After School War Activities – The After Review

As much as Singaporeans like to complain about being drafted into two years of national service, we’re far better off than the hapless youths in South Korea. Sure, the amount of time is the same, but the fact remains is that the enemy they are trained to fight against is tapping their heels right outside their front door. Sure, it’s not as if those youths are living under a spectre of doom 100% of the time. Take a trip to Korea and see the bright skies, the colorful shops, and the kids prancing round like they own the place. But even so. One can’t help wonder exactly how far back that thought is pushed in their mind. That thought of the nuclear warheads pointed at them from the other side.

After School War Activities is a story about these youths, when the missiles finally fire.




On D-Day, aliens fall from the sky and land in South Korea, in the form of brightly coloured cells and kill any human being they come across. Faced with heavy fighting, the military decides to draft not only those over 18, but high schoolers as well. So we follow the class of 34 boys and girls as they go through basic military training to be sent to the front lines to fight against the alien threat.

Now all of these may sound shouneny, or even overly edgy, but make no mistake – everything about this manhwa is carefully subtle. It’s less about the big battles or psychological breakdowns or tear-filled tragedies, but focuses a huge part on the class’s daily lives as they struggle to adjust to boot camp, and eventually, the front lines. A slice of life in wartime, if you can visualise it. While I wouldn’t say that the military life depicted is EXACTLY accurate, the author has clearly done his time in the army and it shows. Moments like a soldier losing her cartridge on the firing range and the whole platoon skipping lunch to comb for it, or some jokers causing everyone else to drop twenty, all stir memories within anyone who’s ever gone through the military. You’ve also probably met some of the many colorful characters which populate the platoon – the screw-up that can’t do anything right, the stand-offish rich kid everyone hates, the lazy bums who turn mysteriously sick at the drop of a hat – the stereotypes are all there.




But that’s not to say that all the characters are pigeonholed into one-dimensional personalities. And that’s the strong point of this manhwa – the many characters are juggled extremely well. Given the limited length juxtaposed with the large cast, it is inevitable that some characters were left to be cannon fodder or mere yes-men without a chance to shine, and some other character arcs didn’t have time to wrap up. But the characters that did have the limelight, earned it. You’d be surprised how many different characters you can remember and distiguish, because that’s how the author carefully builds them panel by panel.

Much praise has to be handed to the art as well. Most the manga is swathed with a curtain grey and dull colors, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of meloncholic dread that permeates the students daily lives. As a result when striking colors such as attacking cells or a beautifully shaded sunset enter the fray during climatic moments, it enhances the scene all the much sweeter. The beautiful backgrounds are also of note, a component is is absent for 90% of manga nowadays, which deserves commendation. And although the character designs aren’t especially unique or distinctive, the way their expressiveness is drawn to life will make your heart ache for them.


This entire collection of images is just the chapter covers, because they are so friggin beautiful


They are portrayed and written just like inexperienced kids. Whether it’s joking about with farts, falling in love within doomed triangles, turning selfish when their life is on the line, which makes them ever so human and extremely intriguing to watch.

Because that’s what kids do. Which really is at the heart of this manhwa. This isn’t a series about life changing moments from near-death experiences. Neither is it a tale of impossible to perform heroic acts. It’s just a coming-of-age tale when kids finally go to war. After all, they do have a saying in the army – come in as a boy, come out as a man.


Resets suck, or, why Jun Maeda is a hack


So I recently finished what is one of the Greatest Visual Novels of all time, Muv Luv Alternative. And as with all popular forms of media bestowed with that lofty title, Muv Luv has been subject to equal amounts of praise and criticism from both sides, some lauding its twisty storytelling while others decry such methods as simple shock value. Make no mistake, Muv Luv is all about shock value. Carefully constructed and meticulously planned shock value, but shock value nonetheless. Not that shock value is a bad thing. In fact,the horrors of ptsd was consistent with the themes of the story that Muv Luv was trying to bring across. All in all, I found Muv Luv an interesting experience. It was setting out what it wanted to do, and it did it well.

Right up until the ending.


So after that nail biting final battle during humanity’s final stand, after all the characters we’ve grown to know and love kick the bucket, Takeru returns back to base a broken but wiser man. He has finally achieved his goal of saving humanity, but at a heavy cost that he has known by now not to underappreciate. Now that he was worked hard, he will now receive his reward, and….go back to where he started with all his character development reset?

I sighed and clicked the close button, wondering where I had seen all of this before. I’m looking at you, Jun Maeda.

It may be a happy dream, but it’s a dream nonetheless

The problem with reset endings is that it effectively negates everything that came before it, every theme and character development that came before it, completely meaningless. It’s literally the same as the main character waking up in bed and thinking, “Wow, I had this epic dream where I learnt the value of life and how to appreciate my friends more. Screw that, that never really happened. I wonder what’s for breakfast?”

