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Comic Reviews

On Local Maxima

There’s this manga series I follow religiously called Chihayafuru. One of the themes it covers is the realities of becoming elite in a field: the personal cost, the conditions necessary to become elite, and the cost to your support network. In the case of the story, the field is a niche card game called Karuta that basically only exists in Japan. As a result, there’s a lot of Japan specific trappings involved in how these things are depicted, but the concepts can be generalized.

One of the aspects I want to focus on today is the mindset that the characters develop in order to become elite. The story features a large ensemble cast in addition to its main character, and goes into each character’s mindset for why they play Karuta and why they strive to improve. In general, people have different mindsets for recreational games – some people play for the fun of interacting with others, whereas some people like the competitive aspect – they like beating other players. Or maybe they just hate losing. There’s many different reasons why people generally play games. However, for competition, there’s a crucial difference between normal recreational play – everyone who participates generally also try to improve constantly in order to keep up with or to surpass the rest of the field. In order to do so, they have to play the game with a mindset of constantly learning and/or constantly improving over time. The details in which this is implemented will differ from person to person.

Chihayafuru really focuses on the players’ psyches, as well as the makeup of their mindset – what drives them to be better? what drives them to be the best? Naturally, as there is only one person who stands at the top of their field (well, two in this case, as there is one champion per gender in the series), the series will also showcase the perspectives of the losers. When the main characters lose, it also delves into their mindset and why they lost. One important thing to note that we see in the main characters is how their mindsets change over time – after serious losses, they reevaluate their mindset – “Is this current method still working? Am I still improving, or have I gotten stuck in a rut?” We see it constantly – players stop changing their mindsets even after it no longer improves them, and as a result, they plateau. They stop growing, or improvements only help in terms of refining small pieces of their game – the broad strokes remain the same. They get trapped in their local maxima.

In the case of the main characters (There are three) we see how all of them change their mindsets over time to keep striving for growth. This is most evident in the main character, Chihaya. She’s a Karuta fanatic, and as a result she devotes all her focus to improving in the game. We see her stuck in periods of ruts, in periods of flux (which necessitate a lowering of overall skill in order to learn and improve) and in periods of growth. She constantly strives to adapt and improve, though many times she gets stuck banging her head against a wall (aka the plateau) until she has some insight that leads to a shift in mindset and ultimately growth.

Interesting to note, as well, is seeing things from the champion’s perspectives. They’ve largely stagnated in growth – they’ve largely become accustomed to a local maxima that seems to be sufficient – they can beat everyone else, after all. It’s hard to say their perspective is wrong – after all, if it isn’t broke, why fix it? One important thing to mention about changing your mindset is that change doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement. Sometimes, your change can just make things worse. Imagine if you drive a car, but you transition instead to using a horse and buggy. Obviously a step back, right? The changing costs of moving away from a successful formula can be a giant barrier to transition. You’re going from a known formula that works to something that is risky and unproven. Looking at it from a champion’s perspective, it becomes easy to see how they become less risk averse over time. Whereas from the challenger’s perspective, you can afford to still make big changes, because you haven’t reached the pinnacle yet. You don’t know if your current method is the best method for success, so you can keep experimenting to see if there’s something better. Ultimately, success, in a way, becomes a prison.

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Comic Reviews

Isekai, or How I Learned to Love Shitty Power Fantasies

Isekai stories are the new fad in manga series at the moment – it’s actually a boom in the light novel industry, with manga adaptations of successful LNs. For the uninitiated, the Isekai genre is when the main character (typically a Japanese student or salaryman) dies or is summoned/transported  to a different world (usually your standard RPG setting) and given a huge boon by the god of the new world. Or, for whatever reason they’re naturally gifted in this new world. This boon allows them the ability to style on anyone they meet, or let them grow their abilities at an unparalleled rate. I’m going to be frank: most of the stuff that’s coming out is trash. I feel like the rate of trash is higher than average for this particular genre as well, because it’s especially conducive to trash. Why is that? Because the main theme of all Isekai is the element of the power fantasy.

The whole point of this genre is for someone average to suddenly be put in a position of immense power and privilege, so that they can wield it mercilessly on those now beneath them. They can still be nice or even give mercy to their enemies, because it costs them nothing. Others are so beneath them that sparing them has little or no consequences.

Having talked mad shit about the genre, I will now list my recommendations:

Kumo Desu Ga, Nani Ka? (This one is entertaining to me, because the appeal is something distinct and outside of the power fantasy. There are very little human characters in this at all – most of the focus is on the main character surviving against hostile creatures)

Tate No Yuusha (It’s cartoonishly over the top at times (all the time), but it serves to fuel the MC’s bile. His hatred is palpable – what works about it is it’s really easy to empathize with the MC – you see exactly how unreasonable his circumstances are, yet he’s the one who gets blamed for not fixing the problem. It’s Obama tier frustration: Republicans blame him for being ineffective while being the leading cause via blocking everything he does. Meanwhile, they also blame him for their blocking him because “A good leader wouldn’t have gotten himself in this position to begin with”. Classic catch-22.)

