Monday, May 14, 2007

Simoun - The Primer

Well, we finally finished Simoun. Milady felt the end was a bit of a letdown, as did I initially, until I went back and thought over what had happened and why. And I realized that I had been wrong in my comprehension of what the show was really about.

So what is Simoun about, then? And should you want to watch it? I'm going to address that question here while avoiding spoilers as much as reasonably possible.

One warning: Stay away from the wikipedia article if you are planning on watching the show - it is comprehensively spoiling.

The technical stuff: It's a 26 episode half-hour show. There's a strict chronological plot order. It's not derived from a manga or light novel (although two manga series came out after it premiered). Frankly, I haven't had much luck finding out who actually came up with the idea, who wrote the scripts, etc. The anime production and mecha design stuff is pretty well documented, but I have yet to see lots of discussion about where the complex setting and plot came from.

When Simoun came out in early April 2006, it arrived along with several other anime that quickly developed huge followings in Japan and in the West: Suzumiya Haruhi, Ouran High School Host Club, and Nana. In Japan Simoun did pretty well, and got some buzz from bloggers who were sucked in by the yuri (girl-on-girl romantic/sexual) tones of the show, and others who stuck it out past the first two shows and realized they were looking at something complex, unique and special.

Here in the West, the Naruto and Batman fanboys completely ignored it. Somebody, looking at the pre-release press materials, christened it "Loli-Copters." It might never have been widely seen here, but for a few hardcore viewers watching the raws who talked the show up in their postings. It looks like the early fanbase here might also have been mostly Yuri fanatics (who were also, no doubt, also celebrating Strawberry Panic). The good news is that they had non-yuri-fan friends who liked anime and were curious to find out what the fuss was about.

So what is my take on the whole whole yuri thing? I'm very heterosexual, not a yuri or yaoi fan, don't have issues with what other people choose to do, and so had no problems with it at all. Further, it all makes sense in context - the story doesn't happen on earth, and the people involved aren't actually humans. They just look and act like humans. Simoun obviously falls in the (very popular) convergent evolution school of TV Science Fiction. Yes, I recognize that this is a handwave for dramatic purposes. So is most science fiction and fantasy set on other worlds. Your mileage may vary.

There's another issue for a few - if you're strongly religious, and have problems with willing suspension of disbelief where your faith is concerned, you might not be happy with Simoun. This different world has a different religion, and different results and expectations thereof.

At some point (about two episodes in), a critical mass was reached and people started to talk about fansubs. Doremi dug into an adequate job, then dropped the project about six shows in. The rabid fans got together and formed their own fansub group, logically enough named Simoun-Fans. Enter a great truth: The more the fansubbers love the show, the harder they will try to make the subs perfect. This is the reason why fansubs are always better than commercial subs. Simoun-Fans' subs are excellent - as good as Solar's subs of Honey and Clover, which are my benchmark of subtitle quality.

Their love, whether or not it dares speak its name, is not misplaced. Simoun is as interesting and worthwhile as any 600 minutes worth of TV anywhere. It shares a quality with other worthwhile literature in that it doesn't tell you what to think. It shows you happenings, and leaves it to you to figure out what you think.

So, should you watch Simoun? Maybe. You should not bother with Simoun if:
  • You like clear-cut villains, heroes, and predictable character stereotypes
  • You can't handle seeing girls and (on one occasion) guys kiss each other
  • You can't stand the idea of sexual indeterminacy (and no, I don't mean gender-bending, I mean neither one nor the other, as in LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness)
  • You get bored if people in the show aren't shouting at each other or trying to kill each other
  • You think nonverbal symbolism is for sissies
  • You don't want to pay attention enough to learn to tell eighteen characters apart
You should watch Simoun if:
  • You like seeing characters develop
  • You like seeing people wrestle with problems of duty, identity, and self-determination
  • You enjoy Studio Ghibli-style scenery
  • You appreciate a soundtrack with musical complexity and subtlety
  • You enjoy being surprised by plot developments, and rarely are
Interested? Good. I'll give you a little primer on what's good to know before you start.

