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How Gaming-Based Anime Get It Wrong (and Right)

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Anime hasn’t quite gotten how to portray video games. Traditionally geeky hobbies can (and should!) make for compelling stories. Case in point: Record of Lodoss War. The 1986 manga series had originated from friends playing though their Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Eventually, their game stories were serialized into a formal narrative as a full-fledged fantasy epic.

Record of Lodoss War sticks to its geeky roots: its combat, magic, and monsters draw directly from D&D mechanics and lore. The series retained its unique relationship with gaming while managing to tell an interesting story, something that the anime industry seems to have trouble doing.

The Isekai Problem

Let’s start with the biggest and bafflingly most popular offender: Sword Art Online. Sword Art Online is many things; a good representation of video games isn’t one of them. It uses video games as a backdrop, rather than a proper setting.

That SAO is set in a video game world is inconsequential to the plot, since the mechanics of the game change as the plot sees fit. Kirito, the protagonist, never actually earns his progression. When he powers up, it gets stupidly handwaved as “leveling up” or “learning a new skill”. No internal consistent logic drives the in-universe game mechanics. Rule-of-cool is the only requirement.

Sword Art Online’s popularity is symptomatic of the isekai problem in anime, which has enabled the annoying trend of video game window dressing. Isekai, for the uninitiated, covers a broad genre of Japanese pop-fiction wherein characters are transported to another world. This typically takes the form of a video game fantasy realm not unlike Dragon Quest. An isekai’s appeal lies in providing an escapist power fantasy for the viewer, usually adolescent males. Much of the time, this comes at the expense of the narrative and video game elements.

Some game-based isekai shows, like Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, aren’t necessarily bad. However, the use of video game mechanics and tropes adds nothing of consequence to the narrative. Grimgar’s characters learn skills and have classes, but the show could just as well have been set in a generic fantasy world and nothing would change. It’s nominally about video games for the sheer sake of being about video games.

It’s hard to properly capture gameplay mechanics and progression in a show, but not impossible. The mistake that many series make is relying purely on overarching ideas to appeal to gamers. Throwing around terms like “skills”, “XP”, and “dungeons” does not make for a compelling game-based story. What isekai shows like Konosuba!, Log Horizon, and Rising of the Shield Hero do is develop a set of logically consistent rules that are both expanded upon and called back to. Gameplay mechanics in a narrative feel more meaningful when they exist outside of convenient plot developments.

Attention Gamers

Gameplay isn’t the only thing about video games that gets mishandled. Gaming culture has developed and matured alongside the technology, yet it gets a similar treatment. Shallow, surface-level perceptions of gamers have proliferated into the mainstream and strike for the low-hanging fruit.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in two specific shows: And You Thought There Is Never a Girl Online? and Himouto! Umaru-chan. These two series represent the worst possible perceptions of gamers: horny perverts and whiny brats.

The title of And You Thought There Is Never a Girl Online? should tell you enough. It fulfills the teenage boy fantasy of meeting sexy gamer girls who are unabashedly attracted to you simply because you’re a nice gamer boy. Every hot-blooded teenage gamer boy’s dreams.

Umaru-chan is absolute garbage in a different way. What happens when a show tries to get more in touch with gamers by being relatable? Certainly, a show like Himouto! Umaru-chan will appeal because it requires some knowledge of gaming trends and habits in order to understand the humor. However, it pokes fun at the worst of gaming behavior. The titular character Umaru is a little brat whose entire appeal is her cutesy factor. As a result, the series never delves deeper than “haha gamer girl” in its content.

These two shows are symptoms of a larger problem. Much like The Big Bang Theory is written for viewers who don’t play many games, so much of anime consists of series that feel like they’re trying to target everyone but gamers. It drops buzzwords like “combos”, “guilds”, and “levels” because they’re easy to signal to the viewer that “Hey! This is about video games!”

The explosion of the video game market not only brought new technology, but a complex and ever-evolving subculture. Video game subculture is as large and broad as games themselves. From shooters to competitive fighters to MMOs, many fans have adopted gaming as an intimate hobby. Good game-based animes delve into the nuances of both these subcultures and the games they’re fans of. For competitive games in particular, there’s a certain craft that goes into gaining skill, an artistry that goes beyond simple muscle memory. Hi Score Girl respects this about video games in ways that many other series don’t.

