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  1. Goodbye, Mr. Despair (Season 1) Review Goodbye, Mr. Despair isn’t quite what I expected. From its title, premise and opening scene in the first episode, I had expected something just a little bit more morbid. As it is, the comedy in the series still possesses the macabre tone befitting such gallows humor, but it’s far more lighthearted than I would’ve liked from its satire. Instead of pondering melancholically on its somber topics like death, suicide, stalking, social withdrawal (hikikomorism), or just plain existential crisis, it merely plays out like a (slightly) more mature version of the equally frivolous Azumanga Daioh. In fact, much of its humor is derived from its wordplay of these otherwise serious Japanese issues, giving them an often clever subversion. Whereas Azumanga contains high school hijinks with its exaggerated slapstick, Despair applies similarly dumb boisterous fun to adult subject matter like social norms and social stigma. Where one episode might be lending comedic elements to issues like western culture shock or Japanese shame-guilt complex, another might be making light of child abuse or arranged marriages. Clearly, this isn’t your typical high school slice of life exploring teenage problems. Based on the 2005 manga of the same name by Kumeta Kōji, Goodbye, Mr. Despair explores the day-to-day life of the pessimistic high school teacher, Itoshiki Nozomu as he educates his fellow students about the negative aspects of Japanese life and culture. It’s not the first time an animé comedy has made fun of societal issues, but Despair contains a certain level of sardonicism and cleverness in its satire that resembles The Simpsons in the early ’90s and its grim mockery of American culture. Rather than just referencing such issues in their most superficial contexts like Gintama, Despair instead probes a little deeper by giving a nonsensical spin to an otherwise realistic topic. Often, these topics are explored via the character quirks of Itoshiki’s students, whose personality disorders are both subversions of animé character archetypes (particularly those of the “harem” genre composed of a single male lead and multiple female love interests) and a playful representation of Japanese societal problems. Whereas most harem animé would inject their characters with a certain appeal that would attract the viewers, Despair does the opposite and incorporate them with negative traits. Because they are all distinct individuals and there are so many of them, it can be a daunting task to describe them all (or for the reader to get through such a huge chunk of text), so I’m just going to briefly touch on some notable characters instead: Komori Kiri is a social recluse who ends up using various storage spaces as her new hideaway (including Itoshiki’s locker pictured above); Tsunetsuki Matoi is a stalker that clings to Itoshiki every step of the way (after getting bored of stalking a previous boy); Kitsu Chiri has OCD and demands everything to be precise and “proper” (acting like a class rep character in spite of not actually being one); Kobushi Abiru is an often bandaged student initially thought to be a victim of child abuse, but her wounds are revealed to be the result of her obsession with tugging on animal tails; and then there’s Fu’ura Kafuka, the hopelessly optimistic Pollyanna that counters Itoshiki’s pessimism with her unrealistic view that everything in the world is positive (she calls the trash bin a “treasure trove for the homeless”). Among the characters, there are total of 13 students and two teachers. That’s a lot of characters, so it’s no wonder that it took almost all 12 episodes to introduce each character and their quirk in the series. To top it all off, there’s the homeroom teacher, Itoshiki himself, the eternal pessimist that’s drowning in despair over the many aspects of Japanese society (often trivial aspects). But his biggest despair is revealed to be the ridiculous marriage tradition in his hometown, where a bride is arranged via eye-contact with another individual… Notably, all of the character names are based on the wordplay of their character traits: the kanji characters of Itoshiki Nozomu spell out “despair” when written horizontally; Komori Kiri is a play on the Japanese word for “recluse”; Tsunetsuki Matoi plays on “always following around”; Kitsu Chiri plays on “precisely”; and similarly, Kobushi Abiru plays on the Japanese expression, “to bathe in fists” that carries the connotation of domestic violence. Kafuka seems to be the only exception so far, but more might be revealed in the following season. With that said, it’s understandable for someone to be wary of a show that utilizes quirky character traits to drive the series, but fortunately, Despair doesn’t really feels like a cheap parody relying on silly gags alone, particularly because much like Simpsons and American culture, it uses those traits to say something witty and amusing about the often self-serious culture of