Category Archives: Unnecessary Articles

How Eromanga-sensei Made its Mark: Masochism and the Modern Otaku

There are few things the Western anime fandom can agree on, altogether. It’s hard to argue that Neon Genesis Evangelion wasn’t an monument of the medium, or that Berserk 2016 looked okay. But even when we unite on one opinion, we can still end up deeply divided.

This year, Eromanga-sensei was labeled ‘trash’ by both fans and haters, and rightly so. It goes beyond the idea of simply ‘trashy’ media (trash-like, sharing-qualities-with-the-idea-of-trash) and blatantly basks in its identity as a piece of garbage. For its devotees, it was one of the highest quality pieces of animated defecation the ‘idiot otaku gets surrounded by hot chicks of questionable ages and also his sort of his sister and fucks none of them’ genre has delivered. But among its critics, there have been some remarkably unfair judgements. In framing the show as one of his most hated of the year, Super Eyepatch Wolf did more than express his dislike of it: he didn’t believe that anyone could have been passionate about it. Continue reading How Eromanga-sensei Made its Mark: Masochism and the Modern Otaku

Advertisements

Confusing Desire: The Trouble with ‘Traps’

Last week, Youtuber and PC gaming personality TotalBiscuit sparked controversy when he took to Twitter to call for the removal of an attendant of CoxCon, a privately-run convention for fans of Jesse Cox. The man’s offense? During a panel fielding questions from the floor, he asked “are traps gay?”.

Opinions are split on how ‘insensitive’ it was to throw this internet meme into a public space where many identifying as trans would be in attendance. Two extremes were erected; either the question was harmless, and trans people just need to learn about the context of ‘traps’ online, or it was incredibly offensive, and those who disagree just need to learn about the contexts of trans history that render it that way. I can find sympathy with both positions. While the idea of a ‘trap’ online is indeed not supposed to refer to actual trans people, those who defend the meme have a habit of refusing any discussion of trans issues that explain why ‘offense’ was taken: how the same mindset leveled towards traps has been used to decriminalize violence against trans citizens through ‘trans panic’ logic. Many critics from the trans community can forget the distinct mindset that people bring to a space of dissociative play, but the primacy of that space can reinforce the notion that the marginalized are just a matter of ‘play’ themselves; ‘traps’ are far more commonly represented than actual trans narratives, and the latter are often consumed in ‘genre’ into the former. For many insensitive fans, potentially ‘-phobic’ jokes are no issue because they display no desire to take the marginalized seriously in the first place. Hate crimes against transgender victims should be a wake-up call these people. But to many, hate crimes aren’t enough evidence that the opposite – compassion – needs to be encouraged towards this community.

Controversy aside, there has been little critical discussion of ‘traps’ in modern media, especially around the anime fandom. For anyone getting into anime, it doesn’t take long to stumble upon just how creative Japanese storytellers can be with gender. In the world of hentai, futanari are bodies of female pleasure which are given male sex organs, blending a pornographic object ‘to see’ with a phallic symbol ‘to be’ in the same figure. In the wider world of anime, a similar mixture of gender codes is presented by in the ‘trap’ character, and two questions are always revolving around their iconography; what is the sexuality of a ‘trap’ character, and what does ‘liking’ them do to your own?

The answers to these ‘eternal debates’ – ‘are traps gay’, and ‘does liking traps make me gay’ – lie in the questions themselves.

trap5.jpg

The identity of ‘traps’ is signified by differences in both dress and behaviour that we would commonly associate with having certain sexual organs. When we consider ‘behaviour’, it is worth tracing the discussion of alternative of expressions ‘male’ identity into the case of ‘Camp’. “The way of Camp,” Susan Sontag notes, “is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization” (Sontag, 1964: 54). She repeats that “all Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy” (Sontag, 1964: 55). Sontag’s emphasis on artifice is productive when we consider the virtual-ness of traps themselves, and the exclusivity of many discussions of ‘traps’ to fictional, ultra-artificial characters from Japanese media.

