Cardcaptor Sakura and the power of pure nostalgia

Hands up if you watched Cardcaptor Sakura (or more accurately, Cardcaptors, if we’re talking the English version) on CITV back in the early 00s?

From the super-cheesy but oh so catchy opening song to the show’s rollerskating, card-collecting, wand-waving hero, I’ll never forget the excitement I felt for this show – arriving as it did, when I has just started secondary school. Just as I, myself, went through a world of newness, the show itself seemed to offer a window into something quite unlike anything else on TV – even the anime predecessors that were obviously instrumental in it being ported onto English-language TV: Pokemon and Digimon.

And the thing is, while Pokemon and Digimon felt consciously commercial and part of the wider Japan hype of the time, Cardcaptors, even in its arguably bastardised English form, felt like it always placed the focus far more on its narrative and characters. Even at the time, young as I was, I felt its palpable sense of emotion – and the simple daring-ness of it being a show in which the lead character was a girl. Yes, Syaoran Li with his little sword and robes felt like something out of a Zelda videogame, but he was merely part of a wider universe of wonder.

In my ‘collector’ mindset of the time – driven by Pokemon databases, strategy guides and instruction manuals, I remember the very precise act of ‘watching’ and interacting with Cardcaptors as a piece of media. I’d rush home from school to watch it, then post-show, write down whatever the ‘featured’ card of the week was in a notebook I kept religiously under my bed. In the show’s episodic, formulaic monster of the week format – there was regularity and safeness – each week’s card might be unfamiliar, but you always knew Sakura would triumph.

Time would pass, and I’d forget all about anime for a long time. Digimon switched from CITV to cable channels I didn’t have access to. The initial Pokemon boom died down, and I only really stayed in contact with the franchise through the games. The last anime of that early 00s period I watched on regular TV was Monster Rancher, and that felt like the last gasp or tail end of an era that was already dying away.

Many years later, I found the notebook under my bed containing my scrawled weekly writings of all the cards from Cardcaptors. That was nostalgia.

More recently – many more years later – I finally understood the full concept of Cardcaptors within its original Japanese context and desperately searched for the long Out of Print UK releases of the show, which amounted to fewer than 10 of the first few episodes. Eventually I’d come to buy the original manga. That, too, was nostalgia.

Thinking back now – with a new Cardcaptor Sakura manga being serialised, and an anime to follow – it feels like we’ve come full circle. For me, an understanding of Cardcaptor Sakura will remain, always, inseparable from the notion of nostalgia. And I think, in a way, that has always been the point of the series – cherry coloured, semi faded memories of a half forgotten youth. Captured in time, a fragment of a turn-of-the-millennium age that continues to exist, regardless. That’s its magic. That’s its nostalgia.

Eureka Seven – Counter culture aesthetic & the thrill of the ‘journey’

Eureka Seven is ‘back’ – both in the sense of a forthcoming Blu Ray release from Anime Ltd, but also a hotly anticipated film trilogy which will make amends for the awful film version and (in my opinion) unfairly maligned AO – Astral Ocean series.

But let’s talk awhile about OG Eureka Seven – the series that many fans of a certain age express good degrees of fondness for.

In a way, the show represents a rarity for its age, or rather, a template for what would become a norm – an ‘original’ mecha series, and one from Bones instead of Sunrise. In a time now, when mecha has become almost synonymous with just one franchise – Gundam – Eureka Seven is refreshing in its capacity as ‘different’.

For me, the central charm of the series was always its express interest in a deliberately ‘counter-culture’ aesthetic. This was a show that could only ever have emerged from the early to mid 00s – when the world seemed in love with skating and surfing and Kerrang and hard dance music. It had this blissed out surfer-boy mindset, a kind of oceanic breeziness to it that was all blues and greens and whites. The design style, from the mecha to the packaging of the show itself – was spot on.

The characters slipped easily into this – with an excellent English dub comprised of many industry faves, who over the course of 50 eps, felt like they become your best friends, or rather comrades. You were on that ship with them, sharing every weekly adventure and tribulation.

