March Favorites

It’s finally starting to feel like spring, and I couldn’t be more grateful. It’s so much easier to motivate myself to work when the sun is shining, especially after months and months of frigid winds and gray skies. March is always an odd month, sitting right at the edge of winter and spring, and it often makes me feel unsettled.

After over a month since my sweet kitty Mia’s passing, my husband and I decided we would start the process of looking for new feline companions, specifically hoping to adopt a bonded pair. We absolutely did not expect to adopt on the day we went to the local MSPCA shelter, but of course…the cats had other plans. On March 17th (Saint Gertrude’s Day, the patron saint of cats!), we brought home Zelda and Hilda, a mother-daughter pair of little black cats. They are charming in the extreme, so expect me to gush about them even more as time passes.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m going to be having my wisdom teeth removed this coming Friday. It’s long overdue, and I’ll be glad once it’s done, but I’m definitely dreading what I’ve heard is a rather painful healing process. But who knows, maybe it’ll afford me more time to read….

Which brings me to the point of this post! Last month I did a round up of my favorite comics reads, and I’m going to go for it again. If I do it twice, it’s a monthly column, right? I actually didn’t read a ton of comics this month, instead favoring some truly indulgent murder mystery audiobooks. But of what I did read, there are a few certain gems that I want to share.

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Star Light Woman, by Rie Kanou — available through Crunchyroll

At the start of the month, I decided to sift through the various reading-oriented apps on my tablet to find something new, and I came upon Star Light Woman on Crunchyroll. I was drawn by the image of protagonist Hoshi, rendered in what I think of as an 80s manga style, all puffy hair and cut-off shorts. I’m not sure what I was expecting — maybe a silly, slightly sexy sci-fi romp? And that’s more or less what it is, but somehow I really, really loved it. Hoshi just wants to lead a normal life, but she is the product of an experiment by an alien race to create the perfect weapon to save them from their enemies. She continually has to thwart these aliens while encountering other humans who have undergone similar transformations at their hands. It’s a short little series without much depth, but it’s truly funny and the artwork is stunning. I’m usually very critical of “sexy lady protagonist whose clothes don’t fit properly,” but Hoshi even gets my blood pumping, and I think that her strong, solid frame coupled with her highly moral principles lends a lot to her appeal. She’s like an embodiment of righteous female anger — a subject I’m always eager to see in my fiction!

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Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen, by Moyoco Anno — available through Crunchyroll

I love Moyoco Anno’s work, though I have to admit that this was only the second thing of hers I had ever read. Sakuran was a gorgeous and deeply provocative manga, so when I was scrolling through options on Crunchyroll’s manga app after finishing Star Light Woman, I remembered that I had been meaning to read Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen for quite some time. I was not at all disappointed, and in fact I read Buffalo 5 Gals immediately afterward, just to get more of Anno’s sassy sex working heroines. But Amorous Gentlemen is special, probably my favorite of Anno’s works thus far. She is incredibly sensitive with sex work while also not over-glamorizing it; Colette and all her co-workers go about their day-to-day business like at any other job, and in many cases care very deeply about their clients. But they also are in close quarters, so they fight and disagree, and sometimes they are all too aware of how they are doomed to this life. The sex scenes are sometimes clinical and sometimes genuinely sexy, and I think that knowing when to evoke which mood in a reader is an incredible skill on Anno’s part. I’m also always going to be a sucker for her very stylized artwork, all angles and frills and fashion.

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Candy Color Paradox, Volume 1, by Isaku Natsume — published by VIZ Media

The only manga on this month’s list that’s actually new this month, and the only one that has male protagonists! I was able to snag a galley copy of this right before it came out, and I honestly didn’t think it would be anything special. I’ll usually try to read new BL when it comes out, but I’ve been burned so many times with cliched plots or harmful tropes that it’s more a desire to keep up-to-date than an expectation that I’ll find something great. But VIZ’s SuBLime imprint has been knocking it out of the park lately, and I really liked this first volume. Protagonist Satoshi Onoe is a reporter who is proud of his body of work, but one day he is thrown onto a stakeout team with Motoharu Kaburagi, a photographer with a bad attitude whom Onoe believes stole his girlfriend away. The two start off on rough terms, but soon find that they work well together — and they begin to “catch feelings.” You know, that old gem. Honestly, it was cute and fluffy, and I feel like it’s been a long time since I read some straightforward “loathe to like to love” BL manga. The artwork is clean and appealing, with good sense of movement.

