Yūri!!! On Ice: What am I missing here . . . ?

If you follow anime, you’ve heard of Yūri!!! On Ice. And you already know whether or not you’re interested in watching it. Full stop.

But I suspect some of you who passed on it have questions anyway. This was written for you, those who have no intention of watching this series but are curious enough to understand what the hell all the buzz is about.

Here’s a tour of why so many people—men and women alike—fell in love with Yūri!!! On Ice.

Final warning: spoilers ahead!

The sport. Figure skating is intrinsically artistic, making it a much more compelling concept for an artistic medium than your average athletic sport; it’s easy to appreciate regardless of how much you know about scoring and jumps. And as a trade it is also culture agnostic unlike, say, rakugo and kabuki, for example. Thus Yūri!!! On Ice was uniquely positioned to rocket into the mainstream, despite its generally niche LGBT themes.

Professional skaters love the show too, which is more than can be said about other shows featuring some kind of expert—doctors, hackers, mathematicians, etc, it’s never great. YOI hits its mark in part because characters’ programs were choreographed by a seasoned ice dancer. When you have to hunt for screenshots you notice that a lot of the skating animations are reskinned and recycled, and very few frames are even average in isolation, so in that sense the animation is the weakest element of the series.

But in motion it’s convincing because much of the skating is rotoscoped (filmed as live action and then traced over into animation), so what you are looking at is a literal performance by an actual athlete. It’s hard to tell where it stops and starts—where it’s animated freehand, or just poorly rotoscoped—but it is most obvious with protagonist Yūri as his body is animated with the most detail and most closely mimics the real thing. I can’t say this doesn’t help with the hotness factor either, since rather than being a scrawny anime man Yūri has a more Yagudin-type physique. (If that dates me, so be it.)

Because of this attention to detail Yūri often suffers a drop in framerate and his movements are a little less fluid than the other skaters, visually simpler yet with more inbetweens. But he reads with much more authenticity, lands jumps with more heft, and is all-around more present as a performer. In spite of its flaws, the skating is enthralling, especially when we get to see lengthy chunks of programs performed uninterrupted.

The series is also unique in its age bracket. The fact that figure skating is an individual event and not a team sport separates it from the high school space that most sports anime occupy. Chihayafuru is a tournament series that explores this space a bit, as karuta is a lifelong hobby and people of any age can compete against each other to become the national Master or Queen of the game. But the protagonists in that series are still members of high school clubs.

The shelf life of male skaters is a bit longer than that of their female counterparts as well, so the active skaters in YOI range from fifteen to twenty-seven—a much wider array of life experience than you’d get in a high school-based series. Georgi, for starters, is an angsty mess and a font of impassioned Russian romanticism.

Phichit is a token Millennial, complete with selfie stick and Staunch LGBT Ally card.

JJ has the biggest ego on the planet, but is voiced by Miyano Mamoru so it’s really hard to hate him.

Christophe is, like, into skating. To an uncomfortable degree.

But he miraculously regains charisma points later on for being fuckin chill as all hell.

And even the youngest competitor in the senior division—hot-headed Deuteragonist Russian Yuri (nicknamed Yurio in-universe to distinguish him from Japanese Yūri)—has a complex emotional storyline and is perhaps the most well-rounded character in the series.

But he is still fifteen and thus a little asshat.

The sport also comes across as exceptionally inviting. As competitors all the skaters are friendly; some are more distant, wrapped up in their own worlds, but none of them harbor any personal animosity toward anyone else. They consistently cheer on and support each other, as do their friends and families. Two of Yūri’s closest supporters—his sister and his longtime ballet teacher—switch up signs and country flags in the audience depending on who is performing. And one of his oldest friends seems to become a pillar of Yurio’s support system, with no bad blood between any of them.

The zeitgeist. Sorry, prospective fans, but this is one aspect of YOI you can’t ever recreate, as fleeting as the finer experiences of The Matrix Online—you can still walk the game world, but without servers, the communal experiences that made it special are lost to time.

Even hungover and disheveled he is beautiful. I am ended. Yūri stood no chance.

Every Wednesday night was a marathon of Okay who can I text, who’s watched it yet. . . . And waiting weekly for the next escalation in the protagonists’ relationship was a global event filled with frenzied twitter exchanges and tumblr metas, poignant one-shots, gorgeous fan art, and given the bones it constantly threw us, surprisingly little smut. (At least until a certain pole-dancing incident.) This may have been an artifact of its mainstream appeal—the Normals outnumbered the hardcore fujoshi, for once.

Viktor Nikiforov paint 2 by Brilcrist on DeviantArt
^ after episode 3: beauty and ephemerality
(I couldn’t get in contact with this artist for permission to repost so just trust me, click on this link.)


no title by trinitybat on pixiv
^ after episode 7: celebration and relief

消えそうな温もりを求めて by on pixiv
^ after episode 9: comfort and sentimentality
(This one’s a video . . . go get it!)

^ after episode 10: ??!?

^ after episode 11: simplicity and emotional salves

Putting together the pieces as a community—before we knew definitively where the story would end up—was exhilarating because the fandom was so palpably large. Each “reveal” shifted the tone of the fan works for the following week, and watching their evolution hand in hand with the story was just as entertaining as the program itself. (Note the gap between first and second place below. Case rested.)

Attention all creators: having a protagonist in a committed same-sex relationship is NOT the death knell for your television series. Handle it with the same care and nuance that het romance has received over the decades, and your audience will come.

The election. I’m not kidding. Of course this is only applicable to American fans (or anyone with an interest in US politics). But an unfortunate part of this zeitgeist was one of the longest, nastiest, most divisive presidential election cycles in my nation’s history, filled with hate and bigotry and misogyny and homophobia and goddamn it just let these anime boys kiss. And I can’t say it any better than a friend of mine did:

I feel like every member of the LGBT community started consuming more LGBT media in mass quantities just to cope. . . . When you feel horrified and scared for your rights you NEED some warm fuzzy anime boys in love more than ever.

The days after the election were the most depressed I’d been in years. And that’s saying a lot. I am horrified and scared for LGBT rights, for my own reproductive rights as a woman, for the safety of people of color and of non-Christians . . . for pretty much everyone. Watching Yūri!!! On Ice on November 9th—absorbed by artistry and athleticism and Victor’s dorky heart-shaped mouth—was the only time in that week after that I forgot. It felt like the world’s final source of happiness, and at this point I’m not convinced it isn’t.

The gay. Remember when yuri meant girl-on-girl? Those were the days. Is that how I tricked a male friend into starting this series? Yes absolutely. Only supports the longstanding hypothesis that fujoshi can ruin anything.

. . . but have I mentioned that he wears waistcoats?

If you’re not a fan of yaoi, you probably don’t understand all the fuss over this series in particular. It’s sports. It’s BL. Big surprise, y’all have seen this stuff before.

But never before have we seen them in actual combination. Sports have always had the stank of homoeroticism, and in recent years anime creators have been using that to full advantage, actively toeing the line to chase the queer-loving audience with subtle boy-on-boy fanservice. This is known more widely as queerbaiting, and it is a bad thing. Why?

Observe: here’s a shot from the end credits of the recent soccer anime DAYS.

It’s not just a still—it appears to be an actual moving shot—and they stare at each other this way for several full seconds. Theirs is a platonic relationship, as is this one:

And we mustn’t forget Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club. . . .

Yeah dog, you let yourself into his bathroom and were surprised that he was clothed?

Despite the fact that the five to six main characters spend most of their time topless, handsy, and declaring one another’s importance, across two seasons none of them get it on. I am so conditioned by pandering like this never reaching its natural conclusion that this:

still did not register for me as an actual expression of sexual romantic love. Only upon rewatching after the Drop (which I will discuss later) did I come to accept that the YOI creators were purposely portraying a same-sex relationship and not simply teasing the opportunity for one. They had to be careful about it; they walked a very fine line between “acceptably ambiguous to present to a primarily homophobic nation” and “unambiguously presenting what we want to say”. But they pulled it off, and if you’re reading these characters’ interactions with any honesty, they are undeniably together.

In fact the only negative reception you’re likely to see from fans will concern the finale. For some—almost guaranteed to be Western fans—the relationship as a whole was left with too much plausible deniability. Which, again, is perhaps by design. On the other hand Japanese queer-positive fans tend to be satisfied with the state of the relationship portrayed; they are part of a culture steeped in go-betweens, hedging language, and indirectness, so the interactions between Yūri and Victor don’t feel unclear or lacking. They feel authentic and intimate.

Yes, there exist yaoi and BL with sports themes, but until YOI the reverse had not been true. It’s not just queerbaiting either, where feelings are dangled before our faces only to arrive at no satisfactory romantic conclusion. Instead we are bombarded with knowing and pointed physicality, deliberately worded foreshadowing, honesty so blatant and unequivocal that I was confused. Initially I dismissed it as my own fujoshi reptile brain reading too much into things and creating a universe from nothing.

But the, oh, let’s say third very brazen, very naked onsen scene finally resulted in this message to a friend: “Did I miss something, is this legit BL? . . . damn son, this is not subtext. . . .” And upon rewatching the series with the knowledge that, no, it’s not just magical thinking—you see that it truly is just text.

Perhaps most remarkable is that no one in-series really bats an eye at their behavior. (The red-faced boy above—that’s not disgust, that’s his hero worship jealousy over Yūri showing.) The fact that the audience just tilts its collective head when Yūri and Victor share an on-ice (if offscreen) kiss isn’t beyond the pale. Yes, the two are Japanese and Russian, respectively, and in Real Life Japan and Russia are awful when it comes to gay equality. But that’s irrelevant, because Yūri!!! On Ice is a cartoon and thus exists only on paper, in a universe necessarily different from our own. Still its effect on our reality is no small thing: it not only acknowledges a same-sex relationship, but normalizes it. We need that now more than ever as well.

Queerbaiting is bad because it is an empty promise. It rewards the idea that same-sex relationships aren’t real relationships. They don’t count, or they don’t happen at all. None of that is messaging we need. Yuri!!! On Ice is different because while these two might not outright say I love you, they sure as hell cross that line.

Go big or go the fuck home.

Go big or go the fuck home.

