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Art, Love and Politics in the Works of Fumiaki Maruto (White Album 2, Saekano, Classroom Crisis)

vlcsnap-2015-09-13-19h40m26s81I remember coming across this blog post a while back calling Fumiaki Maruto “the romance specialist you’ve (never) heard about”. White Album 2 appears to be his most critically acclaimed work, and I can see why. It’s a coming-of-age drama that deals with the darker sides of teenage insecurity. The VN even depicts the characters in their adult years, still struggling to make difficult choices. The anime adaptation only tells the first part of the story, but it’s still gut-wrenching stuff. While I remain conflicted about the ultimate purpose behind all that suffering, I can’t deny that the emotions and relationships between the characters felt very real to me.

As a general rule, English-speaking anime fans (including me) aren’t terribly knowledgeable about visual novel writers, so it’s a shame Maruto has been going under the radar for all these years. Recently, though, he has been steadily carving out a name for himself in the anime world. Earlier this year, he helped adapt his light novel series Saekano into an anime, and this season he worked on the script for Classroom Crisis, an anime-original series. So now is a fitting time to remind you all that Maruto is indeed a great romance writer, maybe among the most talented working in the otaku industry right now.

First, some background info about Maruto. According to the Japanese Wikipedia page, Maruto first got into the VN scene by participating in the Kuon no Kizuna fandom. Through the community, he came into contact with one of the scenario writers, Katsunori Kobayashi, who invited him to work for the VN group “Kikakuya”. The rest, as they say, is history. (There’s a list of his VN works here.)

It’s probably safe to say that Maruto understands as well as anyone how it feels to be a creative amateur and to work on a team with extremely talented people. I haven’t played his visual novels (yet), but creative collaboration is a recurring theme in his anime works. The size of the group and the scale of the project may vary, but all of Maruto’s protagonists are driven by an incessant need to express themselves through art. Romance often blossoms as a direct result of shared creativity and struggle. It’s beautiful when it comes to fruition.

vlcsnap-2015-09-13-14h04m55s8Indeed, the romantic drama in Maruto’s work can be so genuine and inspired I find that there’s something distinctly… non-anime-ish about them. Whether it’s the heartbreaking ending of the White Album 2 anime, the dramatic later volumes of the Saekano light novel or episode 11 in Classroom Crisis, there’s something refreshing about the way Maruto handles relationships. This might have something to do with Maruto’s literary influences (including Seishi Yokomizo, Shinichi Hoshi and Takashi Atoda), who are all rather unconventional writers. None of them are romance novelists, so perhaps Maruto learned from them to craft love stories that go far beyond “Will they or won’t they?” as a driving conflict.

Art and love always exist within a broader context. Maruto’s characters find themselves constrained by their lack of ability, their difficult relationships with their fellow creators and by time/resource constraints. Aki and Kitahara struggle to keep up with their more talented group members while Kaito has the raw skills to make a rocket but lacks the resources and budget. In order to overcome these obstacles, our protagonists are forced to find something in themselves – and in each other. Their eventual creation is far greater than the sum of its parts.

classroom-crisis-episode-8-bottle-rocket

As great as all of this sounds, there are certain aspects where I feel Maruto kinda misses the point. Considering Maruto’s background as a fan creator, it makes sense for him to romanticise otaku culture in Saekano while being extremely critical of the cold, unfeeling corporations in Classroom Crisis. Honestly, it’s hard to blame him. CC’s depiction of corporate politics makes complete sense, especially as a commentary on the Japanese system. But I have to agree with Draggle that being overly cynical about the political system can be naive in its own way, especially when creators imagine their work to be “above” politics.

The Comiket arc in Saekano also displayed some of this attitude. Iori is portrayed as a shallow guy because he’s opportunistic and eager to make connections with the more talented artists. If you get into the otaku industries just for the money, you’re not a true otaku.

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Let’s be real, however. If anyone is guaranteed to come out on top because of Comiket, it would be the printing companies, especially those that specialise in doujinshi printings. And let’s not even get started on the anime industry. Despite its strong roots in fan activity, the otaku industries aren’t exempt from corporatism. (Alas.)

On some level, Saekano does seem to be aware of that, because Aki vows to bring more exposure to Izumi’s doujinshi in spite of her insistence that she’s only drawing it for fun. Izumi gets her happy ending, but in the larger scheme of things, the tension between idealism and commercialism is never entirely resolved. I’m quite sure that Maruto is aware that artists are never as free as they would like to be, but as far as he’s concerned, the good parts of fandom must outweigh the bad. And that’s probably a good enough answer for him.

White Album 2 - 07 -3

 

Love is like that as well. Relating to others is difficult, but these difficulties make intimacy worthwhile. Or something. I’m just talking out of my ass here.

