Here at OTAQUEST we have a rather diverse staff when it comes to personal interests and writing styles. It with that in mind that we’ve made something of a tradition in asking each member of the core writing staff to provide a few of their favorite occurrences or releases over the last 12 months. Not everyone has the time to contribute each year, but I personally always look forward to seeing what the most stand out items of the year are for everyone as popular culture can be a fickle thing, and the items we love one day can quickly become the things we hate the next. Keeping that in mind, here are our personal picks for the biggest contributions 2019 had to pop-culture in Japan (and by extension the global fandom).
Watching Chainsaw Man truly blossom and come into its own this year has been an absolute pleasure. Although Tatsuki Fujimoto’s latest series launched late last year, many of its best moments and most compelling story arcs have come during 2019. Whether it be the mind-bending Eternity Devil arc, the bloody chaos of the Katana Devil arc, or the heart-wrenching romance of the Bomb Devil arc, Chainsaw Man has firmly established itself as one of the best series in Weekly Shonen Jump right now, as well as one of the most unique. That’s certainly due in part to its violent, mature content matter that makes it stick out like a sore thumb among the more child-friendly properties of the magazine. But, most of all, it is the unique creativity that dwells in the twisted mind of Tatsuki Fujimoto that allows the story to balance violent combat, poignant character storytelling, and heartbreaking romance. If you add the fact that its visual presentation is incredibly cinematic in nature, often forgoing words entirely in favor of visuals, the series may even have replaced Dr. STONE as my favorite series in the magazine right now. I think my Jump essentials list from earlier in the year may need updating…
Similarly, watching Studio Orange’s anime adaptation of BEASTARS with an eye to Paru Itagaki’s original manga for my weekly reviews has been an interesting experience. I’ve long since been fascinated by the process of adaptation, and to be able to explore that process on a blow-by-blow basis has been a fulfilling one. I was also fortunate enough to choose an adaptation that is actually entertaining not just in its approach to the original manga, but also in the sense that Studio Orange has managed to capture the coming-of-age story of Legosi and Paru Itagaki’s wonderfully multifaceted, thematically relevant fantasy world in a visceral way that goes even beyond the quality of the source material in some cases. By way of comparison, Studio BONES’ adaptation of My Hero Academia can only hope to match the quality of the original manga due to its faithfulness. Given all of this, I was absolutely delighted to see the announcement of a season 2 straight after the last episode – let’s hope that Orange can keep up the good work going into 2020.
That being said, not all of the anime I watched this year was for review purposes. Nor were they all adaptations of source material that I had already read. Out of those anime, Studio Lerche’s adaptation of given by Natsuki Kizu stuck with me the most. It aired during the Summer season and managed to slip under the radar of many people, including myself. I only got around to watching it last month after a spur-of-the-moment choice, and what I found was an incredibly poignant and effectively told story about love, loss, and the healing qualities of creativity. While many may turn their nose up at the series’ obvious BL trappings (almost all of the characters are gay), that doesn’t mean that the quality of the story is somehow lessened in favor of fanservice and demographic pandering. In fact, the characters being gay works quite well with the show’s themes of forgiveness and self-discovery. And although I haven’t read the original manga just yet, I have to imagine that the addition of music and insert songs to the lyrics presented in the original manga does wonders for their emotional resonance – ever since I first heard it in episode 9, Fuyu no Hanashi hasn’t made an exit from my daily rotation. Heading into 2020, the sequel movie ranks among one of my most anticipated titles – next to the Made in Abyss movie, that is.
Japan’s Idol Industry: A Musical Revolution
I will always have a soft spot for idol group Momoiro Clover Z, and if I wanted I could use this space here to speak about their amazing and varied self-titled 5th album alongside the various singles released throughout 2019, but I want to cast my net a bit broader. This year has been one of the strongest years for the idol industry musically this entire decade, with many major and up-and-coming idol groups releasing some of their best works to date during 2019.
Under the Stardust Productions umbrella with Momoiro Clover Z has been the relaunch of Team Syachihoko as TEAM SHACHI and their Mega Man collaborative single which has been an ear worm in my brain since its release. Just last week Shiritsu Ebisu Chuugaku released their second album and their best to date, Playlist, iterating upon their signature sound while also experimenting with city pop and more; the lead song, Jump, is a particular highlight. Up-and-comers Sakura Ebis (since renamed to ukka) also released a strong album in Octave featuring catchy songs such as Lindbergh and Kira Kira. Away from the agency, lyrical school released the superb Be Kind Rewind, BiSH released CARROTS and STiCKS with some of my favorite music from the group since their Orchestra single, with other groups within WACK such as EMPiRE and newcomers CARRY LOOSE also impressing.
