The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 117 – Nisekoi

July 27, 2015 by  
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Nisekoi 1

In the last of our look at anime adaptations of manga published by popular boys’ comic Weekly Shonen Jump, we move to “harem” genre of anime, where one character tends to be surrounded by lots of other characters of the opposite gender.

Nisekoi, which literally translates as “Fake Love”, began in manga form in 2012, and has since had two anime series adapted from it, the first going out in January 2014 and the second in April this year. It mixes romantic comedy with an element of crime, and manages to keep the relationships in the series nicely even.

The main protagonist is 15-year-old Raku Ichijo, the heir apparent to the Shuei-Gumi yakuza clan, although he himself wants nothing to do with the criminal life, wishing to become a respectful civil servant when he gets older. Ten years earlier, he met a girl who gave him a locket to which the girl has the key. They shared a promise that they would marry each other once they met again and opened the locket. However, Raku no longer remembers the girl’s identity.

On the way to school one day he is accidentally kicked in the face by a new transfer student, Chitoge Kirisaki. After she runs off Raku discovers he has lost his locket, and is unable to find it for several days, even with Chitoge’s reluctant help. The two end up despising each other, but after finding his locket Raku returns home to learn that Shuei-Gumi has been getting into fights with a group of gangsters called Beehive. Raku’s father has decided that to stop the violence from escalating Raku must pretend to be in love with the daughter of Beehive’s boss – who turns out to be Chitoge.

Thus Raku and Chitoge have to pretend to adore each other when in fact they cannot stand to be in each other’s presence, something made even worse by the fact that Raku is already in love with another classmate, sweet and shy Kosaki Onodera, who in turn loves him but is too timid to admit it, and by strange coincidence also happens to possess a key that might just be the one for Raku’s locket.

Not surprisingly some people doubt the authenticity of Raku and Chitoge’s relationship straight away, especially Claude of the Beehive gang who has been constantly overprotecting Chitoge for years. Thus Claude is determined to do anything to disprove the relationship; a relationship which becomes increasingly complex with the arrival of more characters and the discovery of more keys, all of which could be the one to Raku’s locket.

Amongst the other characters to arrive they include the androgynous Seishiro Tsugumi, a hitman trained under Claude who is hired to disprove the relationship and is constantly being mistake for a boy when in fact she is a girl; and Marika Tachibana, the daughter of the city’s police chief who claims to be Raku’s fiancé. Other supporting characters include Raku’s somewhat pervy best friend Shu Maiko, and Onodera’s pushy best friend Ruri Miyamoto.

While the cast of characters and their relationships are the key to any harem anime, for me personally it is the art which is a big selling point for Nisekoi. Out of all the Shonen Jump series that have been covered so far in this column, Nisekoi is the one that stand out in terms of animating in a different style, rivalling Food Wars! (No. 115) in terms of art quality. The use of colour, scenes in which the dialogue is conducted using just on-screen subtitles, and the differing styles of architecture that range from Raku’s traditional yakuza hideout to the modernist school he attends, all combine to make this series perhaps the most visually appealing of the Shonen Jump anime.

As said the relationships are also good, especially the central one of Raku and Chitoge. While the hate each other intensely at the start of the series, by the end of series one they become slightly more friendly, and even Chitoge admits that she is starting to actually fall in love with Raku. Meanwhile Raku is still besotted with Onodera, Tsugumi is too stubborn to admit that Raku is actually a nice guy; and Tachibana will go to any lengths to try and marry Raku.

If there is one major downside, for us in Britain at least, it is that this series is released by Kaze in the UK, both in terms of DVD/Blu-Ray sales, and in streaming via their website Animax. As Kaze is considered the least popular of all the anime distributors, many UK anime fans refuse to buy Nisekoi for this reason and instead have decided to purchase the Region A Blu-Ray instead.

In conclusion, we return to point of examining these series, which was to see if any of them could fill-up the missing gaps to be left by Bleach (No. 15) and Naruto (No. 95), two of the “Big Three” anime alongside One Piece (No. 6) which are ending soon. Out of the five anime covered in the past few weeks; Gintama (No. 113), World Trigger (No. 114), Food Wars!, Haikyu!! (No. 116) and Nisekoi; it would probably be fair to say that Gintama is the most likely to take up a slot as it is already the longest-running of the five. While Food Wars! and Nisekoi have the artistic quality and Haikyu!! a highly dedicated fan-base, World Trigger has the plot structure to make it a long-running series, although it has the worst art of the five.

However, there has recently been a development. A few days ago World Trigger was recommissioned, so it will be continuing even longer, and hopefully its earlier mistakes in terms of production will have been learnt. If so, then it will most likely be this series that could possibly take over from any of the “Big Three”.

The first ten episodes of Nisekoi are out on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kaze. Both series can be streamed on Animax. The series is also released on Region A Blu-Ray from Aniplex.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 116 – Haikyu!!

July 20, 2015 by  
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Haikyu 1

We continue our examination of anime adaptations of currently running manga in boys’ comic Weekly Shonen Jump by looking at a genre that is normally (and perhaps stereotypically) seen as a solid place to create a comic aimed at boys: sport.

