Re:CREATORS – The Protagonist’s Struggle to Shine

recreatorsA friend of mine once ran a panel on how to create fictional characters. One of the things he mentioned was that a character’s silhouette is a good way to assess how well a character is defined, at least visually. If the character is recognizable from the silhouette alone, the creators did a good job. This grading tool is appropriate to most game characters or shounen-esque figures from anime or manga, but I’d argue it’s not very useful when creating characters that look normal. So when a show like Re:CREATORS decided to put an ordinary high school boy like Mizushino Souta next to an assembly of visually strong characters from books and media that he is a fan of, it’s no surprise some of the viewers have Souta written off as a self-insert.

The reason why everybody hates self-inserts is that they are a relic from a time when media literacy wasn’t as high as it is today. Aside from giving the viewer an angle from which he or she is comfortable experiencing the story – in this case an anime fan with an unadventurous high school life – there’s not much merit to be had with them. But gaming culture that came to prominence only reinforced the need to have a character like that around. The problem is that the self-insert is already a well-studied device and makes some people uncomfortable merely by being present, by unwittingly generalizing them.

I’m writing this because I have a strong suspicion that Re:CREATORS is trying to do something more with Souta. That there’s a connection between him and Military Uniform Princess and that he has a role to play is obvious enough and really not something to write home about. But the one visual sign that forbids me from thinking of him as a self-insert is the scene from episode 1 where he walks upstairs to his bedroom. Series composition decided on a first-person perspective, but the interesting thing about its atypical camera positioning is that it’s situated between his eyeballs where his nose is. The edges of his glasses are visible and appear to be blurred, indicating it’s not Souta who’s watching him climb the stairs, but rather us, the viewers. This scene is trying to say Souta is his own character with his own unique eyeglass prescription, separating him from the viewer he is by convention supposed to fill in for.

Souta receiving such careful treatment signifies the series’ ambitious nature with what it wants to say. At the surface level, Re:CREATORS is set up in fashion of a typical Battle Royale story that pits characters from different worlds with obviously different worldviews against each other. The verbal standoff in episode 2 between Selecia Upitiria and Kirameki Mamika is a good example. Selecia drives Mamika into a corner by the sense she is making, arguing against Mamika’s simplistic views, forcing her to lash out in a very childish and expected manner. Selecia countering Mamika’s words before she even had a chance to say what she was thinking was hilarious not just because she was putting a child back to her rightful place, but because Mamika’s island mentality rests at the core of every good Battle Royale-type story.

In the original Battle Royale, a group of classmates is kidnapped and taken to an island where they fight each other to death. As it turns out the illusion of a harmonious classroom is shattered when survival is at stake. The only way to win the game is by killing God that put them in this scenario in the first place. Anime shows like Mirai Nikki, Death Note, and Re:CREATORS derive the drive for their characters to become or replace Gods from the same place this iconic piece of cinema did. But Selecia’s refutals are just too good and strike too close to what makes these shows tick. Re:CREATORS has proven it knows what it’s doing, and for that I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Some of the dismissive commentary is justified though. Souta has undeniably been the passive protagonist, driving the story by proxy of somehow being related to Military Uniform Princess. In a way, it feels like the show is willing to let Souta take the back seat whilst holding their relationship secret until the appropriate moment. But it’s not like passive protagonists haven’t been a thing even in some of the most highly acclaimed anime. One example of that would be Hoshi no Koe, where the protagonist is merely keeping contact with the girl he likes, while she’s off fighting aliens in the depths of space and time. Passive protagonists that have beautiful fighting girls carrying out the actual fighting for them, as is the relationship between Souta and the girls on his side, are a characteristic of sekai-kei – a story genre that usually features a small group of characters influencing the state of the world without intervention of the world at large. Now, this assertion would be a stretch if it weren’t for the fact the show is firmly planted in survival-kei tradition. The most important thing to keep in mind when talking about sekai-kei and survival-kei is that the tropes behind them are just two sides of the same coin. Whilst the main heroine from a sekai-kei story unconditionally loves the protagonist and fights for him against an Other, characters from a Battle Royale-type story mercilessly antagonize anyone that doesn’t conform to their worldview.

“I might be you, or I might not be, but I’m sure I’m somewhere close to you.”