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Nana, by Ai Yazawa — published by VIZ Media

This month, I decided to embark on a reread of Nana, and I’ve gotten up through volume 7 so far. I honestly don’t remember how much if it I’ve read in the past, so I wanted to make sure I got the full experience. I had watched the anime with my husband many years ago, and it wrecked us both, so coming back to it now, as a woman approaching my thirties instead of a woman barely out of her early 20s, is kind of a weird sensation. I’m farther away from any chance of making rash young adult decisions, but also in a place where I can envy the energy and passion that the characters portray as they lead a dramatic, punk-poverty-chic lifestyle. The series is old now, at least in the timeline of manga, so I don’t feel the need to summarize it, though I may one day write a whole piece about its meaningfulness to me, personally. I remember it didn’t sell great at Comicopia, but it was one of those series that I was adamant about keeping around. Yazawa’s artwork is so strange, with leggy, large-eyed Blythe-doll-esque characters and gorgeous renderings of haute couture of the 2000s, and I’m always enthralled by it. And I genuinely wish there was more work like Nana, work that explored the fraught relationships between female friends who love each other so passionately but don’t have the outlet to express it — an experience that will surely be familiar to many who squashed down their feelings throughout their teenage years for fear of judgment, or just because they didn’t have the tools to recognize those feelings. Society fucks women over, and Yazawa does an incredible job of balancing that message with a lot of genuine sensitivity for two very different women who are desperately reaching for an unobtainable happiness.

So, fluffy BL aside, it seems like I’ve read a bunch of manga about women who are dealing with too many external pressures getting in the way of their desires. That sounds like an appropriate way to have spent Women’s History Month! Honestly, though, my favorite works are often those by women representing the trials of womanhood — not because womanhood is terrible! But because it is cathartic to see your own worries magnified and projected in media sometimes, to see those fears getting played out somewhere safe, allowing you to recognize their validity but also release them in order to achieve your own goals, always knowing that you’re not alone.

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The Beautiful & the Damned; Where Violence Meets Aesthetics in Pet Shop of Horrors

Among the extensive list of things I shamelessly love are: the occult detective genre, beautiful men, the monster-of-the-week format, and morality plays. Matsuri Akino’s Pet Shop of Horrors very neatly contains all of these things, and indeed might be the reason I’m so fond of some of them.

For those unfamiliar with this late-90s shojo series, the premise is that in LA’s Chinatown there is a mysterious pet shop whose proprietor, Count D, sells exotic “animals” to anyone who can pay the price. Each animal comes with a specific set of rules, and when those rules aren’t followed to the letter, tragedy inevitably occurs. LAPD officer Leon Orcot is assigned to investigate D and the weird phenomena linked to his shop, but in the process he is drawn into a series of Twilight Zone-esque situations that he cannot explain, let alone report to his superiors.

Right now, I can look at this premise and think to myself, “Yep, this is totally my kind of bullshit.” But when I first picked it up as a young teen, it was because I was drawn to its beautiful cover, where the androgynous D is holding a mermaid, whose back is turned to the viewer. D’s eyes are piercing and almost sad, his fingers long and delicate. I was in love with this man who moved in multiple worlds: the masculine and the feminine, reality and fantasy, beauty and horror.

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And when I bought and read this first volume, I was shocked. It wasn’t outright scary, necessarily, but it certainly was gory. In the first chapter already was there a horrific scene of evisceration, in and amongst all the trappings of a classic 90s shojo style, preoccupied with luxury and beauty. It was jarring, and it was effective. I discovered then that I didn’t dislike horror like I had previously thought, I just wanted it to be beautiful.

To this day, I find myself critical of scary or violent media that doesn’t also have a keen sense of aesthetics. I don’t necessarily enjoy being frightened; I am a naturally anxious person with vivid and violent dreams who does not react well to heightened suspense in media. I do like dark themes, though, and in recent years I have made it a point to expose myself to films especially that I know I would like if I could just get over my own hang-ups. And by being discerning, I’ve been rewarded with some of the most gorgeous horror and gore I’ve ever seen.