Some people might call me too cynical. What’s wrong with a happy ending, they might ask. Why put Takeru through more pain when he’s already had more than enough?  If he had his memories intact, he wouldn’t be able to live a normal life. Him losing his memories was the best possible thing that could happen to him. And in reply to that, at the risk of sounding like a sadistic edgelord, I would say that making Takeru happy wasn’t the aim of Muv Luv in the first place. For a different story – maybe so. Not the story Muv Luv was telling. We’re not reading Muv Luv to get a cuddly feel good experience. We checked out the reviews, saw it was some heavy militaristic stuff, and went in expecting the suffering.


Muv Luv was about people going through tough times, getting stronger from them, and emerge a wiser man. Going for a feel good ending doesn’t just contradict the themes. It shows that the visual novel prioritises the emotional manipulation of its readers over the truth of its narrative integrity.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe watching Jun Maeda works too much has left me with more than a little salt in my mouth. But the goal of fiction has always been to hold a mirror to life and show the truths of this world, whether these truths be harsh or happy ones. And the truth Muv Luv was going for, was the truth of war and loss, a truth that it unfortunately stumbled over near the finish line.

(On an unrelated note, the blatant fetishism in Muv Luv was more than a little out of place. Maybe it’s due to the nature of the visual novel market in Japan, where adult novels are expected to have some measure of erotic content regardless of their genre. Although I’m not exactly an expert on Japanese culture so I’ll have to research a bit on this).

Clannad’s ending was terrible, and you should feel terrible

As I had mentioned earlier, shock value is not necessarily a bad thing. But when coupled with reset endings, somehow shock value ends up less as an effective technique and more of a cheap way to manipulate the reader’s emotions. And when that happens, fiction becomes something of a race to pump you on “feels” in the shortest amount of time possible. That sort of fiction isn’t something I’d want to spend 50+ hours on. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not hating on Muv Luv. I genuinely think it is a very well crafted visual novel. Just that the ending is something I absolutely cannot sit right with.


Which brings me to why I don’t like Jun Maeda. I mean, he’s not exactly a bad writer per se – otherwise he wouldn’t have enjoyed his prolific status today – and I guess that there are people out there who genuinely like his work, and well, if they enjoy it, so be it. But to me, stories like Maeda’s (and now Muv Luv) rely too much on the bait and switch and often leaving me empty inside. For tragic, shocking, but yet genuine stories, I’ll stick to Stein’s Gate, thank you very much.

Undertale: A god am I

Undertale is a really complex game. On the surface, it seems like another cheap indie game you’ll be washing your hands off in a few hours – that was certainly my first impression. But like all the rest, I was converted. Not only is Undertale ridiculously fun, but it also weaves a complex story in the way only games can. I’d even go so far as to consider it as one of the few games that actually use their game status to convey a message – in short, a game as art.

Undertale is very, very meta. You don’t play as some eager adventurer, or even a silent protagonist. You play as you. The game directly involves you. Plot devices like Chara and Frisk are just there to handwave how the game’s actually talking to the person behind the screen. You alone have the choices to dig secret passages, kill or spare your enemies, or even quit the game or continue playing. Some characters in the game have knowledge of “save points”, have knowledge that you are have played through the game before, or have previously witnessed the exact same cutscene. This is framed as a sort of “time travel” ability, a godlike power that only you possess, and allows you to lord over the gameworld doing as you see fit, treating the cast and its world like toys.


Want to find out what happens if you befriend Undyne instead of scattering her soul to the wind? Load a presave. But what if you to see what happens when you kill Toriel instead of sparing her? Easy, load a presave and tear a hole in her gut. Characters in the game are just a collection of pixels and sound. They don’t mean anything, they’re just tools for you to play with. As lamented by Flowey, the only character in the game who has the same time travel powers you do: “I’ve done everything this world has to offer. I’ve read every book. I’ve burned every book. I’ve won every game. I’ve lost every game. I’ve appeased everyone. I’ve killed everyone.” That statement rings true. After all, why have you played the game over and over in the first place? In order to see what happens differently, a different line of dialogue there, another location discovered there. And then, when you’ve done all you can, made friends with all the cast and achieved the True Pacifist ending, what else is there to do?

Kill everyone, of course.

Sans is perhaps the most interesting character in the entire game. You only get to fight him when you’ve killed everyone. Up til now, the extra boss fights as a result of your bloodthirstiness had been challenging, but still manageable. Sans is a whole another level. It’s almost as if he’s cheating. His fight is so stupendously, ridiculously, absurdly unfair that you wonder if you’re supposed to lose in the first place. Like, what gives?

So you give up for a while. You cross out the window and pace around in frustration. Maybe you go for a run or get some reports down. But then, eventually you’re back in the chair, hunched over the screen with wide eyes, ready to fight Sans for the twentieth time.

Sans knows of your power. He knows with the privilege of unlimited tries, you’ll eventually beat him. His only option is to make you give up, get off your computer, anything but continuing to trample around and spread death and destruction across his world. He even resorts to fake-sparing you, then sucker punches you, with the game over words being, “if we’re really friends… you won’t come back.”  He knows you’ve been restarting and refighting him. He knows you’ve been obsessing over his moves on youtube videos like a drug crazed lunatic. But that’s what you exactly what you are, right? To yourself, you’re just playing a game. To him, you’re an utter psychopath.

