A review of Bakemonogatari

Yeah, the anime reviews are back. I won’t even bother trying to keep up with currently airing stuff, though: my adventure with Cop Craft last year was exhausting enough, even if I did enjoy writing those posts. From now on, I’ll leave that work to the real experts and instead dive into the deep anime backlog I’ve got. And I’m starting with Bakemonogatari.

Sure, the Monogatari series is extremely well-known and a lot’s been said about it already. And I’m not even covering the whole thing but only the first 15 episodes from back in 2009 that adapted the first set of novels in the larger series into anime form. So maybe this is a weird decision on my part. Then again, the entire Monogatari series feels way too massive to take on all at once. I’ve also only watched Bakemonogatari so far — that’s just how far behind I am — but I feel there’s more than enough in this one run of episodes to talk about.

This guy with the giant cowlick is our protagonist, high school senior Koyomi Araragi. He looks like a bit of a delinquent in this screenshot, and he’s definitely a misfit in some sense — all the characters in Bakemonogatari are. But he’s actually a good guy and extremely altruistic, maybe too much for his own good. Almost certainly too much for his own good, in fact, because his altruism time and again gets him seriously injured and even nearly killed.

The story opens with Araragi running up the stairs at his school trying to make it to class when he sees another student falling from a high distance. He manages to catch her, but to his shock she’s nearly weightless in his arms. This girl, Hitagi Senjougahara, is one of Araragi’s classmates, one who’s both extremely talented but also seemingly very aloof, so much that she sits by herself and doesn’t socialize with others. Araragi is interested in learning more about her thanks to this bizarre encounter, so he asks his colleague on the student council, president and top-of-her-class student Tsubasa Hanekawa, about her.

Hanekawa can’t tell him much because she doesn’t know much herself, even though she and Senjougahara attended the same middle school — only that she used to be very popular and outgoing until she came down with a mysterious illness and seemingly withdrew into herself at the start of high school. Araragi, not letting on about her weightlessness, thinks to himself that it must be connected. As he leaves, however, he’s met by Senjougahara herself, who forces a boxcutter and a stapler into both sides of his mouth and demands that he stop prying into her business. Since he knows too much already, she tells him that she lost almost all her weight after she was confronted by a supernaturally powerful crab that she claims stole it from her, and ever since she’s been forced to hide this fact from everyone. Araragi is then coerced into agreeing to keep her secret, but she staples him in the cheek anyway just to make her point.

Araragi chases her down after recovering when he realizes that he can help her with her problem. and he convinces her to follow him when he shows her his cheek just a few minutes after she stapled it to reveal that the staple wounds have already healed. Because it turns out that the supernatural crab story isn’t some bullshit she just made up, and Araragi believes her because he’s had his own run-in with the supernatural. In his case it was a beautiful vampire woman who bit him and turned him into a follower before he was helped out by one Meme Oshino, a Hawaiian shirt-wearing guy who lives in an abandoned building and has the power to communicate with and expel gods, demons, and spirits. Araragi still has a few of the benefits of his former vampirism, including a fast-heal ability, but he’s more or less human again, and he now consults Oshino about other supernatural occurrences.

This is the beginning of Bakemonogatari, just the first part of a larger story about Koyomi Araragi and all the women who end up involved in his life. And aside from Oshino they are all women, some of whom end up having feelings for him. At this point, this might sound a lot like a harem anime, but it’s not exactly that. That’s partly because the show is focused a bit more on the various animal spirits that are causing problems for each girl in the cast, but also because Araragi quickly gets into a relationship with Senjougahara, the very same girl who stapled his mouth in the first episode. And it’s a relationship that both of them seem firmly committed to. There’s no wavering between different heroines in this one as there is in so many harem series, where the protagonist is a clueless dumbass too dense to understand what’s going on or to make up his mind and commit himself to someone.

His willpower does get tested, though

Their relationship is also tested from the very beginning by these supernatural incidents. Bakemonogatari is a faithful adaptation of the original novel series by author Nisio Isin, and like the novels it’s divided into five parts based on each new heroine and the animal spirit-related affliction she’s dealing with: Hitagi Crab, Mayoi Snail, Suruga Monkey, Nadeko Snake, and Tsubasa Cat. In each of these parts, Araragi takes it upon himself to help the affected person with the aid of the spiritual expert Oshino and his growing group of friends and confidants.

It soon becomes clear that Araragi is the kind of guy who will throw himself into a situation to save pretty much anyone without giving it a second thought. There wouldn’t have even been a story if not for that — the reason Senjougahara attacked him with a stapler in the first place was to drive him away, yet he still insisted on helping her after all that. And Senjougahara decides and then immediately announces that she loves him when, instead of just walking away from a problem to benefit himself, he shows the same compassion to the grade school girl Mayoi Hachikuji in the following part.

In the third arc, Araragi’s attempts at heroics nearly get him killed even with his quick healing ability, and only the intervention of Oshino and Senjougahara saves him. He ends up making a new friend in his junior schoolmate Suruga Kanbaru after she’s rescued from her own supernatural possession, but it’s pretty clear now that Araragi is willing to jump into any kind of danger for the sake of others to a crazy degree, even to the point that he doesn’t think at all about his own well-being. As Oshino, Senjougahara, and other characters point out to him, he’ll probably end up facing serious consequences for that sooner or later.

That brings me to the first big strength I think Bakemonogatari has: the characterization. I had a strong sense of who Araragi and Senjougahara were from their interactions in the very first episode. Araragi’s heroics don’t come off as false, because we see that he’s committed to them not to get praise but because that’s just how he is, and Senjougahara’s coldness and awkwardness also seem to be not really an affectation but just a natural part of her character. Other characters, like Hanekawa, are kept more obscure for a while, but this is clearly because the writer meant to reveal more of them when the time was right. This became more obvious after I finished this first series and went back to rewatch a few early episodes; there are plenty of moments that hint at trouble coming up for certain characters, brief moments that might be written off the first time as no big deal.

While there are some action scenes in Bakemonogatari, a lot of the show’s time is taken up by dialogue that helps establish these characters. It’s not very realistic, at least from what I can tell — you’d probably have to be an expert in Japanese to pick up on the nuances in how the characters talk, but just from the subtitles it’s obvious that these conversations aren’t the kind people would have in real life. Some viewers might be annoyed by this, but I don’t have a problem with stylized dialogue if it’s done well and is entertaining, and the dialogue in Bakemonogatari is both. I like the kind of dialogue you find in Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson movies, so it probably makes sense that I’d like this too, because it’s the same kind of snappy, witty exchanges with some weird references and wordplay involved.

Some of the more specifically Japanese references go right over my head, and the stuff involving kanji is impossible to get unless you have some basic knowledge of how those characters work. Even the title of this first season, Bakemonogatari, is a play on two different words: bakemono, 化物, describing a supernatural monster or spirit, and monogatari, 物語, meaning “story” or “tale.”* The wordplay and pun material goes way deeper than just that once you get into the story itself. Still, a lot of it’s perfectly understandable even if you’re relying on subs to understand it.

I still don’t completely get this snail -> cow kanji thing in Mayoi’s arc though

This strong characterization is also helped out by the visual style the show has. The entire series is produced by Shaft, an animation studio famous for their unique approach. I first found out about them through Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, a dark comedy anime series they also produced about a suicidally depressed teacher and his strange class of students. Bakemonogatari is pretty different in a lot of ways, and it does look different as well, but it uses some of the same visual ideas. A lot of the animation has a slideshow-ish feel to it like SZS did, with screens like the one above explaining certain concepts to the viewer accompanying the dialogue.

The settings are also quite strange: Bakemonogatari takes place in what looks like a large city, but where most series would put in a lot of background characters and traffic, both the halls of the school and the streets outside are always empty except for our main characters. Maybe that’s done to emphasize just how different and weird these characters are compared to everyone else. If that was the intention, I think it worked pretty well: it was pretty easy for me to accept that the settings should feel empty, even if they look unrealistic as a result.

It’s not a ghost town, but it looks like one

There are also a lot of close-up shots of the characters’ faces. Sometimes while they’re talking, but at other times it’s just a second-long shot of an expression without any words. As with the dialogue and settings, these shots feel a bit strange, but they also fit the show’s style very well. It helps that they’re beautifully illustrated with a lot of detail, great takes on the character designs by the original light novel artist VOFAN. But some of these shots also say a lot without words, especially when they show up in the middle of a long conversation. They provide some of those foreshadowing moments I brought up above, and I think they’re a nice, subtle way of adding to the characters and the story as a whole.

Like this one of vampire girl Shinobu. Still not sure what her deal is exactly, but later series are supposed to involve a lot more of her and her connection with Araragi.

I also need to praise the soundtrack — the whole thing is excellent, from subtle background tracks like Suteki Mappou and Sanpo to all the character themes and the ending theme. A lot of work was put into the openings as well — there are several different OPs corresponding to each of the five character parts in this 15-episode run alone. My favorite out of the lot might be Renai Circulation, Nadeko’s theme, even though it got stuck in my head for days after I heard it. It was only after watching this series that I learned about its massive meme status, probably because it’s such a catchy song.

There’s one more element of Bakemonogatari I want to address: all the dirty jokes in it. There are quite a few of them in here, along with some extra-obvious fanservice shots. Hell, the very first episode starts with the wind blowing down the street and flipping Hanekawa’s skirt up, giving the viewer an extended and highly detailed look at what she’s wearing under it. I don’t know if this was the intent, but it seems like this scene was put right in front just to let the viewer know to expect this sort of thing, and maybe to quit right away if they’re put off by it. Or maybe it’s just Shaft doing their usual thing, because there were some shots like this in SZS too.

oh shit

I bring this element up because I’ve seen Monogatari criticized for being full of fanservice, or a “perverted” or “horny” show, or whatever terms people are using on Twitter and Reddit now for it. I can only address what I’ve seen in this first series, but a lot of these bits figure into the plot — Araragi is a guy constantly surrounded by girls some of whom are interested in him, so some of it’s natural. Even the more gratuitous-seeming stuff doesn’t come off as being mean-spirited, though. And when Bakemonogatari deals with serious matters like bullying, broken families, and parental neglect, it does so with the proper sort of respect for the subject.

All these apparitions and spirits the characters have to cope with show up as a result of these personal issues, and this serious treatment is appropriate and doesn’t feel out of place alongside the comedy or fanservicey bits of the show. In fact, those less serious parts feel like nice breaks from the heavier material. But I have an extra-high tolerance for that kind of stuff. If your tolerance is low, you might feel like turning off Bakemonogatari after the first ten seconds. I get why some people would do that, but I also think there’s a lot they’d be missing out on as a result.

Well, taste is taste anyway, and you don’t need anyone’s permission to like or not like something. It would be nice if more people acknowledged that fact, wouldn’t it?

So far, it’s a nice story about fighting with/trying to appease dangerous spirits and also about the awkwardness of relationships. I like it.

So those are my thoughts on Bakemonogatari. I’ll definitely be continuing the series from here on, trying to figure out exactly how and where to watch all the different confusingly named parts. It was enough of a pain to find the last three episodes of this first series; for some damn reason (licensing problems?) all the streaming sites only have episodes 1 through 12, leaving out the last three parts of the Tsubasa Cat arc. Of course there are various ways to find them, but I leave that to you and whatever search engine you prefer to use if you’re interested in watching this show. If you refuse to go that route and don’t want to pay out the ass for the very expensive Blu-rays, you can always read the third part of the light novel series, all of which is translated and officially released. And if you want a beat-by-beat in-depth episode analysis, Yomu is doing that very well over on his blog, so check that out if you’re interested.

The next anime series up will probably be something totally different in tone from this one, but I’ll also be seeking out the Kizumonogatari prequel movies to watch. I’ve heard they’re pretty divisive, which makes them more interesting for me to watch in a way. Until then, do your best to stay away from dangerous spirits and apparitions. They really seem like more trouble to deal with than they’re worth. 𒀭

* I’ve seen the title translated into English as Ghostory and Monstory in attempts to recreate that wordplay, but it seems like everyone stopped trying after the second series Nisemonogatari came out, and now the translators are sticking to the Japanese titles.

Mystery Blogger Award Double Feature

Time for a break from all the serious analyses and reviews and complaining about the world (well, not that last one — I’ll never stop that, I swear.) I was lucky enough to receive Mystery Blogger Award tags from both Fanfiction Anime World and Extra Life! Many thanks to both animeandfanfiction and Red Metal. They both have excellent sites that you should be following, by the way. If you like anime, films, or video games at all (and if you don’t, how are you reading this post?) give them a look.

