Friday, July 23, 2010

Summer Vacation Ahoy!

AniMaybe will be on its yearly break (But this is our first year, y'idiot! - Ed.) for the next ten days, as the beaches of Maine call out for the Epic Fail Whale and the bustle of Otakon demands bilingual skills. While there won't be any panels hosted this year, be on the lookout for me as I chase after Japanese guests and cart bottles of water from here to there.

When AniMaybe returns, we'll have a bunch of manga to review, and the Summer 2010 anime season will still be under our crosshairs, as Asobi Ni Iku Yo and Shukufuku no Campanella will be prepared for criticism and/or praise.

Hope you all enjoy the last week of July! Remember to buy the saaa-taaa an-da-giiii.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Summer 2010: Occult Academy

In 1894, a book was written by Percival Lowell that chronicled some of the first American perceptions of Japanese religion. Lowell referred to his writings as Occult Japan or The Way of the Gods: An Esoteric Study of Japanese Personality and Possession, pointing out some of the mystics behind Shintô, especially its miraculous ritual performances and shamanic possessions. It is a reminder to us that we have barely known Japan for very long and that the country has such distant roots to its own millennial descent into the occult.

Perhaps that has led to the state of personal mysticism that anime has provided. It is that deep-rooted attachment to the pantheism of Shintô that allows for the imagination of the world around the spiritual believer. However, with the gradual attachment to the rest of the world, it could be said that the imagination of the occult in Japan has also been influenced by the Western world's own image of mysticism. Uri Geller's spoon-bending psychokinesis is likely more well-known in Japan than some of the rituals still run in Shintô shrines.

It is this connection to the Western arts of mysticism that brings Occult Academy (Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin) to the television screen. The first shots we get from the third installment of the "Anime no Chikara" partnership between TV Tokyo and Aniplex involve a situation that's more Fringe than Onmyôji—a member of a shadow organization is devoured by a monster before he can be completely transported back to his base, forcing the group to contemplate the transferal of Fumiaki Uchida, their last "Minoru Abe" agent.

Meanwhile, time easily rewinds to 1999 during an uneasy turn of the millennium. At the Waldstein Academy in the mountains of Nagano, the student body are attending the unexpected wake of the academy's founder, only for his daughter, the steely-eyed Maya Kumashiro, to storm the proceedings. When the teaching staff plays his final audio recording, the unintentional incantation from the founder himself ends up being a chant for raising the dead, suddenly reanimating Principal Kumashiro into an undead lamia. Although Maya is quick to label the entire occurrence as a hoax, she is also quite aware of the situation and is determined to shut the Academy down for what it has done to her family.

The intersection between Maya and Fumiaki's existences brings up a very interesting dynamic in Occult Academy. While the series is built on a very solid fear of the unknown through haunting dialogue and well-crafted background animation, the show doesn't appear to be afraid of laughing at itself. Maya is quite the steadfast character one moment with her stonefaced expressions, but her nervous reactions to typically non-comedic situations (especially during the WTF?! moment when Fumiaki appears Terminator-2 style) make the show palpably bipolar.

Occult Academy seems to be happy with turning the idea of the occult on its head. Japan has typically been a country that has either embraced its own appreciation for mysticism or focused on the oddities that come with the more bizarre cults (i.e. the Pana-wave Lab from 2002). By introducing a believer in Maya, who wishes the occult ceased to exist, and combining her with an active member of a secretive organization in Fumiaki, we have a definite Scully/Mulder dynamic in play. While we have yet to see Fumiaki's reactions and role in the show, it definitely could introduce an uneasy alliance between the two.

So far, Anime no Chikara has provided some insight with So Ra No Wo To and a disappointment in Senkô no Night Raid. Judging from the plot and artwork exhibited in Occult Academy, it seems that this trend could change very soon and that the experimental animation is on its way to a clever success. Occult Academy should be pushed as the best of the new anime shows that Crunchyroll has to offer at the moment, and I hope that the show lives up to its billing.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Maegaki: The Top 10 Most Influential Manga-ka

In the past week, Oricon Entertainment Inc., well-known for their weekly rankings, released the results of a poll that recently asked for Japan's ten most influential mangaka artists that had changed the history of manga. The three-day poll asked 841 men and women all over Japan between the ages of 10 and 40, and the results were posted on their website. (H/T: Silicon Era)

1. Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Black Jack)
2. Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball, Dr. Slump)
3. "Fujiko F. Fujio" (a.k.a. Hiroshi Fujimoto and Motou Abiko - Doraemon)
4. Eiichiro Oda (One Piece)
5. Takehiko Inoue (Slam Dunk, Vagabond)
6. Shigeru Mizuki (GeGeGe no Kitaro)
7. Fujio Akatsuka (Tensai Bakabon)
8. Machiko Hasegawa (Sazae-san)
9. Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind)
10 (tie). Osamu Akimoto (Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kôen Mae Hashutsujo)
10 (tie). Naoki Urasawa (Monster, 20th Century Boys)

Not a bad selection, but I have a few things to say about this ranking in terms of its operation:
  1. The sample size seems to be rather small. Asking only 841 people for this survey seems to sell the influence of manga immensely short. I have a hard time believing that Oricon could cut the pool to such a small cross-section; that's 0.00067% of Japan's population!
  2. The sample size seems rather restricted to the younger generation. If you assume the oldest to be in their 40's, then we're likely talking about manga fans who are more biased towards titles written after 1975. I'm not saying that there were no influences after 1975, but it does seem to tell us that Oricon doesn't consider the older generation to have a say in the matter.
  3. There is an obvious bias towards shônen manga. Yes, we foreigners may be a little more biased in our approach of manga, but the closest you get to shôjo manga is Tezuka's Takarazuka-influenced Ribon no Kishi, and the only female mangaka listed (Hasegawa) didn't quite change the style of manga as much as she proved a woman could compete in the manga industry. More importantly, considering that four of the authors have written specifically for Shônen Jump, I tend to believe that more of the interviewed subjects read that anthology more than others.
Perhaps the last entry is how the poll is to be read: this isn't as much a poll about influence on style as it is about influence on manga's history. Of course, influence on style tends to alter the direction of future manga artists. Still, I feel that some important names are missing from the chart:
  • Rumiko Takahashi. How is it that arguably the biggest female shônen-manga author got left off this list? How is it that the creator of Ranma 1/2, Inuyasha, and Maison Ikkoku was dissed? Perhaps this image of Takahashi as a dominant domestic mangaka is an illusion; after all, in 2006's Japan Media Arts Festival, Urusei Yatsura was ranked 31st in the 100 Best Manga ranking, behind the likes of Hunter X Hunter and Ushio and Tora.
  • Monkey Punch / Takao Saito. Considering that both Golgo 13 and Lupin the 3rd are two action icons that still exist in print and film to this very day, it's a wonder if these two don't cancel each other out in terms of influence. Then again, maybe we're looking at a niche market, when manga itself is such a broad industry.
  • Riyoko Ikeda. Considering just how influential the entire Year 24 Flower Group was on shôjo manga, Ikeda deserves to be a representative for the group's power. While some may argue Naoko Takeuchi is more deserving of entry, The Rose of Versailles could be argued as the real precursor to both the starry-eyed style of shôjo manga and the gender confusion we see in many manga over the past fifteen years.
  • Leiji Matsumoto. A giant in science-fiction manga doesn't even get a nod for his work in Space Battleship Yamato, Galaxy Express 999, and Captain Harlock? Again, we're probably looking more at his immense influence in anime, but Matsumoto is also quite the manga historian, having composed a referential book that chronicles manga from the 1920s to the late 1950s with Hidaka Bin.
  • [Other possible entries: Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Akira), Go Nagai (Devilman), Seiji Matsuyama (just kidding).]
If the rankings were to be rewritten?

1. Osamu Tezuka
2. "Fujiko F. Fujio" (a.k.a. Hiroshi Fujimoto and Motou Abiko)
3. Akira Toriyama
4. Rumiko Takahashi
5. Shigeru Mizuki
6. Machiko Hasegawa
7. Takehiko Inoue
8. Riyoko Ikeda
9. Leiji Matsumoto
10. Hayao Miyazaki
(Akatsuka, Ôtomo, Saito, Nagai, and Monkey Punch would be knocking on the door, in that order.)

Am I biased? Certainly. I still think that Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kôen Mae Hashutsujo is horribly overrated and that One Piece is too recent to be ranked. Am I Japanese? Certainly not. My opinion is obviously corrupted by my ethnicity and my Western influences.

