Video Game Review: Wonderful 101

Japanese games used to dominate the western market. There was a time when Nintendo, Sega, and later Sony were the only names in mainstream games. As the PS2 and Xbox era matured Western games quickly overshadowed their Eastern counterparts and since then they have not been able to impact the market like they had in the past. In ways, Wonderful 101 is a beautiful reminder of why Japanese games are fantastic and at the same time why they will probably never have the impact in the west that they used too.

 

Wonderful 101 has its roots in a Super Sentai style aesthetic and narrative. A group of normal citizens transform into powerful Super Heroes called the Wonderful 100. Each individual hero has their special powers and weapons but when they come together and unite their powers multiply and lead to more powerful and effective attacks. The game starts you off with “Unite Hand” and “unite sword” but as the game goes on they add whip, hammer, bomb, boomerang, and more. Specific abilities are required throughout the game to defeat monsters and solve puzzles.

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The Problem with Fandom: Cultural Echo Chamber

Culture is a word I haven’t used much when talking about media, which is odd because no better word exists when discussing art and entertainment. We are all consumers of culture. We all give back to culture. Culture is defined by what people choose to consume and what they choose to ignore. It is used to define groups of people who consume a certain type of media that detracts from the mainstream: sub-culture. These are cultures that exist inside the larger cultural body. They are in ways isolated from normal culture but what they consume and create also gives back to the main culture as a whole.

Members of subcultures become blind to the fact that they are part of a subculture. There are a couple of key factors that lead into this kind of thinking. The chief among them is they start spending so much time and energy living in the subculture that they start to believe that everyone else thinks like they do. This happens, especially in the age of the internet, because the deeper they dive into the subculture the more they find and interact with people who think the way they do. This cements them into the subculture, gives them a feeling that they belong, and establishes a world view based around the subculture. Giving people a sense of community is great! But what this breeds is group think; the community becomes an echo chamber because the members of the community are surrounded by the people most likely to agree with them.

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Con-vergence reflection: The Internet Generation

I had the pleasure of sitting in on Charles Dunbar’s Con-vergence panel at Otakon Vegas, in which Charles addresses the issues around why other fandoms seem to be taking over anime conventions. Charles’ conclusion is that anime conventions are more welcoming places, that the anime fandom is just more accepting of other fandoms. Then there is the more bleak side of things, the theory that anime fandom is just a secondary or lesser fandom than some of the more prevalent media represented.

The chief cause of the weakening presence of anime at anime conventions is that anime is a medium, not a genre or a single show. So where a group of ten thousand people may not have that many shows in common, three thousand of them have all seen Doctor Who and the other seven thousand has seen the Marvel film adaptations. So the Iron Man cosplayer is going to have more positive attention than the Lupin cosplayer sitting in the corner. Anime is a unique beast in this respect. Single media conventions, like a Star Trek convention, assume that all attendees share at least a common cannon. Even the old school science fiction conventions were dominated by the mass media properties like Star Trek, Battlestar, and the like. With anime there can be almost zero connection between the forty year old fans drinking in a bar discussing the tape trading days and the fourteen year old girls running around in Hatialia cosplay.

The element that made anime so appealing was that it was an entire world of media waiting to be explored, but that allows individual fans to go off into a million directions. This issue can be visibly seen at conventions. There are people who go to the conventions just to cosplay, play dress up and hang out with their friends. There are people at the same event who want to seek out academic programing in order to learn more about the medium they’ve come to celebrate. The latter is a much larger and younger group, one that may never make the transition to going to panels about anime. So if their friends shift over to dressing up as a non-anime fandom that is where most of the group will go. Anime fandom on the Internet is similar. I can write my essays all I want but the mass of people looking at screen caps and writing fan fiction isn’t going to care.

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Top 5 Anime of 2013

This was a difficult year to nail down a top five list because I’ve been watching less anime, but the anime I have watched has all been excellent. Years where I watched a ton of shows allowed the gems to really stand out, but it is much harder to pick out gems among gems.

I wonder why 2013 was a year I watched only a handful of good shows. Am I becoming a better judge or more careful of what media I consume? Was the gap between excellent show and bad show wider this year with no middle of the road shows to buffer the extremes?

Whatever the reason: We got a lot of good anime this year. Here are five you should definitely check out.

5. Attack on Titan

Attack on Titan has the potential to be one of the biggest anime in a long time, mainly because it constantly remains interesting. Every few episodes it tosses in a twist that reinvents the entire show; twists that lesser shows would run with for season long arcs.

It’s exciting, has good characters, a solid premise, and a great pace that makes me want more almost constantly. More importantly: The anime greatly improves on the art of the Manga.

