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“What’s up on earth?”: casual reflections of a first-time MCU marathoner

“What’s up on earth” is a favorite narmy subtitle in the bootleg copy of Inuyasha I watched during my newbie anime viewing years. The sub was for the phrase “いったい何があった!” and variations thereof. They are exclamations approximating “What the hell happened here?” or “What’s going on?”, often indicating the shit’s hit the fan and no one’s getting out clean. It came to mind last month when I was catching up (finally) with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and being struck by the stark contrast between earth-bound and other-planetary beings particularly when it came to the matter of feelings. Because, well, what’s up on earth that we’re doing them so wrong?

I’d already seen and loved Guardians of the Galaxy prior to this latecomer marathon, though it felt so different from my impression of western superhero comics I didn’t even associate it with Marvel. What completely caught me off-guard was how much I’d love Thor. In retrospect, my fondness for the former should have prepared me for it. Both films play on otherworldly sensibilities, tapping into its potential for situational humor (Thor‘s fish-out-of-water setup and Guardian‘s displaced earthling scenario) and theatrical outlandishness (read: perfection). More impressively, both portray characters who are fully present with their emotions, even when they can be deceptive or distrustful in other ways (*cough* Loki).

Compare this to the angsty brooding hero complexes of the emotionally unstable Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America and I think we get a glimpse of some of that good ole modernity thing that happened on earth. These are grown men suffering from PTSD and anxiety, not managing their pain or their needs, and continually making really bad decisions, individually and collectively. Instead of turning to trusted resources (as Thor does in Avengers: Age of Ultron) or to one another (as the Guardians of the Galaxy learn to do time and again), they stall, allowing themselves to be blind-sighted by the emotions they deny or repress while innocents, including their colleagues and those who they purport to protect, bear the consequences of their subsequent poor judgment. These heroes inconsistently lean on institutions (in the name of “law and order”) no matter how many times institutions fail to be the answer to anything (see: S.H.I.E.L.D.).

I love it when one of Rocket’s outbursts disrupts the plot or flow of a scene and the film just let’s him have it, leaves it be. He gets to be angry when he’s triggered. He gets to mourn when he’s sad. It warms my heart that Groot’s existence is inexplicable and yet so many viewers’ understanding of his warmth and kindness feels self-evident. It moves me that Thor’s intelligence is emotional, reflects an ability to openly love. It makes his instincts honest. There is no drama of ego when his loss of power prevents him from fighting the Destroyer. He prioritizes evacuating civilians and entrusts the containment of the enemy to his friends. It’s both telling and also hopeful that these non-human beings are somehow more in touch with their humanity than we earthlings often prove to be.

english rendition ofトモダチメートル by The Super Ball

Deadlines loom, but I apparently needed to get this out of my system. This is the OP from my favorite show this season, The Morose Mononokean (不機嫌なモノノケ庵), and it has been stuck in my head all week, so I just gave in and got to lyric-ing and English-ing.

As far as shower jams go, it fits right into my playlist of songs of unrequited or one-sided yearning. It also resonates with the series’ theme of teetering in that mystifying space of uncertainty between two worlds: one familiar and one unknown. The distance between the two may feel frightening–it is, in fact, more ambiguous and promising than one might imagine.

Anyway, you can follow along with this video, if that’s your thing. I referenced lyrics from this site in my translation.

Tomodachi Meetoru (Friend Meter)

OP to Fukigen na Mononokean
song and lyrics by The Super Ball

Sometimes I find myself wondering
How you see me in your heart.
Even though I know full well
The two-word answer is “a friend.”

Whenever it’s just the two of us
I’m all smiles before I realize.
But a sharp pain in my chest tells me
My heart strains to keep up the act.

No, I don’t want us to stay as we are
But it’s better than not being with you at all.
Somehow I can’t seem to smile today.
My cheeks, they feel a bit funny.

With just one step forward,
The distance we keep between us would shrink,
But it’s maddening that I can’t see
What lies beyond that closeness.

If I take just one step forward, surely,
There’ll be no turning back to now
So, for today, I’ll keep my feelings to myself.
Ah, I’m such a pathetic wimp.