Back in the 90s

The 90s were a unique period for video games. Countless companies and their games fought for quarters, while home consoles began the invasion of living rooms everywhere. The Netflix show Hi Score Girl transports viewers back to this golden age of gaming. With the massive amount of game-based series out here, Hi Score Girl stands out as one that admires and respects gaming in the way it tells its story.

Set in early 1990s Japan, Hi Score Girl takes place during the arcade boom. Fighting games took the world by storm, and above them all Street Fighter II reigned supreme. Its roster of memorable characters and skill-driven gameplay created a surge of devoted fans, eager to dump their quarters into cabinets to prove their worth.

The relationship between Oono and Yaguchi, the main characters of Hi Score GIrl, is built upon a mutual love, respect, and admiration for video games. Their bond is a unique one that forms through a common interest and strengthens as they hone their skills. Because Yaguchi spends all of his time playing games, he shares his love and knowledge with both Oono (and by extent the audience).

Hi Score Girl manages to capture the rush of endorphins and adrenaline that comes from memorizing inputs and crushing your opponent with superior skill. It gets technical in a way that’s both informative and entertaining. The show never throws video game jargon at you for the sake of exposition; it cleverly acts as a vehicle for character interactions. By starting you at the beginning of the arcade renaissance, the explanations of new releases captures the same feeling that a kid in the 90s would’ve had.

As a hobby that people typically get into in their childhood, video games mean more than just entertainment for many gamers. They are synonymous with adventure, escapism, and a sense of expression like no other. Hi Score Girl explores this idea in a way that’s nostalgic, insightful and entertaining all at once.

At the end of the day, video games, just like any other hobby or craft, have a depth to them that writers can and should respect. The mark of good storytelling is making content like this accessible while still maintaining the key ideas behind it. It should remind you that at the core of playing games is something incredibly real and undoubtedly human.

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. owedmyself

    March 5, 2019 at 2:51 am

    I watched Kill la Kill after first visiting your site, it’s good, not really shameless in a negative way anyways. I didn’t interpret anything in it as incest. Will there be a spring guide for Anime soon? Curious as to what’s upcoming.

    • Harry Morris

      March 5, 2019 at 2:42 pm

      We’re hoping to do a spring guide for anime soon. And I agree that Kill la Kill is awesome!

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Anime

‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.

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Weathering With You Hina

Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.

Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own. 

Weathering With You Hodaka and Hina

As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).

“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”

Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story. 

That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.

That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.

The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters. 

Weathering With you Hodaka and Hina

This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.

That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.

Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.

And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.

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How Rimuru Tempest Changed the Game for Isekai Protagonists

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime shines within the vast sea of generic isekai thanks in no small part to protagonist Rimuru Tempest.

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that time i got reincarnated as a slime

The core premise of the isekai genre–a character being transported from their everyday life on Earth to a parallel universe–has become wildly popular for a reason: it’s an immensely appealing fantasy. Just as audiences everywhere fell in love with the seminal Spirited Away in the early 2000s, it’s still exciting to fantasize about discovering a new world and going on all manner of crazy adventures. However, the incessant flood of new isekai every season to capitalize on this trend has resulted in some of the most generic, overly-manufactured protagonists in any genre.

Though this sea of formulaic main characters is vast, it makes it all the easier to recognize when one bucks the typical conventions and actually proves that there’s room for unique takes on the genre. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime adheres to a few cliches, but it also manages to set a new bar for what a captivating isekai protagonist can be.

Rimuru in That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

Breaking the Mold

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is as wholesome and optimistic an anime as they come. The tone can be deceptive at first; when Satoru Mikami is suddenly stabbed when trying to protect his junior, his dying wish is for his computer’s hard drive to be destroyed. But after being reincarnated as a slime–and gaining the new name Rimuru Tempest–his true desires become clear: world peace and a simple, comfortable life with friends.

