All posts by aljensen

Top Ten Anime Series I’ve Seen

Ten: Toradora!
The ultimate tsundere romance, Toradora! portrays high school odd-couple Taiga, a short statured and short tempered student, and Ryuuji, a young man with the appearance of a Yakuza member and a borderline obsessive-compulsive need to clean and organize things. Although nominally set in high school, the relationship dynamic between Taiga and Ryuuji is more like that of a married couple than teenagers, which extends the appeal of the story.
Toradora! is based off of a light novel series by Yuyuko Takemiya, who also wrote Golden Time. What is interesting is that even though Golden Time is set in university and Toradora! Is set in high school, the characters and relationships in Toradora! seem more mature.
Contrasting characters Taiga and Minori in an early episode.
Nine: Silver Spoon
Silver Spoon is the story of Yugo Hachiken, a somewhat stilted young man who has failed the entrance exam to the most prestigious high school in Sapporo. Unable to face his classmates and his family, he takes the best out he can find by attending an agricultural boarding school in the hinterland. Knowing literally nothing about farming, and surrounded by teens whose families have been farming for generations, he discovers that here, too he is completely out of his depth.Fortunately for everyone, he gamely steps up to these new challenges.
As an audience stand-in, Hachiken learns about both the technical and economic aspects of farming in Japan, often facing some dour truths about the state of family farms and rural life in general.Based on an on-going manga,I hope that there will be a third season at some point.
Hachiken and Mikage go to the temple to write down their dreams.
Eight: Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun
The anime revolves around the relationship between Nozaki, a teenage boy who somehow is a famous author of girls’ romance manga, and his classmate Sakura, who is in love with him, but has through a series of misunderstandings been roped into working as his assistant.A great show to write a college paper on, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun overturns every accepted trope in anime and manga; whether this is done in order to deconstruct received notions about entrenched social structures, or just because it’s funny, is left as an exercise for the reader.
montly girls.png
Yuzuki Seo, the series’ kūki o yomanai (“oblivious”) character.
Seven: Genshiken
Genshiken’s main draw is that it lets fans of the manga to see it come to life; as a stand-alone work, it is fantastic as a mature slice-of-life story, but newcomers might not see what the big deal is, especially as neither of the two seasons manages to finish the manga’s overall story arc, and without the background information from the manga the individual episodes feel somewhat disconnected from one another.
Casual viewers also might not even be aware that there is a second season (not to be confused with Genshiken: Second Season, the series’ sequel), making the anime seem even more truncated.A similar series, Princess Jellyfish, has an even more pronounced version of this problem; the series ends right in the middle of a story arc.

Chica Oguie, my second favorite tsundere character.
Six: Welcome to the NHK
Welcome to the NHK is not for everybody, which is why it isn’t higher on this list. I don’t mean that it can only be appreciated by a true connoisseur, I just mean to enjoy it you need to have either gone through a similar situation, or else be willing to be a very sympathetic witness to the foibles of the young.It does take a charitable viewer to deal with the series’ protagonist.
Tatsuhiro Sato’s problem is outwardly simple: he needs to go out and get a job. All discussion of hikikomori or social anxiety disorder or what-have-you aside, the basic fact is he wouldn’t be able to sit alone in his room all day hating himself if it wasn’t subsidized. This can make Sato a difficult character to empathize with, particularly for very self-directed individuals, or those whose personal narrative, however rightly so, centers around overcoming of adversity.
But patience is rewarded, and Sato is neither undeserving of our attention, nor is he alone in the story: The series is filled with people who, for whatever reason, have become disassociated from society: a failed business person, an office worker who depends on pills to get through the day, a cult member, a young man fleeing attempting to flee his hometown, it goes on and on. These are people whose alienation is universally comprehensible; their degree of isolation in a society that emphasizes positive group dynamics can only be guessed at.The light novel the show is based on is well worth a read if you can find it.
Life isn’t over in your early 20s. Or is it?
Five: My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU
A strong example of the recent trend towards irony-infused dramedies staring quirky, precocious teens, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU is a surprisingly good watch for anyone who has ever been an adolescent. The only drawback is that at certain points the plot seems to jump the tracks; I suspect that certain cultural cues and assumptions are lost on western viewers. Or maybe I just don’t get today’s youth. It would be hard to fault the translation, which does an amazing job of delivering the series’ deadpan, borderline cynical humor.

