A Sweet Maid is Sweeter with a Deadly Weapon

In the last year, I’ve seen three new anime that have gotten me all lit up, and one of those is Re:Zero. It got plenty of other people lit up too, and I’ve seen about a million cosplays of Rem, the character lauded as the show’s “best girl.” BUT what I have not seen a lot of is Rem with her flail. Because a sweet maid is sweeter with a deadly weapon, I thought I’d post a tutorial for Rem’s flail. It’s my first tutorial so bear with me.

You’ll need:

a styrofoam ball and five styrofoam cones from the craft store

a piece of plastic chain (the length is up to you–I got mine off Amazon. Pictures below!)

a 3/4 in dowel

black and rose gold acrylic paint

black spray paint

a screw eye

a drill (though you could probably fight through using a hammer and nail instead)

a handsaw

hot glue and glue gun

mod podge and (if you want) clear plasti-dip

  1. So you have your styrofoam ball right? Mark it so that on one side you have a spot for the chain to attach, and directly on the other side mark the “top” spike. Or be like me and just make a bunch of random ass circles without planning at allIMG_5463
  2. arrange the spikes as shown and glue them on with hot glue. Yeah, it melts the styrofoam a little. It’ll be fiiiiiineIMG_5473
  3. seal it with mod  podge. You can do stuff to make the ball smooth if you want, like use a BUNCH of mod podge or cover it in craft foam, but I personally thought the texture wasn’t a big deal, so I just sealed and painted and moved on.
  4. paint the ball with black acrylic and the spikes with the rose gold acrylic. Get help from a six year old if possible.IMG_5475
  5. I drew on the design with a white crayon first, then went over it with the paint. to do this, I put a glass that was about the size of the circles I wanted over the spikes and traced them. Using the positioning of the circles as a guide I free-handed the clover shape, and just prayed it wouldn’t suck.IMG_5491
  6. drill a hole in the center of the dowel and screw in the eye screw. your goat chain has one end that opens and you can use that to attach it to the eye screwIMG_5490IMG_5497
  7. Spray paint the chain and dowel black.
  8. attaching the other end to the ball is a little tricky. I used jewelry wire, made a loop, and then jammed the long part of the jewelry wire into the ball. Then I sealed the hole over with hot glue. Is this the best way to do this? Probably not. But again. It’s fiiiine.
  9. Put masking tape on the handle to paint the rose gold lines. This worked… ok. I had to touch it up a bit after the factIMG_5509
  10. Finally, I sealed mine with with clear Plasti-dip, but you can seal it with mod podge too. The plasti dip was just fastest and I had it on handIMG_5698 IMG_5699 IMG_5700

And, that’s it! You are a sweet maid, best girl, lovely Rem-rin, but you are also scary as fuck, and isn’t that the Rem we love?

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Owari, Yuri, and The Making of History: Shonen’s Emerging Gay Canon

owari

As much as I love anime, especially shonen, there are things about it that eat at me sometimes, and one of those things is the way that it depicts gay men. I’m neither an expert nor a critic, but rather a devout (read, “crazy”) fan who finds herself really annoyed by this aspect of the thing I love. Annoyed enough to write.

freed-and-laxus
Poor Freed.

So usually, homosexual men and homosexual acts in shonen are jokes (see, Grell, the grotesque “queen” in Black Butler, see, Naruto and Sasuke’s unintentional kiss in Naruto, see, Freed’s unrequited crush on Laxus in Fairy Tail (by the way, I’m focusing on the fellas here, because while there’s plenty to discuss regarding lesbian relationships in anime, I need the space of a whole ‘nother essay if I’m going to pop that topic open). Anime is bawdy in general, so it’s not like heterosexual sex isn’t also a subject to ridicule, but those jokes are balanced out by straight couples whose romance is meant to be taken seriously. In the cases where they aren’t meant to be laughed at, gay relationships come off as sort of empty and lascivious, as pandering to female fans. In these scenarios, the characters aren’t necessarily homosexual, either, but rather they happen to be hanging out in these ambiguously homoerotic situations (Free! and Haikyu are the most cited example of this, though I’ve seen instances of this in many other shows). And that’s cool. I’m comfortable with ambiguity. But after a while, I start to think, are there any characters that are just into characters of the same sex? And could we maybe not laugh at these characters?

Not long ago I watched Owari no Seraph, which seemed to offer something a bit different (if only in the male protagonists’ relationship—the rest was pretty familiar). The fact that the protagonists’ feelings for each other are romantic rather than friendly is implicit, but not especially ambiguous. They are also not a joke. I thought, this is kinda groundbreaking, right?

Well, “kinda” is the operative word.

