I noted last year how nearly every anime series on my shortlist was an adaptation or reboot, and I also discussed what it meant when different shows succeeded or failed in adapting their original material. This year, a lot of that is still true (the talk this autumn has been around Pluto, an adaptation of an adaptation), and it made me wonder why that is specifically.
This year, the anime that we’ve called the Tomino Power Hour has dominated my viewing rather than any more recent releases. Gee and I went through Blue Gale Xabungle, Aura Battler Dunbine, and Heavy Metal L-Gaim in a round-robin fashion, finishing episode 1 of each, then 2, and so on, whenever fresh content was taking a break. We’re not done yet—it gets shelved whenever we want to watch new shows—but we’re making progress.
These series, which aired consecutively without a break between the first Mobile Suit Gundam and its groundbreaking sequel, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, shared the director Yoshiyuki Tomino, who created the Gundam franchise. Space Runaway Ideon aired before Xabungle, if we’re being exact, but we had to draw the line somewhere, and watching four fifty episode episodes at once is a bit much, don’t you think?
Although I knew in general that all of these programs adhered to the general framework established by Gundam, observing them all at once like this truly brings out their commonalities. I refer to specific plot moments in each episode that occur at around the same time: the adversary arrives with a hazardous new mech after going missing for a few months, the female lead gets kidnapped, and the main protagonist leaves the base and sets off on his own.
In a similar vein, English-speaking viewers could now view the last two Reconquista in G films this year. If you are familiar with Tomino’s earlier work, you will notice that G-Reco and Turn-A Gundam share a lot of parallels, even if there is a 15-year gap between them instead of the immediateness of the prior slate of series.
This is fascinating to me. “Hey, this show is literally just the last show with a different coat of paint,” was anyone saying this in the 1980s? Given that Dunbine was obviously just Gundam, but fantastical, did anyone write it off out of hand? They all have many distinguishing characteristics, to be sure, but it’s obvious that some sort of model was being adhered to, whether on purpose or not. Maybe it makes sense that the same author would permit the same motifs to appear across his creations.
Aside from Tomino Power Hour, Gundam is a great example of this since it features so many installments from so many different creators. and yet, some customs are adhered to virtually always. You are aware that Gundam will always be a war drama featuring a villain in disguise, an orbital return, a mid-season update, and the dreaded politics.
(Aside: it’s definitely worth writing a whole other essay about how the weekly, thirty-minute toy commercial format of these kinds of shows contributed to some of these particular genre norms, but that’s outside the purview of this piece.)
We were aware that The Witch from Mercury, this year’s Gundam program, would feature politics, combat, and mecha, but we were significantly unsure of the exact amount. We had issue, if anything, with it not talking enough about politics and war. “Well, maybe if it had more episodes,” was a common refrain on the GLORIO Chat podcast. This got me thinking, though: if G-Witch had more episodes, would it have covered the same territory as other Gundam shows? I think it would have been preferable to ask how closely it would have done so.
G-Witch most likely won over more new fans than it lost, but what did the new viewers think of previous Gundam episodes, or even just other mecha shows? Beyond the Gundam franchise itself, some innovations made possible by the series are now fundamental to the mecha genre as a whole. Oldtimers find it strange when they don’t occur. Will new viewers of mecha anime expect every episode to have the same elements they enjoyed from that wild show about two crazy kids struggling to survive in this crazy world? Would it even be that unreasonable if they did?
In last year’s post, I talked extensively about several Shonen Jump manga adaptations, but I only mentioned in passing how the magazine’s brand suggests a particular kind of tone and material. As a result, several of its series suffer the same problems. Jujutsu Kaisen’s slow collapse (narratorily, that is; its production troubles are chronicled elsewhere) is a predictable storyline collapse, as the series encounters the same issues as its Jump predecessors and contemporaries.
Other than using a variant of the term “battle shonen,” I’m not sure how else to describe the type of action series that Dragon Ball invented; the genre’s canon of clichés keeps showing up (and letting us down repeatedly), and you would think that by now we would have learned our lesson. The cycle will repeat again, but a new one will emerge and we will value it for some of its own distinct takes on the subject. Jujutsu Kaisen and My Hero Academia experienced the same fate as Naruto and Bleach.
A parade of story points in JJK’s second season have left me thinking, “Yeah, I’ve seen this before, and you’re not doing a particularly good job of it.” A multi-episode flashback narrative exists, but it primarily builds up the character of the unbeatable fan favorite, Satoru Gojo, without really contributing much to the plot. We have already praised the show for having strong female characters like Maki and Nobara, but both of them are brutally sidelined to either highlight the danger posed by the main villains or to (explicitly, in-context) drive the plot forward. This is because the main character, who is naturally overcome by his superpowerful Evil Within and holds himself personally accountable for the destruction wrought, is motivated by these villains.