Tsuyokute New Saga (A variation – not actually a new world, but a groundhog day style reset: essentially, the main character travels back in time before anything bad happened to them and they have a chance to fix their mistakes. This is another popular framing device. This series is probably the most straightforward of the genre, but it has great execution.)

Dungeon Seeker (Edgelord trash. I think the shitty edginess works in its favor though. Don’t ask me how, because I don’t know either.)

Risou No Himo (Salaryman is summoned to a different world to marry the queen. He’s chosen because he has no familiarity with the new world and the queen wants someone spineless who won’t challenge her power. He understands this as an opportunity to loaf around and bang royalty, and be rewarded for it. Of course, he readily agrees to the proposition. The conflict in the story stems from how the realities of running an empire inevitably get in the way of him wanting to be a lazy sack of shit. He therefore has to use his salaryman powers to resolve problems in an organized fashion. I like this one because it cuts straight to the core of the power fantasy – You  (the reader) want to play video games, watch TV and bang hot chicks all day and be rewarded for it.)

There are some other good series, but they don’t come to mind at the moment.

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Comic Reviews

Goblin Slayer Review

Oops, I stopped blogging for a while. I don’t really have any excuses other than some major life changes and laziness. Actually, the major life changes should have served to increase my blogging input, because I have way more free time now that I’m not working anymore.  The important thing is I’ve started up again, so here goes.

***Spoilers ahead, nothing too major but if you’d rather read this series with fresh eyes, then beware****

Goblin Slayer: recommended?

…Hmm. Hard to say. I like GS quite a bit, but I’d have some pretty serious reservations about recommending it to others. Let’s start with the good stuff:

  • The exploration of a career/calling.

GS is, of course, about an adventurer who slays goblins. You never get his name – he’s simply known as goblin slayer, and for good reason: this guy’s full time job is killing goblins, and he takes it to the extreme. The story goes out of its way to point out how good he is at killing goblins. He is the best in the world at this job. I like that it paints this job in different lights as well – he’s a scientist when it comes to killing goblins. He hypothesizes different ways to kill goblins and tests those hypotheses in real world experiments.

However, he’s also an artist in a way. He find self expression through the numerous ways he slaughters goblins. He’s burned them to death, drowned them with a river, sliced them up, stabbed them, bashed their skulls in, shot them with arrows, etc.  This guy is basically the Da Vinci of goblin killing, Not only is he dedicated to his craft, but he enjoys it as well. Looking at GS from a different perspective, the story could be portrayed as going into the obsessive mindset of someone who’s reached the top of their field, what lengths it takes to achieve the pinnacle, and how others view those who are so singularly minded.

  • Related to the previous point – one of the themes of the story is emotional repression, which resonates strongly with me for some reason.

Pretty much everyone who meets GS notes how fucked up he is. He doesn’t  think of anything else besides killing goblins. He doesn’t express emotion at all, except when it comes to something goblin related. The guy’s backstory is that goblins wiped out his village and ever since he’s thought of nothing else but goblin genocide. It’s not as if he’s sadistic – he’s not into torture or inflicting pain on goblins. It’s the act of killing them that’s cathartic. But outside of this, he’s almost a robot. While his backstory plays a massive part in his personality, his job exacerbates things. For the most part, he’d been killing goblins solo, which didn’t do him any favors in the emotional health department. Relating to the career point earlier, the manga shows some of the side effects of pursuing the top of the mountain.

What does it cost to be the best in the world at something? Interpersonal relationships take a hit, first of all. This guy is so busy focusing on his career that he has no outside friends besides his one childhood friend he lives with and the receptionist at the adventurer’s hall.  He doesn’t have any hobbies, or any other outlets for release besides goblin slaying.  People misunderstand him and despise him. Why does he spend so much time on this one thing? Only weirdos are so obsessive. That is, until people see the practical benefits of his skills. Then they kinda get on board the GS train. He doesn’t have a life outside of killing goblins. But that’s what it takes to be the best.

  • It’s really grounded in its fantasy setting.

It focuses on the realities of its setting. What would life be like with magic and monsters? In this world, monsters exist and are at war against humans. How does this affect daily life here? People live under the specter of goblin attacks at all times. Goblins, making up the bulk of the monsters, raid villages frequently for food and women for the purposes of reproduction and pleasure. However, the government doesn’t prioritize killing goblins, because they have bigger fish to fry in the form of demon lords and shit. But because these goblins are so common, attacks on human settlements happen constantly. You end up with a bunch of small towns on the fringes that are left to fend for themselves.

I’ll have to write up the cons in the next article, this post went on a bit longer than I expected.