Thursday, July 28, 2011

"It's Stuck in My Head..."

In Alfred Bester’s award-winning science-fiction novel, The Demolished Man, the protagonist, Ben Reich, is trying to figure how to get away with murder in a society where the police can read minds. His solution is to be “accidentally” exposed to an “earworm,” a portion of a song that repeats compulsively within the mind. Thus, when a telepathic detective looks into Ben’s mind, all the detective hears is the endlessly repeating song.  Colloquially, we would that the song is “stuck in his head.”

There are many different “hooks” that can turn songs into earworms. In The Demolished Man, it’s a repetitive, tongue-twisting lyric:

Eight sir, seven sir, six sir, five sir, four sir, three sir, two sir, one.
Tenser, said the Tensor, Tenser said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.

In many songs, it’s the music itself. An ostinato, known as a vamp in popular music, is a phrase or motif that’s repeated in the same rhythm and tonality. (A favorite example is the vamp at the start of “All That Jazz” in the musical Chicago.)  Regardless of the actual repetition, if the motif is memorable, the mind latches onto it and extends it indefinitely.

Anime series and OVAs seem to be a particularly prolific source of earworms, and it’s an occupational hazard of fansubbing to be exposed, and over-exposed, to songs that get stuck in one’s head. A viewer can fast-forward past the OP or ED; the fansub team has to listen to the songs week-in and week-out, and quite possibly multiple times during the timing, editing, and QC phases. The results can be truly mind-wrecking.

A couple of my favorite (or perhaps, least favorite) examples of anime earworms:

  • Love Getchu OP: “Nanairo Nadeshiko.” This incredibly bouncy example of bubblegum J-rock is a prime offender. It has repetitive lyrics (“Chu chu chu chu, chu chu churu ru ru…"), an extended vamp outro, and a catchy melody. Because of multiple abortive attempts to finish this series, this song is now irretrievably etched into my frontal lobes.
  • Happiness OP: “Happiness.” Another irrepressibly cheery bubblegum song that I hope never to hear again, because I’ll never be rid of it if I do.
  • Chi’s Sweet Home OP: “Ouchi ga Ichiban.”  It’s only 30 seconds long in the anime, but it’s simple, bouncy structure, repeated 104 times, turns it into an earworm.
  • Kekkaishi OP: “Sha la la -Ayakashi Night.”  I heard this song at least 51 times, because Kekkaishi only had one OP, and I had to retime it every week to fit the hardsubbed kanji. I actually like the song, but it too has repetitive lyrics and a recurring vamp and is very difficult to eradicate.
  • Nodame Cantabile OP: “Allegro Cantabile.”  Another good song turned insidious earworm, because of the structural similarity of all the musical lines in the verses. Koda’s terrific karaoke for C1’s version helps make it even more memorable.
  • Durarara!! OP1: “Uragiri no Yuuyake.”  This hard-driving J-rocker uses a simple, repeated two-note motif to hammer itself home in the mind.
  • Elfen Lied OP: “Lilium.”  This one is rather different. It’s haunting, rather than repetitive. The contrast between the serene beauty of the song, and the horrific subject matter of the anime, made the song particularly memorable. Monster’s ED2, “Make It Home,” posed a similar threat.
Over the years, what anime earworms have bitten you?

Monday, July 25, 2011


I admire the ability of my editing colleague, Dark_Sage, to review multiple fansub versions of the same anime series, pointing out the errors of omission and commission in the subs and grading the overall effort.  I couldn’t bring myself to do those kinds of reviews, because so much anime these days is garbage – or to use the particularly redolent Yiddish term, dreck.

I’m not going to claim that anime quality was higher in some mythical past.  Popular entertainment – TV, movies, anime, music – always contains only small amounts of gold surrounded by tons of dross.  While the clichés of today were once original ideas, they weren’t necessarily any better when first introduced, only fresher.  Harem is harem, whether it’s Love Hina or Nyan Koi.

What has changed is my tolerance, or rather, my intolerance, for tired ideas presented in unchanged tropes.  Harem, moe, shounen, mecha, mahou shoujo, girls with guns – they’ve all been done to death.  As a result, my collector’s mania has started to fade.  I always knew I was collecting more anime than I could ever watch.  Now I’m limiting what I watch and keep.  There’s just too much dreck.

The spring 2011 season, with its record number of shows, was the turning point.  It took just five minutes of Cardfight: Vanguard to convince me that further watching was a waste of time and bandwidth.  Toriko followed shortly thereafter, followed by Pretty Rhythm Aurora Dream.  I couldn’t bear to watch Dog Days (cutesy-poo), Deadman Wonderland (too violent – grandparents don’t like shows that feature mistreatment of children), Sengoku Otome (pointless), 30-Sai (witless), Softenni (useless), Hen Zemi (yuck), Oretachi (a confused mess), Sket Dance (shounen tripe), X-Men (superhero tripe), Gintama (I’m going to watch another 203 episodes of this?), Hidan no Aria (girls with guns clichés), Kaiji S2 (emo run riot), C (not engaging), or Steins;Gate (ditto).