I’m not 100% confident to proclaim what this show is trying to do, but it has gathered all the ingredients to cook up significant meta commentary. That being said, I am kind of fed up with shows that just bank on appealing to the viewer’s pride of their knowledge of tropes. Therefore, if Re:CREATORS wants to make a statement while being meta as fuck, finding a way to elevate the passive self-insert into an actual main character may just be the noble goal that it needs.

Overshadowed by more striking figures from his life, Souta is content with being the narrator of this story, or so he says. Though I think him saying that just shows a certain lack of confidence. As Mirokuji hints, the characters that were chosen and brought over by Military Uniform Princess leave lasting impressions. He was probably speaking in general terms, but he’s right, the characters are cool and leave an impression on people. On ordinary high schoolers. Perhaps even on a particular high school boy that happened to name each of them, off the top of his head, immediately after he saw them. I’m certain that by the end Souta will have learned that “the story that surpasses all stories” is none other than his own. Our own story.

State of Slovenian Fandom 2017

[I figured I’d write some thoughts on Makkon, but then my writing just sort of devolved into a rant on the sorry state of anime fandom in Slovenia. Below is the edited version of the initial attempt.]

I was running a panel on anime pilgrimages at Makkon 2016, the annual anime convention in Ljubljana running for the fifth year now. Here are a couple of slides from the presentation. I put a lot of hours into this one, but the response wasn’t what I’d hoped for.

I named my panel “Po stopinjah risanih romanc krog jezera Kizaki” (tl. Following the Footsteps of Animated Romances ’round Lake Kizaki). I thought it was clever, I thought it captured everything that I wanted to talk about. Big mistake! I should have just titled it “6 Places You Need to Visit While in Japan”, “Anime IRL”, or anything similarly stupid with enough baiting potential. I actually submitted a brief description of the talk to my handler before the event and said that the title alone would probably not be enough to capture people’s attention. I was right. In the end Makkon’s schedule didn’t include it, it wasn’t published on the event’s Facebook page etc. I sort of expected that to happen, but whatever.

The panel didn’t draw much of a crowd compared to last year’s. I accepted the 30 minutes that were offered to me, in retrospect it wasn’t enough to have a comfortable panel. The presenter before me didn’t prepare well enough and went over time, and so I put myself under even more pressure to finish my bit early. I do think the presentation itself went well, as I had a stern critic scrutinizing it during my practice runs. The response from the people that actually attended was so-so. Due to the aforementioned time constraints I couldn’t develop a conversation with them, something I wanted to do. As for the nature of the material, I knew of the pitfalls beforehand. Generally people don’t like listening to other people’s travelogues, they want to be experiencing those places themselves. I pessimistically assume this because I’m like that. It’s just that I’ve been a regular customer at a travel-themed bar for the past five years now which hosts travelogues throughout the year. Every time one took place, the house was packed. The sense of security I got was false.

To those of you that did come, thank you. Still, even though the panel was a passion project, I expected to see more interest. I would have been far more at ease had I seen people walk into the lecture hall just to see what was going on. Couldn’t even get that! The signaling here is that the local fandom simply doesn’t have an interest in more studious topics (seichi junrei is a big topic). That, coupled with the way things have been for the past three years, has filled me with disappointment and disgust over the casual nature of local fandom. Even though it has grown tremendously and more Slovenians are watching anime than ever before, there hasn’t been much fan activity in Slovenia outside these events. Now let me tell you why that’s bad and why I fear for the future of it all.

Obviously conventions are run by people. Some time ago I was reading about Uppcon, which used to be a Swedish anime convention hosted in Uppsala, growing at a tremendous rate, boasting attendance numbers of over 3000. This was a fan-run event, dozens of volunteers, it had its own convention culture. There was little reason to intentionally discontinue it after 2012, it had a steady stream of volunteers, and yet it did close its doors. The founders wanted to do other projects and didn’t want to deal with economics of scale, so decided to end it on a high note. In any case, fan projects end for one reason or another. People grow up and find other interests – that is the way of anime fans. In Slovenia it happened to Second Impact, it happened to AnimeSlovenija, in happened to SloDub, AnimeSeirei, and even SloAnime. And yet, there was always somebody else there to pick up the slack. Not any longer.