At the same time I watched Owari, I read an essay by Philip Kennicott called “Smuggler.” In the pre-internet world of the early eighties, Kennicott describes how, after reading the scene in Hermann Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel where two adolescent boys kiss, he began a hunt for any other book he could get his hands on that might relieve the sense of solitude he felt growing up as a homosexual teenager. He assembles a sort of gay “canon,” but as he reflects on these books as a middle aged man, he is able to see the ways in which this canon was actually destructive to his sexual identity. The books, he says, “depicted self-discovery as a cataclysmic severance from society.” That is, the gay men in these stories all suffer terrible fates. Some become terminally ill, some are raped or tortured.  If they live, they often end up isolated from society, alcoholics and town crazies.  Having found characters who shared his desires, characters with whom he could connect with, Kennicott recalls that all these characters are, really, punished for being gay by their own authors (many of whom were gay men themselves.)

not-a-kiss
And it all falls apart riiiiight…wait for it…there!

Since I was consuming both the essay and the show around the same time, it was impossible not to see the parallels between what Kennicott describes in his canon and what happens to the protagonists, Mika and Yuu, on Owari no Seraph, which goes a little like this: after a long separation, Mika and Yuu are reunited. Mika (much to his dismay) is a vampire, and Yuu, in spite of his vengeful vow to kill all the vampires (the enemy of humans in this post-apocalyptic world) accepts his friend’s new state fairly readily. At the point where they first encounter each other again, Mika hasn’t fully lost his humanity yet, because he has avoided drinking human blood, a fact that apparently causes him a great deal of physical pain. In the inevitable scene where Mika is forced to drink human blood or die, Yuu offers his up. Knowing the ramifications of feeding on his friend, Mika is disgusted, rejecting Yuu’s offer repeatedly (we’re all following the euphemism here, right?) up until the point where Yuu, who absolutely refuses to allow his friend to keel over and die, slices his arm open, and bleeds all over the place, like you do when you’re an anime kid and you’re desperate. Mika succumbs, saying miserably, “It’s all your fault if I become a monster.” A cheesy line, perhaps, but the subtext makes this moment a bit haunting for me.

And just as Kennicott observed in his canon, the severance from society begins immediately after this act. Mika does indeed become a full vampire. They then enter into a battle to assist Yuu’s army unit and Yuu is consumed by the demon he has to draw power from in order to save his friends. Yuu’s company secedes from the rest of the military, and they run into hiding, taking Mika and Yuu with them. Both Yuu and Mika have literally lost their claim to humanity, and to top it off, Yuu has lost his position in the military. This plays out on fantasy’s terms, not as it would in realistic literary fiction, but as in the books that made up Kennicott’s destructive canon, the gay characters are punished, both as a direct result of their physical consummation and as the result of their feelings (Yuu is taken over by the demon because his love is, as the title of the chapter/episode indicates, “arrogant”—he wishes to protect both his friends and his lover, implying that he thinks he has a right to both—how dare he!). The message, then, seems distressingly similar to that of the “classic” works that Kennicott talks about. In his canon, as in Owari no Seraph, “The price of  survival, for the self-aware homosexual, was a complete inversion of values, dislocation, wandering, and rebellion.”

I don’t mean to admonish Owari no Seraph specifically. In fact, as was the literature of Kennicott’s experience, Owari no Seraph seems to represent a way station on a movement away from depicting homosexuals as a joke, or not at all. Nevertheless, this way station is a pretty damn depressing place to be in 2016.

Three months ago this essay would have ended here, at the way station, with me making some kind of hopeful prediction for the future. But I think the future is here. A few weeks ago I noticed that people were buzzing, were absolutely smitten with Yuri on Ice!!. Since it’s an anime about figure skating, not my normal ninja-mage-vampire fare, I was hesitant. Then, the sequence of the characters skating in the opening credits came up in my Instagram feed and I was immediately mesmerized. The animation was so gorgeous, I had to watch, and once I did, the story sucked me in immediately. The protagonist, Yuri (who reminds me quite a bit of Arima from Your Lie in April), is a figure skater trying to recover from a major loss. He has living parents who love him, but don’t understand figure skating very well. He is still mourning the loss of his dog, who died while he was at competitions, a fact that contributed to his defeat. He comforts himself with food. Dead dog, nice lame parents, kinda chubby…in other words, he’s a regular guy, with regular pain, who, like many of us, is trying really, really hard to be happy with himself, and is often coming up empty handed. He is relatable, likable, and complicated. He also is, in no uncertain terms, romantically interested in a man. I crossed my fingers and held my breath watching the story unfold, hoping they wouldn’t make that fact a joke, hoping they would not dance around it, turn it into something ever-present but unmentionable.

glasses-yuri
Yuri Katsuki, Pork Cutlet Bowl Fatale

And then, they didn’t. And I was shocked as shit. And delighted.

Not only does YOI not suffer from the aforementioned crappy tropes of ignoring or demeaning same sex couples, it also doesn’t make that third, more subtle (but highly disturbing) move where gay characters get the authorial banishment/disease treatment. Here we are at the end of the first season, and absolutely no one has a brain tumor, no one has been ostracized by society or had their essential selves devoured by any literal or figurative demons. Not that the characters haven’t been hurt as a result of loving each other, but that hurt is personal, a pain that comes from within their relationship and not from outside of it, a natural result of having characters with the magic three components: Relatable. Likable. Complicated. On top of that, the romance is so well-rendered, it could give any fictional heterosexual romance  a run for its money.

