Sunday, October 6, 2013

October 6, 2013 -- Now Matter How I Look At It, It's You Guys' Fault I Had To Watch Hyperdimension Neptunia

I've been missing and I'm not going to say anything else about it.

A few months ago I said that my next review would be the then-upcoming Hyperdimension Neptunia anime. I try not to go into shows with a biased mindset, but I really was not looking forward to it. Largely because I'd played the games and

Yeah. Suffice it to say I wasn't expecting anything transcendent or clever. This is me being as nice as possible about it.

So was I right or was I wrong? Find out after the break!

Hyperdimension Neptunia: The Animation -- Why it Doesn't Work

There is at least one nice thing that I can say about Neptunia, but I'll get to that later. Partly because I want to save the best for last and partly because the one good thing about Neptunia doesn't really make that much of a difference in the quality of the show anyway. This show is a goddamn mess from start to finish.

... And by start to finish I mean from beginning to end. There wasn't a frame of animation in this show that didn't contain something stupid and annoying.

Now as a disclaimer I only watched one episode because that was all I could stand before I went for a run to help forget that I just watched Hyperdimension Neptunia.

Hyperdimension Neptunia is a "story" that takes place in the land of Gameindustri. It was developed as a satirical representation of the console wars and the rivalries between the major players of the video game industry.

Okay, maybe "major" is a bit of a stretch.

And that's about as clever as the series gets. That's what makes this all so disappointing. The idea of a game that parodies the industry is really clever and has a lot of potential. There are so many interesting and really funny things you could do with this concept. Maybe you could have a planet where everything is brown and grey and all the inhabitants are hypermasculine space marines. Maybe you could satirize current trends in the market or popular genres of games. There's a lot of potential in this premise.

So naturally Idea Factory used it to make booby jokes and fetish art of underage girls.

Stay classy, anime.

I'm telling you, Idea Factory doesn't need to work this hard. They don't need admittedly clever concepts to write erotic fiction. All it takes is a vacant eyed woman, a cowboy, and some well-oiled, airbrushed abs.

And, failing that, a FANTASTIC title.

Anyway, the show stars Neptune (who represents the unreleased Sega Neptune, which I technically own because the Neptune was really just the Genesis and the 32X combined into one system), and begins with the goddesses of the four main regions in Gameindustri. It also begins with several boob bounces that are actually physically impossible.

Seriously, a character folds her arms and it sends her boobs oscillating in different directions independently of each other. That's pretty much the rest of the show. Cute girls do cute things and get sexually exploited for the amusement of the men and women watching the show. And by "men and women" I mean men.

And by men I mean people with penises.

If it sounds like I'm tut-tutting the show for having sexual content, that's because those jokes are the easiest to make, but that's not the reason Hyperdimension is a bad show. I'm not a prude and I like plenty of games and anime with sexual themes and raunchy jokes. Welcome to the NHK has a B-plot revolving around the main characters making a hentai game, and NHK is one of my all-time favorite anime. Hell, I'm planning to buy a Wii-U just so I can play Bayonetta 2. And Bayonetta isn't exactly the kind of game you play for the story.

The point is that a show or game can have heavy sexual themes prominently featured, but the key to making it work is that it has to have something else that gives its content meaning. NHK was really raunchy and inappropriate, but it had interesting, well-developed characters who grew and changed as the story progressed.

Bayonetta had a nonsensical story and reveled in sexualizing its main character (to the point that it actually made it somewhat annoying) but it had strong gameplay that required a lot of skill and served as an effective satire of hyperviolent exploitation movies. The sexual content was representative of the genre that it was attempting to parody.

It was the Catholic High School Girls in Trouble sketch of video gaming.

Hyperdimension Neptunia has no interesting characters. It has cliches. Characters in this show boil down to the archetypes of the clumsy one, the spunky one, the one with big boobs, the one with no friends, and (of course) the twins. They only exist to repeat their one joke for the duration of the series when they're not busy being molested by puppies.

