Otherside Picnic is a portal fantasy… in a sense. Though you might be able to call it an isekai by a technicality, it certainly doesn’t have much in common with other “transported to a virtual world” anime among its contemporaries. It might be more accurate to call it a portal horror, because the titular Otherside is so delightfully eerie; constructed entirely of sweeping plains, ruined buildings, and strange inexplicable shapes and “glitches” in the landscape.
It’s scary because of the cryptids and folkloric monsters who roam the grasslands, but the horror is present even before they take centre stage. A sense of bizarre dread is baked into the setting itself. The Otherside is a monster in its own right, and the aesthetic of the world masterfully sets the stage for the psychological horror that is to come.
This is the final roundup of 2020, which makes it tempting to make it something of a retrospective on the year. But if I’m being honest I kind of don’t want to dwell on it: the best way to sum up 2020 is to say that it’s left me more exhausted than I’ve probably ever been, and I would rather spend what remains of my energy writing about literally anything else.
That said, there’s some stuff to celebrate among all that tiredness: I’m bone tired because a bunch of bad things happened and my mental health has rarely been so fragile, but I’m also bone tired because I worked really hard and achieved some really cool stuff this year. I got an article published on The Conversation, which is quite probably the most looked-at any of my writing has been so far—and it garnered a spark of media interest and I got to go on not one, but two radio stations and talk about queer YA for ten minutes. One was local, but one was in Sydney, and people know where Sydney is even if they’re not from around here, so that feels very special to me.
I also got my paper on Every Heart a Doorwaypublished, and got to write for AZE about Alice Oseman’s novels. All of my scholarly (and semi-scholarly) writing has been published open access so far, which means none of it is behind paywalls and anyone can read it, which is super important to me and frankly super cool, so I’m really glad I’ve been able to do this.
Most bonkers of all, I lectured and ran a whole undergrad creative writing unit from July to November. This was a mildly terrifying experience, but also a very rewarding one—and if I can do it and get such good results in weird semi-online semi-pandemic conditions, it bodes pretty well that I can do it again and even better during a “normal” semester, so fingers crossed that I get the opportunity again in 2021!
And, in my final Big Career News, this year I was contacted by the good folks of AniFem, who said they were looking to expand their staff as the site matures ever further, and offered me a place there as a reviewer and editor. As you know, I’ve been writing for AniFem basically since they got off the ground, and it’s been a hugely rewarding and fun space to grow as a feature writer while working with some really cool people. So of course I jumped at the chance, and you’ll find me there doing premiere reviews and stitching away behind the scenes, for the foreseeable future! (…but not next month, because I have a thesis to finish. It turns out that having a busy, harrowing year takes energy and time away from your PhD)
Looking at that list of milestones and achievements really does make for a sense of structure and productivity in a year where it felt like my brain turned into soft cheese. I hope you have some good things–small or large or of whatever size—that you can also hang onto. Maybe you just survived, emotionally and physically, which frankly is an achievement never to be overlooked in the modern day.
Measuring by years and trying to determine if they were good years or bad years has always felt kind of arbitrary, as has looking to the next set of 365 days and making predictions about them. So I’m just going to carry my exhausted self over this pre-painted finish line and keep going, hoping for the best as I do every day but not putting 2021 on any kind of pedestal. I hope that you’ll come with me.
And now, a writing roundup, and in the spirit of the season, a pile of funny reviews of weird Christmas movies.
2020 was certainly a year of ups and downs, as just about every annual retrospective post will tell you… but today we’re going to focus on the “ups”, particularly as they pertain to books! Because goodness, there was some goodness out there in the booky world: some that uplifted me, some that sent me on harrowing and fascinating journeys, and some that knocked me clean over (see above).
Read on for my favourites that I read this year—novels, graphic novels, and even a smattering of non-fiction. I hope that you find something that sounds fun, because these works certainly brought me joy this year!
This story begins on a dark and stormy night, though it’s not quite the schlocky, ghostly horror setup that it sounds like at first. In the end, in fact, it’s a surprisingly kind story, with a lot of heart and just a little bit of magic.
