Yura vs. the C³-bu

stellahtchartThis was one of the two shows which I watched this summer (the other being Free!, to no one’s surprise). The boyfriend suggested this, even knowing that I’m not a Gainax nor Airsoft fan. He thought it was cute and quirky, and possibly something that I’d enjoy. He was correct, I enjoyed it.

If you’ve been keeping up with my reading preferences lately, it should also come as no surprise to you that I felt for Yura. I didn’t think of her as a jerk or a douchebag; she made poor decisions, but is her personality overall screwed up? Nope, absolutely not. In many ways, I’d say that her bad choices were as much as fault of the C³-bu as Yura herself.

Yura enters Stella Academy with the intentions of making a fresh start. It’s hinted from the first episode that things didn’t go too well at her previous school, and Stella is her chance to have her ideal school experience. But within minutes of entering school grounds, Yura already makes her first social faux-pas, and even though most people would probably recover from this incident, for Yura, it’s almost a sign that things aren’t going to go well again.

Let’s be real here: Yura is socially awkward. She doesn’t seem to know how real people, real friends work — hence explaining all her made-up fantasy situations each time she finds herself caught up in a high-stress or high-pleasure situation. It’s easier to dream up of a scenario where’s she’s the heroine of her own life movie rather than face the sad, brutal reality where she’s a nobody, where she’s the girl who isn’t noticed.

Big fat deal, right? Every other lead character in manga or anime is socially awkward. Most of them are friendless and lonely until, one day, they discover that special something in them that makes them the hero. Yes, and for Yura, that special something was Airsoft. It was something brand new for her, and I liked that she wasn’t good at it from the beginning. I liked that Yura had to practice and work hard (mostly) and keep on practicing even after she mastered the basics. Yura may have been an above-average Airsoft player, but she’s no genius, and I like that.

The anime could’ve ended there, but that wouldn’t have been any fun. So, even though we see Yura gain friends and skill through the C³-bu, we also see a darker aspect of what happens to her because of her obsession with the game. Instead of becoming more empathetic to her teammates, the same group of girls who’ve taken her into the fold, Yura fixates on the “me” part of “game.” Yura thinks that if she levels up even higher in their survival games, her status in the group hierarchy would improve; she doesn’t realize, until too late, that the other girls aren’t as focused on the game inasmuch as they are about each other. She’s branded as an asshole because she cares more about winning instead of her friends, and doubly so when she doesn’t think it was such a big deal to worry about her friends since the others would take care of it.

Is her behavior a criticism of the otaku mentality? I’m not referring to anime/manga otaku specifically, but otaku as a catch-all for the fanatical, highly-competitive person in every known hobby or sphere. This is the person who doesn’t care about sniping you in auctions, cutting in front of you in convention lines, yelling out spoilers to a popular tv show/movie in a crowded room,  taunting you for not having the latest gadget, etc. This otaku is the person who’s more obsessed about the things instead of the community that love the things. (Though if I wanted to be accurate and technical about it, a true otaku wouldn’t care about the community anyway.)

Was Yura just a latent otaku and all she needed was the spark of Airsoft survival games to get her going? Maybe. But, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Yura’s anti-social behavior (the psychiatric definition; as opposed to prosocial) wasn’t helped by the rest of the club either.

Understandably the C³-bu needed just one more member to remain intact as a club; none of them would’ve realized that their newest member would become such a fanatic when she could barely hold a gun in their first game. The rest of the club sees Yura spiraling into an Airsoft fanatic, but they didn’t call her out until it was too late. They all wanted to play “nice,” but weren’t so nice themselves when it came to ganging up on Yura. They pressured her for days to join the club, and probably so excited to see how fast she excelled in their game, but nobody wanted to take responsibility to tell her when she was starting to get out of line. Isn’t that what true friends would do, isn’t that what we would expect? If you’re my friend, I expect you to call me out on my bullshit and I wouldn’t get upset by it, because I know that you’re doing it for my own good and because what I’m doing is hurting myself and/or other people.

That’s why, out of all of the C³-bu, I like that Rento took the time to go see Yura and talk to her. Rento played a big role in getting Yura into the club, as well as taking the time to making Yura feel like a friend, not just another cog in the survival game machine. As much as Sonora and Yura had a special bond, I think that, without Rento, Yura wouldn’t have wanted to return anymore.

