Hunter x Hunter and the art of aesthetic intellectualism

Hunter x Hunter is back in Weekly Shonen Jump and I’m loving it. Whereas previous staggered returns of the manga from its endless long hiatuses have become the stuff of infamy, and arguably plunged the reader back into material that requires a Wiki-level knowledge of the series to parse, this time round I’ve found the current arc to be relatively breezy, with one of the singular best chapters I’ve seen in WSJ attracting plenty of Twitter attention thanks to its mindblowing Junji Ito-esque monster designs.

But what I want to talk about today is something I’ve come to develop an uneasy love for in Hunter x Hunter. Its (excessive) love of words. Manga, of course, is a visual medium, and you’ll find many excellent discourses and YouTube videos on artists that master panel flow and the ‘shape’ of reading a page – a golden ratio like arc of how to direct the reader’s eye across the page and its composite panels/action.

Hunter x Hunter often seems to feel like the very opposite – the infamous ‘wall of text’ (Google ‘hunter x hunter wall of text’ for an idea of what I mean here) – a veritable deluge of heavy handed info dumping that’d have most readers rolling their eyes in dismay. But I’ve come to wonder if there’s a certain irony, or design in how Togashi uses pages like this, namely – what if his walls of text are his equivalent of modern art? Maybe his wacked out info dump pages are the literary equivalent of a Damien Hirst print or shark tank – a statement that is not so much meant to be parsed as words, but an object or container, of which words are a component?

One of the things I love most about Hunter x Hunter right now is that Togashi’s position in WSJ is unassailable. He can take these lengthy hiatuses because he *can*. Other than One Piece, pretty much no other manga sells as much as Hunter x Hunter does *when* it does actually release a new volume (ie. once a year). People have often lambasted Togashi for returning to WSJ just long enough to pen enough new chapters for a new volume, before going on hiatus again – imagine trying to read a work of HxH’s complexity at this pace – holding *all* that info in your head for a year at a time, before picking up right where you left off a year down the line?

But in this protracted experience, I’ve started to wonder if this becomes part of the ‘art’ itself? Many fans look to HxH’s message – the one about life’s true meaning being far more about the journey than the end goal, and perhaps it holds true here too. What we understand HxH to be as a narrative work increasingly becomes subservient to its themes – and in much the same way, its overly intellectualised ideas (which sometimes read like something culled from a textbook on game theory or psychology) are part of this cut and mix pastebook of ideas. A kind of David Bowie approach to manga – constantly shifting genre, shifting thesis, shifting drive – pulling in all these aspects into a singular vein that becomes increasingly introspective and ‘thinky’.

As Hunter x Hunter becomes more and more an ‘art piece’ (as the ‘quality’ of the art consequently descends into the barest of sketches) – perhaps we come to understand it in a different manner. Just like techno, tribal music or the works of Philip Glass or Brian Eno – its cluttered textheavy layout encourage a new aestheticism, one in which the colour, shape and flavour of ‘information’ achieves the artistic liberalism of what other artists might achieve purely with their pens. Togashi is operating less in our eyes, and more in our minds – forcing our brains to fill in the dots, creating our own palate of understanding. If Hunter x Hunter is about the core of the human psyche and condition – maybe operating on this more cerebral level is the truest route toward that?

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Early impressions and the dangers of ‘passing’ on quality anime

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the series the fall between the cracks of anime fandom, or perhaps more accurately, ‘quality’ shows (if we’re to pretend for a moment that the notion of quality isn’t simply a margin of subjective taste) that end up slipping below the radar for a while, or even permanently.

As anime streaming has meant we consume shows more and more within a heavily discourse and hype driven weekly basis, the first three weeks of any given season become a heady period of The Unknown. What’s good? What’s worth spending your precious time on? Three episode test. Dropped. etc etc. We’re ruthless now. We burn out easily, we consign shows to the trash within one episode – no more than a click of a button on MAL and its a relic of a ‘poor season’.

And it got me thinking about shows that either lingered in this zone of low to average mass interest, and how some manage to claw their way out to become real cherished gems. Recent examples include Tsuki Ga Kirei and Rakugo Shinju – especially in the latter case and its triumphant second season, its easy to forget that when the first season of Rakugo aired, many initially passed over it – dismissing it as obscure, overly intellectual or simply not hyped enough. It was only in time, and as discourse spread that it was a ‘work of quality’ that its MAL rating began to creep up and its status established as a modern classic. Likewise with Tsuki Ga Kirei, many initially binned it off after episode one as a by the numbers romance series – only returning to it later in the game when people began to rave about its masterful, naturalistic style. The show is now sitting pretty with an impressive 8.4 average rating on MAL.

