The Greatest Horror Story Ever Pt. IV (October Finale)

Last year, we wrapped up the First Night stories of Higanbana No Saku Yoru Ni. Naturally, this year we’re beginning with The Second Night. Now, the stories in The Second Night are distinctly less driven by the central theme than The First Night stories were, as the whole bullying theme shrinks into the background in a lot of stories, but a result of this is that the central themes of each individual story are allowed to branch out a lot more. And we’ll be seeing a fair bit of that in the stories we look at this year. With that in mind, let’s begin.

The first story is The Lunar Festival, which is definitely the least horror-centric story of the lot so far. It centers around Marie attending a party to celebrate the full moon and the blooming of underworld cherry trees, and primarily serves to introduce the other four Yokai who will be playing roles in later stories. There isn’t much thematic undercurrent to this one, though the ending where it’s revealed Marie wasn’t actually there yet somehow experienced everything anyway was quite unusual. Not really much to say about this story, except that it provided some much needed quiet time in between the previous story of horrific bullying and the next story of a long and grueling chase. Speaking of which…

The main story to talk about is Reaper of the Thirteenth Step, revolving around a girl named Ayako Souma as she is chased by Izanami, Reaper of the Thirteenth Step, second ranked of the school Yokai. The story behind his existence is fascinating. Every stairway in the schools has twelve steps, but sometimes, just sometimes, a human who has lost the will to live will climb up a thirteenth step, and that is the beginning of the curse. Those condemned to the curse will, upon the ending of the school day, be transported to a different dimension, where a Shinigami will chase them, and if he catches them, he will drag them to a hell resembling a giant stomach, where they are digested into horrid lumps of flesh resembling Junji Itou creations for eternity. There is only one way to escape, and that is to run, until the clock strikes twelve. On the first day, it’s only five minutes of running, on the second, it’s ten, and so on. However, Izanami has two rules. One, he will always walk, never run, to give his victims a chance to stay ahead of him, and two, he will never kill anyone until he catches them. The curse wears out after forty-nine days, and if you can outrun him for all that time, you survive. This premise alone would make for a tense and exciting story, but it doesn’t end there. Izanami only targets the losers, the people who see no point in living, as he finds their souls the most appetizing. There’s one more twist to him, that a keen eyed reader can figure out if they pay attention to the clues sprinkled throughout the story. His latest victim is Aya Souma, a girl who spends all her days in a depressed and hazy state, with a kind of philosophical nihilism that causes her to see no point in living except she doesn’t want to feel the pain in dying. If she could die peacefully, she would. One day, she hears the rumor of a Shinigami chasing people who step on the thirteenth stair and killing them, which she assumes will bring her the peaceful death she seeks. And, one day, when climbing the stairs to her class, she takes a thirteenth step, yet when she looks back, there are only twelve stairs. Perturbed, she continues on, convincing herself that she’d just miscounted, but that night, she has a dream about a girl being chased by a man in black, who catches up to her after she collapses from exhaustion, and sends her to the hell of a giant demonic-looking stomach. And, the next day, as school ends, Aya finds herself in the same position. Run, or be killed. This becomes a daily pattern, until she encounters another person cursed by it, who tells her that Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday for him are shorter than Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, which leads to her noticing that she has shorter times as well, though on different days. The next day, he is gone, presumably having been killed by Izanami, and Aya instead encounters Higanbana, disguised as a student, who mentions that her class (the same as the disappeared boy) has PE that Saturday, which leads to Aya noticing that their PE days are the same as the ones that had shorter times for the boy. She herself has PE that day, and due to her classmates pulling a prank, they have to run laps all class, and after school, during Izanami’s chase, she notices her time is significantly shorter. This is the secret to surviving. Every bit of running you do outside the chase shortens your time in it. Having found a glimmer of hope for survival, Aya takes to this with a vengeance, running between classes, during lunch, at recess, in PE, after recovering from the chase, and so on. And by doing so, she notices that her other unhealthy habits are slowly going away. For his part, Izanami does his best to taunt her, throwing her old lines of thinking back at her and trying to make her give up. He even offers her a chance at peacefully ceasing to exist like she had previously wanted, and she turns him down. By fighting for her life, she has found her reason to live. This is the moment where she begins to realize the truth. “If you have time to ponder such worthless questions, there are a thousand better things you could be doing. Running, speaking to friends, enjoying good food, and so on. You become so wrapped up asking why you’re alive that you forget to really live.” Finally, day 49 comes, the day of the school marathon, and for the first time, Izanami decides to run, alongside Aya. This is their final chase. If she reaches the finish line before he reaches her, she wins. In her bid to stay ahead of him, she ends up passing everyone and winning the marathon herself. At this point, she’s helped up by Izanami, who reveals the final twist. If you’ve been paying attention, it’s been pretty clear what he is. His whole thing has been motivating people who had nothing else by convincing them to find meaning in life through running, under grave threat. He is the school gym teacher. Aya has passed his curse, and now she has things of her own to live for. No longer will she waste her life away pondering questions with no answer, she has to actually live her life by experiencing it. This is the message of the story, and its delivered in a uniquely compelling way. Aya takes to running in her spare time so that she can avoid the painful hell of that eternal stomach, and due to her exhaustion from it, she gains a voracious appetite where she’d previously had none, she begins sleeping properly when the previously couldn’t, and as a result, she is no longer sleeping in class or pecking at her lunch, she has come alive and is seeing the world for what it really is, finding meaning in life through that. It is only when staring down death himself that she learns to live. And it is through her experience that we all learn the same lesson. That our reason to live is found in our everyday moments, whatever they may be. Enjoyment of good food, exercise, time spent with friends and loved ones, we live to experience the little things. Many of us, myself included, had to learn this lesson the hard way (though not as hard as Aya did), and it is among the most life changing lessons one can learn. For that reason, above all else, this story stands head and shoulders above most of the others.

As I did with the First Night, I will begin with covering two stories one year, then three stories the next two years. That brings us to the end of this year’s reading from Higanbana, next year promises to be excellent as well.

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Happy Sugar Life: Love is Scary (October Special #2)

