Eight years on, a few thoughts

Hey, it’s time for another deeply personal post, so if you only want to read about games/anime/music/etc. feel free to skip this one. I won’t be offended. Hell, I won’t even know, really, so it doesn’t make a difference. However, there are a few thoughts I’ve had recently about writing, and specifically about my writing here, and these tie in with the subjects I write about and with my life as a whole. So it is relevant, but still, a warning: I complain a whole lot this time, so if you don’t want to read that, please wait for my next post. Also some stuff about depression and other problems probably. But it doesn’t have such a bad ending, I promise.

Still have to admit that his image is relevant to most of my waking hours, and even to some of the sleeping ones.

This month marks eight years I’ve had this site. When I started it in 2013, I was a different person in many ways. At the time, I was just starting my final degree program, whereas now I’m a working and licensed professional. I also didn’t have much of the responsibility — or sense of responsibility — that I feel now.

Without getting into too many specifics about my life, I can’t live the way I’d prefer for reasons that have to do with family and culture.* This has caused me a lot of stress over the last few years, stress that I haven’t even been able to express — at least not as myself, in my offline life. When I hear people talking about living for yourself, doing what’s best for you, I’m reminded that I can’t do that, and moreover that a lot of people don’t understand why I can’t do that, why I feel so constrained.

This is partly a result of being brought up in (or caught between, maybe) two cultures with very different concepts about tradition and family. I’m very much an American culturally, but the traditional culture of one side of my family has also had a massive impact on me, and one that I can’t avoid. This is partly what constrains me. If I were a more naturally generous and selfless person, I probably wouldn’t feel so constrained, but I have no illusions about myself. I’m actually selfish in the sense that I really want to live the way I like, but since I can’t, I pretend to be a better person than I am. Partly in an effort to actually be that better person, maybe. I don’t know if that’s working, but I still feel bitter about it sometimes.

I’m sorry to be so vague here, but I hope my feelings come across at least. This site is one of the only ways I have to express myself in the way I’d like. And that’s where all the bullshit I write about games and anime and music comes in. I have a few offline friends who share my weeb interests, but most of them don’t. The same is true of my professional colleagues. There are certainly other lawyers out there somewhere with my interests, but aside from one who I’ve more or less lost contact with (though the contact’s not broken at least; it’s really a matter of physical distance) I can’t get into these subjects with them.

That’s not unique to law, certainly — I get the impression that the same is true of almost any professional/corporate American setting. At least when fucking Game of Thrones was running I could relate to people about that, even when it really went bad. By contrast, Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro and similar stuff I write about here obviously doesn’t work as around the water cooler talk, even if it is popular in the fringe circles I and other writers get into here on WordPress.*

And I won’t even get into visual novels. At least not some of them.

This is doubly, triply true of family. Maybe it’s a cliché to say so, but they really wouldn’t understand my interests if they knew about them. I don’t think I’m jumping to conclusions here, either — the few times I’ve tested the waters in that sense, I’ve gotten burned, so I have good reason to believe as I do.

This brings me to the main point. A few years ago, I asked myself why I was keeping up a blog. When I asked myself that question, I had been pushed out of my last job, which I was naturally pretty distressed about. Technically I’d quit to save face, but I have to be honest about it — the axe was about to fall on my neck, and I knew it. And money was an issue for me as it is for almost everyone on Earth.

In fact, leaving that job and ending the daily misery associated with it was one of the best things that’s happened in my life to this point, but at the time, I had no idea where or how I’d end up. But thankfully, I’m in a much better place now. My health and mentality aren’t perfect, but certainly better than they were before, thanks in part to my new work situation over the last few years and to certain lifestyle changes I’ve made. I’ve also become resigned to some unavoidable constraints on my personal life — agonizing over them is useless, and as depressing as it might sound, giving up has helped me come to terms with that. Hope can be a good thing, but a pointless and worthless hope can eat at you and drive you insane — this is my feeling about it, anyway.

Because of all this, I’ve found that I can’t stop writing here. At the end of June, I took what I meant to be a hiatus to deal with certain matters that were causing me issues, and I’m still dealing with them, but I’ve found that writing actually helps keep me balanced. Ever since returning to writing on a regular basis here a few years ago, I haven’t been able to stop or slow down very much. It might have to do with my obsessive-compulsive personality — I don’t use that term lightly, because I do have some actual issues with OCD, though thankfully they’re minor and manageable. So maybe writing here is a kind of obsession as well.

I’m not qualified to say anything at all about psychology, so that might be total bullshit. But if it’s true, I don’t mind having this obsession. I enjoy writing here, even or maybe especially through harder-than-usual times, and so unless I happen to just fall over one day (a real possibility given the old “fast living” habits that I’ve gotten away from, but I don’t worry about that anymore) I’ll keep going here.

Semi-related: Chiri from SZS is a pretty good example of one of the ways OCD can play out.

Maybe this long rambling load of garbage I just wrote was completely unnecessary to express this feeling, but I have a lot I’m carrying around right now, and I felt I had to unload a bit. I’m well aware that I don’t have it so bad, especially compared to at least 95% of the rest of humanity, so I don’t want to say I’ve gone through hardships — I have plenty of family who have gone through truly serious hardships, and I know friends who have been through more than I have besides. But it’s all relative, and it’s hard to keep that kind of perspective when you’re wondering about the point of your life in itself. I hope I’ve at least gotten enough perspective to resolve that sort of existential crisis stuff, at least enough that I can go on living more or less productively.

