Category Archives: Anime

Read our anime reviews and explore various aspects of anime. We examine character personality and aspects behind the drawings. Why are there various anime stereotypes? What do common anime design conventions mean?


Tsuki ga Kirei – As the Moon, so Beautiful

As the moon, so beautiful follows the romantic relationship between Kotaro Azumi and Akane Mizuno, two junior high classmates. You won’t see world shattering events, or much in the way of melodrama. The plot centers squarely on everyday life, teenage conflicts with parents, stress of school and extracurriculars, and two young souls trying to find their way around romance. The story struck me as realistic and grounded. For once, the male protogonist isn’t a hothead or total dunce. He makes mistakes and often simply doesn’t know what to do. Likewise Akane isn’t overly sweet or combative. She, too, misreads Kotaro and makes mistakes.

I only found myself mentally calling Kotaro an idiot once throughout the 12 episodes, which is quite a feat for an anime such as this. Most of the time, male protogonists frustrate me with their foolish and superficially dense behavior. You don’t see such here. The fumbles Kotaro and Akane make are realistic and, even better, they realize they screw up and work to fix it. The story is filled with awkward, endearing moments of silence between them as they just don’t know what to say. But at the same time, the silence is never cold. It reverberates with the developing feelings they have for each other. They simply lack the vocabulary. Their feelings lack an overt sexuality too. They simply like each other for who they are. While some may view the innocence as unrealistic, I found it refreshing. Sexuality is overemphasized. Love can exist without sex. While sex may reinforce such feelings, we often confuse its hormonal drive as love.

I mentioned how As the moon, so beautiful feels realistic. In one scene, both use the Internet to research dating ideas. This realism extends toward a key element that Kotaro and Akane use to develop their relationship: a messenging app called LINE. Throughout the story, they use the app to keep in touch. They even comment in a scene how its easier to talk over the app than in person. This details captures modern dating culture well. Many people are more comfortable texting and sending online messages than talking in person, particularly at the start of a relationship. It can help people who are naturally quiet and, perhaps, a little shy–as with Akane and Kotaro. It also allows people to stay in touch when schedules refuse to cooperate, which is another detail the anime shows. In fact, LINE becomes essential to the Akane’s and Kotaro’s relationship as their schedules force them apart. Through LINE, they support each other’s efforts and cheer each other on. Akane with track and field. Kotaro with writing.

As the moon, so beautiful builds on the idea that people don’t need words to show their feelings. Akane and Kotaro act in little ways that cements their bond–little gifts, gestures, and even glances across the classroom. There is a great scene where Akane is running in an important event, but says she doesn’t want Kotaro to watch–even though she actually does. Kotaro picks up on this and goes to the event without her knowing (he messages his support over LINE) and then leaves before she could see him. Later Akane finds out he had done this, and it makes her happy. He had both supported her wishes of him not watching (which she says would fluster her) and her quiet desire for him to be there. Small actions like this shows an attentiveness to unspoken desires, which shows love. Granted, it’s easy to miss such things and expecting a partner to always realize what is unsaid can cause problems.

As the moon, so beautiful struck me as unabashedly Japanese.  Kotaro pursues traditional dance at a temple and takes part in traditional festivals. The festivals and temples play key roles in the course of the story–providing important moments such as Kotaro’s confession to Akane on temple grounds. In many school-related anime, Japanese culture is downplayed for the safer, and more accessible, secular school scene. Sure, there are Japanese elements even within this, but they are the typical mainstay of anime: culture festivals, kimono, and the like. As the moon jumps into the elements usually ignored or glossed over, but it doesn’t seek to make them exotic or anything. Like LINE, the cultural elements and festivals are just a part of everyday life.

The normalcy of the story and the delicate handling of romance–the awkward silences, the online messages, the clashing schedules–sets As the moon apart from most other romantic anime I’ve seen. Too often, such stories use comedy and superficial cluelessness to create a blunt, stereotype-laced stories. As the moon uses many of the same tropes, such as love triangles, but it handles them with subtlety and care. The English version of the title has a poetic feel, and the story throughout holds the same feeling as the title. It has a crisp beauty to it and avoids feeling saccharine. The soft animation matches its realistic, understated focus.

Some viewers may grow frustrated with its quiet, realistic pace. For many episodes, apparently little happens. That is, unless you pay attention to the subtext. Behind the slow pace, much is going on: commentary about the role of the Internet in relationships, the effects of others’ opinions on relationships, and how love affects friendships. But all of the messages are subdued and remain a part of the environment the romance develops within. There isn’t any fighting or action scenes. There isn’t any fan-service or sexual comedy. The awkwardness and the silent scenes may prompt some viewers to yell at the screen. But for those who like character-focused stories, stories of two people awkwardly learning about each other, stories based on realism, check this one out.


Influenced By… Judaism and Christianity

Saviours, Angels, Robots, Nuns and Vampires!

After my look at the ties of Dao, Onmyōji and Twin Star Exorcists, in this installment of my ‘influenced by’-series I’ll engage with an exotic topic – for Japan, that is. Let’s have a look at Christianity in Japan and its appearances in Anime!

Saint Young Men

Saint Young Men Seinto oniisan Jesus buddha manga anime

Mind the T-Shirts: Buddha’s says “Nirvana”, but I doubt he means the band.