[Content warning: this post discusses parental abuse and gun violence]
One stormy night in 2005, Mary-Ann Ronan pulled a gun on her children. As they attempted to defend themselves, Mary-Ann received an injury that ended her life. The incident left a fracture in the sleepy, snowy town of Delos Crossing: the children, twins Alyson and Tyler, were split up, Mary-Ann’s former friends were left reeling, and the old wooden house where this all happened was left to sit empty like a haunted castle deep in the woods.
Ten years later, Tyler and Alyson have reunited and returned to clean out the place, and to figure out—with the help of just a touch of a supernatural element—what really happened that night and why. Tell Me Why is a mystery, for sure, but for all the scandal and manslaughter it contains, it’s not a crime narrative nor a police procedural. And, despite the flickering figures that seem to be pursuing the twins, it’s not a ghost story, either. Not in the sense of poltergeists and trapped souls, anyway. Tell Me Why is a very personal story about the strange territory of trauma and memory, and how sometimes our ghosts aren’t so easy to define as good or evil.
This is one of those stories where the joy, intrigue, and catharsis comes from exploring the world yourself, and letting the mystery unfold around you as you work to pick it apart. So without spoiling anything, let me just try to tell you why I found this game to be so lovely and so meaningful.
I read—and watch—a lot of stories about people growing up. Late in 2019, I officially narrowed the focus of my PhD to specifically zero in on YA fiction, which I was reading and analysing an awful lot of anyway. I also write a lot about anime, and I can’t help but notice that the series that really seem to carve out a special place in my heart—and jog my thinking brain—are the ones that deal with coming-of-age stories, or other examinations of the weird pocket of time between “youth” and “adulthood”. And gosh, it’s a weird pocket of time, huh?
As I write lecture material, and find myself going off on tangents enthusiastically explaining the literary and entertainment value of YA to my students, I also find myself wondering… well, how did I get here? Why YA? That’s a tongue-twister, Alex, why’d you even make me read that? But more to the point, why do we—as writers, readers, audiences, and a massive publishing industry—return consistently to the coming-of-age story, to examinations of youth, to high schools and final-summers-before-graduations and that weird transitional space between childhood and adulthood?
Well, I could get all Joseph Campbell on you and suggest something about how stories of “leaving the nest”, experiencing a ritual quest of rites of passage, and coming out the other side a grown human, are embedded in prehistoric tradition and are some of the tales closest to our hearts culturally speaking. And you know I have my beef with Campbell (affectionately so), but I reckon there’s something to his suggestion that this is an archetype fundamental to storytelling as a form, and I reckon there’s also something to his fondness for patterns.
Surprising absolutely no one, I’ll be prefacing this roundup with another “it’s been a weird month!”. I’ll also be keeping things brief, because some combination of doomscrolling, Switch playing, and holding books open at weird angles while I sit improperly on couches (as is customary for my people), has quite possibly inflamed the tendons in my thumbs and wrists, and I am trying to avoid using my hands for a few days. Because, you know, this might as well happen (at least it’s happening after my hard deadlines are done…)
As always, enjoy the content below, both mine and made by others, and take care of yourselves (and your tendons) in these strange times we live in.
Bonus: do you know I also write about books in more fleeting shortform on Tweeter? Here are some quick review threads for some books I read this month:
Adachi and Shimamura vol. 1 (the introspective tale of two disaffected teens who are terrified to discover they have feelings for one another. I picked it up to compare it to the show, and… at this stage, I might like the book better?)
Somebody Told Me(a harrowing coming-of-age story about how communities can bring great joy, but also foster harmful power structures that go unchecked, featuring the Catholic church and… cosplay)
Under Shifting Stars (twin sisters share a story about grief and about navigating the way the world sees you, and how the right people will love you no matter how “weird” you are)
Video games are becoming more and more cinematic, but that inspiration is a two-way street.
Quibi was a new streaming service set to take the world by storm, but… well, didn’t. This breaks downs the reasons neatly from a perspective of marketing and content. And man, that content!! Amanda the Jedi has some analysis of said content if you want a deeper primer into just how weird it is.
If you’re fond of food history like I am, you might enjoy the channel Tasting History, where a well-learned and upbeat fellow walks you through recipes from everywhere (and everywhen) from Ancient Rome to Victorian England (accompanied by Pokémon plushies who diligently sit in the background).
