An Introduction to Manga

Front cover of Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics showing a collage of various manga covers

Thanks to the Japan Foundation, I’m reading Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics by Frederik Schodt (and if you want to know what the Japan Foundation was like I tweeted about it here). It was published in 1986, well before the manga boom of the mid-90s. Or was it the late 90s? I can barely remember a time when manga wasn’t the default comic book format for the majority of readers, at least in terms of sales.

So the book was written in a time when only specialists in Japan and the most dedicated of comic book hipsters knew anything about Japanese comics. It therefore explains manga from the ground up, going through its history and providing examples of manga of each era and type (mangas from the 50s, boys’ manga, girls’ manga, etc). It does the same thing that many comic book histories do in locating the origin of this mass market disposable entertainment in antecedent forms with greater cultural cachet but weak connections to the medium (i.e., I’ve seen people arguing that the Bayeux tapestry is also comics in that it combines pictures and words to tell a story). I understand why the comics historians do it, they’re trying to impart greater respectability to their medium by connecting it to older and more respected media, but I dunno, I think it’s more productive to define the medium by its relations of production and it stops you from going down ridiculous formalist arguments about whether magazine cigarette ads count as comics.

Moving on, I hadn’t realized I knew so much about manga as I’d already heard of quite a lot of apparently obscure works, or at least they were obscure back in the 80s. Time marches on and Rose of Versailles, for example, has an anime that I watched on streaming a few months ago. And of course there’s the scanlation community, which has probably done as much to spread knowledge of manga as any official initiatives from various industry groups.

The last chapter deals with manga’s future and in hindsight it completely failed to anticipate the explosion of overseas interest in the medium just ten short years later. In fact, it basically says that manga will probably remain a mostly Japanese thing, instead of something French schoolkids save their allowances for and whatnot.

Anyway, it’s an interesting snapshot of a specific moment in time in manga’s history.

How not to write fantasy

Still from the opening of Record of Lodoss War where the party of balanced RPG cliches are surrounded by several dragons looming overhead

I’ve been watching Record of Lodoss War today and am halfway through. It’s obviously based on a tabletop RPG campaign since the main characters, despite having differing agendas, keep sticking together for no damned reason. I mean, why did the elf even join them in the first place? The protagonists also keep getting into dangerous situations at convenient intervals and their antagonist seemingly does nothing else besides obsess over the heroes and send low level minions to attack them, despite obviously having the power to crush them in one blow.

I guess it’s neat to see all the fantasy stuff that you have to imagine when you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, but this show kind of just goes from encounter to encounter without a main plot that holds it together well enough. It’s okay if you’re doing afternoon drinking on a long weekend (Happy Victoria Day!) but it’s not really something to watch for a compelling story or anything serious at all.

Did I mention I’m part of an anime podcast?

Because I am.

I know I said so three years ago, but this is my feeble defence against charges of laziness during my blogging hiatus.

See, I was doing other stuff: I tweeted! I edited! I edited audio! I even blogged! I did not just play video games until I put my health at risk!

Also I did kickboxing and took up indoor rock climbing and whatnot. But yeah,  I did podcasting also. Check it out.

He’s Back

Yeah, I’m back. I actually haven’t spent the last 6 months playing Skyrim. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent a lot of time playing that damn game – yesterday I was icing my thumb thanks to mild tendinitis from playing for eight hours straight – but my disappearance is due just as much to technical problems I’ve been having with the blog. I kept saying I’d figure it out over the weekend, then before I knew it several months’ worth of weekends passed.

This is really too bad as I’ve had all kinds of hot takes I’ve been unable to share. Remember Wonder Woman? Remember Black Panther? I’ve written paragraphs on both on other places online but I wasn’t able to put them up here. Ah well.

Anyway, it’s just as well since I’ve been wanting to revamp the blog once again. I’ll keep tweaking it, but for now, thanks for coming back. I promise I’ll be bloviating again before you know it.

Goodbye world

Male Dragonborn glowering in an intimidating pose and decked in a fanciful horned helmet

God help me but I’ve started playing Skyrim.

I got 100% achievements after 400 hours played on Oblivion, though, so I think I’ve got the completist experience already covered as far as the Elder Scrolls series goes. I don’t really need to be the top baker, hooker, and air conditioner repairman in all the land (along with my day job of adventurer).