A special favourite of mine, often overlooked, is the manga (by Nakamura Hikaru, 2006-now) and anime film Saint Young Men (Seinto Oniisan, 2013), which humourusly portrays the day-to-day experiences of best buddies Buddha and Jesus on their vacation in Japan. This usually entails accidental miracles and the trouble the two of them have to (a) maintain their incognito and (b) cope with modern life.

Jesus divides pool Saint Young Men

This is not diving, this is Moses-ing.

In one instance, Buddha takes Jesus to a swimming pool and Jesus has to admit he is somewhat afraid of water, hence his preference to walk across. Buddha persuades him to try and dive. When he eventually does, well… Let’s just say the Egyptians have seen it before.

However, anime with religious allusions or symbolism don’t usually feature a religious figure as a character. Instead, there tends to be a mashup of names, symbols, and stories, or just playing on “cool” exotic themes. The stories, it seems are not as popular as the images.

So, how did Christian lore arrive in Japan in the first place?

The introduction of Christianity to Japan

Francis Xavier Kobe Museum Japan Jesuit missionary

Francis Xavier, as depicted in a painting exhibited at Kobe Museum.

The Portuguese “discovered” the Japanese archipelago in 1542. (From a European point of view. The Chinese, Koreans, and of cause the Japanese themselves had known for centuries that it existed.) Seven years later, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier and his subordinates landed in what is now Nagasaki prefecture, on the island of Kyūshū, and introduced the Japanese to Christianity.[i] Initially, the new religion received a warm welcome.

Early Success

At first, Japanese audiences took Christianity for just another sect of Buddhism. Early translations of Christian scripture into Japanese rendered “God” as “Dainichi Nyōrai”, thereby equating him with the Great Sun-Buddha, a central deity of esoteric Buddhism. (In Japan, Dainichi Nyōrai is also associated with Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and ruler of the heavens in Shintō.) This translation intensified general similarities in Christian and Buddhist ethics. It also catered to the Japanese syncretistic worldview, which easily blends different religions according to individual spiritual needs. Therefore, the new religion was not met with resistance. It was seen as an addition, not a replacement, of the old ones. Statistics also play a role here: If a regional ruler converted, his subjects would follow, thus one conversion could bring a significant rise in the number of “believers”.

But most important was the current political landscape. Christianity arrived in Japan at a time of internal struggle. It was end of the Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai) and military leader Oda Nobunaga was trying to unify Japan. Among other things, he fought the political influence of Buddhist monasteries and eventually burnt down most of Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei, from where the monks had brought their demands to the imperial capital of Kyōto. In this context, Oda encouraged the spread of Christianity as a rival to Buddhism.[ii]

Persecution

fumi-e fumie test christian Japan kakure kirishitan hidden stepping picture

“To test a suspected Christian, order him to step on this fumi-e. Believers will refuse.”

The official view of Christianity turned, however, due to several developments. Firstly, the Christian idea of superiority over all other beliefs conflicted with the aforementioned syncretistic approach of Japanese Buddhism and Shintō. Secondly, the newly established military government was concerned about Catholics’ loyalty to the pope. Thirdly, news of the confessional wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe sparked concern of similar things happening between converts of the two sects in Japan.

As a result, missionary action and the performance of Christian belief in Japan was increasingly persecuted, culminating in the violent suppression of the Christian peasant uprisings of Amakusa and Shimabara in 1637. [iii]  Three years later, Japan entered its over 200-year isolation (sakoku), until the ships of American commodore Perry forced the opening of trading ports in the mid-19th century. Christian belief only survived in secret among the so-called “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan). Buddhist images served as disguises for the forbidden worship; for example, the bodhisattva Kannon is often depicted as female, in some cases even with a child, and can therefore double as Virgin Mary.[iv]

Return

Chapel of Dôshisha University, Kyôtô.

After the Meiji Restoration (1868) Japan denounced its isolation and rapidly imported European philosophy and science. The new imperial government encouraged everything which seemed to further the modernization of the country. In this context, they eventually lifted the ban on Christianity, but soon grew hostile again. Like Buddhism, the religion of Christianity stood against the proposed doctrine of State Shintō and seemed in conflict with the new, modern, scientific worldview.[v]  However, the establishment of Christian universities such as Kyōto’s Protestant Dōshisha University (1875) and Tōkyō’s Catholic Sophia University (1911) demonstrates the influence of Christianity on Japanese higher education. In this way, Christianity was an important factor in the political developments leading to modern Japan.[vi]

Since the American occupation after WWII, the Japanese have also adopted many aspects of Western Christian culture, such as Christmas and Christian wedding ceremonies. However, only 1-3% of the Japanese population count themselves as Christian.[vii] Thus these rituals are decontextualized and secularized, perhaps a part of global consumer culture. (Which, arguably, is also what they have become in “Christian” countries.) As a part of this global consumer culture, popular culture emerges as a space of cultural interaction and engagement with myth.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon gegensis evangelion poster

The poster doesn’t really tell you what you’re in for.

Ten years ago, Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangerion) would not have needed an introduction among anime fans. The anime series (produced by studio Gainax and directed by Anno Hideaki) ran in 1995-6 on TV Tokyo and reached international audiences from 2000 onward.[viii] Anime scholar Susan Napier lauds it as a landmark series, both as a representative of its genres – science fiction and, more specifically mecha anime – and because of its enormous popularity and impact on popular culture.[ix] For more information on NGE’s outstanding contributions to anime storytelling from this site’s main author, see this post. The effect lingers; you could still see some Evangelion cosplay at German Anime-Conventions in 2012 (which is when I stopped going) and we found figurines of its characters in UFO-Catchers in Kyōto only last year. So I’ll keep the summary brief.

