I picked up Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player because I am visiting Japan again soon and enjoying reading a bunch of Japanese literature before I go. This book blew me away unexpectedly. I came across it in the Teen room at the library where I work, and it’s an excellent read for young readers and adults alike.
Elin’s family has an important responsibility: caring for the fearsome water serpents that form the core of their kingdom’s army. So when some of the creatures mysteriously die, Elin’s mother is sentenced to death as punishment. With her last breath, she manages to send her daughter to safety.
Alone and far from home, Elin soon discovers that she can communicate with both the terrifying water serpents and the majestic flying beasts that guard her queen. This skill gives her great power, but it also involves her in deadly plots that could cost her life. Can she save herself and prevent her beloved beasts from being used as tools of war? Or is there no escaping the terrible battles to come?
(From the book jacket)
The Beast Player is an epic fantasy, a standalone story, and a philosophical musing on the futility of war. It features an inquisitive protagonist, a badass mom, a kindly father figure, and many more admirable- and not so admirable- characters, as well as some interesting creatures.
The pacing is perfect and just enough detail is given by translator Cathy Hirano to pull you into the world without becoming tedious. Even the most fantastical elements in this story are fleshed out in a thoughtful and believable way, and the actions and reactions of the characters also feel refreshingly realistic.
Elin is a clever, independent, and interesting young woman, and a keen observer of the natural world. Her story doesn’t follow many of the expected tropes one often sees- there’s no predictable romance here, just a tight and interweaving story full of adventure.
It’s been a while since I read Saga Vol 1, but I’m discussing it in my comic course so I gave it a reread and remembered afresh why I love this series so much. The plentiful fantasy and sci-fi elements, plus a beautiful forbidden love story between two complex and flawed badass characters, sprinkled with startling imagery and unexpected humour, makes for a really compelling tale.
Vaughan’s dialogue throughout feels so raw and real, especially with Alana who pulls no punches beginning with the memorable first page. The world, too, feels very attached to our own despite the whimsical fantasy of it. The story takes itself seriously at its core, depicting the brutal cruelties of life and war, as well as more tender moments. There are some very messed up things happening in Saga’s universe, but these atrocities are closer to the realities of our Earth than we’d like to think.
It wasn’t until after reading a few volumes of Saga that I learned the amazing and award-winning artist Fiona Staples was Canadian. Today that I learned she was born in Calgary- so cool! Staples’ art impresses me a lot- I really appreciate it when artists show you the nitty-gritty and go all in instead of making something watered down for wider consumption.
Saga doesn’t cater to the widest possible audience, but instead presents itself authentically, unabashedly, and in-your-face, no holds barred. It’s got action, emotion, diverse characters, strange creatures, and an epic feel. It’s totally earned a spot in my top favorite comic series.
This is the sentiment that forms the undercurrent of Maquia, a standalone high-fantasy story centered around the lorph- also known by humans as the “clan of the separated” because their near-immortality has caused them to live isolated lives and become the stuff of legends.
Maquia is a woman of the lorph. When a power-hungry kingdom raids her village, she is torn away from her kind and finds herself rescuing a human infant despite her deep knowledge of the heartbreak that will inevitably ensue.
Maquia is a rollicking story of adventure, with heaps of drama, spoonfuls of humour, and touches of romance. It’s also quite emotional- if you are a crier, be prepared to cry. By the end of it my husband looked at me and said “I feel like they’re trying their damnedest to make me cry”.
One aspect of the story that I really like is the Hibiol- the lorph are weavers and have a unique language of the cloth which they use to record history and share messages amongst themselves.
The film carries along at a good pace. It is interesting to see Maquia’s adopted son Ariel and the other humans in the story growing up steadily around the ever-youthful lorph characters. The way the characters developed and the decisions they made surprised me in some instances.
Another engaging aspect is the existence of the Renato- huge dragon creatures capable of flight that the kingdom of Mezarte have enslaved to do their bidding, but which are slowly but surely dying off from a mysterious “Red Eye disease”.
A word of caution- if, like me, you prefer sub over dub, stick with the Blu-Ray for this one. Sub and dub options are usually included on both the DVD release and Blu-Ray for most anime nowadays, but this is an exception- I borrowed the DVD from the library and then realized that it only had an English dub, so we had to watch it with English voice acting. The BluRay, I found out, does have both a sub or dub option.