And if you’ve stuck around for all my bullshit, dear reader, I want to thank you as well for helping me with that. I am really grateful for it. Next time, I’ll post something at least marginally less self-indulgent than this post was. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be leaning towards the anime reviews since I’ve been watching so much of it lately (and a reminder to check out Asobi Asobase! Weird in a good way.) But I won’t be neglecting games either — I just happen to be stuck in the middle of a few massive ones at the moment. There are still those itch.io indie games to get through, and some of them are pretty interesting, so I’ll be taking those on in the meantime as well. Along with one game in particular that’s extremely overdue for a review. Until then!

 

* Except to note that it has nothing to do with having a kid or a wife or anything. If that were the case, I’d dive into all that headfirst without complaint.

** Not that I really expect it to make for water cooler talk. Still, this is an issue that someone could write a book about. Maybe someone already has. The fact that I’m expected to give a fuck about pro and college football and the NBA, yet my fringe interests are just that: fringe. I know “nerd culture” is supposedly mainstream now, but it feels like only a narrow band of works are actually included in that. Namely the ones that are put out by major studios and publishers.

But I don’t want to have “nerd rage” here or whatever people who complain about nerds complaining about things call it. This is a subject for a different post, really, and one that I’ve written before and might write again later. I’m nothing if not repetitive.

A review of Shirobako

I’m not the biggest expert on anime out there — there are plenty of other writers here on the platform who have watched much more of it than I have. And there are some personalities on YouTube that are very knowledgeable as well worth watching if you can look past all the weird drama those types sometimes find themselves in. I’ve watched a decent amount of it since growing up as a kid in the 90s, back when watching anime wasn’t as socially acceptable as it is now (and I am thankful those days seem to be at least sort of over.) But one aspect of it I never knew much about was how it’s actually made.

The high school anime club that doesn’t just sit around watching anime but actually makes it

This is partly why I’m happy I finally got around to watching Shirobako (lit. “white box”, referring to the copy of an anime episode distributed internally in a studio before release.) This 2014-15 24-episode original series centers on Aoi Miyamori (center with the light hair) and her four high school friends who make up their school’s anime club. Anime club at my school just involved watching it (or that’s what I heard — as weird as this might sound, I never joined it) but this club creates anime, doing everything: the drawing, coloring, animation, sounds and voices. At first, Shirobako looks like it might stick around in high school following these girls’ antics for a while before they graduate. But three minutes after the opening, they all swear a pact on a bunch of doughnuts (???) that they’ll work in the industry as professionals and make anime together, and then there’s a jump forward a few years to Miyamori sitting in her car with a binder full of work and an exhausted expression.

Shirobako is an adult show, but not in the lewd sense — rather in the sense that it’s about a bunch of adults trying to make it in the world, and in this case, the world of anime production. The narrative doesn’t always stick to Miyamori, but she is the most central character among the show’s large cast. Her job as a production assistant at Musashino Animation requires her to coordinate with many other staff members and contractors, including animators, character designers, 3D modellers, sound engineers, and episode directors. And perhaps most critically with the series director himself, who’s talented but also lazy, requiring Aoi and her colleagues to constantly prod him to keep working. While she shares her duties at the production desk with a few other assistants working under the chief producer, there’s more than enough work to go around that she often feels stressed and has to work out how to cope with her schedule.

You might think of that scene from Office Space, but it’s really not like that.

Of course, Miyamori can’t only think about herself: her responsibilities as a production assistant force her to consider the schedules and workloads of many of the studio’s other employees. The way in which she and her colleagues at the production desk have to stay on top of their other colleagues makes their jobs very delicate, but also extremely important — they have to be understanding of the other creators’ workloads while also keeping them motivated and moving along at a regular pace.

On the surface, Shirobako is about an anime studio turning out two series, one in its first 12 episodes and another in the last 12. But it’s really more about all the personalities working on the shows, personalities that sometimes clash violently. Both within Musashino Animation and outside of it, conflicts flare up around the production of these two shows that Aoi and her production desk coworkers have to sort out. One such conflict involves a fight early on in the production of an action magical girl-looking show called Exodus! between a 2D and a 3D animator. The two fight over the use of 3D instead of 2D for a particular key action scene, with the 2D artist essentially storming out in protest. Eventually the two manage to find common ground and get back together on the team, but it takes some skillful diplomacy by Aoi and a couple of her colleagues to make this happen.

A completely different fight over which voice actresses to hire; this is one of my favorite scenes

There are several other character clashes like this throughout this series, and all of them feel very genuine, as if they could have easily been pulled out of real life. The same is true for the bonds of friendship we see develop, thanks largely to these employees all being thrown into the apparent meat grinder of anime production. Even when clashes occur, they manage to keep their professionalism and smooth things over. This is for the sake of the anime they’re putting out, but I also got the sense that the writer meant to express a sense of common respect among them. Anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to work in an office with a good, productive culture can probably relate. Deadlines are tight and demands can be difficult to meet, but when everyone pulls together things usually work out (by contrast, in a dysfunctional office with a toxic, backstabby culture, it’s usually just the opposite — you instead wonder how the hell the company is still operating.)*

For that reason more than any other, Shirobako feels like a very real-life show. This is true even when it shifts into its frequent fantasy sequences. Most of these involve two of Aoi’s keychain characters, a bear and a gothic lolita pirate captain-looking girl, coming to life and commenting on whatever problem she’s dealing with at the time — sort of like seeing two sides of her mind trying to work that problem out. It looks goofy, but it’s actually a great way to depict Aoi’s thought processes without just constantly going into internal monologue mode (not that that’s always bad, but I appreciated the different approach here.)

