Cultural assumptions go both ways

A couple of days ago Frogkun wrote a post about how the anime adaptation of Little Women choose to portray black women, specifically their language and dialect, which, anime fandom being what it is, got him some pushback from more reactionary fans about it being too political and ideological. Which in turn led him to write a post on forcing one’s own cultural assumptions onto anime, which I found interesting:

At best, it comes across as lazy argumentation in context. At worst, the writer is guilty of exactly the same cultural elitism they’re supposed to be decrying. In their effort to delegitimatise viewpoints they disagree with on a personal level, they project their own cultural assumptions onto anime. The “Japanese culture”, as they choose to portray it, becomes a shield to deflect criticism of their favoured works. And sometimes, it works very well as a rhetorical strategy, because how can you argue that the “Japanese culture” has it backwards without sounding like a racist?

Anime fans are of course far from the first ones to use this sort of argument, a rightwing appropriation of leftist language twisted into an apologia; several of the more authoritarian regimes in Asia are found of using anti-colonialist language to dismiss human rights complaints. Closer to home, here in the Netherlands any foreign criticism of Zwarte Piet as being suspiciously similar to blackface is dismissed as not understanding the Dutch cultural context. It’s slightly less common to see people use this argument to defend a foreign culture to their own, but it’s not unknown either. A tempting trick to use, because if done right, it also means you yourself don’t have to defend your questionable tastes anymore and your opponent now has to defend themselves.

To counter this argument, what should be remembered is that it depends on two big lies, in this case 1) that whatever anime is being criticised can be thought of as a standin for “Japanese culture” as a whole and 2) that whatever is being criticised in anime as a whole is actually an accurate and trustworthy representation of Japanese cultural values, with “Japanese culture” as a monolithic bloc.

But what if some of the cultural assumptions and values seen in anime are not the natural outcome of deeply held cultural beliefs, but rather deliberately constructed in the same way that everything else in anime has been created by smart, intelligent, culturally savy people? Here I’m reminded of a post about Noragami published at Therefore it is last month, which talked about Noragami as “an updated, contemporary, “hipper” anime attempt for the youth that will inherit the country to preserve their cultural heritage”.

That is then, there are a lot of shared assumptions about what Japan is like as a country, what Japanese culture is and what normal, everyday Japanese life looks like (well, at least normal, everyday teenage Japanese life, but I digress) in anime. But that doesn’t mean that these shared assumptions are true or the whole truth. It might just as well be a constructed reality of an imagined, idealised Japan, something rooted in reality but with all the conflicting ideas and ideologies airbrushed out of it. Could it not be that anime creates the image of a Japan that’s more conservative than reality, as its creators’ desires and market forces collude to do so, or is holding hands really that lewd? In other words, the idea that anime is this passive receptacle of “Japanese culture” that could have foreign values imposed on it is far more offensive than actually judging it by your own (western) standards, as long as you realise that anime != Japanese culture and are careful in explaining where your own ignorance starts.

Saekano: Otaku bait(ing) with Megumi Kato

In-jokes in anime, like in any other medium, usually vary from the tired and tedious to the funny if you get it, but rarely add much to the story. But there are exceptions, as in Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata (Saekano or: How To Raise a Boring Girlfriend), where the performance of the Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann opening theme is a truly heartwarming and awesome moment. It works because the scene makes sense in the context of the story while Sorairo Days, the song itself, with all its baggage and memories for longtime anime fans, perfectly fits the mood of audacity and cheekiness that underlies the scene — yours is the drill that will pierce the heavens and all that. At the same time, it makes perfect sense for an anime song band of which the lead singer was unaware it was an anime song band until five minutes before their first performance, that their intro song would be this, something that’s a perfectly good rock song even outside its own context. Not to mention that it will definitely make an otaku audience pumped up.

Saekano episode 0 - fan service and meta snark

It’s one of the moments when Saekano gets everything right, a celebration of otaku culture that’s neither gross nor self congratulatory, in a series that’s rather ambivalent about otaku culture. At first this looks like a typical otaku centered harem comedy, especially if you start with episode 0, which is both a prologue and takes place six months after the rest of the series because that’s an episode that’s entirely about showing your standard blandly handsome but nerdy (glasses!) protagonist getting flirted at by a collection of stereotypes without noticing as they nominally are scouting locations for their visual novel game. Meanwhile, in voice over, the characters snark at the conventions of harem comedies like the one they’re in — such meta.

