Mighty Explosive – Exploring Midoriya and Bakugou’s Rivalry in “My Hero Academia”

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Disclaimer: The following post contains spoilers for My Hero Academia’s anime and manga. Proceed with caution.

PREAMBLE: MIGHT AS WELL (SHONEN) JUMP

Weekly Shonen Jump is one of Japan’s most popular comic anthologies, and a part of book publisher Shueisha Inc.’s line of Jump magazines. These books have hosted a number of stories since 1968, including Mazinger Z, Dragon Ball, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Naruto. Shonen Jump’s most popular stories most known for being about hot-blooded youngsters – namely young boys or men – fighting to achieve some kind of lofty goal, whether it’s defeat an ancient evil, become king of all pirates, or rise among the ranks of pro basketball players.

Many Shonen Jump titles are also characterized by young people with super-powers kicking the tar out of each other. They follow the formula of a gung-ho protagonist setting out on a quest for glory. Said protagonist is typically driven to succeed by choice or circumstance and is often (but not always) something of a goofball or at least incredibly rambunctious. They make plenty of friends and allies along the way – some of whom are their former rivals – and are often accompanied by a weaker but somewhat plot-relevant character. That latter character’s purpose is generally to tag along and narrate what the hero’s up to during their battles, to be left dumbstruck by their opponents’ skills, and then to be wowed by the way the hero turns things around.

Outside of a small handful of titles, few have tried to mess around with that format, but those that have managed to produce some very compelling results. Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia is one such title.

PART ONE: SUPER-DUPER

In the world of My Hero Academia, 80% of the world’s population has a Quirk that they can pass on to their children. Quirks range from your garden-variety super-power (such as pyrokinesis or phasing through matter) or to being born with the physical characteristics of an animal (such as being born with the head of a bird, or possessing the tongue and jumping power of a frog). Our protagonist, Izuku Midoriya, is part of the 20% of the population that isn’t super-powered, but is passionate about Quirks and idolizes the many superheroes (known simply as “heroes” in this universe) that have come to populate his world – particularly the strong and stalwart symbol of peace All-Might. Heroes themselves are licensed professionals similar to firefighters or police officers, and Midoriya wants to become a hero to help those in need, but his lack of superpowers keeps him from achieving that dream.

One day, he’s visited by his idol, and becomes selected as All-Might’s successor after proving himself in a battle with a tenacious sludge monster. All-Might’s Quirk, One For All, is a Quirk that not only greatly increases one’s physical strength and speed, but can also be passed on to other people. This nets Midoriya the chance of a lifetime, and he begins his hero training at the illustrious UA High School, alongside his former childhood friend Katsuki Bakugou, a temperamental and prideful boy who can make things explode by converting his sweat into nitroglycerin (don’t ask).

The reason why Bakugou and Midoriya are at odds is simpler than one might think. When Bakugou’s Quirk manifested, everyone from his peers to his teachers praised him and treated him like he was special while Midoriya was essentially ignored and mistreated by those around him. This led to Bakugou pushing his friend away because he saw a world of Winners and Losers, and saw Midoriya as one of the losers. Conversely, Midoriya saw something else entirely; he saw, in his own words, that not everyone was equal, and these are two very different things.

Midoriya sees the people in need and the people who can help those in need. When Midoriya sees his friends and comrades suffer, his first instinct is to jump in. This is a strength that he taps into before he inherits One For All, and it’s what makes him a candidate to essentially become the next All-Might. This is because Midoriya sees gaps that need to be filled, and that people should step in to help others even if they’re not qualified or trained to do so. With Bakugou, this couldn’t be any more different. Bakugou believes in a hierarchy where the strong are to be praised and supported by the weak. Bakugou refuses to let anybody help him, because not being able to stand up for himself or get by using his own strength is, in his mind, something that will hobble him.

In Bakugou’s world, he is not just bound to be a hero but also the hero, the protagonist, and that we are reading his story.

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PART TWO: PROTAGONIST SATURNALIA

In any other manga or anime of this type, My Hero Academia’s protagonist would have been Bakugou, and Midoriya would have been his plucky Quirkless sidekick who provided colour commentary during battles such as Manta from Shaman King, or would be superpowered but ultimately ineffective in battles like Krillin from Dragon Ball Z. We can see that in Bakugou’s design, as he is already a composite of several other leading lads from other popular manga series. His appearance immediately brings to mind the title character of Naruto and Natsu Dragneel from Fairy Tail. Both are series led by hot-headed, spiky-haired youth looking to be respected and revered by those around them, heroes who breeze through their challenges with relative ease, steadily getting stronger and gaining more allies along the way.

However, rather than be a carbon copy of those characters, Bakugou is instead depicted as an entitled dirtbag who treats everyone around him like competition, even when they’re being nice to him, but also doubts himself in his darker moments. Character traits that would normally be endearing or quirky (for lack of a better term) in any other series are shown from another angle. We see Bakugou as a brash and insecure firebrand who wants people to see him as the guiding light for the world to follow. Bakugou is undeserving of a rag-tag team of weirdoes to help him achieve his dream because he’s a mean-spirited and divisive bully.

This is where his dynamic with Midoriya gets interesting. Midoriya undergoes a transition from observer to participant, opting out of becoming another Krillin-type character early on. He’s not satisfied with merely cheering people on from the sidelines, and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. In fact, one could argue that one of Midoriya’s superpowers is his power of observation. Being “The Krillin” or “The Manta” on some level not only helps him understand how his friends’ and foes’ Quirks function, but he’s able to apply that level of observation to the people around him, reading their emotions and being able to motivate people to succeed or be better people by being heroic rather than “being the hero.”

What also makes Izuku Midoriya so interesting is that, compared to other Shonen Jump protagonists, he doesn’t breeze through his trials unfazed, and yet even his failures make him a better person and are even inspiring to other characters. See, Midoriya’s driven by a need to help others but is also hindered by the power he’s inherited. Because Midoriya’s a tiny teenager, he has to train constantly in order to keep One For All from essentially killing him. Even then, he runs the risk of breaking all the bones in his limbs if he doesn’t measure himself – and often does. In fact, the first time Midoriya uses his Quirk is to take down a giant robot, but doing so destroys both his legs and shatters his punching arm from knuckles to shoulder. There is a school medic who can miraculously heal people, but her powers can’t help him every time, and so Midoriya has to learn to control what he has.

Meanwhile, although he does experience setbacks, Bakugou is significantly powerful and formidable, walking away from battles relatively unscathed, and yet everyone still resents him. A great example of this is the tournament arc in the second season of the TV show, which also took up a sizeable chunk of the original manga.

PART THREE: THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP

Normally, tournament arcs are defined by the major players in the story fighting their way through hordes of jobbers until everyone finally squares off with each other, normally with the protagonist coming out on top. Furthermore, it’s during the fights between the more significant characters that we learn more about their motivations, and usually they end up finding common ground among our main characters. Some characters during these arcs even become series regulars and fight alongside our heroes later on.

In My Hero Academia, Izuku Midoriya doesn’t even become one of the final four combatants. In fact, he gets knocked out in the second round of matches, which is virtually unheard of for a series like this. However, it is in that second match that he ends up fighting with another hero trainee, Shoto Todoroki, who has been played up from the start as being a Pretty Big Deal.

Todoroki is the stoic son of the powerful but abusive hero Endeavour. He possesses both his father’s fire powers and his mother’s ice powers, but refuses to use the abilities of the former out of pure spite. In their match-up, Midoriya convinces him to use both his powers at once through a seize-hold-of-your-destiny speech. This results in Midoriya losing the fight but winning a friend and trusted ally, as well as the respect of his peers and elders.

