Animeta has a very simple premise: Shirobako was a huge hit, so why not copy it? It's easier to list the differences than all the commonalities: Animeta has a single plucky girl protagonist instead of five; she's strictly an art department type; the story, despite being published in a seinen magazine, follows a shounen model; and the format allows for more in-depth explanations of the production process.
To begin, our Plucky Heroine, Miss Miyuki Sanada, applies for a job at an animation studio despite having zero experience or training. She gets through the first round of the application process by dint of being the heroine. Something, something raw talent. The second round, however, involves a practical exam where she has to draw images that come between two key frames, and this she muffs completely. The review panel takes one look at her art and dismisses her... or they would if it weren't for the maverick director who decided to sit in on a whim. He immediately recognizes that Our Plucky Heroine has what it takes to become a great animator.
Of course in the finest Dumbledore fashion, he doesn't tell her this. Oh no, explaining things straight out would spoil her. Instead he stays silent through the interview, lets her think she's crashed-and-burned, and then quietly has her hired.
But rather than bring her in and train her himself, he gives her over to Ms. Fuji, a domineering taskmistress who's renowned for driving newbies to quit. Mistress Fuji rides even the most talented new-hires hard; for our Plucky But Untalented Heroine, she reserves the full R. Lee Ermey treatment, forcing Miyuki trace and retrace the same picture for days on end until she finally gets it perfect. Of course we in the audience aren't meant to see it that way. We're privy to the Maverick Director's reasoning, which is that while most of Mistress Fuji's students end up quitting the industry in frustration, those who persevere become masters of animation. Which is supposed to make us feel better about watching Miyuki get ground down like a piece of talc under a bulldozer.
This juxtaposes oddly with a bit later in the story where Mistress Fuji explains the brutal economics of being a newbie animator--to wit, if you maintain an exhausting pace for eighteen hours a day, you will just about earn enough not to die in a gutter. This honest assessment of anime labor practices is the starkest contrast between Animeta and Shirobako. Of course, PA Works, which produced Shirobako, is rumored to be one of the more exploitative anime studios, so the fact that they romanticized the industry should be no surprise, but still, points to Animeta for honesty.
But then the implication at the end of the volume is that the Maverick Director has Big Plans for Our Plucky Heroine, and she'll be able to skip over the worst hardships. I understand this may be necessary to keep the story readable. Few people want to slog through a manga about struggling animators sleeping under their desks and filching sugar packs from the convenience store for sustenance.
But dammit, that's what I want!
If you enjoyed Shirobako and like the idea of a workplace dramedy that follows the logic of Hunter x Hunter, this is your thing. The characters are likable as long as they aren't your coworkers, the abusive labor practices make for good drama, and the art is pretty enough to look at even if it doesn't pop. This is a good manga to turn your brain off with and just relax.
There are lots of disturbing light novels out there. Magical Girl Raising Project, where the cast has a casualty rate that puts most zombie movies to shame; Ao Oni, which places the characters from a slasher movie into a timeloop where they die gruesome and horrible deaths again and again; and Grimgar, which is so bleak that the author's stopped killing characters so he can find even worse things to do to them.
But few can hold a candle to A Sister Is All You Need. This is a twisted tale about one of the most fucked up people you will ever meet.
Naturally, he's a writer.
But not just any writer. Itsuki is one of those light novel authors who churns out multiple volumes of multiple series per year, and every last one of them involve guys who want to bang their little sisters. Itsuki doesn't, so far as he knows, have a sister himself. His fetish is theoretical only. What cranks his motor is the idea of having a girl who is as emotionally needy as himself but willing to support him unconditionally.
So he writes every variation on the fetish he can imagine--and he has quite the imagination. So much so that his editor rejects most of his proposals as beyond the pale. The first volume, for instance, starts with an excerpt from one of his manuscripts that ends with the protagonist eating his sister's panties for breakfast, and that's not even the most outrageous example of his writing we're given.
Of course, the series isn't just about a guy writing wank fantasies. In fact, most of it is disturbing in completely different ways.
The plot, to the extent it has one, is a lackadaisical look into the life of light novel authors. Mostly this is indistinguishable from the life of nerdy college students--they drink more beer than is medically advisable, stay up late playing D&D, go on spur-of-the-moment roadtrips, and (very occasionally) hop on a computer to write.
There's Nayuta, a female author who would like nothing more than to screw Itsuki so hard his brains melt--something she makes sure to mention twenty times in every scene she shares with him. In the scenes she doesn't, she's usually harassing one of the other female cast members into getting naked and making out with her. Some of these scenes--and they're described in more detail than anything else in the series, and accompanied by illustrations that you wouldn't want to be caught looking at in public--go so far that they'd meet most people's definition of sex.
Her main target is Miyako, a friend of Itsuki's from college who has a pleasant but passive personality that makes her perfect for Nayuta to push around. Mostly, though, Miyako exists so the other characters can explain to her how the publishing industry works, and to be the target of a crush from Itsuki's other writer friend, Haruto.
Haruto is the guy who makes sure the good times are always rolling, providing both the beer and games for their gatherings. Despite that, though, he's a highly dedicated writer, turning in his manuscripts well ahead of their due-dates, and making effusive posts to social media. Sadly that hard work doesn't pay off. Though he's a successful author, he's not a superstar, and when his series gets adapted into an anime, it ends up sucking because the studio put all their effort into a more popular work. Honestly, he's far more sympathetic a character than the actual lead characters.
This cast is joined from time to time by other hangers on.
There's Setsuna "Jigglyass" Ena, the illustrator for one of Itsuki's series, who's renowned for, well, drawing jiggly butts. To hone his talents, though, he needs to find models, and he's not above pantsing a girl on the street to get a look at her butt. This is not only supposed to be funny, but when he becomes obsessed with finding her identity, it's presented as something we should sympathize with.
Then there's Ashley Ono, an unscrupulous tax consultant who helps Haruto and Itsuki deduct their porn expenditures as business expenses; Kaiko Mikuniyama, a manga artist who is obsessed with drawing characters in their underwear even when that's not what the story calls for; and Kenjiro Toki, the editor who has to rein all these weirdos in.
