Hm, I guess it really is just one face. But Mile’s moods carry the whole show (Watashi, Nouryoku wa Heikinchi de tte Itta yo ne! — Noukin for short, I guess. The title’s even longer in English so I can’t be bothered to copy-paste it again).
Noukin has a simple, solid formula for its semi-parody: whenever some stupid tropey-dopey anime or isekai thing pops up, played seriously by the supporting cast — pop — a disbelief face in reaction from our lead heroine Mile. After all, why attempt to dispute the ridiculous foundations of the isekai genre when you could just stare in disbelief?
I like it best when the faces *pop* across just a single frame. Low animation quality and production shortcuts hidden behind an excess of static reaction faces, you ask? Nahhhhh… Shhh shhh, quiet now. It’s just an, um, stylistic choice, like a budget Humanity Has Declined vibe. Compare to that series:
Hmmm, Mile’s face from Noukin isn’t quite up to Humanity Has Declined‘s superb quality of deadpan, but it’s still close enough for me, a real keeper — the first isekai I’ve enjoyed since I don’t care to admit — if only because it seems to enjoy mocking the genre as much as I do!
[I’m a big fan of funny-bad and Shichisei no Subaru comes so close. I can’t recommend it as a genuine disasterpiece, but it was so comically unpopular both within Japan and without that I could only find threeotherreviews of the complete series beyond basic episode impressions! So, as someone who adores bad anime, I felt that I owed Subaru a loving shake – even if I’m six months too late and don’t really love it. Also, for whatever it’s worth, I do recommend my impression post on Subaru for a more serious thematic discussion on making meaning in an online world. Here though, I’m just having a laugh.]
There’s a fun quote often attributed (without evidence) to the 18th century writer, critic, and scholar Samuel Johnson in response to some “manuscript” he had reviewed and apparently disliked. It’s apocryphal, so the wording varies with the source, but it usually goes something like this:
Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.
Heh, that’s gotta be one of the sickest burns in all of literature. Beyond the insult though, I think there’s some hidden wisdom in the wit. I often notice an unfair impulse by casual critics to take “unoriginal” as a synonym for “low quality,” especially among online fan communities looking for “objective” reasons to review bomb something. But the quip does the opposite: it observes an instance for which original does not mean good and unoriginal does not mean bad.
Of course, since that’s just a baseless claim drawn from a pithy, unauthored aphorism, I’d like illustrate the idea with an example: the summer 2018 video-game fantasy anime Shichisei no Subaru (English: Seven Senses of the Reunion).
Back when it first aired, Subaru became an easy target for mockery because it so shamelessly imports the plot and characters from AnoHana into a Sword Art Online-style video game setting. A mysterious ghost girl with blonde hair and blue eyes returned from the dead to bring her five childhood friends back together? Yep, that’s AnoHana. And a overpowered swordsman with the personality of a brick wall traipsing through a virtual reality death game? Yep, that’s Sword Art Online …and um… apparently Subaru too. I mean, just look at the two lead characters and their likely inspirations:
I jest because plenty of anime characters look alike, but then they also have near identical personalities and narrative functions sooo… As I concluded in my impression post on the series last summer, Subaru is “not exactly bad… just astoundingly unoriginal.” Mind you, it’s not good either. To add another quip to the quote, the good parts (AnoHana’s premise) aren’t original, the original parts (Subaru’s genetically determined video game skills?) aren’t good, and the other unoriginal parts (Sword Art Online’s …Kirito) aren’t much good either. But even if the series as a whole doesn’t achieve anything better than a tepid “bleh,” that mediocrity makes Shichisei no Subaru such a perfect case-study to demonstrate my point: original does not mean good and unoriginal does not mean bad.
I think I’ll take a revised “good, bad, and ugly” approach here to break down Subaru into “the unoriginal good, the unoriginal bad, and the original ugly.”
Oh, and did I miss a category for the “original good?” Nahhh, ssshhh…don’t worry about it!
[content warning: discussion of sexual assault in the context of fiction]
[It’s 2am and I can’t sleep because I already slept, all day, on a stultifying migraine. Let’s turn on the blue-light filter and see what comes from this moment of madness.]