Even though there was a lot of infighting back in those days, our fandom was productive. Anime translations, fanzine and magazine articles, anime news websites, discussion forums. It. Was. Active. That Makkon had found success and that attendance is growing has blinded us from the fact that outside of these events there’s barely any public fan activity happening. Worse, all these events have had the same core staff for a number of years now, and that by now it’s safe to say they joined us oldfags.

Don’t think for a second that what happened to Uppcon can’t happen to Makkon! In a couple of years when current heads graduate and decide to maybe build their families and take on more responsibility, who is going to take over the helm? And I’m not just talking about Makkon here. We have a couple of events similar to Makkon spread across the year, but they have the same issues Makkon has. They represent a concentrated fan fix, and are currently ran by relatively old fans. Our generation was producing fan output in our teens, whereas I struggle to find any active fans anywhere near those years.

The situation could probably be worse, however it’s important to recognize that we had a relatively productive scene in the past, levels above today’s. For example, I only need one hand to count the number of active Slovenian fans who are highly knowledgeable about anime, manga, or fandom studies.

I encourage every Slovenian reading this rant to share it around and step up their game. People need to be aware what is (not) happening. I suggest that if you love something about anime or manga, find some time to do fan stuff and share it with others. Your knowledge, your fan works, take on new projects, display your passion. Publicly, not just behind closed doors or on foreign websites. Perhaps even (*gasp*) in Slovenian language. We have zombie forums that need activity. Joker’s ancient Japanka subforum, Akazukin.moe‘s Slovenian exchange, or maybe some other website outside walled gardens that are your online social networks. It’s great to see so many cosplayers at Makkon, and a few artists making a name for themselves, but aside from that this fandom doesn’t have much going for it. Please recognize this and act!

I’m doing my part. If you’re not doing yours and don’t feel like getting involved with the scene either, at least show your gratitude to event organizers that are doing all of this on their own dime and time. Believe me, it helps with motivation. But when that motivation fails us or old age takes us, someone else will have to take over. Start preparing for that day, or watch the local scene fall to even bigger ruin.

Yuri!!! On ICE and Model Dynamics

Yuri On Ice was one of those shows from the season that you simply couldn’t ignore, as it has become a runaway success in terms of social media engagement. I’m still stuck on the fourth episode, waiting to watch the rest as soon as the BD rips come out, but the fact it has become a mainstream, even global success, makes it hard to resist the temptation of analysing what it did right.

I’ve been using the word “model” on this blog quite generously this year, in various posts for various different domains. So it’s fitting (no pun intended) that I write today how Yuri On Ice consciously or unconsciously exploited concrete examples of models to gain itself the following that it has.

First of, there is the model city of Karatsu, which is used as inspiration for Yuuri’s hometown of Hasetsu. Using real-life locations as models for parts of anime fiction has become a common practice in anime production, already for a good part of the last decade. This approach has more upsides than downsides, but I’ve discussed them on here in sufficient capacity already.

The show also paid homage to various legendary figure skaters, their clothes and routines … Real people have been used for inspiration, to the point Yuuri has been quite aggressively equaled to Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyuu. We know what kind of fan would do such a thing, so we won’t discuss them. But I have a proposition here why this is going to continue happening.

Obviously some producers will try to copy the show’s success and come to the same conclusions that I have: own reality, and command attention. The usage of models, be them geographic locations or real people, will continue and only intensify in future productions. That various figure skaters have given the show so much attention and brought in their own fans might be allowed to be seen as a wonderful accident this time around. But when a producer makes plans for a future anime show in which he’ll try to replicate the same modeling trick from Yuri On Ice, then the practice falls under ethical scrutiny.

Previously I’ve shown you photos of my trip to Lake Kizaki, which was one model location for the Onegai! Twins TV series. The house of the protagonists does exist, but it is also private property. This begs the question whether the people living there deserve to have their thoughts on the matter ignored every time a fan takes a photo of their property without permission. The founder of P.A.Works defended their modeling practices from accusations of it inconveniencing neighborhoods, saying their shows are smart about it and avoid featuring locations with private housing. He characterized the fictional Bonbori Festival from Hanasaku Iroha – which was then turned into a real festival at the model location – as a gift to the locals. The problem I have with his argument is that the establishment of this festival dramatically changed the place. Even though the festival is of traditional sort, it is fake in every sense, but accepted because it provides financial opportunities to the locals.