One of the shows I missed out on last summer that I really should’ve seen/talked about was Happy Sugar Life, because it definitely would’ve gotten a spot on my best of year list. Good horror is sadly uncommon in anime, but every once in a while, you get one of those shows, the ones that get the pacing, the story, and the characters down perfectly, and create a surprisingly chilling experience. Happy Sugar Life is absolutely one of those shows. Its core premise and story lend themselves very well to the field of animation, because the extremely personal and psychologically-themed story of Happy Sugar Life allows for a better focus on drama, something anime excels at when done by competent staff, and it uses that drama to create tension and fear. This is prominently done in two ways. First, there’s the classic horror trope of everyone being some variety of insane, which the series does an excellent job of capitalizing on, and second, the series is in full recognition of how fucked up some of the tropes core to its story are. The most conspicuous thing in this category is how every character’s relationship with Shio is depicted. The series is fully conscious that Shio, in spite of the emotional maturity she shows at times, is still an 8 year old, and this remains relevant in how everyone else’s relationships with her are depicted. Though Satou’s affection for her is never implied to be sexual, it is still the case that a high schooler kidnapped an 8 year old, and Satou isn’t shy about taking advantage of Shio’s naivete and openly manipulating her in order to keep her from being found. And crazily enough, that is the LEAST fucked up situation of the three major ones. The second one is Mitsuboshi, who is also by far the grossest, since he’s just flatly a pedophile and is easily the most implicitly sexual of the three. This is also the least developed of the three, since Mitsuboshi only meets Shio once before the finale. He’s got a little more to the pedophilia thing than you might expect, as it actually arises from trauma resultant from the events of the beginning of the story, but it’s still flat once it gets past that point. And the third is her brother Asahi, who on paper seems like the logical choice for her to side with, but the more you learn, the less that seems to be the case, especially with how unstable their mother is. This story thread also sees the most interesting conclusion, with Shio deciding for herself not to return with Asahi and to find out for herself what Satou’s final act meant. This is a really interesting way to end that story, but it feels almost like a misstep, because it’s a moment where Shio, an 8 year old, is given the agency and thinking capabilities of an adult. Something like this had happened earlier in the episode, but there it was her choosing not to return to the mother who abandoned her after being tormented with visions of that event throughout the entire story, so it’s understandable why she’d choose Satou over Asahi at that moment, but a decision like this feels like the story ascribing more agency to her than any 8 year old should have. Aside from that misstep, the series demonstrates a lot more self awareness than most about how fucked up it is that all these invisible expectations are being placed on an 8 year old, and that people take advantage of her innocence so regularly for their own ends. There’s a third aspect to what makes this series so disturbing, which is how it serves as a character study for Satou, Shio, and the relationship between them. Satou’s psychopathy is explored in depth, not only in its origin from her aunt’s abuse and how it manifests in the form of her internal monologue, but also how it affects her behavior. Before she met Shio, Satou was the type who slept around regularly and went through a long string of boyfriends, which is heavily implied to be her searching for a way to fill her internal void, hence why she immediately stops after meeting Shio. On Shio’s end, her devotion to Satou is entirely understandable, bearing in mind her age and the fact that Satou is the only person in her life who hasn’t abandoned or openly mistreated her. Not only that, but when Satou takes missteps in trying to manipulate Shio, Shio always reacts to it with the closest thing I’ve seen to understandable child logic, which ultimately only makes Satou’s manipulation more effective. For her part, what makes Satou so disturbing is how the series uses the tools of making sympathetic characters to make her understandable, which is terrifying because, as extreme as her actions are, the logic behind them is clear and, in its own twisted way, sound. She is terrifying because her path to the actions she commits is entirely understandable, which raises uncomfortable questions in the mind of the audience. Many of her actions are dark reflections of things a reasonable person would do, especially early on. It was the right thing to do to take Shio in, though she obviously should’ve called the police instead of kidnapping her. It was the right thing to do to kill the artist to protect Shio, though she obviously shouldn’t have hidden the corpse. It was the right thing to do to expose her manager, though she shouldn’t have bothered with blackmail and should’ve just gone to the police, and so on and so forth. For the first half of the series, most of what Satou does is “the right thing, but”. However, with each of those actions, there is progressively less and less “right” to them, and far more in the “but” category. Around halfway through the series, the former category is gone entirely and everything she does is just flatly wrong, but the seeds of her previous train of logic remain, so you almost start to believe that her actions might be sensible in her situation. And that, above all, is what makes Happy Sugar Life so unsettling.

Mini Episode: Realism and Surrealism in Horror (October Special #1)

So, there’s a bit of a divide in horror between stories with more realism where the horror is how close to life they feel, and stories that completely depart from realism and derive their horror from how bizarre things can get. Most horror stories in textual form fall into the former category, for obvious reasons, because surrealism is difficult in text at the best of times, let alone surrealism so vivid it becomes scary. The origins of the literary horror genre, from Poe to Lovecraft, are largely built on injecting slight amounts of surrealism into otherwise realistic settings. The Raven is so unsettling because it’s believable, the only thing that happens is a man being taunted by hearing one single word over and over again, projecting his own grief and instability onto a bird. Lovecraft has a reputation as a purveyor of the bizarre, but the actual structure of his stories is that of occurrences that largely follow understandable logic and the bizarreness of his storylines is mostly in the forms of weird things existing in that world, rather than the actual story itself being bizarre. Someone like Junji Itou follows this general format, albeit with a very different and more surrealist style. Itou’s stories are almost entirely about ordinary people stuck in the middle of bizarre things happening, perhaps most distinctly Gyo, which takes place in a real location (Okinawa), but focuses on incredibly strange events (namely, an invasion of fish with metal legs), and follows a pretty conventional story from there on. Probably the biggest departure from this is Uzumaki, a series of vignettes that each show off the bizarre theming of spirals in a mysterious town and how all of this affects the life of the main character, who’s always around when weird stuff happens. This contrasts heavily with a very similar manga author, Shintaro Kago, whose storylines are much much more… well, surreal. A lot less makes sense about them, but a lot of that is where the horror comes from. What makes Kago a great horror artist on par with Itou is that his stories are as bizarre as his artwork, and while that makes them less creepily relatable, it makes them scary in a new way due to their strangeness.

Summer 2019 Anime Impressions

So after two seasons of anime hiatus (sorry about that), I’ve finally pulled myself away from my months-long Devil May Cry binge in order to cover the summer season. And lord, did I immediately regret that upon seeing the seasonal chart. Now, I know I normally talk about 5-6 shows per season, but I just couldn’t find enough shows that I could adequately justify subjecting myself to. Which is why I’m only covering 3 this time. I promise I’ll go back and talk about the good shows from Winter and Spring in my end of year piece, but today I have to cover my 3 Summer season picks.

So, first off is Vinland Saga, one of the more popular shows I’ve covered, which is a show about vikings. I was iffy on the idea of that, but my inner history nerd couldn’t pass it up, so I gave it a watch anyway. A series by Wit Studio, a group I’ve covered very positively in the past, this show out of the gate had a fair bit going for it. Solid premise, respected source material, talented production crew, the expectations were pretty high going in. Right away, the series sets a mixed impression, with an opening battle scene with no context. The aesthetic is very appealing, the choreography is pretty good, and the technical animation is solid, but the direction feels off, to the point where it feels like every shot is zoomed in a little more than it should be, and that the show would’ve benefited from zooming out 10-20%. I’d have at least liked some opening text cards explaining what the fight was about, but that’s one of those things I can go without in a show that still handles itself well. This opening scene is later revealed to be backstory of the time the main character’s father deserted the battlefield and stopped being a soldier, which comes up in the next episode. The early few episodes cover the childhood years of the main character, with strong dramatic storytelling covering a plot that, while nothing special so far, is at least competently put together. I’m not sure it’s necessarily worthy of a top slot of the year, but it is at least an entertaining show to watch.

Next is Fire Force, a show about futuristic firemen that somehow has nothing to do with Fahrenheit 451. No, this is a battle show about putting out humans who’ve spontaneously caught fire and become monsters as a result. Simple-concept shows like this are among the most fun to talk about. At the very least, they’re usually watchable for the spectacle alone. And this one is very much leaning towards that, with the main draws being the quality of the support cast and the spectacle of what’s going on. The protagonist is definitely one of the weaker aspects, using edge to cover up for a lack of really compelling characterization, and boy, is there a lot of edge in this show, but he’s not exactly unlikable or annoying, just not particularly great. I find a lot of secondary elements either uncompelling or sometimes objectionable, particular to that latter category is a side character whose abilities are creating moe cat ears with fire and also causing accidental pervert scenes, either because she refuses to wear a shirt and has openings in her pants, both of which literally get used to accidentally grope her in the first 15 seconds of her introduction, or because the circumstances of the universe cause her to just randomly bump into people in overtly suggestive ways. I can accept that stuff like this is part of the appeal of juvenile fantasies, but I still find it distracting and annoying. Stuff like that and the edginess present in a lot of the backstory and especially the villain characters really drags the show down for me, so I can’t really recommend it in earnest. It’s above average, especially for the genre, but I can’t really give it any higher praise than that.

