Please enjoy this hilarious and informative panel on how to be the best possible writer through research from AnimeFest 2021.
A Soft Defense of Axis Powers: Hetalia from an Old Hetalia Fan
When the news broke that we’d be getting a new Hetalia animated series in 2021, I wanted to be happy. I wanted to celebrate and relive my glory days in a fandom that came to define so much of my life but I didn’t feel like I could. Over the years, the anime and the fandom that surrounds it has been a, to be honest, mostly deserved problematic mess due to the series’ subject matter and what some in the fandom do. But, some bad apples were never meant to spoil the bunch and thus, I write to you all, a small defense of Hetalia from one old fan who wants to taste glory again.
It was college, my first year and my first time really being away from friends and family for an extended period of time. I was alone, struggling and felt overwhelmed and afraid. My mental health was in the trash bin and I mostly suffered quietly reassuring my aunts and mom that I was fine and making friends when in all honesty I mostly ate lunch alone in my dorm and had to wait for my two roommates to be out of the room to do anything that I actually liked doing. This was before the Glorianna of my junior and senior years running the anime club and was me at my worst: isolated, insecure and overwhelmed. I had given up a lot of my anime and manga in the transition to college, desperately hoping that the intense fandoms I held in my “youth” would be the phase my aunt asserted it would be. I went to college trying to pretend like that part of me didn’t exist and failed in the second part of the semester. I was back into anime due mostly to a slate of series that would end up becoming formative to me thanks to RP and my then best friend, Nicole. It was thanks to her that I was brought into a little series called Axis Powers: Hetalia. Hetalia is a play on words for the Japanese words for useless and Italia for Italy. The series features around personified countries during mostly World War II but also has some other periods of time mentioned throughout history and modernity. The series mostly centers around the Axis Powers: Northern Italy, Germany and Japan and their struggle against the Allied Powers: England, France, America, China, Russia and whoever else decides to join them for the sake of narrative.
You can see the inherent issue, right? Japan has a long history with not seeing WWII so much as a bad thing but a strangely fun part of history. To this day you can see people in Waffen SS uniforms for the sake of style and clout just walking around. Japan’s problematic love-love relationship with Germany and Nazi paraphernalia is not something I have time to go into in full here, but needless to say; Hetalia suffers majorly from the bias of a Japanese man who wrote a comic as a racist joke while he was living in New York and continued on to impress upon the world his biased history of the world. Taken as writ, Hetalia is kawaii propaganda and I loved every second of it.
The countries have dynamic character designs and personalities: the history is loose but hey, that’s not why I was there. I was sold from day one. I had characters I fell in love with, ships I wanted to sail and navigate and more importantly, it gave me something to do with my time. See, Hetalia, for having such a weak plot has a ton of trivia attached to it. Each country has a human name, a birthday, things they like and don’t like and complex relationships not just tied to history. There are character songs, drama CDs, each country has their own version of the ending theme song not to mention at least 2 character songs that can tell you so much about them and their history that you’ll never learn in the main series of manga. There were interactive flash games, the original webcomic and oh the fandom flourished.
Hetalia is the best kind of series for fangirls active in the shipping arts; it’s sort of a boy’s love by omission. Most of the female characters are so weakly written that they don’t matter and most of the countries are male and often enter marriages or alliances with each other or have very close bonds with each other due to shared history. You could, in theory, make an argument for any ship and likely there was historical, social or political context for it beyond just the show putting them in a scene together. Immediately, I was enraptured. I spent time learning human names and birthdays (many of which I still know to this day), learning and translating character songs and writing; oh the writing. I carved up the map with my friends, laying claim to countries and taking a masturbatory pride in whose flag we claimed. The flags I flew and still do fly to this day are: France and Austria but I laid claim to many other countries. The series was exactly what I needed to help me connect to others.
But immediately, upon entering the wider fandom outside of my friend group; I was met with a group of mostly young girls that…well, let’s just say weren’t always on their best behavior. Now, I’m not here to shame DFW Hetalia: but their tactics to abuse badges is why so many panelists have to go through hell now to get badges for their volunteers; not to mention their clichy nature and less than high regard for public spaces: they were sharks in bad wigs. The rest of the fandom…well, let’s just say that the stories, no matter how horrible, are often true. Many have kept the Nazi parts of their uniforms on screeching that it’s costume accurate. Some have posed in front of concentration camps…some have done other Nazi stuff. I can’t believe I’m writing this. Honestly, I was never shocked by this behavior mostly because most anime fans are already so culturally abandoned as Americans that we’d willingly side with literally any other country and the narrative as writ in Hetalia that Japan only joined the Axis Powers to make new friends. Hetalia also does a very smart narrative trick where it asserts that the countries as we see them are more representatives and they have “bosses” (the leader du jour) that really control their movements. So Germany didn’t do a Holocaust, Germany’s boss (Hitler) did. It’s a great narrative tool: it keeps the characters sympathetic: like a good German soldier, Germany was just following orders.
To be clear, the bulk of the fandom isn’t running around as a bunch of cosplay fascists but the stories of bad behavior are hard to wipe away from the collective memory of the fandom and con world. Not to mention the real life consequences behind acting poorly. Think about the current angst that comes with being a fan of Harry Potter right now. It’s hard to distance yourself from the author’s objectively bad words and keep yourself steadily in the lane of fandom that doesn’t deny basic human rights to trans people. But now it feels almost dirty to be a Hetalia fan. The series has its own problematic elements if you ignore the less than perfect fandom and the less than perfect fandom is fed because the series is built on a problematic base. The rest of Hetalia centers around other world events and the movie doesn’t even talk about WWII. There is more to the series than its problematic base, but that will always be its foundation. It will always be a webcomic created by a man who clearly loves WWII and not so subtle casual racism and xenophobia.
But I’m still excited. I have made so many friends and made so many memories and got so much joy from this series. I was, and am, still a very proud Francis Bonnefoy and proud of the ships I sail. I’m proud of the headcanons and spirited conversations I’ve had. I’m proud of the nights I’ve spent up translating drama CDs and the pieces of trivia that are still in my mind a decade later. I’m still proud to be a fan of Hetalia but I am also so very aware of how very damaged this beautiful world I call home is.
The Anime Series That Made Me
So I have a birthday coming up and with that, my over two decade career in anime continues on. With that being said, I found anime and manga during a very formative part of my life and thus so many of the series I hold near and dear to me helped form my personality, my ethics, my values and forever shaped how I judge series to this very day. With nostalgia in mind, let’s go over a few of the series that made me, well, me.
Yes, I have found a way to talk about this anime in nearly every post I have written about the subject but I think that should tell you all just how near and dear to my heart this series is. The long and short of it is that Edward and Alphonse Elric have done a bad thing and the rest of the series is a redemption tour to fix the bad thing. Along the way there’s military intrigue, cool automail stuff and really really fantastic philosophical and ethical questions. I cannot stress to you enough how strongly I bonded with Edward as a teen. I was 15 when I started FMA, I was the same age as Edward when he began the series. I had also similarly lost a parent that meant the world to me and I also was trying to find a way to empirically rationalize my grief, guilt and loss. The soundtrack is fantastic, the dub (aside from one horrible human being that I want to ignore) is fantastic, the ending is great (because let’s not talk about Brotherhood or the movie) and no character is wasted. I went on a journey of maturity with Ed and Alphonse. I recited the mini skirt speech to my friends in high school, the names we gave each other were all from the series. Hell, in my former best friend’s phone I was Izumi for years in homage to Ed and Al’s teacher. To many I was Roy Mustang and I still am so proud of my pocket watch. Fullmetal Alchemist gave me something that I was missing in the shojo series I was meant to relate to and that was a protagonist with a struggle similar to mine. I didn’t have a traditional loving family and no problems at a teen so I couldn’t relate to the average shoujo protagonist: Edward gave me someone who in so many ways was actually like me and watching him struggle, fumble, grow, change and be better gave me the strength I needed to grow and change myself. We all carry the scars of our past, some are literal and others are more metaphorical but we all have two strong legs so we just need to get up and keep going forward.
