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aoi

Shirobako mostly lacks “anime names”. Instead for meaningful names full of foreshadowing, the show opts for a more down-to-earth and realistic take on the issue. Ema does get the kanji for “drawing” in her name, and plenty of the side characters are humorous takes on real-life people, down to their names, but otherwise Shirobako does not try too stand out too much.

Which is not to say there are no tasty parts at all. Our protagonist’s name, Aoi, is currently a very popular girl’s name, duking it out for first place against Yui throughout the last few years.

Miyamori has her name written all in the meaning-neutral hiragana (a popular choice for girl names in general, as the round shapes of hiragana characters are considered very feminine). That need not stop us from guessing, though. People who know a bit of Japanese will point out that one common meaning of aoi is the color blue. But the word actually covers various shades of blue and green, as the two were not considered separate colors in Japanese tradition.

There is a metaphorical meaning to the English green shared by the Japanese aoi. As unripe fruit tends to be green in color, so the young and inexperienced in any field can also be called green. And this is exactly Aoi’s function throughout the first cour of Shirobako – to make mistakes and ask questions, so that we can learn about the studio and what is necessary to make it work. Aoi works as our perspective character exactly because she is inexperienced in the field.

Of course, every novice eventually gains experience and becomes better at their job, like Aoi does. But as we get deeper into the second cour of Shirobako, we learns that the people in the industry can be broadly divided into two categories: those who wake up from their dreams about the industry, and those that never do. If the stories of the veterans presented in the show are any indication, many of the greatest works are crafted by those in the latter category. As we see in the later episodes, Aoi herself is still far from waking up from her own dream. And that enduring innocence is another meaning contained in her name.

tarou  

Another interesting, and much more light-hearted name choice is Takanashi Tarou. As  Anime Diet’s Gendomike puts it, “it’s a shame that we all know a Tarou in every office”. Which is exactly the intention behind this character’s name – Tarou is the stereotypical male name, the Japanese John Smith.

Of course, to complete the cliché, you would normally use a very common last name – preferably Yamada. What we get instead is Takanashi. Maserbeam complains about the overabundance of Takanashi characters in anime when discussing Tarou, and he does have a point. Chuu2koi, Working!, PapaKiki, Black Rock Shooter and other anime titles seem to be in love with this surname, not without reason.

The 小鳥遊 variant of the surname is famous because while it actually exists and is in use in contemporary Japan, it is one of the country’s most unreadable last names. Taka-nashi can be taken to mean “no hawks”, and the surname is written with kanji for “small birds playing around” (completely ignoring traditional readings of the kanji), the logic apparently being that small birds only play around in places with no hawks. This is most likely an odd remnant of the times when the Japanese language was not so much a tool of universal communication as a toy for the noble-born to play around with and use as a barrier between them and the uneducated. At one point, everything could be written in the word puzzle style described above, for art and beauty. (And then nobody could read a text 10 years after it was written, as nobody remembered the author’s witty jokes and puzzles.)

So the last name is weird and cool, and just perfect for your fictional character. Except that in Tarou’s case, while the last name might be pronounced exactly like the “cool” Takanashi, it is instead a variant written with perfectly ordinary and boring characters. This Takanashi is written with the kanji for “tall pear tree” (高梨), and read in a standard way.

I am not sure which joke the writers were aiming for here: “we wish all the Tarous of this world were just fictional characters… but they’re not”, or maybe “this guy wishes he were special… but he’s not”.

Or maybe just both.   

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A short rundown of 2014 anime shows containing commentary on religious/spiritual matters, for anyone interested in the topic matter and wondering what shows they should catch up on from the year gone by. The list is organized in alphabetical order of the English titles and only contains those 2014 series I had a chance to watch, so feel free to suggest other titles in the comments.

— 

Amagi Brilliant Park

Religion: Shinto

Plot relevance: Medium

Problem matter: god-believer relationship, contemporary forms of worship

Notes: Religion started out with the idea that God created man. Then the skeptics said man created fictional gods as part of his imagination. Then there is hybrid concept, widely popular in contemporary Japanese fiction, that gods do exist… as long as they have enough believers. And the god’s influence is directly proportional to the number of believers.

Historically, the idea might stem from the country’s WW2 experience. The god-emperor had the entire nation put their lives on the line throughout the conflict, but his influence disappeared overnight when he was forced to broadcast a declaration he was in fact human.

In Amagi Brilliant Park, all the supernatural creatures are like kami of entertainment – they can only continue to exist in this world as long as people find them entertaining. Change the series-specific term animus to faith, and the parallels are pretty clear.

Interestingly, the people coming to the park are convinced everything they see is an empty charade… and perfectly satisfied with it, unaware of all the real miracles going down behind the scenes. This is reminiscent of Japan’s (and not only) contemporary approach to religion, which assumes near universal participation in religious rites and events with little actual belief or emotional attachment required.    

Black Bullet

Religion: Christianity, Buddhism

Plot relevance: Medium

Problem matter: temptation, sin, forgiveness, purity, justice

Notes: Black Bullet often attempts to divide the right from wrong, good from evil, and in this search for a clear-cut division it presents a typically Christian approach (see my previous post on temptation in the series, or medieval’s posts on justice and other aspects of the series).

The weird thing is that the series wants to be at least superficially Buddhist in nature – the lotus flower, a Buddhist symbol of purity retained despite the filth of the surrounding world, is discussed openly within the series and shows up as the first kanji in the main character’s name (the ren in Rentarou).

Invaders of the Rokujyouma?!

Religion: Christianity, General

Plot relevance: Low/High (depending on character arc)

Problem matter: god-believer relationship, divine workings in everyday life, intercultural and interreligious understanding, essence of faith vs. its nomenclature

Notes: Rokujouma no Shinryakusha has the main character facing all kinds of supernatural events and characters and coming to terms with how they become a part of his everyday life. How much those events focus on religious matters depends on which character a given arc focuses on, with Sanae (ghost) and Yurika (magical girl) being standouts in this matter.