What happens?

In a dystopian mechanized future, the world (i.e. mostly Japan, i.e. mainly Tokyo) is threatened by aliens, the ‘angels’. The only ones who can defeat them are certain 14-year-olds, when they become pilots of giant robots called Evangelions (EVA for short). The main protagonist is one of these pilots, Ikari Shinji, a sulky boy in conflict with his estranged father, who happens to run the operations against the aliens. One would expect a generic “boy hero overcomes obstacles and saves world with his friends” story, as the opening theme[x] suggests, but this is what NGE refuses to do.

Instead, it depicts the psychological issues of its main character(s) and embellishes the “humans fight aliens” plot with so many references to Judeo-Christian lore that researchers have interpreted the work as a) a postmodern deconstruction of reality and identity b) criticism of consumer culture and America-centered political history and c) a contemplation of the meaning of life – and that’s just the three articles I found in my university library.[xi]

What’s Christian?

Much of the stories NGE draws on are not Christian as much as based on Hebrew Kabbala and the Gnostics.[xii] The title ‘Evangelion’ itself refers to the gospel, of course. Because the antagonistic aliens are called angels, on can already assume that humanity has, in some way, angered God and brought these events upon itself? Well, what exactly the root cause of everything is, the series never reveals, but it becomes clear that at least the cataclysmic events around the first angel, Adam, were caused by human arrogance and ‘it attempting to play God’.

Old and New Testament, and far beyond that

Rebuild Evangelion Neon Genesis angel cross explosion

Explosion of the 7th angel, as shown in the Evangelion movie versions (Rebuild of Evangelion)

In addition, with the first angel named Adam, it surely comes as no surprise that the robots called EVAs have a certain connection to it (i.e. they are partially constructed after his model), or that another angel by the name of Lilith appears.[xiii] Speaking of angels: the Japanese dub uses shito, which would be more closely translated as ‘apostle’, although both refer to a divine/religious messenger.[xiv] For more of the Old-testament-based references, I refer you to Ortega’s elaborate analysis (see Notes section below).
Concerning the New Testament, we have firstly the three computer brains of the NERV Corporation, which take their names from the three wise men of the nativity story: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.[xv] Secondly, the ultimate weapon against angels is the Lance of Longinus (traditionally, the weapon thrust into the body of Christ on the cross to check if he was dead).  The series queers this artifact’s story, however, because the crucified form we first see the lance stuck in is the angel Lilith. Thirdly, since Shinji is expected to save the world, we might see him as a Christ figure suffering for humanity’s sake. Fittingly, hints of his mother associate the Madonna.[xvi] Fourthly, the cross features repeatedly, not just as a pendant Misato wears – the explosion of a dying angel is cross-shaped. Finally, the secret organization which controls all events is called SEELE, German for ‘soul’.

 

Instant Confusion, Just Add Myth

Lilith lance longinus NGE angel

Angel Lilith, impaled with Lance of Longinus

I’d like to emphasize an aspect Ortega overlooks: the intense blending of stories and images. Traditionally, angels are beings of a different order than humans: stronger, more beautiful, servants of God, but without free will. While NGE retains the power aspect, it also strongly implies that humans and angels are very closely related (i.e. humans, angels, and EVAs are all in some way decedents of Adam and/or Lilith).

 

In a similar vein, the ‘original’ Lance of Longinus has nothing to do with angels, Adam, or Lilith. NGE plays on the association that it is a God-killer weapon, but then again, angels are not God, are they? This anime is so confusing… Anyways, this “take what you need and apply it to your problem/story”-approach resembles the syncretistic view of religion I discussed earlier.

Another aspect I find interesting is the interlacing of religious myth and science fiction, or the myth of technology. You know, giant robots, clones and bioengineering, supercomputers, and the like. A similar connection between religion and science marks the second work I’d like to discuss here.

Trinity Blood

Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques. trinity blood poster

Left to right: Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques.

One story migrating and evolving from one medium to the next is typical for Japanese popular culture, as I mentioned before. Trinity Blood began in 1999 as a light novel series by Yoshida Sunao, spawned a shōjo manga (2004) and an anime adaptation (2005). This leads to a noticeable shift in art styles; it also produces conflicting information, differing plot lines and character developments, and so on. The anime is probably best known, but the novels provide most background information… and I’ve mainly read the manga 😉 But the interesting parts are common to all versions.

What happens?

1000 years after devastating war, two intelligent species live an Earth: humans (Terrans), and vampires (Methuselah). Human military and political power is concentrated at the Vatican, whereas Byzantium has become the vampire capital.  Both powers are in a Cold War-type of setting, and “lost technologies” from before Armageddon greatly impact the balance of power.

For secret missions, usually concerning vampires, the Vatican sends out special agents. One of those is the main protagonist, Abel Nightroad. In Istvan (Bulgaria), Abel and his partner Tres cross paths with Sister Esther Blanchett, and political complications ensue. Despite his ditzy appearance, Abel is an immensely powerful fighter thanks to the “Crusnik” nanomachines in his body: As vampires prey on humans, Crusnik prey on vampires.  Later the story reveals the origin of both vampires and Crusnik: Vampires are humans infected with the Kudlak Bacillus, which in turn served as food for the Crusnik nanomachines, both of which were discovered in a crashed alien spaceship when humanity tried to colonize Mars.[xvii]

What’s Christian?