But most significantly there's Itsuki's step-brother, Chihiro. Except, as we learn at the end of the first volume, Chihiro is a girl. You see, Itsuki's dad is fully aware of what sort of books his son writes, so when he remarried, he asked Chihiro to pretend to be a boy around Itsuki lest Itsuki act upon his deviated preversions. But despite those precautions, it's clear that Chihiro is developing exactly the sort of feelings for her brother that he's always wanted from a sister.
Now granted, Itsuki and Chihiro are only step-siblings, and while Chihiro is still in high school, the age gap between them is only three or four years, but still, for a series that's trying to be a meta-parody, at times it's far too earnest. As with Hirasaka's previous series, Haganai, he simultaneously wants it to be a hilarious farce and a heart-tugging romance, with the result being a bit of a mess. Setsuna has straight up committed sexual assault. We're supposed to find it far enough over the top that we can forgive it, yet still take him seriously enough that we sympathize with his search for butt-girl. Nayuta is even more over the top, and her behavior often verges on sexual harassment, but Hirasaka still wants us to take her relationship with Itsuki seriously. Ditto with Chihiro's feelings towards Itsuki.
The result is almost paradoxical. If the characters are cartoonish enough that you can laugh at their bad actions, you can't sympathize with them; but if you take them seriously, you end up wanting half the cast dead. It's like putting pineapple on a pizza. Pineapple's good on its own, and so is pizza, but they absolutely do not belong together.
American manga fandom is an outgrowth of anime, and as such the titles that get licensed over here tend to be the most anime-like. That's changed somewhat in the last few years as publishers have taken chances with the likes of Inio Asano, Shuzo Oshimi, and Nagata Kabi, but by-and-large when you go into the manga section of a bookstore, most of what you're going to see are covers that look similar to what's popular in anime.
This is the exact opposite of Japan, where manga is the mainstream and anime is a niche. There are tons of manga that will never get animated because they aim at a different audience from the folks who stay up late to watch Trapped In Another World with My Grandmother Who Is a Sword. One of the major reasons I'm learning Japanese is so I can read stuff like that, because, quite frankly, modern anime has gotten hella boring. Most of the stuff I want to read is still way beyond my reading level, but with a bit of digging I've managed to find some stuff that's up my alley.
One of those is Change! (Search for Flowers in Parts Unknown to Me) by Masahito Soda. This is published in Gekkan Shounen, the same magazine as Your Lie in April, Norigami, Alive and Beck. That last one is significant, as in many ways Change! is Beck's spiritual successor. It's set in the same sort of gritty Tokyo music scene, with people wearing realistic fashion and listening to the sort of music people in the real world listen to. But this is 2019, not 1999, so instead of alternative rock, our protagonist is on the road to becoming a rapper, and instead of a teenage boy, our hero is a girl.
Shiori is a rich girl attending one of those prestigious all-girls schools that rich bastards send their daughters to so they grow up to be good wives for other rich bastards. She's been so inculcated with submissive attitudes that when we first meet her, she's not just a goody-goody but a full-on narc.
When she catches a classmate named Miki listening to music between classes, Shiori tells her she's supposed to keep her phone in her locker during school, thankyouverymuch, and as a duly appointed hall monitor, she'll have to report Miki if she catches her doing it again.
Miki is one of the school's few rebellious students and does not take this well. She tells Shiori, "You know how I can tell you're a bitch? They've got you in a collar and you don't even know it."
Shiori, who lives such a perfect little princess life that she's never been called a bitch before, is deeply bothered by this and can't stop thinking of it in class. Later, when she goes to the office to file her daily narc report, she overhears a couple teachers talking about a rumor that a student from the school has been seen working at a Shibuya nightclub, which is a big no-no for this kind of school.
Shiori deduces that the student in question must be Miki, and that night she goes out to Shibuya to warn her, thinking that this will prove she's not the school's lapdog. The club in question turns out to be hosting a freestyle rap battle that night, and when Shiori walks in, she's instantly entranced by what she sees. She imagines herself on stage, laying the perfect disses on Miki.
For her own part, Miki is none too enthused to find Shiori there, and the two get into an argument right away. When the MC announces that a last-minute cancellation has opened a slot in the next rap battle, Miki shoves Shiori onto the stage with a shout of "Ojou-sama represent!"
Now, you might think at this point Shiori is going to tap into some previously unknown talent and prove herself a brilliant rapper. If you do, you're way wrong. Shiori completely bombs. She doesn't start off too bad, but without any training she can't keep up with the beat or land her disses at the right moments. To make matters worse, her opponent savages her, calling her flat chested and telling her to go home and make him dinner because rap battles are no place for kittens. In the end, Shiori gets so flustered that she tells the audience none of this matters because rap is meaningless.
You can pretty well guess who the audience picks as the winner.
But even if she's a girl, Shiori is the protagonist of a shounen manga, and that means defeat inspires her. Lucky for her, Miki is also a shounen character, and seeing Shiori get owned is enough for her to let bygones be bygones. She agrees to become Shiori's Obi-Wan and teach her the ways of hip-hop.
I said earlier, I picked Change! to read because I'm looking for manga that's different from what gets published in the US, and that is true enough. But I'm also still learning Japanese, and almost as important as a good story is whether the text will hone my skills. There've been a couple times when I've started a manga and had to stop after a few pages because the writing is over my head. I don't mind a challenge, but too much of one and reading becomes a slog.
In that regard, Change! is a strange beast. This is the most difficult manga I've gotten through so far, in large part because of the hip-hop slang and the fact that a large part of the book consists of rap lyrics, but also because Soda is the sort of writer who likes to play around with language in ways that can be frustrating for newbs.