I’m happy about the shift represented by YOI because this genre that I really love and feel compelled to champion has taken a step toward greater fairness. Both within the genre and among other forms of popular media, this step is actually a huge one—and when the topic is identity formation and the audience is, by and large, young people, it is not only a huge step, but a deeply important one. Like Kennicott, like me, people often self-identify by creating a personal canon, and the literature and pop culture we have to draw from can make a great difference in the selves we try to make, and how we feel about those selves.

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I Downloaded Mystic Messenger: Girl Gamer Meets Girl Game

mystic-messenger

 

At first, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out with Yoosung.

Sure, he was sweet and attentive, but he was also jealous, defensive, and hopelessly naïve. When he texted me, “Don’t text with Zen anymore. Only text me” I wanted to reply, “I’m a grown-ass woman and I’ll text who the hell I want!” Unfortunately, that was not one of the programmed responses, and, honestly, that response? Probably not one that would help me win the game.

The game, of course, being Mystic Messenger, an RPG for girls that I recently discovered and learned is called an “otome.” Here is the tenuous set up for the game’s story: you (and your character) download an app on your phone. You find yourself in a chatroom with a mysterious stranger, who, on the pretext of trying to get this phone he found back to its rightful owner, lures you into an apartment. Once you are inside the apartment, the stranger disappears, along with the log of your conversation, and the chatroom is then filled with no less than four pretty, single men (and one cute, overworked woman) These pretty, single men need something from you. They need it desperately. They need you to throw a fundraising party for their organization. And you’re like, well. I guess I have nothing better to do.

You invite guests to the party. You chat with these characters. The things you say in these chats and invitations affect the course of the game, and your responses dictate which character’s affections you attract, and which guests decide to come to the party. In addition to chatting, you are also texting, and receiving phone calls from the characters and getting emails from potential guests. It’s through these communications that the story develops, and this development depends on the choices you make in responding.

This is how all role-playing games work, both tabletop and electronic. The thing that I find unique about Mystic Messenger is the fact that it draws on these now-familiar modes of disembodied communication (email, chatrooms, text messaging) to create the interactions. The result is sort of a mindfuck (in more ways than one). We are accustomed to using these new modes as a way of communicating with other actual people, but if there’s no real human on the other side, it hardly matters to our mind. We know intellectually that we’re talking to robots, but the game capitalizes on the fact that we’re not continuously accessing this part of our consciousness, but rather reflexively responding emotionally based on the bulk of our experiences—experiences in which our texts and emails go to thinking, feeling humans, and they respond in kind. The game also happens, to an extent, in real time, which mimics the urgency of real life digital interactions. The majority of the story unravels through texts and chats, but as you get deeper into the plot, the game also provides what they refer to as “Visual Novels” which are a bit like a color manga that you click through frame by frame, that are sort of semi-animated. It’s multi-modal storytelling in the truest sense, and at the risk of sounding like some kind of old-timer, I have to admit that if this game had been described to me even three or four years ago, I would have had difficulty conceiving of it. I had to think carefully about my description of the “Visual Novel” because it’s something I’ve never seen before. Whatever else Mystic Messenger is, it’s innovative as hell.

The other thing about the game that may not be unique, but is mind-blowingly novel to me, is that it is pitched to girls and young women. I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games since I was around 11, when my much older brother first invited me to his Dungeons and Dragons game. I like these kinds of games for the same reasons I like shonen anime and other types of fantasy genres, namely because they offer stories of adventure. But these genres also consistently pander to male audiences in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And whatever, it’s fine, it’s fantasy, it’s shonen, it’s made for a male audience, I know this. But it was nice, and even a little shocking, to find a roleplaying adventure in which I was being pandered to, and absolutely shamelessly so. I think Cheritz, the developers of the game may have done their marketing research by pilfering the space between girls’ mattresses and box springs, converging the data gleaned from a massive sample of diaries with unicorns on the covers into some kind algorithm.

And the whole time I write this Sherry Turkle is sitting on my shoulder clicking her tongue. If you don’t know Turkle, she’s the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. The name pretty much says it all. Turkle argues that technology has distanced us from each other, encouraging us to seek comfort from machines, while we persist in treating people like objects. According to Turkle, we seek comfort from robots (that is,  from games like Mystic Messenger), while dating apps like Tinder reduce flesh-and-blood humans to static profiles, subject to keeping or discarding based on only the most superficial information. Even though Mystic Messenger didn’t exist when Turkle wrote her book, I imagine the game would trouble her deeply. The game works, as I described, by using familiar modes of technology to mess with your emotional register. The game simulates human interaction, but it is only a collection of algorithms–that is, it cannot feel in response to the feelings of the person playing. Turkle might say that people, especially young people, should not give in to that, but rather learn to deal with real relationships with real humans in all of their messy and painful complexity.