When Bakugou and Todoroki have their fight, which is the last match of the tourney, Todoroki refuses to use his fire powers because he needs to process this change that’s come over him, and in doing so ends up losing. Bakugou wins the tournament, but it’s a hollow victory. Midoriya robbed him of what should have been a character-building moment for any major Shonen Jump protagonist. While there is no way Bakugou would ever be able to get through to someone in the same way Midoriya does, the fact that someone who would have normally been relegated to the support role in an SJ narrative made one of the more powerful trainees at UA doubt himself has left Bakugou vexed.

This, among many other moments in the series, leads to the already-tense relationship between Midoriya and Bakugou becoming further strained and tested.

FINAL WORD: ANIME MAGNETISM

Writing this all out makes me wonder whether or not the rivalry between Midoriya and Bakugou is actually somehow talking about Shonen Jump protagonists themselves. Midoriya is not just the Krillin/Manta/Sakura character, but has also inherited the silly charismatic strategist side of your bargain-bin Shonen Jump protagonist, while Bakugou is very much a manifestation of the relentless fighting machine side of those same characters.

Perhaps this is truly why they are at odds with each other. Imagine if someone like Kenshin Himura or Monkey D. Luffy was divided into two characters and they were forced to interact with each other; there would be endless animosity. They would not be able to stand the sight of each other, but the former would be drawn to the latter by their need to be friendly to others.

It would also be why Midoriya and Bakugou will eventually need to mend things. Midoriya needs Bakugou’s fighting spirit in much the same way Bakugou needs Midoriya’s empathy and intelligence, and when forced to work together, they can achieve great things. Their past friendship and time together as classmates means that they understand each other, even if one clearly despises the other. Whether they want to admit or not, despite their differences and incongruities, they need each other.

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A Quick Word About “Dunkirk’s” Claustrophobic Cinematography

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The following has some spoilers for the movie Dunkirk. Please bear that in mind before reading on.

World War Two movies are a dime a dozen. Plenty of filmmakers and audiences like re-living that period of 20th century history when people were united against an unambiguous threat. While there were many acts of heroism and intrigue that happened during that time, it was also deeply traumatizing for many of the soldiers on the ground.

A lot of fiction produced about World War Two tends to glorify it in some way, and people like bragging about how eighteen-year-olds in the 1940s were facing life and death and that kids of our generation have it too easy. That latter part bothers me a lot. I mean, character building should not be the result of trauma or watching the people around you die. I’m writing this from the perspective of someone whose family served in both World Wars, and I’ll tell you for free that nothing I’ve heard over the years has ever made me want to enlist.

It seems Christopher Nolan has a similar bone to pick with that mindset, as seen in his World War Two film Dunkirk. Taking place during three different times and places that slowly intersect as the film goes on, the story focuses on the rescuing of British and French soldiers stranded on the beaches of – you guessed it – Dunkirk. Our focal characters are, in order, a lone soldier named Tommy stuck at Dunkirk, three civilians in a rescue boat on their way to the battlefield, and a Spitfire pilot engaging in dogfights with Nazi planes.

Now, Dunkirk is not the best World War Two film in that it gets a little too patriotic for my liking. It’s worth noting, for example, that the Germans are absent from Dunkirk, depicted only as faceless foes popping shots at our heroes from unseen locations, or firing at them from U-boats or planes. It’s a controversial decision because it deeply dehumanizes the Germans and makes them more of a phantom threat characterized only by their weaponry.

That said, it is a creative decision that ties well into the themes of the film. After all, you’re not always going to be clashing bayonets with your foes or engaging in fancy gunplay. Dunkirk understands that, and utilizes cinematography rife with tight close-ups and wide shots that not only show a deep loneliness and desolation, but also a sheer creeping panic on our protagonists’ faces. For me, the scene that conveys this well, which you can see in the trailers for Dunkirk, is when one shell-shocked soldier strips off his gear and walks directly into the ocean. Watching the whole scene play out directly conveys the helplessness of their situation, especially since this takes place after two of the Allied troops’ rescue vessels were bombed to shit.

Another scene that’s a personal favourite of mine is right at the beginning, when British private Tommy is exploring the abandoned town of Dunkirk shortly before the platoon of soldiers he’s travelling with are all gunned down by the Germans. There’s a lot of tension in this scene as the camera follows Tommy during frantic his escape, comrades dropping at the hands of assassins we don’t see. In cases like this, not showing the Germans shouting at each other or cackling as they opened fire on our hero and his mates is incredibly effective, and closer to what people tend to experience in a war zone.

There’s more to draw from, but I feel like this sense of anxiety and claustrophobia is where Dunkirk shines. When we see the Spitfire pilots – Farrier and Collins – trapped in their planes as they do their rounds, we see their journey from their perspective. We never leave their seats. Like them, we’re forced to watch the carnage unfold across the sea they’re patrolling. When the beach is attacked and Tommy takes cover as the film’s first bombing run draws closer and closer to him (and the viewer), we feel that tension and defenselessness, that sense of dread as his allies slowly vanish under clouds of sand and debris. All the while, the orchestral soundtrack is set to this oppressive metronome that seems to get louder and louder during the more intense moments.

In doing this, Dunkirk demonstrates that war is agonizing and disorienting. There’s no glory to be had in being shot at on a beach by some asshole in a plane, and chances are the most likable people you meet and support you the most are those that also end up dead. You don’t know who’s shooting at you, or when people will start shooting at you, or when their assaults will let up. You don’t know where a safe place is. And in the end, if and when you make it home, you just end up wondering why the hell you left to fight in the first place.

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A Quick Word About “Little Witch Academia’s” Stance on Celebrity Worship

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Disclaimer: The following has a number of spoilers for Little Witch Academia, a show which wrapped up just now. Be advised. Also, watch Little Witch Academia.

I loved Little Witch Academia.

I know my articles have focused quite a bit on Japanese pop culture as of late (and with my huge post on Persona 5 on the way, let me say you’re not out of the woods just yet), but hear me out. Studio Trigger routinely produces some high-quality stuff, from anti-fashion slobberknocker Kill La Kill to heartwarming sci-fi drama Kiznaiver, but it was their first in-house production, a short film called Little Witch Academia, that turned a lot of heads. Recently, Academia was turned into a 25-episode television series, and aired its final episode this week, and it was good. Damn good.

There’s a lot I love about this show. I love all the cues the animation team took from western animation, and the distinctly Looney Tunes-esque feel of some of the humour. I love the swells of the music and the art direction, and I can’t wait to track down any art book that spawns from this production. I love how much of a goof the protagonist Akko is, and how she’s both loud and obnoxious with all the grace of a winged hog but also driven and deeply compassionate. I love how she never comes off as completely annoying, and how I ended up rooting for her as early as the first episode. I love how the girls aren’t sexualized. I love how diverse the cast is, and how –

What? Oh, yeah, you read that right: the girls aren’t sexualized. Okay, sure, the skirts on the uniforms aren’t exactly regulation length, but Little Witch Academia steers clear of the gross tropes found in any other anime series featuring an all-girl school. There’s no moment where potential love-interest and Justin Trudeau-lookalike Andrew Hambridge walks in on Akko in the changing-room. There’s not an onsen or a beach episode in sight. There aren’t any jiggle-physics or panty-shots or leering camera angles on the girls as they slept or lounged around. It’s not a creative decision I expected from the same company that made tits-akimbo slap-‘em-up Kill La Kill and its thong-clad protagonists.

