Welcome to Five Observations, my new anime and pop culture podcast! Each episode, I will share five things I have been thinking about.
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In this first instalment: the little moments in Tsukigakirei, robot fights, Japan’s smiling dystopia, and more. I’m Robert, and here are Five Observations.
1. The little moments in Tsuki ga Kirei are perfect.
2. A106 is not Astro Boy, but they share similar blueprints.
3. Japanese McDonald’s dystopian smile police.
4. Reality TV can highlight cultural differences.
5. AotS is going to be a talking butt.
GRAND SUMO Highlights, November 2016, day 1
- NHK World is streaming daily highlight packages from the Fukuoka sumo tournament, which runs from 14 to 28 November. They cover the top division (makuuchi) in English, and the commentary does a good job of explaining what is going on.Each bout lasts from a few seconds to a couple of minutes, tops, and the daily highlight package runs for 25 minutes.
- While there are 82 recognised winning moves, all you need to know is that there are really just two ways to win: force your opponent out of the ring, or force your opponent to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet. (There are a few other technical violations, but they’re rare. If you need to know more, here’s an introduction for the Japanese Sumo Association.)
- On our first trip to Japan, we were fortunate to be able to attend a sumo tournament at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan. The clear crowd favourite at that tournament was Endō, who was a popular amateur who had decided quite late in his career to go professional, and who had recently been promoted into the top division. Since then, he suffered a knee injury and was relegated to jūryō (second division), but is back in makuuchi and climbing the ranks. He’s 1-0 after the first day. The other wrestler to watch is Goeido, who might be promoted to the top rank of yokozuna if he performs strongly this fortnight.
- On our second trip, we were out of season so didn’t get an opportunity to see another tournament, but we did head back to Ryōgoku anyway to eat chankonabe. It’s a delicious stew that wrestlers eat in their stables, and many retired wrestlers open restaurants specialising in the dish. It’s packed with so many different ingredients that the flavour changes noticeably as you work your way down the pot. So good.
- I’ve barely scratched the surface, but this FiveThirtyEight analysis of sumo looks fascinating.
March Comes in Like a Lion, episodes 1-6
- I plan my seasonal anime choices by referring to Anichart, and based on the blurb there I assumed this would have some similarities with Ping Pong: The Animation — that it would be a sports anime that also dealt with social isolation and mental health issues. It turns out to be the opposite; March Comes in Like a Lion is an anime about crushing depression first and foremost, and shogi is very much secondary to that. (I should have noticed that they’d tagged it Drama and Slice of Life, but not Sports.)
- Why don’t you ever wanna play?
I’m tired of this piece of string.
You sleep as much as I do now,
And you don’t eat much of anything.
— The Weakerthans, Plea from a Cat Named Virtute
- It’s been quite upsetting to see so many anime fans respond to Lion‘s depiction of depression by saying, “Wow, that’s exactly how I felt.” I’m in the same boat. I’ve suffered two bouts of depression in my life, and the sense of unmotivation, of crushing obligation, of wanting to hide even from the people who make you happy, of wanting to just disappear… all of that is here, and it’s hauntingly accurate.
- In Lion, shogi is almost a McGuffin. It’s something that Rei clung to in dealing with his difficult family situation, his grief, and his loneliness; it’s also something that contributes to his isolation by allowing him to live alone and cut ties with his support networks. The fact that it’s shogi is almost completely irrelevant. What actually matters is the efforts of various people (friends, family, mentors, opponents, teachers) to draw Rei out of his depression and into a more normal life and happier frame of mind.
- By way of background, this episode of NHK World’s Japanology Plus on Shogi gives a brief overview of the rules, but also a window into the lives of professional shogi players: groomed as children, prodigies are identified because they start beating adult players; spending their time between matches reviewing the data from their competitors’ matches, they are constantly trying to find new strategies; matches are physically exhausting and can last days at a time. All of this is reflected in March, which is interesting. I wasn’t sure how true to life it was, and how much was exaggerated for the manga/anime drama. It actually seems to be a fairly plausible story.
