Make Voice Actors Sing Again

There was one point in my extended complaining about the sub vs. dub debate that didn’t fit neatly into any one category but there’s one place where the sub has always meant a great deal to me and that’s when voice actors really get to have fun either by singing insert, opening or closing themes or the more rare and beautiful art of the drama CD. 

Now, where do I get off “demanding” voice actors become singers? Well, I don’t. I do absolutely think that they’re two different skill sets. I can’t expect a voice actor to sing and I can’t expect a singer to voice act: look at American movies hiring singers and comedians as VO artists assuming that they can do it with oftentimes mixed results. Sometimes we get a Seki Tomokazu who can do both or a Masaya Onasaka who likes taking any chance he can to sing but you can’t always expect for a trained voice over artist to want to be a singer as well. But there is a beautiful power in the moments when that expectation is met. I want to talk about the moments when voice actors using their talents can only add to a piece because I am old and back in my day, such things weren’t as rare. 

If you look at the Bleach drama CDs and character CDs, it was all the voice actors singing their character’s songs (at least, that can be said for the Japanese voice cast) and doing the little skits that made the CDs such a worthwhile buy! Did I need Szayel and Captain Kurotsuchi doing The Science Show? No, but my life is richer for it. Did I need Hanataro Desu? Nope, but I’m so glad to know about my least favorite favorite soul reaper. 

I also really love when voice actors sing opening/closing themes. Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE features a closing theme sung by the Conquest Club and it adds so much more to the narrative when it’s the main villain singing about a long lost relationship because that long lost relationship is (spoiler alert) the crux of the entire plot of the damn show. The same goes for the little insert song in Sarazanmai for getting rid of desire through weird butt stuff: it makes so much more sense that the voice actors sing that song because when the perspective changes (like when it’s Reo trying to save Mabu) it’s so much more valid; it’s his song, his moment. Last example I’ll use is one that’s very fluffy which is Free! because yes, I can tell the difference between all the voice actors and I love the outfits in Splash Free!. It’s just fun. 

Insert and character songs can provide a lot of important information, though, as well as some of the sketches in drama CDs. Its in the drama CDs for Axis Powers: Hetalia that we learn all the countries’ human names and that Prussia lives in Poland’s basement, that England has a tattoo, that Austria is afraid of sea life and so many other facts because I have given up too much of my life to Hetalia knowledge and if I must suffer, you all must suffer, too. Also, stop ignoring France’s birthday, he’s still really sad about it. 

Those CDs are so fun because all the voice actors came back for it and get to tell us this information and seeing it as a DVD extra where it’s just voice actors having fun is inspiring. Hetalia also features something that a lot of newer series have lacked in places where if the country does not match the actor’s country of origin (I’m trying to be polite) that the actor knows enough of that language to make words make sense be it Chinese, French, English or German. Funimation tried their best when they dubbed the series and it was bad. 

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think American voice actors have fun. Here’s where we’re gonna pause because we have to talk about some news.

Initially, when I was writing this post an entire kerfuffle happened over at Funimation where it was found out that some voice actors dubbed over some questionable stuff in character and…well, I’m going to be honest: I’m of two minds about this. The whole reason I wanted to write this post was actually because of a panel I went to with Spike Spencer years ago where he showed a clip of an outtake video he did for Neon Genesis Evangelion where he riffs for a while as Shinji and it’s one of the funniest things to me on the internet. I’ve always admired voice actors having fun. 

So when I first started listening to the Funimation VA nonsense, it didn’t read as that bad. Voice actors do weird stuff like that all the time whether it’s read fanfic or just riff and oftentimes, those clips go into outtakes and are celebrated and praised. 

Here’s where I can agree with the people who were angry post the Funimation VA brouhaha: the content of much of what was dubbed was explicit, crass, politically incorrect and allowed voice actors to use language that is just not acceptable and to discuss themes that are, to be polite, not for everyone. If the content of what was acted offends, I can’t help but understand. Personally, I’ve been on the internet so long that very little shocks me anymore and I mostly just thought it was voice actors having fun: rude and crass fun, but fun. The way it was handled left a lot to be desired and I won’t shame anyone who had a problem with this whole darn affair. Hell, the entire affair put this post on hold.