Cardinal Jacopino del Conte

Compare: 16th century Cardinal, by Jacopino del Conte.

Cardinal Caterina Sforza, Trinity Blood

Cardinal Caterina Sforza

Whereas NGE intensely appropriates stories and symbols, Trinity Blood makes pronounced use of Christian institutions, that is, the hierarchy and insignia of the Catholic Church. Abel is introduced as a priest, Esther as a (novice) nun, and higher positions are occupied by bishops such as Esther’s mother figure Laura and cardinals such as Abel’s supervisor Catharina Sforza. The character’s clothing is visibly inspired by actual nun’s habits, priests’ and cardinal’s clothing, though the artist(s) also take considerable liberties. Esther’s blue-trimmed white habit evokes that of Mother Teresa, though I couldn’t find any habit design with a short, folded back part of the veil like the one Esther’s wearing. Dressing priests in black and cardinals in red also fits the Church hierarchy. Take this image of Caterina as an example. There’s a lot of detail added, such as cuffs, armour, embroidery etc., but the basic shape is still there – notice the short cloak-like part around the shoulders. I don’t know where the hat came from, through… perhaps the artist just likes big hats 😉. And of course, crosses and rosaries and the like abound as decorative elements.

Political involvement

Christian belief plays a role as well, though mostly as a tool of political power, not a feature of the main character’s personality. Thus, Esther is declared a Saint in a context of political intrigue, in order to affect the pious population. Christian charity features briefly in the beginning as part of the description of the convent in Istvan. However, there is no special promotion of Christian values by main characters, although most of them are members of the Church. Similarly, while the series features numerous terrorists or vigilantes of human or vampire origin, their motivation is usually personal, nationalist or racist, not religious. The series carefully subverts black-and-white morality judgements and shows its characters’ motivations to be diverse, personal, and (Terran or Methuselah) very human.

Names

Lilith Hologram Catharge Trinity Blood

Hologram of Lilith as a Saint

The characters refer to the Earth-encompassing war which led to the present state of affairs as Armageddon, but it is unclear if this is a reference to the Book of Revelation or just popular culture, where both “Armageddon” and “apocalypse” are used to describe large-scale catastrophes capable of exterminating humanity.

Like NGE, Trinity Blood references Genesis and the first humans, but goes one generation further. The first Crusnik is Cain, followed by Abel (the main Character) and their sister Seth. In the Bible, Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, born after Cain had slain Abel. The fourth Crusnik bears the name Lilith. She is the eldest of these four – all genetically engineered for a Mars colonization project. Interestingly, Lilith becomes a Crusnik last, and only to protect humanity from the other three. This is a weird echo of the NGE moment when humanity is collectively, as “Lilim” or Lilith’s offspring, indicated to be the final, the 18th angel. In both cases, Lilith is associated with humanity, whereas in the source material, Lilith is punished by God for insubordination and becomes a mother of demons. Trinity Blood, by contrast, shows her as a saint-like figure.

Concluding remarks

When it comes to the use of Christian content in anime, the primary appeal probably lies in its exoticism. Whereas with Twin Star Exorcists the animators could assume at least a vague familiarity with the religious associations among their audience, Christianity is both relatively new and relatively rare in Japan. Its visual cues (churches and clothing, like the bride’s white dress) are probably more familiar to the audience then any narratives. Except of course prior adaptations of the same source material. Thus interaction with Christianity might be more external, as in Trinity Blood, adapting the institutions and clothes to contribute to the work’s exotic European flavor. Or it may delve into complex, multilayered and contradictory myth-building, as NGE does. One reviewer of the latter points out that the mere inclusion of religious imagery can both add a cool factor and give a work a feeling of depth and gravitas.[xviii]

Trinity Blood vatican airship

Screenshot from episode 1 of the Trinity Blood anime: A Vatican Airship.

The creative blending of diverse types of stories may, as I mentioned above, be linked to the syncretistic tradition in Japanese religion. In this vein, the connection of Christian elements and Science Fiction makes me wonder if there is some historic precedent as well. Was European science and ‘modernity’, as imported after the Meiji Restoration, seen as somehow connected to European history of thought?

At least in the beginning, this seems to have been true: “It should be remembered that Christianity was introduced to Japan after it had already been well refined in Western society and was arrayed in the garb of modern religion. At the beginning the Japanese people even thought that modernization, Westernization, and Christianization were one and the same thing.”[xix] Perhaps, some residue of this conflation still remains?

Star Wars Force Luke Skywalker Obi Wan Kenobi

Not that religion and science fiction where unrelated in Western media…

Notes and References:

[i] See http://www.nippon.com/en/features/c02303/ for a biographic account of these early missionaries and (on page 2) pictures of Japanese churches.

[ii] Bunce, William. Religions in Japan. Rutland & Tōkyō: Charles E. Tuttle, 1948. 20-21. See also: Covell, Stephen. “Religious Culture”. In: Sugimoto, Yoshino (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 147-8.

[iii] Bunce 1948:21-22, 150; Covell 2009:148-9.

[iv] http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/maria-kannon.html

[v] Bunce 1948: 151-3, Covell 2009:149.

[vi] Ellington, Lucien. Asia in Focus: Japan. Santa Barbara & Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009. 165.

[vii] Covell 2009:150.

[viii] Both the American and German versions were apparently first broadcast in 2000; but I have to trust Wikipedia on this since TV-schedules prove quite difficult to research.

