The Emperor of Hell in the time of Virtual Youtubers.
[The following is my contribution to the Anime Secret Santa 2020 project, organized this year over at All Geeks Considered. Please also enjoy reading the others!]
I do not envy the job of anyone tasked with an anime comedy series.
It seems parody can end up reality faster and faster each year. What was once biting and acerbic insight becomes the more common baseline. And if your comedy is too dependent on owning the extremes, to ride the bleeding edges and live over the line… well, those lines also change. If your bluster lacks a strong foundation and structure backing it up, the entire thing is on borrowed time. The next biggest baddest wolf will roll into town and blow your straw house down.
Excel Saga is a series I tend to think about more than I should, because of how good of an example it is of what not to do. Twenty years ago, it was a near inescapable vanguard of anime comedy. Louder and faster than just about anything. Gag merchandise, like barbecue grills featuring the dog mascot, were filling up places like Suncoast and Sam Goody as part of international marketing efforts. Capping off its twenty six full length episodes was its grand microphone drop piece, “Going Too Far”, designed by intention to be too extreme for television broadcast.
You have to excuse me for using personal anecdotes in place of a rigorous census on the subject, but: all these years later, Excel Saga is not a series I see a lot of folks hold much nostalgia for. I do not tend to still run into fun retro anime fanart like I continue to see for, say, Slayers. Works like Teekyu, Pop Team Epic, or gdgd Fairies have run off with their own ideas of fast and eccentric anime comedy. Episode lengths are more experiential, and shorter and leaner runtimes become more common. Entire franchises come out each year today based on concepts far cruder or repulsive than Excel Saga’s finale. Such is the fate of any Shinichi Watanabe directed comedy it seems. Obnoxious but brittle rocks pounded into dust. Sand on the shore, and lost in the ocean.
Detroit Metal City is an anime adaptation of a manga series about a rowdy indie metal band of the same name. The lead singer and guitarist, Johannes Krauser II, is a legend among their fans. There are endless rumors of their sexual depravity, countless murders, and more. Under all the stage armor and facepaint however, Krauser is a timid generic pop music loving dude named Soichi Negishi. His attempts to escape, or even find a mere balance, to these dual existences drives most of the action and antics. Ever compounding misunderstandings only cause Krauser’s extreme legend to grow among his fans.
Detroit Metal City plays a similar high risk game of being brash and aggressive. If all it had going for it was how loud it could yell “Fuck,” it would be in deep trouble.
I would have been a lot more worried if this show was directed by anyone I trust less than Hiroshi Nagahama.
If you have watched Nagahama’s anime adaptations of The Flowers of Evil or Mushishi, it is an understatement to say he is a man who has a deep commitment to seeing an idea through. He will deploy an eight minute zero dialogue walking scene if he feels it is necessary to capture an abstracted feeling.
The episodes of Detroit Metal City are under fifteen minutes long, which is already to the benefit of keeping the material from dragging overlong. To push things even further though, it is rare to see a series where the camera field of view and aspect ratios are so active and ever changing. Scenes will flip not just from more modern 16:9 to the older 4:3 standards of classic broadcast television and music videos, but also to narrow vertical video reminiscent of how some folks watch or record things on modern cell phones. And everything in between, like cuts more akin to single manga sub-panel progression. It is a visual way to leverage how Soichi/Krauser is navigating through different environments, how he is being perceived by others outside himself, as well as alternating conflicts he is feeling within himself.
The active attention to shifting camera use and visual framing also helps bolster another aspect of the presentation. The choice to hedge more toward what indie metal cover art, comics, and indeed the original manga itself, would look like moving around. Or, to put it another way, the idea that overpolishing the material with lavish animation would have been somewhat inappropriate for the material. Studio 4°C is renowned for being able to put its whizbang short form animation chops on display, but that often becomes a kind of reputation shorthand for “has lots of animation frames.” The series can at times be stiff to the point of characters moving like waggling paper dolls. I am dead certain I could find a mountain of internet posts declaring it “ugly” or even “cheap.”
Making a show look as specific as Detroit Metal City through is still a difficult technical process, and it is so committed to embracing the bit. The credits for every episode of Detroit Metal City are still plenty packed with enough names to carry almost two minutes of outro music. This was not slapped together in an afternoon.
It could very well have been “easier” to make the show look like a more traditional broad market anime program. Heck, I imagine the series could have made more money that way. But, it is a dedication to style and form and an eye towards representing the kind of art indie metal scenes often produce themselves.