But I don’t think having fun means being offensive. We could have a whole other post on the fact that people think comedy is dead because of PC culture and this Funimation VA scandal did make me wonder if it was generational. Most of the older fans I knew didn’t have an issue with it; many of us found it funny. It did seem to be younger fans who had a problem with it and maybe its because the newer fans just don’t understood VAs spend too much time in the booth and sometimes that means weird stuff is going to happen. Again, I’m not here to say you aren’t entitled to being offended, but out of all the scandals going on at Funimation, this seemed like one that we didn’t need to focus on.

Some of my favorite convention memories are of me being in costume and reading fanfic in character. Some of my favorite panel moments are watching those outtakes. Some of the information I’ve retained for years has been because voice actors (both Japanese and American) got to have fun for a little while.

I don’t know why American voice actors never really picked up singing. I don’t know why it never really took off: to be honest, I don’t think many of the American voice actors are on the level to handle some of the song chops that the Japanese voice actors do…but there is one example that pains me to discuss because it means talking about Dirty Uncle Vic.

I don’t want to talk about Vic. I really don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want to keep giving him attention and we’ll leave it at I believe all the women who have claimed he’s a monster because it’s what my brothers and sisters in craft have been saying for years. But goddammit, we have to talk about Brothers. Brothers is an insert song in the original Fullmetal Alchemist and when its first sung, it’s in some weird fairy language and you know it’s haunting but unless you find a translation, you don’t know why. So when Vic as Ed translates and sings the song and gives you the powerful lyrics as if they were a ballad or lullaby Ed sings to his brother just…it’s almost too damn good. And you get this song as their childhood home burns and I can absolutely feel all of Ed’s pain. I hate praising Vic but this is good and I have to remove him as a garbage person from the fact that he was pretty much made for this role and literally has done nothing good since then as a voice actor or human person. 

When voice actors sing, it can take a mediocre scene and increase the impact nearly to the max and even if its a little clumsy; it just adds so much more bang for the buck. It’s a worthwhile effort, and one I would love to see return. 

Falling Out of Love with American Voice Acting

In the last post, I spent hundreds of words spewing my love of American voice actors and American voice acting. But I didn’t stop being an anime fan after 2012, no, my appetite for anime may be different than it was when I was a wee little demon but I am still a rabid otaku but my adoration and respect for American voice acting has changed just like my relationship with anime has changed.

So let’s talk about the fall and my newfound appreciation for subbed anime.

2011 brought with it a little show called Attack on Titan which may have the distinction of being the first anime that I just didn’t like. Normally even if I’m not crazy about a series, I can see good in it but AoT did nothing for me and its rabid fanbase of mostly younger fans who had never seen an anime before wore me thin. And out of all the things I don’t like about AoT it was in fact was the rather lackluster voice acting that to me just hallmarked on all the weaknesses of the dialogue and plot. AoT was just the start for me and as I continued on watching anime, a few things changed for me. One, was that I was in college and my tastes had started to change from shows that were being picked up by big studios to shows that weren’t just yet (thus I resorted to the evils of piracy) and the second was that as some series began to be dubbed, I had previously watched the subbed version and the dub finally did not meet my expectations. 

When the horrible 4Kids Sailor Moon is all you know, then sure you accept the horrible Americanized names, the removal of queer characters and the bad voice acting: it’s all you know. So for me, that was how I could rationalize, especially in hindsight, terrible dubs. But I remember watching Hetalia subbed and loving it only to be horrified by the choices Funimation made in the dub. I didn’t really have a frame of reference for that until college and it really started to turn my opinion on newer dubbed series. 

Another factor that I do think matters but doesn’t fit into a neat group is that in the late 2000s is when I was able to give more time and attention to subbed anime. Especially in college, I was willing to set aside time for subbed anime and not having cable fed into my rationale to continue to be a better pirate than Luffy ever was and I could just sit and watch subbed anime and read and gasp in Japanese. To this day, if I have work to do, I will watch a dubbed anime so I don’t have to focus on it or a sub that I can practically recite like Antique Bakery or Maiden Rose. I spent many a college night wrapped in blankets watching subbed anime while on an IM chat with a friend, reacting to episodes that just got leaked in real time and even now in adulthood if I set out to watch an anime, now I go for subbed first because I rarely attempt new anime nowadays so I set that time aside and don’t mind reading. 