Another Gainax anime completed, and this one wasn’t so bad.

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The Trouble with Monsters

Typical Haru, hurting her without even realizing it.

I’ve watched a lot of shoujo anime in my time. It doesn’t matter if it’s cliche or derivative, if it’s shoujo, I’ll give it a fighting chance. Maybe even more than that, actually. Remember how excited I was to see several shoujo series in last fall’s lineup? I had grandiose plans to write about all three of them regularly, but you know me and my unannounced blogging breaks… In any case, I wanted to write up a few last thoughts before jumping headfirst into the spring season and totally forgetting about those shows.

Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun was problematic from the very beginning, I knew that. I stuck with it out of misled loyalty to its female main character, Shizuku. I liked her — she was no-nonsense and unflappable. Even if she’s freaking out internally, you wouldn’t know it looking at her. Like many great poker players, she knows that revealing too much emotionally could cost you the game, and she’s too determined and stubborn to lose.

Enter Haru, unstoppable force to her immovable object. He enters with the force of a hurricane, disrupting her peaceful world and everything that she’s built up so far. He confesses that he’s in love with her, and then takes it back, only to repeat that cycle again. It’s one thing to be an adolescent in love, but in Haru’s case, it almost seems as if he’s using Shizuku as his emotional crutch instead of as an actual romantic partner.

In a romantic relationship, there is an expectation of a mutual give-and-take between partners. In Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun, it didn’t feel that way; Shizuku was offering more to Haru than she was receiving. Their group of friends came about because of Shizuku, even Yamaken and his friends warmed up to Haru because of her. Shizuku, despite her stoic reputation, was aware of the rules of society, and like it or not, abided by them. Haru thought that he could get through life punching and kicking his way in, failing that, he decided to stay at home and hide. When he found his new “in” back to society through Shizuku, he pushed his way in without consideration. How is that a foundation for love?

Of course, Shizuku isn’t exactly a perfect heroine either, that’s a given. Like Haru, she changes her feelings every two minutes, one minute claiming that he’s altered her worldview for the better, yet the next minute she’s doing a total reversal. As teenagers, this is typical and expected and maybe in their case, the flammable mix of hormones and feelings makes it difficult to process what role they want that other person to fill in their life.

Towards the end of the series, Shizuku mentions something about how she and Haru seem to be “out of sync,” like they can’t have the same feelings or be in the same mindset at the same time. I think that best sums up my dissatisfaction about their relationship in a nutshell. It’s bad enough to be the subject in a one-sided relationship, it’s possibly even worse to be the object of the one-sided relationship.

It’s also problematic for me how Shizuku and Haru don’t really share fundamental values: she’s extremely studious and focused on school because she wants to get a good job and succeed in the future, he doesn’t have those concerns. When he told her he loved her for the umpteenth time, he was genuinely surprised and displeased when she still chose her prep lessons over spending time with him. It’s just another example of them not being in sync, not just over feelings but goals. The classes are important to her — even at the risk of breaking up her relationship with him again, but he doesn’t seem to get it nor does he want to. In Kare Kano, Yukino and Arima were in the same situation, fighting to be at the top of the class, but even at their lovey-doviest, I don’t think Yukino ever yielded to Arima, nor did Arima ever ask Yukino to give up her competitive edge to play with him. Because they shared the same value for education, Yukino and Arima continued to challenge and support each other on the academic battlefield, which isn’t the case with Haru and Shizuku.

For a series that I didn’t love, I sure am able to write at length about it. That’s definitely one of the reasons that I keep going back to shoujo. Even if the stories are similar to something that I’ve seen or read before, there’s enough variation in the narratives to make it different. Shoujo deals very well with emotional choices and their repercussions — illustrating the same struggles that we all have to deal with each day. My frustrations with the story and the characters may help me make better choices for my own life, especially if their circumstances mirror my own. There are stories and characters that are difficult to like, much less love… and that’s all right. Stories are reflections of our reality, and not all of it is easy to like, much less love.

Context and Consequence of a Stolen Kiss

It’s been a while since I’ve had more than two shoujo anime to watch in the new season. So maybe three is only one more than a couple, but it thrilled my little heart to see the previews — and now, episodes — for these series.