For instance, Japanese has this weird thing where a word can be written with different kanji to provide different connotations, as with the verb kiku, which can be written as 聞く (to listen, to hear, to ask), 訊く (to ask) or 聴く (to listen). The first form is taught in second grade and is far and away the most common, but Soda is the sort of writer who likes to drop in variant kanji, so for example, when the MC wants the audience attention, he shouts for them to listen up using the 聴 form, which means a word I should be able to read easily needs me to look it up instead. And because JP->EN dictionaries don't always disambiguate the different connotations for kanji like that, I then have to do a Google search to figure out why that particular kanji was used over the normal one.
Soda's writing style can also leave his meaning elusive. For instance, I mentioned earlier that when Shiori catches Miki listening to music between classes, Miki comes back, "You know how I can tell you're a bitch? They've got you in a collar and you don't even know it." But that's a very loose translation on my part. The actual line is something like, "Shitdog, invisible collar attached." I spent twenty minutes trying to figure out what Miki meant before I gave up. It wasn't until a day later that it suddenly hit me.
But despite all that, I blew through this manga in two nights. That's in large part due to the fact that Soda uses lots of big panels and splash pages. The layout above is pretty typical. Even in talky scenes he never goes above five panels on a single page, and about as many speech bubbles; during a rap battle, most pages only have a single panel and no more than two lines. So even if I was struggling with each sentence, it only took me a couple minutes to get through a page.
Of the manga I've tried so far, this is definitely the best. I mean, Sayonara Miniskirt is really good, but it's a bit heavy on the Very Important Message. Change! has similar themes of girls defying societal expectations, but it's fun, too. Even if it isn't very anime-like, I hope a publisher picks it up. I mean, we've finally got the last twenty volumes of Beck, and this would be the perfect follow-up.
Since the last manga I read in Japanese turned out to be a complete and total trashfire, I decided that this time I should find something that's guaranteed to be good. Luckily I came across this article on ANN about the nominees for the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize. After previewing the different series on Bookwalker, I settled on Sayonara Miniskirt as the one closest to my reading level.
It's easy to see why this series is getting critical acclaim as it exudes Importance. Even though it appears in Ribon, a magazine best known for lighthearted shoujo fair like Tokimeki Tonight, Marmalade Boy and Chibi Maruko-chan, Miniskirt has absolutely zero humor. It is one hundred and ninety percent serious.
A series like this could very easily turn into a dull slog, but thankfully Makino tempers the story's self-importance with a solid thriller plot that keeps things from getting bogged down.
In the opening pages, we meet Karen Amamiya, the lead singer for the idol group Pure Club -- though the truth is, the group is largely just an appendix. Karen is the only reason anyone pays attention to Pure Club, to the point that when the group holds a handshake event, her line is longer than the other group members' combined.
But then the story jumps forward six months. Karen has changed her name to Nina Kamiyama and enrolled at a good-but-not-prestigious Tokyo high school. She's cut her hair short like a boy's and taken advantage of the school's dress code, which permits girls to wear the male uniform instead of the standard girl's. At first glance Kamiyama looks like a guy, and most people who don't have class with her assume she is one.
Her issues are exacerbated by news that a girl from a nearby school was assaulted on her way home. The school cancels all after school activities for girls (but pointedly not guys) and asks that they go home in groups whenever practicable. This does no good, and the next day news goes around that Miku was groped on the way to school.
At first everyone in class seems suitably horrified, but then the class incels start sniggering and talking about how lucky the attacker was to get his hands on such a fine piece of ass. When girls tell them to shut up, they double-down by pointing out that Miku modified her skirt to be extra short, so of course a guy's gonna cop a feel. If the girls don't like that, these guys say, they should wear pants like Kamiyama
At which point Kamiyama loses her shit.
Kamiyama comes damn close to kicking the shit out of one of the kids. She gives an impassioned speech about how girls wear skirts because they like to look pretty, not because they care what any damn guy thinks. But before things escalate too far, Miku appears in class and says that they're blowing everything out of proportion, and it isn't that big a deal.
Which brings us to the third part of the storyline: what happened to Pure Club. This is one of those plot points that's clearly supposed to be a surprise, but it comes so early in the story that it's impossible to discuss anything without it. If this ever gets licensed for English release, I'd be surprised if this doesn't get mention on the cover blurb.
You see, Kamiyama dropped out of Pure Club after getting stabbed by a fan at a handshake event. In the aftermath, interest in the group soared, but without Karen Amamiya the group has struggled to maintain that popularity. If they have any hope of continuing, they need her to recover.
But even putting aside her PTSD, Kamiyama's newfound feminism makes it unlikely she'll ever want to return to being an idol. And on top of that, the guy who stabbed her kicked the crap out of security and still hasn't been caught.
The one member of Pure Club who cares about Amamiya as a person and not a necessary component of their success is Sara, but even she doesn't fully accept Amamiya's new identity. She sees "Kamiyama" purely as a cover story for eluding the stalker, and doesn't grok that her friend has fundamentally changed. When she learns about Hikaru, she encourages Kamiyama to pursue him even though Kamiyama is clearly uncomfortable at the idea.
But Sara soon comes to regret her decision when she realizes, "Hey, wait a minute... wouldn't a guy who's a total judo-fanatic be exactly the sort of person capable of kicking the crap out of security guards and evading the police?" Has she inadvertently set her friend up with a psychopath?
Sayonara Miniskirt debuted last August. Four months later, there was a bizarre incident where Maho Yamaguchi, a member of the idol group NGT48, was attacked by two men who apparently got her home address from members of her group. The police and NGT management tried to sweep the incident under the rug, but Yamaguchi went public with the story during an official appearance, causing a huge uproar. Eventually the group forced her to apologize for making a ruckus. Then, just a few months ago, Yamaguchi abruptly announced that she'd be retiring, along with two other members of the group who are almost certainly the ones who gave the attackers her address. (A fourth member was demoted last week after dissing Yamaguchi on social media.)
