What Makes Kyoto Animation So Special?

I wrote another big article for ANN! This one’s about KyoAni! I’m super excited about it! I am guessing that is obvious!

I took a lot of time on this one, and am very happy I was able to segue directly from watching all of K-On! into getting to work on it. Kyoto Animation do wonderful work, and it’s nice to be able to celebrate that so directly. I hope you enjoy the piece!

What Makes Kyoto Animation So Special?

Chuunibyou

K-On! The Movie – Review

And to the surprise of no-one, my return visit to K-On! ends with the girls’ trip to London. This film wasn’t as strong as the show’s second season, but it was still relatively enjoyable; there was some retreading of material and some kinda awkwardly stretched-out sequences, but also a bunch of great jokes and some legitimately moving moments as well. Some of the London gags were great, like the very silly room-switch joke with Azusa and Yui. And the last two performances, along with the girls’ run across their school’s rooftop in between them, were extremely strong. I particularly liked Yui leaping off the stage into her classmates and then turning to play right back to the band – that reprise of the first season finale felt like a pretty beautiful capstone to their journey. K-On! is good, and this movie was pretty good too.

You can check out my full review over at ANN, or my movie notes below!

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K-On!! – Review

I have returned back from the land of moe moe kyun, replete with riches and wonders from that distant place. Though most of these treasures come in the form of silly gifs.

Yep, I watched K-On!!, the double-length sequel to the original KyoAni blockbuster. And as many people hinted, the show definitely did improve in its second season – both the atmosphere and jokes were leaned into more completely and effectively, and the show’s final peaks had some startling emotional weight. The show is light viewing through most of its run, but very consistently funny, and its articulation of the melancholy of graduation beats out basically any other show I’ve seen. It feels like I experienced life at the pace these characters did, which was clearly the intent, and definitely not an easy feat to pull off. K-On!! feels effortless, but its craft is remarkable. Easy to enjoy, and also easy to appreciate as a high-quality production.

You can check out my full review over at ANN, or my many episodic notes below!

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Fall 2015 – Week 5 in Review

One more week of anime has come and gone, meaning it’s time once more to sift through the embers and see what riches have been left behind. This was another reasonable week of anime in what is turning out to be a reliable but not particularly dramatic season. The only top tier show I’m watching is Owarimonogatari, and that’s been a known product for years – aside from that, it’s really just One Punch Man as the production powerhouse and Iron-Blooded Orphans as the stable narrative. If things continue at this pace, it’s looking like my top ten shows of the year will be 80% consumed by the year’s first two seasons – not exactly the most impressive finish to a year that started off coasting from Shirobako into Oregairu S2 and Euphonium.

That said, there’s still plenty to talk about in what shows we have left. And I’ve also heard Concrete Revolutio has been doing some noteworthy things – I wish I had a bit more love for pop art, but if you’re less put off by the aesthetic than I am, it’s probably worth a look. There’s always something worth talking about out there, so let’s take a break from the naysaying and run down some fresh new cartoons!

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K-On! – Review

Stepping back even further than Symphogear and Idolmaster, this week I reviewed the nameless moe beast itself, K-On! I was a firey young jerkoff the first time I watched K-On!, and dropped it a handful of episodes in, but this time I had a pretty good time with it. It wasn’t astonishingly good or anything, but it was a very enjoyable time, full of strong character animation and nice character-based gags. There were even a couple really heartfelt moments – most of these came from simple gestures of friendship between the characters, but the last, when Yui had to run to make it to their last performance, was a genuinely gripping sequence. K-On! probably won’t change your life, but it certainly works as a fuzzy temporary vacation from it.

You can check out my full review over at ANN, or my notes below!

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Fall 2015 – Week 2 in Review

Wednesday has come again! And it’s the second week of the season this time, meaning it’s time to a long, hard look at the shows I was iffy on for the first episode and likely drop half of them down the trap door. There were definitely some shows that earned the big red button this week, but also ones that held strong, and I even managed to find a show to pick up since my preview retrospective. I’ll just be covering second episodes here – you can find my impressions on all of the actual premieres back in that retrospective, and it’ll be going forward that all the shows get to share some space again. But it’s looking like they actually will have to share that space, since dear lord, this season might even have four or five solid shows. Let’s start at the top and RUN ‘EM DOWN.

