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I hate to put every Studio Ghibli movie in a box, but it’s probably a tendency that I have given that the overwhelming majority of them that I’m familiar with were directed by Hayao Miyazaki. That’s not to say that there’s anything predictable about his films or that he’s guilty of repeating himself or anything. It’s just that there’s a certain group of recurring themes and a prevailing sense of unique optimism and goodwill that flows through his work, and it’s easy to project this onto every other film that Studio Ghibli releases. This probably has a way affecting viewer expectations for every other film that the studio releases. Just by proxy, it’s easy to assume that every Studio Ghibli film is going to be painted by the same worldview, so the viewer probably sets themselves up for such before seeing any non-Miyazaki Ghibli work. Or at least that’s what I think happened to me before seeing Only Yesterday last week. There might be a fantastical scene or two, but it’s not a fantasy film. There’s plenty of meditation on “city life” versus “country life,” but it’s not an eco-fable (far from it, actually). I’m not as familiar with the work of writer/director Isao Takahata as I should be, but it’s pretty clear from this film that he’s definitely not a Miyazaki protege or anything (uh, he’s actually six years older than HM), but a filmmaker who clearly channeling his own vision here.

From the get-go, the narrative structure of Only Yesterday was initially a little confusing until it quickly revealed itself to be a film of two different timelines, the story of 27 year-old Taeko (her surname I’m unsure of) recalling various childhood memories of her ten year-old self during a trip to the countryside to visit family. This would be the perfect opportunity to gloss over the magic of childhood and to cast those years in a golden light of innocence, purity and magic. Initially it seems like that’s the road this film is headed down. During a train trip to visit relatives, Taeko recalls her first childhood crush, and it’s really one of the sweetest and truest depictions of young romance (however naive or mixed up it might be) that I’ve ever seen. But as the film progresses, Taeko’s memories grow less and less fond. While her time visiting relatives and lending a hand on their safflower farm is a positive and rejuvenating experience that brings her much-needed new perspectives on her relatively dead end-life, her recalled memories grow less and less fond as the film progresses. In the screening I saw, the audience’s reaction to these painful and often all too familiar experiences — struggles in school, the onset of puberty, petty but painful family troubles — was ambiguous and often extremely awkward. I guess it’s been a while since I’ve seen a film with such an attentive or involved audience, but you could tell that each flashback in the film was hitting close to home for the viewers in ways that I haven’t witnessed in a film before.

What emerges from this film was not the idealized portrayal of childhood that I was expecting, but something less glamorous, difficult to channel and not as pleasant as many viewers would probably prefer. The sense of subservience, confusion and helplessness that we experience in childhood is often forgotten as we age and begin to exclusively recall our primary school days as full of discovery and “magic.” Has the media sold us all false memories? There’s nothing wonderful, “pure” or even particularly fun about being a kid. It was a tough time! Don’t ever forget that. Especially if you’re going to have some of your own someday.

Oh, right. There’s a romantic plot to this film as well. I don’t know how well I buy it, considering how short Taeko’s trip actually was (what feels like a whole summer in the film is really just ten days), but the dialog that establishes said romantic interest was superb. I’m not sure if I’ve seen such a dialog-driven animated film as this was ever before (unless you count “episode 14” of Key the Metal Idol, but that’s another story). Visually, the film didn’t disappoint, either. The Japanese countryside isn’t depicted with the sort of exciting sights found in Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but it’s certainly lushly rendered and doesn’t look any worse for the wear of the past 21 years.

Only Yesterday has never been released in the US, despite its overwhelmingly positive reviews and Disney’s partnership with Studio Ghibli (although the theatrical rights are apparently shared with some company called GKids). Watch about fifteen or twenty minutes into the film and you’ll come across a scene that’s probably made selling the film in America an uphill battle, to say the least. We saw the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of their Castles in the Sky retrospective. Only Yesterday‘s run is done, but there’s more Ghibli still to come this summer, so check it out if you’re in Chicago.

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I was in the middle of planning and making clips for my next AMV when I decided to actually check Youtube to see if my idea had been used before. Seemed like a waste of time and not worth looking into. What were the odds that more than a handful of editors would make an AMV with a Pulp song, let alone one set to “Sunrise”? And then for it to use footage from Welcome to the NHK (a popular enough anime, but never one that’s been a hot source for AMVs)?

So I sat dumbfounded in the school library, staring at the screen in disbelief. Someone else had actually beaten me to the punch. But was their video actually any good?

In the end I’m going to say no. The editor actually uses a lot of ideas that I had (particularly with lyric sync), but there’s little to no effort at music sync, long clips hang in place with no cuts where the song indicates that there could or should be, and the video quality is terrible, with subtitles moving in and out of the frame and lots of blocking and overall bad-looking footage. I hate to beat up on this video because I can obviously see what the editor was trying to do (I had a lot of the same ideas, myself) but it’s too slow-moving and the visual quality leaves a lot to be desired.

I thought about going ahead with my idea anyway but in the end I scrapped it and decided to make a different NHK video instead, which I’m working on right now. I don’t think anyone would have called me out on “copying” this video if even I had stuck with my original idea, but I guess I just wanted to play it safe. Besides, the Internet doesn’t need another video that would essentially be the same.