This is hardly the first incident involving idol groups. Indeed, Kamiyama's backstory is based upon very real incidents where crazed fans attacked idols during public appearances. In 2014, Anna Iriyama and Rina Kawaei of AKB48, were attacked by a guy carrying a hacksaw; in 2017, a man who threw a flare at members of Keyakizaka46 was found to be carrying a five inch blade with which he planned to stab them; and most notably, in 2016 an attacker stabbed singer Mayu Tomita twenty times.
But the Yamaguchi incident is especially noteworthy because it implicates members of the group and their management. The schtick behind the -48 idol groups is that they have dozens of members, divided up into teams that alternate between touring, recording, doing promotional appearances, and playing at a home stage. Including understudies, these groups can have up to a hundred members, and there are over a dozen of these groups operating in the Asia-Pacific region, and even as far west as India. The advantage for management is that with so many performers, the members are interchangeable. Though individual members can become incredibly popular, they never reach the point where their leaving will wreck the group.
In other words, they're pop-stars who are as disposable as the fry cook at McDonald's. If they start demanding better pay or more days off, well, there are five understudies champing at the bit to replace them. Management encourages this with "general elections," where fans can vote on their favorite members, with the results dictating who'll get to perform on the next hit single, get prominent placement in the music videos, and take the center position during performances.
And this seems to be the cause of the Yamaguchi attack. The rivalries within the group reached a point where two members were willing to endanger the life of a third in the hope of moving up the ladder. But the most offensive part of the situation is how the management handled the situation, first trying to cover it up, then, once Yamaguchi went public, forcing her to apologize and then resign. For AKS, the management team behind all the -48 groups, the attack on Yamaguchi was nothing more than a PR crisis.
You see, the Japanese entertainment industry is still regimented the way Hollywood was in the 1940s, with careers squelched at the slightest hint of scandal. Idol groups are particularly draconian, imposing rules against romantic relationships on members. Getting caught with a boyfriend can lead to demotion back to understudy, as has happened to multiple members of these groups over the years.
One especially notorious case is what happened to Minami Minegishi. In 2013 she was one of the top members of AKB48, but then a paparazzo caught her spending the night in a guy's apartment. Once the news broke, AKS demoted her to understudy and posted a video in which she apologized to fans for daring to act like any other young woman in her early twenties.
But what was shocking about the video was that Minegishi had a shaved head. This was supposedly an act of contrition, but shearing has a long history of being used to punish women for sexual transgressions. Most notably, after the liberation of France, partisans forcibly shaved the heads of women who'd slept with Nazis. The message of Minegishi's hairstyle was clear -- a woman's sexuality is something she should be ashamed of.
Management doesn't want their idols to be asexual. Anything but. Idols constantly appear in magazines, videos and photobooks wearing little and teasing more. But the industry still wants them to appear innocent and virginal -- sex symbols that the men in the audience can dream of deflowering. The girls who make up these groups are commodified and sold to audiences with the promise that they will always live up to the impossible image that they're marketed under.
So it's hardly surprising that idol culture is as toxic as the ground around Fukushima. Obsessive fans are a feature, not a bug. Fanatics spend more money. And if one of them goes nutso and injures an idol, there's always an understudy to replace her.
And this is the one shortcoming I see in Sayonara Miniskirt so far. It's hinting at the misogyny that underlies the idol industry, but so far it has focused its ire entirely upon the fandom. This is certainly a worthy subject, but it's only half the story. If the series doesn't also delve into management and how they perpetuate misogyny, it's missing the big picture.
Still, this is only the first volume. There's plenty of time for Makino to delve into other aspects of the industry.
For my second stab at reading Japanese, I wanted to try something a bit easier. Something where I could focus my brain on understanding the the words and grammar without having to worry about any subtlety or nuance. Which, considering my first go was about the level of The Babysitters Club, was quite a challenge to find.
After digging through Bookwalker, I found the perfect title.
Beginning serialization in 1982, Oh! Toumei Ningen (Whoa! Invisible Man) is contemporary with Dragon Ball and Urusei Yatsura, and as hard as this may be to believe, it has even less subtlety than either of those.
Or rather, he doesn't see anything. There's no face looking back at him from the mirror. He strips naked and confirms that, yes indeed, his whole body is invisible.
While Tooru's panicking about this strange development, his cousin Yoshie comes in for her after dinner bath. Unaware that a naked teenage boy is right next to her, Yoshie sets to disrobing. Of course bathrooms are hard enough for two people to get around in when they both know the other's there. When one of them's invisible... get ready for some hi-larious hijinks. Oh look, she's reaching for the shampoo bottle, but she's grabbing his hoo-ha!
All the chapters are cringe-inducing, but the second stands out as especially bad. In this installment, Tooru discovers his new homeroom teacher is dating the greaseball gym coach. Infuriated at the thought of a woman giving it up to a guy he doesn't approve of, Tooru breaks into her apartment during her next date and makes her think the gym teacher is trying to rape her.
Almost as bad is the final chapter of the volume, in which Yoshie and her friends take part in a gymnastics competition. Tooru of course decides he wants an up-close look at all the girls in tight leotards, not even stopping to think that his presence on the gym floor will mess up their routine. We're supposed to be impressed when he uses his invisibility to fix their mistakes -- for instance, when Yoshie's baton-toss goes awry he catches it and tosses it back to her, impressing the judges in the process.
The problem with that interpretation is that nothing in the manga suggests that Tooru's been corrupted. He feels no compunction about his actions. He never stops to consider the shame and trauma he's inflicting upon his victims. Nor does the story ever step far enough out of his POV to suggest that his attitude towards all this is wrong. When he finds himself in embarrassing situations upon turning visible again, the audience is meant to sympathize with him. If not for the magic fish eggs, no doubt he'd find some other way to peek in on Yoshie.
To some degree, it's refreshing to have a protagonist who's actively protagoning, instead of the bland lumps in modern anime and manga who literally stumble into these situations. For all his faults, Tooru does have a personality, unlike Audience Insert Protagonist #7245. Too bad it's the personality of a sexual predator. Surely there must be a middle ground -- male characters who are interested in having sexy times with girls, but also understand concepts like "consent"and "boundaries."
