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I hadn’t heard of Hitohira until coming across an online review of its manga incarnation last summer. The story — shy girl joins drama club and overcomes her stage fright — isn’t exactly new or daring, but it was all that was necessary to catch my attention. Hitohira is a high school drama that, unlike so many other “slice of life” series that I’ve loved, doesn’t flirt with fantasy or science fiction to give its everyday scenes a little extra spice. There’s still plenty of recognizable character types and some unnecessarily heavy foreshadowing at times, but what the series lacks in originality it makes up for in a pair of likable leads and a tense, realistic sense of everyday dread that permeates its otherwise cheerful mood.

Then again, regarding that quality I might be reading more into the series than is really there. I’m surely projecting my own experiences onto it, which would explain the feeling of butterflies in my stomach during several pivotal scenes. But I’ll get around to that later. The story opens as Asai Mugi is accepted to the Kumataka Art Academy, where in reading the posted entrance exam results she’s scouted by senior members of the struggling Drama Research Society. Despite Mugi’s crippling shyness and stage fright, which occasionally causes her to lose her voice or even pass out, she’s quickly pegged as acting material by the club’s upperclassmen, particularly the soft-spoken but persuasive Ichinose Nono. Getting the reluctant freshman on stage is no easy task, requiring her peers to resort to both rigorous coaching and some friendly coercion. Can Mugi overcome her fears and do the impossible?

I get the feeling, at least from years of reading anime fans’ complaints about how much of an intolerable wuss Shinji was in Evangelion, that the character of Mugi could possibly grate on Hitohira‘s more sensitive (er, insensitive) viewers. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although I’d have to say that the prevailing lack of empathy towards such characters is probably more indicative of a antisocial solipsism that’s infected a generation of Internet-bound anime fans than an actual criticism that holds any weight. Mugi whines, cries and frets, is plagued by uncertainty and self-doubt, and is often too timid to speak up for herself, let alone move herself to action when she needs to most. She’s also a caring and perceptive girl who’s appreciative of the work that others do for her, and who longs to repay her friends for the trouble that she believes she puts them through. Mugi (as well as her best friend Kayo) sees high school as the ephemeral experience that it is, and realizes the importance of getting the most out of it before it’s over.

As a comedy, Hitohira could have simply played up on Mugi’s quirks for laughs, wringing punchline after punchline out of her awkward predicaments. While there’s plenty of laughs in each episode, they’re not all at Mugi’s expense and certainly not reliant on any formula as simple as that. Rather, the social hangups she faces, as well as the effects they have on her life, are portrayed as realistically as I’ve ever seen. Her efforts to overcome them lead to some real character development over the 12 episodes of the series, and explore deeper psychological territory than the premise initially suggests.

Thankfully, I’ve never experienced the kind of complete social paralysis that Mugi continually suffers from, but in many ways this series hit painfully close to home for me in its depiction of a character striving to change themself from within, to overcome a certain degree of social anxiety and to discover or develop an authentic sense of self-confidence. I wasn’t prepared to try to deal with any of these obstacles in my own life until I was out of high school and in college, and as it turns out, one of the most successful steps I took was enrolling myself in an acting class. This was really one of the most difficult ordeals I ever put myself through, but as stressful as it was, I feel that I came out of it as a more confident person and can say with no hesitation that it was an extremely positive and life-changing experience. So I can’t help but identify with Mugi as she’s dragged kicking and screaming towards a trial that she doubts she can see her way through. I also can’t help but feel uncomfortably empathic towards her character, even vicariously embarrassed for her at several points in the series. I watched most episodes of Hitohira at home in the morning before heading off to work in the afternoon. There I’d begin to notice a strange knot in my stomach reminiscent of the feelings I used to have in the weeks and days before giving a speech for class in high school or performing a big scene in front of my more experienced classmates in college. It’s this feeling of dread, which will likely be lost on extroverted viewers who thrive on being the center of attention, that Hitohira absolutely nails. Then again, I may just be projecting my own experiences onto the story, but who doesn’t?

Given the basic premise of the series, it’s tempting for any potential viewer to predict how its climax and eventual denouement might play out. But the world of Hitohira isn’t quite so simple. While the last few episodes see the series lose some of its momentum, it’s a necessary sacrifice to bring about a more honest conclusion. Ultimately, it’s a more satisfying one that elevates Hitohira above the average high school drama.