You know, you’d think my family would have noticed that all of my tastes in anime were really dark and heavy. Cowboy Bebop is as close to perfect as I think an anime can get. But immediately there was something about this jazzy, usually mellow serious with bursts of bright action and violence that had me hooked from a very early age. I could go on about Bebop but that seems a little unfair to the other series on this list: I mean it’s about as close to perfect as I think anime can get from the soundtrack to the animation
There is no single anime that has shaped the fan I am to this day like InuYasha. My love of villains, my tastes in anime music, my admiration of side characters that push through pain and still smile. InuYasha set the bar for me, got me to write fanfic, got me to think about anime critically, got me to start studying the language and learn about the culture and about suffixes and and the history of the land. The image of Japan that is still set in my mind was framed and began with InuYasha.
You know, I may not talk about it a lot considering how badly the series wrapped up but good heavens this series meant so much to me while in high school. I was at a formative age and the large cast and ability to slot yourself into different affiliations and villages always as something special to me. To this day, I am proud of my village designation and whether or not I am Akatsuki. The answer to which is I usually claim Hidden Mist Village, Hidden Waterfall Village, Hidden Rain Village or Sand Village because why the hell not or Akatsuki Leaf or Sand.
Ouran High School Host Club
Okay, I don’t like shojo. I still don’t like shojo but wow, if you have noticed a type of character I like to cosplay, it was cemented that I liked being the charming host type. Now, in hindsight, this series is hella problematic and I really wish they had kept Haruhi as a boy but being able to have my friends and I slot into our respective roles gave us a language all of our. In my high school anime club, rank mattered and me being a Tamaki and my VP being Kyoya told new members and current members a lot about our personalities, roles, duties and dynamic: without even speaking to us the moment you heard us refer to each other as Mommy and Daddy you knew exactly what kind of club we ran.
Yes, yes, I’m talking about gay stuff again. But as I’ve said before, I helped figure out so much about myself and my identity by finding the language and world of Gravitation. To this day, Yuki Eiri informs so much of how I live my life and choose to interact with others (for better or worse). I was able to craft an entire other being within myself based on one character and find a truer version of me than I had previously known: if that isn’t influential, I’m not sure what else is.
I could easily go on (maybe a Part 2?) about more series that formed me. The more I looked at this list, the more series came to mind but for the sake of brevity and sanity, I wanted to get this out the door and to you, my readers.
Thanks for going down this nostalgic jaunt with me.
Make Voice Actors Sing Again
There was one point in my extended complaining about the sub vs. dub debate that didn’t fit neatly into any one category but there’s one place where the sub has always meant a great deal to me and that’s when voice actors really get to have fun either by singing insert, opening or closing themes or the more rare and beautiful art of the drama CD.
Now, where do I get off “demanding” voice actors become singers? Well, I don’t. I do absolutely think that they’re two different skill sets. I can’t expect a voice actor to sing and I can’t expect a singer to voice act: look at American movies hiring singers and comedians as VO artists assuming that they can do it with oftentimes mixed results. Sometimes we get a Seki Tomokazu who can do both or a Masaya Onasaka who likes taking any chance he can to sing but you can’t always expect for a trained voice over artist to want to be a singer as well. But there is a beautiful power in the moments when that expectation is met. I want to talk about the moments when voice actors using their talents can only add to a piece because I am old and back in my day, such things weren’t as rare.
If you look at the Bleach drama CDs and character CDs, it was all the voice actors singing their character’s songs (at least, that can be said for the Japanese voice cast) and doing the little skits that made the CDs such a worthwhile buy! Did I need Szayel and Captain Kurotsuchi doing The Science Show? No, but my life is richer for it. Did I need Hanataro Desu? Nope, but I’m so glad to know about my least favorite favorite soul reaper.
I also really love when voice actors sing opening/closing themes. Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE features a closing theme sung by the Conquest Club and it adds so much more to the narrative when it’s the main villain singing about a long lost relationship because that long lost relationship is (spoiler alert) the crux of the entire plot of the damn show. The same goes for the little insert song in Sarazanmai for getting rid of desire through weird butt stuff: it makes so much more sense that the voice actors sing that song because when the perspective changes (like when it’s Reo trying to save Mabu) it’s so much more valid; it’s his song, his moment. Last example I’ll use is one that’s very fluffy which is Free! because yes, I can tell the difference between all the voice actors and I love the outfits in Splash Free!. It’s just fun.
Insert and character songs can provide a lot of important information, though, as well as some of the sketches in drama CDs. Its in the drama CDs for Axis Powers: Hetalia that we learn all the countries’ human names and that Prussia lives in Poland’s basement, that England has a tattoo, that Austria is afraid of sea life and so many other facts because I have given up too much of my life to Hetalia knowledge and if I must suffer, you all must suffer, too. Also, stop ignoring France’s birthday, he’s still really sad about it.
Those CDs are so fun because all the voice actors came back for it and get to tell us this information and seeing it as a DVD extra where it’s just voice actors having fun is inspiring. Hetalia also features something that a lot of newer series have lacked in places where if the country does not match the actor’s country of origin (I’m trying to be polite) that the actor knows enough of that language to make words make sense be it Chinese, French, English or German. Funimation tried their best when they dubbed the series and it was bad.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t think American voice actors have fun. Here’s where we’re gonna pause because we have to talk about some news.
Initially, when I was writing this post an entire kerfuffle happened over at Funimation where it was found out that some voice actors dubbed over some questionable stuff in character and…well, I’m going to be honest: I’m of two minds about this. The whole reason I wanted to write this post was actually because of a panel I went to with Spike Spencer years ago where he showed a clip of an outtake video he did for Neon Genesis Evangelion where he riffs for a while as Shinji and it’s one of the funniest things to me on the internet. I’ve always admired voice actors having fun.
So when I first started listening to the Funimation VA nonsense, it didn’t read as that bad. Voice actors do weird stuff like that all the time whether it’s read fanfic or just riff and oftentimes, those clips go into outtakes and are celebrated and praised.
Here’s where I can agree with the people who were angry post the Funimation VA brouhaha: the content of much of what was dubbed was explicit, crass, politically incorrect and allowed voice actors to use language that is just not acceptable and to discuss themes that are, to be polite, not for everyone. If the content of what was acted offends, I can’t help but understand. Personally, I’ve been on the internet so long that very little shocks me anymore and I mostly just thought it was voice actors having fun: rude and crass fun, but fun. The way it was handled left a lot to be desired and I won’t shame anyone who had a problem with this whole darn affair. Hell, the entire affair put this post on hold.
But I don’t think having fun means being offensive. We could have a whole other post on the fact that people think comedy is dead because of PC culture and this Funimation VA scandal did make me wonder if it was generational. Most of the older fans I knew didn’t have an issue with it; many of us found it funny. It did seem to be younger fans who had a problem with it and maybe its because the newer fans just don’t understood VAs spend too much time in the booth and sometimes that means weird stuff is going to happen. Again, I’m not here to say you aren’t entitled to being offended, but out of all the scandals going on at Funimation, this seemed like one that we didn’t need to focus on.
Some of my favorite convention memories are of me being in costume and reading fanfic in character. Some of my favorite panel moments are watching those outtakes. Some of the information I’ve retained for years has been because voice actors (both Japanese and American) got to have fun for a little while.
I don’t know why American voice actors never really picked up singing. I don’t know why it never really took off: to be honest, I don’t think many of the American voice actors are on the level to handle some of the song chops that the Japanese voice actors do…but there is one example that pains me to discuss because it means talking about Dirty Uncle Vic.
I don’t want to talk about Vic. I really don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want to keep giving him attention and we’ll leave it at I believe all the women who have claimed he’s a monster because it’s what my brothers and sisters in craft have been saying for years. But goddammit, we have to talk about Brothers. Brothers is an insert song in the original Fullmetal Alchemist and when its first sung, it’s in some weird fairy language and you know it’s haunting but unless you find a translation, you don’t know why. So when Vic as Ed translates and sings the song and gives you the powerful lyrics as if they were a ballad or lullaby Ed sings to his brother just…it’s almost too damn good. And you get this song as their childhood home burns and I can absolutely feel all of Ed’s pain. I hate praising Vic but this is good and I have to remove him as a garbage person from the fact that he was pretty much made for this role and literally has done nothing good since then as a voice actor or human person.