Sanae’s arc sees a transition from a “cheap” view of the divine, focused on talismans and other occult trinkets, to a genuine interpersonal relationship defined by mutual trust.

Yurika’s arc showcases how a benign and self-sacrificial power is constantly at work in our lives, protecting and aiding us from the shadows… only to be met with stubborn denial, disbelief and hypocrisy. The conclusion of the arc also calls from a separation of “good” from any one name or set of beliefs.

Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions: Heart Throb

Religion: New Religions, General

Plot relevance: Medium

Problem matter: faith as a source of strength in everyday life, religion as a source of moral principles and guidance

Notes: The second season continues to present faith as a source of strength to change for the better, though the theme is not as central to the developments as it was in the first season.

Sanae’s search for religious guidance continues in this season, at one point leading her astray as she falls into the clutches of an impostor of her idol. (This is treated humorously, even though it parallels very difficult real-life problems.) Ultimately, the series seems to imply that relationships between people are more important than any concepts or ideals those people might seek. While I have nothing against Sanae and Shinka deepening their friendship, I was somewhat saddened to see Sanae’s spiritual search “diverted” and unresolved this way, considering how her religious/ideological zeal is such an important part of her character.

Nagi-Asu: A Lull in the Sea

Religion: Shinto, Pagan religions

Plot relevance: Medium-High

Problem matter: god-believer relationship

Notes: Nagi-Asu is notable for presenting the relationship between a god and his priest, particularly during strained and difficult moments when faith, love and personal convictions are all at odds with each other. Nagi-Asu avoids a dismissive or cruel portrayal of the divine, while choosing to present the main god of the story as a flawed but dynamic being with its own passions and goals to achieve.

No Game No Life

Religion: General (monotheistic)

Plot relevance: High

Problem matter: god as the source of moral order, god’s influence on the world, individual and societal self-improvement, proper worship

Notes: Possibly a criticism of real-life religions. The god in this series is physically present in the lives of mortals and doing his/her job by preventing anyone from using violence to achieve their means, while otherwise being content to give everyone their freedom as long as they play games and have fun.

It is telling that this benign One God took control of the world not because he/she was particularly powerful, but because all the other gods killed each other, leaving the only non-participant of the war the only divine being alive and at full power.

This god hands down ten commandments to all the creatures of his/her world, allowing them to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. The ban of violence does not end up quite as revolutionary as viewers would assume, though. For the more powerful races, it is an annoyance limiting, but not eliminating all the ways in which they can dominate their lesser brethren. The commandments do not stop the rivalries between races and individuals – the race to take away the others’ resources in a struggle for survival – it merely changes its form.

It is curious, then, that Sora and Shiro, the two most irreverent characters in the show, end up being the gods greatest prophets. Only they see the god of games as an individual with a plan in mind, and are therefore able to see the true meaning behind the commandments and the world of peace they may one day allow to create. They are the closest one’s to fulfilling the god’s will, even as they openly issue a challenge to the deity. Their relationship with the god is personal, something shared between thinking beings and not weighed down with veils of uncomprehending worship, fear and empty gestures.

The fictitious religion of No Game No Life might be superficially different from real-life religions, but the lessons learned in the show still ring true in our world. The commandments of any religion are not restrictions we are to work our way around. They are supposed to be a path, and any path has its final destination. Turning a blind eye to this means not seeing the wood for the trees.     

Riddle Story of Devil

Religion: Christianity, General

Plot relevance: High (but focused on closing episodes)

Problem matter: the faith vs. certainty dilemma, God’s will vs. free will, love and sacrifice, the relationship between the living and the departed

Notes: I must be somewhat jaded, for I did not really expect this series to discuss spiritual matters, the devil in the title notwithstanding. It was a pleasant surprise when the show chose to subvert my expectations.

The final episodes of the series show how an unrelenting attachment to free will and certainty ultimately require the characters to tear down the things they want to believe in. Is it better to hold onto love with faith as the only guarantee, or to destroy and know for sure, even if it leads to regret? The characters’ decisions are also a question directed at the viewers, who, often unknowingly, make the same decisions throughout their everyday life.   

Saki: The Nationals

Religion: Shinto, Shamanism, Atheism, General

Plot relevance: Medium

Problem matter: interreligious communication

Notes: As always, Saki presents a battlefield of worldviews and beliefs clashing against each other. The theme of interreligious dialogue comes into focus particularly through Nodoka’s matches, when the vice-captain’s hardheaded atheistic ways collide with all sorts of miracles and magic. But the other characters offer some other tasty bits, like a demon-controlling miko bewildered at the idea of the existence of an exorcist clan.

With Buddhism/Shugendo playing an important part in Achiga-hen, and Christianity recently discussed in the manga, Saki seems intent on collecting as many of the world’s religions as possible.

Sword Art Online II

Religion: Christianity

Plot relevance: Medium (final arc)

Problem matter: family and region, the meaning of suffering

Notes: Kawahara offers a brief but tasteful description of how Christian teachings affected one girl’s life in the Mother’s Rosario arc of this popular franchise. 

Yuuki Yuuna is a Hero

Religion: Shinto

Plot relevance: High

Problem matter: government and religion, family and religion, god-believer relationship

Notes: YuYuYu is particularly notable for its portrayal of a theocracy-based social order. The setting’s economy and survival are almost entirely dependent on the existence of the God-tree, and so the government and the country’s educational system are geared towards producing child-martyrs to fight against the God’’-tree’s enemies.

Showcasing both the power religion has to shape society as well as its perils, YuYuYu takes a complex approach to its portrayal of the God-tree cult. The religion might seem exceedingly cruel at times, like when we learn that the characters’ parents actually agreed to send their children to war, but there is also no doubt that it was the religious order that allowed Shikoku to survive the hundred years of total apocalypse.

