Things I Love About Yuri!!! on Ice

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Title: Yuri!!! on Ice
Author/Creator: Sayo Yamamoto (director), Mitsurou Kubo (Writer), Kenji Miyamoto (Choreographer)
Media Type: Anime
Genre: Sports, Romance

If you’re not in the anime fandom, you probably haven’t heard of one of the most popular original anime of Fall/Winter of 2016. The finale crashed Crunchyroll, the online streaming site officially streaming the subbed version. Basically, for 12 weeks a little corner of the internet had gone berserk for figure skating, self-discovery, and true love.

And so did I.

Yuri!!! on Ice is about a 23-year-old Japanese figure skater, Yuuri Katsuki, who enters a quarter-life crisis after an abysmal performance at the Grand Prix Final, one of the biggest annual international figure skating competition. The top of the competition is Viktor Nikiforov, five consecutive Worlds champion, five straight Grand Prix Finals gold medalist, a living legend, and Yuuri’s puberty-hood idol. Unable to cope with the humiliation of being an absolute loser on the same ice as his hero, Yuuri drops out of the competition season, finishes college in Detroit, and flies home to Japan to try to figure out his life and his career. As he is pulling himself together, Viktor appears at his family home and declares that he is going to coach Yuuri for gold.

While that does sound like a story of an underdog’s rise to victory, that is not actually the case. Grand Prix Final is only open for six competitors, the crème de la crème of figure skating world, so, despite Yuuri’s insistence that he is a failure, he isn’t. Yuuri is the number one male figure skater for Japan. He is himself a hero of many younger athletes. The story of Yuri!!! on Ice is about a man finding a way to love himself and see the love of other, all expressed through the art and toil of figure skating.

So, it’s not a surprise that love is the main theme of the story. The series explores friendship, familial bond, mentor-student relationship, admiration, sexual love, and romantic love. And in the middle of Yuuri Katsuki’s world stood Viktor Nikiforov, who has always been Yuuri’s main object of affection. So, when the opening theme sings of making history, the creators of this series truly did by making this series the first sports anime with same-sex romance. (The honour of being the first anime with same-sex romance belongs to a sci-fi series called No. 6.)

The most impressive thing, I found, is that the show conveys all these complicated elements while focusing on the sporting competition in a series of 12 20-minutes episodes. It was not perfect, and frankly, more time would do this story a world of good, but this means that Yuri!!! on Ice tells stories in layers rather than sequences. And this makes for an anime that can withstand multiple viewings and interpretations, creating essays after essays and debates after debates which pull the fandom into a community of shared love and anguish.

While someone can probably write a thesis on this, I am just going to give you the elements that I find most interesting. These are in no way of the complete list of things director Sayo Yamamoto, writer Mitsurou Kubo, and choreographer Kenji Miyamoto have given us. So they are essentially just a distilled list of my favourite things about Yuri!!! on Ice. And, yes, the full list is way, way longer than this.

  • Yuuri and Viktor

I don’t think we can start talking about Yuri!!! on Ice without first start talking about the two main characters and their romance. After all, they are the ones driving the show. Yuuri is instantly recognizable to all East and South-east Asian viewers with his mild manners and his tendency for self-deprecation. But in Yuuri’s case, he isn’t being modest; he has a self-esteem issue that prevents him from reaching the top despite his skills being rather exceptional. He is in every way the opposite of Viktor who has natural showmanship and charm. We don’t really get the sense of where the real Viktor is in the beginning because his showman persona is so convincing and his intellect so high he could perform for anybody in any situation. I must admit I was terrified of this character at first because he seemed to have the entire story at his command, let alone Yuuri’s fragile heart.

But Yuuri isn’t passive in this convoluted relationship that started out as mentor-and-student. Because the story is told largely from Yuuri’s perspective, we soon get both Yuuri’s and Viktor’s character unveiled. They became more and more human and more and more real to the point that when Viktor and Yuuri officially became a thing, the entire fandom was celebrating like our own best friends just announce that they’re finally dating.

Well, fandoms do have the tendency to overreact when the main relationship gets an official go ahead. Not quite so in this case. The group of people I have talked to that seemed most affected by Yuuri and Viktor are the people who are in a relationship, both gay and straight. As one of my friends put it, Yuuri and Viktor’s relationship contains the elements of a real relationship. Their romance feels so much like a real romance that they didn’t need romantic dinners or grand gestures to convince the audience it’s happening.

(Well, there have been a few grand gestures, but all of them disguised as other things and starting the moment they are a couple.)

  • All their friends and family

Another joy of watching Yuuri!!! on Ice is that the characters around Yuuri and Viktor are also written well and given as much depth as the time allows. This is done so effectively for much of the episodes that although they didn’t get much screen time, we still get the sense of what each character are like, what drives each of them, and what would make them lie awake at night. And when secondary characters are treated this well, it makes for a very immersive environment for the protagonists and a very enjoyable watch.

  • All sorts of love

While the romance between Viktor and Yuuri is the main love, the story doesn’t solely focus or celebrate that love as being in any way superior to others. True that Yuuri becomes more confident, more self-aware, and more expressive after he meets Viktor, but Yuuri himself says that it is rather because he hadn’t given much thought to the love other people have given him – his family, his friends, his former coach, his teachers, his fans. His relationship with Viktor serves as a lens for him to see those things clearly but not necessarily overshadowing them.

The performance in the story also focuses on two different expressions of love: Eros and Agape. While the Greeks had four types, these two are selected possibly because they are the two that Yuuri learns in the story. Eros is the representation of his sexuality and his romantic love for Viktor, while Agape is Yuuri’s understanding of the love and well-wishes he receives from others and the one he also learns to give in turn as his character grows.

