Posted in anime

In defense of slow pacing: Why Vinland Saga is the best anime of 2019

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Vinland Saga is a historical epic unlike anything I’ve seen in anime. Taking place a thousand years ago in Danish-occupied England, the story follows the young Thorfinn’s quest to avenge his father, by challenging his killer Askeladd to a duel to the death. The anime has a wonderful cast of characters, gripping action and drama, and an astonishing attention to detail and historical accuracy. It tackles heavy themes of war, politics, religion, and the nature of revenge and justice, with breathtaking art, music, and animation from Attack on Titan’s Studio Wit. It is my favorite anime to come out this year, and not enough people have been talking about it.

The long-running seinen series has gotten rave reviews, but it still pales in popularity to the shonen and isekai series that have dominated the landscape these past few seasons. That may be because of a lack of mainstream appeal, or because it’s only streaming on the notoriously buggy Amazon Prime video service. (I had to restart my TV like 5 times before I could even watch the damn thing!) But another issue may be the pacing. Vinland is the textbook definition of a slow burn. Hell, the manga devotes over fifty chapters to just the prologue! While this slow, methodical pacing could be a turnoff for viewers, I’d argue that Vinland Saga’s pacing is actually one of its greatest strengths. A slow paced narrative, in the right hands, can make a story much more deep, thoughtful and compelling than a fast paced one, provided you are willing to put in the time to let the story work its magic. 

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Thorfinn and Askeladd

For those who don’t know, pacing is the speed at which at story is told and information is conveyed to the viewer. This can refer to the pacing of an individual scene or action, or to the story as a whole. Writers can use a variety of techniques to control the pacing of their narrative: short scenes, action, and dialogue speed up the pacing, while exposition, narration and introspection slow it down. But pacing is also influenced by genre and audience expectations: generally, action and comedy moves at a faster pace than drama or mystery. Pacing is notoriously difficult to get right in fiction, as too fast of a pace can confuse your audience as to what is actually happening, while too slow of a pace can cause them to lose interest.

And while slow pacing can often derail a series, Vinland Saga‘s slow burn helps the story becomes more complex, multi-faceted, and engaging. One of the hurdles of writing historical fiction is that you not only need to tell a compelling story, but have to make a time, place, and society completely different from our own seem understandable and relatable to modern audiences. We need to feel completely immersed in the world of the Vikings – to understand their culture, politics, religion, and way of life, and how that shaped their actions and created a civilization that changed the world.

To do this, Vinland takes its time setting up at the beginning, letting its viewers take in the Viking world piece by piece, while also becoming familiar with the main cast and their motivations. By showing us Thorfinn’s life as a child with his father Thors, we become attached to these characters early on and get more invested in Thorfinn’s struggle to avenge his father’s death. We also see how Thors’ pacifist values clash with the warmongering Viking society, and how Thorfinn’s biggest tragedy is that he rejects this pacifism to go on a self-destructive revenge quest. Without these early episodes fleshing out the world and characters, the audience could be overwhelmed jumping straight into the complex plot of revenge and betrayal, and not feel the same level of investment in the story and characters as they would otherwise.

Even though I knew he was going to die, watching Thors’ death was devastating after four episodes of buildup.

Pacing can also be used to establish motivation, backstory, and a character’s development over time, and a slower-paced story can use these characteristics for the largest impact. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Prince Canute, who transforms over the course of the series from a shy, timid nobleman to a badass military commander ready to take his father’s place as king. (This next part will contain spoilers for up to Episode 19, so watch the series and then come back if you haven’t already!)

When we first meet Canute in the series, his impact on the story is much more passive than active. He seems to be suffering from intense social anxiety, to the extent that he only speaks to his retainer, Ragnar. The other Vikings mock him for his effeminate appearance, and mostly see him as a pawn to manipulate his father, the King of Denmark. It isn’t until we learn more about Canute, his backstory, and his growth as a person that we discover who this mysterious prince truly is.

Canute and Ragnar

Canute was the second-born child of the king, and his father regarded him as nothing more than an obstacle to the older brother’s claim to the throne. He was sent out to the battlefield hopelessly outmatched and expected to die so that the king didn’t have to dirty his hands with a political assassination. This left the young prince as a broken human being with no sense of self-worth. The one person he could turn to for support was Ragnar, but then he is killed by Askeladd in an attempt to break the prince out of his shell. In his grief, Canute slowly gains self-confidence, and realizes his true goal is to get revenge on his father and take his place as king. This all culminates in Episode 19, where he rallies two rival Viking factions together and turn them against the king, kicking off a coup-d’etat that turns the narrative on its head and is absolutely thrilling to watch.

What makes this development land is that it is set up for almost ten episodes, all of which demonstrate Canute’s emotional growth and maturity. If he was merely introduced as a shy kid and became a commander one episode later, the twist would have no impact. We wouldn’t be given enough time to understand his character and so the change would feel like it came out of nowhere. But because he has plenty of time to grow and interact with the other characters, we get a much deeper insight into the prince’s personality and hidden strength. The biggest thrill is that this is still just the beginning – there is so much more of Canute, Thorfinn, Askeladd and the rest that we still have yet to see, and this story can reach all new heights with successive seasons.