Japan, whether it’s those festivals honoring the most trivial events, the public shaming of unethical individuals that influences a guilt complex on everyone, or just the exaggerated presumptions coming from both Japanese citizens towards western cultures and vice versa. It’s quite bold of the series to be that sardonic about Japan (even more so than Gintama’s superficial mockery) considering that it’s a nation built on manners and customs. Unfortunately, this niched critique of its home country also means that many of its references can fly over the head of western viewers, myself included. Aside from references to other animé titles, there’s also an abundance of Japanese celebrities who are name-dropped throughout the series, which is to be expected of a satire comedy comparable to The Simpsons. Usually, this would merely be a minor annoyance and could be largely ignored. Unlike a more allegorical show like Revolutionary Girl Utena, these background texts (probably) only add flavor to the scenes rather than adding any meaningful context to the comedy. However, that’s like saying you don’t have to understand the vague references of ’70s pop culture in The Simpsons to enjoy the show, when the fact is that the understanding of such references is very much required to get the joke more often than not. It also really doesn’t help that this is a production of Studio SHAFT, famous (or infamous depending on whom you ask) for their insertion of referential texts into the background that flash by so fast any viewer would undoubtedly have to pause multiple times to catch them. While I recognize some of the animé references, it’s still a pain sometimes to pause every minute or so to see if there’s some interesting texts among the scenery. This is a fundamental issue of certain SHAFT titles like Bakemonogatari — and with the Monogatari series, the problem becomes even more apparent because they would flash by much faster than any human eye could catch. It’s probably not much of a problem to read them if you understand Japanese, but the subtitled versions of these texts can prove to be more challenging depending on the font size and type that the translator chooses. It’s just one reason I always hesitate when it comes to watching a SHAFT TV series (including Mr. Despair) in spite of Madoka Magica being my all time #1 favorite animé. While the annoyance of reading subtitled dialogue could be resolved by watching the English dub version, the same couldn’t be said for these background text references. Alongside Bakemonogatari, my enjoyment of these series has definitely been affected as the momentum of the story comes to a slow crawl. But these gripes are perhaps trivial annoyances at best because at the end of the day, what’s really driving a gag series like Despair is the characters more than the gags. Even though the series deliberately chooses to give them negative traits to show how silly the idolatry of these archetypes can be (with Sekiutsu “Maria” Taro being a blatant parody of “moe” characters people feel the intense desire to protect in animé), the fanbase still manages to have their choice of favorite girl (or in animé terms, their “waifu”) from the show. It goes to show that these characters are just compelling enough beyond their flaws to really capture the heart of its audience. Fitting to its parodic nature, the artstyle and music both exaggerate the ridiculous context of the script. Kumeta’s aesthetic choice of fashion for the characters belongs to the Taishō era of Japan (30th July 1912 to 25th December 1926), juxtaposing against the modern elements of the story (such as cellphone and contemporary architecture and shops). The score by Hasegawa Tomoki (known for his works in D.N.Angel, Nana and Gokusen) uses a mix of epic orchestra and wistful choir singing amidst the melodramatic musings of the characters whenever Itoshiki is in despair or whenever Matoi is stalking him. It’s a nice touch to further remind the audience how everything is a joke, and no subject matter is too serious to be made light of. On a personal level for me, someone who’s constantly attracted by depressing stories of death and gloom (probably due to some unresolved childhood issues), Goodbye, Mr. Despair might not be what I expected, that which being a comedy counterpart to something like Welcome to the N.H.K. that contemplates existential dread in a less exaggerated context, but it does work on its own merit of goofy characters making jokes about the societal flaws of Japan. In terms of such silliness, I still prefer Azumanga Daioh for its much more effective (and hilarious) slapstick technique or even Nichijou’s balls to the wall exaggeration of utterly mundane aspects. But for what it is, it does have sufficient charm and cleverness to make me consider following its second season in the future. Final Rating: 7.7/10
  2. Halloween H20 was so underrated. It was actually my first introduction to the Halloween franchise and I love its character-driven PTSD element that also made me love Scream 2.