[ix] Napier, Susan. “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain”. In: Bolton, Christopher; Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr; & Takayuki Tatsumi (eds). Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 108.

[x] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYZfeY8Vg0E, notably the lyrics say „shōnen wa, shinwa ni nare”, “Boy, become a legend”.

[xi] 1) Napier 2007; 2) Redmond, Dennis. „Anime and East Asian Culture: Neon Genesis Evangelion“. In: Allen, Matthew, & Sakamoto, Ruby (eds). Japanese Popular Culture: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies. Volume II: Japanese Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century. London & New York: Routledge, 2014; 3) Ortega, Mariana. „My Father, He Killed Me; My Mother, She Ate Me: Self, Desire, Engendering, and the Mother in Neon Genesis Evangelion.“In: Mechademia, Vol.2 (Networks of Desire), 2007.

[xii] Ortega 2007.

[xiii] Ortega 2007:218-9.

[xiv] https://wiki.evageeks.org/Angels

[xv] Ortega 2007:223.

[xvi] Ortega 2007:224.

[xvii] http://trinityblood.wikia.com/wiki/Methuselah

[xviii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiUs6YuSloM

[xix] Kishimoto Hideo, „The problem of religion and modernization in Japan“, p.12. https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/3240


Dragon Ball Super: Dubious and Lacking Heart

Dragonball Z is perhaps the most iconic Shonen anime.  So, when Toei Animation announced a new Dragonball series helmed by the legendary Akira Toriyama, fans were no doubt excited.  I’m a little late to the part myself where Dragonball Z is concerned.  As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t grow up with DBZ and didn’t really get into it until I saw DBZ Abridged on Youtube.  I was not a fan of the original cut of Dragonball Z, which was bloated with filler to the point of being un-watchable.

When I finally got around to watching DBZ Kai, I was blown away.  The battles were tight and fierce, and every episode left you wanting more.  The pacing was spot on: seriousness was balanced with comedy, and action was balanced with periods of relative peace where the plot developed.  But what really made the show was the characters.  We saw Piccolo move from a villain to a hero, becoming more human along the way and learning about his own heritage.  Vegeta, too, moves from a world-blasting baddy to a father who is willing to sacrifice for his family.  Gohan moves from a frightened child to a warrior to a young man trying to balance his odd place as a half human warrior and his mother’s wish that he be a productive member of society.  And, of course, we have Goku, who is defined by his desire to constantly transcend himself but who also is a man who stands up for what is right and is willing to fight to defend his family and home.

There were some problems with the series, of course.  The Majin Buu arc was uneven at best, and the way that the power was scaled in the series got really over the top fast, undermining the plot points of previous arcs, along with the “scare factor” of previous villains.  Some of the battles got repetitive, even if they were pretty good overall.  Transformations became overused, moving from something of a surprise to something extremely predictable.  Overall, though, the good parts of the series outweighed the bad.

Given how good DBZ was, I had high expectations for Dragonball Super.  I’m about 30 episodes in, and I have to say that I’m disappointed.  On the surface, it looks like Dragonball Z.  There are epic battles and new enemies for Goku to face, and the Dragonball universe has been expanded quite a bit with all sorts of interesting new characters.  The art style has also been updated, and the series looks as good as ever.

The problem I have with Super is not with the surface elements but with the heart of the show.  It lacks the soul of DBZ Kai.  There are many reasons why, but the core of this issue is twofold.  The first part has to do with the power levels involved in the show.  The big new characters in Super are the God of Destruction, Beerus, and his martial arts teacher and caretaker, Whis.  To put it mildly, they are absurdly powerful.  Beerus at one point flicked Super Saiyan 3 level Goku in the head and sent him flying, and on more than one occasion Whis steps in to stop Beerus from going overboard, demonstrating that he is clearly the more powerful of the two.  This in and of itself is not necessarily bad, but what throws off the show is that, after their original battle, Goku becomes friends with the pair.

This is problematic in more ways than one.  For one, it sucks the dramatic tension out of the series.  At one point, Frieza returns and comes to Earth to get revenge on Goku.  At one point in the battle, Whis and Beerus come as spectators.  They do not directly intervene in the fight, but their presence still robs much of the tension because either one could destroy the antagonist with the flick of a wrist.  This is the same problem that DBZ had, but it is far more pronounced.  Nothing in the DBZ universe can compare with Beerus, which would be fine if he were looming over events as an adversary to be conquered, rather than a dubious ally who is so overpowered he takes the winds out of everyone else’s sails.  Even if the power scales were off in the old series, at least it was somewhat exciting to see the upper limits of each new villain and how Goku and his allies will overcome that limit.  Here, the upper limit is already defined by a character so absurdly powerful that he and Goku almost destroy the universe just by fighting in their initial battle.  And there’s a character already in the show who out classes even this monster!

This is closely tied to the second reason Super lacks the heart of DBZ.  There is no doubt that Beerus is a monster, who has committed genocide thousands of times over.  His disregard for life is casual and somewhat played for laughs, but no amount of yucking it up can override the fact that he is basically a force for evil who destroys on a mere whim.  Now on the other hand we have Goku, who has his own morality but is generally kind-hearted to a fault and concerned for the well-being of others.  He fought world-busting baddies and yes, many times it began as a way to test himself in battle but he also became righteously angry at the needless taking of life.  Goku fighting then befriending an enemy is a cliché of the show, but this doesn’t always hold true.  Frieza, for example, is portrayed as incredibly evil, and remains Goku’s greatest enemy, but in reality, his crimes pale in comparison to those of Beerus.  So, to my mind Goku being buddies with the God of Destruction, even if it is in line with the sportsmanlike part of his character, clashes uncomfortably with the part of his character that is generally good.  The show seems to lack the sense of morality inherent in DBZ, where even if Goku mostly wanted to test himself in combat, he still stood up for what he thought was right and fought for those who couldn’t protect themselves.  Instead, he has befriended the worst villain in the universe and trains with his teacher, who is complicit in his crimes by simply being indifferent to them and making no attempt to stop him.