I sometimes worry that our community is growing too impatient as anime fans, and missing out on slower-paced series that could have more of an impact with time. Hell, I’ve heard newer fans tune out classics like Cowboy Bebop or Evangelion because they find them to be too slow and boring. But maybe in our fast-paced media culture, driven by social media and the rush of instant gratification, we need some slower-paced epics like Vinland to remind us to sit back, relax, and enjoy the wonders of life in reality and in fiction. Maybe Vinland Saga doesn’t quite fit the mold of what makes a successful anime series in 2019, but for me, it is absolutely my favorite anime to come out this year.

This post was a bit different than some of my anime-related entries I’ve written, as I really wanted to dive into this one specific aspect of storytelling that I feel often gets overlooked or misunderstood. So if you made it to the end, I’d love to hear your feedback. What do you think about pacing in anime (or fiction in general)? Do you prefer slow-paced stories or fast-paced ones? What anime, in your opinion, does a great job controlling its pacing? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Posted in anime

My favorite first episodes in anime

The opening to a story is probably one of the most difficult things to write in any medium. In just a few pages or a few minutes of screen time, the writer has to establish characters, setting, tone, genre, a central conflict, motivation, and a strong hook – all without overwhelming the viewer with information or dragging things out and causing the audience to lose interest. And there are so many different ways to start a narrative, it can seem impossible to know which one is right for the story you’re trying to tell.

But when done right, the opening to a story can be iconic and unforgettable. Any Star Wars fan can remember the first moment they watched A New Hope and were awestruck at the epic struggle of the Rebellion versus the Empire. But my biggest nerd passion is anime, so I wanted to talk about some of my favorite first episodes in anime, and how they do a brilliant job establishing all the most important parts of the story while also being a ton of fun to watch. There are no real spoilers here, except for what happens at the first episode, but if you want to go into these series completely blind then you may want to at least watch the first episode and then come back. Anyway, without further introduction, my favorite first episodes in anime are…

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Angel Attack

Yes, I’ve already written about Evangelion, and this won’t be the last time I gush about my favorite anime series. While most people remember Eva for its climactic last few episodes and the existential mind screw of an ending, I think the action-packed first episode does a brilliant job at introducing the audience to the story through some classic character moments, blood-pumping action, and a ton of suspense and intrigue.

The episode begins in medias res, with just a few establishing shots of Tokyo-3 before the Eldritch horror known as the Angel attacks and lays waste to the city. Almost all of the important characters are introduced in this first episode – our young hero Shinji, his caretaker Misato, his cold-hearted father Gendo, and the mysterious Rei – and their scenes tell us a lot about their characters with just a few establishing shots and lines of dialogue. Shinji has been chosen to pilot the Evangelion, a giant robot said to have the power of a god – but he initially refuses, and only agrees to pilot it when Gendo threatens to force the injured Rei to do it instead.

Just in this one interaction, we learn a lot about these characters and their personalities. Shinji is shy and unsure of himself (setting himself apart from most anime protagonists), Gendo is aloof and has a strained relationship with his son, and Rei… well, we don’t really know much about Rei yet, but her willingness to pilot the Eva in her injured state shows us her determination to carry out her mission, as well as her seeming lack of regard for her own life. But as much as we learn from this episode, we also get more questions than answers. Who are the Angels, and where do they come from? What is an Eva, really? Why is Shinji, a 14-year-old boy, the only one who can pilot it? By starting off with an action episode and giving very little exposition at first, the show draws in the viewer and makes them hungry to find out more of the story. It’s a fantastic episode that does everything right and practically begs its audience to keep watching.

A Place Further Than The Universe – One Mwillion Yen For Youth

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Not every series needs to start with an action-packed first episode. Sometimes, all you need for a great hook is to forge a bond between two memorable and well-written characters. A Place Further Than The Universe, the heartwarming adventure anime that made everyone cry last year, does this brilliantly, establishing two of its main characters straight away and showing the themes of discovery, overcoming self-doubt, and the joys and sorrows of female friendship.

Kimari is a bright, fun-loving, and slightly ditzy high schooler with dreams of going on a big adventure but no plan or means to make something like that happen. One day, she meets Shirase, a slightly older girl whose sole motivation in life is to go to Antartica to find any trace of her vanished mother. Initially, the two seem like they won’t get along, but Kimari gets so swept up in Shirase’s seemingly impossible dream that she agrees to go with her, and help out in any way she can.

Right away, this anime shows us what its story is about, while also foreshadowing many conflicts that may arise later. Kimari and Shirase are great characters, but they’ve only just met and haven’t yet formed a real relationship. And there’s a lot of time spent on the practical issues of a group of teenagers going to the most inhospitable place on Earth. Shirase can’t find any expedition willing to let high schoolers on board with them, and has basically given up her social life so she could work and save enough money for the trip. Most importantly, though, A Place Further‘s first episode brings all the joy, wonder, and fear that can come from exploring new places, as well as making the viewer instantly attached to the characters and showcasing the feels that will hit you like a truck later. With just thirteen episodes in its run time, this anime has to make every moment matter, and its first episode delivers brilliantly.

