A systematic breakdown of Ready Player Two

Preface   

Alright gamers, the time I had feared is now upon us. In late November of last year I stumbled across an Amazon listing for something titled “Ready Player Two” and felt my heart sink to my stomach. The cursed sequel filled my heart with an inescapable fear, finally rearing its ugly head when I was least prepared. In my mind, Ready Player One never needed a sequel, yet here reality was, mocking my naivety. I suffered through the tumultuous development period for the Ready Player One film for years only to be delivered a gut-blow and scoffed at for caring about something so much. I questioned if the book I once cared so much about was even good in the first place. 

Ready Player One is the single most influential piece of fiction I have ever had the pleasure of finding and it’s something I cannot concisely convey merely in the lines of the opening paragraphs. It is single-handedly responsible for my passion with media consumption, got me into video games, and ultimately introduced me to anime. Almost religiously, I have returned to the book numerous times in the years since 7th grade, when it opened my eyes to a beautiful world. I adopted the username “Parzival” as my first and seemingly permanent internet handle directly as a result of this book. Everything about it was magical to me, and though that magic has since faded a bit, I still believe the story and world Ernest Cline was able to craft were something I will never be able to forget. It seemed that this was his passion project. Crafting a story with such care and love for the references he was using gave it a personal touch. I was Wade, and Cline was my Halliday. A comparison that forces a weak chuckle out of me after reading Ready Player Two, where Halliday’s character is revealed to be a less-than-admirable role model for Wade, as was Cline for me. This is Parz, and welcome to my critique of Ready Player Two.

Commentary

Cutscene

We open with a pre-rendered cutscene. Though it would be better to say that Cline told us what happened instead of showing us. He was never the best writer on the block, but this is downright juvenile. The heavy-handed “tell not show” writing unearthed painful reminders of my old writing from middle school when I convinced myself that writing interesting things was enough to sell a story. Spoiler alert, this was quickly debunked. As such, this opening chapter nearly made me close this book and forget about it then and there. Nearly every major event in the many years since the end of the Easter Egg Hunt of the first book were anticlimactically told to the reader with unadorned language. In short, this was an exposition dump, and a terrible example of one to boot. We are given all the information about the new ONI headset, what happened to the characters and world since. Given the scope of the subsequent events, it was likely unavoidable, though it was a poor choice to cold open on such a dry chapter, more akin to a summary of events and not very concerned about presenting itself in an interesting way. I suppose Cline assumed that the readers would find the content inherently interesting and read it for that alone. Which of course, I became a victim of. Having invested years of my life into this world I could hardly put this down, even when I became tired at rolling my eyes at what I was wasting my time reading. In much the same way Disney dragged me out of my room to watch Star Wars: Episode 7, Cline had made me buy his pathetic excuse for a sequel.

The ONI headset itself is a fascinating device, very similar to the NervGear headset from Sword Art Online, which is explicitly noted in the book itself. This is more amusing to me because I found Sword Art Online as a direct result of wanting more media like Ready Player One. I guess things had come full circle. The technology itself has evolved to better meet the standards of the constantly evolving virtual reality tech of our own world. As such, the old Haptic Gloves and visor no longer cut the mustard, so Cline took inspiration from his predecessors and created a full-dive device. I was quite interested in this hardware and how it worked. There were some clear indications of where the story would head based on it’s design, however. For example, being unable to safely remove it without logging off the OASIS directly, or the 12-hour maximum usage limit before Synaptic Overload Syndrome would fry your brain etc. Where have I heard that before… Anyways, it was a logical step forward in terms of in-universe advancements of technology and followed suit in the other works of fiction within this specific flavor of virtual reality fantasies. The introduction of this full-dive simulation technology seemed to open the doors for Cline to further explore his cheesy take on escapism and “reality vs. virtual” he offered in the first novel, which I had mixed feelings on. But regardless, the ONI seemed like a neat idea.

Next, we get details on the “new contest,” that is, The Quest for the Seven Shards. An expected development to say the least, and inherently problematic from the onset. The original Egg Hunt consisted of 3 keys and 3 gates, each with their own unique puzzle. Naturally, like any developer creating a sequel for a hit game, Cline would feel pressured to add more to one-up himself. But in the process he lost sight of what made the first book so special after being blinded by the light of success. This book was a victim of feature-creep in general. It added a lot of bloat without much added benefit to the reader, unless they were more of a pop-culture addict than Wade. Though this time, the saturation of references would become increasingly more apparent in very contained areas. I had low expectations for the contest. Cline would obviously be wanting to make it more fantastical than the original but had a lot to live up to. The Seven Shards Quest artificially raised the stakes while killing the magic, so let’s look at what went wrong.

Level Four

The First Shard

The story begins by painting Wade as a stupid pathetic loser. It seems not much has changed. I appreciated this, since Wade had never been nor ever was intended to be a righteous character. During this time, Wade managed to ruin his relationship with Samantha and found himself firmly planted back at square one, except now he was a billionaire. His morals fluctuated between reasonable and nonsensical at the drop of a hat and he had his own fair share of skeletons in the closet. One of the reasons I connected with Wade a lot in the previous book was how candid he was about himself and his faults. For instance, discussing how he woefully bought a sexdoll in his darkest days of the Egg Hunt, or explaining his obsessive attachment to Samantha with some degree of being grounded. He also has a weak resolve and it’s made apparent in many of his biggest regrets. When ONI first launched its video sharing service, he initially was put off from certain NSFW clips because he felt guilty for “cheating” of his now-ex-girlfriend, but he later decided otherwise. Love it or hate it, Wade was never the hero despite finding himself in the role of one. Despite the incredible monetary gain and raise in status, he felt unfulfilled because he lost touch with his friends. As a reader, this feeling would regretfully carry on throughout the book. Wade couldn’t buy back his love and he spent most of his time listlessly moping around feeling sorry for himself. This is why his head was not in the right place when the new contest began. In the days of the Egg Hunt, he had nothing to lose. He was at the bottom of the food-chain and had all the time in the world. He had not yet lined his pockets with cash or lived in a giant mansion. His passion then was genuine, now, he felt disconnected from it all. As a result, he puts out a bounty for the first clue and uses his influence in the most pitiful way possible.

In the Egg Hunt, the stakes were raised towards the tail-end of the contest, but felt more like a natural progression rather than shit hitting the fan right from the onset. That’s why the first puzzle gave me a glimmer of hope only to be quickly dulled after remembering there will be no breathing room for even the slightest bit of fun this time around. The logic was interesting but ultimately felt too rushed for obvious reasons. This problem would only be exacerbated as the story wore on. Many of the subsequent shards would be “explained” how it was found rather than experiencing the puzzle unfold first-hand, despite the story intending to present them as such. It was a speedrun without the awe of seeing exception displays of skill by the player. Or maybe it would be more accurately to say it was the feeling one feels after beating a game following a guide, ultimately being filled with a melancholic satisfaction at knowing that you did not deserve this accomplishment. Cline was trying to play with the nostalgia of the reader by returning to where it all began, but without creating a foundation for the story to support itself on, ultimately feeling hollow. 

Jessie’s Girl

Enter L0hengrin, and from my understanding, she is a controversial new character. However, I really liked her. We can simply chalk this up to Cline’s sudden realization that he needed to shoehorn in some current year diversity and gender equality, but I didn’t particularly care. Seeing a transgender woman within the narrative playing an important role was definitely nice to see. There wasn’t a huge to-do about the fact that she was DMAB or anything of that nature. L0hengrin was a breath of fresh air when she took the stage. Though woefully that time was far too short in favor of other obligatory events. She was intended to be a reflection of Wade before winning everything, when he was still just a guy playing video games in his secret hideout in the Stacks. However, she brought along an infectious charisma that shone like the afternoon sunlight, which reinvigorated my energy and made me more interested in her story. Which is why my only gripe with her character was that she was too quickly pushed to the wayside prematurely in the story. After essentially holding Wade’s hand and giving him the first shard, she disappeared and only appeared once again to give Og the Dorkslayer sword, before immediately getting smited without any glory for her heroic actions. I would have much preferred to read about her and the rest of the L0w Five over the mess of developments that defined the main story.

Raising the stakes, but at what cost?

Let’s change gears here and discuss the artificially raised stakes of the contest this time. Presumably a pro-gamer himself, Cline ought to realize one of the biggest sins of game design: never include a time limit! More often than not, implementing a time limit in a game will cause players to panic and make poor decisions, and when poor outcomes inevitably occur, spite the game for it. Inherently this is not a bad decision per say since it can be used effectively, such as in Majora’s Mask, but generally speaking, the last thing players want to see is an obnoxious red timer counting down in the peripheral vision. Cline ignores this and puts one in anyways. He chose to raise the stakes by setting a limit on the contest which would almost guarantee it wouldn’t be as fun anymore. Additionally, he exacerbated this issue by including one of the worst antagonists possible. 

In much the same way Kayaba Akihiko was a sorry excuse for an antagonist in Sword Art Online, Halliday’s ghost in the machine followed in these footsets. To understand why this “ghost” was a terribly written antagonistic force, let’s return to grade school for a minute here and refresh ourselves on the major types of conflicts; man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature and man vs. society. It goes without saying that conflict and adversity are the primary triggers for events in a story. Distilled to its most basic sense, this is “reactionary” storytelling where characters will base their actions on their immediate surroundings. However, reducing all conflict to “reactionary” is a bit of an oversimplification of its place within storytelling, and perhaps misconstrues the term. As such, writers must mask these intentions behind a conflict that is intrinsically tied to the values of a certain character without making these motivations feel too “cheap.” A good antagonist or antagonistic force attacks the heroes in unconventional ways to force them to feel at odds with something outside of their control. To take a page from Lessons from Screenplay, let’s discuss the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The Joker was not simply a mad anarchist looking to burn Gotham, rather, he was the perfect foil to Batman. He attacked the most obvious chink in Batman’s armor: the Joker exploited Batman’s ideology and forced a stalemate, resulting in temporary invulnerability. Batman refused to kill anyone even extending this rule to apply to the criminals he arrested. However, the only way to defeat the Joker was to kill him, since nothing else Batman could do would phase him. So in a sense, the Joker had played his move and Batman was in check. On the surface, this is an example of “man vs. man” conflict but we can clearly tell there is a bit more nuance here. Not only as an antagonistic force, but the Joker also forces Batman to experience an internal battle of ideologies to test his resolve– bundling in a “man vs. self” conflict as well. 

One of the most infuriating pitfalls I see writers make, especially within anime and media aimed for adolescents, is concluding that “insanity” is an excuse for easy character writing. Cline seems to think that “incomprehensible” and “bad” go hand-in-hand and decides to make this his core tenant in writing Halliday’s ghost in the shell. The problem is that simply writing a character with obtuse morals and is seemingly off-the-rails does not mean they are chaotic evil. Nor does it mean that the readers will hate them simply because they are trying to hurt people. Just because a character kills people, doesn’t necessarily make them evil. Wielding the blade of “moral standards” doesn’t make your attacks any more effective. A character who will kill without mercy and laugh maniacally while doing so doesn’t make me hate the character, it makes the writer. It’s hard to overlook how juvenile this practice is because it feels like the writer is overexerting themselves every sentence by flaunting a poorly understood and shallow definition of “insanity” in the most heavy-handed manner imaginable. 

Halliday’s ghost is an AI which is something humans have trouble understanding. There is much potential in this “man vs. machine” type conflict and has been explored extensively in other media, and much of which is directly noted within the pages of this book. Unfortunately, Cline chose to ignore his own influences and create the most generic adversary possible. Later on, the ghost gains a bit more nuance in their actions, but it’s too little too late. In 2001: A Space Odyssey HAL-9000 is a perfect antagonist because he outsmarts the characters before they even know what hit them. His intelligence is beyond our understanding and written with such subtlety which alone makes many fear it. Moreover, HAL’s dry delivery of now-iconic lines such as “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” strikes a chill in your heart. Not because he’s an unfeeling machine with overwhelming intelligence, but because we can’t do anything to stop him. A well written AI antagonist shouldn’t be consistently reminding you that you cannot understand their logic, but instead show it without remorse. Halliday’s ghost parades around trying to make you hate him every sentence he speaks. This backfires through, as the only person making my blood boil was Cline himself. 

Lights Out

Much to my displeasure, the cliched and comical “If you die in the game, you die in real life!” became the defining conflict for this book. The main hunt surrounds these Seven Shards that Ghost Halliday wants. These are artifacts to resurrect Leucosia, who is an artificially preserved version of Kira Morrow, Og’s wife and one of the original Gregarious Games founders. This was possible due to the ONI headset which automatically creates a user brain scan (UBS) for some reason, and is essentially your clone. Though this would be explained in detail later on in the book. To force Wade and his friends to accept his demands, Ghost Halliday gleefully explains how he hijacked the biggest company’s software, ostensibly holds the world hostage, and threatens to kill everyone unless he gets these Seven Shards. Before we know it the world is at stake, wonderful. Forced to reckon with the fact that billions of people can die if they fail, Wade accepts the challenge and sets out on his quest to save humanity. 

The second most glaring issue I had with this book was “what about the people who logged in before Wade hours ago?” Wade had about 11 hours and change to work with, but if someone across the world had been logged in for 11 hours already, wouldn’t their brain start to break down due to Synaptic Overload Syndrome (S.O.S.) almost immediately? This was answered towards the very end, where Ghost Halliday apparently lied about that and those people would be put in limbo when their limit reached, but at that point, I had spent 300 pages assuming millions of people were dying while Wade was running around playing games and reading Wikipedia. Moreover, the scenario of being unable to log out of a virtual reality simulation is a tired cliche at this point. It has been around since the dawn of this type of genre existed, and seeing it here again made me roll my eyes in disappointment. It raises the stakes, but at the cost of retreading worn ground, and never really tries to make itself stand out. 

Ready Player Two dances to the same beat as Kawahara Reki’s Sword Art Online series, but more egregiously because it failed to show attempts to improve. Cline literally resurrects old characters, reuses scenarios, and brings back old bad guys to try and tell the same story again on a larger scale and rebrand it as something new. There was no way this would work and evidently, it hasn’t so far. Sorrento is suddenly off death row and back with a vengeance, Halliday is back from the dead as an evil AI who is driven by lust to download a copy of his best friend’s wife, and another contest has begun. Kawahara-sensei similarly subjects his series to the same pitfalls of reusing assets, scenarios and villains, but over time has evolved his writing and storytelling abilities to the point where most of the major issues have been ironed out. On the other hand, Cline simply rewrote the old book with a few new tricks because he might have been too afraid to try anything too different and not refining his writing skills in the process.

Level Five

Cutscene

Everyone is now more or less a captive of Ghost Halliday since most of the population has since adopted the superior NervGear, I mean, ONI headset. Being unable to remove the device safely without essentially giving that person a lobotomy. Which is a very major design flaw, might I add. Regardless, 99% of the install base is held captive, except for Samantha, who has been obstinate about her adaptation of this technology, and I guess her paranoia paid off in the end. Thinking she outsmarted the sentient ghost-in-the-machine, she removes her OASIS goggles like normal and decides to ditch her auto-piloted jet. Ghost Halliday had since taken over control of the craft, but she was not going to sit there and do nothing, so he took a chute and bailed. What follows is what could only be described as a “AAA video game cutscene” with a massive set piece only used once for trailers at E3, with lots of explosions for good measure. For the sake of argument, let’s assume Samantha knew how to skydive. However, Ghost Halliday realized what was going on and turned the entire jet around to try and ram her. Two problems with this; firstly, you cannot turn 180 degrees with an aircraft in flight that easily or quickly and secondly, she was such a small fast-moving target, there’s no way she could be hit by a jet! Wait a second, he’s a sentient AI, nevermind this checks out. Naturally, the convenient excuse is to make the antagonist an all-knowing supercomputer which is the only way such calculation could be made. Too convenient of an excuse for me, but I digress. In the end, Samantha manages to land safely and duck for cover as Ghost Halliday crashes the jet nearby resulting in a giant explosion and a few crispy trees. Also a few people die but it’s never really lingered on too much. Though this entire time, I had no doubt in my mind that Samantha wouldn’t make it out alive. Cline was in no position to kill a major protagonist early on and I feel like he lacked the resolve to do so. I extended my conclusions here to the rest of the story, since we knew Wade was going to save the world and get the girl again. The sheer absurdity of holding humanity captive and threatening to essentially eradicate the entire human race for such trivial matters was so unbelievable, I knew it would never happen. Just like how I knew Sam would survive and live to see another day.

Demoted to Hero

What follows is what only can be described as chaos. Undistilled, unrefined, unorganized and a terrible sight to behold. Wade and his friends are collectively freaking out and rightfully so, but their worries cloud their judgements and everything begins to fall apart, in more ways than one. The biggest issue I had with this book was the aforementioned hollow feeling. The contest held no weight because I had no investment in it. It was the same thing we had already seen and it failed to prove itself as a worthy successor. The puzzles themselves were perfectly serviceable, but there was no room to breathe. Moreover, Wade was completely ignorant this time around and had no knowledge of what was going on. For every Shard, someone else was leading him along as baggage to give him exactly what they needed. Given the stakes this is completely understandable, though not excusable. The first contest held weight because it was reflective of a larger conflict between gamers and the comically evil corporate overlords. The second contest failed because we were never allowed a quiet moment to take everything in, it was oversaturated with content before it even began.

