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Overlord

After a rather tame two years in 2013 and 2014, I feel like this year was a very strong one (if top-heavy) despite me watching fewer series than usual. Without further ado, here is a list of the series I found noteworthy this year (movies and OVAs not included):

yoru no yatterman

#12 Yoru no Yatterman

To be perfectly honest, the amount of brilliance packed into this series should put it far above most series on this list. Metaphorically, this series can be seen as Japan’s rare but highly appreciated attempt to discuss and make peace with its “tainted past”. Even without that layer, though, there is so much here to chew on. The change of a society through acts of heroism is something we have seen often enough, but Yoru no Yatterman shows that there are half a dozen types of heroism, many thankless and forever unnoticed, and only combined do they give hope of success. The same goes for leaders, with the great mover of a given era often not being the one who can introduce stable change.

That said, there is so much wrong with this series, too! The god-awful humor, several episodes’ worth of filler and the final episode airing only half-done… Remake this into a watchable movie, please, and it can be truly great.

maria

#11 Junketsu no Maria

A unique series with a strong focus on mediaeval Europe and its Church, led by a genki, do-good character who manages to be just a bit selfish and realistically flawed. The series strikes where it counts against the many incongruities of the Catholic Church without forgetting about developing its drama on the level of individual characters. However, the ultimate resolution feels somewhat rushed; the series’ critical approach to over-intellectualization of faith leads it to conclude that we should all just trust our hearts over our minds. This is not a bad approach, and one very much in tune with the contemporary Japanese approach to religion, but certainly it is not without its own flaws, which the series does not touch upon in its finale.

rolling 

#10 Rolling Girls

It seems to me that Rolling Girls takes the viewer some twenty years into the past, when it was not quite clear what sells in terms of animated works. Back then, there was plenty of either redundant or over-the-top content in many productions, but many series also had a quirky charm to them less often found in today’s more streamlined (and oftentimes clichéd) productions.

When Rolling Girls did not work, it was incomprehensible or just not gripping enough. But when it worked, it worked. It is a refreshing soul-searching story where the characters who start out as nobodies are still nobodies by the series’ end. And amidst all the absurdity, both the human drama and space-squid drama ring true, leaving a strong impression. 

seiken tsukai

#9 Seiken Tsukai no World Break

Can you make an anime if given a stone and two sticks? Apparently you can. With literally laughable production values but outstanding sound direction, Seiken Tsukai no World Break exceeded all expectations regarding its entertainment value. Mind you, you do need to watch it with commentary or friends to get the most laughs out of it.

(I do hope all the comedy was intentional, though…)

illya zwei

#8 Fate/kaleid Liner Prisma Illya 2wei Herz

With the previous season doing unexpectedly well on this list last year, it is not much of a surprise seeing Illya here. The production values, the lovable characters and the fluid movement between action, drama and comedy are all still to be found in this installment. Kuro using trace powers to cheat at festival games was one of my favorite comedy moments this year, while using the problems of a budding fujoshi to parallel the building tension between Illya and Miyu made for some good setup.

Two strikes against this series: a few fillerish episodes and a somewhat subpar resolution of the main plotline. I praised Illya’s character arc in the second season, but while solving Illya’s issues through Illya’s development made perfect sense, solving Miyu’s issues through Illya’s development is kind of puzzling. There is another season in the works, so I look forward to seeing the new balance between the characters there.

kiseijuu2

#7 Parasyte Sei no Kakuritsu

An old-school sci-fi thriller with an environmental message. The series starts off strong, starts wandering about somewhat in the middle, but manages to finish things neatly. A stellar performance by Hirano Aya as the main character’s parasitic right hand. several good twists along the way and a pinch of grit where necessary make for a solid entry into the list.   

biyori repeat

#6 Non Non Biyori Repeat

Slice of life shows rely largely on the atmosphere they can produce, and few shows can beat Non Non Biyori in the atmosphere department. When Renge ventures out on her first trip to the school building, it is the kind of setup where the viewer is conditioned to expect something unusual to happen, but NNB easily proves that simple everyday occurrences are quite enough for an adventure if seen from the right perspective. NNB is a series that celebrates life, but speaks as much about the eventual passing of things: Renge’s opening ceremony might well be the school’s last – a tacit admission the show leaves for the viewers to pick up on.

symph

#5 Senki Zesshou Symphogear GX

This year’s Symphogear stayed true to itself, with some of the craziest action sequences of the year, while completely reversing the power balance between good and evil from the previous season. And yes, great music came out of it.

