Category Archives: Diary of an Anime Lived

WataMote

So were many of us.

So were many of us.

I’m not exactly sure when I realized that I had more friends than I thought. It might have been sometime during my mid 20s, when I was sitting in a Corner Bakery with other church people. I was in one of my more morose moods and had a hard time looking people in the eye, a bad habit that has plagued me since my early days. Though I was surrounded by people, Christians, who were supposed to be friendly, I ate my sandwich in a cone of silence. Which is the way I liked it much of the time, except when I didn’t and I wished someone, preferably an attractive person of the opposite sex, would talk to me first.

Finally, someone asked me how I was doing. “It could be better,” I think I said. “It’s kind of lonely.” You are not supposed to answer that question that way, of course. You are supposed to say “Good,” or “I’m fine” because otherwise the conversation comes to a screeching halt. People look at you with concern, and it starts getting Serious and voices have that hush of exaggerated Worry For Your Well Being.

It took half a moment before I recognized my faux pas and I tried to laugh it off, and apologized for being so awkward. “But I’m better than I used to be,” I added hastily. “You should have seen me when I was in my teens. Ha ha ha.” And it was true–coming to California had already begun to relieve me of the near catatonic states I sometimes got in in large group settings–but they didn’t need to know that. Man, how pathetic, I thought. You already sound so self-justifying, so self-pitying. “I’m not used to having a lot of friends,” I concluded. And there’s the troll for sympathy.

I don’t remember what the person said in response. It wasn’t anything as encouraging or straightforward as “We’re all friends here,” or “But we like you.” Maybe it was “it’s ok. You’re fine.” But not long afterwards, I thought about all the friends I still had back in Maryland, living overseas in places like Japan or Taiwan. The not unfriendly, not unkind people that surrounded me. They were laughing but they weren’t laughing at me, which is how I used to interpret all laughter that I heard outside my immediate presence. They didn’t not want me here. I realized: Maybe I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t friendless either. At some point, the old narrative I had told myself since childhood was no longer true.

It took me a long time, a lifetime really, to get to that point.

* * *

watamote-02

The most relatable aspect of Tomoko Kuroki, the heroine of WataMote (the short form of a story titled No Matter How I Look At It, It’s Not My Fault I’m Not Popular!) is her self-talk. In the first episode of the anime, we are treated to her running internal dialogue, which alternates between grandiosity, judgmental contempt for her peers, self-justification, self-doubt, and even suicidal intentions: and that’s just in the first half. If it had to be boiled down to a single word, it might be “insecurity,” and that is certainly a huge aspect of it, but what WataMote gets that other fine shows such as Kimi ni Todoke don’t get is also the other side of the pendulum swing: the absurd, delusional self-confidence that happens just before a crash. “I’m not unpopular!” she proclaims. “I talked to 6 guys last year!” As someone who used to call it a good day when a pretty girl sat next to me in church or on the bus, even if we didn’t talk, and used to keep informal tallies of conversations I had…that hurt.

Tomoko is also not very likable, and this is also a truth of being an outcast. Someone like the pure-hearted Sawako from Kimi ni Todoke may be low self-esteem, but her sweetness and innocence are deeply appealing. Tomoko is neither so innocent or so pure, and I’m not talking so much in the way she gets turned on by otome games. Outcasts can be the biggest snobs and most judgmental of others, as in her dismissal of her more popular peers as “sluts” or “bitches” and the boys who like them as “idiots.” I certainly remember inveighing against popular movies like Titanic when it was released, taking pride in not listening to mainstream garbage on the radio, and refusing to use less big words in my speech for fear of accommodating to the dumb masses. “You are so hard to please,” a girl told me once. The truth was, I was insufferable sometimes. And so is Tomoko. I can imagine those who can’t relate to her disliking her in this anime, the way a lot of folks despise Shinji from Evangelion. It’s brave for WataMote to depict this aspect of unpopularity, from the self-pitying title on down.

Sometimes this is how you feel on the inside.

Sometimes this is how you feel on the inside too.

The temptation for a story like this, especially with the grotesque efforts Tomoko makes in trying to make herself “cute,” is to turn this into a standard makeover story, in which a little fashion advice turns a homely girl into a beautiful one and suddenly she gets all the guys she wants. I’m assured by others who read the manga this is not the case. The irony is that this is the story that Tomoko and those like her indulge in all day: witness her love of otome games and how she has “dated” over 200 guys and been a high school girl for 50 years. The makeover narrative is one Tomoko desperately wants to believe in: if I had high test scores, or if I only dressed differently or wore glasses or followed advice in magazines, I’d be liked….Because that’s relatively easy. The truth is that popularity is a full-time job when you are in high school and people with other interests and priorities–like most of us nerds and geeks–simply don’t, and shouldn’t, do that work if we want to remain true to ourselves.

And her brother, Tomoki. I had no siblings, who might have provided at least an outlet of sorts, and I sometimes longed to have an older sister, probably because most of the girls who were kind to me tended to be older. But given the stilted way I talked to my parents at that age, I’m not sure I would have done much better than Tomoko with her brother. He, after all, is “normal” and even popular, being an accomplished athlete; I had grades and I had writing, which is something, but not things that discouraged my reclusiveness. There’s evidence that Tomoki is more than a little concerned about her, but given her mood swings and insecurity his annoyance is also understandable. I know my parents didn’t understand why failing a quiz felt so devastating to me at the time. There were few other things holding me up, and the moodiness that comes to most adolescents can seem like a distant memory once you’re an adult.

