The Brilliance of Bloom Into You (February Finale)

So the manga for Bloom Into You concluded last fall, and thus now is the perfect time to really look over it and really examine what makes it work. I am aware that I’ve been a bit of a broken record on how great it is, but bear with me just a little longer, because I’d like to go over the key aspects that make it as truly incredible as it is.

Foremost, obviously, is the relationship between Yuu and Touko, their character arcs, and how these two interact. Yuu is the primary POV character, so let’s start there. Lot of people early on thought she was asexual, something later shown to be wrong, but this initial impression is clearly meant to be taken as such and to color a reader’s view of all her scenes through that being a possibility. Though the term itself is never used, Yuu and some others do speculate (and in h er case, despair) that she might indeed be asexual/aromantic. A big part of her arc centers around learning, acknowledging, and accepting that while she does indeed love Touko, she doesn’t feel or express it the way she had expected to, and coming to terms both with her own feelings and how they will affect everything around her. Added on to this is her genuine concern for Touko and her determination to help her understand and confront her own issues. As far as character arcs go, hers are fairly simple, but they’re exactly what’s needed to fit her role in the story as a relatively stable POV character and as a complement to other characters’ conflicts. Which brings us to the most complex aspect of the story by far.

If you asked me to list out the characters who I find the most in compelling in all of fiction, Touko Nanami would be right at the top, just under Beatrice herself. What makes Touko so interesting is that beneath her cool and charismatic facade, she’s actually a complex bundle of flaws and self loathing, and that inner layer makes for one of the most truly human characters I’ve ever seen. Her primary flaws are a hatred of herself combined with deep admiration for her older sister, a dependency on emotional support and affection, a fear of stagnation, and a resultant fear of love and relationships. These all combine to make for a really complex character who fits in perfectly with the central ideas of the story. Her self-loathing and deep-seated insecurity towards the kind of person she really is are the real core of every conflict she’s a part of, because when they’re combined with her misunderstanding of love as a force of stagnation, it results in an incredibly tense and indeed toxic situation where what she wants in the early part of the story amounts to someone who she can be affectionate towards and demand emotional support from without taking on the responsibilities or complications that come from having that person reciprocate her feelings the way they would in a traditional romantic relationship. She falls for Yuu specifically because Yuu is the one person in the world who she believes would fit these criteria, something that causes Yuu herself no small amount of stress as she finds that she isn’t able to hold up her end of the deal, and is indeed falling in love for the first time in her life. This situation results in 2 primary conflicts: the council play, and Yuu trying to convey her actual feelings.

The council play begins as the ultimate manifestation of Touko’s unhealthy views of herself and her older sister, essentially her attempt to do the one thing her sister couldn’t and earn some kind of Pyrrhic victory by doing so. Because Touko hates herself and idolizes her older sister, her entire outward persona has become a direct mirror of everything she believed her sister to be. This is a central theme of the story, with the original title of the story even translating to “Soon, I Will Become You” as a nod to this. Further credit to the anime adaptation for the genius idea of punctuating the opening credits with a shot of Yuu and Touko replaced by intertwined flowering vines and masks instead of faces. The vines represent how intertwined their lives become due to the love between them and the bonds they form, and the masks are a pitch perfect visual representation of the story’s theme. For indeed, Bloom Into You is about the masks we all wear, the idea of persona, and the different ways we present ourselves to the different people in our lives. And this is where the council play comes in, because while Touko plans for it to be the ultimate moment where she “becomes” her persona, two things end up happening that undermine this. Firstly, upon learning about this, Yuu decides that she wants to use the play as a chance to show Touko the error of her ways, and because she’s friends with the script writer, she gets a chance to help craft a message for the play (which, incidentally, uses the concept of an amnesiac questioning who they really were as a way to comment on the same themes of persona and evolving image) as one fundamentally critical of how Touko sees herself, and one that (so she hopes) will show her the error of her ways. Secondly, and just as importantly, while the student council is working on putting the play together, Touko, someone who idolized her older sister as a seemingly perfect individual, is confronted with the reality of who her sister really was, how she had sides to her that cast her in a much less ideal light. And that friction between who Touko thought her sister was and who her sister actually was is the source of a major identity crisis for her, because if her sister wasn’t the ideal she had always seen her as, what does that make her, someone trying to imitate that perceived excellence? This is a brilliant means of forcing introspection, as people like Yuu, her teachers, and her parents had constantly been trying to imply, hint, suggest, or push her into outgrowing her flawed perspective, and she dug in her heels every single time. There’s actually a very good lesson being conveyed here, particularly in one scene where Yuu suggests that people around Touko might be happier if she dropped her persona and accepted her real self, and Touko responds “I would rather die than hear that”. While this is obviously upsetting to Yuu, as it throws a wrench into every gain she had tried to make, it becomes far more interesting when you learn more about why Touko is the way she is, and suddenly her line makes perfect sense. Fundamentally, Touko believes that the “real her” is a horrible person, and it’s clear that she is upset and distressed by letting it show through, so for Yuu, the person she loves most in the world, to suggest she should live her entire life like that is clearly painful for her to process. While Yuu perceives it as a threat, as a way to say “stop trying to change my mind”, Touko doesn’t even seem to understand it in terms of how everyone else around her thinks. She isn’t able to really process that someone like Yuu is able to love those aspects of her, because to her those aspects are abjectly horrible, so she perceives “Maybe some people even prefer the real you” as an attack, something dragging her down to something she couldn’t bear to be, and as a result the intended message didn’t land . However, when she’s confronted with the reality that the person she’s idolized for so long as someone she’d wanted to be was actually a flawed person, she breaks because it runs so contrary to what she’s believed for so long, and the dissonance is something she can’t fully handle. In that moment, if she can’t be her “real self”, and she can’t be her persona, then she is left with the same question as the character she plays on the stage: what will she become, what is she really?

