The Way We Move: Misato Nagare//Toyota, Japan

The Way We Move is a free project that is intended to share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from simply talking to people about the world they live in. I’m blessed to know a lot of people who are doing things that inspire me, impress me, or give me hope. I chose six people to speak to face-to-face for this project. They’re writers and accountants, musicians and martial artists…

Rather than holding court on some subject or another or trying to solve some major issue, I spoke to these people about themselves and let the conversation be what it was gonna be. In the end, we discussed protesting, activism, punk music, defining our identities, cultural sabotage, video games, martial arts, and more.

The distance between what we expected back then and how we live now is where The Way We Move lives. Listen to one episode a day, like a vitamin.

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I spoke to Misato Nagare of Toyota, Japan about bilingual tweeting, fitting in, the Los Angeles Lakers, podcasting, self-expression, and finding your community
https://twitter.com/bballmuse

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The Way We Move was recorded between September and December 2016 in Oakland, Portland, and New York City.

The intro and outro music is Insane Analog’s Somewhere Out There. Check out http://insaneanalog.com and https://soundcloud.com/insaneanalog, and look for new music from them in 2017.

The cover art features two brothers four thousand miles from home.

The Way We Move: Branwyn Bigglestone//Oakland, CA

The Way We Move is a free project that is intended to share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from simply talking to people about the world they live in. I’m blessed to know a lot of people who are doing things that inspire me, impress me, or give me hope. I chose six people to speak to face-to-face for this project. They’re writers and accountants, musicians and martial artists…

Rather than holding court on some subject or another or trying to solve some major issue, I spoke to these people about themselves and let the conversation be what it was gonna be. In the end, we discussed protesting, activism, punk music, defining our identities, cultural sabotage, video games, martial arts, and more.

The distance between what we expected back then and how we live now is where The Way We Move lives. Listen to one episode a day, like a vitamin.

♦♦♦

I spoke to Branwyn Bigglestone of Oakland, CA about growing up in Oakland & Daly City and building a life you can live without shame.
https://www.gamesofberkeley.com/

♠♠♠

The Way We Move was recorded between September and December 2016 in Oakland, Portland, and New York City.

The intro and outro music is Insane Analog’s Somewhere Out There. Check out http://insaneanalog.com and https://soundcloud.com/insaneanalog, and look for new music from them in 2017.

The cover art features two brothers four thousand miles from home.

Tite Kubo’s Bleach: goodbye, halcyon days.

originally published in Critical Chips, edited by Zainab Akhtar

some books are there for you when you need them, and anathema when you don’t. on a certain level, it doesn’t even really matter if a book is good or bad, so long as you get something valuable out of it. right?

Tite Kubo’s supernatural adventure comic Bleach was serialized from 2001 through 2016 in Japan, and from 2004 through 2016 in the United States. I found it while I was ankle-deep in a half-hearted try at college in my small hometown, and liked it. The drawings were nice in a “Jamie Hewlett-meets-manga” way, the character designs and fashion were almost universally cool, and I’ve forever had a soft spot for swords and sandals tales.

It stars Ichigo Kurosaki, a kind-hearted goofball who turns out to be a prodigy with a destiny. Circumstances awaken his power as a Soul Reaper, someone who maintains the balance between the living and spirit worlds by killing white monsters with magical swords. Bleach’s setting is a great storytelling engine, one that allows for infinite variation and creative problem-solving, as long as those problems could be solved with swords.

I liked it until I didn’t. I drifted away and came back again and again over the years until I finally tapped out somewhere around volume 38, over seven thousand pages into the series. I was dissatisfied with the progression, the villains, and the shape of the thing, the way it wasn’t hitting my buttons any more. The collected editions felt the same: several so-so stories book-ended by great ones, which would keep me interested enough to buy the next, until I finally lost patience.