The stolen kiss — or more commonly, the stolen first kiss — is a shoujo trope as old as the sun. For the typical adolescent female, the first kiss is a momentous occasion; it marks her entry into the world of adult romantic relationships. Socialization has taught her that her first kiss will set a pattern for all future relationships, so it’s important that she chooses the right one for the first one. The stolen kiss is a popular yet intriguing trope since it removes the burden of choice from the female. Instead of the girl picking whom she’ll kiss, the other person makes the decision for her, hence the “stolen” descriptor.

For the three shoujo anime starting this season, all of them unsurprisingly show a scene where a character has a kiss stolen from her (or him). What are the implications of this stolen kiss to the plot? Were the characters primed for the scene or was it really a surprise? How could this stolen kiss affect the characters and the narrative later on?

Kamisama Kiss (Kamisama Hajimemashita) is the one that I’m most familiar with, having read a good chunk of the volumes that Viz has already released in English. The anime pretty much follows the manga plot to the letter, from Nanami’s first meeting with Mikage to her trip to the spirit world to get Tomoe back as her shinshi. I don’t remember which other anime blogger mentioned the rushed pacing, which didn’t bother me at all — I really would much rather get to the rest of Nanami’s crew as soon as possible since the Tomoe vs Nanami’s snark/love fest could get tiring really quickly.

I found it almost impossible to watch this series without thinking of its (Daichi) spiritual sibling, Fruits Basket. Same setup: girl without a home, stumbles on a new possible place to live, discovers her attractive new housemates are supernatural creatures. Nanami, though, isn’t a namby-pamby housemaid. She may not know exactly what’s going on, and what exactly are the implications of her being the new earth deity, but she isn’t going to take Tomoe’s abuse lying down. She’s going to take that bull, err, fox by the horns…

Nanami stealing a kiss from Tomoe is proof of her own personal agency. Onikiri and Kotetsu told her the kiss was the only way for the earth deity to establish the contract with the shinshi. Nanami had to make her decision quickly, even with the knowledge that being with the rude and oafish Tomoe may be one of the worst decisions of her life. On Tomoe’s part, I find it interesting that such an intimate human gesture would be the act that binds him in servitude. You’d think that a shinshi who’s obtained his freedom, albeit by neglect, would be more careful where his lips are pressed against.

My Little Monster (Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) is the one that’s raised eyebrows and ire throughout the (English-speaking) anime internet when it premiered last week. Haru needs to hire a quick-talking publicist to repair his image, stat!

Where Tomoe found himself being pulled to Nanami for a quick pucker, in My Little Monster, it was Shizuku who found herself on the receiving end of Haru’s luscious lips. From what happened in the first episode, I’m surprised that Shizuku was surprised that Haru would do something so audacious. How was it different from everything else that he’s done? Was his abrupt confession of love, despite their short acquaintance, not as shocking? Haru stealing her first kiss was perfectly in line and consistent with his personality and behavior.

Haru and Shizuku seem to me to be two sides of the same coin; where Haru projects his emotions externally and physically, Shizuku claims not to have feelings and instead hides under her mask of stoicism. They’re both socially awkward and are isolated from the bigger group. Haru recognizes these traits in her and maybe that’s why he was drawn to her from the get-go. Shizuku possibly felt the same connection, but her pride in being “Dry Ice” told her to hold back, since she might end up being hurt by him sometime down the line. After the kiss and Haru’s abrupt statement that he didn’t feel any excitement, would Shizuku’s opinion change? Is Haru worth the emotional investment?

The kiss scene in Say I Love You (Sukitte Iinayo) is the one which I felt was the most emotionally fraught. Mei Tachibana, like Shizuku in My Little Monster, has chosen to isolate herself from her peers, going years without saying a word to any of her classmates. She catches the eye of Yamato Kurosawa, the cute popular guy, who possibly has jboy-band aspirations with that snazzy hairstyle.

The initial chemistry between Mei and Yamato is really adorable. As Mr. Popular, he’s used to girls fawning on his every move, and since she’s not acting that way, he’s intrigued. He seems to think that she’s a challenge — not necessarily as a sexual conquest, but with more of an intention of finding out what makes her tick. Mei, with her limited experience with boyfriends, is at least cognizant  that Yamato is interested but doesn’t know enough of the social conventions of courtship. It was so cute when she thought that he wanted to exchange cell phones with her, not getting that it was shorthand for exchanging phone numbers. I have a feeling that Mei may not be ready for a relationship right this very second, but with Yamato, she appears ready to the idea of having a relationship.