Overall I really enjoyed this film and would totally watch it again someday. I think that, since it’s an engaging standalone film with a PG rating, it would be a good movie to introduce someone to anime, to share with your family, or to enjoy on a date. Or, just cosy up and enjoy it on your own!
With A Pocketful of Crows, Joanne Harris has proven to me yet again why she deserves many spots on my meticulously curated bookshelves.
This is a quick read, but full to the last page with poem, prose, wild imagery, and earthy illustrations by artist Bonnie Helen Hawkins.
It has all the trappings of a classic fairy-tale, but with a protagonist who is strong-willed and true to herself even as she falls into the clutches of a deep and all-consuming infatuation (and especially as she rises out of it).
This tale is charming, witchy, gorgeously written, and sometimes as cruel as nature itself.
Not only is it lovely between the covers, but the hardback edition is sumptuously bound with golden lettering.
From the age that I can first remember feeling the pangs of infatuation and lust in my mid-teens, I found I had a taste for rogues, tricksters, baddies, and miscreants. In books, movies, manga, anime, and otome games, I rarely go for the hero of the story- my affections are generally reserved for the evil adversary, mysterious secondary character, or perhaps the dangerously playful womanizing side-kick. These characters are often sexy but would ultimately make terrible romantic partners in real life.
Recently I’ve been noticing in comment sections all over the internet well-intentioned people decrying these very sorts of characters that I am drawn to. Fans and non-fans alike are calling out reprehensible actions of characters as they see them. I think this is a positive reflection of wider discussions and movements that are happening worldwide right now regarding healthy relationships, love, affection, sex, and consent. These honest reflections on characters, from Sabrina’s Father Blackwood to the Sakamaki family of Diabolik Lovers, are valuable and worth noting. The relationships you see on TV or other media are often not good examples for real-life relationships to follow- sometimes these sorts of characters stray into cruel or even verbally and/or physically abusive behavior.
However, I do not believe that the answer is to eliminate such characters from the stories we tell and worlds we create.
One area that gets a lot of heat for these sorts of characters is otome games- perhaps because they are simulating a relationship with the player. Games like these feel more intimate than watching a movie or reading a book: usually a player uses their real first name in-game to enhance the immersion, voice-actors use dummy-head mics to record sound like they are right beside your ear whispering sweet nothings through your headphones, and choices in the game lead to consequences for the character you play as well as other characters in the game.
The first true otome game I played was Code: Realize, Guardian of Rebirth. It’s an interactive visual novel with a Victorian steampunk aesthetic, excellent Japanese voice acting, and odes to famous historical figures throughout.
A common strategy for playing otome games is play the main route with the main love interest first (often he’s featured on the cover, as with this example featuring Arsene Lupin) and then branch out to other romantic partners in subsequent play-throughs.
However, I always gravitate immediately towards the character that (you guessed it) is strange, aloof, mean, temperamental, and/or seemingly sinister. In Code: Realize, I went for Saint-Germain, an intriguing and mysterious white-haired gentleman voiced by my favorite voice actor, Daisuke Hirakawa.
*Warning: spoilers ahead!*
My interest in Saint only grew as his complex and tragic story slowly unwound, with seemingly no means of a happy end. Still, I was caught completely off-guard when my first play-through ended abruptly with that is probably considered the worst possible ending you can get in the game: he murdered me.
I was shocked, bemused, and strangely thrilled by this sudden turn of events. Retracing my steps and choosing different directions on my second play-through, I discovered that he had some solid legitimate reasons for killing my character (really!) and in the less tragic story-lines he is actually a gentle, devoted, caring partner, despite a crushingly brutal past that haunts his every step.
Aside from his bad-ending (murder…) route, Saint is actually not particularly problematic, so I’d like to present a more blatant example of the “reprehensible love interest”…
Diabolik Lovers began as an otome visual novel game franchise, but has since been turned into manga, anime, a stage musical, and tons of drama cds and merchandise in Japan. I stumbled upon the subbed anime on Crunchyroll a few years ago, starting a personal infatuation with this vampire series- a series featuring characters that are unabashedly terrible in their treatment of the female protagonist, Yui.
