Akko, Yoshinari, and the Journey of the Young Creator

Anyone who has ever tried to create something artistic knows that doing so is as far removed from simple and painless as any task can be and is every bit as exhausting as it is time consuming. Newer and younger creators who have only recently chosen to dedicate their time and mental energy to crafting a creative identity for themselves are intimately familiar with the struggles all artists face on a daily basis, only in their cases those difficulties are amplified by their inexperience and lack of knowledge in their respective fields. In addition to the initial challenge of learning the basics of their crafts, through time and experience they must also discover for themselves what it means to be a creative person and how that identity fits into their everyday lives. Creating artistic content requires extensive thought, planning, introspection, hard work and brutal self analysis that often leaves the creator feeling overwhelmed and discouraged with the task they’ve taken on. Those who persevere through this initial learning curve find the self satisfaction of having done so to be more than worth their while, but during that period all potential rewards for the young creator’s tireless efforts seem despairingly small.

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Scattered Thoughts on Multiple Narrative Perspectives in Scum’s Wish

One of the things that I find most interesting about Scum’s Wish is its structure of having multiple narrative perspectives. In the first couple episodes Hanabi immediately seemed to take on the role of the protagonist, the character whom we would vicariously live through as the story unfolded, experiencing her feelings and thoughts exclusively. However, the series didn’t waste very much time before taking a sharp turn in its narrative and character progression and perspective, proving this original assumption to not be the case. It begins to shift in episode two, which ends in Ecchan’s point of view, and from then on it slowly but steadily breaks free from convention altogether. Half of episode three is seen from Mugi’s point of view, followed by episode four being told from four different perspectives, and it only grows more sporadic from there. As the series goes on entire episodes are devoted to exploring the individual stories of what in any other series would be considered “side characters”, making any semblance of narrative consistency completely non existent.

It’s hardly unusual for a series to devote entire episodes to developing the personalities and backgrounds of their side characters. In fact, amongst critics who hold concepts such as character development in high esteem, it’s intrinsically required for a show to do so in order to be considered to be of high quality.However, narrative consistency is also a crucial factor for many of these same critics. Background characters should be developed, but also shouldn’t distract from the central narrative.

Scum’s Wish blatantly defies these critical standards. What we would think of as being the show’s “side characters” aren’t simply given a momentary place in the spotlight before being pushed aside to return to the established narrative perspective. Most series featuring large casts of characters among whom it would be difficult to distinguish a single protagonist generally take a much broader narrative approach, telling the story from the perspective of an outsider looking in rather directly from the character’s point of view. However, in Scum’s Wish, so long as they’re given focus, the story becomes about them exclusively. They become the protagonists of the series, blurring traditional character roles altogether.

While being one of the show’s most audacious ventures from a narrative standpoint, for many viewers it also became its downfall. When the story required the viewer to separate Hanabi from the role of the protagonist to allow the perspective to shift to the other characters, it understandably created some confusion and ambivalence amongst some viewers. According to the MAL statistics, this aspect of the show’s structure wasn’t overly detrimental to the majority of its viewership, but as the show entered its second half I started noticing people becoming more vocal about their criticisms of the series. The story begins and ends with Hanabi, which, for many of these viewers, made her inseparable from the role of the protagonist regardless of how the perspective would change throughout the series, and seeing the writers temporarily put her development and exploration on the sidelines to examine the worldviews and perspectives of completely different characters, for lack of a better term, feels wrong, and even without sharing this sentiment it’s not difficult to understand why some viewers would feel this way. It’s partially because it provides us with little time to get to know and care about each of the characters individually, but perhaps more fundamentally because it’s radically different from how we’re used to experiencing every day life.

As people, we are only able to see the world through a singular lens, that of our own. We’re incapable of fully understanding what the world looks like through the eyes of others, which is why the best stories focus on creating a protagonist that general audiences can easily relate to and root for, and perhaps most importantly, that they can vicariously live through. By removing the role of the protagonist, Scum’s Wish created a void in its narrative structure that is difficult to fill and justify with plot and characterization.