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Top Shows Addendum

So I wrote my Top 30 Shows of All Time list, and that was great and super convenient for a while, until I came to a startling revelation – there are more than thirty good shows, and even worse than that, people keep making new ones. Clearly there’s no way I could have predicted this turn of events, but I’m doing my best to take it in stride. And in the spirit of promoting More Good Things, I’ve decided to create this Additional Top Shows supplement.

I don’t really want to cut off shows when they fall out of the thirty – I’d rather recommend more good stuff than less, and the number was initially envisioned more as a quality marker than a hard, arbitrary line. And so instead of having shows disappear and be gone forever, shows that drop out of the thirty, or that just barely don’t make it, will instead find their home here in the Top Shows Addendum. I hope you enjoy this jumbled list of Slightly Less Top But Still Pretty Great Shows!

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Feminism and Free!

Management: I’m a bit more heated here than my usual tone, but it’s an actually important topic, so I figured I should still post it. This was a straight-up argument, so I haven’t changed a word on either side to make sure no-one is misrepresented. It came about in response to my first Free! post, which apparently ruffled some feathers.

Question (sort of):

You didn’t need to tell us what a good little feminist you are (and oh so concerned with shitting on anything that might be remotely aimed at men) 27 times in one post.

Bobduh:

Shit, you got me! I only pretend to be a decent person to look cool on the internet.

Question:

For one thing, forcing yourself against your will to hate something that’s nothing but love and kindness (K-On!) because of some political ideology does not make you a good person – quite the opposite.

But even if we grant that your brand of feminism is what’s good, you’re still obnoxious in how often and aggressively you signal your adherence to it, just as it’s obnoxious when a religious person (who is also a “good person” by their standards) talks constantly about how much they pray and go to church.

Bobduh:

Forcing yourself against your will to hate K-On because of some political ideology

There is no part of this statement that I do not take issue with! First, there is no “force” involved here – my will, personality, and conscience mind are all in agreement that there is something deeply problematic about the archetypes displayed in shows like K-On, Clannad, Sakurasou, and any other number of shows where a female character’s infantilizing helplessness is supposed to be perceived as attractive. I am not going against any natural tendency here – every fiber of my body finds this stuff pretty disturbing, and I actually have repeatedly gotten in arguments on this board, and often just avoided other conversations entirely, because of it. You seem to think I’m just pretending to believe the things I say – I assure you, I’m not trying nearly that hard.

But this doesn’t address K-On itself, which I don’t actually hate – I honestly do believe the creators of that show were intent on making a lighthearted healing-type show, which is apparently what you got out of it. I did not intend to belittle your experience with the show, or their intent – what I take issue with is the specific style of characterization used, which is very prominent in many other less-defensible shows with overt romantic characteristics. I find those helpless  character  archetypes  indicative of an incredibly sexist and dehumanizing style of pandering. My problem is not specifically with K-On – I merely used it as an example because it’s also a KyoAni show and it bears a large number of humorous parallels to Free!, which is why I was referring to Haru as Mio throughout, etc.

Obnoxious in how often and aggressively I signal my adherence to it

I’m sorry my brand of humanism is so offensive to you! My first suggestion would be to possibly not read my posts, since they are all an extension of my beliefs and thus all likely contain the capacity to offend you, but I’d also like to add a little context here. First, and I’ve covered this earlier, but it bears repeating: I’m not filtering my voice through some outside agenda here. I’m cataloging my honest reactions, adding a little humor, and trying to show people my context on media. My first goal in writing these things is to better process my own thoughts, and become a more intelligent consumer of media (thus the questions of sexism and objectification will necessarily crop up here, since they’re such a big question when it comes to this show, and are obviously on my mind) – but in a roundabout way, you’re also right. My second goal is to impart something. Normally that thing is either my way of analyzing stories or my thoughts on media evaluation or my belief that humility and curiosity are the only ways to have a meaningful relationship with art. But my general worldview is also inescapably a part of that.

I’m not a religious person, but I can understand why a religious person would try and tell you how valuable their religion is, if they care about you – according to a great many faiths, if you’re not an adherent, you are eternally damned. That sucks! Why wouldn’t a religious person want to spare people they care about from that? And personally, as a non-religious person who instead believes that data is a real thing and prejudice exists and our world is incredibly goddamn far from a place where genders or races or sexualities or whatever can honestly consider themselves equal in society, government, law, or media, I think that downplaying this stuff, particularly in a setting where people actually read what I have to say, would be pretty inexcusable. I’m not hammering on my “agenda” here, but if my thoughts make anyone think that maybe continuously treating female characters like objects is a shitty thing to do, then I’d also be pretty fucking proud of that. If you find that obnoxious, whatever, read something else – but you can’t tell me it’s not sincere.