I’d normally break this into two parts, but I decided to just write one massive post answering both of their questions, which add up to 16. So I hope you’re ready. First I’ll take on animeandfanfiction’s questions, since those have been pending for a while now.

1) If you could make any fictional character real who would it be and why? What would their relationship be with you? ( best friend, enemy, stranger, partner etc.).

I’ve addressed this sort of thing once or twice before, but I’ll take a different angle this time: I’d want to have a mortal enemy/rival but with enough mutual respect between us that when one of us dies, the other will be disappointed that we didn’t manage to defeat him and make him an ally instead. I’m thinking of a rivalry from Legend of the Galactic Heroes that I won’t say any more about because it would be a spoiler, so I won’t specify a character, but if you’ve seen LOGH you may have some idea of who I’m talking about. Have you watched LOGH yet? You really should.

It’s a very deep show

2) If you could choose to have any power from an anime what would it be? (Examples, jojo stands, my hero academia quirks, etc.).

It might just be because I’m playing Persona 5 Royal, but I would go with the power of Persona. Since the modern Persona games got anime adaptations, I’ll say that counts. I suppose it is similar to a JoJo stand, though. The idea of having an alter ego that’s a reflection of your true self or however that works, I really like it. Though I wonder who my Persona would be. Are there any historical or mythical figures cranky and embittered enough to fit?

3) Is there any blogger on here you’d like to get to know better and be friends with? If so, feel free to tag them and share your honest thoughts!

Here’s your expected cop-out answer: everyone in the community. I really haven’t come across someone in the general anime/game-fan circles here on WordPress who I haven’t liked. That’s certainly not something I can say for creators on other platforms like Youtube, though to be fair I don’t move in that exalted circle. Some big Youtube revenue would be nice, but there also seems to be a lot of drama and poison that goes along with it. I can do without that.

Anyway, I’d be happy to have a dinner with all of you, a rowdy one. After the massive health crisis is over, of course.

4) What anime theme/opening/ending is one of your favorites right now? Is it because it’s catchy, fun or emotional for you and why? (Example easy breezy because it’s fun to dance to).

Well, I don’t/can’t dance, but I’ve always liked the openings to the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei series. Especially the first one: it has a real title but people just know it as “bure bure” for reasons that are obvious if you listen to it. It’s nice and aggressive with plenty of despair in the lyrics and tone. I know this one is pretty old at this point, but I still love it just that much.

5) Is there anything not animated yet that you’d like to be? It can be a manga that hasn’t been, a video game, a tv show, etc. Possibilities are endless.

Moby-Dick in anime form, only all the characters are now cute girls. Tell me an entirely genderswapped Moby-Dick wouldn’t be popular. It’s not like that would be going too far — they’ve already turned World War II naval ships into girls, twice in fact. My idea is actually less extreme than that. I just think it would be fun to have an insane lady Ahab yelling about killing the White Whale. Hell, make the whale a girl too, why not. You’d also get the yuri fans on board with the ambiguous Ishmael/Queequeg relationship. Now I really want someone to do this.

This Touhou fanart is the closest I could find to what I’m thinking of. (source: Wool, pixiv)

And now, Red Metal’s questions:

1) What is the most unusual work you’ve ever experienced?

I’ve listened to some weird music — Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica or anything at all put out by the Residents. I’ve seen some strange films as well, though they’re popular in their own niches even if some people don’t “get” them (stuff by David Lynch, David Cronenberg, guys like that.) The most unusual work, though, would probably be The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade which I checked out just out of morbid curiosity back when I was a student. To be fair, I didn’t read anywhere close to the whole thing; it’s extremely slow going and still just as shocking as it probably was back when it was written. But de Sade also deserves credit for writing material that got him thrown into prison and insane asylums many times throughout his life — he wrote this work while imprisoned in the famous Bastille a few years before it was broken into by the French revolutionaries.

Not that it makes 120 Days any easier to read, with characters relating how they committed horrific acts against other characters, who themselves mysteriously heal or even come back to life for no apparent reason other than the story being kind of a mess. It’s a godawful work that I don’t really recommend to anyone, but the history surrounding it and its author is interesting and worth studying. It should be noted that although his literature got him into legal trouble, de Sade was also thrown into prison for committing murders and other horrible acts in real life, so he wasn’t exactly the “pure artist imprisoned for expressing himself” type.

2) What is the best work you have experienced that no one else seems to know about?

That depends on what set of people I’m talking to. I have friends and family with pretty different tastes in art from mine, and they haven’t experienced or even know about most of what I’ve written about on this site. But among that other set of friends, they know stuff like Shin Megami Tensei and Disgaea very well. So once again, it’s hard for me to pin down one single work that I can say is very obscure that I liked. The closest I can think of is something like the album H to He by Van der Graaf Generator that I wrote about a while back. The band definitely has some fans around, but I’ve never met anyone else in real life who’s heard of this music.

3) If you could go back in time and go to the premiere of a classic film, which one would you choose?

Psycho. Aside from being a great movie on its own, the stories of people being terrified by an actual movie in the theater are really interesting — it would be fascinating to sit in with a 1960 audience and watch them lose their shit.

4) If you decided to write fiction, which genre would you choose?

I’ve already started a few stories (not that they’re necessarily ever going anywhere, but they are started) and they’d mostly fit into the science fiction genre. Modern-day realistic settings are too boring, and historical settings require a lot of research that I don’t feel like doing. I find it easier and more entertaining to create my own world. As far as the contents of the stories themselves go, if there’s a genre called “depressive contemplative fiction”, I guess most of it would be in there.

5) What is the most disappointingly predictable plot twist you’ve ever experienced?

This is a spoiler for Grandia II… but shit, that game’s been out for 20 years now, and you’ll see this twist coming too if you play it now for the first time anyway. The big twist involves the Catholic-esque Church of Granas. This massive church organization recruits the main character, the mercenary Ryudo, to escort the nun Elena as she seals pieces of the Devil away so they can’t go around causing a bunch of havoc and killing innocent people.

Well, this is an organized religion in a JRPG, so how do you think that will end? It would have been a far more shocking twist if the Church of Granas had turned out to be completely honest and transparent. While the simple priests and sisters like Elena are well-meaning, their Pope reveals himself to be a mad tyrant who actually wants to steal the power of the Devil to become a living god on Earth. The guy is even named “Pope Innocentius”. How could a character with that name possibly be a good guy? And the game also drops all this material near the very end, as if we’re supposed to be shocked by it. Grandia II is still a great game and a childhood favorite, but even as a kid reading the manual and seeing this guy’s character profile I knew he’d turn out to be a villain. Not much of a twist.

Official Grandia II promo art. The Pope is the guy all the way on the right.

6) What do you consider to be the strangest title for a work?

There are plenty of light novels with stupidly long titles, so any of those might qualify, but since that seems to be an industry standard for light novels none of them stand out. So my answer is the title of the album I mentioned in answer #2 above: the whole thing is H to He, Who Am the Only One. The first part refers to the hydrogen to helium fusion process that the Sun is constantly working on, so at least it makes some kind of sense, and one of the songs is about space travel so I’ll give them that. But the second part of it makes no sense at all. It’s not even grammatical. “Who Am”? What the fuck. I know it’s a dumb cliché but I have to assume some hallucinogenic drugs were involved and the title made perfect sense at the time. There’s no other reasonable explanation for that.

7) Where in a theater do you prefer to sit?

Near the back, but not all the way back. The last movie I saw I nearly got a neck sprain looking up because we were stuck in front and all the other seats were taken. I like to get to the theater early, but not everyone feels the same way (i.e. one friend who insists on doing everything at the last possible minute.)

8) Do you have any graphic novel/manga series you’re currently following?

I don’t usually go in for those, but I have been reading a manga series called Forbidden Scrollery, which as far as I know is the only officially translated and published Touhou Project manga series around. It’s pretty fun, and about what you’d expect from a Touhou manga adaptation if you know the series — cute girls drink tea, solve supernatural mysteries, and threaten to shoot each other with magical bullets and lasers.

I like it, but if you’re not familiar with the setting and background of Touhou before going in, I imagine Forbidden Scrollery could be kind of confusing because it does not really bother setting any of that up. If you’ve played one of the games and know something about the series, though, it’s worth looking up. It’s written by series creator ZUN himself, though the art is thankfully done by Moe Harukawa, who unlike ZUN can actually draw. She has a cute style that fits well with the light mood of the manga. If you like the idea of a slice of life/fantasy mix set in an Edo-era Japanese village, you should check it out (or just check out Touhou in general.)

9) When it comes to reviewing films, which do you feel are more effective – traditional, written reviews or video essays?

This is a hard one, because I have a natural bias as someone who writes reviews (not film reviews, but the bias is still there.) I like the written form of review better in general just because there’s less spectacle — it’s all words on a page, maybe with a few screenshots thrown in. There’s nothing to distract from the analysis itself. I do get why a lot of people prefer to watch a video review on Youtube, and there are a couple of reviewers there who I think are pretty effective. However, I think the aforementioned Youtube drama bullshit can draw attention away from the basic review/analysis element, which is the whole point in the first place. Not that that’s necessarily the fault of the creators themselves. Maybe it’s just an issue with popularity fomenting drama regardless of the medium.

10) What aspects of old-school game design do you wish would make a comeback?

The aspect where you’d get a full, complete game when you bought it without having to buy DLC. I’m not talking about cosmetic DLC, of course — that stuff is fine with me as long as it doesn’t affect the experience in a significant way. No, I mean having to buy the ending to a game separate from the base game itself. Or having to buy the 18+ scenes in a visual novel at the same rate the base VN sells for, making the full version double the price of the all-ages version. I get that we all like to make more money, but fuck these practices. To be sure, ripping players off has been something the game industry’s been doing since the 80s, so it’s not like this is a new problem, but it is a relatively new form of the old ripoff.

11) What aspects of old-school game design are you glad went away?

Cheap difficulty. That hasn’t totally gone away, of course, but it seems to have been a lot more common in the 80s and early 90s. I’m fine with a game that’s difficult because it presents a true challenge that can be worked out through strategy; that’s great. But a game that presents you with a complete crapshoot of a challenge that takes pure luck to beat, or one that barely even gives you a chance to learn the controls and layout because it only gives you a couple of hits before it kills you — that game is just a piece of shit. Sure, we had GameShark back then and Game Genie before it, but if you have to break a game with cheats to make it playable, its developer has failed.

***

Now it’s my turn to ask a question. But here’s the twist: it’s one multi-part question, and it’s one that I want to pose to everyone reading who cares to answer it. No specific nominations this time, because everyone is nominated.

Do you think the current worldwide health crisis will permanently affect the way people get their entertainment, or will we return to the “old normal” after it’s over? And do you think it would be a positive or negative if people decide in the future to stay home and play games or stream shows or movies instead of getting out to the theater or to concerts? I don’t think it would be a great loss, but I’m not the best person to ask about that because I’m a severe introvert who has no problem being shut in for days or weeks at a time. I have to force myself to go out and socialize, but I know that’s not the case for most people. Well, it might be more the case in the anime/game fan circles, but I don’t want to generalize too much. What’s your opinion?

In defense of offensive content

Months ago, I wrote a post about obscenity law in the US and how anime, game, and similar material that some people would consider offensive or objectionable fit into that framework. However, there was a key question I left hanging back then that I’d like to address now: why protect art that many might find offensive? And in particular, why protect the creation and marketing of erotic and pornographic content?

I might also be writing this because Evenicle was one of the games I got during the lunar new year Steam sale

As I wrote before, this isn’t merely an academic question, because some people seem to believe they should be allowed to enforce their personal views about art by effectively regulating the expression of people they disagree with. You’d think that socially conservative fervor of the 80s and 90s had made a comeback for some of the puritanical screeds you’ll find on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and all the other big social media platforms. This attitude seems to be thriving now more than ever, in fact. See Sony’s changes to their content policies over the last year and self-censorship now on the part of even Japanese developers and publishers. I certainly can’t say how much, but at least some of this is likely a reaction to these agitators. Even honest, hardworking NSFW artists on Twitter have had to bear insults and attempts at shaming online, and for what? For exercising their rights to free expression. I know I’m a complete nobody who should probably be saying these ideas while standing on top of an actual soapbox in a public park, but I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to stop talking about these issues while things remain as they are. Hence this post, in which I’ll probably once again be preaching to the choir. But I welcome anyone who disagrees with me to read through my arguments and post a comment challenging them.