I might as well just get it out there; I wasn’t a big fan of Scum’s Wish, primarily because I don’t relate to or connect with any of the characters personally like some viewers are able to, and its multiple narrative perspectives certainly didn’t help in this regard. I understand that the characters aren’t necessarily supposed to be likable, but none of them were focused on long enough for me to become attached to their personalities and individual stories. It’s not that I can’t become invested in or enjoy a show with unlikable characters, it’s that it didn’t give me the time needed to become invested in them. With that in mind, I can actually agree with many of the criticisms I see of the show and understand from my own experience how it left some viewers unable to relate to it.

Despite its narrative perspective being the source of my disconnect with the series, I think this unique style of storytelling reflects and enhances the interpersonal nature of its conclusion. Thanks to the show’s multiple perspectives, throughout the series we explored how each character saw themselves as the protagonists of their stories. Each had their unique individual goals and wanted to experience a traditional “heroes journey” to achieve them. However, by the end of the show, none of the characters were able to accomplish their goals, or at the very least didn’t gain the result that they would have preferred. But their stories didn’t end just because they didn’t get the happy ending they wanted. In the final episode, each character prepares to move on with their lives with all of the emotional baggage that they picked up along the way, and in this moment I was finally able to make an emotional connection with them. They all seemed to say, “Yeah, we made some mistakes, and now we have to carry their weight, but that’s okay. We’ll live on”, and the show’s structure of having no protagonist allowed me to understand what this realization meant to each of the characters individually, making the conclusion to the story feel almost personal, something I can’t say for most of the show.

Maybe I’m being too romantic about all of this, given I was more than happy to put the series to rest when it finally concluded. However, paradoxically, the part of Scum’s Wish that has caused me to feel so indifferent towards it as a whole is the very same thing that intrigues me about it the most. Its multiple narrative perspectives exemplify a fascinating and audacious style of storytelling that I rarely encounter outside of the literary field, and despite some of my critiques of its application within this particular series, I’d really like to it see done again. If this storytelling method was able to keep me engaged in a series as personally unmoving as this one, then I’d be interested in seeing how I would respond to a show with a similar structure featuring characters that are a little bit easier for me to connect with and relate to.

Youjo Senki: Parallels and the Mistake of Being X

Youjo Senki’s finale was utterly fantastic. It concluded its story in a way that felt like the creators had accomplished everything they set out to do while still leaving it open to future additions, which is no small feat. It didn’t end in a spectacular battle, despite its intense depiction of war being among its strongest elements. It ended dramatically, thematically and decidedly through dialogue and monologue. One of the things that made this finale so fantastic was how it tied its conclusion back to the beginning of the show through the use of parallels, while providing us with further insight into the show’s more subtle narrative.

The parallel it establishes with its premise is displayed most prominently in Tanya’s conversation with the Lieutenant Colonel at the beginning of the episode. She begins by claiming that the Empire’s Strategic HQ was doing a poor job making use of their victory, inviting future conflict, to which the Colonel quickly responds by pointing out that the situation Tanya was suggesting, a country deciding to sacrifice itself to prolong a meaningless war, would be ludicrous. Tanya readily agrees that his assessment is logical and rational, but incomplete. She begins by claiming that despite the Empire’s team of strategists being brilliant and knowledgeable, they were unable to grasp the full weight of the situation because they approached it from a strictly rational perspective. She goes on to explain that humans are not driven primarily by rationalism, but by emotion, specifically hatred. Later in the show she goes on to describe how the collective hatred and fear harbored within the defeated nations of the victorious Empire created the first world war. What the Empire’s strategic team had failed to do was account for the emotional response that would surely follow their victory, and it cost them everything.

The Empire’s strategic team was unable to understand primary human motivations because they had been separated from the battlefield and human desperation for so long that they had forgotten what those foundational motivations are, and Tanya recalls a time in her own life when she too failed to understand the dual nature of humanity as both rational and emotional, and had paid the ultimate price for her ignorance. However, the Empire’s soldiers, despite being first hand witnesses to human desperation, were unable to see its full repercussions because of their lack on analytical expertise. In her reincarnation, Tanya is not only a brilliant analyst, but a soldier working on the front lines with the experience leading to her death still fresh in her mind. As a result, she witnesses more acts of human desperation in defiance of rationalism and logic than the country’s strategists, and therefore understands them more fully. Her knowledge of strategy and human nature were what allowed her to see the temporary nature of the Empire’s victory while everyone else was completely oblivious. This is a fascinating expansion of her character in of itself, but there’s a parallel in this dialogue and the rest of the episode that’s easy to miss but present nonetheless.