Certain things about the series remained excellent, even during the valleys. Kubo has a knack for designing title pages or sequences that are bar-none the absolute best in comics. The title designs are ornate and designed to evoke a specific mood, and often double as beautiful pieces of art even when removed from the context of the series. A quick glance at a list of chapter titles shows that almost every single title Kubo came up with works as a pretty killer song title, too—”The Shooting Star Project” is a highlight, as are “Everything But The Rain” and “Quincy Archer Hates You.” (In my head, they’re all tunes created by the various projects Damon Albarn has been a part of—Blur, Gorillaz, and Rocket Juice & the Moon.) But ultimately, the series was lacking something I needed.

I’ve been buying the Shonen Jump comics anthology since the phonebook days, and leapt at the digital version when its publisher Viz Media moved away from print. Bleach ran in Jump, and as a result, I ended up seeing a lot of Bleach in passing after quitting the series. I generally skipped over it in favor of other strips I liked more, but it was there, and at one point I found myself not reading it, but looking at it on the regular. By this point, Kubo had announced that the series was on its final arc, which in the end would run just under 4,000 pages. He was still doing killer title pages, and while I had next to no idea what was going on in the story, the drawings were striking. Bold designs, fascinating layouts, and a generally intriguing approach to visuals.

At that point in my life, as a reader and critic, I’d started to demand more from myself and the art I consumed. I wanted to understand and discuss art better than I had been, and I wanted to be challenged and stunned at the same time. I started to feel like Kubo was equally restless about where he was at, from my perspective, because I began noticing things in his art I hadn’t before. Character proportions had changed, outfits became more complicated, and I found that he would often throw three or four pages at a type of scene he used to solve in just a couple panels.

The mood he had always been evoking via chapters-as-song titles was increasingly present in the art, a move that was either incredibly self-indulgent or just plain incredible, depending on your point of view. Chapters ranged from near-silent to crowded with speeches about the nature of violence, the point of living, the pointlessness of revenge, and other subjects more suited to chanbara cinema than shonen comics.

And just like that, I was back. Bleach grew up while I wasn’t paying attention, and grew up in a way that threw it right back onto my radar so hard it became a highlight of every week’s issue of Jump. Kubo’s self-indulgence felt like a victory lap. He knew the series was wrapping up, so why not send it off in style? Why not give all these dusty old characters one last moment—or several—in the sun before packing them away? Why not give them a speech that makes you think about who they are and what they do before they cut down someone in an extremely cool way?

Kubo had always been strong at design, but now he was flexing his strength with concepts, too. An exceptional swordswoman who learned healing arts in order to prolong her ability to fight. A man who capped his own overwhelming power in order to preserve the joy he found in battle. A man who turns children’s games lethal, a mad scientist who is determined to stay ten steps ahead of everyone else, a blade that takes a life with each swing…

The specifics probably won’t matter to you if you haven’t read the series, but I suddenly went from bored disinterest to hanging on almost every word. The action was good, and sometimes exceptional, but it was the total package that really drew me back in. Bleach was a comic that wasn’t afraid to let itself breathe or get weird, and as a result, it found its footing again. It felt self-assured.

That confidence helped cause a shift in how I look at comics. I went from demanding comics to be what I wanted to being more willing to meet a comic on the creator’s own terms. Which isn’t to say I suddenly like everything ever, or think everything has merit—it just expanded my comfort zone. Kubo is telling his story the way he wants to, and I found something to respect and enjoy there.

The chapter titles-as-songs aspect of Bleach is wildly underrated, but key to the whole experience for me. Bleach will never be as resonant or full of fluid action as Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece or Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto, the other two entries in the shonen “Big Three.” Those series center friendship, legacy, and destiny in a way that Kubo never really did. But what Kubo does well is dig deep into the idea that style can be substance, that something beautiful is able to inspire enjoyment, too.

Bleach is a series of vibes. It’s a story that progresses and expands in a mostly reasonable manner, but the real entertainment comes from the vibe. Discovery, exuberance, freedom, melancholy, fear, creativity, reconciliation, desperation, and fury. Kubo drops you into pool after pool of these feelings and invites you to just relax and enjoy the moment. “Enjoy the ride.”

The final chapter of the series, Chapter 686 (there are technically over seven hundred chapters, but some chapters feature negative or half numbers: again, Bleach is a vibe to roll with) is called Death & Strawberry, mirroring the first chapter of the series. It’s out next week as I’m writing this, and aims to wrap up the series. The penultimate chapter was a ten-year time skip; the one before that ends with the hero slashing the villain in half. Wrapping everything up is a tall order.