There are also shows that fare less luckily. There are some, like The Great Passage, which are a victim of circumstance – consigned to an ill fate on Amazon, unpromoted and unloved, this series – another naturalistic, low-key masterpiece – never got the attention it deserved when it actually ‘aired’, and by the time US fans started covering it, it felt like the hype was already gone, further compounded by Amazon’s paywall strategy.

And as for this season? Allow me to present the case of 18if, a bizarre stylistic exercise helmed up by Koji Morimoto of Macross Plus, Project Eden intro and Studio 4C fame. I’ll be the first to admit the show has its flaws – inconsistent in both animation quality and tone. But its also one of the most adventurously and visually interesting shows this season. And yet it currently languishes with a 6.2 MAL rating and was so unpopular it didn’t even get picked up for weekly reviews on ANN. The consensus is evidently out – this show just plain isn’t worth watching. And yet, it continues, a new episode released every week – and especially in a ‘portfolio’ style show like this where every episode takes on a different style, and mini narrative (like Flip Flappers), every episode feasibly has the potential to be a knockout, even if the bulk of the show is poor.

Time will tell if 18if picks up in terms of long-term discourse – but I think for the time being, it – and shows like it, which suffered to lesser degrees – present an interesting example in how fandom gravitates (or rather, doesn’t gravitate) around certain shows in the current streaming climate.

fhána – Hello!My World!! (Knight’s & Magic OP)

From releasing one of the singularly best OP themes of the past year or two in the form of Kobayashi-san’s Dragon Maid, fhana are fast emerging as one of the most continually excellent purveyors of OP themes operating in the industry right now. And they’ve delivered up another gem in the form of Hello! My World!! (all those exclamation marks!) – a first rate pop effort that sounds like their take on a Fairy Tail OP.

I’ve started to think of fhana as a kind of Japanese version of Alphabeat (remember them?!) – and while their styles aren’t overtly similar, they have that same thrillingly poptastic optimism, mixed male/female groups with a spirit of Nordic pop bliss. The chorus lines and harmonies are just so ‘perfect’, slipstreaming through this barely containable optimism and joy at the essence of life. I love it.

ps. Will we ever work out the issue with that rogue apostophe in the title of Knight’s And Magic? And will every fhana OP song now contain the word ‘communication’?

Nagayama Yoko – Hitomi No Naka No Far Away (Five Star Stories insert song)

Could you get any more 80s than this? One day I’ll write a post about how long-running epic Five Star Stories is one of the great ‘lost’ mega-franchises that could have been, a mainstay of NewType magazines even to this day, and even partially translated into English, but now largely all but forgotten in the West, except by die-hard mecha fans.

I could talk all day about how Mamoru Nagano’s mecha designs are some of the most bewitchingly beautiful in the business, all baroque, skeletally thin elegance – like something out of a fashion mag or pop concert design sketches. But no, today I’m here to talk about the key song – Hitomi No Naka No Far Away – from the 1989 OVA adaptation of Five Star Stories. This OVA was released in the States by ADV as a subtitled only DVD edition that is no sadly out of print. It’s never made it out here in the UK.

But while my love of the arguably flawed hour-long OVA has wavered since I first saw it, my adoration for this song only grows and grows every time I hear it. Sung by long-time enka singer and Kohaku Uta Gassen regular Nagayama Yoko, the song oozes a breezy 80s class, from the synth trills of the beginning to the soaring, catchy chorus line to my favourite part of the song – that little piano hook that feels like it could have come straight off a Deacon Blue album. I have so much time for the style of production most 80s anisong occupies, and this song epitomises so many of its best parts.

Why long videos are disrupting the anime YouTuber discourse field

A simple truth – I really don’t like long YouTube videos. Unless, in a few very rare cases when a YouTuber absolutely nails the art of crafting a longer narrative piece and turns it into a more full-on sit-down documentary piece, for the most part, anything longer than 15 minutes or so is an instant turn off – and even that’s pushing it.

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend amongst almost all of the biggest anime YouTubers toward longer videos. Apparently this is because viewing habits are shifting in this direction, while it simultaneously allows for the video to be surfaced more reliably by YouTube’s recommendation systems, as well as better ad return. I’m not a YouTuber myself, so I don’t profess to know the ins and outs of the systems, but as a lay viewer, it’s evident that many are now seeking to ‘game’ this system, or at the very least shift more in line with working to optimise it.

