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Sexual Assault and Subversiveness in Kiss Him, Not Me

Summary: Obese otaku Kae Serinuma loves one thing above all else: witnessing intense bonds between men. Whether it’s fictional boys of anime or her handsome male classmates, she lives for the moment where they share a significant glance or touch. When her favorite anime character dies, Kae locks herself in her room for two weeks without food. When she emerges and returns to school, she’s lost all the extra weight. Suddenly, the boys that wouldn’t give her the time of day want nothing more than her attention, but she’d rather they pay more attention to each other!

Content warnings: weight loss/gain, strong trigger warning for sexual assault

 

My expectations going into Kiss Him, Not Me were low, to say the least. Despite my own fondness for seeing boys kiss, I view fujoshi culture with an extremely critical eye. That is, after all, the reason garbage like Super Lovers and Junjou Romantica keeps getting made. I’m also not a fan of shipping real people or the idea that a girl only needs to lose weight to be lovable. When I actually gave the series a try, I was surprised to find it actually has something of a subversive bent, taking shots at romantic shoujo tropes without turning into outright parody. It’s a romantic comedy with very little romance; it’s a harem show where the heroine has more interest in the unattainability of fictional characters. However, that subversiveness is inconsistent and regularly mixed in with the typical shoujo cliches, making it hard to take the message seriously.

The premise of the show alone raises eyebrows. Manga about some kind of personal transformation are fairly common, such as Blue Spring Ride and High School Debut, and almost always revolve around the idea that daintiness and prettiness are more feminine and thus desirable. Kae, however, has absolutely zero interest in changing. The weight loss was purely accidental and she was plenty happy how she was. Her love of anime and BL still dictates most of her actions, and she doesn’t much care whether or not her harem decides to join her at things like Comiket or picking up the latest character goods at Animate. Kae’s ability to stay true to herself is remarkable, as is the boys’ willingness to accept her for who she is. It’s easy for a manga to convey the message to be yourself, but Kiss Him, Not Me dares readers to embrace their socially unacceptable qualities.

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However, that remains undermined by exactly how fat Kae is depicted. Kae’s physical transformation isn’t just weight loss; she also stops wearing her glasses and, in the anime, develops gradient hair. Her eyes get larger and more expressive, and even her ears and nose change shape. Even more egregious in the anime is the voice work. When she’s fat, Kae’s voice is repellent and distorted as if she’s speaking through a mouthful of cotton, but when she’s slender, her voice sounds high and girly unless she’s actively drooling over BL. This change has no bearing in reality – body weight doesn’t affect the vocal cords. Rather, it just makes fat Kae seem even more repulsive than she would have been otherwise. In one plotline, she gains all her weight back and the other characters confront the superficiality of their attraction to her, and whether or not it’s fair to try to get her to lose weight again. Mutsumi, her history club senpai who she was already friends with, and fellow fujoshi Shima don’t care either way, but her classmate Igarashi has to do some real soul-searching. None of that really matters, however, because Kae decides to lose the weight anyway, especially when the boys come up with a plan to perform PDA at certain weights as a motivator for her. Thus the status quo is restored and the series can continue with its conventionally attractive heroine.

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Sexual assault pops up in what seems like almost all shoujo manga, and Kiss Him, Not Me is no exception. There have been three instances thus far, using the well-worn trope with deftness ranging from clunky and cliched to surprisingly intelligent. The first story that uses the threat of sexual assault takes place early in the series, during the school festival. The boys, tired of only being part of a group, decide to each take some time with Kae individually. Kae, unused to being the center of attention, gets quickly overwhelmed by their flirtation and touching, culminating in Shinomiya falling face-first into her breasts in the haunted house. Kae flees, seeking out a staircase so she can spend some time by herself and calm down. While she’s sitting there, some boys from another school identify her by a flyer with her face on it and accost her, demanding she “service” them. When she punches them in self-defense, they give chase until her boys find her and start a brawl with them. While this confrontation does make them look protective, the fact that Kae felt the need to get away from them in the first place undercuts any sense of triumph. Even after the fight, Kae isn’t grateful or touched; rather, she starts crying out of anxiety and calls reality a “shitty game” when one of the brawlers bumps into her. While the introduction of assault drags the plot down, the emotional honesty did strike me. Kae never asked for any of this; she doesn’t care about being pretty or popular with boys, so of course she would uncomfortable with every moment. The conclusion isn’t that the boys care about her and thus she would be grateful – rather, the episode ends with them apologizing and promising to take things at her pace. With a little more thought, there could have easily been a climax leading to the same conclusion that didn’t involve her being sexually threatened.

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The second (per manga order) instance is the most cliche example of a heroine being sexually threatened for cheap drama. The episode focuses on Shinomiya, the youngest of the group, and his insecurities about being a slender bishounen compared to his more athletic rivals. When he and Kae find themselves stranded in abandoned hotel, a group of local men appear to mock him for his lack of masculinity and start grabbing at Kae. Shinomiya responds by kicking them in the junk and fleeing outside to where their friends are waiting, which is hardly the manliest defense strategy. However, Kae did nothing to save herself when only a few episodes ago she could at least put up a fight. Rather, the story prioritizes Shinomiya’s struggle over Kae’s own ability to defend herself and props up his meager masculinity at the expense of her stereotypically feminine traits, namely her sexual desirability and physical weakness.

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These instances are a shame, because Kiss Him, Not Me has one of the best depictions of the consequences of acquaintance assault that I’ve seen in a shoujo series. The set up is that Nanashima, concerned that he’s losing favor with Kae compared to his rivals, takes on a job performing in a magical girl stage show at a theme park with Kae. She takes him home when he has a fever, and unable to distinguish fantasy and reality (why didn’t they take him to the hospital?), he pins her down and kisses her until Igarashi bursts in and punches him. Shoujo heroines being threatened with rape by male acquaintances is common, but usually framed very differently. The boy is usually fully conscious and aware, but does it as a way of “teaching her a lesson” about being vulnerable and unguarded around males. Quite often it’s in soft focus and treated as a romantic moment rather than frightening and traumatic, such as in Boys Over Flowers and Blue Spring Ride. One thing that struck me in the scene about Kiss Him, Not Me, on the other hand, is how visceral it is. Aware or not, Nanashima performs an act of violence against Kae. She visibly tenses up as she resists him, but he overpowers her as intense music plays. Even as she cries out, “Get a hold of yourself!” he continues, and there’s no knowing how far things would have gone had Igarashi not interrupted.

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While in most series the threat of assault passes by without their relationship being affected, Kiss Him, Not Me is acutely aware of the lingering effects of such an encounter. Kae stays home from school for several days and doesn’t go to rehearsal for their show. While she’s home, she reads BL manga, comparing it to her own experience. “It’s so good when it’s in BL! But, when it happens in real life, it’s just scary.” The emphasis on fantasy vs reality is essential, but it’s rarely discussed in stories aimed at young women. Kae uses the fantasy to process her emotions about reality, but her own experience recontextualizes how she views the fantasy as well. What’s more, no one at any point blames Kae for the assault, not even herself, while the typical trope is that the girl was too relaxed and comfortable around boys. When Kae returns to work, Nanashima reaches out to her, and she flinches away. “I know you were acting strange because of your fever, so don’t worry about it,” she tells him. “But, I’m still scared.” Nanashima doesn’t take it personally. Instead he smiles and nods and agrees to give her the space she needs. Throughout the storyline, Kae’s reactions and emotions are treated with respect, both by the other characters and within the text. It’s strange that fundamental human decency can be considered subversive, but sexual assault by acquaintances in shoujo is usually treated as punitive, a natural consequence, or even worse, romanticized.