“You’ll never give up, even if there’s… absolutely NO benefit to persevering whatsoever, if i can make that clear. No matter what, you’ll just keep going. not out of any desire for good or evil… but just because you think you can. and because you “can”… … you “have to”.

Not much other games have given this sort of sense of impact, how you as a power mad game player have affected game characters. There are many other themes Undertale presents, and many other reasons to play it, but this meta aspect of Undertale highlights it as one of the cleverer games this year.


When I beat Sans, I felt a strong sense of accomplishment. I did it, I finally killed that harmless skeleton who cracked jokes and loved his brother. Now I can finally do the last thing I could do in this game world. Destroy it.


Because I could.





Katanagatari: The meaninglessness of life

Spoilers are a given, read at your own risk.

Really takes the motivation out of you, doesn’t it?

Watching Katanagatari was a hollow experience. Not that the story was particularly dark, or tragic – it was those two things, but those weren’t the main aspects that made me want to strangle the show by its throat. No, Katanagatari was hollow in the more metafictional sense. Its story was essentially, meaningless. Twelve 45 minute long episodes all built up to nothing. Plotlines weren’t resolved. Narrative threads got snipped shut. And it wasn’t just the ending. Throughout the entire series the writers had been purposely setting up expectations for where the story would go and then breaking them in the most cruel and sadistic manners as possible.

Take for example, a fight between Shichika(the main character) and the strongest swordsman in the country (Sabi Hakuhei). This fight had been hyped for three straight episodes and everyone in the story had cooed about how Sabi Hakuhei was the greatest and that Shichika would have trouble beating him, etc, etc. And then the episode of their fight came. It happened offscreen. We didn’t see a single frame of it. At the end of the episode Shichika was talking about how epic the fight was. By that time I was holding my head in my hands and thinking, ‘they’re definitely doing this on purpose’.

The badass who never was.

Although Katanagatari is advertised as a romance/samurai story, and although to be fair it does fulfill many of its genre tropes, it is still very very meta. Characters sometimes break the fourth wall regularly and reference the fact that they exist inside a story. It can become very annoying at times. At one scene, I was watching them hike through the desert, on their way to an abandoned mansion to collect the second of their twelve deviant blades, and then suddenly Togame(the other main character) couldn’t shut up about how some guy’s dialogue would be hard to write. I thought I was watching a romantic samurai story. Since when was it a postmodern romantic samurai story? That’s the problem when you bring in meta concepts into the field – either you’ll sound super self-indulgent or you’ll kill the immersion completely.

Her last words are literally, “Oops, did I mess up my last line?” (Still no less tragic)

But in Katanagatari’s case, its meta atmosphere had a point. Despite all its idiosyncrasies and inconsistency, Katanagatari did end up having a message to bring across. The moral of this entire clusterfuck of a story was simply, “If you follow the path set for you by others, it will never work out.” Basically, it can be shortened to, “Everything you do might be meaningless.”

And meaninglessness is exactly at the heart of Katanagatari.

The tragedy of the Maniwa Corps

Badasses that never were.

There’s a group of secondary villains in the anime, twelve of them, called the Maniwa Corps, ninjas who want to stop our hero’s journey in collecting the Twelve Deviant Blades and take the swords for themselves. The first one appears with a bang in the very first episode, boasts of his abilities and skills, and actually manages to give Shichika a fairly hard time before he in unceremoniously killed.

That is the last time a Maniwa ever did anything.

The second Maniwa appeared in the second episode. He had a grand total of thirty seconds screentime and one line of dialogue before getting bumped off. And he wasn’t even bumped off by the main character.

The third Maniwa appeared in the third episode. He had one small scene in which his psychotic nature established him as a clear and present threat. In the next scene, he was dead in ten seconds, and again, it wasn’t even the main character who killed him.

Do you see a pattern here?

Even the kid died. Not as family friendly as I had thought.

It got to the point where the Maniwa’s fates were sealed as soon as they ran up against any opponent whatsoever. Whenever I saw them confront another party I thought, “Yup, Maniwa’s gonna die.” This villain of the week being hyped up and immediately dying never, ever changed. It was already a given they would lose whatever fight they were in because it was a formula established by the narrative.

What even made it worse was that the Maniwa weren’t unsympathetic characters. Their comrades died like flies around them each episode, and they clearly bemoaned the loss off their friends. And yet, what did they do? They continued rushing into fights and dying. At one point a Maniwa asked another, “Your lover got killed in the last episode, aren’t you going to grieve for him?”. “No. Right now our job is more important.”. Said widow was dead a couple of episodes later. I was seriously wondering why they couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie and just give up on the sword hunt. But the answer was obvious. They were only following the path set out before them.

And then in the penultimate episode, Maniwa Houou, the leader of the Corps got possessed by an evil spirit and he slaughtered the whole Maniwa village. Then he got killed.

And it wasn’t even a folly of Houou’s actions that led to this, it was this random evil spirit that did everything. Houou hadn’t even been a factor. Even in the end the Maniwa remained irrelevant.