Yui is a Mary-Sue type character often seen in otome series- aside from some rare moments of tenacity, she is presented as an unremarkable, quiet, polite young lady. She’s a sort of vanilla stand-in for the viewer or player, one which they can easily replace with themselves.
Her potential suitors, on the other hand, are some very strong personalities. Their dispositions differ widely, ranging from hysterical and possessive to dismissive and toying. What unites all of the Sakamaki boys, though, is the way they all cruelly use and abuse Yui to sate their thirsts for blood and amusement.
Some hardcore fans will argue that by the end of the plotline their favorite boy truly loves Yui and is deeply devoted to her, but let’s be real here: that doesn’t excuse the abuse, and nobody is compelled to watch the Dialover anime or play the Dialover games because of the romance. The average viewer would be repelled by the sadistic, narcissistic, misogynistic and psychopathic actions of the Sakamaki family (some of my friends certainly are). The Sakamaki brothers each in turn physically restrain Yui, attack her verbally and physically (mainly through biting and taking her blood against her will) and deceive her naive and trusting nature unendingly. Each boy has a different demeaning nickname for Yui (Pancake, Sow, Bitch-chan, and so on…). So why are some people, like myself, drawn to these characters who are obviously toxic?
This conundrum has fascinated me for some time. Why am I attracted to characters in fantasy that would make me miserable in real life? Is this predilection linked to the dark triad of features that supposedly signal a capable mate, triggering some biological response in me? Am I simply bored by predictable good guys and their chivalry? Is it pure masochism on my part? While not everyone falls for the charms of the bad boy, i’m certainly not unique in this regard, and there are lots of potential reasons someone might be willingly pulled over to the dark side.
Whatever the reason, the truth is that I and many others enjoy these sorts of flawed, dangerous, cruel characters, even when they are at their worst. While I understand the criticisms of series like Diabolik Lovers, I believe we mustn’t equate a portrayal of an abusive or problematic fictional character with the actions of a person in real life or an endorsement of these kinds of relationships.
It’s okay to enjoy a romantic fantasy, even a dark and twisted one.
I am an advocate for the freedom to read, write, and create without restrictions. No work will be pleasing to everyone, and some may find certain works distasteful, but we must remember that these stories are fictional. When I immerse myself in an otome game, it is my choice, and I can withdraw my consent from the experience at any time by pressing the “power off” button on my Vita. I don’t confuse the tangled relationships in the fictional stories I enjoy with my real life relationships, which are thankfully much less dramatic than the ones I read, watch, and play.
Abuse is wrong. Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse have no place in a healthy relationship. Consent is vital. I don’t condone abuse in real life.
The fantasy world of books, movies, and video games are a space where the dangerous sides of love and lust can be explored safely- the cat and mouse game, which is exciting in theory but potentially devastating in real life, can be enjoyed in a make-believe format in which the consumer controls (while enjoying being “controlled” artificially).
We can and should continue to reflect on characters, and each person can determine for themselves what they enjoy or do not enjoy reading, watching, or playing, but there should be no shame for enjoying reprehensible love interests in fiction!
This is day 7 of revisiting my journal from our trip to Japan last year! If you’d like to start at the beginning, here is day 1.
So, day 7, here we go!
From Shauna’s Journal
Day 7, October 7th, 2017
Today was definitely an adventure. Dustin and I were going to go to Akiba again, but his feet were in bad condition from all the walking we’d been doing, so I went out on another solo exploration. Originally I was going to go to Akiba alone and get more doll supplies, but I got distracted by loud music near the station.
I’m not sure what sort of festival it was, but dancers of all ages were doing group choreography in colourful dress. Some performances featured huge flags being waved in synchronization- each flag used someone’s entire body weight to wave! One performance utilized costumes that flipped into different colours 3 times (green to white to pink.). It was such a cool thing to see. Lots of people on the sidewalks stopped to watch along the sides of the roads.
After i’d watched several impressive performances, I was starting to get hungry and was feeling brave, so I used Google Maps to find the place i’d been extremely curious (and nervous) about visiting: Theme Cafe #6 of my trip- The BL (Boys Love) Cafe in Ikebukuro!!! o.o
Be forewarned: the following adventure is not for everyone, but I couldn’t resist!