Things I will avoid: alchemy, blacksmithing, fugly people. This should cut down on the number of quests I’ll need to do. Here’s hoping.

All You Need is (Sisterly) Love

Promotional still of the anime shamelessly ripping off the Abbey Road album cover by showing the characters crossing a crosswalk in single file

A Little Sister’s All You Need reminds me a fair bit of Oreimo (a.k.a. My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute) in that watching it reveals unexpected depths that are not captured by a mere plot synopsis or trailer. The bare facts are as follows: this comedy tells the story of a 20 year old light novel writer with a strong and irrational sexual fetish for little sister characters. He – thank god – does not have a little sister, but a teenage step-brother, a very small handful of friends, and an editor who rides his ass about meeting his deadlines.

Unlike Oreimo, the show does not even offer an incoherent defense of the protagonist’s turn-on. Every single character tells him that his fetish is disgusting. Despite that, they still associate with him anyway. I suppose he’s decent enough when he’s not loudly bemoaning not having a little sister to have sex with, plus of his three friends, one is a fellow light novelist who’s envious of his talent, another is also a light novelist with the same publisher who is an extreme fan of his work (enough that she’s very frank about wanting to sleep with him), and the last is a former university classmate who probably has a buried thing for him from days gone by. Which is to say that there are plausible reasons for this group of people to be hanging out and this setting is not an aggressively stupid harem anime setup.

Anyway, it’s hard to articulate what this show is and even harder to say what about it appeals to me. I had assumed it was just the latest nadir the anime industry had sunk to (a show about a guy who writes creepy stories about having incestuous sex with younger sisters), but there’s something there beyond the occasional chuckle the show gets out of me. There’s an undercurrent of unrequited longing – not necessarily sexual – that runs through the relationships between this circle of friends. Each of them wants something that they can’t have, and I’m hopeful that the show can continue playing out the trial of Tantalus in the context of Japanese twentysomethings going through life feeling that there’s just one thing missing and everything would be better if they just had what was lacking.

This is what I hope the show will be about, but I don’t actually know if that’s what the show will be focusing on as there were only two episodes up when I watched last night. In fact, I’m still not even sure what the show’s really about. What does it want to say, beyond that it wants to show what happens in the lives of this group of people? I have no idea.

So this is not a ringing endorsement of the show, but a qualified FYI. I think there could be something there and I hope I’ll be proven right.

Flameo, Hotman

I just got the Legend of Korra video game. Turns out it’s pretty short and I’m almost at the end. It’s sadly another so-so video game tie-in product. What’s frustrating is that I can clearly see the game it could be if enough time and money had been put in.

The story starts two weeks after the series finale with Korra fighting a new bad guy from the Spirit World, but that plot is basically just an excuse to have Korra fight the gangsters and Equalists that she did in the TV show. You  visit Republic City, Air Temple Island, the South Pole, and the Spirit World, but they’re all just environments for fighting in. There’s a separate pro-bending mode that you can unlock, but it’s more frustrating than fun to play.

Basically, the twin spirits of cheapness and half-assedness hang over the whole production. Everywhere I turn I’m confronted by the fact that this isn’t actually the world from the show, but a backdrop where I can sort of pretend I’m playing the Avatar. The streets are empty except for people trying to beat you up, and invisible walls prevent you from going anywhere except where the designer wants you. Just to drive home how lazy the design is, you actually break pots to recharge your chi – a cliche of game mechanics so old that if it were human it would already have kids old enough to talk.

However, it’s not like the game is actively awful, just rather disappointing when considering it against what a video game of this property could have been. The actual voice actors from the show are playing their characters and there are even original cartoon cut scenes (though not from the same animation studio used by the cartoon). The bending is kind of neat in the beginning and it’s actually rather fun the first time you have to fight simultaneously against three different types of benders.

There are enough hints of a better game scattered throughout this one that fans of the show will find themselves asking “what if”. What if this game had gotten a proper release? What if it had been an open world or semi-open world RPG like Dragon’s Dogma where you walk the busy streets of Republic City and talk to characters from the show and do Avatar quests to increase harmony and fight bad guys and jump from roof to roof laughing with glee at the powers you command? What if you had gotten all that? Because that would have been great.

