when the Grail War comes to New Jersey, I'm using a tear-stained Gundam DVD to summon the Heroic Spirit of Hajime Yatate's collective identity as my Servant

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the flag before the minefield: certain topics in anime and associated media

[Shizuru and Natsuki]

After a while thinking about some of the things relating to gender and sexuality in Japanese pop culture that I want to dissect here, I realized that I need to make this post first, so that I don’t have to repeat some form of it every time I discuss those topics. Consider it a declaration of intent.

I find gender and sexuality to be interesting subjects. They’re also very fraught ones. There often exists, in the great wild blogosphere today (if not quite so much the aniblogosphere, which is one reason I’m joining it, incidentally), an unspoken expectation that if someone speaks about issues of gender and sexuality, she should do so with great force and wise judgment, proposing the proper progressive feminist queer-positive perspective on any given topic. The problem with that is that great force and wise judgment are exhausting, and they invite other people to respond with their own reiterations of great force and (possibly differing) wise judgment, and the resulting tension is even more exhausting.

So when I talk about these things here, I’m not actually going to be judging all that hard. Just offering my observations.

Of course, I will make note here and there of some things that displease me here and there, and some things that please me. More of the latter, really, since I’ve found that if I talk more about the things that please me than the things that displease me, I’m happier in the end. Which leads me to another thing.

I am quite aware that despite the existence of badass magical girls and heart-rending yaoi and yuri pairings, Japan is neither the Feminist Paradise nor the Homo Paradise. I still like those badass magical girls and heart-rending yaoi and yuri pairings. I even think some of them put forth stronger woman-focused messages than the jaded Western otaku attempting to enjoy them only in their proper place as a guilty pleasure will give them credit for. But I don’t think their fantasies map to public Japanese sentiment in favor of progressive values, like the more adoring and also younger fans would sometimes like to believe, or for that matter even necessarily to their creators’ real-life stances on the topics.

A more realistic view of modern Japanese society will indeed admit that its stratified, conservative nature has produced a general lag in the advancement of some progressive movements. In other words: yeah, in actual practice Japan is for the most part more sexist, heteronormative, and homophobic than the West is.

And yet.

I also don’t like the hardline stance you often get over here of, “Look at that backwards bunch of islands on the other side of the Pacific! We must cleanse our hands of the misogyny bugs if we accidentally touch any gunpla. Are your detoxifying Western-feminist goggles on? Good, then we may proceed to watch some anime. But if it’s yuri anime, first we must intone the solemn oath of This Has No Relation At All To Real Queer Women Anywhere, and afterwards we will conduct the ritual burning of Kannazuki no Miko DVDs.”

(I exaggerate, of course, but…well. As you can see, I’m going to occasionally bring up attitudes among various factions of English-language-fandom otaku that have irked me in the past, but I’m going to try not to get too carried away with that.)

Sure, we’re talking about an exceptionally socially homogenous nation here, but it’s an exceptionally socially homogenous nation of about 128 million people. Out of that lot, anime, manga, and games sometimes float around in an odd and rather suspect niche space anyway. Assuming that they all hew to the conservative-family-values line and any deviations from it in even the more niche examples of their fiction must always be either misinterpretation by naive Western fans or straight-up fetishization and nothing else is going a little too far. On top of that, while I don’t think Japan gets a get-out-of-misogyny-free card for being a very different culture, I do think that since my understanding of that different culture is limited, I’m better off being somewhat cautious about the profound moral implications of the societal conclusions I draw from anime. If nothing else, I’d just be embarrassed to come off like the people who got to the eighth episode of Madoka and started proclaiming that it was a misogynist work because the message it carried to adult male viewers was that female empowerment was a horrible thing.

And just because their society is conservative about gender and sexuality doesn’t mean that it’s simple or clear-cut. I have every intention of following through on some research about the way shoujo developed in the 1970s and so on, the history of the Year 24 Group, and the threads of influence passing between shoujo and shounen and male and female mangaka in both. Then I’ll post about it.

Japan: it’s pretty different over there than it is here, a lot of the time. There are a lot of screwed-up things there, and quite a bit I could be judgmental about in their pop culture if I felt like it. I am aware of all this. But here, I’d prefer to mostly discuss and observe, not judge so much. I like it better that way.

With that out of the way, I believe I can get my ass into gear on posts about Madoka Magica’s commentary on moe and the perfection of Akemi Homura. This post got longer than I intended, but in any case it will now sit here for me to link to whenever I talk about trashy yuri anime and other such things.



Puella Magi Madoka Magica, complete: teleology as melodrama

A QUICK NOTE: I’m going to try to turn out spoiler-free reviews of series as well as more spoiler-laden analytical posts. This is one of the former. Let’s see how that works out.