I think beauty and romance are natural companions to horror. All these themes pivot on an axis of drama, of amplified emotions. They all invoke visceral reactions, not logical ones. All my life I’ve surrounded myself with artwork depicting scenes and themes of witchcraft, hauntings, murders, martyrs, and mortality. It seems natural to me that scary things can pull at the same emotions I feel when I recognize something as beautiful.

And all this because way back in 2003, Tokyopop decided to take a chance on something that wasn’t very common in the comics world at the time: horror for girls. There’s plenty of it to be found in the manga world, and now there is more acknowledgement of girls and women reading outside of the romance genre. But it was new for me then, and even now Pet Shop of Horrors remains one of my favorite series, because it presented to me something I hadn’t known I was seeking out. It understood my tastes uniquely; it was able to marry my desire with my rage and prove them to be not disparate but intertwined and equally valid.

In truth, it is a somewhat silly series. It is certainly more fun than profound, but that in and of itself is not a criticism. It is pure, indulgent entertainment, and for me it is certainly laced with a nostalgic love that I will never be able to shake. How many times have I reread and referenced that first volume, gazing awestruck at the lovingly rendered intestines spilling out of a beautiful man’s body? How many times have I giggled at the flirtatious relationship between D and Orcot? How many times have I wished that modern depictions of mermaids were even half as scary as the one Akino has created?

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The series is unfortunately long out of print, and later volumes are hard to find. I imagine that it wasn’t a huge seller for Tokyopop, though I am forever grateful that they took a chance on it to begin with. The anime is available to stream on HiDive, brief as it is, if you’d like to get a glimpse into Count D’s enigmatic Chinatown pet shop.

My Mother’s Love is My Comics Origin Story

I get asked a lot, especially as a guest on podcasts or in interviews, about how my interest in comics started. And I tell the truth: My father collected comics, and when he heard about a new show called Sailor Moon, he thought I’d like it and he helped me tape it off of TV, later giving me the first volume of the manga and thus starting my own collection. That is, however, a hugely simplified version of the story, and it causes people to heap praise on my father that he maybe doesn’t completely deserve. My father is not a bad man, but he did leave when my sister and I were both still very young. So while he sparked the interest in anime and manga that would follow me into adulthood and into my professional life, he was one cog in a very large animanga machine that was making its way to North America regardless of his efforts.

The person I don’t get a chance to talk about much is my mother, because she doesn’t personally have an interest in comics. But if anyone has encouraged my interests and bolstered my abilities, it is her. My mother was happy to buy me whatever books I wanted growing up, never demanding to know why or what for. When I began to experiment with drawing, she was the first person to give me sketchbooks and markers, gladly and graciously. She never involved herself in my hobbies, but she always knew what I was into and who my favorite characters were. She was always ready to help me put together an amateur cosplay, always ready to add her sewing and crafting advice to the pages of online tutorials I had printed out to aid in my endeavors.

And perhaps most importantly, my mother never tried to pull me away from a hobby that her ex-husband had partaken in, sometimes to the detriment of our household. She didn’t see my interest as an extension of him — or if she did, she never mentioned it at all. She saw me as myself, a creative person with hobbies that helped feed that creativity. And that is the greatest gift anyone has ever given me, just the chance to pursue the things that make me happy for the sake of it.

So yeah, when I talk to my dad now, we can chat about how great The Sandman is, or I can tell him that no, really, he should check out Junji Ito. But the fact remains that he wasn’t there when I was frantically putting another coat of paint on my cardboard cosplay bass guitar; he doesn’t know the names of all the friends I’ve made through comics. He did something great in helping me find a series that has remained important to me throughout my whole life, and I have always been very appreciative of that.When I worked at Comicopia, I used to see dads trying to get their daughters into their hobby to varying degrees of success, and it made me smile to know that they want to share that aspect of themselves with their children.