The first few minutes of this season are already near-legendary, what with cutting down mountains and whatnot. After the perfect first two episodes, the season goes into character arcs, some of them hit-or-miss, and concludes in a cinema-worthy slugfest.

This season’s plot might have benefitted from a less-is-more approach, as too many issues were tackled on at once and problems getting resolved in the same episode they were introduced does not make for great buildup. Still, all the characters took a step forward by the end of the season, which is always a good thing.

rokka_no_yuusha_wallpaper_by_redeye27-d92l8za

#4 Rokka no Yuusha

The tale of six seven eight brave men and women who gathered in a forest, then went on to fight a demon king never left that forest.

Rokka was all-out genre-defying. There was bromance, infighting, confessions, investigations… and they never left that forest.

gakkou gurashi

#3 Gakkou Gurashi

I was ready for this to fumble. After all, it would be easier to miss this show’s airing altogether than to avoid getting spoiled about the “twist”. So throughout the first episode, I only saw an acceptable prologue, and all would be decided by seeing whether the series could build anything upon the foundation of that twist.

But no fear – the series would build more than plenty. The twists were mostly a formality, conscientiously telegraphed ahead of time. The real-deal was how the characters reacted to those twists, and why they reacted in those particular ways. As a zombie story, Gakkou Gurashi speaks of survival at all costs, but merely staying physically alive is not enough to keep a human mind going. The frail order of the “group insanity” the girls establish is an inhomogeneous set, with each member accepting their own degree of psychological compromise.

The creation of reality through human will. Great stuff.

shirobako

#2 Shirobako

You know, in Girls und Panzer, Mizushima Tsutomu focused on a highly detailed and faithful portrayal of tanks to establish a firm sense of reality, then went on to do all kinds of crazy stuff with the tanks that you would never see in a live-action movie. Those “cool lies” can only work because their meticulous execution makes them indistinguishable from reality.

Shirobako is a repeat performance here, with some parts of the setting potentially aggrandized, but with the viewer none the wiser. The people, the problems, all of it rings true. Which is why the messages have depth and the over-the-top sequences work as humor.

Shirabako had a nearly perfect two-cour run, with several different episodes feeling ending-worthy. I think it did stumble a bit during the director and manga company clash – those crucial scenes were all metaphor and no meat, not what the series has us used to – and the final episode was more a quiet epilogue than anything else. But altogether the series remains a tremendous accomplishment. Shirobako would easily take the top spot on the yearly list had it aired in 2013 or 2014. It would have taken this year, too, except for…

Hibike-Euphonium

#1 Hibike! Euphonium

If Shirobako had a near-perfect run, Euphonium went the whole way. It was a pleasure to go along with the series’ deliberate pacing, trusting it to take you where it will.

Many people who enjoyed this bring up their musical past, but I could never play an instrument to save my life. I think I played the xylophone in primary school for a few weeks or something. I was class representative for many years, though, and it were the school faction wars presented here that felt all too familiar.

Alongside Death Parade this year, Euphonium is one of those shows that tell you a lot about the viewer. Many people were satisfied to see this as a story where a skill-based meritocracy slowly earns its deserved position and provides the results desired. But the Kitauji compromise the series presents is a much richer canvas, and characters on all sides are humbled by the time the curtain drops.

Visually, the series was breathtaking, but never gaudy. Starting from the color scheme, Euphonium is all about restraint. This doubles the impact during the short moments when the series does go full-out, like during Reina’s phantasmagoric confession scene.