Hidden beneath the alternate historical war setting fused with fantasy and the supernatural is a psychological and ideological battle between the worst of human nature and God, a contest between creation and creator, humanism versus theism. As the two exchanged blows throughout the show there was crucial mistake that God, or Being X as Tanya calls it, made that only served to prolong the ideological war, and it’s the exact same mistake that the Empire’s strategists made: they failed to understand human nature and motivations. Tanya’s struggles with working within the military are a parallel to her much bigger struggle against Being X.

It isn’t extremely difficult to imagine how this situation came about. Being X, like the Empire’s strategic team, is separated from the harsh realities of human nature. Just as Strategic HQ keeps themselves protected from outside influence inside the government’s richly decorated meeting rooms, Being X, if truly God, keeps itself separated from mankind in the celestial realm, and by admission rarely interferes with his creation personally, its actions concerning Tanya being a rare occurrence. Additionally, in just about any religious text, encounters with God or angelic beings almost never fail to bring mankind to their knees. However, in episode two when the two have their first encounter, Being X expresses his surprise that despite experiencing a physical revelation of the power of God, Tanya refuses to accept it. Tanya’s ideological beliefs and humanistic philosophies have been so hammered into her throughout her life that the concept of God, even as a physical reality, does nothing more than make her laugh.

Nothing about her position makes rational sense. Originally she attempts to raise logical arguments against Being X, but by the end of the show she’s filling its vessel with bullets, an act of violence that serves as a stark contrast to the refined, rational businessman she had been in her previous life. Despite her inability to logically argue against Being X’s existence she still refuses to accept its identity or authority as God, which confuses and baffles it to no end. The post credits scene in the finale make Being X’s mistake more clear than ever before. Tanya’s actions are no longer rationally driven, but the result of pure, untainted hatred, and Being X completely misses it.

This psychological warfare is what makes Youjo Senki such an interesting show that appeals to me both on a surface and conceptual level. Despite the obvious fact that Being X is far more powerful than Tanya, she completely has the advantage over him because of his ignorance concerning human nature, and the question I continuously asked myself throughout the show was “which side is going to learn first?”. Would Tanya finally see how her emotions have clouded her rationality and accept her defeat? Such a plot twist would negate the show’s whole premise, but I did consider it to be a possibility for the end game, and the way Tanya lowered her rifle in the church scene in the finale almost made it seem as if this she had gone soft. Or on the flip side, would Being X realize his mistake in being ignorant of the stubborn, emotional driven nature of his creation and choose to accept his defeat, either by letting Tanya live on or by eliminating her? Since the story is ongoing, neither of these conclusions came to pass within the show’s run, so the question still stands for each viewer to decide for themselves. Which is the stronger force, hateful and irrational man or ignorant and rational God? Instead of answering this question for us, the finale leaves us with Tanya’s redeclaration of war against Being X, a reminder that she’s as psychotic and unrelenting as ever, and this powerful dialogue scene between her and Erich that, while not directly about the ideological narrative, provides us with a parallel that allows us to better understand the nature of the battle the two entities wage with each other.

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Scattered Thoughts on Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

A sentiment I see expressed increasingly often in discussions on “slice-of-life” anime is a general disdain for the tropes and trends that have become commonplace for the genre, and it’s one that I can hardly judge. Before delving into the anime medium, my misconception of it as being full of obnoxious tropes was one of the things that kept me from experiencing what it had to offer for the longest time. In light of this, it makes sense that some of the most loved and critically acclaimed slice-of-life/drama shows within anime fandom are the ones that avoid these tropes entirely, or attempt to subvert or deconstruct them in a fresh and original way, which is why I’m surprised, intrigued and oddly pleased by the fact that Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has become one of the most popular shows of the Winter season.