The second conflict of the story is Yuu coming to terms with her feelings and trying to help Touko reach a point where she can understand and accept them despite her initial insistence on that not happening. As a result, this really runs parallel to Touko’s growth as a character, as Yuu starts to figure out that she either does love Touko or wants to as early as when Maki (an asexual classmate) questions if that really isn’t what she’d already been doing, and by the time the council play that forms the crux of the story’s events is into serious production, she already understands to some degree that she actually has fallen in love. And the degree to which she and Touko react to that impending possibility changes drastically as other events of the story progress. Yuu first hints at it around the time she discovers the truth about Touko imitating her sister, at which point Touko is entirely oblivious and shuts down any attempts at making her understand that reality. However, it is very clear that, while she may not be consciously aware of it, she knows on some level that it’s happening. So, at her lowest point, when she is left entirely unsure of who she will become, Touko actually does extend her feelings into threatening Yuu for the first time, in one of the most memorable lines of the series: “Don’t fall in love with me, okay? After all, I hate myself, and how can I love someone who loves something I hate? I want to stay in love with you.”, with the implication being “but I can’t if you ever love me back”. This clears up shortly after during the aquarium sequence, where she truly comes to terms with the question being posed for the first time, and begins to find her answer. “Even if everything else about me is fake, I know that my love for you is my own”, as she says. And this is the moment where she truly begins to change and discover who she really is, by beginning with what she knows for a certainty to be true and working her way out from there. So when the council play comes, she is able to finally understand the meaning of it and grow into who she truly is. However, this is not the end, for Yuu is still haunted by the specter of her own feelings and ultimately is driven to confess the truth, that she broke her promise and did indeed fall in love with Touko. And what follows is arguably the best “misunderstanding caused by poor communication” story I have ever seen. Touko, in shock, can only respond with “I’m sorry”, which Yuu perceives as her acting on her previous threat, bursts into tears, and runs off. So, the real question to be asked is, what did Touko actually mean by this? Well, in general, Touko has been wrapped up a lot in her own personal growth, and basically viewed Yuu the same way that we the audience did, someone who didn’t feel romantic attraction in any circumstance, something Yuu herself did nothing to discourage. As a result, Touko never really processed the real predatory and destructive nature of her behavior early in the series, because she clearly assumed that these kinds of consequences would never actually happen. So when she’s confronted with the reality of how much her own selfish desires had torn up the person she loved most in the world, all she could express was “I’m sorry”, and I think that if she had expanded the sentence a little in that moment, what she was really thinking would’ve been “I’m sorry for hurting you”.

At this point the two are split apart, and it is only by consulting the people who can see through their facades that they can truly make up. Yuu acts like she can just shut out her feelings and make herself ace by choice, and Maki points out how she’s just lying to herself because she can’t handle the reality of how she feels and that she needs to step up to face her problems directly. Whereas Touko has to deal with her best friend Sayaka confessing to her, and thus grappling with her love for Yuu and why it feels so different from the love that she does feel for Sayaka, and thus being convinced that she can’t let something like that go to waste over a misunderstanding. It’s a beautiful ending to both of their character arcs.

