Penguin Highway

Penguin Highway is the kind of story that pulls you along like a strong and bending current- you have NO idea where it’s going but enjoy every turn and dip of the way nonetheless. This afternoon I settled down with a blanket and a bowl of ice cream to watch the anime adaptation of this Japanese science fiction novel by Tomihiko Morimi (which has also been made into a manga in the past).

The film, directed by Hiroyasu Ishida, centers around the life of a young boy, a 4th grader who will be the first to tell you that he is a bright, smart, scientifically minded kid who will surely have his pick of marriage partners when he grows up! He’s only got eyes for one woman though- a mysterious dental worker who seems to have something to do with the sudden and in-explainable appearance of penguins in the area.

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Sound confusing? Yup, like I said, you just need to let the story unfold and enjoy the ride. The strange story involves natural and unnatural phenomena, scientific experiments, adolescent longings, bullies, friends, and lots of penguins.

I especially enjoyed the friendship between the two kids who enjoy using the scientific method, documenting their findings, playing chess, and discussing the theory of relativity.

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Some parts were truly mind-bending. It’s not all charts and diagrams though- there are lots of funny and sweet moments throughout this fast-paced family film! The strange phenomena start small and build into a visually and emotionally powerful climax.

While the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff will no doubt leave many viewers scratching their heads, I found the conclusion to be satisfactory in how it tied things up. I enjoyed this film and highly recommend it.

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Modest Heroes: The Power of Short Film

I just finished watching Modest Heroes, a collection of three short films by Studio Ponoc. It’s an excellent anthology for any age with gorgeous animation, whimsical imagery, and universal themes— I wasn’t expecting any less, as Studio Ponoc was founded by former lead producer of Studio Ghibli, Yoshiaki Nishimura, and the strong team of dedicated animators had already won my heart with their first feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower, 2017

Each of the the three stories making up Modest Heroes is crafted by a different director- Hiromasa Yonebayashi,  Yoshiyuki Momose, and Akihiko Yamashita. Each is very different in style, situation, and tone, but they are unified by the larger theme of life- it’s precariousness, hardships, and beautiful moments.

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Modest Heroes, 2018

I won’t spoil the charming stories of Modest Heroes— to do so would be a grave misstep for me— but I’ll give a taste of each to entice potential viewers of this family-friendly collection.

First, we have:

Kanini and Kanino

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Mixing hand drawn animation with dazzling CGI, this story is a feast for the eyes, with lifelike realism in a lush natural world blended with stylized wide-eyed characters. The minimalist “crab language” spoken throughout, largely improvised ad-lib by the voice actors, is no hindrance to communication, as the expressive animation carries the story along.

Life Ain’t Gonna Lose

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In Life Ain’t Gonna Lose, young Sota Shinohara makes his voice acting debut as Shuu, a boy who has a very severe allergy to eggs. This short film is based on a true story, and indeed feels very real. The everyday routines of people in Tokyo are painstakingly rendered in bright and detailed scenes, and the complexity of human instincts and emotions are lovingly portrayed.

Invisible

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The last film in this trio has a somewhat darker and grittier feel, but is still full of surprise and whimsy. It confronts what it means to be invisible, both literally and figuratively.

We should not live without recognizing or caring about others. There are many people who are sad, happy, suffering, or angry around us. If the world today doesn’t have anything to offer them, then we should deal with those invisible people in our film.

-Yoshiaki Nishimura


 

The bonus materials on the DVD are definitely worth a watch, and include features such as interviews, a press conference video, art galleries, and trailers. I found these extras to have a lot of depth compared to the fluff-filled bonus features that are often included with films. The creators of Modest Heroes, from the animators to the voice actors, music producers, and so on, share thoughtful, funny, and interesting insights from the making of the project. For example, Studio Ponoc’s founder Yoshiaki Nishimura expressed his strong belief in the validity of short film as a format with its own intrinsic value and no less capable than feature length films. He also explained the focus of Studio Ponoc being firstly and foremost to create quality films to entertain children with authenticity and depth, capturing their hearts and inevitably inspiring adults in the process.

