Weebsday Q+A | 11/25/2020

It is Weebsday, my dudes! This week’s question is all about Bush-era political commentary in anime. I guess it’s what the 2020 holiday season deserves.

I recently rewatched FMA03 and was struck by how well much of it’s politics still holds up/is relevant. I’m curious what you think about 03’s politics especially it’s allegories to real world conflict. – @JulianMorein

Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 is one of my favorite anime of all time. Nothing special about that opinion; it’s like saying SpongeBob SquarePants is one of my favorite cartoons, which is also true. I could toss a rock out my window and hit someone who feels the exact same way—or at least, I could have a decade ago. Nowadays, that poor concussed pedestrian would probably append one word to the name of their favorite anime: Brotherhood.

I can’t help but wonder how many of today’s weebs have even seen the first anime adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist. Slowly but surely, both Hiromu Arakawa’s original manga and the anime remake produced to hew closer to that source—2009’s Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood—have been replacing FMA 03 in the popular zeitgeist. It’s weird to think that one of the most successful and acclaimed anime of its decade has already been supplanted by a remake that began before the ’00s ended, but I do understand why the rawness and cynicism that overwhelmed FMA 03’s last half would fall quietly out of favor compared to the more adventurous and hopeful Brotherhood. Anime fandom has become much more mainstream these days, and everything that made FMA 03 popular is still present in Brotherhood, with most of its controversial edges safely sanded off.

But I remember. How could I forget The Terminarcher? How could I forget my high school’s water-cooler discussion of the show suddenly mutating into uncomfortable teenage debates on the Thule Society?

I think FMA 03’s galaxy-brain additions like The Other Side of the Gate are mostly summoned in whispers these days, rumors of some freaky mirror universe where Hohenheim knew Winston Churchill for some reason. In retrospect, it’s absolutely wild to me that director Seiji Mizushima and writer Shou Aikawa got away with so much politically provocative stuff in a prime time hit like this. Fullmetal Alchemist was not a late-night anime! Children watched it on weekend afternoons like they watch My Hero Academia today! Brotherhood’s ultimate direction is more sensible—it remains rooted in fantasy, everyone finds a fitting redemption, and good triumphs over evil. The 2003 anime is not the version of FMA for everybody anymore, but it’s the version of FMA I fell in love with. The show’s fearless embrace of sensitive topics and unanswerable questions was always a feature for me, never a bug.

You don’t milkshake duck the most beloved character from your TV show unless you think you got somethin’ to say.

But if you don’t remember FMA 03 being all that “political”, you’re not alone. Ultimately, I think FMA stays high-concept enough to act as a Rorschach test for the beliefs of fans across a wide spectrum, especially since “there are no concrete solutions for life on this bitch of an earth” is one of the intended messages. Even when the series ends by dropping its hero off to develop rocketry in 1920’s Munich, you could handwave FMA 03’s real-world parallels in many different directions, but if I start going in on its Archie Bunkerism now, I’ll be here all day.

To keep this Q+A from becoming a bloated essay, I’m gonna have to assume you’re already somewhat familiar with the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the tragedies that followed. I ain’t equipped to explain the Iraq War to nobody. While support for the War on Terror grew in the States, Japan was just one of our many international neighbors to widely disapprove of it, and FMA’s writing team had current events firmly in mind when detailing the fall of Liore in their anime’s last quarter. I wouldn’t say Fullmetal Alchemist is unique in its characterization of the conflict, but it’s gotta be the first foreign work of Iraq War criticism to become wildly popular in the States—even if its fantasy framing kept many fans from picking up on those parallels.

At the start of the series, Ed and Al expose an alchemist posing as a priest in the formerly impoverished city of Liore. The sun-god-fearing citizens have been thriving with the help of Father Cornello’s “miracles”, and the state military wants to prevent an insurrection building under his influence. Edward traveled to Liore on assignment as a state alchemist, but the 15-year old doesn’t actually care about enforcing the state’s authority. He only wants to expose Father Cornello for personal reasons, suspecting that the fake priest has discovered the Philosopher’s Stone that Ed could use to restore his brother’s lost body. Edward and Alphonse don’t believe that they’re fighting on behalf of the power-hungry military or the ignorant Liore denizens, only for their personal redemption. In the process, Ed relishes in flaunting his atheism and prodigious scientific knowledge before believers like Rose who’ve been putting all their hope in their faith. Ed’s not wrong to overthrow the duplicitous Father Cornello, but his brother Al (and the audience) can sense that his self-righteous adolescent cynicism isn’t helpful to the suffering populace, either. Edward ultimately leaves a weeping Rose behind to clean up the fallout of his act of “salvation”, telling her only to move forward under her own will from now on.

Soon after, Edward learns more about the war in Ishbal that defined the careers of state alchemists in the generation before him. Ishbal’s own insurrection curiously mirrors his experience with Liore, but it all ended much more tragically. With the support of the state, alchemists tried to bring their mystical flavor of science to the people of Ishbal, but the Ishbalans considered alchemy blasphemous, leading to civil unrest and occasional outbreaks of violence. After one soldier accidentally shot an Ishbalan child, this unrest exploded into all-out war, and state alchemists were sent in to exterminate the Ishbalans and raze their country to the ground. Left without a home, the remaining Ishbalans live in hiding across a series of camps and slums in Edward’s now-expanded home country of Amestris. Edward is shocked to learn about this tragedy at first, but he concludes that the war was no one’s fault, just another senseless footnote in the cycle of violence. It helps that a survivor of the war, an Ishbalan terrorist code-named Scar, has been vengeance-killing state alchemists in the name of Ishbal, which Edward views as equally bad.

Replace bringing “alchemy” to supposedly less-developed nations full of brown people with bringing “democracy”, and you can probably see where this parallel is going. Unbeknownst to Edward, the military rushed into Liore after Cornello’s fall to quell the fighting between believers and non-believers—by murdering both in equal measure. The truth about Ishbal was also vastly different from what Ed’s fellow alchemists had told him. Ishbalans already knew about alchemy, and their alchemists had mastered their own techniques long before the military invaded. It was considered a heretical practice, but Ishbalan alchemists arguably had more knowledge on the subject than Amestrians—at least, they knew how to make a bigger Philosopher’s Stone. And that accidental shooting of an Ishbalan child? That was the cover story for a far more inflammatory act of war the state committed, when they sent a special ops team to murder many of Ishbal’s unarmed religious leaders in the night, and took advantage of the ensuing chaos to invade and instate their own narrative the following day. Amestrian propaganda would have you believe all these countries full of brown people need to be saved from their backwards religious zealotry, but the state has clearly been starting wars unprovoked for its own reasons—the Fuhrer wants the same thing Edward wants, and the boy’s service, however half-hearted, has only been bringing his troops closer to it.

Sidebar: Kimbley’s character in FMA 03 is basically a cartoon SS officer, and most of his lines are prejudice posing as nihilism. He goes out like a bitch in that version, but he gets a more badass sendoff in Brotherhood, where he beats a bigger villain. I remember it seeming cool at the time, and Kimbley might be characterized differently in ways I forgot, but I’m…not sure how I feel about that now.

When Edward meets Scar in Liore, the pieces start falling into place. Scar plans to use Ishbalan alchemy to turn the thousands of invading Amestrian soldiers into a Philosopher’s Stone—but that’s also what the Fuhrer wants him to do. Sure, he would rather sacrifice brown people to acquire the Stone—a supposed weapon of mass destruction that could become an elixir of life in his master’s hands—but he doesn’t mind throwing his own troops into the meat grinder instead if it gets the job done. The Philosopher’s Stone is the only thing that the state cares about, and you can only make a Philosopher’s Stone by sacrificing a warzone’s worth of human lives. That’s not to imply that Amestrian soldiers are harmless pawns in all of this. Psychopaths like Frank Archer and Zolf Kimbley are quickly promoted to positions of power for their readiness to sacrifice lives in Liore. There’s plenty of human cruelty to exploit on the battlefield before you even get to the more monstrous conspiracies at the top, but the truth is that there were never two sides to this war. It’s just systemic racism and poverty being exploited by men (and women, shout out to Dante) at the top out of bottomless greed. Ed never thought his personal search for the Philosopher’s Stone would affect the world in such a hellish way, but after Scar gifts the completed Stone to Edward in the form of his own brother, Ed is forced to accept the responsibility of living with the compromised reality at the end of his childish dream.

While FMA 03 is never gauche enough to reference 9/11 or the Iraq War directly—even after Ed travels to our world, the furthest he sees into the future is the invention of the atomic bomb—it’s hard not to see the Bush years reflected in Ishbal and Liore. Even the nuances of how Amestris characterizes their warmongering to citizens versus the crass truth behind American (uh, I mean Amestrian) hegemony just east of where the white people live rings uncomfortably true to history. It’s a massive topic to tackle, so Fullmetal Alchemist spreads its commentary nice and thick across dozens of characters and subplots with their own perspectives and conclusions to compare. In terms of how I think it “holds up”, I could spend hours discussing where an Iraq War reading of Liore succeeds or fails, but FMA 03 is such a chimera of diverse influences that I don’t think it’s fair to judge it as pure allegory, even if the show’s ultimate WWI setting makes it clear that Mizushima and Aikawa did hope viewers would draw real-world parallels. Fullmetal Alchemist is its own fantastical story with its own context that was inspired by current events, but certainly not defined by them. It tells that story with a great depth of humanity and unflinching criticism of the frequent intersection between war and science in a world where people in power are always motivated by deadly sins.

Turning from the geopolitical back to the personal, I was most struck on rewatch by how the War in Liore affects Edward. I think that message about accepting personal responsibility in circumstances that seem beyond your control has aged extremely well. Ed has no desire to aid the military in any way, and he justifies his enlistment by seeing himself as the one using them, but he’s always been living off of privileges afforded to him by the state’s subjugation of less fortunate people. Every little decision Ed makes under the state’s authority has state consequences, even if he’s pursuing the Philosopher’s Stone for his own reasons, and even if he thinks he’s helping people along the way. Ed learns that wars aren’t just something that happen to soldiers in faraway dangerous places that have nothing to do with him, especially when he passively benefits from those wars. They might think they’re only looking out for each other, but the Elric brothers’ good intentions and rational motives can easily be exploited for national interests, just like so many bright-eyed scientists have been used before them.

Edward does get the Philosopher’s Stone, but he certainly didn’t earn it through his own efforts, and it comes at a human cost that makes him unwilling to accept it. You and I will probably never receive such a cursed gift at such a grave price, but it’s true that growing up means accepting personal responsibility for what your society has given you, even if it’s not something you chose or even believe is right. Because even if you pretend that the state of the world has nothing to do with you and your dreams, your choices will still impact the people around you, usually in ways you never intended. Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 drives home that for as long as you’re alive, you can’t opt out of participating in the world, broken and unfair though it may be. I think that’s a worthy message in a year where personal accountability and community support have become more vital than ever.

You can submit your own questions for Weebsday Q+A on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Three Episode Test | Daily Lives of High School Boys

The “three episode test” is a largely unspoken tradition of modern anime fandom. The idea is that most TV anime are paced and structured to cement the impression they want to make on viewers by the end of episode three. If you make it that far and still want to see how the story ends, then you’re hooked for the long haul. Though the exact origin of this test is unknown, it has become trendy enough to influence the production staff behind many anime series today, creating a feedback loop where third episodes are often developed with the expectation to impress in mind. Today’s test subject: Daily Lives of High School Boys.

One of the best things about taking commissions is that I get the chance to look back at all kinds of anime that time forgot, shows that I would never think to check out again myself. Getting a request for Daily Lives of High School Boys sent me into full Obi Wan mode—the only thing I remembered about this 2012 comedy anime with the world’s most innocuous title was a scene where one of the titular high school boys smushes a hornet that landed on his mouth by crushing it against his friend’s lips. It’s a hilarious scene, but unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in the show’s first three episodes. Considering the bits that did make it into the show’s first quarter, I can see why that hornet’s kiss was the only thing I still remembered.

