Sunday, February 18, 2007

Discovering Comet-san

Last night, my wife and I watched Cosmic Baton Girl Comet-san, an anime series aimed at roughly five to ten year olds. I have been avoiding such experiences for quite some time.

I’ve watched a handful of Miyazaki films in my lifetime, but somehow I side stepped the raving fanaticism that tends to burn in the souls of your stereotypical Japanoholic. There are numerous splinter factions within the geek culture and I’ve always considered myself somewhat of an accidental mainstream nerd. There is no doubt that I bear the nerd mark burned upon my forehead. My membership in our little minority was sealed early on once the Community discovered my love of citing scientific studies and my penchant for lugging about Greg Bear novels. At least in America, this is the rough equivalent of not speaking English as your first language or having chocolate skin. Chop, chop…into the box you go. At age seven, you don’t really know enough to make a fuss.

However, the niche Star Trek, Anime, LARPing, Linux subcultures never held much personal appeal. These were the obscure hobbies of my friends, akin to knowing someone who really enjoys raising champion poodles. I’d nod and smile politely before moving on to topics of mutual interest, like differential geometry. Occasionally, I’d borrow a manga that my friends recommended with giant, pleading saucer-like eyes, but any sort of repeatable addiction never really caught fire.

Later in life, I married a wonderful woman. She was smart, stylish, loved long meandering walks in the park and had the sort of dry, razor sharp wit that I imagined only mythical New York café lasses possessed. It was only a couple years later that it fully sunk in that she was in fact Japanese. Talk about being put in a pickle. Once you get the nerd brand, being married to a woman who happens to speak Japanese is instant entry into an entirely new universe of stereotypes. The default assumptions abound. Did you know that I now adore anime? And of course all my previous girlfriends were Asian since I naturally have a certain (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) predilection for very short schoolgirl outfits. Oh, and I speak fluent Japanese due to my extensive stay teaching English in Japan. None of these happen to be true, but how can you not find them mildly amusing?

As a bit of a contrarian, I’ve resisted some aspects of this packaging. Until very recently, it had been years since I had rented anime or read manga. The former are the equivalent of seeing La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) dubbed by the cast of Scoobie Doo high on crack and helium. With the later, I can imagine better uses of my money than spending a tenner on an initial hour of entertainment that promises $400 worth of episodic cliff hangers in the future.

Enter Comet-san
Comet-san is the tale of a magical young girl of about 12 who enjoys twirling batons. The entire show sparkles with wonder. There aren’t merely raindrops falling from the edge of the roof during a rainstorm. Instead, they are little drip people whose job it is to drip with all their might. The animation of the drop creatures pushing themselves away from the ledge with determination and glee inspires me. There are none of the odd sexual overtones, just delightful child-like innocence.

There is a highly appealing animist spirituality woven throughout the series. Ancient trees snore. Miniature worlds fly about the heavens like playful children. This is a feeling that I’ve been attempting to capture in my artwork for many years. We’ve downloaded 21 subtitled episodes over BitTorrent and are merrily munching through them. Each one leaves us both with huge smiles on our faces. I realize that this series is only one of many such series in Japan and that it likely isn’t even a very good one. Yet, I feel like a foreign exchange student in the 90s who has been introduced to Michael Jackson for the first time. For the elite, it may be passé, but for me it is the seed of a brilliantly fresh insight.

We need more child-like delight and wonder in the worlds we create. Enough with the grim, sexually explicit brownness of next generation games and high budget American fear frenzy films. The presence of color and vividly imagined life stirs something creative inside of me that has been dormant for an unfortunately long time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just create a game world about a city park grove that thrives with huge moss covered tree gods and scampering, mundane spirits? The everyday world is an appealingly surreal and magical playscape when seen through the proper filter.

Upon watching Comet-san, I’m reminded of a song by King Missile titled appropriately “The Boy Who Ate Lasagna And Could Jump Over A Church”
Once there once was a boy
Who was very happy most of the time.
His life was almost completely complete.
He could sense however,
That there were two things
That were missing from his life,
But he didn't know what they were.

One day, his family took him to an Italian restaurant.
The boy had never had Italian food,
And was mesmerized
By all the exotic sounding names of the dishes.
He asked about the lasagna,
And it sounded delicious,
So he ordered it.
He ate the lasagna, and it was delicious.

The boy knew that one of the things
That was missing in his life
Was no longer missing.
Take care


  1. I'd say Comet-san must be a good anime (not that I know anything), considering it was voted to be one of 2002's best by fans at Tokyo Int'l Anime Fair along w/ Spirited Away and Ojamajo Doremi! Japanese Wikipedia entry says people from various generations enjoyed it.

    Kids in Italy, S Korea and Taiwan have enjoyed it too :-)

  2. > Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just create a game world about a city park grove that thrives with huge moss covered tree gods and scampering, mundane spirits?<
    Sounds like Viva Pinata.