I often compare Eureka Seven – as an experience – to shows like Last Exile and Wolf’s Rain – they have that same unfolding sense of narrative comprised of singular episodic experiences matched to a broader narrative that builds an exceptionally well-realised world setting. As anime YouTuber Digibro pointed out in a recent video – one of the neatest things about Eureka Seven is how the Gecko State ship and crew have their own magazine. The detail is fantastic.

The music reflected the wide-eyed sense of wonder too. I think pretty much everyone of the Opening Themes and core instrumental tracks is fantastic, moving through a wide variety of styles – but all in service to that same aforementiond breeziness. This optimism and devil may care attitude of seeing where the wind will take you. It was trance, it was punk, it was New Wave – it was everything – it was music that loved and took delight in *being* music, in a show that felt like it belonged to a world of hip DJs, beach parties and mixtapes.

There’s a theme that re-occurs in countless anime and manga (Hunter x Hunter immediately springs to mind) that postulates that the journey is more important than the destination. The means are more important than the end goal. The experience of watching Eureka Seven – seeing its narrative slowly evolve over 50 eps, is the epitome of this feeling. I remember when I was watching this series I had just started a new job, and my time had become a lot more limited. Whereas I’d previously blow through 20 eps or so in a day, I was now limited to maybe just four eps a day – two in the morning, and two in the evening. Thus, over the space of a month, I experienced Eureka Seven with a touch of the serialised manner in which it was originally screened – a paced, measured experience in which its episodic structure and grand narrative could both function at their peak.

In today’s anime climate, shows like Eureka Seven are rare – most shows are lucky to even get to 20+ eps, and if they do, it is invariably only because the first series has been a smash success. And thus, very few anime original series ever have the luxury of 20 or even 50 eps to plan out a massive, evolving narrative of this manner.

But maybe it’s better that way. Maybe shows like Eureka Seven are better left as relics of the past – a memory and figment of a time when anime could afford this luxury. A last gasp of the 4:3 format before HD and widescreen transformed the visual style of the industry wholesale. I really do feel like the show represented a final testament to an older kind of anime – one which soon gave way to a glossier, instant thrill, But in its slow, measured stylings and washed out, laxadaisacal counter-culture aesthetic, the original Eureka Seven will remain always – a faded memory of youth.

My favourite Anime & Manga Bookmarks / Hotlinks

Everyone likes handy web resources for keeping tabs on their reading / viewing habits. For me, having consumed way more anime and manga than most would consider healthy, I’ve reached a point where I’m constantly asking ‘What’s next?’

In aide of that, beyond the usual resources such as Crunchyroll and Anime News Network, I’ve come to collate a certain set of bookmarked web links that I regularly return to to keep tabs on new releases and recommendations.

Amazon – Upcoming UK Anime releases

This is my No. 1 go-to point, generally out of convenience for what new UK releases are coming up in the next few months, and to sate my curiosity about what’s probably pre-ordering/selling best. Unlike the Japanese anime Blu-Ray/DVD market, we don’t get weekly sales tallies, so I’ve found looking at this page is generally one of the best metrics for seeing what’s ‘doing well’ in the UK market.

Amazon – Upcoming US Anime releases

Ditto – the above reasons. As almost all UK releases are ports of US releases, looking at this US page generally gives a good idea of what the UK will be getting a few months further down the line. That said, with players like Discotek – there’s still a vast swathe of stuff we simply *don’t* get.

Amazon – Upcoming French Anime releases

Looking at the French anime market throws up some really gems and curios. We’re only just across the channel from them, and they use the same DVD region code, but due to their unique market and historic relationship with anime, get some stuff I’d absolutely *love* to see come over here. Chiefly, classic shows like Captain Future, Grendizer, Saint Seiya etc.

Amazon – Upcoming UK Manga releases

Ditto the above reasons, but for manga. I always use this for new manga inspiration, and to see what’s selling well – even more so since the New York Times discontinued their weekly Top 10 manga bestseller charts. The Top 10 on Amazon is usually locked out with shonen stuff, but you’ll often get some interesting insights into the kind of stuff that *does* break through the shonen lock-in – usually ‘graphic novel’ style releases like the lovely editions of Jojos and BLAME currently being put out.