At the end of the day, YuYuYu warns that the power of faith is great, but can be misused if the human factor is forgotten.  

Tamako

With another year behind us, time to share the best of the recent anime offerings. As always at this place, I have a Top 12 list. What is different from usual is that movies, OVAs and ongoing shows are all off-limits. With plenty of good shows out this year, it was difficult enough cutting the numbers down as it is… Which is very good news!

 

amagi-brilliant-park

#12 Amagi Brilliant Park

This was a very good year for KyoAni. Tamako Market came back with all the visual power and none of the meandering weakness of the main series, making for the best KyoAni work in some time. Free and Chuunibyou had satisfying second seasons, and last but not least, we also got Amagi Brilliant Park.

With a silly and unique premise, Amagi was a huge unknown before it aired. And thankfully, it remained an unknown until the very end, with different wackiness taking place every week. Down-to-earth problems and magical cataclysms went hand in hand in this show, mixing a dream with a familiar “workplace” feeling for a highly memorable result.

chiyo

#11 Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun

It is crazy. It is fun. Plenty of people include this one in their favorites for the year, and I am not surprised.

If I liked the remaining characters as much as I liked the Nozaki-Chiyo-Mikoshiba trio, this would have been even higher.

[Vivid] Hanayamata - 11 [E9031827].mkv_snapshot_02.06_[2014.10.22_21.39.38] 

#10 Hanayamata

A simple story of a newly founded club aiming to prove themselves made fresh through exceptional presentation and organic relationships between the characters. Of note is the multi-layered title as well as the OP/ED combination moret than worthy of representing a dancing anime. It is too bad the middle and end of the anime are not quite as powerful as the briskly-paced and gorgeously animated opening episodes, but it is still a pleasant journey into the world of yosakoi.

mikakunin_de-shinkoukei #9 Mikakunin de Shinkoukei – Engaged to the Unidentified

For the most part, I have flawed but memorable series on this list. But from time to time, there are series like Mikakunin de Shinkoukei, which just never stumble and make that their foremost charm point. Simple and sweet, but inventive enough in its take on the central romance story not to feel repetitive, this show is a recommended pick for anyone looking for a dose of cute and relaxation.

yuna 

#8 Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru

For many of the things YuYuYu did throughout its run, there is some magical girl show out there that did it better. Which is why the beauty of the show lies in all the things you can get here and nowhere else.

There is the terror that comes not during a fight, but after it is long over – the time when you wonder if that is really the end or not, the time when you listen to a friend report on her injuries, and then reassure them while hiding your own fears and wounds.

There is that moment when having successfully defeated twelve powerful monsters, you and your comrades take on the last small fry five on one… and nobody can quite get it together and make the first move, because now, now you suspect all the magic and power might not have been free after all.

Certainly a series with some issues, but the interesting bits make up for it. With the last episode having aired recently, I am still reanalyzing some of the events in the final episodes (as well as reading the Washio Sumi wa Yuusha de Aru prequel novel), so I have my doubts about the show’s exact position on this list, but it is definitely worth a try for fans of the genre.

nagi-no-asukara

#7 Nagi no Asukara

Give Okada Mari two cours to work with, and you will get plenty of believable human drama and a sprawling but messy plotline. Okada did that with Wixoss this year, and the same goes for this show.

But the ambition behind this show sets it apart from other Okada works. There is a tug-of-war between the yin-yang worlds of sea and land presented in this show and the individual stories of each character. But at times the two threads beautifully intersect, creating patterns which could not possibly come to be in a different setting – like when a time-skip affects only half the cast, completely changing the rules of the relationship game.

saki zenkoku 2

#6 Saki: Zenkoku-hen

Kan, kan, kan!

I want a Shinohayu anime.

Ritsu, draw faster nghhh…

black-bullet-anime-2014 

#5 Black Bullet

Probably my favorite setting of the year, providing an excuse to pair up mercenaries and overpowered lolis on a planet-wide zombie hunt while also raising some questions of morality and portraying “life” as a powerful and universal, but also selfish force.

And yes, it did use all that potential in very weird ways. Kind of like bringing a shotgun to a fistfight only to try shooting it with your feet…

Log.Horizon

#4 Log Horizon

I mentioned this show last year, and my thoughts on it have not changed that much. It is one of the few anime of this type made with Japanese taxpayers’ money, and it shows. And I do not mean the cheap art and animation (those are certainly present). Log Horizon does not really care for universal appeal, so it does whatever it wants with its pacing and developments. You would kind of expect a series of boss fights to end with some great achievement, but not this show, here they will just have a talk. Talking is important.

I cannot exactly predict where this show will go at any given time, which I happen to like. Keeps me on my toes.

rokujouma-no-shinryakusha2

#3 Rokujouma no Shinryakusha!?

The best part about the show is that it carries all its likely weaknesses on its sleeve. It looks a little cheap, right? And the male-female ratio hints at harem mayhem.

Well, that just means that all the show’s surprises are for the better. This is a story of supernatural, extraterrestrial and sometimes cosplaying misfits locked in a struggle for six tatamai mats’ worth of space for the glory of their respective civilizations. Or saving the world. Or saving up on rent.

When the rivalry and insanity finally give way to camaraderie, an incredible team, or maybe even a family, is born. And there is plenty of trouble for them to face, all for the viewers’ satisfaction.

NoGame  

#2 No Game No Life

So if you thought you need to be smart to write stories about smart people… well, you probably have a point. However, NGNL proves that layers upon layers of presentation do much to cover up the warts.

What really makes NGNL work, though, is its determination to march forward without falling too much in love with any of its gags or ideas. The show is like a magician burning through one trick after another. And certainly, you already know some of those tricks and are not always equally amused. But the magician winks the disappointment away and fluidly moves into the next part of the spectacle.