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Of course, Kiss Him, Not Me undercuts itself somewhat with the episode’s conclusion. At the show, a group of adult male magical girl otaku interfere with the show by blocking the young audience and trying to look up the actress’ skirts. Nanashima jumps in as the Dark Prince and beats up the otaku with a little help from Kae, telling her at the end, “I swear I will never hurt you again.” This turn in the story offers Nanashima an easy out, while separating him from the bad, scary “outside” men, much like in the beach episode. The contrast between him and the otaku make him look better by comparison – Nanashima was delirious and unaware of himself, while these men are in total control of their faculties. While Kae was intellectually aware that she had nothing to fear from him, her emotional response was one of trauma and fear. However, the episode closes with Kae smiling and thinking, “Boys can be scary, but they can also be very dependable!” Rather than allowing Kae the necessary time to heal and fully forgive Nanashima, the show goes for a quick, convenient resolution. I understand why – it would be a difficult blow for a lighthearted comedy to recover from – but it is still frustrating. Allowing Nanashima to prove that he’s dependable and not scary like other guys, rather than Kae gradually recovering from her trauma and feeling comfortable around him again, ties up the often-messy emotional process too neatly. With everything the episode does so well – the violence of the act, the separation of fantasy and reality, the separation of intellectual and emotional forgiveness – the message becomes muddled at the very end. It is betrayed by its own realism, and a new possible reading of the moral appears: even if he lost control, he’s not like those scary strangers who look up girls’ skirts. You can still rely on him. Nanashima may have been ill, but the logic easily extends to more common situations, such as drinking to excess.

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Kiss Him, Not Me is not an easy show to categorize. It wants to be subversive, but its willingness to turn to unironic shoujo cliches with only a slight twist makes it hard to take it seriously as such. Subversiveness applied inconsistently is without conviction, turning what could have been powerful toothless and contradictory. It’s a shame, because it handled some aspects with a deftness rarely seen in manga aimed at teens. Its central message of self-love and respect, and that fat people deserve to be treated with love and humanity, are important ones, and deserve a series that can stick to its guns.

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Looking Forward, Looking Back

Whew. This year was one hell of a ride, wasn’t it?

I know it’s been a rough, heartbreaking year for almost all of you – we lost some true visionaries who dared to live differently and never apologized for being themselves. My country, the US, took a lot of steps backward that will doubtless affect the entire world, and a lot of other countries are headed in similar directions. I’m afraid we have all been cursed to live in interesting times.

 

Heroine Problem in 2016

It’s been an extremely busy year here at Heroine Problem headquarters. In terms of my personal life, the school where I was working at closed down suddenly, forcing me to find a new job. I was lucky enough to get hired for my first-ever lead teacher job in a toddler class at a fairly prestigious preschool. It has good benefits, low ratios, and the best wage I’ve ever made, but the learning curve has been extremely steep for me as I work on my CDA and learn to take charge and run the classroom as my own. It’s been a difficult few months learning to re-balance my life, and I’m not quite there yet.

This change has been reflected in the drop in updates for the site. I admit it, I’ve been really bad about updating consistently! Really, really terrible about it! My last attempt to make weekly updates about current anime crashed and burned – rather than keeping relevant, it mostly made me avoidant and led to me not even watching the new episodes for a couple weeks. Needless to say, I don’t think that approach works for me. Going forward, I’m going to try again on the approach I took for winter 2016: if I find something to talk about in a currently-airing show, I will. That’s the approach that, after all, led to the writing of my most popular post thus far. My hope is to be able to maintain a twice-a-week posting schedule. In addition, I’d like to give the site a sprucing up – get a proper logo and banner, and have some business cards to hand out at conventions this year.

Despite the lack of posts, it’s been a busy anime-related year for me. I attended Sakura Con, Otakon, and Geek Girl Con, presenting panels at the first two and volunteering at the third. Although my first panel had some bumps due to technical difficulties that threw my plans for a loop, the rest were very well-attended and successful, in no small part due to the help of my dear friends Michelle Liu and Rose Bridges. Otakon – my first in eight years – was the most fun I’ve had at a con in years, and though I thought at the time it would be my last, I’ve already made plans to attend again in 2017. I also hope to attend AnimeFest in Dallas, because Sayo Yamamoto, Mitsurou Kubo, and Tadashi Hiramatsu, the main creative team behind Yuri!! on Ice will be there as guests. It’ll be tough to manage attending two long-distance cons in a row, but with careful budgeting, I think I can make it!

This year also marked the inception of Anime Feminist, a collective feminist blogging site run by Amelia Cook. Amelia showed incredible leadership in gathering together amazing bloggers like Lauren Orsini of Anime News Network, Gunpla 101, and Otaku Journalist; Dee of Josei Next Door; Vrai Kaiser; and many others. It’s a group I’m proud to be a part of, with a huge variety of perspectives. Amelia’s promotional prowess also led to coverage on heavy-hitter sites like Kotaku and The Mary Sue and a successful Patreon that makes it possible for writers to get paid for their work. I don’t know what the future holds for AniFem, but I’m excited to see where it goes.

 

Anime in 2016

This year, I watched fifteen current anime series, and parts of several others. Historically, I’ve focused on backlog shows, with less than a dozen current series in a year, so this is quite a lot for me. I’m glad I decided to get current this year, because there have been some truly stellar series that would have been a true shame to to miss out on. Even if a lot of other things were terrible, at least 2016 was a good year for anime.

Short-subject anime are increasingly popular as more and more anime are designed to be watched on phones while commuting. They cover a broad range of subjects, from silly gag anime to plot-driven stories as complex as any full-length series. Winter’s Please Tell Me! Galko-chan remains one of my favorite shows of the season. I’m not usually one for gross-out humor, but its frankness about things such as periods, finding cute bras in large sizes, and pooping after eating a spicy meal being discussed by likable characters charmed me. It was seven minutes of sunshine in the rainy Seattle winter. The absurdity of Sekkou Boys was entertaining enough, but ultimately forgettable. This Boy is a Professional Wizard, an independent production by the distinctive Soubi Yamamoto, remains under-appreciated. Space Patrol Luluco is the most popular of the shorts I watched, and for good reason. Hiroyuki Imaishi’s frenetic energy works in short bursts, and it was fun to see him work on relatively light fare. Historically, Trigger hasn’t been great with its female characters, but Luluco’s adolescent crush as the driving force of the story was well-handled and built up to a beautiful conclusion.

It was a year of extremes for shoujo and jousei anime as well. The fujoshi market has been gaining strength for some time, and this year the studios were eager to capitalize on that with an huge increase in shows about gay men and reverse harems. This led to two of the best series of the year: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu and Yuri!! On Ice. Both shows tell compelling stories about gay men, but otherwise they are opposites to the extreme: historical vs. modern, tragedy vs. optimism, subtext vs. text, unrequited pining vs. a healthy relationship. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu also has a sequel season coming up, and while Yuri!! On Ice does not have a confirmed sequel, a smash hit with an open ending seems like an obvious choice. On the opposite extreme in terms of quality lie the pedophilic Super Lovers and First Love Monster. Super Lovers romanticizes grooming and abuse, while the mean-spirited First Love Monster mocks its viewers. Somewhere in the middle lies Kiss Him, Not Me. I expected it to be either critical of its viewers a la First Love Monsters, or superficial and far too forgiving of its heroine’s tendency to ship her classmates. Rather than either of those Kiss Him, Not Me shows some subversive leanings as it gently pokes fun at fujoshi culture, but remains all too willing to play many shoujo tropes straight.

Among shounen shows, two stood head and shoulders above the rest: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable and My Hero Academia. Diamond is Unbreakable continues David Production’s excellent adaptation with some of the most innovative art direction I’ve ever seen in TV anime. Sweet-natured Josuke and his friends brought a welcome change from the taciturn, disrespectful punk Jotaro, and the town of Morioh felt like a character in its own right. My Hero Academia hews closely to today’s standard shounen battle manga conventions, but with strong writing, lovable characters, and the production values of Studio Bones to bring the action sequences to life, I enjoyed it. The first season of last year’s Haikyuu!! came to a bittersweet ending last year when the boys lost in the final episodes, but the second and third seasons saw them learning from their defeat and coming together to make an even stronger team.

Seinen is something of a catch-all for series that don’t fall easily into the other categories, as the disparate remaining series show. How can you compare the symbolism-laden, fairytale inspired story of queer adolescent sexual awakening of Flip Flappers to the gentle episodic comedy Tanaka-kun is Always Listless? Or the tightly-plotted thriller Erased to the deeply cynical depiction of anime production in Girlish Number? There’s almost no overlap between the shows, other than that they are all worth your time.