The downside is that many channels no longer output their videos in the way they did when – in my opinion – they did when they were operating at their best. Many now release overly long videos, stretched out by ad opportunities, pre-amble, post-amble or just general ‘filler’ that pads the video toward a longer run-time. Sometimes, when well-written and scripted, this works – but invariably, it forms part of the larger trend of freeform discourse that many lifestyle YouTubers are also tending toward – all in service of keeping eyeballs on the video for longer.

Alongside this, there is also a trend toward more channels mixing in ‘straight up’ videos with podcasts and webcasts – essentially, un-edited vocal only video, or just straight up vocal over still image. Stuff that runs for 30 mins to an hour-plus. Some YouTubers relegate this content to sub channels, while others release it as part of their main content stream.

The simple truth is that good video content takes a long time, and a lot of expertise (either the invidual’s own, or a paid-for third party) to produce. So in this instance, as the written online content industry found out many years ago, it becomes all about the content churn – minimising time input and maximising hits and sheer output. Why waste two days on a great video when you can bang something out in a couple of hours and potentially get just as many hits via a catchy video title or thumbnail? I’ve seen many YouTubers flat out ‘give up’ or reduce their uploads to once every month or two because they are unwilling to ‘play the game’. What was once a passion is now conflated into the tricky minefield of ‘To what degree am I going to ‘step up’ to play this as a business/full degree paid lifestyle’.

This is important, because as I discussed in a previous post, I believe, as with many other online media industries, video is more important than ever right now – moving to become the primary discourse field for media analysis. Companies that post-poned getting ‘in’ on YouTube for years are now finally realising all the eyeballs are there now, and that no matter what the skill or financial outlay is, they need to get on YouTube and start pushing high quality video content to keep those same eyeballs interested.

What it all comes back to is what function YouTube serves, and attention spans. As we are bombarded by more and more distractions and media outputs, we have to make more and more choices of how we compartmentalise our viewing time. A short, snackable five or ten minute video of dynamic, well edited, well soundtracked ‘impact video’ is perfect to fit into a short break. But a thirty minute diatribe or deep-level analysis of a show’s themes is something very different – more like an audiobook or radio programme.

The YouTube anime community continues to put out some remarkably high quality content – the likes of Super Eyepatch Wolf one of my continuing current favourites – but it also owes it to itself to keep itself in ‘good nick’ and not fall overtly prey to ‘the numbers game’. While the ‘vlogging’ model works for some YouTubers, and can certainly still be enjoyable in the right context (when you have unlimited time on your hands and can sit back an enjoy in comfort) – I personally believe that a continual strive toward short dynamic ‘impact’ videos remains one of the medium’s most powerful forms; the videos I, at any rate, still remember – that linger in my mind long after watching.

Asian Kung Fu Generation – Re:Re: (Erased OP)

Let’s cast our minds back to when Erased was the hottest thing in anime for one crazy season. For all the faults many came to lambast the season with post-Ending, the show seemed to capture bottled fervour in a lightning instant while it was airing. You just *had* to watch it – or so the stats on MAL or general pervasive online hype would suggest.

And something about AKFG’s propulsive, clockwork-like number Re:Re felt so perfectly matched to the show and its own feelings of time, tension and release. What’s more, the song itself was a re-release and re-recording of a song originally dating from all the way back in 2004 – the band reaching back through time to resurrect a relic of their own pasts, retooling it for a new generation.

And perhaps that’s why the song so strongly recalls the jangly, indie-pop/rock stylings of guitar rock’s mid 00s era – when the likes of Libertines and Razorlight ruled the airwaves and pop-punk still felt like the coolest thing known to man. Re:Re: is all that bundled up into a slick new suit and tie, another smash hit in the repertoire of one of anisong’s most consistently excellent rock outfits.

Anime’s early 00s flirtation with lad culture

I’ve been reading a lot of ‘older’ books about anime recently, mostly short, populist hardback tomes from the early 00s – an era when the medium was emerging from its more ‘cult’ overtones of the 80s and 90s and into full-fledged social phenomenon. This was the age of Funimation and ADV’s rise to ascendancy, of all the ‘classic’ series everyone still remembers today. Of Naruto and DBZ, of Tokyopop and the all round general construction of the trappings of the Western anime industry and fandom we recognise today.