Hopefully this has shed some light on why the primary story of Bloom Into You is so compelling. This won’t be the end of my talking about the series, as I have several other pieces planned, including a character study for Sayaka, an analysis of the play itself and how it connects to the themes, and a few others. But, for now, this should serve as a pretty good rundown of how the series makes drama so compelling, and why its earned its crown with so many fans.

Burning Up For You: Toxic Relationships Aren’t Inherently Bad (February Special #3)

So, a common topic in critique of literature is the concept of “toxic relationships”, be they romantic, platonic, familial, etc. The last one is the most common to appear in fiction, as familial bonds require absolutely no other forms of investment on the part of any character involved, meaning you can make it as toxic as you want, including having them be full-on enemies, with almost no limitations. Ditto with the similar concepts of “former friends” and “former lovers”, both of which often just add more layers of drama to existing adversarial or uneasy relationships. But I’m more interested in something a lot rarer, and comes with a lot more baggage: romantic relationships that are currently ongoing and contain elements of toxicity. When these crop up, they are almost universally criticized, often with good reason. Topics like abuse, dependency, and the like are extremely sensitive and need to be treated with respect and care. Indeed, as I said last week, many authors remain completely unaware of the heavy implications of their writing and end up accidentally writing an extremely toxic message into their story, an unfortunately common result when people try to write these kinds of relationships. However, a common thread I’ve started to see in a lot of criticism is the painting of all depictions of toxic relationships as condoning the toxic elements, and that’s something I would like to push back against.

Broadly speaking there are a lot of different ways of depicting toxic relationships, and there are two I would like to focus on. First, and more common of the two, is one where the toxic element is noted and addressed, with the arc of the story about characters healing from and moving past that toxic element. This is fair enough as a premise, it gives opportunities for interesting scenes of drama and introspection, but it’s also very easy to fall into some common writing traps that distort it into something horrifying. Most often, this comes from placing the responsibility for ensuring that growth on the person who doesn’t actually have the issue. “Your partner is broken, and you need to fix them” is an incredibly toxic theme to present to an audience, because it shifts responsibility onto the wrong person, effectively blaming the victim for not being good enough to live up to an unrealistic standard. So, whatever you do, do not ever do this. It’s very important to remember that, while the emotional support of loved ones can be very beneficial, the responsibility of changing always falls on the shoulders of the person who needs that change. More of this next week. So long as you remember basics like this, you ought to be able to do this just fine.

Something extremely uncommon, but most interesting of all to me, is depictions of toxic relationships where the toxic element is extremely evident to all involved, but never actually goes away, either because it can’t or because characters won’t do it. Outside of really hardcore drama, most authors are gun-shy about this, and I think that’s a crying shame, because there are issues that can’t just be worked through so easily, or worse, cannot be done because one or both characters involved rely on those issues to keep themselves together due to other problems. A case of the latter is what ultimately inspired me to write this, coming from my favorite source of good writing examples: Umineko. Now, Umineko had 4 romantic relationships playing key roles in the story, and the one that really comes to mind is that between the characters of Lambdadelta and Bernkastel. Their relationship is easily the most complex and fraught with issues of the four, and that’s exactly why it’s so compelling. Lambda and Bern have developed a complex codependency based on their years of surviving Hell together, and Lambda in particular is fully aware of how much their need of each other’s support combined with the masks of detached cruelty has absolutely destroyed them both, but neither could bear the weight of their trauma without the other, so they stay together. And it’s not like they don’t have genuinely sweet moments together, but in large part their relationship is defined by their codependency, which is the best thing about it. It adds layers upon layers of complexity and drama from everything to their bickering, to Erika trying to muscle in on Bern, to their mutual scheming against Beatrice, and so on. So, when they fight to the death in the final book, all this drama and buildup makes the confrontation all the more tense. It’s so much more than just “lovers on different paths”, and it saddens me that a lot of people would dismiss this kind of complex dynamic as some kind of toxic messaging, or a lost cause that cannot be done well simply because it’s got toxic elements to it. When you really see the potential of adding elements like that to relationship writing, it makes you wish that you saw them explored more often and in more depth.