As far as we can tell, ‘trap’ first gained popularity as a term through Bailey Jay’s history with 4chan (1). While the stigmatization of trans citizens for ‘trapping’ people for gay sex goes back further than these online interactions, it is worth contrasting that oppression with how self-identifying ‘trap’ Bailey Jay, and the 4chan community, chose to apply the term in order to express a different logic. Discussion around them was centered on confusion as to what their gender was, and they kept everyone guessing. Soon ‘it’s a trap’ memes, spoofing Star Wars, spilled out into further association of ‘trap’ with someone who would bamboozle you when you discovered their actual gender. But this was not used to push Bailey away from the community, as a danger to heteronormative men. Sure, they had the privilege of choosing a career of self-objectification in pornography; but that gave them a space to shape the idea of ‘trap’ not into an accusation of malintent. No – the real ‘trap’ Bailey posed to the 4chan community was how they would trap themselves. The ‘trap’ a viewer may find themselves in after coming to desire a character who they thought was a different gender is not the idea of a physical ‘trap’ of unwanted sex; it’s an admission of the awkward position their own sexuality is placed into. In definition, a ‘trap’ is a question rather than an answer.

trap1.png

Manga centered on ‘trap’ entertainment and fetishization carries this same message. In Reversible!, Shuu Kaido is forced to attend an all-boys school where half of the students must dress as girls (alternating with the other half) in order to understand what it’s like to be a girl – the kind of feminizing ‘becoming’ of the shoujo we see in the moe affect. The first few chapters are characterization by the exact same reaction to cross-dressing 4channers were struck with while Bailey Jay gave hints of one gender or another. Shuu is quickly overwhelmed with desire towards one of the ‘traps’, and his whole relationship is established on the foundation of that confusion. Both Bailey Jay and ‘traps’ in manga and anime occupy a fetishistic and explicitly virtual space. Bailey built their identity through message boards and their attendance at conventions that construct a similarly ‘virtual’ area for self-expression. Likewise, identifying a ‘trap’ is never a narrative device; like ‘waifu’, it’s a memetic reading of a character’s position in a wider database fantasyscape, that responds more to the reader’s confusion than it does to any strict visual or narratorial signifier.

It’s vital to keep in mind that gazing on virtual objects, as ‘play’, involves a very different mindset to considering a present transphobic ‘danger’ for someone in reality you perceive as a ‘trap’. What is the ‘danger’ of a ‘trap’ to the viewer of pornography, where the character is acknowledged as scripted and artificial? It is the idea of having your stable identity challenged; it is heterosexual men finding out they were lusting after another man, and having to reconfigure their ideas of what a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is to accommodate. The questions of ‘are traps gay’ and ‘does liking traps make me gay’ revolve around the same confrontation of perspective, and they survive as ‘memes’ because the answer to them lies in the very fact they’re asked.

trap4.jpg

With hetero men, the hostility towards being perceived as ‘gay’ could be considered homophobic, at least in an underlying sense. As Judith Butler observes, “Sometimes gender ambiguity can operate precisely to contain or deflect non-normative sexual practice and thereby work to keep normative sexuality intact”. Attempts to ‘deflect’ non-normative sexual practice (‘it’s not gay’) when it comes to traps work as evidence that readers want to consume something non-normative by redefining it as normative. But that instability of these attempts, through the absolute lack of consensus on the sexuality of liking traps, reveals how fans acknowledging that they are leaving the ‘normal’ to some extent. What they are mostly afraid of – and not as a phobia, because it’s quite rational – is the tearing down of what they believed they were. They are placed in a state of confusion as to how to code relationships with ‘traps’ in correlation to their self-image, and that confusion becomes the relationship itself.

