Slices of Life

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My history of writing slice of life stories goes back to City of Heroes. In-game, everything was about action, being a superhero. While our roleplaying group was largely based around heroes being ordinary people for a while, just hanging out, the ‘ordinary life’ stuff was generally handled in forum fiction. We would write stories about our characters’ daily lives when they weren’t wearing spandex and beating up goons.

I don’t really write that kind of thing now. It’s really short story material. Yes, there are slice of life scenes in all my books, but that’s not the primary focus. As with the short stories, the insert scenes are primarily there to illustrate the characters. There’s a lot you can learn about a character by how they react in stressful situations, but how they handle a normal life can be just as important. (This kind of thing even has a venerable history in comics. There’s a Batman comic based entirely around Bruce Wayne trying to get a good night’s sleep for once.)

This may be why I have a soft spot for Slice of Life anime. The archetypal SoL anime involves high school students getting through their daily life, and romantic aspirations, in a fairly normal setting. Possibly, that setting has some odd supernatural element which may be a heavy focus, but that’s not really what the story is about. The two classic trend setters for this are The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and K-On! neither of which I can really comment on because I’ve never seen them.

I got into SoL anime through NichijouMiss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, and Interviews with Monster Girls (pictured above), with a side-helping of The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. The last of those is hilarious, but only the first season has been dubbed thus far and this is one case where dubbed is better than subbed: the dialogue is so rapid-fire that it’s next to impossible to keep up with subtitles. Nichijou is similar, but a little easier to keep track of and now comes in a dubbed form. But if I really had to pick, I’d have trouble deciding between Dragon Maid and Monster Girls.

Dragon Maid is the story of a bored, isolated salarywoman (Kobayashi; she’s a programmer, so I can relate) who, out on a drunken meander, comes across a wounded dragon in a forest and invites her to come live at her place as her live-in maid. Okay, weird setup. Tohru, the dragon, is able to turn into a busty blonde with horns and (sometimes) a dragon’s tail sticking out from under her maid uniform. She created the maid uniform after seeing some girls advertising for a maid café, so it’s not exactly authentic, but it does have a full skirt (so that was a sedate maid café). Over time, another dragon, Kanna, comes to live with them because she’s essentially a child who’s been exiled for playing one too many pranks, and Kobayashi, confirmed bachelorette and primarily a loner, has a family all of a sudden. Other dragons start to intrude as they too decide they like living in the human world. The dragons are all (even little, adorable Kanna) are quite capable of bringing down incredible amounts of destruction, which is occasionally demonstrated as they play lethal dodgeball or their ‘roughhousing’ results in wide-area devastation, but they all do their best to fit into a society they don’t entirely understand. (Funny one liner: Tohru advises Kanna to watch out for cars on her way to school because ‘if one hits you, you’ll destroy it.’) Dragon Maid is absolutely filed with ‘D’aww’ moments and it’s just nice. It’s wonderful to watch when you want to be cheered up.

Interviews with Monster Girls is similar, but it lacks even the comedic action scenes of Dragon Maid (or Nichijou, which has its tsundere character pull everything from pistols to 9-pack rocket launchers out of hammerspace to fire at the object of her frustrations). It falls into a category of anime appearing recently which have largely misleading (read: ‘click bait’) titles such as Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai (not really about bunny girls), and Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks? (do I have to spell it out?). The ‘monster girls’ in Monster Girls aren’t really monsters, but they are ‘demi-humans’, specifically a vampire (who doesn’t suck blood), a snow woman, a dullahan, and a succubus (one of the teachers, but she counts). The story revolves around a biology teacher who wanted to study demi-humans in university, but has never actually met one until he finds himself dealing with four of them at once. Initially, he just wants to find out more about them, but this rapidly changes as he discovers that they all have unique problems they have to deal with and that he wants to help them with. The conflict in the story is based purely around the specific problems of the girls and the more general issues of high school life such as gossip and exam results. I can only assume that I like this anime so much because it’s well-written and funny, because it is not the kind of thing I’d generally watch. I got drawn in by the concept and it’s just another feel-good series I watch when I need cheering up.