All these elements are Good and Great, but what I really like about the show is what it has to say about idol worship, celebrity culture, and inspiration.

Our premise is simple enough. Atsuko Kagari, AKA Akko, is an aspiring witch attending the illustrious magic academy Luna Nova. Akko stands out because she’s not only the sole Japanese student at this school, but also the only one who doesn’t come from a family of sorcerers. Akko was inspired to become a witch because she loves magic and is a huge fan of witch-turned-performer Shiny Chariot, whose stage shows she attended when she was younger. However, Akko struggles with magic, and seems unable to properly perform it.

After her first excursion to Luna Nova goes south and Akko finds Chariot’s old wand in the middle of a forest, Akko becomes more driven to accomplish her dreams. Despite her difficulties with mastering the mystic arts, from her inability to ride a broom to her comically clumsy attempts at advanced magic, Akko still plans to become a witch who can make the world smile as Chariot once did.

What Little Witch Academia makes clear is that there’s no point in becoming the next iteration of the person you idolize. Not only are your experiences radically different from the people you want to be like, but if you were to meet your idols and express that desire then they’re likely to tell you that’s a bad idea. The series does, however, say that your relationship to your passions should be unique to yourself, and if you wish to become like someone you admire in the career you want to be in, then maintaining your identity is integral.

This is demonstrated as early as the fourth episode, when Akko’s friend Lotte is given the opportunity to write future iterations of her favourite book series. Rather than take up the torch, Lotte admits it’s best for her to remain a fan of what she loves rather than be a contributor, because rooting for the people you admire means more to her. Then, in episode 11, Akko is offered a prosperous future by a spirit, identical to Chariot’s in every way, but in exchange for Akko’s past and memories. Akko then refuses this offer and exclaims that she does not want to abandon her identity just so she can become another Chariot. Later on, Akko learns that attending Chariot’s magic shows actually hindered her ability to use magic, and that while she does have the passion and commitment needed to be a witch, her obsession with her idol ultimately hobbled her.

This is crucial because celebrity culture – particularly in the arts – is obsessed with this idea of the next generation of entertainers. Recently, for example, I came across articles that pondered whether Mahershala Ali was the next Idris Elba, or whether Tomi Adeyemi or Samantha Shannon were the next JK Rowling. In the eyes of the public, an artist is not allowed to stand by their own merits. They have to be compared to another household name.

Little Witch Academia, meanwhile, explicitly rejects that idea. It makes it clear that Akko’s passion for magic and a bright future should not be confused with her obsession with her idol. The fact that the ultimate symbol of Akko’s magical hobbling is her ability to fly hammers this point home. Comparing yourself to your heroes weighs you down, and you’re not able to reach your potential if that happens. She does take many cues from her idol, especially in the final battle with a demonic missile the main antagonist fires when she puts on a Chariot-worthy light show for the world to see. However, by giving it what I would best describe as an Akko-worthy spin, it’s as much her own thing as it is a tribute to her idol, and in the closing credits we are treated the moment we’ve been waiting for since the very first episode – Akko’s first flight on her broom.

For Akko, her journey is not about becoming the next Shiny Chariot – it’s about becoming the first Atsuko Kagari.

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A Quick Word About FEMM’s Brand of J-Pop

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I do not remember how I stumbled across FEMM.

It must have been on one of those nights when I was trapped in a YouTube black hole trying to find new content to absorb. I just remember stumbling across a song called “Kill The DJ” in my Recommended Videos column and before I knew it, I was watching two expressionless women in latex belting out a catchy bit of braggadocio.

They caught my attention from minute one:

Within moments, I had binged all their songs.

FEMM is an electro-pop duo whose name is an acronym for “Far East Mention Mannequins.” They are a gimmick band in much the same vein as acts like Gorillaz, or Lordi, or Genki Rockets. FEMM’s shtick is that they are living mannequins named RiRi and LuLa, and are portrayed by Emily Kaiho and Hiro Todo respectively – who also portray their “producers” Honey-B and W-Trouble (Do you …Do you get it?). According to FEMM’s own lore (which I don’t fully get but here you go anyway), the band came together to liberate “dolls” and unite the world while asking two important questions to the public: “Do dolls have feelings? Do their songs move people?”

This is going to be important later.

Watching FEMM is like watching a Bizarro Universe version of Perfume. Now, I’m not going to throw shade at Perfume. Their music is catchy and energizing, their choreography is impressive, and I’m totally going to fly to Japan and marry Nocchi and become a stay-at-home dad so I can raise our 2.5 dogs and white picket fence. However, the content of their music is very light and playful (look up lyric translations and you’ll see what I mean). Conversely, to them and to the safer and friendlier veins of most J-Pop, FEMM’s music tends to be more aggressive and adult.

Consider the following: at the time of writing, Perfume’s most popular song on their YouTube channel is “Flash,” followed by two tracks innocently titled “Magic of Love” and “Pick Me Up.”

Presently, FEMM’S most popular song on their channel is titled “Fuck Boys, Get Money.”*

What I like about FEMM isn’t just the music, although many of their songs can get me through a long day. I like how they are musically in direct opposition to most J-Pop.

Everything about FEMM clashes strongly with their whole “doll” and “mannequin” motif. When we think of dolls, we think of fragile cutesy things meant to be cared for and doted on. Mannequins, as per FEMM’s namesake, are supposed to be stiff and lifeless blank slates we project the trends of the times onto. FEMM challenges this regularly. Not only are their lyrics more mature, but both halves of FEMM run around in latex bodysuits and fright wigs, do provocative and complex dance moves, and make it clear they’re not just pretty faces. What’s more, the pair sing in much-deeper tones than some of their more popular J-Pop contemporaries (AKB48, I am looking at you), which arguably make them more womanly.

There is also the matter of the two questions FEMM poses to their audience: “Do dolls have feelings? Do their songs move people?” The second question is answered easily; taste is subjective. However designed-by-committee a song or artist’s image is, such songs can, will, and do resonate on a personal level. I imagine there are still people who listen to Milli-Vanilli and Ashlee Simpson, despite the artists themselves being outed as frauds who lip-synched on stage.

That first question, however, must be answered. Do dolls have feelings?

It’s an important one to ask because it feels like a question being asked of the music industry with regards to its talent. Pop stars like Ariana Grande or One Direction (or anyone else over the past century, really) are viewed as eye candy that can sing and move in ways that are pleasing to the general audience. But how do they feel being up there? Rather, how do we make them feel?

It is scarier in Japan in some respects. Idol Culture, as it’s called, deifies talented people to the degree that any mention of personal involvement outside your career can mean life or death. Remember AKB48? When one of their members was discovered to be in a relationship with a boy, from another pop group no less, her managers forced her to call it off. Then, in penance for daring to have a life outside music, she shaved her head and gave a tearful apology on YouTube. It doesn’t just extend to music; one voice actor, Hiroshi Kamiya, had to apologize for being married with a son, and actress and singer Aya Hirano came under fire for having older boyfriends and for confessing to dating multiple people.

Is it worth it being in the spotlight when children and alleged adults lose their minds over the goings-on of their idols’ personal lives? Do we not treat them like dolls in the hands of brats? Do people not become obsessive or possessive over people that they have claimed for themselves?

Do dolls have feelings?

Clearly. We just aren’t allowed to know that.

And in Japan, where FEMM’s message of liberation is being broadcasted from, “dolls” get punished for expressing them.