Kodoku no Gurume, episodes 1-7
- On a whim, I ordered a Goro Inogashira figma. I knew nothing about the character, but the idea of an action figure in a salaryman suit with a bowl of rice and a pair of chopsticks was just too good to pass up. It arrived last week and it is even better than I’d hoped. It’s ridiculous and brings a smile to my face. So that prompted me to look up who he is, and the description of the “story”, Kodoku no Gurume (The Solitary Gourmand), was perfect: a middle-aged dry goods importer visits small restaurants where he eats alone and doesn’t say very much.
- I like eating alone. It’s one of life’s great pleasures. (In fact, I’m typing this while I sit alone at a Korean restaurant eating fried chicken and drinking beer.) There is a weird stigma associated with solo meals; a lot of people seem to be afraid to be alone in public, as if it was a marker of social failure. Bullshit. Enjoying your own company is really important, and taking the time to enjoy a meal and your own thoughts for a while is wonderful. Goro relishes this time to himself, and the show shares his internal monologue while he eats so that we can vicariously experience his pleasure.
- Goro eats a lot. He usually orders two dishes, plus rice. In one episode, he decides to go to a tonkatsu restaurant, so he orders both fried chicken and fried pork — and then when he sees someone order ginger pork, he decides to order a second meal, plus an extra bowl of rice. I love him. (I have no idea how he stays rake thin, though, given that he gorges himself every meal.)
- At one point he drops in to visit an old friend, a mentor really, who got him into the import business. He is surprised to discover that his friend is now a trans woman. I was seriously worried when this was revealed — Japan’s gender politics are still fairly reactionary, and I thought a show about a salaryman based on a 20-year-old manga would be a trainwreck. I was pleasantly surprised to see Goro treat his friend warmly, and to present a clear “live and let live” message at the end of the show. I’m not going to suggest the portrayal of a trans character was ideal, but the show is clearly pushing against the stifling conservatism of Japanese society.
- The real joy of the show is that Goro approaches Tokyo neighbourhoods as a tourist would — it’s as much a Tokyo travel show as it is about food, and they even show a map so viewers can visit. The premise of each episode is a business meeting with a client here or there, after which he wanders around to find something to eat. He prefers small, family-run restaurants, so he is showing a side of Tokyo you certainly wouldn’t find in a guidebook. After the credits roll, each episode concludes with a short clip of the manga’ author, Qusumi, visiting the same restaurant and eating a meal. His genuine pleasure at sharing these little gem restaurants is evident in his broad smile. Next time I visit Tokyo I’m going to bring a list of these restaurants with me.
Sweetness & Lightning, episodes 1-5
- This is definitely the show of the season from my perspective. It ticks quite a few boxes for me personally: I have a young daughter (a lot younger than tsumugi), I’m a teacher, I like to cook. It’s got instantly loveable characters with believable motivations and a touch of tragedy. And it offers a kind of community service: because Kouhou is learning to cook, the weekly recipes begin very simply, so that people can learn to cook alongside him.
- I love shows-within-shows, and I would love it if someone made a full episode of Magi-girl, the show that Tsumugi watches. It seems to be a giant robot / magical girl mashup. It needs to be brought into the real world.
- I’m not the kind of person who trawls through the credits looking at the production details of shows I enjoy, but Tsumugi’s voice is so authentically child-like… sure enough, the actress is ten years old. It makes a huge difference to the show, as the squeals and giggles create a vivid personality.
- I’m still wary of the relationship between Kouhou, the teacher, and Iida, his student. She clearly has a crush on him, but so far he has responded appropriately: taking advice about the appropriateness of his meetings with her, contacting her mother (albeit indirectly), blithely thanking her for compliments paid. It’s genuinely refreshing to watch a show that doesn’t have cheap, sleazy moments thrown in for no good reason, and if he suddenly reciprocates I will be seriously pissed off.
- Crunchyroll has the manga, and this is the first show I’ve felt the need to go and read because I can’t wait for the next week’s episode. (Bonus: the manga includes written recipes. I think I’ll give the donuts a go.)
Tanaka-kun is Always Listless, episodes 1-12
- When I heard the description of this show, I gave it a pass. I thought Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto had the more interesting gimmick, so I picked that one instead. Big mistake. I could barely get through an episode of Sakamoto, it was so heavily padded around its one joke. But after a couple of weeks seeing people’s positive response to Tanaka-kun, I swapped to the other high school gimmick show of the spring season, and found myself looking forward to new episodes every week.