And I think she’s right in that regard. But I also think that, as I’ve discussed in earlier blogs, fantasizing is a way of learning. And while I certainly don’t qualify as a young woman, I do know a few of them, and by and large, they are not the gullible little twits that we so often assume they are. They are not abandoning friendships or romantic interests for a game, and I doubt they could possibly harbor expectations that a human being would ever behave in the same way as a simulated boyfriend. They also wouldn’t, as Turkle insinuates, PREFER the robot over a real boy. Girls and young women, in short, are smarter and more savvy than we give them credit for.

But this game is good because it DOES give girls credit. They must have found in their unicorn journal market research that girls are intelligent, that they enjoy strategy, that they are engaged by emotional consequences, and that they have a sense of humor. In pandering to a woman’s sensibility, the game has done more than set forth a smorgasbord of beautiful boy-bots to pine over—it has created an imaginative story told in an innovative form, with plenty of self-referential humor. Because of this, I think the game and the makers of the game will continue to meet with success.

And, if you were wondering, things did work out with Yoosung. I can’t tell you what happened, because that will spoil things, and I’m supposed to write some blogs that don’t have spoilers. If you’re curious, though, play a game, and if you already have, talk to me! I’d love to hear what other people think.

 

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Eight Storytelling Maneuvers that Make Naruto Amazing

team 7 at ichiraku

I have a thing with Naruto. Perhaps you’ve noticed, considering I’m always writing about it, or talking about it, or cosplaying its characters, or rolling around in piles of its fanart. I started watching the show when my son was ten months old, and so part of my love of Naruto probably stems from the fact that I watched it at this tender point in my life, when I was very tired, and very lonely, and raising a baby. I can get into all that later, but the other reason for my thing with Naruto is that I’m completely preoccupied with the art of storytelling, and Naruto is a GREAT fucking story. It’s a GREAT fucking story, and that’s not an accident…it’s the fruit of Masashi Kishimoto’s life’s labor, his incredible imagination, his understanding of his craft as well as his understanding of human nature. Whenever I read an interview with the guy, he seems to mostly giggle and act overwhelmed by the response to his creation—I mean, who wouldn’t be overwhelmed in the face of that kind of worshipful, massive, international audience? But trust me, Kishimoto, giggly or not, overwhelmed or not, is a storytelling genius. So without further ado, here are eight of Kishimoto’s wise moves as a storyteller.

8) #GOALS I got some advice once from an accomplished writer-mentor-friend, which was that I should be sure that every character I wrote had a clear goal, and a secret. The first thing I thought of was the scene in Naruto where Kakashi sits them all down and asks them what their goals are: Naruto says he wants to be Hokage, Sasuke says he wants revenge, and to restore his clan,

team 7 meetsand Sakura says she wants to be a better ninja and…help Sasuke with part 2 of his goal. And that is what motivates these characters, from beginning to end. They develop and grow and have other short-term goals, but these are the three things the characters pursue, and the author not allowing them to have these things sustains the story till the end.

 

7) YOU JUST SKIPPED DINNER, OR SLEEP, OR YOUR OWN WEDDING TO WATCH NARUTO, BECAUSE…

Especially in a longer work (and Naruto is REALLY long) one of the most difficult things is deciding when to reveal what information, so that the audience is compelled to see what happens next, but not frustrated by a lack of information. I was continually impressed by Kishimoto’s instincts (or skill) in knowing when to release information. Questions like, “What is the nature of the thing inside Naruto?” “What is the deal with Itachi?” “Who the hell is Pain?”—the answers unfold slowly, but not too slowly. It’s like watching a very small child unwrap a present, peeling back the paper one little strip at a time and taking time to marvel at it before peeling back the next strip. Ah, God it hurts! But the kid finally gets the box open, and throws off the tissue paper, and Itachi’s-intentions-were-noble-and-he-loved-you-the-whole-time is inside! But even the gift itself provokes more questions and yearning for the answers to those new questions continues to compel you through the show/manga. And that’s how people get all cracked out on Naruto and watch 25 episodes in a sitting.

6) SASUKE, SASUKE, SASUKE. ALL ANYONE EVER WANTS TO TALK ABOUT IS…

Sasuke. Because he drives the plot. I have a song I sing about this, set to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell” and I sing it to my sister whenever she brings up this character. He drives the plot because the author designed this character with a lot of flaws and baggage and instead of forcing him to heal and reform in the first season of the show, Kishimoto allows Sasuke to remain himself—a character who is self-centered, stoic, pragmatic, and traumatized. In light of these characters traits, his actions in the story make perfect sense. However, as much sense as these actions and decisions make for Sasuke, they are still completely destructive, in terms of the world and the goals (remember the goals?) of the rest of the characters. Seriously, Sasuke? You’re leaving the village to apprentice yourself to Orochimaru? Seriously, Sasuke? You’re joining the Akatsuki? You’re going to attack the Leaf Village? You’re going to try and kill the Raikage? Oh, now you’re going to resurrect Orochimaru?sasuke_vs_the_raikage_anime

…and so forth. Every decision he makes is frustrating and interesting AND completely consistent with his character. This consistency is what makes us like Sasuke. We really want him to stop making horrible decisions, but, hey, we kinda see where he’s coming from, because he’s been coming from the same place the whole time.