To quote Danny DeVito, "I thought the rape scene went really well."

It can be argued that Neptunia's sexual content is a parody of the fanservice/moe genres of anime, but I'd like to believe that the average anime viewer is discerning enough to know that explanation doesn't hold up anymore. Look around the list of anime titles from the last ten years and you'll probably find more "parodies" of these types of shows than there are actual examples. It's not a parody or satire of moe anime. It is a moe anime, and not a particularly good one.

That said, I wasn't lying when I said there was one good thing about Hyperdimension Neptunia. The opening theme is holy crap good and really catchy. The actual opening sequence is just as bland and forgettable as the anime itself, but the song is wonderful. I'm pretty sure I detect instruments from a Genesis Sound Chip or at least a very well-made imitation. Dimension Tripper!!! by nao is probably the closest that Hyperdimension Neptunia comes to having anything to do with video gaming.

Watamote -- Why it Works

The reason that it took me so long to come back to writing was that I couldn't wrap my head around what I perceived to be a contradiction: the fact that I absolutely hated Hyperdimension Neptunia but fell thoroughly in love with another anime from this summer season, WataMote~No Matter How I Look At It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular.

Both shows have a lot in common. Neither show is meant to be taken too seriously, nor do they have epic, thought-provoking plots, but after thinking about it for a while, I figured out why a show like WataMote can work while a show like Hyperdimension Neptunia doesn't.

And I owe it all to Kotaku's Richard Eisenbeis, my recipient for this week's Completely Missing the Point Award.

Eisenbeis wrote an article a little over a month ago that explained why WataMote is The Most Mean Spirited Anime He's Ever Watched™. Wow. If he thinks WataMote is mean-spirited, he's gonna shit his pants when he sees Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei.

Give it a read, as it's an adorable attempt at editorializing and it's what I'll be referencing as I explain why WataMote is such a unique and well-made show.

The Kotaku editorial is very reminiscent of Siskel & Ebert's 1980 "Women in Danger" special, wherein the two critics spent 30 minutes condemning slasher films like Friday the 13th as being vessels to glorify the rape and murder of women and passing judgement on those who watch and enjoy those films as hating women.

This pretty much sums up Eisenbeis' approach to reviewing an anime that he doesn't like. Rather than commenting on the quality of the show, his approach involves criticizing the audience's enjoyment of said show. I'm guilty of making jokes about the intended audience of certain shows (like Neptunia) but that doesn't drive my critique of the show itself.

WataMote is about a young girl named Tomoko who was horribly unpopular and had next to no friends all throughout middle school. She believes that as soon as she enters high school, everything will turn around and she'll instantly become popular and respected by her peers. Unfortunately, Tomoko has some pretty severe social anxiety problems that prevent her from effectively communicating with others, let alone make friends easily.

Now I mentioned Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei earlier because both that show and WataMote have similar brands of humor. They both act as black comedies that revel in discomfort and unpleasantries. WataMote is not a traditional, laugh-a-minute comedy, rather it is a really uncomfortable and cringe-inducing look at the central character's quest to overcome her difficulties and become popular.

So naturally, Eisenbeis took this idea and ran with it. Tomoko's social anxiety is a hurdle that she must overcome, but instead the writer of the article interpreted her anxiety as a punch line that makes her a target of ridicule by the audience. He's not incorrect that her troubles are often related to her social anxiety, but he is incorrect in assuming that people who like the show are making fun of her difficulties. At no point in the series are viewers ever positioned against Tomoko.

His argument that any laughs in the series derive from her emotional pain and suffering is completely inaccurate. Despite her social difficulties, her life isn't all that bad. She has a loving family whose only crime is not fully understanding Tomoko's anxiety (an issue that isn't really something that is talked about in Japan). At no point in the series is Tomoko actively picked on by her classmates, and she appears to always have money to spend on things like video games, food, and movies.