Yu Yu Hakusho: Surprised to be Dead

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I adore Yoshihiro Togashi as a writer. I wrote a whole post nerding out about my love for Hunter x Hunter, but I think his other classic series Yu Yu Hakusho does the better job of starting the series off with a strong emotional hook. And you really can’t get a stronger emotional hook to kick off a story then, well, killing off the main character in the very first moment, and forcing the viewer to work backward from there.

Yusuke Urameshi is a teenage delinquent with a cynical outlook on life. He seems to cause nothing but trouble for his mother, his teachers, and his childhood friend Keiko, and he’s constantly fighting with the school bully Kuwabara. But the first thing we see of him is an act of selfless heroism: he pushes a child out of the way of an oncoming car, getting hit and losing his life in the process. When he meets a weirdly cute spirit guide who offers him a chance to be revived (because, apparently, the afterlife is like a hotel and there are no more vacancies), he refuses, believing that he would prefer being dead and that everyone else is better off without him.

That is, until he gets the chance to see his own wake, and sees his mother, his friend, and even Kuwabara breaking down, seemingly unable to continue on in life without him. Yusuke realizes how important he truly is to all these people, and how much he had taken them for granted, and decides he wants to return to his physical body after all. This creative and emotional setup gives the viewer a strong attachment to these characters right away, but shows how precious and meaningful life truly is. It gets me every time.

Attack on Titan – To You, 2,000 Years In The Future

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Hot take: I think Attack on Titan is massively overrated. The pacing can be glacially slow at times, the main character is flat and uninteresting, and the series’ over-reliance on shock value can make its most climactic moments hard to take seriously. (And while I do believe in separating art from the artist, I definitely don’t agree with author Hajime Iyasama’s political views.) All that being said, though, the first episode to Attack on Titan is fantastic, brilliantly mixing action, horror, and drama to kick off an epic, long-running saga.

The episode gives us a ton of world-building to sink our teeth into straight away. The setting of Attack On Titan seems loosely based on Europe in the early Renaissance, with a heavy dose of steampunk technology to spice things up a bit. We learn that all of humanity is stuck behind humongous walls, meant to keep them safe from the monstrous Titans that wiped out the rest of our species 100 years earlier. The three main characters, Eren, Armin, and Mikasa, seem like ordinary kids at first. But their lives are changed forever when a colossal Titan emerges right in front of them, smashing the wall to bits and sending a flood of creepy, giant naked people in to wreak havoc on civilization. The emotional gut punch of the series comes when Eren’s mother gets trapped under a mound of debris and begs her son to run away, just before she gets eaten by a Titan.

This episode boasts some spectacular animation and cinematography, an intriguing premise, and one of the most memorable “Oh shit!” moments in all of anime. It clearly establishes Eren’s central goal – to avenge his mother and wipe out all the Titans – while also showing the immense struggles he must endure to make that goal a reality. Even though I don’t think Attack on Titan lived up to its potential in later episodes, I will readily admit that this first one is one of my favorite openings in any anime series.

The first episode of an anime series leaves a huge impression on its audience, and it can often make or break a series’ success in the long term. These are just a few of my favorite introductions to anime, and if you enjoyed reading this blog post I would love to hear what your favorites are and why. 🙂

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Loneliness, family and being LGBTQ+ during the holidays

Well, it’s mid-November, and that means the holiday season is upon us. It seems like the holidays start earlier every year. Some stores started putting up decorations and playing Christmas music even before Halloween ended. And while I’m happy for the people who love the holidays, who enjoy going home to see family every year and have their hearts filled with warmth and cheer every time they hear sleigh bells or Nat King Cole’s effortless croon… to be honest, these past few years I’ve found the holidays to be exhausting, lonely, and just a drag overall.

To be fair, this not going to be a hate post where I just crap on Christmas for being too commercialized and manipulating people’s sense of nostalgia and belonging for profit. I could write that kind of post, but I don’t really want to, because for most of my life I loved Christmas. Some of my favorite childhood memories were going to my grandparents’ house, enjoying a hearty home-cooked meal with loved ones, and opening presents first thing in the morning as Christmas carols hummed quietly on their antique radio. I genuinely appreciate the spirit of the holidays – that feeling of coming together, giving gifts to people you care about, and appreciating what you have in life. It’s a beautiful thing, and we need more of it in this day and age.

But I’m queer, and that complicates things. My family doesn’t accept me. When I came out as transgender back in 2015, they told me that I shouldn’t come over for Thanksgiving and Christmas anymore. Apparently, me being there would make my grandmother cry and my uncle fly into an uncontrollable rage. I had known these people my entire life, and all of a sudden they didn’t want anything to do with me unless I continued to present as male. So I was faced with an incredibly unfair choice: pretend to be someone I’m not and hope that maybe my family will treat me as an actual human being again, or stick to my guns and lose my family in the process. I chose the latter.

It hasn’t been all bad for me, though. My mother and my cousins (who are closer to my age) still accept me, and I’ve been able to spend some holidays with them or with some of my similarly estranged LGBTQ friends. Traveling is easier, and there are a lot fewer exhausting political arguments at the dinner table. But still, when all my friends end up going home for the holidays to see their families, or when I see all those commercials and holiday specials about people having the time of their life with their loved ones, it makes me feel lonely, because I will never get to experience that with my own family ever again.