Whenever we’re walking together
I’m a few steps behind before I realize.
It’s hard to face your profile straight on,
Try as I might.

You ask me what is wrong,
I say that everything is fine.
I’m sorry. Words are failing me
And my tear ducts, they feel kinda funny.

It’s better if we stay this way forever,
Maintain this distance; that’d be nice.
But how can I believe that’s true
When you’re the only one I see?

In order to take that one step forward,
I’ll have to be a much stronger person
Or else I’ll likely fall apart–
Ah, I’m such a pathetic liar.

Like the twilight visible through the clouds
You’re a brilliant orange that lights the hollows of my heart.
Even if there’s no way out, my feelings remain true.

With just one step forward,
The distance we keep between us would shrink,
But it’s maddening that I can’t see
What lies beyond that closeness.

If I take just one step forward, surely,
There’ll be no turning back to now
So, for today, I’ll keep my feelings to myself.
Ah, I’m such a pathetic wimp.

we are family: anime sons and character fandom

Like many things in my life, it started as a joke.

I was in Asia for research, hanging out with cousins about 10 years my junior. They shared their room with me, lending me their youngest sister’s bed, and busted out their stash of BL from the bottom of a box of manga (an almost secret they kept from their mom). I called them my research assistants, still do. They accompanied me to comics libraries and fan conventions, invited their friends over to show me their manga and dojinshi collections. Over tea and cake, shopping and snacking, we rode the energy of our collective reading histories, chatting through habits we’d developed in naming, loving, and longing.

“She’s a fan of Prussia,* too,” my cousin gestured towards me while addressing a friend she’d invited over. I supposed this was how we were meant to start building a conversation. Instead, her friend put one hand over her heart and dramatically pointed a finger from the other at me.

“Love rival!” she accused.

Huh?

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but I guess it was not really a way I tended to relate to characters, at least not then or now. In high school, I once harbored a long drawn out crush on Marlon Brando after watching him play Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (I was terribly fascinated with Plutarch’s Lives and Shakespeare’s Roman plays for whatever reason). I read his autobiography and celebrated his birthday. Friends gifted me with old posters of him they found sitting in frames for sale at flea markets. There was one of him on a bike wearing a peaked hat (from The Wild One) I remember especially fondly. I’m sure I tried at least on one occasion to buy a hat that resembled it. I wish I could say it feels like worlds ago, but it’s more like it was the 90s and no one else cared so I never got to test how I would feel if another zealous fan showed up.

The moment passed, we exchanged books and sweets, they told me about their favorite artists and what events they planned to attend over the summer. Afterwards, I admitted to my cousins that I’d never thought about the appropriate way to follow up on being accused of liking the same character in love triangle fashion. How did I relate to characters, then, they wondered? I quipped, “Well, I don’t know about Prussia, but…there are a bunch of characters I refer to as ‘my son.'”

“Ehhhhhh?!”

After having a good laugh about that, we predictably started going through the names of faves and sports brats to determine if they were sons (mostly Aomine and Haru, in my case) or not (for me, Levi).  Then, in familiar fan friend fashion, they introduced me to a work where they suspected I’d find yet another (see Araba Seri below).

This idea of 2D sons–while something I hear often enough in the western anime fan circles to whose edges I’ve somewhat attached myself (and that, I suspect, consist largely of women in their late twenties or older)–was in turn refreshing and bizarre enough to my cousins as well as other fangirls I met and talked to in Asia that, through our conversations, I started making up rules and criteria in my mind for who was and was not a son. For instance, I set a personal limit of one son per series, just to have some vague parameter (Shusei Kagari became an honorary son when I was testing this as a search function). Sometimes, I’d claim a character who shared resonances with others I call son (Mikoshiba Mikoto and Tanakakun can stay for dinner any time they like). Sometimes, it’s about the particular affect associated with my feelings for the character, whether it’s “protect this child at all costs,” “can I adopt you?” or “there’s just no way I didn’t birth this fool.” All my sons help me externalize hatred I was taught to have for certain aspects of myself because they are, as we all are, perfect.