This was also an incredible year for seeing anime films in theaters. Even without the dubious privilege of living in Los Angeles, where most are screened in order to be Oscar eligible, I experienced more anime on the big screen this year than I ever have. Isao Takahata’s nostalgic love letter to rural Japan, Only Yesterday, finally got a US release courtesy of GKids after years of sitting untouched in the Disney vault. Seeing Spirited Away again after 15 years brought me to tears as the now-iconic imagery felt new again. Miss Hokusai went sadly underappreciated – is there not enough of a market for feminist historical fiction? Beautiful, understated, female-helmed Doukyuusei continued this year’s trend of gay coming-of-age stories with two dissimilar high school boys connecting over music.

I learned this year there’s not much point to making predictions of what I’ll like next year. Too many shows have surprised me; too many others have disappointed. All I can hope is that 2017 is as strong as 2016, for the night is dark and full of terrors and sometimes I need some damn Japanese cartoons to cheer me up.

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Missing Miss Hokusai

Most people are familiar with the works of Katsushika Hokusai, particularly the iconic “Great Wave off Kanagawa” ukiyo-e print, but few know that his daughter, Katsushika O-Ei, was a talented artist in her own right. She spent most of her life assisting and working with her father and was best known for her prints of beautiful women. Miss Hokusai, based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, tells a fictionalized version of her life, one characterized by her devotion to her blind younger sister as well as to her art.

Miss Hokusai eschews a traditional narrative structure, instead opting for an episodic approach. It’s an unusual approach to a film, one that has been widely criticized, but I thought it worked beautifully for the subject matter. The vignettes provide a more complete picture of O-Ei as a person; without having to unite them through a story, it gives snapshots of her personal and professional life and relationships. We see how she relates to her father, to her colleagues, to her sister, and to her art, without her being defined by any one aspect. O-Ei is certainly a woman who defies simple definition. From the very outset, she makes it clear that she is a woman with little interest in traditional femininity. She strides across a bridge over the Sumida River with her arms at her side, rather than the delicate, pigeon-toed gait with hands folded in front favored for women at the time. Instead of maintaining the home, as would be her expected role, she works side by side with Hokusai, explaining that neither of them cooks or cleans; rather, they just move when things get unlivable.

Historical fiction rarely focuses on women, so I especially applaud the decision to tell O-Ei’s story rather than that of her legendary father. That’s part of why I was so baffled by the number of reviewers who came away with the impression that the movie was about Hokusai himself, rather than the title character. This review by Brian Tallerico on rogerebert.com exemplifies that mistake. Tallerico seems unable to conceive that the movie is not Hokusai’s story told through the eyes of his daughter, but her own story. He claims the film “allows us to see him through his daughter’s eyes.” Hokusai is a prominent character and influence in her story, but make no mistake – O-Ei is the one driving the action in every scene. The dissonance between expectation and reality makes it difficult for Tallerico to fully immerse himself in the world of the movie and enjoy it for its own qualities.

He complains that the film is “remarkably talky,” filled with “conversations about other artists of the period and discussions of the philosophy of art.” This claim indicates Tallerico was paying more attention to the male characters than to O-Ei, who is in fact quite taciturn. In one of the first scenes of the film, a popular young artist known as Kuninao comes to visit as O-Ei works to replace a painting of a dragon she had inadvertently ruined right as her father was finishing it. She sits silently at her desk, focusing on her work, as the young man explains to her how to draw a dragon. She doesn’t smile or speak to him, but only stares in response – she knows how to draw a dragon, as shown both from the sketch she’s working as he talks to her and the masterful finished project, which is passed off as her father’s work. It’s classic mansplaining, and O-Ei has no use for it. It’s not worth even engaging with for her. The discussion of art and technique is used well to build up O-Ei and those around her as characters. It’s integral to how they view and experience the world around them and the foundation of their relationships, so of course in the scenes where O-Ei is interacting with other characters, they would be primarily discussing art. There are plenty of scenes where the characters talk about other things, or not at all, but those scenes tend to involve either O-Ei by herself or two women, so naturally Tallerico and the primarily male reviewers would tune out for those. One of the primary through lines is her desire to be seen as equal to those around her and her low-key rivalry with her own father, and thus is essential to her character development.

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Tallerico almost, almost catches on that, citing a sequence where Hokusai tells a story to a Yoshiwara courtesan about his hands escaping his body and roaming the world, claiming that’s the secret to his art. He says, “The parallel between this approach to art—tactile and experiential—and his daughter’s, which is more intellectual and technique-based, is interesting, but, like so much of “Miss Hokusai,” underdeveloped.”  I find this claim to be quite misleading. For one thing, Hokusai admits at the end of the sequence that he took that story from a Chinese folktale and that it has nothing to do with his actual approach. Although it’s never explicitly stated, quite a few scenes are devoted to O-Ei’s more analytical approach to her art and her resulting shortcomings. Her skill at drawing solo women is well-recognized – her father says she may even be better at it than he is – but she struggles with erotic “pillow drawings”. The reason is clear – while she can go out to Yoshiwara and draw any courtesan that will agree to model for her, she lacks experience with actual sex. Even her father’s student Zenjiro, whose figure drawing is awkward and poorly proportioned, is more popular when it comes to pornographic prints. The printer tells her portraits have “technical mastery, but lack any sensuality.” He tells her it’s not her fault, and that Hokusai “is to blame for making his daughter draw such paintings,” the implication being that as a young woman, it’s improper for her to be drawing pornographic images. O-Ei’s lack of sensuality comes not from her being a woman, but from her lack of experience, something she is well aware of. After talking to the printer she runs into her crush Hatsugoro, noticing the “scent of his skin” as they walk together under an umbrella. She excuses herself, claiming she just remembered she had something else to do… and runs off to visit a cross-dressing male prostitute known as a kagema. (A lot of reviewers did not pick up on the fact that the prostitute was a man, which tells me they pay absolutely no attention to the voice actor’s performances. A shame.) The whole encounter is deeply uncomfortable to O-Ei, but she soldiers on because that’s the only way she believes she can learn to create pillow drawings that will sell. It’s a calculated, analytic strategy, and it goes awry when he falls asleep on her chest instead of doing the deed. Tallerico’s claim that it is undeveloped refers to the lack of focus on Hokusai, who spends more time commenting on the work of others than his own work. The film only touches briefly on the contrast between his and O-Ei’s approaches, and spends more time showing O-Ei’s approach through her choices and actions.

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Most critics, as focused as they were on the lack of Hokusai, still could see how touching the relationship between O-Ei and her blind younger sister O-Nao is. It’s most emotionally-driven element of the film and one of the strongest stories. Quiet, serious O-Ei turns tender around her younger sister, smiling gently as she guides her and helps her experience the world through touch and sound. When they go for a boat ride on the Sumida River, O-Ei dips O-Nao’s hand into the water; on a snowy day, O-Nao comments on how quiet the world has become. Hokusai, on the other hand, wants little to do with his youngest daughter. The way he interacts the world is so purely visual that he can’t relate. O-Nao’s perspective is so alien to him that he seems actively terrified of it. The image of a blind person touching someone’s face to “see” them is a staple of film, but usually presented as romantic or touching. When O-Nao reaches out to touch her father, he isn’t touched; he’s terrified. The contrast between the common trope and Hokusai’s reaction is deeply effective and drives home that while he may be an artistic visionary, he is extremely limited in his own way. Tallerico, however, doesn’t see it that way: “The idea that O-Nao’s father, while painting art that would resonate centuries later, basically ignored his sick child, is a fascinating one but it’s better served by a documentary than episodically within an animated film.” Tallerico’s attitude is dismissive toward the affective power of animation and the deeper, more important relationship between the two sisters. Hokusai’s relationship with O-Nao, or lack thereof, is fascinating, but mostly contrasts with O-Ei’s ability to engage and meet her sister halfway, helping her explore Edo when most people would have simply locked up their disabled child away from the world. The idea of replacing that beauty with a relatively cold historical documentary, of preferring it, makes no sense to me. Besides, it would be impossible – little is known about Hokusai’s children outside of O-Ei, including how many of them there even were.

