The Next Thing

Thoughts On Visual Culture

Month: May, 2013

Images: ROUGH

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Rough (Mitsuru Adachi, 1987 – 1989)

On Mitsuru Adachi’s ROUGH

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I’m not going to go on too much at length regarding Mitsuru Adachi’s Rough. I only really wanted to remark on a couple of things about it, which struck me as being significant enough that I should even make a point of laying out why I find them interesting.

Adachi is mostly known to me as The Baseball Manga Guy. I’m aware that he has many other works where has dabbled in other genres, sports, etc., but it would be hard to argue that his reputation isn’t based on his baseball works (primarily Touch, H2 and Cross Game). Before I continue, I should lay out my biases (where I’m coming from): I hate baseball, and find it an unbearably dull sport; and I’ve only read one actual manga of his work (I’ve seen the entirety of the Cross Game anime, and about a third of the Touch anime). So, please bear in my mind that my observations regarding Rough and Adachi are based on a pretty small sampling of his oeuvre.

First observation: the main characters in Rough have complex interior lives that are revealed not through soul-baring monologues, but through action. One of the strengths of Adachi’s work is that his characters are completely aware of themselves. Sure, they might not want to admit what they’re feeling (let alone verbalize it), but at every point they’re acutely aware of what they’re doing and why. Compare the protagonist of Rough to any similar work, and the level of self-knowledge is staggering. These characters aren’t confused or lost; they’re remarkably self-assured. But, more wonderful and more intriguing, is the way that Adachi lets us know completely what’s on their mind. There are numerous panels after panels where his characters witness something, or are in a situation that should warrant some kind of line of dialogue that will illuminate their thought process, but instead Adachi holds back. He gives us a panel full of only a side-long glance, or an almost blank reaction; but what Adachi trusts us to do as a reader is to fill in the blank, and notice that his characters’ brains are at full-throttle at all times. So even though there are no crazy love declarations, or angsty nonsense, when the romantic gestures do come out, they’re based on volume after volume of accrued body language, subtle visual information, and nuanced, elliptical storytelling. It’s a whole lot more complicated than just saying “I love you” – it approaches the sublime.

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Which leads into my second observation: Adachi’s confidence in his style, his approach. In reading Rough, I often marvelled at the simplicity, the clarity, of Adachi’s storytelling. He’ll often start chapters with a couple of pages of nothing but still life scenery (a panel of an empty baseball diamond, a classroom, the classroom clock). It isn’t simple scene-setting; it’s almost the manga equivalent of Ozu’s pillow shots. These panels allow us to get into a particular mode of consciousness, a more receptive wavelength, where the interactions of the characters can be understood not just on a plot level, but also perhaps on a wider, more emotional level. By easing us into the story by giving us these partial slices of it, I think Adachi allows us to connect the experiences of the characters to our own memories; the empty classroom (though I think by now a Japanese visual trademark by itself) recalls images from our own life, and allows us to emotionally connect on an instinctual level with what’s happening with the character. Adachi allows us to both see the story, and see how the story is just a representation of certain rhythms, philosophies, attitudes. And, just like Ozu, he seems to return to the same basic subjects and themes, reworking them, putting them in different combinations, sometimes starting out at the same place, only to end up something different.

But that last part is something that I’ll have to investigate further. It’s all research after all.

How To Find It

As far as I know, this series has never been licensed for North American release. It’s a shame.

Rough (1987 -1989)

12 Volumes

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Blurbs: CLANNAD (2007)

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KyoAni adaptation of a Key visual novel; it’s par for the course for the studio that made Air and Kanon (the latter earned a grudging acceptance from me). A young delinquent, with a heart of gold, wastes away his senior year of high school. One day he bumps into a young woman named Nagisa and all of a sudden they’re changing each other’s lives.

As in Kanon, he meets other girls and he goes around listening to their problems, becoming their confidants, all the while pretending that he’s still a delinquent and not actually the most sensitive, understanding guy ever. At first, I thought I had a handle on what the structure would be. He meets one girl, learns her back story, and solves her emotional problems over the course of a few episodes (this structure, and it’s roots in erotic video games, made it hard for me to take Kanon all that seriously). For the first half of Clannad, that structure remains. But after a certain point, the strands combine, and instead of focusing solely on one character, the show juggles all the main characters at once, finally breaking free of that old tired formula. In Clannad’s latter half, the emotional high points are reached more organically, and don’t feel as manufactured or as crafted or constructed as they do when they’re treated as the lynchpins of an “arc.” In the latter half of the series (specifically post-Kotomi), the emotional scenes come off with a sense of discovery, not a sense of calculation (although that’s exactly what they are).

Clannad, on a pure plot level, is all about repressed traumas, broken families, unfulfilled dreams, unspoken emotions; our main character’s role in the show is about bringing those things out into the open. He’s the audience surrogate; we learn about the girls as he does. But even his role is complicated. At first, he is simply a conduit for our emotions. We wish to take care of Fuuko, or figure out why Kotomi freaked out. But, later on, he becomes a character in his own right, saddled with his own issues about trust, family, and forgiveness. And it is here that the show truly shines: slowly but surely Tomoya builds his own life for himself, outside of his shitty relationship with his dad, outside of his so-called delinquent status, something new that he has created. He has found people who can understand him – warts and all.