As it turns out, Wade is tasked with protecting the lives of billions of people by playing an arcade game he hasn’t touched in 6-7 years. Already off to an excellent start it seems. The game in question was Sega’s 1985 arcade game released as Ninja Princess in the US, later changed to simply Sega Ninja as it was localized for the Master System port, though it’s proper Japanese name is Princess Kurumi. Learning these little trivia tidbits was undoubtedly the most enjoyable part for me, as I enjoy learning about video games and their history. I took a temporary break from reading here and watched some gameplay of the game to see what exactly this game was like to play, since it’s hard to understand what exactly is happening based on Cline’s descriptions alone. Returning to the challenge, Wade manages to clear Ninja Princess with the help of Shoto’s backseat gaming advice. While this is fine and all, during the Egg Hunt, Wade had to play Black Tiger on his own without assistance due to blocked communication during that challenge. Seeing the rules loosened here felt a bit too convenient for my liking and ultimately made this accomplishment feel cheap, though more about that later.

Reference Oversaturation

Before we take a trip to Shermer, Illinois, we need to talk about the elephant in the room: the references. Ready Player One is famous, or infamous depending on who you ask, for including tons of references to 80’s pop culture. Consequently being accused of “nostalgia pandering” for such inclusions. Inherently, references are no more detrimental as they are beneficial. That is to say, what matters is their implementation and the implications they have on the grander narrative. For instance, if you include copious amounts of references to your favorite band in a year-end report at work, it’s not exactly a good idea for obvious reasons. Conversely, there are some creatives such as Quentin Tarantino who takes techniques of his idols, interprets them, and reimagines them in his own films as a more nuanced “reference” than simply copying for the sake of evoking a “Hey, I remember that!” feeling in the viewer. Cline clearly has a passion for this era of pop culture, but he seemed to stretch himself too thin in Ready Player Two. Many pages read similarly to the more intentionally verbose passages in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, though without a deeper purpose other than cheap entertainment. As a result, some pages in Player Two became absurd depictions of an idealistic reality Halliday only could have conjured up in his twisted imagination, where characters would become mouth-pieces for Wikipedia passages with their seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of everything around them. It wouldn’t be a problem is they simply possessed such encyclopedic knowledge, however, they would explain everything in front of them. I’m sorry Cline, but this doesn’t make your book interesting, it comes off as you trying too hard.

Returning to Shermer, it’s Samanta’s time to shine as she leads Wade through a fantastical reimagining of John’s Hughes’ suburban America depicted in his films. The challenge surrounded Pretty in Pink, and the objective was to fix the story to fit the original ending Hughes had intended, not the one in the final cut. This part was mostly egregious for beginning to show Cline’s oversaturation of references and trivial trivia, Characterized through Sam pointing out every detail in a crowd and explaining it to Wade and the reader without even being a conversation much less adding to the challenge at head. It also was quite boring to read, since it mostly involved Wade being led along while the other collected various items without any explanation as to what exactly was going on. Unless you knew as much as them, you were lost. This was not simply an isolated case here though, as it would extend to the rest of the story from here on out. What a treat!

Purple Rain

After speedrunning through Shermer, the group briefly stop in Halcydonia, an educational planet for kids, and the place Wade spent the majority of his childhood. Halcydonia is significant since it was named after Halcydonia Interactive, the company Og and Kira Morrow formed after breaking away from GGS. This was a touching part and provided a nice breather from the persistent action in every other part of the book. Here, Wade returns to his childhood base where he had completed educational quests growing up. However, he returns with reservations as it was a place where old memories he had wished to remain buried were preserved. Particularly those about his mother, who would spend her limited time with him in that simulation. I appreciated a bit more backstory to Wade here as it made him feel a bit more fleshed out, though not necessarily breaking new ground in his character development or anything. After this side-quest they collected the next Shard conveniently from Queen Itsalot (In Castle Calculus, literally “It’s a lot,” I just realized that.) due to Wade completing a quest there years ago, which felt a bit cheap, but I digress. This is the clue that pointed them towards the planet devoted towards a certain purple-tinged artist. 

It’s around this time when L0hengrin returns to inform Wade about the backstory to their quest. As it turns out, The Quest of the Seven Shards was originally a Dungeons & Dragons module written by Kira, left behind to the Middletown Adventurer’s Guild (comprised of Kira, Og, Halliday and other friends) to play after she had to return to England when her study abroad year ended. It served as a meta-narrative as to why Kira’s character, Leucosia, disappeared from their ongoing campaign. This was important since this module outlined the objective of the quest within D&D, but was mirroring their current quest in the OASIS. Additionally, this is when L0 reveals information regarding the Dorkslayer: a powerful sword forged to slaying Anorak if he ever became corrupted or turn evil. This clues them in onto a potentially real Dorkslayer, which was the key to defeating Ghost Halliday/Corrupted Anorak.

After this minor side-mission, Wade and Aech head towards the Afterworld, a planet dedicated to Prince. I will admit my own ignorance to everything that happened in this section, since I have never listened to anything by Prince and am not familiar with his other art either. That said, I think Cline anticipated this and made it fairly simple to understand, though I felt like I was missing a lot more here than in other chapters, since music is incredibly difficult to express through written language alone. Once again, Wade is dragged along by Aech as she collects various items only really giving snide remarks to Wade about his ignorance, which felt a bit less playful than usual. I guess it felt like their friendship had waned as the contest wore on since they hardly spent time together, as opposed to during the opening chapters of the first book. 

The challenge this time around surrounded a boss-rush. I was a bit excited for this since it reminded me of things like the Organization XIII Data battles in Kingdom Heart 2, with an onslaught of powerful enemies to defeat. In that regard, it was a cool battle. Visually appealing and very stylistic but a bit too abstract for my liking. It largely focused on lore surrounding Prince at various stages in his life, for each had their own weakness and quirks, which I likely would have appreciated more if I was more intimately familiar with the artist. Additionally, Wade primarily used a guitar to do battle which confused me a bit how it would actually work. So by the end of the boss-rush, I was left feeling a bit dissatisfied with how Wade hardly worked haphazardly to earn the victory. As did he, expressing:

“I felt no sense of victory, because I had no idea what just happened.” (pg. 284) 

Corrupted King’s Crown

Naturally, this quest would eventually lead the gang to Middle Earth, because as Aech describes it, it’s “Pure, uncut escapism.” (pg. 297) For us geeks, the fantasy world crafted by Tolkien is our Wonderland. For this reason, Kira was enraptured with these world’s and lore; Og literally moved mountains to create a replica of Rivendale for their residence as a present to her. However, as I came to learn, the Middle Earth we know from The Lord of the Rings is the Third Age, while previous times existed before it and were very different from what most fans might be familiar with. The quest for the last Shard had led Wade to the First Age which he was largely unfamiliar with, but for good reason. Samantha was a big Tolkien fan, but after they stopped seeing each other for an extended period of time, Wade had not been in the mood to read The Silmarillion since it only reminded him of better times. Just as much as this was a quest to find the next Shard, it was also looking to be a major event to mend their relationship.

Flailing around cluelessly, Wade and Aech traversed the lands of the First Age with Wikipedia as their guides. Thus, Wade reached out a hand to Samantha in the hopes that she would assist them. Meanwhile, our heroes somehow managed to walk up to the gates of Morgoth’s lair, though it was guarded by the imposing beast Carharoth. Blindly hoping for the best, they engaged in battle before quickly realizing they needed better direction after getting pushed to the brink of death at such a critical moment. This is when Sam swoops in and saves the day. She leads Wade through Morgoth’s keep, using knowledge of the lore to place sleeping spells on anyone they encounter. Thanks to this, Wade retrieves the final Shard from the Iron Crown. 

I personally didn’t have much problem with this part due to some bias as a Tolkien fan myself. Or perhaps that’s simply due to how desensitized I had become to this “rinse-and-repeat” questing. There was no sense of accomplishment and puzzles are never terribly difficult. As a reader, you cannot solve them yourself, which increases the divide between yourself and the events happening, a stark contrast to the previous book. Additionally, the major gipes I’ve held with this story have become so commonplace that I stopped having the energy to be angry, only disappointed. So before my patience wore out, let’s just see this through to the end.

Level Six

The Dork Slayer

The clock was ticking down and the ending was in sight. Wade retrieved that last Shard at Chthonia and swindled Ghost Halliday by trading replica Shards instead, and in the process stealing back the Robes of Anorak thanks to a convenient bug left in the system unchecked for years. From a game design standpoint, there’s no reason this bug should exist and be unchecked for so long. I used to be into the trading scene in Valve games like Team Fortress 2 and the possibility of a bug allowing you to access someone’s inventory, even for a half second, is such a huge problem there should have been a fix long ago, but I digress. With his powers restored, he immediately teleports to Anorak’s Castle and holes up in the study, hand hovering on the big red button, threatening Ghost Halliday in a place he cannot reach. Thanks to a clue earlier on Halcydonia left by Og, Wade managed to track down where he was being held hostage by Ghost Halliday and Sorrento. Wade engages in a VR-mission piloting a telebot to try and rescue Og, which goes horribly wrong, resulting in Og being critically injured and all hell breaking loose. Og is then rushed to the hospital with the hopes that he could be saved.

Wade disengages from the telebot control interface to confront Ghost Halliday once again, except this time with an ultimatum; Wade offers to duel, if he wins then Halliday will release all the hostages and revert his malicious update. Except here’s the catch, Wade never said he would be the one fighting Ghost Halliday. This is when Og returns for his final time in the limelight. Pretty much everyone presumed him close to dead yet here he was. I’m not exactly sure how Wade knew Og was still alive since it’d be a major problem if he had passed away. We would later find out Og was only able to login due to him using the ONI headset, since it would have been physically impossible for him to move in a normal Haptic-rig in a severely injured body otherwise. Og has thrown down the gauntlet, the stage for the final battle has been set. And a poetic finale at that; a confrontation between the two creators, likened to gods, once friends turned enemies. From a narrative standpoint this set-up would have been a perfect final battle considering the escalation, but in practice it lacked the spectacle deserving of such a battle. 

The fight was an awesome display of power between two deities hurling every incomprehensibly strong attack in their arsenal at one another. However, considering their defensive abilities, it wasn’t all that effective. In fights, an escalation of power levels is rendered pointless if the attacks are comparatively similar to what they originally started as without proper explanation or context. For example, we can read about these powerful lighting attacks all day, but if they don’t really do much damage and we are not familiar with the statistics of the type of damage they should do, it’s no different from the weak punches exchanged between kids on a playground. Unless that is what Cline was going for, since this was a fight between the two biggest geeks on the planet. Stuck in a bit of a stalemate, L0hengrin teleports in and gets caught in the crossfire only surviving about half of a page. Though she did manage to return the Dorkslayer to Og which was their trump card. I really would have liked some backstory to how L0 and the L0w Five managed to get the hardest to obtain items in the game, but maybe I’m asking too much? (Please release a spin-off! Otherwise I will need to write the fanfiction myself). Now the tide of battle had shifted in Og’s favor. Fate had been all but decided now.

“Og held the sword aloft, then he teleported directly behind Anorak, who turned to face him just as Og swung the Dorkslayer around and sliced Anorak’s avatar in half, miraculously killing him in a single blow” (pg.346)

I couldn’t contain my laughter. Cline was channeling his inner Kubo Tite here and concluded the “most epic player-versus-NPC battle in the history of the OASIS” by having Og literally teleport behind Anorak and kill him in a single blow. All it was missing was a cheeky remark of “nothing personal kid” to seal the deal! The fight thus concluded almost prematurely and left me as a reader with much to be desired. The villain Cline had been trying to make us hate for over 340 pages and died in about 4, leaving me feeling nothing but disappointment. Cline likened the battle to a clash of titans similar to Gandalf versus Sarumon, but it wasn’t nearly as cool. 

New Game+

After the battle, Leucosia was resurrected only to learn that Og had died just after defeating Ghost Halliday. Not exactly the first thing you want to hear after being resurrected without your consent. Though Wade receives the Rod of Resurrection and is given the power to resurrect a digitized copy of anyone who has ever used the ONI. This was made possible thanks to the brain scans that the device would make, and is described as essentially a copy-pasted version of your consciousness. That could be bound to an avatar and more or less resurrect anyone you wish, though only in a bastardized digital form. I personally find AI and post-singularity technology fascinating from a philosophical and moral standpoint so I found this incredibly interesting to see presented so bluntly, and not in a bad way. The technology just exists and whether the character’s morals agree with it is not really up for debate. That is reality to them now. This reminded me a bit of the Alicization arc in Sword Art Online, since that arc primarily concerned bottom-up artificial intelligence (as opposed to top-down which is more common in current technology) and the idea of interacting with these AI as people. In Alicization, the AI were created by taking a brain scan of a human child and uploading it to a simulation not too dissimilar from the OASIS, where the digitized mind would naturally reach maturity, with the goal of creating a fully sentient bottom-up AI. It seems like Ready Player Two followed a similar thought process by creating bottom-up AI by basing them off humans rather than the impossible task of programming one yourself. Machine learning can only go so far, human learning is a different beast entirely. I wouldn’t say Cline copied from Sword Art Online here since AI was not a major plot element until the book was nearly over, though it’s very likely he drew inspiration, especially considering his own nod to Kawahara-sensi’s aforementioned series earlier in his own text.

The final chapter is probably one of the most interesting sections of the book. It’s told from the perspective of Wade’s digitized self, though it is intentionally not clear that there was a perspective shift initially. He explains how he and a few other AI have been loaded onto the ARC@DIA ship, which Wade had originally built for himself to ditch Earth, now modified for AI. The objective was to have the ship travel to the nearest star system with the intention of looking for intelligent life or a hospitable planet for humanity. Being AI, they don’t need to worry about food or death, only a hard drive failure. That said, I found it suspicious that Wade and the others so readily accepted essentially having a clone of themselves made and be out there, especially after the whole Halliday debacle, but maybe they trust themselves more. But on the other hand, I appreciate Cline not retreading worn ground in this instance, since he takes a more clinical approach to discussing these technologies. Not necessarily as “evil” or “dangerous,” rather, as something that we will eventually need to accept whether we want to or not.

Critique

Now that I have exhaustively completed a commentary of all the major events of this book, I want to take some time to further examine some of the more important take-aways, or at the very least, figure out what Cline wanted to say, if anything at all.

Thematic run-down

Ready Player One was a mild critique of escapism. Paradoxically a story celebrating and indulging within its own nostalgia while simultaneously trying to explain why the aforementioned sugar-coated reality was not all it was chalked up to be. In some sense, I think this is effective since it provides commentary on how regardless of how nice the escape is, we all must log off eventually. Escapism is a difficult topic to discuss since I personally feel as if it’s a necessary and intrinsic part of human nature. Humans have always indulged in some form of escape, be it the arts of storytelling, film, music or painting. Additionally, some forms of escapism are treated more severely than others. Video games and television were frowned upon by the generations before us, yet the music and books they enjoyed were once no different from our games to the generation before them. Artistic merit holds more weight when discussing such subjects since escapism is often tied to a prescribed value of an activity. Spending hours researching in a laboratory is seen as unusual, but respectable due to the academic nature of it. However, playing a video game for the same time is frowned upon because it’s seen as intellectually inferior, despite the fact you might be playing a game that stimulates your mind through complex puzzles, real-time strategy, or reading and analyzing attack patterns. 

In my mind, there is no such thing as “escapism” because your “reality” is persistent. What I mean is that there is no such thing as running away from reality. Confronting reality is not easy to justify since oftentimes that escape is inseparable from reality. You are playing the game, reading the book or listening to the song. You have to be attuned to some frequency of reality to even acknowledge that fact. Wade was Parzival hunting for the egg, but he was always Wade. He never was Parzival. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Parzival was Wade, always was. The only difference was the name change and an abstraction of the avatar. Parzival was only one of his masks. Wade turned to the OASIS because he was powerless to change his life and it was not as easy as a simple mindset change. He could do nothing to improve his life in the Stacks. Escapism was the only solution. Yet, escapism is usually implied to be a form of complacency but it isn’t necessarily that. It’s a band-aide. You can turn to games but you can’t be logged in forever. But even then it’s hard to forget the fact that you are still alive in reality. Humans have been engaged in escapism forever, it’s human nature; ranging from sex, drugs, religion, art and even spending time with other people. All these are things that make humans forget their worries or justify the reality around them. Scoffing at these things and calling them simply “escapism” implies that you are above such things. But nobody is. Escapism isn’t evil, don’t treat it as such. Ready Player Two hardly touched the topic of escapism in the heavy-handed manner it had in the final pages of the original novel. Wade said he would never touch the ONI again, but he never said he would give up the OASIS. That’s because it’s not inherently evil.