When voice actors sing, it can take a mediocre scene and increase the impact nearly to the max and even if its a little clumsy; it just adds so much more bang for the buck. It’s a worthwhile effort, and one I would love to see return.
Falling Out of Love with American Voice Acting
In the last post, I spent hundreds of words spewing my love of American voice actors and American voice acting. But I didn’t stop being an anime fan after 2012, no, my appetite for anime may be different than it was when I was a wee little demon but I am still a rabid otaku but my adoration and respect for American voice acting has changed just like my relationship with anime has changed.
So let’s talk about the fall and my newfound appreciation for subbed anime.
2011 brought with it a little show called Attack on Titan which may have the distinction of being the first anime that I just didn’t like. Normally even if I’m not crazy about a series, I can see good in it but AoT did nothing for me and its rabid fanbase of mostly younger fans who had never seen an anime before wore me thin. And out of all the things I don’t like about AoT it was in fact was the rather lackluster voice acting that to me just hallmarked on all the weaknesses of the dialogue and plot. AoT was just the start for me and as I continued on watching anime, a few things changed for me. One, was that I was in college and my tastes had started to change from shows that were being picked up by big studios to shows that weren’t just yet (thus I resorted to the evils of piracy) and the second was that as some series began to be dubbed, I had previously watched the subbed version and the dub finally did not meet my expectations.
When the horrible 4Kids Sailor Moon is all you know, then sure you accept the horrible Americanized names, the removal of queer characters and the bad voice acting: it’s all you know. So for me, that was how I could rationalize, especially in hindsight, terrible dubs. But I remember watching Hetalia subbed and loving it only to be horrified by the choices Funimation made in the dub. I didn’t really have a frame of reference for that until college and it really started to turn my opinion on newer dubbed series.
Another factor that I do think matters but doesn’t fit into a neat group is that in the late 2000s is when I was able to give more time and attention to subbed anime. Especially in college, I was willing to set aside time for subbed anime and not having cable fed into my rationale to continue to be a better pirate than Luffy ever was and I could just sit and watch subbed anime and read and gasp in Japanese. To this day, if I have work to do, I will watch a dubbed anime so I don’t have to focus on it or a sub that I can practically recite like Antique Bakery or Maiden Rose. I spent many a college night wrapped in blankets watching subbed anime while on an IM chat with a friend, reacting to episodes that just got leaked in real time and even now in adulthood if I set out to watch an anime, now I go for subbed first because I rarely attempt new anime nowadays so I set that time aside and don’t mind reading.
While I still have an immense respect for the “old guard” of voice actors, the newer ones seem particularly lazy. And even though “sameness” is a common gripe against American voice actors, usually that sameness is for a reason. Spike Spencer has one voice and he plays similar characters in most shows he’s cast in and thus that one emasculated, tired male voice works. Johnny Yong Bosch has one shonen protag voice and guess what: he plays shonen yelly protags. A lot of Japanese voice actors have a similar sameness including my favorite, Kazuhiko Inoe, but he plays the same character a lot: aloof bad boys that I have unnatural feelings for and thus his similar sounding voice works. Japan does have some amazing chameleon voice actors like Daisuke Namikawa who has ranged from Northern Italy in Hetalia to being a villain in Bleach.
The newer guard of American voice actors just seem lazy and it seems that the Japanese voice actors have only been getting better. All that expressiveness and fun and passion that I felt in most dubs I now feel in subs. A great example of that is in Devilman Crybaby (which does not dub well just due to the flow of music and trick of words often used) where due to Netflix deciding to fail for a moment, I was given a glimpse at the dub. For a series that is mostly two men screaming each other’s names, oh boy, do I not buy the two American voice actors caring about what they’re doing at all. It’s just plain lazy and tired and all of the vague threats in Ryo’s voice and subtle kindness in Akira’s voice is entirely lost by two Americans who sound like they simply do not want to be in the booth that day.
That does not mean I have entirely abandoned dubs. One of my favorites is still somewhat recent but I think it speaks to the bigger issue and that’s Space Dandy. There’s something about Watanabe-sensei’s work that really lends to dubbing because so many of his series are so heavily influenced by Western culture. So it makes sense that a series where a man with excellent hair goes on a weekly Flash Gordon space adventure with a weird little auto-tune robot and a strange alien cat would have the voice if Ian Sinclair doing his best. The whole work just translated better into English and the staff was so stellar that it easily placed itself high on my list of favorite dubs of all time.
I think bad voice acting reminds me that anime can be a tough sell. Suspension of disbelief is something we’ve talked about a lot over on the blog and a solid performance can help ground a show back in reality. If you had told me that one of my favorite series of the summer would be about three boys who turn into kappas and the two murder cops trying to kill them I’d laugh at you and I’m a dedicated anime fan, I am not new to obsurdity. But one of the things that kept me in Sarazanmai was the fact that everyone sounded great, even when the singing wasn’t as key as others, you could still buy that these actors cared about the roles they were playing. Especially with the isekai boom, one of the things that really got me turned off on these shows (think of like Sword Art Online) was that the American voice acting sounded so bland for a premise that I already find incredibly boring. If the main character doesn’t sound like he wants to be in this fantastical world, why the hell do I want to watch him on this fantastical journey?
Voice acting is an art form and I find that I don’t have the same reverence or enthusiasm for Bryce Papenbrook as I do for Eric Vale and that doesn’t mean that the new guard are all full of bad voice acting: I’ve changed, my tastes in anime has changed, a lot has changed and it means that I am now a far more harsh critic than ever.
If you like these dubs, I’m not here to take that from you. Hell, I still stand by some of the early dubs. And it’s here that I want to talk about one aspect of the new era of dubbing that I’m all too aware of now and that’s how loose some companies play with translation. Especially Funimation is very bad about playing hot and loose with how Japanese is translated and they will throw in jokes and memes that just don’t age well anymore. My biggest gripe for that comes with how one word is translated and that word is aniki.
Aniki, to those in the yakuza, means “older brother” but it’s more than just older brother. There is so much respect, history and more in that word and Funimation, in all their wisdom, translates aniki, consistently, as “bro”. Does one refer to the Emperor as SOME DUDE? One would never refer to their aniki, imoto, ototo, aneki, ani-san or ane-san as something so casual lest they love a finger or their life from the sheer amount of disrespect.
Dear reader, the first time I heard that in a series, I screamed profanities into my pillow.
That’s a choice. That’s a translation choice. Funimation has translators. Funimation has been doing this for nearly as long as I have been alive. They know the context behind what that word means. WHY TRANSLATE IT AS SOMETHING SO CASUAL?
It’s a lazy choice. It’s not trusting the audience. It’s being afraid to risk that maybe, just maybe, that the audience won’t care enough to look it up. I remember reading the InuYasha manga as a kid and in the back there was a guide with all the suffixes because I did not, at 12, know what -sama meant. But I was also voraciously curious enough to study suffixes and want to learn more so of course I know what all the yakuza familial terms mean and I am bitterly disappointed every time they are translated as sis or as bro.
My new issues with the sub vs. dub debate don’t just boil down to lazy voice acting or lazy translations it’s just that it doesn’t have to be this way. In the 90s and 2000s, there were actors that cared so much and you felt every bit of their passion as they learned new languages, new names and more. And I feel that now with subbed VAs, honestly starting with Hetalia. To see how much effort these actors went into learning their country’s languages is just damn inspirational.
Japanese is a tricky language. I love it most when it’s clever and innuendo and puns don’t translate well, I respect that. But I think you lose something when you don’t bother to translate those moments. In Death Note, Mello refers to Matt as his dog. Not just because of Matt’s loyalty to him but also in Japanese “inu” is a slang term for top in the relationship, the inverse of that being “neko” for bottom. That little moment, that piece that is in some translations but not all speaks so much about their relationship and tells you more about their dynamic than all of the 17 words Matt ends up saying before he’s shot and Mello ruins everything and dies.