When she calls Yamato to meet her at the convenience store, a kiss was probably the furthest thing from both their minds. I’d like to give Yamato the benefit of the doubt — that he came in there wanting to genuinely help her and calm her fear from the guy stalking her — I don’t think he went in there with a calculated ploy to steal her first kiss and her heart. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  For Mei, who’s just re-learning to navigate the headwaters of social relationships, having this unexpected first kiss is like having a tsunami hit her in the face.

For all these three couples, the stolen kiss is a gamechanger. The dynamics of their relationship will inevitably change because of this event, and it’s up to the couple on how much drama they’ll have to pass before ending up in romance happyland.

Kimi ni Todoke, Three Ways

I find it difficult to write about things that I unabashedly love. I always feel that I can’t accurately express how much something has affected me, so even if I write pages upon pages of words, those still wouldn’t be enough. Maybe I’m just hesitant to commit to something; there’s no way to take back a fangirl gush once it’s already out in the ether.

On this blustery September day, however, I will attempt to write about a series that I have loved from the first minute I saw it: Kimi ni Todoke. It’s a series that I feel is generally well-known, especially for fans of “old-school” shoujo (which I will explain in a bit), but which has also gained the begrudging respect of a more mainstream audience as well. It’s a  simple high-school romance — what is there about it that makes it so appealing?

Even though I’m a sucker for pretty things with little substance, I think Shiina KARUHO has managed to find a good balance between pretty art and an engaging enough story in Kimi ni Todoke. I really like the character designs for the main ensemble of characters, and especially for her leads, Sawako and Kazehaya. She is drawn like the typical high-school girl, unremarkable from the crowd, yet when the occasion calls on her to look beautiful or scary (Sadako mode!), Karuho deftly draws her to fit the mood. Kazehaya, in turn, is Mr. Perfect & Popular. He isn’t drawn model-gorgeous (like Yoh of High School Debut), but he fits the image of a sporty, all-around friendly, approachable guy.

I really love that her characters are distinct and identifiable. I’d never confuse Sawako and Chizu, and Ryu looks nothing like Kazehaya. Even the two characters who resemble each other the most in the manga, Ayane and Kurumi, are still easily distinguishable; just look at their eyes to make sure, Yano-chin (Ayane) wears more eye makeup! I know this isn’t primarily a problem only in shoujo manga, but I find it annoying when all of the characters within a single series resemble each other to the degree that I have problems telling them apart. Maybe I’m a lazy reader and don’t want to exert a lot of effort, but it could equally be a lazy artist, who can’t be bothered to make up distinct designs for their characters. I’d understand if  different characters among a number of series look like each other — that’s typical — but within a single work, two characters shouldn’t look like twins, unless they are!

Storywise, Kimi ni Todoke treads on familiar territory. It’s a story of a first love, of an average girl liking the popular boy, of two people who like each other but can’t seem to make the other person see just how much they do. When I mentioned the term “old school” shoujo earlier, it’s meant to describe the long, drawn out, sometimes frustrating road that our leads have to take just to get to the part where they can tell the other person that they like them. For a person who’s not familiar with shoujo manga conventions, watching Sawako and Kazehaya figuring out their relationship is worse than watching paint dry. It’s an interesting contrast to a series where the lead male and female start off their relationship fighting (like Makino and Tsukasa in Hana Yori Dango and a variety of Hollywood romantic comedies) so of course, by the time their feelings turn to affection, it’s after many chapters of misunderstanding and conflict. In Kimi ni Todoke, Sawako and Kazehaya are mutually attracted to the other from their first meet cute, but somehow, the misunderstandings took over before anyone realized it.

The anime, which lasted for two seasons, served as a gateway to the audience that wouldn’t have been following the manga to begin with. I mean, Production I.G. at the helm of a shoujo anime!? Maybe it’s worth checking this out.

What the anime was also able to show effectively was the series’ humor. When the manga’s main sight gag is how much the main character resembles Sadako from The Ring horror series, the anime does a better job of setting up the gag and the corresponding reactions than the manga ever could.

The anime also makes sure that it lingers just long enough at the moments where it needs us to pay attention, to see how Sawako and Kazehaya are falling in love, despite all of the obstacles that they or others have put in the way.