The ending of Ready Player One was serviceable but rubbed me the wrong way because of the shoehorned-in escapism critique. My fear was that the sequel would crank that up to 11 and get preachy, so I had prepared for the worst. But the worst never came. I was pleased to see Cline approach the usage of ONI and the OASIS as more passive, letting the conflicting morals of the characters guide our own opinions instead of everyone agreeing “full-dive bad!” This allowed for a more open-ended approach which encouraged us to think about these things in our own life because these technologies likely aren’t as far off in the future as we think. Whereas Sword Art Online treated the NervGear as an evil or cursed device that everyone agreed was bad, the ONI had benefits and they were outlined within the text as well. For example, how they had been originally planned to use these devices to help disabled folks and improve their lives. A layer of abstraction to our escapism was removed for the sake of technological advancement, and it’s up to us to decide if that’s a good thing.

Ready Player Two is not an intellectual giant in terms of ideas of themes, but that doesn’t mean it had nothing to say. Though it was nothing really too important. This book essentially reiterates themes from the first novel framed in a slightly different light by changing up perspectives. We are allowed to draw our own decisions more readily and I think this helped overall. There were no shortage of cliches, but I appreciated not including the usual “true love wins in the end” or “power of friendship” ideas that have been repeated far too often in stories. Wade does manage to mend his relationship with his friends and relationship with Samantha though. Thanks to a world ending crisis that is. But I guess disaster and hardship bring people together. Forcing them to look past their now-petty hangups and remember the good times. Personally, I think this book was serviceable in terms of theming. It’s unlikely you’re going to want to change your life after reading this, but it won’t make you think it was written without some semblance of intent and not all-parts a shameless cash grab.

Character Arcs

Another Generic Love Story

One of the most unsatisfying portions of this book is the handling of the characters, specifically Wade and Samantha. They were reduced to their most basic form and remain stagnant plot devices for the entirety of the duration of the story. Wade only really learns that he needs to re-evaluate his priorities and also needs to strengthen the GSS server security. Samantha hardly plays a major part either, mostly reserved for being the sole voice of dissent on a few big decisions. She helps during two of the major quests but we aren’t allotted time to see her in a more relaxed pace where we could learn more about her character. The sense of urgency and break-neck pacing disallowed for the characters to really think about the events and process them as more than simply happening. Wade grows for sure, but not at all comparable to his wonderful character arc in the first novel. People can only change so much I guess? Wade was less snarky and Sam was more tame. It felt like a bog-standard hero and heroine combo that was only a pale imitation of the character they were meant to be. Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character. And similarly, just because we know the character, doesn’t mean you don’t have to write in a personality. Motivations are not enough basis to build a character off. 

Wade and Samantha make up and all is right in the world. The quarrel they had off-screen is now rendered as unimportant, like a dumb disagreement that was overblown. It was inevitable that they would get back together for that token happy end sealed with a kiss goodnight that the first book left us with, so I expected nothing less here. I can roll my eyes at the pathetic excuse for a romance here, but it never was the point. I think it was an afterthought for Cline and I don’t blame him. This plot thread is largely inconsequential to anything else happening that it should have been excluded. In Player One, I always found the romance a bit cheap, like Cline threw it in for fantasy’s sake, which ironically juxtaposes his anti-escapism message by having writing in his own manic pixie dream girl in the form of a fabled “gamer girl.”  

L0hengrin 

For the sake of not retreating my own footprints, I want to discuss the idea of L0 existing in the book more so than the unfortunate circumstances of her short-lived character arc. When Ready Player Two released I remember reading reviews on Amazon and whatnot where there seemed to be those who felt having a transgender character and various other current year politically correct commentary was unecessary. Is it unnecessary? Yes. I personally found Aech’s remarks a bit too uncalled for and curl, but fair judgements nevertheless. Yet, I found the part about L0 to be fascinating, having explored the concept of gender very seriously in the past year myself. It was handed carefully, albeit very shallow, and not really with a deeper understanding. Though intentionally from the perspective of an outside. We can’t expect Cline to understand the experience of being a transgender woman because he isn’t, it’d be worse if he pretend to understand. That’s why he wrote from the perspective of Wade, who likely was just as confused or curious as he or I was. Identifying as transgender or any other non-binary gender doesn’t make you any less human, but it’s a unique concept to outsiders with an open mind and something that ought to be fair to discuss. Wade doesn’t treat her any different as he would his other friends. (Despite using her to handle his fetch quests) I personally would have liked for L0’s character to have been explored with more time, but like I said, at least she got some time to shine before being smited during the time she basically saved the world, but I digress.

Despite having strong feelings about his book, I would very much wish to read a spin-off focusing on L0hengrin and the L0w Five’s quest to find the Dorkslayer and their life afterwards. I think it would serve as a better follow-up rather than trying to recycle the same characters and themes in a poor manner once again. Though I think a different author ought to handle it, for the sake of my sanity.

Gamer Girl

Not intending to stir up relics of the past, let’s mention “gamer girls” for a bit. It’s a necessary evil when discussing this book since the primary focus is Kira Underwood, Og’s late wife. Ready Player Two added a lot of depth to her, likely unnecessary, but did so nevertheless. I don’t think many of us fans really concerned ourselves with her since he had already passed away before the events of Ready Player One. That said, I think her inclusion was curious not as a commentary on feminism or the like, but as a means to explore Halliday, who I will discuss in the following section. It was no secret that Halliday had an unrequited love with her but she chose Og for a number of reasons, not simply because Halliday was too much of a sperg and probably smelled weird. However, the friendship between the three was important, at least while it lasted. They all founded Gregarious Games and started developing Anorak’s Quest which revolutionized gaming in this timeline. Kira worked as a graphic designer while Og handled primarily public relations and Halliday was the code monkey. Because of this connection to Kira and art, I think inclusions about Rieko Kodama was very fitting, since Kodama was one of the first video game artists and worked on Princess Kurumi, which was discussed earlier. This different perspective allowed us to see what it must be like for Kira, a woman, within the then-male-dominated world of game development. Ironically, however, is how Wade literally experienced this first-hand and gained an understanding of Kira, while Ghost Halliday, who failed to comprehend her as much as his deceased counterpart, didn’t. I liked Kira, but she didn’t have much time to shine. She felt more like an ephemeral existence like Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring rather than a real character. 

Becoming the Villain

Here’s the punch line: by retroactively slandering Halliday’s past to create a fitting antagonist, Cline himself became the villain. You see, to me, Cline was my Halliday. Ready Player One had almost as much of an impact on my life as the OASIS did for Wade. I annotated my copy to death and took copious notes of the various references within the book to explore the magic of this bygone era. I reread the book religiously and would sink into a trance whenever I thought about it. I know that story like the back of my hand, which is something I can’t say for nearly anything else. If I was Wade, Ready Player One was my printed copy of Anorak’s Almanac in a binder. A text written by this cool guy who is someone we want to look up to. Someone who has so much knowledge and awkward charisma that we want to be like them. So we consumed media nonstop. Using these texts as our bible to guide us on the journey back to nineteen-eighty-something. Mentally noting every reference and then using their words as recommendations. It never got old. Cline was my Halliday.

But then Cline slandered Halliday’s legacy in much the same way artists we might have once allauded are retroactively stripped of their achievements due to wrongdoings after the fact. Even if they were in the wrong, it’s still a gut punch to learn that your childhood hero was far removed from that fantasy you held. Halliday retroactively became an incel. Angry that he could never hold Kira and became infatuated with that fact. He would push himself to the limits to achieve this illusions where his dream girl was all for his taking and made a hideous device to achieve this. This was nothing short of disgusting. He crossed the line and I think it was unnecessary. Retroactively making Halliday into a bad guy ruined the image we might have had of him. Though I think that was the point, since Wade had to swallow that pill alongside us. But for me, it held more weight.

As I watched Wade’s image of Halliday crumble before him, I observed the same happening to my idol. Ernest Cline slowly tarnished his image in my eyes as I watched him trample over every character I had grown to love, write a terrible sequel to my most beloved piece of fiction ever, and hold me hostage to watch it all happen. I could have put the book down at any time but I didn’t. I couldn’t log off. I needed to see this through to the end, even if it drove me to hate my past-idol. The fact that a sequel existed was more than enough to warrant me reading it because I feel obligated to. I hold reservations in calling myself the biggest Ready Player One fan because nobody can quantifiably measure and compare “passion,” but trust me when I say I love that book more than anyone I know. The movie pulled the rug out from under my feet and the sequel came to “teabag” over my corpse. 

Postmortem

To take a break from the critique, let’s see how we can fix Ready Player Two. I offer two solutions which would have likely eliminated, or at least avoid, many of the problems I had with this book. The first solution is one I have alluded to previously, which is a shift in perspective. I would have rather read a story with a new character and scenario rather than a sloppy regurgitation of the same thing over again. Why watch Star Wars Episode 7 when it’s just a worse version of the original trilogy? This would likely result in some concern from publishers since the prospect of introducing a new character would put off some fans, but likely is a better outcome than writing this mess. I don’t know about anyone else, but if suddenly the book was from a new character and focusing on them winning the challenge, I would have been just as intrigued, being set in the same universe and something I enjoyed in the first place. This is why series such as The Mandalorian are still successful despite being spin-offs.  This is also why I wanted L0hengrin to receive a spin-off, since I think she was by far the most interesting character here. For example, have L0 be the protagonist and have her in the shoes of Wade in this version where she is the one collecting all the Shards. I’m sure other fans might share similar sentiments. 

The second solution offers an option to not reinvent the wheel. By following the first option, we are not able to mitigate the main plot related elements of the story even if we change to a new character. Ghost Halliday would still be as obnoxious and the pacing would still be actively working against the characterization. So instead of trying to think of a new challenge and make it bigger and better than ever, why not make it slightly better? Nier:Automata is one of my favorite games and includes a really interesting structure with dozens of endings. You get Ending A with 2B, the main character you control, before then having the option to play the game again as 9S, your companion. There are new combat mechanics with the change of characters and some additional story content, but it’s very minor. However, after Ending B things start to get interesting. The story and world completely changes from what was before in the first two storylines and essentially is a new game from that point. Automata, as well as other choice-driven games such as visual novels and the Telltale games prove how you can derive vastly different experiences based on one’s choices. More so with visual novels, the inclusion of differing routes allows for more story and gameplay despite reusing the same assets and tools. With this logic, I would have preferred Cline to have rewritten Ready Player One and follow the events of the first challenge, except from the perspective of another character. Perhaps Daito and Shoto since they lived in a completely different side of the world, or perhaps Aech and get into her mind a bit, or even Samantha and understand how she felt on the other side of the relationship. It likely would have been less interesting due to retreading old ground, though fans would have likely been intrigued at reading a different take on something they thought they knew. Afterall, this book was titled Ready Player Two, so it would have been fitting to have another character have the chance to step up to that bright arcade cabinet in the corner of a dark, pizza-scented room.

Needless to say, writing a follow-up to Ready Player One was a daunting task, likely one Cline had not considered seriously until the enormous success it received after hitting store shelves. As such, he describes this feeling adaptly by quoting Billy Joel: “Don’t ask for help. You’re all alone. Pressure.” This was concerning. Not simply because he was under stress, but because he felt cornered and pressured in the first place. Writing Ready Player One felt like Cline was pulling inspiration from all his favorite 80’s pop culture media; video games, movies, books, comics and music. It was a passion project through and through. He was writing from the perspective of someone like Wade Watts or James Halliday, who was very much alone and only surrounding himself endlessly within the arcadia of his youth. It was written from a place of nostalgic longing but not without optimism. It was about overcoming your shortcomings and learning to live less-reliant on escapism. Regardless of whether or not I agree with it, I think Cline truly believed the conclusions he reached. This is no more apparent than in the glowing appreciation he gives his family, friends and staff in the acknowledgements. Though that could not excuse the results he threw to market.

Ready Player Two was released with held breath. It was an inevitability based on the success of the movie and the first book. Sequels are inevitable and are oftentimes met with a harsher discerning eye compared to the original. Creator’s are expected to iron out the kinks, patch the bugs and make everything bigger and better because they’ve had time to reflect on the critiques of critics and themselves alike. But not everything can be an Empire Strikes Back or Terminator 2: Judgement Day. As such, I prepared for the worst and held my breath. I tried to remain optimistic and avoid reviews. I desperately tried to find anything to enjoy here. That’s why I went into detail recounting many of the items I did find worthwhile in my lengthy commentary in a vain attempt to balance out a critique otherwise clouded this discussion in overwhelming cynicism. Thus, my cautious optimism was challenged 366 times and threatened me to ask the difficult questions: “Was Ready Player One even good?” in spite of my having read that book too many times to count.  When I tuned the final page, I felt nothing, just cheated. Knowing I was being manipulated to read a follow-up to something I loved and finishing it despite being filled with nothing but contempt. I emerged deflated. I had suffered and received nothing in return, except perhaps the promise to an adaptation of a book I hated, adapted by the same studio that ruined my favorite book of all time. This was no catharsis. I gained no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from this critique. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This sequel has meant nothing….

Posted in Discussions/Analysis, retrospectives | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Eternal Sunshine of the JAV-less Mind ~Last Ray of Sun☆Shine~

Google Docs version


What is this?

Adapted from: https://artificialnightsky.wordpress.com/2020/12/11/eternal-sunshine-of-the-jav-less-mind/ 

This is an “adaptation” of my post of the same name, and a byproduct of dozens of hours spend lingering on the words I wrote, one December afternoon. This script has been combed over and reworked into a video-essay/short film, I made the ultimate culmination of what I think conveys my intense feelings about the content of the post I made before. This is my remix of stolen ideas across various mediums an genres. It’s my first attempt at a video, not the last, but not something I intended to do regularly. It’s completely serious and was created with the utmost sincerity. Laugh if you will, I’m not one to stop you.

Director’s Cut

  • Uncensored
  • MKV with chapters
  • Shitty commentary for audio track 2
  • Egregious encoding
  • Full-sized thumbnail

https://mega.nz/folder/2ewwGAjJ#O0tuo8gMxmoZs4RzxWN3Ig

Script

ETERNAL CYCLE

It was then that I swore to break free from the chains of the eternal cycle I’ve bound myself to. For the better part of six years, I’ve been at odds with a crippling addiction to Japanese adult videos. I’ve since lost count of how many times I slipped into a manic state and proceeded to delete dozens of gigabytes of MP4’s, only to build the collection back up in a single, impassioned, night. But over the past year I’ve relapsed a handful of times, far too many for my liking, and I felt as if I had to draw my line in the sand somewhere; between ideals and lust, in order to finally cleanse myself from the dregs of yesteryear’s yellow fever. 

Acknowledging the existence of one’s vice is the prelude to the journey of self-betterment. And for me, it’s becoming painfully clear how detrimental my addiction to Japanese adult videos had become. This relationship has been an endless waltz, in which I seem to only be able to change partners momentarily, before once again finding myself staring back into the eyes of my first partner, not too long after. 

Throughout the years, I have seen things that were not very pleasant, and have come to understand where my morals and ideals lie. And now it seems like the ever-present elephant in the room has ousted me as a lying phony. I’ve renounced my JAV addiction too many times to count despite having been critical of it for too many years now, however, I’m ready to finally put money where my mouth is and give it up, once and for all.

I found JAV back in high school, but didn’t really start watching it until I was in university. I was a bigger porn addict back in high school compared to any other time. And in a sense, shifting my preferences to JAV and doujinshi resulted in me easily giving up watching western porn, which was for the better. 

Fever Dreams in Japanese Yellow

However, the thing with JAV is that it’s relatively laborious to find it normally and usually requires some sleuthing to acquire exactly what you want. Amusingly, despite the difficulties involved finding and downloading the videos I wanted, I still gleefully jumped through all those hoops to get the promised reward on the other end. Because for 18 year old Parz, who had too much time on his hands, this was a nonissue; the joy was in the hunt

The time when I discovered JAV also coincides with the tail-end of a crippling yellow-fever phase of mine, characterized by my year-long frenzy trapped within the idol otaku scene. I listened exclusively to Japanese idol music for a long time after getting really, really, into iDOLM@STER, and this eventually branched off into other avenues such as finding out about seiyuu and non-2D idols. I was a big fan of Nogizaka46 and would spend hours watching their MV’s and variety shows, and was an avid fan of Nishino Nanase. I would pour over all of her photo books, which I’m only now able to admit was unhealthy in retrospect. So the reason I was in a frenzied yellow-fever-induced state when I found JAV was because of my extreme fondness for Japanese idols. This was the point of no return.

I distinctly remember the first time I got really into JAV, almost fondly, There used to be a subreddit that aggregated links to Mega.nz, and I filled up my pitiful 300gb laptop hard drive with lots of JAV. It was like a kid in a candy store at first… But this period slowly came to an end after Nanase graduated and not soon after I gained a bit of clarity about my obsessions. Frist, I learned the horrors of the idol industry in Asia. Then I realized the truth about 2.5D.

Here, I slowly became sober to the fact that this was no better than the western porn videos I had proudly renounced previously. In spite of this, I have returned to JAV nevertheless, but with a dwindling frequency soon after, only really returning to watch the updated catalogues of the prolific actresses that tickled my fancy. Most of the time was spent sifting through the endless stream of videos I could not care less about. 

But at the precipice of Leaving-it-All-Behind, I would rediscover JAV in an all-too-familiar delirious state, and would once again make me swallow my pride, set me back 200GB, and lose a few days worth of productivity. I never was able to quit for longer than 6 months, consequently never being able to fully escape my endless entanglement with JAV. 

But eventually the storm cleared; It always did.

