Try not to faint on the coffee table, Mrs. Grundy.
Some thoughts on politics in anime and Japanese literature, with a focus on two specific series
by T.J. Mason
Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
I suppose I must confess that I caught the anime (and related Japanese culture, such as their comics ("manga") and serial novella ("light novels") bug from my son a few years ago.
There are a couple that I have become very interested in, and on consideration much of my interest is in the political systems they discuss and the diplomatic and military combat within those systems. Both are arguably in the much-lampooned "high school harem" genre, but neither pushes the limits on "fanservice (though there is some), neither is significantly risqué, and both are reasonably accessible to any science fiction / fantasy fan. In both cases, "teased" (rather than spoiled) by the posting at the infamous tvtropes.org web site, I have moved on from the anime to the original novel series and have consumed most of the story presently available in English translation (from Amazon, some in electronic form, some in hard copy).
1. Invaders of the Rokujouma (also written Rokujyouma)!?, based on the light novel series by Takehaya with illustrations by Poco beginning in 2009; 2014 twelve-episode anime adaptation presently on crunchyroll.com and Hulu. Note that crunchyroll.com can be watched for free with ads, with a one-week delay on current series)
This series appears to start as a comic harem story, but goes to significant and subtle depths and has a high degree of action and drama hidden amid the comic hijinks.
The series opens on Koutarou Satomi, a high school freshman with a troubled past who decides to move out on his own to start high school when his father has to move for a new job. Koutarou settles into a rokujouma—a so called six tatamai mat apartment—because the efficiency apartment rents for a mere 5000 yen per month (roughly $50) after a series of tenants moved out claiming it was haunted. For reference, a tatamai mat is a roughly 6' x 3' (180 cm x 90 cm) heavy woven floor covering, so the apartment basically has a 108 square foot living area, plus a small kitchen, bath, and wardrobe in the entry way. Koutarou also surprises his friend MacKenzie by joining the Knitting Society at school, run by the frail sophomore Harumi Sakuraba, instead of playing baseball like he did in middle school. This is only partially explained (in the anime) when he sits a half-finished knitted sweater next to a photograph of his dead mother. It should also be mentioned that his landlord, Shizuka Kasagi, who inherited the apartment complex Corona House from her parents, is also in his class at school.
After a fall at an archaeological dig site near the school where he works, Koutarou is apparently knocked out and has a vision of being spoken to and welcomed by a statue of a beautiful woman surrounded by nine lights in the seven colors of the rainbow plus black and white. He awakens in the hospital, and things take a turn for the weird when he returns to his apartment.
The ruckus finally rouses Shizuka from her overhead apartment and she comes down and gives Koutarou and the five girls—including, somehow, Sanae—a beatdown for damaging the apartment, before telling them to settle it peacefully on threat of further pain. Kiriha suggests Old Maid … and the games begin.
The rest of the anime—and the first six novels in the series—build on this foundation as the "invaders" continue their game based war and, in the process, become friends rather than competitors -
The anime ends with a Christmas episode and the beginning of a new year's play telling the second half of the story of the Blue Knight and the Silver Princess. Moving onto volume 6 of the series after the anime closes, it happens that Clariossa attempts to murder Koutarou, for helping Theia before, in the middle of the play and triggers a space warp that causes them both to suddenly disappear from in front of Theia and the other invaders.
What happens next is what lifts this from an ordinary high school romance, in my opinion, into something awesome (though be sure to read so-called volumes 7.5 and 8.5 between volumes 6 and 7), but I won't spoil the further portion other than discussing the political aspects that have kept me interested through the 30th book in the series—amid what I consider to be compelling action and drama, with more than a bit of friendship and platonic romance thrown in:
Well written counter-terrorism operations, an anarchist rebellion, and protection against the Deep State in a milieu that combines science fiction with two, not one, different families of magic, er, " Incorporated." Interleaved with stories (about one book in three) about high school relationships as the nominal girlfriends grow close to both each other and the boy. Fall over laughing humor (some in context, such as Ruth's obsession with rhinoceros beetles) and political drama that feels as close to Washington DC as it does to the center of an intergalactic empire founded 10 million light years from earth.
While I won't pretend that it all rises to this level (though some of the side stories might be considered Japanese updates of the "Puddin'" stories, including a couple that deal with weight issues), the best portions remind me of Ms. Rowling channeling Mr. Heinlein (or vice versa; at one point a character explicitly suffers from Oscar Gordon's dilemma in Glory Road - what does the hero do when the quest is won?), with perhaps a shade of Dr. Smith, and I found them as difficult to put down as when first encountering the masterpieces from those authors. Given their fervent interest in keeping the government of Japan from finding out about their shenanigans, for obvious reasons, there might be a touch of Neil Smith in there as well.