This is one of the reasons I'm learning Japanese. Unlike anime, where so few shows are produced each year that it's possible to be aware of them all even if you don't watch them, the manga industry is so vast that no one -- not even in Japan -- will ever be able to keep track of even a tenth of it. The vast majority of manga will never be scanlated, let alone officially licensed. The only way to read them is in Japanese. Even if my first selection turned out to be crap, I look forward to digging through Bookwalker and finding some hidden gem that I'd never know about otherwise.
And so, allons-y.
A few years back I made a stab at teaching myself Japanese. I was making pretty good progress -- I'd memorized a couple hundred kanji and even managed, with the help of a dictionary, to read a few chapters of a manga -- but then, as it has an annoying habit of doing, life got in the way and I fell off track.
At the start of this year, I finally decided to give it another go, and after practicing for the last few months I've reached the point where I'm ready to take a stab at reading again.
In the years since my last attempt, it's become a lot easier to obtain Japanese texts. Back then, you had to import physical copies through companies like Yes Asia and CD Japan. The price wasn't too bad -- Japanese books are cheap enough that even with the cost of international shipping, the price is still comparable to buying an English edition at MSRP -- but trans-Pacific shipping takes forever, and if you mess up by, oh, let's say accidentally order a Chinese edition instead of Japanese, you're kinda screwed. You could theoretically buy ebooks through Amazon.jp back then, but region restrictions meant jumping through hoops, and doing so was a violation of Amazon's terms of service, which meant they could nuke your whole account if they found out.
But in the last few years, a Japanese ebook store called Bookwalker has emerged, and 99% of their items are available globally. They even have an English version of their site for selling translated manga, so you can create an account there and then browse the Japanese site.
Which means that my reading level is at the Japanese equivalent of Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club.
Nonetheless, the only way you can learn to read a language is by reading the language. If all you ever do is memorize vocabulary and and read grammar guides, you're just filling your head with useless trivia. You have to apply that knowledge before it'll take hold in your brain.
There are several imprints that specialize in books at my reading level. Of the ones I've looked at, Kodansha's Aoi Tori Bunko seems to put out the sort of books a teacher would want students to read, while Shueisha's Mirai Bunko and Kadokawa's Tsubasa Bunko aim for what kids would want to read. Tsubasa, for example, has novelizations of Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda's anime films, and Mirai has books based upon the manga series Kimi ni Todoke. Even the exception bears this out -- the one anime novelization Aoi Tori's put out is based upon Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice), which is notably a story about bullying and disability.
As they're introducing each other and speculating on what the girls have planned, a fourth boy appears -- and he's none other than their school's star athlete, the Soccer Prince!
Seriously. That's what they call him.
Every single line.
Don't get me wrong, as a way of honing my Japanese, that sort of thing is really good. I'm never going to forget that "王子" (ouji) means "prince," that's for sure. But as narration, it's kinda weird.
Anyways, the Soccer Prince is a total alpha-male. The other boys freak out at the indisputable fact that they're pitiful losers next to his hyper-masculinity. One boy's like, "Oh my God, if we let him in there, he's totally going to snag our girls for his harem and make 'em give him a reverse gangbang, like in that one video my brother has that he let me watch one time." (I'm paraphrasing here, but that's the gist.)
In the midst of all this, a fight breaks out between the Soccer Prince and another boy, and they accidentally knock Saku under a suit of armor. Poor Saku's so terrified he starts screaming like a baby, and suddenly the lights come on and the girls reveal that the whole thing was a set-up to get the guys in the mood for Halloween.
Oh, and there's a fourth girl present that the 1%ers are trying to hook up with the Soccer Prince, which is the reason they invited him, not because they wanted to cuck their boyfriends.
But no worries! When Saku expresses his self-doubts to her, Natsume laughs it off. Turns out she has a thing for twinky guys who are kinda wimps, so it's all good. And maybe later, if Saku wants to make out with the Soccer Prince, well...
(Again, I'm paraphrasing, but I don't think I'm reading any subtext that's not intended by the author, and a cursory search of Pixiv backs up on this.)
So that's the story of 1%: Halloween Panic. I can't say it's the best book I've ever read. Or even a good book. But for practicing my JP skills, it did its job.
Still, for my next adventure in Nihongo, I'm gonna go with a manga.
There's a scene early in A Game of Thrones that has always stuck in my craw. In Arya's first POV scene, she's stuck with her sister and Jeyne Poole practicing embroidery, and she absolutely hates it. She wants to be out learning to sword fight with the boys, but because she's a girl she has to learn needlework instead (hence why she eventually names her sword Needle). If that were all there were to the scene, I wouldn't have a problem. Yes, it's outrageous that Arya's forced to engage in an activity she dislikes because of her gender. I felt the same way whenever I had to play football in gym class. Down with gendered activities.
But the conflict of the scene isn't merely that Arya hates embroidery--it's that her sister and pals love it. They think it's an important skill to have, as do Catelyn Stark and Septa Mordane. This is the first scene where we get a good look at Sansa as a character, and her love of embroidery is supposed to be a clue that she's a frivolous airhead who's been cloistered away and doesn't understand the Real World. Martin's taking advantage of the common metonymy that uses "embroidery" to mean pointless and extraneous--Arya's interested in practical skills like sword fighting, while Sansa only cares about useless things that will leave her ill-prepared when the shit hits the fan.
The whole framing is sexist. It treats "manly" pursuits as the only ones that matter, and says that a woman can only be important if she enters the masculine realm.
And sure, in this particular case knowing how to embroider does Sansa no good in the long run. But consider, if all of civilization were to collapse tomorrow, knowing how to solve a quadratic equation would do you no good, either. That doesn't mean, though, that algebra is a useless skill in the macro sense. Same with embroidery.
It's easy to dismiss embroidery as mere frippery. And yet, do you own any T-shirts with writing or pictures on them? Well guess what--before modern manufacturing, if you wanted an image or slogan on your clothes, embroidery was the best way to do it.