I will always respect voice acting: both Western and Japanese. I will always respect those who strive to bring anime and manga into Western audiences legally. Some of the proudest moments I have in all my conventions years have been meeting voice actors. Spike Spencer, Eric Vale, Ian Sinclair and more have made my childhood and my current adulthood. A good voice acting performance can make or break a series and I have been blessed to be exposed to so many wonderful voice acting performances regardless of language. Voice acting is an art and one I admit that I am not professional in, so feel free to take this as one fan pining for the Fjords but it felt appropriate to go over.
As far as the state of the debate? Well, we’re nerds. We have to have something to argue over. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer. There are some dubs I’m willing to die on the hill for and others that I won’t defend as much. As far as subs go, wow, they sure have been great recently. I do think that we can have this conversation about honestly, what boils down to taste and preference, more respectfully; but that’s sort of been my constant feeling about most things on the internet nowadays. I remember getting pretty heavily shamed for liking dubbed anime and being called lazy for enjoying and and thus I perpetuated that negativity calling those who liked subbed snobs. We can all do better as far as how we discuss what are true issues facing anime and manga fandom: translation, censorship, and more.
Thank you for sticking with me through such a post.
I invite thoughtful and kind discussion in the comments below.
On the Sub vs. Dub Debate
I am passionate about voice acting. I have always admired the work of voice actors both Japanese and Western. And in all of anime fandom there is one battle that is the most contentious and that is the sub vs. dub debate. Now, for those unaware the sub and dub debate is rooted in a simple yet vitally important aspect of watching anime: these shows are a Japanese import and thus have to be translated. Which brings us to how you process that translation from Japanese to English: do you sub it (translate the work and show it with the original Japanese voice acting and subtitle it) or do you dub it (translate the work and dub it over with English voice actors).
This sounds simple and back in my day, it was fairly easy. Either you had a friend in Japan who was sending you DVDs from Japan or you waited for a company to dub and/or translate the work (manga and/or anime). Companies like Viz, Funimation, Geneon, Sunrise and far too many others have made their entire business by bringing anime and manga to American fans legally (yes, legally). Now, a fun aspect of ye olden days was the glory of the fansub and the fandub. That’s when fans took the act of translation into their own hands and even the voice acting lending their own voices and skills and talents to “expedite” the sometimes long process of bringing a series over from Japan. These translations weren’t always the best and the voice acting wasn’t always the best but hey, we did our best with what we had.
Now, why is there a debate on what really should just be a matter of choice? Well, this is the internet and this is fandom. There must be battle. For purists, sub is the only way to go. There is a group of fans who rather like English dubbing and we are a mostly defensive group because of the honestly, elitism, that comes from a lot of the pro sub community. Now, as far as sub fans go, the series that are translated from Japanese more directly face less censorship which is true and not true. If the property comes in legally from a company like Viz or Funimation even if it is subbed, the series often still faces censorship. Funimation has hilariously edited out parts of Axis Powers Hetalia and far too many other series to list. For many, subbing is the purest essence of anime and honestly, yeah, that’s true in lots of cases. Japanese is a tricky language and so many puns and words and clever uses of language just don’t translate. Devilman Crybaby and Sarazanmai are recent examples that I can think of but my classic example is YuYu Hakusho which was just doing its best with all the Japanese humor and puns. And I get it, there are plenty of bad dubs out there. One of my favorite anime of all time, Gravitation, has one of the worst dubs in human history (it’s my trash pile and I will die here) because this was just not a cast that could handle the complexity of Japanese names or emoting at all. Censorship is a particularly big sticking point because many anime fans grew up during the great 4Kids nonsense of the 90s and early 2000s. For those that do not know, 4Kids was a company that strived to bring anime to the U.S. but make it…well, for kids. A lot of anime is not geared at children or at least not the stuff we wanted to see like Naruto and One Piece were not suitable for delicate American children so 4Kids censored stuff but not with any nuance or delicacy but with a blunt force that practically removed the point for the censorship at all. Remember in Ruroni Kenshin when after a blade slash the whole frame would cut to black? Remember all the bloodless attacks in InuYasha and oh Sanji’s lollipops in One Piece because smoking is the true evil, not his womanizing. Sailor Moon was also famously neutered by 4Kids ruining several lesbian romances and labeling them as cousins or just as friends (a continued issue for CLAMP series like CardCaptors and remaining Sailor Moon seasons). 4Kids, in my opinion, did have a noble mission. As I stated earlier, most of the anime that we wanted to see in the U.S. was not meant for young children and we do not/ did not have the same cultural background or even social contracts that allowed for kids to watch fast kicking blonde men smoke or gallons of blood leave a dead demon. But how it was done was so bad and left such a bad taste in fan’s mouths after we learned what the real show was meant to be (fun fact, I was SHOCKED by how violent InuYasha was when I picked up a DVD copy). But to be fair, without 4Kids, I likely would never have had anime in my bubble. I’m a suburban black kid, Sailor Moon was absolutely something that was important to be and DragonBall was what got me into anime to start.
But back to sub and dub as really, the politics of bringing anime over from Japan could be a whole other blog post. I fell in love with anime due to the fact that several series at the time were being dubbed into English and I cannot credit that accessibility enough. And even though the 90s had some trash dubs (even though I do have a soft spot for Sanji’s horrible Jersey accent) when I was really coming into anime, we had some of the best and brightest American voice actors and some of the best and most dedicated translation staff imaginable.
I want to keep this particular part of the post that focuses on the good set during the Golden Age of Anime (2002-2010). This Golden Age was when I came into anime, when I solidified my fandom and had the more reverence for voice acting and dub work.
It was this Golden Age that made me realize that dubbing and American voice acting was amazing. Fullmetal Alchemist was one of the earliest ones that made me realize the true talent of American voice actors and when a cast is good, it’s damn good (I’m not here to talk about what happened with Dirty Uncle Vic and honestly, yes it does sour some of the show but not enough to make me hate this dub as the true art form that it is) but it really took seeing a sub to appreciate how good dubbing could be. The two examples I have for that are Trigun and Cowboy Bebop, now folks have gushed enough about Bebop and while Steve Blum is amazing and deserves all of the credit he gets for bringing Spike to life I want to focus on Trigun a little more since I don’t see this one talked about as much. Now, Masaya Onasaka does an amazing job as Vash and he goes on to voice one of my favorite anime characters of all time, France in Axis Powers Hetalia, so I’m not dinging his talent but Johnny Yong Bosch does something in this role that’s just amazing. Bosch brings a frantic energy to Vash that just fits this goofy, larger than life character and it made me appreciate his hard work so much more.
During the height of the Golden Age of Anime, I could list voice actors like some could list athletes: Travis Willingham, Spike Spencer, Yuri Lowenthal, Tara Strong, Steve Blum, Kyle Hebert, Sonny Strait, Kirby Morrow, Monica Rial, Chris Sabat and of course the names I listed above and too many others were all names I could clock in an instant. I relished in knowing American voice actors by name and role and respected the choices companies made when it came to translation and distribution. The dark days were over, we could all see a bright future.
But that started to change around 2012…
In the next post, we’ll talk about my changing relationship with dubs, my new appreciation of subs and how American voice acting changed.
Why I Watch Anime
In my last post about Sarazanmai and my changing relationship with anime, something that kept coming up in the back of my mind was just why I started watching anime to begin with and why I continue to watch anime. Well, that’s a little more than just a passing thought so let’s explore that a little. Here are some of the reasons I watch anime.
I’m a member of the Tony Stark Society for Disaster Orphans. My childhood was not great and my teen years were not great. Fundamentally, what got me into anime was escapism. I got to escape into worlds so unlike my own where I was stronger, prettier, more capable, or hell, even still had both parents. Consider the anime I fell into as a youth: InuYasha, Fullmetal Alchemist, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, YuYu Hakusho, Naruto, Bleach…most explored fantastical worlds and magical elements and took me to places I couldn’t imagine. There were demons and monsters and ghosts and danger and magical lands, it was all wonderful and it was so much nicer than my aunts’ impossible standards for me or my mother’s immaturity.
I didn’t always think of anime as a form of escapism but I did write (still do write) a lot of fanfiction and that fanfiction allowed me to be so much more than whatever my shell was and fanfiction aside, my taste in anime has become increasingly slice of life. I used to shun romance and more pedestrian series for shonen as a youth but now as I’m older just seeing things okay for a few people for once is really comforting and really nice considering that as of late the world (not just my personal life) feels like a fiery inferno that which the only escape is the sweet embrace of death.