Hachiman’s rationalizations are a high point of the series.
Four: Steins;gate
Steins;gate’s chief strength, besides its memorable and immensely likeable characters, is the way in which the tone of the show completely alters depending on whether it is a first or second viewing. Following the series’ theme of time travel, the semi-circular plot forms a moebius strip that encourages and rewards a second viewing. So engrossing is the story that viewers may not notice the harem slowly building around the protagonist, nor the few moments of oddly timed fan-service.
Mayuri Shiina, a longtime observer of Rintarō Okabe’s social faux pas
Three: Psycho-Pass
Equal parts Orwell, Huxley, and Judge Dredd, Psycho-Pass presents a seemingly bright and shiny cyberpunk future, where mental health is the key determinant of social status. As such, the population is constantly being monitored by an ambiguous, networked system that continually tracks and evaluates the mental fitness of every citizen. Those that don’t pass muster are forced to attend therapy, imprisoned in mental health facilities, or even summarily executed on the street or in their homes.The depth of thought presented is stellar for a work of popular culture – characters discuss topics as varied as Titus Andonicus, Phillip K. Dick, Proust, and the Marquis de Sade, as well as quote Spinoza and Pascal, all without skipping a beat. The first season presents enough ideas in an episode to fill a season of a normal series; the only drawback is the somewhat lukewarm second season, which was, however, redeemed by the follow-up film.
Mandatory Happiness
Two: From the New World
From the New World represents the most cohesive story on this list, having a clear and internally consistent dramatic arc with a satisfying resolution. It is an odd science fiction tale where technology is almost absent; instead, the driving force is human beings’ ESP powers, and the (very) ambiguous utopian society they have constructed for themselves. It is also a coming of age tale that follows the protagonists from early childhood well into adulthood, realistically depicting multiple stages of life in a context both familiar and yet also vastly different from contemporary society.Underpinning the story is a very subtle idea: if our minds were able to conjure up our heart’s desire in an instant, our own thoughts, particularly our subconscious, would be a constant source of potential danger to ourselves and those around us.
Saki Watanabe discusses school problems with her mother.
One: Attack on Titan
First place goes to Attack on Titan, which would be considered a stellar work in any medium, and would entertain and engross even the most diehard anime skeptic. The show has everything: memorable characters, an engaging and believable story, fantastic animation, particularly the action scenes, and great voice acting.The series defies easy labeling. More mature than a typical shonen anime, it is a science fiction story that features archaic technology with some fantasy elements, a conspiracy that so far is mostly just hinted at, and a coming of age tale in which the characters mature almost immediately.
We lived in fear of the titans, and were disgraced to live in these cages we called walls.

Should You Bother with Attack on Titan?

With Season 2 delayed, the big question for Attack on Titan fans is, Should I just go ahead and read the manga?

The answer is, maybe?

I love Attack on Titan, and when I heard the new season was going to be delayed, I was… relieved. The idea of the creators rushing the story to keep ahead of the anime was a fear of mine. Fortunately, that is not the case. Unfortunately, we are going to have to wait a bit longer for season 2.

Knowing that I could only dodge spoilers for so long, i decided to take the plunge and start reading the manga.

The last Asian on Earth is also the deadliest. 


The Bad Part

The manga series’ Achilles heel is the artwork. I have to say, Attack on Titan felt more like the product of an up-and-coming doujinshi circle than a professional manga team; the art style for the first volumes can best be described as “empty” and “scratchy”.