As before, I’ll be looking at this question partly from the legal perspective, with all the same disclaimers contained in my last post on the subject: none of this constitutes legal advice, it’s all probably nonsense, etc. etc. If you haven’t read that post, I’d recommend it anyway — you don’t have to read that one to understand this one, but it does provide some background to what I’m writing about here. Again, I’ll be addressing the situation here in the United States because that’s where I live and hold my license, though I do think a lot of the following arguments apply universally. And finally, if you’re tired of reading my broken record bullshit ranting and raving about art and censorship, you should probably skip this post. Drop in some other time.

First of all, what constitutes offensive art? There are probably as least as many answers to this question as there are people on Earth, so I don’t want to say I have an exact definition of the term. And I can’t refer back to the Supreme Court’s Miller v. California test here, because while it uses the term “patently offensive” in its second prong, it doesn’t define it other than to say that something patently offensive might be considered obscene. Moreover, different works of art offend different sets of people, and they offend for different reasons.

Yes, the First Amendment generally protects art from government prohibition, even if the author’s intent is mainly to offend. However, there are plenty out there who want to regulate art on the basis of its content, whether they perceive it to be too violent, or too sexual, or expressing an unacceptable political or social opinion. While these people aren’t anywhere near a majority of the consumer base, they’re fanatical and vocal enough to have their views taken into account by developers and publishers who will sometimes practice self-censorship simply to try to avoid a controversy.

I still don’t know if that’s why Nintendo censored Tharja’s butt in the Fire Emblem: Awakening DLC. I guess a tame bikini shot was just too much for American 3DS owners to handle.

I suppose it’s very obvious by now how I feel about these self-appointed guardians of purity and their efforts to strictly define the boundaries of what’s acceptable in art. I believe that people should have the right to enjoy any kind of art they like as long as that art doesn’t involve causing harm to others.1 My belief in protecting the integrity (and even the sanctity if you want to get really lofty about it) of art and its free enjoyment has a simple basis: that none of us chose to be born on Earth, into whatever society we happen to live in, so why shouldn’t we be able to escape from our daily lives however we wish? It doesn’t seem right that anyone should be prevented from getting their escapism in whatever way works best for them, and I’ll defend this position until I’m cold and dead in the ground.

Okay, so maybe I’m getting a little dramatic. But I feel just that strongly that people should be able to create and enjoy art freely. To that end, I’ve made a very incomplete roadmap of arguments to defend that position. I also have to admit that I feel this strongly in part because the above-mentioned fanatics like to go after some of the developers I like for their inclusion of erotic or even just plain pornographic content into their games. I’m not talking about criticism here, to be clear: I have no problem with someone saying they think a game or anime series I like is lousy for reasons I disagree with. Reasonable people can and do disagree about the quality of art — that in itself is completely normal. No, my arguments are directed against those who pressure developers and publishers to self-censor and who support restricting the sales of these kinds of works, banning them from online platforms, or taking similar action.

These are also purposely written as defenses, not as attacks. I’m not really interested in attacking anyone else’s personal views, just as long as said views aren’t put into practice with the effect of restricting the legitimate freedoms enjoyed by all the rest of us. Again, if you disagree with anything I’ve written below, please feel free to post a comment. Same if you’ve found a hole in any of my counterarguments.

So let’s begin. I’ll throw out some of the most common attacks I’ve heard along with my responses to them.

The distribution of socially harmful works should be restricted for the public good.

This is probably the most common argument I’ve seen in favor of censorship or heavy regulation, and probably because it’s one of the more convincing arguments its proponents have. While I don’t see much of a problem with pornography in itself, it’s true that its excessive use can hurt a relationship if it’s diverting attention from one or both of the partners. The same might even go for milder forms of erotic art, though it seems a lot less likely to be the case the tamer the content gets.

However, this is not a valid argument to restrict such content, much less to ban it from certain platforms. There are plenty of perfectly legal habits and practices that do more demonstrable harm to the people involved in them. Gambling, drinking, and tobacco use each arguably take a far greater toll on mental and physical health, relationships, and the public good as a result. Yet they’re not banned, and nobody outside of a few on the political fringes seriously suggest they should be. They’re regulated to some extent, but beyond that people are free to enjoy such potentially destructive habits. So unless the person making this argument is also advocating for the banning of all potentially socially harmful vices, it comes off as disingenuous. Even if some people may find a way to use such material irresponsibly, it doesn’t follow that it should be banned or strictly regulated.2

Not unless something like this ends up happening, and even then I’m probably okay with it.

That’s not even mentioning the fact that some works containing erotic content deliver what most people would consider positive social messages. Interspecies Reviewers, for example, has stirred up controversy for its sexual content, but from what I’ve seen of it, the manga and anime both express ideas of acceptance and diversity in a natural, non-stilted way. The content is certainly sexual, but the message is a good one. The same is true of many other works that take hits for being “fanservice garbage” or “basically porn” without regard for their context. In fact, a lot of the proponents of censorship don’t seem very interested in considering context. But context is everything. It’s what gives content its meaning. How can it be ignored if the argument is based on the supposed harm an artistic work might do to society? It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a difference between erotic and pornographic material, and also between non-sexual nudity and sexual content — differences that rely upon context. Context that, again, all too often goes ignored.

But nobody’s talking about a government ban.  Calls for the artists and the game industry to self-regulate have nothing to do with First Amendment rights.

It’s true that this isn’t a First Amendment issue, at least in the way these arguments are normally made. Groups that pressure artists to self-censor can claim that much. However, self-censorship can create the same kind of chilled environment for art that government censorship can, to the point that there may be no real difference between the two.

This isn’t just a hypothetical situation. It’s occurred throughout our modern history, both before and after the landmark Miller case. Looking back to the 1950s, we can find the Comics Code Authority, a private organization created by the comic book industry to regulate its own product. See also the Hays Code, which from the 1930s to the 1960s strictly regulated content in American films that the MPAA perceived as carrying immoral messages. And as recently as the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center, headed up by the wives of several prominent DC politicians, pushed for the heavy regulation of rock, rap, and pop albums for their perceived violent and sexual content. Senate hearings took place in which musicians as varied as Frank Zappa and John Denver warned about the dangers of censorship of music and of art in general. These proceedings resulted in a compromise, the infamous Parental Advisory sticker, which ended up becoming a kind of badge of honor for musicians whose albums received it — presumably not the effect the PMRC had intended.

This label should have just said “BUY ME TO LISTEN TO SWEARING AND WORDS ABOUT SEX”

This is the pattern of censorship of art in America: not direct government prohibition, which would in almost every case violate the First Amendment, but rather interest groups urging politicians to “encourage” industry associations to regulate themselves (fill in the blank implied by “encourage” however you like, but money is certainly involved, at least indirectly.) Sure, that doesn’t create a First Amendment issue, but the end result is nearly identical. So why should things proceed any differently now with video games? Starting in the 1990s, interest groups of various stripes have pushed for the regulation of games. This again resulted in a compromise with the creation of the ESRB and its rating system. Which I think is a perfectly reasonable, sensible approach to the issue. Mark games with content that might be objectionable on the box and let the consumer decide what to play on that basis. Or let parents decide what games are suitable for their kids to play. The creation of this framework should have ended the controversy about objectionable video and PC game content, but naturally it hasn’t, because games make for a convenient scapegoat when bad things happen. Easier to blame this weird new popular entertainment medium than to admit that there are underlying problems in society that need fixing and trying to actually fix them.

I suppose all this boils down to the following: while it isn’t, strictly speaking, a First Amendment issue, it doesn’t really matter if the end result is effectively the same as placing a direct ban on or restriction of erotic or otherwise off-color content. That’s assuming that the various interest groups in question don’t try to have such material banned outright, which is not something we can take as a given. As I wrote in my first post on the subject, there’s no reason to believe socially conservative groups that want to tear down the wall of separation between church and state would have any love for the free speech clause of the First Amendment. And I highly doubt the group of fanatics attacking artistic integrity from the political left would care either. Extremists and fanatics in general seem to think in the same way, even if their end goals are diametrically opposed. As far as they’re concerned, freedom of expression is a right that belongs to their camp and a privilege that may or may not be extended to others depending upon what they want to express.

However, that wasn’t exactly what our founders had in mind when they signed off on the Bill of Rights. It certainly doesn’t fit with the current understanding of the First Amendment, at least not since the old English legal precedent Regina v. Hicklin was overturned by the Supreme Court back in 1957.3 The Hicklin standard that governed until the mid-20th century defined obscene and therefore bannable art by testing “whether the tendency of the matter is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of [the] sort may fall.” Though it’s usually not stated outright, this seems to be the standard that some of those on the extreme but very vocal fringes want to return to. The trouble with Hicklin, aside from being far too broadly worded, is that it requires a moral arbiter to decide what counts as an immoral influence. I know many of our friends on the far right and left would be happy to take that role, but good luck finding any consensus on the matter. This is the sort of thing that might work in a very small community where everyone goes to the same church, but the point is the standard wouldn’t extend beyond the bounds of that community. The alternative, again, is to impose the values of one of the lunatic fringe upon the entire population.

If there’s one thing the members of ResetEra and Focus on the Family can agree on, it’s that short shorts and thick thighs in video games are a terrible and corrupting influence on their players

So you’re that willing to defend your anime boobs and all that stupid nonsense? There are far greater problems to deal with than this, so you should just drop the issue.

I certainly agree that the human race faces greater problems than an outfit in a game being censored when it crosses the Pacific. I don’t need to look beyond the borders of my own country to see that. Our infrastructure is crumbling, our access to health care is still inadequate, many of our public schools lack funding, and our political system is currently being put through a stress test that it might not pass.

However, this argument is still worthless. Because we aren’t the ones creating the controversy: it’s rather those self-appointed guardians of purity on Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere calling for developers and creators to practice self-censorship and attempting to use public shaming tactics to get their way. This is an attempted intrusion upon what I see as the artist’s right to create and the consumer’s right to enjoy art. If they want to blame anyone for manufacturing a controversy that might distract from more important issues, they should blame themselves.

You should get a life/get out of your parents’ basement/etc.

I only include these lines because they and others like them are thrown around so often in arguments about erotic and pornographic content in anime and games as if they had any bearing at all. In politics, irrelevant personal insults thrown around wildly can sometimes lead you to victory (just look at our current chief executive for proof of that.) However, when we’re trying to get to the truth of a matter, they’re merely a distraction. They’re also effectively an admission that your opponent in the argument has nothing left, so you may as well quit the conversation at that point.

Even supposing that people living in their parents’ basements who don’t get out much automatically lose the argument (which makes no sense whatsoever) it’s worth mentioning that fans of anime, manga, and games that may sometimes include some spicy content are all types of people living in all types of situations. But no, please keep ignoring that fact. Just keep throwing those bullshit insults around. We’re all antisocial unskilled basement-dwelling man-children. Oh yeah, and we’re all members of the alt-right too. Every one of us!

Just let me brush tails in peace. That’s all I want, is that so much to fucking ask

But how am I supposed to take you seriously when you’re placing a screenshot from a porn game in your serious post about law and art?

Okay, maybe you have a point, hypothetical opponent.

Then again, this is part of the point I’m trying to make. I will admit that certain expressions may be so extreme that the risk they pose to society outweighs the value of allowing them to be expressed. As an example, let’s say a group of people wants to stage public orgies, right out in the open. You could make a decent argument that this counts as an artistic expression depending upon how it’s staged, but aside from the fact that such an expression would violate existing public decency laws, I don’t believe it’s right to subject the general public to such an extreme display. However, many of the expressions people take issue with are nowhere near that extreme hypothetical. If your plan is to banish all depictions of nudity from society, you’d better start going around all the art galleries in the country loaded up with cans of spray paint. And in any case, to demand the regulation of what a person is allowed to enjoy in the privacy of his or her own home, no matter whether it counts as pornographic — that’s a different matter entirely.

Anyway, what do you think, reader? Am I insane? That’s entirely possible. I’m just tired of the unbearable smugness of these knights of purity, those guardians of propriety who think they can just enforce their views without any meaningful opposition. As long as people are too squeamish to talk about erotic and pornographic content, the pro-censorship and pro-restriction camp will have the advantage, and they will use it. So let’s not be shy about the matter. Our arguments can and should always be well-reasoned and civil, but we shouldn’t feel compelled to blunt them just because we think we’re on the less socially acceptable side. If I even possessed a few remaining fucks about what society thought of me anyway, being a lawyer for the last few years has taken them from me.