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It’s sad, but not surprising that so many critics seemed to have tuned out the two-thirds of Miss Hokusai that did not include the artist. In the words of Twitter user @lossthief: “the film is literally named after her and they refer to her like a narrating side-character” The film serves as a snapshot in the life of a fantastically unconventional woman who pays little regard to the expectations society holds for her. When male critics lessen her role in her own story, they unconsciously play into those expectations and deny themselves the full experience.

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Baku-“Man have drive, woman give in easy”

Summary: Mashiro and Takagi have decided to devote their energies toward a mainstream battle manga, despite their editor advising them against it. Miyoshi continues to insinuate herself between the two as her relationship with Takagi deepens. Meanwhile, Miho starts to see some modest success, but at what cost?

Content Warnings: Lots of jokes about Miyoshi’s big boobs, but not much otherwise.

Part 3: Baku-“Man Dream Big, Need Supportive Woman”

Remember when I said I liked Miyoshi a lot? And that I was gearing up for her downfall? Well, turns out it took a lot less time than I thought!

The third volume of Bakuman opens with Mashiro and Takagi brainstorming a new concept for their mainstream battle manga they’ve decided to make. Miyoshi remarks on their work ethic, “You guys really are something… How can you be so positive about your chasing your dream?” She tells them about how despite her success at competitive martial arts, she quit in middle school when she discovered how many people were better than her.  It’s a relatable enough concept, feeling discouraged and quitting because you feel like you’ll never be the best.

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WOMEN CAN’T UNDERSTAND MEN’S DREAMS

All of the principal characters in Bakuman struggle with being overly competitive perfectionists. However, since Miyoshi is the only one who gives up in the face of all that competition, it feels more like a character failing than a normal, if not ideal response to pressure. Mashiro and Takagi are similarly competitive and disappointed when their short manga comes in third place in Akamaru Jump’s weekly rankings, something most people would consider a major feat. Miyoshi, on the other hand, gave up quickly despite being a strong national competitor among girls her age – a feat few can ever achieve. She also cites having to study for high school entrance exams, a reminder that Takagi chose an easier school than he could have attended for the sake of pursuing his own dream. The moment a major obstacle appeared, Miyoshi folded. It all comes back to “Men have dreams women will never understand.” Miyoshi is too practical to make her dreams come true.

Not that she has the self-awareness to realize that yet. She sighs and says, “I’m so envious of all of you. I wish I had a dream of my own…” but when Takagi suggests she return to karate, she responds, “I’ve had enough of martial arts. I want a more girly dream.” But why? She’s clearly athletic and still enjoys fighting – the first page of the volume is her beating up Takagi for manga research, a page I thoroughly enjoyed. Later, the boys watch her play volleyball, and though the paneling is mostly focused on her shaking breasts (you think she would have the sense to buy a sturdy sports bra), her physical power and determination shine through. So far, the only answers can be found through conjecture. The interpretation that looks solely at the text, treating the characters as rational human beings, is that she is feeling societal pressure to act a certain way to make up for her height, natural physical strength, and straightforward personality. This is underlined by Mashiro and Takagi’s open admiration of Miho, her best friend, who is as dainty and feminine as can be. She believes she must give up on her stereotypically masculine pursuits in order to be noticed and loved by Takagi, who regularly comments on her breasts and her physical power. The other interpretation, which requires looking at the authors’ body of work, is that Ohba and Obata are major sexists who treat Miyoshi as the heel of the group. She is an interloper whose main function is to get between the two male characters, and her every action is intended to push them farther apart.

The latter interpretation is supported farther into the volume, when Takagi and Mashiro are taking a break to search for some inspiration. Miyoshi, meanwhile, decides on her own dream: writing cell phone novels, a popular medium in Japan that never made the leap to the US. She chooses this dream not out of any love of the craft, but rather because she wants one similar to what her friends are going through. She immediately asks Takagi for help writing a novel based on Mashiro and Miho’s relationship, offering to help him write the female characters for his manga in exchange. Mashiro stares on in horror, thinking, “Shujin, you don’t have the time to be helping Miyoshi right now… We can’t have Miyoshi interfering with our manga…”

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Further proof that Ohba/Obata have zero interest in writing women like human beings

Mashiro’s disdain for Miyoshi has been a constant since she first became involved in the series, treating her as an intruder on the sacred bond between two men working together on a goal and a distraction to Takagi. The narrative thus far has only supported his treatment of her – her offers of assistance are seen as feminine interference in their quest to write a truly manly manga, a goal they identified in the first volume. When Takagi is supposed to be working on developing a concept for their new manga, Mashiro accidentally catches them kissing while on a date. Later, it turns out that Takagi has been writing the cell phone novels in her stead. Instead of the spunky, pragmatic girl of the previous volume, Miyoshi is now a ditzy hanger-on, a groupie, and a leech on Takagi’s talent and energy. Not even Takagi seems to like her that much; when Mashiro takes exception to him calling Miho their heroine, Takagi cringes and says, “Fine, your heroine. My heroine is Miyoshi… Eh?” The scorn with which both the heroes and the narrative treat Miyoshi is revolting.

But how about Miho, the perfect paragon of feminine modesty? Why, she’s managed to get her first role! How thrilling! Of course, she gets it after all sorts of failed auditions and sexual harassment that happens offscreen as she hides it from her supposed fiance. Her debut comes in Saint Visual Girls’ High School, a late night anime wherein her sole line is confessing her love to another girl. The requirements for the actresses are that they are “under twenty with good looks”. The other girls at the meeting smile eagerly and accept, but Miho hesitates before agreeing. At the actual audition, which is overcrowded with cute teenage girls, the producer takes one look at the room and tells the casting agents that Miho passes. As he walks out the door, the casting agents whisper, “That old letch… But we have to do as he says…” Miho’s success here has nothing to do with her ability as an actress, and everything to do with her cuteness. This is jarring when contrasted with Mashiro and Takagi’s burgeoning success, which is solely due to their hard work, determination, and precocious gifts.

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The boys’ succeed because of hard work and determination. Miho succeeds because the director wants to fuck her.

This is not to say Miho herself isn’t working hard – I’m well aware of the physical, emotional, and mental toll that rounds and rounds of auditions and the predatory behavior endemic to the acting industry can have. However, unless the manga intends to make some sort of commentary about the inequality men and women face when striving for their dreams in the entertainment field, it would have been better to show Miho’s journey in parallel to the boys’: one of self-discipline, sacrifice, and determination.

When Mashiro gets the news that Miho has landed a role, he isn’t excited or happy for her, but jealous and insecure. He worries she’ll have a meteoric rise to the top, rather than what he sees as their struggle from the bottom, even though they’re already doing extremely well for high school first-years. It actually makes me a bit glad that they’ve agreed not to see each other. If Mashiro is going to be so snotty and jealous every time Miho gets a bit of success, it would discourage her and she may hold herself back for his benefit.

In the final pages of the volume, Mashiro texts Miho after a fight with Takagi, asking, “Why are you okay with not seeing me?” Upon reading the message, Miho’s face turns contemplative, and the next morning she answers, “Because I want to cherish the promise I made with you about our dream. I’m sure our joy and love will be far larger if we met each other after our dreams come true.” Even as they both struggle with realizing the real world cares nothing about their idealism, they refuse to meet so they can hold up their relationship as one final bastion of purity of ideals. Even when the manga world is disappointing and everything feels like an uphill battle, Miho alone is pure and untouched. Yet again, Bakuman reminds us that Miho’s role in the story is not one of a person, but as a plot device and an idealized figure.

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Fall 2016 First Look

Sigh.

It seems like every other season, I tell myself that I’m going to find a new way to keep current on the blog, to find a way to discuss my thoughts and impressions of the shows I’m watching that week, and it somehow always falls through. It may be because life happens or I get busy, or because I decide that I don’t have something new to say about each show each week, or I decide I’m going to work on my backlog that season, or I just don’t have it in me to write 1000 words each about every show I’m watching. No matter what, I end up struggling to keep up with the shows that season.

So, of course that means it’s time to try again with a new format!