Plus some shared hallucinations, why not

Of course, it’s not possible to sustain a constant pace of work without burning out. To its great credit, that’s another aspect of working life that Shirobako addresses. Deadlines in anime production are apparently very tight, with one small delay in one piece of work potentially causing a massive ripple effect down the line. It’s very easy to see how this could result in extremely high levels of stress and burnout in those employed in the industry, especially at companies with reputations for high-quality work to uphold (the stories I’ve read of just how stressful working at Studio Ghibli can be, for example, make even more sense now, and not just because of Hayao Miyazaki’s apparently really complicated character.)

All these pressures often foster doubts in Aoi and her young colleagues just getting their starts in the industry. Even the veterans aren’t immune from the stress, but the natural doubts many younger people carry around about their talent and their goals in life can be hard to bear in these high-stress situations.

Aoi trying to comfort one of her high school friends Ema Yasuhara, an animator at the same studio.

Instead of just pushing through and eventually suffering from a stress-induced attack, Aoi and her colleagues find ways to cope with the stress while still maintaining their professionalism and work ethics. Part of this involves what some people now call “self-care”, stuff like exercise and walking around outside, along with Ema’s dance routine on the roof that makes for one of my other favorite scenes. Of course, there’s also plenty of drinking together to wipe that stress away, though I don’t think anyone in the show ever drinks to excess (aside from one freelance animator later on, whose drunkenness comes in handy when the team needs someone to agree to help with their series on short notice. Agreements made when you’re drunk aren’t enforceable where I live, but it all works out for Aoi and friends.)

It’s also admirable to see Aoi’s old friends from school sticking together, even when some of them aren’t quite making it yet. This sort of thing can sometimes inspire bitterness, but not here. While the five friends are mostly doing their own separate things throughout the show, they all eventually come together in the end in a way that’s satisfying, though I won’t spoil exactly how that goes.

Sometimes you just have to eat your losses and move on (edit: this isn’t how it ends though, just want to make that clear)

I wouldn’t call Shirobako a “feel-good” story exactly, since it does acknowledge all the awful bullshit that can occur when you’re working. However, it also has a positive message. Hard work isn’t quite enough to make it, but if you have the support of your friends and colleagues and manage to keep your ego in check, you can create great things. It’s a mature and realistic series. But it’s not deadly serious or overblown either; there are some pretty nice and relaxed stretches as well, and even in the high-pressure chaos stretches of the show, there’s some comedy.

So I highly recommend Shirobako. It’s a fascinating series to watch if you have an interest in anime; I learned something about the technical aspects of anime and some of the inner workings of the industry by watching it. However, even if you’re not interested at all in that, or even in anime in general (in which case thanks for reading my post about an anime series this far!) I’d say it’s still worth watching, since a lot of that message can be applied just as easily to most any industry. I think Shirobako has a really wide appeal, even if it might seem to be about a bit of a niche subject. And of course, the most important reason to watch: it’s entertaining. I don’t have a clever (read: stupid) way to end this review, so that’s it. I liked Shirobako and I think you should watch it.

* One of the reasons I think I connected so much with Shirobako is that I’ve had the good fortune to have worked in both kinds of offices. Thankfully, I’m at the good sort of company now, but I learned a lot from my time at the bad one, lessons that I might not have learned otherwise about the extreme importance of reading character and building professional relationships of trust. Shirobako really gets into the psychology of work in that sense.

A review of Nekomonogatari Black

Finally we come to the end of this “first season” of Monogatari. This series is certainly broken up in a weird way, and it progresses in a weird way too, because Nekomonogatari Black is another prequel. This one tells the story of what happened during the short holiday of Golden Week: the “Black Hanekawa” incident that kept getting brought up through the first and second series of the show. It’s only four episodes long, but there’s plenty here to examine as usual.

Before I move on, here’s the usual spoiler warning: there are spoilers in this review. Again, they probably won’t make a lot of sense if you haven’t seen any of the series, but even so, fair warning and all. This one is especially violent in parts too, though not on the same level as Kizumonogatari. I guess that’s true of the other sets of episodes I’ve reviewed, actually. Lots of blood and limbs being removed and that sort of thing, but those parts are all concentrated in a few very intense action scenes.

Don’t let the screenshot fool you: this catgirl will fuck you up.

The broad outlines of what happened during the Golden Week break from school are already known by the time the series starts, shortly after the events of Kizumonogatari: we know star student and high achiever Tsubasa Hanekawa was possessed by a violent supernatural cat spirit, causing her to go on a rampage until she was stopped and turned more or less back to normal by her new friend/series protagonist Koyomi Araragi, mainly thanks to Shinobu’s intervention. Nekomonogatari Black gives us the whole story, albeit only from Koyomi’s perspective. There’s still a lot going on in Tsubasa’s life that only she can tell us.