We have not looked much into sports anime in this column. The only anime so far in The Beginner’s Guide to cover a real-life sport is the swimming-based anime Free! (No. 17). However, Shonen Jump has an impressive track record of sport-based series, many of which have been turned into anime. Titles include The Prince of Tennis, Kuroko’s Basketball, boxing-based Ring ni Kakero, baseball-themed Play Ball, soccer anime Captain Tsubasa, and American football series Eyeshield 21.

There are currently two sports manga in Shonen Jump. One is sumo-themed Hinomaru Zumo, which began last year but has not been made into an anime yet. The other, the subject of today’s column, covers a sport that might surprise you. It is not the most popular sport, nor the manliest. For many, the sport only appeals when it is played by sexy ladies on the beach. However, this series has become surprisingly popular. Today, we slide into the world of volleyball.

Haikyu!! began in Shonen Jump in 2012, created by Haruichi Furudate, and has to date had 16 volumes published. The anime version of it began in 2014, and ran for a series of 25 episodes, with another series now in production for transmission later this year.

The series begins with schoolboy Shoyo Hinata, a rather short kid who falls in love with volleyball after seeing a similarly vertically-challenged player on TV. Over the years he tries to develop his own team at middle school, but he is the only person in the team who has any skill. Hinata’s skill however is great – he is able to jump great heights to rival even the tallest of players and is quick on his feet too. His team enters a school competition but loses in the first round to a rival team which features the arrogant Tobio Kageyama, nicknamed the “King of the Court”. Hinata thus vows that one day he will beat Kageyama.

Hinata then graduates to high school, and joins the same school his favourite player went to, Karasuno High School. The school volleyball team, nicknamed the “crows” due to the name of the school (“karasu” is “crow” in Japanese), did have a good team, but it has fallen from grace in past years. Hinata is extremely keen to join, but is horrified to learn that one of the other people also to have joined is Kageyama, who failed to make a better team because of his egotistical behaviour. The two at first refuse to play with each other, but the rest of the school team refuse to let them join the team unless they do.

Eventually the two start to get along, with Hinata taking up the position of middle blocker, and Kageyama the key role of setter. The story then follows their efforts to improve and make it through regional competitions. Hinata tries to find more ways of overcoming his own physical shortcomings and lack of experience, while Kageyama tries to be more co-operative with everyone.

It also follows the other members of the team, which include the captain and wing spiker Daichi Sawamura who gets very fearsome when angered; Koshi Sugawara, who was the chief setter before Kageyama came along; there also fellow wing spikers, the brash Ryunosuke Tanaka and the timid Asahi Azumane; then there is Asahi’s best friend Yu Nishinoya, the team’s defensive libero player who is even shorter than Hinata; and bespectacled middle blocker Kei Tsukishima, who spends most of his time criticising everyone else.

It is hard to imagine a series like Haikyu!! becoming as big as many of Shonen Jump’s major successes like the “Big Three” of One Piece (No. 6), Bleach (No. 15) and Naruto (No. 95), but it has many strengths to it. The main one is the characters. At the start you feel for both Hinata and Kageyama, but as it moves on you support the whole team. Each member has their own strengths and weaknesses to overcome. For example, Sugawara finds himself replaced and not getting as many chances to play following Kageyama’s inclusion in the team. Early on in the story Azumane refuses to play volleyball again after a bad match prior to the story, which results in Nishinoya refusing to play until he returns. You feel for all them and you end up supporting Karasuno.

The second reason to praise Haikyu!! is that it has taken a sport that most people probably don’t know much about, and made it interesting. You learn a lot from it. Most people reading this article would be baffled by the term “libero” to describe a player, but the all the terms are explained, and you can make your own judgments too. For example, the libero’s strip is different to the rest of the team, so you could claim he is a bit like a soccer goalkeeper.

Another thing worth mentioning is that the series has established a big fan-base, especially a female fan-base, much like that of the fore-mentioned Free! By which I mean most of the fans that like these sporting anime are not in it for the sport. They are more in it for watching these rather attractive guys, and they have their own ideas about which way many of these boys are inclined. They want to know what they really get up to in the showers, and to hell with the fact they are still at school. It has to be said that Haikyu!! is not as full-on as Free! in that respect, but there is still that aura about it.

Outside of this however, this series is still a lot of fun to watch. Exciting, entertaining characters and able to take a little-known subject and make it fun.

The first series of Haikyu!! can be streamed online at Crunchyroll, and is currently being released in two parts on Region 1 DVD by Sentai Filmworks. The second series is due for release in October 2015.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, Extra V – Going to Japanese Cultural Events

July 16, 2015 by  
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Sometimes in this column I cover aspects of anime outside of the shows. For example I’ve written about conventions (Extra I) and the larger expos (Extra II). However, there is a third kind of event: those designed specifically for Japanese culture – J-culture for short – which includes anime, but also other related aspects of the country. Not just J-culture, but J-fashion, J-music, J-everything.

The biggest of these events is Hyper Japan, which just held its latest event a few days ago over a period of three days. For the first time it was held at the O2 Arena, when in previously years it had been held at Earl’s Court. This was my first such event, but a very enjoyable one for many reasons. Admittedly one of those was the fact it happened to be my birthday over the weekend, but there are many more reasons too.