So here’s the new format: every week, I’ll post my thoughts, impressions, and predictions of each new episode that I’ve watched. If something relevant happens in the anime news, I may post my take on that as well. I’m not wasting my time sampling every new show; last time I tried that, it was exhausting and a lot of time and effort for not much reward. Instead, I’m only going to watch the ones that pique my interest and I think the readers of this blog will be interested in. Let’s see how this goes. So without further ado…

 

Izetta: The Last Witch

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Episode 1

For better or worse, Izetta’s reputation preceded it. Crunchyroll went on a major publicity blitz with it, filling its blog with articles and its Twitter feed with shiny promotional art of two young women gazing at each other and holding hands high above the European countryside and riding guns like traditional ride brooms. It all looks lovely, but many fans who pay attention to staff in anime were much more wary. The show’s head writer is Hiroyuki Yoshino, a man whose major credits include Seikon no Qwaser, a fan service action anime about the power of breast milk; and Guilty Crown, a show infamous for its deeply militaristic, fascist, and misogynist themes. Knowing this, it was impossible not to go into Izetta: The Last Witch without being extremely skeptical.

Despite these ominous signs, the first episode was extremely strong. The character Izetta doesn’t show up until the last few minutes of episode – instead, the first 20 minutes focus on Finé, the princess of a small fictional duchy being threatened in a pseudo-World War II conflict. She is, as the other characters remark, a natural-born princess, but not the Disney variety. Rather, she is cool-headed, determined, intelligent, and willing to do anything in service of her country, whether it be offering herself up for marriage to a foreign prince or jumping from a train going over a trestle to escape Germanian soldiers. She is her tiny country’s only hope in the face of a great evil, and her only hope is the legendary White Witch. Her seiyuu, Saori Hayami, does an excellent job portraying her with a sort of quiet determination and composure totally lacking the sort of bubble-headed-ness and awkwardness anime heroines usually have to make them “likable” or “approachable”. The only frustrating part of her portrayal is the unnecessary shower scene where the camera lingers over her nude body. It’s fairly mild as far as fan service go, but it’s a frustrating and jarring departure

Izetta finally appears to rescue Finé from Germanian forces who hold her captive in an airplane. Symbolically, there’s a lot going on in those final few minutes. Izetta, when she recognizes Finé from a childhood memory, blows up the plane in an explosion of rainbow energy. When she sees Finé plummeting toward the forest thousands of feet below, she grabs a gun and flies down to catch her. Finé and Izetta’s bond, while still unexplained, appears to have romantic implications, from the rainbow explosion and their close, comfortable body language while riding on the gun. The gun, on the other hand, carries phallic implications of masculine, militaristic power. This is nothing new in terms of witches – the more traditional broom was once a phallic symbol itself. But while the broom combined masculine and feminine signifiers, the gun is pure masculinity. The gun comes most strongly into play at Finé’s most vulnerable moment, when she is helpless with no hope of escape. The strong, self-sufficient princess must be rescued by a masculinized figure, and she gives herself over. Although it’s too early to call either way, the imagery certain raises a lot of questions that I’m not sure if I’ll like the answer to.

 

Magical Girl Raising Project

Episode 1

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You know, I’m getting pretty tired of this post-Madoka Magica world. Can we please get back to magical girl shows being about girls doing their best and succeeding instead of being about them suffering? According to the cold open of Magical Girl Raising Project, which shows the heroine standing alone and frightened in a room filled with bodies and splashes of gore, not yet.

Magical Girl Raising Project is a show without an original thought in its head. It combines the pseudo-cheerful first episode of Madoka Magica, the app-based selection system of Yuki Yuna is a Hero, the gamification of community service of Gatchaman Crowds, the ominous black-and-white mascot from Dangan Ronpa, and the youths forced to do battle of, well, lots of popular YA material but let’s just go with Battle Royale for now. The feeling is akin to every time Taco Bell announces a new menu item – it’s the same ingredients blended together in a slightly different way, and you’re not sure if there’s enough novelty to merit your cash. Outside those initial shots, however, there’s not much to point to anything wrong, pointing toward a “heel-turn” situation rather than a slow burn, the latter of which I find much more satisfying.

All that said, there was enough to hold my attention for the first episode. The dialogue between Koyuki and her friends feels natural enough as the three discuss the recent magical girl sightings around their city, even if they do look about ten years younger than the show claims they are. Most interesting is Koyuki’s childhood friend Souta, a boy who has felt the need to hide his love of magical girls since he was a small child. Now, he still loves magical girls, and was even lucky enough to be one of the one in 10,000 who was selected to become one. As he tells Koyuki, his transformation into a girl is complete, although he’s still a boy when not transformed. His comfort in a phenotypically female body, complete with visible cleavage, is a refreshing change from the humiliation most male characters react with when forced into a feminized role, and his discussion of how hard it is to be a boy who likes stereotypically feminine things feels sincere.

Will Magical Girl Raising Project be little girl misery porn? Probably! But I still feel like giving it a couple more episodes to prove itself.

 

Magic-Kyun Renaissance

Episode 1

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I’m just going to come out and say it: Magic-Kyun Renaissance is a fairly standard otome-style reverse harem. One girl thrown into an uncomfortable new environment surrounded by variously talented pretty boys? Yeah, I’ve heard it before. Kohana Aigasaki is a rare transfer student at Hoshinomori Magic Arts High School, where artistic talent is literally manifested as magical sparkles. Kohana, the daughter of a renowned magic artist, is a practitioner of ikebana, the traditional art of flower arranging, but has yet to produce her own sparkles. She finds herself placed totally randomly on the committee for the Summer Festa with a collection of the boys who she noticed on her walkabout. It’s not a premise that excites me, but it is a project helmed mainly by women, so I am taking somewhat more notice than I would normally for something like this.

As is standard for the genre, Kohana is an Ordinary Girl, thrown into a group of Extraordinary Men. Her inability to create sparkles using her magic art sets her well below the curve at this school, despite everyone’s high expectations of her due to her family lineage. Could she possibly succeed only because of the support of these beautiful young men? Oh, no doubt at all. It didn’t escape my notice that the first and only time she projects sparkles is when she offers a bouquet to a beautiful young man, a famously standoffish singer whose name I’ve already forgotten. Ikebana is also extremely feminine-coded, an art practiced almost exclusively by women for hundreds of years. Basically, I’m not really expecting Magic-Kyun Renaissance to break down any barriers, and will probably continue to reinforce the same romanticized gender roles and sexism as most otome games.

That said, it is a beautiful show, which is only fitting for a show about art. The animation and art design are gorgeous, all clean curving lines, bright colors, and fluid motion. Mitsue Yamazaki, director of Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, shows off the same visual flair in a much less restrained setting. Veteran writer Tomoko Konparu also turns in a solid script, and I especially enjoyed the interaction between Kohana and her new roommate Juri. Even with a fairly silly premise, the strong female-led creative team of Magic-kyun Renaissance makes it worth at least a second look, even if not a third.

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No Middle Sliders: Body Diversity in Anime

When I lived in Japan, I rarely bought clothing. At 5’4” and 140 pounds, I was on the smaller side of average for an American woman, but finding clothes that fit, let alone flattered, my hips or shoulders was a chore to find at best and a self-esteem-destroying battle at worst. The only jacket I bought there is size XL and is loose everywhere but the shoulders. The story was the same for most of my foreign female coworkers, and we generally did all our clothes shopping on visits to our home countries. It was frustrating, but it was just one of those things you have to learn to deal with when living in a foreign country.

As an American feminist, body positivity and the struggle for diverse bodies to be respected and represented in the media is a huge issue. However, when I’m watching anime, it’s probably one of the things I pay the least attention to when considering the show’s representation of women. I prioritize the themes and roles they play within the story, and whether they reinforce gender stereotypes or break away from them. Physical appearance is rarely something I concern myself with except for how it relates to those things.

Let’s face it – the primary purpose of most anime featuring girls and women is to appeal to the male gaze in order to sell models and other merchandise, regardless of whether or not female fans identify with the characters. In a country that values thinness as a major component of a woman’s attractiveness, chunky characters are a tough sell outside a narrow set of fetishists. Anime character designs have two sliders: height and boob size. They can occupy a large range between short and tall, flat-chested and grotesquely busty, but no matter what, they are almost always slim.

So, when DOES it matter?