And now that I’ve reached this point, I’m wondering if these things have ever been executed flawlessly in a battle scene? Are I really this naive? For the sole purpose of raising the stakes for Yuji, Mahito murders or disables three characters over the course of four episodes. I find this to be incredibly cliched, monotonous, and even offensive. Is this any different from Dragon Ball, where Nappa kills Yamcha, Chiaotsu, Tien, and Piccolo one after the other in a systematic manner? Although my intuition tells me it must be, there is still a nagging doubt. I mean, this is simply the way these shows are? Like this, they’re all obviously just kind of dumb. What did I think I would get?
When I try to assess the media I was exposed to this year objectively, I keep asking myself that question. What did I think I would get? What was it that I desired?
While initial impressions hold significance, our expectations for a work may hold greater weight. Hell, our expectations may keep us from ever forming an initial opinion at all. Since I had certain preconceived notions about the nature of the show—I expected Yet Another Storebrand K-On!—I was happy to disregard Bocchi the Rock! out of hand until shown differently, as I wrote last year. I still don’t watch any of the recently released isekai shows since none of them have made me reconsider my preconceptions.
I believe that the genre conventions I wrote so extensively about previously are merely one particular manifestation of these kinds of expectations. We expect the media to be aware of its predecessors and peers, if not actively engaged in communication with them, in order to learn from their mistakes and improve upon what worked in the past. Anything less than that could give the impression that the work is illogical or even unintelligent.
This is the reason I wrote a 3,000 word rant on Sea of Stars: I thought a game that positioned itself as Chrono Trigger’s successor would grasp why the original game was so great, but it didn’t. All season long, we have been complaining about Bullbuster on the podcast because it doesn’t seem to get what made Dai-Guard, a 1999 mecha series with a similar premise, so compelling.
I feel like an elderly man screaming at clouds about recency bias around this point. In both cases, the complaint is that a work released in 2023 isn’t treated with the same respect as a work released in the previous millennium. I’m drawing parallels between Dragon Ball chapters from 1989 and Jujutsu Kaisen chapters from 2021. 1989 wasn’t even my birth year!
The strongest sense of this temporal tension I have comes from watching Super Sentai or Kamen Rider. These are also weekly, thirty-minute toy adverts targeted at the age range of my hypothetical children. These shows are so predictable, driving the same routes in a clown vehicle with a changing theme every year, that I get a tingling in my bones whenever a cool new hammer is about to arrive. Watch J.A.K.Q. vs. Goranger, the first crossover team-up film, and you’ll realize that nothing much has changed in over 50 years save the fact that more toys are being thrown in your face.
What makes these shows appealing to a thirtysomething viewer, then? When I open the most recent Kamen Rider Gotchard episode, what might I anticipate? These are children’s shows. I’m not anticipating any intricate plots or characters that are very profound. Instead, I watch to see how they attempt to reinterpret The Formula in a fresh (or outdated) way, value the skill of working on a tight budget, and take pleasure in the innate campiness of guys hitting other men in rubber suits until everything explodes behind them.
This is why I think Anno’s Shin Kamen Rider, which is probably going to be the most well-known tokusatsu release in 2023, is a little strange because it seems more like what a youngster would think of Kamen Rider than what an adult would. It makes the pretense that the monsters are actually deadly, the characters are complex and multifaceted, and the audience doesn’t find this ludicrous in the slightest (even though they can still enjoy it as a result). For the most part, the film forgoes real suit-on-suit combat in favor of more elaborate computer-generated scenery, as though witnessing a suit zipper would ruin rather than add to the illusion.
However, this is merely based on my expectations as a non-Japanese speaker who has only recently begun regularly watching tokusatsu for the past six or seven years. My understanding of the genre is essentially constrained. The only Rider I’ve seen through to the end that isn’t Neo-Heisei (I know I’m assuming a lot of readers here by simply throwing this ambiguous phrase out there as if it has any value) is Kamen Rider Kuuga. I have no sentimental relationship to Kamen Rider and no notion of what the character meant to kids who saw the 1971 original film.
In certain aspects, Super Sentai is tense. Given that it has always been the younger of the two franchises, I anticipate it being campier and drawing more from tokusatsu’s physical humor. Because of its complete reliance on full-CG cast members (if you thought Jar-Jar Binks looked like an ass, InuBrother and KijiBrother are like getting fucking maced), I ignored Avataro Sentai Donbrothers, but it has a devoted adult fandom that praises its narrative. Although it at least uses real actors for the performance, Royal Sentai King-ohger manages to rely even more heavily on computer generated scenery for backgrounds and settings. Even though it fails 99% of the time, I can appreciate how ambitiously it handles the premise since it lives up to my basic expectations for the medium.
