Monthly Archives: November 2011

KOTOKO’s Hiraku the Space Pocket

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while now. Since I got the album a couple months back, it’s been spinning inside my car’s CD deck ever since.

On one hand, I hate to agree with j1m0ne’s point but it is true that saying it’s her best album ever doesn’t mean a whole lot. On the other hand, well, it is KOTOKO’s best album to date.

KOTOKO – ヒラく宇宙ポケット [LE on CDJapan! RE on CDJapan!]
Artists: KOTOKO
Composers: KOTOKO, Takase Kazuya, Kz, DECO*27, Nakazawa Tomoyuki, Ozaki Takeshi, ODA Hiroyuki Pres. HSP, Iuchi Maiko
Lyricists: KOTOKO
Arrangment: Takase Kazuya, Kz, DECO*27, Minoshima Masayoshi, Nakazawa Tomoyuki, Ozaki Takeshi, ODA Hiroyuki Pres. HSP, Natsume Shin, C.G mix, Iuchi Maiko
Release Date: Oct 5, 2011
Published by: WARNER BROS.

I say it’s her best album ever with only the qualification that we pay attention to it from a genre-neutral kind of way. There are some people out there who likes her stuff from her Short Circuit rounds, and there are people out there who dislike her stuff from her Short Circuit rounds. That’s just for example; it could happen with her first two Geneon albums as well. Let’s recognize that and put that aside, because it’s not how I look at it.

Because I think one right thing out of the gate that Hiraku Uchuu Pocket does right is how it has a little bit of everything from her decade-plus-long career. To that end, if you enjoy most or all of KOTOKO’s stuff, you should be positioned to like the entire album. I’m inclined to look to this review as a template. But, again, that’s looking at it from someone who likes the Epsilon no Fune album, which was a miss for me. I actually listen to Epsilon several times over the past 2 years and find it pretty fun; it just doesn’t come close to Hiraku Uchuu Pocket on the whole. Epsilon is missing that quality which distinguishes good albums from simply gimmicky ones. It’s missing some kind of backbone besides a flashy start. And Hiraku Uchuu Pocket has both of that and more.

One of KOTOKO’s developing strength, I think, is her versatility. There are not too many denpa-powered singers out there who can go the range and provide solid delivery on all these different types of songs, from rock to trance to dance to denpa to whatever. KOTOKO is one of those people who could, and I think it’s one big reason why that she stood out among the I’ve Sound’s utahime corps. When the album has a diverse theme and with a large array of producers, it really shows off that aspect of her singing. Granted, she’s not the best at all those types of deliveries, but all the songs contribute something to the overall listening experience. By the way, that link to Wikipedia has a full track list along with who wrote what.

So, “Command+S.” It’s awesome, and to me that is kind of the pillar of the album, its identity. It’s kind of like how I’ve Sounds is ultimately a trance unit, even if they publish all these eroge pop theme songs they still sound trance-ish. And that kind of approach to music arrangement bleeds through basically majority of Takase’s productions. I think by flat out putting a straightforward trance track in the middle it provides a nice way to smooth out the flow of the album and give it something remarkable and memorable. Which, when it comes to trance, is hard to do!

I want to also highlight the track before it, “mirror garden.” It’s probably my least favorite on there (which isn’t saying much), in a way that I think it’s inspired, but KOTOKO just doesn’t have enough guns for it. She just can’t deliver it with enough shill without sounding like a strained string on a cheap guitar. I think someone like Eiko-neesan would kick the song’s butt though. (Hey there’s another cross-cover opportunity.) But the real reason why I want to highlight it is that it provides a great lead-in to “Command+S.” It may not be a song I like a lot but it works very well on this album.

I’m really into flow and mood and stuff like that; it’s one of the fundamental principle to trance, after all. So that kind of arrangement speaks to me.

That is another reason why I think I like Glass no Kaze more. Despite being not as good, it’s a more emotional and sentimental set of songs to me. It’s also drawing from the pool of songs KOTOKO ironed out on her earlier road to minor fame, so that helped. To that end, the handful of tracks from Takase, Iuchi and Nakazawa on Hiraku Uchuu Pocket sound just like how they did back in 2001–“good” would be the word I’d use, but that’s because I like I’ve Sounds. And this is why I think some listeners on the sidelines may say “the old guards will like it.”