Of course, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. This is Kyoto Animation we’re talking about, a studio with a successful track record of creating satisfying and critically acclaimed shows within anime fandom with the exception of only a precious few. However, especially after watching the trailers, one could hardly be blamed for not taking it seriously. After all, they made it clear that Dragon Maid was going to be as trope-y and stereotypical as your average run-of-the-mill slice-of-life. However, what I found interesting after watching a few episodes was that the show didn’t just include the tropes and cliches associated with the genre, it practically embraced them. Except that it wasn’t your run-of-the-mill slice-of-life show. It was good. Even with all of the tropes of the genre that a plethora of anime fans would look down upon in derision, it became one of the seasonal favorites with “casual” and “hardcore” fans alike.

Perhaps the best answer to this peculiar phenomenon can best be explained by the concept that “the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Dragon Maid does have its fair share of fanservice and cliches, but they alone are not what define the show. However, it is neither defined by its strong characters and world building. It is these multiple elements married together in paradoxical matrimony that make Dragon Maid so unique. When I see tropes and cliches like those in Dragon Maid elsewhere within the anime medium, the impression I’m often left with is that these scenes and cheap gags are efforts by the creators to make up for what the series lacks elsewhere, which is how we end up with shows such as Sword Art Online, The Asterisk War, Izetta: The Last Witch and the plethora of seasonal throw-away shows that the community silently and unanimously decides not to talk about. However, Dragon Maid doesn’t have any incentives to implement such mediocre attempts at compensation. It’s characterization is genius and its world building is splendid. None of the characters are defined by their stereotypes despite the show’s blatant self awareness that they are, in fact, stereotypes.

When Kobayashi’s colleague meets Kanna for the first time his comment is something along the lines of “I like the loli goth thing.” The show recognizes in the dialogue that Kanna’s character design is, in fact, a common archetype. However, she is not a loli goth character. Despite her stereotypical appearance, as we see in her actions throughout the show, Kanna is just an ordinary little girl with the same needs of validation, acceptance and individuality that all humans experience. Likewise, Fafnir is the goth butler who hates humanity, but over the course of the show slowly assimilates into human life and attempts to come to an understanding of their nature. Tohru is introduced in the trailer making a pun about the size of her breasts and also serves as the token lesbian character pining for the unattainable affection of the individual she’s infatuated with, an archetype that has become prominent in “cute girls doing cute things” shows. However, we learn later that Tohru is still dealing with a traumatizing past and has as much to learn from her time with Kobayashi as Kobayashi does from her. Speaking of Kobayashi, her characterization and personal development as she begins to allow more people into her life and see them as members of her family, despite her ambivalent and apathetic relationship with her immediate family, has made her one of my favorite characters of the season. The family dynamic between all of these characters is handled with such care that it feels like a welcome breath of fresh air.

Suffice it to say that Dragon Maid didn’t need tropes and cliches in order to appeal to a broad audience. I haven’t even begun to touch on it’s subtle world building or gorgeous animation. It has plenty going for it. So what’s with the inclusion of these stereotypes?

Many anime fans are quick to criticize shows of this kind for their inclusion of such redundant cliches that I can’t help but wonder if the creative minds behind the show didn’t take it as a challenge, this show being their way of saying “We’re going to make a show with all the tropes you say you hate, but we’re going to make you like it.” If that was their intention then they certainly succeeded, a huge number of anime fans having fallen into their trap. I believe that it is this duality and the sum of its whole that makes Dragon Maid and it’s stunning popularity so interesting and unique. The concept of cliches and substance working so well together is one that normally exists only in the imagination and is rarely found within the medium, yet Dragon Maid pulls it off extremely well.

Now, I can’t say with certainty that I’d enjoy the show more without some of these gags and cliches, and despite how good they work within the show there are still a handful that I find tasteless and unhelpful. However, I can’t help but appreciate their place in making this series so self aware and intriguing. Surprisingly, even while being full of tropes, Dragon Maid ended up being a more heartwarming and pleasant viewing experience this season than Interviews With Monster Girls, a show that avoids these stereotypes entirely, which leads me to wonder if the general sentiment that “tropes equal mediocrity” is a deeply flawed one.

And that concludes my current train of thought.

