Is it useful to talk about privilege in the sense of superhero narratives? Is the “us-and-them” fear of the unpowered of an apparently unelected and unaccountable elite a useful thematic line of enquiry? The idea of a majority being forced to recognise the existence of a marginalised group is a strong allegory, and using fear of the unknown and the different to highlight society’s irrational prejudices. Doubly so if the source of the power is random genetic chance. The argument perhaps becomes inverted when one is talking about self-made heroes like Batman or Iron Man; there, there is a very real case to be made for the idea of the superhero as a rich person setting themselves up as an extrajudicial force. Indeed, the arguments behind whether or not superhumans should be regulated and registered drive many narratives in interesting directions; ideas of registration as a means of control and oppression versus the opportunity to create an organisation that can work together to help each other and be supportive.
There is a lot to like about My Hero Academia‘s opening episodes; it is a series which does something interesting with superhero origin stories and ideas of passing on the mantle of hero. I like generational hero stories and the idea that a title and duty can be passed on (indeed, stories where the role of, say, Iron Man or Spiderman can be passed on to a new incumbent offer interesting avenues for characterisation). I also like that it is a story that tries to deal with the idea that being a superhero is something ubiquitous and ordinary without using it as a metaphor for social divides in the usual sense. This is not to say social commentary by means of superpowers cannot be good; it is, after all, a key theme of the X-Men, and Concrete Revolutio.
Your Name is a film about obsession which handles this topic in interesting and unexpected ways; it is about two peoples’ drive to, essentially, solve a mystery. To say more would necessitate discussing the film in much closer detail, and so should best be discussed below. Suffice to say, it is a film I highly recommend, and before reading this article would advise readers watch.
Note: This article discusses in close detail the plot of Your Name, and also discusses in more general terms details of the plot of Steins;Gate.
Fantastic Children is a series that like so many anime uses its opening episodes to establish mysteries to draw the viewer in; it is arguably a hallmark of good fiction to be able to open with a story in media res or laid out in such a fashion that all the pieces of the puzzle are not immediately discernable. Many anime attempt this but too often either the resolution of the mystery is inadequate payoff for the time spent reaching it, or the mystery is spun out for too long prior to its resolution, meaning the impression is given that the characters are dragging their heels needlessly. Harder still to pull off is a series that plays dramatically with the audience’s empowered position as capable of seeing sides of the story the characters cannot.
It is relatively uncommon for a mecha anime to focus too strongly on the process of robot design and testing; test pilots are a common archetype (most iconically, perhaps, Isamu Dyson in Macross Plus), and the process of thrashing a new unit through its paces is usually a good framework for its sudden deployment in combat. This is why it is particularly interesting that 2017 saw two series ostensibly focused on robot designers, rather than professional robot pilots. I have written at some length about Atom the Beginning‘s interesting slow burn to a disarming revelation about society’s relationship with AI from the perspective of two students of engineering who build a sentient machine. It focused, in its own way, on the minutiae of being a research student. The difficulties in getting funding. The importance of always moving forward and iterating.
The ending of Atom: The Beginning is left so that further adaptation of its ongoing source material can be made; this is not the complete conclusion of the story, and knowing this context now rather sets my initial observations about the series in context (that it was taking a very laid-back and almost uninterested approach to its worldbuilding and the ethical questions raised). It is an adaptation of a small part of a longer, ongoing work. Of course it will not provide all the answers. Before moving into the meat of this consideration of the series, it is worth considering something else. I was initially perturbed, or at least surprised, to see that the series was raising and ignoring questions about machine sentience and robot ethics. It felt like a failure of science-fiction to studiously avoid taking a stand while raising allegorical and philosophical questions.
There are no shortage of anime which put a mecha genre spin on the “modern-day character ends up in fantasy/alien world” (isekai) theme. From Aura Battler Dunbine through arguably series like Orguss into ones like Magic Knight Rayearth or The Visions of Escaflowne it has strong precedent, and it is a genre that brings a few additional interesting themes to the traditional science-fiction and fantasy ones. I am personally very interested in stories of culture shock, or outsiders to a society trying to fit in; it is for this reason I was quite disappointed in the TV adaptation of Crest of the Stars because it hinted at being a story of a human living as the ward of aliens and learning their culture, and then did not really deliver so much on that. One could almost consider, actually, a story like Crest of the Stars as the pure science-fiction equivalent to the isekai story – a human living among aliens.
It takes around seven and a half minutes for there to be a proper conversation in episode 3 of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuioku-Hen. That is not to say there is not dialogue, but there is very much not conversation. Instead, the characters talk past each other, make observations and shut down conversation with simple acceptance or disagreement. If Kenshin and Tomoe are supposed to be pretending to be in love, they are doing an unconvincing job. Something the OVA has done exceptionally well, particularly in the extended sequence of Kenshin and Tomoe’s flight from Kyoto and then throughout the episode, is use non-verbal cues and landscape montages to evoke a mood. It is an extremely understated and repressed anime about repressed and uncommunicative – and, it turns out – secretive characters.
A key part of the quality of Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuioku-Hen is its pacing and use of processions of dreamlike, almost wordless scenes; characters will move around and say little and yet the series uses visual and body language to make up for the lack of dialogue. It quite fits the characterisation that has been established in episode 1; Kenshin is willingly emotionless, childish in thought and deed, and Tomoe – the girl whose fiance he killed without knowing – is herself repressed and alone. I mentioned in my previous article on this OVA that it was rejecting, in a sense, all of the conventions of the typical assassin’s backstory; even now there is a humanising element (the thing that one would expect would lead to a sharp turn into mawkishness and saccharine cliché) it is in its own way different. It is two people both suffering unspoken emotional trauma (because the series has not even begun to address that Tomoe’s fiance is dead by Kenshin’s hand) talking at each other not about their problems.
When I began watching Rurouni Kenshin I felt a prequel showing the creation and life of the “Manslayer”, its central character (a retired, remorseful assassin who has laid down arms but cannot escape the past he created) would be superfluous; it seemed as a series to be showing a very “Ryosuke Takahashi” tale of someone with a past they were unprepared to share being reminded of it and trying to deal with it in ways which did not get in the way of their new life – even if they had to give up on that second chance for the greater good (Chirico Cuvie in Armored Trooper VOTOMS being the obvious parallel here but this is a theme that even turns up, in more optimistic terms, in Guy in King of Braves Gaogaigar – prepared to take up the mantle of hero which he believes has irreversibly dehumanised him unto death). Nevertheless, I was strongly recommended Tsuioku-hen, the prequel OVA, as one of the best pieces of animation the recommender had seen and I was richly rewarded by how in its first episode it set up something that far exceeded the usual sort of supersoldier backstory or “dark past seeking redemption” tale.