Note: None of which would’ve mattered at all if the music hadn’t been there to save the day. The series MVP, by far, is the soundtrack. It’s always there to paper over any scene that’s missing some pathos (tinkling piano keys, moody synthy orchestras, etc.) It’s been a while since I’ve seen so much of the emotional heavy lifting being done by the score (I have lots of pieces on constant replay right now). This is not to discount the grand command that Tatsuya Ishihara, the series director, has over the visual language of this particular kind of melodrama, only to suggest that it would’ve been hard to move me without these magnificent songs.

How To Find It

The series has been licensed by Sentai Filmworks and is avalable on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Clannad (2007)

22 episodes

Kyoto Animation

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On MYSTERIOUS GIRLFRIEND X

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Mysterious Girlfriend X is a show that’s pretty icky. There’s no getting around it. As a viewer, one always has options, one can always make decisions. So, if you’re planning on watching this show, you have to get past the hurdle that is the synopsis. A high school student one day discovers the new transfer student asleep at her desk after school. After she hurriedly leaves, he sees a small pool of her drool on the desk, and for some unfathomable reason, he puts his finger in said drool, and takes this finger into his mouth. He licks her drool.

Without getting into the other bizarre things about this anime (the main character’s proclivity for randomly laughing, the scissors she keeps in her panties, etc.), the drool issue is the most major one to contend with. Part of this piece will be about hopefully putting “the drool issue” into a larger context regarding what this show’s actually doing. It’s fairly obvious that the show is on some level about how love, at one point or another, must lead to intimacy. The protagonists, because they’re weird, don’t take the usual path in these matters. They’re inching toward intimacy, but they do it in their own particular way. Mysterious Girlfriend X, in its own weird way, celebrates the time of our lives where we groped and felt around and decided what worked and didn’t work for us, what felt right; it’s a show about our sexual exploration, and how it’s a necessary aspect of relationships.

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After Tsubaki, our male protagonist, tastes Urabe’s drool, he just knows he has to be with her. It’s not a question of psychology or of motivation; his body dictates it. After not tasting her drool for a couple of weeks, he’s actually bedridden and sick. It’s only after Urabe shows up and gives him her drool that he recovers. So he asks her out. She says yes. The reason behind this is simple – he had a reaction to her drool, and to her that means he’s special. Every day after school, in order to stave off sickness, Urabe sticks a finger in her mouth and lets Tsubaki suck on it for a bit. It’s a moment of an awkward physical intimacy; and, I think, an undeniably erotic moment for both of them. Later on, we find out that Urabe’s drool can also serve as a communication tool (Urabe can find out about Tsubaki’s dreams and they can even find out what the other is feeling because of it). This daily ritual is no different than kissing before saying goodbye.
If the drool itself were animated in a more tasteful way there wouldn’t be as much resistance to this show. Hoods Entertainment, the company who made it, do the series no favors when they choose to animate the drool, as being not at all dissimilar to other bodily fluids. The drool lingers, drips from fingers, forms puddles; in the opening theme animation, it even splashes like we’re suddenly in a hentai or something. It’s distracting. In Mysterious Girlfriend X, the exchange of drool comes to represent other possible exchanges of bodily fluids. The act is both literal and metaphorical. This is really what we are talking about, isn’t it?

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Tsubaki and Urabe both understand where their relationship will end up. Every time they exchange drool, they come to realize the fact of it. This is where we’re heading, this is what’s going to happen. But many of the 13 episodes are about the slow crawl toward that goal (in this series, that goal is unfulfilled). One episode finds Urabe going over to visit Tsubaki wearing nothing but a coat, because apparently this is a normal remedy for the common cold. Like Junko Nakano’s Chisa x Pon (though nowhere near as explicit), the series maps out how over time, they become more comfortable with each other. Whereas in the first few episodes, Urabe almost kills Tsubaki when he tries to hug her; near the end, it’s Urabe who demands that she be hugged.  There’s even a moment later on where in a fit of blind passion, Tsubaki licks Urabe’s ear, and she’s completely overwhelmed by the sensation. Although this sense of experimentation and play is lighthearted in the show, I believe the show takes absolutely serious the drives of the main characters. Tsubaki has nightly dreams about Urabe where they dance in some strange circus-like town (not hard to understand what’s happening there), and Urabe herself often finds herself blushing and testing her own limits regarding what she’ll do (one episode finds her stripping completely down and letting Tsubaki lick her drool while his eyes are closed). The way they approach the issue is unorthodox, sure, but everyone’s different. The show even provides a foil couple to accentuate how different they are.