Comedy is subjective enough to begin with, before you even get to the language barrier that can restrict anime comedies in translation. Even the most successful comedy anime in Japan (Shin-chan, Gintama, Osomatsu-san) tend to attract a much smaller niche of English-language fans. Unless there’s a ton of action, fanservice, or an endearing love quadrangle supporting the stream of gags, pure silliness is a tougher sell for English speakers who have no shortage of animated comedies in their own language to choose from. As its title implies, Daily Lives of High School Boys trades in casual, mundane gags for the most part, with just enough absurdity in moments like the hornet’s kiss to give the show its own personality. It’s too bad that the show’s personality has to be split up so uniformly over a dozen faces in its cast.

Tadakuni, Yoshitake, and Hidenori are the central trio of troublemakers in an all-boys school overflowing with other sardonic numbskulls. On the surface, Tadakuni seems like the everyman, while Yoshitake has a vaguely delinquent energy, and Hidenori is the outspoken nerd. But in practice, there’s not much daylight between their personalities in the show’s revolving door of sketches. Each new comedy routine seems hyper-aware of the fourth wall, like the boys are trying to provoke the audience just as much as each other, so they’ll all switch places in the straight man or buffoon part, depending on what the skit needs in the moment.

This SNL energy did help set Daily Lives of High School Boys apart from its peers, especially back in 2012 when this level of snide self-awareness was less common in anime comedies. It’s not the sitcom setup we might expect, where laughs come from the way that each clearly defined personality clashes in their world. Daily Lives of High School Boys is an irreverent sketch comedy about absolutely nothing. Every character seems motivated purely by the pursuit of a laugh, a groan, or hopefully both at once.

The lads don’t need much reason to put on their sisters’ underwear, pretend to join a JRPG party, or improvise a romantic sunset confession with a complete stranger on the riverbank. They seem to know that an audience is watching them, so they’ll always be down for anything, just for the sake of the gag. The possibility of any sturdier reality behind the shaky plywood set of their world gets thrown out the window in the first episode’s first bit, where the guys run to school while wolfing down curry and ramen instead of the stereotypical slice of toast. Choice moments like this breakfast gag and the hornet’s kiss do yield solid laughs, but ultimately, I think this sketch comedy structure deprives the show of the stamina it needs to be funny for twelve episodes—it’s barely funny enough for three.

When every high school boy in the cut is a vague variation on the same archetype—a fun-loving dumbass who inevitably takes a daily exercise in improv too far—even frequent changes in the scenery or cast aren’t enough to break up the monotony of lesser sketches or emerging patterns that tend to affect every character the same way. This hit-or-miss, anything-goes style of comedy could balance out its inconsistent quality with a higher quantity of sketches, but the lackadaisical pace of Daily Lives of High School Boys hurts its best bits with the stinkers that linger too long. At the end of episode 3, there’s a four and a half minute sequence where Hidenori debates whether or not to tell a girl that she has a hair growing out of a mole on her neck. The punchline is that it ultimately doesn’t matter—he wasted his time worrying about it, and you wasted your time watching him. Shaggy dog jokes like this can be funny—this infuriatingly hilarious bit in Cromartie High School is almost seven minutes long—but it’s a major waste of precious screentime if it doesn’t pay off. For me, that was the last straw for a repetitive sketch series whose misses were quickly outpacing its hits.

If you like irreverent, sketches-over-sitcoms anime in this style, I would recommend Osomatsu-san or Asobi Asobase first. Both anime embrace their mundane and absurd sides more intensely at a faster pace, with the support of a more memorable and distinct cast. Daily Lives of High School Boys does have a scene where a guy accidently shaves his nipple clean off, but I don’t think its tight handful of laughs is enough to save the overall rocky ride from obscurity.

Daily Lives of High School Boys is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Thanks to Charlie for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust | HanDmade Horror

Happy Halloween, boils and ghouls! It’s the spookiest time of the year once again, and while many weebs are bound to celebrate by binging the newest revival of Higurashi—it’s a reboot that’s secretly a sequel in disguise or something? Why can’t Ryukishi07 make things simple for once?—I find myself feeling nostalgic for a more handmade flavor of fantasy horror, and nothing fits that bill quite like Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust. Perhaps I’m just thirsting for more grain and grit and sinew at the end of a year where the tangible joys of life have been harder than ever to come by. (Or maybe somebody commissioned me to write about this movie with frightfully perfect timing.) But Bloodlust has held a special place in my heart ever since I first heard the line “It’s zombie time”, so I was happy to revisit this unique film’s legacy as it nears its 20th anniversary.

There’s long been debate within that vigorous overlap between anime fans and horror fans over animation’s capacity to convey horror well. While animation can easily outpace live action in its limitless potential for shocking imagery, the artificial nature of the medium also tends to diminish the fright factor of those images. It’s disturbing to see a real deluge of blood flooding out of a real elevator in a movie, but translate that into a flood of red paint in a painted world, and it’s more likely to come off comedic—usually, the blood gets off at the second floor. Choosing to embellish the animation of blood and gore with greater detail will diminish the comedic effect, but it might only exchange it for a beautifying effect that can dampen the intended horror too, as the audience becomes enchanted or excited by a meticulous or attractive rendering of violence and decay. Far beneath the higher concepts or deeper thrills that accompany a great horror story, that vicarious reaction of being afraid, the terror that comes from imagining that something so vile could happen to you, is bound to lessen when you feel further from the animated world that danger lives in.

I think D vaults this hurdle more spectacularly than most horror anime, but not because it taps into some surprising vein of visceral realism—quite the opposite. The film’s scope is fantastical, its atmosphere often dreamlike, and despite its lurid title, I’m not sure Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust can fairly be called a horror anime at all. (That edgetacular “Bloodlust” was only added to the film’s name to distinguish it from a humbler VHD movie adaptation from 1985.) The titular D—short for either dhampir or Drac Junior, I think—lives in an eclectic world torn between the past and the future, where the vampiric aristocracy that once ruled over humanity has fallen into decline. Vampire hunters who wield supernatural powers or futuristic weapons are the only line of defense for mankind’s remnants struggling to rebuild their lives on a rustic frontier, as a smattering of isolated vampires plot world domination from the shadows with the help of their monstrous servants. The resulting world is a casserole of popular fascinations from Japanese genre fic of the ‘80s, when this 2001 film’s source material was written. It’s Hammer Horror meets Mad Max, with just a dash of tragic romance and a pinch of spaghetti western for spice, but it all blends together surprisingly well!

It helps that VHDB is far more concerned with spectacle than lore, centering all its action on a thin but propulsive plot. The noble vampire Meier and his human lover Charlotte, with no place to live in peace on Earth, decide to flee by carriage to the site of an ancient rocket ship that will hopefully bear them up to the stars together. D pursues the pair after Charlotte’s father offers him a rich bounty, and adventure ensues across a pastiche of genres that sees our antihero coolly escaping Mexican standoffs in western settlements, dodging the post-apocalyptic artillery of rival hunters, and weathering surreal waking nightmares in the final boss’ futurist palace. While the movie shines with a dark glaze of gothic horror imagery throughout its run, I’d struggle to place VHDB into any one genre. It’s easier just to call it a Yoshiaki Kawajiri movie.

Most people know of Kawajiri from his 1993 shlockbuster Ninja Scroll, which enjoyed greater success in America than Japan for its painstakingly animated feudal brutality. Like VHDB, the plot of Ninja Scroll is uncomplicated, but it’s still easier to describe the experience as a collection of high-concept set pieces with their own climaxes and turns of momentum that eventually chain together, rather than one cohesive story with a familiar structure defined by its genre. Kawajiri has legendary instincts for choreographing action and capturing details in motion, but the pace and execution of every shot within a scene is more important to him than how those scenes will flow together over the larger film. This sequence-driven approach allowed Ninja Scroll to play better to Americans seeking taboo thrills in short memorable bursts from their Blockbuster rental. So when the anime boom of the late ‘90s began surging in earnest, Kawajiri, already a big fan of Hollywood action movies, embraced his style’s compatibility with US audiences like never before. His next feature was to be one of the most involved East-West collaborations in anime history up to that point. Ninja Scroll captured the attention of edgy American teens by accident. Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust sought to do that on purpose.

After VHDB’s animation production was completed by Madhouse, the movie’s sonic side was produced entirely in California, with an American musical score, sound mix, and English voice cast; the movie was even shown in English with Japanese subtitles in Japan before receiving a Japanese dub on home video later—creating an unusual licensing situation where the Japanese version of this Japanese movie can’t actually be released in America, just the English “dub”, which is technically the original version. The ultimate marriage of Vampire Hunter author Hideyuki Kikuchi’s dense fantasy worldbuilding with Kawajiri’s passion to deliver a punchy action spectacle for Americans pumps too many ideas into Bloodlust for it to resonate emotionally, but all those ideas are insanely cool in an unapologetic mallgoth kind of way. It’s a gorgeous slice of rich, dark excess that remains effortlessly fun to watch, so if I was forced to assign a genre to Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust, I think it would be most flattering to call it an action movie in horror’s clothing, if anything.

And yet, I believe Bloodlust’s unique pedigree should give it a permanent pedestal of recognition as a horror movie, too. At the turn of the millennium, anime was rapidly completing its transition to digital painting techniques over hand-painted cels, not just in television, but even for theatrical features. Studio Ghibli had changed over to digital coloring techniques for Spirited Away by 2001, lending movies like The Cat Returns and Howl’s Moving Castle a squeaky clean brightness that seemed alien compared to the softer and dirtier textures of films like Princess Mononoke. Pre-digital Ghibli films instantly looked older and earthier than they had before. That aged earthiness of a physical hand-painted cel breathes life into D’s gothic horror aesthetic in a way that no computer can replicate. You’re always vaguely aware that the blood dripping down that vampire’s fangs was dripped by hand, as film grain dances over the action like dust blowing over a grave.

VHDB is not just one of the most impressive visions of gothic horror ever hand-painted into cinema, it’s also one of the very last. It’s a swan song for a uniquely tangible appeal of the artform that we will never know again. The film’s nightmarish action is too beautiful and surreal to be “scary” exactly, but you can sense that it was smeared into life directly by human hands—there’s an eerie warmth to the fingerprints and brush strokes that bleeds into your soul through the screen. It makes your heart pound a little faster to see Carmilla’s corpse sop and writhe with blood that you know had to be splattered over and over onto hundreds of sheets of warm, slick plastic to resurrect her. It’s like a quieter whisper of the ineffable feeling we lost in the changeover from practical effects to CGI in live-action horror. Maybe that rubber mask wasn’t always as scary as the motion-capped monsters of today, but it was a real artifact created by a real artist to scare humans, and now it’s rotting away in a warehouse somewhere, its golden eyes forever peeled open until all their golden paint has peeled away.

If you’re resigned to celebrating Halloween from behind a screen this year, perhaps Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust will warm your heart like it did mine. It’s a wonderful sendoff to a bygone era of anime horror aesthetics. At least we can take comfort in the knowledge that while those analog methods of creating animation have gone away, VHD Bloodlust’s handmade spirit still lives on in print. Hideyuki Kikuchi wrote every one of his Vampire Hunter novels by hand, and he continues to pen new adventures for D into the present day! Suddenly, D’s persona as a stoic badass whose deeper feelings are mostly betrayed by his outspoken left hand makes a lot more sense.

Thanks to Gero Bruemmer for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Joe Pera Talks With You | The Right Things

“Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my morning coffee. Just kiddin’. I’m happy to talk anytime.”

Joe Pera is not the first person you’d think of to host a television show about his life. He might not even be the 51st person you’d think of. In his own words, Joe Pera is a soft-handed choir teacher who lives in awe of Michigan’s geological splendor. He spends his days living at his own gentle pace in the city of Marquette, nestled under the belly of Lake Superior, where he looks after his only living relative, Nana Josephine, and his sleepy basset hound, Gus. Only nominally in his early 30’s, Joe radiates a delicate diffidence that hovers somewhere between childlike and ancient—a lightly fermented second childhood that matches the energy of the elderly company he prefers to keep, far from the raucous intensity of local bars or the teacher’s lounge populated by his peers. Joe suspects that something about the teacher’s lounge turns people into lust-crazed animals, so he prefers to enjoy his humble ketchup sandwiches in the comfort of the Buick Park Avenue he inherited from his grandfather. If he’s feeling especially zesty that day, he might even drive by the Dairy Queen afterwards. It’s hard to imagine a life like Joe Pera’s commanding your attention even over a dinner date, much less a TV show that plays in the wee hours of the morning on Adult Swim.