Still, no show can go on forever. And in the end, when the lights go on, the audience might realize the tricks were just that, empty tricks. How do you prevent that? You do not let the show end. You turn the performance into a part of a greater trick, ongoing even as the audience leaves their seats.

NGNL ends in the middle of things, and had the show not found a way to deal with that (by diverging from the source material, too), it might have fallen off this list completely. But that is not how things turned out, and here it is.

illya4

#1 Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya 2wei!

I do not think there was another anime this year that consistently knew exactly what it wanted to do and how to go about doing it quite as much as Illya Zwei did. Combining a flexible and inspired direction style with Silver Link’s steady craftsmanship, the show constantly provided varied and gripping entertainment.

In a year with shows like Kill La Kill and Ping Pong to compete with on the visual front, Illya owes a lot to the art of restraint. Presenting a wide variety of tricks, but determinately avoiding repetition, the show always knows how to make the most of its potential. Most memorably, the show often chooses to make its statements by not-showing, rather than showing characters and their actions. During the farcical mud-trap rescue scene in the beginning of the show, the technique brings out the absurdity and comedic potential of what should be a clichéd transformation scene. During the mid-show confrontation between Kuro and Miyu, the same technique ends up filling a simple conversation with tension and allows for a dynamic switch straight into the action. Illya takes a similarly free approach to its background music, using its presence and lack thereof to flexibly switch between serious and comedic developments.

No matter the skillful execution, I expected to be able to shoot the show down on the storyline and ending fronts, the former of which kept the original series safely in the “average” zone. But here the show starts making use of its Fate roots to introduce a struggle with the shadows of the past each of the characters carries, giving meaning to many of the events of the first season while simultaneously creating cracks in the characters’ armors. Zwei ends in the middle of the second manga series, and should by all means fall apart at the end, but here the series skillfully puts the spotlight on the paradigm shift ongoing in Illya’s mind. The determination to protect her dear ones and her everyday life was there to begin with, of course, but now she is forced to admit that what constitutes those things might have changed without her noticing. And the show’s willingness to bet on the small changes of its characters allows for optimism regarding the forthcoming third season.

To sum up, 2014 was more about good shows rather than truly spectacular ones. With Shirobako and Parasyte, as well as Fate UBW and Log Horizon continuing into the next year, though, it seems like there will be enough big hitters to talk about next year to make up for it. Here is to another great year for anime and everyone reading this post!

Full list of stuff I watched this year for people who have recommendations. A * mark indicates stuff I dropped, with a ** mark signifying a first-ep drop. (Which does not immediately imply the series is bad, though.)

Akame ga Kill!*
Amagi Brilliant Park
Bakumatsu Rock**
Barakamon**
Black Bullet
Blue Spring Ride
Denki-gai no Honya-san
Engaged to the Unidentified
Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya 2wei!
Free! Eternal Summer
Golden Time**
Gonna be the Twin-Tails!!
Gugure! Kokkuri-san*
Haikyuu!!
Hanayamata
I Can’t Understand What My Husband Is Saying
Invaders of the Rokujyouma?!
Jinsei**
Kill La Kill
Kuroko’s Basketball 2
Log Horizon
Love Stage!!
Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions: Heart Throb
Magimoji Rurumo*
Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun
Nagi-Asu: A Lull in the Sea
No Game No Life
One Week Friends
Ping Pong The Animation
Rage of Bahamut: Genesis**
Riddle Story of Devil
Saki: The Nationals
Sakura Trick*
Seitokai Yakuindomo*(**)
Selector Infected WIXOSS & Spread WIXOSS
Soul Eater Not!
Sword Art Online II
Terror in Resonance
The Irregular at Magic High School
Wake Up, Girls!
When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace
World Conquest Zvezda Plot*
Yuuki Yuuna is a Hero

shirobako shunyuu

Ema is the first Shirobako character to worry not only about keeping her job, but also getting by even if she has one. Some exact numbers help put things into perspective.

The above graph combines survey data on average yearly salaries of various occupations in the anime industry. From left to right:

Animators 1 100 000 yen (92 000 yen/month)

University students 2 000 000 yen (166 000 yen/month)

Freeters* 2 180 000 yen (182 000 yen/month)

Assistant Producers 2 280 000 yen (190 000 yen/month)

CG Staff 2 610 000 yen (217 500 yen/month)

Directors (Effects) 3 330 000 yen (277 500 yen/month)

Directors/Storyboarders 4 950 000 yen (412 500 yen/month)

Animation Directors 5 130 000 yen (427 500 yen/month)

Producers 7 540 000 yen (628 000 yen/month)

Superstar Seiyuu 70 000 000 yen (5 833 000 yen/month)

*Freeters – people living from part-time jobs. Replaces “Novice Seiyuu” in this chart, since beginners in the seiyuu trade get very little job offers and initially mostly rely on a “secondary occupation”. University students also tend to live from part-time jobs, which is probably why there is little difference in the average incomes of the two groups.

Now, almost every major animation studio operates in Tokyo, which just happens to be known as the most expensive city in the world. Average rent for a one room apartment hangs at around 60 000 yen a month, and if you happen to eat food like any other mortal being, you will need another 30 000 yen for that.

Whoops, there goes an animator’s salary. That is, provided they do not own a cell phone, always wear the same clothes and commute to work on foot or by bike (this is where Ema’s bicycle comes in).

I think it is important to see how an animator’s work will often add up to nothing to understand where Ema is coming from. After a month of effort, you are either back to square one or in the red, and nothing seems about to change. So you either get really good really fast, try to break through to a more humane (and lucrative) position or just give up.

A large part of an animator’s salary is made up of a per-page bonus, so the more pages you can churn out a day the better off you are. I can see why you would try cutting down on precision work to increase speed. But of course desperate measures tend not to work out in real life (and this anime).