While I still have an immense respect for the “old guard” of voice actors, the newer ones seem particularly lazy. And even though “sameness” is a common gripe against American voice actors, usually that sameness is for a reason. Spike Spencer has one voice and he plays similar characters in most shows he’s cast in and thus that one emasculated, tired male voice works. Johnny Yong Bosch has one shonen protag voice and guess what: he plays shonen yelly protags. A lot of Japanese voice actors have a similar sameness including my favorite, Kazuhiko Inoe, but he plays the same character a lot: aloof bad boys that I have unnatural feelings for and thus his similar sounding voice works. Japan does have some amazing chameleon voice actors like Daisuke Namikawa who has ranged from Northern Italy in Hetalia to being a villain in Bleach

The newer guard of American voice actors just seem lazy and it seems that the Japanese voice actors have only been getting better. All that expressiveness and fun and passion that I felt in most dubs I now feel in subs. A great example of that is in Devilman Crybaby (which does not dub well just due to the flow of music and trick of words often used) where due to Netflix deciding to fail for a moment, I was given a glimpse at the dub. For a series that is mostly two men screaming each other’s names, oh boy, do I not buy the two American voice actors caring about what they’re doing at all. It’s just plain lazy and tired and all of the vague threats in Ryo’s voice and subtle kindness in Akira’s voice is entirely lost by two Americans who sound like they simply do not want to be in the booth that day. 

That does not mean I have entirely abandoned dubs. One of my favorites is still somewhat recent but I think it speaks to the bigger issue and that’s Space Dandy. There’s something about Watanabe-sensei’s work that really lends to dubbing because so many of his series are so heavily influenced by Western culture. So it makes sense that a series where a man with excellent hair goes on a weekly Flash Gordon space adventure with a weird little auto-tune robot and a strange alien cat would have the voice if Ian Sinclair doing his best. The whole work just translated better into English and the staff was so stellar that it easily placed itself high on my list of favorite dubs of all time. 

I think bad voice acting reminds me that anime can be a tough sell. Suspension of disbelief is something we’ve talked about a lot over on the blog and a solid performance can help ground  a show back in reality. If you had told me that one of my favorite series of the summer would be about three boys who turn into kappas and the two murder cops trying to kill them I’d laugh at you and I’m a dedicated anime fan, I am not new to obsurdity. But one of the things that kept me in Sarazanmai was the fact that everyone sounded great, even when the singing wasn’t as key as others, you could still buy that these actors cared about the roles they were playing. Especially with the isekai boom, one of the things that really got me turned off on these shows (think of like Sword Art Online) was that the American voice acting sounded so bland for a premise that I already find incredibly boring. If the main character doesn’t sound like he wants to be in this fantastical world, why the hell do I want to watch him on this fantastical journey? 

Voice acting is an art form and I find that I don’t have the same reverence or enthusiasm for Bryce Papenbrook as I do for Eric Vale and that doesn’t mean that the new guard are all full of bad voice acting: I’ve changed, my tastes in anime has changed, a lot has changed and it means that I am now a far more harsh critic than ever. 

If you like these dubs, I’m not here to take that from you. Hell, I still stand by some of the early dubs. And it’s here that I want to talk about one aspect of the new era of dubbing that I’m all too aware of now and that’s how loose some companies play with translation. Especially Funimation is very bad about playing hot and loose with how Japanese is translated and they will throw in jokes and memes that just don’t age well anymore. My biggest gripe for that comes with how one word is translated and that word is aniki.

Aniki, to those in the yakuza, means “older brother” but it’s more than just older brother. There is so much respect, history and more in that word and Funimation, in all their wisdom, translates aniki, consistently, as “bro”. Does one refer to the Emperor as SOME DUDE? One would never refer to their aniki, imoto, ototo, aneki, ani-san or ane-san as something so casual lest they love a finger or their life from the sheer amount of disrespect. 


Dear reader, the first time I heard that in a series, I screamed profanities into my pillow. 

That’s a choice. That’s a translation choice. Funimation has translators. Funimation has been doing this for nearly as long as I have been alive. They know the context behind what that word means. WHY TRANSLATE IT AS SOMETHING SO CASUAL?

It’s a lazy choice. It’s not trusting the audience. It’s being afraid to risk that maybe, just maybe, that the audience won’t care enough to look it up. I remember reading the InuYasha manga as a kid and in the back there was a guide with all the suffixes because I did not, at 12, know what -sama meant. But I was also voraciously curious enough to study suffixes and want to learn more so of course I know what all the yakuza familial terms mean and I am bitterly disappointed every time they are translated as sis or as bro. 