What’s immediately striking about Rimuru as the main character is that he starts off as an average 37-year-old man. He spent his life working hard and appeasing his higher-ups to climb the corporate ladder. Shady hard drive aside, he lived a respectable and long life compared to the vast majority of protagonists in the genre. This significant age difference is evident in nearly every action and major decision Rimuru makes; he looks at situations practically before jumping headfirst into conflict.

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

When Rimuru gets a drink poured on him by a noble in a bar, for instance, he quells his anger in consideration of the bar and the friends around him. When someone asks for his aid in an impending battle, he pauses to go over all the available information and reaches a consensus among everyone before agreeing. And when protecting a goblin village from a pack of wolves, he doesn’t just mindlessly slaughter all the wolves; he looks for the way of least resistance (killing the leader of the pack) before ultimately integrating them with the goblins as equals. Though his human form looks young, it’s the wisdom behind his actions that makes those around him respect his leadership.

This is especially impressive considering just how overpowered Rimuru is. His transformation into a slime came with resistances to fire, cold, electric currents, pain, paralysis, and the ability to absorb, analyze, and take the form of anything he wants. In other words, he could go down the path of the typical shounen protagonist and solve his problems with his fists, but he never lets his overwhelming power dictate his decision-making process.

Rimuru meeting with his commanders.

Leading a Nation

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is as much about Rimuru’s adventures as it is about the rise of the independent monster nation he helps establish. Instead of running off in search of adventure, the little slime decides to nurture the goblin village he protected at the outset. He helps the goblins and wolves “level up” by naming them, shows them sustainable ways to gather food and build makeshift defenses, and even brings back dwarves to introduce blacksmithing and carpentry.

Through expansion, industrialization, and conflict, Rimuru manages to orchestrate the creation of his country in a way that’s genuinely believable. His ambitions for a peaceful and integrated world play out in his willingness to accept other goblin tribes, ogres, lizardmen, and even friendly humans in his country. Being able to rationally read situations makes forging alliances and negotiating with neighboring nations possible. When a major calamity threatens all life in the forest, Rimuru wastes no time in holding a summit and allying with other forest dwellers over a common interest.

None of this would be possible without the uncanny, Luffy-like ability to inspire a sense of trust and reliability in those he comes across. Just like the members of the Straw Hat Pirates follow Luffy out of respect and loyalty, Rimuru’s commanders follow him because of his sound judgment and dedication to seeing everyone in his nation be happy. It’s satisfying seeing members of Rimuru’s guard take personal offense when others talk poorly of him because it’s clear that he’s earned the respect he’s given.

If isekai is to continue growing in popularity and thriving long-term, room must be made for different types of protagonists. Be they depraved, refreshingly honest characters like Kazuma or upstanding yet easygoing leaders like Rimuru, both demonstrate how valuable it is to shake up the formula and try new approaches to the genre. If the constant barrage of isekai has bittered your tolerance to it as a whole, That Time I got Reincarnated as a Slime is well worth giving a shot.

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Anime Ichiban 23: New Decade, Same Questionable Tastes

Hatsune Miku at Coachella? Mangadex getting targeted for legal issues? People defending OreImo? 2020 is off to a crazy start!

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Welcome to 2020, Anime Ichiban listeners!

Lots of things have happened in the past few weeks, not the least of which is Hatsune Miku making her Coachella debut. After catching up on industry news, we take a look back at some of our more questionable choices in anime and how on earth we manage to defend them.

TIMESTAMPS

0:00 – Introduction and what we’ve been playing
17:46 – Hatsune Miku to Perform at Coachella
25:29 – Crunchyroll’s “Most Watched Shows of the Decade”
30:03 – Funimation’s Popularity Awards
38:13 – Wages in the Japanese Animation Industry
45:38 – Miki Yoshikawa’s New, Fan-Picked Serialization
47:08 – Legal Trouble Brewing for Mangadex
57:02 – Highest Grossing Domestic Anime Films for Japan in 2019
59:33 – What shows surprised us and which ones do we struggle to defend?

TRACKS

Intro – “Dream X Scramble!” by Airi (Keijo!!!!!!!! OP)
Outro – “Lucky☆Orb feat. Hatsune Miku” by emon(Tes.)

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