At the start of the series, our semi-vampire slacker protagonist Koyomi is trying to work out his feelings. He can’t get his mind off of Tsubasa and is wondering whether he’s in love with her. So he asks his younger sister Tsukihi for her advice, because by his own admission, he’s never been in love before. After a lot of the usual dialogue and wordplay joke stuff, Tsukihi tells Koyomi he’s not in love but just sexually frustrated, so he decides to head off to the local bookstore to get a dirty magazine (just like in Kizumonogatari; maybe he doesn’t have his own computer, or maybe he’s old-fashioned and prefers print media.) And of course, leaving the bookstore at the same time is Tsubasa herself.

We don’t get much of the lighthearted banter from now on, though. Koyomi notices that Tsubasa has gauze taped to her cheek. After dragging a promise out of him that he won’t tell anyone, Tsubasa tells him that her stepfather hit her that morning.

This naturally pisses Koyomi off, but Tsubasa reminds him of his promise. She also tells him that it was only natural this happened. If you had a daughter who talked back to you early in the morning, and wasn’t even related to you by blood, and you were under stress at work, wouldn’t you feel like slapping her too?

Of course, the answer is “no, that’s completely fucked,” and so Koyomi says. But he agrees to keep silent about it.

At this point, Tsubasa finds the body of a cat lying in the middle of the road. She’s not the type to just ignore that and asks Koyomi to help her bury it, which they do together. Of course, we already know this isn’t an ordinary cat. As we learned all the way back in the last arc of Bakemonogatari, Tsubasa Cat, this was a “meddlecat” (translated from sawarineko, which looks like it has some relation or connection to the supernatural cat spirit bakeneko, or maybe to the nekomata.) This spirit has the ability to possess humans and causes them to act out violently, requiring an exorcism.

We’ve also seen the effect this possession has on Tsubasa. Later that day Koyomi visits his benefactor the spirit/demon expert Oshino, who senses that something’s off and asks what’s going on with “Miss Class President” as he calls her. From the hints Koyomi is able to drop without breaking his promise to her, Oshino figures the situation out, warning him that Tsubasa is in danger of possession by a violent spirit and that he should go to her house to check up on her.

But it’s too late. On his way to Tsubasa’s house, Koyomi spots a white-haired girl stalking around the streets in her underwear, with a pair of cat ears sticking out the top of her head, and he realizes that Oshino’s worst fears were realized. This catgirl has the form of Tsubasa but seems completely different in personality, almost like a wild animal. Speaking with a different voice and referring to Tsubasa as her “master”, the girl dumps two unconscious bodies in front of Koyomi — the bodies of Tsubasa’s parents. And when Koyomi tries to stop her from leaving, this possessed Tsubasa attacks Koyomi, ripping his arm off.

His regenerative ability lets him reattach the arm and heal with Shinobu’s help, but after retreating back to the cram school, Koyomi is faced with a dilemma. Oshino tells him based on his own research and experience that this meddlecat has not only possessed Tsubasa but is merging with her somehow, allowing it to combine its own physical skills with Tsubasa’s considerable intelligence to essentially create a broken, unfairly powerful character that Oshino refers to as “Black Hanekawa.” So broken that even Oshino, the guy who seasoned vampire hunters run away from, hasn’t yet been able to defeat her in the many fights he’s had with her during Koyomi’s recuperation.

I like this traditional-looking art over Oshino’s explanation.

Thankfully, Oshino confirms that Tsubasa’s parents aren’t dead; they’ve only been made victims of Black Hanekawa’s energy drain ability, which she’s since been using to attack and drain people all over town. But he warns Koyomi that if they don’t manage to exorcise the meddlecat, it will merge with Tsubasa completely, making it impossible to save her.

That’s the setup of Nekomonogatari Black, though it takes us through the first two episodes out of four. The last two deal with how Koyomi actually goes about both rescuing Tsubasa and defeating the cat possessing her. To do this, however, he also has to defeat Tsubasa herself — because by the last episode, Koyomi discovers that Tsubasa is actually conscious and is in control of her actions at least to some extent. As usual in this series, nothing is how it seems at first.

It’s easy to see why Tsubasa would fall under the influence of this kind of wild spirit. Being the top student in her class, famous for her high achiever status among the other students, would normally be stressful enough with the support of a caring family, but she doesn’t even have that. Neither of her parents are related to her by blood; a series of deaths, divorces, and remarriages placed her with two relative strangers at a young age.

You’d hope that her stepparents would care for her as though she were their own, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Tsubasa says to Koyomi that blood relation is important in a family, but the fact that there are plenty of loving non-blood-related families around suggest there’s more going on. No, she gives the impression that her parents, who we never see except as unconscious figures in episode 2, act as though they were stuck with her, like the secondary consequence of getting remarried. “Oh, you have a kid too; I guess that’s fine” — that sort of thing. Considering that, it makes sense that Tsubasa felt free to go out and wander the streets on nights and holidays as we see her doing when she runs into Koyomi in Kizumonogatari and Bakemonogatari. She lives at the same address as her adoptive parents, but those parents don’t seem to care about what she does.