You've no doubt heard the saying, "A woman's place is in the home." Social conservatives treat this as an ancient truth, that a woman's duty is to look after the household while her husband goes out to earn money, but the idea only dates to the 19th Century. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it would've made no sense whatsoever.
That's because in traditional economies, everyone's place was in the home. The household was the basic unit of industry. When a blacksmith or a cobbler finished their work for the day, they didn't walk across town to their house; they went upstairs. They lived in the same buildings as their workshops. The idea of going somewhere else for work would've been ridiculous.
And it wasn't just men who engaged in economic activities at home. Women were part of it too. Some activities were unisex, and some were gendered. One of the main professions for women was textile work--everything from spinning raw materials into thread and yarn, weaving it into cloth, sewing the cloth into clothing, and, yes, embroidering the clothing with decorations.
In the earliest economies, this may've been done for sheer self-sufficiency, with perhaps a bit of barter between neighbors, but once mercantile exchange developed, households could sell their excess wares for money. This sort of exchange must have developed with the first civilizations, because just as a city can't survive without food from the countryside, they need clothing too. By the 2nd Century BCE, particularly desiresome materials like silk were being traded on a transcontinental level.
At first this trade would've been willy-nilly, with merchants buying up whatever households had produced in excess, but over time traders realized it'd be to their benefit if they could control what was being produced, that way the market wouldn't be glutted with one product when demand was for another. So they began contracting with women to make specific things. They might ask one who was particularly good at spinning to produce so many skeins of yarn by the end of the month, which they would then distribute to women who were particularly good at weaving to turn into cloth, and then to dyers and seamstresses until they had finished goods.
Eventually these merchants, who were called factors, realized it'd be even more advantageous if they didn't have to run around the countryside distributing materials, but instead gathered a bunch of women at a central location where they could work together. Hence, factories.
In addition to simplifying the logistics of their work, factories had another advantage for merchants. A woman sitting at home could do textile work at her convenience--while watching a baby, or waiting for dinner to cook, or in the evening while sitting around the fire with her family. But if she had a headache, or wanted to go for a walk, she didn't have to work. For the women, this was a great way of doing things, but from the merchants' perspective it meant they weren't producing as much as they could. That changed with factories. Women were expected to arrive at sunup and work until sunset, typically without a break.
Productivity soared. Prices fell.
But it also changed how society perceived textile work. With working conditions so poor, women only worked at factories if they absolutely had to. Anyone who could afford otherwise, did otherwise. At the same time, now that store-bought clothes were cheap, women who stayed home had no need to engage in textile work. If they continued to do so, it was as a hobby that only produced things for their own family and friends. This is why nowadays we perceive things like knitting, crocheting and, yes, embroidery as dilettantish.
The upshot is that by the late Victorian era, the household had become a wholly private sphere divorced from the economy. Only the very poorest women had to leave the home to work. As memory of the Pre-Industrial era faded, it became accepted that women had never participated in the economy and their place was solely confined to the domestic world. And despite George R.R. Martin writing supposedly strong female characters, this is a myth that he perpetuates with his treatment of embroidery.
Now a noble family as rich as the Starks wouldn't be selling Arya and Sansa's handiwork to some rando merchant, but that doesn't mean their work lacks economic value. If Ned wants to recruit a particularly renowned knight, lets say, then being able to offer a fine coat embroidered by his own daughter would be a powerful inducement. And of course for Jeyne Poole and Sansa's other less-than-noble companions, being able to embroider is a necessity so they have some way of bringing in money for their eventual families.
And due to the issue of inheritance, for noblewomen of lesser standing than Arya and Sansa, knowing embroidery is still important. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire follows the same basic principles as Western European nobility. That means that when Ned dies, Robb (and later Bran) inherits the title, the power, and the land. The other kids get what's called a courtesy-title--i.e., they're entitled to be called Lord Rickon and Lady Sansa, and they get all the social courtesy due to nobility. But. If they don't marry someone who has a noble title in their own right, their children will be commoners. Well connected commoners, yes, probably with a nice bit of inheritance to be sure, but commoners nonetheless. This is what's known as "gentry".
For a lesser noblewoman like Jeyne Westerling, or one of the innumerable Frey daughters, there's a good chance they wouldn't be able to marry a titleholder. Maybe they'd end up with the third or fourth son of a major lord, or maybe just a knight. In any case, that would put them in a position where being able to produce embroidery would have economic value, and being able to pass it on to their own daughters would be vital to ensuring their financial well-being. (Male children would of course have more options open to them, including military service, the law, the priesthood, and in the case of Westeros, becoming a maester.)
Far from frippery, embroidery is a valuable skill for women in Medievalish societies. Catelyn isn't being frivolous for wanting her daughters to learn it. And more to the point, Martin's decision to frame it as an inferior skill to sword fighting reflects a worldview that elevates destructive masculinity over productive femininity. While Arya deserves the opportunity to choose her training, we shouldn't applaud her for wanting to pursue the martial arts over embroidery, nor should we see Sansa as shallow for choosing otherwise.
Chapter 7 of Danklandsaga is now up. This one is told from the perspective of River, a doormat of a guy who finds himself stuck in a dead-end job at the Smithsonian gift shop. He's exactly the sort of schmuck who gets called to work on his day off because his boss knows he doesn't have the willpower to say no.
Which is how he finds himself on the Metro when the apocalypse strikes. All he wants is to get home, have some dinner, and maybe watch the latest episode of Doctor Who, but instead he finds himself schlepping through a muggy, hot tunnel with a bunch of sweaty protesters and tourists. And his hell is only beginning...
Now I call this Chapter 7, but it is in fact the first chapter of the series I wrote. Indeed, in my initial conception, the whole story was going to be told from River's perspective. I got all the way through chapter ten with him when two things happened that derailed my plan.
First, River reached a point where he encountered another group of survivors, and my muse said to me, "Hey, you know, these guys have got an interesting backstory..."
"Oh, so I should give them a couple paragraphs of dialogue to explain how they got here?" I said, rather naïvely.