小さな_REQUIEM

This was a symbolic addiction, more about what JAV represented than what it actually gave me. Giving a crazed horny teenager suffering from yellow-fever some JAV was my trip to a beautifully twisted wonderland where everything I needed could come into fruition. It was exactly what I wanted in a time where that was almost all I cared about.  Because JAV is not actually that good. 

I would always skip the exposition and only watch the “good stuff.” I can appreciate the dedication of these actors by committing to their parts and essentially filming a 2+ hour movie, but I didn’t care enough to waste that much time on a single session. 

Furthermore, the amount of JAV I actually enjoy is hardly enough to consider myself a fan of the AV industry as a whole. One of the common cited criticisms of Japanese pornography is how the women sound like they’re crying, and the manner in which they’re often portrayed. I distinctly remember this one time, I was watching this video and the camera slowly panned over to the actress as she was being nailed from behind whilst wearing a race queen outfit. But what caught my attention was her eyes. There was nothing in them and I felt like I was doing something wrong, and immediately came down from the high I was riding.

I still can’t forget those blurry eyes…

It’s difficult to explain the dissonance I feel. It’s almost non-issue when I see more extreme fetishes being explored and either party being exploited within the doujinshi and hentai I enjoy, i. But they almost made me uneasy when watching JAV. I empathize too much. I’m obviously not a champion of feminism or anything, but I am not fond of the depiction of women within these videos. Perhaps that’s why I found myself really only really returning to watch Eimi’s videos, since she was often in the role of a woman with agency. But for the rest, it was hard to ignore the borderline rape-y feel of the scenarios of these videos. Because for me, I felt responsible for the hardships of these actors if I got excited watching them perform roles they might be better off not doing.

Regarding the actresses themselves, I apparently have very specific preferences that are hard to please when it comes to how I want the woman to look. But JAV has no easily sortable tagging system of my favorite booru sites. Expecting inhuman perfection with the Read is even too crude for me. So in the 6 years I’ve been watching this stuff, I can count the number of actresses I’ve come to enjoy on one hand with fingers to spare. So by all accounts, it appears as if JAV is something I wasn’t always completely onboard with, so why keep watching? And why is JAV the biggest problem in the universe?

Perfect World

I reject reality, try to convince myself that escapism and my no’nai ren’ai are real, in order to help me live on. It’s a lifestyle that only allows 2D to enter and is a place of tranquility– a place for eternal sunshine to color the flowering fields with a nostalgic tinge, devoid of the imperfections that reality is all-too willing to revere. Imperfection is not an excuse to bask within the light of complacency. But the journey to this 2D paradise was hindered by my monkey brain fighting me every step of the way. My JAV addiction wasn’t simply a common porn addiction, it was representative of my subconscious battle to decide if I really was unwilling to let everything go.

Every few months my doujinshi reading sessions would be interrupted by my monkey brain desperately trying to course correct, and thus began another “Parz Downloads lots of JAV” episode. This wasn’t simply a personal battle trying to deny a healthy human instinct, it was about suppressing the source of the black surge– that which jeopardized my ideas. What had originally been a crutch to help me move past western 3D porn had suddenly become my most obvious fallacy.

My ideals, which outlined a beautiful world within the otaku fantasies of one’s mind, had now been tained. Thus, I concluded that my ideals were more important than a quick rush. 

In much the same way Madarame had hid pictures of Saki behind his desk, I had hid JAV within the file structure of my PC. But where he and I will deviate, is my desire to never go back. Because nothing is waiting for me there. 

二次元へ行きましょう。

This is not about me criticizing JAV with sweeping generalizations, neither is this about porn addiction, rather, it’s about something beyond that. 

I’ve researched Honda Toru and consider him to be someone I idolize, however, there is one major point of contention which I can’t ignore; Honda’s advocacy of this so-called “2.5D” as a median dimension. He described 2.5D as the place where 2D and 3D meet, for example in maid cafes and idols, and I believe he was the one who coined the term. This was intended to serve as a place of mutual understanding for otaku and riajuu to meet, and begin the movement to make the appeal of 2D more tangible for non-believers. But I found this to be very problematic. 

My 6 year saga battling instinctual urges in order to uphold my ideals had all been building to one final climax, that is, 2.5D is a hindrance to evolution. 

When I was new to all this otaku stuff, I thought maid cafes were the best thing ever, but as time has gone by I’ve grown increasingly resentful towards them. The veil of these fantasies was quickly torn off as I slowly realized how the Real was intruding upon my pure fantasies. The maid persona was just a mask. They were trying so hard to be like my Japanese animes for a paycheck, and tricked my pure, pure heart. It was nothing more than a pale imitation of my twisted desires. Projecting 2D desires onto a 3D subject sacrifices the integrity of either dimension. I grew conflicted as the seiyuu and singing idols I had once worshipped started to feel less ethereal and more defective

The daydreams of yellow-fever came crashing down when I realized the obvious fact; Japanese women are no different than any other type of woman, objectifying them within the pornography I was addicted to was just another one of my delusions; nothing more than my own invention. There was nothing more mystifying about them over any other type of woman. My hypocrisy has been exposed. Have mercy! 

FINAL CLIMAX

The answer lies not within the maid cafes of Akiba nor the dancing idols within the palm of my hand, rather, it was already within me. Now, when I visit Akihabara, I know I won’t be paying for a moe-moe omurice. 

Plastic Girls: Part 1

After the innumerable climaxes within these past few years, I have realized that the reasons motivating me to stop have overtaken the desire of wanting to stare at a Japanese woman with plastic surgery. I had overstayed my welcome within the indulgent comfort of the transitionary 2.5D reality and became enslaved to the very vices which I swore to renounce. I had simply shrugged them off because the mystique of seeing my dreams projected on tangible reality ensnared my monkey brain and never let go. 

However, this was nothing more than a last-ditch attempt by the Real. 2.5D proved to be no different from the flipside but considerably more destructive to the feeble-minded otaku. There is no difference between a 2D waifu and a 3D idol, both are unattainable existences that will concern your parents equally. The idol is bound to the flipside which makes her appear more tangible for you. Infatuation with 2.5D binds you to reality while similarly forcing you to either come to terms with the painful realization that you can not touch her, while continuing to tell yourself that “this could work!” ultimately paving your own path of no return. 2D won’t hurt anyone, 3D hurts you, but 2.5D hurts everyone. 

Allowing yourself to fall into the eternal cycle will only entrap the Marginalized into a state of never letting go, and living the rest of their lives LARPing together with a figment of their imagination,  projected desires onto a JK working part-time at a maid cafe. The implications are as dangerous as the ravenous otaku painted by Japanese news from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, so instead of living an unfulfilled existence ensnared by the Real, perhaps it’s best to forego 2.5D entirely. 

My Fxxking Desire For You

[Video]

One More Final

[Video]

I was cured, alright. 

Plastic Girls: Part 2

This is a farewell to the days when my daydreams were filled with dancing idols and plastic girls speaking dirty words gently into my ears.

Eternal Sunshine

Fill my fond heart with 2D alone, for it

Alone can rival, can succeed to thee. 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the JAV-less mind! 

(Adapted from Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope)

Credits

I own none of the items listed below. I had no ill-intentions using them within my video, all content is property of its respective owners.

Tracklist (In order):

  1. SiLC – In Heaven (Boogiepop Phantom OST)
  2. Tenmon & Eiichirō Yanagi – A moon filled sky ARmix (ef – a tale of memories OST)
  3. szak, ryo & H.B STUDIO – Denpa Relay no Shousha (Subarashiki Hibi OST)
  4. Momoi Haruko – Mail Me (Off-Vocal)
  5. Clint Mansell – Requiem for a Tower (Requiem for a Dream Soundtrack)
  6. L’arc en Ciel – Blurry Eyes (Nobuyuki Hirakura acoustic cover)
  7. szak, ryo & H.B STUDIO – Yoru no Himawari (Subarashiki Hibi OST)
  8. Pearl Kyoudai – Ikasu ze! Positive Thinking! (NHK ni Youkoso OST)
  9. Hanz Zimmer – Why so Serious? (The Dark Knight Soundtrack)
  10.  ZIZZ Studio – Song of Saya I (Saya no uta OST)
  11. Linkin Park – Breaking the Habit (Instrumental)
  12. Richard Wagner – Overture ”Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg” (Boogiepop Phantom Version)
  13. Gigi D’Agostino – L’Amour Toujours (Nightcore)
    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUWwKuv41Lc 

Clips Used (In order)

  1. HND-723 (Staring Fukada Eimi)
  2. NHK ni Youkoso! (Episode 3 ~16:00)
  3. 君の名は希望: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HcLxPV79Tc 
  4. Nogikoi Real – Nishino Nanase: https://my.beamsubs.com/2017/09/18th-single-nogikoi-real-nishino-nanase.html  
  5. ROYD-002 (Staring Fukada Eimi)
  6. SSNI-811 (Staring Maki Izuna)
  7. euphoria (Episode 2 ~15:00)
  8. Eimi and her onahole: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exQGXTsYVOo
  9. Eimi dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6aoxANLnS0
  10. Genshiken Season 2 (Episode 7 ~20:00)
  11. Genshiken Nidaime (Episode 3 ~20:00)
  12. Generation Z – Japan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEML4C2NQnY 
  13. Otaku Interviews in Akiba: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QFAZQRLUkk
  14. Blade Runner 2049
  15. @ほぉ〜むカフェCM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiefKTBXGS4 
  16. Plastic Girl: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aB764KEmwxM
  17. Nogizaka46 – 帰り道は遠回りしたくなる Live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJ_lGu78OyI 
  18. KANE-010 (Staring Fukada Eimi)
  19. Hashi and Eimi the Meido: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9fyyJXix4I

Posted in breaking the rules, Introspection, NSFW, Projects, Recomended Reading, videos | Tagged , | Leave a comment

An ode to the otaku room

The otaku room is a nothing more than a microcosm of the otaku identity. A private stand-alone simulation created solely to detain one’s indulgent hobbies. This is an air-tight and picturesque reality cobbled together with odds-and-ends to create an environment completely unique to the inhabitant. Each unique room is a visual overload. There is too much to focus on and countless more questionable items lying around to get lost thinking about. I find a certain voyeuristic pleasure in searching for pictures of other’s rooms because they can tell more about a person than any forum self-introduction, diary entry or life-long friendship ever could. This is a place for the individual to thrive and create whatever they wish, away from the prying eyes of judgement just outside their window. The otaku room isn’t simply representative of the all-consuming otaku enslaved to capitalism; it’s representative of a lifestyle of beautiful self-indulgence.

Take a gander at any otaku room and you might feel overwhelmed at all there is to see. It is a misbegotten reality crafted with the trembling hands of someone with nothing to lose. Otaku are obsessed with idealism. We are characterized through our obsessions, with hyper focused areas of interest, oftentimes being very niche or on the fringe. So becoming an embodiment of said idealism, is to become an “ideological warrior,” it’s the only path in the end. This mythical figure lives in complete acknowledgment of their faults and many contradictions while simultaneously forgoing the ability to ever look back and be a riajuu again, all for the sake of chasing the idealism they believe in so much. In doing so, they accept the inherent insincerity of their practices for the sake of becoming a larger-than-life model for society’s worst case scenario. Ergo, becoming an ideal themselves. Burn all bridges! You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain; rejecting idealism for the sake of avoiding humility is the approach of a coward. Behind closed doors there is nothing left to feel ashamed of. Thus, otaku hide between four walls fortified by their methodically chaotic collages of bishoujo game posters, wall scrolls and bookcases. No more reminders of the outside world. Colors coalesce into a psychedelic otaku fever-dream. Clashing colors become uniform; kaleidoscopic mosaics form as the lights dim, interests intersect, and reality bends to your will. You are now surrounded only by beautiful things.

Bookcases are filled to the brim with the physical media that riajuu have since left behind. Hobbyists continue to buy into the formats of yesteryear because it’s something tangible. Something to hold onto. Something to grasp tightly and say “this is what I love.” Physical proof of your intangible love towards things that only exist within your mind. DVD’s, Blu-rays, manga, light novels, magazines, video game cartridges, CD’s… All of these can be obtained easily online for free, and many do acquire them that way, but some of us cling to this practice with white knuckles. There is no actual benefit to filling the space of your six-tatami mat room with archaic simulacrum of our twisted love. Yet, otaku buy and buy and buy. It was never a question of “Should I collect” but rather “I need more.” We are an all-consuming existence. The monetary amount and the products to show for it are a measure for our love. Pushed to the fringes of disillusionment, we became nothing more than an absurd byproduct from the late-capitalist society that nurtured our birth. In a fit of irony, otaku throw copious amounts of money at the corporate overlords to give reason to their obsessions. Nothing else to use that money on, lonely rooms are filled to the brim with underage 2D girls in short skirts plastered onto these four walls.

A syrupy girly voice repeats “Pururin purupururin pururinfor the umpteenth time, filling the stuffy air of a room lit only by the dull blue glow of a computer monitor. Week-old ramen cups and bottles line the desk and dust has since overrun the entirety of this setup. This is the otaku room, a self-created world: a Reality Marble. The worthless objects we choose to fill it with are suddenly prescribed a ludicrous value of our own assignment. “Priceless.” we breathe, as we slowly look up the skirt of a joshi kousei’s figure from our favorite eroge. These 1/6th PVC girls we line our shelves with are not necessarily a suppressed desire to play with dolls as a grown man, rather, they are an attempt to tear 2D from it’s fictional bindings and display it within our trembling hands. Their loving heart might only weigh about 100 grams, but it’s the weight of everything I’ve left behind. This is our world: create, erase, redraw. 

~Another World, Another Chapter~

Madarame Harunobu rushed to meet me after our lecture. Together with the rest of the club we take the train to make a regular trip down to Akiba after lectures one lazy Friday afternoon. We intended to pick up our pre-ordered special edition copies of the new eroge that was released today. We find ourselves in a daze, window shopping on the circa-2003 Akiba-strip lined with colorful characters only seen on our TV’s while the distant sounds of fighting games come drifting in the summer breeze. We finish our stop at Gamers and bid our farewells to Dejiko before making our rounds through Tora-no-ana’s selection of ero-doujinshi. Night is quickly approaching and our stomachs stubbornly remind us of our mortal limitations, so we pick up a quick bite at the cheapest shop off the beaten path. Laughing over salty foods and cold drinks, though we soon find ourselves discussing Kujibiki Unbalance once again. The ride home is veiled in silence, but we do not mind at all. Then we part ways, I turn to wave “later” but not “goodbye” to the gang, knowing each of us is about to go jerk off to our recent haul. A queer smirk tickles my cheek at this thought, and we are all filled with the same playful feelings. I retreat to my lair; my safe haven, my entire world. The lights flicker on, illuminating all these beautiful things, as I lay down my bag and posters, letting it all sink in;

“This is how I live, love it or leave it.”

Posted in anime, breaking the rules, Introspection, Otaku Culture, rambling, Recomended Reading, The Community, videos | Tagged | Leave a comment

The burden of foreknowledge

I’ve known about the emotional climax of Clannad Afterstory for nearly as long as I knew about the anime series itself. It’s not unreasonable to expect many others to connect the dots and draw the same conclusions I did, before ultimately feeling deflated knowing that they likely ruined the show for themselves. Thus is the weight of foreknowledge; knowing the final outcome and the dissatisfaction of being unable to become surprised anymore that comes with it. The initial shock value inherent to learning something for the first time gains an elevated sense of importance as you slowly become more jaded, before ultimately feeling like nothing is original anymore. This is precisely why I held off so long before watching Afterstory, since I had spoiled myself and suddenly the big secret no longer felt surprising. So I put it on my backlog until that promised “eventually” finally arrived. However, when I decided to finally watch Clannad Afterstory this past weekend, I slowly began to notice that this weight had begun to morph into a heavy burden to carry, before quickly realizing that this foreknowledge was hardly a detraction to my enjoyment of Afterstory. Rather, it amplified the experience in ways I never could have foreseen. This is a story of how I lived to spite the eternal recurrence.

I had been “avoiding” watching Clannad Afterstory for a number of years now. Though my shaky reasoning ultimately boiled down to my perceived foreknowledge. It was hardly difficult to reason out why this anime is considered to be sad, since one can reason that it’s the result of a dramatic event such as a character death, which is fairly common within anime canon to stimulate such a response. With this in mind, the characteristically heavy-handed foreshadowing KEY employs begins to point to a certain girl’s cruel fate. Suddenly, the innocent Dango song revealed itself as a device to evoke an emotional response later down the line. This knowledge was laid out for the viewers to consider rather obviously. Removing oneself from the meta of the show itself for a minute reveals even more. The popular opinion within the anime community that this show is very sad, and the team behind the original bishoujo game were the pioneers of the nakige, a sub-genre of bishoujo games explicitly intended to make you cry. All this background makes one feel as if they spoiled their own fun as a result of thinking a bit too much. However, this is not the fault of the viewer nor the creators. There is no avoiding the reputation and stylistic trappings of one creator. Therefore, it’s now up to the creator to prove they can still make something special despite you thinking you have everything figured out. We all know Maeda Jun is going to try his darndest to make us cry, so we expect it, but we don’t know when it will happen. This is all the “burden of foreknowledge.”