Are the new stuff any good? “Not as good, but definitely listenable” is what I’d say. I think kz’s contribution is very welcomed and it’s a good way to show how KOTOKO can just turn a dial and flip the song into some kind of late ’90s dance machine. “Mirai Ressha” is both throwback and futuristic, I guess? DECO*27’s “Metal Link”  is less charming but it brings that rock element that I think KOTOKO should explore more, if she can find the right type of producers for it. Much like “Command+S’s” straight-out trance, all three of these songs approach KOTOKO as a singing instrument more so than a vocalist? It’s like the popular way to plug in to mainstream music production, if you made it big doing vocaloids? I jest, but only a little. Maybe Shinya’s “Hirake! Sora no Oto” is the one track that deviated from it, but it was also kind of the generic anison track that is surprisingly missing from this album otherwise. I mean, it’s KOTOKO. You’d think “anison anison” naturally. By the time the album rolled on to that track, “Hirake” was more welcomed than tiresome, so whatever that means.

As far as contributors go, I find that they’re all better than KOTOKO herself as composers. In fact I think none of her songs are really all that good. They aren’t bad, and I think they still contribute to the overall album (besides mirror garden). “Kikoeru” especially fills a gap missing on the album, and it’s pretty charming even in its unremarkable ways. It’s like finding KOTOKO’s sound sung by KOTOKO. Which approaches a meme-level of KOTOKO-ness, as you’d expect by a track composed by KOTOKO on KOTOKO’s album.

So yeah, for the tl;dr: Hiraku Uchuu Pocket is great; it’s a long way from perfect, but as far as these things go it’s praiseworthy. I can listen to the whole thing over and over again, and I did. It’s diverse while still being familiar. It explores new talents while retaining the I’ve Sound essence. It may not be as cohesive as some of her earlier offerings but it’s miles better than Uzu-Maki, I think we can agree on that.

Ichiban Kuji Is Suffering

I always thought one major tenant of anime fandom is the power-consumer aspect. This is particularly special to imported fandom because usually it means navigating foreign shipping, different language websites, different business practices between stores and consumers, and simply a larger array of factors to keep track of when shopping. And given anime is pretty much as commercial as fandom gets, it’s even more so something intrinsic to be a fan, or at least more related to fandom itself.

Of course I don’t think it’s the only way to fly, but it can be fun navigating those shark-infested waters (and there are lots of sharks between here and the far side of the Pacific, I suppose), technically, to get what you want. With internet shopping exploding in Japan (about 5 years too late) it’s something that is now advanced enough to trouble yourself with, should you be up for the challenge.

The biggest hurdle in this kind of consumerism is one that is based on lack of information. I mean, I think Ichiban Kuji figures are largely still purchasable because of this. Banpresto’s new line of merch (it goes beyond figures…like this ramen bowl I have at home) they introduced in 2007 is kind of a lottery set. Retailers can buy a whole set of it, and sell raffle tickets (500 or 800  yen or whatever) where you’re guaranteed to win something. This means a lot of what goes into the set is worth less than 500 or 800 yen. This also means some items in the set is not only worth more than 500 or 800 yen or whatever, but also makes doing a raffle something desirable (even if irrationally so). Bandai makes it back by selling the set. Retailers makes it back by selling tickets, which total (tho assuming at some point not every ticket sells) to be more than the cost of the set. Or at least this is what I think how Ichiban Kuji is suppose to work. Here’s an older write-up for the One Piece readers.

The thing is, there are some pretty serious figure collecting otaku out there who would buy direct the whole set, just because 2-3 figures in the set is worth their while. I mean an entire allotment is well under a couple thousand dollars, if even one. It may be the smart thing to do, especially when you can split the duplicates with someone. Typically one set comes with a few A or B prizes and more C, D, E, and subsequent prizes. Each prize level probably has a few different varieties of things you could get. So it gets you partly like how trade figures could as well.

And just like how some retailers sell open-box trade figures at a markup, some do the same with these Ichiban Kuji sets. I can’t say at what price they break even doing this, since at that point it depends a lot more on how attractive a particular set is, how rare a particular figure in that set can be, and how much it goes for. More importantly, since each Ichiban Kuji set only has a handful of the top tier PVC collectible figures, the supply of it is definitely limited.

Thankfully, because of this non-single-product aspect of Ichiban Kuji sets, it’s not really marketed as such. People who may be hardcore PVC figure collectors may not know about specific figures from a set in which could be similar to one of those 4000-8000 yen single figures. And I think this is how it is at all possible to collect specific figures from Ichiban Kuji sets.