This is what I think Alexis Sergio misreads, in an article condemning the ‘trap’ genre, when it comes to this media, as she feels that trap characters are the ‘butt’ of their respective jokes. While ‘traps’ are always used for a kind of comedy, this is the carnivalesque, the Bakhtinian matsuri that Susan Napier posits as one of the key ‘modes’ of anime (Napier, 2005: 13), where power dynamics are confused and undone. What’s being undone is not the ‘trap’ themselves; they are, in line with Judith Bulter’s perspective on the art of drag, contributing to the undoing of something else through their crossdressing: the ‘trap’ image “mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity” (Bulter, 1990: 174). ‘Traps’ are a kind of camp theatrical ‘fools’ that make jokes out of the normal folk around them, the bizarre surety that makes the common man unsure. You thought your sexuality was stable? Hah!

trap3

In the case of Saika Totsuka in OreGairu, their ‘trap’-ness is often highlighted by the kind of sparkly plane we typically get behind any expressions of over-the-top femininity, and fanservice. But the real ‘butt’ of the ‘jokes’ involving Saika is Hachiman, our ‘normal’ hero who offers us windows into his confused mind. Hachiman is confronted by one idea of gender-coded action but then reminded of another; the scenes wouldn’t be comedic without his reactions. Saika’s ‘trap’ identity is the subject upon which the ‘joke’ of Hachiman’s confusion is played. Saika, in comparison, is as moe as you can get. Towards Saika we may feel the affect of wanting to both safeguard their kind of expression and ‘become’ it at the same time. Towards Hachiman we laugh – he can’t deal with someone who has subverted his expectations of gender codes. But we may also identify with the confusion he is going through. He has been ‘trapped’, like the 4channers responding to Bailey Jay, and that’s his problem, not Saika’s.

What’s fascinating about the popularity of ‘trap’ media, therefore, is how it propagates narratives that create fantasy play around destabilized gender performativity, whether that involves becoming a ‘trap’ yourself, or drawing a ‘trap’ character that people acknowledge as existing in a virtual realm. These are not ‘progressive’ narratives trying to make a change in society, but they are evidence of cultural response to a less stable contemporary perspective on normative gender identity and performance.

The problem rests in when people forget the ‘fantasy’ aspect of their ‘play’. The idea of having strict practices for distinguishing such an environment is something otaku of all identities are very familiar with. As this blog has discussed when looking at Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, both male and female otaku in maid cafes participate in a practice many call ‘junsui na fantaji’ (pure fantasy). Failing to keep to the rules of this code is met with quick and severe ostracization; in an ethnographic study, Galbraith tells the story of Neko, who was shunned from his maid café community after approaching one of the maids for her number.

trap7.png

If an otaku can’t keep reality and virtual maid worlds separate, it’s not a stretch to consider them as someone who’d cause discomfort and harm in society. A large part of Japan’s maintenance of ‘taboo’-fetishizing otaku communities rests on such notions of ‘pure fantasy’ enduring: the way fans of moe only respond to ‘character’ and distinguish that from anything ‘real’, or the fact that the lolicon obsession has shown no correlation to actual pedophilia. If a fan of reading ‘trap’ media uses ‘trap’ to refer to trans people who don’t identify with the term, that’s them failing as a reader, and we should strongly criticize them for that. Everything can become porn in the hyperflat realm, and everything can be fetishized, especially if it’s popular, but consumers of such material have to know their boundaries. As with the case of Neko, we shouldn’t we lenient on those who forget them.

The West may currently be an example of this sort of system failing; many fans of trap media don’t know or care about real trans people and ‘trans panic’ issues at all. This adds to the impression that discipline with boundaries won’t help at all; how can we expect ‘trap’ fans to set up their boundaries if they don’t display any understanding of the reality of trans issues? But if other dissociative fandoms can do it, ‘trap’ fans can too. We might wonder at how there are no killings of trans women being ‘trapped’ by cishetero men in Japan; the nodal point of ‘trap’ characters is able to foster a  community’s fetishization of cross-dressing without letting harm spill into social reality.

trap8

Right now, grievances towards the ‘trap‘ community are justified not because their media is ‘problematic’, but rather because fans don’t display enough of an interest in the real issues that rest behind their jokey, memetic fetishization of cross-dressing. ‘Trap’ media is valuable insofar as it reveals a lot about the potential insecurities of its consumers, but with many of those fans even more insecure when it comes to considering that their fetish needs to know its limits, it’s no surprise that they’re causing a lot of discomfort for the trans community. Trans critics should still criticize their media, to reemphasize how it doesn’t actually represent them, but I really think their focus could be better directed at calling out idiots who can’t keep dissociative fetishes where they belong.