  • Breaking gender boundaries

I would do a lot of disservice to this series if I do not bring this one up because, if there is any aspect of the show that makes more of a history than Yuuri and Viktor being a canonical gay couple, it has to be the portrayal of gender in this show.

Because the show creators do not give a damn about it. Period.

And it’s not just me who notice this. Even children have been reported to comment on the lack of clear gender identification for some of the characters. Not to mention that for one of the performances, Yuuri chooses to perform as a seductress, going as far as referring to himself using the pronoun ‘watashi,’ a female pronoun. Viktor is also known in the story to have produced a program that was androgynous, drawing both male and female elements in a single performance.

That is not to say every character in the story is like that. Rather that the entire range of gender expression is present including the stereotypical male to the stereotypical female. The decision to portray the diversity is even more radical considering that Japanese culture is probably one of the most conservative in terms of gender and sexual expression in day-to-day life.

  • Breaking national stereotypes

Because the background of the series is international figure skating competitions, the characters necessarily would have to come from different parts of the world, which opens the possibly of national stereotyping a la Hetalia. But, to my greatest joy, that did not happen. If anything, the show creators were sneaky in how they set up some of the characters, quite potentially commenting on high politics without really doing so.

For example, the American figure skater in the show is Hispanic, religious (in the most positive way possible), and has an African-American female coach. He is also best friend – and if the fandom could have its way, long-distance boyfriend – of the Chinese skater, who is an absolute cutie. There is also a blossoming friendship between Yuri Plisetsky, dubbed the Russian Punk, and Otabek Altin, the Kazakh skater, giving the finger to the real-world ethnic tension. So, shoot me if these are not commentaries on the world’s conflicts in one way or the other.

  • Respect for the figure skating world

To be very honest with you, the first moment I heard about the premise of Yuuri!!! on Ice, I winced.

I was a figure skating fan as a child, and Kristi Yamaguchi will always be my one and only princess. So, yes, I love figure skating, even though I might have fallen out of love with watching it because of the change in style and competition rules. But changes happen, and the sport moves on. The thing I would not be able to stand is having figure skating as a gimmick to an anime series just to create intrigue for people who had never seen a single competition.

But it hasn’t been a gimmick. If anything, I feel the same love I have for figure skating from the show. The choreography was not made up by the animators but created by Kenji Miyamoto, who is a retired competitive skater and world-class choreographer. Both Yamamoto-sensei and Kubo-sensei are figure skating fans, and they did a large amount of groundwork in making the world of figure skating in the show reflects the one in our own, down to the layouts of the stadiums and rinks they used. It is no wonder that many figure skaters in real life watch and support the show.

  • The music

The last but integral part of the storytelling is the music. Most of the songs are for the figure skating scenes, but that is not the only function music plays in the series. The music is used to bring out an aspect of the skaters, normally accompanied by flashbacks and inner monologues, to build up their characters and make the best use of the limited time. Even though the English lyrics can use a bit of work, it is not obvious with all the drama going on. If anything, the music enhanced the drama. The songs are also beautiful enough to stand on its own and are an excellent collection of soundtracks.

Usually, I don’t recommend anime series to people outside of the anime circles as the initiation rite into Japanese pop culture. I have always felt that there is something inherently very Japanese about them that people who don’t have the background of the tropes or the way messages are communicated might get lost. Yuri!!! on Ice, although still very Japanese in many layers of its storytelling is surprising open and clear in what it wants to say that I don’t think there would be an issue.

So, if you like a story of competition and camaraderie in sports, this is for you. If you are looking for an LGBTQ+ story that is happy for once, this is for you. If you just want to give anime a try, this is for you. If you like a love story, this is most definitely for you.

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Wisdom from 2016 (Maybe?)

Well, 2016 sure had been one heck of a year. For me, it’s a year that I’ve done a lot of things. Here are 16 things I’ve learned, or things that have solidified, in 2016.
  1.  Your body is not yours to keep. Take care of it or lose it.
    There is a reason Club 27 exists, my friend, and it ain’t sleep, vegetables, or exercise (although excessive exercise can kill you).
  2. You have limited time in this world. Don’t spend it humouring people.
    I’m not saying don’t do it ever, but choose carefully whom you want to humour.
  3. Time is the only thing valuable enough that it’s worth paying for.
    And the only thing without a refund.
  4. There are things in life that don’t need to be complicated. And there are things that necessarily are. Knowing the difference is the challenge.
    Also, things can seem harder in your head than it really is, so talk.
  5. Home is a space you have some control over and some nice people to go with it.
    It can be small, and it’ll still work.
  6. Nothing is really important, so choose for yourself what you want to value.
    Maybe that’s the existentialist and relativist in me, but, really, your life, your choice.
  7. Mistakes are parts of progress. Own up and own it.
    Failing is hard. Being disappointed is hard. But without them, you’ll be going nowhere.
  8. Anger solves nothing. Asking nicely, on the other hand, can get you a lot of things.
    People help you because they like you, not because you intimidate them. Keep your anger to that shooting game.
  9. Be patient. Things move at their own pace, not yours.
    Focusing on working towards your goal, but not too much on when you get there.
  10. It’s okay to reinvent yourself and revamp your goals. It doesn’t mean you were wrong; it just means the situation has changed.
    It will feel like someone in you has died at first, but you’ll find in time that, like all death you will face, you will carry on.
  11. Sleep is invaluable, especially when aging makes it harder to get a good one. So guard your sleep like a dragon guards its gold.
    Honestly, give me back my eight-hour.
  12. Life is a series of accidents. You can prevent some accidents from happening or increase the chances of some, but you don’t control when, whether, or how they are going to happen.
    Just roll with it.
  13. Give people chances. The world runs on random acts of kindness.
    Trust the goodness in people a little bit. Most people will repay you in kind.
  14. Every relationship — friendship, romantic relationship, familial relationship, etc. — all requires a certain level of work from all parties involved.
    So if you’re the only one doing the work, it might be time to back off.
  15. Choose your battle. Not all of them needs to be fought and died for.
    If you fight everyone who disagrees, you will have no energy to do anything productive.
  16. Don’t give advice if you’re not asked. In some cases, when asked, don’t give one anyway.
    Okay, I’m going to shut up now.