So basically everything the Maniwa did throughout the entire eleven episodes was meaningless.

Believing in an ideal, just because you like how it sounds.


In the book called Animal Farm, there’s this silver tongued bastard named Squealer. “Join the revolution, comrades”, he told all the rest of the animals, “And your lives will be better.” They believed and devoted themselves to the cause, and their lives became worse.

Ideals may sound good, and every human being has one somewhere in their heart, but there’s a difference between having an open mind and just following your ideal blindly. The animals in Animal Farm were blind. So is ISIS. And so is a lot of characters in Katanagatari. The Maniwa believed in their ideal, even when things were hopeless, even when they already knew they would probably end up dead, they still followed their goal of getting the swords and saving their Maniwa village. It probably sounded all rosy to them, but due to their inability to follow anything but the path they set in front of themselves, their unwillingness to break away from the roles the plot had given them, they continued doing what they were doing.

In the end their rigid ideal didn’t lead to anything. It was all meaningless.

Another Katanagatari character dies a meaningless death.

Sometimes we expect our lives to end up flowing as harmoniously as a storybook. The appropriate pacing, conflict, climax, resolution, all wrapped up in a neat little bow, as long we follow the story. Work hard, I’ll get this job. Talk to this girl, I’ll have a girlfriend. One plus one will always equal two. It’s a cute thought to hold, but in reality, real life doesn’t go that way. Just because you believe in something and hold to that belief religiously, doesn’t mean that belief will work out like you intended to. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to believe in anything. I’m saying that it’s wrong to believe in something rigidly. Don’t be swayed by the opinions of that belief alone. Let your own self come into play. You are your own storybook, not the book that others wrote for you to read.

And in a way, that what’s Katanagatari is trying to say, in its defying of narrative expectations. That a story doesn’t always follow a set formula, and that one would be a fool to trust that stories always work out the way you want them too. Often, events don’t follow a narrative. Often, events don’t have some grand higher purpose. Often, events are meaningless. Don’t follow a story. Just follow what you want to do.


In the shocking ending that was episode 12, Togame confessed to Shichika that actuality that, this entire time throughout the entire series, she had been planning to kill him. Even though she loved him. Why? Because Shichika’s father killed her father. So naturally it was “her duty” to take revenge.

If she had just ignored the storybook inside her head, perhaps she would have been happier.




Top 10 anime. Of all time. Forever.

This is it. The big one. Every self respecting anime watcher has it. The official, ultimate, no-holds-barred best anime list of all time. I wouldn’t say I have the most common of tastes in this business, not only staying clear of the mainstream fluff like Sword Art Online, or, god forbid, Naruto, but also avoiding the supposed classics like Cowboy Bebop or any of Miyazaki’s films. Even so, people have their lists, and this is mine. I had a blast watching the anime I wanted to watch, collecting about fifty plus under my belt now, and I have no doubt I will continue watching even when I’m fresh out of university. From when I first started watching superpowered smooth talking foreigners kill each other back in 2010, up til now seeing cute little girls fight off hordes of zombies at this very date on the fifteenth of August 2015, this is my official top ten anime list.

10. Darker than Black

Genre: Action, Science Fiction

When I watched it: 2010

Best episode: Episode 14 (Yin’s arc)

This is a very imperfect show. Unlike the rest of the shows on this list, it doesn’t have as many ‘wow’ moments – not too quirky, not too flashy, just a quiet show with some people talking and then some people fighting. I came away from the show wondering why I liked it, and, judging from some quick searches on Google, quite a few anime bloggers had that exact same question on their minds as well. Nostalgia might play some part it – but ultimately, I realised what DtB had what many other shows didn’t – as an action anime, it was unique. The fight scenes were short, but as sweet as freshly minted cotton candy. The characters weren’t the most original, but they expressed themselves in such a way in which no other method of exposition could be that subtle. The universe they inhabited was deeply engaging, and the noir-ish, gloomy mood accompanied by that breezy sax never failed to draw me in. Some say this was the spiritual successor to Cowboy Bebop, and I don’t know if it is true, if it is, that means DtB isn’t that original – but even so, against a market of moeblobs and hot-blooded low IQ teenage protagonists, DtB stands out as an whole new action genre of its own.

9. Gungrave

Genre: Drama, Science-Fiction

When I watched it: 2011

Best Episode: Episode 14 (The one where SPOILER finally SPOILERS SPOILER)

Like the entry preceding it, Gungrave isn’t what you’d expect of an ordinary anime. As a drama, rather then the predictable angst of hormone riddled teenagers, Gungrave instead takes the stage to the world of organised crime, a classic mafia drama played straight along with all the themes of brotherhood and betrayal. It’s a story of two friends, in which one betrays the other (or the other one betrayed him, depending on your viewpoint). This is not necessarily a spoiler, because Gungrave employs an interesting narrative choice – at the first episode, you already know what happens, what the characters have done to each other, what the world has become. That makes the first half of Gungrave all about the anticipation, and then when the second half snaps back to the present, it’s just the cathartic pleasure of watching all the cards fall down as the characters reap their karmic rewards. This show is a classic tragedy of human beings being human beings, basically. And yes, at the last episode, I was almost crying.