Of course, this is not some kind of secret. Attractive figures from specific sets are sold at a big markup even at Japan’s domestic retailers, let alone export/import operations. That is, if they’re sold individually. So there’s another kind of price ceiling there.

So on top of worrying about the usual traps of mail ordering (which is not a lot these days), there’s the more-than-usual shipping, the exchange rate, the bargain hounding aspect, the availability aspect (since individual figures are kind of like a secondary market thing), and then there’s competition for the limited quantities among buyers who are stuck with proxy or a handful of online sites for all their Ichiban Kuji deals.

Why do I even bother… Oh, right, the 2D waifu demanded it.

On noitaminA, Again

Farming twitter is easy picking, especially when someone already collected the tweets. Take this snippet, originated from an interview of three key dudes behind Guilty Crown.  (So pardon the twice-in-a-row.)

I think this is indicative of how derailed how a few vocal types on the internet think what “mainstream” entertainment is. I mean, when I think about it, I think things like Michael Jackson, Transformer 3 or Donald Duck. I certainly don’t think Guilty Crown panders to the male otaku niche–that’s the same as saying action-fighting-violent Hollywood SFX in the likes of Avatar or Transformers panders to the minority otaku crowd. I think those words do not mean what some people (namely, this guy) think it means.

The twitter conversation went on from there, lots of people talked about certain things about noitaminA and the various shows from it. It’s not really important unless you do marketing and licensing for noitaminA, because I feel for those of us overseas who recognizes the name, that’s somewhat representative as to how we feel about the “brand.” But I wouldn’t trust it much further than I can throw it.

Unfortunately it isn’t typically possible for the average consumer to “reverse engineer” the brand’s image (especially when it’s projected without any direction from the original owners of the brand) and figure out what the business decisions are, when we’re talking about a multi-faceted franchising effort. Especially when it isn’t even in the same language. I mean I don’t even know if people know what the business decisions actually are, yet people are just shooting at it. [And I don’t mean it in a negative way per se: You go armchair anime producer, don’t ever let ignorance stop you from being creative.]

And I think likening Guilty Crown to Code Geass is also partly because in both cases, the producers were trying to attract the same kind of audience. I mean after all there are lots of girls who like Code Geass, I’d think. More than, say, Trapeze probably. So who am I to criticize? Well, maybe only at the fact that noitaminA is a crazy, 2am time slot kind of deal.

If you don’t believe me about the girls-liking-crap-like-this bit (if we can even consider that there are people at all who likes Guilty Crown; certain nobody admits to liking it), let’s not forget: Something like 35% of people who watch K-ON in Japan are actually girls. Is it pandering to otaku? I think it does–but it does also so, so much more. I mean, I’m going to have a :V face towards anyone who called it a moeblob show and left it at that. But since so many did, it just highlights the fact it is really hard to guess these things unless you’ve got the right context. (Or perhaps just as important in the noitaminA discussion: 30% or more of Kuroshitsuji 2’s viewers are male!) I mean there are probably more girls than guys reading Shounen Jump, a magazine clearly pandering to guys. (That one is a guess.)

And who knows, maybe K-ON is the answer, or at least it contains the start to it, a nugget of truth. Maybe noitaminA is known for things like Antique Bakeries or Houses of Five Leaves (to single out one creator on there that I dislike), but it just doesn’t pay. And who is to blame for that?

Reading the actual interview (Dave is in his usual form here), it all makes a lot of sense. They’re following a formula. It only further confuses me why people don’t understand what is happening here; this is hardly new territory. I suppose this can also be chalked up to another case of “catering to someone elses’s tastes = pandering” as per the usual otaku blogger parlor tricks for some people, but com’on man.

And whatever you do, don’t read the ANN forum thread for that topic. It’s even more stupid. Or perhaps the comparison to Transformer 3 is not too far off the course, in that it is a profitable and popular flick that got universally panned. And in that case it’s Mission Accomplished, no?

Ideas Beyond Death

I was reading twitter half groggily on the train this morning and stumbled upon 8c’s typical late-night banter. Crazy college kids:

You can trace back from this tweet, preferably using a threading tool. Or just look at this picture.