Finally this season is Do You Even Lift?, which might be the most glorious title of any anime ever made. It opens on a rather weak note, trying to establish that the main girl eats too much and needs to exercise to lose weight, but the actual numbers it uses and the figure of the girl in question do nothing to suggest this, she looks identical to any other anime girl, and only weighs 55kg, which is only about 120lb if you only know the American system, and that’s a perfectly acceptable weight for most people on the shorter end. I harp on this because treating that as severely overweight could be potentially damaging to anyone who has, say, self-image problems which could be negatively reinforced by that kind of thing. Aside from that, the rest of this show can be described as “Cute Girls Hit the Gym”. Now, in the circles I run in, this is the animation equivalent of cocaine, so it’s garnered a fair bit of attention from my friend group. Aside from the obvious appeal of the base premise to those with certain preferences in women (myself included), the series has a pretty good grasp on comedy, especially from the character Akemi, who gets hilariously excited by the thought of working out and muscle building, in a manner that stays funny throughout many uses of the joke. The comically oversized muscles on the trainer are consistently applied in amusing ways as well, with my favorite being when he suddenly appears in a Chippendales outfit in the second episode. The show has a lot of good variety in the various different vignettes about fitness, with the boxing training being my personal favorite, as an avid fan myself. I can give this show a fine enough recommendation as light entertainment, which seems to be all it was going for.

All in all, I’d describe the Summer as the season of popcorn shows. All the shows I watched, and many of the ones I didn’t judging by the MAL descriptions and prior series knowledge where applicable, fit that mold of entertainment value above and beyond other aspects, which is an approach I’m perfectly happy with in moderation, but I hope the Fall season gives some real thematic meat to chew on.

Alright Fine, I’ll Review Endgame

Contains spoilers, obviously

So, I know that back when I reviewed Black Panther, I said I was done talking about MCU movies, because I really had nothing to say about them due to the formulaic and unremarkable structure. Well, my folks apparently had other ideas, as I was dragged out to see Endgame and while I certainly don’t think it’s a good movie, it has given me a good deal to talk about, so I figured I would bother to actually give my opinions on this king of all mixed bags.

Rather than my usual structure, this time I’ll need to divide it into the things that I liked and the things that I didn’t like. Let’s try and give credit where credit is due and start off with what I liked, which conveniently starts with the opening scene. So, the opening scene is paced very well and has some genuine pathos as it shows just how devastating the snap was for people. I think it would’ve been more effective if it hadn’t been a key motivational moment for Hawkeye and instead just a demonstration of the toll taken on everyone by Thanos’ actions, but it is what it is. Compounding this are a few of the scenes that show the various characters handling the grieving process, such as Captain America at the support group. Speaking of which, Cap himself. Cards on the table, he is the one character that every movie has gotten absolutely right, and this time is no exception. I really can’t complain about anything he does, every bit of it is handled extremely well. The fight with his alternate self is really good, the scene where he gets one more look at the woman from the first movie through her window is genuinely powerful, the moment he takes up the hammer for the 1v1 with Thanos got the biggest rise of any moment from the audience, myself included, and the end of his arc was better than anyone could’ve expected from the movie. What else can I say, he’s Captain God Damn America and his character is thoroughly done justice in this movie, perhaps even more so than previous iterations. In general, the battle from the last act was also decent. The writing was fairly mediocre, but in terms of filmmaking, it was done pretty well, and conveyed the scale of everything excellently. And… that’s honestly about it. Now, on to the big things I disliked.

Big thing to address right out of the gate for things I didn’t like is Iron Man. My least favorite Marvel character is back, and doing nothing to improve my opinion of him. Up until now, the nadir of his appearances was Civil War, and while that was still his worst portrayal overall, this film arguably has the worst moment, which is early on when he starts blathering about how if his side had won in that movie, this whole situation wouldn’t have happened, and the way he whines about it is so far beyond irritating that it really drives me insane. His overall character doesn’t improve much throughout the movie either, which really blunts the effect that his death scene has at the end. Further blunting it is the same problem Batman vs Superman had with its take on the death of Superman, or at least, one of the many problems that movie had with it. In that movie, it was “give the spear to Wonder Woman”, but here it was “give the gauntlet to Nebula, or Captain Marvel, or Thor, or anyone else who could handle it, and just resurrect the guy, seeing how you already resurrected half the universe”, which honestly is an even worse version of this problem because not only is everyone an idiot in this version rather than just one character (who never was exactly characterized as a genius anyway), but also the thing they should’ve done was something they already did and repeatedly called attention to being able to do earlier in the movie. This is the point for me where it stops being a nitpick and becomes something that genuinely takes me out of the movie. Another issue I took was how underused and overhyped Captain Marvel was. The post-credit scene of Infinity War sets up her involvement, and she gets an entire movie to build hype for her appearance in this one, and in the end she’s almost completely extraneous. Aside from one moment where she destroys alt-universe Thanos’ base ship, something you could’ve written for another character to do, she adds nothing to the movie. She has a short appearance at the beginning which is completely unnecessary as the actual weight of the scene belongs to Thor, and also Thanos no longer had the Infinity Stones, half his body was shredded already, and he was generally just weaker than anyone on their own. Then she’s promptly dropped from the movie until she destroys that ship, then she squares off with alt universe Thanos for a moment but doesn’t even slow him down, so that could’ve easily been cut as well without anything being lost. It certainly doesn’t justify the year’s worth of hype she was given. So those are smaller issues, now we move into the bigger stuff. First among them, the excess of fanservice. This is the most subjective complaint, but a lot of the fanservice felt completely unnecessary and just got in the way of everything. Especially as a lot of the scenes felt like they were constructed based on what’s popular rather than what makes for the most impactful filmmaking. One big issue no doubt born from this is the time travel thing, it was a needlessly complicated aspect of the story that ultimately should not have been there. Granted, the story wouldn’t work without it, but what I’m saying is that they should’ve gone with a different story. There are some things done very well by the time travel plot, but on the whole I found it to be lacking. Then there’s the worst thing about the movie: It is painfully unfunny. And it tries, much to my horror. In the entire movie, I laughed only once, which was a minor chuckle when they were stealing the stone from past Quill, and they made a joke about how it sounded to him vs how it sounded to anyone else. But that’s mostly because it reminded me of a better movie. As for the other jokes, well, there sure are a lot of them, and none of them are good. And this brings me to the absolute nadir of the movie, the worst of the worst: that fucking meme humor. Ok, so, there are two scenes that are particularly egregious. First is a scene where Hulk is approached by 3 kids who want a photo with him, and the joke is that they don’t want a photo with Ant Man, then as they’re leaving, he dabs at them. My jaw hit the floor, and I could not believe they added that. And then it got worse. A little later on, they add a scene with Thor and his roommates playing Fortnite (seriously), and the joke is that one of them is insulted by some kid, and then Thor threatens to destroy their house with lightning. It was the most painfully unfunny thing I have ever seen in a movie, and that is one hell of an achievement. Failing at comedy truly is the worst thing, because at least failing at everything else has the potential to be unintentionally funny, but failing at comedy just makes a scene painful.

Those are the big ones in both categories, and I would definitely call this movie a mixed bag, more so than any I’ve ever seen. But ultimately the bad outweighs the good in my opinion, so my final rating for Avengers: Endgame is a C-, with a Whatever Floats Your Boat seal, because I know nothing I can tell you will make you decide to see it or not see it, this movie is so far above the grade where analysis can change minds that this is really just there to yell into an uncaring void. Huh.

Will They, Won’t They Just Kill Me Already? (February Special 2019)

So, Romance shows tend to drag their feet a lot. That’s hardly a new observation, indeed it’s a common joke, especially among anime fans, due to the particularly egregious nature of it in anime. This sort of thing has a name, and it’s “Will They, Won’t They”. Over its 30-year history in mainstream anime, it’s become a shockingly universal part of the romance genre, it’s even more “fucking everywhere” than even the other universal tropes the community mentions. Why is it so criticized? Why is it so popular? And what would my preferred take on it be? All good questions, and all I will answer.