8. Katanagatari

Genre: Action, Romance

When I watched it: 2014

Best episode: Episode 12 (THAT ENDING)

Katanagatari is advertised as a samurai story, but just limiting to that would be a huge diservice. Being a Nisio Isin work, expect a lot of quirky things you will either love or hate – endless dialogue, eccentric characters, and a whole lot of meta jokes. But mostly, a lot and a lot and a lot of dialogue. You never know what you will get in such an inconsistent work as Nisio’s and this is one of his more all over the place ones. Admittedly, I found myself checking the time bar thingy every now again as Togame rattled off about catchphrases for ten minutes or when the holy priest guy was giving his lecture on Shichika being a murderer which I thought was as unsubtle as could be and I was rolling my eyes and stuff. But there was a lot of good stuff too, like the psychotic Nanami terrifying her enemies, or princess Hitei bantering with her loyal servant(or friend?) Emonzaemon. But the real thing that bumped Katanagatari straight up to this list was its ending. And holy shit, that ending. After eleven fifty minute episodes of all that Nisio-like meandering, which had the critical effect of us getting to know the characters more deeply than anything else, the ending happened. The ending was literal perfection. I can’t think of any other anime that hit me with such emotion, such catharsis, and such satisfaction that this was how the characters were meant to end up from the very beginning.

7. Monster

Genre: Drama, Psychological

When I watched it: 2010

Best Episode: Episode 72 (Roberto vs Lunge)

There was one night, at about midnight sharp, when I was in my bed watching the television on the wall. At that time I was sharing the room with my brothers, and we were fighting on what to watch. The channel flipped to Kid’s Central, except at this hour it wasn’t Kid’s Central, it was the adult section, which was featuring a very creepy anime opening complete with blood and shadowy figures. I was hooked immediately, searched it up the next day, and that was the story of how Monster became the very first anime I watched. Like Gungrave and DtB, it’s a different breed of anime that’s more of a HBO drama, a very adult sort of crime serial that delves deep into the psychological idiosyncrasies of the most depraved criminals. Especially the titular Johan Liebert, a murderer who kills for very abstract reasons and whose multi-layered mind an enigma I enjoyed carefully peeling apart. But I liked the smaller arcs scattered around in the breather episodes – in a post Communist Europe, you get all sorts of stories, from Inspector Lunge the workaholic to Wolfgang Grimmer the man who always smiles. Not only them, but also the one-episode characters like the retired assassin who now works in a pasta restaurant, an illegal immigrant who works as a bone fide doctor…Naoki Urasawa, as he always does, manages to handle a cast of dozens of characters and gives each of them a story.

6. Shiki

Genre: Horror, Drama

When I watched it: 2014

Best Episode: Episode 24 (When the cards all come falling down)

This has a lot of similarities to Stephen King’s Salem’s lot – there is an isolated village, an evil as old as history arrives in the form of a family of three vampires, and as the episodes chug on more and more villages get ‘turned’ into those that they despised the most, and in the final act everything comes crashing down when the villagers find out what’s going on and the two factions wage a bloody war. But unlike Salem’s lot, what makes this work so much more interesting is the fact that you genuinely don’t know which side to root for. Even til now, on youtube comments and message boards, people are still debating which side was more horrible in the end – the humans or the vampires (the Shiki). To add to the odds, a common underlying theme of Shiki is that of the rigidity of conventions and how people long to break from them – and the Shiki are portrayed as simply just innocent souls who are just trying to live their own lives. There are both good and bad people among the humans, just as there are good and bad people among Shiki, and with a cast of dozens of characters, all sides of spectrum are seen and heard, making Shiki a fable of the most complex and nuanced kind. If you don’t want morality plays, Shiki works as a straight up tragedy as well, with many character’s arc coming to tragic, and often bitterly unfair endings. There’s a lot that happened in Shiki, and all of it was impactful enough to stay with me up til now.

5. Shinsekai Yori

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction

When I watched it; 2015

Best Episode: Episode 19 (Nearly peeed my pants)

Let me get this out of the way first – I didn’t much care at all for the main characters. They were dull, bland, uninspiring, with as much personality and free will as cardboard cutouts. What this says about SSY, however, is that the sheer strength of its other aspects, its narration, its atmosphere, its surreal animation and above all its fantastic worldbuilding is enough to ride over its weaknesses and arrive at the number 5 spot on this list. SSY simply excels at the two genres it advertises as – as a science fiction piece, no other anime comes close to crafting such a horrifying and strange world. There’s stuff like exploding dogs, or a tiny horse like thing that looks like a balloon, and also guys kissing other guys like its totally normal. The setting is weird, you’ll go wtf at every turn, but the point is that it’s so unique and so exquisitely crafted that you’d have no problem believing it existed in the first place. And there’s also the horror aspect. Oh god, the horror, the horror. Not only does the anime rocket sky high with tension in certain pulse pounding moments (see above: best episode), and not only does it manage to maintain a simmering atmosphere of uneasiness even throughout even the breather episodes, there is is also first and foremost the philosophical horror. SSY shows us that humans are and forever will be heartless madmen, and that unsettling concept is never reconciled even by the show’s end.