I watch this show now, with its spastic, Shin Oonuma directed visuals, its depictions of a genuinely plain and sometimes ugly female lead (itself a daring move for anime), and its emotionally accurate depiction of social isolation’s effects, and I have two simultaneous reactions: laughter, and knowing pain. Laughter, because I am old enough and past my adolescence and early 20s to realize how silly my thought process was sometimes. Pain, because I am young enough to remember how debilitating that time was: forgetting how to greet people pleasantly because you’d been isolated for so long. Not knowing how to sustain a conversation with anyone you find attractive. Fidgeting, stammering, talking to oneself a bit too much. Assuming that being liked or loved is only attainable in a fantasy game.

A lot of us started from there and have struggled, or still struggle, to get out. WataMote, hopefully, honors the rest of us non-popular people with emotional truth, laughter, and tears. Ganbatte ne, Tomoko.

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“But To Be Chuunibyou Was Very Heaven!”: A Memoir of Art and Embarassment

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be chuunibyou was very heaven!
William Wordsworth (modified)

I

I never knew there was a label for this sort of thing. When I was in the eighth grade, inventing the worlds that my stories still inhabit, I thought I was just doing what every author—oh, how I loved that word author” rather than “writer”!—did to create a fantasy novel. I approached the task matter-of-factly: drawing maps, like the one below. Making up nations, cities, forests, rivers, mountains, islands, letting my pencil—and my soul—trace the scraggly coastlines on the backs of French quizzes and notebook margins. Inventing histories and then, finally, characters who moved inside them. Apparently JRR Tolkien invented his languages before he wrote stories to go with them. I made up maps and wrote stories to give them life, because after all, I was following after his footsteps.

nwimagria

This map is Western Imagria, ca. 1998.

Once, I wrote a story about a desert kingdom named Andor, situated in the eastern part of the world I later called Imagria. It specialized, like the planet in Dune, in the spice trade, and it was ruled by an emperor named Sareth Darva Arakin Tanera III. Royal personages needed long names and numbers after them, right? Sareth Darva was me, more or less. SarethIII was my first email address, and my IM screen name—and still is. My college website had the address darva.net. My current website is still imagria.com, and my Tumblr is imagria.tumblr.com. Sareth Darva, amazingly for an adult king, was an anguished person given to profound thoughts like these:

Shadows . . . they fall down, slip into mental cracks in the grey corners of imagination – only rising again as the ghosts of haunted memory prance in cobwebbed corners – and the memories, oh the memories, broken and crying of glory days that have passed, they mock me now! Spirit of life, where are you? Oh, why did you murder my soul, leave me trapped behind forbidding walls with unhinged doors . . . Aversa, why have you forsaken me? Aversa help—
“Mourning for Shadows,” c. 1995

NO NO MAKE IT STOP! OH LORD WHY OH WHY? WHY WAS I SO ARGGH

I humiliate myself with these memories and words because, at last, the otaku of Japan have found a name to what afflicted me back then, at the age of fourteen in the eighth grade. The word is chuunibyou, eighth-grader syndrome, and I will raise my Sareth Darva to Dark Flame Master any day.

As those words and the short story it introduced show, I was a class A case.


II

Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! (Chu2Koi) is perhaps the best comedy of this anime season. Not only does it have superb comic timing, which Kyoto Animation has excelled at since Full Metal Panic: Fumoffu, it takes what could have been a gimmicky, fetishistic concept and turns it into both comedic gold and a surprisingly insightful look into the teenage mind. The grandiosity, the insecurity, the terror of embarrassment: it’s all there. The show presents it empathetically, probably because the storytellers themselves were like that once, and probably still are.

In middle school, fantasy writing was all I had. I was more socially awkward than most. Girls called me ugly (well, with one exception). My math skills were subpar for an Asian: I had trouble grasping pre-algebra, something which frustrated my parents to no end. I was alienated from the kids in church youth group, too. Writing was my only talent and my refuge, and I wrote fantasy in the mode of Terry Brooks and David Eddings, my constant literary companions through the summers and the afternoons after school. I remember stacks of novels next to my bed, next to my chair at the public library. I set my ideas, and my soul, inside the Mead Five Star spiral bound notebooks I carried with me everywhere—to school, to church, even to restaurants and the houses of my parents’ friends. Inside them were story ideas, fragments of first drafts, and random journal-like musings about how lonely and painful it was to be me. Here’s one less embarrassing example, written before a youth group meeting as I watched everyone come in:

Trying to see people in action is difficult; moreso, concentration, especially as the irritating strains of “Chopsticks” and “Walking in Memphis” are poisoning the air with their discordant sound waves. What’s that? Beethoven’s Fur Elise? Not again. My fingers almost begin twitching in time to the 3/8 time, echoing all the memories of childhood piano lessons and my own fingers pressing wrong notes, like a dancer’s feet slipping and falling down on the stage.

We are all students sight reading off the page, trying our best to pick out melodies.

—5/14/1999

Listen: I’ve longed for someone like Rikka all my life. Her delusions were not far from mine, and she keeps them up because it’s increasingly obvious that she’s in a lot of pain too. KyoAni didn’t just do a great job making her moe—they made her fundamentally relatable. Unlike Yuuta, I had no intense desire to be “normal” and put it all behind me. I clung to my fantasy worlds and stories for as long as I could, even when the girl I had a crush on wondered what my writing had to do with Jesus, even when my first muse never finished reading my manuscript, even when I embarrassed myself on another girl’s yearbook page by referring to one of the stories I showed her long ago. (Siri: I’m sorry. Please forgive me.) I was melancholy and awkward, but I knew who I was: an author who would one day join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Rikka, I know, would have understood. And there is nothing more a teenager wants than to be understood.

Yes, Rikka would have understood. She would have said it was cool.

