Hold on to Your Sanity Points! Nyaruko is Back!

narukow_b2pYes, everyone’s favorite crawling chaos is back in a new series that has been airing since last month, and Akihabara is in full-on Nyaruko-mode! I recently made the journey to the otaku culture capital of the world to visit the Cure Maid Cafe, which is currently running a Haiyore! Nyaruko-san W campaign. I had to make a Sanity roll when I sampled the blasphemous and chaotic pasta-like thing  seen in the photo, topped off with the “Nyaruko” fizzy non-alcoholic cocktail. The show itself has currently been aired up to episode 6, and while it lacks some of the frenetic humor of the first series, it still manages to offer up a lot of laughs and more geek references than you can shake an unspeakable crowbar at. For those who are not so well-versed in the more esoteric aspects of Japanese culture and the Lovecraft mythos, I recently discovered the amazing and incredibly thorough NyaruReferences blog, which offers episode-by-episode rundowns of every reference in the anime and information on the original light novels as well! Check it out!Instant Sanity Loss! NyarlathotepNyaruko

John Skeleton – Now Live from Hong Kong!

The scent of autumn is in the air, and the end of October is drawing near…you know what that means! It’s time to jam-pack your homes with jack-o’-lanterns and break out your besoms for the spookiest night of the year, All Hallow’s Eve! But before that, some of you may just be wondering where I have been for these past few months…

Photo by National Geographic

For those who haven’t heard, let’s just say that the pursuit of my studies of Japan, Asia, and the Gothic have led me from my castle deep in the mountains of Japan to a much more metropolitan environment – the legendary Pearl of the Orient, Hong Kong! From among his colorful cataclysm of cosmopolitanism and East-meets-West sensibilities, I will attempt to give my insight into Goth from an Asian perspective through this blog. Shifting from a focus on horror films, from now on I will extend to the Gothic in film, literature, games, music, events, and anything else that I find interesting. Changes to my site may be slow in coming, so for now I will attempt to give you some highlights of what I’ve been up to.

My history with the Japanese body modification scene goes way back, but it was only this April that, thanks to my dear friend and Tokyo subcultures author/blogger/journalist La Carmina, I was able to experience something complete different: becoming a bagel head!

Maybe you missed the memo, but the bagel head trend has gone viral after being featured on National Geographic’s hit show Taboo (the bagel head episode originally aired on Sept. 24, 2012). The process involves injecting the body with a sterile saline solution to create a large protrusion that, while completely disappearing after 24 hours, looks mysteriously like something that might go well with cream cheese.

John Skeleton as a Bagel Head!

The bagel head trend went viral after being covered in La Carmina’s blog countless media outlets, including The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed to name a few. A few reports got the story wrong though, claiming the unique body mod phenomena as a hot new fashion trend sweeping Japan and having permanent or negative effects. La Carmina and I were interviewed by The Japan Times and set the record straight there and in her popular blog.

The bagel head filming took place in April while I was still in Japan, but since then I’ve been keeping busy here in Hong Kong as well. Although it’s not Goth-related in anyway, for those interested Japanese anime and popular culture, you may be interested to know that the earless cat robot Doraemon is quite popular here in HK! I reported on an exhibit celebrating 100 years before the fictional birth of manga duo Fujiko Fujio’s futuristic creation. You can read my full report and see more photos here in La Carmina’s post.

John Skeleton & Doraemon

La Carmina, who also works as a TV presenter and production arranger, also recently visited Hong Kong, and many adventures were had. And these stories shall also be told…in a later post! For now, you can find a sneak peak here while I get a severed-head-start on the horrifying Halloween events yet to come…until next time, happy hauntings!

Haiyore! Nyaruko-san – H.P. Lovecraft Meets Akiba!