By “scratchy”, I mean the artwork looks, well, scratchy. The lines are of a rigidly consistent weight and direction, like they were drawn with a crow quill pen instead of a brush. This sounds like an odd thing to harp on, but being able to vary line quality is one of those things that separates a professional cartoonist or illustrator from a gifted amateur, which is why artists tend to favor brushes over pens, and digital art studios come with a suite of tools for manipulating lines.

By “empty”, I mean there is a noticeable lack of detail in the backgrounds and a surprising amount of underutilized whitespace on the page. The believable, 19th-century style urban centers of the first half of the anime are depicted in the manga as if they were an exercise in perspective drawing – flat, uniformly box-like buildings laid out in perfectly straight lines with empty spaces for streets. Windows, trees, cannons, bricks, any kind of repeated physical object,  all look like they were stamped from the same exact mold. There’s a general absence of texture or detail, which is odd, considering that computer-aided illustration makes adding screen-tones a cinch.

On the Other Hand…

The art style actually works very well for the action scenes – the feeling of speed and movement is conveyed very well for a  static  medium, as is the David vs. Goliath dimensions of the people and the titans.  All of the visual cues that lend the anime its heightened sense of drama are present in the manga: the immensity of the giants, the velocity of flight, and the physical vulnerability of the characters. A major achievement, especially considering that manga can’t actually move.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” – Neil Gaiman / G.K. Chesterton

The bodies are detailed and well-rendered, proportional, and draped with clothing that realistically shifts and bunches depending on the character’s’ stance and movement. The figures, both human-sized and giant, seamlessly grow and shrink in relation to each other, their surroundings, and the viewing pane. This is no small feat, given that the characters are constantly fighting and flying about, with the view shifting up, down, and all around. Whats more, the characters’ mode of flight is not at all  supernatural,  and must therefore demonstrate at least a passing acquaintance with the laws of physics to maintain the suspension of disbelief.

Hey, look, the gang’s all here!  

The plot moves at an accelerated rate in comparison to the anime. The fall of Shiganshina, the main characters induction into the armed forces, the second attack of the Colossal Titan, and Eren’s unsuccessful fight with the abnormal titan are all covered in the first volume.  Much of the dialog and the backstory that establishes the dynamic between the characters simply doesn’t happen in the first three volumes of the manga. Even the vocabulary seems truncated somehow; there isn’t hardly a word longer than two syllables in the entire first volume.

Wait, why is this happening on page 27!? 

The Shocking Truth They Don’t Want You to Know About

In truth, Attack on Titan the manga really starts out as a very typical shonen story – boy wants to explore the world, boy tragically but also conveniently loses parents, boy then vows to try his best and become stronger to fight for a better world. It’s a very linear story with characterization kept to a minimum, simple dialog, and almost continuous action.

Somewhere along Volume II, though, things suddenly shift gears into a much more rounded story. I can only speculate that either the mangaka (or his editors) were determined to grab  and keep the young audience’s attention at all costs, or else the manga caught on with a  wider demographic than originally anticipated, and the creators decided to align elements of the story with a somewhat older fanbase. Probably a little of both, although the author no doubt would say that this was his intention all along.

Content Exclusive to the Manga

The manga does place a lot of emphasis on world building. Much of this is carried over into the anime, for example, the accurate and consistent early 19th century technology. But in the manga more detailed information is given early on concerning weaponry and equipment, the resources and extent of the human domain, and the political structure of their society. Content relating to the central characters and plot that was not included in the anime also begins to appear starting in Volume IV.

Get to the Point Already

So is it worth reading if you’re a fan of the anime? Well, the manga so far has hit all the high notes of the show, but the early volumes definitely lack the anime’s dramatic oomph. The manga works as a supplement to the story, but honestly I don’t think I would have continued to read it if it were not for the anime.

Blue Exorcist Volume I Review

Has this ever happened to you? You pick up a manga or an anime, not expecting much more than to be amused for an hour, only to find yourself completely engrossed?
Character designs, such as for Mr. Mephisto Pheles up there, are particularly striking. Their personalities have a vibrancy to match.