Good stuff to know:
  • Latin. Latin is hard to work with in Japanese, but they give it a good try. Place names, technical terms, some character names, and other miscellaneous words are often Latinate. This isn't a bad idea if you think of how alien Latin is to the average Japanese TV viewer. The few who recognize the derivation will also get that it's an ancient, dead language, which fits the milieu of the story as well. The fact that the phonetics are awkward makes figuring out what the Latin word actually is something of a challenge. Here (from Hashihime) is a pretty spoiler-free vocabulary list.
  • The shows come in pairs. If you've got time, I recommend watching an an odd number episode and its following even-numbered episode immediately afterward. I think this is because the scripts were written for an hour-long timeslot and then cut in half.
  • There's a big cast of characters. Print this (from Hashihime again) and keep it handy when you watch. It'll save your sanity during the first few shows. Just about everybody on this page advances the plot in some way, so it behooves you to get to know them all. Don't stand on your first impressions of any character - they're all deeper than the initial impression suggests (yes, including Floe).
  • The world's name is Daikuuriku, which translates as something like 'Land of Great Skies.' It is in a binary star system.
  • People on Daikuuriku are all born female. As teenagers they choose (or have chosen) a permanent sex. The process of becoming male, if necessary, takes some years to complete. If this sounds farfetched to you, I'll note that there are a number of vertibrate species on Earth that do exactly this.
  • Our principal characters are all citizens of the nation of Simulacrum, which is a theocracy.
  • Simulacrum is at war with all of its neighbors. We don't know how many neighbor states there are, but the two that matter are:
  • The Argentum Archipelago, (Latin: 'silver') which is in the midst of a coal- and oil- fired industrial revolution (think Edwardian Britain), and appears to be either centralized communist, a monarchy, or a dictatorship with limited personal rights
  • The Plumbum Highlands, (Latin: 'lead') which is an impoverished mountain nation
  • Simulacrum appears to be feudal and agrarian. It has no heavy industry and is not doing well fighting the artillery, tanks and aircraft of Argentum.
  • The Theocracy of Simulacrum worships the deity Tempus Spatium, (Latin: 'time' 'space') which is apparently responsible for setting people's permanent sex, among other things. There is no evidence presented of anybody in Simulacrum not worshiping Tempus Spatium, and no evidence of religious repression, either.
  • Along with services held in temples, in which wings and stained glass figure prominently, Tempus Spatium is worshipped by performing certain ritual aerobatic maneuvers called ri maajon with aircraft called simoun. When the simoun perform a ri maajon, they leave a sparkling silver trail in the sky.
  • different ri maajon have different functions. Some are diplomatic or ritual, some have a destructive effect. A number of ri maajon are documented in ancient writings, but only a few of them are fully understood.
  • Simoun are regarded as holy artifacts. They can only be operated by pairs of girls who have not yet chosen a permanent sex. These operators are addressed as miko-sama (translates as something like 'honored temple maiden') by ordinary citizens of Simulacrum, and as sybillae (singular: sybilla (Greek: 'prophetess')) by themselves and the theocracy.
  • Simoun do not use propellers, airfoils, or jet engines. They fly by virtue of two helical motors and are, apparently, moved by the direct blessing of Tempus Spatium.
  • Simoun are capable of performing maneuvres that would be impossible for any aircraft that can or forseeably could be built on earth. Quite a feat for a pre-industrial agrarian society.
  • There are also trainer aircraft called Simile Simoun (or just Simile) which are powered by one helical motor. They are not regarded as anything special, and can be flown by anyone with sufficient training.
  • There is a cadet system for training young women in the practical and theological ways of being a sybilla. It appears that many are called, but few are chosen. Cadets are easy to spot because they wear a distinctive white-and-blue uniform, are younger, and are often attending sybillae.
  • Because simoun are so maneuverable, and because they can perform destructive ri maajon, the Simulacrum government has been using them to fight the war with Argentum. Since simoun are holy items, and their pilots are preistesses, there are profoundly mixed feelings about this move in many quarters.
  • Sybillae are organized into a chor (latin: 'choir'). A chor at full strength has 12 members and six simoun, and is capable of performing the most complex ri maajon known. They are normally based at the Simulacrum Grand Temple, but have been relocated onto various helical motor powered airships acting as aircraft carriers.
  • The sybillae who are most of the show's characters are all members of Chor Tempest (Latin: Choir of the Storm). Chor Tempest is based with two other chors on the former luxury liner Arcus Prima (Latin: 'first ship') at the start of the show.
One last thing - as I said, I sort of got the show wrong on initial viewing. I won't spoil it with excessive detail, but will point out that you should pay attention to what the populace expects of the sybillae, and what are the effects of having them around. You won't learn much about either of these until about halfway through the series, but they figure prominently in understanding what the show is really about.

That's it. Anything more would spoil the fun. Enjoy.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Fansubs vs. Commercial Subs, and Common Errors of Fansubbers and Scanslators

...and why commercial distro companies are doing a bad job of competing. To be fair, it's always hard to compete with people who do something for free out of love of the product, which is why Microsoft is so terrified by Linux (frankly, having produced a crapoplex like Vista, they should be terrified). It's also probably a lot of why fansubs/fan scanslations keep circulating long after the commercial subs/scans are out there, even if the commercial ones have been ripped off as well.