Fans of ‘trap’ media are trapped by the questioning of their own sexuality; they let characters have power over them and their heteronormative principles. There’s a lot of room here for trans voices to come in and exploit the chaos. But we need to know where the line is drawn: where ‘traps’ end, and real trans narratives begin.

1) Further research and discussion has made me realize that the lack of recorded pre-4chan 'trap' usage owes a lot to the general erasure of trans identities and communities at this time. While this remains to be a gap of evidence for there being any use of 'trap' pre-4chan, it also in and of itself emphasizes the need we have today to elevate trans narratives and voices, especially over 'trap' narratives that are primarily for fetishization and entertainment.

Citations:

  • Butler, Judith. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, 1990.
  • Napier, Susan J, Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (New York: Palgrave, 2005)
  • Sontag, Susan. “Notes on camp.” Camp: Queer aesthetics and the performing subject: A reader (1964): 53-65.

This article was another Patron request! All donations help me fund possible expenses from my research, and also contribute towards upgrading the tech at my disposal.

Defining ‘Anime’: A Linguistic Look

Thanks to Netflix’s Castelvania and the Internet’s unrelenting desire to argue about everything, the ‘but is it anime’ controversy has been reignited in full force. A few months ago, Mother’s Basement attempted to cash in on the debate by proclaiming that “Avatar is an anime. F*** you. Fight me”. Now that one of his sponsors has begun to co-produce anime – a project for which the music video of Porter Robinson’s Shelter may have been a test-pilot – it’s important that we continue to think about how the West has defined anime, and how that definition is becoming problematic. Has it ever been productive to think of ‘anime’ as only what the Japanese make?

In all senses of form, style and subject matter, Castlevania has screamed ‘anime’ to everyone. It’s only the production credits that hold some stubborn voices back from accepting it into the ‘anime’ sphere. If this is anime, they ask, then how do we draw the line between it and cartoons?

We need to revisit ‘anime’, as a loanword, in the wider context of how definitions develop. Continue reading Defining ‘Anime’: A Linguistic Look

Girls and Gears: The Problems with Male Mechaphilia

“This is a male thing […] With man stuff, the bigger the better. That’s been understood since the dawn of time. You’ve no business messing with our tradition.”

Squad Leader Charles Brenten, Dominion Tank Police

Being a man in a fanbase affords you some privileges. You’re the gender often assumed for random people online. You’re much less likely to be sexually harassment by other random people online. When you’re into something technical or technological, many would see it as natural; that there’s something ‘manly’ about science and such. From hobbies to career paths, a lot of people still look down on women taking ‘boys toys’ into their hands.  Continue reading Girls and Gears: The Problems with Male Mechaphilia

The Pleasures of (Re-)Reading: Spoiling Stories for Better *And* Worse

A few days ago, Super Eyepatch Wolf released a video asking, “Do Spoilers Ruin Stories?”. It does a good job capturing the situation internet culture has led itself into: the seemingly closed case of spoilers ‘ruining’ what we watch, contrasted against the ease with which they flourish on social media. The older the tale, the less of a damn we give.

While many strive to keep themselves unspoiled when it comes to new shows airing each season, we’re comfortable with ‘spoiling’ what we regard as some of the greatest stories ever written. My own handle, ‘JekoJeko’, is derived from the ‘Jekyll Jekyll Hyde’ song of an episode of Arthur, which condensed the plot of Stevenson’s novel into a three minute parody piece. When I eventually came to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I recalled the song before I began, and realized I had lost something valuable. Continue reading The Pleasures of (Re-)Reading: Spoiling Stories for Better *And* Worse

Omote, Ura and On: ERASED, Hanasaku Iroha and the Mother-Daughter Conflict

Families in fiction can feel like something universal. Loving your parents, and caring for your children, can strike us as things essential to our humanity; faulting them, likewise, can be monstrous.