To Find Closure
Losing your parents often leaves you with a bucket of what ifs that you just sort of carry around with you, like a box full of all of your desires. Watching characters fumble through their feelings, do more, do better, be more and be better helped me and still helps me work through my feelings. It may be why I had such a visceral reaction to Devilman Crybaby. I so badly wanted things to be okay. I wanted Akira to be okay, for Ryo to be okay, for Miki to be okay and when they weren’t I felt miserable for them and felt all the moments where things were not okay for me all in one crushing, overwhelming moment. When watching Sarazanmai as Toi goes through the last part of his character arc I was utterly emotionally connected with him as I felt his same worries about nihilism and being a mere burden to those I called friends. I am an empathetic person and it is very easy for me to see myself in characters that have been through similar things to me. Trauma is a funny thing and it makes it very easy to project those feelings onto especially narratives. Think of those who found themselves so much in Harry Potter. So many had their own horrible families they didn’t love and didn’t respect them and so many found comfort in Hogwarts because it was a place to be themselves, to be better than their families, to be welcomed and appreciated. I watch anime to find closure because I know that I may never get that in my own life.
To Feel Something
Losing a parent young warps your entire world. It isn’t always dramatic but it means that the average cookie cutter narrative just doesn’t fly. Most shows I was watching at 12 still featured two parent households and that just didn’t resonate for me anymore. Anime featured a ton of broken families, families ripped apart by death and circumstance and characters that didn’t have to pretend to be okay as I had to. I got to experience emotions and defer a lot of my feelings onto fictional characters and it was instrumental in me working through my angst. Now as I am an older and much wiser hobgoblin I watch anime still to feel all sorts of things: love, joy, triumph, excitement, fear. As much as it stresses me out sometimes to have my emotions dashed upon the rocks of cold hard nihilism to feel shock and worry and emotion is thrilling and just something I don’t get in most Western shows with the exception of BoJack Horseman or Tuca and Bertie, I rarely get that emotional release from Western narratives who tend to wallow more superficial story-telling or using framing devices and tropes that I find abhorrent or just plain tired.
To Learn Something
I fell into anime from an early age because of how radically different it was from the Western media I was surrounded by. I knew nothing of Japan as a youth and anime was one of the finest and best examples of cross cultural exchange that I could have been exposed to. I live in Texas and was raised in Texas. No one bowed here. No one spoke Japanese here. I didn’t know what Buddha was outside of the large statues that hang around in Chinese restaurants. I cannot tell you how much I’ve picked up from anime alone. My vocabulary has changed, my mannerisms have changed, the way that I speak about myself and others. And no, I don’t feel comfortable going to Japan on anime alone; I had to have the want to learn more on my own. I have dictionaries, language guides, vocab books and more to prove it. One of the biggest things I’ve learned about is actually cooking. I loved cooking for my anime clubbers in college and being able to make onigiri just like I saw in the manga I cherished so much was a delight that cannot be entirely expressed by words. I still watch anime to learn new things and my natural desire to learn often means that little things that are throwaway gags in anime become rabbit holes I dive down in topics ranging from demonology to why the hell bakus are so scary and Christan influence in Japan.
There are obvious reasons that I watch anime. I watch for enjoyment, for curiosity and because it is still something new and oftentimes exciting but this relationship is now over two decades old. The reasons I have now are likely not the same as they were when I was a teenager. I use anime to escape now in entirely different ways than the power fantasies I lived out as a teen. I watch anime now more to relax and to unwind. It’s also still a key factor in many of the friendships I told dear. There was no neat way to add this but I’ll say the most important reason I watch anime is because it makes me feel like I am part of something bigger than myself. I am proud to call myself an otaku and I am proud to be an anime fan. There is nothing like seeing someone’s eyes light up when they see someone else wearing an anime t-shirt or merch from a series they love. The connections I’ve made because of anime and at conventions and by discussing these weird cartoons critically and passionately is something that doesn’t fit neatly into a list but is so important to the experience.
I’m proud to be a veteran otaku and you see that pride during each one of my Twitter rants, panels, blog posts and more. I watch anime to be more than myself. To express myself. To learn. To grow.
I relish in fan casts, in shipping manifestos, in shipping wars and discussions about voice actors. I love translating music and listening to drama CDs and hoarding manga like a dragon.
Anime is a part of my life, so it was only natural that I discuss and explore why I watch anime to start with.
My Changing Relationship With Anime
After my post about Sarazanmai and an earlier post about my feelings about more modern anime titles, I’ve been feeling like I need to explain myself. Because while I admit and own being a bit of a harsh critic, one thing I am not is a contrarian. I try to have reasons that I don’t like something and just saying “it’s modern” is rarely an excuse for me. But after going over the tapes, I absolutely can see how people would assume that I just have a vendetta against modern anime. I sound bitter and old and sometimes I feel bitter and old. So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about my relationship with anime.
But before we talk about the present, we need to talk about the past. I first came into contact with anime at 6 with DragonBall. From there I stayed safe with a lot of the series that are anime but never really felt like anime to me just another cartoon but with different faces: mostly shows like Sailor Moon, CardCaptors, Pokemon and DragonBall/DragonBall Z. It wasn’t until I was 9 that I started really seeing anime as something different and that was mostly thanks to YuYu Hakusho. By 12 I had fully embraced glorious Nihon with series like InuYasha, Trigun, Case Closed and Cowboy Bebop and the rest is history.
If you’ve been keeping track, I have been an anime fan for over 20 years. And a lot has changed in the world of anime and manga. But a lot has changed for me personally, as well. It’s telling that I fell in love with anime during one of the most trying times of my life: I had lost my father at 12, moved in my aunts, had emancipated myself and was doing my best to cope with grief and loss and my own changing identity and personality. And some of the series that mean the world to me like Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note and Bleach hit me when I was in high school. I wasn’t much older than Edward Elric when he lost his mom so seeing someone like me process grief and use science and will and grit to overcome loss was intensely powerful.
But in 20 years, my life has changed a lot. I did join the Tony Stark Club for Successfully Disastrous Orphans, I finished college, I moved away from my hometown and started a life on my own. I didn’t stop liking anime but I like to think I have matured in those years.
Which leads us to where we are. I for sure do look like a harsh media critic and honestly, that probably started in 2010 with a little show called Attack on Titan. Now, keep in mind in 2010 I was 20 years old and had some of the best anime series ever made happen during the most formative times of my life. AoT to me was a lazy redux of series I already held near and dear to my heart but for many this was their first big bombastic shonen. For me it was a dumb series that thinks its very smart and the vitrolic fandom around it made me seriously question what I was doing as an anime fan. And those feelings have persisted now for nearly 10 years. New anime comes out, I feel very little about it. I feel worse about it because of hyperbolic fandom and it leaves me in an odd place.
Before every major convention I usually do a cram session so I can be aware of what the kids are watching and having to cram in the top three of what’s popular only continued to sour me on modern anime. I think it was just my approach. I’m also a very stubborn little goblin. I don’t like being “told” what to do so my friends who have suggested series to me rarely are met with open and loving arms but mostly hissing and frustration. There’s only one series Carlos has suggested to me that I watch and that was Devilman Crybaby. I do tend to watch what is suggested to me but it’s typically pulling teeth and the faint memory of “being told what to do” lingers with me. Look at my feelings on Sarazanmai and Yuri On Ice: two shows that I like (hell, one that I like a lot) but that moment of being told what I would like and what I wouldn’t like…it just got under my skin. Maybe it goes back to the whole struggle of being biologically female and an anime fan that so much of it was spent being told what I would and wouldn’t like or having to prove my fandom. I’ve let that become an excuse and my unwillingness to try new things is bothersome.