First off, why is this formula so popular? Well, to answer that, it might be helpful to look at its mainstream debut. Though incarnations of it existed in some form before then, the trope hit the mainstream with Rumiko Takahashi and Ranma 1/2. In this context, the formula makes some sort of sense, Ranma was a serialized manga, and the “will they or won’t they” question keeps fans engaged, thereby still reading new chapters and keeping the manga afloat. Weekly anime have a similar motivation, keeping the question going and continuously baiting the viewers keeps them watching week by week, which obviously is what any show wants. Ignoring every other piece of context for a moment, it’s clear why this is an attractive formula, it is highly effective when divorced from the other variables that affect the audience’s interest. And, for the first few years, it seemed to work pretty well. However, that’s not to say that the formula does not have its own problems. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a horribly flawed formula that was on a very short lifespan once it hit mainstream popularity.

The appeal of this formula is fairly clear in and of itself, but the big flaws of it are a little more difficult to explain. The simplest of the lot is that it absolutely kills the pacing, because progress in this part of the narrative flat out does not happen for who knows how long. There are cases which can get away with this, Clannad being a favorite of mine (we’ll get to that later), but the vast majority of shows which include this formula refuse to deviate it up until the very end, meaning exactly one step of progress gets made over the entire run, and by that point, the pacing of it is so bad and the plot is so unresolved that it just becomes unsatisfying. To be clear, two people getting together is not a resolution for the conflict, it is the beginning of an arc, and while there is plenty of room to bend those rules, putting a setup plot point at the end is one of those things that you just don’t do. It also means that, to keep the audience invested in the possibly-going-to-eventually-be-a-relationship, the writers need to keep teasing it nonstop. And if you keep teasing your audience like that for so long and consistently don’t make any progress on following through with it, they will start to get annoyed. People don’t tend to like nonstop teasing with no signs of actual progress. This feeds into something even the most unobservant fans notice, the contrivances. If you want to include all this teasing but also stop progress from happening without it feeling overly nonsensical, you’ll need to start contriving excuses in order to keep these two ordinarily incompatible factors existing alongside each other. I haven’t named the most common one yet, but I’m sure every one of you knows exactly what I’m talking about: misunderstandings. Dear god, misunderstandings. While one or two well-written misunderstandings can be charming on their own, when they keep happening over and over again, it just becomes more and more annoying. What’s worse, given that any writer will tell you that using the same event over and over gets repetitive, this creates the demand for the misunderstandings to become more and more absurd in order to perpetuate the delays. I can think of no better example of this than Kimi ni Todoke, specifically the insane delay tactics present throughout the second season. The most interesting premise for a dilatory tactic was when another guy showed up with an interest in Sawako, at least that could bring out some good drama in concept (in practice… meh). But that wasn’t nearly the extent of their delays, not even close. Even the first time they both confess to each other is in service of this need for perpetual delay, with both of them somehow fucking up their confession attempts so much that they manage to convince the other that they’re actually rejecting them. It’s so absolutely incomprehensible and obviously contrived to keep the story from progressing that it received a colossal backlash, and it thoroughly earned it. This kind of plot is continuously frustrating because of how transparent it is, alongside how much it’s clearly just trying to manipulate the audience, and people are very good at catching on. Finally, we come to a point I touched on earlier, the fact that getting together is what I called a “setup plot point”. If you were to categorize different plot points into their role in a story, “relationship starts” would go in the “early parts” nine times out of ten, and in “around the middle” the tenth time. The reason for this is because “relationship starts” is not in and of itself any sort of payoff, it is a setup for a plotline of its own. It’s a starting point, or at the very least setting up a new paradigm for the story to follow up on. Using it an an ending is unsatisfying because romance plots are about relationships, but there isn’t actually a relationship, there’s only the buildup to one. Ultimately I find this the biggest nail in the coffin of this formula, it’s just stringing people along with no satisfying conclusion.

All of that said, there are cases of this formula being done well. Namely, Clannad (the anime, the novel is not this at all), which put a new spin on it. The opening scene thoroughly sets up the pairing between Tomoya and Nagisa, and then it doesn’t really go addressed for a while, as the two spend most of their time helping other characters with their own arcs rather than putting any focus on their own. This is in large part a consequence of how the show was adapted, these other parts are actually different routes the player can choose in the novel, but the show decided to adapt the majority of all the different routes into one cohesive story, so as a result they relegate the story between Tomoya and Nagisa to the background in the arcs where others are in focus, except for Fuko’s arc, which puts it front and center. This works for a few reasons. One, while Nagisa is not in focus for these arcs, she is always there, and it gives her time to develop as a character by showing how she interacts with the others and how she feels about things that happen. Two, it is exceedingly clear that the other dilemmas are the focus, and they take up so much of that focus that there is almost no “will they/won’t they” teasing. Three, most of the other arcs build towards it in one way or another. The key event in the first season is the drama club’s performance, something that is established very early on to be extremely important to Nagisa, and it’s further established that Tomoya is helping many of the others primarily to get their help with putting on the play because it matters so much to Nagisa, who he’s focused on helping. Fourth, and most importantly, the show does not end with the two getting together. The show follows it up with After Story, which actually does tell the rest of the romance arc, thereby leaving the “getting together” scene as the shift into a new arc that it’s meant to be. However, that isn’t to say it does this flawlessly, even it makes a few mistakes at times. There’s one scene where Tomoya and Nagisa embrace in the courtyard, until Kyou interrupts them. This scene really bothered me, because it was the scene where they originally confessed in the novel and the obvious contrivance of the interruption is clearly just to delay the confession scene until later in the story. As a result, a few of the other best scenes in the novel are changed into less compelling forms, which I just found horribly disappointing. So, overall, Clannad handled this pretty well. Umineko also had an interesting spin on it with the characters of Jessica and Kanon. What made this work so well was that the two of them were very open early on that they wanted to be together, but Kanon felt they couldn’t because he is “furniture” and she isn’t. In other words, the story establishes that they want to be together but can’t because one of them has personal issues that got in the way of them getting together, so the question becomes if they can work through those issues or not, on top of all the other weird shit that Umineko’s premise adds into the mix. The lesson to take from these seems to be that this formula works best when combined with 1.) one or both characters having personal issues to work through directly relating to the conflict that builds up to the relationship, and/or 2.) shifting focus elsewhere while including development for both characters on the side via the new scenarios they encounter.

So, up until now, I’ve been talking exclusively about other works that use the trope, but now I should answer the third question, how would I use this formula? Well, the answer is that I wouldn’t make it a traditional romance. What I would do is basically the opposite, a hardcore drama about two really toxic people in a harsh relationship who perhaps know deep down that they really shouldn’t be in this relationship, but aren’t consciously aware of it, so the tension is whether or not they’ll realize it and break it off. That’s a very very unconventional take on it, but I genuinely dislike the trope as a writer and therefore am inclined not to use it in its normal form. The reason for that is the same reason I never really got why so many people I talked to seemed to just think this is how things are done, or even unintentionally adopted aspects of it, such as ending their stories with the main characters getting together. Not only do I like the romance genre as a whole, but I especially like writing relationships, and I always found it frustrating when writers I was working with didn’t want to go that far because they were stuck in delay mode. So avoiding this trope always came naturally to me because I was never interested in it. Hence why I’ve been so much more critical towards it than defensive. I don’t consider it a worthwhile formula in most cases and would certainly never use it in the normal way.

Before I wrap up, I’d like to quickly touch on one defense of this trope that really bothers me, which is when people confuse it with the “slow burn” romance. These two are not the same thing, they are in fact very different. A slow burn is when the progression up to the arc starting takes a while, but that is largely taken up by the characters getting used to each other, learning more about each other, helping each other out, and eventually falling in love. Whereas, a will they/won’t they is usually where the characters are already in love but delay actually progressing it in any meaningful way. To put it another way, Clannad the novel is a slow burn, the last few episodes of Clannad the anime are a will they/won’t they. Unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer the former, especially because slow burns don’t generally end with the main characters getting together, and actually include the romantic arc. It’s a huge difference, and one I get extremely annoyed by the ignorance of. Just needed to clarify that quickly.