The primary problem with writing a review of Puella Magi Madoka Magica is that while it is a very good show, it is also a very polarizing show, and it is impossible to properly target a recommendation for it without revealing the most essential spoiler for the series: it’s not an adorable fluffy escapade, but rather an extremely emotionally-charged coming-of-age psychodrama rooted squarely in the tradition of cosmic horror.

There. I said it. Sorry to anyone who wasn’t already spoiled, but it was necessary. If you like lighthearted fare with upbeat characters, if you prefer plots focused on external action that don’t dwell on inner pain, I wish you godspeed and all the distance in the world between yourself and this anime. But if you’re forever seeking catharsis in the despair of fictional characters, if you ask that your experience of fiction be harrowing and fraught with complex meaning, keep listening.

I should note that I’m not making a value judgment here. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to avoid this series; not wanting soul-crushing angst in your entertainment is one of them. That said, I do want to clear something up: Madoka Magica is indeed part of the moe trend of anime (and in my opinion a commentary on it, which I’ll get into later), but it resolutely refuses to sexualize its characters. There’s some non-sexual, symbolic nudity in the opening and in the last episode, and some implied pantyshot jokes in the opening, but that is it. All other sexualization can be laid at the feet of the fans. If you’re holding off on watching it because you just can’t stand the art style in its own right, that’s fine (anime is a visual medium, after all), but if it’s the associations with sexual fanservice of young girls in similar titles that are holding you back, you actually have nothing to worry about.

I imagine others have already said this, but I’ll say it again here: Madoka Magica comes, in at least one way, from a similar place as Evangelion. Both shows are driven by the intense but ultimately ordinary anguish and dysfunction of their teenage heroes, magnified to terrifying extremes by the introduction of speculative story elements. Even without Angels or Grief Seeds, though, the characters would still be in pain from their very human struggles with self-worth, guilt and responsibility, and loneliness, and that is ultimately the motor of the show.

This has its weaknesses as well as its strengths. The story relies almost exclusively on the emotional impact of two things to advance: the characters’ struggles with their own pain and the revelations about the nature of the setting. Outside of that, there’s very little plot. Which explains something about why dismissing Madoka Magica as “sad girls and their emotional torture porn” is both uncharitable and accurate. It’s not only sad girls and their emotional torture porn, but if that’s a dealbreaker for you, you’re probably not going to think that the other content makes up for it. For my part, I feel that the first and last thirds of the show have more going for them beyond the angst and inner pain than the middle third does, but even if you start to find that middle a bit tedious, it’s worth sticking around to get to the rest. The tenth episode is honestly one of the best episodes of anime I’ve ever seen.

On a technical level, the series is nothing but admirable. Yuki Kajiura’s music is wonderful and suits the series perfectly. Despite the polarizing style of the art, the actual animation is fluid and beautifully composed. And if you’re on board with the psychodrama angle of the show to begin with, Gen Urobuchi’s writing consistently turns out believable, sympathetic characters with evocative dialogue. So, yes, in short: if you like that sort of thing, you should definitely watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Ratings! I gave it a 9 out of 10. But it’s the sort of series that makes me consider the merits of adding a “polarization value” to my ratings. I could see how someone else could rate it as high as 10 or as low as 4.

Stay tuned for a lot of meta posts about Deeper Meanings in Madoka Magica and its cultural context. Those will, as I said, have spoilers.


Moe, mechanical maidens, and the tabula rasa

Few things are more widespread or more reviled in anime fandom across the world than the fetishization of Rei Ayanami. To many observers, it appears like nothing more than fanboys developing an obsessive attachment to a vulnerable, yielding female object of desire with a void where her personality should be. And in all fairness, there’s a great deal to be said about those dynamics and how they manifest time and time again in response to a Rei/Asuka character dichotomy of the meek, submissive heroine opposing the aggressive, volatile heroine.

I’m not interested in that right now, though. What I’m going after is a matter often neglected in those arguments: the recurring theme of the artificial being whose awakening to the emotions, passions, and convictions of humanity drives their character development. When this awakening is treated in an endearing, sweetly sympathetic way, they are indeed a source of moe appeal, but it’s about a lot more than perceived passiveness. I can’t imagine that Rei was the first of these. Even from my own limited knowledge, Terra Branford provided another prototype in Final Fantasy VI, released the previous year (and Final Fantasy IX would later elicit similar feelings from all the fans I know with Vivi). All the same, Rei is often seen as a precursor to many of the more recent versions. Which may not be entirely fair. After all, within the text of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rei is not treated as a moe object or (on an overlapping but not identical subject) a sexual one, despite being perceived and later gainfully marketed as such. She’s characterized as more unsettling than sweet and ultimately depicted as a symbol of humanity’s raw basic potential. Which points up one of the interesting things about this archetype: depending on their position within the text, they may represent humanity or function as an outsider to it. Either way, they provide a commentary on essential human nature on a broad scale.