Tsubasa’s situation can be contrasted with Koyomi’s. He doesn’t have an ideal home life; he’s emotionally broken off from his parents, as far as we know because of his failures as a student. He’s still part of his own family, though, and he does have close relationships with his younger sisters Karen and Tsukihi, relationships we saw develop in Nisemonogatari. When they face a threat, we see the siblings close ranks and support each other no matter what other disagreements they have.

This might be a little too close actually.

Then again, Koyomi himself might also be a source of stress for Tsubasa. We already know that she has feelings for him that she hasn’t expressed, feelings that started back during the events of Kizumonogatari when Koyomi went through his vampiric ordeal. That’s not actually revealed until later on, well after Koyomi gets together with Hitagi during the events of Bakemonogatari, but even at this point there’s plenty left unsaid between the two. Throughout this first season of Monogatari, including the prequel movies when they first meet, the nature of their relationship is sort of unclear — they’re certainly friends, but beyond that they’re both carrying around more intense feelings that may or may not count as love.

Again, there’s a strong contrast to be made here with the relationship between Koyomi and Hitagi. Hitagi even says she hates “unclear relationships” or something similar when they officially become a couple, asking Koyomi to express his feelings for her unambiguously. Maybe some of Tsubasa’s stress comes from an inability to act in such a straightforward way. That’s certainly the case later on, in the last part of Bakemonogatari.

All that makes it all the more depressing that Tsubasa is never actually freed from her demon. Before they have their final fight, Koyomi and “Black Hanekawa” have a perfectly civil talk during which she tells him that she plans to relieve Tsubasa’s stress by attacking and energy-draining as many people as possible. Koyomi argues that even if that were justified, it wouldn’t relieve Tsubasa’s stress but simply put it off for a while, but the cat refuses to listen. When Koyomi finally draws her out to the cram school for their final fight, it takes Shinobu’s help to resolve the matter by using her own energy drain technique on Tsubasa, leaving her exhausted and powerless but physically unharmed. It also seems like getting possessed with a cat demon causes memory loss. In the end, at least, it’s for the better that Tsubasa ended up not remembering any of the ordeal she went through here, considering the burden of guilt that would cause her.

However, although Shinobu’s energy drain subdued that cat spirit, it’s still in there. Tsubasa’s stress still isn’t relieved, and when it builds back up near the end of Bakemonogatari, the wild cat reemerges to possess her again. I don’t know if Nisio Isin meant that to be a comment on the difficulty of truly relieving stress, but it read that way to me. Much of Monogatari throughout this “first season” deals with demonic and spiritual possession, but those possessions are always caused by or related to the affected character’s internal struggles, the kinds of anxieties and insecurities that a lot of us deal with. And those issues aren’t so easily dealt with. As Oshino says so often, though the victim can be helped, in the end they have to save themselves. Despite how perfect she might seem on the outside, Tsubasa can’t manage that. Not yet, anyway.

Things are going to keep being tense for a while, aren’t they?

So I guess this isn’t quite a satisfying end to the first season of Monogatari, at least not for our characters. But all these series have left problems and ambiguities lying around, seemingly all on purpose. This ending feels pretty fitting for that reason. The next series up, in fact, is Nekomonogatari White, which starts off the “second season” of Monogatari. As the title suggests, this story also centers on Tsubasa, but this time it’s told from her perspective. I like Koyomi a lot as a protagonist, but it will be nice to get out of his head for a while. Especially to get into Tsubasa’s, because she’s my favorite character in the series at this point. I was never the top student in my class (I was really more of a Koyomi in high school if I had to compare myself to one of them) but a lot of Tsubasa’s anxieties make her pretty sympathetic to me, even if I can’t say I relate to them.

But that’s it for this first season of Monogatari. This closing mini-series maintains all the technical and style standards set by the earlier series, with excellent art, voice acting, and backing music (and another nice set of themes in Perfect Slumbers and Kieru Daydream. I always appreciate those great OP and ED themes.) I’ve liked the series as a whole a lot so far, enough that I feel bad for mostly writing reviews of these series full of spoilers. For that reason, I was thinking of writing a general first season review without spoilers, if I can even manage that. If so, after that’s done I’ll probably be moving over to other anime series for a while. But I know for a fact I’ll be back for more Monogatari at some point.

Seven super-extended video game tracks to work/study/meditate to

Relax with some popular and also some semi-obscure music that’s mostly from JRPGs I like

I’ve been pulling hard at the oars these last weeks, working through Saturday and Sunday.  A lawyer’s work is never done.  Thank God, I now have a job that lets me sit down and work in peace without being harassed by moody partners, anxious clients, and support staff who are just trying to deal with said partners and clients.  In other words, I get to put on some actual god damn music while I work, a fact that makes it worth not having medical benefits anymore.

And what better music is there to put on than some of my favorite video game tracks?  Whether you’re an expendable white-collar grunt like me or a college student studying for finals so you can also become a white-collar grunt, the following music might help you get into the right kind of mindset to take on hours of tedious work.  Just an aside before I get started – yes, six of the seven tracks here are from JRPGs, but that’s naturally how it turned out.  Did you expect anything else from me?  Finally, I’ve posted links to super-extended edits of these songs on Youtube for your convenience in case you think any of my recommendations are worth taking.