But when we look across cultures, there is no single idea of ‘family’ that unites the world; household relationships are as much a product of our culture and society as the stories we tell about such structures. The families we see in anime are often readily understandable as though they were from the West, but there are details that become exposed when we tackle these stories with sensitivity to the way Japan thinks about its own families and social codes. Continue reading Omote, Ura and On: ERASED, Hanasaku Iroha and the Mother-Daughter Conflict

Dragon Maid and the Dissociative Imagination

The Western anime fandom can be rather reductive in how they consider ‘otaku’. Whenever they’re a point of discussion, the ‘otaku’ is usually figured by the community as male, casually perverted and distinctly out-of-touch with the world around them. Most of all, they’re billed as a pretty elitist group. As accurate as this may be in some cases, it’s overall inconsiderate in the picture it paints, as much as anime frequently reinforces that image. This season has seen something fresh come to our screens and streams, however: Kobayashi san Chi no Maid Dragon has been a bizarre and sometimes overwhelmingly adorable indulgence in the kind of ideal isekai otaku disconnect themselves into living within.

‘Cute girls doing cute things’ shows are known for their presentation of virtual, idealistic, accessible and fundamentally comforting worlds. Yet, Dragon Maid presents deviations from even the norms of this ‘genre’, depicting a mature Japanese salarywomen alongside a cast of widely varying age. Between Kanna’s elementary school and Kobayashi’s workplace, the high school which moe centers its sense of nostalgic escapism upon is missing. Episode titles are undercut by their subtitles, and over-exposure in the explicitly signified ‘fanservice’ episode is shunned rather than lauded. On the surface, these aspects of Dragon Maid promote a closer look at what kind of ‘world’ the show is drawing upon and modelling for its viewers. It’s not keeping in step with the trend of otaku-centered stories (thank God, there’s no light-novel MC), and it looks at itself with a sideways glance too. A closer comparison of what Dragon Maid presents against a wider idea of how otaku view and consume their media should therefore be productive. Continue reading Dragon Maid and the Dissociative Imagination

Misunderstanding the Mukokuseki: Why Fanservice Is Not On the Fringe

“What is perhaps most striking about anime, compared to other imported media that have been modified for the American market, is the lack of compromise in making these narratives palatable.”

– Susan Pointon

“…what appears to be be the single most asked question about anime in America, “why is anime so full of sex and violence?” is an inquiry that, while betraying an ignorance of the complexity and variety of the art form, is still significant in that it reveals the bewilderment of Western audiences in confronting so-called adult themes within the animated medium.”

– Susan J Napier

I’m sure my country’s recent ban of various sex acts in pornography wasn’t on many people’s Christmas list. Not because of any particular fetishization of any of the practices listed; it’s alarming due to the sense of a growing trend journalistic fans of anime should be all to familiar with. The practically Victorian belief that our media must be purged of any images we (that is, the social elite that stand to represent and essentialize us) find morally unsavory, and the result being dominated by a limitation of the expressions of women in media, to serve as a condemnation of the ‘patriarchy’, the ‘male gaze’, and so on. Continue reading Misunderstanding the Mukokuseki: Why Fanservice Is Not On the Fringe

Quiet, Euphonium! I Want to Hear the Rest.

Hibike! Euphonium has nearly finished its second season. The storylines have been tight, weaving between the struggles of Kumiko’s senpai and chipping away the mask of Asuka, and Kumiko’s own reservations throughout it all. No-one can fault the talent that KyoAni have pulled together on this project. But even as all the details come together to make something magical, there’s something holding all of it back; a change from the show’s first run that undoes a lot of the synergy that initial arc established between musical performance, social dynamics and narrative style.

Continue reading Quiet, Euphonium! I Want to Hear the Rest.

Moe, Maturity and Reading Like a Man: Beneath the Surface of Shirobako

An anime about making anime and celebrating the industry wins multiple awards from the industry. Passing comments might be skeptical of how self-centered the anime business has become. But those who have watched Shirobako know well how deeply it deserves its accolades. It’s a coming-of-age story that abandons the typical high school setting, but retains the moe aesthetic for its femicentic main cast. Combining the realistic struggles of a workplace with the hyperreal glaze of cute girls and boundless enthusiasm, it’s got both reality and moe firmly in its heart, and comments often on how the two conflict and co-operate in various capacities.