But the tranquil simplicity of his life has given Joe a great deal of down time to think about all the things that matter to him, like beans, jack-o-lanterns, and the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada. In Joe Pera Talks With You, he tempers these thoughts into 11-minute passages that reveal a greater depth to the smallest parts of life we take for granted. Living at such a measured pace has given Joe more room to relish excitement in unexpected places. He can stay awake for three days on the euphoria of hearing The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley” for the first time, or he can face his fears of mortality by laying the pumpkin he carved to rest in the same way he hopes to leave this world, tumbling down one of the 300 beautiful waterfalls of the Upper Peninsula. Joe Pera Talks With You provides wholesome escapism that anyone can appreciate in guilt-free morsels—and its lazy atmosphere is especially potent in times of unparalleled stress like these.

However, Joe Pera is not really a choir teacher from Marquette, Michigan. Joe Pera is a comedian who grew up in Buffalo, and spent years hustling and refining his persona in the aggressive world of New York City stand-up. There must be a worldly man with a fastidious mind dwelling quietly underneath his Junior Grandpa demeanor, which means the real Joe’s passion for mining deep humanity out of esoteric topics isn’t limited to soothing subjects like fir trees and agates. Joe Pera the choir teacher can’t express these greater anxieties so plainly, so we see them reflected in the new band teacher who captures his heart, a secret survivalist named Sarah Conner. (The show’s numerous tongue-in-cheek movie references provide another glimpse into Joe Pera the comedian’s love of film.)

Like most couples, Joe and Sarah’s first fight isn’t over anything important, but its very lack of importance is what makes Sarah angry. After many relaxing episodes spent listening to Joe ramble about breakfast and fireworks, Sarah demands he turn his attention to Real Stuff, to the world that’s been raging beyond anyone’s control—there’s rising sea levels, drone strikes on civilians, and much closer to home, a desiccating power grid that could go down at any time and take their city with it.

As Joe and Sarah take a break in the last episode of season one, Joe can’t seem to keep his mind on things that used to matter to him, like his high school’s hockey games. Even if only for Sarah’s sake, maybe it’s time he focused his energy on more important questions, like “Will America pay for what we’ve done?” It’s a transformation anyone in 2020 will recognize, an urgency to turn our wandering minds to the “right things”, lest we be unprepared when the horrors of the real world roll up to kick down our front door. Maps of old mining towns and rusting railroads are folded up to be replaced by charts tracking COVID infection or the unprecedented spread of natural disasters. The simple joys that filled Joe’s heart seem insignificant now, but dwelling on the darkness of the world outside his childhood home only drills a void into him that no amount of trivia from a Farmers’ Almanac can fill. Joe grows weary as Sarah’s mind speeds ahead of his on all the Right Things to think about, and his once-soothing show slows to a lonesome stop.

I write about cartoons for a living—well, at least it’s made me a living now and again. So, it’ll shock no one to learn that I’ve never been good at thinking about the right things either, spending more of my adult years than I’d like to admit in arrested development. Long before the urgent climate of the Trump Era blew in, I was criticized by my family for not caring enough about the “real stuff” that consumed them as evangelical conservatives. And as I grew older, I found partners and friends frustrated by how little I thought about the real stuff that consumed them as progressive activists. (I hope the quotation marks make it clear that I don’t think of both sides the same way, only that I’ve found myself lonely at both ends of the pendulum.)

I try my best to care about the right things, especially these days. I don’t want to shut out anything important, but in a brighter world, I know I wouldn’t think about real stuff much, because for whatever reason, I’m wired to think about cartoons instead. Growing up nerdy means coming to understand from a young age that the things that matter most to you don’t matter at all to most people. That real stuff starts mattering to us more as we get older, especially when we see it affecting the people we love. When Joe sees how important all this real stuff is to Sarah, he’s even willing to give up the aimless, placid tenor of his show if it means keeping her in his life.

Just like Joe, I didn’t spend my time wondering if America will pay for what we’ve done before the last few years, when it’s become impossible not to think about that. But I also never thought about beans, jack-o-lanterns, or the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada. Nobody considers those to be the right things for you to care about, so I never had to feel bad about that. But they were the right things for Joe Pera to think about. Watching his show made me think about those things in my own way for the first time. It brought new and unexpected flavors of peace and joy into my life that I wouldn’t have known, not if someone like Joe didn’t choose to think about something that doesn’t seem to matter to the rest of the world. If I get the chance to carve a pumpkin this Halloween, I’ll think about giving it 1/16th of my soul like Joe did, but I’ll dispose of it the way I’d like to go out, not gently over a waterfall like Joe, but in as messy and explosive a fashion as possible. It’s the right way to process mortality for me this year.

In hard times like these, I often wish that I was knowledgeable or passionate enough about the real stuff weighing down our world to write about it. I worry that I’m not spending my time writing about the right things. Gems like Joe Pera Talks With You remind me that the Right Things to spend time thinking about are just what’s right for you, because when you care about something enough to dig as deep as you possibly can, you’re bound to find something human down there that makes it real to someone else, who’s never thought about a jack-o-lantern that way before. Anyway, if you’d like to see how Joe’s relationship with Sarah plays out, I can’t recommend this wonderful little show enough. You can start with this free special on YouTube, which was made specifically to help people relax during the pandemic, in Joe Pera’s own unique way.

Thanks to AndalusianDoge for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Magia Record | Needle in the Air

It’s been almost ten years since Puella Magi Madoka Magica punched through the placid atmosphere of magical girl anime as we once knew it, scorching a still-expanding crater into the landscape from which all manner of twisted life has emerged. Legions of imitators like Yuki Yuna is a Hero and Day Break Illusion have blazed forth from that explosion, each striving to marry Precure and Faust in their own way for just a taste of Dokes’ roaring success. Naturally, the Madoka comet at the center of this subgenre continued to burn bright alongside its imitations. From movies to manga to mobile games, there was too much money to be made for even a powerfully conclusive TV series ending to stop Madoka from spinning off into the present day. Most of these releases have spun right past me, but I perked up when it was announced that Madoka would make its triumphant return to the small screen last year, with an anime adaptation of the midquel-based mobile game, Magia Record. It would be the first time I engaged with Madoka’s world since the Rebellion movie in 2013, and by the end, I was left with mixed feelings.

Since Madoka Magica joined the pantheon of the most famous and popular anime ever made almost overnight, it’s fair to say that fans of all stripes have been drawn to the franchise for completely different reasons as the years have gone by. I can only speak for myself as a “Madoka Deist”, when I say that I don’t care much about this universe without the presence of the writer who first gave it life, Gen Urobuchi. For other Dokes fans, it may be the nightmarish cut-out art of Gekidan Inu Curry that captures their imagination. Cosplayers may be thrilled with the endless array of new costumes to recreate, and SHAFT fans are bound to enjoy the idiosyncratic direction of Akiyuki Shinbo, drawing them to the equally blockbusting Monogatari series or the experimental Kagerou Project. But I’ve never cared too much about Madoka’s pretty face—my heart was captured by its spirit, and Gen Urobuchi’s passionate core argument that hope can triumph even against inescapable entropy, and that even the smallest acts of defiance and perseverance can build into something that will change people enough to transform the world around us. My relationship with Madoka Magica is defined by how it started my relationship with Boochi’s writing, and even a decade later, it remains one of the strongest stories in his staggering career.

As a Madoka Deist, what would something like Magia Record even be to me without Gen Urobuchi in it? Is it just all costumes and tea parties interrupted by scrapbook nightmares and crying girls? Could new writers, tasked with building a plot complex enough to carry an online RPG for years, possibly add anything to the seamless mystery box its creator closed (and briefly cracked open again with Rebellion) years ago? Well, even if they could, I wouldn’t know who to thank for such an incredible feat. The Magia Record mobile game’s story is attributed vaguely to the “f4samurai scenario team”, and the animator duo known as Gekidan Inu Curry have graduated to both heads of story and chief directors of the anime adaptation. People already joke about highly commercial anime series—particularly mobile game anime—being written by committee, but Magia Record’s story is literally credited to a committee. All I can do is examine this record on face value, and try to find some meaning in its music beyond the need to encourage regular in-game purchases.

Right away, Magia Record faces unique challenges as a midquel written to slot into a story that must follow a concentric pattern of soul-crushing twists to move every character forward to the same conclusion, in a vicious cycle of despair and annihilation. Madoka Magica’s very premise, the system that defines its world, is the true villain, and it cannot be defeated until Madoka Kaname’s sacrifice at the end of the original story. Before that happens, without exception or escape, all magical girls must fight until they either die in battle or live long enough to become Witches. This pattern can’t be rewritten by any specific choices made by different characters in a different plot—replacing Madoka and Homura with new faces like Iroha and Yachiyo will not change the dead end of their fates. Their record must follow the same spiral pattern across the same grooves toward the silence of entropy. The only solution left for Magia Record’s writers is to hold the needle in the air, as the table turns gently in place to nowhere in particular for a while.

Magia Record takes place in a city cut off from the Incubators’ influence, where Witches run rampant and Grief Seeds are never in short supply. A mysterious cabal known as the “Wings of Magius” has been calling magical girls from across Japan to this Kamihama City, promising salvation from the cycle—even Kyubey has been replaced with a teensier and more marketable version of himself that prefers to squeak rather than speak. While a life spent fighting Witches could never be considered paradise, Kamihama City is about as good as it gets for magical girls in search of mutual support. With such bottomless resources to mine from increasingly powerful opponents, magical girls are encouraged to rely on one another instead of competing for once. They even have the solace of a safe home base watched over by the Coordinator, a magical girl who uses her powers not to fight, but to strengthen others’ Soul Gems in exchange for surplus Grief Seeds. (To Magia Record’s credit, there aren’t many times when obvious game mechanics leak into the linear televised version of its story, but the Coordinator does stand out as a former Shopkeeper NPC of some kind.)

While every character still gets her own sad backstory and passel of personality problems—some (Sana) more compelling to watch than others (Felicia)—this new robust magical girl economy is mostly reminiscent of the carefree first act of the Rebellion movie, right down to its silenced Kyubey. Over the course of 10+ episodes, each character’s plotline weaves pretty neatly into the others, as they build a network of friendship together in a dangerous but not hopeless world. Witches are defeated in batches without much fanfare, while new foes called Uwasa drive the greater mystery forward. Uwasa are experimental monsters created by the Wings of Magius that operate on specific rules and conditions, unlike the senselessly nuclear Witches, which means there are ways to “solve” their interference with humanity beyond simply pushing forward with magical power until one side breaks. At the center of it all, our new Madoka, named Iroha, searches for her forgotten little sister, but she secretly fears that other lost ghosts from her past will meet her along the way with answers she can’t handle. Classic Madoka characters like Mami and Kyoko pop up to make largely fruitless cameos. There are Uwasa to solve and clues to gather and lots of cute new friends to be made, but no matter how fervently the record spins on its table, the needle stays in the air.

Just like the first act of Rebellion, this relative peace cannot last. No matter how funny or heartwarming their antics, all these new magical girls are destined to evaporate by record’s end. Once the needle starts passing through those necessary grooves—the reveal that magical girls’ bodies are zombie shells, that destroying their Soul Gems will kill them, and that continuing to fight will eventually make them into Witches—all of their relationships are doomed to end tragically. Magia Record’s replacement for Homura, named Yachiyo, already knows this terrible truth, so she’s reticent to form relationships with other girls. Despite Iroha’s persistence eventually pushing her into a new found family, Yachiyo’s already started back-pedaling by the time the needle finally descends in this first season’s last few episodes—but not for the reasons we think. At last, the fine print of Kyubey’s contract is blown up for all our new characters to see, but before any of them have time to process this life-changing new information, a surprising solution is offered—the needle may be down, but records can still skip.

Yes, the Wings of Magius have found a way to twist the system by trapping magical girls in a cycle within the cycle, allowing them to flirt with Witchification by shifting into a “Doppel” state that trades their sanity for raw magical power in short bursts. Yachiyo has known this all along, so she’s been desperately hiding the “monster” inside of her from her new friends. They didn’t bother to explain exactly how this works as of season one, but given that the mad scientist behind Doppel-ing is a stereotypical child genius, I have to assume it’s a technological breakthrough rather than a loophole in Kyubey’s own magic. Anyway, the “how” doesn’t matter. By forcing a repetitive skip in magical girl playback, Magia Record is trying to offer a contextual solution to what was originally a cosmic problem, revising the original story’s bigger ideas into much smaller ones.