And the thing that struck me most about these books (epitomised by 2004’s Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo) was how much their tone and writing style seemed aimed squarely at a sexed-up teen male audience. It was all shock-jock ‘WOW! Isn’t this just so darn cool!’ proclamations and a fixation on ‘experiencing’ the sexier side of fan/cosplay culture, about visiting maid cafes and chatting to hot female cosplayers. Of wheeling and dealing in the busy streets of Akihabara and grabbing all the gatcha prizes you could afford/carry. This was late 90s gaming magazine speak via Loaded/Nuts – an evolution of Manga UK’s tits n tentacles furtiveness into a new, glossy 00s laddishness for whom anime was simply part of a larger consumption of burgeoning geek culture.

And it all made me wonder about the evolution of how when we write about anime, in populist terms, it so overtly shifts with the times. These days, ‘intro to anime’ style books are arguably passe – anime no longer needs an introduction; those ‘in the know’ are already sated on the whole wealth of media the internet has to offer. But back then, there was this kind of wider affirmation of media culture. You subscribed to (a physical) Shonen Jump, you were part of physical mailing lists and mail order catalogues, you read physical books about physical anime releases. Everything was physical. Tactile. Consumptive. You touched. You felt.

These days, through the wealth of information available online, and the wealth of other fans we’re able to converse with via Twitter etc, anime fandom has arguably become a more open, equalised domain. But in looking back, I remain curious about how we’ve come so far from the zany, thrill-ride tone of the early 00s, when DVD blurb’s were plastered with tongue in cheek references to the sexual content.

The irony is that in wider media discourse, it’s my belief that the laddish tone of (youth culture) gaming and music mags of the late 90s and early 00s birthed what became the current style of intelligent but chatty, unformalised tone that now dominates liberal publications like the Guardian and a whole host of discourse blogs. Crystalizing in the mid to late 00s as a generation of journalists and writers brought up in the media climate of the 90s came of age and began dictating the leading edge of how we talk about media, the style soon came to suffuse the media itself. But in this process, there was evolution – and as such, looking back at works of the early 00s, we see an arguably ill-formed, incarnation not yet streamlined and and sublimated into the smooth, easy breeziness of what was to follow. Here, there remained off-taste jokes and a jocularity that still shifted between the triumvate of Playstation, lads mags and Babestation. An age where ADV could release an anime like Najica Blitz Tactics with an actual pair of panties with it.

Genocidal Organ and Ergo Proxy – Manglobe’s ‘thinky’ sci-fi aesthetic

Last week I caught the third in the Project Itoh ‘trilogy’ of cinematic efforts – Genocidal. I came away largely pleased with what I saw – feeling it was by far the strongest of the three movies – although I got the distinct impression many others in the audience found it overly cerebral – there were definitely a couple of walkouts halfway through, and the cinema was only half full to begin with.

 

And as I settled in with the film, soaking up its atmosphere – which if anything, is less anime, and more sleek Hollywood-esque Bourne thriller, I started to ponder why I liked what it was doing so much. And then, roughly halfway through, it struck me – it was so much like Manglobe’s other property (and in my opinion, their best effort) Ergo Proxy.

 

Now, these days, Ergo Proxy has something of a notorious reputation as being a real ‘marmite’ series amongst those fans that do remember it (it doesn’t get mentioned nearly as much as other Manglobe effort Samurai Champloo). For those that do remember Ergo Proxy though – fans typically fall into two camps – those that despise it as overly pretentious and inconsistent in its animation quality, and those that adore its aesthetic and theoretical approach to hard sci-fi. Suffice to say, I fall into the latter camp.

 

In summing up what I feel Manglobe’s aestheticism with Genocidal Organ and Ergo Proxy represents to me, I think it comes down to this kind of high-minded Greco-Roman velour – all statuesque and posey; cheaply animated in places, sure – but always *interestingly* animated. Framing and fluidity is prioritised over the kind of KyoAni / Ufotable digital processing visual gloss fans seem to work themselves into a frenzy over these days. In this way, Genocidal Organ very much seems to belong to an older school of anime – the kind of slick techno-thriller you could imagine Manga UK putting out in their mid 90s heyday. All fuzzy VHS grain and yellow subtitles included.

 

It’s the kind of film where you can call your main character ‘John Paul’ and get away with it – where you can deal with bombings in real world locales, and throw up pseudo-science as if it’s actually real-life lore, selling its principles so strongly, you start to take notes on what to search up on after the film to see if it really is real…

 

In its laconic swagger and brute-yet-effete masculinity, Genocidal Organ is the man who smokes a cigarette while reading a volume of French philosophy, before downing a whiskey and shooting down a building full  of terrorists. It’s mid 90s James Bond – still all relic of Cold War peril. It’s a beating heart of quantum computing, constantly, furtively twisting into something else – demanding you keep pace with both its ideas and its action.