IMDB – Japanese films (ranked by popularity)

This isn’t exclusive to anime – but hey, if you’re interested in Japanese cinema too, then you’re in luck. I use this to keep tabs of all the Japanese films I’ve ever seen – adding them to my ever expanding watchlist. This list auto-updates based on IMDB’s popularity metrics, so it’ll give a good idea of what Japanese films are ‘popular’ right now.

My Anime List – Most popular Manga from 2015 onward

I use this list to check in on ‘new’ manga series – ie. those that started publication in 2015 onward. This is a great way to see what new series (and hence, low in volume count and still easy to jump on board with) are good to start reading, or to get an idea of what series might be likely to get licensed for official English translations soon (precisely because they’re already popular)

Goodreads – Manga

I’ve recently been using Goodreads more and more as my main point of call for all reading-related material. I like how it instantly surfaces out all New Releases, volumes that are popular ‘right now’ with a ‘most read this week’ feature, as well as new releases from authors you’ve read before. Super handy!

Anime News Network – shows ranked by rating

I’ve found that increasingly MAL’s rating system is becoming more and more unreliable, with arguably *bad* series like Akashic Record scoring over 7.8 – and the upper echelons of the rating system becoming littered with multiple sequels like Gintama. ANN presents an alternate more catered to Western tastes – and I’ve generally found, more accurate in its average user ratings. This page can easily be toggled to display shows from certain time periods (eg. just from the 90s) as well as just TV shows / just films.

A UK anime market that can no longer support physical releases of ‘average’ shows?

This past week I saw an interesting statement from Manga UK’s Jerome Mazandarani where he pondered the ‘worth’ of a UK anime disc sales market where a ‘big’ top tier show like My Hero Academia only sells 200 copies in its first week on sale. To give a little more context to this statement, I’d preface this with a couple of further notes:

The UK anime market is small to begin with – most shows struggle to sell over 1000 copies these days.

Said market (and physical disc sales as a whole) have been falling for a while now, and this is only accelerating – with the last couple of years seeing a major hit as more and more people shift to streaming services (either pay/rent-on-demand or subscription)

This particular release of My Hero Academia was potentially hampered by the fact it was only available as an incredibly expensive £54.99 Blu-Ray / DVD collectors combo pack – well over the price most would be willing to pay for a one-season show like this. Particularly one that is geared more toward a populist, casual audience – the kind of people who normally buy cheap installments of Naruto etc.

Warning bells – does this spell the gradual end of physical disc releases of anime in the UK?

In short, no – or at least, that’d be my initial gut feeling. While 200 sales week 1 are terrible for a show of My Hero Academia’s calibre, I’m of no doubt that – like many shows when released in the UK – this will continue to recoup sales for a long time to comb, particularly if the price point is reduced later down the line.

The physical anime market is one defined by a broad, deep catalogue – one in which, five years down the line – unless a show goes out of print – people will probably still be buying it on Amazon and at conventions.

Think of the sheer volume of output released into the UK market – and this is already only a targeted fraction of what gets released in the States. It stands to mind that fans only have x amount to spend on shows each month – and this will inevitably mean that some shows take a hit while others do better.

What is more worrying is the thinking that if even My Hero Academia can only imagine 200 sales, how bad must sales be for ‘average’ or ‘bargain bin’ shows – the kind of stuff with sub-7 out of 10 scores on MAL, the shows that weren’t even overly popular when they first streamed. Sub 100 sales figures? Sub 50? Sales this low would be exceptionally worrying – and almost beg the question whether they’re worth releasing in the first place – in terms of both acquisition costs for the license, and fees to get a BBFC rating (an unfortunate and frustrating legal requirement in the UK, much-touted as prevented long series from being released, as the fees are charged per-minute of content)

Are we ready to let go of physical releases?

Many fans would lament the loss of physical releases in the UK. For starters, I have long complained that the kinds of shows not released in the UK on disc – namely the bulk of Discotek’s excellent US catalogue of ‘retro’ anime (pre 00s/90s material) is exactly the stuff that *needs* releasing for archival purposes because it is not available on streaming services.