These cultural events feature many of the things that occur in the western expos and conventions. As it is a large event, many large companies turn up. Nintendo for example had a huge area almost to itself, but it was shared by other firms such as Kodansha, a company which publishes manga including the very popular Attack on Titan (No. 11). So popular this series is that there was a gigantic “Colossal Titan” bust that you could have your photo taken nearby. However, you also have lots of smaller companies too, from Japan, Britain and elsewhere. These companies range from artists, to travel companies, to people selling language courses. There was even a company selling kimonos made in France.

Speaking of which, one of the cultural aspects concerning this event was fashion. Traditional clothing such as kimonos is one aspect, and cosplaying that you find at all such conventions is also something that appears. Another J-fashion popular at this event is Lolita fashion – which for those not in the know is a form a fashion inspired by the Victorians and has nothing at all to do with Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name. It is one of the few events where you could find and buy such clothes and accessories. Even I commissioned an outfit, based on the more mature “Aristocrat” style.

From clothes, we move onto food and drink. There was a “Maid Café” and stalls selling all kinds of Japanese food including onigiri rice balls, veg-fried noodles, and tempura-fried prawns. They also served tempura-fried chicken, served on skewers, which was the best chicken I have ever tasted. On the drinks front, there was the a “sake experience”, which you had to pay extra for, but you got to sample and buy around 30 different sakes to choose from.

There was also a beer on offer called Kirin, but I must confess this was one of the less enjoyable experiences for two reasons: a), a 330ml bottle cost £5 which was way too expensive, and b), some of the bar staff were so annoying I just walked away from them in anger. Way too laddish for my liking. It felt like being served by the lovechild of Dapper Laughs and Quagmire from Family Guy. Indeed, looking at some of the comments attendees have posted on Facebook, there were several complaints about many of the O2 staff and poor customer service. Some have even accused Hyper Japan of possibly selling out by moving from Earl’s Court to the O2 in the first place.

The best thing for me however during the event was J-music. This relates to one of the most impressive things about Hyper Japan, which is that this is one of few times that big name singers and performers from Japan come over to Britain. For example there was a singer there named Eir Aoi who performed twice over the three days. Aoi has over the years become a very popular singer, whose songs have been used in several popular anime. One song, “Sirius”, was used as a theme for Kill la Kill (No. 80), and two songs, “Innocence” and “Ignite”, were used as themes for Sword Art Online (No. 34).

But she was just one of the many stars there. There were even bigger names at Hyper Japan. Because of this, I can say that on my birthday the best experience I had was high-fiving two members from arguably the biggest rock band in all of Japan, X (aka X Japan). The members, Yoshiki (the bandleader, drummer and pianist) and Toshi (the lead singer), where there mainly to promote their forthcoming gig at Wembley in March 2016, which will also mark the release of their first album in 20 years. X are probably most notable for being one of the earliest bands to pioneer “visual kei”, a look that in the west is comparable to glam rock. However, X are more of a heavy metal band.

If you like anime, events such as this are good places to learn more about Japan itself, and therefore give you a greater context of understanding more of the background of many series. It is just a shame that there are not more such events like Hyper Japan around.

The next Hyper Japan event will be held between 27th-29th November at Tobacco Dock, London.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 115 – Food Wars!

July 13, 2015 by  
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Food Wars 1

Continuing to look at anime adaptations of series from the highly popular Weekly Shonen Jump manga magazine, we delve into the world of food – something which any Japanese readers to this column might find comical, given that their stereotypical view of us Brits is that we are the worst cooks in the world, a stereotype that I also happen to fall into. Put it this way, I once shocked an entire crowd at a comedy gig for admitting I had never eaten a poppadum.

Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma, or just Food Wars! for short, began as a manga in 2012, written by Yuto Tsukuda and illustrated by Shun Saeki. The anime adaptation began in March this year. As well as food, this series also fits into that vast category of “anime set in schools that would never exist in real life”, which from now on I have decided to condense into a simpler term of my own invention: “non-schools”.

Non-schools are not new to Shonen Jump. The magazine currently has at least two, both of which have been turned into anime. One is Assassination Classroom, in which the students have a destructive alien as their teacher and they have to try and kill them. However, as this series is region blocked (Boo!) I cannot write about the anime

Cuisine is also something Shonen Jump has covered before. There is another currently running title called Toriko which also covers food, and this has also been turned into an anime, but Toriko is set in an alternative world whereas Food Wars! has a more real world setting.

Food Wars! is about a boy named Soma Yukihira, who wants to become a full-time chef at his father Joichiro’s working class diner and ultimately to surpass his father’s skills. While he is a capable cook, Soma is still not as good as his dad, and he has the habit of experimenting with odd ingredients (e.g. squid and peanut butter). Joichiro then decides to temporarily close the dinner and move to America, while sending Soma to Totsuki Culinary Academy.

Upon arrival, Soma discovers that this gigantic school is for the elite. Only 10% of all the students successfully pass, disputes are settled by cookery battles called “shokugeki”, and nearly all the students are from wealthy backgrounds. Soma is just about the only working class person at Totsuki, and upsets just about everyone on the first day when he attacks his snobbish colleagues. The one who hates Soma the most is Erina Nakiri, daughter of the headmaster and one of the school’s “Elite Ten” students. She is not only the virtual ruler of the school, but she has a palate so refined it is claimed she has the “God Tongue”, with the ability to ruin anyone’s reputation with a single taste. Erina writes Soma’s common tastes off, but Soma impresses everyone else with his ability to make even the cheapest food taste great.

