You’ve probably heard of Megatokyo – the American 4-panel webcomic that evolved into a published manga series both in the English-speaking world and in Japan. I wasn’t around for its birth and rise to fame so I can’t comment specifically on the history, but Fred Gallagher already said that the story was never expected or intended to turn into what it is today (not unlike the history of 4chan). Despite the fact that Megatokyo‘s decade-long history comes with its fair share of awkward pacing and different visual styles, it’s more or less a mandatory read for OEL manga fans and people who enjoy meta anime like Genshiken.
The interesting thing about Megatokyo is that its plot can hardly stand on its own: without any cultural awareness on the reader’s part, the story is flat-out illogical. Luckily, this also means that it provides a surprisingly engrossing experience for readers who can relate to the protagonists and their bizarre journey through the zombie hordes and love triangles of Tokyo. There’s a reason why I like Megatokyo as much as I do, a reason why it trumps all of Japan’s anime-about-anime-fans in my eyes – its secret lies in the fact that the meta concepts are woven into nearly every aspect of the plot.
- – - – -
Let me start with the big one: Piro and Kimiko. Piro is fairly similar to every other “otaku” protagonist in anime, and he probably has a thing or two in common with most of Megatokyo‘s readers. For a main character, we don’t know much about him other than the fact that he lacks self-confidence. Normally, a story like this would develop in your typical boring but realistic manner – the protagonist is forced into a social lifestyle at school or work, he grows closer to his peers, the plot pushes a decision onto him, and before you know it, he’s kicking reason to the curb to fight for his love. You could say that Piro is headed in this direction, albeit slowly, but his development is different. His character might be generic, but seeing the world through his eyes is more intriguing than seeing it through a similar protagonist’s eyes because he can act as a reflection of the reader.
Just look at his relationship with Kimiko: it’s generic and uninspired on the surface, but it hits an entirely new level of kyaa~ if you can relate to him, or at least if you can understand him. Remember his first encounter with her? He had enough willpower to raise a flag, but not enough confidence to believe that it would lead anywhere. It’s one thing to write a story about a guy with no confidence, but it’s another thing entirely to do it with Megatokyo‘s specific references and familiar thought processes. Any boring lead can be just like Piro on the surface, but only in a meta story like Megatokyo can they come to life through familiar scenes like this and this. Like a good shoujo protagonist, he draws a link between himself and the reader’s own experience; he’s at once a character and a mirror.
The meta becomes even more interesting when things start moving forward between him and Kimiko. Remember the rejection? Piro is easily shot down, just like the countless anonymous readers that he represents. He’s either hesitant or cynical when it comes to a lot of things, which is easy to frown upon until you realize just how close to home his story hits. And let’s not forget that Piro is Fred, to some extent: the character was initially based off of the writer, so I’m sure he used some of his life experiences to forge Piro’s insecurities, in the same way that all writers exist in their characters to some degree.
Most of his ongoing struggles with Kimiko deal with something painfully familiar to visual novel fans: romantic fantasies. On Piro’s side, he has to overcome the ubiquitous fear of rejection while fighting off his own unrealistic fantasies. Is he deluding himself into expecting Kimiko to be something she can’t be? On the flip side, Kimiko faces the problem from the opposite end: she has idealistic views toward her future role as a living fantasy, but she also has to accept the fact that she isn’t a fantasy, and her fans can’t fulfill their own desires without defiling the fantasy that she creates. It’s sad but true; fantasies are enjoyed and consumed at the cost of their creator. One can’t blame her for being jaded. She sympathizes with her fans’ lack of confidence, but do they have the right to abuse her role as a public fantasy for their own personal pleasure? Her position in her career aims to create a tangible, real-world fantasy for fans to cling to for emotional support, but if the fantasy is only a false side of her, where does that leave her?
You can see what I mean about the meta being woven into the plot – the characters’ conflicts are tied to some of the most profound challenges that anime fans face. The PiroxKimiko portion of the story doubles as a fair, unbiased lecture on the concept of fantasy and wish fulfillment in anime fandom, except the lecture has no moral and no conclusion. It’s a mess of unfulfilled feelings, just like any good romance manga, and that’s what I love about it. The meta transforms their story from a mediocre sob-fest into an emotional and occasionally thought-provoking exploration of romantic fantasies in otaku culture.
I realized long ago that Megatokyo is recommended reading for all Western anime fans, but it never occurred to me that it might be mandatory reading for Key fans.
Miho’s arc, especially with some revelations from the recent chapter 10, is as relevant to visual novel fans as Piro’s quest to gain confidence and Kimiko’s struggle to express her own emotions and come to terms with her role as a false fantasy. Fred is actually the creator of that good old Key phrase, and Kimiko’s company “Lockart” is an obvious reference to the infamous nakige developers. Needless to say, I knew I had to go over this in my post as soon as I read that strip.
Miho’s role in the story explores the concept of fantasy from yet another angle. Much like Kimiko, she’s a real human being trapped behind a fantasy – her duty is to make people love her, but in reality, people only love the fantasy that she portrays. Miho’s “sick moe” allure only works in the world of fiction; fans fall for the experience they feel when they protect characters like her from their tragic fate, but no one falls for the “real” Miho. She’s the exact opposite of doujin fodder: she’s the fuel behind an endless supply of false emotions, pathos porn. Her story is literally about a tool for emotional gratification seeking confidence in itself.
Miho’s arc is intriguing because it slices through the nakige subgenre. Every Key fan knows that Fred’s description is accurate, just as we all know that his description of the role that idols play in the fantasies of fans is painfully true. Miho hits the nail on the head when it comes to the allure of “sad girls in snow”, and as her story continues, I expect to see more development that explores the issue from her perspective. We already know the appeal of her character type, but what does it mean for her? How would a potential love interest approach her? I’d like nothing more than to see a chapter about a love interest struggling to differentiate between his feelings for her and his superficial feelings for her archetype.
The amount of meta in Megatokyo is endless. Certainly, it works in comedic situations, just like every other anime-about-anime, but it’s doubly effective here because it’s intrinsically tied to the story. There are thought-provoking lines (last panel) where you least expect them, and each arc deals with something painfully familiar to the audience. Piro’s sad girl drawings acting as a reflection of himself? MMO relationships that leave behind lasting wounds? Sign me up.
The best part of it is that, for a completely implausible story, the characters are almost perfectly realistic. When you view his actions as exaggerations, Largo acts exactly like a typical hardcore gamer with zero interest in relationships and common sense, which makes his dialogue with Erika that much more believable. Ping is literally a robot who exists for the emotional pleasure of dating sim players, but as she enters school and befriends humans, she faces the inevitable problem – her existence as a fantasy hinders her relationships with other people. Even though Piro and Kimiko might seem like a fantasy that can only occur in manga – which is true, to some extent – she doesn’t hesitate to shatter whatever delusions the reader might have about her being a perfect haremette for their self-insert. She’s self-aware, the rest of the cast is self-aware, and Gallagher is self-aware. He knows what he’s writing, and he’s writing it well.
At the end of the day, I suppose that’s the only secret of Megatokyo. It’s written by a person who knows how to converge the meta issues of fandom with a generic anime plot, resulting in the most emotionally moving story about geeks being geeks that I’ve ever read.