Rikka forms a club, a place where she, Dekomori, Yuuta, and—reluctantly—Nibutani can be themselves, or at least learn to be more comfortable being themselves. They are fantasists too, each and every one, going even further than I ever did and actually viewing the entire world through the lens of their self-created world. What’s interesting to me is how, unlike my solitary self, they all created the world together: Rikka, Dekomori, and Nibutani. Their play and their imaginations inhabited the same space and they shared their joy together, collected in their “Scripture,” the Mabinogion written by Nibutani as Mori Summer. Through their imagination, the entire world becomes enchanted: silly fights with the sister become epic battles with giant weapons cutting arcs through the air. A magic circle really is more than just blinking Christmas lights and cloud of exploded flour.

There is a poignancy to Rikka and Dekomori’s use of these “special effects”: deep down, they know it’s a fantasy. They know that it’s their minds that are elevating that field into the boundary between worlds. Unlike Nibutani and Yuuta, who struggle with this fact and wish to live in the “real world,” they cling to their world, and cannot understand why their counterparts refuse to do the same. The real world is banal and full of loneliness, where the number of contacts on your cell phone can be counted on one hand. It is not full of people with cool names like Dark Flame Master or Black Raison d’Être. Perhaps more profoundly, it is not a world with clear quests and missions in life: to find the Deep Horizon. To bring the Ring to Mount Doom. What, exactly, is so great about being “normal”?

It makes me wonder whether being chuunibyou is something that should even be grown out of. Especially if we want to continue to have a life of play and imagination, to have enough child-like joy to give your full concentration to those other worlds.


III

It’s been almost 18 years since I was Sareth Darva. His name still continues in several online accounts—IM, Skype, and Steam—and while I haven’t written a story about him or his kingdom for a long time, the world he inhabited still lives on in one of my current novel projects, A Pattern of Light. Which itself is a reworking of my very first novel, Sanctuary, written between 1995-1998. Written during peak chuunibyou.

This much is true: I am still living off the imaginative capital of my chuunibyou years. Almost everything I’ve done recently is rooted in things invented between 1995-1999, settings, concepts, and characters I have returned to time and time again. My notebooks back then were thick and mostly full. The other day, I discovered 2/3 of an entire novel outline that I had completely forgotten about, written in the year 2000.

Another notebook of dreams.

I have come up with few genuinely new ideas or settings since. I no longer carry a spiral notebook with me everywhere; the notebook tradition tapered off sometime around 2007. When I think about restarting it, I seem to forget and stop doing it. I’m not sure why I do. The days have been long and difficult lately, and filled with many other things.

During a church retreat in the year 1999—perhaps the most fertile year of all, the year I nearly filled an entire 5 subject notebook with ideas, poems, and drafts—I was sitting under a tree by myself with my notebook. Watching some of the youth group kids throw around a frisbee, feeling alone and apart, I wrote a poem:

Children
are playing under the sun, voices
crying chaos through the air.
I’m one of them. I try
my shoes on for the dancing lesson
(all free, under the sun), stepping
on grass, caterpillars, and ants unbeknownst
thrown into the wheel of life. I see her smile
from far away, saying ‘Catch!’ I dash
but tumble backwards, landing on the grass, watching
the ball flying through the air, out of time,
not falling but migrating to its birthplace.
“Coming of Age”, 5/24/1999  (original handwritten draft here)

I don’t remember who I had in mind with the “her” in the poem. Maybe it wasn’t someone in particular, but rather an eternal Form of a Muse who’d pull me back from mundanity and let me catch the vision of that other, invented world. Someone who’d remind me it wasn’t always bad to be a child. Someone, maybe, like Rikka.

That “to be continued” is hope: the hope that imagination never dies. That stories never end. That you can be chuunibyou 4 life.

Now excuse me—I have a novel to write. I’m behind, but I’ll catch up.

What if I had never gotten into anime?

Have you ever wondered where you’d have gone if you hadn’t become an anime fan?

I’ve always wondered if I hadn’t gotten into anime, what would’ve happened to me?

If you had met me back then, you would’ve met a very different person.

The year was 1995, when I graduated high school, the best year of my teenage days. I went to the prom with a pretty good looking gal, hung out with friends in a limo, ate at an expensive French restaurant (aren’t they all), and then went on a nice retreat the next day.

I was a high school senior: a veteran of the war of adolescence, battling shyness, struggling with my feelings for the opposite sex, avoiding  bullies, shutting myself off some times, and dying to be a club maniac at other times. You know, the usual stuff that almost all adults go through in their younger days.

I remember right after graduation, after we tossed our hats in the air, and I was on my way home with my parents, on our way to a Chinese restaurant for celebration. I knew exactly what I wanted to listen to on our way; I inserted the cassette tape (wow, did these even exist) of Top Gun’s soundtrack; I had already fast-forwarded it to the Top Gun Anthem. I felt like I was going to soar into the sky.

Somewhere in the sky, my dream, whatever it was, was waiting for me. I was flying somewhere, or so I believed.

I was not outgoing, but I was not reclusive. I knew how to be, for a lack of better word, ippanjin (can be translated as normal crowd, perhaps). I was pretty positive about life because I had became a Christian one year earlier, and I had gone to Life ’95, a huge Christian party, in Orlando, Florida. Filled with positivity, I knew how to tell a good story—my favorite was the one about how my prom looked disastrous but worked out well in the end, and I attributed its success to God’s blessings.

I simply believed then.

Fast-forward (3x the normal speed), and here I am, in 2012. I’m rather cynical about life, less hopeful, have weak faith, don’t know how to act like an ippanjin, am an otaku, and watch anime as my primary means of entertainment.

I’ve gone through years of alcohol addiction; I wasted my college years drowning in booze, porn, and a lot of 90’s anime. I was once wealthy, but now technically in the category of being poor (but far from it in reality). I’m no longer simply trusting.

