“Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”

Welcome, all, again.  My past few reviews have dealt with shows that were different shades of slice-of-life; so, too, does this one.  Gabriel DropOut is a special kind of show, one in which themes and their possible relevance are so fluid as to depend almost entirely upon the discretion of the viewer.  As a writer who creates something to be shared, it has long been my contention that an artist (whatever the chosen medium) shares the creative process with the audience, whose interpretation produces a final result peculiar to each participating individual.  For Gabriel Dropout to more fully espouse this notion, it would need to be a coloring book!  How so?

Gabriel Tenma is an angel descended to earth to study and eventually help mankind.  She was top of her class in Heaven but, freed from the strictures of that environment, feels justified in loosening up just a bit.  In military jargon, she goes in-country only to go native.  Because although sent to attend a human high school, Gabriel is quickly seduced by video games, instant noodles, and a generally self-indulgent lifestyle.  Her fall is rapid and transformative, to the point that her stipend from Heaven begins to see regular decreases.  Seems like somebody’s paying attention and is not at all eager to pay for a rebellious attitude.  But Gab’s not the only one disappointing her sponsors.

Milton’s epic work Paradise Lost casts Hell as a perverse mirror image of Heaven.  Well, certainly their foreign student exchange program mirrors Heaven’s, as Maiten High School is hosting two demons as well as two angels.  And Vignette Tsukinose is Gabriel’s polar opposite, quite beyond being a demon: she is kindhearted and considerate, responsible and helpful.  While Gab mutters about mankind not deserving help and even suggests blowing that trumpet to start the Apocalypse, Vigne is busy sweeping the walk in front of her apartment building and desperately vying to prevent Gab’s becoming a total NEET.  Strangely enough, Vigne also seems to be having bankbook difficulties.  (Personally, I wonder what might happen if they tried switching sponsors–a point I raised on Crunchyroll after watching episode 7.  Increased cash flow, surely!)  But what of the other two unearthly visitors?  The angel Raphiel Shiraha was second in her and Gab’s class, but upon descending to earth has revealed herself to be a sadistic, perverted deviant.  Meanwhile, demon Satanichia McDowell is dedicated to her assigned role but utterly incompetent.  Milton would weep.

But this is where things get really fun.  The show is entertaining enough on the surface–cute characters doing inanely cute things. . .or sometimes doing nothing at all [Gab!].  But the implications of and possibilities inherent in the premise magnify the humor exponentially!  This series exists within a Christian theology, but plays fast and loose with the accepted rules of such.  Whereas Hell was first created to punish rebellious angels transformed into devils, we witness a second rebellion of a demon returning instinctively to angelic behavior.  This, even as Heaven’s two most promising angels abandon themselves to their baser desires.  But where is the redemption, where the punishment?  Have the authors of the original quarrel become so bored with it?  Has a once-raging war degenerated into a perfunctory, bureaucratic process of demerits?  And could all of this mean that Gabriel is actually correct in that there’s no point in worrying with it?  Any of it?  Just slurp your noodles and go?  Beware, for larger questions loom in these shadows: why does a loving God allow pain and suffering?  And why do attributes so valuable in humans–such as independence, individuality, and the courage to act–lead to the condemnation of an angel?  But those questions are only there if you look for them.  Otherwise, it can all be viewed as just another group of friends living their own peculiar situations. . .

I have seen this series dismissed as fluff.  I have likewise–although much more rarely–seen this series accused of taking on topics beyond its scope.  My own opinion is that this series, more than most others with which I am familiar, becomes what its viewer makes it.  We the audience have a much more prominent role in deciding the finished product of this show than we are usually given.  And I like that.  Some days I want a light comedy, whereas some days I’m willing or even eager to explore a deeper meaning.  I appreciate having the choice.

[Parental note:  Yes, there is some fan service in this show, but nothing crazy.  Precocious children might, however, derive some interesting or uncomfortable religious questions from watching–so get those answers ready!]


Random Happenings

Welcome, all, again.  Just a couple of notes on things of interest. . .

First, EDM goddess incarnate Fifi Rong [see: fifirong.com] will be performing at this year’s SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas.  SXSW (2017) runs from 13-19 March, and Fifi is scheduled to perform at The Iron Bear starting at midnight on 16 March.  This will be her first SXSW appearance, so I’m sure she’d love to see a supportive audience of fans.  And while my work schedule won’t permit my attendance, that just leaves a space open for you!

And next a plug for Anime Blues, our own homegrown Memphis anime con!  Although the website [animeblues.com] is not yet ready for pre/registration, tickets are already available through eventbrite.com!  The fun happens from 7-9 July at the Cook Convention Center, downtown by the Mississippi River.  2017 marks the con’s 7th anniversary, and it has grown to offer a multitude of vendors, panels, and activities.  So if you’re in the area, stop by and treat yourself!