Euphonium might also well be close to my ideal of an anime adaptation. I expect many would be surprised at how the essence of the show was optimized for the new medium without changing the outwardly visible structure. It is a delicate balance, and something that was beautifully preserved here.

Here’s hoping for another good year! Feel free to share your own 2015 favorites.

Full list of titles watched below. The * mark is for the many shows I took a look at but never finished.

1. Absolute Duo*

2. Aria the Scarlet Ammo Double A*

3. Assassination Classroom *

4. Blood Blockade Battlefront*

5. Chaos Dragon*

6. Charlotte*

7. Chivalry of a Failed Knight

8. Death Parade

9. Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan*

10. Dog Days S3

11. Etotama*

12. Fate/kalleid liner Prisma Illya 2wei Herz!

13. Fate/say night: Unlimited Blade Works

14. Gundam Build Fighters Try

15. Himouto! Umaru-chan*

16. Kantai Collection: KanColle

17. Kuroko’s Basketball S3

18. Lance N’ Masques*

19. Log Horizon S2

20. Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha ViVid

21. Maria the Virgin Witch

22. Mikagura School Suite*

23. My Love Story!! *

24. Non Non Biyori Repeat

25. Overlord

26. Parasyte -the maxim-

27. Plastic Memories*

28. Rampo Kitan: Game of Laplace*

29. Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers

30. Rolling Girls

31. School-Live!

32. Seiyu’s Life!

33. Senki Zesshou Symphogear GX

34. Shirobako

35. Show By Rock!! *

36. Sound! Euphonium

37. The iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls

38. World Break: Aria of Curse for a Holy Swordsman

39. Yatterman Night

40. Yurikuma Arashi

41. Yuru Yuri San Hai!

ゆゆゆ2

Yuuki Yuuna is a Hero is a story notable for several reasons, one of them being its portrayal of a semi-theocratic society. We are shown hints of the setting’s god-tree religion affecting the education system and government, and obviously religious undertones would make into the everyday lives of ordinary households and leave a mark on the naming patterns of children. In fact, every character in the show bears some mark of this religious influence.

Starting from the Washio generation:

Tougou Mimori’s name means simply "beautiful forest".

Minowa Gin’s name means "silver", which is formed with the "metal" and "root" radicals. The "root" reference probably doubles as an indication of Gin’s role in the group as the one keeping the other two safe.

Nogi Sonoko’s name refers to a "garden", which is most understandable if you imagine Japan’s extensive shrine and temple gardens. As a sacred space, the gardens create a small world to house the Japanese gods. On the one hand, this represents the inner sanctum that the Nogi family, as one of the most influential Taisha families, is responsible for. On the other hand, the Shikoku barrier can be seen as a miniature garden – a place of purity cut away from the impurity (death and destruction) of the world outside. In this sense, Sonoko’s name represents all the beauty left in the world as well as humanity’s hope.

During her time spent with the Washio family Mimori’s name was changed to Sumi. It is a special name insofar as it makes sense for it to be given with a clear cut purpose in mind. If you ignore the kanji and just look at the reading, the name refers to "purity", hinting at Mimori’s role as a miko/shrine maiden to the god-tree. As regards the kanji, the "su" part once more refers to Mimori’s "duty", while the "mi" part signifying beauty is borrowed from her original name.

For the younger generation.

Inubouzaki Itsuki’s name is the "great tree" straight out of the god-tree compound.

Miyoshi Karin has the "two-branch tree" radical slipped into the second kanji of her name, "rin", meaning "elegant, of stern or highly composed demeanor". Interestingly, that is the older variant of the kanji, with the newer one having a "shrine" radical in place of the "two-branch tree".

Yuuki Yuuna’s name seems to have no trees in it at first glance, but that is because the upper part of the "na" kanji was simplified along the way. With the kanji originally composed of a "tree" over a "shrine", the original meaning was that of a "fruit offered to the gods". The fruit in question was offered when seeking guidance from the heavens, so the kanji also meant *what should be done?". With the two "yuu" kanji in her name referring to "bringing people together" and "friendship" respectively, Yuuna seems to ask the question and provide the answer all in one.