Put simply, fansubs are usually better. Here are my comments about it when psygremlin at Mangaforums asked about mangled fansubs. I honestly couldn't think of any I'd seen in recent memory that really butchered the dialog. Scanslations, yes, but not fansubs.

I know a little Japanese. I try to learn a little more every day. One easy way to do this is by osmosis from subbed anime. Here's what I've decided about subs:

1) Commercial subs are, at best, as good as average fansubs. Most of the time, they're worse. If you're really unlucky, they used the dub script for the subs, and so you have mangled meaning both from translation errors and from the dub director's edits to retime to mouth motion. If you're doubleplus-unlucky, you get something like the Disney sub track for Kiki's Delivery Service, which includes lots of annoying patter that doesn't even exist on the Japanese voice track and whose only purpose seems to be to distract from the beautiful pictures on the screen. (insert generic I-hate-Michael-Eisner rant here).

2) Fansubs (and manga scanslations) sometimes suffer because the source material for translation isn't a Japanese soundtrack, but a commercial or pirate Chinese or Korean dub or sub track. Nothing like two layers of translation to ruin your day. The problem, simply put, is that there are a lot more people who can, and choose to, translate Chinese or Korean into English than can translate Japanese.

3) Fansubs, most of the time, are labors of love, and fansubbers take them seriously. This may result in slow release schedules, but usually means good product. Generally speaking, the more widely popular the content, (consider Welcome to the NHK versus Slayers), the more care is taken in translation. Likewise, standards have gone up over the years. I have yet to find good subs of the Captain Harlock series, and the subs of Devil Hunter Yohko are pretty weak as well, but the average sub of last season's stuff is generally pretty good. I'm grateful there are groups out there like Central Anime who are currently doing a great job subbing stuff from my childhood like the Yamato series. (You guys rock!).

Likewise, there's talk now (mostly due to the strong underground fan support) of releasing a licensed R1 DVD set of Simoun. English-speaking Simoun fans are of two minds on this: On the upside, we'd get direct-to-DVD video quality. On the downside, it's unlikely at best that the subs that shipped on the DVD would be as careful, nuanced, and generally good as the ones done by Simoun-Fans (you guys rock, too!). So I guess I'd end up ripping the R1 DVDs to computer, building subs in from the Simoun-Fans subs, and then burning new viewing copies. Please, Simoun DVD people - if you're reading this - just use the Simoun-Fans subs - they'd license them for free I'm certain.

4) Fansubs, at their best are so full of otaku goodness that there's no way that a business would dare release shrink-wrapped DVDs with their content. Consider the detail in the Solar subs of Honey and Clover, where literally any piece of readable text in the frame is translated in a matching font. Sure, it takes three rewinds to read it all, but who cares? It's great, and adds a lot of meaning and depth to the scene. Oh, and yes, I did catch them in one translation error in all 41 (I think?) episodes of H&C they subbed, but it was minor. Careful sub work like this or Oyasumi's work on Welcome to the NHK (which translates the ads on the trains in Tokyo) just doesn't happen if somebody has to make a living from it. (You guys rock, too!)

Frankly, I've read a lot more creaky manga scanslations that creaky anime subs. Some of the chapters of Fruits Basket I have require considerable mental editing before a coherent English sentence emerges. Chobits was another one that I feel like deserves a best-possible scanslation and hasn't had one.

Originally Posted by psygremlin
I agree with the comments above. My intention wasn't to disparage the translators (who do a sterling effort!) but more to see if there are any classic examples of Engrish that crop up from time to time. Funnily enough, I've found the translations in scanlations to be better in some cases than in the licenced mangas - the latter often seem to suffer from mild censorship (*grumble*) that does then lose something in translation.

More often than not, I would say it's not Engrish you get as much as hybrid grammar. For instance, the Japanese equivalent of an indefinite third-person pronoun is "ano hito." This translates literally as "that person." Sure enough, you see "that person" a lot in scanslated manga, and it's often used as an indefinite, rather than a reference to a particular person. English, of course, has a perfectly good indefinite third-person pronoun as well - "one." Example: "One should be neither a debtor nor a lender." It's sexless (remember, words have gender, people have sex, and personal pronouns refer to people), and is therefore a perfect synonym.

Most of the time when 'ano hito' is used in an indefinite sense, 'one' is the only grammatically correct and logically consistent translation. But nobody ever seems to use it.

A lot of times I'll see someone's sentence stretch across two bubbles, and the grammar won't make good sense in English, because predicate phrases and verbs usually need to be switched around. This is a case of translating the bubbles correctly, but not the sentence.