The fall. The story is this. Yūri is 23, Japan’s top skater, and going stale, balking in competition like Todd Eldredge at the Olympics. (Dating myself again . . . even older this time, huh?) His state of mind when we meet him: humiliated, depressed, overweight, and underconfident.

Victor is 27 and a five-time world champion on the cusp of retirement, well-loved among fans and competitors alike. And for years he has been Yūri’s idol.

When Yūri skates Victor’s most recent long program for his childhood crush, video of it (recorded without their knowledge) goes viral, and Victor is inspired to put his own skating career on hold—or in his coach’s very clearly made opinion, end it—and instead throw his efforts into coaching Yūri.

If that were all there was to it, Victor had the potential to be a Manic Pixie Dream Guy. But then there’s the Drop, which occurs post-credits in the final seconds of episode ten. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. (Or it’ll be cut off, if you have the Crunchyroll app on a Sony device.) Victor flips from MPDG to an individual thinking mind when a flashback reveals a series of (conveniently forgotten) drunken stunts by Yūri after his failed first showing at the Grand Prix Finals (which Victor won, needless to say) the year previous. What’s this got to do with Victor?

It is the moment we see him fall in love.

That tiny shot betrays the iceberg of a true inner life beneath the surface, breathing fresh context into every interaction between him and Yūri since series start. It was no longer by a fluke, on a whim, that Victor transplanted himself to Kyūshū to become Yūri’s coach. It was the result of months of consideration, with a very personal and even selfish motive.

It’s why Victor comes on so strong early in the series; he hides behind the flirtatious bravado of a humble champion, subsequently dialing it back and allowing brief flashes of his own imperfections as he realizes that sober Yūri is more insecure and uncertain than twenty-glasses-of-champagne Yūri. But he knows wasted Yūri is in there somewhere, and he patiently awaits that spark while suppressing his own feelings.

His skating is incredible technically and even emotionally complex, but missing that je ne sais quois. In spite of Victor’s numerous golds and world records, his coach has higher praise for his rinkmate Georgi, who skates empowered by the rawness of his emotional life.

Chief among those things is vulnerability. Victor’s skating is not mechanical, nor stiff, nor cold or uninspired. He’s just completely masked, alone on some other plane of existence with no intimate human connection to tap into. Even if believably, it’s more like he’s mimicking emotions he has only ever witnessed. There are hints of this early on when Victor challenges the fiery Yurio to skate to the theme of agape (unconditional love), telling the boy that with his temperament the program is doing a better job of showcasing his greed, that confidence is good and all, but not ideal for this routine. Yurio’s response mirrors their coach’s opinion of Victor’s skating:

and he then accuses Victor of hypocrisy, claiming he can’t force him to express agape when Victor has never felt it himself.

But Victor’s isolation is most obvious when we finally get an episode from his perspective, in which he realizes that the “life and love” he receives from Yūri are an indicator of just how unhappy he was prior to meeting him.

Here was a man leading a lonely life of monotonous excellence, punctuated only by the changing of the calendar year. Victor put on a show of smiles and playful winks for the cameras, but beyond his professional contacts—coaches, rinkmates, friendly rivals—at series start we only see him interact with his dog. He is accomplished, but that does not mean he is fulfilled.

But then—Yūri. In his alcohol-fueled stupor he didn’t care that Victor was once again the top of their world, and that he himself had lost spectacularly. He may have been blackout drunk, but as Victor lingered quietly at the edges of a party that was rightfully his, Yūri plucked him up and made him dance. They were castes apart, but for a man of unparalleled accomplishment, being treated as an equal was invigorating.

The relationship. What innocently began as a plug-and-play tourney anime eventually confirmed its B plot in the romance—a patient, supportive, loving relationship between men, the kind of thing that even in yaoi only happens quietly and behind closed doors or around close friends, if the guys are lucky. Yūri!!! On Ice is thus also revolutionary in the context of this subgenre (not that it belongs to the subgenre, but the context is there) because it is a very public courtship. The two in question are world renowned in their sport, still very much on the public stage—and still very much affectionate with each other.

But that comes later; the first stage of their relationship is professional. The theme for Yūri’s two skating routines is love, with the short program focusing on his heretofore latent sensuality. Which Victor knows exists because that is precisely what charmed him in the first place.

To coax this sex appeal out of the inexperienced Yūri, Victor tells him to choose whatever it is that eros means to him. Yūri defines it as something that makes you “lose the ability to make normal decisions”. That thing, for him: katsudon. (He gains weight easily, so under his previous coach, Yūri was only allowed the dish upon winning a competition.) Victor initially throws his support behind this unique source of inspiration, instructing Yūri to become the most seductive katsudon bowl on earth. But this shifts from metaphor to playful flirting to serious as Victor starts leaving food out of the equation entirely and encourages Yūri to seduce him with his performance. And it happens rinkside, in full view of the cameras, with affectionate embraces and much whispering against ears. Similarly, all Yūri’s talk of katsudon recedes and he is left only with thoughts of pleasing Victor.

But Victor has been the object of Yūri’s admiration for well over a decade, so confidence comes slowly to Yūri. Imagine being a person of low self-esteem, meeting your hero, and finding yourself admired in return. It would be difficult to comprehend, if you managed to see it at all.

During a practice early in the series Yūri becomes fixated on the part in Victor’s hair, and without thinking he pokes the top of his head, as if testing the nature of his own fascination. For this moment his romantic attraction to Victor supersedes his anxieties about disappointing him, even if subconsciously. Victor recognizes this act for what it is and instead of flirting in response, with a faux seriousness he plays it off as Yūri teasing him for thinning hair and melodramatically collapses on the ice.

This is exactly the kind of reaction I recognize from my own experience as an insecure person with an understanding suitor; a playful rather than forward response takes the pressure off by saying simply “message received” while still reinforcing interest and trust. Yūri’s anxieties about his own feelings have been largely defeated by episode 7 when he manipulates Victor into exposing the crown of head, this time for the express purpose of poking him—showing that he has evolved a much firmer command of and confidence in his feelings for Victor.

So it goes both ways; it’s not one aggressive partner making the other uncomfortable with unexpected advances. When one makes declarations, the other rises to meet them. When one makes a move, the other reciprocates. Neither presses the other further than he is willing.

And it’s best exemplified on the night prior to the Grand Prix Finals. Yūri impulsively decides to buy a thank you gift for Victor, folding in a “good luck charm” for himself as well. The word Yūri uses here is omamori, so it’s more meaningful than some frivolous token. But there are no Japanese shrines in Barcelona, so he has to improvise. The fact that he improvises with what is literally a pair of gold wedding bands is of no small significance. While Victor had no part in this purchase, he is every inch invested in its exchange.

The conflict. The third stage of their relationship is far more unstable. They jump from sharing a public kiss in episode 7 to exchanging rings in 10 (some weeks later in-universe). This is unquestionably fast. And as it snowballs, what first reads as a trust-filled and healthy relationship is obviously occupied by unhealthy and perhaps even self-loathing people. Gender is not the issue here; self-respect is.

Yūri is not an Everyman. He is an expert, the nation’s top athlete in his sport. But his mental state makes him far more relatable than your average Everyman—to someone like me, anyway. I see so much of myself in him that it hurts. At series start he is practically absent of self-esteem and considers himself a low-rent skater, regardless of evidence to the contrary (like his hometown being plastered with billboards of him and the fact that he is the poster boy for figure skating on the Japanese Skating Federation’s in-universe website). He gets stage fright and crumbles under pressure.

He is avoidant.

He’s petty.

He is aware of his anxiety, its effect on him, and the necessity of working around it.

And this is the basis of the show’s two milestone emotional conflicts. Yūri enters the first day of the Cup of China like a lion, coming fresh off the boost of a new personal best score and a decisive win in the Japanese regionals. But even surrounded by friends and friendly competitors the second day comes crushing, and as Yūri splits at the seams we see that Victor may be a brilliant artist, but he is a much less sensitive coach. He’s never dealt with a nervous student and probably hasn’t himself felt nervous before a competition in years (certainly never to this degree). So his blind solution is to push Yūri to push himself by threatening to resign as coach if Yūri doesn’t medal.

Yūri’s gut reaction is horror. I was right. Here is my worst fear confirmed. He’s looking for an excuse to quit. But luckily he has the presence of mind to recognize the fault in his own thought process, and he sees through to Victor’s true intent. So instead of quietly self-destructing, he takes a leap forward and outright tells Victor what he needs.

How often have you seen that in anime? Or any dramatic fiction, for that matter? Despite the gravity of the mistake Victor makes, Yūri addresses it with aplomb, they both absorb the lesson, Yūri skates the program that earns him silver in the event, and Victor greets him with the Big Damn Kiss. Yūri even enjoys some schadenfreude in the fact that steely, composed Victor Nikiforov was moved by soft little Katsuki Yūri’s emotional outburst.

This is it. This is what I thought we were going to get for the rest of the series. Misunderstandings neatly addressed, worked through, relationship strengthened for having passed through fire.

But while the second major emotional conflict comes from the same place—Victor setting high-pressure consequences for Yūri’s performance as a skater—Yūri handles it much differently.

In Barcelona the pair meets up with a batch of friends (four of the other five participants in the Grand Prix plus a few of Yūri’s cadre), and when Chris draws suave attention to the matching rings, Epic Wingman Phichit goes Full Ally and proudly announces to the whole room that they just got hitched.

It’s a miracle he wasn’t live-tweeting and twitch-streaming the whole thing.

One episode prior, Yūri had pleaded with Victor to remain his coach until his retirement; the response is, “I hope you never retire.” (Holy shit.) What Yūri failed to mention is that he’d been planning to retire after the Grand Prix, making this competition his last chance to win gold. So when Victor not only corrects Phichit’s misunderstanding by saying no, they’re not wedding rings—they’re engagement rings—he just has to add this:

Meaning what Yūri hears is, If I don’t win in the next two days, I lose this person forever, not only as a coach but as a partner. I’m not saying that’s the reality of the situation, but it is what Yūri’s anxiety-addled reptile brain assumes is the reality.

So he fights. Yūri is not a confident technical skater, but his performance score is what saves him. Like Georgi he has a vulnerability that makes him a much more compelling performer than the distant elegance of Victor’s flawless routines. Interpretation—getting into character, acting out a story—is the bread and butter of his strengths as an athlete and the core that his programs are built around.