But what about ‘normal’ shows – the bread and butter stuff that most people have already watched a year prior to its physical release on services like Crunchyroll? Here, we see a source of notable friction within the anime community. Some are already sliding in line with wider media consumption habits – going ‘all digital’, selling off their discs and watching everything purely via streaming services. A minimalist outlook that prioritises the ‘experience’ of watching over the cautious ‘But what if it disappears’ collector ‘gotta own it all’ mindset of amassing ‘value’ in physical product – packing out shelves with as many volumes of discs as possible.

The utter convenience and cost-effectiveness of services like Crunchyroll and the mainstream gloss of Netflix lifestyles has certainly entailed a wholesale shift in the market – but anime’s inherent nature to tend toward ‘hardcore’ fans for who collecting will always be a priority sees this inherent friction continuing, at least for the foreseeable future.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t see the UK physical market shutting up shop overnight. Companies like Anime Ltd have made a name for themselves with attractive, ‘limited’ editions in chipboard cases, packaged up with glossy booklets. With relatively high price markups, even if sales numbers are low – the overall monetary return is equal or higher than a ‘regular’ edition.

But what about ‘basic’ editions released by companies like MVM or Manga UK? Can we envision a situation where these B-tier shows disappear from the market altogether because they would attract sub-100 sales figures? Will licensing costs for the shows come down because licensors start becoming more hesitant to pick them up – ie. ‘take it off our hands for any price!’ mindsets where shows are flogged off to the lowest bidder because literally no-one else wants it. Then shoved onto a disc because any sales are better than no sales? This would be a sad outlook, but one it’s hard to avoid imagining in a world where even big shows like My Hero Academia sell poorly week 1.

Missing the boat – the role of UK licensors? Toward a digital/cinema future…

I’ve long pondered the question of whether UK licensors missed the boat to some respect. Just as many often site the case of UK music labels not developing a service like Spotify or iTunes in-house, and now having to rely on these third part services because they are so overwhelmingly popular – we are now left with a situation where anime licensors are now arguably ‘at the mercy’ of the consensus viewing habit of subscription streaming services like Crunchyroll – hence the frustration amongst fans if licensors are perceived to be ‘blocking’ a show from appearing on these services if it is not in their financial interest to do so. Did companies like Manga UK ‘miss the boat’ by not setting up digital infrastructure earlier for their catalogues?

The matter of fact now is that we’re presented with a situation where UK licensors are having to adapt to the times, and fast. We’re already seeing this with interesting new strategies like A Silent Voice being made available via iTunes VOD (a major plus in my eyes, as the anime movie market is arguably underserved by Crunchyroll), while Manga UK is heavily promoting In This Corner of the World as a far more comprehensive viewing experience and proposition than say, a TV show might get. In a way, this harks back to the early days of licensors becoming ‘defined’ by the cinema circuit and arthouse scene, with titles like Akira and Ghost In The Shell become ‘name’ products aligned to certain distributors.

I one wondered whether we’d actually see a complete loss of one or more licensors from the UK market – a grim reminder of the days when ADV UK and Beez shut up shop in the days after the anime bubble burst – leaving an immense vacuum of out of print back-catalogue. Thankfully though, we haven’t – and the main UK licensors are all still ‘in the game’ so to speak. But one thing is certain – change is the flavour of the moment, and it remains to be seen at what ‘stage’ of transferal from primarily physical to primarily digital models of release and consumption we are at right now. As distributor and viewer desires align amidst frictions of what disparate parties want and prioritise, it’s certainly not all plain sailing, but I remain optimistic for what the future might offer…

 

 

Corn Pone Flicks and the ‘ultimate’ anime YouTube documentary

I’ll be your captain / come follow my dream…

If you put me on the spot and asked me – what’s your favourite ever ‘anime analysis’ video on YouTube, I’d tell you in an instant.