And now that I’ve given my big Braveheart speech, I’m done. I know there are plenty of people out there saying the same sorts of things I’ve written here, and many more thinking them, so it’s not exactly like we’re a lonely bunch. It can be easy to forget that sometimes, though. I also wanted to expand upon what I wrote in that first post and fill out the “why” part of it that I felt was lacking there. I hope I was able to do that without rambling too much. Next time, I’ll probably be both calmer and more coherent. Until then. 𒀭

 

1 I may as well throw intentional harm towards animals in this category to expand it to all sentient beings — I’m absolutely not a vegetarian, but I also don’t like the idea of harming animals for mere entertainment. It’s not an especially brave stance I’m taking here, I know.

2 This is the same argument proponents of cannabis legalization like to use, and I agree with it in that context too. I just don’t talk about it here because it’s not relevant to the subject matter of the site. Neither is politics in general, except when it intersects with art as it does in this case.

3 If you’re wondering why US courts were applying UK law in this case, it’s because US law was originally based on the old English common law system, and so the courts and even Congress would sometimes use an English precedent to base their rulings and bills upon when they couldn’t find an American one. Many of our own common law standards can still be traced back to the post-Norman conquest English legal framework, though you’ll hardly ever find anyone using an English or UK precedent anymore in practice. It’s also why we have so many old Norman French terms in legal jargon along with all the Latin. And no, we’re not letting go of any of it. It might be the 21st century now, but in some ways our profession is still stuck in the 13th.

The Sunshine Blogger Award Challenge Part 4: No more clever subtitles

Last month I was honored with a fourth Sunshine Blogger Award nomination, this time from animeandfanfiction, who runs an excellent site dealing with anime, manga, and games.  Thanks very much for the tag.  My answers are a bit late, but they’re here now.  As usual, here are the rules:

Thank the blogger who nominated you in the blog post and link back to their blog.
Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post and/or on your blog.

I’ve fulfilled the first and last requirements already, so now it’s time to answer the questions:

1. If you could cosplay any anime character to a convention or just at home, who would it be?

I guess I’d have to say Phoenix Wright, because 1) it would be an easy cosplay; all I’d need to buy is some hair gel and a golden pin, and 2) we’re both lawyers, so it would work thematically.  And I’m pretty sure he was in an anime adaptation once, right?  So this works an as answer.  Though being a lawyer in Phoenix’s world is a lot more exciting that being one in ours.

2. Who is the most relatable anime/manga character to you?

Very sadly, I have to say it’s probably Nozomu Itoshiki, aka the Zetsubou-sensei in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei.  This is a series about a teacher who constantly takes as negative a view of life as possible, not because he’s trying to be contrarian but because that’s just how he is.  Meanwhile, his class is full of girls who each have their own psychological quirks, and there’s a lot of weird dark comedy that ensues.  SZS does contain a lot of cultural references and language puns that I probably wouldn’t get even if I looked them up, but I can totally understand Itoshiki and his view of life, because it’s not too different from mine.  I’ve been trying to be more positive, though.  It’s not easy.

The worst possible conclusion is probably the right one.  This is a hard mindset to break.

3. Which genre do you think you’ve watched the most of this year?

I’ve completed a grand total of one current anime series so far, Cop Craft, and I’m also watching that Fate/Grand Order: Babylonia show (yeah, I’m still watching at least one anime series currently airing.)  So it’s a tie between urban sci-fi fantasy cop show and ancient battle royale (or isekai?  Does F/GO count as an isekai?  I have no idea.)

4. What seasonal animes were your favorites this year?

Again, not much I can say here, but Cop Craft was actually pretty good despite the at times extremely janky animation.  The relationship between Tilarna and Kei in that series made it worth watching.  Also the Range Murata character designs.  It is really a shame that the art in Cop Craft so often lacks detail, considering the incredible detail Murata puts into his own works.  Just a case of low budget, I guess.

An example of Murata’s work from one of his artbooks; the guy is a master.

5. How did you get into being an aniblogger?

I wouldn’t say I’m quite an aniblogger in the way animeandfanfiction, or Irina, Scott, or some of the other dedicated anime bloggers are.  But if we can lump video games in with anime, I can get into why I started this blog: it was essentially a way for me to blow off some steam and do something unrelated to my studies when I started at law school.  At the time, I really wasn’t looking for anything else from the blog but that.

Now I work full time and then some, which doesn’t afford me a whole lot of time for other pursuits, but I still stick with this because I’ll be damned if I have to lose one of the only places I have where I can be myself.  I enjoy the community we have here, and it’s nice to be able to put my writing out to others who might be interested as well as to the internet as a whole.  The idea that some guy in Burkina Faso can find my deep dive analysis of the romance element in Saya no Uta with a Google search is one I like, even if it doesn’t benefit me directly in any way.

6. Shortest or longest anime you’ve watched?

Don’t know about shortest, but the longest anime series I’ve watched, by a long shot, is Legend of the Galactic Heroes at 110 episodes.  It’s still one of my all-time favorites, a space opera/war drama story with political intrigue and romance and a lot of other stuff that you might like.  Except it’s 110 episodes long, and it was also made in the 80s and early 90s and very much looks it, so I have a hard time recommending it to some people.  If you can get past the dated look of the series and get a few episodes in, though, you might find yourself hooked.

I haven’t used this gif in five years, but finally I have another opportunity.

As an alternative, you can check out the LOGH remake currently airing.  I haven’t watched any of it, so I don’t know how it compares to the original so far, but it’s probably worth checking out too.  I’m not the type to hate something just because it’s not the original thing it was based on, so I might watch it at some point myself.

7. Best anime character husbando or waifu crush?

It’s been a long time, but I have to admit that I crushed on Misato Katsuragi, the military officer who directly supervised Shinji Ikari in Neon Genesis Evangelion.  I was a few years younger than Shinji at the time I watched Eva, but even then the idea of living with an attractive older woman who sometimes just wore a towel around the place was exciting to me.  I don’t know if Misato would count as the “best” — she’s got plenty of problems and probably drinks too much — but she’s still my best, and I guess that’s what matters.

Misato: still best waifu

8. Do you have a favorite protagonist or antagonist? If so, who?

Going in to Persona yet again here, so big time spoilers for Persona 4:

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Adachi.  I don’t know if Adachi being the culprit really counts as a spoiler anymore, but it did when I played it.  I’ve heard some people suggest that his reason for shoving people into the TVs and leaving them to die was dumb, but the simplicity of his reason was exactly why it worked for me: he’s a bored, frustrated asshole who discovered a power he had and used it to amuse himself at the expense of others.  Nothing could be more human, at least if we’re talking about the negative side of human desires and impulses.  On the positive side, you have the protagonist, who made something great of himself and forged meaningful relationships with his family and friends while possessing the same power as Adachi.  Two sides of the same coin, that old thing.  Maybe that’s overused, but I like it when it’s done well, and I think Persona 4 does it well.

9. If you could change the ending of an anime you didn’t like, how would you change it?

I don’t think I’ve seen an anime series with an ending that I hated so much I’d know how to change it for the better.  I know a lot of people really hated the ending to Oreimo, but I’ve never watched that show, so I don’t have an opinion on it.  As far as games go, I did watch someone play the walking simulator Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture on Steam a couple of years ago, and the ending to that game was so bad that the streamer went on for about 15-20 minutes afterwards about how much dogshit nonsense it made the entire work into, which I remember pretty much agreeing with.  But then I wasn’t too impressed with the game otherwise, so I’m not the best judge there either.

10. What is your favorite setting of animes? For example, schools, being transported to an online game, feudal Japan, etc.

I’m very into the urban or urban fantasy setting, which is part of why I picked up Cop Craft.  Feudal Japan can be interesting too, though.  I guess it’s a bit of a stereotype for nerds to be into the Sengoku period, but it really does feature some strange stories, especially the ones about Nobunaga.  That guy was crazy.

11. If you could make one fictional being or thing in an anime real, who or what would it be? For example, Pokemon, yo kai spirits, mecha robots, etc.

I’m really not sure.  Aigis, I guess.  I still like the idea of living with a cute android girl/full-scale home security system in one.  When will engineers and technicians stop with the god damn not-even-marginally-better new smartphone versions and build something good for once?

Who else can dance and defend against aerial attacks at the same time?  No one, that’s who.

Once again, thanks for the questions!  I’ll hold off on issuing my own because I currently have one more set of questions to answer for a different blogger award, this time from Pete Davison of MoeGamer.  You can look forward to that post and my own tags sometime this weekend, probably.  Until then!

Deep reads #1: Over the top, part 1 (Kaiji)

There are a few pieces of media I’ve experienced that have made me change the way I think about life. One of them features ten episodes straight of a guy playing a game of pachinko.

Pachinko.

Because Kaiji (officially Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, and a load of other titles depending on which season of the anime or chapter of the manga you’re talking about) isn’t just about gambling. It deals with money, morality, and the nature of power in ways that most other works don’t touch upon. Kaiji is serious, but it isn’t preachy or even really political. The characters in Kaiji don’t just represent broad concepts — they’re three-dimensional characters, and with one probable exception, they all feel like people you might run into in the course of your everyday life.

Kaiji is also an insanely dramatic and tense series. A character mulling over a single decision in Kaiji might take five minutes to run through all the possible outcomes in an internal monologue, all accompanied by a pounding soundtrack (written by the amazing Hideki Taniuchi,1 also largely responsible for the excellent Death Note soundtrack) and interspersed with an external narrator yelling his lines as if the world were about to end. Characters will even break down and cry on the spot in especially stressful situations.

Our protagonist Kaiji Itou, a man who’s not afraid to cry when he feels angry or hurt.

The first group of works I’ll be taking on in this first “deep reads” series contains elements like this that are generally considered “over the top.”  These works tend to be pretty divisive, with some in the audience dismissing all these accoutrements as distracting or unnecessary fluff, and others enjoying them and claiming that the over-the-top style doesn’t take away from the work but rather adds to the value of it.

While I do require a lot more than pure style alone to enjoy something fully — there has to be substance there, otherwise I can’t get into it that much — I tend to really like these over-the-top sorts of series and games, and not just because they usually produce a lot of stupid memes.  I won’t be diving into the rabbit hole that is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, at least not anytime soon, but it provides a great example of this.  How many times have you heard or seen someone throwing out a “ZA WARUDO” or “IT WAS ME, DIO” in the middle of a thread on Twitter or wherever?  Like JoJo, some of the lines and scenes in Kaiji became popular online, especially when the second season of the anime was airing.  And like JoJo, there’s more to the series than just its dramatic style. I wrote a short overview of Kaiji a long time ago, but I think it’s worth a second more in-depth look.  Also, I’m about to spoil the shit out of Kaiji, so don’t read this if you haven’t watched it and want to go in pure as the good Lord intended.

Asahi really isn’t that cheap, though.

Kaiji tells the story of Kaiji Itou, a chronically unemployed/underemployed guy in his 20s who spends his time gambling to try to make it big.  At the beginning of the series, we see Kaiji prying hood ornaments off of expensive cars out of a twisted sense of frustration at his own go-nowhere life.  When one of the guys whose cars he defaced visits Kaiji at his apartment, he freaks out, but things are made far worse when the visitor identifies himself as a yakuza loan shark named Endou.  Endou tells Kaiji that an old colleague he cosigned on a loan for has skipped town, so he’s now on the hook for a massive principal and usurious interest that he can never hope to pay back.  Kaiji is thrown into despair at the thought of having to slave away the rest of his life paying back on this unfair loan, but Endou then tells him about a competitive gambling game taking place on the ship Espoir that’s set to take a short cruise a few weeks later in which about half of the gamblers should be able to clear their debts.

With no other information about the gamble (including the fate of the losers, which Endou tells Kaiji to just not even think about — that’s not ominous at all, no) Kaiji accepts a spot on the ship, starting his participation in a cycle of dangerous underground games all run by Teiai, a criminal empire that fronts as a financial consulting corporation. Teiai is built like an iceberg: the very tip of it visible to the general public seems to be legitimate, but its real mass is hidden in the form of underground casinos, prostitution, extortion, and loan-sharking.  The games that Kaiji takes part in seem to be part of an even more underground aspect of Teiai inspired by company president Kazutaka Hyoudou, a sadistic half-crazy old billionaire who takes great pleasure in seeing human suffering of all kinds up close.