A lot of comedies can be likened to playing with dominoes. The creators have their selection of characters, and they are lined up in ways so they slam into each other to produce meaningful impact amongst themselves. As well as the world around them.
The most important characters in Detroit Metal City, a big recognition that gives it sustaining quality almost a decade later, are the actions and reactions by the throngs of nameless fans. They are responsible for many of the best punchlines, for sure. There is also an understanding of how fandoms can operate, the ways they build their mythologies, and the spread of their canon.
Is Johannes Krauser II an Actual For Real Terrorist Emperor From Hell Itself, Inventor Of Every Sin, Who Uses Broken Angel Wings As Toilet Paper?
Well, in a word, no. Of course not. That would be silly.
But it might be fun to pretend as an act of community and belonging.
Musical acts ranging from Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie to The Insane Clown Posse have found success concocting elaborate stage personas, concept albums, and lore around their work. With modern internet video and social media tools, this can go even further.
2020 is a year where the Virtual Youtuber has exploded in growth and popularity. With some appropriate camera and streaming software to replicate things like your mouth movements to a character model, the performer putting on their “mask” has never been easier. Your costume is always perfect. And at the push of a button, the barriers between them and their audiences ever thinner. Many popular characters upload hours of video multiple times a week, often recorded with a live streaming audience chat.
Millions and millions of people have decided they would like to watch a talented actress pretending to be an anime dog girl play video games. Or a shark girl claiming to be from Atlantis singing city pop karaoke. And so many more.
Every second has the potential to become a hyperacelerated fandom moment. A wildfire clip that changes entire microcultural weather patterns around it. A simple mispronunciation can end up as a fandom catch phrase and merchandise line at warp speed. A particular great or funny moment will be trimmed and retweeted almost as fast as they happen. They become more and more common reference points folks make in casual online game chat, and so on. And so their character legend grows.
The Youtube channel for that anime shark girl launched in mid-September of this year. As of this writing, a few months later, she already almost has two million subscribers.
Is Johannes Krauser II all that different from an anime shark girl city pop slinging VTuber?
Watching the fans in Detroit Metal City, in this year of all years, had a certain resonance to it.
Is Krauser shaking with nerves or having trouble holding a pose? Ah, well, that must be the raw Evil Energy just bursting out in every direction, because he must be so fired up and ready to kick things off. Searching the crowd in desperation and embarrassment? He must be hunting for his prey. And so on and so forth.
There is a comedy to the audiences cutting Krauser just enough slack. The near inevitable plot point that Soichi’s attempts to course correct end up causing him to slip up harder and do (or at least hand-waved to have done) something more extreme as Krauser than anyone thought possible. The crowd goes wild.
Mixed in there right before the payoffs though is also often a fleeting somberness, the recognition of fans fearing the illusion may not hold together. We want to play pretend for a little bit longer.
Asking Detroit Metal City for granular and layered character development is a bit like deploying a miter saw for carving your holiday dinner special.
But for all the wild things the band in Detroit Metal City got into, I always appreciated how the series always shows how close and involved the record company management was. Not just for shenanigans like the President rewriting Soichi’s godawful pop song lyrics to have more curse words and less cute cheese tarts. But there are formal business things. Television bookings and interviews to schedule. Music video shooting crews. The legal team approval of multiple production companies to allow DMC to crash the show of another band during their station airtime. Concerts have tickets and show reservations. Events like the accidental burning of a venue might have short term insurance payout concerns, but they can spin it to grow the character legend for future returns. It may as well be a routine banking investment for stock market index funds.
Record companies portrayed as ruthless monsters is not anything new for music media.
But, as a structure giving element, I am glad the record company is never too far from attention.
There is a moment when Soichi has fallen into some great despair regarding his professional situation, aspirations, love life, and more. Three days deep into a classic textbook frontman bender, he stumbles into the office out of his mind, but with a new song. An angry and furious thing, the President loves every second of it, and agrees to make sure it gets on the new album. The company has been pushing hard for Soichi to embrace a more “metal lifestyle”, and it is a joyous moment for them.
Soichi has one dreadful misstep in all this. As he does throughout the series.
But this time, he dared just for a moment to claim even the slightest ownership of DMC. He flew too close to the sun.
The record company president stomps him into the floorboards repeatedly for it.
Johannes Krauser II, The Emperor of Hell, is on the ground whimpering as the executive reminds him at the end of their boot how DMC is theirs.
Krauser is a character Soichi can play. But at the end of the day he is a disposable asset. And crowds do not care about him when he does not have the mask on.
I hope the professional Virtual Youtuber people are doing ok for themselves in their personal lives.
I thought about that a lot this year.