I wonder how Shirobako intends to answer this dilemma next week. Young animators getting worked down to the ground and burning out is a real problem with no obvious solution in sight. Ema seems to be a promising talent, and so she might get over her personal crisis just by grinding her teeth and waiting patiently for her five minutes. But on a larger scale, it is a discomfiting thought that the series we enjoy are built upon so harsh a foundation.

arpeggio4

In the first part of this post, I presented evidence to the strong Christian undercurrent present in the storytelling of Arpeggio of Blue Steel, complimenting the already broad list of examples medievalotaku presented in his original blog post. Because of those motives, medievalotaku views Arpeggio as a “spy anime”.

However, I have my misgivings about the series being branded as such. On the one hand, I would generally oppose the idea of works of fiction being “spy anything”, since that implies there being only one true interpretation, which is untrue of any kind of deeper fiction. On the other hand, while Arpeggio takes from the Christian worldview to create the foundation of its setting and plot developments, it is not afraid to criticize Christian ideals and discuss the present state of Christianity.

arpeggio5

One of the ways in which Arpeggio transcends being a mere retelling and introduces its own ideas is through its female lead: I-401 Iona. Unlike with Gunzou, the obvious Christ figure of the show, it is not easy to pinpoint which Biblical figure Iona resembles the most. I pointed out how. at times, she works as God’s messenger dove – the Holy Spirit. Yet there is certainly a master-student relationship between her and Gunzou more reminiscent of that between Christ and his apostles. Either way, as medievalotaku points out,    “[s]he is certainly Gunzou’s most perfect follower”.

If there is something unusual about Iona as a follower of Christ, though, it is that she is… a declared atheist.

- This is a navy graveyard.

- Graveyard?

- A place where we mourn the dead and where we let their souls rest.

- The dead? Those whose life functions have ceased? Is there any meaning to mourning the dead?

Like her sisters, Iona was born without a predefined belief system, except for the priorities established by the Admiralty Code. As such, she values reason and logic above all else. For her, the graveyard is “just a place”, while the actions of mourners are “meaningless”.

Viewers might be used to that kind of thinking from other science-fiction works involving machine-like intelligence. But it does not take long for the conversation to take an unusual turn.

- Meaningless, huh? But I think human progress might be all about finding meaning within those meaningless actions.

- …It is similar to how a growing system allows for irregular noise to maintain diversity and avoid the inevitable corruption of data throughout successive copying.

Iona’s parallel seems to surprise Gunzou at first, but he soon responds with a smile.

Through the conversation between Iona and Gunzou in episode three, Arpeggio shows the ideal of a relationship between a Christian and an atheist/agnostic.

Iona honestly admits the differences in their beliefs. However, Iona’s denial of Gunzou’s ideas, no matter how direct and to the point, does not become a personal attack. This is because at this point in the series, she holds an absolute devotion to Gunzou. There may therefore be no doubt that while she denies her captain’s words, she does not deny him as a person. We are not usually connected with each other in a special way like this. But, as fellow humans blessed with the same free will and reason, we should still at least be able to respect each other regardless of differences in belief.

The above-mentioned respect is often put into practice in the form of a no-touch policy. But like Iona and Gunzou, we should not be afraid to ask questions, and, when questioned, we should answer to the best of our ability.

Why is the above necessary? Partly because it is an opportunity for self-reflection. As they say, a teacher needs to know his stuff thrice as well as the regular person. But mostly, it is necessary for what Iona was able to do in the end – the forming of bridges and parallels.

It is worth it to look at the conversations as a win-win scenario, where both sides win to the extent they can gain an understanding of the other. It is crucial to realize, and accept, that our current positions are different, sometimes to the point of being mutually exclusive. But more often then we realize, we come from the same places, aiming for the same things. After all, we all share the same basic needs as human beings. The key, therefore, is to seek similarities and understanding even while acknowledging the differences.

arpeggio6         

It is not immediately obvious what point the series is making with its messiah-atheist combination. But the answer comes in the second part of the same episode, with the crew of I-401 invited to a dinner party by an army/government official.

His demand: hand I-401 over to the government. His reasoning behind the demand: we are the government, our soldiers have proper training and you cannot trust that monster submarine in the first place.

Gunzou’s answer is negative, his reasoning equally simple: Iona, my crew and I have been risking our lives and achieving results; your army has failed to do anything for the last seven years, their “proper training” notwithstanding; I trust Iona much more than I could ever trust you.

On a superficial level, Gunzou and the official would seem to share a lot of similarities. They represent the same race, the same nationality and the same military background. They are similar to two people of the same religious denomination. Had it been the official who saw Gunzou offering the flowers in the graveyard, there would be no need to explain whether there is any meaning to mourning the dead.

But there is a great chasm separating the two men. That chasm can be described with a single phrase: “delivering the goods”. For all their ideological differences, Gunzou and Iona have no secrets between each other. On the battlefield, they can have absolute trust the other won’t betray them. Can Gunzou say the same about the official?

It is not difficult to see how empty the man’s arguments are. At no point does he mention what the government intends to do once they get their hands on I-401 or what great strategy they have in mind to beat back the Fog. In fact, complying with his request would require Gunzou to abandon his quest to deliver humanity’s last-hope superweapon to America. Add the fact that there is some obvious power struggle going on in the background between the navy and ground forces, and it can be guessed that the official represents some small clique who want to benefit from the possession of I-401, and his top priority is not necessarily the good of humanity as a whole.

The law is on our side, the official says, without thinking about the ultimate purpose of the law. Our troops had proper training, he says, without thinking what purpose the training was supposed to serve. His goals are the same as Gunzou’s, but in shape only – they are empty on the inside.