Not a face you’d want to see under any circumstances

Hence the high-stakes gambling games he runs, in which Teiai’s broke-ass desperate clients are given a chance to get rid of their debts and win money on top of that, but at incredible risk to themselves if they fail or lose.  In the course of the first season, Kaiji and his fellow debtors fight each other in games that seem straightforward at first but that require either trickery or outright brutality to get a sure win.  And when they finally get to play a game that’s cooperative instead of competitive — crossing a pair of steel beams connecting two skyscrapers hundreds of meters above the ground — the result of a loss becomes certain death.

Honestly, I might consider doing this if it meant canceling my student loan debt

Kaiji manages to survive these gambles in one piece, but he ends up failing again following a couple of face-to-face gambling battles with President Hyoudou and his representative and right-hand man Yukio Tonegawa, and he’s again saddled with several million yen in debt.  Teiai loan shark Endou shows up once again at the beginning of the second season, but not to offer Kaiji another dangerous gambling opportunity.  Endou instead shoves him into a car that takes him directly to a Teiai-owned underground labor camp, where Kaiji is imprisoned until he can work off what he owes.

At first, Kaiji despairs and drowns his sorrows in overpriced beer and yakitori sold by the company store, bought with the sub-minimum wage he earns for his backbreaking manual labor.  But after taking a sick colleague to the crowded camp medical clinic, Kaiji realizes that labor will kill him before long and decides he has to get out as soon as possible.  And how does Kaiji get out?  By gambling, of course.  Kaiji plays chinchirorin (better known here as cee-lo or just dice) against the cheating foreman of his work detail, exposing him and winning all his hoarded money with the help of an alliance of other slave laborers.  He then buys a special pass to the surface with their pooled winnings, hoping to win enough with their remaining money to pay off all the group’s debts and buy its freedom.

Kaiji in the underground labor camp, planning his way out.

This is where the pachinko comes in.  While hunting for a gambling opportunity that he can use to win big in his few weeks on the surface, Kaiji meets Sakazaki, an older gambler down on his luck who shows him just what he’s looking for: a giant pachinko machine in an illegal secret casino (run by Teiai, of course) that pays out all the winnings of the previous players.  It takes an investment to play at the Bog: a single pachinko ball usually costs four yen, but a ball in the Bog game costs a thousand times that.  However, the Bog is notorious for never paying out and has financially ruined hundreds of gamblers hoping to get at its 400 million+ yen jackpot, adding their own fortunes to the pot in the process.

Here Kaiji turns into something like a heist movie, in which Kaiji and Sakazaki go up against Ichijou, the Teiai-appointed manager of the casino.  Of course, the Bog isn’t a simple pachinko machine that can just pay out at any time: it’s meant to be a money-maker for Teiai, and Ichijou has ensured that its pins, plates, and other contraptions are designed to absolutely prevent a win.

Yes, there are about five hundred more shots of balls rolling around plates for several episodes on end

Considering this fact, Kaiji and Sakazaki know it’s not good enough to just play the Bog for a little while and hope for a win.  So they’re forced to enlist the help of none other than Endou, that Teiai loan shark who kicked off the plot in the first episode.  Endou’s own loan-sharking business has been suffering since the fall from grace of his superior, Tonegawa (who Kaiji was in fact responsible for taking down in season 1 by beating him in a high-stakes game in front of Hyoudou.)  So Endou agrees to loan Kaiji even more money to beat the Bog and split the winnings.  Kaiji then devises several tricks and strategies to beat the Bog based upon his observations of its maintenance over a couple of weeks.  In doing so, he discovers most of the cheat mechanisms that Ichijou has built into the system and is able to break past every one on the big day.

Kaiji’s balls are larger than Ichijou’s, that’s canon

After finally defeating the Bog against all odds, Kaiji splits the money with his partners Endou and Sakazaki and his allies in the underground prison camp, who are all let out after their debts are paid.  Kaiji is now a free man.  But who knows what the future holds for him? (You know if you read the manga, which continues well beyond this point.)

Kaiji has been out of the spotlight for a while now.  The anime series nearly qualifies as old at this point — the first season aired in 2007 and the second in 2011 — but it’s based on a much older property, a manga of the same name written and drawn by famous mangaka Nobuyuki Fukumoto that has been running almost without a break since 1996 and that continues to this day.  Fukumoto’s works include Akagi, Ten, and a lot of other manga series about gambling that have plenty of fans, but Kaiji is certainly his best-known work, at least here in the West. Part of this popularity comes from the fact that it received that two-season anime adaptation, but I think there’s more to it than that. While Kaiji might be extreme and over the top in its visuals, themes, and music, I think it’s also very relatable to most people, even to those who wouldn’t normally watch a show like this.

And I do understand why Kaiji would put a lot of viewers off, at least upon a first viewing.  As first impressions go, Kaiji has a lot working against it, mostly in its visual style.  Fukumoto’s manga work features characters with exaggerated, sometimes bizarrely twisted facial features.  While the art in the anime adaptation looks pretty polished (Kaiji is a joint production with Madhouse, and they do a great job with it) the characters have kept most of those strange features, most obvious in the protagonist and the chief antagonist.  Kaiji sports an extremely sharp, pointy nose and chin that he could probably use as lethal weapons if he were so inclined.  While Hyoudou just looks more like a really old guy, his mannerisms are often grotesque — though he still mostly has his wits, when he gets excited he will start to giggle, cackle, and drool as he imagines how Kaiji will suffer when the drill attached to his ear pierces his eardrum and drills into his brain during that extremely high-stakes game against his lieutenant Tonegawa.

This arc features a bunch of “hypothetical scenario” shots of a drill piercing an ear and showing the entire structure of the inner ear getting destroyed and spurting blood, which I’ll spare you here. It wasn’t easy to watch

The extreme style of the series doesn’t end at its visuals, however.  The plot elements themselves are way over the top at times.  The idea of even the worst, most sadistic billionaire criminal being able to set up deadly gambling competitions is scary, but it’s also insane enough to be pretty unbelievable.  People are capable of terrible cruelty, and money can help them carry that cruelty out to some extent without getting into trouble, but Hyoudou is so rich and has bribed so many officials into looking the other way that he’s practically the secret ruler of Japan at this point — he can do pretty much anything he wants, including running death games using his debtors as human rats for his enjoyment and setting up underground prison labor camps filled with the surviving debtors who don’t win and can’t pay him back.  That stuff does feel pretty damn far-fetched.

However, the troubles of these debtors that got them into these crazy situations aren’t far-fetched at all.  People need money to start businesses, to finance medical debt, or simply to live after they’ve lost their jobs.  If they’re desperate enough and their credit cards are already maxed out assuming they ever even had credit extended to them, they might respond to a flyer promising quick money, no questions asked.

A Teiai flyer from the manga. You’d expect a weird billionaire who sets up human death sports to be more reclusive and secretive, but no, his face is right on their ads

I see these kinds of “quick money no questions asked” flyers posted on telephone polls along the roads on the way to the city where I work.  Clearly this aspect of Kaiji is not over-the-top or far-fetched at all.  A lot of people need money, and they are sometimes willing to take big risks (and sometimes even unknown risks, as we see at the very beginning of Kaiji) to get it.  They’re also willing to stab each other in the back when enough money is on the line.  During the very first story arc of the series, Kaiji makes an alliance with two other debtors, Andou and Furuhata, who are playing that competitive gambling game on the ship Espoir.  Furuhata even happens to be the very co-worker who tried to run from his debt and screwed Kaiji in the process.  Nevertheless, Kaiji and his new allies vow to win and escape together, as a single unit.

This friendship is almost immediately broken once Kaiji decides to sacrifice himself by losing the game for the sake of the team and telling them to rescue him with the money they end up making as a result.  Once Kaiji is on the other side of the glass (in a room filled with other losers who have been stripped entirely naked by Teiai guards, possibly in preparation to get them ready to go to a prison camp or to an even worse fate) his “allies” turn their backs on him, using the benefit they gained from his sacrifice to make more money for themselves.

I don’t know if you really want me to get into how Restricted Rock Paper Scissors works, but it does involve a room full of naked men at some point

It would be easy for Kaiji to simply say “people only care about money and are only out for themselves” and leave it at that.  That’s a cynical message, but it would resonate well enough with a lot of viewers.  However, this series takes a more complex view of people than that.  After Kaiji manages to escape from the ship’s lost debtor naked man room by using some of his own trickery, he wrests his rightful share of his team’s winnings away from them and uses those funds to save another man he made a very brief connection with, a man who was also tricked by a supposed friend.  Kaiji claims he’s throwing his money away by saving this guy, almost like he’s doing it just to spite his faithless allies, and he ends up regretting his decision after leaving the ship in even greater debt than he started in as a result of his actions.

Kaiji’s selfless act at the end of this first arc sets a trend, however.  Throughout the first half of the first season, Kaiji is faced with opportunities to get ahead by figuratively stabbing other debtors in the back or by literally physically harming them, but he always ends up refusing to do so.  And throughout the second season, Kaiji spends a lot of his time devising plans with his new friends, first in Teiai’s underground prison camp with some of his fellow debtors and later in his fight against the Bog when he joins up with Sakazaki and Endou.  Kaiji’s underground allies trust him so much, in fact, that they give him all the money they win using his strategies, relying on his creativity and ability to win their freedom for good despite the odds being stacked against him.  And their trust in Kaiji is well-placed, because he also puts faith in his friends, even after he’s betrayed at the end of the first arc.  Kaiji’s attitude can be contrasted with Hyoudou’s — the all-powerful president of Teiai seems to believe only in the power of money and will gladly step on his subordinates if they fail or displease him.

Fun trivia fact: that painting in the background is based on a real portrait of King Francis I of France.  But was he as crazy as President Hyoudou?

All this might fall flat if Kaiji were an unnaturally saintly sort of character, something like a Mary Sue, but he’s not.  Kaiji turns into a lazy bum when the pressure is off and is totally capable of being a dick sometimes, even if he tries to justify it to himself.  He also doesn’t always have a lot of self-discipline when the heat is on, as we see when he’s tempted to drown his sorrows in beer sold at a high markup in the prison camp, getting him even deeper into the hole of debt he dug for himself.  And even when Kaiji is doing well, he may get arrogant and push his luck too far (though he seems to have learned some lessons and gotten wiser in the second season after that arrogance leads him to a major screw-up at the end of the first.)

When Kaiji is forced into a life-or-death situation, his powers of genius turn on, allowing him to find a way to beat seemingly impossible odds.  However, those genius powers of his are usually dormant.  Kaiji might look a lot like Akagi, the mahjong prodigy from Fukumoto’s manga and anime series Mahjong Legend Akagi, but where Akagi is an unstoppable, demonic force of nature who crushes all his opponents almost without flinching,2 Kaiji is pretty much a regular guy most of the time, with regular guy sort of loves and hates, hopes and desires.  That makes it all the more impressive and inspiring that Kaiji is able to not only survive and win, but to help along his friends and allies to victory as well.

Even most of the antagonists in Kaiji aren’t exactly villains.  Kaiji meets both friends and enemies in the course of his gambles and struggles, including some who are enemies disguised as friends.  But the one thing they almost all have in common is their instinct for self-preservation.  Almost every character in Kaiji is, on some level, just trying to survive and make their own progress.  When Kaiji’s allies in the Espoir arc stab him in the back, they don’t do it just to watch him suffer — Andou makes the point to Furuhata that if they abandon Kaiji, they can keep the money they’d otherwise need to use to save him, thus leaving the ship with some financial security.  Kaiji shames them for their betrayal when he manages to escape by using his own wits, kneeing that asshole Andou in the gut in one of the most satisfying scenes in the show.  But Andou’s logic is frightening, cold, and downright human.  Why help your friend and merely survive when you can help yourself and thrive instead?

Time to beat the devil out of you then!

The same is true for the Teiai employees Kaiji battles.  These characters are motivated at least in part out of a fear of losing everything they’ve gained.  This is very obvious throughout Kaiji’s fight with Ichijou.  The Bog is Ichijou’s ultimate creation: a pachinko machine so impossible to beat and yet so tempting to play that it earned its name by eating hundreds of men alive, wiping out their savings and even throwing them deep into debt.  We learn that Ichijou was able to claw his way up from basically a janitorial position at Teiai’s casino to manager by coming up with clever new ways to get money out of their customers, all while leaving them with just enough hope of a big win to lure them back for more.  This is exactly what the Bog does; it’s a legendary machine that keeps drawing gamblers in to their destruction.