Ultimately I think the problem is a fixation on story. It may very well be a semantics problem as 8C/JL likes to point out. It may very well be better solved if instead “story” we use some other word. I’m going to just call it an idea for now. Because, to me at least, stories are just expressions of ideas that conform to some convention. The way I see it is that a story has 2 parts:

Concept – what

Expression – how

Story, thus, is an idea or ideas where the idea is expressed through the narrative. A narrative, naturally, is a way of storytelling (which is just a way of telling a story). I use the term expression to encapsulate this notion. Conversely, concept is the “raw” idea as expressed through a story. It is with these raw concepts that we describe a story. For example, we can say that Gurren Lagann presents the idea, or concept, about challenging problems that are seemingly beyond your capabilities.

It’s preferable to separate the “content” of an idea versus the presentation of it because frequently in lit and pop media, stories are layered things. One unit of a particular medium (eg., a 12-episode TV anime series) may have several stories within it. These stories can combine to form a theme, for the most common example. We generally spend most of our time talking about the presentation and not the content of stories. In fact, without these fancy layers around them, ideas are still just ideas. It’s like saying 1+1 versus Sqrt(4), to use a crude example. But we can quickly refer to the message or substance of a story in such a way.

I find Scamp’s notion about society’s pursuit of story interesting, because I find it to be true to my personal experience. After all, we all want to know what we are saying and what other people are saying. We rarely care about how it is said. There’s a means-justifying-by-the-ends kind of thing going on, and frequently a story is little more than a verbal transaction in terms of its delivery. But when we take a step back and look at literature and entertainment, what is important isn’t as much of what is being said but how things are said and the way ideas are expressed.

Actually, it’s really both. The problem with separating “concept” from “expression” is that it isn’t how it really is. The two are intrinsically tied on a fundamental level. This is partly what I see as what Scamp is getting at, and to a degree, why 8C finds animation itself to be something worth watching for. In a way this is very much true for all sakuga otaku types, just as much as it could be for seiyuu-ota and people who consume media based on genre.

With that concession out of the way, though, it is imperative to realize that what I’m referring to story has nothing to do with what typically passes for story; it encompasses that and much more. It is closer to “the point” of a show. What is “story” most of the time is just the narrative and its meaning as determined by plot. A good example of this is sports anime; Ro-Kyu-Bu or Cross Game, for instance. It tells a story about some people, doing things, going through ups and downs, and arrive at some kind of conclusion. OTOH, people watching Mawaru Penguindrum can understand that narrative isn’t always something determined by plot. The metric ton of symbolism in that show, for example, is a strong storytelling device, and it both runs in parallel and runs together with the going-ons of the anime. But there’s no real plot-reason why Masako has to say her catch line every time, or the Princess has to disrobe every time she clicks her heels. Better yet, it doesn’t have to be the case where Shoma, Kanba and Himari are running in different directions in the 2nd OP. Those things are there for reasons beyond what is typically considered as story, yet those things are still a part of the overall story of Penguindrum, and part of the smaller, sub-stories that Mawapen tells.

The nature of the animation–which I expand to mean things beyond just that and include layout, storyboarding, direction, choice of music, writing, voice acting, color direction, costume, character and prop design, mecha design, etc–is similarly a narrative device in the show that is rarely talked about. I believe that is what 8C is referring to as with his visual media literacy aspect (which could include communication and industrial design, music appreciation, film, etc etc). And I am inclined to agree that those things are not natural nor often taught in a typical K-to-12 curriculum. Well, maybe a little. The impact of that illiteracy vary, but I suppose it is possible that people may clash in their opinion of what passes for story because one person may not realize that there’s all this stuff going on in the background of otherwise a normal-seeming presentation of the ideas typical for, say, late night anime.

With the recent report on Oshii’s talk it made me think about what he meant by control over details. And the intangible connection between expression and what is being expressed only highlights the incredible potential that animation as a medium has. I mean, 8c raises at least one good question: is the discussion space on narrative in the non-plot-driven space underrepresented? What sort of stories do sakuga otaku seek in anime? Do they seek stories at all? I think if we look at anime BGM types, there’s clearly a representative majority of people who follow “stories” in soundtracks, among composers and in terms of the stylistic expression that conveys thematic concepts. And BGM is a very vibrant space to express ideas, as many of them exist purely for that reason.

When it comes to preferences, though, it’s an Apple Jacks problem as we couch things in the context of what we “like.” Perhaps “banging head on wall” is a poor example. It is just that (for example) liking music and liking animation and liking anime are overlapping interests, so naturally those people will mingle with each other within the same fandom. I’d like to argue that you pretty much have to appreciate every element of anime to even try to fully understand it, and to pursuit all those elements is going to give you a better idea about anime than only working within the framework of just one or two elements. At the same time, someone who is focused on just a single aspect of something can get a different perspective and that still could be valuable. I’d just chalk it up to that we’re all ignorant, and be thankful that ignorance never stopped me or pretty much anyone. For some it can provide additional motivation to go and see what people has to say about things! Maybe there is something to learn from banging Scamp’s head on a wall repeatedly until he likes it.