A Eulogy for My Grandmother

I’ve already forgotten my first memory of my grandmother, but that is probably because I had always lived with her, or at least be in close proximity to her. In my mind, there isn’t an ‘enter, stage right’ with her or memories reserved for holidays. She was always there somewhere in the back of my mind.

But what I do remember very clearly was when I was about five. We learned in kindergarten that vegetables are good, and, you know, it was something that adults always went on about with children. I was not a vegetable-eater. I liked meat and carbs and sugar like every other five-year-old, but I thought I’d give it a go. Don’t knock it ’till you try it, right? So I asked my grandmother to make clear pork soup with cabbage and carrot, the only dish with vegetables I knew I wasn’t going to gag on, and she did. For a week, she did. And I learned how to eat vegetables before reverting back to high-carb high-meat diet again.

Now, my grandmother was not the best cook of them all, but if ‘clean food’ was a thing back then, she would have been right in the trend. She was always health conscious, probably the most health conscious of all of us. Come to think of it, my grandmother had always been ahead of the trend: eat healthy, exercise, be interested in the world, be interested in education. She followed televised courses long before MOOC becomes a thing.

One of the reasons all her three children have post-secondary degrees is because my grandmother believed education is important even though she didn’t have any formal education. She told me once that someone convinced her that knowledge was going to be the way of the future, but I’ve always thought she was probably miffed that she didn’t really get to go to school even if she didn’t really remember it. Poverty and the changing world were probably factors as well. Regardless, it doesn’t take away the fact that she saw it coming and made sure none of her children was left behind. And in doing so, she had set the courses of their lives, and the courses of their children’s lives in an upward direction.

So I guess it is not a surprise that for this woman who valued vitality and knowledge would be scared of something like dementia. She always called it Alzheimer’s, but probably because that was the type of dementia her friends and acquaintances came across or had the misfortune of experiencing. She had always told me, when the topic ever came up, something along the line of ‘I’d rather die than having to go through it’.

So, imagine my horror when I learned that she developed one.

It was two years ago, and the disease progressed fast. I was half the world away, pursuing my own education and vitality, so all I know was from what my family told me. My thought kept going back to the fact that her ultimate nightmare had come true and how horrifying that must be for her.

Meeting her after her condition stabilized was a little unsettling because she was still herself but at the same time not quite herself. She lost her mobility and much of her vitality. She also kept reverting back to her mother-tongue, Teochew, and I was left at a loss in most of our conversation. My solace was that the disease didn’t take everything away, but it was a small solace in the face of reality that dementia is not a curable disease, and it takes something she and I hold more precious than life itself.

So, in someway, her passing is a relief. We will grieve her loss, but doing so in full knowledge that she is finally free of the terror. I’ve been told that she passed peacefully just the way she always said she wanted to go, and in that knowledge, at least, there is small comfort for us.

If how we should remember someone is a result of the sum total of our memory of him or her, then I’ll remember my grandmother as a learner. I’ll remember that she was a hard worker, and I’ll remember her concerns for all her children and her grandchildren. I’ll remember that she was progressive for her time even when I found her traditional for my time. I’ll remember the soup she made for me. And most importantly, I’ll remember that where I am and who I am is a consequence of where she was and who she was.

And in that sense, her story has not quite ended yet.

P.S. Grandma, I love you.

Rurouni Kenshin live-action movies: the sequels gone wrong

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To think that the poster looks promising…


Movie Info

Title: Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (Kyoto Taika-hen), Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (Densetsu no Saigo-hen)
Author/Creator: Keishi Otomo (director) adapted from Nobuhiro Watsuki’s original manga
Media Type: Movie
Genre: Martial-art fantasy, Drama

Warning: Super-spoilery breakdown of a good chunk of the movie/story. Be warned.

I’ve been debating for a while on how I should approach this review if I’m going to review these movies at all. Essentially, the problem is I can go on and on about the mess that is Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (Kyoto Taika-hen) and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (Densetsu no Saigo-hen), but that is not at all interesting to anybody. While, yes, these two movies culminate in to a giant mess, they are not all-around bad movies. They are well-acted (for the main cast at least). The production is beautiful. The cinematography is marvelous. It just doesn’t have one thing: a direction.

To director Keishi Otomo’s credit, I think he kind of knew. Then why did he not do something about it? Well, he tried at some point, but the biggest problem with these movies is actually at the story level. It doesn’t need to be fixed as much as to be redone, and there are certain complications when you’re trying to adapt a story from a franchise with a global following. You can’t please everyone, so where is the line you want to walk. The movies don’t seem to know what they want to be and where they want to go, which is the opposite of the first Rurouni Kenshin movie that came out in 2012. What they ended up looking like movies made to capitalize on the success of the first one, which is a pity considering they are made by the very same team.

That is not to say there is nothing good about the story or the script; there are. There are interesting plot points that Otomo reinterpreted with a fresh perspective. They just aren’t enough to outweigh the other messes. It’s actually better if I break away from the good list and bad list and just compare the good and the bad point by point. This is going to be spoiler-y so brace yourselves for the ride.