It is happily evident that the true spirit of Studio Ghibli lives on with Studio Ponoc.

A Silent Voice Spoke to Me

Last night I watched A Silent Voice, the anime adaptation of the manga by the same name. I’d previously read the first volume of the manga, so I had an idea what the movie was about and expected it to be an emotional film, but it surprised me with its masterful and deliberate techniques. It brought a few tears even to my eyes, and I very rarely am able to cry.

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A Silent Voice focuses on the relationship between Shōya, a young man who was once a habitual bully, and Shōko, the deaf girl who used to be his favorite person to tease and bother. The movie weaves naturally between the memories of the past and the raw emotions of the present day, wherein Shōya is trying to make amends for the callousness of his past actions.

Many moments of the movie hinge upon the subtleties of communication and mixed messages— through spoken word, written word, and sign language. It also touches upon the delicate ties maintained between former friends and acquaintances, and how efforts to rekindle or mend former friendships can open oneself to vulnerability and shame.

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At the same time, A Silent Voice highlights the maturity and bravery of making choices that open up this vulnerability, and the struggles and rewards that are born of it. The deeply personal messages of the film, as well as the several gutdropping and heartstopping moments throughout, punctuated by moments of silence and crescendo, make for a truly thoughtful and moving film.

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Bad Romance: A Defense of Reprehensible Love Interests in Otome and Beyond

My prince charming is your worst nightmare.

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.

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Code: Realize

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.

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Saint Germain still image from Code:Realize, Guardian of Rebirth

*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.

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Scene from Code Realize, Guardian of Rebirth

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”…

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Diabolik Lovers, by Rejet

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.

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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?

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This scene from Watamote is literally me T-T

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!

 

Spoiler-Free Review: Train to Busan

I picked this movie up at the library as it’s been a while since I watched a zombie movie. My hubby Dustin said he’s over zombie movies, but I convinced him to watch it with me tonight, and it didn’t take long before we were invested in the plot and characters.

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A workaholic father, recently separated from his wife, heads out with his young daughter to take her to see her mother in Busan. Someone odd has managed to limp onto the train among the many passengers.  The train has barely left the station before an attendant is attacked, leading to a chain of events that causes infection and panic to spread rapidly throughout the carriages.

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Dong-seok Ma as Sang-hwa, who is definitely my favorite character in the film- the dude is a total badass!

This is a really solid, tightly plotted film with a good balance of action, emotion, and lots of YESSSSS and NOOOO!!!! moments. You see early on that the zombies are fast, ruthless, and dumb. They swarm and crowd, scrambling over each-other in waves and crashing onto screaming victims.

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Sohee as Jin-hee
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Yoo Gong as Seok-woo

As the movie progressed, we were rooting for certain characters, pleaing with them to do or not do certain things. Contrastingly, there’s at least one character that we grew to hate (you’ll know who if you watch the movie!) and we were urging him toward a slow and painful demise…

While a few common tropes are used, and occasionally a zombie’s facial expression or movement feels a bit campy, overall the film is gripping and gives you a believable taste of what might surmisedly happen if a train full of people suddenly found themselves cast into infectious chaos. The infection doesn’t stop at the train- there’s an entire messed up world to face. There are also some surprising plot twists that I really appreciated.

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Su-an Kim as Soo-an- this girl is a seriously impressive actress!

I definitely recommend Train to Busan. It had me tensing up in my seat a lot, anxious for the main cast of characters. It engages you from beginning to end and leaves you sated with lots of feels. I can’t help myself from ending on a cheesy line- this train is an entertaining ride!

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Spoiler-Free Review: Tokyo Ghoul (Live-Action Film)

Tokyo Ghoul is one of my favorite manga & anime series. I came across the live-action film when I was shelf-reading a section at the library the other day, so of course I had to check it out (I didn’t even know it was already made into a live-action!)