"More than a couple paragraphs, I think," said my muse.
I had a sinking feeling. This is how she got Homer. The Odyssey was originally going to be a short story, just a little bonus put at the end of the Iliad for the paperback release, but then she whispered to him, "Hey, what if Odysseus ran into a tempest on the way home?"
"So maybe a Council of Elrond thing, a big nested story-within-the-story?" I suggested. I knew the answer, though.
"Mmm, how about a flashback chapter?"
"An entire chapter?"
"I suppose," I conceded with a heavy sigh. "As long as it's just the one."
"I'm sure you can squeeze it all in."
I should've known better. Never trust a muse. They are fucking liars.
Next thing I know, this flashback chapter was 12,000 words, nearly twice as long as a normal chapter. But even worse -- the characters in the chapter encountered yet another group of survivors.
"Hey," my muse said, "you know, I think these guys--"
"Have an interesting backstory, too?"
"How'd you know that?"
"Well they do."
"And I suppose they need a flashback as well?"
"Oh, at least one."
"This is turning into The Saragossa Manuscript."
"And you know, Jan Potocki never gave me any guff. You could take a lesson from him."
"He committed suicide after coming to believe he was a werewolf!"
"Yes, beholding the full glory of your muse can drive you mad. But it is a small price to pay for genius."
"You know what, I'm done! I'm finished! This story was never supposed to be this long. When we started this, you said, 'Oh yeah, he'll be out of the tunnel by the end of chapter 1.' It took until chapter 6."
"These things happen. You know A Game of Thrones was originally going to be a single three hundred page book."
"Enough! I am done!"
"Well, if you don't want to write, there's nothing I can do. But, if I have nothing to do ... well, I have to pass the time somehow."
"...Henry the Eighth, I am, I am!"
"Please. Not that."
"I got married to the widow next door,
She's been married seven times before!"
"Okay! Okay! Whatever you want. We'll do the flashbacks. We'll do all the flashbacks you want."
"Good boy, but now that I'm thinking about it..."
"I don't think flashbacks are the best structure for the story."
"No. There are too many characters who'll need backstories."
"How many characters?"
"Nine? Oh no, wait, ten. I just thought of a new one."
"Yup. Ten POV characters."
"I've already written 80,000 words in first person."
"So we'll tell the whole thing in first person."
"Each chapter will have a different first person narrator?"
"Works for Nick Hornby."
"Nick Hornby writes romantic comedies."
"Love stories and apocalyptic novels follow the same basic structure. Terror, death, sex, you know, it works."
"Can I get a different muse?"
Around the same time I had this discussion, Donald Trump became President. When I began the first draft of River's story, back in 2015, it was set in the generic near present, next Sunday AD. This seemed a perfectly reasonable way to do things at the time. After all, the world doesn't change that much from year to year. Technology gets a little bit better, pop culture references change a little bit, but on the whole a story set in 2015 isn't much different from one set in 2013. And as I was writing River's story, there didn't seem to be any reason why a story set some time in the next decade would have to be different from 2015.
But by the time I had that conversation with my muse, it was 2016. Late December to be exact. And everything had changed.
Looking back through the early River chapters, I saw a number of things that needed to change to accomdate the new reality. Many of them were little details. The poster River sees on the wall of the Metro station was originally for Obamacare. Back in 2015, that had seemed like a perfectly normal thing to be advertised on public transit, something that wouldn't date the story very quickly. By the end of 2016, though, not so much.
Likewise, I originally put a group of protesters on the train because there are always protesters around the White House. In the first draft they were little more than a throwaway joke, with signs demanding polygamous rights -- "Mormons, Muslims, Polies Unite!" and "Traditional Marriage: If It Was Good Enough for Solomon, It's Good Enough for Us." In 2015 it made sense that people protesting in DC would be a bit doofy. The end of 2016...
Naturally, my muse had ideas for them. Big ideas. Indeed, this was the first major transformation she introduced to the story. Initially, the story was set on a lazy Sunday afternoon, with the Metro system nearly empty except for tourists and guys like River who had to work on the weekend. Indeed, one of the struggles I faced in the first draft was finding reasons for people to be on the Metro, which is why I put some protesters on the train in the first place.
But now my Muse decided demonstrators would become a major element of the story, with more than a quarter of the POV characters taking part in a massive protest on the Mall.
And so the story changed from a tale of one guy whose commute home is interrupted by the apocalypse, to a grand epic with a cast of thousands.
The current brouhaha over the Rising of the Shield Hero anime is so depressing. People on both sides of the debate are taking the story at face value, and thus missing out on the deeper meaning of the series. Aneko Yusagi is a highly complex writer, perhaps even on the level of Gene Wolfe or Bret Easton Ellis, and yet people are treating his work like he's writing some simplistic story.
The first thing you must realize about Shield Hero is that Naofumi is an unreliable narrator. You can see this in almost any chapter. No matter what goes wrong for Naofumi, he always finds a way to blame someone else for his hardships; and when something good happens to him, he treats it as the world giving him his just rewards, even when he has done nothing to deserve such a reward--and even when we've seen him bully that reward out of someone. The only way the author could intend for this to be taken at face value is if he's an utter incompetent writing a straight-forward wish-fulfillment fantasy. Since this clearly cannot be the case, we have to dive deeper to understand what's going on.
Our first clue that something's up comes during the prologue, when we get a glimpse of Naofumi's life pre-summoning. He tells us right off the bat that he somehow "saved" his brother from going down a bad path in life, and in thanks his parents are not only letting him live at home while he attends college, but they're also providing him with an allowance--which he uses to live a lazy otaku life. But, he hastens to add, he's not one of those stinking hikikomori.
There are several reasons to be suspicious here. First, Naofumi never again talks about his family or expresses a desire to get back to them. It's only when things fall apart for him in Melromarc that he expresses any desire to go home, and even that is very general, without a specific mention to his family. If he had a happy home life, you'd expect that to be his top priority from the get-go. Other isekai deal with this issue either by making their protagonists some sad sack who has nothing to go back to, as with Overlord, or by having them die before being reborn in a new world, such as Konosuba. Yusagi does neither, which tells us Naofumi must not have anything he wants to get back to.