The 5 Best Anime of 2018

So, due to how much more anime I watched last year than the previous years, I decided to replace my yearly highlights piece with a list of the best anime of the year, at least out of what I watched, bearing in mind that I usually kept it to 5 or so anime per season. I’ll also be excluding shows that aren’t actually over yet, because of how crucial a good ending is to a show’s quality. I would also add a rule of “no sequels to shows that began in previous years”, but I didn’t really watch any of those this year, so it’s a moot point this time around. Same with “no shows that began in previous years but ended in this one”, which will be extraneous this time but still apply every year from now on.

Beginning at number 5. Anime has a reputation among most people for being, well, weird. Honestly, while I think this reputation is generally undeserved, I can at least see why this is the case. And the anime that best exemplified this characteristic weirdness this year was Poputepipikku. The original manga may be little more than a meme to most people, but I find genuine comedic value in how nonsensical and goofy it can be, and the show captures that characteristic weirdness perfectly. I remember that I couldn’t decide whether I liked or disliked it at first, because I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. To this day, I still can’t, but I can definitively say that I do like it a lot, it kept all the silly aspects of the manga that I liked and adds new dimensions of its own to that weirdness, making it the ideal way to experience something like this. It may be dumb and nonsensical, but it was the most I laughed at any show this year, and that counts for a lot. I give it a strong B+, and recommend giving it a look. Best not to do it sober, though, it’s even more fun when your perception of it is distorted.

On to number 4. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I love looking for possible “dark horse” hits, by picking stuff out from the bottom of the seasonal chart and hoping I stumble across something good in the process. I’ve found some good stuff in this category, especially in the Fall, but the crown jewel of this category is Tada-kun wa Koi wo Shinai, the romance show from Doga Kobo this spring. I know its popularity is much higher now, but it was at the bottom of the chart when the season started and I picked it up, so this dark horse happened to pull ahead. Despite driving me halfway neurotic with all the weird reminders of Clannad I got from it, it still was a fun and charming romance show with a remarkably well-done arc for the main protagonist, it goes at a great pace, tells some great stories, and concludes perfectly, tying up all the arcs extremely well. The animation is used to enhance the story pretty well, in that way you almost never see outside of original animation, this show hits all the possible high points that come from shows that aren’t adaptations. Ultimately it lacked the “wow” factor of a few of the other shows on this list, which is why it’s only at number 4, but it’s one of those “fantastic for what it is” shows, arguably among the best examples of that concept. Solid A-, and a hearty recommendation from me.

Next up, at number 3, we have the adaptation of one of my favorite manga, Golden Kamuy. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a show that is extremely solid as an adaptation, in most ways. While I am EXTREMELY miffed that they cut two of my favorite arcs and some of my favorite small scenes from the manga, the rest of the show is fantastically handled, covering the manga extraordinarily well. One wouldn’t think 120 manga chapters would fit into 24 episodes particularly well, but due to the rapid pace of the manga, the show had an easy time doing so. Not only that, but that fast pace means the show always keeps you on your toes, and new stuff is always happening, never once does the show get boring, even for a moment. Most of my praise for the show applies equally if not more so to the manga, but the added medium of audio brings its own advantages as well; the voice acting is absolutely fantastic, it’s every bit as intense or funny as it needs to be at any given time, and all the voices fit the characters perfectly. Not to mention, the music is fantastic, especially the openings and first ending theme. The animation is generally pretty good, except for the CG animals, which look jarringly out of place. As much as I recommend the anime, I definitely need to recommend the manga a lot more. The anime is a strong A-, while the manga is an S. I recommend watching the first season first, then reading the manga, then watching the second season, as I did. It turns out to have been immensely beneficial to the experience of the latter two, first through giving characters mental voices in the manga, then giving added context to the second season.

At number 2, we have the best show from the Winter season, Koi wa Ameagari no You Ni, aka After the Rain. You’ll probably notice the abundance of romance shows on my list, for a very good reason. I’ve had a soft spot for the romance genre for years now, and 2018 was an exceptionally strong year for them, with After the Rain being one of the best I’ve seen in a very long time. Despite only telling a small part of the story, and concluding in a very “this isn’t over” way, the arc of the show was still extremely engaging, and I loved every minute of it. I spent every week of the winter season eagerly awaiting the newest episode, and I was never disappointed. Ultimately some aspects of it were done better by the next one on this list, but I still can’t ignore how well they were handled in this particular case. Sadly I can’t say much more about it, it does what it does extremely well, touches on some excellent themes, sets up extremely engaging character arcs, and makes for a great show overall. A+.

Finally, at number one, we have the greatest romance show I’ve seen since Clannad, Yagate Kimi ni Naru, aka Bloom Into You. Where do I even start with this show? In my Seasonal Impressions article, I praised it for its excellent use of visual storytelling, but little did I know just how much more it would improve in that regard. The show makes EXCELLENT use of color, lighting, framing, and pace in order to convey so much more information that what you see at face value, from the internal emotions and thought process of a character presented with shocking info to the subtle dynamics of what’s going on between two characters in a conversation, with a surprisingly subtle and brilliant use of visual levels and clever framing to communicate info like the shifting control of a conversation and the feelings created by certain dialogue moments. Not only that, but the writing itself picked up IMMENSELY almost immediately after my impressions left off, with previously uncompelling side characters like Sayaka becoming extremely interesting characters through some much needed fleshing out, the inclusion of new plot threads for fun side characters like Hakozaki and her girlfriend (plus the inclusion of Mai Nakahara’s vocal talent, always a win), and the introduction of a legitimately fantastic conflict for Touko, among the best internal conflicts I have ever seen for a character, especially in how Yuu is affected by it and how that impacts the choices she makes as the series goes on. If I had to pick a criticism, I would say that the music (aside from the opening/ending, which are great) isn’t particularly memorable, certainly not to the level of something like Clannad, which used memorable themes repeatedly throughout to add new depth to scenes, something this show could’ve immensely benefited from. Even so, that’s a relatively minor complaint, that everything else in the show easily makes up for, and as a result I absolutely loved every second of this show. Every episode managed to drive my expectations up further, and yet the next episode always exceeded my expectations, aside from the last episode, which merely met them. Actually, this leads to a major complaint I have with the show, which admittedly is an almost inevitable consequence of being a manga adaptation, which is that the manga isn’t over yet, meaning no matter how much of it the show adapted, be it through 13 episodes or 30, it would be almost impossible to make a really satisfying ending to this show because it would inherently lack finality or closure. Even if you ended it with the conclusion of a major arc (which this season most definitely does not), unless the manga you’re adapting is completely episodic the way something like Higurashi is (which the manga certainly is not), you’re still going to have dangling plot threads left unfinished. I don’t blame the show for that, but I am slightly disappointed that it ended the way it did and not at a more natural cutoff point, though I suspect this is just down to industry constraints of needing to have 13 episodes rather than an more unusual number that fit the story pace better. Regardless, I hope that the complete lack of finality to the ending is a sign that a second season is in production, because this show more than deserves it. I picked up the manga immediately after I finished, and I eagerly await the announcement of a second season. And, for the first time since Kill la Kill, I’m awarding an ranking to this show, with the highest level of recommendation. Here’s to hoping we get more gems like this in the coming year.