You may have seen the internet explode over a development in the show Supernatural. Here is a brief rundown (and some of the best memes)
The Uncanny Valley of Culture – a game dev writes about their frustrations with how America-centric the English-speaking media market is, and how works that are made or set elsewhere are often expected to dull or change the aspects that may make them “unpalatable” or “foreign” to US audiences.
The Half-Death of the Black Widow – published a year ago but unfortunately still relevant, particularly given how COVID “killed off” the Black Widow solo movie and served as just one of many awkward and unhappy endings of Natasha.
Let’s wrap it up there, and haul ourselves into December. Take care everyone!
Premise: Freddy is dating the charismatic, enigmatic Laura Dean, and she couldn’t be happier… except that she could be much happier, because Laura Dean keeps finding ways to make her miserable. Yet, like magnets, Freddy and Laura keep getting back together. As Freddy becomes increasingly alienated from her friends, and not even seeking advice from columnists or back-room psychics seems to help, she’s going to have to find the power within herself to reassess her priorities and find her true happiness.
Rainbow rep: a lesbian protagonist, an almost entirely queer ensemble cast, focus on queer relationships.
Content considerations: centres on a crappy, bordering-on-emotionally-abusive relationship; age gap relationships, discussions of teenaged pregnancy.
There is a special sort of sting in disappointment. If a story—be it a book, TV show, movie, video game, what have you—is just bad, you can let it slip from your mind. You may have your gripes with it, but in some greater sense it will glide away from you like oil and water. A story that seemed like it was going to be good, held promise, wormed its way into your imagination and your heart… a story like that turning out bad gives you a unique kind of injury. Especially when you wrote a very public article telling people that you reckoned it had potential. Multiple articles, even.
Given that I wrote that big post speculating on Rent-a-Girlfriend’s potential, it feels like I should return to it and perform a post-mortem of sorts. Now, this is not me “walking back” my previous reviews or analysis. I maintain that the first few episodes genuinely compelled me, and genuinely presented a space in which to play with some really interesting ideas. Which, again, is why the show’s dedication to not doing any of the things that I suggested could be really interesting, is so very annoying.
Do I take it as a personal slight that a show did not cater to my wants? No. It’s clearly not made for me, and that’s fine. But it’s worth returning to the scene of the crime and unpacking what exactly went so wrong, from my own perspective as a viewer (and I imagine this is perspective shared by more than a few people). If I can write a post about how much Riverdale annoyed me for sucking me in with a cool premise and then going off the shits, I can certainly write one about Rent-a-Girlfriend. Yes, those shows exist in the same category now.
Here we are once more – October is Octover, bringing to a close a month of anime reviews, lectures, and spooky-themed events that kind of don’t mean anything here in Australia, but have a great aesthetic nonetheless. Look below for all the writing I did around the internet this month, as well as some fun content other people have made that I want to highlight!
Adachi and Shimamura – in which a couple of teen girl delinquents reluctantly come to care for one another, among pretty art and a healthy dose of whimsy
Assault Lily: Bouquet – in which schoolgirls fight robots between large chunks of exposition and fan service
D4DJ: First Mix – in which there is a school-sanctioned rave and a love of music
Dropout Idol Fruit Tart – in which a bunch of washed-up stars are forced to form an idol group in order to… uh… not become homeless?
Talentless Nana – in which The Twist is the most fun part, but I can’t talk about that in a review and I experience pain
Three Episode Check-in – in which I return to cast my opinion over a sports anime, a bear-themed isekai, and the tale of a girl who just wants to get some sleep.
Dispelling some lingering myths (well, lingering in some parts of the anime community) about literal translation and censorship. Everything is 4Kids’ fault.
The iconography of the pointy black witch hat us ubiquitous, but where exactly did it come from? Costume historian Abby Cox does an academic, yet very accessible, deep dive into the history of this garment and its associations.
In a follow-up to last month’s shredding of Mulan 2020, Xiran returns to the source and celebrates Mulan 1998, and how “authenticity” isn’t the be all and end all of making a good movie. (God, Mulan 1998 is a good movie)
Imposter Syndrome Isn’t Real, But I Call Mine ‘Beryl’ – The Thesis Whisperer explores perfectionism and failure avoidance (with many hashtag relatable moments for creatives everywhere) and how we ought not to pathologise Imposter Syndrome, but to think of it as a nagging auntie sitting on our couch.