In much the same way playing a game of a specific genre brings along certain expectations, watching a KEY anime brings along certain expectations for the work. However, in the case of Afterstory, this foreknowledge was inconsequential to my enjoyment of the show. If anything, it made the events of the show more difficult to watch once I got into it, as I knew with some degree of confidence what was about to happen. I had inflated my ego by convincing myself I figured out the game Maeda was playing, and held smug reservations about watching it. So when I finally decided it was time to give it a watch, I suddenly felt ill-prepared from what I foresaw. I foresaw the cruel fate for a certain dango-loving girl, and I began to doubt my stoic resolve. The episodes began to fly by and before I knew it, I stood at the gates of The White Darkness (白い闇) with an uneasy feeling fluttering in my stomach. Even though I knew exactly what was about to occur, I was not prepared in the slightest. No amount of foreknowledge was able to prepare me for the anguish I was about to subject myself to. “This is it” I told myself, prepared myself for the worst, and began the episode.

I knew exactly what was going to happen. But this foreknowledge was not so much a damper on the impact in so much as it was an amplifier for grief. This was my burden; knowing what was going to happen, and being forced to reckon with the tragedy about to happen, only able to count down the minutes before it would inevitably occur. As the seconds wound down, I was already breaking down into tears. My worst nightmare was unfolding right before my eyes and I was powerless to stop it. The tears were streaming down before I even realized and I was choking back the wave of emotional turmoil that had been building within me for 39 episodes. The fact that I knew what was about to occur didn’t matter at all in the end. I had seen Clannad’s first season twice prior to this, and revisiting it recently made me fall in love with the wonderful characters all over again. In the back of my mind, I knew of the curse hanging over her head, but it faded to the background as I got caught up within the story all over again. Laughing, falling in love, crying; reaching the highest highs and the lowest lows together with these characters all over again.

There is something poignant about this type of linear storytelling that is woefully under-utilized to its fullest in visual and written media. The mostly untapped potential of having complete and utter control over the pacing of the story and forcing the audience to go along for the ride is something which should be employed more often. It’s the feeling of “seeing something grotesque, but still wanting to sneak another peak” put to narrative. Writers such as Ryukishi07 and Urobuchi Gen excel in this territory; they are able to write compelling scenarios that destroy the illusion of agency which makes the readers at odds with their storytelling, only able to watch the events unfold. The skill of a writer hinges on their ability to craft stories that will capture the hearts of readers despite the fact the audience has no control over the events about to unfold. We are only along for the ride. Clannad and it’s sequel excelled marvelously in this department, being able to both craft wonderful characters with plenty of depth, but be able to surpass the bindings expected of the “KEY” brand. We all go into a KEY story expecting to cry, but even with this expectation, we cry regardless. 

Over the years, I’ve reached the conclusion that spoilers are inconsequential to my enjoyment with a show. Previously, I might spoil myself or pick up on no-so-subtle foreshadowing in a show, only to feel deflated that I spoiled the fun. But if you live constantly trying to seek originality and chasing that next thrill, you’ll eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. Before long, less and less brings you joy, and all new stories blend together into a twisted mess. “All stories told have been told before,” some might say, and I agree with this. Themes core to the human condition have all been explored extensively many times before, so it’s very unlikely you will find a drama that will make you reconsider life’s purpose late into life. However, what’s key is the presentation and development of the narrative, which ultimately determines if the story will separate itself from all the rest. I’ve seen hundreds of anime, I’ve seen the same tired tropes replayed too many times to count, I’ve seen the same story templates copied and pasted across genres and demographics, but I’m still here. I’m here because I love this medium, I’m here because there is still much left to explore. I’m an avid fan of rewatching anime and will oftentimes revisit an old favorite, only to find something new to love the second or third time around, despite knowing the show like the back of my hand. Spoilers are inconsequential, so what truly matters is the manner in which a narrative is presented. Having just completed Clannad Afterstory, I am confident that even after watching 800 anime, I have barely scratched the surface of what there is to explore here. Though eventually reaching a point where hardly anything surprises me anymore, I decided to face my burden of foreknowledge head-on instead of resign myself to the fatigue of the eternal recurrence. And as a result, I watched something incredibly special.

Afterword:

I first watched Clannad sometime in 2018, which I regard to be the worst year of my life by far. I watched Clannad towards the middle of the most difficult period of the year and it helped put a smile on my face during a time when not much else could. It was a heartwarming story of friendship and love and it quickly became my favorite KEY anime, as cliche as it seems. Nowadays, I think I prefer Kanon 2006 to the first season of Clannad, but that’s besides the point. Returning to this time, I would honestly liked to have watched the sequel but factors outside my control were making a turn for the worse, so I made the difficult decision to avoid watching Afterstory, since I felt as if the infamously sad anime would only push my further into the dark recesses of my already-clouding mind. Smash cut to late 2020, I’m moving quickly through anime and noticed I’ve blown into the late-700’s of completed series on MyAnimeList. I always try to make my “hundredth” milestones very memorable shows that I have been putting off for too long. For example, my 700th anime was Cardcaptor Sakura and my 500th was Azumanga Daioh. This time around, after scratching my head and looking at my list for a bit, I realized the answer became obvious. So during the Black Friday weekend, I purchased the Clannad Complete Collection Blu-ray from Sentai Filmworks to prepare for the landmark moment. As such, Afterstory was my 800th completed anime and I’m glad I decided to finally get around to this series at this time; for an important moment in my anime watching career and when my mental state is finally more stable.

BGM: kozato – ancient starlight

Posted in anime, Introspection, Meta-Discussion, rambling | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Remembering Kita e ~Diamond Dust Drops~ because nobody else will


Old MemoRies

This story opens during the midst of the so-called “Nyaa-pocalypse” in early 2017. It was around this time that I found myself with a lot of time after school and was the time when I was really getting into anime. This period at the tail-end of my high school days was characterized by me torrenting dozens of anime and binge watching them as fast as possible. However, the nyaa-pocalypse changed all that and us anime pirates were left scrambling as the infrastructure we were so accustomed to simply vanished. The old nyaa.se site was down after legal troubles which were the result of EU policy changes, if my memory serves me right. It wasn’t all bad though, the tracker still existed despite the site going down so in theory, the old torrents still have seeders attached to them, so projects formed and replacement sites were operating incredibly quickly, I take my hat off to those fine gentlemen.

It was the result of this unrest that our story begins, one where young Parz found himself falling down internet rabbit-holes, irc channels and shady direct download sites. Due to nyaa.se going down, threads on countless message boards and forums across the internet  were filled with questions about alternative places to torrent anime from. Alternative trackers were listed, others smugly suggested to join private trackers, while others threw various other options into the mix. One of these suggestions was using the enigmatic “XDCC” method. Having grown up after-the-fact, I was largely unfamiliar with IRC, save for a basic understanding what it was. I never was in any channels and had never even opened the client pre-installed on my Ubuntu desktop. However, this intrigued me and I began my descent back in time.

You see, this is around the time I was first becoming deeply interested in the history of otaku culture. Specifically, I had been reading various accounts of the Western anime community’s humble beginnings; fansub groups being at the forefront of this movement, beginning in the late 80’s to the present, thanks to the internet and IRC. Despite the obvious inconveniences that came with the “nyaa-pocalypse,” one major benefit was vicariously experiencing what it must have felt like in the early days of fansubbing. Nowadays, it almost aggravates me how with the rise of modern technology and maturing of the internet has brought along many new “first-world problems.” Chiefly, the “I have too many options” problem. I found myself becoming more excited all over again at the prospects of uncovering forgotten anime files on seemingly-archaic IRC servers from last decade. The difficulties in hunting down exactly what you wanted on the “wild west” was characteristic of the early days of the internet that myself and others are fond of. Thus began my journey into the world of IRC.

At the time, I had become interested in a specific brand of mid-2000’s romance anime that has since faded to obscurity. I’ve found a thread on an old AnimeSuki thread  describing it as the “Mid-Late 2000-2010 Seinen “Romance/Drama” Anime” which somewhat explains what this style is. I became interested after enjoying anime such as Myself;Yourself and White Album 2. After a bit of digging on MyAnimeList and Anidb, I found a show called Kita e ~Diamond Dust Drops~ which was localized and released by ADV under the title Diamond Daydreams. I had known about this anime a bit before the nyaa-pocalypse but had never acquired it since the only torrent that existed had no seeders at the time. But now with a renewed sense of adventure, I decided I would download this anime and watch it, if it was the last thing I did!

To my knowledge, Kita e was only completely fansubbed by Froth-Bite, though the only DVD release was done by Exiled-Destiny. For those unaware, Exiled-Destiny was both the best and worst thing to happen to the anime piracy scene. On the one hand, they put out many dual-audio releases American DVD encodes of anime never subbed, but on the other hand, they offered releases with quality that would fluctuate widely and oftentimes was not usually the best option if other options were available. However, I believe their legacy as one of the major release groups at the time should not be understated and I have a special place in my heart for their releases, but I digress. I began by scouring the packlist on Exiled-Destiny’s website, which itself is a wonderful relic of the early to mid-2000’s in terms of web design philosophy. After finding the files I needed, I jumped on over to their IRC channel where, as soon as the welcome messages scrolled past, I felt a creeping sense of foreboding. I was about to be in over my head. In retrospect, what follows is incredibly amusing since I can now laugh at my many missteps, embarrassing moments and failures. However, I think it was the result of this experience that I was able to have an incredibly worthwhile learning experience.

Prior to this I had never used IRC let alone knew what XDCC commands were. There are some useful guides on various wiki’s out there explaining how to download files there, but at the time, I was more-or-less a dumb teenager flailing around in the dark. I managed to connect to the #exiled-destiny channel on Rizon without much trouble. However, I soon found myself a bit lost with the commands. Looking back on this, I can’t help but face-palm at this since it’s terribly simple to download files from bots using XDCC, but at this time, I was ill-prepared and apparently was too stupid to read proper documentation. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had not even set up my client to receive file transfers to begin with. Back in the channel, as messages were streaming in from other users and the occasional server announcement would float by, I began to feel overwhelmed, since it was all so alien to me. After a bit of time I must have managed to squeeze out a simple “/msg E-D|bot xdcc send #5” command since something was indeed downloading, but painfully slow. But before getting excited, I realized I had only downloaded one episode and needed to repeat this eleven more times. So I copied the command, edited it, and resent it a few more times. However, I had made a critical mistake. Instead of typing “/msg…” I had copied the entire command save the first forward slash, meaning I had sent my commands as messages into the channel itself. Immediately after I realized what I did, another user noticed and jokingly wrote something along the lines of “Are you really going to grab files one at a time?” I felt terribly self-conscious and immediately exited the client without trying to figure out a simple issue.

Nowadays, I find this story incredibly entertaining because I used XDCC exclusively for 2years when I lived in the dormitory at university, since they blocked the P2P protocol on the school network. I had initially used shady direct download sites and found various mega.nz folders, but quickly realized there had to be a better way. Feeling more confident this time, I jumped into Hexchat and finally figured out how to use XDCC commands after looking at the xertion wiki for 30 seconds (The power of “batch!”). Though this time there was a greater sense of necessity since it was either use XDCC or eventually getting a virus on my poor laptop, which was my lifeline.

So what about Kita e?

Returning to 2017, I got my first job that summer and began to see an unprecedented amount of cash flowing into my savings account. Having recently become infatuated with the idea of making an “otaku room” after watching Genshiken and a certain after-dark YouTube vlogger, I began to want to build up my own meager collection. This is when I became addicted to purchasing old anime DVD box sets on eBay, which is a practice I still continue to this day. The first order I placed was for the ADV box set of Kita e, which in hindsight, seems like a terrible choice for a series to give a premium edition to, but then again this was during the licensing boom of the early-2000’s and ADV grabbed everything. They were the ones who bought the licensing rights to Ghost Stories afterall. Despite the series being now in my possession, I let Kita e sit on my shelf for nearly 4 years before finally getting around to it.

According to MyAnimeList, Kita e has about 7,798 users, which is significantly more than Tetsuko no Tabi, another “forgotten gem” anime I covered recently. Though being under 10k users definitely got me interested to see if this unpopular anime really was lost to time for good reason, or if I was missing out on something nice. 

Kita e aired in Winter 2004 and was animated by Studio Deen. The anime for Kita e is based on a series of dating simulation games released on the Dreamcast and PS2, though primarily adapting from the later. It had fairly standard visual novel-type gameplay, but featured real photographs of Hokkaido, where the story was set. This is not necessarily unusual for visual novels, since a handful of PS1 games also featured real photographs instead of the standard digital art that is usually standard. Even in modern times, games like Katawa Shoujo use various filters over photographs to make them appear more fitting to the traditional anime character designs while saving costs. It is of my opinion that visual novels that utilize real photographs as background or character sprites tend to want to differentiate themselves from other games of the same genre, in order to market to the perceived “ more mature” and “more refined” demographic. However, what makes Kita e in particular stand out is how it specifically utilized photographs of Hokkaido. Being one of the most popular domestic tourist destinations in Japan, I hardly see why it needed more advertising, especially in a niche adventure game series for the Dreamcast of all systems. The anime didn’t particularly give me the impression that it was intended as such, though the inclusion of photographs for backgrounds seems to be in conflict with this, but I digress.

The anime is structured as an anthology of separate stories, each representing a route in the Diamond Dust Drops game for the PS2. Each “route” is roughly two episodes long and features six routes altogether. This is very similar to the structure of Amagami SS, except not all routes are interconnecting, and there is no soft-reset at the end. The benefit of this bite-sized structure is that even if you are bored the route is only two episodes long. This would prove to be more important than I initially thought  when my attention began to strain towards the end. One of the most curious aspects of this anime was how distinant it felt from its dating sim roots despite being an adaptation of one. Some arcs focused on family struggles, others were simply a character arc, while only a few were explicitly romantic. For example, the last route has a girl coming to terms with her father’s illness and understanding him more as a result. I’m curious to know how this was conveyed in-game. So overall, romance was not the most important theme which was refreshing, but ultimately made the series feel unfocused. Each narrative was too short and the themes would never be fully realized properly. I think many people would be safe to assume this is a romance anime looking at the cover and marketing, but the actual show is really exactly that.

From a production standpoint, this anime is a disaster. The first sign of the impending disaster was the opening which is where corners were already being cut. Typically, anime featuring a harem or large female cast will feature an original song by them for either the opening or ending credits, and Kita e “tried.” The lyrics of the song were so trite and hardly relevant to the series that I found myself rolling my eyes before even taking the time to examine the poor animation.

In sad times, head north

Take a breath of clean air

Eat something tasty, and you’ll start to smile

La la la hop—then step

Jump to the north, and jump, and jump, jump, woo!

The lyrics aren’t bad per say, but the lines are very cheesy and feel like little effort was expended here. For instance, I don’t recall food being a major focus in any of the stories and seems like a throw away line. Additionally, the performance was very “fine,” not exceptional or terrible, but somewhere in between, but ultimately very forgettable. However, the ending song “Aitai ~Love Theme from Kita e.~” by ALLEY:A was very enjoyable. I have since added it to my anisong playlist and is probably the only good thing to come out of this show.

Within the show itself, the quality fluctuated as wildly as the emotional focal points. Characters were almost consistently off model to the point where the off-model character was henceforth rendered more “accurate.” There was minimal movement and some basic limited animation tricks employed  to hide where corners were cut. This is obviously not unusual in anime, but after seeing the frequency of such tricks being employed and the already questionable quality, it was hard to overlook these problems. That said, the seiyuu generally did a reasonably good job. It was a mixed bag of seasoned veterans such as Noto Mamiko and Watanabe Akeno and rookies who’s only role was this show. Although the cast was good, I feel as if their talent could have been better utilized in a stronger script with better written dialogue.

After I completed this show, I was left with an unusual aftertaste in my mouth. Kita e was an anime I had been saving on my backlog for so many years and had many fond memories surrounding it, but when I actually watched it, I felt more deflated than disappointed. As a whole it’s very dull. Hardly doing anything to make it stand out or even make it worth your time. There are a few exceptions, like the last route with Harada Akari, but similar stories have been told better many times before. The best way to describe it would be to assign it a color: gray. This anime is very uneventful and dissatisfying, but wasn’t overtly terrible. It didn’t waste my time but I got almost nothing out of it. But above all that, Kita e felt like it was not made for typical anime fans. The characters had slightly more-realistic-than-usual designs and it was devoid of nearly all the tropes that we find commonplace in modern anime or dating sims. To quote Theron Martin from his ANN review: “the series as a whole is very approachable even to those who aren’t normally anime fans.” And ultimately I think this was the intention. Featuring primarily older characters, many of whom were in a professional setting, who were dealing with standard struggles of people in everyday life. Returning to my aforementioned statement regarding the photographs for background, I think from the onset, Kita e was a franchise made for riajuu. Though I think such an audience hardly exists, since I find it difficult to imagine there to be much demand for that since non-anime fans are usually not searching for anime to watch, but I digress. If anything, I suppose this was a very relaxing anime to watch before bed, where not much would happen and I could watch it as my eyelids slowly grew heavy.