V for Vendetta, 30 Years Later Part IV: Valerie

So, I have said, in every part so far, something that either references or directly mentions the scene of reading the letter written on toilet paper during the imprisonment section. And every time, I have said to keep it in mind, as I would cover it later. Well, it’s time to talk about that scene. When Eve is under arrest and thrown in her cell, she finds a letter written on toiler paper crammed into a mouse hole in the wall. Written in this letter is the life story of one woman, Valerie. After the ruse is revealed, V explains that Valerie was indeed real, and the letter was the same one he himself had read in the cells of Larkhill five years before. She was the woman in Room 4. The first half of Valerie’ds story touches on a lot of major issues faced by the LGBT community, beginning with her years in grade school and her first girlfriend “growing out of the phase”, a sad but common occurrence, then moving up through her acceptance of who she is, being rejected by her family, finding a life on her own, falling in love, and all the things that come with that. Up to this point, her experiences are, if not directly relatable, at least the sort of thing that can be easily understood by the average reader, enough to create a sort of empathy for Valerie and blunt the edge of fictional detachment. It’s at this point that the story moves into her experience with the war, the Norsefire taking over, her wife getting captured and tortured into betraying her, her arrest, and experience in the camp. The value in this story is primarily in its service to the book’s commentary on fascism. Up until this point, the things we the audience saw about Larkhill were entirely from the perspective of the Norsefire members, specifically Prothero and Surridge, and as such couldn’t fully convey the horror of it. Then, with the introduction of Valerie, the book presents the same events from the opposite perspective, and because the previous two accounts pulled no punches on how horrific the treatment of prisoners was at Larkhill, Valerie serves as the bridge connecting the audience to all those horrible things, due to the first half of her story building that sense of understanding and connection to her as a character, the parts that describe and/or imply the horrible things done to her in the camp hit all the harder because the reader (ideally) has built up enough empathy for her as a character that they can even begin to imagine the horrible things she describes in much more vivid ways. This is built on further when Finch, the closest thing to an impartial observer the book has, visits Larkhill himself, and that experience for the reader further colors their perception of his observations. In so far as what her story does directly in the narrative, being the lynch pin in V becoming who he is, and Eve following his footsteps, her story is the perfect catalyst, even as far as V is concerned, the suffering and misery endured by a woman who died mere feet from him yet he never got the chance to speak to serves as the most understandable reason his mind broke and reformed into what he became, especially combined with the mind-altering effects of Batch 5. As for Eve, someone who has only vicariously known of any of the horrors of the Norsefire until that point, and then suddenly finding herself in similar conditions, Valerie’s note serves as the fullest possible “eye opening” device, the thing that snaps Eve into fully understanding exactly how horrible the Norsefire are capable of being, and setting in motion the chain of personality changes that lead to her final decisions in the book. All of this from one small scene comprising only one chapter, and a few short mentions afterwards. It’s things like this that make V For Vendetta as great as it is.

Well, there’s ONE more thing, but we’ll need to wait until the next installment for that one.

Fall 2018 Anime Impressions

[Almost all of this was written in October, I went back afterwards to edit my opinion on Golden Kamuy because I forgot to keep up with the anime for a while and polish up everything else a little bit. Been struggling with personal demons that harshly delayed everything.]

 

The Summer season of this year was very difficult to talk about for me, so much so that I… didn’t. But the Fall season is very different, I was eagerly anticipating this one. So let’s not waste any time and get right into it. And no, I’m not fucking watching Goblin Slayer, so don’t expect any takes on it from me. To quote a very famous article on the reason why, “Unless you have a damn good reason to include rape in a story, you probably shouldn’t. Using sexual assault as a motivation-in-a-box or an equivalent trope will do nothing but steal credibility and respect from a really serious, really important subject. Plus, you’ll look like a twit.” Honestly, that sums up my thoughts on the show quite nicely.

First up, easily the most hyped show of this season, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part 5: Vento Aureo. The fans were waiting 2 years for this, and it does not disappoint, for the most part. I love the recast voices, they fit extremely well. Special credit to Yuuichi Nakamura as Buccellati, I always enjoy his work. The redesigns are take or leave, I really dislike Pink Giorno, and giving Narancia a 6-pack kind of ruins the design. The pacing is, perhaps, much slower than I expected, although every season of JoJo except for Diamond is Unbreakable has this problem for me. It could just be that the manga feels a lot shorter to me than it really is, and as a result single events often take multiple episodes, but even so, I am often utterly shocked by just how many episodes it takes to get to certain milestones. Other than that, I can’t find much, if anything, to fault about it. It is absolutely excellent. The new art style is really good, though I do prefer Part 4’s, the animation and direction are top notch, the music is fabulous, just a wonderful adaptation in general.

Next up, the sequel to my favorite show of the Spring season, Golden Kamuy Season 2. This season is very much on the same level of quality as the last one, though the new ED is much much worse. But I am considerably less friendly towards the anime as a whole these days, because I’ve read the manga since the last time I discussed it, and a lot of the stuff they cut out, including two of my favorite arcs, really gets on my nerves. I am told that one of them appears in the OVA, but I can’t find it myself, so I can’t confirm that. Most of the praise from season 1 still applies, but I do want to praise the new OP in particular, I am amazed that Man With a Mission somehow ends up  being the lesser of the two OPs, but Sayuri/My First Story is an absolutely perfect duo for the second OP. The story is still fantastic, but distinctly weaker than its manga counterpart. Even with that said, it still ranks among the best in anime we’ve gotten this year, with twists, turns, betrayals, and excellent characterization. I will continue to enjoy the anime, but I will now recommend the manga infinitely more.

Next up is Yagate Kimi Ni Naru. Ok, so, I fucking love Yuri. Like, I am a die hard fan of the genre. But the only other one that came to my attention this year was Citrus, which, just… no. So I was hoping this show would fill that void, I haven’t gotten to see a good one in a while. Apparent from the first episode is that the direction in this show is very good, with a good use of color and great shot transitions that strongly enhance the mood of the scene. It still doesn’t even come close to Clannad, but it is at least very good. The character designs are nothing special, though the art style is very appealing. I enjoy the voice work, though it hasn’t really been amazing so far. I will say that the post credit scene of episode 1 is fucking obscenely long and the way it smash cuts from something as emotionally charged as the climax of that episode into a low stakes scene with flashbacks to what happened really kills the tension that was built up until that point. The OP is really good as well, though it’s nothing that special. The kiss scene in episode 2 is expertly handled, though the buildup made me think that Nanami was going to dive on Koito to save her from an oncoming train, which I suspect is the point, so what actually happens comes off as an unexpected event, and the direction of the moment itself is absolutely excellent. I love especially how they can move while the environment around them is completely frozen, it’s a very interesting creative choice, and the way everything resumes so suddenly is a very well handled payoff moment. The hand holding scene is also excellent, the use of visual effects to highlight how they are ultimately more different than Koito at first believed, and how isolated that makes her feel, is absolutely brilliant. Having not read the manga, I cannot confirm this impression, but I get the sense that this is a case of anime using its unique advantages to accentuate the storytelling of the original, such as color changes, the way time flow changes in certain scenes, and the pacing of dialogue/use of pauses. This continues throughout episode 3, and hopefully will throughout the series. Definitely a favorite for best of season, and possibly of the year.

Next up is the first of two dark horse shows I picked up this season, simply called “Bakumatsu”. As anyone who reads my last two sets of impressions would know, I always have a few lesser known shows from the MAL chart in there, in hopes of finding a hidden gem. And this show has the additional advantage of being about a part of Japanese history I am very interested in. Studio DEEN is one that I consistently like, and so I often give their shows a chance on principle, even if they look terrible in other respects. So this show had everything going for it, but did it live up to to expectations? Well, it’s certainly not especially bad. The idea of an alternate reality Boshin War wherein the Tokugawa were deposed and two Choshu from our version of history being transplanted into this alternate world could be used for some interesting stories. The animation is surprisingly conventional for Studio DEEN, who if nothing else are always at least a little weird. The characters so far range from okay to dull to rather interesting, though unfortunately the two protagonists are definitely on the weaker end. Still, I genuinely like some aspects of the show, enough to keep me watching for at least a little while longer.

Next up is Double Decker: Doug and Kirill. Another dark horse show, this one is a Sunrise animation, a studio that deserves more credit than it usually gets. The premise seems pretty interesting, so I at least expected a well made show. Was it? Well, it certainly looks good, it at least has that going for it. It has a ridiculous amount of CG in it, but Sunrise is very good at blending it with traditional animation to create an excellent visual aesthetic. The visuals are definitely the best part of the show, but everything else is at least okay. The story is kinda meh, but overall I do like the show more than I dislike it. Doug as a character is plenty entertaining and makes it worth checking out all on his own.