But seriously, I’m not actually trying with that – if I were trying, I could be doing much more directly relevant stuff than criticizing anime. This show is pretty dumb on a straight textual level, and so I find that outside of just making jokes, the most interesting angle to analyze it from is its relation to the pervasive sexism in the anime industry. When relevant cultural stuff crops up in other shows, I’ll certainly mention it, but this happens to be a show where that angle is likely the best one for encouraging meaningful discussion. I did not once think while watching this, “now would be a good time to propagate my subversive feminist agenda” – things just came up in my mind and so I wrote them down because I thought someone else might find them interesting. If that doesn’t work for you – well, sorry, no refunds.

Question:

First part: Apologies for being unnecessarily rude earlier – I did find your initial post a bit condescending. Although I can see where you’re coming from about helpless women, I don’t think this is an entirely fair portrayal of K-On! The girls in that show may be goofy and a bit childish in their personal interactions, but they’re also proactive and successful at their goals. They aren’t genuinely helpless and they don’t sit around waiting for men (or anyone else) to save them.

Second part: I think there’s a danger in jumping in too whole-heartedly into any political belief given the high possibility of those beliefs being at least least partially in error. Taking abstract beliefs completely seriously is powerful but dangerous, and can drive things like terrorism just as much as it can drive positive change (not that I think you’re going to bomb anyone). I did think it was a bit weak when you were about to criticize Free! for possibly being sexist against men and then cringed back because you were apparently terrified of being labelled an MRA neckbeard – I think it’s better to own your thoughts instead of fearing “thoughtcrime”.

For what it’s worth I have no comment on Free! itself – I don’t intend to watch it but anyone who does enjoy it is welcome to. I did think it was a bit lame that some people claimed to be watching it in an attempt to stick it to /a/ somehow – just watch what you want to watch and don’t worry about what some anon said about it.

Anyway, thanks for being reasonable when I started out being a bit snarky.

Bobduh:

Abstract beliefs

The thing is, the only real “beliefs” I’m proposing here are that all people deserve equal treatment, that various societal and systemic forces trend towards sexism, and that this extends to media as well. And none of those “beliefs” are really debatable – there’s endless academic evidence for it, and even a cursory examination of anime at large reveals the general tendency to objectify and infantilize female characters. I agree that unsupported beliefs are dangerous, but I think what you’re proposing here is equally dangerous – the idea that all viewpoints are created equal. They aren’t – there’s only one reality, and when all the evidence supports the idea that women are not given fair representation in media, the viewpoint in support of changing that becomes kinda self-evident.

Terrified at being labeled an MRA neckbeard

I was actually just making a joke there, and am not particularly worried about being labeled an MRA or whatever. I don’t deny that men can also be objectified in media (I mean, look at this show), but I think the relative objectification/agency ratio is so skewed towards male fantasies that raising a show like this as a counterpoint to sexism at large is pretty laughable. That was pretty much what I was trying to say with my joke: that Free!’s existence as a show that objectifies men does not excuse an entire culture of sexism in the other direction, farcically playing off the general tendency to use single isolated examples in order to “prove feminism wrong.”

Thanks for the apology, by the way. I try to stay as reasonable as possible, since we can’t really learn anything from each other if we’re just throwing barbs.

 

Nisemonogatari and the Nature of Fanservice

So, I just finished Nisemonogatari for the first time. And I’m pretty much blown away. And I need to talk about it.

(You might want to sit down, I’ll be here a while)

I’d put off watching this second season for a decent while, for two very specific reasons. First, while I found the first season very unique and artistically compelling, it didn’t really resonate with me at all until that last, basically perfect episode. And second, from everything I’d read online, it seemed like the second season amped the fanservice up to 11. And fanservice, well…

It’s bad. The way it’s normally used, it demeans and objectifies characters, and distracts/detracts from whatever a show is trying to do narrative-wise and emotionally. It makes the camera itself a lecherous observer of characters, and not simply the best framing device for the story being told. It adds to a value unrelated to a show as an artistic work, and in fact normally detracts from its artistic worth and the narrative/emotional weight of any scene. It demeans the audience as well, implying we’re unable to be entertained by the show’s actual worth, and the implications regarding my base-instinct-oriented nature colors my experience as a viewer. It proves that the creators of the show are not taking that show and its characters seriously – and if they’re not, why the fuck should I?