If Bleach ends like other shonen books, the hero will have accepted his destiny or retired or both, settled down with one of the female characters, possibly had kids, and look back fondly on the friendships he made. A core theme of “looking out for others” will be reiterated, and we’ll get one last look at familiar faces wearing nice new clothes.

That’s fine. Everything between chapters one and six-eight-six are what matters. For me, that period spans early college to independent adulthood. I became a professional writer, started a comics blog, killed a comics blog, lived in three cities, and held down a fistful of different jobs. When I was younger, Bleach scratched an itch I had for good shonen adventure comics, ones with creative settings and not-too-complex characters. As an adult, I’m stuck on how Kubo churns out jaw-dropping pieces of art and expands his universe in ways that hit me on a whole other level, be it philosophically or just as spectacle.

It doesn’t matter to me how it ends. Not really. It did what I needed it to do, even when I didn’t know I needed it.

david brothers
sitting by the dock of the bay

Power and Consequence in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira

originally published in Study Group Magazine #4

Power checked and unchecked provides a backbone for Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, a through line for understanding the characters and why they make the choices they do. Otomo’s story is equal parts admonishment and encouragement, with certain characters clearly taking a more righteous path than others. Otomo covers the in-between as well, those who are unsure or un-accepting of their own power and need guidance. Between the first and final pages, Otomo illustrates the lives of people who are forced to act by their situation, and in doing so, reveal who they are inside. Some characters grow into their power slowly but surely. Others embrace it and find peace. Still others reject it when the time comes.

Otomo is wrestling with power and consequence in Akira, and each character uses their power differently. Consider Ryu, a man with a good heart working on the side of the freedom fighters, who ends up led astray by his dependence on following orders. Yamagata, Tetsuo, and Kaneda were great friends before Tetsuo gained powers, which makes Tetsuo’s murder of Yamagata a true breaking point for the character. The Colonel appeals to Tetsuo by seducing him with the idea of gaining further power, but makes sure that Tetsuo knows where he stands in the pecking order. The psychic children lose their freedom in exchange for power, but find peace and stability through friendship and shared experiences. Lady Miyako is theoretically on the side of the just, but raised up her own private army, keeping the power to a select few of her own choosing. Nezu, a politician working for the resistance, betrays his own compatriots in an attempt to wrest power for himself, and brings about the destruction of Neo-Tokyo through his selfishness. Even Kaneda, the ostensible protagonist of the story, is a bull in a china shop at the beginning of the series, fully aware of the fact that he can get his way simply by pushing. It’s only through serendipity that he’s placed in a situation where he must help others.

This attention to detail extends to the supporting cast, too. A school nurse Kaneda has a sexual relationship with would be a half-thought of a supporting character anywhere else, but here, she is crucial to understanding exactly what kind of person Kaneda was before the fall of Neo-Tokyo and rise of the Great Akira Empire. She’s never named, and only appears on six pages of the story. She provides him with drugs when the doctor’s not around, and he plays with her emotions in exchange. When Kaneda approaches her to identify a drug—the military placed Tetsuo on industrial-strength sedatives of unknown origin—she admits that she thinks she’s pregnant. Kaneda’s reply is “Hey, great! Can I watch you have it?”

The way Otomo depicts her tells the story on its own. You can extrapolate a lot simply by comparing how Otomo chooses to draw her before and after her painful confession and how he draws Kaneda. She goes from breathless and hopeful when he greets her with a surprise kiss to slumped and silent after he dodges her admission with easy aplomb. Kaneda is fast-moving, smiling, and bubbly, only acknowledging the awkwardness long enough to decide to ignore it entirely. While she looks at the floor and holds still, he grins and winks with not an inch of concern on display.

She doesn’t appear again, and the fate of her and her child is unanswered throughout the series. But the callous disrespect and selfishness Kaneda shows her, and the little hint that Kaneda knows exactly how ugly he’s being to someone he owes tenderness, speaks volumes. Kaneda is a user, and if he has no use for you, he doesn’t care. By the end of the series, he’s more attuned to the needs of others and willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Here, he’s a simple thug, with a me-first and you-never attitude.