But even more than that, I would always love to see the moms who would sheepishly admit that they don’t know anything about comics, but they’re still out there helping their kid figure out which volume of Fairy Tail they left off at. They’re asking their kid if their friend borrowed that one book, or if they returned that other one to the library yet. They’re doing the oft-unthanked work of motherhood: keeping track of responsibilities and friends, helping their child grow in their interests, and caring enough to provide advice and feedback.

It’s not glamorous, really, being a mother. It’s a lot of toil, a lot of worrying, a lot of second-guessing your choices — especially if you’re a single mother, like mine was for a long time. But even with the anime zeitgeist and the manga boom of my adolescence, I’m not sure I’d be doing what I’m doing today without the constant support of my mother. To this day, she remains always ready to support me without trying to control my choices, offering what advice she can and helping me through my uncertainty.

And maybe that’s part of the reason that now I crave comics about women like my mother. I crave comics where women are working through all the typically-unseen work of partnership, or motherhood, or even just the pressure of society to excel at their jobs when the odds are stacked against them. Because there were so many odds stacked against my mother, trying to find her way, single with two little girls and no college degree. And despite that, she raised my sister and me into two very different women on our own paths who will always know that no matter what, we have our mother’s care to lift us when we need it.

So let the record show that at the core of my interest in comics — and my interest in history, and my love of tea, my desire to write, and just about everything else in my life — is my mother frantically working to make sure I can pursue whatever weirdness tickles my fancy. I am so incredibly grateful for her constant, steady, powerful love.

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The Maven in 2019

Happy New Year, everyone!  A little belated, but I had some things to tie up before I was able to share this post.  I want to talk about what’s ahead for me and this little website in the coming year. But first, a little retrospective.

I started mangamaven.com in April of 2018, just after Anime Boston and my 28th birthday.  It’s not even a year old yet, but I am proud of all the work I’ve been able to put into it.  Through this site, I’ve been able to reach a larger audience than just my small social media groups.  I’ve been asked to be on a couple podcasts: Manga Machinations and Manga Mavericks. (And I had a great time of it, too; podcasting is fun!)  I’ve been able to promote my newsletter, which I also launched in 2018. It was quite the year!

A lot of things have changed and developed in my personal life, as well, and because of this I’ve had to make the very hard decision to leave Comicopia.  It’s been a really transformative three and a half years, and I will still be involved with the store, shopping there, organizing and working conventions, et cetera.  I will also still be maintaining my monthly newsletter, so no need to fret about that. I don’t have any plans to leave the comics world, I’m just going to be stepping out of retail for a while as new and exciting things start to fall into place!

And what are some of these new and exciting things?  Firstly, a lot more writing! I’d like to really focus on building my writing portfolio, and I want to keep talking about manga.  With the manga publishing industry looking more healthy and diverse than ever, and as Viz Media’s new Shonen Jump subscription service begins to grow and evolve, I foresee that I will have plenty of opportunities to do just that.  And I promise to keep everyone updated on other new and exciting developments as they arise.

It’s looking like 2019 is going to be a year of a lot of big changes for me, but I really think it will be a positive growing experience.  Thank you all for reading and coming along on this adventure with me — may we all find joy and new opportunities aplenty in 2019!

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LadiesCon 2018, Women in Comics, and Community Engagement

This past weekend, I tabled for the store at LadiesCon, an annual event organized by the Ladies of Comicazi.  As can probably be surmised from the name, this community event (free and open to the public!) focuses on the many non-cisgender-men who work in comics in some capacity.  The featured guests this year were Marjorie Liu, Erica Henderson, Ming Doyle, and Kristen Gudsnuk.  I even got to be on two panels!  “Women In Comics Retail,” which I’ve been on a couple times before, and “Manga and the Women Who Make It,” which I debuted there with my good friend Juliet Kahn.

Here in the Boston area, we’re really spoiled when it comes to the comics community.  We have many excellent comic shops, all of whom staff women.  And not only do we have the incredible, and incredibly important, LadiesCon, but we also play host the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE), which is also family-friendly, free, and open to the public (and which this year is featuring, among others, the young reader powerhouse creators Vera Brosgol and Tillie Walden).

One of my favorite aspects of these shows is that they always remind me of the Artist’s Alley at an anime convention: full of passionate people of all genders, colors, and creeds who have come together to share their work with like-minded fans.  Anime cons have always been some of the queerest, most diverse spaces I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of, and it’s very gratifying to see that kind of representation making itself known to the general, curious public.