* Yes, I removed the censoring and I am using proper pronunciation here. Otherwise, “Fxxk Boyz Get Money” sounds like a brag that insufficient men are surprisingly wealthy.

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A Quick Word About “Oshiete! Gyaruko-chan’s” Subject Matter

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The following has spoilers for a twelve-episode series you can probably watch in an hour or two depending on how you pace yourself. Anyway, be advised, I guess.

Against my better judgment, I ended up watching all twelve episodes of Japanese web-anime series Oshiete! Gyaruko-chan or Please tell me, Galko! Against all logic, I ended up enjoying all twelve episodes of Japanese web-anime series Oshiete! Gyaruko-chan or Please tell me, Galko!

I think it’s because, back in the dark days of high school, I was super-into this one Japanese cartoonime called Azumanga Daioh, a show adapted from a newspaper comic about six high school girls and three of their teachers embarking on oddball – but still somewhat grounded in reality – adventures together. I liked it because it was a breath of fresh air for popular high school-based anime series that seemed to focus on either power levels and long-winded fights or one boy’s quest to never get a girlfriend despite having multiple options. Azumanga was just about six kids goofing around, playing off of each other’s quirks, and trying to make sense of the world, and that was refreshing.

Let me be clear: I don’t believe Oshiete! Gyaruko-chan has inherited that fire from Azumanga. That, in my opinion, would be something like Turning Girls, a show about four women facing the onset of their thirties and figuring out what kind of adults they are. What’s more, much unlike Azumanga, Oshiete! Gyaruko-chan does its damndest to pack in as much cheesecake as possible.

That said, I found something fun about Oshiete and the way it messed around with the idea of how a character is perceived versus who they really are. Challenging stereotypes is the name of Oshiete’s game, illustrated well with the main protagonists. Title character Galko is kinder and more empathetic than the spray-tanned airheads she’s modelled after, and her comrades Otako and Ojou – the nerd girl and the rich girl in any other series – are similarly well-realized. Otako is a biting intellectual who teases and criticizes everyone around her rather than be the subject of ridicule herself; and Ojou, despite being wealthy beyond compare, is far from an erudite and is in fact quite vapid and clueless.

There’s also the matter of what these characters are often discussing, which leads to the biggest misdirection the pastel-coloured web-toon has to offer. Oshiete! Gyaruko-chan is – to the show’s benefit and detriment – unbelievably frank and lurid. The main characters are always talking about extremely personal topics that wouldn’t be touched in any other show about girls-being-girls, such as period cramps, comfortable toilet paper, and, uh, “shaving.”

Immediately, I was recalling another series of this stripe that I didn’t think I’d enjoy, and that was HBO’s Girls. I thought the first season was tight enough for me to not give a shit about anything after it, and while I’m not sure I’d give it a re-watch, I appreciate the fact that Season One exists at all.* It served as a nice counter-balance to shows like Sex In The City, which are notoriously bloodless and safe and tell a story from the perspective of four upper-class working women. HBO’s Girls, meanwhile, showed four middle class white women getting drunk, doing drugs, having awkward on-screen sex, and trying to figure themselves out. One of the protagonists even catches HPV, something that would never be addressed in any given Julia Roberts rom-com.

That’s why Oshiete left me so interested, really. I’ve been in it for a minute as far as anime goes, and over the years I grew increasingly vexed by the “throngs of cute girls servicing one guy” series that were in excess. Shows like Kanon or Hanankyo Maid Tai always presented their female leads as stylized archetypes and objects of desire rather than real people, and the series I’ve caught glimpses of that tried to ride Azumanga’s coat-tails did little but present their audience with cute archetypes but cut out the lead males to make them more “available” to the audience, as it were.

While Oshiete! Gyaruko-chan does this to some extent, it has the courtesy to be, well, uncourteous in its characters’ conversations, while being sure to have fun along the way. I take comfort in knowing that some of the teen boys and manbabies watching this will cringe when the protagonists end up discussing whether they prefer pads to tampons.

Really, the biggest slight against Oshiete is the fact that all these characters are in high school. I mean, I get that many anime series are set in high school because that’s largely the target audience because they’re more likely to have the most time and disposable income in a work-‘til-you-die country like Japan, but it’s still an unnerving trend and I can’t shake the feeling that all this is somehow feeding into someone’s weird fetish. Especially when the characters are talking about their hypothetical sex habits. Like, ugh, send the animators home to their wives, please.

That being said, this Bridesmaids-meets-Breakfast Club combination was not something I expected out of a show like Oshiete. I appreciate it for what it is, even though I can’t wholly recommend it to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the “young ladies hanging around” subgenre. It is, as I said, a far cry from Turning Girls (WHERE’S SEASON TWO, YOU MONSTERS?!), but as far as these kinds of anime series go, it’s a welcome needle against the balloon.

* It was a shame that the story of Girls chose to focus on four white protagonists rather than mix-and-match the characters’ ethnicities and sexualities, since doing so would open up some super-interesting discussion points about, say, being Black or Asian or Gay in modern-day New York. Maybe HBO could tap Ava DuVernay or Shona Rhimes for their next project? I dunno who’s free.

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Dear Marvel: Please let me save The Bombshells

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And now for something completely different.

Dear Marvel,

I know we’re not close, but I wanted to reach out to you.

Recently, it’s come to my attention that you guys are in a spot of trouble. Apparently, your pal Nick Spencer thought it would be cool if Captain America came out as a Hydra agent. I saw this as a dumb marketing decision, like that time when Cap was a werewolf, but apparently this outraged a good number of folks. I’m a bit out of the loop since I barely touch your books, so you’ll have to fill me in on the hows and whys of this decision but from what I’ve gleaned, it’s understandable people would take umbrage with this turn of events. Turning a symbol of western freedom and security into another costumed goon for a Nazi proxy cell is not, er, great?

I’m not here to talk about that, though. I’m here to talk about Spencer’s other bad idea from Sam Wilson: Captain America known as The Bombshells, a radical leftist terror trio of Tumblr strawmen (strawfolk? Two of them are women) and currently I’m wondering what side of the pool everyone’s peeing in over there. However, I’m also wondering if you’ve unintentionally struck gold with this idea.

Here’s a proposition you probably weren’t expecting: I want to write for you. I know you guys get scores of people sending pitches for Spider-Man one-shots or twenty-volume reboots of Power Pack, but I’m serious. I might not have a Wikipedia page to my name yet, but I’ve been featured in a few books and websites. Plus, I know how to write a comic script.

And I want to write about The Bombshells.

That’s right. Not these Bombshells (not yet, anyway). The ones I just talked about.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Why? Do we seriously want to draw fire from Woke Twitter again? Who does this clown think he is?! Call security!” But, wait! I have some pretty good reasons why hiring me is a good idea, and also why The Bombshells’ existence in Earth-616 lay out some interesting ground to tread.

Consider the following:

1. I don’t read superhero comics.

Okay, that’s misleading. I’ve read some superhero comics.

Mostly, I’ve read and enjoyed a large chunk of Ellis, Ennis, Moore, Morrisson, and Gaiman’s works, as well as Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways and Ex Machina, Mike Mignola’s stories, that one Avengers book by James Stokoe, and Jeff Smith’s Shazam. I’m also more interested in the fast-and-daft works of Kirby and Ditko, so basically I’ve only ever read and liked about 7% of the superhero comics out there, including your own library.

This is important for me to lay out because I’m not someone who is steeped in the lore of your works. Superheroes are interesting concepts to me, but they don’t interest me enough to want to write or read hundreds of Hawkman books. I’m more interested, then, in what someone like She-Hulk or Luke Cage signifies versus what they’re doing and who they’re romancing.