But there are definitely later characters (and probably earlier ones as well) who take up that mantle and become moe, to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes they are explicitly robotic or otherwise inhuman. Sometimes it’s merely their origins which are artificial, and from birth or decanting from the test tube onwards, they’re flesh and blood like any other human being–only the text’s refusal to let them forget about that unnatural beginning separates them from characters whose genetic engineering or magical creation is incidental to their larger role. The form of their introduction to normal human society may vary in what tropes it uses: they may partake of the tsundere and be aloof and icy until they properly comprehend emotion, they may simply be unsettlingly blank and only slowly begin to show any emotion at all, or they may be as expressive as any other character but naive to the point of eccentricity and exasperation. Regardless, their need to assert themselves as human beings of real value comes into conflict with a setting that attempts to deny their efforts or persuade them otherwise, and this drives much of their character.

The most obvious descendant of this tradition is Nia Teppelin, who enters the ensemble of Team Dai-Gurren as an almost otherworldly creature of charming naiveté and spiritual purity and spends the rest of the series facing attacks on her humanity both symbolic (in the revelation of her origins as little more than a doll for her father) and literal (in her transformation into the Anti-Spiral Messenger, an empty vessel serving as the harbinger of humanity’s destruction). She is indeed treated as moe, but whether that’s a matter of fanservice and changing trends or simply a matter of Gurren Lagann approaching its audience differently than Evangelion does is arguable.

Get outside of Gainax properties and you can pick out some additional elements to the trope. One is that they are often deeply bound to some God-or-programmer-given purpose which they must learn to grow beyond in order to assert their own will: you can notice this with no problem in Persona 3’s Aigis and Gundam 00’s Tieria Erde (and Feldt Grace and Anew Returner nod to aspects of the archetype as well without matching it as completely). Another is that the character’s relation to others and general function within the narrative has a lot to do with how they embody the archetype. Persona 4 treats with it as well with Teddie, but his approach to humanity is more physically transformative (his emergence as a blond teenager with beautiful shoujo eyes waits until well into his character arc, before which he is a clownish stuffed bear) and he never develops the obsessive, adoring attachment to a typically human character that often drives part of the moe appeal here (by contrast, Mai-HiME’s robot girl Miyu Greer relies almost entirely on that part of the trope to drive her character, not really addressing the matter of her relationship to humanity as a whole until Mai-Otome). Fate/Extra presents us with Rani VIII, who plays this trope straight as far as I can tell, but Fate/Stay night and Fate/Zero fulfill most of the technical requirements with Illyasviel and Irisviel yet mostly go in very different directions with them. Most dramatically to my eyes, the 1977 manga To Terra… and its 2007 anime adaptation rely on a primary antagonist with artificial origins treated as significant to his character, an assigned purpose he must learn to grow beyond, and the combination of a function as a representation of humanity as a whole and a deeply conflicted relationship with his own humanity. But as the story unfolds he ultimately prefigures Rei Ayanami far less than he does Akito Sohma, and that is an entirely different box of shoujo villains (and one that carries some questions of gender roles with it as well; another time, I suppose).

I’m not saying that there are no problems with the fans acquired by such characters or that the marketing is never objectionable. I won’t even try to claim that there are no gender issues involved, because there definitely are, and a quick look over the characters I’ve been talking about and how they usually come off to viewers will only underscore that. But what’s casually denigrated as passivity and lack of personality often emerges, on a closer look, as something more closely related to potential.

What’s my point here? Only that I don’t actually think this sort of character is such a terrible thing at heart, nor the feelings they can inspire in viewers necessarily so contemptible. Dismissing them all because of the bad associations is overkill. Not that I’m unbiased. To be honest, when it’s done in just the right way, I’ll go moe moe for these girls (and suspiciously feminine men) more than for just about any other thing anime can throw at me.

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Puella Magi Madoka Magica, episode 1: a foretelling

Homura prophesizes

“You must absolutely never think about something like changing your current self. Otherwise, it will result in the loss of everything. You should just stay as the current Kaname Madoka. Stay as you have been, from now on.”

Of course, Homura’s proclamation is absurd and impossible, but even if I weren’t coming into this with altogether too much prior knowledge, it would be clear that she speaks with great conviction and from great feeling. I’m guessing that the goal of the rest of the story is to illustrate how Akemi Homura can say such a thing with such conviction and then prove, through the haze of copious suffering, why she is still wrong. Because of course she’s not wrong, from a thematic perspective. Change means losing what we were before we changed, and we’ve all been afraid of it, and doesn’t everyone these days know that Death of the Major Arcana actually represents change? But once you’ve acknowledged that, you have to figure out how to admit that on the other hand, we still need to change in the end anyway.