When Kaiji sits down with his final matchup against the Bog on his last day of leave from the labor camp, Ichijou soon discovers that Kaiji has somehow broken the machine’s defenses and consequently loses his shit.  Ichijou is about to end the battle and throw Kaiji out on the basis that he must have tampered with the machine, but then he gets a call from his boss, Hyoudou.

It doesn’t go well

The old company president is watching Kaiji’s match and has even ordered that a TV be set up in the underground prison camp so that Kaiji’s allies can watch him.  Of course, Hyoudou’s ultimate intention isn’t very nice — he seems to want to give these lowly debtor prisoners hope and see that hope crushed when Kaiji loses.  Hyoudou also has a strange fascination with Kaiji, though, having seen his abilities up close in the first season during his battle against his lieutenant Tonegawa.  He therefore commands that Ichijou let the match continue, reasoning that if he threw Kaiji out now, the crowd of other gamblers watching him challenge the Bog would think it unfair and lose their trust in Teiai.

However, the price for failure is massive.  When Kaiji finally does manage to break the Bog so completely that all Ichijou’s cheats are useless, he gets a ball into the winning hole, capturing the jackpot and freeing himself and his friends.  But someone has to be on the hook for losing all that money, and Ichijou ends up getting dragged down into the hellish labor camp by the very same guards who were there to bring Kaiji back.

Again, ideally not the boss you’d want to work for

Even Hyoudou’s most accomplished officers aren’t safe.  The chief villain throughout most of the first season is Yukio Tonegawa, a stern, no-nonsense Teiai executive who’s recognized as the corporation’s number two.  As Hyoudou’s right-hand man, Tonegawa is tasked with coming up with games to amuse the old sadist, exactly the kinds of high-stakes games that Kaiji and the other debtors are enrolled in.  After Kaiji manages to cross the deadly steel beam — the only one out of ten players to survive — he’s denied his prize money on a technicality.  However, he’s give the option to play another game to win potentially even more money, this time against Tonegawa himself.  With Hyoudou as the chief spectator, Kaiji and Tonegawa play a high-stakes card game.  Tonegawa plays as a representative of Hyoudou and thus places many millions of yen of Hyoudou’s money on the line.  Kaiji, on the other hand, has nothing to offer as a sacrifice in the gamble but one of his body parts, and so he’s required to wear a special device that moves an electric drill into his ear every time he loses a round.  Kaiji can bet millimeters of the drill in place of the money he lacks, but eventually if he loses enough, his eardrum will be pierced.

Tonegawa can read your thoughts. Or can he?

We’re initially made to believe that Tonegawa is completely in control of this situation.  He boasts to Kaiji that his long experience in business and negotiation allows him to read other people like open books.  Because of this, Tonegawa claims that he can easily beat Kaiji by observing his tells in the way an expert poker player might.  However, Tonegawa is actually cheating — the device on Kaiji’s ear is designed to read his pulse, temperature, and blood pressure, and Tonegawa’s watch contains a disguised readout of Kaiji’s vitals.  Once Kaiji realizes the setup, he understands that the only way to beat Tonegawa is to remove the device from his ear.  But it’s locked in place, so Kaiji takes an extreme step: he goes to the bathroom in the middle of the game and smashes his head against the glass in the mirror, then cuts his ear off with a shard of glass, managing to maintain most of its vital sign readouts by giving his severed ear to an extremely terrified leftover contestant from an earlier game to hold.  Kaiji is thus able to trick Tonegawa and beat him in the second-to-last round by holding a towel to his bleeding head, covering his missing ear, and also in the last round after his trick is discovered and a new device is placed on his other ear.

Hyoudou seems impressed by Kaiji’s ability, but he’s more annoyed with Tonegawa.  Not so much for losing all that money, it seems — 20 million yen barely even counts as pocket change to Hyoudou — but for denying him the show of Kaiji having his brain pierced by a drill upon his loss.  So Hyoudou forces Tonegawa to atone for his mistakes by kneeling and bowing to him.  Well, that’s not so bad, right?

Tonegawa facing the literal heat for his loss

Except that Tonegawa has to kneel and bow on top of a giant hotplate, keeping his forehead pressed to the plate for at least ten seconds.  This, according to Hyoudou, is the only way to show him true sincerity, aside from paying back what he lost, of course.  Tonegawa manages to maintain his pride by successfully performing the torturous “roasting kneeling”, even if he ends up falling out of Hyoudou’s favor anyway in the second season.  But Kaiji is horrified by this.  What sort of man is this Hyoudou, to make people literally grill themselves for displeasing him?

Hyoudou is that one exception I brought up.  Every other opponent that Kaiji faces throughout the series is either a fellow debtor to Teiai or an employee of Teiai.  No matter how serious a threat they might seem to be, they are all under Hyoudou’s thumb and are all at risk of falling into disgrace or even into hell if they get on his bad side.  Even Tonegawa, who presides over all the treacherous gambles and games Kaiji takes part in throughout most of the first season, and who seems so powerful, turns out to be a nobody in the face of Hyoudou’s madness.  And that’s the most interesting aspect of this setup to me, because Hyoudou also seems to be under the power of his own madness.

Is this how the most elite of the elite drink wine?

Even if he does usually seem pretty sharp, Hyoudou is undoubtedly wrong in the head somehow.  He manages to maintain his position as the actual head of Teiai while also carrying out the kind of decadent cruelties that would make the worst Roman emperors jealous.  How he manages this, the show doesn’t really address.  What it means, though, is that Kaiji is fighting against a corporation ruled by wealth and the influence it buys, but also partly by literal madness.  Hyoudou maintains his power, but he also has a monstrous philosophy of life.  He seems to have no friends; every single person surrounding him is expendable.

Kaiji, meanwhile, is only able to achieve what he does with the help of his friends and allies.  His genius powers of problem-solving always require cooperation with someone else.  This is most obvious in the second season, but even in the first, Kaiji is only able to make progress and get off the Espoir with the help of his allies, even if they do end up turning traitor.  Even giving his severed ear to his fellow contestant allowed Kaiji to fool Tonegawa into trusting his faulty vital sign readouts.  Kaiji succeeds by employing deception against his enemies, but he always treats his allies with honesty and good faith.  And that honesty and good faith is finally paid back many times over at the end of the series when Kaiji and his friends are finally set free, crying tears of joy at their happy reunion as the fantastic first season OP theme plays.

Another lesson Kaiji teaches us: men can cry too.

If you’ve read this site for a while, you know that I have real problems finding positivity in life.  Any work of art that pretends life is all sunshine and flowers and unicorns just doesn’t work for me, unless it’s meant to be one of those “healing” series or a straight up slice-of-life (and even those can be realistically dark sometimes.)  However, I’ve also come to dislike works that are completely fatalistic about how shitty humanity and the world are.

Kaiji takes an approach that I can appreciate now far more than ever.  It admits that life is hard, sometimes nearly unbearable, and that people tend to be weak in the face of life’s hardships and take the easy way out, even when that means betraying their friends and ideals.  It also shows how people can overcome those hardships and weaknesses through perseverance and friendship.  Yeah, life often sucks, but whether you give up and stop struggling or betray your core ideals is entirely up to you.  That’s not a new idea, of course.  But all the insane, over the top elements of Kaiji work in service of that message to deliver it effectively.

And that’s it for the first installment of this series.  I hope it wasn’t too out there.  I’ll be continuing it next time with a look at one of my favorite game series of all time, so look forward to that.  In the meantime, I really suggest watching Kaiji, even if you feel like you may not be able to get past the weird art style.  Just give it a shot — no loss if it doesn’t work for you, and if it does, you’ll be in for an excellent experience.  Even though I just spoiled the whole damn show in this piece.  Well, it’s more about the journey than the destination, right?  You should still check it out.

There are also some great out-of-context screenshots like this, so if you just like those you should watch Kaiji too. 𒀭

=

1 Mr. Taniuchi hasn’t made a soundtrack or any other kind of work that I know of since his work on Kaiji because he’s sitting in a prison cell for marijuana use.  It would be great if the authorities would free him, both because he’s an amazing talent and because it’s stupid in general to lock people up for using marijuana.

2 This isn’t meant as a put-down of Akagi at all.  I used to consider it my favorite anime series ever, in fact, and it’s still on my list of favorite shows.  It’s just a very different experience from Kaiji, despite all the surface similarities it shares (same writer and studio, similar art style, both are about gambling.  And Akagi and Kaiji even have the same voice actor.  Same with Hyoudou and Washizu, the chief villain of Akagi.)  Anyway, definitely check out Akagi as well if you get the chance.

On anime, games, and obscenity

Listen, sorry.  I had planned to edit and post my first deep reads piece today, but I’m pushing that back a bit because I’ve been reading a lot about proposed “anime bans”, essentially restrictions of work based mostly on their sexual content, whether the sexual nature of that content is actual or perceived.  All this reading put me into lawyer mode, and now I can’t bring myself to write about anything else before I’ve addressed these controversies to my satisfaction and hopefully to the readers’ as well.  Because while there is truth in a lot of the stories going around, some of them may be misleading, causing unnecessary misunderstanding and anxiety.  I’m not the top legal scholar in all the land, not even close, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to clear up a few basic questions about the American legal concept of obscenity as it applies to the shows we watch and the games we play.  (As much as I’d like to, I can’t address questions about the legal codes or traditions of Japan or any other state because I don’t know them nearly well enough.)

Fair warning: while nothing on this site falls into the 18+ category, this post does obviously deal with adult content.  So if that’s not your thing, you might want to skip it and check out the next post I put out that probably won’t have to do with anime titties, etc. if my schedule remains as it is now.  Also, while I am an attorney, none of what’s in this post (or on this site in general) is intended to be legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship with anyone at all.  Finally, most of the legal analysis here is pretty speculative (i.e. I had to pull most of it out of my ass because a lot of it involves issues that haven’t yet been resolved by the courts) so you can take what I write with however much salt you like.  Sorry for the long disclaimer, but I have to put it there.  Now on to the real fun.

supreme court bldg

This is a serious post about law, but there will probably be a few anime titties as well, all included within the appropriate context of course.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics coming up, all the normal, well-adjusted people in my country and other parts of the West have started paying more attention to Japan.  And they’ve seemingly just learned something the otaku/weeb set have known for decades: that Japan produces ten thousand metric tons of drawn pornography per year in the form of manga and doujins that are sold online and at Comiket, and that even some of their anime and video games contain lewd or borderline lewd content.

Apparently some of these people have a problem with this.  Every time a game is slated to be ported to the West and it might contain questionable content, the battles begin on Twitter and Reddit and everywhere else over whether they should be ported over intact or censored.  There’s even been talk about the United Nations attempting to restrict content in anime and related media through Article 2(c) of its Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child.  While the article seems to be well-meaning — it’s prohibiting the sort of illicit, immoral pornography that nearly everyone already agrees should be prohibited — it’s extremely broad in its language.  And if read broadly enough, it would also place some anime and game content into a legal gray area at best.  The Optional Protocol doesn’t single out anime or anime-styled games, but the connection is easy to make: both feature a lot of young-looking female characters, not to mention the 800 year-old fox spirit goddesses who sure as hell don’t look 800 years old.  Thousands upon thousands of people read these posts and articles and rushed to buy, download, and torrent Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya and The Helpful Fox Senko-san before the all-powerful UN forces in their black helicopters destroyed every last copy.

By order of the United Nations, all cute magical girl gifs will be hereby confiscated

These stories also mentioned that the United States, Japan, and Austria, while generally supportive of the protocol’s goals, refused to sign in part because they felt Article 2(c) was overbroad and would unduly restrict freedom of speech.  Not that it really mattered all that much — even if the US, Japan, and Austria had been pressured to sign this Optional Protocol, none of them would have been bound to actually do anything to follow up on their commitments.  Protocols of this type are less legally binding than an agreement between two drunk guys scrawled on a bar napkin.  And then the napkin got used as a coaster for a pint of beer, and the ring it created made parts of the agreement completely illegible.  That document would literally have more binding legal power than a protocol to a UN convention.