Likewise both the anime medium and figure skaters themselves have more fans to gain from each others’ fandoms, but that doesn’t come without a price. Karice67, who has been a very fervent Yuri On Ice poster on Twitter, had one of her tweets go viral. It was a plea to fans saying they should make distinctions between being-model existences like Hanyuu-Yuuri.

I’m sympathetic, but also afraid that we’re getting more of this kind of approach to marketing sooner than we’d like, and the deviant behaviors stemming from it are going to be relativized and given blessing. Perhaps by figure skaters themselves. The thing to remember here is that fandom exchanges are not unfair trades – some anime fans get to learn about figure skating, and some figure skating fans get exposed to the wonderful world of Japanese animation.

The pretense here is that we’re not supposed to equate the real and fictional. It’s a disturbing step to make, but when it’s producers themselves who are encouraging it then I think it’s better to drop it. I’m willing to bet there’s already a show in the pipeline that’s going to take a closer look at another domain, like figure skating, that has lots of pretty boy (or girl) superstars ripe for model exploitation. These shows will be made for fans to compare models to fictional characters, to then have the option to inconvenience them in real life.

Here’s hoping 2017 does less tourist anime and returns back to being actually creative instead of using models for everything.

The Limits of Discussion Growth

In one of his latest videos, Digibro talks about anime research culture and how it’s been growing, pointing to the tragic aspect of the conversation how regular fans are unable to keep up with it. He wishes for researchers and content creators to organize better so that fans could have an easier time engaging it. While I generally want to see that happen as well, over the years I’ve heard the core of this sentiment expressed so many times I have a hard time taking it seriously. It’s one of those lofty ideas that people romanticize about, but in reality it’s near impossible to implement, because regular anime fans are far more interested in the robe Digibro is wearing than the creators or researchers he name-drops in his videos.

Others have already commented, like @Owningmatt93 who wants to see an outlet that would aggregate well-researched content and make it more accessible to regular fans. In my reply to him I alluded to the following points:

1. Content creators reject gatekeepers

We have four amazing anime databases, namely ANN Encyclopedia, AniDB, MAL, and AniList, yet none of these have any expansive trivia sections for their entries. Leaving out the more superficial reasons for why that is, quite simply it’s because fans have not been campaigning for them. Not a whole lot of researchers, who have devoted excessive hours to developing their expertise, are interested in their work becoming a mere footnote. They want to be regarded as experts respective of subject matter, that’s why almost everybody is posting their expertise on their personal blogs, Twitter, Ask.fm, or Patreon. Even if you don’t agree with the notion of personal brands, that’s where the game is at. The only way to offset this problem is through bypassing researchers and their ambitions altogether.

2. We’d basically need a search engine of sorts dedicated to anime research

How about creating a content aggregator, a Google for anime, that automatically searches and aggregates anime knowledge based on either anime titles or other taxonomies for more structured browsing? I have some experience building information retrieval and extraction systems like that, needless to say any such venture would require a hefty time investment. That being said, it can be done. Finding information, extracting content from different media, enriching it with metadata, then organizing it based on this metadata. That’s what we’re looking for.

One fine approach to organizing it in a way that’s fair and user-independent is Google’s PageRank algorithm. Its most basic implementation works by ranking websites based on their notoriety. For any given search phrase, websites that have the most links pointed to them by other websites for that same topic get listed at the top. PageRank thus enables content aggregators to reward content that has seemingly contributed the most to the conversation.

I’m doing all sorts of anime-related information projects, so this kind of proposal feels like a natural extension to my work. While it is tempting …

3. Building yet another anime database is too much work, wiki sites do a good enough job already

I remember seeing a couple of wikis with amazing communities, such as the Puella Magi Wiki where people went ham on translating related Japanese articles from creators, critics, and industry insiders. It’s amazing what crowdsourcing can achieve if experts who love the subject matter engage with content head on. But Madoka is only one title, one of the more popular ones at that, which brings me to my last point …

4. Fans don’t love anime enough

At least not as much as some of us would like to see. This isn’t a No true Scotsman. Maintaining a critical and informed community of any scope is tough. It only takes one generation of fans to phase itself out and discourage the diehards who had invested time in teaching them the ropes. When one generation moves on to greener pastures and a new one rolls in, the standard of discourse gets deleveled. If you’ve ever been involved in community building, you’ll know that maintaining that standard is an endless struggle.