This cafe has developed a reputation for providing a very unique atmosphere and experience, and was something I just couldn’t pass up- again, you’re not in Japan every day! Might as well check out the yaoi cafe! Judge me if you will!
I came upon a discrete signboard and steps leading up to a nondescript door with a cherub knocker. When I entered with a tinkling of bells, I was greeted by a handsome young man and I said in my best Japanese, “Hi, I don’t have a reservation… is it ok?”
He said yes, and guided me to a seat at the bar. He gave me a brand new Cafe ID card for their points program, and explained the menu to me as best as he could, often turning to “Sensei” for help. Hyuma Sensei has very good English (he told me he studied in America for a while). He turned to me and said “so, you’re 16”.
Me: “Oh, me, no! I’m 27! You need my ID? I have it som…”
Sensei: “No, we don’t care about that. But here, you are 16. I am “Sensei”. This is high school. So-and-so has a ____ coloured tie, so he is a 1st year. So-and-so has a ____ tie, so you can see he is a 3rd year.” etc. I couldn’t keep the names, tie colours, or other details straight, but I got the idea. So, I had entered a strange world of role play where I, and all of the customers and staff, were “in high school”.
I ordered a full set – cafe au lait (iced) with a hamburger steak meal and for dessert- the infamous Pocky Challenge.
As I ate my hamburger steak and nervously sipped my cafe au lait, the staff chatted with me about my trip, about Dustin, about Canada, about if I knew what BL was (>.<‘) and how I found their cafe (internet!). I asked if they get many foreign visitors. Hyuma assured me, “yes!”
It was starting to feel sort of like a normal cafe, until a girl ordered the “Coupling Pocky”- I watched from the sidelines as Hyuma Sensei and another guy did a role-play scene resulting in a close encounter on the chaise lounge and a pocky eating challenge, each biting the pocky stick as far as they could without their lips touching. I felt my cheeks burning red. When staff returned to the bar I exclaimed in Japanese “IT’S WARM IN HERE, ISN’T IT? T-T” which they thought was really funny.
I finished my meal and worked up the nerve to ask for my Coupling Pocky to be served- the final part of my meal set. I nervously ate the pocky as instructed, eating all but the last stick (which I was to save for a heart-pounding performance featuring 2 boys of my choosing). I chose Sensei and Shoma, a funny, chatty boy who spoke excitedly with me in English about his love of Gossip Girl and my love of vampires. (We kept making jokes about the phrase “xoxo- Gossip Girl”).
Sensei pulled a chair out to the side of the room and motioned for me to sit. He asked “what kind of scenario would you like?”
Surprised, I paused awkwardly and said “like… kabe don? Sort of thing? Sort, of, maybe?…”
The kabe don wall-hit move is an often over-the-top anime and jdrama trope that never fails to bring a blush to my cheeks (or a smile to my lips): here is a kabe-don example video for the unfamiliar:
Could the young men of the Ikebukuro cafe do kabe-don justice?
“OK” Sensei said with a smile, “which one of us is performing the kabe-don on the other?”
“Sensei?….” I peeped.
So, together they created and acted out a scenario where Sensei scolds Shoma for being a messy dresser and not wearing his uniform correctly. In the heat of the argument, Sensei pins him to the wall- pushes him so hard the walls rattle and all the girls in the cafe turn to look at the spectacle I had commissioned: the two boys against the wall (mostly hidden from view of the other customers) and me sitting stiffly in a wooden chair in the middle of the room covering my mouth and stifling nervous giggles.
The boys’ eyes met briefly with a stifled laugh, silently acknowledging, I think, something like “oops, I pushed you too hard lol”. Then, Hyuma Sensei procured the Pocky stick and they completed the scene as I watched through my fingers, my hands pressed against my cheeks.
Afterward they asked “So, how was it?” and I said in english “You did great!”
“Wow, we did good!” they rejoiced.
“No. GREAT. Better than good. Totemo, totemo good”, I assured them. They were proud XD.
Before leaving the cafe, I was offered to pick a photo from a random draw as a memory keepsake of the cafe- I got this picture of Souta, the boy who initially greeted me at the door. We had some language barrier, but he is very kind and funny. He kept making jokes about important aspects of Japanese culture I needed to experience on my trip, such as harakiri/seppuku. Ok! I’ll get right on that!