And then there are sound effects. Some, like the 'gacha' a sliding door makes opening or closing are great and should be left alone or just rendered in the roman alphabet. I've actually gotten used to doki doki and dokun for heartbeats (in either katakana or romaji), and never have liked translations to 'ba-dum' or 'thump' because neither is specifically an onomatopoeia that only a heart makes like 'doki doki' is, and it can sometimes confuse the reader instead of explaining something.

Another area of complaint: Japanese uses a number of ritual set phrases. These are always the same, and carry a certain formality simply because they're rituals. Accordingly, they logically should be translated the same, and in a way that makes sense. 'Hajimemashite' generally does OK ('nice to/pleased to meet you'), but 'yoroshiku onegai shimasu' is frankly difficult to literally translate into English, because we don't use such formalisms in English any more. Perhaps the closest real English phrase would be something like "Hail and well met," or "May the sun shine upon the hour of our meeting." but they're both medieval. It'd be nice to see these used in a sword-and-sandals manga, though, since they're usually set in Japan's feudal period - using feudal English would be a good fit. Perhaps something like 'I hope we'll be friends' might not be out of place most of the time.

A common mistake is with 'onegai shimasu' and its variants. This phrase is usually translated as 'please.' But a bunch of different words and phrases can be translated into 'please,' and don't mean the same thing. 'Onegai shimasu' has overtones of humbly beseeching (it's what you say at the shrine when praying for something from a god). Just translating it as 'please' often isn't strong enough.

A lot of times its these ritual phrases that trip up translators who aren't native speakers of Japanese. They get mistakenly literally translated, so unless the reader knows that it's a ritual phrase, he don't understand that there's probably more gravity and formality to the situation than the literal meaning of the words suggests. The phrases used for "lets go steady/let's get engaged" are frequent victims.

A last example is poor modeling of degrees of completeness and politeness. You've probably noticed that girls generally say 'gomen nasai' when they are making heartfelt apologies. Guys, being in a more dominant position in society, generally get by with a bowed head and 'gomen...' A 'gomen...' from a girl means she either is not as worried about appeasing the recipient of the apology or she doesn't take the offense all that seriously. Frequently, the translators will miss one or the other case. A guy actually saying all of 'gomen nasai' while bowing is really profoundly apologizing (sometimes in a comic over-the-top way). A female needing the same degree of apology would probably have to raise her voice, repeat it several times, or abase herself to get the same level of intensity. Insults work the same way...

So that's the sort of thing I see most often wrong with fan translations. All of this said, they're still generally drastically better than some of the evil things that commercial firms have done to manga and anime to supposedly dumb down/broaden appeal to the western market. You know, if you take all the seasoning out of something, it becomes bland, and nobody likes bland. Tokyopop's earlier efforts on Fruits Basket (de-pervifying Shigure, among other things) as pointed out by Sephiroth's Samurai Girl (hard working translator) are a great example why I won't be buying the Tokyopop tanks of Furuba ever.

Monday, May 7, 2007

May 07 - What's On My Mind Right Now

Just a quick update because I'm in the middle of a big post on character archetypes and I don't know when it'll be done. Anime and Manga reading has contracted some as the weather has improved and Real Life (tm) has intervened.

Anime first:

We're four shows into the most recent adaptation (13 episode series) of Takahashi's Mermaid Saga (titled Mermaid Forest). It's quite faithful to the manga, and to the earlier OVAs, and milady generally likes it. I've always liked this story best of Takahashi's work (but haven't yet read Maison Ikkoku, so it's possible my opinion will change). My one complaint so far is that while there's gore and violence as there should be, I'm distinctly missing Yuta's melancholy. Likewise, Mana's character seems to have lost some genki somewhere along the way. The OVAs had a genki (and younger-looking) Mana playing against a melancholy (but cheered by Mana) Yuta, and it worked pretty well. We'll see.

Hataraki Man has been on hiatus because milady has been requesting Simoun every night. I must admit that this development pleases me. The last Hataraki Man we saw featured Hiro's masseuse and dealt with themes of compromise with corporate goals while still managing to have a sense of worth and accomplishment. I rather liked it. As I've said before, I think we in the west suffer from not getting more workaday anime and manga here. The Japanese spend a lot of their lives at work, and their fiction that touches on this is usually worth attending. That said, Simoun is just plain deeper and more complex.

Before e-chan goes to bed we often give him some anime for a half-hour or so. Since we haven't started Uchuu Senkan Yamato 2 yet, he's been getting Binchou-tan. He loves it. I like it. Even milady, who is a hardened cynic where kawaii is concerned is affected. This show may just be the ultimate weapon of chibi-kawaii. Drop it on an al-qaeda hideout and listen to the simultaneous 'awwwww!' (or whatever they say in Arabic).

