed their sound and approach, capturing that sound right in the middle of its shift — with Revolver in 1966 they’d be almost completely in that later “art” period. But aside from the historical interest it holds, it’s also just a really good album in its own right. Also yeah, George Harrison plays a sitar for the first time on “Norwegian Wood”; there’s your bar trivia fact for this post.

Live at Leeds (The Who, 1970)

Highlights: the whole thing really, but listen to Heaven and HellAmazing Journey/Sparks, Young Man Blues

Another band that doesn’t need a lot of talking up. But I listened to this thing so much in high school that I damn near wore the CD out (yeah, dating myself here once again.) The Who were another one of the British Invasion groups back in the 60s along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — like the Stones, they had a harder edge, playing their take on old American RnB and blues, but like the Beatles they also delved into some more artsy/ambitious work later on, writing the famous rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia.

The Who were also by all accounts an amazing live band, one that I regret I was never around to actually see play. But at least we have great live albums like Live at Leeds. This album captures these guys at a high point, just coming off of the success of Tommy, and it gives us a listen to the wide range of their work — from short singles from their earlier days like Substitute to medleys of their then-recent work with “Amazing Journey/Sparks”. Most of these are originals, but they also cover a few old classics; see “Young Man Blues” and Summertime Blues, which most people probably know better in its original Eddie Cochran version.

It’s easy to tell from this album alone why this band was and still is so revered. All four of these guys were excellent performers: Roger Daltrey’s vocals, Pete Townshend’s guitar (and writing, since he did write most of their music/lyrics), John Entwistle’s bass, and Keith Moon’s drumming, all of it. Moon famously used to go nuts on his drumkit (and in his life generally speaking) but it fits well with the band’s style — it’s easier if you actually see them in action as you can here, playing “Heaven and Hell” live one year later.

But even without the visuals, there’s a lot of energy and talent on this album and it all comes through. The Who also recorded some great studio albums that I might get around to looking at later on.

And now on to the featured posts:

Catherine: Full Body Review (WCRobinson) — Catherine is a PS3 puzzle game classic that started a few debates back in the day over its frank depiction of relationships and both their emotional and sexual aspects. The PS4 remake Full Body adds a new character to the story along with some other interesting features. Be sure to read WCRobinson’s review for an in-depth look at the game.

The Awesome Combo Trainer of Them’s Fightin’ Herds (Frostilyte Writes) — I am absolute trash at fighting games, but I still like reading Frostilyte’s thoughts on them. The animal-themed fighting game Them’s Fightin’ Herds certainly seems like an interesting one to check out if you’re into the genre.

Visual Novel Theatre: Idol Magical Girl Chiru Chiru Michiru (Lost to the Aether) — Dipping back into June for this one, but it’s well worth the trip back for another of Aether’s visual novel reviews. Idol Magical Girl Chiru Chiru Michiru might sound like it’s not made for manly men, but Aether absolutely destroys that misguided idea in his review of the game. Also, the art on that title screen is familiar — I’m positive I know that artist, but I can’t place the name and it’s driving me a bit crazy.

Donkey Kong Country (Extra Life) — Red Metal gives his thoughts on the classic SNES platformer Donkey Kong Country in this extremely in-depth review. How does it hold up after all these years? Check his post out to find out.

AILBHTAY: Kino’s Journey (2003) (Mechanical Anime Reviews) — Scott reviews the classic Kino’s Journey, one that I somehow haven’t watched yet. Now I have yet another old series to add to my backlog, because Kino seems to be well worth a look.

3 Episode Rule – The Aquatope on White Sand (A Richard Wood Text Adventure) — I’m watching the currently airing anime The Aquatope on White Sand, and it’s promising so far, with very high production values and an interesting premise. See this post for more on why you might want to pick it up as well.

Full Dive: This Ultimate Next-Gen Full Dive RPG Is Even Shittier than Real Life! – Well this name is quite the mouth full. (Natural Degeneracy) — Normally I’m down for a good ecchi/fanservice-filled series; you know me. This one doesn’t sound like it quite lives up to its potential, but you might find something to like — see this review for more. Also, one of the characters looks a lot like Etna from Disgaea.

Hyouka – Review (KSBlogs) — Hyouka is an anime I’ve been thinking of picking up just because of how damn good it looks, and this detailed review of the series has gotten me even more interested in it.