The biggest surprise, however, came from Hello!Project, with BEYOOOOONDS making a major first impression with their triple-A-side debut single and album that left them deserving of the newcomer prizes they inevitably won during various end-of-year awards ceremonies. Megane no Otokonoko is a fun catchy musical story about a group of girls vying for the attention of a mysterious glasses-wearing boy from another school, Nippon no DNA is a motivational rock song with power while Go Waist is a clever exercise-based cover of Go West by the Village People. Their album may lack the impact of the single due to including many of these songs from just a few months earlier, but it is still a very strong release from the group nonetheless.
That’s just talking about the idol industry in isolation, too, and ignoring a huge number of other impressive singles and albums which have been released from Aimyon, Official Hige Dandism and more. As the decade comes to an end, the industry has stepped up to see it out in style.
Weathering With You
Weathering With You is a movie which actually left me conflicted upon its release: an undoubtedly brilliant movie both in terms of animation and story, another strong Makoto Shinkai release, yet one which in my opinion felt like a step to the side and not forwards for a director I love. It held me back from fully embracing a film I still personally enjoyed on pretty much every level. As time has passed, however, I’ve been able to look past this internal conflict and accept the movie as it is: another brilliant movie from the master director who has finally received the recognition they’ve long been deserving of for over a decade.
If Your Name in isolation could be seen as an outlier, the massive success of Weathering With You solidified Shinkai’s place as the industry’s biggest director with a work that touches all generations. Relatable characters, a powerful story with particularly relevant commentary on the current global situation and music contributed once again by RADWIMPS, Weathering With You was one of my highlights of 2019, and I can’t wait for people in the US and UK to watch the movie in cinemas upon its release in January.
Kingdom Hearts III
While perhaps not my favorite game in 2019, it’s definitely the title which has resonated with me the most. After a decade as a fan of the franchise the chance to finally see resolution on a story which began all the way back in 2001 felt almost cathartic. Story resolution, even with intriguing loose threads remaining to set up future sequels, would be enough of a reason to keep fans satisfied with this release, yet a fun gameplay loop and the introduction of new Disney worlds into the series such as Tangled and Frozen ensure the game doesn’t rest on its laurels and provides a satisfying experience.
The way it’s brought fans of the series together, and the way the game has revived my interest in the series prior, during and after its release, makes it more than deserving of a place on this list. That excitement I felt first booting that game and the emotion I felt for the series and its characters left me shedding a tear on the title screen hen I loaded the game for the very first time, and the excitement I’ve felt since then which has never subsided, has allowed me to overlook the title’s flaws. Roll on the DLC!
I never knew that I could enjoy a Hideo Kojima game this much. Having tried and failed to get into the Metal Gear Solid series, it turns out that what I was really waiting for was a postman simulator! That may seem to be reductive, but Death Stranding’s major appeal is in organizing your packages, finding new routes, and building roads. This is improved by the game’s online features, letting you see other players’ impact on the world. It’s a reminder that you don’t need to be selfless to help each other out. Sometimes all you need is something to bring those with a common goal together.
Strangely enough, the worst parts of Death Stranding are the parts that Kojima seemed to be so focused on up to the game’s release. The celebrity cameos are fun, but there’s no way I’m remembering Mads Mikkelson’s character as anything but Mads Mikkelson. The same goes for Conan O’Brien, Junji Ito, or Geoff Keighley. This isn’t too bad, but it does mean that any prepper who isn’t played by a celebrity becomes instantly forgettable. Likewise, the BT encounters and MULE fights are more of a distraction than a compelling feature. What saves it all is, strangely enough, delivering packages from one place to another.
I didn’t get too far into PROMARE until I’d decided that I never want to see director Hiroyuki Imaishi make another TV series again. Compromise has never been Imaishi’s strong-suit, and there will always be a half dozen episodes that feel like they’re just leading to something greater. But PROMARE doesn’t have this problem at all. For some, it may be too much action, but it’s able to show the appeal of its characters and the creativity of its style effectively, without getting tiring.
