Fall 2018: Some Thoughts
Three episodes in, I give a casual discussion of what I’ve watched so far. I may add more series as I try them out.
Yagate Kimi ni Naru (Bloom Into You)
This series is by far the one making the strongest impression of me. Its stylistic choices are clear-cut, and it sticks with them all the way. Yū’s alienation from romance gives the show many opportunities to flaunt all its poetic flair, as dark colors veil her surroundings, the distance between her and others expands in a matter of seconds, and she is eventually plunged into the abyss. The third episode climaxes into a brilliant display of Tōko’s past, as its ghosts creep by and fade away, the forest extending in front of her as if to represent both her isolation and the sadness hidden within. But the direction also makes heard in its rhythm: each dive into a character’s mind allows for a momentary suspension of the exterior flow of time and its unstoppable swings between dizzying accelerations and brutal brakes dictated by the rhythm of romance and its clashing feelings. As if to symbolize all of these artistic choices, the third episode concludes the first arc with Yū staring at stars: a typical of object of calm contemplation, which is yet invested with an impossibly high ideal—that of romance, then—but made potentially attainable because they are projected on the roof by a planetarium; Yū’s sister exemplifying this as she jumps and touches a star. The show’s aesthetic is conflicted as a result: beautiful as it is, the narrative’s theme is very much the violence that the (aesthetic) ideal of romance makes Yū suffer. And yet YagaKimi never gives up on its profound poeticism, as if to tell us that the only way out of its protagonist’s alienation from romance is none other than a new form of romance, embodied here by Tōko who finds love in someone (Yū) who does not idealize her in the brutal way others do—a kinder, more sympathetic one, then.
All in all I would be very surprised if YagaKimi pulled through with Yū’s aromantic situation (and it already says a lot that I feel obliged to call it a situation), but this will not stop it from being a supremely beautiful show.
Sword Art Online: Alicization
Being a complete and utter newbie to the franchise, I am feeling somewhat lost at the moment, but I must admit to finding Alicization a thoroughly fascinating watch so far. Granted, as I arrive very late to the party, I am not expecting Sword Art Online to be good in any traditional capacity; rather, I appreciate it for being the epitome of its genre, a show which alone reveals much of the zeitgeist which thrusted it to popularity in the first place. The first half of Alicization’s introduction had me looking—and finding—local strategies to grab the viewer’s heart at every corner: whether it be in the lively character animation, the effective establishment of relationships via camera positioning, the harmonious worldview shown through colors and design, or the utterly grabbing way in which Alice is immediately set up as the tragic heroine to be saved—none of this is necessarily awesome or original on its own, and yet the opening twenty minutes are packed so full of such smart choices that I could only nod along and accept why something of the sort would be popular: pepper some flavors of conspiration on top of everything, and the recipe for success is already here. The second half was a bore which the direction desperately tried to rescue, an effort which I can’t say succeeded unfortunately. The following episodes can also fall into the same trap at times, but they are also extremely revealing of what makes a series like Sword Art Online: the protagonist as an outsider who must be accepted through his skills; a friend who is bound by an incomprehensible and evidently cruel duty; and of course, a constant sense of danger in the dialogue, which the third episode realizes as it ends. Going a step further, I’d describe Kirito as the man—for he must be a man—who sees through, and breaks the spell of ideology: in his original ignorance, he accepts with suspicion the rules and injustices which others, who have been thoroughly shaped by them, readily live by; eventually intuition leads him to the truth, which is the starting point of his fight against ideology, to not only defeat it but also liberate those he loves from it. That was certainly what I got from Ordinal Scale; but Alicization may just be the most effective depiction of these original steps I have been exposed to in my short time with Sword Art Online. And that’s enough for me to want more.
Irozuku Ashita no Sekai kara (Iroduku: The World in Colors)
Three episodes in and I am very fond of this one up. It is extremely pleasant to look at, although it does fall short of the bar set by YagaKimi. Its themes oscillate between cheesy and surprising, although the balance is in favor of the latter for now. The story starts in the future, in a world which magic has rendered all too familiar to Hitomi. Let me set the record straight on one element: her condition—her seeing the world in shades of grey—is not a metaphor for a psychological illness; it reveals what the world looks like when all surprise and shock has been sucked out of it. Hitomi sets the tone from the very beginning by asking: “would the fireworks have retained their color if not for magic?” Magic here is associated with technology, our typical contemporary tool to dominate our environment. Magic has been instrumentalized into something far different from what we originally see it as, the materialization of wonderment. That is a point over which the show tends to fall into clichés: for instance, the second episode’s conclusion on an association between magic and romance. Doubtlessly romance will be an element, but there is more to it than this.
