Nailing where the Fuuka anime went wrong

With Fuuka pretty much wrapping up its anime run this week, I felt it was time to express some of my thoughts on where I’ve felt the show has gone so wrong in translating the thrill of the manga original to the TV screen.

I started reading the manga when the anime version was first announced, quickly powering through the hundred or so chapters available as part of my Crunchyroll subscription. I quickly got caught up in the series’ neat blend of an old school love-triangle and band dynamics – in many ways, this felt like a fresh, up-to-date take on classics like Beck and Nana. When the anime was announced – my immediate thoughts were ones of joy; at the exposure others would get to a story I felt was definitively solid, and would wholly benefit from the key factors an anime version would bring – name ‘animation’ itself, as well as that essentially ingredient for a band series – music.

But when the anime started airing, by the fourth episode I felt pretty much resigned that this was going to be a lacklustre adaption. Something only confirmed when the series opted for anime-original material; swerving the infamous ‘death’ scene which transforms the manga’s plot trajectory – and instead playing it safe.

So, I’ve honed in on three specific areas I feel the anime version has faltered in:

1 – Anime original material – altering a key plot element.

Spoilers ahoy – in the original manga, around 40 chapters in, female lead Fuuka dies horribly; run over by a truck. It’s a massive, brave move for the story at this point – ripping away a central character and throwing the male lead into despondency, from which he must then rise up again. But in this shocking act (which some have criticised for being overly melodramatic and ‘cheap’) the manga finds its real heart – adding much-needed depth to a story that was arguably idling along until this point.

In many ways – the anime faltered because it only exposed viewers to the blander ‘pre-death’ material; before any of the series ‘band’ material had even got underway. Thus, what we were left with arguably skewed heavily toward the romantic elements, without presenting any of the deeper, music-centric content.

2 – Bad pacing

This is a point I struggled with for a long time. It’s not so much that Fuuka’s pacing is bad – it adapts somewhere between 2 and 4 chapters of the manga per episode; somewhat the norm for most anime series. The trouble is that the chapters of the manga are so short and brisk that they can be powered through in minutes. My reading experience usually focused around 10-chapter chunks that presented whole narrative arcs in concise portions; in contrast, those watching the anime were forced to leisurely wind their way through the same material at the pace dictated by reading the subtitles on a 20 minute TV episode. The result was drudgingly slow.

This issue might have been solved with an adaptation that took more liberty with the source material, cutting back to the core concepts to craft a more ‘cinematic’ experience (more on that in the next point). Equally – a two-cour run of 24/26 episodes may also have benefitted the show – allowing the anime to cover up to around 100 chapters’ worth of material and really getting into the meat of the core story. Of course – it remains to be seen whether Fuuka will get a second cour later this year, but in many ways, with the first season garnering lacklustre popularity and user ratings, the damage has already been done.

3 – Lacklustre, cheap-feeling translation to anime

Many of the problems with Fuuka’s anime version are visual. Most noticeably, the noticeable lack of ‘animation’ itself. The episodes are staid, flat and un-dynamic. Apart from a handful of performance scenes (and even these are far from the majesty they could at been – again, look at Beck for example of these done right), the animation is usually severely limited, practically never breaking out into standout Sakuga moments. This adds to the slow feel of the series, and presents a distinctly 2D world; lacking the sense of 3D dynamism the likes of KyoAni can afford a series. I also took issue with the character designs – which while perfectly perfunctory, lacked some of the sharpness author Kouji Seo invests his designs with in the original manga. There, there’s an edgy, sensual coolness – but in the anime, everyone feels like they’ve walked out of the apotheosis of anime aesthetic norm, and is swiftly forgotten.

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Masamune-kun’s Revenge and the pleasure of mediocrity

Of all the show’s I’ve stuck with watching this season, Masamune-kun’s Revenge is without a doubt the one I enjoy least. And yet, whilst I’ve ended up dropping shows that are arguably far more artistically robust creations (eg. ACCA or season 2 of Blue Exorcist) I’ve somehow ended up still watching Masamune-kun. Why?