The Cardinal Sin: the Story

Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends are adaptations of what is now referred to in the franchise as the Kyoto arc. By this time, Kenshin Himura, a wandering swordsman who once was an assassin, has finally stopped wandering and settled down in a kendou dojo of the young Kaoru Kamiya. While students in the dojo want Kenshin to teach them some of his techniques, he insists that what he knows are outdated and not needed in the new era of peace and prosperity. He earns his keep instead by taking care of the house and of Yahiko Myojin, Kaoru orphaned student. Sanosuke Sagara the lively street fighter still comes by for food, and Megumi Takani is now working as an assistant in a nearby clinic. All in all, they are one big happy family of people who had survived the war and hardship of the Bakumatsu era and are continuing to thrive in the brave new world that is modern Japan.

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A family doesn’t have to be about blood relation, does it?

Except a shadow is cast on the bright and hopeful future of the Meiji Restoration by another assassin, Makoto Shishio, previously thought dead at the end of the war. Shishio’s death was in fact ordered by the Meiji government as the higher-ups deemed him too dangerous and untrustworthy, and his body was burnt to cover up the deed. But the man somehow survived, and now after ten years he is back to overthrow the same government that betrayed him, effectively attempting to turn the clock back to the turmoil of the Bakumatsu.

Now, if that sounds like ‘the villain wants to destroy the world as we know it and rules it in chaos and destruction’, that’s because it is. And that’s a D-grade mission statement for a villain anywhere. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of goal that every manga writer one time or the other would fall back to. I think Nobuhiro Watsuki walked right into this trap rather blindly when he started the arc. He had been writing largely about the socioeconomic effect of the Meiji Restoration up to that point, but, as tradition of the Shounen Jump Magazine dictates, the series had become popular enough that they needed a long arc, and by long I mean something that takes years to serialize in a weekly magazine. Considering Watsuki had been producing 19 pages of black-and-white artwork every 7 days on top of developing the plot and the character for a year or so, I don’t think he really had time to give his villain a solid goal at that point.

Funny enough, none of us are truly bothered by that. I think that’s at least in part Watsuki’s genius as a writer. He somehow made Shishio’s goal a non-issue by shifting our focus to the smaller stories that comprised the Kyoto arc, and he was right to do so because that was what he was good at. Therefore, the Kyoto arc is not one big continuous story line, but rather a collection of stories threaded together to becomes one story line, and that is perfect for a medium like serialized manga where there is no time limit; it is not for a movie.

The inherent problem of adapting the Kyoto arc is then how do you tie the stories together. This is made more complicated by the fact that this arc is the fans’ favorite. Changing it too much will alienate the fans. Not doing so will destroy the movies. And the movies were destroyed by the reluctance not only at the story level but at the emotional level as well.

A case to point is the first pivoting point of the arc: the assassination of Oukubo Toshimichi, one of the founding fathers of modern Japan. Being in the forefront of the Meiji Restoration, Oukubo was an easy target for people who disagreed with the changes brought about by the new era. In the story, he is the one to ask for Kenshin’s help in stopping Makoto Shishio, a request Kenshin’s friends are against. After all, this is essentially asking Kenshin to go back to be the government’s hitman, and all of them know he doesn’t want to. Oukubo gives Kenshin a week, saying he will come in person for the answer, but Shishio’s man got to him first, and he is murdered on his carriage. The carriage is then mobbed by another group of samurai attempting to take his life. The group ultimately takes the credit for killing him. Kenshin, however, knows that it is Shishio’s doing and decides that he really has to act.

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How does he know? Well, the killer’s right behind him. Soujirou Seta is played wonderfully by Ryunosuke Kamiki.

The conspiracy theory intrigue aside, the buildup and Oukubo’s death in the manga is enough for us to feel that indeed Kenshin needs to make a move. In the movie, however, it falls flat. There is not enough emotional momentum to make Oukubo’s death the tipping point. And Otomo knew this. He had to throw in a few scenes of Shishio being evil, crazy, and destructive to try to build up that tension. I am sorry to say that it doesn’t work. In fact, I think showing Shishio as evil, crazy, and destructive has more of the opposite effect. The bogey man is scarier when we don’t see him, and that was what Watsuki did. He made Shishio’s the history’s bogey man. Movie-Shishio is more like his weird cousin.

The Almost-Got-It: Makoto Shishio

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Makoto Shishio is played by Tatsuya Fujiwara, but we don’t get to see much of him.

While the villain’s goal should have been reworked into something more solid, the villain himself has some surprising layers to him, although he still feels much like a missed opportunity simply because there are too many ‘Shishio is crazy’ moments and not enough scenes that truly dive into his character. The scene that I like is in the beginning of The Legend Ends where Shishio invites the high-ranking officials of the government to dine with him at gun point. The end result is predictably pretty chaotic and violent, but Shishio asks a good question towards the end: why him? Why didn’t they kill Kenshin Himura as well? A perfectly fair question all things considered. Kenshin is, by skill and reputation, more dangerous than Shishio. What exactly did the government tried to accomplish by killing one and not the other? Unfortunately, there is no satisfying follow-up.

The movies also leave out the answer to another big question: why so many people follow Shishio? The obvious answer if we’re talking about the manga-Shishio is that he is a charismatic leader and a man who knows what it is like to be left behind as the world keeps progressing forward. People around Shishio are actually the flotsam and jetsam of history: a sex worker who watches her profession made illegal, a monk disillusioned of the human nature, an illegitimate son made orphan by the war, a transgender swordsman who has never been accepted until she met Shishio, warriors who no longer have a place to wield their swords and are robbed of their identities and dignities. He is not a good man by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t think he helped any of them out of good will necessarily, but he is smart enough to work them all like puppets on his strings, and that’s what make Shishio a very dangerous man.