Inubouzaki Fuu is a mystery to me. If you dig far enough back, the kanji for "fuu" seems to have originated from the same inscription as the 鳳 kanji referring to the divine bird (phoenix), which was considered a messenger from the gods. The contemporary form of the kanji replaces the "bird" radical inside for what is now most often known as the "bug" radical, which in this case represents reptiles; as beliefs changed, people came to believe it were dragons, rather than birds, that lived in the skies and controlled the winds.

But a "fuu" name could have contained a god or tree reference much more easily just by sticking a "tree" radical to the "wind" kanji discussed above to get the "maple" kanji 楓 – the reading can stay as-is. Whether this was intentionally avoided (to point to Fuu as the one least loyal to Taisha, especially towards the end of the story?), or whether there was some other reasoning for this particular name/writing, I cannot be sure.

そのこ

The last names in Yuyuyu also matter, especially with the Washio generation. Other than the Nogi last name meaning “of the tree”, making them the obvious big-shots in this world, there are many significant real-world references packed in there:

  • Mimori likes being called by her last name, Tougou, because it tickles her history-otaku and nationalist fancy. She happens to share her last name with the famous Japanese admiral Tougou Heihachirou.
  • Sonoko shares her last name with Nogi Maresuke, a famous Japanese general
  • The above two lived in the same times, known as the “Nogi of the land and Tougou of the sea”, and were acquainted with each other… whether the two got along is a different matter
  • When general Nogi died, he was deified as a god of war (and education and marital affairs) and a shrine was built for him… partly for the purposes of the Japanese army’s propaganda
  • The above happened when Tougou was still alive, and Tougou was appalled to hear that the navy planned to do the same to him to regain the balance of power between the land forces and the navy. He strongly expressed his objection to the idea… but was deified anyway after his death (there are three shrines bearing his name)

Readers can probably see how the above parallels the story of Yuyuyu with Mimori learning that Sonoko was turned into a god for the Taisha’s benefit, only to be set on the same track against her will. Yuyuyu questions whether in creating heroes, we are not taking advantage of people for our own benefit.

Additional Notes:

Minowa Gin’s short, one kanji name gives off a somewhat boyish image.

I particularly like the usage of the “ko” ending in Sonoko’s name. In contemporary usage, the “ko” ending for female names ended up being so popular that around 1960, almost all women had names ending that way. That in itself became so clichéd that now parents often actively avoid adding “ko” to names. For this reason, the “ko” ending in anime is perfect to create “average Jane” background characters.

However, historically, the “ko” ending was reserved only for females of the highest social class, holding offices at court and in administration. The later popularity of the name came exactly because the “commoners” envied the image of sophistication and prosperity the ending carried.

With Yuyuyu bringing back social elements of Japan’s past, Sonoko’s name carries with it the elegance and dignity of the well-bred part of society. 

yuri

Continuing down the path Medievalotaku-senpai got me started on, I provide you with a translation of a part of the Ayana Yuniko interview published in the Eureka, poetry and criticism magazine issue devoted to yuri works and culture. As a scriptwriter, Ayana-san was involved with the production of Kiniro Mosaic, Natsuiro Kiseki, Rokodoru Yatte Mita and Aoi Hana anime series. She is also the writer behind the long-running Found a Little Yuri (Chiisai Yuri Miitsuketa) corner published in Newtype (and now collected and published in book format, the cover of which is featured above).

Ayana-san has been one of the go-to people for yuri content in recent years, and it is interesting to see how her thoughts on the genre changed over time.

Interviewer: Now I’d like to hear your thoughts on yuri. It might not be the most elegant question, but if you were to state your personal definition of yuri, what would it be?