We still have a long way to go before the end but Attack on Titan is a solid first part of the story and I can’t wait for the next season.

4. Watamote

Billed as a comedy, Watamote is more of an extreme character study of a person with severe social anxiety. We follow Tomoko as she attempts to live a normal high school life but constantly fails and falls deeper and deeper into her shell.

There are some moments of dark comedy in the show but, frankly, anyone who would laugh at most of the show is cruel. It turns into a depressing look at the life of a person who just doesn’t know how to relate to other humans. We’re locked inside Tomoko’s head and forced to go along with her as she deals with and sometimes justifies her isolation.

There is a deeper connection the show makes with anyone who has suffered from social anxiety. Few people in the world are as bad as Tomoko but with her problems being so numerous it serves to cast a wide net and allows for the maximum percent of the audience to relate to at least parts of her problems. I loved the show as a way to dive into these issues but be warned, the second half of the series becomes extremely uncomfortable to sit through.

3. From the New World

Taking place in a post-apoctolyptic world where a much smaller human population has learned to live with psychic powers, From the New World is a compelling narrative that keeps the audience guessing. It features weak characterization, which kept it from claiming the top two spots on the list, but the moral questions the show deals with forces the audience to constantly struggle with that they would do in the character’s situation.

As the narrative develops the characters, who we follow from childhood, they slowly learn how their society works and things that seem horrifying become an understood part of their society as they grow older. This structure makes From the New World into a twenty-five episode long course in relative morality.

It’s an accomplishment that will haunt the audience long after the credits roll on the finale.

2. The Eccentric Family

The first episode of Eccentric Family almost turned me off from the entire show. It features a very slow, expository narrative style that establishes the key characters and setting of the show. After that first episode we’re trust into the world of Eccentric Family where we get to live with the characters and watch them deal with their everyday conflicts. The show tackles issues from the necessity of keeping up appearances to the feeling of living on after a family member has passed.

The Eccentric Family is a triumph because of how much fun spending time with the characters ends up being. I could watch these characters do anything. Combine that with a simple mixture of mystery, conflict bxcetween rival families, Japanese mythology, and an exploration of personal life philosophy and Eccentric Family is an obsolete joy that also deals with some serious life issues.

1. Chihayafuru 2

So maybe I’m cheating a little bit. Maybe I just want more people to watch Chihayafuru. Well, more people should watch Chihayafuru. Season 2 picks up where the first one ended and features more detail on the characters experience going through a Karuta tournament series.

While I think this second season is less of the perfect blend of popular anime tropes that the original exceled at, it digs deep into the core themes it wishes to explore. Chiefly: the difference between individual accomplishment and ability against working in a team. Though this theme we get to see the talents of all our favorite characters explored in depth, we get into the heads of the untouchable Karuta champions, and we see our heroine strive to reach the peak of her ability in two very different competitions.

Chihayafuru 2 is half just more of what was so good about the first season and half going so much deeper into all of the characters while they are in some of the most stressful and intense moments of their lives. Everyone should watch Chihayafuru, if not for the characters or the strange thrill of a Karuta match than just to explore this odd bit of Japanese culture not often touched upon outside of Japan.

Convention Report: Otakon Vegas 2014

 

The Otakon name has a certain amount of weight associated with it. The name conjures images of a crowded Baltimore bristling with teenagers in cosplay trying to survive an oppressive heat. It brings to mind long lines, crowded hallways, and the biggest celebration of Japanese culture anyone could imagine.

So when I walked into Otakon Vegas on the first day and saw a handful of people milling around the expansive hallways of Planet Hollywood’s convention center my first reaction was doom. No one knew how well the new Vegas counterpart was going to do in its first year but the Otakon name carries with it some weight that, apparently, means nothing on the west coast and did nothing to boost the numbers of what turned out to be a decent first year convention showing.

Maybe I was expecting too much. What Otakon Vegas always was is a way for Otacorp to expand and spend some of its profits to fulfill its mission statement. Being a non-profit company, Otacorp needs to get rid of its excess cash and it decided to do that the only way it knows how: throwing a convention. Otakon Vegas may just be the greatest excuse for a weekend in Sin City ever conceived.

While small, the programing was absolutely of the quality fans come to expect from Otakon. Otacorp took the time to bring in quality panelists like Mike Toole and Charles Dunbar to spearhead their new convention. Their effects felt like it may have been in vain because while all their panels were excellent, the panel rooms were at best only half full. The panel rooms were far bigger than required for a convention of Otakon Vegas’ size, but I’m used to Mike Toole panels at Anime Boston and Otakon being filled to capacity. Walking in and seeing fifty people in the room felt like a failure.