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the community aspect of comics lately.  To the outside observer, it can seem quite divisive — and it certainly can be!  I know how lucky I am and have been to encounter mostly kind, open-minded individuals in this space who trust my judgment and who believe in uplifting instead of shooting down.  I can’t overstate how important it has been for me to have friends within the comics community who have been able to share in my joys and commiserate when I encounter those aspects of comics that aren’t as pleasant.

In somewhat related news, for those of you who don’t follow my various social media maneuverings, I finally sent the first Manga Maven Monthly email, which you can find here.  The response to this project has been very positive, even when I was just making super-long Facebook posts in various retailer groups.  It’s very validating to have people you really respect, who have been working in comics retail a long time, sincerely thank you for your suggestions and talk about how they have positively influenced their businesses.  It’s been really great to feel that, if nothing else, here is at least one thing I know I’m doing well.  So thank you to everyone who has signed up!  I hope to keep giving you fruitful suggestions for a long time!

“I’m Just A Gun-Totin’ Weather Girl”

[HEADS UP: There are some very minor spoilers for the Cowboy Bebop series in this piece, so if that sort of thing bothers you I don’t recommend reading this!]

Cowboy Bebop is one of those series that literally every dude between the ages of 25-35 tries to recommend to every casual nerd. It has the distinction of being one of the best examples of anime, and of dubbed anime, from a very specific point in time, so people latch on to it as a classic and insist on acting completely scandalized when someone hasn’t seen it or doesn’t like it.

It’s that kind of behavior that I’ve mentioned before that I completely hate. And yet…I love Bebop. In fact, I recently convinced my coworker to watch the whole series — not because I told him he had to! But because he’s been enjoying noir comics lately, and I thought some of the themes would scratch a similar itch for him. He’s enjoying it thus far, I’m happy to report.

In general, I’m content to leave my discussions about Bebop in the past, or among like-minded friends. But on Thursday I had the incredible experience of being able to see the movie in theatres, and I can’t stop reflecting on how much I enjoyed it. I’ve seen the movie before, of course, but when it first hit US shores, it wasn’t in any theatres near me. At age 13, living in the middle of Connecticut, there was no option for me to see it that didn’t involve a multi-hour trip to either New York or Boston. I was heartbroken.

But I was finally able to live out my dream. I bought my ticket nearly a month in advance, I got to the theatre early, I bought way too much popcorn for way too much money, and I had an excellent time of it.

Before the movie, instead of endless previews or ads for other events, there was a short Q&A session with the dub voice actors. It lasted maybe ten or fiifteen minutes, but it was a nice little reintroduction to the characters and the movie specifically. It was amazing to hear how the VAs didn’t really alter their voices overmuch for their dub performances, so that these incredibly recognizable voices were coming out of the mouths of people I’ve seen before, but less frequently than their animated counterparts. Getting the little bit of background, and learning about the excitement of the actors to have worked on this project, definitely helped set the mood for the feature presentation.

Cowboy Bebop‘s opening sequence and song, “Tank!” are iconic at this point; for me, so too is the opening credit roll of the film, with its black and white panorama of Martian city life (that always struck me as looking a lot like New York City life). Whole books have been written about Yoko Kanno’s scoring prowess, and the entire Bebop OST is a musical masterpiece; but I do especially love the movie soundtrack and the film’s sanguine opener, “Ask DNA.” This series is one that is based firmly around music and mood — as themes, not just as enhancements to the story. The film is no different.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door takes place before the end of the series, but after we have already been introduced to all the core cast. The crew of the Bebop is on Mars, following small-fry bounties and trying to keep themselves from starving. Spike and Jet go after some small-time convenience store robbers, while Faye ropes Ed into tracking down info on a hacker. Everything goes sideways when Faye witnesses a terrorist bombing and Mars is suddenly beseiged by a completely inexplicable viral warfare.

As our intrepid heroes dive further and further into this case, they have to untie the threads of military experimentation, memory loss, doomed romance, global terrorism, and a crooked pharmaceutical company. It seems like a lot, but it all comes together in a seamless tapestry, peppered with the usual humor and a lot of really adorable jack-o-lanterns.