And this leads to my next point:

2. I read things aside from speculative fiction.

Part of the problem with being an SF writer is that you’re drawn to reading other SF stories, not just because you enjoy it but because you want to see what the competition’s up to.

Being an artist of any stripe means drawing from a variety of sources, and not just the rivers and lakes that you’re used to. Speaking for myself, I’m a huge fan of noir and non-fiction stories about sad strange people gaining ridiculous amounts of power. Currently, I’m reading the biography of Yukio Mishima, an author and Japanese nationalist who thought it would be great to train up a personal civilian army, kidnap an army general, and then kill himself in the poor sap’s office. It’s pretty rad (the book, not the suicide part)!

Pop is doomed to eat itself, yes, but I bring an empty stomach and an open mind to that buffet.

3. I won’t get in fights with strangers on the web, I swear.

The problem with everyone being connecting is that everyone is connected.

I have lots of fun on the Twitter account I don’t know how to use and the Tumblr account that has devolved into an archive of dark humour and smut, but I am willing to close up shop or make those accounts private so as not to kick any beehives or argue with anyone over touchy subjects during my time as a Marvel writer.

As for those touchy subjects, let’s get right into The Bombshells.

4. The Explosive Potential of The Bombshells

Superheroes today seem to exist in this weird centrist landscape of left-wing morality and right-wing methodology. Save the day but destroy the city, protect the people but restrict their freedoms, get involved but only slightly, and so on. As such, the idea of far-left or radical left vigilantes is an interesting playground to be in.

Despite being intended as a bad throwaway gag by Nick Spencer, you now have at your disposal a trio of unique anarchist vigilantes who might be heroes to some and villains to others. Superheroes whose archenemies include classism, the patriarchy, and a corrupt criminal justice system. There’s a lot of potential here. I understand that this is being addressed on some level in your Champions book, but this could serve as an interesting companion piece.

That said, I’m not sure if I’m the guy to do this justice. My politics are pretty left, but I’m no anarchist and this is a tall order to fill even by my standards.

But I can help with the set-up!

5. A five-issue run called Sam Wilson and The Bombshells.

Here we go.

Sam Wilson reports back to SHIELD after a mission and finds that they’ve been preparing The Bombshells for a trip to The Raft after they started a brawl at a rally. Around this time, Hydra attacks the Helicarrier, led by the charismatic but nonetheless repulsive leader of their new Copenhagen branch. With backup sitting miles away and with only minutes left to live, Sam releases the Bombshells and offers them amnesty if they help stick it to some real fascists.

This five-issue run would not only be a strong Sam Wilson story (perhaps adding new dimensions to Sam’s character along the way), but will also better characterize and humanize The Bombshells, helping establish their politics and dynamic. This would be huge for Sam Wilson because he’s now the new face behind Captain America’s mighty shield, and these are strange times and a stranger political landscape, and the book itself will ask the question of what truth, justice, and the American way actually mean now.

So there you go, Marvel. That’s how and why I’d save The Bombshells from being either shelved for decades or repurposed as another bad guy trio to stomp on. If this kicks off, I’ll gladly give the same treatment to other characters that have been left by the wayside. Wait ‘til you hear about my reimagining of Curtis Doyle/Freedom Ring as a gay Flash Gordon as fuelled by the Power Cosmic.

Thank you for your time. Get back to me with any contracts or Cease & Desist letters at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

Robert I.

“Ghost In The Shell’s” Major Mistake

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Disclaimer: This has spoilers for the new Ghost in the Shell movie. Do you care? I don’t.

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I ended up seeing Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell and boy howdy was that ever a movie someone made. I know the biggest talking point being thrown around is why the main character isn’t an Asian woman, and maybe the movie would have been better if they cast a Japanese actress to play the Major, but visibility is the least of this film’s problems. Take it from someone who actually saw the bloody thing when I say that an all-Asian cast could not have saved this film because it is dull and has very confusing characterization.

This review is coming to you from someone who saw both films and Stand Alone Complex. I haven’t powered through the manga yet because it’s, like, enormous, and there’s a lot of material from Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell universe that I haven’t touched yet. While I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this franchise, I also feel like I understand enough about GITS to know what its core ideas are.

At its core (unless I’m mistaken), the GITS series is about transhumanism and AI ethics, all wrapped up in a cyber-noir thriller that name-drops different theorists and philosophers like mad. It asks what defines a human in a world where people can plant their brains into synthetic bodies and where anything from comfort droids to AI-controlled tanks could gain sentience and start making demands. It shows us how quickly that world would fall apart, the cracks that would form in such a society, and how people can take advantage of the memories and lives of others.

Rupert Sanders wanted nothing to do with any of this. In fact, in an interview with Vanity Fair, he was quoted as saying “I locked Masamune Shirow in the basement and I’m not letting him out! Anyuck-nyuck-nyuck.”

…Excuse me.

Let’s get this out of the way: yes, the movie is very visually impressive. The CG is nice and the aesthetic is well-realized. The monolithic holograms and neon lights of this new Tokyo the characters explore are all intricate and interesting to look at, and there are certain scenes and images that do stand out on their own. Furthermore, some of the synthwave that plays in the background is, yes, atmospheric, but ultimately utterly forgettable. Seriously, I tried to recall one track from this movie and all the memory centres of my brain could give me was a long and drawn-out hum.

As for the actual movie part of this movie, well, that’s where Goat in the Shill: Scarlett Johansson Complex falls apart. A lot of visual set pieces from the first film are revisited for the sake of reminding people that this is a Ghost In The Shell movie – the Major’s body being assembled, a naked-esque Major cloaking and shooting up a room full of dudes, the fight with the amnesiac truck driver, the night diving scene, and the fight with the spider-tank – but the nuances are stripped from them. They’re loaded down with slow-motion shots and the cool professional demeanour of the Major Kusanagi we knew is replaced with Scarlett Johansson’s standard cop-on-the-loose character.

One of the scriptwriters for Goat in the Shill commented that the film had about seven writers working on it, and can I ever believe it. The quality of the script jumps around, the story’s the most basic thing you could do with the setting, and the characters’ decisions don’t always make sense – like, why did our main villain Cutter decide to take control of the spider-tank himself? Isn’t he the president of a huge company? Shouldn’t he have employees who do that for him? At what point was it ever established that Cutter was a man who liked to get his hands dirty? It’s true that GITS Actual doesn’t have much room for character exploration, which is itself another identifier of the show. However, the opportunity to maybe address that was given to the filmmakers, and they fumbled hard.

What we have is a film that’s as much of a betrayal to the source material as the Wackowskis’ adaptation of V for Vendetta, which notoriously took a story about life under the Thatcher era and explored the ideas of anarchism versus fascism and turned it into a “George Bush is bad” film. That same boiling-down of basic ideas is present here. Gone are the deep questions of whether a machine can be human – or, indeed, if a human can be human – and what would happen if machines attained sentience and, say, a desire to procreate. What we have instead is a Jason Bourne movie. We have the bog-standard plot of “an evil corporation stole my identity and memories, and now I am out for revenge.”

Then there was the matter of that identity the villains of the movie stole, and man alive did they shit the bed with this one. In the film, we learn that the character of Major “Mira Killian” was not a refugee whose parents died in a boating accident, but a Japanese anti-technology activist named Mokoto Kusanagi who was abducted by Bad Corporation Hanka, had her memories wiped, and then placed into the synthetic body of Scarlett Johansson. So, yeah, she’s literally been whitewashed. And then after the president of Hanka is killed by Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) AKA The Only Interesting Character In Goat In The Shill, Kusanagi keeps the body that was forced upon her for a year and symbolizes the destruction of her old self.