But the unspoken discrepancy between his and Victor’s expectations after the Grand Prix Final have Yūri placing too much focus on technical marks at the cost of performance. This is supposed to be his sexy routine, and instead of telling a story about the town playgirl he’s adjusting jumps and calculating scores in his head. Technically it’s flawless, besides one imperfect landing. But this single imperfection is enough to crush him because it feels like losing so much more than first place.

Furthermore, as Yūri observes Victor during the other skaters’ routines, he sees a man with a reignited interest in competing. (It doesn’t help that Yurio destroys Victor’s world record score for the short program.) Yūri reasons it would be difficult to return as a competitor as an active coach. So that night, before the long program—his last performance at the Grand Prix Final and perhaps as a competitive skater—instead of once again telling Victor what he’s thinking, Yūri delivers the most infamous line of the series.

He thinks he’s doing Victor a favor, but he’s also protecting himself. Typical anxietyball move. When you feel like you’re losing control of something, you’d rather destroy it yourself than watch it burn unchecked. I get it, man.

Then the finale opens with a half-baked, vague conversation about their careers, barely a minute long, and while it feels like a metaphor they don’t actually discuss them. In fact it cuts away from the meat of the conversation before it truly begins.

So after much consideration, the subjective lack of overt acknowledgement of their relationship is not the problem I had with the finale. I too am satisfied with the blatant intimacy that these characters share.

But that final episode comes hard and fast with too many loose ends to tie up in too little time. For me missing out on that discussion was not disappointing as an indicator of the health of their communication channels (though it’s still a concern as only one of them is Japanese, the other ostensibly would need not leave things unsaid). It had more to do with the structure of a good narrative. The episode does not depict an emotional discussion but instead tells us about it, punting by giving us a happy ending without showing how it happened. The best thing I can say about their relationship vis-à-vis the finale is that they decide to make their own decisions about their careers independently of each other, based not on the presence or absence of the other. That is A+ self-care.

Not to mention the stunningly romantic conclusion.

Story arises from conflict, and conflict has to come from somewhere. In a story that is primarily romance, that conflict is interpersonal. Like Chihayafuru, at its roots this series is couched in two very different genres: sports and, secondarily, romance. For the majority of the series the relationship between Yūri and Victor is so strong because they don’t have to create drama; the tournament setting takes care of that for them, giving them the narrative space to just get along. They incite drama for themselves, but there is none between them. And most importantly, what begins for Yūri as hero worship transforms into a more nuanced understanding of who Victor is as a person. While the finale stumbles, it is because this series isn’t primarily a romance that theirs is perhaps the healthiest relationship I have ever seen portrayed in fiction. Full stop.

And it didn’t just happen in a dark corner of a niche genre. It happened in a mainstream series, for all the world to see.


It’s craft time: Victor’s scarf

Like most of planet Earth I’m obsessed with Yūri!!! On Ice, and I just had to make something inspired by it. Victor’s scarf turned out to be super simple! If you’re a knitting beginner this will be the perfect project for learning an increase and zoning out in front of your fourth marathon rewatch to just knit knit knit.

There’s a peculiar feature of this scarf that I’m sure is just a quirk of animation but I couldn’t resist patterning it out. I translated it to a 1×1 rib at the ends and garter in the middle to simulate the lines we see here:

Plymouth’s Encore Chunky Tweed gave me just the right shade of dark huntery olive, and I made it a tweed because this man is classy af. The yarn label suggests US 10 needles but I bumped it up to 10.5. Probably could’ve gone higher to give it a bit more of that sumptuous drape, but hindsight, amirite. I’m trying to switch to continental but still find ribbing difficult, so I ended up throwing in rib and picking in garter, which nicely loosened up the knit in the middle.

To wrap around once, I decided on an 8” wide, 60” long scarf (excluding tassels). His looks like half the width and double the length at times, so go with whatever is cozier/more practical for you. You’d save half the yardage on tassels if you make it narrow, but it also becomes an odd number of stitches so you’ll have to be careful with your ribbing.

Since rib bunches up you need to decrease as you start garter, then increase at the other end. For my gauge that was 42 stitches in rib to 28 in garter (21 in rib, 15 in garter for the half-width version, but that was all English style; I might’ve needed fewer stitches in garter using continental). I would suggest playing with the gauge yourself and adjusting the number of stitches depending on how tightly you knit. I did 32 rows of rib before switching (measuring about 7″ long), but also reversed the rib every 8 rows just to mix it up.

Don’t forget to cut out your tassel allotment first, just in case! (Mine totaled to about 27yd.)

Victor Nikiforov’s winter scarf

3 balls Plymouth Yarn’s Encore Chunky Tweed, color 3525
US 10.5 (6.5mm) knitting needles or circulars
crochet hook

  • CO 42 sts
  • row 1: (k1, p1)*
  • rows 2-8: repeat row 1
  • row 9: (p1, k1)*
  • rows 10-16: repeat row 9
  • rows 17-32: repeat rows 1-16
  • row 33: decrease from 42 sts to 28 sts evenly across the row in garter
  • continue in garter to desired length minus 7”
  • increase from 28 to 42 sts evenly across the row in 1×1 rib (moss increase) starting with knit
  • repeat rows 2-32
  • cast off in knit, weave in ends
  • add tassels using crochet hook

And you’re done, so stay warm!

Merry Candlenights everybody, and happy birthday to this lovely Russian doll!

Summer 2016, part II

Unfortunately most of these are disappointingly positive reviews too. The bad premieres are more fun somehow. Gotta work with what you’re given, though. Let’s go!


Our protagonist, Sumisora Tsubasa, just got a job as a new A&R person at Gandala Music, one of the biggest record companies in the business. Almost like it was a trap, as soon as she started with the company, she was put in charge of the idol unit, “B-PROJECT.” Being in charge of B-PROJECT meant that she was in charge of the three groups, “Kitakore,” “THRIVE,” and “MooNs.” Because this is her first job, things don’t go that well and she’s faced with various trouble and accidents. Be ambitious along with the ten BOYS who are all very different!

SoI’ve been known to enjoy a reverse harem here and there, got a couple otome games under my belt.

But. Wow.

The whole thing is pandering, which I will admit I am subject to, but I prefer my fanservice a little subtler. I don’t need random shirtless inserts, I’m not into girly-guys, and for crying out loud, the sparkles. Every guy gets his own glittery splash image and I hated every second of it, but at least it ate up a lot of time.

Then this happened:

and the angry one was instantly my favorite, I was totally back on board. Not for long though. I hate the music, I hate the art style, and I do not understand what is happening with these outfits. Like, whyyyy. And creepy CG dancing is creepy.

There are some surprisingly competent visuals, but then other weirdness in direction. There’s a shot where a bunch of the boys are walking down some stairs, followed by a very awkward cut to them standing motionless at the bottom, like it was missing a transition shot or a bunch of frames. I mean, I don’t blame them for not caring. But come on.

It also exemplifies basic misunderstandings/misrepresentations of how the music industry works; no way would two recording artists and an experienced producer need a rookie to point out dissonant notes. And these VAs must really suck at singing because normally you can’t hear autotune (which is in almost all pop music because it makes recording sessions go so much faster), but it’s quite easy to detect here.

Girl I am so with you.

Girl I am so with you.

So yeah. No. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t immediately watch the second episode, but that’s because the episode description mentioned THRIVE, the group containing the angry one. But it was just as painful, maybe more so. I think part of it is that I feel my intelligence being insulted? I’m really not just ogling, I am kind of paying attention to this bullshit. Gimme Hakuōki any day, but thisI quit. [2]


With no skills or outstanding features, one boy hides a passionate heart, Tsukushi Tsukamoto. The other is a lonely soccer genius, Jin Kazama. The winds of change begin to blow in the world of high school soccer as these two boys with nothing in common come together. The curtain on this hot-blooded, touching story is rising…

To get the taste out of my mouth I shifted to sports, while apparently forgetting that recent sports anime have no qualms about chasing the fujoshi audience (which, again, I am demonstrably subject to). So while only slightly less gay than B-PROJECT, its partner in capitalization crime DAYS is far more enjoyable.

Nothing unprecedented here. Spastic small guy gets into sport, sucks but just tries so hard damn it. Mysterious “genius” who sees small guy’s potential. Stoic upperclassman about to go pro. It’s all there.

But something about Kazama is particularly compelling. He’s got every reason to have a big head about things, but he just doesn’t. He seems popular and well-liked but doesn’t hang out with people. He’s great at his sport but keeps his head down, doesn’t brag or show off. He’s fucking beautiful but doesn’t chase tail (though the eyecatch detailing his stats asserts he never has problems finding a girlfriend). In the off-season he plays beer league soccer with chain-smoking salarymen. And he seems to have even tougher connections, if his teammates are to be believed when he brings Tsukamoto along as a replacement player.

Tsukamoto is the type to push himself beyond reason. He runs his heart out as a fill-in, both before and after an injury that would make me lose my goddamn mind.

And he passes out after 20 (of a commanded 100) reps running the touchlines during the school team’s tryouts. Stoic upperclassman (Mizuki) sends him home, and unexpectedly, Tsukamoto doesn’t put up a fight.

But he does come back after practice, and Mizuki is apparently an enabler so he supervises as Tsukamoto drags himself through the remaining 80 reps. In all he’s a fairly likable protagonist. You get used to his Blush Stickers and his slapstick is legitimately endearing. (His greatest beer league moment: headbutting the ball into the goal, then faceplanting into the nearest goal post.) He also comes standard with a childhood chick friend who—don’t worry—he sees as a big sister. My bitches: the fujoshi fuel is strong. [4]

Guess who he was just thinking about.

Guess who he was just thinking about.


During the spring of her second year of high school, Naho receives a letter. Its sender is herself from ten years in the future. Naho thinks it’s a prank at first, but when the things written in the letter start to come true one by one, she realizes that the letter is telling her events that will happen in her future. It tells her that she’ll fall in love with Kakeru, a new student who transfers to her school, and that he’ll die in the winter of his 17th year. After learning the regrets and wishes of the 26-year-old Naho following Kakeru’s death, what can the 16-year-old Naho do differently?