Trying Out My New “Positivity” – Pomu’roll at the End (The Unlit Cigarette) — From Valsisms, an account of trying to be positive even in the face of absurdity. If you’ve ever had a bad or bizarre job interview, and who hasn’t, you will likely be able to relate. (I also want to second her plug of Nijisanji EN at the end — I’ve already admitted to falling down the VTuber hole long ago, and since writing that post back in December mostly about Hololive talents, rival agency Nijisanji has introduced two sets of new English-language VTubers. And they’re all entertaining, so be sure to check them out if you’re into that. (I 100% simp for Rosemi Lovelock and I’m not ashamed to say it. But God, what’s happened to my life.))

The VTuber Bachelorette: Mori Calliope (Pinkie’s Paradise) — Speaking of VTubers, Pinkie is putting a select few in the spotlight on her blog, including everyone’s favorite rapping grim reaper Mori Calliope. I like Mori’s down to Earth attitude, and while I’m not much for rap she’s obviously a talented singer/musician as well. But how would she make for a girlfriend? An interesting question, but there are some serious complications involved that Pinkie gets into (and it’s not just the fact that she’s a 2D anime girl — not that that stops some people!)

MY TAKE ON MOST FAMOUS ANIME WAIFUS – Thiccness Alert (FreakSenpai) — And speaking of waifus, FreakSenpai gives us some personal thoughts on a few popular anime characters that many fans pine for. All I have to say is: good taste!

How Square Enix Ripped Out My Heart & Then Stomped On It: Final Fantasy XV (Eating Soup with Trailing Sleeves) — I lost track of Final Fantasy many years ago, so I can’t comment personally on the subject, but Trailing Sleeves gives a personal account of the Final Fantasy XV experience here, along with some thoughts about how effectively (or ineffectively) it tells its story.

Summoning Salt: Ode to Speedrunning Docu Excellence (Professional Moron) — Summoning Salt runs an interesting YouTube channel, producing documentary-style pieces about the history of speedrunning. His videos usually focus on one game each, or even on an aspect of a particular game, and how their challenges are taken on by the most skilled speedrunners in the world. Mr. Wapojif highly recommends this channel, and so do I!

Having a Tea Party at the Umineko Manor (Kyu-Furukawa Gardens) (Resurface to Reality) — I love the visual novel series Umineko no Naku Koro ni. But what I didn’t know for a long time was that the Ushiromiya mansion featured in the game is based on a real place, and apparently you can have a tea party there, just like Beatrice the Golden Witch sometimes did while she was tormenting Battler in the meta-world or however that went (it’s complicated.) A good idea if you can make it when things open up a bit once again.

What’s (In My Opinion) the Worst Parts About Anime (Side of Fiction) — Our friendly overlord Jacob loves anime, but he also has a few problems with the medium as it stands today. I’m partly but not totally on board with him, though I do get his reasoning, and he raises some issues that are worth talking about.

I’m Having Trouble Adapting to the Anime Community off WordPress (I drink and watch anime) — Irina brings up a new trend among anime bloggers of shifting off of WordPress and onto other platforms, talking about what she sees as the pros and cons of this shift. I do use Twitter sometimes, but I’m more or less of the same mind — WordPress is where I’ll stay, even if/when Automattic forces us to use their new extra-shitty text editor. I’m just waiting for that axe to fall.

Anonymity on the Internet is Slowly Dying (Umai Yomu Anime Blog) — Anonymity on the internet is indeed dying, and Yomu gets into detail in this post about how that’s happening and how we might fight against this trend and protect our own privacy online.

Nestle and Cargill financing child slavery for their chocolate industries, yet SCOTUS rejects a lawsuit to stop them from getting sued by those formally enslaved. (Ospreyshire’s Realm) — Finally, apologies for getting heavy here at the very end, but this is an important subject that hasn’t gotten much talk. Nestle is well known for being one of the evilest companies on Earth, even worse than Activision-Blizzard (which yes, I am following that case, and possibly more on it later.) So it’s not a great surprise that major food-producing corporations Nestle and Cargill were sued in the US over allegations of using child labor and essentially promoting slavery in Cote D’Ivoire for the purpose of chocolate production. The lawsuit was thrown out by the US Supreme Court on jurisdictional grounds, which basically means that the case might have merit but still can’t be heard for technical reasons. Ospreyshire here writes about how this was a bad ruling and why these companies should be held to account for their actions.

