Goblin Slayer’s just like… kinda sad and boring, I guess?

[content warning: discussion of sexual assault in the context of fiction]

Ah, the visual metaphor I needed! The horse is rape, the cart is the first episode, and the desolate world is everything else. Behold the smallness of Goblin Slayer!

[It’s 2am and I can’t sleep because I already slept, all day, on a stultifying migraine. Let’s turn on the blue-light filter and see what comes from this moment of madness.]

I hate having opinions. Of course, that doesn’t to stop me from actually having them… for example, I enjoy irony because it helps me close the paradoxical loop that “hating having opinions” is itself an opinion. Oh, but that loop’s still a problem. Maybe I should revise…

No, I don’t hate opinions so much as I do thinking about them. You have to justify them, and then consider their rebuttals, and sometimes even rebut their opponents in turn. That’s hard work. Sure, maybe you don’t have to do any of that. You could just content yourself with fluttery feelings: “I like this, not that.” But that approach always seems dangerous to me. What if you need to revise an opinion, like I just did? Or what if you hurt someone’s feelings? Or worst of all, what if you reveal your ignorance, if you’re just wrong?

I think Emil Cioran gets it about right in The Trouble with Being Born:

To have opinions is inevitable, is natural; to have convictions is less so. Each time I meet someone who has convictions, I wonder what intellectual vice, what flaw has caused him to acquire such a thing. However legitimate this question, my habit of raising it spoils the pleasure of conversation for me, gives me a bad conscience, makes me hateful in my own eyes.

I have opinions; yes, it’s only natural. But except for the most serious issues, I never feel secure enough in them to approach a considered conviction. It’s not just my own waftiness either: if I fear the flaws in all of my own opinions, I distrust everyone else’s as well. How can anyone have such surety to upgrade a mere opinion to a conviction? Like Cioran says, the question becomes awkward in conversation: I can hardly criticize someone’s convictions if I can’t counter with my own, beyond the ironic one that I can barely have any to begin with. “Bad conscience” indeed…

I suppose it’s good then that I don’t have any strong opinions on Goblin Slayer. When the series first aired for the Fall 2018 anime season, it exploded into the most polarizing piece of televised fiction I’ve ever encountered. After the rape scene in episode 1, most of the people who would have disliked it bombed the series with negative first impressions before dropping it like a live grenade. That uproar left some severe survivorship bias in its wake: the complete reviews that followed offered little but glowing praise. Given the severity of the polarization surrounding the first episode and the series’ own singular focus on killing goblins, neither this world nor Goblin Slayer’s left much room for ambiguity.

But as someone with little tolerance for certainty, I never understood the hype. Goblin Slayer has little positive or negative to recommend it, even when compared to other works in its stale video-game-inspired fantasy genre. To summarize my ambivalent experience: Goblin Slayer‘s just like… kinda of sad and boring, I guess?

How can I put an even greater damper that opinion…

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Why has anime fan fiction invaded my Google News feed?

Is this news? Fan fiction and an adverticle? Seriously?

[Something very different this week: an app review, or perhaps an algorithm review!]

I found the first one sandwiched between a New York Times book review and a Wall Street Journal productivity hack for beating procrastination. The next day I found another, this time hidden among a pile of financial news websites still trickling out missed-the-rush Jack Bogle obituaries after his death last week. And I found another today, under a set of lifestyle articles and Trump fact-checks grouped into a quasi-advertisement encouraging me to “read more stories from the Washington Post” even though I’d already hit my monthly non-subscriber limit.

Why has anime fan fiction invaded my Google News feed?

For the past week, while scrolling through the morning headlines, I’ve been treated to a steady stream of stories from the esteemed muckrakers over at webnovel.com. For example:

The Ninja-verse’s Immortal Cultivator… The story of an oddly feminine male immortal cultivator in Naruto, and his adventures through the ninja-verse

Pokemon: Journey Towards Greatness… A war veteran and an anime fan as well, … now our MC has turned 82 years old … and waiting for death to take him away but will death be is [sic] end or will it start a new beginning, a new legend.

My Life With An Overlord And Anime System… *Ding- You have been selected to receive the Anime System. Please Think “Kono Dio Da!” to receive Hamon Beginners Pack or “Jajanken!” to receive Hunter X Hunter Beginners pack…*

Lovely little reads all, I’m sure, but do they really belong in a news feed amongst the Times, Post and Journal, Chronicle, Globe, and Tribune? Oh, what algorithmic hell hath I unleashed?

Continue reading “Why has anime fan fiction invaded my Google News feed?”

I like As Miss Beelzebub Likes

Beelzebub, nothing

[I’ve finished this week with a bad cold… so just an aborted introduction and scattered thoughts while I try to fall asleep and wake up again.]