The highlight of the convention was the main events. The American Sumo event was engaging and entertaining. I learned a ton about Sumo while watching two of the best wrestlers in the world grapple and, more important, gained a newfound respect for the sport. I came out of the room feeling exhilarated. It was definitely one of the best events I’ve witnessed at an anime convention, the best non-anime event at least. The Space Dandy world premiere was also a ton of fun, but that was due to how excellent that first episode turned out to be rather than anything the convention did. Witnessing the world premiere of an anime that is most likely going to go on to massive success will mostly pay off in the future.

The biggest barrier to the growth of Otakon Vegas is going to be Las Vegas itself. Otakon’s standard audience back on the East Coast isn’t going to be able to afford the expensive plan flight out to Vegas every year, so Otacorp is going to have to rely on local attendees to start spreading the word. Of course, even without the flight Vegas is an expensive city. Hotel rooms can be had for under $50 if you know where to look but the city is a carefully designed trap to separate people from their cash. The average convention attendee being a poor fifteen-year old doesn’t bode well for the future of any anime event in Las Vegas. Food in the area is extremely expensive unless you want to keep going to the McDonald’s in the mall or the Subway down the street. The 24 hour buffet meal pass turned out to be a deal and I got four meals out of the $37 I paid for it. The buffet at Planet Hollywood is normally $20 a person, and the meal pass Otakon Vegas offered for $37 is normally $75. Vegas buffets are famous for a reason and the price was well worth it for the amount and quality of the food. The downside of the buffets is that you have to wait in line every visit and during peak traffic that could take almost an hour.

It is definitely a good excuse to go to Las Vegas, if you were planning a trip already, and it will keep you away from the casinos for a couple of hours. Where Otakon Vegas does have a future is in marketing to parents. What the convention can become is a safe and cheap space within Sin City where parents can leave their children with their friends while they go out and gamble. If the convention is able to push that message I see the convention having a bright future. If they fail to deliver that message than Otakon Vegas will always be a small con disguised as a tactic to give Otacorp staff a free vacation while spending money they legally have to spend.

Anti-Conformity in Kill la Kill

Conformity in anime is a common theme because the nature of the Japanese relationships to family and a structured class system. Even in the most mundane slice of life show having characters refer to elders with a special title creates a ridged class structure that the characters obey. There are some anime that tries to challenge some of the expectations of this class structure. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya challenges many normal anime tropes and structures included that social structure. Haruhi moves in and dominates her shy upperclassmen Mikuru. We rarely see a break in this kind of social structure.

Kill la Kill looks at all forms of conformity common to Japanese animation and gives them a giant middle finger. Our protagonist, Ryuko Matoi, walks into high school on her first day and makes a direct challenge to the social and political structures set in place.

This is first illustrated by her uniform, which she acquires shortly into the first episode and becomes her weapon against the school. The uniforms in Kill la Kill have become a status symbol. Students who are high ranking are giving uniforms that grant them special privileges and powers. Students who have no ranking get a standard bland uniform. Ryuko walking into the school wearing a nonstandard uniform serves as a symbol for her challenge to the authority established at the school. By not wearing a uniform she is rejecting the ranking system the student council has put in place and exists outside the social order. 

This theme matures during the battle between Ryuko and Gamagoori, in which Gamagoori discusses why Ryuko is a threat to the school and it’s current set up. When he becomes fed up with her during the battle he declares that he will, “end her independence and mold her into a model student.” Followed by calling her a slut for the appearance of her uniform during transformation. Gamagoori believes the act of modifying the uniform in any way a threat to the order to the school, a sign of independence and a mark of depravity that shouldn’t be tolerated. If Ryuko shows more skin than the chosen uniform than she is a sexual deviant and must be dealt with.

This also brings sexual standards into the importance of the uniform. A girl cannot be more or less “scandalously” dressed than the rest of her class if everyone is forced to wear the same uniform. Ryuko’s revealing transformation sets her apart sexually from the rest of the school as well. To the end, Ryuko is the only girl that anyone shows any sexual attraction to during the show. By the 9th episode the other female characters in the show are comic relief, Mako, or the fearsome antagonist, Satsuki Kiryuin.

The club system in Kill la Kill also serves to aid in its anti-conformist themes. Again, in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya the titular character is tired with a normal life and wants to live more interesting than the average high school girl but she still works within the rules of her school in order to create a club. She still feels like using the structure of the club system is required before she can successfully start her journey. That is the start of a great many high school anime. The characters want to start a club for whatever reason and they proceed to work within the school-designated rules of picking a topic, getting enough students, finding a teacher sponsor, ect.