The series follows Soma’s attempts to be the best at the school, including defeating all of the Elite Ten. Also it follows the fellows students of Soma’s dorm who become his friends. These include nervous girl Megumi Tadokoro, and one of the Elite Ten, the friendly and often nearly naked Satoshi Isshiki.

In comparison to last week’s title World Trigger (No. 114), the quality of the animation in Food Wars! is much better, and one of the big selling points. This is especially true in the brilliantly animated and often highly comic “foodgasm” scenes. Nearly every episode features someone eating a dish, which they not only describe in flowing terms, but is mentally depicted by the diner in an over-the-top manner.

For example, if a scene depicts someone talking about a meat dish being glazed in honey, it will feature the people eating the dish themselves being drenched in honey. Sometimes Erina will eat a dish which starts off pleasantly, comparing it to say bathing in a hot spring, but something will be wrong with it, comparing it to say bathing in a hot spring with a gorilla.

Another factor worth mentioning is the amount of “fan service” – the often sexy bonus items – that are included in the show. It is not too overwhelming, and more positively it seems to be equally divided between the male and female characters. For example, one of Soma’s rivals is a buxom tanned girl named Ikumi Mito (the “Meat Queen”), who is often seen wearing a bikini and very short skirts or shorts. Characters like her are levelled out by Satoshi, who often wears nothing except either an apron or a loincloth.

In terms of whether it will become a big future title, it is hard to say. One problem is that the current anime series is rather short at 24 episodes in comparison to other Shonen Jump adaptations. Whether more series will be made after this is yet to be seen, but it certainly has a decent, deserving chance.

Food Wars! is currently streamed on Crunchyroll.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 114 – World Trigger

July 6, 2015 by  
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World Trigger 1

Continuing to look at anime adaptations of the most popular manga magazine, Weekly Shonen Jump, this week we look at one of their more recent efforts.

World Trigger is a sci-fi series, the manga having begun in 2013 by Daisuke Ashihara. The anime began a 50-episode-long adaptation that started in October 2014 and is therefore thus still going, made by Toei Animation. It is a series that takes a lot of action and battles, and mixes it with complex issues such as xenophobia. However, the anime has had some issues in terms of quality.

The story is set in the fictional Mikado City, where four years prior it was attacked by otherworldly beings known as “Neighbours” – or “Neighbors” as it is spelt in all the translations because that is all done in America (we’ll stick to the UK spelling). Normal weapons do not harm them, but a group of people is able to fight them off using special weapons called “Triggers” which are made out of a form of energy called “Trion”. This group forms an organisation called “Border” to protect Mikado City from Neighbours.

Bespectacled student Osamu Mikumo secretly works for Border as a lowly C-rank agent, but has no natural talent for the job. Things begin to change when a strange, short, white-haired, black-ring-wearing boy transfers to his class named Yuma Kuga. The two soon form a friendship, but then a Neighbour attacks and Osamu tries to fight it. He fails, but then is shocked to see that Yuma is able to defeat it. Yuma then reveals the truth: the monsters are not Neighbours but are drone “Trion Soldiers” sent by Neighbours. Yuma knows this for he himself really is a Neighbour, and even has a mini Trion Soldier of his own; his chaperone Replica.

Yuma comes from one of the world’s in the “Neighbourhood” that are at seemingly constant war with each other, and his ring a powerful “Black Trigger”, which can also give the user a powerful “Side Effect” – in Yuma’s case he can tell when people are lying. For having saved his life, Osamu tries to keep Yuma’s identity secret, but it is not long before they are rumbled and Yuma is the subject of internal politics at Border between those who want to simply eliminate all Neighbours, those who think it might be better to establish relations with them, and those who just want to protect Mikado City.

Eventually Osamu and Yuma join a branch of Border which believes it is best to work with the Neighbours rather than just kill them. Together they work under the brilliant Black Trigger user Jin Yuichi, whose Side Effect allows him to see into the future. They also recruit a friend of Osamu’s into their group, a young girl named Chika Amatori who happens to possess huge amounts of Trion. Thus they unite and train up in order to prepare themselves for future battles against Neighbours planning full scale attacks.

As mentioned in last week’s column on Gintama (No. 113), part of the reason for looking into these series is to see if any are likely to become as massively popular as other Shonen Jump series that are soon to end. The answer to whether or not World Trigger will do this is in my opinion: “It should do, but it probably won’t.”

The reason why it should do is because it contains many of the same elements you find in Shonen Jump’s current “Big Three” manga titles of One Piece (No. 6), Bleach (No. 15) and Naruto (No. 95). For example, it features big battles, you have the ever expanding range of characters, the slowly developing plot leading to bigger situations in the future, and the leads are enjoyable – you have Osamu as the kid with no natural talent but willing to give it his all to prove he can just as useful as anyone else, and then you have Yuma who looks weak at first but is actually much stronger and smarter than just about everyone else in the series. Not only that, but the basic situation seems to fit the mould set by the original Big Three. One Piece covers pirates; Bleach covers the supernatural and grim reapers; and Naruto covers ninjas. World Trigger’s sci-fi setting and attacks from other worlds would seem to be the ideal.