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Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture
Volume 1
Ishikawa Masayuki
Del Rey
2009

When I first heard rumors of Moyasimon, I assumed that it would be one of those amazing concepts that would never see the light of day in America, simply too weird for any publisher to shell out the hefty fees to license and print. Fortunately, my assumptions about this industry are often misguided and wrong, and so Moyasimon made its first appearance on US shelves this past November, perhaps celebrating its stateside arrival with a U.S.-friendly cover. Now if only the anime — with its brilliant, beautiful opening, which I’ll never grow tired of watching — would do this same.

The story of Moyasimon (or Moyashimon as it seems to be called in Japan) is pretty straightforward. Tadayasu Sawaki is a first-year college student from the countryside attending an agricultural university in Tokyo. He’s likely expected to take over his family’s mold-culturing business back home, who work in partnership with the neighboring sake brewery owned by his best friend’s family. Since childhood, Sawaki has been able to see microbes without the aid of any optical instruments. They appear to him not as amorphous, impersonal blobs as they do to most people through a microscope, but as smiling, cheerful, inch-tall sprites that speak to him on a first-name basis. This lands Sawaki in a number of hilarious situations, even before his first day of classes, and poses a question that’s probably going to hang over the rest of the story: why does he have this ability, anyway? His friends and classmates seem to take it in stride early on, but will everyone else he encounters be so understanding?

Moyasimon appeals to me on a number of levels, first and foremost because, although I realized it tragically late in my college career, biology is my favorite subject. If I could do college all over again, biology (perhaps even pre-med) would certainly be my major of choice. I’d love to be a researcher, or even work in bioinformatics. I hate writing lab reports as much as anyone else, but I love reading about zoology, genetics, evolution, or anything related to the biodiversity of living things, how they reproduce, co-exist, and affect the world around them. I don’t know what prompted me to change my interests so late in the game, although it’s kind of a moot point now. A life in science is a path you choose when you’re still in high school, not years after college when you’re trying to support yourself.

Aside from its unique premise, quirky style, and respect for the intelligence of the reader (characters frequently go off on page-filling microbiology mini-lectures), I also love Moyasimon‘s depiction of college life. Within days of setting foot on campus, Sawaki makes new friends, meets hot girls, is taken under the wing of an eccentric but wise old professor, and drinks sake with all of them. This is pure fantasy, I realize, but I read it with a real yearning to experience that kind of youthful optimism and camaraderie once again. I got this same feeling when I was reading Genshiken last year, which filled me with all kinds of wistful longings for college life and the bounty of opportunities it presented. I figured it out too late, but you’ve really got to be at a university to experience anything like this. Parents and guidance counselors will warn against attending large schools, harping on their massive lecture halls and classes taught by mere T.A.’s, warning you that you’ll be “just a number” if you choose big State U. But the fact is that small, private colleges are socially suffocating drags and academic dead zones, twice the price and half as nice, as they say. Getting a bachelor’s degree from Gudger College might have sounded like a great idea five years ago, but see how well that gets you a job when other applicants are listing Michigan State, UCLA, or Syracuse on their resumes.

I didn’t intend to dwell on the past or go off on any bitter tangent so I’ll stop myself for now. Moyasimon is a positive and fun read so far with a simple and lighthearted story with hints of ominous intrigue to come. The cast of characters (eukaryotic and bacterial) are fascinating and likable, their dialog witty and knowledgeable and frequently informative. Volume 2 won’t be out until May but I know I’ll be picking it up for sure. I mean, I know I could find a scanlation of the complete series within just a few minutes, so what’s stopping me?

I guess I just want another nice paperback to lay in my lap while on break at work or to take with me to bed at the end of the night. Granted, this means I only read a handful of titles every year compared to the dozens or scores of manga that other fans download online. Ironically, this old-fashioned honesty probably makes me significantly less qualified to say anything of consequence about the medium than the typical fan who voraciously consumes manga in digital form but doesn’t consider it worth paying for. I don’t know how often I’ll be blogging here about what I’m reading, but when I do I’ll probably be drawing more on my own emotional response than on any backlog of manga-related knowledge. Whether that makes entries like this genuinely interesting for others to read or not, I cannot say, but at least it gives me a way to (re)examine what I’m reading, and maybe understand manga a little better than I would if I simply tossed it aside when I’m finished with it.

I first discovered AMVs back in 2002. Much like my experiences with fanfiction several years earlier, I was unfamiliar with the entire concept at first and only stumbled across it online by happenstance. I was quickly overwhelmed by the very existence of fan-created content in anime (both a hobby and a mode of active appreciation that we enjoy and take for granted today), let alone the vast amount of it suddenly at my fingertips. In the case of both fanfiction and AMVs, I went about devouring as much of it as I could in very short periods of time, barely able to contain my excitement over these “new” ways for me to interact with my favorite series. Perhaps inevitably, I found myself contributing my own works to the digital vaults of both fanfiction.net and animemusicvideos.org, with somewhat mixed results along the way. In the case of fanfiction, one needs nothing but time on their hands to enter the hobby, so there was nothing to stop me from taking a crack at some of my own stories. Today, I have little to say about that period of my life. It’s just another pursuit that I’ve moved on from, but look back on with no regrets.