4. Welcome to the NHK!

Genre: Comedy, Drama

When I watched it: 2011

Best Episode: Episode 24 (A bittersweet ending)

Now that we’re this far into the list, we’re going to talk about some anime which are more personal to me, ones that really struck home and were relevant to what I was doing and what kind of person I was at the time. Not to get too sappy, but anime from here on out really resonated within me, and NHK is no exception. It’s a story of an adult man experiencing a syndrome common to Japan and to many developed countries – that of not wanting to do anything and instead staying inside his room twenty four hours a day. Our protagonist Satou fears outside contact, fears the responsibilities of the adult life, fears maintaining relationships – he’s basically scared of the world around him. The other characters surrounding have similar issues – one has insecurity problems, another has dreams far beyond him, and yet another finds herself just so incredibly lonely. These situations are played for laughs, but they are played for honest laughs, a twisted kind of black comedy which only highlights the severity of the situations our characters find themselves in. Everyone, especially me, can find a bit of themselves in Satou and the rest, because this is a show about real life. It’s a show about the social problems young adults face. It’s a show about vulnerable people and how they struggle to connect to each other. Some episodes made me cackle knowingly, others just made me sad, but in the end what NHK truly did was make me realise I wasn’t the only one fucked up in the head.

3. Mawaru Penguindrum

Genre: Drama, Comedy

When I watched it: 2014

Best Episode: Episode 25 (Let’s share the fruit of fate)

If you know Ikuhara, you’d know his name is basically a synonym for LOTTA SYMBOLISM. Penguindrum is no exception, and it’s weird as it goes. Part of the comedy of this series comes from its sheer absurdity – at one point, a girl shouts SEIZON SERYUKU and everybody gets transported to a magical realm where they fly in this rocket sprouting stars, only to end up inside a bear robot with a lot of train symbols flying past, and…yeah. This show’s weird. Some of the symbolism might have overstayed its welcome, and sometimes you just want to scream at the show to get on with it, but its main message still rings clear as a bell. Again, the black comedy is just a precursor to the main themes – underneath all its fantastical fluff, Penguindrum is a very sad story. A story of human beings being wrung about by this sinister being named fate. But its also an optimistic story, a heroic one, that of people forming connections and doing their best to save one another. Out of all the anime on this list, it may be the most ‘feel good’ show on here, but at the same time it never compromises its honesty. Penguindrum made me cry, it made me smile, and I’m glad it entered my life.

2. Oregairu

Genre: Drama, Romance

When I watched it: First season in 2014, Second season in 2015

Best Episode: Season 2 Episode 11 (Hayato best boy)

This show is essentially the ultimate high school slice of life show (for me, at least). Like NHK, the only concern this show has is people facing problems in real life, but this time, we see them through the eyes of a massive introvert still in high school, Hikigaya Hachiman, who is pretty much the textbook definition of the loner kid who never talks to anyone. Now I’ll admit something upfront. I am a lot like Hachiman. I’m cynical, I’m lazy, I think I’m better than everyone else and I detest maintaining friendships. Other lesser shows in the high school setting would treat these qualities as something to be laughed off – oh, mr self-insert, it’s okay to be yourself! –  but Oregairu amazingly forces its protagonist to grow up. Throughout the course of the two seasons Hachiman actually changes, gradually coming out of his shell and realising what’s most important to him. Sure, maybe the amount of girls that surround him make this a tad less realistic harem. And, of course, I’d be the first to agree that the so called ‘comic relief’ is nothing more than light novel garbage tier. But this anime actually – and I daresay – actually taught me a thing or two. Hachiman learnt a lot of lessons, and I learnt along with him all the way.

1. Monogatari Series

Genre: Supernatural, Drama

When I watched it: 2014 til now, still anxiously awaiting Owarimonogatari

Favourite episode: Second Season Episode 21 (Kaiki is like the anime version of Atticus Finch)

This one’s also by Nisio Isin, and it’s just plain messy. As one reviewer puts it, it’s a ‘disaster’. I’ve written a review of it on this blog some time back. If you don’t like the Monogatari series, I won’t blame you in the slightest bit – I myself detest certain episodes of it too. But even so, there’s no other anime I eagerly anticipate every week. No matter how depraved, how pointless, or how disgustingly self indulgent its episodes get, I will never, ever find a replacement for Monogatari, because it’s so damn quirky, stamped with such an recognizable style courtesy of both Nisio and Shaft. I love this style. This minimalistic, self-mocking, blunt and all around eccentric tone which only sets the pace for the idiosyncratic dialogue – I love it all. And when Monogatari starts getting good, it really starts getting good. This is an anime which is sorta about real life which is a-ok, because in a roundabout way it also deals with first world-problems which young adolescents like me can relate to. Throughout its quirkiness Monogatari manages to tug at my heartstrings more than a few times, and these two aspects alone vault it up as my favourite anime of all time.

