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Posts Tagged ‘No Game No Life’

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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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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!

 

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#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.

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#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.

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#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

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sorashiro

No Game No Life is pretty upfront about the basic idea behind the names of its characters. We have Sora (sky) and Shiro (white), whose names put together just happen to form the word blank (kuuhaku).

For a long time, I thought that was it. The series does get plenty of mileage out of the blank idea. The official way of writing that term within the series is just an empty space within Japanese brackets like this: 「   」. Throughout the series, Sora and Shiro delight in capturing various things in those metaphorical brackets, like one would in a camera lens, and thus claiming those things for their own.

blank 2 

The blank idea also plays nicely into the urban legend the siblings have going on. The title of Blank is an open declaration that the miracle gamer everyone wants to believe in does not exist: in the sense that Blank is the joint effort of two people rather than a single person, obviously, but also because the truth behind the siblings is much more down to earth than most gossipers would like to think.

Still, there was something left nagging at my brain – the reasoning behind Sora’s name. Shiro, after all, has her albino coloration, which is reason enough for her name both from an in-universe and the readers’ perspective. Sora’s connection to the sky seemed oddly lacking, or even inappropriate considering his hikikomori habits.

sorashiro2     

Then I had a talk with that white squirrel-cat thing called feal87. It was complaining that while Sora was constantly out doing something cool, Shiro had no personality at all. Feal, I found myself telling it, they both have similar, twisted personalities. The main difference between the two is that Sora covers up his poison and hurt with lies and deception, Shiro with silence and a mask of neutrality.

Then it clicked.

shiro  

Shiro is the easier one of the two. Shiro’s white is, on the surface, a white of perfect purity. Her strength lies in the world of calculations and absolute truths. Aside from raw brainpower, Sora also points to her ability to retain perfect focus at all times as one of the reasons behind her proficiency at games. Internally, Shiro embodies the pure and serene mind. Her outward appearance keeps up the trend: the obvious white hair, the petite build and the sailor fuku all represent youth, innocence and purity.

There is only one catch to all of this: the purity of white is achieved through rejection. Just as white objects refuse to absorb light, Shiro refuses to interact with the world around her. She rarely speaks to anyone but her brother. Her great focus comes from shutting herself away from unnecessary interference. Her default expression is having no expression at all. Rather than an ideal, Shiro’s purity is her way of dealing with the “unfair” world around her.

If the duality of perfection and rejection contained within the color white sounds familiar, it has been extensively covered in the first arc of Monogatari Second Season. Come to think of it, Tsubasa and Shiro do have plenty in common.

sora

Sora is the more difficult one to crack because the image and symbolism of the sky are just too powerful and distracting. It is necessary to take a step back to see the double meanings involved with his name.

The Japanese choose to view the sky as, among other things, a vast empty space. This explains why the terms sky and empty, share the same character, albeit with different readings: 空 can be read as, respectively, sora and kara. This is the reason why the sky is part of blank in the first place.

But a look through some other sky-compounds turns out to be quite enlightening:

空言 soragoto  falsehood, lie

空手形 karategata bad (fictitious) bill, empty promise

空威張り karaibari bluffing, bluster, bravado

空涙 soranamida crocodile tears

空空しい sorazorashii false, hypocritical 

It turns out that the sky has found its way into half the deception and falsehood going on in the Japanese language (and plenty of those retain the sora reading, to boot.) The last one is my favorite: just line up one Sora after another to get falsehood and hypocrisy.

Where his sister deals with the world by giving it nothing of herself, Sora has no qualms about sharing. What he gives away just happens to be 100% bullshit. While some viewers found it incongruous why Sora could easily communicate with others after years of seclusion, the answer is simple. For Sora, there is no actual communication going on. He is not putting his own feelings on the line, or trying to establish bonds, he is just trying to get the NPC around him to move the way he wants them to. Even then, there is plenty of stress involved in it for him, but Sora is probably good enough at lying to trick even himself into believing that it is all just a game, and that he can handle it all.

Life is a battlefield, and deception is Sora’s only shield.     

sorashiro3[HorribleSubs] No Game No Life - 01 [720p].mkv_snapshot_08.13_[2014.05.10_17.25.19]

Sora and Shiro, and by extension, Blank itself, were named for deception and rejection, the two ways in which the siblings learned to deal with the world.

It is awful and toxic. The siblings weaponized their concepts, creating Blank to lash out at the world by proving their superiority at every game. Blank is not allowed to lose, they say, but provide no reason for the rule. But that should be obvious. Blank was not born to play games and just enjoy doing it. Blank came to be to play and win, win, win. It is the siblings’ universal accusation against the entire world and the people within it: as long as the system is bound by specific rules, Sora and Shiro can thrive within it. And as long as the two can prove this truth, it is the senseless world around them and the people living within it that are responsible for the siblings’ inability to fit in. Blank cannot lose in order to protect that truth.

There is no shortage of hypocrisy in their beliefs, of course. Shiro needs her brother, somebody she can speak to without fear. Sora needs his sister, somebody who can see though his lies without fail. Their inseparable bond is made of the very elements they so vehemently deny through their actions. And their invincible armor is full of holes, ready to fall apart if confronted with the dangers of failure or separation – experiences mature people must at some time learn to face and overcome.

sorashiro.jpg4

But this is also a reason why their journey to Disboard might yet turn out to be a journey of salvation. Because for the first time in their lives, Sora and Shiro will end up using Blank not to cut themselves away from the world, but to affect and change it. In the real world, the two were literally nobodies, an urban legend with no connections to anybody. In Disboard, they are king and queen, shouldering the responsibility for an entire race. And along with that new responsibility, the two might just find the trust and friendship they had once lost.

God might be just a spectator, like Sora claims. But he might have also set up Tet and Blank to meet each other, silently supporting the siblings from the shadows. 

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