5) JIRAIYA DIES, AND STAYS GOOD AND DEAD

I loved Jiraiya. Everyone loved Jiraiya, which is why allowing him to die was an awesome way to bolster the tension in a story as long as this one. If a character, loved by fans and other characters alike, can die, then, the reader or viewer has to assume any other character can. Opening this possibility ups the ante on every confrontation. After Jiraiya’s death, I have to admit I started watching the show with my hands literally gripping my seat. By the time the fight with Pain began, I would catch myself holding my breath in anticipation of what would happen next.

naruto and Jiraiya

Kishimoto could have made a zombie out of Jiraiya in the great ninja war, but he chose not to.  I think he must love Jiraiya too—rather than revive him as a cheap, narrative trick, he decided to let his death retain its importance and solemnity.

 

4) NONE OF THE ANTAGONISTS ARE EVIL, BUT THEY ARE INFURIATING

Though it’s almost comical how, like clockwork, Naruto villains will unveil their virtues and their tragic backstory right before they get gutted, it’s impressive that Kishimoto can make you feel for a character in a matter of frames, even after that character has done nothing but make our heroes’ lives miserable for a whole story arc, or several story arcs, or ALL the story arcs, as is the case with Obito. The example that jumps most immediately to mind is Sasori. At first, he appears to be nothing short of an aberrant monster. As he fights Sakura, more and more of his humanity is revealed. 14 - 1Still, he’s so ruthless, and tough, and frustrating to Sakura, that you want her to crush the shit out of him anyway. And didn’t you just have tears in your eyes as Sasori indulged in the embrace of his puppet-parents? Yes you did. Every encounter with a villain provokes this emotional cocktail of sympathy and frustration. Kishimoto’s villains will break your heart, but they are in no way neutered by the revelation of their humanity—and that’s the kind of villain that’s compelling.

3) SURPRISE! YOU LIVE IN A FISCAL-MILITARY STATE, AND IT’S NOT CUTE

So, it’s like this: we start in the middle of the story, with the explanation of the catastrophic event (the attack of the Nine Tailed Fox) on the ninja village. There’s a lot of action, things are moving quickly, you meet Naruto, who is obnoxious but pitiable, and good-natured. And all the plotting techniques I’ve already talked about make you want to keep going to find out what happens next in this volatile place to this sort of irritating but lovable and moxie-filled kid…but you have to buy into the fantasy world first. These characters are ninjas and they live in a ninja village.school yard They go to ninja school and learn how to fight, and then, at the age of approximately twelve, they get to be full-fledged ninjas. Sounds like fun! And Naruto wants this life with all his heart, so we take for granted that this must be a desirable life, a life of adventure and good deeds.

As the series goes on, we learn that the ninja villages fight a kind of proxy war that is continually flaring up and receding between the various nations they represent. In times of peace, the ninjas are mercenaries, carrying out whatever “missions” they are paid to do, and ninjas are often asked to do dangerous, unscrupulous things on these missions. The Chunin exam, which they take to advance in rank, is a test in which it is apparently not uncommon for young ninjas, often children, to kill each other in combat, and this (as it is in The Hunger Games) is a tradition maintained to keep the peace—the villages can hash it out, and clearly display their dominance, assuring their access to resources. The better your ninja are, the more mercenary jobs you get. And still we don’t quite question the morality of all this because it’s built into the mechanics of this fantasy world.

It’s hard to identify quite where the turning point is—maybe it’s when Jiraiya teaches ninjutsu to three war orphans, then must abandon them to fend for themselves. Maybe it’s when Jiraiya says to Naruto that he would like to see the world change, suggesting for the first time that it is really not okay to be fighting mercenary wars with your children. Maybe it’s when you meet the 80th character that’s been traumatized by all the violence, and, as a result, has gone absolutely batshit crazy and come up with an elaborate and equally violent plan to quell all the fighting. At some point, though, it’s certain that the system of ninja villages goes from being a cutesy feature of the setting to being something deeply sinister. When Pain stakes Naruto to the ground and asks him what he will do to stop the cycle of violence inherent in this system, Naruto has no good answer for him, no plucky comeback.pinned Like a good hero, though, he realizes that he should have an answer, and he resolves to find it. So while his goal of becoming hokage doesn’t change, Naruto takes on an additional goal, one that is, in many ways, fundamentally at odds with the goal of being hokage. After all, how does a person achieve the title of the strongest warrior, if he opposes violence? Masashi Kishimoto takes his setting and twists it into the biggest conflict in the whole plot, one that gives the story a surprising depth, in spite of the often campy medium.

2) WORLD BUILDING

It’s as good as Tolkien’s. I am pretty sure saying this is going to get me jumped in an alley by rival nerds, but the world of Naruto has its own politics, its own culture, its own unique magical system, its own mythology, and all of these things are integrated, into each other, and into the fabric of the story. That’s all I think I need to say.