Unfortunately, none of that comes through in the movie. Timing issue and character difference aside, Otomo just couldn’t seem to decide how he wanted to portray Shishio until that dinner scene, but by then it’s too late and a lot of time were wasted not building up Shishio’s character which is a shame. If Kyoto Inferno was instead Shishio-centric, it might have been a better movie.

The Bad Addition: Aoshi Shinomori

There are many characters introduced in the Kyoto arc, so obviously there are not enough time to go into the story of everyone of them. But the character that I think suffers the most from the lack of time and under-polished script is Aoshi Shinomori, the last captain of the Oniwabanshuu — the Shogun’s ninja.

While Aoshi and Kenshin have important moments in Kyoto arc, the problem of putting him into the movies is that he is largely irrelevant to the story line. Sure, he drives the character development of Misao Makimachi who becomes the next leader of the Oniwabanshuu and contributes significantly in Kyoto’s arc, but we don’t really get to see that in the movies. He helps Kenshin defeat Shishio in the end, but at no other point does his story ever get tie into either Shishio’s or Kenshin’s story in a significant way. So why bother with Aoshi at all?

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The fact that I can’t seem to find a great picture for Aoshi Shinomori (played by Yusuke Iseya) really tells us something.

Aoshi Shinomori is actually an important side character in the series. It’s just that he tends to come in and out of the arcs not quite being the main part of any. In the manga, he is in the Kyoto arc in part to up the ante but also to finish up a subplot that had been dangling since the Kanryu arc. Aoshi originally appears beside Kanryu as the leader of his mercenary along with four former Oniwabanshuu members who have been with him since the Bakumatsu. By the end of the arc, all four of them have sacrificed themselves for Aoshi to live. Seeing no way out of the grievance, Aoshi marks Kenshin’s head for revenge, which Kenshin makes no opposition to. Sanosuke even remarks that Kenshin is too kind to put his own life on the line so Aoshi can have a reason to live.

So in Kyoto arc, Aoshi returns a changed man to kill Kenshin. That is the long and short of what Aoshi does in the arc. But as fans, we were all for it, because we knew what was at stake: Aoshi’s soul and Kenshin’s conscience. Their fight is easily the best fight in the entire Rurouni Kenshin series. But from the movie perspective, that deep introspective combat is not going to happen. Aoshi’s character was taken out of the Kanryu’s plot in the first movie, so when he shows up in the sequel he is just some character wandering about in the background like a ghost of under-developed subplot. He should have been taken out. True that by doing so, the Shinomori fans would have been outraged and Otomo would have to change the story in the Kyoto arc quite significantly, but he has to rewrite it anyway. It wouldn’t be the first time that Aoshi got dropped.

The VERY Good: Kamiya Kaoru

If Aoshi Shinomori is a character done wrong, Kaoru Kamiya is the character done right. And the most important point is that the changes made to her work to foster a deeper connection between her and Kenshin even though they are barely in the same scene in Kyoto Inferno. And Emi Takei owns Kaoru in this one, so I really can’t ask for more.

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No more doubt about Emi Takei being Kaoru Kamiya, especially when she’s in the scene with Takeru Satoh.

Not only does Kaoru gets her own fight scenes in this movie –that’s hardly the most important thing — she gets a depth. I made a comment before that Kaoru is supposed to be a fighter in life, a woman that knows how to hold her own, and Otomo gives her moments of that by reinterpreting the scenes from the manga. While Kaoru in the manga worries when the news of Shishio comes in, Kaoru in the movie is clear in her opinion that Kenshin should not be made to serve the government again, and she voices it to Kenshin directly. Otomo also made an interesting choice of changing the time for the scene where Kenshin says good bye to her and leave Tokyo. In the manga, the scene happens at night. The effect is that when Kenshin turns his back and walks away, he disappears into the darkness. As much as Kaoru in the manga wants to chase after him and brings him back, she can’t, not to mention she is too shock to do so. In the movie the scene is done in broad daylight. The effect becomes the opposite. Kaoru is letting him go, is respecting his decision and letting him walk out of her life. The aftermath of that break up also turns out differently. The manga-Kaoru is dumped out of the blue, so she becomes understandably depressed. The movie-Kaoru just carries on, hiding her pain by making her life normal, as much as it irritates everyone else in her little family.

When she is persuaded to follow Kenshin to Kyoto, she doesn’t seem fazed by the fact that Kenshin is cold towards her. Slightly intimidated, probably. She knows he keeps her out of the whole Shishio business for a reason and she just basically barges in and makes his life harder than it already is. Their conversation after they meet again seems more restrained in the movie that the manga, but it fits perfectly with this interpretation of their relationship. And Kaoru isn’t just there to run around after Kenshin as he and Hajime Saito tries to save Kyoto from Shishio, she’s there to do her share as well. I love the scene where Kenshin and Kaoru meet each other by accident during the chaos in Kyoto, each was fighting their respective enemy and defeating them. When he saw her, he pauses and looks at her like he is taking her in. Even with all the blood, sweats, and tears, and not a single word exchanged, that scene is seriously romantic, more romantic than anything Watsuki has written about these two.

RK_home

“Let’s go home.” (Gif from burning-butterfly.tumblr.com) from the end of The Legend ends.