The answer, I think, lies in a very specific kind of anime aesthetic and viewing experience. For me, Masamune-kun epitomises the kind of show that there’s usually always at least one or two of every season. I show that absolutely hits the marker right in the centre when it comes to being the ‘most’ anime – striding the borderline between utter banality and semi-decent plotting; enough to keep you coming back every week but never stepping over into territory that’s commendable. And all this dressed up in a culmination of ‘this is what anime looks like in 2017’ aesthetic.

Every trope is present and correct. Dumb fanservice. An obnoxious male lead. An assortment of girl ‘types’ to lust after. A mix of over-arcing narrative and more individual episodic content. Bright primary colours, and the lustre of digital filter. Disposable, simple pleasure. Never taxing. The junk food of anime, if you will. A veritable McDonald’s cheeseburger or anime tropes that trigger a base principle of pleasurable mediocrity every time.

Asterisk War fulfilled this same itch for me. Taboo Tattoo even more so. Shows that get so close to being dropped, but somehow hang on – precisely because despite all their flaws, they nail that sit-back and binge-out aesthetic so perfectly that you feel compelled to shovel in more each week.

And these shows remain consistently popular. According to MAL – Masamune-kun is the 2nd most popular show of the Winter 2017 season, beaten only by Konosuba’s 2nd season. And it’s sure as hell not because of its ‘quality’. No, it’s far stab to place this popularity firmly in that ballpark of distinct ‘mass-market’ aesthetic. Is Masamune-kun a ‘cool’ show? No. Is it a clever show? No. But what it does manage to be is a) Just good enough, and b) attractively crafted.

Ironic, perhaps then, that in a show so concerned with personal appearance, that appearance comes to define the show’s appeal. But for – in this mediocrity, there’s a dumb, inoffensive, switch-off-your-brain appeal that will keep me coming back.

Hunter x Hunter’s greatest trick – making you hate the hero

Absolute mountains-worth of material has been written on Hunter x Hunter and its status as the ‘deconstruction’ de jour of the Shonen genre. I’ve seen countless videos on YouTube dissecting various aspects of the series what exactly constitutes that tricky issue of what exactly a ‘deconstruction’ even represents.

But one aspect that, for me, absolutely nailed the apex of everything Hunter x Hunter has come to represent is the way – during a very precise point in the Chimera Ant arc – it completely toys and flips with our expectations as a viewer and makes us feel hate or disgust for the hero.

This, logic suggests, should run counter to everything a Shonen series stands for. Gon – like so many other Shonen protagonists – is the epitome of male teenage energy, enthusiasm and innocence. But during the Chimera Ant arc, he effectively ‘breaks’ – entering ‘beast mode’ and tearing the absolute shite out of Pitou, in one of the series most shockingly gruesome moments.

In the preceding episodes, we have seen both Pitou and Meruem immensely humanised as characters, full of love, loyalty and caring. Ostensibly ‘monsters’ – the ants have in many ways become more human than the humans themselves. And this is symbolised perfectly in the moment in which Gon – unable to reconcile his feelings of rage and desire for revenge of Kite’s death – flips out and destroys Pitou.

Here, Hunter x Hunter lays forth one of its most powerful moral dilemmas – at this stage, Gon could have arguably walked away and let Pitou be, if only he could let go of his rage. Killing Pitou will not bring Kite back – but yet he feels he must destroy her all the same. Is this the beast speaking? The base animal instinct that tells us to destroy?

Here – the tables are flipped masterfully – we end up rooting for Pitou instead of Gon, wishing for her to survive and Gon to fail or reconsider. But in excruciating detail, we see him give in and unleash his rage – human destruction let rip on the ‘natural’ world of the animals. Gon – momentarily – becomes the villain, and everything we are told to feel about Shonen protagonists is thrown into chaos.

Accompanying the striking thematic elements, we’re also greeted with a visual element that I’ve always found fascinating too – When Gon gives in to his ‘beast mode’, he essentially undergoes a kind of accelerated aging; the series explaining it as a kind of supreme desire to overcome his obstacles that essentially ‘forces’ his body to prematurely ‘grow up’ to enable his physical prowess to match his mental desire.