But I'm still crying foul about this survey.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Summer 2010: Ôkami-san to Shichinin no Nakamatachi

Every culture and society has its handful of fairy tales and their famous storytellers. Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm, Aesop, Hans Christian Anderson, Uncle Remus—whether the folktale creators were real or as fictional as their stories, we've all been intrigued by the concept of anthropomorphic characters dealing with their concerns through the use of human emotions and perception.

With all of the exposure to Western stories and Disney films, Japan has received many versions of these fairy tales. The old-school anime fans in Japan probably have knowledge of the Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics (グリム名作劇場 Gurimu Meisaku Gekijou) show that ran in the 1980s. Of course, Japan has offered its own plethora of otogibanashi (fairy tales)—everyone and their sibling has heard of Momotarô and his quest to destroy all oni.

Here's the interesting twist to all those fables and adventures that the new anime Ôkami-san to Shichinin no Nakamatachi ("Ôkami-san and Her Seven Companions") poses: what if the direction was reversed? Instead of animals gaining human qualities to them, what if the human characters adopted zoomorphic qualities to them in order to tell the stories?

The general concept of the Ôkami-san light-novel series and the current show directed by Yoshiaki Iwasaki (Love Hina, Zero no Tsukaima) revolves around the city of Otogibana-shi and its citizens, most of them derived from various fairy tales. The episodic plot centers on the actions of the "Otogi Bank", a school organization that works to "fix" the sticky situations the main academy's students get into. Our main heroine, Ryôko Ôkami, is the tomboyish muscle for the Bank, a tall "Yankee" delinquent who boxes with gloves that look like cats. While she often works with her friend Ringo Akai, a derivation from Little Red Riding Hood with a blackmailing streak, the Bank itself has various characters from Aesop's fables ("The Grasshopper and the Ant") and Japanese folklore (Urashima Tarô, Tsuru no Ongaeshi).

It's Ryôko's rough lupine nature that links her to her wolfish image and the eventual first meeting with Ryôshi Morino, a soft-speaking boy from her class. Raised as a hunter outside of the city, he is tested by the Bank for admission, although his reason for tagging along is more due to his confession to Ryôko and admiration for her tsundere nature. While Ryôko is more disgusted by his weak nature and his immense phobia of being stared at, Ryôshi appears to be braver than he looks, but is Ryôko also "crying wolf" about her true self?

Possibly the best thing that Ôkami-san has going for it is the various overlapping interpretations of the tales. After all, while we know how Cinderella and the Prince are united and how the Tortoise beats the Hare, it's actually fun to see how the characters interact in this modern retelling of past stories. While there is nothing too special about the character designs and the shows may border on episodic natures, the characters themselves benefit from the numerous past tales—the Otogi Bank's members overlap into other stories gives each character secondary characteristics. The Wolf not only worked with Red Riding Hood, but was involved with the Three Pigs and various hunters (which is what ryôshi ends up translating into). Even the narrator (Satomi Arai) seems to be having fun with snide comments on Ryôko's lack of a chest and acting as the censoring "bleep".

Ôkami-san's use of common anime devices actually gives the show a fresh look at both the older otogibanashi and general anime plots. Normally, the tsundere Ryôko, conniving Ringo, and wimpy Ryôshi would be cardboard characters in their own show, but the situations makes Ôkami-san worth it for now. The story likely will never reach the epic outreach of the likes of the fairy tales it is comprised of, but why not just live for the enjoyment of today? Ôkami-san is silly in its story, but memorable in its presentation.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Summer 2010: Mitsudomoe

There has been plenty of praise about the innocence that the series Yotsuba&! brought to manga pages. There's a lot about growing up that we have forgotten by becoming adults, and watching Yotsuba explore the world around her with a carefree attitude and a childish optimism is something to behold. However, reading all that innocence has got to make the average reader wonder where the lowlights of one's childhood are. We weren't all like Yotsuba when we were young—we were squishing bugs, getting into fights, and falling into open toilets.

For every giggling cherub, there needs to be a cackling problem child.

Spawned from the mind of gag-manga artist Norio Sakurai, directed by Masahiko Ôta (Minami-ke), and animated by the Aniplex crew through the Bridge Studios, Mitsudomoe takes that innocence that Yotsuba&! brings and plucks the leaves off of that lucky clover. The story focuses on the terrors brought by the three "Mischievous Marui Sisters" at Kamohashi Elementary with each triplet able to bring unique swaths of destruction—Mitsuba has a sadistic desire to dominate the smaller folk (only to get the brunt of the attacks), Futaba doesn't know her own strength and little else (outside of boobies), and the silent bookworm Hitoha...well...

