Thursday, April 29, 2021

Episode 4 Odd Taxi


Odd Taxi turns from Odokawa's story this week to do a severe hit on the most meriting applicant I can consider: gacha.In a brash narrative detour, the anime takes a character who appeared for all of five seconds last week and gives him twenty minutes to explain why he's now determined to murder our favorite walrus. The result is riveting television. From his early eraser-collecting days to his current mobage-poisoned daze, Tanaka lets his bitter voice paint a frank portrait of his character, exploring both his own flaws and the cracks in society that led him here. It's an episode unlike any of its predecessors, yet still quintessentially Odd Taxi in its layers of humanity and irony.

To think about its development briefly, this scene is significantly more striking given the amount I lauded the arrangement a week ago for its common feeling of to and fro exchange.There is instead very little banter in Tanaka's story; we spend most of our time locked in his head as he monologues about the various turning points in his past. It's a different approach to storytelling, but it's one that Odd Taxi proves capable of pulling off. For one, the writing's sense of rhythm and diction remains strong. Tanaka's constant refrain of “No, that's an exaggeration and a lie.” colors his recollection with the hue of someone who cannot escape the specter of his past mistakes, replaying them over and over in his head like a recurring sickness. And buddy, I've been there. But this proves endemic of a tendency to shoulder as much blame as he can—he's cognizant of all the complicating factors, and always points them out, but ultimately his self-loathing takes precedent. I especially like how this isn't framed as a noble thing either. Rather, Tanaka's thought processes are circular and self-defeating, trapping himself in a destructive cycle he's incapable of ending. It's frustrating to be trapped there alongside him, but that's the point.

This scene is additionally the absolute most awful spearing of gacha that I've at any point found in an anime. That's thanks in part to the first half of the episode not even touching the subject of mobile games—it instead focuses on the countless personal and societal factors that make gacha so devious. Hierarchies like class and wealth mix violently with emotions like envy and loneliness. Tanaka only started collecting erasers as a means of connecting with other people, but the irony is that his obsession with them only leads to him further ostracizing himself from his classmates. Obviously he just needed to focus on the connection, not the competition, but Odd Taxi also acknowledges that being on the bottom rung means it's hard not to see “winning” as the only means of achieving success. Even children learn this at a very young age. But being on the bottom rung also means you don't get a say in the rules. The ultimate ironic twist of the knife is that even if Tanaka had received his thousand-dollar Donraku eraser, he wouldn't have made a single additional friend. Tanaka's Revolution was always doomed to fail.

Tanaka's eraser story is just as ridiculous as it is discouraging. Creator erasers aren't superficial points of interest; they're writing material.That matters little, however, to the unfathomable complexity and stupidity of a person's brain. There's no telling which wires will get crossed, or how. There is only the guarantee that it will happen, and there will be institutions there to prey on it. If we follow the line from custom erasers to mobile games and gacha, the absurdities are even more dizzying. Perhaps only the incessant and anxiety-inducing cruelty of late capitalism could induce people to do something as profoundly ridiculous as throwing wads of cash at shiny jpegs. Whether or not that is its true genesis, however, gacha remains an inextricable part of our current reality.

I play a couple gacha games, and I perceive the entirety of the emotions that Tanaka portrays in the second 50% of the scene: the new feeling of fun, the deadness that replaces it, the shivery hits of dopamine, the frantic defenses your mind will make for only one more force, etc.Gacha is just gambling after all, and gambling addiction is a very real and very destructive sickness. My money hole is nowhere near the magnitude of Tanaka's, thankfully, but I've definitely had moments where I haven't gotten a character and regretted it, as well as moments where I have gotten a character and regretted it. I don't want to lecture too much on this, because I think the episode is incisive enough on its own merits, but these games are inherently abusive and predatory. And fun! Arknights has a big banner at the end of the week that I'm looking forward to, so please don't consider me anything but a hypocrite. Still, I think playing gacha means you have to be constantly vigilant about falling into self-destructive and self-defeating patterns of addiction, and to that end, Tanaka's story can serve as an educational and acerbic cautionary tale.

In case I acclaim this scene a lot for its hypothetical instructional benefits, I believe it's additionally a convincing character picture that advances the cast of Odd Taxi and prods further contorts down the line. For example, the Donraku eraser from episode one now no longer seems like a non sequitur. We don't know how Shirakawa got it (my guess is Tanaka input his shipping address wrong, because that feels dumb enough to fit in with the rest of his story), but it's now very likely that Tanaka's attempt to kill Odokawa will reunite him with the fabled piece of rakugo memorabilia that kicked off his downward spiral. How beautifully absurd is that? In fact, all of the tragic coincidences, quixotic failures, and black comedy in Tanaka's life feel ripped out of a hypothetical Coen brothers movie. Tanaka's struggle against nihilism in an increasingly capricious and advancing world is also a pet theme of theirs. I actually can't think of another anime that evokes the Coens this much, so that might be another reason why I'm digging Odd Taxi's unique vibe.

Ideally it's undeniable at this point that I totally cherished this scene.I don't think I've seen any other piece of fiction so fundamentally understand the economy, behavior, and emotional predation that fuels gacha games, and I'm very glad to see Odd Taxi be so unforgiving towards them. Tanaka is a frustrating narrator and pitiable character, but he's a compelling one all the same, and an appropriate addition to Odd Taxi's expanding cast of castoffs and loners. While it seems counter-intuitive, the anime's decision to pivot away from the crime capers of the main plot—focusing instead on this smaller personal tale of woe and whaling—is probably the most exciting choice it could've made. Odd Taxi follows no rules but its own, and so far that's been a very good thing.

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