Kill la Kill’s club system is an extreme version and the very core of the shows criticism towards conformity. The club structure is really how students become ranked in the school. Students gain rank if they are members of clubs, presidents of clubs, and if their club successfully brings glory to the school. By working within this system, students not only gain rank in the school but those benefits leak out into their personal lives. Students in high-ranking clubs get elevated into a higher class and their families are allowed to move out of the slums into a more gentrified area of the city.

In episode 7 Mako, Ryuko’s only friend in this world and whose family has allowed her to live with them, becomes the president of the “fight club”, a club the two made up to take advantage of the system. Because Ryuko kept winning battles the club’s purpose was extremely successful and Mako’s family moved up from the slums into the richest part of the city. At the end, Mako is forced to fight Ryuko to keep her status and Mako’s once loving family cheers for Ryuko’s head.

Living within the social structure has had nothing but benefit for Mako and once her position is secured, she must destroy the threat to her comfortable life. Anything that threatens the social order must be destroyed.

The metaphor presented is so universal that Ryuko’s challenge to the student council can be swapped in with nearly any like conflict. The anime, I believe, is specifically tackling the monoculture of corporate business. But the student council’s reaction to Ryuko’s challenge reminds me of media companies’ rejection of digital technology and online distribution in the early 2000s. The status quo becomes the source of success and comfort, and any challenge to it must be squashed.

There is a fear that runs through the antagonists of Kill la Kill. They don’t want things to change; they don’t want their absolute rule to be overturned. They have developed a society in which one person controls the wellbeing of everyone under her. The scariest thing they can imagine is a person working against the system they put into place. Then Ryuko Matoi arrives and everything they built starts to crumble around them. In the battle of individuality versus monoculture, the individual almost always stands victorious.

Review: Silver Spoon

Fish out of water stories are fairly easy to construct. You take a person and drop them into an unfamiliar situation and then each episode going forward features this character exploring the world they previously knew nothing about. It automatically accomplishes two tasks: giving the audience a compelling world to explore and a character to grow while exploring them. Silver Spoon follows this formula to the letter, and that might be its greatest strength.

The story follows Yugo Hachiken an overachiever at academics but a dispute with his parents convinced him to move to a boarding school as far away as possible. He is accepted to Oezo Agricultural High School where he is surrounded by the children of farmers who already are adept at most of the lessons. At Oezo, normal academics take a backseat to learning how to tend livestock, harvest crops, and all manner of the menial labor of farm life. Hachiken is forced to adopt to his new lifestyle and learn the skills of working on a farm in order to pass High School.

Hachiken’s adjustment to the life on the farm is where most of the drama is focused. The show goes over the standard facets of farm life and how Hachiken is completely unprepared, while his classmates handle most of the tasks with ease and precision. The audience watches as Hachiken becomes accustomed to everything from waking up early to learning how to clean and care for the animals.

The heart of the show lies in Hachiken becoming estranged from his parents, which is only talked about briefly during the show. Hachiken ran away from his previous life where he shut out everything except for academic advancement and in the process completely lost sight of himself. Arriving at Oezo he learns quickly that his classmates all have clear paths in their life and he feels like he doesn’t know where he is going. What his parents demanded of him was pure academic achievement but he had no goal in mind, no idea why he was striving for academic perfection other than to please his parents. While most of his classmates goals are that they will take over the family farm he envies them for having some direction while he floats around aimless.

However, the show is clear that this aimlessness isn’t fruitless. Hachiken accomplishes some amazing advancements in his own personal skills and in bringing people together at Oezo. Hackiken’s classmates, whom Hachiken is jealous of, become envious of his ability to unite people and succeed at his short-term goals. While they know where their lives are going to take them after High School that actually limits them from trying new things. Hachiken has no limitations and so he makes an effort to go around just trying as many of the skills Oezo has to teach. In doing so Hachiken’s aimlessness forms him into a well rounded person. 

 The chef among those skills Hachiken tries is raising a pig. Early in the show he falls in love with a small piglet and takes care of it throughout. The way Hachiken comes face to face with the slaughter and preparation of animals also works to change him. His first few days on the farm he is disgusted at where an egg comes from but as the show goes on and he learns more about the process of preparing meat and the farmers relationship with animals, he gains a respect for the entire process. If Hachiken had never come to the country he would have continued to enjoy meat in blissful ignorance for the rest of his life, but now he carries with him a new respect for where his food comes from, and that completely changes the way he approaches food.

Silver Spoon ended abruptly and with a lot of questions unanswered. The final scenes of the anime were bittersweet because they hinted at things that were to come such as Hachiken’s budding romance and him finally confronting his parents, among a lot more stories still untold. Luckily, a second season has already been announced so Silver Spoon is ultimately an unfinished piece, there is more coming and hope that these loose ends will be tied up with the expertise that they were opened.

Grade: B