See, that could have been interesting. The idea that Kusanagi’s identity was actually destroyed by a rich white corporate-type and she ends up on a mission to become herself again could have been an interesting character arc. Hell, it would have even been a good jab at the Hollywood bigwigs who wanted to keep Kusanagi as Scarlett Johansson because the idea of Black Widow in a flesh-tone bodysuit sounded more bankable to them. It would have been a great admission on Sanders’ part, as if to say “Yeah, we know this was divisive and sorry for deceiving you.” Then you could turn it around at the end and have Motoko played by Ellen Wong or Tao Okamoto or Anna Akana or whoever’s free for a weekend of filming.

So this film was a bust. A pity. At the very least, we hope can hope for a Japanese studio’s rebuttal to this boilerplate mess. And if we do get it, it better be the version we all were asking for: ninety straight minutes of Rinko Kikuchi in a body-suit breaking dudes’ assholes and shouting Marshall McLuhan quotes over kabuki music.

Motherfucker, I wouldn’t leave the theatre.

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What Happens On Skull Island Stays On Skull Island

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Reader, I come to you with a broken heart. Have you ever invested so much into something that it consumed you? Have you ever felt a passion so strong that you genuinely believed that the object your affection was something that could define the rest of your life?

Do you know what it’s like to have that, and then lose it? Watch it slip through your fingers and make you ask yourself “Dear god, what did I do wrong?” Well, I do. I know that feeling all too well. And I’m here to share my story with you.

Kong: Skull Island is … a little mediocre.

Yeah, that’s what I get for being on the hype train. I was hoping that Legendary Pictures was finally going to be doing something interesting with this IP, especially since the Good-to-Bad Kong Movie Ratio, or GTBKMR, is so staggering even by giant monster movie standards.

Why, though? My theory is it’s because of pedigree. The original 1933 King Kong was a science-fantasy special effects rodeo designed to distract viewers from the fact that there was a Great Depression going on. It was built on the same grounds as jungle-themed adventure fiction, complete with popular themes from that era such as battling animals in harsh environments, cruel and weird pastiches of native groups, and blonde white women being in peril so they can be rescued by blonde white men.

King Kong survived as a film, however, because of its special effects and brutally-choreographed fight sequences between fantastically-animated prehistoric monsters. It was a fine movie, to be sure, but it was a product of the time, and so it’s hard to make that lightning strike twice in different eras. They did try, mind, but outside of the two King Kong movies produced by Toho Pictures, King Kong’s filmography is little more than a sequel (Son of Kong, also in 1933), two remakes (from 1976 and 2005), and a sequel to one of those remakes (King Kong Lives, from 1986).

This is, of course, to say nothing of the various family-friendly animated series based on Kong, as well as the one direct-to-video animated musical which no doubt bombed the moment someone at Warner Brothers uttered the words  “direct-to-video.”

My excitement for Kong: Skull Island came from the fact that they weren’t just going to be retelling the original film’s story again. The idea of a King Kong movie where we do not leave Skull Island until the very end was an exciting prospect. That was, really, the best part of any King Kong movie.

I’ll give credit where credit’s due. Kong: Skull Island’s basic trajectory and cinematography are good. A lot of thought was put into the world-building and development of Skull Island itself. Everything pertaining to the monsters and the monster-fights were well-crafted and choreographed, and whatever music that wasn’t pilfered from someone’s Best Of The ‘70s mixtape is atmospheric and striking. Even the weird natives who are there to be weird natives had some interesting elements to them.

So what went wrong? Well, our protagonists are plagued by beasts far worse than swarms of monsters and giant gorillas: bad characterization, half-assed acting, and appalling dialogue.

Poor acting and bad dialogue in a giant monster movie are both par for the course, mind, but you can still have a great movie without them.  Sadly, we have several big-name actors phoning in their lines or speaking with the grace and subtlety of a palm tree spearing a helicopter. The only two actors in the film who were of note were probably Corey Hawkins and John C Reilly, but they were forced to play off of the rest of the cast. Samuel L Jackson and John Goodman might as well have been playing caricatures of themselves, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson fell flat, and Jing Tian spent most of the movie staring into the distance or delivering what few lines she had like she was at a library.

Then again, quality acting couldn’t have saved the film from its overloaded script and clumsy characterization. Kong: Skull Island’s dialogue is Age of Ultron bad. Firstly, I could have mixed up 90% of the characters’ dialogue and nobody would be able to notice. Secondly, and here’s some screenwriting 101 for you, when dealing with audio-visual storytelling medium where the audience’s role is passive, one has to ask “should a character be talking at this moment and if they do, then will it be important?” Instead, the editing team seemed to say “a character should be talking at this moment and it doesn’t matter if they say anything important.” Characters will just express what they’re thinking or feeling, rather than just showing it to the audience or demonstrating it in a clever way.

Now, that could have been done right. If Kong: Skull Island’s dialogue was properly-cheesy, it would have probably flown better. Cheesy dialogue is charming and light like a good Jack Kirby comic, or over-the-top and nonsensical like Deep Blue Sea. Bad dialogue is droll and heavy, and worst of all it is distracting.

Look, I didn’t want Kong: Skull Island to be high art, and in many ways I’m glad that it’s not. I just didn’t want it to be, I don’t know, average? And I feel like that’s what the studio settled for – a well-designed world bogged down by a boilerplate cast and half-assed writing. At least with Peter Jackson’s King Kong, flawed though it was, we got more of a sense as to who our protagonists were and felt some level of empathy for them when they were eaten by monsters. Carrying over some aspect of that to this film – with either a smaller cast struggling to survive or a larger and better-defined cast getting whittled down – could have made the experience on Skull Island more exciting, and it would have made the tense moments all the more tense. Instead, I found myself going “who died and why do I not care that they’re dead” every time a monster ate or crushed someone.

Despite all my harsh words, though, there is this weird trepidation that I’m feeling. It’s almost as though warning friends and colleagues and strangers on the internet about this film is somehow treasonous. At least this film is far more visually inspired than half of the other remakes, adaptations, and reimagined properties floating around out there. I mean, have you seen the trailers for the Power Rangers movie? It feels like I’m doing the world a disservice by not recommending this film. Yes, the acting and writing are painful and most of the cast is indiscernible from one another, but by god is this movie colourful, creative, full of life, and damn good to look at. I almost want to recommend it to my fellow kaiju groupies to spite the grimdark tones and Twilight-style colour-coding of modern adventure cinema. So, I am going to recommend it. I have to recommend it. But I’m also going to tell you to catch it on a half-off day at the theatre, or get it when it’s released at home and just leave the room whenever the human characters start talking.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that. I feel …strange and bloodless now, and my heart is ever-so heavy. I need some time alone. I invested so much energy into this, and I don’t know what went wrong, but I need to heal and see some other movies. Maybe some time apart will help, and maybe there’s a chance of reconciliation later, but right now it feels like Legendary Pictures made a monkey out of me.

Did you like this article? If you did, then head to Paypal and send care packages to my crash site on Skull Island. Thanks for reading!

Self-Promotion Sunday! Chronicle 150

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Hey, all.

This post is to let everyone know that I posted something on Casey Palmer’s website last week! Casey’s an old friend from my university days, and someone I admire a great deal. He’s made headlines as a parenting and lifestyle blogger, and long-running series of blog posts, Tales From The 2.9, on the lives of Black Canadians.