  3. Season 1 Review Now, the camera quickly pans up from the bottom And the logo shows up with a thud! This leads into... The part where we introduce everybody All of us, one by one Our characters are established as we show up on-screen And now we're running! We're reaching out our hands! - Actual lyrics to the anime's opening theme, "Stand Up!!!!", mocking anime opening theme clichés Needless to say, that title sequence is the reason that got me into watching the anime in the first place. I've expressed on record multiple times my love for metafictional movies and TV shows, especially if those shows are making fun of familiar tropes and conventions. This affection wasn't necessarily born out of some meanspirited obsession to make fun of everything I dislike, but more often than not, it's due to something entirely opposite: my love for those things being made fun of. For example, I remember liking that film class scene in Scream 2 (where everyone is making fun of sequels) more than the rest of the movie itself, even wishing there are more movies like this that just spend all day long talking about movie conventions. Naturally, this is because of my love for movies and talking about them. Similarly, Tesagure is a slice-of-life anime talking about anime. It's like that one film class scene in Scream 2 stretched over an entire series of 12 episodes, but the topic being anime (and manga) instead of movies sequels. And when I said slice-of-life, I do mean that the entire anime is about nothing else but the mundane conversations between four girls sitting around a clubroom table. It's not really a parody like Excel Saga or Panty & Stocking that imitate the conventions on a visual level, which is a misunderstanding I had going into the show (and from the meta lyrics of the TV intro, could you honestly blame me?). More specifically, it's about a middle school club with a suggestive and problematic name ("The Groping Club") 'groping' around for the identity of their club. The formula of every episode usually plays out in similar ways: 1) the four club members would decide on a school club theme they want to discuss about (be it a sports club, a chess club or even a music club), 2) discuss what's the first impression they get when they think of the club, 3) talk about the way said clubs are portrayed in anime and manga, and 4) by the end of the episode (though not every episode), they would head over to the gym and try out new and unusual activities related to the club theme (such as a card game but with photos in a journalism club, or Twister but with chess pieces). While the anime would occasionally involve amusing jokes about the silliness of anime tropes, more often than not, Tesagure is more about the girls just fooling around in the clubroom and spending quality time with each other, which is actually the main appeal of a slice-of-life show: characters going about day-to-day mundane activities. I mentioned before that I'm not particularly a big fan of slice-of-life anime because they are essentially about... well, nothing really. That's the point. But as I've found out, it isn't a genre exclusive to anime, but existent within some of my childhood cartoons as well like Hey Arnold! and Disney's Recess, or more notably and effectively utilized, As Told By Ginger. It's what you do with the genre that matters, but unfortunately, the Japanese seem really obsessed with "school culture nostalgia," thus leading them to create strangely popular shows like K-On! where characters just sit around doing mundane things that don't really make for an exciting narrative or even exciting drama. "Drama" is the keyword to a good American slice-of-life like Doug or even Seinfeld, which is why most Japanese slice-of-life anime don't work for me due to their lack of it. That being said, slice-of-life can work when they focus on something with more substance than just cute girls sipping tea and lazing around. Nichijou, for example, exaggerates the mundane nature of the genre for laughs, while Tesagure's end credits sequence denotes that the show is intentionally about nothing to focus on the quality time students spend with each other before the tearful graduation split them apart. Even the melody and lyrics of the ending theme, 12 kagetsu or "12 Months" (indicating the 12 months taking place in the anime) are melancholic in nature: Although there was nothing special There was meaning to the time we spent together You'll never return, so I'll tell you "You're more important than anything else" Encounters, departures, everything has an effect on our future The final episode in particular confirms this as the newest member of the quartet, Koharu Tanaka, cries out in sorrow at the idea of the senior members leaving her. For some reason, even though K-On! also contains such a tearful departure, it just comes off more effectively for me in Tesagure, probably because such a message has been repeated in its closing theme for 12 episodes (whereas K-On! merely has a really energetic pop music that I can't stop listening to). Another reason is also because the conversations between these girls feel very grounded. Tesagure is a "pre-scored" animation, meaning the lines were recorded then