The only constant in this story are the diehards, which is why I’m fine with personal brand building. They are support structures like any other. If regular fans are able to at the very least point to authorities in the field, then that’s fine. Whether those authorities know shit is a different conversation, but in practice this model does a good enough starter job for the people who are interested in learning more about the hobby.

In the end, it’s not just a matter of delivery or accessibility. Regular fans will need to change as well if we want the conversation to be of higher volume, and of higher quality. The recent sentiments coming out of Japan about the death of “otaku” are not very encouraging. The propensity for engaging complex conversations is likely generational, so based on that signalling I think it’s okay to be a little pessimistic and assume the worst has yet to arrive.

Fune o Amu – The Great Escape

For the discussion at hand I think it’s necessary to point out that there hasn’t been a shortage of anime aimed at adults since the 1980s. However, shows that also feature adult characters and adulthood are a completely different story. Supposedly there’s been an increase of them lately, and while I can’t be bothered to check the statistical relevance of that observation, I don’t think it matters even if the increase turns out to be negligent. What’s more important is that shows like Usagi Drop and this time around Fune wo Amu have finally been able to capture our attention. But is this new trend a consequence of fans getting older and them being able to understand the mindset of a working person, or have we somehow been tricked into watching them, much like it is the case with any other cute girls show?

Shirobako
Overworked adults or moe blobs?

Shirobako is a great example to start off with. The work is being paraded around by fans who are more than willing to point to its use of adult characters and motifs because of its success. I’m thrilled as well that a show like this exists, but I suspect some critics will have difficulty admitting that cute character designs and their innocent demeanor also had something to do with that. Admitting this would supposedly diminish the seriousness of the work, even if we ignore that girls who look like they were in high school occupy the majority of screen time.

What about shows like Fune wo Amu then? The story of it is set in a rundown publishing house, not in high school, while the cast of mostly male characters is not particularly well-suited for ogling. If you’re not a fan of any particular voice actor, which are few, you might start to wonder where the hook is. Is it possible that the show believes in being unique is enough to catch people’s attention? Or perhaps it has bitterly rejected the idea of pandering to any and all established fan groups?

In order to answer that, the first thing to note is that the show shares some similarities with Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, in that they both explore what could be described as closing worlds. The world of rakugo has to deal with shrinking audiences and an impoverished talent pool. Overabundance of alternative entertainment compels one of the characters to defy his master for the sake of his art. The world of publishing is facing similar trials. Consider that The Great Passage is scheduled to take ten years to complete. Detached from the main building the dictionary department has continued living their own reality, employing a method that they’ve known has worked for ages. But times have changed. Their publishing model sounds absurd for today’s world, and while the department’s sense of self-importance may come across as endearing, with hindsight it’s hard for us today not to characterize it as naïve or out of touch.

The shortcomings of the dictionary department mirror those of the protagonist. Majime Mitsuya lives in analogue paradise. He sleeps in a room surrounded by books and he doesn’t fancy a cellphone. Instead, he socializes with his elderly landlady, who is a thoroughbred of the Shouwa period. Much like him and his books, his department is incredibly wasteful with space, taking up huge storage rooms when their editors could all just learn to use a computer. The kicker is that we’re talking about paper publishing in the year of 2000, a time in which smart phones and elastic search still didn’t exist. Around that time paper publishing had gone over its peak and fell into decline. Subtle hints of an economic downturn, such as Sasaki being employed as a temporary worker, also help to illustrate that the story has been set in time right before shit hits the fan – before technology changes communication, publishing, and human interaction forever.

Microsoft Excel 97 Anime
Microsoft Excel 97, code-named The Doom Bringer

The overhanging doom instructs the viewer to savor what little peace of mind the editorial staff still enjoys. In a sense the show is lamenting that contemporary life should be more like this. The ecosystem that supported tedious ventures such as frequent dictionary revisions allowed editorial departments to spend attention to detail, but in today’s high-frequency publishing that becomes a pricey commodity. Personally I don’t see the current publishing situation as tragic as some might. When it comes to dictionaries, traditional hardcover editions haven’t been very handy for at least a decade. They are a symbol of prestige and appreciation for language itself, but for their original purpose we rather use online search engines or wiki sites, where new meanings and dank memes are constantly being documented and curated by thousands of people, essentially for free.