7) Digital Devil SagaMuladhara

Is it any surprise that I’m starting this list with a Shoji Meguro piece?  Probably not if you’ve read any of my other posts.  Digital Devil Saga sits under the Megami Tensei umbrella of games and has an excellent score written by Meguro, who has done soundtrack duty on most of the Megaten games.  A lot of the music in DDS and DDS2 is straightforward hard rock stuff, but the games also feature some mellow mood-setting tracks like “Muladhara”.  This one reminds me of an overcast rainy day, which might be because that’s the weather in the area of town your main characters are camping out in where this music plays.  But it also has that kind of “rainy” feel, where you just sit inside and don’t feel like going anywhere.  That’s my favorite kind of weather if I don’t have to go out, and even if I do, I prefer overcast days to sunny ones, so maybe that’s why I like this song so much.

6) Final Fantasy VIIIBreezy

I know FF8 is a little controversial as far as Final Fantasy games go, what with its janky magic system and its nonsensical plot (though the latter is a standard for FF games.)  And I’m really not a fan of sappy stuff like “Eyes On Me”.  But aside from that wet fish of a love song, FF8 sure as hell has a great soundtrack.  “Force Your Way” is my favorite FF battle song, and I love a lot of the other themes in the game.  As far as relaxing, meditative pieces go, though, “Breezy” is probably the best.  Nobuo Uematsu knows how to set a mood, whether that mood is lighthearted or tense or apocalyptic, and “Breezy” is one of his best mood-setting pieces.  Very simple – just a guitar playing a nice melody.  It’s good to relax to.  Same goes for Balamb Garden from the same soundtrack.

Also good music to ellipsis to

5) Phantasy Star OnlineMother Earth of Dishonesty

This song might have more of a relaxing effect on you if you haven’t played Phantasy Star Online.  If you have, it will conjure up images of a creepy forest full of monsters and alien chickens that play dead when you beat them up.  If you haven’t, it might just sound slightly ominous.  That might be just the kind of music you need if you’re running up against finals right now (and you are if you’re reading this at the time I’m posting it, around mid-April.  Take heed if you’re a procrastination-loving college student like I used to be: open those books now, before it’s too late.  Don’t let your anxiety get the better of you, but don’t put your studies off, either.  That microeconomics textbook isn’t going to read itself.)

Sorry for the tangent.  This is a good song, and PSO has a good soundtrack.  If you end up failing some of your finals because you put off studying too long, I recommend giving it a play on an emulator – it might put things into perspective.  At least you’re not a freelance hunter getting your face clawed off by an alien monster.  Though I can’t blame you if you think that would be a better fate than suffering through finals.  I felt that way too when I was a student.

4) Skies of ArcadiaUninhabited Island

Imagine yourself on the deck of an old-fashioned sailing ship at night, and now imagine that it’s flying in the air, and that you’re the valiant captain of a crew of good-guy pirates.  And then imagine that you wreck on an island, also drifting in the sky, and you’re stranded there alone for a while.  That’s the feeling I get from this track from Skies of Arcadia.  I guess that description won’t make any sense if you haven’t played the game, but even if you haven’t, “Uninhabited Island” is something nice to play in the background while you strain over your textbook or your screen.  Theme of Reflection is another good choice from the Skies of Arcadia OST to help you reflect.  Hell, “reflection” is right there in the title, and the title is apt.

3) NieR Song of the Ancients/Devola

I can’t write a list of songs to relax to without including something from NieR.  The soundtrack has a lot of mood-setting songs, but “Song of the Ancients” is one of the best.  I really like the “Devola” version, which is the one I’ve linked to above, but there are a few other takes on this theme that are all good, including one in the semi-sequel NieR:Automata.  This particular version is pretty simple, featuring the beautiful singing of Emi Evans and what I think might be a mandolin, but I could be wrong about the instrument.

2) NieR:AutomataPeaceful Sleep

Speaking of NieR:Automata, yeah, here’s a nice track from that game.  “Peaceful Sleep” is the song that plays when you first discover the android resistance base in the ruined city near the beginning of the game.  It’s a haven safe from the killer machines wandering the rest of the city, and this track really sets that tranquil mood well (I keep using the terms “sets the mood” and “mood-setting” in this post, but I can’t think of a better way to express the idea.)  I don’t know if it’s lazy to include a song from each NieR title in this list, but Keiichi Okabe is a great composer too, so what the hell.

One nice bit of trivia about the android resistance base is that it contains a little makeshift alcove sort of thing with benches to lounge on and an old-fashioned jukebox that contains every song in the game, though you have to actually play through the game to unlock the entire soundtrack.  It’s a nice place to visit on a new game plus.

Even in the middle of a desperate battle, there’s still time to listen to sit around and listen to music

1) Hyper Light DrifterCascades

Now here’s a game with a fantastic soundtrack from start to finish.  Hyper Light Drifter is an indie top-down action game that was released a few years ago.  Much to my shame, I haven’t beaten it (it’s still more or less in that backlog I keep going on about) but I’ve listened to the entire soundtrack a few times over.  Very electronic and ambient, and I’d bet my life that Brian Eno was a big influence on the composer.  Some of the less ominous pieces make for good background music as well, like “Cascades” linked above.  I really like the ominous pieces as well, but I don’t know if I’d put on “The Midnight Wood” or “Cult of the Zealous” to relax to – you can tell from the titles alone that they’re not made for meditation, unless you feel like meditating yourself into the middle of a bloodthirsty mob of enemies.  Well, maybe you do feel like doing that.  Who am I to judge?