Blue Exorcist is by the numbers shonen , but it does it so impeccably well, you won’t hardly notice – or care, for that matter.

A particular high note for the first volume are the character designs and overall setting. The aesthetic of the work is a mixture of 90s Goth and 19th century buildings, mid twentieth century transportation, and 21st century digital technology. This mixture gives the work a feel that is both ahistorical and yet also contemporary, which is disorienting enough to make the fantasy elements of the story seem all the more plausible.

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A mixture of time periods adds to the other-worldly-but-familiar aspect of the manga.

The series opens at the tail end of fight. The assailants, we later learn, are local teens who were killing pigeons for fun. The protagonist, who looks a little worse for wear, laments his inability to stay out of trouble.

We soon find out that the boy, named Rin, is living in a monastery, and that his  guardian is the head priest – a priest whose wardrobe has been selected by Siouxsie Sioux, or maybe Nana Osaki. Father Fujimoto, the aforementioned punk rock priest, is also an exorcist, meaning he casts out demons, although Rin claims that all he does is listen to people’s problems and offer corny advice. Father Fujimoto remarks that demons are real, and that they exist in people’s hearts, which Rin takes as being just more pablum. Little does he know…

In this first volume, Blue Exorcist lays out its central themes as being responsibility, accountability and family. As we soon find out, Rin is an illegitimate child, and not just any illegitimate child, he is  literally the bastard child of Satan himself. The Prince of Lies says that he created Rin on a whim, and now that Rin is apparently of use to him, Satan comes to claim him as his own. Not that Satan cares at all for the well-being of his son; Rin is simply a necessary conduit or vessel for the Prince of Darkness to enter into and then conquer the human realm. Father Fujimoto  dies trying to protect Rin, the boy he chose to raise as a son.

Evil is thus presented as capricious, irresponsible, and opportunistic; good is responsible, steadfast, and – most importantly – elective. Rin’s “real” father is no father at all; Rin’s adoptive guardian chooses to be his father instead, and by that choice creates something, a real relationship.

They pulled out all the stops for Volume I. I mean, look at that thing! 

One more character ought to be introduced here is Rin’s twin brother, Yukio. Studious and unassuming, Rin’s assumed relationship to him is like that of a protector, even though Yukio is often the one picking up the pieces after Rin’s occasional angry outbursts.

A major aspect of the first volume is how often our perspective shifts with that of the protagonist. A relationship or circumstance is quickly established, only to just as quickly be turned on its head. The effect is jolting, in a good way. And like a cat, Rin always manages to land on his toes.

Finally, I ought to clarify that Blue Exorcist is shonen through and through. What I mean is we get all the elements of the shonen genre – plucky, can do protagonist who isn’t too book smart but can pick things up, the scholastically inclined, dogmatic partner who is actually more resilient than we think, the ambiguous adult mentor with his own agenda, lessons on taking people or things for granted, on the importance of education as a means to an end, the need to be accountable, but not morosely so, etc.

What I’m saying here is that Blue Exorcist is more Star Wars than Black Butler; terrible things happen, but then we’re already on to the next adventure. The true joy in the narrative is both the extremely engaging characters as well as the manga’s ability to get you to see things through the eyes of Rin, a fifteen year old. Even as adult.readers, our inner adolescent is right there along with him, with the slowly dawning realization that the world is a bigger and more nuanced place than we originally assumed.

Subete ga F ni Naru [The Perfect Insider] [85/100]

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The [not quite] Perfect Insider

The Perfect Insider takes the classic locked room mystery and gives it an interesting twist, inserting digital technology and gendered elements… elements that don’t quite hold up under scrutiny, which may be a deal breaker for some.

Isaac Asimov in an introduction to his collected mystery short stories wrote that there were essentially two schools of whodunits. The first was of a logical puzzle sort that had to be deduced by the protagonist (and also, natch, the reader), with the locked room mystery being the ultimate example. The main pleasure to be derived in these sorts of stories was the logical coherence of the mystery and the way in which it could be solved as an exercise of the intellect. Asimov, as we might guess, wrote mysteries in this form.