All this time, two things have always accompanied me, and they have almost never been at odds with each other, oddly enough. These things are anime and God.

I’ve always wondered why God allows me to watch anime, and he doesn’t tell me to get off of it. After all, anime has very little or nothing to do with Christianity, or at least I still believe that today. People would probably tell me Eva this, Alucard that, Trigun this, or whatever.

Once again, oddly enough, I’ve learned a lot of Christian lessons through different moments in different anime. Some of these anime were funny, but most were serious (without taking themselves too seriously, thank God), and almost none of them said a direct word about God, Jesus, or Christianity. Actually, most of them had nothing to do with religion. They were simply great works of animation. Great stories.

I’ve always wondered about that. Why is it that there are Christian anime watchers, and even Christian otakus (is that an oxymoron?). Recently, I even met a woman (no, we’re not dating, just working on a project together) who shares a very similar background in that she grew up in Taiwan, went to the US to study for college and graduate school, and watches anime as entertainment.

I wonder if it will take a lifetime to discover why.

Or is the question “why” even relevant at this point in my life, with our (Mike, Jeremy, me, Linda, MLM, Dan, and a group of awesome folks) site, Anime Diet, being a major indie press in the US and our Facebook page having close to 8,700 likes.

I am wondering exactly this: if I were to meet the me that just graduated from high school, toe to toe, in the middle of Rockville, Maryland, what would I say to him?

I take all that in with another gulp of beer, and I’ll leave you with that and bid you good night

or good day.

Jazz Hands: “Kids on the Slope,” Jazz, and Me

I really did kinda look like this growing up.

I: One Note Samba

I envied them, the kids in the high school jazz band. I was the misfit pianist in the ninth grade orchestra, a player that didn’t belong: unless it’s a piano concerto, there’s not supposed to be a pianist. They accommodated me anyway, letting my jangling chords ring in the background as the violins, cellos, and brass slid and swooped into the 1812 Overture, the Indiana Jones theme.

Where else was I supposed to go, though? I’d been taking classical music piano lessons since the age of five. I knew my scales, arpeggios, and cadences, and I knew how to read music from a sheet. I tried, and sometimes failed, to follow the metronome in the quest to not only play all the notes correctly but keep them on the beat. “You’re always too fast,” my piano teacher, and my mother, would often complain. I never learned how to play from anything that didn’t have both treble and bass clefs and all the notes written out to tell me exactly where to go. The orchestra was the only place for people with my kind of training, but still, I didn’t quite belong there.

But the pianist belonged in the jazz band. Heck, sometimes he even had a solo. Other times, he filled the rhythm with the bassist and the drummer, diminished and ninth and suspended chords placed just right on and between beats. Fills would slink in from time to time. The reeds and the horns would shout and the sax would croon, but the piano was cool. Understated. Sophisticated.

So sometime in the summer after my freshman year in high school, I asked my piano teacher: teach me to play jazz, so I can audition for the jazz band. Luckily, he knew both jazz and classical, so he started me on a new book, and told me to beef up my scales and cadences. “You’re going to need it.” It’s a different way of thinking, a new world.

Music can be found everywhere.

II: It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

Being early trained in classical piano or violin, of course, has become part of the Asian stereotype. An entire book was just published by a Chinese-American “Tiger Mother” who proudly forced, belittled, and punished her daughters to become musical prodigies. It’s always classical music, never any other kind; the famous Suzuki method is founded upon repetition after repetition of famous pieces by famous composers. The Tiger Mom denied her daughter bathroom breaks until she played a piece exactly right.

What jazz means is something else entirely. It is not as respectable. It is not as suitable, perhaps, on some cultural level. “It’s black music,” my mother once said, with the implication that it wasn’t for anyone else. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the new anime Kids on the Slope is set, jazz had yet to acquire the upscale/yuppie association that it carries today. There was still the stench of urbanness, of drug addiction (reading a list of famous jazz musicians is like reading a list of junkies), of avant-garde beatniks and rebels and dive bars and underground clubs.

Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon) captures this divide perhaps too obviously: Kaoru is the bespectacled honor student who plays classical piano. He encounters Sentaro, the roof-dwelling, free-spirited, delinquent jazz drummer. There is a reliance on shorthand and stereotype here that hopefully will become more complex later, which the careful pacing of the show seems to promise. But for now, the shape of the story is a familiar one: uptight kid learns to relax and live a little through the power of rebellious music, while perhaps falling in love at the same time. Not that great stories can’t be made from stock elements, but it’s not a particularly unique one.

The perceived rigidity of classical training is taken to such an extreme, in fact, that it manifests itself as nausea-inducing social anxiety whenever Kaoru encounters unfamiliar situations. He is the player confronted only with a lead sheet and not a full bevy of treble and bass notes, of exact instructions. Sentaro, on the other hand, finds rhythm whether he’s behind a drum kit or whether he’s just tapping out a rhythm with twigs on a handrail. The music is in his head, not on a page. And when Kaoru tries to correctly play the chords and notes of “Moanin,” Sentaro insists there’s more to the song than just the notes. He practically quotes Duke Ellington: “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” The musical session then abruptly ends, but not before an intrigued Kaoru decides to embark on a new journey, the way all music is really taught: by listening to the masters (on record or live) and by playing along with someone else.

He could be smoking a joint as far as a lot of Asian parents go.

III: Kind of Blue

This is too broad, of course. The classical composers themselves were masters of improvisation, and the best classical orchestras and players interpret the pieces with as much feeling and passion as the great jazz soloists over a lead sheet.