However, while the manga contains all of this, and is both drawn and written very competently by Ashihara, the anime version by Toei Animation has been made unbelievably shoddily and cheaply. I have known anime reviewers that have simply given up on it because they thought the animation was too awful for them: either a character’s eyes are too far apart or close together, their smile looks a bit weird, or their chin is drawn on in such an appalling way.

It is not just that the animation is sometimes bad, but you can tell that Toei is doing anything to cut costs. For example, nearly every episode begins with about two or three minutes explaining first the overall setting, and then the current plot, thus eating time into the show. Also, while most anime series often have 90-second-long opening and another 90-second-long ending, World Trigger has just one title sequence, right in the middle of the episode, meaning that they cut costs by merging the two together. World Trigger is also not an isolated incident. They recently made the new anime adaptation of Sailor Moon (No. 63), and there have been complaints that this series has also been poorly made.

I am a big fan of the original manga, and I think that the quality of the animation has picked up a bit recently, but much of the damage has already been done. I fear that World Trigger is a brilliant series that has been badly let down.

World Trigger is available to stream via Crunchyroll.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 113 – Gintama

June 29, 2015 by  
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Gintama 1

For the next few weeks The Beginner’s Guide will be looking at the anime adaptations of Japan’s most popular manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump.

This magazine of boys’ comics is famous for producing some of manga’s biggest and longest-running hits. These series sometimes produce a new episode every week. These are anime’s serial dramas – soap operas for the guys – “Swarfega operas” if you like.

We have covered many of their titles before, some are decades old like Dragon Ball (No. 99) and some have become successful in other areas such as Yu-Gi-Oh! (No. 88), but the most famous titles are the “Big Three” of One Piece (No. 6), Bleach (No. 15) and Naruto (No. 95). However, while One Piece has recently entered the Guinness Book of Records for: “The most copies published for the same comic book series by a single author”, the manga of Naruto ended a little while ago, and Bleach is soon to end. Which results in the following question: can any manga currently around become part of a new “Big Three”.

Concerning Shonen Jump it is a hard one. The only other long-running shonen (boys) manga to make it big in recent years is Fairy Tail (No. 52), but it is published by a rival company so some people would say it would not count.

In terms of Shonen Jump’s current crop, probably the manga most likely to become part of the “Big Three” would be Gintama (sometimes written as Gin Tama); a mixture of alternative history, comedy, and samurai stories which is often totally bonkers. It has been running as a manga since 2003, and has had three different anime series, the first of which began in 2006 and the most recent starting in April 2015.

The series takes place in alternative version of Japan’s “Edo Period” of the 19th century, when it was still isolated from rest of the world – until it was attacked by aliens known as the “Amanto”. Edo loses, and is forced to live with the Amanto as rulers and the Shogunate now just a puppet government. The Amanto open up Edo’s borders to space, and ban the use of swords in public. This wipes out the samurai class, but some struggle on with life. One such man is Gintoki Sakata, possessor of a wooden sword, naturally wavy hair, a scooter and a love of sugar so great that it make a wasp gasp in horror.

Gintoki runs “Odd Jobs Gin”, taking any job for money. His staff includes the show’s straight-man Shinpachi Shimura, who decided to work for Gin partly because he saved his sister Tae from working in a brothel, and partly to earn money to save the dojo that both he and Tae own. Also working for Gin is Kagura, an Amanto from the Yato Clan – one of the strongest and most violent of alien races, a heritage she rejects. She is usually seen carrying a gigantic umbrella which is both a weapon and also protects her sensitive translucent skin from the sun, and is often followed by a gigantic dog she adopts named Sadaharu.

Most of the stories are stand-alone episodes, in which Gintoki, Shinpachi and Kagura are either given a job, have trouble with the law or the Amanto, or some other more bizarre situation. There is a wide supporting cast, such as Gintoki’s landlady Otose who is always demanding that Gintoki pays his rent; Kotaro Katsura, a former comrade of Gintoki who is part of the Amanto resistance movement; Elizabeth, seemingly a man dressed all the time as a big white duck that Katsura strangely adopts and adores; and short-sighted female ninja Ayame Sarutobi, who falls in love with Ginoki and is extremely masochistic.

There is also the Shinsengumi, the police force who are one of the few people still allowed to use metal swords. They are led by Isao Kondo, who is respected by his troops but not by the woman he falls in love with, who happens to be Tae; Toshiro Hijikata, the fearsome, chain-smoking vice-commander who also has an obsession with mayonnaise; and skilled sadistic swordsman Sougo Okita who always seems to want to kill Toshiro without remorse.

Gintama has become a very popular anime comedies. People love both the characters that appear in the show, the bizarre situations, and the gags themselves – although some might get lost in translation or reference to particular aspects of Japanese culture most westerners would fail to grasp. There is a lot of breaking of the fourth wall, and due to the use of alien technology, the show can get samurai to reference modern day aspects of life. It is set in the 19th century, but they do have televisions, cars, aircraft, and Gintoki regularly reads this world’s version of Shonen Jump himself.

One problem the series does have is the lack of availability. While there are over 250 episodes, only 49 were released on DVD in America, and the only commercial release in the UK was of a film version of the anime. You can however stream the series online. It is not just the anime that has been affected by this. There are 59 volumes of manga, but the company the released the manga in English, Viz Media, stopped after Vol. 23 and never said why.