The Bad: The Action Scenes

It’s actually pretty sad that the selling point is actual a weak link. This is made sadder by the fact that the action scenes in the first movie are good. And the difference between them, I think, is the lack of drama and action-reaction sequence. In the first movie, the hits mean something. You almost wince at the impact. In these two movies, I feel like there are more arms flying around but not much impact at all emotionally or physically. They are too drawn out, too fancy, too messy, without really moving the story forward. And that seems to be an easy trap to fall into given how many action movies from either side of the Pacific have the same problem.

The Good: Cinematography and production.

One thing I definitely have to give it to the team is these movies are beautiful. Hands down.

Maybe not so much for The Legend Ends when they go a grittier look, although the production value on that movie is still high. There are scenes in Kyoto Inferno that looks like they are artistically composed and shot, so much so that a screenshot would have looked like a painting.  My favorite would be the scene where Kenshin and Misao stumble upon a small village that Shishio rules, a miniature version of what would have been if Shishio wins. The color scheme were so well-selected that it seriously looks like an art piece, but unfortunately I spent the time cringing about everything else. The story, while being a very powerful piece in the manga and an important plot point, doesn’t fit right in the movie. The story also hinges on the character named Seiji, a ten-year-old boy who loses his family to Shishio, but the role is so badly acted the story has no emotional impact. I don’t blame the child actor so much as feel bad for him. Seiji’s character isn’t as well-written as the manga to begin, and it does take a skilled actor to convey the complexity of Seiji character in that short, short time.

The Disappointing-But-Okay: Sanosuke’s and Kenshin’s friendship

So, my hope for some bonding between Sanosuke and Kenshin did not come to past. Then again, since Sanosuke’s character got toned down so much he’s basically this guy who fights a lot, a deep friendship between them would have no basis. And Otomo was probably right to not overplay it. However, because this friendship is not as strong, Sanosuke’s decision to get into a fight with Aoshi Shinomori to protect Kenshin (kind of) and almost die doing so seems a little odd. If anything it makes him look like a brainless maniac who would use any excuse to get into a fight. His decision to follow Kenshin to Kyoto also feels weaker than the manga, but within the context of the movie it is all right. If there’s any scene between these two that I have to give it to Otomo, it would be their reunion where Sanosuke punches Kenshin the very moment they meet again in Kyoto. It’s so marvelously done I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

punch2

You know he’s your best friend when he travels across the country just to tell you that you’ve been an asshole.

The Awesome: Saito’s and Kenshin’s friendship

While the warrior-bond between Sanosuke and Kenshin doesn’t exist in the movie, Otomo pushes Saito’s and Kenshin’s friendship up to the forefront instead. This relationship doesn’t exist in the manga. There are camaraderie between them, but Saito and Kenshin are never as close as they are in the movies. And it is actually a very good decision to go with. We’ve established from the very first scene of the first movie that Saito and Kenshin both fought in the Bakumatsu. They understands each other as only people who were on the battlefield together would. The movie-Saito is also a very different from manga-Saito even though they both have the same no-nonsense attitude. In the manga, we get the sense that Saito never fully accepts Kenshin as a friend. The movie-Saito has no such reservation. He even defends Kenshin behind his back to a commanding officer at one point, something the manga-Saito wouldn’t be caught doing. And there’s no need for many words to show the warrior-bond between the two. A scene where they wait together in silence for Shishio to attack Kyoto is the epitome of that. Not only were the scene artistically beautiful with all the light-and-shadow play. The two also show the stillness that only both of them have in the middle of the unnerving situation. You can see they are in a different head-space that only they share and no other. It feels as deep as what Kenshin and Sanosuke share in the manga, and I’m grateful that Otomo keeps coming back to them through out both movies.

 

So, what is the final verdict for Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, you might ask. If you are not a fan, don’t bother. They are not good movies in and of themselves, so there isn’t much for you there. If you are a fan and you love Kyoto arc, you’ll probably have a go no matter what I say, but be mentally prepared for the disappointments, because there will be disappointments. In the end, I think us fans still get a good rush out of it anyway. If you’re looking for something to convert your friends to the fandom or to Kyoto arc, these are not the ones. Just pick the first movie or stick with the manga. The latter is always the superior option anyway.

Rereading the Stack: Ranma 1/2

Series Info
Title: Ranma 1/2
Author/Creator: Rumiko Takahashi (Inuyasha, Rin-ne)
Media Type: Manga, Anime
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Martial-art fantasy

So that's Ranma... and that's also Ranma.

So that’s Ranma… and that’s also Ranma.

A lot of people in the anime circle might have heard Rumiko Takahashi from Inuyasha, the alternative-universe fantasy story about a girl and a half-breed demon, but before she wrote Inuyasha, her biggest hit was Ranma 1/2, a martial-art fantasy story told as slice of life, a series which I think is still the most influential of all her works, and I’m not just talking about the number of copies sold.

For me personally, Ranma 1/2 was my gateway manga. I watched the anime series on Saturday mornings, usually after breakfast because food was choking hazard while watching Ranma Saotome and Akane Tendo going about their lives. Since the anime series never followed through with the storyline, and they didn’t have to, I bought the manga and began reading them obsessively. Again, food was choking hazard.

What is intriguing about this story is that while it is a romantic comedy about two teenagers who can never get along in the same vein as You’ve Got Mail (the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan one, by the way), Ranma has a giant predicament: he is half a girl.

Screech. Halt. Stare. Yes, I just said Ranma is half a girl.

Ranma 1/2 is set in a fantastical world that is sort of like ours but not really. In this world, there are a group of hot springs in China called the Cursed Springs which turns anybody who falls into a well into the creature that cursed that particular well. Ranma happened to fall into the Maiden Spring while training in martial art with his father. Now every time he is doused with cold water, he turns into a red-head, C-cupped version of himself.