  3. As you would well know, there are usually more than a few productions in any given medium that are a far cry from the steretypical and most popular examples. There are actually a multitude of anime productions who on the surface don't seem to have any objective in the narrative at all, and episodes don't link to one-another. Instead the productions focus on a few simple yet powerful elements; a great sense of immersion in atmosphere, and the characters coming to simple yet signifficant emotional milestones in their lives. Of-course, we in the west dub this kind of thing 'slice-of-life', but the term is as apt as it is misleading. While these anime productions as well as a fair few Japanese live-action films seem to celebrate ordinary life or what some commentators call the mundane, there's a whole lot more waiting for any viewer who revels in great subtlety and symbolism.

    Truth be told, many (though not all) popular anime productions reflect a fascination with flamboyant western culture, and there's nothing wrong with that, but they are indeed the least Japanese productions, and again, there's nothing wrong with that. Apologies for the rampant self-justifying, but I don't want to come across as a pop-hater, it has its place. But like everything, there are always deeper levels one can explore, and there are more than a few anime productions that are extremely introspective in nature, both for children and for adults.

  4. So, Danc finally discovers what BitTorrent is really for? Fantastic. Been sampling the subs since 2002 myself, often years before they make their legitimate way outside of Japan, to be bought afresh and set aside on a shelf in case I'd like to reminisce or pass it on.

    I really relish the symbolism you can find in such abundance in anime, and have read cultural and religious comparisons and the like based on this original interest. Fascinating stuff if you like to know the underlying principles. Though equally absorbing if you prefer to let the images do the talking and enjoy it for what you see.

    Obligatory recommendation: the works of Yoshitoshi ABe. Haibane Renmei is probably my favourite creation of all time.

    And yes, stick to the subs!

  5. I approach anime the same way I approach other types of entertainment: with a keen eye for uniqueness and creativity.

    I love anime but, like you, I wouldn't necessarily label myself an anime "obsessive". I do like Miyazaki's works.

    For anyone who fancies themselves an intellectual, particularly in the area of philosophy and/or robotics, I must recommend Ergo Proxy. Ergo Proxy is simply an amazing anime for anyone with an intellectual slant.

    Love your articles by the way; great food for thought.

    - N.

  6. Here's an article about Nintendo's new Everybody Votes thing that might be up your alley:

  7. The children have been with us all along, but in the pursuit of the selfish now, we find them loud, inconveniently unequipped to help us get what we want, and a painful reminder of what we're all running away from.

    We strive too hard to rob children of their innocence and make them into miniature servants.

    Besides, who really has time for them? Who wants to live in reverse, helping a child look to the future, when we've already been there and done that?

    We've got a dual income to parent, a 401K plan to nurture, a gym membership to dedicate our bodies to, and a television to keep an eye on...


  8. Did somebody say intellectual?

    Danc, I must admit I have had the exact same feeling you're describing towards the end there. Also the one you're describing towards the beginning. I think your problem there is that true intellectuals are exceedingly rare. And, if I may ask, I'm curious - How did you meet your wife?

    Raymond, that's actually the theme of Alice in Wonderland.

    Anime, well, I decided that I should know more about anime and I had two anime fanatic girlfriends in a row and I've been watching a bunch of anime in a row, 20 something series and movies, and I think I am about done.

    Anime that didn't make me feel cheated:
    Ghost in the Shell, series season 1 and 2
    Cowboy Bebop, series and movie
    Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
    Spirited Away
    Howl's Moving Castle
    Grave of the Fireflies

    Anime I'd recommend to you (Danc) based on what I've read of your writing:
    The previous list,
    plus Princess Mononoke.
    You've probably seen most of that, though.

    I do not like Yoshitoshi ABe. Serial Experiments Lain is a ball of fluff held together by pretension. Supposedly hard to understand, the real problem is that it doesn't come together to deliver on any of its weirdness, making it pseudo-intellectual rather than profound. Also slow-paced. However, the visual style is interesting. Haibane Renmai is also pseudo-intellectual, but is simpler, more boring, and has better art. Some of the drawing is very good, but all of the show is extremely boring.

    I am ambivalent about Ergo Proxy. (Erogo Procshee if you're watching it subbed.) The basic concept/setting is good. The animation work Manglobe did is really excellent, and the sound/music is good - I mean, it would be unfair to complain about the intro lyrics. And the "cute" character was not annoying. But everything else? Really terrible. Come on Novan, I dare you to justify Q-QQ-Q. It looked good at the start. It could have been really good and really smart. Instead, it's really goth.

    More reviews:

    Bebop, the early series episodes are a bit weak but it's worth watching. I don't feel a need to justify saying that.