Unfortunately, that description might sound familiar. The official represents people of faith who have lost sight of their own core values in favor of formalities and appearances. The Church is on our side, they say, forgetting that the Church is there for the salvation of all people and God’s glory, and meaningless without that purpose. We attend mass and take part in all the proper rituals, they say, forgetting that the rituals are there to foster spiritual growth and lend them strength to do the right thing with their lives. Reduced to motions and appearances, the actions hold no value.

Gunzou rejects the man’s invitation and sides with Iona. There are times when Iona cannot understand his thoughts and motivations. The only thing she can offer him are her best and honest intentions, as well as actions carried out in accordance with her own reason and consciousness. But that, Gunzou realizes, is the only thing that counts.

Good is good, evil is evil. It does not matter whether the hand that performs the act belongs to a Christian, atheist, or whoever else. Virtue and sin make no exceptions based on plaques and connections. Arpeggio of Blue Steel aired in 2013, the same year Pope Francis assumed his duties. Pope Francis caused quite a buzz in the Christian world when he declared that atheists may be good people, and that if they walk the path of good, they walk the path towards Christ. That same message is contained in Arpeggio: to praise all good, and condemn all evil.

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Perhaps the most important scene of the anime as a whole is the birth of the titular Ars Nova ship: Gunzo and Iona’s struggle for survival after being sunk by Fog submarines and Takao’s sacrifice to bring them both to safety. Medievalotaku only offers a brief mention of the scene, perhaps because Gunzou’s readiness to sacrifice his own life for the crew seems so obvious a parallel of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. However, it is exactly because the parallels are so obvious that the discrepancies contained in this portrayal are so striking. And taking a closer look at those discrepancies is key to understanding the message Arpeggio is trying to get across.

First and foremost: Gunzou does not die. Why? Because his fleet and followers would not let him. The episode is not only an opportunity for Gunzou to show his selfless ideals, it is an important character development moment for two other characters.

First and foremost is I-401 Iona. Her efforts to save Gunzou are entirely in character and come as no surprise. Iona identifies herself most strongly as Gunzou’s ship and adheres to all his commands. It is early on in the series where she realizes, on her own accord, that she exists "not to let Gunzou die”. All is in perfect order then, until the moment when Gunzou orders Iona to sacrifice him. Iona hears the order… and refuses.

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Gunzou’s orders are Iona’s one Absolute Principle, her First Law of Robotics. It is through her refusal of the order that she proves herself a free and thinking being, human in all the ways that actually count. It is through her refusal that she achieves her greatest moral victory, because Gunzou’s orders are a test of fire that proves that Iona’s principles are genuine and hers alone. And yet, surprisingly, it is also through that refusal that Iona’s principles are proven to be the same Gunzou holds. Gunzou considers Iona’s life worth sacrificing his own, and Iona responds in turn. She looks beyond what Gunzou says, and sees what he stands for.

This is a powerful stab at Christianity, which values the moral growth of an individual… up to a point. Unfortunately, obedience often takes precedence over sound judgment in terms of Christian virtues. In what is one of the most troubling biblical passages. God demands that Abraham kill his son as a human sacrifice to Him in a test of faith. Interpretations differ, but Abraham passes the test, willing and ready to kill his son until God stops him at the last moment. Murder is, of course, a vile and grave sin. And Christianity makes no allowance for sins in thought – they are as evil as sins through action. Thus God orders His follower to sin, and Abraham does so, resolving to undertake one of the most repugnant deeds imaginable. (Logical somersaults follow to justify that.)

Had Abraham thought like Iona, he might have realized that God and evil do not mix, ever. He might have refused, and stayed true to what God stands for, rather than to whatever was whispering in his ear at the time. It might have been the Devil, after all, taking advantage of blind obedience like he does with human stupidity. But Christianity tells its followers they cannot fathom God’s will and urges them to suspend their judgment in favor of following others, be they priests or charlatans.

Iona proved herself human, and there comes a day when we must all prove ourselves adults: not doing as we are told forever, in sweet ignorance, but thinking about our actions for ourselves, so that we may take responsibility for them, learn from our mistakes and take pride in what we represent.

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But there is another lesson contained in that scene, and to pick up on it, we need to return to the starting point. Gunzou does not die. Why? Because his followers will not let him.

Christ spilled His blood and offered His body for the sake of His followers. You might expect Gunzou to do the same here, but surprisingly enough, the roles are reversed. As Gunzou is under threat of freezing to death (and/or suffocating), it is Iona who is slowly bleeding herself to death as she keeps a sinking ship fully operational to maintain life support. And, in the titular scene of the episode, it is Takao who offers her body to guide Gunzou to safety. It is only through this reversed sacrifice of body and blood that master and followers ultimately reach salvation.

This is a wake up call for Christians out there. Christ died for your sins once already. Now it is time for His followers to return the favor and carry His cross for Him. There are plenty of opportunities out there, every single day. 

The Fog ships passed the test. What about humanity?

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Spoiler warning: This post discusses the events of Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio / Arpeggio of Blue Steel in detail and contains significant spoilers.

I was late to pick up Arpeggio of Blue Steel last year, but it immediately shot up in the ranks of my favorite anime works from that period. Arpeggio is great fun as a self-contained sci-fi show, but there is also that religious undercurrent to it that I found fascinating. After all, Arpeggio was leaning very closely to classic Western ideas, despite its Japanese staff. Immediately upon finishing the series, I started looking around for a Christian look at the show, and medievalotaku obliged with a highly-detailed reinterpretation of the show as a parallel of the Bible.

As I read the article, though, I was surprised at how different the things medievalotaku noticed were from my own observations on the show. Turns out there was even more Christian material in Arpeggio than I thought! (But that possibility was one of the reasons why I wanted a more knowledgeable blogger to tackle the issue, of course.)

The following are my own thoughts on the religious themes contained in the show. While not a direct response to medievalotaku’s article, reading both should be interesting as a comparison of two perspectives on the issue.