Last up for this season is the new show from Studio Trigger, SSSS.Gridman. Trigger is my favorite animation studio, and nobody else even comes close. But their last outing was a major disappointment, by their standards. I thought it was okay, but this is a studio where I expect no less than “Great”. Unlike last time, though, we don’t have A1 in there mucking it up, so my expectations were extremely high for this show, even if Imaishi isn’t directing this time. But this director has a history of working on a lot of the best shows in Imaishi’s career, as co-director of Kill la Kill, director of several episodes of Gurren Lagann, etc. And he was even the director of Inferno Cop, which speaks to his ability, seeing how that show was almost entirely built on the direction making the extremely limited animation into something utterly hilarious. As a result, this show basically needed to be good. It started off on a mixed note, with a strong atmospheric opening scene but overall an unengaging next few minutes, especially with the overused plot device of amnesia. I must say, the use of limited animation in the conversation in the computer room and cutting between different poses was executed very well and helped keep it interesting. Or maybe my computer was just bugged, could be either. It was very clear that this wouldn’t be the sort of show I preferred from this studio, and that it would lean a lot more on drama, something their last outing utterly failed at. That said, the actual writing is a hell of a lot better this time around, Rikka and Akane being the immediate standout characters for me, with Rikka being the one I found most compelling and Akane the most likable. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Hibiki. It’s very rare for the protagonist to be the least interesting character in a Trigger show, but I would argue that such is the case here. He’s okay as a protagonist, but he’s rather uninteresting, and honestly much more… basic than I would expect from a studio with such a pedigree. Overall, I would say the show is between okay and good, solid B so far, but since it’s Trigger, that qualifies as a disappointment. I can only hope that their next outing is more like their usual style.

Overall, I really liked this season, it produced several big frontrunners for best show of the year. Obviously I will need to keep going on these, make sure they stick the landing. As Megalo Box and Darling in the FranXX proved, that isn’t guaranteed. Stick around, I will announce the best show of the year in January.

 

…Huh? What? What do you mean, “Umineko is getting a dub”? No way, that’s impossible, it’s way too niche for that. Hold on, it’s real? And it’s for the novel? Now you’ve got my attention, I’m definitely keeping my eye on that.

The Greatest Horror Story Ever Pt. III (October Finale)

With another Halloween comes another bout of Higanbana, we’ve got 2 more stories to get through in The First Night, so let’s not keep waiting. Uploaded late due to a faulty connection. ごめんなさい.

First up is “One Girl’s Day”, which is barely a horror at all on its own, being more akin to a slice of life chapter up until the very end. Of course, this is shattered by the twist of exactly who the narrator is. It turns out that the POV character is the girl from The Haunted Camera, the one who Nonomiya drove to suicide. And this is a sort of replay of that fateful day which caused him to start gunning for her. I think this could’ve been handled a lot more subtly, but it’s still pretty good as a twist. I shouldn’t have to explain how this ties into the theme of bullying, go read my bit on The Haunted Camera for that. So, yeah, there isn’t really much else to say on this one, I liked it, had a lot of fun reading it, and the twist was genuinely shocking.