The audience sees both the present and the future; the episode opens in the “future”, when five of the friends (the main characters, excluding Kakeru) dig up a time capsule from the “present”. Most of the episode occurs when the characters are 16, and concludes again ten years later, where we see orange-haired Naho meeting up with her orange-haired guy friend (who, from the drop, is way more intriguing than Kakeru), and he is carrying an orange-haired baby so I guess they get together eventually.

The setup is super interesting, and while the letter is the only communication between characters of different eras, narratively there’s a dialogue between these time periods. The letter makes it abundantly clear that 16-year-old Naho falls in love with Kakeru, and if we keep him from dying then I wonder if Naho’s relationship with Ginger will sour in the future, and if that ginger baby will disappear as a consequence. Kinda fucked up, if so. Also the art is occasionally off-putting.

It stayed like this for *seconds*.

This was also a slightly misleading blurb; it’s only alluded to in-series, but the episode description clarifies that Kakeru will commit suicide. So the stakes are higher from the very beginning. It won’t just be a matter of preventing a freak accident at a specified time. It’s a matter of investigating this boy’s state of mind and watching him develop over the course of a few months.

But suicide is fucking serious. The letter puts unfair pressure on Naho to “fix” this boy. I understand that this is anime and her psychological consequences are only as bad as the script says they are. But that’s a bad message for the real-world viewers at home, especially those in the teenager bracket whose brains aren’t done yet. If somebody’s hurting, don’t try “fixing” them yourself. Help them get professional help. I mean, maybe that’ll happen. But not only is this anime, but it’s Japan, where there’s an even greater stigma on mental illness and seeking help than in the US. So who the hell knows.

My feelings about the whole thing are pretty ambivalent. Say ‘I Love You’, another series of the same genre and tone, had a great setup and great character development, but unfortunately ended with some disappointing themes that rubbed me the wrong way. I can see this one easily doing the same, but that’s not going to stop me. Three of Naho’s friends are especially charming, and I could listen to HanaKana’s voice all day, every day. (And normally I couldn’t care less about ladies.) So even if it’s for bad reasons, this one’s staying in the queue. [4]

Alderamin on the Sky

The huge Katvana Empire is at war with the neighboring Kioka republic. In a corner of the empire, a young man is about [sic] be caught up in the flames of war. His name is Iwata Soroku. He’s lazy, a philanderer, and he hates war. He’s about as far from a soldier as you can get. On his way towards the next stage of officer’s qualification exams, he and his childhood friend Yatorishino Igsem encounter the nurse trainee Harouma Beckle, Mashuu Tetrijirch, a member of the old military faction, and Torwey Lemion….

Let’s straighten out these names first. While some are just understandably mistranscribed (Mashuu → Matthew, Beckle → Becker), never once did I see “Iwata” in subtitles or hear it. Pretty sure he’s only ever called Ikta.

Then again I wasn’t paying like a lot of attention? The worldbuilding is not great. There’s clumsy exposition, a big bland boring world, characters you’ve seen a hundred times before. But here’s what I think happened:

> Ikta and Yatori are childhood friends but neither seems romantically interested in the other. That’s cool.
> They are both about to take the officer exam, but Yatori kind of sucks at studying. She’s not a dope or a ditz and actually seems quite capable. Just not good at written tests I guess.
> But it’s important that she scores well because it reflects on her family, an upper-class something or other who always occupies certain top positions maybe.
> She and Ikta agree that, since he’s sure to do well but doesn’t actually want anything to do with the military, they will swap tests so she benefits from his good grades and he doesn’t have to accept any kind of responsibility. Neither of them seem morally conflicted about this. At all. If that is indeed what happened, fucking A.

> They board a ship to travel to the test site and meet various other prospective officers, including Tits McGee, the apparently ever hilarious ugly fat guy, and an ikemen who Ikta instantly pegs as a threat to his womanizing and subsequently threatens back. I’ll let you handle the puns yourself. I mean I already went there but I’m trying to tone it down. You’re welcome.

He was too beautiful. . . .

> Most of these people have a tiny fairy or sprite or something, who each have different elemental powers and are kept in pouches on belts. Meh.
> The ship wrecks, the adventurers hop into a lifeboat. 12-year-old girl they also met falls overboard, and Ikta jumps in to save her. His fairy’s belly lights up like a Care Bear idk.
> They wash up on an island. Young girl turns out to be a princess, who is fairly sensible for her age and defers to the expertise of commoners. I like this.

> Island turns out to be enemy territory. Things got real muddy for me here so I’ll assume the plan is, they go undercover as this enemy to make it out alive. The end.

So from all that it probably isn’t clear—but this was fun. Most of the characters are likably flawed, and they complement each other well (with a fair amount of bickering). That’s most important to me in any story. The fanservice is cheap but I’m willing to let it slide because while the nurse girl is lame, at least Yatori is pretty badass. And the princess is treated with respect as a thinking female, too.

Plus I’m all about an Idiot Hero, especially of the Obfuscating Stupidity type, which Ikta seems to be. I’m not sure what’s going on with the mismatched aesthetics; the main characters are all dressed like they walked off the blue screen for Myst, but their enemies’ uniforms (at least, I think they’re enemy uniforms) are of the typical sci-fi military variety. So if I can continue not hearing what’s actually going on and substituting my own tropes-based narrative, by all means, I shall. [4]

Summer 2016, part I

There’s no time for calculated choices, it’s premiere season! I’m hitting that “simulcast” tab and picking whatever’s just getting started. No research, no expectations—just a summary and an episode. Let’s go!

Berserk (2016)

Spurred by the flame raging in his heart, the Black Swordsman Guts continues his seemingly endless quest for revenge. Standing in his path are heinous outlaws, delusional evil spirits, and a devout child of god. Even as it chips away at his life, Guts continues to fight his enemies, who wield repulsive and inhumane power, with nary but his body and sword—his strength as a human. What lies at the end of his travels? The answer is shrouded in the “night.” Strain your eyes and stare into the dark!

Honestly I didn’t even read this description before diving in. I was looking forward to this premiere because I’ve been meaning to read it for years. Seemed like gory dumb action, which are three of my favorite things on the planet.

Okay. Within the first five seconds I’m laughing. Not only does it open with voiceover, which the Flop House points to as a sure-fire indicator of a bad movie, but it’s voiceover by Ōtsuka Akio. So even though the visuals are just swirly purple-pink evil, I already know precisely what I’m getting: epic stupidity. And you know I’m about that.

Cut to a gross tavern where we meet Guts, a young man who thinks Guts is awesome, and a fairy who is seemingly intersexed. Guts saves the fairy (Puck) from gross tavern guys, and as it is fucking annoying it has to hang around the whole rest of the episode. Also I want to clarify I’m not using ‘it’ because I’m not sure about gender or sex, but because it’s a tiny fairy creature that is terrible. I don’t know who that character is for in the context of this genre but it’s grating.

Later an old monk and his beautiful (?) young daughter stop to pick up Guts in their wagon for some reason (ignoring his very blatant warning that he attracts danger) and then he explains that a demon bit his arm off, hence the mechanical arm. Apparently the brand on the back of his neck attracts demons and just bleeds sometimes. Also his right eye is always closed—is this to keep the evil in? Or is the eye just gone? Did he also play Scarlet Fate? We’ll never know.

Anyway he falls asleep in the back and has some memory nightmares, including a bunch of his homeys getting murdered and something that only happens for a flash but seems to be tentacle rape, and I guess I have to post the screencap here because, hot SEO tip, that peanut butter squid image from Shokugeki no Souma is the number one reason my site gets hits.

Sigh. Enjoy, pervazoids. It all goes into my data when you click on it.

Sigh. Enjoy, pervazoids. It all goes into my data when you click on it.

Guts wakes up stabbing a demon, just before the wagon is surrounded by horde mode. And despite the series title, I can’t help but notice that he is mostly pretty serene. The only time he really loses it is after the fight, when the voices in his head get too loud and he shoots his hand cannon into the sky. (This is a literal hand cannon. His robot arm has a gun inside.) We don’t even see him go ‘berserk’ in battle, he’s just reasonably badass.

Maybe he just can't control his spiritual pressure?

Maybe he just can’t control his spiritual pressure?

His philosophy is the most unhinged thing about him. When the old monk and his daughter end up dead thanks to the ambush, Guts tells Puck “I wouldn’t be able to take a single step if I let myself worry about stepping on ants.” He doesn’t seek to destroy innocents, and he did warn the dumbasses. He took precautions, but ultimately it was their fault. Broken eggs, spilled milk, etc. Whatever gets you through the day, man.

The other negative (besides the fairy) is that this thing is fraught with Conspicuous CG. It moves like a PS2 game that blew all its budget on textures rather than polygons. Sometimes it even looks like the first JoJo opening sequence—awkward and uncanny. I think it’s going for a mixed-media approach but it can’t reconcile any of them: cel animation, pencil art, and digital shading all mashed together do not look good. If that stuff were a little more on point I’d bump up the rating, but as it is, not even the gore is gory enough to have me clamoring to come back. [3]

Sweetness & Lightning

Kohei is a single father and high school teacher who lives with his only daughter. A chance encounter brings him together with Kotori, one of his students. The three of them start to meet together to make meals. None of them know how to cook, but they all love delicious food! ”sweetness & lightning” is a heartwarming and fun experience that you’re sure to love!

I looked at this guy as the episode opened and said, “I’m gonna be disappointed if that’s not Sakurai.”

Close, but Nakamura. Luckily it’s one of the few kinds of roles he’s actually suited for, and father-daughter stuff always owns my ass so I expected to be crying through a good percentage of this.

The lady of the house passed away only half a year ago. Dad is bad at cooking but wears an apron to put things in the microwave for his daughter’s bento (same as yesterday, he laments). On two separate occasions we see a wide shot of the little girl (Tsumugi) eating in front of the TV while Kōhei catches up on housework. So we get the idea that it’s such a struggle for him to keep up with school and chores that despite being the only ones in the apartment, they don’t actually spend much time together. His colleagues worry over him too, complaining that he’s too thin to show subtle concern for his emotional health.