The success of Shirobako has however attracted a lot of attention from critics seeking to downplay its value for women, affirm the lie of ‘anime is a boys club’ to fabricate outrage, and use the show as a platform for continuing the anti-moe sentiment permeating much of our Western community. Continue reading Moe, Maturity and Reading Like a Man: Beneath the Surface of Shirobako

Porter Robinson finds Shelter in A-1 Pictures

Shelter tells the story of Rin, a 17-year-old girl who lives her life inside of a futuristic simulation completely by herself in infinite, beautiful loneliness. Each day, Rin awakens in virtual reality and uses a tablet which controls the simulation to create a new, different, beautiful world for herself. Until one day, everything changes, and Rin comes to learn the true origins behind her life inside a simulation.

A-1 Pictures get a lot of flak from the more ‘critical’ side of the anime community. From angst at the popularity of SAO to Youtuber Digibro’s well-documented hatred of the studio’s work, there’s a lot to debate about their artistic vision and how much commercial tunnel-vision they often suffer from, especially in their light novel adaptations.

But after seeing their short film for Porter Robinson and Madeon’s song ‘Shelter’, I can no longer entertain the idea that they’re the ‘McDonald’s’ of anime. Shelter is short, but it’s no fast food meal. It’s a precious example of everything that can be done when anime deviates from its commercial angle Continue reading Porter Robinson finds Shelter in A-1 Pictures

Mahoutsukai no Yome’s Magical Realism

It can be hard, when telling a story about magic, to get the audience on the level of your imagination. As much as viewers may be willing to suspend disbelief, it takes far more work to get them enthralled in every moment of your world, and wanting to see more and more of it. But Mahoutsukai no Yome, ‘The Ancient Magus Bride’, a three-part OVA series set to air over the course of a year, has began its tale with a crash-course in how to effortlessly weave the mystical into the mundane.

Continue reading Mahoutsukai no Yome’s Magical Realism

What’s the Matter with Moe? An Inside Look

Previously, The Mary Sue argued that we should be critical of ‘objectification’ by ignoring contexts of characterization and treating anime girls as no more than objects in the first place. Now they want the community to be ‘critical about cuteness’, as they vaguely denounce the ‘adult male’ viewership of moe as misogynistic, and conclude that moe is ‘alienating’ for those who want to see ‘real women’ in anime, and not the lovable and hyperreal figures modern Japanese culture is full of.

Continue reading What’s the Matter with Moe? An Inside Look

A Defense of Academia: Why Reading Matters

Over the past year I have, out of instinctive habit, established a status quo of researching any idea I have a concern about. Every great essayist, past and present, has taught me that your own ideas aren’t enough to persuade people towards your opinion. Processing the efforts of others, in agreement and disagreement and neutral puzzling-out, is what elevates a discussion from casual to critical. Criticism basks in the glow of research, and better critics are almost inevitably marked by how much more they have read, and how much better they approach their studies. It’s a profession like any other – the harder you work, the more credit you deserve.

Continue reading A Defense of Academia: Why Reading Matters

Fanservice, Feminism and What’s Really Being Objectified

The Mary Sue has written on fanservice in anime for the second time. ‘In anime’ might be a stretch however. The blog isn’t inclined to treat any subject they comment on with any sensitivity to the work as a whole. They splice out bits that seem to prove their points and ignore anything that could define it differently. So I want to make a counter-claim. In their most recent article, celebrating ‘sexiness’ that isn’t objectification, I don’t believe the writer is aware of what objectification really is in feminist terminology. I don’t believe the writer represents the interests of feminists at all.

Continue reading Fanservice, Feminism and What’s Really Being Objectified

Why Genre Matters for ERASED: ‘Playing Detective’

If you’ve been following discussions over the quality of Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, or ‘ERASED’ for Western viewers, you’ll have surely come across the issue of whether or not it deserves the ‘mystery’ genre tag MAL and a number of other anime sites give it.

The camp that says it must be a mystery tends to just note that it has ‘a mystery’ and therefore must be of that genre – that genre being, more specifically, the ‘whodunnit’ genre where we expect to follow a detective as he slowly unravels a crime. The camp that disagrees tends to argue that the killer was supposed to be obvious, that Satoru ignores his expected role as a detective ad goes on a different path, and that’s what contributes to it being a drama-slash-thriller. But neither of these positions fully grasp what ERASED was setting out to do with its story. That being said, it didn’t do that particularly well either.