This is doubly complicated for me, though, because my grandfather died on New Years Day, 2014. He was admitted to the hospital on December 26th due to a heart attack, and barely survived into the new year before passing at the ripe old age of 88. My feelings about my grandfather are… complicated, and probably warrant another blog post entirely, but it sucks to have a day where everybody is supposed to be happy and celebrating be a reminder of one of the most tragic events in my life. Most of the time I don’t even go out for New Years anymore.

Even with all of this, the holidays can be stressful and depressing regardless of your sexual orientation and gender identity. Shopping for gifts is expensive, time-consuming, and a perfect recipe for social overload. As an atheist, the forced religiosity is stifling. Seemingly every store and coffee shop in America switches on a playlist of the same 10 songs repeated for 2 months straight, and let’s be honest, most of those songs are terrible. If you work in retail, your life is an absolute nightmare for 2 months, minimum. Oh, and if you complain about any of this, even a little bit, people call you a Grinch.

I hate being this down on the holidays, which many people associate with love, peace, and happiness. But between struggles with family, financial issues, and being bombarded with unrealistically saccharine images of what holidays are supposed to be like, I find this season to be incredibly depressing. I’m not sure what the solution to this is – I’ve tried to practice self-care and spend time with friends and chosen family, but it’s hard not to be overwhelmed when everything in our society is telling you to be happy this time of year and you just feel miserable.

Can’t they at least wait until December to start all of this shit?

Posted in anime

A 10-Year Retrospective of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

I know this isn’t exactly a shocker, but the world’s gone a bit crazy in these past couple years. And in tumultuous times like these, I feel I need to disconnect a bit revisit the movies, books, games, and music that helped me get through hard times in the past. There are many of these that have personal significance to me – Evangelion, Final Fantasy VII, the Lord of the Rings books and movies, the classic albums of Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen – but the one that has been on my mind the most recently is one of my favorite stories ever: the Shonen action-fantasy anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

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I’ve loved Fullmetal Alchemist pretty much since the original series first started airing on Adult Swim back in 2003. I remember when I was thirteen years old, I would hole up in the living room in the middle of the night, pouring over every episode on my parent’s ancient 1970’s TV. When that wasn’t enough for me, I would go to the bookstore and spend all the money I had made from mowing lawns around the neighborhood to buy the manga. But while the manga and the original anime start out the same, they eventually went in completely different directions in the story due to the anime going ahead of the manga. That’s why when Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood came out in 2009, my freshman year of college, I couldn’t get more hyped for it. Finally, I could experience the story of FMA as it was originally intended, with no filler content and stunning animation.

While I still love FMA 2003 and have a special place in my heart for it, I think that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is one of those extremely rare remakes that not only matches the original’s quality, but surpasses it in almost every conceivable way. It’s a 64-episode epic full of thrills, action, incredible story and character development, and some of the most emotional gut punches in any story I’ve ever encountered. And it’s just as relevant today, if not more, than when it was originally released 10 years ago.

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The story of FMA: Brotherhood takes place in the land of Amestris, a country vaguely resembling turn-of-the-century Europe where everything runs on alchemy. While alchemists in this universe are capable of incredible feats, from summoning flames out of thin air to repairing electronics in an instant, their one taboo is to use alchemy on human beings. Our main characters, the brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, committed this taboo when they were just kids. They tried to bring their mother back from the dead using alchemy, and paid the price with their own physical bodies – Ed losing his arm and leg, and Al losing his entire body and having his soul transmuted into a suit of armor. Now the boys must join the military as State Alchemists in their quest to find the mysterious Philosopher’s Stone and get their bodies back.

But there is so much more at stake than Ed and Al initially realize. Amestris is a military dictatorship, and the State Alchemists are treated as human weapons for war, imperialism, and genocide. Then there are the Homunculi, artificial humans named after the Seven Deadly Sins (Lust, Gluttony, Envy, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, and Pride) who kill with ruthless efficiency and are practically invincible in battle. As the story progresses, the brothers discover the connection between Amestris, the Homunculi, and the Philosopher’s Stone itself, and uncover a conspiracy that threatens all of humanity in the process. This is a story with all the trappings of a classic Shonen battle series – train, travel the world, fight the bad guys, save the world – but what makes it truly legendary in the anime fandom is how it incorporates complex political and philosophical themes with incredibly human and fleshed out characters, to create a story that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

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My favorite homunculus is Envy, because of course it is.

It’s easy to see parallels between the world of FMA and the struggles we face today, in our world. Many characters in the military, such as the dour Colonel Mustang and his eternal companion Riza Hawkeye, struggle to reconcile their love of their country with the wanton cruelty of their government. Racism and ethnic tensions fuel the character of Scar, who seeks revenge on the State Alchemists for the murder of his people, the Ishvalans. And there is a lot of weight put on the duality of science and religion, and how blindly believing in either one without questioning it can lead to a cult-like mentality and a disregard for human life. While the story is mostly optimistic in tone, there are many scenes, like the government’s horrific experiments on live humans or the harrowing Ishvalan War of Extermination, that show the absolute worst of humanity and bring to mind the most brutal atrocities in our own history.