Now, the argument can be made that Beerus is a God of Destruction, and his function is to balance out the creative propensity of the universe.  This is pretty much struck down in the beginning of the season by something the Elder Kai said, where he more or less refuted the Grand Kai who argued the same thing.  That isn’t the point anyway.  The point is that DBZ made a point to show how evil Vegeta was for destroying planets and committing genocide to sell planets to the highest bidder.  It depicted Frieza as an evil ruler grinding a large chunk of the universe under his proverbial boot heel and showed how cruel he was by destroying the Saiyan home world.  Cell was evil for taking hundreds of thousands of lives to make himself stronger and for wanting to destroy Earth as well.  Then there’s Maijin Buu, who destroyed planets wholesale and killed gods.  They were clearly marked as being evil, but Beerus for some reason gets a pass due to the fact he’s a god.  It clashes with the spirit of the original series, this sense of good struggling mightily to triumph over evil, and it doesn’t sit well with me.

A third aspect of Super doesn’t sit well with me.  Comedy of varying quality was always part of Dragonball Z, but generally the original is serious in tone.  Super feels like it is going out of its way to be a comedy.  Goku comes across as a buffoon, and Vegeta is almost disgustingly servile toward Beerus.  The balance between comedy and dramatic tension that generally held up well in DBZ is completely off in Super.

So, what is my verdict on Super, overall?  It might sound like I despise it, but that isn’t the case.  DBZ Is great, while Super is merely ok.  It lacks much of the dramatic tension that made the original such a joy to watch, while also lacking the heart that made DBZ touch so many people.  It relies too much on dubious comedy, while repeating tropes of the series that were old when DBZ was young.  All in all, my impression 30 episodes in is that it’s interesting in terms of world-building, but mediocre in terms of plot and story.  I’ll watch it, but it’s probably not going to be one I’ll watch over again like DBZ Kai.


Your Lie in April. The Impact We have on Others.

Most of us struggle with feelings of meaninglessness. Life feels like a grind to gain money. Then we die. We lose touch with why we live, and we fill our time with escapism like anime and manga and video games. Depression’s claws cut deep and hold on. Yet despite this malaise of despair, some souls shine.

They inspire and pull people out of despair. These people have their own problems and wrestle with depression, but they truck on. What’s more, these people are unseen. And guess what, you are one of them. You just may not know it. Enemies and friends can inspire us to be more and do more. Enemies can push us to try harder and break out of the daily grind. Friends provide support and push us to face our enemies. Enemies can be people, pianos, a difficult game, or anything that challenges us. Friends help us remember the importance of small moments.

Amidst the feeling of meaninglessness small moments shine. They break through our mistaken view of life and the feeling of meaninglessness comes from this mistaken view. The anime Your Lie in April touches on the idea of friends and enemies breaking depression.

Your Lie focuses on how loss can make even things we love feel meaningless. Kosei Arima losses his mother and his interest in playing the piano at the same time. Without music, he becomes a shadow of himself. All of that changed when he meets Kaori Miyazono, a female violinist that forces him to return to the piano. After she pushes him, Kosei encounters two competitors who wish to beat him as pianists. Kosei’s ability to play as a child inspired his two rivals to take up the instrument.

At the core of the story is Kosei’s mistaken perception. He begins to place all of his focus on Kaori. He uses her as a crutch to avoid his feelings of meaninglessness, guilt, and sorrow for his mother. This isn’t fair to her, nor does it work. Mistaken perception is rooted in skewed expectations. The ideas we have of life — much like Kosei’s ideas about music–cannot match reality. Reality cannot compare to the expectations we form. Reality is messy, and basing perception on what we think should be creates issues. Kosei doesn’t want a world where his mother withered and died, but death is a part of reality. I agree that no one should have to die, but everyone must die. You must. I must. This reality can make us feel as if life is meaningless. After all, everything we strive for will mean nothing. Money and fame mean nothing to us after death.

Such thinking is mistaken. It comes from expectations that what we do lasts. It comes from the mistaken idea that money and fame matter. In Your Lie, Kaori’s focus is to make music that will touch people. She wanted to live on in the hearts of those around her. The influence we have on those around us is what gives life meaning. Fame and money and similar things are just distractions. Reality is harsh. Our physical selves must die, but the music we make while we are alive, the melody we leave in the hearts of those we touch, continues. As people continue to influence each other, we continue to be passed on.

The meaning of life is simple. Too simple for our expectations to grasp. After all, expectations enjoy grand things. But the meaning of life is to live. How we live creates music, for good or ill. As a Christian, serving God is a part of that music. While I cannot make actual music like Kaori and Kosei–I am terrible at anything like that–I try to make spiritual music that helps those around me. We all want to reach someone. Touch someone’s soul. We only lose our way sometimes. In Ephesians 5:19, Paul writes:

…speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.