I said that I was gonna focus on two, but I lied, there’s room for a bonus type, something much more specific: the Enemies to Lovers trope and how it can turn toxic. And if you’ve been tuned into online discourse at all in the last two months, you can probably guess I’m talking about Reylo. For those of you blissfully out of the loop, Reylo is a particularly galling ship from the new Star Wars trilogy that was extremely popular among an extremely loud and angry community online, who spent 4 years straight begging for it and screaming at people who criticized it, up to and including the cast of the films themselves. Making this ship canon was the worst mistake they could’ve possibly made. And the thing is, I saw it coming and dreaded it. Back when The Force Awakens came out, I predicted that the series would go that route and expected that it would be awful. But the thing is, then The Last Jedi came out, a movie which actively criticized this idea and showed in the clearest possible terms that trying to reach out to the kind of person Kylo Ren is depicted as is a bad idea start to finish, because not everyone fits the mold that makes the kind of arc that fans were expecting, and taking a chance on the wrong kind of person can have terrible consequences. And after that movie came out, I had some hope that maybe the series would go in a different direction. But then Rise of Skywalker came out, a film that did everything possible to placate fan desires, and dove straight into the proverbial trash bin that was Reylo. Not only was it a bad idea to begin with, but it was also executed in the most terrible way. Could I believe Ren would try and redeem himself? Yeah, I could. Could I believe he’d sacrifice himself to keep Rey alive? Yeah, I could. Could I believe people would forgive him for all the shit he did? No, absolutely not. Could I believe Rey would decide to spur of the moment kiss him right in the instant before he dies? First off, no, and second off, yikes, after every horrific thing he did throughout the series, both in general and to her specifically, having her turn around and kiss him is the worst possible way to conclude that story thread. For a better example of Enemies to Lovers done well, I recommend checking out Promare, which came out only a few weeks before and did the idea fabulously.

In general, the point I want to convey here is that including toxic elements in relationship writing is not inherently bad, as it can create interesting drama and add unique depth to relationship writing that would not be possible otherwise. It’s a worthwhile tool that I would like to see used more often.

Let’s Talk About LGBT+ Representation… Again (February Special #2)

So, my original piece on the topic of LGBT+ representation two years ago was the worst thing I have ever written, I disown it completely, and I decided to take another crack at it. The reason for this is because I, in the midst of crunch time between classes, work, etc, idiotically decided to cut corners and put out an article too short to actually make its point, and which accidentally came off way too much like those insufferable folks online who insist representation is “forced into everything” and other nonsense like that. And that is not my goal, quite the opposite in fact. So, time for another bite at the apple, I’d like to remake/expand upon the original argument to hopefully make my point better. But before that, I would like to make it very clear that this is working off the basis that representation is a good thing overall and a net positive inclusion in stories, rather than examining the worth of its existence at all, I am interested more in what aspects can be done with it to make it more engaging and poignant, so everything I have to say should be viewed from that lens, and I don’t want my words being twisted to support some sort of anti-representation message.

I mentioned last week that my three theories of romance appeal were leaving out a fourth one, and it’s time to talk about that fourth: Romance as Statement, which is particularly relevant to discussions of representation. This is really more of a subcategory than anything, because it’s incredibly rare to encounter it on its own. Broadly speaking, Romance as Statement is using romantic elements to make a statement on elements related to it, usually some form of cultural or political statement. This is particularly relevant to discussions of LGBT+ representation in the political climate of the modern world, for the simple reason that our modern political climate has turned the existence and validity of LGBT+ dynamics into an inherently political statement, owing to the open hostility to the community from social conservatives. As a result, it is impossible to meaningfully discuss the nuances of LGBT+ inclusion without discussing the wider political scene and how that influences the attitudes and behavior of creators who tend to be either overly conscious of the implications of their writing (and cautious as a result), or completely unaware of them. Either of these, taken to their furthest logical extreme as is so often seen in modern discourse and creative circles, can wreak utter havoc on a story, so an important question to be posed is how exactly to thread that needle. And this is where we come back to Romance as Statement as a concept and really have to dive into the merits and drawbacks of it.