But all these heady themes and dark moments are just a part of a deeply personal story for Edward and Alphonse. As brothers both in blood and in arms, they fight and butt heads at times, but their love for each other and desire to protect those they care about is what defines them. And they both have incredible character arcs, with the arrogant and hot-headed Edward learning the value of humility and the more introverted, sullen Alphonse gaining the confidence to do incredible things. Together, they, along with their childhood friend Winry and the huge supporting cast they encounter on their journey, create a kind of found family that all work together to overcome the dehumanizing and alienating nature of fascism.

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Also, Winry is best girl. (Sorry, Hawkeye fans.)

I think, as humans, we are naturally drawn to stories about overcoming adversity and becoming better people than we were before. And while FMA: Brotherhood certainly doesn’t shy away from humanity’s worst impulses, ultimately, it’s a celebration of humanity in all its forms. The show represents disability in a way not often seen in fiction, with Ed facing unique challenges due to having metal prosthetic limbs. There are many great female characters, like Winry the mechanic or the cunning General Olivier Armstrong, who show strength and tenacity while refusing to conform to gender stereotypes. And by featuring characters of many different (fictional) races and ethnicities come together, it shows how we are all truly human and should regard each other as equals. These are all messages that were important when FMA was first being written, and have become even more crucial today.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a masterpiece of an anime, with gorgeous animation, shocking plot twists, heart-wrenching moments, and breathtaking music. It’s a show that will make you laugh, cry, get hype, and hopefully think a little bit more about the world that we live in. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out at your earliest possible convince. There is some body horror and a lot of violence, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can get past that you will find a truly compelling story that anyone can connect with. And it is absolutely, even ten years later, an anime that we need right now.

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Problematic faves and trying to find a middle ground (plus serious Kill la Kill analysis)

Disclaimer: this post was inspired by the amazing YouTube video by Under the Scope about the Monogatari series, and you should check it out. Also, Content Warning for some description of sexism and sexual assault, and some spoilers for Kill la Kill.

It’s felt like every day for the past few years, something terrible has happened that has gotten everyone talking about it and driven the wedge between us just a little bit deeper. Whether it’s global climate change, economic stagnation, or all the inequalities and injustices in the world, there is so much to be angry, outraged, and terrified about that it’s become overwhelming. With the world more polarized than ever, it feels like it’s hard just to have a polite conversation without some issue in politics, religion, or society at large starting a flame war.

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Not that kind of flame war, but not too far off

Since we live in a media-driven society, these divisions have naturally started to appear in the ways we discuss the things we love – our books, movies, music and games. Everything from multi-part fantasy epics to fluffy pop songs get intensely analyzed and deconstructed online, over whether they represent certain groups of people fairly or exploit serious real-world issues for financial gain.

And while it’s definitely important to have these discussions, it’s easy to feel that this discussion of “problematic” media has gone a bit overboard in the last few years. A lot of people just don’t want to hear about it anymore and would rather just like what they like without having to worry about offending others. After all, it’s just a show, or a movie, or a song. It’s not that big of a deal, right?

Well, yes. And also no. Maybe. It depends. And it’s complicated.

I think the issue here is that a lot of our discussion of problematic media consists of knee-jerk reactions and hot takes which, by their very nature, lack introspection and nuance. This is understandable, to some extent, because of how our modern internet-driven media culture works. Controversy sells, after all, and it’s much easier to get that sweet, sweet website traffic by saying “Media X is/is not problematic, and therefore is great/terrible” instead of considering that all media, and people as a whole, are complex, multi-faceted creatures, each with our own strengths and weaknesses.

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Except K-On, which is absolutely perfect and I will not debate this

A piece of media can be problematic and still be good, or not problematic and be bad, and there are all sorts of layers in between this. And whether a work is considered offensive or not is greatly dependent on context: when and where it was made, the mindset of the creator(s), and the society and culture that is both creating and viewing the work has a lot to do in how it is perceived.

I feel like the best way to explain this is to talk about one of my problematic faves: the beautiful and bonkers Trigger anime Kill la Kill. For the uninitiated, Kill la Kill is a dystopian action/comedy/sci-fi series about a young girl named Ryuko Matoi, out for revenge for the murder of her father. Believing the tyrannical Satsuki Kiryuin, student council president and leader of the totalitarian Honnouji Academy, is the one responsible, she transfers to the school in an attempt to fight her way to the top and find the answers she seeks. It’s a fantastic anime with all the style and panache of a Tarantino flick, the absurd action and humor of classic Gainax anime FLCL and Gurren Lagann, and a surprising amount of depth and social commentary for those willing to look for it. I adore Kill la Kill and would put it in my top 10 anime ever. Or at least top 20.

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There is one issue, though, and it’s pretty much impossible to ignore. When Ryuko and Satsuki right in Kill la Kill, they fight in incredibly revealing magical outfits that leave nothing to the imagination. Before each major battle in the series, there is an elaborate transformation sequence in which the girls are completely naked and the camera makes sweeping boob, butt, and crotch shots with all the subtlety of an 8-ton truck. Male supporting characters constantly make lewd comments about Ryuko and Satsuki when they fight, and even Ryuko’s dog (!) gets a nosebleed during a high-speed panty shot.