1) THE FEELS

I want to believe that Naruto’s heart, as much as the cliffhangers and plot hooks, is what keeps audiences coming back for more, even after hundreds and hundreds of issues, and (in the anime) a shit ton of horrible filler. Naruto has no agenda, but it has, at its core, a humanitarian vision. Masashi Kishimoto, having found himself writing for an audience of millions of children and young adults, tells a story in which characters with often complicated motivations and conflicting philosophies try to find their way to personal and political peace. The way to this peace, in Kishimoto’s vision, is indexalways love, forgiveness, and atonement. Ask kids what they learned from watching Naruto, and they will give strangely lucid, articulate answers, that often involve these words. Kishimoto earns his audience by being a wonderful storyteller, but his greatest accomplishment is telling a story that, without being shallow, is wildly optimistic about human potential, and the impact of kindness and love.

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Dear Scientists: Have you even watched Full Metal Alchemist?

FMA mother scene
…bioethicists and other scientists have expressed their concern that creating interspecies embryos could blur the ethical line between what is human and what is not…

I don’t really have a particular stance on this issue, and I certainly don’t want to make it seem as though real-world biochemistry and evil cartoon alchemy were the same thing, but whenever I hear the word “chimera,” this is the image that jumps readily to mind, and boy, is it ever unsettling.

chimera

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Is Cosplay a Weird Sex Thing?

sexy no face

Ever since I started hanging out with my sister-in-law, grand master cosplayer SuperKayce, I’ve heard people both inside and outside this community of dresser-uppers asking this question. Of course, you’re more likely to hear the people who are sharing your convention space ask the question in these words, than the cosplayers themselves—for the uninitiated, this question can be more of an accusation, while for those on the “in” it’s more philosophical. And yes, the question is mostly for women. If you’re a man dressed as a character that is also a man, then you probably haven’t been accused of being slutty or deviant, by anyone else, or by yourself.

So, is cosplay about sex? For me, the obvious answer is: yes? But only in the sense that about 90% percent of the things that human beings do and make are, to one degree or another, sexual in some way (PS-that’s a statistic from my imagination). Sure, there’s a spectrum of sexual-ness in art, of both “serious” and popular types: on a scale of one to ten, one being a macaroni necklace, ten being actual pornography with people having oiled-up foursomes, most cosplays probably rank somewhere between a two and a seven, depending on what the cosplay is. It IS about sex, but it’s also about sewing, fabricating, problem solving, studying your facial expressions in the mirror, budgeting, working with other artists, making connections, and, for many, supporting charities and the greater community. In cosplay you connect with people through what is really a shared fantasy, which might be a fantasy of a sexy sort, but is also usually a fantasy about many other non-sexual things. They are fantasies of being effectual, of helping others, of being cherished, of being a child again, of being part of a family, of living up to your own expectations of yourself—of being not just physically, but ethically, morally, spiritually the thing you want to be, in spite of your circumstances, and in spite of past failures.

I think we have a sort of cultural assumption about fantasizing, that it is, at best, a waste of time and mental energy, and, at worst, dirty and deviant. We’re better off, though, if we embrace our desire to fantasize. It’s not a waste of time—rather, it’s a way to connect with other people about things that are actually really important, especially to young people. Modeling yourself after others, real or imaginary, trying on different characters to see how each feels—this is what we do when we form or re-form our identities. We try different things, and see how it sticks. Often the way we “try” these identities is through fantasizing about them (which can happen when you are alone in your car, or reading, or playing a video game). Sexuality is often at play in these fantasies because sex is part of our identities, but sexuality in-and-of-itself isn’t dirty or deviant (does this need to be stated? I don’t know, sometimes I think it does). Community fantasy can help us know ourselves and others better, which doesn’t sound like a waste of time to me.

Another aspect of this that I think I shouldn’t ignore is the aspect of audience, and the role perception plays in whether or not cosplay is a weird sex thing. I wear some costumes that I think are sexy. I wear some costumes that I don’t think are sexy. But regardless of how I view myself, I find myself the subject of critique–we all do, and especially if we’re women. In a way, when I cosplay I almost feel like I have more control over this critique than when I wear regular clothes—what I wear is so stylized that I can almost force the reaction of the audience. That is, I get to decide (to a degree) if this cosplay is about sex, whereas when I when I wear normal clothes, people pick out my character for me: she’s dressed like a mom, or like a slut, or like a dude. I think part of why I like wearing costumes is because I’m reaching for control over the way I’m perceived, which is so often filtered through a patriarchal lens in my regular life. I may not be achieving this control, but I think that might be an underlying impulse for me, and maybe for others of us.

So there’s my answer to this self-reflecting sort of question. Cosplay is a way to play with identity through fantasy, and, for me, it’s a way to play with gender and sex, and control and subvert perceptions of my identity. There are probably cheaper ways to do this, but hey, I really like cartoons. I like sewing. I like bumming around with the otakus, the Pokémon Professors and Star Wars zealots. It makes me joyful, and joyfulness is always super hot.