The keyword to the show so far is difference. There is tellingly not breaking point at which the world suddenly loses its colors: it is much more sensible to think that, repeating the same routines over time, Hitomi progressively lost her sensitivity to colors. What’s more, when she first sees the 2018 incarnation of the town she has always lived in, she wonders for a while: “it’s the same, but a little different”, she says. Her quest is to rediscover the sense of wonder which comes from the shock of discovering something wildly different from the usual; this local, evanescent instance of sheer amazement, which radically contrasts with the boredom of going through the same motions that rhythm everyday life. That is why she sees colors in Shō’s art: because it is unexpected and different. Tellingly, the colors fade away after staring at it for a while. Art cannot sustain its promise of sublimation eternally. But Hitomi’s struggle to believe in the moment is her way to healing, as it also a quest to rediscover the magic she’d abandoned as a mere tool—here once again the story starts sounding frankly cheesy.
Another interesting aspect here is the reproduction of the magic-technology duo at the club’s level: painting-photography. What Hitomi does with these two disciplines could be a way for the show to give its views on art: on the sheer possibilities of the former, and the potential for expression via faithful representation (including of a colorless world) of the latter; in other words, on what magic ought to be, and the technology’s potential when used for the best.
Iroduku may very well fall victim to the traps it’s set for itself; but if it manages to avoid them, it may well be one of the season’s most satisfying experiences.
Seishun Buta Yarō wa Bunny Girl-Senpai no Yume wo Minai
The first arc was at once the most cringeworthy and the most touching thing I’ve watched this season. It uncritically uses a number of elements typical of these obnoxious harem series, where the protagonist who sees through ideology (as I have suggested above regarding Kirito) leads a desperate fight, using science—really the only form of “realism” available to the self-proclaimed “realist” subject in a world so fragmented and specialized as ours—against this all too ideological world. Adding insult to injury, he must have a little sister who has this baby-like desire to depend on him—a desire to return to this simpler state of affairs displaced into her libido, really—while also resolving girls’ issues because his capacities for both thought and action are worlds above theirs.
That’s the basic pitch, and I’m sure it sounds familiar. AoButa is by no means the denial of this formula (an achievement I can only associate with the name of Oregairu), but where it takes these clichés is interesting. Firstly, because although Sakuta is very much the harbinger of truth and shepherd to all the world’s stray lambs, the show also seems to attempt to work against this topos by making the same Sakuta note that Mai—the first target of his enlightenment mission—decided to return to the world of acting on her own, not because of what he said. On top of this, his adventures with her lead him to realizing that he was wrong, and not in fact wise, when he said that fighting against “the mood” (kūki, a much more evocative word since it also means “air”, something we need and whose existence we merely assume as a fact of nature, and the show plays on these two meanings) was a pointless endeavor: that it is also, in fact, ideological (in that it makes us turn away from what we don’t want to think about), and that if anything resistance is the more just thing to do. To be exact, he did have a sense of what this “mood” was from the beginning; but he too assimilated it, saw it not as something that poses a genuine problem but rather as a fact so unmovable it should be humored best as possible. It takes forgetting and remembering Mai—experiencing the injustice it does to the person he loves—for him to look beyond this ideological position.
And the resolution is also fascinating. The mood is this gigantic shadow that overlooks nearly all anime set in school, and for a very good reason: otaku are those who cannot read the mood. They are those whose interests are too different, whose lives are too different, to share much with the riajuu (those we usually call “normies”, though I hesitate to equate them given the latter’s appropriation in alt-right discourse). As a result, whomever is the victim of it, the Mood will appear in anime. Sakuta had chosen not to fight against it, but is most definitely a victim of it. The reason why he chose to do so is thus: otaku ideology, if one can call it that, is very much a function of the specialization mentioned above, where the otaku sphere acquires a semi-autonomy from society and allows its members to retreat into it and find pleasure in it. The end of the third episode provides a sort of middle-ground solution: where resistance is accepted as necessary, but is done on an individual level: Sakuta is “below” the others students and this can be read symbolically as him not undertaking a grand action from the view of God, but rather from his own narrow vantage point: there is no larger fight here, simply that of a young man and those he cares for. Thus AoButa comes to take on a micropolitical appearance.