And that’s all for this month. I hope I’ve acquitted myself for skipping the last one. As for what you can expect from me moving forward — more anime reviews are certainly on their way, and I have a couple of other features I’m planning, including the next deep read post (probably up next unless I decide to revise it a whole lot.) Until then, all the best.

A review of Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions

On a moonlit night, just before returning to school, newly minted high school student Yuta Togashi steps out onto the balcony of his family’s apartment to put out boxes of trash, a bunch of “magical” trinkets he collected as a kid that he’s grown out of. While he’s outside, a rope suddenly drops from the balcony above, and a girl Yuta doesn’t recognize climbs down it — a girl wearing a frilly dress and a patch over one eye.

The next morning, Yuta goes to school, putting this strange occurrence behind him, only to run into the same girl in his homeroom class. The girl, Rikka Takanashi, is now wearing the standard school uniform but still has that eyepatch on. She addresses Yuta dramatically, proclaiming that her covered eye is pounding and falling to the floor. In shock, Yuta realizes that this girl is suffering from the condition known as chunibyo.

If you’ve played Fire Emblem: Awakening, Rikka is basically doing Owain’s “my cursed sword hand” routine here

So begins Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions, the first season of a comedy/drama/slice-of-life/romance anime produced by Kyoto Animation. KyoAni as it’s commonly known is very well-regarded, famous for its high-quality work. And Chunibyo is one of its more popular properties — the series has had at least two cours aired on TV along with several OVAs and a film. This series has almost as confusing a watch order as fucking Monogatari from what I’ve seen, but this post only covers the 12 episodes of the first season from 2012, so hopefully that will keep things simple.

But just what is a chunibyo? This is something I wondered for a while after seeing the title of the anime come up again and again in discussions online. Chunibyo (or more properly chuunibyou, with those long vowels written out, but for consistency I’ll stick to the series’ English transliteration) translates as “second year of middle school disease.” In a broad sense, it refers to the “cringy” behavior of eighth-grade-aged students who are just gaining a sense of self as adults and are desperate to distinguish themselves — for example, by insisting on drinking “adult” beverages like black coffee or writing fancy-sounding poetry.

Cool jacket!

Chunibyo focuses on a more dramatic version of this “disease”, in which the student believes they are different from others and have special powers. Yuta immediately recognizes Rikka’s advanced case of chunibyo because he had it bad for a while himself, dressing up in a black jacket with a high collar, wielding a wooden sword, and calling himself Dark Flame Master.

Of course, Yuta is past all that now. After being a prime chunibyo kid at his old middle school and then snapping out of his delusions, he purposely chose to attend a high school across town to ensure none of his classmates would know him. But this fresh start that Yuta wanted is pretty much ruined when Rikka (who witnessed Yuta performing his dramatic chunibyo routine in a self-mocking way when he thought he was alone) identifies him as Dark Flame Master and tells him that he has to join forces with her, the avatar of the “Wicked Lord Shingan.”

Yuta tells Rikka to cut that shit out — he’s done with all that delusional behavior, and he advises her to drop the act as well. But Rikka firmly insists that she has real powers, revealing her covered magical right eye to Yuta (the magical look provided by a gold-colored contact lens.) She also insists on having Yuta’s help in “finding the invisible boundary lines”, whatever those are, and to that end she starts a school club called the Far Eastern Magic Society.

It changes its name after absorbing the one-member Napping Club. I don’t know why this club only has one member, because it sounds pretty good to me.

Despite his annoyance, Yuta is dragged along by events in just the way you’d expect from a high school comedy/drama/SOL/romance anime protagonist. So he joins Rikka’s club along with their senior Kumin and the extra-chunibyo middle schooler Sanae Dekomori, who joins her “master” Rikka and wields her long twintail hairstyle like whips to beat her enemies with.

Initially, Yuta is pretty down about all this, but he gets more enthusiastic when his crush, the popular sporty cheerleader Shinka Nibutani, asks if she can join as well. Shinka is just about the last person Yuta would have expected to have any interest in a club like this, but Yuta certainly has an interest in Shinka, so he brings her along to the club in the hopes that she’s joining because he’s a member.