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Dustin had watched the anime with me previously, so he and I hunkered down tonight on the couch with our dog Tegan to watch this new live-action film together.

While I am quite willing to suspend disbelief and ignore trivial inconsistencies for the enjoyment of a movie, there were a few scenes where I could tell my husband was thinking “Really? Realllyyy?”- such as when Kaneki was attacked in the shoulder but then started limping and flailing like his legs had turned to jelly. However, these moments didn’t detract from the film. When I sometimes feel that acting is over-the-top, I then remember that anime and manga are also often over-the-top.

Kaneki’s awkwardness and vulnerability is played up so much in the beginning as to be almost cringe-worthy, but as with the manga and anime, the payoff is worth it. It’s fun to see his growth. I love how they played with the design of his mask, particularly the teeth:

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The actors chosen were generally spot on with their characters. The scenes where ghouls are made to eat human food almost made me gag along with them- that is some solid acting. There were a couple of scenes where I actually gasped out loud in surprise or delight at the action or depravity on the screen.

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Fumika Shimizu as Touka. I really enjoyed her as Touka, but I just found out that soon after filming she announced that she is retiring from her entertainment career and devoting herself to the controversial religious organization/cult “Happy Science.”

The visual effects were fairly believable and definitely cool- lots of quinique and kagune action shots.

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Yô Ôizumi as Kureo Mado
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Masataka Kubota as Kaneki Ken

I hope a second film will come out of this, as some of my favorite characters weren’t included in the movie since their plots emerge a bit later in the series.

Yeah, Juzo and Shuu, i’m talking to you.

I’m really glad Uta had a couple of scenes, at least.

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Bando Minosuke as Uta- the dude reeks cool.

Overall, this film is a fun and action packed adaptation of the anime and manga. While the comparatively short length of the movie doesn’t give as much time to explore Kaneki’s inner turmoil and the complexities of the ghoul & human worlds, hopefully this isn’t the end of Tokyo Ghoul’s live-action career. I’ll be waiting for vol. 2!

Shocking Anime Memories & Rare Ghibli Musings- Anime is a format, not a genre!

One of the main goals of my ALC conference presentation There’s a Graphic Novel for Everyone (Yes, Even You)   was to reinforce the importance of recognizing comics, including manga, as a format and not a genre.

Similarly, anime is a format capable of telling any kind of story.

I’m heading out to Animethon tomorrow, and as such I’ve had several conversations with friends and coworkers recently about anime. One such friend was reminiscing with me today about favorites from childhood, and we discussed how sometimes anime surprised us with its content.

Anime: Building Solid Foundations For Childhood

And Beyond

When I was very young, before I even got into Sailor Moon or Pokemon, I was prone to watching and re-watching my favorite VHS tapes over and over and over again. I’d watch them so fervently that I could speak every word of dialogue along with the tape. One of my favorites was a particular version of Heidi which had  beautiful music and charming style. Another was a lively and unique version of Snow White. Yet another was a tape of the first 3 episodes of the action-packed extra-terrestrial fantasy cartoon, Thundercats.

Little did I know that in the might of these three VHS tapes, probably plucked from the bargain bins of convenience stores by my family, anime would begin to sink its hooks into my impressionable young mind!

By scouring the internet some years later on a hunch, I confirmed that my Heidi movie (which was dubbed in English) had ties to one of the most well known and celebrated anime studios both in Japan and internationally, Studio Ghibli. My Heidi was a condensed version of a full Japanese anime series created by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the two founding directors of Studio Ghibli.

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This was back when Studio Ghibli was not yet established- Alps No Shoujo Heidi was released under Zuiyo Eizo which later became Nippon Animation. Nippon, I also learned with some digging, created the Grimms Fairy Tale Classics series, including my aforementioned favorite version of Snow White!

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Oh, and Thundercats? It was animated by a Japanese studio called Pacific Animation Corporation.

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Snyarf, Lion-O!