Continue reading Why Genre Matters for ERASED: ‘Playing Detective’

The Real Entrapment of Re:Zero

It’s hard to watch anime without having watched something set in a video game. Sword Art Online may have started a ‘craze’, or just confirmed and satisfied the preexisting desire of the market. Either way, because of the poor quality of many of its iterations, some people have become certain that the ‘trapped in an MMO’ setting/genre is dead and devoid of potential.

But the genre’s progress is being marked in its destabilization. Re:Zero, now in its second cour, is taking anime communities by storm in its outcry against escapist, wish-fulfilling stories and the people indoctrinated through them. In fact, Subaru’s suffering is in keeping with the history of every popular fad of genre and setting based on social convention, as those social conventions, through the settings they manifested into, came under attack by the critics of their time.

Let’s go back; quite a while back. The 19th century, Victorian England. The popular theater was booming, and fans would go for a programme full of plays to suit all dispositions. The melodrama was one common, predictable genre that we could translate today into any  over-the-top action shows full of special effects. And the special effects in the theater back then were rather incredible. Wanted a mob of hundreds of people on stage? Sure. Set fire to the set, bring on a fire engine? No problem. But another popular genre was the ‘drawing room play’. Quite simply, a play set in a drawing room, where drawing room stuff happens. Comedy, drama, social angst. You had ones that embraced it and ones that ‘deconstructed’ it.

Today, no-one with any consideration for the Victorian period calls out this ‘drawing room’ genre, this cliche of a setting, as a problem in itself, like people are nowadays with the MMO setting. There were good and bad versions of it, and the more it endured onstage, the more theater evolved. Later plays were far more often ‘deconstructions’ of the type – see Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and her suicide as the crux of that – and then they morphed into all sorts of other things and stopped being called ‘drawing room plays’ at all, particularly once the theater-going public stopped having drawing rooms to relate the setting to.

Fast-forward to today, and one of the world’s popular theaters, anime, has its own ‘drawing room play’ – the ‘trapped in an MMO’ story. Why link the two so completely? Because they’re the same thing, essentially. Both are, sociologically, set in ‘third places’ – accessible places we go to that let us socialize freely and relatively cheaply – that also feel like part of the home while also separate from it: the drawing room is literally part of it but is its own sphere of social rules and dynamics, while an MMO is played in the home and likewise involves a different ‘self’ to the one you’d perform to your mum as she walked in.

They’re comfortable locations that the viewing public, as a whole, are going to connect with, and the familiarity of the setting allows for humour and themes using the setting to be more succinctly delivered. They also both involve some extent of ‘performance’ as separate from your ‘real’ self. The way Nishimura meets his friends online in Netoge is tantamount to how the middle and upper class of Victorian England used to meet their friends in each other’s drawing rooms. In short, they’re born from our habits as an audience, and will die with them too. Especially once those habits themselves start being scrutinized under the microscope of fiction.

As with the ‘drawing room play’, shifts are noticeable. World of Warcraft once had its day, but now the most popular collaborative online games are more confined multiplayer arenas – MOBAs, multiplayer shooters and card games – or far more player-constructed settings like Minecraft. With the MMO cliche attracting more and more criticism, and MMOs themselves fading away from the playerbase like the drawing rooms of Victorian England no longer became a thing, the genre can be said to be moving on through the same pattern every popular theater goes through.

More and more MMO shows involve self-aware commentary, good or bad, displaying an attempt to pull apart at the trope. The genre is just like any popular fad based on what ‘third place’ the public associate with the most, and it’s noticeably starting to fade. KonoSuba, for instance, was a stab at many traditional RPG, Dragon Quest-esque cliche. Rather than pan the whole genre as an irritating, over-abundant cliche, it’s worth looking carefully at how it’s changing and evolving in such a short space of time, and how more and more works are tired of just accepting the cliches and the perspectives that come with them. We ought to be getting more and more interesting commentary on it in its future iterations.