Getting into AMVs, however, would be a trickier transition that wouldn’t happen overnight, and would end up taking until almost the end of the decade for me to finally break into. In college I’d spent a good amount of time on Apple G4’s running Final Cut Pro, so I already had a good foundation in video editing. I just didn’t have a computer of my own to edit with, not that getting one at the time would have necessarily solved all my problems, though. While basic video editing tools come bundled with almost any new computer today, they were only beginning to reach the hard drives of average computer users in 2002. I wouldn’t get a Movie Maker-compatible computer running Windows XP until 2005 or so, and even then, on most days it was hardly up to the task of playing video, let alone editing it.

After digging myself out of one financial hole after another, I received my 2009 tax refund last year and finally took the plunge. I bought a dual core CompUSA-brand computer with a big hard drive and lots of RAM. It wasn’t the best computer on the market, but it was more than adequate for what I envisioned using it for. I also picked up Adobe Creative Suite on discount from my community college bookstore, allowing me to edit video in Premiere. So then, what do I have to show for myself?

Admittedly, this is a pretty lazy video, but in my defense it was my first try and was primarily put together over several days as a form of after-work migraine therapy. I thought it was a brilliantly simple concept at first. Today, I’m not sure what to think. There’s a lot I do like about it, and it does capture a certain feeling I have about the series that’s difficult to express in words. On the other hand, most viewers will likely find it to be frustratingly slow-paced, and it remains plagued by glitches, including sporadic visual noise across the top edge of the frame, “jitter” in the original animation that I was too lazy to fix, and ugly blocking in some of the darker clips due to compression. Watching it back to back with AMV auteur extraordinaire Otohiko‘s “The Wasteland” (or at least the first two minutes of it) makes its flaws pretty clear, as if they weren’t already.

But this was just a test, necessary to get that first video out of my system so I could move on and try to improve. I’d already started work on something a little more complex, an AMV I’d been piecing together in my head over the years and was finally ready to lay down on the timeline. My second video was the one I’d been looking forward to making, and five months after finishing it, I’m still pleased with the results.

There are still a few glitches, although despite the increase in cuts and the sheer number of clips I was using compared to my previous effort, Premiere was good to me and turned out a much-nicer looking video than it did the first time around. I’ve had mixed responses to my attempts at lip sync in the video. A beta-viewer even suggested that I get rid of it altogether. But I’d come this far, and I couldn’t think of any way to replace it without essentially tearing the entire video apart and starting over, so I stuck with my instincts and left it in the final cut. Unfortunately, I uploaded my final version to AMV.org in the wrong aspect ratio, which is how most viewers saw it when my initial announcement thread for it was posted on the site forums. This likely (and justifiably) turned off a lot of viewers before I was able to correct the problem. Now it sits in the digital archives of the site like an old library book on a dusty shelf. I’m sure someone will thumb through it or even check it out again some day, but that could be in a week or a year.

Until now I’ve avoided putting these videos up on Youtube, not wanting to further compromise their quality any more than I already have. But it seems like a good way to give my works a fair chance at a second life, even if it entails offering them up to the site’s fetid cistern of a comments section. I made these for myself and my own enjoyment, but I definitely wanted them to be seen by others as well. What could I have to lose?

I’m currently working on a new AMV, although due to the number of sources involved, it’s probably going to be a long time before it sees the light of day. Meanwhile, I’m trying to learn Photoshop, better understand Avisynth, and find a way to get people to watch my creations without coming across as too desperate. I’d also like to connect with other editors and share ideas, but some days it seems like it’s too late for me to make that happen. The AMV community is justifiably suspicious of outsiders, especially those who came into the hobby in the Youtube age. I’ve been an AMV-watcher for several years now, but if I want to establish myself as an editor worth watching in my own right, well… I guess it’s up to me now. Maybe writing about AMVs here will help get me off to a good start. What do I like about the ones I’ve made? What don’t I like about them? What are my favorite AMVs, how do they make me feel and why do I feel this way when I watch them? What do I like AMVs, anyway? Hopefully, the answers to these questions will help me understand what I need to do next, and maybe help me view both my own and others’ works from a new perspective.

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