...let's just say that Sawako from The Ring has a little competition.

While the show is about these unintentional hoodlums, we mustn't ignore their victims. The center of the trio's attentions criss-cross around Satoshi Yabe, their much-maligned sixth-grade teacher. Being new to the job isn't such a bad thing, especially with the cute-yet-ditsy Kuriyama-sensei equally new at the nurse's office, but the antics of the Marui Sisters present a new challenge. Throw in a pervert kid (what's with the "69" hat?), a popular kid who wants to avoid his fan club, and a few other flawed characters, and Class 6-3 could be one of the hardest classes to sit through.

There are a few misconceptions about this show that the original images might convey. First of all, there is very little about Mitsudomoe that appears to be "moe" in the first place. (It's more "tomoe", as in the symbol seen at plenty of Shinto shrines.) There may be emphasis on the ridiculous in this anime, but there doesn't appear to be much about the designs that provides attraction to particulars about the characters. In fact, the sympathy appears to be more for poor Mr. Yabe as he tries to be diligent and caring for his students while hiding his attraction for Ms. Kuriyama.

Most of all, this isn't your innocent love-comedy Hanamaru Kindergarten wannabe. This show gets pretty intense by depending on dirty comedy. Not only does the show get over-the-top with sexual innuendo (Futaba and Hitoha settle on "Nipples" as the name of the class hamster) and crotch-shot humor (a plan to bring Mr. Yabe and Ms. Kuriyama together involves just that), but a lot of the physical comedy is mixed with...bodily fluids. Not going to spoil just how blood, snot, and urine make its way into the show, but they do. Somehow. It's not pretty.

Mitsudomoe does go for the jugular with its jokes about breasts, nosebleeds, and pee, but I actually had to pause before I made my mind up about the show. While the class level for Mitsudomoe rivals all those shows that use poop as props, I had to wonder—when did elementary school turn into such a perfect sanitary institution? Fart jokes and potty humor defined elementary school for us, representing a time in a kid's life when he or she learned what was and was not appropriate. Heck, we were all a brat at one moment in our lives—why not watch a show about three of them? While there are parts of Mitsudomoe I didn't want to watch due to their filth factor, those parts were not only just as funny as the cleaner segments, but they were essentially foils to make the cleaner segments better in the end.

I'm surprised to say it, but Mitsudomoe's tongue-in-cheek humor might make it the biggest surprise of the summer TV season. It also makes me beg the question—is this why Yotsuba&! hasn't been animated yet?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Summer 2010: Seitokai Yakuindomo

While I have never been one to witness the organization in action during my three years as a language assistant in a Japanese middle school, the seitokai (生徒会, "student council") plays a vital role in the development of leadership amongst the student body by providing an outlet for students to improve student life through administration and constant feedback from other students.

In other words, it's a teenage board of directors. Student-run government. Hard work.

Suffice to say, real student council meetings don't involve a shadowy organization of manipulators (Utena, Medaka Box) and likely don't involve accidental fan-service scenes or breathless confessions during some of the paperwork (Seitokai no Ichizon). If they did, my guess is that there would be more volunteers and candidates for student-council work. In reality, it's just another club for students to be involved in, so it's also another target for anime shows to focus on.

So far this year, we've already seen one student council get turned on its head with the introduction of a female president in an all-male school converted to a co-ed school (Kaichô wa Maid-Sama!). However, it's a bit surprising to see that the opposite scenario has already been animated for the next season in the form of Seitokai Yakuindomo ("All Those in the Student Council"). It's now time for a male to enter the female-dominated student council at Ôsai Private Academy.

"Domination" is probably too light a term to describe the student body at Ôsai—the ratio is almost oppressive to the point that it's surprising this isn't a harem anime. Our male protagonist Takatoshi exits the train turnstiles as the lone male representative in the hundred or so females going to school, only to be singled out by the members of the Ôsai Student Council for not adhering to the rules of the school uniform.

It's under the puffy sakura blossoms that we meet the trio. The student president Shino is diligent at following the rules, but lacks reserve and knowledge about the opposite gender, leading to ditzy stereotypical declarations about males. It doesn't help that the lighthearted secretary Aria adds fuel to the misconceptions with her own dark jokes behind a smiling expression. The only real knowledgeable one in the group is Suzu, a half-pint genius who has to put up with the perception that her lack of height makes her appear to be a kid...even though she fits the pattern with childish actions.