On the Horns of a Dilemma: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

Welcome, all, again.  I’ve been catching up on episodes and even whole series which I missed because of my trip back in January.  And while one or two proved to be false starts (down paths which I simply did not want to travel), I have been mainly pleased.  One show in particular has won my heart despite what I considered a rather anemic beginning: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid.  The advertising blurbs did not impress me, nor did peeks at the artwork.  Indeed, when I watched the first episode, I was wavering at midpoint as to whether or not to continue.  It so happens, however, that as a rule I generally tend to watch a series’ first two episodes.  And that rule has stood me in good stead, allowing me to discover greatness where I at first saw, well, squat; The Asterisk War [http://918thefan.com/2015/the-wandering-witch-goes-to-war/ ] springs immediately to mind.  Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has proven to be another series that rewards viewers for the time they invest.

We first meet Kobayashi: she has a job that pays the bills but doesn’t seem to impress or excite her; she has her one-bedroom apartment; and she has a distinct like of alcohol.  (In truth, she sounds like the majority of young singles whom I know.)  If there is anything that sticks out about her, it is her tendency to wear slacks, shirt, and tie to work, dressing more like a salaryman than office lady.  But for all we know, her work group might have a specific dress code–I’m not reading anything into her clothing choices.  (After all, at neither of my jobs do I even get a choice.)  She’s just your average workaday stiff. . .who one evening, too plastered to be cautious, helps save the life of a wounded dragon she encounters.  But it was all in the drink, right?

Wrong.  Tohru is quite real, a dragon who was grievously wounded in her own world during a battle with humans, but somehow managed to escape to ours.  Too weak to resist Kobayashi and probably expecting her death blow, Tohru is instead smitten by the kindness shown her.  She falls in love with her rescuer and vows to stay with her, to that end offering herself as Kobayashi’s maid.  Tohru’s sudden appearance, however, is a surprise to Kobayashi, whose memories of the night before are at best hazy.  Having a dragon at her door seems something of a terrifying inconvenience, and having that dragon transform into a busty blonde girl with horns and tail doesn’t do much to alleviate things.  Kobayashi immediately declines Tohru’s offer, and it is from this point that the show begins to quietly reveal its greatness.

Because this is more than a show about dragons, or even about dragons interacting with humans.  Like both Usagi Drop and Sweetness and Lightning before it, this is a show exploring and celebrating the malleable nature of family.  And while it takes a more comedic approach to the subject than did its predecessors, the emotional resonance is real.  In a searing moment crystallized by the tears forming in Tohru’s eyes, Kobayashi feels her loneliness, her despair, and now a sudden sense of abandonment and rejection.  And Kobayashi realizes that she has a choice: protect herself or protect this stranger who has nothing but her.  More importantly, Kobayashi acts.  Tohru, it seems, has a new home.


But not just Tohru–birds of a feather, after all.  Exiled from their world for what is described as a prank, Kanna is a very young dragon (in human form, she is of grade-school age) who seeks the familiar comfort of Tohru’s company.  She strongly disapproves of Tohru living with a human and initially attacks Kobayashi, but has lost all her power in traveling between worlds.  And it is only after attacking her hostess that Kanna realizes she has nowhere to stay.  Seeing Tohru’s agony–and completely unwilling to abandon a child–Kobayashi invites Kanna to move in, prompting their move to a larger apartment.  Because, honestly, Kobayashi is liking the changes in her life.  Tohru’s love is making her a happier person, and Kanna’s presence (and changed attitude) only increases the love all around.  In fact, Kobayashi plainly sees them as a family, finding humor in her own role as “father,” although Kanna seems to view her more as a mother figure while seeing Tohru as an older sister.  But no matter; roles don’t make a family, love does.

Honestly, with this series offering such an underwhelming start, I came in cold and expecting very little.  I was wrong.  Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has proven an emotionally uplifting show that I now eagerly anticipate each week!  It is, like the family it follows, so much more than the sum of its parts.  We’ve been given here a thing of rare beauty, and I encourage you to watch.

[Parental Note: Here be fan service!  But it’s done tongue-in-cheek, and even the characters recognize and occasionally skewer it.]



On Their Own Two Wheels

Welcome, all, again.  After stopping by Japari Park for last week’s column, I’ve decided to keep the themes of friendship and exploration by reviewing Minami Kamakura High School Girls Cycling Club.  This is a pleasantly slow-paced show about a girl who has moved to a new town, Kamakura, just as she is entering high school.  Now, this might have easily led to a show full of angst and the challenges of feeling displaced, but we lucky viewers are mostly spared from such things.  Instead, we get a relaxed immersion into bicycling as a hobby and the exploration of Kamakura as a locale.  Fun stuff all around(!), especially for us history buffs who will see beyond the current resort town shown and recognize Kamakura’s importance as Japan’s former capital (predating Kyoto’s rise to prominence).  I personally hope to see many local landmarks and customs visited through this anime, akin to the fine job Flying Witch did in introducing Aomori.