The other sort of mystery, Asimov said, was the sort where the actual mystery was really second to the process of deduction – what might now be termed a police procedural. The main dividend  for the reader of these tales were the myriad amusing insights into human behavior, a sort of cynical morality play. Asimov gave Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories as the ultimate example of this school of mystery, adding, perhaps a bit ruefully, that they were really more shaggy dog stories than actual mysteries.

Having read every Philip Marlowe novel more than once, I can say that even now I don’t really remember what the mystery in any one story was exactly, or how it was even resolved. But the mystery was ancillary; an excuse for Marlowe to get involved with a colorful cast of characters, make clever remarks, and have adventures (a contemporary homage to this type of mystery is the Big Lebowski).

We can say. then, that The Perfect Insider represents a classic bait-and-switch: we are promised a cerebral locked-room mystery, and instead end up with an enjoyable character study and a somewhat disjointed adventure yarn. How annoyed the viewer is by the work’s admittedly unscrupulous deception depends on how amused they are in spite of it all.

Personally, I liked it so much that I now want to watch the live action adaptation.

The Perfect Insider opens with a simple confrontation between two young women, one of whom murdered her parents, and the other who had her parents taken from her in a tragic accident. From there begins an insightful, but also at times uneven, exploration of what it exactly means to be in control, and whether that is synonymous with freedom, a central theme that quietly flows beneath the surface of the work.

The next scene is takes up the rest of the first episode, and consists entirely of Moe Nishinosono, the young woman who lost her parents, talking with her professor.

If watching a cartoon about a professor’s office hours is something that intrigues you, then you will probably enjoy The Perfect Insider. For me, the episode was amazing. The professor,  Sohei Saikawa, is the series’ gumshoe stand-in, a haggard, unconventional chain smoker who can move effortlessly from  Zhuang Zhou to bootstrapping operating systems.  Moe Nishinosono falls into the Girl Friday role, but both characters color outside the lines enough that the conventional roles they play are more homage than hack work.

By episode 2 the duo find their way to a remote island, of course, where a storm cuts them off from the mainland, of course, and then a murder happens, of course. Thus, we finally arrive at the mystery, which involves the other young woman introduced in the first episode, the brilliant but deadly Shiki Magata. Again, the series’ charm lies in its spin on traditional elements of the mystery: the femme fatale, who in this instance never even meets the male protagonist; her seductive power for him lies totally in the realm of abstract thought.

A major plot point hinges on a real-life problem in programming, the overflow or wrap-around error, which I thought was a very clever and daring touch, given how unfamiliar and technical an issue it is, from the perspective of a general audience.

Of course, as I later had pointed out to me, while such an error is theoretically possible, it is highly improbable, even given the time period the source material was written in (the anime is based on a novel written in the early-mid 1990s). Essentially, the error involves an overflow on a 16-bit unsigned integer, which is a digitally stored whole number that has to be equal to or greater than zero, with no negative sign. However, by that period in time in Japan even video game systems had at least 32-bit CPUs, implying that the standard integer size on computers used in a state-of-the-art research laboratory would have to be at the very least twice the size of the one given in the story.

A detractor here would say that this is representative of the series’ general shortcomings; it’s only kissing to be clever, don’t think for a second that it’s going to go all the way, or that it even cares. I think this somewhat unfair, at least in this instance. It’s not something a casual viewer would ever catch, and even those people who sense it’s fibbing on a technicality would still be wiling to grant the artistic license and maintain the suspension of disbelief. Biologists and paleontologists are still able to enjoy Jurassic Park, right? Still…

In fact, what we can say is that the work as a mystery really, truly is sloppy. The mystery isn’t solved so much as it unravels in big heap in front of the viewer. By the final episode I was completely lost; not, I suspect, from a failure of intellect on my part, but because the story had so many loose ends you could make a mop out of it. At least, I hope that’s the case – FilmSnark has a much more detailed analysis of everything that didn’t add up (most of it).