However

Nisemonogatari is not interested in fanservice.

Nisemonogatari is a show specifically about sexuality, perspective, and the conventions of camera use (yeah, I know it’s not an actual camera, bear with me).

Most fan service happens by making the camera take the perspective of an outsider, an intruder to the scene – or at “best” the perspective of the lecherous or hapless protagonist. Fan service is all about the male gaze, that is, women are framed in a way that accentuates their sexuality not because that’s how they see themselves, but just because the cameraman finds that sexy.

In Nisemonogatari, the cameraman has got greater concerns than that. Every shot is purposeful, and from a specific perspective or mentality.

Example 1: the scene with Nadeko.

In this scene, Nadeko is specifically and obviously trying to seduce the oblivious Araragi. To that end, Nadeko is in control of the camera. The camera is portraying her exactly how she wants to be perceived, and most of the humor of the scene is drawn from the contrast between her fumbling, obvious advances and Araragi’s upbeat obliviousness. This is the first of many scenes where a female character attempts to use her sexuality as a weapon, and Araragi’s responses make it clear that the camera is not from his male perspective – it is portraying the way she is attempting but failing to be perceived. Additionally, this is the first of countless scenes where almost all the emotional content of the exchange is contained in the direction, not the script. This isn’t surprising, considering this show is directed by the great Akiyuki Shinbo, but it’s clear even this early that Shinbo has a bone to pick with the way anime portrays sexuality, and his superior, winking control of the camera’s eye comes up again and again.

Let’s run through a few more examples. The next scene, Araragi meets his sister, and this is completely unsexualized – in fact, they even go so far as to incorporate a traditionally grossly fanservicey shot (a crotch shot), but because of her outfit and stance, it’s totally neutral. At this point in time, neither of these characters consider the other sexually at all, so why would the camera? Shinbo knows what many directors fail to either know or care about – that the positioning of the camera both has a significant emotional effect on the viewer, and always conveys information. Information about tone, about self-image, about stakes, about the way one character views another… anime is a medium with literally infinite framing potential, and Shinbo is going to talk about that whether the viewer likes it or not.

The next scene we’re with Kanbaru, and it’s back to “fanservice” – but the context is entirely different from the Nadeko scene. In this sequence, it’s a girl using her body to deliberately fuck with Araragi, because that’s the rapport they share. Unlike Nadeko, there is no subtlety in Kanbaru’s sexuality, both because that’s more representative of her in-your-face personality, and because she just knows Araragi better. She uses her sexuality as a weapon, not to seduce Araragi, but to simply throw him off guard. But again, she is entirely in control of the camera’s eye.

Skipping ahead, we have an episode where Shinobu is naked basically the entire time, but the tone and impression are completely different. The camera trivializes her nudity because to her, it is trivial – it is not sexualized, and is treated in a way very similar to Horo from Spice and Wolf – it doesn’t shy away from it, but also doesn’t fetishize or draw attention to it. Meanwhile, in a brief conversation with a fully clothed Hanekawa, the camera is all about the character’s sexuality. This is because Hanekawa is an inherently seductive presence to Araragi, and they both know it – the sexual tension just barely unacknowledged between them is apparent in the camera’s eye. Again, all these scenes contain the majority of their context simply in the framing of the character – while their conversations are more whimsical and plot or banter-focused, a huge amount of information about the relationship the characters share is conveyed through the camerawork alone. Intelligent cinematography is like a freaking superpower.

And now we get to the big one.

Episode 8. Dental hygiene. The last great point of this series.

To me, firstly, this episode is goddamn hilarious. The primary joke of the second half is, “brushing teeth should not be this sexy,” and that joke only works if the audience can feel how sexy it is for those characters. And this team is obviously gifted enough to know how to pull off a scene like that.

And that’s impressive enough on its own. But what I really think this episode is doing, what I think the point is from the beginning straight through the end, is talking about Intimacy.

I think, and this is pure hypothesis, but it seems pretty reasonable to me, that Shinbo asked himself, “what do people who love fanservice get out of it? Why are they watching an anime, and not just porn? What does this show have that actual direct sexual gratification lacks?”

Intimacy.