Still, it’s worth considering whether and how your favorite lewd anime or game series could one day be legally banned from streaming services and online stores.  As everyone who’s had an internet argument about free speech already knows, speech is generally protected from government prohibition or interference by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.  However, not all speech is protected.  Making a credible threat of bodily harm is an exercise of speech, for instance, but it falls into one of the court-created exceptions to constitutional protection of speech.  Another exception, the one we’re concerned with in this case, is obscenity.

The legal concept of obscenity has been around for a long time and typically applies to images, writings, and other works that are generally considered lewd, disgusting, or distasteful.  For the purpose of maintaining public morality, works that are deemed obscene also fall outside First Amendment protection and can be prohibited by law.  However, the definition of obscenity in the US has narrowed over time to the point that it now only applies to a few very clearly harmful types of material.  For an anime series or game to be found obscene, therefore, it would have to be pretty god damn immoral and probably demonstrably harmful somehow, or at least a court would have to think so.

Good luck explaining the concept of Nekopara to the court

But how do we determine what’s obscene and what isn’t?  Thankfully, the Supreme Court in the 1973 case Miller v. California provided us with an extremely problematic and vague legal test to find and separate out the obscene works.  Here’s the infamous three-pronged Miller test as set out by Chief Justice Warren Burger:

1) Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient (meaning entirely sexual) interest;

2) whether the work depicts or describes, in an offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions, as specifically defined by applicable state law; and

3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

We don’t even have to read past that first prong to realize the Miller test doesn’t work anymore.  The idea behind it made some sense in 1973 — different places in the US have different standards of what constitutes offensively sexual material.  So, for example, the very same art installation displayed in Greenwich Village, NYC and then in Mobile, Alabama might shift from being not obscene to being obscene because the standards and norms in the locality surrounding that art have changed.  Today, however, the internet has turned the country, and to some extent the entire world, into a single “locality” in the sense that any content, no matter where it was created, can be accessed anywhere.  For this reason, the courts must now effectively use a national rather than a local standard in some contexts, even though the majority in Miller explicitly rejected the use of a national standard for obscenity.

This works in the fans’ favor, because a national standard is necessarily going to be slacker than a local standard for what’s deemed offensive.  And while that second prong is a bit vague (what exactly does “sexual content” entail?  How broadly should that be read if the state law defining it is vague?), the third prong of the test is extremely difficult to clear: almost every work created has “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” of some kind.  Using the current standard, therefore, almost all anime and game content should pass the Miller test, at the very least on the basis that it contains serious artistic value.

Admittedly, there is a problem for the fans hidden in the language of the test.  Notice who’s applying these community standards: “the average person.”  Who the hell is that?  What’s an average person?  The legal answer is that it’s a kind of meld of a bunch of people picked off the street at random. Granted, that is a bullshit legal fiction made up for the sake of convenience. However, if an obscenity case ends up going to trial, guess who determines what that “average person” thinks? The jury, which is quite literally a bunch of people picked off the street at random.  And that’s at least a little scary, because you never really know what you’ll get with a jury.  On the other hand, the Supreme Court later found that the third prong requires a higher standard of review than that, which means greater protection for the speech in question.  Thank God for that third prong.

Some people think Kill la Kill is just fanservice, and some people think it’s a masterpiece. But what would the “average person” think?

I don’t mean to be an alarmist here. The free speech clause of the First Amendment hasn’t been eroded in the way certain other clauses to other amendments have. Freedom of speech is still one of the most closely guarded and strongest constitutional protections we have, and it’s backed up by a lot of precedent following Miller.  The fact that the internet is so damn full of weird pornography and screeds about how the government is run by evil lizard aliens is proof enough that we’re free to express ourselves in most any way we want.

However, that doesn’t mean the clause won’t be eroded in the future.  The religious right is still a politically powerful force in the United States, and they’ve shown their willingness to try to shut up speech that they consider lewd or blasphemous.  Remember the petition to Netflix to remove the “satanist” Amazon series Good Omens?  Not to mention the less stupid but still very stupid campaigns against the Harry Potter and Pokemon series in the late 90s.  Considering their great (and not entirely unsuccessful) efforts to break down the wall of separation between church and state also contained in the First Amendment, there’s no reason to think they have any special respect for the free speech clause.  Parts of the leftist and progressive movements are also trying to shame writers, developers, artists, and publishers into “cleaning up” their work and altering it to suit their moral sensibilities.1  While these groups are not generally pushing for government censorship, they are trying to create a chilling effect on art, and it’s not a major leap from that to calling for the imposition of legal restrictions on content.

So it would be wrong to assume things will simply continue as they always have.  There’s a reason groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund still exist — it’s important to remain vigilant in protecting our rights and to not take them for granted.   Also, always keep in mind that “_ should be banned because I think it’s gross” is not a legitimate argument in favor of banning or censoring something.  Some people seem to think it is for the frequency they use it, but it most certainly isn’t.  Prove the material you’re trying to have banned fails the Miller test and have it found obscene by a court.  Nobody is arguing that genuinely harmful material shouldn’t be found obscene if it deserves to be placed in that category.2  If you can’t manage to get that ruling, however, all we’re talking about is a difference in taste.  And as the ancient Romans said: “In matters of taste, there can be no dispute.”

And as Senran Kagura producer Kenichiro Takaki said: Tits are life, ass is hometown.

I guess my point is that your lewd anime girls probably aren’t going anywhere, at least if you live in the US, but also that we shouldn’t grow complacent.  I’m also assuming that Japan won’t pass any serious restrictions on its own content, based partly on their answer to the UN’s Optional Protocol and partly on the fact that lewd anime girls are probably one of their biggest exports, and why risk that for basically no benefit in return?  I could be wrong in this assumption, but again, I’ll leave that issue to those who actually know something about Japanese law and politics.

So that was my combination legal treatise/angry rant.  I hope it was entertaining and/or enlightening.  If you have a question, a differing opinion, or a burning desire to call me insane or an idiot for what I’ve written, please post a comment below and we can get a discussion going. 𒀭

 

1 Full disclosure, as usual: I’m pretty much on the left myself, which is why it breaks my heart when other progressives rail against the shows and games I like as harmful or regressive just because they don’t fit their own views of political and social orthodoxy.  I’ve gone on about this before, so I’ll spare the reader here.

2 Edit: I shouldn’t say nobody is arguing this, because there are people who argue that the concept of obscenity should be scrapped entirely, allowing for every kind of sexual expression aside from those harmful types that are already banned by law. In fact, I like that idea myself. However, in the current social climate, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that we can do any better than the Miller approach to obscenity.

A review of Cop Craft

Let’s finally close the book on the summer 2019 anime series Cop Craft.  My weekly review posts were all extremely spoiler-laden, so if you’re looking to go into Cop Craft more or less blind, read this spoiler-free review instead to find out if you might like it enough to check it out on Funimation’s streaming service (or to find the episodes in other very obvious ways that I won’t address here.)

Tilarna will chase down and arrest all pirates

Our tale starts with Kei Matoba, a grizzled detective in San Teresa, a large American city on the Pacific coast (which I’m still positive is meant to be alternate universe San Francisco.)  San Teresa has a special status as the gateway city to a group of immigrants called Semanians from a planet connected to Earth through a mysterious wormhole gate thing that appeared out of nowhere some years back.  At the beginning of the series, Kei’s partner is killed by a corpse being controlled by Semanian magic during a sting operation gone wrong, and in the course of the investigation a new partner is assigned to him: the Semanian knight Tilarna Exedilica, a young noble lady with a haughty bearing but an honest and straightforward personality.  Kei and Tilarna clash at first, but they end up working together and even developing a strong bond as they learn to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

They also live together in an Odd Couple-style arrangement

If that sounds familiar, it might be because this is the basic setup of every buddy cop series and movie ever made.  Cop Craft was a bit different from most of the other series airing last season for just that reason — it borrows a lot from western sources, namely from American cop dramas, and throws in a whole lot of sci-fi and mixes them together.  This invited a lot of comparisons to Bright, the Netflix original movie with a somewhat similar premise that took a beating from critics in 2017.  Cop Craft is based on a light novel series that started in 2009, though, so there certainly wasn’t any inspiration from that film here.  In fact, a better comparison might be another Will Smith movie: Men In Black, only Tommy Lee Jones is 30 years younger and Will Smith is a cute sword-wielding girl from another planet where due process and defendant rights don’t exist.

Tilarna-style interrogation. I guess this alternate-universe USA doesn’t have Section 1983 protections against police misconduct.

The story of Cop Craft is decent enough — there are a few plots that start and get resolved throughout the 12-episode run that are presumably taken from writer Shoji Gatoh‘s light novel work.  These plots are contained within a larger story about the clash of cultures between Earth natives and Semanians, a clash that plays out on a small scale between Kei and Tilarna.  This both gives our protagonists more depth and raises the story’s stakes, especially in the second half of the series, which deals directly with issues relevant to real life like nativism and xenophobia.  Thankfully, Cop Craft deals with these issues in a way that’s neither preachy nor heavyhanded.  Tilarna does face discrimination while working with Kei because of her origin, but the show doesn’t treat her detractors as faceless villains — they’re all depicted as real people with real fears.  Misguided fears, to be sure, because Cop Craft has an obvious anti-xenophobic message.  But that message is effective precisely because it treats these issues as complex.

The greatest strength of Cop Craft lies in its characters, however, and specifically in the relationship between Kei and Tilarna.  Kei is the jaded old cop who’s been forced to accept corruption and the influence of money and politics in his work, and Tilarna is the young hothead who acts before she thinks but who also forces Kei to remember his old ideals.  Beyond that basic archetypal stuff, these characters are just really well-written and grow closer over the series in a believable way.

The context to this scene is pretty interesting, but I’ll let you find out about it for yourself.

There’s not much more I can say about the plot or characters without spoiling, so I’ll leave it at this: Cop Craft is worth watching just for Kei and Tilarna.  A few of the surrounding cast of characters are interesting as well, particularly the police coroner Cecil, but Kei and Tilarna are almost always at the center of the action, which is a good thing.

Speaking of action, there is action in this show and a lot of it looks lousy.  The animation in Cop Craft is wildly inconsistent, ranging from decent to awful.  If you saw the above stills and thought “wow, this show looks beautiful” — yeah, some of the still shots are detailed and nicely show off the excellent work of character designer Range Murata, but the action scenes look rough, with a lot of obvious animation shortcuts.  I don’t know much about the technical aspects of animation, but I do know what looks good to me and what doesn’t.  Most of Cop Craft looks like it was made on an extremely tight budget, with 95% of the detail reserved for the scenes where the studio obviously wanted to make Tilarna look really good.  Even some of the still shots lack detail to a distracting extent.

There’s also one episode that’s so dark you can barely make out anything.

I have to assume the studio (Millepensee, who also co-produced the widely hated 2016 adaptation of Berserk and what look like a few “cute girls doing cute things” comedies I’ve never heard of) just didn’t have the funds or time to make something that looked better. It’s a real shame — I know there are people who will avoid watching Cop Craft because of its rough animation, and I can’t blame them for that. This is a visual medium, and the visuals matter.

Still, if any of the above stuff sounds interesting to you, I recommend checking out Cop Craft, even if it is visually rough around the edges sometimes.  Look at it this way: if I told you the visuals and animation in Cop Craft were beautiful but that the characters and story were dogshit, I wouldn’t be recommending it at all.  If I want to see nice visuals and nothing else, I’ll look at my artbooks again.

We got a lot of shots of Tilarna being cute and pouty, and that’s all that really matters

And that’s about it for Cop Craft.  Sadly, I don’t think we’ll be getting a second season considering how little attention the anime series seems to have gotten.  The light novel series is still being written and published, though, so there’s always a chance.  Maybe when the isekai craze finally dies down, there will be more demand for an urban sci-fi fantasy cop show and a better studio with more resources will be able to produce it, and then I won’t have to qualify my recommendation at all.

The Seasonal Anime Draft: Fall 2019

Fall is upon us, and so is the fall lineup of anime series, which means I have to decide what new show to pick up for this stupid Seasonal Anime Draft thing I’ve cursed myself with.

It’s impossible for me to use this SZS screenshot too many times.

I’ve got good news and bad news about that.  The bad news first (because that’s always the best way to deliver it): I don’t plan to write episode-by-episode posts this season like I did for Cop Craft.  This is partly because I’m losing some of my free time to work now in my efforts to make more money that I really need at the moment, and partly because there isn’t a single show this season that immediately grabs me in the way Cop Craft did.