In anticipation for Canada’s hundred and fiftieth birthday, he’s been calling on Canadians to submit articles for a series of posts titled “Chronicle 150: 150 Truly Canadian Stories for its 150th Birthday.” He shot an email my way asking for a guest post, and you’re goddamn right I sent him something.

So if you want to read about what I think “Being Canadian” means and where the country should go from here, click this link.

Enjoy your week!

Go Big Or Golion: “Voltron’s” Legendary Remake

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Disclaimer: some spoilers for the first two seasons of Voltron: Legendary Defender ahead. Be warned.

PREAMBLE: IN THE SKIN OF A LION

Voltron: Defender of the Universe was one of those series that never did anything for me as a child. The show was one of the many Japanese exports brought over to English-American television and altered heavily to take out all the swearing, blood, and boobies. Canadian and US television did not have an anime boom in the way Mexico or South America did, but we had our (edited and highly sanitized) share.

Voltron was the Americanized name of the Japanese mecha anime serial Beast King Golion, and had a plot that was simple enough to follow. Set in The Future, it follows five soldiers caught in an intergalactic war between the good planets of the universe and Emperor Zarkon’s/Daibazaal’s forces from Planet Doom/The Galra Empire. Said soldiers land on an alien planet and meet Princess Allura/Princess Farla, keeper of five giant robot lions that form into a colossal mech called Voltron/Golion. Six episodes in, one of Voltron/Golion’s pilots is gravely injured and unable to fight/straight-up murdered, and Allura/Farla takes up his seat. The remaining forty-six episodes of this epic involves our colour-coded pilots beating up Zarkon’s/Daibazaal’s armies and towering Robeasts/Beastmen once a week.

I remember finding a VHS containing four random episodes when I was a child, but never seeing – or really wanting to see – anything past what I saw. The animation from the end of two episodes was repeated, the monster designs weren’t anything to write home about, and I couldn’t wrap my head around a giant combining robot where all its parts were basically the same vehicle with a different coat of paint. The fact that all of those vehicles were lions, whose heads made up the feet and hands of the same robot was particularly jarring. Is it practical to have mouths instead of digits?

You can imagine my surprise when I’d heard from a couple of sources that the new series being produced by Dreamworks was actually watchable. It wasn’t the first remake of Voltron that I’d heard of. Mike Young Productions put together an animated series called The Third Dimension that nobody remembered, and Nicktoons was responsible for a remake that …Well, look at it. I was gun-shy at first, but when I learned that two of the executive producers were Justice League Unlimited and Avatar: The Last AIrbender alumni, I got curious.

After watching both seasons, I can confirm that it’s good.

Not just watchable-good, but good, as a show and as a remake. Here’s why!

PART ONE: WE BUILT THIS KITTY ON ROCK AND ROLL

A good remake is one that draws from the original source material as much as it acknowledges the changes in the cultural zeitgeist that happened since it first came out, taking the best elements of that original property and creating something new and fresh. Legendary Defender does that in spades, pulling from both Voltron: Defender of the Universe and the original Beast King Golion. Not only do characters share the names of the original Japanese cast and their American counterparts, but it’s also not afraid to go into some dark territory while never losing its light-hearted side.

See, Japanese media didn’t experience the same moral panics as the US and never had much of their content edited or censored. For decades, Japanese children grew up with some pretty brutal stuff, and the mecha subgenre had its share. Major characters would die, monsters would get ripped to shreds in really gory ways, and a fair bit of sexual situations would find themselves onscreen. Not enough to warrant a blue rating, mind, but there was certainly enough cheesecake to fill a pervert’s bakery. This isn’t to say that American animation didn’t have its more adult moments. Secret of Nimh ended with the main antagonist getting straight-up stabbed in the back. You would just be hard-pressed to find something like that on television.

Netflix, however, isn’t cable television, so the rules of engagement are different. This means that serialized shows can tackle hairier topics that network television doesn’t go near, like a superhero serial where the protagonists fight the embodiment of male privilege or an LGBTQ-friendly prison drama (which shat itself in Season 4 but that’s another article, really).

This is, in part, because of pedigree. Showrunners Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim dos Santos worked on Justice League Unlimited, which killed half of its antagonists in a deep-space explosion, and Avatar The Last Airbender, which tackled themes of genocide and abusive parenting. Both of these shows were able to introduce some heavy ideas to Saturday morning cartoons, sensibilities that were brought into Legendary Defender with gusto. For a start, nobody “goes into exile” or is “recovering on a planet somewhere” like they did in Defender of the Universe; people die and whole planets are destroyed as Zarkon expands his empire.

Despite all this, everything about Legendary Defender feels fresh and fun. The art direction is slick, making a humanoid robot made of lions not the most out-there idea in this universe. Voltron itself is well-realized, given a smoother look and lacking that huge family crest that frankly looked really clunky. The synthwave/orchestral score are incredibly atmospheric, and mixes well with both the fight sequences and the more relaxed moments. The writing’s surprisingly good, and the character beats are particularly strong.

Moreover, this new series shakes up its own genre. Legendary Defender pulls from the past thirty years of science fiction pop culture, coating it in a thick Voltron paint. This goes beyond the show’s use of alien metric and the occasional reference to popular anime; Legendary Defender takes the Voltron set-up and converts it into a space opera like Firefly or the remake of Battlestar Galactica (speaking of references, Emperor Zarkon’s sentries and drone ships are very Cylon-esque). This is a universe rife with alien civilizations, dark and mysterious magic, and – of course – giant monsters, and Legendary Defender is eager to explore every corner of it. It is still very much a toy commercial, as all mecha series invariably are, but one that abandons the monster-of-the-week formula in favour of building a world of intrigue, espionage, and a full spectrum of mortality. Not every agent of Zarkon’s is necessarily evil, not every antagonist has evil intent, and not every good guy is good at being a good guy.

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PART TWO: DRAMATIS VOLTRONAE

There’s a lot to like about Legendary Defender’s interpretation of the main cast. They take the basic moulds of the Voltron/Golion characters, as well as archetypical characters in shows like these, and throw in one or two new elements to make them more appealing. One look at our pilots alone illustrates this well.

Forming the head of Voltron in the literal and metaphorical sense is Takashi Shirogane, AKA “Shiro,” a no-nonsense born leader and all-around Good Guy. He’s the straight man of the unit; even-tempered, precise, and never one to screw around. What sets him apart from other generic Hero Team Leaders, however, is that he suffers from PTSD after being tortured by the Galra for a year. His memories of his time as their prisoner fighting in their arenas has made him wise to their ways, but has also hindered him greatly. So much so that he’s actually made serious mistakes because something will set off a traumatic flashback.

Forming Voltron’s arms are Pidge and Keith. Katie Holt, AKA Pidge Gundersson, is a huge nerd with huge nerd hobbies but capable of holding her own in a fight. Despite her geek tendencies, she’s so dedicated to finding her family, other captives of the Galra, that she develops some lone wolf tendencies that put her on par with actual lone wolf Keith Kogane. Keith himself attempts to fit the “too cool for this trash” mould, being the token cold and distant loner, but his lack of self-control makes this difficult to manage. His patience is tested constantly, and he fails that test often.

Making up Voltron’s legs are Lance and Hunk, who play double-duty as capable gunslingers and comic relief. Lance McClain clearly fancies himself a Captain Kirk-type lothario and man’s-man, but lacks the authority and charisma, and with some insecurities that he needs to work out. Hunk Garrett is the heavy-set goofball, but is a bit more grounded than Lance and wears his heart of his sleeve. He’s also a capable scientist, a skilled chef, and a great judge of character.