Now consider what we actually see of his life before summoning. He wakes up in a dark bedroom late in the morning, or possibly even in the afternoon. When he opens his curtain, he reacts to the sun almost like a vampire.
When he leaves the house, he doesn't speak with any family members, not even calling out "Ittekimasu". He wanders through the city alone before ending up at the library. The closest he comes to interacting with anyone is when he stops to stare at a trio of passing girls.
No wonder he insists upon telling us he isn't a hikikomori. If you've read Saitou Tamaki's book, Hikikomori: Adolescence Without End, you'll recognize much of what he describes in Naofumi. Japanese parents are often embarrassed by hikikomori and let them stay holed-up in their bedrooms, or even provide them with a separate apartment, rather than address the problem. Then the way Naofumi looks after those girls as they whisper to each other suggests internal anxiety as he wonders whether they're making fun of him, which is one of the classic symtoms of a hikikomori.
Yes, Naofumi does manage to venture outside, but of course so does any hikikomori who lives by themselves. Welcome to the NHK has long sections devoted to Satou struggling to go down to the convenience store so he can eat. And Naofumi's choice of where to go--a library--is the sort of space a hikikomori would feel safe in--dim and quiet, with tall shelves blocking him from the view of other patrons. If the library has a self-check option, he wouldn't even have to interact with a librarian.
We also get a clue later that Naofumi is lying about being a college student--or if he is one, that he isn't attending class--when he apologizes to the other heroes for being uneducated.
Now consider the story of why Naofumi says his parents let him be this way. He claims his brother started hanging out with a bad crowd, but he managed to pull him back in time. This clearly tells us that there's more to Naofumi than the rather wimpy guy he appears to be. The Naofumi we see in the first half of the episode is soft-spoken, barely able to do more than mumble in conversation, which is exactly what you'd expect from a hikikomori based upon stereotypes, but once he's accused of raping Myne, he flies into a screaming rage. According to Saitou's book, this is consistent with how hikikomori act. One reasons parents are reluctant to address the issue is that the child will become violent when confronted, which gives us an alternate explanation for why Naofumi is able to get away with what he does.
Which brings us to Naofumi's behavior in the other world. He's been pushed out of his element and forced to interact with other people. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't handle it well. From the start, he puts himself apart from the other heroes, standing to the side, lagging behind them when they walk. He can't bring himself to be part of the group. The Melromarcians pick up on this and try to give him space, but that feeds into his social anxiety. Just as he thought the girls in Tokyo were laughing about him, he assumes he's being singled out. Even if he hates attention, seeing other people get it while he's ignored just makes him more insecure.
Things get worse when it comes time to form parties. When Naofumi's introduced to his potential party mates, he simply stares at them coldly. His eyes are drawn instantly to Myne--not because she looks like a good fighter or anything, but simply because she's pretty. He ogles her.
She catches the look and returns it with nervous apprehension. She already senses this guy is bad news, and she's already trying to figure out how to defuse the situation.
Unfortunately, the other potential party members pick up on the feeling and none of them want to join Naofumi either. This intensifies the feed-back loop, as Naofumi feels like the kid in elementary school that no one wants to sit next to.
Finally Myne, despite her better judgement, decides to have pity on him, and offers to be his partner. Sadly for her, Naofumi misinterprets this act of kindness. Rather than think of Myne as a comrade in arms, he begins looking at her as a piece of meat. He acts ostensibly nice, but his mind has already gone elsewhere.
At the same time this is going on, Naofumi and Myne set out to buy equipment. Now mind you, the King just gave Naofumi a hefty war-chest--more than any other heroes--but Naofumi insists upon making ridiculous demands upon merchants.
This gets even worse later. After seeing an adventurer sell a pair of well preserved monster skins for one copper, Naofumi demands the same price for a pile of tattered hides, then, when the merchant refuses, attacks him.
Although Naofumi criticizes the other heroes for treating everything like a videogame, the fact is he's doing even worse--he accepts these are real people, and he's still trying to screw them over.
And the most egregious example of this is the incident that makes him persona non grata in Melromarc.
After their first day adventuring, Naofumi and Myne take dinner at an inn and discuss what to do next--or at least Myne does. Naofumi, believing that girls are never nice to guys unless they're attracted to them, spends the meal ogling Myne's chest.
He begins to perceive even the simplest motion, like sipping wine, through an erotic lens, and interprets a simple offer of a drink as an attempt at seduction.
Becoming overwhelmed by these ideas, Naofumi retires upstairs, ostensibly to go to bed. The scene fades out, and when we come back it's the next morning. Soldiers rush into the inn to arrest Naofumi for rape. Naofumi of course protests his innocence, but at this point it should be clear to any but the dullest audience member that he is not a reliable narrator. He skipped over everything that happened in the night to give the audience the impression that nothing has happened, but as anyone familiar with Japanese mysteries will tell you, this is clear misdirection. Examples abound where an author tricks the reader into believing the narrator is innocent of a crime simply by skipping that bit. Yukito Ayatsuji is particularly fond of the technique, using it outright in The Decagon House Murders, and a variation in Another.
So the truth of the matter is, while on the surface Rising of the Shield Hero appears to be yet another generic-ass isekai, it is actually a deconstruction of the genre, taking its cue from Stephen Donaldson's infamous Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever series. Rather than a leper like Covenant, Naofumi is an hikikomori who is driven to utter villainy by his inability to handle the social pressures of being a summoned hero.
Which is why at the end of the episode, having been outed for what he really is, he stumbles into a back alley, where a shady man dressed as a cross between the Penguin and Huggy Bear offers to sell him a slave.
Here is the final turning point, and Naofumi gives in utterly. He goes into the alley, fully intent upon buying a slave to fight for him. From here on out, he's going to be the villain of the story, even if he tries to convince the audience that he's the hero.