- It was the second half of episode 1 that sold me. Tanaka explains to Ohta, “I don’t even want to be the main character in my own life… It sounds exhausting.” He talks about wanting to be a background character – and in a way, that’s what he is in his own show. He’s got the title, he’s at the centre of his clique, but actually it’s how other people act around him that is interesting to watch. His muted behaviour draws out their personalities, and they open up to him in ways that they keep hidden from the rest of the school.
- At the same time, the ability to relate to Tanaka is an important aspect of the show. We’ve all had days when we can’t be bothered to drag ourselves out of bed — or when we spend a lot of effort trying to avoid work. We see ourselves in Tanaka. I can’t stand umbrellas: I’m the guy who has turned up at work soaking wet because it’s easier than carrying a brolly; every one of Tanaka’s rationalisations in episode 6 is something I’ve used to justify my objectively dumb habit. Perfect.
- A lot of the comedy is driven by misunderstandings, often with a dry edge. For example, when Tanaka loses his voice and is forced to write notes, he complains to himself that writing Echizen (越前) takes too long to write, so she should change her name to Tanaka (田中) or Ohta (大田). She assumes this is a proposal to marry one of them; hijinks ensue. On one level it is an absurd misunderstanding, but it works because it brings out Echizen’s discomfort with gender roles and romantic expectations. Again: Tanaka is more of a catalyst for other people’s personalities than a true lead character.
- I also like the relationship between Tanaka and Ohta. Despite occasional jokes, it is presented as a strong platonic relationship — two good mates who look out for each other. It’s nice.
Kamen Rider Amazons, episodes 1-6
- I’m not hugely familiar with the Kamen Rider franchise. I wasn’t familiar with it at all until I was in Japan during the campaign promoting the Kamen Rider Drive movie. Since then I’ve watched part of the original series (the cinematography is excellent, especially the closeups), part of Ghost (objectively a bad show, and not a patch on its direct competitor, Ultraman X), and I’m keeping up to date with Amazons. But given the 40 year history, I’m very much a newbie.
- Amazons is jarringly dark coming after Ghost, but it calls back to the more mature tone of the original series. There’s a strong body horror component, and Haruka’s existential dread is portrayed quite well and reminds me of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. There is a genuine sense of panic and disgust as Haruka comes to terms with his transformation into a bloodthirsty creature.
- Having said that, it’s also bringing in the grimdark style of the worst versions of American comics. Netflix’s Daredevil is the comparison I’ve seen around the place, and I think that’s right. I love Daredevil, it’s one of the few superhero comics I regularly read, but I hate that edgy, gritty version, and I couldn’t get through the first series. I think I am enjoying Amazons more because the villains are still cartoonishly ridiculous (apart from the paint job, the Butterfly Amazon isn’t that different from Ghost‘s Insect Gamma), the fights are pretty well choreographed, and there is a strain of absurd humour running through it (eg, the title of this post).
- It’s holding its serious and silly sides together quite well so far. Case in point: the introduction of Jin Takayama seemed jarringly ridiculous at first. While the extermination team is fighting Amazons in the forest, Jin leans on a truck’s horn until everyone looks at him. Then he cracks a raw egg, swallows it, and joins the fight. But this quirk is explained later as part of the pseudoscience behind these creatures: they are desperate for protein. Jin eats eggs constantly, and hamburgers are another running joke — but there is an explanation for it.
- From the Book of Revelation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega — the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come — the Almighty One.” What might Jin (Alpha) and Haruka (Omega) achieve if they can overcome their differences and learn to work together?
4 Kids Walk into a Bank, issue 1
- A skinhead gang barges into 11-year-old Paige’s house. She picks a fight with them, then gathers her D&D-playing friends to go on a stake-out and find out what they are up to. This is exactly in my sweet spot.
- This is a noir-ish detective story at its core, but it allows plenty of space to let the kids be kids, and they have a great sense of humour. The D&D game that devolves into squabbling because that one kid doesn’t understand why he can’t be a dragon; the ham radio conversation that devolves into “over over over over” because that one kid can’t choose a decent callsign. These scenes have absolutely no bearing on the plot, but they are good depictions of childhood conversations and develop the group dynamic effectively.