Magia Record plants plenty of seeds in its dialogue comparing Witchification to a seductive kind of power to prepare us to accept this reveal—but that’s not what the Witch state represented in the original Madoka Magica. Becoming a Witch meant being crushed by the cruelty of the world, falling into absolute despair and therefore emotional powerlessness, regardless of how much havoc your soul’s lethal fallout wreaked after your death. Witchery was not a powerful state to be in, because it was devoid of consciousness or control—becoming a Witch is akin to straddling an atomic bomb as it crashes to earth. At most, you could maniacally embrace your dead-end despair and die laughing instead of screaming. (Most Witches laugh and scream simultaneously, in a nice touch of horror.) My point is, becoming a Witch never represented being tempted to acquire greater power, not before Magia Record asked us to reconsider by skipping in place.

Transforming Kyubey’s one-way escalator to oblivion into a balancing act where magical girls can just Jekyll and Hyde the nuke inside them was probably one of the only solutions available to Magia Record’s writers room, but that still doesn’t make it thematically interesting to me. It’s gotta be a risk/reward-based battle mechanic from the original game, because that’s exactly how it comes across in the anime, right down to the dark upgrade’s seemingly minor and reversible consequences. Nothing about this Doppel twist approaches the unforgettably desperate emotional stakes that drive Madoka’s world outside of Kamihama City—in fact, it just made the Magia Record cast’s already rosier situation that much cooler. Having a Doppel is badass enough to be a common foundation for no end of superhero stories where the good guy wrestles with his more powerful dark side, like The Hulk or Spider-Man’s Symbiote. It feels like a climactic turn this story just needed so that it would have one at all; otherwise, this would just be a plot about friendly magical girls who whittle their time away on Witches and Uwasa until Madoka Kaname’s sacrifice makes things slightly better for them without their knowledge.

Although we get a hint of the darker consequences to Doppel-ing after seeing Mami’s powers go out of control (poor Mami, it’s always Mami), becoming a Doppel is so obviously preferable to becoming a Witch that the story has to introduce another twist for us to feel like our heroes are facing any kind of greater threat instead of a relative victory against entropy. Not content just to save magical girls from their hellish fate, the Wings of Magius are planning to conquer humanity itself in some kind of Magical Girl Supremacist assault around Walpurgisnacht—you know, the day when Madoka Kaname’s sacrifice will nullify all of this completely. The oppressed somehow becoming the oppressors to start a war we already know they will lose—you hate to see it.

Look, the committee did their best here, but Madoka Magica is such a closed circuit of ideas that spinning it off was bound to be a thankless task. Some of this side story’s side stories do shine—Sana Futaba’s arc almost brought me to tears—and the others are at least competent in structure and tone, if uninspired in content. As an eternal middle state, a broken record, Magia Record could probably have played around with new character arcs and mini-mysteries forever, and I would have been content to watch it—slice-of-life comfort food in the Madoka universe, made just for die-hard fans, isn’t a bad idea. But somebody at corporate decided they couldn’t just keep spinning a record where the needle never dropped. In terms of generating revenue, going bigger was probably the right call, even if the writers’ only options for escalation were doomed to pale in comparison to the source material. So, now we get a Doppel War against Mahou Shojo Nazis, I guess.

Like so many stories, your investment in Magia Record will probably come down to how compelling you find its individual characters, and I personally found them too numerous and slight to draw me into their internal lives beneath the show’s greater focus on plot twists and new lore. Maybe future seasons will see Iroha facing her past as a stronger person and Yachiyo accepting the true meaning of friendship, but no matter how loudly this record skips in place, I already know how this story must end, and it has nothing to do with pedestrian platitudes about how power corrupts or whatever Magia Record is trying to say by gamifying its Witch imagery. It wouldn’t generate as many downloads on the App Store, but for the sake of this story and characters, maybe it would have been okay to write a midquel that remained forever in the middle. Maybe it would have been better to leave the needle in the air.

Madoka Magica: Magia Record is currently streaming on Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE.

Thanks to leafbladie for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Three Episode Test | Gleipnir

The “three episode test” is a largely unspoken tradition of modern anime fandom. The idea is that most TV anime are paced and structured to cement the impression they want to make on viewers by the end of episode three. If you make it that far and still want to see how the story ends, then you’re hooked for the long haul. Though the exact origin of this test is unknown, it has become trendy enough to influence the production staff behind many anime series today, creating a feedback loop where third episodes are often developed with the expectation to impress in mind. Today’s test subject: Gleipnir.

You know, I’d like to think that I’m a pretty tough cookie. I’ve got my fair share of crippling anxieties and irrational fears, but I try to face them with a smile, so I can gradually build up a tolerance to all the stuff that makes my skin crawl. I’ve just got two dumb phobias left, horrors that still grip my heart and seize my brain with a fervor I can’t shake until I get the fuck away from them. I’m afraid of fire, and I’m afraid of fursuits.

In the first episode of Gleipnir, our protagonist gruesomely transforms into a mascot costume to rescue a half-naked girl from a burning warehouse. My jeebies were 110% heebied, watching Shuichi live out my own personal hell.

I know most people don’t share my disgust for anthropomorphic suits, so I appreciate how thoroughly Gleipnir has embraced their potential for horror. Sure, they’re warm and fuzzy and they make children smile, but underneath those oversized frozen grins, you know it’s probably just a sweaty pervert. In Shuichi’s case, his entire body morphs into the costume as if it were an autonomous creature, so underneath the zipper, there’s nothing but a hollow void of clammy flesh, like his body has been turned inside out, stretched and warped into the facsimile of a childlike animal. The immediate question is why (god, why), but there are no answers yet, and the morbid chaos that followed this bizarre premise was just as engrossing as it was gross.

I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Gleipnir’s first three episodes, because it belongs to a specific class of anime horror that usually does nothing for me. Future Diary, Deadman Wonderland, and Happy Sugar Life are just a few examples of this genre, where kid-friendly images like candy, theme parks, and stuffed animals are constantly juxtaposed with shocking displays of gore and sex for maximum shock value. Most of these stories are aimed at teenagers, but they’re so blunt and self-aware about bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood that their attempt to ride a bleeding edge just reads jagged and dull to me. “Stop trying to shock me and shock me,” I want to say every time another uninspired anime trots out a 6-year old girl who puts bombs in teddy bears. Gleipnir seems to understand that the gap between children’s toys and adult weapons is not scary on its own—it’s mostly distracting, because we know those things don’t belong together and don’t tend to overlap in real life. It’s much more disturbing to watch innocence and corruption ooze together naturally, until the gulf between them just disappears.

After Shuichi saves Clair from a suicidal act of arson with his mascot-morphing powers, she thanks him by stealing his phone and taking blackmail photos of his monstrous alter ego. As it turns out, she was trying to take her own life because her sister had undergone a similar transformation that resulted in the death of her parents. Now Shuichi is her only lead for resolving the tragedy that ruined her life, whether he likes it or not. Shuichi himself has no idea why he’s become a were-furry (all signs point to aliens so far), and he wants nothing more than to get rid of this power, but he’s tender-hearted enough to trust Clair’s leadership in this mystery, if it means she’ll stop trying to kill herself. And that’s when we get to the real meat of Gleipnir.

In a stomach-turning, baldly sexual sequence, Clair strips down, unzips Shuichi’s costume body, and plunges inside. The moist, pulsing folds of his innards wrap around her limbs as he submits to her control, her grief, her hatred, and above all, her lust for vengeance. I found this role reversal fascinating, seeing a girl who was cast into adulthood too fast dominate a boy who’s been transformed into a symbol of his own desire to remain childlike, happy, and ignorant. I took it all in thoughtfully, with rapt attention. I definitely didn’t prance around the room squealing “ew, ew, ew”, flapping my hands around on the ends of my arms like a toddler with castanets at the ren faire.

Look, it ain’t high art, but there was something unexpectedly captivating about Gleipnir’s balance of the infantile and macabre that its peers in this subgenre have not had the confidence to pull off. There are no doe-eyed, rosy-cheeked moppets shouting obscenities or giving their victims poisoned lollypops. For once, this anime’s visceral vision is cohesive enough to close that gap between cute and creepy and genuinely unnerve me. Instead of trying to shock me with deadly babies or child-minded adults, Gleipnir exposes the horror in the minds of teenagers kicking and screaming at adulthood, developing kids who look in the mirror to see bags under their eyes for the first time and begin to fear that these empty summer days at the end of high school are as good as it will get for their lives.

Shuichi wraps himself up in denial, confronting the ugliness of death and loss around him with random acts of kindness in a friendly form, ignoring the hormonal impulses of the dog inside him in favor of its cartoonish smile. By contrast, Clair lost everything so abruptly that she can’t imagine ever being happy again, so she just wants enough power to punish the world (and her sister) for ripping it all away from her. It’s a chemistry that just works for this twisted nightmare of a premise, and there’s plenty of room for these two to push and pull against each other inside that stuffy suit. After three episodes of vile and upsetting imagery, I still hadn’t rolled my eyes once, and I never found the lack of explanation for all this madness irritating. The story had the confidence to make me believe it would dole out answers at the most dramatically potent time down the line.

If you’re in the mood for a shamelessly ugly twist on teen romance with some wild sci fi hooks and a snappy pace, Gleipnir passes the three-episode test with flying colors. I don’t expect Shuichi and Clair’s death-wish-fueled fling to resolve happily, and I’m not in the mood to watch more of something so dark and bitter right now, but I have to respect its successful shock factor in a playground over-populated with anime that try and fail harder to make teddy bears scary.

Gleipnir is currently streaming on Funimation.

Thanks to Ethan for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Digimon in Translation | Adventure #2

Episode 2 returns us to the Digital World on a literal cliffhanger, as the ground beneath our heroes’ feet gives way under Kuwagamon’s powerful pincers! Luckily, there’s a river running through the canyon below, so Gomamon summons an army of fish to cushion the gang’s fall and float them to safety. This cheeky sea lion is the least mobile or mighty member of the team even on a good day, so it’s nice to see him take up the hero role in combat-free emergencies like these. (In the first episode’s fight against Kuwagamon, Gomamon was the only Digimon without a special attack handy, so he just seal-rolled into the enemy’s foot to make him stumble into everyone else’s blows, which is hilarious.)

The English dub gives Gomamon a solid gag about the local fish having a “school reunion”, made even better when he half-heartedly laughs at his own bad pun. Then he clarifies that those fish were just friends of his, which is kinda true—all fish everywhere are friends to Gomamon, he’s like Aquaman right down to his C-tier position in the Super Friends team. In the more straightforward Japanese version, Gomamon explains that controlling fish is his special attack. More importantly, I was delighted to discover that Gomamon’s personality in Japanese is slightly different from Saban’s dub version. You could most easily describe R. Martin Klein’s Gomamon as a clown or a goof-off, but Junko Takeuchi’s Gomamon has a punk edge to him. He uses assertive and informal language that makes him sound like a rebellious back-woods boy looking to scrap. His little shaggy mohawk makes a lot more sense now!

At this point, we’re starting to see small edits to Digimon’s English dub footage compared to the Japanese source, though not for any censorship reasons (yet). In order to compensate for the meager seconds of difference in airtime between the Japanese source and whatever FOX required for broadcast in America, sometimes shots will be repeated or extended in an episode, mostly Digivolution sequences. In this case, Saban padded episode 2 by replaying a few seconds from each Digimon’s Rookie evolution as they re-introduce themselves to their partners. In the Japanese version, they didn’t replay any evolution footage at all. There’s no way I’m going to be able to catch all of these changes, since most of them just consist of holding on a frame of animation for slightly longer without changing the scene around, and Digimon Adventure had no shortage of still shots for Saban to artificially lengthen. I’ll just note these kinds of edits whenever they’re different enough to stand out.

Anyway, since the Chosen Children’s new friends look completely different now, the monsters are pressured to explain how Digivolution works, but they’re nearly as clueless as the kids on the subject. Dub Agumon pretends to know more than he does when he tells Tai that evolving requires sharing another person’s energy. I mean, that’s kind of true? We’ll get more info on how evolution works over time, but Sub Agumon offers a different explanation by stating that he could never digivolve before, but something tells him that it’s only possible now because Taichi is here. None of the other Digimon seem to understand the process either, which is why Patamon has such an incredulous expression in this shot.