The only thing missing in the Student Council is a vice-president, and that is where Takatoshi is shuffled into the plot, having to learn from the others about the places and rules for the academy. This makes for a slow start to the series, especially since the yonkoma style that the manga follows is followed so closely. The comedy comes in short bursts that barely last fifteen seconds, so the flow from scene to scene is not necessarily smooth, but this may correct itself as the school year unfolds.

However, it is the comedy itself that doesn't quite help Seitokai Yakuindomo in the end. The status of the Council makes all of the things floating in their heads come to the surface, but Shino and Aria are dense to the point of disbelief when it comes to self-censored humor from prophylactics, masturbation, and "health education". Takatoshi, unfortunately, doesn't help his cause as the straight man of the bunch, as his comebacks and punchlines are so quiet and helpless that it makes him sound...bored. He makes Kyon look like Prince Charming. Suzu might be the only gem, as the "Suzu-Head" shot with her barely in camera frame is a hoot.

Ennui is not exactly the sort of image I would want the anime to portray regarding the Student Council, but I sense repetition. It seems that the success of past shows that take place in ordinary school meeting rooms has caused others to want to copy the pattern, and it's really not working yet. Perhaps the comedy threatens to become robotic in the future, as the give-and-take is easy to witness in the first episode alone. For now, Seitokai Yakuindomo needs a little guidance from the teachers.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

This is for all my homies in Porter Square.

(Courtesy of Sonny Wong and

When I first woke to the concept of anime and manga in Japan, it was after I had moved down to Georgia Tech in 1993. I had seen some copies of Ranma 1/2 sold monthly at the local comics shop at the Billerica Mall when I was a high-school senior infatuated with X-Men, but I thought little else of it. Once I got to understand the concepts (and dealt with the idea that comics didn't have to be in color), I warmed up to the culture back home during the summer breaks, only to see that comics store vanish into bankruptcy (along with the rest of the mall).

The next step, after learning to appreciate comics in Atlanta through anime clubs and nearby shops, was to take manga appreciation to the next level--actual Japanese mastery. That meant that I would have to find a way to purchase actual Japanese-text comics. While I didn't know the proper channels in Atlanta, I did find the authorities for Japanese-language tests and manga in Boston at a small bookstore in Porter Square called Sasuga Bookstore.

The store was just off of the Porter Square stop in Cambridge, a few steps away from the major Japanese center in the college town. People could get a bowl of ramen, a bunch of boxes of Pocky at the local Japanese-brand grocery store, and a few tankôbon of Fushigi Yûgi just like that. For culture fans, it was a manga mecca; for students, it was a Valhalla for literature. Most importantly, it became a site that catered to the desire to learn more about the language, as there were bulletin boards for tutoring in both Japanese and English.

However, something happened on the way to niche-market success. Somewhere after its celebration as a decade-old bookstore, the shop closed some time in 2004. The shop pulled its headquarters to Waltham and was open for sales on Saturdays, but soon all business was pressured into moving to a web-only set-up. While it was great to see the store hit dealers' rooms all over the East Coast convention scenes with lines jammed with customers, competition with other online stores and accelerated translations of manga into English likely slowed sales to a crawl.

That left the horrible realization on July 4th: Sasuga Japanese Bookstore wouldn't make it past July 5th. The online website closed for good July 6th.

I feel like I lost quite a bit of opportunity with the store, as all of my business was in Japan from 2000 to 2003. By the time I got back, the store was limping to its end in Cambridge. Once it left, Porter Square didn't seem the same, and stores have been closing slowly since then--Kotobukiya was moved out to Medford and renamed Ebisuya, while the kiosk restaurants have been struggling for business.

So now I realize that my Japanese-language purchases now must come from further outside New England, and trips to the dealers' room will no longer be a joy like it used to be. What I can offer is merely my gratitude for the company through a short anecdote.

I have been a big collector of the Naruto Japanese-language comic books, and I usually went to Sasuga at conventions to appease my thirst. However, I found myself buying a fukubukuro "grab-bag" of mystery manga. I opened it up to find Volumes 5 through 8 of Idejû! ("Ide High School's Judo Club Story").

Since then, I have managed to get the other nine volumes, all thanks to that accidental discovery.

Thank you for everything, Sasuga Bookstore. I pour my 40 of Chû-Hai out for you.