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

It seems that the Old Gent is appearing just about everywhere these days, with the deities and grimoires of the Cthulhu Mythos being summoned from their blasphemous, non-Euclidean outer dimensions to make appearances in episodes of such standard television fare as South Park (where Cartman befriends the cosmic entity and trains him to, among other things, destroy Justin Bieber) and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (notable for Jeffrey “Herbert West” Combs voicing the character “H.P. Hatecraft”). Of course, Lovecraftian inventions cropping up in unexpected places is nothing new, as famous fiction and comic writers like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Mike Mignola have been borrowing from H.P.’s lore for years, and metal bands such as Metallica and Black Sabbath have paid tribute to the Mythos as well. Of course, the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred is practically an essential text in the library of anyone dabbling in the dark arts these days.  Not only that, but an entire book could be written on the subject of Lovecraft’s influence on the world of film, and in fact, one already has: Andrew Migliore and John Strysik’s excellent The Lurker in the Lobby: The Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema.

While the Providence writer’s influence has long been felt in the West, more recently his works seem to be cropping up in more unexpected places, more specifically, Japanese anime. The aforementioned Lurker in the Lobby covers some little-known works of J-horror like Marebito (Takashi “Ju-on: The Grudge” Shimizu, 2004) and Uzumaki (Higuchinsky, 2000, based on the manga by self-professed Lovecraft fan Junji Itō), and even an adult animated OVA entitled Mystery of the Necronomicon. While the former two films successfully draw more on the atmosphere and general themes of Lovecraft’s work, the latter merely uses names, characters, and the infamous Necronomicon as little more than glorified props to support an otherwise lifeless story. However, one thing is certain: Lovecraft’s scope of influence is certainly not limited to the English-speaking world.

Cover of the first light novel volume

In fact, Lovecraft’s works have been available in Japanese for decades, introducing to a whole new audience the works of an author who was woefully underappreciated during his own lifetime. A major factor behind the permeation of the Mythos into Japan’s geek culture was surely the seminal tabletop RPG Call of Cthulhu, first published by Chaosium in 1981. Despite the infiltration of Lovecraft literature and spin-off materials generated by the game, it seems that, like the followers of Cthulhu, Japanese Mythos fans have been lurking in hiding in the secret places of the Earth, waiting until the moment when the stars are in their proper alignment so that from its accursed place in the sunken abyss will rise…Cthulhu Co., Ltd. R’lyeh Land, the most popular theme park for Mythos deities this side of Fomalhaut??!?!

Yes, I could only be talking about the latest and one of the most delightfully bizarre incarnations of H.P. Lovecraft’s beloved universe of cosmic horror: Haiyore! Nyaruko-san (Crawling Up! Nyaruko-san)! Originally a light novel series written by Manta Aisora with illustrations by Koin, the series has spawned no less than two manga adaptations, two animated OVAs, and an animated television series currently airing in Japan, directed by Tsuyoshi Nagasawa.

It’s your typical story of boy meets alien or otherwise non-human girl, girl falls in love, numerous other beings get involved resulting in inevitable chaos, rinse, repeat.  This formula has been seen before…a LOT.  In fact, ever since Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura, there have been numerous adaptations of the “magical girlfriend” theme involving sexy non-humans (who still always look very human, for some reason) with a penchant for dull, everyday-Joe high school student in Japan (who may or may not have a heretofore unknown past involving other worlds).  Urusei Yatsura worked, as did other later shows that borrowed a similar formula, such as Tenchi Muyo!  However, it also fell flat on several occasions, as any superficially grafted formula is wont to do when lacking the strong characters to back it up.