Corn Pone Flicks’ overview of The ZIV/Malibu Captain Harlock dub

I first encountered Corn Pone Flicks when I was going through a particularly ardent YouTube binge – consuming everything I could when it came to anime review / documentary-style videos on YouTube. I’d reached a point in my fandom where I’d watched pretty much every major show in the anime ‘cannon’, and was starting to be more interested in *what* people were actually saying about these shows instead. I’d gone through the Gigguk phase, through the Arkada phase, through the Digibro phase – and then… I stumbled across Corn Pone Flicks’ series of videos on the Leiji Matsumoto universe, and something just ‘clicked’.

Who exactly are Corn Pone Flicks? For that, I’d direct you to the FAQ section on their site – which is a fascinating relic/treasure trove of an older breed of anime fandom if ever I’ve seen one. In a world where the vast majority of hyper-intensive fan discourse has moved onto Twitter, the information shared in their FAQ recalls a more innocent age of tape trading and all round fan creativity.

In both the style and delivery of the videos, there’s something at work which feels completely at odds with the hectic, brash motor-mouth style most anime YouTubers operate in these days. CPF’s Harlock vids are the definition of old-timey old-school – and I love them all the more for it. They feel like something you could stumble across, late-night, on BBC Four. Strictly for ‘intellectuals’ and nostalgicists only.

These videos feel like they tie vintage anime into this vast ‘alternate history’ of American telly paraphernalia – a world of suited oldschool Hollywood types languishing in smokey bars sipping whiskey before signing on the dotted line for a bunch of ‘Japanese cartoons’. Everything is resolutely, irresistibly ‘analogue’.

They have their moments of comedy – no doubt – but there’s a reverent seriousness to the videos too that speaks of an age where information about anime came from photocopied fanzines and second-hand books. Where everything you watched came via a fuzzy TV and battered tape deck. They delight in the concept of bizarre trivia and factoids that would otherwise have been lost to time. They feel like gems from a bygone age, just as much as the shows they’re describing – a sepia toned revue playing endlessly out into the stars.

Monoral – Kiri (Ergo Proxy OP)

When anime studio Manglobe closed down, many were quick to cast their eyes back to their classic series Samurai Champloo as their irrefutable masterpiece. But for me, that status has to instead go to Ergo Proxy – a series that seems, even now, to divide people into those that love it, and those that see it as the epitome of mid 00s, post GITS SAC overly-thinky posturing.

 

In a way, I think, it’s easy to forget that the show *was* actually made in 2006 – it’s certainly aged better than most shows of that era. And while the animation quality across the show varies to shocking degrees, in its finest moments, it shows a level of visual realism miles above most other shows airing at its time. Director Shuko Murase has a few particular directorial quirks he likes to use, embedded deeply in the visual language of live-action cinema and Ergo Proxy builds on the style he laid out in Witch Hunter Robin to deliver a few classic frames that offer a real three-dimensional depth of field that few anime since have achieved in quite the same manner.

 

I could go on all day about Ergo Proxy as a show, and the thematic weight it tackles (or at least attempts to) – but this post is about the opening theme ‘Kiri’, by Monoral. The old joke always went that in a show that used Paranoid Android by Radiohead as its closing theme, it should only follow that the opening should sound so unmistakably like another giant of Western rock music: U2. The song feels part of a neat sub-lineage of English-language themes in anime, following on from the likes of the Lain OP – a world of greys and blues and transitory mediums between digital and human. A plunging, driving beat adds this constant sense of forward motion – nicely pairing with how the show spends the bulk of its length ‘on the move’, its core characters sailing out endlessly into the post-apocalyptic wastes of the show’s worlds.

 

Through it all, this constant plaintiff to ‘come and save me’ – offered up again and again, but seemingly without answer. And yet, for all its icy, tundric coldness, there is a warmth to the song too – a lovelorn paen to the one that ‘completes’ us as human beings. I’ve always felt that for a show so rooted in perpetual twilight and overwhelming grey, the chorus of the song remains one of the most uplifting in anime openings; this immense, empowering cry.