The choice of making the lead protagonist a girl half the time led to speculation that the author intended for the series to be a commentary on gender. It turned out she just wanted to have fun, and my ten-year-old self agreed with her decision wholeheartedly. Ranma 1/2 is a rom-com of extremely unlikely situations with quite an amount of drama, and that was what made it so addictive.

My current self, however, sees more into it than it is intentional. I don’t think it is a direct commentary on gender like Otomen, but the topic inevitably has to come up from the premise. The fact that the protagonist can change his sex at will (or sometimes against his will) makes it a fertile ground for the discussion of gender identity, sexuality, and shows our perspective on related topics.

What related topics? Here are a few I can think of from the top of my head.

1.The Romantic Trope of Love as Something to be Won

I have to say I am glad this trope is not as prevailing in the shape and form as it once was twenty years ago when the series was first published. But since we still have the Bachelor and the Bachelorette, I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.

I have to start with this one because it glares us in the face the moment we are introduced to Ranma and Akane. They were both teenage martial artists, both proud and independent individuals, betrothed to each other by their parents who are best friends and thought the idea of their children marrying are kinda cool. Ranma and Akane, of course, were never consulted about this and only found out that they are engaged the day they were supposed to meet for the first time. It was also the day Ranma and his father moved into Akane’s family home and in effect moved into her life.

That is how Ranma is introduced to Akane’s morning routine, which involves literally fighting off suitors. Akane, despite not being a super hot chick by today’s standard, is cute, athletic, and popular to the point that Tatewaki Kuno, Captain of the Kendou team (the manliest of all sport in Japan) and the biggest misogynistic idiot to ever exist on the surface of the Earth, announces that only those who can win against Akane in a fight have the right to ask her out to control the number of suitors in school.

So she kicks every one of their sorry asses every morning and develops an anger management problem.

The first thing that is established about Akane is that she hates guys to the point of being misandric because of the immature behaviors her fellow classmates show towards her. She is the idol, the goddess, the ultimate prize for the winner, but never really Akane Tendo to them. Ranma was just as unlucky as Akane in this department. His female self attracts the attention of quite a number of guys, most notably our dear Captain Tatewaki Kuno, who pursues her/him with the same attitude he has when he pursues Akane: to get her as his prize. To say Ranma is annoyed by the attention towards his female self would be a massive understatement.

The usual reaction to people flirting with Akane.

You can’t say Ranma and Akane aren’t a team when fighting off unwanted attention.

This trope does not only apply to women in Ranma 1/2. The male Ranma got pretty much the same treatment from his female suitors. Despite him being rude to Akane (mainly because she is rude to him first), Ranma is actually a pretty nice guy, an attitude that is surprisingly due to him being raised mostly among men. I always have a feeling that Ranma doesn’t quite know how to act around girls, so he settles with being more reserve and tries to be nice to them, which makes him much more pleasant than, say, Tatewaki. And a number of girls who come into close contact with him take to him almost immediately.

Again, have the girls ever asked for Ranma’s input before they proceed to fight among themselves for him. No, they never have.

And because of the idea that love is something to be won, Akane and Ranma are constantly pestered by each other’s suitors. The first mention of Ranma being Akane’s fiancé leads to him fighting Tatewaki in his first day of school and almost every day after. In all honesty, Ranma doesn’t want to be involved in the competition for Akane’s hands, but he can’t avoid it. Same goes for Akane with Ranma’s female fans.

By spending so much time on this trope, the series ultimately showed why it doesn’t work and ultimately why Ranma and Akane works despite the fact that they never go easy on each other. They might fight each other a lot, and probably through that they become very perceptive about one another. Ranma will offer to be Akane’s punching bag if he thinks she needs to let out some steam (and it isn’t like Akane is going to seriously hurt him anyway). And Akane, on the other hand, will always be on Ranma’s team, offering him a helping, if sometimes unwanted, hand.

2.The Rape Jokes

There isn’t any rape in Ranma 1/2, or the series would never have made it to 9:30 am slot on Saturdays, but it does have sexual harassment in its various forms which usually result in hilarity of one kind or the other. Of course, nothing physical happens, but the use of date-rape type of drugs, mind/behavior-altering substances (read: love potions), and kidnapping and withholding kind of situation? Plenty here.

The young-me wasn’t disturbed by these stuffs back then because I knew nothing bad would happen to any of the characters. The God Almighty Takahashi wouldn’t let it go that far. The old-me, however, sees these situations as real and knows how far they can go and to what consequences. They stop being funny because they are not funny in the real world where nobody is there to stop them from going too far.

However, because the disturbing nature of the situation and the subsequent reactions, sexual harassment in Ranma 1/2 actually reflects quite a lot of what we think of those situations. The one I remember most keenly is probably the closest to rape Takahashi had gone. It happens after Ranma, male, saves the life of Tatewaki’s sister who is unfortunately just as much of a psycho as her brother and smarter to boot. She promptly becomes infatuated with him and decides to drug and rape him to get the point across.

Thanks to her vanity, i.e., checking and refreshing her makeup at the last moment, Akane is able to save Ranma before anything truly devastating happens. But then Akane turns around and accuses Ranma of ‘asking for it’.

What stunned me is how candid Takahashi went about victim-blaming in that scene which makes me realize how many societies accept this as norm, that the victim is to be blamed for the rape. In the very same scene, she showed us how utterly disgusting and mean it is. Ranma isn’t ‘not fighting hard enough’, he is drugged to the point where he can barely move his head although he is still conscious and is really fighting back with all he has. He also isn’t ‘asking for it’ by saving her life. Any decent human being would have done that. He is clearly taken advantage of by the girl he presumed is in need of help (and she does to a point). The same goes for any rape victims. They weren’t ‘asking for it’. They weren’t ‘not fighting hard enough’. They were taken advantage of. The people who should be on the receiving end of the shouting are the rapists, not the victims.