I struggle with a feeling of hollowness in newer shows. My Hero Academia is a perfect example of that for me. On paper there’s a lot that this show has going for it and going for me. But watching now, I mostly just don’t understand character motivations or why any of this matters. Why did All-Might make a kid eat his hair? Did they think fanfiction writers wouldn’t notice? Why is Bakugo so mad at Izuku? What crawled up Iida’s ass and died there? I have so many questions. But I didn’t want those questions answered and I abandoned ship around episode four. And the comment I kept going back to as I thought about My Hero Academia was that if this series hit me at the same time that Naruto did, I would be all over this. Not to say that older fans can’t be down for whatever All-Might is putting down but for me, it was just a little too much like a shonen series that I loved to make it truly special to me or worth further investigation.
That hollowness I believe comes from the fact that as I mentioned, some of the best anime ever made were ones that came to me during a very formative parts of my life. Why would I watch a discount Naruto? I have Naruto. Why watch a knock-off Evangelion? I have Evangelion. And I’m intentionally being reductive because it’s easier to fit into the structure of this post but if I have to be nuanced, then yes, as a media critic a lot of more recent series do feel like rehashes of long-standing tropes and that’s a key point. These shows aren’t bad but they are using a formula that is now decades old and has been seen over and over again.
A lot of newer series suffer purely by the fact that I have seen an anime before. I have less patience now for a protagonist who doesn’t struggle and has no problems, for an antagonist who is tacked on for merchandise and a villain with a dumb plan. I’ve been doing this for decades, it takes more to impress me. Which is probably why my taste in anime has changed so much in the last few years. The series that have truly captured me have been ones that subvert my expectations. Space Dandy was a masterclass in meta humor and heart. Devilman Crybaby gave me a full on existential crisis that left me a babbling mess. Sarazanmai left me genuinely worried about three dumb boys and two dumb murder cops.
So when a show like, let’s say Food Wars, hits a lot of shonen beats in a very linear fashion from loud main male to antagonist with muddy reasons to be an antagonist and a story line that is let’s be honest basic then you can see why I’m bored.
It’s interesting to think that a lot of the series I still watch are either the classics or are slice of life or romance series now considering that I was such a shonen fan when I was younger. A lot of the newer boy’s love series (well, newer as in their new anime adaptations of manga I read when I was too young to read them) have been excellent and comedies like Pop Team Epic have been way more interesting to me than Fairy Tail ever could be. I’m old enough to catch some of the references and I’m mature enough to want to escape the misery that is my current routine and just watch two men be in love and eat cake or something together.
I will say there are two points that I want to make as far as newer anime goes and especially newer anime fandom. The death of discourse is a huge problem for me as I even try to navigate some of the newer series. I do my very best to have reasons to not like a thing and folks being garbage about valid criticism is a great way to turn passive malaise into full on hatred. Looking at you, Yuri on Ice. Second point is a lack of looking backwards. This may be a generalization but as I talk to newer fans there’s this shocking lack of knowledge of series that go past 2010. I understand that the shows I grew up with are old but to even walk into a comic book shop back in the day I had to be able to know and talk about series that were running before I was born. And as soon as I accepted that anime was my new lifestyle, I naturally wanted to look back. I saw Outlaw Star and the old 70s run of Lupin III and did my best to understand that anime was not something that started for me in the 1990s. A lot of the hyperbolic rhetoric around newer anime like this show is the first or this show is the only just fundamentally sticks in my craw. Nothing is original anymore and that’s perfectly fine but you aren’t going to tell me that a cartoon that was released this year is somehow treading new and uncharted waters. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been in a panel and I’ve mentioned a show like Cowboy Bebop or InuYasha only to be met with silence. I get it. These shows are old but dammit they’re like anime required reading, it’s just basic. I don’t make the rules I just enforce them and judge you for not following them. And you kids have the internet now. Back in my day (full old man rant time) we had to wait for that one friend whose parents were stationed in Japan to bring back DVDs or to just full on spend weeks trying to find a bootleg copy of stuff.
In hindsight, I do want to be more careful with how I talk about anime nowadays because even though a series may not be my cup of tea, it does not give me an excuse to be a garbage person to anyone for liking it. I can also be more open to trying new things and not being such a stick in the mud. There are shows that are on my list and that I want to try and I want to be open to. I want to be less stubborn and try the things my friends suggest to me: they wouldn’t suggest something to me that they think I wouldn’t like
What has been incredibly freeing is realizing that a lot of these shows aren’t for me. Not to say that age is everything. Toi in Sarazanmai is several years my junior but I absolutely could relate to his pain, nihilism and want to be close to someone because they are related even though they are trash. It’s a weak argument to assume I or anyone really would just “outgrow”. If anything what I’ve noticed is that in any given series my gaze has merely shifted. In Fullmetal Alchemist I went from relating very much to Edward to now seeing a lot of Mustang’s perspective because I relate to be a tired old man surrounded by idiots but still has grand ideas of taking over the world despite the heavy burdens of mental illness and trauma. The episodes of My Hero Academia that I did watch I found myself not relating to Izuku but All-Might who is mostly jaded, exhausted but so badly wants to believe in the good inside people.
My relationship with anime is complicated. The ones I love I will love forever even if I can now see flaws in their facades. The newer ones that people assume I’d like I tend to find a little lackluster and the newer ones that I have committed to have became part of my usual rotation. I love anime and probably will until I am no longer able but I admit it’s been harder and harder to say that I am an anime fan just because so few of the newer shows do it for me. I do want to continue to challenge myself to try newer series and my goal recently has been to go over a few of those mid 2000s series that I completely skipped over as I was busy obsessing over like two shows at the time. I also want to start refining my language when it comes to critiquing and talking about anime.
Anime changed my life. I’m not being hyperbolic by saying that. Literally anime has changed and saved my life. It gave me some of the best friends in the world that mean everything to me. It taught me so much about myself and others. Anime gave me something to look forward to and discuss and study and explore. It helped give form to my feelings. Without anime I doubt I’d be writing much now. Without anime I wouldn’t cosplay. Without anime I would be an entirely different person. I’m proud to be an anime fan. I’m proud to be an older anime fan. So even though sometimes my relationship status feels more like “it’s complicated” the answer at the end of the day is still as it was two decades ago: “in a serious relationship”.
What Sarazanmai Did Wrong…And Then Oh So Right
If you pitched me a show about three middle school boys being turned into kappas and having to do a lot of what is essentially weird butt stuff to make the plot advance and also there are two vouging murder cops and a ton of puns I would tell you to get out of my apartment and to leave me alone. I was encouraged to watch this show by a close friend (the same person who lovingly encouraged me to watch Yuri on Ice) and when I started the series, I admit, my mind and heart weren’t in it. I had gotten into a minor car accident, I had convention stress on my mind, my job was wearing on me and when I started up the anime I mostly felt full of salt, bitterness and anger at the absurdity of the first episode. I got two episodes in and gave up, mostly tired of puns, kappas and weird butt stuff.
It was Carlos that got me to watch the series again at A-Kon because as I told him about the show, he noticed the same thing the person that recommended the show to me noticed, this checks off a ton of boxes for me in theory.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Sarazanmai about? Well, let’s go over the plot briefly. 3 boys: Katsuki, Toi, and Enta are cursed by a kappa named Keppi to become kappas and correct the world of evil zombies that have something to do with desire and exorcising those demons correctly (think about Bleach where only Soul Reapers can send spirits off to the Seireitei correctly and if something happens to that spirit or someone else tries to send them off they can become Hollows, monsters or something worse). It starts as a monster of the day sort of thing with some overarcing plot points (like the vouging murder cops) but the first half othe series is just monster of the week.
I’ll probably spoil things because that’s who I am but this series takes a dive that I’ll talk about more soon but back to the timeline. Carlos and I ended up watching about three or four episodes in our hotel room with way less pressure on me and while I still thought the series was mostly dumb and absurd, I was able to have more fun and just sort of enjoy the ride. We stopped right as a major plot point began and Carlos chided me and said I’d probably finish the show on my own.
Fast forward to con being over and me crying hysterically on my sofa lamenting over my series son (look at the poster and guess which one is my son, you get a cookie if you’re right) and spirling into emotions I haven’t felt since Hitorijime My Hero as far as oh no, a Japanese cartoon has hit too close to home or honestly, like Avengers: Endgame in the scope of feeling that everything I love is wrong and dead and how do I cope? My children, oh no, how do I save them?
So after a few days, I’ve decided to write about this series. I have finally left Kappa Hell. So let’s talk about it.