Now, Gon is a long-haired dark-adonis; a supreme spectacle of humanity, all ripped muscle and angular limbs. In a series that has always been prided on its ‘darkness’, Gon is the apotheosis of the ‘dark’ side of humanity – what we can inherently become if we cast aside that self-same humanity. In the dark forest-scape in which Gon and Pitou battle, Gon is now ‘king of the jungle’, a supreme predator that stands as a living testament to ‘survival of the fittest’.

This sequence in the Chimera Ant arc has always filled me with a supreme terror at what Gon both visually and thematically represents in this point in the story – further amplified when we see the hollowed out, desiccated husk he becomes after the ‘beast mode’ wears off. In all of Hunter x Hunter’s intense moralistic brooding – for me, this part has always been its very own heart of darkness.

(For the record, my favourite Hunter x Hunter arc is the York New arc. While in almost every aspect I prefer the Chimera Ant arc, I feel York New is able to convey its message effectively in fewer episodes, and in many ways has more impact as it is the first time we’ve been exposed to the really ‘dark’ stuff in HxH. Plus, the Phantom Troupe are some of the best villains out there)

ANiUTa – half the solution to the age-old problem of legal AniSong streaming

I have to confess, my initial reaction to finding out about ANiUTa – a new ‘global’ streaming service which will allow fans outside of Japan to stream anime music from shows like Love Live and Macross – was one of joy. Finally – the solution to a problem I had been hammering on about for ages. ‘Why oh why could us fans in the West have incredible, legal streaming access to pretty much every anime as it aired in Japan, but not legally stream the songs from those very same shows?’

As something of a fanatic about both the music industry and anime – I’ve always felt the question of anime music and soundtracks is one that has been largely overlooked compared to wider discourse on anime as a whole. Whether through lack of interest, understanding or the worry that this kind of analysis might veer wildly into the frame of musicology (which can be something of a snoozefest when handled densely), there is comparatively little delving into the real ins and outs of anime music.

But as I pondered ANiUTa some more – the more it started to feel like only half a solution. Firstly, it stands as another example of the classic ‘new contender’ syndrome, which has become an inescapable part of the streaming wars – as new companies try to muscle in to an already crowded market. Each demands their own monthly subscription – and as we have already seen in the TV and anime streaming markets, there have already been many casualties.

Secondly, in many ways ANiUTa represents what the global ‘big three’ record labels (Sony, Warner, Universal) wish they did themselves before Spotify/Apple dominated the game – ie. a distribution platform owned by themselves. As a joint venture between countless AniSong labels, ANiUTa is smart thinking – taking ownership of the distribution instead of relying on a third party who will take their own cut of the earnings.

But therein lies the trouble – the benefit is on the companies themselves, with the consumer losing out. While the prospect of ANiUTa is arguably an improvement over a forlorn ‘ground zero’ in which legal streaming of AniSong is practically non-existent, it also means that the dream of having all these songs in one logical place (ie. Spotify) where listeners can consume at their leisure alongside their existing music collections seems unlikely.

Thus, the consumers are forced into a fractured listening experience, wherein some of their music is located one one service, and some is located on another. This is something we have already see in the TV streaming sphere – how many times have you wanted to watch a show that is ‘Exclusive’ to Netflix, only to find you’re screwed because you happen to subscribe to Amazon Prime instead.

I remain optimistic about ANiUTa – after all, it’s an improvement over the existing situation where Western AniSong fans had pretty much zero legal access to this material. But still – I feel it remans very much a half-measure, an avoidance of clear consumer habits, which – when it comes to the music industry – have arguably already picked their service of choice: Spotify.

Why Haruhi Suzumiya will always be the ‘hottest’ anime girl

A while back I watched a video by the YouTuber Digibro in which he discussed the notion of whether we’ll ever see another anime girl as ‘hot’ as Haruhi Suzumiya – and it’s a notion that’s always stayed with me, to this day.