But as I began to learn jazz, I saw just how different not only the playing style, but the mentality, was compared to classical music. One only gets to be individualistic in classical music after one has learned to play all the notes correctly, from memory, and with the exact tempo as written. In jazz, as in all things genuinely American, individual expression is the whole point. Right away, you are presented not with a full bevy of treble and bass notes keeping the hands busy with all the notes to follow. You get a lead sheet with a melody line and chords on top of the single staff. The melody line is played through only twice: at the beginning, and the end. In between the soloists surge forth into the unknown, using the chord sequence as a foundation for their own riffs and phrases. You’re on your own.

I couldn’t handle this. As I struggled through my audition piece, the ballad “Autumn Leaves,” I would play the melody line with my right hand and try to play the chords with my left. The metronome ticked. I got the notes right, but the chords seemed plodding, thudding even. I was playing whole three note chords, with no major sevenths, suspensions, or blue notes: the things that actually made things “jazzy.” And I had no swing. I would try to add some flourish here or there, but then everything went off completely. There was so little guidance. These pieces—standards, as they’re called—were supposed to already be familiar, so familiar that you could just take the melody line as a departure point. But I was still trying to learn the melody.

Bit by bit, I improved. It took hours of listening and playing, sometimes with eyes closed. I tried to hear the tap of the cymbals, the slow thrum of the bass player in the silence. I tried to emulate the effortless cool and sophistication of the chords I heard the pianist play in the recordings, but always came up short.

Still, when I played it in front of the band director, I somehow made it in. I started playing in the jazz band in my junior year of high school, 1997.

IV: Giant Steps

There was already a pianist in the jazz band, Chappell. He wore round spectacles and his shaggy, long blond hair flew all around his head when he tore up and down the piano. He was also really into progressive rock, the only other person I knew who knew about the bands I adored at the time: Yes, King Crimson, Genesis.

I was in awe of Chappell from nearly the beginning, in awe of his ability to play classical music just as well as he could play jazz just as well as he could compose his own pieces for woodwinds. The band director told him to mentor and train me in how to become a better jazz pianist, and essentially to be his understudy whenever he wasn’t available for concerts and other band performances.

Kids on the Slope gets this right: the way popular music, as opposed to something like classical music, is really taught and passed down is from person to person. It’s not just the mentoring that listening to good records has, though that’s essential: I still couldn’t play “Autumn Leaves” that well even after I heard the song dozens of times. Someone usually has to show you the ropes. Chappell would tell me: ok, here’s some different scale modes that sound good in this context. See how adding a seventh here or a lowered fifth makes it sound jazzy? Try learning a pentatonic (blues) scale and add a blue note here and there to the solo. Little by little, I began to hear it enough that I could play it, at least sometimes. Chord sequences, not just individual chords, came alive. The right kind of repetition became riffs.

I was learning to not just hear, but to speak jazz.

My guess is that this is the role Sentaro is going to play in Kaoru’s life. He’s going to get him to swing, to put all that dull exercises we all learned as classical pianists to use by showing how they free you, not constrict you. He will learn that all that music theory actually has a purpose, and once it’s not just something to parrot back on a test but internalized, then the solos will come, and they will sound great. He will learn to follow and weave himself in between the drumbeat.

All musical training is ultimately about that, even classical: all artistic training really. You learn the rules so you can know when to bend and break them as a master. For masters there is no such thing as a mistake: it just rolls into the whole and can even be endearing. That’s ultimately the problem with the way music is sometimes taught: the whole point sometimes seems to be trying to avoid mistakes. Be just a little off-rhythm or off note, and it’ll sound obvious. Rote mastery of classical music is suited for those who desire correctness in all things, which is perhaps why it appeals to certain kinds of parents. But that’s not art, that’s mimicry.

Kids on the Slope, then, promises to be a show that talks about how craft can become soul. Perhaps Kaoru will teach Sentaro that precision is important too: even in jazz, you can play off-rhythm or off-key in ways that sound less than pleasant. But for a lot of us who were raised by “Tiger Parents” and for whom our greatest fear was messing up a note during the recital, it’s a welcome reminder that music, art, is ultimately about freedom and pure expression, the kind that even words can’t say. It was that for Mozart (the movie Amadeus portrays this beautifully), for an increasingly deaf Beethoven composing the Ninth Symphony. So it can be for even the humblest player who submits not so much to rules and notes, but to the spirit behind them.

It's close enough.

V: Moanin’

How funny that the first episode is called “Moanin’”. “Moanin’” is also the one song where I have a recording of myself playing jazz in high school.

We were at the 1998 jazz invitational hosted by our local university. Our set was six songs long. I played the first song, “Manteca,” and played and soloed on “Moanin’”; the rest were handled by the far superior Chappell. The credits aren’t marked on the CD, but I can tell when it’s me: when I play, it’s always a little bit off rhythm.

The version of “Moanin’” we played isn’t the Art Blakey one that is featured in the anime; it’s a totally different piece by Charlie Mingus. It’s a messy piece by design, made messier by the slightly off-key way high school musicians play, a jumble of sounds that are barely held together by the rhythm section. Professional, it is not.

When it was time for me to solo, I waited for the sax player to finish, closed my eyes, and took off. This is the result: the whole song (solo begins at 3:18).

It felt a whole lot better playing it than it sounded in retrospect: frankly, it’s pretty bad, off-rhythm and sometimes obviously off-note. I was far from a master then, and I’m still not.

But when we finished, I heard the applause and the cheers. The band director said my name. I stood up and took a bow, and then let Chappell take over for the rest of the set. I’d said my piece.

The Childhood Friendzone

My hair was not that shaggy back then.