Some of Gintama’s gags might be a bit hard to get your head around, but the characters and stories do make it entertaining enough to make for enjoyable viewing. Out of the Shonen Jump series currently available, it has certainly established itself to be considered to take any possible “Big Three” slot.

Gintama is available to stream via Crunchyroll. The film version is released on DVD by Manga Entertainment.

Ruby Rose: Sexuality and gender in ‘Orange is the New Black’

June 28, 2015 by  
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Ruby Rose 1

Human sexuality is an enormous field and one which we are only tentatively coming to understand. In terms of homosexuality, there has never been a definitive scientific study that identifies any concrete biological determinants. Scientists think that homosexuality is more likely to be defined by a complex interplay of biological and environmental stimuli, although the most important factors have yet to be identified.

Currently, it’s popular to say that homosexuality is a purely biological condition. Pointing out that it may very well not be is routinely denounced as homophobia. This is dogma, it is not fact. There are parallels with radical feminists in the 1970s refusing to acknowledge that there are hormonal differences between the sexes. Increasingly, gay activists such as Julie Bindel are recognising the emancipatory potential in affirming sexuality as a choice. This doesn’t tally up to many people’s experience, although deliberately choosing lesbianism as a political identity as well as a personal one has historical precedent, such as the revolutionary feminist Wild communes. All of this is interesting in an academic sense, but for most queer people, it doesn’t really seem to matter why they are the way they are rather than the impact their identity has on their lives.

The nineteenth century saw a thoroughly unscientific revolution in the categorisation of human beings. The effects of this legacy in terms of race are well known. Less discussed, is that the binary distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality was not set until the 1800s. The rollback from this began in the early 20th century. Now there are approximately two hundred different scales of human sexuality. The most famous of these is the Kinsey scale, which locates sexuality on a spectrum running from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual).

A 1 on the Kinsey scale means that you predominantly heterosexual but that you may develop homosexual inclinations towards particular person, or perhaps a couple of particular people, but not on the regular. The past couple of weeks have seen a number of Kinsey 1s popping their heads above the parapet, all vying with their feelings for one particular person – Orange is the New Black Star, Ruby Rose.

Ruby Rose identifies as gender-fluid, meaning that she doesn’t strongly categorise herself with either gender. In her adolescence, she considered transitioning but decided against it. Now, she is comfortable in a female body but not with being exclusively identified as a woman. She’s also smoking hot, with strikingly unusual amalgamation of masculine and feminine facial features. Her sex appeal appears to be astonishingly universal. Men who have previously identified as purely homosexual have all kinds of feelings. Women who have previously identified as purely heterosexual also have all kinds of feelings. It is the latter group rather than the former who have attracted waves of fury.

Part of the annoyance stems from a genuinely irritating trend involving straight girls ‘experimenting’ with lesbianism without intending to see it through to climax. This could involve kissing your best friend to turn on the boys or giving it ‘a go’ with an actual lesbian to see if you like it. It’s the latter that lesbians particularly resent. You can’t try eating pussy like you can try eating caviar. I can see the confusion, they both taste like fish, but also…kind of not. The difference is that one of the things is attached to a person with feelings who probably doesn’t want to be your sexual smorgasbord.

Another factor is the ‘girl crush’. In an article for the New Statesman, Eleanor Margolis defines a girl crush perfectly as; “Girl crushes are 75 per cent respect, 24.999 per cent idolatry and 0.001 per cent something nebulously sexual. It’s more about wanting to be someone than wanting to do them.” She goes on to say that ‘girl crushes’ are a way of doing the lesbian thing ironically.

Some women find this overly flippant and demeaning to their sexuality. This is the pessimist’s view. The optimist’s view is homosexuality as a label that is not shameful to apply to yourself anymore. With Ruby Rose, it appears to have gone beyond a girl crush and into the arena of genuine sexual desire for a number of women who previously identified as exclusively straight. The fact that these women are comfortable enough expressing this desire publicly should be a cause for celebration, not condemnation.

Another indication of society’s recognition of sexual fluidity (at least for women) can be seen in the show Ruby Rose features in, Orange is the New Black. In this show, female sexuality is dealt with in a dynamic and nuanced way that has no parallel anywhere else on television. Many of the female characters identify exclusively as gay. Others have relationships with both women and men. The show also tackles gender identity with the trans character, Sophia. Ruby Rose’s character, Stella, is gender-fluid saying that she only categorises herself as a woman because her options are limited. Queerness in Orange is the New Black is never hysterical, never moralising and never tokenistic.

Sexual fluidity and the refusal of labels is a running theme in Orange is the New Black, particularly in terms of the main character, Piper who never refers to herself by any labels at all a subtly rejects those imposed on her. As her brother says to her enraged fiancé, Larry questioning whether she’s a lesbian again; “I’m going to go ahead and guess that one of the issues here is your need to say that a person is exactly anything.” That line says a lot.  

Labels are fine up until the point that they stop being empowering and start being exclusionary. Benjamin Butterworth, writing in The Independent last week, identified a growing trend in the LGBT community; “The modern gay community – equal in law and thereabouts in culture – has turned in on itself. It brandishes the attitudes and outlooks that once-upon-a-time it would define itself against. Looking like an inward, aggressive group of judgemental trolls.” There’s truth to this and it’s sad. Personally, I didn’t sign up to learn the party line or self-righteously police the parameters of anyone else’s sexuality. When you refuse to allow a heterosexual woman to honestly articulate her sexuality, because fancying girls is something you did before it was cool, it’s all so;

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Ruby Rose herself put it best when she said; “I, personally, think that the moments we try to nit-pick who can and can’t say that they are genderqueer or gender-neutral or trans, or who’s gay or who’s bi — who are we to tell other people how they can live their lives and what they can tweet and what they can say? It’s really none of our business. I think we should let people go and say what they want to.”