Anyway, I’m writing this post after finishing episode 11 of Classroom Crisis, and damn, that payoff was great. It was great because all these themes came together: romance, art and politics. Realising that he has lost the game of thrones, Nagisa shows vulnerability in front of others for the first time. This is also the episode where he becomes fully invested in A-TEC’s vision and hooks up with sensei’s sister and gets punched for it. It’s awesome.

This show had so many disparate elements that I wasn’t sure it would gel together, but somehow it did and I am very, very glad about this. This is probably because Maruto had a very focused vision about what sort of story he wanted to tell, right from the very beginning. I’m reminded of what he said in an interview:

I’ve already written a trendy drama (WA2) and a situational comedy (Saekano), so I wanted to try my hand at a human drama. I love all these genres – they’re my lifeblood.

The director of the anime Kenji Nagasaki had this to say:

This is a story set in the near future about high school salarymen. The story depicts the tragedy of being a student and a salaryman with a light touch. The theme of “creative work” plays a large role in the story, as per Maruto-san’s scenario, so we set the story in an academy that builds rockets. We thought this would be a good fit for anime. From there, we worked backwards and decided on the near future setting. The most interesting parts of the story are the dramatic parts, so we added some sci-fi elements to make it interesting to watch. That’s about the gist of it.

Sirs, I salute you. I also salute the OreImo character designer and whoever decided to make Nagisa a tsundere.

And if that wasn’t enough, somehow this show includes the OTP of the season. Romance might not be the primary genre of Classroom Crisis, but it complements the themes of the story well and plays to Maruto’s strengths as a writer. It’s no surprise that the strongest parts of the story revolve around interpersonal relationships and subtle character development.

What’s more, Maruto gets art. Even if the political parts of the story might lack nuance, I can certainly sympathise with Maruto’s vision of art, and it comes across very strongly here. I root for these characters, not simply because they’re defying the corporate elites, but because they’re standing up for their own artistic vision. This is the part of the story I find most inspiring.

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Sometimes, I wonder if Maruto ever feels the same way I do, that the highs of creative work feel like love itself.

 

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Posted on September 14, 2015, in Anime Analysis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. I really miss saekano, by the looks of it, there probably won’t be a second season. But I didn’t know Classroom Crisis was that good. I tried watching the first episode when it came out but didn’t really seem interested. I should probably give it another go.

    • You’re in luck! A second season of Saekano is actually in the works right now.

      As for Classroom Crisis, the early episodes are rough, but the quality starts to even out when you get to know the characters imo

  2. Oh bestill my heart, Froggy, thou hast touched the inner lining of my ventricles in such a way that I thought not possible with mere words!

    What I’m trying to say is, Good Job.

    I hadn’t actually considered that all of Maruto’s recent animated work was always centered around at least a small group of some sort on a project, despite it being mondo obvious. But when I think about it, I agree that his focus on group project dynamics and what arises from it as his source of drama or comedy, is one of those things that set him apart.

    It’s really nice to see a STEM people (literal rocket scientists) being portrayed in an anime as artists, not “artists”; engineers not just as socially-awkward wizards who can pump out amazing things at the drop of a hat and a light smirk (e.g. Ryuunosuke from Sakurasou), but also as people with a vision who strive. That dynamic hasn’t dominated Classroom Crisis towards the latter half, but it felt authentic when it was there.

    P.S. fuck you I was saving that episode of Classroom Crisis for later and now I’ve seen too much of Nagisa and Mizuki giving each other the goo-goo eyes to put it off for much longer.

    Question: In SaeKano, did you think there was a disparity in quality and quantity of characterization among the heroines? I sort of felt that way about how Kato seemed steadily to come out of her stereotype, but Utaha and Eriri were still relatively “stuck.”

    • I can’t believe you haven’t seen the latest episode. Hop to it, Garlock!

      As for your Saekano question, it’s an interesting one. If I had to sum up my thoughts, I would say Utaha and Eriri received more characterisation (quantity-wise) but Kato had the best characterisation (quality-wise). In some contexts, less means more. But as a matter of fact, I thought Utaha and Eriri were quite fine representatives of their tropes and were characterised well within those boundaries. I’m also a bit biased since I know what happens in the LN. None of the main characters will remain “stuck” forever. But yeah, Kato definitely makes the show.

  3. Oh my gosh, thanks for the info man. It’s just finishing a show right after introducing a major character like Michiru, it just didn’t seem right to me. I was really worried because shows like that tend to end at 13 episodes. I was actually thinking about looking for an online translation of the light novel if there is one. Also I am curious about Garlock’s question. I personally think Eriri and Utaha let their archetypes define their characters while Kato was sort of cleverly written, and Michiru is just weird.