I hate having opinions. Of course, that doesn’t to stop me from actually having them… for example, I enjoy irony because it helps me close the paradoxical loop that “hating having opinions” is itself an opinion. Oh, but that loop’s still a problem. Maybe I should revise…
No, I don’t hate opinions so much as I do thinking about them. You have to justify them, and then consider their rebuttals, and sometimes even rebut their opponents in turn. That’s hard work. Sure, maybe you don’t have to do any of that. You could just content yourself with fluttery feelings: “I like this, not that.” But that approach always seems dangerous to me. What if you need to revise an opinion, like I just did? Or what if you hurt someone’s feelings? Or worst of all, what if you reveal your ignorance, if you’re just wrong?
To have opinions is inevitable, is natural; to have convictions is less so. Each time I meet someone who has convictions, I wonder what intellectual vice, what flaw has caused him to acquire such a thing. However legitimate this question, my habit of raising it spoils the pleasure of conversation for me, gives me a bad conscience, makes me hateful in my own eyes.
I have opinions; yes, it’s only natural. But except for the most serious issues, I never feel secure enough in them to approach a considered conviction. It’s not just my own waftiness either: if I fear the flaws in all of my own opinions, I distrust everyone else’s as well. How can anyone have such surety to upgrade a mere opinion to a conviction? Like Cioran says, the question becomes awkward in conversation: I can hardly criticize someone’s convictions if I can’t counter with my own, beyond the ironic one that I can barely have any to begin with. “Bad conscience” indeed…
I suppose it’s good then that I don’t have any strong opinions on Goblin Slayer. When the series first aired for the Fall 2018 anime season, it exploded into the most polarizing piece of televised fiction I’ve ever encountered. After the rape scene in episode 1, most of the people who would have disliked it bombed the series with negative first impressions before dropping it like a live grenade. That uproar left some severe survivorship bias in its wake: the complete reviews that followed offered little but glowing praise. Given the severity of the polarization surrounding the first episode and the series’ own singular focus on killing goblins, neither this world nor Goblin Slayer’s left much room for ambiguity.
But as someone with little tolerance for certainty, I never understood the hype. Goblin Slayer has little positive or negative to recommend it, even when compared to other works in its stale video-game-inspired fantasy genre. To summarize my ambivalent experience: Goblin Slayer‘s just like… kinda of sad and boring, I guess?
How can I put an even greater damper that opinion…
First, a short story, which I promise will have relevance to my discussion of Goblin Slayer by the end of the post.
One of my friends works as a curator on a memorial submarine, a decommissioned WW2-era ship since converted into a museum. One day, he offered me a private tour. He was patient with me as I slipped a little on the deck and struggled to orient myself into the hatch and climb down the narrow ladder. But when I walked through my first round doorway, legs first and swinging my arms over and behind my head like a limbo, he laughed at me. He explained that that only happened in the movies. Normal sailors would just walk through the holes like any normal person. I’m sure I looked stupid, but how should I have known the truth before he corrected me? My only point of reference was the movies, and as such the action felt real as I swung through the door.
However, the submarine example has a well-documented historical truth behind it. How should we approach the issue of realism in fiction, which has no set truth to appeal to? I especially wonder what to do with titles that receive significant praise for their apparent “realism,” like this anime season’s standout series, Goblin Slayer. Can we call it realistic? I dunno. It depends. Who are you?
One of my biggest annoyances with science fiction is exposition-dump technobabble: meandering, meaningless jargon that seems to enjoy itself for its difficult sounds rather than its actual utility in the story. Technobabble doesn’t have to be bad: the most iconic example I can think of off the top of my head comes from Back to the Future, which lightly satirizes big science words by introducing a nuclear-powered “flux capacitor” that requires “one point twenty-one gigawatts of electricity” to induce time travel. It’s funny when blabbered out by Back to the Future’s kooky, mad-scientist parody, (especially because the old man came up with the idea after knocking himself unconscious by falling off a toilet) but only so because so much science fiction uses so much use-less jargon unironically. (Please, use less!)