But Kōhei is doing his best. When Tsumugi shows an interest in the season, he takes her to the park for cherry blossom viewing. Here they meet Kotori, who is alone; her mother was supposed to come but canceled at the last minute. To deflect attention from her weepy face-stuffing Kotori gives them the card for her mother’s restaurant.

Some days later, when Kōhei returns home a bit late with yet another night of store bought bento, he finds Tsumugi clutching the TV and drooling over a cooking show. Worst of all, it becomes clear she doesn’t quite understand what happened to her mother.

Dad is crushed. It’s time for emergency dinner. He sets the girl on his shoulders and books it through the streets, but when they arrive at the restaurant Kotori’s mother, the chef, isn’t there. Instead the unskilled Kotori struggles her way through cooking a pot of plain rice to feed them; it’s obvious even to her that this little family kind of needs something nice. She also finds out Kōhei hadn’t recognized her—he’s actually (currently?) one of her teachers—but considering how his life has changed in the past six months, that’s understandable.

Tsumugi is so enraptured by home-cooked rice that Kōhei is brought to tears, and vows to make an effort going forward to make decent meals and eat with her. This is where the lonely Kotori proposes that she join them in their quest, though it’s unclear as of yet whether her intentions are pure or if she’s got a crush on teacher. One will lead to just ridiculous sweetness, the other melodrama. I know the conflict has to come from somewhere, but based on the tone I’m guessing (*hoping*) no crush is involved.

That tone is beyond charming. Having an actual child actress play Tsumugi lends extra credibility and genuine spark to the dialogue, and the visuals have Miyazaki-type touches of humanity: Tsumugi pushing a half-empty bento into her dad’s cheek, or wiggling with a patient smile as she waits for rice, or Kōhei tugging one of the snoozing Tsumugi’s bent legs straight before tucking her in. It’s nice to see a single dad series where the man is comfortable with his child, rather than emotionally distant or uncertain of his competence. He is competent, and he wants to raise her; he’s just exhausted and still working out the kinks. But he goes for it, and as a result the interactions between him and his daughter are full of trust and a mutual desire to be together. And yes I did cry for like half the episode, thank you very much. [5]

91 Days

During Prohibition, the law held no power and the mafia ruled the town. The story takes place in Lawless, a town thriving on black market sales of illicitly brewed liquor. One day, Avilio receives a letter from a mysterious sender, prompting him to return to Lawless for revenge. He then infiltrates the Vanetti family, the ones responsible for his family’s murder, and sets about befriending the don’s son, Nero, to set his vengeance in motion. Killing brings more killing, and revenge spawns more revenge. How will the 91-day story of these men guided by a tragic fate end?

I’ve been way into historical series lately. Joker Game has been going alright for me (fulfills my vest quotient quite handily), and I binged Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū in basically one evening. For all its weirdness you could even count Bungō Stray Dogs (or, Gintama for Japanese authors instead of the bakumatsu), which narratively, eh, but damn that thing goes all out on the presentation, both visual and vocal. (Miyano—muah. Perfetto.)

So while I’m not particularly interested in Prohibition, I felt good about trying this series. Also it was at this point in the day that the sake came out, just by chance. Full disclosure.

Avilio’s neighbors find him creepy, stoic, “can’t tell if he’s alive or dead”—but a photo in his mail elicits quite the maniacal reaction. Apparently the time for revenge has come? Flashback to the night his family was murdered, which at only a few minutes long was pretty short as far as flashbacks go (as opposed to 11.5/13 episodes as with Rakugo). Their house was straight out of a fairy tale, a cozy mansion in the middle of the woods. There we meet the once-pleasant young Avilio, as well as Corteo, his childhood friend and ally in the present action, who grew up with an ill mother in a poor household. (Avilio’s mother slips Corteo money before he departs the house that night.)

There’s not much unexpected in the slaughter scene—dad was doing shady business, and shady Vanetti guys followed him home—but Avilio managed to stay hidden long enough to sneak past the dead bodies of his parents and brother, to escape the house, and to get shot at from afar while running through an April snowstorm. He took refuge with Corteo, who pledged that Avilio would be his brother from that day forward. But Avilio seemed to recognize the danger that would put him in, so he slipped away before Corteo woke.

Back to present, seven years later; Corteo now brews real good moonshine, but unfortunately wants nothing to do with gangs. One makes an offer to buy his stuff, which he refuses even as he’s being beaten, and Avilio pops up just in time to stop gang dudes from completely wrecking his shit.

He does so with a massive wrench.

Avilio convinces Corteo to let him use some of his stock to get in with a gang, making appeals to their brotherhood and such. And after their successful meeting with Vanetti reps is interrupted by a psycho cowboy who shoots up the joint, Avilio finds himself already having made positive contact with Vanetti’s son. Revenge is under way? Credits.

It’s really pretty light on story. I’m terrible at predicting plots but there were a couple things I saw coming because that’s just how dramas work. And yet this is more interesting than its collection of tropes would suggest, mostly thanks to execution. The animation is fuzzy, like it’s not buffered all the way (it was, I could tell by the sharp subtitles), but that works for it. It’s like not quite focusing the film strip before printing, if you’ve ever developed photos. Old-timey.

There’s also no music until about eight minutes in, with very little after that, raising the extant feeling of unease. And it’s got my favorite kind of pacing: natural. We watch Avilio sit down on his bed, examine an envelope, flick open his pocket knife, slice open one side. There’s literally nothing happening but it’s still compelling: the grim rain, the run-down room, the neighbors outside suspicious of him, the absence of music with the character’s complete silence . . . tension is high.

Disco called. . . .

Disco called. . . .

Not to mention some solid voice acting, including TsudaKen as unbridled crazy (that dude really is going to be the next Koyasu, isn’t he?) and other guys I recognized but weren’t listed in the credits. So I look forward to hearing them as villains of future episodes. [4]

The Morose Mononokean

“Exorcism” is the art of sending yokai who have somehow wandered into the living world back into the underworld, where they belong. One day Hanae Ashiya, a high school student who’s been haunted by a yokai, happens to find the contact information of an exorcist called the “Mononokean” and pays him a visit. The exorcist he meets is a morose-looking young man, Haruitsuki Abeno, and for various reasons Ashiya ends up working for the Mononokean… And so the story of the exorcist duo Ashiya and Abeno, and the yokai they meet in their adventures, begins.

So after a break to catch up on Ace Attorney (SHUT UP IT’S REALLY QUITE GOOD) I concluded the day with what turned out to be another Kaji Yūki joint.

Too bad this thing opens SO boring that I could barely sit still through the first third. Then this happened in the opening credits and I wanted to shut it the fuck off.

I hadn’t hit the booze hard enough to put up with that.

So let’s map this plot. Ashiya is walking home one evening when he steps on a fuzzy..thing on the sidewalk. Assuming it’s a lost stuffie, he puts it in a plastic bag and hangs it from a fence to make it easier for the owner to find. But it’s actually a youkai and jumps from the bag and clings to his back. It’s a pretty straightforward scene but could not have been written any more ploddingly. Many scenes are like that, with Ashiya stating the obvious or saying the same thing two or three different ways. While it’s 100% silent the youkai itself has way more character than the protagonist, prodding an ice pack on Ashiya’s head like an evil cat and constantly fucking peering at him. But it’s got tiny nubbin legs. And three poufy fox tails. And it just looks so judgey.


And even after lots of shouting and wrestling and kicking it will not go away. Ashiya’s first day of high school is the next morning, and the youkai is apparently draining the life from him as he looks a mess and feels ill and can barely stagger down the street. Of course no one else can see it, so when he collapses just outside the gate, he is taken to the nurse’s office where he spends all of the first day of school. Actually, pretty much the first week. He gets a little farther each day—collapsing just inside the gate, just outside the doors, just inside the foyer—and with each passing day the youkai gets bigger and bigger. (His mother is an idiot and blames anemia.)

So on a day he actually makes it to a hallway, he happens to see a flyer requesting assistance in exorcising critters like this. Ashiya places a desperate phone call, which advises him to simply step back outside the nurse’s office.

The answerer is Abeno, who is clearly supposed to be Abe no Seimei, a Heian-period onmyouji (sort of like a classical Japanese diviner or medium). The magical tearoom that appears outside the nurse’s office makes the growing youkai suddenly shrink, so this is a good sign. When Abeno finds out Ashiya wasn’t really an applicant and just wanted an exorcism himself, he coldly puts him at the end of his ten-day waitlist—until Ashiya tells him his name. (Ashiya Douman was Abe no Seimei’s storied rival.) Abeno immediately changes his mind and leads Ashiya out another magical door, taking them to the roof of the school where the youkai inflates larger than ever before. Abeno then blows up a beach ball, which infuriates Ashiya, thinking the guy is just fucking around. But it turns out this is part of the process. The youkai is too big to exorcise, so they first have to give it what it wants: to play.

The reasoning is that it was probably someone’s pet that died, and in its ghostiness became attached to Ashiya after he was kind to it. And being a loyal little pet, even after all the abuse Ashiya leveled on it, it stuck around because it just wanted company and abuse was better than being alone. 

This makes Ashiya feel understandably/rightfully guilty. So they play until it’s tiny again, and the little fuzzy guy is so pleased that he’s still gently headbutting the beach ball even as Abeno opens a portal to the other world in the background. And he happily chooses to walk through when the time comes.

That door kinda looks big enough to me. . . .

In addition to the debt accrued by being successfully exorcised, Ashiya is inspired to help more youkai move on and agrees to work with Abeno henceforth. So in summation: think Natsume Yūjinchō but with weaker characters, less heart-stringy, more gimmicky, and not as good. Not to mention it lifted Aunt Touko from Natsume and made her Ashiya’s mom, a florist who had the balls to give her male child a clearly female name. (When he finally gets to go to class, the boys in his homeroom are nothing less than enraged that this classmate they’ve been looking forward to is a dude.) And it’s more like Rin-ne in tone and theme, especially given that at the end of the episode, spoiler alert, Abeno is chilling in the classroom like he’s been a student all along.

Despite all that, by the end I’m totally into it. The supposed protagonist is no draw as he’s a checklist, with his naivete, bland cuteness, and slightly spastic temper. But on the other hand Abeno is beautiful and the youkai are adorable as fuck. I’ll give this one a couple more goes and hope for some development, and when that fails there’s always the Seimei/Douman arc in Gintama[4]

Pandemonium ho!