That being said I personally work in IT, so my view of the situation may not be shared by many people, especially not by Japanese with an education in humanities or similar. But this also gives me the distance to notice that some people may be more ripe than others for being exploited in terms of entertainment. Consider that Fune wo Amu was serialized in a woman’s lifestyle magazine, and the fact that humanities courses in Japan have been dominated by female students for decades. This year I’ve been following more anime shows aimed at women than ever before. Going through the full list, however, it’s just impossible to ignore that the most popular ones share a certain affinity for history or culture. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, Touken Ranbu, Drifters, Natsume Yuujinchou all exploit this sensibility.

Fune wo Amu aims at a certain branch of intellectuals by expressing sorrow for old souls like Majime. More generally though it is trying to appeal to our sense of loss and pressure to evolve in order to keep up with the rest of the world. So while it’s nice that we’re getting more shows with adult characters, I would be hesitant to put them on a pedestal just for this, when insofar these shows have only demonstrated a penchant for escapist storytelling. Knowing that being an otaku and searching for an escape are intrinsically intertwined and diametrically opposed to an image of a responsible adult, I can’t make sense of the distortion that this realization evokes. But I think it’s fair to say that just having more shows prominently featuring adulthood is a good first step to discovering a less childish storytelling model.

The Social Structure of the Anime Industry

How does the anime industry look like if we try putting its abstract social structure into form, without knowing a whole lot about it? I posted a web app this morning that tries to accomplish just that. It’s a bit simpler than the image render below, but it’s got the benefit of interaction. Be patient, loading may take a while!

Anime Creators Network
The Social Network

So to make a long story short, I tried visualizing how staffers from different anime projects are connected to each other. I wanted to see if there is structure to their social network and how that might benefit our understanding of certain communities forming within it. The process involved querying ANN’s Anime Encyclopedia for relevant staff information. All that was needed after that was a bit of grunt work to build the social graph. Each dot in it represents a professional who is credited as having worked on anime. Each line connecting any two dots is to imply that the two professionals represented by them have worked on at least one anime together. In graph theory, the dots and the lines are called vertices and edges. In this graph visualization, dot size increases proportionally to the number of edges that a vertex has. Color intensity of edges tries to convey the level of collaboration between two persons, meaning that if they worked on many shows together, the color of their edge would be more intense.

While it would be nice to know just how much interaction there is between staffers of different companies, I’ve taken the liberty to simplify the model by assuming that everybody who has been credited for a certain anime title knows everybody else credited for that title. In the real world, an in-betweener working for a subcontractor is very unlikely to ever interact with an anime’s main producer, for example. But I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine that it would not be impossible for him to do so if he wanted to. It’s funny to think about these loosely defined connections, because in my country of Slovenia most favors and business transactions are facilitated by knowing a guy who sort of knows the guy who has the thing that we want. In light of that, this graph should be taken as a low-effort approach to solving the problem. For serious researchers I suggest strengthening the dataset with more and better data. The edges especially need more relevant attributes.

Some of the questions may be a bit too hard to answer without looking at the raw data though, so let’s do that right now. Who are the most connected people in the industry anyway, going by the metric that we just described? Who can make favors happen the fastest?

  1. Tsuruoka Yota (sound director): 1448 edges
  2. Sakata Junichi (director): 1426 edges
  3. Mima Masafumi (sound director): 1399 edges
  4. Taniguchi Moriyasu (animation director): 1360 edges
  5. Okazaki Yukio (episode director): 1332 edges
  6. Honda Yasunori (sound director): 1328 edges

To me it’s not all that surprising that the most connected people would be directors, but them being sound directors I thought was interesting nonetheless. Still, there are other connectivity metrics to consider. If we wanted to know how easy it would be for a person to contact anyone from the industry, anyone at all, regardless of the degree of separation, we would need to think of something else. Here, a closeness centrality measure comes in handy. Taking that over node degree measure, the ranking above doesn’t change all that much, but a producer named Okuda Seiji ladders up and passes Taniguchi.

The web app requires some patience to work with. It’s a bit slow due to the fact that the browser needs to draw whopping 11828 vertices and 563177 edges from a 50 MB dataset on a single thread. Do note that the graph omits voice actors and foreign language release staffers. The former mostly due to the fact that my computer’s memory is limited, not to mention all desktop software that I tried had problems visualizing more than a million edges. The latter because I wanted to focus on the Japanese side.