I don’t really have an argument this week. However, I did notice a few interesting comparisons in the use of exposition technobabble in the three three science fiction anime I’ve picked up this fall 2018 season (Sword Art Online: Alicization, Akanesasu Shoujo, and RErideD: Tokigoe no Derrida). With nothing better to do during some office downtime, I thought I would scribble down some spare impressions.
I don’t really participate in the broader anime blogosphere. I made this site to satisfy my own boredom during downtime at work and, as such, I rarely read posts from other writers. But this week I stumbled across something interesting: a discussion about fascism in anime, starting with this article from SyFy.
The Syfy article explores the author’s discomfort with the use of fascist imagery in several anime. Contrary to some of the criticisms of the piece I’ve seen on discussion sites, it fairly acknowledges that most such anime make their fascist-look-alikes into villains to promote anti-authoritarian themes. For example, Fullmetal Alchemist includes an evil dictator called “Fuhrer Bradley” that the heroes revolt against by the end of the series. However, the article perhaps stretches a bit too far when it claims that “Fascism in anime becomes a problem when fans glorify and emulate these clearly evil characters.” When fringe fans choose to interpret a piece of fiction opposite it’s intended (and obvious…) message, I am not sure if it’s fair to fault the fiction itself.
In general, I disagree with the article’s conclusions. Uniforms alone do not define a fascist. However, the weak arguments in one article do not make all anime immune to criticism. I myself have accused precisely one series of promoting authoritarian politics: Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria (official English: The Master of Ragnarok and Blesser of Einherjar; my translation: The Iron Tyrant and Holy Valkyria; shorthand: Holy Valkyria).
This may seem like an odd choice. Given it’s Bronze Age isekai setting, Holy Valkyria has no fascist aesthetic to worry about (except for two “Sieg Patriarch” chants in the first and last episodes, but that’s perhaps a HUGE thing to “except…”). Most of its episodes either dither away through boring battle sequences or the usual ecchi harem nonsense. For the uninitiated, here is a one sentence plot summary: a magic mirror throws Japanese middle-schooler Yuuto Suou into a Bronze Age fantasy world, where he rules as “patriarch” of the Wolf Clan via a magical solar cellphone and a crack team of lusty little-sister sorceresses that help him defeat his rivals on the battlefield. Typical isekai, huh?
Despite the bland premise, Holy Valkyria is uniquely vile among the anime series I have seen. Though my early impression post probably leans more toward a rant than a rigorous analysis given my overwhelming disgust with the first episode, having completed the show, I stand by my initial assessment. Holy Valkyria contains a core of fascist-ish ideology, espoused by the protagonists of the series rather than the antagonists.
Of course, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To be clear: I do not want to validate Godwin’s Law or cheapen the word “fascism” with lazy accusations (see Orwell’s essay on “fascist” becoming a meaningless slur). As such, I will try to make my argument with greater rigor than I did the first time around. This post will not waste time judging the quality of the series’ animation or music or common isekai tropes. Instead, I will focus only on the themes that resemble fascist philosophy. I will start with a working definition of fascism, because to identify a fascist, you first need to know what one looks like. Then, I will compile the lines and scenes which I believe promote a fascist worldview, with a few concluding caveats.
I like Sword Art Online. I really do, even if this post’s title might seem to indicate otherwise. With just a little teasing, I enjoy a bit of comforting adolescent mediocrity from time to time and nothing does it better than Sword Art Online. But… (and isn’t there always a “but?”) I don’t know how to keep pace with the series any more.
The franchise has produced so much material that I could never hope to dig through it all. Going by the Wikipedia page, it has more than 20 volumes of light novel, more than 30 volumes of manga, 11 video games across various platforms, an animated movie, two seasons of anime totaling 49 episodes, and the “Alternative” spin-off series with 8 volumes of light novel, 2 volumes of manga, and a 12 episode anime series of its own.