Best OPs of all time. Subjectively.

I love anime OPs. They are as about as unique to anime as moeblobs and fanservice, and it’s always a joy to watch a minute and a half of what is sometimes the most creative part of the whole episode. With the right music track and cleverly placed visuals, simply just sitting through an anime opening can easily create 50% more hype for the episode. It’s a valid marketing strategy. So, therefore, I am going to create a list of the best OPs I have ever seen, the ones that got me all riled up, got me speculating, got me jamming to the beat, or in some cases, utterly confused me(in a good way). The quality of the corresponding anime, on the other hand, has no relation…

Psycho Pass 2 OP 1 v2 – Enigmatic Feeling 

Actual anime rating: 5/10

Goddamit, Psycho Pass, your OPs are always golden. From that raspy, heavy rapping sort of rock we first heard when Kogami was throwing people out of buildings, to the memetic FEEEEEL that we all loved to echo in our heads, Psycho Pass OPs are no joke. I’d like to give these two an honorable mention, because it’s Psycho Pass’s third opening that takes the cake. Take a look – you hardly know what’s going on there at first. The screen is covered in distortions and obscured by static. Furthermore, notice the multiple cases of repetition – it’s something surreal and absolutely creepy. Add in some vivid images like Akane getting her head blown off and having a creepy figure sprout from an upside down plane and you get this intense sense of something ‘glitching’. Images so surreal that you’re sure nothing takes place in reality anymore. Watching the opening is like watching the world through the eyes of an insane men, probably already locked up in a straitjacket with at least five different psychiatrists. Not to mention the rampant symbolism(Akane turning white, a mysterious woman with a rose, etc) which I found my brain scrambling to reconcile, because, obviously, these symbols mean something. Something insane was going to happen in the second season. Everytime I watched an episode I sat through the opening and allowed my imagination to run wild. What was going to happen to deserve this distorted madness?

Pity the second season was shit. All my rampant speculation went down the drain in what was a mediocre mess of ‘filler until the movie’ sort of pointlessness. Ah well. I still watch the opening on rainy days.

Monogatari Second Season OP 5 – Kogarashi Sentiment.

Actual anime rating: 9/10

The Monogatari series is another anime which has a monopoly on openings. Not only are the openings good, heck, they change openings every arc, which works out to be about ten openings spread out over forty episodes. If this contest was decided on music alone, Delusion Express would take the cake, but since it’s based on visuals as well Kogarashi Sentiment will take the award. The song is pretty mediocre, to be honest, but if you watch it with the opening animation everything falls into place. This opening is literary masturbation, basically. The contrast with the corny music of the 80s with the actual plot of the series, the way the visuals keep switching from old style to new style, fits in perfectly with the themes of the arc, but intellectually and emotionally. Watch it the first few times, you won’t get it. Finish the whole series and watch it again, and you’ll be hitting the replay button on constant, ideas swirling around in your head, reliving the escapades of Senjougahara and Kaiki and wondering what it all meant in the end.

Tokyo Ghoul OP 1 – Unravel

Actual anime rating: 6/10

Tokyo ghoul is basically the next dark fantasy for teenage angsters – which doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means it’s limited by it’s own genre. But the opening is in another class for these sort of shows. Not only is heavy rock combined with piano one of the best things ever, but the opening packs just the right amount of ‘deep’ into the visuals – not too dumb, but not needlessly ambiguous either. I mean, a boy sitting alone under a endless sky? Distorted colors sprouting out of a girl’s back? Draws emo kids in like moths to a flame(me included)! I in particular like the concept of duality very much, even wank to it in my brain at night, and this opening is chock full of it, whatnot with every single character having two versions of themselves. A perfect way to nail in the themes of the series without staying too pretentious.

Monster OP – Grain

Actual anime rating: 8/10

Monster is kind of a weird beast among anime – more like a drama on HBO than a cluster of wide eyed moeblobs, you won’t find anything else like it. In this vein, the opening to Monster is similarly strange. With no vocals at all, a somewhat creepy flute(humming?) sustained through the entire minute and a half, the music is minimalistic at its best. So is the visuals, they’re as simple as simple goes – Tenma sitting on a train, he’s getting out, he’s running in the rain. Then a series of flashing images (an x-ray, the sign of an inn). And then Tenma’s standing on a wasteland out of nowhere. The end. As one youtube commenter put it, “all I get from the opening is that there’s a guy who’s terribly confused.” That goes from the same of all of us – watching this opening, we are completely and utterly out of our depth. Tenma’s running around, he’s trying to do something, but we don’t know what, nothing offers any clues, and that just brings out the sense of mystery and surreality that’s present throughout the actual anime as well. I may no know what I’m watching, but I do know that whenever I get to the part where Johan’s at the window, and he turns around, I get the chills.

Kuroko no Basket Discussion: The problem with being a God.