When it does things very, very right…

If an anime does have women with a believable variety of body types, I’ll pretty much fall all over myself praising it for that. After all, it means that someone went out of their way to design women outside of the default cookie-cutter shape. Princess Jellyfish is a story about fujoshi who have given up on society, and their shapes range from lanky and angular to short and rounded – none are traditionally attractive other than the “Hollywood ugly” main character – and even then, she is far from shaped like a model.

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The cast of Princess Jellyfish

Even better about displaying women with diverse body types is Please Tell Me! Galko-chan. Now, I’ve already written a lot about this show, and I think it’s an unfortunately rare perfect example body diversity in animation. Galko-chan puts a huge variety of body types on display, from short and skinny Otako to curvy Galko to average-build Ojou. Galko isn’t just skinny with huge breasts but genuinely curvy, with a booty to match as well as a thicker middle and broad shoulders. The show also sympathetically discusses how she gets backaches because of her breasts, the difficulty of finding cute bras in her size, and the chauvinistic assumptions her classmates make about her because of her shape. Also, her breasts don’t move like water balloons attached to her chest! It’s a beautiful thing. On top of Galko herself, several background characters also show a multitude of body types. My favorite is Nikuko, a fat girl whose name translates literally to “meaty child.” Fat women in anime are often portrayed as lazy, gluttonous, or falsely confident in their own attractiveness. In contrast, Nikuko is cheerful and athletic, nicknamed “Sonic Meat” because of her speed. When we see her in her underwear, she has believable proportions including large, round belly, but she is never the subject of mockery or cruel jokes about her weight.

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Please Tell Me! Galko-chan is unafraid to put larger bodies on display

Positive portrayals of diverse bodies in Please Tell Me! Galko-chan are important because it’s a show about bodies. Much of the show is spent discussing breasts and vaginas in such a matter-of-fact, frank way, and it’s essential to the show’s message to teen girls – that all these things, in all their gross glory, are normal – to depict so many different body types as being worthy of recognition, of appreciation, and even of celebration.

Or when it does things very, very wrong

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HELP HER BOOBS HAVE ESCAPED AND ARE TRYING TO STRANGLE HER
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The anime for which the phrase “calm your tits” was invented

Okay, a lot of anime distorts female bodies to the point of grotesquerie for the sake of fan service. The appeal of the infamous Eiken will always be a mystery to me, as are the rippling water balloon breasts of recent shows such as Valkyrie Drive. The increasingly insane proportions of the women of One Piece and its conflation of obesity and villainy were a factor in why I stopped reading it. However, these shows are all aimed at the male gaze and honestly, they’ve become more of a quaint curiosity than a point of contention to me. No, the one series where the lack of body diversity always bothers me is Shirobako, because it is otherwise such a rare treat.

Shirobako gained critical acclaim when it premiered for its wonderful depiction of a group of fully-grown women working in the anime industry. The women are intelligent and competent, and their career struggles are sympathetic and believable, such as an animator having difficulty making ends meet or a producer covering for her thoughtless colleague. Much of the male secondary cast is based on real people, allowing for unusually realistic character designs. The side-by-side comparisons are incredible, and it’s fun to watch and see how these individuals’ personalities and passions have made the world of Shirobako simultaneously colorful and completely believable.

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Too bad the main female cast all have identical infantilized same-faces!

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Maybe they’re identical quintuplets?

The show handles everything else so masterfully, so it creates an odd disconnect with the female character designs. It doesn’t ruin the series by any means, but it is distracting and takes away from the narrative of capable adult women breaking into a tough, competitive industry. Instead, it carries the nasty reminder that anime production remains a boys’ club. If a female character doesn’t sell models and other fanservicey merchandise, no matter how much a viewer may relate to her or even look up to her, she is worthless from the studio’s point of view. “Don’t lie to yourself,” it whispers to me. “This is not for you.” Their lives may not revolve around men, but their existence does.

Otakon 2016 Cosplay Gallery

There was a ton of great cosplay at this year’s Otakon! The most popular property I noticed was Pokemon, as well as quite a bit of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. This year, I decided to take the time to interview a few cosplayers when I had a moment. As I write this article, I’m discovering that the quality of photos taken by my note-taking app are somewhat… sub-par, so apologies for that.

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Victoria as Anthy Himemiya from Revolutionary Girl Utena
“What made me want to cosplay as this character was growing up, I never knew how to come out of my shell and be myself. I had friends who said you’re beautiful and great, and that helped me a lot. I was drawn to Anthy because I think in that show, Utena really helped Anthy in that way and you know, that was like my life.”

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Tabetha as Hajime from Gatchaman Crowds
“I chose to cosplay her because of her boobs. [Love the honesty!] Cosplay is just for fun, so if you have fun doing it, you just should do it!”

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Lanie Williams as Lisa Lisa from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Battle Tendency
“I love Lisa Lisa, and I love Jojos. I love how she’s an empowering female in a series.”

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Hunter as Mako Mankanshoku from Kill la Kill
“She’s the type of person I’d like to be, even if I’m not as ostentatious or energetic as I am, especially around strangers. The costume helps me be more like her. She’s a good friend.
Also, her costume wasn’t as skimpy as anyone else.
One thing I do like is in the series, they hook all the guy fans and then the guys all get naked and they get uncomfortable.”

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Taylor and Kristie  as Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Venus from Sailor Moon
“Sailor Venus is my childhood superhero. I loved Sailor Moon as a kid, but I especially loved Venus because she’s the leader, she has a very complex personality that’s very bright and cheerful. I also like that she was the first Sailor scout. I also like that she stands for Venus – love and beauty.”
“I love Jupiter because – mostly actually because how tall she is. Especially in anime , a lot of characters who are feminine are small and petite, so I really like how Jupiter owns how her body has a larger frame, it makes her more tough, more sporty, but she’s still feminine, and I think that’s really important to a lot of girls, that you can live your body as you are.”

And now the ones I unfortunately did not get a chance to interview. (Many of these photos are courtesy of Rose Bridges.)

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Galko from Please Tell Me! Galko-chan
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Kaylee as “Hipster Little Mermaid”

 

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Tsukimi from Princess Jellyfish
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Totoro and Mei from My Neighbor Totoro
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Joseph Joestar from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
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Evangelyne from Wakfu
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Fuu from Samurai Champloo
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Michiko from Michiko and Hatchin
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Princess of the Crystal from Mawaru Penguindrum
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Akko from Little Witch Academia
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Otakon 2016 Report

I’ve been to Otakon three times before this year. During college, it was the yearly meeting point for my group of friends online. As I drifted apart from that group and lost the free time that being a college student on summer break brought, Otakon fell by the wayside. I had some great times in that Inner Harbor, but my time and money were demanded elsewhere. I figured I probably wouldn’t be back, but when they announced this would be the con’s last year in Baltimore – at least for the foreseeable future – I decided to make it work and have one last hurrah in the Charm City.

I’m so glad I did.

The weekend kicked off with Thursday’s free matsuri in the Inner Harbor, several blocks away from the actual convention center. I spent most of the day a few miles away, working on the Awesome Women in Anime panel with my co-panelist, Rose Bridges of Anime News Network. Eventually we did make it to the park, where the heat was absolutely sweltering even as the sun went down. The Lotus Juice/Shihoko Hirata set was late, since according to our friends, one of the earlier performers had run very long, and the previous performer was still going. I wasn’t too interested, but he did sing a slow rendition of the Pokemon theme song, which was pretty great. Lotus Juice took the stage after a while, and his performance had great energy, but I wasn’t familiar with most of the songs and I’m not super into hip-hop without specific context. He also mentioned that he grew up in New Jersey, explaining his perfect English. My interest picked up a bit when Shihoko Hirata took the stage, but they were beset with technical problems as the computer playing the backing track kept cutting off. It was frustrating, but it did lead to her singing Reach Out to the Truth with only Lotus Juice beatboxing as her backup and the audience singing along, which was actually really cool.