If you’re interested in the code that I’ve written for this project, take a look at the GitHub repo. I used Gephi for visualizing the graph. As always, comments and errata are appreciated.

Movie Review: Kimi No Na Wa

Over the last week I’ve seen a few people shaking heads or simply being overly skeptic of the hype surrounding Shinkai Makoto’s latest feature-length film. I’m usually put off by hype as well, and where I’m currently staying at it was impossible to avoid. Tokyo’s trains and buildings have been plastered with advertisements for it, big and small, Akihabara’s stores had the trailer playing on repeat, and after the Japanese premiere a few days ago many have decided to crown Shinkai as the next Miyazaki Hayao. However, after mustering up the will to buy the damn ticket for tonight’s show, I can confirm that Your Name justifies a lot of what is being voiced about the film. It was that good.

Kimi no Na wa is a story about a boy and a girl, Taki and Mitsuha. The former lives in the megalopolis of Tokyo, the latter in a beautiful rural town near Hida city. Mitsuha in particular is tired of her seemingly boring life and can’t wait to get out of the boonies. Her wish comes true when heavenly circumstances make possible for the boy and the girl to switch places, namely through body swapping. How does the pair deal with this sudden and unexpected change? And what should they do with their new set of extremities? Can they touch them or not?

The plot is laid out to us in the first three minutes of the movie, suggesting there will be no room for pretense. Basically, the viewer is let in on exactly what he’s going to get. Later on the major twist complicates things quite a bit, making the story into a bigger postmodern fantasy than it seems at the offset, but the general direction of where it’s supposed to be going doesn’t change. The first third of the movie is loads of fun. Watching the two getting used to their new bodies and unfamiliar lives produced many a chuckle. I was surprised that they went for boob jokes right from the get-go, still they were all made in good taste. I overheard a conversation among women in the audience who thought Mitsuha’s sister Yotsuha was a cutie, which is something I can wholeheartedly agree with. Her no-funny-business antics especially make her a real treat. Taki’s character is at its best when Mitsuha is occupying his body, otherwise he’s not that much different from your regular Japanese high school boy archetype. I do agree that him occupying Mitsuha’s body is crucial to her charm, and to her development later on. Though I don’t want to make this into a He versus She thing, I felt like her core character design was simply more interesting. I mean, a priestess whose sacred duty is to produce sake by chewing rice with her mouth? I’m in love again.

The following is a spoiler that I cannot avoid if I want to be more constructive, but the biggest gripe I see people having will be the rules and mechanics of communication between overlapping worlds. The main characters are happily switching places with one another, but after a while the need to meet up in person begins pressing on them. Sounds trivial enough, but here’s the problem: the memories of the time they spend in the other person’s body quickly fade away. The feeling, as they describe it, is similar to waking up from an elaborate dream that you can’t fully remember. This limitation makes it hard for them to write down essentials such as their home addresses, or even their names.

Of course there’s a reason for the way things are, but the real problem I see are the mechanics they used to bypass them. By the end they are both grasping for straws to solve the big problem, to the point they could be seen as dabbling in the occult if Shintoistic aesthetics weren’t part of the movie. The solutions they need to reach are all symbolic and sort of just dangling right in front of them. The Miyamizu lineage of female priestesses, their mouth-chewed sake ceremony, the grandmother’s perception of knotting as flow of time, the twilight effect, and the ever-so-potent power of love. The movie leaves Taki no choice but to tunnel-vision on some of these without any real guesswork, which is really the only problem I have with the story’s progression.

Let’s turn to animation. Some cuts, like the animated time lapses of Tokyo’s skylines, were so beautiful you couldn’t help but tear up. Tokyo Station and Yoyogi Park were out on full display, not to mention the gorgeous rural scenery from Mitsuha’s town. Character animation was what you’d expect it to be from a production of this caliber, still the backgrounds and effects work is where I’d say the money is at. I remember getting a bit distracted by the animation switching from hand-drawn to rendered in a few places, however with the amount of detail put into every frame you can write off this complaint as ultimately nitpicky.

The music was okay. It wasn’t bad or anything, but nothing exceptional to write home about either. The RADWIMPS vocal though, for some reason one of the songs is still playing in my head on repeat, and it’s getting super annoying. Maybe because the vocal reminds me of BUMP OF CHICKEN.