The Kindle editions of the light novels typically cost $6.99, so the series will set you back about $210 so far. The first 21 novels (including the two side volumes) can be read for free on the web site of the translation service, starting at https://j-novel.club/v/invaders-of-the-rokujouma-volume-1/search, without signing up, if you want to sample the series. A kickstarter has been completed to publish the first 31 light novels, plus the 2 volume "side story", in an 11 volume English softcover dead tree edition. Reading times are reasonably 2-3 hours per volume. The anime is presently available on Hulu and crunchyroll (the latter at https://www.crunchyroll.com/invaders-of-the-rokujyoma; it can be watched for free with ads, and the ads are suppressed using Firefox with ublock origin). .
2. The Irregular at Magic High School, based on the light novel series by Tsutomu Sato, with illustrations by Kana Ishida, first published in 2011; US editions by Yen Press and available, through book 13, on eBook and in soft cover.; 2014 twenty-six episode anime adaptation presently on crunchyroll.com, Netflix, and Hulu—yes, all three sites.
This series of novels is a more conventional science fiction/fantasy story set in Japan near the end of the 21st century. To cover the backstory broadly, in the near future it will be discovered that magic is real and that is has a distinct genetic component—only individuals with the right genes can use magic. While this setting sounds like Harry Potter, this future is hardly so light hearted. The various world governments (private institutions seems rarely to have been involved other than as the government's tools, though some developed their own agendas over the ensuring decades) co-opted identified magic users and, though forced human breeding and genetic engineering started to develop magicians as tools of warfare. This occurred with mixed success through the succeeding twenty years of world war (2030-2050), brought about in part by the effect of global cooling on the world's supply of food, energy, and other resources. This war was expressly prevented from going nuclear due to the power and influence of the nascent magical warriors, but that did not prevent the world's population from halving.
The war ended with a not significantly changed section of nation states (details include China's absorption of the Koreas), and Japan maintaining its traditional antagonism against both China and Russia and a loose and sometimes uncomfortable alliance with a unified North American continent. However, with each generation of "modern" magicians becoming more capable through both breeding and genetic manipulation, realpolitik is becoming more focused on inhibiting or reproducing the capabilities of each power block's magicians than on traditional diplomacy and warfare. Technologically, the identification of magic with certain portions of the magician's brain allowed the invention of "casting assistance devices", or CADS, basically personal assistant computers which facilitate the memory of and activation for a set of programmed magical spells tuned to each user's special skills. Cads may be general purpose, which require more power and control from the magician, or specialized, which require less control but more power.
Insofar as Japan is concerned, the most significant events in the few years preceding the start of the story are incursions, apparently unrelated, by Russia and China. The Russian invasion was largely stopped by the intervention of a twelve year old from one of Japan's leading magical families, Masaki Ichijo, whose signature magical attack is "rupture," the ability to literally vaporize the blood in the bodies of his opponents. Ichijo becomes a more significant character as the story progresses. Similarly, the Chinese invasion of Okinawa was largely repulsed by a single individual, never identified, whose magical techniques are never described to the general public (at least, not until much later in the series), but were so effective that even the bitterly humiliated Chinese officially repressed all records of them. But when the survivors of that battle spread rumors of their defeat, they call that individual " Mahesvara," or Shiva, the Indian god of death and rebirth, for apparently appropriate reasons.
The story opens with the start of the school year, in April 2095 (the Japanese school year goes from April through March). Tatsuya Shiba and his 11 month younger sister Miyuki are shown entering the grounds of the First Magical High School (there are nine such schools in Japan) to start classes as first years. Miyuki is the freshman representative to speak at the start of year assembly, on the strength of her high performance on the practical magic admission test; however, Tatsuya is identified as an "irregular" student who was admitted on the strength of best-of-class academic capabilities but who had performed poorly on the magic practical. Miyuki's abilities bring her to the immediate attention of the powerful student council as well as the "First Class" of practical magicians. Tatsuya's personality, though somewhat wooden; his deft handling of a couple of incidents of prejudice by the First Class students against his "Second Class" classmates; and good fortune in coming to the attention of both Erika Chiba, outgoing daughter of a magical clan known for combining magic with swordplay and prominent in defense and police work, and of the student council president Mayuma Saegusa, daughter of one of the prestigious " Ten Master Clans" who rule Japan's magical society largely outside of and in parallel with the civil authorities, combine to focus attention on him.