ACCA’s GENIUS Details (and Less Genius Generalizations)

ACCAs-Genius-Details

It was the cigarette detail and others like in the first few episodes of ACCA that first captured my interest. When Lotta tossed Jean his pack of cigarettes in the first episode, I think not only considered it to be a great addition to the show’s aesthetics and setting, but was also elated to discover that it played a crucial role in understanding the show’s world.

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A while back Under The Scope Reviews did an excellent video on world building, specifically on the importance of details, and it is details that ACCA specializes in and why I was able to remain interested in the story despite it’s leisurely pace and occasional scenes of exposition.

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Why I Didn’t Like Izetta: An Cynical, Analytical Dissection

I don’t regularly write negative posts because normally the things I get the most excited and passionate about are the things that I enjoy, but in Fall 2016 there was an anime that I was deeply disappointed with, and ever since the finale the world has seemed intent on not letting me forget about it. Even now it continues to pop up in my social media, forcing me to think about it more than I normally would and develop lot of clear negative opinions on it. They’ve culminated to the point where I have them all sorted out in my mind and written out in analytical format. Hopefully by the time you’re reading this you’ve already finished Izetta: The Last Witch, because if you haven’t, be prepared to have the entire show spoiled for you. However, I’m going to avoid discussing any major plot points for any of the shows I’ll be referencing for the sake of contrast and comparison.

Note: I know a lot of people enjoyed this show, and I by no means expect everyone to agree with my opinions on it. If you enjoyed it, all I ask is that you consider it from the opposing point of view. And by all means, please share your opinions in the comments, especially if your views are in opposition to my own. I often find I learn the most from the people who disagree with me.

I can’t confidently say that all the facets of Izetta are poorly comprised. It’s never a particularly strong series, but it’s no throw-away show, either. For starters, I thoroughly enjoyed the first and last episodes. The first is set up quite nicely; it introduces its characters, hints at its story, delves into its concepts, briefly depicts real world politics and war, and shows off some competent and vibrant animation. The last episode was enjoyable not only because I was happy for it to finally be over, but also because it was genuinely fun to watch. Some scenes carry real emotional value and others relish in mindless self indulgence, making it an enjoyable viewing experience. Secondly, I’ve been enjoying this recent trend of anime with LGBT+ themes and protagonists that don’t fall into the typical yuri/yaoi genres, so I’m thankful that Izetta is counted among them. Finally, while I have a difficult time calling any of the characters “strong”, in the way that I define character strength, Izetta and Fine are enjoyable to watch because they have clear motivations, personal beliefs and struggles, and good chemistry to boot.

All that being said, those are the only parts of the show that I genuinely enjoyed. If you’ll have me, let’s dig into why. I’ll like to start by dissecting the surface aspects of the show, and we’ll continue to go deeper into it and in more detail as we progress until we reach the core and source of Izetta’s failures.

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Occultic;Nine: The Struggles of an Ambitious Creator

     With today’s anime industry cranking out more shows per season than ever before, many of which instantly forgettable due to lazy writing, sub par production and generic characters and stories, the fan community is quick to jump at any show that differentiates itself from the norm, praising these rule breakers for being inventive, creative, subversive and even deconstructive in their methods of storytelling. In late 2015, the show was One Punch Man. In Winter 2016, it was Konosuba and Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. More recently in Fall 2016, it was Flip Flappers. This season, it looks like it’s Kuzo No Honkai. However, while many fans consider shows like these to be fresh and inventive, there are an equal amount of people ready to jump on them from the opposing point of view, accusing them of being pretentious or pointless. Often, the most hotly debated shows within the community are the ones that are doing things differently, for better or worse.

     In the Fall 2016 anime season, no show was more divisive than Occultic;Nine. As a member of the Science Adventure series originally written by Chiyomaru Shikura, the creator of Steins;Gate, it attracted a lot of high expectations prior to its airing. However, after the first episode aired the general reaction seemed to be, more or less, confusion. Structurally speaking, Occultic;Nine is the opposite of Steins;Gate in almost every way. It’s extremely fast paced, its characters are all fairly stereotypical and don’t develop very much throughout the course of the show, and the dialogue is constantly exaggerated, almost to the point of being ridiculous. Most viewers walked away from the first episode with mixed feelings, some dropping it right away and moving on, criticizing it for being pretentious or simply bad.

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