A portion of these anticipations found their way into tokusatsu-based works. We went into great detail on the podcast about how we felt about Gridman Universe, but in short, some of us thought it was good, and some didn’t, and I think that’s because of the expectations we had for the film. The tokusatsu team-up movie idea made me expect it wouldn’t have any significant character beats, so I was happy to be pleasantly surprised by the parts that it did have. The film’s relative shallowness upset Zigg, who had anticipated a level of narrative depth that would build upon the crew’s prior work in both SSSS.Gridman and SSSS.Dynazenon. These two “approaches” (if you can even call them that) simply arrive to different results because they both rely on prior knowledge, rather than being fundamentally better or worse than the other.
The whole line of reasoning above may be considered the bane of being an enthusiast, or even worse, a critic. As one delves deeper into a certain subject, their perspectives on it tend to grow more narrow-minded (just look at that one XKCD comedy or ProZD skit). Though I don’t live in a vacuum, I genuinely envy people who are able to reset their minds with every item of information they encounter and evaluate it on its own (de)merits.
Seeking as much information as possible or avoiding as much information as possible seems to be the best course of action for me to reduce my expectations for a job. I therefore usually don’t mind talking about spoilers or summaries, but I will at least try to enter the discussion as ignorantly as possible if given the opportunity.
In light of this, I’m happy I had the chance to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s How Do You Live? / The Boy and the Heron completely unawares, other than the fact that it had, well, a boy and a heron. Because of Miyazaki’s illustrious reputation as a creator, I couldn’t help but have certain opinions, but figuring out what the film was in real time was a satisfying process in and of itself. I’m willing to say, without giving away any specifics, that it’s the best movie Miyazaki has directed since Spirited Away.
What did I think I would get? What was it that I desired? I doubt I have really answered the question, “How Do You Live?” other than “some nice animation, I guess, since it’s Miyazaki.” To be quite honest, I would probably say something along the lines of, “I just hope it doesn’t suck,” for the majority of other works, but it seems so ambiguous and uncommittal. That cannot be the entire narrative.
As previously mentioned, I expect works to comprehend their position within their peer group. That seems much stranger the more I consider it. Do I want works to just carry out the same actions? Considering how often I criticize blatant mimicry, the answer is obviously no. However, it seems that I spend just as much time griping about them not playing the classics when they go off on their own. What can I anticipate? What is it that I desire?
I get a lot of worry when I think about this idea. I guess I want to make something new and unique since I’m tired of seeing reboots and sequels everywhere I look. However, my enjoyment of things also influences me, and I feel that I can never measure up to them. My own fleeting expectations and presumptions about what constitutes a “good” job have crippled me. (And let’s avoid talking about everything else related to capitalism.)
These days, we celebrate works that seem “indulgent” or that the creator chose their own principles over mass marketability (at least in the circles I usually hang out in). I’ve been trained to look for “specificity”—the notion that specialized, arcane topics are, incongruously, more practical and approachable than general, overarching concepts. Everyone believes that you should be your own first audience, and nobody else’s. Become the alter ego you wish to see in the world, etc.
Broken record that I am, my pals are now moaning as they read this, but it just doesn’t seem feasible. Nothing is so important to me that I have to make a reality out of it. I don’t think I have the abilities to create anything that I merely “like,” nor do I think I have the resources—material, emotional, and intellectual—to acquire those abilities. Who am I to demand more when I am unable to give more? I am just not a magical person who can independently produce some type of game-changing independent project that keeps my partner and I financially stable for the foreseeable future and encourages other, more talented artists to make the things that are in their hearts.
I realize that maybe, just this once, my expectations are a little bit too high.
When I reflect on the media that I encountered and “consumed” in 2023—the content that I would most likely include in lists of the best of—it is still largely composed of known quantities such as sequels, reboots, and adaptations. The media is no longer even able to take the time to build its expectations of me. It’s already in the losing side of things, assuming it has any. I should be evaluating works on their own terms, not just what I believe they should be, but I’m too afraid to take chances and too tainted by the expectations that the big-budget, mass-market, and Triple-A have forced upon me. They have outmuscled every opponent.
If you’ve heard this before, stop me, but I believe this to be one of the reasons franchises are so effective. When working on a series like Gundam, Star Wars, or Super Sentai, you have a fundamental template, a “box” that the work will always fit into, and a few extra blank spots on your bingo card. Just by looking at the name, you can tell what to expect, so you can concentrate your expectations of originality on the specifics. While we were aware that G-Witch would have politics, war, and mecha, the inclusion of lesbians caught us off guard. It also meant that for nine months, we all yelled and cheered for a show that was created by the largest toy corporation in the world. It is self-sustaining.
I don’t want to make this sound like a corny tirade about how modern media is “challenging” us or anything like that, nor do I want to suggest that our love of things is faulty or invalid. After all, we’re all just a group of wicked monkeys fighting it out on a gigantic ball. Even when it’s not always enough, we make the best of it with what we have. Not that I have any answers, either; it’s just this jumble of words trying to express my insecurities and fears.