Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Character Showcase: Osaka

Originally posted May 23, 2009, lightly edited since.

Hey, you know what this blog needs?


She's Number Five! She's Number Five!

Ayumu “Osaka” Kasuga.

From my rounds on the internet, I’ve noticed she’s apparently a pretty popular character. Wikipedia brags that the now-defunct Newtype USA magazine awarded her 7th place in its poll: The Top 100 Anime Heroines of 2002. This “despite not being a ‘cute’, ’sexy’ or ’spunky’ character”. They are wrong about two of those things. That, and she lost the 1st place standing to a submissive robot girl, whose on/off switch is located in her vagina… Her robo-vagina. If Newtype USA were still in publication, I bet they’d feel pretty silly about that now.

I don’t think there is any character like Osaka. None come to mind right now. The closest description I’ve heard is “airhead”, but I’ve never seen an airhead type like this in cartoons or live-action. To see this character, to hear her voice floating on the clouds is like seeing Haley’s comet firsthand. She’s still a kid really, yet she doesn't dress like kids her age, and that actually works in her favour. She’s not a “cute character” like Chiyo, although she is adorable. She’s not a hyper-active, loud or athletic teenager like Tomo and Kagura. She’s not “smart/serious” like Yomi or Sakaki. Her fans defend her with comments like “she merely thinks differently from others”, which is true. She’s certainly not an idiot.

I don’t think she could be classified under any current cartoon stereotype. She is a new, real, unusual and honest face to a rising generation of human beings. Unique people to whom the systems that have governed our world for these past decades were not prepared for, who no one in the 20th century could have predicted, and those of us in the 21st are still trying to figure out. School systems, political systems, societal customs, we’re all only just starting to wrap our heads around who we are. And I’m not necessarily referring to Autists, the mentally challenged or social outcasts. I hope I haven’t made it sound like Osaka fits any of those descriptions specifically. I refer to anyone for whom the world will drastically re-shape itself to squeeze in as this millennium advances. They’re not here to conquer, but to co-exist.

And there is room. Even for those who we possess no ready, factory-assembled purpose.

She’s not good at sports or academics or most things that people place value in, and isn’t the subject of sex-appeal. Her talents seem limited to yawning and wordplay. But she perseveres to determine what she is, and how she can fit into a society in which she is nearly alien. This girl doesn’t play to the crowd the way Tomo does, although time and again we see her trying to follow in her footsteps. Watching her attempts to match the actions and exclamations of her friend is deeply affecting for me, even excruciating. I think this is a girl who wants very much to belong.

When she joins the Lunkheads(a “team” of sorts, for the half of the main cast who are the least exceptional in their school-work), whenever Tomo and Kagura are downtrodden in defeat at the sight of their latest test scores, Osaka is usually smiling. She doesn’t even care if she’s the biggest Lunkhead in her group. Where they find despair, she finds comfort in being a part of her friends. Here, at last, is a place where she belongs, with those she holds in high regard. She doesn’t see their failures, but gazes in curious wonder at everything they bleed.

Even the depressed squiggly lines end on her side of the background!

Perhaps this can explain why she’s consistently ranked as high or even higher than every other character in Azumanga Daioh. Is it possible that we are finally ready for personalities unexplored by popular entertainment? She is not tuned to the same wavelength as most, she can be difficult to comprehend, but there is within and without her an infectious shimmer of sweetness. None of the traits of inherent ugliness waiting to sprout up from the surface that we come to expect from fiction(and in real life). No angle, no twist, no agenda. No leftovers from cartoons past. Her target demographic is universal: anyone consisting of authentic human decency. That’s all, and yet, that’s everything.

It’s funny. Even after only seeing a few episodes, I remarked: “I’d go to hell and back for a kid that cool”. I think about what these character’s parents are like, and how they exist with their offspring. Are Chiyo’s parents snobs? Are they younger than most parents? Are they older? Are they as gifted in judgement as she is? Are Osaka’s parents “proud of her no matter what” she contributes back to the world? Are they disappointed? Do they have two parents each? How much of these kids is derived from their guardians? Or their environment? Themselves? Each other? It’s nice when a show has more questions than answers, instead of being merely frustrating and vague. Whatever shaped these kids did a damn fine job.

Osaka in particular makes me think about the parents of kids who aren’t really exceptional at anything the world needs or wants, and aren’t exactly valedictorians at school, but are not “bad” kids. She makes me think about the parents who -were- those kids. I wonder how many of her fans are the parents of autistic or merely offbeat children. Kids good with puns and trivia, but who always come in last place in competitions of talent. Kids who just like to run outside in typhoons, who are scared of thunder, and feeble when it comes to spicy food and carbonated drinks. People who are smart in ways a little off to the side of academics. People who are more “good” than “useful”. Honest people who have nothing to offer the world but their unconditional loyalty. People who never have to offer anything else. I’ve met a few folks in real life who have never seen this show, men and women, young and old, and aren’t even fans of anime who would adore a girl like Osaka, and bend head-over-heels for her if the need ever rose.