The "hell that is [Tomoko's] life" is not what we actually see, but rather the light in which Tomoko sees the world. The audience is meant to see the world from her perspective throughout her journey. She's a 15 year old girl. I don't know if any of you guys have ever been high schoolers, but when you're that age literally everything seems like a huge, life-altering event. That's the reason why so many people have responded to this show, not because they want to ridicule somebody worse off than them, but because they remember a time when how our peers saw us was all that mattered and that looking back things weren't so bad. It's just exaggerated in this show because of Tomoko's difficulties. It amplifies the horror of adolescence for effect.

Let's look at an example of a show that is actually mean-spirited: The Big Bang Theory. It's one of the most popular sitcoms in America, and it's actually guilty of the crimes that Eisenbeis levels agains WataMote.

In just about every promotional image for TBBT, Penny is front
and center. This becomes important later, so remember it.

See, in WataMote, the main character is Tomoko, and so she is the frame of reference for the audience's picture of her world. She's a nerd who has difficulty adjusting socially and we relate to her because she's the focus of the show. Her attempts to become popular are superficial and misguided, but we don't hate her for it. We hope that she learns from her experiences and are all the while crossing our fingers that something good is just around the corner for her.

In The Big Bang Theory we're led to believe that it's about "the nerds" of the show and that the show is an endearing love letter to members of geek culture. However, the reality is that the audience's frame of reference is actually Penny, and that the audience is positioned against the nerds because their interests and experiences don't match up with the "normal" one, Penny. The jokes revolve around how silly the nerds are for enjoying things like D&D, comic books, and most unforgivable of all: Science.

What slander! To suggest that science isn't cool! What kind of bombastically
misguided ego would deign to imply that the noble inquiry-guided pursuit
of knowledge and understanding is anything less than "the bee's knees," as they say!

But perhaps the most important aspect of WataMote, and what makes it work where something like Hyperdimension Neptunia and other "traditional" anime comedies, is that Tomoko as a character is defined by more than just her social anxieties. She is aware of her surroundings, even though she often misinterprets social cues and has troubles conversing with others. She is never discouraged by her setbacks and bad luck, but always tries to find new ways to become popular and make new friends. In short, she's likable because she driven. We don't want to see her fail and we dread the inevitable, embarrassing fallout of her latest scheme.

In the end, the writer labels the audience as people laughing at a poor girl with a psychological disorder to feel better about their own lives. In other words, he accuses the audience of doing exactly what he so self-righteously does by painting the people who enjoy WataMote as ableist jerks. You can be offended by a show and not enjoy it because it either hits too close to home or covers subject matter you're not comfortable with, but you don't get to use that as your barometer of quality. Hyperdimension Neptunia wasn't bad because it was tastelessly chauvinistic  and treated women (many of whom are underage) like pieces of meat. Neptunia was bad because it wasn't funny and barely functioned as a satire. Its characters were unrelatable and one-dimensional.

WataMote, however, has an interesting and lovable character in Tomoko Kuroki. She's misguided but hard-working, eager to be beloved by peers that she neither likes nor respects. She doesn't really understand what it is she wants in life, but clings to the only thing she knows to give her life some kind of focus: the popularity of high school girls in anime. She strives for an ideal that may or may not be right for her, something we all did in high school as we struggled to find our identities. That's why fans of the show like WataMote, not because they want to mock Tomoko and her social anxiety. They see an exaggerated version of their experiences in high school and realize that looking back the things that seemed horrifying and embarrassing are actually kind of funny in hindsight.

Also, WataMote has a really good opening theme too. It's a really dark and guttural sounding song with deceptively uplifting lyrics.

That's all for today. I'll be back in a couple of weeks with new reviews and some Crunchyroll guest passes to give out! Hopefully I'll get back into the swing of things soon. You can find WataMote on Crunchyroll and I heartily recommend it. It's a wonderful inversion of the generally lighthearted tone of typical slice-of-life comedies and it's humor, though masked behind layers of awkward and uncomfortable, is very effective and funny.

Hyperdimension Neptunia: The Animation can be found on Hulu or Funimation's video streaming service.

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