animated over them using the MMD ("MikuMikuDance") freeware (originally used to produce the famous Japanese virtual idol, Hatsune Miku). This means that the girls basically sit around and talk with each other about club themes every episode as if it's a podcast, which is why their conversations tend to come off as more natural and realistic, like a group of girls having fun chatting with each other. It's probably the reason why it's so easy to connect with these characters and just act like you're one of them, listening in on the conversation and enjoying their company. Because of such a realistic style, when it's time to depart, that sentiment feels stronger and more relatable. It really doesn't help that an anime like K-On! sidelines the audience while the characters eat cake and dress silly, making the audience feel more like an outsider looking in on something fun you'd much rather participate in than watch. By the way, the MMD technology has also been used for other recent anime, though they are such obscure titles it's not really worth naming them. However, I've also seen it used to create virtual YouTubers, and more notably, virtual Twitch streamers. It's probably not gonna be my favorite animation style any time soon as they seem like an amateur form of 3-D animation, but hey, it's yet another creative use of the medium in the wonderful world of animation! Or as the characters of this anime would say, atarashii (it's a novel idea)! Final Rating: 7.2/10
  4. The Simpsons (Season 6) Review Usually, by the sixth season of the series, TV shows have long reached their peak and have packed their bags for syndication. The Simpsons, however, was only just getting started. Some would even argue that this was the real beginning of its Golden Age that lasted through season 7 and 8. The ratings would certainly reflect that, as season 6 marks the highest-rated season of the series yet. The animated adult cartoon would literally never be as good ever again, for better or worse. Personally, I had a lot of problems with Mirkin’s direction previous season, to turn up the zaniness of the cartoon and dial down the realism or even the satire of earlier seasons. Season 5 became one huge gag show that’s made purely for laughs, containing very few of the clever social commentary or even the emotional moments that made season 2 through 4 such a blast. Fortunately, season 6 has returned to form and brought a nice mix of a ridiculous cartoonish nature and a more heartfelt examination of the characters and their relationships. Mirkin’s usage of character traits (as opposed to their flanderization) to bring the humor worked to great effect this season. For starters, we get three very nice episodes revolving round my favorite Simpson yet, Lisa’s Rival (where Lisa gets a friend as smart as her), Round Springfield (an incredibly grounded episode by Mike Reiss & Al Jean that deals with Lisa grieving for her one connection to her love for Jazz), and Lisa’s Wedding. The last of which was literally an Emmy-winning landmark on its own as it features the series’ first episode to be set almost entirely in the future. While such speculative scenes have been present in the series’ history before, this was the first to center its entire premise around what might happen to the Simpsons family decades down the road. It’s also one of the rare chances we get to have the satisfaction of seeing OFF (Our Favorite Family™) grow up, an element that easily makes me more eager than ever to watch similar episodes like this such as Holidays of Future Passed and Barthood. Meanwhile, we also get two episodes focused on the often overlooked Marge as well, Fear of Flying and The Springfield Connection, even if the former didn’t work so well in its attempt to inject humor into a non-humorous character. But from such episodes that lend further depth to the characters, season 6 has a more intimate feeling that reinforce the character qualities that made us like them in the first place. Alongside Lisa’s Wedding, the tightening of familial bonds also extends to Grandpa and Homer Simpson in Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy. Another standout episode with such a strong emotional core is And Maggie Makes Three, of which its “Do It For Maggie” ending reminds us we put up with his buffoonery: because he’s a doting father at heart full of fatherly love. But emotional rollercoasters aside, this is still a comedy series, and the first few episodes of season 6 (though the first two were delayed from season 5) already gave me a good impression of what’s to come, with Simpsons being as biting with its satirical commentary as ever in the forms of Itchy & Scratchy Land and Sideshow Bob Roberts (one was taking jabs at Disney’s merchandising and Disneyland’s poor working environment almost two and a half decades before their purchase of Fox, while the other was supposed to be a parody of Bob Roberts, but ended up predicting problematic candidacies voted by the people). This was followed by my favorite Treehouse of Horror thus far that’s probably also the darkest one yet that really pushed back against the censor-pushing of Fox and the FCC. Later on, Homer Badman once again exemplified the show’s