Many of the shows I did watch left me with mixed feelings.

  • Ano Hana.  This show’s promising premise was undone by clumsy execution and devices straight from the Idiot Plot handbook.  All the character development was left to the last episode, and the suspense was only sustained because the ghost refrained from demonstrating her presence – until she didn’t.
  • Doronron Enma-kun.  Dirty-minded fun, but it stopped being original after three or four episodes.
  • A Channel.  This slice of life comedy was harmless enough, but I can’t say it left a lasting impression.
  • Denpa Onna.  Another show with a strong premise, but it disintegrated as the episodes progressed and ended up as a boring and routine teenage comedy.
  • Astarotte Omocha.  The creators tried to have it both ways – heartwarming comedy and loli ecchi-fest – and succeeded only at leaving a distasteful impression.
  • Ao no Exorcist.  I keep hoping it will come to a clean, quick end.  However, the progression of the manga is not promising.
So did I like anything at all?  Yes, a few shows.  As I said in a previous entry, Fireball Charming had terrific dialog and deadpan delivery to go along with its short, CG-based episodes.  Yondemasu yo, Azazel-san was an equal-opportunity offender, taking vicious potshots at everyone and everything.  Neither its plot nor its outcome was predictable.  Nichijou started randomly but grew into a really funny (if still incoherent) show, and besides, I liked the talking cat.  Hanasakaru Iroha was a shoujo show without bishounen or reverse harem overtones, a slice of life that wasn’t insistently heartwarming, and a warm comedy.

But the summer 2011 season looks to be no better. I’ve already discarded Yuruyuri, Kaitou Tenshi Twin Angel, The Idolm@ster, R-15, Ro-kyu-bo, Uta no Prince-sama Maji LOVE 100%, and Manyuu Hikenchou, which range from the insipid to the disgusting.  Blade, Sacred Seven, Kamisama Dolls, Blood-C, and Itsuka Tenma no Kuro Usagi don’t have an original idea between them.   Nurarihyon is a sequel to a series I didn’t much like in the first place.  Nekogami Yaoyorozu is making me break my “I’ll watch anything with cats” rule.

So what’s left?

  • Ikoku Meiro no Croisee.  This gentle slice of life show is very soothing.  Nothing much happens, or has happened so far, and that’s goodness.  The characters are developing slowly but visibly; there’s no melodrama or villainy.  I’d like it to stay that way and avoid the usual trap of “We must provide some dramatic tension for the climactic episodes.”
  • Usagi Drop.  Another gentle slice of life show.  Although fans are raving about how cute Rin is, the real draw for me is that the protagonist is actually an adult, confronting real-life adult problems, like balancing work and child care.  I’ve heard that the manga goes disastrously wrong at the end; I hope the anime can hold its balance.
  • Natsume Yuujinchou San.  Yeah, it’s a sequel to a sequel, but so what?  The episodes are showing more depth, even compared to previous seasons.  The protagonist has developed emotionally, and Sensei is better than ever.  This is a great show, possibly the best of the summer.
  • No. 6.  I’m afraid this series is going to strike too hard for “depth and profundity in eleven episodes,” like Fractale, and the boy(s)-against-the-system mantra is totally clichéd.  But I’ll give this another couple of episodes, because it’s the only science fiction show this season.
  • Dantalian no Shoka.  A good premise, but already showing signs of “monster of the week” syndrome.  Fewer specious mysteries and more character development, please!
  • Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu Ni.  I loved the first series for its utter goofiness.  This season seems to be “more of the same,” yet I’m finding the freshness to be lacking.
  • Kamisama no Memochou.  I’m editing this show for Monokage, so I’m watching it despite its flaws.  At least the spineless hero is showing signs of improvement.
  • Nyanpire the Animation.  Cats with fangs!  No need to say more.
So there you have it: a capsule review of two anime seasons.  You may agree with my preferences, you may not, but I think you’ll agree with my starting premise – these days, you have to sift through an awful lot of dreck to find anime series that are worth watching.

Updated 8/27/11. Zalis's comment prodded me to take a second look at this column, and I can see that I need to update a few shows.  I'm still watching the eight summer shows I listed, even though Monokage has dropped Kamisama no MemochouUsagi Drop continues to grow on me.  I've added back Kamisama Dolls, which has taken its "kids-with-superpowers" premise in different, and darker, directions than I had expected.  And I must confess to watching Mayo Chiki, which falls in the "guilty pleasure" category: I feel guilty for watching it and guilty for enjoying it, because of its harem tropes and blatant fanservice, but I watch it anyway.