Somewhere Out There

I recently finished the visual novel Out There Chronicles: Episode 1.

Screenshot of the female spaceship captain Nyx and the dialogue responses available to the player

In case you’re unaware, visual novels are a game genre originally from Japan that are essentially digital Choose Your Own Adventure games. There’s music and perhaps some simple animation, but otherwise the game part is just choosing out of a short list of responses or actions.

Being from Japan, most visual novels use the same visual style you would be familiar with from anime and manga and Japanese video games, and being relatively cheap to make, the vast majority of them are shit. The creative outlay, after all, is just still images, music, and text. You don’t even need any fancy programming as there are game maker programs out there where you can just drop your files straight into a framework and then it’ll spit a game out right quick.

Of course, there’s no reason that visual novels must inherently suck or all be about who’s dating whom in a fictional Japanese high school. I liked this one that I played. You, the protagonist, wake up from suspended animation a million years in the future on the planet America, home of what may be the last humans in the universe. You make your way through this strange society to find out what happened to your own colony ship, the Europa, while trying to hide what exactly happened before Earth died and everyone ran for it.

Screenshot of a spaceship flying through the sky over a rocky alien landscape

What did I like in particular? Well, the visuals are arresting and distinctive, not just for the look of the characters but for the environments they move in as well (the void of space, a futuristic park, a giant restaurant tree). It’s obvious how constrained the choices were but I didn’t feel as railroaded as I should have – the narrative was compelling enough that the choices presented were the ones I wanted to choose anyway just so I could see what happened next.

Anyway, this is only the first episode. There will be more to come. As with all serialized storytelling, the makers may shit the bed in later installments, but for now I’m anticipating the next episode. Thumbs up from me.

The war of two worlds

I’m finally up to date on Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series. It’s about a hidden family who can travel between parallel universes – our world and one that’s still in a quasi-medieval level of technology. They use this power to smuggle drugs and shit and have become rich and powerful in two worlds.

The series was mostly written in and is set during George W. Bush’s War on Terror years, and it’s almost nostalgic to read paranoid descriptions of Dick Cheney’s secret intelligence empire. Old Dick is in the series as an unseen antagonist, by the way, though he is referred to by his Secret Service codename WARBUCKS (Dubya is BOY WONDER).

It gets pretty crazy by the end. Cheney was apparently in the pay of the worldwalkers back in the 80’s so when their existence is revealed, he moves to exterminate them to hide all evidence of his corruption. There’s blowback, the interdimensional narcoterrorists steal a backpack nuke, and the White House along with Bush II explodes in nuclear fire.

But the USA has unlocked the secret of worldwalking and retaliates by carpetbombing the other world with nukes. Some of the narcos manage to escape to a third parallel world, one where New Britain rules the Americas. The 44th President of the US is Dick Cheney, who dies of natural causes not long after taking office. The 45th President is Donald Rumsfeld. And thus ends the first series.

Anyway, the story had been on hold for a while, and I can see why. Where can things go from here? Well, in the first book of the sequel series, things have gone in a completely different direction. It’s now 2020 and the worldwalkers have ensconced themselves in the government of New Britain. They live openly as interdimensional travellers, occasionally returning to our world to steal technology. They’re frantically developing the industry of their new country as a bulwark against the coming of the Americans. The United States is now even more of a militarized panopticon society, a kind of digital age Soviet Union where smartphones occupy the role of Stasi informants.

And now the stage is set for the rest of the Empire Games series. Worlds collide! I’m actually rather interested in what comes next.

And on that note, happy Labour Day weekend, ye workers of the world.

The power of friendship

I just finished watching The Defenders. It reminded me of a classic comic book crossover. Specifically, it reminded me of just how contrived comic book crossovers were and how they were mostly just excuses to see our heroes punching bad guys together in between punching each other.

You know that episode with the Defenders standing around in a large empty room yelling at each other? That was basically like half the scenes in Infinity Crusade. Plus Zero Hour had a lot of scenes where the good guys were standing around gaping at a computer screen, which we were at least spared in the show but instead got the exposition around dinner in a Chinese restaurant. Smaller crossovers seem to work better, at least when talking about the Arrow universe.

Anyway, I guess the punching in The Defenders was fun but otherwise we really need better narrative justifications for crossovers.