Earlier this year, two things happened.

First, I met Killua Zoldyck who filled my heart with so much light the joke finally collapsed on itself and I was left with nothing but fond feelings for the miracle of life (lol). Then, as is wont to happen with fannish topics, the idea of 2D sons got unnecessarily concrete during an excited transnational Skype conversation with a fangirl friend and I felt compelled to make a definitive list for her.

When I sat down to compile the list, it was actually much easier than I’d thought it would be. I allowed myself twelve names, a nice round number, that I knew would begin with Tamaki and end with Killua. Then, I let my heart sort out the rest. To describe the process: I imagined my heart as a house and tried to picture the characters who inhabit it, the family I’d been building in my mind somewhere, the futures I want to cherish and watch over.

So that’s that. I present to you the semi-guided list of anime sons, a shorter version of which can be found on tumblr.

*a character from Axis Powers Hetalia (2006- , Himaruya Hidekaz)

Suoh Tamaki 須王 環 (Ouran High School Host Club桜蘭高校ホスト部)

I met Tamaki during my first year as a PhD student when I realized–not in class, but by watching anime–that gag comedy expresses so much that is true and wrong and poignant about the world. Tamaki is such a special, lonely flower. I’m just happy he’s so well-loved.

Yamana Shunpei 山名 春平 (Elektel Delusion,  妄想エレクテル)

This clueless bb is not the first nor will he be the last misguided youth to suffer from “no one to talk to about gay.” It’s far from a graceful process, but I’m glad he leads with his heart (because the BL is certainly not helping lol).

Mihashi Ren 三橋 廉 (Big Windup!, おおふり)

Do you know what it’s like to love something with so much of yourself that you can’t help moving towards it even under incredibly uncomfortable and adverse circumstances? Mihashi does. He the softest, most solid rock. I carry him in my pocket always.

Aomine Daiki 青峰 大輝 (Kuroko’s Basketball, 黒子のバスゲー**)

He’s the guy I wanna punch whenever I look in the mirror. I’m like stop being so handsome and silly. Except don’t.

Araba Seri 新葉 芹 (Shonen yo! Tanbi wo egake!, 少年よ! 耽美を描け!)

Araba is fandom meta fail. He’s going through all the right motions, but getting nothing right. It’s okay, Xin Ye. We all have those days when we take a look around and think, “what in the world am I doing with my life?” only to plow on, instead, with the force of “sorry. not sorry.” Fake it til you make it, son. I’m here with you all the way.

Nanase Haruka 七瀬 遥 (Free!, 腐リー**)

From the animeland of characters with the beautiful names hails Haru who loves water and wants nothing but to swim free(style). He’s too precious for this world, but he braves it anyway to be with his friends. *throws all the joyful feely emojis at him and watches him blink back…slowly*

Miyuki Kazuya  御幸 和也 (Ace of Diamond, ダイヤのA)

All my sons fill me with pride and wonderment, but the way this one carries himself is downright ridiculous. Watching him, I find myself overcome with awe (b/c whaaaa) and disbelief (b/c what). Basically, I’m his biggest, most embarrassing fan…the one crying and laughing in the stands.

Hinata Shoyo 日向 翔陽 (Haikyu!!, ハイキュー!!)

Uwuoooooohhhh! My sunshine from another planet. May he always be such a beautiful and joyful unknown.

Shin-ah シンア (Yona of the Dawn, 暁のヨナ)

It is his instinct to minimize harm and hold what warmth he is given. He possesses the most patient and steadfast kindness. I know he doesn’t need much, but I can’t help but want everything for him.

Hikigaya Hachiman 比企谷八幡 (My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU!, 俺ガイル)

He understands how deeply other people can cut into the way we feel about ourselves. I ❤ his self-love. Keep doing your thing, bb. Togetherness is hard, but you got this. I got you.

Inugami Saburo 犬神 三郎 (Wagatsun,  わが家の長男ツンデレ社長、通称わがツン)

No one has to be useful. No one’s existence has to make sense. Saburo is perfect. He’s also part human, part squid alien (no apparent zoological relation to squid). If you know anything about me and squid, then you understand why we were meant to be, really.