There was a practice, when I was young, of hating female characters in anime because their presence either got in the way of your gay ships, or got in the way of your two-dimensional love interests. Faye Valentine is a ripe subject for this, an easy target in her tiny yellow outfit, with her gambling vice and her vanity. But something always prevented me from hating her outright, and it wasn’t until the last decade or so that I realized I actually really love her. In the film, she’s the first person to witness Vincent Volaju’s terrorist attack; she’s the one who takes the initiative to go after the bounty; and she’s the one who remains defiant in an otherwise hopeless situation. It is poignant, we later realize, that she should be the one to have a conversation with Vincent about lost memories — a touch that I’m not sure I had noticed until this most recent viewing. She is a stark contrast to Spike’s Julia, the perfect, mild-mannered (though disloyal) woman who also happens to look good in a catsuit.

The movie reminds me, also, that the things I like best about Cowboy Bebop are all the things that don’t directly involve Spike’s eyeroll-worthy hang-up about his girlfriend and his best friend having a shag. I love the adventure, the puzzle-solving, the use of music, the references to old film, the late-90s vision of a terraformed future, the comedy, the comraderie…the things that set Cowboy Bebop apart are the ways in which it defies the conventions of science-fiction while placing it self firmly within that boundary. There is a sort of self-aware pseudo-philosophical thread running through everything, including the movie, that feels more like a nod to the spaghetti westerns of a bygone era than an actual moral the audience is expected to believe. But it’s such a loving and respectful nod that it makes the heroism of those once-worshipped cowboys seem worthy of consideration.

I don’t really expect every anime fan to lose their minds about Cowboy Bebop these days, not when there’s such a wealth of animated media at everyone’s fingertips, and new and incredible works are being made all the time. But I’m glad, once again, to have watched it when it was still so fresh and new, and to be able to feel so strongly about it even to this day. No matter what I say, I can’t deny that I’m completely taken in every time I hear those first audacious horns blasting, that deep base thrumming over the James Bond-esque opening sequence. I’m completely taken in by the warmth of the cel animation, the absurd theatricality of film references and seamless blending of old film genres. And damn it if I’m not a sucker for every episode’s distinct musical theme.

Also, Cowboy Bebop is like…the one anime my mom would occasionally catch snippets of an genuinely enjoy, so that’s gotta be good for something, right?

Remembering Akira

I don’t remember if it was spring or fall, but I remember that I was nine years old. Sara and I got off the bus as usual. She was staying over my house that afternoon, and she had brought a tape she had borrowed from her older brother, which she had seen at least some of already. She wanted me to see it, needed her best friend to have the same experience.

Up until that point, we had a passing understanding of anime. We watched Pokemon, and I had been a fan of Sailor Moon for years already. But as we sat there on the floor in the basement of my grandmother’s house, the coarse brown carpet biting into our hands as we leaned in, we knew that what we were watching was the same and yet…it was different.

We were probably too young to watch Akira. I think we knew that, too, because we kept worrying that every sound we heard was my grandmother about to descend the stairs as something truly horrific happened on screen. I didn’t have a concept of body horror, didn’t understand the affects of drug use, didn’t have any background in Japanese post-war anxieties or political climes. But even though it frightened and confused me, I loved Akira.

Time will elapse, and I will carry with me the knowledge that it’s a movie I love, but forget the particulars. And when I go to watch it again, I will be floored all over again. The swell of the gamelan soundtrack, the warmth of the animation, the gorgeous taillight trail…it makes me emotional for reasons I can’t always comprehend, though I suppose I am, at my core, a very emotional person, given to sentimentality.

And so the Akira film celebrates its very sentimental 30th anniversary. From all corners of the internet, all manner of film and animation fans are calling up their memories, lauding their favorite aspects of a film that could only be made in that time, in that place, and with those very specific people. For me, it’s the same: I can’t imagine having not seen Akira, and I don’t regret having seen it early in my life. Quite the contrary, I feel lucky to be able to experience it over and over again, as I age and mature, and as I come to learn new things about myself and about society.

…and I still have yet to finish the manga, so I guess I have a goal before the year is out!