I: A True Story

I was in the 4th grade, and she was a bony-armed, skinny girl with a bob in her hair and big teeth. Even when we were hiding under the cafeteria table for an earthquake drill—believe it or not, Memphis, Tennessee does actually lie along a fault line—and wondering out loud whether we were going to die, we were smiling and laughing. Of course we weren’t, we knew; no one could remember, kids or adults, when Memphis last had an earthquake that damaged any property, let alone killed anyone. Killer earthquakes were for California.

We huddled together because we had always hung out with each other since the second grade. There was a dim awareness that others might notice this. However, we were most assuredly not boyfriend and girlfriend. No, no. “You’re ugly,” she told me casually when the thought crossed our minds. “You’re ugly too,” I replied. We exchanged this repartee for a few more minutes, but we couldn’t help ourselves; we knew how silly and childish it was even though we were children.

Not long after that, I had to move away because my father found new work in a different city. When it came time for us to part, I said, “I’ll miss you.” She said, “I’ll miss you too.” I held her hand. We didn’t hug or kiss. Boyfriends and girlfriends did that, and that was what we were not.

My last memory of her was in that lunchroom, saying those words, on my next-to-last day of class or thereabouts. We never met again, and for some reason, I only remember her first name. But if I wanted to, I could go back home 3000 miles away and find my 22 year old yearbook, still sitting high on a bookshelf in my parents’ basement. I would be able to turn the pages to the third grade class, and I would still be able find her because I still remember her face. Faces aren’t as easy to forget as names.

 

This never happened to me either.

II: The Loneliness of the Long-Suffering Friend

I was first introduced to the idea of the “childhood friend” character in the anime version of Love Hina. The very first scene of the series showed a little boy and girl playing together, and the little girl kisses Keitaro on the cheek. It is immediately followed by a scene where, because the girl has to move, they are sadly parted. “I’ll see you at Todai!” they promise each other.

That scene engraved itself onto my consciousness right away, in the first year of my anime fandom. Immediately, I thought of my friend in elementary school, and how we parted, never to see each other again. Maybe there are many otaku with memories like mine, and I wonder whether this is why the childhood friend trope keeps coming up again and again. But in anime, unlike real life sometimes, there is always a reunion. The reunion either begins or catalyzes the plot.

Of course, for those who know anime, the childhood friend trope usually comes attached with another feature: she is destined not to be with the boy at the end of the story. This is not universally true, but it’s true in the majority of cases. The boy usually goes for the girl who is new and different: the alien (Onegai Teacher, Ano Natsu, To LOVE-Ru, Shuffle), the quirky (Haruhi Suzumiya), the highborn or even divine (Ah My Goddess, Brighter Than the Dawning Blue).

The childhood friend is, by contrast, is a reminder of the past. She is ordinary. She is kind, constant, and longsuffering. She usually can’t admit her feelings too honestly at first. She must smile through her tears and, putting the happiness of her beloved first, cheer on the new relationship from the sidelines.

She is, in short, everyone who’s been left behind in the race of love. The emotional power of so much romance anime is fueled by her exquisite pain.

....

III: The Pain is the Point; or, why Ano Natsu is sometimes better than Onegai Teacher

I’ve noticed something: my favorite romance/relationship-drama anime series and movies tend to be the ones that express that exquisite pain the most eloquently and convincingly. What I remember is often less the main couple but the angst-ridden moments of the girl—it is almost always a girl—who has been jilted.

This struck me hard as I rewatched Onegai Teacher in the light of my current anime favorite, Ano Natsu de Matteru. The moments I remembered most from Oneti (as it’s been abbreviated) were not so much of Kei and Mizuho, but of Herikawa, Kanna’s analogue and Kei’s destined-not-to-be. I remember she sat on a hill with Kei once, talking about their feelings. I remember her crying more than the crybaby Mizuho.

The scene I remembered most from Onegai Teacher.

But as I rewatched the first half of the series, looking for parallels to Ano Natsu, I discovered that whatever similarities they might have in character types and scenes, they are fundamentally different stories. Oneti is much more focused on Kei and Mizuho as a couple, trying to work out how their mismatched marriage of convenience can survive and turn into love. Their friends are second-string characters who only occasionally get great moments, and we see far less from their perspectives than we do in Ano Natsu. It feels much less organic than the natural ensemble interaction of Ano Natsu, and Kuroda relies more heavily on fanservice in order to keep the sexual tension flowing between Kei and Mizuho. It was, in short, a more conventional series, and I had forgotten just how conventional it was. Only in the second half did the tone begin to resemble what I had associated with screenwriter/creator “Yousuke Kuroda” and why I still had such fond memories of the show. But it was still a show with a limited perspective by comparison.

Ano Natsu, frankly, is the better series. I credit director Tatsuyuki Nagai, whose skill at handling large casts—from Honey and Clover II to Toradora and last year’s Ano Hana—was the key ingredient missing from Kuroda’s earlier works. All of the friends in the group get emotional coverage, and often without words: a gaze, a look of longing, a gentle tug on the sleeve, can show much more than long interior monologues.

When the words do come, they are simple, heartfelt, and believable, like in the deeply affecting scene between Kanna and Tetsuro at the bus shelter in the fifth episode. There was no scene in Oneti that matched its atmosphere of quiet, simultaneous despair and dignity. The timing and pacing were much smoother, the music subtler. The pain—the pain, overtly in Kanna’s words, and subtly in Tetsuro’s gaze: two people in unrequited love who feel they can only soldier on and wish the luckier ones the best.  It’s a familiar feeling, no doubt, to many.

“Why can’t you just be honest with your feelings?” many people ask, the characters included. Beneath her mischief, Remon is clearly trying to induce emotional honesty in all the characters, as she tells Ichika straightforwardly in episode 6. Tetsuro advises Kanna to do the same. Her reply, of course, is the reply of every shy boy and girl who’s been in the place of a jilted childhood friend: if I do that, it will ruin the friendship, and I can’t be with him anymore. In many cases, it’s a longstanding friendship. Those who have had long-term friendships, with either sex, will know just how precious those are. We have few of them. Time and distance easily break them. From Kanna’s perspective, and from the perspective of so many people left holding the bag, the price of rejection is too high if that is what’s at stake.