Thus concludes the nearly 4 year saga surrounding a fairly uninteresting and banal Kita e ~Diamond Dust Drops~. Learning how to use XDCC, exploring the forgotten realms of anime piracy, hunting an ADV box set from nearly 15 years ago, and coming back out the other end with not much to show for it. Nevertheless, I feel like the events surrounding this series will eclipse my actual feelings of the show itself. These are old memories from a time when the otaku world opened up right within my lap, and I found myself flailing around within the endless stream of content, not knowing up from down, but loving every second of it. Uncovering this old series was something I did completely on my own and I feel that this feeling of my discovery was worthwhile in it of itself. While hardly worth remembering, I feel obliged to remember Kita e, because nobody else will. 

Further Reading:

Posted in anime, Discussions/Analysis, Otaku Culture, retrospectives | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

I only meant to stay awhile ~2020~

Unlike the majority of the world, 2020 was comparatively one of the best years of my life. A bit of uncharacteristic luck was graced upon me amidst a global pandemic, and while I did lose my on-campus job, I found much better ways to spend my temporary time as a NEET this year. I welcomed the stay-at-home orders with open arms and would go extended periods of time holed up in my apartment with a blanket taped over my window. My time was filled with the infinite happiness that money could never offer. Time is invaluable, and though I sunk countless hours into seemingly wasteful indulgence, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Due to suddenly finding myself with more time than usual, I ended up watching just under 300 anime this year. So here is my list of the most memorable shows I watched this year. These are not necessarily anime that aired in 2020, just stuff I happened to watch this year and impressed me enough to keep them in my non-volatile memory. Some of these shows are worthy of the elusive “9/10” rating while some even knocked old favorites off my top 10 anime. Through my obsessive anime binge watches that never hadan end in sight, I watched a mixture of both amazing and terrible shows. But these are the shows that reminded me how great anime was and are shows that will be hard to forget. Here are some brief thoughts about each:

  1. Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru. Kan

To nobody’s surprise, the conclusion to Oregairu was my favorite anime of the year, and recent memory for that matter. Prior to this season, I had studied the light novels as my bible, rewatched the series numerous times, altogether thinking about this series more than I’d like to admit. Consequently, the final season had a lot to live up to for me since I already had a list of things I wished to see before the ending; answers regarding Haruno’s involvement, Yukino confronting her mother, how the love triangle would turn out, and ultimately and end to Hachiman’s character arc. Overall, I was extremely satisfied with how things turned out. Though I obviously have some bias since I was rooting for Yukino since 2014. 

That said, it was not perfect, but far from what I feared could happen. I haven’t seen anyone mention it yet but the video fidelity of this season was quite bad. Even with the recent Blu-ray encodes, the picture quality seems lower than previous seasons. I suspect that it was animated at a lower resolution and then upscaled since it doesn’t look as sharp as it should. Either that or some bad filtering was used on the production side.

Realted: https://artificialnightsky.wordpress.com/2020/09/24/why-hikigaya-hachiman-cant-get-drunk/

  1. Star Twinkle Precure

2020 was the year of Precure for me. I got around to finishing Go!Pri early in January, had a ball with Heartcatch, got obsessed with Star Twinkle, then finished Mahoutsukai and Smile in the latter half of the year. What separated Star Twinkle from the rest was my connection with the girls. It shares a similar thematic through-line with many other mahou shoujo anime, but something was undeniably special within Star Twinkle. The last third of the show elevated the emotions and reached heights I was not prepared for. Hoshina Hikaru’s journey was something that resonated deeply with me, and it’s a show I will never forget. 

Related: https://artificialnightsky.wordpress.com/2020/06/16/the-light-that-will-not-go-out/

  1. Kaiji

Both seasons of Kaiji blew my socks off. Starting a new episode was like strapping myself to a rocket after chugging a few dozen energy shots knowing I had no control where this thrill ride would go. I ended up watching the entirety of the second season in less than 24 hours and when it ended I had an out-of-body experience due to a lingering high. Kaiji is perhaps the best example of “on the edge of your seat” pacing that I’ve experienced and a masterclass amongst thrillers. It’s an unrelenting ride that drags our protagonist to hell and back, sparing no expenses. But what I found special was beyond the surface-level excitement this anime provided. At its core, it was a dark tale of the cruelty of humans, sacrifice, addiction, trust and the strength of the individual; spun with a ting of pessimism. The titular character Kaiji is initially a person who easily places his trust in others. But as others unflinchingly throw him under the bus for the slightest advantage and he witnesses the cruelty of his fellow humans, Kaiji finds himself torn between his desire to win and his morals warning him to not become like his adversities. The art style and atmosphere can be off putting for how exaggerated it all seems, but once you get past that, it’s truly something special.

  1. Kimi ga Nozomu Eien

I had been monitoring eBay for quite some time to get a good deal on Funimation’s KimiNozo box set. After finally landing a great deal, I began my watch without much expectations, and was thoroughly surprised at what I found. KimiNozo is, for all intents and purposes, a soap opera. There was actually a Korean drama called Winter Sonata, which later received an anime adaptation, that was essentially a carbon-copy of KimiNozo, but that’s a conversation for another day. KimiNozo is a tragic love story with plenty of drama to keep my invested with the unexpected developments. For those familiar, it was a bishoujo game developed by age, known for muv-luv, and shares many similarities with it. 

KimiNozo’s strengths lie primarily in the character writing and situations which allow for the plot to move at a brisk pace. Once invested in the characters, the viewer is able to “pick a side,” that is, root for Mitsuki or for Haruka (I was a fan of the latter.) Afterwhich, scenarios were laid out and we got to see the melodrama pushed to the extremes and resulted in a very enjoyable experience. I got really wrapped up in the story and found myself being an active participant in the dramatic reveals, voicing my surprise reactions at my screen in a darkened room. I really wanted Haruka to be happy and thought of Mitsuki as nothing more than an unfortunate opportunist, but when it was all said and done, neither heroine was significantly worse than the other. But I still want to protect Haruka’s smile more than anything.

  1. Mugen no Ryvius

This show came out of nowhere for me. I’m a big fan of science fiction stories and have a moderate enjoyment of mecha anime, having seen the majority of UC Gundam and built a half dozen or so gunpla kits. That said, I’m not a raving real robot maniac, but I tend to enjoy mecha stories with an emphasis placed on worldbuilding and technology. Mugen no Ryvius seems to have passed under the radar for most people since it must have been lost in the boom of late-90’s Sunrise sci-fi anime. Shows like Gundam Wing, Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne, and Outlaw Star to name a few. Though comparatively, Ryvius seems to be largely forgotten compared to its contemporaries, and wrongfully so. This show is absolutely fantastic! It sports excellent character writing, compelling story and some of the finest pacing I’ve seen in a show of this type. Ryvius borrows from classic literature with a Lord of Flies setup, switches the setting into space and somehow manages to create a great space opera. It’s about a conflict of ideologies, leadership in uncertain times, strength under pressure and the power of camaraderie. Aside from the story, the soundtrack was fantastic. Both the ending and openings were groovy, and the hiphop beats of the soundtrack gave the show a stylistic flair with a unique attitude. It shouldn’t be overlooked simply due to having a cast of young teens, rather, it should be watched with that in mind, since oftentimes, the worst of adults can already be seen budding in children.

  1. Cardcaptor Sakura

I watched Cardcaptor Sakura for my 700th anime and I was glad I did, because it’s a very special show. For a television anime, it moved extremely well and had a wonderful aesthetic. The sublime color palette paired with an idealistic depiction of upper-middle-class living in late-90’s Japan created a fantastical dream-like image akin to the daydreams of city-pop from the previous decade. Coupled with the more fantastical elements of the show, it rekindled the spark of wonder I lost at childhood’s end. 

The characters were excellent. Sakura is such a good girl with a pure heart and was someone to look up to. Shaoran is a stubborn kid with good intentions but can’t be true to his own feelings, so he puts up a tough-guy act to pretend like he doesn’t have any feelings for Sakura. Over the course of the series, their little love story ends up feeling more believable than I expected. Kero was very charismatic and helped lighten the mood, and that’s saying something since I’m not usually a fan of mascot characters. Even the supporting characters are fun; Tomo is a wonderful friend, Touya genuinely cares for his sister Sakura in a believable way, and Meiling… well… she’s a bit stupid but her heart is in the right place I guess.

While deviating a bit from the traditional mahou shoujo anime formula, devoid of the staple henshin sequences for instance, Cardcaptor instead offers a new twist on the genre to great success. I was immediately enthralled with the Clow Card system and its creative uses throughout the series. The moment I was sold was early on when Sakura uses the shadow card to retrieve another card inside a building with her silhouette. It reminded me of a well thought-out game mechanic in a great video game. Cardcaptor Sakura filled me with a comfortable warmth of forgotten youth while simultaneously allowing my imagination to run wild with possibilities of the next creative use for the Clow Cards. This is definitely a show I won’t be forgetting anytime soon and one that made me all excited about mahou shoujo anime again.

  1. Oniisama e…

Even though this anime ran for 39 episodes, each episode was well paced and does not waste your time. The story primarily focuses on Nanako being dragged into a world she really has no place belonging in and is subjected to many terrible, but sometimes wonderful, things. This show presents a terribly brutal depiction of female bullying that went to extremes I didn’t expect it to, and made me thankful I was never a girl in high school. Furthermore, there were quite a few more mature themes discussed in this series that you don’t typically encounter in modern shoujo manga. 

For me, Oniisama e… rides the fine line between “good” and “great.” There were many times in which I was finding myself more invested than I expected, while other times finding the heavy-handed drama to be almost comical. It’s an anime that takes itself exceedingly seriously with unrelenting drama and pretty much nothing else. Though that drama is quite good, it’s a bit “dense” to take in since it never lets off the gas. From a technical standpoint, this show looks really great for the time (especially the Blu-ray rips) and is very aesthetically pleasing, pacing is solid, and the writing is excellent. Even at its worst, Oniisama e… can unintentionally become a popcorn soap opera, and at best, a shoujo drama with writing surpassing many of its contemporaries.

Overall, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time watching this anime and ate up every second of drama. I came for the ojou-sama and stayed for Asaka Rei. The joys of watching a complex web of relationships slowly reveal itself to you, figuring out the implications of certain remarks, and seeing the tragedy of lesbian relationships explored seriously, I was certainly impressed overall. Somewhere between “good” and “great,” Oniisama e… sits comfortably and has cemented itself as an incredibly noteworthy milestone for the shoujo genre. I certainly will be checking out more works made by those within the Year 24 Group in the future.

Posted in anime, Discussions/Analysis, retrospectives, year in review | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Still thinking about: To Heart (1999)

Note: “To Heart” has been stylized as both “To Heart” and “ToHeart,” depending on the version. For instance, the 1999 anime I watched was stylized as “To Heart” while later PC and anime versions are branded as “ToHeart” without spaces. I might inadvertently mix them up, but will generally write the title as Leaf stylized it on the branding of each respective release.

I’ve had a baseless infatuation with eroge for the past few years, culminating in a series of feverish “Eroge Weeks” over this past summer, in which I do nothing but play a variety of bishoujo games. This was largely influenced by my translation efforts and research on Honda Toru, who was a figurehead of everything kimoi about the Akiba-kei flavor of the otaku subculture. Otaku are generalized as people in the West and mostly associated with anime, manga or video games. However, in Japan, mainstream media often paints the otaku image as an overweight virgin who is seen exclusively wearing tucked-in button-downs or anime t-shirts, has a speech impediment and plays dating sims. This archetype was particularly popular and would appear in a lot of the post-Cool Japan era of riajuu entertainment, beginning around 2003-2005. This is the era that gave birth to the likes of Densha Otoko and an equal amount of TV specials using otaku as Japan’s favorite punching bag, but I digress. Returning to Honda, he was a man who embraced everything weird about otaku culture and then some, advocating for a radical unhinged otaku persona that can only be described as “kimoi” behind his back. Instead of following the paved path of pacification presented by Densha Otoko, Honda decided to create his own; create, erase, redraw. 

So what does this have to do with To Heart?

Bringing this back to my last “Eroge Week” of August, I read a large portion of the Konomi route in ToHeart2. I was always interested in ToHeart2 and Da Capo because there was something about their aesthetic that screamed Akiba-kei to me. Something that the guys at the Genshiken would enjoy, thus spurred my interest in such games. That said, ToHeart2 was not exactly the most riveting read and I found myself starting to burn out around 80% through the main heroine’s route and took a bread which coincided with the conclusion of Eroge Week. Though I later went on to finish her route later one. While not fantastic, I started to research a bit about To Heart and Leaf as a developer specifically, which was much more interesting to me. As an interesting aside, Leaf is accredited to having popularized the term “visual novel” as an umbrella term which has more widespread usage in the West compared to Japan, as well as creating the first major denpa piece of fiction with Shizuku. 

I watched the TV anime adaptation of Leaf’s classic “visual novel” To Heart a few weeks ago while visiting my parents house one weekend. I didn’t have very high expectations for it after reading through a bit of ToHeart2, and in my mind I figured the predecessor was a less-polished version of a very “vanilla” bishoujo game. Since there is no english translation for the original ToHeart game and not wanting to bother finding a copy of a 20 year old bishoujo game online, I was not familiar with the original story. Not to mention one of the first anime adaptations of a visual novel, so I was more of less expecting a few bumps along the road. That is why, much to my surprise, To Heart’s anime not only delivered a heartwarming story, but has made it difficult for me to forget about it since, even three months later.

One of the standout characteristics of To Heart was home comfy it was. It was a relaxed slice-of-life romance with a few laughs thrown in for good measure. The color palette was subdued, full of earthy-tones, and exceedingly easy on the eyes. Coupled with a pleasant arrangement of the game’s soundtrack, the atmosphere of this anime could accurately be described as “gentle like a kiss goodnight.” The opening song “Feeling Heart” was nice, and the ending “YELL” performed by Kawasumi Ayako was wonderful. On that note, she did an excellent job delivering emotion lines in her role as Akari despite being one of her earlier roles. Each interaction was lighthearted, plenty of jokes to keep the mood up. The story might seem cliche these days but that’s only because To Heart defined the tropes we have grown accustomed to. It was a mellowed out show that was perfect to sit back and enjoy a warm drink with.

I had previously held my own reservations about acknowledging my own feelings towards the “main heroine” type of character in bishoujo games. Painfully vanilla but equal parts pure. It was a conflict of interest between my seeking of a commodity no longer found in 3D and my lustful chase after heroines to fill roles in my 脳内_fantasy. At first it was Aoi from Ai Yori Aoshi, then it was lovely Haruka in Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, and finally Akari in ToHeart. My opinions on the matter started to shift as a result. But really, it was Akari who ended up changing my world. She was a perfect heroine; the ideal mixture of childlike innocence, otaku-pandering purity, and an almost nostalgic, delicate, sweetness. So far removed from the blind fetishism I project onto the others. Within these untainted feelings, moe emerges. “There is a sort of purity to these characters, they are not tainted by our world.” explains Honda Toru in  an interview in “Moe Manifesto.” Although I knew that Akari was fabricated to cater to 毒男, I still fell for her. Akari is always by your side.

To Heart (1999) was a lovely show that seems to have been forgotten over the years. Perhaps due to the perceived mundane nature of an old adaptation, or simply due to the age. It was one of the first anime adaptations of a bishoujo game, and while not having read the original, left me feeling satisfied. Despite my reservations, I found myself thoroughly enjoying watching this anime, only wishing my time with it would never end.

Posted in anime, rambling, retrospectives | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Eternal sunshine of the JAV-less mind

Last night, as I stared listlessly into the still eyes of Fukada Eimi on my screen, I swore to break the eternal cycle from which I’ve been hopelessly enslaved to. Well, at least since this morning as I’ve since retroactively made it so. Truth be told, for the better part of six years, I’ve been at odds with a crippling addiction to Japanese adult videos. I’ve since lost count of how many times I slipped into a manic state and proceeded to delete dozens of gigabytes of MP4’s, only to build the collection up back in a single impassioned night. But over the past year I’ve relapsed a handful of times, too many for my liking, and I felt as if I had to draw my line in the sand somewhere between ideals and lust; to finally cleanse myself from the dregs of yesteryear’s yellow fever. 

The words of an addict renouncing their vice can be taken as a sincere acknowledgement of their faults, but not without doubting if they have it in themselves to stop. Acknowledging the problem is evidence of one being able to be critical of oneself, and through this knowledge they can work to fix what they feel is lacking. For me, it’s becoming painfully clear how destructive my own addiction to Japanese adult videos, or JAV, really is. This relationship has been an endless waltz in which I seem to only be able to change partners momentarily, before finding myself staring back into the eyes of my first partner not too long after. Throughout the years, I have seen things there that were not all that pleasant and come to understand where my morals and ideals stand. And now it seems like the ever-present elephant in the room taints me as a lying phony is JAV. I’ve renounced my JAV addiction too many times to count despite having been critical of it for a few years now, however, I’m ready to finally put money where my mouth is and give it up, once and for all.