Will Yuta be able to finally get away from all this chunibyo business, despite seemingly not doing very much to get away from it by joining Rikka’s club? And will he find love with his crush Shinka? Spoilers regarding that and related plot matters follow, because it’s not possible to talk about Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions without getting into the love part of the story further down — it’s just as much a part as the chunibyo and the other delusions are.

Pictured: Shinka, confessing her love to Yuta… in his dreams.

But first, some points about the presentation, because that was the first aspect of Chunibyo that really struck me. As expected of KyoAni, this show looks beautiful, with nice, smooth animation and a lot of detail. I would never claim to be an expert in animation, but I know what looks good to me, and Chunibyo does. The same goes for the characters themselves — they’re all distinctive-looking without standing out too much, except in the ways they should when they’re acting out their fantasy magic-using selves.

Speaking of that, I also liked how Chunibyo uses its action sequences. When Rikka and Dekomori (the two serious-business chunibyo types throughout most of the series) get into their fantasy fights and start casting spells, this actually plays out on the screen in magical battle sequences complete with giant weapons and explosions.

Rikka doing battle with her older sister Toka, who also wants her to cut this chunibyo shit out.

Of course, none of this is actually happening, and the show uses this fact for comedic effect when it switches away from the magic battle between Rikka and her older sister to show them sparring with a metal spoon and a wooden stick.

This approach fits well with the general feel of the series. Chunibyo is not magical realism or anything like it — there’s never any doubt that these magical powers are completely made up, just imagined by the students pretending to use them. But the difference between fantasy and reality is still a major theme of the series.

At first, this difference is played for comedy, with Yuta having to deal with Rikka’s dramatics and Dekomori’s even more dramatic dramatics. Plenty of typical anime high school hijinks occur, including the usual beach trip and school festival, and there’s some slice-of-life messing around with Dekomori and Shinka constantly locking horns and Yuta’s goofy best friend Makoto trying and failing to confess his love to their equally goofy senior Kumin. Nothing too unusual in that sense.

Are girls you don’t know crawling through your bedroom window and waking you up in the morning? That’s how you know you’re a high school anime protagonist.

However, the core of Chunibyo is that love story and the emotional attachments that form between our two leads. And it’s pretty damn obvious that Shinka isn’t the female lead opposite Yuta in this tale. Yuta’s interest in her fizzles out pretty quickly when he realizes that she has no interest in him and that her outwardly sweet personality is something of a put-on — though she does turn out to be a solid friend to both him and his true love interest later on.

And of course, Yuta’s true love interest is Rikka, the embarrassingly dramatic girl who dragged him out of his short “normal” high school life and back into chunibyo land. At first, one might wonder why the hell Yuta goes along with any of Rikka’s nonsense, but the show does a good job at creating a convincing emotional bond between these two, and one that leads to a believable romance between them.

What Rikka calls exchanging contact info

Considering all this, I think there are two ways Chunibyo could have easily gone astray and ruined itself, at least for me. One would have been building a story where Rikka’s chunibyo delusions are depicted completely as a positive, especially with regard to their effect on Yuta. I can easily see a path where Yuta’s rejection of his old childlike wonder about the world is shown as a more or less bad thing, and where he’s saved by Rikka and her magical eye and invisible boundary line hunt and all that.

Thankfully, Chunibyo avoids this kind of simplistic approach. It also avoids the opposite approach where Yuta has to save Rikka and make her into a “normal” person, though near the end the story it looks like they’re headed that way. But in getting close to Rikka, Yuta realizes that her delusions are not just a game to her but rather her way of coping with a massive loss she suffered early in her life. In dealing with the situation, Yuta has to consider both her feelings and what he knows to be true, and the ending plays this out in a pretty mature and realistic way.

The other wrong turn that Chunibyo might have taken was to get really melodramatic with a long stretch of misunderstandings between Yuta and Rikka. I feel it’s too easy for series like this one to indulge in a lot of drama that ends up feeling manufactured just to stretch the story out, with characters failing to communicate well beyond the point of reason or acting in uncharacteristically stupid ways. Like someone pretending not to see something right in front of them, this is never very convincing.