 

Just as the show itself is the story of a journey, both externally – in the real world – and internally, within ourselves, the song too represents a journey. When I first watched Ergo Proxy, I was between jobs – killing time endlessly over aimless summer days that never seemed to end. The only forward momentum back then was the progress of whatever given show I was watching at the time, and of all the series I watched over that endless summer, Ergo Proxy always seemed to sum up the ennui of that time best – introspective, deeply thoughtful and perpetually asking: what is our raison d’etre?

 

In that perpetual ‘come and save me’, there was comfort – in the show’s exploration of the self, there was comfort. And by the end, a self-enclosed story – tucked away at a certain point of time, but on hearing those same refrains of the song once again, perfectly recalled. Ergo Proxy itself isn’t a particularly nostalgic series – but its OP, for me, now always will be. I feel like it’s still out there, asking the same questions, always unanswered…

Suiyoubi No Campanella – laying a course for ‘organic’ global success

When it comes to Japanese musicians ‘getting it right’ when it comes to fostering global levels of awareness, availability of music and all-round success, few set a better example than Suiyoubi No Campanella / aka. Wednesday Campanella. The electronic trio, fronted up by the hip, chic model looks of singer KOM_I, the outfit are now one of the most regularly cited acts amongst Japanese music fandom in the West. And best of all – unlike so many other Japanese acts, their music is prolifically available via streaming services like Spotify.

I first heard of Suiyoubi No Campanella back in February 2015 on the It Came From Japan podcast, which featured their track Mothra. Lured in by their fascinating blend of dance-pop accessibility, quirky sung/rapped vocals and enticing melodies, I quickly became a fan. The group’s output – both in terms of music and their striking, colourful music videos – is notoriously prolific; since 2013 they’ve released at least one full album per year.

It is with their most recent SUPERMAN – that it felt like things were really starting to ‘click’ into place. Now signed to major label Warner, the band have deftly maintained their inherent ‘hipness’, while simultaneously putting out some of their most ‘pop’ material to date. Recent singles Ikkyu-san and Audrey are ridiculously catchy mini-masterpieces that neatly slide into the quasi-tropical house sound dominating Western chart music right now, while still offering up melodic structures that still feel definitively ‘Japanese’.

And this brings me onto the topic of why, precisely, I feel Suiyoubi No Campanella’s subtle rise upward is so significant for Japanese music’s larger role within Western music’s wider listenership.

I’ve long put forward a theory that the ‘kind’ of Japanese acts that become well known in the west invariably falls into a number of defined routes. For a while, the likes of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume represented one route – sleek pop pushed via dedicated ‘once a year’ live shows in London that represented a meeting point for a delineated fandom of ‘J-pop’. Likewise, the J-rock scene saw its own dedicated conveyor belt of acts – sometimes aided by the appeal of anime OP themes (in the case of Scandal etc.) in opening them to a wider audience. Taking this to its fullest extent, we have started to see the case of acts like One OK Rock and Man With A Mission that have started releasing English language records as part of a further bid to achieve Western success.

But to me, Suiyoubi No Campanella represent a kind of third route – a more credible, organic one – that while perhaps taking longer, and being more subtle in nature; is more universal in nature. In essence, by keeping the focus firmly on a credible yet accessible sound – paired to ‘exciting’, artistic imagery – the band have forged an identity that feels just as at home in say – a Western indie or club music magazine as it does within the realm of dedicated J-pop coverage or fandom. Suiyoubi No Campanella feel inherently ‘global’ in both their sound, visuals and outlook – something constantly reaffirmed by the availability of their music and videos on ‘global’ platforms like Spotify and YouTube.

To consume the band’s music and videos is to operate within this levelled, universal space – not at a remove where music is limited to increasingly archaic formats such as imported CD releases or paid-for downloads. The band’s music is simply ‘part of’ a wider mix of global music – and as such, opens it up to inclusion on pan-global playlists on Spotify.

And it’s paying off – currently Suiyoubi No Campanella have roughly 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, more than Perfume’s 90,000 and fast closing on Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s 130,000.