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Lotus Juice entertains the crowd

The general assumption for cons is that west coast cons such as Anime Expo and Sakura Con are best for Japanese guests and industry, while east coast cons like Otakon and Anime Boston have better fan panels. It’s certainly not a hard-and-fast rule, but with the industry presence in California and the greater proximity to Japan, vs. the northeast’s concentration of colleges and universities, it makes a lot of sense. It also lines up with my experience – while Sakura Con had some guests I was thrilled for, I often found myself with large swathes of free time when there were no panels that excited me. On the other hand, I attended only a single guest panel at Otakon this year, but my schedule was packed with fan panels. The majority of the ones I attended were great and well-researched, but there were a couple duds mixed in.

Girl Power: Feminism and Magical Girls was one of the first panels of the convention, held by Tumblr user otapleonehalf. Her presentation was intelligent and well-researched, citing information from several sources, including Japanese media feminist Kumiko Saito. She presented the concept of magical girls and their importance within social contexts such as the role media has in shaping our perceptions, historical female gender roles in Japan, and the increasing sexualization of its young protagonists. I won’t go into too much detail out of respect for her decision not to post her panels until she decides to retire them, but if you see this panel on your con schedule, I highly recommend attending.

Gen Urobuchi: Magical Girls, Riders, and Puppets, Oh My! had apparently been wait-listed until only a couple days before the convention, but they put on a decent presentation nonetheless. They postulated that, for all his reputation as the nihilistic “Urobutcher”, Urobuchi’s stories actually are largely hopeful. They supported their thesis through discussing the recurring archetypes that Urobuchi uses and their roles within his stories. Overall I thought they did a good job and presented their arguments well. Their slides had no text and I struggled with paying attention to a mainly verbal presentation, but most people aren’t sleep-deprived and already addled with an attention disorder, so that was probably just me.

Anime News Network was a basic Q&A that I attended mostly because I had a number of friends sitting on the panel. They did a great job! Good job, friends. Not much else to say about that one.

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Left to right: Christopher McDonald, Mike Toole, Lauren Orsini, Rose Bridges, and Gabriella Ekens

Women in Anime was the sole guest panel I attended, populated by voice actors Caitlin Glass, Stephanie Sheh, Alexis Tipton, Lisa Ortiz, Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld, Sarah Natochenny, and Haven Paschall – a mix of veterans and newcomers, all speaking about how they feel about women in anime. I was nervous when they revealed they didn’t have a planned presentation and that the panel would be entirely Q&A, but the audience did a great job asking intelligent questions, and the panelists obliged with opinionated answers that warmed my heart. At one point, an audience member asked how they felt about the word feminist, and all of them spoke out in strong support. Other interesting moments included: Glass saying that when she gets the chance to play young boys, she feels free in a way she rarely does otherwise, since every female character is drawn mainly to appeal to main fans; Sheh talking about how she ended up in voiceover in part because casting directors don’t know what to do with a 4’9” Chinese woman; how Lisa Ortiz has occasionally worked with the producers to shift some lines, because little girls will remember what the show taught them as they grow up; and calling out why fan service-oriented shows are only specifically categorized as fan service shows, instead of by their primary genre, when they’re for women. “Free is about swimming. Do you swim with your clothes on?”

I don’t have too much to say about Anime’s Craziest Deaths. Daryl Surat of Anime World Order hosts this panel every year, and it’s mostly clips of, well, very violent deaths in anime. It was fun, but the couple noisily making out in front of me was quite distracting.

Hayao Miyazaki: A Storyteller’s Journey is a classic Study of Anime panel, and one he’s obviously done many times before. He traces the themes of Miyazaki’s films through the lens of what was going on in the director’s life when he made each one. It’s fascinating stuff and a great look into the psychology of one of the most influential voices in anime. BUT there was a cringeworthy moment where a man climbed onstage singing and publicly proposed to his girlfriend. I know not everyone feels this way, but I hate public proposals. Absolutely despise them. Good presentation, otherwise.

Rose and I did our Awesome Women Making Anime panel, and I think it quite went well considering our relative inexperience as panelists and how unrehearsed we were. There was a heart-stopping moment when we didn’t have the right dongle to connect the Macbook to the projector, but the tech guy found one in time. The panel ran about 20 minutes short, so next time we’ll be able to expand it a bit.

That’s Gay! Anime and Manga for the LGBT Audience got off to a bit of a rocky start when someone yelled and stormed out of the room when the two panelists, a pair of women in a relationship, admitted that they were not trans and thus not authorities on the topic. After that, however, it went great. They presented sections on gay men/yaoi, lesbians/yuri, transgender, and asexual representation; each section was divided into stereotypes, tropes, target audience, early exampls, mixed bag representation, and progressive representation. Each segment was well-thought out and covered the history and social context well. Some of their recommended series include Yuri Kuma Arashi, Whispered Words, and Wandering Son.

Fractured Persona: Identity in the Persona Games was the second Study of Anime panel I attended that weekend, and I believe it was their first time presenting it. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by it. Persona 4 took up the majority of the panel’s time, which I was fine with – it’s by far the most psychologically complex game in the series and touches on issues of identity in ways the previous ones do not. However, while Naoto and the male characters get discussions of their gender identity, sexuality, and so on, Chie and Yukiko were discussed only in reference to the archetype of “the goddess”, which Dunbar seems uncomfortably obsessed with, and who their personas represent. While that’s all well and good, it had an oddly objectifying feel to me – how the others were defined by their arcs and who they are, but Chie and Yukiko, who are just as complex and interesting as humans as Yosuke and Kanji, who struggle with their own identities, are defined by what they represent. Rise barely even came up! It was a scattershot approach and I wish he had picked one or the other.

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I also got my sole bit of dealer’s room merch for the weekend

Anime Gets Trippy: Psychadelia and Surrealism in Anime was a late-night, adults-only panel and I was half-asleep for most of it. It presented some truly bizarre clips from series like Space Dandy, Belladonna of Sadness, and Cleopatra, the latter of which included unsettling animated talking heads superimposed on live-action bodies. The audience was pretty obnoxious, including the one guy who yelled, “WHAT?” when a vagina transformed into a flower on-screen. It’s a pretty common symbol, my dude.

I regret dragging myself out of bed early to see How Meta Destroyed the Anime Industry, since that panel was a complete disaster. I don’t remember too much about it, since the presenter was utterly unmemorable, but mostly he talked about the history of Gainax, showed Daicon IV, and then transitioned straight to some vague discussion of self-referential moe and quotes from Hideako Anno disparaging it. The presentation was hopelessly out of date – apparently, he made it in 2009 and hasn’t really updated it since. It’s a shame, because it could have been an interesting topic, but instead it was dull and dry and didn’t come close to covering what it promised.

Answering the Call to Adventure: the Road to Becoming a Magical Girl was yet another Study of Anime panel, and fell somewhere between the Miyazaki panel and the Persona panel quality-wise. It still had a healthy dose of “The Goddess!” but I have to admit, it did make sense in this context, especially when discussing shows such as Madoka Magica. The panel discussed magical girl mythology in context of Joseph Campbell’s influential hero’s journey cycle, which is a subversive concept considering how unconcerned Campbell was about women other than their positioning relative to the male hero.

I Want to Know More! Books on Anime: A Guided Tour was a pretty straightforward breakdown of academic writing on anime. Great stuff for a nerd like me who reads academic writing for fun.

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Post-con shenanigans with Brady Hartel of Discotek Media

Socially, this was easily the best con I’ve been to. As a teenager, my con-going days were exciting and fun, as I often went with large groups of friends unsupervised by adults, but beset by drama typical of that age. As I grew older, they became increasingly subdued and I often found myself going it alone while my lower-energy friends begged off, but they rarely ended in tears. I was ready to accept the quieter cons a side effect of my age, but this year’s Otakon was truly magical. This was in no small part due to the companionship of Rose, whose congoing style is very similar to mine, and to the many other amazing people I met who are as passionate about anime as I am, if not more. So, if you’re someone I spent time with this year: thank you, and I hope to see you again next year!