There would be no stories if it were that easy.

And yet, there is something sweet about that “not really lovers but very close friends” zone. It is full of sehnsucht, a big word for the primal, elemental longing that is satisfied with nothing less than the eternal. Or, to use the Brazilian word for sweet melancholy so beloved by our M. LaMoe, it is a state full of saudade. There is longing, and light, in the liminal.

So the childhood friend, at least until the end of the series, holds back. She wants to say what is on her mind, but is always waiting for a better moment to do it. It never seems to come. There are films to be filmed, beaches to visit and play in, fireworks to watch and aimless moments sitting together to enjoy. The moment of emotional suppression is always the most poignant of all for me. That kind, determined smile Kanna gives at the end of the scene was the one that nearly induced a tear.

*SOB*

At the risk of stereotyping my own race, I wonder if there is something East Asian about that, in both why scenes of emotional repression like this happen in anime all the time (5 Centimeters Per Second, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, just to name a few) and even in Japanese cinema. I’m reminded of a scene near the end of Yasujiro Ozu’s movie Tokyo Story, where polite, pleasant family members finally begin to speak what is on their minds after being nice to each other for 3/4 of the film. At the end of the sharp, emotional exchanges, one character finally turns to another and says, “Isn’t life disappointing?”

“Yes,” the main female protagonist says, smiling, nodding slowly. “Yes, it is.”

She has a (loli) analogue in Onegai Teacher too! Bonus points if you can cite where.

IV: Reunion—Another True Story

I did have a reunion, once. There was another girl I grew up with in Memphis, though we weren’t very close. We played with a group of other kids at the houses of our parents’ friends. My main memory of her was that she once lambasted me, in a rather shrill, frustrated voice, “You are such a goody two-shoes and you’re so annoying! Why don’t you have any fun?” I wonder if the same charge could be laid against me today.

Almost ten years later, after my family and I had moved away from Memphis and when I was 16, my parents told me that we were going to meet her again in downtown Washington DC. She was coming to DC to pick up, yes, a Presidential honor for being such an excellent student in high school. (The sort of thing that makes Asian Tiger Parents proud.) I remember waiting for her with my folks in a swank hotel lobby. By then, I barely remembered her, so I had no idea what she would look like.

Lo and behold, when she came out with her mother, she had become very pretty: long straight hair, unblemished face, a kind smile. She was very happy to see me, from that smile and how eagerly she spoke to me. For the two hours we were together, at the restaurant and walking down the streets of DC, trailing our parents, it was like 9 years had melted away. There was little awkwardness. She even exclaimed, and giggled, that she remembered how cute I was when I was little (hard to square with my one memory of her then, but bygones are bygones when she has become that lovely). I pointed to the copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead she happened to carry, which I also happened to be reading at the time, and we talked about its ideas. I tried hard to look at her in the eyes when I spoke, something I had trouble doing back then. She almost never stopped smiling.

We parted not long after that with a hug. But I forgot to get her email or her number, and I still don’t remember her last name either. Last I heard, she had become a doctor.

One does not care to acknowledge the mistakes of youth —Char Aznable

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

JUST AS KEIKAKU

That Summer, I Waited.

The current season show Ano Natsu de Matteru (I’ll be Waiting That Summer), with its emotionally believable depiction of teenage awkwardness and first love, reminded me of one adolescent summer of writing, filmmaking, and hopeless crushes. This is the first time I’ve told most of these stories to anyone except my closest friends. Why? I blame the wonderful OP and ED of the show, especially the latter and its wistful lyrics. (The part titles are taken from them.)

Dialogue in this memoir is approximate and based on a memory that grows increasingly hazy. I’m setting this down before I forget further.

Spring, 1995: My feelings are burning into film

I made a silent 8mm film once. It was the last project of my final year in middle school. We were to storyboard, direct, develop, edit (using literal film splicers and tape—will we get to see Kai and company do that?), and transfer onto VHS so that our films could be shown on the last day of school.

Unlike Ano Natsu de Matteru, there were no girls on my production team: it was just me on camera, my cousin, and a new friend I’d met only a year prior. That friend played the protagonist. I vaguely remember drawing stick figures in the storyboards, because I couldn’t draw anything else, and I remember agonizing over the plot. It had something to do with a magic marble that granted the wishes of its possessor, but he soon lives to regret it when he sees its consequences, and throws it away.

We filmed in downtown Washington DC, outside the Air and Space Museum and on the National Mall. The sculpture outside Air and Space was the establishing shot. We also filmed on the small patch of lawn in front of my family’s townhouse. Our neighbor came out once while we were filming. “Spielberg had better watch out!” he said, chuckling at our efforts. We laughed too.

Spielberg, George Lucas, what's the difference?

We filmed a hilarious fight scene between my friend and my cousin. My cousin came out with arms and fists swinging wildly, and we had to do a few takes before we got the requisite seriousness—where my friend, with the marble’s power, injures him more than he intended and realizes he has to give it up.

In the end, there wasn’t time to show my film on the last day. I’m glad. It was an overly complex, overexposed, and clumsy mess. However, a VHS tape of it still exists in my parents’ basement somewhere, a recording of the film projected onto a screen. It is grainy and washed out, but there is sound: my voice and my teacher’s voice, our last conversation together. She wanted me to preserve the film on tape even though it wouldn’t be shown, before I left for good.