What helps make the pilots stand out is the fact that the weapons formed by their bayards – Voltron Paladin-issue tools – reflect some aspect of themselves and how they function in the team. Hunk and Lance use firearms because they tend to work from the sidelines. Theirs are support weapons, which also work because they form the legs – parts of the body used to the support the rest of it. Since Pidge and Keith make up the arms, they utilize melee weapons. Keith’s longsword illustrates how he puts people at arms-length. Meanwhile, Pidge uses a katar attached to a retractable cord, alluding to her hacker sensibilities (since it, y’know, uses a cord) but also the connection she still feels to her family despite them being so far away.

Shiro’s bayard is in Zarkon’s hands until the end of season two, but he has his own weapon – the mechanical arm the Galra outfitted him with during his time as a prisoner of war. It doesn’t have any forms, but on its own it’s capable of carving through steel. Among the Galra, Shiro was known as “Champion,” and served as a pit fighter for their amusement. Such a tool was probably intended to mark Shiro as one of their own and make him into a more formidable fighter. Shiro now uses it against them, being sure to get right in close and show them what they’ve made. He has taken this symbol of his servitude and their mistreatment of him and weaponized it for his own gain.

Rounding out our team are Coran and Allura. Coran is less mature than his original version, but fills the role of “huge goofball who’s the voice of reason as needed” neatly. Allura is really worth talking about, though. Legendary Defender’s princess takes the best aspects of the original Allura/Farla and amps them up. Legendary Defender’s Allura remains the chief matriarch of the crew, but is depicted here as a confident and capable ship captain and military commander. The original Allura was extremely girly and prone to needing rescuing, whereas Legendary Defender’s Allura is a bit more hardened.

This Allura is as much of a fish out of water as our Earthling protagonists. Ten thousand years passed since she and Coran froze themselves in cryogenic sleep and parked their castle-ship on a distant planet. Now they’re the last of their kind and fighting what looks like a losing battle against her fathers’ arch-nemeses. She’s wary of whatever new allies come her way, even and especially when they’re ex-Galra soldiers, but she has good reasons. Ten thousand years have passed and she doesn’t know where the lines have been drawn. Despite all this, she’s able to put her skills in diplomacy and strategy to work, knowing when to take the fight to Zarkon and when to pull back.

Speaking of Zarkon, the upgrade to the villains is particularly noteworthy. Zarkon’s sorceress Haggar (known in Japan as Honerva) has gone from being a mincing Witch of the West knockoff to being a shadowy mystic commanding an army of black-clad druids in skull masks. Zarkon himself has been given a considerable upgrade. No longer clad in a devilish toga and comically-large crown, Zarkon’s new look screams Video Game Boss from his bulky layered armour to the colossal mech with wings made of swords that he pilots at the end of Season 2. As for who he is, there’s something about the fact that Zarkon was originally one of Voltron’s pilots that tickles the mind as well. Obviously, the show’s not over yet so we don’t know why he turned evil, but it puts him on an interesting level that goes beyond Standard Space Despot.

It also makes him a good parallel for Shiro, the current Black Paladin. He’s an image of power overtaking morality. Shiro is The Goodest Boy of the Paladins, so looking at Zarkon shows how he could turn out if he ever lost his way.

There’s a little more to Zarkon’s character than this, but in order to delve into that we have to take a look at how this show handles the Robeasts.

PART THREE: LARGE AND IN CHARGE

Whether you’re talking about Sailor Moon or any given super sentai serial, the core problem with the monster-of-the-week scenario is that it’s very predictable after a while. The protagonists have a problem, a monster comes in and either contributes to or represents that problem, and then everyone comes together and defeats this elaborate multi-armed metaphor with friendship or a huge gun or whatever. Legendary Defender does the unthinkable by throwing the monster-of-the-week angle out of the reboot of a series known for having monsters every week – and it’s great.

While each Robeast fight in both seasons of Legendary Defender certainly have a Boss Fight feel them, something else came to mind. You see, horror movies (bear with me) understand that the appearances of a monster have little to do with the creature itself. The makeup of a monster is incredibly important in highlighting how alien and bizarre it is, but overall what their appearances in the narrative mean for the characters matters more than how many times they appear on screen.

This was how I felt watching the Robeast fights. We were always teased with their appearances here and there, building up to these huge monster-on-robot fights that Voltron is always known for, but each fight came with so much narrative weight. The battle with Myzax the Gladiator solidified the team’s ability to come together, but also contributed significantly to Shiro and Pidge’s character arcs. Drazil was this ultimate manifestation of toll being taken on the living planet Balmera, which had been mined for its crystals to the point that it was on the verge of death. Finally, Prorok’s appearance as a Robeast not only established Galra rebel group The Blades of Marmora as a trusted ally, with one sacrificing himself to stop Prorok’s rampage, but told us so much about what Zarkon wants out of his soldiers.

Originally a Galra commander, Prorok acted out of loyalty to Zarkon but went against him thinking Haggar was using the Emperor for her own gain. Turning him into a mindless automaton establishes Zarkon as someone who doesn’t want generals who think for themselves, but yes-men who obey his wishes. That’s why so many of Zarkon’s soldiers are robots. Disposable robot footsoldiers being destroyed en masse is cathartic for the viewers who don’t want to think about whether their robot wives will miss them. On the other hand, it shows Zarkon’s not up for debate. He has an empire to run, and dissent of any kind – even if it might be in his best interest – is not to be tolerated.

Plus, there’s something to be said about this affinity for these giant hybrids of machine and animal held together with dark magic. Zarkon and Haggar could easily just plant a bomb in a cat and release it in Allura’s castle, but instead they settle for sending out the equivalent to sentient dreadnoughts. Each colossal Robeast they send out exudes power and deadly intent, and the fact that Zarkon has some level of control over them is telling. This especially works when he arrives on the scene at the end of Season 2 in that aforementioned mecha suit. Does this tell us something about Zarkon’s nature? Does he somehow miss the feel of sitting in the pilot’s seat, being in command of something a thousand times more powerful than his puny self? Is he reflecting on his halcyon days as he is recovering after that battle where his castle was trashed and the Black Paladin’s bayard – his bayard – was finally taken from him? Time will tell.

 FINAL WORD: THE PRIDE OF DREAMWORKS?

 Of course, I could be reaching with this three thousand-word post about a reboot of a giant robot cartoon from the 1980s. On a base level, I like it because the designs are fun and it has space and monsters and mecha with swords slitting things up. It appeals to the anime nerd/kaiju groupie in me and, really, I could say just that.

Instead, I found that there’s something to be said about this overall theme of a dynamic group of individuals taking on a despot and his drone army. This was one of the principal ideas behind Star Wars that made it so popular. The Empire and the First Order were led by fascists in jackboots commanding armies of uniformed thugs devoid of any discernable identity, challenged by teams of deeply complex citizens from other worlds and cultures united by a need to free themselves of tyranny. It’s a pretty universal story, one that gets retread fairly often but worth retelling every time.

So, yes, this is why I was so keen on Voltron: Legendary Defender. It’s exciting, funny, engaging, and has a few more layers than its predecessor. Go check it out.

Oh, and consider me excited for Season 3. Apparently, we’re going to get Prince Lotor, Zarkon’s handsome douchebag son, and I can’t wait for the throngs of fans to get all cow-eyed over him and forgive all of his war crimes because he is a hot boy who is misunderstood. Bonus points if he’s voiced by Tom Hiddleston.

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