So, that’s my history with slices of life laid out in story form. This stuff is fascinating to write and I really wish I could get away with more of it. I’ll stick to insert scenes, however, unless I write another anthology. Now there’s an idea…

Disclaimer: Not really a disclaimer, but I forgot to mention this stuff in my last post. Fanservice. Dragon Maid actually has an episode subtitled ‘The Fanservice Episode, Frankly’ which is a beach episode with at least two over-endowed dragons in bikinis (Tohru says her cup size is D, for dragon; Kobayashi doesn’t believe her). Aside from that, there are a couple of questionable relationships involving Lucoa and Shota, and Kanna (sweet, adorable Kanna) and her classmate, Riko (that’s a girl). Some of the scenes between them might leave you feeling a little uncomfortable, primarily due to the ages of the characters. Monster Girls has what is technically a fanservice episode (it’s at a pool), but you’d really have to be perverted to think of it that way. The principle fanservice element of the show is Sakie Sato, the succubus, who is one of the teachers, so you can lust after her if you’re so inclined, and she’s normally seen wearing multiple layers of clothing to disguise her figure (she’s very insecure about people only being attracted to her due to her succubus powers and does everything she can to avoid inadvertently using them). When she does break out her assets, it’s generally played for laughs and when she finally gets to wear a bikini, she spends a lot of her time up to her neck in the pool because she’s not used to wearing skimpy outfits in public. If anyone can find any fanservice in Nichijou, could they tell me where it is, because I can’t see it.

Ultrahumans the Anime! (Not Really.)

RailgunMy current love affair with anime (the last one was probably Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex) started with an AMV on YouTube. Happens a lot to me. In this case it was AMV Railgun|Lucky Strike by AMV-X. It features a lot of clips from the first season of A Certain Scientific Railgun. A cute girl capable of launching hypersonic projectiles from her hands… So, I bought the first season on DVD. Well, that was a mistake. Obviously. Four sets of series DVDs and a film later, I’m hooked.

Railgun is a spinoff series from A Certain Magical Index (Toaru Majutsu no Indekkusu), which started out as a light novel by Kazuma Kamachi, illustrated by Kiyotaka Haimura. There are manga adaptations (by Chuya Kogino) and J.C.Staff have produced the anime (with English adaptation by Funimation). I have to admit that I prefer Railgun to IndexRailgun is a more self-contained storyline, but if you want to understand the entire package, you really need to keep up with all of it. And understanding the world is what makes this universe watching.

Basically, it’s all set in a city (part of Tokyo which has been redeveloped) named Academy City. There are 2.3 million people in Academy City and eighty percent of them are students undergoing what’s known as power development. Read the original light novel and you’ll wonder why anyone would willing go there: power development involves rigorous mental training combined with drugs and the application of electrodes in the brain! However, the payoff is that successful student become ‘espers’ which basically means they’re superheroes. The titular character of Railgun, Mikoto ‘Railgun’ Misaka, is an ‘electromaster’ and the third most powerful esper in the city. She can control electricity (and magnetism since the two are connected) to the extent that she can wallcrawl by magnetically attracting the metal reinforcements in the concrete, throw huge electrical attacks, and create swords and whips from sand which cut like buzzsaws. Her signature move is to magnetically accelerate an arcade token to three times the speed of sound: she can make herself into a piece of battleship artillery. Awesomely kickass. Her friend is a teleporter able to teleport object into people. She takes out a particularly hard opponent in one episode by demolishing the building they are in by cutting the support beams with panes of window glass. And don’t get me started on Accelerator.

Now, espers can do all this weird stuff because, when you break it down, they believe they can. An esper constructs a divergent world view in their head in which, for example, they can manipulate electricity with their thoughts. Then they have the imagination and power to enforce their reality on the rest of the world. I was stoked when I finally figured this out because, essentially, that’s what the Ultrahumans in my books do. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Ultrahumans differ from normal humans in the way their brains and minds work. On their own, superpowered muscles wouldn’t let you do half of what a super does in fiction (in fact it would probably be a curse rather than a gift), but if you add in a will which is making the universe work the way the super wants it to, then you may have something. And here’s a Japanese author using essentially the same idea. I don’t suppose it’s a new concept (didn’t think it was when I was writing it, especially because I’d had similar concepts in my head when I was a teenager), but it’s awesome to be able to watch supers based on that concept kicking ass, taking names, and going to the beach for the obligatory fanservice episode. The esper mechanics are a little more deliberate than the way my Ultrahumans work; Ultrahumans usually have no idea how their powers work. (Now. More is learned about Ultrahuman physics every day!)

