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.
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?