  4. Hm… I was planning to read Saekano and now I feel even more encouraged to do so. It’ll take some time, however, because I just read my LNs in epub, reading online is pretty shitty imo… And to make things worse, there’s the whole thing with epub in NanoDesu and Baka-Tsuki. The first demands that the epub can be released only when the final edits are made, and this takes a lot of time. The second, the person responsible for uploading the epubs shows up once in a decade so you have to wait a lot of time to read a volume that’s already translated if you read in epub (Eromanga-sensei T_T)

    • You can always make ePubs yourself. The process is quite simple if you use a program like Calibre. Simply copy and paste the web text into a word document, upload it to Calibre and click “convert book”. It won’t look as nice as the ones made by the ND staff, but it should suffice, and you can always read the official ePubs when they eventually come out.

  5. Wow, that quote from the director explain everything about Classroom Crisis. We got fantastic characterization and group dynamic, but the sci fi elements are pure garbage. As a hard Sci-fi books fan, the future setting pissed me off. Mars has the same gravity as Earth, the city looks exactly like 21st century Japan, and worst of all, running out of asteroid to mine. Seriously? The part with asteroid field lifted out of Star Wars is dumb, too. Scamp from thecartdriver also point out that the entire board corporate of directors are all male. It’s weird as hell since companies in real life are having more female staffs.

    The corporate conspiracy is better than your average anime, but not properly developed. I don’t remember the name of any politicians in this series.

    But we got the best romance of the seasons, and runner up for best male lead of the year (sorry Nagisa, but Hachiman is great), so all is right.

    • I’m not a hard SF fan myself, but I have to agree there were lots of parts of the setting that just made no sense or were not properly fleshed out.

      The biggest problem with the corporate conspiracy is that the viewer doesn’t have an investment in anyone involved except for Nagisa. There’s also a distinct lack of nuance. What’s the difference between one pollie and another? And all those characters look the same too! (Yeah, now that you bring it up, the lack of women involved in the corporate/political scenes is kinda bullshit as well.)

      Glad you liked the characters and romance though!

      • A bit late, on both of your your complaints about all-male board of directors, it’s not that uncommon that Japanese companies are like that. This is not the US companies the show’s talking about. It’s Japanese companies.

        • Yeah, it’s realistic in the context of Japanese companies today, but this is supposedly the future we’re talking about. Also, there are evidently plenty of females doing STEM in the Classroom Crisis universe, which isn’t reflective of today’s demographics.

          Honestly, my main gripe with the all-male board of directors isn’t that it’s sexist, it’s just lazy character design that makes all the politician characters appear even more generic.

  6. “the dramatic later volumes of the Saekano light novel”
    Maybe this is the reason, but I honestly don’t see anything genuine or inspired about Saekano’s romance. Additionally, most characters are stereotypical at best imho (except for Best Girl Kato :p), and Rinri-kun being an ass (yet still somehow able to make up with Eriri after their argument). Man, I don’t know, I guess long story short, I’m just not really convinced. If the later volumes are that good, I think I will check out the second season when it’s out. But disregarding all these, I do admit the show can be pretty fun to watch at times.

  7. Love is like that as well. Relating to others is difficult, but these difficulties make intimacy worthwhile.

    There’s something to be said for how “Everything is AT Fields” is a theme in most critically acclaimed media.

  8. The romance stuff aside – which I believe has already been commented on somewhat by Koi – I’m still not sure whether Saekano’s cast contributes to a perspective on what happens in a varied (yet still personally close) team as opposed to simply a milder contrast between talent/”the snowball that is already big” against passion/”the snowball that is just starting out”, which then further becomes a driving motivation for the rom-com interactions within the series.

    There are certainly instances of team characteristics such as “doing more/less than your fair share” or inevitable conflicts between experience/ideals that happen in real life as well as in this series, but not only is the team relatively easy to manage for Aki (who generally has important interactions piecemeal with individual girls), the individuals themselves are personally committed enough to keep coming back for more without much effort. So rather than showing a perspective of teamwork, I think Maruto has created simply an idealized team environment – not awkward, not distanced, not whole-body enough – as a vehicle for the themes he wants to lambast people over the head with. I would like to watch/read more scenes where the girls interact within the team meetings (which I think is the most efficient representation of the team dynamics of the cast) not to serve a specific role in garnering audience laughter or to solidify the natures of the characters, but rather to show the myriad of things that can really happen in a group – whether it be sudden agreement, awkward silences due to bad ideas being rejected, or more.

    • Oh, for sure the team dynamics in Saekano are romanticised. The series also romantices otaku culture in general. This led to some personal frustrations on my part, because I don’t believe in the so-called “purity” of art.

      Nevertheless, I get the impression that the series is going for a larger-than-life feel and that strict realism was never the point. Since I’m a romantic at heart, I can understand the idealistic impulse.

      But yeah, as I’ve said before, Saekano is Maruto’s weakest anime work so far. Here’s hoping season 2 will improve on it.

  9. Wow so shocked that people love this anime, the ending was a joke. I loved it up till the last 2 episodes. Adding a love triangle at the end, needs to work on his human relationships writing.

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