- Everything about this (the humour, the cast, the stakes, and particularly the art) reminds me of Fraction/Aja/Hollingsworth Hawkguy, and that is a very very good thing.
- Paige is shaping up as an excellent protagonist in the Veronica Mars mould. She’s streetwise, self-assured, and an excellent smartarse, but her care and loyalty for friends and family are already evident. I have been thinking about running a game of Bubblegumshoe, and even in the first issue, 4KWIAB is sparking some ideas. This is going to be great.
- My one niggling concern is that when you establish a gang of swastika-tattooed skinheads as the villains, it is not a great idea to make the Jewish kid the socially inept one who is barely tolerated by the group. I hope they give him a heroic turn at some point.
Flying Witch, episodes 1-3
- The opening scenes of Flying Witch were powerfully nostalgic. They show the titular heroine Makoto Kowata in transit, travelling first by train and then by bus to a snowy rural town. On my first holiday in Japan, we took a similar journey to the snowfields of Nagano. The pace and beautiful art in these opening scenes captured the feeling of that journey perfectly: away from the thrum of a big city, to the quiet and contemplative atmosphere of a small town. That was enough to hook me.
- The second episode dropped another nostalgia bomb. On my second trip to Japan, I took some cooking lessons offered by home cooks, in their own homes. We learned about the produce that is traditionally eaten in spring. Young bamboo shoots, shiso leaves, strawberries, and so on. We didn’t try fukinotou, but we did make tempura, so watching the episode’s nice little cooking lesson again brought back fond memories.
- This show is like Studio Ghibli took a crack at making Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. The magic elements are much lighter and more realistic, and it’s not so much sitcom as a light drama. But while Chito the cat doesn’t talk, he still conveys the same perfectly sarcastic attitude as Salem.
- Magic in Flying Witch is presented matter-of-factly as part of the natural world, and the rural setting grounds it nicely. A screaming vegetable, flying brooms, a wonderfully strange man who ushers in spring, a simple ritual that summons crows. These things seem more like “old wives’ tales”, forgotten knowledge about how the world works, than the flashy displays of wizards or superheroes.
- The cast around Makoto are all charming, from the curious young cousin who is equally nervous and curious about the magical world, to the perfectly polite visitor who changes the seasons, to Makoto’s impulsive and powerful witch sister. This is not the kind of show that makes you excited, per se, but I am really looking forward to seeing who else we meet, and how Makoto develops her powers.
Aggressive Retsuko, episodes 1-2
- Anyone who has worked in an office environment, especially in cubicles or some other open plan monstrosity, will instantly relate to Retsuko’s plight. She just wants to get her work done and knock off at the end of the day and relax, but… well, hell is other people.
- This is an interesting entry into the growing “kawaii metal” genre. The structure of each episode, with chirping dialogue giving way to a screamo chorus, is very similar to Ladybaby’s Nippon Manju (incidentally, a pretty good song).
- As a recent father I have some sympathy for the pink hippo (?) in episode 2. It’s hard not to think about your kid while you’re away from them, but it’s important to remember that nobody else cares as much as you. I put some photos up at my desk where people can see them, and if they want to ask me about my daughter I’m happy to talk, but I never initiate those conversations.
- Number one jerk: definitely Buffalo Boss. Colleagues chatting about their tedious lives are annoying, sure, but a boss who dumps a mountain of busywork on your desk just as you are about to clock off is an utter shitstain. Stop for a moment and consider whether you do this — and it can go the other way: if you turn up at 5pm on Friday with something that needs your manager’s urgent consideration, then you are Buffalo Boss. Don’t be Buffalo Boss.
- I have no idea how the whole Sanrio family of characters works, but I take it there is a voting process to decide which ones get more attention and which get more or less dropped? I’m not sure, but I voted for Aggretsuko— “Special skill: deathmetal vocals” — just in case.
Macross Delta, episodes 1-3
- I think this is the most thoroughly branded show I’ve seen. The art is a jarring mix of painted backgrounds, flat-coloured 2D art, and glossy CG machinery — but tyang it all together is a neon, 80s Walkure product identity, with W motifs everywhere. Even the way the characters are positioned in the frame forms W shapes.