One thing I would like to establish beforehand is that if Romance as Statement appears primarily as an inescapable byproduct of the inherently political nature of art and representation, that is absolutely fine and I have no particular quarrel with the concept. What I’m far more concerned with is the use of romance elements with the express intent of making a statement with them, because that can go extremely awry extremely quickly. And this is a risk that comes from making direct statements on current issues, every statement has implications that often ripple much further than the direct meaning of the thing being said, and diving headfirst into cultural issues necessitates a level of understanding of those implications that many people either don’t have, or overthink. Obviously, the solution to this issue is not to “just don’t make statements at all”, like some people would have you believe, it’s simply to think through the particulars of your statement. Between the two extremes of either not thinking of implications at all and accidentally saying something toxic (see, Steven Universe’s piss poor portrayal of “forgive the sexual assault metaphor”), and being so terrified of causing a reaction that you end up failing to actually make a statement with any teeth (see, The Rise of Skywalker hyping up the existence of a gay kiss, only for it to be completely glossed over). Of the two, the former is objectively worse, but the latter is more personally irritating to me. This issue is omnipresent when it comes to portrayal of LGBT+ issues, and it manifests in many ways. For example, explorations of when LGBT+ relationships can turn toxic are absolutely valid as a subject matter, but someone who doesn’t think about implications could accidentally imply that these problems are inherent to LGBT+ relationships, while someone who is overly conscious of their implications might be gun-shy of depicting toxic dynamics at all for fear of accidentally sending such a message, and such stories can come off as saccharine or toothless. A big part of storytelling, especially in a genre such as Romance or Drama, comes from this sort of conflict, and being afraid of depicting it is a really tragic loss in my eyes. While being careful to avoid toxic implications is definitely a good thing, it can’t be something to paralyze a creator from fear of possibly screwing up. Poorly made statements can always be amended or disavowed, but the same cannot be said for statements that are never made. So, one key rule for making statements, especially in regards to LGBT+ issues, is “Think through the implications of your statement, but don’t think so much that it stops you from saying anything of substance; be transgressive, but not toxic”. However, there is one more thing I really want to bring up, a nasty side effect of what can go wrong when priorities are wrong in this field.

Now, we’ve talked about statements made as a side effect of just telling the story, but cases do exist where making the statement is the priority, and other elements come second to that. I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, other elements in the story tend to suffer when this happens, and I find that such messages tend to be more concise and memorable when delivered directly as political statements without the superfluous fluff of narrative conventions. On the other hand, not every story with this intent is like this, and just as there is merit to the point that direct political statements are more concise and distinctive, so too is there an argument to be made that formatting it as a story makes it easier to introduce to an audience who may be unfamiliar with or unconvinced on the political topic itself, for example Platoon codified the sheer brutality and horrors of the Vietnam War and the Invasion of Cambodia far better than any statistics list ever could. The crucial difference, really, is that even leaving aside the message they tell, films like Platoon are still fundamentally compelling stories at the end of the day, and this is something people caught up in messages can often forget. While themes are, more often than not, the most important aspect of storytelling, that doesn’t mean the others don’t matter. Without compelling characters and some form of engaging narrative, those themes are ultimately lost on an audience that lacks investment in what’s happening. And this is where we loop back to the question regarding representation that I posed in my original article back in the day. While representation itself is both easy to do and fundamentally a good thing to have, it cannot be your only concern, or else you start to lose sight of other elements that ultimately undermines the message you were going for. When, two years ago, I said that representation ought to have a point beyond the message inherent to its existence, this is what I was talking about. For a story’s representation to land with an audience, there needs to be more than just that representation message present. And, to be clear, this is a very broad category. A story that goes for the Romance as Charm style while starring a gay couple the way half the Yuri genre does absolutely fits this requirement, as does a hardcore Character Study drama about people dealing with toxic aspects related to their identities or relationships and experiencing personal growth as a result such as Stars Align. But both of these have worth as stories beyond just the message inherent to representation, and that is something to keep in mind when writing. This second rule could be described as “Representation on its own cannot carry a story, back it up with strong storytelling to help the message land more effectively.”