I’m no one to judge.  Especially when I title a post “Seven super-extended video game tracks to work/study/meditate to” and I proceed to put nine songs in the post.  I’m not very good at these list-style articles.  Cracked isn’t exactly knocking down my door to put me on their team.  Then again, Cracked effectively (and deservingly) went under several years ago.  So much for those list articles of theirs.

What’s your favorite music to put on when you need to sit down to your work or studies, or when you want to shake off the stress of the day?  Feel free to comment.  I’m always looking for new music to hear.

Soundtrack review: Cowboy Bebop (all four main OSTs)

Yeah, so I took another one of my month-long breaks from writing.  In this case, I hope I can excuse myself by saying that I started a new job and the pace of it has been nearly killing me.  When I get home the last thing I feel like doing is writing.  Still, I felt like writing something at least, if only to assure my millions of readers that I’m not quite dead yet.  As a way to relax after an especially stressful day at work last week, I started rewatching the amazing Cowboy Bebop, the second anime series I watched in my life after Neon Genesis Evangelion.  While Eva doesn’t quite hold up over time (it’s still good, but way more impressive when you’re an edgy 12 year-old boy like I was when I watched it) Cowboy Bebop totally does hold up, every bit as well as it did when I first saw it on Adult Swim ages ago.

So I thought about writing about Cowboy Bebop as a part of my long-dead “Anime for people who hate anime” series.  I gave up on that idea, though, because there’s no point.  Everyone already knows Bebop as that one anime that you can recommend to your normie friends without them thinking you’re a big nerd or a pervert.  I can’t say anything about the series that hasn’t already been said.

I can write about the music, though.  I’ve listened to my entire four-album Cowboy Bebop soundtrack playlist on my commutes about seven times over now, and it isn’t even getting old.  Out of all four albums, almost all the tracks are great.  As the show’s name implies, Cowboy Bebop features both a lot of American country-western-sounding music (Spokey Dokey, Don’t Bother None, Forever Broke) and a lot of jazz (OP theme Tank!, Rush, Odd Ones.)  But there’s a lot more that composer Yoko Kanno and her band The Seatbelts have to offer – straight up rock (Want It All Back), Queen-style operatics (Rain), weirdness (Cats on Mars), and a crooner ballad (Words That We Couldn’t Say) that I don’t like very much but that at least has enough care put into the music and lyrics that they’re not brimming with cheese.  And a god damn great recording of Ave Maria performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic just for the show.  If I have any favorites among the four albums I’ve got, though, they’re probably Piano Black and See You Space Cowboy.  And Wo Qui Non Coin, which might make you cry if you know the whole context of the song with regard to the show.  Not that I’ve ever cried while listening to music or watching a show.  No.  Not me.  I’m a tough guy, got it?

The soundtrack to this show is so damn good that it is absolutely worth buying all four albums, even if you have to import them.*  As far as I can tell, none of the albums are any better than the others; they each have a lot of great tracks from the series that are essential to have.  Though I guess I should mention that Vitaminless is about half the length of the others, but if you skip it you’re missing out on the ED theme The Real Folk Blues and the weirdly hilarious Black Coffee, featuring dialogue between a guy continuously asking a girl out for coffee (“aw, come on, just this time”) and the girl continuously refusing (“nnnno!”) over a jazz accompaniment.  I know how that feels, guy.  I’m sorry.

I’m lazy, so that’s all I’m going to write – aside from my rating, which is a perfect 7 for every single one of these albums.  Just listen to the music.  Or better yet, hear the music when you watch the show.  The music on its own is great, but it’s a lot better if you’ve seen Cowboy Bebop.  The series uses music in a way that few other series do, anime or not.

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*Of course there’s an alternative to buying these soundtracks, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

A review of Atelier Rorona Plus

Since the following year at school is going to be rough going, I decided to cram one more game into my summer schedule, one that was recommended to me specially. Atelier Rorona Plus is the latest in the long-running Atelier JRPG series by developer Gust. This title is a Vita download-only game, meaning you won’t find it on the shelves. As the “Plus” suggests, it’s also an extended remake (and judging from a video I’ve seen of the original, a vastly improved remake) of the original on the PS3. A better title for this game, though, might have been Cute Girls Doing Science, or maybe Deadline Simulator, because those together describe everything about Rorona.

When you own a game with a cover like this, you know you've entered the true depths

When you own a game with a cover like this, you know you’ve entered the true depths

The plot of Atelier Rorona is tied into a much larger web of stories and characters that I don’t understand because I haven’t played any of the other 15+ Atelier games out. The basic gist, though, is that you are Rorona, a girl who is forced to study alchemy under her master to pay off debt or something. Luckily, Rorona seems to enjoy alchemy, although her master, who owns the local alchemy workshop, is a real pain to work for. She’s such a pain to everyone she meets, in fact, that her laziness and bitchiness has caused the government to declare that they will shut down her workshop unless she can fulfill twelve government orders over a period of three years in three-month increments. Naturally, the very same day your boss hands over ownership of the workshop to you and palms the whole task off on you. Despite all this, she’s still your boss somehow and still hangs around the workshop.