How strange, that my last memories of middle school would be captured on a tape showing an 8mm film, just before the summer began.


Summer, 1995: the lingering summer scent still reminds me of you

Less than two months after the film was completed, my mother and I went to an independent Christian retreat for five days. Though it wasn’t an official event, many people from my church were there, including a big chunk of the youth group. I had never felt comfortable in the youth group, being nerdy, awkward, and sensitive, the sorts of traits that get you teased and bullied at that age. (This is true even if one of the sorts of nerdiness you have is being a Bible nerd, which I was, big time.) In reponse, I was already beginning to develop the affectations of the alienated writer: I had my spiral-bound notebook in hand and plans to go off and write in the corner or under a tree, by myself.

Which is why I was caught off-guard when the cute girl who I barely knew—the girl with the straight, short hair with dark brown highlights and the rosy face—called me over. She was sitting on a bench with some of her other friends, waving her arm. I thought that she must have been talking to someone else, but she was definitely calling my name.

I steeled myself. Past experience told me that this was usually a prelude to a put-down or pre-emptive rejection: this is long before nerd chic ever became a thing. But I went over to her anyway, fueled by equal parts curiosity and the dim, slim hope that maybe this was going to be—

“Michael,” she said—starting a whole trend of girls calling me by my full name—”I just wanted to tell you you’re so adorable and sweet and—” I don’t remember anything else she said, because by that time I was confused. I barely knew her; she barely knew me. As far as I could remember,we never talked at length. Her friends giggled.

“Um,” I said. “Thanks.”

And that was all. I left, my writing notebook in hand, her compliments—perhaps prompted by a dare (“go flirt with the nerdiest boy you know!”) or perhaps genuine and sincere—ringing in my ears. To be honest, I didn’t believe them. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. No one had ever called me that before.

Later, I discovered how much that girl who had complimented me had been ostracized by the group for some reason. I didn’t know why, and I never found out. All I remember is that when she had to get up from her seat in the middle of the row, all the guys and girls in her way stood up and glared at her as she went down the row to the aisle. Maybe we weren’t so different after all, though she seemed so cute and bubbly at the time: how could someone like that be unpopular? Wasn’t enough to be pretty and to at least pretend to be nice? The world opened up a little more for me that moment, that there might be something underneath the masks people wear.

The kinds of things people called me was mostly smart followed by polite and maybe nice. And those were the people who liked me.

Indeed, that was the sort of thing my Sunday School teacher at the time, a pretty college student, told me. I remember after class once, she asked me to stay behind for a few minutes: the sort of request that for most kids meant that they were in trouble. But instead of berating me, she complimented me on how knowledgeable I was about the Bible (I had a leg up: I’d gone to a Christian elementary school in my early years), and that she was so happy to have me in the class. The ‘teacher’s pet’ charge was one that had tended to follow me for most of life up to that point, and I’d just become another one.

But I didn’t care. I liked it. I liked being complimented by beautiful women. Who doesn’t, at that age? Or any age?

Kai is handsomer than I was at that age, though.

She was at this retreat, too, and seemed to go out of her way to not only say hi but to sit down and talk with me for a few minutes. I didn’t have too much to say that I could remember, except about my ambitious writing plans: I had wanted to plan out my first novel that summer. I’d made a few stabs at it in middle school, but they never went very far—but that summer, I swore, I was going to do it for real. My teacher was impressed. “You have to tell me about it later,” she said. “I’d like to read it.”

For an aspiring nerd fantasy boy writer at 14, these are the words muses are made of. I never said that out loud, of course, or to her—I was much too shy for that. But in between the sermons, and the forced games and the singing, there was hours of free time in the sunlit afternoons. I found quiet corners where, smearing the side of my right palm with ink, I wrote a chapter-by-chapter outline of a novel I called Sanctuary. It was a fantasy novel about a gifted young magic student, who feels like a failure and ends up going on a long journey to try to find his skills and himself. It contained some depressing parts where he realizes he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and his mistakes have irreversible consequences. It had a bittersweet ending.

Two days before the retreat ended, I finished the outline. In a grandiose gesture, I wrote at the end: “If I get this far, I am a genius!” It was written as a joke, because I didn’t really believe deep down that I was going to finish it. None of my attempts in the past had succeeded.

I gave my Sunday School teacher the outline. As she promised she read it, while I sat in a comfy chair, nervously waiting for her reaction. “Oh, but this is so sad!” she exclaimed at one point. “Why is this so sad?”

“Life isn’t always so happy.”

But when she finished, she smiled and handed the paper back to me. “Well, I want to read the manuscript one day,” she said. “You’re really talented, you know.” And she mussed my hair and then left for dinner. I sat there for a little while longer.


Epilogue: when I realized it, our threads of fate were already tangled.

I did actually finish that novel, Sanctuary, in my junior year of high school. I remember trying to show it to that Sunday School teacher not long after I bound the manuscript at home. But she was married by then and had a lot less time, and it was several years later. She never read it.

I’m currently reformualting and rewriting the ideas in that first novel into a new work, A Pattern of Light. It features most of the same characters and setting, but a fundamentally different plot and with some winking anime/manga style references. It is now 2/3 complete and I hope to get some light-novel style illustrations for it too.

The girl who called me adorable at that retreat ended up going to my high school too, so I kept running into her a lot. We were in Christian club together. She was always kind and friendly to me, though we weren’t really close. Once, I told her about my writing, and she asked, “but what does that have to do with Jesus?” Later, during a youth group outing, I thought about asking her out to the prom. I didn’t. I was too scared. I believe she is married now, too.

The friend who was the star of my 8mm film is now himself a director, digital animator, and actor in New York. We still keep in touch often and I count him as one of my oldest friends. Check out his work on his Youtube channel.