So what does Nyaruko-san bring to the table?  Well, the basic alien girlfriend formula is in place as Nyaruko (voiced by Kana Asumi), a Nyarlathotepan (yes, the deities of Lovecraft are apparently races of alien beings now) working for the Space Defense Agency, rescues high school student Yasaka Mahiro from a Night Gaunt attack, revealing that Mahiro is the target of a galactic criminal organization and she has been assigned to protect him.  Of course, Nyaruko falls head over heels for Mahiro and ends up living in his home, a matter which is complicated by the later arrival of Kūko (voiced by Miyu Matsuki), a female Cthughan who is madly in love with Nyaruko, and Hasuta (voiced by Rie Kugimiya), a “loli trap” and member of the Hastur race who is completely smitten by Mahiro as well.  The love triangle between Nyaruko, Kūko, and Mahiro forms the core romantic thread of the story as Hasuta tags along for the ride, but what really carries the show from mediocre to highly enjoyable is the frenetic pacing and humorous references that sometimes fly by so fast that you might miss them if you blink.

Not as reliant on the typical situational humor drawn from the awkward scenes that are bound to occur when a boy and several girls/boys infatuated with him live under the same roof, the show is more heavily focused on (self-) referential humor and various parodies, consistently breaking the fourth wall as well.  The Mythos references are obviously there, with the predictable Lovecraftian vocabulary (unspeakable, blasphemous, unnamable, etc.) being used for laughs, along with puns that may seem somewhat esoteric to English-speakers, such as Nyaruko’s amphibious vehicle the Nephren-car, and the Cola of Cthulhu from R’lyeh Land, as well as that theme park’s Innsmouth mascot.  (The latter pun is only detectable when Innsmouth is spoken in Japanese pronunciation, as “mouth” is the same as “mouse” = Mickey Mouse.) Sanity points are also frequently mentioned in reference to the RPG. Nyaruko-san doesn’t limit itself to Mythos humor, however, with everything from Pokémon and Mobile Suit Gundam, to Back to the Future showing up in rapid succession.

Otaku culture is also a major theme in the show, as Nyaruko informs Mahiro that Earth’s entertainment, including Japanese anime, manga, and games, are highly valued commodities on the galactic market. BL (Boys’ Love), gaming console wars, and other Akiba-related topics often form the key plot points of episodes, with hilarious results.  Almost always managing to maintain a playful tongue-in-cheek approach without falling victim to its own stereotypes, Nyaruko-san is an enjoyable romp through a unique and entertaining world.

So is it in any way true to Lovecraft? Perhaps not, but one thing is clear: the creators certainly knew a thing or two about H.P. and his universe, and weren’t afraid to take some (extreme) creative liberties and have some fun with the gods and monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos.  While there has been no announcement of an English release for the novels or manga, the animated TV series and OVAs are being streamed by Crunchyroll.  So if you like your Lovecraft light, fun, and sprinkled with a liberal dose of chaotic humor, you might just be able to wrap your tentacles around Haiyore! Nyaruko-san and what are certainly some of the cutest Cthulhu characters yet to be seen!

Sympathy for the Devil: Black Butler

Before I get back into my Romero Retrospective, I would like to take a moment to talk about something that’s been on my mind (and my television) for the past week or two: Black Butler.  Also known by its original Japanese title, Kuroshitsuji (黒執事), Black Butler first appeared in September 2006 as a manga penned by artist Yana Toboso.  While I never read the original manga, the 24-episode anime (directed by Toshiya Shinohara) caught my eye in October 2008 with its Victorian trappings and a particular sense of fashion that smacks heavily of Gothic & Lolita.  However, the general dearth of noteworthy titles being produced by the flagging anime industry served to discourage me from ever viewing this particular title, but recently a friend recommended it to me and so I determined that I would give it a proper viewing.