I’m sorry these premieres are getting longer and longer, but I just can’t shut up. There’s usually more to say when I like something or there’s good design, and surprisingly these all turned up with pretty favorable ratings. I’m eyeing to review at least four more new series this season, maybe more if I can keep my momentum going. Once again, it’s good to be back!

Series: Gintama°

Year: 2015
Original Creator: Sorachi Hideaki
Director: Miyawaki Chizuru
Seiyū: Sugita Tomokazu (as Gintoki), Nakai Kazuya (Hijikata), Sakaguchi Daisuke (Shinpachi), Kugimiya Rie (Kagura), Ishida Akira (Katsura)

Now that the new series has come to a close I can finally say, with due authority, it goes out with a whimper.

That’s not to say the entire series is done for. It does leave off with a cliffhanger, but in the worst way: with several dozen manga chapters remaining and no immediate guarantee that this is just another hiatus.

Anyone familiar with this stupid blog is aware of my intense love for this stupid show. Some of the very best episodes of the series have aired this past year, and it never hit any true lows. That’s the advantage of a show that doesn’t deal in filler; occasionally you can see the padding, but it’s nominal, especially compared to long-run series that refuse to break to wait for more material from the original mastermind.

Nonetheless, it has been rocky. The appeal of this series has long been the lifelike blend of laughter and tears, but this season comprised an uncharacteristic segregation of the two, resulting in an uneasy sensation of coldness and distance that permeated even the silliest standalone stories. Still the highs in Gintama° are higher than the lowest of its off-color lows.

If you know the thing, you know exactly how off-color this is.

If you know the thing, you know exactly how off-color this is.

The storytelling. The season is front-loaded with comedy, with most of the multi-episode stories based on totally dumb premises. There’s a flashback arc that looks like Kuroko’s Basketball featuring Ono Kenshō (Kuroko himself), and a Bleach-flavored storyline, propelled by the absurdly talented Inoue Marina, that also manages to introduce the next major villain. There’s a forcibly faked death, a trial secretly by proxy, a time-stop, a soul-switch-em-up, a sex-change-em-up. . . .

The lows include, among other things, a bewildering absence of the plucky protagonist and his gang. It’s a Shinsengumi-heavy season—which is fine. They’re a strong bunch of characters, and the very roots of the series lie with them. At the height of popularity for the live-action drama Shinsengumi! in the early aughts, struggling young Sorachi was advised by his editor to ride the drama’s coattails and create his own series centered on this most famous historical faction. And so Gintama was born.

Though Hijikata is about as close as they come to a true deuteragonist in Gintama—as the title would suggest, it was always about Gintoki. Yet the final 17 episodes of this season—the two longest and most dead-serious arcs in series history—are punctuated by almost no focus on the actual protagonist. In this final stretch Gintoki relives the most painful moment of his life and witnesses the most disturbing sight in the (likely) decade since that moment.

But the series gives him no time to breathe or grieve, even as narration brings us three months forward in time. He is bound to be driven—to action, to anger, to insanity—but in the finale we get hardly one saccharine scene that concludes in a collective fit of laughter that sounds as misplaced and uncomfortable as it looks.

The characters. I’m not opposed to latecomers. Exhibit A: Tsukuyo wasn’t introduced until the 130s, and she is hands-down my favorite female of the cast, besides maybe old lady Otose. (PS, as much as I’m basically a Kinsey 0 and somehow still find Tsukuyo hot as hell—she’s a million times hotter as a man.)

Be still, my heart~~

Exhibit B: the newly-introduced Shinsengumi captain Saitō Shimaru, stealthily voiced by Sakurai Takahiro. (His characters are so varied that I absolutely NEVER recognize his voice until I look him up. He’s that good.) The script lays it on a little thick by having Sougo call him Shimaru-niisan several times in the course of one info dump, but his character arc is delightful, his plights eminently relatable.

He's trying. He really is.

He’s trying. He really is.

That is what determines whether newcomers sink or swim: development. Another of the lows in Gintama° is a failure to let the audience identify with many new allies. One newbie is built up as an enemy in her introduction, and within minutes she is an ally that saves the day. I didn’t catch her name in my first viewing, so a couple days ago I looked it up, and I still don’t remember it so I’m not looking it up again because this is exactly the impact that she had on me. None. She’s cardboard. There’s no tonal context for her character, no reason to be attached to her. And yet she’s taking up space with the characters who have earned their place among the mains, trading esoteric fluff with longterm allies as if the audience has known her all along.

The situation is less pronounced but similar with the Mimawarigumi, the police force that rivals the Shinsengumi. Though they were of much greater renown in their day than the Shinsen militia, the Mimawari has fallen through the cracks of modern pop culture consciousness. Sorachi’s initial concept of his Okita character was actually female, but he abandoned the idea because the Shinsengumi did not allow women into its ranks. Well . . . neither did the Mimawarigumi. But they are so little known today that Sorachi probably felt more comfortable shaking up their ranks, finally able to fulfill that initial instinct to have a female Okita. Giving us the equally soulless killing machine Nobume.

This season delivered the third major arc in which she and her chief Sasaki appear. And for two they had not been portrayed sympathetically. While previously only hinted to be backdoor allies, the storytelling now insists that we should already feel for them, as though Sasaki was demonstrated to be more than an asshole one-percenter and Nobume as more than a flat-eyed donut hound.

Elite Dangerous: Donuts Edition

The backstory they do receive in the end is a tearjerker, but only because Sorachi is a genius writer that twists words just right to make small things hit with gale-force impact. I still had no emotional attachment to these two—positive or negative—because neither had received any of those lighthearted character-building episodes that make the people in Gintama truly special. As a series so firmly rooted in “obnoxious bonds” it has felt somewhat detached from its own themes. Even the multitudes of truly bad guys don’t get the Alas, Poor Villain treatment that used to come standard with this series. Maybe there’s just that much missing, cut from the source material (or not yet reached). I’m too busy/lazy to find out right now. I might get back to you on that one someday.

The performances. Another disappointment is, shockingly, Sugita. A pre-season OVA has Gintoki saying it’d been so long between seasons that the voice actor “forgot how to do Gin-san’s voice”. There was maybe more to this than just a No Fourth Wall gag. There are a handful of episodes where he sounds like regular ol’ spunky Gintoki (296 being the most glowing example), but for the most part he sounds like a completely different character.

His voice comes out much deeper, which in itself is not disagreeable (read: “hot damn that baritone tho”), but the timbre is flat and disconnected and unfit for such a mischievous character. Sugita was already over 30 at the end of the last Gintama series, so I’m not ready to accept vocal maturation as the sole cause of this change. If it’d been ten years, maybe.

But it’s not just the raw quality of his voice. The character this time around is written rather flat, so already there’s a dearth of opportunities for him to show off. And even when he’s able to show off, it sounds like he’s phoning it in and even comes across as disingenuous at times. Maybe Sugita was experimenting with a more grown-up Gin-san. And maybe in the process he took one too many pages out of Nakamura’s book. (I LOVE YOU BUT YOUR BEST FRIEND IS A BORING ACTOR I’M SORRY.)

Nakai, on the other hand, knocks it out of the park. For example the soul-switch-em-up is occasion for him and Sugita to do impressions of one another. While Sugita’s “Nakai” is more or less just New Gintoki with maybe a higher frequency of poutiness—Nakai nails his impression from top to bottom. The singsong prosody, the nuanced emotional monologues, the carefree honesty . . . he’s got it all. Nakai does a better Gintoki Classic than Sugita himself.

Even without Sugita playing consistent boke ball Sakaguchi remains tsukkomi as ever, and while Kagura has the most distinctive speech patterns in the series—and thus the easiest role to screw up—here Kugimiya is better than perfection with all the material that gets thrown her way. The supporting cast shines just as brightly, notably Chiba Susumu (Kondō) and Yukino Satsuki (Otae) who, combined, brought me to tears with a single line on at least four separate occasions. (There was a good deal of crying this season.) And Katsura’s simple scripting comes alive in Ishida’s masterful hands. But this is not news. Overall the acting is just what you’d expect from Gintama: fluid, natural, and real.

The visual execution. Despite a batch of animators new to the series—whose character art is different to a noticeable and even distracting degree, especially on the ladies—the art is really good. Its polish may even be a contributor to that feeling of unease I had, since the series is usually a little more rough around the edges. (Too pretty? Who’da thunk.) The movement can be iffy in action sequences, but compared to the series as a whole it’s at or above par. While the director has mainly key animation credits under her belt, many of them are previous incarnations of Gintama. It’s her first rodeo as lead director, but she knows the material, and she knows animation. It shows.

This season brings the emergence of what appears to be the ultimate villain, and a unique feature of his animation highlights his otherworldly nature. In action sequences he is accentuated with a rainbow effect, which sounds kind of stupid on its face but is actually really cool conceptually. Like fucking Bruce Lee was too fast to film (they had to use more frames AND slow it down), this villain’s movements are so powerful that he can only be conceived of when broken down into prismatic fragments. I do not know who came up with this little piece of visual narrative but they deserve a medal.

If the action is at par, the stills are sublime. Shading/coloring is greatly improved, and an increase of close and metonymic shots (most frequently of mouths and jawlines) adds emotional depth and tension that is darker than ever before. This style may not have been a merit of the anime, but the source material; some fans complained that the director copied scenes frame-for-frame (or panel-for-shot) from the manga, unlike previous directors that added their own creative perspectives. Either way, it makes for the most visually striking and cinematic season thus far. In a word, it is beautiful.

51 of 316 episodes (from the series’ third lead director) isolated by two years’ distance is a rather short span compared to a continuous 581 chapters with a single author. So some incongruity was to be expected. In total the season isn’t a wash, not by a long shot. In many ways it’s the crowning achievement of a stellar series. But lots of small things total to a gestalt that is a little more impersonal than the magic that came before.

My no longer lame and still fascinating first anime convention, day 3

The day started with a workshop in voice acting by Swasey. This was the most informative panel I’d seen all weekend (perhaps to the exclusion of the wig thing, that honestly was eye-opening) and there was so much that happened in that one hour that I don’t even know where to start.