 

This is my kind of sci-fi. Philip K. Dick lite for the anime generation – a cerebral pill of dissolved braininess. And in this aesthetic and mindset, it just makes me long for more – stuff operating on this cinematic level (or at the very least, doing what the likes of Psycho Pass did in its sheer quality of world-building). Bigger, better visions of dark futures through which we might explore our own present…

The gloss and majesty of Japanese anime artbooks

This weekend I headed down to London’s Tobacco Docks to check out this year’s Hyper Japan – a festivalian celebration of all things Japan. Set in an aging Victorian dockyard by way of a failed 90s shopping centre, it’s a place of misformed, malshaped lost ages – aging brickwork arches and twee ‘mini shops’ cupped away into alcoves. The usual vendors, good and bad – mountains of merchandise, mostly overpriced.

 

I make it sound like it’s a bad experience – it’s not. Hyper Japan remains one of the ‘must see’ events of any UK-based Japan-afficianado’s calendar, but the simple truth will always remain – it exists to sell stuff, laying the gauntlet at the feet of the multitude of the vendors to offer up their best wares to a crowd that seems to swell immeasurably every year. To such an extent that the show – for good and ill – now exists as a kind of mini MCM Comic Con.

 

Let’s talk about artbooks – without a doubt one of the most visually impressive, and resultingly expensive items on sale at Hyper Japan. Part of the allure of these for me has always been that they remain largely an ‘exclusive’ to events like Hyper Japan and MCM. Sure, you can order them online or import direct from Japan, but unlike manga or anime releases, you’re not likely to find them in your average high-street store. No, artbooks are the ‘rare beasts’ of anime fandom’s vast savannah – a ‘get em while you can!’ experience that promises pages and pages of visual splendour and mountains of Japanese text most fans probably won’t be able to read. But so what if you throw down £30 on one of these gorgeous books, flick through and then push its crisp pages into a bookshelf, rarely to be taken down again. It’s the experience that counts, right?

 

One thing I’ve always admired about Japanese anime artbooks is that the level of quality on display in them is so far away and beyond anything seen in the UK, it continues to blow my mind every time I see one. Outside perhaps lush art gallery hardbacks from the likes of the British Museum or something, you’ll very rarely see book productions of this quality in the UK. Anime Ltd have started to release artbook style content with some of their Ultimate Editions – and while their efforts are to be celebrated, frankly, the quality is still a far cry from the Japanese editions.

 

Maybe it’s the way the Japanese ones are always encased in their sleek dust jackets – so crisp and rounded. So pleasingly tactile. Whereas here in the UK, it’s the humble hardback that’s usually the sign of quality, in Japan, there’s something about the soft gentility of the slipcased softback that just feels so right in your hand. It beckons to you with a soothing call of exclusive imagery printed in eye-popping detail. Yes, those CLAMP illustrations will be yours. They will be!

 

I have to confess, I’ve largely steered away from amassing anime physical paraphernalia of any form over the past few years – driven by a lack of shelf space. But art books still seem to beckon to me – the missing link in a chain of globalized evolution. In a world where we now get so many anime and manga series translated into English mere days, weeks or months after their Japanese releases, artbooks remain tantalising out of reach and exotic.

Yuki Kajiura – Key of the Twilight (.hack//SIGN OST)

Ahhhhhh. That’s what listening to Key of the Twilight makes me feel. A little nostalgia. OK – a lot of nostalgia. Memories of a ‘story never ever told in the past.’ I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Hack franchise as a whole, but the quality of Kajiura’s soundtrack for the original series remains peerless, and in my eyes the greatest point of recommendation for the show as a whole. Coming as it did while she was arguably still in the formative years of her anime compositions in the early 00s, it still has this nubile ‘outre’, bizarre quality that matches the out and out weirdness that first Hack series has at times.

While it has Kajiura’s trademark synth/choral mash-up style imprinted all over it, what I love best about Key of the Twilight is the romano-Adriatic feel it has, some Aegean dream of softly strummed guitar and long nights of wine, candles and endless beaches of soft white sand. Summer Nights of endless heat-stroked perfection. There’s touches of the pan-European tropico vibe the Pet Shop Boys lent to their mid 90s album Bilingual to the mix of synths and guitar, and all in all, there’s just such a mystique to the song – especially when it delves into the hauntingly beautiful middle-eight section and really lets it all go with the choral elements. Simply stunning stuff.