Context might help. I’ve made three prior attempts to watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica and each time foundered on the rocks of distraction after the second or third episode. It’s not you, Madoka, it’s me; I just can’t follow through. Anyway, I know nearly all the plot twists at this point and could probably give you a perfectly serviceable summary of the show if you asked. My friends loved this show while it was airing, my haunts in fandom discussed it to pieces after it finished, and sometimes that means spoilers are inevitable. But I still want to finish it myself. Teenage girls having intense, passionate, anguished, probably subtextually romantic interpersonal drama while fighting evil and confronting it within themselves? This is what I’m here for, and this time I don’t even have to put up with Tate Yuuichi and that creepy art teacher voiced by Miki Shinichirou to get it. What I’m counting on is that posting my declaration of war here on the Candy Blender will box me into finishing it this time, attention span be damned.

One episode down, eleven to go. There is a persistent thread in the dialogue, apparent from as early as ten minutes into the first episode, about personal transformation. What happens when a person becomes something else? What do they accomplish with the transition? What should a person do to begin such a change? Is such a transformation desirable? What kinds of changes and becomings are desirable, if any? These shifts are discussed more as if they were metamorphoses than as if they were casual alterations over the course of life.

Urobuchi Gen is not specifically a moe creator in the vein of Key, nor has he shown a predilection for magical girls before as far as I know. So the fact that the story is being told through the vehicle of a magical girl show done in a moe style probably has implications for his intentions here. My guess is that it has to do with the theme of transformation in magical girl shows, and that the moe element has to do with the style’s aim of eliciting visceral, yearning emotion from viewers. Well, that and pulling in an audience, let’s be real here. I’m also not sure if I’ll buy into the belief I’ve seen voiced that Madoka Magica deconstructed the magical girl genre out of contempt for its ideals and desire to tear them down and expose them as fraudulent. In any case, shoujo got there before seinen did; CLAMP gave us a story of magical girls whose beautiful transformations and heroic battles came to an end far more bitter and bleak than they expected in 1994, and I doubt they were the first.

The first episode ends shortly after the loving swell of triumph and glory that accompanies Mami’s display of her transformation sequence, with the delightful little mascot Kyubey offering Sayaka and Madoka the chance to fulfill a wish. This is the good kind of change, right? Why, Homura must be a heartless villain for objecting to such things. Well, I’m not worried. I know how these stories work, and I’m sure that as events unfold Madoka will use her newfound magical powers to reach out to Homura, heal her desolate and tormented soul, and finally join forces with her against whatever evil that charming cat-creature with the floppy ears is recruiting them to fight. I’ll let you all know how satisfied I am with the way that goes down when it’s over. See you after episode twelve winds down and I’ve had my fill of happy endings!

What a charmer


the semiotics of song in space

Sheryl, finale

I once saw a criticism leveled at Macross Frontier, as an installment in the Macross franchise, that opened up some interesting avenues of thought.

The charge was that while in the original Super Dimensional Fortress Macross series, song was the key to the heroes’ success because it introduced the concept of culture to a society that had never encountered it before, whereas in Macross Frontier, song was the key to the heroes’ success because the singers had an infection that gave their voices superpowers they could use to affect the aliens. In other words, in SDF Macross, the military use of song as part of the plot formed a coherent metaphor, but in Macross Frontier, it was a meaningless plot device used only because, well, that’s what you do in Macross, right? You have an idol sing to beat the aliens! Thus it went from signal to noise, from meaning to moe.
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“I think it’s time we blow this scene. Get everybody and the stuff together.”

I haven’t watched Cowboy Bebop in years, though, or ever finished it. Sorry to disappoint.

I’m called Annwyd and I’m going to write about anime here. Primarily anime. Some Japanese games, too (and a few North American or European games influenced by Japanese ones), and now and then some manga.

There are links up top that will tell you what I’ve already watched and what I intend to (and what I’ve read/intend to read, and what I’ve played/intend to play). You can use them if you want.

I don’t have any academic background in this, and I don’t have the greatest attention span in the world, which means that you’re not really going to find any serious expertise and rigorous research here. But I think I can come up with interesting insights now and again.

So I’d like to talk about the way we engage with anime (and associated media) as fans, and how we find meaning in them. My interests include mecha anime and space opera in general, the history of gender and depictions of it in anime and manga, relationship dynamics, and melodrama. I’ll write things about those. Some of them will be reviews of specific works, and some of them will be odder musings. All of them will be kind of pretentious. Enjoy the ride.

Disclaimer: I don’t think Gundam SEED was very good, but I enjoyed it anyway. It helps that I didn’t watch Destiny.

You probably shouldn’t say bad things about Nia Teppelin or Sheryl Nome around here.