My new issues with the sub vs. dub debate don’t just boil down to lazy voice acting or lazy translations it’s just that it doesn’t have to be this way. In the 90s and 2000s, there were actors that cared so much and you felt every bit of their passion as they learned new languages, new names and more. And I feel that now with subbed VAs, honestly starting with Hetalia. To see how much effort these actors went into learning their country’s languages is just damn inspirational. 

Japanese is a tricky language. I love it most when it’s clever and innuendo and puns don’t translate well, I respect that. But I think you lose something when you don’t bother to translate those moments. In Death Note, Mello refers to Matt as his dog. Not just because of Matt’s loyalty to him but also in Japanese “inu” is a slang term for top in the relationship, the inverse of that being “neko” for bottom. That little moment, that piece that is in some translations but not all speaks so much about their relationship and tells you more about their dynamic than all of the 17 words Matt ends up saying before he’s shot and Mello ruins everything and dies.

I will always respect voice acting: both Western and Japanese. I will always respect those who strive to bring anime and manga into Western audiences legally. Some of the proudest moments I have in all my conventions years have been meeting voice actors. Spike Spencer, Eric Vale, Ian Sinclair and more have made my childhood and my current adulthood. A good voice acting performance can make or break a series and I have been blessed to be exposed to so many wonderful voice acting performances regardless of language. Voice acting is an art and one I admit that I am not professional in, so feel free to take this as one fan pining for the Fjords but it felt appropriate to go over. 

As far as the state of the debate? Well, we’re nerds. We have to have something to argue over. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer. There are some dubs I’m willing to die on the hill for and others that I won’t defend as much. As far as subs go, wow, they sure have been great recently. I do think that we can have this conversation about honestly, what boils down to taste and preference, more respectfully; but that’s sort of been my constant feeling about most things on the internet nowadays. I remember getting pretty heavily shamed for liking dubbed anime and being called lazy for enjoying and and thus I perpetuated that negativity calling those who liked subbed snobs. We can all do better as far as how we discuss what are true issues facing anime and manga fandom: translation, censorship, and more.

Thank you for sticking with me through such a post.

I invite thoughtful and kind discussion in the comments below.

On the Sub vs. Dub Debate

I am passionate about voice acting. I have always admired the work of voice actors both Japanese and Western. And in all of anime fandom there is one battle that is the most contentious and that is the sub vs. dub debate. Now, for those unaware the sub and dub debate is rooted in a simple yet vitally important aspect of watching anime: these shows are a Japanese import and thus have to be translated. Which brings us to how you process that translation from Japanese to English: do you sub it (translate the work and show it with the original Japanese voice acting and subtitle it) or do you dub it (translate the work and dub it over with English voice actors). 

This sounds simple and back in my day, it was fairly easy. Either you had a friend in Japan who was sending you DVDs from Japan or you waited for a company to dub and/or translate the work (manga and/or anime). Companies like Viz, Funimation, Geneon, Sunrise and far too many others have made their entire business by bringing anime and manga to American fans legally (yes, legally). Now, a fun aspect of ye olden days was the glory of the fansub and the fandub. That’s when fans took the act of translation into their own hands and even the voice acting lending their own voices and skills and talents to “expedite” the sometimes long process of bringing a series over from Japan. These translations weren’t always the best and the voice acting wasn’t always the best but hey, we did our best with what we had.