In the Dub, T.K. says, “It’s so cool that I help you change!” but Patamon’s cheerful agreement doesn’t match his face. I know that face. All nerdy children should know that face, because that’s the face you get from a kid on the school bus who really doesn’t want you to sit next to them, but they’re too polite or nervous to tell you to piss off. So, what’s going on here in Japanese? Takeru is actually asking Patamon if he can go back to his little baby version, to which Patamon responds, “多分”, which is the kind of “maybe” that might really mean “lol, I don’t know.” The whole vibe of this scene is more clueless in Japanese; the kids want answers, and the Digimon have none. Because the Dub version is more positive, the adaptive writers had to change the context of this following shot where Joe and Gomamon look unhappy. Joe is suddenly suspicious of Gomamon again while Gomamon implores him to trust him, and I certainly don’t care for that. Keep those bad vibes away from my boys! In the Japanese version, they’re both just frustrated because they can’t figure out how or why the Digivolution happened.

The episode continues to diverge between versions after this, snowballing from changes made in episode one. In English, everyone is arguing about what to do next, and the conversation sort of goes in circles with a few punch-up gags to fill in the blanks. That’s because the Japanese version was focused around a conflict that the Dub already erased. The kids are actually trying to figure out where File Island is geographically, which is a moot point in English because they already know that they’re in an alternate digital dimension, and Izzy has been making as many computer puns about it as possible. The Japanese version also tends to see characters repeat or rephrase lines they’ve already said, mostly Jou, to emphasize that the other kids aren’t listening to him, while the Dub avoids simplicity or repetition in favor of more snark or silliness. And that’s how you get English lines like Joe’s “I shouldn’t wear these pants. They ride up when I do a lot of walking.”

The Dub’s preference for disposable gags is mostly harmless, but it tends to affect Matt’s character the worst, and this scene provides a perfect example with a line changed from Japanese to say the exact opposite thing in English. When the kids consider going back the way they came to wait for help, Mimi objects because she doesn’t want to get eaten by another giant bug. Yamato (S) agrees with her, saying “I don’t want to put anyone in danger.” Matt (D) prefers to puff up his chest and let everyone know that “Those monsters don’t scare me!” Thanks, Matt, that’s very helpful, good to know you’ve got the biggest dick in the cut. Oh yeah, Matt’s episode is up after this one. I hope you’re ready for a truckload of macho posturing rewrites!

Dub Agumon continues to assert things he doesn’t actually know when he says Tai and friends are the first humans to ever come to the Digital World. Adventure fans already know this isn’t true, so it makes more sense when Sub Agumon says they’re the first humans he’s seen in the Digital World. Alright, now I’m just getting nit-picky and negative, so let me shift focus to a Dub change that I do like. Mimi and Palmon’s riverside exchange in Japanese is just a silly gag, as Palmon brags about being able to photosynthesize, but gets embarrassed when she realizes that she doesn’t know what “photosynthesis” even means. All the Digimon partners are doing this to some extent, trying whatever they can to win over their partners, who remain focused on getting back home instead. But in English, there’s a little more character to their conversation, as Mimi offers to style Palmon’s hair, but Palmon likes her petals the way they are and wonders if Mimi might be too superficial for her own good. It’s a cute change that introduces a charming contrast between them, just like the gulf in personality between Gomamon and Joe.

When they finally reach the beach, the kids are relieved to find a row of telephone booths and start scrambling for loose change to call for help. Jou (S) exclaims that the phone booths are proof they can’t be far from Japan, only for Gomamon to bring down the party by asking what the heck a “Japan” is supposed to be, while Joe (D) says he’s going to call his parents, but Gomamon doesn’t know what a “parents” is, either. This is a great adaptive choice because it changes the details of the scene while preserving the intent—Joe’s relief at finding a sign of human civilization is comically undercut by Gomamon’s ignorance of a basic Earth thing, suggesting that they’re further from home than he’d hoped. Different, but same, as Mr. Miyagi might say. (Sorry, I’ve been on a Cobra Kai kick lately.)

If you can believe it, the litany of nonsensical phonebooth messages that annoy the kids is basically identical between both versions, from the dumb jokes about ice cream weather to the “automated” voice being so snide and irritable that it’s hard to believe it’s a robot at all. We never get an explanation for any of this, so like most life forms in the Digital World, I have to assume these phonebooths are just fucking with people to entertain themselves. After everyone but Joe has given up on the badly behaved booths, they turn to the problem of food, which only the 2nd-grader thought to bring along. Now here’s a weird change for you; in the Japanese version, nobody else knows that Yamato and Takeru are brothers! After Takeru shares candy with Mimi, she points out that he’s the only member of the group who doesn’t go to their school. Presumably, their school organized the summer camp or something? I don’t know how these things work in Japan.

OK, so here’s where it gets complicated. Takeru says that he only came to this camp because he wanted to spend summer vacation with his big brother, so he got special permission from his mom. Given the way he says this, combined with the fact that Yamato and Takeru have different last names, Taichi and Koushiro assume the two of them are cousins or something. In Japanese, you can call any slightly older male relative “big brother”, or even a very good friend or mentor, and it wouldn’t seem unusual. Yamato remains stoic throughout this, like he doesn’t really want to talk about it, because the truth of their parents’ divorce weighs on him pretty heavily, but we’ll get to that in episode 3.

This is all too much cultural subtext for the Dub to handle, so the entire scene is changed to a puppy-love flirt session between Mimi and T.K., and Matt’s standoffishness is reframed as “eww, girls, cooties.” And Tai and Izzy aren’t even paying attention to those three, they’re just thinking about how hungry they are. It’s a shame to lose the foreshadowing, but there’s just no way Saban was going to try and rework the “big brother” mystery into English.

Mimi may not have brought any food to the party (and she has no interest in carrying the bag of emergency rations she foisted on Joe), but she has been sitting on a heap of survival supplies that leaves the gang agog. The Dub accidently wrote itself into a corner here, because they added a line of dialogue in episode 1 about no one having a compass. When Matt (D) asks her why she didn’t share the compass earlier, Mimi replies with a big smile on her face that she thought it’d be fun to see how far they could get without one. What a jerk! Of course, you can’t assume that Mimi’s any more sweet or innocent in Japanese, because in the Sub version, she’s smiling about taking all of these camping supplies from her dad without asking, just for the hell of it.

Once Shellmon washes ashore to start trouble, the episode is basically the same between both versions. Agumon digivolves to Greymon after a lunch break, and everyone learns a valuable lesson about the importance of maintaining a healthy diet in a world full of hungry monsters. So, that means the secret to Digivolution’s gotta be food, right? As the Adventure continues in episode 3, we’re sure to learn more about these kids and what really fuels their new partners’ powers.

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Weebsday Q+A | 09/16/2020

It is Weebsday, my dudes! I asked my Twitter followers for a lightning round of interesting anime questions to answer on this blog, and you guys didn’t disappoint! Without further ado, here are this week’s Weebsday topics…

What do you think the switch from long running series with filler (One Piece, Bleach, Naruto) to series being split up into seasons to wait for more manga to adapt (like BNHA) means for the longevity of big series’s in the minds of the public and sustained popularity of a series? – @JillyBellys

Startin’ off with a tough one! Just speaking personally, I do prefer the interval-based model for adapting long-running shonen series to the year-round marathon. I like being able to take breaks away from a story and characters to try something new, and then I can get extra excited when an anime worth waiting for returns. I also appreciate the greater degree of quality control and relative lack of filler that comes with this release model. However, from a production perspective, I’m sure the anime’s staff would much rather work contiguously on a project for as long as possible. The animators don’t have to worry about looking for their next gig so often, and the directors don’t have to worry about treasured staff members being tied up with another project in the window that they get to start production back up again. Since you mentioned My Hero Academia, I know that their animation director mentioned BONES was able to organize a production schedule that allowed them to work on it continuously in the early seasons, so animators didn’t have to worry about scrambling for other work even with the break, but I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. I sure hope so!

As for cultural longevity, that’s harder to say. While old-school network and cable TV schedules aren’t going anywhere any time soon, the world has largely moved on to a “binging with breaks in between” model of TV digestion thanks to Netflix and Amazon, so that’s what the most profitable demographics have come to expect from most series. I do feel divorced from that trend in that I still prefer following TV as one episode per week for a full season, but I realize I’m in the minority on that one. Ultimately, I think that being able to time a release based on public appetite for it is more important than one model over the other. If you’ve got a One Piece-sized phenomenon on your hands that’s just one wild fantastical concept after another, starring characters everyone can’t get enough of, then by all means, you run that shit into the ground. But if you’re playing with a more flash-in-the-pan hype-reliant property like Fire Force that people can get burned out on quicker, I think giving people time to miss it, around 6 months to a year, is a great idea. And in that time, the staff can theoretically give the material the visual pizzazz it needs to make the right impact without exhausting themselves.

Based on the traffic and interest patterns I’ve seen over the years, I’d say the average anime can wait at most about 2 years before the story risks weathering diminishing audience returns if some kind of memorable continuation doesn’t surface. After that, you risk passing the Attack on Titan or Re:Zero line, two examples where the biggest anime series of the year, some of the biggest anime series of the decade, didn’t put out another season until four years later. Those continuations were still big hits, so maybe that’s not the best example, but my point is that they did lose viewership to newer titles they could have bulldozed with better timing. Titan 2 got drowned out by a season packed with new action series in 2017, and I’m stunned that Re:Zero is having to fight Rent-a-Girlfriend for attention now. I’m an anime lifer, so I’m happy to wait for new seasons of the things I love for as long as it takes, but the life cycle of anime is short!

Hypothetical! If you had to Midnight Sun an anime and retell it from a different perspective, which series would you pick and to who would you assign the POV? In other words, which anime do you think would benefit from an alternate POV retelling and why? – @saraecardona

I wouldn’t mind seeing Gankutsuou from the villain’s perspective! Oh wait, they already did that, it’s called The Count of Monte Cristo. Gankutsuou is already the Midnight Sunnening of The Count of Monte Cristo.

In all seriousness, I will sit snugly at my table for one in wishing there was a version of the Monogatari series without Araragi in it at all. (At least, I think it’s a table for one. Monogatari fans would no doubt disagree with me, but I’ve also seen non-fans who watched Monogatari express similar sentiments as their reason for not digging it.) There are a lot of great ideas in Monogatari, but I know I would enjoy the story a lot more if it was just about the relationship between all these supernaturally afflicted girls and a slightly more fleshed-out version of Meme Oshino, who acts as an authority on their issues but takes inconvenient sabbaticals from his consultation office, leaving Senjōgahara and Shinobu as the perspective characters, with some kind of interesting relationship that forms between them over time. I don’t like Araragi as a character, but more importantly, I don’t like how he tends to affect the arc of stories being told; every new woman’s story tends to end up being about him instead. I’m not saying he’s unnecessary to Monogatari, because he isn’t. I just know I would enjoy the story more if it was rewritten not to include him, because he tends to make an impact in the most predictable or even uncomfortable ways. I apologize if that doesn’t exactly answer your question, since it’s more complete character erasure than a perspective shift, but one would beget the other. I’ll definitely revisit this question if I think of a better example later.

It seems like every time I turn around there’s a new hot series. What would you suggest for someone who still wants to be an active anime fan but can’t possibly keep up with the insane release schedule? – @NobleKind92

Man, you are singing my tune. I have less time for anime right now than I ever have before, and it’s only reminded me of how fast the hype cycle moves and how much content gets churned out, even in these more media-anemic pandemic times. At the end of the day, it’s just entertainment, so the easiest answer is to watch what you want, when you want, and not worry about what your social media bubble thinks about it. If you love anime, you’re an anime fan, and you belong.