So I watched Kuroko no Basket, and it may just be the most ridiculous sports anime ever. Those who have already watched should know the drill. Action packed physics defying feats of shounen that would have made Kishimoto proud. Whatnot with Sharingan powerups that can enable a guy to see the entire court, or some sort of flash step mojo that allows another to vanish through his mark. All utterly ridiculous basketball, but fun to watch nevertheless.

But I’m not going to talk about those court battles, entertaining as they are. Kuroko no Basket although a shounen does have its themes, after all, one of them being the classic ‘you can’t move forward without teamwork’. And the other is about the problems of godhood.

The team we root for is Seirin, but the real main characters in the story are the Generation of Miracles, a team of five prodigies who in their middle school emerged as a an unstoppable force to which no opponent was able to match. They were so talented and so unbelievably strong that they were considered literal walking legends on the basketball court. Almost like gods.

And in was in their godhood where every one of them fell.

Becoming strong. Becoming the best. Becoming so abnormally powerful others would revere you as a miracle. That seems to be the aim of every pursuit in life, and more so in the area of sports and basketball, where competition is tight and being better than your opponent is the very objective. By that definition, those five of the Generation have achieved their goals as sportsmen.

But what comes after the goal?

When they have already conquered, what is there left to climb?

From the moment they became gods they ceased to become humans. For the moment they reached the pinnacle of their sport they ceased to become sportsman. They didn’t belong in the world of our determined, hardworking protagonists any longer. From then on they became the slow but sure transition to villains.

By the time the series starts the team of disbanded, all for various reasons, but all rooting back to the same problem – they don’t find joy in basketball anymore. Instead they see basketball as more of a chore, a ritual they go through in order to keep up their tiresome roles of ‘being the best’. And thus, they naturally adopt cold, logical methods of playing that lead to the most success and not the most enjoyment. They say basketball is not about winning, but that’s not the truth. Every player plays to win, or they wouldn’t even be winning. But even so the GoM are doing it wrong, because basketball is also about the experience, about the thrill, about the desire to peservere, and the GoM are playing with none of these things in mind, skipping straight to the victory and ignoring the journey that comes with it. In that sense the GoM have thrown away everything that our protagonist believes basketball has stood for.

Ryota Kise and Daiki Aomine, the bored prodigies who no longer put in any effort simply because they are too good. Musakhibara, the lazy genius resenting basketball, seeing the game as broken and worthless if someone like him can win with little effort. Akashi, the man who became so robotically in tune with victory he created another personality and hid his real self away. The most normal one of these five and one I can’t even fault is Midorima, the only one who still actually still tries to do his best in basketball. Out the outward, he is as cold as the rest, but at least he has not lost the “drive” to become better, even changing his philosophies to suit his victory, unlike the rest who are just listlessly going through the motions.

All five of them, however have one thing in common – they completely shun teamwork and all forms of it. They play alone, never pass, rely on themselves to score their goals and act as if their team doesn’t exist. And why would they act otherwise? They are infinitely better than anyone they meet on the court, so why should they even bother to work with people who will only drag them down? This style of play is of course hated by the common folk – most of them are treated as outcasts and ostracised, most particularly Aomine and Midorima whom the team wastes no time in talking dirt behind their back. Even Akashi, though respected by all, has never gained the small little jewel called friendship, and when the going gets tough his teammates grow to resent him. Perhaps that is the most tragic aspect of their godhood – their solitude. For as they are talented they are also abnormal. And to be abnormal is to be alone.

And this interestingly ties in one of Kuroko’s most prominent messages – that nothing is more important than teamwork. Kuroko, though somewhat formidable, is depressingly weak against his former teammates of Teiko. As a result he is forced to rely on others, his weakness a direct parallel to GoM’s strength as he advocates teamwork against GoM’s isolated style of play.

And, as it turns out, he was the enemy they needed.

For it was Kuroko who showed them teamwork truly was an important tool in basketball. It’s something reoccuring in the series – each and every one of the GoM decries Kuroko’s style as needlessly weak, but it is the very style they find themselves struggling against. For teamwork brings a whole new level to the difficulty of basketball. Cohesiveness, fluidness, trust,  knowing when to pass the ball and knowing whether that person will receive it, all these are hidden facets to the potential of what a truly good team could do. Kuroko uses these facets, and when he becomes to strong for the GoM to handle, something interesting happens – those arrogant outcasts start working with their team as well. Midorima starts passing for the first time in his rematch with Kuroko, and Akashi unlocks the ‘true Zone’ and leads his team to new heights in the final match.

And that is supposedly the moral of the story – that teamwork really is important as it sounds, and it is only with utilizing them will you enjoy basketball to the fullest. But if you look deeper, it’s actually much more than that. Kuroko’s Basketball is actually not about basketball. It’s not even about sports. It’s about friendship. You don’t play basketball because you like basketball. You play it because your friends do. You play because you want to have a blast playing it with people you respect and care about, regardless of whether with or against. That is the true definition of ‘teamwork’, feeling the bond with human beings, and the sole concept by which almost every main character in the anime come to realise.

And that is the true message of Kuroko. That who wants to be God, when you’ve got friends down below waiting for you to come back?