Let’s go over what this show did wrong first and honestly, it was the absurdity. Now, I’m an anime fan. Hetalia is one of my favorite series, I can handle absurd. I can handle vocal tics, kero. I can handle puns even the otterly devastating ones and I can handle plot points that make zero sense like desire being held in the butt and having to carry around a box of something sacred to you. What I can’t handle is not feeling like any of that matters. Remember my issue with Food Wars? It’s similar. I had lots of questions after I entered Kappa Hell but upon first watch, I wanted none of them answered. I had no curiosity. I just wanted it to stop. Now, I’ll give a lot of weight to my mental state here. I was not in a good mood, frantic and emotional and I don’t like being pressured even lightly into anything. Spite is a powerful motivator and at that point I probably would have turned my nose up to ice cream or buttered sourdough rolls or even to a series I know I like.
When I removed the pressure to like the series so I didn’t disappoint someone I care for deeply, I found that surface level it was still sort of absurd but in a way I was curious about. I think having Carlos with me absolutely helped that because when we got to the two cops who were dancing and muttering quite a bit in the back of a police station, we rightfully had questions about that and came to the conclusion that the other cops just let these two have their little dancing moment and interrupt what was official police business.
Next up is a small voice acting nitpick because each episode features a song about removing evil from zombies and usually it’s sung by Katsuki (who is pretty decent in the sub) but later on the series, Toi takes over and Enta does too and Carlos and I both joked that we found the one (the voice actor) who has the album coming out later. It’s adorably distracting but dissonant.
I’ve always been up front in admitting that the series is beautiful and a lot of the designs benefited from looking a lot like things I already like, including tan blonde cop Rin Matsuoka (his name is Reo) and Kuji who looks like an adorable little school boy version of Jason Todd. The colors are bright, the sets are good, the music grew on me as I continued and the plot…well, this is Kappa Hell. Let’s talk about the plot.
Remember how I said that the first part of the series feels like monster of the week sort of thing? Well, threads are still forming and they start to get pulled on around episode five and boy when those threads are tugged. Little things you’ve noticed start to make sense and honestly, the story became more than just a bunch of boys exorcising demons through weird puns and butt stuff but became about desire, want, needs, selfishness and bonds.
Katsuki does some pretty strained and strange things to ease his guilt about what happened to his little brother. Enta full on sabotages things so he can have a reason to stay close to his crush, Katsuki. Toi has an unhealthy relationship with his mob boss older brother and is willing to do literal crimes to cover for his aniki. Blonde Matsuoka-kun cop, Reo, is actually deeply flawed and deeply in love with his partner, Mabu and Mabu is literally some kind of golem who was willing to give up his love for Reo so that he could stay alive in an attempt to stay by Reo’s side despite death having taken him prior. It all spirals quickly, sadness after sadness and it left me screaming and worried and unsure how to process emotions about these characters. I felt for Reo as he mourned the death of his beloved once more and related to his willingness to lash out in anger only to die and be reunited with Mabu at last. I felt for Toi who so badly wanted to be with his family after loss left him with few he could rely on and even if that meant doing things that were morally compromising to him. I related to Katsuki who ended up being quite selfish in trying to be selfless. It’s a surprisingly heartfelt series for a show about kappas, puns and butt stuff.
When the tone of the show started to change and focus more on bonds and what we do to keep them is when it did something magical: it reminded me of a long-time lover. It reminded me of Gravitation. One of Yuki Eiri’s main themes in Gravitation is his connection to his sensei and his desire to remain connected to that horrible man and how that often butts up against what he wanted later on in the series which was a relationship with Shuichi. Gravitation is all about bonds and what we’re willing to do to keep them. Tohma is willing to lie and gaslight to keep Eiri. Shuichi is willing to be a victim to keep Yuki. Yuki is willing to be abused by Tohma so that he can keep one thing sacred and in turn he abuses Shuichi because that’s all he knows. Love sometimes is a selfish feeling and drives us to do not so romantic things.
Towards the end of Sarazanmai, the plot centers more and more on the theme of connections and bonds and the fact that sometimes we do terrible things to keep those that we want close. Reo and Mabu’s arc together is such a great example of the horrible things we can do to each other just to feign what was once a great and healthy bond and just how toxic and corrupting grief can become. And that’s surprisingly thoughtful from a show that has a main plot point being a young boy who crossdresses as an idol girl to keep his little brother happy and seems to enjoy being in a dress a little too much.
There’s one more point I’ll bring up and I think it encapsulates why the show made me so emotional but also managed to bring me back around and that’s consequences. For a dumb show about kids turning into kappas there’s a lot of violence, particularly gun violence (which is rare in Japan because, hey, effective gun laws work). The two cops use their guns to remove desire from deviants and thus turn them into monsters and Toi uses a gun because his aniki is yakuza and of course he does. Towards the end, Enta is shot and honestly, he gets very close to death and it’s not sugar-coated and I felt horrible for this kid who was just doing his best. Toi is forced to kill his beloved aniki because he realizes that his brother is just not good for him and Reo is killed because he lashes out in anger after losing his beloved Mabu once more. Sure, this is still a show clearly aimed at younger audiences and most of it is sort of waved away by kappa magic but in the moment it felt so real and so grounded and so emotional that I cried more than I like admitting.
Let’s talk about my son, Kuji Toi. If you guessed correctly, you can claim your cookie now. Toi has the best arc in the series because he has to come to terms with the fact that his relationship with his aniki is flawed and dangerous and what is beautiful is that he faces consequences. The last sequences of the series are Toi being sent off to prison for his crimes. He spends years there and we resume with him returning home older, more jaded and more alone as he had spent years away from his friends and family and likely had little to return to as now he was a criminal, or at least society hopes, a reformed one. He also has the most realistic feelings about connections in that he feels his life is at times just not worth the risk to his friends and his dive into melancholy and depression in the last episode just made me want to hug him if I wasn’t so concerned about the fact that he’d stab me over it.
The series does end on a happy note with the friends all coming together once more and that optimism but that’s again a surprising amount of weight and thought for a show that was meant to be a bit of a throwaway as far as I was concerned. I felt for Toi and was glad he faced consequences for his actions because that’s one thing about anime, especially boy’s love, that I struggle with: a lack of consequences for bad things. Sure, Toi did kill his aniki over something valid and but he still did kill someone and seeing him face a consequence made it oh so worth it.
Sarazanmai didn’t do much for me at first but as I continued on, I got emotionally invested in these characters and their lives and I ended up a babbling mess of emotions and worry about these boys who were just doing their best. I wanted to protect all of them. I wanted them to be okay. I wanted things to be okay. There’s a melancholic optimism to the show that I can relate to. We hope things are going to be okay but the series cops to the fact that we just don’t know. We can hope that the boys are going to be okay, but there’s no promise that things are going to be okay. The future is uncertain and that’s just fine. So long as we’re connected, even if we drift apart, the bonds that we formed never truly leave us.
Thoughts from A-Kon 30
Normally, when I write these posts, I do them in a bulleted list. But this time, I’d like to try something different. I want to try and structure these thoughts a little more. I hope that you enjoy this small descent into madness.
“I don’t want to be the Akira.” I whined from behind Carlos in the hotel hallway. I had made yet another reference to Devilman Crybaby, a series that had broken me two years ago and had become a vital part of our friendship. Much like how boy’s love characters fight over who is the seme or the uke, we argue over who is the Ryo (literally Satan) and who is the Akira (a dumb but good guy doing his best). We had checked into a hotel that was perfect in every way. It was close to the con site, close to the places we liked to hang out and we each got our own bedrooms and bathrooms. The kitchen had a stove and oven and the living room had a fire place we were not allowed to use but did look good in photos. I had driven to Dallas from San Antonio earlier that morning and this convention had been stressful to deal with. Before traveling, I had managed to get myself into a minor car accident and then prepping for the convention itself was exhausting. I didn’t get my panel time until less than a week before the convention. The con had moved from Fort Worth to Fair Park and many people complained and thus Carlos and I complained. We lovingly referred to it as TrashCon as we prepared for the convention. The move was an unpopular choice in the convention’s part. Moving it to Fair Park meant that it was in a less than safe at times part of Dallas and it was hectic and mostly outdoors. But a lot of the gripes people had with the move seemed to be unneeded. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Carlos and I dropped off our bags and went to lunch at a Long John Silvers/ A & W combo where I ordered too much damn food and felt like I was going to die.