And that leads us to the meat and drink of evening anime lately: Simoun. I'm probably going to burn some more electrons on this later, but we're over halfway through the show now, and I have to say that I'm siding with the rabid fans on this one. That said, it's like a shinkansen - the pace gets fast and furious, but it needs a few kilometers of straight track to really get moving.

One thing that milady noticed that hurts the momentum early on is the show length. She commented that the shows seem to come in pairs. I agree. We started watching two a night, and it flows a lot better. The plotting suggests that this was meant to be 13 one-hour shows instead of 26 half-hour shows. If you watch the first two hours of Simoun in two sittings instead of four, everything makes sense a lot faster, less forgetting happens, you learn the cast faster, and you get into the real meat of the plot faster. All good. It also makes Neviril seem like a lot less of a whiner.

By this metric, the plot really starts doing stuff during hour three, and you probably are going to be surprised by your first plot development around hour four.

Oh well, if the only slot they could get was a season of 1/2 hour showtimes, I'm still profoundly glad they made it.

Another thing that hurts the early shows: it has a Fruits Basket problem. By which I mean that there's a large cast of characters, they all have distinct personalities (good character design - they're all visually distinct, and are credible as people), and they all advance the plot in their own ways, so it behooves you to pay attention to them all. Yes, the guys in the hats, too. This means you're going to be confusing people for a while. Don't worry too much about it - as long as you pay attention, you'll have everybody straight in your head by the time it becomes really important to understand who's motivated by what. I'll warn you of this, though: Download and print this spoiler-free character list (from Hashime's blog) for reference in the first few eps. It'll make your life better. Also: stay away from the wikipedia article which is pure spoilers, and will reduce your viewing pleasure. Once you're about six eps in, you can check out this amusing Simoun Relationship Chart, from Kurogane's Blog. I may be sounding fanboyish here, but I think I'm in good company...

Good thing: They don't waste recap time. There's a little recap when they jump right back into the plot, but it usually contains a little new dialog along with the old, and maybe a reverse-angle shot (often with useful information in it) of the conversation you saw at the end of the last show. It's a great idea, and it works well at keeping you glued to the screen even though you just saw that conversation.

Another good thing: The soundtrack. I like the OP song OK, (but wish they'd kept the mournful a-capella sound instead of going with the drum-machine overlay), and like the ED song a little better (milady likes it less). The actual soundtrack music (all composed specifically for the show) is a wonderfully eclectic mix of orchestral music, dance music (including a very tasty tango), some synth work, and even a couple of pretty 'traditional' tunes (one a hymn, one a lullaby sung by Rodoreamon). It's just all so good. Sahashi's work is as good as any I've heard in anime for any sized screen (and that's high praise from a music snob like me).

We watched the, um, 'trip to the ruins' show (ep 17 and 18) last night (he said, carefully avoiding spoilers), and I'm here to tell you that I was honestly surprised by two plot developments in that 46 minutes of TV. I don't remember the last time that anything on TV really surprised me - thought I'd seen every 'creative' plot twist that had been tried. Heh. Y'all can keep Lost. I'll stick with Simoun, thanks.

It's going so fast and furious right now that I think the wheels are about to come off. But then I thought the wheels were going to come off at ep 10, and again at ep 14, and the train just kept going faster. It's masterful plotting. Now I'm wondering how they're going to wrap it all up neatly in the remaining four hours (which are actually about 46 minutes each).

My greatest sadness is that it's only 26 episodes. My greatest fear is that they'll try to do a sequel and ruin it. I think it's like Serial Experiments Lain in (only) one way - it is about something, and when it finishes talking about that something, it will be done and will exist as a perfect thing in itself.


Pretty short list right now - I've been reading Ai Kora/Love Collage (by Inoue, who did Midori no Hibi, which remains my all-time-favorite shounen romance). Ai Kora isn't as good, frankly, but it's not terrible, either, and I'm hoping that he has an idea how to wrap it up neatly when the time comes. Right now (I've just finished vol 4) we're kind of stuck in character non-development limbo, but there are signs that this might change. I'll say this - Inoue-sensee is willing to do anything to get a laugh, and I still like his page design, plotting, and character design as much as ever.

His and hers bedtime reading is still Fruits Basket. Now that we've (finally) introduced all the juunishi, the plot is (finally) pleasantly humming along. We're into Tooru's second year in HS, and this is when all the fun starts to happen. Probably the last big plot hurdle is developing the student council characters, but these are vital to Yuki's plot arc, so I'm trying to keep milady from getting too annoyed at having yet more characters show up to be distinguished from each other. I've done a great job concealing the crucial spoiler about Akito from milady, so I hope it'll bop her right between the eyes just like it did me when I read the manga. She has developed an appropriate loathing for him, so all's going well so far. I have not yet read the last chapter (Sephie published it) but I have a pretty good idea where it is going, since I read through about chapter 128. Oh, and BTW, it appears that Tokyopop rethought their butchery of the US release and hired new translation staff for the manga. So the last few volumes should be good - just all the earlier ones will suck. Sadly another case where fan scanslation is better than commercial scanslation.