I told the staff that I was leaving soon for Gunma and Kinosaki but that I would be back after and wanted to visit again. Sensei said “We’ll waiting for you!” All of the guys gathered at the door and said bye to me… then I forgot my umbrella and had to run back to get it ^-^’
So, it was a VERY memorable experience in the heart of the Otome Road.
After that thrilling lunch, I collected myself and took the Maranouchi line to see Maika at the cafe where she works. I had to take 2 trains but I missed a stop and had to backtrack. I made it eventually! It was a nice walk through residential neighborhoods to her cafe, Allpress Roastery. There was construction in some places, and it was a quiet area without much signage- i’m so glad for google maps! I saw lots of people walking dogs, and one biker collide with an apologetic woman. (Gomennasai!!! Daijobu desu ka!?)
At the cafe Maika made me a beautiful latte with hearts in the foam.
I saw a big, interesting bug on the door.
Maika introduced me to her friends Colleen and Kyosuke, and we went to a cosy little Okonomiyaki restaurant together. It was my first time sitting at a traditional Japanese low table with my feet folded under me. We made the okonomiyaki together and it was so delicious. The bonito flakes sway and move from the heat like they are dancing. I drank beer and plum wine.
We went for a lovely evening stroll after dinner. While walking on the streets together, Maika pointed out remnants of a completed festival: scarecrow-like figures with large bag heads.
Maika, Colleen and I took the same train for part of the way back. The train seats were different than others i’d seen before- they were the colour of bread. I was the first to have to get off, and wished my friends goodbye.
After such a busy day I wasn’t tired at all, and it’s not often that I’m in Ikebukuro on a Saturday night so…. I looked up the BL cafe and found out it was OPEN UNTIL 5AM! I wanted to make the most of all the time I had in Japan, so I headed back there again and was greeted warmly by the staff.
I met a cute, stylish girl who was also seated at the bar. I complimented her style and we began chatting excitedly with the aid of Google translate. We talked about my trip, and her visit to the BL cafe (she is a semi-regular customer and rode the train 1.5 hours to get here!). Another woman to my left was shy and barely spoke any English, but when staff told me she was an expert tequila drinker, I declared that she was Tequila Champion, Queen of Tequila. I got the staff chanting “1 tequila, 2 tequila, 3 tequila, 4!…” and we all had a good time chatting for a bit.
A few more shenanigans:
Before he finished his shift for the day, Shoma was showing off a cute sticker on his middle finger and making it talk. I asked “what is his (the hamster) name?” Answer? HAMUSTA CHAN!
Before he left, Hyuma and I had a conversation about mascots in Japan vs. Canada. He thought (maybe he was pulling my leg?) that moose were made-up creatures! When I explained how big they are, he was shocked.
Before she left, my bar-mate friend told me I was pretty and showed me on her phone translator “I’m glad I met you.” She told me I am a “colourful person who can do anything” and that my personality and expressions remind her of a puppy dog! Haha. She was such a sweet girl and wished me a great trip.
One staff, Misaki(?) was quite a joker, and kept doing the “I have a pen- I have a apple- UHH! PINAPPLE PEN” song, except at the “UHH!” parts he made a variety of indecent noises that had me in stitches.
Another late-night staff was excited to learn I was Canadian and trying to learn Japanese, and cheered me on with “ganbatte!”
One of the staff found out I like SHINee, and he was also a kpop fan- he played SHINee Lucifer on the speakers for me!
Around 11:45 or so I left the cafe- the boys said “Bye bye!” and made sure I was comfortable with finding my way back to the hotel. I played a couple of rounds of the drumming game at Taito station before calling it quits and walking back to the hotel amidst a current of swaying salarymen. I got to pet a corgi!
Yesturday I came across this post by TheGamersJourney which is a response to a challenge by TheCosplayingBrooke and it inspired me to share my own thoughts on cosplay and why I enjoy it!
Cosplay is a total mystery to some people- why do we dress up as these characters, painstakingly crafting elaborate costumes, weapons and accessories? It’s expensive, it’s a lot of work, and some people look down upon it as being childish or cringey.
What’s with cosplay?