If you fancy giving the Index universe a try, I recommend Funimation’s streaming service which has all of the series and the Index movie to watch and will start airing A Certain Scientific Accelerator this week. If you aren’t subscribed, you could probably get through all the episodes in the trial period (don’t tell them I said that). I’d suggest starting with Railgun‘s first season rather than Index. The stories are more or less standalone and you don’t need to understand the more convoluted plot of Index to get into it. Be wary of the second season of Railgun: it will make you tear up, along with laughing out loud. (The Sisters are great – all I’m saying to avoid spoilers.) And I hope you enjoy it as much as I have and continue to do.

PS. I’m not getting paid for recommending this. Sadly.

PPS. While I was in Japan, the first episode of a new spinoff, A Certain Scientific Accelerator, was due to air and it happened that the TV in the hotel had the channel it was showing on. So, I figured I’d watch it. Okay, so I wasn’t going to be able to understand any of it, but what the Hell, right? It’s weird how much I did understand, even if it wasn’t the words. Looks like a good start and I can’t wait for the English dub to turn up on FunimationNow this Friday.

Kyoto Animation

I had never heard of Kyoto Animation until this Wednesday. I happened to be watching a video on the huge influence of moe on anime culture (if you don’t know what moe is, look it up, it’s complicated). Kyoto Animation were responsible for the early rise to popularity of kawaii teenagers and moe through series such as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and K-On! They are a big name in the business with a stellar reputation both for their work and for their attitude to their staff (they treat them as humans rather than rendering computers). Since Netflix picked it up, perhaps one of their best known works is Violet Evergarden.

On Thursday, I was sitting waiting for some work on my car to be finished when I noticed a headline being displayed on the TV in the customer waiting area. There was a fire at Kyoto Animations. I looked further, partially because I’d been in Kyoto less than a week earlier. I won’t go into detail here, but here’s the Wikipedia page on the incident. Basically, someone decided to set one of their studio buildings on fire, killing almost half of the 74 people in the building. It’s the worst massacre in Japan since the war. The company’s president, Hideaki Hatta, has indicated that they may demolish the building and replace it with a park and memorial, probably partially because the building is a write-off. There’s a Go Fund Me campaign to provide assistance for the victims, and that hit its target of $750,000 in less than a day. It’s currently sitting around $1.3 million. Fans have taken to visiting the company’s web site to buy digital content (which doesn’t need staff to ship) to support the company directly. This is a well-loved, well-respected animation company; one of the best in the business.

Various projects have been delayed by the fire. Ironically, this includes a delay in the completion of the third episode of Fire Force, a show about supernatural fire fighters (though they may have decided to put that on hold for a while due to the subject). On a personal note, today I discovered that Kyoto Animation make Nichijou and Miss Kobyashi’s Dragon Maid, which happen to be two of my favourite Slice of Life anime (more about me binging Slice of Life anime in a future post). Kyoto Animation will go on, it’s not just one building, but there are bound to be delays to popular shows that fans have been waiting for, just to drive home that something bad has happened.

So, my thoughts go out to those affected by this quite horrific act of violence. I don’t often say ‘horrific’ and mean it, but… Just read that Wikipedia page and think about it for a few minutes. Then try not having nightmares.

Things I Didn’t See in Japan

Obviously, when you visit a place you mainly know from movies of one kind or another, you find yourself thinking ‘but, I didn’t see…’ So, here is a list of things I didn’t see while wandering the streets of Tokyo. Not all of them are bad.