While most Christians use this verse to support the practice of singing in worship, the verse goes deeper than this. Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs can be sung through actions, not just words. Singing and making melody in the heart doesn’t involve the lips. It involves how we view the world around us. It involves how we reach out to people and resonate within them. The verse demands Christians have a singing heart for the world around us. It is beautiful, after all. Beautiful because of its flaws and struggles, not despite them. The verse calls on Christians to share that singing heart with other Christians and with God.

Kaori and Kosei likewise share their singing hearts: the bittersweet pain of love and loss, the pain of coming to terms with reality. Singing within cannot always be joyful, but it is always beautiful. Singing hearts often feel isolated. We cannot know if others are listening. We can only have faith that they are. We can only have faith that the messages our lives express are heard.

This idea of faith is found throughout Your Lie. Kaori and Kosei make music with the belief that someone, anyone, might hear and feel touched by the soul producing that music. So too Christians have faith that our actions, our silent psalms. are heard by those around us. We cannot see the impact we have on others, but it is there. Have you been to a funeral where dozens of people file in, people you never knew, to pay respects to the deceased? Sometimes death is the only way to see what lives have been touched by a person. In life, we can be unaware of our impact. In Your Lie, Kaori wasn’t fully aware of her impact upon the characters around her.

A life cannot be lived in isolation. We affect those around us and are affected by them in turn. Even when we are unaware of it, our words and actions matter. Each of us needs to decide what songs we play, what feelings we leave behind. Our audience listens.


What Makes Anime Superior to Hollywood Movies?

We all know anime is better than Hollywood movies (okay, okay. some movies are good), but why is anime better? Actually, in all seriousness anime has advantages over the typical Hollywood movie.Let’s take a look at some of these advantages. I’ve touched on them before in various articles, but they are worth taking another look. Let’s start with Hollywood’s fetish for sequels.

Lately, we’ve been buried in sequels of sequels to the point where it seems as if Hollywood doesn’t have original ideas. Some of this is because of the high cost of marketing. Sequels are easier to market. Brands and characters are well known. Aside from marketing, sequels have a built-in audience, and this makes them less of a risk. After all, movies are expensive to make, and as a business, studios have to carefully balance profitability and storytelling. Not all stories will create profit. Anime shares these same concerns, and anime also suffers from sequelitis. However, anime still tends to take more risks than Hollywood films. That is why we often see off-the-wall stories like Dagashi Kashi with its focus on Japanese junk food. It helps that anime is generally less expensive to produce than Hollywood films. The lower cost allows studios to experiment more often because the bar for profitability is lower. Beyond cost, anime taps into manga as source material, and manga offers a diverse range of stories to pick from. Hollywood may be tapping into comic books for stories, but American comic books lack the diversity manga enjoys.

And sometimes CGI can do what animation cannot. Gollum was amazing in the Lord of the Rings series.

Tapping into comic books for stories helps and hurts. It helps because movies can tie into each other, but it hurts because story arcs lack definitive endings. Movies and television tend to milk stories until they shamble along as zombified shells of themselves. They lack definitive endings. While anime can do the same–ehem One Piece–most anime stories have definitive endings. They have a story to tell in a certain number of episodes and that’s it. Hollywood has used the same mechanism in the past. For example, the Lord of the Rings movie series set out to cover each book within a single movie. They had 3 movies to tell the story. Recent superhero films, however, reboot and stutter over the same story threads. Look at how many times Batman has been rebooted. Anime has more in common with Lord of the Rings than Batman’s constant reboots. Most anime never sees a reboot. Most anime ends after a certain number of episodes, even if that number happens to be in the 300s. When the story ends, it ends.

These set lengths and definitive endings allow some anime stories to be superior to Hollywood and television stories. Knowing you only have 52 episodes to tell a story keeps writers from padding. Yes, Bleach and Dragonball Z, and other anime are stuffed with filler, but that actually supports my argument. It is better to have a set number of movies or episodes. This gives writers a goal to aim toward when adapting a manga series, which gives the series better cohesion and pacing. Padding and filler kills tension. Sometimes. an anime benefits from reordering a manga series as well–which can only be done with set episodes. Manga and anime have the nasty habit of killing tension and suspense with an ill-timed flashback, something Hollywood rarely does nowadays.

That isn’t to say anime doesn’t use CGI too. It can be just as jarring as live-action if not done right, but it is a bit easier to blend CGI into animation.

I spoke about the expense of movies keeping Hollywood from taking risks. Much of that expense come from CGI. Live action has limitations that only CGI can get around. Animation, on the other hand, doesn’t have real-world limitations. You can draw and animate anything you want. Animation allows the audience to believe in things like giant robots more readily than live-action. And this is why CGI budgets drive up the cost of movie-making. The suspension of disbelief is harder for CGI to achieve because we know what real-world objects look like, so CGI must look perfect; otherwise, we can be jarred out of our film experience. Because of this, animation is better suited for some types of stories more than others. Sadly, American audiences still equate animation with children or with comedy. So it will be a while before American animation studios tackle the same adult themes and stories anime has tackled for decades.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are good examples of Hollywood’s golden age.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy movies. I relish settling in for an evening of classic films from Hollywood’s golden era. But sadly that era has passed. While Hollywood occasionally cranks out a movie in the same pedigree as Raisin in the Sun or San Francisco (I adore movies from the 1930s-1950s)these are rarer than they should be. I also don’t wear blinders when it comes to anime. Anime struggles with drivel as much as American television. Perhaps even more so with all the harem stories and fan-service ladened garbage out there. However, anime retains the strengths the golden age of Hollywood enjoyed: bold, experimental stories, set length series, and a reliance on storytelling rather than special effects. In fact, special effects could be one of the chief factors behind Hollywood’s decline in storytelling. Audiences want to be wowed and stimulated rather than lost in dialogue and personalities. Movies try to fit in more explosions and increasingly intense action sequences to keep a jaded audience interested. And this makes budgets balloon. On the other hand, anime can ratchet up the action with less of a hit to the budget and without hurting storytelling as much. Animation lets your take liberties live-action simply can’t–such as pausing an explosion for some expository dialogue. Live-action movies that use CGI to do this come off as jarring and unrealistic. Although, I have to say anime really shouldn’t do that; the point is, it can.