The Crystal Maze returns as interactive experience. Now all we have to do is put it back on TV

June 22, 2015 by  
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A few days ago a crowdfunding campaign was launched to re-create the classic 1990s game show The Crystal Maze as an interactive experience that people could take part in once again. Today the campaign reached its £500,000 target.

This for me is joyous, because when I was a kid The Crystal Maze was my favourite TV show. This is not surprising because kids loved the show, and several Christmas specials were made with children contestants.

Also, when you are about five, as I was when I can remember first watching it, you do think that what you see on the screen is not a fictional setting. You think: “Wow! They were in space, but then got in a lift and are now in Aztec village! I don’t know who Aztecs are but they sound cool”, or, “Oh no! He’s locked in, and if they don’t give Richard a crystal he will stay forever!” until you realise that they do turn up at the very end anyway.

Of course there is the other bit, that must have occurred to adults watching it and now happens to me when I watch episodes posted on YouTube (all the episodes appear to have been posted up), which is being outraged by idiots who as soon as they enter a room suddenly completely go to pieces and are unable to complete any task, so you end up shouting at the screen things like: “How can you not know there is a connection between the words ‘Hand’ and ‘Writing’ you fucking idiot?”

I still however love The Crystal Maze for being a big part of my TV childhood: I loved it under Richard O’Brien I loved it under Ed Tudor-Pole, I loved the zones, I loved the theme tune, I loved the games, I loved everything about it. So for it come back is like a dream come true. The only problem with this revival is that it is currently just an interactive experience. Yes, you can take part in it, but it I still not quite the same as seeing it being brought back on the box.

However, it would not be surprising if it did return to TV eventually. Recently all sorts of TV shows have returned in some format. Most recently has been the Clangers on Cbeebies, narrated by Michael Palin, but you also have a new Absolutely Fabulous movie in the works, and BBC sitcoms such as Red Dwarf and Birds of a Feather have been revived on rival channels (Dave and ITV respectively) with great success in terms of ratings.

Some shows however are undoubtedly best left untouched when they have end. I for one am dreading the new Dad’s Army movie due out in 2016. Given the fact that most of the cast and one of the original writers are now dead, you can’t help but feel that it is a bit too late to bring it back. Even then everyone will be comparing to the old version and you know that the film will be seen as inferior to the original.

The Crystal Maze doesn’t really have these problems because it has no plot to speak of. It is just a game show: all you need are games and a host. It would make sense for Channel 4 to bring The Crystal Maze back, just on the grounds of popularity alone. At the time it aired it was frequently the most watched show on the channel. The website twice voted it the greatest game show ever.

Quite frankly, if Channel 4 don’t bring back such a successful show, even as a one-off, they are idiots.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 112 – Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

June 22, 2015 by  
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Before you even think about, if you think that “The Secret of Blue Water” is that you can wear a hoodie in a shopping centre, you are sadly mistaken.

There is a lot worth mentioning about the anime under investigation this week: how it relates to the west, its role in anime history, and how it is release this week may well help to establish a new name in the British anime business.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water was a TV series that ran between 1990 and 1991, with a sequel film released shortly after this. It is a loose adaptation of the classic Jules Verne novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and features Captain Nemo as one of the main characters. It however is mainly notable for being one of the early anime of Gainax. While their first project was the feature film Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (No. 105), Nadia was the company’s first commercial success.

It begins at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, where boy genius Jean Rocque Raltique of Le Havre has travelled to the city to take part in contest to create a heavier-than-air flying machine with his uncle – his father however is lost at sea, reportedly his ship sunk by “sea monsters”.

While in Paris, Jean encounters a beautiful African girl named Nadia and her pet lion cub King. He follows them both, and learns that she is being chased by comic Italian villain Grandis Granva and her two henchmen Hanson and Sanson. Grandis wants to take Nadia’s necklace, which contains a large gem known as the “Blue Water”, which flashes when she in danger. While at first Nadia can escape due to her skill as a circus acrobat, Grandis does eventually capture her, but Jean uses his inventions and great scientific know-how to rescue her.

Jean takes Nadia and King to Le Havre, but Grandis still follows them. Jean then uses an experimental aeroplane, which works, to escape to the sea. The plane crashes but they are rescued by an American ship. Then this ship is attacked by the sea monsters, which Jean eventually comes to learn are submarines, including one called the “Nautilus”, led by Captain Nemo. Jean, Nadia and King board the Nautilus for a brief period, but then fly off again. This time however their plane is shot down. The crash land on a remote island which has been taken over by a sinister organisation called “Neo Atlantis”. This group, head by the evil Lord Gargoyle, has enslaved most of population and killed the rest. Jean and his friend do find one young girl named Marie and try to help her, but she is kidnapped and eventually they have to delve deeper into the island.