Now, why is there a debate on what really should just be a matter of choice? Well, this is the internet and this is fandom. There must be battle. For purists, sub is the only way to go. There is a group of fans who rather like English dubbing and we are a mostly defensive group because of the honestly, elitism, that comes from a lot of the pro sub community. Now, as far as sub fans go, the series that are translated from Japanese more directly face less censorship which is true and not true. If the property comes in legally from a company like Viz or Funimation even if it is subbed, the series often still faces censorship. Funimation has hilariously edited out parts of Axis Powers Hetalia and far too many other series to list. For many, subbing is the purest essence of anime and honestly, yeah, that’s true in lots of cases. Japanese is a tricky language and so many puns and words and clever uses of language just don’t translate. Devilman Crybaby and Sarazanmai are recent examples that I can think of but my classic example is YuYu Hakusho which was just doing its best with all the Japanese humor and puns. And I get it, there are plenty of bad dubs out there. One of my favorite anime of all time, Gravitation, has one of the worst dubs in human history (it’s my trash pile and I will die here) because this was just not a cast that could handle the complexity of Japanese names or emoting at all. Censorship is a particularly big sticking point because many anime fans grew up during the great 4Kids nonsense of the 90s and early 2000s. For those that do not know, 4Kids was a company that strived to bring anime to the U.S. but make it…well, for kids. A lot of anime is not geared at children or at least not the stuff we wanted to see like Naruto and One Piece were not suitable for delicate American children so 4Kids censored stuff but not with any nuance or delicacy but with a blunt force that practically removed the point for the censorship at all. Remember in Ruroni Kenshin when after a blade slash the whole frame would cut to black? Remember all the bloodless attacks in InuYasha and oh Sanji’s lollipops in One Piece because smoking is the true evil, not his womanizing. Sailor Moon was also famously neutered by 4Kids ruining several lesbian romances and labeling them as cousins or just as friends (a continued issue for CLAMP series like CardCaptors and remaining Sailor Moon seasons). 4Kids, in my opinion, did have a noble mission. As I stated earlier, most of the anime that we wanted to see in the U.S. was not meant for young children and we do not/ did not have the same cultural background or even social contracts that allowed for kids to watch fast kicking blonde men smoke or gallons of blood leave a dead demon. But how it was done was so bad and left such a bad taste in fan’s mouths after we learned what the real show was meant to be (fun fact, I was SHOCKED by how violent InuYasha was when I picked up a DVD copy). But to be fair, without 4Kids, I likely would never have had anime in my bubble. I’m a suburban black kid, Sailor Moon was absolutely something that was important to be and DragonBall was what got me into anime to start. 

But back to sub and dub as really, the politics of bringing anime over from Japan could be a whole other blog post. I fell in love with anime due to the fact that several series at the time were being dubbed into English and I cannot credit that accessibility enough. And even though the 90s had some trash dubs (even though I do have a soft spot for Sanji’s horrible Jersey accent) when I was really coming into anime, we had some of the best and brightest American voice actors and some of the best and most dedicated translation staff imaginable. 

I want to keep this particular part of the post that focuses on the good set during the Golden Age of Anime (2002-2010). This Golden Age was when I came into anime, when I solidified my fandom and had the more reverence for voice acting and dub work. 

It was this Golden Age that made me realize that dubbing and American voice acting was amazing. Fullmetal Alchemist was one of the earliest ones that made me realize the true talent of American voice actors and when a cast is good, it’s damn good (I’m not here to talk about what happened with Dirty Uncle Vic and honestly, yes it does sour some of the show but not enough to make me hate this dub as the true art form that it is) but it really took seeing a sub to appreciate how good dubbing could be. The two examples I have for that are Trigun and Cowboy Bebop, now folks have gushed enough about Bebop and while Steve Blum is amazing and deserves all of the credit he gets for bringing Spike to life I want to focus on Trigun a little more since I don’t see this one talked about as much. Now, Masaya Onasaka does an amazing job as Vash and he goes on to voice one of my favorite anime characters of all time, France in Axis Powers Hetalia, so I’m not dinging his talent but Johnny Yong Bosch does something in this role that’s just amazing. Bosch brings a frantic energy to Vash that just fits this goofy, larger than life character and it made me appreciate his hard work so much more. 

During the height of the Golden Age of Anime, I could list voice actors like some could list athletes: Travis Willingham, Spike Spencer, Yuri Lowenthal, Tara Strong, Steve Blum, Kyle Hebert, Sonny Strait, Kirby Morrow, Monica Rial, Chris Sabat and of course the names I listed above and too many others were all names I could clock in an instant. I relished in knowing American voice actors by name and role and respected the choices companies made when it came to translation and distribution. The dark days were over, we could all see a bright future. 

But that started to change around 2012…

In the next post, we’ll talk about my changing relationship with dubs, my new appreciation of subs and how American voice acting changed. 

What Sarazanmai Did Wrong…And Then Oh So Right

If you pitched me a show about three middle school boys being turned into kappas and having to do a lot of what is essentially weird butt stuff to make the plot advance and also there are two vouging murder cops and a ton of puns I would tell you to get out of my apartment and to leave me alone. I was encouraged to watch this show by a close friend (the same person who lovingly encouraged me to watch Yuri on Ice) and when I started the series, I admit, my mind and heart weren’t in it. I had gotten into a minor car accident, I had convention stress on my mind, my job was wearing on me and when I started up the anime I mostly felt full of salt, bitterness and anger at the absurdity of the first episode. I got two episodes in and gave up, mostly tired of puns, kappas and weird butt stuff. 