Ayana Yuniko: Now that’s a difficult question (laughs). Sometimes it’s a direct extension of friendship, sometimes the boundary is more vague. I think recently I’ve become more accepting… Or maybe I’ve just grown up enough to gain some perspective. I’ve come to think that “if there are two girls together, it probably counts as yuri”. When I was around high school age, I had a strict set of rules for the genre and would discard anything that didn’t fit, like: “yuri should be defined as follows…”, “Aoi Hana is the pinnacle of yuri, nothing else even counts!” and all.

I: You were a yuri fundamentalist, so to speak.

Ayana: Exactly. Like Kamakura and the other Yuri Danshi characters, I would scream: “That’s unacceptable!”, and I was ready to fight for what I thought, too. But I’ve come to think that whether the girls at the center of it all are aware of it or not, if everyone around thinks it’s yuri, then so it is. An irresponsible approach though that is (laughs).

I: Was there any particular reason for you taking a more relaxed approach?

Ayana: If I were to point to a particular reason, I guess it would be Yuru Yuri; the manga came out, the number of yuri fans increased and I found myself feeling grateful about it. After that, I suppose I was able to accept everything; I saw that it was one way to get to know the genre. At around the same time, I had the opportunity to work on Kiniro Mosaic, and part of me found it weird the work could be considered yuri, but another part of me said “oh well, there’s nothing wrong with that either.”

I: “If it works for you, you can call it yuri.”?

Ayana: Yes. There were parts of it that made my yuri spirit burn, after all (laugh). Now that the work is all over, I can say this openly, but when I was working on Locodol, writing some parts of it helped me release the frustration pent-up from Kiniro Mosaic. Writing Kiniro Mosaic, I could only use the purest parts of myself lest I defile the beauty of the work, and it wasn’t easy. So when the time came to work on Locodol, only the dirty me was left. For that reason, the yuri intensity degree of the work became relatively high. Nevertheless, my intention when writing the script was to include enough humor to make the yuri ambiguous. But the execution of the finished product was going in the real deal direction. I saw it and thought, “Can’t make excuses for that…” (laughs).

I: By the way, what was the idea behind making the final episode of Kiniro Mosaic into a musical?

Ayana: When we decided that the final episode would include the characters producing their own work, the director told me “Well then, let’s make that part into a musical.” I myself was surprised at the content, but I thought it would be a waste not to do something we normally couldn’t in the main story episodes. Because the characters are acting out a musical and not themselves, it was fine for Aya and Youko to become a mermaid princess and a prince in a romantic relationship.

On Yuri

yuru-yuri

Good friend medievalotaku recently reposted a manga best seller list, happy that a favorite of his made it to the top. What gathered more attention from his commenters, though, was the fact that a yuri title made it to fourth place. Many comments bemoaned how lust and sin will always sell. This made me realize that the old misconception of yuri being a subgenre of porn, featuring two ladies going at it and aimed at heterosexual males, is still alive and well. I am not going to argue how you should define the genre, but I want to provide some data for reference and perspective.

nanofate

1. Yuri – for boys or girls?

It is difficult to get clear-cut data on the male-female ratio of yuri readers, and the most reliable data we have dates back to 2008, coming from magazine Yuri Hime’s reader questionnaires. At that time, the magazine was divided into two sister titles, the lighter Yuri Hime S and the core-audience Yuri Hime.

Yuri Hime S: 62% Male / 38% Female

Yuri Hime: 27% Male / 73% Female

The two magazines fused together in late 2010, the stated reason being an increasing readership overlap, as readers of the lighter Yuri Hime S reportedly migrated to the main magazine.

No official data has been published since after the fusion, though some speak of a 50-50 ratio nowadays.

konakaga

2. Yuri and erotica

Yuri being just a genre, and a broad one at that, you can find all kinds of stories and story elements if you look hard enough, But how unwholesome (perverted) is the average yuri title nowadays?

I took a quick look through the May 2015 issue of Yuri Hime, and classified the story chapters into three categories: family-friendly, fanservice and physical intimacy.

For fanservice, I looked for images which could be considered titillating, regardless of the significance to the plot. Nudity and provocative clothing were the most common reasons for getting included into this category. Just one such element was enough to include a given series.