But Chunibyo again avoids this pitfall. There are some misunderstandings near the end between the leads, but thankfully they’re resolved in a pretty natural-feeling way once Yuta realizes how to properly express himself to and connect with Rikka. It also helps that this first season is 12 episodes long — just long enough to fit all those slice-of-life and comedy shenanigans in along with the more serious dramatic material, and without any need for filler. With the arguable exception of one episode in the middle that focuses on Makoto and doesn’t really connect to the main storyline, but at least it doesn’t involve any especially stupid plot turns. And one such episode out of 12 isn’t bad.

The slice-of-life stuff is a nice break from the dramatic parts anyway.

On the whole, I liked Chunibyo. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d get going in, especially with the hyper, headache-inducing OP. But KyoAni has a strong reputation for a reason. They clearly don’t just take any old crap to adapt into an anime and put serious effort into their work, and that’s all reflected in this first season of Chunibyo. Its mix of light comedy and serious romance/drama works well and its characters are pretty fun and charming. Though the hyperactive Dekomori came close to getting on my nerves at times, but that also felt intentional, and in the end I liked her as well.

Once again, my past self is amazed that I’m recommending my third school-setting anime in a row, since I used to be part of that crowd that groaned about how common this setting is in anime (or at least was — now I guess the trend is isekai fantasy.) But hell, if the story is good, what does the setting matter? High school is the most fitting setting for a coming-of-age story like this anyway. A time in your life when you can still afford to indulge in some fantasies, but when you’re also learning about who you are and what’s important to you.

I haven’t watched any of the rest of Chunibyo, so I can’t say how well it carries on, but this first season does have an actual ending and stands on its own well for that reason. The next season, subtitled Heart Throb, seems to pick up with and continue the story of Yuta and Rikka’s relationship. I have a lot of other series I have to get through, but maybe I’ll return for more Chunibyo some day I feel like feeling that nice secondhand embarrassment remembering my own cringy middle/high school self.

What I can say is that this first season of Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions is worth checking out as long as a romantic comedy/drama with a dash of slice-of-life sounds like your thing. Not a dish I thought I’d like, but apparently I’m into it, or at least when it’s done right.

 

* And thankfully it seems to be coming back strong from the murderous attack on its headquarters two years ago, with a new run of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid airing this summer — all the more significant because the original director of that series, Yasuhiro Takemoto, was one of the victims of the attack. Maybe I’ll try to pick that one up again.

Anime short double feature: Are You Lost? / Magical Sempai

It’s more anime, though not what I actually had on my list next to watch. A couple of series I’ve been watching have been emotionally taxing (but good so far, but still — even I’m not completely cold and dead inside) and I felt I could use a break. So I decided to pull out two other series I’d heard a bit about from a year or two ago, before the year+ of quarantine started. Both consist of 12 half-length episodes each, about 12½ minutes per episode, though really more like 10 to 11 if you cut out the openings and endings.

Neither of these were acclaimed as great masterpieces or anything, but being shorts, they also wouldn’t be much of a time commitment if they turned out to be disappointing. But were they disappointing or not?

I’ll do my best to maintain the suspense here and not give the answer away early. On to the first entry:

Are You Lost?

Okay, so the first thing that caught my eye about this series was the poster. I admit it. It’s eye-catching, isn’t it? I guess that’s the point of a promotional poster.

But it does express the basic idea behind the show. Are You Lost?* is about four girls who are somehow thrown from their plane (or boat/other method of transportation; I don’t know if that’s specified) during a school trip and wash up on a desert island. Luckily for the lot, one of them, Homare, is an experienced survivalist, having traveled the world with her grizzled explorer father as a child.

Thanks to Homare’s training, the four are able to not just survive on this island while awaiting rescue but to do pretty well for themselves, building an effective shelter, rigging up ways to collect potable water, and gathering edible plants and catching animals for food. The show also goes into some depth about survival methods, using Homare’s knowledge taken from her father to teach both the other girls and the viewer about making it out in the wilderness.

This fire-making method seems pretty basic, I think I could pull this off at least

I don’t know the first thing about surviving in the wild. If I were left to my own wits, I’d definitely die within a few days, probably as a result of eating something poisonous. So I can’t say the tips in Are You Lost? aren’t legitimate (though I still doubt that fresh urine is sterile enough to drink safely — and I hope in all my life I never have to find out the answer.)