As a ‘new model’ of success for Japanese acts in the West, I think Suiyoubi No Campanella represent something tantalisingly new and exciting – and if more Japanese acts start following this model, who knows what the musical landscape might look like in a couple of years’ time…

The Promised Neverland – mastering the art of a ‘crafted’ Shonen series

I want to talk today about The Promised Neverland – a series currently running in weekly Shonen Jump, and to be completely honest, what I most look forward to in the magazine every week at the moment. Launching last year, the series quickly emerged from amidst a swathe of mediocre ‘Jump Start’ series to a privileged position where it is not not only at least three volumes-worth into its run, but an average rating of 8.53 on MAL, as well as being the 7th most popular series to launch since the start of 2015. Not bad at all.

I recently wrote about how we shouldn’t necessarily worry about Shonen Jump’s current seemingly brutal tactics of shuttering so-so series, or those that have been running overly-long (Toriko, anyone?) – and The Promised Neverland is the flip side of the equation; the fruits of the experiment, as it were. If we are to see the magazine’s current tactics as part of an orchestrated and planned series measures to refresh its readership and plan for a future where the big three no longer exist, and ‘fresh blood’ are needed to bring new life to sales figures, The Promised Neverland is a marked example of that ‘planned’ approach – a series that feels like a neat medley of everything that makes great manga ‘click’.

I recently finished reading Jojo’s author Hirohiko Araki’s excellent how-to manual Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga. In this book, Araki lays out a clear route toward what he calls the ‘royal road’ of Shonen Manga – a specifically ‘designed’ type of manga that nails certain characteristics in order to achieve maximum appeal. And while I don’t think The Promised Neverland necessarily fits into this model – in many ways it represents a kind of ‘anti-shonen’ story – what I do think it represents is a model exercise into a very consciously ‘crafted’ type of manga.

What do I mean by this? For starters, it comes across clearest in the sheer clarity and lean-ness of the story and pacing itself. Each chapter of the manga operates around a very clear principle of cliffhangers that consciously pushing the narrative forward via slow-release of information. Each chapter functions as a self-contained plot beat – something so many other manga currently running in Shonen Jump could take a lesson in – where readers are just ‘expected’ to be up to speed on everything, and hold the information pertaining to the series in their heads, week on week.

The Promised Neverland feels different – its minimalist story style falls back on age-old storytelling tropes; almost fairy-tail/children’s bedtime story type accessibility; aided in the fact that the majority of its core characters are, indeed, young kids. While shades of moral grey undoubtedly exist, the bulk of the manga’s core drive exists around a highly black and white distinction of good and evil – driving the focus of what the kid’s have to do; namely, escape. Motives are mostly clear cut and to the point, resolving quickly and without fuss – paired with clear, unfussy visuals that direct the reader’s eyes exactly where they should be. In a magazine that is often full with cluttered, impossibly dense panel layouts full of hefty text bubbles and a cacophony of visual information, The Promised Neverland again stands out as refreshingly lean.

I think a great deal of its appeal also stems from its visual identity as ambiguously non-Japanese – much like Attack on Titan, with which the series shares many of its larger narrative themes of walled communities and fear, the aesthetic is rooted firmly in an ambiguous world that could be the American south or perhaps olde-timey England/Europe. It is, distinctly though, non-Japanese – the kids have Western names, and even the art – at times – feels more in common with Western comic books than manga. There’s an elasticity and scratchiness to it all that feels it could spring into some low-key American indie movie, as opposed to the glossy sleekness of other current Jump Start series like We Never Learn or Robot x Laserbeam. Both the artist and writer behind The Promised Neverland are, as far as we know, industry newcomers – and there’s a freshness and vitality that comes across plainly in their stylings – albeit one tempered with the aforementioned ‘craftedness’ that recalls the editorial meetings between Jump staff and the young protagonists of Bakuman.

At the current stage of its narrative, The Promised Neverland is a few chapters into what we could broadly term the start of a new arc. After thirty chapters of so, the kids have achieved the initial goal of ‘escaping’ the house they lived in up until that point. The plot is now shifting into new locales, and it remains to be seen if it can maintain its clarity amidst this. But so far, the element of mystery surrounding the world of the manga remains a core element of its appeal – much like Attack on Titan compelled people that were even only partially ‘into’ the series to stay on board to find out the mystery of ‘what was in the basement’, The Promised Neverland understands that keeping its cards concealed is crucial to the air of intrigue that can make or break the weekly serialisation of a story.