- I have almost no prior understanding of the Macross universe, except that it includes transforming jet-mechs and magical songs that buff the fighters. I guess someone really loved playing a bard in D&D? I have to admit I was sceptical about how well you could bring a hardware fetish and idol fandom together into a coherent show, but actually I really enjoyed it.
- As for working out the different factions, what the space virus with a musical antidote is, all of that — I’m listening to the SpeakerPODcast to hopefully learn as I go.
- The paintball dogfight training exercise was genuinely suspenseful. In my head I knew Hayate Immelmann would pass the test, because duh of course he would, but my guts were worried about him when he rashly stalled the plane. I think it helped that Freyja Wion’s song was genuinely a decent pop song, and she has a good voice that held up during the a cappella part. It was nice.
- The mercats are a dumb idea (is there some connection to Singapore?) and they spent far too long chasing that unfathomably nimble aquatic Garfield around. The physics of its swimming were just awful — you can’t slap someone with a tail like that. I understand they were setting up Immelmann’s surprise aerial manoeuvre, but that was also the point where the physics broke down in the sky. But okay, he wants to air-dance, I can go with that as long as the music holds up over the series.
My Hero Academia, episodes 1-3
- I really hope this gets a decent dub and finds mainstream success as a before-school cartoon. I love the messages they are developing here: passion, dedication and hard work are important; heroes are defined by their attitude, not their power; you can do a lot of good in your community without chasing glory.
- Coming off the back of One Punch Man, it’s impossible to avoid comparing the two shows. Whereas OPM was a loving but somewhat cynical parody of superhero tropes, Academia embraces them wholeheartedly. (As for the character comparison: imagine the true hero of OPM, Mumen Rider, was bestowed with Saitama’s abilities, and you’ve pretty much got Izuku. This is a good thing.)
- I’m glad they spent a quarter of the first cour on character development. It’s laid a solid foundation for the slugfest I expect we will see as it moves forward. Having a clear sense of Izuku’s motivation will allow the pace to pick up without becoming a bland exercise in fight choreography.
- The art in this thing is gorgeous, especially the faces and the movement. It’s very dynamic. Look at the gif above: the rotation of the background gives it real depth, without resorting to CG or lens flares or any of that nonsense. Simple but effective. The montage of superheroes in the first episode was stunning and fluid, so I’m really excited to get into the tournament and see how all these Quirks are depicted.
- Speaking of tournaments… The last tournament show I watched was World Trigger, which burned the audience pretty badly — they had 63 episodes with a whole lot of filler, but then killed it before the last match of the tournament? Come. On. (I know it’s unfashionable to like World Trigger, but I do and you can eat me.)
Tonkatsu DJ Agetarou, episodes 1-2
- I’ve been hanging out for this one since I first heard about it. The odd premise — a kid working in his family’s restaurant discovers that making tonkatsu is exactly the same as being a DJ — is just ridiculous enough to be intriguing, while still leaving a bit of room to flesh it out beyond that one joke. And now that it’s here… it’s good!
- The flashes of supposed similarity between DJing and frying breaded pork cutlets are… stretched. We’ve got the premise, so the humour comes from seeing how the silly comparison is going to be made this time. Spinning records is like wiping a counter? OK! Rifling through a record shop is like fetching a pickle from the barrel? Why not! It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s pleasantly amusing. (I also like the way these comparisons develop Aragotou’s character, simultaneously an ambitious dreamer and a daydreaming slacker. Can he succeed?)
- “This must be the ripest one!” decides Agetarou, pulling out a record from the pickle barrel to discover… butts. This little moment of embarrassment reminds us that Aragatou is a teenaged boy who is desperately trying to be cool in front of his new friends. A little bit of risqué humour never hurt anybody, and the art style means this isn’t squicky fanservice.
- The art reminds me a little bit of Magnus Carlsson’s Robin, though slightly more detailed. This is a good thing. The carefree lines create the right tone for this show: fun, friendly, not too serious.
- There is a record shop a few hundred metres from my house. It’s smaller than the one in this show, less organised. But Mizokuro’s reaction to the woman who wanders in — literally pushing her out the door — seems about right. What is it about niche hobby shops that makes them so hostile to women?