A significant theme in Otomo’s masterwork is that power is dangerous when applied without care and insight. Akira’s powers manifest and launch World War III long before the events of the series. Tetsuo receives powers without being trained in how to control them, and his inner pain leads him to take his selfishness out on others. The Colonel, confident that his own power alone can control others, is quickly shown how untrue his belief was, and spends the remainder of his panel time attempting to atone for his mistake.

While Kaneda and Tetsuo must learn to control themselves and the Colonel must learn to how to use his power wisely, Chiyoko represents power applied properly. She is introduced roughly a third of the way into the series, a member of the underground rebellion alongside Kei and Ryu. She’s taciturn in the extreme, carefully guarded and direct in all her dealings. She doesn’t boast and she doesn’t fool around. Everything she does is geared toward completing her mission. When faced with the threat of a young girl with psychic powers, Chiyoko doesn’t hesitate. She grabs a gatling gun and chases her down.

After the fall of Neo-Tokyo, Chiyoko continues her duties as a freedom fighter, protecting her comrades and gathering intelligence. She stands out in a series defined by characters wrestling with unchecked or misapplied power. She has a purpose, one that she has decided is worthy, and dedicates her whole self toward fulfilling that purpose. There is no confusion on her part, no chance of corruption. She simply is, and by being, she completes her task.

Chiyoko provides a foil for the Colonel early in the series, and a blueprint for the path he eventually follows. They both share a confidence that allows them to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, but the Colonel’s goal is rotten from the start. He is seeking more power, and through it greater control over the world. Chiyoko exists within the world and uses her power to improve things for others. She’s seeking justice, not more power, and that informs the way she goes about her business and treats others.

Otomo’s exploration of applied power is bigger than politics, and he avoids wrapping things up with an easy moral. It isn’t “Power corrupts,” or else the epic ends on a bitter scene where Kaneda and the rest of Neo-Tokyo seize the power of the idea of Akira to maintain their sovereignty in the face of foreign invaders. It’s more nuanced, more complex than that.

The Colonel finds freedom by giving up his power. On the other hand, Chiyoko stays her course, while Kei and Kaneda learn how to properly harness the power they have. If anything, Otomo is exploring the intersection of power, wisdom, compassion, and purpose. There is no single right way to use power, no correct answer, because life is complex. Sometimes a firm, uncaring hand is the best choice for a situation. Sometimes a situation requires more empathy, more compassion. These solutions are not equal and opposite—they’re a part of plethora of options on how we choose to use our power in our day-to-day life.

It’s easy to look at Akira and find something resonant. The cast aren’t points on a spectrum from bad-to-good or incorrect-to-correct. They simply exist, and do the best they can with what they have. Carelessness and compassion exist in all people, and Otomo reflects that well.

Kaneda’s relationship with the school nurse is a very real one, something taken directly from real life and applied to the page. Kaneda makes a choice in that moment, and we see the effects of that choice immediately. Chiyoko’s quiet determination, too, is a reflection of real life. She is no leader, but she clearly has the capability to show others the way. Akira works so well because we recognize aspects of ourselves in the characters and the choices they make. The message of Akira is not that power is good or bad unto itself—it’s that power lets you affect others on every scale, from small to apocalyptic, and it’s important to be not just aware of your own power, but to deploy it effectively.

david brothers, 2015

“lift me up, lift me up”

I listened to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly on the regular from its release in March to the release of Vince Staples’s Summertime ’06 in late June, at which point I listened to Vince’s album a few times a week instead, which eventually faded to once a week by the end of the year. I drew power and knowledge from both. I like Summertime more than To Pimp A Butterfly, but taken together, they’re a great look at a certain issue.