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But seriously, Kushina is a bad bitch

Kushina nine tails vessel

I cosplayed Kushina Uzumaki (Naruto’s mother) this past weekend. I don’t get a lot of character recognition when I do this cosplay, because I’m not wearing the clothes that Kushina is depicted in for most of the show, a white blouse and a green jumper. But that’s okay. Because I need to play this mama like the badass that she is—and if that’s expressed in terms of clothing, then you gotta lose the jumper.

I wear Kushina in the clothing she wears as jounin, a member of the Leaf Village ninja ranks. That is, I wear her dressed as a soldier, which is what she was before she got pregnant. We all know that when it comes to feminism, Naruto is not especially progressive, and is sometimes downright infuriating. The cool thing about cosplay, and about fan art in general, is that we can sort of re-frame these female characters and cast light on their more powerful, independent aspects. And if we’re talking about power, Kushina has A LOT of it. Unlike Naruto, Kushina is able to contain the will of Kurama almost effortlessly. She’s a capable ninja, and, like Naruto, she’s ambitious—she wants to be Hokage, so she’s not quite as hopeless as poor Sakura, whose original and ultimate goal is to fuck Sasuke. And let’s not forget the best evidence of Kushina’s raw power which is that she GAVE BIRTH and then had enough chakra to help restrain Kurama and seal him inside of her newborn baby. And then she STILL had enough chakra for Minato to seal inside Naruto, enough to later have an hour long conversation with him, and then RESTRAIN KURAMA AGAIN. I’ve given birth, and that after that ordeal, I barely had enough energy to move, let alone magically contain an angry, immortal, fox spirit twice over.

Which brings me to that other kind of power that Kushina possesses. Her and Minato’s story resonates with me because in this weird, symbolic, purely emotional kind of way, Naruto’s entry into the world unfolds like the beginning of real life parenthood. Minato and Kushina are excited about Naruto. They carefully pick his name, they take ridiculous pains to bring him safely into the world, and then there he is! They have him! And everything is perfect and beautiful for about ten seconds, and then what? Chaos. Violence. Danger. Kushina fights her heart out. She knows she’s doomed, but this is the way that she has chosen to protect her baby, by protecting his home. They win the fight, and for their efforts, they are rewarded with the opportunity to blurt out all the hopes they have for Naruto. They give him what they know will be an enormous burden, having to believe that he can handle it, that he will overcome it. And then they die. That’s a bleak-ass metaphor for parenthood, and fantasy characters get to cop out with literal death, whereas real parents only let a portion of themselves die, keeping the better portion alive, and compelled to keep fighting. Still, bleak or not, flawed or not, I feel a connection this symbolic story, and to Kushina. To me, she represents ultimate mother-power, even if she if she is too often depicted doing Minato’s dishes.

And that’s why when I wear Kushina, I don’t wear the goddamn jumper. Her military dress is a better representation of the kind of power she has, and the kind of mother she is as well.

 

(Art credit to AgentWhiteHawk Art. Because, wow.)

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On Connecting Through Images: Itachi Uchiha Meets Jean Valjean

photo-2

My co-worker stops me at a meeting and asked about the picture on my phone cover.

“Is that from Les Mis?” she asks.

No one ever asks me about the picture on my phone cover. It’s faded, and because I am an American adult, hanging around with other American adults, most of the people around me don’t recognize the picture.

I smile at my co-worker. “No,” I say. “It’s from a cartoon.”

The picture on my phone cover is of Sasuke clinging to Itachi’s knees. It’s anachronistic: Sasuke is shown as his child-self, and Itachi is in his Akatsuki robes. I bought it because I  thought it was sweet, and the style of the art reminded me of Bill Waters, the guy who does Calvin and Hobbes.

“Oh, sorry, I don’t have my glasses on,” says my co-worker. “I’m a big Les Mis fan. My cat’s name is Hugo.”

I don’t know my co-worker well, but I’m starting to love her. I have no idea, glasses or no, though, how on earth Sasuke and Itachi remind her of Les Mis. We talk for a while, about Victor Hugo, (not Naruto—because…American adults, that’s why) and later, I look up images of Les Miserables trying to see the imagistic intersection between Victor Hugo’s characters and Masashi Kishimoto’s. It doesn’t take me long (thanks, internet!) to see what she is seeing and I think I must have been the one without glasses for not recognizing it immediately.

cosette and jean valjean

Yep. My co-worker saw Sasuke and Itachi as Cosette and Jean Valjean. This tickles the shit out of me, for many reasons. I think, wow, there is no set of characters on this earth that could be less like each other: Sasuke and Itachi are a pair of tragic brothers pit against each other, and Jean Valjean is Cosette’s adoptive father who saved her from servitude and poverty. Super different relationships. Still…the more I think about it, the more I can see Hugo’s story in Kishimoto’s. Jean Valjean and Itachi are both treated as criminals, and their arcs are primarily about redemption. The form that Itachi’s redemption comes in is really his love for his brother, Sasuke. The form that Valjean’s redemption comes in is his love for Cosette. So the picture of the two embracing epitomizes an important moment of change for the characters in both pieces. I can dig it.