3.Sexualization of Breasts

Ranma 1/2 the anime doesn’t have much of these, but the manga had plenty of uncensored breasts that anyone reading this series should do so in the privacy of one’s room lest the person be called pervert in public.

I remembered being uncomfortable about this when I first read the series because the subliminal message about breasts in the media was that they are sexual organs. I kind of have to look away at times but it was hard to do because sometimes Ranma’s C-cups were just too glaring to ignore. It took an older me (not this-old me, but quite a few years older) to understand that those breasts weren’t meant to be sexual. It is just Ranma walking about bare chest in exactly the same way he did all his life as a guy but in a female body.

That is not to say Ranma 1/2 doesn’t intentionally sexualize breasts. It does sometimes with the typical ‘bigger breasts are sexier’ undertone. However, it points us to the absurdity of doing so through Ranma. As a child I didn’t think that little display as anything aside from ignorance, but as an adult I actually think Ranma has a point. Breasts are not something inherently sexual. Our cultures make them so. That’s why women’s breast are obscene in public and breastfeeding can cause a ruckus while guys can walk around bare chest and it would be perfectly acceptable (unless they do it in the work place). Again, I own it to Ranma 1/2 to make me question what seems blindingly obvious in our cultures but actually doesn’t make any real sense unless you take into account that most of the world’s cultures are patriarchal, which means that men control what they sexualize but women don’t get much say in the arrangement.

4.Biological Sex, Sexuality, and Gender Identity

This topic just comes with the premise of the story. You have a lead character who can change sex at will. Is he a guy or a girl?

Ranma is, of course, 100% a guy even in a girl’s body wearing a short frilly skirt acting all cute and girly. And the readers know those acts don’t mean anything because we know Ranma. We know what he is capable of, including dressing up and acting like a girl to get what he wants.

That is not to say Ranma himself is all grounded and doesn’t have a problem with being half a girl. He has plenty in the beginning. It is clear that being able to turn into a girl gives him an identity crisis. He won’t wear anything that vaguely girly on his girl body. He hates being treated like a girl even though he can’t possibly explain his situation to everyone he encounters. But he eventually gets over it. He begins using his female body when the occasions call for it. That takes an understanding of his own identity and some level of comfort in his own body to pull it off.

You might think this should have made the young-me very confused. Surprisingly enough, it never did. Of course, my understanding of gender and sexuality was wibbly-wobbly if not non-existing at that age, but to the young-me Ranma is a guy but most importantly he’s Ranma. Nothing else aside from that really mattered.

As an adult, though, I think Ranma having a female body does matter but to no one else aside from himself and to nothing else aside from his relationship with Akane. Ranma was trained to be tough and self-reliance. He never allows himself to be anything else especially in the beginning because it would contradict what he was told all his life that being a man is about. Having a female body creates a loophole for him and allows him to be vulnerable. A scene that best illustrated this was when Ranma just comes out of a clinic and his legs’ muscles give up on him. Akane offers to help, but Ranma flat out refuses even when he can’t even stand. Annoyed but also sympathetic to his plight, Akane douses Ranma in cold water so he would be in a girl’s body and so not draw attention or ridicule as she piggy-backs him home. Ranma, being off the hook from the pressure of being a man, allows Akane to help him.

Akane, on the other hand, was conditioned by her experience to fight men not being open with them. That is why her relationship with Ranma starts out rough. When they become friends, the fact that he is a guy still prevents her from forming a deeper emotional connection. Ranma’s female body gives her the loophole to be vulnerable around him while not feeling like she was being threatened or behaving out of character. It takes some time and some shared experience before she can get past Ranma as a guy to just Ranma as Ranma.

They don’t hug, unless someone’s life was in danger and Ranma is a girl, and even then…

Although, Ranma constantly looks for a way to have a fully male body, in the end I don’t think it matters so much anymore. Being female doesn’t worry him the way it used to and Akane honestly doesn’t care. And I don’t think the audience care either. We are just happy that they recognize their feelings for each other even if they still fight and argue all the time. And I think that’s the best part of Ranma 1/2. It liberates us from the idea that sex or gender are more important in a relationship than the person while throwing both misogynistic and misandric ideas in our face and makes us laugh about it. And I think that’s the genius of the series. I know it wasn’t Takahashi’s intention to do so, and all I’ve said might be completely unfounded. Ultimately, Ranma 1/2 is a romantic comedy, and it’s absolutely fine reading it just as that.

The One That Got Away

An art work by M!kE (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikeisalwaysdepressed/4096905343/)

By M!kE (click the image to visit gallery)


‘The One That Got Away’

You are the one that got away,
Because I never say hi.
I looked and, like a fool, I waited,
Telling myself that it wasn’t the time.

You are the one that got away,
Because I wallowed in self-doubt,
Too young, too uncertain, to realize
That this wasn’t what it was about.

When a soul touches a soul,
The bodies could be left behind,
The burdens could be left behind,
And it could have been just you and I

…for a moment in time

You are the one that got away
Because your voice was silenced.
Only then did I realize
That my chance was taken.

You are the one that got away
Because there is no more next time
Never thank you’s, sorry’s, or good bye’s.
And all I wanted was to say hi.

This poetry is prompted by an art assignment of the same name (click here for the video and find out how to contribute to an art project). It didn’t open a can of worm so much as a bout of emotions that I haven’t experienced for sometime. And the way I deal with emotions is either to cry or to write poetry.

In this case, I did both.