And yet, after finishing it, I immediately wanted to watch it again. The main characters are a lot of fun, salient points are made regarding intelligence being used to excuse sociopathic behavior, and the soundtrack is awesome, like imagine if Phil Collins scored the original Lupin III series.


Naka-Kon 2016

More than anything Naka-Kon this year reminded me that anime is a business and as a business it is emphatically geared towards young teens. While this is understood implicitly, knowing something to be true and actually experiencing it are two different things entirely. Naka-Kon was dominated by crowd-pleasers, and hit all the right notes, yet somehow still fell flat for me, but then again I was not the target audience.

Case in point would be the Funimation-led panels. Funimation’s approach has always been to sell what is admittedly a youth product as a youth product; you can see (and hear) this in their hyperkinetic approach to voice acting and dubbing in general. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this; but, arriving at the Funimation Favorites panel, I experienced what at the very least felt like a tightly scripted sales event, rather than an actual panel led by actual fans.

Another example would be the Justin Tindle Q&A. Even after sitting and listening for thirty minutes, I can’t recall a single thing that the person said. It was mostly just a rambling collection of in-jokes and random loud noises, the aural equivalent of a human pinball machine – which, is honestly, a sort of compliment for a voice actor.  Still, you would expect some kind of overarching narrative thread; What’s it like being a voice actor? How did you get your start? Which characters have you identified with the most? Have you ever interacted with your Japanese colleagues? And so on.

There were a number of Japanese guests, the most prominent being the Earthbound Papas with frontman Nobuo Uematsu. Their Q&A session was extremely low-key; you could tell how much they enjoyed working on Final Fantasy VI, and how much of a game changer it was both for Uematsu and the game music industry in general. Interestingly enough, he claimed that the most interesting system to write for was the original Famicom, with its limited sound chip and memory.

Also present was Mamorou Yakota, who led the most substantive presentation and panel that was unfortunately sparsely attended. An industry veteran for almost 30 years, his main focus has been on character design and illustrations. One of the most interesting insights he gave was regarding the previous necessity of physically shipping animation cells back and forth between Japan, China, and Korea. With digital animation, data can be uploaded almost instantly, and there’s no need to index and store physical cells, since they’re aren’t any. In places like Tokyo, where space is at a premium, this must be a major relief.

SakeVisual’s presensation on making visual novels was an unexpected highlight of the day, although my developer friend sitting next to me nearly lost it when the first question to come from the audience was, “If the game engine they use is free to license, why do they charge money for games?” SakeVisual’s lead did a good job of gently explaining that  illustrators, musicians, and coders all expect, and deserve, to get paid for their time. I don’t know if this illustrates the growing disconnect between producer and consumer on the Internet, or the Internet and outside reality in general, or just the difficulty in understanding how businesses work when you’re only 15.  

In truth, though, in terms of wanting something for nothing, I’m the biggest hypocrite of all. The thing I love about conventions are the industry insider panels, where you get some juicy gossip, some pithy insights, some esoteric recommendations, and often, but not always, some really good advice. These discussions tend to be the most expensive for conventions to provide, as they involve actual working professionals, some of whom have to be flown literally from the other side of the globe. These discussions also tend to have the least real interest among the majority of convention participants, who are mostly there to dress up, shop, and socialize. In effect, me getting to personally ask Nobuo Uematsu what he thinks of the work of Susumu Hirasawa (he likes it, esp. Paprika) is subsidized by the thousands of attendees milling around outside who weren’t even born when Final Fantasy VII came out.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as geek conventions become more and more of a business and less and less a labor of love that the programming will be increasingly tailored towards the actual interests and desires of the majority of attendees, who, like most popular culture consumers, tend to skew towards the young side. If I want to continue to consume geek culture at the qualitative level I have been previously, I will either need to either start paying the sticker price, or else find a way to get more people, particularly young people, interested in what I happen to be interested in.