A lot of people consider this framing of its female characters to be incredibly objectifying, sexist, and creepy. To be honest, I kind of agree. Even though I love Kill la Kill, I can’t help but groan (or at best, awkwardly giggle) when I see all the lewd fanservice in this anime. I wouldn’t blame someone entirely for taking one look at Ryuko’s battle gear and dismissing Kill la Kill as fetishistic trash with no artistic merit whatsoever.

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This is one of the less revealing shots I could find of them fighting

People have defended this, let’s say, stylistic choice by saying, for example, that the story is all about how women are perceived by society and their struggle to find power through the lens of the male gaze. I don’t buy that argument entirely, considering the director, writer, and most of the animation staff were men who had previously worked on other uncomfortably sexualized anime before. What redeems Kill la Kill in my eyes is how the story takes the classic Shonen fighting anime story – call to adventure, beat the bad guys, save the world – and frames it through interesting and dynamic female characters.

All the main characters in Kill la Kill are women, which is almost unheard of for the action genre. And they all have their own unique personalities, motivations, and character flaws, not to mention badass scissor swords and incredible fighting powers. Ryuko is not only fighting to find out who killed her dad; she is fighting against conformity, totalitarianism, hierarchical society, and the idea that clothing (or the lack thereof) needs to be perceived as inherently sexual in the first place. Also, it has best girl Mako, who constantly cheers Ryuko on and shows how empowering female relationships can really be. They’re even dating by the end of the story! Ryuko x Mako OTP

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It’s canon, and if you disagree you hate gay people. (I’m kidding, but still.)

The point is that everything, even a series as seemingly dumb and pandering as Kill la Kill, can have a lot of depth and nuance that people miss on when they too focused on whether one specific element is problematic or not. But it also goes both ways. Something that may be acceptable for one person might be a deal-breaker for someone else, and neither side is any more or less valid than the other. It’s important to consider the experiences of everyone who is viewing a piece of media. If you’ve never been catcalled while walking down the street or had some creeper slide into your DMs asking for sexual favors, you might not have as much of an issue with the sexualized female characters of Kill la Kill as someone who has to deal with things like that on a regular basis.

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This scene is a point of contention for some, but I mostly wanted to comment on how adorable Mako is. I want her to be my friend in real life.

There’s been a lot of talk about “cancel culture” lately, or the idea that if a piece of media or creator is offensive enough, it is “cancelled” – not given any more attention, deleted from our ever-expanding capitalistic media landscape. While I think this idea comes from good intentions, I don’t think canceling problematic media entirely is the right idea.

We have to have these discussions, because all media is flawed and problematic in some ways, and it’s important to talk about these flaws in a critical and objective manner. But if we simply cancel, ignore, or refuse to engage anything that anyone finds even slightly objectionable, then we would be stuck watching nothing but bland, lifeless pap that doesn’t break any new boundaries or say anything of importance. Ironically, that’s problematic too, in its own way. That’s not to say we shouldn’t call out media when it is offensive, or that we can never stop watching a show because of objectionable content, but that by avoiding that conversation entirely, we ironically make the situation even worse by refusing to discuss a large part of our cultural landscape.

This post has been a bit rambling and long-winded, but I guess what I’m saying is that too often, both sides of the “is this piece of media problematic” debate don’t dive deeply enough. People just make surface-level arguments that ignore others’ perspectives, and we just get endless shit-flinging arguments that don’t help anyone. There’s nothing wrong with you if you like something like Kill la Kill, nor is there anything wrong with you if you think the problematic elements are too much for you. Maybe we should all just chill out, drink some herbal tea, and acknowledge that everyone and everything has its own strong points and flaws, and only by acknowledging both can we come to a better understanding of our art and ourselves.

Nah, that won’t drive those clicks. More hot takes!

Image result for kill la kill mako
Have I mentioned how much I love Mako’s Fight Club outfit? I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a JoJo reference or not, but it’s great.
Posted in Uncategorized

Autism, and trying to make sense of the world

Content warning: this post contains some discussion of mental illness, self-harm and suicide.

I think the first time I realized I was different was when I was five years old in kindergarten class. I have always been a shy person, and that was all the more true when I was a child. I seldom spoke to anyone, and I didn’t really have any friends. While the other kids would play soccer or hopscotch outside, laughing and screaming as most five-year-old kids do, I would take my toy trains and line them all up in a row, or bring a book with me and hide under a tree reading. Eventually, my teachers started to take notice, and they became very concerned about my seemingly aberrant behavior. “Why do you act like this?” they would ask me. “Why don’t you play with the other kids? Why don’t you look people in the eye when they’re talking to you?” It didn’t take long for me to realize that all these questions were really asking the same thing: “Why can’t you act like everyone else?

I am on the autism spectrum. While this should have been obvious to me at a young age, I didn’t realize this about myself until this year, at age 30. Autism has affected every facet of my life, from jobs to relationships to personal interests and how I see the world. And I wanted to talk about it because, to be honest, I feel alone in this a lot of the time, and I just wanted to explain what I go through and hope that someone out there understands.

