The man behind Attack on Titan

Great interview with the Attack on Titan guy translated into English over here. Hajime Isayama sounds like a really cool dude to hang out with. He goes on about zombie flicks and Guillermo del Toro and stuff. It’s all interesting, but some interesting-er bits were that he’s a fan of Knights of Sidonia, was influenced by Muv-Luv Alternative (which was later spun off and adapted into the anime Total Eclipse and Schwarzesmarken), and modelled Captain Levi after Rorschach from Watchmen. I’m not into the manga, but now I’m looking forward even more to season 2 of the show.

Also, I gotta highlight this remark:

I thought it’d be awesome to actually be a battery for machines like in The Matrix.

Yotsuba and the Slice of Life

More from that interview translation blog: Interview With Yotsuba Artist Kiyohiko Azuma.

I’d like to point out that the guy also did Azumanga Daioh, the slice-of-life series I like to describe as Seinfeld if it was about Japanese high school girls. I couldn’t get into the manga, probably because I had trouble telling the girls apart, but I didn’t have that problem with the anime.

What’s interesting about the slice-of-life genre is that it’s always a slice of fictional life, which is to say that it’s always about the heartwarming and positive aspects of ordinary life. The lives being sliced are those without sorrow or tragedy or money problems or heartbreak. It’s inherently escapist, which, of course, is one of the biggest reasons behind the genre’s appeal.

I’m reminded of something I read a long time ago comparing tha manga Azumanga Daioh and High School Girls. I don’t even remember which blog I read this on, but the blogger observed that one of the biggest things they found unrealistic about Azumanga Daioh was that the high school girls never talked about boys. In contrast, the girls of High School Girls constantly talked about boys, about their periods, their make-up, their teachers, their rival social cliques – which is to say that they talked about the kinds of things actual high school girls talk about. This is unsurprising considering that the author based the series on her own experiences in an all-girls high school.

I quite liked High School Girls and nearly drove myself crazy trying to find copies of the manga. As you might expect, a series where girls talk frankly about menstruation kind of had niche appeal ten years ago. The series was made into an anime and renamed in English as Girl’s High.  Things in the story were necessarily squished for the adaptation, which is why I consider the original manga to be superior, but at least the anime ending was charming and fun.

Yeah, I realize that the dancing is just rotoscoped actors, but I do like how the way each character dances directly links to their personality – the uptight girl does the frug (I think that’s what it’s called), the extrovert goes crazy with a guitar riff, and so on. And even better, all of the girls are endearingly awkward. It really does look like a bunch of teenage girls messing around instead of accomplished dance students displaying their skills. Plus the ending shows just how much effort the girls put into appearing cute – the make-up, the studied playfulness, the deliberate construction of their social fronts. It’s not Erving Goffman but it’s still something.

An interview with Tsutomu Nihei

Over here is a translated interview of Tsutomu Nihei, the author of Knights of Sidonia.  I find it interesting that he’s aware he needs to do more to make his work appeal to female readers. I dunno, dude, maybe make it less male gaze-y? Just change up the presentation and quit with the harem antics and fanservice.

It’s not like Sidonia’s subject matter or setting are alien to shoujo or to female readers. I mean, Please Save My Earth had psychic death battles and They Were Eleven began with a giant info-dump about fusion reactors and space empires – things that should be pleasantly familiar to old school grognards stuck in the sci-fi ghetto. (The latter also had transgender aliens reenacting And Then There Were None in space, but I digress.)

Though I do wish the interviewer had asked Nihei more about his science fiction influences. Which novels did mini-Nihei consume as he dreamed of writing his own science fiction? Still, it’s an interesting interview and even if you’ve never read the manga (like me) it still gives an interesting perspective on what made Knights of Sidonia.

Back in time

The manga Luca, The Summer I Shared With You is essentially a love letter to classic Western sci-fi, with most of the chapters being titled after science fiction classics. The throwback atmosphere is probably why I liked this book so much.

The story itself is about a teenage boy whose sister’s mind has been replaced by that of a soldier from the future trying to prevent a disaster. It feels kind of like a mid-century sci-fi juvenile novel, especially with the focus on the made-up science and the way the protagonist is always coldly rational, though the weird time travel sex shit is more like Heinlein’s adult works.

But hey, the art is great.

Bottom line? I loved this manga, warts and all.

Ultraelectromagnetic pop

I’ve noticed that a lot of manga that I like were initially published by BEAM COMIX (rendered as Comic Beam in the linked Wikipedia article for reasons I can’t ascertain).  It’s a magazine that serializes manga mainly targeted at an adult male audience.

It seems to me, judging from their published titles that I’ve enjoyed, that the publisher releases offbeat works with unique premises that are compellingly readable. What have I read of theirs? Let’s see, there’s the magical realism of Ran and the Gray World, the character-driven kitchen sink comedy of Hinamatsuri, the indie comic action of Bambi and Her Pink Gun,  the anthropological detail of A Bride’s Story, the science fiction violence of Immortal Hounds, and the adventure comedy of Dungeon Meshi. This is an all star line-up.

According to the ol’ Wiki, the magazine is considered by many as focusing on “alternative” manga, which from context sounds like the Japanese equivalent of indie comics. It has a very small readership of 25,000 but consisting largely of hardcore enthusiasts and art students. To my mind, BEAM COMIX’s readers would probably be the type to own copies of Understanding Comics (the comic book bible) were they to live over here instead. In fact, quite a few of the magazine’s Japanese audience probably do own copies of Understanding Comics themselves.

Whatever they’re doing, BEAM COMIX is doing it right. Their editors know how to pick a winning story. I’m going to keep an eye out for their other stuff from now on.