I say taken together because they’re part of a pattern of albums about the anxiety of being black and male in America in the modern day. Pharoahe Monch dropped PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2014, an album about dealing with outward and inward threats. The most resonant lyric on the record is “My family customs were not accustomed to dealing with mental health/It was more or less an issue for white families with wealth.” Other albums followed a similar train of thought: J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014), Big KRIT’s Cadillactica (2014), Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (2015), Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$ (2015), Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth (2015), Vince again with Hell Can Wait (2014), Blu’s Good to Be Home (2014), and even portions of Future’s and Drake’s 2014 and 2015 catalogs dig into blackness and masculinity, one way or the other. I banged all of them for weeks at a time and memorized most of them. I joke that they’re the same album, but they’re more like hours on a clock, or slices of a three hundred and sixty degree circle.

To Pimp A Butterfly’s message, bolstered in part by the poem “Mortal Man” that’s threaded throughout (a poem with the alternate title “Another Nigger”) and in full by the complicated presentation of “i” on the album, is “We’re knee-deep in black misery but we can rise above it.” Summertime ’06’s response is, “Yeah, but we still in it, though,” and you can hear it when Vince says, “My teachers told me we was slaves/My mama told me we was kings/I don’t know who to listen to/I guess we somewhere in between” on “Summertime.”

Both albums attack the same problem from different directions. Vince is saying Be Honest. He wants to kill somebody because his daddy did it, he’s a gangster just like his daddy, who was a gangster just like Vince’s granny. There’s legacy, heritage, in there, and the only examples we have to follow are the ones we are given. (My career as an adult has been entirely in fields that I didn’t have a model for as a child and didn’t know existed. I fell into them while chasing something else.) On 2014’s Hell Can Wait, the EP that served as a prelude for Summertime ’06 and made me realize that Vince Staples was about to drop the hottest album of 2015 bar none, the track “65 Hunnid” includes the line “I told you before that niggas gotta die for this shit to survive.” It’s not about right or wrong. It is what it is, and if you can’t figure out what it is, how are you going to fix it? Gotta name it to claim it.

Kendrick’s saying Rise Up. “Every Nigger Is A Star” is the first sentence you hear on the album, spun up out of empty air like theme music. It’s 2015 “Black Is Beautiful,” it’s the idea that no matter what society tells you, no matter how you feel, you still shine. And Kendrick proceeds to emphasize his own hypocrisy, doubt, and weakness over the course of the album. It’s an album about being a famous rapper and the conflict that comes with getting further and further your center. It’s also an album about finding any type of success and experiencing the same conflict. Kendrick scorns God in his arrogance, indulges in vices, and fights his own self to try to correct his course. The most resonant part of the album is actually in the video for “i”, when Kendrick is screaming I Love Myself while hanging out of a car window, desperate to make anyone including himself believe it by any means.

That moment is the album in miniature, and the conflict in miniature too. My skin is beautiful and my mind is sharp, but living under the weight of white supremacy induces doubt, whether from yourself or others. You know it, but you gotta feel it, too. On “Lift Me Up,” Vince Staples says, “Fight between my conscience and the skin that’s on my body/Man, I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari.” The struggle is the same, so when Vince says, “I just want to live it up, can a motherfucker breathe?/Life ain’t always what it seems, so please just lift me up” on the chorus of the same song, he’s asking for the same help that Kendrick is looking for.

We’re just trying to breathe the only way we know how. You gotta play the cards you’re dealt and hope for the best, even if you know it’s wrong, because sometimes an escape hatch is impossible to find. Kendrick’s “King Kunta” stands out for its swagger. Vince’s “Lift Me Up” stands out for its desperate honesty. Both are ideas often coexist in the same brain at the same time.

The two albums work in concert to suggest an idea: life is too complex for easy answers. On a macro scale, the solution to fixing police brutality, to resolving the black condition, is simple. “Eradicate white supremacy.” On a micro scale, a me-and-you scale, we gotta take into account power differentials, old habits that aren’t likely to change, old habits that might could change, and a million different contexts that we’ve gotta wrestle with.

We gotta deal with the reality of the situation while keeping an eye on where we wanna go. We gotta understand what we perceive to be our faults even as we push our achievements to the forefront in an attempt to prove our worth. We gotta look at the whole circle, not just a slice. That kings and queens rhetoric is played out once you hit adulthood and can look at history with real eyes. We were neither. We were people, and people are complex.