Why, out of the countless anime girls from a million myriad series – all carefully crafted to appeal to individual aesthetic tastes – was Haruhi objectively the hottest?

It’s something I’ve pondered for a while – always coming back to the idea that the reason why this idea resonated with me so much was because her character created a very specific kind of instinctual longing/desire.

Going beyond simple discussion of aesthetics of the character design itself – what I struck on was the idea that Haruhi – in many ways – works so well because she represents an experience many otaku have either had themselves, or long for. She – simply put – encapsulates the experience (as I believe the folks on the Anime News Network podcast once put it) of talking to girls properly for the first time as a teenager, and all the notions of ‘coolness’ that go with it.

To that extent, Haruhi is a living embodiment of a very absolute sense of adolescence, that goes beyond base moe-tropes and makes a precision strike at a point somewhere half between nostalgia for this feeling, and the energetic ‘genki girl’ persona. She represents possibility – the possibility of the charisma and confidence you inherently, at that point, don’t have. She is the signified ‘leader’, with you as follower – and as such, she becomes the definition of the ‘pedestal’ girl; with you, the follower, always looking upward.

Another aspect of her ‘hotness’ is delineated via ‘the tease’. By all accounts, Haruhi Suzumiya as a series is comparatively tame when it comes to fanservice – at least by today’s standards. But one scene from the series’ movie follow-up has always struck with me – the part where Kyon, Koizumi and Haruhi are forced to sneak back into their own school. Here, Haruhi changes into Kyon’s gym clothes – and in doing so, takes off her school uniform while Kyon’s back is turned – before delivering the classic ‘But I’ve got a T-shirt underneath line’.

Here we see a perfect account of ‘the tease’ – Haruhi’s sensuality – which for so much of the series is never overtly addressed, suddenly wafted in front of our faces with a wink of knowing awareness. See also the various ‘I’ve experimented’ / ‘even I have needs’ lines, which I’ve seen argued gives off a ┬ádistinct ‘Even the girls want her’┬ávibe.

In short – Haruhi nails the ‘hotness’ aspect so perfectly because her character is fine tuned, in a way which perhaps no other anime character except Asuka from Evangelion comes close, to perfectly encapsulate otaku-specific kinds of longing and desire. While in many ways utterly artificial and unrealistic – Haruhi also strives to bring together the kinds of experiences otaku may have encountered in their own school lives to present a nostalgia tinged ‘If only…’ romanticism that is forever tantalizingly out of reach.

The rise of the Naoko Yamada fanboys

Over the last year, perhaps even more so than the hype and acclaim surrounding Makoto Shinkai in the mainstream press, I’ve noticed an irrespesible degree of coverage around Kyoto Animation director Naoko Yamada. I’d call her a rising star – but truth be told, she already is a star. As any of the half dozen career restrosprctives she has from various bloggers and YouTubers will inform you; the remarkable rise and rise of her career (via shows like K-On and Tamako Market) and ambition is nothing short of astounding.

As part of a wider movement of staff/sakuga appreciation that has swept the anime community over the last year or two, the acclaim around Yamada and A Silent Voice has been a dominant trend within the tight bubble of the anime Twitterati and key bloggers – Even eclipsing traditional ‘staff’ / auteur favourites such as key figures as Studio Trigger.

The acclaim is thoroughly deserved – A Silent Voice is a masterwork, richly imprinted with a clear auterial style. But what fascinates me is the speed at which the ouvre of Yamada appreciation as a fan-created product has snowballed. A kind of mythologising that often usually happens well into a director’s career, is for Yamada happening in the very midst of it.

I’ve expressed thoughts in the past as to whether the current trend of sakuga analysis has lent itself to a kind of anime elitism that marks itself out above and beyond the populist crowd which is arguably the core consumers of anime (think Naruto or Sword Art Online). But equally, it’s hard to deny the evolving and essential nature of new fan discourse that gives further prevalanece to staff.

The question is one of an informed fandom – and on that front, were certainly in a better off place than we were before.