However, if keeping up with the seasonal conversation is important to you, then the simplest solution I’ve arrived at is to try picking up at most five things in a new season that interest you, just restrict yourself to the stuff that excites you most, and give ‘em all the classic three-episode test, which is still pretty tried-and-true for weeding out the stuff with a great pilot but no long-term legs. Then, you should straight-up drop any of those five shows you don’t care enough about to see how the season ends. That’s about two hours of anime a week if all of it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and if not, you don’t have to feel guilty about trimming that down to two or three standouts. If you managed to miss something truly amazing, I promise it’ll stick around in fandom memory after the season’s over, and then you can watch that gem you missed during the next season, in place of one of the other five new things you would have ended up dropping. Good luck, and don’t feel the need to limit yourself to what’s hot right now! There’s always more great anime to discover out there, even if it’s been out for decades already!

What’s your relationship with Clamp stuff? Do you like tokyo babylon and X? – @tallesfsr

I like CLAMP! I generally enjoy exploring their work. I do not love CLAMP, since they’ve yet to make anything I would consider an all-time favorite. Generally, when I think of CLAMP, I think of their inimitable art style and immersive fantasy concepts, with a story that starts promising but tends to paint itself into a corner of contrivances the longer it runs. Magic Knight Rayearth, Card Captor Sakura, and Chobits are probably my favorite works I’ve seen from them, but Chobits is the only one I’ve read the original manga for. Everything else has been anime adaptations only, which can vary wildly in quality compared to their source material.

As for Tokyo Babylon and X, I’ve seen X the Movie, which is somehow equal parts incredibly dull and indelibly memorable as a too-complicated apocalyptic fantasy that’s been retro-fitted into this abstract, existential theatrical experience. By the end, it doesn’t really matter if you actually understand what’s going on, and I totally respect that. I’d never object to watching it again, it’s a neat little artifact of its time, and even the boring parts are strangely hypnotic. You can’t deny the power of Forever Love!

I don’t know much about Tokyo Babylon, but I did know just enough about it to get an incredibly hot girl into bed with me once. It was her favorite anime, I encouraged her to gush about it, one thing led to another, and now I’ll always associate Toyko Babylon with booty. I guess there are worse wires to get crossed.

If Naruto put a shadow clone into a Star Trek teleporter, would the teleporter not know the difference and just clone another Naruto? – @krormwrorm

I hesitated to accept the responsibility of answering this question, perhaps the most important question of our era, but I’ve done my research, and I believe there are two plausible answers to this dilemma.

The first answer kind of nullifies the premise of the question, because it’s possible that a Star Trek transporter would just eradicate Naruto’s shadow clone entirely instead of being able to transport it anywhere. Regardless of where you stand in the debate over how much of a person’s body or mind is transferred versus how much is atomized and then replicated elsewhere during the beaming process, it is undeniable that the transporter does shatter the subject’s body into atoms initially. Regardless of how much chakra they contain and how powerful Naruto has become, shadow clones do go up in smoke permanently if they’re struck with a sufficient amount of force. Getting exploded into atoms is such an inherently violent act that even the millisecond between the shadow clone getting “killed” and copied/transported may be long enough for Naruto’s chakra to return to him and nullify the clone’s existence, before the transporter could complete its copying process.

But let’s say that the beaming process doesn’t register as a violent enough act to nullify the shadow clone. Let’s say that he can be processed in the transporter as normally as any other object or person. If we were going by the older pop Trek theory that the transporter completely destroys its subject, copies them into its temporary memory, and then reproduces them elsewhere, then it’s possible that the transporter could create another completely autonomous Naruto, but that theory has been out of vogue in Trek fandom for years, due to complications introduced by the plots of many episodes across Next Gen, Voyager, and beyond.

It’s all very convoluted to my non-STEM brain, but the short version is that Trek scholars now see the transporter as a more complex machine that does destroy and replicate physical matter, but also transports active brain-wave patterns in a quantum state to preserve the subject’s personhood, their soul as well as we can define it, without the need for complete eradication and reproduction. After all, if this wasn’t the case and the miracle of life was easy to copy and save, then you could store any person’s physical and mental data in the computer and make them practically immortal with the use of a replicator. Because the transporter would not be taking the shadow clone’s distinct individual consciousness, which does not actually exist, through the beam stream, it would just be moving Naruto’s partitioned consciousness to a new location, where he could then recall or manipulate the clone like he usually does. Unless there were a transporter accident, I guess, and we all know that never ever happens on Star Trek…

So, we’ve got two options here as far as I can tell, but in both cases, the answer is no. The transporter as defined by current Trek canon would not create another autonomous Naruto. It would just teleport his shadow clone, which would continue to act like a shadow clone.

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Digimon in Translation | Adventure #1


I have a confession to make: I’ve never watched through Digimon, my favorite childhood anime, in its native Japanese before. Considering how far those digital monsters have continued to follow me throughout my adult life, that’s pretty weird. Digimon was so formative for me at such a young age that I garnered a reputation as a super-fan in the 2010’s, purely because I couldn’t shut up about it online, whether or not I actually knew what I was talking about. I wrote thousands of words about the franchise’s ups and downs, I burned my own DVDs from VHS rips of episodes in EP mode and designed ugly sleeves for them, I produced English covers of the Japanese theme songs, and I pumped out many hours of video analysis about the anime’s first three seasons in the old Blip.TV days. But apart from the numerous short clips I’ve checked out over the years, and watching all of Adventure’s modern updates like Tri and Last Evolution Kizuna in Japanese first, the version of Digimon Adventure I would always revisit was Saban’s re-scored and re-written edit for the Fox Kids block. I just never made the time to close that particular gap between my days watching dubbed cartoons as a kid and my years studying anime as an adult. Generally, if I felt like watching Digimon again in my 20’s, it was because I was sad or sick or otherwise in need of nostalgic comfort food, so I would gravitate to the corny voices and bad puns I grew up with.

This year, after enjoying Toei’s latest attempt to conclude the ‘90s Digimon Adventure with a theatrical exclamation point, and getting a taste of the Adventure-with-a-colon reboot they’re making for today’s kids who watch anime on their smartphones, I’ve got digital monsters on the brain again. I’d been away from the digital world for long enough that it only just occurred to me; I finally know enough Japanese to understand most of what’s happening in a show like Digimon Adventure without subtitles. (I still have subs available for when I do need them, but Tentomon’s Kansai-ben is one of just a few lingering comprehension hurdles.) Instead of returning to the same old well of nostalgia in this ceaselessly brutal 2020, I’ve decided to open myself up to reevaluating this piece of my childhood in a brand-new light. Perhaps by comparing the English and Japanese versions, my appreciation for Digimon’s story and characters will evolve or—dare I say it—digivolve?

Anyway, I hope these posts will serve as a useful reference for Digimon fans curious about the most notable differences between two beloved versions of a TV show that may have been produced to sell toys, but changed a lot of little lives for the better along the way. Digimon in Translation won’t be a painstaking encyclopedia of every altered detail in every episode. (If it was, half of every writeup would be stuff like, “This shot was originally silent, but the dub added in a joke about pizza.”) Rather, it’ll be a more personal overview of how I see both versions side-by-side, with a focus on anything that significantly changes the context of a scene, along with any changes that just make me laugh out loud or scratch my stubble in confusion. There’ll be more than enough weird dialogue to sift through without getting into the weeds of three-word line changes, trust me.

Since there are many character name differences between versions, I’ll be using both of everyone’s names interchangeably, depending on which version of the character I happen to be referencing, with an (S) for Japanese sub or a (D) for English dub added for context. I hope that’ll make things less confusing? I guess we’ll find out together. There are also overall tone trends to Saban’s localization of Adventure that I don’t want to harp on repeatedly. As a general rule, like many cartoons of its day, the Digimon Dub is terrified of silence, so there are lots of extra gag lines thrown in to fill space that ultimately don’t affect the story. Near the start of the Dub in particular, when it was trying too hard to impress, all the kids were a little snottier and snarkier than originally intended, like they’re ready to flip their baseball caps backwards after every new dig, usually at Mimi’s expense. In Japanese, the kids are largely polite to each other, so the faint dickish edge to their English dialogue is worth noting, even if the changes remain slight enough to keep the characters the same at heart—except maybe Matt/Yamato, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Speaking of snark, these posts are bound to get acerbic at times, so I should make one thing clear: I love the English Digimon dub. It still has plenty of issues that you wouldn’t find in kids’ anime dubs of today, but I think the team did a fine job localizing Adventure compared to many of its contemporaries that have aged with far less charm, and if I ever get to Digimon Tamers and beyond, I know the quality and fidelity will just keep improving. The totally radical ‘90s artifacts I’m sure to unearth in my comparisons are just a product of their time, and every once in a while, these dub changes can pepper more fun flavor into an initially straightforward scene. But it’s high time I experience a story that made such a big impact on me in its original Japanese form, from start to finish. I’m excited to fall in love with Digimon Adventure all over again.

Alright, enough prefacing, let’s get straight into episode one! The Sub version kicks off with a third-person narrator dryly explaining that radical climate changes are beginning to have a major impact on the earth. (Buddy, you don’t know the half of it.) In the Dub, this narrator is replaced by Tai himself, who’s much more nonchalant and colorful with his descriptions of global mayhem, before clarifying that he had no idea any of this was happening while he was dozing off at summer camp. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess. (Don’t we all wish 2020 was in hindsight right now?)

Moving on, you can see that the kids originally got more detailed name plates showing their school and grade. For whatever reason, the Dub chose to erase any info pertaining to the kids’ exact ages or grades in school, not just in this episode, but for the rest of the series to follow. I don’t get this at all. That’s context I definitely would have appreciated as a kid, making it easier for me to compare myself directly to the kids who were older or younger than me. Anyway, the Dub fills this narration gap with Tai razzing everybody instead, our first introduction to Saban’s efforts to cool-ify these kids. They all casually pick on each other in these early episodes, but if I pointed out every little extra insult in the script, we’d be here all day.

When a mighty unseasonal blizzard throws their camp into chaos, Jou (S) is the first to tell everyone that they should leave the cabin and find a camp counselor right away, only to be undercut by Mimi’s enthusiasm for a snow day. Joe (D), however, is just worried about catching a cold, which is not as strong of a choice, though it does lean more into Tai (D)’s prior assertion that Joe is a pants-wetting weenie. Jou (S) is supposed to be more of a worrywart than a scaredy cat; it’s a subtle difference, but it matters! When the aurora borealis appears and the other kids gawk in awe, Joe doubles down on his worries about getting sick, but Matt (D) tells him they can’t miss this amazing spectacle. In the Japanese version, Jou is still talking about getting adult supervision, and Yamato (S) actually agrees with him, reinforcing his more thoughtful, protective instincts in contrast to Taichi’s reckless excitement. Nitpicks aside, this scene does a good job of introducing us to the cast’s most prominent character traits in both languages. Matt is protective of T.K., who mirrors Mimi’s childlike energy and just wants to play in the snow, while Izzy is too busy fiddling with his computer alone to even notice.

After a geyser erupts from the canyon and washes all the kids down into the Digital World, the action picks up with the appearance of Koromon, whose name does not mean “brave little warrior”, as the Dub claims. I don’t think people bought that even as kids. I mean, the “mon” at least clearly stands for monster! Koromon doesn’t feel the need to explain his name in the Japanese version, because it’s pretty straightforward. As with Koro-sensei from Assassination Classroom, “koro” just vaguely means “round”. Not much more to him than a hopping head, after all.

It is wild to me that Saban just left all the Japanese text onscreen for every new digital monster’s profile. They clearly had the ability to translate text for composite shots and not just replace still frames, because we saw them do it a few minutes ago for the kids’ intros—in Comic Sans, no less! How am I supposed to know that Kuwagamon is virus type if I can’t read katakana? Seriously though, I admire the Digimon dub’s relative preservation of its Japanese-ness compared to many of its peers from the late ‘90s. For every reference to Japanese geography or culture they excised, they did keep a surprising amount of the original context in the show. You can even see it in Izzy’s dub introduction—they do show you that his real name is Koushiro, even though no one ever calls him that again.

Speaking of which, Koushiro (S) shows up soon after, and there’s a good gag in the Japanese version where he’s relieved to find Taichi because he thought he was all alone, but Motimon interjects that Koushiro can’t be alone, because he’s here to help! Motimon is moving their relationship forward too quickly for Izzy’s (D) liking in both versions, but the Dub maybe loses the point that Motimon’s fumbling jokester personality is very different from Koromon’s bold enthusiasm. Every Digimon is unique, but with a cast this big, you gotta cram characterization into every line you can! Before Kuwagamon shows up to ruin everyone’s day, the kids try to figure out how they ended up in a tropical jungle, and both versions choose to focus on completely different information. In the Dub, Motimon tells them that they’re in “Digiworld,” so Izzy immediately starts making computer puns and analogies for the rest of the episode series, and everyone just accepts that they’re inside some kind of digital dimension going forward.