Okay, now that we’ve covered basically everything pertaining to the movie itself, there are a couple of related things that I want to talk about. First, I feel like I have to restate a few things that I said recently, namely about anime productions that use real-world locations for modeling their settings. It’s no secret that Shinkai himself uses them quite often, but to tell you the truth it’s a practice that I, as a fan of Japanese animation, have silently been brewing contempt for. Photographs of real locations used not as tools for inspiration, but rather shameless production materials have been trending in the anime production business for the past ten years. The resulting backgrounds tend to look great, the process makes production easier, and the fans love them. Satou Dai, better known for his work on Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, has in the past expressed negativity toward these types of productions. For the aforementioned reasons he compared them to a drug, one that takes “creative” out of “creative process.”

Over the years I’ve grown to agree with the old man, because to be quite frank some of the recent productions have gone way overboard with promoting tourism. Take Amanchu for example. I haven’t seen the show, I only got to see a few posters, and I can tell you those were enough to turn me off completely. On them, the main character is making poses as if she were a tourist guide who’d love to show me around, rather than a character who cares about what happens in her own life. However, now that I’ve spent a few weeks in Tokyo I got to experience something close to what I imagine local residents get to experience when watching such shows. Seeing the same skyscraper scenery, riding the same trains on the Yamanote Line, and experiencing the same Tokyoite consumerist culture as pictured in the anime I can understand why Japanese fans love it. It’s one thing to look at the backgrounds, think they’re pretty, then visit the locations out of curiosity, but it’s something else entirely if you see the redrawn “Fun! Tokyo!” posters that advertised this very fucking movie to you weeks before you actually saw it! Backgrounds modeled after real places form a deep emotional bond with fans who are living out their everyday in those same places. I still don’t have to like the lazy principals behind the practice, or where it’s taken the anime genre as a whole, but I can understand why it’s so hard to let go of it.

The other thing that I wanted to touch up on was the Shinkai versus Miyazaki debate. I’ve seen every major Shinkai work to date, and one thing that is strikingly obvious from the evolution of his opus is that the guy has slowly warmed up to the idea of more accessible storylines. His first notable work was Voices of a Distant Star, which was a sci-fi flick made for otaku by an otaku. Beyond the Clouds was a beautiful, thought-provoking work, yet in spite of that many people don’t seem to like it. Why? Because overall it’s a clinically boring experience. And, don’t get me wrong, 5cm Per Second was visually stunning and everything, but it was still depressing as all hell.

Then we get to Children Who Chase Lost Voices. I loved this one for its clear and precisely laid out story. The artist took a step back, seeing with far better clarity where he shouldn’t overburden the viewer. His symbolism was universally understood, yet remained intellectually inoffensive. The Garden of Words that followed was short and sweet, to which Shinkai added a touch of provocation. At the same time, he kicked it up a notch with the artistry.

Shinkai directed his best stories when he wasn’t being too selfish with what he wanted to say. Miyazaki was the same in that regard, with Howl’s Moving Castle being his last widely appreciated work. Both of these guys became the talk of the street for their feel-good movies. They both have their own quirky artistic wishes, and it’s hard to assign rank whose are worse, but I think you get the point. Shinkai’s stories have changed for the better. Taki and Mitsuha may have struggled reaching each other through the fabric separating their realities, but at least they didn’t let themselves be thrown into utter despair. In contrast, the flacid protagonist from Byosoku 5cm simply chose to remain miserable. Miyazaki’s self-indulgence produced similar defects. In Howl’s Moving Castle he made the world of magic and wonder accessible to both children and adults, unlike in Ponyo from which he barred basically everyone over the age of nine.

What I’m trying to say is that the director standing in front of us now has finally matured. He doesn’t get hell-bent on portraying the extremes of his pet peeves anymore. Your Name has a story that was a joy to watch, fast-paced with zero downtime and little room for the director wallowing in self-reflection. Aside from the storyboard, the movie’s staff demonstrated a level of technical proficiency which is currently unrivaled in the feature-length film space. Not by Kyoto Animation and not by Studio Ghibli. Skeptics who aren’t prepared to dethrone Miyazaki just yet might be able to argue against the growing chorus of Shinkai supporters, but their struggle is missing the point. Shinkai Makoto is still a relatively young guy who still has time to polish his storytelling and steady his guiding hand, which is why I can’t wait to see what he’ll bring out in the coming decades.