Saekano episode 1 - our hero

The biggest handicap for the series is its protagonist, Tomoya Aki, who as noted is the otaku variant on the bland everyman hero and who is a bit on the obnoxious side, to say the least. He’s the sort of otaku who is very serious about his otaku nerdhood despite not actually doing anything creative but just watching anime, reading light novels and playing erotic games, then fangirling about them — not that there’s anything wrong with that. He has a lot of opinions about what a heroine for a erotic game should be like and when one morning he has an encounter straight out of a visual novel, the mystery girl he sees inspires him to create The Ultimate Visual Novel. And to do so he ropes in his twin tailed tsundere childhood friend who coincidently is also an accomplished doujinshi artist as well as his black haired cool beauty upperclassman, who of course is a best selling light novel author. They of course both like him, not so much each other; he’s of course oblivious and yes, there will be other girls joining his team in the course of the series, including that singer mentioned above, who naturally is his energetic and (sexually) aggressive cousin. Throughout he remains insufferable in his opinions and density with regards to picking up any clue that all these successfull, much more accomplished women might actually like him. to be fair, why exactly they do the series tries to answer but doesn’t quite succeed in explaining.

Saekano episode 7 - Megumi Kato, best girl

So far, so generic. What saves the show is the main heroine, Megumi Kato, Tomoya’s inspiration, who by sheer coincidence, turns out to be his very ordinary, very non-otaku class mate with none of the qualities a true heroine should have. Her character isn’t developed at all, but waffles all over the place, she doesn’t have clearly distinct emotions, she doesn’t stand out at all, she just lacks presence and has no clue whatsoever on how to behave, as Tomoya takes great patience in explaining to her again and again. She’s also an incredible troll, the smartest person in the show and completely unimpressed by the bullshit the others throw at each other, neither being seduced nor revolted by otaku culture but able to pick out those things that interest her and disregard the rest. Her presence completely undercuts all of Tomoya’s lectures as well as all the usual anime shenanigans the show engages in. It’s hinted at but not quite confirmed that she too likes Tomoya, but it would be equally valid to argue that she’s only going along with his plans because it entertains her at first, while later she genuinely gets interested in game development. She’s the only one of the girls that doesn’t get jealous of the others when they hang around Tomoya too much.

With Megumi Saekano has a character that cannot only troll the rest of the cast, but the show’s viewers as well, as she absolutely refuses to behave as expected of her. She sees through all the stupidity in otaku culture but is kind enough to leave the others their illusions even as she teases them for it, though neither Tomoya nor the other girls seem to notice her doing so until she hits them over the head with it. It’s through her the show manages to both criticise and celebrate otaku culture, acknowledging that it has its problematic parts the same time it wallows in it. In short, she is what makes tSaekano not just watchable but great: boring she isn’t.

Good man

Pantera’s Phil Anselmo engaged in his usual tired racist provocation, Robb Flynn calls him out on it, as well as the larger metal community for allowing it. It’s no secret that metal has a bit of a racism problem, so it’s good to see people be outspoken about it and not trying to sweep it under the carpet.

Killing goblins is hard work

scene from Hai to Gensou no Grimgar episode 1

Hai to Gensou no Grimgar starts with what looks like your standard D&D party attempting to ambush two goblins, who quickly turn the tables on them; only luck allows them to get away. It sets the tone for the series and made me sit and take notice. Even more so when we went into flashback and got to know why our six protagonists ended up fighting goblins in the first place and it turned out that this is yet another “trapped in a fantasy video game world” show, ala Sword Arts Online or Log Horizon, but stripped off its wish fulfilment elements. The protagonists suffer amnesia, have no clue about the world they’ve found themselves in, barely have the skills to survive and the only job open to them is being a monster hunter, getting paid for killing goblins and stuff.

scene from Hai to Gensou no Grimgar episode 2

And in episode two we are shown the reality of killing a goblin: it’s messy and horrible and horrifying and you feel sorry for the goblin, who’s just there minding his own business getting water before he’s straight up murdered. Fast, violent and chaotic, it’s a scene that has the more impact for the fact that embedded in what’s essentially a slice of fantasy life show. Our heroes are basically working class stiffs being paid to ethnically cleanse the forest they live next to, something that is underscored in the third episode, when they’re scouting an old human city that had been overrun by goblins some years before. It hints that there’s some sort of “race war” going on between goblins and humans, something more than just the usual good vs evil struggle we expect from a fantasy video game world.

scene from Hai to Gensou no Grimgar episode 1

The other theme in the show is fanservice. There’s a lot of focus on the two girl’s chests and asses, an incredibly obnoxious sequence in the first episode discussing their tits and then in episode two the obligatory peeping on the girls bathing scene sort of happens. We never see anything, just the fallout of the attempt as at least one of the girls is traumatised by it. Normally with this sort of thing it’s played for comedy and without consequences, so it was refreshing to see this. The series seems to be quietly subverting the obligatory anime fanservice nonsense, even though the camera still loves focusing on the girls’ assets.

Combined with the gorgeous artwork, especially the pastel backgrounds, these two elements makes Hai to Gensou no Grimgar more interesting than your average light novel adaptation.