For physical intimacy, I looked for characters expressing their affection physically, starting from kisses and going up to sexual foreplay. (No story contained characters having actual sexual intercourse.) I did not include hand-holding and hugs, as I do not want to live in a world where you cannot give your friend a hug. Sorry.

There were a total of 22 works in the issue. I only counted Yuru Yuri (two chapters) once, and counted the A-side and B-side short stories by Canno as one whole story.

Results:

Family-friendly: 12/22 – 54,5%

Non family-friendly: 10/22 – 45,5%

Non family-friendly includes both stories containing fanservice and physical intimacy.

Fanservice: 5/22 – 22,7%

Physical intimacy: 7/22 – 31,8%

Two of the stories qualified for both categories, Saburouta’s citrus containing non-erotic nudity in one scene and some sexual foreplay in another. Kodama Naoko’s Netsuzou TRAP –NTR- was the most daring story this issue, as a shower scene between two friends (the Japanese and their public baths) momentarily borders on something less innocent. The above two stories were also the only two this issue to contain sexual foreplay. Other than that, there were three kisses, one instance of a character teasing another with a near-kiss, and one (implied) masturbation scene.

I was more disturbed with some of the fanservice.

Korur’s Momoiro Trance only features the slightest wardrobe failure which just barely made the cut for the fanservice category. So far so good.

Unfortunately Aoto Hibiki’s Prince Prince starts things off by undressing ugly girls (what is with that artstyle, honestly), only to up the ante by providing us with a pantyshot showing off the buttocks of a character later to be revealed as a cross-dressing male. And that is the first chapter of a new serialization. I hope this one dies ASAP…

merryhachi’s Tachibana-kan To Lie Angle closes the list off with a chapter dedicated to the main heroine (?) trying not to wet her panties as she waits for the toilet in her apartment to get fixed. I know there is need for this particular fetish on the market, but if that is chapter three of your story, the times ahead are dark indeed.

hibimiku3

Overall, it seems medieval’s commenters were right to regard citrus as a work containing an open portrayal of homosexual love. Claims that the yuri genre is all about “selling lust”, on the other hand, turn out to be largely unfounded. More than half the titles in the genre were able to develop or hint at a romantic story without resorting to either fanservice or overt physical affection. I was also happy to see that those stories that delved into the physical side of a relationship did so with good taste. The few notable exceptions will hopefully not last long.

Thank you to Yuri Hime staff and artists for their hard work (the next issue comes out in two weeks, doki doki) and to medieval for an excuse to fill this blog with yuri images. I might yet get back to this topic if time allows.

toki3

咲‐Saki‐アンテナの皆さん、国際最萌リーグはご存知ですか。好きなアニメキャラに投票してワイワイしたりハァハァしたりするアレの一種です。こっちは2008年からやっていて、世界中のアニメファンの参加を歓迎する前提で行われています。

2010年に咲‐Saki‐のキャラもメイントーナメントに登場しました。わかりやすい作品の方は人気が出やすいという印象ですが、ところどころ咲‐Saki‐シリーズを応援する票を見ると、何となくあたたかい気持ちになります。(ちなみに怜ちゃんと穏乃ちゃんが一番の人気者のようです。)

なので、咲‐Saki‐のキャラクターを応援したいという方がいればぜひ参加してください。ちょうど今指名期間になっています。ここから指名できます(日本語で投票してもOKです)。左側にキャラ名・右側にシリーズ名を入れます。

ただし、せめて三つのアニメシリーズのキャラクターを入れないと票は無効になるので、咲‐Saki‐のキャラクターを沢山入れたい方は咲‐Saki‐のキャラクターを12人まで入れて、残り二人を別のシリーズ二本のキャラクターにしないといけません。まぁ、咲‐Saki‐以外のアニメをあまり見ない方はジブリとかでも大丈夫でしょうw。

14日まで投票できるので、興味のある方はぜひ。

 

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.

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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.  

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