  • Schoolgirls in microskirts. Okay, so I saw schoolgirls (and boys, though the boys are a little harder to spot). Actually, I saw kids heading to and from school quite a lot. This included at least a couple of uniforms of the classic sailor suit type along with elementary school kids wearing backpacks and those yellow safety hats you see in anime. But all the girls had respectable skirts and not one of them suddenly turned into a magical girl to fight…
  • Kaiju. Despite heading down to the harbour area, I did not see one giant lizard, moth monster, or huge mecha. Actually, not entirely true: I did spot what looked a lot like something from Evangelion or Gundam or something standing outside a building, but I’m almost entirely certain that it couldn’t move. Pretty certain.
  • Rain at the Shibuya Scramble. I have this history with going places and discovering that they aren’t as big as they look in movies or on TV. Stonehenge, for example, seems a lot smaller closeup than it does when filmed. The famous scramble crossing (basically, all the traffic gets stopped and pedestrians walk in all directions over the road) in Shibuya is another example. It looks huge in the movies, but it’s not really that big. Also, despite all the movies I’ve seen and visiting in the wet season, it was not raining like someone was using a fire hose to provide the water.
  • Zombies. Also, not one single zombie schoolgirl attacked a salaryman on his way home from work. The Resident Evil movies are a lie!
  • Cyborg Cops. Nope. There was a koban (a manned mini-police station) right opposite my hotel. Not one of the cops there had cybernetic eyes. Nor were any of them dressed like special ops soldiers. I did see them helping a guy whose bicycle tire had gone flat, but they used a regular pump, not an inbuilt pressurised air tank. Also…
  • Robots. There just weren’t robots running all over the place. Come on, Japan, you’ve a reputation to keep up!
  • Tilt-rotor Aircraft. If you watch much anime set in the near future, you’ll know that tilt-rotor aircraft are the way things are going. Well, maybe, but all I saw were ordinary helicopters. Also, no think tanks. The only Tachikoma I saw was a model in Akiba (and meeting a real Tachikoma would be awesome too!).
  • Bowing. Okay, so there was bowing. I’ve made jokes about the bowing in the Fox books and, to be honest, I think the circumstances were such that there would have been a lot of bowing going on. And the Japanese are a polite bunch, even to awkward foreigners like me. But I was expecting a lot more bowing and I was actually rather pleased to discover they don’t take it to the extremes I think a lot of westerners think they do. (And they make jokes about bowing too much, so it’s obviously a stereotype they do understand themselves.)
  • That Can’t Be Legal. Loli is a staple of anime even if it’s really starting to get a bit frowned upon in western circles due to the obvious links to pedophilia. And I did feel tall in Japan. I’m not a tall man; I used to be maybe 5’8″ on a good day, but if I was honest it was 5’7″ and I’m sure it’s always 5’7″ now, but I was above average in Japan. Despite this, I spotted no women no taller than my waist who had to buy their clothing from the children’s section. (I did see someone who barely made it past my waist, but she looked to be in her seventies and might well have been a bit taller when she was younger. The Japanese seem to age remarkably well.)

Oh, and a few things I did see which I was a tiny bit surprised about:

  • Maids. They were all out on the streets in Akiba handing out fliers for maid cafes, but there they were, in full costume. I kind of knew they’d be there, but it’s still one of those things that I wasn’t quite prepared for.
  • The Gothic Lolita… sort of. There I was walking down to this garden south of Shinjuku and I spotted a bright pink umbrella ahead of me. She was actually shorter than average, but obviously an adult, walking down the street in a Goth Lolita/maid outfit with a pink parasol to keep the sun off. Maybe she was heading for work. Maybe she was making a fashion statement. Whatever, that was a superise.
  • Mobile Phones. Japan is a big cash society. Not everywhere takes plastic, though I think most people who live there have a RFID card to handle the subway charges. (As an aside, it was great to see the turnstiles in the subways and surface stations looking just as they do in a few of the anime I like.) When I indicated in a Fox book that Japan had a higher uptake of implanted computers than America, I thought I was maybe pushing my luck a little. Having been there, I feel a lot happier about that prediction. At least in the cities, the Japanese are glued to their phones even more heavily than I see in England. There’s public wi-fi everywhere and they use it constantly. I think I’m safe in saying that they’d embrace implanted technology if it was there to give them even more use of the internet.
  • Smoking. I also knew Japan still has more smokers than a lot of western countries, and that they were pushing for people to restrict where they smoked, but I never expected the way they have it handled. A lot of the sidewalks have ‘No Smoking’ signs on the flags, but then you come across a little section which has been screened off at the side of the street and it’s a smoking area. If you’re out shopping and you just can’t wait to inhale toxins, rather than bothering everyone else, you can find a smoking area on the street.
  • Vending Machines. I knew Japan was the land of the vending machine. Not even binge-watching anime can prepare you for the sheer numbers. They are everywhere. Behind my hotel there was a little village of sorts; the big streets looked like city streets, but head down an alley and you’re suddenly in a residential area with houses and those wonderfully typical Japanese apartment blocks. And you’ll find random machines selling drinks just standing beside someone’s house. Turn a corner somewhere, and suddenly you’ll find a little huddle of them from a couple of different drinks companies. No obvious reason for them to be there, but there they are. Maybe that’s where the robots are hiding…