The Sub version buries the lede for much longer, because Motimon only tells the boys that they’re on “File Island.” So, the kids have various conversations later about how far “File Island” might be from Japan, if it’s near South America, things like that, because why would they assume they were on a completely different world? The Digimon never bother to clear things up, because they don’t know anything about Earth either, so nobody actually grasps that this is a Digital World until long past episode one. I like that! It’s a shame that this endearing naturalism is lost in the Dub, but on the other hand, it’s not like they’re ruining some big twist or anything; we know what show we’re watching, these are digital monsters.

Suddenly, Kuwagamon swoops in, screeching in creepy bug clicks in the Japanese version and roaring like a TIE fighter in English. I don’t really have a preference between these monster noises (who’s to say what a stag beetle that big sounds like?), but it is funny how completely different they are. Tai (D) is impressed with Koromon’s bravery when he decides to fight back, but Taichi (S) is more earnest about thanking Koromon for saving his life. Since Koromon is no match for Kuwagamon, the kids flee to Motimon’s “hiding tree”, which is explained in Japanese to be nothing but a metal pipe that projects a hologram of a tree on the outside, our next clue that this world operates on different rules from our own. That’s fine, the kids in the English version already know that this is a digital world, so they don’t need to learn about holographic trees.

After the danger dies down, the kids gather for an official introduction to their Digimon friends. In Japanese, this scene is just the monsters saying their names one by one, but in English, they’re talking about how funny and cute and cool they are, which I only mention because the choppy timing makes it sound exactly like a Burger King commercial. You can collect all 7 in your Kids Club meal! Since Mimi is the only one still missing, her disappearance turns into a dunk-fest in the Dub, while in the Sub, Jou mentions that he has something to give her. I think this is setting up something in episode 2 that I don’t remember. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is this hilarious shot where Izzy says that Mimi is probably off picking flowers—with his mouth closed, because there wasn’t supposed to be any dialogue here.

Five minutes in a fantasy world, and Izzy has already developed telepathic powers. Makes sense, he is the most likely member of this cast to become the protagonist of an isekai novel.

Of course, Mimi is being chased by that tenacious Kuwagamon, so they all flee for their lives again until their retreat takes them to the edge of a cliff. Matt (D) shouts, “Great. Anybody bring a helicopter?” and you know what, that’s a quality joke, got a chuckle out of me. (In Japanese, nobody says anything, take a shot.) Tai gets closest to the cliff’s edge to look for a safe way down when Kuwagamon charges, so Sora (D) shouts, “Watch out!” like any concerned friend would—except in Japanese, Sora (S) shouts, “Now’s our chance!” What? I have no idea what she means by this. Does Sora think the edge of a cliff is the best place to pick a fight with a giant flying monster?? Or does she think they can all get away safely if they abandon Taichi to get eaten first??? If “今のうちに!” means anything that makes sense in that shot, please enlighten me.

Once again, Koromon throws his body at the unstoppable threat, and right on cue, the Dub opts to undercut the resulting violence with a joke. Koromon (D) explains to Tai that he’s just trying to make a good impression on him, like this is a job interview for lifelong monster partner, while Koromon (S) pulls out a classic super-sincere “I have to protect you!” When his bravery inspires the other mons to join in the fray, Izzy (D) gets a wonderfully cheesy line in response: “They must be programmed for courage!” I love it, Izzy and Tentomon always get the best material. After the evolved Digimon partners save the day, Tentomon (D) even says that his powers are “pretty wizard!” Please, zoomers, I’m begging you to help us bring back “wizard” as an everyday superlative.

I forgot that “Hey Digimon” wouldn’t make its debut as the Dub battle song until further into the series, so I guess I’ll enjoy that while it lasts. I am not a “Hey Digimon” defender. You will hear no defense of “Hey Digimon” from me. I don’t plan to compare the music very often in these posts, so I’ll just say overall that I enjoy both musical scores, and they don’t diverge enough in quality to affect the material most of the time. The biggest problem with Saban’s soundtrack is just that it’s overactive at times; dubs of this era were truly terrified of losing kids’ short attention spans with any moment of silence. Anyway, “Hey Digimon” to the left, we get our first dose of “Brave Heart” in the Japanese version! This superior battle theme’s never gonna get old for me. We’re nearing the episode’s end, but it’s a lot harder to take notes with all this saltwater in my eyeballs.

As the kids tumble down from the crumbling cliff, the Narrator (S) foreshadows a time-distortion aspect of the Digital World by proclaiming this to be both the longest and shortest summer vacation of the Chosen Children’s lives. There was also a Sub-only remark from one of the tiny monsters earlier that they’ve been waiting a “long time” to meet their partners, which’ll come up more often in future episodes. Digimon Adventure certainly starts out with a bang. Looking back, I appreciate how much of the runtime is just spent, well, running from terrifying monsters. The kids are even scared of the new best friends that destiny has assigned them! All seven members of the ensemble get just enough attention to make their personalities clear, and their monsters exhibit a surprising level of individualism too. But all that dialogue is woven firmly into the action, which basically never stops, even if the show’s animation can’t possibly keep up with the peril as scripted. (Nobody who loves Digimon cares about how ugly the show looks most of the time. It’s beautiful on the inside!)

In closing, the biggest detail that stood out to me in this rewatch was that T.K. is the least weirded out by the Digital World, while Joe freaks out the most. This fits their personalities on its own, but it’s also a sly little nod to how strongly the Digital World is connected to childhood, and how quickly characters age out of it once their big adventure ends. Digimon have always had this “imaginary friend”-like quality to them that fades in power as you grow away from their world and start finding your place in human society. Right away, T.K., the youngest, has the strongest connection to his new partner, while Joe, the oldest, takes the most persuading. And he’s only in sixth grade! There’s a special kind of magic to the transience of Digimon stories, a bitter sweetness that’s always stuck with me. I’ll try to make these next 53 episodes last.

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Reigen Arataka | Confidence Man

Mob Psycho 100 is a great anime. I know, I’m christening this new blog with a scorching hot take there. The psychedelically animated series starring a 14-year old boy with ESP strong enough to warp reality to his whims—but all the confidence and ambition of a three-legged hermit crab­—has swept up enthusiastic fans and critical accolades since it first aired in 2016. But to be honest, I wasn’t riding high on the Mob train back then. While Shigeo gradually becomes a perfect protagonist for the specific story being told, his nickname, Mob, does mean “just a face in the crowd” for good reason. Maybe I’ll write about Mob Psycho 100’s humble protagonist some day in the future, but this story didn’t really make landfall in my heart until 2019—when its second season devoted a silly yet sobering two-parter to internet sex symbol Reigen Arataka.

I am at most barely responsible for this perversion of Google’s algorithm, but the sin still haunts me.

I can’t be sure if all that Reigen thirst online is sincere or ironic, but I’d guess it’s a little of both. Sure, he’s a con artist exploiting a middle schooler’s psychic powers in exchange for pocket money, but if you can look past that, he’s great at mentoring Mob where it counts, and his ability to roll with the endless punches to his dignity can be inspiring. But if Reigen’s got such a heart of gold, how do you square that with his choice of profession? What would make such a thoughtful and flexible guy choose a life of deceit and manipulation? Why is Reigen Arataka a con man? I wondered this to myself throughout season one, because I felt like it was important to his character in some deeper way, but I didn’t know why—until season two.

In his own words, Reigen seems to think he chose the grifting game for the most obvious reasons: easy profit. He saw an ad in a magazine promising fabulous wealth to anyone who purchased a worthless hunk of “lucky” jewelry, and that inspired him to re-brand his exceptional massage skills (another solid checkmark on the boyfriend list) as a bogus form of spiritual healing. But the Spirits and Such Consultation Office never became a cash cow, and Reigen just kept playing psychic anyway. Not only that, he’s remained the cheapest psychic in town three years later, offering all his clients bargain packages that just manage to keep the lights on in his humble office—and that’s after hiring the most talented esper in the world (for about five bucks a day, but that’s beside the point). Reigen is a classic case of a liar for hire deceiving himself more deeply than he can fool anyone else, so I had to dig deeper to find my own answer for what made him into a con man. (Oh sorry, Reigen, I meant con artist.)

So, let’s begin at the beginning. Before we get to know “the greatest psychic of the 21st century” from his own perspective in season two, we have to see him through his pupil’s eyes in season one. Since Shigeo is such a trembling void of ambition, Reigen overcompensates to propel the show’s dramedy forward, vacillating wildly between mentor and punchline as he encourages Mob to take ownership of his life, while secretly blundering his way through his own adult hardships. Reigen’s flop-sweat-with-a-smile routine is comedy gold, while his genuine care for Mob’s future is heartwarming, and this contrast ties beautifully into Mob’s character arc. Reigen may be a shiftless weirdo barreling toward his 30s with no plan whatsoever, but Mob doesn’t realize that any more than he grasps the terrifying gravity of his own godlike powers. The impressionable Shigeo just takes Reigen’s advice at face value. After all, Reigen is a grown-up, wearing a nice suit on a big poster, so he must know what he’s talking about, right?

And to Mob’s credit, sometimes he does:

“Just because you have psychic powers doesn’t make you any less human. It’s the same as people who are fast, people who are book smart, and people with strong body odor. Psychic powers are just another characteristic. The truth behind one’s charm is kindness. Become a good person. That’s all.”

Now, from Reigen’s perspective, this speech is yet another con job at the end of another long day of lying for a living. He doesn’t believe that this cute little squirt actually has psychic powers. He just wants to tell a troubled kid something he thinks will help him feel understood, so he can scoot the ankle-biter out of his office. If Reigen actually knew what Mob was capable of, maybe he would have painted the kid’s weighty destiny in a different light. Instead, Reigen mistook Mob for a fellow problem child, the kind of mischief-maker who lies for attention and dreams up psychic powers to make himself feel special. Naturally, Reigen leaps at the opportunity to tell a version of his childhood self to do things differently this time around. And when Mob does as Reigen says and not as he does, it puts him on the path to becoming a true superhero in a world overflowing with more self-absorbed psychics.

As a mentor, Reigen voices the show’s main theme, that everyone is “special” in some way or another (or thinks they are, which is basically the same thing), so instead of basing your worth on something so secretly common, it’s best to focus on being a good person. Goodness isn’t a special power or talent that anyone is born with. It’s a subjective quality defined by our actions and how they are remembered by others, so it’s something you must learn how to be in roughly the same way as everyone else, by making kind and brave choices day by day, as you learn to exercise your own will for your own life. Then as a punchline, Reigen reminds us that, while finding our place in the world based on our special talents can be daunting, the bar for being a “good person” is so damn low that even a shifty slacker like Reigen shines brightly compared to Claw’s megalomaniacal espers, who spend their whole lives huffing their ectoplasmic farts in arrested development until they literally become Old Babies like Ishiguro. It’s hilarious to see these supervillains’ spirits get shattered not by the power of a stronger psychic, but the sober self-deprecation of a total loser who outclasses them in adulting regardless.

“You’re telling us to return to being commoners?”

“You still don’t get it, do you? Who the hell do you think you are? You’re just a part of the masses! I’m a commoner! I’m much more powerful than you, and I’m still just a commoner. So what does that make you?”

For as often as Reigen steals the show in season one, of course Mob Psycho 100 still needs to be Mob’s story. His gifted-kid coming-of-age arc is unique in that it downplays the importance (and subsequently lightens the burden) of being gifted in the first place. Mob has learned how to develop his powers from a charlatan with no supernatural acumen whatsoever, and that may be for the best. It would be better for Shigeo to become like Reigen than most of the other maladjusted espers he meets; that’s the joke and the message all rolled into one. But at the end of the day, I can’t call Reigen Arataka aspirational, either. I mean, he’s exploiting an eighth-grader to run a business that makes as much money selling bullshit exorcisms and seances to shmucks as it does busting actual ghosts. The greatest psychic of the 21st century is overdue for a towering wave of karma, which finally brings us to the midway point of season two and the darker side of Reigen’s heart.