There’s a saying: “We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their flaws.” Here is a character who exemplifies AND defies that rule, because we care about her for both her gentle spirit and her inadequacies. Some people you love for the fact that they exist as they are. By no means flawless, she has her peccadilloes like the rest of us. But she is so sincere in her donation of self that we care little about where she does not ascend. Maybe it’s the politeness enforced in her culture, the blueprints of her Japanese background(and foreground) showing through. But even compared to Chiyo she is especially, atypically pleasant and fun.

What Kiyohiko Azuma(manga author), Yuki Matsuoka(Osaka’s voice) and the animators have done is substantial. They’ve given us a character who is imperfect but impossible to dislike, uninterested in displaying or harbouring bitterness and resentment to those who surpass her. She is devoted to those she loves, and she makes every effort to expand the joys of her time with them. She is exactly as she must be, is not engineered or artificial and is not a variation of any stock character I can recall. As genuine and strange as any person reading this, she’s a holder of real fears of desertion from what makes her happy. Osaka understands heartache, because she understands the value of who she shares her life with, and that one day they will be gone forever. Perhaps this fear has made her realize what a time-waster it is to hold onto such venom and contempt that we do, even for those which we share the time we have.

We are imprisoned within a fraction of history. In a way, she is our desperation to struggle against a paralyzing fear, that looming realization of inevitable, unavoidable separation from all we cherish. Her weapon of choice to combat depression is her own brand of playful friendliness, illuminated by the little eleven-year old she fascinatingly treasures like a sister. Their maturity, intelligence and personalities vary and compliment each other, so that neither one seems like the “big” or “little” sibling. But I think she needs Chiyo more than Chiyo needs her, and we all share a common need to hold on to fleeting things. This is a character who will be immortal, but she doesn’t know that. She allows herself her vulnerability, and is as hurt by the awareness of mortality as you or I. She is filled with amazement, curiosity and admiration for everything around her, but like us, she fights a losing battle to hold onto happiness. Pure and simple honesty in character design is rare like Lonesome George. When she wins, I rejoice. Her victory is rightly deserved, and is as much ours.

Is Osaka my favourite character in Azumanga Daioh? My favourite anime character? Both of those descriptions are too confining. Her quality expands through and beyond the confines of this show, and of her own animation. Past the lines and colours that sustain her docile form. I tend to relate to the cynical assholes more often than not, but she has such an unexampled warmth that she finds a way around those defenses. There’s something here that’s a little heavier than sarcastic wit. Her search for worth opened a lot of war-wounds, and in so doing reached a lot of the dusty corners where light does not reach, the scattered pockets of myself I didn’t think entertainment could find. No other character reflects so much of the exacerbating feelings and defining fears of my life, many of which still leave me stricken and helpless. But where I am immured from the knowledge of time, she doesn’t stop at that. She keeps going, around the edges, lined with a perplexing hope. She despairs, yet still she marches on, in places where I never could. I can’t think of any other role that invites such jubilation, yet underscores that with the presence of her young woes.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed is that of our most beloved cartoon characters, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Popeye, many of them were introduced in the first half of the 20th century. I wonder if we are on the verge of a new flood of fictional characters that will stand the test of time. Only a few years into the new millennium, and already we’ve been given a head-start. Osaka isn’t the most important character in her show, but she might just be the most important new, animated character to come along in decades. Since any of the examples at the top of this paragraph. Their animators displayed far more grace and fluidity, but she doesn’t lose any of her charm from the stillness of Anime standards. A creation of personality truer to me than any I’ve discovered.

I don’t know if people will look back, years from now, and remember Osaka in the same way they appreciate the characters of Walt Disney, Warner Bros. or Hayao Miyazaki. I hope they do. That would bring a smile to my face, one of several hundred or so she’s supplied to everyone who watches this program. I think she’s a character for the ages. A defining face for a new age already underway, and a wonderful voice for a generation mired in the silence of the unknown. I believe Osaka is what our species has to look forward to. She’s what’s on our horizon.

A lot of younger characters speak to our past, to the little things we’ve done, and the things we thought of and felt when we were kids. But she speaks to our future, and makes it a little less uncertain. This clear and vibrant girl is what happens when our universe does not discard the imagination of youth, nor conceals its grief, and instead gives it wings.



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