SANZIGEN’s development of the bizarre triangular fire effects makes up a large part of what makes PROMARE unforgettable. Bright colors and big action have always been Studio TRIGGER’s forte, but in PROMARE, they’ve been unshackled. The story itself is fairly predictable, but even when you know what’s going to happen, it’s impossible to draw your eyes away. PROMARE isn’t actually my favorite anime film in 2019 (That’d be Weathering With You), but I can’t possibly see myself forgetting PROMARE.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
I’d played Final Fantasy XIV years ago when A Realm Reborn was first released. At the time, it was a fascinating case study in how a game could be transformed after release, and the difference between the 1.0 and 2.0 versions was staggering. However, what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that this was an MMORPG in which I’d find myself playing for the time, something that I couldn’t have imagined at the time.
Curious about the hype, I decided to reactivate my old account and played through A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, Stormblood, and finally the new Shadowbringers expansion. What I found was political drama, compelling ancient feuds, lovable characters, and the awe-inspiring world of Eorzea. Final Fantasy stories usually have a limit to how much they can explore, but FFXIV is able to continue to grow, and utilize the abilities of some of the best artists in the Japanese games industry. Just moving around the map in Final Fantasy XIV is enough to appreciate its appeal.
Tohji – angel
For years now Japan’s ever-developing hip-hop scene has been on the brink of international success. Some of the earliest examples of this can be found in the cross-country collaborative single “It G Ma” from Korean rapper Keith Ape which featured Japan’s own KOHH on one of the hardest verses of the decade. But while tracks like this were quick to strike chords with international fans, Japan still faced a major identity crisis within the genre; how were they to stand out from the rest of the world in such a thriving genre. One such answer came in the tightly-packed debut album from Tohji, “angel”.
Across the 9 song album runtime, we see Tohji’s breakout album explore a number of complex, unique, and defining emotions. It’s one of the most promising albums to come out of Japan’s scene, and definitely one of the best music releases from 2019 across all genres.
The latest project from two icons, XORHLCOM launched late-2019 to much fanfare with both designer GraphersRock and Chloma fronting one of the must-watch brands of the next year. With GraphersRock’s design talents and Chloma’s incredible attention to detail in producing high-quality clothing, their instantly soldout drops wasted no time in putting them on the map.
With just two pieces out at the moment, and a third being teased on SNS, it’ll be interesting to see just where the brand heads now that we’re in the big 2020.
One of the biggest glow ups of 2019 came in the form of the recently re-launched PARCO building in Shibuya. As someone who has spent a ridiculous amount of my life in Japan walking throughout the streets of Shibuya, the re-launch of this all-new PARCO building has provided a much needed curated cultural hub for one of Tokyo’s most thriving districts. Not shoehorning themselves into one corner, the PARCO center unashamedly celebrates all aspects of the area’s culture, ranging from high-fashion to gaming outlets and so much more.
If you’re yet to make your way to Shibuya PARCO, that definitely needs to change this year.
Pokemon Sword & Shield
Going into the release of this game I would have never seen myself adding it to a list of my favorite things from 2019. So many things were stacked against it based on the public & fan perception before launch, and even after launch, there are plenty of people who still won’t let go of specific issues they personally have with the release. I have long let go of my hang-ups with this generation though, and now at 120 hours of playtime in I can comfortably say that it’s exceeded all expectations I had for it as a massive fan of the Pokemon franchise. It isn’t a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination but something about the Galar region keeps me coming back. It could be the satisfaction of playing in Max Raids with other players, the ease of training & shiny hunting compared to previous generations, the presentation of the world itself, or just how fun the wild area is to explore on a daily basis for new treasures & encounters.
I already know a ton of people aren’t going to agree with me on this, but I have more friends who are still playing the title daily than I had in previous generations and that tells me that this one has some staying power even despite what the naysayers think.
Thunderbox A.D.2019 Collection
2019 is the year of AKIRA in so many ways. It plays a pivotal role in the story itself, and in the real world, we saw some pretty massive announcements made in regards to the franchise in the middle of the year. Although AKIRA has been a hot property to homage or collaborate with for some time now, the 2019 A.D. collection from Nakano based Thunderbox has to be my favorite to fall in the category to date. At first glance, it’s a really simple collection, several colorful shirts and hoodies with A.D.2019 emblazoned on the front, utilizing 3M on the hoodies and a hat, and some colorful stripes in different locations depending on the item.
To the casual fan, this doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with the AKIRA property, but if you’ve ever seen a complete collection of the AKIRA manga volumes lined up on a shelf then it should all be clear. The stripes mimic the colors used for the pages on each volume, in the precise order of the story, and each of the colorways represents those colors as well (except black which is honestly just a staple for any collection). It’s understated, beautifully executed, and something that die-hard fans should easily be able to appreciate.