In the episode titled, “Oh, It Me” “Poor, Lonely, Whitey”, Reigen’s uptick in clients begins going to his head around the same time that Mob has finally started to develop a social life. After Reigen pressures Mob to leave his new friend’s birthday lunch and exorcise a small fry spirit in exchange for ramen as usual, his faithful pupil turns down their celebration dinner, expressing discomfort with how this Spirits and Such gig is cutting into his personal life. Without warning, his master explodes into a strangely cruel and defensive rant.

“I don’t know what you were doing with your schoolmates, but do they really understand you? Come on, we’re saving lives here! You’re making a difference in the world by helping me out! Not to mention, I’m your master! Choose your social circle wisely, Mob! If they’re going to get in the way of your exorcism job, get rid of them! They don’t actually care about you. They’re just having fun mocking someone as wimpy as you.”

Now, Reigen’s no stranger to talking his way out of trouble—he’s mastered this superpower about as well as Mob has mastered his own—but we’ve never seen anything like this from him before. Instead of coolly fibbing just as much as he’s gotta so he can slip past the problem, Reigen’s heightened emotions mutate his gift of gab into something destructive at the slightest indication that Mob wants to spend less time working for him. We’re getting a taste of Reigen’s own version of ???% Mode, as he exorcises feelings he can’t handle, not through explosive ESP, but explosive words that he hopes will brute force the situation back to normal. While Reigen’s uncontrolled powers can’t disintegrate buildings like Mob’s, he can definitely cause devastating emotional damage, and Shigeo does seem to disassociate from the shock for a moment. But we’ve watched this kid go through a lot of growing already, and he’s stronger than Reigen remembers. Mob is now discerning enough to recognize his master’s outburst as a red flag worth avoiding for a while. “I’m beginning to understand that not everything you say is true” is all Mob has to say to render Reigen’s big mouth powerless.  

Now that we’ve seen Reigen do this to someone once, it’s easy to assume he’s done it before. Hell, we don’t have to assume, because we see it happen again just a few minutes later. Reigen improvises some word vomit to try and manipulate Dimple into helping him get Mob back, but the semi-evil spirit also decides to drift away from the conversation. Why bother debating a guy who’s never lost an argument, but has clearly lost too many other important things in the process? Indeed, the rest of the episode paints a bleak picture of Reigen’s life, now that we’re not seeing it through Mob’s eyes. He’s been so alone for so long that he forgets his own birthday, and the only way he can think to celebrate is to visit his local bar and get sick off of a single virgin lemon sour. Hey, he’s gotta do something to forget about the only b-day message he got: an overbearing, judgmental e-mail from his mom. As he beats himself up for puking in a back alley, Reigen is rapidly unraveling inside his own mind.

“This isn’t good. I’m going in a very bad direction. Me, of all people! Wait. Me? I mean, what am I? I guess I’ll just have to become somebody.”

Surprisingly, this crisis of confidence kickstarts a brief golden age for Reigen. He decides to turn over a new leaf and become his best self, combining his old ways of doing business with more honest odd jobs that give back to the community he’s been hoodwinking. Sure, he’s still pretending to be a psychic, but at least he’s helping to solve real problems again, like he did when Mob was there—and all that busy work is great for silencing the voices in your head. Who needs Mob? Reigen’s turned his haunting brush with ???% in front of Mob into a 100% fulfillment of his talents for the whole world to see. He’s even been invited to perform an exorcism live on TV! What could possibly go wrong?

Before Reigen’s star inevitably comes crashing down to this bitch of an earth, I think we’ve already seen enough to finally answer the question I started with. Why is Reigen Arataka a con man?

Well, when you take a closer look at the work he’s been doing, to what extent is he even conning people at all?

Reigen’s hideous homepage does exist and you should visit it.

Unlike most fraudsters, he doesn’t research people’s personal tragedies to exploit their grief, he doesn’t sell them trash disguised as spiritual totems, and the services he does offer—massage, photoshop, forensics, etc.—are fairly priced for the positive results he delivers, even if his clients don’t realize they’re paying for something different than advertised. I think the true service Reigen offers people is just plain showmanship. He eases their fears of the unknown by giving them closure however he can, bringing Mob into the picture only when the ghostly threat turns out to be real. So, if your definition of a con man is a deceitful criminal who preys on the weak, of course Reigen is too lovable to qualify.

No, I’d consider Reigen a con man in the purest sense of the term, because the word “con” doesn’t come from con as in “negative” or con as in “convict.” The word originally referred to “confidence,” and confidence—not money—is what Reigen Arataka impulsively tricks people for, all to feed a nameless void inside him that grows every time he pretends for them.

While it’s true that a swindler should exude confidence to run a successful scam, this term was not coined in reference to the confidence of the man himself, but what he must first take from you; he has to win his mark’s full confidence, their trust, before he can get their money. It may surprise you to learn that this English idiom is used in Japan, too. I’ve heard “コンフィデンスマン” spoken in a few anime over the years, most notably in this year’s Great Pretender, where the protagonist drops it like punctuation. I don’t know if this etymology was on ONE’s mind when he began developing Reigen’s character, but winning the confidence of others—not as a way to their wallets, but just for its own sake—is certainly the phony psychic’s core motivation.

Reigen’s life has been spent posturing at a table for one, begging the world to believe in the self-made man he wants to be, but his big personality only belies a guy who is deeply insecure about everything. This comes out most clearly in his ???% explosion at Mob. He’s not really upset about work; he’s upset because he’s terrified of losing time with his only friend. Even if he can’t admit it to himself, Reigen has been clinging to the adoration of this 14-year old boy to feel like he’s where he’s supposed to be in life: successful, sincere, somebody’s senpai. After years of failing to connect with anybody at one insipid sales gig after another, Reigen stuck with a job that requires him to fool people and therefore keep them at a distance. However, mentoring Mob has forced him to stay honest and even a little vulnerable between clients. He can say things like, “All that matters is that you become a good person”, and when Mob believes him, he can believe it himself despite the bitterness of his adult life and the needs of his duplicitous occupation. But despite Mob’s positive influence on him, Reigen can’t seem to take his own advice and stop pretending to be something he’s not. Psychic powers aren’t the only talent that can make you feel isolated from society, and Reigen’s own gift of gab is a double-edged sword that has crippled his ability to believe in himself.

I think the most valuable thing we ever learn about Reigen is that he’s gone his whole life without ever losing an argument. Just imagine for a minute what that must be like. It might sound great at first, but on further inspection, “never losing an argument” doesn’t mean “always being right”. On the contrary, Reigen is a great comedy character because he’s assertively wrong about so many things, and he knows it. But he has the power to convince everyone he is right, so he can’t help but use his greatest talent compulsively, leaving him alone in his head with the weight of all the things he doesn’t understand. No matter how deeply Reigen might care about telling the truth and being a good person, he’s only human. He’s bound to make a mistake or find himself forced to bend the truth to protect himself in a cold and slippery world. Whether by accident or on purpose, Reigen has gradually turned his life into a pile of lies and incongruities he can’t keep straight, but people always believe him anyway, so he never gets the chance to grow from his mistakes. Everyone assumes Reigen knows what he’s doing, so nobody gets close enough to see how empty he actually feels. He’s the only one who knows that he’s lying. He’s the only one who “knows” that he’s a bad person.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like an absolute nightmare to me. 28 years of this unique mental isolation has already gotten Reigen addicted to the confidence of others, the closest thing he has to some objective metric that he can’t be that bad, he can’t be that lonely. However, no amount of adoration can make Reigen accept that he’s a good person, because his talent for making people believe everything he says will leave him feeling like the bad guy when he inevitably says things that aren’t true, with all the painful consequences that follow. If Reigen believes it’s not possible for him to be a good person, then he’ll flip the script on the advice he gave to Mob and use his talent to become a real “somebody”: the greatest psychic of the 21st century!

Reigen lives off the confidence of others like a drug, and the money is just a side benefit he needs to get by, which is why he cares so little about cash compared to popularity. The real long con is just convincing people that he’s a good person when he secretly believes that’s impossible, and that’s why his post-Mob golden age is just setting him up for a greater fall. Even if his ventures are more altruistic than they were before, he’s still depending on a steady income of smiles to keep his self-worth afloat. Reigen is still so miserably alone that he thinks the regulars in his favorite bar must be his friends because they smile when he gives them free life advice. They’re basically just clients he doesn’t charge, because he’s getting paid in confidence instead.

Naturally, Reigen’s barfly “friends” abandon him the second he gets cancelled on live TV. After trying to exorcise a perfectly healthy child actor for 30 minutes in a cruel prank at his expense, the supposed psychic’s silver tongue is powerless to stop the world from seeing the truth. At long last, Reigen’s worst nightmare has come true. Everybody, everybody, everybody knows he’s a big fat phony. Now the whole world can see the version of Reigen that he’s hated and feared in his quiet apartment every night. Mob has rightfully left him behind, and the more fickle mobs Reigen relied on to justify his existence are rushing to paint him in the worst light for their own entertainment. Previously satisfied customers flood social media with all of Reigen’s saddest little shortcomings. The media swarms his house and pressures him into a press conference. Internet detectives unearth his dweeby high school yearbook photo! It’s a long way down a mountain he was never going to reach the peak of, and at rock bottom, far away from all the lies he’d been using to climb to nowhere, Reigen manages to find himself again.

One especially smarmy reporter at Reigen’s press conference whips out a copy of the confidence man’s old graduation essay. “You wrote ‘I want to be somebody.’ So why did you become a psychic?” he asks. Reigen’s mind rushes back to that alleyway, where he puked up a virgin lemon sour on his birthday, as he felt himself disintegrating from all the same anxieties he’s had since childhood. You’re a phony, you’re a liar, you’re nobody, you’re nothing. If he really wanted to escape those voices in his head, why did he leave his honest sales job for a career that relies on lies? All the fame he attained and all the confidence he stole couldn’t change him into something he wasn’t. At the height of his success, Reigen still didn’t feel special himself, but he kept going because there was one special thing about playing psychic—it was Mob.

The solution to Reigen’s confidence addiction is not popularity. He could become the greatest psychic in the universe, he could even acquire real psychic powers somehow (he briefly did in the season one finale!), but the voices in his head would remain as loud as ever. Reigen only felt like somebody when he became somebody to Mob. This kid wasn’t just another smile to give him confidence, and he wasn’t just another positive review online. Mob was special—not because of his psychic powers or even because of his goodness—but because he was special to Reigen. That’s all a friendship is: two people who are special to each other, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else in the world thinks they’re special or not. There may be a 14-year gap between them, but there’s not much daylight between Mob and Reigen in terms of emotional maturity and social experience, so of course they became close friends! These two had a connection that no amount of approval from the entire world could replace, and Reigen threw it away out of fear that Mob would find him out or leave him behind. Now both of those things have happened anyway, and who knows how many other people Reigen has alienated in his futile pursuit of confidence.

Now at his lowest point, Reigen has to wonder if Mob is even watching this press conference. Why would he, after the way Reigen treated him? The incredible talent that’s kept Reigen from growing as a person has been stripped away from him, and with no power to talk himself out of this situation, he searches for the right thing to say. He shuts out all the judgmental faces in the crowd, all the voices in his head, all those humiliating e-mails from his mom. He simply thinks of what he needs to say to the one person who’s special to him. It doesn’t matter if anyone else understands.

“You’ve grown up so much. You know that?”

Naturally, everything works out just fine for Reigen in the end. We’ve gotta get back to telling Mob’s story for the rest of the season, so the titular angel in a bowl cut swoops in to save his master from behind the scenes, and Reigen plays off the chaos effortlessly, with his fast-talking mojo restored alongside his reputation. Now completely drained of confidence and wiser for the wear, Reigen knows he has to clear the air with Mob. If he’s not a great master psychic to his pupil anymore, who is he?

It’s a perfect ending to Reigen’s two-parter and the perfect start to a better friendship between them. I don’t have any more clever or fitting way to conclude this tough-love letter to one of my favorite anime characters, but pushing myself to write again has helped shrink the nameless void inside my own heart. All the good people I know are too hard on themselves, so if you’ve been feeling like nobody in this horrible year, just remember that you are special to someone. Even if it’s just one person, that’s all you need to live. It’s all you need to grow.

Mob Psycho 100 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

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