The first episode introduces us to Earl Ciel Phantomhive, 12-year-old toy and candy magnate in Victorian England, and his mysterious and handsome butler, Sebastian Michaelis (brought devilishly to life by award-winning voice actor Daisuke Ono).  Ciel inherited the Phantomhive empire after the unexplained deaths of his parents two years previously, and also assumed the family’s duties as the “Queen’s Guard Dog,” an office acting as the Crown’s unseen hand in Great Britain’s underworld.  Sebastian’s incredible talents inform us that he is, as he so often reminds us, “one hell of a butler” (actually, a Japanese pun that can also mean “a devil and a butler), and we learn that his preternatural abilities are not without a supernatural explanation.  He is, in fact, a demon who has been bound in a Faustian pact whereby he will serve Ciel until he has exacted revenge upon those who slayed his parents and sullied the Phantomhive name.   And, in true Mephistophelian fashion, when Ciel’s vengeance is complete the demon will be allowed to feast upon the young boy’s soul at leisure.  Along the way, various otherworldly beings are also introduced: an eccentric undertaker with a penchant for laughs, a flaming transvestite reaper, a devil dog that transforms into a beautiful young man when excited (while retaining the mind of a dog), and a maniacal angel bent on cleansing mankind of impurity.  Even the ostensibly human characters are often endowed with unusual abilities and personalities, and the chaos that ensues is at times bewildering even for someone as steeped in the vicissitudes of animated mayhem as I.

As may be inferred from the character descriptions above, this anime is not exactly a historically accurate portrayal of life in fin de siècle England or Victorian society.  While it takes great pains to introduce various aspects of the lives of nobility (such as pointing out specific teas and desserts enjoyed by the wealthy in those days), the audience learns quickly to take their disbelief, crumple it up, and dump it unceremoniously out the window.  That said, the animation quality (which ranges from merely adequate to rather impressive) allows for a significant amount of detail in the backgrounds, especially the Phantomhive mansion with its elegant carvings, intricate damasks, and gorgeous teaware.

However, what really kept me engrossed in the tale, and what leads me to give a predominantly positive appraisal of this work, is its portrayal of the classic revenge story.  After the opening credits, Ciel has already made his deal with the devil and is busy at the task of pursuing his parents’ murderers.  One might expect to see many episodes where Ciel is taught moral lessons about the meaningless of vengeance, and how his life is not worth throwing away for revenge.  His parents would have wanted him to live out the rest of his days in health and happiness, not dwelling on hatred and anger.  After all, as Confucius said, “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  One might expect such moralist platitudes, but one would be wrong, and this is exactly why I find this anime to be so absolutely refreshing!  SPOILER ALERT!  In fact, later in the series Ciel is confronted with the illusion of his dead parents, who encourage him to give up his feckless attempt to avenge them and live a happy life.  Ciel almost caves in to their persuasion, but ultimately realizes that he already died on that day two years ago, and if he were to give up his hatred and lust for vengeance, there would be nothing left!  His strength of will and desire for justice are the very forces that animate him, and he cannot let go of them lest he become little more than a walking corpse.

Ciel seems to live by the LaVeyan code that states, “if a man smite thee on one cheek, smash him on the other!”  When he temporarily gives in to despair toward the end of the series, Sebastian abandons him to suffer alone for a time (while still watching over him in feline form), so that he will renew his determination and, presumably, become an even more delicious soul for the demon to devour.  Sebastian is the perfect epicurean throughout each episode, acting as both sadist and masochist in a striking depiction of a true devil following the proud literary tradition of German portrayals of Old Nick.  Like Shaw’s Satan he is a perfect gentleman and paragon of etiquette.  While he does not show any particular care for individual lives, he echoes Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in that he seems to have some pity for humans, and even displays compassion at times, although always in his own best interest.  As the series progresses we see him protecting Ciel from harm, but also allowing certain events to occur, always manipulating and controlling each situation in such a way as to mold and shape Ciel’s soul into the ultimate demonic delicacy.  This fascinating interplay is paradoxically both that of father and child and of predator and prey, a diabolical conundrum that only the Devil himself could summon up.

In the end, Black Butler is a dark and compelling story wrapped up innocuously in a whole lot of pseudo-Victorian fluff and frills and zany characters, with a few good laughs along the way.  If you can get past the inconsistencies and gaping plot holes, the memorable cast and fairly impressive production values might make you want to barter off your soul to Sebastian as well…I know I do.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with the Green Fairy, and I don’t want to be late…