Finally, something I would like to talk about is a divide between two schools of thought on the topic of how representation should be handled. The first argues that traits like gender or sexual orientation are fundamentally benign traits (that is, traits that do not necessarily affect a person beyond the areas covered directly by their existence) and thus can easily be included without having to affect anything, while the other posits that because the LGBT+ community does experience unique problems in life that their cishet counterparts do not, and meaningful discussions of these issues are both warranted and a net benefit to the story overall. I half agree with both of these. While I agree that things like gender and sexuality are benign traits, I think there is value in exploring them as part of the narrative. And while I do agree that the LGBT+ community is very poorly treated by society as a whole, and that exploring this can make stories more dramatically compelling, I would also argue that that’s beyond the scope of many stories on the topic and that there are plenty of aspects beyond society’s views on the subject that are worthy of being explored. And this is where we come to the actual position I hold, which is somewhere between the two. While I do believe that every story which includes mentions of LGBT+ issues should make an effort to explore them and how they relate to the characters involved, the actual exploration can be as simple as telling a fluffy romantic subplot featuring a gay couple, or as complex as diving into the intricacies of someone exploring and coming to terms with aspects of their own identity and how it relates to society as a whole, and both ends of that spectrum are perfectly valid. This third rule can be described as “Explore the issues, and make that exploration as simple or complicated as you want; not all exploration must be deep, but it should still be there.”

Between these three rules, the really basic aspects of making good representation are covered, and so long as you keep the right mindset when telling a story and treat the issues with the dignity and respect they deserve as relevant social issues, you will do fine. I cannot stress this enough. A lot of times, people writing on issues like this, especially if they don’t personally belong to the community, will be met with accusations ranging from “appropriating struggles” to “telling a story that isn’t yours to tell”, both accusations I’ve seen commonly lobbed against people writing about these kinds of issues in the past. And let me be clear, in most cases, they are both full of shit. The former is simply misapplied, a story about gay or trans characters going through the struggles of living as a gay or trans person in society is not appropriation, because it’s still directly about the issue itself, regardless of who the author is. And the latter is flatly wrong in general. While that argument usually comes up in discussion of portraying other cultures and usually is rooted in the author’s unfamiliarity with a culture they have not experienced (which is still wrong as a line of reasoning, some of the best studies on culture in human history come from people who were not part of that culture, such as Lermontov’s writings on the Cossacks), it can be applied to discussions of LGBT+ issues rather frequently, where it is even less justifiable. What matters is knowledge and understanding of the issues, not the checking of arbitrary personal boxes. And while that knowledge and understanding does require work and research on the part of someone who hasn’t experienced issues being discussed, that kind of research is honestly common among people within the community too. Just having a trait like being gay or trans does not automatically anoint you with some special knowledge on the issues, and people regardless of their identity can educate themselves enough to understand and show respect for the topic. That aside, I hope this cleared up my actual thoughts on the topic of LGBT+ rep and proves potentially useful in answering any questions about the basics of the topic.

The Appeals of Romance (February Special #1)

There comes a time in every analyst’s career where they ask themselves a few introspective questions. “Why am I doing this?” “Why does this exist?” “What do people enjoy about this?” “What do I enjoy about this?” And I found myself asking these questions recently. Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been writing articles about romance fiction every year, even when other things were getting in the way, and up until recently, I never questioned why I was so passionate about it. But once I started thinking about it, the questions wouldn’t stop coming. Why did I dedicate a month of the year to writing about it? Why does it have such clout as a genre? What is the appeal of romantic fiction? What motivates people to create it, to consume it, and to enjoy it the way they do? Why do we take time that could be spent on things like badly-needed extra sleep or managing actual romantic relationships in order to experience fictional ones? After thinking it over for a while, I’ve come up with a few answers.