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The Holy Feather

While medievalotaku became sure of the Christian undercurrent to the show in the couple final episodes, I found it impossible to ignore the evidence presented at the midpoint of the series.

Episode six of the show sees battleship Haruna, a competent and powerful member of the Fog, in a pinch in her battle against the human armed forces. The irony of her predicament is that, weakened though she might be at that point, she is not losing because of a lack of power. Rather, she is dead set on shielding the human child Makie, and thus finds herself in a hostage situation. Her best bet would be to kill the foot soldiers first, then go after the people controlling the artillery, but Haruna has just been taught that it is wrong to kill, and she chooses an uphill struggle of disabling her opponents without killing them. The army going after her has no concerns regarding any of the above points, obviously.

What we see, therefore, is Haruna getting punished for doing the right thing, for her love and her mercy. And while her newfound moral principles would not be enough for most people to throw away their lives, it seems increasingly likely with every second of the episode that Haruna will refuse to throw away either her moral integrity or the life of her friend – not even resorting to the lesser evil approach of prioritizing the life of her defenseless companion over the lives of their assassins.

Play nice and you will get punished, the scene says. It shows the thorny path awaiting those who choose to carry the burden of ideals. And in the final moments before receiving that cruel judgment, Haruna does something quite unlike a Fog warship: she closes her eyes and prays.

Somebody. Anyone. Please help us. Please save us. Somebody!

And then, with the wonderful “SAVIOR” soundtrack heralding it, help descends from the sky. With overwhelming, but precisely controlled power, the I-401 submarine Iona takes control of the situation. As user suburbanbanshee helpfully points out in their comment on medievalotaku’s article, Iona’s name can be traced back to the Latin word for dove, which also happens to be the Blue Steel crest. As Gunzou is the Christ-figure of the show, Iona arrives as the Holy Spirit – the messenger of Christ descending to aid the believers in their darkest hour.

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- Haruna, what are you doing here? 

- I am… We are trying to protect Makie… our friend.

- Is that so? Then I will help you.

Just a moment before, Haruna was still trying to tell herself that she only needs Makie to survive for the Fog’s purpose. Haruna wanted to believe she was acting according to cold reason, confused as she was to the newfound feelings in her heart. But Iona forces her to come clean and face the true motivation behind her actions. And once everything is laid open, Iona offers her unconditional help.

- 401, why did you help me?

- Because I heard your voice.

- What?

- ‘Please help,’ you said. And so I came to help.

The events of the scene parallel the promise existing between Christ and His believers. Christians are not promised escape from suffering. Indeed, the holy path is one of thorns. But Christ promises that in our most difficult hour, when a believer closes their eyes, speaks out and reaches out with their hands, Christ and the Holy Spirit will be there, listening and ready to offer help. The help Christ offers is unconditional, and comes with no price attached. The only thing asked in exchange for answering a prayer is a true and open heart.

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Submarine Morality

There are many more Arpeggio scenes that parallel those found in the Bible, and medievalotaku mentions many of them. Perhaps even more important than any single scene, though, is the fact that the setting of Arpeggio adheres to some basic tenets of the Christian worldview, even where this is against Japanese tradition.

One attractive feature of anime and other Japanese works, for me and many others, is that they often show human beings as capable of both good and evil at all times. Remember that psychopathic murderer from Fullmetal Alchemist who ends up saving the main character at the end “just because”? The Japanese proficiency at such portrayals of the gray areas in our morality might stem from the fact Japan lacks the tradition of the good/evil duality supported by the church in the West.

Still, the Japanese attachment to moral ambiguity also means that anime works will rarely take a definite stance on whether humans, by nature, lean more towards good or evil. Christianity has no doubts in this regard: everyone is a sinner, but God intended everybody to be good. Provided that they have the honest will to seek the light, God promises to support everyone in their spiritual growth towards good and, eventually, salvation.

This way of thinking obviously requires that we assume the existence of a universal morality, a concept avoided in most Japanese works, but present in Arpeggio, and how so! Universal morality not only exists, it seems to be infectious and jumping from one victim to another faster than the virus in the latest zombie flick!

Arpeggio can embrace the concept full on because of its unique cast of characters. The fleet warships are fully developed mentally, in the intellectual sense, but they are blank slates in the moral sense. Each of the mental models is therefore a small social experiment: will the pure mind sway towards love or hatred?

If you bet on love, you won big time. Haruna needs some three days to turn from a heartless weapon to the selfless pacifist described in the first part of the article. Hyuuga does not mind getting dismantled for the greater good. Takao likewise sacrifices herself to save the other members of her fleet. Kirishima… Kirishima likes playing the tough girl, but she is all plushy on the inside. (Hah!)

Those people all met while blasting supercavitation torpedoes at each other, and they were not throwing any punches! But the smallest bit of kindness is enough to attract them to the path of light. For the Fog warships, the concepts of good and evil are something completely new, and so, they are not immediately able to properly discern between the two. But this does not matter in the least, because good seems to be like a powerful magnet, pulling them towards the right path at every opportunity. By the point Haruna starts wondering how she came to possess moral principles in the first place, she is already an example to follow in terms of moral integrity.

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But while the outstanding moral qualities are still understandable, storytelling-wise, among those warships which join the protagonists, it is the antagonist side that proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the power of good is universal, and not to be trifled with!

Iona’s sister ships, I-400 and I-402, are very careful not to get within range of the good-magnet. This does not seem to help them any, though. Within minutes of moral small talk with Iona, I-402 can no longer remain professionally indifferent. Shaken, she demands that Iona explain her incomprehensible principles. There is outrage there, on the surface, but beneath it lies a desperate need to understand that great secret which Iona got hold of. The spiritual distance between the two is growing shorter than I-402 might realize, and this is reflected in her cutting down the physical distance between their avatars and reaching out her hand to touch, and try to understand, Iona. If God’s morality is indeed universal, it must be natural even to those who have never heard of God, even to those who have been taught a different brand of good and evil. This is the kind of good Arpeggio portrays – an irresistible force that attracts all without exception.