Atelier Rorona Plus is a fantasy game, but even in this world your boss is an asshole.

Atelier Rorona Plus is a fantasy game, but even in this world your boss is an asshole.

So despite the flowers and cuteness and everything, this game is not exactly for little girls (I imagine a kid would get bored of this game within one minute, in fact.) It is all about gathering ingredients and cooking them up into new things that you can learn how to make by reading alchemy books, and a lot of those things can be combined to make even more things. To keep the workshop from closing, you’ll have to fulfill government orders before each deadline by gathering and crafting certain required items and bringing them to the government office for evaluation and collection. Are you excited yet?

You'll be looking at screens like this one a lot.

You’ll be looking at screens like this one a lot.

No, actually, this is a pretty fun game. It incorporates a lot of typical RPG elements – you have friends in town that you’ll be able to bring with you to look for elements and ingredients in the various field areas. There’s also a pretty basic turn-based RPG combat system that activates when you meet enemies while on your ingredient hunts. The nice thing about combat in this game is that you can use items you create in your workshop to kill enemies in the field.

Rorona, dressed properly for the battlefield

Rorona, dressed properly for the battlefield

Atelier Rorona Plus has enough optional content to hold your interest, and there are plenty of jobs to take alongside your required tasks. There are apparently also lots of different endings that depend upon how well you do in filling your orders and increasing the popularity of your shop around town.

So my verdict is this: it’s a good game. You have to have a high tolerance for cute ditzy anime girls and stuff like that, and it helps if you’re an obsessive-compulsive of the sort who has to collect everything and unlock every secret in every game you ever play, but Atelier Rorona Plus stands well on its own merits.

How to misuse your ellipses and infuriate your readers

Have you ever imagined that something as seemingly trivial as a punctuation mark could completely change not only the meaning, but the entire tone of a sentence? Sure you have.

As an example, consider the ellipsis. You know, this thing:

First, let’s establish what an ellipsis is properly used for. You can use it to abridge a quote as long as you retain the meaning of the original. If you’re writing dialogue, you can use it to indicate that the speaker is trailing off or that his statement is left hanging without an immediate response. If you’re writing dialogue for a JRPG, you can use an ellipsis on its own to indicate that a character is brooding and doesn’t want to respond to another character’s questions, or that he’s secretly a bad guy posing really unconvincingly as a good guy, which will be revealed by the game long after you’ve already figured it out on your own.

Set aside the usual questions of whether the periods should be spaced and how many there should be (common usage says three dots, but some style guides like the Bluebook dictate four.) Those rules aren’t all that important. What is important is the meaning of the ellipsis, both intended (by the writer) and perceived (by the reader.) This mainly comes up in writing meant to directly communicate information and ideas – personal emails and messages, office correspondence, etc.

An embarrassing example

Let’s look at an example sentence, first with standard punctuation and then with an ellipsis shoved in its place. In this scenario imagine the person being spoken to has just had his secret collection of My Little Pony dolls discovered by his girlfriend and she told their mutual friends about it (Note: this is not me I’m talking about. I just have some friends with strange interests.) In an email to said guy, one of the friends in question writes:

Don’t worry; nobody thinks you’re weird.

A direct statement that seems to mean what it says. Nobody in their common social circle thinks the My Little Pony-having guy is weird. This statement may not be believable, but at the very least we can infer that the writer himself doesn’t think his friend is weird.

Now compare the above statement with this one:

Don’t worry; nobody thinks you’re weird…

Suddenly the tone of the statement has changed. Those two extra dots suggest the friend is trailing off here, that he doesn’t actually believe what he is saying. Perhaps he’s being sarcastic. Or it could be that he’s serious, but he is dismissing Mr. Pony’s anxiety here as silly. Another possibility is that the writer really does mean what he’s saying, but he simply doesn’t understand that the ellipsis here throws the meaning of his statement into doubt. Therefore, the use of an ellipsis here changes “Nobody thinks you’re weird” from a direct statement of fact or opinion to a statement that could mean a few different things depending on how the writer meant the ellipsis to be read. Even if, objectively speaking, the person on the receiving end should rightfully be ashamed of his actions, this kind of confusion is still a very bad thing.

Okay, I really have no place to talk considering some of my own weird and severely nerd interests.  But I still don't understand the whole adult guys watching My Little Pony thing.  It's one of those ironic hipster things, right?

Okay, I really have no place to talk considering some of my own weird and severely nerd interests. But I still don’t understand the whole adult guys watching My Little Pony thing. It’s one of those ironic hipster things, right?

You see how frustrating the ellipsis can make simple communication? You don’t even have to be a grown man who watches shows for little girls to suffer the ill effects of such confusion. Texts and emails dealing with business matters can, if they use ellipses recklessly, actually hurt business. Clarity in language is vital, especially when you’re trying to get things done.

So what’s the message here? If you don’t want to come off like a passive-aggressive prick, don’t use ellipses to end your sentences. They are not substitutes for periods. When used in place of periods, they cause confusion, frustration, anger, hurt feelings, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Have respect for punctuation. Use ellipses where they’re actually needed – otherwise, give them a break. And if you happen to be a serial ellipsis misuser, it’s not too late to repent your ways.