I Didn’t See That Coming (and Neither Did He)

I have a vivid memory from when I was quite young of sitting in the living-room with my Dad watching an anime that he randomly found while browsing tv channels. Two people are battling in some sort of combat ring, the sort of setting where a competition like martial arts would take place. The fighting is bloody and intense, and keeps amping up in its recklessness.

Suddenly one of the fighters takes the pointer and middle fingers of both of his hands and thrusts them into the temples of the competitor, making a calculated strike-and-pull. A close up is shown of the victim’s retinal arteries (?) being ripped open, and blood gushes out of both sides of his head.

Everything goes black. Now he can’t see and must continue the fight completely blind.

My Mom’s spidey sense must have tingled in worry about her pre-pubescent daughter because she walked into the room at the peak of the action, raised her eyebrows to the roof with a sidelong glance, and said something like:

“Doug, what in the hell are you two watching?!”

Dad was just as shocked as I was –

“Well, it’s a cartoon! I didn’t…”

We sat transfixed and watched the rest of the show. I have no idea what the name of it was, and to this day I can’t remember anything about it besides that scene, but this experience was my first big glimpse of anime’s capabilities beyond friendly magical girls and elemental monster battles, and certainly far beyond any western animation I’d ever laid eyes on.

Please Sir, I want Some More (Ghibli)

Outside of my heavily edited VHS version of Heidi, the first Ghibli movie I remember watching was Princess Mononoke. I was still quite young, and, once again, this was something my Dad stumbled upon while browsing channels. We both realized it was a bit more bloody than we were expecting (which is funny, because it’s to my knowledge the only Ghibli movie with that level of gory imagery- not that there’s anything wrong with that!) and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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Dad… what is wrong with the boar, dad…?

Years later, Dad finally decided it was time to invest in a BluRay player and brought home a PS3, along with our first ever BluRay: a copy of Ghibli’s award winning Spirited Away. 

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While he seemed to have bought it mainly as a means of testing out the assuredly Beautifully Clear HD Quality Image and Unsurpassed Sound of a BluRay on his TV, I was immediately smitten with the intricate backdrops, the strange characters, and otherworldly happenings in the movie.

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I waited until the newness of the BluRay fever had died off a bit and asked if I could keep the film and add it to my small but growing anime collection. Dad acquiesced with a fake sigh and a “should have known you’d like this one, kiddo”.

Ghibli movies have continued to blow me away with their devotion to truly understanding and amusing children and childlike minds, their attention to even the minutest and most seemingly insignificant details, and insightful depictions of the true good and bad faces of humanity. Their works are often fantastical, sometimes sentimental, occasionally tragic (don’t watch Grave of the Fireflies without some tissues handy) but always beautiful.

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Kiki’s Delivery Service

Last year I had the opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream of visiting the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka with my husband while on our trip to Japan. It was an experience I’ll never forget and will hold in my heart forever.

 

Again for the People in the Back: Anime is a Format,

Not A Genre

In my early teens, when I first began working part-time, I began to purchase anime of my own accord. There was no rhyme or reason to what I bought- usually it was whatever overpriced “Volume 2, Part 1” randomness my local CD Plus had in stock. Some were wonderful, and some were underwhelming, but as I learned more and more about anime and manga, I fell more and more in love with both.

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Chibi Vampire Karin, one of the first anime I purchased with my meager grocery store earnings…

In time I began to understand the vastness of the possibilities of this uniquely Japanese format. To anyone who looks at an anime and immediately thinks “I’m not into that stuff”, I challenge you to do a little investigating online or talk to staff at your local library and see what’s out there that might be relevant to your interests.

Curiously, it seems that there aren’t many non-fiction anime produced from what I can tell- I’ve come across a few, but biographical and NF anime (and manga) seem to be rare. I’m not sure why that is, as it’s just as valid a format as any. If anyone has any insight on this I’d love a comment or DM!

Aside from an apparent dearth of non-fiction anime, here are just a few anime that pop into my head as some examples of the versatility of the format, but they are only a few drops in an ocean of worthwhile anime.