Aside from this, we also have several points of distinction marking the series out from others running in the same magazine. For a start, in Emma we have a striking female protagonist that functions as a fascinating subversion of the typical ‘energetic boy’ we’ve seen hashed out in countless Shonen narratives. It’s interesting in many ways to ‘read’ Emma as a boy – the short haircut certainly helps – but to then counter that with the understanding of her as feminine – in doing so creating a striking vision of how potentially radical she is as a character. I found this especially thrilling when the manga – roughly twenty or so chapters in – directly engages with the concept of her gender via a powerful confrontation between her and series antagonist ‘Mother’.

Going further – there is the inherent darkness of the story; arguably the darkest by far of anything currently airing in Shonen Jump (sorry, Hunter x Hunter, you don’t count until you come out of hiatus). From the way the ‘demon’ characters are drawn to the implicit psychological threat of the core scenario, The Promised Neverland constantly reminds you that it is written as something willing to ply the line that separates what we term as ‘shonen’ from more ‘adult’ fare.

At the moment, the sales of the collected manga volumes are still relatively small – but as we saw with My Hero Academia – I’m of no doubt that when and if an anime version of The Promised Neverland is announced and aired, those sales will rocket up as the wider anime fandom viewership are exposed to the intrigue and cliffhanger pull the manga readers have already been experiencing.

Yuki Hayashi – You Say Run (My Hero Academia)

I wrote yesterday about how Yuki Hayashi is one of the current rising stars in the world of anime soundtracks, and today I’ll shine the spotlight on arguably one of his greatest, most recognisable tracks – You Say Run.

 

At the core of Hayashi’s sound as a composer is a dynamic between powerful, driving percussion, strings and guitar work. I often note similarities between his style and the string-driven compositions for Final Fantasy 13’s iconic battle-theme – songs like Hayashi’s The Battle of Concepts, with its arching, Eastern-sounding string melody could even be Final Fantasy battle themes themselves.

 

The reason You Say Run stands as one of his strongest tracks though is that it builds on all his other work to create a composition that perhaps functions as a ‘song’ too – more than any of his other tracks. With that irrepressibly rhythmic crunching guitar riff that opens the song to the choppy, keening string lines, every part of You Say Run feels like it tells a story – one of impossible hope and ambition.

 

Paired to My Hero Academia’s themes, You Say Run positively bursts with the ‘you can do it’ message of the very best Shonen action series – it’s the kind of thing to have you leaping out of your bed every morning, pumping some iron and stepping out into another beautiful sunny day. It’s just SO uplifting, and really, when it comes down to it – that’s all we want a soundtrack to do. And You Say Run absolutely nails this.

Naoki Sato – Hiten (live action Rurouni Kenshin movies)

I talked before about how I feel Naoki Sato is one of the great unsung heroes of anime soundtracks, and for me, one of his most essential works is Hiten – from the live action Rurouni Kenshin soundtracks. Anyone who’s seen the Kenshin movies knows that this core theme occurs roughly two or three times per movie, generally at both the opening and close of each movie – as well as over key fight sequences – punctuating the movie’s highest moments of emotion and tension.

 

I’ve talked before about how Sato is a master at conveying a sense of epicness in his soundtracks, and Hiten perfects that with its swirling guitar lines, percussive, marching-band beats and that glorious, majestic choral melody. Such as the power of the tune, I’ve even seen it used on Japanese light-entertainment panel shows to punctuate ‘epic’ scenes when the presenters, for example, head out into the hills of Japan and try and scale a sheer rock face.

 

I’ll always remember the first time I saw the first of the three Kenshin movies and how Hiten so perfectly underscores the moment it’s first used – as we’re shown the unstoppable march of history and unfolding time, as feudal Japan gives way to the Meiji restoration and increasing Westernisation and modernisation. It’s powerful stuff, and Hiten serves its purpose perfectly.