I first stumbled across the existence of Katawa Shoujo about a year ago when it was still in development (Lord knows how this happened, it’s not like I post or even lurk on 4chan). Sounded interesting enough, so I bookmarked its site and forgot about the whole thing until a few days after Christmas, when I found the link for it once again and discovered that it was actually finished and would be coming out in a manner of days. “Pretty cool,” I thought, knowing almost nothing about its origins or just how widespread the anticipation for it actually was. Needless to say, when lengthy reviews singing its praises started popping up on anime blogs left and right only a few days after it was first available for download, I realized that it was officially a BFD.

Truth be told, it’s been a few months since I last touched this game and I really don’t know if I’ll be coming back to it for much more or not. I guess after playing through two routes to completion, the novelty of it wore off for me. That probably sounds like a harsh dismissal of both the game and its entire genre as a whole, but I don’t mean it as such (and it says more about me than it does about Katawa Shoujo). I mean, I’d say the same thing about RPGs, but that doesn’t mean I think they suck or anything. I just don’t have the patience, time or curiosity to play through them anymore.

Katawa Shoujo was my first hands-on experience with a visual novel — to be honest, I don’t know what makes a “visual novel” different from a “dating sim” or if they’re just different terms for the same thing, the former being a more respectable descriptor, for sure — which I was already familiar with thanks to Genshiken, Welcome to the NHK and a few other titles in which they play a prominent role. So I knew what to expect for the most part, and true to form I wasn’t too surprised by the way the story unfolded and how the characters were introduced. But I was taken aback by how much thought was put into the entire project, with everything from the art and the music to the writing and characterization surpassing my expectations.

The very existence of the game is proof that there are Western otaku who live and breathe this stuff, honestly appreciate these kind of games and understand the language and reliable conventions of them, and wanted to contribute something worthwhile to their lineage. And the overwhelmingly positive reception it received within the Western otaku-sphere was a sure sign that they succeeded. With so many players banking on the promise that the game was going to deliver big, maybe that was a forgone conclusion? I really don’t know how to judge it, myself. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting and, for being the fantasy that it is, grounded in reality than any of the visual novels I’ve seen portrayed in anime or manga.

The creators have already been repeatedly raked over the coals for their choice of a title for this game, so I won’t pile on them anymore for what they’ve already admitted was a poor decision. And it’s unfortunate that they saddled themselves with that mistake, because the rest of the game is nothing but considerate and thoughtful in its treatment its characters and the debilitating conditions* that they deal with. This seemed to take a lot of bloggers by surprise, many of which seemed honestly shocked that the game turned out to be something more than mere amputee porn or disability paraphilia for ogling otaku. Most reviews were emphatically positive, but a lot seemed to either (A) praise the game for overcoming the low moral/thematic standards set by most other visual novels or (B) imply that the game would naturally attract ignorant and misguidedly devious-minded players, but was effective enough of a teaching tool to “correct” their outlook, if given a few hours’ time (a nice way to write a review while staking out the moral high ground for yourself). In short, a lot of reviews came out that read like this (click the picture below for legible text):

But outside of the creators of Katawa Shoujo, the reception it received seemed mired in confused attitudes and beliefs about both the medium and the subject matter. Yes, visual novels are a legitimate platform for telling meaningful, heartfelt stories. But, most are just fap material. But, not this one! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it was. Etc. Similarly, the stunning conclusion that some of the most vocal fans of the game reached after playing it — that these girls aren’t freaks — will hopefully plant a seed of empathy and respect in some players that will carry over into their real-life encounters with others (this sounds totally naive on my part but I honestly believe there’s potential for some good here). What makes me squeamish about these kind of circuitous conclusions is the necessary standpoint of prejudice or ignorance that someone would have to come from beforehand for such epiphanies to have any meaningful consequence. At least their hearts are sort of in the right place, or at least getting there.

But hey, why should I care about this and who am I to say what the right way to enjoy a game is? It’s like I’m back in high school and banging my head against the wall because too many kids are listening to Live or STP and don’t even know what real alternative rock is, man. I should just be thankful for this game’s existence because it’s pretty much the only piece of media in 2012 I can even think of that focuses on characters with disabilities. Is there a single character on television now that’s blind? Hearing impaired? Would a character with missing limbs or third-degree burns ever make it past the test audiences that shows are surely wrung through before airing? In our age of competitive reality TV and fashion/makeover shows, should we be surprised that nothing short of total physical perfection is demanded and portrayed throughout the rest of our media? Games and television aren’t “real life” but they’re certainly a reflection of the dog show that we all live in. It’s probably worth taking notice and paying a little respect whenever one bothers to break from the herd and show a less glamorous side of life that people won’t necessarily want to see. Not that Katawa Shoujo isn’t glamorous. It wouldn’t be a visual novel if it weren’t.

*I don’t claim to be an authority on what qualifies as a “disability” and what doesn’t, so I don’t want to offend anyone who would disagree with my use of the term. So here’s a better piece written by a few Yamaku-elligible authors who know a thing or two more about this stuff than I do.

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