True romance

I recently watched the first episode of the anime Actually, I Am, which revolves around a love confession. It wasn’t my thing, but while watching I had to ask: do Japanese kids actually do this kind of thing?

Haru confessing his feelings to Shizuku: I think I like you. In a sexual way!
It’s from My Little Monster.

See, the classic love confession from anime and manga goes like this: a school-aged character approaches in private their secret crush (normally a classmate and one who they may not have even spoken with before) and tells them, “I like you, please go out with me”.

I’d never really thought about it, as this cliche is very common in anime and manga, but I realize now that this is a pretty damn awkward situation to be in. When approached by a near-total stranger – who you may only have spoken a few words in passing to before – and asked for a date out of the blue, the normal reaction is to tell them no. With this in mind, isn’t the classic love confession approach basically a recipe for rejection?

Considering it further, the love confession strategy seems like something a socially awkward person would do. They know they want to go out with someone but they don’t really know how to approach them so they go all in. They skip the getting-to-know-you part and go straight for the asking out part.

Really, a more reasonable approach, and one more conducive to success, would probably be for the besotted party to befriend and hang out with the object of their romantic interest first without immediately going for the metaphorical jugular.

It’s such an obvious stratagem that I have to wonder whether Japanese kids actually do the love confession thing at all. Is this basically just a cliche that mostly exists in the minds of anime and manga writers? One wonders.

Four ways to forgiveness

There’s no two ways about this: Spirit Circle is a damn good manga. Unfortunately, it’s rather hard to discover this for yourself, as all the synopses I’ve read make it sound incoherent or unremarkable. Take this one, for example:

Fuuta Okeya is a normal 14-year-old boy, except for the fact that he has the ability to see ghosts. A cute girl transfers into his class one day, but acts particularly aggressive towards him. This girl called Kouko Ishigami is followed around by a ghost called East. Fuuta tries to get along with her but ends up failing after she sees the birthmark he usually keeps covered. She then declares him as her enemy, his birthmark as a cursed brand and claims they have a long history, while talking about reincarnation. Who is this girl and how are they connected?

“Oh, it’s another high school story,” you might think. “Is it like Bleach? I’m guessing from the art it’s a comedy-romance and the reincarnation angle is the only unique thing about it. Oh well, high school comedy-romances are a dime a dozen.”

A girl and a boy fighting in the present day, as two young people in the pre-Hispanic Americas, as an old witch and a young knight, and as a ninja and a feudal Japanese swordsman

Hell no. I would never have tried this manga out if I hadn’t known it was written by the same person as the one behind Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, but I’m glad I did. I think I have enough samples of his writing now to say without hesitation that Satoshi Mizukami knows how to write a moving story.

Basically, Spirit Circle is about the dispute between a boy and a girl that stretches backward and forward to the past and the future and back again, through different reincarnations and universes. In the present day, the boy searches through his past lives to find the reason for the girl’s animosity, while in each life the two fight and try to find a way to stop fighting.

Don’t get me wrong, this manga is definitely funny. There actually is comedy and romance in this series. But each reincarnation of the two rivals lives rich and full lives with their share of tragedy and suffering and peace and joy. Some heavy shit goes down, and not in just the past lives of the two.

The series is available on Crunchyroll’s online manga service. I do have to mention that I read it on my tablet and the app has the annoying tendency to occasionally show me a page that I’d already read. If that happens to you, I recommend exiting the manga and entering it again; that should make the proper page show up.

I’ve found Crunchyroll’s online manga offerings to be rather sparse in number and in quality. One might call it hit-or-miss but in my case I’ve found more misses than hits. This manga, though, is definitely one of the good ones. It’s also being simultaneously published, which means that it’s still not finished. However, from the way the story is going I think it’s almost done. If it sticks the landing then it’s going into my list of favourite series.

Go, go, Power Rangers

Despite never having read the manga, I’m sure you already know the story of Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer. Briefly, the protagonist is awakened to his destiny by an animal guide and told to find his reincarnated teammates to fight an evil sorcerer bent on destruction.

It’s been done and redone by series as diverse as Sailor Moon and god knows how many tokusatsu shows (i.e., Power Rangers type shows). So you can kind of guess where the story is supposed to go, but it keeps going the opposite way. The series even gets meta with the characters watching a magical girl anime and snarking about the cliches to be found in the destined hero narratives that their own story deconstructs.

A woman cheerfully being recruited in her bedroom by a talking snake

This is a joyfully clever comic, and in small ways and large ways – like in this scene – it keeps pulling the rug out from under you. I’d be more specific but I don’t want to take away from the enjoyment of anyone who wants to try this manga out. Read it already, people.

The festival of dolls

Hinamatsuri is a manga about a powerful young psychic who’s adopted by a yakuza gang member. You might think it’s an action series fill of violent battles, secret conspiracies, and barely disguised metaphors comparing child soldiers to the academic pressure placed on modern Japanese kids. However, it’s actually a comedy about the daily nothings in the lives of a group of slackers and screw-ups.

The main character mostly eats, sleeps, and watches TV, while she uses her powers to move her video game controller so she can keep her hands free for eating potato chips. Of the people sent to capture her, one ends up homeless and sleeping in the park, while the other almost starves to death in a crappy apartment because she ran out of money. Her adoptive yakuza father accidentally gets her to attack a rival gang, but otherwise the most he’s done to exploit her is to use her existence to elicit a sympathy date from a woman he was pursuing.

Wisely, the author knows how superb the side characters are and does not hesitate to shift focus to them. Over time the series becomes more of an ensemble comedy. For instance, there’s a running gag about the protagonist’s 13 year old classmate that begins with her accidentally getting a job as a bartender and slowly builds up over time, culminating in the classmate being trained as a sniper at a Special Forces boot camp.

Continue reading “The festival of dolls”