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bakuman-1-13

Baku-“Man Dream Big, Need Supportive Woman”

Summary: As Takagi and Moritaka prepare to graduate middle school, they begin to dip their toes into the world of Weekly Shonen Jump by submitting one-shot manga to the anthology. Meanwhile, Moritaka’s romance with Miho gently coasts along as their feelings grow, and Takagi gets some attention of his own from the ladies…

Content Warnings: Despite the virulent sexism, things are pretty mild

Would I recommend it? Still a big, big, big no

Baku-“Man smart, woman dumb”

A lot of stuff regarding Takagi and Moritaka’s manga getting published at Shounen Jump happened in this volume of Bakuman, but I’m not going to go much into that because it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s a vaguely interesting look at how the sausage gets made, bogged down by the editorial staff fawning over the main duo. No, I continue to be interested solely in Bakuman’s treatment of women, which, though it isn’t as severe as the first volume, is still quite cringeworthy.

After Moritaka and Takagi’s meeting with a Shounen Jump editor, the story jumps to the start of their second semester. In a move that totally defies suspension of disbelief, their homeroom editor announces that he’s changing the seating arrangement so that the boys will be paired up with the girls, supposedly to “erase the bad image of Class 2 that the boys and girls don’t get along with each other.” This has never been brought up before, and exists solely so that Moritaka and Miho can end up sitting next to each other. This movement brings them mixed joy and fear as, in what is actually kind of a cute moment, they both wonder, “What if my stomach makes weird sounds during class?”

Sitting next to each other deepens Moritaka and Miho’s relationship, insofar as they actually interact with one another. Moritaka writes notes asking her banal things like her favorite season. Miho never initiates a note or writes a response, responding only with smiles or hand signals. Eventually, Moritaka is so taken with her – or rather, his ability to make her smile while she contributes nothing to the conversation – he suggests they forget about their pact not to speak or touch until their dreams are realized. Miho bursts into tears in the middle of class, much to Moritaka’s horror, but then writes down her e-mail address for him. CndvMEMUAAA4XFNFrankly, I’ve been trying to puzzle out her reason for giving him her e-mail address at this point, with no success. Moritaka and Takagi discuss the move but can’t figure out why – are we, as the reader, supposed to agree that teenage girls are mysterious and illogical creatures? My instinct says it is because Ohba couldn’t come up with a better moment for her to do it, and to yet again create a forced moment of dramatic tension as Moritaka stands outside her window, unable to bring himself to text her. The next day, he writes, “We will be together after I become a manga artist, whether you have become a voice actress by then or not!” When she sees it, she “cried a bit again… but it seemed like her mouth was smiling.” I’m no fan of their relationship or their promise – I think I’ve made that explicitly clear – but his disrespect toward her goal here is infuriating. He thinks that his goal is the only one that matters. After all, it’s a man’s dream! Miho only dreams of being a voice actress because that’s a popular dream for girls. It’s convenient, but nothing genuine. Miho’s response of crying a little bit, but smiling with her mouth seems less like one of acceptance than resignation.

This volume also brings Kaya Miyoshi, Miho’s best friend, to the forefront as Takagi’s girlfriend. Miyoshi is, in many ways, the opposite of her friend: tall, curvy, violent, and pragmatic. She enters the story in earnest when Moritaka comes over to Takagi’s house and finds her and Iwase, the girl who Takagi compared unfavorably to Miho, sitting there. Takagi talks enthusiastically about his manga plans, ignoring the two of them until Moritaka asks what . He mutters, “I don’t know what to do. That’s why I said you came at the perfect time.” According to him, Miyoshi is worried about him after he punched out a classmate, and Iwase, the girl is convinced the two of them have been going out for the last three years since the two of them shook hands on the first day of freshman years. When Iwase asks Takagi if he hates her, he says he doesn’t, despite only a few weeks ago having called her stupid behind her back for working hard to get good grades. The two girls shout for a while, forcing him to choose between liking and hating them; when he says “choosing between the two extremes”, he likes both of them, they get mad. Those wacky, illogical girls! Unable to conceive of a guy being totally neutral on them!CndyFFkUsAAJDFz When Takagi announces his ambition to become a manga writer, Miyoshi cheerfully agrees to “be his cheerleader”, since she “like[s] guys who have big dreams.” Iwase wants him to quit, and tearfully tells him he’ll regret his his choices, even though he says he would regret it even more if he didn’t try. This brings us back to the idea “men have dreams women can’t understand” line of the first volume. Iwase doesn’t understand Takagi’s big dreams, and can only see him as setting himself up for failure. In her stupidity, as Takagi sees it, she doesn’t realize her place in the relationship would be to support him and instead would only drag him down as she forced him into a boring, normal life. This brings up parallels to a story he told about his mother in the beginning of the volume, who whispered to him as he was studying that he must get revenge for his father, who was laid off. Eventually he exploded at her, and she dropped the subject forever. Miyoshi, on the other hand, is a girl who knows her place, understands her position is to support a man and his dreams and act as his cheerleader. She may never understand those dreams, but she can support them. Women in Bakuman are either supportive angels or evil obstructions, but never people in their own right.

Miyoshi is the exact kind of character I like – spunky, spirited, and practical – so I’m gearing up to see her downfall. Her level-headed bafflement at Miho and Moritaka’s relationship is refreshing. When Miho refuses her invitation to visit them at Moritaka’s studio, she says, “I knew that Miho was shy and a little naive, but this is ridiculous. Getting married once your dreams come true… we’re only in ninth grade. Why would you promise to marry each other…?” At Christmas, a lover’s holiday in Japan, she says, “If they’re thinking about getting married, they should be going out and making memories.” She’s not just confused as a normal teenage girl, but also as Miho’s best friend. Cndz74fUMAAj8SBShe sees her friend entering into a strange, uncertain relationship, and worries about her. This uncommon display of common sense must be quashed, so Takagi and Moritaka rebuff her concerns. Takagi tells her, “This is something Saiko and Azuki decided on together, so you shouldn’t butt in.” As Miho’s best friend, Miyoshi should trust her instincts that Moritaka and Miho’s arrangement – I can’t even call it a relationship in good faith – but instead, she’s told that she needs to mind her own business. 

Takagi, on the other hand, is convinced that Miho and Moritaka’s relationship is a sign of exactly how much they love each other. He tells Miyoshi, “Unless Saiko is mistaken, I think those two are in love beyond our wildest imagination.” His interpretation is that “if they started dating now, Saiko’s all she’d be able to think about,” and thus she must keep her distance. Once again, this is not what love looks like. Real, lasting love is borne of familiarity and comfort, not nervousness or holding each other as an eventual goal. A supportive relationship should bring comfort to Miho during the difficult times of working toward her goal, not distract her. What Moritaka and Miho have is obsessive infatuation. Confusing infatuation with real romantic feelings is fairly common in all forms of media, so I can’t pretend this is a particular defect of Bakuman, but it bothers me nonetheless. This is a series that prides itself on realism and the intelligence of its protagonists, so idealizing an “engagement at arm’s length” like Moritaka and Miho’s is extra disturbing. Instead of leaning on one another, Moritaka and Miho hide their struggles from each other. Miyoshi is the one who informs Moritaka that Miho is moving to Hachioji, a fairly distant suburb, and even then it’s against Miho’s request for her silence. Moritaka pretends this doesn’t bother him, saying that they weren’t going to see each other anyway, although secretly he’s hurt, because in the world of Bakuman, expression of emotions is a sign of weakness.

All of this comes to a head after the characters’ middle school graduation. Moritaka catches up with Miho on her way home, and the two proceed to not say anything or look at each other for a full half hour. After this agonizing stretch of time – enough that a couple passers-by remark, “Oh, they’re still there…” Finally, the only words Moritaka can get are, “How long will you wait for me?” Miho, as she walks up the door to her house, replies, “I’ll wait. I’ll wait forever.”Cnd3aUtUMAEJqHh From the tension in her body, this is clearly meant to be a huge, romantic moment for the two but considering the lack of a real connection, the scene just made me groan. She’s committing herself to a partner who she barely knows, who she has never had a meaningful conversation with. Miho is the romanticized girlfriend who patiently waits and endures separation until her partner can be with her, whatever the circumstances. Moritaka, on the other hand, makes no such promise, even though Miho has her own dream she’s working toward, one that requires just as much dedication and hard work. The image of a young man waiting for his lady love isn’t one that resonates with Bakuman’s young male audience the way the ever-enduring, faithful girlfriend is.

Part 3: Baku-“Man have drive, woman give in easy”