So whatever, screw transitions. Here was something I didn’t know about matching lip flaps in dubbing: the actors aren’t necessarily watching the animation and actively trying to match up with what they see. It’s the script writers who have already done the work for them. They looked at the animation and wrote the lines such that they just will match up. As long as the director keeps tabs on how much time a line takes up, it’s going to look just fine. There’s so much more leeway with animation than live-action dubbing that it’s not as big a deal as you might think. This is me editorializing but if you’re really paying attention to anime in Japanese, you’ll notice that there are far fewer lip flaps than syllables already. But it doesn’t look unnatural or out of place, so it’s fine if the English incarnation isn’t exact either.

According to Swasey, Funimation primarily uses the “beep” method of recording lines where Sentai uses “chase”. In both methods the preceding line is played for the actor, but in one a series of beeps counts down to when the actor starts speaking. In “chase” the actor speaks immediately after the previous line ends. That sounds intrinsically more fluid and conversational, so I’m not sure what the advantage is to the “beep” method. But they must both have their merits or they wouldn’t both still be around.

The best way to make a good demo reel is to keep it short—he suggested a tight 90 seconds—and to put your best reads right at the beginning. Reminds me of a book on submitting manuscripts for publishing: wow them in the first five pages (or first 30 seconds) and you have a much better shot at getting work. Casting directors are busy, so they don’t have time for your chaff. Protip, if you have a weaker piece, stick it at the end of your demo “because they’re never going to hear it anyway”.

He stressed the importance of sounding real and genuine, no matter the context—animation, audiobooks, commercials, whatever. It’s not so much a matter of building a repertoire of characters and “voices” (we can’t all be Billy Wests, right?), but discovering the range within your own voice and polishing it. (Landa and Tipton shared very similar advice in their “Women” panel.) You’ll be a more believable voice actor if you’re just being yourself. Nobody has a voice exactly like yours, and no matter who you are, there is some director out there who “wants your voice”. You just have to seek them out. Swasey said the “work” in voice acting is just in finding a job. The job is the reward for your hard work.

After that I ducked into Ayres’ “It Gets Better” panel, which was already under way by the time Swasey’s workshop let out. I feel awful for missing half of it because it was full of very heartfelt and frankly beautiful discussion. I’m only familiar with It Gets Better as an initiative to combat suicide in LGBT teens, but what I heard focused more on mental illness and bullying in general. Ayres and a few of his friends shared stories of their own struggles with mental illness and surrounding communities that are unsupportive or just don’t understand. A very brave lady in the audience shared some stories of her own struggle with social anxiety, and how coming to conventions like this has shaped her into a more comfortable and much happier person. I definitely cried a couple times during this thing and felt really privileged to have heard these people talk about difficult times in their lives, as well as about the wonderful people who helped them through to the other side. “There are no strong people with good pasts.” But it gets better!

Sunday was my last chance to get autographs, so next was a great deal of waiting in line. Ayres ended up being late (stuck in traffic—and let me tell you, Indy drivers are no joke) so we were mostly all filtered through Swasey’s line by the time Ayres arrived. Swasey is very kind but also very professional and impersonal. But it could just be that he was sitting in Ayres’ shadow because that guy is a goddamn treasure. He made legitimate, genuine conversation with every single person who came up for an autograph. With me he was very pleased that my copy of Welcome to the NHK actually had Yamazaki (his character) on the cover, apparently some of them don’t. I was impressed to hear that he really knows his stuff about Japanese seiyū as well. He likes to watch both the original and the dub since the performers can turn the same story into very different shows. (Bleach is a great example of this. Both voice tracks are excellent; Morita and Bosch both have valid interpretations of Ichigo, but they are so distinct as to set a completely different tone for the rest of the show.) Somehow Ishida Akira came up and we kind of squeed over how the man is a god of voice acting and also still a sweet human being. Moral of the story is, Greg Ayres is a delight and absolutely go meet him if you get the chance.

To wrap up the weekend I caught the tail end of a panel on acting by Tipton, joined later by Landa. I saw mostly advice on how to polish your professional image, useful for not only entertainment but any industry. Have a good handshake, write grammatically standard emails, be polite, don’t take things personally and just keep trying, etc. Not getting a role doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad actor; it just means you weren’t right for that role. Again this echoed a theme throughout the weekend, that you have your own strengths and it’s better to submit to them rather than continually strive for something that doesn’t come naturally. Then Tipton told some rather horrifying stories about acting coaches and directors that bordered on abuse and I was like GRRL STAND UP FOR YOSELF.

There were fewer attendees than on Saturday, and I was busy with events all afternoon, so I had no downtime for people watching. But I did see my Gintama buddy again at the last panel. And you know what? He was a fucking rockstar that day too.



So like. I’m starting to see why there are people who go to tons of conventions every year. Because thinking about going back to work where no one cares about this stuff is excruciating. The convention space not only normalizes something that is niche, but constructs a whole world where it is celebrated. And yeah, that’s the point, but I mean it in a more profound sense. Even though there are regular hotel guests who are probably appalled at the insanity going on around the grounds, the fans are still allowed a comfortable space not to feel scrutinized. Because we outnumber them! There really is safety in numbers—nerds like myself are often painfully shy, and in a safe zone like this, we can all let loose and be finally ourselves, be unabashedly excited about things that we have to explain to most people around us. These people just get it. So even though I only know a handful of series really well, I loved the atmosphere and fuck yeah I’ll be doing this again. Except next time, I’m bringing friends.

My slightly less lame while fascinating first anime convention, day 2

Saturday’s festivities came to a hectic start for me; I was late for John Swasey’s Q&A because the back lot of the hotel is half filled with storage, so that’s fun, trying to find parking. But I only missed a couple minutes. As an actor with a long career—twenty years in anime alone—he’s got a lot of knowledge about how the industry has changed over the years. He spent some time talking about the different US studios. He started at ADV in the day, when if the studio wanted a “good” series, the Japanese studio it came from also made them take more “shitty” (his word) series as part of the deal. So for years ADV was just churning out as much anime as they could because they had the licenses. Funimation wasn’t even around at the time, and it has since eclipsed ADV (now Sentai). I wonder if it’s due to forward-thinking practices like streaming services and simuldubbing. But still the Texas studios dominate the US/English-language business. He has also directed some excellent dubs—Welcome to the NHK is his doing, for example—and the transition from voice actor to ADR director is apparently as simple as asking. He approached his higher-ups in supplication, saying he thought he might be a decent hand at directing, and their response: “Great. When can you start?” “What?” “Yeah, man, I could’ve used you yesterday.”

By the time I got around to it Friday the dealer’s booths were about to close, so I spent a lot more time browsing on Saturday. There were pretty much no CDs to be found, but I picked up and put down approximately a million Gintama blind boxes. (Grrrr, what if it’s Kamui?!) In the corner was a little niche where a pair of sisters were selling vintage kimono, so I spent some time letting them doll me up. Wearing an obi feels really nice for some reason. There were lots of cute things at the artists’ booths too, in a dim room which was maybe not the greatest environment since most of them were quietly/adorably drawing commissions or just doodling.

There were far more people in attendance on Saturday, and far more of them were dressed up, perhaps thanks to the “Cosplay Masquerade” scheduled for the afternoon. I sat in for the beginning where everybody paraded across the stage, but then people starting singing long songs from shows I hadn’t seen so I excused myself. But because of this event, people watching was way better on Saturday. Most cosplayers are totally happy to stand for photos if you ask, and some seem surprised you even care, notably Germany and Okarin. I had a short chat with a very cute Gin-san who complimented my Gin-style wooden sword. (I didn’t dress up, I just sort of had it. Why not.) Every time I saw him again it made me way too happy, like he was a celebrity only to me. Lame. I was the lame one that day.

Yorozuya boy

Yorozuya boy

Attack on Freckled Jesus

Attack on Freckled Jesus



Jupiter and Tux

Jupiter and Tux

??? (did I not tell you I suck at this anime thing? but they look baller, right?)

Chihiro and Rin

Chihiro and Rin

Levi Ver. Cleaning

Levi Ver. Cleaning

Tutturu! (this guy was Spike Spiegel yesterday, if that wasn't obvious from the hair)

Tutturu! (this guy was Spike Spiegel yesterday, if that wasn’t obvious from the hair)

My early evening was filled by “Tokusatsu 101”, wherein I didn’t learn anything about the genre except that sentai is way more delightfully stupid than I ever imagined, and Kamen Rider is totally a thing I NEED to watch now. Guys transforming into crazy designs based on cars, I get. But fruit? FRUIT. Fruit-based transformations. The. End. And “Wig Styling with Mogchelle” was surprisingly informative. I had no idea that nice wigs were A) heat resistant so you can use regular hairstyling tools on them, and B) have “memory” so curls and waves retain their shape, and if you straighten a curly wig, just get it wet and it dries curly again. Mind blown.

Finally there was another 18+ panel, Swasey-led “Convention Horror Stories” with audience participation. They were less like horror stories than goofy shit that happened, most actual horrors were hotel-related and not strictly convention-related, and half Swasey’s stories were the same as from his panel that morning. Not a waste of my evening though. It was the fullest panel I’d been to that day, which automatically made it more exciting because the whole room was engaged and excited to be there.

I’d say today was much more enjoyable for me, and now I’m of the opinion that I’d definitely come back to an anime convention, even small ones like this, as long as I get to bring some damn friends along. There are long stretches of nada otherwise. I did leave to fetch food at one point, and the southwest of Indy (the hotel area near the airport) is a nightmare to navigate in the dark. So that was eventful.

(It wasn’t Kamui, by the way. It was Hijikata. ::win::)

My lame but fascinating first anime convention, day 1

I was alerted to the existence of Anime Crossroads (in Indianapolis) less than a week before it began, and for a while I waffled on whether or not to attend. I still don’t know many people in town and none of them even know what anime is. So I would be going solo, which already didn’t sound fun. I myself enjoy anime, but haven’t seen many; most popular references are lost on me. I know even less about dubs, and as a convention in the middle of Indiana, naturally things would focus on what the English-language actors had worked on. AND as a primarily academic person, I had no intrinsic interest in the cosplay how-to panels and contests and such. But it would be a chance to listen to some voice actors that I respect speak about their experiences and their craft. (Plus there were dealer tables, so I could finally try to hunt down a damn DOES album.) So I decided to give it a shot anyway.