Killua Zoldyck キルア・ゾルディック (Hunter x Hunter, ハンターxハンター)

I know everyone thinks their youngest is an angel; Killua is terrifyingly human. He’s a child fighting to remake the world against trauma, against fear, and with a modest wish for connection. For every tear he sheds, an angel stops making clouds or music or dreams or whatever it is they do and appears to smack some sense into the world. He my wishful beating heart, the “here goes…” of carrying on.
 **not the actual Japanese titles

look, Rin! it’s the food shipping post!

This post is dedicated to my friend, Rin, who has always shared an appreciation for the ways food, as an every day occurrence, can be imbued with storytelling magic.

Years back, when we were both living in a dreary New England college town jumping through PhD qualification requirement hoops at our dreary New England school, she would show up at my door through metaphorical and real snow with cute ass “coals” such as these to warm my soul:

米:ね、ね、ラブレターだと思っていいよね?  英:う-‐うるさいな

This non-smartphone quality image captured circa 2012, aside from telling on my resistance to new technology, does not quite do justice to the earl grey lemon curd muffin she lovingly explained represented a certain Hetalia ship we both–as American educated persons born in British crown colonies–found resonated as a metaphor for certain cultural experiences. One of these was partaking in fish n’chips, shepherds pie, and beef stew at the local pubs run by immigrants and expats from the UK.

Aside from this, Hetalia-jokes also often provided happy premises for gathering. There was a period of time when Rin would carry over elaborately crafted Austrian-style cakes made by a friend who frequently borrowed her kitchen to practice his training in Southeast Asian pastry schools (there is no end of conversations that can be had about the culinary results of foreign and imperial presence in the Asian countries familiar to us by home and by research association). Tea time became a spontaneous tradition of which Roderich would approve. Once, I confessed to a senpai my fondness for Roderich’s nemesis Gilbert, the cartoon personification of Prussia in the series. She immediately offered to come over and teach us how to make Prussian meatballs, a recipe passed down to her through in-laws, and my apartment became a place for hosting dinners for a small group of women scholars in the program.

We embraced the feeds-my-belly-feeds-my-soul worldview of Yoshinaga Fumi’s works. While braving general exams, first teaching jobs, heartache, and living in an environment of anxiety and elitism, we shared meals rounded with miso soup inspired by Kakei Shiro’s cookery in Kino nani tabeta? (What did you eat yesterday?). Shitamachi, the old downtown area of Tokyo featured in Giant Killing, inspired the addition of oden and other shibui elements (such as shochu) to dinner party menus. Its mom-and-pop shops, small-town amusements, and yatai (food stalls) would become the subsequent site of many a pilgrimage during visits to Japan.

When I took my first steps towards field research in Japan, we laughed and ate our ways through conference woes and awkward Japanese conversations with scholars. We had soba in Kyoto in honor of Katsura and countless parfaits in family restaurants as tribute to his less uptight friend-in-arms Gintoki. It was in Ikebukuro, the furusato (hometown) of anime/comics/games fangirls, that she introduced me to two lovely and shibui women who are now close mutual friends. Their first social gathering had taken place in the dim-sum restaurant featured in Ai ga nakute mo kutte yukemasu! (More than love, food has made me so happy!) and we have revisited the site many times since in various permutations of togetherness.

Rin,

I honestly don’t remember much of my years spent in that dreary New England town, but I do always recall sitting down with you and talking and laughing (sometimes to keep from crying) and eating and celebrating everything and god knows what with immeasurable fondness. I revisit the light of those moments every now and then in order to remember the joy and connection with which I embarked on this lonely enterprise. I know not where this enterprise will lead me in short-term or long-term futures, but remain happy that it brought us together and that it continues to link our journeys, how ever geographically far apart we may be.

A very Happy Birthday to you, friend. As we face our demanding presents, I hope that sharing food and stories continues to be a powerful form of comfort, self-care, and healing. Holding on to that rain check on fish n’ chips and stew–or whatever strikes our fan(tas/)cies–for whenever we next reunite.

<333