To top it all off, this fall 2018 season has introduced Sword Art Online: Alicization, a four-cour behemoth of an anime that will air for almost a full year from October 2018 all the way to September 2019. I expect to enjoy Alicization but… (that ominous word again) oh my… a year is a long time. The simple thought of engaging with such a long piece of media makes me feel a sort of preemptive fatigue. Instead of hyping up the new series, the feeling leaves me wondering: can I even finish something so long?
I watched How Not to Summon A Demon Lord for the wrong reasons. I only picked it up because I was baffled by a more literal translation of the Japanese title: The Isekai Demon King and the Summoner Girl’s Slave Magic. Such an absurd cluster of words seemed to border on self-parody of the much-derided isekai genre. I had to show this madness to a friend that was uninitiated in anime’s less respectable tropes. I would “embrace the trash,” play devil’s advocate, and make his reaction the real show. As expected, he hated the first episode and felt we had wasted half an hour. But I didn’t get my show either. Instead of ranting and rambling like I had hoped, he just gave me wordless sighs of disgust. Where I had expected some “so bad it’s good” excess to enjoy ironically, he had seen an intolerable moral travesty in Demon Lord’s casual depiction of slavery.
That left me in an awkward position. I agreed with his assessment of the slavery themes, but as an episode of anime, I didn’t find Demon Lord so bad. Considered in the context its low-quality genre, I even worried that Demon Lord was good. I worried, because How Not to Summon a Demon Lord had established its erotic-comedy slave-girl premise with such casual crassness that I felt ashamed admitting… Imaybe-kinda liked it.
Sometimes, I have to confront an unrealistic expectation that fiction with ugly messages should have ugly aesthetics. For example, Demon Lord’s isekai seasonal partner, Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria, disguised its weird authoritarian ideology under one of the lowest quality anime I have ever seen. But ugly ideas can have gorgeous packages (for example, see the energetic imagery in the proto-fascist “Futurist Manifesto”). Demon Lord is not “gorgeous,” but I would call it solidly “competent” despite its glib engagement with a concept as ugly as slavery.
That apparent contradiction made me uneasy, and that unease led me to a question. At what point do disagreeable themes in fiction preclude enjoyment of the work itself? Could Demon Lord justify its use of slavery by just being a good show? In other words, was it worth it?
I’ll take this topic in two parts. In part one, I will try to approach Demon Lord’s use of slavery on its own terms within its three main genres: comedy, isekai adventure, and ecchi. After all, before criticizing a piece of fiction for its ugly themes, I first need to establish how and why it does so. And in part two, I will loop back around to that question. Was it worth it?
[By now, I think I am beating this dead horse mostly to annoy my friends, but hey, I need something to do in the office between class periods!]
As a capstone on my mad hate-bender over Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, I figured that I ought to watch the movie adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg. It was… fine. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t hate it in the same way that I did the novel. Maybe that means Spielberg et al. deserve praise for achieving a rare “the movie was better than the book” moment. At the same time though, thrice 1/10 is only 3/10, so be damned with praise, I suppose (sorry, statistics pedants of the world, for using multiplication on an interval scale!)
The film corrected many of my biggest problems with the book especially because as a movie, it literally had no choice but to “show, not tell.” Instead of using Cline’s uselessly vague descriptors like “80s dance moves” the movie had to actually put the stupid dance on the screen for the audience to see. Even the awful pop-culture references, which were so annoying and lazy and unavoidable in the novel, mostly drifted away into the ignorable background because the animators crammed so many icons into the OASIS that focusing on any one of them became impossible (an upgrade from unavoidable to ignorable? damned with praise again!).
However, at 2 hours and 19 minutes, the movie dragged on for far too long through CGI cutscene after CGI cutscene. That excessive length might explain my lack of substantive commentary because after about 90 minutes, I started to zone out while twiddling on my phone and counting down every 10 minutes for the movie to end. Whatever. I am finally feeling a little fatigue discussing the franchise and don’t have anything special to say that professional critics haven’t so I’ll stop there with the movie.