But back to the anime at hand!  Hiromi Maiharu is a first-year high school student fresh from the city of Nagasaki, which easily has more than twice Kamakura’s population.  And while both are seaside towns and major tourist centers, Kamakura offers a slower, quieter lifestyle.  These seem to be welcome changes to our protagonist, who is herself a quiet person.  In fact, Hiromi’s so taken by the relaxed atmosphere that she decides to bicycle to the school’s entrance ceremony, despite not having ridden in years.  Trouble is, apparently you can forget how to ride a bike.  At least, Hiromi can.  Luckily for her, she encounters fellow first-year Tomoe Akitsuki, a girl whose role as onee-chan has tempered her into a helpful, sympathetic sort.  Why else would she spend the morning pushing a complete stranger around on a bicycle?  But they eventually reach the school, having given directions to another cyclist along the way, this one competent but lost.  All three arrive late to their entrance ceremony.

All three? you say.  Indeed, for it turns out that the lost cyclist was a teacher newly hired by the school–and Hiromi’s and Tomoe’s homeroom teacher, Shiki Mori.  When she learns that Tomoe plans to give Hiromi a quick bicycle tour of Kamakura, sensei kind of wrangles herself an invitation, with the result that viewers are treated to some of the city’s more prominent tourist draws (including the Kotoku-in Temple’s bronze Great Buddha).  We also get to watch Hiromi struggle with a new type of bicycle, going from her “mommy” bike (a regular bicycle) to a cross bike.  Her resultant feelings of accomplishment lead to overconfidence and bad decision-making, and Hiromi is suddenly lost and alone.  It is at this point that we learn that sensei has a younger sister already living in Kamakura, a bakery owner and incarnate goddess to the local male cyclists, three of whom she tasks with finding Hiromi.  With the bakery angle offering too many double entendres from which to choose, let’s just say that Nagisa Mori’s minions do their job and return the embarrassed Hiromi to her small group.

But it’s a growing group as Hiromi and Tomoe find more students who are interested in cycling, and that student interest leads to the reconstitution of a defunct school club.  It helps, of course, that the current principal’s granddaughter is one of those interested students, and that the principal was herself a member of the old cycling club.  Shades of BAKUON!!, perhaps, but that’s not a bad thing.  As with BAKUON!!, students realize that one of the keen advantages to joining a school club is the way in which activities segue into adult interactions within defined social parameters–in other words, instant access to and acknowledgement by grown-ups!  School clubs are meant to be fun, educational, and helpful in developing students’ social maturity.  With cycling, you can also add the benefits of physical fitness and travel.  And we get to watch it all happen, as well as learn about bicycling as a hobby.  This is the perfect show for relaxing, a cute (if vaguely pointless) getaway from the worries and demands of everyday life.  So come visit Kamakura, and sit back and unwind.



Let’s Safari–With Kemono Friends!

Welcome, all, again.  I apologize for my recent absence, but a death in the family required my rather sudden presence overseas.  And compounding the sad reason for my trip was my intense dislike of air travel, so that it’s taken me several days from my return to fully recuperate.  But here I am, ready to discuss my first pick of the new viewing season–Kemono Friends.  OK, stop laughing!  Because we’re really discussing this.

Fun fact: I’m old.  My children are grown, and I even have grandchildren. . .and it’s a beautiful place in life to be!  I love children’s books, what with all the clever wordplay and gorgeous pictures, and so many of those pictures in warm, bright colors!  And I love Kemono Friends, which seems to me to be an anime version of a children’s book, but is actually based upon the Nexon smart phone game “Zoo RPG.”  Set in Japari Park, the show follows the adventures of a lost girl as she tries to discover what sort of animal she is.  Mind you, she has no memory of her time before waking up in the park, not even her name.  (Serval, who finds her, calls her Bag-chan because she carries a pack.)  So she can only compare herself to the [other] animals she encounters as she searches for a fabled library within the park that might provide her some answers.

As it happens, Japari Park is inhabited by animals with very human traits, pretty much meaning girls with certain physical and behavioral characteristics of their assigned animals.  (Lots and lots of neko girls, nyah!)  Why no boys?  Probably because everyone in the park gets along, and boys–even amongst animals–tend to be somewhat aggressive.  (Seriously, all that head-butting and chest-beating. . .)  But these animals are a quiet and generally content bunch, pursuing their individual interests and filling their bellies with something called Japari buns.  And so our poor confused child eventually changes her standard greeting from “Please don’t eat me!” to something a little calmer and less confusing to her new friends.

And the animals are friendly, the word friend even being how the animals refer to each other.  None of the animals are trying to hunt or eat each other (although there are some weird, blob-like things providing an element of danger).  But this omission of predation creates a very kid-friendly show.  What’s more, it’s educational!  We encounter animals in their native habitat, then learn about that habitat from the animals who live there and from a robotic automaton tour guide called “Lucky Beast” or “Boss.”  There are even brief segments of voiced information about the animals encountered.  Imagine The Magic School Bus meets Wild Kingdom (sans all the dramatic music and bloodshed).  The resultant series is cute, fun, and smart!  So grab an episode with the youngsters in your life, then jump onto the net together and look-up the real animals.  It’ll be a blast!