I got off work at 4pm, so after I finished my carpool and errands I had already missed quite bit. I arrived just in time for the panel “Women in Anime and Video Games” with Lauren Landa and Alexis Tipton. They started getting larger roles after the point I had broad access to anime in Japanese, so I was 100% unfamiliar with both of them as actors—but I was looking forward to hearing about their experiences in the industry.

Landa opened the panel with a spiel about etiquette—please no interrupting, don’t dominate the conversation because we’re here to speak to a room, etc.—and I found it a little sad that in a room without children she still felt it necessary to basically define “panel”. (And still her advice went unheeded.) They agreed that competition was greater among female voice actors because there are so many more women than men competing for roles. But they said that, while the range of female roles is less varied (Tipton posited two main types: the cutesy high school girl and the sexy mature woman), they also have the advantage of being able to play children or adolescent boys, thus broadening the sheer number of roles available.

They also spoke about their experiences at conventions. Fans can at times equate the character to the voice actor, and as people gendered such that they often land in fanservice roles, Landa and Tipton have been targets of inappropriate attention. Their descriptions of treatment and what people say to them unfortunately sounded like the general treatment of women on the Internet, just in person. The panel was derailed by questions unrelated to the topic, and then by the panelists themselves as they decided to call up Todd Haberkorn. Which was cute—I love the guy—but so irrelevant. Overall it was a valuable discussion.

The male guests were actually the main reason I decided to attend the convention. I watch anime in Japanese, but I consider Greg Ayres and John Swasey to be at the top of their craft. If I watch something in English, I watch it in Japanese as well. But these two have been in shows where I’ve only heard the English dub, because their performances (and those of their co-stars) are so good that I haven’t felt the need to seek out the original voice track.

I missed everything by Swasey Friday but I’ll catch him in a couple things over the next two days. Ayres’ 18+ panel was a lot of fun, just him in a tiny, humid room with maybe fifty people, standing room only. He was scheduled up against the burlesque show, so he thanked us for choosing him instead. (“How am I supposed to compete with titties?!”) He’s an excellent panelist and has huge stores of fun stories, mostly about how he shouldn’t be allowed to speak in front of children, how he spilled the beans in a room full of conservative parents and their teenaged yaoi-fan daughters, and how Chris Sabat is a dickhead prankster that nobody can ever prank back. (Quoting Colleen Clinkenbeard: “That man leads a charmed fucking life.”) He is an absolutely delightful speaker and it was the high point of the night for me.

So after that there was also a thing called “Yaoi Jeopardy,” so I just had to know. And it turned out to be exactly that. Three rounds of questions in categories like “dicktionary definitions”, “kinks”, “name that side woman”, and “things we all wish were gay”. It had potential to be fun but the hosts and some of the audience were overly obnoxious, plus I was starting to fall asleep and had a half-hour drive ahead of me, so I bounced early. Early being relative, since it was after midnight at that point. (I made it home alive!)

Thus endeth my Friday at Anime Crossroads. It’s a tiny convention—the “women” panel only had 20-30 spectators in the huge main room, for example—so it’s not as easy to be there alone than if it had been busier. So far I wouldn’t exactly say I’m having fun, but I’m looking forward to more panels and seeing people dressed like idiots. (So many One Punch Mans!) I didn’t have the foresight to bring a decent photo device because somehow I didn’t expect this to turn into posts. But I’ll make an effort going forward.

How to start the end of your series

This week’s Gintama was, in every way, maybe its best episode yet.

I’ve already mouthed off to the only people who care (message boards, people in my life who know what the hell this show is/what it means to me, etc), but I still don’t feel like I’ve quite articulated why this pivotal episode was so well executed. In an attempt to remedy that, I’ve formulated a sampling of what this episode did so right.

It is well-paced. It proceeds slowly but none of it feels padded out because there is always something happening emotionally. No frame lingers needlessly; there is no extraneous dialogue. Every scene is carefully curated to point toward the climax of the episode. Admittedly, that’s storytelling 101. But more than that, nothing feels forced or shoehorned or like a last-second throw to tie up a last-minute plot point. The episode is well-paced because the whole series has been leading up to it.

It has pitch-perfect tension. It shifts between present action and flashbacks, and while the flashbacks do not mirror the present action, they illuminate what is happening. They deepen an already oceanic conflict. The combatants are two people with such fierce love—for their own ideals, for their friends, for each other—that all they can do is tear each other apart with their bare hands. This is essentially all that is happening. But it is so much more than a physical fight. It is revenge, redemption, hatred, passion, punishment, self-flagellation, righteousness, relief, adoration, desperation. It’s not about the fight, the here and now; it is about all of our memories—as an audience, as friends of these characters—lingering beneath the surface of a savage showdown. Together, they are airing a lifetime of grievances over an era of grief. That is good storytelling.

It is visually arresting. The setting is powerful and vast, but spare. Low angles make the scene feel cramped and intimate; wide and flat angles make it stark and immediate. We sense the struggle every time these beaten characters stand up again, trembling and wheezing. There is downtime between each major blow, so the strikes hit so much harder. A fist to a gut. A knee to a face. A swordpoint stuck in a chest moving in time to labored breathing. Blood dripping slowly off the tip of a nose, or trickling from a mouth as if welling up from the stomach. This is knock-down-drag-out single combat. They just plain fight.

It understands the use of music. There are both new tracks that are chilling and dread-inducing, and long-familiar ones that provoke a painful nostalgia. And remember what I said in Amnesia, about how scenes have to be strong already to stand on their own without music? There is a lot of that. Here we stand at the culmination of hundreds of episodes of enmity, watching two broken people just wailing on each other with equally broken bits of weapons, and it is naked of all sound but for the impacts of their blows and their lung-rending, animalistic cries.

It has phenomenal voice acting. It truly feels like these people let loose years of pent-up anger and sorrow. The nature of their scenes means they are doing little more than screaming and grunting. But without music to add artificial tension, this battle relies half on its narrative buildup, half on the actors’ performances. It could easily have fallen flat, but even without lines to perform, you can hear the complexity of their emotions. What few lines they have are between ragged breaths, gasped, whispered—and performed with such exquisite exhaustion that we weaken alongside them.

It closes a series-long character arc. One small scene is played twice consecutively, with only a shift in perspective. And they are completely different scenes for it. This single moment is both the summation of a series’ worth of establishing character moments for one person, and the catalyst for another’s long-misunderstood motives. We always knew what he wanted; now we understand how he felt.

It has a killer twist. We now have answers to questions we’ve had since the earliest inklings of a dramatic throughline—and unlike other long-run series in their death throes (andnowIamcryinginside), it feels like the author has had the answers all along. It never felt like he was holding them hostage; things just hadn’t yet come to a head. Now that they have, we do not feel shortchanged. We are just changed. We have answers, and yet another long-awaited confrontation rises to fill its place. We have been sated—but it hurts.

And it is only the beginning.

John Ulan/Epic Photography Inc.

Why Mark Meer’s Shepard doesn’t suck

Over the summer I played hell of Mass Effect. (What do you think I was doing when I wasn’t writing reviews?) And I learned a lot of things by comparing changes across multiple complete playthroughs of all three games.

I already knew that Jennifer Hale is good at what she does. (Except English accents coughinfinitecough.) Her deliveries are packed with nuance; she’s energetic, she’s quirky, she can make bad lines unironically funny with just the right twist of prosody. As the female protagonist in Mass Effect she takes a moral stance with her readings, infusing them with the horror, the judgement, the rage that the situation suggests. Jennifer Hale is Shepard.

But it shouldn’t be that way.

Shepard is not a single character. Shepard can exist anywhere on the scale between lawful good and chaotic evil. Theoretically. Granted, a chaotic evil Shepard might not survive all three games. But that’s an option you have. You, the player, are Shepard; the voice actor should only be the conduit through which you speak—not the determiner.

My first playthrough was as a female soldier, mostly paragon with the occasional renegade choice. Sometimes the renegade choice makes more sense. Sometimes it’s more fun. But sometimes, when the line came out tinged with Hale’s perception of the situation, it would feel like my character was having a psychotic break. More than once I shouted at the screen, No! That’s not how I meant that at all! when a vague prompt turned into a seriously dick move. I should feel free to choose my options without compromising a cohesive personality. It should enrich who I am as a character. But her hyperbolic readings were like a punishment for going astray. Over time my mostly paragon, occasional renegade Shepard was cornered into straight paragon.

It worked the other way too. My second playthrough was a female infiltrator, mostly renegade, occasional paragon. And I just couldn’t bring her to romance anyone. You can’t reconcile being an unapologetic hardass and telling Thane, in a soft and gentle tone, that you love him. What? Where did that even come from? Haven’t I just been listening to you talk about your doomed culture and how you’re stuck on an old relationship? But whatever.

I had tried several times to start a game as male Shepard and never got very far. Compared to Hale, I found Meer bland and impersonal. Where is the craft? I wondered. Where is the emotion? But after a full paragon and renegade playthrough each, both with the voice of Jennifer Hale—let me tell you. Mark Meer was freeing.

His performance isn’t bland; it’s calculated. It’s not impersonal, but cautious, analytical. The emotion is there, but it’s subtle, and therein lies the craft. With Meer I found an opportunity to finally play the Shepard I really wanted: middle of the road.

Which is exactly what he was aiming for in his approach to this role, according to the man himself. Knowing that a player had two or three differing options for each choice, he specifically intended to keep all his lines at “an even keel.” Without an overabundance of tonal color, I was actually able to role-play a character. (Vanguard this time, if you’re curious. The other best choice I have ever made in this series.) I was able to make choices based on his backstory, the psychology I imagined might spring from it, rather than which option was red and which was blue. And whether I want to go full paragon, or full renegade, or somewhere in between, I know that with him, it will all hang together.

So while I love Hale’s performance for a certain type of Shepard, and especially love playing as a kickass lady (and making out with sexy dude aliens, okay, let’s be honest), I am now guilty of the greatest transgression in the history of the Mass Effect series.

I think Mark Meer does it better.

The featured image is from here. I’m sorry it’s not smarmier.