    Ghost in the Shell - The movies (1 and 2) have only trite philosophy and decent action. The series has that, plus *real* ideas. Seasons 1 and 2 have plots that are at their core intelligent. I'll quote wikipedia here.

    "While originally intended to 'underscore the dilemmas and concerns that people would face if they relied too heavily on the new communications infrastructure,' Stand Alone Complex eventually came to represent a phenomenon where unrelated, yet very similar actions of individuals create a seemingly concerted effort. In the series itself, it usually refers to events surrounding the Laughing Man case. It is presented as an emergent phenomenon catalyzed by parallelization of the human psyche through the cyberbrain networks. There is no original, no leader. Everyone is acting on his own, yet a coherent whole emerges."

    "A character, postulates that, by exploiting the mechanism of information transmission in society, one could achieve a very efficient and subtle thought control. Indeed, since people tend to modify slightly the information (and forget where it came from) in the processes of consumption (or appropriation), it becomes difficult to sort genuine ideas from modified, implanted, ones. He proves to be very successful in the end."

    That's not idle speculation. That's something you can already see. And the effects of new kinds of connection to people's brains (ep 11)? That's pretty solid stuff. The pacing writing and music is all pretty good. I could go on, but I'd spoil the series.

    I mean, is it flawed? Of course it's flawed. But if quality is good ideas and good execution, GitS: SAC stands over quite a lot.

    Haruhi - The only thing that looks like an *anime* anime that is also intelligent. The subtext is a clever self-referential examination of the cultural role of television in Japan from a postmodern, semiotic perspective. What is the world created by a girl's avoidance of boredom? A TV series. And what is causing the nature of that avoidance?

    Last Exile - Good CG...for now. Good for kids and hardcore anime fans.

    Elfen Lied - For a certain kind of hardcore anime fan, Elfen Lied is nearly perfect. But for most people the clash between the latin intro and J-pop extro and the juxtaposition of maximum cartoon violence with cutesy groping is really too much. I do now understand entertainment well enough though now to understand why it is what it is.

    Boogiepop Phantom - Supernatural horror puzzle anime. Watch if you want that. Also, least cute anime, despite the silly name.

    FLCL - The best anime ever crack-smoking monkeys. Good for people with severe ADD who like avante-garde, puns, and pop culture references. Insane plot; subtext is adolescent sexuality. Trivia: is produced by Gainax, the company behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose name has been verbed as follows: "gainaxed" means either a precise bouncing animated breasts do, or delivery of an incompetent and unsatisfying ending to a series.

    Appleseed - Best movie to use to avoid someone making you watch Advent Children.

    Grave of the Fireflies - Best sad, slow-paced anime.

    While I'm at it...

    It is interesting that something as intellectual as Ghost in the Shell would be mass market. The reason for that, I feel, is the combination of an elite-driven mass market culture in Japan, and the combination of defeat by science in the form of the atomic bomb and the rapid adoption of technology and automation that Japan has seen have made it pro-intellectual some places America is anti-intellectual. Of course, true intellectuals are rare anywhere, but being biased towards things that appear intellectual and towards elite-approved things will at least somewhat increase the proportion of things that are actually smart. Of course, these are going to be rarer than, say, shows with unwanted harems designed to make the legions of geeky Japanese subconsciously feel that, see, they just have to wait, and lots of girls will come on to them, that's the way the world works, and they're not nearly as incompetent as this guy they're watching so they'll do really well. Well, as you know, one metric of entertainment is d(perceived fitness)/dt, and a neural network changes in every direction at once a minimal amount to get reinforcement and avoid anti-reinforcement.

    Plus, an explanation for the declining age of pinups in Japan:

    Japanese have few children now. That means adult men are less likely to have a daughter.

    Changes in nutrition and the increased prevalence of certain hormone-mimicking chemicals in an industrial society lead to earlier puberty and taller kids.

    Changes in education and the Flynn effect mean that children are smarter, younger.

    The above means that the Japanese concept of male superiority needs increasingly younger girls.

    Also, the culture of Japan is sometimes one of people ignoring the people around them and caring only about a certain group of people's thoughts. This means nobody will criticize the old guy looking at pictures of a 12 year old (yes, 12) on the train. This plus the internet means people fracture into somewhat narrow groups, the nature of which is to be more extreme when they are more isolated.

    My feeling is that this effect has reached a maximum, and will stay where it is for a bit before slowly returning to a new equilibrium with 16-ish girls.

    Also, blogs of foreigners in Japan:
    a punk musician's -
    an intellectual musician's -

  9. And to think that everything started back in 1967, based on a Mitsutero comic. We have a website ( spanish w/translators ) devoted to the first Miss Comet with pictures, audio/video, and the whole story. Ms. Yumiko Kokonoe's birthday ( who starred in it ), is this coming march 21st. Celebrate with us! Pablo