The Naked Director
Back in August I was having a bit of a slow day and chose to binge-watch Netflix shows as many people in this day & age are inclined to do. After I had run out of stuff in my queue I saw “The Naked Director” pop up on my recommendations, and the title alone was enough to make me curious. I’m a sucker for “based on a true story” movies & shows, so it’s not too surprising that 8 hours later and I find myself having watched the entire show and already wanting more.
The Naked Director follows the real-life exploits of boundary-pushing Japanese pornographer Toru Muranishi, a man who throughout the years has gotten himself into some hot water with the law over the course of his career, and his mission to change the porn industry in Japan. His story is a fascinating one and makes for solid source material, but the show gets even more intense with the introduction of Kaoru Kuroki, another real-world figure who gained infamy from her pornography career. It’s a show about sex, but it isn’t particularly sexy in itself. Instead, it shows the even seedier underbelly of the porn industry, and gives plenty of attention to Kuroki & Muranishi’s mission to promote sex positivity and sexual expression to the masses. If my recommendation isn’t enough to convince you to check it out, maybe the fact that Netflix renewed the show for a second season less than a week after its premiere is.
Patrick St. Michel
dj newtown’s WEST MEMBERS
The past 12 months saw the Japanese music industry finally embrace…or at least accept…the reality that everyone is online. Companies and artists once hesitant to dip their toes into the web were suddenly launching YouTube channels and uploading every song in their catalog to subscription streaming services. Arashi, L’Arc-en-Ciel, Hikaru Utada…every week saw a new marquee name plastered all over Spotify, Apple Music and whatever company could make room for them. There’s positives (access) and negatives (the internet now just feeling like a less cluttered Tower Records’ first floor), but it’s all now reality.
At the same time, artists old and new in Japan embraced the spirit of early internet message boards, netlabels, video-sharing sites and more to create a new J-pop reality where artists themselves hold most of the creative freedom, resulting in a year where the nation’s pop music scene felt downright optimistic. Artists such as Kenshi Yonezu and Mafumafu, who originally come from the Vocaloid community, brought that same ethos to radio-ready pop, while even non-digital-natives like Aimyon carried the same sense of artisticness in a space that usual lets management decides what’s best. Creators who came up in the netlabel days also flourished on all levels, highlighted by breakthrough albums from Pasocom Music Club and Hakushi Hasegawa.
This feeling that the internet communities of a decade ago had resulted in a generation of Japanese artists pushing their creativity and vision to the forefront made the return of dj newtown all the more special. This project was one of — if not the — first marquee names to appear out of Maltine Records, building steam via breakcore-centered tracks splicing up anime and J-pop samples into new forms. WEST MEMBERS followed the same sonic formula but turned its attention to another breakout Maltine project, tofubeats, and the numbers on this comeback are reworks of his material. That’s a clever starting point, but that dj newtown mutated them into lively new creations with all the propulsive energy of the original makes it even better. It wasn’t just a high-energy comeback, but a reminder that the artistic energy facilitated by online communities will continue to pogo its way into the 2020s.
Carole & Tuesday
I fully admit I’m letting my age cloud my optimism a bit, but I’ve been pretty cynical about music in recent times. Not just the industry itself — that’s always been a kind of a cesspool — but the very act of listening to and giving yourself over to the art. Shinichiro Watanabe’s Carole & Tuesday managed to provide one of the most earnest and celebratory looks at the power music has, with plenty of nuance running throughout it. It’s a show that could easily give in to the tendency to make one of its themes an “us vs. them” dynamic regarding music — this is how it should sound, not like this — and it teases that a few times. Yet rather than demonize pop music or EDM, Carole & Tuesday offered a far more layered take where everyone involved was presented as a fully-fleshed out character. They made a plot about AI-generated music more complex! Coupled with a soundtrack pulling in artists from all around the world dabbling in a wide variety of styles, Carole & Tuesday didn’t focus on what music should matter but rather celebrating the fact music matters.
Tidying Up with Marie Kondo
No Japanese celebrity — maybe no person outside of the Oval Office — loomed over pop culture conversations in 2019 like cleaning consultant Marie Kondo. She ran the table over the course of the year, starting off with the debut of her Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and ending with people flipping out over her launching her own online store to sell overpriced tuning forks. Forget that half the complaints lobbed at her completely misread her cleaning philosophy or what she actually advocated — nobody better captured the state of online discourse like Kondo, a relatively charming and seemingly nice woman allowing people to project whatever they wanted on to her to talk about the things that mattered most to them (which sometimes was…themselves).