Last up in The First Night is “Utopia”. The story begins with a nameless girl jumping off the roof and committing suicide because Higanbana whispered in her ear and amplified her narcissism and misanthropy to the point where she believes that only death can get her to a world where she is understood, while Marie, the only good person in the whole fucking school, tries talking her down from the ledge. Higanbana then says that she’s going to do it again to a poor bullied child, with Marie pledging to find them first and stop them from listening to her. It then hard cuts into the story of Yukari Sakaki, one such bullied child. The fascinating part of her introduction is that it addresses the platitude of “just ignore it and it’ll go away”, showing just how wrong that idea really is. This is another part of why this book should be mandatory reading instead of those anti bullying PSAs, because it actually takes 5 seconds to point out that the solutions so many adults offer are complete fucking nonsense. So anyway, as she explains to the audience how her life is utterly miserable, Higanbana starts whispering in her ear that she ought to self-harm in order to escape from the pain. She is quite literally becoming characters’ shoulder devil. Yukari contemplating how she equated her own death with an escape from school leads into her positing on how society values like “people must try and avoid death” are perhaps baseless. Enter Marie, again, still being the only good person in this entire school, and dispelling this notion herself. In this conversation, Yukari quickly deduces a lot of who Marie was before she became a Yokai, and the conversation becomes about how she’s supposed to deal with her life. Marie actually calls out the bullshit advice given by the teachers, and explains how she herself fell victim to that attitude, showing that she really did take her teacher’s “life exam” to heart. Yukari, spurred on by this, realizes that it was not her who was ignoring her bullies, it was her parents and teachers who were ignoring her. Her backstory is actually quite sad, her mother died in a traffic accident and her father was so broken by this that he was left unable to properly function, so a lot of housework didn’t get done, resulting in a lot of problems for Yukari that caused the others to pick on her. The book spends a short bit on the mindset of her bullies, a reason why ignoring them did nothing, because to them, it’s like a sport, the result doesn’t matter, it’s about the thrill of doing it. There’s then a sequence of the ringleader of the bullies losing his house key and searching for it in the school at night, then eventually finding it in the bathroom. If you have been paying attention to who inhabits the school bathrooms in this story, you’ll know exactly what’s going on. He then somehow finds himself in the bathroom of the old school with no explanation, the notorious trigger of the eighth school rumor. “You there, would you listen to my pitiful story?” Marie takes this opportunity to scare him into breaking the rules of the mystery by telling him how she knew about his bullying. Instead of killing him, she instead uses this chance to terrify him into stopping the bullying forever. The next thing she does is try and get Higanbana to stop tricking Yukari, as it wouldn’t really be suitable to her style. This does not work out, and ultimately, while the ringleader stops bullying Yukari, the others do not. Marie, in accordance, decides to stalk the rest of them, looking for clues on how to get them to stop. Perhaps it would be wisest to simply start eating them, one by one, and have the surviving ringleader spread rumors as a result, but that’s not what she does. The next day, Yukari is out with a cold, and her bullies take out their anger at not being able to torment her by viciously kicking a curtain. Higanbana theorizes that this is because bullying is how people establish a hierarchy within society, and that it is therefore inescapable. Marie disagrees, instead thinking that they’d made it a habit, and a habit they were unable to break from, even when their target is absent. To them, bullying is their fun, essentially. So Marie sets out to try and figure it out herself by following them around for a while. She overhears them planning to hit harder and harder, until Yukari reacts the same way a previous victim had, before she had died in “an accident”. She then deduces that all the bullies seem to have originated from the same lower grade class, which is apparently is a major source of troublemakers, and that the entire class had bullied this one girl, who died by falling off the roof, suggesting that she had committed suicide and then been subsequently erased by Mr Principal. Apparently something had happened in their class the previous year, which Marie decides to investigate in order to find an answer as to why it made them so utterly sadistic. In the next scene, however, a new student transfers in, a girl named Reiko (whose design is weirdly reminiscent of Beatrice), who seems like a frail and timid sort. Naturally, they become close friends very quickly, along with shared stories over their experiences with bullying. Her theory on it is that bullying provides some sick form of nourishment, the way killing other living things provides food. Except instead of hunger, it is appeasing their insecurity. They also share experiences with the platitude of “look at those less fortunate to feel better about what you have”, which they suspect to be the source. Reiko has resigned herself to this fate, though Yukari is unsure about it. After an incident with curry the next day (Chie would be furious), Reiko finds herself at the very bottom of the social ladder, and Yukari is now one strep above her. Higanbana posits that bullying is like the baton in a relay race, you cannot get rid of it, you must pass it on to somebody else. This bullying of Reiko gets much much worse however. Not just that clique of boys, but the whole class, and even the teacher, are humiliating her now. It is at this point that Higanbana characterizes the new class condition as a utopia of sorts, as the previous pecking order has vanished in favor of everyone uniting to beat down on Reiko. Yukari compares this bullying and the possibility of willfully ignoring it to eating meat and ignoring the realities of the meat industry.  Yet she cannot accept that, and resists anyway. The book slips up here a little, by giving an inch to the “just ignore it” idea through pointing out that responding the way Reiko does makes things get a lot worse a lot faster. That’s not a terrible idea on its own, but the book doesn’t do enough to point out that the way Yukari tried to deal with it was just as bad of an idea. Higanbana actually calls Yukari out for her cowardice here, as she has thought of stepping in to help Reiko but refuses to do so out of fear. While it is certainly an understandable fear, it is still ultimately cowardice because it places the selfish desire not to be targeted over the well being of others, even those that she considers friends. Higanbana’s taunting actually works, and Yukari shouts at the rest of the class to stop, which actually does halt their behavior, and even the teacher slightly backs her up, admittedly in a cowardly and ineffectual fashion. Walking home from school, Yukari and Reiko pontificate on the nature of what she’d been doing, and how the refusal to step in ultimately just enables everything bad to keep happening. How bullying doesn’t just go away, you need to actually put a stop to it or it’ll just keep on happening. They actually fight over Reiko lying to herself as a way of coping with her bullying, and Yukari actually pledges to protect her, swearing that she will no longer fear anyone like that, because it hurts much more to stand by doing nothing and watching it happen. It is at this point that Yukari reaches the conclusion of fighting back against it outright as an option, destroying their false paradise. Her condemnation of Reiko’s previous response as possibly leading her bullies to tell themselves it was just fun games rather than actual bullying actually strikes a chord with me, as I was on the other end of that as a child, though nothing I did was anywhere near as bad, obviously. It was only when they cracked and showed how much it hurt that the rest of us understood just what we’d been doing. Anyway, back to the story. The discussion continues like this, until Reiko… changes. She becomes some sort of bizarre monster urging Yukari to join in on bullying her because it’s fun. Arguing from the premise that tormenting people is an addictive pleasure. Guess she cribbed more than just visual elements from Beatrice. Yukari sees in the distance that Reiko isn’t reflected in the mirror, which alerts her to danger. Reiko then reveals herself to be a Yokai, and attempts to eat Yukari, who is saved by Marie. “Reiko” then reveals herself to be Sumire of the Twilight, seventh-ranked school Yokai, who spirits away people who follow her at twilights. Her scheme is bewitching humans into bullying her and getting them addicted to it, and then leaving, so that she can devour those who they go on to victimize. A cruel twist is that her power does nothing unless actively bullied of one’s own free will, so the class bullying her because of the curry incident was their own willing decision. Marie prepares to square off with Yukari on the line, seeming unlikely that she would win, but it is at this point that Higanbana intervenes, stopping the fight with a simple truth. If Reiko vanished, Yukari would be next on the chopping block. Obviously the best option here would be eating enough of the classmates that they’d get the message, but apparently that isn’t on the table for some reason. Maybe get Mr Principal to erase all memories of Sumire’s previous forms, see if that does anything. Hignabana keeps whispering in Marie’s ear, trying to get her to stand aside, but she refuses. Marie is dragged into Sumire’s shadow and tormented with memories of when she was bullied in life, certainly a horrific measure. Needless to say, Marie loses to this, and vanishes. Sumire decides that she will indeed vanish, leaving Yukari the sole target of the class’ bullying, unless she herself agrees to join in on their bullying. Yukari is indeed tempted by this, for multiple reasons, but ultimately refuses to comply. The next day, nobody remembers Reiko existing, and Yukari is targeted once more. Unfortunately, she declines to actually resist, and has reverted to trying to ignore it. It is at this point that she is forcibly stripped as they claim to be washing her clothes for her. I must admit, in any other form of media, I would be revolted by the mere idea of including this, but the unique advantage of a third person omniscient perspective granted to a novel makes it less of a bad idea. She manages to get out of the circle and runs for her life, being chased by all the boys in her class. Fleeing down the stairs, she is tripped by Higanbana and splits her forehead on the floor, which actually snaps everyone back to sense for a short moment, and guarantees her a short solace in the infirmary. This is, of course, her first step from the beginning of the story, the pleasures of fleeing to the infirmary. Yukari is absent for a few days, tormented by her previous experiences. The rest of the class, without her, breaks into violent rage at bullying withdrawal. Naturally, Sumire is watching all this in smug self satisfaction. And even the ringleader from earlier breaks the promise he made and comes up with a plan even crueler than most of the previous ones. Big mistake. For it is at this moment that Higanbana appears in the road, causing the bus driver to swerve and crash through the guardrail., down the mountainside, killing all on board. As cruel as she is, she still does do the right thing sometimes. Sumire, of course, does not even dare talk back, let alone challenge her. Oh yeah, the bus driver survived though. The next day, Yukari looks back on her relapse with disdain, and transfers to her new class with a resolution to change for the better, as nobody there is among Sumire’s henchmen. Even Marie is there, as a Yokai rather than a student of course, and Yukari thanks her for saving her from her own suicide. They remark about how the futility of her fighting bullying was merely due to the scale, not the premise, and then say their farewells. Marie leaves to rest a while, having fulfilled her wish and absolved her regrets from life, with these words: “Live well, for there are no flowers which bloom in death. If there are, they are the ones that bloom to laugh at the pitiful dead. Higanbana No Saku Yoru Ni, the Unforgiving Flowers That Blossom in the Dead of Night.” Yukari then overhears some classmates mocking another, as well as most of them ignoring it, and stands up for the victim. Thus ends the story, and Part 1. So, this is the story that is by far the most direct on the issue of bullying and speaks directly about what to do about it, for the first time. It was not as scary as some previous chapters, and could honestly have done with being a lot more subtle in some places, but it was very enjoyable overall and a high note to end The First Night.

Higanbana No Saku Yoru Ni, Part One: The First Night is an excellent book, every bit on the level of quality I would expect from Ryukishi07, and I eagerly look forward to starting The Second Night next year. As for ranking the seven stories thus far, my ranking would go thusly. First is the Haunted Camera. Still my favorite chapter for how well it handles the twist, how genuinely shocking it was, and how well it managed to pull off a genuine scare. Second is Hameln’s Castanets. Easily the most psychologically disturbing chapter, this one connects to the theme in the best way and handles an aspect of it in the newest and most interesting way. And it was a fantastic horror story in its own right, with extremely macabre themes and some genuinely horrifying scenes. Third is Mesomeso-san. An excellent use of extremely dark subject matter, the really disturbing part of this is the twist at the end, the speech Kanamori gives was shocking, because, as horrible as he was, he was right, and the knowledge that even one like him can be so right about stuff he said while trying to shift the  something he himself was objectively to blame for is deeply unsettling. Fourth is Utopia. Perhaps a little too long for its own good, this is nonetheless an excellent chapter and has the most valuable contributions to the overall theme. The twist was surprising, the tension was good, and the prose was arguably the best. Fifth is The Princess’ Lie. Very interesting concept, well-executed twist, all around good stuff. Sixth is One Girl’s Day. Though by no means a horror story, it provided some much needed levity, seeing how it comes between two of the heaviest stories in the entire package, meaning it’s another example of the Higurashi Effect (article callback). And finally, we have Shrine of the Guardian Deity. By no means do I dislike this story, I had a lot of fun with it, especially the cameo from a fan favorite Umineko character, but not only is it the least relevant to the overall theme, and the least unnerving overall, it’s also more of a setup for one of the stories in Part 2 (going by a few spoilers I know of). I eagerly look forward to Part 2, see you all next year.