In the end, it comes down to profit. Hollywood will make movies people want to see. Anime studios do the same. The best way to change trends we dislike is to vote with our wallets. Tired of superhero movies? Stop going to see them in theaters and buying their DVDs. Tired of high-school anime? Stop watching them and buying their DVDs. Instead, use your money to vote for stories you want to see. Go out and watch the rare original Hollywood film. Buy that set of Moribito DVDs. In the end, we consumers decide. Hollywood’s weaknesses are our decision. Likewise we decide Hollywood’s –and anime’s–strengths.

 


Goku as a Role Model

Dragonball Z’s Goku provides a good example of an anime role model. Some scoff at the idea of a fictional character being a role model, but in many cases fictional characters make better role models than sports stars. It doesn’t matter if the character doesn’t exist in reality. If anything, a fictional character is even more influential because our minds have to create the character. Animation, prose, and graphic novels involve the audience. They invite us to enter the story in ways live action and standard role models cannot. Imagination takes the character and builds it deep within the mind. This makes fictional role modals like Goku influential. They become a part of our way of thinking.

Goku shares many similarities with Superman. However, Goku is a more identifiable character and a better role model than Superman. Goku must struggle to win and to improve his skills. Just like us. Modern society pushes us to improve. To level up. To get stronger in our various skill sets. Those that do not are eventually left behind in promotions and even employment. As a librarian, I daily see the results of those who didn’t try to get stronger: unemployment, damaged confidence, and a blaming attitude. Most struggle to function in a world of rapid technology change. Goku shows us how to go about the never ending quest to improve.

Optimism. Goku remains optimistic no matter how daunting the challenge. Goku doesn’t doubt he can do it. He only doubts how he will do it.

Faith. Goku has faith in his abilities, in his ability to learn and improve. We sometimes forget we have the capacity to improve with enough work. It takes a lot of faith to believe in ourselves when we face life’s challenges.

Friends. Goku is not a self-made man. Despite the perpetual American lie, no one is self made. It takes a good circle of friends to help us improve our spirits. Goku only improves so far when he trains alone. Only when he seeks help from others can he change his limits. Likewise, without his friends he wouldn’t have the opportunity to do this.

Satisfaction. Modern society encourages us to work hard and consume products in order to climb the social ladder and become happier. Goku is satisfied with the pursuit of improvement. He doesn’t seek happiness through products or through his power level. He seeks challenge to try his spirit, not so he can fill some emptiness inside. Seeking to improve merely so we can make more money is a fool’s errand. Consumption doesn’t satisfy. It dissatisfies. Goku enjoys the small things and the journey of improvement.

Purpose. Goku doesn’t seek power to lord it over others. He wants to try his abilities to decide if he has improved or not. He doesn’t pursue power. He just does his own thing.

Goku is a father. He cares about his family and their safety drives him. He enjoys spending time with his son Gohan and sharing a common interest in the martial arts. Good fathers are involved in their children, but they don’t attempt to force their children in a certain direction. Gohan wanted to learn martial arts. Goku didn’t train him until Gohan expressed that interest (and the story forced Gohan to study).

Goku is loyal to his wife and a generally upstanding guy. Many would claim he is old fashioned. I am a firm believer in so-called old fashioned values. Values of honesty, integrity, stick-to-itness, loyalty, selflessness, balance, and patience. Goku is all of these. He is also communally focused.

Let me stand on the soap box a moment.

American society worships individualism. Individualism is the idea that the self has more value than a community. It pushes the lie of self-reliance and independence. Reality is a communal affair. Self-reliance ignores the many communal factors that shape us. For example, many business owners consider themselves self-reliant and independent. After all, they started a business so they can work for themselves. However, they ignore the societal aspects of their business: roads for customers to travel, a safe environment, running water, and various other infrastructure. No one person can build all of these on their own. Too much individualism rots our sense of reality. No one can be truly self-reliant, unless they are in some survival situation alone in the mountains or on an island, and even then a good portion of the tools they use were made by others.

Goku isn’t a self-made man. He is a product of his culture, his friends, and his enemies. If you look to Goku as a role model, he has helped shape who you are. While he is fictional, he adds to the fabric of your identity just the same as your parents and friends. Like business-owners who take roads and safety for granted, we can be unaware of how stories and characters influence us. Goku can be a role model without our knowledge. The stories we consume change our perspectives. The human body uses everything we eat to build itself. The mind uses every bit of information to build itself. Garbage makes for a poor mind and body. Consuming primarily role models like Goku gives the mind higher quality building materials than consumerist, individualistic messages.

Change the messages you consume, and you can change your perspective.

Who are you role models? What building materials do you consume?