That’s not to say there’s nothing that interests me, though.  Which leads me to the good news: I’ll be watching not one but three series this season and probably writing both a mid-season piece for all of them together and separate end-of-season reviews for each one.  I’ll do my best to stick with all of them, but I will drop one or more of these series if it somehow turns out to be unwatchable garbage.  In that unfortunate event, I’ll also write up a piece explaining what exactly made me hate said show(s) so much.  But again, that hopefully won’t happen.

And the shows I’ve chosen to watch are…

Val x Love: This is an adaptation of a manga series I haven’t read, so I’m going in blind here.  The premise sounds fantastic, though: a loner student nobody likes is contacted by the Norse god Odin, who tells him he has to save the world “with love” and sends his nine valkyrie daughters to help out.  This series sounds like it could be amazing or a complete disaster, or possibly both at the same time. Expecting some grade A fanservice either way.

Kemono Michi: Rise Up: I don’t typically go for isekai series, but this one looks different enough to capture my attention. The setting seems like the most generic isekai medieval/Renaissance European town you could possibly imagine, but the protagonist is a pro wrestler who loves animals.  So when the princess of this world asks him to exterminate the beasts of the kingdom, he refuses and instead tries to make friends with all of them.  This show also looks like it’s going to contain fanservice, this time mainly of a bunch of animal-eared/tailed girls.  (Okay, you’re probably not that surprised that I picked this show to watch.)

Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia: I have a weird history with Type-Moon.  I really liked the original VNs Tsukihime and Fate/stay night, even with all their flaws, and I loved Fate/Zero without any reservations at all. Ever since F/Z, though, I haven’t been keeping up with any of the Type-Moon properties.  So jumping into this spinoff series based on a mobile game of all things might be a horrible idea. I can’t even give you much idea of the premise because I honestly don’t understand it, even after reading the synopsis and watching the extremely confusing mess of a trailer. The best I can do is “someone time travels to ancient Babylonia to fight gods or something.”

Also, Gilgamesh is back.  Here he is in Fate/Zero, chilling out on his giant golden throne.  By the way, if you haven’t watched Fate/Zero, do that as soon as possible.

But I figure why the hell not give it a try?  The prospect of seeing the supremely arrogant Nasuverse version of Gilgamesh ruling over his native city of Uruk is interesting.  And even though I haven’t played Fate/Grand Order, I have seen plenty of pictures of the new Servant Ishtar around, and… let’s just say I’m a fan of the character design.  Because it’s simply Rin Tohsaka in a skimpy outfit.  From what I gather, the Mesopotamian goddess of love has possessed Rin for some reason that you probably know if you’ve played this section of F/GO.  I read it as Nasu’s excuse for putting Rin in a skimpy outfit and nothing more.  Not that I’m complaining.

I’m still not playing this god damn “free-to-play” trap game, though.  I don’t care how hot Ishtar Rin is.

Anyway, a question for you, dear reader: what anime series are you looking forward to this season, if any?  Feel free to post a comment telling me about it, or telling me I’m an idiot with shit taste, or telling me anything at all.  In the meantime, I’ll be working my day job and writing up my full Cop Craft review.

The Seasonal Anime Draft: Cop Craft, ep 11

Things have slowed down a bit here.  Sorry about that.  A lot of work combined with life being not much fun at the moment, even less than usual.  But I’m still watching Cop Craft.

Generally a bad idea to stick your finger in Tilarna’s face

Summary: Kei and Tilarna interview Tourte, the still-living mayoral candidate, who proves himself to be exactly the kind of asshole we thought he’d be, chewing out Tilarna for being a Semanian and acting like a pompous blowhard.  Tilarna points out that San Teresa was originally Semanian land that got warped into the Pacific Ocean or something, but Tourte doesn’t care and insists that Semanians don’t fit in with Earth’s society.  Our heroes leave the interview without any leads as to who killed Mozeleemay, but with at least a vague impression that Tourte wasn’t involved.  Meanwhile, the rest of the vice squad are pursuing their own leads in the same case and manage to come up with the identity of the murderer: an ex-Marine who went AWOL during the initial war against the Semanians.

Meanwhile, riots and fighting break out between Semanian and Earth humans over the murders of Kahns and Mozeleemay.  In the middle of this chaos, my prediction from episode 10 comes true as Mozeleemay’s wife Marla steps in as a mayoral candidate in the place of her dead husband.  However, at a tense, secretive park bench meeting between Kei, Tilarna, and a reporter who showed up last episode, we see a photo of Marla with her husband’s assassin in a hotel room, implying that Marla had her husband murdered.

The lesson here is if you’re cheating on your partner with his future assassin, you should probably keep the curtains closed

Before Kei and Tilarna have too much time to be shocked by this news, they’re ambushed and arrested by a bunch of FBI agents.  Tilarna sniffs out latena and determines that all but one of the agents are corpses being controlled by magic.  And sure enough, they dump Kei and Tilarna into the back of a van where they’re greeted by none other than big bad guy Zelada, where the episode ends.

Analysis: Just getting this out of the way: I won’t complain about the animation quality anymore.  There weren’t any action scenes for them to screw up this time anyway.

There were a lot of extreme closeups of Tilarna’s face as usual, though. They really like using these shots, don’t they?

A whole lot of plot stuff happened this episode, probably because there’s only one episode left, at least as far as I’ve heard.  We still don’t know what Zelada wants with Kei and Tilarna, except perhaps to kill them, but that seems a little too straightforward.  Marla having her husband murdered certainly doesn’t come off as a surprise — as we know, she has no problem with having people killed, and putting her weak-willed husband out of the way lets her pursue power on her own terms.  The fact that Zelada captured Kei and Tilarna while meeting the reporter who turned over that evidence suggests that he has a connection to Marla as well.  We know Zelada wants to sow discord between Semanians and Earth humans, so maybe all this is just in service of that goal.

Eh, close enough

All the anti-immigration/xenophobia stuff in this arc is pretty interesting.  It’s hard to watch Cop Craft without making comparisons to the current situation, especially in my own country, where the public’s opinions now range from “open the borders” to “deport all the illegal immigrants right away.”  I’m not sure how much the plot of Cop Craft is influenced by current events, considering the fact that it’s based on a series of light novels that started in 2009, but even if there’s no direct link the issue is definitely timely.

Thankfully, Cop Craft is not approaching the subject of xenophobia in a preachy or heavy-handed way.  Tilarna and the other Semanians trying to live in San Teresa aren’t presented as mere helpless victims, and Earth natives who have problems with them aren’t presented as complete assholes who are hateful for no reason.  All these people have reasons for feeling the way they do, reasons that the show explores a bit.  Tilarna realizes as much this episode when she compares the two current mayoral candidates: Tourte, who’s an anti-Semanian zealot but seemingly an honest guy, and Marla, who publicly supports Semanian rights but who has also used murder as a political tool at least twice at this point.

Tilarna learns about American democracy this episode, which boils down to choosing which candidate you think is less of an asshole.

I can’t stand works of fiction that try to make political points by bashing them over your head with purely good protagonists who spend their off time feeding orphans and widows and ridiculously evil villains who kill kittens for fun.  Thankfully, Cop Craft is not at all like that.  Its characters come off as pretty realistic — most of them are just people trying to live their lives who are thrust into difficult situations and conflicts.  Cop Craft pretty clearly takes a stance against anti-immigration and xenophobic views (after all, the bonding between Kei and Tilarna is one of the central elements of the series, so it wouldn’t make sense otherwise) but it approaches the issue with some nuance, which I like.

That doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy some weird fanservice this episode, though

Anyway, the writers have certainly woven a tangled web here.  I’ll be impressed if they can sort it out in one episode, and I’ll be pissed off if they fail to do so and end the season on a cliffhanger.  Especially if we end up never getting a season 2.  I don’t read light novels (nothing against them, of course, I just don’t) but if that happens, I’ll have to seek the original work out to see how the series ends.

Let’s just hope for the best.  Until next time, stay safe.

The Seasonal Anime Draft: Cop Craft, ep 10

After a week off, Cop Craft is back with episode 10 and the continuation of the second half of episode 9’s political assassination plot.

Also with more pouty Tilarna, we can’t go without that

Summary: Kei and Tilarna follow up on their investigation of the murder of mayoral candidate Kahns, who was shot dead by the reanimated corpse of a Semanian.  We know he was being controlled by the evil mage Zelada because Tilarna told us so last episode, but the voters don’t — all they know is that a Semanian killed him, stoking anti-Semanian sentiments among Earth natives.  To pursue their lead, the team have to question Cole Mozeleemay, one of the two remaining candidates, at his campaign headquarters.  Things start awkwardly when Mozeleemay recognizes Tilarna as the undercover officer who acted as the bait in his prostitution sting arrest.  But then his wife Marla steps out from the shadows to take over the interview, and Kei and Tilarna realize that she has her husband by the balls (in Kei’s words; for once this isn’t me just being vulgar for no reason.)

The real power player in the relationship.

Marla cuts their interview short because her husband has a campaign speech to deliver.  Kei and Tilarna are about to head back to the office when they hear gunshots coming from the auditorium, however — Mozeleemay has been shot in yet another assassination attempt.  Kei uses some fancy detective work to determine who the shooter was based on the recording of the event, and he and Tilarna chase down their suspect, who turns out to be not one of Zelada’s puppet-corpses but rather an independent actor capable of using mildey, or Semanian magic.  Unfortunately, they’re forced to kill the suspect during their fight with him.  Even worse, FBI agents show up to “take the case over”, insulting Kei and Tilarna in the process as simple city cops (yeah, it’s that tired old cop show trope.) We get a confirmation that Mozeleemay is dead.  Then Kei and Tilarna head back to the office, where Tilarna gives the vice squad a demonstration of how Semanian magic is used to transform items, showing how the assassin was able to smuggle a gun disguised as a camera into the auditorium.

We finally get an explanation of how Tilarna performs her magical girl-style costume transformations.

Finally, Kei and Tilarna hit the road again to pay a visit to Tourte, the last alive candidate in the mayoral race and an anti-Semanian zealot, and as they approach his headquarters they run into an anti-Semanian protest, which is where the episode ends.

Analysis: Cop Craft is frustrating to watch. 

There’s a lot to like in this series.  I’m a big fan of Tilarna and her relationship with Kei.  And while I didn’t mind the more lighthearted episodes this season (and I definitely didn’t mind the Tilarna fanservice we got out of it) I also like the more serious turn the show is taking with this political assassination plot.  The show is taking xenophobia, something we have plenty of in the real world, and is using it in an effective way to create tension.

Yeah, the good times are mostly over, just like I thought.

I don’t even mind all that much that the writers killed off Cole Mozeleemay.  At his core, he just seemed like a lecherous guy who wanted to use his power to bone women with impunity. I’m sure they could have done more with him if they’d wanted to, but this turn of events just builds the tension even more.  And anyway, it’s clear that his wife Marla was the real political mind between the two of them.  My big prediction for this post is that she’ll take over his campaign and use the voters’ sympathy over the murder of her husband to get elected.  That could be interesting.  I don’t know how they’ll connect this plot thread to Tilarna and Kei now that Cole is dead, though.  I guess Tilarna has figured out that Marla was probably the one behind the murder of her friend Zoey, so maybe she’ll still try to take revenge for that.

But I have to address the animation quality this episode, which was back in the toilet again.  Parts of the action scenes looked awful, and even some of the still shots lacked detail.  I’m not going to post any of the really bad screenshots this time because I don’t even want to look at them again.  If you’re curious, head over to the various anime boards on Reddit and 4chan; I’m sure they’re posting the worst of the worst and calling the show garbage.

I’m pretty sure 99% of the show’s budget went into Tilarna’s close-up shots and the fanservice scenes in episode 8.

Let me be clear: I don’t think Cop Craft is garbage just because its animation quality is wildly inconsistent.  I’d much rather watch a series with good writing and compelling characters but lousy animation than one with great production values but dogshit-level writing.  But then I imagine how this show would look with a better animation budget (or a better studio?) and it makes me sad.  It’s all the worse for the fact that I really like Range Murata’s character designs.  It feels like they’re wasted in episodes like this.

Well, at least the show is still interesting to watch.  The uneven animation quality doesn’t put me off too badly; it’s just disappointing.  Here’s hoping it improves again.  That’s all I’ve got for now, so until next time, stay safe.