I found out what JAV was back in high school but didn’t seriously start watching it until I was in university. All things considered, I was a bigger porn addict back in high school compared to any other time, and in a sense, shifting my preferences to primarily JAV, doujinshi and *booru sites, I stopped watching western porn. I think it was a better thing overall but now I find myself stuck at the stepping stone. The thing is, JAV is difficult to come by normally and usually requires some sleuthing to acquire exactly what you want. Amusingly, despite the difficulties involved finding and downloading what videos I wanted, I still gleefully jumped through all those hoops to get the promised reward on the other end. But for 18 year old Parz who had too much time on his hands, this was a nonissue; the joy was in the hunt. I distinctly remember the first time I got really into JAV almost fondly, there used to be a subreddit that aggregated links to Mega.nz, and I filled up my pitiful 300gb laptop hard drive with lots of AV. It was like a kid in a candy store at first, but eventually the truths began to be revealed after realizing this was no better than the western porn videos I had proudly renounced (and never relapsed to) a few years prior. Since then, I have returned to JAV with a dwindling frequency, only really returning to watch the updated catalogues of the prolific actresses that tickled my fancy. Most of the time was sifting through the endless stream of videos I couldn’t care less about. Recently I discovered VR JAV which set me back 200GB and a few days worth of productivity, but eventually the storm cleared. The problem was that even despite realizing the problem it was posing to my life, I never was able to quit for longer than 6 months at most, consequently never being able to fully escape my endless dance with JAV. 

The time when I discovered JAV also coincides with the tail-end of a crippling yellow-fever phase of mine, characterized by my year-long frenzy trapped within the wota scene. I listened exclusively to idol music for a long time after getting really into iDOLM@STER, and this eventually branched off into other avenues such as finding out about seiyuu and non-2D (does Love Live count as 3D?) idols. I was a big fan of Nogizaka46 and would spend hours watching their MV’s and variety shows, and was an avid fan of Nishino Nanase. I would pour over all of her photo books which I’m only now able to admit was unhealthy in retrospect. So the reason I was in a frenzied yellow-fever-induced state when I found JAV was because of my extreme fondness for Japanese idols. But this period slowly came to an end after Nanase graduated and not soon after I gained a bit of clarity about my obsessions. First I learned the horrors of the idol industry in Asia. Then I realized the truth about 2.5D.

For me, JAV was more about what it represented than what it actually gave me. Giving a crazed horny teenager suffering from yellow-fever some JAV was like giving water to a parched marathoner. It was exactly what I wanted in a time when that was what almost all I cared about. The problem is that JAV is not actually that good. Call it blasphemous, but I would always skip the exposition and only watch the “good stuff.” I can appreciate the dedication of these actors by committing to their parts and essentially filming a 2+ hour movie, but I didn’t care enough to waste that much time on a single session. Furthermore, the amount of JAV I actually enjoy is hardly enough to consider myself a fan of the AV industry as a whole. One of the common cited criticisms of Japanese pornography is how the women sound like they’re crying and how they’re are portrayed. I’m obviously not a champion of feminism or anything, but I am not a fan of the borderline rape-y feel that is somewhat prevalent in lots of porn, especially in 3D porn since it comes off as too graphic for me. Also the recent and enduring popularity of NTR is something I never found appealing, but I digress. Regarding the actresses themselves, I apparently have very specific preferences that are hard to please when it comes to how I want the woman to look, and in the 6 years I’ve been watching this stuff, I can count the number of actresses I’ve come to enjoy on one hand with fingers to spare. So by all accounts, it appears as if JAV is something I wasn’t always completely onboard with, so why keep watching? And why is JAV the biggest problem in the universe?

JAV goes against my ideals. I’ve been someone who is not shy to reject reality, advocate the benefits of escapism and accept waifuism. It’s a lifestyle that only allows 2D to enter and is a place of tranquility– a place for eternal sunshine to color the flowering fields with a nostalgic tinge, devoid of the imperfections that reality loves all so much. But the journey to this 2D paradise was accompanied by my monkey brain fighting me every step of the way. My JAV addiction wasn’t simply a common porn addiction, it was representative of my subconscious battle deciding if I really was unwilling to let everything go. Every few months my doujinshi reading sessions would be interrupted with my monkey brain desperately trying to course correct, and thus began the spiraling manic episode of downloading dozens of AV. This wasn’t simply a personal battle trying to deny a healthy human instinct, it was about suppressing the source of the black surge– that which jeopardized my ideas. What had originally been an aid to moving past western 3D had suddenly become my biggest fallacy. My ideals, which outlined a beautiful world within the otaku fantasies of one’s mind, had now been tained. Ultimately, I had concluded that my ideals were more important than a quick rush. In much the same way Madarame had hid pictures of Saki behind his desk, I had hid JAV within the file structure of my PC. But where he and I deviate is my desire to never go back because nothing is waiting for me. 

二次元へ行きましょう。

So this is not about me criticizing JAV with sweeping generalizations, neither is this about porn addiction, rather, it’s about something beyond that. I’ve researched Honda Toru and consider him to represent someone I idolize, however, there is one major point of contention in which I can ignore; Honda’s advocacy of this so-called “2.5D” as a transitory dimension. He described 2.5D as the place where 2D and 3D meet, for example in maid cafes and idols, and I believe he was the one who coined the term. This was intended to serve as a place of mutual understanding for otaku and riajuu to meet, and begin the movement to make the appeals of 2D more tangible. But I found this to be very problematic. After going through a 6 year saga battling my instinctual urges in order to uphold my ideals, it had all been building to one final climax, in more ways than one. 2.5D is both a transitional period and a hindrance to evolution. When I was new to all this otaku stuff I thought maid cafes were the best thing ever, but as time has gone by I’ve grown increasingly resentful towards them. The visage of fantasy was quickly torn down as I slowly realized how the Real was intruding upon my pure fantasies. The maid persona was a mask and it was trying so hard to be like one of my Japanese animes but was nothing more than a pale imitation of my twisted desires. Projecting 2D desires onto a 3D sacrifices the integrity of either dimension. I grew conflicted as the seiyuu and singing idols I had once worshiped started to feel less ethereal and more defective. The illusion of yellow-fever came crashing down when I realized the obvious fact that Japanese women are no different than any other type of woman, objectifying them within the pornography I was addicted to was my own invention. There was nothing more mystifying about them over any other type of woman. My hypocrisy was exposed. Have mercy! The answer lies not within the maid cafes of Akiba nor the dancing idols within the palm of my hand, rather, it was already within me. Now, when I visit Akiba, I know I won’t be paying for a moe-moe omurice

After the innumerable climaxes within these past few years, I have realized that the reasons motivating me to stop have overtaken the desire of wanting to stare at a Japanese woman with plastic surgery. I had overstayed my welcome within the indulgent comfort of the transitionary 2.5D reality and became enslaved to the very vices which I swore to renounce. I had simply shrugged them off because the mystique of seeing my dreams projected on tangible reality ensnared my monkey brain and never let go. However, this was nothing more than a last-ditch attempt by the Real. 2.5D proved to be no different from the flipside but considerably more destructive to the feeble-minded otaku. There is no difference between a 2D waifu and an idol, both are unattainable existences that will concern your parents equally, the problem lies within the idol being bound to the flipside which makes it more tangible for a riajuu. Infatuation with 2.5D binds you to the flipside while similarly forcing you to either come to terms with the painful realization that you can not touch her, and continuing to tell yourself “this could work!” paves the path of no return. 2D won’t hurt anyone and 3D hurts you, but 2.5D hurts everyone. Getting trapped within the eternal cycle will only entrap the marginalized into a state of “this could work!” and live the rest of their lives LARPing together with a figment of their imagination projected onto a JK working part-time at a maid cafe. The implications are as dangerous as they seem, so instead of living an unfulfilled existence ensnared by the Real, perhaps it’s best to forego 2.5D entirely. This is a farewell to the days when my daydreams were filled with dancing idols and plastic girls speaking dirty words gently into my ears.

Fill my fond heart with 2D alone, for it

Alone can rival, can succeed to thee. 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

(Adapted from Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope)

Posted in Introspection, NSFW, rambling, vsimaginator | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sepia Nightmare

Or, How Boogiepop Phantom Explores the “Stasis of Adolescence”

The fact that Boogiepop Phantom exists still eludes me to this day. One could chalk it up to simply being another product of the post-Evangelion boom in late night television anime alongside the likes of Serial Experiment Lain, produced by a prolific studio with money to spare on a risky venture. However, Boogiepop Phantom “doesn’t feel right,” it’s not normal, much more akin to stumbling across distorted, weathered, graffiti in a place nobody ever dares walk through. Through a long serialization of novels and two anime adaptations, Kadono Kouhei’s Boogiepop series can hardly be called obscure, but it never broke into the mainstream almost by design. Filled to the brim with pathos, Kadono’s personal philosophy, poignant social commentary and a harsh aesthetic, Boogiepop is the quintessential punk rock light novel. The core fanbase seems to be on a similar wavelength, sharing similar experiences and finding messages contained within that are hard to forget. Ranging from harsh critiques of the Japanese education system, commentary on mental illness, suicide, drug abuse, unconventional love and ultimately, an autopsy of modern Japanese society. This is why I can’t stop thinking about Boogiepop Phantom, not only because it exists, but for what it had to say. 

The heartbeat of Boogiepop has not ceased since 1998. In spite of the series’ radio silence in recent years, it seems to always have attracted fellow abnormal people around it, thus garnering a cult following in both Japan and the West. I believe this is largely due to the persistently universal appeal of the themes that are likely to resonate with a very specific type of person, and it seems that us social outcasts were never alone after all. The fact that said themes still can be relevant today goes to show how deep the commentary of Boogiepop really goes, and perhaps highlights the stagnation of human society as a whole. Since its inception, Kadono-sensei has been continuously releasing novels in the Boogiepop universe, and while translation efforts have since been rekindled due to dedicated fans, the vast majority of said novels have no English translations. And considering the relatively small target demographic of the series, it is unlike to see an official translation unless hell freezes over. It’s uncertain if the commentary has continued up to the present, but it’s safe to assume so, as such problems have only strained society further since. 

Boogiepop Phantom is perhaps the quintessential spin-off anime. It’s largely impenetrable for those who have never read the light novel series, since the majority of the events in Phantom are reliant on the audience to be familiar with them in order to gain a deeper understanding. It serves as fanservice for fans of the novels as it fits itself more snugly into the canon as a sidestory or a volume 1.5 than a direct adaptation of Boogiepop and Others. However, it not only contains information from the first volume of the light novels, but upon inspection of the production notes included in the Rightstuf DVD, has a myriad of easter eggs that only the most keen Boogiepop fanatics will catch. But, that isn’t to say the novels are required reading before watching the series, when I first watched the anime I was unfamiliar with Boogiepop, and despite being very confused, I was still able to piece together a generalization of what Phantom had to say in the end. If anything, Phantom was the catalyst to make me a bonafide Boogiepop fanboy, having since gone and read through the available light novels several times and then watching both television anime series. It is only now that I have returned to the beginning of my journey to revisit Boogiepop Phantom, and it’s because of my newfound familiarity that I was perhaps able to derive a more insightful reading of the anime this time around. Be it due to the rewatch allowing me to pick up on new things I now know as important or just my new background in Boogiepop 101.

The high school setting has been a consistent backdrop for anime for many decades. As a result, I see a lot of older fans complain about this cliche because they feel as if they’ve outgrown this, or because they wish to see older characters that better reflect them now. Thus, many have concluded that the abundance of high school anime is the result of Japanese people’s dissatisfaction with their current lives and their wish to return to a more simple time. A quick peek through the pink-tinged looking-glass enchant the most distraught salaryman, disillusioned university students or even current high schoolers, all of whom wishing for their bleak realities to be reformed into a more idealistic wonderland. But as with most things related to nostalgia, it’s oftentimes the case that the ideal is an over-glorified version of what actually took place. It is within this discrepancy that Boogiepop emerges- phantasmal, like bubbles. 

In the afterword of Boogiepop and Others, Kadono-sensei reflects on his own time in high school, but not in the past, rather, in his early twenties:

“These days I rarely have them, but back in my early twenties, I often had dreams about high school. Dreams in which I was going to school, not dreams about having gone…

“In the dreams, I knew clearly that I had graduated several years before, but I was pretending not to know and going anyways.”

Kadono Kouhei’s afterword in Boogiepop and Others

Boogiepop was deliberately set in high school not because it would appeal to the budding demographic of light novel readers specifically, but because Kadono-sensei wanted to encroach upon the demon of “Nostalgia.”  Unfortunately, some people never grow up, I myself am one of these people, as is Kadono Kouhei. People who have been urged along by society to move up the ladder to adulthood, but plagued by lingering sentiments from days wasted wallowing in solitary pleasures. Sitting in the back of class with their head in the clouds, wondering what tomorrow would bring, but never reaching conclusions and never acting upon them even if something came to mind- the Stasis of Adolescence.

Enter the illusory Shinyo Gakuen

Boogiepop Phantom primarily grapples with disillusionment, specifically through explorations of growing up. Adolescence as a topic is no stranger to the thinkers who have approached it, having been thoroughly explored in countless pieces of art, but I feel as if what Boogiepop brought to the table offered me something Catcher in the Rye never could. There’s a quote that stuck with me, and I feel like it offers a good jumping in point:

“Please remember this, Suema. There’s a difference between missing the old days and being stuck in the past. In the same way that the city must change over time, it’s important that people move forward with their lives. I know you understand.” 

(Boogiepop Phantom EP5)

Shinyo Gakuen is a school of dreams, not quite literally, but rather an amalgamation of the memories for those watching or reading the series. Kadono-sensei wrote in his afterword how he found it puzzling that the school in his recurring dreams was not the one he attended, the dream school thus became the basis for the setting of the first novel. This dream was not simply a delusion, but perhaps more indicative of the regrets of Kadono-sensei. When I graduated high school, it just kinda happened. There was no big event, no sigh of relief or the feeling of having gained something important. For a milestone such as that, which I had been told would put the capstone on the “best 4 years of my life,” ended as quietly as it began. Unlike Suema Kazuko, I didn’t feel a pain in my chest from knowing that my high school years were ending, rather, I was confused as to why I was so apathetic. Walking away from all of that, I held the lingering doubt that I had done something wrong. I had played the game incorrectly but was still awarded with the end credits. Similar sentiments were expressed by Kadono-sensei in his reflections. Shinyo Gakuen thus became a place for him to relieve himself of regrets.

The end of high school marks the end of adolescence for many, and as such, graduation is the final moment of youth. But for those entering university, graduating high school feels like nothing more than the end of one level and the start of the next. In Japan, third year students must battle rigorous entrance exams, oftentimes unique to a specific department at each school, known as “exam hell.” However, at the time of writing this I believe this practice is starting to wane in popularity in favor of a more universal exam, but for the most part it remains unchanged from the time Boogiepop was written. I mention entrance exams because it is a recurring point of interest in the series, and is a key point of critique. Third year students are often referred to as exam students, their workload might be lessened in school because it’s expected that they are preparing extensively on their own or through cram schools. Failure means putting life on hold, these people dubbed rounin, as in a masterless samurai, whose sole purpose becomes passing entrance exams and working odd jobs, until their parents realize they’re hopeless and cut them off. This period of limbo is sure to put even more stress on young people regardless of how fun Love Hina might seem at times. All this puts an immense amount of stress on them to succeed, and some cripple under the pressure. In episode 4 of Phantom, which happens to be my favorite episode, concerns a mentally deteriorating third year who wishes to study computer graphics in university by his father pressures him to enter more prestigious schools, likely to follow his footsteps in a conceited manner. The student then begins to retreat into the comfort of his own delusions, projecting fantasies onto a drug-distorted reality after crippling under the pressures of school, work and the lack of choice in his future. A future deprived of agency results in a situation where he created his own distortion to control, but it was nothing more than a fleeting dream. People oftentimes will universally criticize escapism without taking the time to analyze the reasoning why the subject chose to abandon reality, and Boogiepop’s examination of escapism in the context of a rapidly degrading slice of society gives context as to why such people might feel that their fantasies are the only option.

In contemporary Japan, the rigorous schooling system has been a point of contention, with many artists and regular people not shy in their critiques. It’s no secret that some students crumple under the weight of bullying, overwork and the pressures of expecting to pass exams, it’s not uncommon to see these young people seek death as the only escape, a subject matter Boogiepop does not hesitate to approach.In a similar vein, I found the music of vocaloid producer Neru and his album Sekai Seifuku during my time in high school, and while his music is primarily commentary on the Japanese schooling system and contemporary problems young adults face, it was scary how much I could relate to it. Many have cited how Neru’s relatable music gave rise to his popularity within the vocaloid scene and was the voice of many youth during the 2010’s. I think Kadono chose this point in adolescence to focus his story because it was a major turning point in his life, as it is for millions of others. Indicative of this turning point is Touka’s quote regarding the “changing” scenery of the town. It likely isn’t changing as much as she perceives it to be, as she is beginning to assimilate herself within it as a young adult instead of a child, and is realizing it’s not the place she used to believe it to be. No longer being led by the hand of her parents and instead walking with her own convictions. Moving on to new horizons whether you want to or not, whether you’re ready or not, is simply the first of many times it will happen in life.