hilarious social mockery by predicting SJWs long before SJW culture. Needless to say, season 6 was firing on all cylinders: comedy, satire and emotions. However, some of the later episodes did fail to get as many laughs from me like Bart vs. Australia (a mockery of Australian stereotypes conceived by Americans), A Star is Burns (a blatant advertisement for another Fox show known as The Critic, a parody of movies that should’ve been more appealing to a movie fan like me but somehow didn’t catch my attention), Homer vs. Patty and Selma, Homie the Clown and Homer the Great. These are the furthest things from being the kind of bad episodes we’d see down the decades, but they are kinda forgettable and just didn’t really do much for me with their usual Mirkin cartoonish shenanigans that bored me in season 5. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed Two Dozen and One Greyhounds and its blatant parody of 101 Dalmatians and the Be Our Guest musical number from Beauty and the Beast. Much like the other episodes I mentioned this paragraph, it feels like a typical episode written for the fun of it (as opposed to having anything that clever to say), but it strikes a chord for me and my Millennial childhood, something rare for a show written by Boomers. In fact, most of the jokes in the show probably don’t land well with me because they’re obscure references to some ’70s talk show host or celebrity I never heard of in my non-American country (somehow, anime like Gintama and their obscure references to other anime and Japanese culture Americans won’t get land better for me, a non-Japanese). But to its credit, season 6 has both a strong start and a strong ending, with winning entries near the tail-end of the season like the aforementioned Lisa’s Wedding, Two Dozen and One Greyhounds, Round Springfield, and of course, the famous milestone that’s part one of Who Shot Mr. Burns? an episode where the show gets the audience to answer the titular question through a hotline (before revealing the “truth” three months later). Such a publicity stunt is obviously a reference of the 1978 drama, Dallas and the coined catchphrase spawned from its third season finale, A House Divided, but for a comic book fan like myself… well, you comic book fans probably know what I’m about to say. Yes indeed, it’s the 1988 Jim Starling series known as Batman: A Death in the Family, where fans were asked to dial a number to decide if Robin should be horrifically murdered by The Joker. It’s not the first time audience interaction became that intimate, and with Gravity Falls, it certainly wouldn’t be the last. It’s an interesting social experiment that led to a whole generation of media sensation and ultimately heightened the cartoon’s already heightened reputation as a historical TV landmark the likes of I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch, Cheers and of course, Dallas (shows that are so old and yet somehow I have still heard of them). All in all, even while not every episode works for me, it’s still an ambitious season that has thoroughly entertained and even amazed me, possibly more than ever since season 3. Yes, The Simpsons is definitely heading off to a a great future ahead… or at least two more years (or three depending on whom you ask) of glorious laughter before said laughter is behind us, replaced with a husk of its former self. No wonder many consider S6 the peak of the series. Final Rating: 8.5/10
  5. While watching The Simpsons, I had a thought that a lot of people complained about how Modern Simpsons constantly milk off modern pop culture that nobody cares about like Lady Gaga and Twitter. But then when I think back to the many Simpsons episodes I've seen so far, even those in the current season 6 I'm watching, there are so many references to celebrities from the '50s through '70s (from Billie Holiday to Mel Brooks to Tonya Harding), references I had to look up so many, many times (as opposed to the more modern references which I grew up with). It makes sense, of course, considering that the series was created by boomers who lived through those times, but that just goes to show that it's a matter of perspective how entertaining such references can be for the viewer. Many of these cultural references in the "Classic Era" can be ham-fisted and unnecessary too, but nobody complained about them. In fact, a large number of these references existed in the Classic Era just to get audiences to remember the good times and laugh about them, going, "Do you remember that? Do ya?" Anyway, long post short, I'm probably becoming less cynical of what's to come in the Simpsons series now that I know, even if the writing is weak, even if the comedy is no longer smart or biting, at the very least, they'll be making references that reflect my childhood. That's... something, at least. I'm sure Steve Allen and Bob Newhart mean something to somebody born 20 or 30 years earlier than me, much like how a Pokémon and Powerpuff Girls reference would appeal more effectively to a Millennial like me. It's only a matter of time before The Simpsons have to reference something that current generation adults would understand.
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