Autism is kind of hard to explain, because it affects everyone who has it in different ways. Basically, it is a neurological condition that affects the way people interact with others and perceive the world around them. Autistic people generally have difficulty with social interactions, hypersensitivity to physical stimuli (such as light, sound, and touch), a more literal way of thinking, an intense passion for specific interests or hobbies, and repetitive behaviors which help us calm down and regulate our emotions. I don’t like to call autism a disorder because in my mind, none of these things are inherently bad. They merely illustrate that our minds are different, and no less valid, than the minds of non-autistic people.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle I face as an autistic person is social interaction. I have social anxiety, and just being in a crowded space with many unfamiliar people can easily send me into a panic. I have trouble making eye contact with others (a very common issue for autistic people), and I’ve honestly never been able to understand why. I tend to be socially awkward because I have a hard time processing what people are saying: if people talk too fast, or if there are many people talking over each other, the words all blend together and it just sounds like white noise to me. I also tend to take things literally and can’t understand when someone is being sarcastic or speaking in metaphor. Even the act of going out can be difficult for me, as I tend to be so sensitive to light and sound that many hangouts, like bars or clubs, can be completely overwhelming.

This is not to say I don’t like other people. I love being with people who understand me, like my mother or some of my close friends. In fact, I am often the person my friends turn to when they need help or advice with something, because I love being able to lend an ear and am always willing to listen. There’s an ugly misconception that autistic people lack empathy, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Many autistic people are the kindest, most empathic people you’ll ever meet, but we experience empathy in different ways than neurotypical people do.

I feel emotions viscerally and feel like I have a bond with all living things. If I turn on the news and there is something terrible happening on the other side of the world, I feel it as if it were happening to my best friend. Sometimes I’ve become inconsolably upset just because I saw a dead bird or animal on the side of the road. I care deeply about human rights and have attended many rallies and political protests speaking out for the rights of immigrants, refugees, and the LGBTQ+ community. The problem I have is that I tend to think that everyone else sees the world the same way as me, which becomes a problem if, say, someone else has different political or religious views than I do, or even different hobbies and interests. I’ve gotten better at this over time, and worked really hard to try to see things from other people’s point of view, but I still struggle with this a lot, because there are a lot of things about people that I just don’t understand.

But autism is really not as doom and gloom as people make it out to be. In many ways, it’s helped me become a more motivated, passionate, and kinder person. Autistic people tend to have a few specific interests which they focus on intensely. Some of my special interests include music, anime (and animation as a whole), and academic subjects like psychology and history. My interest in music gave me the inspiration and drive to learn to play five different instruments, sing, and write my own songs. When I was in high school, while all the other kids were drinking and partying, I would hide in my basement and stay up all night playing my guitar or keyboard. I collected music voraciously, listening to every song in The Beatles’ back catalogue and pouring over the liner notes of my favorite albums. It’s because of this passion for music and art that’s made it possible for me to record an album and play shows around the United States. Music, for me, is a way to express how I’m feeling and communicate with people in a way that anyone will understand.

Honestly, the thing that sucks about autism is not being autistic, but the way society treats people with autism. I was bullied as a child and abused by members of my family, who couldn’t understand why I didn’t fit in the neurotypical mold that they did. I have been in and out of the mental health system since I was 15, constantly given diagnoses – Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Paranoid Schizophrenia – that didn’t fit me at all and only made the stigma worse. I’ve had so many different therapists and been on so many different medications that I can’t even remember them all, and none of them really worked. I’ve been fired from jobs, dumped and cheated on, and disowned by members of my family, all because people would rather not have me around than try to understand me.

It made me depressed. It made me hate myself. It trapped me in a cycle of drinking and drug addiction that I am just now getting out of. It drove me to self-harm and suicide attempts and given me scars that will never go away.

But I feel like now, after 30 years, after changing my name and my gender and moving across the country several times, I feel like I’m finally understanding myself a little bit better. I’m realizing all the things I hated about myself – my social awkwardness, my constant fidgeting, my tendency to get super invested in things and then burn out – they’re all just parts of me that come from the same place as the things I like, like my passion, empathy and love for life. I still wouldn’t say I love myself, but I’ve learned to accept myself a bit better.

There is no cure for my autism, but I don’t think there needs to be. What we need is a cure for intolerance, for bigotry, for stigma. We need people to understand that everyone is different and special and wonderful in their own way. We need more compassion and empathy for those who are struggling and don’t fit in to the norms of society. And we need autistic people, because we understand this better than anyone else. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

Posted in anime

I just want to nerd out about Hunter x Hunter for a bit

I have an otaku confession: I’ve never seen Naruto, Bleach, or One Piece. I know, right? They all came out when I was in high school, and all the kids in my anime club were all over them. But I’ve never been a huge fan of Shonen anime. I enjoyed Dragon Ball as a kid and love Fullmetal Alchemist (both versions), but the huge episode length was always hard to get through, and many of the most famous series had a ton of unnecessary filler episodes. So when I got recommended Hunter x Hunter from a friend, and the first episode featured what looked like a green version of Kid Goku running around with an oversized fishing rod, I was a bit apprehensive that I wouldn’t be able to sit through all 148 episodes.