I am more interested in seeing if I can make any meaningful comparison between Ready Player One and video-game setting anime. Initially, that was maybe my implicit goal. I grabbed the book as a self-conscious break from a month-long isekai binge thinking I could write about it. But, as much as I tried, I couldn’t force a comparison. This is not for lack of similarities. If Ready Player One’s virtual-world self-insert power fantasy had been published as a light novel, it would have cleanly landed in the isekai genre. Plenty of cynical forum posts have already noted how Ready Player One resembles a Western version of Sword Art Online. They fit together almost perfectly.
Instead though, I gave up on making a direct comparison because I stumbled across a much more interesting one. The works themselves did not differ much, but my cross-cultural styles of consumption did. As an insider in Cline’s nerd culture, I found myself far more critical of every little fault in the book: some lazy minority tokenizing here, a transphobic line there, and bad prose everywhere. Criticizing Ready Player One was easy like… uh… bullseyeing womp rats with my T-16 (what useless pop-culture reference would Cline use here?). By contrast, I lack that same cultural and critical context with foreign media. Despite the great similarities between Ready Player One and the isekai genre, the Japanese works genuinely challenged my analytical skills and resulted in far greater self-reflection.
As a long-time MMORPG player, the isekai genre fascinates me for its almost complete adoption of video game tropes following the wild success of Sword Art Online. Though isekai, and even virtual world MMO isekai, predate Sword Art Online, that one franchise seems to have turned the entire genre into a wish-fulfillment fantasy playground for otaku. Especially in the light novel arena, isekai has become a Japan-specific modern analogue for the scandalous dime novels or trashy pulp fiction of the past. Every season seems to pump out another MMO-esque isekai setting, from shameless ecchi harems like Isekai no Smartphone to legitimate parodies of the current industry craze like KonoSuba.
This season is no exception. By my initial count, summer 2018 introduced three new isekai anime. The first, How Not to Summon a Demon Lord,grossed me out with its glib slavery premise and the second, Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria, exceeded even Demon Lord in eliciting disgust (I repeat: it is the worst television production I have ever seen. ). With that mess as competition, I immediately crowned the third, Shichisei no Subaru (English: Seven Senses of the Reunion), the best isekai of the season before even watching it.
But then I ran into a problem. After watching the first three episodes, I realized that Subaru didn’t fit my initial isekai genre label. Thought about 70% of the show takes place in a virtual reality video game world, the narrative remains well-grounded in an exploration of very real grief after the death and virtual reincarnation of a childhood friend.
I was too hasty in my coronation. Subaru is not just another cheap wish-fulfillment otaku exploitation flick set in an MMO-esque fantasy. It has a mystery! It has decently sympathetic characters! It even has identifiable themes! None of those features exactly impressed me; the first three episodes earn a solid “just okay.” However, it does deserve credit for trying to tell it’s own story in a genre full of generic copy-cat nonsense.
But then I ran into another problem. Subaru wasn’t just telling it’s own story. I had heard this premise before… the ghost of a young girl returns to haunt a reclusive otaku years after her early death, thus forcing him to reunite with his now-distant childhood friends to solve the mystery and overcome unresolved grief… hmmm… is this… AnoHana? Pretty much, yeah. Essentially, Subaru cuts the narrative out of AnoHana and pastes it into a generic MMO-inspired video game world. Again, Subaru isn’t exactly bad. It is just astoundingly unoriginal.
Subaru’s odd combination of a serious grief narrative with a typical farcical MMO settingdid make me think though. Can a writer shove any theme into a video game world and produce a compelling story? Or does the setting only excel at generic self-insert wish-fulfillment? Have MMO-esque fantasies proliferated in the anime industry because they possess some genuine storytelling utility? Or are they just a cynical way to capture the gamer-otaku market?
Unfortunately, the first three episodes of Shichisei no Subaru push me towards the cynical conclusion. AnoHana does not fit well inside Sword Art Online. Video game settings should not simply replace straight fantasy; they need some thematic connection to the real debate over the meaning and value of virtual realities. Otherwise, stories like Subaru’s might as well simply exist in the the real world. But unfortunately for Subaru,AnoHana already exists.