However, for me the appeal of Are You Lost? is more in the interaction between these four very different characters, and especially between the three much more “normal” girls (smart nerdy girl Mutsu, sporty but lazy Asuka, and sheltered princess Shion) and Homare, who straightforwardly tells the others what they need to do to survive, even if it means doing normally disgusting things like eating insects or embarrassing things like stripping to their underwear.

Yeah there are good reasons for the characters being half-naked half the time, but I still see what they’re doing here

And speaking of underwear, Are You Lost? is big on the fanservice — in fact, that seems to be just as much the point of the show as the survivalist stuff. It’s easy enough to judge from the poster, but for a story about four girls stuck on a desert island, a lot of what happens in the show doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch. Well, maybe aside from what happens in the final episode. I won’t spoil it, but it felt like an avoidable problem solved in a bit of a weird way. Then again, as I said I’m no survivalist, not even a camper, so who am I to judge?

But if you know my taste, you know I have a very high fanservice tolerance, especially when the anime or whatever it is I’m taking in doesn’t make any bones about it (so to speak I guess.) And this one doesn’t. I liked Are You Lost? — it made comedy work in the context of a harsh situation, and it had a cast completely composed of girls who were often just in their underwear, and really what more can I ask for than that.

Magical Sempai

Now to a more typical high school setting, but with just as much if not more comedy/fanservice. Magical Sempai (yeah, the “sempai” spelling does poke at my obsessive-compulsive side, but that’s how they officially transliterate it so whatever, I’ll go with it) is about a do-nothing new guy at school who’s required to join a school club. He’s not excited about the prospect and just wants a quiet place to play his 3DS lookalike.

Unfortunately for him, he drops in on the Magic Club, headed up by its sole member, known only throughout the show as Sempai. Dude finds Sempai to be cute but extremely irritating, especially since she 1) is awful at doing magic tricks and gets terrible stage fright and 2) insists he join the club, going so far as to immediately call him “Assistant”. She’s also constantly turned up to 11 in terms of both volume and personality, fitting nicely with Assistant’s usually deadpan demeanor.

Assistant has no respect for his annoying senior but still sticks around to help her with her failed attempts at magic.

A few other colorful characters show up, but these two are the core of the show. Each episode of Magical Sempai consists of a series of two to three-minute comedy skits, many of which I think are supposed follow that old Japanese comedy tradition with one boke or idiot character and one tsukkomi or straight man. I say I think because I’m no expert, but there is definitely an idiot/straight man dynamic between these two, though it’s nicely mixed up with those new additions (chemistry girl is best girl by the way, no argument.)

Magical Sempai also mixes things up by throwing in a big dash of… what else but fanservice! Sempai is extremely confident without any reason whatsoever in her magic skills, and she somehow ends up screwing up her tricks in ways that put her in compromising positions.

Like this failed rope escape trick. I left out the pantyshot in this screenshot, but it is there.

As with Are You Lost?, Magical Sempai makes no secret of what it’s aiming for. But also like Are You Lost?, it isn’t content with just giving you some anime girl boobs and underwear and calling it a day: the comedy in this show is snappy and fast-paced and most of it lands well enough. I don’t actually have much else to say about Magical Sempai, except that if you want a laugh and are not averse to some anime tiddies you should check it out. And I look forward to seeing what kind of traffic the SEO in this paragraph brings me.

I might also take this new post format up as an occasional feature to break up the longer reviews. There are some other short-format anime series I’d like to have a look at. And just as with games, I need a break from the massive epics sometimes (not that a one-cour anime series is actually much to get through, but hell, I am lazy after all. How the fuck did I manage to watch all of Legend of the Galactic Heroes anyway?)

 

* You might have noticed the title on the poster is Sounan desu ka?, which doesn’t mean “Are you lost?” but rather “Is that so?” Though it may seem like a strange title, it fits pretty well — it’s what the girls say to each other, normally when Homare is telling them that squeezing fish blood into their mouths using their shirts can help preserve their energy — with an added flavor of “seriously, you want us to do that?” But I can see why they changed the English title instead of just translating it directly, because I don’t know whether the English phrase “is that so?” carries the same connotation.