And then there’s the movie, which is the latest version of this series, and which is probably my least favorite incarnation. Even though it tried to get the essence of what makes Kimi ni Todoke represents, I felt that it rushed through the important moments and dawdled on the trivial things. For instance, I think that without establishing the back stories of Chizu and Ayane, it’s hard to understand why they would feel friendly towards Sawako. The two of them are considered “outcasts” themselves, maybe not to the same extent that Sawako is considered one, but if you were made aware of that in the movie, then it explains why their friendship started.

Though I have to agree with the author — the actors that they found for Sawako and Kazehaya are pretty much perfect. I’ve gone this long without using the adjective refreshing in this write-up, but Haruma Miura’s portrayal of Kazehaya is exactly how I pictured him to be, if he were a real-life Japanese high school boy. The way he smiles, the way he looks at Sawako, the way he does little things for her… it’s enough to make me want to be a high school girl again.

I sometimes look at my reading & watching patterns and even to myself, I find it curious why I’m gravitate so frequently towards series set in high school. I can’t explain why I like these stories and why they evoke a (fake) feeling of nostalgia since my own experience in secondary education was nothing like this, I didn’t even have a Kazehaya to dream about. Maybe that’s just the power of a good story, in that you’re drawn in to it, even without a personal frame of reference to judge on. Maybe I just like stories where a girl can find happiness and love, and possibly good friends and a cute boy to kiss and hold hands with. Maybe that’s it.

K-On! and the Dynamics of Female Friendships

Just a bit of aniblogger navel-gazing first: one of the reasons why I’m enjoying this a lot more now is because I feel that I can write about whatever the hell I want. It used to be that I felt pressured only to post about the latest and newest anime, preferably on an episode to episode basis, and I’m sure why you can understand why anyone would either burn out or get bored really quickly. Right now, I feel that there are enough blogs that cover a wide variety of anime and manga (and more importantly, enough readers who’d read that stuff), so if I feel writing about an anime series from 2009, it’s all right.

K-On! is a series that I didn’t understand, much less like, at first. You have a group of girls who are in a club/band, but don’t really do much except sit in the club room and drink tea and eat cake.  Multiply that by thirteen episodes, and done.  I’ve watched other anime about a band trying to make it — Beck, Nana, Kaikan Phrase — and those shows had  characters extremely passionate about their music and striving towards their ultimate goal of being the next big thing. I didn’t get the same vibe from K-On!

As I was finishing up the rest of the first season last week, I realized that I was the problem, not the show. As an anime blogger, I’ve conditioned myself to think, “this anime resembles ____ anime,” “if people liked ____ anime, they would also like this anime,” etc. That explains why I had originally thought that K-On! belongs in the band anime category, when in reality, it doesn’t. I couldn’t see the forest through the trees.

What I had perceived to be K-On! weakness is actually its biggest strength. The girls of Houkago Tea Time are at their best, well, during tea time.

From the beginning, the friendships between Yui, Ritsu, Mio, Mugi (and later Azusa) felt real. There was an easy familiarity among the girls that felt genuine. They all dispensed with formalities early on; nicknames were given to you as soon as you entered the club room. Teasing was commonplace, and you could say the dumbest things and nobody would judge you (too harshly) for it.

In American media, finding a work that shows this social dynamic among females is rarer than it should be. For U.S. movies and tv shows, the use of the “Bechdel test” still feels necessary to determine its feminist qualities. The test is a essentially short checklist which examines the role of women in the work: there should be more than one female character, they should be named, and they should have a conversation, the subject of which should not be about a man. If you use that criteria alone, K-On! passes with flying colors, but then again, so most anime series actually do.

K-On! is no Sex and the City; but if you take away the conversations about one-night stands and vibrators, what remain are the intimate conversations that each girl feels she can share with her primary network of friends. As a female, I can attest to the necessity and saving value of talking to your best friends and having your best friends listening to you, no matter how inane or pointless the subject. I was thinking maybe that’s why so much time was spent each episode showing the girls just hanging out. Their friendships may have started out easily, but to keep the relationship growing, you needed to show them nurturing it.

It could very well be that I’m overthinking this. Maybe K-On! is nothing but a show about cute girls doing cutesy, silly things. Even so, I’d like to think that this show paved the way for showing relatable (if idealized) friendships among females. Feminism isn’t just about one strong, competent female in a predominantly male world, but also about groups of females who are showing that together, they can do anything.