Some might argue Re:Zero is already championing that shift, as Subaru has become a critique of not video games, but the way otaku are indoctrinated into thinking they’re the Main Character of everything. He begins as a ‘self-aware’ MC but eventually the show starts picking on him for that very faculty, because what he thinks he’s aware of is in fact a bunch of delusions. He may be the main character of this story, but he is not the main character of this world. Emilia is not his ‘waifu’ who always needs him; the Emilia in his head is so far removed from the Emilia in the fantasy world’s realityHe does not just get super-powers whenever it’s convenient; he’s severely underpowered and in way over his head at this point in the story.

Part of Re:Zero’s appeal is it takes the assumption we’ve seen that an otaku would get transported into a big wide world and suddenly have the people skills they never had with real people, and says ‘nah, I’m pretty sure he’d become a narcissist instead’. Subaru thinks he’s in a ‘third place’ of a MMO world where he’s just there to have a pleasurable experience, but instead he suffers. He only gets more uncomfortable the more he tries to pretend he’s still in the comfort zone he’s been pulled away from.

To continue the terminology of sociologist Ray Oldenburg I’ve used in this discussion, Subaru’s character is a result of never having a ‘first place’, the sociological home, and seemingly never being used to having a ‘second place’, work, either. The only flash we get of his normal life is at a convenience store, and his whole life is just convenience. As a shut-in, his reality is a bunch of fantasies, and this is quickly signaled by his rapid acceptance of the fantasy world. He doesn’t treat it as abnormal because normality is abnormal to him.

His personality and all his failings from that point on are the result of being part of a generation growing up without first or second ‘places’; people who want to escape permanently from such places, and may have even succeeded. People who want their only responsibilities to be things the world has coded to be manageable. The realization that these people don’t actually deserve to do well when they get stuck in a ‘real’ MMO. They deserve to have the shit kicked out of them, become mentally unstable, and ruin all the relationships they’re ever offered and manage to make any progress in.

I therefore want to see Re:Zero, at least so far, as a really good step forward for the ‘trapped in a fantasy world’ genre. Rather than a character being mundanely aware of their surroundings, its us the show makes aware of just how problematic an addiction to White Knight narratives and ‘virtual third places’ can make a person. The more elliptical Subaru’s past is, the more it seems to have no place in his mind, and the more we question if he ever lived any life other than a fantasy at all, and come to think that Subaru isn’t trapped in this world. No; he’s trapped in his own social non-existence before coming here, and how much he’s ruined his ability to relate to anyone. He only knows how to self-insert into himself, with disastrous consequences.

The ‘Zero’ in Re:Zero’s title isn’t just a reference to Subaru having nothing in the new world; in fact, he has his phone, and great strength, which help him a lot early in the story. The ‘Zero’ repeats to the viewer, every time Subaru makes another mistake, and goes deeper into his hole, that a life lived in fantasies isn’t a life at all.

 

Bananya has better characterization than Rewrite

It’s easy to default to thinking that a longer show will have more value for its characters simply because it has more time to develop them. But Bananya – a highlight of this season – and Key’s adaptation of Rewrite have proven that it’s what you do with your time, not how much time you have, that counts.

Continue reading Bananya has better characterization than Rewrite

Anime Authorship: All for One, not One for All

There is too much iconography being spread around for a select few names in the anime industry. It’s like people can’t see these names without slinging a bag of worries on their back before they watch, to burden the writer’s every chance of developing their story and their own image; a statuesque meta-narrative of their past work and what they think of it, claiming everything falls in line with it only because they make it fall in line. Continue reading Anime Authorship: All for One, not One for All

Misundersandings of the Irrational Fortress

Of all the prejudices being thrown around this season, I’ve never been able to understand why many have rendered Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress as ‘dumb’. An easy criticism keeps coming up, that when we’ve got zombies and characters acting irrationally, we’re got a poorly-written show. Not only does this miss the point of how irrationality is used in fiction; it ignores the context of every ‘irrational’ event that happens. Foolishness is in fact a massive part of what makes Kabaneri such a potentially engaging show.

Continue reading Misundersandings of the Irrational Fortress