A little on my cosplay history…
My first time cosplaying was at Edmonton Expo in 2015. It was my first con ever, and I went as InuYasha. While my costume was designed by the amazing SkyCreation on Etsy, everything else was of my own making- the Tetsusaiga sword was my first weapon build, and it got tons of stares and photos- it was almost too long to fit in our truck!
A lot of my blood and sweat went into that Tetsusaiga… cutting glued industrial foam with an xacto knife is a dangerous business o.o
InuYasha’s long haired wig was a pain in the butt, but luckily the ears I made worked well when sewn into it. I tried creating my own Beads of Subjugation with clay but they ended up being ridiculously heavy, so strung together some store-bought beads instead. I learned the trick of making realistic fangs out of acrylic nails and I’ve never looked back!
After cosplaying as InuYasha I was hooked, and I have since cosplayed Rin Matsuoka, Laito Sakamaki, Tsukimi Kurashita, and soon Krul Tepes (in progress)!
What inspires you to cosplay?
Usually I choose a cosplay project because I absolutely love the character- whether that’s a character that I am attracted to (my initial cross-plays of InuYasha, Rin, Laito) or a character that I admire or feel an affinity towards, like Tsukimi from Princess Jellyfish.
I have also started looking more at the aesthetics and style of a character- it’s especially fun to portray a character that has a unique and eye-grabbing style. For example, I cosplayed as Laito because he is my favorite character from Diabolik Lovers, but I almost chose to cosplay Kanato because he has awesome purple hair, his plushie Teddy, dark facial features that would be fun to replicate with makeup, and a really cool outfit.
On the flipside of this, after having lots of struggles with long wigs, I might reconsider any future cosplay choices if they have crazy long hair!
I also consider the feasability of creating the costume- i’m still a beginner at sewing and crafting, and although in the beginning I purchased some of my pieces from online sellers, my goal is to create all of my costumes and accessories myself going forward.
What got you interested in cosplay?
Cosplay was on my radar ever since I was a young kid, I think. I’m sure I didn’t know “cosplay” was a word back then, but I used to dream about dressing up as the blue Power Ranger or Sailor Mercury. I used to pretend to be these characters when I was playing with my friends, but there was always this yearning to wear the costumes and take on the role of someone else.
Halloween was thrilling for me, and I’ve loved getting into costume for school plays and things like that- cosplay was a natural progression, I guess.
What does cosplay mean to you and what does it bring to your life?
Cosplay does lots of things for me. It gives me a new way to be creative and learn new skills- I’ve designed my own accessories and weapons, learned how to use a sewing machine, dabbled with costume and sfx makeup, and improvised materials and costume fixes.
It also gives me an immediate sense of community. As soon as I stepped into the expo hall as InuYasha, strangers began approaching and complimenting my handicraft, expressing their love of the series, and so on. I call conventions “being with my people” because it’s so fun to feel completely free to dork out and celebrate that dorkiness with others.
I love seeing diverse people of all different backgrounds and abilities, from all walks of life, young and old, coming together in celebration and shenanigans because of their shared geekiness. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of!
Who do you cosplay for?
I cosplay for myself, because I truly enjoy it, and also for the geeky community that I meet at things like conventions. Just as I feel excitement approaching someone who is playing one of my favorite characters, I love it when I see and hear excitement from others about my cosplay. When people ask to get a picture with me, it makes my day. There is something so special and magical about being tapped on the back by Miroku when I am browsing anime dvds at a giant nerdy tradeshow, and getting a picture together!
Is cosplaying freeing for you, either to be more yourself or explore different parts of yourself?
Being around like-minded people certainly does make me feel freer to be my squeeful fangirl self without restraint. Since starting my cosplay journey I feel more confident being bold and sharing my individuality even when i’m not surrounded by other geeks. It’s empowering!
Cosplay also allows me to bring a bit of the theatrical into my life. On the one hand, I get a chance to play with my own look and take on aspects of characters I find similar to myself. On the other hand, cosplaying a character like Laito, who has a personality much stronger than mine, is a lot of fun.
Participating in cosplay competitions is very rewarding even when you don’t win anything, and I am planning to continue signing up for them in the future! It’s not often I get to be on stage with hundreds of people watching me. It’s a crazy experience.
^Awkward Tsukimi shuffle off the staaaggeeee! (Picture rights belong to Edmonton Expo)