We went back to the hotel and I had time to change before having two panels on Thursday. I cosplayed as Mello because I love being a chocolate-loving sociopath. We parked fairly easily at Fair Park and though the walk from the parking lot to the main registration building felt like a death march, it wasn’t so bad. But the heat already began to feel oppressive under my makeup, wig and compression shirt. I got to my first panel room about an hour early and it was empty so Carlos and I got to set up and entertain the few guests that had already settled in because it was hot and the panel rooms were inside and had air conditioning. The panel which covered the Mary Sue trope was only about half an hour as it was mostly me just preaching to the choir but it was time in the air conditioning so I could not complain. I had time in between my next panel and we mostly wandered around the Dealer’s Room where Carlos immediately found a very on brand button for me and we decided to simply go back to the hotel for a little while to rest. We returned to convention to finish up with another panel this one on Fandoms where I faced my greatest enemy: noise.
The new set up in Fair Park’s Grand Place felt a little like a flea market. Lots of structures made with pipes and fabric coverings and that would have been fine but every panel heard everyone else’s noise. I was the loud one during my first panel but my second one I was in between an idol performance and some sort of horrible karaoke event and so much of the video footage likely will just be me rolling my eyes and trying to fight against such awful audio.
We returned to the hotel, ordered pizza and spent the evening watching Into the Spiderverse and living our best Peter B. Parker lives.
Oh, and returning back to our car the second time, we heard a gunshot from one of the neighboring apartment complexes and our first time returning to the parking lot, we hired a man in a bike taxi and paid him double for the ride as I shouted whilst in a blonde wig “Ja ne, weebs.” as Carlos and I cackled as we zoomed past normies using their human legs.
Day Two started with breakfast and deciding to go to convention a little later hoping that the sun would be less of a miserable force. We decided to use some of our free time to go to Daiso and I shopped a lot and then oh lunch. Lunch was at Kura Revolving Sushi. Kura has a promotion going with Naruto and I was determined to eat the 15 plates needed for a prize with a lot of help from Carlos. I ate so many pieces of snow crab nigiri and I felt like I was climbing a mountain to keep eating despite my fickle appetite and I did win a Sasuke Uchiha eraser that I will never use but will treasure until I die.
We did not plan though for the sun to pull to giant “to hell with you, nerd” and it was actually cooler as we faffed around shopping rather than when we did finally arrive closer to evening at convention and it was hot as Ryo in that one strange technicolor nightmare club.
Day Two ended with some shopping and mostly hunting for a poster that will later become very important to the plot, I mean the story.
Dinner for Day Two was spent at Olive Garden, a place I have not been to in years and had strangely missed.
Friday night we went swimming and I got to wax philosophic about Free! one more time. I sat in the pool on my back looking up at the ceiling telling Carlos that very few people saw me like this, laid back, enjoying the water. I said that many people saw me as the more high strung Makoto, which is not false, but Carlos gets to see me as Haru: mostly wanting to be near the water and honestly a little listless.
I also made Carlos an entire peach cobbler because I am a good person.
Day Three I decided to not be lazy and get into costume. We had breakfast again and decided to go early and hope that the sun would not be cruel. I had made a Drifloon maid outfit for the convention because of course I did and I put on my makeup after breakfast and we set out to convention. The mask was a huge pain as I could still smell the paint I used and the heat of my breath and the stuffiness of the room drained me nearly immediately. I got a few photos taken of me which meant posing with a tea set I spent days on and doing the typical peace-sign anime idol pose. But a mask also meant not speaking as it was mostly muffled and resulted in me mostly making annoyed little whines and tired little moans to express my feelings to Carlos who was irked by my transformation fully into an anime idol.
We did more shopping and then decided to break away and go back to the hotel to cool down. We chose a local Tex-Mex place and I got queso and tequila drunk before attempting a small raid on a local Whole Foods Market.
Saturday night was spent ordering more food and we made two entertainment choices that evening. We watched YugiOh: Dark Side of Dimensions in which Seto Kaiba builds a literal space ship to be with his boyfriend, Atem, after the end of the main series and the rest of the plot mostly flopped around and it honestly made me hate the series a little with its camp and lack of logic. It was a lovely garbage fire and then we watched a series that I asked you to put a pin in based on a poster.
Before my accident I was asked to by a close friend to watch the anime Sarazanmai, a show about three boys that are turned into Kappas and must do things. I got two episodes in before I decided the show was too weird for me and honestly, it made me hate anime a little. But this person who means the world to me asked for me to be on the lookout for merch from the series and I picked up a print of two of their favorite characters. I was annoyed by having to do something that was for a series I didn’t care about but Carlos was sick of my complaining and encouraged me to try the show again. We ended up watching 5 episodes in one night before I managed to in my best idol voice mimic a line from the show and nearly tripped and fell over one of Carlos’ shoes: Kami-sama was finished with my nonsense.
I realized in that moment that I didn’t hate the show, I just needed a better reason to watch it. This is the same person who had so lovingly coaxed me into watching Yuri on Ice and thus I did hate that series because I don’t like being told what to do. This person isn’t a bad person, just wanted me to try something new and I am a stubborn trash goblin. The series is fine and the more I thought about it, the more curious I am and will likely finish it.
Back to talking about convention: the new set up was actually really good. There were lots of water and hydration stations. Lots of ice cream (I got an alcoholic wine pop day one but I didn’t finish it because it’s malt liquor and I can’t handle malt liquor especially before I’m meant to go on stage and talk about feminism). The walking wasn’t so bad but the Dealer’s Room, I have issues. The aisles were really narrow and that made traffic insane. If one person stalled or stopped for a photo, it backed up traffic and made a hot room full of people even more hot. That is my major gripe aside from the bad rooms in the Grand Place. Also, dollar water was a wonderful idea as well as the giant cooling misting fans.
Sunday was the last day of con and I had one more panel to go, Research Tips for Writers. Sunday featured a lot of packing and getting ready to go back on the road. The panel went wonderfully well and I got to be in a cool room that was literally called The Library. I got to have a more relaxed panel this time which was more fun if I could ignore the people that wandered into the cool room just to take pictures. I had a wonderful time and even though I was tired, it was worth it to do. We did a final lap around the Dealer’s Room, more things were bought and we decided to get lunch. We were originally going to go to Gen Korean BBQ but that place was packed and before I arrived, Carlos had been gushing about this shabu shabu place nearby. We had already planned on getting my post panel cake from Mozart (also nearby) so we decided to try something new: shabu shabu. We entered the restaurant that looked like the bar from Kill Bill Vol. 1 and we ate so much shabu shabu, a hot pot of broth that is then filled with things like rice cakes and veggies and noodles to make a rich soup later after one is finished dipping meat and softer veggies in for a wonderful dining experience. I ate with gusto, something that my friends have been concerned about recently, and the protein did help me feel a little less drained. Also, when you place potatoes into your caldron of hot broth, it becomes like a little hot bomb that will burn you out of spite. I added so much sriracha to my hot pot that my broth turned red with spice.
I got my post panel cake and it felt like all was going to be okay. We discussed the timing issues I had earlier in the week and we’re still learning how to overcome that.
The drive back to the hotel was…different. I won’t go into details here but I left Dallas feeling an odd mix of feelings that only got to simmer and brew as I sat in traffic.
I got home late last night and did my best to unpack my clothes and my feelings.
Overall, I never regret convention and A-Kon despite its rocky start was worth it. The new owner and shift to a new place did make for a very hectic con and it was hard to plan for and build hype for: but going in with no expectations or honestly, expectations of it being bad, made for a very good convention.
We watched Bar Rescue and anime and Live PD and cooked and ate and enjoyed ourselves. I had fun with my best friend and saw places I miss when I return home. I’m happy to be in my own bed, but I’m still so glad I went.
Sure, A-Kon was in places a brilliant TrashCon. But it was my TrashCon and the memories I made during it will stay with me for the remainder of my days.