 

Jetlagged But Happy

This is going to be a reasonably short post to update you guys on what’s going on with me and new books. I plan to write more about what’s been happening in the last couple of weeks (and a little longer) soon, but, as the title suggests, I’m jetlagged to Hell and back and I don’t know when I’m going to conk out again.

So, I’ve been having some trouble writing for a while. My concentration’s been shot and I just haven’t been able to keep my head in the game the way I’d like. I decided I needed a holiday, but this is me, so it had to be a holiday where I’d be able to gather useful writing material or do background research, or whatever. I’ve been wanting to go to Japan for a lot longer than I’ve been writing, but the fact that I tend to set stories there and I’ve never been has been getting to me. Plus, I started watching a lot of anime recently…

So, for about the last two weeks, I’ve been living out of a hotel room in Tokyo (Shinjuku to be precise). My holidays tend to be a bit weird these days. I’m sure most people go on holiday with some idea of where they’re planning to go, even if it’s just the beach. I go somewhere and wander around just looking at ordinary stuff. Yes, I did a few museums, gardens, and such, but I mostly just walked out the hotel doors and picked a direction. I was starting to get the hang of the Tokyo subway system by the time I left. I could actually navigate the streets to some extent (apparently, GPS is a godsend even to the locals as Tokyo is notoriously difficult to find your way around). I still managed to get utterly lost in Akihabara, twice.

So, expect more Japanese stuff in the near future. The next Ultrahumans book, Royal Flush, has some scenes in fictional Tokyo (expect big lizards). I’m aiming to have that out toward the end of August. After that, I think I’ll be doing the next Fox Universe book which is set almost entirely in Japan. That means that the next Twilight Empress book will be delayed, but I still hope to have that out before the end of this year.

Better yet, despite the fact that my brain and body still think I’m somewhere between England and Japan, I’ve had the most productive writing day I can think of in weeks (maybe months) today. I can’t afford trips like this too often, but it has taught me that I really do need to take more holidays than I do. Now I just need to get my body clock back on UK time. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of years…

Blood Magic

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The new Princeps Venator book, Blood Magic, is now available.

The Universe Speaks Louder

Well, I’m now working on the next book in the Twilight Empress series, because the universe told me to. Well, YouTube. YouTube told me to write the next Twilight Empress book.

You see, I like music while I work. Some people find it distracting to read or write with music playing (especially music with lyrics), but I tend to work better when there’s noise. I have playlists for each book series which are supposed to be inspirational, but sometimes I want something purely random. Then I either just shuffle everything I have available, or I power up YouTube and listen to whatever comes up in my ‘mixtape’ list that day. I end up listening to some really weird stuff that way, but it works.

Recently, YouTube started throwing up a lot of AMVs based around Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra clips. It’s no secret that one of the inspirations for the Twilight Empress books is ATLA and TLOK, so I took this as a sign from on high that it was time for The Last Emperor to be written. (Another influence is the Matt Damon film The Great Wall, by the way, which I must get around to rewatching at some point soon.)

In season two of ATLA, we get introduced to Azula and her two friends Ty Lee and Mai. Azula recruits Ty Lee for her hunt for the Avatar from a circus where Ty Lee is the happiest she’s ever been. Azula basically threatens (non-verbally) to make Ty Lee’s life a misery unless she comes along. Ty Lee is later asked why she’s there since the universe told her to join the circus and she says that Azula spoke lounder. Whatever else I may have had planned right now, YouTube spoke louder.

Meanwhile, Blood Magic will be out next week. I have a few edits to do and a cover to come up with, but it’ll be out just after Easter.