Lastly, though, I think ultimately there’s a timelessness in which stories can carry a message beyond the constraints of time or the barrier between the screen and your brain. It is thus we express ourselves in ways beyond bits and bytes and firing neurons, where a borg-like, all-expressive existence will find deficit. It is the marriage of beauty and truth, and I don’t see why we should limit ourselves to the pursuit of either or both.

Haganai And Bokutomo

Here’s some research.

Here’s some more research.

I have done none. Absolutely none. Even before Haganai episode 1 aired I already found out about the light novel author’s “word” on this. So this is really just worthless thoughts I’m throwing into the wind about nothing really interesting. But this is a more cynical take:

Fact remains, when it comes to this uber-geek sort of thing, people abbreviate as a matter of convenience and out of laziness. There may be some other motivations too, but effort- and time-saving are the primary motivations. The second issue of English-speakers trying to compress Japanese romanized text compounds the picture in a way that is probably academically curious but it isn’t so curious that makes me want to think about it besides it exists as a black box of sorts. Thirdly, in Haganai’s case, there’s that wa vs. ha vs. wahahahahaha thing, which makes it the third weirdness to this whole deal. And on a totally unrelated note, when I see “/w͍/” I think of Amisuke’s Horo.

There is what I think yet another, a fourth layer: weeabooism. Bitmap makes the statement that fandom overseas has grown closer to Japanese’s fan scene. This is probably true. The use of these 4-syllable acronyms has increased. This is also particularly troubling because there’s this increase in anime with really long titles, making the typical take-the-first-letter approach unwieldy (nobody is going to remember what OnIgKnKWgN is, if you are one of those weird type that uses lower case lettering to denote particles. We know what OreImo is; it’s good enough to use in trade). I mean personally I despite the whole first-letter thing half the time because that half the time I have no clue what people were referring to without asking someone, and given romanization of Japanese language is not exactly universally uniform it also gives a lot of room for confusion. Sometimes it doesn’t even work (eg., how do you shorten Utawarerumono this way?). I also dislike how this is a very western-fan kind of thing, which seems to be okay as long as nobody draws the line between that and complaining about R1 companies localizing anime into weird or funny titles that has nothing to do with the original, purely for convenience (and marketing) reasons (see: Utawarerumono).

Okay, so now, being all spiffily-closer-to-Japan, we all know why FLCL is called that. Right? At least if we read the links up there. So, Bokutomo? It actually sounds worse than Waganai or Haganai. Or even w͍aganai, at least in my ears. But there’s a rhythm to the reason, and it’s very otaku-sai to follow those kind of rules (well, maybe just a very human/nerd thing) to keep perpetuating these truncated names within a formula. What’s more, the phonic-nature of Japanese lettering makes these sorts of abbreviation way superior than the old way, using letters you can’t pronounce. So I think it is smart to abandon things like “KnK” for “Rakkyo” (my #1 pet peeve), since the latter is pronounceable and extremely distinctive. Or maybe I just remember my words by how to pronounce them? Can’t we just call things like Karekano?

I haven’t even gotten to why I think it’s a weeabooish-thing. Mainly, I think, this is just a case of “let’s follow some rules to make some terms” rather than “this is what Japan’s majority consensus is” in choosing what to call which show by what name. It’s the official abbreviation by the production committee and the products. It’s handed down by the original author. It’s what most Japanese people use. Can we get any more official and consensual than that? So why BokuTomo? Weeabooism.

And specifically I mean by looking at something without understanding, yet trying to do it anyways because it’s “omg so Japanese.” Because all these “Bokutomo” people should just call the show by its abbreviated romanized name, or BwTgS. It’s way shorter than AHMHnNwBwMS!

On second thought, maybe BokuTomo isn’t so bad as a competitive alternative. If English-language anime fandom wants to be retarded and shorten names differently, I would prefer the current state. But what the hell guys, Haganai is even more weeaboo-y! Why don’t you all adopt that?

PS. Yeah, I feel bad.

PPS. Yea this is yet another reason why I don’t like hosting at, because I can’t get the charcter encoding the way I want. Or at least I don’t see an easy way…