I-400 steps in to stop the talk between the two, but it is already too late. Mere moments later, I-402 will be making her first moral choice, and one which consists of throwing away her life to protect her sister. I-400 is outraged at seeing that act of sacrifice, accuses I-402 of being no different from Iona, and rushes at the Blue Steel submarine in a blind rage. She does not notice, of course, that she is getting entangled in the web of good. It is not rage that is the opposite of love, but indifference. I-400 can feel rage because she can feel hurt. And she can feel hurt at seeing her sister sunk by a torpedo because she can feel love.

The battle between the submarines soon ends with Iona’s victory. When I-402 apologizes to her sister for being unable to protect her, I-400 asks her why she would apologize. Then she reaches out her hand in a gesture of… Forgiveness? Acceptance? Or is it the same desire for understanding as was the case between I-402 and Iona before? Death claims I-400 before we can make sure of the answer.

The real heart-breaker, though, comes immediately after. As Iona cries for the loss of her two sisters, I-402 asks her why she would cry. Then she tells Iona that all Iona did was fight her enemies and sink them. When Iona tries to protest, I-402 cuts in: That and nothing else.

This might seem like I-402 berating her sister for her lack of logic, a stubborn rejection of emotion until the very end. But because this is the same I-402 that shielded her sister with her own body and still felt guilty for not being able to protect her, a different interpretation comes to mind.

From a logical perspective, there is no point in conversing with Iona at that point. But I-402 uses her last moments to absolve Iona of her guilt. Her insistence that Iona is not to blame is the only gift she can leave behind, the only way she can lessen the burden Iona will have to bear. I-402 shields Iona‘s heart no differently then she shielded the body of her other sister minutes before.

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It might seem surprising that while the Fog warships prove capable of extraordinary moral feats and astounding moral progress within moments from being exposed to the power of good, there are plenty of human characters in the series who are evidently short-sighted and concerned only with their personal interests. The key difference, I think, lies in the fact that the Fog warships are all like children. This is why their emotional reactions are all so intense, why they learn so fast, why Kongou’s seemingly deep-rooted hatred disappears like mist after a simple hug. It is no coincidence that Haruna’s thoughts and moral development are shown at one point to perfectly mirror that of Makie.

The kingdom of heaven belongs to children, and it is a great challenge to retain childlike faith even as we grow up, and encounter the temptations and gray areas of adult life. Many of the grown ups of the Arpeggio world apparently lost their way. And the road ahead of our Blue Steel fleet will not be easy either. As the world balance switches from one where the Fog was firmly in control to a more even distribution of forces, there will come times when they will have to choose sides and make difficult choices.

But well, if they cannot pull through, who possibly could?

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No, wait, not the kind of temptation pictured above.

If you have been watching the show, you know that Black Bullet took its riveting setting and has been going weird places and doing weird things ever since the first arc ended. Still, it has its moments of brilliance. One of those was the commentary on temptation contained in episode eleven of the show.

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The episode treats us to a reunion with our favorite villain pair from the first arc. The show never tried hiding that the Hiruko pair are both evil and completely insane, nor that where they now stand is where Rentarou might end up should he lose to the anger and despair in his heart. Kagetane urges Rentarou to join him from the very beginning, offering Rentarou various incentives as well as showing him the dark sides of the society Rentarou has sworn to protect.

However, during that first arc, there was little doubt that Rentarou would be refusing the offer. While the government’s neglect led to many deaths among the Cursed Children, Kagetane’s alternative was that of killing even more people in much more direct ways while spouting clichéd villain lines. This, of course, made sense as generating bad publicity was in Kagetane’s job description at the time.

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But Rentarou’s recent meeting with the pair was nothing like those before it – there was no shouting or fighting involved. To the contrary, it was a moment of respite in a dangerous journey.

In many ways, Kagetane’s timing could not have been better. Rentarou has just been betrayed by the system he protects. He was punished for doing what he thought was right, and the people in charge were not subtle about turning his family and teammates into hostages. He is sent alone on a suicide mission, one he might accepted anyway if provided with the proper support. But the language of threats seems to be the official one in this world.

Rentarou’s mission is about to meet its premature end – godly as his offensive abilities are, half of his body is still human. And as Rentarou climbs out of a river, wet, tired, wounded and about to become dog food, the Hiruko pair arrive just in time to save the day. It seems that for once, Rentarou has had enough and decided to give up on it all – and the two heard that and responded to the call.

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In Rentarou’s darkest hour, the “other option” the Hiruko pair represent might have come to his mind. But of course, the two before him are flesh and blood. They bring with them power and destruction, necessary to get Rentarou out of his pinch, but also the warmth of a fireplace, the safety of mutual protection, the sweet scent of food and the bandages to cover Rentarou’s wounds.

It is a great irony that for that one moment, Rentarou’s only light in the world comes from the darkest part of his soul. But then, is it not the wat temptation works for all of us?

Each person has their own weakness. We can tell right from wrong when confronted about the issue directly – like Rentarou confronted his foes in the first arc of this story. But when we are lost on the way, betrayed, hurt, hungry, exhausted… that is when our weaknesses sneak up on us. And they offer comfort and healing.

Me? I reach out for sweets when lady luck seems to hate me, and for condescension when people do not think or act the way I would like them to. Those are two different vices, both with their own hazards, but they both feel good in the short term.

The question is, will we be able to wake up next morning, and walk away from that fireplace?

[HorribleSubs] Black Bullet - 11 [720p].mkv_snapshot_22.09_[2014.06.23_23.38.04]    

Like with Rentarou’s new little troupe, the power of temptation lies not in direct confrontation with the force of our will, but in the fact that, quite accidentally, it always seems to be heading in the same direction we are.

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