It was Carlos that got me to watch the series again at A-Kon because as I told him about the show, he noticed the same thing the person that recommended the show to me noticed, this checks off a ton of boxes for me in theory. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Sarazanmai about? Well, let’s go over the plot briefly. 3 boys: Katsuki, Toi, and Enta are cursed by a kappa named Keppi to become kappas and correct the world of evil zombies that have something to do with desire and exorcising those demons correctly (think about Bleach where only Soul Reapers can send spirits off to the Seireitei correctly and if something happens to that spirit or someone else tries to send them off they can become Hollows, monsters or something worse). It starts as a monster of the day sort of thing with some overarcing plot points (like the vouging murder cops) but the first half othe series is just monster of the week. 

I’ll probably spoil things because that’s who I am but this series takes a dive that I’ll talk about more soon but back to the timeline. Carlos and I ended up watching about three or four episodes in our hotel room with way less pressure on me and while I still thought the series was mostly dumb and absurd, I was able to have more fun and just sort of enjoy the ride. We stopped right as a major plot point began and Carlos chided me and said I’d probably finish the show on my own. 

Fast forward to con being over and me crying hysterically on my sofa lamenting over my series son (look at the poster and guess which one is my son, you get a cookie if you’re right) and spirling into emotions I haven’t felt since Hitorijime My Hero as far as oh no, a Japanese cartoon has hit too close to home or honestly, like Avengers: Endgame in the scope of feeling that everything I love is wrong and dead and how do I cope? My children, oh no, how do I save them?

So after a few days, I’ve decided to write about this series. I have finally left Kappa Hell. So let’s talk about it.

Let’s go over what this show did wrong first and honestly, it was the absurdity. Now, I’m an anime fan. Hetalia is one of my favorite series, I can handle absurd. I can handle vocal tics, kero. I can handle puns even the otterly devastating ones and I can handle plot points that make zero sense like desire being held in the butt and having to carry around a box of something sacred to you. What I can’t handle is not feeling like any of that matters. Remember my issue with Food Wars? It’s similar. I had lots of questions after I entered Kappa Hell but upon first watch, I wanted none of them answered. I had no curiosity. I just wanted it to stop. Now, I’ll give a lot of weight to my mental state here. I was not in a good mood, frantic and emotional and I don’t like being pressured even lightly into anything. Spite is a powerful motivator and at that point I probably would have turned my nose up to ice cream or buttered sourdough rolls or even to a series I know I like. 

When I removed the pressure to like the series so I didn’t disappoint someone I care for deeply, I found that surface level it was still sort of absurd but in a way I was curious about.  I think having Carlos with me absolutely helped that because when we got to the two cops who were dancing and muttering quite a bit in the back of a police station, we rightfully had questions about that and came to the conclusion that the other cops just let these two have their little dancing moment and interrupt what was official police business. 

Next up is a small voice acting nitpick because each episode features a song about removing evil from zombies and usually it’s sung by Katsuki (who is pretty decent in the sub) but later on the series, Toi takes over and Enta does too and Carlos and I both joked that we found the one (the voice actor) who has the album coming out later. It’s adorably distracting but dissonant. 

I’ve always been up front in admitting that the series is beautiful and a lot of the designs benefited from looking a lot like things I already like, including tan blonde cop Rin Matsuoka (his name is Reo) and Kuji who looks like an adorable little school boy version of Jason Todd. The colors are bright, the sets are good, the music grew on me as I continued and the plot…well, this is Kappa Hell. Let’s talk about the plot. 

Remember how I said that the first part of the series feels like monster of the week sort of thing? Well, threads are still forming and they start to get pulled on around episode five and boy when those threads are tugged. Little things you’ve noticed start to make sense and honestly, the story became more than just a bunch of boys exorcising demons through weird puns and butt stuff but became about desire, want, needs, selfishness and bonds. 