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Although the show is relatively straightforward in its depiction of teenage confusion, hormones and love, there’s one really interesting strand that I haven’t mentioned. Tsubaki and his friend, Ueno, both get girlfriends during the show, but they insist on keeping this a secret. Whereas in other shows, there’d usually be a scene where everyone whispers about the new couple, in this show our main characters never acknowledge their girlfriends in any special way while they’re at school. While I don’t think this is done for any real reason by the characters, it betrays an uneasiness about their own sexual development. I couldn’t help thinking that they were hiding their relationships because it meant that they were growing up, that they were embarrassed by their sexual curiosity/progress/etc. And, yeah, it’s completely embarrassing. During this time in their lives, we have no idea what we’re doing. Tsubake and Urabe may understand the mechanics of where this is all going, but it doesn’t mean that they have any idea of what it means, of what it looks like, of what it feels like; and not knowing, looking foolish while you figure it out, is completely embarrassing. It’s easier to pretend you don’t have a girlfriend, because then you can keep that side of yourself completely separate from people’s image of you. The only one who can see you at your most vulnerable, most ridiculous, state is your Mysterious Girlfriend; and only she knows how much her drool turns you on.

How To Find It

Sentai Filmworks currently has the license for this series in North America. The show is available to stream on Crunchyroll.

Mysterious Girlfriend X (2012)

13 episodes

Hoods Entertainment

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Blurbs: HYOUKA (2012)

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Hyouka is another in a long line of Kyoto Animation shows that is impeccably animated, and reflects a certain storytelling sensibility that I always have to adjust to. It’s a slice of life series wherein nothing much happens. There’s a school club that meets after school everyday and we spend time hanging out and getting to know them.

But what sets Hyouka apart is the mystery aspect. You see, what the club actually spends most of its time doing is solving a series of painfully banal and strange little mysteries that pop up around them. Some of the mysteries stretch several episodes, but some are just one-offs. There are long stretches of the show where you sit at the table and listen to their theories about the mystery (this is livened up by incredibly beautiful cutaways to an “imagined” space that’s more interesting than their club room).

The longer arcs on the show also lead to pretty nuanced character development (think about Oreki’s development during the student film arc, or about Fukube’s doubts about himself in the school festival arc). The stories themselves are banal, almost matter of fact, but even though nothing too out of the ordinary, nothing fantastic, ever happens, Hyouka retains a mysterious, elusive quality. I would love to dismiss it as “nothing happens” nonsense (and sometimes I felt that way), but it stuck in my mind too much. Something wouldn’t let me get away. You can’t escape, as it were.

So although I’ve sort of complained about the fact that the mysteries and situations of Hyouka are banal to the point of you sort of asking “what is the point of this? why would anyone exert any intellect on trying to figure this dumb crap out?” I cannot dismiss it. And here’s where I lay out why I think this show is mysterious and elusive and actually kind of special: it’s a series that is filled with possibility. Not once during those 22 episodes did I have any idea what kind of show I was watching. It’s a show I felt could go anywhere, do anything; that it wasn’t tied down to a simple formula (although it may have been). Like Chitanda’s character, it possessed an intellectual curiosity (though in Chitanda’s case, it may have just been an instinctual one) which then got filtered through a deep knowledge of western mystery novels, slice of life tropes, moe checklists, beautifully detailed animation, etc. Hyouka is a series where the sensibility is key; the mixture of those elements could’ve turned out awful, but because they’re done in this particular way (slow, thoughtful, relaxed), they become more than the sum of their parts.

Again, it helps that it’s aesthetically perfect; sequences made me tear up just in the way they were conceived and executed (a complete mastery of high school slice of life tropes, and just plain beauty). The final sequence of the final episodes is a master class: the pinks, the swell of the strings in the soundtrack, the precise editing and the knowledge and wisdom to leave us facing an uncertain future. The future’s a mystery, too.

How to Find It

This show is not currently licensed in North America. You’ll have to search for other means.

Hyouka (2012)

22 episodes

Kyoto Animation

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Blurbs: TENGEN TOPPA GURREN LAGANN (2007)

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This is a bratty, hyper-active shounen mecha show about a group of humans using their spirit power or whatever to overcome any and all obstacles. The humans are forced to live underground thanks to some unknown force, but our young heroes manage to break out almost immediately, and not only that, form a sort of ragtag rebellion just in the first few episodes. The series’ strengths rely solely on making you turn off your brain and marvel at how badass everything is. It mostly works.

Imaishi brings his chaotic, energetic style (Dead Leaves) under control for most of it, but unleashes everything he has during the battle scenes. Compositions are frequently dynamic and aim to bring out the often ridiculously exhilarating nature of the mecha fights. In Gurren Lagann, nothing is subtle, and as such, its animation and composition follow suit. There is no logical progression to any of the battles. Everything is predetermined. Because our characters have “spirit,” whereas our villains don’t, everything is resolved thru yelling loudly and “feeling” things more than the opponent does. It isn’t a drawback of the series, though; it’s more like a philosophical viewpoint. Because to be human is to be reckless, emotional, ever-changing.

Had some other notes about the first few episodes being a secret remake of FLCL (with the drills, erections, boobs and teenage confusion), but it only extended to the first few episodes, so I didn’t bother thinking more about it. Although, as a Gainax show, it’s playing around with the mecha formula, but this time taking it to different, more operatic heights.

How to Find It

Aniplex of America currently has the license for this show, but it can be streamed through Crunchyroll.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007)

27 episodes

Gainax

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