Broadly, there are three primary modes of appeal that I can see for romantic fiction. Romance as Fantasy, Romance as Charm, and Romance as Character Study. The first, and perhaps most obvious, explanation is Romance as Fantasy. Now, the idea of fiction being used as a vector for the audience’s self-insert fantasies is not new, with the idea of Power Fantasy in action-oriented media being the most widely understood. It’s not much of a stretch to then apply this logic to the romance genre, obviously there is appeal in depictions of romance to people who can’t experience that in their ordinary lives, usually for younger audiences. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but going overboard with it has wrecked many a story. Just like how overindulgence on power fantasy results in an uninteresting story, so too does overindulgence on self-insert romance fantasy create its own problems, except the problems created here are often far more varied, and can be much more detrimental to story as a whole. One that particularly strikes me as relevant is one so prevalent that it effectively dominates all discussion of the topic, which is the fact that writers indulgent in this kind of fantasy tend to be gun-shy about actually going anywhere with it. Last year, I talked about the prevalence of Will They/Won’t They as a trope and lamented how it so often results in the actual story of romance itself not being told, and that concept makes a return in full force here. Particularly in situations of harem fiction, a part of the fantasy being sold is this utter lack of progress, for the same reason so many protagonists are so generic in these kinds of stories, because actually progressing the romantic plotline can ruin the self-insert fantasy, since those types of stories tend to make the main character less universally relatable to an audience that generally has no experience with this sort of thing, not to mention that the circumstances of romantic relationships tend to force characters to express aspects of themselves due to the variety of situations that typically result from characters going through their lives while romantically involved with each other, especially if this is a subplot of a story win another genre, as is often the case in some kinds of action stories. And there is one more aspect of it, that I don’t necessarily want to focus on, but will doubtless get brought up by someone if I were to ignore it, which is the noted prevalence of this kind of writing among, well, juvenile writers and audiences, with fanfiction and light novels being the most infamous in this regard, for different reasons. Fanfiction tends to have a reputation for centering around this kind of storytelling, whether deserved or otherwise, and that notoriety is exacerbated by the fact that examples which brought about this reputation are extremely toxic. This is important because it does exemplify the ways this kind of writing can go horribly wrong, as airing out one’s own fantasies in a public venue can result in some extremely uncomfortable situations, especially since not all fantasies are healthy and proliferating the unhealthy ones can do real harm, but that’s a topic for another day. As for light novels and similar fiction, this kind of writing tends to be the absolute embodiment of things already discussed. And if that’s your preferred fare, that’s fine, but in general that much self insert fantasy tends to result in weak narrative that often lacks any sort of conflict that couldn’t be easily solved, but that really ties into a larger problem involving self insert overindulgence in general, and that’s far beyond the scope of even the genre itself.

Obviously self-insert fantasy is not the only appeal to romantic fiction, and the next form, Romance as Charm, is the most simple and straightforward of the lot. This form of appeal can be best summed up as “Romance is endearing to watch, and that sweetness is appeal in and of itself”. This is also the most common approach to romance writing, with entire genres almost completely made up of this sort of writing. And beyond that, this kind of romance writing is both the easiest to get right, and nets a lot of returns from audiences who tend to respond very positively to it, myself included. As much as I love hardcore drama, I’m also a sucker for cute and wholesome material, especially in romance stories. That said, this type of writing can frequently have a lot more to chew on than is presented on its face, as it often takes complicated relationship dynamics into account, and the drama resulting from that is a big part of the appeal. For that reason, I would bundle romance stories where the appeal is in the drama in with this category, as that is fundamentally extremely similar appeal, just with a slightly different catalyst. This kind of story is thus the bulk of the romance genre, and its simplicity, versatility, and universal appeal make it a great way to construct a story for new and experienced authors alike.

The third, and most fascinating, form is what I like to call “Romance as Character Study”, which is when a given story uses its romantic elements to explore, develop, and criticize or otherwise comment on various facets of a given character. I can think of no better example of this than Bloom Into You, which used the budding romance between Yuu and Touko to explore the latter’s crippling inferiority complex, self-worth issues, and the very real damage her flawed outlook on life was capable of doing to the people she treasured most, and thus provided an excellent opportunity for both characters to grow as people as a result of their relationship. More on this in a few weeks. While Bloom Into You is at the pinnacle in this regard, it is by no means the only one, nor is growth as characters or as people entirely necessary per se when it comes to this kind of storyline, using romantic elements to examine a character’s flaws and how they can actually be exacerbated by the situation is a common setup as well. I can think of no better example for this than Madoka Magica, both the original show and the third movie, where Homura’s love for Madoka drives her to first rewind time in an endless loop in order to protect her, and then eventually to change the universe itself to ensure that end is met permanently. And the questionable healthiness if not outright dysfunctionality of this dynamic is a central focus, both in the story itself and in all discussions of interpreting it. One cannot meaningfully talk about Madoka as a whole without discussion of this aspect, it very much takes center stage from the moment Homura shows who she really is onward. And it makes for a fascinating and extremely compelling story of a single person’s downfall for the sake of protecting the only person she truly loves. This kind of story is something I find extremely compelling, and it’s something I genuinely think the genre needs more of, and that kind of thinking was what inspired me to write this piece.

Overall, these three forms of appeal form the vast bulk of why people like me love the romance genre so much, and any one of them could feasibly carry a story on their own (to varying degrees of success). That said, I have left something out. There is a fourth kind of appeal, which I will talk about next time. Until then, commit these three types of appeal to memory, as they will become a running theme over the next few weeks, if not in all my pieces going forward.

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.

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.

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.