Katsuki does some pretty strained and strange things to ease his guilt about what happened to his little brother. Enta full on sabotages things so he can have a reason to stay close to his crush, Katsuki. Toi has an unhealthy relationship with his mob boss older brother and is willing to do literal crimes to cover for his aniki. Blonde Matsuoka-kun cop, Reo, is actually deeply flawed and deeply in love with his partner, Mabu and Mabu is literally some kind of golem who was willing to give up his love for Reo so that he could stay alive in an attempt to stay by Reo’s side despite death having taken him prior. It all spirals quickly, sadness after sadness and it left me screaming and worried and unsure how to process emotions about these characters. I felt for Reo as he mourned the death of his beloved once more and related to his willingness to lash out in anger only to die and be reunited with Mabu at last. I felt for Toi who so badly wanted to be with his family after loss left him with few he could rely on and even if that meant doing things that were morally compromising to him. I related to Katsuki who ended up being quite selfish in trying to be selfless. It’s a surprisingly heartfelt series for a show about kappas, puns and butt stuff. 

When the tone of the show started to change and focus more on bonds and what we do to keep them is when it did something magical: it reminded me of a long-time lover. It reminded me of Gravitation. One of Yuki Eiri’s main themes in Gravitation is his connection to his sensei and his desire to remain connected to that horrible man and how that often butts up against what he wanted later on in the series which was a relationship with Shuichi. Gravitation is all about bonds and what we’re willing to do to keep them. Tohma is willing to lie and gaslight to keep Eiri. Shuichi is willing to be a victim to keep Yuki. Yuki is willing to be abused by Tohma so that he can keep one thing sacred and in turn he abuses Shuichi because that’s all he knows. Love sometimes is a selfish feeling and drives us to do not so romantic things. 

Towards the end of Sarazanmai, the plot centers more and more on the theme of connections and bonds and the fact that sometimes we do terrible things to keep those that we want close. Reo and Mabu’s arc together is such a great example of the horrible things we can do to each other just to feign what was once a great and healthy bond and just how toxic and corrupting grief can become. And that’s surprisingly thoughtful from a show that has a main plot point being a young boy who crossdresses as an idol girl to keep his little brother happy and seems to enjoy being in a dress a little too much. 

There’s one more point I’ll bring up and I think it encapsulates why the show made me so emotional but also managed to bring me back around and that’s consequences. For a dumb show about kids turning into kappas there’s a lot of violence, particularly gun violence (which is rare in Japan because, hey, effective gun laws work). The two cops use their guns to remove desire from deviants and thus turn them into monsters and Toi uses a gun because his aniki is yakuza and of course he does. Towards the end, Enta is shot and honestly, he gets very close to death and it’s not sugar-coated and I felt horrible for this kid who was just doing his best.  Toi is forced to kill his beloved aniki because he realizes that his brother is just not good for him and Reo is killed because he lashes out in anger after losing his beloved Mabu once more. Sure, this is still a show clearly aimed at younger audiences and most of it is sort of waved away by kappa magic but in the moment it felt so real and so grounded and so emotional that I cried more than I like admitting. 

Let’s talk about my son, Kuji Toi. If you guessed correctly, you can claim your cookie now. Toi has the best arc in the series because he has to come to terms with the fact that his relationship with his aniki is flawed and dangerous and what is beautiful is that he faces consequences. The last sequences of the series are Toi being sent off to prison for his crimes. He spends years there and we resume with him returning home older, more jaded and more alone as he had spent years away from his friends and family and likely had little to return to as now he was a criminal, or at least society hopes, a reformed one. He also has the most realistic feelings about connections in that he feels his life is at times just not worth the risk to his friends and his dive into melancholy and depression in the last episode just made me want to hug him if I wasn’t so concerned about the fact that he’d stab me over it. 

The series does end on a happy note with the friends all coming together once more and that optimism but that’s again a surprising amount of weight and thought for a show that was meant to be a bit of a throwaway as far as I was concerned. I felt for Toi and was glad he faced consequences for his actions because that’s one thing about anime, especially boy’s love, that I struggle with: a lack of consequences for bad things. Sure, Toi did kill his aniki over something valid and but he still did kill someone and seeing him face a consequence made it oh so worth it. 

Sarazanmai didn’t do much for me at first but as I continued on, I got emotionally invested in these characters and their lives and I ended up a babbling mess of emotions and worry about these boys who were just doing their best. I wanted to protect all of them. I wanted them to be okay. I wanted things to be okay. There’s a melancholic optimism to the show that I can relate to. We hope things are going to be okay but the series cops to the fact that we just don’t know. We can hope that the boys are going to be okay, but there’s no promise that things are going to be okay. The future is uncertain and that’s just fine. So long as we’re connected, even if we drift apart, the bonds that we formed never truly leave us.