Well, I did, and my initial fears were totally wrong. Hunter x Hunter is amazing. And I really should watch Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. I’m sure they’re all great.

Who could resist that smile?

The thing is, it’s hard to convey what Hunter x Hunter is about to those who aren’t already familiar with the series. The premise is that it’s an action/adventure/fantasy series about a boy named Gon Freecss, who wants to join the Hunter Association (basically, a martial arts superhero agency with a lot of material and political influence) so he can meet his long lost father. But it goes so much deeper than that. Hunter x Hunter is a fantasy adventure story, a suspense-driven crime thriller, a gripping character drama, an existential musing on what makes us human, and a kick-ass action show. And it’s pure Shonen, which is part of what makes it so great.

See, the benefit of a show like Hunter x Hunter having so many episodes is that it can tell a wide variety of stories in an ever-expanding world. Every story arc is different from the last, with drastic changes in setting, characters, style, and tone. My favorite arcs are the Yorknew Arc, in which best boy Kurapika joins the Mafia to get revenge on an elite murder gang, and the Chimera Ant Arc, a 60-episode epic in which humanity must fight monstrous insect creatures for their own survival. The unpredictable plot twists prevent any arc from getting stale, and they all have a great cast of characters that I fell in love with almost instantly.

There’s so many characters that I’d love to talk about, but the bedrock of this series is the ride or die relationship between Gon and Killua. Gon is the archetypical Shonen hero – strong, optimistic, kind-hearted, a bit playful and mischevous – but also hotheaded and quick to run into dangerous situations without thinking. Killua, as a child runaway from a family assassins, is a cautious antihero longing for redemption. The two complement each other brilliantly – they bicker and argue, as friends of their age often do, but they have a genuine bond that makes them stronger together than they are apart. Gon inspires Killua to fight courageously for the sake of his friends, and Killua reigns in Gon’s more self-destructive impulses. And they both have some truly great moments together as they grow, become stronger, and learn how to survive in the dog-eat-dog world they live in without losing their humanity.

Also, they’re totally gay for each other

But the world of Hunter x Hunter is huge, and there are many other fascinating characters who get the spotlight. The enigmatic Kurapika gets an entire arc dedicated to his fall and redemption, and Leorio gets some stellar comedic and heartwarming moments towards the end of the series. There are loads of interesting side characters as well, some as well-developed as anyone in the main cast. The villains are some of the best in anime: they all have unique backgrounds and motivations, and often team up or fight each other to pursue their own goals. Sometimes, the series takes the focus off the main characters entirely and will devote entire episodes to its supporting cast, fleshing out the series world and making even the most seemingly insignificant of characters more dynamic and exciting.

It’s easy to nerd out about such a fascinating world and cast of characters, but the story is also fantastic, featuring tons of great moments and unpredictable plot twists. The thing that surprised me the most about this anime is how deceptively dark it is. It may not be as much of a gore-fest as Attack on Titan or as psychologically unnerving as Evangelion, but the later arcs of Hunter x Hunter are filled with dramatic stakes, moral ambiguity, and existential dread. The heroes don’t always win, and they don’t always do the right thing either. Even the most vile and depraved antagonists will have a sympathetic quality to them, making the viewer pause and wonder whether defeating them is truly justified.

The series tackles many heady themes – betrayal, revenge, war, genocide, even a fictional version of North Korea – not simply for plot advancement or shock value, but to illustrate how truly evil humans are capable of being, and how hard we must all strive to overcome those dark impulses. The most heartbreaking part is that, despite their superhuman strength and larger-than-life personas, the heroes of Hunter x Hunter are still just children, who sometimes have to overcome obstacles no child should ever have to deal with.

Without spoiling too much, this scene absolutely wrecked me. You’ll know it when you see it.

But despite all the convoluted plots and dark moments, Hunter x Hunter is still pure Shonen, and at the end of the day, it has a very Shonen worldview. All the stuff that makes series like My Hero Academia or Demon Slayer great is here too: it’s got tournament arcs and over the top action, but also a belief in perseverance, fighting spirit, and overcoming any obstacles the world may throw at you. In spite of the emotional gut punches this anime throws at the viewer, it still has a largely positive outlook on the world. Even the most terrible monsters are capable of redemption. Even when all hope seems lost, there is a way to succeed and thrive. I found watching Hunter x Hunter to be inspiring, and when that last episode ended, I couldn’t help but get a little misty-eyed as the final notes of “Departure” rang out from my laptop speakers.

There’s still so much I could go on about what makes Hunter x Hunter so amazing. I haven’t even talked about the engrossing martial arts system, or the ways it showcases diverse sexual orientations and gender identities without using them for a stereotype or a cheap gag. If you haven’t seen Hunter x Hunter yet and you have even a passing interest in anime or animation as a whole, it’s worth it to check out. The first few episodes are fairly slow-paced, but the series just gets better and better the more you watch it. It’s full of action, adventure, great characters, and a lot of heart. I’m even considering reading all 300+ manga chapters, so maybe I’ll go back to writing about this enthralling franchise once I come back from the abyss.