Why do people take, and mean, “so boring I fell asleep” as an insult? It’s among the highest praise!

Consider Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. The show seems to have won a new life as an old-timey nostalgia trip for adults. Somehow, it has remained relevant over a decade after Roger’s death, with a surprisingly strong media presence via the Twitch stream marathon, the new documentary, and frequent mentions in recent editorials following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in Roger’s real-life neighborhood last month. In my own adulthood, I’ve found it tremendously useful in my tutoring classes for teaching American culture at its least sensational. Roger’s slow, family-appropriate speech makes for great English listening practice and I’ve even gotten good discussions out of his simple moral dilemmas. What to do on a hot day is a perfect question for an oppressively humid Japanese summer.

But I’m getting off topic. Back to boredom.

Mister Roger’s Neighborhood is fantastically boring. So, so boring that I sometimes forget the current editorial zeitgeist exalting “Mr. Rogers for adults” and think it’s for children until I remember that “Oh, it is for children” halfway through a literal explanation of the “round peg, square hole” phenomenon. If that doesn’t bore you, how about the episode when Rogers puts a timer on camera, sets it to a minute, and lets it count down in silence? To no one’s surprise, nothing happens. And well… nothing is more boring than nothing, right?

So why am I watching it, beyond the classroom utility? I want to take a nap, and no television show puts me to sleep faster than Mister Roger’s Neighborhood (unless you count golf tournaments or the entire CSPAN network as a “show”). As Roger’s himself clearly understood, adults can learn a lot from children… and sometimes, the most useful hobby is some quiet, restful naptime.

But I’m getting off topic again. I wanted to write about As Miss Beelzebub Likes (Beelzebub-jou no Okinimesu mama) today.

Continue reading “I like As Miss Beelzebub Likes”

Growing up with Spirited Away’s excellence… and still being scared

Spirited Away, Scared 2

[I’ve been busy napping this week so have a sleepy, lazy, feel piece.]

I watched Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away again. I suppose that makes three times: once in some awful elementary after-school program, once in high school, and once now. Spirited Away sits at the top of my list of best anime movies and I recognize its complete, dreamy excellence. But growing up, I have never enjoyed it and, as an adult, I still can’t.

I think I’m already starting to feel the spell of that sleepy, lazy feel piece, so I don’t have a serious introduction this week… just a question. Isn’t that weird?

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Procrastinating a good thing: Why I can’t finish .hack//Sign

This is not a review but rather a lament. I have been watching .hack//Sign recently and like it well enough. But for some reason, I just can’t bring myself to finish it. (I’ll use the shorthand “hack/sign” because I don’t want to deal with Microsoft Word’s blue-line accusation: “Change punctuation placement”)

hack/sign is one of the most interesting anime I have watched this year. Other writers have called it boring for the slow, conversation driven plot, but for me it finally approximates the “MMO myth” I have sought and failed to find in this season’s video game isekai (I challenge you: what is more essential to the MMO experience than AFKing in a transport hub while chatting with friends?). Sure, the art is ugly, but given the age of the show (2002), whatever, I don’t care. I would even argue that the weirdly static movements give the show a welcome bit of that old-school RuneScape charm (Subaru holds her axe like a dragon battleaxe!). And of course, it would be criminal to not mention the gorgeous if slightly overbearing soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura of Puella Magi Madoka Magica fame. The music alone could almost carry the whole show. It’s fantastic.

I give that short review not to convince anyone else to watch, but to demonstrate that there isn’t much reason for me not to. Though I have only watched half of it, I am enjoying it very much (For the first time ever, a recap episode didn’t feel like a bucket of cold water to the face!). Of all the media I am consuming at the moment, hack/sign holds my attention the best if not for one little problem: I can’t find the motivation to keep watching.

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Gaman, Satou! Workplace bullying in Happy Sugar Life

Though my actual review of Happy Sugar Life was manically glib and maybe a bit heavy on the meme (the yandere did n-o-t-h-i-n-g-w-r-o-n-g), much of my enjoyment of the show comes from it blowing up Japanese mores in the most over-the-top, absurd ways possible. Though it may be a bit premature to discuss themes, the first episode offers a perfect workplace revenge fantasy that cuts to the core of what I view as some of the more toxic aspects of Japanese language and work culture.

First, a story:

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Beyond sympathy and sadness in Gakkou Gurashi!

I always struggle to explain why I like something. For example, I adored Space Patrol Luluco but only managed to write 1700 words about it. Even then, much of that review simply complained about bad reference humor. I couldn’t produce a clear, glowing endorsement. Meanwhile, I ranted for 3700 words about Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria, perhaps my least favorite television show ever (oh, and I was writing about just the first episode). I am simply much better at criticizing than praising. That asymmetry makes me a little sad.