But what I like about this interaction is not something I learned about the similarities between these stories (there really is very little), but what I learned about images and obsession. My co-worker saw her obsession reflected in mine, through an image. And often, I feel, images (and poetry) are more universal than prose because they leave more room for interpretation, more room for people to bring their own preoccupations and interests and experiences to bear on the thing that they see. And oddly, because there is more room to bring yourself into the experience of an image, the image is more likely to connect two people who are preoccupied with different stuff. This is a good thing. Images create curiosity, and curiosity fosters connection.

I’m a writer, so when I think about communication, I think about words. Yet, cross an ocean, or a few hundred years, and words fail. Images, however, can retain their message longer and over a greater distance. They may be less precise, but precision can be overrated when it comes to connecting on a human level. And this is the level at which we need to connect, first, always.  Everything else, intellectual or political or historical that comes up in discussion will contextualized in this knowledge. That is, I need to know the name of your cat. I need to know that you love Les Mis.

 

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Black Butler Makes You Complicit in Some Really Messed Up Shit

Ciel lights

I did not expect to like Black Butler. I figured it would be weird and lascivious and funny (it was), but I didn’t expect it to be moving or witty—and it was both those things. In spite of the absurd, dark humor, and, well…Grell being Grell, Black Butler can actually get quiet, and it leaves a lot unsaid. In those quiet spaces, I found myself feeling…disturbed. And, the biggest surprise of all, I was still wondering what made it so disturbing weeks after I watched it.

I’m starting to figure it out, though. I’ve been thinking especially about that last episode of the first season (I’ve only watched the first and second season, by the way, so it might take a turn that screws up my analysis here. If so—meh!). In this scene, Ciel has accomplished his revenge, and Sebastian is rowing him across a river to the place where Sebastian plans to eat Ciel’s soul. The physical and the spiritual are all muddled here—the river could be a real  or it could be symbolic…and it’s hard to  wrap your around what eating a soul looks like. We get the feeling that it’s not going to be like rainbows flying into Sebastian’s mouth, but neither is the soul some corporeal thing that can be wedged between a couple buns.  At any rate, the journey toward this soul-eating moment which will break the partnership between Ciel and Sebastian is a damn quiet one. As they row, little lights like fireflies pass them, and Ciel asks what they are. Sebastian explains, without sentiment, that they are the manifestation of his encounters with other souls—the people who have passed through his life. Ciel admits that he finds them “pretty,” which is notable considering that Ciel’s character is a militant pragmatist, the aesthetics of his upper class life being an expectation rather than a thing to appreciate or comment on.  Ciel is obviously regretting some things here, even though he knows this regret is futile.

ride across a river

Typically, anime is not especially quiet when it comes to emotions. Characters scream each others’ names in anguish (INU YASHA! INU YASHA! Comes immediately to mind). They apologize to each other and weep for each other and kill each other and lust after each other wildly and openly and it’s all so wonderfully melodramatic. And I love that. But in the scene that I just described, no one is doing any of that. Something very sad, and likely very violent is about to happen, and yet the characters are speaking quietly about the little lights passing them. The scene even looks soft, the lake they row across is misty and gray. And in all this softness and quietness and confusion about what is literal or metaphorical or physical or spiritual, I can’t help but think, what if the contract between Ciel and Sebastian is itself a metaphor?  After all, Ciel clearly feels attached to Sebastian; in one episode, a magic daguerreotype camera reveals that Sebastian is the creature from “the other side” that Ciel thinks about the most (not his dead parents). In another episode, he is frightened about something and demands that Sebastian stay in his room while he falls asleep (my four year old son does the same to me). And for Sebastian, it’s not an overstatement to say that he adores Ciel. To adore and to protect a person as long as they live because you see the beauty in their most fundamental self (their soul)? How different is that from love? I think that is the metaphor: the contract they have joined in is representative of the real sacrifices and commitment of regular, run-of-the-mill, human devotion. (And for the record, I have to clarify that this devotion, in my interpretation, is more parental or brotherly than romantic—it’s not that the other, ickier reading isn’t there, it’s just that I see more evidence of the former).

later eyepatch

I realized that the show is working some magic. One hand is flashing romance, murder, Victorian horror and eroticism, lots of clever references to British literature (most notably P.G. Wodehouse and Shakespeare). The other hand is the one doing the trick, though. The other hand is creating this metaphor, so when the show’s over-the-top theatrics fall away, in this quiet moment on the river, the sadness and complexity of this metaphor hit you all at once. Of course, quiet or not, Black Butler resists sentimentality. Sebastian is a demon, and as he’s promised throughout, he fully intends to make Ciel “one hell of a feast.” In the final, silent seconds of the season, Sebastian brushes away Ciel’s eye patch to reveal the symbol of their pact, and remove his soul. And I’ve figured out why this moment is so upsetting to me. It is devastating partially because I hoped that Sebastian would change his mind, and not devour Ciel. It is also devastating because I bought into the metaphor, and I hope Sebastian will not change his mind—in Black Butler’s world of comic horror, Ciel and Sebastian’s pact, like love, is the force that civilizes them, that keeps them from being monsters. In the end, it must be honored.

 

 

 

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