Jean discovers not only are the natives forced to work, but Grandis and her cronies are also trapped here. Jean and Nadia try their best to stop Gargoyle and it nearly looks as if they will fail, until Captain Nemo returns to save the day. Following this Jean, Nadia, King, Marie, Grandis, Hanson and Sanson all unite with Nemo in order to take down the real enemy.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water as a project actually dates back to the 1970s, were future Oscar-winning anime director Hayao Miyazaki came up with some idea for a different company, but it never got off the ground and he re-used some of his ideas in other projects. Eventually the project was taken up by Gainax, where the director of the project was Hideaki Anno, who previous worked on Wings of Honnêamise and would direct the next Gainax TV series, the hugely influential Neon Genesis Evangelion (No. 21). Thus Nadia helped to truly establish one of the great anime production companies.

However, the series should not just be remembered for this. The characters are truly a delight, and you can sort of see how they influence characters in later Gainax titles like Evangelion and Gurren Lagann (No. 50). Nadia especially is of interest. Firstly she is one of the few black anime characters in a title role. There is also her relationship with Jean, which is a mixture of frustration but also slowly blossoming love. On top of this, Nadia is also an animated lover of animal rights. She hates people who kill, whether it is plain and simple humans murdering other humans, or simply people eating meat and fish. Her militant vegetarianism must make Nadia the Morrissey of anime characters. At times her hatred of meat-eaters is so strong (and a tad annoying personally) that part of you wants to throw a sausage at the TV to see if she would storm of in a fit of anger.

More recently however, this series is a big test of a new company that has stepped onto the anime scene in the UK. Earlier this year a new distribution company was formed named Animatsu, which sprouted-off the more established Manga Entertainment. This is their biggest release to date, both in terms of expectation and series length (Nadia is 39 episodes long). They have had to spend time getting this release right. It has already been delayed in the past due to production issues, which hopefully have now been sorted out. This release is therefore a test to see if anime fans will trust this new company.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water thought is a classic series: at times a tearjerker, at others cartoonishly funny, with wonderful characters and relationships, it is a series deserving of your time. If it has one major problem, it is that it might have shown in the UK when it first went out in the 1990s, but it was considered too violent to show to children.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Animatsu.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 111 – Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches

June 15, 2015 by  
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Another anime series which is currently being broadcast at the moment, this series fits into the ever-expanding category of anime series set in schools that would never exist in real-life. These “non-schools” as I’ve decided to call them are still being created, and this one has attracted some attention.

Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches started as a manga in 2012 by Miki Yoshikawa, and first aired in April this year. Like last week’s anime, Is It Wrong to Try to Pick up Girls in a Dungeon? (No. 110), this too arguably fits into the “harem” genre, featuring as it does a male title character being surrounded by an increasing mix of female characters, but it has attracted positive comments not just for the plot or art, but also for music.

The central character, Ryu Yamada, is a troublesome student at Suzaku High School who is always not getting good grades or getting into fights with people. Things change dramatically when he accidentally falls down some stairs, colliding into the school’s star pupil Urara Shiraishi and knocking himself out. When he recovers, Yamada is horrified to discover that he has ended up in Shiraishi’s body.

After a little while, they discover that reason for the body swap was that when they both fell down the stairs they accidentally kissed each other. Kissing each other again returns them to normal. They try to hide this, but are eventually discovered by the vice-president of the school’s student council, Toranosuke Miyamura, who tells them that they should reform the school’s defunct “Supernatural Studies Club” to protect themselves. Eventually the club gains to more members: supernatural obsessive Miyabi Ito, and transfer student Kentaro Tsubaki who is in love with Shiraishi and has the bizarre habit of making tempura when depressed.

The club discovers that it’s previous incarnation had learned that at the school there were seven female students dubbed the “witches”, each of whom has a supernatural power triggered by kissing. Thus Shiraishi is a witch because of her body-swapping powers, but Yamada as a male student does not count. However, he does have his own supernatural power: a “copy kiss” which allows him to directly copy the ability of the last witch he kissed.

The club therefore make it their mission to find the identities of all seven witches in the school, whose powers range from telepathy, seeing into the future, seeing traumatic pasts, and making people fall in love. While this is going on Miyamura is also fighting his own personal battle to become the next president of the student council, which in turn is connected to the power of the witches.

Having covered this series on other websites, the thing that has seemingly impressed people the most has been the soundtrack. If you have been following this column regularly and have thus watched any of the series (and if you have been inspired to do so by this column, thanks very much) you will know that most anime series tend to have separate opening and closing music and title sequences, lasting around 90 seconds. The songs that are used for these sequences: “Kuniduke Diamond” by a male band called “WEAVER”, and “CANDY MAGIC” by female band “mimimemeMIMI” have both attracted a lot of positive feedback.

Other than this, you have the comedy between the relationships of the characters. Much of it comes from the fact that all the powers in the show are triggered by kissing, so not only is there the problem of trying to get the kiss in the first place, but then there is the issue of people not wanting to kiss for various reasons: for example, boy-on-boy kissing.

At times however, it has to be said the plot seems a bit slow, and at times it does not follow the same chronology as the original manga. Also, the manga is 17 volumes long, but this anime is currently only scheduled for 12 episodes so it is seemingly going to end up short. Hopefully another series will be commissioned otherwise many people will feel somewhat disappointed.

However, judging by what has gone out, it is still a fun show to watch.

Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches is streamed on Crunchyroll.

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