I did read the last two chapters of Kare Kano. Ha! the gag in the last chapter got an actual laugh out of me. Completely in character and exactly the sort of puckish humor a mature Yukinon would pull on Arima. I still found myself completely unmoved by the whole pop band story arc, and regarded it as being sillier and more marginal at +16 years than it was originally. Oh, and does this mean that love is fated, or just that Asaba was always a latent lolicon? Oh well, after the whole Maho-and-her-dentist plot, we know that Tsuda-sensee doesn't have problems with playing ball if there's any grass on the field at all. I can't say that anything surprised me, but it was a pleasant ride. Overall, Kare Kano gets a B+, which ain't bad for a shoujo romance manga that runs over 100 chapters. I'd give Furuba a B by comparison, mostly because the art and page layout aren't as good, but also because the character development isn't as detailed as in Kare Kano.

Other stuff in the can: Got hold of the Japanese raws for Chobits finally, so can at last check out some translation questions I had. Re-read Ai-Ren. Got teary-eyed again. I have some one-shots in the can suggested by smart people over at mangaforums. Maybe this weekend.

[post-weekend update]

I read up through the currently-translated chapter of Ai Kora (no big changes, except that we now know how many parts Hachibe can obsess over thanks to a diagram of his brain) and we watched up through ep 22 of Simoun, which finally had its first schmaltzy moment, but was bearable. I think I see where the big arc is going now, and I suspect that the plotting-ignorant fanboys/fangirls generally don't like it at this point, but it's necessary to slow the train down before it pulls into the station. Of course, there may be another huge plot twist yet (I'd write one in, and I see a couple of possible ones). I think Checkov's gun is still hanging on the wall from about ep 6 (in the form of something that used to belong to Aaeru's Oji-chan), and I suspect that it's about to be taken off the wall.

The bulk of Sunday's post-yard-work TV watching was the Elsa arc in Gunslinger Girl. I admired the job they did with it. That manga chapter brought tears to my eyes and I was both dreading and looking forward to seeing it in the anime. Apparently I wasn't the only one so affected - the Anime production staff did a beautiful job on it and stretched it into a three-episode arc. Milady kept justifiably admiring the scenery. Among other things, the anime is a fine tourism advertisement for Italy both urban and rural. Certainly Sicily never appealed to me as strongly as a destination before Giuseppe and Henrietta visited it, even with the purse-snatching scooter bandit. I'm sad to say I was completely oblivious to the "Roman Holiday" references in the earlier Henrietta episode, and only twigged to them when I read it in a blog entry somewhere.

I felt like the plotting and pacing on the whole arc was pretty close to perfect. Certainly the payoff scene (which I was dreading, and stone-facedly refused to spoil in spite of all of Milady's questions and conjectures) had all the emotional freight of the manga. It sparked an interesting conversation between milady and me about Giuse's burden because of the the metric ton of emotional anvils that 'Etta dropped on his shoulders when she smilingly uttered her "but I wouldn't do that because you treat me so well!" line.

I twitched and shuddered at the thought of being Giuseppe. He's simply never allowed to have a bad day around Henrietta - he's the totality of her universe, and her happy little applecart stays upright every day only because he's nice to her. Rico is happy to be alive and whole, Triela wants a supportive friend more than an obsessive onii-chan. Henrietta, however, is incapable of being happy unless she thinks Giuse is pleased with her. And we see just what are the consequences of an unhappy Henrietta in Elsa's story. The episode works even better because they immediately preceded this scene with the conversation between 'Etta and the female section 1 agent about how being a little girl cyborg assassin just isn't 'normal.'

Milady had a...less cheerful childhood than mine. She simply can't imagine why anybody would sign up for Giuse's job with its inevitable painful emotional freight. My response was obvious (to me) both because I'd read the manga (which includes Giuse's back-story) and because I think I'm more than a little like his character: "Because you know that somebody's going to do it, and probably wouldn't do it as well (as compassionately, in this case) as you could. These girls have such a terrible, brief existence that there's a moral imperative to palliate it as much as one can." She completed my sentence for me (some days, I think she really does understand me). And then said that she just doesn't emotionally understand noblesse oblige, which is how she defined my reaction.