And this is a fair thing to say because the show, for all its interactions with specifically subculture themes, also attempts to take on larger social issues: Mai disappearing from people’s eyes and memories can be seen as exemplifying the society of spectacle (though in a hugely simplified sense) where what is not staged for all to see simply does not exist: a society in which we consume simulacra of reality in order to satisfy ourselves in a quest that must be renewed with every passing second. Those who do not participate in it may as well not exist. A society so stuck in its one second-long loop that “if you don’t respond to your friends right away, they’ll stop being your friends”.
It’s this interaction between two levels of concern that makes the show interesting, because it allows it stage a conflict between the typical themes and clichés of otaku content and larger social content: the problem that the former must break free from its ideology to face the latter. AoButa is by no means a perfectly controlled or consistent show, but the heroics that shine through—this almost pathetic attempt to solve everything with one man’s love—its contradictions and sheds light on them in return make it truly enjoyable to watch. Maybe Sakuta can’t make everything harmonious with love, but that doesn’t mean it’s not emotional watching him try—and no matter how awkwardly (or ideologically) represented, the girls’ issues are quite real.
The adventure so far has been strange, but not without interest. It has obvious roots in tokusatsuand mecha works in general—Gridman’s heroism seems to embody Akiho’s enthused description of the mecha in Robotics;Notes—but this is hardly a problem when the topoi are played with so much honesty and love (there is something here of last season’s Planet With). The directing is rather strange, with its insistent decentering for comedic purposes (by delaying reactions, or putting characters out of frame); as a result, the first episode comes off as unfortunately hesitant, desperately trying to ward off the impending drama until it appears right below the characters’ noses. Still, the comic opening moments are effective in and of their own, establishing a peculiar tone as well as prefacing the sense of discrepancy which then materializes in Akane’s character.
Although Akane is the most extreme instance of it, all of the show’s characters have a hidden face. Yūta suffers from amnesia, an admittedly typical motif which delays the inevitable revelation of his past, which will without a doubt involve Akane in one way or another. Shō and Rikka seem without a story, but the ending sequence hints at past between the latter and Akane (their uniforms being making this interpretation likelier than that of a utopian possibility). The show holding off such essential information makes it hard to judge, but there is doubtless something that can be said of the gesture and its relation with a grand, heroic narrative: that of a fated battle between good and evil for which the characters are the necessarily allegories (and thus it is their fate to fight).
However, Gridmanmay be trying to move beyond that simplistic narrative. Akane’s character is more tragic than anything; the opening ends on Gridman rising to save her as the song goes: “I have come to rescue you from your ennui”. Her character may embody ressentimentmore than ennui. She is first introduced as an impossibly nice character, and then behind the façade, a murderer who invokes monsters with the help of a force similar to Gridman. There is a likely continuity: Akane pretends to be nice, which in turn breeds hatred because of the isolation it brings: the negative feelings she’d kept hiding to maintain her image having slowly transmogrified into the violence she expresses behind the kaiju, which now reveal themselves as avatars for the ugliness she hides. This theme, in its revelation of a larger social mood (that is to say, the repression of desire), faintly reminds us of AoButa, although its form there is more properly otaku.
However, it’s hard to imagine that this would Gridman’s main or only theme, if only because that would clash with the heroic narrative the show must integrate (lest its influences become purely formal). An interesting feature is the abrupt appearance of the monster: unlike your usual Godzilla who progressively marches on toward Japan and leaves the narrative its time to examine society, the enemies here appear out of nowhere and start wreaking havoc instantly: thus there is no time to even ask the question of a social response, the heroes are simply needed. But more interesting is what this, and the results of each fight, says about the boundary between the virtual (Gridman’s original form) and the real (made real by a human, here Yūta, on the other side Akane): the people killed during the events are rewritten as having died years ago, but the buildings destroyed are restored. There are plenty of shows which reset everything in a quest to protect the status quo; but Gridman’s choice seems frankly arbitrary, and will require an explanation if it is to succeed.
In truth I find it hard to say much about this story so far; although it rehearses a number of gestures, motifs and themes typical of its inspirations, the content it bestows them with remains all too unclear: Akane’s presence holds enough fascination for me to continue watching it, in that I sympathize with her a lot; more importantly, her personal troubles could make for an interesting variation on the themes Gridmanborrows from its inspirations. I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend it for now, but it is worth keeping an eye on.