Tatsuya starts off by defeating the previously undefeated student council vice president in mock combat, so that he can gain a position on the school's student Disciplinary Committee. For combat and most other purposes, Tatsuya usually uses top-of-the-line specialized CADs distinguishable from a Colt 1911 only by the oblong opening that replaces the barrel. From that position he manages to attain public notoriety as the Second Class student who slapped down First Class magical misuse right and left during the student club's notoriously messy rush week, through a mastery of magic suppression techniques.
Fundamentally, Tatsuya is never beaten, one aspect of the story which frankly frustrates numerous critics. It also is shown very early that Miyuki's affection for him borders on the obsessive (or more accurately, crosses that border and sets up shop next to the capital building), teetering perilously on one of the occasional anime themes that many critics, both in Japan and in the US, lament. (To provide one counterpoint, and a minor spoiler, nothing has so far happened, or is ever likely to happen, between the genetically engineered siblings that would surprise anyone who has read Time Enough for Love. Except for Miyuki's tendency to magically freeze everything in the area when someone triggers her obsession.)
The anime adaptation presently available (there is also a movie, and an upcoming second anime series scheduled for release next year) covers six of the first seven books in the series distributed as three story arcs. (The book not adapted to anime, which concerns summer break, has Miyuki reveal that her obsession with Tatsuya is because he once saved her from near death. That episode itself is central to the eighth book, which is a series of flashbacks to fill in some of the back story.) To again return to the purpose of focusing on the political themes:
That is about as much as I can say without moving into serious spoilers for the series. As alluded above, critics have much to say both about Tatsuya's so-called "Gary Stu" abilities to solve any problem and attract many of the girls despite having a very muted personality, and about Miyuki's obsession with him. However, within my limits of "suspension of disbelief" it all works together in context (though as noted above, I'm familiar with "The Tale of the Twins Who Weren't" from Time Enough for Love; genetic engineering means that siblings are not necessarily that closely related). I find the world, and Tatsuya and Miyuki's role in it, fascinating. Tatsuya is portrayed as an individualist but also as a Japanese nationalist and family loyalist, though not one willing to do anything for either the Japanese government or the Yotsuba clan—particularly if Miyuki's safety is on the line. Regarding the anime, the animation is good but not great, and the adaptation is generally well done but sometimes feels spotty from leaving out material that is explained in more detail in the novels. (As noted above, having some of these points explained in the posting at tvtropes.org is what "teased" me into following through to read the light novels. Also as noted, your mileage may vary from doing the same). And for what it's worth, the closing theme for the first 12 episodes (many multiple-quarter anime series introduce different openings and endings in each quarter), "Millenario" by Elise, is one of the most beautiful songs in any language (with English lyrics at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aQmdBlplqE).
(And as a bonus, I just noted that the same Japanese voice actor portrayed Koutarou and Tatsuya, and the same Japanese voice actress portrayed Ruth and Mayumi.)
The Irregular at Magic High School is available on Amazon in both paper back and ebook with volume 1 at Amazon.com. The companion manga The Honor Student at Magic High School, which retells portions of the story from the point of view of Miyuki and her friends, is available at [This Link]
The anime can be viewed on Crunchyroll at https://www.crunchyroll.com/the-irregular-at-magic-high-school. It is also available on Netflix and Hulu.
These stories are not political. They are just … darned good at jerking the heart strings. All three anime are available on Netflix, and Your Lie in April is also on Hulu. Don't just bring Kleenex—buy stock in Kleenex (there are no "tough guys" around these stories). All also feature world class music that you can turn up with an easy search on YouTube.
Your Lie in April (2014; 22 episodes) is the story of youthful piano prodigy Kousei Arima, who developed the inability to hear his own piano music after his mother died. Saddled by a deep depression, he lives a colorless life lightened only by his childhood friends Tsubaki Sawabe, a tomboyish softball player, and Ryota Watari, the school's soccer star. This changes when a vivacious violinist named Kaori Miyazono announces her love for Ryota and enters their lives. Presently rated the #24 anime of all time (out of something over 11,000 rated) at myanimelist.net, and my overall favorite anime.
Anohana, or the Flower They Saw that Day (2011, 11 episodes), concerns five childhood friends who drifted apart after their sixth friend, Menma, died in an accident. Five years later, Menma's ghost is back—and Jinto, the former leader of the band, has to get their friends together again to help grant Menma's final wish. (#93 of all time.)
In Angel Beats (2010, 13 episodes), a young man named Otanashi awakens with amnesia in an afterlife where young teens who had tragic lives come together in what appears to be a high school setting. There, they seek to heal the pain of their former lives, and perhaps find fulfillment if not happiness, while challenging Angel, the young " fellow student" bent on making them follow the rules of this strange purgatory.
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