Behold the power of good anime made from good manga. It causes people whose brains have not yet been rotted by US network TV pablum to have interesting conversations about relevant topics. How different might the current Battlestar Galactica have turned out if the writing staff had been forced to sit down and watch Gunslinger Girl instead of Desperate Housewives, or whatever dreck caused them to come up with season 3.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Manga Markets and Genres defined, or how not to confuse Seinen and Sword-and-Sandals

I've found myself answering this question repeatedly in different places, so that must mean it needs a proper treatment.

Here are the four major (and two minor) markets of readers for which manga are written:


And here are
some of the genres:

Magical Girlfriend
Magical Girl
Harem Comedy
Historical Adventure
Slice of Life
Science Fiction
Giant Mecha
Sword and Sandals (my term, from hollywood movie genres. Maybe it should be 'katana and geta?')

Note that these two groups don't look anything alike. It behooves you not to confuse them.

OK, so I've thrown out these words, now I'll define them. First some background: The manga market in Japan is huge. Everybody in Japan reads manga of some kind or other, even if it's only Azumanga Daioh (vaguely analogous to Peanuts in its heyday) or Tonari no Yamada-kun (which is kind of the Japanese Blondie). Because there's so much money to be made in manga, there are a lot of manga out there, and it's a big business. Manga are published in all kinds of magazines, from newspapery rags all the way up to slick, fat monthlies like Kodansha's Afternoon.

Because so many manga are published, categories (based upon the demographics that read a particular magazine - their markets, if you will) have arisen. There are four big markets defined (five if we count small children):

Shounen Means "young men," refers to male readers between about 10 and 17 years old.
Shoujo Means "young women," refers to girls the same age as shounen above
Seinen Means "mature men," refers to readers 18+.
Josei Means "mature women," as above.

There are also some marginalized markets that nonetheless get magazines and (lots of) doujinshi printings:

Shounen-ai is male-male romance stories (think shoujo romance with all guys)
Yaoi = male homosexual stories
Yuri = female homosexual stories

Differences: If it's meant for underage readers, it'll be short on nudity, short on adult themes, and (if you're looking at the Japanese original) there will be teeny-tiny 'helper hiragana' beside the kanji (Chinese characters) that much of Japanese writing uses, because school kids haven't really learned all the standard kanji until they hit age 15 or so.

I include shounen-ai, yaoi and yuri under markets and not genres because they seem to be in their own 'mauve ghetto' just as in the west, are written for distinct readerships, and don't much cross over into the mainstream, although the lines are definitely starting to blur, especially with more anime being derived from (more thematically complex) light novels instead of manga. Simoun and Strawberry Panic are two examples of non-marginal anime that definitely have some yuri going on in them. Shounen-ai and Yaoi, by comparison, still seem to be relatively marginalized except as a source of humor.

How to tell what it is if you don't already know:

Shounen: usually has adolescent male hero, friendly, possibly romantic but not sexual opposite-sex relationships, mild fan-service, action but not gore, and plots that would appeal to a boy in junior high - lots of aliens, espers, time travelers, strange monsters, and saving the world, or at least winning the big game and getting noticed by the desired girl because of it. Girls (and usually adult women) will be unusually busty for their age and (these days) beyond the realm of anatomical possibility. There are also often female character archetypes like meganekko (glasses girl), klutzy girl, brash girl (uses boku), etc. Bishounen (pretty-boy) character designs never occur in shounen or seinen manga except as a source of humor (cf the "Seiji in Kouta-Vision" scene in Midori no Hibi).

Examples: Naruto, Midori no Hibi, Great Teacher Onizuka, Eyeshield 21, Ruroni Kenshin.

Shoujo: Hearts and flowers. Adolescent female heroine. Heroine often chibi (unusually small even for a Japanese schoolgirl) Real, hardcore shoujo usually involves lots of romantic yearning and melodramatic situations (dead/absent parents, etc.) Nothing even vaguely resembling fanservice; girls are drawn as flat-chested as real Japanese girls are. If you see a girl in a swimsuit, it's arranged like a fashion show, rather than eye candy. Males are often drawn unrealistically 'pretty' (bishounen, as in Fruits Basket). Heroine is usually striving for some unattainable standard of goodness/moral perfection often in hopes that if she tries just a little harder Mr. Right will notice her/want to be romantically involved with her, or she'll fix everybody's emotional problems, or some combination of the two. Often spends ink on the relationships between heroine and her posse of female friends. Even when Shoujo wanders into more adult themes, lots has to happen offstage to keep things G rated, so we tend to hear about violence and sex rather than see them.