The toothbrush scene is so erotically charged because of the intimacy involved, and everything in the show/episode leads into this. First, Karen and Araragi’s relationship always has a weird, semi-flirtatious charge to it, as they’ve moved from younger traditional antagonistic siblings to one of those bicker-flirting couples. Then, everything Karen does at the start of this episode is designed to put Araragi off his guard and in a place of intimacy/discomfort. Her outfit does so much work here, and it’s all her intentional, meaningful decision. First, it serves as a striking contrast against both her normal outfit and her personality – the bee exercise outfit is absolutely her, androgyny is absolutelyher, carefree sexlessness is absolutely her, and putting her in such a constricting, gendered, sexually charged outfit serves to throw off all preconceptions Araragi has about interacting with her. Second, the fact that it isn’t her outfit, and in fact doesn’t fit her at all, puts her in a place of vulnerability, and this also throws off Araragi. Finally, it directly is designed to be sexy, and prove she’s in control of her sexuality, which is something Araragi has clearly been struggling to come to grips with as he attempts to act like a role model for his sisters. All of these things further Karen’s goals in this episode – make Araragi so uncomfortable he’ll agree to introduce her to Kanbaru. All these are choices of the character, not the learing cameraman, and the effect these choices have on both Araragi and the audience is very much the intended effect. Everything else she does – the confession about how his insults used to really get to her, her basically physically assaulting him – all these further that one clearly understood goal.

But I was talking about intimacy. So, what the actual toothbrush scene does obviously builds off this place of discomfort/vulnerability/overt sexuality she’s been intentionally provoking. It combines this with the relationship these two have been building, a great deal of bantering buildup, and a close monologue from Araragi to place the sex stuff in a position of complete emotional honesty. Sure, it’s also played for humor – but the humor is mostly based on the fact that it’s funny brushing teeth can be this sexy, and as I said, for that joke to work at all, the audience has to truly understand that this scene is sexy to these characters. Most powerful moments in most media are powerful not just because of the audience’s emotional reaction to a situation, but because they can empathize with a character’s emotional reaction to a situation. This effect drags us further into the text/film/show and girders our connection with the characters involved – at that moment, we feel for them more deeply than we do for ourselves. Thus, all the prep work of this episode works to help us understand these characters completely at this moment, and when they react to this scene as if it’s incredibly erotic, we can understand it to be erotic as well. The connection between the characters is honest, and the way the show is conveying their emotions to the audience is honest as well – intimacy is really just another word for honesty. This honesty, which makes this scene so strong, is a part of why most fanservice is so bad – because it’s dishonest to the characters, and portrays them as sexual objects when they’re not actually feeling like sexual objects in that moment. But more than that, this honesty is almost entirely lacking in conventional pornography. Conventional pornography is generally a collection of soul-deadened actors performing a service for a fee – sure, they’re naked, but it’s the furthest thing from intimacy you could possibly imagine. To find someone disrobe emotionally, you have to look to art. And so the point of this scene is “Even in a scene as ridiculous as this, honesty can make it ring true.”

One last tangent, but it was very interesting to me, and I never would have thought of it if not for the strong points raised by Nisemonogatari. I think this intimacy issue is a large part of why something like K-On is so damn successful. This is a kind of fractured and difficult point to make, mainly because the characterization in K-On is very difficult to describe as “honest,” but I think from the point of view that these are valid characters, K-On attempts to create a continuous mood of emotional honesty and friendly, unabashed intimacy. It invites the viewer into a safe, loving environment free from any of the hidden motives and defenses that characterize the real world, and is always completely honest with the viewer. For those who watch Community, K-On is basically like the ultimate Abed experience – a world based on rules you understand entirely that loves you unconditionally, and is willing to share all of its emotional secrets with you. Intimacy porn. I mainly bring this up because there was a thread a few days ago where someone said they like K-On because the characters feel “real.” Now, to anyone who knows anything about character writing or, frankly, human beings, that’s a ridiculous statement – but I think what was really meant there was that the characters feel honest, which, though they are very fabricated constructions, is certainly true within the context of that show.

So yeah, the toothbrush scene forced me to reevaluate and perhaps legitimize the emotional appeal of “cute girls doing cute things”. And I think that’s exactly the point Shinbo was trying to make – that sex will never be as appealing as honesty, and that intimacy is ultimately the core of the erotic. And that this, in addition to the issues about male gaze, camerawork, storytelling, and perspective he’s already addressed, is why fanservice normally hurts shows – it’s impersonal and dishonest.

So no, I don’t think Nisemonogatari is a big fan of fanservice. In fact, I think it’s the ultimate, staggeringly coherent statement against it, complete with endless demonstrations of the ways sexuality really can be used to enhance and augment storytelling. And I could not be more freaking impressed.