Enter Pom Pom, the Pied Piper who whisks away the children of the Lost Decade! The Lost Decade refers to the infamous ten year period after Japan’s post-war economic bubble burst, from 1991-2001. This is a period of cultural disillusionment and oftentimes cited as one of the many causes of hikikomori, among other things such as the deconstruction of the hegemonic masculinity. It’s a complex topic to even look at the eye, lest amidst an already out-of-control discussion of Boogiepop Phantom, so I will save you further explanation for now. In Phantom, Pom Pom approaches high school students who feel at a dead end. In the anime one girl is feeling pressure from her parents to enter music school while her instructor bluntly advises her to quit while there’s time. After working her entire life to enter a music school, at the last minute being told to shift gears is too much and she loses it. She takes the red balloon and lets the helium take her back to a time before the stress. These students revert to children for much the same reasons we feel nostalgic about times in our life- we long for a simpler time. The time before the internet, before working, before exams, before drama and before politics mattered to us. Back when we could turn on the PlayStation or Super Nintendo and game until the sun had long since sunk below the treeline. 

I found the Pom Pom arc to be quite fascinating, since it seems to confront both nostalgia and provide commentary on the end of the Stasis of Adolescence simultaneously. When saying “Stasis of Adolescence” I am referring to the 3-4 year period of high school, in which you are essentially still on summer vacation from life. During this time, regardless of how troublesome it may seem, are generally immune to social pressures, unless you have special family circumstances. That is why many students pass these days in leisure without a concern for tomorrow until they see the ending and their advisors warn “have you given a thought to your future” and realize your summer vacation is over. Pom Pom offers an alternative solution in which kids can fully escape to their nostalgic days and forget everything, never growing up. The fact that this exists as an option, metaphorical or not in this universe, is indicative of the lengths as to which people would go to escape the pressures of entrance exams, looming threats of responsibility, and live in the endless comfort of the Stasis of Adolescence. 

The Lost Decade was not simply an economic nightmare, but also proved to be a perfect breeding ground for a number of unusual social phenomena, being nothing short of a sociologists wet dream. Ranging from the rise of hikikomori who feel the need to drop out of society coupled with the ever-increasing escapist media aimed at otaku, the death of the “life-long employment” dream of fresh graduates tuned freeters, and the disillusioned youth caught between “the way things have always been” and “that’s not going to work in today’s world,”  all slipping through the cracks faster than the system can catch up to them. This is the backdrop to which Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg calls Boogiepop to enter the stage. The rapid industrialization of post-war Japan finally caught up to it at the end of the Showa Era, the neon scenery of the cityscapes of old were no longer recognizable to anyone, and thus began a decade of disillusionment. Those lost within the sepia nightmare find themselves at odds with the social zeitgeist, saved before becoming a threat to the world. Or framed slightly different, a threat to themselves. Boogiepop is representative of the youth’s need for something to believe in, and they believe in a shinigami, who will kill them when they’re at their most beautiful, before they have a chance to whither. Thus:

“life is brief, young maiden, fall in love; before the crimson bloom fades from your lips, before the tides of passion cool within your hips, for those of you who know no tomorrow.

Boogiepop Phantom crams an unfathomable amount of depth within 12 standard-length episodes, and even much more depth can be attained through cross-referencing with the novels or relating to current events at the time of the show’s airing, such as the aforementioned Lost Decade and even the alleged Y2K problem. But ultimately, Phantom capped off the Lost Decade with some sharp commentary on contemporary Japanese society, all framed through a crooked expression that one might describe as a smirk. Using his own regrets and postmortem reflections on his time in high school Kouhei Kadono crafted a poignant piece of pulp-fiction that proved to be relevant not only in 1998, but in 2020 and like far into the future. The youth of Boogiepop being a microcosm of problems plaguing Japan then and now. Hence why the heartbeat of Boogiepop can still be felt now as social unrest still persists. So when incomprehensive problems arise that can only be described as “supernatural,” Boogiepop emerges- phantasmal, like bubbles.

Further Reading:

Afterword:

For me, I never grew out of high school (anime). I have reflected extensively on my life, both through blogs and behind closed doors, and have reached the conclusion that I have never grown up. This is why like Kadono-sensei, I never seemed to have moved past high school. Not because it was an important time for me or anything, though perhaps more aptly described as a rock to anchor myself to. Having swam a fair bit away from the shore, I realized the only thing holding me back was the only thing keeping me grounded, and this left me with a slightly bittersweet taste in my mouth. So now even some odd years through university and the ending quickly approaching, I feel like it went by so fast I never had a chance to gain my footing. Maybe we are always stumbling through life like a car crash in slow motion. So when I continuously revisit high school anime, maybe it’s because it’s a time I can relate to relative stability, but I know I did not think so then. Maybe the Stasis of Adolescence never ended for me. But regardless, that perception of stability seen in those rose-tinted memories gave rise in the amount of high school anime, and I can hardly complain. But with Boogiepop, like I mentioned in the write-up, felt more deliberate because of what Kadono-sensei had to say about everything. And I think it’s within that reasoning, despite any reservations I hold about my ability to properly convey the mess of thoughts in my head, why I find this series so often at the forefront of my thoughts alongside the likes of NHK, Oregairu and Genshiken. But I am still unsatisfied with my discussion of Boogiepop, ultimately. I didn’t even have a chance to interject more discussion about denpa influences either! ugu~ There is too much to address that could be fit into a reasonably sized write-up, and for the sake of making this discussion (seemingly) focused I decided to prematurely stop myself after reaching some semblance of a conclusion which parallel many of my own introspection. That is, I can never be normal, just boogie.

BGM – ロストワンの号哭 by Neru

Posted in analysis, anime, light novels, Recomended Reading, retrospectives | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

NEWTYPE Treasure Hunter : Tetsuko no Tabi

Introduction

Having hung around various anime circles for a number of years and explored a significant portion of anime through various online databases such as anidb and MyAnimeList, there aren’t too many series that I haven’t at least heard of. Most anime that are likely to be discussed or even mentioned anywhere are those that have been made readily available thanks to fansub groups or home video licensors. Coupled with the fact that the amount of anime that exists isn’t absurdly large, it’s reasonable to be reasonably familiar with the titles that most fans will even remember. It is because of my reasoning that I was somewhat aware of most anime, that I was somewhat surprised to see an unusual recommendation one day flipping through an old issue of Newtype USA from 2007.

I really like anime magazines, there is a certain charm they contain that is unable to be replicated online. I am under the impression that there is still a lot of forgotten information from such magazines since there wasn’t likely a huge readership compared to the amount of anime fans now, and the fans from then have likely forgotten or moved on from anime in general. There might be forgotten interviews, tidbits of information in a random column or simply fun to look back at the advertisements. As such, opening an old anime magazine is much more like opening a time capsule than a newspaper. Unlike their internet counterparts nowadays, there is no guidance from a comment section. Each discovery feels fresh and you never know what is popular or not, which might lead you to try something unique just because Newtype’s coverage of the show looked cool.

The news in these old magazines has since been rendered terribly outdated, but there is still some worth to it all. I find that looking back on what writers would have to say about certain series, and to a similar extent, which series were being hyped up, is an extremely valuable insight to the fandom at the time. The magazine featured specific shows each month usually because they were the hot topics, or sometimes other anime would likely be featured through deals with licensors. Because of this, I found it most unusual to see a spotlight, albeit a small column, written on Tetsuko no Tabi, which was a show that didn’t seem to have a lot going for it in terms of accessibility. I enjoy trains, so I figured this might be an interesting show to check out.

Join me in  this (tentatively titled) “NEWTYPE Treasure Hunter” series as I find obscure anime mentioned in my collection of magazines and see what I might find!

Discussion

Background

relaxing

MAL / Anidb

Tetsuko no Tabi was originally a manga written and illustrated by Kikuchi Nade-sensei, serialized in Shogakukan’s IKKI magazine from 2002 until 2006. The following year it received an anime adaptation for the Summer 2007 season by studio “Group TAC” who are likely known for their work on Black Blood Brothers and Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora. Tetsuko is a manga primarily focusing on recounting Kikuchi-sensei’s various trips around Japan’s JR rail system. The series is written from the perspective of the aforementioned self-insert narrator who couldn’t care less about trains, and is intended to explore the wacky world of tetsudou. The spotlight in the Newtype magazine caught my eye primarily because it appeared to present the show as a somewhat serious edutainment anime series about tetsuko, Japanese rail enthusiasts, and the things they are interested in from the perspective of an outsider. The column explains the premise of the story and touches on various real information the show is based on, such as Hirohiko Yokomi actually having traveled to all 9,843 JR stations in Japan, and discusses the series’ emphasis on informing the viewer of the joys of traveling Japan by train.

The most interesting part about knowing the background for this series is how the manga is very transparent about it being autobiographical, and in a sense, a travel log in manga form. For instance, the main character is “Kikuchi,” a not-so-secret reference to the mangaka, and is painfully obvious all the experiences are written exactly as they happened. However, the thing I found the most unavoidable to overlook, and equal amounts fascinating, was how Kikuchi was very unabashed in her vocal disinterest in trains. Knowing that the series was autobiographical, we can frame it in the context that the story is quite literally about a mangaka who couldn’t care less about tetsudou but was forced to write a manga about trains and travel the JR rail system with eccentric tour guides. And if so, this is a very forthright recounting of events. Generally when a creator is making an autobiographical story with the intention to entertain, they will try to add a bit of embellishment to the story to make it translate more readily to entertainment since sometimes the original experiences aren’t exactly interesting, keep this in mind for later.

Critique

The series’ importance placed on authenticity is then hammered to the audience in the Tetsuko no Tabi live action special (episode 00) to make sure they understand, the staff state a number of occasions how this story is actually real and based on real people. The special itself aired in the standard half-hour time slot for anime and is essentially a live-action episode of the anime but with some interviews thrown in for good measure. The interviews are primarily with existing fans of the manga, which is presumably a 1:1 overlap with older tetsudou fans. I say older because this is a series that doesn’t play into anime tropes despite being an anime, is drawn in a style not particularly indicative of it’s anime roots, and to be frank, didn’t really benefit from being an anime at all. I couldn’t find information about which time slot it aired in Japan, but I would assume it was not the late night block considering it appeared to try and appeal to non-anime fans.

Tetsuko no Tabi follows an episodic format and tends to focus on a very specific type of eki (station) or eki that fall into a similar categorization. For instance, one episode might specifically visit stations in Hokkaido while another focuses on a specific circuit that one might travel on. There are some neat eki mentioned as well, memorable examples include the underwater station in the Seikan Tunnel when they enter Hokkaido, as well as the underground station that you need to climb hundreds of stairs to exit. I also appreciated the time taken to mention the lesser known stations on less popular routes that only locals in rural areas use. These eki were on the verge of becoming haikyo, a term used to describe urban exploration of modern abandoned buildings in Japan. That said, I think this format ultimately made the show quite dull to watch to completion since, in spite of introducing new eki every episode, it made the anime seem terribly repetitive. The episodes melded together and made the experience of watching this show increasingly difficult due to it following a very formulaic pattern. This is where the problems begin to arise.

Yoshioka-kaitei eki

No matter how interesting the trip Yokomi might make, Kikuchi was never impressed and was persistent in her dislike towards the entire endeavor. Her “character” acted as someone for the audience to project onto, since most people, especially western viewers, likely have very little knowledge on tetsudou. Her job was to ride in a train all day, take notes, then draw manga. This was how she would maintain her job working as a mangaka which seemed like a good deal to me. If someone offered me a job to travel the country by train and draw some manga, which presumably was the job I wanted to do in the first place, it would sound too good to be true. But for poor Kikuchi, she had an unreasonably extravagant image of what she thought the job would be, and ended up disappointed. Fair enough, not how you imagined it to be? Unfortunately, reality is seldom kind, so get over it and try to make some lemonade. Kikuchi ends up coming off as a terribly entitled person who can’t appreciate what she has, only seems to find pleasure in eki-bento (train station specialty bento) and is actively trying to make herself have a bad time. Kikuchi acted as a burdensome character to navigate with, never making the slightest attempt to make the best of a “bad situation” and ultimately dampening the enjoyment for anyone trying to learn about tetsudou. Instead of watching a show about the joys of learning about how cool tetsudou is in Japan, this show ends up feeling like a travel diary by a whiny teenager who was dragged along on a family trip and complains about how unfair her life is. Wait a second, that sounds exactly like what this show is… That is no accident I fear.

Tetsuko no Tabi is as subtle as it is funny; that is, not at all. While Kikuchi might be actively trying to make herself not enjoy tetsudou in the flipside, she could at least try to embellish the real-life events to be funny to make the best of a boring situation. Perhaps there were attempts to make the conversations funny, but they were completely lost on me. I only saw Kikuchi harassing her tetsudou companions and making snide remarks about how boring trains are. This was likely a failed attempt to write a character who would make snarky remarks, but ends up coming off as someone who genuinely hates everything about the subject. She chooses to recount these events exactly as they happened and it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. It was a “creative” decision, assuming there was an ounce of creativity put into the story, to portray herself as someone who doesn’t care about anything she was writing about, and then try to slap the “authenticity” sticker on it to make her lazy writing appear to have some worth. To me, this seems like she was either trying to let her editors know that she wanted out of the job, or was petty revenge against the editor who forced her to have a serialized manga and a job. In all likelihood, this aspect of the show rubbed me the wrong way and might not bother others. However, for someone who knows nothing about a subject area, nothing kills my interest quicker than an uninterested and unmotivated teacher. The most mundane can be made fascinating with the right person talking passionately about it. Kikuchi was not that person. She was persistently disinterested, closed-minded and entitled which only resulted in the possibility of me enjoying this show at all getting tossed to the wayside. 

Conclusion

Overall, Tetsuko no Tabi came off as a show who’s author cared about it as much as the audience was expected to. It squandered its potential at making an interesting travel diary, visiting various JR stations, and instead made the mundane even more dull thanks to the writer. The animation was quite unpolished and exceedingly limited, presumably reserving the majority of the already shoestring budget to the 3D models which were actually quite good. Character designs were quite uninspired, relying on a realistic approach, and somewhat reminded me more so of a western cartoon than anime given the proportions and facial structure. There are even some instances where it appears that a real photo was used as a background, though it’s hard to be certain since the only available version of the show I could find has a poor encode in a low resolution.

Suspicious background…

This show felt left me puzzled as to whom it would appeal to other than the most hardcore of tetudou enthusiasts who would get a kick out of seeing 3DCGI trains and carefully researched information on eki, or by someone who isn’t typically a fan of anime tuning in to watch an episode or two and not thinking much of it. If I was living in Japan, perhaps it would be more useful since the information about the eki could inspire my own trip, though perhaps with a bit more enthusiasm than Kikuchi-sensei’s. 

All this said, it’s a hard anime to recommend. If you are interested in learning more about tetsudou in Japan, I must direct you elsewhere, since this is not the best source of information. There are dozens of more worthwhile documentaries, TV specials and blogs out there to read simply to absorb information on this subject area. However, if you are interested in the novelty of an anime about trains in Japan, then try a few episodes. All the episodes are essentially the same, they become terribly repetitive and difficult to stomach after a while, not making it all that worthwhile unless you are a completionist. Once you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen them all. 

Not funny

The deteriorating quality of Yokomi-shi’s character is to be expected, since the writer is begrudgingly drawing this. “Is there a need to introduce Yokomi-san?” was a serious reason written, she might as well have clearly said “I hate that man! He’s weird!!” Returning from Hakone, she remarks to Yokomi-shi “I will not write” so why are you still writing, so why is Kikuchi-san still making web manga, Kirioka-san has neither the energy or talent either…”

https://www.amazon.co.jp/dp/4091575536

This is a review translated from the “third generation” of Tetsuko no Tabi’s manga, which I guess is still kicking. Reviewers like the one above are criticizing Kikuchi-sensei’s depiction of Yokomi-san, factual inaccuracies, the dropping quality of the story and overall the manga not being funny. Other reviewers seem to share the same sentiment as this user, as do I.

Closing thoughts

For those interested in this anime, the only translated version was made available thanks to m.3.3.w fansubs, who released a “no-frills” version but is still completely viewable. It has an accurate translation with important cultural notes preserved through translator notes. Tetsuko did receive a DVD release in Japan, including a little model train included in the box set, so if someone managed to rip that then there would be a better version available, though at this time it doesn’t appear to be the case. So despite being an anime that was not very enjoyable to watch, it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten since there are bound to be potential fans for this show. At the time of writing this, there are just under 2,000 users who have added this anime to their MyAnimeList and only 364 who have rated it. A quick search on Google and there are very few English discussions of this show, especially in its entirety. 

It was thanks to a random Newtype Magazine that I even found out about this forgotten anime, and even if it wasn’t that great, it was a really fun experience to hunt down a show that seemed to have never broken into the western fanbase. Partially due to fansub groups dropping the show early on, but also the specificity of the fanbase for this type of show limited the amount of people who could care about it to begin with. Overall, this was a worthwhile adventure and I urge others to do the same. Open up an old anime magazine and look for something you never heard of and give it a watch! I might not be the hot new thing, but it might surprise you more than you thought, or at least uncover a forgotten piece of art. 

Extra Reading:

https://web.archive.org/web/20070821200723/http://weekly.yahoo.co.jp/18/

https://web.archive.org/web/20071019161328/http://tetsuko.jp/p03press/index.php

Posted in anime, Discussions/Analysis, NEWTYPE Treasure Hunting, retrospectives | Tagged | 2 Comments