Examples: Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou, Fruits Basket, Bokura ga Ita, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Alice 19th, Fushigi Yuugi, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, Jigoku Shoujo

Seinen: Hard to define because so broad a classification. Some seinen manga are basically shounen manga with more violence/blood and gore/heavy fanservice/sex. These are meant to appeal to high-school and older males who want more of that Drifting Classroom feeling in an R-rated package.

Other seinen manga are basically adult light novels with pictures. The most thematically complex seinen manga fall into this category: things like Ai-Ren. Still others are simple escapism (usually in the slice-of-life or school life genres), because being a salaryman in Japan is hard and exhausting, and there's a steady market for simple, comforting stories that soothe. Most of the genres available in shounen are also done in seinen manga, although some are much rarer - sports manga, for instance.

By comparison, comedy romance and romance manga seem to be commoner as seinen manga than shounen manga (though I suspect they draw a certain amount of older nominally-shounen readers). Likewise, the slice-of-life category doesn't much exist as shounen (with the exception of general-interest manga like Today in Class 5-2 and Azumanga Daioh).

Real hardcore slice-of-life like Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou seems to be a uniquely seinen thing. Harem romance comedies tend to have a different spin, with the male lead having sexual relationships with more than one of his female companions, as in Honeymoon Salad. Generally, if it's R rated for sex, or sex forms a significant plot element, or there's gory violence, or lots of bare busts, it's probably seinen. If it is strangely plot-free and is slice-of-life, it's probably seinen.

The last seinen category that comes to mind is wistful nostalgia. You have something like a magical girl story but with deliberate anachronistic touches which is designed to appeal to older family men who want a simple story with happy endings that reminds them of the notionally simpler and happier days of their youth. Things like Kamichu! and Binchou-tan fall in this category.

Examples of seinen: Honeymoon Salad, Futari Ecchi, Vagabond, Ghost in the Shell, Kamichu!, Onegai Teacher, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou.

Josei: Shoujo aged up for women. Most often grown-up shoujo stories (romances like Honey and Clover) along with workaday stories like Hataraki Man. You can spot a josei story pretty easily - there'll usually be at least one flat-chested chibi adult female in the female posse, and these never occur in seinen or shounen stories. Likewise, the shoujo drawing convention of creepy-big round eyes seems to show up in Josei as well. Again, the material looks superficially like what you find in shoujo, but with more adult plot elements and themes. If it's older-themed material, but the women are mostly flat-chested with big round eyes, it's josei. As in shoujo, the focus is on interpersonal dynamics and relationships rather than saving the world, blowing stuff up, or winning the big game.

Examples: Hataraki Man, Honey and Clover, Nodame Cantabile, Gokusen

That said, there is obviously a lot of crossover between josei and seinen. Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou could easily be called josei, except that it's published in the largest seinen monthly, and the character designs don't quite fit the standard shoujo/josei model. I think it's pretty obvious that there's a lot of female readership of Afternoon, so the mangaka deliberately avoided alienating the woman reader with a more male-oriented set of character designs. Likewise Hataraki Man, which has a busty female lead. It's josei, but there's supposed to be some crossover appeal to the seinen reader as well. Similarly, Ayu in Honey and Clover has more eye-candy value than she needs to in the shoujo/josei mold. Bishounen designs seem not to occur as often in josei, probably because of the desired market crossover.

Shounen-ai: boys love boys, but don't actually do much about it. Tends to use a lot of bishounen character designs, and has its own iconography involving guys lying on beds of roses, etc.

Yaoi: boys (and men) love boys (and men). See above about shounen-ai, but add in more (ahem) mature content. My understanding is that the biggest consumers (and producers) of shounen-ai and yaoi material in Japan are women.

Yuri: girls/women loving girls/women. Tends to look like shoujo romances, but with all females.

Examples: I don't read this stuff, so know it more by joking mention in mainstream material than anything else. I could go to mangaupdates and look stuff up, but then so can you, and I'm not interested.

I won't spend a lot of time on genres - these should be pretty self-explanatory once you've actually read a few manga. One note worth mentioning: A magical girl story is about a girl (typically under age 15) who has some supernatural power and uses it do to good. A magical girlfriend story is a romance about a guy who gets a girlfriend via some unlikely/impossible/magical means. The girlfriend frequently has magical qualities or abilities. Probably the perfect example is Aa Megama-sami/Ah! My Goddess.

Genres mix and match - you can have a science fiction magical girlfriend romance (Chobits), or a fantasy magical girlfriend romance (Ah My Goddess). Likewise, nearly anything can be highly plotted or not. If it's not highly plotted, it probably qualfies as slice-of-life regardless of its other attributes. So yes, you could have a slice-of-life historical adventure romance-comedy. I can't name one like that, but there are some that need that many compounds to be adequately explained.