When I want to write about a show that I actually enjoyed, I often disappoint myself. I waste hours of daydreaming, desk-warming time at work struggling to think of something, anything specific to praise and can only come up with something vague like “it was good because it was good.” It bothers me that I can exhaustively justify my dislikes but cannot apply the same rigor to my likes. I can easily describe distaste. But apparently, there is no accounting for taste.

With that said, I liked Gakkou Gurashi! enough to give it a try anyway. I will take this essay as a personal challenge to try to describe something I love without defaulting to criticism or conceding to the many negative or ambivalent reviews on the internet. Though the show has plenty of flaws (the deus ex …dog… could be ridiculous), the overall experience was one of the most emotionally and thematically engaging I have had with television in years.

(English: School-Live! I’ll drop the exclamation because really, who wants to type that over and over again? Also, why not translate it as a simple “School Life?” Is “live” a verb as in “IT LIVES!” or an adjective as in “LIVE FROM NEW YORK?” Questions with no answer… it’s just a hazard of Japanese English I suppose.)

Spoiler Warning:

Gakkou Gurashi is extremely sensitive to spoilers. The less you know about it before viewing, the better. The synopsis on MyAnimeList even says too much. For the remainder of the essay, I will assume that the reader has already seen the show. I’ll hide my thesis about the show’s themes behind the jump, because I worry that even that would spoil the whole experience.

Continue reading “Beyond sympathy and sadness in Gakkou Gurashi!”

Shichisei no Subaru: thinking about video game settings in anime

As a long-time MMORPG player, the isekai genre fascinates me for its almost complete adoption of video game tropes following the wild success of Sword Art Online. Though isekai, and even virtual world MMO isekai, predate Sword Art Online, that one franchise seems to have turned the entire genre into a wish-fulfillment fantasy playground for otaku. Especially in the light novel arena, isekai has become a Japan-specific modern analogue for the scandalous dime novels or trashy pulp fiction of the past. Every season seems to pump out another MMO-esque isekai setting, from shameless ecchi harems like Isekai no Smartphone to legitimate parodies of the current industry craze like KonoSuba.

This season is no exception. By my initial count, summer 2018 introduced three new isekai anime. The first, How Not to Summon a Demon Lord, grossed me out with its glib slavery premise and the second, Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria, exceeded even Demon Lord in eliciting disgust (I repeat: it is the worst television production I have ever seen. ). With that mess as competition, I immediately crowned the third, Shichisei no Subaru (English: Seven Senses of the Reunion), the best isekai of the season before even watching it.

But then I ran into a problem. After watching the first three episodes, I realized that Subaru didn’t fit my initial isekai genre label. Thought about 70% of the show takes place in a virtual reality video game world, the narrative remains well-grounded in an exploration of very real grief after the death and virtual reincarnation of a childhood friend.

I was too hasty in my coronation. Subaru is not just another cheap wish-fulfillment otaku exploitation flick set in an MMO-esque fantasy. It has a mystery! It has decently sympathetic characters! It even has identifiable themes! None of those features exactly impressed me; the first three episodes earn a solid “just okay.” However, it does deserve credit for trying to tell it’s own story in a genre full of generic copy-cat nonsense.

But then I ran into another problem. Subaru wasn’t just telling it’s own story. I had heard this premise before… the ghost of a young girl returns to haunt a reclusive otaku years after her early death, thus forcing him to reunite with his now-distant childhood friends to solve the mystery and overcome unresolved grief… hmmm… is this… AnoHana? Pretty much, yeah. Essentially, Subaru cuts the narrative out of AnoHana and pastes it into a generic MMO-inspired video game world. Again, Subaru isn’t exactly bad. It is just astoundingly unoriginal.

Subaru’s odd combination of a serious grief narrative with a typical farcical MMO setting did make me think though. Can a writer shove any theme into a video game world and produce a compelling story? Or does the setting only excel at generic self-insert wish-fulfillment? Have MMO-esque fantasies proliferated in the anime industry because they possess some genuine storytelling utility? Or are they just a cynical way to capture the gamer-otaku market?

Unfortunately, the first three episodes of Shichisei no Subaru push me towards the cynical conclusion. AnoHana does not fit well inside Sword Art Online. Video game settings should not simply replace straight fantasy; they need some thematic connection to the real debate over the meaning and value of virtual realities. Otherwise, stories like Subaru’s might as well simply exist in the the real world. But unfortunately for Subaru, AnoHana already exists.

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